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.

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!

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!

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)!

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!

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

London: Highlights of the Queen’s Land

If you have ever thought about crossing the pond to visit London, now is the time. London is Europe’s New York. It is a city that never sleeps with 24-hour restaurants and lots to do.  It has history, sites, world class museums, an dynamic dining and foodie scene, theater, and some of the best shopping. It is surprisingly walkable. The whole country speaks English (obviously). And, contrary to popular belief, the weather is pleasant (when Chad and I were there it only rained one time and only for a few short hours in the afternoon). It is perfect for families (i.e., European Spring Break anyone??), for couples, for girls’ trips, for solo travelers, for first-timers to international travel, and for long weekends. That’s right, I am suggesting you go to Europe for a long weekend. Why not? You are going to live those days anyway, might as well live them at a destination. But here is the best part: it’s affordable!! I bet you never thought that London and affordable would be used together in the same sentence where affordable was the adjective for London. But, thanks to Brexit, the pound is not that much more expensive than the Euro. Couple that with fairly affordable flights (I’ve seen them as low as in the $400s), a plentiful range of hotel and Airbnb options, reliable public transportation and Uber, and tons of free things to do around the city, and you have the makings of an epic vacation.

SEE 

The best way to “meet” a city is to get out and walk it. But, where are you going? What are you looking at? I am a firm believer in hiring a private local guide to introduce you to the city.  I like this to be the first full day experience. As you might expect, London is full of city tours, and hop-on-hop off buses, but I am not about that life. I do not want to be herded like cattle. I want personalized attention and the freedom to tailor my experience to my tastes and preferences.  I want Charley from London Tailored Tours, and, trust me, so do you. Charley knows London, and she loves London. She is passionate about sharing her city with you.  She is also a stand-up comedian, so she’s pretty entertaining. She has a range of tour options (city, royal, food, shopping, sports, Harry Potter) or she will create and itinerary for you. She is also very responsive both during booking and after you take her tour. She’s like a personal concierge. She will communicate with you while you are in London to help you with restaurant recommendations, things to do, even directions! You leave her tour as friends.

Chad and I chose the Best of London in a Day, but because we like to eat, we also added parts of the Borough Market Food Tour and then we threw in some off menu items as well.  Charley was happy to accommodate. We waited in zero lines.  She had pre-planned the tour and pre-bought our attraction tickets which saved a lot of time and allowed us to pack it all in. Also, she knows her way around Borough Market.  She knows the best vendors, and they give personalized attention when you show up with Charley.

First, Charley took us to meet Ben.  He lives in the Houses of Parliament and is one of London’s most iconic landmarks. He was as handsome as advertised, and she got us there just as he began to chime! Here are a few interesting facts: Big Ben is the name of the bell inside the clock tower, and not the name of the clock tower itself; the origin of the name Big Ben is unknown; and unfortunately, overseas visitors cannot visit the clock tower. On the way there, she told us about the London Eye, which is located on the South Bank of the River Thames and is view-able from the Westminster Bridge. It is Europe’s tallest Ferris wheel, and it offered the highest public viewing point in London until it was superseded by the 804 feet observation deck on the 72nd floor of The Shard, which opened to the public in February 2013. It is the most popular paid tourist attraction in the U.K.From there we proceeded to Westminster Abbey, final resting place of several notable Brits and most famously known for royal weddings! From there, we took the garden route to the palace, where we happened upon the filming of the Netflix series The Crown. Charley timed our visit perfectly so that we would catch the changing of the guard. If you didn’t know any better, you would think that this was it, and you’d miss the whole thing! The changing of the guard ceremony actually starts here and it is filled with A LOT more pomp and circumstance than these beautiful black horses and fashionably tassel-headed men! It starts with a band and then there is a whole lot of procession! We got the pom-pom hats! And the red coats! And it culminates in a parade around Buckingham Palace!
Unfortunately, Buckingham Palace was not open to visitors when we were there, but it is at different times of the year. Charley told us an interesting tale of Michael Fagan, a palace intruder who made it all the way into the Queen’s bedroom. Nonetheless, the palace is lovely to admire from the outside, but is not quite as impressive as you may imagine it to be. While London Bridge may be falling down, Tower Bridge is as majestic as ever and is the gateway to visiting the Tower of London.

MUSEUMS 

While Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London are not free, the British Museum, the National Gallery, and the Tate are totally free to visit (and totally worth a visit). So, if you happen to find yourself in London on a rainy day, these are great options.

