Petra, Jordan: The Lost City

It may have once been lost, but now it has been found. First, by Hollywood. And then, by travelers, globetrotters, instagrammers, and bloggers. It seems like every legit traveler had made his or her way to Petra. And, each one has taken one jaw dropping photo after another. So, I just had to go and see for myself what all the hype was about.

For fans of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I have a simple explanation of what exactly Petra is. Ready? Petra is the Greek word for “rock.” This entire city was carved out of rocks.  Petra is rocks. The city is made of rocks. So, there you go!

But seriously, in 1985, Petra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.  In 2007, Petra was named as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. It is called the Lost City because it was essentially lost to the Western world for hundreds of years until it was discovered in 1812. Petra was once a thriving trading center and the capital of the Nabataean empire between 400 B.C. and A.D. 106. The Nabataeans were known for their great ability to construct water-collecting methods in barren deserts and for their talent in carving structures into solid rocks.

Petra is an enormous complex located in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Arabah (Wadi Araba), the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba.  Its structures have been carved into the rose colored stone, giving Petra its other nickname: The Rose City.  Amazingly only 15 percent of the city has been uncovered. Which means the vast majority of Petra—85 percent—is still underground and untouched.

So, now that you know what it is,allow me to provide you with everything you need to know about visiting Petra! Also, while Petra is certainly one of the main attractions in Jordan, it’s not the only one. Amman, Wadi Rum, and the Dead Sea are certainly worth your time.

The first thing you need to know about Petra is that it is NOT a day trip. You need to spend one night in Petra to really enjoy the site. In my opinion, the city that has cropped up around the site is not really worth your time. So, spend all your time focusing on visiting Petra.

If you are going to spend the night in Petra, then there is only one place to stay– The Petra Guest House Hotel. It is the only four-star hotel in Petra, but that is NOT the reason to stay here.  If we are being honest, this hotel is a three-star hotel on its best day. Giving it four stars is generous, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong.  The rooms are sufficient. The staff is friendly. And, there is an adequate breakfast buffet. But if you are expecting an American four-star hotel, this ain’t it.

The coolest part of this hotel is the Cave Bar, which is the hotel’s bar but is also part of the ruins of Petra.  However, at night they have live entertainment – a singer and a musician – playing American music, but it is literally some of the worst singing I have heard in my life. Like it was comically bad. Okay, so then why am I telling you to stay here. Two reasons.  The first is that it is the best option in Petra. But most importantly (in real estate and in travelling) Location. Location. Location. This hotel is quite literally at the entrance gate of Petra. I mean, hello, the hotel bar is part of the ruins.

So, since you are staying overnight, you should buy the two-day ticket.  It is the better value. A one day ticket is 50 JD (about  71 USD), while the two-day ticket is 55 JD (about 78 USD). Also, there is enough to see in Petra to occupy your time for two full days, especially if you opt to do one or more of the hikes.

I would start as early as you can.  The site opens at 6:00 a.m. every day. It closes at 6:00 p.m. in the summer and 4:00 p.m. in the winter. The day trippers arrive around 11:30 a.m. to noon.  Late afternoon is also a good time to visit. You can find transportation information to get to Petra here.  I also recommend hiring a licensed guide from the visitor’s center on the first day.  The monuments don’t really have signs, so unless you have done a ton of research before you get there, you won’t really know what you are looking at.

Just a quick point about planning for your visit. You are allowed to bring backpacks and bags in, and, unlike other places in Jordan, there is no security or bag checking at the entrance.  I would wear comfortable, light active-wear, a very comfortable pair of sneakers or hiking boots, a lot of sunscreen, and something to cover your head.  You will notice that most people are wearing Jordanian head scarves. I would also pack some water (you can buy more inside) and power bars or protein bars.

When you first walk in, you will have to walk on a dirt road for about 15 minutes before you reach the siq, a narrow gorge that leads you to the treasury in Petra.  The minute you walk in, you will be accosted by local Bedouins to take a horse ride or a donkey ride to the treasury site. They will tell you that it is included in your entrance ticket. And, it is. But PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do not accept the ride.

These poor horses are NOT treated well.  It is heart breaking.  They work all day, pulling huge carts behind them full of people. And, it is hot. Too hot for these poor horses to work like they do. The Bedouins hit them to make them go faster, and the horses are literally running on very rugged terrain. If that doesn’t motivate you, then maybe this will. There is no such thing as a free ride. Even though the ride is included in the ticket, they will demand a tip. Look, you came all the way to Petra.  You must’ve had some idea that this was going to involve some degree of walking. Do everyone a favor and dress comfortably and resign yourself to doing a lot of exercise on this day.

It doesn’t end there. Once you are in Petra, there are more Bedouins (who all seem to look like Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean) who will follow you around all.damn.day and harass you to take a donkey ride or a camel ride. Seriously, just ignore them. Literally, ignore them. If you say later, they will find you later. They are pretty aggressive. They will follow you around and keep asking. Don’t engage with them, and don’t believe a single word that comes out of their mouths. In my opinion, they are all con artists. Sometimes, they get mad that you are blowing them off and they insult you. We began referring to them as the “Donkey Boys.”

Getting insulted by a man on a donkey or camel who is wearing eyeliner (yes, you read that right) is kind of funny, actually. I mean, dude, you are wearing eyeliner. Eyeliner. The Donkey Boys have mastered the smokey eye. Their eye makeup is so on point. They could probably teach a master class at Sephora. Marilyn Manson and the front man for Green Day have nothing on these guys. Trust me, the Donkey Boys did not appreciate this detail when I pointed it out to them. They immediately got defensive and told me it was to protect their eyes from the sun. There is a whole invention that solves this problem.  They are called sunglasses. If you can get your hands on an iPhone in the desert, then I am confident that you can also find a pair of sunglasses. But, I digress.

Allow me to introduce you to the enchanting Siq. The gorge that will lead you to one of the most amazing first looks of Petra.

After walking for about 15 minutes on the dirt road, you will come to the entrance of the Siq. The Siq is a gorge that leads to Petra. It is one of the only shady spots you will encounter, so relish in the next 15 or so minutes that it takes to pass through the siq.  You will soon catch a glimpse of the reason you came to Jordan, and this first impression does not disappoint.

It is truly magical to see the rose colored treasury building. It is one of the most recognizable images of Petra. If you go early in the morning, you will have it all to yourself with great lighting. In the late afternoon or early evening it will be he same, but maybe not as great lighting. Also, there will usually be a few camels lounging around, waiting to pose for your selfie!

By 11:00 a.m., there will be a lot more people in front of the treasury, so if you like people-free pics, get there early or stay later. Here’s a pro tip: the best picture of the treasury is taken from the right corner facing the monument. You get the best lighting and the best view of the monument from here.

Also, if you walk to the right of the monument, on the opposite side, there is a cave that also gives you a great vantage point for photographing the treasury building.

Probably the most famous (instafamous, really) picture of the treasury is the one taken from the top looking down. I will tell you how to get that shot later in this post, but, spoiler alert, it requires a lot of climbing.

One thing you will notice as you explore Petra is that the locals have turned the ruins into a flea market. Some are established shops.  The rest are pitched tents. Sometimes the actual ruins themselves are used to drape useless junk.  Thankfully, though, nobody is trying to sell you selfie stick!

There are stands selling food, drinks, souvenirs, jewelry, and eyeliner, of course. Well, not the actual eyeliner, but for a small price, the Donkey Boys will line your eyes with coal so you too can look like Johnny Depp! I suggest you skip this service as it does not appear that cleanliness and hygiene are high on the list or priorities.  They literally use the same charcoal to line everyone’s eyes without cleaning it in between.  Hello, Pink Eye! How do I know this? Well, let’s just say that someone in our group was brave enough to try it out, and that someone was NOT me.

There is one shop that is worth a visit. You will immediately notice a difference in the interaction. This shop sells spices, teas, oils, and perfume solids.  The shop owner is lovely and speaks perfect English with a British accent.

Coincidentally, this shop is located next to the only other interesting shop.  That of Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a New Zealand-born nurse who came to be married to Mohammad Abdallah Othman, a Bedouin souvenir-seller. She wrote a book about her experience, and, while the Bedouin husband has since died, Marguerite still lives and can often be found at her shop in Petra.

Once you pass flea market row, you will find yourself in the heart of Petra where you can explore different ruins like different the Royal Tombs, the Nabatean Theatre, the Byzantine Church, and the Great Temple.

Also, while the Donkey Boys are relentless and annoying, there are some opportunities for some cool interactions with locals, so don’t miss out on those!

At this point, I suggest that you stop for lunch and contemplate your next move.  There are two restaurants in Petra. One is more of a stand and the other is a sit down place with both air-conditioned indoor and out door seating that is owned by Petra Guesthouse.  It has restrooms, WiFi, and serves a buffet style lunch. If you are a guest of the hotel, you get 20% off at this eatery. So, I’ll let you guess where we ate. The food was average. Speaking of restrooms, there are actually three or four actual American-style bathrooms in Petra. I would, however, bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Okay, so if you have made it this far, it is probably late afternoon. And, since you are close by, I would opt to take the hike up to the monastery after lunch. This is a good option because you’ve rested, cooled off, and fueled up.  Also, it’s later in the day, so it’s cooler.  All these factors are important because to get to the monastery, you have to climb about 950 stairs!

You to yourself: “I’m sorry, but did she just say I have to climb up 950 stairs?” She did. But, TRUST ME; it is SO worth it.  The climbing isn’t that bad (I’ll show you), and there is hardly anybody there so you get a really cool piece of Petra all to yourself.

Now, you can take a donkey up. And you may be tempted to do so. But, for reasons we have already discussed (animal cruelty, annoying Donkey Boys, and a desire to not be ripped off), you will resist the urge and count this as a double cardio and booty blast day! After about 45 or so minutes (depending on your pace), you will get here:

Amazing, right?  There is a small cafe up there, so kick back, have a drink, and enjoy the silence.

But wait, there is more! If you can stomach 15 more minutes of walking, you will be handsomely rewarded with the most amazing view! I think you have 15 minutes in you.  Just turn around with your back facing the monastery and start walking diagonally to the right, following the signs for the view point. You will come to a fork in the road and will have to choose the view to the left, which is a little closer, or the one to the right.  We chose left.

This is the PERFECT place to watch the sun set.  But, a little side note, this is VERY high up. If you are scared of heights, don’t sit where I am sitting. Chad would have needed a diaper change by now. The only thing is that, you want to make sure and leave yourself enough time to get back down before it gets dark because there are no lights in Petra, unless, of course, you are staying for the Petra By Night experience.

Petra by night is a two-hour experience where you get to visit just the treasury at night.  They light the path from the ticket entrance, through the Siq, and all in front of the treasury with paper bag lanterns. They serve hot tea and play traditional music.  At the end, the they light the entire treasury up with colored spot lights.  The Petra By Night experience only runs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.  It starts at 8:30 p.m. and costs  17 JD (or $24 USD). There is an unlimited amount of tickets, and it is pretty popular.

If you have stayed until sunset and want to do Petra by night, I suggest that you don’t leave Petra and just hang out in front of the treasury. Why? Well, if you leave, you have to walk about 20 minutes out just to come right back in with a crowd of people.  If you stay, there are ticket vendors who sell tickets right in front of he treasury for the same price. You can save yourself the walk, and you can get some sweet people-free pictures before the crowds come in (because trust me, once they are there, it is impossible).

