The Perfect 3 Day Weekend in Asheville

Asheville should be high on your list. From the unique beers and dishes to hiking and rafting, there is something for everyone is this quaint little town tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The United States is filled with exquisitely fun small towns which can be explored over a long weekend. Asheville, North Carolina, is one of those towns that can provide you with fun-packed few days. I had heard so much about this town tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so I had to experience for myself what all the hype was about. 

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Over looking Pisgah National Forest

Asheville is filled with unique eateries, wildly tantalizing breweries, artisan shops decorating the riverside and embellishing historic buildings, and numerous trails to hike for any difficulty level. I definitely sensed the workings of a strong and united community as I walked along the streets. Historic buildings have been revitalized, a strong push to go green in every way possible is pervasive, and restaurants and bars alike utilize the resources of the local farmers as much as possible. If the mountains and sense of community doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the Biltmore mansion, which is the largest property estate in the country. 

It doesn’t take long to see why this town attracts so many people far and wide.

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Reflections at Hooker Falls

My partner, Justin, and I spent 3 amazing days exploring Asheville and its surrounding area. We loved every part of it, under rain or sun. In sharing how we spent our 3 days here, I hope to inspire your inner adventure and provide you with ideas of what to do and what to eat and drink while there.

How to get around

I highly recommend you rent a car to get around Asheville. Even my Airbnb host suggested it! You’ll want the freedom of your car to take you in and around the town. It’s the best way to visit the Blue Ridge Mountains at your own pace, to get to the Biltmore, and even visit the Omni Park Grove Inn. There is plenty of parking everywhere in Asheville. If you’re flying into Asheville Regional Airport, this will be the easiest place to reserve a car rental. However, there are tons of spots in West and East Asheville to rent a car if you prefer. 

Where we stayed 

We decided to stay in an Airbnb in West Asheville. It was the perfect spot to get to the mountains and downtown. New to Airbnb? Here’s $40 off your first rental!

There are plenty of hotels and even BnBs you can find yourself in. We just found the Airbnb more affordable.

Not to Miss Breweries

One World Brewing – 10 Patton Ave #002 

This was our first brewery experience and it set a high bar. The beers were unique and nothing like we had ever had before – welcome to Asheville! What made this bar even more unique was the location. It’s nearly hidden down an alley and down some stairs in the basement of a building. 

Catawba Brewing – 32 Banks Ave

Such a great atmosphere here. This is very family friendly bar, so much so, there was a wedding party going on. Definitely one of my faves!

Green Man Brewery – 27 Buxton Ave

Twin Leaf Brewery – 144 Coxe Ave

Twin Leaf has an open and airy environment that is family and dog friendly. We took refuge here during a passing rain shower and it was the perfect space. There are some bar games to play and the beer line goes quickly so you’ll always be topped off.

The Funktorium – 147 Coxe Ave

An extension of Wicked Weed except this has a large space in the back with the perfect set up for live music. They have great upscale bar food, but the beer was subpar compared to what we were trying at other bars. The music is what makes this place a MUST!

Hi-Wire Brewing – 197 Hilliard Ave

Day 1 

Depending on when you arrive, heading straight for the mountains is definitely an option. Luckily, Justin and I arrived just after 7am and headed straight to Bryson City to get our adventure blood pumping. He had done some white river rafting in this area as a young child, so this was a MUST on our list. I highly recommend renting a raft from the Nantahla Outdoor Center (NOC). They will take such good care of you and provide ALL the clothing you will need, from water shoes to wet suits and even dry outer-shell jackets. We didn’t know what to expect, so we tried our best to pack what we needed, but ended up not using any of it as their equipment was top notch. The trip down the Nantahla River is an 8-mile journey which takes about 3 hours to raft down. This will be the most memorable 3 hours of your entire trip and there will be pictures at the very end to prove it. There are plenty of quiet moments to take in the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but also moments the rapids will bounce you up and down in your raft in preparation for the final rapid. Be sure to smile as you make your way through the last rapid as the NOC has a photographer positioned to capture the last moments of your journey. If you fall in, as we did, it makes the pictures even better in my opinion. Have no fear! 🙂

Once back in Asheville, a much deserved dinner was waiting for us. There are a variety of eating establishments to choose from. Price ranges vary, but you can expect local farmto table dishes nearly everywhere. We tried White Labs Kitchen & Tap, but weren’t entirely impressed, to be honest. If you’re looking for something quick and easy, it’s a good spot with decent pizza, but we found the service to be quite slow. A block over there is Wicked Weed Brewing Pub which is usually packed with people and popular for their food and beer. 

If you have any last minute energy on Day 1, try to check out at least 1 or 2 breweries to get a taste of what your weekend will be like. 

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Our first brewery stop – One World Brewing

Day 2 

I’m all about the sun rises when on vacation and luckily, my travel buddy went along with my crazy ideas 🙂 We got an early start, around 6am, and headed into Dupont State Forest, about an hour south of Asheville, to find a trail loop with 3 different trails – High Falls, Triple Falls, and Hooker Falls. The hike was easy and relaxing and the perfect start to the day. As the first light of the day began to appear beneath the trees, it also poured light onto the waterfalls in front of us. From one fall to the next, the scenery continued to impress us. The falls of High Falls and Triple Falls, have areas you can walk down to get a closer look of the water. Triple Falls you can even stand atop the rocks of the second fall and take in everything around you. There is something about waterfalls that is so magical no matter the time of year. 

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First glimpse of High Falls
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A top of Triple Falls
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Hooker Falls

After such an early hike, we were looking forward to a hearty breakfast. Back in Asheville, we tried Green Sage Cafe and loved it! They offer all sorts of teas and coffees to taste, along with bowls, biscuits, and all you could want for a nice breakfast needed to recharge your batteries. If you haven’t had enough, check out Old Europe Pastries next door to get a little snack as you explore the streets of downtown Asheville. 

As we walked Asheville’s streets, we admired the unique stores filled with work from local artists, and historic buildings transformed into new-age space for businesses and artisans alike. Don’t forget to check out the River Arts District either. Here you’ll find even more artisans working as a community to restore the old buildings along the river into a colorful walking destination filled with murals. 

If you’re looking for a nice dinner somewhere try Bouchon or Cúrate. You’ll want to make reservations ahead of time, but a small nibble at the bar can’t hurt if you didn’t plan ahead. With all the breweries in town, brewery hopping is a must! I’ve never tasted more interesting and funky beer than in Asheville. Most of the bartenders are more than willing to explain the brewing process and the use of Brett yeast which is prevalently used throughout Asheville’s craft beer culture. They say you either like the funky taste of the Brett yeast or you don’t. I hope you enjoy it.  Definitely try to make it to Funktorium during your brewery tour. Not only is there delicious food, but they have a great live music stage that brings in talented musicians for you to enjoy. You can’t go wrong with the number of breweries. Check out my list above to see our favorite spots!

Day 3 

Last day meant another hike! But I warn you…before you head on this next hike, be sure to eat a hearty breakfast. Make your way to Biscuit Head. You won’t regret it. The biscuits are flaky, warm, and nearly the size of a person’s head! In addition to the mouthwatering biscuits, there are fresh house made jams and butters to awaken your taste buds. Because this is such a popular spot, be sure to get here early as there was a line around the building (no joke!) as we were leaving.

With breakfast in our bellies, we headed into Pisgah National Forest and landed upon Craggy Gardens. The visitor center at the top allows you to choose from a stationary activity of looking out onto the rolling hills or challenges you to a 7 mile round trip hike (there are shorter hikes as well). We didn’t know what to expect, but decided for a little challenge and headed for the 7 mile trek ending at Douglas Falls. If you’re lucky enough to reach Douglas Falls with no one else around, you’ll find yourself in the middle of the forest listening to the incredible sounds of nature: dripping waterfalls and the wind whipping among the trees. This hike is quite strenuous due to its length and uneven path, but well worth the effort as it makes you appreciate the beauty and simplicity of nature, which, in my opinion, we all need to do more often.

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Made it to Douglas Falls

As we made our way back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we thought it would be the perfect time to make a detour before heading back to Asheville; so we headed to check out the famous Omni Grove Park Inn. At the Inn’s grand hall, you can have a bite to eat while gazing at the spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in front of you, or you can treat yourself to a nice spa, if you wish.  The Inn is rich with history and has attracted many distinguished guests from presidents to authors and was pivotal military headquarter during during WWII. We didn’t spend too much time here, as we chose to continue exploring; however, it is still well worth a pass through. We also skipped the Biltmore, as there were other things higher on our priority list.

