Category Archives: Adventure

Sintra: Medieval Portugal

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Kevin and I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal for a few days in late-September, and we took a day-trip to visit Sintra. Since we spent an entire day, and this is a popular option for folks visiting Lisbon, I made Sintra it’s own post. To fill you in if you didn’t read about Lisbon, the temperature was hot and everything was crowded. We were surprised because we thought travel at the end of September would be ideal (kids back in school, European holidays over, etc.), but I guess a lot of other travelers had the same idea!) Generally, Portugal has really warm summers, so I’d advise going in late-fall or early-spring if traveling in the heat isn’t your cup of tea.

Sintra is a medieval city that is a 40-45-minute train ride from Lisbon and costs about 5 Euro round-trip. Two train lines will get you there: Oriente-Sintra and the Rossio-Sintra. Since this is a city train, you can’t pre-purchase your tickets. Once you get off the train, be prepared, like in Lisbon, to walk up-hill. A lot. There is a bus system in Sintra to take tourists to the visitor sites, but also be prepared to wait in long lines for the bus. Even though we fought the heat and lines (I swear, I don’t usually complain this much!), Sintra is definitely a worthwhile day-trip from Lisbon if you’re already there.

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Sintra from above

The cool part about Sintra is, the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so there is a lot of history. We did 3 big things on our day in Sintra:

  • National Palace: If we’re being honest, I’d skip this. We arrived pretty early in the day and still had to wait in line quite a while for tickets. Plus once we got in, we were crammed into the palace rooms like sardines. It is tempting to do this first because after getting off the train and into the heart of Sintra, it seems to be the most obvious thing to do. If you go in off-season and the lines are short, this would be a good option. My favorite part was the elaborate ceilings in all of the rooms!

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  • Moorish Castle: Even though a lot of walking was involved, a lot of it was in the shade (hallelujah!). We got some amazing photographs and enjoyed sitting and looking at the incredible view.

 

  • Pena Palace: The colors of the palace and overall experience were awesome. Trust me on this one: pay for the bus to take you up and down. Seriously. It is worth a few bucks.

 

For one final tip: most of the food is down in the city (not much to eat at the sites), so be sure to grab some lunch before heading up to the Moorish castle and Pena Palace!

Lisbon, The City of Seven Hills

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For the last several years, I have been hearing a buzz about Portugal. Kevin and I finally decided to take a trip there in early fall. While there were a lot of things I loved about Portugal, I wouldn’t put it in my “Top 10.” Overall I would recommend Lisbon (known by Europeans as Lisboa) and Sintra to someone who is a novice European traveler (see my next post to learn more about Sintra). Like Prague, it is easy for Americans to get around in Lisbon because most speak English.

Like I mentioned, my husband and I went in late September, but it was HOT in Lisbon. Most businesses/restaurants do not have air conditioning (our hotel did, thank goodness), so traveling in the off-season is advised.  When we arrived, all of the taxis were on strike, so we had to take the metro from the airport to the nearest station and lug our suitcases about 20+ minutes up cobblestone roads in 90 degree heat. Normally we don’t mind walking/taking public transport and we rarely get taxis when we travel, but with luggage, walking to our hotel was a challenge. We stayed at the Casa Das Janelas Com Vista, a boutique hotel running about $180 a night. I would certainly recommend the hotel for those who like to walk a lot and want a neighborhood feel. For those who have read my other blog posts, you know that my husband and I prefer boutique hotels because they are often quieter and we feel like we get a more local experience. My favorite part about our hotel in Lisbon (other than the A/C!) was the breakfast area. It was an eclectic mix of furniture/dishes and had a great breakfast spread. The staff was also extremely helpful. The hotel was in the Barrio Alto district of Lisbon, a thriving bar and restaurant neighborhood. While there were some great views nearby and it was nice to be near a lot of restaurants at night, the mornings were dirty and smelly in the nightlife aftermath. Lisbon is known as the City of Seven Hills. When we booked our hotel, we were willing to be further from the metro to be in a cool neighborhood, but when the taxis are on strike (and no Uber), it is the City of Seven Million Hills. One cool feature of the area was the Ascensor da Bica funicular which could assuage the steep slopes of Lisbon (plus the street art was awesome).

Kevin and I spent the money to get the Hop-on-Hop-Off Bus (Gray Line), and I wouldn’t really recommend this in Lisbon during high season. We usually do this in all the big cities (for a day or two), and they are really convenient, but the taxis being on strike, the heat, and the wait-times made the experience irritating. Although without taxis, I’m not sure how else we would have gotten to these places!

