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Sigirya, Sri Lanka

How much does it cost to travel in Sri Lanka? Our budget and tips

Coming from Oman Sri Lanka was a breath of fresh air to our pockets. Almost everything was cheap and for those who want to lower their standards even further and get cozy with rats it can be even cheaper 🙂

On Sri Lanka we spend a total of 1311 euro over 29 days. So that makes almost 23 euros per day per person.

So let´s break it down:)

Where did we go?

Starting from Colombo we travelled along the coast stopping in charming villages and towns down to Mirissa. After seeing whales we started going more north to enjoy some tea in Ella, the famous train from Ella to Kandy and finally the cultural triangle. For the last few days of our stay on Sri Lanka we chilled out on the coast close by Colombo.

How did we travel?

We wish we could say "safe" but honestly the buses in Sri Lanka were really scary especially along the south coast. Whenever we could we tried to take a train rather than the bus. But on the positive side the transportation of all kind was really cheap and offered really breathtaking views over tea plantations, rice fields, lakes, seaside and whatever you could imagine. Many times we saw elephants from buses and not only passing the temples.

For the famous train passing through tea plantation we paid 800 LKR (around 5 euro)... for both of us. And that was a 7 hour train so probably the most expensive that you can get. It was 3rd class but it was comfortable and we were sitting without a problem.

Buses are a bit more expensive, probably because you pay for the adrenaline shot that you get in there… So a short ride from Kandy to Dambulla costed us 200 LKR (1.2 euro) for us both.

Tuk tuks are obviously the most expensive option except for a private car with a driver of course. They require quite a bit of bargaining skills and patience. Within a city or just outside for a short ride we would pay maybe around 120 LKR (around 75 cents).

In Colombo and surrounding areas along the coast we used UBER which turned out to be cheaper than local tuk tuks. For that price we were expecting a Flintstone-like vehicle but to our surprise we were always picked up by a car.

Overall on transportation we spend a total of 77 euros.

Where did we stay?

Accommodation was the biggest part of our spending and cost us 557 euro. That said we slept in really few shabby places and we treated ourselves with nicer places to sleep twice. We even rented an apartment which was ridiculously cheap.

Only 4 nights we spent in dormitories not even because we were open to spend extra on private rooms but actually because private rooms were often cheaper than two beds in dorms. For 3000 LKR (around 19 euro) we already had a nice double room with a private bathroom in most cases. For just additional 1000 LKR we stayed in a charming, little cottage with a private terrace overlooking a green, lushy tea region. Rowinrich Cottages was definitely our favorite accommodation where we stayed just for 5 nights. We wanted to stay there forever 😀

Another treat was an Airbnb apartment in Mount Lavinia for 30 USD. It was worth every dollar of that price. We had our own kitchen where JD could cook his amazing curries, great, spacious living room, aircon in the bedroom and a stunning, huge terrace with plenty of trees and plants of many kinds.

What did we eat?

On food and eating out we spent a combined 514 euros. The prices of restaurants on Sri Lanka were surprisingly high. In some places especially along the coast we couldn’t find anything that wouldn’t cost us a day in a bathroom, for under 10 euros per plate. Thankfully in many spots we had a kitchen so we just cooked ourselves buying a lot of vegetables, seafood and occasionally meat. Whenever we cooked we were definitely not saving on ingredients of any kind and still it was mostly cheaper than eating out. The only delicious and really economic restaurant was Matey’s hut in Ella where we ate every day. Everything there was prepared fresh with love and passion. Prices were very low and we were leaving happy, full and ready for any adventure for 1000-1500 LKR for both of us (6-9 euros).

Along the coast we went to a few hip restaurants and bars and generally for both of us we would pay around 2500-3000 LKR (16-19 euros).

How expensive are museums, tours etc?

On tourism we spend 147 euros. In general entrances to museums, temples and sights were cheap or free BUT in the cultural triangle the prices are just insane. For seeing Sigiriya Rock we paid 9000 LKR (56 euros) for both of us which is just a ridiculous price considering that you’re only visiting ruins on top and bottom of a rock which don't resemble more than few walls…. Honestly we were not even impressed. Well maybe we were stunned by the crowds but that’s it. It would have been a nice trip for 10 dollars but it’s not worth the whole price we paid.