Is it touristy? Yes, it is. But the way we did it (staying in and seeing it all set up before the crowds) was amazing, and we really enjoyed it.

There was just one thing left to do, and that was to make the climb up to see the treasury from the top. On the second day we got up very early and were one of the first in the gates at Petra. This meant that we were able to get some pretty great shots of the treasury with literally nobody else around.

Now, if you thought the hike to the monastery was bad, the treasury trail says hold my beer. I mean this hike, in my opinion, was more difficult. Once you get in and go through the treasury and through the main drag, passing all the stores, you will come to a fork in the road.  If you go left, you will head towards the monastery road, if you stay right, you will find the trail to get to the viewpoint for the treasury.

Just past this site:

You will see this sign:

You want to stay to the right of the sign.  It will take you to a trail that looks like you are going behind the ruins.  You will encounter this path of stairs:

This is where you start climbing.  It is deceiving because it looks more organized and in better shape than the monastery climb. You do this for about 20 to 30 minutes. It’s.A.Lot.Of.Stairs. After 20 to 30 minutes of climbing, the stairs stop, and now its another 20 to 30 minutes of hiking on the worst marked trail ever.  Once in a while, you will come upon these signs:

Do you see any directional signals? Exactly. Then you get:

By the way, this is a lie. It is not 10 minutes. And just for fun, the Bedouins add these signs to confuse you and lead you to their shops:

Finally, you will see this sign:

Two to five minutes? Yeah, right! As President Bush (a.k.a. W) once said  “…fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Once you see this sign, you won’t be sure if you should go straight (kind of towards the right) or go to the left.  Go left. At some point you will see this:

It will be the loveliest site because that means you made it! Behold the view:

And then, the climb down (cue the Price Is Right Loser Music). No, but seriously, the climb is absolutely worth the view. Just do it early or late in the afternoon, so you can have the view from above and below all to yourself.

Side note: there is a site called Little Petra. It is located about 40 minutes north of Petra. We went there, but, honestly, you can skip it.  It is a very small site, and it is in terrible condition.  It literally does not compare to Petra at all.

So that is it.  You have now done it all in Petra! Get your pen out and cross this one off the bucket list. Up next, Wadi Rum Desert. You do not want to miss Wadi Rum when you are in Jordan.

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Amman, Jordan: The City of Seven Hills

A lawyer, an accountant, a pharmaceutical sales representative, and a teacher board a plane. Sounds like the beginning of joke, right? Well, it’s not.  It was the beginning of an epic girls trip to the Middle East.  To Jordan to be exact, home of Petra, the Wadi Rum desert, and (part of) the Dead Sea.

I know what you are thinking. The Middle East? Who takes a girls trip to the Middle East? Why not got to the beach or wine country?

Blah! We live at the beach! We are, after all, from Miami. We wanted something different.  We wanted adventure. We wanted bespoke experiences. We wanted to Eat.All.The.Hummus! So, Jordan it was.  And, honestly, it was the best decision.

Most trips to Jordan will begin with an arrival in the capital city of Amman. You may be thinking that you can just skip the capital city and get to the good stuff.  That, in my opinion, would be a mistake. Amman has a lot of interesting things to explore. We spent two days in Amman.

Amman is an old city.  It was settled back in the Neolithic period.  Today, it is one of the five most visited cities in the Arab world. Like Rome, it was initially built on seven hills. Amman is considered one of the most liberal and westernized cities in the Arab world. It is also a great base for visiting other interesting and important sites, like the baptism site of Jesus Christ, Madaba, and Mt. Nebo.

We stayed at the Intercontinental in Amman. Not only was the daily breakfast buffet delicious (complete with an omelette station and fresh squeezed local juices served daily), but it was also in a great location! It is walking distance to Rainbow Street.  Rainbow Street is the restaurant, nightlife, and shopping hub of Amman.  It is also the home of Souk Jara, a street food and handicraft outdoor market. Also, check out King Faisal Street.  It is totally Instagram worthy!

This photo is courtesy of Mr. Google because, sadly, we missed this spot. #TravelFail

Our hotel was also one block away from what most consider the best shawerma joint in the city, Reem.  Reem is open late and serves up shawerma to the long lines of locals for approximately $2.00 US dollars a piece.

King Abdullah I Mosque

We started our first day of exploration in Amman at King Abdullah I Mosque. The mosque was completed in 1989 as a memorial by the late King Hussein to his grandfather.  It is capped by a beautiful blue dome, and adorned with beautiful blue mosaic tiles. This is the only mosque in Amman that allows both women and non-Muslims to visit.

Women are required to wear abayas in order to visit the mosque.  The abayas are available free of charge from the small gift shop located at the entrance of the mosque.  All visitors must remove their shoes to enter the mosque.

By the way, I have a new appreciation for the struggle of Muslim women who wear abayas in their every day life. These babies are HOT! And not like, OMG, that outfit is so hot. But more like, OMG, I am temperature hot. The fabric is not breathable, and the dark color was not helping! Also, they are wearing full on modest street clothes underneath the abaya. In the desert. Even in the summer. Think about that for a moment. I wore one for an hour, and I was positive I had suffered heat stroke!

At the entrance to the men’s side of the mosque, we met the first of many Mohammeds that we would meet on this trip.  This Mohammed, however, loved Greek people, Greek culture, and especially Greek music.  Here he is singing us his favorite Greek song by George Dalaras.

The men’s side of the mosque can house up to 7000 worshippers.

Another 3,000 people can worship in the courtyard.

The women’s side of the mosque is supposed to be able to fit 500 women, but I would be surprised if that is the case.

There is a small museum inside the mosque with a collection of pottery and photographs of His Majesty King Abdullah I.

The mosque is open from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., but you should be careful not to visit during call to prayer (5:20 a.m., 6:25 a.m., 12:29 p.m., 3:55 p.m., 6:31 p.m., 7:38 p.m., and 1:43 a.m.). It costs about 3 Jordanian Dinar to visit, which is about $4.oo USD. You only need about 30 minutes to get through the entire mosque complex.

After our visit to the mosque, we returned to the gift shop.  The shop was quite large and had a great selection of souvenirs.

As is the custom, we were offered tea. The tea was warm and sweet!

We purchased handmade, traditional Jordanian head scarves and even got a tutorial on how to properly tie them.

Amman Citadel

Our next stop was to Amman Citadel. This is a historical site in the center of downtown Amman which is significant because it has a long history of occupation by many great civilizations. There are two  important structures at the site.

The first is the Temple of Hercules, a Byzantine church. Behind the structure is what is left from a giant statute of Hercules, his hand, and a small carving of Medusa. This temple is considered to be the most significant Roman structure in the Amman Citadel.

The second most important structure in the Citadel is the Umayyad Palace.

There is also a small archaeological museum in the citadel that is free to visit with your paid admission into the Citadel. The most fascinating part of the Citadel is that the majority of it remains unexcavated.

Jerash

Our final stop for the day was in Jerash. But, by now, we were pretty hungry.  So before our visit to the Roman City of Jerash, we stopped at the Green Valley Restaurant.

This was one of the best meals we had in Jordan. While the menu is in Arabic and many locals eat here, it is also touristy in that a lot of tour groups stop here as well. Don’t let that scare you away.  This is the one exception, where the tourist trap is actually worth it!

Our guide ordered for us. All of a sudden, a parade of food appeared.  I had the BEST hummus and babaganoush I have ever tasted in my life here. It was so creamy, and as I type, my mouth is watering. The pita was large, warm, and plentiful.

It was at Green Valley that my love affair with limonnana began. Limonana is a Middel Eastern frozen mint lemonade. It is sweet, but tart. It is so fresh. It is life. Hello, my name is Anastasia, and I am addicted to limonana.

After tasting this sweet nectar water, I would seek it out and order several every single day.  I’d like to have one right now.  I wish I knew how to operate my blender. Anyway, I digress. On to the Jerash ruins. But first, a camel, because why not!

The Jerash ruins of Jordan are said to be the best-preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy. In fact, they are often referred to as the Pompeii of the East. After Petra, they are the most visited ruins in Jordan.

The most notable sites are:

  • Hadrian’s Arch: the entrance to the city

  • Hippodrome: a restored Roman-era stadium

  • Forum: the main attraction, surrounded by 160 Ionic columns

  • The Cardo: colonnaded street running the length of the city.

  • Temple of Artemis: temple ruins dedicated to the ancient Greek goddess

  • Agora: the city’s main market

  • Nymphaeum: an ornate fountain dedicated to nymphs

  • South Theatre: still in use today

  • Jerash Archaeological Museum: houses a collection of artifacts found during the numerous excavations.

You can get to Jerash by car or bus.  There are regular buses to and from Jerash from Amman that run throughout the day until late afternoon. Tickets cost 1 JOD, which us about $2 USD. Taxis can be hired in Amman for 10 JOD  (or $14 USD) one-way or around 40 JOD (or $56 USD) for the day. Admission to the site costs 10 JD (or $14 USD) and includes the Jerash Archaeological Museum. Summertime hours are 7:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.  Winter hours are 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. You can hire a guide right at the entrance of the site (not where you purchase your tickets).

After a long day like this, it was time for a treat. A sweet treat. Enter into my world Kunafa/Knafeh. More precisely, Kunafa from Habiba!

Kunafa is a popular Middle Eastern desert.  It consists of a layer of crisp pastry sitting on top of a layer of soft white cheese which is baked lightly in an oven then covered with sugar syrup and nuts. It tastes way better than it sounds. Here’s a recipe for you to try, but I doubt it comes close to the glory that is Habiba.

But if Kunafa is not your thing, Habiba has a host of other desserts to try.  Some with cream inside. Some with nuts, like baklava:

Or you can pick some up for gifts or for later:

The Baptism Site of Jesus Christ- Bethany on the Jordan River

Remember the movie Free Willy? You know how at the end they play that Michael Jackson song Will You Be There? You know, the one that goes Hold Me; Like the River Jordan; And I will then say to thee; You are my friend.  That song references this place! And this is where we headed on day two in Amman.

Most modern scholars believe that John the Baptist performed a baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River, which borders both Jordan and Israel at the baptism site.  I have not been to the one in Israel, but the one in Jordan has many significant sites to see prior to reaching the actual river, and has now been recognized as the official baptism site of Jesus.

To enter the site you must first walk about 1o minutes on a trail that looks like this:

You will first reach the John the Baptist Church which has the baptism pool.  The exact place where Jesus was baptized has not yet been discovered, but it is believed that the garments of the Lord were taken care here at the time He was baptized:

On the opposite side is the Basilica or the Church of the Trinity:

Today, a Greek Orthodox church sits near the river:

Across from the church is the entrance to the Jordan River:

Once at the river, you can rent white baptismal gowns from the church for $15 USD and actually get into the river.  Across the river is Israel.  You will see people coming into the river from Israel as well. Apparently, you can hire a priest to perform an actual baptism at the site. Bring an empty water bottle if you want to collect “holy water” from the Jordan River.

Madaba

Our next stop was to the Christian town of Madaba, which is known as the City of Mosaics. Here, we visited the St. George Greek Orthodox Church.

The church contains the masterpiece of Madaba, a Byzantine map of the Holy Land that dates back to the 6th century, called the Madaba Map.