I won’t tell you about all of the stops we made, but one of our favorites was the National Coach Museum which houses carriages/vehicles from the 17th-19th centuries. I had never heard of such a place, and it was a pleasant surprise! The building itself is in an old riding school, so the sense of place was unique. It was only about 6 Euro to get in and it was air-conditioned! Kids under 12 get in for free. We also enjoyed visiting Belem Tower and got some great pictures (see below). Belem Tower is a 16th century fortification right on the water. We waited in line, but it moved pretty quickly since it was nearing the end of the day.

One of our favorite spots to visit was a bar named…Bar (no mincing words, apparently) near our hotel. One of our favorite experiences in Lisbon was the opportunity to find a watering hole run by locals that we could chat with other people. We met the owner, John a native Lisbon-ite who loved quoting American action films (black t-shirt below), met a German couple on their honeymoon and an American-born Ukrainian woman, among others. We had to drink outside because it was too hot to stay indoors! If you ever travel, try to take the opportunity to meet people and strike up a conversation (this is very American of me, I know). Our international crew spent the night talking about politics, travel, and our interests. Isn’t that what travel is all about?

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Our next full day in Lisbon, Kevin and I went to the Jeronimos Monestary. We took some nice pictures, but the line was so long. If you want to do this, go first thing in the morning!

Then, we decided to ditch the Hop-On-Hop-Off and take a ferry to the Cristo Rei Statue. We actually had to take a ferry AND to a bus to get there, but it was a beautiful day, and the breeze near the water was glorious. It wasn’t crowded at all, so compared to our other experiences of waiting in line everywhere, it was so pleasant! If you are in Lisbon, do not miss this experience. The views of the statue and the water were breathtaking. To get there, you depart from Cais do Sodré ferry terminal and then take a short bus ride from the Cacilhas bus station. Cristo Rei, built in the 1950s, was created by the same artist who did Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janero (Portugal colonized Brazil many years ago, so this makes sense). You can pay 6 Euros to go all the way up into the statue, but we thought the views were fantastic at the bottom. By the way, the bridge below is NOT the Golden Gate…it’s the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge over the River Tagus.

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Our last night in Lisbon we stopped for a cocktail and had dinner at Lost In with an amazing view back in the Barrio Alto district. Of all the places we ate in Lisbon, this is the restaurant I would recommend (ask for outside or a spot with a view – WOWZA).

While the experience is Lisbon wasn’t as amazing as we expected or as life-changing as other places we’ve visited, it was definitely enjoyable and we have many great memories there. If you are a city-person, it is worth exploring – cheers!

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Boston: It’s All Here!

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For Spring Break this year, Kevin surprised me with a trip to Boston! He’s never done a surprise trip for me before, so this was especially exciting. I knew a week before that we were going SOMEWHERE, but I didn’t know where until the day before we left.

Since I am a history nerd (especially colonial history), I was thrilled to find out we were traveling to Beantown (AKA Boston) – I had never been to Boston before! It was early spring, so we dressed warmly (sweaters and rain jackets). We were lucky enough to have a couple days of sun!

Kevin arranged for us to use Hilton points to stay right downtown at the Hilton Faneuil Hall. The room was small but clean and comfortable, and it was a great location. Had we not used points, the hotel could have run us $350+ a night. The benefit to selecting a location that was walking distance to public transportation restaurants and tourism was that we didn’t have to rent a car. Aside from a car rental cost (which isn’t cheap in Boston), we would have had to pay $50 per night for parking. A taxi from the airport to the hotel ran us about $30, but we did not arrive during rush hour. Even still, spending a little more on a hotel in a good location near MBTA (Boston’s public transit) would be more economical in the long-run.

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We arrived on a Friday and our first stop after checking into the hotel was to Sam Adams Brewery! We walked to the subway and took the Orange line to Stony Brook. From there, it was a 7-8 minute walk. I have been to several breweries, and this one is definitely in my Top 3. The tour and tastings were completely free, and we met folks from all around the country! Plus, I really like their beer. After the tour and tastings, we stuck around for another hour at the bar and had a couple more drinks before departing for dinner.

That night we ate at Bostonia Public House. They had a really cool atmosphere, and Kevin was excited to have a lobster roll! Since our trip, he has actually been back to Boston a couple of times for work dinners, and he still enjoys it. After dinner, we walked to Quincy Market to grab some ice cream for dessert. Quincy Market is tourist-y but still really great. It was constructed in the 1820s and has lots of quick restaurants and snack shops to choose from.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to take a guided walking tour of the Freedom Trail. We didn’t have to make reservations because of the time of the year, but I definitely would go ahead and make reservations during peak season. For being pretty chilly that day, it was still super crowded. Our stops included the Massachusetts State House, the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House. Our guide was dressed up in colonial-wear and he had a lot of information, but it was sometimes difficult to hear among the hub-bub of the city.

