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A Walk Through America’s Immigrant History: Ellis Island

A Walk Through America’s Immigrant History: Ellis Island

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

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

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

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

The Details

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

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

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

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

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Ellis Island Pin Photo

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Aix-en-Provence, France

Aix-en-Provence, France

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

Where to stay in Aix-en-Provence:

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

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

Aix-en-Provence Centre Ville

Where to eat in Aix-en-Provence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do in Aix-en-Provence:

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

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

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

Provencal Market

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

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

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

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

Chateau La Coste

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

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

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

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

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

Ile du Frioul

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

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

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

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

My Top 5 Things to do in Prague!

My Top 5 Things to do in Prague!

Prague is an absolutely amazing city that I’ve been lucky enough to call my home for over 2 years. I am constantly amazed by the history and beauty that seems to be around every single corner. It seems, however, that the world has caught on to the charms of this Bohemian city, and tourists certainly do infiltrate every year, particularly in the summer and just before Christmas (Christmas markets, anyone?). I get as frustrated by rogue selfie sticks as the next girl, so I’ve spent my time in Prague looking for the best places to experience the city and Czech culture without being mowed down by a Segway in Old Town Square.

I’m proud to say that after 2 years of dedicated research, I’ve landed on my top 5 favorite places in this magical city. I can understand a traveler’s reluctance to visit such a city that can be overrun by tourists, but Prague is not that city at all! A walk over Charles Bridge at 11 am on a Saturday in June may tell a different story, but take a trip to Riegrovy Sady or Naplavka on any given summer evening, and be prepared to be amazed at the chilled out vibe, local atmosphere, and awesome beverages permeating the area. I’ve grown to love my current “home” city, and I’m excited to share it with you!

I recently made a travel video detailing my 5 favorite off-the-beaten-path spots in Prague on my YouTube Channel, “Czech” it out!

A New Yorker’s Favorite Spot in New York City!

A New Yorker’s Favorite Spot in New York City!

I grew up about an hour north of the city, and desperately miss having constant opportunities to pop in on NJ Transit for a visit. Last month, I was visiting home for a couple of weeks and made the rounds to all of my favorite places, including New York City. I was playing host to my boyfriend, so of course I wanted to show him my “spots” in New York. We had a chance to try some new places, including Gallow Green at the Mckittrick Hotel, which I highly recommend. No matter how many times I visit NYC, however, there’s one spot that I always try to make it back to.

Standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, and then in DUMBO after a walk over from Manhattan, is the absolute best day that I can imagine in New York City. It’s just far enough outside of the hustle and bustle of the city that you can relax a bit, but it’s also close enough to appreciate the incredible beauty of the Manhattan skyline. There are some great restaurants and cafés to check out on the Brooklyn side of the bridge, and it seems like more have popped up every time I go. A visit over here makes for a great day out if you’re spending a few days in NYC (especially in the summer when the heat will drive you to the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory!).

While I was home visiting for a bit, I made another travel video to add to my YouTube channel, check it out!

Morocco Day 12: High Atlas Mountains (& the time I hiked to base camp of Jebl Toubkal in sandals)

Morocco Day 12: High Atlas Mountains (& the time I hiked to base camp of Jebl Toubkal in sandals)

My visit to Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains began the second half of my 3-week Moroccan adventure with a new group of travelers that were beginning the Intrepid South Morocco Discovery tour. The first half of the tour, which I’ve already written about, was mostly focused on Morocco’s biggest and most vibrant cities, while this second half was dedicated to much of Morocco’s natural landscape, smaller villages, and more …athletic… adventures. I know that our trip notes mentioned a hike was one optional activity in Aroumd, a village in the High Atlas Mountains, and that our guesthouse would require a roughly 30-minute walk from Imlil. Well, let me share with you the day and a half that followed…

We arrived by van to Imlil, a small village in the High Atlas Mountains, which was clearly a hiker’s retreat. There were mules carrying packs, locals selling homemade products such as rugs and jewelry, and a guest house where we were meant to leave our bigger bags that featured only a squat toilet. That’s when you know it’s going to be a good day! So we left our bags, handed our night packs over to our local mule, and began our trek to our guest house. I wasn’t exactly sure how strenuous this hike would be, but it was definitely more challenging than I had expected. The paths through the forest in this area are not at all flat, so the entire walk to the house was a game of not falling and breaking your ankle while trying to avoid stepping in mule poop and making way for mules that were practically charging up and down the trail- and trust me, these mules stop for no one. This is what it looks like, for instance, when a mule is pushing you out of the way:

Good thing they’re cute. But, I made it after about 40 minutes of heavy breathing and frequent stops for “photos”.

