Amsterdam, Netherlands: An Accidental Adventure

After spending 10 days in Jordan, I landed in Paris to the news that my flight home to Miami was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma, and that it would be at least three days until we could get home. To some, this might have been terrible news.  To me, it was the best news! Two extra days of vacation courtesy of Delta?!? Yes, please!

The only problem was, Paris. I mean, let’s be honest, Paris is NEVER a problem.  But, I (and my travel companion) had kind of been there done that.  At least twice that we could each remember. So, what did we do? We decided that we would hop the next train to a city that neither of us had ever been. Hello, Amsterdam!

Admittedly, you probably need a little more than two days for Amsterdam. I mean, we didn’t even get to go out to the Flower Strip (the tulip fields) or to the windmills. But, two days was perfect to get a taste of the city.

We arrived via the high-speed Thalys train and took an Uber over to a little boutique hotel we booked on the ride over called the Hotel Banks Mansion. It is a cute little art-deco style hotel that had a great breakfast and a cute little happy hour every day for guests.  The rooms were a little dated, but decent and a nice size.  The hotel was literally two blocks away from the Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt).

In existence since 1862, the Flower Market is the only floating flower market in the world. The flower stalls stand on the houseboats and front a small pedestrian street. Today, the market is pretty touristy, but still cute and worth a quick stroll.  It is also a great place to pick up some souvenirs.

In case you didn’t know, the Netherlands is famous for tulips, and the history of tulips in the Netherlands is rich.  In fact, tulips were once used as currency and caused a crash in the market. In the market, you will find all sorts of tulips, narcissus, geraniums and many other types of flowers. While there are export services, there are plenty of terrible reviews from people who never received their orders.  If I were you, I would buy the bulbs and put them in your checked luggage.

I mean, you had me at flower.  So, naturally, we made a beeline for that market as we killed time before our FREE walking tour later that afternoon.

Amsterdam is pretty well known for its free walking tours.  We took the tour as a way to orient ourselves with the city. Now, if you read this blog, you know that I am NOT a fan of group tours. I made an exception here because it was our only option.

We booked with Free Dam Tours. The tour was decent, but it reinforced my dislike for group tours.  All the regular cast of characters was present: the Americans whose first time it was in Europe (or out of the country really), the friendly Canadians, the German couple wearing short sleeved shirts in the pretty crisp temperatures, the couple who doesn’t speak/understand English that well (I mean, why? Why take this tour?), the weird couple who seemed to hate each other, the annoying guy who asked too many (stupid) questions, the couple who was still wasted from the Red Light District the night before (hell, maybe even from earlier that day), the solo female traveler, and the young backpackers.  Check.  Gang’s all here, let’s get this tour on the road.

The tour lasted about three hours.  It actually starts in the Red Light District and makes its way through the city in one big circle. During the tour, we learned about the dark history of city, particularly during World War II and how freedom and tolerance transformed a simple fisherman’s village into the center of a vast trading empire. We also learned about the city’s liberal attitudes in modern day life, particularly when it comes to sex and drugs. Exhibit A: A man in a long trench coat with stocking and heels walking around the city in the middle of the day.

At the end of the tour we got vouchers to take a reduced-priced canal tour (which you should do, but we just didn’t have time for). Also, etiquette dictates that at the end of a FREE tour, you are supposed to tip. People are so savage!  Most did not tip at all. I felt so bad for this poor guide who relies on tips to earn a living. One guy actually told her he was not tipping because he didn’t like the tour! I was so shook! I mean, he stayed until the end.  Why stay if you hate it? Others were tipping 5 Euros. Really?!?! For three hours? That’s barely a Euro per hour! So, of course, my friend and I over-tipped to save this poor girl from humanity. And that, my friends, is another reason why I despise group tours.

But, I digress.  Let’s be honest, all anyone cared about during the tour was the Red Light District, the sex workers, and the coffee shops, a.k.a the places that sell weed and weed-based products.

First, let’s talk about sex (baby… you have to be a witty child of the 90s with a flair for Salt-N-Pepa to understand what I did there). Here’s what you need to know: the sex workers enjoy a lot of protection in Amsterdam.  They have their own union and are frequently tested. Whatever you fancy you can find.  There is a row of “Big Mommas” as  they are called in Big Momma Alley.  These are the plumper ladies. There are the typical young, hot girls of all races. If you are looking for men, you can find that too.  There is even something for the LGBTQ community. Here is a good rule of thumb: red lights for straight activity, purple lights for gay activity. The Red Light District is littered with store fronts that have big picture windows.  In the windows sit ladies in waiting, sometimes on stools, sometimes, standing, sometimes lying down.  They are usually dressed in lingerie, but sometimes partly nude.

