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Month: August 2016

How to Theater Binge in NYC without Breaking the Bank

How to Theater Binge in NYC without Breaking the Bank

It was mid-afternoon on a brisk Christmas Eve day in 2006 and I was shivering as I walked with purpose through Manhattan’s theater district, amidst the bright lights and bustle of Times Square.  I had just arrived by bus in New York City, and the plan was to meet up with my sister and see a show together.  There was only one catch – we didn’t have tickets to anything.  Yet.

I was teaching high school at the time, so I was already on winter break.  My sister was at work that day, so getting theater tickets was all up to me.  Since it was the holiday season and the city was packed with out-of-towners and locals with days off, I knew that my usual methods for finding discounted tickets would be limited.  After a few failed inquiries at some theater box offices, I got in line for my old standby and perpetual backup: TKTS.  Most Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters work with TKTS to provide discounted tickets, usually at 25% or 50% off of the normal price.  Since there are so many shows playing at any one time, although the lines are long, while you may not get to see your top-choice show or pay your preferred ticket price, you’ll always get to see something.

It had been a little warmer walking over, but now that I was waiting in line, the cold started to set in despite my heavy coat, scarf, and many layers.  But it was okay, I was getting to see a show!  Then, when I was about 30 people from the front of the line, word passed back that TKTS was sold out.  I’m sorry, what?!?  I didn’t even know that TKTS *ever* sold out, although if it was going to happen it made sense that Christmas Eve would be the day.

And then it hit me – this was the end of my streak.  Ever since the first time I got rush tickets to see a Broadway show about ten years earlier (Chicago in 1997), every time I had come to New York planning to see theater, I had always managed to get tickets to something.  Not always the show I wanted to see and sometimes involving frantic subway rides to get to an obscure off-Broadway theater in time, but I always saw something.

What to do now?  I had several hours to brainstorm, and realized that there was one more chance to possibly see a show.  Avenue Q, which was still on Broadway at the time, had a lottery 2 hours before showtime, around 6pm (and neither of us had seen it yet).  Fortunately by that time my sister would be finished with work and we would then have 2 chances to win – each writing our name on a slip of paper and then names would be pulled from a large bucket until all of the seats allotted for the lottery were sold.  Of course, the odds were abysmal.  Lots of people who struck out with TKTS – and others who had just left the office – were also trying their luck for one of the only 20 seats available through the lottery.  And even on a regular theater-going day, I had tried (and failed) several times before to win the Avenue Q lottery.

As we wrote our names on the tiny slips of paper and added them to the overflowing pile of other entries, I knew the prospects were dim and mentally prepared myself for failure: coming into the city to see a show and not managing to get tickets to anything.  And then the inner monologue started.  What was I thinking?  Why didn’t I realize that it was harder than usual to get theater tickets on Christmas Eve and planned better?  Or arrived earlier?  Or why did I suggest seeing a show at all?  It would have been better to not have even made the attempt.  If I hadn’t tried and failed to get theater tickets, my streak would still be intact.  (This last one is a doozy, thanks inner voice.  For the record, I think it’s almost universally better to try at something, even if you fail.)

Fortunately, my thoughts didn’t have too much time to spiral any more out of control because it was time to pull names for the lottery.  I’m usually pretty calm after I turn in the slip of paper with my name, but once the show staffer starts churning the slips of paper to mix them up, the adrenaline starts pumping and I can feel my heart beating faster and faster in my chest.  The nerves are in full force and then my conscious effort is always focused on trying to appear calm even though I don’t feel that way inside at all.  Tracking each motion of pulling a slip of paper and unfolding it to announce the name of the next lottery winner as a poor attempt at keeping myself calm.

Then after the first few names are pulled and aren’t ours, I start mentally calculating how many available seats are left and trying to calm my adrenaline since winning the lottery is becoming increasingly unlikely.  Deep breath in, deep breath out.  And then with just a handful of seats still available, I hear “Cohen” and after a few seconds delay while my brain processes what it hear, realize that my sister’s name has been called.  A huge wave of relief washes over me.  I’m not sure if I’m more excited to get to see Avenue Q or to realize that yeah, the streak is still going strong!!

And a few hours later, Avenue Q is amazing and hilarious, and even outshines all of the hype and expectations I had built up ahead of time.  And TKTS was sold out, and I still was fortunate enough to get to see a show.  The joy of theater.

It’s now been another decade since my close call of almost not getting a ticket that chilly Christmas Eve, and I’m pleased to report that my streak is still alive and well.  I’ve never waited until the last-minute on a major holiday to get tickets again, and always have a contingency plan (or 5) to ensure that something will work itself out.  And even though some times recently I have had to revert to a Plan B or Plan C, I always get to see something.

But how do I do it exactly?  And how do I see all these shows without racking up hundreds of dollars in credit card bills?

