Luxor, Egypt: The World’s Largest Outdoor Museum

After the hustle and bustle of Cairo, we were glad to have landed in Luxor.  Luxor is much calmer and a lot greener. The pace in Luxor is a lot slower, and you feel at ease while you are there.

Indeed, no trip to Egypt would be complete without a stop in Luxor, known as the world’s greatest open-air museum.  Modern day Luxor was the ancient city of Thebes.  Today, the ruins of the temple complexes at Karnak and Luxor stand within the modern city.  Right across the River Nile lie the monuments, temples, and tombs of the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and the Necropolis or tombs of the nobles.  To really appreciate all the history and the sites, you need at least two full days in Luxor.

We hopped a short one-hour flight from Cairo to Luxor and immediately began exploring.  Our first stop was to  the Colossi of Memnon, which are two massive stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned in Egypt during the Dynasty XVIII. This site is a quick, free stop on the way to the Valley of the Kings.

The Valley of the Kings is basically a royal cemetery.  It is a valley where tombs were created by excavating deep into the mountainsides for the pharaohs and powerful nobles.  Ancient Egyptians were VERY concerned about their death.  In fact, they spent their entire adult lives planning for their afterlife, and these tombs are the proof.  Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death, the pharaohs were expected to become one with the gods.  As a result, they built elaborate tombs in preparation for their afterlife.

The underground tombs were well stocked with all the material goods a ruler might need in the next world, such as clothes, furniture, tools, weapons, and jewelry. The tombs were also stocked with food and drink for royal feasting in the next world.  Sometimes, when a pharaoh died, his slaves and pets were killed with him and put into the tomb to help the pharaoh in his afterlife. Mummification was used to preserve the body so that the eternal soul would be restored in the afterlife.

There’s an old adage that life doesn’t come with a manual.  That may be true; but, for the Ancient Egyptians, death did.  On the walls of the tombs, the Book of the Dead was painted or carved.  The Book of the Dead was a collection of spells to assist a dead person’s journey through the underworld and into the afterlife.

On arrival to the Valley of the Kings, you will enter a visitor’s center.  You can purchase your tickets from here.  The cost is about $11.00 per person.  The tombs (well, the ones that are open on the day you happen to be visiting) in the valley are accessible with your entrance ticket, except one — the tomb of King Tut.  To visit King Tut, the most famous tomb onsite, you must buy a separate ticket.

Just a heads up, all the tombs in the valley are not always open to the public, so you on any given day you can expect three to four tombs to be open. The tombs that are open rotate in order to minimize damage to them or because restoration work is needed.

Also, if you are going to take pictures inside the tombs, you MUST purchase a photo ticket for each person who will be taking pictures.  It’s only about $3.00, so it is worth it.  The moment you whip out your camera or phone, someone will demand to see your photo ticket.  If you don’t have it, they will take your phone or camera and delete the photo and/or kick you out of the tomb. There are NO photos allowed in King Tut’s tomb.

There is a tram that will take you from the visitor’s center to the entrance of the tombs.  It is about $.50 per person to ride the tram, and, in my opinion, worth the money.

Each of the tombs are different inside.  Some you can walk straight into, some you will need to walk on a ramp to get down, and some have stairs.  None of them were particularly strenuous.  We visited four tombs, including that of King Tut.

The first tomb we visited was the Tomb of Ramses VII. It is a small, unfinished tomb, and the artwork inside is not as impressive as the others.

The second tomb we visited was that of Ramses IV. This tomb has very intricate artwork and very vibrant colors. Speaking of the paints and colors, it’s incredible when you realize that they have not been restored; yet, in many instances, they remain almost as bright and beautiful as they were when they were first applied thousands of years ago.

Up next was the tomb of King Tut.  This was the only tomb for which we had to wait in line.  It is also the only tomb that contains a sarcophagus and the mummified remains, of the one and only King Tut!

We left the Valley of the Kings and made out way to the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This temple is dedicated to the sun deity Amun and is next to the mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II.  The temple is considered one of the incomparable monuments of ancient Egypt.  Also, the temple is aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, which makes it popular with spiritual people and yogis who come to the temple and sit there all day soaking up its energy and meditating.  The mortuary is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and costs $10.00 to enter.  It takes about an hour to visit.

