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Europe’s Imperial City: Exploring Vienna, Austria

Europe’s Imperial City: Exploring Vienna, Austria

Vienna, Austria’s capital city and former royal seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Due to its imperialist history, the historic districts of Vienna drip in opulence, now accessible to the non-royal among us. Few cities in Europe boast attractions to suit nearly every kind of traveler; those who love Paris will likely fall head-over-heels for the City of Music. Exploring Vienna is well worth a long week-end or more, as there are so many incredible things to see and do in this historic capital.

What to see in Vienna

Schönbrunn Palace

One of my favorite places in Vienna, and arguably my favorite palace in Europe, the Schönbrunn Palace is worth a day to itself. It’s the former summer residence of the imperial Habsburg family, and it wasn’t destroyed during the 20th century due to its location just outside of the city center. Of course, historically, the palace was located well outside of the city, but now it’s just a quick metro ride from the city center.

Steps of Schonbrunn Palace

There is a lovely audio-guided tour of the palace; you’ll want to purchase tickets in advance and try to grab the first tour of the day to avoid some large group tours throughout the guided route. If you’re very interested in the history, you might also consider a private tour of the palace with a local guide who will explain details throughout the tour route you never would have noticed otherwise. You can book such a tour directly through the palace website.

Once you’re done with the palace tour, take a hike up to the Gloriette on the hill overlooking Schönbrunn. The Gloriette was unfortunately destroyed during the Second World War, but has since been reconstructed and provides the perfect place from which to admire the gardens of the palace. You can climb to the top of the Gloriette, but even from ground-level, you will not find better views of Schönbrunn.

The gardens of the Schönbrunn Palace are just over 1 square kilometer, and include a zoo, Orangerie, and many sculptures and impressively designed gardens. The gardens themselves are open free-of-charge, which means you’ll often see joggers and families strolling throughout the day.

Belvedere Palace

The Bevedere Palace is another of Vienna’s beautiful palaces, but was not originally a property of the imperial family. Rather, this Baroque palace was built by Prince Eugene of Savoy as a summer residence. The complex is actually made of three major structures: the Upper Palace, the Lower Palace, and the Orangerie. Later, the palace became the property of the Habsburg family, and was the location of the wedding of Marie Antoinette to the French Dauphin in 1770. The Belvedere Palace also became one of the first public museums in the world, when the monarchy opened its picture gallery to the public in 1781.

Today, the Belvedere Palace still serves that purpose as a public museum, showcasing some of the most important works of Vienna’s Fin-de-siècle, including Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. If you have time, a private tour of the museum (at 90€) is incredible for art enthusiasts. If you don’t have the time or funds for such an endeavor, the audio guide will make an excellent substitute to take you through Vienna’s art history through the collection at Upper Belvedere. The gardens between the Upper and Lower Palace are also stunning, although naturally smaller than those at Schönbrunn.

Spanish Riding School

The Spanish Riding School is the oldest equestrian school of the Haute Ecole style in the world, founded in the late-16th century. The school is a riding school for Lipizzaner stallions, which perform today in the Winter Palace in central Vienna. The horses are trained in classic dressage style, but with movements designed to enhance the build of these particular horses bred for the purpose.

Spanish Riding School in Vienna

Visitors can come to a performance of the Spanish Riding School, or view the daily morning exercises. Having seen both, I would recommend the morning exercises to the casual observer; the tickets are less expensive and seats are not reserved. Because of this, you can have excellent seats for the exercises (seeing the same movements as are done at the performances), but for a fraction of the cost. Just be sure to arrive as early as possible for the best possible seats!

If you’re particularly interested in the history of these imperial horses, I highly recommend the guided tour as a complement to a performance or morning exercises. The guided tour takes you “backstage” to see the stables where the horses are kept, and allows you to learn about the history of the school and horses. You’ll see the tack room, the exercise rings, and you’ll be able to see the interior of the beautiful indoor arena (complete with chandeliers) without anyone else filling the seats! I prefer this tour over a visit to the Winter Palace (the Hofburg), because the interiors of that palace have been turned into a museum dedicated solely to the Empress Sisi, while the Spanish Riding School allows you an authentic look into a bit of the monarchical history of Austria.

Vienna Opera House

The Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) is one of the most famous in the world, and for good reason. It opened its doors in 1869 with a performance of Mozart’s Don Juan, and has continued to produce world-renowned performances until today. Now, the Vienna Opera features 350 performances per year in one of the most beautiful theatres in the world.

Vienna State Opera from outside

If you’re interested in seeing a backstage look at the Vienna Opera, you can join a guided tour on the hour in English, German, or Spanish. Tours in Italian, French, Russian, and Japanese are also available by prior arrangement.

In case you aren’t up for purchasing tickets to see a performance in the theatre, you may also view projected performances live outside the Vienna Opera in April, May, June, and September through Vienna’s “Oper live am Platz” program.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Stephansplatz is likely destination for any visit to Vienna. The square is right in the center of Vienna, and is towered over by Stephansdom, or St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Despite the deceptive German name, St. Stephen’s Cathedral doesn’t have a Dome like St. Paul’s in Vatican, but is rather a Gothic cathedral. The unique beauty of this particular cathedral lies in its roof tiling, which has a beautiful, intricate pattern that glows in sunlight.

St Stephan's Cathedral Vienna

Guided tours of the cathedral are available in English from Monday to Saturday at 10:30 am. It’s also possible to climb the South Tower (affectionately known by locals as “Steffl”), which is 137 meters (just under 450 ft.) tall.

Where to stay in Vienna

Vienna is such a diverse city, and likewise has incredibly diverse options for accommodation. If you’re more of a budget traveler, I highly recommend the Wombat City Hostel Naschmarkt. While technically a hostel, Wombat offers private ensuite rooms that would lead you to believe you’re in a hotel, along with a buffet breakfast option. The location of this hostel, though, is the real reason to stay! The Naschmarkt area of Vienna is one of the best places to stay in the city to soak up a little local culture while being close enough to explore all of the major attractions. The Naschmarkt itself is the largest outdoor market in Vienna, with over 100 food and dining stalls.

Where to eat in Vienna

Vienna can be a tough city for eating, particularly in the city center near Stepansplatz, because it lends itself to be on the high-end scale in this area. There are, however, plenty of great options throughout the city, and Vienna is one of those cities where international cuisine reigns supreme. Naturally, you can’t have a trip to Vienna without a taste of wiener schnitzel, apple strudel, or sacher dort, but these can easily be found in any traditional cafe or restaurant in the city.

For some other options, I highly recommend the neighborhood surrounding Naschmarkt. The market itself is a great source of local, inexpensive take-away food as well as some great sit-down dining options. Yak and Yeti, not far from Naschmarkt, is a great Nepalese restaurant. If you’re looking for something even more low-key, El Burro is an excellent Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood- also surrounded by great bars, cafes, and other restaurants.

With the Schönbrunn Palace gardens, you’ll find loads of cafes and restaurants. My favorite by far in spring and summer is the Landtmann’s Parkcafé (closed only in winter). This is an outdoor-only restaurant with great food and drinks, hidden away in the gardens and generally ignored by tourists who don’t know to look for it.

Vienna is such an incredible central European city. It’s an excellent city to combine with travel to nearby Bratislava, Prague, or Budapest, as all are well within 4 hours by train from Vienna’s city center. No matter if you’re interested in history, art, culture, food, or any other facet of travel, Vienna has something for everyone!

Explore Vienna, Austria by visiting Vienna's beautiful and opulent palaces. Exploring Vienna, Austria means stepping into history to experience Austrian culture, learn about Vienna's art history and architecture, and exploring Vienna's sites. #travel #vienna #austria

Interested in visiting Vienna, but don’t know where to start? Book a travel consultation with me, and I’ll help you to plan your perfect trip from start to finish! What a more detailed travel guide for Vienna? Check out my “3 Days in Vienna” travel guide and itinerary!

Please note that some links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book using the link on my website, I’ll be paid a percentage of your booking fee at absolutely no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my blog by using these links! As always, all opinions are my own, and all recommendations are based on my own personal experience.

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Visiting the Eternal City: Rome

Visiting the Eternal City: Rome

Rome, the Eternal City, is a beacon for history, architecture, food, fashion, and culture lovers alike. There is something in Rome to please essentially any traveler, so there’s no wonder that Rome is often the first Italian destination for most tourists. More than 4 million people visit Rome each year, which makes it very easy to become lost in crowds at the most famous sites in the city. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to experience Rome relatively crowd-free!

Where to Stay

Rome is quite a large city, so it can be overwhelming to figure out the best place to stay. I chose to stay in the Jewish Quarter of the city, which is just across the river from the famous Trastevere neighborhood, one of the more interesting in Rome.

The Hotel Monte Cenci was the perfect hotel- the staff were incredible, the rooms were clean (and air conditioned, a luxury in the summer!), and the rooftop garden was the absolute perfect place to indulge in a lovely breakfast each morning. Further, the hotel was only a few minutes’ walk from excellent restaurants in Trastevere, as well as many of Rome’s most famous attractions. The most basic room in Hotel Monte Cenci is stunning, but the fanciest room even has a private balcony from which you can enjoy a lovely glass of wine.

If you’re looking for another hotel in Rome, I recommend staying in a similar area, as it’s far less touristy (at least outwardly) than the areas surrounding some of the larger tourist attractions. This general area is an excellent base for exploring Rome without placing yourself directly in the center of the tourists overwhelming the very center of the city.

What to see in Rome:

There are a million things to see in Rome, so how could you possible know where to start? Okay, maybe not an actual million, but the list is really quite long. These are my picks for the best places to see in Rome, especially for first-timers without limitless time:

​Vatican and the Vatican Museum

One of the most-visited places in Rome isn’t even “in” Rome! You don’t need your passport to cross these international borders, however, only a good game-plan to beat the crowds. Vatican is the Pope’s city nestled within Rome sitting on top of the supposed location of St. Peter’s tomb.

The large majority of Vatican is actually closed to visitors, but the small portion that is available to visit is absolutely incredible. The Vatican Museum boasts one of the most incredible art collections in the world, including the Sistine Chapel, home of the Michelangelo’s fresco masterpiece on the ceiling. To visit the Vatican, I would recommend booking on to a tour- not only for the information, but also for the crowd-control expertise. There are thousands upon thousands of people in the museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, so having a local expert to navigate through the space is key, especially because you get the historical background as well.

I chose Context Travel for my tour of Vatican because they guarantee small tour group sizes and local expert guides. My tour of Vatican with our guide was really incredible, so while the tour ticket price may be higher than some competitors, I think that the experience Context provides is truly unparalleled.

After your tour of the museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, I encourage you to climb to the top of the Dome on the Basilica. The views from the top are the best you’ll find in the city. There’s an elevator that brings you about 2/3 of the way there, so it’s not nearly as bad as some other cathedrals in Europe.

Haven’t settled on Rome? Check out this amazing comparison between Paris and Rome from Our Escape Clause! 

Castel Sant’Angelo

The Castel Sant’Angelo was originally built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as his own mausoleum, but was later taken over by the Catholic church for use as a castle and prison beginning in the 14th century. The Castel Sant’Angelo is perfectly lovely to explore on your own, but I recommend first participating in the guided tours of the Secret Castle before exploring the rest of the public rooms on your own.

The Secret Castle tour (provided by the museum itself) gives you behind-the-scenes access to parts of the castle that you’d never normally see, plus the historical context to inform the rest of your own visit. Most importantly for me (and any The Da Vinci Code fans) is the access to the secret passage between the Castel Sant’Angelo and Vatican that the tour gives you- at least until the Vatican gates which are still shut for public access.