But there is one very, very, very important rule:  you are NOT allowed take photos of the women.  This is strictly enforced, not just by the police, but by the women themselves.  They will literally come out of the establishments, chase you down, and demolish your phone or camera.  Like stomp on it. Break it. Maybe even keep it. Also, the area is under 24-hour video surveillance. Lastly, you have to be super vigilant about pickpockets here.

Otherwise, it is a bustling area full of tourists, restaurants, and shops. In fact, at the end of Big Momma Alley is a kindergarten. The children pass by he windows, which are open 24/7, as they head to school because real Dutch people live in this area. Next to the kindergarten is the Prostitute information Centre (or PIC). Founded by a former prostitute, visitors can stop by for information on the district or for tours.  It is also a resource for sex workers who can get advice and information on how to get in and out of the business.

But the most interesting thing you will find in the Red Light District, again in Big Momma Alley, is a huge Catholic church, called the Old Church. In the 1500s, sailors used to go to the red light districts and sin and then go and absolve their deeds by begging for forgiveness from the church. In order to get forgiveness, the sailors had to pay an indulgence fee, which went straight into the church coffers. Lots of sin = lots of indulgence money = BIG church. By the way, if you like churches, you may want to make time for the Secret Catholic Church or Our Lord in the Attic.

It is no coincidence that the Red Light District is adjacent to the coffeeshops. No, not Starbucks. Marijuana. If you are going to partake in this sort of thing there are some things that you should know.  First, weed is tolerated, but not legal in Amsterdam.  In fact, the suppliers that the coffee shops get the cannabis from aren’t supposed to be growing or selling marijuana at all (go figure that one out). So, you are supposed to consume it only in the coffee shops.  I didn’t find this to be strictly enforced. Also, apparently, you are only allowed to visit the same coffee shop twice in one day, but there are over 200 coffee shops in Amsterdam so fear not!

The most important thing you need to know is which establishments sell and tolerate marijuana and which don’t. A licensed seller of cannabis products is always referred to as a coffee shop. A koffiehuis (coffee house) or a cafe does NOT sell marijuana.  These are places you go to for light meals or a casual restaurant and/or bar. Do not post up in here and spark up a joint. If you’re still confused, look for a green and white sticker in the window, a license which designates the establishment as a coffee shop. Also, if you are looking to get high and buzzed at the same time, sorry about your luck. The coffee shops do not sell alcohol. I mean, it’s only fair.  The other businesses need to make some money too! I have no other guidance for you on getting high in Amsterdam, but lucky for you, the internet is a blaze (see what I did there?!?) with such information.  You can start here or here.

Okay, enough debauchery! There are other things to do in Amsterdam other than get high and get laid. You could, for example, visit one of their many museums. We had limited time, so over the span of two days, we visited three museums. The first was the Anne Frank Museum. Do not miss this museum. Honestly, I was both fascinated and haunted by it. I am assuming that you know who Anne Frank is.  I mean you literally would have had to be living under a rock your entire life to not know.

The museum is located in the actual house (the Secret Annex) that Anne Frank, her family, and four other people hid from Nazi persecution during World War II. The lines to get in are incredibly long.  It takes about an hour to go through the home, so I recommend visiting a few hours before it closes when the lines are significantly shorter. There are a lot of stairs to climb and narrow hallways to walk through, so keep that in mind when choosing your footwear. The most interesting part about the museum is the bookshelf that blocked the entrance to the Secret Annex. Also, the original diary is kept in the museum, which to me was the coolest artifact.

The second museum we visited was the Van Gogh museum. I am huge Van Gogh admirer, so I loved this museum.  We got there right as it opened and did not wait in line.  However, soon after, the museum was a mad house.  It is a pretty well-laid out museum with a tremendous collection of Van Gogh’s work throughout his life. Pack your patience for this one, though.

The Van Gogh museum is located in the museum district, so as we were walking out, I saw a sign for a Banksy exhibit. Banksy is an anonymous England-based graffiti artist.  His work consists almost entirely of political and social commentary and has been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world. I am a huge fan of his work, so we made an impromptu stop at the Moco Museum. This turned out to be my favorite art museum because the exhibition space is so uniquely perfect for art. The museum is modern art, but it is exhibited in  a beautiful, old 1900s townhouse.

The only reservation I made in Amsterdam was to De Kas, a Michelin starred restaurant located inside a greenhouse. The restaurant is located in a beautiful park and features a tasting menu only, which changes weekly and features the garden produce that is cultivated on site. The restaurant was beautiful and the food was delicious. The dishes focus on the veggies, but it is not a vegetarian menu.  Also, for a Michelin restaurant, it is not that expensive.  The lunch tasting menu ranges from 33 to 43 Euros and dinner is 53 Euros.

And, that my friends, is how we spent two unexpected days in Amsterdam. If there is one thing you take away from this post, I hope it is an appreciation for the long or unexpected layover in a new place.  It is a gift. A chance for an accidental adventure.  Stop complaining and enjoy it!