If you want to see the crown jewels, you have to go to the Tower of London. Entertaining tours of the Tower of London complex are given by the Yeoman Warders, commonly known as Beefeaters, of which there is just one woman, and she is famous. You are on your own to see the jewels, and it is a pretty quick little exhibit, culminating in this beauty: If you like contemporary and modern art, then head to the Tate. But if you only have the time (or the patience) to visit one art museum, make it the National Gallery. If you like Monet and van Gogh, then this is the place for you. An art lover could spend the whole day (or several days) there, but if you want just the highlights, here are the 8 best, the 10 best, the 30 best, and the 100 best. These are my personal favorites: If art is not your thing or you only have the time (or patience) for one museum, then make it the British Museum. Pack your patience because in addition to being free, this museum is large and very popular, so it is a mad house inside.  I suggest getting there right before it opens at 10:00 a.m. when the lines to get in are not that bad and have a plan of attack. Here is a list of the 7 best things at the museum, which I don’t necessarily agree with since it excludes the 2 most interesting artifacts: the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone. Here is list of the top 10 artifacts.  Or you can plan your visit based on how much time you have to spend: 1 hour versus 3 hours Our visit was focused on seeing the Parthenon Marbles, because unfortunately, Greeks have to go to London to see artifacts that belong in Greece. The Parthenon Marbles, more commonly known as the Elgin Marbles, are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures that were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. In the 19th century, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum and transported them to Britain. Apparently, he got a permit from the Ottoman Empire to remove the marbles, but if you ask Greeks, he stole them.  The British government later purchased them from Elgin and displayed them in a museum. After gaining its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece began a series of projects to restore its monuments, and has expressed its disapproval of Elgin’s removal of the Marbles from the Acropolis and the Parthenon, which is regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Naturally, Greece disputes the subsequent purchase of the Marbles by the British Government and urges the return of the marbles to Greece for their unification. This disagreement has been ongoing ever since.  The British government has given numerous excuses over the years for why they won’t return the marbles, including that Greece did not have a proper place to display and care for them.  So, Greece built the Acropolis Museum and has left a big open space for the marbles homecoming. Interestingly, most Brits believe that the marbles should be returned.

Also, don’t miss the Rosetta Stone and the statue from Easter Island.

EAT

No visit to London would be complete without a stop at Borough Market. it is, after all, Britain’s most renowned food market. It is s a wholesale and retail food market, and is one of the largest and oldest food markets in London. It has over 100 stalls (these stalls are highly coveted and rarely turn over; and, when they do, hundreds of vendors vie for the spot) and sells everything from fruit, veggies, meats, chocolate, oysters, flowers, and spices.  The pub culture is strong in the U.K., so you kind of have to visit a local pub to get a true flavor of the city.  You can stop for a casual meal or just for pints.

And, you simply cannot leave London without first having fish and chips.  It’s like the national dish. If you want fine dining, then there is no lack of options.  The city is teeming with Michelin starred restaurants and hard to snag reservations. We chose Pollen Street Social and Restaurant Story, both of which need to be reserved well in advance. But if you’ve got a sweet tooth and an affinity for pink, then it’s Peggy Porschen for the win. You can visit the cafe for some sweet treats, tea, and coffee, or you can join one of their baking classes. While these are thought to be the best cupcakes in London (some would say ever), I am not sure I agree (certainly not the best ever). Don’t get me wrong, they are good.  But best might be a stretch. They are cute though and the shop probably is one of the more adorable ones.

TEA

If you go to London and you don’t do an afternoon tea, did you even go to London?  Tea is the lifeblood of the entire country. It is like a big deal. Plus, even if you don’t love tea, it is a fun experience. There are several tea houses to choose from.  We did two.  We did a more traditional afternoon tea at the Goring Hotel, where Princess Kate had her tea before her wedding:We also did an afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason, the grocer to the royals. While it is the more touristy option, I recommend the one at Fortnum and Mason. First, the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon is darling. Second, the tea selection is mind blowing. Third, the service is top-notch and the staff is uber knowledgeable about the teas and their origins.  They are also very good at answering all of your questions and helping you make a selection. Finally, the food from the menu items, to the tea sandwiches, to the scones, to the desserts are amazing.  It is all you can eat and drink.  They serve bubbly and beer. And, they will even pack you a doggy bag of treats to take with you. 

SHOP

When it comes to shopping, it is all here, and, non-EU citizens can take advantage of the Value Added Tax Refund.