The Secret Castle tours are currently available daily at 10:00 am and 4:00 pm in English. You can purchase your tickets to the museum and for the tour at the same time at the ticket desk at the castle- no need to buy “skip the line” access tickets from the street hawkers, this is one of the attractions in Rome that doesn’t get the long lines you’ll see elsewhere.

The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill

I group the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill together because they’re all in the same general area, and they’re generally visited together. I would argue that a visit to one is not complete without the others, as together, they present a more complete image of the life and history of Ancient Rome.

Like with the Vatican, these are some of the sites that are most-visited by tourists, and are the most overwhelming to visit independently. Because none of these sites provide particularly detailed information for the guide-free visitors, I opted to book the Roma Antica tour with Context Travel. Because of the small group size that Context offers, as well as a guaranteed expert on the topic at hand, I knew I would have a good experience visiting the most important archeological sites in Rome- and I was right! Our Context guide was clearly an expert, and with only 4 people on the tour (my mom and I plus a mother/son pair), we were able to ask all of the questions we wanted without holding anyone up. We were also able to sneak through the giant 50-person tour groups with relative ease, and with no headsets!

The Colosseum is one of the most incredible archeological sites that I’ve ever seen. It’s truly amazing to consider the events that occurred there, the number of spectators the stadium could hold, and its history during and after the fall of the Roman Empire. There are so many hidden secrets within the magnificent arches of this ancient amphitheater, it’s truly worth exploring.

The Roman Forum was the piece of Roman antiquity I was most excited to see, as it was truly the heart of life in this ancient city. There are so many incredible pieces of history throughout the Forum to explore that create a unique picture of what life may have been like.

Palatine Hill was the piece of Roman antiquity that I had very little knowledge of prior to my visit, but was the most surprised by! Many skip Palatine Hill thinking there isn’t much to see- but there’s arguably more to see in this area than high-traffic areas of Rome. It was the site of most of the imperial palaces of the Roman empire, the remains of which are still available for exploration. This is the part of the Roman archeological sites where it would truly benefit to have a guide, as many of the ruins are indistinguishable from the next until you’ve had someone explain the structure- afterwards, the history truly comes alive!

Domus Aurea

This is a little-known archeological site situated next to the Colosseum that deserves some more attention. Domus Aurea is the lavish palace of Roman Emperor Nero. The palace itself didn’t last long, because after Nero’s suicide, the Romans hoped to promptly forget about Nero and his corruption and extravagance. Much of the palace is still un-excavated, but the part that is available to visit is meant to be an unparalleled experience in Rome. Note that the site is only open on Saturdays and Sundays, so you must plan your visit around its limited hours.

Pantheon

Built in ancient Rome and completed by Hadrian, the Pantheon was built as a temple to all of the Gods (hence, the name). It’s one of the most well-preserved Roman temples, and that’s largely due to the fact that it was taken over by the Catholic church in the 7th century, and has been used since as a place of Catholic worship. The temple features extraordinary Corinthian columns and marble that give us excellent insight into how many of Rome’s other temples may have been decorated before falling into disrepair. Now, the Pantheon also holds the tombs of Raphael, the important Renaissance artist, as well as the Italian royal tombs.

The Pantheon’s audio guide is a great way to experience the temple. I recommend downloading the Official Pantheon App to use your own device as an audio guide in the space. Otherwise, you can rent an audio guide on a phone from the shop desk inside the temple.

Piazza Trilussa

Piazza Trilussa isn’t so much a site in Rome as it as a meeting point of people from all over the city and world. On summer nights, you’ll find live musicians set up in the piazza and locals sitting on the steps under the fountain enjoying the atmosphere and each others’ company. This is the perfect place to grab a bottle of wine or cup of gelato before or after dinner to soak up some local culture and relax the way that Romans do!

Where to eat in Rome:

When visiting Rome, it’s easy to think that the trip will be one excellent culinary experience after the other and that’s largely the case. Italian cuisine is some of the best in the world, but it’s important to find the local eateries rather than those geared towards tourists to have enjoyable meals.

Dar Poeta is easily one of the best pizza places I’ve ever been to, including those in Naples! It’s a tiny little restaurant in a side street in Trastevere, and is clearly a local’s spot despite some of the tourists mixed into the crowd. This may be because the prices at Dar Poeta are incredible in comparison to some of the (worse quality) pizza found around Rome- expect to spend less than €10 for dinner. The tables are packed pretty close together, but for me, that’s part of the special ambience of this low-key restaurant.

Osteria da Zi Umberto is easily one of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at- ever. It’s almost impossible to get a table without a reservation (I ended up waiting for 3 hours on my last night in Rome, worth it), so I would recommend calling ahead if you can. This is the kind of restaurant where you’ll want an antipasti, primi piatti, and secondi piatti, just to try everything. Oh, and dessert, obviously.

Ristorante Piperno is supposedly one of the longest-running restaurants in Rome, opening in 1860. It’s located right next to the Hotel Monte Cenci, which is how I initially stumbled upon it- it was a convenient option for jet-lagged travelers whose beds were right next door. Fortunately, Piperno did not disappoint! The food was really excellent, and the atmosphere was great. We were told we were lucky to get a table without a reservation, so it’s best to book ahead if you’re looking to try it out.

Terrazza Caffarelli is a café located on top of the Musei Capitolini. The restaurant itself is fine, the food is pretty good, the service is lack-luster, but the real reason to visit is the view. Even if you go only for a photo op, or to have a glass of wine, I recommend the trek to this rooftop which is generally unknown by the herds of tourists below.

As I recommend in all major cities, if one of these restaurants doesn’t strike your fancy, wander the side streets to find an alternative! Any restaurant in Rome with menus posted in 10 different languages, photos of pizza outside the restaurant, or waiters begging you to come inside won’t have good food. Look for the places like Osteria da Zi Umberto with a line of Romans out the door- those are the spots you want to wait for!

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Interested in visiting Rome, but don’t know where to start? Book a travel consultation with me, and I’ll help you to plan your perfect trip from A to Z!

Please note that some links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book using the link on my website, I’ll be paid a percentage of your booking fee at absolutely no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my blog by using these links! As always, all opinions are my own, and all recommendations are based on my own personal experience. This post was not sponsored by any hotel or hotel group.

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A Journey to the Ancient World: Athens, Greece

A Journey to the Ancient World: Athens, Greece

Athens is known for being the cradle of democracy of the ancient world. Naturally, millions of tourists visit the city every year to discover the ancient world whose stones rest amongst the modern stones of today’s Athens. Because it is a heavily visited city, it can be tricky to find a way to visit that doesn’t have you standing in massive lines or unable to see the sites because of the crowds. After several visits leading tour groups to Athens, I’m happy to say that I’ve found a great plan for getting the most out of the city, with some hidden treasures along the way.

Where to stay in Athens

While many visitors coming to Athens come through on cruise ships, you may (hopefully will) be planning an overnight visit to this city. Athens really deserves several days of exploration to fully understand the rhythm of the city alongside its ancient counterpart. I’ve stayed at a few hotels throughout Athens, and by far, A for Athens has been the best. It’s located right on Monastiraki Square with views of the Acropolis, Hadrian’s Library, Mt. Lycabettus, and most other important sites of Athens from its rooftop. Suites and rooms are available with stunning views of the Acropolis, but even the most basic rooms at this hotel will have you feeling like you’re in a Greek oasis.

Photo provided by A for Athens hotel

What to see and do in Athens

There are a million things to see in Athens, so you have plenty to keep you busy for several days! This is my list of some of the most important sites, and the best way to see them. As the opening hours of these sites change frequently, I encourage you to visit an official tourist information office at the beginning of your stay to get an updated list of opening days and hours for each site.

The Acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens is certainly a highlight of a visit to this city. Sitting squarely in the middle of the old town of the city, it’s hard to miss from almost any angle of Athens, and it’s the perfect place to start your trip. I recommend getting to the Acropolis as soon as it opens in the morning to avoid some of the crowds, otherwise you’ll have to battle your way to the top of the rock. The Acropolis is one of the few archeological sites in Athens that’s open in the morning all the way through the afternoon, so it’s good to take advantage of its early hours.

Atop the Acropolis, you will find the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Temple of Erechtheion as the most important structures. Of course, because you’re on the top of one of the tallest hills in the city, you’ll also have panoramic views over the Athens metropolis until the city seems to touch the sea.

The Ancient Agora

Upon first glance, the Ancient Agora doesn’t seem like a place worth spending too much time aside from being a nice-looking garden. I actually find the Ancient Agora to be one of the most interesting and beautiful places in Athens, but you need to spend the time exploring it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an Agora was “a public open space used for assemblies and markets” in Ancient Greece. There were Agoras in most Greek city-states, and it can be compared to the Forums of ancient Rome.

The first stop on a visit to the Ancient Agora will likely be the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, which is now a museum. This is one of my favorite places in the Agora because, although it isn’t original, I think it’s incredible to see a structure reconstructed in such a way as to be able to imagine how the entire area would have looked and functioned. The Stoa of Attalos is a beautiful, columned building with large, open spaces that are easy to marvel at.

The other notable site of the Ancient Agora is the Temple of Hephaistos, which sits upon a hill within the Agora area. It’s incredibly well-preserved, especially compared to the Parthenon, so it’s really interesting to spend some time there to see how an ancient temple in this style would look in its (near) entirety.

The Roman Agora & Hadrian’s Library

These are two different sites, but they lie adjacent to each other and are easily visited in sequence. Rome gained control of the Greek peninsula in the 2nd century B.C. after the defeat of the Corinthians, so there are several Roman ruins to be found in Athens amongst the Ancient Greek ruins. Further, many of the Ancient Greek sites were repurposed as Roman sites which prevented the Romans from having to undergo significant construction work in Athens. For example, the Parthenon was changed from a temple dedicated to Athena to the Roman goddess, Minerva- a “rebranding” if you will!

The Roman Agora was a central meeting point for the Roman city, much the same way as the Ancient Agora was a meeting point. In the 3rd century A.D., the commercial center of Athens was transferred from the Ancient Agora to the Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library, so these sites were the some of the most significant during the Roman period. While much smaller than their Ancient Greek counterparts, both sites are interesting and worth a visit during a trip to Athens. If not traveling there with a guide, it’s important to read the information boards, as few complete structures remain, so some imagination is important to piece together these areas today.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus

Started by the Ancient Greeks and completed by Hadrian during the Roman period, the Temple of Olympian Zeus differs in architecture from its peers across Athens. Instead of slender, elegant columns like those displayed on the Parthenon, the Temple of Olympian Zeus has thick and beautiful Corinthian columns. Most of the temple’s original 104 columns are no longer there, but 15 stunning columns remain that only hint at the temple’s original prominence.

Mount Lycabettus

The weather in Athens can make hiking sound too ambitious for some, but a hike up Mount Lycabettus, a hill standing 277 meters above sea level, is well worth the effort. This particular hill sits in the middle of the high-end neighborhood of Kolonaki, and is one of the best ways to get a bird’s eye view of the city. It’s the tallest hill in the city, so if a hike isn’t for you, you can also try the Lycabettus Cable Car. While this funicular is inside the mountain, so the ride doesn’t provide the same views that the hike would, it does cut out some of the hike up the hill so that you can enjoy the views at the top. Keep in mind, however, that Kolonaki is also located on a hill, so there is still some hill and stair climbing to get to the entrance to the cable car. Once at the top, there is a small church (St. George Church) and a look-out platform, as well as a cafe.

Photo provided royalty-free by Graham-H

Acropolis Museum

The Acropolis Museum, completed in 2007 is one of the newer exhibitions in Athens, and it shows when visiting. This particular museum does an excellent job of displaying a wide range of artifacts, particularly focusing on excavation of the Acropolis, while providing detailed and interesting information that moves visitors along in a logical path. I find that this museum is reasonably easy to visit without a guide, as it’s very well laid out with plenty of English-friendly information.

