Posted in Budget Tips, International Travel, Photos

Malta: A Destination for Backpackers, History Lovers, Cruisers, and Sun Worshippers.

Overlooking the bay off Comino Island

I’ve been to Malta twice now– once on a budget trip with friends, and the second time on a luxury cruise with my grandfather. Both experiences were incredible, although sipping champagne in a fancy bathrobe on my balcony while overlooking Valletta was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime moment I’ll never forget. (Thanks, Pop!)

Just a regular day for me.

Malta is an up-and-coming travel destination, but for now, it’s not overrun by tourists. Unlike many hot Europe destinations, there are a lot of the things to see and do that don’t require a ticket! For the ones that do, they’re unlikely to sell out before you show up (looking at you, Sistine Chapel).

On my first visit, we stayed in Sliema, which is on the modern side of things in relation to the rest of the island. Sliema sits across the bay from the picturesque Valletta. Rentals and restaurants are cheaper here, and you get the added bonus of looking at the city throughout your stay. Our Airbnb was just a quick walk away from where the ferry leaves for Valletta, and around the block from a line of shops and restaurants. The ferry to Valletta goes all day and is very affordable, however you will want to arrive early to make sure you get a good seat (or any seat, if you are visiting during the late spring-summer).

Very important pro-tip: This is going to sound weird to some, but the one thing I wish I knew about visiting Malta was how aggressive the mosquitos are. Seriously, bring bug spray and pray. I won’t even tell you the total amount I had by the time I left the first time I visited. (My travel companions can tell you the number because I updated them every time I got a new one. I’m a delight, really.) The good news is that the local pharmacies in town all sell bug spray at a reasonable (for Europe) price.

Getting artsy on the cliffs on the south side of the island. This was taken near the Dingli Cliffs.

The Republic of Malta has been inhabited since at least 5900 BC. Due to its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean, the country has been occupied or conquered several times over the course of its existence. From the Phoenicians in 1000BC, to the Arabs during the Middle Ages, all the way through to becoming a British colony in the 1800s and key air base in World War II (just to name a few), this tiny island has played a key role throughout history.

You can see all of the different layers of history as you travel around the island (and its sister island, Gozo). It’s there in the street signs, the building style, the food, and the people. I know it’s cliché to say there’s something for everyone, but hear me out. There is LITERALLY something for everyone. The island is small but mighty, with enough sites and experiences to keep any tourist happy. Just don’t be scared to try the rabbit!

Below, I’ve outlined a (very) brief list of top things to do while visiting Malta. It was hard to narrow it down, so there is much more than what you see here. But this is a great jumping off point! I’d easily be able to fill an entire book with info on Malta’s historically significant sites, hiking trails, museums, and diving spots.

Ġgantija Temples

Malta is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including temples such as Ggantija, a Neolithic compound located on Gozo Island (just north of the mainland of Malta). Built in 3600 B.C., the Ggantija Temples were named so because the locals believed the enormous temples were built by giants. Over thousands of years, the temples have stayed fairly well-preserved (although adventuring Brits in the late 1800s were less than gentle with their excavation). The museum onsite houses many of the artifacts discovered during countless excavations. The museum also offers great info on the temple’s (re)discovery. Make sure to take time to check it out if you find yourself here!

Bonus: There are 5 other temple sites in Malta that are included under the UNESCO umbrella (Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Tarxien, Ta’ Ħaġrat, and Skorba), some dating back further than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid. Each of these temples offer a truly incredible site. The ingenuity and craftsmanship of these prehistoric people are fully on display, and careful study of each of these sites have given us amazing insight into how the ancient people lived, worked, and ate.

Mollie leads, and sometimes I follow.


Bonus-bonus: Not interested in visiting a temple but still want a taste of history? Keep an eye out while hiking- there are Bronze-Age dolmans hidden amongst the cliff sides.

Bonus-bonus-bonus: (Can you tell I’m struggling to leave stuff out? It’s all spectacular.) Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (located on the main island of Malta) is an underground, three-story complex filled with chambers and passageways and almost impeccably preserved. The structure was built around 3000 B.C., and is only open to a minimal amount of visitors per day (this is one of the few excursions that will require you to book in advance). Visiting this structure is my #1 reason to go back to Malta for a 3rd time. It’s Malta’s 2nd UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mdina (or Medina for the non-locals)

Sansa Stark, eat your heart out.


Although there are obvious signs of ancient inhabitants scattered around the Maltese countryside, the cities themselves are also a testament to the island’s long history. Mdina, or the Silent City, was Malta’s capital for thousands of years (before being replaced by Valletta). It was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, before being turned over to the Romans. Quick to change hands, Mdina fell under the Byzantine rule until the Middle Ages. After enjoying a brief jaunt in the Dark Ages, Malta came under the rule of the Hospitallers in the mid 1500s. It was during this transition that Valletta replaced Mdina as capital de Malta. All of the changes and new owners resulted in a city filled with different architecture and traditions.

I never thought I’d be that person, but look at this door! I have a million pictures of doors.


One of Mdina’s many charms is just how small it is. It is only a quick walk through the winding and narrow streets to reach either end of this ancient metropolis. For any loyal Game of Throners out there, the outer walls may look familiar. Mdina’s walls were used in Season 1 of Game of Thrones as a setting for King’s Landing. But don’t worry- you won’t find any heads on a pike lining the fortifications. Although production eventually moved entirely to Dubrovnik for the remaining seasons, it’s easy to see why Mdina worked so well.

The city is full of hidden doorknobs, inner courtyards, and capers dangling from walls. There is a maze of catacombs just outside the city, which you can also visit during a day trip to Mdina. Nods to the Order of St. John, who were responsible for the more Baroque architectural elements, can also be spotted while wandering the city.

A gentleman and a scholar, and a suit of armor (Looking good, Pop!)


Mdina itself, although built on a hill, is relatively flat. For the older traveller (or if you’re traveling with someone who might not take to hills very well), it’s the perfect place to experience the sweeping history of Malta in a tiny little microcosm. Plus, depending on when you go there, you might stumble upon a festival complete with medieval jousting and falconers.

You can easily access Mdina by a 30 minute bus ride from Valletta. Tickets run about €1-2, and the buses leave every 10 minutes. You can also rent a car and drive around the island, but remember, these streets are from medieval days, so the driving is tight. Also, parking might be tricky, as there are a limited number of cars allowed within the city walls, and yours won’t be one of them, so spots nearby fill up quick. Uber and Lyft are not available on the island. Taxis can be called, or you can download the app Bolt to request a ride.

Valletta

Very proud to say I didn’t trip down steps once this trip.

Obviously if you’re visiting Malta, you’re inevitably going to end up in its capital city. UNESCO describes Valletta as one of the most concentrated historical sites in the world. The entire city is considered a World Heritage Site (ding ding! #3!). Since the Hospitallers were also responsible for the building of it, the architecture echoes much of Mdina.

In 1566, the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John, Jean de Valette, commissioned the building of a fortified city to deepen the Order’s ties to Malta and protect its people from further invaders. He personally laid down the first stone to celebrate his victory after a four month siege by the Ottomans. Outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, and out-planned (now you have that song stuck in your head, sorry!), the Order of Saint John miraculously held the island, and in battle after battle they pushed the Ottomans back into the sea, now red with their blood. (I’m rushing the history here because I know this article is bursting at the seams with it, but seriously, how cool is that story?) Although Jean de Valette didn’t live to see his city fully completed, he remains there to this day, buried in St. John’s Co-Cathedral along with several other Grand Masters (but we will act like that is not creepy).

Pro tip: The ferry from Sliema arrives at the lower dock of Valletta. If you travel with someone who isn’t a complete sadist, there is a lift you can take to the upper levels of Valletta, so you don’t have to walk up the enormous hills to get up there. I was not so lucky.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral

Much of Maltese culture centers on religion, and churches are plentiful in Valletta, as well as across all of Malta.

St. John’s is a good a place as any to start when visiting, and inside is a bonus for any art lover- a massive, spectacular Caravaggio that takes up basically an entire wall. The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is the artist’s largest work, and the only one he actually signed. The room it is displayed in is lined with other gorgeous pieces, but for obvious reasons, Caravaggio’s masterpiece is the standout. That’s not to say the rest of the Co-Cathedral isn’t just as incredible. Even the marble tombstones where prominent knights are buried are intricately carved.

Entrance to the Co-Cathedral costs €10, but a lot of the other churches around the city are free to visit.

An entire wall worth of beheading.

(Bonus- the Cathedral is the centerpiece of a lively square with restaurants, music, and plenty of gelato shops. One of my favorite moments during my first trip here was simply sitting on the steps enjoying an enormous chocolate gelato cone and people watching.)

Upper Barraka Gardens

The Baroque garden of your dreams

The Upper Barraka Gardens are high up in the hills towering over the lower end of Valletta, but the view is worth the sore calves. You can see the entire harbor from the walls of the garden, plus if you get there in time to get a good view, you’ll be able to watch the cannons go off at noon and 4pm. This tradition harkens back to the time when these cannons would welcome returning naval vessels, but now it’s purely ceremonial, and a lot of fun. Another bonus point? It is also free!

World War II history buffs should head down into the Lascaris War Rooms after watching the ceremony. These rooms were the site of the fighter control rooms where wartime operations against the Germans were planned.

Tick tick boom

Museums
Malta’s contributions to World War II were integral to British operations, and visiting the National War Museum is another great way to learn about how this island helped win the war. The museum is housed in Fort St. Elmo, built in the 1500s by the Order of St. John, but the museum itself specializes in WWII memorabilia.

The National Museum of Archaeology also focuses on Malta’s unique history, albeit much earlier than WWII. It’s filled with statues and artifacts from antiquity, and its prehistoric collection is unmatched. One of the most amazing things about this collection is the scope of what it holds. From Neolithic artifacts, to an Egyptian pendant, to beautifully preserved Roman statues, the museum spans most of human history.

Admission to this museum can be grouped with admission to other museums or historical sites around the country. Prices depend on when you go and what you see. Check out updated prices here.

The Blue Lagoon

WOWZA. Literally that’s the word that comes to mind when I think about visiting the Blue Lagoon.

Located on Comino Island, this lagoon offers impossibly blue water (hence the name, duh!), gorgeous views, and a chill party scene. Boats to the island leave every day from Sliema’s docks. You can book online through major tour sites or simply have dinner in Sliema and approach one of the many ticket counters lining the waterfront to book for the next day.

We took a boat that looked like a pirate ship there, because apparently my group watched Pirates of the Caribbean one too many times. The large tour boats are about an hour ride, and not great for people who get sea sick (a.k.a. me). I will admit, though, that the destination is worth any sickness.

Once your boat docks in the Blue Lagoon, you step foot onto the banks and are greeted with stalls selling alcoholic drinks in pineapples and a scene straight out of a movie. Depending on your boat and how long you have here, you can spend the entire day hiking around the rocky outcroppings or swimming in the turquoise waters (just a warning- the ocean can be very chilly, especially in early summer). Stalls offer drinks, souvenirs, and food– though most tour boats will offer unlimited drinks and lunch as part of your ticket price. We paid €25 each for our boat ride, all-you-can-drink-and-puke drinks, lunch with snacks, and a beautiful cruise along the shores of Malta.

If you indulge in one thing while visiting Malta, let this be it. Just be sure to bring your Dramamine.

Pro Tip: If you walk up to the sellers instead of booking online, you can usually get a lower price. This also gives you the option to look at each boat, as the boats vary drastically without much difference in price. Our ticket was the same cost as the packed ferries we saw go by, and we had less people, a better boat, and more time on the island.


Food and Drink

The food in Malta has been heavily influenced by its long history of conquest, and popular dishes hint at Greek, Italian, and Arabic cuisine. Try the rabbit (I’m saying this again to convince you), indulge in the pasta, and don’t forget to grab a pastizzi from the local bakery on your morning walk! Maltese wines, although less recognized around the world, are certainly worth a sip or two (or a bottle or two, who are we kidding), and the island boasts 2 indigenous grape varieties.

The island is littered with olive trees, and the olive oil I bought from a small stand along the waterfront in Marsakloxx was the best I’ve ever tasted. I was so sad to use the last of it. If you want to bring home a souvenir, a bottle of olive oil is the perfect choice!

Honorable Mention:

Gozo

The Cliffs of Despair! (Just kidding, these are the sea cliffs surrounding Gozo).

It would be a mistake to visit Malta and not explore Gozo. When you’re checking out the Ġgantija Temples, be sure to stick around and tour the rest of the island. The streets are impeccably kept and the houses are beautiful. The island is home to a lot of natural wonders as well, including Fungus Rock and some really cool salt flats.

