Vamos a España!

Montserrat

It’s been a long time since my last posting, so it’s about time for an update! I’m back on the road again and have been traveling through Europe for the past few weeks doing some tours with Rick Steves’ Europe! I had good intentions on writing new posts when I started out a couple weeks ago on the Best of the Adriatics tour, but with dodgy WiFi and just plain old laziness, I’ll have to catch up on that another time. For now, I’m currently doing the 14 Day Best of Spain tour and writing from the capital city of Madrid.

On previous trips to Europe, I’ve always finished off in Spain at the very end and never made enough time to experience it properly. Back in 2014 I had my first taste of the country on a two night visit to Barcelona. I didn’t get to see very much of the city at all, tired and broke after a summer traveling around the continent, but I did participate in the correfoc (fire run) during La Fiesta a la Merce, where locals parade through the streets dressed up as diablos shooting off fireworks in every direction, which is still among my favorite travel memories ever. The second time was in 2016, with just a couple days on the opposite side of the country in Sevilla. Despite the short visits, I’ve always been fascinated by Spanish culture and obsessed with the food, so I knew one day I’d have to return to do a proper visit.

On this tour, we start out in Barcelona for a few days. Despite a few years of absence, I felt at ease wandering down familiar streets and wide boulevards lined with cervecerias packed with chatty locals indulging themselves with beer and tapas. I fell in love with Barcelona last time I was here. It’s not the prettiest city in the world. Like LA, it’s a huge metropolis sprawled between the sea and the mountains. I just love the energy that’s here–there always seems to be some sort of party or festival happening. It’s a city that is always alive–no matter what time of day or night it is, there are always people out on the streets. Situated right on the coast, there are big beaches where you can lay on the sand with a nice Estrella Damm beer (drinking in public is allowed) and soak up that Catalonian sun. Being on the water also means you can get some seriously fresh seafood!

Placa de CatalunyaRight from the beginning of this trip, things were getting interesting as I entered Spain during a fairly interesting time in its history. Catalonia, the country’s most northeastern state (where Barcelona is located), is seriously considering breaking away from Spain. Catalonian independence has always been a controversial subject  here for decades now, but has only seriously been considered recently. According to recent polls, many Catalonians support independence, but on the other hand many people within Catalonia and throughout the country wish to keep Spain unified. Right outside of my hotel on the day I arrived in Barcelona, an enormous rally of hundreds of thousands of people were marching in support of keeping Spain united. I’ve never seen a march of any sort of this size and the sheer volume of people shouting “Viva España!” while waving thousands of national flags gave me the chills!

Since I didn’t really get to experience many of the sights in the city last time I was here, I made it a goal to hit up some of the big ones. La Boqueria market was one of the first places on my to do list. A huge public market under a covered roof, the market offers a huge selection of foods and goods, from spices to meats, seafood, wine, produce, and even a few eateries where you can enjoy an array of tapas. Situated right off Las Ramblas, the main shopping and tourist drag that runs through the heart of the city, it’s a very popular market and is often very crowded. A better alternative is at Santa Caterina Market–a lot less crowded and touristy with an equally impressive amount of things to eat!

La Sagrada Famlia

One morning we did a very nice walking tour of the old parts of the city, lead by a local guide, who did a wonderful job at orientating us to the city’s past and present, wandering through the narrow streets of the historic Barri Gothic and the trendy El Born neighborhoods. At the end of the walk, we took the metro over to La Sagrada Familia, which was another big sight that I skimped out on last time. The city’s biggest icon, this remarkable cathedral still remains unfinished since the first foundations were laid in 1882, 135 years ago. They believe it will finally be finished in 9-10 years from now, but looking at the ambitious designs of the project, that seems pretty optimistic. After having seen so many churches throughout Europe I honestly couldn’t care less seeing another one, but this one was remarkable and very much worth a visit. From the outside, it looks like a massive hodgepodge of sculptures and carvings featuring people, plants, and animals, but if you look closely you’ll find that the detail that went into it is significant. Stepping inside, you find yourself in a cavernous room with columns supporting the structure like giant tree trunks. With huge stained glass windows, the interior is illuminated with brilliant greens, blues, reds, yellows, and oranges and somewhat resembles both morning and afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees of a forest. It was mesmerizing.

Park Guell After Sagrada Familia, we all had some free time to ourselves so I took the bus up the hill to check out another one of Gaudí’s projects that I failed to see on my last trip to Barcelona: Park Güell (pronounced “parkway”). Much of the park is free to enter, but to see the famous mosaic Gaudí features it costs 7 euro to enter, which must be reserved online in advance for specific entry times (we failed to do so last time, so we never were able to get in). Park Güell was actually a failed upscale housing development project that never got fully off the ground after stalling during WWI. Only two houses were built and they very much resemble gingerbread houses with whimsical features on both interior and exterior. I found the park to be fairly small and a little overrated to be honest. A large section of the upper terrace, where you get the nice views overlooking the park and the city, was closed off due to some sort of construction/refurbishment project. It’s considered a “must do” in Barcelona however, so if you have the time it’s a spot with some nice views of the city, but I think there are other sights that are more worth seeing if you’re short on time.

MontserratIf you have extra time in Barcelona and looking to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city, going to Montserrat makes for an excellent day trip. This mountain dramatically rises outside of an otherwise bland landscape like the serrated edges of a saw (Montserrat literally means “serrated mountain”). Only 1.5 hours away by train and cable car from Barcelona’s city center, it’s quite easy to get to. It’s home to an old monastery and is an important religious and cultural site for the Catalan people. Aside from the monastery, a black statue of the Virgin Mary, and other religious sites, there are lots of trails leading into the mountain. It’s also a popular spot for rock climbing. After taking a short but steep cable ride from the train station to the mountain, I decided to forgo the monastery and headed straight up the trail to the highest peak. The trail starts out steeply going up a series of stairs, but is also flat enough in places where you can cool off in the sheltered forest. In October, it was perfect hiking weather–about 72 degrees F with a light breeze. I can imagine during the summer it can get incredibly hot, so during that time of year it’s best to start early in the morning if possible. At the top of the mountain, you’re given amazing 360 degree views of the mountain and surrounding landscape. On the day I went up there, it was clear enough to see the Pyrenees, the mountain range which makes a natural border with Spain and France.

Perhaps the best thing about Barcelona, and Spain in general really, is the amazing food! The variety of different dishes and cuisines here seem endless–I’ve never had something here that I didn’t like. Rich in olive oil, fish, breads, meats, pastries, and wines, Spain’s culinary experiences never disappoint. It’s one of my favorite countries in the world to eat in, and I always seem to gain a few pounds here with every visit. We explored a few different places for tapas, eating late into the night as the Spanish do. Some favorite spots were at Loft, a casual tapas place in the hip and trendy neighborhood of El Born. Onofre is also worth mentioning, a small and humble family-run tapas bar with some amazing dishes. La Xampanyeria is a great spot for cava, or Spanish sparkling wine. It’s very small and due to it’s popularity gets very crowded and loud with people sipping on cava and chatting over tapas.