Polonnaruwa ruins which also belong to the cultural triangle cost us 7500 LKR (for both, 47 euros) so also overpriced in our opinion. But those were at least pretty extensive and included many ruins and temples. It was also not that crowded in the morning.

Whale watching tour was surprisingly cheap and we paid just 4000 LKR for the two of us. We were sharing a boat with probably around 30 Chinese people which at times was challenging. All of them were running around from one side of the boat to the other trying to get the best shot of the whales. The boat was swinging like crazy but no one seemed to care except for us.

Many other sights were pretty cheap and our favorite was a temple carved in a rock in Dambulla (free of charge).

Where did the rest of our money go?

Most of our 16 additional euros we spend on mobile internet. For 649 LKR (around 4 euros) we bought a simcard from Dialog together with 4GB data during the day and 5GB data throughout the night time. We put some additional money on the phone to be able to call and text and honestly it was a great investment. The mobile internet was just great and came in very handy in so many situations especially that in some places where we stayed the internet was not really that good or sometimes even non-existent.

Our tips to save money on Sri Lanka

  1. Bargain, bargain, bargain!! On Sri Lanka prices are very negotiable. So before you rent a tuk tuk, a room or anything try to set the best price possible.
  2. Take UBER. In Colombo and nearby towns you can get better prices by just requesting an uber than you would get bargaining with a tuk tuk driver. And you will be picked up by a normal car:)
  3. Know the way! If you’re taking a tuk tuk make sure that the driver realizes that you know the way. We found that if you actually show on the map point A and B and tell them the amount of kilometers, you get a better, more honest price.
  4. Train! Trains are generally cheaper and safer than buses so whenever you can try to use them.
  5. Volunteer! Although we didn’t try it we met quite a few people volunteering via Workaway. It’s mostly volunteering in hostels and guesthouses but if you’re on a tight budget you can save on accommodation and food.
  6. Check out double rooms! In many cases we paid less for a double room than we would for two beds in a dorm.
  7. Check out the seasons! Sri Lanka has two monsoon season so it’s advisable to check them out before you go. We really wanted to see the whales so we went there in January which is also the peak of the high season. I’m sure that later on it would have been much cheaper.
  8. Share! Costs or taxis and tours are often calculated per car so if you’re with more people it’s way cheaper.

P.S. Exchange rate used for the overall budget 1 EURO = 159 LKR

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Kalouts, Iran

How we went to the Moon- our trip to the Kalouts desert

Kalout desert was our favorite sight in whole Iran. We are always more than happy to skip the crowds and in the Kalouts it’s not even a challenge. There we could feel like tiny ants in the big world, surrounded by all this giant rocks shaped by erosion.

How did we get there?

We didn’t really dare to rent a car in Iran but that would definitely be an option. Instead we organized a tour going from Kerman which is the most popular way of going to the desert. The guides have pretty varied prices and some of them are pretty open to negotiation so it’s worth giving them a call to find out the details. I preferred to call them also to check out their English … quite many of them couldn’t respond my basic questions so it was clear they wouldn’t be able to respond more complicated ones out there in the desert. In final end we went with Ali from Visit Kalouts.

How much did it cost?

We paid 150 euros for us both which wasn’t the cheapest but pretty close to it. We were really satisfied with our guide Ali, his English was good, he was friendly, patient and happy to explain everything. We chose him because we felt his company had the best idea of what there is to see around the desert and the most organized plan. Others seemed just to want to drive through without much plan.

What it included?

Practically everything, transportation, food, accommodation in a rather basic house (2 days, 1 night), flexible schedule. If we wanted to stay somewhere longer, sleep longer or wake up in the middle of the night, it was all possible.

What did we see?

Except for the amazing giant stones shaped through erosion we saw how the people in the desert lived. How they dealt with water, their water system and reservoir and even a salty river. Yep plenty of water in the desert.

How about Kerman?

Initially we didn’t plan to visit Kerman, we just wanted to skip it and use it just as a stop to get to the Kalouts but after our tour we still had a bit of time before the night bus and Ali and Shiva (Ali’s colleague) proposed to give us a little tour. So we walked around the main square, the bazaar and local library. We realized that the place had much more to offer than we initially anticipated. It was quite pretty and had one hidden gem. A tea house opened in an old bath house in one of the corners of a bazaar labyrinth. Sitting there surrounded by all the beautiful tiles, Iranian carpets and even a fountain we were just wondering how come all of the people love the heating so high. We were literally melting away. I guess it was another way to imitate the weather like if it was summer.