Popeyes Village
This is a weird one. In the late 1980s, Robin Williams filmed the live-action Popeye movie on Malta, complete with a very detailed set. When the movie was done, the set remained, and was turned into an amusement part of sorts for families and Robin Williams enthusiasts to visit.

Blue Grotto
Malta is bursting at the seams with geological formations, and the Blue Grotto is a great one to visit. Make sure to check the weather- on the day we went, the waters were too choppy and they had halted boat tours.

Marsaxlokk offers colorful fishing boats and tiny town feels.

Marsaxlokk
If you’ve been researching Malta, you’ve probably seen pictures of a harbor filled with colorful fishing boats. That’s Marsaxlokk, a small fishing village a short trip away from Valletta where you can dine on the freshest seafood around, shop at the stalls set up on street, and people watch to your hearts content. This is where I bought my olive oil, plus a really pretty pair of earrings. Treat yo’self!

Diving
There are several unique places to dive on Malta for the underwater enthusiast including WWII shipwrecks, reefs, caves, and the Blue Hole in Gozo, an upright tube-like underwater structure formed by thousands of years of water and wind erosion.

Sliema

Fine, I didn’t fall on the steps of Valetta, but I left this waterfront with a sore butt.

Since we weren’t in Malta for an extended period of time, we never really got to explore all the cool stuff that Sliema had to offer (too busy trying not to lose my lunch on a pirate ship, unfortunately) but there are plenty of historically significant and exciting things to see in this modern city. The promenade is full of great restaurants, ice cream shops, ancient towers, and Roman baths.

Getting around:

Public Transportation: We always love taking public transportation when visiting a new place, but ran into an interesting problem. The bus just…stopped. They kicked us all off, and told us to wait an hour for the next one. This ended up being a blessing- we just walked along the island instead, but something to be aware of when visiting! It certainly threw us off for a minute.

You can buy different levels of access cards, including a 1, 7, and 12-day Journey card for access to public transportation. They’re available all over the island at different info points. We had no trouble finding a booth to purchase ours. Remember- Malta is part of the EU, so bring your euros!

Traveling by car: You could rent a car here, but the roads are reallllllllly tiny. So tiny that I feared for my life while on a tour bus. You’re better off taking public transportation or hiring cars and leaving the driving to the pros. As we mentioned earlier, Uber and Lyft aren’t available in the country (as of 2022), but taxis can be called. You can also download the app, Bolt, to request rides.

Have you visited Malta? Leave a comment below with more tips, and any location we might have missed!

Posted in International Travel

Budapest: Christmas Markets and Beyond

When envisioning a winter escape to Europe, images of chalet fantasies on the slopes of the Alps or night skies full of the northern lights cover countless guide books. These are beautiful winter destinations, but for a specific span of time, at the very crest of winter, the rest of the continent is putting on a spectacular show, shining like a beacon during the long European nights. One of the brightest gems shining in that winter darkness is Budapest–a contender for the best place we visited (in winter and overall, really) during our whirlwind adventure through Europe’s Christmas celebrations.

Can I move here, please?

Budapest wears its history like a cloak around proud shoulders, and the heart of the city will charm you so thoroughly that you’ll fall in love with the tatters even more than the glistening post-war additions. The crumbling facades are a testament to a long and rich history, and tell the story of Budapest’s past inhabitants almost like a living museum.

We hopped on a cheap flight from Belgium and landed in Budapest in early December ($12 with checked bags! Thanks, RyanAir!). At this point, we had already enjoyed Christmas markets throughout Scotland, Belgium and Estonia, but we were not prepared for just how fantastic Budapest’s market scene truly is. One thing that’s important to remember: the Christmas markets are open air markets, so dress warmly because you’ll want to be out there at night, when the lights are glittering in the Christmas trees and the beer and gluhwein flow freely.  As is true for most of the larger cities, Budapest plays host to a variety of markets (each unique in their own way), and we were lucky enough to visit them all.

Below, I’ve given a quick overview of the main Christmas Market in Budapest:

Pyramids of fun at the Christmas market!

Vörösmarty Square Market is the largest and longest-running market location, opening in November and closing January 1st (in a pre-Covid world- who knows what the schedule will be this year, but we’ll try to update this once we know for sure!). The market stalls on the outer ring sell homemade items, both traditional and modern, from local artists. The inner section is made up of food stalls, the scent of which permeates the surrounding area, making your mouth water the second you get close to the square. We ended up saving a lot of money by just grabbing dinner from the stalls most nights.

St. Stephen’s Basilica Market is a bit smaller than the market at Vörösmarty Square, but it’s where you can really get a feel for a lot of Hungarian Christmas traditions. There’s an ice skating rink, entertainment every night (both traditional and modern), and a glorious light show on the Basilica’s facade. 

Fashion Street (Deák Ferenc) also hosts a smaller scattering of market stalls and Christmas tree installations. While it’s definitely not on the scale of the Basilica or Vorosmarty Square markets, the Fashion Street market is one that you’ll wander into by accident- it serves as a great pathway between the two bigger markets. 

Christmas markets around every corner!

There are lots of other markets scattered throughout the city. You could spend an entire day walking around Budapest finding little pocket markets, each one unique. Plus, with different performers and surprises scheduled each night, no two visits to the same market will be similar.

There are a ton of other things to see and do in Budapest besides stuffing your face at the Christmas markets. The tourist attractions vary from towering churches, underground caves and museums, all hugging the Danube River, which is, as promised in the song, gorgeously blue. Just remember to dress warmly if you’re traveling in winter!

Top Sights in Budapest (regardless of the season):

The Chain Bridge: The city is actually split in two by the river, with Buda on one side and Pest on the other. They are joined by bridges stretching across the water, the most famous of which is the Chain Bridge. It was the first bridge to connect Buda and Pest. Originally built in 1849, it was bombed during World War II and rebuilt/reopened exactly a hundred years later. There are now a handful of bridges crossing the Danube, but the Chain Bridge was the first, and was a key factor in uniting Buda and Pest and allowing the Hungarian capital to grow into what it is today. 

One day, I’ll be rich enough to afford my own guard lions.

Fisherman’s Bastion: Located in the Buda Castle district, the Fisherman’s Bastion offers up some of the best views of the city. Opened to the public in 1905, the Bastion was originally built as an extra line of defense for Buda Castle, and the fisherman’s guild from the village below were charged with this responsibility (hence the name!). Entrance is free, there’s a little cafe where you can stop and eat, and the building looks like  a fairytale. 

Half fort, half fairytale.

Buda Castle: Be sure when visiting Buda Castle to ride the funicular – a strange, outdoor elevator that chugs along vertically to the hilltop. It’s a 10-minute (ish) trip, but worth every second. After your ride, step out into the Buda Castle Quarter. Head into the castle to enjoy the History Museum, Hungarian National Gallery, and even an underground Labyrinth (plus tons more to see and do- check out all the ticketing and tour info here).  

Up, up, and away!

Matthias Church: Just past Fisherman’s Bastion, within the complex of Buda Castle, you will find Matthias Church. As a lover of history, this site was heaven. Originally believed to be built in 1015, rebuilt after a Mongol invasion in the 1200s, and then repurposed, reconstructed, or added to over the following centuries, the church’s walls have held some of the most important moments in Hungarian history. The church now serves as not just a place of worship, but an art museum and concert venue as well. 

Széchenyi Thermal Baths: Since the Romans settled in Budapest, thermal baths have been a favorite pastime of the city residents. Scattered across the city are lots of options for taking a dip, but the most popular is without a doubt the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, a huge complex housed in a Neo-Baroque palace. Spend some time relaxing in the warm waters, or take advantage of their other services like mud baths and medicinal massages. Check out the prices and book a visit here– a perfect activity for winter travel!

Photo courtesy of Széchenyi Thermal Baths

Holocaust Memorial Center: The permanent exhibition in the Center is one of the most profound and educational I have ever encountered. The modern ascetic of the exhibit stands in stark contrast to the actual contents of it, which displays pictures, informational texts, and original documents detailing the rise of Nazism in Budapest and the harrowing experience of the city’s Jewish and Roma population. The museum doesn’t flinch away from the role Budapest’s own citizens played, and I found it to be a brave, unrelenting mirror into the human condition. I would urge anyone to visit this place and learn about this part of history this way- it was honestly the standout experience of this trip. 

Shoes on the Danube: If museums aren’t your thing, but you still want to find a way to learn about and honor those whose lives were taken during WWII, make your way along the promenade on the Pest side of the Danube where you’ll find this permanent art installation. It won’t have the same effect as visiting the museum, but the sight of men’s, women’s, and children’s shoes abandoned on the river bank will certainly leave its mark. 

Wrap-Up, and Final Travel Tips:

What to Eat: I don’t think any meal was ever so satisfying as the chicken paprikash I chowed down on during our first meal in chilly Budapest. Although we mainly ate our meals from the vendors at the Christmas markets, we did luck into 2 fantastic lunches. Our first meal was at a tiny restaurant on the Pest side called Patkos, where besides the chicken paprikash, we ate steak tartare and a beef stew. 

The second lunch was a little more swanky, but not more expensive! We ducked into a hotel restaurant on the Buda side (St. George Restaurant), and enjoyed a lunch special and a bottle of wine that we are still talking about years later- I’ve included it in the pics below in case you want to hunt down a bottle. Plus, check out the chairs we got to sit in while dining like queens!

Tour Tips: We bought a ticket for the Hop On/Hop Off bus here. We don’t usually use these tourist transports, since they can get pricey, but in the middle of winter it was nice to be able to hop on a bus instead of walking. It also came with free tickets for their boat tour, and we took advantage by going at night and seeing the city all lit up from the Danube. 

When you take the tour bus, climbing up to the Liberty Statue isn’t so bad! Just don’t let your travel buddy bully you into climbing down.


Where to Stay: There are lots of beautiful, boutique hotels to stay while here. We stayed in an apartment rented out by Budapest Holidays Residence. They manage various locations throughout the city and were cheap and easy to use ($125 total for 3 nights!). However, when we got stranded in Budapest an extra night (damn you, Paris protests!), we did splurge on a hotel room with breakfast. Even at the last minute, it was easy to find somewhere to stay.

Have a location or tip that I missed? Drop a comment below to share your expertise so we can all get out there and explore! As always, thank you for every like, share, and comment!

Posted in International Travel

GUEST POST: A Trip to Kyoto by Zachary DeJesus

If you had a million dollars to go anywhere in the world, where would you go? When travel restrictions are lifted, what is the first country you want to go to? Out of all the countries you have visited, which is your favorite? These are just some of the questions my friends and family have asked me since I started traveling. For me, the answer is always the same, Japan, and more specifically, Kyoto

Kyoto is often overlooked by other tourists for Japan’s capital city, Tokyo. Tokyo is a metropolis that has much more to offer in terms of world class nightlife, restaurants, and shopping than Kyoto. All of those are, oddly enough, the exact reason I chose not to go. That’s not to say I will never go to Tokyo, I simply wanted to go to the traditional Japan that I saw in movies, explored in video games, and read about in books. I wanted to explore shrines, gawk at pagodas, and wander through centuries old alleyways while eating onigiri from a brand new 711. Kyoto is that Japan.

I had the opportunity to take my first solo trip, without knowing a lick of Japanese, on Christmas Day in 2017. The flight was a grueling 17 hours from New York to San Fran, and then finally to Osaka. The JR Haruka Express, which roughly costs $25, leaves from the airport, and gets you to the heart of Kyoto in just over an hour. Accommodation in Kyoto is relatively cheap, with hostels ranging from $10 to $30 a night for a dorm or capsule, or you can opt for a traditional Ryokan if it fits your budget. Shortly after my arrival I gulped down a beer at the hostel bar, ate a fried chicken sandwich, and crawled into my pod in a room with 35 other people for a well-deserved slumber. The next five days were jam packed with visiting sites and adventuring through the city. These were my favorites:

Fushimi Inari-Taisha (Google pin here): The famed Shinto shrine of nearly a thousand torii gates dedicated to the god of agriculture and prosperity. It is open 24 hours a day, is completely free, and is a five-minute walk from the train station of the same name. I recommend getting there as early as possible to avoid crowds. I was jet-lagged and fortunate enough to get there at five in the morning and had the shrine to myself. I was followed up the foggy mountain by a cat who managed to bob and weave gracefully through the looming shadows of the gates, while a group of crows continuously cawed in the distance. It was truly an eerie experience. By the time I was coming down about two hours later crowds were already starting to roll in.