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!

Paris: New Year’s In the City of Light (and Love)

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Guess what?  It’s not too early to start planning your New Year’s trip.  Actually, you should do it now.  I know it’s June, but trust me on this one.

Let me back up a bit and fill you in on a new annual tradition that I started, well, this year.  A couple years ago, I announced to Chad that I thought we should take a short, (relatively) cheap trip after Christmas and through New Years.  At first, he rebuked the idea, as he always does.  But, I eventually wore him down, as I usually do.  I came at him with logic, reason, and facts (this, my friends, is one of the many consequences of being married to a litigator; the others were nicely summed up by a friend of mine from law school who is also a blogger: How Lawyering Made Me Crazy)!

Allow me to share my reasoning with you.  First, we live in South Florida, and NYE in Miami is expensive.  You are not going anywhere for under $200.  Actually, $200 is a steal.  If you are only paying $200, jump on it, and then lower your expectations to like below sea-level.  As a result, we usually spend NYE at home with our dog, Toby, which is great, but not exciting (please don’t tell Toby, I said that!).  Second, most people don’t travel internationally during this time, so you can find some pretty decent deals! Couple that with lower fuel prices which should (but, unfortunately, doesn’t always) mean lower airfare prices, and a strong U.S. dollar, and you have a recipe for a fab five-day to one-week trip abroad with minimal time off work! Awesome, right? I know!

For these kinds of trips, it is important to pick a city in which you can spend the entire time. This cuts down on cost and hassle.  It is also important that the place you pick is a relatively quick and easy flight away so as to maximize your time. For our first NYE abroad, I knew Paris would be perfect! In my opinion, Paris is a five-day city.  Also, the weather is pretty nice, especially for a South Florida girl who never gets winter during the actual winter. And, Chad had never been.  Chad’s only rule for this new tradition I started was (and still is) that the entire trip (airfare, hotel, some meals, and all planned activities) had to be under $5,000.00 A travel challenge?!? I accept! If you are thinking that is a lot for a quick trip around the holidays, I feel ya, but remember, Chad and I don’t buy each other gifts all year.

Well wouldn’t you know, once my sister heard about our trip, she and her fiance decided to join us, and I suggested to them that they should take their engagement pictures while we were there! You are still welcome, Andrew!  So we all, well, me really, got to planning, and the next thing you know, we were ready to go! However, there is one detail that I did not and, quite frankly, could not have accounted for, and that was the horrific terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris in November 2015, you know, like less than a month before our trip was fully, planned, booked, and paid for. So now it was decision time. After some thought, we decided to not live in fear, and we carried on with our trip, and I am so glad we did! Paris for New Years was amazing!

Day 1: 

We stayed at the Hotel Pullman Paris Eiffel Tower. I chose our hotel based on one sole factor– proximity to the Eiffel Tower.  For the next five days, I wanted to wake up and see the Eiffel Tower and go to sleep under the twinkle of its nighttime lights.  Our hotel was literally the closest we could possibly get, and it was basically mere steps away from the Eiffel Tower.  We chose high floor rooms with Eiffel Tower view.  This was a worthwhile upgrade.  Check out our day time and night time view:

Morning View:

Eiffel am

Night View:

Eiffel night 2

After dark, every hour, on the hour until 1:00 a.m., the Eiffel Tower sparkles for five full minutes:

Eiffel light show

At 1:00 a.m., the Eiffel Tower goes dark, and it sparkles for five minutes one last time:

Eiffel night

Amazing, right?!?!  Mind you, these are regular Iphone photos with no zoom.  Our hotel was literally that close (and it had a pretty good American breakfast buffet with an omelette station included with the rooms, which, for me, is essential).

Upon arrival, I had planned a special surprise for Chad. You see, Chad is a good ‘ol Southern boy with a serious sweet tooth.  He’s never met a sweet he didn’t like, and, quite frankly, he was looking forward to putting a hurtin’ on the Parisian pastries.  I was too.  So, I thought, what better way to do that than to have us a little picnic right there on the lawn of the Eiffel Tower (the Champ de Mars)?  Did you know that there is a company that will deliver a picnic to you and even set it up for you?!?  I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Paris Picnics, which I hired to do just that! Our picnic included a blanket, utensils, glasses, wine, bottled water, a large baguette, a delicious assortment of cheeses, charcuterie (cured meats), fresh salad du jour, artisanal crisps, seasonal fruit salad, macarons, and chocolate!

collage 2

Picnic

Lovely, right?  I know! I don’t know about you, but as soon as I arrive at any destination, I am always starving, so this worked out perfectly.  Also, we had a night tour planned, so we needed to fuel up!

sites at night

pyramid squad

After our tour, we stopped into this great little bistro right across the street from the Louvre called Le Fumoir.  This is not a tourist trap.  It is teeming with locals, and the food was great! It is also a great lunch spot before or after your Louvre visit!

