Emerald Inn: Auckland NZ

We were up in Auckland for a weekend to watch A New World: Final Fantasy concert. Taylor Swift was also in town but we skipped her banging performance and opted to nerd out instead. Haha.

We normally just stay with friends whenever we fly up to the big city, but for this trip I suggested we book a room instead to make it feel like a “mini getaway”.

We chose to stay at the Emerald Inn as it looked quite good on the photos and it was just a 2 min walk from Bruce Mason Centre, where the concert was being held.

What we loved about this place:

  • Very near to Bruce Mason Centre where the concert was being held.
  • Very near to all the shops and restaurants in Takapuna
  • Just right beside Takapuna Beach
  • Own parking space
  • Well maintained room
  • Room had a small kitchen area (if you chose not to eat out)
  • Comfortable bed and pillows and soft sheets
  • Iron and ironing board included in the room (because it’s so much nicer when your clothes are not all wrinkled when you go out)
  • The overall tropical resort feel of the place — still felt pretty secluded and peaceful despite its very central location

House made soba on a rainy day in Kyoto at SOBANOMI YOSHIMURA 🇯🇵

It was the 29th of October and it was my birthday. To celebrate I wanted to go sightseeing in Kyoto wearing a kimono, so first order of the day was to go to Yumeyukata to rent one.

It was lunch time by the time Jan and I finished getting dressed up and we were hungry. Jan said he thought he saw a Yoshinoya chain store just down the road on our way to the rental shop so we were going to head there next.

Unfortunately, it was pouring with rain by the time we got out of Yumeyukata. We ended up finding shelter at the very first food place we came across while walking and it was this — SOBANOMI YOSHIMURA.

The inside of the restaurant had a traditional yet elegant feel to it and the thought that we might have gone somewhere that’ll blow our budget did cross my mind… my worries would be put to rest later on.

The staff greeted us warmly and brought us to the second floor to be seated.

I’ve just recently read that there can be a wait time of up to 15 minutes to eat here, but maybe because it was raining that day there weren’t as many customers so we were accommodated straight away despite us not having a reservation.

I ordered the shrimp soba (Y1,204) and Jan ordered the tempura rice bowl (Y1,343). Although not exactly cheap, we found the price to be okay. Converted to New Zealand Dollars, it’s about 16-18 NZD per meal. Considering that we normally spend at least 20 NZD (mostly even more) when eating out in Wellington, this wasn’t really bad in comparison.

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The soba noodles are made from scratch — On the first floor of the restaurant, you can see them being made by the soba chefs through a clear glass window. The whole process is pretty interesting to watch.

I made the mistake of ordering cold soba noodles instead of having something warm — not exactly the best choice on a rainy autumn day, but the whole dish was pretty tasty so nothing to complain about really. Still, I think I would enjoy this even more on a hot and sunny summer day. As for Jan, he was well pleased with his order.

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The quintissential old-Japan look of the place was also something we delighted in. Dining here felt like being transported back in time… and with us dressed the way we were, it just made the whole experience more enjoyable and memorable.

To Summarize:

  • Did we like the food? ✔
  • Was the overall ambience of the place good? ✔
  • Was the price worth it for the food that we had? ✔
  • Were the staff friendly? ✔
  • Did we have a good time? ✔
  • English speaking staff and english menu available? ✔
  • Will we recommend this place to other people? ✔
  • Are we eating here again? Most definitely 👍

The Scramble: Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo 🇯🇵

It’s considered to be the busiest crossing in the world… reportedly having up to 2,500 people crossing every time the signal changes.

I’m unsure as to how accurate the above statistics is, but I was able to witness first hand the bustling vibe in this world renowned intersection.

We were there on our second day in Japan. We had just spent the entire day ticking away as many places as we could on our “Tokyo to do” list (we we were leaving for Kyoto the next day) and this was our last stop.

We were already a bit worn out after walking around the whole day and our phone and portable wifi batteries were already running very low.

