The First 6 Months of 2020

An open letter to the first 6 months of 2020 and a reminder of where we started and where we are now. With Coronavirus and Civil Rights protests, this year has tested us in more ways than we thought possible.

Dear 2020, 

We are halfway into you, and what a year you have been. You’ve hit us with a global pandemic, a major recession, civil unrest, and constant protests. This year hasn’t all been bad, but it is a year that has already etched itself into the minds of so many. The stories that people will tell will be passed on for generations and the lessons we have learned will hopefully continue to make us a better global society. If ever there was a time for Mother Nature and the power of the people to take control, this was the year. 

January started with a seemingly distant health threat, that no one could have imagined the consequences or magnitude it would have on us, not just as Americans, but the World. Month by month, the Coronavirus, aka Covid-19, seeped into our lives and forced us into a new normal. It is now the end of June and it appears that we still do not have control of Covid’s first wave as the number of cases continues to rise due to the fast reopening of many States – perhaps we never did. 

COVID stats 6/28
**As of June 28 7:20pm

By March, Coronavirus took over the World. At first travel was limited for anyone going to or from China, and then eventually like a domino effect, there was no travel period. Any and all flights for the near future were cancelled and rebooked for a later date or given a travel voucher. Northern Italy was the epicenter for Europe. In the States, New York City was being hit the hardest; cases skyrocketed due to the city’s density of people. First, it was travel that was taken away from us, followed by the closing of just about every business, school, park, restaurant, and bar. From state to state, the rules were at times contrasting, but the main message everyone understood was to take this seriously. Stay home, social distance, and wash your hands. 

Our lives came to a screeching halt the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, as the invisible threat of Covid was finally in our backyard and finally feeling real. The number of cases in the States, especially Florida, were rising quickly. It was finally here, and now it was our turn to see how well we dealt with this invisible monster. We isolated ourselves from everything and found our new normal as the months rolled along. 

The new normal was different for everyone – businesses transitioned to working from home and students learned remotely as schools were closed for the remainder of the school year. The role of parents extended past normal parenting responsibilities to include being the teacher at home along with completing regular work tasks. People were tired, frustrated, and anxious of the unknown future.  But we adapted. Not everyone was lucky enough to work remotely. For many, their jobs were known as “essential” which made them more exposed to the virus, but many millions were laid-off or furloughed as businesses were stuck in limbo. No work meant no money coming in, which just added to the stress.

With life on hold for everyone, Mother Nature began healing herself from the way we humans have treated her. The waterways in Venice returned to their aqua blue hue as dolphins were seen playing among the canals; animals boldly wandered empty cities and parks around the world from Japan to Kruger National Park; and smog lifted due to the lack of vehicles on the road to reveal blue skies in India along with monuments once hidden behind thick smog. Without humans going about their normal lives, Nature could finally breathe again.

Before and after of a monument in India as smog has lifted

Oh and there’s also a possible wave of Murder Hornets in the Pacific North West, which could have drastic consequences on our own bee population and in turn our environment. The verdict is still out on their scale of damage thus far, however.

Size comparison of the Murder Hornet (top) and the Western honeybee (bottom)

There are several positives that Coronavirus has brought on us. People as a whole have learned to slow down. We have spent more time talking with loved ones. We have reconnected with friends near and far. We have learned the art of baking bread and experimented with new recipes. We have picked up and even finished books that once laid on shelves forgotten and unread. We have been more creative when it comes to being social – Thank you, Zoom. We have even remembered what it was like to spend time outdoors riding bikes. Although Covid has altered the lives of so many, it has also brought families closer. 

Overall, I’d have to say the shutdown due to Covid has not been terrible, but it definitely weighs on you. Besides the lack of social freedom, there’s a constant worry. Do I feel sick? Have I lost my sense of taste or smell? Do I have shortness of breath? Make sure to not breathe for 5 seconds as I pass this person. Am I 6 feet apart from this person? Why isn’t this person going around me or wearing a mask? This person just coughed, do they have Covid? The questions and worry never fade. And probably never will until there’s a vaccine. 