To this day, the Madaba Map represents the oldest map of Palestine in existence.

Because I am Greek and Greek Orthodox, I am partial to Greek churches.  In my travels, I have been in A LOT of churches from all denominations.  I think the Greek Orthodox churches are the most beautiful!

Apparently, an archaeological park is located a short walk from the church which houses the remains of several Byzantine churches, including the mosaics of the Church of the Virgin. I would have been interested to see this, and, honestly, I am kind of annoyed that we missed it.

By now, we were pretty hungry.  In an effort to top Green Valley, our guide told us he had called ahead to a local, family-owned restaurant called Hikayet Sitti, or the Food Basket.

This little gem is an old home that has been owned by this family from Amman for several years.  They decided to turn the home into a restaurant.

There is no menu at the Food Basket.  You call ahead to see what’s cooking or to make a request. But, regardless, the food is incredible and tastes authentic and homemade. The meal starts with mezze (or appetizers), and then momma brings out enough food to feed an army. The portions are very generous.

This is the cook and her husband who entertains the guests.

Her sons are the servers, and the service is great.

Mt. Nebo

Next, we visited Mount Nebo.  Mt. Nebo is the place where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land by God. The view from the summit provides a panorama of the Holy Land and, to the north, a more limited one of the valley of the River Jordan. The West Bank city of Jericho is usually visible from the summit, as is Jerusalem on a very clear day.

The mount is marked by this stone:

As you walk through the site, you will find a sculpture called The Brazen Serpent:

On the highest point of the mountain, stands the remains of a Byzantine church.  The church has the most beautiful mosaics inside.

Mukawir

Our next stop was to Machaerus or Mukawir. Mukawir is a fortified hilltop palace that is believed to be the location of the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist.

It is quite a hike to get up to the site where only two columns remain. The hike starts at this gate and is about 2 miles long.

At the top, you see this:

There are some pretty great views along the way, but, unless you are making a religious pilgrimage/tour or feel like doing some exercise, you can probably skip this site.

Kerak

We were scheduled to visit Kerak Castle. But, due to a planned protest that blocked the roads and the entrance to the site, we could not. So, the shots above are courtesy of Mr. Google. But, if you have time, you should this castle. Kerak Castle is the largest crusader castle in Jordan. Kerak was the capital of the biblical kingdom of Moab.

Needless to say, it was an action packed two days, and we haven’t even gotten to the most popular sites yet! I hope I was able to give you a small taste of Amman.  Please stop by to read the next four posts I have planned on Jordan, including one on Petra, one on Wadi Rum, one on the Dead Sea, and one on things you need to know before you go to Jordan.  Leave me a comment, and let me know what you think.

Also, in case you were wondering, we used Jordan Select Tours to plan this trip.  They were fantastic, responsive, and affordable! The entire trip was privately guided by the best driver in Amman, Hytham! He was so patient and entertaining.  Thanks for putting up with four crazy Greek-American girls for the week, Hytham!

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Lisbon, Portugal: The City Of Seven Hills

Seems like Lisbon has been everywhere lately.  It was even named one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit. So, one long weekend, Chad and I decided to take a trip over to Lisbon and see what all the hype was about.

Lisbon is the second oldest capital city in the world, the first being Athens, Greece. It is also built on seven hills, and trust me, after a weekend of walking around the city, you will feel each and every one of them in your calves! Lisbon is divided into six main districts, but the most popular districts in Lisbon are: the Baixa District, which is the heart of Lisbon; the Alfama District, which is a maze of beautiful streets and seems to be the artistic district;  the Belem District, which has many of the popular tourists attractions and for which you need to visit via transportation; and Bairro Alto & Chiado, which has all the nightlife and shopping.

BELEM DISTRICT

We started our trip with a visit to Belem.  Belem is west of central Lisbon, and is worthy of a half day visit. You can get here by taxi or by tram from central Lisbon.  We started our visit at the Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar, to watch the changing of the guard.  This war memorial honors Portuguese soldiers who died during the African independence uprisings of the 1960-1970s. The name of each soldier who died is inscribed in the walls that surround the memorial.  This monument is en route to Belem Tower.

Just a few feet away is Belem Tower. The tower is the ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.  It was commissioned by King John II to be part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus river.  It also played a significant role in the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the era of the Age of Discoveries. There is typically a line to get in, but we got lucky and had no line! The cost of the entrance ticket was 6 Euro per person.

A short walk along the promenade brings you to a beautiful monument called Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or the Discoveries Monument.  The monument is dedicated to the adventurers and explores who helped establish Portugal as a 14th century superpower.  For 5 Euro per person, you can  climb up to the top of it and get some great views!

Just behind the monument is a large marble map of the old world.

We did not climb up because one of us is scared of heights, but if you did, Mr. Google says that this is what you would see:

Across the street from this monument is a neighborhood where we came upon a little gem called Descobre.  It is not only a restaurant, but also a wine shop.  Even though they weren’t open yet, the owner welcomed us in and did an impromptu port wine tasting for us!

By this time, we were ready for a little snack break. So, we headed to Pasteis de Belem, the most famous bakery in all of Portugal to try a Portuguese classic– Pastel de Nata, an egg tart pastry.  These tarts were created by Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery, which is just down the street from the bakery. Apparently, the convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes and had a bunch of yolks leftover, so they created this warm egg custard party in your mouth! This is probably the first time that something amazing is credited to the chore of laundry! If you do just one thing in Belem (hell, in Lisbon!), then make that one thing a visit to this place to try this pastry.  Do not let the hoards of people out front scare you away.  Go inside and sit down for service.  The place is HUGE with many dining rooms.  You can enjoy lunch here or just pastries.  We ordered a bunch of snacks and pastries.

After eating such a dreamy little custard, we couldn’t not visit the monastery that invented them, so it was off to Jerónimos Monastery we went.  The monastery has a beautiful courtyard.  It is also the resting place for Vasco da Gama.  In fact Vasco da Gama spent his last night here before his voyage to the Far East.

The cost to visit the monastery is 7 Euro per person.  While the line to enter the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is very long, there is rarely a line to visit just the church, plus there is no entrance fee! We had pre-bought tickets thanks to Diogo, our fantastic guide from Sintra Magik, so we did not wait in line at all.

Our next stop was to Lisbon’s greatest food hall at the Time Out Market at Ribeira Market.  This food hall has a collection of Lisbon’s best chefs with both traditional and modern dishes. It is top chef stands at low-cost prices with communal tables.  This was also the first place that we would try Santini ice cream, what some call the best ice cream in the world.

The only sites we didn’t see in Belem was the pink Belem Palace, which you can only see from the outside anyway, but which also has a changing of the guard ceremony, and Jardim da Praça do Império, which is one of Europe’s largest plazas and close to the monastery.

BAIXA, CHIADO, AND BARRIO ALTO DISTRICTS

Up next, we explored the Baixa District and parts of the Chiado District.  Our first stop was to Igreja de São Domingos.  This church has been destroyed by two earthquakes and one massive fire, yet it still stands.

Outside of the church, we had the most unusual encounter that we have ever had in any country.  As our guide was telling us the history of the church, a young man came up to us in broad daylight with a Ziploc bag full of oregano and wanted to know if we wanted to buy hashish, marijuana, or cocaine, which he assured us “very nice” and “very good price.” I had many questions, like who actually though that gigantic bag was real weed for 10 Euro and why did they feel so comfortable just openly soliciting us to buy drugs? Apparently, intent to sell is not illegal in Portugal, so if the cops stopped them and the drugs are not real, there is no problem.  We would be approached to buy drugs two more times during our stay. Here’s the moral of that story: 1) don’t be surprised if this happens to you in Lisbon (that is the only place we experienced this in Portugal), and 2) the drugs aren’t real, so if you are into that kind of thing, don’t waste your money.

Anyway, our next stop was just around the corner of this church to a little spot called A Ginjinha. This is a small walk-up bar in the theater district that is home to the traditional Ginja liqueur. Ginja is a sweet cherry liqueur that originated in Lisbon.  It is a fortified wine infused with Ginja cherries and a whole lot of sugar. There are two ways to drink Ginja: with or without cherries inside.  The cherries are sour and give the already strong drink and extra kick! Also, you can get your drink served in a chocolate cup, and I highly recommend you opt for that! Since this place was the first to sell the Portuguese favorite, there is usually a line to get a taste.

Just across the plaza from A Ginjinha is another ginja bar called Ginjinha Sem Rival.  Some say that this is the better of the two, so Chad tried both. We both liked the second one better. Also, at this bar you can get another drink called Eduardino, which is actually sweeter than ginjinha. Eduardino can only be found here.  It is made from herbs, fruit, and aniseed.

Right next to the bar was a small traditional shop that sold salted cod and sardines.  Both are a favorite and staple in Portuguese cuisine, especially for the dish Bacalao.

Our next stop was to the beautiful Rossio Square. The dizzying tile work makes this square so unique.  It was my favorite square in the city!

But the best views of the square, ans the whole city really, are from the Santa Justa Lift. The lift takes you from the steep hill of the Baixa district to the Largo do Carmo and the ruins of the Carmo Convent.

This is a very popular attraction and this is what the lines look like on a good day:

But, I don’t like lines, so I have a little secret for you.  The better way to do this is to start from Largo do Carmo. Just behind the Carmo Convent (pictured below) is an entrance to get to the platform that takes you to the view point that all these people are waiting in line to visit.  See the left hand, bottom corner of the picture below to see the walkway to which I am referring.

Once at the platform, you pay 1.50 Euro per person to climb this winding staircase:

Which leads to a platform that has these views:

Then, instead of paying 5 Euro per person for a return ride on the elevator, you just ride it down to the street level.  In other words, do the opposite of what the crowds are doing and save time and money!  You’re welcome!  This also put us in the perfect location to walk down Rua Augusta, which is lined with shops and restaurants.  At the end is Arco Da Rua Augusta, which leads to Praça do Comércio.

You can actually visit the top of this arch by taking an elevator nearly to the top, and then a steep spiral staircase to reach the terrace.  We did not do this, but Mr. Google says the views from the top are as follows:

From Praça do Comércio, you can walk along the waterside and see some artists at work, like the guy behind me who constructs massive sand statues and then charges people to take photos of it. I mean, who doesn’t love a sand puppy!

Or the rock sculpture garden that stretches for quite some way.

Our day ended with a stroll through the Chiado District to do a little shopping before dinner.

And that is where we came upon Sant’Anna, a ceramic factory dream come true! Their factory is actually in Belem, and you can arrange a visit there if you call ahead.

Lisbon is pretty much an outdoor tile museum, but there is actually a National Tile Museum that we did not get to visit.  It is definitely on my list for next time, because it looks amazingly beautiful, and I am OBSESSED with tiles.

We also visited  A Vida Portuguesa, which is a small boutique that sells authentic Portuguese products.  I bought the most divine hand and body creams as gifts for myself and for others!

We ended the day at one of Lisbon’s best, Belcanto, in the Barrio Alto District.

The restaurant,  by chef José Avillez, has two Michelin stars and is considered the best gourmet experience in Portugal. The mulit-course menus are modern takes on classic Portuguese dishes, including barnacles, a Portuguese delicacy.