Last but not least, going to the beach is part of the Barcelona experience! Although they are man made, you can still spend a very nice and relaxing day at the beach, having cold beers on the sand, swimming in the Mediterranean, and hitting up some of the nearby bars and nightclubs in the evening.

Having been twice now and with a much better perspective, Barcelona continues to be one of my favorite cities in the world. The energetic vibes of the city alone, makes it so appealing and I’m sure I’ll be back here again someday.

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My Top 10 Destinations for 2016

St. Mark's Summit

Although 2016 is a year I’d rather forget for the most part, there were still so many good things that happened to be thankful for. I rang in the year in Paris, one of my favorite cities in the world. While traveling through Europe and North America, I was able to reunite with old friends and meet many new ones. I revisited some of my favorite places in the world and also discovered places I hadn’t been before. Upon moving back to the US, I got a new job that allows me to travel and share my passion for travel with others. I moved to Seattle and have, for now, readjusted to a more settled life living in the US again, being closer to friends and family. To finish off the year, I’ve decided to write one last blog post for 2016 highlighting some of my favorite places I went to this year.

London
London Bridge

Despite being horrendously sick my first few days here, I finally made it to the British capital that I had missed during my first trip to Europe in 2014. While England wasn’t my favorite country, I loved London. Aside from catching up with a lot of friends who live here, it was amazing finally making it to this world-class city and seeing it in person. In some ways, London reminded me a lot of New York—the vibe and energy here is astounding. People here walk with purpose and there seems to be a lot of things going on.

Tallinn
Old Town Tallinn

When I heard that some of my good friends from Estonia had temporarily moved back to their hometown of Tallinn from Australia, I couldn’t pass the opportunity to see them again and check out this relatively little-visited corner of Europe. Although there are still some things here remaining from the former Soviet Union days, this little country has come a long way in just the past 30 years or so and is now quite modern and well-established. In fact, Tallinn is one of the most tech savvy capitals in Europe, with a booming market for tech companies and startups. While also very modern, the city also retains its medieval heritage–walking through the city’s snow-laden Old Town at night was absolutely breathtaking.

Copenhagen
Copenhagen

Like London, Copenhagen was a city I had really wanted to visit during my first summer trip to Europe, but just never got around to going so I made it my goal to finally make it this year. Copenhagen is a wonderfully old and charming capital, yet also very modern and beautifully designed. Having some local friends to show me around, I learned quite a bit about Danish culture, fashion, design & architecture, and other quintessential Danish things I hadn’t really known about. Even in the middle of snowy January, I loved wandering the streets and canals here. It’s definitely a place I’d love to come back to again in the summer time.

Salzburg
Salzburg

While in Germany, someone had suggested that I take a trip out to the little city of Salzburg in Austria, just across the border from Munich. So I made a day trip out of it and I wish I had decided to stay longer! Situated alongside a river, crowned by a massive old fortress on top of a hill overlooking the city, Salzburg may as well be something you would hear about in fairy tales. Simply getting lost among the city’s charming narrow streets is enough of a reason to come here.

Lyon
Lyon

While it’s not as glamorous and glitzy as Paris, Lyon is a very overlooked destination in France. Despite being the 2nd largest city in the country, it isn’t overwhelmed with tourists or feel overly crowded like other major European cities. The relaxed vibe here was very appealing. It’s also the foodie capital of France–the gastronomic selection here is enormous. And being within driving distance to the mountains, it’s also a good base to explore some of the stunning mountain scenery that France has to offer.

Portugal
Exploring the Algarve Coast

If you’ve already seen my other blog posts about Portugal, you’d know that it’s one of my favorite countries in the world. Since I loved everything about it, I couldn’t just decide on one place that stuck out to me the most! From sipping on Port wine in Porto, to wandering through the beautiful streets of Lisbon, to exploring hilltop castles in Sintra, to kayaking along the country’s stunning Algarve Coast, visiting Portugal was the biggest surprise I had while traveling in 2016. It’s definitely a place I’ll be back again!

Ireland
Ring of Kerry

Like Portugal, there really wasn’t one place in Ireland that stuck out above the rest, so I’m listing it here as a country. Ireland was rugged, beautiful, populated with some of the friendliest and chattiest people I’ve met on my travels. Some of my favorite memories here were chatting with the locals in the pubs in the evenings, something that I found very easy to do here compared to other places.

Washington, D.C.
The National Mall

I’ve been to DC a few times before on day trips with the family when when I was younger, but had never been as an adult until this year. Staying here for a week gave me a chance to explore and see the city more. I spent the week exploring museums, going for runs around the mall, taking a tour of the Capitol Building, watching the sunset from the top of the Washington Monument, and even checked out some of the embassies that are based here. Even after a week, I still don’t think I saw everything—there’s just too much to see and do.

Oregon
Cannon Beach

Despite having grown up in the Pacific Northwest and having passed through it several times, I’ve never made a proper trip to Portland until this year! Portland has a good reputation for being a nature city and a great foodie scene. In a lot of ways it reminded me of a smaller version of Seattle (just with a lot more bridges). It’s easy to get close to nature here as the Columbia River Gorge is only a 30 minute drive away, home to so many waterfalls. It’s also within easy driving distance of the famous Oregon Coast, making the city an ideal spot for a base to explore other parts of Oregon.

Vancouver
Vancouver Sunset

Another one of my favorite cities in the world, Vancouver is always a fun place to visit. Situated right between the mountains and the sea, it’s highly picturesque (when it’s not raining at least). There aren’t many places in the world where you can go skiing 20 minutes from a major city center and then walk on the beach in the same day. With so much nature around, there’s always a reason to be outside and active. Some of my favorite things to do here include strolling through the large public market on Granville Island, riding a bike along the Seawall around Stanley Park (a huge park just north of downtown, like a big Canadian version of Central Park), or going on a hike in the mountains just outside of the city. Within easy reach of Seattle, I’ve already been up 3 times this year!

 

Backpacking In Portugal

Portas do Sol

Ever since my first trip to Europe in 2014, Portugal had been on my mind as a place I wanted to go and I made it a goal try and get there one day. While I never got around to getting there on my first trip, I finally fulfilled my wish this time around after looking for a place to escape from the grey northern European winter. I managed to find a cheap ticket from Paris to Porto and planned out a trip to travel north to south.

Although I had always heard Portugal was a nice place and friends I know who have been there before said they loved it, I never knew the reasons why. People told me, “you just need to go!” So with only that, I really didn’t have very many expectations before going. Little did I know, Portugal would become among my favorite travel destinations to date!