The National Archeological Museum

The National Archeological Museum of Athens is another interesting museum for those interested in ancient artifacts. Within this museums, visitors will find the golden Mask of Agamemnon, a Roman adaptation of the large statue of Athena once housed in the Parthenon, amongst many other unique and interesting items from throughout Greek and Athenian history.

This museum, however, is somewhat more difficult to manage without a guide as explanations about each item are relatively scarce. Guided tours are offered by licensed guides of the museum, and I highly recommend participating in one if you’re particularly interested in these artifacts. I often visit Athens, and I always hire Andromache as a guide- not only for this museum, but also for the ancient sites of Athens. You certainly can’t go wrong visiting with Andromache, she presents the best information about Athens and its history in an incredibly interesting way! I personally find this museum to be as interesting, if not more so, than others in Athens provided you have a good guide to lead the way.

Visit Anafiotika

Anafiotika is a very small neighborhood of Athens located just underneath the Acropolis in Plaka. The architecture here may look similar to photos you’ve seen of Greek islands, like Santorini, but in fact, you haven’t left the city center! Workers from the Cycladic Islands had come to Athens to help with construction at the start of King Otto’s reign in the mid-19th century, and built a cluster of buildings resembling those on the islands from which they came.

Anafiotika

It’s not a big neighborhood, but it is a beautiful little walk and an excellent way to escape the crowds, as almost no one knows this place exists!

Journey to the Southern Coast

A trip to Greece can’t possibly be complete without a trip to the coast. A little less than two hours south of the city is Sounio, and the Temple of Poseidon. This particular temple is my favorite (so far!) in all of Greece. It sits high on a bluff overlooking what is seemingly the end of the world, but in reality is the sparkling Aegean Sea. The Greeks built the Temple of Poseidon to placate the god Poseidon after it was decided that the Parthenon in Athens would be dedicated to the goddess Athena.

The temple itself is impressive, but the surrounding scenery is what makes it worth an entire trip outside of Athens. I recommend a late-afternoon trip to the Temple of Poseidon so that you can catch one of the most spectacular sunsets from the temple at the end of your visit- there is no better way to end a day while visiting the Greek capital! There is a public bus that goes from central Athens to Sounio, but be sure to check the schedule just before your visit in case there are any changes. Rome2Rio is a great site for checking local bus routes! In case you don’t want to catch the public bus, there are plenty of tour companies throughout Athens offering trips to this site.

Where to eat in Athens

Athens, like other international cities, is full of interesting and varied cuisines to try. Of course, Greek food in Athens is plentiful, and delicious! As in any other city, I recommend staying far away from restaurants that 1. have photos on the menu, 2. have staff outside coaxing you to come inside, and 3. have menus displayed only in languages other than Greek. You want to go where the Greeks go!

Aiolou Street, just off of Monastiraki Square, is an excellent pedestrian street full of great choices for food. If you walk around 15 minutes away from the Square through the pedestrian area, you’ll come to a part of the road that has several great options in one relative place that are clearly frequented by young locals.

  • Sq. Bar is a local bar/cafe/restaurant with low-cost food and drinks in a great atmosphere. They have a ton of outdoor seating, as well as indoor seating with large windows letting in the cool Greek breeze for you to enjoy.
  • Odori Vermuteria Di Atene is an Italian restaurant with excellent, fresh food.
  • Harvest Coffee & Wine is a great cafe/wine bar

Aside from my suggestions, there are loads more to try in the area, so it’s worth exploring at dinner-time!

On Monastiraki Square, the A for Athens Cocktail Bar & Restaurant is an excellent choice if you’re looking for great views of Plaka and the Acropolis. This bar overlooks Monastiraki Square, and is on the rooftop of the hotel that I recommend. The food is a little pricey, but it’s very good, as are the cocktails and wine. This place gets extremely busy in the evenings, so reservations are recommended- particularly for larger groups or if you want a coveted spot on the top-most terrace for unobstructed views.

 

Athens is such an incredible city to visit; it’s ideal for a relaxing holiday, an action-packed trip, or a deep dive into history. The city itself has certainly been affected by the country’s recent and ongoing economic crisis, but the spirit of Athens lives on as I’m sure it has for hundreds of years. The kindness and optimism of the Greek people at large never ceases to amaze me.

 

Visit Athens, Greece, one of the most beautiful and ancient cities in Europe. Interested in ruins, history, and excellent foodie travel? Head to Athens to explore one of the most ancient cities in Europe! #athens #greece #travel

 

If you’re interested in visiting Athens, and would like my expert advice to plan your trip, please book a travel consultation with me! I can help you plan your trip from A to Z to ensure you get those most there is to see and do in Athens.

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Please note that some links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book using the link on my website, I’ll be paid a percentage of your booking fee at absolutely no extra cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own, and all recommendations are based on my own personal experience.

 

A Guide to Krakow, Poland

A Guide to Krakow, Poland

Krakow is such an incredible city that has been rising in popularity, and for good reason! The city is full of charm, history, art, good food, and beautiful sites. Krakow’s history is unfortunately rifled with tragedy, particularly throughout the Second World War, but much of the medieval history is incredibly unique and beautiful. Krakow was once the Polish kingdom’s great capital, and it has maintained much of its original charm and beauty with a historical center that is still surrounded by some of its 13th century city walls. Many tourists visit Krakow with the intended excursion to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial. While this memorial is incredibly powerful and important to visit, there are many sites worth visiting in Krakow and surrounding area that make Krakow an excellent destination for a long weekend.

DSC_2363

Where to stay:

Krakow is a relatively small city, and it is easily walkable, so fortunately there are really no bad places to stay. If you’re looking to be in the heart of the old town, the Santi Hotel is an excellent historic option steeped in luxury. If this hotel isn’t quite in your price point, the Mały Kraków is a great alternative. It’s located just a couple of minutes from the Barbican gate, and it is perfectly clean and well taken care of.

If you don’t feel the need to be within the historic city walls, then I recommend spending your nights in Kazimierz! Kazimierz is the historic Jewish Quarter, so it is still packed with loads of history, but it has more local places to eat and drink. Additionally, the feel and culture of this area is vastly different from that in the historic center, so if you’re looking to avoid a touristy experience, this is the place to be. The Spatz Aparthotel is the place to stay in Kazimierz. The rooms are lovely, the location is perfect, the staff is wonderful, and the breakfast is delicious. I can’t recommend this hotel more highly! The Kazimierz district is the perfect place to stay in Krakow because it’s close walking distance to the historic center, but it’s a much more local area.

How to spend your time in Krakow:

As I recommend in many cities, Krakow is best first explored with a local guide who can point out all of the things that you’d miss otherwise. Free Walkative Tour is a great free walking tour company that operates in the city. They have a few different walking tour options, so you can pick one which best suits your interests. I recommend starting with a tour of Old Town Krakow, as this will give you great insight into the medieval history of the former capital of the Kingdom of Poland.

A stop at Wawel Hill to visit the castle and cathedral of Krakow is a must! The cathedral is the burial place of the historic royal family of Poland, amongst many other famous personalities. If you’re interested in Polish history, a tour through the cathedral with their audioguide will walk you step by step through the most important chapters in Polish history. During your visit to the cathedral, you’ll have the chance to climb into the cathedral’s bell tower, which I highly recommend. From the tower’s vantage point, you’ll have an incredible view over the historic city of Krakow. As an added bonus, there’s a statue just below the castle along the river that breathes fire by text message command, or every 5 minutes!

Wawel Hill in Krakow

Once you’ve had some time to explore the historic city center of Krakow and Wawel Hill, you’ll want to make a stop in Kazimierz. Once the home of one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe due to relative religious tolerance throughout much of the city’s history, Kazimierz is an interesting neighborhood to explore. There are a couple of synagogues and cemeteries that will give you the history of the Jews in Krakow and Poland. The Old Synagogue is now a museum dedicated to the history of the Jews in Krakow, and is a cornerstone of the neighborhood. Beyond these museums and vestiges to past residents, the neighborhood of Kazimierz is now a booming cultural center of Krakow with great cafes, restaurants, bars, and nightlife. You’ll find many of the students of Krakow’s famous Jagiellonian University here in the evenings enjoying the somewhat alternative culture. While you’re there, you’ll want to try “zapiekanka”. These are a Polish take on french-bread pizzas, and are a fairly common street food in the city. Plac Nowy in Kazimierz is the best place to grab one to go. There is a small market in the square, and loads of stands with various food options, but most importantly zapiekanka. If you’re looking for some delicious Pierogies, I recommend Barfly, a lunch bar in the heart of Kazimierz.

Just across the Vistula River from Kazimierz is the former Jewish Ghetto of Krakow, made famous by films such as Schindler’s List. It was in this part of the city that the Nazis held the Jewish residents of Krakow and surrounding towns prior to their deportation from the city to various concentration and extermination camps in the region. Plac Bohaterow Getta (Ghetto Heros Square) is now a monument to those who were lost during the Second World War to the atrocities of the Third Reich and Nazi party. In this square, you’ll find chairs throughout, which symbolize the departure and absence of those who were brutally murdered.

Memorial to Ghetto Heros in Krakow

Side note: Please do not sit on the chairs. It breaks my heart every time I see a group of tourists posing for photos on chairs which represent the death of thousands of people.

On one corner of the square, you will find the Apteka Pod Orłem, The Eagle Pharmacy, which was the one non-Jewish business allowed to operate in the ghetto. Tadeusz Pankiewicz was one of the few non-Jews allowed into the ghetto, and as a result, he served as a witness to one of the worst atrocities in human history. Not only did he serve as a witness after the war, but he worked to help the residents of the ghetto as much as possible prior to their eventual deportation without ever being caught by the Nazis. This exhibition is very well-done as an interactive look into the lives of those living in the ghetto, and the work that Tadeusz Pankiewicz did in helping those he could despite the dangers he faced.

About 10 minutes from Plac Bohaterow Getta is the former site of Oskar Schindler’s factory, which is now a museum dedicated to life in Krakow during the occupation. While I know some have been disappointed that little of the museum is actually dedicated to Schindler and the stories of those he saved, the museum itself is interesting if you want to learn more about life in Krakow during the period.

​If you’re looking to take a trip outside of the city, you should check out the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the tour brings you through an underground salt mine that includes full rooms, chapels, carvings, and statues. If you can, try to catch this one on a week day, as it’s way less fun if you visit with a ton of other tourists. I also booked a bus tour in advance for the salt mine, just because it seemed easiest to hop on a bus with a built-in guide. Keep in mind that if you want to take photos, you’ll have to purchase a photo pass (fairly common in this part of Europe), so bring some money for this. There is a restaurant in the salt mines far underground that serves some fairly good Polish specialities, like Pierogies, so you may want to budget time for lunch while you’re there.

Visiting the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial:

Many tourists come to Krakow with one intention, to visit the infamous extermination and concentration camp complex known as Auschwitz. This camp, created by the Nazis during the Second World War, is located in the town of Oświęcim about an hour outside of Krakow, and was the largest concentration and extermination camp responsible for the murder of more than 1 million people. I have personally visited the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum five times, with more visits planned as a part of my full-time job, and I have to tell you that it never gets easier to visit. I believe that visiting this memorial is incredibly important. It’s one thing to read about the atrocities of the Holocaust, it’s another to see them in person.