After the walking tour, Kevin and I decided to go north to Paul Revere’s house. Admission was $5 which we were happy to pay since the money goes to preservation efforts. Be warned that admission is CASH ONLY. We were only there for about 30 minutes since the house is small, but it was still really interesting and the docents were informative and friendly.

We didn’t make a lunch reservation, but we should have. Everything that was recommended to us in the north end was a 1-2 hour wait. We were lucky and stumbled upon a Mexican restaurant called Tenoch Mexican. No frills, just good food. Eventually we made our way to Mike’s Pastry for cannolis. Mike’s Pastry was founded in the 1940s and they have a couple of locations – we went to the original on Hanover Street. It was Easter weekend, so it was PACKED but the cannolis were 100% worth the wait. So delicious.

After eating our cannolis in the park, we made our way to Boston Harbor to see where the famous Boston Tea Party took place in 1773. It was fun to see all the historic sights that day, but it was a LOT of walking. If you are planning on seeing Boston in a long weekend, good walking shoes are essential.

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We DID make dinner reservations that night. Again, on a weekend, reservations are necessary. Italian food in the North End is authentic and YUMMY. We ate Trattoria di Monica where homemade pasta is the specialty.

On our last day, we had a late flight so we ventured out to the JFK Presidential Library. To get there we had to take a bus and a train, but the experience was worth it. Since it was Easter Sunday it was an extremely light crowd, but the museum was huge. Admission was $14 per person. Every presidential library has a (to-scale) replica of the Oval Office, so we enjoyed seeing how JFK’s was set up. Overall, we had an awesome time nerding out by looking at all of the First Lady’s outfits and the Kennedy family’s personal effects.

Our last stop of the day was Bunker Hill. This monument commemorates a major battle that happened nearby in 1775. You could climb all the way up the obelisk, but Kevin and I decided that after all the walking we did, we could enjoy the view without climbing all the way up!

Our weekend trip to Boston was just the tip of the iceburg – I’d love to go back to explore some more! We ate like royalty, saw 15/16 sites on the Freedom Trail, and enjoyed springtime in the northeast. Until next time…

Washington D.C. and Virginia

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In July, I had an education conference at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington D.C. – Kevin decided to fly up for the weekend immediately after the conference, so we could visit my uncle in Leesburg, Virginia and do some sightseeing in Virginia.

Before this trip I last visited Washington D.C. in 2015 with a group of middle school students. We did many of the monuments, museums, Mt. Vernon (Washington’s home), and Arlington National Cemetery on the class trip, so these were locations I decided not to visit in my free time this go-around but are all absolutely worth your time.

I stayed at the Mandarin Oriental because of its proximity to USHMM and the low government rate (which I qualified for because I work at a public university). This hotel was swanky! Usually the Mandarin Oriental D.C. would run someone about $400 a night; the service and room were sensational (not to mention the amazing view I had of the Washington Monument), but the location for a couple or family wanting to sight see isn’t ideal. USHMM was only a couple of blocks away, but it was a hike to the Smithsonian and Washington Monument, not to mention other tourist attractions. Even though the monument looked close from my window – it wasn’t! There was also heavy construction in the area, and the restaurants surrounding the hotel were great for lunch options but closed for dinner.

Since I arrived in D.C. the day before the conference I really wanted to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Even though I went online the day-of at 6 AM to try to get a timed-entry pass to get in, I had no luck. The line once I got there was wrapped around the building (twice). You can try to visit or reserve passes, but the museum is still so popular, getting in is very difficult. I hope to visit this museum eventually!

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a must-see for museum-lovers. Tickets are free, but you may want to pay the $1 transaction fee to reserve tickets online – especially if you are going during peak season (May-September). Same-day tickets are available but not a guarantee. This museum would probably take a half-day of your time. This is probably one of the best museums in the country, and I highly recommend it.

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Hall of Remembrance – USHMM

After my conference in D.C., Kevin flew in early Friday afternoon to meet me for the weekend. We rented a car, and drove to Virginia. We were very lucky we missed rush-hour because I hear getting out of DC on Friday afternoons can take hours. Leesburg is a historic town in Loudoun County, Virginia about 33 miles northwest of D.C. My uncle has lived there with his wife for many years, and we stayed with them. It amazes me that there is so much farmland only 30 miles outside of the city! There are a lot of wineries and antique shops in the area, and finding a bed and breakfast in the area could make for a romantic little getaway!