Kinkaku-ji (Google pin here): Otherwise known as The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji is a world heritage site and an absolute treasure. The actual pavilion has burned down and been rebuilt several times since the 1400’s. The gardens and surrounding areas are truly serene and worth the $4 entry fee, even though the actual building is closed off to the public. Take your time to really soak in the relaxing atmosphere here, and before you leave the premises stop in at the Visitor’s Tea House for a traditional tea ceremony. Matcha isn’t particularly my cup of tea, but the experience was worth it. 

Gion/Higashiyama (Google pin here): Gion is the old entertainment district of Kyoto and home to the Geisha. If you’re lucky enough, you may be able to spot one walking through the area, but it is quite rare. I would recommend learning the subtle differences between Geisha (Geiko in Kyoto) and Maiko, who are their apprentices, if you are planning on ‘Geisha Hunting’. This area of Kyoto is also home to Kiyomizu-dera, a gigantic Buddhist temple that sits on top of the mountain overlooking the entire city, as well as the Yasaka Pagoda, and Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion. Whereas Fushimi Inari and Kinkaku-ji were among my favorite sites, Gion and Higashiyama were my favorite neighborhoods to explore. Pop into the shops, try black sesame ice cream, eat udon, and get lost here- you won’t regret it.

Arashiyama (Google pin here): If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably seen the pictures of this infamous place somewhere on social media– the ones of the bamboo forests shooting up towards the heavens with people in traditional Japanese garb. I would love to know how those people got those photos, because this place is absolutely packed. Aside from the crowds, the park is truly remarkable and worth a visit. There are also several shrines and temples in and around the park that offer seclusion if the swarms of people looking for the perfect shot are making you anxious. Aside from the bamboo forest you can stroll over the bridge that crosses the Oi River, and hike up to the Iwatayama Monkey Park, where you can purchase food to feed the monkeys that inhabit the area. They can be quite aggressive when it comes to food, so be on your toes!

Osaka (Google pin here): Okay, so it isn’t Kyoto, but if you’re going to Kyoto, you’re most likely flying into and out of Osaka, so why not get a little bit of city life in for the day? You can catch the Shinkansen Bullet Train at the Central Station and be in Osaka in just 12 minutes! This is typically an hour bus ride, or about 45 minutes via the JR line. During the day I walked the grounds of Osaka Castle and walked around the pre-war district of Shinsekai, which up until recently was one of Japan’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Although this trip was mostly low budget for me, I decided to splurge on a Kobe Beef dinner at a high-end restaurant. Unfortunately for me, the restaurant was fully booked. Thankfully, the host was more than kind enough to walk me to another restaurant that dished out melt-in-your-mouth steaks with beautiful marbling. I decided to walk dinner off with a stroll through Dotonbori, which is the theater and entertainment district that lines the canal. I would compare Dotonbori at night with the likes of Times Square, if Times Square had a canal flowing directly through it. Both sides of the canal were lined with vendors selling trinkets, and easy grab-and-go food like Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki, which are Japanese savory pancakes and fried octopus balls, respectively. Every now and again a boat cruise would pass by with tourists looking up and snapping selfies with the backdrop of the Glico man, an Osakan icon. I finished the night off devouring pork gyoza on the Shinkansen back to Kyoto. It was indeed a perfect day trip.

In hindsight, I wish I had more time to explore Osaka, and the truth of the matter is, I did. I had set aside two full days to explore the city, but I loved Kyoto so much that I cancelled my plans and opted to explore Osaka in less than 12 hours, and immerse myself in the beautifully historic city that is Kyoto.

So where will you find me when the dust of this pandemic has finally settled? Japan- more specifically, Kyoto.

Posted in North American Travel

Sea Cliffs and Sunsets: A Drive along Highway 101 on the Oregon Coast

Last year, a friend and I hit the road for a great adventure across America’s West.  For 6 weeks, we cruised through mountains, camped in a temperate rainforest (and froze our baby toes off), basked in hot springs, and drooled over towering redwoods. 

We spent most of our trip along the classic Highway 101, the coastal road that hugs the water along the Pacific Ocean from Washington to California.  The road is beautiful in all three states, but the drive along the Oregon Coast is truly spectacular.  

There is so much to stop and see on this route, and one could easily spend months pulling into small towns and meandering along sea cliffs.

Hello, great adventure.

Below, I’ve listed out my top “Must-Sees” along Oregon’s Highway 101. The list starts with the northernmost stop and continues south. Remember, driving times are estimates and 101 is a two-lane, curvy-road for most of its length. Traffic does happen and should be planned for.

Astoria, Oregon (Google pin here)

Astoria is the first town you hit when crossing the Columbia River from Washington into Oregon. It is a bit dated, and much of the river is consumed by large barges that carry cargo up the river. However, Astoria is a great place to begin your journey along the 101 as you get to experience crossing the Columbia on the Astoria-Megler Bridge.

Try not to drive off as you gawk around you. Photo credit: road-trip-usa.com

This truss bridge is the longest of its kind in the United States, and offers spanning panoramas of the Columbia River basin. Eagles, hawks, and ospreys are common sightings as they dart above the bridge, and the height of the bridge grants you spanning views of Oregon’s hills that you won’t gain elsewhere on this journey.

If stopping in Astoria, check out the Astoria waterfront trolley, which takes passengers along a 3-mile route through the historical port-city. We weren’t able to jump aboard due to Covid-related closures, but it looked super cute from the road, and very instagrammable.

If you don’t think this is cute, there is no hope for you. Photo credit: nworegontransit.org

Cannon Beach, Oregon (Google pin here) (40 minutes south of Astoria)

This town wasn’t on our agenda when we first headed out. We were suppose to spend a few days in Seaside, Oregon, just 20 minutes north of Cannon Beach. Every blog I read spoke about how amazing Seaside was, and I almost booked an Airbnb, sight-unseen, to stay here.

I am beyond glad that we took the risk and went through the town first. Seaside is cute, in a 1950’s, carnivalesque, where-is-the-line-between-corny-and-quaint kind of way. But it is incredibly busy, packed full of arcades and outdated motels, and it misses the mark on the quintessential coziness that images of the Oregon Coast represent. We drove in, had a look around, and then immediately headed back out for hopes of something different.

Instagram lied to me. It wasn’t this cute. Photo credit: seasideconvention.com

My tip? Skip Seaside and its cheesy attractions and head straight for Cannon Beach. This town represents everything that a visitor to the coast is looking for.

No crowds+Iconic rocks=happy traveler!

Situated between Ecola State Park and Hug Point Recreation Area, Cannon Beach is surrounded by dramatic sea cliffs, towering pines, and beautiful hiking trails. The town has a spanning beach with tide pools and towering sea rocks (such as Haystack Rock and The Needles). These rocks are the nesting sites of dozens of sea birds, including the Tufted Puffin. (Fun Fact: This is the most accessible spot in the Northwest to view these adorable birds.) If that isn’t reason enough to visit, then you are all a lost cause, but here’s an additional bonus. For my 90’s kids out there, this is also the filming sight to the much beloved classic, “The Goonies“. If you don’t know what movie I’m talking about, leave now, watch it, and come back. You can thank me later for expanding your cinematic education.

Just be sure to pack a real jacket so you don’t have to walk the cold beach wrapped in a blanket…#travelhacks

The downtown of Cannon Beach is comprised of quaint, northwestern seaside architecture. Think grey shingles on everything, and you’ve got a good picture. There are family-owned seafood restaurants, cozy bookshops, eclectic hippie stores, and perfect little cafes to grab that much needed coffee to ward of the ocean breeze. Cannon Beach is also a haven for fancy people with too much money, so you also get the random shop of luxury clothes and overpriced rain jackets (ogle at some windows and then go grab yourself a gelato).

It is sickening to think people actually get to live here. Photo credit: starfishluxuryrentals.com

We opted to rent an apartment in town and stayed for a couple days. It rains often in the Pacific Northwest, so this gave us the best chance of a few sunny days to enjoy the outdoors. Cannon Beach is a great place to spend hours walking the shoreline, grabbing a delicious calm chowder, hiking in the nearby state parks, and spending an evening on the beach with a fire while watching the sun dipped below the Pacific Ocean.

Rockaway Beach, Oregon (Google pin here) 40 minutes south of Cannon Beach, Oregon

Rockaway Beach is a town the hit its heyday a couple decades ago. The town is cute, but many of the condos are outdated and Cannon Beach still wins in a “perfect, Oregon town” race. However, Rockaway is a great stop along Highway 101 to stop and stretch your legs.

Diamond Beach is a beautiful beach for a morning stroll with a coffee, offering spanning views of the ocean with a sea arch in the distance. Rockaway Big Tree Trail is a great, family-friendly boardwalk offering a nice break from the road as you walk amongst massive ferns and towering trees. This is a great stop to get out and get some air, before continuing along your way.

Aw, one of the three days a year this coast is sunny. Photo credit; thrillist.com

Cape Lookout State Park (Google pin here) 40 minutes south of Rockaway Beach, Oregon

This is a great stop for those looking for a more strenuous hike– check out Cape Lookout, South Trail for a great 6-mile trail down the cliffs and to a remote beach. There is a campground here for those looking to experience camping on the beach, and the pin above links to a spectacular overlook, where you might catch sight of whales in the summertime. The campground offers tent sites, RV sites, as well as yurts and deluxe cabins, so this could be a perfect overnight stop to spend a night with the stars and surf.

“Camping”-Oregon Style. Photo credit: stateparks.oregon.gov

However, this is also just a great route for those looking for a beautiful drive and scenic overlooks. South of Rockaway Beach, Highway 101 stays inland for awhile. If you have time, put in this state park into your maps so you can stick to smaller county roads that stay along the coast. After the state park, you can connect back with 101 south of Pacific City.

Depoe Bay, Oregon (Google pin here) 1 hour and 10 minutes south of Cape Lookout State Park

This was by far one of my favorite stops along the entire stretch of Oregon’s 101. The town of Depoe Bay sits on the precipice of a cliff, with adorable shops situated along the main road and sweeping views of the ocean. Sea lions and seals are frequent visitors on the rocks below, and there are countless seafood restaurants and novelty stores that can easily fill up an afternoon.

Not pictured: the very strong wind. Bring a jacket.

The town is famous for its tiny, 6-acre harbor hemmed in by the cliffs and houses. It is claimed to be the smallest navigable harbor in the world, and visitors can walk along the bridge above this picturesque harbor to get a first-hand account of just how adorably small it is. You can also spot seals sunbathing on the rocks around the harbor. (I would share my picture of the seals…but they look like very blurry logs instead of adorable sea creatures. Enjoy this harbor shot instead.)

My one complaint? Not one boat named “Jenny”.

My favorite part about this town? We visited in the summer, and were able to hop aboard a whale watching tour with Tradewinds Charter. For just $25 each, we got an hour-ride out of the bay, along the coast, and got up and personal with some beautiful gray whales (Gray whales migrate along this path December-February as well as March-May, but some stick around all summer).

I promise, that’s a whale. I was just terrible at photography on this day, so this is the best I got.

Compared to the prices of whale watching tours up in Washington (sometimes running as over $100 a head), this felt like a steal, and we got to see the Oregon Coast from the water– which is a must for any visitor! Our boat had about 15 guests with 3 crewmen, and we were able to move about freely throughout the ride.

The boat ride is worth the $25, even if you’re not there during whale season.

If you’re prone to seasickness, you may want to sit this part out, or stock up on dramamine. The Pacific Ocean doesn’t like to play the smooth and calm game.

Seal Rock State Recreational Site (Google pin here) 35 minutes south of Depoe Bay, Oregon

View from the parking area. In case you don’t want to walk. (Looking at you, Dad.)

We stumbled upon this stop just driving along the coast, and it was a great place to get out and take a nice walk along the beach. Seal Rock is known for its towering rock formations just off the beach, and the coastal area is full of tide pools to check out as you walk along the sand (check tide tables here, and plan to go during low tide). The walk from the parking are to the beach is steep, so those unsteady on their feet may want to jump on the back of a trusty family member. There is also an overlook area here that you can easily access from the parking area without doing the great descent. Sea lions and seals frequent this area, so keep a sharp eye out for these lovable creatures.

If you get there at super low tide, you can walk right up to the basalt rock formations!

Pro Tip: The town of Seal Rock is also a great overnight destination for travelers looking for a quaint, coastal town. While my favorite is Cannon Beach, I can’t deny that this town was definitely adorable and I could easily spend days here. A quick perusal on Airbnb also revealed some great options for houses and apartment. We stayed just down the road in Yachats at Deane’s Oceanfront Lodge. While the rooms are small, this is a beautiful, privately-owned coastal motel that just screams American road trip. I was here with a friend, but this is a great romantic stop (you can thank me later).