Louvre dinner

Well, all of it was great except for this:

Dick cheese

This is the most pungent and disgusting cheese I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing.  You see, we each had a three-course pre-fixe menu.  For the last course, you could order a dessert like a normal person would do in Paris or you can order a cheese course, like my sister, who doesn’t like desserts (you read that right) did.  This is a huge point of contention between Chad and my sister.  He cannot even begin to understand her anti-dessert position.  Well, let’s just say that she paid dearly for that decision because she stuck a good chunk of this bad boy in her mouth, and it tasted (and smelled) like dirty, sweaty feet.  I will spare you the nickname we gave this cheese because it is inappropriate for public consumption, but it is well-deserving of the name, and it will forever be known as such to us.

Enough of that.  Let’s get back to the fancy! There is a reason they call Paris the City of Light.  That reason is magnified times 1,000 during the holidays.  When we were there, the City was still beautifully dressed for Christmas, and the Christmas markets were still open!

Sorry for the blurry picture, but as you can see, I was standing in the middle of a very busy intersection to get this shot, so…

arch ar night
night street

christmas markets

night decor night streets 2

chandelier

SO MUCH SPARKLE!  By the way, any city that hangs enormous twinkling crystal chandeliers outside of buildings and also suspends them in the middle of the streets is my kind of city!

Another wonderful thing about Paris during this time of year are the amazing shop windows that are decorated for the holidays!  The department stores especially go all out (you’ll see what I mean in a moment), and the individual stores, especially the couture stores, have magnificent, interactive window displays that light up, have movable parts, and play music! These are best viewed at night, in all their lit glory!

I mean, who doesn’t need these boots!  Not shown are the mechanical dolls that were singing and dancing in the window next door!

store window 2

This Valentino window played the song and the window was cued to light up with the music! window

And this tree! I died!  It is made up entirely of glass balls and is suspended from the ceiling in the literal middle of Galleries Lafayette!

suspended tree

Okay, let us all take a moment to catch our breath from this magical display of fantastic-ness, because this was only DAY ONE people! By the way, the Galleries Lafayette has a roof-top bar with a view, so park your non-retail loving partner here and get to work on the multiple levels of french fashions that are housed within, and do not forget to get your value added tax paperwork (more on that below).  Photo creds go to my mom, who went to Paris four months after we returned:

roofotp2

rooftop

Day 2:

On Day Two, we hired a private guide to take us all around the city.  She had two jobs:  1) show us all the sites in (almost) every arrondissement in Paris and 2) feed us!  She delivered.

First the sites. Of course we hit the major neighborhoods: the 1st Arrondissement, which contains most of the Paris must-sees, the Tuileries, Pont des Art, Place de Vendôme, and Rue de Rivoli; the 3rd and 4th Arrondissements (The Marais); the 5th Arrondissement (Latin Quarter); the 6th Arrondissement (Saint Germain-des-Prés); the 7th Arrondissement (Eiffel Tower); and the 8th Arrondissement (where the famed and ostentatious Avenue Montaigne (think major couture shopping) is located).  During the tour, we saw sites such as:

The Arc de Triomphe

arch

The Pont Alexandre III, Paris’s most elegant and grandiose bridge

bridge

opera house

The Moulin Rouge.  We didn’t do the show because the party poopers (a.k.a., everyone but me) didn’t want to, but I have done it in the past, and it is worth experiencing it once.  There is a dinner show or you can just come see the show.  The dinner isn’t great.  It is just okay.  But you get the best seats with this option.  And, BOOK IN ADVANCE, especially for NYE. More on the importance of this below.

moulin rouge

The Sacre Coeur

sacre couer

Montmartre

monmarte

And of course, on this day, we went up the Eiffel Tower.  I cannot begin to express how absolutely imperative it is that you pre-buy entrance tickets to both the Eiffel Tower and to the Louvre Museum.  It literally saves you HOURS of time, especially if you are going during high season.  In fact, it is worth paying for a guide just so that they can get you through the guided entrances of these places.  The lines are UNREAL.  Our guide pre-bought our tickets, which included tickets to go up to the highest level.  Once you get through the line (we literally breezed through), you have to wait in a line to take the lift to the second and third floors (or you can take the stairs; there is no line for that. Good luck with that one!)

double eiffel

This is the view from the outer portion of the second level looking out onto the Champ de Mars.

view from Eiffel

This is the view from the inside of the second level.  You see that double line down there?  That is the line to get in from the entrance for people who did not pre-buy their tickets.  Keep in mind that this is 2:00 p.m. during low season!  If you take away one thing from this post, please let it be to pre-buy tickets (and not eat that cheese, but more importantly, to pre-buy tickets, a.k.a., skip the line tickets).