If you are looking for unique gifts to take home, shop Fortnum and Mason’s multi level retail store where you will find sweets and teas that make the perfect gift! If you are after high-end fashions, then Harrods is the obvious choice. Hell, the store is a destination in and of itself, so even if you aren’t going to shop, it is worth a visit.  It is the most impressive department store that I have ever been in, including all the ones in Paris. The first floor is miles of handbags and beauty counter. Each floor thereafter is themed: women’s fashions, men’s fashions, children’s fashions, home decor, furniture, electronics, jewelry, and ENTIRE floor of shoes for women, a floor of the most opulent perfumes, and then the food halls! A floor of dozens of edible choices, a gourmet grocer, an unparalleled wine and spirits shop, and a cigar specialty store. It is impressive, and this is coming from a world class shopper.

Also, do not forget to visit the ground floor where you will find a memorial to Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed. But if you prefer to stroll charming little streets lined with posh boutiques and a quaint little flea market, then a visit to Notting Hill and the Portobello Market is in order.  So there you have it. As you would expect, London offers everything you could ever want in a city vacation – no matter what your particular tastes, interests or budget may be – and, best of all, you can do it all in as little as a long weekend! So, do yourself a favor and hop across the pond and see for yourself. Cheerio!

Luang Prabang, Laos: A UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Chances are that Luang Prabang, Laos (pronounced Lao, without the “s” at the end) is not on your travel list (it wasn’t on ours), but it should be.  There is something spiritual about this little city that just mesmerizes you. We actually had some of the most memorable cultural encounters in little-known Luang Prabang. We came to Luang Prabang on the recommendation of our travel agent, and I am sure glad we did.

I am almost hesitant to write this post.  I kind of want to keep Luang Prabang a secret and all to myself and those who have discovered it. Luang Prabang has a small village hippie vibe. It is a backpacker’s paradise. It is considered the best preserved city in Southeast Asia, which also earned it its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Unlike other major Asian cities, the pace of life in Luang Prabang is slower and the scenery more rural. We spent three days there, but Luang Prabang is the kind of place that you think you only need three days for, but wish you had a little more. In fact, a lot of people we met along the way came to Luang Prabang with the intention of staying a few days, but extended their trip for several more days, or, in some cases, weeks.

Before you go, you should know that a visa is required for U.S. citizens who visit the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. To get a visa, your passport must have 6 months of availability on it, and you must have two blank pages available for the visa. You can purchase the visa at the airport upon arrival, but, I strongly recommend you get a visa before you come as many visitors purchase the visa on arrival or are unaware of the visa requirement and then purchase upon arrival.  Since most people are in line for visas, the lines can get quite long. If you purchase a visa on arrival, you get a 30-day visa.  If you pre-buy the visa, you get a 60-day visa. Since we already had visas, we bypassed all that mess and went right through customs in a matter of mere minutes, with no lines at all.

We stayed at the Luang Say Residence, which is a colonial-style boutique luxury hotel set in a lush tropical garden. The hotel is very tranquil and serves an excellent American-style breakfast.  The property is also worth exploring. We arrived in Luang Prabang just in time to visit the night market. Apparently, there are a lot of unexploded ammunition left over from the Indochina and Vietnam wars. The locals take these wartime leftovers, turn them into keepsakes and jewelry, and sell them at the local markets.  We had some action packed days in Luang Prabang! Along the way, during our all-too-short time in this magical little place, we had some very meaningful experiences and encounters with locals.

On our first full day, a visit to the Pak Ou Caves was on the itinerary.  The Pak Ou Caves are about two hours by boat from Luang Prabang.  So, to get there, we had to first board our very own slow boat, which was an adventure in and of itself.  Check out the gang plank we had to walk: On the two hour journey down the peaceful Mekong River, we got to see a lot of rural everyday life along its banks. After a couple hours, we arrived at the caves! The caves overlook the Mekong River and are  hidden in a mountain side.  Inside the caves are hundreds of old Buddha statues. There is something very spiritual and peaceful about climbing into a cave full of treasure! Little golden Buddhas glittered from every corner.  The caves are guarded by monks… After our visit to the caves, we stopped at a local village, the Muangkeo Village, to try rice whiskey. We came to a village where we were greeted by an older woman who makes the rice whiskey at her home. Rice whiskey in clay barrels: I’m not gonna sugarcoat this part– the village rice whiskey is not smooth. It is unlikely to ever win any tasting awards. It tastes like liquid fire. But it’s all part of the experience, so, by all means, drink up!

