The final stop on our Eurotrip was to Budapest, Hungary. This city was even better than I expected - and I’ve got some recommendations for you!
After scrolling through endless reviews and websites, I was able to narrow down our vineyard stops from a pool of 400 to 4. I picked each one for a specific reason, which is a tactic I would recommend to friends and readers planning trips of their own!
The one place on this trip that I had absolutely zero expectations about was Cesky Krumlov. To be honest, I didn't even know what country it was in. At best, I figured it would be a pleasant surprise like my day trip to Girona on my Barcelona trip, and at worst, I figured it was only a quick stop on our way to the next big city on our trip.
I won't bury the lead here - Cesky Krumlov was by far the most magical stop of our trip. Magical meaning it gave me ~feels~ like I got in Stockholm - like this was a place I would be content to stay forever. It wasn't just the quaint cobblestone streets or the beautiful castle or the winding Vltava River that seemed to be giving the city a hug - it was also a feeling of perfect contentedness - of slowing down and not feeling like there were 23842 "must see" things and specific "must eat" dishes. All we had to do for 24 hours was appreciate this incredible little town in the Czech Republic - and appreciate it I did! I wandered its streets when all the day trippers had left, napped in a sun-filled log cabin and hiked to the top of a grassy hill overlooking the picturesque city.
But let's start at the beginning!
We had two cabs waiting for us when we got off the train and they took us to the Krumlov House - a hostel situated super close to the center of the city. After stepping through the elaborate wooden dragon door we were greeted by an American who checked us in and let us know that we would have the hostel to ourselves for the night. Once we got up to our second floor suite, I think it sunk in just how unique this hostel was. Dad had been raving about how much he loved this hostel - and that he was so glad we were getting to go there. And it was immediately clear why he had been so excited. Everything was handmade from wood and it had the most incredible light streaming in. It was so tranquil.
We didn't have too much time at that moment to get comfortable though, because we all headed to the grocery store up the street to buy some snacks for a picnic in a park next to the river. Sitting on a shady bench looking up at the castle I was incredibly zen.
David had set up a tour for us with one of the locals who he promised we would absolutely love. As we walked to the center of town to meet her, David told us stories about different townspeople, stores, restaurants, etc. I loved the small town feel of Cesky and the fact that David was passing people he recognized on the streets. He popped into a restaurant whose owner he knew so we could use the bathroom before the tour started and knew the artist who had made some of the metal-work outside of a bar.
It felt a little bit like we were walking through the "Little Town" scene in "Beauty in the Beast."
Our tour guide was so lovely - she was such an upbeat, happy person and Allison and I loved chatting with her as she showed us around town and promised us that later in the day, things would clear out and we would have the place to ourselves. A lot of day trips come through but leave around 3 or 4.
Everywhere we turned there was cool artwork or beautiful views. There were so many little things that she pointed out to us , like these little paint tube fingers that I loved for some reason.
As we wound through the cobblestone streets, down to the river and up to the castle, we marveled at her ability to conduct the tour wearing wedges.
The views from the top of the castle were stunning and we could have stayed there taking pictures all day. The one thing I didn't love was that there's a bear in the moat of the castle and while there used to be more than one, now he's all alone down there and it made me really sad.
When the tour was finished, Allison and I wandered around a little longer through the streets before heading back to our beautiful hostel. At this point in the trip, everyone other than me was feeling under the weather, and there couldn't have been a more peaceful place to take a nap.
I wasn’t quite ready for go inside though, so I chatted with the woman working at our hostel and asked her what her suggestion was for a short run/hike. She knew exactly where to send me- I went for a nice little loop and when I finished that, I started the hike up to the church. It was a good incline that got my heart rate going (as did the dog that started running at me at one point). I felt totally alone, which was nice after constantly being with people for days on end. At the top, I found a relatively flat area of grass and did a deck of cards workout before heading back to the hostel.
I made myself some tea, an orange, and granola and just sat in the kitchen soaking in the incredible sunlight coming through the windows and making all of the wood work look golden. The woman working at the hostel started chatting with me and it turns out she was from California and had been visiting the Czech Republic when she stumbled upon the hostel in Cesky Krumlov - while she was staying, one of the employees had quit. She was offered the job and took it - and had been there ever since! Talking to her didn’t make it seem so crazy…
I went back up to the room eventually and dozed for a little bit before it was time to get ready and go with the group to dinner at a place Dad promised we would love - for a full “Bohemian feast” at Krčma U dwau Maryí . We stopped for many photo opportunities along the way - it was my favorite time of night, SUNSET TIME.
We were thrilled when they seated us at an outside table along the river. We ordered the chicken version of the feast which comes out for the whole table - it had chicken, smoked meat, millet, potato dumplings, potato cake, potato and vegetables. I didn’t really know what I was eating, but it was good! It was very traditional food from the days of feudalism.
Also traditional to the Czech culture is mead - so I figured sitting outside along the river on a crisp April evening would be a good time to give the warm, alcoholic drink a try. Sadly - I was not a fan of the mead. It was soo strong. It reminded me of back in the day when I hated the taste of every alcoholic drink that I tried because it burned my throat.
At least now I know to never order mead again!
We were definitely full after dinner, so it was nice to walk around and look at the castle and town all lit up. We seemed to be the only ones left in town!
I woke up earlyyy the next morning so that I could get a picture from a wonderful viewpoint as the sun rose and it was a nice, quiet moment but also sad, because Cesky looked so so beautiful and I didn’t want to leave!
But alas, “Vienna Waits for You…..”
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While I was sad to say goodbye to pierogies - so many people had told me that they loved Prague, and we were excited to see what was next in the Czech Republic!
The highlight of the journey from Krakow to Prague was definitely the salad we had picked up the night before from Krakow's Fitagain Cafe.
For the 17 days we explored Central Europe (they don't like being referred to as Eastern Europe!) I ate a lot of bread, a lot of meat and a lot of cheese. I truly cherished every vegetable I consumed.
And this salad from Fitagain wasn't just your average salad - it had all my favorite things like apples and chickpeas and sweet potatoes and sunflower seeds.
When we arrived at the train station in Prague, David took us down the platform to take a look at a statue. It was of two kids with their father and a suitcase, and the story he told about what the statue represents was amazing! It's a tribute to Sir Nicholas Winton, who helped 669 Jewish children in Prague find foster families in Britain to save them during the Holocaust.
Winton never told anyone about the lives he had saved until nearly 50 years afterwards. David showed us an incredible video of Winton unknowingly surrounded by the people he had saved that you should definitely watch if you feel like getting emotional!
That quick little detour upon our arrival in Prague is just one example of why David was the best tour leader ever!
After our stop at the statue, David helped me get some money exchanged for a fair price before leading us out to walk through a park to the tram. We waited awhile in the sun before loading all of our things onto the car. I'm sure locals cringed whenever they saw our group coming - especially Allison and I with our massive suitcases.
After a quick ride, we walked the rest of the way to get the keys to the apartments we would be staying in. I'm so sad I can't remember the woman's name, but a precious little lady walked Allison and I a little further into the center of town and taught us how to get into the apartment - it included the unlocking and re-locking of approximately 80 doors before loading into the world's most terrifying elevator (we screamed 9/10 times we rode it over the weekend).
We didn't realize we would be sharing the apartment with her - so that was a little weird to realize at first - but we very much had our own private space with a bedroom, living room and bathroom. We shared the kitchen and 1/2 bath with our host (and her dog - which was a little annoying since Allison is allergic and they never asked if anyone had allergies).
She had us lock and unlock the door a bunch of times until we figured it out and let us know in her very limited English that if we had to go "ka-ka" we should use the 1/2 bath in the kitchen. Personally, I was trying very hard not to laugh during this entire thing. We were also both reallllly hoping she would speed it up on her whole spiel because we were desperate to eat and get ready before meeting up with the group. (Josh and Heidi were staying in another apartment just a ways down the street).
Finally she left and Allison and I started getting ready.
We met up with everyone back at the rental office and from there, walked into Old Town Square. We were staying SO CLOSE - that was one of the things I loved about this trip and the way it was planned. We were always steps from the center of town which saved so much time as opposed to constantly having to get on subways and buses every time we wanted to get somewhere. We could almost always walk to the biggest/most popular sights.
Prague's Old Town Square was still done up for Easter with lots of stalls and vendors selling all different kinds of foods - entire turkey legs, spiraled potatoes on a stick, candy, etc. Dad gave us some warnings about buying anything from these stalls - they tend to really jack up the prices or do things like weighing the turkey leg and charging per ounce.
You could tell that Dad loved Prague, because he spent a looong time on our orientation tour. He was disappointed that some of his favorite stops were closed on the weekend, and also to find that the Astronomical Clock, one of Prague's most popular tourist stops, was under construction.
Despite that, we still saw quite a lot, including lots of art by contemporary Czech artist David Černý. I've come to realize that I absolutely love contemporary art - and my favorite part of Prague was definitely all of the hidden art throughout the city. I loved stopping and seeing all of the odd little pieces by Cerny and others.
We stopped for awhile to observe his piece "Head of Franz Kafka." This is a giant sculpture made of steel with rotating panels that move around and eventually come back together to create a face. It's mesmerizing to watch!
Of course walked along the water so that David could point out the incredibly famous, and photogenic, Charles Bridge - though it was the prime time of day for the bridge to be overrun by tourists. So we just looked at it from afar and David encouraged us to wake up early the next morning to enjoy the bridge with fewer people. He also told a funny story about a couple in one of his tour groups who got engaged on what they thought was the Charles Bridge - only to find out they were one bridge over, on the Mánes Bridge (a mistake Allison and I also almost made the following morning).
We continued our walk and on the way to Wenceslas Square made a quick stop to see the Cubist Lamp Post and passed the Velvet Revolution Memorial. Wenceslas Square was bustling and seemed to be the Times Square of Prague - it was a little too touristy and crowded for me - at one point we passed a window where people were sitting and having their toes eaten by fish ("fish pedicures") - 10/10 would not recommend. I was fine with never coming back to this part of town.
Our last stop was to see another one of Cerny's pieces - Statue of King Wenceslas Riding an Upside-Down Dead Horse. It hangs from the ceiling in the Art Nouveau Lucerna Palace (Lucerna is also a big dance club where they play 80's/90's music and music videos on Friday and Saturday nights!)
With that, our orientation tour was done and we were left to do our own thing around town. I had been told to get a drink at the rooftop bar of the Hotel U Prince for stunning views of Old Town Square and while we had to wait about 10 minutes to be allowed up, it was well worth it for the classy vibes, good drinks, and beautiful views. We seemed to have arrived at just the right time, because once we sat down in the hotel lobby to wait, the hostess started sending everyone away! There was such a steady stream of people - this is absolutely a very popular spot and I would recommend making a reservation for lunch or dinner if you definitely want to get in.
We enjoyed a cheese plate and drinks and shamelessly took tons of pictures until we had the perfect Instagram shot. This is the kind of place that just begs to be 'grammed.
When we felt we had outstayed our welcome on the roof, we headed out in search of my first doughnut of the trip at a place called Donuterie. When we arrived, there was ONE DONUT LEFT in this adorable little shop which she gave us at a discount and we all enjoyed a few tasty bites of. I honestly don't remember what it was - but it was fruity/citrusy and I was very content.
Next stop was the Prague Beer Museum which was...an experience. The museum itself seemed like it was a joke - first of all, it was empty. Second of all, it was dingy and everything looked like it hadn't been touched in 100 years. We sped through the laughable exhibits in the dark, musty basement in the hopes that the entrance fee would be worth it when we got our free samples of beer. Turns out, it was - we got 4 free beers and were seated in the most bizarre drinking environment ever - we dubbed it the "Communist Bar" as there was propaganda playing on the television screens and mannequins wearing uniforms. I think the picture below accurately portrays the room. We were sharing the space with a bachelor party from Germany which made for a funny hour or so while we drank our beers. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this as a must-do in Prague (OK, I definitely wouldn't) but it didn't end up being as horrible as we originally thought when we first stepped into the museum.
On our walk back to the apartment we realized just how many bachelor parties were walking around Prague - the streets were just filled with European men and Allison and I committed to going out having fun. But first - we needed dinner.
We ended up going to a vegetarian restaurant around the block from us that was pretty good - but the quiet, tranquil vibe of the restaurant left us struggling to find that "Let's go seize the night" attitude we had had an hour ago. Maitrea was a much needed break from meat, potatoes, bread and cheese.
After, we mustered up the energy to go to a bar that David had pointed out during our tour - saying that it would be filled with hockey-loving locals. Sadly - when we got there it smelled like chicken wings and all we saw were other women...so we halfheartedly looked around for a more poppin' spot only to decide bed sounded like the best option.
It was a good decision - because the next morning we were up at the crack of dawn - literally, it was still dark out when we set out for our own private exploration of Prague and it was the best decision ever!
Old Town Square was completely deserted, the air was crispy and cool, the moon was still hanging in the sky, and we were one of only a few people when we reached the Charles Bridge.
The sun was starting to rise and we decided we would sit on the bridge and watch for awhile. It was slow, and we got a little antsy, but everything turned the most amazing golden color. People were lined up across the bridge taking pictures - but it was still so much emptier than any other part of the day.
After enjoying the sunrise, we crossed over the bridge to Malá Strana ("Little Side of the River") where we wound our way up look around at the churches and castles (and saw the Starbucks with the world's most impressive view). It was so crazy how empty it was up there - it was us and the guards!
We walked back down and along the river for a picture of The Dancing House ("Fred & Ginger") which I was really excited to see. It was designed by an American-Canadian and Croatian-Czech architect duo. It would have looked better in the sunshine, but I still really liked it!
We also loved the colorful buildings along the Vltava River.
We walked back through Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square, where it was still very quiet and stumbled upon a cubism-themed restaurant called "Černá Madona" where we enjoyed a delicious breakfast. I was overjoyed by a yogurt parfait with granola, honey and fruit after days of bread, cheese and meat for breakfast (I will never get used to a ham and cheese sandwich being breakfast). Ah, the simple things.
Afterwards, we went to see the Jewish Quarter ("Josefov") and the Old Jewish Cemetery - there were really long lines but we were able to peer through the fence to see the headstones dating back to as early as 1439. Jews living in Prague were given so little space, that the cemetery holds 100,000 bodies - some piled up to 12 deep. Insane.
On the walk back to the apartment we stumbled upon a sculpture that I loved by Jaroslav Rona - it supposedly depicts beloved Czech author Franz Kafka.
By now it was 11 AM - and we had been walking around for HOURS. Part of the deal I'd made with Allison for getting out of bed at 5 AM was nap-time! So we got comfortable at our apartment and passed out for a few hours. I love naps. I am also GREAT at naps.
Eventually we got ourselves up and walked around in search of some lunch/dinner to bring back and eat while we got ready for our drinking tour.
We stumbled upon Country Life Restaurant which had a salad bar that I thoroughly enjoyed. We ate and got ready and set out in search of the Prague Riverside Party we had signed up for - with a quick stop to take a picture of Heidi on her princess balcony! We had a lot of trouble locating the actual start of the tour - a fratty, dark, dank basement bar called the "Recovery Room."
The Prague Riverside Party had come recommended to me by a friend and I have mixed feelings about it. Overall, I like it and would recommend it - but I would only recommend it after letting people know what they're in for. The premise is that you get a tour from a bunch of foul-mouthed/comedian type "tour guides" while drinking free alcohol. The guides are your typical bar-crawl leading/hostel working types - you're not sure if they're homeless and you're not sure why they're acting like 16 year old's when they're clearly approaching 30 but at the same time you kind of wish you could live their carefree, travel the world life. We called ours drunk Jesus.
The Recovery Room bar where we started smelled like mold. I was fairly certain we were all going to leave with a disease. The "free alcohol" was really really bad beer, or really really sweet/poisonous "sangria." We sat down and were immediately greeted by a man who stumbled out from some back room and was fifty shades of fucked up. He let us know he had been out sine the previous night, which was 100% believable. Soon, he was joined by his girlfriend and they proceeded to make out and tell us about all the sex they had been having. Heidi, Allison and I laughed along with them but inside we were all cringing and couldn't wait for them to retreat to their back room.
Eventually Drunk Jesus started the night by explaining to us that we would be using Exacto knives to create stencils of whatever our hearts desired. He was definitely under the impression that saying "fuck" 3 times per sentence made whatever he said hysterical, and most of the people in the room seemed to agree with him.
We made our stencils and handed them in and soon were lead outside to start the tour. I was very happy to be out of the Recovery Room and into the fresh air. At that point the tour got better - we stopped at the glowing embryo on the side of a building (Cerny, of course!), and the Rudolfinum where our tour guide told us the plot of Weil’s Mendelssohn Is on the Roof as if it were fact and not a novel.
All the while, guys biked behind us with carts filled with endless supplies of shitty beer and sangria which we happily sipped on because #FREE (well, we paid for it, really).
Another stop was the Winged Lion Memorial before walking across the Charles Bridge where we learned that many of the statues are not, in fact, the originals. The originals were taken down to preserve them and replicas were put up - after attempting to make them look aged and worn out.
At this point in the night we were desperate for a restroom - and luckily when we got to the other side of the bridge they let us into a restaurant that the group clearly has some sort of agreement with. After that, it to the pleasantly named "Piss Statue" - literally a statue, complete with running water, or two men facing each other and pissing. We were all encouraged to take inappropriate photos with the statue which many people were more than happy to do.