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And then I finally made it to the village of Aroumd! It’s an even smaller village where it was immediately clear that we were the only tourists around, and we were staying in a beautiful mountain guest house that was propped up right in the middle of everything!

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We were seated at a big table outside the house upon arriving for the obligatory serving of Moroccan tea, the sugar in which was actually incredibly welcome after the exertion spent on our hike there. We sat for a while in the shade enjoying the company of the other travelers on the tour, our guide, and the local hosts before we were told it that it was almost time for our optional hike in the mountains surrounding the guest house. The hike was meant to take us to a shrine at Sidi Chamharouch that caters to suffers of mental disease should they make a pilgrimage and offer an animal sacrifice. I asked our Intrepid guide, Mohamed, if the hike would be similar to the one we’d just undertaken to get to the guest house, and he laughed and said it was just going to be longer. Now, after nearly 2 weeks spent already traveling with Mohamed, he certainly knew I wasn’t the most athletic individual in our group which definitely accounted for his laughing at me, but I figured, “how bad can it be?” and headed off with the group for the hike.

Maybe this is when you’re beginning to realize the end of the story based on the title of this post, but this was not when I realized the end of this story as it was happening. I was still far from realizing the adventure that was about to be undertaken. In fact, the hike started out well, barring of course, the experience of a young village child slapping my butt as I walked by, presumably as a funny joke between him and his friends. The walk from the guest house to the valley was lovely! Why? It was downhill! But then we joined the trail from Aroumd and things began to look up. And by up, I mean very up.

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I was committed. And, I was wearing sandals! These sandals, in fact. Fantastic sandals for traveling, not such fantastic sandals for hiking up a mountain on gravel while avoid mules that were still barreling up and down the very small pathways. The hike took about 2 hours up and then 2 hours back. The up part was actually the easiest part, little did I know. But getting to the end of the hike was absolutely worth it- the views along the way were some of the most spectacular that I’ve ever seen in my life. It was incredible to see the natural landscape open up before us as we inched our way closer to the end.

And then, finally, we made it to the summit. Except, it wasn’t actually the summit. It was the base camp of the highest peak in North Africa, Jebl Toubkal! So, now I’ve realized what you all realized several sentences ago- I just climbed to the base camp of the highest peak in North Africa and the second highest peak in the entire continent in sandals, and trust me, I felt it. Despite the physical pain I felt, though, knowing that I’d made it all the way to Sidi Chamharouch was an absolutely amazing feeling, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat- just maybe in more sensible shoes.

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Once we arrived to the camp and shrine, we realized the the famous white rock which housed the shrine was not-so-natural, and we all got a pretty good kick out of it. It was, however, really interesting to learn about the superstition surrounding the shrine, and the contradiction that the pilgrimages and sacrifices have with Islam, the official religion of those that visit it. As non-Muslims, we weren’t permitted to enter the shrine, but the area surrounding it was beautiful, as were the people that live there.

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Even more amazing, however, were all of the animals that live there. We found goats jumping around, mules grazing, and gorgeous birds flying through the skies. It made me want to hike to the actual summit (again, with hiking boots), to see the views from above. But instead, I will leave you with a photo of jumping goats, which demonstrates the excitement I had after getting back to our guest house in the evening, washing an entire mountain’s worth of dirt off of me and my feet, and falling asleep in a nice, cozy bed.

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In case you’re interested in tackling this mountain yourself, head over to Becky the Traveller to learn more about Trekking Morocco’s Highest Mountain!

Next up I have a recap of my time spent in the Sahara including a close call with a camel and a fear-inducing 4-wheel drive in the middle of the night. For more of my Moroccan adventures, check out Days 1-3 in Casablanca, Days 4 & 5 in Rabat, Moulay Idriss and Volubilis, Days 5 & 6 in Fes, and Days 7 & 8 in Chefchaouen!

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Morocco Days 7-8: Chefchaouen

Morocco Days 7-8: Chefchaouen

After exploring one of the biggest cities in Morocco, Fes, I was happy to head to a smaller town to get a feel of the small-city local culture for a few days. Plus, our tour guide promised that the hotel in Chefchaouen was one of the nicest that we would stay in, so I couldn’t wait to fit some R&R into my 3-week backpacking adventure through (the very hot) Morocco.