view from ET

Inside the Eiffel Tower, there are a bunch of shops and restaurants (including one good very highly rated Alain Ducasse restaurant called Le Jules Vern-book in advance and get ready to spend some coin) and even a champagne bar on the third floor! There is also a macaron shop that has an Eiffel Tower replica made of macarons!

macaron eiffel

And now for the food part of the tour!  First, our guide took us to the chicest epicurean food boutique called Fauchon.  In addition to having an amazing display of hand-crafted desserts, macarons, chocolates, a truffle bar, an amazing wine cellar, and the most delicate tea sandwiches that look like edible works of art, they have a tea selection that is literally out of this world.  Teas from all over the globe in the most swoon worthy combinations and fusions, displayed on a wall in the prettiest tins that you ever did see. These make fantastic gifts, and they are only available in Paris.  As in, you can’t order them online.  Trust me, I tried.

fauchon

After a quick stop here, we moved on to the original Laduree to devour fresh macarons and more pastries!  Now, you probably think that Laduree makes the best macarons.  I know I did, and let’s be honest, it’s a pretty damn good macaron.  By the way, did you know that the McDonald’s in Paris serves macrons made by Laduree?  I didn’t either.  However, that all changed the moment I discovered the dream that is Pierre Herme.  Trust me, these are the finest macarons that will ever cross your lips.  You will dream of these light fluffy macarons for the rest of your macaron-lovin’ life! More on that later.  Let’s eat Laduree!

original Lauduree 2

laduree dessert

original laudree

Our guide saved the best for last.  Take notes people, because this next gem is worth the trip.  If you even maybe like ice cream then do NOT, I repeat, do NOT, leave Paris without visiting Berthillion.  Berthillon is a French manufacturer and retailer of luxury ice cream and sorbet, with its primary store on the Ile Saint-Louis. If there is such thing as haute couture ice cream, then this is it. It has a menu of the most tantalizing flavors: fig, salted caramel (which is their most famous), pear, coconut, dark chocolate. I literally was losing my mind.

best ice cream ever

berthillion sign

When we went there was no line (probably because it was literally 50 degrees outside), but there usually is a line; like a long one.  I borrowed a picture form the internet to show you.  But, trust me, stand in it.  Even if it is an hour long.  The ice cream is that good.

berthillion line - Copy

While there are other shops and restaurants that serve Berthillion’s ice cream, go visit their original location.  It is tiny inside with no place to sit.  You literally order, move down the counter, pay, move down the counter, pick up, and then roll out.

inside berthillion

We were four people.  We ordered six double-scoop (mine was triple!!!) ice creams in cones and cups (get the cone!) just because we couldn’t decide on the flavors. I got pear, fig, and dark chocolate.  We, of course, tried the salted caramel, too, and the coconut.  All of them were phenomenal!

berthilion

chad ice cream

After all that eating, we needed in a nice, long stroll in one of Paris’s famous public parks.  Now, they may not look like much in the winter, but in the spring, when the flowers are in bloom, they are magical! Here we are in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

park

By the way, on this day, we stopped for lunch at L’Opera Restaurant, which is the restaurant located inside the Palais Garnier, which is also a must see as it is stunning inside.  I tried to get tickets to see a show, but none of the ballets running at this time were of interest.  In hindsight, I should’ve just gone anyway because it so grand and beautiful inside (photo creds to my mom’s #travelsquad).

Opera

opera house

opera 4

And, the restaurant…

restaurant

The restaurant served a pretty good three-course pre-fixe menu with wine which was reasonably priced by Paris standards. And, as if this day wasn’t awesome enough, it ended with a couture bang!

You see, every time I go to Europe, I buy myself one (well, mostly just one) swoon worthy handbag (and sometimes some shoes), and for this trip, it was the Celine Belt Bag.  Why do I wait, you ask? Let me tell you why– especially when the dollar is strong against the Euro (like it has been lately and was when I went), buying European designer bags in Europe (or shoes or clothes or perfume or whatever) is cheaper than buying it in the States.  First, the actual ticket price is cheaper.  So, while the large Celine Belt Bag will set you back over $3,000 in the U.S., in Paris, the large is just over 2,000 EU or approximately $2,500 USD.  Second, in the U.S. you pay tax on the bag.  You do too in Europe (it is built into the sticker price), but since you don’t live in the EU (I am, of course, assuming you do not live in the EU), you get your tax back through a glorious program called the V.A.T. (value added tax) global refund program. Consider it an additional percentage discount! The rate of return differs by country and there is a minimum that you must spend in each store to qualify (p.s., this only works on NEW goods, and not on the goods sold in the fab Parisian consignment shops) but in France, the VAT is about 20% and the minimum spend is 175 EU. Also, if you use a credit card on which you accumulate points, you are winning all around.  I like to use one that does not charge foreign transactions fees and, unlike American Express, is universally accepted.  My favorite is the Capital One Venture Card. TIP: Make sure you call your credit card companies before you travel to let them know exactly when and exactly where (as in each city and the date you will be in each) you will be traveling so that 1) they don’t stop your card and 2) they monitor for fraud after you have left.