After dinner, all I wanted to do was visit Pink Street, but considering we hadn’t slept in two days, had just gotten off a transatlantic flight, had spent the entire day touring the city, and had to get up early to do it all again the next day, we retired to our hotel and crashed.  But, in case you are interested, here is what pink street looks like:

ALFAMA DISTRICT

Alfama is one of the oldest districts of Lisbon.  It is a maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses.  It also has a very boho, artsy vibe. The best thing to do is to take the famous number 28 tram, which costs just under 3 Euro per person and runs all over the city. You can take the tram to Alfama and spend an afternoon wandering the neighborhood streets and admiring all the tile and street art.

Just make sure that at around sunset, you make your way over to Miradouro de Santa Luzia, a beautiful terrace next to the church of Santa Luzia to catch the beautiful sunset from the terrace and see the gorgeous views of Alfama.

You might just catch some local musicians playing Fado, a traditional folk music genre unique to Portugal and which got its start in Lisbon. You can also opt for a famous Fado dinner where you can hear and watch a live music performance while enjoying dinner. The most famous places for such an experience are Clube De Fado and Sr. Fado de Alfama, both in the Alfama district.

After our short little weekend trip to Portugal, I can say that I agree with the hype.  Lisbon is an overlooked city in Europe; but, it is indeed one of the most unique and charming, and provides one of the best bangs for your travel buck! Lisbon is very affordable.  The food and wine are fantastic, and at a fraction of the cost of other European cities.  It is also easy to navigate (by walking or using trams, tuk tuks, and Uber), it is clean and safe, accommodations are affordable, and there are a lot of free or low cost attractions to visit. Take my advice and at it to your list of European destinations. You will be so glad that you did!

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Porto, Portugal: Tiles and Wine and Other Things Fine

If you have a thing for tiles on the walls and on the floors, love Port wine, or are a foodie, then this is the place for you. Porto, or Oporto as the locals call it, is a modern city with iconic building facades and dynamic gastronomy.

It is like the San Francisco of Portugal and the Douro Valley is its Napa. As a matter of fact, Porto’s historic area was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. In 2001, its wine region, the Alto Douro Wine Region, was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage.

Port wine, that sweet, red dessert wine, is a fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley. It is the literal reason why most people come to Porto. The Douro Wine Region Valley is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world.

Unfortunately, we only had one day to spend in Porto. We woke up early in the morning and took a 30 minute flight from Lisbon to Porto (you can also take a 2.5 to 3 hour train from Lisbon). Because of our tight time frame, we did not have a chance to visit the Douro Valley.  If you have more time, I recommend an overnight in Porto so that you have at least one full day to visit the city and an overnight in the Douro Valley so that you have another full day to visit the region and do proper wine tastings.

We were met by Sara of Oporto & Douro Moments who would be out guide for a whirlwind of a day in Porto. Sara specializes in the Douro Valley and is native to Porto.

Despite that we would not have a chance to visit Douro with her, Sara made sure that we still experienced the heart of Porto – Port Wine. So, our first stop was Vila Nova de Gaia (or Gaia as it is locally know), which is just across the river from Porto, over the Dom Luís I Bridge, a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, you know, the Eiffel Tower guy. In Gaia is where most of the Port wineries have set up shop outside of the Douro Valley. We visited Pocas Junior.

We took a private tour and learned all about the history and tradition of port wine.They still use the traditional method of cleaning their wine storage units, which means that someone who is small enough to fit in this hole, climbs in and cleans by hand.  They have one dedicated employee for this task! They also have one dedicated employee who hand-makes their wine barrels at this on-site workshop.

Um, are these not the literal largest wine barrels you have ever seen in your entire life?  Apparently, at their Douro Valley location, they have even bigger ones! After tasting several varieties of port, including a port rose (there is such a thing and it is splendid!), we were in need of some food, so we headed back over the bridge to sink our teeth into a sandwich for which Porto is famous: the Francesinha (the Little Frenchie).

There is NOTHING little about this sandwich. The name is kind of comical, actually. One sandwich is enough for two people. Oh, and don’t even bother putting this one in your calories app.  I am pretty sure you will break the damn thing. Just know that you are going to need to up your steps after this one, which is fine because Porto is all hills anyway and calories don’t count on vacation.

Okay, back to the sandwich that gave me a mini panic attack: in between two very thick slices of white bread, you will find cured ham, two different kinds of sausage,  and steak. The sandwich is then covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce. And, because there isn’t enough protein in the sandwich, it is topped with a fried egg.  And served with french fries. Take that McDonald’s! I see your Big Mac and raise you the Little Frenchie!

So. Much. Meat.

Okay, so after all that eating, it was time to walk. We walked all over the city admiring the amazing tiled buildings. We even went to a tile museum, kind of.  This place is a government owned and operated tile cooperative. While it does display all of Porto’s traditional tiles, it also supplies tile. So, if you have building that has traditional tile, and you are missing a few pieces, you come in, they verify that you are legit (as in you own the building and you are restoring it), and then they just give you the tile. As in, for free. They will also take tile if you are remodeling and getting rid of the tile (why you would ever do that is beyond me). They will not, however, sell you tile (trust me, I tried). We also visited some of Porto’s most famous food shops. These are legit shops that sell traditional Portuguese products. The most famous among them is A Perola Do Bolhao, open since 1917, and Comer e Chorar Por Mais, also in operation for over 100 years.

Now, if you are a Harry Potter fan, you are going to want to come to Porto. It is in Porto where the author, J.K. Rowling, got inspiration for her series. She apparently split her time between a little cafe, Café Majestic, and the oldest and most beautiful bookstore in the world, the Lello Bookstore, also known as Livraria Lello & Irmão.  Rowling frequented the bookstore when she taught English in Porto. The Lello Bookstore was built in 1906 by the Lello Brothers.

This was her cafe of choice:

And this is the bookstore.  The photo of the facade is mine, but the photos of the inside are courtesy of Mr. Google because there is a huge line to get in. This bookstore has become so popular that they actually charges 4 Euro per person to enter; but, if you buy a book, that is credited towards your purchase.

After all that walking in the heat, it was time for a little treat: Portugal’s famous Santini gelato! Some call it the best in the world.  It has been a staple in Portugal for more than 60 years, ever since an Italian named Attilio Santini set up shop in Estoril, Portugal.  With over 50 flavors made fresh daily, you are going to want to make more than one stop here!Alas, our day in Porto was coming to an end. We headed back to the airport with full bellies and achy feet; but it was worth every minute (and every calorie)!

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Sintra, Portugal: An Enchanting Fairytale Land

I have a confession to make. Prior to planning my trip to Portugal, I did not even know that Sintra existed. Sintra may just be Portugal’s best kept secret.  Sintra, I learned, is a popular day-trip from Lisbon. It is just a 30 to 40 minute drive from Lisbon. Or, you can take a 30 minute train from Lisbon’s Rossio station to Sintra station.

Since it was our first time to Sintra, we decided to explore this magical little place with Sintra Magik Private Tours. Out guide, Diogo, was fantastic! He is a Portuguese historian and filmmaker.  He is patient, unconcerned with the clock, and 100% focused on your interests. He is a wealth of information about Portugal, and he really made Sintra come alive for us.  He took us to secret little spots and planned our tour so that we would always be running opposite the schedules of the big group tour buses.

To say that Sintra is picturesque is an understatement.  It is downright enchanting.  It is up on a hill, so it is cooler than Lisbon.  And, it has a seemingly endless number of castles to explore.

The most popular of the castles is Pena Palace. The palace stands on the top of a hill in the Sintra Mountains above the town of Sintra. Pena Palace is the greatest expression of 19th-century romanticism in Portugal. Its color and tile work make it a breathtaking site. This was our first stop in Sintra. We got there right as the doors opened and were the first in line to buy tickets.

Exploring Pena Palace sans crowds makes this spectacular palace even more magical. The palace is surrounded by Pena Park.

You have two options to reach the palace.  You can stroll through the park, which is slightly uphill and takes about 10 minutes of walking. Or, you can pay 2 EU per person and be driven up on a trolley. We opted for the short and picturesque hike.

The views as you approach the palace from below are incredible. The palace, lording over you from above (as you approach on the footpath below), is so striking that it doesn’t even look real.

We made our way through the impressive stone entrance, and then Diogo guided us through the part of the palace from which you would normally exit. This gave us a chance to see the entire palace complex with NO other people around. 

We next explored the outer grounds of the palace. The color and stone and tile detailing of the exterior of this palace are truly breathtaking. Seriously, pictures do not do it justice. 

But don’t think that all the eye candy is just on the exterior.  The interior of this palace is equally as impressive. 

You can also walk around the palace complex using exterior walkways and get some incredible views of Sintra and the Sintra Mountains, including views of the Castelo dos Mouros (the Moorish Castle), which pre-dates the Pena Palace by about 1,000 years.

We left the palace just as throngs of tour groups started filing in, and we headed back to Sintra’s town center to do some exploring. First, stop – snack time! We stopped at this little cafe, the oldest and most popular in the region to try the local queijadas, Sintra’s version of a pastel de nata (the ubiquitous Portuguese custard tart) made with a sweet cheese filling.

Sit inside by the window to enjoy a fantastic view.

The little town of Sintra is so charming, with darling cobbled streets that are lined with shops and cafes. After our brief snack stop, we made our way to the National Palace of Sintra, situated in the heart of Sintra.

We spent the remainder of our time exploring the shops, streets, and corners of this beautiful little city.

Diogo suggested that we head to the coast for lunch so that we can eat at an authentic Portuguese family-owned restaurant and visit Cabo da Roca, the westernmost part of mainland Portugal and continental Europe.

Next, Diogo took us to a secret spot that I promised him I would not identify in this post where we had the landscape and beautiful views all to ourselves!

We ended our day in the beautiful seaside city of Cascais.

Honestly, our day trip to Sintra was my favorite part of our Portugal visit. But, I left Sintra feeling like I really just scratched the surface. To really appreciate Sintra, I think you need to stay here for at least one night, but probably two nights. There were so many sites that we did not get to explore, like The Quinta Regaleira, which has this beautiful spiral and courtyard inside (courtesy of Mr. Google):There are some beautiful properties to choose from for an overnight stay.  You can go wine tasting in this region, and, I am told that once the day-trippers leave, Sintra becomes a different place, and the sites stay open to allow the people staying there to enjoy them without the crowds.

This website offered a helpful three-day itinerary for Sintra:

sights of sintra portugal

If you find yourself in Portugal, make it a point to visit (and stay) in Sintra.  It is well-worth your time. Obrigado and Viagens Felizes!

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Rhodes, Greece: The Island Of The Knights

Rhodes is often overlooked on most people’s Greece itinerary because it’s one of the furthest islands away from the mainland. Also, Rhodes doesn’t have the hype that Santorini and Mykonos have. Most people, especially first-timers to Greece, flock to these touristy islands for the sunsets, white washed buildings, blue domes, and the windmills.

Don’t get me wrong, both Sanotrini and Mykonos, like all of Greece’s islands, are beautiful. But, in my opinion, they lack the authenticity of the Greek culture.  They are  expensive and overrun with tourists and the dreaded cruise boats. Rhodes, on the other hand, is less crowded, more affordable, and, in my opinion, more interesting. It is also a photographer’s dream! Allow me to introduce you to this little gem.

If you read this blog, you already know that I am Greek and that Chad and I visit Greece at least once a year because my dad lives on the island of Crete. Every time we go to Greece, we try to visit new places and new islands in Greece. This year, Rhodes was at the top of our list.