The moment I stepped off the plane in Porto and began wandering around the city, I found myself immediately at ease. It’s a strange feeling to have–I’ve only experienced in a handful of places across the world. The feeling you sometimes get arriving in a place that you’ve never been before, yet somehow you find familiarity as if you were coming back after being away for a long time. This is how I felt about Portugal. Right away, I knew we would get along just fine.

Tram 28 - Lisbon

I strongly believe that what makes a country an enjoyable place to visit is its people, and the Portuguese do not shy away from making you feel welcome. Many people I encountered spoke very decent English, some even with little to no accents. From my experience in neighboring Spain and even a bit further away in France, English isn’t so widely spoken so I didn’t imagine Portugal to be so English-friendly considering how isolated it is from the rest of Europe. It took me by surprise, but  it made things a lot easier to engage in conversation with the locals and learn more about the way they live and their culture. The slower and more relaxed pace of life and the fact that people take the time out of their day to enjoy a good meal was pretty appealing to me.

Secondly, Portugal is a very cheap place to travel in and is a great deal whether you’re traveling on a budget or not! Whether you’re the kind of traveler that likes to stay in a hotel or the kind that stays in hostels, you still won’t be spending anywhere as much as you would in other parts of Western Europe. Food is inexpensive and there are plenty of places to pick up very cheap and tasty snacks as you tour around for the day. At restaurants, you can get some good seafood and other amazing Portuguese dishes at an inexpensive restaurant with drink for less than 10 euro. A meal at a nicer restaurant for two people can cost 30 euro with wine if you shop around and find the good deals. I found Portuguese food to be really good, it was definitely worth paying that little extra to go out for a nicer meal!

The country is also quite beautiful. Despite its small size (roughly the same as the US state of Indiana), it’s blessed with a diverse landscape and a beautiful coastline with some of the most amazing beaches in Europe. It’s position in southwestern Europe bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea gives it a unique climate where summers are hot with refreshing sea breezes and winters are wet and cool, but not freezing. It’s no wonder why many European come here for their holiday and vacation periods!

Lonely Beach | Lagos, Portugal

Portuguese towns and cities also took me by surprise. One of the few expectations I did have of Portugal was that it would be dirty and underdeveloped, but what I found were clean streets and an attractive mix of both old and modern designs in their buildings. Brightly colored buildings adorned with colorful ceramic tiles and mosaics sprawled about streets and sidewalks everywhere give Portuguese urban areas a unique and appealing look.

Overall, I spent 9 days traveling from north to south. Here’s a brief rundown on the places I went to:

Porto
The View From Taylor's

If you’ve read my previous post on Porto, you’ll know I absolutely fell in love with this city. The city is beautifully situated along the Duoro River, with its colorful old buildings hanging along the steep sides of the valley. The city center is quite small in comparison to Lisbon, but that doesn’t mean it has less to offer. Despite its old and somewhat grungy appearance, the crammed center is a maze of hilly cobblestone streets bursting with trendy shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars where you can spend hours exploring and getting lost.

The Most Beautiful Book Shop

One unique landmark in the city center is the famous Livraria Lello, possibly one of the most beautiful bookstores I’ve ever been to. Farther out from the city center, you can see the city’s more modern side at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where you can also walk through the museum’s beautiful gardens. Of course, no trip to Porto is complete without taking a trip over to Gaia to experience the taste of the city’s prized signature drink, Port wine! One of my favorite spots in the city was on the terrace at Taylor’s–a good place to relax in the sun and enjoy the views of the city over a glass.

Lisbon
Rossio Square

While Lisbon is a lot more crowded and touristy than Porto, I still found the country’s capital charming for a big city! A majority of the city rests on several hills, which means you’re going to find plenty of places for some amazing views. While I didn’t really take the time to explore any of the museums or castles, there are plenty of places to explore and learn about the history of the museum. I was happy enough getting lost wandering around and finding places on my own. In fact there are several great free walking tours that take place daily that give you a good orientation to the city and its history, as well as some offbeat facts you otherwise wouldn’t find in a guidebook (shout out to John Doe’s for their amazing walking tour!). There are several big beautiful plazas throughout the city–ideal places for people watching. Some of the plazas are also home to markets on the weekends where you can chill out with some good local food and drinks from various vendors. In the evenings, the neighborhood of Barrio Alto is among the better places to get a meal and have a night out.

Torre de BelemAnother remarkable part of town worth seeing is in Belém, about a 15 min tram ride west of the city center. Here you can indulge in a staple Portuguese pastry, pastel de nata, at Pasteis de Belém which is famous for their original recipe, before heading out to see the nearby Jeronimos Monastery and nearby monuments decorating the waterfront area.

Sintra
Castle of the Moors

Located about 45 minutes away to the west of Lisbon is a small village surrounded by several castles. This makes for a great day trip if you’re looking for a reason to get out of the city, especially on a nice day. It was one of my favorite places in Portugal! There are three main castles near the village: the Castle of Moors, Pena National Palace, and Quinta de la Regaleira. It’s possible to access all on foot, but there is also a bus that takes you to the two located high on the hills (about 5 euro round trip). We were feeling lazy that day and opted for the bus, which we were happy about since it would have been a long crazy walk up to the top of the mountain! While we didn’t do Pena, we did see Castle of the Moors (8 euro entry), which is a stone medieval-style castle built during the 8th and 9th centuries. We were lucky to have clear skies that day and had the most incredible 360 degree views of the area.

Initiation WellAfterwards we descended the mountain to Quinta de la Regaleira, an estate designed with Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish, and Renaissance elements to create a really unique looking castle. Aside from the  design of the building (which even has a “secret room” on the top floor!), the estate also is known for its gardens and grottoes which maze their way under the hillside. The entry fee here was the cheapest out of all the castles (6 euro entry), but it was easily my favorite as we spent well over an hour and a half here.

Lagos
Exploring the Algarve Coast

Lagos is a fun little seaside town along the country’s southern Algarve Coast. During the summer months it’s a wild party town, but during the other months of the year it has a much quieter and more chilled atmosphere. The big allure here are the beaches and the stunning rugged coastline. I was there in March, just before the busy season started to get going, and the beaches were free of crowds. The best way to see the coast is by taking a kayak tour, but if water isn’t your thing you can also do a nice walk by land that traverses across the tops of the sea cliffs. Unfortunately I only had a two short days here, but could have easily stayed a whole week. It’s much warmer down here than in other parts of Portugal–both in terms of the weather as well as the people. Everyone down here as the “no worries” carefree attitude and are very friendly and smiley. The hostel I stayed at, Olive Hostel, was one of my favorites as it felt more like a home than a hostel thanks to the very welcoming owners and comfy atmosphere. Stay there if you visit Lagos!