The Auschwitz Memorial and Museum is actually divided into two parts, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz I was the concentration/prison portion of the camp originally created mainly for Polish political prisoners, and was not an extermination (or death) camp. Later, a gas chamber was installed and other prisoners were held there including Soviet POWs and other nationalities, but extermination was not carried out at the rate it was in the more famous Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. Birkenau is the camp featured in many films, with a railroad track running straight into the camp with a platform where families were separated for the “selection” process. In this case, those coming off the trains were either selected for death, or selected to live in horrific and torturous conditions. When planning a trip to the museum, a visit to both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau is important. In Auschwitz I, you will find the actual exhibition and museum, which explains exactly what happened, and to whom. The exhibition is held within the former barracks, and is truly heartbreaking. In Auschwitz II-Birkenau, you will visit the barracks which held the prisoners of the extermination camp. Additionally, at the very end of the railroad tracks, you will see the remains of the destroyed gas chambers (destroyed in an attempt to destroy evidence as the camp was approached by the Soviet army) and the memorial to those who were murdered in the languages of all people who were held and killed. Both portions of the museum and memorial are powerful and worth visiting.

Tours book quickly, so I recommend making a reservation in advance. The tour of both camps takes approximately 3-3.5 hours. There are buses from Krakow which stop outside of the Auschwitz I camp, where the ticket offices are located and the tours begin. You can also book a tour from the city of Krakow which will bring you with a private bus directly to the museum. As a visit to the Auschwitz museum is a long day including the travel time from Krakow, you will find a small cafe on site, as well as restrooms. Photos are allowed throughout some parts of the museum, but are forbidden in certain areas, so please follow all photography instructions carefully and be respectful of what you’re photographing, and how.

 

Krakow is an absolutely incredible city to visit on its own, or in conjunction with a trip to the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, as many visitors do. The city is one of the most historic in Poland, and is truly regal with a great deal of history, art, beautiful architecture, and amazing local culture. It’s the perfect city to visit for a long weekend, or for even a few more days if you’re interested in soaking up all there is to see.

Krakow, Poland

If you’re planning to visit Krakow and need some help planning your trip, book a travel consultation with me! I’ll be happy to plan out your itinerary to ensure that you get the most out of this beautiful city.

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Visit Krakow, Poland, the medieval gem of Eastern Europe. Krakow has amazing history, food, and architecture, and is so much more than a place to stop to visit the Auschwitz Memorial! Visit the city of Krakow, Poland for an incredible and unique Polish experience. #travel #Poland #Krakow

Please note that some links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book using the link on my website, I’ll be paid a percentage of your booking fee at absolutely no extra cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own, and all recommendations are based on my own personal experience.

 

New York City, USA

New York City, USA

New York City is one of the most incredible cities in the world. It is a complete mixing pot of all cultures, foods, languages, people, and sites to see, so there’s no wonder why it’s such a frequented tourist destination, too. There are a ton of things to keep a tourist occupied for quite a long visit, but this guide aims to break down the most important or interesting sites, in addition to some lesser known sites. I grew up about an hour north of NYC in the Hudson Valley, so while not exactly a New York City native, I spent years growing up visiting the city and sorting out the best things to do and to show to out-of-towners when they come to visit. So without further ado, here’s my travel guide to New York City!

New York City Meat Packing District

Where to stay in New York City: 

There’s no getting around the fact that staying in New York City is expensive, but there are some good options for various price ranges in New York. Airbnb has apartments and rooms all over New York, and offers budget travelers some great alternatives to the lack-luster hostel options available. (New to Airbnb? Use this coupon for $36 in travel credit on your first stay!)

Staying in New York isn’t so much about what type of accommodation you’re staying in, but where in the city it’s located. New York is absolutely massive, and each neighborhood has its own unique personality, so knowing a bit about the neighborhood you’re staying in is key! If you want a skyscraper, busy street, cab whizzing by experience, Midtown may be the neighborhood for you. There are certainly loads of hotels in this area, I recommend the Hampton Inn Manhattan Grand Central as a reasonably-priced option. The rooms here aren’t huge, but this hotel is in the perfect location. It’s just blocks from Grand Central station, and is also just down the street from the Chrysler Building. If you want to get to Times Square, you’re only about a 20-minute walk away as well. This hotel gives you the perfect “hustle and bustle” feel of staying in Midtown. Their rate also includes breakfast each morning, which is a bonus for saving some money throughout the day!

If you’re looking for a more historic vibe, a hotel near Wall St. is the perfect location for you! I know it may seem strange that staying on or near Wall St. isn’t both incredibly expensive and overwhelmingly high-powered, but it’s actually an incredibly unique part of the city. Wall St. is located right near the southern tip of Manhattan, and this was the first part of the city to be developed. This is the area where you find loads of cobbled streets, streets which are not in a grid, and varied architecture beyond the giant glass skyscrapers. Of course, this area is also full of loads of attractions; it’s actually one of my favorite places to stay when I’m in New York. The Holiday Inn Manhattan Financial District is a great hotel in this area. It’s within walking distance to the Freedom Tower and 9/11 Memorial, Wall St., Federal Hall, and Battery Park where the ferry leaves for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Although they don’t offer breakfast in all of the room rates, there are a bunch of great diners and delis nearby where you can easily grab a bagel or breakfast sandwich in the mornings.

If you’re okay with staying outside of Manhattan, you might want to look just over the river in Brooklyn or on the other side of Manhattan in New Jersey. Hoboken is a great little city, and has some great bars and such in its own right, but the PATH train connects right to Midtown, so you’ll have no problems getting in to the city.

Where to eat in New York City: 

It’s so hard to create an exhaustive list of the all of the “good places to eat” in New York City, so I’ll list some of my favorites (in no particular order):

  1. The Harlem Public is an awesome bar in an up-and-coming area that has a killer menu and beer selection.  They have a bunch of craft brews on tap, and this is also where you’ll find the famous peanut butter burger- definitely worth a stop if you’re looking to hit up a non-touristy watering hole. They have 2 sister restaurants now, At the Wallace and The Honeywell, which each have their own unique flavor. They’re all located on the same block, so this is a great place to spend an evening bar-hopping!
  2. Gallow Green at the McKittrick Hotel isn’t the typical hotel restaurant. The McKittrick isn’t in the business of renting rooms, but rather a performance art space with a restaurant/roof top bar attached. Gallow Green is lovely for a cosy winter meal and glass of wine by the fire, or for a great summer evening sitting on one of the tall rooftops in NYC. They have absolutely delicious food, too. This one is an experience not to be missed!
  3. Schmackary’s is a cookie bakery on 45th and 9th that’s known for being a favorite spot for Broadway’s actors to grab an intermission or rehearsal snack. The cookies are seriously incredible, so if you’re looking for a snack near the theatre district, this is the place to go!
  4. 44&X is aptly named due to it’s location on the corner of 44th street and 10th avenue. They have a great menu for brunch, lunch, and dinner, and is a great place to stop before catching a show, or just because! It’s a little on the pricey side (not exactly too high for NYC, but high in general), so it’s a good place to go for a nice evening out.
  5. Ruchi is an Indian restaurant located very close to the World Trade Center. It isn’t crazy expensive, which is a nice break from the norm in NYC, so if you like Indian food, definitely check it out!
  6. Kilo is an American-style tapas bar with locally sourced food, interesting menu items, and a killer wine list. It’s a great place to grab a bite to eat before a show since it’s fairly close to the theatre district. It isn’t the cheapest restaurant, but the dishes are meant to be shared so for a small dinner it definitely isn’t too bad!
  7. Grom is an Italian gelato shop located at Columbus Circle, and it’s seriously incredible. They have an amazing selection of delicious ice cream, as well as homemade hot chocolate that will blow your mind!
  8. Gotham West Market is a vendor-based gourmet dining space, and it’s really amazing. There are different vendors that each have different food options, but these are definitely up-scale culinary experiences presented in a fun way! This is a great spot to try something new (they have everything from a tapas bar to a ramen shop to a burger place), but will work especially well if you and your friends can’t decide on what you want to eat- there will be something for everyone!
  9. Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory is a great local ice cream shop with delicious homemade ice cream. The best part about this place is definitely the location- the original shop is located on a pier just under the Brooklyn Bridge with awesome views of Manhattan on the other side of the river. There’s also a boat dock right off the pier, so after your ice cream you can take a ferry boat back across the river for an extra mini-tour!
  10. Grimaldi’s is a famous coal-oven pizza restaurant with excellent pizza. There’s a location right under the Brooklyn Bridge, making it a great spot to escape to if you want to get out of Manhattan. Be prepared for a bit of a line to get in, but it’s so worth it and the line moves super quick as they work pretty hard to get people in and out quickly. It’s quite the experience!
  11. Cafe Grumpy is an excellent coffee shop with several locations throughout the city. In a city with a Starbucks on every corner, I find it super refreshing to grab a good cup of coffee from an independent business, and this is a great place for it- they even roast their own beans in Brooklyn! Plus, their coffee cups have grumpy faces on them, which really just makes me happy.

For some cheaper options, check out this list of cheap places to eat in NYC!

A list of honorable mentions! Looking for something different than what I’ve listed above? These are all tried and true restaurants across the city.

Skyline of New York City

What to do: 

New York is kind of a black hole of things to do, and it’s really almost impossible to see and do everything unless you’re there for weeks. This is my list of the best and most interesting, unique things to do across New York City.

The High Line. 

This public park space is one of the most unique in the city. It’s a converted industrial rail line that’s been turned into a lush, green park sitting atop the Meat Packing District. Visiting the High Line is a great way to get a birds-eye view of the West Side, while enjoying some nice green space. The nice part is, visiting the High Line is totally free, Check out this video to learn more!

Brooklyn Bridge.

This spot tops my list because it’s one of the most iconic and beautiful things to see and do in New York City, and it’s totally free! I usually walk from the Manhattan side to the Brooklyn side, and then there are some great cafés, restaurants, and bars once you’ve crossed over to check out. If you want to continue your journey for beautiful views of the Manhattan skyline, check out the Brooklyn Heights Promenade or take a ferry boat ride back across the river. The ferry leaves from the pier under the bridge, and you’ll get to see a cheap river view of the city!

Times Square. 

If you’ve not been to New York City before, you definitely need to see Times Square. It’s probably what most people think of when they think of New York City, and again, it’s (mostly) free! There are now a huge set of bleachers (for lack of a better word) above the TKTS stand, which is a great place to sit and people watch. Try not to find a place to eat at a restaurant too close to here, though, as you’ll pay triple the price for lack-luster food! Check out the list above for some decent options, some of which aren’t too far of a walk.

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Ellis Island is a really interesting piece of American history, and it’s a very cool place to visit. The building and island have been turned into a museum that takes you through the history of immigration through Ellis Island. If you have some spare time and are a bit of a history buff, it’s definitely worth checking out! The ferry that goes to Ellis Island also goes to Liberty Island (the Statue of Liberty), and the ticket price for the ferry includes admission to both attractions- this is probably the best deal you’ll get in NYC.

Take a walking tour.

New York has so much history, and so many interesting stories that you probably wouldn’t know just by walking through the streets. Free Tours by Foot offers incredible free walking tours in different neighborhoods, and I highly recommend them. I’ve been on several, and I always walk away feeling like I’ve learned something new and interesting. Make sure you book in advance, as they have limited spaces and the tours do fill up!

Federal Hall.

One of the free museums in New York, Federal Hall is the former site of the first Capitol building in the USA where George Washington took his oath of office. Now it’s run by the National Park Service, and the park rangers offer free tours of the building throughout the day. It isn’t a huge museum/monument, so you can probably count on spending 30-60 minutes here depending on whether or not you take the tour (you should!), but it’s a really cool place to visit full of loads of history. It’s located just across the street from the New York Stock Exchange, so it’s also in one of the most historic and beautiful neighborhoods of Manhattan.