We briefly contemplated on whether we would carry on and check out the crossing or call it a night and go back to our hotel instead. We now know what we decided in the end, don’t we?

It was already 8pm but the area still looked very busy.

Initially the plan was for us to grab a drink at Starbucks and take photos from the shop’s window overlooking the crossing,however, we still needed to find where exactly Starbucks was located; and with our phones and portable wifi having low batteries, we didn’t want to keep on using them for GPS and risk them completely turning off before we can find our way back to our hotel.

So instead, we opted to watch the organized chaos that is “The Scramble” from the sidelines.

It started with everyone waiting for the pedestrian lights to turn green.

When it did, the intersection was then flooded by a sea of people.

As time ticked by the crowd started to slowly thin out until there was only a couple of people left rushing to cross while there was still a bit of time.

Then the lights turned red and the vehicles started moving in and people were back to waiting idly by until the next change of lights signalled another round of bustling activity.

I stood at the sides fascinated with what I was seeing — so many people crossing from different directions (all at the same time) without hitting or jostling each other… quite impressive, really.

Also, people watching has always been one of my favorite past times and this was a perfect time to do just that. Not in a creepy-psycho-stalker sense okay?

Just a little harmless and quiet observation of people walking past, thinking of made up stories about them in my head.

‘Where are they going?’ ‘What are they thinking?’ — ‘This one’s off to have a drink after a long day at work.’, These two are friends but the girl is in love with the boy’, ‘These two lovebirds are on a date’… But I digress.

All in all this was a pretty good experience. I know it’s nothing grand like seeing the Eiffel tower all lit up at night or looking at the breathtaking view of the sea at the Amalfi coast on a bright summer day, but it was good all the same.

I’ve always been a bit curious about “the scramble” so it was nice ticking it off the Japan bucketlist among many other things during this trip.

Kiddy Land at Harajuku, Tokyo 🇯🇵

kawaii (kəˈwʌɪ/)
the quality of being cute, or items that are cute.

I have always had a tendency to be drawn to anything kawaii. Yes, I’m a thirty year old grown woman but I still love my pinks, bright colors and sparkles and still have a soft spot for pretty looking knick knacks. My childish disposition has never really gone away despite me growing up… so imagine my delight when we visited this shop during our Japan trip.

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Kiddy Land is a toy store in Japan that mostly sells Japanese character toys and goods,although you can find some well known western brands here as well like My Little Pony, Disney and Marvel. They have around 80 branches all over the country — the one we went to was their flagship store in Harajuku. It was awesome! Five floors of kawaii toys and goods!

“KIDDY LAND helps keep your mind, body and soul youthful, now and forever”

This is what they’re saying in their website, and having been there, I can definitely say I felt very young again surrounded by all the cuteness. It is without a doubt, a paradise for kids and kids at heart (like me!).

Here’s a couple of photos of the things that can be found inside the store.

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The photos above are just a little sample of what can be found in-store… If you happen to visit Harajuku on your Japan trip, definitely try dropping by to check out all the other items they have for sale.

They change their displays and floor layouts periodically as well so there’s always something new and unique in every visit.

Seriously Good Ramen at Ichiran.

After exploring the Imperial Palace East Gardens that morning, next on our list was to visit Harajuku — the Tokyo district in Shibuya internationally known for its Japanese youth culture and fashion.

But first, we needed to grab some lunch.

A quick google search showed a list of top food places within the Harajuku area, one of them was Ichiran. They served ramen, which sounded like a good idea (RAMEN IS ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA!) so Ichiran ended up being our choice.

The restaurant was located on the second floor of a building near Omotesando Street. When we reached the top of the stairs, we saw the ticket machine outside the door but were not really sure what to do with it or if we even needed to do anything with it at all.

Were we meant to order from the machine first or do we just go in? Maybe the machine was for people wanting to buy Ramen for takeout? We were stumped.

There was a group of people standing behind us at the time, so what we did was make them go ahead of us so we can observe what they were going to do. Haha!