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A pit stop on the Blue Ridge Highway to take in the views

For dinner that day, we headed to West Asheville’s The Whale. This establishment won’t disappoint and may have been the best meal we had the entire trip. It’s a cozy spot that shares space with a brewery so you can enjoy an amazing meal and continue testing out new beers. 

Our time in Asheville flew by, but this adorable town was just what we were looking for. We went in mid-October to admire the foliage color change, but I imagine this town is a great destination no matter the time of year. You’ll head home having tried all sorts of different beers and unique dishes, but you will also feel recharged and refreshed after hiking and rafting through beautiful nature.

Asheville remains a top destination to visit in 2020 and for good reason. The beauty of its nature and the feeling of community within town is palpable. Enjoy! 

The Magic of Budapest

Budapest was everything I envisioned and more. No matter the time of day or which part of the city you wander to, you’ll be amazed with Budapest and it will have you coming back for more!

Oh, Budapest! You were everything I envisioned and so much more! 

 

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Chain Bridge and Buda Palace at night

I had wanted to visit Budapest for the past 2 years, but the stars didn’t align to make it possible until this year. I can officially report that I finally made it happen and it was everything and so much more than I could have ever imagined. 

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Looking out over the Parliament from Fisherman’s Bastion at sunrise

Here is a city that stands in the shadows of Paris, Rome, London and Berlin as  one of Europe’s most underrated cities. But it may not stay that way for long – it is easy to see why more people are being attracted to this magical city on the Danube. This is a MUST on anyone’s bucket list, as you will leave Budapest wanting to come back for more! You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

Budapest is two different cities divided by the Danube: Buda and Pest. In 1840, the Chain Bridge was built to connect the two cities which made it the largest in Hungary. Today, the city is alive and thriving. Whether you watch the sun rise over the Parliament from Fisherman’s Bastion (highly recommended!), wander the streets to take in the sights, sounds and smells, spend an afternoon at the thermal baths, or watch the sunset on the banks of the Danube as the white lights of the city turn on, there is something for everyone in this city. 

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Sunrise on the Chain Bridge
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An afternoon at the Széchenyi Thermal Bath
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Sunset on the Danube – Shoes on the Danube and Fisherman’s Bastion

A typical vacation for me is usually busy and on the go because I want to see as much of a place I visit within the limited time I have. However, Budapest made me want to slow down and be more in the moment. That’s really the best way to experience it.  This city has a lot to offer, yet retains a quaint and underestimated feeling of exploration. Could I have seen the entire city in two days? Yes, but I had planned on spending three days there to really immerse myself in it more. Exploring a new city at a slower pace and taking your time can really make you appreciate things more.  And Budapest didn’t disappoint.

This is an easy city to explore by foot.  I tackled a different part of the city each day and sometimes visited the same area twice, walking up to 14 miles most days and enjoying every step of it. Slowing down and being more present helped me soak up the city’s energy; something I think most of us forget to do while exploring new places. I took in my surroundings while wandering, never fearing of getting lost. I fell in love with the countless alleyways brightened by string of lights hanging wall to wall and lined with restaurants, bars, and unique cafes. Even the hole-in-the-wall cafes or bars somehow are arranged to make it feel cozy and welcoming. I was in my happy place discovering this beautiful city on foot. 

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Walking from the Pest side to Buda side of the city

As I walked down the various streets, whether to the thermal bath or to the central market, I observed a city that was mixed with the old and new, tattered yet well groomed. While appreciating the beautiful architecture that dates back to the 17th century, I sensed Hungary’s tragic and sometimes violent history they had endured. The restoration of older buildings were evidence of Budapest’s story of revival and rebirth. The city is continuing to develop, which means it will only continue to get better. 

Hungarians and tourists alike gather in the city center’s green space to take in their surroundings while enjoying food, gelato, or a cold beverage during a hot summer day. I too grabbed a freshly made margarita pizza while sitting on the lawn reading and watching all the various groups of friends play cards, dip their feet in the pool, or just talk with one another and even with strangers. The city center gives off tantalizing energy that is intoxicating. I couldn’t help but feel content watching the sun’s light blanket the city with different shades of colors, as I observed humanity enjoying the simple things in life. 

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Green space pool by day
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Green space pool by night

It is hard to say what part of Budapest was my favorite. Every bit of it was an adventure of discovery. If I had to suggest one thing that a visitor must do, it would be to experience sunrise from Fisherman’s Bastion. Sunrise comes early, especially in the summer, but it is well worth a 4am wake up call to see the sky turning pink and orange to blue as the sun slowly rises above the beautiful Parliament building. I had the beautiful space nearly all to myself, and what a memorable experience it was to capture images of the sun rising over the city. As I gazed out to the Pest side of the Danube, there was a slight haze over the city as the sun continued to rise. The sun grew larger with every minute, and the bubble of pure exhilaration that I was experiencing in that moment nearly popped from all the joy I was feeling.

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Enjoying the beautiful sunrise from Fisherman’s Bastion
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Parliament from Fisherman’s Bastion
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Parliament from the Danube

Enjoying sunrise and wandering the streets without a care in the world are the reasons why travel brings me so much happiness. It feeds my soul. It fills me with pure joy. I cherish the memories I create during my travels and I can’t imagine a life without experiencing other countries with unique landscapes, customs, and cultures.

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Exuding happiness from watching the sunrise

I encourage you to visit Budapest to experience for yourself just how magical it is. Enjoy a coffee at one of the many adorable cafes and walk along the Danube to see the lights of the city turn on at night and you’ll feel the energy of this city. I fell in love with Budapest.  For me it no longer sits in the shadow of other popular European destinations. I’m sure you’ll feel that way too, and come back again.

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Shoes on the Danube at sunset

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Why Everyone Should Hike Bright Angel Trail

The Grand Canyon is a must do Natural Wonder of the World. There are so many things to see and trails to hike. I strongly believe, no matter your skill level or the length of time you have available to hike, you should make Bright Angel Trail a must do hike. It will change you in ways you did not expect.

If you live in the United States, you are lucky to have 58 National Parks available to visit without leaving the country. Without a doubt, the Grand Canyon, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, should be on everyone’s bucket list. It will leave you speechless. It will leave you in awe. And it will be a moment in your life that you will never forget. I’ve been three times in my 32 years on this wondrous Earth, and have remembered every single time so vividly. 

There are four areas of the National Park one can visit: the North, South, East, and West Rim – each with its own spectacular viewpoints, activities, and hiking spots. 

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Map of the 4 different rims
Glass Skywalk
Glass Skywalk

West

The West Rim is where the Glass Skywalk juts out 70 feet over the canyon and is the second most visited rim, due to its proximity to Las Vegas. This part of the canyon is part of the Hualapai Indian Tribal Lands, which means it is actually not part of the National Park. 

East

The East Rim has become more popular due to Horseshoe Bend. This part of the canyon is technically 7 miles before the Grand Canyon, but provides views of the canyon rim with the Colorado River directly in the background. Horseshoe Bend is definitely worth a small detour if you have the time.

Horseshoe Bend
Horseshoe Bend

North

Look out point on the North Rim
Look out point on the North Rim

The North Rim is perfect for those looking for a quieter and calmer atmosphere as it receives much fewer visitors. There are only three major viewpoints that show the width of the canyon rather than the depth and only a sliver of the Colorado River can be seen by walking through Angel’s Window, a natural archway in the rocks.

South

The South Rim is the most popular rim due to its vast, expansive views. This rim is where the first tourists came to visit the park back in the 1850s, which is why it has been built up with large visitor centers, lodging, and family-oriented activities. There are about two dozen major viewpoints that allow visitors to peer down into the Colorado River. 

Sunset at the South Rim
Sunset at the South Rim

I’ve been lucky enough to experience the Grand Canyon in different ways. For a quick glimpse, a short four hour road trip from Las Vegas just to peer at the vastness of the Canyon’s West Rim is well worth the trip. But the canyon deserves much more of our time. 

In 2009, I stepped into a raft along the East Rim and spent seven days rafting down the Colorado River rapids, jumping into the river from various cliffs, and sleeping on cots looking up at the night sky with the Milky Way peering back at me in its full splendor. This is a trip I will never forget; but even then I knew I was still missing a crucial adventure from this natural wonder. I needed to hike into the canyon. Ten years after my river trip, I did just that. 

