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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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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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.

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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!

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!

Luminara di San Ranieri
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!

Road Trip Around Ireland

My first trip without friends and family was with an organized group called Contiki, to the enchanted island of Ireland. This couldn’t have been a better first trip to do on my own. I loved it so much that I want to go back and explore more of the western side of the island. Besides the beauty of the green countryside and the jagged shorelines, the Irish people are what makes the adventure to this little island in the northern Atlantic so memorable. The Irish are the wittiest, funniest, and most genuine people I’ve ever met. If you end up sitting next to someone at a pub, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with them. Even better yet, if you find a pub that has live music, don’t be afraid to get up and dance the night away!

Why Contiki?

Contiki is a great organization for travelers, ages 18-35. Their trips incorporate culture, adventure, downtime, and plenty of wiggle room for those who want to venture out on their own. The best part of using an organization such as Contiki is that the planning of the trip is entirely done for you, so no need to think of where to go, how to get there, what type of activities to do, etc. Just buy your plane ticket and show up! Their trips show you the best of what the country has to offer, at a relatively decent price for young travelers. Along the way you meet like minded people from all over the world, with whom you form a bond with over the span of your trip and sometimes even beyond. So if you are nervous about traveling overseas either by yourself or with friends, then check out what Contiki has to offer because once you do it once, you’ll want to go back for seconds!

Vibrant Dublin

Arriving in Dublin was definitely a whirlwind. Going from the United States to Europe, you always end up losing a day of sleep since you get to your destination so early, but don’t let this stop you from exploring. Despite how tired I was, I couldn’t contain my excitement about finally being there; so I pushed through as long as I could without any rest…which was probably way too long, but…YOLO right?!

Dublin is vibrant with a mix of old and new architecture and so much history. My first stop was Temple Bar. It is actually more amazing than pictures can show. The bright red paint makes it stand out from the rest of the store fronts, but it’s the flower plants and vegetation that gives it its true charm. I knew this would be a spot I’d be coming back to, particularly to try my first real Irish Guinness. While walking along the cobblestone streets, I stumbled upon Temple Bar Food Market that sold artisan breads, cheeses, olives, and so much more local and seasonal food items. It was adorable and had so much for the senses to take in. The presentation of the cheeses and olives, and the pastries were out of this world. I could have gone home with so much charcuterie and cheese, but chose some finger foods instead, as I continued to wander the brick-layed buildings and streets.

After restoring yourself with some local food, I recommend taking a stroll across Dublin’s first pedestrian bridge, Ha’penny Bridge; people watching in St. Stephen’s Green and searching for four-leaf clovers; walking the grounds of Trinity College and, if you’re lucky enough, visiting The Book of Kells Exhibition; and, finally, just taking in the entertainment and window shopping throughout Grafton Street.

Ha’penny Bridge
Ha’penny Bridge
Grafton Street Entertainment
Girl and her balloon being entertained

In the evening, Dublin is a completely different city. It comes alive with its music streaming out of every pub and jolly people enjoying pints (or half pints) of Guinness everywhere. Stroll down Dame Street to check out the local pubs before returning to Temple bar. The spirit of the Irish people fills the air and is so contagious that you will feel the energy on every street and in every person you pass. The best advice I can give for Dublin’s nightlife is to become a part of it; dance all night long, sing at the top of your lungs, and let loose like you’ve never let go before.

Must See Cities and Activities

Kilkenny was one of my favorite little spots on the trip. It is not a large town, but has a massive castle in the middle of town which now belongs to the people of Kilkenny. They are able to use the grounds as if it is their own, so you will see soccer games, birthday parties, and picnics all over the green lush rolling grounds. To see this small medieval town in its entirety, take a bike tour to learn about its history, ride along the river, and throughout the castle grounds.