After lunch, we hopped a river boat and crossed the Nile as we made our way to the Karnak Temple.

The Karnak Temple was one of my favorites in Luxor; and, considering it only costs $5.00, it is must! It is a large complex that is like is a vast open-air museum.  It is the second largest ancient religious site in the world, after Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It is believed to be the second most visited historical site in Egypt,the Giza Pyramids in Cairo being the first. Also, you can do this temple by day, which is magnificent, and by night, which, honestly, was kind of cheesy (but only $4.00).

From there, we visited the Temple of Luxor. Luxor is known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Museum, and together with the Karnak Temple, the Luxor Temple is the reason.  It is one of the best preserved of all of the ancient monuments with large amounts of the structure, statuary, and relief carvings still intact.  It too is one of the most impressive sites in Luxor, and it is only about $3.00 to enter.

We ended our day at the Luxor Bazaar where we stopped for a rest, some famous Egyptian coffee, and bought some beautiful spices.

At long last, it was time to check into our hotel.  If you are going to Luxor, there really is just one place to stay, and that place is the Winter Palace.  This hotel has a long history. It is a historic British colonial-era 5-star luxury resort hotel located on the banks of the River Nile, just south of Luxor Temple. It’s claim to fame is that it was the choice accommodation for Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter during their discovery and excavation of King Tut’s tomb. The hotel is a living antique, and the grounds are beautiful.

Day Two started with a trip to the Luxor Museum. This museum is often overlooked by visitors.  Most of the artifacts displayed at the Luxor Museum were discovered in the temples in Luxor. It’s a small museum that is open until 9:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. (depending on the season), and only costs $4.00 to enter. We got there just as it was opening for the day and basically had it to ourselves. Sine it’s relatively small, you can get through it in about  60 to 90 minutes. I highly recommend it.

Fun fact about the mummy below: It is the mummy of Ramses I. His tomb was robbed, and his mummy sold and re-sold on the black market.  By the time it found its way to Canada in the 1800s, its incredibly important royal pedigree had been lost, and it spent the next 140 years as an unknown mummy, unceremoniously housed with several others, some coffins, and other Egyptian artifacts as part of a “freaks of nature” exhibit. The museum changed hands, and crossed and re-crossed the Canadian border several times until it closed in 1999. Thereafter, the Carlos Museum at Emory University purchased the Egyptian collection for around $2 million USD.  They began testing the mummy for identification and after years of study,  the scientific community concluded that this is indeed the mummy of Ramses I. On October 24, 2003, Emory University returned the mummy to Luxor, Egypt, and it has been on display at this museum ever since.

Our second stop was to the Temple of Edfu. It is one of the best preserved shrines in Egypt.  It was also not as heavily visited by tourists. It had beautiful art work on the columns and ceilings with bright colors. It also has some of the deepest carvings in all of Egypt.  And, at less than $4.00 for admission, it is well worth a visit.

We ended our day with a trip to the Tombs of the Nobles. Unlike the funerary monuments for the kings and queens, these tombs are dedicated to administrators, governors, and other figures of minor nobility.  They are a cluster of tombs carved into a rocky hillside, and they are one of the least visited sites in Luxor.  In fact, when we were went, we were the only visitors there, which I loved. Also, there are active excavations going on here, and we got to see one in action!

While certainly smaller, these tombs were amazingly well preserved with the most vibrant color of any site we saw in Egypt.

But, before we headed to the airport, we made one last stop, and that was to get custom perfumes made using fine Arabic oils! These make great gifts, and they are so unique! The array of scents is dizzying, and they are made right in front of you using the bottle and size of your choice!

They say all good things must come to an end, and such was the case with our short, but amazing time in Egypt.  I am glad that we ignored our friends and family and took this trip.  We had a great time, we never felt in danger, we saw some amazing historical sites, and we did it all for such a reasonable price! Seriously, if you have ever thought of going to Egypt, GO! You will not regret it!