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon offers many trails to explore and choosing one can be overwhelming. I contemplated doing a trail that was not frequently ventured in order to be more “one with nature.” I had read about the popular Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. that provides rest stops with bathrooms and water stations making it one of the most frequently trekked. I strongly considered the trail, despite the possible crowd of people and because of its accessibility to other trails. As fate would have it, I found a cabin in the village at the Bright Angel Lodge, steps away from the ever popular trail head and the rim of the canyon. While getting settled at the cabin and taking in the constant changing colors of my surroundings, I knew I was not going anywhere else to hike. I determined that at sunrise I was hiking Bright Angel Trail. 

Sunrise came early, at 5:10 A.M., and I had already situated myself along the rim of the canyon with my camera in hand, ready to capture the beauty of the day’s first light touching the red rocks from the rim down to the canyon below. The sun rose slowly above the canyon and highlighted the beginning of the trail I was about to hike. At 5:45 A.M., I took my first steps onto the famous Bright Angel Trail. I was filled with energy and excitement, despite the early hour, and eager to see where the trail would lead.

Sunrise with Plateau Point in the distance
Sunrise with Plateau Point in the distance
Gazing into the South Rim Canyon at sunrise
Gazing into the South Rim Canyon at sunrise

One of the biggest advantages of an early start is the fact that not many people begin their day so early. The canyon itself was slow at waking up: the air had a slight chill, the sun was gently rising. The steep decline zigzagged through the many rocky switchbacks and the towering rocks above provided me with shade. I was well aware that shade would be a high commodity in the hours ahead of me, so I welcomed the moment. Up to this point, the canyon rocks above me changed in size, color, and formation at every turn. The sheer size of them did not even seem real or possible. The canyon’s immensity made me feel as tiny as an ant. 

The start of the journey down Bright Angel
The start of the journey down Bright Angel

The further along the trail I got, the more I found myself turning around to see just how far I had traveled, and how deep into the canyon I had reached; it is an elevation change of 3,000 feet after all. With every new switchback the views grew increasingly more majestic. I encountered a rest stop with bathrooms and water stations nearly every 1.5 miles down the trail and the first campground was around mile 4.5. At this point, the iron-rich rocks changed from rusty reds to light browns; the vegetation expanded to include pink and yellow blooming cacti; acacia trees filled the air with a honeysuckle-like perfume; and the sound of a trickling stream welcomed me to a natural oasis filled with life that has hardly been touched by man. This haven, known as the Indian Gardens, stood in dark contrast to the vast desert surrounding this area. 

 

 

At the south side of the Indian Gardens, a fork in the road indicated to either head to Plateau Point, that offers views of the river below, or continue on Bright Angel Trail towards the river which can connect you to a multitude of different trails including a connection to the North Rim. No matter the choice, the majesty of the Canyon will never waver. Since I had spent 7 days floating on the river 10 years earlier, I thought gazing at the Colorado River from above would complete my Grand Canyon experience. After pushing an extra 1.5 miles to Plateau Point from Indian Gardens, the expansive panorama of the North Rim across the way and the aqua blue Colorado River raging 1,000 feet below was an image that will forever be ingrained in my memory. 

By making it to Plateau Point and after a six mile trek under the sun, I felt exhilarated, strong, and full of life. I had made it to the point that I set out to accomplish. I had made it to a viewpoint that most people will never get to see. From this spot, I felt so miniscule and insignificant as the canyon from both the South and North Rims engulfed me, and the busyness of daily life seemed to be forgotten. There was no thought of the responsibilities I had back home, or even back at the top of the rim. Any concern or worry dissipated into the expansive contours of the canyon, and I was left with just the feeling of happiness in that moment. I was my best self, as I think everyone is when they push themselves to accomplish something filled with mental and physical challenges. It is a feeling we all need to hang onto and not forget. Granted, this feeling of pure contentment and strength quickly depletes as you realize there is a 3,000 foot elevation gain still ahead of you, but that happiness and strength comes back once atop of the canyon looking back down to where you had just come from. 

The immensity of the Grand Canyon with the North Rim on the other side
The immensity of the Grand Canyon with the North Rim on the other side
Plateau Point and Colorado River
Plateau Point and Colorado River

Hiking back to the top of the South Rim, I wanted to remember every step I had taken. I frequently turned to look back at the path I had just left behind. Leaving the plateau and now back on the switchbacks, the greatness of this trail began to hit me, and I realized it was there the entire time. I had spent the better part of a day on the Bright Angel Trail, but it wasn’t until I was nearly back at the top that I really noticed the vast beauty of it. The way back to the top, also put the strength and determination I had into perspective, as I now realized the many people I encountered on the switchbacks had no intention of making it past the 3 mile or even the 1.5 mile rest area. The 8 hour, 12.2 mile round trip trek on Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point was worth every bead of sweat and every foot step. The trail is dynamic and peaceful and reminds you of what is important – living in the moment and cherishing the experience.

Switchbacks of Bright Angel Trail
Switchbacks of Bright Angel Trail
View of Bright Angel Trail
View of Bright Angel Trail

My challenge to you, dear reader, is that you travel to the Grand Canyon. Whether you hike the 12.2 miles to Plateau Point, head to the river, or turn back somewhere in between, may you feel that complete bliss that comes with hiking Bright Angel Trail. I am willing to bet that the magic of the Canyon will change you and leave you with an everlasting memory that will never fade. 

Bright Angel Trail from Above
Bright Angel Trail from Above. Can you see the trail leading to Plateau Point?

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Hiking Gibraltar’s Rock

Take a pit stop on your journey through Andalucia and check out Gibraltar. Here’s all you need to know about hiking Gibraltar’s Rock and the kind of views you’ll see!

Andalucia is sprawling with whitewashed villages and rolling hills, but it also allows you to visit a territory of England at the same time…The Rock of Gibraltar. You get to visit 2 countries in one day or even 3 if you head to Tangier, but that’s a story for a different blog. Even if Gibraltar is not on your radar, you’ll want to take a pit stop here simply to soak up the differences in the architecture, language, currency, and even the scenery as you venture up the rock. The views from this tiny southernmost country of Europe will NOT disappoint!

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View of the Rock as you cross the tarmac

Allot yourself at least 4 hours to spend hiking Gibraltar’s rock. If you are pressed for time or not the hiking type, there are taxis and cars for hire that will take you on a tour of the rock instead.

First of all, park outside of Gibraltar. You must drive across the tarmac of the airport, which means depending on the number of flights that are set to land or take-off upon your arrival, driving in can sometimes take longer than anticipated. At times this can take up to 3 hours to get through, so walking across the border is the simpler option. Where to park on the Spanish side is easily marked as you approach the border and you will pay for parking upon leaving. Once you pass the border and go through the easy customs office, you will walk across the runway and have a panoramic view of the Rock ahead of you. As disappointing as it is, you will not get a shiny new stamp in your passport, so prepare yourself.

There are 2 different ways to get up the Rock: enter from Jews’ Gate at the southern end or from Casemates Square. I decided to go up from Casemates Square and visit the Moorish Castle first and end at Jews’ Gate. Once you reach the first guard tower, you will need to pay either £5 for just the walking portion or £17 to gain access to the castle, the WWI caves, the Skywalk, and the highest point of the Rock at O’Hara’s Battery. The extra £12 is worth it just for the spectacular view at the top!

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Gibraltar border crossing
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View from Moorish Castle down on the tarmac and Algeciras

There are multiple different paths you can take depending on the type of hiker you are; nature lover, history buff, thrill seeker, and monkey trailer. Most paths overlap, but all

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Click the image to be taken to the Gibraltar site

end (or begin) at the same spot. As you continue to climb, the views of Gibraltar itself and Algeciras across the bay continue to get more breathtaking. Eventually you will make it to the Monkey’s Den, which is everyone’s favorite aspect of the Rock. These brazen monkeys are Europe’s only free roaming primates, but don’t be fooled by their stoic and nonchalant manner, as it’s all an act! At the top of the Charles V wall you will see the majority of the monkeys lounging around waiting for that rookie hiker to put down their bag (yes…that was me!) and pounce. Good luck getting your bag back! You want to document the moment you have views of the highest point, the astonishingly blue Strait of Gibraltar, views of Morocco, and the monkeys, but whatever you do, keep your belongings with you at all times. Those monkeys are not afraid to jump on you, hitch a ride on one the taxi tours, or even nose through your bag, because yes, they know how to open zippers and be more curious than you’d like.

