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Exploring the Czech Republic: the Pardubice Region

Exploring the Czech Republic: the Pardubice Region

Last year, more than 10 million tourists came to the Czech Republic- a number which is roughly equivalent to the entire population of the Czech Republic. Of those 10 million tourists, approximately 70% of them came to the capital city, Prague. While Prague is an absolutely beautiful city full of incredible history, architecture, food, and culture, there are 12 other regions of the country left to be explored, and each offers something incredible for visitors. Pardubice is one of those regions, and its proximity to Prague makes the Pardubice Region an excellent location to explore more of what the Czech Republic has to offer.

Map of Czech Republic

Exploring the Pardubice Region

Pardubice

A trip to the Pardubice Region would logically begin in its capital city, Pardubice. This city dates to the 13th century when it was founded by Arnošt of Pardubice, the first Archbishop of Prague during the reign King Charles IV. Today, the city reflects its medieval history, with a nod to its rise in the 20th century as a central connection point between the country’s major cities: Prague, Brno, and Ostrava.

The first thing that you’ll notice about the city of Pardubice is its stunningly bright and colorful architecture. A stroll through the town’s main square will demonstrate just how beautiful the town’s architecture is. It’s no surprise that the phrase “Shine like Pardubice” was a popular phrase for local Bohemians beginning in the 16th century.

Pardubice Chateau

The city’s development can largely be contributed to the Pernštejn family, and the name Pernštejn can be found in every nook and cranny throughout the region. Most famously, the Pardubice Chateau was reconstructed by the Pernštejn family in the late 15th century into the castle and chateau we see today. The Pardubice Chateau now houses the Museum of East Bohemia.

Kunětická Hora Castle

The Czech Republic is really the ideal country for castle-lovers, and the Pardubice region is no exception. Just outside of the city of Pardubice is the Kunětická Hora Castle, a 14th century castle. The castle sits on one of the only hills in that part of the region, so it’s a truly idyllic spot amongst the farmland. The castle is accessible from Pardubice by public bus, or by taxi which would be reasonably low cost due to a regulation on fares within the city limits that would cap a portion of the fare to the castle.

Kunětická Hora Castle

The Kunětická Hora Castle is now a museum with permanent and temporary exhibitions showcasing the castle’s history, including archeological discoveries. The castle is open from April-October each year, and the visit to the castle is self-guided.

Pardubicky Pivovar (Pardubice Brewery)

A visit to any region in Bohemia would be incomplete without a visit to a local brewery. Pilsner Urquell is amongst the most famous in the Czech Republic, but each region (sometimes each city!) will have its own local brew- often even better than the mass-produced varieties like Pilsner. In Pardubice, this brewery is called the Pardubicky Pivovar (Pardubice Brewery in English), and produces a wide variety of beers whose namesakes nod to the more famous developers of the city and region.

The Pernštejn beer comes in several varieties (light, semi-dark, Vilém 11, Premium, and Granát 13). If you’re at a pub in Pardubice, the light variety is likely to be on tap, and it’s delicious. The pride and joy of the Pardubicky Pivovar, however, is the Porter, which has been brewed with the exact same recipe for over 120 years. This is a dark beer with a thick, creamy foam, and has some sweet notes to it. Even if you typically don’t like dark beer, you’ll probably like this one- it’s very drinkable!

If you’re interested in touring the Pardubicky Pivovar, be sure to call at least 10 days in advance to schedule your tour. Tours are available in Czech, English, Russian, and Swedish. The tour allows you to taste unfiltered and unpasteurized beer straight from the tank, and allows you to visit the brewery’s special microbrewery called Arnošt after the city’s founder.

The National Stud in Kladruby nad Labem

Usually a national stud farm wouldn’t be on a “top places to see in…” list, but the Czech National Stud is truly unique in both its history and architecture. Even non-equestrians will love a stroll through the National Stud to learn of its role in Czech history, its development, and its modern achievements.

National Stud in Kladruby nad Labem

The National Stud in Kladruby nad Labem is one of the oldest stud farms in the world, and is home to the Kladruber horse breed. These horses are used primarily for ceremonial purposes and carriages, and are similar in build, nature, and color to the Lipizzaner horses of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. The horses are all either white or black, with some of the foals born black and turning to pure white in adulthood. The Danish king apparently still purchases all of his ceremonial horses from this stud farm, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge currently have a foal in training there!

The land at Kladruby nad Labem was held by the aforementioned Pernštejn family, and was used as a deer and horse park in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. In 1560, the property was acquired by the Austro-Hungarian monarchs, and the stud farm was established in 1563. It was eventually made the official Imperial Court Stud Farm, and was held by the monarchy until its collapse in 1918. After the end of the first World War, the stud farm continued to breed these specialized horses for ceremonial purposes in the new Republic. After the end of the second World War, the stud farm continued to be held in the state’s possession, where it remains today.

The National Stud in Kladruby nad Labem is only about 30 minutes from Pardubice. The easiest way to get there is by private car, but you can also catch a train to Recany nad Labem, and a taxi (3.6 km) from there to the stable.

The stud farm is open from April-October for regular tours, and by appointment outside of this peak season. You have the option of visiting the stables, castle, carriage house/museum, forester’s house, and the lookout tower, or all of the above! If you purchase tickets for the stables, carriage house, and castle, you’ll also be able to visit the forester’s house and lookout tower for no extra charge on the same day.

Tours are provided in Czech, English, and German; if you’d like a tour in English or German, you should plan to book in advance (5 person minimum required). Alternatively, you can join a Czech tour with audio guides or printed text to facilitate your tour if you have less than 5 people with you. Tours leave every hour between 10 am and 4 pm, and if you’re planning to visit all locations, you should begin with a tour at 1 pm in order to see everything before the end of the day!

Pardubice Racecourse

If you’re not all done with horses after a visit to the National Stud, Pardubice boasts another famous horse-related activity.

The Pardubice Racecourse is just outside of the city next to the Pardubice airport, and hosts one of the most difficult steeplechase events in Europe, Velká Pardubická. This event has run for more than 140 years with only brief periods of interruption during the country’s most trying historical times. The race includes a total of 31 obstacles, and is 6900 meters (4.29 miles). One of these obstacles, the Taxis Ditch, is one of the most difficult in the world, and is the reason why some rider/horse teams do not finish the race.

The racing season begins in May, and concludes with the Velká Pardubická in mid-October each year. The Velká Pardubická brings out over 20,000 spectators at the stadium, with more than 3,000,000 watching on television.

Seč

Set in the Iron Mountains, a beautiful mountain region in central Czech Republic that borders the Pardubice and Vysočina Regions, Seč is a great point to begin your exploration of this landscape.

Seč Dam and the Oheb Castle

The Seč Dam is an artificial reservoir located in the northern tip of the Iron Mountains. In the summer, it offers excellent swimming, boating, and other outdoor activities in its beautiful waters. If you’re into outdoor activities, there are also plenty of campgrounds on the Dam that makes it an excellent get-away in Eastern Bohemia. Be forewarned that swimming in Seč Dam should be done early in the summer, as the dry weather in the region can make the water eventually un-swimmable in late August.Seč Dam at sunset

High above the Seč Dam sits a 14th century castle that’s camouflaged almost perfectly from the water. The Oheb Castle is a gothic castle that overlooks the Dam, and is part of a fantastic hike through the Iron Mountains. From personal experience, I can recommend these medieval ruins as an excellent backdrop for a Pardubice sunset.