Cairo (Giza), Egypt: Land Of The Pharaohs

“Egypt?!? Why would you go to Egypt?!?  Isn’t it really unsafe there?”  If only I had a dollar for every time I heard this (or some variation thereof) from every single person who learned that Chad and I would be spending Thanksgiving in Egypt this year.

Granted, the Egypt of today is probably not like what it was.  It is not the easiest country to navigate, and some of the locals can be a little overbearing by Western standards.  But that shouldn’t stop you from visiting Egypt. It is, after all, the home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as well as numerous other historically significant and interesting sites.  There are fewer tourists, giving you a more personalized experience.  And, it happens to be a super affordable trip, even when it is completely privately guided and staying in the best and most iconic hotels that Egypt has to offer.  As for safety concerns, I am sorry to say, but those are concerns for everywhere in the world these days.

So, we set off over the Thanksgiving holiday to spend four action packed days in Egypt.  Unfortunately, only one of those days was spent in Cairo.  Hindsight being 20/20, I would have added an extra day in Cairo because I think you need half a day to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza and probably another day for the Egyptian Museum – especially starting 2018, when the new museum is slated to open! Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum will be the world’s largest archaeological museum when it opens in 2018, and it will have an expanded exhibit dedicated to King Tut.

We started our day off at the Mena House Hotel in Cairo, which I guarantee you has the best breakfast view in all of Egypt! It used to be a palace, so the digs are not too shabby!  Book a pyramid view room because there is nothing like a sunrise or sunset with a pyramid view!

We booked our entire trip, which was privately guided, with Memphis Tours. Their guides and drivers were excellent, which is important, especially in a city like Cairo which has the worst and most chaotic traffic I have ever experienced anywhere else in the world.  They were also very responsive during the booking process.

After breakfast, we headed to Coptic Cairo to visit Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, also known as the Hanging Church. The Hanging Church is the most famous Coptic Christian church in Cairo.  It named for its location above a gatehouse of Babylon Fortress.

We also visited the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Segra).  The church is believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus Christ, rested at the end of their journey into Egypt.

From there, we made our way to the Egyptian Museum to explore the wonders of the pharaohs and of King Tut. Now, if you are really into museums (like my husband, Chad) or Egyptian history, set aside a full day to visit the museum.  It is uber-crowded and showing its age, so I can’t wait to go back and see the new museum.  This one will remain open, but all of the King Tut relics will be relocated to the new museum. Also, the museum is not very well laid out and the artifacts are not well marked at all, so I highly recommend you visit with a guide.

If you only want to hit the highlights of this museum then you should definitely go to the second floor where you will find the King Tut artifacts, including a room with his sarcophagi and the famous death mask, which can be found in room three.  Along the way, you will see all the items that were found in his tomb, which is located in Luxor in the Valley of the Kings.  These items include his bed, his chariot, his cane, his shoes (his sandal game was so on point), and his childhood games.

A couple of lesser known, but not to be missed pieces are the Seneb Statue in room 32 and Kaaper Statue in room 42. But other than Tut, the other MUST see in this museum is the Mummy Room. Now, the museum entry fee does not include a visit to the mummy rooms, which costs an extra $15 (and which must be paid in cash at the entrance of the exhibit), but it is probably one of the most fascinating exhibits in the entire museum, especially if you are going to visit the tombs of these mummies in Luxor! Each mummy occupies its own temperature-controlled case, and they are very well preserved.

We ended our day at the Giza Plateau, where we visited one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Great Pyramids of Cheops, Chefren, and Mykerinus, and, of course, the Sphinx. I would HIGHLY recommend a guide for this site.  Not because it is complicated and requires a lot of explanation.  I say this only because it reduces the amount of harassment you will encounter at the site by vendors who want to sell you crap, locals who want you to take camel and horse rides, and scammers who claim to work there and can show you around and take your picture.


Also, our guide showed us this pretty cool ancient ship exhibit, which we would have totally missed if it weren’t for him. It is located in the Solar Barque Museum, which is located behind the Great Pyramid. The ship was thought to transport pharaohs to the underworld.  You have to buy a separate ticket for this exhibit, but it is only a few dollars, and you get to wear these super stylish shoe covers!