Empire State Building.

The Empire State Building is arguably the most iconic building in New York, and it offers some of the best views across lower Manhattan. I like the views from the Empire State Building because you can see all of the lower tip of Manhattan, including the Freedom Tower. The only issue with visiting the Empire State Building is the time that it takes to get to the top because of the massive lines that are usually outside of it. If you’re going to visit, I encourage you to do so first thing in the morning when it opens. I made it in with the first group on my most recent visit, and it was amazing! We just walked through all of the lines and essentially had the top level mostly to ourselves while everyone else got inside.

Broadway. 

Going to see a Broadway show is one of the best things to do in New York City. Theatre has long been a staple of New York City culture, and you’ll have the opportunity to see some truly amazing pieces of theatre that you likely won’t be able to see anywhere else. If you’re a student with a valid student ID card, check out Student Rush tickets to get a good deal just for students. Some of these shows will allow you to simply buy cheaper tickets at the box office before the show, while others will require you to line up before the box office opens to purchase one of the limited student tickets they have available. Some shows also sell discounted tickets by lottery, so you just show up (usually) 2 hours prior to curtain to put your name in. Check on the previously linked site to check the policies of the show that you want to see. Try to be flexible about what you want to see and you’ll likely have better luck getting cheap seats! If you’re not a student the TKTS booth in Times Square allows you to buy same day theatre tickets for sometimes upwards of 50% off. This office sells the unsold tickets for that day’s performances, so check out the board in the morning and hop on line to see which tickets you can grab!

Central Park.

Relaxing in Central Park in the afternoon is one of the greatest joys if you’ve just spent a whole day walking around Manhattan. Being in New York City is a very exhausting experience, and spending some down time exploring Central Park is really amazing. Check out the Central Park Zoo if you want to see an attraction, or otherwise just find a bench or rock to sit on and enjoy the people watching and beautiful scenery. Please do not take one of the horse-drawn carriage rides- the horses are grossly mistreated, and tourists taking these rides only perpetuates the problems associated with this “attraction”.

Freedom Tower & 9/11 Memorial. 

The site of the 9/11 Memorial and new World Trade Center is a truly incredible place to visit. The memorial above Ground Zero is spectacular, and is definitely worth a visit. If you’re interested in learning more about 9/11, check out the September 11 Memorial Museum, which is underneath the memorial. You can book a guided tour of the museum, which is great to do if you’d like additional information about the artifacts shown, or you can go through the museum on your own. Either way, plan to book tickets in advance just to be sure that you can get them, and to avoid waiting on what can be a very long line. Also plan some extra time to go through the security checkpoint at the entrance to the museum. The Freedom Tower, has an incredible observation deck, One World Observatory, which is worth visiting, if not a little expensive. You can book tickets for a specific time in advance, which I strongly recommend as it’s quite a busy spot with the tallest view of Manhattan.

Yankee Stadium.

Whether or not you’re a baseball or a Yankee fan, seeing a Yankee game while you’re in New York is a must-do. The stadium is basically a museum to baseball history, so be sure to arrive early for your game! The food and drinks are pricey, but you can get cheap bleacher seats if you look around for them (I’ve paid $25 for a popular Yankees/Red Socks game before). If you’re not familiar with baseball, it’s very easy to follow, and it’s truly an “American” experience!DSC_0728

Visiting New York City is an absolutely incredible experience. Every time I go, walking around the busy streets of Manhattan seems to breath new life into me. It’s an incredible feeling to be swept up in to such a busy, fast-moving environment, and to feel that kind of energy. There are, of course, plenty of things to see and do that I haven’t mentioned, but this list will get you started if you have several days in New York to explore.

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A Travel Guide to New York City

Please note that some links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book using the link on my website, I’ll be paid a percentage of your booking fee at absolutely no extra cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own, and all recommendations are based on my own personal experience.

A Road Trip through the Scottish Highlands

A Road Trip through the Scottish Highlands

After binging the series Outlander on Netflix, I was ready to go Craigh na Dun and transport myself to the 18th century explore the Scottish Highlands for myself! I had guessed that this trip would be full of entrancing scenery, stunning landscapes, and loads of pubs with cosy fires, but I had no idea how truly incredible the Highlands would turn out to be. Truthfully, much of the trip reminded me of my road trip around Iceland, which I suppose does make some geographic sense.

I spent about a week driving a circle around Edinburgh and Inverness over the New Year, and absolutely loved every snowy and rainy minute. If you’re planning to do the same, you could easily spend a few more days than I did to really have time to see everything, but a week is just enough time to get a good taste of what the Scottish Highlands has to offer.

Map Itinerary of Scottish Road Trip
My road trip itinerary. Green pins are places I stayed overnight, blue pins are key site-seeing destinations. A full itinerary can be found at the end of this post!

Days 1-2 (Edinburgh to Loch Lomond)

On days 1 and 2, we arrived in Edinburgh, picked up our rental car, and headed towards Loch Lomond, which is just north of Glasgow. This ended up being the perfect first stop for our trip in the Highlands, as the landscapes on our drive were stunning and it wasn’t too far so we had plenty of time to stop for photos. We were a bit unlucky [read: incredibly lucky] that it had just snowed, so I had an excuse to drive super slow to admire the views.

Misty landscape in Scotland

I chose to stay at a small bed and breakfast called the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha. The rooms were great, the staff were super friendly, and both breakfast and dinner were delicious. The only down-side to this particular hotel, especially in the winter, is the distance from any town or village. The next morning, we headed off just after sunrise (around 9 am!) to Fort William by way of Luss. Luss is a village just on the other side of Loch Lomond from Balmaha, and it was all that I could have possibly imagined from a quaint Scottish village. If I were to do this trip again, I would probably find a hotel in Luss. A night or two in the village would really hit the spot on a relaxing Scottish holiday. I spent a few hours here wandering the small streets, admiring the cottages, and taking in the view of Loch Lomond from the pier, wishing that I could have stayed for a week to sip hot chocolate.

A cottage in Luss, Scotland

We planned to visit Glenfinnan before checking in to our hotel in Fort William, but this plan turned out to be a little ambitious, especially given the weather and road conditions. Additionally, the drive between Loch Lomond and Fort William is one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken! We were taking the A82 essentially the entire way there, so we drove right through the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, as well as the mountains surrounding the Glencoe valley. The higher in altitude we went and the further north we drove, the more snow flurries we were experiencing. Once we made it near the Three Sisters mountains just south of Fort William, we were stopping every mile for photos.

Misty view of the three sisters mountains in Scotland

In the end, we didn’t make it to Glenfinnan on day 2 with absolutely no regrets. With this kind of drive through such stunning scenery, you really need to give yourself some extra time to take it all in (and battle the snow, should you be so fortunate). If you’re visiting Scotland in the summer, you would certainly have time to check out Glenfinnan. There’s a monument there where the Bonnie Prince Charlie is said to have started the Jacobite rebellion, as well as the Glenfinnan Viaduct which Harry Potter fans will recognize as the train route to Hogwarts. You can climb up the Glenfinnan monument for incredible views of the area, and visit the visitor’s center to learn more about the Jacobite Rebellion in the mid-18th century.

Day 3-4 (Fort William to Inverness)

At the end of day 2, we checked in to our bed & breakfast in Fort William, The Willows. We stayed in the Anex, a room separated from the main house, and I would highly recommend it- the owners and their pets were lovely as well! After departing from Fort William on the morning of day 3, we headed towards the Isle of Skye for an ambitious day of driving in still wintery weather. We managed to find some more stunning scenery amidst the lochs on the way to Skye, so of course we were frequently stopping for photos.

Overlooking mountains in the Scottish Highlands

When driving to the Isle of Skye, you have to take a pit stop at the Eilean Donan Castle, which is just a few minutes’ drive from the Skye Bridge. This castle is one of Scotland’s most famous, and was once the home of Clan Mackenzie from the 13th century. It was destroyed during the Jacobite rebellion fighting, but was once again refurbished to its original plans in the 20th century, making it an ideal location to soak up the history and beauty of the Scottish Highlands.

A view of Eilean Donan Castle

Our destination of the day, the Isle of Skye, certainly did not disappoint. I was surprised at how developed the island was, as I imagined it to be fairly remote and uninhabited. In actuality, there are a couple of cute towns in addition to the absolutely incredible landscapes. We drove up to Portree and back, but you could easily spend an entire day there, or even a night! The town of Portree itself is very quaint with brightly colored buildings lining the waterfront.

A view of the harbor in Portree, Scotland

One of my favorite parts about visiting the Isle of Skye, however, was finally having the chance to come face to face with the famous highland cows. These beauties are native to the Scottish Highlands, and have a magnificent shaggy coat, making them an iconic piece of the Scottish landscape. They can be seen across the Scottish Highlands among the sheep, but I found a herd of them on the Isle of Skye, and they were excellent models.

Scottish Highland Cow

After departing from the Isle of Skye, we made the trek towards Inverness where we would stay for the next two nights. Instead of staying in the city center of Inverness, we opted to stay on a farm outside of the city (about 15 minutes by car) for a more relaxing experience. I chose Leanach Farm, which is only minutes away from the Culloden Battlefield, and is set amid absolutely outstanding scenery. The family that owns it is amazing, the breakfast is good, and the rooms worked well for us, so I would certainly recommend a stay there.

Day 4-5 (Inverness & Loch Ness)

We booked to stay for two nights in Inverness because there is a ton to see and do in the area, and we happened to be staying there for Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve). Because Hogmanay is one of the biggest holidays in Scotland, many things closed from January 1-2 or 3, but there was still plenty to see and do in the area of Inverness. First and foremost, Loch Ness was on our agenda. It’s hard to travel to Scotland anywhere outside of Edinburgh and miss visiting Loch Ness; it’s situated right in between Fort William and Inverness, and is easily one of the most beautiful places that I visited while in the Scottish Highlands. On the banks of Loch Ness, you’ll find the Urquhart Castle. This castle dates to 6th century, and although it was destroyed during the Jacobite Risings, it is a stunning place to visit for both a bit of Scottish history, as well as views over the loch.

Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness

When visiting Loch Ness, I highly recommend that you drive in a loop around the entire loch. At one end, you have Inverness, and at the other you have Fort Augustus. If you’re leaving from Inverness, I recommend driving first to Urquhart Castle, and then around towards Fort Augustus and back up the other side. There are other lochs surround Loch Ness that are smaller and just as tranquil. In fact, on these small roads that wind through lochs and valleys, you’ll find some of the most incredible scenery that the Scottish Highlands have to offer.

Loch in Scottish Highlands

On your way back up towards Inverness, you might also want to stop at Dores Beach, which is on the northern tip of the loch. We happened to catch part of the sunset from this spot, and it was really breathtaking. It also seems like very much a local’s spot- we even witnessed the beginnings of the 2018 polar bear dive!

We tried to take advantage of the one truly sunny day that we had in Scotland, so after a loop around Loch Ness, and a stop at Dores Beach, we continued back towards our B&B for a visit to the Culloden Battlefield. This is the spot where in 1746, the last fighting of the Jacobite uprising occurred. In just a few minutes, hundreds of Jacobites died fighting the British army, effectively ending the war. Now, the battlefield is a preserved site with markers for each clan from which men died fighting, as well as some information about the battle itself spread throughout the memorial. Despite the fact that the Culloden Battlefield is really just a beautiful and serene place, it was easy to feel the weight of the history that happened in that field. There is a visitor’s center on site which will give you more information about the battle, uprising, and the significance that it had to Scottish history.