The New York Times gives a great, colorful overview of theater offerings every weekend
The New York Times gives a great, colorful overview of theater offerings every weekend

Practical Info

For those in the know, there are a lot of ways to get discounted tickets for Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, here’s how to make it happen:

In advance

Not everyone likes to (or can) wait until the same day to purchase their theater tickets.  For the security of having your discounted tickets purchased ahead of time, there are several options at your disposal:

Tix 4 Students – If you are an undergraduate or graduate student (anywhere in the world!) and can verify it, you’re eligible for this one.  There is a $7 fee and membership is good for at least 6 months.  Once you’re a member, you have exclusive access to affordable student tickets for theater.  You can see the current tickets available and prices here.


HIPTIX – This is a program of the Roundabout Theatre Company for 18-35 year olds.  While it is limited to their own productions, there are multiple Roundabout productions each season, that are typically of very high quality.  The best part?  Joining is FREE.  And it gets you the opportunity to purchase tickets for you (and a guest of any age) for only $25 each, and there are spots reserved for HIPTIX for every show.  If you want access to premium seats, there is access to annual Gold and Platinum levels with a donation to Roundabout.

TIP! Buy tickets early to ensure you can see the show you want on your preferred date.


LincTix – Similar to HIPTIX but for 21-35 year olds, LincTix is a program of the Lincoln Center Theater, which is also known for its high-quality productions each season.  It is also FREE to join, with a number of $32 tickets set aside for each performance.  Different from the HIPTIX program however, any guests must also be LincTix members.

TIP! Same as for HIPTIX: buy tickets early to ensure you can see the show you want on your preferred date.

A variety of Broadway ticket stubs I've racked up on the cheap since living in Milan (including HIPTIX & LincTix!)
A variety of Broadway ticket stubs I’ve racked up on the cheap since living in Milan (including HIPTIX & LincTix!)

Discount Codes – These days I have mostly seen discount codes online through TheaterMania, Today Tix, and Broadway Box.  I prefer the first two sites, as they list tickets by purchase price, while Broadway Box lists the amount of the discount.  There are usually service fees added to the ticket price when you buy online, although in some cases you can save on the fees by buying tickets in advance in-person at the box office with the discount code (I did this recently for an off-Broadway show and saved over $20 in fees for our group of 4 people).


Rear Mezzanine & Partial View seats – They won’t be the best seats in the house, but the Rear Mezzanine section has the most affordable of the regular-price tickets, and can be purchased online through the vendor listed on the show’s official website or at the box office.  So if there are no available discounted options for something you definitely want to see, this is the way to go.  Often there are also Partial View seats, which are sometimes only available for purchase in-person at the box office, which you can also do in advance.  And with Partial View seats, you usually don’t miss much.

TIP!  Always ask what is blocked by the Partial View seats before committing to purchase.  Sometimes it just involves leaning forward in your seat to get the full view, other times you’ll miss some of the action.

Same Day

When I first became an avid NYC theater-goer in the late 1990s, rush tickets were pretty much the only same-day discount option available at the box office.  Then with RENT’s meteoric popularity, so many people were sleeping outside of the box office nightly to have a shot at rush tickets the following morning that RENT instituted Broadway’s first in-person lottery to sell 20 seats in the first two rows of the Orchestra section, for $20 each (oh, those were the days).

Seen as a more democratic option, many shows shifted to an in-person lottery over rush tickets in the early 2000s.  And even more recently, shows have shifted from the chaos of the in-person lottery to the ease of administration of a digital lottery. Read more about the history of Broadway discount tickets here.

TIP!  While several websites listing various rush and lottery policies have come and gone, the only one I’ve seen lately with up-to-date information about rush, lottery, and standing room ticket policies is at through Playbill.  You can also always check a particular show’s official website for discount ticket details.

TIP!  Some box offices will only take cash for rush and/or lottery tickets, so read their policies ahead of time, and have enough cash on hand to make your purchase.

Your options:

Rush lines on both sides of the street
Rush lines on both sides of the street

Rush tickets – A certain number of tickets – which can even be in the Orchestra section – are set aside to be sold as “rush” tickets for certain shows, at their discretion.  At one time a student ID was needed to purchase most rush tickets, although these days it’s typically open to anyone.  And for most productions, each person can buy up to 2 rush tickets.  Rush tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis when the Box Office opens (usually at 10am, can be later on weekends), so there is often a line starting at 9am or earlier.

TIP!  If you can, stop by the Box Office before the day you’d like rush tickets so you can ask when the line usually starts forming and you can decide when to arrive.


In-person Lotteries These days the digital lottery is king, so I can count on one hand which shows still offer an in-person lottery.  These typically take place outside the theater, with names being pulled around 2 hours before showtime.

TIP!  Come prepared with a photo ID.  It will be necessary to show ID after a lottery win to purchase your tickets, to make sure it matches the name you wrote on the slip.