The pack of us continued along the streets, probably irritating everyone we encountered as more and more beer and sangria was consumed. We got to a bridge and sat down under it and were served our meat pies - no joke - dinner is included in the tour and dinner is homemade meat pies that honestly were out of this world good. Even our Aussie friend agreed. While we ate we finally took some time to talk to other people on the tour - including two guys from Canada who knew people killed in the tragic Humboldt crash that had happened that day.
The grand finale of the tour was getting to spray paint our stencils on the John Lennon Wall - which was honestly pretty damn cool! The wall is owned by Malta, and it's pretty awesome that they have kept it open to the public for spray painting all these years!
Afterwards, we took a group picture and were invited back to the Recovery Room where for a small fee of 10 euro or something, you could drink for another hour before starting a bar and club crawl. The thought of having to ingest any more horrible beer and having to breathe in more of the mold from the Recovery Room was enough for me to vote hell no on that proposition.
Instead, Heidi, Allison and I slowly made our way back to our apartments - eyes peeled for some place that pulled us in for another drink. But, as often happened to us, our bed's seemed to call the loudest!
Overall, Prague didn't do it for me. I'm not sure what exactly it was. Just how I felt! It was the weekend, it was crowded, it was touristy - by far my favorite part was getting to walk around in the early morning hours before the streets were filled! But there will always be some great Prague memories - communist bars, a twerking T-Rex, our host barging in while I had no pants on, and proudly looking at the Islanders logo spray painted on the Lennon Wall.
We didn’t have to arrange for our accommodations for this portion of the trip, since Geckos (now Intrepid Travel) set everything up for us - but here’s an article with some of the best hostels in Prague! One of the spots on their list, “Hostel One” Prague, is the same chain that I stayed at in Barcelona and absolutely LOVED.
Next up, Cesky Krumlov!
We began the first of many journeys by train from one country to another – and this is where it was extremely helpful that the group was only the five of us. It was a lot easier to stay together while navigating crowded train stations and subway cars with our luggage than it would have been with a larger group.
Despite having a suitcase that weighed 50 pounds and a wonky wheel – I think I did a pretty good job managing it the entire trip (although I’ll be happy to never carry it up a flight of stairs again if I can help it). The only time I really needed help with it was loading it on and off some steep train stairs.
To get from Berlin to Krakow we first took a train to a small town on the border of Germany and Poland. Usually, a tour group would have about 15 minutes to catch the overnight train to Krakow but the way that our trip was scheduled, we had a few hours to enjoy the town of Szczecin.
After getting off the train we had a chance to exchange money (going from the Euro to the Polish zloty) and store our luggage in lockers at the train station before heading out to explore. We did a nice walk around the center of town and were all excited to find that we had the place to ourselves AND that it smelled overwhelmingly of chocolate. We couldn't figure out why it smelled so richly of chocolate but when I got home I looked it up and there's a chocolate factory in Szczecin and the streets' smell of chocolate is a well-known fact.
Once we felt we had seen the sights that Szczecin had to offer, we stopped into a local brewery for drinks and dinner since we would be spending the next 10 hours or so on an overnight train ride.
The interior of Wyszak Family Brewery was beautiful and while I didn’t order any food – I did eat plenty of bread and butter and ordered a flight of their three beers (which were giant). I really liked them all – even though none of them were my typical beer preference. I even liked the dark one!
It was a really nice night and I feel like we could have sat there all night drinking and talking but soon it was time to get back to the train station and continue our journey to Krakow.
I’ve always wanted to take an overnight sleeper car train and now it’s officially crossed off the bucket list. The cabins were not luxurious in any way – no mahogany paneling and red velvet headboards. This was not the Hogwarts Express. Instead, each sleeping cabin had a small closet, a little sink in the corner, and three beds stacked one on top of the other. If I were claustrophobic, I would not have done well on this train.
We had kind of assumed there would be a place to sit before we were ready to get into bed – but nope. As soon as you board, you’re in that tiny room in a bed that you can’t sit up in. Yikes.
Thankfully, it was Allison, Heidi and I and we all knew each other. But I can’t imagine how awkward the experience would be had I been in a cabin with strangers. There’s no privacy and I would have felt even more trapped in my bed.
We sat on our suitcases, perched on the sink, in the window frame – anywhere we could to feel like we were still up. David and Josh stood in our doorway and we drank wine and the conversations got more and more interesting as the night wore on. I think it was one of my favorite nights with the group – lots of laughs and interesting perspectives but unfortunately, at a certain point the conductor told us that it was time to be quiet and close our doors.
Of course, that didn’t mean that three girls who just drank a bottle of wine were able to immediately settle down and fall asleep. We were definitely the conductors’ least favorite cabin. At one point, he tried OPENING the door on us – yelling in Polish while we all screamed back in fear.
Once I was laying down, the movement of the train started to rock me to sleep but damn it was LOUD. Luckily, I can sleep through anything, especially on moving vehicles, so I got a decent amount of sleep that night. But I continually woke up because of the banging and train whistles and train station announcements every time we stopped.
We could have closed the window to help with the noise, but then it would have been stiflingly hot in our cabin.
Around 8 AM or so I finally got up for real even though we still had 2-3 hours left. We managed to figure out how to flip the top two beds up into the wall so we were left with a bottom couch we could sit on. I will admit that this part of the trip dragged a little, especially when David came to tell us that we were running 45 minutes behind schedule. But eventually we pulled into the station and walking off that train felt a little bit like walking out of prison (I’m exaggerating – I actually kind of liked the experience).
We had made it to Krakow! And I was so excited to be in the land of my ancestors and more importantly the land of PIEROGIES.
We were able to walk from the train station to our hostel – which couldn’t have been any closer to the Main Square (Rynek Glowny). Our hostel (Heynow Hostel) was very dated, but the fact that we were able to check in and get a shower upon arrival made them winners in my book.
Within 20 minutes Allison and I had both showered and changed (this was a trip of approximately zero down time) and met the group downstairs to walk over to Stary Kleparz. Stary Kleparz is an 800 year old food market.
Read it again. 800 years.
It was by far the most authentic food market we visited during the trip with the most variety. I wandered around for a little while before buying a loaf of grainy, seedy bread that reminded me of Swedish bread (I couldn’t communicate that I just wanted a few slices so – loaf of bread it was!) and the most incredible tapenade I’ve ever eaten (sorry, Dad!) from a vendor selling all different hummus and dips. He was incredibly nice despite the clear language barrier.
We took our food on the go with us and headed back towards our hostel and the Main Square to meet David’s friend who was a tour guide and had agreed to give us our own private tour (with the understanding that we would tip him at the end).
It was a great tour and we stopped at a lot of places that had been on my to-do list.
Rynek Glowny is the main square of Krakow and has two “centerpieces” – the Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica. Both are beautiful – especially lit up at night!
Our tour guide started off by having us guess how many churches are in Krakow and the answer is nuts – 120! Poland is still one of the more religious countries in Europe.
He then told us about the story behind St. Mary’s Basilica – two brothers were each tasked with building a tower on top of the church and when the younger brother realized his brother’s tower was taller, he murdered him. Later, he was so filled with guilt, that he stabbed himself with the same knife and fell from the tower into the square below.
According to our tour guide, the silver knife hanging in the doorway of the Cloth Market is the very knife that the younger brother used. Throughout our tour, he told us stories that are legends but in a way that made us question whether they were fact – he was extremely sarcastic which I personally loved but I think some people were like, “Wait – can you actually tell us the truth? You had to take most things he said with a grain of salt.
Another fun part of St. Mary’s Basilica is the trumpeter that plays a song from the highest tower to signal every hour. The song is called “Hejnal” (pronounced “Hey Now” – the name of our hostel!) He plays it once from each corner of the tower. There are many legends surrounding the Hejnal – including a tale of invaders shooting the trumpeter with an arrow – lending to the abrupt-sounding ending of the tune.
Another building of note in Rynek Glowny was St. Adalbert’s Church. While it appears to be sunken – it was once on ground level which shows how much the surface of the square has risen over the centuries. (Layers and layers of garbage…)
Cloth Hall was basically just filled with touristy stalls - the best part of walking through was trying to pronounce all of the Polish town names that line the halls. The Polish language has additional letters and difficult pronunciations – for example “ł” sounds like “w” and they don’t use q, v or x!
Our next stop was to the Collegium Maius – just the college building where Copernicus studied, no big deal! We happened to arrive right in time for the courtyard clock to go off (every two hours) and a crowd gathered to listen to the song and watch the wooden figures circle around. Thrilling stuff.
David pointed out his favorite little souvenir shop filled with a local artists’ clever comics where I later picked up a deck of playing cards and a postcard. As we walked, I loved this little corner behind the city walls that was filled with beautiful hand painted canvases and made a mental note that there was a 24-hour pierogi place.
A stop on our tour included Piwnica Pod Baranami – a bar that’s been around since the 1950s when it was used as a literary cabaret! (Shows still happen every Saturday night at 9 PM). It was a really cool place to look around at all the old relics, strange art, and random knickknacks covering every inch of the space. It didn’t hurt that the unfiltered beer we had was ice cold and delicious!
Our tour continued up to Wawel Castle which was gorgeous and includes a gold dome on one of the chapels.
As we looked out at the Vistula River below the castle, our tour guide told us about the dragon statue which has lots of folklore and legend surrounding it – he also mentioned that there’s no way of knowing when, but every so often the statue will breathe fire. To our delight, we go there at “the perfect time” as fire burst out of the dragon’s mouth…
Yeah it breathes fire every couple of minutes. We were that gullible.
The next day when I was out for a run I passed the dragon statue for a closer view – 7 heads and all. In the summer, a small cave behind the statue is opened as the “dragon’s cave.”
After our tour wrapped up, Allison and Heidi and I walked through the church before heading our separate ways. Allison and I walked back towards the main square and sat down at the tour-guide recommended Café Camelot for a coffee (some Amaretto might have found its way in into my cappuccino) and to rest our feet.
We shopped our way back towards the hostel (I needed one of those canvases, obviously) and made a stop at Jama Michalika – an extremely historic café filled with old art that you can just pop in to take a look at. By the time we got back to the hostel, we had just a few minutes before meeting the group for dinner and drinks.
We walked to the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) to get a traditional Polish street food – Zapiekanka! If I had to describe it in three words it would be loaded Texas Toast. It’s like a cross between in open faced baguette sandwich and pizza and you can load it with tons of different toppings – but all of it has melted cheese! The bread was airy and crispy and while I would never crave this again – I’m glad I got to try it!
The stand was in the middle of “New Square” with a bunch of other street food vendors and I believe it was called “Mr. and Mrs. Zapiekanka.”
After we finished eating in the street, we went to a bar right across the square called Alchemia. They had an extensive list of cocktails, but I stuck with wine. We found a table in the smoking section – which required us walking through a wardrobe modeled after the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. We settled into Narnia and enjoyed our drinks on the quirky furniture. I really liked the vibe!
Our final stop of the night was to a bar filled with old Singer sewing machines – aptly named Singer Bar. Our tour guide from earlier in the day had joined us for the night out and said we all needed to try a shot of vodka flavored with Orzech Laskowy (Hazlenut) to close out the night. Dad (tour leader David) said, “Well, I was supposed to buy you guys an obwarzanek – but would you rather a shot instead?” to which we all said SOUNDS LIKE A DEAL.
I was really not excited to take a vodka shot but with the hazelnut flavoring it was actually pretty tasty! Never did get to try obwarzanek though…
The next morning, I woke up early to go to the 24-hour pierogi restaurant – we were scheduled to take a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau and we’d need food for the 6-hour excursion.
I walked in the crisp spring air to the nearby restaurant and wasn’t surprised that I was more or less alone in the streets and most definitely alone in Przypiecek. I got two different variety orders – the traditional fillings (meat, cabbage & mushroom and “Russian” which is what I grew up eating – potato & cheese!) and a mix of “fancy” pierogies (broccoli, more Russian, and spinach). I really loved the meat pierogies but still, nothing beat the classic potato and cheese!
I had to laugh – when my pierogies they came out on a real plate - as if I were going to sit down and house two dozen pierogies at 7 AM. I was luckily able to communicate that I wanted them in a to-go box!
Of course, I had to have some with my free hostel breakfast…breakfast of champions right there.
Allison and I set off to walk to where we were getting picked up for our tour – but we were running behind schedule thanks to a stop at Starbucks and were panicking that we were going to miss it. We had set the pick-up location before we knew where we were staying, and luckily once we arrived our driver came up to us and asked if we were part of the tour. It was a small van with about 8 of us – much smaller than I had been expecting which was nice (I booked through Viator!)
It was about an hour and a half drive to Auschwitz, and though I had a full nights’ sleep the night before, I found myself dozing off in the front seat. I slept the entire journey. Something about moving vehicles just knocks me out!
When we arrived we had some time before our tour was scheduled to depart so we used the bathroom (you have to pay – like most places in Europe) and waited around. The weather was a little chilly and gray which seemed fitting for the occasion.
There were tons of people, but Auschwitz is very organized in terms of when they allow tour groups to depart/how many groups at a time/etc.
When it was our turn we met our tour guide and another van of people and went through security where we got a headset. I really liked that as we walked, our tour guide just spoke quietly into his microphone and everyone in our group could hear it in our headsets. There were so many other groups as we made our way through the different sections that it never would have worked if they were all competing to be heard over one another.
The tour was very well done – our tour guide was soft spoken, solemn, and factual without a lot of superfluous language. Honestly, being at Auschwitz and walking through a former concentration camp really speaks for itself.
For me, all of the museum-like displays weren’t as powerful or impactful as just being there. Of course, seeing artifacts that were taken from prisoners as they entered was disturbing – but I had seen a lot of those things at the museum in Washington D.C. already. Plus, it’s hard to even comprehend when you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes that they only represent a small portion of the lives that were lost.
What stood out the most to me was walking down a long hallway filled with pictures of prisoners with the date that they were taken away from their homes and the date that they died. So many of them were a shockingly short period of time – sometimes, just one day.
I think a lot of the time we hear the amazing stories of survival. Survivors can tell us how horrible life in a concentration camp was, but their stories have somewhat happy endings because they made it out. But walking down that hallway was a really striking reminder that those stories we hear from survivors are the vast vast minority. It was hard to find even a handful of people on that wall who lived more than a year from their imprisonment, let alone until the end of the war.
Another part that was shocking was seeing one of the prison blocks where they punished misbehaving prisoners – as if it was possible to be punished more than they already were. They would be forced to stand in miniscule cells for days on end – it was impossible to sit down or really even move at all. Sometimes there would even be more than one prisoner placed in these standing cells. Seeing it in person sent shivers down my spine.
Outside of that block was the “shooting wall” where prisoners were killed. That was another part of the tour that made me stand still and just stare in disbelief and shock.
Moving through the blocks was a little frustrating at times because it was sooo slow moving and packed with people. But the tour ends going into Crematorium 1 and at that point I felt like our group was pretty much on its own.
As we approached, I saw people standing outside looking shocked and sad and I took a deep breath before walking in.
But nothing could have prepared me for the feeling that overcame me while I was standing there. I had remained stoic throughout the tour, all things considered, but the second I was inside Crematorium 1 tears just started pouring down my face.
It was like nothing I’ve ever experience before – there were barely even any thoughts in my head I just knew I felt so sad and shocked and there were tears coming out of my eyes and my chest was tight and my throat burned and it didn’t even feel real. I tried to take in the gravity of where I was standing. All the books and diaries I’ve read about World War II. The class I took in college with a Holocaust survivor. The documentaries and movies. And I was standing where it happened.
I couldn’t stay in there for very long – but it was even more moving than I could have imagined it would be.
That was where the Auschwitz portion of the tour ended, and we walked back in relative silence to the van to drive over to Birkenau for the second part.
Walking into Birkenau was another surreal experience because it’s such an iconic picture – we walked down the train tracks where cars full of prisoners were “sorted” – the vast majority being sent straight to the gas chambers while those that were capable of work were sent to the camps.
A lot of Birkenau is just remains, as the Nazi’s destroyed much of it before liberation. We walked around, saw the remains of one of the Crematorium which is now a big monument/memorial, and then finished the tour by going into one of the barracks where it hit me for the first time just how cramped the quarters were for prisoners. Sometimes there were 3-4 people in a “bed” and the ones on the bottom were so tight that you had to slide into them on your side. People couldn’t sit up in them in the slightest. It was horrifying to see.
I'm so grateful that I had the chance to tour Auschwitz and Birkenau. It sounds like a weird bucket-list item, but it's always something I've felt I needed to do and it was absolutely worth the time, emotional discomfort, money, etc. It was actually one of the reasons I found this tour group - I knew I wanted to go to Berlin and Budapest but it seemed like a waste to be so close to so many historically relevant Eastern European cities and not get to them. I started researching a trip to Auschwitz from Berlin or Budapest, and eventually found this trip that was all planned out for me.
The van ride back to Krakow was a somber one, and I smelled up the whole van with pierogies. And slept, per usual.
We got dropped off closer to our hostel than we had been picked up which was nice. And I almost immediately changed into sneakers and headed out for a run. I needed to work through all the thoughts and emotions of the day and what better way to do that than a run? Moving meditation.
I loved running in Krakow - there is a park that surrounds the entire old city (Planty Park). It's just crazy to me how rarely you see people exercising outside in some of these European cities. I only passed two other runner's the entire time.
I set out at half past the hour for my run, and just planned on running around the old city until the Hejnal played signaling that I'd been running for 30 minutes. I finished at the door of the hostel just as the trumpeter started! It was the perfect little run.