Culloden Battlefield in the Scottish Highlands

Day 6-7 (Aberdeen to Edinburgh)

At the end of our journey, we decided to make a stop in Aberdeen, which is about halfway between Inverness and Edinburgh (roughly). This is the part of the trip that I wish we’d extended by a day or two, as we’re really only in Aberdeen for the night. We opted to stay in a hotel just outside of the city center in Aberdeen called the MacDonald Norwood Hall Hotel. This is an historic building with cosy fire places, dark wood accents, and loads of charm, I highly recommend a visit here if you’re planning to stay in Aberdeen.

In between Inverness and Aberdeen, there are loads of castles to explore. I recommend the Elgin Cathedral, which is about an hour outside of Inverness on the A96 towards Aberdeen. This is actually a ruined cathedral (not castle), but the architecture is absolutely beautiful and worth a visit. Past Elgin, there is the Huntly Castle, which is a ruined castle hidden in a forest also along the A96. There are actually so many castles in Aberdeenshire, that there is a castle trail running through the area- reason enough to book an extra day or two to explore!

Huntly Castle in Aberdeenshire

Day 8 (Edinburgh & South Queensferry)

On our last day in Scotland, we spent the night at a great Airbnb in the New Town of Edinbugh (use this code for $34 off your first trip!). This location was perfect, as it was a quick walk to the center part of the city. We didn’t stay in Edinburgh too long on this trip, however, as our sights were set on seeing the surrounding area. Our hope was to visit the Hopetoun House, one of the most beautiful estates in Scotland, but unfortunately it is closed in the winter.

Lucky for us, Hopetoun House is just outside one of the most quaint port villages I’ve ever seen! South Queensferry is a history port town with stunning architecture, cute pubs and cafés, and lovely views of the famous three bridges of South Queensferry. In the summer, there are festivals in the town and loads going on, but it was lovely to take a stroll through the streets in the winter. We also indulged in afternoon tea at The Little Bakery, which I would highly recommend as it was absolutely delicious. I look forward to making a return to South Queensferry, and perhaps even staying the night!

South Queensferry, Scotland

My road trip around the Scottish Highlands was easily one of my favorite travel experiences to date. I’d traveled to Edinburgh and Stirling prior to this trip, but having the opportunity to visit some of the more remote parts of the country was truly incredible. It became very clear to me throughout our journey that a trip to the Scottish Highlands is a very different experience in the summer and winter. In the winter, some activities, particularly castles and other estates, are closed for visitors, so if you’re planning a trip in the colder months, plan ahead for what you want to see and be sure to double check what will be open to visit. Additionally, if you’re visiting in winter, keep in mind that daylight is fairly limited (especially in the north!), so your time management skills will be key. Conversely, in the summer, you’ll have more daylight than you’ll know what to do with, leaving you even more time to soak up the Scottish magic! I can’t wait to head back to the Scottish Highlands to check out more of this incredible country.

My Scottish Highlands Itinerary

Day 1: Edinburgh to Loch Lomond (approx. 78 miles/125 km)

  • Stop and stay in Luss

Day 2: Loch Lomond to Fort William (approx. 76 miles/122 km)

  • Stop in Glencoe and Glennfinan

Day 3: Fort William to Isle of Skye to Inverness (approx. 220 miles/354 km)

  • Stop at Eilean Donon Castle

Day 4 and 5: Inverness

  • Visit Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle
  • Visit Culloden Battlefield

Day 6: Inverness to Aberdeen (approx. 105 miles/169 km)

  • Check out the Scottish Castle Trail*, including Elgin Cathedral and Huntly Castle

Day 7: Aberdeen to Edinburgh (approx. 128 miles/206 km)

  • Continue on the Scottish Castle Trail*!

Day 8 and 9: Edinburgh and South Queensferry

  • Visit to Hopetoun House* (and Midhope Castle- the filming location for Lallybroch in the series Outlander!)

*Denotes sites that are closed or partially closed in the winter season. Double check visiting hours and seasons before planning to visit.

Scottish Highlands Road trip

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Paris, France

Paris, France

What a more detailed travel guide for Paris?  Check out the “3 Days in Paris” travel guide and itinerary in the Study Hard Travel Smart shop!

Where to stay in Paris: 

It is simply expensive to stay in cities like Paris. Forget about the amount you’ll spend on transportation, food, attractions and everything else, your accommodation will probably hurt your bank account. Different arrondissements(essentially neighborhoods of Paris) offer different things, so it’s good to do some research in advance so that you know a bit more of what you’re getting yourself in to! I’ve stayed in a hostel, hotel, and an Airbnb flat in Paris, and I far preferred the hotel or Airbnb options. Because Paris can be quite expensive, I think that in general, Airbnb is a better bang-for-your-buck option (especially if you’re splitting with friends) than a hostel. If you’re willing to spend the money, then a hotel will definitely be worth it!

Where to eat in Paris: 

One thing you will never want for in Paris is delicious food. If you get away from the Louvre and Eiffel Tower areas, you’re pretty much bound to have a good choice around you, and it might not even be too pricey! My all-time favorite restaurant in or outside of Paris is… in Paris! It’s called Restaurant Le Coupe-Chou. It’s a little more up-scale than a typical brasserie, but the food is incroyable. If you’re interested in treating yourself for an evening, I highly recommend it!

If you’re looking for something good that’s closer to some attractions, I would suggest going to the Quartier Latin. This neighborhood is not far at all from Notre Dame, just a bit south of the Seine River, and the restaurants there are truly amazing. Just take a wander around, and you’re bound to run into something wonderful! Most of all, I would recommend NOT eating within a 20 minute walk of the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. All of those restaurants will be tourist traps in the worst way, and the food just won’t be as good, especially for the price you will pay. I will, however, recommend that you spend an hour on the Champs Elysée with a glass of wine at one of the cafés, because that’s just one of those experiences that everyone should have!

What to do in Paris: 

There are so many sites to see in Paris, that it can be truly overwhelming.  I’ll just mention a few of my favorites, but what you’ll want to do will definitely depend on what your interests are!

The Musée d’Orsay is an absolutely beautiful modern art museum which features works by Monet, Cézanne, and others.  They often have special exhibitions with works by other artists, so check out their website to see what will be there when you plan to visit. The museum is housed in a former train station, and the building itself is just absolutely gorgeous, definitely the perfect setting to view these beautiful works! The Louvre is just across the river, and offers many famous works such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory.  The gardens outside of the Louvre, the Jardin de Tuileries, is an absolutely stunning green space in the middle of the city, and is free to get into. I’ve been to the Louvre a few times, and would certainly recommend going if you’ve never been before, but I definitely prefer the d’Orsay over the Louvre. With both of these museums, if you’re studying abroad in Europe, be sure to bring your student card and some ID with your birthday on it, because people who live in Europe who are between the ages of 18 and 25 get in for free!

The Arc de Triomphe, at the end of the Champs Elysée is an absolutely fantastic place to get a good view of the area, and is definitely worth seeing. You can climb to the top of it, and it’s a great little spot that isn’t as crowded as some others- I think a lot of people don’t realize that you can go to the top!

The other site that people inevitably think of when they think of Paris is the Eiffel Tower, and why wouldn’t they?  It’s beautiful, elegant, and romantic! It’s also one of the busiest places in Paris, crawling with tourists and pickpockets, so be cautious while you’re there! I had a friend whose camera was stolen in the elevator up to the viewing levels, and another who had 100 euros ripped right out of his hand. This is one of those times that being extremely aware of your surroundings and possessions will be key, but the dangers shouldn’t deter you from visiting! There is an elevator that will take you up to the top, which usually has a long line, but for a discounted price and short wait time, you can take the stairs! (I always have taken the elevator, and I don’t regret it- the stairs are not super enclosed!) There is a restaurant in the tower as well that will allow you to bypass some lines, but I have not actually eaten there. In the winter, there is an ice skating rink on one of the two lower levers, with a skate up bar- and it’s free to do! I’ve been at the top for sunset, and it’s one of the most beautiful ways to see Paris- I would definitely recommend timing it so that you can be at the top with a glass of champagne in your hand while the sun goes down.

The Sacre Coeur is a cathedral at the top of the hill overlooking Paris, and will offer you some other amazing vistas. The inside of the cathedral is incredible, but the view from the top of the dome is even more so. The area surrounding the Sacre Coeur is one of the most beautiful in the city, so it’s worth spending some time there, stopping at a cafe or restaurant, and enjoying the ambiance of traditional Paris.

There is SO MUCH to do in Paris, and it’s really hard to see everything, especially if you’re only visiting for a short time. My best advice for this city is to RELAX. So many people go with the intention of seeing everything, and only leave disappointed and stressed out. Grab a glass of wine at a café, and watch the hustle and bustle of the city!

Interested in some day trips from Paris? Check out this post to see all of your incredible options!

Every time I visit Paris, I’m reminded how much I love it. It’s very different when compared to the south of France, but it has its own charms. The architecture of the city is absolutely stunning, and the sites available are certainly some of the best and most famous in the world. Try to give yourself a healthy amount of days to visit, if you can, to avoid being disappointed by not seeing everything! Every time I visit Paris, I manage to see something new and incredible; this is definitely one of those cities that keeps inviting you back. The city is truly a don’t-miss destination for those visiting Europe, and I certainly recommend visiting!

Interested in exploring other parts of France? How about the beautiful and quintessentially French town of Aix-en-Provence? Check out my guide to cuisine, wine, activities, lavender, and more!

A Walk Through America’s Immigrant History: Ellis Island

A Walk Through America’s Immigrant History: Ellis Island

When tourists come to New York City, there are usually a few sites high on the list of places to see. Most often, this list includes a trip to see the Statue of Liberty just off the coast of lower Manhattan, but it includes a trip to see Ellis Island must less frequently. I grew up just outside of New York City in the Hudson Valley, and I distinctly remember my first trip to Ellis Island, which was in early 2002. I remember the date specifically because I was in school at the time, and that year was the year when we were all brought to see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty on a big class trip in the autumn, except my class didn’t go. This is because earlier in the school year, our city, along with others in our country, was attacked, and sites such as these were deemed too dangerous to visit; the Statue of Liberty was closed for visits for years after that. Despite this closure, my best friend’s father, a retired NYPD officer, felt it was important that we visit Ellis Island, so several months later we were off to visit this national park to learn about the immigration history of our country. A visit to Ellis Island soon after September 11th was likely more important for me, and made the experience all the more memorable, given the rhetoric that touched even us as children during this time. I’m grateful for the opportunity, and it’s one that I believe continues to be important today.

Statue of Liberty against blue skies
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” ― Emma Lazarus

It’s been 16 years since, and I still distinctly remember my trip to this museum, so I was thrilled to be able to travel back this year to rediscover what I’d learned nearly two decades earlier. Ellis Island was America’s largest immigration port of entry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During a 32 year period, more than 12 million immigrants came through this island to begin new lives in the United States, beginning their journeys in New York City. In fact, of all that attempted entry through Ellis Island, only 2% were turned away, so it’s absolutely incredible to think of how many families began their new lives here.

Visiting Ellis Island now, at this period in history is a humbling experience, as it was 16 years ago. These places represent a part of our history that is vital for understanding it now, and also for understanding its future. I can’t recommend enough that visitors to New York City, and to places across the US, seek out these museums, monuments, and national parks to learn from them, to better understand them, and to better understand the world we live in now. I’m grateful for the work that has been done at Ellis Island to preserve this part of our history, and to give faces to the 12 million people who walked through the doors of this place in search of a new and better life for themselves and often for their families.

The Details

Ellis Island is now a museum and national park run by the US National Park Service. There are park rangers on site to help answer questions, although there is a plethora of information available for all visitors throughout the museum. On the hour, there are free guided tours with park rangers (approx. 40 minutes in length) which I highly recommend; they give visitors an excellent insight into the history and people who made this place what it was and is now. The number of tours vary, but the times are posted at the ranger information desk throughout the day to help you plan your visit.