Chefchaouen, also called “The Blue Pearl”, has become Instagram famous recently, and for good reason. It just takes one search of the #chefchaouen hashtag to see why I desperately wanted to visit this town while I was in Morocco. In fact, the biggest reason that I chose this particular Intrepid tour was because of the stop it provided in Chefchaouen. After driving through some very windy mountain roads, we arrived at an outlook over the town which, I must admit, didn’t look particularly blue.

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Not that it doesn’t look beautiful- I was just expecting a lot more blue. But, we continued down the mountain road into the city to find our hotel for the next two days, and things started to become much bluer! After checking into the hotel, Darechchaoeun, we began our short walk into the city center to see how blue the Blue Pearl really was. Well, it was very blue. And very beautiful:

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Actually, even the streets that weren’t this blue were incredibly beautiful. I loved walking around the medina to explore all of the beautiful colors, talk to the shop keepers, and enjoy the company of the true Chefchaouen inhabitants.

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Spending two days in this little town was absolutely incredible. While there aren’t any true “sights” to behold, really, the town itself is one of the most beautiful places I visited during my 3 weeks in Morocco. Around every corner I found beautiful architecture, people, and colors like I’d never seen them before. It felt as if I was actually wandering through a painting.

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While visiting Chefchaouen, I visited a rooftop restaurant with an incredible view overlooking both the city and the sunset behind the mountains: La Lampe Magique. The restaurant is situated directly above the central square of the city, but the rooftop provides a hidden getaway to enjoy the ambiance of Chefchaouen without the commotion of the square below. There are a lot of restaurants in the main square, but it was pretty clear that almost all of these are geared specifically to tourists. While La Lampe Magique also hosts many tourists each evening, the prices are right, the location is great, and the views are amazing- I would recommend a stop for a dinner at sunset! In particular, listening to the evening call to prayer resonate through the valley over the city’s rooftops and bouncing off the walls of the mountains was a surreal experience, and one that I will certainly never forget.

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These two days in Chefchaouen essentially ended my visit to northern Morocco. After departing from this beautiful, blue city, I headed north to Tangier where I took an overnight train to Marrakech after a few hours spent at the northern coast. My overnight train experience, which was my first overnight train experience, was incredibly interesting! The train left in the late evening, and we were assigned to “bedrooms” that were incredibly small cabins with two bunkbeds and plastic orange mattresses. We were 4 girls to a room, and it was certainly an adventure climbing over one another to make our beds and sort out our bags for the next roughly 11 hour journey south to a more desert-y terrain.

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Overall though, it was a great experience, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to take a more local form of transportation through about half of the country. I loved going to sleep in the most northern part of Morocco, surrounded by Spanish influences, and waking up surrounded by orange sand just outside of the cultural capital of the country.

Next up? Look out for my posts about my journey through the High Atlas Mountains, Sahara desert, and the southwestern coastal city of Essaouria. I’ll also be throwing up a story about my traditional Moroccan hammam experience in Chefchaouen, as this story deserves its very own post!

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Morocco Days 5-6: Fes

Morocco Days 5-6: Fes

After leaving Meknes, we headed on our way via a short train journey to the city of Fes- our 5th city of this whirlwind adventure through the Kingdom of Morocco!

Fes is one of the four imperial cities in Morocco, and was truly incredible to visit. Perhaps most interestingly, Fes is known as one of the last hold-outs for true Moroccan handicraft, as the government has arranged for handicraft workers in Fes to be compensated well in order to preserve Moroccan artistic and cultural traditions. Since Fes has such a reputation for creating beautiful Moroccan art, we spent the large majority of our time in this city visiting the local artists (read: shopping) and wandering through the old medina. There is a great viewpoint of Fes that shows the true expanse of the medina’s intricate network of buildings, and makes you thankful for bringing along a local guide.

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Our guide was amazing, and she was able to successfully show us all of the interesting things to see within the medina, all while preventing anyone from getting lost in the tiny alleys and streets of the souk (market). Most significantly, we visited the local mosaic and ceramic co-op where many of Morocco’s beautiful clay tiles, glasses, tajines, vases, and fountains are created. We first wandering around the studio spaces of the co-op to learn about the role of each artist, and how these incredibly intricate pieces are created by hand.

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Fortunately, you can have the co-op send any products you purchase back to your home via insured DHL or FedEx post, so you can go hog-wild with all of the beautiful ceramics and mosaics on offer! Fountain anyone?