Apparently, we were meant to choose our orders from the machine first in order to get a ticket for our orders. There were different ramen choices/sizes/combos to pick from. We selected the ones we wanted, got our tickets, then proceeded to go inside.

Once we got in, one of the lady staff greeted us and started talking to us in Japanese — (I think because we’re Asian they automatically assume we’re fluent with the language. Hehe.) After politely saying we didn’t understand, she then started talking to us in English and then handed us a piece of paper to fill up for later.

After that, all we needed to do was to wait to be seated. It didn’t take long. Ramen restaurants generally have a fast turnover of customers because people just eat and go. We were also quite lucky that day as there wasn’t a long line of people at the time waiting to eat… so after just a few minutes, the lady was already ushering us to our seats.

Jan and I each had our own little cubicle to sit in with a small window/opening — from what we know, the reason behind this is so that each customer can thoroughly savor and enjoy their ramen without any bother from anyone else.

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We had two pieces of paper to fill up before handing over our order to the staff. The first one, (photo above) was the paper we got given earlier. Here, we were to choose our preferences for how we wanted our ramen to be made.

This is the main reason why I loved eating in Ichiran… because we were able to “customize” our Ramen just the way we liked it!

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The second paper was the Extras Order Sheet where we got to select the things we wanted to add. Things ordered from here had extra charge and had to be payed for by cash as soon as we handed over the paper to the staff.

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Once we were done with filling up the papers, we pressed the green button that was on top the table and gave the servers on the other side of the window our tickets, order forms, extras order sheets and money.

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It didn’t take long for our orders to arrive. Once we got our food, the servers closed the windows of our cubicles so that we can enjoy our Ramen without any distractions.

His: medium flavour strength and richness with medium noodle texture; with green onions, sliced pork, no red sauce and a little garlic with extra order of simmered pork belly with dried seaweed.

Hers: medium flavour strength and richness and medium noodle texture; with green onions, sliced pork, 1/2 red sauce and a little garlic. Also ordered simmered pork belly with dried seaweed as an extra.

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THE FOOD WAS AMAZING!

I’m usually teased by my friends because I normally can’t finish whatever I order… Well, that definitely was NOT the case this time around! I loved the food so much that it didn’t even take me long to finish all of it! Haha!

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Also had a little bit of room (more like FORCEFULLY MADE ROOM) for this Matcha Almond Pudding with Green Tea Sauce dessert.

Our bellies were aching from being so full by the end of the meal. Haha!

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The happy face says it all. We thoroughly enjoyed our Ramen experience in Ichiran and definitely recommend it to other Ramen lovers out there.

A Calm Morning In Busy Tokyo: Inside The East Imperial Gardens

It was our second day in Japan. First order of the day was to visit the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. I already knew that the inner palace grounds were not open to the public at the time. Still, I wanted to at least see the outside of it in person.

It was a 16 minute walk from our hotel (Sakura Hotel Jimbucho) to the Kitahane-bashi-mon Gate, which turned out to be the entrance into the East Imperial Gardens and NOT where the Imperial Palace building was located.

* Site Map photo taken from the Imperial Household Agency website here.

But we were already there and the entrance into the garden grounds was free… so we decided that we might as well go in and have a look around.

Here are the highlights that we found inside the Imperial Palace East Gardens with a bit of information for each one at the bottom of the photos. Enjoy!

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Tenshu-Dai Base (number 16 in site map): It is the remaining foundation of the former castle tower (known as the tallest castle tower in the history in Japan) where the Tokugawa shogunate ruled the country. It was destroyed by a fire in 1657 and has never been rebuilt.

Toka-gakudo (Concert Hall) (Number 18 in Site Map):

“The Tokagakudo is an octagonal concert hall located within the imperial gardens of Tokyo. In Japanese, “Tokagakudo” means “peach blossom” and the structure is designed to resemble a flower. 

The Tokagakudo was built as a concert hall in 1966 in honor of Empress Kojun. She was the consort of Emperor Hirohito, the longest serving Japanese emperor who became the symbol of modern Japan after World War II. She was a well known patron and lover of classical music. The hall was opened to commemorate the 60th birthday of the empress who died in the year 2000.”