At some point we got hungry and wanted to order food but it turned out to be impossible because they only served lunch and it was already after the time. But impossible in Iran can be solved … with money I guess. So we met a nice Iranian man that lived all his life in Holland and described himself as an almost royalty in the region. His new friends couldn’t walk around hungry so he disappeared for a few minutes and came back inviting us to the restaurant part of the place. We got served whatever we wanted and the food was delicious. We were a bit hesitant when we were walking up to the counter, we thought we might end up paying for reopening the restaurant but the meal was actually really cheap. Power of money and connections in Iran…

Not such a paradise… on Qeshm Island

Persian Gulf, island, sea and sun should be a recipe for a perfect place. It sounds just about as exotic as it gets… right?

On the main land we already heard stories about the islands in the Persian Gulf. Kish was supposed to be an Iranian Ibiza where people are loose, guys can even show some legs in shorts and life goes on between resorts and beaches. We didn’t get the chance to see that but prices of hotels indicated that it had to be spectacular.

On the other hand Qeshm was supposed to be in between the main land and loosy Kish. We were really excited to see how that would be and so we found the nr 1 homestay on the island and packed our bags.

Assad started his homestay (Assad’s homestay) from couch surfing, just like many Iranians he was interested in foreigners, wanted to meet them and show them around. Now it’s a rather booming business. In high season he is booked the whole time. From one maybe two rooms he went to four and more are in the planning. It’s a very basic accommodation but a good opportunity to meet other people and pair up with them to see the island as you absolutely need a car. We just felt that the charm of the little homestay was disappearing with it being more and more popular and more and more business- like. Assad was not really interested in meeting people as such anymore. At this point he wanted to earn and he wasn’t hiding it at all which made us uncomfortable at times.

We also realized that 13 euro per person (full board) it’s actually expensive taking under consideration that food is very simple and basic, location is in the middle of nowhere and a hotel in the main town with great internet (the best in Iran actually) was just 20 euro. When we looked at the map we actually thought we would be staying close to a beach where we could stroll in the evening and maybe enjoy a sunrise once or twice. It was filled with garbage like just about the whole island. Really a sad sight…

That said we met an incredible Iranian-Canadian chef who made our stay there just unforgettable. Not only did he bring great food to the house but also a fun atmosphere and some smuggled beer (Sssshhh). 8% warm beer from the Philippines, drunken secretly could have never tasted better.

The sights

Qeshm is not a beach destination. As a woman I would have to swim in all my clothes anyway so I didn’t mind that much. It also misses the impressive architecture of the main land. With the food we were also not particularly impressed. But there were two sights that made this trip all worthwhile…

The Star Valley

Locals believed that a huge star fell onto their Island and created 7 to 15 meters columns. Nowadays we all know that it was rather water and wind erosion. Walking in between the columns is just unbelievable but it’s the standing above part that we loved the most. Looking from above it looked like a massive plateau with holes everywhere. It reminded us of the Kaluts a bit but then more dense and packed together.

The Chahkooh canyon

The Chahkooh canyon was a number 1 sight on the Island and one of the Iranian highlights. It was not just one long canyon like we expected but an extensive labyrinth of passages going further and further on every turn. We could just walk around, explore, climb everywhere and looking up we always had a long, long narrow tunnel going up. JD thought it was a perfect location to shoot “127 hours” part 2 if they wanted to.

Other than that…

We really thought there was nothing else to see unfortunately. The main town didn’t have anything special except for beautifully dressed women, some even in traditional facial masks. Nearby Hengam island had a little bit less littered beaches and it was not crowded but that’s about as positive as I can be about it. The nearby Mangrove forest we admired from a motorboat in extensive gas fumes rather than fresh air. We didn’t see any animals. No wonder, the water was dirty, oily and plastic was also not foreign to the place anymore.