TIP! Have a plan for a quick lunch or dinner since the in-person lottery drawing takes place so close to show time.


Digital Lotteries – These are the easiest to join and the hardest to win.  Instead of discount tickets being sold to people in-person at the theater, anyone in the NYC metro area who can make it to the theater within 3 hours can enter digital lotteries every day – and many do.  When Fun Home first debuted on Broadway, I was told that 10,000 people entered the digital lottery daily, for only 20 seats.  The odds for Hamilton’s digital lottery are equally bleak for their 21 lottery seats. Certainly if I lived in the New York City area though, I’d be entering digital lotteries daily.  A few shows operate their digital lotteries through the TodayTix app, and others do it independently, linked from the official show website.


Standing Room Only (SRO) tickets – Usually SRO tickets are only available if a show is sold out, which doesn’t happen as often as you’d think.  Unless a show is sold out early in the day, you may be cutting it very close and possibly not get a ticket at all.

TIP!  Ask at the box office if a show is already sold out or close, before counting on being able to purchase SRO tickets.


The TKTS booth at Times Square

The TKTS booth at Times Square

TKTS – If you read my narrative above, you know that TKTS is typically my last-resort option for discount tickets.  Why is that?  The lines are long, and the discounts aren’t usually that great compared to the price you can find using one of the other methods above.  I think it’s been at least a decade since I’ve bought a theater ticket through TKTS.

So what is the advantage of TKTS?

  • the seats are usually better than what you can get through rush or the lottery, as this is a main way theaters fill premium seats that are unsold the morning before a performance
  • you can buy up to 6 tickets per person waiting in line, which is great for families or larger groups
  • additional discounted tickets can be released throughout the day, so sometimes you can get better deals without waking up early or being first in line
  • if you are in New York but not close to Times Square, you can take advantage of purchasing tickets at one of their other TKTS locations, either at the South Street Seaport or in Downtown Brooklyn.

TIP!  The TKTS app shows wait times for each of their locations and a list of shows being sold each day.

Have you used one of these methods for theater tickets in NYC?  What’s your preferred way to get a good deal?  Or have you had a similarly panicked experience trying to get same-day theater tickets?

Tell me more in the Comments below.

How To (2)

 

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How to Help Victims of the Earthquake in Central Italy

How to Help Victims of the Earthquake in Central Italy

Norcia, one of the Central Italian towns impacted by the August 24th earthquake
Norcia, one of the Central Italian towns impacted by the August 24th earthquake

Last week’s 6.2-magnitude earthquake in central Italy is still front-page news here in Italy, but it has faded from the radar for many internationally.  The death toll is at least 290 people, and has continued to be revised over the past 5 days.  Destruction, especially in the town of Amatrice, has reduced much of the town to rubble.  And nearly 2,000 aftershocks continue to rattle the region.

While the discourse here in Italy is already shifting to some of the recently-constructed buildings that did not survive the quake and a concern about keeping the mafia from participating in rebuilding efforts, there is much on-the-ground work already in motion tending to the urgent needs of the displaced.  Inspirational stories have emerged, including survivors being located and refugees offering their financial and hands-on assistance.  However, these support and rebuilding efforts will continue for many months to come, and monetary donations are critical to fund the ongoing needs — which are no less critical than immediate relief.

I’m not the first person to write a post describing donation options, however I felt compelled to compile my own list because many of the existing efforts direct donations to the Red Cross, an organization which I simply can no longer support.  The Red Cross has a very poor track record in allocating donations that obtain on-the-ground results.  In fact, although it raised $500 million for Haiti earthquake relief, the only concrete result was the construction of just 6 houses (no, that is not a typo!).

If you are planning to donate toward relief efforts for the recent earthquake, please consider these alternate options:

Global Giving

https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/italy-earthquake-relief-fund/

“All donations to this fund will exclusively support locally driven relief and recovery efforts from this disaster.”


Italian American Relief

http://www.italianamericanrelief.org/

“Italian American Relief is working to identify a specific project or projects for funding in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, we assure you that all proceeds will go to the rebuilding efforts of a community badly damaged by this natural catastrophe.”


Save the Children

Donations to the Italian branch

Donations to the US branch

“Save the Children, in coordination with the Italian Civil Protection from Lazio Region, will be launching a response in Amatrice tomorrow, setting up a child-friendly space, a safe and protected environment where children and young people can receive support from trained staff and participate in various activities.”

–> If you know of other organizations collecting donations for relief efforts, please add them in the Comments section below.  And also keep the victims and survivors in your thoughts.

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Travel Inspiration: My First-Ever Cheese Pilgrimage

Travel Inspiration: My First-Ever Cheese Pilgrimage

If I asked most people I know how they pick where they travel, I’d get replies about an image of a beautiful beach, a famous landmark, an activity on a bucket list, or maybe even a specific cuisine or wine varietal that comes from a particular region.  But . . . a cheese?

