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!

Amman, Jordan: The City of Seven Hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Abdullah I Mosque

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

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

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

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

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

Another 3,000 people can worship in the courtyard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amman Citadel

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

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

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

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

Jerash

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most notable sites are:

  • Hadrian’s Arch: the entrance to the city

  • Hippodrome: a restored Roman-era stadium

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

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

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

  • Agora: the city’s main market

  • Nymphaeum: an ornate fountain dedicated to nymphs

  • South Theatre: still in use today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, a Greek Orthodox church sits near the river:

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

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

Madaba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mt. Nebo

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

The mount is marked by this stone:

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

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

Mukawir

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

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

At the top, you see this:

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

Kerak

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

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

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

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!

 

 

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

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

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

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

The Acropolis and The Parthenon

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

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

The Acropolis Museum (And Other Museums of Interest)

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

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

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

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

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

Anafiotika and Plaka

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

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

Ancient Agora and Monastiraki

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

Syntagma Square (And a Side Note About Shopping!)

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

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

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

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

Mount Lycabettus

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

The Panathenaic Stadium and The Temple of Olympian Zeus

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

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

Beaches

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

London: Highlights of the Queen’s Land

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

SEE 

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

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

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

MUSEUMS 

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

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

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

EAT

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

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

TEA

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

SHOP

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

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

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