Now that I’ve been, I  an understand what the hype is all about. I normally don’t like returning to countries I’ve been before, but Portugal is one of those places I would make an exception for. I would love to come back again one day to explore more of the smaller towns and other regions that I missed, as well as revisiting Porto and Lagos again as they’re some of my favorite places in Europe.

How To Save On Accommodation While Traveling

When it comes to traveling, accommodation will generally be one of your biggest expenses, behind the cost of your flight and transportation. Especially in western countries, where a night in a basic hotel room can cost well over a hundred dollars in some places. Since I’m more keen on budget travel, I would rather use that money for other things. With so many alternatives out there, it’s easy to cut down on your accommodation costs. And sometimes spending less on accommodation doesn’t necessarily sacrifice comfort! In this day and age, you can still get the same comfort and privacy you would get in a hotel for less.

Hostels
elcafegroup
Hostels are the obvious pick for budget travelers as they can offer a cheap place to sleep. Privacy isn’t usually a priority for people who stay in hostels as they are more well known for dormitory-style sleeping environments. Typically you’ll share a room with 3-6 other people, but there are some pretty big hostels out there. I once stayed in a 40-bed dorm in Munich! On the other hand, plenty of hostels do offer private rooms for people who like their own space, and it’s usually a lot cheaper than a private hotel room!

Hostels tend to be thought of as dirty, your things can get stolen, and in the movies, a place where you might be sharing a room with a serial killer. Granted I have seen some pretty disgusting hostels, but the vast majority of them were actually decent and quite nice. Security matters a lot to guests, so many hostels are often equipped with lockers you can use for free or for a small fee. A lot of times you’ll also find many hostels out there that offer perks like free WiFi, free breakfast, or free BBQ dinners. I even stayed a hostel in Australia once that offered free kayak and surfboard rentals! Nearly every hostel I’ve been to was also equipped with a kitchen, so you can save even more money by cooking your own meals.

Not all hostels are the dark, dingy, and cockroach infested places like you see in the movies. There are a lot out there that are clean, comfy, and sometimes even quite homey and stylish. I’ve even gotten lucky in some places where my “dorm” bed turned out to be a queen size all to myself! Typically a good hostel has social areas where you can meet other travelers. This is why I usually prefer staying in hostels when I travel, because it’s where you can make new friends!

Airbnb
Airbnb is a great resource for people to find and rent lodging while traveling. I’ve used it a few times and it’s especially great when you’re traveling with someone or a group of people since you can split the costs. The way it works is people who have a spare room or even a whole apartment available, lease it out for short-term (and sometimes long-term) stays. You can rent out a room in a shared apartment or even a whole private apartment/house for yourself. You can find some good budget deals on here as an alternative to a hotel, especially when you’re staying in a more expensive city. But if you have the money, you can also find some very unique and interesting places to stay in. There’s even a listing to stay in a castle! 

Housesitting
Another interesting accommodation alternative, if you have the time and flexibility, is housesitting. There are several websites out there, such as TrustedHousesitters and Housecarers, where people who are going on holiday for a period of time are in need of someone to watch over the home and/or take care of pets while they are away. I’ve personally never tried this, but I know people who have and they saved hundreds if not thousands of dollars on accommodation during their travels. The catch is you do need to commit to a longer time period in one place (which isn’t always a bad thing if you have the time). But having a free place to stay for a relatively small amount of work sounds like a fair trade to me!

Camping
Starry Night
Camping is another alternative that can be fun and cheap. Sometimes it can be free! In some countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, freedom camping is pretty popular and can be done in a lot of areas. While road tripping across Australia, my friends and I camped most of the way. It saved us a lot of money and made for a more memorable experience! There’s nothing like sleeping under the stars deep in the Australian Outback.

Couchsurfing
Another great way to cut down the costs of accommodation is to stay with someone who lives in the place you’re visiting. Couchsurfing is a great networking site of people who offer their couches or any free space in their homes for other travelers. While it’s nice to have a free place to stay, I find the most rewarding aspect about this option is that you meet and stay with a local who can show and teach you things about their city that you otherwise might not have known about. I use it from time to time and have had some pretty great experiences! There have even been times where I’ve been invited to local events and parties with my host’s friends. The service is free, but in exchange for letting me stay at their place I generally like to take my hosts out for drinks or make them dinner. It’s a great way to make new friends with the locals and have cultural exchange.

Of course sleeping at a stranger’s place sounds a bit weird and unsafe, but you just have to think smart when you’re searching for a potential host. Key things I look for are people who have complete profiles with pictures, details about their interests and hobbies, and most importantly reviews from other people who have interacted with them before.

Volunteering
Volunteering can add a rewarding and enriching experience to your travels. There are endless organizations and resources out there to find projects and opportunities, from taking care of sea turtles in Costa Rica, to helping out at local schools in Peru, to working on organic farms in New Zealand. In most cases you’re given a cheap or sometimes free place to stay in exchange for your work. I’ve used sites like WWOOFing, HelpX, and Workaway to find opportunities to work a few hours a day in lodges, hostels, and B&Bs in exchange for free accommodation.

My Favorite Places In The World

A lot of times I get asked what my favorite place in the world is. And the answer I give is pretty ambiguous, because it’s hard to choose just one! There are several places I can think of that were especially memorable and favorable, all for different reasons. If I had to narrow it down to a top 10, these would be the ones (in no particular order):

1. New Zealand
Emerald Lakes | Tongariro
Might be a bit biased since I lived there for nearly a year, but New Zealand is one of those places that always seems to be on everyone’s top lists! And for a good reason too, there is so much packed into this little country–towering volcanoes, lush rain forests, beautiful beaches, charming rolling hills, fjordlands, gorgeous mountain ranges. It’s a stunningly beautiful country everywhere you look. As an outdoorsy, nature-loving kind of guy this is the perfect country for me and I love that fact that there’s so many things to do here to get your adrenaline rush fix. Besides that, Kiwis are some of the nicest and friendliest people I’ve met! The Maori culture here is strong and very interesting to learn about.

Highlights: Doing the Tongariro Crossing; heli-hiking on the Franz Josef glacier; black-water rafting Waitomo glowworm caves

2. Australia
Golgum Pool
Even as a kid, I always wanted to go to Australia so having the opportunity to live there for a year was a dream come true! Australia has become my second home and I’m considering moving back here again one day. I’ve fallen in love with the laid-back, easy going lifestyle that defines Aussie culture. The work/life balance here is something I admire. I’m also a lover of the sun, so a sunny warm climate is also pretty ideal for me. Two of my favorite places in the world are here, one being Sydney. I’m not normally a big fan of cities, but Sydney is one I’d live in. The other being the Margaret River region of Western Australia, where I lived and worked for 6 months. Some of the best beaches I’ve seen to date are there and it’s also one of the country’s premiere wine regions. It’s a beautiful place to live. I really hope to make it back to Australia again one day!