Rhodes is part  and also the capital of the Dodecanese, “The Twelve Islands” (which is a misleading name because the Dodecanese are actually made up of 15 larger islands plus 150 smaller  islands in the southeastern Aegean Sea). It is the largest of these islands. Rhodes is most famous  for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the Medieval Old Town of the City of Rhodes has been declared a World Heritage Site. In fact, the Old Town is surrounded by a huge, intact, wall, and there is even a castle!  It’s very A Knight’s Tale; and, even more importantly, it has a look and feel unlike anywhere else you’ll experience in Greece.

Rhodes has a long and rich history. Suffice it to say, there were many things that attracted to us to Rhodes. To get to Rhodes, you can take a very long ferry from Athens or Thessaloniki or you could take an less than an hour flight. I’ll let you guess which option we chose and which we recommend you do as well.
We chose to stay in the Old Town of Rhodes. Old Town is surrounded by medieval walls with seven “gates” (Gate of the Naval Station, Gate of Agios Ioannis, Gate of Agia Ekaterini, Gate of the Apostle Paul, Gate of Amboise, Gate of Agios Athanassios and the Gate of the Port). Today, the gates are the seven entry points into the Old Town. When you enter these gates, you feel as if you have entered another world. I am so glad we chose to stay in the Old Town. It was truly enchanting and much more charming than staying at one of the huge beach resorts in the modern city. You literally feel as though you have entered some sort of enchanted land.

We stayed at a small boutique hotel called Kokkini Porta Rosa (which loosely translates into  the red door) in the Old Town. Now, this is NOT a sponsored post, but I love this hotel (it’s really more of a guest house than a hotel) and its owners (who were just the loveliest, warmest, and most interesting couple) so much that I am going to dedicate part of my post about Rhodes to this fantastic gem because I think this hotel really colored our view of Rhodes in the most positive of ways.

This hotel is a model for what hotels should be. In a world that has become so impersonal, Angela and Nikos, the owners (who have lovingly restored an old home, while staying true to its history), break the mold and have truly created a home away from home.

Every single guest of their small five-suite hotel is treated like family. Angela and Nikos pay the utmost attention to detail. This little hotel is luxury and service re-defined, from the moment you walk in until the moment you check out, with homemade gift in hand.

First, there is no such thing as a bad room.  All the rooms are breathtaking. They are large, they are beautifully appointed with the couple’s own hand-selected furnishings from around the world.  The rooms have every comfort you could ask for, including a pillow menu, luxurious local, organic bath products, and a fully stocked mini bar that is FREE in every room for every guest for your entire stay. You read that right- the mini bar is FREE. Everything in it is FREE! And, there are A LOT of choices, which are replenished daily. Also, the Wi-Fi is strong! Angela and Nikos have anticipated your every need. They literally have thought of every single little detail. Each room comes with a fully stocked beach bag that includes towels, mats, and bottled water.

Also, every single room is assigned a tablet that is pre-loaded and customized to each guest every single day of your stay. Your tablet will have maps, itineraries, places of interest, and restaurants, which are hand-selected by Nikos every day for every single guest based on what you tell him that you are interested in.

The tablet acts as a GPS (which is helpful in the maze-like roads of the Old Town), and a means to communicate directly with Nikos and Angela from anywhere on the island. If you book directly with them, your room comes with a free car rental on a day of your choosing so that you can leave the Old Town and explore other areas of Rhodes, like Lindos.

Every day when you return, Angela and Nikos are there to greet you with a drink in hand and snacks. Every evening, they leave out a full array of cocktails for you to enjoy before or after dinner, including Angela’s homemade limoncello, which is literally the best I have ever had.  Ever. Including the ones we tried in Italy. Even in Positano. Breakfast is included with your room, and you would be a fool to miss it. It is literally the best breakfast I have ever had at a hotel, and Chad and I have stayed at some VERY nice hotels all over the world. Angela serves up a three-course, homemade breakfast. First, she brings you a French pressed coffee or a hand-squeezed juice (all of which are amazing) and an array of bread with homemade jams (which are also amazing).

Your first course will be something sweet and something savory from the local cuisine. This selection will change every day. Your second course is Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and bee pollen and/or honey. Finally, she will cook your eggs to order.

The presentation is beautiful, the food is delicious, and by the second morning, Angela has your preferences committed to memory. Oh, did I mention that your breakfast is taken in the garden oasis featured above? Also, the hotel is located in a quiet residential district, so there is no noise from cars, bars, restaurants and people, but it is walking distance from all the action.Here’s the best part: this hotel is affordable, especially when you consider what you are getting (breakfast, fully stocked mini bar, daily cocktails, car rental, etc.) and compared to the other options on the island. Hell, even if the hotel was a splurge, I’d spend it! Nikos is a wealth of information about the island, and both Nikos and Angela are truly passionate about what they do, which translates into the guest experience.  Everyone on the island knows them and their hotel. I am quite confident when I say that you will never again stay a hotel that is quite like this one.  I dream about this hotel and coming back. Hats off to Angela and Nikos for creating the ultimate guest experience. If you go (and, I truly insist that you do), please let Angela and Nikos know that I sent you.

After we were done swooning over the hotel, we spent our first full day wandering around the Old Town and taking in all of the beautiful little corners of this charming town. By the way, if you are into doors and floors, then hold on to your britches, because Old Town Rhodes is an assault of charm in the door and floor department. The ancient mosaic stone work on the floors is incredible! And, the doors…I died! On Angela and Nikos’s suggestion (which, by the way, were always spot on), we stopped to eat lunch at this amazing little restaurant and loved the food so much that we came back again, which is VERY rare for us, as we try to eat at as many different places as possible. After lunch, we decided to explore the area outside of the Old Town wall. On our second day, we hired Nick of Rhodes Private Tax Tours to give us a tour of the Rhodes outside of the Old Town and to take us to Lindos to visit the famous Acropolis of Lindos.

Lindos is a resort town with a small (touristy) village at its center, which is pedestrian only.  The village gets pretty crowded as does the Acropolis of Lindos, but it is well worth a visit. I would recommend spending an entire day here so you can go to the Acropolis as early as possible and then have time to explore the little village. You can also overnight in Lindos if you want to enjoy the beach.

However, before we left for Lindos, Nick showed us one of the places where the Colossus of Rhodes was thought to have stood. The Colossus of Rhodes was an enormous statue depicting the city’s patron god, Helios (the god of the sun).  Many believe that this wonder of  the ancient world stood in Mandraki Harbour, and there are rumors that a fundraising effort is underway so that an architect can build a new monument, albeit one five times larger than the original, to straddle the entrance of this harbor. However, there are some theories that because this monument was so important, it did not actually stand at the harbor, but at the Acropolis of Rhodes Lindos is a cute little village that has many shops and small, but stunning churches to explore before you make your way up to the Acropolis of Lindos, a climb that includes several hundred stairs of various heights with no guardrails.  Not to worry, it is totally do-able (if you are wearing the right shoes), the views are incredible, and there are donkeys to assist.

The irony of a Greek bank building being used to store donkey is not lost on me. This is just ripe for Greek financial crisis jokes…like the only ASSets being stored in Greek banks this year…but that’s not funny. I mean, it kind of is, but not really.

I wish we had a little more time to explore this village, but it was pouring that day, so as soon as the sun came out, we hiked up to the Acropolis!

And the views from the Acropolis of Lindos are not too shabby:After Lindos, Nick took us to the cutest little beach side taverna for lunch (which had the most INCREDIBLE views) before we set off to explore other sites around the island, including Filerimos, monastery is dedicated to Virgin Mary that has monuments of the seven stations of the cross and  is overrun with friendly peacocks, and Anthony Quinn Bay, which is a beautiful little bay riddled with controversy and drama. 

Filerimos:

Anthony Quinn Bay:On our third day on the island, we took advantage of the free rental car that came with our room and took to the roads with our tablet to explore other points of interest, such as the Castle of Monolithos, Profitis IliasAncient Kamiros, and the Seven Springs (Epta Piges). Also, in the right season, you can also visit the Valley of the Butterflies. Rhodes is a fairly flat island, so it is easy to drive and navigate. I would highly recommend renting a car for a day or two to do some independent exploring.

Monolithos: Ancient Kamiros: Seven Springs:

Make sure the water is running at the springs before you go because when we went, the water had dried up, so this lovely shot is courtesy of Mr. Google!On our last day, we stayed in the Old Town and visited the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. We also walked through the moat, which was kind of cool because you see the Old Town above you and there are a few little nooks to explore.  And, we walked on top of the medieval wall, which had fantastic views of the Old Town below, and the exist was literally in front of our hotel!  Finally, we visited the archaeological museum.

Moat:

Palace:

Medieval wall:

 

Museum:

There are several day trips you can take from Rhodes, including trips to Symi,  Kastellorizo, Alimia, and Chalki Islands. You can also visit Turkey for the day from Rhodes! We didn’t have time to do any day trips on this visit. We do, however, plan to come back to Rhodes to explore more of the island (but really to stay at Kokkini Porta Rosa again) and to visit some of the neighboring islands. Second to Crete, Rhodes is my favorite island in Greece. Add this little medieval gem to your bucket-list.  I promise it will not disappoint!

 

 

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Athens, Greece: It’s Not Just A Stop Over City

Judging by the number of people reaching out to me for tips and recommendations, it appears that you all are going to Greece this summer and, honestly, lucky you! Greece is one of my favorite countries, and not just because my family lives there and I go there a lot. Greece truly has something for everyone- history, sites, culture, food, wine, beaches, city, countryside, islands, landscapes, mountains, hiking. The food is delicious. The people are so hospitable. The country is just breathtaking. I can go on and on. And, now is a GREAT time to go. The flights have never been cheaper. The Euro is reasonably low. It is one of the safest countries you can visit. And, let’s be honest, Greece needs your tourist dollars.

Naturally, when people ask me for tips on Greece, I always ask for their itinerary. Without fail, I get the same response- “We are only spending a day or so in Athens to see the Acropolis before going to the islands.” Big mistake! Athens is not a stopover city. You know, like one of those cities you just fly into before you move on to the main attraction. Athens is an attraction, and not just for the Acropolis.  Athens is a world class city. There are so many things to see in Athens: amazing food, GREAT shopping, awesome nightlife, but, most importantly, it serves as the best base to really see mainland Greece (which is SO worth your time). Seriously. Greece is more than just Santorini and Mykonos (or as Greeks like to call it, Greece for beginners).

I am going to show you some of my favorite parts of Athens right here in this post. And then, in a separate post, I am going to show you all these neat little places you can easily visit as a day trip from Athens. Ready?  Let’s go!

The Acropolis and The Parthenon

I think the obvious must-see is the Parthenon, which is located on the Acropolis of Athens. See what I did there? I subtly explained to you that the structure is the Parthenon and the hill upon which it sits is the Acropolis. If you can, I highly recommend waking up early and getting to the Acropolis first thing in the morning, before the rush of cruise ship people and the buses of tourists. Another great option would be to go about an hour before it closes. The visiting hours, entrance fees, and general information on how to get to the Acropolis can be found here. If you go early in the morning, you can pretty much have the place to yourself with relatively few people. By 10:00-10:30 a.m., it’s like a zoo.