– GPSMYCITY.COM

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Ishi-Muro (Stone Cellar) (Number 6 in Site Map): A 20 sqaure meter stone cellar built as a storage area for important articles in case of emergencies such as fires.

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Site of the Honmaru (Main Compound) (Inner Circle) (Number 7 in Site Map): This used to be the central and innermost part of the castle which included the main tower (Tenshu-Dai) and the residence of the shogun. This area was destroyed several times by fire and in the present day, has been turned into an open space field perfect for picnics on a nice sunny day.

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Fujimi-tamon Defense House (Number 5 in Site Map):

Written on the Info Board:

…is the sole surviving example of the defence houses which, in the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate, together with towers and walls, circled the Honmaru (the main compound) of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s Edo Castle.

*Upon entering, Jan and I were asked to take our shoes off and given a plastic bag each to put our shoes in while inside.

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Site of the Matsu-no-o-roka (Number 4 in Site Map): The actual corridor or structure it was once part of is no longer physically present. The site now just blends in with the rest of the garden with trees and plants growing in the area and there’s this information board that tells a bit of a story.

Written on the Information board:

“Here is the site of the Matsu-no-o-roka, one of the longest and widest corridors of the Tokugawa Shogun’s Edo Castle palace, where in 1701 a daimyo (feudal lord) called Asano Takumi-no-kami abruptly attacked Kira Kozuke-no-suke, a high ranking expert in ceremonies in the Tokugawa Shogunate. While Kira escaped with slight injuries, Asano was ordered by the Shogunate to commit honourable suicide on the same day. The incident became the prologue to the story of the 47 ronins (former subjects of Asano), who, in the following year, would accomplish their master’s wish to kill Kira. A famous story which has been recreated in various forms, such as Bunraku (puppetry), Kabuki, novels and TV dramas, for centuries.”

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Fujimi-Yagura (Fuji-Viewing Tower) (Number 1 on site Map): Once a guard tower built 350 years ago, it replaced the main tower when it burned down in 1657. It is also said that it was used by Edo elites to view Mt. Fuji, hence it’s name which means “Mt. Fuji viewing tower.”

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O-bansho (Gaurdhouse) (Number 11 on Site Map): The guardhouse that protected Edo Castle’s Honmaru or ‘inner circle’ (Number 7 on Site Map).

Doshin-bansho (Gaurdhouse) (Number 13 on Site Map): One of the three remaining guardhouses in the area. It served as a checkpoint for anyone entering through the Ote-mon gate which was the main entrance to the castle grounds. Samurai guardsmen kept watch 24/7.

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Hyakunin-bansho (Gaurdhouse) (Number 14 on Site Map): The biggest guardhouse inside that is situated by the Ote-mon gate. It was the quarters of one hundred samurai guardsmen (closely related to the Tokugawa clan) who worked in alternating shifts 24/7. Visitors who entered the main entrance of the castle (Ote-mon gate) during the Edo Period were screened here.

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Ninomaru Garden (Secondary Circle) (Number 25 on Site Map):

Written on the Information Board:

“This area was Ninomaru (the second compund) of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s Edo Castle. Though palaces were built and gardens were created here, repeated fires destroyed the area before the closing of the Shogunate period. This garden was created in 1964 modelling a garden which existed here in the mid-18th century.”

 

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Iris Garden (Number 26 on Site Map): The garden is named “Ninomaru-teien” — the secondary area of the Edo castle before. The garden is based on the original garden designed by Enshu Kobori — a samurai, master of tea ceremony and famous japanese garden designer.

Unfortunately, when we visited the garden the Iris flowers were no longer in bloom as it was already the start of Autumn season. The flowers are best seen during late spring time between the months of May and June. 

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Suwa-no-cha-ya (Number 22 on Site Map): A tea house which was previously located in the Fukiage Garden of the Imperial Palace during the Edo Period. It was reconstructed in 1912 and relocated to its current location when the East Garden was constructed.