Highlights: Living in Dunsborough, WA; road tripping up the East Coast and across the Outback; exploring Kakadu National Park by 4WD

3. France
Birds Eye View of Paris
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in France now, more than any other European country, and I’ve grown quite fond of it! Most of the time I’ve spent there has been in Paris (one of my favorite cities in the world), but in this most recent trip I also got to see a bit more of the countryside in the Alsace Region as well as the city of Lyon. The thing I love about France is despite it’s relatively small size (well compared to the US at least) is how diverse it is. It’s got beautiful farmlands and rolling hills, wine regions, rugged coastlines, high mountains, a warm Mediterranean climate in the south. Plus I have an affinity for French language and culture, making this one of my favorite places!

Highlights: Walking the streets of Paris at night; wandering around the Christmas markets in L’Alsace

4. United States
Daydream
Even though this one is obviously biased as it’s my home country, nothing beats the diversity of the United States. From the polar regions in Alaska, to tropical jungles in Hawaii, to the stunning deserts in Utah and Arizona, there is such a huge range of places to see in the US. As a nation made up of immigrants, there is also such a huge pool of diversity in the people as well and you can find pretty much any kind of food from around the world that you can think of if you look in the right places. Despite living there most of my life, there’s still so much I have to see!

Highlights: Washington State in general, my home state (and the best state!); road tripping around Utah and Arizona; summer days with family on the New Jersey shore

5. Ireland
Stormy Skies Over Connemara
I’m currently backpacking through Ireland at the moment so I might still be caught up with the initial awe and excitement of being here, but I’ve loved every bit of it so far! Ireland is an absolutely beautiful country, especially out west and to the north along the rugged, weathered coast. While the weather might not be so nice all the time (where else is it sunny, then rain sideways, and hails all within a 10 minute time span?), it’s breathtaking when the sun is out. Irish people also have to be the among the most charming and friendly people I’ve met so far. I love Irish accents and find some of the expressions and things they say very amusing! Everyone is so chatty and welcoming that it’s super easy to make friends with the locals here!

Highlights: Driving around Slea’s Head; Killarney National Park; hanging out with locals in pubs

6. Portugal
Lonely Beach | Lagos, Portugal
Portugal is another place I’ve visited recently and absolutely fell in love with. I had no expectations coming here and ended up finding a place with picturesque cities, warm and welcoming people, amazing food and wine (port wine is out of this world), a nice warm climate most of the year, and beautiful landscapes. I was very surprised to find that many people here speak very good English, making it a lot easier to talk to people! It’s also a great destination to go to if you’re on a budget, as everything is cheap here compared to the rest of Europe. I’m still getting over the buzz of being in Portugal and really want to go back again sometime!

Highlights: Drinking port wine in Porto; exploring castles in Sintra; kayaking along the Algarve Coast in Lagos

7. Vietnam
Hmong Family
Vietnam is one of those countries visitors either love or hate, and fortunately I fall in the love category. From the chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh which are buzzing day and night with the noise of endless waves of motorbikes, to walking with the ethnic Hmong people in the quite rice terraces in the north around Sapa, this is a country rich with history, cultural diversity, and one of the most distinguished cuisines in the world. The food alone is a major reason to love Vietnam. The variety in different dishes they have is astounding. There is quite a defined backpacker/tourist trail that runs the length of the country, but there are so many relatively undiscovered places to explore if you go off the beaten path.

Highlights: Boat trip on the river in Trang An, through stunning karst formations; Hoi An; canyoning in Dalat; trekking and doing a home stay with Hmong people in Sapa

8. Peru
The Locals of Machu Picchu
Peru is a special country to me, because it was the first place where I began traveling solo! I spent a week there in the area around Cusco and hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which is still one of my most memorable trips to date. While I would have liked to have stayed longer to see more of the country, what I did see and experience there was inspiring and made me want to travel independently as much as I could from that point on. I remember feeling so nervous and awkward when I arrived at the airport and I had to bargain with some dodgy cab drivers to get to my hostel. I stayed in a hostel by myself for the first time and forced myself to talk to strangers to make new friends. I Wandered around and got lost in the streets of Cusco and tried new foods in the local market. On the day of the trek our group had breakfast with a Peruvian family on their farm. It was exhilarating Walking through the Andes and being surrounded by stunning scenery everywhere, being in awe as I walked through the ruins of Machu Picchu. I would love to go back here again and see more of South America in general!

Highlights: Cuy (guinea pig) breakfast on a farm in the countryside; trekking on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu; climbing Huayna Picchu

9. Hong Kong
Hong Kong Lights
I love Hong Kong. It’s the kind of city that’s always buzzing with life and there’s always something interesting happening around the corner. It’s blessed with a beautiful harbor and surrounded by jungle-covered mountains. The contrast between nature and cosmopolitan city life here is amazing. One minute you can be on a bustling street surrounded by enormous sky scrapers, the next you can find yourself on a quite path going up into the mountains. And the food here is to die for! I loved exploring all the exotic fruits in the street markets (rambutans and mangosteens are my Asian favs). Chinese food in general is addicting, and the experience of being the only westerner in a family-owned noodle restaurant is memorable. I’ll never be able to look at Chinese food anywhere else in the world the same way again, the real stuff is so good!

Highlights: Eating amazing Chinese food; seeing Victoria Harbour at night; exploring the markets; cable car ride up to the Giant Buddha statue

10. Nepal
Swayambhunath | Kathmandu
As a lover of hiking and mountains, Nepal was always on my list of places to visit. Now I can say I finally have and it’s just as brilliant as I thought it would be! Despite going in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake, the country is very much open for tourism. The country is one of the best places in the world for trekking, the opportunities are endless. I did the Everest trek and although I did have a bout of food poisoning and altitude sickness (not a great combo), it was a very memorable experience. Aside from the stunning beauty of the Himalayas, Nepal is also very rich in culture and diversity. There are over 40 different ethnic groups and tribes living here and the beauty of the Himalaya is stunning.

Highlights: Trekking up the EBC trail and seeing Mount Everest up close.

How I Fell In Love With Porto

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Recently I took a trip to Portugal. After traveling around the cold and gray northern parts of Europe most of the winter, I started daydreaming about warmer places where I could thaw out and get some sun. Many of my friends who had been there before said it was a really nice country, so after a quick look on Skyscanner I found a cheap flight from Paris to the northern Portuguese city of Porto. As I got on the plane, I realized I really didn’t know anything about the city other than that it’s the place where port wine is produced and stored. With this I didn’t have a lot of other expectations, but what I wasn’t expecting was how much I would fall in love with Porto (and Portugal)!