A visit to Ellis Island can easily be a half-day or full-day trip if you take advantage of all of the tours, films, and exhibits available. I recommend a quick stop on Liberty Island to walk around the base of the Statue of Liberty before heading off to visit Ellis Island. There is a restaurant/cafe on site, as well as some gorgeous outdoor space if you have a nice day, so Ellis Island the perfect place to escape the busy-ness of Manhattan and relax with nice views after spending some time in the museum.

To get there, book a space on Statue Cruises from one of its terminals (Battery Park, NYC or Liberty State Park, NJ). Be sure to book early, spaces for specific times can fill up in advance, particularly during high tourist periods. You can also book your tickets along with your ferry ticket to climb the Statue of Liberty if you’re interested in adding that to your itinerary.

Note that to board the cruise ship, you’ll go through a security screening process, so limiting the amount of personal items you carry with you will expedite the process. Buying the advance tickets will seriously cut down on your time lining up to board!

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Ellis Island Pin Photo

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Discovering the Hidden Treasures of Santorini

Discovering the Hidden Treasures of Santorini

Santorini has become an increasingly popular destination in Greece, and for good reason! It’s insta-worthy for sure, it has gorgeous architecture, beautiful sea views, and fantastic weather for most of the year. Most cruise lines that sail in the region include Santorini in their itineraries, so visitors from all over the world are shuttled there daily to absorb a little bit of the magic. I went to Santorini having been there once before for just one day, but not really knowing what exactly to expect or what there was to do. After having spent just over a week on the island, I can safely say that Santorini is far more than the beautiful white buildings and expansive sea views. I hardly ever returned to the same spot twice throughout my stay, and discovered that Santorini is really the best of all Greek worlds.

Santorini

Where to stay in Santorini:

When I began planning my trip, I had a really hard time deciding where to stay. After I arrived, I realized that was for good reason! It seems like there’s a hotel, apartment complex, or resort every 5 minutes across the island, and when you’re so swamped for options, how can you possibly narrow it down? I ended up staying in Akrotiri (or just outside of it) at the Aura Marina Apartments. Akrotiri was a great place to stay because it’s a much more laid-back part of the island with the same amazing caldera views. It’s also close to some other great towns and beaches that are on the other side of the island, giving you access to basically everything that Santorini has to offer.

Aura Marina Apartments
One of the apartments at Aura Marina, a truly idyllic location

This hotel/apartment has the best of both worlds; it has the luxury of some of the high-class villas in Santorini, but without the price tag. I rented one of the 2+1 person apartments, and it was absolutely perfect for us as a couple. There was a kitchen, which was admittedly not as outfitted as we were hopping with a stove/oven, but it had plenty for us to prepare our breakfasts and some lunches. The best part, though, was definitely the two terraces and the private dip swimming pool. We spent almost every afternoon sunbathing at our hotel and taking a swim; it was the perfect way to escape some of the tourists in the busier parts of the island, but more importantly, to escape the heat. We definitely would have regretted not getting a place with a pool.

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Not a bad way to start a holiday 🇬🇷🍉☀️

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Because there is so much to see and do across all of Santorini, I recommend renting a car while you visit. Many tourists rent quads or mopeds, and I think that a quad could also be a good option, although it certainly wouldn’t be as convenient as an actual car. I would recommend against a moped unless you have significant motorcycle experience, as the roads in Santorini are very curvy, sometimes uneven, and sometimes crowded. They’re also usually full of people who don’t know how to drive mopeds, so the possibility of an accident can be pretty high.

What to do in Santorini:

Most visitors, especially those coming off of cruise ships, see mostly Fira or Oia, but they often don’t have time or don’t know to explore the rest of the island! While I was in Santorini, I found some great alternatives to these very crowded and hectic places to explore that made me feel much more connected to the culture on the island.

Explore Santorini from below! Santorini, in its current form, was created by a volcanic eruption several thousand years ago. The caldera that was created is now the center piece of Santorini, and it’s now an absolutely magical place to explore from above, but also from below. I went diving with the Santorini Dive Center on their Discover Scuba Diving program.

Diving in Santorini

They first sat us down at their station on the beach to teach us the in’s and out’s of diving, breathing underwater, and how our experience would go. This took longer than I expected, probably about 40 minutes, but it was absolutely essential. I had never really gone diving before, and I felt so much more comfortable once I really fully understood all of the equipment, hand signals, and air pressure under water. Afterwards, we got suited up, and into the water. We began by swimming in shallow water holding the hand of our guide (we were paired two beginner divers to a guide), and were eventually brought into water that was about 6 or 7 meters (approx. 20 ft.) deep. The sea floor and rock formations in this area were really stunning, and we were able to swim alongside some incredible schools of fish. I loved taking this opportunity to see some of the wildlife that Santorini has to offer, because you won’t really see too much of it without diving down. The Santorini Dive Center did a fantastic job guiding us and making sure that our diving experience was safe and beautiful, I’d highly recommend checking them out!

Catch the best sunset in Santorini. I know exactly what you’re thinking- I’ll go to see the sun set behind the white houses in Oia, I’ve heard that it’s stunning! Well. I have some bad news for you. This is the reality of sunsets in Oia from the town:

Reality of a Santorini Sunset
The unfortunate reality of a sunset in Oia

I was pretty disappointed by my sunset experience in Oia, but I was lucky because I had also booked to take a sunset sailing cruise during my visit that made up for my disappointing experience in every way. Sunset Sailing Oia has a ton of different options for sunset sailing cruises, so they can cover most price points while still providing a certain level of relaxation and luxury. I took the Lagoon 500 sunset cruise because I was there for a special event and wanted a more private experience. This cruise has a maximum capacity of 16 people, so there’s plenty of space on the boat for everyone to claim their own spot. My particular cruise had a big family booked on it, and we didn’t really feel impeded upon in any way. From my perspective, having this much smaller boat was worth the higher price tag. We passed by some other boats run by other companies with well over 100 people, and honestly, everyone looked totally miserable while we were all happily sunbathing and relaxing.

During the cruise, the crew makes a delicious Greek barbecue dinner, and they provide guests with an open bar, which was very much appreciated. The sunset from the cruise was absolutely the best part, and was really worth the entire experience. We “parked” our yacht just off the shore of Oia just before sunset and bobbed up and down while watching the famous Santorini sunset. The best part? I didn’t have to yell at some annoying tourist for standing literally in front of my face while in a crowd of hundreds of other people.

Santorini Sunset

Soak up some history. When I first suggested that our holiday be in Santorini this year, my initial thought was not because it was such an interesting historical location. In fact, I actually had no idea whether or not there were ancient settlements on the island at all. For that reason, we had discussed going elsewhere, like Crete, for example, but I am SO glad that we didn’t. Akrotiri is home to an ancient settlement that was part of the Minoan civilization. They’ve been excavating the site since the mid-20th century, and it’s now presented in an absolutely incredible way! The site is actually in a covered structure, so it’s a great activity to do mid-day to escape the heat. You can walk around the entire settlement, and also through it along some of its ancient streets. The amazing thing about the Akrotiri settlement is that it was incredibly advanced when compared to other similar civilizations. They has a full sewage drainage system in the town, as well as two and three-storied homes.

Site of Ancient Minoan Civilization

Much of the town is still intact as the volcano preserved it, similarly to the way that Pompeii was preserved. The difference between Akrotiri and Pompeii is that the inhabitants of this settlement had already left the island before the volcanic eruption, so no bodies or valuables were found, only the remains of the abandoned city. This is absolutely worth a visit when you’re in Santorini! We went without a guide, and there are some informational signs throughout the exhibit. If you’re more interested in the history or would like additional information, I would recommend taking a guided tour, as I’m sure there is a lot that we missed since we were guide-less.

Explore the vineyards. Santorini is famous for its very dry white white, which is very delicious. They also produce a wine called Vinsanto (translated from French to “wine from Santorini”), which is a sweet, dessert wine that’s somewhat similar to Port. Because of the very specific, volcanic climate and soil of Santorini, the vineyards there have developed unique techniques in order to produce wine. You’ll find wineries all over the island, as well as wine tours and other wine-related excursions. I opted to go straight to a local winery to learn about their specific processes and to taste-test their wines. I visited the Argyros Estate and had a great time! The winery has been recently renovated, and is a gorgeous place to spend a late afternoon or early evening.

Vineyards in Santorini

We stopped by and asked for a tour and tasting, which they provided for us on the spot, privately, for €15 per person. The tasting included two white wines, a rosé wine, and two Vinsanto wines, plus some snacks and Vinsanto chocolates. We happened to visit during the harvest season (in mid-August), so while on our tour, we were able to see the grapes being prepared for fermentation. Walking around the vineyard and processing facilities with our own guide was super interesting, and it was the perfect way to learn a little bit about why Santorini wine is so unique. The tour took around 20 minutes, and our tasting was about a half-hour, although we were welcomed to stay as long as we’d like and so we took the opportunity to drink an extra glass before dinner!

Check out the cities. Santorini has a couple of main cities or towns, which are then filled in by smaller villages across the island. Each town has its own unique flair, and each are worth a visit for different reasons:

  • Oia is probably the most famous of the towns in Santorini, and that’s probably because of it’s unmatched beauty. Walking around Oia gives you a sense of regal-ness that is hard to find anywhere else. Keep in mind that this magic disappears about an hour before sunset when every tourist in Santorini descends upon the city and lines the streets to get a glimpse of the view. I recommend a visit during the morning or afternoon so that you have the streets, shops, and restaurants to yourself, and can actually enjoy your time in this beautiful place.
  • Fira is the capital city of Santorini, and is definitely where the hustle and bustle is located. It’s a little grungier than other towns in Santorini, but it’s also much more crowded with locals and tourists alike. If you visit Santorini on a cruise ship, this is likely where you’ll be dropped off, and it is a nice place to explore for an hour or so. The restaurants here are much pricier than in other parts of the island, so it’s worth getting out of Fira to explore a little bit after you’ve had your fill of donkey photos. Note: please do not ride the donkeys. They are not treated well, are working long hours in very hot conditions, and there are other options available to you that do not involve climbing up the mountain (the Santorini Cable Car).
  • Akrotiri is a small town just off of the Caldera at the other end of the island from Oia (about a 40-minute drive). There isn’t too much to see in Akrotiri specifically, but there is a ton in the area. The Akrotiri excavation is nearby, as is the Santorini Dive Center and some other beaches. I recommend staying in this area, as it’s much less touristy, much less expensive, and it gives you great access to the rest of the island. The famous Red Beach is also nearby, but it has been closed due to landslides occurring, so it’s dangerous to visit.
  • Kamari was one of my favorite places to explore in the evening. It’s on the opposite side of the island from the caldera, and it’s much less crowded than any of the other cities. It has a long seafront area with tons of seaside restaurants, lounge chairs on the beach, and plenty of shops and things to keep you occupied. I ended up coming here several nights for dinner, getting to explore many of the restaurants, and really enjoyed it.

    Lounge chairs at Kamari beach
    The perfect spot for sunbathing in Santorini at Kamari Beach
  • Perissa is another cool seaside town on the opposite side from the caldera. It’s similar to Kamari, although with fewer restaurants, but for a day at the beach, it’s the ideal location. Most of the bars and restaurants have lush sun beds available for customers, and there is plenty of relatively sandy beach to go around.