On your way up the Acropolis, you will see this ancient amphitheater, the Herod Atticus Odeon, which is itself an antiquity.  The cool thing about it is that they still hold summer concerts and performances at the amphitheater! Once you are at the top of the Acropolis, you enter from here to see the Parthenon: And now, for the main attraction: The Parthenon! Don’t forget to spend some time visiting some of the other temples on the Acropolis. By the way, on your way out, don’t just pass by this olive tree without stopping to admire it. It is the oldest olive tree on the Acropolis! Also, here is a list of the best places from which to photograph the Acropolis. Here are some interesting facts about the Acropolis, and some motivation to wake up early on a Sunday to visit it.

The Acropolis Museum (And Other Museums of Interest)

Your next stop should be to the new(ish) Acropolis Museum.  Seriously, don’t miss the museum. It is the best museum in Athens, and my personal favorite. If you are into museums, the other one worth visiting (and which also stays open later in the evening) is the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. If art is your thing, then you will want to visit the Benaki Museum. For the largest collection of Byzantine Art, visit the Byzantine and Christian Museum. For the best collection of Cycladic art in the world, visit the Museum of Cycladic Art.

Anyway, back to the Acropolis Museum. The exploration starts with the walk in.  The floor is excavated to reveal antiquities before you even enter the museum.

Once you enter, you will find a light, airy, and very well laid out museum dedicated to the Acropolis and the Parthenon.

The most interesting (yet infuriating) part of this museum is the space that is dedicated to the Parthenon Marbles, more commonly known as the Elgin Marbles, named after the man who stole them from Greece and sold them to the British Museum. If you want to see the marbles that used to line the Parthenon, you will have to go to London. But if you want to see where they belong, well, that would be here:This sculpture is my favorite in the museum. It is a replica of what used to sit atop the entrance to the Parthenon (the darker pieces are original).

One of the greatest features of this museum, is that you can see the Parthenon from the top floor and can even stop for a break at a rooftop snack bar that faces the Acropolis.

Anafiotika and Plaka

I am about to let you in on a little secret of Athens. At the foot of the Acropolis, on the back side, sits a little community called Anafiotika. It is part of the Plaka neighborhood, and the houses were built  to mimic those on the island of Anafi, whose people came to Athens as construction workers to refurbish King Otto’s Palace during the era of Otto of Greece. Here is what is amazing about it: it still exists; it is pretty well-preserved; people still live there; and it is EMPTY.  As in tourist free! You can actually climb up the Acropolis from here or you can visit after you go to the Parthenon and make your way to Plaka – an ancient, yet still thriving, neighborhood of Athens (a.k.a the “Neighborhood of the Gods”), for a lovely lunch at a fantastic Greek taverna.

As you exit Anafiotika and continue on to Plaka, you will encounter some beautiful street art. A few minutes later, you will be at the beautiful Plaka, where you will have your pick of excellent taverns for lunch.

Ancient Agora and Monastiraki

From Plaka, you can walk through the ruins of the Ancient Agora as you make your way to Monastiraki, which is a large open air flea market and a great place to pick up souvenirs and gifts. 

Syntagma Square (And a Side Note About Shopping!)

As you exit Monastiraki, you will find yourself across from Syntagma Square, or Constitutional Square, where every hour on the hour you can watch the ceremony of the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. While this happens everyday, the official ceremony using the official costumes happens on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. The guards are part of the Evzones, a special unit of the Hellenic Army, also known as Tsoliades, who guard the Monument of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Hellenic Parliament and the Presidential Mansion.

The job of the Tsoliades is very tough. They are there every day, rain or shine, wearing extremely heavy costumes and shoes, even in the summer. Every soldier stands guard for about an hour, for a total of three times in a 48 hour period. For the hour they are on guard, they have to stand perfectly still until it is time to switch with another guard. They are now protected by Greek police thanks to ignorant tourists who used to come up to take pictures with them and sometimes torture them by hitting them, attempting to knock them over, or lifting up the skirt of their uniform, which is worn because of its historic meaning. Unfortunately, because of this, you can no longer stand next to them as they stand guard for photos, but you can stand below them. By the way and in case you are interested, you can now tour the inside of the Greek parliament building.

From here, you can visit the beautiful Hotel Grand Bretagne and grab a drink on their roof-top bar with views of the Acropolis.  If you are in the mood to do some shopping, head to the nearby Ermou Street, Athens’s main shopping street (with a great selection of shoe stores!) and Psiri. Also, if you are looking for the famous Pantelis Melissinos, the poet Sandal Maker, you will find him near Syntagma Square, in the beginning streets of Psiri. If you want to buy his custom-made sandals, get ready to wait in line to get into the tiny shop. Don’t worry; its worth it.  You choose a style and then they custom fit them to your feet.  It is cash only, and the sandals cost about 50 Euro per pair, but they are excellent quality and very comfy. We used to buy these sandals all the time crowd free, but after appearing in some travel books and on some travel shows, the tiny shop has become very busy. If Pantelis is there, he will even autograph your pair!

If high end shopping is on your list then DO NOT miss the trendy upscale neighborhood of Kolonaki and the coastal Glyfada. Here you will find luxury boutiques (including Greek designers), shoe emporiums, and haute couture shops.

Mount Lycabettus

If you are looking for the best panoramic view of the city (and best city sunset), look no further than Lycabettus. It is the highest point of the city.  You can walk up, take a funicular from Kolonaki, or drive up. However you get there, just go.  The views are impressive, especially at night. 

The Panathenaic Stadium and The Temple of Olympian Zeus

A short walk from Syntagma Square and within walking distance of each other, both the Panathenaic Stadium and the Temple of Olympian Zeus are worth a visit. The Panathenaic Stadium is where the first modern Olympic games were held in 1896, and it is the only stadium in the whole world built entirely of marble. In addition to thew new Olympic stadium, the Panathenaic Stadium was also used in the 2004 Olympic games, which were held in Athens.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was one of the largest temples in the ancient world. Today only 16 columns survive.

Beaches

You read that right. Beaches.  Athens has beaches, and pretty good ones, too. To be clear, they do not compare to the beaches of the Greek islands (I mean just look at what is in store for you in Crete!), but they are pretty good for city beaches, and Athens has the longest coastline of any European capital. So, here is a list of the top five!

This is just a sampling of what Athens has to offer and of what you miss when you ignore this gem of a city. We haven’t even touched on the world class dining and the incredible nightlife of this city, which truly never sleeps. Not to mention all the great day trip options from Athens. I have been coming to Athens for over 30 years now, and I STILL make new discoveries about this city every single time. So please, do me a small favor, and make some time in your itinerary to scratch the surface of this magnificent city. Trust me, you will not regret it!

Καλώς ήρθατε στην Αθήνα (kah-los  ear-tha-te  steen  Athena) or Welcome to Athens!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Matala, Crete: Today Is Life. Tomorrow Never Comes.

This summer in Crete, Chad and I found a place where tomorrow never comes.  A place where everyone seemingly lives in the moment of today. And, we are officially obsessed. If you find yourself in Crete this year (and we highly recommend that you do in fact go to Crete, like now), put Matala on your itinerary. Trust us, you will not regret it!

My dad lives in Crete, so Chad and I find ourselves there pretty regularly, i.e., once a year.  Every time we go to Crete, we make it a point to visit parts of the island that we have never seen before. The options are virtually limitless. This year, we planned a day-trip from Chania to Matala, which is located in the prefecture of Heraklion.

If you don’t already know, Crete is the largest of Greece’s islands and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. Crete is divided into four prefectures: Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion and Lassithi. Crete was also the home to the ancient Minoan civilization.

There are two ways to reach Crete: you can fly in from Athens or other European cities or you can take a ferry from Athens and certain other Greek islands, like Santorini.  If you choose the ferry option (I suggest the upgraded cabin seats if you go with this option), you will port in Heraklion.  Matala is located about an hour away from both the airport and ferry port in Heraklion.  However, we prefer the flight option. The flight is the easiest option as it is only 30 minutes from Athens with multiple regularly scheduled flights that are not very expensive on Aegean Airlines. You can fly into either Chania or Heraklion.  We usually fly into Chania because this is the closest city to where my family lives, which is in Anopoli, Sfakia.

We rented a car for the day from the city center of Chania. The daily rate was about 65 Euros with unlimited miles and a turn in time of 10:00 p.m. If you prefer to use the pretty reliable public bus system that runs throughout Crete, called the KTEL, you can find the schedules and prices here. The drive from Chania to Matala is about two hours, mostly on highway, and it is very scenic. Our first stop was to the Archaeological site of PhaistosTo reach Phaistos, follow the signs along the highway, which direct you up a pretty easy mountain road.  If you use your iPhone navigation, you will be directed to leave your car and walk.  Ignore those directions.  The road is paved all the way up to the site, and it is in great condition.  When you reach the site, there is a parking lot on the left, and the entrance is a short 3 minute walk on a paved road to the right. It costs 8 Euro per person to visit the site.  Once inside, there are clean restrooms located inside a snack bar that also doubles as a small souvenir shop. Also, there is free Wi-Fi! More information on visiting the site can be found here, including hours of operation. The site is certainly not as big, well preserved, or as popular as the Palace of Knossos, but it is also WAY less crowded (you almost have the whole place to yourself), and it is pretty interesting and well worth a visit. We were able to visit the entire site in a little over an hour. 

Phaistos, like the Palace of Knossos, was a Minoan palace and the place where the Phaistos disc (which is now on display in the archaeological museum of Heraklion) was discovered. Phaistos was one of the most important centers of Minoan civilization and the most wealthy and powerful city in southern Crete. If you are coming from Heraklion, I suggest you stop at the museum first and then make your way to Phaistos.

We were pretty hungry after our visit, so we decided to drive over to Matala for a sea-side lunch and swim. The drive from Phaistos to Matala beach is about 15 to 20 minutes.Matala is small beach community that now caters mainly to tourists. The beach is just breathtaking, with a large cliff to the right of the ocean. Matala was originally the port of Phaistos in the Minoan period. In the Neolithic Age, artificial caves were carved into the cliff by the Romans and were used as tombs. In the 60s, Matala was a fishing village that became the home of several hippies who lived inside the old tombs in the cliff.  The most notable of Matala’s hippie residents was Joni Mitchell, who wrote the song Carey while living in Matala. Joni came to Matala breaking up with Graham Nash.  Other notable hippies who inhabited Matala’s caves include Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Cat Stevens. Matala gained international attention in the 60s after Life Magazine published a story about it. Today, Matala still has a very distinct boho hippie vibe, although it is more commercial than it once was. And, the “new hippies” of Matala still inhabit a more remote set of caves not far away from the ones on the beach.

You’ll know when you have arrived in Matala because you will be greeted by this beautiful tree which sits in the center of the non-pedestrian part of the village.There is a large parking lot that has direct access to the beach, and it only costs 2 Euro to park there all day. The lot has beautiful street art on the buildings.From the lot, it is just a short walk onto the beach, which, in late May, was not that crowded. You can walk a path to get to the cliff and actually climb up the cliff and visit the now empty tombs. The cost for the all-day ticket is 2 Euro per person. It’s kind of wild to think that you are visiting both a grave site and the former “homes” of some of the world’s most notable musicians. Apparently, there are additional tombs that have not yet been excavated.