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We also visited the Fes tannery, which is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to the tannery involves a hike up about 4 flights of stairs until you reach the roof of the building. From there, you have a killer view of the leather dying processes of the tannery, including the smell associated. I think the smell has something to do with the pigeon excrement that they use in the dying process, but it’s just a wild guess! The process is a centuries-old tradition that is certain to remain the same now that the site is protected by UNESCO. Despite the smell, it’s an interesting place to visit, and an even better place to shop! You’ll be able to find any leather good you could possibly want in the showroom once you’ve learned about how the products are made down below.

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One of the most impressive places that we visited was the Fes Royal Palace. You might think this means that we got to have a stroll through the palace, or at least the palace grounds, but it’s not actually possible because members of the royal family still inhabit or utilize all of the royal palaces in Morocco. The impressive bit that we did see- the door- was enough for me to imagine what might lay beyond.

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Our wander through the souk of Fes’ old medina was an incredible look into the intricate details of a Moroccan market, visited daily by local families looking to pick up fresh ingredients for the day’s meals.

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Be careful, though, it’s incredibly easy to get lost in this medina, as it seems to go on forever and the streets wind in every way imaginable making the task of re-tracing your steps nearly impossible. The Fes medina is certainly worth a visit, as it holds many architectural and cultural treasures that wouldn’t be seen otherwise! For instance, there is a beautiful Quranic school within the depths of the medina that has some of the most incredible architecture that I’ve ever seen.

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The detail in the mosaics, carvings, and etchings within this old Quranic school are absolutely exquisite, it was hard to believe that they were handmade. There is also the oldest university in the world, founded in 859 AD, located within the medina. It’s only possible for Muslims to attend and visit the university as it’s located partially within a mosque, but we were able to have a peak inside to see how incredibly beautiful the architecture is. And the best part? The university was founded by a woman!

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It was also interesting to see so many local people lounging in the shaded archways of the mosques in the medina, but we learned that this is a place where locals might go to escape the intense Moroccan heat and chaotic nature of the surrounding media. As such, the mosque has turned into a social gathering space in a secluded place amongst the vendors in the surrounding medina. It was great to get a peek into such an interesting part of the local culture and society seeing everyone lounging and socializing in the shade of the beautiful archways.

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I’ve truly enjoyed learning about the culture and history of Morocco so far, especially as a separate entity from the culture and history of Islam. In most cases, it seems as if the cultures of the country and religion go side-by-side, but the divergences have become the source for quite interesting conversations amongst our tour group, and especially with our local guides. Fes became home to many of these conversations as our local guide from Fes was so fantastic, but also because of the interesting details we learned about the country, such as the world’s oldest university being founded by a woman.

As much of the “western” world media is currently focusing on the evils of Islam and Islamic culture- something I have vehemently stood against- it was refreshing and beautiful to hear local people, both men and women, speak about their history, culture, customs, and religion in a way that reflects how proud they are of their Moroccan culture and heritage. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the development of the woman’s role in Moroccan society, as not so long ago it was forbidden for women to even leave their houses or be seen by people outside of their families. Our local guide described her struggle to find her place in the tourism industry, and her successes (clearly- she is incredible at what she does). She even joked that because there is only one key for their house, her husband was the one who had to stay home that day since she locked him in! While there is obviously a level of humor in such a statement, it shows how far women truly have come in this society, and the progress that’s being made. I’ve come to realize that no society is perfect, but it is especially damaging for us to judge another society’s values and customs using our own as a baseline. As our guide, Mohamed, explained to me, we can sit on opposite sides of a table looking a number. I might see a number 6, and he might see a number 9, but we’re still looking at the same thing; there is no “right” way of seeing any one thing, particularly when it comes to culture. I like to think that I had a good grip on combating ethnocentrism prior to my travels in Morocco, but this trip has certainly shown me that there is always room for improvement in understanding other people, and I am thankful for everything that I’ve learned so far.

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Best of the East Coast: Lower Hudson Valley, NY

Best of the East Coast: Lower Hudson Valley, NY

Just slightly north of New York City is the lower Hudson Valley, one of the most beautiful regions of the state of New York- and hardly ever visited by the millions of tourists flocking to NYC throughout the year. This area features beautiful mountains, scenic river views, orchards, wineries, and all sorts of activities to keep you occupied throughout the year.