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Stairs up the Charles V wall

On a clear day it feels as if you could touch Morocco because of how close it is. This vantage point really shows why Gibraltar is such a key territory of Europe and its trade. If the site of Morocco is too much of a tease and you are urged to touch upon the African continent and add a 3rd country to your Spanish trip, you can find day trips from Gibraltar, Algeciras, or even Tarifa.

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Can you see Morocco in the distance?
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View of Gibraltar from above with Morocco in the distance.

Overall, the hike is exhilarating, expansive, and leaves you in awe; just be prepared to walk up A LOT of stairs and get thrown in the wind a bit. If anything, after the hike you’ll be ready for a good fish and chips meal on Main Street before heading onto your next destination.

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Come hang with this little guy and take in the views!

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5 Top Things to Do in Ronda, Spain

Andalucia will provide you with an intimate setting of Spain that is rich in history and vast in its beauty. Ronda and its surrounding towns are definite musts if you visit this part of Spain.

Ronda is about a 1 hour and 30-minute drive from Malaga. My first impressions of the countryside were centered around the number of wind turbines across the landscape, but also the bright green and yellow hues that seemed to be painted across the rolling hills. Upon arriving in Ronda, you will see a number of streets lined with perfectly umbrella-like trimmed orange trees with the occasional bright fuchsia and purple bougainvillea tree mixed between. Nearly all the streets are winding, narrow, and cobblestoned. Carrera Espinel is a walking-only street filled with shopping and eateries that will lead you straight into the Plaza de Toros de Ronda, the largest bullring in Spain.

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Walking only street
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Blooms everywhere
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Orange trees lining the streets

Where to Eat

You will find many places to eat while walking along Carrera Espinel. Just a few blocks off of the walking street, you’ll find great local favorites along Calle Comandante Salvador Carrasco. I tried Bar San Francisco, an excellent choice. Around the Puente Nuevo there are plenty of outside seating areas that provide a great view of the bridge. I highly recommend Le Chuguita, known by tourists and locals alike for its 0.80 Euro tapas plates. It opens at 8:30pm and is packed by 8:45pm.

Where to Park

The streets are lined with cars on one side or the other. You can find street parking, but keep in mind if the curb is painted yellow that is a paid spot. Look for non-painted curbs if you go the street parking route. There are a number of paid hourly parking garages within the city just outside the main walking street or there’s a free overnight lot on Calle Comandante Salvador Carrasco across from Bar San Francisco, which I highly suggest is the best option.  Good luck!

Where to Stay

I stayed in a great Airbnb here in the middle of the city just 2 blocks from the walking street that had a balcony that overlooked the whitewashed walls around me. A plus to this spot was having a grocery store and markets right in front so I could grab a snack to hold me over till dinner time since most places close at 4pm. New to Airbnb? Here’s $40 off your first rental!

There are plenty of hotels around the bullring and bridge that allow for great views.

1. Puente Nuevo

The main reason people flock to this little country village is because of its memorable bridge. Puente Nuevo connects both old and new parts of the town and is steeped in history regarding its construction. There are multiple viewpoints one can choose in order to discover the various angles of the bridge. From the bullring, one can choose to walk along the gorge until whitewashed buildings across the way can be viewed; this will allow your eyes to land upon the monumental bridge. As you get closer one can appreciate the level of detail that went into the construction. In the center arch of the bridge, there is a single wooden door with a tiny terrace on either side which used to be a jail and depending on the crime, people were thrown to their deaths out of the door down to the gorge. Unfortunately, you cannot get any closer to the bridge other than walking over it. On the other side of the bridge, there is a garden you can walk through that has views of the bridge, more of the gorge, and views of the lush green countryside on the outskirts of Ronda. No matter the time of day one gazes at the bridge and the surrounding whitewashed buildings, it is a spectacular sight – a mesmerizing sight – from colors of stark white to orange and brown brick to reds and golds.

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Every angle is mesmerizing
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Watching the sun go down

2. Hike

While exploring Ronda and looking down from the imposing bridge, I knew I wanted to explore further. If you get a map from the tourism office, the hiking route is not clearly indicated. I’ll attempt to provide you with a clearer path…Walking across the Puente Nuevo into the old town, follow the road until you appear to be leaving the town and come across some stone stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, you will turn right and continue along the twisting road until you reach the point where it turns into a dirt path. There is a way to drive down, as cars are parked at the bottom, but what’s the fun in that?! There are a couple different points where you can stop to soak in the scenery all around you. Note: the path all the way to the end is not for the faint of heart but is completely worth it. If you are willing to crawl under fallen tree limbs, walk along a foot-wide path, and jump over a large enough hole, then you will enjoy some views that not everyone gets the opportunity to see. After surpassing the break in the path, you will walk through various ruins where people appear to once have lived.

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The gap in the path I had to jump over, but what was on the other side was worth it!
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The final point at the base of Puente Nuevo

 

3. Bullring

Ronda’s bullring is not the oldest in Spain, but it is the largest and first one that was completely constructed by stone, rather than stone and brick. The inaugural event occurred in 1785. Today it is preserved for history and is still utilized as a horse-riding school. Following the walking tour, you will come across a horse arena which is as elegant inside as the bullring itself. You will witness the corrals where the bulls were kept and prepped for their big debut in the ring along with bullfighting outfits from some of the most famous fighters that graced the ring. Once inside the ring, take time to absorb the enormity of the structure as the dark yellow dirt blends in with the pillars and seating as if to make it one continuous arena. Stand in the center and envision what it must have been like for the spectators to file in and find a seat among the 2 tiers for the day’s events.

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Outside the bullring

To see the bullring in its entirety, head to the hotel across the street and head up to the rooftop bar. Grab a local wine or beer to peer into the arena and take in the surrounding vistas at the same time. At sunset, this is the perfect spot to spend an hour or two as you watch the colors all around you become a kaleidoscope of patterns.

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View of the bullring from the hotel while sipping on some wine from Ronda

4. Walking Along the Moor

Take advantage of the beauty of the countryside, with the rolling mountain tops of the Sierra Nevada, the rows of olive trees, lush green farm lands, and the bright pinks and purples of the flowers along the path way. You will find benches and lookout points all throughout the walk where you can sit to soak up the Spanish sun perhaps while enjoying some churros and chocolate. The pathway will take you straight to the Puente Nuevo. It’ll be hard to get lost.

5. Day trips

Although Ronda is much smaller than I had anticipated, I am still glad I stayed there 2 nights. It is a great spot to use as a base if you end up taking day trips to the surrounding villages. The two I highly recommend are Setenil and Zahara.

Setenil de Las Bodegas

A town like no other, Setenil is one that is hard to forget…or even fathom how it was possible to create. It is a town built practically into the mountain cliffs. No matter how the natural rock formations are, people somehow adapted the constructed homes to the shape of the cliffs. Along the main street there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to sip a café con leche and take in the wondrous creation. The awe does not stop there though… get lost among the many alleys and see how narrow the buildings are and enjoy the illusion of the rock cliffs crashing down any day.

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Buildings and homes built right into the rocks
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Setenil, the town built into the mountainside

Zahara

This tiny town is one of the few on one of the largest lakes in the area. I first imagined the lake to be dark brown in color, but as soon as I turned the corner, I was amazed at the aqua blue color instead. So amazed, in fact, that I stopped the car in the middle of the stretch of road and got out to take pictures with the town in the background. The town is as cute and tiny as a button though. Upon walking up the flower potted, steep, and winding street you enter the main square where you encounter people gathered under orange trees enjoying their tapas or coffee. No matter where you glance, views of the lake are not far. The best view though is from the castle at the top of the mountain. You really get a feeling of how big and blue the lake really is.

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The main square

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Although Ronda is tiny, the history, location, and views are like no other. I was so glad I discovered this little corner of the world and it turned out to be one of my favorite parts of this Andalucía road trip.

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My view from my Airbnb

Buen Viaje!

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Off the Beaten Path in Panama

Panama has much more than a bustling capital city. Get off the grid and head to the beach and enjoy the natural beauty Panama has to offer from the beach to the rainforest in a volcanic crater.

The first impression of Panama City, Panama, as you fly into Tocumen International Airport Panama is a sprawling metropolis with high rise buildings of all shapes and designs. If you plan on driving while visiting, make sure you are bold and patient. Bold because at times there seems to be very few rules of the road, and patient because of the massive amount of cars you will see at any given time. Don’t be surprised if it takes you nearly an hour just to get out of the city.