The town of Yachats. Also a great place to stay for a few days!

Neptune State Scenic Viewpoint (Google pin here) 20 minutes south of Seal Rock Recreational Site

Just south of the infamous Thor’s Well, is a little pullout on 101 overlooking the ocean. We stopped here for photos (and to wipe sea spray off of the windshield), but found a small hiking trail leading down from the overlook to the rocks below. I mention this stop because these rocks contained the best tide pools by far that we saw on all of the Oregon Coast. The best part? They also had no one else around (unlike Thor’s Well).

Not a place you want to go barefoot.

Sea-stars, sea anemones, hermit crabs, and fish fill this area, with the occasional seal popping up just beyond the surf to say hello. We showed up just as low tide was turning, so we enjoyed about an hour of adventuring along the rocks and peering into the underwater world before the rising water forced us to turn back. This adventure requires sturdy shoes, solid feet, and the acceptance that you will probably slip on seaweed, but if you’re up for it, give it a go! Just be careful where you step, as this is a fragile ecosystem. Stick to dry rock without any barnacles so you’re not damaging the creatures we all love.

This was before I got access to a fancy, underwater camera…

Heceta Head Lighthouse (Google pin here) 15 minutes south of Neptune Viewpoint

Ok, honest moment. We actually didn’t stop here (thank you, bad weather), but we did see it from the road–so that kinda counts. This list wouldn’t be complete without a picturesque light house, so here you go. Heceta Lighthouse has an easy overlook just south of the turn, and it offers panoramic views up the coast with the charming light house front and center. This is also a bed and breakfast, so if you’re feeling fancy, check it out!

How it’s suppose to look when you’re not drowning in rain. Photo credit reluctantly goes to my sister, Sarah Reed…who got to see it in the sunshine.

The famous Sea Lion Caves (pin here) are a few minutes south of here, so if you haven’t had a chance to see a sea lion yet, pull off here, pay the $14 to get in, and bask in the glory that is flubber and fur.

My sister stopped here and got to see the caves…without sea lions. They leave the caves in early Spring to have their babies, but you can see them sunbathing outside. (See below)
#nextlifegoals.

Port Orford to Brookings Drive (1 hour route) 2 hours from Heceta Head Lighthouse

Okay, so if you’re looking at a map, you might have some questions. I skipped a lot between the last stop and Port Orford. Most notably, Coos Bay and Dunes City– both featured in most travel guides for this area. However, in my quest to stay honest, I did not find the southern portion of Oregon’s 101 as picturesque as the northern portion. Many of the towns (especially Coos Bay) felt run-down and outdated, missing the quaint shops and welcoming aura that perforates villages along the northern stretch. We stopped in many areas along the way, but didn’t find anything to beat what we had already seen, until we hit the stretch of road between Port Orford and Brookings, the final hour of 101 in Oregon…

This portion of the road can arguably be the most stunning and jaw-dropping of the entire route. While northern Oregon wins in cute towns, this stretch wins in twisting curves, dropping cliffs, and spanning views of pine trees, redwoods, and roaring waves. I included this as a route rather than a stop, because I feel like this entire area is a stop, and should be treated with leisure. To break up the drive, you can stop for a hike at Cape Sebastian Trail, a 6-mile (roundtrip) hike through the trees down to the beach. This trail is steep, so it may not be for everyone in the family (like the one who chose to wear flip flops today).

Yes. It really does look like this. I was just too busy gawking to remember to take a photo, so photo credit goes to: tripsavvy.com

I adored this portion of the drive, and believe it deserves much more than the hour it takes to just drive it without stopping. So plan to pack a lunch, wear some sturdy shoes, and enjoy your final stretch of Oregon’s 101– with one hell of a finale.

Even Mr. Crab says this route is amazing.

Wrap-Up

As you can see, there is so much to take in along Oregon’s 101. These are just a few of the hundreds of stops you can make along the route, and the scenery never gets old. Since this is a road-trip, it is also very affordable (especially if you opt for camping at the numerous state parks along the way!). Food can get pricey (as most of it is seafood, yum!), so stop in a few grocery stores along the way so you can plan for affordable picnics.

The best part? Most of the attractions along Oregon’s 101 are completely free! Parking and beach access is free along the route (unless you’re accessing a State Park), and hiking is always free.

Have you visited the Oregon Coast before? Drop a comment below of your favorite part of this amazing drive!

Posted in For the Foodies, Restaurant Recommendations

Restaurant Recommendation: Rainbow River’s Swampy’s Bar and Grille

Location: Dunnellon, Florida

Google Pin: Swampy’s Bar and Grille

Menu: Swampy’s Bar and Grille

My mouth is watering just remembering that Bloody Mary.

Rainbow River is a great destination in central Florida for lovers of nature and clear water. A lazy day tubing or boating down the river is a perfect way to spend a Saturday, especially if you catch a glimpse of an otter playing on the banks. If you’re here looking for more information about spending a day on the river, click here for my Rainbow River article.

If you’re here thinking about your stomach, look no further! One of the biggest hurdles of floating Rainbow River can be the very strict rules about plastic waste and alcohol. No alcohol or one-use plastics are allowed on the water, meaning your beer cooler and those zip-locked PB&Js have to stay in the car. This rule in in place to conserve the river, but it makes sipping on a margarita while enjoying some Florida sunshine very difficult.

Enter Swampy’s. Located at the end of the tubing route (hour 4 if you are tubing from KP hole), Swampy’s is on the left of the river just before the tube ramp where the shuttle takes tubers back to their launch point. You can tie up your boats/kayaks/giant swans/tubes at the seawall (bring your own rope), and walk right up to the restaurant.

What makes Swampy’s great? It is easy to access from the river, has lots of seating (indoor, bar, and outdoor picnic tables), and it is very reasonably priced (average $10-$15 per plate). The food was delicious, Cajun-style, and had all the staples of Florida: gator bites, fish tacos, and delicious wraps for us unadventurous food people.

I had the Who Dat wrap- filled with blackened chicken, andouille sausage, beans, rice, cheese, onions, and cilantro. It was perfect after a day on the river, hearty and delicious. My boyfriend had the Gator wrap, which also featured blackened meat (this time gator, of course). Both are served with your choice of sides (although you have to shell out an extra $1.40 for sweet potato fries).

What makes Swampy’s really great? The Bloody Mary. Making Bloody Marys is a fine art, and good ones are hard to find. This is by far the best Bloody Mary I have blissfully chugged in all of Florida. There is nothing better than spending a couple hours on the river and then pulling up here to indulge in some good ol’ tomato juice and vodka.

There is a full-service bar available at this restaurant, and every cocktail looked delectable as it passed my seat. We did also try the margaritas but thought they were a bit too sweet to enjoy.

Pro tip: We went on a Saturday around noon, so the place was packed (45+ minute wait). But we were able to grab a seat at the bar instead, order drinks and food, and had a great time watching tubers float by. If you are kid-free, check out the bar as an option to avoid the wait and have great service.

This restaurant has a great river-vibe, good food, and excellent drinks. There are other places to eat in Dunnellon, but I will definitely be stopping in at Swampy’s on my next float down the Rainbow.

Two very happy (and slightly tipsy) river rats.
Posted in International Travel

2-Day Road Trip Through Iceland (Winter Edition)

Like most people, seeing the northern lights has long been at the top of my bucket list. I would have gone anywhere in the world that could offer me that view. Luckily, I ended up in Iceland, and got so much more than just those dancing ribbons.

If you want to see the northern lights, you’ll have to embrace the cold and pack your parka. The lights are only visible late-Fall through early-Spring. By going in March, we were able to avoid the summer crowds as well as the summer prices. The days were shorter, but it was worth it to stand beneath the endless stars and swirling auroras.

We opted to rent a car rather than book bus tours across the island, and rented an Airbnb in the suburbs of Reykjavik. We were able to base ourselves there to sleep and shower, but didn’t spend that much time there. Instead, we woke up before dawn and drove out to chase the sunrise. (Note: You could plan to stay a night on the southern coast to save time circling back to Reykjavik, but hotel and Airbnb options are limited in the off-season.).

Sometimes waking up before the sun really pays off.

*Pro Tip: If you are traveling by car, you must have a credit card with a pin, since the gas stations are unmanned and only accept pin cards. You will definitely need to refuel during your trip, as a lot of these sights take a while to get to. American credit cards with pins are sometimes not accepted, so take a debit card as a back-up.*

If you’re traveling to Iceland during the winter months, be sure to keep an eye on the weather and traffic reports. The roads tend to close due to inclement weather, and some of the stops that might be on your to-do list will be unreachable. Unfortunately, that’s just the way the glacier crumbles in Iceland, but don’t get discouraged if this happens! There is so much to see here that even if you miss out on some, you’ll still have a full trip. Plus, you’ll have an excuse to go back!

Driving through the southern coast of Iceland is incredible. There’s a definite moment when you feel like you’ve traveled Beyond The Wall, and a lot of the big stops will be familiar from movies and TV shows. You could easily extend this trip to see more of the famous “ring road” (the road that circles around the island), but the northern coast is hit hard by winter storms. Plan to pack plenty of snacks and food for your drive. Restaurants are few and far-between, plus you’ll have more time to see the sights!

Arrival Night

The Northern Lights (Google pin here)

If you don’t have a fancy camera and tripod, you probably aren’t going to get that Insta-worthy northern lights picture, but that doesn’t make the viewing experience any less incredible. Let’s live in the moment, shall we? We were lucky enough to get a beautiful showing on our first night (we even saw some on the drive from the airport!), but the key to seeing the lights in all their glory is to know exactly where to go. About 2 hours east of the airport (an hour from downtown Reykjavik) is Thingvellir National Park, a perfect dark sky spot to catch a glimpse of the northern lights. We drove out along Highway 36, just past the Hakið Visitor Center, and simply pulled off the side of the road when we saw a good spot. The pin above is where we stopped to have a view of the lights over Lake Thingvallavatn. Pro tip: you will pass numerous pull-offs where tour buses will be stopped. If you want a private showing of the lights, keep driving further into the park to find you own area.

To guarantee the best showing, access the aurora forecast here. Remember, you’ll need a clear night with no clouds to see the lights. Forecasts are given 3 days in advance, so keep an eye on it while you are visiting the island. Activity ranges from 0-9, with 9 being the most activity (think dancing lights and beautiful colors like below). Anything under 4 will be a muted green glow.

Photo courtesy of GuidetoIceland.is. We weren’t prepared in our camera game to capture this photo.

Day 1: The Golden Circle (With Hot Springs)

Stop 1: Thingvellir National Park (Google Pin here) 40 minutes from Reykjavik

Bursting with history and geographic wonders, Thingvellir is a great first introduction to the magic of Iceland. The area’s name translates to Assembly Plains, and it was the site of assembly during Iceland’s Commonwealth period. The assembly was started around 930 AD, and Icelandic leaders met there until 1798 (it is actually the oldest democratically elected parliament that still functions to this day).

Make your first stop at Hakið Visitor Center, where you can walk along the North American tectonic plate and see its Eurasian counterpart. You can also swim in the Silfra fissure, created by the breaking apart of these two plates, which widens every year as they gradually move away from each other. It’s not every day you get the chance to swim between continents! Because the water in the fissure travels there underground, it rarely freezes, meaning that you can snorkel and dive here year-round. Read more about the fissure, and the snorkeling/diving rules, here.

Plan to spend a couple hours here walking along the fissure, seeing the frozen waterfalls, and reading about ancient Icelandic culture.

Bring your swimsuit.

Stop 2: Kerið Crater (Google pin here) 35 minutes from Thingvellir.

Along Highway 36 about a half hour from the visitor center is Kerið Crater, a volcanic crater lake that is over 3,000 years old. There is a small entrance fee to enter this area, but the drive here along the lake is worth it. We spent about an hour walking around the crater, and peering down the 180 feet to the bottom.

A nice, red hole for you.

Stop 3: Haukadular Geothermal Field (Google pin here) 40 minutes from Kerio Crater.

I love visiting geysers. It’s so funny to watch the crowd as the excitement grows and everyone is anticipating the next burst of water, only to have them all jump, or miss that perfect geyser boomerang for their Instagram story and have to wait all over again.  In this geothermal field there are 2 geysers, Geysir and Strokkur. (We actually get the word geyser from the old Norse geysir, which mean ‘rush’.) Geysir holds the record for the largest geyser blast ever recorded, but he’s not exactly Old Faithful, and he’s dormant right now. Strokkur, the kid brother, is more reliable, setting off every 5-10 minutes. Don’t forget to check out the cute store they have at the visitors center! I forgot my hat at the Airbnb that day and it was super cold, so I treated myself to a fancy new one from here. They had beautiful warm socks and sweaters, too.