Veselý Kopec

One of my favorite sites of the Pardubice Region is Veselý Kopec, an open-air museum of folk architecture southeast of Seč. Unfortunately, this is only realistically accessible by private car, but it’s well worth the rental.

Vesely Kopec Village

The museum at Veselý Kopec is a small village that showcases traditional Bohemian-Moravian Highland cottages which were used even until the 1950’s. Four of the houses in the village are original to that specific location, and the rest were moved from elsewhere in the country to the museum to showcase the full breadth of this architecture. More importantly, this village does an exemplary job of demonstrating the way of life of the inhabitants of these cottages. It’s amazing to walk through all of the structures, seeing authentic furnishings and decorations, and imagining how life was lived by the average villager in the Czech Republic for more than 100 years.

Veselý Kopec is open from late-April until the end of October each year, except for a few special events during the winter.

Spa and Wellness in the Forest

If you’re so inclined to take a break during your exploration of the Pardubice Region, you may consider stopping off at a local spa. Czechs are very invested in the idea of wellness for vacation- your doctor can actually prescribe you a visit to a spa in this country! This may be one of my favorite things about Czech culture, as I tend to indulge in spa visits when on vacation myself. In Pardubice, I visited the spa at Hotel Jezerka, a hotel located in the middle of the forest not far from the Seč Dam.

The hotel itself caters largely to conferences throughout the year, and families in the public areas in the summer, but the spa and wellness areas are adult-only. The spa at Hotel Jezerka is the most comprehensive I’ve ever seen. There is 800 square meters of spa space, with 11 different saunas/steam rooms/etc., plus several pools and whirlpools of various temperatures. As is typical in this country, the spa is bathing suit-free, but you can rent a spa robe if you don’t bring one yourself- just be prepared for this cultural experience!

Hotel Jezerka Spa

The spa has an entrance fee of 290 CZK which you can pay at the spa reception desk, and is well worth the 90-minute visit. The spa also has 4 massage rooms, and offers a variety of treatments.

Litomyšl

In my opinion, Litomyšl is one of the most underrated cities in the Czech Republic. The birthplace of the Czech composer Smetana, this town has the air of inspiration with just a quick peak at its architecture.

Litomyšl Castle

Your likely starting point in Litomyšl will be the castle hill, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The Litomyšl castle which dominates this hill is one of the only castles north of the Alps that has a 3-sided open portico in the Italian Renaissance style. The envelope etchings on the sides of the castle are all completely unique, and lavishly decorate all exteriors of the castle. The castle itself boasts rooms decorated to perfection, as well as an 18th century Baroque theatre preserved with all of its original scenery and equipment.

The castle is open from April-October each year, with two different tour options. Tours in English are available with a group reservation of 15 people or more; otherwise, English speakers can join the Czech tour with printed information.

Interested in staying at the Litomyšl Castle? Check out these apartments within the Castle complex!

Piarist Church of the Discovery of the Holy Cross

Just outside the gates of the Litomyšl Castle towers the Piarist Church of the Discovery of the Holy Cross, which is also on the UNESCO world heritage list. This church was abandoned after 1968, and was reconstructed with some modern touches between 2011-2015. Now, this church is a central site of Litomyšl, opening its doors for worship as well as public cultural events as it was historically used.

Church in Litomysl

This is an incredibly unique church in the Czech Republic, as it maintains many of its historic features with modern instillations that recognize and remember its struggle to survive the late 20th century. Entrance to the church is free, but it’s well worth purchasing a ticket to climb into the bell tower for stunning views over the town of Litomyšl, as well as to admire the unique details of the church from above.

Birthplace of Smetana

It’s no wonder that a town such as Litomyšl is home to such an incredible composer; anyone would be inspired after spending a few hours in the town. Bedřich Smetana was born within the castle complex because his father was the brewmaster. The Birthplace of Smetana is located just opposite the entrance to Litomyšl Castle. The museum is within the rooms of the former residence, and demonstrate how Smetana would have lived, as well as provide information about his life and work. It’s well worth a visit, especially if you’ll already be visiting the Castle.

The museum is open from April-October.

Nové Hrady

Just about 15 minutes from Litomyšl is yet another stunning Czech chateau. This chateau, Nové Hrady, is an amazing and rare example of Rococo architecture. This castle is still inhabited by private owners, but a visit to the castle allows you to stroll through the castle gardens, which are vast. This is the ideal place for a trip outside of Litomyšl to enjoy the grounds of the castle and the stunning architecture for a couple of hours.

The Pardubice Region in the Czech Republic is absolutely idyllic. With its capital city only a 1 hour train ride away from Prague, the Pardubice Region is the perfect spot for a day or weekend away from the city. Prague is certainly an important city in the Czech Republic, not to mention beautiful, but it’s also not totally representative of the rest of the Czech Republic, its history, its architecture, or its culture.

The Czech Republic offers many beautiful destinations outside of Prague, Czech Republic. Take a trip to the Pardubice Region, either as a day trip from Prague or a weekend trip while you're in the Czech Republic. Pardubice offers history, art, culture, and adventure that you won't find anywhere else traveling in Europe! #travel #czechrepublic

Thank you to Czech Tourism for inviting me on my trip to the Pardubice Region. As always, all opinions are my own.

Interested in visiting the Pardubice Region, but don’t know where to start? Book a travel consultation with me, and I’ll help you plan your trip from beginning to end!

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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Prague Airport: A Behind-the-Scenes Look

Prague Airport: A Behind-the-Scenes Look

How often do we travel through airports without really considering what goes on behind the scenes? I never really consider these inner-workings unless I’m endlessly frustrated by a lost bag or seemingly useless flight delay. Well, thanks to the kindness of the communications team at Prague Airport, I was able to see exactly what it takes to fly me to my favorite destinations. As a Prague inhabitant, I fly out of Prague Airport quite often, so I was thrilled to explore this particular airport- it’s almost like a second home!

Arriving to Prague? Check out my guides to Hotels and Restaurants in Prague!

The Start of Your Journey at Prague Airport

When you first arrive to Prague Airport, the first logical step is checking in and dropping off your bags. If you’re departing from Terminal 2, which is the terminal for all Schengen area flights, you have the benefit of adding Private Check-In to your airport experience. In almost all cases, this is the kind of thing I would recommend skipping, but what Prague Airport offers is well worth the 999 CZK in value. With this service, you will drop your bags and travel documents at the VIP check-in desk and proceed to the Raiffeisen Bank lounge. There, you’ll have access to typical lounge amenities including drinks and snacks. While you wait, your travel documents, boarding pass, and checked-in baggage tag will be delivered to you in time for you to go through a private security screening just before your flight boards.

I have access to this lounge as a Raiffeisen Bank customer, so I was already familiar with its services even prior to this tour of Prague Airport; the lounge and amenities it offers are fantastic, especially the private security screening. Seriously, I loath having to go through “regular” security screenings at all now that I’ve lived in the lap of luxury at Prague Airport.

60% of Prague Airport’s flights department from Terminal 2, so it’s likely you’ll have the chance to use this service. If not, unfortunately there is no similar service in Terminal 1, although there is still a Raifeissen Lounge after immigration control that you can utilize.