A few months ago I read America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, so I insisted upon visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, VA. Monticello is about 2.5 hours from Washington D.C., and no shuttle goes directly there, so a rental car would probably be necessary, and it was a full-day excursion. It was a very warm July day when we visited, so be sure to bring water. The house itself is smaller than you might imagine, so much of the Monticello experience is touring the grounds outdoors. Parking at Monticello was free, but our tickets cost $26 online. The only thing I might have done differently was pay extra to do a “behind the scenes” tour, but that is the history nerd in me coming out. The $26 day pass included plenty to do including the shuttle to Monticello from the parking/visitor center, a guided tour of the house/gardens/slave quarters, access to the grounds, and the Jefferson family cemetery. Monticello is now (finally) starting to interpret Sally Hemmings’ story, but it is clear many of the seasoned docents are still getting comfortable with this material. As a resident of the American South and museum professional, I have worked at institutions that have found the topic of slavery to be “taboo,” but it is an important part of American history that should not be glossed over. I appreciate that Monticello is making an effort to interpret the lives of all who lived there.

The next day, we spent the morning walking around downtown Leesburg. There were so many cute restaurants and shops in their historic downtown. Our last stop for the weekend was The Marshall House on Edwards Ferry Road in Leesburg. General George Marshall was the Army chief of staff during World War II and Secretary of State under President Truman. His most famous accomplishment was the 1947 Marshall Plan, a plan for European recovery after World War II. The house on Edwards Ferry Road was his residence from 1941 until his death in 1959. I enjoyed the video and guided tour ($10 a person), and the “time warp” that many of the rooms provided. This excursion took about 2.5 hours and is recommended for history buffs and house museum lovers alike. Also, if you go to The Marshall House be sure to stop at Mom’s Apple Pie across the street for a piece of delicious pie!

Aside from a great conference at USHMM, I enjoyed the Virginia countryside on this trip, and I look forward to going back to our nation’s capital again someday, soon!

 

Fabulous France! Oh la la!

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*Disclaimer: My husband ran out of vacation days this year, and I had the summer off, so I was thrilled to take  girls’ trip to Europe with one of my best pals, Lynnsey! Here is the story of our girls’ adventure.*

To begin I will say this: Paris on a budget is EXTREMELY difficult. After traveling to Istanbul, Beijing, and Prague this year, the overall price-tag on, well…everything, was a bit of a shock. Food/shopping/tourism are generally very expensive, but there are some things travelers can do to cut costs. That being said, I would not recommend Paris if you are on a tight budget – it will be stressful.

My uncle and his family live in a hamlet (Ecques) in the Nord pas de Calais region. I wanted to see the family even though our trip to France was short, so my uncle picked Lynnsey and I up from Charles de Gaulle airport and brought us to his home about two hours away. Looking back, I wish we would have spent more time in the countryside, but this will have to be a trip for Kevin and I sometime in the future. We enjoyed some sightseeing in St. Omer (town nearby) and a home-cooked meal. The weather was chilly for June – I had to wear a jacket, so make sure to check the weather as France’s temp can be unpredictable.

The next day, my uncle brought us into Paris to help us get settled and do some sightseeing. He suggested getting a week-long metro pass (basically unlimited metro travel for seven days). The cost was about 22 Euro (plus the cost of a passport-sized photo), but I am SO glad we did this. The Paris Metro was extremely navigable, and we never worried about how much it would cost to get from place to place. Do not waste money on taxis – take the metro, especially during the day. It is easy to buy tickets – most folks speak English. *Tip: Don’t assume everyone speaks English, but just say, “Parlez-Vous Anglais?” which means, Do you speak English? – most Parisians appreciate the effort.*

After getting our train passes, we spent the day walking (probably about 12 miles throughout the day) to see some places like the Arc de Triomph, grounds of the Louvre, and Notre Dame Cathedral.

Another way we cut costs for this trip was with lodging. I did my research to find a good Air B&B. A studio apartment ended up being $140 a night (so splitting with a friend was about $70 each). We weren’t in city center, but the apartment was located in a residential neighborhood in Paris (Louis Michel) right across the street from a metro stop. It was quiet, and I felt safe walking around. We found out VERY quickly that restaurant food is pricey, so we tried to save some money by buying some food items from the grocery store around the corner from our apartment.