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Sannomaru Shozokan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections): We concluded our exploration of the Imperial Palace East Gardens at the Museum of the Imperial Collections (located within the garden grounds) where works of art donated by the Imperial family are displayed. 

“Located in the East Garden of the Imperial Palace, the Museum of the Imperial Collections boasts a collection of about 9,500 works of art and craft, including paintings and calligraphy, that have been passed down through successive generations of the Imperial family.

In 1989, after Emperor Showa passed away, the Imperial family donated 6,500 works of art to the nation and construction of this facility commenced in 1992, to provide a place where they could be managed, stored, and researched, as well as being displayed to the general public. The works went on display in 1993.”

– Japan National Tourism Organization 

More of this here: https://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/spot/museum/museum-of-the-imperial-collections.html

Getting from Narita to Jimbocho using the JR Pass.  

NARITA TO TOKYO STATION

… We hurriedly made our way towards the platforms to catch the Narita Express Train to Tokyo. The ride from the airport to Tokyo station was an hour long… the first half of which, we spent quickly looking up how we can get to our hotel in Jimbocho using the JR train lines.

There were no direct JR trains from Tokyo station to Jimbocho as per the staff at the JR East office in Narita. Their suggestion was to take the local subway/metro from Tokyo station to Jimbocho.

In hindsight, I now realize that would have been way easier… but I was stubborn that day, feeling very determined to try to use our JR passes as much as possible even if it meant we didn’t take the shortest route.

The best option we found was to take the Chuo line (rapid service) from Tokyo Station to Ochanomizu station then walk 14 minutes to our hotel.

The second half of the trip was spent mostly gazing out the window.

The nearer we got to Tokyo, the brighter the view became as more and more city lights came into view — such a sharp contrast to night time in New Zealand…so it was a pleasant sight to see. Also, it was making me feel more excited for the next two weeks!

ARRIVING AT TOKYO STATION

When we arrived at Tokyo station, it was initially a bit overwhelming. So. Many. People. I was expecting Tokyo to be crowded… but actually seeing it first hand, that was an experience in itself.

However, the Japanese are well known for being able to keep things in order… so it wasn’t totally chaotic. People always lined up to get into the trains and there were signs to keep left or right so that those who were in a hurry can easily pass through when going up and down the stairs and escalators.

WALKING IN JIMBOCHO

Walking wasn’t such a bad idea. We at least got to see the area a little bit.

It was our first time to walk around Tokyo so we found it very interesting. There were tall buildings all around and huge billboards scattered everywhere. We also passed by a lot of restaurants.

One we remember in particular because it caught our eye as we about took a crosswalk. It didn’t look fancy or anything. It actually looked pretty plain… but we could see lots of people inside (mostly in business attire) having a really good time eating and drinking beer.

Jan and I wondered whether it was a cheap place to eat as it looked like most of the people in there were employees having dinner and drinks after work. We thought about going back after we dropped off our luggage at the hotel but unfortunately, we never really got to back.

There were so many Family Mart konbinis (convenience stores) as well! Not that that’s very interesting… haha! But we just found it a bit amusing as we felt like we saw one every few minutes while walking. Hehe!

It was also nice to know there were many of them in the area as they’re quite handy for buying water and food on the go (onigiri!) and for withdrawing money (in yen) from their ATMs using a foreign credit card.

We also passed by one street that, for the first 24 hours, I  wrongfully thought was Takeshita Dori (yes, the one in Harajuku. No, I don’t know why I would think that when we were clearly in a different district). I was even cheerfully telling Jan about it.

Of course, it wasn’t and I was completely off. Haha! I could no longer remember the name. All I remember is that it was a bit of a long street with pink street lamps and it had lots of restaurants and shops.

END DESTINATION

We arrived at our hotel, safe and sound.

We checked in and brought our luggage up to our room and then ended up having dinner at the hotel’s 24hour cafe as we were too tired to head out again. We decided it was better to hit the sack early so we could have a good rest and be ready to explore Tokyo bright and early the next day!