Where to eat in Santorini:

I spent a lot of my time restaurant-hopping in Santorini, as I was on a mission to try all of the Moussaka on the island. Well, okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I did eat at a LOT of restaurants during my stay, and definitely found some to recommend:

Asterias Waterfront Restaurant– If you’re looking for a hidden restaurant with a killer ocean atmosphere, this is definitely your place! It’s close to the Akrotiri excavation, so it’d make a good lunch or dinner spot from there. They have gorgeous tables along a short dock over the sea, so you really feel like you’re floating while eating some yummy local food.

Athermi Restaurant– This restaurant is located along the caldera cliff between Fira and Akrotiri, and it’s a great spot for a delicious meal with a view. They have a good menu, not overly expensive, and because it’s a bit out of the way, it’s a calmer and more relaxing experience than you might get at a similar place in Fira or Oia.

Melitis Restaurant– One of the many restaurants on the Kamari waterfront, and one not to be missed! Melitis Restaurant has gorgeous decor, and an even better menu. It felt like a very high-end, yet relaxed dining experience, the perfect spot for vacation.

Mesogaia– By far my favorite place in Santorini. This is a restaurant and wine bar (they’re separate, but located next to each other), and it is a culinary experience. The wine bar is small, but lavishly decorated, and the staff are on hand to offer expert advice about the local wines on offer. The restaurant has an excellent menu, great ambiance, and the perfect view. If you have to pick one in Kamari, I recommend Mesogaia!

Petros– This is one of the two restaurants that we ate at in Oia, and I would definitely recommend it. There are some really high-end restaurants in Oia, but you have to book most of them in advance, and we did not. We popped in to Petros for lunch, and really enjoyed it!

Oia Cityscape

Santorini surpassed my expectations, and continued to surprise me throughout my time on the island. When I originally planned my holiday, I expected a lot of relaxing, enjoying beautiful sea views, drinking lots of local wine, and eating great food. While I did all of those things, I also learned about the history of the island, the culture of the people, and came to appreciate how truly friendly and incredible many Greek people are. We felt welcomed everywhere we went, and found that exploring the not-so-touristy ends of Santorini proved to make our experience much more rich than it would have been otherwise.

Discover the Hidden Treasures of Santorini

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Please note that some activities in this post were sponsored. Additionally, some links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book using the link on my website, I’ll be paid a percentage of your booking fee at absolutely no extra cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own, and all recommendations are based on my own personal experience.

Aix-en-Provence, France

Aix-en-Provence, France

Aix-en-Provence is known as the city of 1,000 fountains, and was founded in the 2nd century BC by the Romans because of its hot springs. It has grown and developed a lot since, and it’s hard now to recognize the Roman remains spread throughout the city (but they’re there, I promise!). Now, Aix-en-Provence is a quintessential Provencal town located about a half-hour north of Marseille, giving it great access to beaches, mountains, and everything else that the region has to offer. The city gives visitors the option of exploring history, art, architecture, or all of the above! I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, and absolutely fell in love with the town. The relaxed pace of life, market culture, and 300 days of sun per year help to create a unique and unforgettable atmosphere.

Where to stay in Aix-en-Provence:

There is a wide range of hotel options in Aix-en-Provence, but unfortunately no hostel options. The prices of hotels vary based on the time of year, as Provence definitely has a tourist season. For a great hotel option in the middle of the city center, I recommend Hotel de France. It’s comfortable, perfectly situated in the city, and has a touch of Provencal elegance.

If hotels aren’t your thing or are out of budget, Airbnb is a great option in Aix. (New to Airbnb? Click here to redeem a discount on your first stay!) There are a ton of studios available for under $50 USD per night, and they can usually accommodate at least two people. When booking an Airbnb, the most important thing to look for is location; an apartment in Centre Ville will serve you well. I’ve outlined the area you should aim for in the map below to give you an idea. Anything in this part of town will give you easy access to everything there is to see and do in Aix!

Aix-en-Provence Centre Ville

Where to eat in Aix-en-Provence:

Food is one of the best parts about Aix-en-Provence, and let’s be real, France in general! There are so many great spots to try all over the city, it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. Because of its proximity to Italy and its heritage as a quasi-Mediterranean city, much of the best cuisine in Aix is Italian cuisine with a French flair, so many of my favorites are Italian restaurants. There are, of course, other options throughout the city, and truthfully, it’s rare that you’ll find a subpar meal anywhere.

Côté Cour– This is a restaurant located on the Cours Mirabeau, but tucked away in an inner courtyard. It’s one of the fanciest restaurants in Aix, but it’s also one of the best culinary experiences I’ve ever had. The chef was featured on France’s Top Chef in 2011, so you can say that you’ve eaten at the restaurant of a French celebrity chef!

Crepes a Gogo– If you want the best crepes in France, you’ll find them here! This spot is hidden in the passage under La Rotonde (going from the Cours Mirabeau to the Apple store). It’s definitely a takeaway option, but their sweet and savory crepes are simply the best!

La Grange– A restaurant located near the Cours Mirabeau, they serve some of the best pizza in the city!

La Pizza– This is a restaurant right next to Place d’Albertas, one of the most beautiful squares in the city (in my opinion!). Their pasta is some of the best in the city!

Les Deux Garcons– This is more a recommendation for an aperitif, but sitting outside at Les Deux Garcons is one of the most quintessentially Aixois things that you can do! It’s one of the oldest cafés in the city, and was a local hangout for Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola while they both lived in Aix-en-Provence. The menu is a little pricier than other cafés, but given the location and atmosphere, it’s a good spot to treat yourself to a Kir Royal or Verre de Rosé.

Pizza Capri– The classic takeaway pizza joint in Aix. There’s a location near La Rotonde (across from Hotel de France), a location off of the Cours Mirabeau, and a location near Place Richelme. All are delicious.

Tomate & Basilic– For an inexpensive take-away option with excellent food, this is the place to be. They have a good selection of panini sandwiches and pasta that you can eat at the few tables outside the shop, or at any bench or fountain nearby.

What to do in Aix-en-Provence:

There are so many great things to do in and around Aix-en-Provence! The tourism office has begun selling a City Pass, which I recommend if you’re interested in visiting most of the sites that the city and surrounding area has to offer. The City Pass has 3 options (24, 48, and 72 hour), so you can choose what’s best for you given your length of stay. If museums aren’t your thing, you can skip and pay for each item you visit individually, of course, but if you plan to do it all, this will be more cost-effective for you!

*Note: If you’re a student with a valid student ID card, you may spend less without the City Pass as you’ll have access to student rates at most sites & museums. Check to see the prices of the things you’re planning to see and do before committing to the pass!

Visit the markets– Provence, in general, is known for its incredible markets, and the ones in Aix are some of the biggest and most vibrant in the region. There is a produce market almost every day at Place Richelme, and a large market 3 times per week on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. At the large market, you’ll find produce of all varieties, as well as local wine, olive oil, spices, vinegar, lavender, and all sorts of products that are absolutely worth sampling! Besides these two regular markets, you’ll find flower markets, antique book markets, craft markets, and Christmas markets throughout the year depending on the season! Wandering through these markets is one of the best things that you can do, and they’re absolutely free (so long as you can stop yourself from buying everything you walk past, which is tough).

Provencal Market

Take a walking tour– The tourism office partners with different guides in the city to offer tours focusing on different parts of Aix-en-Provence. They are €9 each, or are included in the City Pass, and I believe that they’re worth every penny! I’ve taken the Hidden Heritage of Aix tour with the company Le visible est invisible (The Visible is Invisible), run by a tour guide with incredible knowledge about the city. He runs a few other tours as well, in Aix and in surrounding cities, and I can’t recommend them enough.

Follow in Cezanne’s Footsteps– Paul Cezanne grew up and lived in Aix-en-Provence for 70% of his life. The inspiration that the city gave him is evident in many of his works, and the city of Aix is incredibly proud of the heritage and his connection to the city. The main Cezanne attraction in Aix is the Atelier de Cezanne, or Cezanne’s Studio, which is an interesting look into the place where he worked for four years towards the end of his life. Nearby, you’ll find Le terrain des Peintres (The Land of Painters) where Cezanne often painted views of the famous Mt. St. Victoire. It’s located about 15 minutes north of the studio, and is well worth the walk; the views are absolutely incredible.

Visit the Musée Granet– The Musée Granet is a fine art museum that exists largely because of donations from past nobility of Aix-en-Provence. The museum features works by Picasso, Cezanne, and others. Entrance to the museum is relatively inexpensive at €5.50 per adult, or free for students (also included in the City Pass).

Go wine tasting in Provence– There are a few wineries just outside of Aix-en-Provence or in nearby towns, but one of my favorites to visit is Chateau La Coste. It’s around a 30-minute drive from Aix, and it’s absolutely beautiful. You can visit their tasting room, or go for an afternoon and include lunch and a guided tour of the wine-making facilities (daily at 1 pm in English). I recommend at least the tour and the tasting, as it gives you a ton of information about how wine is made in France, and for the Provence appellation in particular!

Chateau La Coste

Learn about history at Site-Mémorial du Camp des Milles– The Camp des Milles is a historical site of an internment and deportation camp used during World War II by the Vichy government. Most don’t think of the south of France as a place to learn about this part of history, but that’s what makes this site incredibly unique and interested. An unguided visit is included in the City Pass, but it’s also possible to buy tickets on site. Conveniently, the site is accessible by public transportation and their website provides details of the easiest way to get there.

Have a picnic at the Pavillon de Vendôme– The Pavillon de Vendôme is a chateau that was built for a duke’s lover in the 17th century. Since, it’s had a variety of uses, but it’s currently an art exhibition space. My favorite part of the Pavillon is the garden outside of it! There are big trees that provide nice shade which are ideal for a picnic lunch. It’s a very peaceful place that’s tucked away amongst the winding streets of the old town, and is definitely worth a visit at the very least for a view of the gardens.

Hike up Mont Sainte Victoire- There are a couple of different paths up to the summit of Mont Sainte Victoire, but all give you a spectacular view of the region surrounding Aix. Access is relatively unrestricted from October until May, but access may be restricted in the summer months because of the heat and risk of fires. This site details the different trails that are available which vary from easy to difficult, so there’s a way for everyone to get up to the top!

Visit the Famous Provencal Lavender Fields- The lavender in Provence blooms in the mid to late-June, and is harvested in mid to late-July. Of course this varies by the year, but if you’re in Provence in the summer, you may be lucky enough to spot some of the most lush and gorgeous fields of flowers to be found in Europe. The Luberon region has many fields to visit, as well as some very cute towns and the Gorges du Verdon, so that would be an excellent day trip.

Head to the beach! There are a ton of beaches within an easy drive to Aix, but many get crowded in the summer because the south of France is such a popular destination for the French and foreigners alike. My secret (no longer secret?) spot is the Ile du Frioul.

Ile du Frioul

This is an island off the coast of Marseille that’s accessible by a ferry that also stops at the Chateau d’If. There are a couple of public beaches on the island, but then many more small grottos and cliff edges with water access, and if you’re there on the right day, you might get one all to yourself! There’s nowhere to stay overnight on the island, so you’ll have to take the ferry from Vieux-Port in the morning, and back in the evening, but there are a couple of restaurants and convenience stores if you want to grab lunch or dinner.

Aix-en-Provence is one of my absolute favorite places in the entire world, and I love returning as often as possible. There are always new things to see and explore within this small Provencal town! There are also a ton of great towns and cities nearby that are worth a visit, and Aix is the perfect starting point for day trips all over the region to places like Arles, Marseille, Avignon, Montpellier, Cassis, and more!

If you’re planning to visit Aix and need some help planning your trip, book a travel consultation with me! I’ll be happy to plan out your itinerary to ensure that you get the most out of this beautiful city and region.

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Please note that some links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book using the link on my website, I’ll be paid a percentage of your booking fee at absolutely no extra cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own, and all recommendations are based on my own personal experience.