It's crazy how a few solitary minutes running around, discovering a new city always end up being some of my favorite memories from different destinations. You can ask me "How do you like Nashville" and I'll vividly remember my early morning run down Broadway and the smell of BBQ at 6 AM. You can ask me, "How was Barcelona?" and I can tell you about the farmer's market I passed on the run or that there were tons of other runner's out along the water.
After my run, Allison and I went to a bar/cafe I had read about called Bunkier Cafe in the middle of the Planty Gardens. They have a huge outdoor area and it was nice to sit outside in the beautiful park with a cold beer! We also ordered flavored syrups which you pour in your beer - I got passionfruit! It was delicious - and it reminded me of college when I would use Mio to flavor my cheap beer. I was really just doing the European thing.
Afterwards, we stopped at a cute salad shop I had passed on my run and got ourselves something that we could eat on the following days' train ride (we got the most amazing salads from Fitagain Cafe and they were everything that I ever wanted!). On the walk back to the hostel, we couldn't refuse a photo shoot in the square since it was the perfect pre-sunset lighting.
For dinner, we met back up with David ("Dad") and Heidi to the somewhat hidden Kuchnia U Babci Maliny which had been on my "to eat" list. You need to go through a courtyard and library to get into it, and once inside its a quirky little place. You order at the counter and then they'll call your number and ring a bell when it's ready.
At Dad's recommendation, I ordered the beet soup and OMG IT WAS SO GOOD. Actually, every time I ordered soup this entire trip I was obsessed with it. But this one might have been the winner.
For my main dish I ordered the pork with oatmeal porridge - the meat was amazing but I had been looking forward to "oatmeal porridge" and it was dry and bland and pretty disappointing.
After dinner, we couldn't get the energy to go out, so we bought a bottle of wine and went back to the hostel where we realized a) we apparently weren't supposed to drink and b) we didn't have a bottle opener.
This resulted in us struggling to open the bottle of wine with a knife which turned into push the cork through into the bottle and the red wine resembling a volcano science project all over the kitchen.
Once we cleaned up...we played a few rounds of cards as we drank the wine and eventually headed to bed.
The next morning was another early one but our trip was done in style - a van was waiting for us outside with a driver dressed in a suit! He drove u to the train station where we would catch a train to our next destination: Prague!
PS: My favorite fun fact is that in Polish, one common insult translates to calling someone "potato face."
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The flight to Berlin was nice and short, and they even gave us a little chocolate Easter egg. When I landed, it was a pleasant surprise to see that each gate had there own baggage claim right at the end of the jet bridge. I only had to wait about 5 minutes until I had my suitcase and followed the signs to public transportation.
Even though I was tired, I was determined to get to the hostel using the buses instead of taking the easy way out and hailing a cab.
It was actually super simple - transfer and all. The weather was cold and rainy which was unpleasant, but even the bus stops have countdown clocks for how long until each bus will arrive.
A theme of the trip was - "NYC public transportation is really archaic and horrible and I feel bad for any tourist trying to navigate the city." I would never recommend that a tourist get on a NYC public bus - I have enough trouble myself since there's absolutely no way of knowing what stop is next, they skip half of them, and you could be stuck waiting 20 minutes in between buses.
By around 8:30 I made it to Wombat's Hostel and was greeted in the lobby by Allison!
TIP: I really enjoyed our stay at Wombat's Hostel. Though the rooms weren't huge, the double room had it's own private shower. All of the common spaces were super chill and seemed to encourage socialization. There was self-service laundry, a bar with happy hour every night, a cafe attached, and a rooftop with a beautiful view of the TV tower! Free WiFi, luggage storage, towels included, and a decent area with plenty of bars and restaurants around!
Finally united in Europe, Allison and I set out to find our first dinner and beer.
We ended up at Weihenstephaner Berlin at the Neue Promenade mainly because I recognized it as a German beer and all the other restaurants in the area seemed pretty deserted (to be fair, it was Easter Sunday at 9 PM).
I ordered the Ofenfrischer Schweinsbraten - "Fresh from the oven pork roast with crackling - from the shoulder – in original Weihenstephaner dark beer sauce, sauerkraut and potato dumplings."
Not a very light meal - but very, very delicious.
We walked back to Wombat's and made our way up to the "WomBAR" since we had received two free drink vouchers at check-in. The bar was packed with people and we found a spot to sit with our red wine.
I wish we could say we were social and joined the groups playing beer pong (since I am an International Beer Pong Champion and all) but we just sat by ourselves in a corner chatting up a storm and catching up on life. We quickly changed the game plan from "just one drink" to "might as well get another - it will help us fall asleep."
The wine was a good call - we both fell asleep before our heads hit the pillows on that first night.
I was up early on Monday morning and excited to attend a class at BECYCLE - an English speaking fitness studio a quick half mile walk from our hostel.
I had pre-registered and used their new student deal, so I had two classes for the price of one! Monday's class was HIIT and as soon as I walked into the studio I felt at ease. It was GORGEOUS and everyone was incredibly sweet and welcoming (and spoke fabulous English).
There's an adorable cafe attached, the lockers have USB chargers in them, and everything is ridiculously clean.
Our instructor was upbeat, friendly, communicative, and the workout itself was great. We did a tabata-style workout and to end the class, we partnered up to complete a ridiculous number of burpees, push-ups, lunges and sit-ups. My partner and I crushed it, if I do say so myself!
After class, Allison and I got ready at the hostel and set out for our first full day of sightseeing in Berlin.
We leisurely strolled to the Reichstag (I must confess we stopped for coffee from Dunkin Donuts along the way) where we had a 12:45 PM tour booked (it's free, but you have to apply online!)
Headphones were provided which could tell where you were in the building and pointed out interesting information about the structure as well as lots of facts about the skyline and buildings that you could see outside of the glass domed building.
The Reichstag building that stands now was built in 1999 after being destroyed in WWII. The concept behind the design is transparency of the new German republic. From inside the glass dome, you can look down on the German Bundestag (Parliament) when they are in session.
As we continued our sightseeing we strolled a little bit through the Tiergarten and stopped for a picture at the Brandenburg Gate.
Next was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - which you should definitely walk into the middle of to get the full effect.
It doesn't look like much when you first arrive, but once you make your way into the labyrinth of tall concrete towers, you realize that the ground undulates and the 90 degree grid of the columns gets pretty trippy.
The line was long to get into the museum underneath the memorial. but it's free if you've got the time!
Next up was the site of Hitler's Bunker. It was only recently that they put any type of plaque up signifying this spot - but now there is some information and pictures and there were quite a few people there when we arrived.
I never realized how huge the bunker was! It was like an underground palace!
Another stop on my DIY walking tour (it was more of an unintelligible route weaving back and forth across the city due in part to the fact that Allison and I could only pronounce the first three letters of any given "strasse") was to Bebelplatz.
Bebelplatz is a square in Berlin where the Nazi book burning took place in May of 1933. Now, the square has an understated memorial that would be easy to miss if you weren't looking for it! There's a glass plate built into the ground, and when you look through it, you see down into a room with empty, white bookshelves, which would have held 20,000 (the number burnt by the Nazis).
When we arrived, a tour group was also walking up to the memorial and we were all saddened to see that the glass was so dusty and dirty that we couldn't see down to the bookshelves. We pooled together our resources of water and tissues and the tour guide cleaned off a portion of the plate, joking that he was pretty sure he wasn't defacing a historic monument. I'm glad we got to look down - I thought it was a perfect commemoration.
Later, I read that the plaque in Bebelplatz reads, "Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." This is a line from Heinrich Heine's play "Almansor" which translates to, "That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people." So fitting, and so chilling.
As we made our way back across Museum Island and across from the stunning Berlinerdom, we noticed a group of people setting up balloons and rose petals and stopped to watch an incredibly "extra" proposal. Extra, but still made us AW and clap along with the rest of the crowd that had gathered.
That morning, we had passed a long strip of restaurants with outdoor seating right along the water at James-Simon-Park and made our way back there to find lunch. We chose Olla - Grill & Orient Lounge where I feasted on a delicious platter of falafel and grilled vegetables with tahini and tzatziki.
The service was typical of most European cities - disinterested at best and what would normally have been a 45 minute lunch in the states was a leisurely hour and a half ordeal but we couldn't complain much considering the fact that we were sitting outside in the sunshine in Berlin.
Allison headed back to the hostel to do some work and I continued my somewhat aimless wanderings in the direction of Hackesche Höfe - a giant courtyard complex of absolutely stunning building facades. On a typical day, this would have been packed with tourists visiting the various restaurants, shops, cafes, galleries, and offices housed inside Hackesche Höfe - but since it was Easter Monday (apparently a holiday in many European countries - and...North Carolina?) almost everything was closed.
This was good for my wallet, and my camera - though I wouldn't have minded checking out some of the shops! One store that was open was "Ampelmann" and I'm so glad that it was. It put a name to the funny little men on the crosswalk signals that Allison and I had immediately noticed! Prior to the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany, West German streetlights used a generic human figure while those in Eastern Germany featured the Ampelmännchen - a male figure wearing a hat.
The Ampelmännchen is one of the few East German features to survive the end of Communism and has since been adopted across the city.
After weaving my way through Hackesche Höfe I headed towards Haus Schwarzenberg - a really interesting area to walk around. Referred to as a "street art gallery" - Haus Schwarzenberg is a ~bohemian~ hold-out in the heavily gentrified area. Upon further research, I learned that Haus Schwarzenberg is run by a nonprofit organisation.
It's definitely worth a visit - and I highly recommend stopping at the free exhibit about Otto Weidt and his efforts to save Jews from persecution during the Holocaust. Weidt ran a factory which employed the blind and deaf- they made brooms and brushes. When Nazis started deporting Jews, Weidt used his factory as a hiding space. The museum now exists in what used to be the factory! It was myself and two other people when I stopped by!
On my walk back to the hostel, I noticed my first brass cobblestone in the ground. These Stolperstein ("stumbling stone") are placed outside residences of Holocaust victims. Each plaque lists the names and life spans of individuals killed by the Nazis. The project was started by German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992 and since then, Stolperstein have been placed in 22 different countries worldwide.
It's interesting to note that Munich has not allowed Stolperstein to be placed in the city.
After a quick refresh at the hostel Allison and I headed out for the oldest beer garden in Berlin - Berliner Prater Garten. Thankfully, it was open, but the fact that it was Easter Monday meant that we had the typically lively beer garden almost entirely to ourselves.
Despite the chilly temperatures, we decided to sit outside and enjoy our big mugs of Hefeweissbier. I can't imagine how awesome it would be to sit outside in this beer garden in the spring or summer with hundreds of people!
A very strange thing happened while we sat on the patio - a girl walking by with headphones on suddenly started yelling like she was performing a monologue and then promptly collapsed onto the ground.
To Allison and I it was pretty obvious that she had done it on purpose, but then a group of people walked by and saw her on the ground and panicked thinking something was wrong. We looked like uncaring asshole Americans. As they gathered around her to see if she was OK, she started freaking out and eventually stood up and screamed at them. They, rightfully, got really weirded out and just kind of walked away.
It was the oddest thing.
Brushing that off - we walked back in the direction of our hostel but made a stop at one of my favorite finds of the trip. Weinerei - a pay what you wish wine bar!
Allison had the genius idea upon entering to ask the bartender if she spoke English before we just started speaking at her in English and the woman was SO RECEPTIVE! She couldn't stop saying how nice it was that we asked instead of assuming (a tip we would take with us the rest of the trip). From that moment on we were in- which was great considering this was definitely a place that seemed to be filled with locals.
For 2 euro we each got a wine glass and then we were free to sample the wines of the night. They just ask that you pour a little taste to make sure you like something before pouring yourself a full glass. We sat and enjoyed three glasses each in this lovely space (there's also food you can help yourself to) while wishing that we had a deck of cards.I was so excited that they had a Portuguese red wine!
When you're ready to leave, they ask that you pay what you think the night was worth (there are recommended prices on the bar as well).
I don't know that this concept could ever work in NYC - but it was such a unique Berlin experience!
On our way our, we asked the bartender how to say, "Do you speak English?" in German and spent the entire walk back working on our dismal pronunciation of "Sprichst du Englisch?"
The last stop of the day was at the late night Middle Eastern spot (Luxa) around the corner from the hostel where I utterly confused the employees by asking for cauliflower, eggplant and beets. They couldn't understand why I didn't want a pita - so eventually I just got a pita with meat, cauliflower, eggplant, beets and hummus. It was BALLER - pretty sure they fried the pita or something because it tasted like crack.
I think they were entertained by us, and the feeling was mutual as they tried to get Allison to reach for her food THROUGH the glass counter.
We enjoyed our food in the Wombat's Hostel kitchen before another night of immediately falling asleep.
The next morning I was up and at it again early for my second class at BECYCLE - this time, a 45 minute spin class.
As I was getting ready for class, my partner from the day before sat down next to me and said hello which made me feel like a ~local~ and was a super cool moment of the trip. This is why working out everywhere I go is always on my to-do list. You meet the best people!
Class was great- the music was fun, varied, and the instructor was upbeat. The bikes were SO SMOOTH and they even had gears that altered the resistance when you turned them left and right.
After class I showered and got ready at the studio before heading back to the hostel where we paid the affordable price of 4.50 euro for an amazing breakfast spread! They even had a panini press.
We packed our things and navigated the U-bahn to bring our luggage to the next hostel, where our tour group would officially begin that night.
TIP: U-Bahn = urban rail and S-Bahn = suburban rail. The U-Bahn is the subway and the S-Bahn goes outside of the city)
At Cityhostel Berlin, they were able to give us our rooms even though it wasn't the official check-in time which was a pleasant surprise.
Our next destination by way of the S-Bahn (which was incredibly easy to navigate) was the East Side Gallery.
TIP: When you purchase metro/subway tickets in many European cities, you'll need to "validate" your ticket - this is a machine that stamps the date and time on your ticket and while you don't need to present your ticket to board the subway - officers may board at any time and ask to see your validated ticket! If you haven't validated your ticket, don't have a ticket, or are using an old ticket - you'll be fine!
Digression: The woman from California who was working at our hostel in Cesky Krumlov told a story of getting caught on a bus without a validated ticket and getting out of the fine by listing as many NHL hockey teams as she could!
The East Side Gallery was an Instagrammer's dream. Sure, there was the historical significance of seeing a remaining portion of the Berlin wall in what is now the world's largest open air art gallery - but the real delight was in taking pictures with the murals.
And we shamelessly made our way down the wall stopping for photo shoot after photo shoot.
When we made it to the end, we decided we might as well start walking back in the direction of our hostel since it was such a nice day outside. We may have accidentally walked through a construction site - which became glaringly obvious as a bulldozer crashed to the ground just as we passed.
For the past few days we had passed a lot of places that looked like part playground, part tree house, part homeless shelter. We had begun to affectionately refer to them as "shanty towns" and on our walk we happened to pass one that lured us in to take a look around. Turns out, it had a bar, a bakery, a hair salon, and a beautiful view of the water!
There was no question as to whether or not we were staying here for a drink - it was simply way too cool of a spot to leave. I was especially happy to find that they had a local beer that was hoppier than anything else I had managed to find. And they served Somersby! My European obsession which I basically forced Allison to order.
Sitting in the shanty town, drinking our drinks on the water, the sun shining down, wondering where the hell we were - was one of the highlights of Berlin for me.
When we finished, we wandered around for a bit and decided this place would definitely have been a little creepy at night but during the day it was just plain awesome. We discovered a slide, a trampoline, and tons of other oddities on the property.
Post-vacation I looked up where we were - and it turns out that it was part of Holzmarkt which The Guardian describes as and "alternative cultural complex, "on the banks of the Spree river in Berlin." This "urban oasis" is a MUST SEE while you're in Berlin!
The entire area is just really out there and as we continued walking back to the hostel we even passed a door under a highway overpass that clearly led to some kind of secret club because there was music bumpin' through the door.
Foreshadowing: we would end up exploring a similar shanty town in the evening hours later that day and it didn't disappoint!
After a long walk, we made it back to our hostel and freshened up in anticipation of meeting our tour group - the people we would be spending the next 11 days with. Would there be 14 of us? Would we be the only 2? All girls? All younger than us? We had been talking about it for the past 3 days and were excited to finally find out.
We got to the lobby and weren't exactly sure where our "orientation" was taking place but made our way to some comfy looking couches where we quickly spotted another guy who looked like he was searching for a group.
"Are you here for the Gecko's meeting?" we asked and sure enough - it was Josh. Our first Aussie tour-mate. We chatted for a little bit about our few days in Berlin and what we had discovered and then another guy appeared and we asked if he was in the group - turns out this was David - our tour leader.
He let us know that we were just waiting for one more person - and that we would be a small group of just 4 people. Soon enough, Heidi joined us and our group of two Americans, two Aussies and a Scottish tour leader was complete.
We went over a bunch of information, told some fun facts about each other, and pretty effectively broke the ice with talk of doughnut obsessions, dreadlocks, and food allergies. I very quickly could tell that we would get along as a group when we unanimously decided that dinner would be a trip to a street side currywurst window.
Allison and I grabbed a beer from the hostel lobby to take on the road with us (just because we were exhilarated by the fact that we could drink beer on public transportation) and we all headed to the celebrated Curry 36 (right next to the cult-favorite Mustafa's Gemüse Kebap whose line looked like Halal Guys in NYC!)
David talked us through what we should order, and Allison and I decided on splitting both the classic Curry Wurst (two sausages with curry ketchup and french fries) and Curry buletten (think of a burger/meatball combo) also served with delicious curry ketchup and more fries.
This was my favorite street food of the entire trip (and we ate a lot). I am fairly certain that I ate more than anyone else.