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Lounging cat in Casco Viejo

There are a few must dos while in the city such as watching a ship go through the Panama Canal or wandering the historic streets of Casco Viejo; but if you’re like me, being bombarded by cars and hoards of people is not really the vacation I seek…so get out of the city and head to the beach.

I recommend steering your way towards the district of San Carlos. Here you will get the perfect combination of beach and rainforest.

Panama to Coronado

Coronado is one of the larger towns in San Carlos situated on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The town itself has drastically grown and changed over the years, for the better, and has a wide range of shops and grocery stores to fill your needs and pantry. Parts of Coronado, such as the hotel and BnB listed below are all within a gated community that is bustling in its own right. There are many houses, turned BnB or Airbnb, that you can select while you enjoy the sights and experience a truly relaxing vacation.

Within Coronado, you’ll even find a hot spot restaurant called Luna Rossa. It has a huge rancho, an outside covered area where one can enjoy a meal with a pleasant breeze during the hot months. If air conditioning is more your thing, then enjoy the inside area. Regardless of seating area, you will be served delicious authentic Italian dishes. You can’t go wrong with anything your taste buds are in the mood for that day. One of my favorites is the Tiramisu – the true Italian tasting dessert like you have never tasted before.

How to get around

Despite the heavy traffic in the city, renting a car will be your easiest way to get around, especially while in the rural areas of the country. If you’re the adventurous type, feel free to try the local buses or cabs.

Where to stay

Coronado Luxury Club & Suites

Into the resort and golf life? This is the place for you. Located on the water and slightly off the beaten path you won’t be disappointed with the various room views and amenities this hotel has to offer.

El Litoral

Looking for a more personal touch? Check out this super cute BnB where the owners will make you feel right at home. If you’re in need of some relaxation, they even have meditation and yoga classes that they offer in their outdoor space next to the pool.

Or are you looking for something a little more private or quiet? You can find plenty of beach condos on Airbnb. My personal favorite is Rio Mar. It is especially beautiful with its 4 unique pools and beachfront where one can watch surfers, boogie boarders, or small groups of people enjoying the waves in the morning and afternoon as the tide ebbs and flows. Don’t forget to walk on the sparkling black and white sand beach at low tide where frequently you are the only one around. New to Airbnb? Here’s $40 off your first rental!

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This could be YOU in the pool at Rio Mar!
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Sunset at Rio Mar

What to do

Drive an hour up the mountain to the town of El Valle. This town is situated on the floor of a large volcano crater. There is so much to see and do here that you can stay a couple days or make a day trip out of it. You can experience the cloud forest along with the exotic flora and fauna that call this mountain home.

To see the exotic butterflies of the mountain, head to the Butterfly Haven where you will get to chance to learn about the various types and see them in action as you walk among them in the garden. If you’re lucky enough, they may even land on you! This is also a good time to use the “slow-mo” feature on your phone 🙂

 

If you want to take to the canopy and fly through the trees, check out ziplining. Canopy Adventure is a great guided hike that takes you up into the forest as you zipline across Chorro.

El Macho Waterfall is the largest in the area at least 100 feet above the forest floor. If zip lining across this wondrous natural beauty isn’t your thing, feel free to hike to the falls to see its beauty instead.

Need a little skin care TLC? Venture to the hot springs and mud baths to cover your body with volcanic healing clay that is said to be extremely beneficial for your skin. Once the clay is dried and rinsed off, enjoy a nice hot spring in the one of the tubs. This is a small area, but for $4 it’s a great experience.

 

No trip to El Valle is complete without wandering the stalls of the artisans and food market. This is a great spot in the center of the town that is not to be missed as you know whatever you may purchase supports the locals and their craft.

From the beautiful cool canopy of El Valle, head to the water to bask in the warm waters of the Pacific. Depending on your budget check out Vista Mar Marina to pick a water activity or for a budget friendly option, go in search of a fisherman at the Rio Hato

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Swimming with our fisherman guide in the grotto

Market to see who may be willing to bring you aboard his boat and show you around the coast of Playa Farallón for a good deal. Personally, this gives you a much more personal experience. The best part of being off the coast of Playa Farallón is some of the history that you get to experience. You’ll see one of Noriega’s abandoned beach houses that has been overgrown with vegetation due to the fact that no one wants to take it over due to possible “bad juju”. Not far off the coast is Isla Farallón which is surrounded by teal blue colored water and filled with great snorkeling opportunities. The water was so inviting that I didn’t even wait for the fisherman to stop the boat fully, that I jumped right in. The island is filled with grottos; but be careful, as the waves can be somewhat strong the closer you get to the island. Also, watch your feet! There are tons of sea urchins that make the grotto their home, so don’t be surprised if you accidentally step on one.

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The true local experience that created lasting memories
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Isla Farallón

From the beach to the rainforest there is so much to discover, so take your time to explore the beauty of this off the beaten path landscape. Often the most unexpected places leave a lasting memory.

Walking to the beach in Rio Mar
Walking to the beach in Rio Mar

 

 

The 7 Best Things to do in Paris

Paris is a huge city with so many things to see and do. From the must sees to hidden gems, here is list of things to add to your list while in the City of Lights.

Has there ever been a city that you always dreamed of visiting, but hadn’t had the chance yet? Silly as it may sound, Paris was that city for me. Before I knew it, within a year, I had visited the City of Lights (although I prefer City of Love) 3 times and at very different times of the year! Each time I got a different glimpse of the city and became more comfortable with exploring the city’s corners.

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I could stare at you forever!

Here are 7 things to do in Paris that any tourist, whether it’s their first or 5th visit, shouldn’t miss!

Walk along the Seine

You must take a stroll along the River Seine to experience Paris from what I think is the heart of the city, as well as to see a majority of its iconic landmarks. You can walk from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre or even Notre Dame. Paris is bigger than you think, so be sure to wear comfortable footwear! If you don’t feel like walking, there are plenty of options, as Paris has a great ride share system. Try to download the app Lime before you get to Paris so if you see an e-bike or e-scooter randomly lying around, feel free to pick it up and ride around the city for as long as you’d like. I went for about 9 km on an e-scooter and it was such a fun way to get from one end of the city to the next. Enjoy a ride along the Seine and stop at the various bars that line the river to recharge and act like a local.

Picnic on the Champ de Mars

For as long as I can remember, grabbing a baguette, some cheese, and a bottle of wine and finding a nice spot on the green lawn of Champ de Mars, has always been on my bucket list. Staring up in amazement at the Eiffel Tower never gets old for me, and I’m sure picnicking in front of her won’t either. So find a boulangerie, buy something delicious to snack on and a drink, and spend an hour people watching and relaxing in the best place in Paris.

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Bucket list item checked off!

Climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower

The next best thing after a picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower is actually being on top of the Eiffel Tower. You can purchase tickets ahead of time, but it’s not necessary. I would highly recommend walking up as far as you can go rather than taking the elevator. You can only go so far up the stairs before having to the take the elevator to the 3rd platform. So, if you aren’t afraid of heights, walking up roughly 700 stairs gazing at the metal that holds up this massive structure is mind blowing. Once you get to the top it will have been worth it, as you’ll be able to have a panoramic view of the great expansion of the city which is absolutely beautiful.

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View from the top of Eiffel Tower

Climb to the top of Arc de Triomphe

The Arc de Triomphe is also very impressive. It is hard not to stare at the craziness of the traffic in the roundabout all the way to the architecture of the Arc. The grandeur of the structure is even more impressive the closer you get. It may not be obvious, but it is possible to climb the 284 steps to the top and be in the center of the roundabout’s star. From the top you can peer down at the many avenues including Champs-Élysées and have a great view of the Eiffel Tower. No matter where you stand in Paris, the magic of Paris is never too far!

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Visit the Museums

There are so many different types of museums to choose from in this city. From the classic artists to the modern styles there is something for everyone. Of course, no trip to Paris is complete without visiting the Louvre. If you’re only there to see the Mona Lisa, then grab a map and follow the signs, but don’t forget to let yourself be curious about the other rooms in this massive palace. From the Louvre, it’s an easy walk over the Ponte des Arts to visit Musée d’Orsay. The building itself used to be the old train station, so take a moment to gaze up at the enormous clock that adorns the front of the building. Musée d’Orsay is one of the largest museums in Europe and holds the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist artists. So be sure not to leave it off your list!