My visit was fairly brief–only three days–and I regret not staying a few extra. Despite being one of the biggest cities in Portugal, I found it rather small with a lot of charm and a very relaxing atmosphere. Being situated on a river near the coast, the city is surrounded by water and so there is that hint of fragrance from the sea in the air. The smell of fresh cooking from somewhere within the colorful homes lining the steep, tiny streets was also everywhere. The sound of seagulls, church bells ringing in the distance, and cars driving over cobblestone roads were constantly filling your ears. Everywhere you look, there is something beautiful or interesting around the corner. I was constantly wide-eyed the whole time I was there, letting my senses take everything in.

The people of Porto were also so warm and friendly. Being so far away from the rest of Europe, I thought it would be a little difficult with the language barrier, but I was surprised to find that a lot of people actually speak really decent English! Especially younger people, some of which had perfect American or British accents, making it really easy to communicate with some of the locals. The pace of life for people in this city is also very relaxed and easy going. Unlike me, who is a notoriously fast walker, no one is in a rush to get anywhere. People take their time.

Despite being a small city, there is a fair amount to do and see here. Getting around to most places can be done by foot, although they do have a good tram and bus system to get you to places farther out from the historic city center. Here are some of the things I liked most about Porto:

Beautiful Parks
Spring in Porto

One of my rules of thumb to determining how nice a city is by the amount of parks it has. I like my cities green, with lots of places you can “get away” from the urban jungle and escape to a small patch of nature. Porto has just that, with some beautifully landscaped parks. One of the best ones I thought was Jardins do Palacio de Christal, which was decorated with lots of local and exotic flora. The views of the river and city are pretty outstanding from there as well! The gardens at the Contemporary Arts Museum (Fundação De Serralves) has an entry fee (included with the price of the museum), but is also very nice place to walk through.

The Food & Wine
The View From Taylor's

The most thing that Porto is known for is it’s famous port wine. Port is a very sweet, fortified wine that comes in quite a few varieties, and is a must try when in Porto. Just across the river from Porto city center is the city of Gaia, home of several different wine cellars and producers. You can make a whole day going from cellar to cellar and trying all the different wines. Taylor’s offers a very nice tour of their cellars for just €5 and you can learn about the whole wine making process. It also includes 3 different wine tastings, which you can enjoy out on their terrace that overlooks the city (seen above). I went to a few different cellars, but Taylor’s was the best one I thought. Another producer, Graham’s, is also a nice spot for wine tasting and they also have an outdoor deck with nice views of the city and river. If you have the time, you can even take a tour to the beautiful Duoro Valley region, to the east from Porto where you can see where all the grapes are grown and harvested.

Aside from wine, the food in Porto (and Portugal in general) is splendid and very cheap. You can try Francesinha, a typical Porto dish which is sort of like a meat sandwich covered with cheese, an egg, and sauce, at any cafeteria. A good spot for cheap eats in the city center is a little café called Badalhoca. Most dishes (about €2-€3) are served like tapas and consist of meat or seafood. It’s best to come with friends and order a few dishes to share. Afterwards you can get something sweet and head over to Santinis for some really good ice cream!

If it’s a Monday evening, you can head down to the old district of Rebeira on the riverfront. It’s where all the young people go to socialize and have cheap drinks and baldes (buckets) for only a few euros. Seeing the city from the river at night is also really beautiful!

This Book Store
The Most Beautiful Book Shop

Kind of an offbeat thing to see, but something really worth going to is the Lello & Irmao bookstore located near the city center. It has to be the most beautiful bookstore I’ve ever seen–also known as the Harry Potter library (you’ll find out why when you see it). It’s a small shop, but the décor and atmosphere is amazing with a beautifully carved staircase connecting the first and second floors. There is a small English section for non-Portuguese readers, and your €3 entry ticket can go toward getting a discount if you buy a book!

The BeachPorto Beach

Not only is Porto a river town, but is also blessed with several beaches that face west, making it a perfect place to watch the sun set over the ocean. There is a really nice coastal walk you can do all along the beach area on the north side of the river that makes its way down the coast and along the river back into Porto, with a fortress you can see along the way. Getting to the beach can be done by bus or even better, by trolley car, and only costs a couple euros. Farther north of Porto I heard there are also some good surf spots as well.

The Architecture
Clerigos Tower

Many buildings are decorated with colorful ceramic facades, which is really unique to Portugal. Even the sidewalks are pretty, made out of small black and white stone tiles in a mosaic-like fashion. Closer to the city center you can get lost wandering around the steep and narrow streets, past old churches and little shops. Unlike Lisbon, which suffered heavy damage from a massive earthquake a while back and had to be rebuilt, Porto’s buildings are mostly original and well-preserved. This gives the city a very old and rustic feel, which adds so much to its charming atmosphere. It’s a very pretty and well-designed city.

The Views
Porto

Situated on steep cliffs and hills next to the river, Porto is a very picturesque city (how many times have I said this already?) There are so many places in the city you can find with sweeping vistas, especially from the famous bridge in the middle of the city, Ponte de San Luis.

It may have been all the wine I drank or maybe just the relaxed vibes as I made my way through the city, but I can say Porto is one of those special places that I’ve really fallen in love with and can see myself coming back here again. If I was Portuguese I would definitely live here!

Food, Fiestas, and Fire Running in Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona! The last stop on our European summer tour. We arrived into the city late at night after travelling all day from Italy by train and plane. Needless to say we were exhausted and very hungry, so after checking in to our Airbnb we aimlessly wandered down the streets looking for something to eat, hoping to find anything open at 1 AM. We were only mildly surprised to find quite a few shops and restaurants open because let’s be real–this is Spain. The country famous for eating late and staying up late (which maybe is why the Spanish like to sleep in and take afternoon siesta!). There was one restaurant near the waterfront that was pretty lively and appeared to have a good menu, so we went in and had a seat.

And that is when I was first introduced to one the things that I would love about Spain–the food. I have always heard about the paella in Spain, so ordered myself a steamy plate of seafood and rice goodness. Paella is a traditional Spanish dish, originating from Valencia, that includes cooked rice, veggies, and spices that can be cooked with seafood or meats. It’s amazing–definitely a must try when in Spain!

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Aside from paella, we also snacked on the large variety of tapas that you can get at a lot of small restaurants and bars throughout Spain. Gazpacho was another favorite, which we normally just bought from the store. While I’m not a big fan of tomato juice, this refreshing blend of tomatoes and veggies, garlic, and spices is just the thing to cool off on a hot summer day. I think it’s actually meant to be a kind of soup, but we would just drink it from the glass. The following day we headed out and walked around the city to see some of the sights, went to the beach for a bit, and walked through the huge park located across the street from where we were staying. But really, the most we ever did besides walking around was eating. All the time. Because Spanish food is just so freaking good. Out of all the places I went in Europe, I thought Spain had the best food (move aside France and Italy!)