There are some other important rules. First, you must ask for the paperwork at the time of purchase.  For the retailer to complete the paperwork they will need your passport or a photo of it (bring the photo!). They should give you a form with your receipt and you will need both at the airport.  Rarely, you will find a store that processes VAT in the store.  I have yet to come across such an establishment.  Second, retailers choose whether to participate in the VAT-refund program, so look for the sign or ask!  Third, the official rule is that you must present the new, unworn item with the documents at the VAT office at the last point of exit from the EU, regardless of where you made your purchases, so if you are traveling around Europe, make sure you know which countries are and are not in the EU (for example, Switzerland, Norway, and Turkey are not in the EU).  This part becomes tricky.  In Paris, it is a breeze. The VAT office is located near the Air France counters as soon as you walk into the airport, so BEFORE you check your luggage and pass through security.  Make sure to leave PLENTY of time to get through as there are LONG lines of mostly Asian women who bought up all the couture in Europe.  When it is your turn, present your passport and the item with the document, get your stamp, fill out the document, seal it, and drop it in the box.  Now you can check your bags and go home. Your refund should post to your card within two billing cycles, unless the retailer works with a refund service, like Global Blue.  In that case, you can visit their offices inside the airport, and they’ll give you your refund in cash on the spot, for a small percentage fee.

If the VAT office is located in the secure area (i.e., after you check your bags and go through security), you must carry the item on with you.  For me this is never a problem as I always carry on new, expensive purchases. Also, most of the European airports have fantastic duty free shopping inside the international terminals which avoids this entire mess!  The only problem is that the stores are smaller (I have yet to see a Celine, but all other major houses are represented- Chanel, Prada, Gucci, Hermes, etc.) and selections within them are limited. Anyway, happy shopping, and check out my new bag!

cwline 2

celine

Day 3:

It’s NYE day, and we set this day aside to explore the Louvre (with our pre-bought, skip the line tickets as per above).  Quick note here, check the holiday hours for the sites you are visiting if you go around Christmas, New Year’s, or a national holiday of that country.  While the Louvre was open on NYE day, it was closed on actual New Year’s day (but the Musee D’Orsay was not!).  Also, you should know, that even with the skip-the-line tickets, you will still stand in line. Likely a long line.  Not as long as the regular line, but still pretty long- at least 45 minutes (and that was in slow season). Even if you get there before they open. Because of this, and the sheer size of the museum, it is wise to take a guided tour.  Then, you really skip the line! We got lucky and found some friends we made the night before already in line and they were kind enough to let us in, and we took them up on it because when we got there way before 9:00 a.m., the line looked something like this photo borrowed from the internet:

skip-the-line

See that entrance right inside the pyramid.  That is where you skip the line.  Ridiculous.  But, no worries if you don’t want a guide and can’t find line friends.  I have some secret entrances for you.  Mind you, the one I tried to use was closed that day (of course!!), but maybe you will have better luck! I found this on the internet and inserted it into the itinerary I made for myself.  I am also including a list of the most important works to see in each wing:

ALTERNATIVE ENTRANCES:

For pre-purchased tickets, use Passage Richelieu, just off the Rue de Rivoli across from the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre métro station.

Take the Métro to Palais Royal/Musée du Louvre. Enter the museum from underground—directly from the Métro station.

For shorter line, try the Carrousel du Louvre, which can be accessed off the Rue de Rivoli or by going down the external stairs to either side of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.  This is not for pre-purchased tickets, but is an alternative to the top. Enter the shopping mall, go down the elevator and the Louvre entrance is to the left.

Porte des Lions entrance provides direct access to the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, but it is only open sporadically, and not at all on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Friday. The Porte des Lions is in the SouthWestern wing of the Louvre just before the Jardin des Tuileries. If you’re at the Louvre with your back to the Pyramid and facing the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (the little Arc de Triomphe) walk across the street, under the Arch and then turn to your left.  Go to the across the grass and follow the Louvre wall almost to the far end of the Louvre.  Look for the arched doorway with the lioness statues flanking it. (see map below)

map

MAP OF ALL ENTRANCES:

entrance map

WORKS TO SEE WITH LOCATIONS:

DENNON WING

Da Vinci: Mona Lisa (First Floor) Where: Denon Wing, 1st floor, Hall 6; Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.