I'm still not sure what about this made it so delicious - all I can say is that you cannot leave Berlin without eating currywurst! I will also say that I was not as opposed to mayo on my french fries as I had anticipated.
Please observe the below picture for my feelings re: currywurst.
After stuffing ourselves silly at Curry 36, we chatted about a bar crawl we had seen advertised in our hostel and decided we would all go and check it out. David said he would bring us there to make sure we made it OK since it was about a 20-30 minute journey by subway to the starting point.
When we arrived at the first bar, it was completely dead. The bartender told us to hang out and that the guy in charge would show up soon. So - we thanked David for accompanying us and waved goodbye through the window yelling, "Bye Dad!" It was a nickname that would stick for the remainder of the trip.
It was an awkward wait for the bar crawl to get started but slowly, people started showing up and though the bartender acted as if this was the first time something like this was ever happening in the establishment (it supposedly happens 6 days a week...) eventually we settled into a table in the back with a fun group of people from all over the world.
The most memorable parts of this conversation had to have been learning that the translation of "Cheers" in Indian is "Take it in the mouth" and the group's chant of "Prost" devolving to yelling "Prostate!"
Eventually the bar crawl got under way and we left the first bar with giant beer bottles in hand as we walked to the next stop. We milled around in a park finishing our "roadies" and talking as a group (and realizing that the bar was about to close and our bar crawl leader was in the midst of trying to talk them into staying open a little longer).
TIP: In Berlin, people leave bottles and cans on the ground around garbage cans so that people can collect them and make money on returning them. So if you're drinking in a park, it's totally acceptable to leave the bottle on the ground next to a garbage can instead of actually throwing it out.
The next bar started with a shot a palinka which we would again encounter in Budapest. It's a Hungarian liquor fermented from fruit and it was strong as hell.
The group mingled outside the bar until we realized there was a back room that was Breaking Bad themed so everyone went in to check it out.
Next, we headed towards another shanty town for a more "club" like atmosphere - only to find out that the club was closed (our bar crawl leader was striking out left and right, and was also getting increasingly intoxicated as he drank his hidden bottle of jägermeister).
Luckily, the shanty town had other options, and he talked the group's way into Cassiopeia which we ended up absolutely loving! Once we got through the bouncers, we were expecting to walk into a building, but instead walked into a tree house/courtyard. Beyond that lay the bar, a dance floor, and an upstairs with people playing video games and foosball. It was bizarre in the best way and we spent a decent amount of time dancing there.
It's worth noting that this "shanty town" was actually the RAW complex - home to many bars, restaurants and clubs in the trendy, artsy, up and coming, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg neighborhood.
The last stop of the night was the famous nightclub Matrix that I had heard so much about, but unfortunately we were very disappointed. The worst part was that it felt like a heater was blowing on us on the dance floor! And the fact that the bar crawl leader had reached peek creepiness and would not stop dancing with us.
At that point, we decided to call it a night and got an Uber home.
We woke up feeling pretty decent the next morning and made it down to the hostel lobby for the included breakfast buffet. Then, we made the executive decision to be lazy and get an Uber to our destination for the day - Teufelsberg. On the ride to Teufelsberg we marveled at the size of Tiergarten - we seemed to be driving next to it forever (although, I have since confirmed that it's smaller than Central Park).
I had seen tons of pictures on Instagram of Teufelsberg - an abandoned United States spy station about 8 miles outside of the city center that has been turned into a graffiti artists playground.
Situated on the top of "Devil's Mountain" we were grateful that our Uber could drive us straight to the top. We paid for our tickets and started wandering around - in awe of how unique and strange the place was.
Of course, we had many photo shoots, and a lot of laughs at the "sassy cat" graffiti and random things we discovered. One of the coolest parts was a big dome shaped room that created the craziest echos - it really messed with your head!
There's really no way to describe this place - except to go explore and experience it yourself!
It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the walk down the mountain and took the U-Bahn back to the hostel.
That afternoon we would be leaving Berlin and starting our journey to Krakow so we wanted to get in a decent meal. We walked to Chipps, a vegetarian restaurant where I ate some of the best soup EVER.
We picked up some provisions for our overnight train ride (peanut butter, corn cakes, avocado, baby carrots - the usual suspects) and met the group at the hostel, sad to bid Berlin adieu but ready to see where this adventure would take us next!
If you have more time in Berlin - here are a few other places I would have liked to check out!
Berlin Wall Memorial which accurately shows what the wall looked like - including the grounds behind it.
Mauer Park is a destination in itself - and on Sunday's, Berliner's flock to the park for the popular park karaoke sessions!
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I recently went on a whirlwind vacation with my best friend - visiting 6 Countries in 17 days. These are the stories, the must-sees, the must-eats, the tips, and the things I don't want to forget about a once in a lifetime trip.
The first part of my trip was a flight to Amsterdam, where I would have an 8 hour layover. Because the airport is such a quick train ride from the city center of Amsterdam, I had plenty of time to get out and explore a bit of the city.
My first interaction with a Dutchman was the customs agent whose line of questioning ended with, "Are you meeting a boyfriend?" My response was, "No, just a friend" but I probably should have added, "When is your shift over?"
Getting onto the train was a breeze - I had pre-purchased my ticket but it definitely would have been just as easy to buy it when I landed. After a pleasant 15 minute ride (where I marveled at each seats' personal mini trash can on the wall), I was at the city center, making my way out into the chilly, rainy streets. Yes - the smell of weed hit me almost instantly.
I was immediately greeted by a canal but the further I wandered the more quaint and charming the canals became. Passing a church on my way to find a cafe (I had slept a little on the plane, but also watched Greatest Showman and listened to some podcasts), it dawned on me that it was Easter morning!
It was strange being in a foreign city by myself on a holiday when I'd normally be at home surrounded by family...but what was even stranger was that as I opened my phone to write myself a quick note about the chiming of church bells and the sound of rain drop on my umbrella I looked up and spotted my first Amsterdam prostitute in a window. 9 AM on Easter Sunday morning. What a sight.
As I walked through the still sleepy streets of the Red Light District, I noticed a few places that we have in NYC including Le Pain Quotidian and Van Leeuwan's - the beloved vegan ice cream shop! I passed by De Koffieschenkerij - a gorgeous little cafe with outdoor seating but the rain made the garden a little less inviting. Instead, I settled in at De Koffiesalon - which satisfied my needs of WiFi, a bathroom, and caffeine. An added bonus was the fact that it was pretty and bright inside.
Outside of the coffee shop, I noticed some stalls being set up and wandered through some absolutely gorgeous art! I'm kicking myself now that I didn't purchase anything.
My next stop was for a cookie from the famous Van Stapele Koekmakerij. They hand make one kind of cookie and one cookie only - chocolate stuffed with white chocolate. Walking into the small storefront, the sweet smell of chocolate was absolutely heavenly. My cookie was placed in a sleeve and sealed with a silver sticker - a nice touch, but did they really think I was planning on saving it for later?
Despite being 10 AM - a Van Stapele cookie begs to be devoured immediately upon purchase because they're STILL WARM. Not only are they fresh out of the oven, but you can see the women rolling the next batch as you pay.
Van Stapele is open every day from 10 AM - 6 PM, but consider this your warning: they sometimes run out by 4 PM.
I continued to meander my way through Dam Square and various canals until it was time for my 12 PM ticket to the Anne Frank House. This was by far the most important thing on my list of things to accomplish while in Amsterdam and I was happy to take my time walking through the museum.
TIP: As of April 2018 - you MUST pre-book a specific date and time for entrance to the Anne Frank Museum!
When you enter you receive headphones and a small remote that's activated when you get to each new room. It was quite crowded, but still surreal to be in such a historical place. Anne Frank and Anne Frank's diary were both fascinating to me as a kid and I loved that this exhibit/memorial to Anne Frank and her family and friends who hid in the secret annex of Prinsengracht 263 had so many personal touches that made you feel like you were really getting to know them.
The part where it really hit me was stepping through the false book case, which you have to bend down to get through. Once inside the secret annex, it was sad to see the blacked out windows and realize that this family was unable to see the light of day for their entire time in hiding (two years).
Small details like the growth chart etched on the wall and the pictures that Anne hung in an effort to make the place feel like home were the most moving part of the exhibit. I felt a kinship with Anne Frank when I read about her great desire to be a journalist, when I saw the picture of chimpanzees having a tea party that she taped on her wall, and when I saw the notebook where she copied down her favorite quotes from books.
The saddest part was hearing about their eventual discovery. I cannot imagine being found and seeing other people and knowing that they want to kill you - even though you have done nothing wrong, have never even met them before.
What's even worse is the realization that the Frank's and the others they were hiding with were on the final transport to Auschwitz.
After finishing the tour at the Anne Frank house, I stood in the lobby using the museum's free WiFi to figure out where to eat lunch. I was determined not to pay $10 a day to activate Travel Pass on my phone if it wasn't necessary. Usually my attitude is, "Eh, it's $10 for piece of mind" but this was 17 days and $170 isn't chump change.
I would have loved to explore the "bohemian" De Pijp neighborhood, which I'm fairly certain I would have loved, but it was just a little too far of a walk considering I had a flight to catch.
Instead, I found a place called Vegabond that was absolutely perfect and right around the corner. You order from a counter and sit on couches in front of a big street-facing window. Vegabond is also a health-food shop with a large communal table in the back that I imagine would be perfect for people who work remotely (or blog!)
I ordered the acai bowl and it was picture perfect, and tasted even better!
After lunch I slowly started to make my way back to the train station, stopping in stores along the way and taking my time. At one point, I passed three guys on a side street laughing as their friend stripped down to his boxers. It was so random, and we were the only people on the street, making blatant eye contact, that I had to comment. "A little cold for that, no?" They just cracked up.
At this point the streets were coming more alive, and as I got closer to the train station I started to feel a gritty/seediness that I hadn't detected at 8 AM. I must say, I preferred having the streets to myself!
I felt that I needed to do something, "Amsterdam" and since I wasn't about to gawk at women in windows or light up a blunt, I stopped into a super sketchy "casino" with 5 slot machines and 5 video poker machines and threw away $5.
Back at the train station, I was FLOORED by the sheer number of bikes parked. I guess everyone in Amsterdam really DOES use their bike as the main mode of transportation. Just look at this madness!
Inside, I went to use the bathroom before remembering I was in Europe - and public restrooms are not free. Seeing as I didn't have any coins/change yet, that was a no-go. This is something we would huff and puff about the entire trip
The journey back to the airport was again super easy and smooth and the only thing of note from my trip from Amsterdam to Berlin was the pat-down I received while going through security! WOW! the TSA agent full-on pulled up and snapped the front of my bra and stuck her hands DOWN the front of my pants. Very thorough.
If you have more time in Amsterdam than I did, here are a few more ideas!
I'm fairly certain this was the OG avo-only restaurant!
(REALLY sad I didn't get to do this. After my incredible experience with Hey Captain in Copenhagen I know I really would have enjoyed a ride down the canals with a smaller boat company run by personable people!)
English-speaking spin classes in a foreign country! If you're anything like me - that's a JACKPOT.
Next Up: BERLIN!
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Spending over 2 weeks in Stockholm this year was unexpected in many ways.
First, that I got to go for work was an incredible opportunity to be there longer than I normally would have.
True, it meant a lot of time spent working and not as much time exploring and sightseeing - but I liked the chance to feel as if I were actually living there as opposed to vacationing.
It also gave me the opportunity to experience this modern, beautiful city in both summer (August) and the start of the colder, darker winter months (November).
I fell totally in love with Stockholm - and what was surprising was that I loved it just as much in November as I did in August.
On my first day there in November I called my parents, smiling from ear to ear and told them that I just had this incredible feeling of being exactly where I was supposed to be the entire day I had been walking around.
It's a feeling I sometimes get when I'm home in NYC - I'll be walking down a particularly cute side street in the West Village with the sun hitting the brick buildings just right and I think to myself, "I LOVE IT HERE." But I had never experienced that same feeling of "rightness" anywhere else - until Stockholm.
I've struggled to write about Stockholm because my "list of things to do and see and eat" really isn't very long. My favorite part about my time in Stockholm were the days where I just wandered around the streets for hours. Everywhere you look there's another beautiful building, aesthetically pleasing home goods shop, cozy looking cafe or new waterfront view. Not to mention the people watching is on point - I swear everyone who lives in Stockholm is straight-up-model-status.
I could keep going about how the city made me ~feel~ but I really think you should book a flight to the capital of Sweden and experience it for yourself by walking around and getting lost. Stockholm is seen as expensive and cold and for those reasons it's probably not at the top of your travel list. I thought all of those things before I got there too. But I promise you, it's magical! Here are a few of my favorite things.
1. Wandering Stockholm's Unique Neighborhoods
I know this is annoying and you're looking for a list of places to go, things to do, restaurants to eat at. But seriously - walking around the different neighborhoods is an absolute MUST when you're in Stockholm. They're all totally different!
"Gamla Stan" or "Old Town" is the most charming, iconic place in Stockholm. It is filled with stores, restaurants, cafes and bars - set in a scene straight out of history books. Cobblestone streets, winding alleyways and beautiful buildings that are filled with history.
This is one of the oldest medieval city centers left in Europe and it's where Stockholm was founded in 1252. I'm just going to let you think about that number for a minute.
It's definitely a popular area, but I never felt like I was in Times Square while walking around. The main streets of Västerlånggatan and Österlånggatan tend to be the most crowded and most filled with souvenir shops - so make sure to explore some places further off the beaten path.
Don't leave Gamla Stan without stopping for a picture in the iconic Stortoget - the oldest square in Stockholm (there's a Christmas market in the winter that I missed by just a week! I can imagine that it's crowded, but incredibly worth it.)
I absolutely loved my walk through Sodermalm or "Soder" (South). It's filled with trendy stores, fun restaurants and green spaces. During my walk, I found myself passing through a cemetery and suddenly the most gorgeous, golden church appeared. With the fall leaves scattered all around, it was picture perfect. Turns out, this was Katarina Kyrka.
While in Sodermalm, you should also walk down Hornsgatan, a super bustling, popular street that's also really pretty! It was while walking down this main thoroughfare that I decided to make a detour and found myself climbing up to the scenic overlook of Skinnarviksberget. Say that 10 times fast (or just try to say it once...)
After scrambling my way up some rocks, I was rewarded with an absolutely stunning view. Who knew that I had happened to find the highest natural point in Stockholm?
If you're headed back towards Gamla Stan or Norrmalm, walk on along Söder Mälarstrand - scenic and along the water, you'll see some adorable boats that double as restaurants and bed & breakfasts.
This walk gives you view across to Kungsholmen - where the iconic Stockholm City Hall building resides.
Once you're on the Kungsholmenside of the water, you can look across to Sodermalm for one of my favorite views I found the entire trip:
This is considered the "City Center" and it's where I stayed during my time in Stockholm. The main train station is here, along with tons of shopping.
Drottninggatan is a pedestrian street jam packed with tourists and stores.
This is where the rich people live - and walking along Strandvagen, you can tell! The buildings, facing the water, are absolutely beautiful.
In August, there were tons of floating docks that were bars - and sitting out at one, sipping a glass of rose, was a definite highlight of the trip.
Because of the long winters, dark days, and cold weather - the people of Stockholm really know how to embrace their summers!
This island is a popular spot because many attractions like the Vasa Museum, Gröna Lund amusement park (my one regret is not getting to go here!), the Abba museum and Skansen - but it's also just a very beautiful place to walk around!
2. Embracing Your Sweet Tooth
If you had asked me before my trip to Sweden what my favorite candy was - my answer surely would have been something chocolate.
But while in Sweden, my appreciation for sweet, fruity and sour candies SKYROCKETED. They really love their candy in Sweden - in fact, they import and consume more candy than anywhere else in the world!
In August, we stopped at a stall on the side of Strandvagen for a piece of "licorice" and I was instantly hooked. It wasn't the black licorice flavored stuff you think of - it's soft, sweet, and comes in hundreds of flavors!
I really cannot describe the texture of Swedish licorice - but I can promise you that it's nothing you can come close to getting in the US!
Licorice was my gateway drug to the Swedish candy craze - but when I landed on October 31 I found myself shoveling a bagful of Halloween sweets from the corner store in what would become an increasingly consistent habit!
I'm sure there are a TON of amazing candy shops in Stockholm, but my two go-twos were Jam Jam and Karamellaffären.
Another fun candy story from Stockholm? My coworkers' and I got a kick out of the chocolate bar named, "Plopp."
Be on the lookout for Marabou chocolate bars! I was SHOCKED at how many different flavors/fillings they have! Everything from Oreo to coconut to toffee. Bring some of these bad boys home as a quick, cheap, delicious gift for the fam.
It's words like this that had me convinced I could easily pick up and move to Sweden and somehow get by. Chokladbollar - chocolate ball! (Kind of like when I looked at a map that said Du ar harr and exclaimed, "YOU ARE HERE! I SPEAK SWEDISH!")
These desserts are EVERYWHERE in Stockholm and good lord are they incredible. Rich, chocolatey, melt-in-your-mouth decadence. They are unbaked - which makes them super moist (I know, I know - it's a gross word).
It took me awhile to realize that these are made with OATS so they're basically an energy ball/practically HEALTH FOOD.
As such, eat them often on your trip.
Other odd delicacies you can pick up at these shops are Dill chips and Wasa Sandwiches (crispbreads sandwiched together with things like hummus, sour cream & chive, and peanut butter in between!)
I was pleasantly surprised by both!