Thar she blows!!

From here, you can drive an extra 5 minutes further to Gullfloss (Google pin here). This two-tier waterfall is stunning, and makes for a great stop to break up the driving.

Just don’t opt for the rafting trip.

Stop 4: Secret Lagoon Hot Springs (Google pin here) 30 minutes from Gullfoss, 1 hour and 30 minutes from Reykjavik

No trip to Iceland is complete without visiting some hot springs, and they’re even better after a long day of cold sightseeing. Of course, the most well known of these in the country is the Blue Lagoon, and if you wanted to splurge then by all means, visit there. But if you wanted the same experience at a fraction of the cost, find somewhere else! We soaked in the beautiful Secret Lagoon (the country’s oldest geothermal pool), just down the road from the geysers. It was a lot cheaper (ISK 3000, or $24 USD vs. the Blue Lagoon’s $53), and a lot less crowded (you don’t need reservations!). The springs are open from noon-8pm, so plan to hit this before closing. *Just a note for our first-timers: before you get into the pool, you have to wash in the communal shower- naked. That’s the rule of the club. Some people follow the rule, some don’t, but be prepared to see a lot of skin.

Ah yes, communal bathing. Photo Courtesy of Arctic Adventures (adventures.is)

Day 2: The Southern Coast

The southern coast has some of Iceland’s most spectacular sites, but it will require a full day of driving. The furthest location for this day is 4 hours and 30 minutes from Reykjavik, and that’s without weather delays. (It took us 6 hours due to a storm.) Plan to wake up early (like 5am early), pack the car with plenty of food and water, and keep an eye on the weather. Winds and storms can be dramatic between each valley (sunny in one, angry Elsa-storm in the next one). Gas stations are sparse, so be sure to take advantage of opportunities to top off your tank. We made it a point not to drop below half a tank in case we got stuck in winter weather.

Stop 1: Skógafoss (Google pin here) 2 hours from Reykjavik

This waterfall is easy to reach (no hiking), and if you’re there in the summer you can actually climb up some steps on the side and catch the view from the top! The stairs are a bit too hazardous in the winter to do this, but the view from the front is just as nice. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you might recognize the waterfall as (SPOILERS!) Jon and his Auntie Danaerys’ make out spot in the last season. (Here’s a list of all the locations the show filmed in Iceland during its 8 season run.). You will also pass Seljalandsfoss on the way here. You can get a great view of it from the road, so we skipped it to save time.

No dragons or long lost princes, but still pretty sweet.

Stop 2: The plane wreck at Sólheimasandur (Google pin here) 10 minutes from Skógafoss

This was a really cool experience. In 1973 a US Navy plane crashed on the beach at Sólheimasandur after running out of gas (don’t worry- everyone survived). Instead of moving the wreckage off the beach, the Icelandic government just….left it there. It’s about a 2 mile walk from the carpark to the plane, but it’s totally flat and easy. (There’s also a shuttle if you wanted to save some time.)  I felt like I was on the surface of Mars walking to this plane. You’ll be traveling along a black sand beach, this one a little less magnificent than Reynisfjara visually (we’ll get to that later), but definitely an atmospheric wonder. You can climb in and on top of the plane for some great pictures, as well.

Plan to do this one early in case the weather turns in the afternoon. This never closes, so it is also a great place for a night hike to watch the northern lights over the plane.

Stop 3: Vatnajökull National Park (Google pin here) 2 hours from Sólheimasandur

Vatnajökull National Park is a massive national park encompassing the southeastern edge of Iceland (Think, Yellowstone big…but with a giant glacier). Guides say that to truly enjoy all that this area has to offer, you need to spend a few days here, but if you wanted to make a quick stop, the 5-mile round trip hike to Svartifoss would definitely be the way to go. Svartifoss is a towering, basalt-backed waterfall just a short hike from the car park, whose name means “Black Falls”. Its water comes from the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, and the basalt columns were created by lava cooling rapidly. There are a lot of basalt formations throughout Iceland, and they even served as inspiration for Iceland’s biggest church, Hallgrímskirkja. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can keep going to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier (but please don’t hike on it without a guide- glaciers can be dangerous and the proper equipment and knowledge is an absolute necessity!). This location also serves as a great base for hiking Iceland’s tallest mountain, Hvannadalshnjúkur. Here is a list of all the hiking trails within the park. While adventuring into the park is difficult during the short winter days, the drive to this location rewards you with sweeping views of the glacier dipping down into the valley (you can even walk up to the glacier from the car park pinned above!).

Stop 4: Glacier Lagoon (Google pin here) 40 minutes from Vatnajökull National Park, 4 hours and 30 minutes from Reykjavik (This is the furthest location of the day)

What a sight! It’s hard to choose a favorite spot in Iceland, but this one is definitely near the top of my list. The water is a unique blue color, caused by a mixture of glacial and sea water. The ice in this lagoon can be up to 1000 years old, broken away from the main glacier and swept into the water, where the pieces slowly melt down. Occasionally, if you’re visiting the mouth of the lagoon, you can see seals swimming around trying to catch a good meal in the clear blue waters. For you insta-explorers, all of my coolest pictures are from here. It’s just visually stunning in every way. There is a small cafe located in the car park where you can pick up a coffee or a (very expensive) Icelandic snack. In the summer, you can take a boat tour around the lagoon, but in the winter, you’re rewarded with Beyond the Wall-vibes and no crowds.

Your two favorite travelers in our kingdom of ice!

Stop 5: Diamond Beach (Google pin here) 5 minute drive from the lagoon

A beach covered in huge chunks of ice, twinkling in the winter sun and moving through the surf as if weightless. (Remember the poor grandma that got swept out to sea because of a photo op gone wrong? That happened here!) This beach is close to the Glacier Lagoon, and the chunks of ice are actually pieces that have been swept out to sea from the lagoon, polished up by the seawater, and pulled back to shore by the current. This is another one of those places that makes for an excellent Instagram post, with the bright ice standing out against the black sand of the beach. This is a good place to eat lunch in the car or stretch your legs on the beach.

Stop 6: Reynisfjara (Google pin here) 2 hours and 20 minutes from Diamond Beach

Can I just admit that I thought every site was a standout, so that I don’t keep saying the same thing about each one? Because this place was phenomenal. The black sand beach at Reynisfjara is iconic. I’ve seen it in movies, TV shows, commercials. Visually, as someone who lives in black on black on black, it was heaven. The sand tinkles in the breeze like wind chimes, there are towering rocks sticking out of the surf, and the whole otherworldly place feels like you’re in the middle of some fantasy movie. And maybe you are! Legend says the basalt columns lining the beach are trolls caught out in the sunlight after a night of luring ships to their demise. There is a nice restaurant here to grab lunch/dinner if you forgot to bring food (the Icelandic soup was divine after our parka-bound beach walk).

From here, we headed back to Reykjavik for our final night. Remember, the days are shorter in the winter time, and it’s best to try to plan to have most driving done before it gets too dark (streetlights are not a thing on most of the roads).

Bonus Round: Icelandic Horses

Don’t forget to stop and say hi to the horses! You see them quite often from the road. They’re very friendly and eager to say hello (and serve some Blue Steel looks for your pictures), even if they do like to nibble your clothes a little bit. You can touch them but stay outside the fence and please don’t feed them!

Iceland is expensive, and there’s really no way around that. You’re going to be throwing out some serious cash. However, most of these stops are free of charge! So meals, car, and accommodations can be your only expenses. There are a few reasons why the island is so expensive: They have a short farming season so a lot of the food has to be imported, raising prices quite a bit, the exchange rate is painful if you’re working with the US dollar, and finally, they have some fairly high tax rates. If you’re trying to do this trip on a budget, I would do a big shop at the start of your trip and avoid eating out to save money. We literally ate sandwiches in our car for 90% of the weekend (and they were delicious!).

Overall, Iceland was everything I hoped it would be and more. It’s a popular destination, but one that is an absolute must-see. I had no other hope for this trip besides seeing the Northern Lights, but I quickly learned that this place is so much more than what’s dancing in the sky. Go a little bit off the beaten path and try and see some of the more terrestrial sights. Your eyes will thank you!

Other points of interest:

Fjaðrárgljúfur (Google pin here): A deep, river canyon with hiking trails that you will pass on the way to Vatnajökull National Park.

Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool (Google pin here): A 10 meter-wide, hot springs pool from 1928.

Grótta, Norðurströnd Walking Path (Google pin here): An easy place to see the northern lights without leaving Reykjavik. While you still will have city lights disrupting the view, you can catch the lights over the dark ocean.

Have a location or tip that I missed? Drop a comment below to share your expertise so we can all get out there and explore! As always, thank you for every like, share, and comment!

Posted in North American Travel

4 Outdoor-Adventure Trips from Fort Myers, Florida

Southwest Florida is not typically considered the go-to location for outdoor enthusiasts. Designated as a beach and retiree destination, many visitors make their way down to Florida’s bottom and never leave the sandy beaches.

If you’re like me, after the third day of laying on the sand like a beached whale, you’re ready to explore something new. Fort Myers sits on the edge of many nature preserves with other great destinations easily reached by car. Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite outdoor adventures within 6 hours of Fort Myers. Some could be a day trip from your beachfront condo while others are a fun overnight to break up a long week of surf and sand vacation time.

So pack your sturdy footwear, some bug spray, and your sense of adventure, and follow me on a tour through Florida’s wild places!

Beaches may be fun, but a dive trip into a clear spring? Better. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

Big Cypress National Preserve

Located just over an hour from Fort Myers, Big Cypress is a great day trip for travelers looking to get a taste of the Everglades. I recommend taking Highway 41 (Known as the Tamiami Trail) at least on the way down from Fort Myers. This two-lane highway is a great place to see alligators and some beautiful vistas. Just mind the speed limit as Florida panthers, gators, birds, bears, and many more cross this road (especially at night). Below are some of my top picks for a day near Big Cypress!

Get there early or in the evening to enjoy the golden hour. Photo credit: @nlarghi

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park– (While not technically Big Cypress, this is close and I will count it). Located off highway 29 just north of Everglades City, Fakahatchee offers a great destination for those wanting to explore the swamps and get their feet wet (literally). While you can hike alone, guided hikes are available to book through the park. Click on the link above to contact the park office about times and dates. Bears, panthers, mink, and many more call this park home. If you’re lucky, you may even get to see a rare ghost orchid in bloom. (Check out this hike to a private cabin. One of the few hikes where you keep you shoes dry in this park).

The Fakahatchee Hilton. (Real name)
The elusive ghost orchid in Big Cypress. Photo Credit: @nlarghi

Gator Hook Trail– This 5-mile, out-and-back trail offers a trip to one of the most beautiful cypress domes in Florida. Be warned, this trail will get your feet wet during most of the year and can be hard to navigate. Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes, long pants, and bring plenty of water and a compass (or a GPS). Click here for a more detailed run-down of this great trail!

Time to get your feet wet!

Kirby Storter Roadside Park– This park offers a hike for the whole family. The one-mile boardwalk is stroller-friendly, and provides some of the prettiest swamp views you can get without going fully into the swamp. (And if there are too many mosquitos? You are just a short run away from the car.)

I hear kids in strollers make good skeeter food.

Turner River Paddling Trail– This kayak/canoe trail is a perfect option for water-lovers. About 10 miles long, you can do a portion of it before turning around. You can also continue all the way to the NPS Gulf District Ranger Station and arrange a pick-up to take you back to your car. The trail takes you through narrow mangrove tunnels and out into a sawgrass prairie. Plan to spend a full-day exploring this water trail and plan to bring water and snacks. Check here for a detailed account of this river trail. Don’t have a kayak? No problem, outfitters are in abundance here and offer guided tours. Check out this outfitter for rental and tour rates.

Some of the best mangroves tunnels in Florida. Photo credit: nps.gov

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park is a massive nature area encompassing the bottom part of Florida. It is a great place to go camping, kayaking, hiking, fishing, or grab a boat tour. The nearest visitor center to Fort Myers is Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. Here you can rent kayaks or hop on a boat tour to explore Ten Thousand Islands.

Then Thousand Islands…not the dressing. Photo Credit: fws.gov

Two hours from Fort Myers is the Shark Valley Visitor Center. You can bring bikes (or rent them there) to explore the 16-mile loop from the visitor center to a 45-foot observation tower offering 360 views of the everglade landscape. The trail is open 24/7, but the parking lot and center close in the evening (center closes at 5PM and the entrance closes at 6PM). I recommend picking a cooler day for this trip, as there is little shade along the way. (Or do it at night for a bike ride under the stars!)