We stayed a bit to explore the village and meet the local people. Walking through this village, which only got electricity the year before we arrived, you get the sense that it is set up as a cultural stop for tourists looking for a village experience. There were several “shops” where locals sold handicrafts and I questioned whether they were really made by these particular locals. The best part about this visit was stopping in at the local school house, where we got a chance to visit the local children at school. They were so cute that we ran out into the market and bought them all snacks. Word gets around fast in this little village because the next thing you know, little kids were coming out of everywhere lining up for their snack! It was like Christmas came early for these little kids! They were so happy and appreciative that they sang us songs as they ran around eating their treats! At last it was time to bid adieu to our new village friends and get back into town. After a long day on the Mekong, we came back into Luang Prabang to visit the museum and have some lunch.During lunch, we saw a group of monks crossing a make-shift bridge.  We decided to follow them and explore the temple on the other side. By the way, the reason why this bridge seems so ill-constructed is because it only exists for several months. Every rainy season it is destroyed by flooding, so, every year, they construct a new ramshackle bridge to replace the one destroyed the year before. The next day started way before dawn! This was probably my favorite day because we got to do three very cool things that gave us a more authentic experience. The first, and probably my favorite, is that we got to participate in the daily ritual of givings alms (or thanks) to the monks. This is a sacred ceremonial tradition in Laos, and our guide set it up so that we could not only witness it, but participate in it.

This ritual takes place a sunrise in the streets of Luang Prabang, but you have to get there way before that to secure a spot and set up. Our local guide set up our mats and brought our offerings for us.As the sun rises in Luang Prabang, around 200 Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal (as monks only eat once per day). All the food that is collected is shared by the monks of each temple.

There are many rules to both attending and participating in this ritual, but the most important is that it is a silent ritual, so you are not supposed to talk, break up, or follow the processional. If you are giving alms, you must be dressed modestly, you must kneel, and must remove your socks and shoes, and you must not touch the monks. You typically sit on the floor to give your alms as the monks pass you by. Offerings are typically rice and fruits.  We had traditional offerings, but we also brought along some American treats, like peanut butter, almonds, and snack bars, which the monks were very excited to receive.  The monks carry a large bowl which they keep open, and you place your offering in their bowl as they pass by. This processional goes quickly and there are a lot of monks, so you need to be on your game, as they will not stop and wait for you.  Here’s a pro tip: when you get your big bowl of sticky rice, roll it into balls so you are ready make an offering at lightning speed!  At the end of the processional, the monks line up in front of their temple and chant a prayer before heading into their temple to share their food and eat their daily meal.

After the ceremony was over, we were invited to explore the inside of one of the temples. First, we left an offering of sticky rice in the tree. When the locals visit the temples, they typically bring an offering of marigolds, and our guide came prepared.  She gave us this beautiful cone of marigolds that we offered to the temple. Our next order of business was to go to the morning market and buy all the ingredients we would need in order to cook a traditional meal at our guide’s home which we would share with her family. She gave us our lists and our money, and we were on our way.The morning markets are fascinating.  They are a great way to get a glimpse of everyday life and interact with the locals.  There is an array of fresh vegetables, fruits, and fish on display. And then there are these: Insects and snakes?? My adventurous spirit only goes so far… No thanks!

After our shopping was done, we went into to town for a different kind of shopping, which leads me to the second coolest thing we did on this day: a visit to a Hmong village! We were so intrigued with our cultural village visit, that we asked our guide to take us to a true local Hmong village that is not set up for tourists. Before we went, we stopped off at a local market to purchase snacks and educational materials to give to the children, and then we were off.

On the nearly hour-long drive, we got to see some more rural areas of Luang Prabang.We arrived at the village with our goodies in tow! The Hmong are an ethnic group that live up in the mountains. There is a long history of persecution of these people, which you can read more about here. But, we were here to visit the children of this ethnic village, and help them practice their English!The children were so excited to receive their treats and clapped along as we sang the English ABCs. They were very curious and excited to see Western tourists in their village. We happened to visit when UNICEF was there for the purpose of vaccinating the children. They come once a year to hold a vaccine clinic and provide basic medical care to rural populations of children.On the way back from the village, we stopped at the famed Kuang Si Falls. These falls, while certainly not as large as Victoria Falls (which we visited the year before in Zimbabwe), are stunning in their own different way.  They are a series of smaller falls that collect in beautiful turquoise pools.  The cost to get into the park is about $2.50 per person. There are a series of trails and bridges that you can use to walk among the falls. You can even swim in them, although when we were there in late November, the water was cold; but that didn’t stop this spectacle.  Allow me to introduce you to the Amazing Asian Man, with whom I fell in love. Not only was he wearing a magnificently small Speedo, but he would climb up to a tree or rock, strike a pose, and demand that his friends photograph him before he jumped into the water.  I was mesmerized by this creature, and he has inspired in me a book idea! After studying this jewel for a very long time, we made our way over to the bear sanctuary on property. These black bears are an endangered species because their bile is used by the Chinese for medicinal purposes. This sanctuary rescues them and houses 23 bears. I love animals, so I just loved watching these bears roam and play.Our next stop was to Ok Pop Tok to get our weave on! Ok Pop Tok is a living crafts center set in the jungle on the Mekong River. It teaches traditional weaving techniques in demonstration style classes or you can sign up for half day, full day, or multi-day classes. You can even stay on the property while you attend classes. They have a shop that follows fair trade principles and have Village Weaver Projects, where their weavers work with local NGOs to teach skills to artisans in villages in 11 different provinces, using their knowledge of the market to help villagers make a better living from their handicrafts, as well as buying, selling and promoting their products.