3. Swedish Spa Days
Sweden caught on to the spa and health resort craze over 300 years ago - such trendsetters!
Sweden is synonymous with sauna - and while I'm not one to sit around luxuriating all day - I'm way too antsy for that - if there's ever a place to treat yo self to some steam rooms and cold showers it's in Sweden!
I was spoiled rotten by the fact that I got to spend a day at the Grand Hotel's spa - it was truly a "somebody pinch me" afternoon.
This five star hotel opened in 1874 and is absolutely stunning. I got to stay here in August, and then in November we were treated to our day at the spa. Unreal.
They even gave us the Nordic Bathe de Luxe package which came with some fancy products and a free glass of champagne or a smoothie from their cafe.
The Nordic bathing ritual (which we enjoyed post-gym - ahhhh) involved dry brushing, a nourishing hair mask, a shower, sitting in the sauna, and plunging into a cold pool. I was proud of myself for repeatedly managing to switch between the toasty warm sauna and the painfully cold pool.
We met the nicest woman ever in the sauna - she was originally from Texas, grew up in Michigan, but had lived and taught in Sweden for over 20 years! Talk about a hard to decipher accent...
There are many more affordable saunas and spas around Sweden, and it's a very Scandinavian experience that I highly recommend indulging in!
4. Not Your Average Museums
If I haven't mentioned it enough in my travel recaps - I'm not a big museum person. Or maybe I'm just not a fan of museums when I'm walking around with other people. Then I feel like I can't spend as much time on some things as I'd like, and that I have to spend more time on other things than I want to.
The two museums I visited in Stockholm, however, I adored.
Fun fact - my goal is to write a non-fiction book that reads like a novel. A la Boys in the Boat and Seabiscuit.
The entire time I was walking about the Vasa Museum, I was thinking that it might be the perfect topic for my future book.
The Vasa museum tells the story of a warship that capsized and sank in Stockholm in 1628. It remained underwater until 333 - when it was brought to the surface and has been meticulously preserved.
It's incredible that 98% of this ship is ORIGINAL! Original, from 1628! The water preserved much of what was on board when the vessel went down. Including bones, women's purses, and more. Archaeologists worked tirelessly to get Vasa in the condition it's in today - and they continue to work on its preservation.
I was fascinated with the Vasa story and no trip to Stockholm is complete without a visit to this piece of history.
The photography museum in Stockholm was wonderful - and I think I enjoyed it so much because I was on my own and able to amble through at my own speed. Skipping what didn' interest me, and lingering to read every last word about the pieces that moved me.
During my visit there was a large display by a photojournalist, an exhibit that chronicled "Last Night in Sweden" after Trump's now infamous remark, and a gallery of photograph contest winners.
I loved every single exhibit that was at the museum when I visited. The photojournalists images and accompanying accounts were raw and moving and difficult to get through. "Last Night in Sweden" offered a multifaceted look at the nation I was visiting. And the final exhibit was full of different pieces.
With constantly changing exhibits and incredible hours (Sunday - Wednesday 9 AM - 11 PM and Thursday - Saturday 9 AM - 1 AM!) - Fotografiska is a museum you can come back to time and time again. I'm so glad someone suggested it! (A friend of the couple who rescued us in Copenhagen!)
5. Eating. Obviously.
Duh, I visited many restaurants in Stockholm. However, I found one of Bill Bryson's quotes from "Neither Here Nor There" to be all too true -
The food wasn't atrocious - but it was, overall, a disappointment. Or just not my cup of tea. No matter how many times I gave pickled herring a chance - or tried to be OK with the amount of mayonnaise used in Swedish cuisine - I couldn't get behind it.
No matter what I ordered, it didn't come out the way I had anticipated - maybe it was lost in translation, maybe that was me just not being open minded enough (though I think I am very open minded when it comes to food!)
That being said - the Swedes really kill the mashed potato game. I think the ratio must have been something like 1 stick of butter and 1 cup of cream for each potato.
I did have a few standout meals though - so here are my restaurant recommendations!
Pom & Flora
Looking for a brunch spot with healthy options, bright colors, and a made-for-Instagram aesthetic? (I mean, that's what I typically look for...) Pom & Flora is for sure your spot. We waited a bit for a table, but I knew that I needed to eat here.
Everything was fresh and delicious - I ordered the banana split and avocado toast while my coworker had a delicious bowl of oatmeal.
Sally Voltaire & Sisters (Sally Voltaire & Systrar)
I came here to pick up lunch one day and was pleasantly surprised by the bright colors, fresh ingredients, and healthy options.
There are little shrimps everywhere in Stockholm!
This is a trendy, seafood heavy restaurant that was one of my favorites, no doubt. It's one of those places where you instantly feel cooler just by dining there. It's in the Stureplan area - aka clubbing central. And the menu was top notch!
Another super cute interior, an open kitchen, and "Modern Nordic Cuisine." I absolutely cannot tell you what I ordered here - but it looks like it was tasty!
Take a look at this picture and you'll surely fall just as in love with Falafelbaren as I did.
Had this been closer to work or my hotel, I definitely would have eaten here every day of the week. And I'm not the only one who loves it - it's definitely one of the more popular spots in Stockholm!
Another hip spot, this was one of the most frequently recommended restaurants. I'm sensing a trend where if the interior of the restaurant had a good vibe and was aesthetically pleasing - I could forego the fact that I didn't love Swedish cuisine!
Riche was gorgey (hello, giant chandeliers) and had a great mix of classic and modern dishes.
My coworker ordered the Biff Rydberg - which was a dish I learned about too late in the game to ever order out, unfortunately.
Diced and fried tenderloin with potatoes, onions, grated fresh horseradish and egg yolk - it's basically steak and eggs for dinner.
I recommend coming here mainly for the ambiance! Nestled in Gamla Stan, the downstairs of this restaurant is like a beautiful cave - if that makes any sense? It's been serving food since 1722 and is filled with different rooms and an antique vibe that really brings you back.
This was one of our nicer dinners out - the staff were wonderful, the bar upstairs had a lovely bartender while we waited for our table, and the food was delicious (if still not particularly my style).
The Opera Bar / Operabaren
Operakalleren is one of the most famous, fine dining experiences in Stockholm. But they also have The Opera Bar, next to Cafe Opera (a nightclub) that serves more traditional Swedish meals.
We were lucky enough to snag a table at The Opera Bar one night in August. The stained glass ceiling made for a beautiful backdrop to a standout meal!
I loved the concept behind this restaurant - where you walk up to the counter and pick out your piece of fish or meat, then head back to the table to order your small plates and accouterments!
This was a really fun place for a group - and again, super hip inside, friendly service (everyone in Sweden is friendly) and fresh food! Definitely recommend.
You guessed it - hip, trendy (though possibly the one waiter of note on the entire trip who seemed entirely uninterested in serving us) and good food.
The standout dish was one that my coworker ordered - Ox Cheeks! I was so proud, and also very impressed with the dish!
And to answer your question - yes, I ate Swedish meatballs and yes, they were delicious - but I can't say that the restaurant I ordered them at was anything to write home about. And my Gran still makes the best Swedish meatballs - it's a nostalgia thing.
6. The Subway is Gorgeous
The subways in Stockholm have been called the largest art museum in the world. That's because each station really is like a giant art installation/work of art.
You could spend a whole rainy afternoon riding the subway, getting off at different stops, and taking pictures of each unique station.
One morning, when we got to the subway - the floor had SOAP BUBBLES on it. As in, THEY CLEANED THE SUBWAY FLOOR.
7. Hotel Breakfast Buffets
It sounds strange, but if you want to live like a local, do it up BIG at a hotel breakfast buffet. According to the friend we made at the sauna, Swedes usually go once a year and pay for a hotel buffet.
I was spoiled rotten at both the Sheraton Stockholm and the Grand Hotel - eating at a breakfast buffet every morning is what we call, "Living My Best Life." Heaven absolutely has a breakfast buffet.
And that breakfast buffet most definitely has cream of wheat with all the accouterments + croissants and jam and giant blocks of brie.
Fika is the Swedish cultural tradition of a "coffee break" but it's more-so the concept of taking a moment out of your day to sit and relax at a comfy, cozy cafe.
While I was working with American coworkers and we didn't necessarily make fika part of our daily routines while in Stockholm - it's definitely something you should do on your visit. Like a siesta when you're in Spain!
There are endless cute coffee shops in Stockholm - with incredible pastries I might add! Stop for a snack and some caffeine and don't take it to go! (Like I did, from Joe & The Juice, repeatedly. This place employs only the hottest male models, I swear).
9. Homeland of IKEA & All The Aesthetically Pleasing Shopping
There is something about Scandinavian design that is so modern, so clean, so clever, so useful, so beautiful, so hip - you're going to have a really hard time not buying everything you see.
Like me, coming home with a roll of doughnut wrapping paper.
My favorite shopping story is that I bought myself a little vase in August and when I got home, realized that the copper stem, which made it cute in the first place, was missing.
I happened to pass the store again in November, stopped in, told the woman working my story - and she took the piece off of the display vase and gave it to me!
This epitomizes the Swedish people that I met.
This is also shows how easy it is to communicate in Sweden - most people speak better English than Americans.
10. A Fun Nightlife
Enjoy the nightlife in this city - I've heard the clubbing is great. Sadly, I was there for work, people!
We stuck to casual bars and I highly suggest The Liffey if you're looking for a casual Irish Pub that has live music and trivia nights!
Another night we got classy cocktails at Vau De Ville - which was bumping!
I didn't like the food at Yuc, or the cocktail I ordered necessarily, but if you're looking for cocktails and guacamole, check it out! Hands down the coolest ice cube I've ever received.
So there you have it - my Stockholm guide. I didn't think I would have nearly this much to write, but turns out this post made me fall in love with the city all over again.
I leave you with some more pictures - in case you weren't already convinced that it's absolutely beautiful.
No one you know wants to go to Sweden? It's probably the easiest place to travel on your own. Everyone speaks English. I even took a Barry's Bootcamp class in English! And the public transportation is a BREEZE.
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I have to admit, our day 4 trip to Sintra was a bit of a disappointment. Not because the Pena Palace wasn't beautiful - but because this is a highly touristy area, with a lot of waiting in line, a lot of confusion, a lot of jam packed streets, a lot of disorganization and a lot of tourist traps.
1. Pena Palace
After a helpful employee at the train station showed us how to purchase the right tickets, we boarded the first train to Sintra in an attempt to beat the crowds.
The train was uneventful, and soon we arrived at our destination.
The signage wasn't the best I've ever experienced, but eventually we found our way to the shuttle/bus stop and pieced together how the tickets worked. We waited in line for a good long while until a bus pulled up and we were able to board.
We rode the shuttle up and up and up - probably the scariest bus ride to date - until we reached the base of Pena Palace.
There, swarms of tourists in haphazard lines stood outside broken ticket machines and closed gates - milling around with no one seeming to have any idea of what was going on. I got increasingly more frustrated as the minutes dragged on and on and still, no direction was given. My mom and I decided to divide and conquer - jumping onto two lines that we weren't even sure were where we needed to be.
Eventually - the ticket windows opened, the gates rolled back, and we made it inside. I immediately needed to find a bathroom and some sustenance and luckily both were located at a little shop right inside the gates. We sat down in the sun and ate some horrible microwave-oven sandwich that kind of tasted like a piece of Elio's pizza (but nowhere near as good).
After that, we started making the climb up to Pena Palace. As it came into view, I got really excited about the bright colors and bizarre architecture - it looked totally out of place!
At this point in the day, my mom and I decided we were content to not wait on any more lines, and instead of touring the inside of the castle, opted for walking around, taking pictures, and enjoying the sights on the exterior of the castle. The tickets we had bought at the start allowed us to walk all over the castle, and we didn't feel like we missed out on anything by not going inside.
The castle was extremely unique in it's design and I did really enjoy photographing it. Not to mention seeing the incredible views from it's turrets.
2. Lunch & Shopping In Sintra
The shuttle ride back down into the main part of town was another long and winding ordeal. A couple of times we thought we might have gotten on the wrong bus since it was taking so damn long!
But eventually we found ourselves outside of the Sintra National Palace. We stuck our heads into some shops, but most of them seemed to be glorified souvenir stores.
We were pretty grouchy and didn't feel like exploring all too much for our lunch - so we plopped down at Restaurant Cafe Paris where we had an overpriced lunch (but it was a pretty place with outdoor seating). I ordered a salad and a crepe - neither of which impressed.
After lunch we continued our walk down to the train station and all along the way there were local artists and vendors selling crafts and jewelry along the sidewalk. We also found some nicer shops closer to town, and I loved stopping to take pictures of the buildings covered in beautiful flowers!
By the time we made it back down, I was warming up to Sintra, but also more than ready to get on the train back to our Airbnb.
3. Sunset Shopping
When we got back to Lisbon, we walked around and did some final shopping - I bought a pair of pants I absolutely love from United Colors of Benetton. We chased the sunset a little ways until we realized we probably weren't to get a great view and wandered back to our little neighborhood.
4. Portuguese Wine at The Little Wine Bar
We wandered around for awhile hoping to find a place to sit out on the sidewalk and have a drink - but most places were packed or only offering tables to those that were ordering food. Portugal made a wine drinker out of me - so we stopped in a little wine bar (quite literally called The Little Wine Bar) for a final glass. This place was adorable and the wine was fabulous - highly recommend if you're staying in the area!
5. Last Supper at Restaurant Duque
I am happy to report that we ended the trip with perhaps one of the best parts - dinner at Restaurant Duque.
All week we had passed this tiny restaurant on the corner of our street and I had gazed longingly at the sweet potatoes in the window (true story).
On our last night, I convinced my mom that we had enough cash left (it was cash only) to go for dinner and a glass of wine at this local spot.
Who would have thought that the cash-only place across the street would turn out to be our absolute favorite meal of the trip? AND that we would be seated next to a lovely couple who we talked with throughout the meal?
It was the perfect end to the trip and I urge you to go eat here!
We ordered the Oven Roasted Octopus (with sauteed sweet potato!!!) and the Sea Rice (basically a seafood paella with fish, clams, mussels and prawns).
6. Goodbye, Portugal!
The next morning we woke up, packed, and said goodbye to our Airbnb home away from home (not before stopping for a coffee and pastry from a corner cafe).
I had used MyTaxi to schedule a cab pick-up at the AirBnb and it worked out perfectly. Our taxi driver was there right on time and was such a lovely person. We chatted the entire way to the airport - about tourism, rent, the European outlook on lunch breaks, Airbnb, and why the Portugeuse don't get angry at traffic. I was sad when we pulled up to the terminal to end our first real in-depth conversation with a local.
I was also, obviously, sad that the trip had come to an end.
Saying goodbye to my mom after such an amazing bonding experience was difficult - but I couldn't be more thankful for the opportunity.
I now know that my mom and I make GREAT travel partners and I can't wait to plan another trip for the two of us to share again soon.
To anyone considering a trip to Portugal - book it! The area has so much to see and do - it offers a European feel, cobblestone streets, museums and churches galore - as well as having plenty of cool, hip places like the LX Market, Time Out Market and Pink Street. Not to mention the beaches, National Parks, and day trips that are at your fingertips.
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Day three in Portugal was another jam-packed day in terms of the itinerary. To say I had been ambitious while planning this trip is an understatement - and the fact that my mom was game for absolutely all of it was amazing.
I had been a little nervous that she would want more down time than I had built into the schedule - but we are pretty similar in the fact that we can't sit around doing nothing for too long.
1. Alfama Exploring
We "slept in" after our night out on Pink Street and headed to the bus stop to journey to the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon.
It seems to be that most European cities with a lot of history have an "Old Town" area where tourists are instructed to, "just get lost in the winding streets." In Barcelona it's the Gothic Quarter, in Stockholm it's Gamla Stan. And in Lisbon, it's Alfama.
The bus ride to the top of the Alfama neighborhood was scarier than any roller coaster ride I've ever been on. The twists and turns we took seemed to defy all laws of nature as we went up and up on increasingly narrow and bumpy roads. I think my mom and I were very happy to disembark at the foot of the Castelo de Sao Jorge.
After wandering around a bit, we decided that we didn't feel the need to wait in line for entry into the castle grounds and instead, set out on our own Alfama exploration. This was mainly guided by the need to find a restroom almost immediately upon our arrival.
Turns out, the homes and buildings in this area of Lisbon are so old, that many of them do not even have running water. There are public restrooms that you pay for with euro coins - and some locals even have to use them!
I loved exploring this neighborhood - we found so many fun spots for photos - including some incredible overlooks. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and the fact that I was walking around in a sun dress at the end of October was not lost on me.
2. National Tile Museum ("National Azulejo Museum")
While I'm not a huge museum person - I was intrigued by the National Tile Museum - considering half of the trip I was stopping to take pictures of the tile work on buildings in Lisbon.
The museum was enjoyable, but eventually, like most museums for me, it got old. It was a bit out of our way to get there, and we spent awhile waiting for the bus/figuring out where we were going - and I'm not sure my mom or I felt it was entirely worth it.
I more so enjoyed viewing the tiles in their natural habitat - snapping pictures as I walked down the street. The fascinating part about the tiles is how they all come together on the facades of massive buildings - seeing just a few tiles together in a display case wasn't quite the same.
The church, the choir and the chapels of Saint Anthony and Queen Leonor are also part of the tile museum, and they were very pretty!
3. Time Out Market Lisboa for Lunch
No trip to a city is complete without checking out their FOOD MARKET.
It seems like every major city has one now - whether it's New York's Smorgasburg or Chelsea Market, Copenhagen's Paper Island or Lisbon's Time Out Market.