Veronese: Wedding Feast at Cana (in Mona Lisa Room). Where: Denon Wing, 1st floor, Hall 6

Consecration of Emperor Napoleon I (in Mona Lisa Room).

Daniele Da Volterra: The Battle of David and Goliath. Look in the center of the corridor. The surprising feature about this painting is that it can be looked at from the back, kind of like a sculpture! Where: Denon Wing, 1st Floor, Hall 8

Botticelli: Frescoes (Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman).

The Winged Victory of Samothrace (top of the staircase)

Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave are on the ground floor sculpture gallery.

Greek, Etruscan, & Roman Antiquities: Venus de Milo (at the intersection of the Denon Wing and the Sully Wing).

19th century French Paintings: Delacroix’s Victory Leading the People. Where: Denon Wing, 1st Floor, Hall 77

SULLY WING Greek, Etruscan, & Roman Antiquities: Venus de Milo (Ground Floor at the intersection of the Denon Wing and the Sully Wing).

Sphinx

Hermaphrodite; Where: Sully Wing, Ground Floor, Hall 17

The Statue of Aïn Ghazal- oldest work in the Louvre; Where: Sully Wing, Ground Floor, Hall D

A small gathering of beautiful impressionist paintings by masters such as Monet, Degas, Pissarro and Sisley! Where: Sully Wing, 2nd Floor, Hall C

 

RICHELIEU WING

 

No big name works, but has 2 sculpture gardens on the ground and lower floors (housing the Marly Horses) and Napoleon III’s apartment on the first floor.

Second floor of the Richelieu wing has many works from master painters such as Rubens and Rembrandt. Some of the most notable works are the Lacemaker from Jan Vermeer and the Virgin of Chancellor Rolin, a 15th century work by the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck.

Lunch possibility: Café Marly  located in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre. Dine indoors or on the terrace.

Also, check the websites of each museum you plan to visit. Each museum is closed one day of the week and is open late on at least one night of the week.  The lines tend to be better with later entrance times, and the galleries start closing 30 minutes prior to the museum’s closing time.  For example, the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, but is open until 9:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. Here are the highlights from our visit:

Louvre highlights

But the best part was lunch!  There is an Angelina’s Cafe inside the Louvre Museum, located in the Richelieu wing just outside the Napoleon III apartments.  Angelina’s is known for their pastries and their famous hot chocolate!

angelina sweets

Did you know that if you spent one minute looking at each of the 35,000 works of art exhibited in the Louvre, it would take you 64 days? What’s my point?  Have a plan!  You wont see it all, so prioritize what you want to see or take a guided tour of the highlights.  While the Louvre is certainly the most visited museum in the entire world, it is not my favorite in Paris (I am a fan of French Impressionism, think Van Gogh, Monet, Pissaro, Degas, Sisley, and Renoir).  The Louvre has more Renaissance era works, which Chad loves.

After your visit you have a few options (that is, if you still have stamina!).  You can access the Arc de Triomphe via the underground footpath, you can visit the mall and food court in the basement of the Louvre, or you can (and I suggest this option) exit the museum, walk through the Jardin des Tuileries, and find the Musee de L’Orangerie  on your left, which rarely has a line and which houses two rooms of panoramic walls covered with Monet’s Water Lilies.  This often overlooked gem is a must see – Monet himself designed the exhibition halls in Musee de L’Orangerie for optimal presentation and viewing of these specific works – and you can get through the entire exhibit in under 30 minutes.  It is fantastic, and these pictures don’t come close to doing them any justice!
lilies 2

lilies 1

After concluding our visit, Google maps told me we were mere steps (this turned out to be a little bit of a lie; I think Mr. Google meant blocks!) from a Christian Louboutin (my favorite shoes!), so we popped in for a visit to the store on Rue du Faubourg, and found a ferris wheel of shoes! By the way, don’t be surprised if you have to wait in line to get in.  Indeed, you should be surprised if you DON’T wait in line, especially for the original store.  They only let a few people at a time (about 5 to 6, depending on sales person availability) and you are assigned to a personal shopper while you are there. CL

In case you were wondering what my sister and her fiance were up to on this day, let me show you:

engage lights

engage tower

engage

engage bridge color

They were taking their engagement photos!  This was a great idea on my part, and I am taking full credit! There are many photographers that do this.  It costs about 300 EU for the photo session, and you pick three locations.  You also get all the rights to your photos on a CD and an online gallery.  Turn around time is two to three weeks.  If you want to hire day-of hair and make-up people to come to your hotel, that will run you (approximately) another 300 EU.