Nothing like a hot, sweaty ride into the 1960’s. (Bonus points: This photo was taken with a film camera) Photo Credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

Another option is do the full 4-hour drive to Flamingo, the heart of ENP. Check out my article on spending a weekend in Flamingo for great tips and tricks for exploring this area!

Eco-tents in Flamingo. Way better insta photos than those 10,000 beach photos you already have. Photo credit: @nlarghi

Overnight Trip to the Florida Springs

About 4 hours north of Fort Myers is an area full of crystal rivers, cool springs, and sweeping cypress trees. Springs are prevalent throughout most of northern Florida, but some of the closest rivers to Fort Myers are Rainbow River, Weeki-Wachee, and Crystal River. Each offers it’s own unique experience, so I’ve given you a brief outline below. You could easily spend a day exploring each one, so definitely plan on spending the night in the area (camping and airbnbs are available throughout the whole area). Remember to also bring a snorkel mask and fins, as the clarity of these beautiful springs will have you drooling to jump in and explore the world below!

Though the water is 72 degrees, some of us still need wetsuits…

Rainbow River: Spring-fed rivers are always a cool, 72-degrees. This means they are a great option for those sweltering, summer days. Rainbow River is a beautiful, clear river that flows from the spring-head towards Dunnellon. The river is full of otters, turtles, birds, and fish. You can rent tubes from the state park and spend the day floating in the current before boarding the shuttle back up to your launch spot. From the KP Hole launch, it takes 4 hours to float. (Hint: No plastic or alcohol is allowed on this river and is subject to a fine. Drinks and food must be in reusable containers. On the weekends, the park will close if it reaches capacity. If going on a Saturday or Sunday, plan to arrive a little bit before 8am to secure a spot.)

Otter families can be spotted playing along the banks!
Look at that clear water! Photo credit: @nlarghi

Weeki-Wachee: This state park also has a clear, spring-fed river. While tubing is not an easy option, you can rent paddle-boards or kayaks from the state park to enjoy this river. The state park also arranges a shuttle (book rentals and shuttle here). Families with kids can also enjoy daily mermaid shows (yes, that is a real thing), wildlife shows, and boat tours (see here for more info). The best part? In the winter, manatees make their way up this river in search of warmer water and food. Kayaking with one of the world’s gentlest mammals? Priceless.

That water is just begging for you to go for a swim.

Crystal River: Crystal River is famous as the place to go to see manatees in the winter time. This is the place where all the influencers go to post those much-sought after selfies with the cow of the sea. While you can kayak or boat the river, you will have to swim into the spring areas where the manatees hang out the most.  Three Sisters Springs is the most popular and well-known spot to swim with manatees, but it is closed to boats for most of the winter season (manatees head into the bay once warmer weather hits). Be sure to check the Three Sisters Facebook page for daily closures of the springs (if the weather is too cold, the park will close the springs to swimmers because there are too many manatees in the area). There is also a boardwalk there if you don’t feel like getting wet. While this is a great winter activity, the river is also a beautiful kayak trip in the summer, and manatees can still be seen in the bay.

Manatees are super gentle and calm. Please treat them the same way. Photo credit: @nlarghi
Be sure to bring your snorkel gear! Photo credit: @nlarghi

Local Parks and Nature Preserves

For those looking to get their nature fix but wanting to stay close to home, Fort Myers has a great selection of outdoor areas for all skill-levels. All of these trails are within an hour of Fort Myers, so they make for a very easy day trip or evening excursion. Here are some of my favorites:

  • CREW Bird Rookery Swamp: A great location for walkers or bikers (this trail is packed-dirt with a small section of boardwalk), the Bird Rookery Swamp is a go-to for bird-watching, gator-sighting, and possible otter encounters. Every now and then a panther will be sighted in the area, so keep your eyes out for one of Florida’s rarest residents. The trail is an oddly-shaped 12-mile loop, but I only recommend doing the full loop if you’re on a bike (Remember, Florida is hot and humid for most of the year). The first 3 miles are some of the prettiest if you want a shorter option. Gators love to hang out on the side of the trail, so be sure to pick up any small dogs or small kids (joking). Dogs aren’t advised on this trail, but if you do bring Mr. Fancy Paws, just stay aware of your surroundings.
  • J.N. Ding Darling Kayak Trail: Located on Sanibel, this federal preserve is a great place to launch a kayak and explore mangrove tunnels and shallow bays. Stingrays, eagles, ospreys, dolphins, tropical birds, and fish love this area (It is one of the top birding locations in the United States!). It costs $10 per a vehicle to enter (free with a National Park pass), and the park is closed on Fridays. If you don’t have a kayak, you can take a guided kayak tour with Tarpon Bay Explorers.
  • Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve: Located in the heart of Fort Myers, this is one of the easiest to access “hikes” on the list. This elevated boardwalk is both wheelchair and stroller-friendly, and twists through one of the last sloughs remaining in the area (thanks, overdevelopment). The boardwalk is about 1.2 miles long, and parking is $1 an hour (but entrance to the boardwalk is free). This is a great early morning or late evening option, as the park is open dawn to dusk. Gators are almost always a guarantee at the large lake about 1/3 mile from the parking lot!

Wrap-Up

This is just a few of my favorite outdoor activities within an easy drive of Fort Myers. Florida is on a constant quest to develop every open area, so it is always important to appreciate these natural places before they are gone. If you love nature, consider also donating to a local conservation group to help beat back the developers (we really don’t need another Wal-Mart). Through our combined efforts, we can continue to enjoy these places long into the future. (Here’s a link to the local Sierra Club).

Save me. Photo credit: @nlarghi

Have a nature spot that you enjoy in southern Florida? Drop a comment below to share your expertise so we can all get out there and explore! As always, thank you for every like, share, and comment!

Happy Trails!

Posted in North American Travel

Hawaii on a Budget: 5-Day Road Trip Around the Big Island of Hawaii

Hawaii. I could write 10,000 words on how much I love this state. From Maui’s Road to Hana to the spectacular cliffs of Kauai, Hawaii is a magical destination. It is also one of the most expensive places to visit in the United States (that’s what you get for being in the middle of the ocean).

Because of the high price tag, many travelers never make it to the islands. They see the price of the fancy resorts and luaus, hug their bank accounts, and decide this is another great year to visit the in-laws (family first…unless it’s Hawaii.)

Life goals. Bye responsibilities.

However, Hawaii doesn’t have to break the bank for you to bask in some beautiful waterfalls and dip your toes in crystal waters. Hawaii has seven main islands- most travelers visit Oahu (the island with Honolulu and Pearl Harbor) or Maui (picture golf courses and fancy resorts). Those are the big dogs of tourism, which also means they are the most crowded and most expensive. If you’re looking for adventure that won’t make you have major credit card hangover once you return, the Big Island is the destination for you. This island also offers more as far as eco-diversity and outdoor adventure!

Look at all that eco-diversity!

We chose to fly into Kona and rent a car to explore the island for a week. While a car rental may seem expensive (especially in the age of Covid), it is the best way to see the island without having to follow a bus schedule or depend on taxis (Uber is not always available). We rented through Budget, but all the car rentals are just a short shuttle ride from the airport, so pick the agency with the best price.

This itinerary covers 5 days on the island, but you could squeeze it into 3 if you have less time. However, keep in mind that the driving estimates are estimates, so you may have to skip a few items to fit a shorter schedule. (The Big Island is big. It is 95 miles from the northern tip to the southern tip and 80 miles across with the average speed being around 45 mph).

I have an obsession with Google Pins.

We started and ended at Kona International Airport. If you are flying into Hilo, you could still follow this plan, just in reverse. (Hint: If you are going in reverse, be sure to check the times on some of the attractions because you will be arriving later in the day).

The driving times are actual times on the road and do not include time spent on stops or possible traffic. Use them as a rough estimate as you plan your adventure. If you’re into history or local legends, download the Shaka app to listen to stories about the sights along the way!

Day 1: Kona (1 hour of driving total)

We flew into Kona International Airport around midday and picked up our rental car from Budget. You can catch the car rental shuttle just outside the arrival gate for all rental agencies.

Kona is on the west side of the Big Island, which is also the dry side. You are surrounded by lava flows cast in the shadow of the Hualālai and Mauna Loa volcanoes. This is the side of sunshine, beaches, and lava rock.

Lava, lava, lava. Photo from: gohawaii.com

From the airport, we headed north about 10 minutes to Kekaha Kai State Park. This is a great place to say hello Hawaii! The park features lava flows, a beautiful beach, bathrooms, coastal hiking trails, and a hike to the summit of Pu’u Ku’ili, a 342-foot high cinder cone which offers great views along the coast (bring water!) The turn can be hard to spot on the highway, so be sure to have it in your Google Maps before you leave the rental lot (Here’s a pin to put into your navigation).

The Kekaha Kai State Park road is part road, part lava flow. It makes for a fun driving experience, but take it slow to avoid bottoming out in one of the many ditches. Once you arrive, prepare for one of the most beautiful beaches on the Big Island complete with lava rock that dips into the ocean, great snorkeling, and beautiful walks along the coast. If you have a keen eye, you may even catch a glimpse of a sea turtle amongst the surf in Mahaiula Bay. If you have time, take the coast walk to Makalawena Beach. It’s 2 miles from the parking lot (4 miles roundtrip), but the reward is a beach that can’t be reached by the road, and it is wonderfully seclusive and serene. Be careful if swimming, as rip currents are always a risk.

Picture you here. It’s a nice thought, right?

After leaving the park, we headed south towards the town of Kona (15 minute drive). Warning, Kona does have tight roads, so just drive slowly and be patient when it comes to parking. We went to the downtown area on Alii Drive for some sunset viewing, dinner, and shopping. Hulihe’e Palace is located within walking distance of the restaurant area. You can tour the palace Tuesday-Saturday for $10.

We spent the evening in Kona and had an amazing Hawaiian dinner at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill. Kona is a great place to catch the sunset, so be sure to be downtown for the golden hour to celebrate in the final rays of a beautiful day on Hawaii.

If your mouth isn’t watering, you’re doing life wrong.

Day 2: Kona to Pololū Valley Lookout to Kona (3 hours of driving total)

Starting from our hotel in Kona, we headed back north along highway 19 for Day 2 of our Big Island Adventure. Passing the state park we visited the day before, we continued north to Kiholo Bay. This is another beautiful coastal area featuring black sand and rocks. We didn’t have time, but if you’re here later in the day, plan to take a swim into The Queen’s Bay, a flooded lava tube located a short walk away from the small parking lot.

Kiholo Bay. Photo credit: bigislandguide.com

From there, we continued north to Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Entrance to the park is free and open from 7:30am-5pm. (While entrance is free, I recommend buying a National Park Annual Pass before leaving the mainland. The $80 fee will pay for itself by the end of the trip and you’ll have free entrance to all NPS sites for the rest of the year!). We spent about an hour walking among structures left from Hawaii’s original inhabitants. There isn’t much as far as a visitor center, but for $2 you can sign up for a guided tour or try your best to go off the details on the map they give you (I had a history teacher with me, so I cheated). We also chose to pack a picnic and have lunch on one of the many picnic tables over-looking the Pacific Ocean (Pro Tip: Picnics save money and time when road-tripping!)

I could live here.

From the historic park, we continued north on Highway 270 along the coast towards Māhukona Beach Park. This portion of the drive is breathtaking as the road rises up along the highlands and gives spectacular views of the ocean. Have your passengers keep an eye on the water as this is one of the best places on the island to catch sight of humpback whales in the winter/spring season (we were there in March). Look for a spray of water above the waves or even watch the whale-watching helicopters buzz over. Just try not to crash when you start squealing with excitement at your sighting (not from experience at all….)

Imagine this….only like a little dot on the horizon.

You can stop at the beach park, but we continued onwards to the town of Hawi. This is also a great option for lunch if you’re not a picnic person, as the town is small but adorable with cute little cafes and stores. This is also one of the few places to get gas along this route, so if you’re running low, better fill up. After stopping at a few tourist shops in Hawi, we finished up our northern route at the main attraction of the day, Pololū Valley Lookout. The route between the town and lookout features breathtaking views of waterfalls and cliffs, so take your time and enjoy!

(Insert Jurassic Park Theme Song)

This lookout provides one of the best views on the entire island. Parked at the north edge of the island, you can stand at the view point and see down the eastern coast. With the jungle-covered hills and dropping seaside cliffs, it is a sight that challenges even the most spectacular views on Kauai and Maui. (Read more about the geological significance of this area here.)