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Grand Palais which has a multitude of various exhibitions throughout the year and Petite Palais which is the museum of Fine Arts.
Workshop of Lights is the most unique exhibit I’ve ever been to. Submerge yourself inside of the paintings as you sit, watch, and listen as artwork moves across the walls from floor to ceiling. This is a MUST!
Louis Vuitton Foundation is nestled in the largest park of Paris, Bois de Boulogne. Its glass structure is very unique just as the art found inside. There is also an intimate concert hall, so check out the list of concerts that may be performing while you’re there.

Stroll through Montmartre

Every section of Paris has something unique about it. I find Montmartre to be one that is charming and artistic. Everywhere you look you will find an adorable shop filled with local artists and local designers. This area makes for some great souvenirs, especially along the main drag in front of Sacre Coeur. My favorite aspect of this area was the block next to Sacre Coeur where a number of local artists set up their easels and just paint away. Each one has their own unique style from either classic art to textured looks that give the canvas another dimension.

img_4077Travel tip: visit this area during the off season as there is wall to wall people in the summer and not as enjoyable strolling around the market and streets.

Go on a Hunt for Rue Crémieux

This hidden gem is in the 12th arrondissement and will be the most colorful street you’ll visit in Paris. On Rue Crémieux you will find brightly colored home fronts that are sure to put a smile on anyone’s day. It’s not a very long street, but the rainbow of colors is what makes it so unique. From pink, to green, to purple, you’ll find every color under the rainbow. Since this is still a hidden gem, there aren’t too many tourists who venture this way, which is probably good for the locals who actually live here.

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There is so much to see and do in Paris that you can’t go wrong no matter what corner you visit. Paris is all about getting lost. You won’t go a day without finding new streets that will fill your curiosity, that will coax you into eating buttery croissants, and gazing at the beauty of the Eiffel Tower at any given moment.

Bon Voyage!

The Magic of Thailand in 10 days

Thailand is on everyone’s bucket list. Whether in Bangkok or Phuket, here are some of the must do activities while spending at least 10 days in this beautiful country.

When you think of Thailand, you most likely think of pristine white beaches with clear blue waters, delicious food, and elephants…and that’s exactly what you will get!

Thailand had been on my travel wish list for some time and I finally managed to get there on a cultural yoga retreat. In 2017 I joined a yoga studio and got to know one of the instructors, Michelle Ruiz, really well. We both shared a love for travel and lucky for me, she had decided to organize a 10 day retreat to Thailand. She was eager to share one of her favorite spots of the world with her yoga tribe.

I think the most daunting thing about traveling to Asia is the length of flight time just to get there, but once you’re there it is all worth it.

Use Bangkok as a Pit Stop!

Bangkok is a great starting point to get your body adjusted to the new time change and to stretch your legs for a couple days. It’s a bustling city with skyscrapers and mega malls, but don’t be fooled with all the big city vibes as you can still visit the many temples Bangkok has to offer.

Hotel

I stayed at the ultra-lux Marriott Sukhumvit hotel in the heart of the city. The hotel is beautiful and in a great location, has a pool overlooking the city, and a breakfast buffet that is delectable with a variety of local fruits and daily juices to jump start your morning. There is a metro stop in walking distance, amazing massage parlors right around the corner (and basically everywhere you turn), and great shopping near by.

Spa

If you’re looking to stretch out your muscles from the long journey, then walk no further than 200 meters from the hotel to Asia Herb. You will experience a top notch Thai massage with essential oils of your preference and for any length of time you desire. A true reinvigorating experience.

The Sights

There are many temples or Wats all over the city. The easiest way to see them is probably by booking a packaged tour, like our small group did. The tour lasted for at approximately 6 hours of the day, but included lunch in Chinatown. If you don’t like the idea of being tied down to a schedule for 6 hours, then a group tour isn’t for you. I have included 3 must see temples to visit in case you decide to venture on your own.

Wat Arun – This wat is one of Bangkok’s most well known landmarks and can be easily accessed by a boat or ferry. It is situated on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River which means it catches the sun’s first rays in the morning which reflects off the pearly white facade of the temple. While walking around the wat, you will see meticulously painted porcelain that adorns the spires with all sorts of figures and designs.

Wat Pho – Also known as Temple of the Reclining Buddha, this wat has the largest collection of buddha images and statues. If you’re into yoga don’t be afraid to document your skills alongside any statues! You will also find the Reclining Buddha, which is nearly 151 ft long (46 m) and the largest there is in Thailand. Once you come around its 14 ft long feet, you’ll notice 108 bronze bowls lining the wall on your way out. It is believed that anyone who drops 1 coin in each bowl will receive good fortune.

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Largest Buddha in Thailand

Grand Palace – Not too far from Wat Pho, you can visit the Grand Palace known for housing the Emerald Buddha. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist Temple in Thailand. You may envision this Buddha to be impressive and somewhat of a large structure, but it is roughly 2 ft tall and carved from a single jade stone. An interesting tradition is that the King of Thailand changes the Emerald Buddha’s robes three times a year, depending on the season – summer, winter, and rainy seasons.

Erawan Shrine – This shrine is right in the heart of Bangkok and directly off of a busy intersection near a shopping area. Despite its hectic location, there are countless people who come to worship at the shrine and hope that their prayers will be answered. Don’t hesitate to buy a ring of flowers to lay at the base of the shrine and ask for a wish to come true! There are also traditional Thai dancers who people pay a little extra for, in order to hope their prayer will be answered. What do you have to lose?! Delve into the culture and enjoy the journey…

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Octave Lounge & Bar – If you want a view of the city at sunset go to the Octave Bar. You will get a 360 degree panoramic view of the city and its hustling streets. As the sun sets and the lights of the city turn on, enjoy a beverage or a bite to eat while being on top of the city. Lucky for me, it was conveniently situated at the top of the Marriott Sukhumvit Hotel, so I didn’t have far to go.

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View of Bangkok from the Octave Lounge

After a couple of days taking in the sights and sounds of Bangkok, you’ll be ready for a more relaxing scene. What better place to relax than at the beach! So head south to Phuket for more culture and even more beauty.

Take me to the Beach!

Getting there

There are direct in country flights from Bangkok to Phuket. The flight is about an hour long and will cost you under $100 roundtrip. If your hotel doesn’t provide transportation from the airport once you land, I would try to arrange something before you get there. If not, you won’t be stranded as there are people willing to pick up an extra ride. Just be aware, taxi services in Phuket can be pricey!

Where to stay

This really depends on the type of vacation you are looking for. If you are looking to be in the middle of it all with activities and parties day and night then Patong Beach is the area for you. If you are looking to stay on the beach, but have the more relaxing vibes surround you, then the boutique hotels around Cape Panwa is the spot to be.

I stayed at My Beach Resort and had a view of Big Buddha, a private pool, and an amazing sunset overlooking the bay for 5 whole days. The staff was so hospitable and had an array of wonderful food for breakfast and dinner. There was nothing better than watching the sky turn into a kaleidoscope of pinks, oranges, and purples while staring up at Big Buddha from his mountain top while sitting on the beach or poolside.

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Private pool off of My Beach Hotel room

Spa Treatments

You don’t have to go far to search for a great quality massage. Within a 5 minute walk from the hotel there are multiple spas to choose from. My favorite was Chill Spa which was family operated. Staying in Phuket for a few days you can try a new massage every day. Go for a 90 minute full body massage one day, then the next do an hour long foot massage. No matter what you choose, the only thing you’ll regret is not being able to do the massages back home as often. Besides feeling absolutely amazing, the Thai family running the spa were the happiest and friendliest people. While getting a foot massage a couple of the ladies began talking to me and we tried to carry on a conversation for a good 30 minutes with lots of hand gestures and smiles. After our friendly conversation, they decided to make me some tea and offered me some fresh lychee (which are my favorite) and mango to snack on, all while still getting pampered. I felt like I was a part of their family by the time I left.

What to see and do

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Wat Chalong – The first thing you notice about Wat Chalong is how vibrant the reds andgolds are. As you enter the main temple building where 3 buddha statues sit, the first thing you notice is how gold they are. The tradition is to add to the plethora of gold leaves covering the statues, while respectfully visiting the temple. It is said, that while you place a gold leaf on the buddha and make a wish, your wish will come true. If it comes true, you must come back to the temple to set off firecrackers as a way to say thank you to Buddha. It is very common to hear multiple firecrackers going off while there, so it must be true!

img_3786Big Buddha – Sitting at roughly 147 feet tall, Big Buddha offers panoramic views and sweeping vistas of the island. As you get closer to the statue, you marvel at its grandiosity and peacefulness at the top. The statue is layered with beautiful white jade marble that sparkles in the sun. While walking around you will hear birds chirping and the sounds of thousands of thin gold leaves acting as wind chimes as the wind passes through them. Each gold leaf is left by a visitor who writes a message on the leaf in hopes that the good spirit of the Buddhists who live in the temple and the winds will bring peace and gratitude.