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On another evening we headed out to the neighborhood of Vila de Gracia for a night out to see a street festival. Our Airbnb host said there was going to be a parade and I was expecting a typical parade with floats and people dressed up in costumes throwing candy. But that’s not how they do it in Barcelona. In fact, they take parades to a whole new level. As we got out of the subway station, we didn’t really know where we were going so we just followed everyone else heading off down through the streets. Soon enough we could hear drums playing off the distance, their resonating beats rumbling off the buildings. Eventually we got to where the festivity was taking place and right away I knew it wasn’t going to be just a “parade”. It was La Festa Major de Gràcia, one of the biggest events of the year in Barcelona. And we had stumbled right into the middle of the correfoc, a popular tradition in Catalonia meaning “fire run”. There were groups of people dressed up as devils running through the streets brandishing sticks that would shoot out fireworks, often times chasing people down the street and showering sparks over the crowd. There were also a few floats resembling things like donkeys and lizards that could be carried around and had fixings on them so they could be lit up with fireworks. So imagine, you’re running down the street being chased by a diablo, fireworks going off over your head all along with the powerful sound of the drummers playing. It was deafening. It was chaos. But the energy that filled the streets was incredible. People were dancing and having a good time.

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All of this went on for a while, I think we were there for two hours following the spectacle until it reached its end at a small plaza. There they had the grand finale where they lit up every last bit of fireworks they had. It was phenomenal.

We were very lucky to happen to be there at the time of year when they have this event, but it’s just one of many festivals and events that take place in Barcelona annually. That’s what I loved about this city–it’s such a lively city and full of energy. Everywhere you go there seems to be something going on. And of course there’s the great food! Even though it was a short stay, my experience in Barcelona really makes me want to come back again and see more of Spain.

Travels in Italy: Cinque Terre

Vernazza

Out of all the places we visited in Italy, Cinque Terre was my favorite. Located on the west coast along the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre (meaning “Five Lands”) is actually a national park consisting of five small seaside villages. The whole area is breathtakingly picturesque. This rugged coastline is sparsely populated with brightly colored clusters of rustic buildings that appear to hang precariously right along the sea cliffs. Tiny fishing boats dot the harbors and vineyards and olive groves grow in steep terraces along the lush green mountainsides. It’s an enchanting place not to be missed.

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Once a very remote and difficult location to access, getting here is quite easy nowadays. We took the train from Pisa (after checking out the famous leaning tower) to the nearest municipality, La Spezia. From here, it’s only a 20-minute train ride further up the coast to the park. There are several ways you can explore the Cinque Terre. The easiest and fastest way would be by train, each town having its own tiny platform. It’s also possible to get between the towns by boat. Although a slower and more expensive option, taking a boat can be more rewarding as you can view the park and villages by sea. And then you have your own two feet to get you around. In my opinion walking is the best way to see the Cinque Terre.

The five villages (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) are all interconnected with another by a network of trails. While there is an entrance fee to walk the main coastal trail (Sentiero Azzuro or “Blue Trail”) between the towns, it’s fairly inexpensive. A day pass I think only cost us €7.50. All the other trails in the park are free. You can start from anywhere, but if you want to do the whole 7.5 mile (12 km) walk in a day the most logical places would be at the trail’s termini in Monterosso or Riomaggiore. We began our walk at the northern end of the park in Monterosso al Mare. This was the biggest of the towns and appears to be where most visitors use as their base to explore the region. There is a big beach here as well, making this town more like a beach resort than the rest of the villages. We didn’t stick around in Monterosso for very long, we basically just walked through it to get to the start of the trail.

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Going in the southern direction starts out much more difficult than going north. The trail between Monterosso and Vernazza is considered the most difficult section of the walk as it’s the longest (2 mi/4 km) and the path is steeper at this end. The trail is more uneven and rocky here with lots of stone stairways going up and down along the way. The upside to this is once you’ve covered this portion of the trek it just gets easier from there!

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Upon arrival in Vernazza, we were greeted with a view of the village from above. The scene is exactly what you would expect of a little town depicted in a fairy tale–a small little harbor busy with fishermen making their daily catch, the local market buzzing with activity, the people lazily walking through the narrow streets going about their daily business, and of course the most cliché thing of all–the castle on top of a hill. This is perhaps what makes Vernazza the most popular and most touristy of the five villages. With a little harbor as well as a small pebbly beach, it’s also an ideal place for swimming. After the tough and sweaty hike from Monterosso, jumping into the Mediterranean was irresistible.

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After a swim and a quick bite to eat, we were on our way again to the next town, Corniglia. What started out as a sunny day quickly turned into dark clouds creeping in, and before we knew it we were caught in a heavy downpour. Amazing how quickly the weather can change here! For about 20 minutes we took shelter under a tree with a bunch of other people hiking the trail. Once the rain subsided we continued on into town. Corniglia is the only Cinque Terre town not built at sea level. Instead, it’s perched high above the sea on top of a cliff. I’m not sure if it was because of recent rain, but the town had a rather sleepy mood to it. Compared to Vernazza, it was much quieter and there were fewer people on the streets. We didn’t stick around for very long, only long enough to enjoy the views and grab some gelato from a local gelateria.

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As we made our way back down to sea level toward the next section of the walk, we discovered that the rest of the trail was inaccessible due to landslides and are closed until further notice. So unfortunately, we couldn’t hike the entire length of the famous walk and instead hopped on the next train to the neighboring town of Manarola where we spent the rest of the afternoon. Between Vernazza and Manarola, I would say both are the most picturesque of the villages. While Vernazza has its snazzy little harbor and castle, Manarola perched right at the edge of a cliff. The pastel colored buildings all appear stacked on each other, clinging on the side of the mountain. The small cove at the base of the town next to the sea is also great for swimming and oftentimes you’ll see locals and tourists alike jumping off the rocks. We stayed here for the sunset and it did not disappoint!

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Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit the last town Riomaggiore, but this region of Italy was so incredible that I’m sure I’ll find myself here again one day. One of the things you notice about the villages in the Cinque Terre is how it has escaped the grasps of the modern world. Before the railway was built through here, the villages were really only accessible by foot or by boat. It’s remoteness allowed for the local culture and lifestyle to remain mostly unchanged for centuries. No where in the towns do you find any chain stores or supermarkets. Even the streets are absent of cars. The only traffic jams you’ll find here are two old locals chatting with another or a distracted tourists stopping in the middle of the street to marvel at the scene around them. Aside from the trains rumbling through and the WiFi hotspots in the towns to cater to tourists, life in the Cinque Terre still goes on as it did hundreds of years ago–at a slow leisurely pace.