After Check-In

While you’re lounging away at the Raiffeisen Lounge, or in the departures area, there is loads happening to get you from Prague to your destination on time and with all of your baggage. First, your baggage moves through an absolutely massive baggage sorting area to go through a security check and to be loaded onto the correct plane. Honestly, this is one piece of Prague Airport that I had never really thought about before, but I was stunned to see just how large this sorting and processing area was. Think Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but with no chocolate and loads of suitcases. It was just never-ending belts, scanners, and x-ray machines with the occasional airport staff member moving things along.

While your baggage is moving right along, there is still the aircraft to consider. Prague Airport is a Coordinated Airport that uses the A-CDM (Airport Coordinated Decision Making) method of airport coordination. This means that all flights are scheduled into very specific time slots, and all processes regarding the arrival, turn-around, pre-departure, and take-off of flights are highly predictable based on sequencing processes. This all sounds very complicated, but in fact, it’s very logical, and it explains why a small delay can turn into a much bigger delay if a flight misses its window for take-off. Currently, Prague Airport uses one runway for all major take offs and landings, so it is crucial that all aircraft maintain tight schedules. The Command Operations Center is carefully controlling this while you stroll through the airport sipping your second cappuccino to ensure that all flights take off and land safely and efficiently.

Prague Airport does technically operate 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, but because of noise restrictions, its overnight flights are very limited which leads to even tighter controls of flight times during the day. One small delay can really uproot the entire system, so the room for error is limited.

In Case of Emergency

Prague Airport is well-prepared to handle any type of emergency that may occur on or off the runway. After 2001, security in the airport increased tenfold, like it did internationally. Fortunately, Prague Airport’s security is incredibly efficient, even if you’re not using the private security screening. In Terminal 1, security takes place as you enter your gate, which means each gate has its own security checkpoint. Once you pass the immigration desks, you’re free to roam security checkpoint-free until your gate opens! In Terminal 2, there is a more traditional centralized security, but the lines move at impressive speed. I still prefer my Raifeissen personal screening, because who needs to rush when you can be the only person at security?

Security concerns are not the only types of potential emergencies that airports face. Another which is less-often considered, but still vital for staff to consider, is the potential of fire somewhere at the airport, on a plane, or on a runway. Prague Airport has invested heavily into its fire brigade, and now owns 4 Panther vehicles, which are quite easily the coolest emergency vehicles I’ve ever seen. I’m a former EMT, so I’ve seen my fair share of emergency vehicles, but these really top the cake. Imagine a firetruck that needs only one person to operate the entire thing including the water and foam hoses? These vehicles (worth more than $1 million each) do just that. In fact, the Prague Airport Fire Brigade is well known to be the best fire company in the entire country, and is sometimes called to the nearby highway for large-scale emergencies- who knew!

Time for Take Off!

As I mentioned, there is just one runway for all commercial take offs and landings at Prague Airport. There is also a smaller runway for Terminal 3 where the fancy planes (ie. private charters) take off, but us regulars don’t tend to use that one too often! This runway is carefully managed, however, to prevent any kind of back-up so there really aren’t too many lines of planes waiting around to take off or circling around waiting to land.

Right now, the largest type of plane servicing Prague Airport is the Airbus A380, with Emirates Airlines running flights to and from Dubai daily. These big planes are a bit few and far between, however. You’re more likely to see standard-sized planes used to shuttle passengers from Prague Airport to transfer hubs in Europe. Every once in a while, you’ll catch a smaller charter flight- ranging from private jets to the Cessna 206 I got to take a spin in from Terminal 3!

Prague Airport is such an incredible organizational achievement. I fly internationally quite regularly almost always out of Prague Airport, and I’ve never been disappointed by the level of service provided by all staff members. Everything always seems to run very smoothly, and I find it’s one of the few airports I fly from where I have no pre-flight stress from security lines, long check-in lines, or flight delays that threaten my travel plans.

If you’re interested in seeing a back-stage look at Prague Airport, check out these guided tours! Not all stops I’ve mentioned are included in the public tour (like the Command Ops, for example), but these tours will still be an excellent way for any aviation fan to get an inside-look into one of Europe’s fastest growing airports.

This tour of Prague Airport was provided to me free of charge. As always, all opinions are honest and based on my own experiences.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at Prague Airport, the largest airport in the Czech Republic. Prague is the largest and most beautiful city in the Czech Republic, with loads of architecture, history, and culture to explore! #prague #czechrepublic #pragueairport

 

Interested in visiting Prague, 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!

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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.

 

Day Trip from Prague: The Český Šternberk Castle

Day Trip from Prague: The Český Šternberk Castle

With nearly 3 million visitors per year to its capital city alone, the Czech Republic certainly doesn’t disappoint with many beautiful places to visit. Day trips from Prague, the Czech Republic’s capital, are a common enterprise for tourists who are lucky enough to have several days to spare. Fortunately, there are a ton of incredible places to see near the city, but few rank as highly as the stunning castles dotting the countryside. The Czech Republic has one of the highest numbers of castles in Europe, and they range from medieval ruins to gorgeous country chateaus (Zámek). The Český Šternberk Castle is one of the most beautiful castles in the country, with a remarkable history that makes it a great day trip from Prague!

The Český Šternberk Castle

The Český Šternberk Castle (or Sternberg Castle in its original German name) is located about 45-60 minutes east of Prague in the direction of Brno. Founded in 1241, the Český Šternberk Castle was named in German based on the owner’s coat of arms (a star- Stern) and its location (a mountain- Berg). The Sternberg Castle has been held by the same family since its founding, which means that it’s now held by the 20th generation of the Sternberg family!

Cesky Sternberk Castle

To visit the interiors of the castle, you’ll need to book on to a tour. Tours are available in Czech, English, German, Russian, and French, and written material can be provided in several other languages should your language not be included in this list. The tour brings you to the 2nd floor of the castle, which is situated above the living quarters of the Sternberg family. Zdeněk Sternberg, the current owner of the castle and descendent of the same Sternberg family that has owned the castle since the 13th century, still resides on the first floor. As the property is privately owned, the cost of maintaining the castle is subsidized by tourist visits to some of the historic rooms which still maintain their historic furnishings, art, and architecture.

Cesky Sternberk castle tour

The guides employed by the castle are excellent, and will do a good job of walking you through the rooms of the castle and explaining the history of the Sternberg family, as well as the historic context of the castle. The grand hall of the castle, the first room on the tour, speaks to the absolute regal-ness of the Sternberg family and its legacy. The Sternberg family was one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Czech history, and the remnants of their heritage can be found throughout the country. In Prague, only steps away from Prague Castle is the Šternberk Palace, which was once owned by the family but is now one of the many buildings of Prague’s national gallery. The Sternbergs were responsible for the creation of both the Czech National Museum and National Gallery, so we have much to thank them for in terms of the cultural heritage of Central Europe.

In addition to the beautiful interiors of the castle, it’s worth venturing to the Hladomorna, the south-facing bastion of the castle built in the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s now in relative ruins, but a climb to the top will give you a spectacular view over the landscape of the region.

View of Cesky Sternberk

How to visit the Český Šternberk Castle

Český Šternberk is only 57 km (35 miles) from Prague, so it’s an ideal location for a day trip outside of the city. The castle is situated on the bank of the Sazava River surrounded by hills and hiking trails, so the day trip can certainly be turned in to an overnight trip, too!