Once Lynnsey and I were on our own the next day, we went to Euro Disney! We got there on the train using our week-long passes. Ticket prices were a STEAL since we got them in advance before we left the states AND we went before European summer holidays (which take place in July/August). We paid $60 each for a joint ticket to Disneyland Park & Walt Disney Studios. Lines were pretty short, and we made some new friends, like Aladdin! Highlights of the day included the Ratatouille ride (it’s France, duh!), Crush’s Coaster, meeting Minnie Mouse, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

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Our third morning in Paris was spent on the Seine. Paying for a boat cruise (about $35) was money well spent! We got some amazing pictures of the Eiffel Tower and other structures along the Seine. We were unable to go into the heart of the city on the river because of security concerns during the Euro Cup, but it was still a great morning.

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In the afternoon, we went on a quest for macaroons! We did some research, and the place with the best reviews was Laduree. Macaroons (or macarons) are not cheap (about $4 each), so we considered this a splurge. They were beautiful, delicious and worth every penny.

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I can’t wait to spend more time in France when I have more time (and money!). I would like to spend some time at Versailles & the Louvre in Paris and visit the countryside (including wine country!). Until next time…

Prost, Prague!

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Prost, Prague!

Prague in the Czech Republic is such a delightful place. Why, you ask?

Maybe it’s because the locals drink more beer (per capita) than any other country in the world. Or maybe it’s because of its amusing street vendors and quaint shops. Either way, Prague is a great city; one I’d recommend to folks that are new to visiting Europe. Here’s why:

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Looks just like a postcard!

*Compared to other big cities we’ve been like San Francisco or Hong Kong, Prague was relatively inexpensive – we could get a nice meal and beer (for two) for about $30.

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Goulash Stew in Rye Bread-Bowl from our favorite restaurant in Prague: Mlejnice

*English is all around – from the store owners, to the signage, to the tourists, but you still get a eastern European vibe.

*Public transportation (the tram) is relatively easy once you figure out where to buy tickets (go to the newspaper stand!). Walking is also a great option.

Kevin and I arrived in Prague after spending several days in the Middle East. We stayed at the Hotel Century Old Town – our room was clean and simple, and it was in a good location although it wasn’t the best hotel we’ve ever stayed at (which is Hotel Amira in Istanbul, in case you were wondering).

Our first full day we did a lot of walking. so I am glad I was wearing my Birkenstock sandals which happen to be my absolute favorite summer travel shoe! We started by taking the tram to Prague Castle – the largest castle in the world! One neat fact about the castle is that the President of the Czech Republic still lives there. Kevin and I paid the $15 for the audio tour, and I’m glad we had it because there was A LOT to see and hear. Sometimes it is nice to learn some new things while going at your own pace. A highlight within the castle walls was the St. Vitus Cathedral – the Gothic architecture was gorgeous, and it was interesting to see some of the preservation work they were doing there. One thing to prepare yourself for: visitors are charged a small fee if you want to take photographs inside the castle.

Kev and I also enjoyed walking around the gardens of the castle – it was a really nice day and wasn’t too hot for being early June.

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After spending the whole morning at the castle we walked around Old Town and walked across the Charles Bridge. It was extremely crowded, but it was good people watching and we eventually came across a great happy hour deal – only a couple Euro for a half liter of Pilsner Urquell!

Our next full day was spent in the Jewish Quarter, also known as Josefov. If you are a history/culture nerd like me, this part of Prague cannot be missed.  Entrance to the Jewish Museum, Cemetery and Synagogues was about $20 a person, and it was walking distance from Old Town. Kev and I learned so much about Jewish life and history, and we really admired the ornate decor of the Spanish Synagogue.

Many of Czechoslovakia’s Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and the Jewish Museum in Prague does a beautiful job of honoring the victims. We did not go, but I really wish we had carved out some time to take a day trip to the Terezin Concentration Camp.

We spent our afternoon taking a boat tour on the Vltava. The trip wasn’t far or long, but enjoying a beer and a mini-architectural tour of the city was an awesome way to spend a couple of hours! We also got some GREAT photographs.

All in all, Prague was a pleasure to visit. Three days was just enough time for us, but there is enough to do for people that wish to stay longer! Prost (Cheers), Prague!

 

Istanbul Not Constantinople!

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Istanbul Not Constantinople!

Quick history lesson: What IS the deal with Istanbul vs. Constantinople? To put it simply, Constantinople was the Christian name for the city, but the name changed to Istanbul when Islam became the predominant religion.