I’ve always liked cheese, but I’ve never been obsessive about it.  Sometimes I have 4 or 5 different types in the refrigerator, sometimes these days just one (parmesan, of course – I do live in Italy after all).  So how did someone like me end up driving several hours out of the way to spend a night in a very particular cheese country in the western part of Switzerland, close to the French border??

I had never heard of, seen, or tasted Tête de Moine cheese until March of 2013.  And this all began in the most unexpected of places – Melbourne, Australia.  It was during the start of what I lovingly refer to as the “Farewell Australia tour,” which is the 3.5 week trip I took to see the main sights of Australia right before flying back to the US and moving to Milan.

Melbourne was the first stop, and fresh with my adventurous travel spirit, I found a fairly nice place for dinner.  What sold me was not only the menu and wine list, but the fact that they had a cheese trolley, and I was dining with a friend who loves a good selection of cheeses to close a meal (the restaurant was Merricote, although I don’t know if they’ve carried Tête de Moine cheese since my one and only delicious visit).

At the end of a satisfying meal and excellent wine, we requested the cheese trolley and picked a selection of 3 cheeses.  Since they were all displayed on the cart for us, we could pick on sight what looked the most tempting.  As soon as the cart arrived, I saw a cylindrical cheese perched on a circular contraption with a blade on top, and thought the serving method looked so fun that I had to see it in action. Seems superficial perhaps, but I’m so glad I was drawn to trying the cheese.  It was the Tête de Moine (literally “monk’s head” cheese, our waitress told us) and was shaved into beautiful sections by spinning the blade around.

Note: a picture of the cheese, but not from Merricote (don't think I took a single pic there unfortunately)
Note: a picture of Tête de Moine cheese and girolle, but not from Merricote (don’t think I took a single pic there unfortunately)

We may have picked solely on appearances, but the texture and flavor of the cheese was distinct, although tasting similar to other Swiss mountain cheeses I’ve had.  You could taste the flavor of the cow’s milk coming through and the folded over shape of the cheese with the ruffled edges gave such a different textures from a soft, creamy cheese or a firmer one.  Somewhere in between, hitting that perfect note.

That might have been the end of it.  A one-time tasting of a very special Swiss cheese that is not widely available outside of Switzerland, making an already great meal particularly memorable.  But of course, once I had seen and tasted the monk’s head cheese, it started appearing again and again.

Rosettes of Tête de Moine
Rosettes of Tête de Moine

My first step admittedly after that meal was to do an internet search on “monk’s head cheese,” where I learned that the cylindrical holder with blade is called a girolle and that the curled pieces of cheese that come off the top are called rosettes.  The Tête de Moine has competing legends as to the origin of its name, but the reasoning behind the rosettes is to have the right ratio of cheese to air to maximize flavor (which of course appealed to the science geek in me).  And the oh-so-clever girolle was only invented to achieve this in the 1980s!  It’s pretty exciting when the tool for serving a cheese that has centuries of history was developed in my lifetime.

Assorted girolles
Assorted girolles

From there, I started noticing Tête de Moine cheese.  At the annual artisanal food fair that takes place in Milan in early December.  In the cheese case at one of Milan’s upscale markets.  In the cheese aisle at a regular supermarket in France.  It even made an appearance on my cheese plate flying Swiss Air back to the US, when I got upgraded to Business Class last-minute on my silver status with United (thanks, Star Alliance).

The cheese plate on my Swiss Air flight

And then comes the cheese pilgrimage to Bellelay, Switzerland, the origin of Tête de Moine.  A lot of times by the time I travel, I’ve done extensive research, made notes, and marked points of interest on a map.  The nice thing about making a pilgrimage to a low-key location with a single purpose in mind, there really is not too much to plan.

Bellelay is a charming little town just over an hour’s drive from either Bern or Basel, and not far from Lake Bielersee and its many towns.  There are many ways to combine a trip to Bellelay and the nearby dairies with a stay somewhere else, or you can embrace country living for a night.  I had a great stay at the Hotel de l’Ours, which also serves a lovely dinner at their restaurant.

And just a short walk away is the Tête de Moine museum, which has a thorough exhibit tracing the geography and history of the cheese, and of course ends where you can enjoy a tasting of the different varieties of Tête de Moine and decide which one to purchase.  And all of the cheese accessories you might need, like a proper girolle.  Plus, if you’re lucky, they still have bottles of the delicious, local plum-flavored digestif liqueur for sale as well.

Outside the museum in Bellelay, Switzerland
Outside the museum in Bellelay, Switzerland

There are also a lot of dairies nearby, although some have limited hours on the weekend so be sure to check their schedule, which also varies seasonally.  And if you’re looking for other things to do in the region, there is a lot of practical information here about visiting that region of Switzerland.