In case you were wondering, it is now illegal to scale the pyramids. You can, however, go into them.  First, while you can visit the pyramids every day, all year long, you can only access two of the three pyramids each day- the Great Pyramid and then one of the two smaller pyramids.  Each requires the purchase of a separate ticket for entry.  Allegedly, there are only 300 tickets sold per day, the first 150 tickets are sold early in the morning and the next 150 tickets in the early afternoon.  We got there two hours before closing, and were able to get tickets without a problem.

So, what’s inside? Nothing really, but it’s kind of cool to be IN an ancient wonder. So, I definitely recommend going into at least the Great Pyramid, unless you have severe claustrophobia.  Chad is a little claustrophobic, but he was able to do it.  Also, when we went, there weren’t that many people coming in and out. If there were, I can see where it would be a little anxiety inducing.

Here is what you are in for. First, you climb up a brief way from the outside until you reach the entry way.  Once inside, you will go through a small two-way tunnel where you are able to stand up right.  It will take you about a minute or two to get through this tunnel. You will then reach another tunnel that is two way but looks like it should only be one way.  This tunnel goes up at an angle and has handrail on each side with wood planking on the ground, but you have to crouch to get through it.  It is about three to five minutes long. You will then come to an open space where you can stand up right.  On either side will be a make shift ladder that you climb so that you can walk upright at an angle into the chamber room.  This will take you another three to five minutes. At the end, you will step into an empty room with a vault in it. The pathway to get here is lit, but kind of hot.  The chamber room is dark and hot.

The treasures from inside the pyramids have been removed and can be viewed at world-famous museums around the world like the British Museum, Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, and Italy’s Turin Museum.

After exiting the tunnel, we were driven to a view spot where you can get a great view of the Great Pyramid.  From there, we took our camel ride around the complex to see the six pyramids.  This particular activity conflicted me. I discussed with our guide that I did not want to engage in this activity if the camels were treated inhumanely.  He assured me that while that was the case with some camels and camel herders, their company worked with locals who did not engage in this practice. Our camels looked healthier, but, honestly, I am not 100% sure that they were treated completely humanely.  In hindsight, I wish I would’ve asked if we could walk the trail or drive it instead because it is actually quite an amazing view and it is almost as if you are there alone as there are few other people around.


We stuck around for the sound and light show.  It is about 30 minutes, and it is kind of cheesy.  It explains the history of the pyramids in story format with lights and music.  We upgraded our tickets to VIP so we could be in the first row for about $4.00. It was pretty nice to see the pyramids and the sphinx lit up.  I wish they would’ve left them lit up after the show so we could get some pictures.

At the end of that action packed day, it was time to get back to our hotel to prepare for our trip to Luxor the next day. The one thing we did not have time to do was to visit Khan el-Khalili bazaar, and I am still annoyed by this. It is a major souk in the Islamic district of Cairo, and, from the photos, it looks beautiful!  The shops sell souvenirs, antiques and jewelry, but there are also still many traditional workshops that continue to operate in the surrounding area. There are also several coffeehouses, restaurants, and street food vendors, including one of the oldest and most famous coffeehouses, Fishawi’s, established in 1773. Until I can get back to Egypt to take my own, photos from Mr. Google are going to have to do to give you an idea of what the market looks like.

Anyway, if you’ve been to Egypt, I’d like to hear about your experience.  If you have always wanted to go, stop hesitating and book it!  Our entire trip, including international airfare, one in country flight for two people, private guides and drivers, all transfers, stays at two five star hotels, all breakfasts and lunches, and entrances to all sites for two people for four days was under $4,000.00 total. We probably spent an extra $500 in country on visas, tips, dinners, extra entrance tickets, and incidentals. And, we were surprised to see more Americans than we anticipated there, including families with children. So, fear not! The pyramids await you!

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!

Rhodes, Greece: The Island Of The Knights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filerimos:

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

Monolithos: Ancient Kamiros: Seven Springs:

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

Moat:

Palace:

Medieval wall:

 

Museum:

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