Lisbon's market was a little sterile for me - more mall food court than the unique, hipster, food-wonderland that was Copenhagen's Paper Island. But as usual when I find myself in a food market- I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of options. I mean, there is an entire stall dedicated to tartares!
My mom and I did a big loop, scoping out all of the stalls, before deciding on a salmon dish from the Sea Me stall.
What first drew me to this particular restaurant was the fact that they served an octopus hot dog! I had to give them some props for that one. Our salmon was served with a fried egg on top and delicious mushrooms. It wasn't anything out of this world, but it was tasty.
I had also been dying to try the traditional Portuguese dish of "Caldo Verde" - a kale soup.
I bought a bowl from Creme de la Creme and thought it was very tasty! While I was waiting for my soup, I also decided to try out one more pasteis de bacalhau- one that looked more traditional than the one we had sampled at Bairro do Avillez.
I wish we had left it at Chef Avillez' interpretation. Neither of us were a fan of the pasteis de bacalhau from Time Out Market at all.
Typically, the other half of the Time Out Market is a big food market similar to La Boqueria in Barcelona - more so a farmer's market with fresh foods for purchase than a food court. But unfortunately, we were there after it had closed.
We (OK, I) couldn't leave the Time Out Market without sampling the second most popular spot for pasteis de nata - Manteigaria. I was still head over heels in love with pasteis de nata in general- though I can't say that it was better than that first one in Belem. Nothing beats your first time, ya know?
4. Drink at Ribeira das Naus
This little kiosk on the waterfront promenade is the perfect spot to grab a drink and sit out watching the water. Ribeira das Naus is known as an urban beach - a pretty spot right in the middle of the city and right on the Tagus river where locals run, walk, bike, read, and more.
It's also the spot I was reunited with a MASSIVE cup of Somersby Cider.
5. Ride the Ascensor da Bica
It was a complete mistake that we ended up boarding the Ascensor da Bica to reach our next destination - but a really great one! This is one of the older funicular railways still operating in Lisbon - it's history dating back to 1888.
We waited a decent amount of time to board - it doesn't run as frequently as you might think considering there's just two stops! But once we did it was a unique experience - it's SO STEEP and SO NARROW!
I'm definitely glad that we got to ride one of these historic funiculars!
When we disembarked we picked up some supplies for a picnic at a corner grocery store and made our way to the days' final stop.
6. Sunset at Miradouro De Santa Catarina
Other than eating donuts in every city I go to (or, in Lisbon's case, pasteis de nata) - the number one thing I need to get on my itinerary is catching a sunset.
In a city like Lisbon, with countless river overlooks, I knew this was going to be a showstopper.
By all the accounts I had read online, I knew that Miradoura De Santa Catarina was where I wanted to go for a sunset picnic - it was the spot where locals and tourists alike sat out, played guitars, played cards, smoke, drank, and enjoyed the views.
When we arrived, it was already pretty crowded but we perched on a rock and took in the sights. Pretty quickly, my mom started doubting whether she could sit out in the marijuana clouds on a dusty rock with no bathroom drinking wine until the sun set in 2 hours.
So she walked down a bit and found Noobai - a restaurant and bar with a perfect little patio that we somehow managed to snag a table on. It had a stunning view, and we ordered a bottle of wine and weren't nagged for the entire two hours that we sat, sipped, and sunsetted.
It was probably one of my favorite parts of the entire trip - and if there's one thing you take away from my Lisbon blogging it's that you should get to Noobai for a sunset.
7. Wine & Cheese & Bread
Since we hadn't been able to eat our picnic supplies at Noobai, we took the tram back (very crowded, very ~authentic~) to the apartment and feasted on grapes and wine and cheese and bread and dark chocolate and wine before ending with a night cap in our favorite Carmo Square. There were even fire breathers!
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My mom and I are both somewhat early risers, so we were up and ready to go explore Belem on Day 2 in Portugal.
First, I tried finding some caffeine - but everywhere that I stopped informed me that they didn't offer coffee to go. I'm all about the European belief in taking a minute to stop and enjoy your coffee - but I really just wanted something to sip on during our trip!
I was proud of the fact that we took the bus instead of relying on a taxi.
Stop number one in Belem when we disembarked our bus was for the coffee I had failed to get earlier that morning (I'm being dramatic - it was a 20 minute bus ride).
This cafe is an adorable converted tram painted bright yellow with outdoor seating right where the bus stops. I was shocked that it wasn't overrun with people - though we did arrive fairly early.
I thoroughly enjoyed my coffee here! I believe they have multiple locations, light food options and supposedly stellar sangria as well.
We walked around this impressive building and to be honest, I hadn't done much research about which areas to visit, tour, buy a ticket to, etc. We joined a line and paid to enter one of the areas and spent some time walking around, reading about some statues, and taking in the intricate details. I believe where we ended up was the South Portal of the monastery.
I wish I was one of those history buffs who gets really into looking at impressive old churches, but I have to admit I'm really not. I do appreciate their history and beauty, though. And show me some stained glass and I'm thrilled.
We ended up here purely because we were in search of a public restroom. Turns out, entry to this modern and contemporary art museum was free on Saturday's!
The entire Centro Cultural de Belém was a beautiful place to walk around. The grounds were architecturally unique with lots of pretty landscaping and places to sit out on green grass. I'm glad we happened to stroll through!
This is a large monument next to the Tagus River that celebrates that Age of Discovery in Portugal. You know the guys - you read all about them in 8th grade history class. Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias, Ferdinand Magellan...yep, all Portuguese!
From atop the Centro Cultural de Belém we had a pretty good view of the monument - and didn't feel that it required a separate stop, though it's definitely an impressive structure. You can pay for a ticket to go into the structure, but I have read that the view isn't anything incredible.
5. Torre de Belém
We walked from the museum over to the Torre de Belem (passing this amazing piece of art along the way!)
From a distance, it looked just like a raccoon. The closer you got to the wall, the more you realized it was just a bunch of random odds and ends! So cool.
The Belem Tower is one of the main reasons that people visiting Lisbon make the journey to Belem. Though I had read that it wasn't necessarily worth the wait and ticket price to go up inside, we did walk along the water until we reached the tower. The tower once stood on an island in the middle of the river. The Tagus River has since been redirected and the tower now sits right on the shore.
We snapped some pictures in the touristy area and I thoroughly enjoyed the adorable "Wine With A View" cart parked in the lot. We passed some similar carts with delicious looking IPAs.
You KNOW I wasn't about to pass up sampling Portugal's most famous pastry! Though it wasn't a donut, I was still excited to compare some of the cities most popular pasteis de nata. These crispy, custard-y sweets are to Portugal what croissants are to France. And according to many, the pasteis of Pasteis de Belem are the best you can get.
This shop has been around since 1837 - and the website claims that the recipe hasn't been altered since the time it was created at the monastery next door.
While the line outside snakes down the sidewalk, I had read that there is a ton of seating inside (along with restrooms - which we were always on the hunt for!)
We walked inside and were astonished to see how much it opened up inside (and that despite the huge number of tables, it was still packed!) We took a seat and ordered coffee and a pastry for each of us. Service was a little stressful in the chaotic restaurant, but it was well worth it when we were presented with two beautiful pasteis de Belem - along with our own containers of powdered sugar and cinnamon for sprinkling!
I decided to take my first bite topping-free for a true taste test. On the count of three my mom and I both took a bite of our still-hot delicacies and stared wide eyed at each other as the initial crispy crunch of the crust gave way to creamy, sweet, rich custard.
My one complaint about pasteis de Belem is that they are NOT BIG ENOUGH (am I American or what)? We truly savored each and every delicious bite of our pastries and were both hesitant to finish off that last precious bite.
7. Walk from Belem to LX Factory
This was around a 30-35 minute walk, but it was worth it for all the pictures I got to take of beautiful tiled buildings.
8. LX Factory
Located in the Alcantara neighborhood, LXFactory was once the site of a massive fabric company in the 1860's. Now, it's a hip, trendy area filled with quirky shops, delicious restaurants, and fun bars.
Some of the stores were strange - they seemed to have 10 items that were super expensive and we wondered a) who shopped there and b) how they stayed in business. But there were also some nice stores with good souvenirs (and a pair of shoes I fell in love with but didn't quite fit).
There's also tons of cool street art to check out at the LXFactory.
9. Lunch at Rio Maravilha
After walking up and down the streets multiple times, we finally settled on a restaurant for our lunch - Rio Maravilha. It was such a cool setting - the interior was filled with unique furniture, a beautiful bar, a rooftop with lawn chairs, and the space where we ate which was an enclosed, bright patio with windows all the way around looking out over the Tejo River. The space was extremely colorful which I loved. You could tell this would be a trendy place for a night out.
My mom and I ordered some wine and a bunch of small plates to share. I've spent about 20 minutes trying to recall what exactly we ordered - all I have is this picture of what I'm thinking is some sort of pork dish. And I know we ordered the crispy rice with tomato chutney which were fried rice balls and pretty tasty!
After lunch, we wandered around shopping for awhile and searching for a local IPA. We kind of struck out, but eventually found a bar that served an Oitava Colina beer Urraca Vendaval -from "8th Hill" brewery (8A). It wasn't my favorite, but it was nice to sit outside and drink it in the sunshine.
10. Ginginha do Carmo
After some relaxing (and a little nap on my part) back at our apartment, we started our walk to dinner. But first, we had to stop for a shot of "ginginja" - a Portuguese tradition.
Ginginja (ginginha or ginja) is a cherry liquor that's only found in Portugal. There are tons of small windows that you can walk up to for a cheap shot of this super sweet substance - it's not super high in alcohol content, and it's also not usually taken as a shot by locals. Sometimes, the shot glass comes with a soaked sour cherry in the bottom.
At Ginginha do Carmo, which was right near our apartment, there's also the option to drink your ginginha out of a chocolate shot glass!
My mom and I sipped ours on the sidewalk - I wasn't a huge fan since it reminded me a lot of port wine. But glad we could check it off the Lisbon bucket list (ginginha is very prominent in Lisbon, but not as popular in places like Porto).
11. Dinner at BASTARDO
This was our big night out - eating at the New York Times reviewed Bastardo in the Internacional Design Hotel.
Though they had lost our reservation when we arrived, we sat down at the bar while we waited and ordered a cocktail. The tequila drink that I had high hopes for was a total flop. Despite the elaborate presentation (pineapple, pepper, bacon) it didn't taste like there was any alcohol in it at all and it took about 20 minutes for us to be served!
Eventually, we sat at the table where we waited about another 20-30 minutes for anyone to acknowledge our existence.
Despite the very poor service, we were entertained by the pop-art inspired atmosphere, the placements that proclaimed "On This Magic Placemat Calories Don't Count. You're Welcome. Enjoy." and the bread baskets made out of Legos.
The menu sections are titled "Ready" "Set" and "Go" which I also cracked a smile at.
I can't say I remember anything in particular that we ate at Bastardo - the food honestly wasn't that memorable, the service wasn't great, and it was a bit of a disappointment all around. The concept and design was interesting - but also a little over the top.
My mom's comment as we washed our hands in the bathroom sink filled with rocks was one of my favorite quotes of the night, "What do they think they are, Tao or something?"
12. Night out on Pink Street
Pink Street is actually part of Rua Nova do Carvalho - and it is, as the kids say, LIT.
During the day it's a pretty pink street but at night it transforms into party city. Think Broadway in Nashville or 6th Street in Austin - plus the unique night club atmosphere of European cities like Barcelona.
My mom was adamant that I wasn't dragging her into a night club for dancing - but I did get her to go join me at a wine bar with live music (I think we were subconsciously drawn into this bar because the guitarist was singing all American songs!)
The bar we had wandered in to was Pink Wine Point and it was lively (though every bar on the block seemed to be) and I fell in love with the bartender (the bartender was not aware that I existed, other than to pour me more wine).
Note: Negronis, Aperol Spritz and gin drinks are huge in Lisbon! It seemed to be all anyone ordered all night. Another drink that was everywhere? SOMERSBY! The cider I had fallen in love with in Copenhagen!
Post-vacation I looked up Pink Wine Point and it turns out it's very popular, with great reviews, on Yelp and TripAdvisor! Go us!
We walked back to our apartment where we fell into bed and sang a wonderful rendition of La Vie Boheme (complete with choreographed foot motions).
Day 3 coming up next!
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It took me a really long time to figure out where I was going to stopover on my way to Sweden in October. I was getting stressed as the date crept up and I still hadn't booked any flights.
I could chase the Northern lights in Finland, I could go see a show in the West End in London - and then I found the one flight that connected through Portugal and I knew that was the spot.
Culture, history, cobblestone streets, seafood, wine and WARMTH - I was sold. And so was my mom. While I'd been trying to convince her to join me in Stockholm, the wet and rainy forecast (plus a travel companion who would be working 14 hours days) didn't appeal to her as much as the seaside city of Lisbon.
So we booked flights - and set off for our first mother/daughter trip, and my mom's first visit to Europe!
After picking my mom up in a cab from Penn Station, we arrived at Newark Airport for our flight to Lisbon.
We had a delay of an hour or so which naturally led to a glass of wine before we boarded the plane and settled in for the 6 and a half hour (ish) flight on TAP airlines.
Aside from someone being in my seat when I first tried to sit down and having to wait for a new seat assignment – all went well. TAP wasn’t overwhelmingly comfortable – but it wasn’t uncomfortable and I was able to sleep on and off and watch movies to pass the time.
Before I get into the details of this trip I would like to put out a disclaimer. I might claim something was my “favorite” part of the trip or my “favorite” meal but without a doubt my #1 favorite part of this entire trip was the opportunity to spend 4 days straight with my mom. The hardest part about leaving on the last morning was not knowing when I’ll have that chance again – just the two of us. It was the best thing – everyone go plan a trip with your mom!
When we landed in Lisbon it was very early in the morning. We went through customs and hopped in a cab to our Airbnb. As we drove, I marveled at the sunrise which was absolutely stunning – the kind of sunrise that hurts to look at because it’s so bright and blinding.
We tried orienting ourselves as we drove but by the time we approached our Airbnb, we had taken so many twisty, turny, hilly cobblestone streets that looked more like sidewalks that we had absolutely no idea where we were anymore.
Our host greeted us outside and offered to take our bags up the stairs – no elevator in this building! We were in the middle of a real neighborhood – old buildings and all. Plus, we would learn, most of Portugal is still very old. There aren’t many modern buildings and skyscrapers, and that’s all part of the charm.
I felt awful as Mario struggled to lug my 50+ pound suitcase up the narrow, steep staircase. He had to take a break at one point and I was afraid I was going to be responsible for our host pulling out his back.
Once we were inside, my mom and took some time peeking around, marveling at some of the clever ways the space was utilized. Since this was my mom’s first time in Europe, there were some things that she was a little surprised by! She was especially surprised when she went to open the cabinet for a glass and the entire door fell off! Thankfully it didn’t hit either of us.
I took a quick shower since traveling always makes me feel pretty gross. In true European fashion – the shower was itty bitty and only had a hand-held showerhead. Traveling a lot the past year has made me learn to appreciate that there are many different ways of doing things – and that there isn’t necessarily a “right” way. That being said, I will never understand showers without a hands-free showerhead. Never.
After settling in we set out to explore – of course I had a full itinerary of things to accomplish in the first day.
Our first stop was for some sustenance - and caffeine! There is just something about drinking a coffee in Europe that is so much better than anywhere else in the world.
We walked around the streets surrounding our apartment and strolled into one of the first bakeries we saw. It was complete chaos inside and we couldn’t understand one word. It was somewhat obvious that there was a “to stay” counter and a “to go” counter but it was beyond our comprehension which was which. We took a number, but then we had no idea what number was being called. We awkwardly stood and looked around with pleading “help me” looks on our faces until we somehow managed to communicate that we wanted some sort of caffeine and pointed at a pastry that looked delicious.
We sat outside enjoying our coffee, pastry and people watching, hoping that all our interactions in Lisbon wouldn’t be as much of a struggle. Luckily, I think we managed better from that point forward.
We followed my map somewhat – which was broken down into walking routes of each of Lisbon’s different neighborhoods.
Part store, part museum – Conserveira de Lisboa specializes in all types of canned fish. Yes, you read that correctly. Canned anchovies, cod, tuna and even octopus. We had to stop in to pick up a can for my dad as a souvenir – and I also enjoyed looking at all the different colorful containers.
2. Comercio Square (“Praca do Comercio”)
This is the big, wide open square in Lisbon that’s part of the “Baixa” downtown area. Not as charming as some of the other areas in the city, but certainly worth a walk through!
While we were over here, we wandered into “Lisbon Shop” – a very nice spot to pick up some souvenirs! We had only been there a few hours, so we didn’t want to commit to anything yet, but we did pick up a postcard to send home (and successfully navigated the letter sending process at the nearby post office!)
3. Rua Augusta Arch
If you walk through this arch, you’ll find yourself on Rua Augusta – a pedestrian street like you’ll find in many European cities – filled with tourists, shops, restaurants, bars, etc. Again, it’s touristy, but certainly wouldn’t be a complete trip without briefly checking it out.
4. Praca da Figuiera
Another main square in the downtown area of Lisbon, this one was filled with a market that we enjoyed strolling through one afternoon. Everything from bags, wallets, scarves and jewelry to meats, cheese, breads and fresh vegetables.
5. Praca Rossio (Pedro IV Square)
We really liked the wavy tile work in this square. It’s been one of the city’s main squares since the Middle Ages. No big deal.