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Source: http://www.travelhudsonvalley.com/

I should probably come clean at the beginning and confess that I grew up in the Lower Hudson Valley (Monroe-Woodbury in Orange County to be exact), so I may be a bit biased in saying that this is the best of the East Coast (even though it is). But, I’m happy to share with you the list of all of my favorite things that this incredible region has to offer!

West Point (aka United States Military Academy).

It may seem strange that my top spot in the Hudson Valley is a military base, but once you see it, you’ll understand why!

Credit: Eric Luding

Founded at the beginning of the 19th century, the USMA is one of the most historic institutions in the US. Its history goes back to the Revolutionary War, where a great chain constructed in the picturesque bend of the river prevented British ships from sailing north into the rest of the colonies. Now, West Point is one of the top universities in the country, training and educating future army officers in exchange for military service. There is a visitor’s center outside the gates of West Point where you can learn about the academy, and a museum where you’ll find information about the base’s history. Visitors can enter the base to visit the historic Thayer Hotel, which serves up an excellent Sunday brunch and has a great rooftop restaurant/bar, Zulu Time. You may also take a bus tour of the base to learn about its incredibly interesting history, and to get an inside look of some of the incredible buildings. Alternatively, you can enter the base on your own to explore Trophy Point, the Cadet Chapel, and the West Point Cemetery where many famous Americans are interred. In the summer, be sure to check out the outdoor concerts at Trophy Point, or the shows and events at Eisenhower Hall from September-April.

The view from Trophy Point. Credit: Eric Luding
The view from Trophy Point. Credit: Eric Luding

The best time of year to visit West Point is most certainly the autumn when the leaves take on glowing red, yellow, and orange colors, there are Army football games to attend, and the mountains seem like something out of another world. Restrictions on entering the base are being tightened, so be sure to plan ahead if you do not have a DoD ID card; more information for visitors to West Point can be found here.

Perkins Peak.

This is a tough contender with West Point for my favorite spot in the Hudson Valley, but actually, the hiking trails at Perkins Peak butt up to West Point property, so we can almost consider it the same. The Appalachian Trail runs right through Perkins Peak, but you don’t need to do any strenuous hiking to get there if you don’t want to. This is a scenic overlook with incredible views of the Hudson River, and on a clear day, the Manhattan skyline. A lot of people will drive up (via Perkins Memorial Drive) to Perkins Peak just to climb the lookout tower and have a picnic lunch on the beautiful, flat rocks overlooking the river. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can hike a short loop of the Appalachian Trail (definitely worth doing), or one of the other many trails that run through the area. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful spots in the world. *Keep in mind that Perkins Peak is open only April-November.*

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Hiking a piece of the Appalachian Trail

Bear Mountain State Park.

Located nearby to West Point, Bear Mountain is a gorgeous natural park with lots of activities to keep you entertained year round. There is the Bear Mountain Inn with a restaurant to visit, but also a ton of outdoor activities. Nearby to the Bear Mountain Inn is the Bear Mountain Ice Rink which is a beautiful place to skate outside in the winter. In the summer, there are a ton of hiking trails and outdoor events to explore. Sometimes you’ll also find Redhawk Native American pow-wows held in the park which are amazing events to attend- a good way to explore some of the native culture of New York! And as with West Point, the most beautiful time to visit is in the autumn months when the foliage lights up in beautiful colors. Be forewarned, this is also one of the most touristy parts of the year in the Hudson Valley, but seeing the beautiful mountain colors are more than worth a little extra road traffic!

Warwick, NY.

Warwick is a small town about 45 minutes from Bear Mountain State Park that’s full of beautiful farms, quaint restaurants and shops, and a lot to see and do. The main street in Warwick is full of cute shops and restaurants that make a great afternoon stroll, but there’s a lot happening outside the commercial center, too. In fact, I have so many top spots in Warwick that it justifies its own list:

  1. Masker’s Orchard.Maskers Found just outside the main streets of Warwick, this spot is a step outside the mountains I’ve been raving about. Masker’s Orchard is a massive orchard with hundreds of pick-your-own apple trees of all different varieties. My all-time favorite fall activity is visiting Masker’s with a picnic lunch and finding a spot to eat under an apple tree. You can spend as much time in the orchard as you’d like, and you pay for any apples you bag by weight on your way out (after taste-testing one or two in the orchard, of course!). Even after leaving the orchard, you’ll find a country store with local products (definitely try the apple butter), and a food stand selling all home-made apple products like apple cider, apple pie with vanilla ice cream, and apple donuts.
  2. Bellvale Farms Creamery. Located on one of the highest hills in Warwick, the Bellvale Farms Creamery has arguably one of the most beautiful views in the area, served up with what is most certainly the best ice cream I’ve ever had. Plus, you can go meet the dairy cows right at the bottom of the hill- it doesn’t get more fresh than that. This spot is nothing more than a local ice cream shop with a view, but it is absolutely worth a stop for the view and dessert!Bellvale
  3. Warwick Valley Winery. There are many wineries in the Warwick area, but the Warwick Valley Winery tops my list because of its tasty wine, great scenery, and other amenities. Not only does the WV Winery grow excellent, local wine, but they also have their own cider and distilleries that offer great alcohols from almost any fruit you can imagine. In addition to their tasting room, they have a restaurant/cafe and outdoor patio where live music can be enjoyed in the summer months. This is a great place to spend an afternoon trying some local products and enjoying the adult beverages of the area.

Walkway Over the Hudson.

This a relatively new Hudson Valley attraction that has gained local interest very quickly. Spanning the Hudson River between Poughkeepsie and the New Paltz area, it brings you a bit further north into the Hudson Valley, but well within the natural beauty of the region. While not directly in New Paltz, but rather in the town of Highlands, the New Paltz side of the bridge is close enough to the town to include on your Walkway itinerary. New Paltz, home to one of the State Universities of New York, is notoriously a “hippie town” with a beautiful and walkable main street, plus excellent shops and restaurants. There are also many important historic landmarks in New Paltz, most notably the Historic Huguenot Street. The Poughkeepsie side offers great restaurants and activities along the waterfront, making it a great end-point to your walk over the Hudson. The Walkway itself provides you with beautiful views of the river and surrounding scenery- it’s definitely worth a visit!

Even after traveling through so much of the world and visiting so many beautiful places, I can genuinely say that the Hudson Valley is still one of my favorite places to be. In my mind, nothing beats visiting Perkins Peak in autumn when the leaves are changing colors and looking out at the Manhattan skyline in the distance. Likewise, there are few better ways to spend a day than sitting in an apple tree at Masker’s munching on a fresh Delicious Red. I encourage anyone with a free weekend in NYC to make the trip up north to explore some of the great things that New York State has to offer; these are the things that make New York the Best of the East Coast.

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This post is part of an East Coast link up with bloggers all up and down the coast- check out the other posts below!

 

Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden

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Where to stay: Stockholm is a beautiful and vibrant city with a ton of different types of neighborhoods to choose from. Gamla Stan, the Old Town, is one of the most prestigious places to live in the entire country, so naturally, staying there as a tourist will cost you a pretty penny. I opted to stay in the neighborhood called Sodermalm, which is on the island south of Gamla Stan, but along the same metro line. I found this area to be bustling with chic bars and great restaurants, as well as plenty of boutique shops that didn’t make you feel like you were walking and breathing tourism every minute of the day. Add to the fact that some of the best views in the city are on this island, and I’d say this is the place to be if you really want to experience all that Stockholm has to offer, and not just the touristy old town.

Hostels have weird policies in much of Sweden, which often include a requirement to bring your own linens and towels. It may not seem like such a big deal, but when you have to pay upwards of $30 or $40 USD per night for the privilege of staying in a shared room, I believe that you should have a sheet on your mattress that you didn’t have to bring with you. Because of this, I opted to stay in an Airbnb since I was able to find one to split with my friend that worked out to roughly the same price as a dorm room in a hostel (here).

Where to eat: There are a ton of great restaurants of almost all cuisines in Stockholm, so the trick is just finding the ones that look most interesting! Unfortunately, nothing in Stockholm is super cheap, but there are certainly options off the beaten tourist path that are less expensive than in the old town near the attractions. For example, try visiting Lisa’s Cafe in Sodermalm. It’s an adorable little café where it’s clear that the servers know everyone who walks through the door, or will by the time the customer leaves. Eating breakfast at Lisa’s feels like eating in your grandmother’s kitchen- warm, cosy, and friendly; the perfect way to start the day!