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Isfahan. Iran

24 h in Isfahan

Isfahan has some of the most picturesque sights of the country that we just couldn’t skip. On the other hand is one of those cities that you just can’t decide which of the horrible accommodation you should choose so we really didn’t want to stay too long there…

Settling down…

Isfahan still doesn’t really have much to offer when it comes to economic accommodation. Looking around for a place to stay we felt the standard of the places were not changing, just the price was going up. Places we saw were just old and depressive, not maintained and generally not attractive at all. We thought that if we have to sleep in a shithole than at least it should be cheap so we went for Amir Kabir. Thankfully we could choose between a room filled with cigarette smoke and another one just stinking like old socks. We went for the second option. Motivated by the lack of toilet paper, coldness of the weather and the staff we were ready to see the city as fast as possible.

Around Naqsh-e Jahan Square

Nagsh-e Jahan is the heart of the city and the first place to visit. The square itself is a UNESCO heritage and was built in the 16th-17th century. That’s where the bazaar is and 3 of the most important sights to see in Isfahan.

Morning birds in the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque

It’s a very small mosque without any minarets as it was built to be private for the royal court. That said, in the morning the light is just magical. It’s rather dark in there and then you can see separate rays of light coming through the perforated window. Yellow and purple colors of the dome create a perfect harmony with the blueish walls which made us think of a sunset…

Shah mosque  

It was built for the public so it’s big with a massive courtyard, praying hall and extensive ornaments and tile work. Compared to the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque it seemed to us like it was a bigger version but somehow lacking the love and finesse of the small one. Still really worth visiting as it’s one of the most impressive ones in Iran.

Ali Qapu Palace

Six floors of bare walls are quiet disappointing. But on the sixth floor there is a Music Hall. It’s a rather small room but the walls and ceilings are covered in niches as ornaments and acoustic tools. Unfortunately there was no one there to explain to us how that would work… Except for the Music Hall, Ali Qapu has a terrace overlooking the whole square. When we were there it was undergoing a renovation so it was rather hard to say if the terrace itself was impressive…

The bridge

Si-o-seh pol bridge is a symbol of Isfahan and definitely a must see. Especially that you never know if the river is actually there or if it’s completely dry… When we were there it was as dry as possible for already some time. People were picnicking in the river bed so they were pretty sure the water wasn’t coming back any soon. Walking under the bridge we actually noticed a long canal of passages underneath it where teenagers chill out. It’s worth coming in the evening, the bridge is really nicely illuminated.

P.S. We got contacted for feedback by people that are building a hostel at the time of writing and it seems it could be a nice turn for Isfahan. Reasonable prices, nice interior and finally toilet paper included 🙂 something worth checking out, it’s called Howzak House.

The colors of Shiraz

Shiraz ended up being our favorite city in Iran and definitely a city we would recommend for anyone. Even if it was the only city to visit in Iran. Shiraz has it all.

Accommodation

Bargaining skills and patience is the limit :). There are many charming, traditional houses around the city center and some of them are open for bargaining. We came to Shiraz in the evening, tired and dirty so our patience was a bit low. We visited 3 places and after in the last the staff asked “if the price was really that important”, we thought that the next place just had to be a score. Thankfully it was. Golshan Traditional hostel was all we were looking for. Beautiful courtyard, neat room, friendly staff and an owner who knows how to bargain. From there our journey in and out of Shiraz started.

The Pink Mosque

It’s the mosque we saw in every guide book, on every web page and every list. We knew skipping it would be not seeing the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The color patterns created on the floor by rays of sun creeping through stained glass windows made it the number one attraction in Iran.

Before our staff even woke up, before most tourist would even think to wake up, we were already there. To our surprise we were not the only ones and the hall was actually much smaller than we thought. I guess wide angle lenses did a good job on all these pictures we have seen. For Iran it was really rather crowded in there. All the people were posing to replicate all the shots they have already seen so many times. Selfie sticks were flying everywhere and tripods were just on every corner. Disappointed we went outside and discovered that the courtyard was actually way nicer. Empty, underappreciated, it was all for us. In the pond the reflection of the whole facade was just stunning, not to mention the play of colors. Pink, purple and a bit of blue, the colors we have seen so much all over the place. But only inside… The country of boring outsides and mosaic, playful insides.