Once in the water, you can actually swim into the caves of the cliff. The water is clear and cool, and there is a small reef not far from the shore, so bring your snorkel. On the opposite side of the beach, away from all the crowds, sits a sea wall with welcome greeting: “Welcome to Matala George.  Today is life. Tomorrow never comes.” Some say that this is a greeting to George Harrison of The Beatles.  It is unknown if George ever made it to Matala to see the greeting. Others say that George was a well-known hippie who lived in Matala.  If you are interested, I came across this post which is about Matala’s last known hippie (from the 1960s). But, one thing is for sure, this is more than just a greeting; this is a motto for life in Matala. Everyone there is seemingly living in the moment of today. It is refreshing. Matala has several sea-side taverns with a view of the beach or you may opt to walk into town where you will find several taverns, bars, and shops. We ate at Taverna Sirtaki, which was great and had an awesome view.  After lunch, we walked around town where I got a great pair of handmade sandals and some fantastic handmade jewelry from the shops in Matala. As you walk around the town, you will notice drawings on the street.  These are allegedly made by a hippie named Frankie who, like many of the part-time nomadic hippie residents, spends the summers in Matala.

We left late in the afternoon to make our way back to Chania, but we decided that on our next trip, we will come back to Matala and spend the night. Apparently, at night, when the sun goes down, the hippies appear in their VW vans and set up makeshift shops to sell their handmade jewelry for 2 Euros and smoke weed. Everyone hangs out at an open-air bar called Hakuna Matala where the drinks are cheap and served with watermelon slices.

If you are planning to visit Matala in June you should know that every year there is a huge music festival that takes place during the second or third week of June called Matala Beach Festival. During this festival, approximately 50,000 to 80,000 people descend upon the beach of Matala (where the actual festival takes place) to camp and enjoy the live music. Vendors also overtake the streets of the town. I am certain that this element brings a completely different vibe to the otherwise laid back town of Matala.

On our way back to Chania, we made an hour detour to visit the beach of Triopetra. The beach was breathtaking and empty, but the road to get there was terrifying, which is probably why it is not a touristy spot.  If you are not comfortable driving on very narrow, extremely elevated, winding, two-way mountain roads with no guardrails, I suggest that you skip this place. On the other hand, the beach, named for the three (trio) rock (petra) formation, is popular among yogis who come here for yoga retreats and believe the place to be very spiritual.

These next two images are borrowed from the internet to give you an idea of what the beach looks like.

Matala is a place that sort of stays with you. I think part of the reason is that it seems so out of place in Crete. The ethos of Matala almost reminded me of Tulum. Since returning home, I have been thinking a lot about the Matala motto. It seems like a good reminder to live in the moment. After all, isn’t life really just a series of todays?

If you make it to Matala this year or have been before, please send me an email or leave a comment and let me know if you are/were as enchanted by it as we were. It has truly become our favorite place in Crete, and we cannot wait to get back!

 

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Tikko Travels: Dorian’s Story

Guess what!  We have a new travel companion!  Meet Tikko.  Tikko is a traveling polar bear that belongs to a very special boy named Dorian.  Dorian is a 13-year old boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”).

Tikko travels the globe through the help of his ambassadors to raise awareness for ASD. Tikko takes a letter from Dorian outlining some of the characteristics of Autism, and an invitation to “Join the Journey” on Tikko’s Facebook page, “TIKKO TRAVELS“.

Tikko has been to a lot of places.  But Tikko came onto my radar in an unusual way.  As you may recall, I recently wrote a post about a friend whom I lost in a tragedy.  My friend had been a Tikko ambassador, taking Tikko with him on many of his adventures, his most notable being to the summit of Mount Everest.

My friend had other adventures planned for Tikko, but unfortunately, his journey with Tikko came to an end.  In honor and memory of my friend, I agreed to pick up where he left off and continue the journey with Tikko.

Tikko may not be able to top the travel tales that my friend provided to him, but he sure will get around the globe a bit with me, and, hopefully, in the process, we can do our part to accomplish Tikko’s mission of raising worldwide awareness for ASD.

I hope you will join our journey as we take Tikko to the corners of our beautiful globe to raise awareness for ASD and to remember a most extraordinary friend.

Where to next, Tikko?? GREECE!!

 

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Tulum, Mexico: A Boho Chic Paradise

In my heart, I am a wanderluster with a gypsy soul who craves a life of clean eating, knowledge through exploration, and satisfaction derived from simple pleasures. Unfortunately, my real-life and my day job are not conducive to living the life I crave. But, a short trip to Tulum gave me a taste of that life. Calling all wanderlusters, gypsy souls, boho babes, hippies, yogis, beach babes, juicers, holisitc chicks, and wannabes of the aforementioned; I have found your haven!

Tulum is the prefect escape.  If you are looking to unwind and eat your heart out, you should come here.  But, I have a confession to make. I think I may have done Tulum wrong. Don’t get me wrong, Chad and I enjoyed our trip, but I feel like we missed some of the best that Tulum has to offer, and I take full responsibility for that. Our anniversary is in April, and we always do an anniversary trip. We decided on Tulum because it had been on our “long weekend destination” list for a while, another trip we were working on for April fell through, and we needed to visit somewhere close(ish).

So, we planned our trip to Tulum as kind of a last minute getaway, during a time that both Chad and I were slammed at work. As a result, I did not do as much research as I usually do. We kind of winged it.  Kind of. We planned for our transportation to and from Tulum (because of the distance, you kind of have to), and we planned for a day trip to some of the ruins, but other than that, there was no plan. But after three days (which, by the way, is too short; you really need like 4 or 5 full days), we left Tulum feeling a little unfulfilled –like there was more to this little gem that we didn’t get to experience. Maybe that is just the pull that Tulum has on some people. In this post, I hope to help you avoid that pitfall and help you make the most of your time in Tulum.  As for Chad and I, well, I guess we will just need to go back fora do-over!

VISIT TULUM

Not surprisingly, high season in Tulum is between October and December. We went in April, which is off-season. We found the weather to be comfortable, but, we are from Miami, so we are used to warmer temperatures, and most of the hotel options were affordable. The other nice thing was that it was not as crowded. However, the seas were a little rough, and the beaches were full of seaweed when we were there.

Getting to Tulum takes some planning.  You will likely fly into Cancun airport and then drive to Tulum, which is an hour and a half drive from the airport in no traffic. The flight from Miami to Cancun was only an hour and 20 minutes, so it actually took longer for us to drive to Tulum than it took for us to get to Mexico! Depending on where you stay, some of the hotels offer transportation, or as was the case with ours, can arrange transportation at an extra cost.

Initially, we had our hotel coordinate the transportation, but it was NOT cheap. As in a couple of hundred dollars each way. So, I started doing my own research, and I found Tucan Kin. They specialize in transfers and offer the best priced options that I could find. You can request a shared ride or a private transfer, and you can book online. You can pay in cash on arrival or through PayPal. In my opinion, it is better to pay in cash (and don’t forget to account for a tip for the driver) because the rate is a little cheaper. They were very responsive to email requests and were very easy to deal with.

We scheduled a round trip transfer, and they were right on time when we got out of the airport and also right on time to pick us up for the return. We were transferred in a comfortable van with air-conditioning and a cooler of coll drinks. They also offer other transportation services for your in-country stay. We literally saved $200.00 using them, so I would highly recommend booking your transfer with them.

If you fail to plan for your transportation, expect to be solicited at the airport for a ride. Good luck with that, and I hope you have cash on had. But, if this is the situation in which you find yourself, then your best bet is to book a transfer from the transfer desk at the airport. When you arrive at the Cancun airport, you will clear customs, which was a pretty quick process, and then be directed to baggage claim.  From there, walk out the doors on the arrivals level and look for the transfer desk just to the left.  You really can’t miss it because it is a fairly small airport and it is located in the only hall you have to walk through to actually exit the airport. Expect to wait up to 30 minutes for car or van (it won’t be a taxi because they are not allowed to pick up from the airport), and the cost will be about $100 USD.   

I would not have done it on our first visit, but after visiting once, I think I would be comfortable renting a car and driving to Tulum ourselves. The roads are excellent and there is plenty of signage.  At a minimum, Chad and I would consider renting a car once we are in Tulum to drive around the town.  Otherwise, your only options are taxis (which can get expensive), walking (which isn’t always feasible due to the distance), or biking (which is probably the most common mode of transportation).

Bikes are everywhere in Tulum. They are easy to rent and cost about 150 pesos a day, which is about $8 dollars.  If you rent for multiple days, it is cheaper.  Some places will rent you scooters or 4x4s but hardly anyone we saw had rented these.  There’s a bike path from town all the way out to the beach, and the ride takes 20 to 35 minutes depending on where you’re staying along the beach road. While the road is flat, keep in mind that depending on when you go, it can be pretty hot in Tulum.

A taxi from the beach to town should be about 100 pesos (or $5.00) and up and down the beach road about 80 pesos (or $4.00), but honestly, this varied wildly depending on the cab driver.

I research car rentals when we returned and it looks like you can rent a car once you get to Tulum for under $10.00 USD per day.  This seems to be the cheapest and easiest option. The only problem I foresee is parking. There are lots up and down the Hotel Zone (see below for what that means), but they are few and far between. Also, not all hotels offer parking.

STAY TULUM

There are a lot of different options for accommodations in Tulum that span all budgets, from luxury resorts to beach tents and rustic beach huts with communal restrooms and sans electricity. Other than budget, I think the most important consideration to make is where in Tulum you want to be. There are basically two areas: Tulum Town and the Hotel Zone. If you want better prices, then you should look for properties in the town. If you want to be close to or on the water, then you should look for properties located in the Hotel Zone, which stretches for miles. A nice resort in off-season is about $300.00 USD per night.

We stayed at Maria Del Mar Tulum which is located in the Hotel Zone, probably about halfway between the Tulum Ruins and the town and the stretch of the Hotel Zone where most of the restaurants are located. The location was good, but (as with most accommodations) we still needed a cab to get to most restaurants and shops and a cab to go to the town. The hotel is fairly new.  It has an on-property restaurant called Mina, which is the sister-restaurant to the popular Casa Banana (more on the restaurants below). The hotel had its own little boutique, but right outside of the hotel therewere a few cute shops. A convenience store, a bike rental shop, an ATM, an exchange station, and some other causal eateries are located literally across the street and, in some case, just a few steps from the hotel. The draw for us was 1) it had air-conditioning and electricity, 2) it was on the water, and 3) it is adults only! We stayed in the room on the right hand corner on the second level in the picture below, so we had an ocean view from the front and the side of our room. The room comes with a beach bag to use while you are there, which was very helpful, and their toiletries were amazing, all organic, and smelled like heaven. The staff was friendly. Housekeeping replenished the bottle water that was provided for brushing your teeth daily and accommodated requests for extra pillows. The hotel also helped with reservations to restaurants and rental of snorkel equipment. They also offered yoga every morning for an extra price and could arrange in-room massage services.

The other hotels that are on my list of places to stay in Tulum include Sanara (home of the my favorite breakfast restaurant of all time- The Real Coconut), Nomade, Nest (this one gets GREAT reviews), Be Tulum (the most expensive option at $500+ USD per night), and Ana y Jose.