By now it was time to get back to get ready for our NYE dinner at the Michelin starred, Le Violon d’Ingres, which was one of the only decently priced pre-fixe menu splurge restaurants (relatively speaking for Paris) that I could find (at approximately 400 EU per couple), and trust me, I tried hard (one place wanted 1,200 EU PER PERSON WITHOUT ALCOHOL!).  The food was great, the ambiance was nice, and the service was attentive.

violon 2violomn3

This was the 1200 EU option:

1200

We rang in the New Year in what we were told was a fairly subdued celebration considering the tragedy that had recently occurred in this city.

NYE celebration

NYEaquad NYE2

NYE

Day 4:

There is nothing like starting the New Year off with a little travel and a little culture, so that is what we set out to do today. While most sites and restaurants were closed today, the Musee D’Orsay was not.  So, with pre-purchased tickets in hand, we waltzed right through the doors as soon as they opened! You can get through this museum in about two to three hours, depending on how much time you spend in each gallery.

The famous clock is located on the third floor just outside of the main exhibition halls that have many works from Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Pissaro.

dorsay clock

A former train station, this is the most architecturally beautiful museum in Paris, in my opinion.

dorsay musem

Highlights from the third floor collections include:

dorsay highloights 2

 

Dorsay highlights

If you love Van Gogh, like I do, then don’t miss this museum as the entire side of one of the wings on the second floor is pretty much dedicated to his work:

dorsay highloghjts 3

One of the only other things open and available to do on NYE day was a dinner cruise along the Seine River.  Yes, this is a little touristy, but it was a nice way to see the sites lit up at night and get a different perspective of the city.  Also, after much research, we determined that this company ran the best tour with the best food: La Calife.dinner cruise

dinnrt cruise food

While we were there, we learned about another cool dining on the go experience called Bustronome.  Apparently, it is a high-end double decker bus with a panoramic glass roof.  They serve you a three-course lunch or dinner while driving you by the sites of Paris.  Some friends we met (you know, the ones that let us cut the line at the Louvre) told us about it.  They had done it, and said it was fantastic.  You must book in advance, though.  Lunch is about 65 EU and dinner is about 100 EU.

Day 5: 

It’s our last day in Paris, and we wanted to make the most of it, so we started it off with a visit to the Picasso Museum with our pre-bought tickets. There was no line, and we got right in.  Here are some highlights:

Picasso 2

Picasso

Picasso 3

The best part about this museum (which you can get through in about two hours), is that it is located in/close to the Marais District, which is my personal favorite.  There are tons of beautiful local shops, cute little local restaurants, and this is Paris’s perfume district. This district is also a short Uber ride (that’s right, Uber, which is readily available in Paris and a great way to get around the City.  You just need wi-fi and your app.  If you are like me, you travel with your own wi-fi hot spot!) away from rue du Bac, which they should just rename to Sugar Heaven Avenue because we came upon a dessert mirage on this tiny street!

door

shops
french bistro

penhalogens

perfume

flowers2

Now, if you have a sweet tooth, pay attention to this next part:

sweets

The absolute best macarons I have ever tasted, with the most interesting flavor combinations I have seen, come from here:

macarons

macarons 2

If you like chocolate, boy are you in luck because right next door is Pierre Marcolini luxury chocolates:

chocolates
marccolini

But across the street is where the real gem is.  It’s called Chocolat Chapon, and it has a chocolate mousse bar made from chocolate from around the world!

chapon

inside chapon

mouse

But maybe chocolate isn’t your thing.  I mean, I don’t get it, but you are entitled to your own taste.  So, if that is the case, then do not miss Aux Merveilleux de Fred, the fanciest and most decadent meringues and cream puffs ever. Not only is the shop gorgeous, but the puffs are heavenly! Sorry about the blurry picture, but I was in a sugar coma at this point so it looked clear to me!

merengue store

Here is a better shot from the internet:

cream puffs

merengue

sweets 3

sweets 2

By then end of the day, we literally couldn’t move.  We ate so much.  But, we had one last stop to make, and if you love Monet, you will not want to miss this museum: Musee Marmottan Monet.  They have a basement FULL of Monet!  You can skip the upper floors and just go straight to the basement.  It will take you about 30 minutes to get through the whole thing, and it is time well-spent.

monet

Alas, our trip came to an end, but if we had some more time, here are a few day trips that we would have definitely done: a day tour to Normandy, a day tour to the Palace of Versailles, a day tour to Monet’s garden at Giverny, a day tour to Paris’s champagne region, and a day trip to Avignon and Provence (during lavender season, of course!).  My mom did the first three, and here are some highlights from her trip:

Normandy:

Normandy

normandy 5

Normandy3

Noirmandy 4

Normandy 2

Palace of Versailles:

palace

palace 2

palace 4

palace 3

palace 5

Giverny:

giverny 2

giverny

giverny 3

So, where are Chad and I off to this year to ring in 2017? Well, I guess you will just have to come back and find out! But, I will tell you one thing, it is already planned and partially booked!  Until then, arvoir and bon voyage to you!