The Vakil Mosque

The most “different” of them all, Vakil mosque except for the traditional courtyard and facades has a massive hall with 48 pillars. Although build in 18th century, it was given the finesse of floral tiles by Qajar dynasty in the 19th century. Actually the most spectacular sites we saw were either built or given this extra touch in the same period.

The Persian Empire

Iranians don’t speak Arabic and they definitely don’t identify themselves as Arabs. If mistaken they are probably as offended as a Dutch taken for a German. To see the magnitude and the power of the Empire we went to Persepolis and Necropolis. It was probably the only sight that we knew about when we previously thought about Iran and we were rather surprised that it didn’t attract the crowds that much. We could wonder around for hours to discover every corner of what once used to be a ceremonial capital without big groups unloaded from buses.

Even today the preservation of columns, stone work and massive tombs is just breathtaking. No wonder Iranians are very proud of that period. They had the power, they actually proudly paid to all of their workers and they included all of the conquered nations in sculptures and in the Gate of All Nations. Very smart idea to keep all the people happy and in peace.

The best about this trip was that we met the coolest people that started as our guides and ended up as friends. Ramin and Sadegh were just the friendliest people we met in the whole country and we were actually disappointed and skeptical about Iranians when we met them… Which I didn’t really hold back from them when they asked how we liked their country. We had so much fun that it wasn’t the only time we saw them…

The pink … Maharloo Lake

When I saw that lake during my research about Iran I immediately knew we would have to see it. It was deeply pink because of algae so it was supposed to be seasonal. Ramin and Sadegh didn’t think it was anything spectacular but they were open to do something and I can be very persistent. And so on the next day we planned a picnic. Ramin took the whole house with him… literally, plates, gas pit, a saucepan, bread, eggs. Like if we were going camping for multiple days. We arrived at the lake… and wait, there was no lake. Drought took all the water away and it turned into a salt flat. “Look here it’s pinkish, the lake would have been pink, if there was water…” explained Ramin. Walking further we discovered that there was a thin layer of water creating unbelievable reflections. Just like we saw on pictures of the salt flats in Bolivia, during rainy season. We missed it there and got it by a surprise here. It was our best day in Iran. The posing, the playing with the reflection, the colors of the sun going down. And Ramin trying to always stand a bit different than JD and Sadegh.

In the evening the place turned into a bit of a party spot, where all the locals came from Shiraz to play music, smoke shisha and do all the things they couldn’t do back in the city. Where there is no police, a new side of the country shows up. And boy it’s loud 🙂

Mosaic tombs of the poets…  

When Ramin and Sadegh took us to see our first tomb (Saddi’s tomb) we were just too polite to convince them that it just can’t be special. It would only be a grave …right? Well not here. I don’t know any country where poetry would be as alive as here. There were people reading poems out loud, singing (possibly poems:D) and the atmosphere and crowds were unbelievable. The grave itself reminded me more of Napoleon’s tomb in Paris then just a grave of someone famous at the cemetery. It was a whole complex of rooms surrounded by gardens and fountains. And so was Hafez’s tomb as well. Who would have thought that a place of resting for someone can be a place of joy for someone else?

And the food…

We ate so well in Shiraz that I actually get hungry even thinking about it. Quite far from our hostel we discovered a very chic neighborhood packed with good restaurants and hip cafes. Our top choice was Qavam Café and restaurant that served delicious traditional food. Especially their dizi has stolen our hearts and stomachs. Dizi is a stew that after a long period of cooking in the oven gets separated creating a tomato soup and solids that are later smashed to create kind of a dip. The whole process was a pleasure to watch and eating it was just a whole lot better. To think that we only ended up eating there after we got denied a table at another restaurant that was only accepting locals…

You would think that because of the “café” part Qavam would be good in desserts but that’s not the case. They have a very, very sweet date option but we just didn’t want any more dates at some point. Walking around, craving for something different we came across Café Ferdowsi where we went back to Europe for a bit. The design itself with a bohemian, recycled theme was one thing but the selection of cakes and coffee was just to die for. Literally since getting a portion of caffeine that tastes good is an achievement on its own in the country of absolute tea.