Travels in Italy: Florence

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From the sunny shores of the Bay of Naples, we headed back north and inland to the capital of Tuscany–Florence. Florence is a beautiful city and as the birth place of the Renaissance, it’s an art-lovers dream. All around the city are many art museums, galleries, and wonderfully decorated churches.

One of the things I loved about Florence was how easy it was to get around by foot. Compared to other Italian cities, it’s a smallish city with all the sights and attractions being fairly close together. There is a bus system that could make getting around a lot quicker, but the buildings and streets of Florence are beautiful–they’re meant to be walked!

Despite Florence being a treasure trove of museums and art, we actually skipped out on some of the major sights like the Uffizi, where works from famous artists such as Michaelangelo, Da Vinchi, and Raphael are on display. Or Accademia, where the famous David statue resides. At this point during our trip around Europe, we were getting a little tired of seeing so many art galleries, museums, and churches. We did make an effort to visit the Duomo however, the main attraction of Florence right in the heart of the city. The massive cathedral, which began construction in 1296, was (and still is) the largest masonry dome on Earth when it was completed in 1436. It’s huge and it towers over the city. At 114 meters (374 feet), the Statue of Liberty could easily fit inside it. making it easily recognizable from afar. On the inside it’s quite ornate and looks different than other churches I’ve seen in Europe. And entrance is free!

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We also did check out a few other churches such as Santa Croce, where Galileo, Michaelangelo, and Machiavelli are buried and another (Basilica de Medici) where Donatello rests. Other than that we just enjoyed walking around and getting lost in the streets.

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Of course we also paid a visit to the famous Ponte Vecchio, the last remaining medieval bridge. During WWII all the bridges in Florence were destroyed with the exception of this one. Rumor has it that Hitler sent a last minute decree to spare the bridge as he had a liking for it. Whether that’s true or not, it’s still standing after all this time and is among the oldest bridges in Europe. What also makes this bridge unique is that there are still shops lining its sides, just as they were centuries ago.

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On the other side of the river is my favorite place in the city, Piazzale di Michaelangelo, where you can get an incredible panoramic view of all of Florence (as seen in the header photo)!

Another great view of the city can be seen from the nearby town of Fiesole, out in the countryside and up in the hills outside of the city. From Florence we took a bus to the tiny commune and spent an afternoon there walking about and watching the sunset over the city.

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That’s all I have for Florence unfortunately. It really is a beautiful city with lots to see and do, but unfortunately we just weren’t keen on seeing most of them. I would probably come back if I ever found myself in Italy though, as a jumping off point to visit other parts of Tuscany. After Florence we headed west to our last (and my favorite) place in Italy–Cinque Terre!

Travels in Italy: Sorrento & Capri

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Sorrento is located in a beautiful and serene part of Italy, just south of Pompeii where we based ourselves to explore the area around the Bay of Naples. It’s a small city nestled at the foot of a beautiful mountain range that graces the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the coastline is textured with steep cliffs, deep gorges, narrow winding roads, and tiny fishing villages clinging to its shores. Mount Vesuvius can be seen on a clear day across the bay. It’s an attractive scene and it’s very easy to get to from nearby Naples or Pompeii by train via the Circumvensuviana line.

Aside from the beautiful scenery, Sorrento is also a popular jumping off point to other famous sights nearby, including the islands of Capri (which we would visit another day) and Ischia and the glitzy Almafi Coast. This draws in thousands upon thousands of tourists each year and in mid-summer we were at the peak of the season. The city caters to tourists and getting caught up in the tourist trap was something we weren’t keen on doing. So since it was a hot day, we decided to go swimming. There are a few beaches near the city center that you have to pay to use, but they’re small, pebbly, and quite crowded. I had heard from someone about a swimming hole that the locals like to hang out at about 3 km outside of town, so finding it was our mission for the day.

The walk was very nice. Most of it was just following one of the narrow winding roads that leads out of town, heavily congested with tourist buses and Vespas. There are nice views of the city and the bay along the way. Eventually we left the crowded road for a long, quite cobblestone street that descended toward a hidden natural pool surrounded by a wall of rock. It was amazing! There was a cave at the other end that you could swim through and out into the open sea. We swam and did some cliff jumping for the afternoon and had a nice picnic lunch admiring the views across the bay. A magical little place.

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The following day we came back to Sorrento and just nearly missed the last morning ferry to Capri. The island, only 5 kilometers from the mainland is a giant craggy monolith of limestone rising out of a shimmering cerulean blue sea. In the Greek epic, The Oddysey, the island was known as the isle of the Sirens–seductive woman-like creatures whose songs lured sailors toward the island causing them to crash into the rocks. While the Sirens may exist only in the storybooks, the island is still undoubtedly alluring. It’s been a popular destination even since the era of the Roman empire and in the summer time it attracts thousands of visitors a day. The tiny little towns are packed full of day trippers. Glamorous villas and vacation homes hang high on the cliffs above the water. All around the island’s many coves and hidden beaches, multi-million dollar yachts are anchored just off shore. Yet despite the tacky souvenir shops, the crowded beaches, and inflated prices that come with all the tourism, it doesn’t take away the enchanting atmosphere of the island.

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While most people come here to see the famous blue grotto, we decided to spend our limited time on the island ascending to the top of Mount Solaro–the highest point. Upon stepping off the ferry, we were greeted by a rather long line of people waiting for the bus going up the road to the Anacapri, the lofty little town on the western slopes of the mountain. Since the roads in Capri are so narrow and windy, the buses are very small and can only hold a limited number of people at a time. So rather than waiting in line for an hour we decided to hike up. The 1.6 mile (2.7 km) path between Marina Grande and Anacapri seems to be only a tame little walk…on a map. In reality, it was a very hot, sweaty, and exhausting climb. Albeit it only took us about 40 minutes, trudging up the seemingly endless stairways under the hot Italian sun left us beat. And I’m used to lots of hiking! Still, I felt better doing that than waiting in the bus line in town. And the views along the way were rewarding.

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Upon arrival in Anacapri we made our way over to the chairlift that would take us up to the summit. From what I remember, it cost about €10 round-trip and took about 20 minutes. At the top we marveled at the amazing 360 degree views of the island and the Gulf of Naples.

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We stayed up there for about an hour before coming back down into town. This time we managed to hop right on a bus and made it down to the marina in no time. Since we only had about an hour left before our ferry departed for the mainland, we decided to go for a swim at one of the nearby beaches. So refreshing after a long day of walking up and around the upper reaches of the island.

Capri has been a place I’ve always wanted to go to and despite our short day trip, it will always be a memorable one! We left the island late in the afternoon and upon arrival in Sorrento, took the crowded train back to Pompeii. We indulged in our nightly ritual of getting a pizza for dinner before passing out for the night, having to get a good night’s sleep for the long train ride to our next destination–Florence!