Kilkenny Castle
Kilkenny Castle
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Grounds of Kilkenny Castle

Pucker up and head to Blarney! Blarney is known for a chunk of limestone rock that was embedded into the castle walls. Legend has it that whomever kisses the stone will acquire the gift of gab. Whether the gift of gab is bestowed upon you or not, walking the lush green grounds of the castle and seeing the vivid purples and reds of the flower blossoms makes the small trek up the castle well worth it.

No trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to the Cliffs of Moher. To really capture the magic of the cliffs, spend a few hours hiking the trails following the edge of the cliffs. If you’re lucky enough, the cliffs will be in clear view, but if they are hidden behind the thickness of fog, don’t fret. Patience is a virtue and it will reward you as eventually the thick white fog lifts and the cliffs will appear in front of you in all of their majestic beauty.

Just call me Galway girl. To me, Galway is by far the prettiest area and most authentic part of Ireland. Spend multiple days here if you choose to plan your own trip. You won’t regret it. Galway is a great homebase allowing you to explore the western side of Ireland. Do not forget to explore the adorable streets of Galway filled with cobblestones and multi-colored building facades. This is where you will hear the most “trad” Irish music no matter which street you are on….and if you request a street musician to play “Galway Girl”, don’t be surprised if they give you a confused look…yes I was that person!

A great day trip from Galway is to take a ferry over to Aran Islands to experience how life on these tiny islands is. Visit the largest of the islands called Inis Mór (Inishmore). The ferry ride isn’t always for the faint of heart as the waves over to the islands can make the ride quite choppy. So if you need your dramamine make sure to take it prior to boarding. The best way to see what the island has to offer, along with its rich archaeological history, is by bike. Close to the ferry drop off, one can rent a bike and grab some groceries to have a picnic at some point along the journey through and around the island. At the opposite end of Inishmore is the historic site of Dun Aonghasa. It is a three terraced walled fort that sits upon the 300 ft high cliffs. Archaeologists have done multiple excavations and discovered items from 1500 BC. The vistas from the top of the cliffs, as well as looking down the cliffs to the clear blue-green waters, are breathtakingly spectacular, albeit slightly unnerving. Along the path to these ancient ruins you will find smaller stone structures, horses and sheep, and fields upon fields neatly divided by hand-built stone walls that distinguish property lines.

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The thrill of sitting on the edge of the cliff

Time to cross the border into Northern Ireland to visit the UNESCO site of Giant’s Causeway. The red hexagonal rock columns jutting out from the ground is one that can’t be missed. As you walk along the marked path you will see all forms of rock structures that you can climb. At times these formations act as a staircase to the next rock. I highly recommend obtaining an audio device before starting your journey through this remarkable place. The audio will give you a glimpse into key rock formations that tell the tale of a giant. Fionn the giant is said to have built the causeway as a way to reach and challenge a giant in Scotland. So while you’re taking in the majesty of the causeway, pay close attention to the fable and keep an eye out for one of Fionn’s shoes.

The last stop on this whirlwind tour is Belfast and Londonderry. Besides being the home of “Game of Thrones”, Belfast has some rich history to include political and religious turmoil. Let us not forget that it is also the birthplace of the Titanic. The story of the Troubles can be experienced via a walking tour through the city to see murals and various architecture that represent people’s emotions and their stories. The walking tour will not only provide a visual of the stories of people affected between 1971-1998, but the story of the awful attack of Bloody Friday and how far the city has come since the Peace Process agreed by the two parties in 1998. The detailed stories will bring you back in time and allow you to experience the somber history.

Londonderry Murals
Londonderry Murals

But the value of the experience is recognizing that despite our differences, we as a human race are capable of overcoming such turmoil and unrest.

This tiny island made up of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has so much to offer and is rich in history. The Irish people are some of the best storytellers and have some of the best fun using all their musical talents. A trip to Ireland will provide a wide range of activities for all types of people. You will fall in love with this little piece of land and it will leave you a lasting memory. And if you are like me, you will leave wanting you to see more of what this green luscious land has to offer.

Sláinte!