The easiest way to reach Český Šternberk is by renting a car from Prague. If you’re already in the city, check out the rental counters located at Hlavní nádraží, the main railway station. These are easy to get to from anywhere in the city center without having to trek out to the airport. The drive from Prague to Český Šternberk should take about an hour on the D1 motorway.

If renting a car isn’t feasible for you, you can also take the scenic route with a train from Prague. The way to Český Šternberk routes through Čerčany (only one change), and takes about an hour and 20 minutes. This is by far the cheapest option with train tickets costing about 115 CZK. While a little longer than driving, the train journey to central Bohemia will also give you stunning views of the Czech landscape, so it will definitely be worth it!

Once you arrive, you’ll have about a 20 minute walk along the river from the train station to get to the castle, where you’ll be rewarded with an incredible view of the castle perched on the hill from which it derives its name. Depending on the time of year, you should either call or e-mail in advance for a tour, or you’ll be able to join one throughout the day. Český Šternberk is both the name of the (small) town and castle, so if you have some time to wait before your tour, you can grab a snack at the on-site restaurant, or wander in to the town to enjoy the views by the river. For more information regarding opening hours and tours, visit the official website of the Český Šternberk Castle.

When visiting Prague, Czech Republic, take a day trip from Prague to a nearby Castle! This Czech castle is only 35 miles from the city and is a beautiful, historic castle. The Cesky Sternberk castle is so worth a day trip from Prague! #travel #castle

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My Secrets to Affording Travel

My Secrets to Affording Travel

As a young working professional, I can certainly empathize with other young professionals or students who are dying to explore the world, but are living on limited funds. Travel isn’t always the cheapest hobby, but that doesn’t mean that travel is available exclusively for those living on trust funds. It’s absolutely possible for people living on average wages to get out of their homes and see the world without breaking the bank. After years of attempting to travel as much as possible while studying or working, I’ve finally nailed down a system that allows me to travel as much as I do while maintaining a somewhat normal lifestyle. This time of year, we’re all working on setting our goals for the new year, and what better resolution than to work on saving some money while planning for life-changing travel?

Casually wanting to travel more and genuinely wanting to make travel a part of your life are two different things. If you truly want to make somewhat regular travel a part of your life, you need to make a concerted effort to prioritize it. By prioritizing travel, I don’t mean not paying bills or putting food in the fridge; I mean taking an inventory of any surplus funds that you have week to week, and not spending that money on frivolous things (Frappucino, anyone?).

This brings me to my first secret:

Budgeting like a travel CHAMP.

Every dollar/euro/pound/korun/etc. counts, and knowing exactly where you spend yours each day, week, or month will likely be an eye-opening experience for you. I’ve created a budget spreadsheet in Excel which I always keep open, and I input every single expense that I incur from a small cup of coffee to the slow cooker that I just purchased.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 9.31.55 PM

Because I live in the Czech Republic, but I still maintain a US bank account, I calculate everything in both currencies. If you’re living on only one currency, I’m jealous, and also, this will be much more simple for you! This spreadsheet contains formulas which automatically add each row and column so that I know how much I’ve spent each week, in addition to how much I’ve spent in individual categories (like toys for my cat). I keep a fixed expense breakdown sheet so that I don’t need to account for those automatic expenses (like rent and internet) each month- they’re already figured into the monthly budget. I also keep 5% for savings out of my monthly budget as a bit of a buffer. I hope that this will go to savings each month, but if I’ve overspent a tiny bit I don’t need to stress too much! If you’d like to start a budget spreadsheet, feel free to download and customize your own here:

Study Hard Travel Smart Budgeting Spreadsheet

Mason Jar Saving

My second secret is “Mason Jar Saving”– and yes, I really do use a mason jar (actually, two).

This sort of goes along the lines of the recent “52-week Saving Plan” that tends to circle the internet just after the New Year.  In fact, I’m trying the Czech version of that plan to save for a trip this year. If you’re unfamiliar, the plan goes something like this:

  • Week 1- Put $52 into a jar
  • Week 2- Put $51 into a jar
  • Week 3- Put $50 into a jar

and so on. Because it isn’t practical for me to be stuffing USD into a mason jar each week, I’ve just multiplied each amount by 20 (the approximate currency exchange rate), so if you’re on a different currency it’s easy to do the same! Some versions of this plan have you starting at $1, and incrementally increasing the amount each week, but I like the decreasing version better so that I’ll have more spare cash at the notoriously expensive end of the year. If you’re anything like me, this regulation of saving is nice, and it yields a really nice result- this should give you $1,378 (or rough equivalent) by the end of the year. I do like this 52-week plan because (as you might have guessed from the aforementioned budgeting spreadsheet) I’m a rule-follower; if I make a short-term rule for myself, I’m much more likely to follow through than if I make an overarching goal. Even before this challenge came along, I already had a mason jar set up, complete with a “travel fund” label. So how did I fill it? I decided that I would both penalize and reward myself each time I worked past 5 pm Monday-Friday, or on weekends. I was taking 100 CZK away from my “spare” weekly spending money, and putting it towards future adventures (or relaxation for working so much). If you have a work schedule like mine, this will add up quickly! The money that you’ll save from either option (or both!) will go a long way, particularly if you’re traveling in a budget-friendly way.

Stretching your Budget

This all brings me to my third secret- make your money last as long as possible! There are two main techniques that I typically try to utilize: booking with budget and discount companies for my air travel and accommodation, and exploiting travel rewards as frequently as possible.

Most of the budget companies I use are listed on my Tips and Tricks page, but the highlights include RyanAir, EasyJet, HostelWorld, Booking.com, and Airbnb. It’s great to know about these budget companies, but the real trick is making their deals work for you. To find good flights, including those on RyanAir and EasyJet, I typically search Skyscanner– I always have the best luck on this site finding the lowest-priced combo of flights. When I’m looking to travel by land, I check out Rome2Rio to find all of the options I have getting from point A to point B, and then to find the least expensive option. I also try to be flexible with my travel destinations; I’ve been known to go to RyanAir’s website, look for flights from Prague (or where ever I am), and then pick the least expensive, interesting destination- hopefully somewhere I haven’t been yet. I ended up spending a wonderful weekend in Milan this way, and it worked perfectly! I knew that I wanted to go somewhere, so I let RyanAir choose for me. There is also the website Secret Flying, which combs websites and search engines finding “mistake” or super cheap airfares, and helps you book them before they’re gone. If you’re fairly open about where and when you travel, this website will be a GREAT resource. Booking.com is a great resource if you use it frequently, as you eventually earn a perpetual 10% “genius” discount that I’ve found to make hotel costs less expensive. As I get older and do less hostel travel, I find that I prefer to book hotels on Booking.com due to the convenience and prices they offer.