After a few turns of the blade, beautiful rosettes of cheese emerge
Tasting plate at the museum: after a few turns of the blade, beautiful rosettes of cheese emerge

As I started writing this article, I thought – if I hadn’t moved to Milan after that first taste of Tête de Moine cheese, would I have still made the cheese pilgrimage to Bellelay?  Probably not as a stand-alone trip like this one, but as a stopover during a trip to France or Switzerland?  Absolutely.

And that is my challenge to you.  Is there a specific food, cuisine, or beverage that you absolutely love?  Why not travel to where that item originates to experience it in its purest form?

Have you made a similar pilgrimage?  Tell me about it in the comments!

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Making a Cheese Pilgrimage in Switzerland

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Tips for Taking a Road Trip in Europe

Tips for Taking a Road Trip in Europe

I love road trips, both to watch the landscape change along the way and to have access to off-the-beaten-path locations, including following a tempting sign blindly and seeing where it takes you.  Past road trips have taken me unexpectedly to giant castle complexes and fantastic wineries, and it’s those types of surprises that make it such a satisfying way to travel.

Winery at the end of a gravel road in France (found from following a road sign randomly)
Winery at the end of a gravel road in France (found from following a road sign randomly)
First random wine-tasting stop
First random wine-tasting stop

If you’re lucky, you either have a car in Europe already or are visiting someone who does.  For everyone else, renting a car in Europe and having a smooth road-trip will involve some extra planning.  But it is worth it for the flexibility that comes with having a vehicle, and trunk space for picking up souvenirs along the way.

Driving in a new place – especially in a foreign country where you may not speak the language – comes with its own set of challenges.  Here are some things to consider for a successful road trip:

 

BEFORE YOU GO

  • Do you have the right documents to drive? In some places your home country license is sufficient.  Sometimes you’ll need your regular driver’s license & a passport or identity card.  And while it’s only required in some locations, it’s a good idea to invest in an International Driver’s License (IDL) before your trip.  In the US, you can get an IDL through AAA up to six months in advance, or through the automobile association in your home country.  If you’re planning on renting cars internationally quite often, there is also a 5-year IDL option (this is what I currently have).
My International Driver's License (IDL)
My International Driver’s License (IDL)
  • Are there automatic cars available? Cars with a manual transmission are much more widely available and typically cheaper to rent, so if you drive a manual, you are all set.    Otherwise, be sure that there is an automatic that you can guarantee for your road trip dates.

TIP!  Also do your usual due diligence when renting a car: comparing costs between companies and car type, looking at extra driver and insurance fees, and experimenting with different pickup and drop-off locations to keep costs low.

  • Do you have a place to park the car at your destination? Free parking at hotels is more widely available in some European countries than others, and of course the closer you stay to a city center, the less likely you will have parking at your accommodation.  Be sure you will have a private lot or public parking garage where you know you’ll be able to leave the vehicle.  Road trips are much more enjoyable when you are not spending half your time circling your destination looking for a parking spot.

TIP!  Even if your hotel/AirBNB has parking available, sometimes you must reserve a spot in advance.  Be sure to reserve parking ahead of time, if necessary.

  • Have you checked the driving times between the different stops on your road trip? No, really.  This sounds obvious, but especially in Europe things may be close in kilometers but take several hours more driving time than you’d expect.  Not all destinations are connected by highways and there are a lot of mountain ranges to contend with.  I learned this lesson the hard way on a 2007 trip to Croatia and Slovenia, where my friend and I had to forgo an already-paid night in a hostel and take an overnight bus to not lose a day of vacation with the driving time to our next stop.  I usually plug two destinations into Google maps and see the time to arrive by car to plan out a road trip.  Please, please, please check driving times in advance!

TIP!  Depending on where you are travelling in Europe, in some cases your best bet is to road trip for part of the time, and take high-speed trains for part.  In many places – especially in Western Europe – high-speed trains can be significantly faster than driving

  • How do you plan to navigate? Driving in Europe can be confusing!  Signs here do not look like signs you may be familiar with.  Sometimes at the split in a road here in Italy, there will be 10 signs on the left with the name of different destinations, and another 10 on the right.  But if you don’t know which towns are the way you’re headed, the signs don’t help at all.  I definitely recommend some type of navigation system for European driving – many rental companies offer the option of GPS at an additional cost, or if you are planning to get a data plan for your smart phone, you can navigate that way.  Just be sure to have a plan in advance.
  • How crazy are the drivers where you’re going? Driving in Europe may involve many more vehicle types than you usually see on the road.  In Milan and around Italy, I regularly have to maneuver between cars, trucks, buses, trams, bicycles, motorbikes and even tractors sometimes.  And the crazier the drivers, the harder this becomes.  I feel comfortable driving in Italy (which many expats here do not), although I wouldn’t drive in the city of Naples, notorious for it’s bad traffic that I’ve also witnessed as a pedestrian.  Do a bit of research on where you’re going and what the driving is like there so you can be a prepared driver.