Elephant Sanctuary – If you have ever wanted to play with elephants for a day in their (somewhat) natural habitat then this is the place for you! You can decide to do a morning or afternoon visit, but I feel a morning visit is the best time to go as they are nice and hungry after their night’s slumber. The nice thing is that the sanctuary will arrange a pick-up time for you from your hotel so all you have to worry about is remembering your camera and bathing suit.

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Elephant greeting as you arrive

As soon as you arrive, you are bound to run into a couple elephants greeting you at the entrance and just begging you to feed them. Don’t be afraid to hop in there and pick up a sugar cane that is on the ground to offer them. You may even get a nice elephant trunk kiss at the same time! Watching them maneuver their trunks to pick things up and search for things on the ground is mesmerizing. After a brief introduction and setting of rules, visitors are asked to bring buckets of bananas, corn, and watermelon up to where the gentle giants are waiting patiently. Take advantage of their gentleness and give them hugs and kisses as much as they will let you. If you’re lucky enough, you may even be able to play with a baby elephant who is still learning his rank and being quite mischievous.

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Up close and personal during feeding time

After feed time, it is mud bath time! The mud is thick, squishy, and somewhat slimy, but if you don’t get in there, then the Thai workers will playfully force you in by plastering mud all over your back when you’re not looking! Once you get over the unusual feeling of being covered in mud, rubbing it all over the elephants’ tough leathery skin is so much fun. But the fun doesn’t stop with the mud, because it has to come off; so off to the watering hole we all go. This doesn’t only allow you the opportunity to get slightly cleaner, but you get to be in the water while the elephants roll and swim in pure joy. You get the opportunity to be at their eye level and to the point where you could practically lay on their back. Just be aware of their feet under the muddy waters. Someone did get stepped on by an elephant foot and did a little damage to a toe…but what a great story for when you get home!?

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Giving the ellies a nice mud bath
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Cleaning off the mud in the swimming hole

The entire experience of spending time with these gorgeous creatures gives you a glimpse into how smart and gentle they really are. If you are an animal lover this will be an experience you will never forget.

Old Phuket Town – Another area rich in history is Old Phuket Town where you will see a European, specifically Portuguese, influence in the architecture throughout the streets. History tells of Europeans who were invited to the area, as it used to be an old tin-mining country. Most of the buildings now have been transformed into shops, restaurants, and hotels/hostels so there is plenty to see while walking the streets. You can’t go wrong with any Thai dish, but don’t forget to eat as much sticky rice with mango as possible!

Phi Phi Islands – Last but not least, you can’t visit Phuket without spending at least 1 day (try to do 2-3 if possible) island hopping around the Phi Phi Islands. It’ll take about an hour to get to your first stop, so find a good spot on the boat and just gaze at the towering limestone mountains that seem to sprout from the water all around you. You will have multiple stops throughout your day to include snorkeling, Maya Bay, where The Beach was filmed, Monkey Island, some caves where Vikings left their mark, and more. My personal favorite spot was snorkeling among the colorful ocean fish and creatures, and walking along the white powdery beaches. Spend as much time snorkeling and don’t be afraid to wander from the boat…you never know what you may come across. Underwater you will see vibrant schools of fish, and coral of all colors; and if you’re lucky maybe you’ll even spot some clown fish or Nemos as one of the guides shouted out! The water is the clearest of blues and aqua greens I have ever seen. Pair the emerald waters with the pearly white beach and you have an image of a beach from your dreams. At each stop, be sure to take the time to really soak up your surroundings and the beauty of nature. It’s not everyday you get to wade in water and lie on beaches that are as incredibly beautiful as these.

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Soaking up the sun and salt of Phi Phi Islands
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Aqua blue water everywhere you look

The hospitality of the Thai people, the rich culture, and the natural beauty of Thailand is the reason for this country to be a top travel destination. I was lucky to end my trip to Thailand with a yoga session overlooking the majestic bay from the My Beach Resort, and it is one vinyasa I will not soon forget. Michelle Ruiz, our travel and yogi guide, offered a deep stretch and a mindfulness yoga practice in a lounge that had glass doors fully open to the outside elements and fresh breeze coming through. In the distance, a rain cloud was slowly approaching and the temperature quickly dropped a few degrees. Then just like that…it began pouring. Despite the gentle rain, my warrior poses stayed strong. It wasn’t until the end of our yoga session, while in savasana, that I was fully drenched. The raindrops soaked my entire body and while in my state of gratitude I took this as a sign that Thailand was thanking me for the visit and asking me to return soon.

Savansana

Kob-khun ka – Thank you!

Christmas in Copenhagan

Christmas markets galore! Wander through the wide array of Christmas Markets in Copenhagen.

Europe is filled with wonder and adventure all throughout the year; however, during Christmas time, Europe turns into a winter wonderland and is…oh so dreamy. Germany and France typically top the Christmas market charts every year, but Copenhagen is one that tends to be overlooked.

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Wandering the Streets in Copenhagan

How to get around

Upon arriving at Copenhagen airport, the easiest way to get to the city center is via train. The train system is very easy to use and a great way to get to the city center and also to the outside of the city to see more of the countryside including the wide array of castles Denmark has to offer.

Copenhagen is a very walkable city, but don’t hesitate to hop on a bike to explore the city like a local. Most of in the inner-city streets are blocked off to cars which makes strolling down the cobblestone streets while you window shop or take in the meticulous architecture of the buildings easy.

Where to stay

I stayed at the 4 star Copenhagen Admiral Hotel which was neighbored the Royal Palace and was just a few blocks from the colorful Nyhavn. The building itself was converted from an 18th century warehouse and seems to have retained the large wooden beams within the rooms in order to retain some of its historical intrigue.

Despite the many wonderful hotels Copenhagen has to offer in the city center, don’t forget to check out Airbnb if you want to live like a local. New to Airbnb? Here’s $40 off your first rental!

Christmas Markets

1. Nyhavn

Nyhavn is an absolute must. Besides walking among the most colorful buildings of Copenhagen, the street is lined with lights as far as the eye can see. All along the canal there are stalls set up filled with all sorts of different ornaments and trinkets to take home. If you get the munchies or get too cold, don’t forget to stop by one of the stalls where you can try Glogg or Danish rice porridge. These will surely warm you right up from the bitter cold.

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Enjoying the magic of Nyhavn

Open from November 9th – December 23rd

2. Hans Christian Andersen Market

Take a step back into your childhood memories of the stories of “The Little Mermaid”, “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Snow Queen”, and many others while walking through the Hans Christian Andersen Market located in Nytorv Square. Each stall is named after one of his well known fairy tales, there is a majestic carousel for the kids, and of course Santa. Walking through this market will spark your imagination as you fill up on more mulled wine and hot chocolate.

Open from November 16th – December 21st

3. Freetown Christiania

Besides the Christmas market, Freetown Christiania is a unique experience in itself. The area and the market are unconventional, but provide an abundance of intrigue and sometimes even bewilderment. Along the street walls you will see a multitude of street art that brightens up the town, but gives it its character. While walking among the stalls, take in the unique handmade items, while also talking in the scented ambiance of the market.

Open from December 8th-20th

4. Kongens Nytorv

Not far from Nyhavn, wander to the Christmas stalls of Kongens Nytorv in the heart of the city where you will get the best views of the traditional Christmas decorations and lights on the Hotel D’Angleterre and the Magasin department store.

Magasin Department Store from Kongens Nytorv
Magasin Department Store from Kongens Nytorv

Open from November 16th – December 22nd

5. Tivoli Gardens

Perhaps the most festive and best Christmas market of them all is at Tivoli Gardens. It has remained tradition to turn these gardens into a true winter wonderland filled with rides, wooden houses, life size trains, Christmas trees of all sizes and decorations, snow filled areas, sleighs, and so much more. It is as if you have been transported to the North Pole where all your Christmas dreams come true!

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Warming up next to a coal fire
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Tivoli and it’s lights

Open from November 17th – December 31st

You won’t regret adding Copenhagen to your Christmas Market destination list. There’s so much for the senses and one’s imagination, but just be sure you check out the dates of the markets so you don’t miss out on anything!