If you get here early (or even plan to spend the night in this area), do the hike into the Pololu Valley. It’s only a mile to the black sand beach at the bottom, but that’s a mile with a 350 ft elevation change (think stairs. Lots of stairs). Be careful if you plan on swimming here. The beach is known of dangerous jellies and large waves (this is the windward side of the island, after all).

After enjoying the sights, we headed back towards Kona, taking highway 250 (Known as the “Kohala Mountain Rd”) toward Waimea. This is a beautiful route to take in the afternoon. You’ll be passing Mauna Kea on the left (don’t worry, you’ll get a closer view later on in the trip).

The area of Waimea looks more like a picture out of a western than a Hawaiian island (it’s also a white guy’s cattle ranch…so it makes sense). If you happen to get there when the clouds are rolling through, prepare to feel like you’re on another planet. This is truly one of the best drives on the island.

“Son, one day this will all be yours,” a white guy said to a white guy. Photo credit: parkerranch.com

You can stop in Waimea for dinner (steak, anyone?). We chose to continue on, staying along Route 190 for the entire way back to Kona. This meant we didn’t have to backtrack on 19, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the highland road. We finished up the day with another dinner in the town of Kona before heading to bed.

Day 3: Kona to Hilo (4-5 hours of driving total)

You could easily spend a few more days around Kona, but our time schedule didn’t allow for it. The next morning we woke up bright and early to drive the Coastal Highway 11 from Kona to Pahoa (where we had an AirBnB booked for the week). If you are driving the coastal route from Kona to Hilo, plan to spend the entire day along the route. There’s so much to see and do that you may even want to consider stopping halfway (as we did), and continuing on or going back to places the next day. I’ve listed today’s itineraries into separate stops so you can pick and choose which one catch your interest.

Stop 1: Kahalu’u Beach Park (Google Map Pin here)

This stop is just south of Kona, so we hit it very early in the morning. Typically, this beach is a great place to snorkel and a great spot to see sea turtles. However, we were there too early to snorkel (and I’m vain enough not to want salty hair all day). We stopped for about 20 minutes to walk around the park, look at some tide pools, and play in the black sand.

Great place for sea turtle sightings! Photo credit: Expedia.com

Stop 2: Captain Cook Town

20 minutes south of Kona is the town of Captain Cook. Situated in the heart of coffee country, the town has a fantastic view of the ocean. Things start getting greener on the drive here as we leave behind lava fields in exchange for giant ferns, dropping sea cliffs, and twisting roads. We only spent a few minutes in this town, because we had a deadline to meet our Airbnb host. However, if you have more time, stop by and visit the Kona Coffee Living History Farm (open 10am-2pm, so plan accordingly). If you have even more time, spend an hour walking the 4-mile Captain Cook Monument Trail for some great ocean views and coffee field vistas.

There’s always time for a coffee break. Photo credit: konahistorical.org

Stop 3: St. Benedict Catholic Church (Google Map Pin here)

This was a random stop we made on our way to Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, and it was worth it! Tucked into the hillside overlooking the ocean, this painted church is the perfect stop to stop and reflect on the beauty around you (or you know, repent for sins. I’m not religious but pretty buildings are pretty buildings).

My mother would’ve been more successful at getting me to church if my church looked like this.

This tiny church has been around since 1899, and the paintings are still vibrant and colorful. Around the church is a gorgeous garden featuring flowers and plants local to the island (ok, there might be a few invasives in there). It’s free to enter the church, but you can donate at the unmanned booth in the front. Or you can purchase a souvenir, placing your money into the donation box (be sure to bring cash!)

Stop 4: Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park (Google Map Pin here)

This was the second historical stop we made on our trip, and it was by far my favorite. More established, with an actual visitor center, Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park is a great place to learn more about the native Hawaiian culture and history. Estimated to be over 450 years old, this ceremonial site features remnants of a great wall, reconstructed buildings, and cultural demonstrations. Open from 8:15am to sunset, the entrance fee is $20 per a vehicle (or free if you have that Annual Park Pass I mentioned before.)

Ok, I want to go back now.

We spent a couple hours here, but you could spend all day. Just outside the park is Honaunau Bay, which has some of the best snorkeling on the island. Based on the amount of colorful fish I saw in the water, I believe it! It is also worth it to walk out onto the lava rocks around the park. The waves crashing over the black rocks are stunning. You also get the extra perk of seeing some cool tidal pools (just leave the fancy shoes at home. You’re going to want sturdy sandals or tennis shoes for this outing).

Stop 5: Manuka State Wayside (Google Map Pin here)

This is the longest portion of the drive so far on this trip, so I like to break things up a bit. This small park offers a great place to have a picnic or stretch your legs. Nestled on the side of Mauna Loa, this roadside park has picnic tables, a two-mile walking trail, and beautiful flora to admire. We didn’t stop due to Covid restrictions, but check it out and tell me how it is! (I’m always looking for a reason to go back). If you’re interested in lava tubes, Kula Kai Caverns is right down the road. You have to pay to tour these ancient caves, so I prefer to do my lava-tube exploring in the national park.

Great place to stretch your legs. Just don’t fall (no one looks good in a cast in a bikini). Photo credit: onlyinyour

Stop 6: Punalu’u Bake Shop (Google Map Pin here)

I’m hungry just writing this, so chances are you will be starving by the time you get here (we definitely were!). Located in the town of Naalehu is one of the greatest gems on the island, Punalu’u Bake Shop. If you’re on a diet then consider this your cheat day, and it is worth it. Pop in and grab yourself a chunk of their famous Hawaiian sweet bread (or several loaves…). They also have sweet Malasadas that pair perfectly with that afternoon coffee. I had the apple-filled one, and I still dream about it.

Happy, sugar-covered faces all around.

Stop 7: Volcanoes National Park

Forcing away a sugar coma, we continued 30 minutes down the road towards Volcanoes National Park. The park is open 24/7 and it costs $30 per a car to enter (unless you bought that annual pass. See? It’s mostly paid for itself already). At the time of writing, the visitor center was under limited hours for Covid, so be sure to check the site linked above for hours when you visit.

Because it was later in the day, we only planned on a short stop here. I recommend giving this park at least 2 days in your itinerary, as there is so much to see here and the park is huge. If you only have a day, here are the highlights we hit in about 2 hours:

  • Start at the Kilauea Visitor Center: This is the main visitor center of the park and a great place to get oriented. You’re going to want to pack a jacket for this part of the day, as Volcano, Hawaii is 3,700 feet in elevation and it gets chilly in the evenings (if you spend the night here or camp, definitely pack some warm clothes).
  • Walk from the visitor center to the Sulphur Banks and Steam Vents. You can also drive there to save time. Plan for about 30 minutes to walk through this area, admiring an active volcano scene and sweeping vistas into the Kīlauea crater (an active volcano!).
  • Drive down Crater Rim Drive to the Kilauea Overlook for another great viewpoint.
  • Turn around and head past the visitor center to Thurston Lava Tubes. There is limited parking at the tubes so park here and walk the 10 minute trail to the lava tubes (you’ll be rewarded with some great views along the way). Plan to spend about an hour exploring this amazing geological feature. Be warned there are stairs and some dark spots, so talk with a ranger at the visitor center if you have concerns.
Now just put on your astronaut suit and you’re set for a lunar photo op!

From here, we left the park for the day, with plans on coming back the next day. You can chose to stay in the park, stay in Volcano (the town), or continue on to Hilo or Pahoa and circle back. Our AirBnB was in Pahoa, so we were only about an hour away. (Check out the link if you want an awesome place to stay!) We finished up our long day of sightseeing by picking up groceries in Pahoa’s center, making dinner at our AirBnB to save money, and wrapped up the day by drinking wine on our gorgeous porch overlooking the ocean.

You can also book camping cabins in the park. A great way to experience camping without bringing a lot of gear. Book here.

Day 4: Volcanoes National Park (at least 2 hours of driving in the park)

We went back for more the next day, and I definitely recommend planning to spend a full day in the park. Beyond the stops mentioned above, some of my other favorite things to do in the park include:

  • Kīlauea Iki Trail: 4 mile trail that goes down into the crater (stair warning)
  • Devastation Trail: .5 mile stroller-friendly trail that goes through site of 1959 eruption
  • Chain of Craters Road: 19-mile park road that goes past numerous craters before ending at the ocean. Plan on spending a couple hours for all the stops and photo ops available. Check at the visitor center for any road closures. (Full list of stops can be found here.)
  • Puʻuloa Petroglyphs: largest petroglyph field on Hawaii (over 23,000 petroglyphs!)
  • Hōlei Sea Arch: The end of the road at the ocean (it used to go further, but then lava covered it). Take a minute to admire the arch, breathe in the ocean air, then head back the way you came.
Great place for history, geology, and nature junkies!

Day 5: Hilo to Kona (4 hours of driving with side trips)

Hilo is on the wet side of the island, so it’s the polar opposite of where we started in this journey (pack a rain jacket and bug spray for this day). Instead of lava fields, you are rewarded with lush rainforests that make you feel like you’ve traveled back into the Jurassic period (original idea, I know). The drive back to Kona is an hour and a half, so you can have a full day exploring this side of the island.

We started our day with a stroll through Hilo’s Farmers Market (open 7 days a week from 6am-3pm. “Big Market Days” are Wednesday and Saturday). The market is a great place to pick up custom-made Hawaiian jewelry or blankets, sample some locally-grown fruit, or grab more of that delicious Hawaiian bread you keep thinking about. Check here for more information on the market. As you munch on the yummy things you bought, spend some time walking around downtown (located right by the market). There are plenty of quirky shops and cozy cafes to dip into should it start to rain.

Grab some fresh fruit for snacks for today’s adventures. Photo credit: hawaiitribune-herald.com

Next, we grabbed our hiking shoes and headed to Akaka Falls State Park. This .4 mile loop leads to a 442-foot waterfall, and you can instantly cause instagram-jealously with the endless photo ops here. (Parking is limited, so get there early or be prepared to walk up the road).

One of the most stunning falls on the island. Photo credit: gohawaii.com

From the falls, we continued up the windward side of the island toward Laupahoehoe Point. It’s only 30 Google Map minutes from Akaka Falls, but we spent over an hour on the drive there. The road is one of the prettiest in all of Hawaii, and hugs the coastline the entire way. Once you get to the sharp turn down to Laupahoehoe, you are rewarded with vistas spanning the entire Hilo coast. At the bottom of the road is a beautiful beach park with picnic tables, old trees, surging waves, and lava rocks (this is not a beach for swimming). We had a nice picnic here and enjoyed the sound of crashing waves on the rocks. There is also a memorial here for 1941 tsunami that struck this coast, destroying a school that was here. Looking up at the towering cliffs, it’s a chilling reminder of nature’s power.

A great spot to stop for lunch. Photo credit: bigislandguide.com

After getting our daily dose of morbid, we headed back towards Hilo to the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden. At $25 a person, this is an expensive stop, but a must-do for any orchid-lovers out there. Even if you don’t want to stop at the garden, take the turn off of 19 onto Old Mamalahowa Highway. This narrow, winding road goes through beautiful lush forest and over crystal rivers. Stop at the small bridge for a great photo op along the route.

From here, we went back into the heart of Hilo to Wailuku River State Park. This 80-foot waterfall park is easily accessible for everyone, and the waterfalls are right by the parking lot. From here, you can continue onto the Boiling Pots and Pe’epe’e Falls. Due to Covid, these sights were closed when we visited (so, go check them out and send me some pictures!)

This is definitely a day full of great memories and awesome photo ops!

After finishing up in Hilo, we headed back towards Kona on highway 200. If you have extra time and an itch for adventure, check out Kaumana Caves on your way out of town. If you have sturdy shoes and a flashlight, you can descend into these massive lava tubes and explore away (no admission fee into this state park).

Along highway 200 towards Hilo, we drove between Hawaii’s main landmarks, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. If you have extra time, plan to do this drive in the early evening so you can drive up to the Mauna Kea Observatory and catch a truly spectacular view of the night sky (this is one of the darkest and clearest observation points in the world!). The Visitor Information Center offers astronomy talks, stargazing tours, and science-nerd galore. Be on the lookout for the endangered Nene bird on your way up Mauna Kea, as they can usually be spotted along the road or in the surrounding fields.

Observatory at the top of Mauna Kea. Insert Close Encounters Theme Music. Photo credit: smithsonianmag.com

Wrap-Up

While this itinerary does hit some highlights of the Big Island, there is always more to see. I like to focus on outdoor activities and sightseeing on my adventures, but there is something for everyone on the Big Island.