Istanbul, Turkey is the friendliest and most interesting place we have EVER been. I still can’t get over how amazing it was. While we did avoid group tours and large crowds, we felt safe walking around during the day and at night. The recent terror attacks are harming the economy of an INCREDIBLE city that depends on tourism, and our hearts go out to the Turkish people and all those in the world who are suffering at the hands of terrorism. Right now, we know Turkey is not the safest place to be, but if you EVER have the opportunity visit this city, go and you will have such an adventure.

Kevin and I stayed at the Hotel Amira in Sultanahamet (the old town). This hotel made our good Istanbul experience a GREAT one. Getting to the hotel from the airport was about 40 minutes and costed about $50. We arranged for transportation through the hotel. For $160 a night, we got free breakfast and afternoon tea, a rooftop terrace, and the best service we have ever had. The concierge (named AJ) who had perfect English sat with us on the terrace (after giving us a glass of wine) for 40 minutes to go over the city map and tips for our trip. Who does that?! So great. Our hotel room was spacious and they upgraded us to a balcony room. The hotel was also in walking distance to pretty much everything – 5 minutes from the Blue Mosque/city tram and 10 minutes to Hagia Sophia.

 

Like in the China post, I am going to post some must-sees/dos and some photographs underneath.

Hagia Sophia – Formerly a church turned mosque and now a museum. Get the museum pass if this is your first stop. If you go to at least 2 of the museums, it pretty much pays for itself.

Cisterns – This was a really unexpected, cool excursion. The cisterns are Roman-built and used to house the usable water underneath the city. This does not count as part of the museum pass, but is worth the money. This is right across the street from the Hagia Sophia.

Blue Mosque – This building is just beautiful, inside and out. If you are not wearing a long dress (females) or pants (males) the mosque will loan you clothing. Be prepared to take off your shoes inside. Wear socks.

Topaki Palace – This is included in your museum pass. It was so neat to see how the sultans lived. The tile-work is gorgeous. And the views from the palace are to-die for!

Grand Bazaar – You probably won’t get the best prices here unless you’re a master haggler, but it is definitely a fun experience and a must-see! It’s so cool to think that vendors have been selling there for centuries!

Bosphorus Cruise – This is the only “group” tour that we did. The cruise was amazing and probably our favorite part of the trip. We really liked seeing Asia on one side of the straight and Europe on the other! Our particular cruise also included a visit to the Yeni Cami Mosque and the Spice Market beforehand.

Restaurant Recommendations:

  • Babylonia in Sultanahamet
  • Fine Dine Istanbul – the view is the most incredible we’ve ever seen
  • Hamdi for kebabs

Some tips:

  • Turkey is still not part of the EU, so they do NOT use the Euro. Make sure you use Turkish Lira.
  • DO NOT take a taxi. Walk or use public transportation.
  • Be prepared to hear the Call to Prayer 5-6 times per day coming from the minarets of the mosques. Bring earplugs if you’re a light sleeper. It is such an eerie, beautiful sound.
  • Females, bring a scarf. Your head must be covered to enter mosques.
  • Dress conservatively. No tank tops. I wore short-sleeves and linen capris most of the time. Although Turkey is technically a secular country, it is predominantly Muslim in terms of population.

 

We hope to meet again, Istanbul.

Orlando, Florida

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Orlando, Florida

Until this trip, I had never been to Orlando. It’s true! I have been to other Disney parks, but my family never did a trip down to Florida when I was a kid.  I have heard mixed reviews about Orlando. Some people LOVE it down there because of all of the theme parks and fun in the sun, and other say that it is overcrowded, humid, expensive and too commercial. Kevin goes to Orlando for work for pretty regularly, and he isn’t a huge fan. However, when I was presented an opportunity to go to Florida with Kev for his company’s annual distributor conference, – hotel paid for – I was excited to take off a few days from work and maybe catch some rays of sun! I went into the whole experience with pretty low expectations, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed my relaxing 4-day weekend thoroughly.

Kevin’s conference was at The Swan Resort (a Disney resort), so this is where we stayed. Typically this hotel runs about $270-$300 a night. Kevin and I typically don’t spend this much on hotels because we are out and about sightseeing, but it was a nice treat to stay at a Disney resort that was a quick walk to Disney’s Boardwalk. There were several pools and restaurants available on-site, so visitors could spend days here without needing to leave.

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One really nice feature of tagging along on a corporate trip is the perks! The first night I arrived, Mitsubishi Electric had rented out Hollywood Studios which meant no wait for rides like the Aerosmith Rockin’ Rollercoaster and Tower of Terror! The next couple of days, Kevin had to work and golf so I was able to get some rest by the pool during the days and we went to Mitsubishi dinner events at night together.