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Drinking Glogg on a cold day

Skål!

 

Roamin’ Around Tuscany

Italy has a lot of amazing places to visit, but Tuscany is in a league of its own. Here is a road map of some must see cities and towns to visit while you explore this gorgeous region.

When most people think of Italy, they tend to think of pizza, pasta, vino, and of course the many landmarks from the canals of Venice to the colosseum in Rome. For me, there is no better place than the rolling views and sunsets of Tuscany. I may be biased since I was born in Pisa, but every time I return, I find more hidden gems all throughout this region.

Visiting the larger cities allows you to capture the rich history of Tuscany, but the beauty of Tuscany lies in its small towns on your way from one city to the next. I’ve put together a little road map to get you started on your trip throughout Tuscany.

Map of Tuscany
(All time allotments are driving times from Vicopisano)

Where to start? Vicopisano!

A short 30 minute drive east of Pisa you will find the adorable little medieval town of Vicopisano. I would recommend that you stay here while spending a few days (or weeks even) exploring Tuscany. It is a quiet town with lots to do from hiking, wine and olive oil tasting, cooking classes, and tons of markets on the weekends. You can find the most authentic, chic, and charismatic rooms or even houses to stay in that makes it feel like you are returning home after a day of exploring. Stay in a tower house at Casa Colomba or the little 1 bedroom studio at Nido Bianco – you can’t go wrong! During your stay in Vico, learn about the history of its once many towers and the ancient books that still remain in the tower house or take a stroll in the Tuscan countryside as you pass cyprus trees and poppy flowers.

View of Vicopisano
View of Vicopisano from winery and olive oil makers

Iconic Pisa

(25 min drive)

Pisa is a quaint city with the river Arno flowing through it dividing the city into east and west. On the west side lies Miracle Square or Piazza dei Miracoli. Imagine walking under a thick century old stone wall where on the other side you encounter an immense pearly white marble tower (that just so happens to lean), with lush green grass and a massive marble cathedral – it will appear as if you have stepped into a painting. The square, especially the tower, never ceases to amaze me. The grandeur of the white marble is something that takes you by surprise. You cannot leave Pisa without attempting to find the perfect place in this grand square to take your perfect picture with the leaning tower to make everyone back home jealous. Get creative with it!

Leaning Tower of Pisa
What kind of iconic picture can you take?

If you want to wander the city to get a different vibe, walk along the Arno and see where the locals hang out. If you’re lucky enough to plan around it, visit Pisa in June during the Luminara di San Ranieri (June 16-18) to see a century old tradition where every bridge and building along the river is lit up for 2 days by candlelight. It is an evening that you will not forget!

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Luminara di San Ranieri along the Arno

Head to the beach – Marina di Pisa

(35 min)

You can’t go wrong with the food in Italy, but for some of the best seafood, head to Marina di Pisa. This is a must for some delectably fresh seafood caught that day. Remember Italy is all about the food, so before you dive into the platters of calamari and anchovies…yes anchovies, head to Sunset Cafe to watch the sunset over the horizon while you enjoy an aperitif and nibbles. Sit on bamboo mats on the sand and watch the golds, pinks, and oranges paint the sky that lead you into the evening.

Bike around Pisa’s old medieval rival, Lucca

(40 min)

Meet Pisa’s medieval rival – Lucca. The unshakable solid wall that once used to protect the city against invaders still stands and provides visitors an above view of the city if one chooses to walk or bike around it – which I highly recommend. Besides the beauty of the trees that line the path and listening to Italians carry on conversations as you pass, the beauty also lies with the city itself. From the red roofed houses to cathedral towers to gardens sprinkled throughout the city, you get a glimpse of how life may have been centuries ago. Once you have biked around the walled city, you have earned yourself a plate of pasta. Venture to the city center square, Piazza dell’Anfiteartro. You will enter through one of four gateways that leads you into the square, actually elliptical in shape, which is surrounded by a ring of buildings that once used to be an old Roman Amphitheatre – an enchanting backdrop while eating a lovely Italian meal in the open piazza.

Biking along the wall in Lucca
Biking along the wall in Lucca

Visit some of the most famous landmarks and paintings in Firenze

(1 hour)

No trip to Tuscany would be complete without a visit to the dynamic city of Florence; a major city during the Medici family years. You can take a walking tour of the city that gives you insight to buildings and secret passageways that the family once used to travel unbeknownst to the people and artisans along the Ponte Vecchio. While on Ponte Vecchio stroll by the stalls to gaze at the ornate gold jewelry and lavish gems that line the bridge. Wander and get lost in The Uffizi museum to witness the masterful paintings of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and so many more. The building itself, once a palace, is its own art piece from floor to ceiling. One important statue that is not located inside the Uffizi is the statue of David – perhaps the most famous statue in the world. You can first marvel at this statue just outside of the Uffizi in the piazza; just be aware this not the original David. The real statue is safe in another museum, Galleria dell’Accademia, protected from the elements.

Piazzale Michelangelo
View from Piazzale Michelangelo

Perhaps one of the best views of this city, the center of the Renaissance age, is from the Piazzale Michelangelo, where you can see the Duomo and all the red terracotta roofs that surround it. Best to take this in at sunset, as Italy has some of the most beautiful and divine sunsets I have ever seen.

Walk back in time in Siena

(1 hour and 40 min)

One of my favorite spots to visit is Siena. There is something unique and different about it compared to its neighbor, Florence. No matter which road you take, all roads lead to the Piazza del Campo. This is the famous square where The Palio occurs every year on July 2nd and August 16th. Most of the year you will find the Piazza to be a quiet open space to grab a cappuccino or a pizza and people watch. On the days of the Palio, it is transformed into a medieval race track with sand, as horses race around the square to determine which neighborhood wins the victory bragging rights for the rest of the year. Each neighborhood is represented by a mascot and a distinctive flag, so as you wander the streets of Siena you will see all sorts of mascot memorabilia for sale. What better way to become a part of the festivities than finding the mascot that speaks to you and join in on the fun!

Castellina Chianti

(1 hour and 20 min)

Besides Vicopisano, Castellina is probably the smallest town on this list, but well worth the visit. It’s a sleepy town filled with store fronts selling genuine leather purses and belts, authentic wood cutting boards, and much more. There are unsuspecting tunnels that you can stroll through to go from one end of the town to the other, a museum in a castle, and a church with an early 15th century fresco of Madonna with Child. It’s so small that you can easily combine this visit with Siena while you treat yourself to yet another deliciously creamy gelato.

Visit Roman Ruins in Volterra

(1 hour)

This is my most recent find and one that I would like to explore further. Volterra sits upon a mountaintop and overlooks the wide expanse of the countryside below. It is a city that dates back to 7th century BC and still has evidence of Roman influence from the Roman Theatre ruins and Parco Archeologico. The Roman Theatre is a spectacle in itself as you can still see several rows of seating that lie against the hill for people to watch and listen to music or theatre, while the park still has water basins that look like tubs strewn along various parts of the green lawn. Be sure to bring quality footwear, as there are many steep hills you may be venturing over.

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Walking into Volterra

Stroll through the city of towers – San Gimignano

(1 hour and 10 min)

All medieval cities once had a variety of towers to keep the city safe, but due to war or simply urban renewal, many towers have been destroyed over time. Luckily, San Gimignano has been able to safeguard 14 of their towers; hence, its nickname of the City of Towers. Despite the fact that the town is a busy tourist attraction, you can still witness many locals living their day to day life. You will see their laundry hanging to dry or old men sitting on a doorstep together enjoying an espresso and probably talking about the most recent soccer match. I do recommend arriving in town as early as possible though, because once the afternoon arrives, so do all the tour buses. Luckily there are some hidden streets not ventured by many, so you can still get away from the crowds if you’re willing to get lost in adventure a bit. Besides eating at the Gelateria Dondoli which has the claim to fame for having the “Best Gelato in the World” in Piazza della Cisterna, a must see spot is Punto Panoramaico to gaze out over a classic Tuscan view and to watch the sun slowly rise or set over the towers.

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Looking out upon the Tuscan countryside from Punto Panoramaico
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Laundry in San Gimignano

There is so much to discover in Tuscany that one trip won’t ever be enough. Whether you have a home base, like in Vicopisano, or if you take up a new apartment every few days, the memories and beauty of Tuscany will never fade; if anything, they will only have you coming back for more.

Buon Viaggio!