6. Ascensor da Gloria
After passing Praca Rossio, we found ourselves walking up, and up & up. A common occurrence in Lisbon. Unknowingly, we had started our way up the Ascensor da Gloria funicular line – on foot, instead of on-board a funicular. Despite the screaming calves, it was great getting to take some pictures of the cars and to view some of the graffiti/street art along the way!
7. Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara
If you’re in Lisbon and you see a sign for “Miradouro” – follow it. This was advice I read many times while researching my Portugal trip and it served me well! A miradouro is a lookout in Portugese – and the city is filled with incredible views since it’s so incredibly hilly! This was our first glimpse of the city form above – and it felt very well deserved after our trek up Calcada da Gloria!
8. Lunch at The Decadente
Part of a hostel, The Decadente was a gorgeous spot for our first meal - after all, the building used to be the Swiss ambassador's residence!
We were seated outside in a pretty garden area and couldn't have been happier with the warm air! The ambiance was great - and I was glad I had done my research to know that often, you have to turn down the bread basket that comes to your table unless you want to be charged for it!
We passed on the bread and instead ordered an appetizer of camaroes - sautéed prawns with homemade hot sauce and garlic.
I highly suggest a side of paprika potato wedges to soak up the extra sauce! A wonderful move on my part if I do say so myself.
For a main dish, my mom ordered the cod (a dish you can't really go wrong with in Portugal!) and I went with the seabass ceviche which was fresh and light. There was a sweet potato and pumpkin puree with crispy pieces of corn that I really loved!
With full stomachs, we walked the short distance to Solar do Vinho do Porto - a tasting room for port wine that's overseen by the government's port wine agency. We walked in and were a little taken aback by the silence in the space - it felt like we were in a library!
While my mom enjoyed the port wine - I was less than thrilled by it. Luckily, we had some great wine on the trip (in fact, ever since, I've been drinking 10X more wine than ever before) but wine of the port variety was not for me!
I wouldn't suggest a trip here unless you're really into wine. It wasn't a very fun vibe!
10. Church of Sao Roque
We stopped in this church and although nothing very memorable stands out- all of the churches in Portugal obviously have a ton of history and beautiful architectural details.
It was a very pretty square, with the typical Portuguese tiled buildings all around!
11. Lottery Ticket Seller Statue
In the square of Sao Roque church, there's a statue I had read about of a lottery ticket seller. On the corner, you can buy your own scratch off lottery ticket and the statue is supposed to give you good luck!
Despite my mom's eye rolls, I made her take the photo opportunity of us scratching tickets. We won $2! So I bought another ticket. And then we lost.
12. Cervejaria trindade
"The oldest beer hall in Lisbon" was our next stop - and it was really awesome to sip a brewski in a place whose story begins in 1294 (when it was the site of a monastery). The current building has been around since Manuel Moreira Garcia built the Trindade Brewery in 1836.
While I didn't love my beer, it was cool to look around!
13. convento do carmo
The Carmo Convent was just up the hill from our Airbnb and we enjoyed most nights in the square (Praca Largo Do Carmo). Though we never paid the entry fee to go into the convent, we did follow the advice I had read to find a lane with trolley tracks just past the convent - which lead to a great lookout from the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa.
This view was one of my absolute favorites from the trip - both in the daylight and at night. We took note of the restaurant/bar at the top and filed it away for later.
14. dinner at bairro do avillez
On our walk to dinner we came to a sidewalk dining area that made us stop in our tracks. For me, this was the moment when Lisbon's charm really won me over. I think it was a similar moment for my mom as well - when we realized that steps from our apartment was this picture-perfect cobblestone street with dinner tables overlooking the city and tourists and locals alike mingling in the streets. It was a total, "Oh, right, we are in Europe and it's magical" moment.
After some pictures, we continued on to dinner at Bairro do Avillez. I chose this for our dinner because José Avillez is kind of a big-deal chef in Portugal. He has many restaurants, but we ate at the casual Taberna within Bairro do Avillez - a building that houses many different Avillez restaurants.
The octopus was incredibly well done, as were the next-level Pasteis de Bacalhau. Pasteis de bacalhau is a traditional dish in Portugal hat it essentially a deep fried cod fritter. While we eventually tried a more traditional one at the Time Out Market, these were by far the better version.
15. wine in the square
This was the way we ended every night in Lisbon -
A half bottle of wine (shared - they had these really cute 1/2 bottles for like $4)
A piece of dark chocolate
Live music or fire juggling or people watching
In Carmo Square
They have cute little bars that are just a small kiosk with cheap drinks and it seems like the whole neighborhood is out!
Stay tuned for days 2, 3 and 4!
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I wrote a lot about my trip to Banff and Jasper - but maybe you don't really care so much about how the mountains made me feel in awe of nature and the hours talking with my best friends made me feel giddy and grateful.
Maybe you just want the basics - so you can easily plan your OWN trip and have your own feels about this wonderful place. I'll shut up and give you the deets.
DAY ONE - BANFF
DAY TWO - BANFF --> LAKE LOUISE
DAY THREE - LAKE LOUISE
DAY FOUR - ICEFIELDS PARKWAY TO JASPER
DAY FIVE - JASPER
DAY 6 - JASPER TO CALGARY
When I left off, our trio had finished a delicious meal at Storm Mountain Lodge and fallen asleep for the last night in our cozy cabin.
When we awoke on Monday morning it was time to say goodbye to Banff and Lake Louise and hit the highway - driving down Icefields Parkway with Jasper as our ultimate destination.
Drive the Icefields Parkway
We were more than a little sad to say goodbye to Storm Mountain Lodge and enjoyed one last smorgasbord breakfast on the picnic benches outside the main cabin before apprehensively getting in our rental car for a long day of driving.
We couldn't understand how - but many people we had talked to said that driving the Icefields Parkway was the highlight of their trip! Considering the hikes we had been on so far, we couldn't see how this could be the case - but we were excited to find out.
The Canadian Rockies span a large area, and there are three main National Parks within the mountain range - Banff, Jasper and Yoho. Icefields Parkway is 144 miles of road that connect Lake Louise with Jasper and has been rated as one of the top drives in the world.
While planning our itinerary, I was overwhelmed with the number of recommended stops between Lake Louise and Jasper! Obviously, we had to pick and choose - there simply weren't enough hours in the day to see everything.
Bow Lake & Bow Glacier Falls Hike
Pretty quickly it became obvious that the views on this drive were going to be stunning. Lucky for us, despite forest fires, the skies were clear and we could see the mountains all around us.
Our first stop was Bow Lake, where we hiked to the Bow Glacier Falls. This hike was more of a walk/rock scramble with some difficult terrain as we forged a path across a rocky riverbed - but for the most part it was flat.
We took a few minutes to lay at the base of the falls, enjoying the spray and the sounds of the falling water.
On our return trip there was a brief interlude for some Taylor Swift choreography and marveling at how reflective the surface of Bow Lake was.
When we got back to the parking lot, we stopped into the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge for some lunch from their little gift shop/cafe which we ate outside on a picnic bench. I remember there being chili with some exotic meat - bison or elk or something. Note: they only took cash!
Peyto Lake Overlook
We got back in the car and headed to our next destination - Peyto Lake.
There's an easy walk up a pretty steep, paved path to an overlook of the breathtakingly blue Peyto Lake - but when we got up there and saw how full of tourists the landing was - we knew we had to seek out a spot with a little more solitude.
We managed to figure out how to get where we wanted to go after many stops at forks in the trail, confused conversations with other hikers, and a lot of hoping for the best.
What awaited was an absolutely stunning view of Peyto Lake - and instead of being surrounded by 100s of people, it was us and maybe 10-15 other people.
There were some rocks and overhangs perfect for pictures and I would say this was my favorite view of the trip! The 1.2 mile walk to get there wasn't bad at all and I highly recommend it to anyone driving the Icefields Parkway! You can read more about how to skip the crowded area and find this incredible overlook here.
Jasper Trail Run
We continued cruising down the Icefields Parkway and enjoying the amazing scenery with a quick stop at the "Goat Lick" but sadly, we didn't see any goats.
Eventually, we arrived in Jasper and found ourselves driving through the cute little town and parking at our hostel!
The Jasper Downtown Hostel was really great - another phenomenal kitchen that we sadly didn't get to take advantage of, clean rooms with their own bathrooms attached, and very friendly staff.
We dropped our stuff and quickly inquired at the front desk about where we could go for a run. He gave us a few suggestions and we set off for what ended up being an absolutely perfect and beautiful 5 mile trail run.
There are a number of paths around Jasper that make for great running routes - ours took us on #12 to Red Squirrel Trail Run to Old Fort Point Road and the Athabasca River Loop before we turned around and headed back.
By the end of the run I was feeling pretty great, and vividly remember booking it down Jasper's main stretch of road - Connaught Drive.
Sunset at Patricia Lake
When we wrapped up our run we piled right in the car at my insistence that we catch the sunset at Patricia Lake. It was pretty - but we were sweaty and being attacked by bugs so it didn't last long.
We headed back to the hostel to shower and get ready for our first night out in Jasper! (Getting ready most (all) nights involved jeans or running leggings with a sweater and wet hair).
Dinner at Jasper Brewing Co.
We wandered around for a while before accepting the fact that we were no longer in NYC and almost every restaurant was closed for the night.
We settled on Jasper Brewing Co. which was still open and hoppin' (get it, brewery, hops?)
Bar food and beers hit the spot - nachos with alllll the things, crudites and dips, a giant salad and sweet potato fries? Yummo. The beers were solid too and we even had some fun conversation with the locals sharing the high top with us.
Long Trail Run - Valley of the Five Lakes
We slept in on Tuesday and woke up to get our trail run on! After consulting with the guy at the front desk and the interwebs, we decided to start our run at the Valley of the Five Lakes Trailhead parking lot.
We actually didn't end up doing the Valley of the Five Lakes trail as our run - instead we kind of winged it and it ended up being one of my favorite runs of my entire LIFE.
I couldn't really tell you where we ended up going - I can just tell you that it was beautiful. We saw one other person for the entire hour + we were out there. The trail was verrrry narrow - so we went in single file the entire time.
There is something about trail running where you can just completely zone out - you're looking down at the trail to stop yourself from tripping (at least I am) and every once in awhile you need to remind yourself to look up and in take in the fact that you are 100% surrounded by nature.
We turned around once we hit a lake and switched off who got a chance to lead. Leading was so fun - I felt like a total trailblazer! Free and fast and fun! (We weren't actually going that fast, but it felt like it!)
That was 75 minutes I will never forget.
Feast at Loulou's Pizzeria
After we got back and showered it was time to find food. We ended up at Loulou's where, as usual, we ordered a feast.
The food wasn't anything incredible, but for a bunch of hungry runners it was more than sufficient.
I'm pretty sure there was an omelette, an egg sandwich, and a yogurt parfait. With lots of toast and peanut butter.
Shopping in Jasper
After we ate we walked along the main street in Jasper checking out all the shops. I bought myself an amazing plastic all-in-one utensil that I have gotten a ton of use out of in all of my travels/flights!
We also stopped at SnowDome Coffee Bar which is an awesome laundromat/coffee shop where we got iced Americanos that really hit the spot.
I also bought wooden stud earrings that look like little mountains and I have worn them 98% of the days since I've been back. I am obsessed with them.
Lake Maligne Lake Cruise
Prior to leaving for Canada (okay, months and months in advance as is my style), we had booked "Jasper Explorer" combo packages through Brewster tours. This got us reservations with the Lake Maligne Lake Cruise and the Glacier Adventure ($140).
The drive from Jasper town to the Lake Maligne Lake Cruise was stunning and when we arrived we checked in and boarded the boat right on time.
Our tour guide was personable and knowledgeable and dropped some interested perspective on forest fires - while they're scary for people living in the area and detrimental to tourism - they're actually part of the life-cycle of any forest!
It was a beautiful day for a boat cruise (I picked the last departure for the day since I like late-afternoon light best for pictures!) and as we made our way to Spirit Island our tour guide pointed on glaciers and other notable parts of the surrounding Lake Maligne landscape.
When we arrived at Spirit Island we were given some time to get off the boat and walk around - taking our own version of the iconic photograph that made Spirit Island famous.
A Kodak photographer, Peter Gales, found this remote location and took a picture that would come to be used as part of a giant photo display in Grand Central Station throughout the 1940s.
It seemed a little silly at the time - that this entire boat cruise exists so that people can see the island from the famous photograph - but once we were on shore looking out at Spirit Island, I had to admit it was beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that I had my own picture printed on metal and plan on hanging it in my room!
We learned some more on the boat ride back and I snapped tons of pictures from my window seat.
Moose Lake Walk at Maligne Lake
Once we disembarked the vessel (just wanted to use some of my nautical vernacular there) we decided to go for a walk to Moose Lake in the hopes of finding some moose!
We didn't - but it was a nice, flat walk and when we arrived at moose lake, even though there were a few other people, it was the most absolute silence I've ever heard in my life. We all agreed that we finally understood the phrase, "the silence was deafening."
Dinner at Olive Bistro
When we got home from the Maligne Lake Cruise we set out for dinner - determined to make it out before the restaurants were all closed for the night.
We kicked off tequila Tuesday with delicious cocktails from Olive Bistro - where we got to sit outside with heat lamps and even met the chef/owner!
We got downnn with some delicious Mediterranean food. In an out of character move I also insisted on the bison burger which I still think about sometimes because it was so delicious.
After dinner we returned to Jasper Brewing Co. for a final brewski before hitting the hay.
Our journey in the Canadian Rockies was coming to a close but we had one more adventure packed day. We started with an outdoor breakfast at the hostel - complete with a cinnamon roll the size of our heads from Bear's Paw Bakery which was right around the corner from us.
We packed up the car and hit the Icefields Parkway for our journey back to Calgary.
But before leaving Jasper National Park, it was time to step foot on a glacier! Something that, sadly, won't be possible forever.
Our "Jasper Explorer" pack included a ride in a giant bus/monster truck/glacier adventure-mobile out onto the Athabasca Glacier (make sure you reserve a time in advance!)
I'm not a car person - but learning about these badass vehicles was actually really interesting. I won't ruin the fun facts you'll learn on this tour (aka: I can't remember the fun facts I just know they were fascinating). I do remember that the road down to the glacier is the second steepest unpaved road in the world! It was nuts.
Our tour guide was funny and we thought it was very interesting that all the people who work for the Glacier Adventure live down the street in cabins - I think it would make for a fascinating reality TV show. Seasonal Workers of Jasper National Park: Revealed.
Anywho. After the ride to the 10,000 year old glacier we could get out of the ice explorer (the tires were as tall as me) and walk around. I know I should have been more in awe - but in all honestly I just couldn't really wrap my head around some of the staggering statistics and numbers being thrown around. The Columbia Icefield is something like 2,000 football fields? HOW.
You can read more of the crazy info here.
What I liked most was getting to fill my water bottle up with glacier water and drink it - SO FRESH. SO COLD!
After being ice explorers we got on another bus that brought us to the "Skywalk" which was a total waste of time and nearly resulted in me peeing on the side of the road because there was no bathroom and the bus was nowhere to be found.
I would 100% say that this isn't worth you're time if you go to the Columbia Icefield!
Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Wildlife
On our drive back along the Icefields Parkway, the sky was verrrrrry smokey. We couldn't believe the difference - it was like someone had completely erased the mountains! We were so thankful that the winds must have been in our favor the entire trip.
Though we couldn't see mountains on our drive back to Calgary - we DID see a BABY BEAR on the side of the road! It might not have been the smartest move - but we pulled the car over and got out to join the crowd forming to take pictures of the lil bear cub.
Stop for a Swim in a Lake
It's killing me that I can't remember the name of this lake (maybe Hector?)- but on our drive I recognized the name from my Google search for lakes in Jasper and Banff that were actually warm enough to swim in (aka not filled from straight up glaciers!)
It was a split second decision to turn off the road and go for it and looking back, it was a fabulous decision.
We walked around to a clearing in the lake that seemed relatively free of people and took the plunge - lasting a total of maybe 3 seconds in the cold water before coming out.
But we did it! And it was fun and refreshing and definitely woke us up for the rest of our journey.
Stoney Squaw Hike
As we made our way back to Banff we were getting a little antsy from the driving and decided we wanted to fit in one more hike.
I had been scrolling through options online all day but we finally settled on the Stoney Squaw Hike. Though the final view wasn't as jaw-dropping as some of our other hikes, the lichen covered trees provided something we hadn't yet seen during our trip and made me feel like I had been transported into the movie FairyTale (I LOVED THAT MOVIE).
The hike was the perfect distance and perfect effort-level to give us the final oomph we needed to make it back to Calgary.
(And on our way down - we saw lots of GOATS).
Dinner Out in Calgary
We made it to Calgary and checked into the Wyndham Garden Airport to drop our bags before calling an Uber to take us out for TACOS.
I had a delicious mezcal drink and we ate lots of delicious Mexican things at Native Tongues.
It had been a long week without tacos or guacamole, let me tell ya.
The ambiance at Native Tongues was great and did I mention they MAKE THEIR OWN DONUTS! I think you know what dessert was.
End of an Adventure
The next morning we all took our separate flights back to NY and the city skyline will never be the same now that I know what it's like to be surrounded by blue skies and mountains and glacial lakes for 7 glorious days.
It was such an incredible trip and I cannot stop recommending it to everyone I meet.
GO TO BANFF AND JASPER! I promise you will not be disappointed.