 

ON THE ROAD

  • What are the default speed limits in the countries you’ll be visiting? European countries each have their own set of default speed limits for different types of roads (residential/state road/highway).  There is usually a single sign when you cross a border listing these numbers, and sometimes it won’t be displayed again.  Since the speeds are defaults, they’re often not even posted periodically along the highway.  Avoid speeding tickets by being aware – and following – the limits.
  • What do the different color signs mean? You would think that with much of Europe operating under open borders (the Schengen area), that the road systems would be aligned by now.  But they’re not.  In Italy, highways are indicated by green signs and more local roads are signed in blue.  But as soon as you drive across the border into France, the colors swap – blue for French highways, green for local roads.  Know what to look for wherever you’re driving.
  • What kind of toll systems are there where you’re going? Some countries have periodic highway tolls, others have you pick up a ticket that you pay once when you exit the highway system, and others use a single paid window decal called a vignette.  For the highway tolls, have enough cash in the local currency to cover these as your credit card from home may not work if it doesn’t have both a chip and a PIN.  Sometimes only one type of card works in each country, so try a few before giving up and paying cash.
A 2016 vignette for Switzerland
A 2016 vignette for Switzerland

And a vignette is  a sticker that you stick on the windshield of your car and covers all of the tolls for the country.  Depending on where you rent, the rental car may already have a vignette, otherwise you must purchase one when you enter the country.  I most often encounter the vignette for Switzerland, which is 40 Euros or 40 Swiss Francs (CHF) for a calendar year.  Austria also has a vignette, which is good for 10 days, or you can get one for several months if you’re planning to stay longer.

  • What European road signs should I know? Some basic road signs that are present in Europe may be different from anything you’ve seen before at home.  If you have a guidebook, there may be some pictures and explanations in a reference section.  The one sign that I had to look up when I first starting driving often in Europe is a diamond-shaped sign with a yellow diamond surrounded by a white border.  Normally in Europe at an unregulated intersection, the car to the right has priority.  If you are travelling on a large enough road that you have the right-of-way, you’ll know this by seeing the yellow diamond sign, and you no longer have to yield to cars to your right on side streets.
  • Do you know your country abbreviations? When you are driving close to the border with other countries, the list of upcoming cities with their distance away may have a white circle with 1- or 2-letter country abbreviations if the destination is in another country, which are helpful to know as you navigate.  Some of these are obvious: for example, A is Austria and B is Belgium, but what about CH?  Some European abbreviations are based on the country’s name in the local language, so study up.  Like CH (Confoederatio Helvetica) for Switzerland and D (Deutschland) for Germany.  Check out the full listing of country abbreviations here.

Liechtenstein highway sign DSC_0222

  • Which side of the car has the gas/petrol tank & what type should you get? Some cars have a little arrow next to gas gauge, but it’s always a good idea to check ahead of time where the petrol tank is located.  Also know whether the car takes diesel or regular gasoline so you can fill up with the correct product.
  • Are you ready for European traffic jams? If you’re a seasoned driver, you’ve probably suffered through a traffic jam or two (or a hundred).  However, traffic backups can have a very different character in Europe.  Sometimes there is a road that it is a single lane in each direction with no passing allowed, so if there is a slow vehicle up ahead, you can just be moving slowly for an extended time.
A traffic jam in Switzerland. Don't worry, the car was in park when I snapped this picture.
A traffic jam in Switzerland. Don’t worry, the car was in park when I snapped this picture.

But when there is an accident in my experience, traffic comes to a complete standstill, often for 1 hour or more.  As in: the car is in park with the parking brake engaged, and if the weather is nice many people will be outside of their cars smoking or taking a stroll.  (Inevitably these kind of traffic jams happen when there is no detour route, but if there is an option to drive around the backup, take it!  Another argument in favor of having GPS available.)  I’ve been stuck in traffic jams where all movement stops completely in Italy a few times, but also in Switzerland and Germany.  Don’t be alarmed if this happens, but do be prepared to wait it out.  And if you’re outside of your car during the standstill, don’t worry — everyone magically knows when the traffic will start moving again, no matter how far back you are.

  • Did you leave extra time for each of your driving sections? Even with the best preparation – and traffic aside – you still may get lost or take a wrong turn at some point.  And missing one turn-off sometimes means going 20 km out of your way to the first point you can circle back, and another 20 km to get back to your starting point before continuing on the correct route (true story, this happened once driving in France).  Or hopefully you’ll see something in the distance that catches your eye or see a sign for a local attraction, and will be able to take the time to veer off course and follow your nose to an adventure.

 

Wow, that’s a lot of things to think about!  Taking a European road trip that covers multiple countries is especially exciting for me since there are open borders in so many places.  In fact, other than in Switzerland where they check your vignette when you enter and exit, and for some of the micro-nations not part of the Schengen area, you may not even realize you’re crossing an international border.