We came for a half-day class where we learned about the different fabrics, how the dyes are made using natural ingredients, how to create and then to dye the fabrics, and how to use the weaver’s loom to make different patterns.  The cool part about our class is that we got to come home with a scarf that we made! But, our day of learning was not over.  It was time to go to our guide’s home and learn to cook a traditional meal that we would share with her family, which is where we had the third coolest experience!

First, we had to get dressed for the occasion…Then we got to work cleaning, chopping, mincing, and cooking. While we worked in an outdoor kitchen, inside, the elders prepared the centerpiece that they would use to offer a blessing to us. They used banana leaves, marigolds, and sweets for the offerings. Candles were placed in the center and poles of white string were placed in the center. Our guide’s uncle, a former monk, led the blessing ceremony as the elders sang.One by one, each elder removed a set of white strings and came around in a circle placing one string on each of our wrists as they gave us a blessing.  At the end of the ceremony, they offered us the marigolds.  After the ceremony, it was time to eat and party! We shared the lovely meal we prepared with her family.You see the guy in the back row, third from the left? We nicknamed him “Uncle Crunk”! He kept coming around with a growler of Beerlao (the main, locally brewed beer in Laos, which Chad says is actually a pretty good lager) and  doing the ‘ol “one for me and one for you!” It wasn’t long until Uncle Crunk, was well, Crunk!  He turned on the tunes and then it was time to dance; and, let me tell you, Uncle Crunk LOVES to dance, especially with his new American lady friends. Here is also where my sister, whose name is Haroula, solidified her nickname: Colorado, Asian Temptress. If you are wondering what I am talking about, then you need to read this.

Although we only spent few days in Laos, they were truly excellent days! That’s the thing about traveling; sometimes you come across a gem and love it more than you could have ever imagined, and it changes you as a person. That is how I feel about our short time in this charming little country and city. I hope you too make it to Luang Prabang one day, and when you do (or if you already have), I’d love to hear from you! Sa Bai Dii!

Krabi, Thailand: Koh Lanta

No trip to Thailand would be complete without a visit to one of Thailand’s breathtaking islands. I strongly urge you to skip the overly commercialized Phuket and opt for one of the less developed islands.  During our trip, we chose Koh Lanta, which is located in the Krabi Province. Conde Naste Traveller has listed Koh Lanta in the top 10 islands to visit in Thailand. If you are looking for a low-key boho vibe and nearly deserted beaches, then this is where you want to go; and, may I suggest that you make this destination the splurge part of your trip.

To get to Koh Lanta takes some effort, which is why the party crowd has not yet overtaken this paradise.  We took a regional flight from Bangkok to Krabi.  Once we got to Krabi, our resort staff was waiting for us with a sprinter van. We drove for almost two hours to their private dock where we boarded the property’s speed boat for a 45 minute ride through utter beauty.We chose the Pimalai Resort and Spa, which is Lanta’s first five-star hotel. It is set in a tropical forest on the edge of white-sand Ba Kan Tiang Beach near Lanta Marine National Park.  We stayed in their Chairman’s Villa, which is totally private, beach-side, and has its own infinity pool! The resort itself is a destination. The on-property restaurants are delicious and the spa is top notch!  The resort also has an array of activities you can book, including diving, snorkeling (which Chad loved), island exploration, cooking classes, and treks. I am going to shut up now and let the photos tell the rest of the story (although these pictures don’t do the natural beauty of the island justice, nor do they properly convey the absolute peace and tranquility that this resort provides to its guests; I HIGHLY recommend that you make it to this Heaven on Earth sometime soon!)…

Chairman’s Villa: Private foot path to the nearly private beach: The sunsets were unreal: Relax, snorkel, float…