The highlight of the trip, and the reason I wanted to tag along so badly, was to visit THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER! Kevin had a day off, so he was a really good sport and joined me. I’ll mention the only downside of the experience first. The price. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is actually in two separate parks. To be able to experience the entire thing (and ride the Hogwarts Express) you have to buy tickets to both Universal Studios and Island of Adventure. The ticket to do that, WITHOUT a fast pass, was $155 per person. We didn’t do the fast pass, but it would have been nice to have. Fortunately, since there were just two of us, we avoided some line time by going in the single-rider lane.

For Harry Potter fans who have not had this experience…GO. It was magical. For fans, the details are so elaborate, and there is so much to see and do. Even non-fans (like Kevin) can appreciate the experience. The Forbidden Journey inside Hogwarts Castle and Gringotts were my favorite rides. Again, because of the detail. Like many other Universal rides, many of them are 3-D with a lot of movement. If you get motion sickness, even if it is only sometimes, I suggest bringing some Dramamine. Both Kevin and I were a little queasy after a couple of the rides (but it didn’t stop us!). Diagon Alley was my favorite part of the day. While Kevin didn’t really understand why I wanted to buy a $50 wand, we both ended up having a lot of fun trying the interactive activities that were available around the park if you had purchased a wand.

We did a few other rides outside of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that were fun (Men in Black, Transformers), but without HP World, the money spent on Universal would not have been worth it to me. I will certainly be back to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Overall, Orlando was a great quick getaway, but I could see how it could easily get VERY expensive, especially for a family. In my opinion, this is a trip that needs to be planned (and budgeted) very well. Food and lodging is more expensive than one might expect, but it could be an experience that is very memorable for you and your family/friends!

Hong Kong!

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My husband, Kevin spent five years of his childhood living in Hong Kong. He and his family always spoke about it with such fond memories. Kevin’s mom passed away this past April, and it was her wish that we take a family trip back to Hong Kong. My father-in-law VERY generously took us on the trip of a lifetime in her memory. So, during the week of Thanksgiving my father-in-law (Rich), my sister-in-law (Kelly), her fiance (Julien), my husband and I all traveled to the last of the Far East!

I had never been to Asia before, so I was nervous and excited because I did not know what to expect at all! First of all, the plane ride was ROUGH. It was about 24 hours of travel to get to Hong Kong. If you are flying to Asia, be sure to wear comfy clothes and pack some toiletries (toothbrush, deodorant) in your carry-on. My knees were sore from sitting for so long! But the long flight was SO worth it.

We stayed at the JW Marriott Hong Kong – one of Rich’s favorite hotels. It was one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in. We had a harbor view room, so the sights of the South China Sea and the many buildings were such a luxury! The bathroom was enormous and came with a shower and a jacuzzi tub along with a robe and slippers. We were also served welcome tea upon our arrival – what a treat! But the best part of the JW Marriott Hong Kong, hands down, was BREAKFAST! Holy cow! I woke up early every day just to run down there for the buffet. Is it ridiculous to say the breakfast may have been a trip highlight? Probably. But I’m saying it. I LOVED THAT BREAKFAST. There was authentic Chinese food, American food, a smoothie bar, pastries, and the list goes on.

We arrived in the early afternoon, but after so many hours of travel, we needed a nap! We woke up for an early dinner and walked over to the Peak Tram. This tram is a railway that takes you to the upper levels of the island. The views from the top of are out of this world.

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One thing I realized right away was that I did not pack for Hong Kong correctly. I should have packed more short-sleeves! Hong Kong is pretty tropical – it was also humid. So in November it was in the 70s and 80s! The nights were cool, but with all of the walking we did, short-sleeves were important for during the day.

For our first day, we went back to the Miskewicz stomping grounds in Repulse Bay. We visited their old apartment, Kevin’s old school, the American Club and their family’s church. We also spent a couple of hours in Stanley Market. Stanley was my favorite part (aside from breakfast) about Hong Kong. It has tons of little shops and restaurants and is located very close to the water. Rich even took us to his old watering hole, Smuggler’s Inn to have a beer! We used the public bus to get to and from Stanley. The bus was affordable, clean and easy to navigate. Since Hong Kong was a British territory until 1997, everything is in English and many people speak English. I will say, Hong Kong is very hilly and those drivers made me a little nervous whipping around the corners of the cliffs, but we made it everywhere safe and sound!

For the next day in Hong Kong, we went to see the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island. This was the tourist attraction I was most excited about! This experience is a must-have if you visit Hong Kong. When the Miskewicz family lived in Hong Kong, the only way to Lantau Island was by bus. When we went, we took cable cars over the water! If you are afraid of heights, just don’t. But look at the lush views!