Sometimes I come home from a road trip with *this much* wine
Sometimes I come home from a road trip with *this much* wine

Overall, road tripping in Europe is hugely scenic and rewarding, although as you’ve read there are quite a few things you can do to prepare so you have a smooth driving experience and focus on enjoying the ride =)

Have you road-tripped in Europe?  What was your favorite part of the experience?  And what else did you wish you knew or had researched beforehand?

Tips for Taking a

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Top 10 Things to Eat (and Drink) in Naples

Top 10 Things to Eat (and Drink) in Naples

1.  Coffee

Of course, caffe’ simply means espresso, and is excellent all over Italy. So what makes coffee in Naples so special? Like the locals, coffee is surprisingly strong and concentrated. Due to its strength, it is usually served with water from a filtered tap by the bar, which you should drink before the coffee.

2.  Nocciola

Although nocciola (hazelnut) is typically grown in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, this is a coffee drink that was invented in Naples, and involves espresso mixed with a whipped hazelnut cream, a perfect flavor pairing if you ask me. You can get it in a glass, or ‘in cialda’, a cup-shaped wafer lined with chocolate.

3.  Taralli

Taralli are circular or oval-shaped breadsticks, sometimes with multiple strands of dough twisted together. The Napoletano variation usually has lard and pepper, sometimes decorated with nuts. They are widely available at passticcierie throughout Naples.

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4.  Pizza

Neapolitan pizza is famous all over the world, and a must-eat item for any trip to Naples, no matter how short. Competing claims about first/oldest/best pizzeria abound, and any time you visit you’re likely to be subjected to a long line snaking outside and down the street for the most famous, central places. Every pizza maker has his or her own philosophy about dough and toppings (some places only serve the basic margherita pizza with tomato, mozzarella, and basil), so find a place that appeals to you and dig in – in true Italian fashion, of course, with a fork and knife.

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5.  Fried pizza

Yes, this is a different category than your regular pizza pie. While the method is similar, there are usually two different discs of dough, with toppings in between, and then the result is deep-fried until there is a crispy, golden-brown, bubbled crust. The taste sensation is quite different from your usual pizza, but equally delicious.

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6.  Fried food

Aside from fried pizza, there are many fried treats to enjoy around Naples, and you’ll usually smell the delicious aromas as you walk around. Some tempting items you’ll find fried around town include pasta, rice, polenta, eggplant, and zucchini blossoms. There is just something about warm climates and fried food that go so well together, making a meal or snack of fried goodies especially satisfying.

7.  Buffalo mozzarella (or any fresh mozzarella)

You’ll see the name as ‘mozzarella di bufala di campania,’ meaning buffalo mozzarella from the region of Italy – Campania – where Naples is located. While a bit more sour than your typical mozzarella, the quality of what you can get locally will eclipse any mozzarella you’ve had before.

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8.  Sfogliatella

I don’t typically like desserts with any trace of citrus, but sfogliatella is an a league of its own. It is an enclosed crispy, phyllo-like pastry layered in the shape of a seashell, with a ricotta and orange filling. However, when you bite into a good version, you sense the textural contrast between the crispy outside and smooth inside, with the perfect balance of tart and sweet flooding your taste buds.

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9.  Babà

I find the best versions of this rum cake are incredibly light and oozing delicious rum syrup every time you slice it with your fork. I like the regular-size ones the best, for the ratio of the thin outer layer to soft inside, but you can also find babà mignon, the mini version.

10.  Limoncello

Southern Italy has an ideal climate for growing lemons, and the abundance around Naples has led to a local digestivo (digestive aid, usually consumed after lunch or dinner). Typically bright yellow in color, the combination of simple syrup, intense lemon flavor, and hard alcohol will help close out any delicious meal in Naples – just enough that you can appreciate your meal without feeling too full.

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Naples: Why It’s a Destination

Naples: Why It’s a Destination

“Why do you live in Milan? People are unpleasant there. It is better here, where you can ride your motorcycle without a helmet and drive without a seat belt,” said my first taxi driver in Naples. Who when I paid the 19 Euro fare with a 20 Euro bill, objected to the tip because “that is the price of a coffee.” (I told him to keep the 1 Euro anyway).

This is the chaos of Naples – you can do whatever you want and drive however you like, but then of course you’re driving in a city where everyone else does the same, and you can imagine the crazy traffic that ensues! But it is the excitement of living on the edge at all times that gives Naples its primal energy and bustle, and its very particular charm.

Many visitors to Italy come to Naples, but often spend less than a day hours there, instead using it as a jumping off point to visit the ruins of Pompeii or to head to the island of Capri or nearby Amalfi coast. This is precisely how Naples landed in Lonely Planet’s Secret Europe Destinations 2016 with an article titled “Italy at its red-blooded bargain best,” as a worthy destination where you can appreciate a slice of Italy’s incredible history and art without the crowds you’ll find in some of the more popular Italian cities for tourism. While there has been a surge in interest in Naples as a destination in some crowds after the recent success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, overall it is more often treated as a transit point than the satisfying and exhilirating city it can be.