If you’re a major beach goer, you could end this itinerary with a day of sun-soaking at Hapuna Beach State Park. If you enjoy shore diving, Beach 69 is a great location to grab a tank and dive under the waves. All of these adventures are fun, memorable, and affordable. If you have more time in Kona and a bit of extra cash, opt for a whale watching tour to get a closer sight of these beautiful mammals.

Hapuna Beach is one of the few beaches on the island with “white” sand. It also has some cute beachside restaurants, canoe rentals, and offers some cool snorkel spots. Turtles are also frequent visitors here. Parking is free, and if it looks crowded, just walk down the beach to find your own secluded area.

Hawaii has a reputation for being incredibly expensive, saved for those special honeymoons or retirement trips only. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By being flexible in your island-selection, willing to opt for outdoor adventures over shopping (perk, outdoor stuff is usually free), and skipping the restaurants for picnics and airbnb-cooked meals, you can enjoy a beautiful location without counting every dollar going out.

Same, girl. Same.

Have a location or a tip I missed? Drop a comment below about what you love about Hawaii’s Big Island! Like, share, and spread the love so we can all get out there and explore. Aloha!

Posted in Budget Tips

Favorite (Free) Travel Apps

Travel can be amazing, but it can also be stressful. There is so much planning, coordination, and “what-ifs” that go into every trip. International trips can add even more stress.

Fortunately, technology has grown to help relieve the stresses of travel and make a lot of things way easier. My favorite companion on every trip is my smartphone (and it’s not just for the endless photos I can take), but because a smartphone (or tablet) can be a great tool to use when jumping from sight to sight.

However, there are a surplus of apps out there to aid in travel, and it might be a tad overwhelming for a new adventurer to navigate each one. I’ve made a list of a few of my favorite applications to use on an adventure to help make things a bit easier. As a bonus, I chose to feature not only my favorites but also the free ones (because who doesn’t like free stuff?). Onwards!

Google Maps

Okay, so we all know about Google Maps (the superior alternative to Apple Maps and I’ll argue that to the grave). Whether it is the tested and true app of choice for getting you around those pesky traffic jams or alerting you when there might be a trooper so you might want to lay off that lead foot, Google Maps is a master of navigation. But it is also a great tool to use when traveling (and not just to get from one waterfall to the next).

One of the best features this app offers is the option to download maps to use offline. This allows you to continue to access maps for navigation even if you do not have a phone signal (or you’re trying to limit data usage in a foreign country). This also allows you to access your saved locations for those fun-filled days of sightseeing.

Every flag marks a place to stop. I might be OCD on trip planning.

Before every trip, I spend a couple hours researching what I want to see and planning my routes. To make everything nice and seamless for my trip, I save each location onto Google Maps with the title of the location and a small note about what to see there/price. That way when we jump in the car at 4am to tour the southern coast of Iceland, everything is already planned out and we waste no time looking up each location. This saves time for those fun side-adventures that may pop up along the way!

Splitwise

Budgeting and money is always something to consider for every trip, especially if you’re traveling with a group. In the US, we all got comfortable using Venmo to split bills at restaurant or hotels. However, Venmo doesn’t work in every country (something I found out the hard way), and many foreign restaurants do not split checks. So, how do you travel with friends and keep track of what everyone owes? Splitwise.

Available in the Google and Apple stores . For free!

Splitwise is money-sharing app that keeps track of what each person owes. You can create separate lists for different trips, with different people in each list. As you go about your adventures, each person logs what they pay and then inputs how much each party owes. At the end, you have a nice tally of the overall balance. It is user-friendly, and a great way to keep track of everything! No more exchanging euros over each transaction or getting mad because that one friend never paid for anything (no one likes sending “pay requests” on Venmo over and over again).

You can chose to put expenses in local currency or USD. Pro tip: if touring multiple countries, stick to one currency.

Splitwise does have one fatal flaw. It currently does not allow for you to actually pay your friends (such as Google Pay, Venmo, or PayPal). So at the end of your trip, you will need to settle-up in cash or simply wait until you’re back in the US to Venmo them.

If your travel buddies are the same adventurers for every jaunt across the globe, you can also simply carry over balances for the next trip. That way you just keep a running tab on who owes who.

Tip: Google Pay and PayPal do work overseas. However, you would still have to do a transaction after every bill, which is very inconvenient when you’re splitting multiple bills a day.

Google Translate

Unless you’re visiting a remote tribe, you should be covered

This is another well-known app, especially for those of us who teach English Language Learners when we’re not adventuring. Google Translate is a great app to quickly type in a question when you need to communicate with your Uber driver or AirBnB host. It also allows for individuals to speak into the microphone so it can translate what they are saying.

I use Google Translate the most when it comes to reading menus and signs. The app has a handy feature that lets you go into camera mode. Simply click the camera sign, point it at the menu, and it will translate the words on the screen (be sure to hold your phone steady for this to work). It has saved me many times from ordering the wrong thing! (I don’t care what people say. I am not eating cow tongue.)

See? I only translate the important things.

While it is not always perfect, the translation gives you a close enough guess. I wouldn’t use it to flirt with that handsome German at the bar, but in a pinch, it is a great app to have!

MyCurrencyConverter

MyCurrencyConverter is a must-have if you’re going international. There are hundreds of currency apps available online, but I’ve found this one to be the simplest and most user-friendly.

The app has a very simple platform. All you do is select the country you’re visiting and input the amount you want converted. This is an amazing service when visiting countries where the currency doesn’t match up easily to the US dollar (The Hungarian Forint is currently worth 0.00351824 dollars. No one wants to do that math.)

The app also works on airplane mode, but the conversion won’t be exact (it will go off the rates when it was last connected to wifi or data). However, it still gives a great ballpark estimate and is a great accessory to use with Splitwise.

TripAdvisor

Most people are familiar with the TripAdvisor website. It is a great place to go when starting to plan a trip or posing a question on one of the forums. The site allows for you to book tours, hotels, rental cars, and restaurants. It also allows for you to look at reviews for all of these services, as well as find lists of things to do at each destination.

The TripAdvisor App offers the same services, only on a convenient mobile interface. You can easily access the “Things To Do” for quick planning on the go, or book that river cruise while drinking wine on a balcony over looking the Danube.

Alternatives: While I love TripAdvisor, I also use other sites with similar services. VisitACity is a great app for offline city guides. You can download city maps and attractions over wifi/data before you leave, and use the app to navigate your way through cities like Paris, Barcelona, and Prague.

A great option for free itineraries!

Local city apps. Many cities will have their own apps to use to book tours, find information, or buy transportation tickets. It’s worth taking a few minutes before you board your flight to investigate. Many of these apps also offer discounts on dining and bus/boat tours.

Spotted By Locals is also a great city app, offering guides to over 80 cities. The information here is for people looking to get out of the tourist loop and into more “local” attractions and restaurants. Each guide does cost about $4, so it is not my favorite, but maybe something to consider.

Transportation Apps

It may crash at times, but it is a great rail app. I promise.

Uber is an obvious favorite. For the countries and cities that allow Uber, it is a great choice to catch a ride easily around town. However, Uber is not offered everywhere, so it is worth researching other travel options. Many cities have their own taxi apps, which make hailing/paying for a cab easy and safe. (Check out this app for Budapest’s taxi app, Bolt).

You will also want to download the app for whatever train service will be in your area. For example, while living in Scotland, I depended on Scotrail to get me around. This app allowed for easy booking for trains, access to timetables, and updates on delays.

Where do you want to go? London? Edinburgh? Glasgow? All of the above, please.

Many Americans are familiar with the rail app, Eurail. While you can book train tickets for all of Europe on this site, you will be paying a premium for that convenience. For those looking to save money, you will need to go to the specific countries website/app to book the cheapest tickets. German’s rail site (Bahn.de) also offers a great app to use (just be sure to click the “EN” at the top of these sites for the English option).

Trainline is also a great option for trips that go across country lines.

Mobile Passport

Download before you go to skip the line!

Mobile Passport is one of my favorite apps for international trips. You will need to set-up your free account before you board your flight back to the US, but you will only need to do this once (if you keep the app loaded on your phone).

This app lets you bypass those long lines at US customs. Instead of filling out one of the customs forms on the plane, you complete the questionnaire on the app once you touchdown in the US. Once you get off the plane, you will then head towards the “Mobile Passport” lane, which is much faster and shorter than the typical route. This is an easier and cheaper alternative to Global Entry.

While not every Port of Entry utilizes Mobile Passport, most international flights will have this option. Be sure to download this app before your departure, and enjoy the blissful feeling of painlessly navigating through Border Control on your return.

Conclusion

These are just a few of my favorite apps to use while traveling. I’ve found that they really help me enjoy a location without stressing about the smaller details.

Have a favorite app you’d like to share? Drop a comment below or send us an email. I’m always looking to expand my app-ertise (see what I did there?).

Posted in International Travel

An Ode to Amsterdam

Ah, Amsterdam. I always get funny looks when I say it’s my favorite place in the world. From the Red Light District to the famous coffee shops (that don’t sell coffee!) it certainly has a reputation to those who only know the basics. But Amsterdam is so much more than those things. One day, I’ll hit the lotto and buy myself a houseboat, spending the rest of my days parked on the side of an idyllic canal, gently rocking back and forth sipping coffee and people-watching to my heart’s content.

Despite it being a favorite destination for raucous bachelor and bachelorette parties, I think Amsterdam should be enjoyed as a quiet vacation. The city has a stillness and a comfortableness that is ideal for someone who wants to unplug and just exist in a new place. It’s a place of history and literature, art and philosophy. There are things to do and see, and it has lively (and sexually uninhibited) nightlife, but the charm of Amsterdam is its cheerful, easy existence. Sleep in, stroll slowly, and enjoy.

I’ve been to Amsterdam at different times of the year, and each season has its perks. In winter, the city is quiet. The tourists have opted for warmer shores, the days are shorter, and the streets a little emptier. In spring and summer it’s a lively, colorful place, filled with partiers, outdoor diners and drinkers, and a never ending tide of bicycles.

The glory of Amsterdam is the atmosphere. There is a joy permeating the air, no matter the season, a feeling of pride and love for the city from the locals, a feeling of awe and excitement from visitors. This isn’t the place to go to have an adventure. It’s the place to go to have a rest.

One thing you should be adventurous about is the food. Eat at the restaurants, but also stop in to the little shops that have hot food vending machines- a fun novelty experience as well as a delicious meal. Pick something with a completely unfamiliar name and take a bite. Enjoy the most popular pub food in Amsterdam, bitterballen, little fried balls of meat that were crunchy on the outside and soft and delicious on the inside. Enjoy a cone full of freshly made fries, steaming hot and smothered in any sauce you choose.  And don’t forget to end your meal with a stroopwafel, warm and gooey and so, so good.

Check out Greenwoods for a fantastic breakfast!

It’s hard for me to choose my favorite food, my favorite book, my favorite TV show. I like too many of them too much to be that specific. But if you ask me what my favorite place to travel is, I’m always going to say Amsterdam. I’ll always choose to visit here whenever I can, whether it be a budget trip in a cheap hostel or a splurge trip in a nice canal-side apartment. I’ve written poems about it. I’ve read novels specifically because they were set in Amsterdam. I have pictures of it on my wall. I’ve spent hours talking about it. It’s a place, for me, that never stops being magical.  

It’s a place where I can take a deep breath, in and out, and just live.

Of course, there are things to put on your to-do list when visiting Amsterdam. Here’s a few that I would recommend:

A canal tour: Yes, it’s a cheesy touristy thing to do, but there’s no better way to see the whole city than to hop on one of these tour boats and listen to your audio guide discuss the history and architecture of the place.

The Anne Frank House: A somber and humanizing experience that will stay with you long after you leave. Make sure to book tickets well in advance- the tickets sell out quickly and you most likely won’t be able to get a spot the day-of.

The Van Gogh Museum: What can I say about the Van Gogh museum that isn’t obvious? It’s a shrine to one of the greatest artists and minds in history, and walking through the halls of this museum, you’ll find he was so much more than just Starry Night.

The sunflowers are always worth a visit!

Visit a coffee shop: Ok, here’s the deal. The cafés in Amsterdam are just that- cafés. The coffee shops might sell coffee, but their main fare is different variations of THC. It’s an experience that will soon be commonplace as more and more places legalize weed, but it’s still something you should experience if you go there. (But hurry up- soon, only locals will be able to spark up!) Do your research, and take it slow.

Bloemenmarkt: If you’re looking for something that is quintessential Amsterdam, look no further than this floating flower market. If you’re staying in an AirBnB, buying some tulips or sunflowers from the market is a great way to make your place feel more home-y, but you don’t have to buy anything to experience the magic. If you’re there in the winter, you won’t find any fresh tulips, but there are wooden ones to buy as a souvenir!