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It feels like a long long time ago that I spent 8 blissful days in Banff and Jasper with my best friends. I know I rave about all the amazing trips I've gotten to take - but this one was different.
This trip was the ideal vacation not only because the landscape was otherworldly and beautiful, but because my travel companions were perfect. There are very few people I would want to hike and run and drive and eat and sleep with for 8 days straight, but Abby and Callie are definitely two of those people.
I had bought a small notebook to write about the trip in, but failed after about a day. Day One's recap comes directly from my journal - the rest of the trip is from memory.
We arrived at our hostel in Banff on Tunnel Mountain very late on Thursday night (we stayed at HI Banff Alpine Centre). Note to self: arriving at hostels in the middle of the night is not ideal because your room is pitch black and you need to struggle to be quiet because there are three other girls already sound asleep.
We were up at 8 the next morning and had a huge and satisfying breakfast at Cougar Pete's - the onsite restaurant. We were shocked at how legit it was. We all split the yogurt parfait, egg sandwich and omelette. Maybe the best part was slathering peanut butter on the buttered toast.
It was so nice feeling a chill in the air and cupping our hands around our hot mugs of coffee.
Sulpher Mountain Hike
Our first stop was Sulpher Mountain, back where I stayed at the Rimrock Resort when I went for a work trip in August. The parking lot was still fairly empty and we walked up to the hot springs only to decide we weren't in the mood - but that we'd rather get right to the hike!
The Sulpher Mountain hike was a lot more legit than I thought it would be - there were some switchbacks but for the most part we just walked up and up and up.
Before this trip I had worried a little about whether or not I would enjoy hiking - I haven't exactly been on many multi-hour hikes recently (or ever). I thought I might get bored and be thinking, "That's it - we just walk?" But there's something exciting about not knowing what is going to be around each corner - and the Canadian Rockies are a place where each hike offers truly amazing pay-off when you reach your destination and has made me love hiking and find it far from boring.
The trails were a lot more challenging that I anticipated and a 6.5 mile round trip hike has certainly felt much harder to me than a six mile run would! I was so sore everywhere this entire trip.
I also knew that even had I been bored by the actual hiking - I was with 2 of my best friends and the conversations, jokes, laughter and singing alone made the miles and hours fly by.
On our way up Sulphur Mountain we marveled at all of the people who were somehow managing to RUN up, as we very clearly could only manage a brisk walk. We also rolled our eyes at the group of girls in their black Lulu leggings and black sports bras.
Eventually we made it to the top for some pretty spectacular views of Banff town below. The temperature really dropped once we were up there and we also noticed that it was packed with people who had taken the gondola up.
Honestly, half the reason the view for this particular hike was so awesome was knowing we had walked 2,000 feet up to earn it and I can't imagine having paid to take a gondola to the top.
There was a coffee shop and museum which we ambled through before walking to the to Cosmic Ray Station to finish the trail. There were a lot of people around and we were happy to get back on the trail to some degree of solitude for the walk down.
Our legs were feeling the effects of the climb and we were so happy we had saved the hot springs for post-hike.
One the way down (and up) we occasionally held our hands up over our heads to try to combat the fact that our blood was pooling in our fingers and making them super swollen and puffy. Gross.
I also forgot how dry the air is in Banff - combined with the fact there were were crazy wildfires burning in the area (sometimes making the views a little hazy) - I used a lot of chapstick during this trip.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
We got our things from the car (#1 piece of advice if you plan a trip to the Canadian Rockies is to rent a car!) and went back to the Banff Upper Hot Springs.
The smell of sulphur was pretty strong - 3 days later we swore we still smelled like it.
The prices were very fair ($7.30 in USD) and we made a game time decision to rent "historic" swimsuits for $1.90 instead of wearing our own. They. were. awesome. I don't know why romper bathing suits aren't a real thing. Swompers.
They are SO much more flattering. We felt like a bunch of Marilyn Monroes. We used our "looney" ($1 coin in Canada) to lock up our things and walked into the hot springs - which were a balmy 102 degrees that day.
Eventually I came up with the genius idea of laying on the ledge separating the real pool from the kidding pool and floating with my arms on the surface - keeping me just the right temperature. With the mountains in the background - I was soo content and felt like I could have fallen asleep or stayed for hours. But hunger struck us all so we left our historic suits behind (although we could have purchased one for $95) and headed into town to find some food.
Picnic & Drive to Lake Minnewanka
What I thought were really cool parking lots that tell you how many spaces are left were actually #FakeNews. First we went to Nestor's market for carrots and hummus and long run fuel (GoMacro bars, bananas and rice cakes) and then wandered into Wild Flour because we only eat at restaurants whose names are puns.
We chose a bunch of things to split, as usual, and headed to Johnson Lake for a picnic. When I was in Banff for work I had stopped at Johnson Lake and thought, "Wow - my itinerary for Banff is too packed - I need to make more time for relaxing and sitting still and enjoying these views."
I loved that Johnson Lake and the other spots along the drive to Lake Minnewanka were so empty and seemed to be lacking tourists. It was so great to be back with Abby and Callie doing just what I had imagined - sitting down for a picnic at Johnson Lake where we were probably the most touristy people there.
The food from Wild Flour was so good - lentil/chickpea/sweet potato Moroccan-y stew, "meat" foccacia and a really good brie/apple sandwich. Oh, and a kale salad with raisins, sweet potatoes and a maple Dijon vinaigrette. An oatmeal Chai and triple chocolate cookie for dessert (not a crumb remained).
We wished the water wasn't absolutely freezing, otherwise we would have taken a dip. "It's so cold my arms are burning," was a quote from one man who braved the glacier-fed waters.
After our relaxing picnic lunch we took the ride up to Lake Minnewanka with stops at Two Jack Lake and Cascade Ponds back at the bottom.
Two Jack Lake looked different than the last time I was there somehow - are there tides in lakes? I ventured down to a little sand bar for a photo op and felt so surrounded by beauty it was unreal.
Tunnel Mountain Sunset Hike
After our drive we went back to the hostel and I definitely took a very needed nap. We woke up in time for a sunset hike up Tunnel Mountain, which I knew from last time was quick but offered great sunset views. It didn't dissapoint.
The clouds had beautiful sun rays breaking through them and all of Banff town was sprawled out below us. I voiced my belief that clouds are what make a sunset pretty - my metaphor for life being beautiful because of the challenges and dark splotches, not in spite of them.
We sat on the log I had found last time and took some self-timer pictures with my new selfie stick/tripod but of course my GoPro was failing me. I still was able to use my phone for a pretty average time lapse.
We looked around the backside of the mountain but the lighting wasn't as cool as the last time I was up there so we pretty quickly made the trek back down to our car for dinner #1.
Sushi House Banff
304 Caribou Street
A local had told me about "Sushi Train" on my last trip and I was dying for my first conveyor belt sushi experience. The place was packed when we got there but it's a genius strategy for getting people in and our quickly so we didn't wait long at all.
We sat down and immediately could start grabbing plates. They also gave us a menu so we could make requests of the chefs who were rolling away right in front of us.
We had edamame, yam roll, tuna roll, dumplings, shrimp purses, shrimp tempura roll - everything was really good. By the time the eel started going around we were too full, but it looked amazing.
At the end, they add up how many of each colored plate you have to determine what you owe. Our jaws dropped when the total came to under $15 per person for a sushi dinner. Ah, the joys of getting awesome insider scoops from locals!
Karaoke at Storm Cellar
Back at the hostel it was karaoke night and I had made it very clear that the three of us would be performing. It was really nice having a bar onsite at the hostel. It was pretty crowded and eventually we got the nerve to submit our names for We Didn't Start the Fire. This was my first official karaoke performance. At the end, Abby had the thought of, "Oh shit - was that really insensitive since we are not very far away from forest fires?" Oops.
Day One Total Mileage: 8 Miles
Long Run at Vermillion Lakes
Saturday morning we were up at 7/7:30 to get ready for Abby's long run - I give her so much credit for being so flexible and stress-free about fitting in her runs. Definitely one of my goals if I ever have another marathon training cycle is to go with the flow more.
From last trip, I knew a great spot for a long run that wasn't very busy, was paved, and was fairly flat. We parked at the Fenland Trail head and started our run past the beautiful Vermillion Lakes.
Breathing was not easy, but for the most part my legs felt pretty good - just sore hips and glutes from Friday's hikes.
Once Abby said she was only going to do 10 miles, I said I would stay with her even though my original plan was no more than 9. By the end we got in a comfortable rhythm and it felt great to finish 10 miles for the first time in a long time.
Afterwards, we did some planking - Abby came up with some torturous tabata-plank routine.
Then we got in the car and drove back for some pictures at Vermillion Lakes - so so pretty.
Breakfast at Tooloulou's
204 Caribou Street
After showering and packing up our things at the hostel, we drove into town for brunch be. We waited a decent amount of time for a table at Tooloulou's for brunch, but it was definitely worth it.
- Chicken & Waffles
- Western Omelette with biscuit
- Sufferin' Succotash (two fried eggs, corned beef hash, skillet potatoes, pancake & toast)
- Fruit Salad
When the food first arrived at our table, we thought that our eyes had been bigger than our stomachs. But at some point, we realized that we were making a big dent on the copious amounts of food. We decided the challenge was on - we were going to finish everything and we were going to own it when the waitress came back and was shocked by our clean plates.
I think we each used two cups of maple syrup - by the end we were dipping everything in it.
It was a little out of hand, yet also a very proud moment for the three of us. We left Toulooloo's and wandered into a fudge shop. Our appetites truly know no bounds.
Johnston Canyon to Ink Pots Hike
We waved goodbye to Banff town and got in our rental car to drive to Johnston Canyon for a hike before checking into our next hotel.
I had no idea that Johnston Canyon was going to be so filled with tourists. The first part of our hike, from the parking lot to the two main waterfalls, wasn't all that enjoyable. It was beautiful, but it felt like we were in line for a ride at Disney World - trying to make our way around throngs of tourists who were clearly not there to hike.
While we walked this part of the trail, I was on the lookout for a cave I had seen posted on Instagram many times during my research - and I was determined to find it. I read and reread the directions, tips and hints I had found online in the hopes that we wouldn't accidentally pass it. We succeeded in finding it - along with tons of other people. The secret about this spot is certainly out of the bag, but it was great to go off the beaten path for some pictures nonetheless.
After this detour we continued to the upper falls and beyond that the crowd finally dispersed as we continued on to the Ink Pots portion of the hike.
We ran into an extremely friendly couple who let us know that there's also a parking lot that would have gotten us right onto the Ink Pots trail (Moose Meadows Trailhead) and avoided all of the madness.
The hike from the falls to the ink pots was challenging but absolutely beautiful - we couldn't believe how high up we were. And almost on our own for all of it.
It was unintentionally great timing as the Ink Pots tend to be less crowded towards the end of the day. When we made it to the end of the trail, we had the ink pots almost to ourselves. There were just 2 or 3 other groups of people there!
The Ink Pots are mineral springs that fill up with water at a different rate, causing different colors and cool rings that you can see on the bottom of the super clear pools of water. We took tons of pictures up here and sat out for awhile on the benches - discussing how amazing it would have been if we had a tent and could have spent the night there.
Our planned sleeping arrangements were a little less rustic than a tent - but we were still eager to drive to Storm Mountain Lodge for two nights in our very own log cabin. We retraced our steps back past the Upper and Lower Falls of Johnston Canyon, speed walking past slow moving tourists like true New Yorkers.
While passing a crying little girl we commented, "Don't cry, you have ice cream!" only to see an entire scoop lying on the trail a few feet away. Oops - you may proceed little girl - dropped ice cream is definitely worth crying over.
This lead to a very philosophical conversation about cup people vs. cone people and before we new it we were hitting the open road. We checked into Storm Mountain Lodge and as soon as we pulled into the parking lot we were in love. The main lodge had a massive fire place, restaurant, games, bar and the coziest vibes.
We made a quick stop at a local market for some supplies (snacks and adult beverages including my favorite Copenhagen discovery, Somersby!) before placing an order for a charcuterie board at the Storm Mountain Lodge front desk.
While we waited for our food, we asked if we could possibly get some carrots - and were overjoyed when carrots were delivered.
We retired to our little cabin in the woods where we MORE than enjoyed the food. Each meal it got harder and harder to pick a favorite!
sunrise at lake louise
There's nothing I love more than a good sunrise or sunset - and I knew that the only time we could guarantee some semblance of solitude at the wildly popular Lake Louise was to get there bright and early.
Luckily, my travel companions are equally as down for an early wake up call. We only wish we had found coffee prior to arriving at Lake Louise!
Of course we weren't the only ones there to enjoy the sunrise, but it was very quiet, peaceful, and not at all like the crowded scene we would encounter on our way back later that day.
I made a time lapse, we chatted with a nice woman (while enviously eyeing her Starbucks cup), and marveled at the milky-pen-like pearly, turquoise water.
lake agnes tea house hike
Once the sun was up, we set off for the Lake Agnes Tea House - a hike that I thought would be fairly fast and easy since so many people recommend it. It was neither fast nor easy - but it was breathtaking as the sun continued to rise. And again, we were fairly alone on the trail.
We stopped for some pictures at mirror lake before arriving at the Lake Agnes Tea House. It was full of people already, but we were able to snag a table as we salivated over the carb-heavy menu.
The Lake Agnes Tea House is incredible - it's been serving tea at 7.005 feet since 1905 and today, fresh ingredients are still hiked up twice weekly to the tea house's kitchen. They receive bulk ingredients by air once a year. And employees hike down all the garbage on their backs!
We were desperately in need of coffee - but they don't call this a tea house for nothin'. We settled for Chai tea lattes and we are STILL talking about them.
We are also still talking about the peanut butter sandwich. It was the classic "mouth is sticking together from PB" sandwich. Plus an energy ball and scones with jam.
Keep in mind that the tea house is cash only (US dollars and Canadian). Abby helped out a cashless couple by giving them some USDs and they Venmo'd her.
The air was soo crisp up at the tea house and we were loving it. We were also loving this beautiful view of Lake Agnes. So much so that we decided we needed to continue hiking in the area.
big beehive hike
We decided to tackle the Big Beehive Hike which would turn out to be my absolute favorite of the trip. But at first - it was slightly scary. It got steep REAL quick - and I was panicking a little bit about how we were going to get down!
But after walking straight up (and up and up) we made it to the top and were asked by a couple from Montana if we worked in the park! They said most people couldn't keep up with them - and seemed a little surprised to learn that we were from Manhattan, concrete jungle where hikers aren't typically made.
For whatever reason, we took a turn to our left to wander the top of the peak and all of a sudden I audibly GASPED as many people would during our time atop Big Beehive. Suddenly, the sparkling blue of Lake Louise could be spotted down below and it was magic.
We perched on a rock ledge where we sat for a good long while taking in the views, in awe of this spot we had stumbled on. While we sat, many groups of people passed by, and almost all of them had a similar reaction of, "OH MY GOD! Wait until you see this..."
We decided to go back to Lake Louise a different way than we had come - which made me happy since the steepness had freaked me out. More importantly - it provided entirely new scenery for the return trip, which was great (and inspired some beautiful renditions of "The Sound of Music").
The return trail had us end up on the opposite end of Lake Louise from the hotel and parking lot which worked out wonderfully - we got to walk the entire perimeter of the lake and take in views away from the people who just jump out of their car for a few pictures.
Round trip, the Lake Agnes Tea House and Big Beehive hike was 6.4 miles.
We had spent so much time on our hike at Lake Louise, that we just ended up dropping by Lake Moraine so we could say we saw it - it's a short drive from Lake Louise.
It was the peak time of day - so it took a lot of driving around the parking lot in circles until we found a parking spot.
At Lake Moraine, we were those people who park, take a picture, and are on their way. So it definitely wasn't one of the most memorable parts of the trip.
There are many hikes that you can take around Lake Moraine, though, and a lot of people say it's less busy than Lake Louise.
lake louise town
By this point we were famished and we drove into Lake Louise "town" to find lunch. What we found was a strip mall - though it had everything you could need!
We split our usual smorgasbord of food - soups, sandwiches, etc. and then stocked up on postcards which we sat down to write and send at the post office. I also picked up a notebook for my one day of successful journal-ing of the trip.
fancy dinner at storm mountain lodge
We made our way back to Storm Mountain Lodge, listening to the newest Taylor Swift song which we were determined to make ourselves love. (Spoiler alert: by the end of that night, we were all about "Ready For It?")
We showered, made ourselves look the most presentable we had all trip, and headed out to the main cabin with beers and books in hand. We read, wrote, drank and hammocked for an hour or so and while it was very peaceful, it should be noted that Storm Mountain Lodge is situated off of a very busy road.
Eventually we went inside to the main lodge where we played a few fun rounds of Scattergories (my favorite board game) in front of the fire while waiting for our reservation.
Dinner was absolutely delicious.
Heirloom Tomato Salad
Roasted shallots, lodge-made ricotta, compressed strawberries, puffed quinoa, confit garlic and preserved lemon vinaigrette
Ewenique Farms Lamb Chop
Cherry reduction, yellow beet puree, buttermilk steal cut oats, roasted baby beets, butter poached carrots, peppermint tea and vanilla gel
Lodge Fireplace Smoked Eggplant
Glazed apple, orecchiette pasta, organic spaghetti squash, aged goat gouda mornay sauce, locally sourced farmer's vegetables, apple & butternut puree
Ocean Wise Rockfish
Fermented zuchhini, broccoli puree, roasted broccoli, pepper chutney, carrot syrup, aigre-doux pearl onions
Not to mention, the French 75 cocktails were WOW.