My favorite, and probably most lucrative, money-saving techniques are travel rewards. For accommodation, I always share my Airbnb discount code, which gives my friends and family $34 off their first trips, and in return, I get money off my next trip after they travel. It’s even better if your friends or family decide to host after signing up with your code- you’ll get even more off your next trip. If you’d like to sign up with Airbnb and get $34 off your first trip, use this link! I also take advantage of travel rewards credit cards- I’m currently using the Chase Sapphire Reserve. I like this card for several reasons: first, their 50,000 bonus points for spending $4,000 in the first three months is an excellent bonus. $4,000 may sound like a lot, but if you put absolutely everything you buy (from coffee to groceries to travel) on the card for three months, you’ll probably be pretty close. Afterwards, you get triple rewards for any travel (including Uber, taxis, trains, etc.) and food, plus 1 to 1 points on all purchases. I’ve been able to rack up a pretty healthy point balance with just regular usage of the card, which, bonus, doesn’t have any foreign transaction fees! I use these points when I’m flying to a destination that isn’t serviced by discount airlines, and I’ve been able to pay for (essentially) entire trips this way. I’ll be going to Italy later this year, and I didn’t pay a penny for it!

In my opinion, traveling will almost always be worth the cost of airline tickets and hotels, but I also certainly appreciate that not everyone (including myself) has enough expendable cash to spend a year traveling the world carefree. I like to think that I’ve found the happy medium between working a fairly normal, 9-5 (ish) job, and traveling often enough to attempt to keep my wanderlust at bay. Utilizing the methods I’ve listed above should help you on your way towards “world traveler” status in no time! And in case you don’t know where to start planning your budget trip, I’m here to help! I offer travel consulting packages starting at $25 to help you plan and budget your travels to help you maximize your budget for ultimate travel impact- taking the hard work out of traveling smart!

 

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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 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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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 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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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.

Teaching English Abroad (and Why I Don’t)

Teaching English Abroad (and Why I Don’t)

Prague seems to be one of the TEFL (“Teaching English as a Foreign Language”) capitals of Europe, and since moving here, I get asked all the time if I’m an English teacher. In fact, for many, it seems out of place that I’m an American living in Prague that doesn’t teach English. A native-speaking expat in their 20’s or 30’s that isn’t teaching English abroad is somewhat of an anomaly in this part of Europe. I’ve often been told that I should start teaching English on the side for some extra money or experience, and I have actually thought about it. How hard can it be, right? Except, all you really need to do is speak to one language teacher who spends an entire day traveling between schools and the entire evening preparing lessons to realize that there’s a ton that goes in to teaching a language that native speakers just aren’t qualified to do without some extra training.

Don’t get me wrong; teaching English abroad is an absolutely incredible way to move to a new country, have the ability to travel and explore the world, and to gain some great experience. But just like with any other job, especially one that is responsible for teaching an important skill to someone else, most people can’t just jump in and start doing that job without some prior training and experience. In my opinion, this mindset is similar to that of the “voluntourism” problem that’s currently sweeping the Western world. This post isn’t about volunteering abroad, specifically, but if you’re new to the idea, I suggest going here, here, or here to learn more about the problems associated with and created by voluntourism.

Essentially, as it relates to teaching English abroad, why, as a native speaker, would I assume that I’m qualified to teach English even though I have never learned how to be a teacher? To put it in perspective, consider how much teachers in public schools have to do to be allowed their own classes in those schools. Where I’m from in the US, my friends who have become teachers have completed at least one degree in education, have had to take certification tests, and go through background checks to prove that they’re safe to be in schools with other people’s children. I have done none of those things, so what right do I have joining a classroom in Prague to teach other people’s children?

I’ve asked some ESL teachers to help answer some of these questions and to expand on what is actually necessary before a teacher steps into a classroom. Elise from Travel, Work and Play has taught English in Cambodia and worked for an NGO providing education to vulnerable communities. Here’s what she has to say:

The idea that as a native speaker, you are capable and qualified to teach the language is prevalent throughout developed and developing worlds. At my last school, I saw a steady stream of unqualified and bewildered travellers arrive to teach English to high-school aged students. Some of them had their TEFL qualification and others didn’t. Technically it’s required by most schools here, but rules are regularly bent, depending on how urgently they need teachers. Too many of these travellers lasted a few days or a few weeks before realising they were wildly out of their depth. I have a bachelors in English and a TEFL qualification with about five years of English tutoring experience from the UK, and it still took some serious adapting to teaching in a classroom. My advice would be to ask yourself the following questions to decide if ESL teaching is for you:

Why do you want to do it? What skills or qualifications do you have already? What skills or qualifications are you willing to learn? Do you enjoy public speaking? Do you enjoy teaching or training? Are you confident, quick thinking, patient? How much time can you commit? At the very minimum, are you available for one full school term? (Most credible schools ask for a year commitment.) If you feel like you fit the bill and this is something you’re genuinely passionate about then take some time to research where and how you can teach ESL abroad. Teaching English in other countries is billed as an easy way to travel while earning, but it actually takes a significant investment of time and energy to do it justice.

For some further information about teaching ESL English in Southeast Asia head over to her blog!

Unfortunately, there are a lot of “come teach English in XYZ country, and change the lives of local people” advertisements for schools all over the world. A lot of these “schools” are willing to take native English speaking people, stick them into a classroom with little or no actual teaching experience, and give them the responsibility of teaching a language to (most often) children. I’ve heard about this in Prague, and I’m always disappointed when I hear my fellow Americans talking about landing a job at a school without actually having gotten a TEFL certificate or having any other experience. While I can appreciate that some of these English teachers will work hard and learn quickly in order to become effective teachers, there are many who don’t put in that requisite effort and may end up doing more harm than good. I believe that I speak English fairly well, but I certainly wouldn’t know how to teach complex grammatical structure to a class of non-native speakers without doing a significant amount of prior research, and I’m certain that some of these teachers are in a similar boat. When looking into the possibility of teaching English abroad, it’s important that you be honest with yourself regarding your level of experience and qualification, and find the appropriate training program before picking up your own classes.

Elise explains that this is also an insidious problem in the volunteering sector:

“Many non-profits are unregulated and accept volunteers to ‘teach’ English abroad, with only their native language to qualify them. Many volunteers pay a fee to spend a few weeks teaching in a classroom, many of them repeating ABCs and basics that the students have already been taught by the last unqualified volunteers in their classroom. With no syllabus and prior training, how can their presence be anything but damaging? I would urge anyone interested in volunteering abroad to sign up for projects that they are genuinely qualified for. No teaching qualifications or classroom experience? Sign up for a community project to help farm or clean. Volunteer at a hostel or somewhere that needs help doing work that doesn’t require extra training. Websites like Workaway and HelpX help match volunteers with projects where they can make a real difference.”

I also reached out to a fellow blogger, Mariza from HopOnWorld, to explain her journey to teaching English abroad. Mariza is from South Africa, and comes from a publishing/advertising background. In her early 30’s she decided she wanted to explore the world and travel, so she earned a TEFL certificate, and has been teaching in Taiwan for six years. She’s been kind enough to explain the in’s and out’s of her journey to becoming an English teacher abroad! Here’s what she has to say:

English teacher in Taiwan

Teaching English in Taiwan

During my university years, I often thought of just packing my bags and going traveling. But after my graduation, I soon found myself in the corporate world – hooked to the fast pace of the media and advertising world. Somehow, I still felt something was missing in my life. So, a few years later, I finally mustered up enough courage and started planning the adventure of a lifetime.

After considering many options to fund a traveling lifestyle, I finally decided to teach English abroad. Being a teacher might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does have some pretty great perks:

  1. You get to really immerse yourself in a culture.
  2. You get to make a difference in someone’s life.
  3. You get to travel.

It sounded like a match made in heaven! So, I got online, did tons of research, had endless conversations with family and friends, compared pro’s and cons, and finally decided to teach English in Taiwan. Six years have past since I took that leap of faith, and I have never looked back.