That evening we went to Lan Kwai Fong for dinner/drinks. We took the subway. Again, very to easy to navigate through, but it is EXTREMELY crowded, so if you plan on taking the subway, you need to be okay with not having much personal space. Lan Kwai Fong had many bars, restaurants, and neon lights! This was a happening place to be!

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Another trip highlight was the Mid-level escalators which we experienced the next day of our adventure! It is the longest covered escalator in the world! Basically, if you were to live in the Mid-levels, you would commute to work by way of escalator! How funny (and awesome!)

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Above: View Coming Off Mid-Levels

On the same day as the Mid-Levels, we took the Star Ferry to Kowloon. For 26 cents! Kevin loved the ferry when he lived in Hong Kong, and he really enjoyed our ride this time around. In Kowloon we went shopping for pearls and stopped inside the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong lobby (wow!). The night views of Hong Kong from Kowloon were INCREDIBLE.

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On Day 4, we took a day trip to Macau. To put it simply, Macau is the Las Vegas of Asia. Macau is a former Portuguese territory so there are a lot of European influences in the architecture. To get to Macau, you must take a ferry from Hong Kong. The ferry ride is about an hour and costs about $20 USD. The ferry was a struggle for me since I get pretty motion sick, especially since we had to go below deck for the ride. It was rocky! I persevered, but I was pretty woozy! Bring some Dramamine or motion sickness bracelets if you suffer from this ailment! My favorite part about Macau was the Portuguese Egg Tarts! I tend to be a little weary of street food, but I made an exception. So delicious! We spent most of the day going through all of the casinos including the Grand Lisboa, Wynn, and MGM Grand. The ruins of St. Paul, iconic in Macau, was also a neat photo-op, but aside from a quick look and a photo, this tourist attraction is a really quick one.

For our final day in Hong Kong, Kevin and I spent some time on our own and went back to Stanley to do some more shopping. We also enjoyed tea that evening at the JW Marriott on the Executive Floor (thanks for the access, Rich!).

Hong Kong was more than I ever expected it to be. I loved it. It was so beautiful, modern and clean! Isn’t it funny that when we make assumptions about a place before experiencing them, they are usually wrong? I had no idea an Asian city could be so Western. I could see myself living in Hong Kong someday, and I will CERTAINLY go back. Kevin and I are so grateful to his mom and dad for this amazing trip – what a priceless memory for all of us.

Munich, Germany

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Before the trip, I was so jazzed about Dublin and Salzburg, I didn’t have many expectations for Munich. It wasn’t a city “on my list,” but Kevin wanted to check it out, so I went with the flow. When Munich turned out to be totally awesome, it was a pleasant surprise! We were only in town for two days, so I would go back in a heartbeat to visit again. If you are a beer drinker, this city is for you!

We stayed at the Mercure Hotel Muenchen City Center across the street and down a block from the train station. It was great! It was walking distance from the train, clean, affordable and it had a free mini-bar with drinks and snacks! Plus the staff was SUPER friendly.

Our first stop? The Hofbrauhaus. The beer was delicious, the ambiance was great (the more polka, the better), and the sausage/sauerkraut was awesome!

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After our stop at the Hofbrauhaus, we stopped at the Glockenspiel Clock in the Marienplatz. Since our time in Munich was so short and we had many things we wanted to see, we didn’t have the luxury to be at the clock when it moved. Even without the movement, the Glockenspiel was a really cool stop.

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The next day, we decided to buy another set of Hop On/Hop Off bus passes since we liked them in Dublin so much. We took a guided tour of the city from the top of the double decker and stopped at Nymphenburg Palace and the Olympic Park from the 1972 Games. Without the bus pass, we probably wouldn’t have seen either of these places. Neither location was a “show-stopper” for me, but they were enjoyable. We also spent some time at BMW Welt – again we didn’t have time for a guided tour, but it was fun to sit in some of BMW’s nicest cars and “ride” on some of their motorcycles!

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Our dinner that night was recommended to us by our friend Ryan from Dublin. He said get the Kaese Spaetzle. This dish is basically loaded mac and cheese. With an ice cold German beer, it was the most delicious mac and cheese I’ve ever had! If you like lots of cheese and onion, this dish is a must-try!

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Two days was not nearly enough in Munich. I would have liked to stayed for four or five days and done some more touring inside and outside of the city.I cannot wait to explore more of Germany someday – the region of Bavaria will remain on my “favorite places” list.