SEE TULUM

Tulum is not just all beach. I mean, you could just do the beach and nothing else, but we live in a beach destination, so the beach is never really the main attraction for us. There are a lot of things to see and do in and around Tulum. If we were going to the Yucatan, we were going to see arguably the most famous ruins in the region, Chichen Itza. But, they aren’t close. Indeed most of the ruins, except for the Tulum ruins, are an hour or more away. So, we hired Experiencias Riviera Maya. They offer a wide range of private day tour options and were the most responsive and reasonably priced operator I found.

We booked a day trip from Tulum to Chichen Itza, Akumal Bay, and the Tulum ruins. They were very professional and responsive from the start, quickly answering emails and working with us to customize our itinerary. They offered the best pricing and were accommodating to changes in our schedule. On the day of the tour, they were right on time for our (very early) pick up in a large, clean, and comfortable van with air-conditioning and a cooler of cold water and snacks, which is important because it is a long drive. The driver was professional, and the guide was great and spoke perfect English. They were willing to accommodate stops for restrooms, snacks, etc. They got us to Chichen Itza just as it opened to avoid the crowds (and it does get very crowded). They gave us a tour of the ruins at Chichen Itza and Tulum and allowed time for independent exploration. They were always right on time and in the exact meeting spot that was selected. I plan to book other excursions with them the next time we are in Tulum.

Ruins

If you want to get off the beach, there are plenty of day trips available from Tulum. For our first trip, we chose Chichen Itza and the Tulum Ruins. Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was a sacred, mythical Mayan site and was one of the greatest and largest Mayan centers of the Yucatán peninsula. Just an FYI, you are no longer allowed to climb this pyramid. The most surprising thing we saw at Chichen Itza is that they allow a regular ole’ flea market to operate within the grounds of the ruins. Hundreds of vendors set up selling all kinds of trinkets, art, t-shirts, magnets, and other souvenirs. If you are going to buy them, this is as good a place as any. You can haggle on the price, and it is cheaper than the shops in Tulum (including the downtown shops), but you need to pay cash. Also, who doesn’t want to buy a Mexican souvenir, from a Mexican, in Mexico, wearing a Mexican sombrero?!? Nobody!From there we made a stop in Akumal Bay to swim with the sea turtles. Akumal Bay is a small town between Playa del Carmen and Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. While there were some sea turtles, I would skip this. First it is uber touristy. The beaches are very crowded because there are a lot of resorts here. The best part of Akumal Bay was this bar with swings. I love swings. But even this bar would only serve guests of its resort, so it was a fail. Seriously, just skip Akumal Bay. Go to a cenote instead (see below for what that means).Our last stop was to the Tulum Ruins. After seeing Chichen Itza, the Tulum Ruins weren’t as impressive, BUT they are right on the water. So, you can visit the ruins and walk down to the beach for a swim, which is pretty cool. On our next trip, we plan to visit Ek’ Balam, Coba (where you can actually climb up the ruins), and the enchanting little town of Valladolid.

Cenotes

Tulum is surrounded by cenotes, which are collapsed limestone caves that are very common throughout the Yucatan peninsula and are great for fresh water swimming. The Mayans considered them sacred waters. Because of our limited time, we did not visit a cenote, which begs the questions, did we even go to Tulum if we didn’t go to a cenote? Probably not. This is yet another reason why we need to get back to Tulum. So, all the photos of them below are borrowed from the internet so you get an idea about what a cenote is and why you need to visit one (or three).

El Gran Cenote is the most famous in the region. Other popular cenotes include Cenote Agua Dulce (near Valladolid), Cenote Palomitas (also near Valladolid), Cenote Ik Kil (some consider this one the most beautiful), Cenote Dos Ojos (near Tulum), and Cenote Sac Actun.  You could literally do a tour of just cenotes. You can swim in them, snorkel in them, and for some, dive or zip-line.  Other cenotes that are close to Tulum include Manatee, Carwash, Zacil Ha, and Crystal and Escondido. I even found a blog post dedicated just to cenotes.

If you don’t visit a cenote as part of a tour, you can get a cab tell the driver where you want to go.  Some people recommended paying the taxi to wait for you so you have a way to get back to Tulum. This is where renting a car for the day is a good idea!

If you are looking for other water-based activities (other than Akumal Bay), you can also look into visiting Contoy Island and Isla de Mujeres, but I suspect that they are a little touristy, like Akumal Bay, except full of day tourists coming on boats. You are probably better off visiting the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Preserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a massive biosphere reserve near Tulum. Part of the reserve is on land and part is in the Caribbean Sea, including a section of coral reef. Five species of cat are found in the reserve, including the jaguar and puma, as well as the tapir and a wide range of bird species, turtles, dolphins, manatees, and crocodiles. The reserve also includes 23 known archaeological sites of the Mayan civilization, the most famous being the Castillo. Apparently, there are only a couple of operators who tour this area, but I found a guide on how to do it alone here.

Wellness

You can’t throw a rock in Tulum without hitting a yoga spot. Yoga is everywhere in this town. Tulum is a yoga mecca. Pretty much every hotel offers yoga, and people who aren’t staying at the various yoga retreats can still join the yoga classes. Sanara had a great yoga studio with a lot of class options. But, if we are being honest, I am not much of a yogi. I much prefer Pilates, barre, and a good HIIT class, so I found this post that gives you some insight on the yoga scene.

Juicing is also big in Tulum.  You can pretty much get a fresh juice everywhere. My favorite was at The Real Coconut.  They had one of the largest and most comprehensive juice menus I have ever seen.  I also heard that Posada Margherita made a mean green juice as well. There are also no shortages of spas in Tulum. While I did not get to visit one this time, when I return, the spa at Coqui Coqui is on my list. In addition to their spa, I really really want to visit their perfume shop! The Mayan Clay Spa is also supposed to be very nice and one of the more affordable options.

EAT TULUM

One of the main reasons to come to Tulum is to eat (especially for vegetarians and vegans).  This is also the number one reason that I need to go back to Tulum. We simply did not have enough time to eat at all the places on my list. At this stage in the post, you should know that my favorite breakfast spot was The Real Coconut.  The views were amazing and the food was incredible, especially considering that it is all grain free, gluten free, dairy free, and free of refined sugars! I was in heaven! Chad was dreading it, but even he will admit that the food was tasty! It also had the best and most tasty juices, but it was NOT cheap. Breakfast was approximately $80.00. Whatever. It was worth it. We also tried Casa Banana for breakfast because it is kind of a Tulum institution, but, I have to say, I liked The Real Coconut better. Also, this place (like a lot of local places in Tulum) was cash only, which was kind of annoying considering how touristy it is and considering that its sister restaurant, Mina, takes credit cards.  We kept hearing over and over that Be Tulum also had an amazing breakfast, so that is on our list for next time.

For dinner, we tried Kitchen Table one of the nights, and it was good, but also cash only. Overall, I left Tulum feeling like I didn’t really eat at the places that I wanted to try.  These places include Cenzontle Secret Garden, which has a traditional Mexican menu and looked so stinking cute! The one night we went, there was a line out the door! For modern Mexican, Gitano is also supposed to be great.
Also, the famous Hartwood was closed (for Easter weekend) when we were there, and that was high on my list! Hartwood is  an open-air spot famed for fresh, local ingredients cooked on an open fire and wood burning oven and grill. Reservations are now possible, but still difficult to get as they do not consistently respond to emails. Your best bet is to line up around 3:00 p.m. to secure a table for the evening. But if you do not, I hear Arca is just as good!

Wild is fairly new and is getting great reviews. It is a Mediterranean/Mexican fusion restaurant. Another legend in Tulum is Posada Margherita, an Italian place. Who goes to Mexico and eats Italian food? Apparently, everyone. It was the most recommended restaurant. Another place that was frequently recommended was Casa Jaguar.

We also made a special trip into downtown Tulum just to eat at Cetli, a traditional local Mexican restaurant that serves Oaxacan fare, only to find that it too was closed! We were there on Easter weekend, so that might have been the reason. We were, however, able to score a reservation at Noma, which is currently operating a pop-up restaurant in Tulum while their restaurant in Copenhagen is undergoing renovation.

Noma has been the number one restaurant in the world basically forever. It is on every single foodie’s bucket list of restaurants. I refuse to die before I eat here. I almost peed my pants when I got the email saying we got a reservations. And then, they disclosed the price, which made me want to poop my pants. Dinner for two was going to cost $1,500.00 USD. Chad and I literally held a family meeting over this. Ultimately, we decided that $1,500.00 for dinner (which cost more than our flights and hotel combined for the weekend) was ridiculous, and in an email to the restaurant, I explained to them that while it hurt my heart to not visit and experience Noma Tulum, we just didn’t feel right spending that kind of money on a meal in a place where the average daily wage is $15.00. Instead, we plan to visit the flagship in Copenhagen one day (if we can ever get a reservation again), where the meal will be (slightly) cheaper. If you are planning on Noma, here is what you need to know.

If you are after truly local fare, then Chamico’s (known as a secret fish shack) is the place to be. Get to this hidden spot by heading north from Tulum on Highway 307 past the ruins.  You will see a sign on the right for Jashita Hotel. Turn right onto the unpaved road across from Oscar & Lalo’s and driving to the end. There is no menu, but they have fresh caught fish and great views.

Other local favorites include the cochinita pibil at Taquería Honorio, a traditional Mayan breakfast at Don Cafeto (one of Tulum’s oldest restaurants), tacos al pastor at Antojitos La Chiapaneca (a street-side stand in downtown where you can get tacos for $.50), and the best tacos at Taqueria La Eufemia, which invites you to “relax and eat some fucking tacos.” Okay, you don’t have to ask me twice!

The point is, there are no shortages of options here. From fine dining to local eats, there is something for every palate and budget in Tulum, and most of them are cute and insta-worthy.

SHOP TULUM

Tulum has some of the cutest boutiques selling caftans, handmade jewelry, dream catchers, and hammocks, but if you plan to shop here, bring your cash and non-American Express credit cards, because things are NOT cheap here. In fact, they are downright overpriced. That being said, the shops are still the cutest road-side, sandy-floored, bohemian dreams I have ever seen. Other than the perfumes at Coqui Coqui, the one thing I wish I would have brought back is a beautiful, handmade dream catcher. If you want to buy one too, there was a shop directly across from our hotel that sold them for about $30.00 (all cash) or you could go into downtown and get them from the shops there for way cheaper than at the shops in the Hotel Zone.

KNOW TULUM

So here is what you need to know before visiting Tulum:

  1. Cash is king. A lot of restaurants, local vendors, and all cabs only take cash.
  2. Get pesos. You can get them from home before you go, at the airport, or at change stations throughout Tulum (although this is probably not the best rate). There are ATMs in the Hotel Zone, but I am not sure how reliable they are.
  3. DO NOT DRINK THE WATER. The hotels will provide you with bottled water for brushing your teeth, and all the restaurants used filtered water for ice.
  4. Bring sunscreen and bug spray.
  5. Leave your heels and wedges at home. This is not a place to dress up, even at dinner. It is a very relaxed and laid-back vibe, and the dress code reflects that.
  6. Everyone pretty much speaks English in the hotels, restaurants, sites, and shops. To communicate with most of the cab drivers, you are going to need to know basic Spanish.
  7. When people refer to “the Jungle” they mean across the street from the beach; not an actual jungle.

Anyway, I hope you have found this post informative and that it helps you maximize your time in Tulum. I know I am going to use it to plan our next trip to this beach-side paradise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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