Life in Taiwan

Taiwan might not be on top of everyone’s list when considering a teaching career in Asia – most people choose South Korea, Japan, China or even Thailand. But, if you did a bit of research you will soon realize that Taiwan is the perfect place to kickstart a career in ESL teaching.

Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan is home to almost 23 million people, making it pretty populated for its small size. However the island has plenty to offer, which is most probably why so many expats enjoy living here. From gorgeous scenery – beaches, mountains, waterfalls, jungles…you name it, Taiwan has it all – to bustling neon-filled cities, a highly efficient public transportation system, low crime rates and extremely friendly people. If you are a foodie, you are in luck too! Taiwan has some of the most incredible dishes and street food you will ever come across. Not to mention, a great healthcare system, lucrative salary packages, affordable housing and super cheap utilities. But, the best part about living in Taiwan, is its location. Want to hop over to Osaka, Ho Chi Minh City or Hong Kong for a long weekend? Guess what…you can!

So, how do you do it? The first thing you need to do, is find out whether you actually qualify to teach in Taiwan.

Qualifications

In order to teach in Taiwan, you need to meet the government’s requirements. These requirements are non-negotiable. So, even if you are a native English speaker, but you don’t have a degree, you have zero chance of finding a job legally here.

Cram school requirements:

The easiest place to land a teaching job in Taiwan is at a cram school, more commonly referred to as buxibans. Buxibans are privately owned after-school schools, where you mainly teach elementary students. Depending on the school, you might have one or two older classes. Buxibans generally offer 20-30 teaching hours a week on a full-time contract. In order to work at a buxiban, you must meet the following criteria:

  1. Be a Native English Speaker.
  2. Hold a valid passport from USA, CAN, UK, IRE, SA, AUS, or NZ.
  3. Have a Bachelors Degree (in any field) from an accredited university.
  4. A minimum 120-hr TEFL/TESOL certificate, with some practical hours – some schools might accept online course certificates, but if you want to improve your chances of landing a job, do a proper TEFL course.
  5. A criminal background check from your country.
  6. Be able to produce certified copies of your qualifications and transcripts.
  7. Often, little or no experience is needed.

There are a couple of good chain schools in Taiwan. With Shane English School, American Eagle, Joy English and Giraffe being among the most renowned.

Public/ Private School Requirements

If you are an education major, you can easily land a job at a public/private school. These schools offer loads of benefits, such as housing allowances, flight reimbursements, paid summer vacations and more. Salaries are usually fixed and the hours are 8am-4pm. Here’s what you need:

  1. Be a Native English speaker.
  2. Hold a valid passport from one USA, CAN, UK, IRE, SA, AUS, or NZ.
  3. Be a licensed teacher.
  4. Hold either a BA, MA or higher qualification specializing in Education.
  5. A criminal background check from your country.
  6. Certified copies of your qualifications and transcripts.
  7. Some schools require at least one year’s teaching experience.

If you qualify to work in Taiwan, the next step is finding a job.

Finding a job

To legally work in Taiwan, you must have a work permit stating that you are permitted to accept employment. Obtaining a work permit can only be done with the help of a potential employer. The easiest way to go about this, is to have a job before you move to Taiwan. Once you have a job, your employer will help you with all the necessary steps to obtain a work permit.

Taipei, Taiwan

Do research

There are tons of websites with useful resources and job offers, but I found www.tefl.com to be the most comprehensive and user-friendly. The process of landing a job is pretty easy, but choosing the right school can be tricky. Be sure do do your research. It’s best to stick to the bigger chain schools offering some form of training.

Applying for a job

Once you have applied, a recruiter/the school will contact you to setup an online interview. If your application is accepted, your school will send you a step-by-step guide on what do to next. From getting your transcripts, doing a criminal check to getting a visa.

Getting a visa

Depending on your nationality, you might need a visa to enter Taiwan. Ask your recruiter or check your country’s visa requirements for Taiwan.

As a South African, I had to apply for a three month multiple-entry visitor’s visa. I had clear instructions not to tell immigration that I am planning to work in Taiwan. Only that I was traveling. The reason for this is due to a weird glitch in Taiwan’s visa laws. You can’t work legally in Taiwan without a working permit. And, you can only get a working permit, when you have proof of employment (such as a contract). It sounds very complicated, but don’t worry too much. This is an everyday practice and most teachers enter Taiwan this way.

To read more about the visa requirements for Taiwan, visit www.boca.gov.tw

The entire process can take anywhere from 1-3 months depending on the school’s specific needs. Most schools start to recruit in May for the upcoming new school year.

Final thoughts

Teaching abroad is not easy. Especially when you just start out. You will feel homesick and stressed out. You will need to cope with the language barrier and with the culture shock. They might seem like obstacles, but they are all part of the adventure! Once you find your feet, you will soon find that teaching, is a wonderfully rewarding experience.

Teaching English abroad is an excellent opportunity, particularly for young university graduates who are looking for some international experience. While Mariza moved to Taiwan and has remained there to teach for several years, many English teachers decide to stay only for one or two contracts before either moving on to a new place, or going home. Either option is fine so long as your preparation for your time teaching English includes appropriate training.

For better or worse, English is now an international language, and those of us who are native English speakers have an immense amount of linguistic privilege that isn’t afforded to people from non-English speaking countries. While we were listening and singing along to the radio one day, I once had a Czech friend ask me what it was like growing up and understanding the lyrics to the songs we were listening to. It absolutely blew my mind that day that I hadn’t realized how lucky I was to actually understand what the Spice Girls were singing about while I was growing up! Imagine having the responsibility of being part of a team of teachers that will teach a child a language that will help them navigate the world outside of their home country. If a native English speaker were to teach that child incorrect grammar, for example, it will be very difficult for that child to un-learn those errors later. Language teachers, in general, have a huge responsibility that I believe is under appreciated, and I think that as native English speakers, we owe our potential students the time and effort to become a properly qualified teacher prior to stepping foot in a classroom.


Teaching English Abroad

 

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Funding Study Abroad: An Inside Look at International Education

Funding Study Abroad: An Inside Look at International Education

Studying abroad has historically been viewed as an opportunity only available to wealthy students. This narrative is changing, however, as many American colleges and universities are pushing for their students to have the opportunity for a cross-cultural experience. Unfortunately, changing such a stereotype takes time, and many American college and university students aren’t aware of all the ways to fund their study abroad experiences. Funding study abroad isn’t as painful as you might imagine, you just need to know what to look for and how to choose the best study abroad program for you!

I went to an undergraduate institution, Susquehanna University, that required all students to have a cross-cultural experience. This specific terminology was used, “cross-cultural experience” rather than “study abroad experience”, because not all programs that fulfilled the requirement were located outside of the United States. With that being said, the large majority of these experiences are located internationally, and for me, they were in Aix-en-Provence, France, and Prague, Czech Republic. I was incredibly fortunate that my undergraduate institution was so invested in having essentially all of their students study abroad for some length of time because I had nearly unlimited resources available to me when I was selecting my study abroad programs, including a plethora of information about ways to fund my experience. Now that I work in the field of international education, however, I can see that not all students either have the resources available to them, or actively seek out those resources in order to fully understand the opportunities available to them.