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I recommend visiting the Nya Carnegie Bryggeriet, a brewery in a suburb accessible by tram, bus, or ferry. I especially recommend visiting for lunch, as they have excellent lunch specials (and beer) that aren’t too expensive. The neighborhood where the brewery is is also really nice to walk around- it’s clearly in a more modern part of the city, so if you have some extra time, it’s worth a wander. If you’re looking for something distinctly not Swedish, I have two recommendations that came on good authority from locals. First, The Holy Cow, is a great Indian restaurant located in Sodermalm with relatively inexpensive food and a great atmosphere. While it isn’t exactly local cuisine, it is clearly a local “spot”, which counts for something! Secondly, I recommend a restaurant called Moso Jamrock. Also located in Sodermalm, but slightly closer to Old Town, this is an excellent Caribbean-style restaurant with delicious food and staff that are incredibly friendly and welcoming.

There are also some cultural food traditions in Sweden, which I really think we should all respect. My favorite of these traditions is something called “Fika”, which is essentially a mid-day break to have coffee and a pastry. You’ll find Fika menus and special pricing all over the city, and when you can no longer feel your hands because of the cold, you’ll find that it will always be a good life choice.

For more food and food tour recommendations, check out Passion for Hospitality’s post!

What to do: Stockholm is a really incredible city to explore at any time of year. Of course, visiting in the summer gives you certain advantages, as some sites and attractions are only open or have extended hours between May and August. If there’s something specific you want to see in Stockholm outside of the summer months, you should definitely do some research to see if it’ll be open when you’re there, otherwise you might be sorely disappointed. If you’re just visiting Stockholm to take in its history, beauty, and culture, you’ll have plenty to see all year round!

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Start by taking a walk in Montelilsvagen, which is a path above the water across from Gamla Stan (old town). This path will give you absolutely INCREDIBLE views of the city (above), and is a great way to take in the atmosphere and architecture before heading over to the tiny streets of the old city. If you’re looking for the opposite view, head over to Riddarholmen, which is a small island connected to Gamla Stan. You’ll find a gorgeous cathedral, interesting food trucks, and a beautiful waterfront on this island. I found that sitting and looking at the brick facade of city hall from Riddarholmen was one of my favorite places to be in the city.

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To orient yourself to the city, try a free walking tour of Gamla Stan with Stockholm Free Tour. There is so much history packed into those little streets, and so many ways to get lost, it’s really nice to have a guide giving you some ideas and suggestions for what to visit later. This company also offers tours of the more modern part of the city, so if you’re more interested in the current culture and architecture, you can check that out, too!

If you’re going to visit one museum in Stockholm, and there are many to choose from, I would definitely recommend visiting The Royal Palace. This is the former residence of the Swedish royal family, but is still used for visitors, and is a central landmark in the middle of the city. The great thing about a ticket to see the Royal Palace is that it will also give you access to the Treasury, where the crown jewels are now kept, which is a cool place to check out. Keep in mind that if there are royal visitors in town, access to the inside of the palace will be limited, so if that’s important to you, be sure to check their website in advance. If you have some time to get outside the city, you can also visit Drottningholm Palace, where the royal family currently resides.

And last but not least, if you’re looking to splurge and spoil yourself, you can have a Swedish spa experience! The spa at the Grand Hotel (across the water from the Royal Palace) is absolutely incredible, and while it is a bit pricey, it’s worth every penny.

Overall Opinion: Stockholm is a truly incredible city with a rich history and beautiful culture. Despite its notoriously chilly weather and dark winter days, you’ll likely find that the city is one of the warmest and coziest that you’ll visit. Even though there is often more to do in the summer months when there’s plenty of daylight and warmth, there are also far more tourists during these months than there are between September and April. Visiting Stockholm anytime through October will give you the opportunity to experience beautiful fall weather, empty streets, and an incredible atmosphere, so don’t be afraid of heading to Sweden after the summer ends! I would absolutely visit Stockholm again, it’s really an amazing place to be.

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St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg, Russia

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Where to stay: ​I visited St. Petersburg while on a cruise, so I didn’t have the opportunity to stay on shore, but there are a lot of great options for you to choose from in St. Petersburg! Airbnb has a wealth of low-priced options in great areas of the city, so I would highly recommend looking into one of those. In a city like St. Petersburg, it would probably be to your advantage to be staying with a local anyway, as you’ll benefit from their knowledge of the city and of local customs. When you’re entering the country, though, be sure to have ample documentation of your accommodation, as Russian immigration is pretty strict. Another thing to note about St. Petersburg is that it’s a city made of a whole bunch of islands that are connected by drawbridges; at night these drawbridges are opened, and will prevent you from getting from one part of the city to another, so be aware of where in the city your accommodation is, and don’t stray too far at night or you’ll risk being stuck all night! It might be best to stick to the eastern part of the city that’s home to the Hermitage and the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, as this is a fairly touristy area where the people are used to hosting foreigners, and you’ll have less risk of getting stuck across the river.