 

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Kashan, Iran

The adobe beauty of Kashan

Kashan is a place where most spend just a few hours, it’s an adobe beauty. Well at least the center because honestly getting to any other part of the city is as much of a chaotic nightmare as in any other city in Iran. But once in the center everything changes, the cars have to slow down in the narrow adobe streets and the shadow of the long walls brings relief from the heat of the burning sun.

But first like in every place in Iran we had to find a place to stay. We started walking door to door to every hotel and guesthouse that we have written down. To make it more difficult many of them didn’t even put a sign on the door so each time we felt we were knocking on a private door. The beginnings were difficult but that’s how it goes with bargaining I guess. In one place we heard 60 dollars for a room in an empty hotel. It wasn’t really a negotiable price. They probably figured it’s better to have those very few naïve tourists that are willing to overpay than many that would be tempted by a better price. Finally we heard about Noghli which was our last chance really. Just like all the others it was a charming, adobe house with a big courtyard and a labyrinth of rooms. There the staff was more interested in having clients. With 1 000 000 rials (around 25 euro) we happily checked into our room. Now that I think about it, it was actually the best room we got during the whole stay in Iran. Bright, big, colorful and with a little bathroom. It was all we needed.

The beauty within

Kashan is somehow like a secret garden where you can’t even suspect what’s behind and below the massive, adobe walls. There are no windows to the road and the merchants mansions grow downwards rather than up. Every house is really private and every single one is a big surprise. Most of them are built by very wealthy merchants around the 18 and 19th century. Some unfortunately were left to fade away but some turned into museums or hotels to shine bright and astonish the visitors.

While most of the people only decide to see one or two houses over a few hours stop we decided to take our time. Rolling down a tunnel to get to Abbasiyan house we didn’t even imagine how big of a house can emerge from the adobe walls. Not only did they have a stunning, huge restaurant but also a museum. And they were both really well maintained, renovated and full of finesse patterns on the walls and ceilings. Imagine 6 courtyards, countless rooms and even a ceiling made of tiny mirror pieces that was supposed to imitate stars at night with a little help of candles. Not to mention that the restaurant was our addiction with its traditional Iranian “couches” and delicious food at very affordable prices.

And from there it was just a short way to explore the most spectacular of the houses the Tabatabaei house. We loved it because of the spectacular play of light through the colorful glass of the windows and the perfect reflection in the house’s main courtyard.

But it definitely run short when it comes to complexity of its ceilings. For that we absolutely loved nearby Borujerdi house which had a few of the most spectacular ceilings of Iran. Not only were they colorful but also very geometric and symmetrical. And that created in adobe.

Those three houses were our absolutely favorites that left others very far behind the podium. Some were not as well managed and some were turned into hotels which I’m sure makes it pretty spectacular for the guests (for sure it made it unforgettable for us at Noghli) but for a tourist it limits the exploring to a sneak peak at the main courtyard. For most that’s where Kashan ends really but…

There is more than the houses…

With a bit more time to explore we ended up going to Sultan Amir Ahmad bathhouse in peace and calm astonishment. This 16th century old bath house made us imagine how it must have been to sit here in steam surrounded by rainbow-like tilework to later on cool down in a chilly pool. Except for a labyrinth of passages there is also an impressive roof to see. We definitely enjoyed seeing the city from above, seeing all the wind catchers and having a bit of a sneak peek into some parts of other houses. Not to mention that the roof as such was also quite a sight with all the domes raising from it.

No visit is complete without visiting the Bazaar…

Which in Kashan turned out to be extra special. Surprisingly it was quite calm especially compared to the chaotic, crowded and noisy one in Tehran. Although really quiet it didn’t really miss any of the vibe and certainly didn’t miss any of the architecture. It actually had one of the most beautiful halls we have ever seen surrounded by little, charming shops and cafes, with a little fountain in the middle and of course a stunning ceiling it became our number 1 sight in Kashan. Going back now we wished we could just sit in there with a cup of black tea and stare at the carpets. But well we can’t 🙂

Or the Mosque…

Our hotel was actually very close to Aqa-Bozorg mosque which we visited many times and we really felt that it was one of the most spectacular mosques of Iran by night. When the evening comes and the lights are switched on it’s like a rainbow of colors. And then running kids playing football, old grandpa’s chatting on the stairs make it such a peaceful place to end a day of sightseeing. And it’s for free which makes it even better:)

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