Based on my experience, many students don’t seek out those resources because they believe that they will just simply not be able to study abroad. The most common reasons that I hear include:

  • “Studying abroad won’t fit into my schedule, I’m a member of ____ (a sorority/fraternity, athletics, student organizations, etc.)”
  • “I won’t be able to get the credits I’ll need when I’m abroad so that I can complete my degree on time”
  • “Studying abroad is too expensive”

I address the first two points on this page of my blog, and may dedicate further posts to these topics in the future. A good academic advisor who supports studying abroad will be able to help you find courses you can take while you’re abroad that will contribute to your degree program (PLEASE don’t take all of your gen-eds during your first semester Freshman year! Save those for your semester abroad!). That academic advisor, however, will likely not be able to help you fund your study abroad experience, and this is the single greatest factor that is holding back American students from experiences that will transform their lives. I’ve been working in the field since 2011, and I’ve been consistently amazed by how many opportunities exist to fund study abroad experiences, and even more so at how many are continuing to be developed. So, with an insider’s perspective, here are the best ways to fund a study abroad experience for all university students:

Figure out how long you want to study abroad for.

Your first inclination here may be to say, “a short-term summer program must be cheaper than a semester-length program, I’ll just go for the summer!” But this is where you’re probably wrong, my friend. Depending on your home institution’s policies regarding tuition billing, it’s probably cheaper for you to study abroad for an entire semester or year than it would be to study for just a few weeks during the summer. Many universities will charge you your home tuition fee, including all financial aid and scholarships, if you study abroad for a semester or year of your degree program. This means that you’d be billed as usual for your home university’s tuition, so what you pay in terms of your university fees will be the same (or less if you’re able to find additional scholarships to cover other expenses).

As this is the case at a lot of institutions, your first visit once you arrive to college as a freshman should be to your study abroad office to find out how their fee process works. If the process is the one that I’ve described, then you know you can count on paying the same tuition whether you’re studying at your home campus or in your host country!

So what if your university doesn’t do this? Does that mean that you’ll be paying your tuition on top of your study abroad fees? In most cases, no. Some universities have you pay your tuition directly to the host program or institution abroad, and this can work out to be cheaper than your home university’s tuition (hello, outrageously expensive US college tuition!). The only downside to this is that it often means you cannot apply your home university’s scholarships and financial aid to your study abroad semester. This is a question for your university’s financial aid office- sometimes they can make it work!

Pro-tip: it’s possible that the tuition at your host institution will be significantly lower than that at your home institution, so some students will take a “semester off” or a leave of absence to study abroad in order to pay that lower tuition rate for a semester or a year.*

Spending time in the lavender fields of Provence while studying abroad.

*Keep in mind that this can have credit transfer implications, as well as potential loss of scholarships/financial aid, so it’s very important you know exactly how this process works before deciding to go this route.

Determine which program is the best fit for you.

This might seem like it isn’t at all cost-related, but it truly is, and it’s probably one of the biggest mistakes many university students make when deciding to study abroad. As studying abroad becomes wildly more popular with American students, more and more programs, organizations, and companies are popping up all over the world to offer “the experience of a lifetime” to university students. As with the price tag of many US institutions, the prices of these programs vary greatly, and are constantly increasing along with the number of services that the company/program offers.

Once you’ve decided to study abroad, the first step is figure out which programs are already recognized by your home institution. In general, there are four different types of study abroad programs: exchange, direct enroll, third-party “island” program, or a hybrid. As these are all terms you’re likely not familiar with if you don’t work in the field, I’ll explain what you can expect from each, especially because the costs associated with each type can be very different:

Exchange: It’s likely that your home university will have some exchange agreements in place, which means that you pay your home university’s tuition, and then you exchange with a student from the host institution (where they pay their tuition). Universities arrange these because it means that no one typically pays a large program fee. Exchange programs are also typically the most immersive option in terms of study abroad experiences. Usually when you participate in an exchange program, you don’t have extra components included in your study abroad experiences that you’ve likely seen advertised to you, such as weekend trips, housing, dinners, 24-hour emergency support, etc. These things aren’t included for you because you’re enrolling at your host institution as if you were a local student, and while the international office at your host institution will probably offer some student support, you won’t be guided along your experience as you might be with some other study abroad programs. This doesn’t mean that exchange programs are bad! Exchange programs often offer you the best opportunity for immersing yourself in the local culture, meeting local students, and having a great study abroad experience with the most economical price tag.

The biggest question to ask when choosing to study on exchange is the price of housing; if exchange students at your host institution are responsible for finding their own housing, you’ll want to know if someone will be available to help you find that housing, and how much you can expect to pay per month or per semester.

The beautiful streets surrounding Oxford University

Direct Enroll: This means enrolling- you guessed it!- directly at a foreign university. There is a large variety of direct enrollment programs available; some direct enroll options are similar to exchange programs in that you’re treated exactly like a local student with the assistance of the international office, while others offer you more in order to enhance your study abroad experience (like the one I work at- Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic). For example, some direct enrollment programs will offer a more comprehensive orientation period, and may even offer dedicated pre-departure assistance like visa advising. Some direct enrollment programs may also offer emergency assistance and housing, or at least assistance in finding appropriate housing.

Direct enrollment programs are a great option, especially when your home university doesn’t have exchange agreements in cities where you’d like to study. These programs allow you to immerse yourself into the local culture and university community, while still providing you with some additional support that you might not see on an exchange program. Because these programs are actually facilitated by the host institutions rather than by companies, they’re often less expensive than other study abroad program options, but may offer very similar services. If having some of those services (24-hour support, trips and activities, etc.) is important to you, this might be a good, low-cost option to look at depending on which country you’re planning to study in.

Third-Party Program Provider, or “Island” Program: These third-party programs are a big thing in the study abroad industry, and for seemingly good reason. They are typically companies and organizations that have offices in both the US and the host city/country, giving you non-time zone restricted access to (usually) American staff before, during, and after your program. Further, third-party programs typically offer a wide range of activities to keep you busy throughout your entire experience, some of which will be included in the fees that you pay. A third-party program is usually referred to as an “island” program, because the students participating in the program are often on a metaphorical island in their host country. These programs have centers or buildings dedicated to their activities, classes, and staff where their students spend much of their time, and depending on the program, can have less interaction with local students than you might find in exchange or direct enrollment programs. Many US college students choose these programs because they offer a lot, including a sense of security (for both the student, parent, and home university). In fact, when you study abroad with a third-party program provider, you’re often provided with essentially everything that you need to have an incredible semester abroad, so it really is no surprise that some of these providers have hundreds to thousands of students enrolling each semester.

With all that being said, some third-party programs do an excellent job at immersing their students into the local culture, but it can be tough to figure out which programs offer this from a cursory internet search. One big signal for knowing that a third-party program offers an immersive experience is where they offer their classes. If the only classes that you’ll be able to take are run by the provider at their own center or building, it’s likely that you’ll be taking classes exclusively with other American students. Conversely, if some or all of the courses available through a given provider are held at an actual local university, you’ll have a much greater chance of either taking classes with local students, or at least sharing facilities like libraries and cafeterias with local students, meaning that you’ll have a chance to interact with them. Third-party providers that offer courses at a local institution are often referred to as “hybrid” programs, because they’re somewhere between an island and direct enrollment option.

Find your perfect location.