Where to eat: ​Because St. Petersburg is located right on the Baltic, its culinary traditions are an interesting mix of those of the Baltic region and traditional Russian dishes. It’s quite common to see caviar at restaurants, so if that’s your thing, this might be the place to try it. Beyond that, just go in search of places that aren’t advertised to tourists- you’ll probably see a lot of homey meat and root veggie dishes, and they’ll probably be great! Just be brave enough to give new things a shot, and consider bringing a pocket Russian dictionary to help decipher the menu.

What to do: ​There are an incredible amount of things to see in and around St. Petersburg, and it’ll take several days for you to see all of it without driving yourself crazy. St. Petersburg is home to an extensive collection of beautiful Russian Orthodox churches, as this city was one of the few where these buildings were spared during the Soviet era. (Granted, they were used for storage and might have some damage, but they’re still there for you to see!) The most famous of these is the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood- it’s an absolutely incredible example of this classic Russian Orthodox architecture and is definitely not to be missed. The other recognizable one is St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which is less colorful and spectacular than the first, but it’s still incredible in its own right. The benefit with this one is that you can actually climb to the top of the dome for a view over the entire city. The Hermitage Museum, formerly The Royal Winter Palace, is also located in the city, and is definitely worth a visit. The Hermitage is often compared to the Louvre in Paris, and is certainly comparable in terms of the art collection and the actual building itself. Try to avoid visiting when cruise ships are in town, as you’ll end up waiting on very long lines only to be herded like cattle once you’re inside. You can download an app on your smartphone which explains the museum and the collections that are on display. Outside the city of St. Petersburg there are other truly amazing places that shouldn’t be missed. The first is the palace located at Peterhof, which is often referred to as the Versaille of Russia- and it truly lives up to that name! The gardens and fountains at Peterhof are what really make this palace special, so try to get there to see them turn on the big fountain around 11 am (from May until mid-October), as it’s truly a site to see. There are several options for getting to Peterhof from St. Petersburg, which can be found here. The other major palace outside of St. Petersburg is Catherine’s Palace at Pushkin. Catherine the Great, who was married to Peter the Great was the driving force behind the construction and furnishing of this palace and its grounds, as well as much of the art collection of the Hermitage Museum. The grandeur of this palace is unparalleled, and it truly made me understand the anger towards the monarchy that this type of wealth incited. The overwhelming wealth exhibited here, however, makes this an incredibly important place to visit when you’re in St. Petersburg. The history is truly incredible, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life. There are several ways to get to Catherine’s Palace, which can be found here. Of course there are many other things to see in St. Petersburg, but this is my list of things that shouldn’t be missed!

For more information on things to do in St. Petersburg, read more on a one-day itinerary!

Additional Information: Visiting Russia is a bit tricky right now, especially for many Western European citizens and most especially for American citizens. Unlike most other countries in Europe, you can’t just show up and be allowed in as a tourist for a short period of time- you’ll need to apply for a visa in advance, even if you’re planning on visiting for a single day. For further information on visa requirements (for US citizens), please see this website. Fortunately, traveling to St. Petersburg is still very safe, as its industry is largely driven by tourism, and it’s far north of any conflict occurring near the Ukrainian border. Still, be sure to look at federal travel warnings before you decide to go anywhere with the potential to be an unsafe place, as these travel warnings change regularly. With that said, please don’t let stereotypes and media scare tactics prevent you from what might be the trip of a lifetime! I visited St. Petersburg in June 2014 (while there were serious problems in the south of the country), and I felt completely safe. Just prepare in advance for questions about the purpose of your trip (including transportation and accommodation plans) at immigration, and you’ll be fine!

Overall Opinion: I am so glad that I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in St. Petersburg, but two days wasn’t nearly enough! This city is the definitely of history coming to life, as its history is very complex and has had a wide range of interesting events. St. Petersburg is one of the most well preserved pre-Soviet cities in Russia, and as such, is probably the best to visit if you’re looking to get a glimpse into “old Russia”. Of course, there are footprints of the Soviet era throughout the city, both those are equally as interesting! I would absolutely recommend traveling to St. Petersburg, and I hope that I have the opportunity to go back in the future.

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