Set of Different Types of Masks
Different masks we can wear while in public

Our lives had been turned upside down and our movements restricted like nothing we could ever imagine. Yes, it wasn’t all bad, but no one knew how much social distancing due to Coronavirus would affect society as a whole. 

Fast forward to Memorial Day weekend. Some States, including Florida, who have not seen the type of Covid numbers NYC had seen, reopened in phases as beaches, restaurants, and small businesses welcomed patrons back. The hope was to spur the economy to prevent an even worse recession; but at what cost? The risk of contracting Covid was and still is real. It had not disappeared, yet people acted as if it had. And that was the scary part. 

People have been stuck inside for 2 months, if not more at this point. I understand the frustration and people feeling stir crazy. I understand small businesses wanting to reopen to ensure their livelihood is not lost. I also understand people continue to have bills and rent to pay, yet have not had a paycheck. Life has just gotten more complicated. There’s a virus, millions of people have lost their jobs, everyone is stuck indoors, and there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel. Sounds bad, right? Well, all this only acted as fuel for what’s next. 

George Floyd. Protests. Black Lives Matter. 

Meet the artists behind the Black Lives Matter artwork on ...

For 4 weeks there have been national, and even global, protests over the killing of George Floyd by 4 police officers in Minneapolis. For 4 weeks, we have seen people of all color, race, gender, age, religion, socio-economic background, take to the streets to fight for the civil rights that were fought for back in the 1960s. Like any movement, there were some riots and looting, but that was overshadowed by the enormous peaceful crowds that gathered to stand up, and often kneel, for what is right and just. The compounding of social distancing and the loss of jobs due to Covid did not help the situation, but only made people more impassioned to gather together in solidarity despite the virus. It was like a trifecta. 

The 4 weeks since the killing, the protests have yet to let up. Thousands continue to pour into the streets, peacefully protest calling for change in policing, and even call out to “defund the police.” The name sounds misleading, but it’s just meant to spread the funds that police are granted to social organizations in cities to help with certain matters that go beyond the role of the police. It is evident that true movement and change is happening. Many cities across the country painted 20 foot wide “BLACK LIVES MATTER” across streets, laws are being discussed and instituted, and talks at the local level are already taking place to ensure policing practices are changed. It will continue to take years to get to where we should be, but we must start somewhere.  

The killing of George Floyd opened the eyes of many to see the injustice and prejudice that people of color (POC) have had to undergo for centuries. Corrupt and prejudiced actions of those in power, whether local, state, or federal, should not be tolerated and should be held accountable. Covid made our lives slow down, and these protests made people, especially white people, truly listen to stories of POC and what they have had to live with since birth. This movement united us and sparked the desire for true equality for all. 

With LGBT ruling, Supreme Court hands liberals a surprise victory ...
Supreme Court favorable vote on LGBT rights

Amidst the protests, there was some good news to come out of Washington. First, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 vote that gay and transgender individuals cannot be discriminated against, especially in the work place. Secondly, in a 5-4 vote they declared DACA is constitutional and those brought here at a young age would not be deported. This is the year 2020, and we still do not all agree that everyone in this country is equal no matter who they love, their race, or even their gender. Two wins down, now onto the next one! 

Don't count on the Senate to save Dreamers from SCOTUS - POLITICO
Supreme Court Favorable vote on DACA


This brings us to the present day and half of 2020 still ahead of us. The fears of Covid are still high, if not rising exponentially, protests will remain a constant I believe for more weeks to come, Murder Hornets may return, and in November we vote for president and hopefully true change with real leadership. I don’t know which half of the year will be more monumental, but one can only hope for brighter days ahead. 

2020, you have tested us in various ways, but we will continue to be resilient. Your first 6 months have been filled with Covid and protests, so I can’t wait to see what you throw at us these last 6 months. 

For now, countries remain closed off to Americans, so that just means it is time to explore our own country and give back to local communities and businesses. So to kick off the start of the second half of the year and the July Fourth holiday, Justin and I will be getting away from it all and taking a week road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains to camp, hike, and explore new surroundings. 

Will write to you again in December!

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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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!