All of these tips about choosing the right program for you are great, but if you choose to the most expensive city in the world to study in (I’m lookin’ at you, London), you’ll be spending a lot of money to study abroad. Some study abroad locations are inherently less expensive than others, and this is largely based on the cost of living in those countries.

The most obvious expense that depends largely on local prices is your housing. If your university bills you for your tuition, which remains the same as it is at home, you’ll probably still be responsible for paying your room and board either to your provider, your host institution, or to local landlords. It’s possible that your home university will still pay these fees for you on your behalf if they have an agreement with that foreign institution, but you’ll still be billed for that amount (instead of what you would pay for room and board at home). This means that if you choose to study abroad in a city where housing is very inexpensive, it’s possible that you’ll pay less for housing for the semester than you would at home. This is especially true if you find local housing within the city rather than relying on accommodation designed specifically for foreign students. For example, it’s possible to find a room in a flat-share in Prague (where you have one room in a multi-room apartment with other students) for 5-8,000 CZK per month, which is between $200 and $350 USD per month. I’m willing to bet that this is a fair bit lower than many American students are currently paying for housing at their home institutions. Of course, this requires some work on your end to find appropriate accommodation (and to make sure that your visa documents are in order, if necessary), but it also often means that you’re truly immersing yourself into the local community by living like an actual local student.

Views of Malá Strana in Prague, Czech Republic

Another factor to consider when choosing your host country is what type of visa you’ll be getting, and if you’ll be allowed to work part time on that visa. If so, you can pick up a part-time job while you’re abroad to subsidize your expenses. Working part-time in your host country is also a great way to immerse yourself into the local culture and community, so it’s a double benefit if it’s allowed based on your visa!

Cost of living in your host city also impacts how much you’ll spend on day-to-day expenses like transportation, groceries, eating out, going to bars, etc., so it’s incredibly important that you do a lot of research into what your host city will actually cost you in terms of your own cost of living. And if you’re in to traveling while you’re studying abroad? Be sure to factor in how expensive it is to travel to and from the city/country where you’ll be living!

Go to your study abroad office.

The study abroad office at your home campus should be your best resource for determining the programs available to you, and the associated costs. Some universities allow students to study only at universities or with programs that they either pre-approve or have agreements with, while some allow you to study at “unapproved” programs (programs that they haven’t pre-approved) only after you’ve paid an additional admin fee. Of course, this means added expense if you happen to choose a program or university that hasn’t been approved by your host institution, so it’s important that you know what they’ll accept before you start submitting applications. Studying abroad with a program or university that’s been pre-approved also means that getting credits transferred back home will be easier, so in most cases I encourage you to go that route.

It’s also possible that your study abroad office or home university will charge you a fee to study abroad. The fee is often billed as a study abroad fee, or an admin fee, and it allows the home university to confirm that a student does intend to study abroad (sort of like a deposit). This is especially true if your home university is billing you for your program fees, and is then paying your program or host university directly, as they will be liable for your cancellation fee if you drop out after a certain time. In any case, it’s important to know if you’ll be charged an additional fee, and how much that fee is so that you can budget it in.

Apply for scholarships.

Now that you know all the ins and outs of studying abroad and the various options to do so, you’re well-equipped to choose a program and location that will be a best-fit for your academic, financial, and experiential needs. But what if this isn’t enough? You found the perfect program, and after the international flight, housing, and local metro ticket, it’s still going to be too expensive to study abroad.

Gabby from Packs Light during her study abroad experience

There are a ton of scholarships and grants available to help you! Because there are so many scholarships and grants out there, many of which are very subject or location-specific, this will require some research, but this research can really pay off if you find the right funding source. Here are some suggestions for specific scholarships, as well as some places to start your scholarship research process:

  • Check with your home university. Some universities offer special scholarships and funding resources to help students fund their study abroad programs. Check to see if your university offers any, and if you qualify. Remember to also meet with your financial aid officer to discuss how your financial aid and/or scholarships will be applied to your semester abroad!

 

  • Check with your host university or program. Many program providers like CIEE, AIFS, IFSA-Butler, IES Abroad, CEA, USAC, SIT, and more offer scholarships for students participating on their programs. Some host universities offer scholarships as well, so it’s worth checking to see if you’re applicable for any of those.

 

  • Boren Scholarship. Boren Scholarships, an initiative of the National Security Education Program, provide unique funding opportunities for U.S. undergraduate students to study less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to U.S. interests, and underrepresented in study abroad. There is a specific list of countries that qualify for this funding, and students who receive this scholarship must agree to work for least one year for the federal government in a national security field. This prestigious scholarship is a perfect opportunity for a student who is already planning on working in national security, and needs funding for their study abroad experience.

 

  • Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program. The U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is a grant program that enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad. The Gilman Scholarship Program is open to U.S. citizen undergraduate students who are receiving Federal Pell Grant funding at a two-year or four-year college or university to participate in study and intern abroad programs worldwide.

 

  • Generation Study Abroad. Generation Study Abroad is an initiative, launched in 2014, of the Institute of International Education (IIE) to mobilize resources and commitments with the goal of doubling the number of U.S. students studying abroad by the end of the decade. As such, IIE has developed a lot of great resources for U.S. students to find ways to make studying abroad obtainable, one of which is studyabroadfunding.org. This site has hundreds of listings of scholarships and grants, which are searchable by keyword, field of study, and location.

 

  • Diversity Abroad. Diversity Abroad is the leading international organization which connects diverse students, recent graduates and young professionals with international study, intern, teach, volunteer, degree and job opportunities. They have a database of scholarships that is definitely worth a browse if you’re a minority, first generation, or low income student.

 

  • Host Country Education Abroad Initiatives. Many foreign countries offer scholarships to encourage foreign students to complete some or all of their degree in that country. Others offer databases full of scholarships and grants that are applicable for study in that country. Examples include Education in Ireland, Study in Australia, and Study in the Czech Republic, but this list is not exhaustive. Check out the international education pages of the countries you’re interested in to see if they have any resources or scholarships available!

If you’re looking for some scholarship inspiration, check out my fellow blogger, Gabby, at Packs Light- she earned $40,000 in scholarships, including the Boren Scholarship!

 

When Generation Study Abroad first launched in 2014, only about 10% of American university students were taking advantage of the opportunity to study abroad. Given how much of a life-changing experience studying abroad was for me, is for the students I now work with, and will be for the upcoming generation of university students, it’s important to realize that it isn’t an opportunity available only to the wealthiest among us. If you’ve thought about studying abroad but have convinced yourself that it isn’t possible, or if you haven’t thought about it at all, I encourage you to check out the program and funding options available to you- this is the first step towards an academic experience that will most likely change your entire world-view. Studying abroad is not a semester off from “real school”, or a way for students to backpack across Europe; the right study abroad experience will be an opportunity for you to experience the world and your education in a way that you might never have thought was possible. Studying abroad will land you in a classroom with professors with completely different ideas than your own, with peers from completely different backgrounds than your own, and will allow you to challenge what you already know and believe in so that you can have a better and more clear understanding of the city, country, and world in which you live. If it were up to me, every university student around the world would have a cross-cultural experience as a part of their degree program, and I hope that you take advantage of the opportunity!

If you’d like help choosing a study abroad program, or need help figuring out a way to fund it, please don’t hesitate to contact me here. I’m more than happy to lend a hand to ensure that you find the best fit for you!

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