Europe 2017 Travel Diary: Arc de Triomphe, Paris France

After spending some time admiring the Eiffel Tower, we then moved on to see another famous structure in Paris — the Arc de Triomphe.

The triumphal arch is in honor of those who fought for France, in particular, those who fought during the Napoleonic Wars. Engraved on the inside and at the top of the arch are all of the names of the generals and wars fought. There are inscriptions in the ground underneath the vault of the arch which include the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I where the Memorial Flame burns and have made the Arc de Triomphe Parisa revered patriotic site. -arcdetriompheparis.com

It was a 30-minute walk from the tower to the arch and we needed a little break from all the walking we had done since the morning, so we opted to ride an Uber instead — the fare wasn’t too bad and it was a very convenient way to get to where we wanted.

We got dropped off by the driver right at the side of the arch, but for those walking to the monument it is said that there is an underground tunnel on the Avenue de la Grande Armee side of the roundabout/circle (where the monument stands central). This tunnel can be accessed from the Wagram exit of the Metro.

There was a short barricade surrounding the monument and a queue of people waiting to get inside. The fee to get in is 8€ for adults, 5€ for students and free admission for kids and teens below 17.

Like the Eiffel Tower earlier, we opted not to line up and were content to remain on the outside of the barrier. Then, after spending a bit of time gazing at the arch and taking some photos, we decided to leave and head off to Champs Élysées — Paris’ famous avenue lined with restaurants, shops and bars which was just across to where we were.

I cannot remember how we managed to cross the busy roundabout/circle… but somehow we did! When we got to the other side, we took some more photos of the arch at a distance and while doing so we observed that there were people who were standing (and taking photos) in the median strip of one of the pedestrian crossings of the avenue which was in front of the arch.

We decided to try it out as well to see if we could get some decent photos with the arch as our background. It was a bit scary at first standing in the middle of the street with cars going past to our left and right! But there were other people with us and the cars kept a bit of a safe distance so we were able to get our photos without any untoward accident and crossed back to Champs Élysées all in one piece!

Europe 2017 Travel Diary: Eiffel Tower, Paris France

It’s Paris’ most famous landmark… there was no way we were going to miss it while we were in the city.

We had started out our sightseeing that day at Fontaine Saint-Michel. We then crossed Pont Saint-Michel to go to the Notre Dame Cathedral then made our way back down the Seine River, after which we crossed the Pont des Art bridge to get to the Louvre and Jardin des Tuileries then continued on walking to the Eiffel Tower from there.

It was a blistering hot day and it was quite a walk considering where we started from. Halfway between the Louvre and the tower, my feet were starting to get quite sore from walking since the morning (I *may* have not been wearing the best footwear for walking all day.. my fault.. hehe..) and I was starting to feel a bit of tiredness creep in (as I said in a previous post, I had just landed in Paris that day at 0700 and went straight to exploring the city). It came to a point where I was sorely tempted to ride a bike taxi when one passed by until the driver told us how much it was going to cost (20 euro per person) and we decided it was not worth it.

So we continued on walking… The top of the Eiffel Tower already within our view at this point — SO NEAR YET SO FAR!!! It was another 15-20 mins of walking until we finally arrived.

We did not go up the tower as we felt like we did not have enough time. We made do of enjoying its splendor while viewing it at its base. However, for those wanting the experience of going up and enjoying the city view from up top, you can visit toureiffel for tickets and prices.

There are also different “skip-the-line-tours” available (some including tours to other famous sites in Paris) — just look it up in google and compare prices.

It felt a bit surreal to be standing there in front of this very famous structure, seeing it in person for the very first time. It was an amazing moment, really… I mean, you get so used to seeing some things in films and photographs that when you finally see it with your very own eyes, there’s this few seconds of just being completely in awe of what’s right in front of you because it looks exactly the same but at the same time just so very different — no matter how good photo quality is nowadays, nothing will ever compare to the real thing.