Some say the Neapolitan spirit is due to living in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Experts maintain that the volcano is overdue for an eruption. So as a Neapolitan, with the threat of destruction ever lurking, why wouldn’t you live every day to the fullest?

This fiercely independent attitude of Naples manifests itself in interesting ways when you are a tourist:

  • Waiting for one of the last trains back to the center on a Sunday night, and despite there being other people on the platform also waiting, being quite aware of the possibility that no train arrives at all (in this case, it did come, over an hour late!)

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  • Trying to pay a 5 Euro museum entry with a 10 Euro bill, and then being let in for free because the attendant couldn’t be bothered to make change.

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  • Walking past mounds of garbage piled up on the streets that haven’t been collected in a while and are starting to overflow onto the sidewalk (mind you, the trash is near the receptacles, just not collected).

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  • Even paid museums almost never having toilet paper in the bathrooms. So great excitement ensues at the one museum with a communal roll outside of the stalls that still has toilet paper on it.

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  • And sometimes you are wandering around museums with priceless pieces of art, and you are completely alone because no one is monitoring the area.

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  • The only rule I saw consistently was “no selfie shaft.” Otherwise, no rules =)

So when my taxi driver bemoaned that Milanesi wear their seat belts and their helmets, I thought to myself that he may find it appalling, but I actually like Milan that way . . . at least as a place to live. But the stark contrast between the cities means that Naples is one of my favorite cities to visit in all of Italy – you’ve never felt more alive!

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Is Europe safe these days?

Is Europe safe these days?

I live in Milan, so you might expect that after the recent attacks that I would have serious thoughts and nightmare scenarios racing through my head. After all, I live in another major European city not that far away. I take the metro multiple times in a typical day. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, a concert I was planning to attend here in Milan was postponed after appearing on a list of ISIS targets. All the factors that should lead to a very worried American expat, right?

Honestly though, while I felt anguish at the terror in Brussels and Nice, and compassion for the victims and their families, questioning my own personal safety here in Milan didn’t even cross my mind. None of my expat friends around Europe (and certainly none of the locals) have mentioned this topic even once.

It is only after receiving multiple concerned e-mails from friends and family back in the US about whether I feel safe in Milan – and if there were additional security measures being taken over here – that it even occurred to me to question my safety. And those questions are also what inspired me to write this post.

In Brussels in May 2015
In Brussels in May 2015

Why was I not more concerned?

I should be concerned, right? I have been to the Brussels airport twice in the last year and a half.  Last year, although I did not go to Nice, I was in Monaco and other locations in the south of France. I was considering a weekend in Istanbul before the last attack.

I mean it when I say ‘I could have been there.’

But to me, post-attack is not the time to be nervous about locations abroad. Attacks have never stopped me from travelling before. Shortly after September 11th, I bought plane tickets to Europe (for under $300 round-trip New York to London!) and spent a month travelling to London, Amsterdam, and Israel. This past fall, after a series of terrorist attacks in Israel, I checked flight prices and booked a great fare on EasyJet – 68 Euros for round-trip airfare between Milan and Tel Aviv – for travel in early December. In general, I find that post-violence security is better, there are fewer tourists, & prices are cheaper.

Does this mean I am reckless? Absolutely not.

Before September 11th, I would have been the type of worker to stay at my desk even if people were telling me to leave. It is that precarious combination I possess of stubbornness and a Type A personality that would have led me at the time to think that I knew best. Plus, when I first heard about the towers being hit at work on the morning of September 11th, it took me quite a while to process the news since having airplanes fly into the Twin Towers (even before they fell) was completely outside of the realm of what my brain thought was possible at the time. Had I been in the towers, I almost certainly would have perished, all the while feeling certain that I had made the right choice by not evacuating.

And post-September 11th?

Fortunately it was several years before I found myself in a situation that tested whether my stubbornness would get the best of me. In 2011, I was sitting at my cubicle desk in Washington, DC when I felt a slight rumble that lasted a few seconds and then shifted to a stronger sway causing my computer CPU to wobble enough that I had to reach out and actually catch the box to keep it from falling over. My stomach jumped a bit and my mind started racing…Was this a terrorist attack? It is DC after all. Or maybe an earthquake? But DC doesn’t get earthquakes, it couldn’t be that. But the shaking happened for long enough, that an earthquake was maybe the most likely explanation, right?

This happened just minutes before I was supposed to be on a conference call, and my rational mind starting thinking it was safe to stay. In fact, two of my colleagues stayed behind to be able to join the call. And me? I didn’t let my rational mind override my instinct, and got out of there as quickly as I could. Yes, I was a super-conscientious worker. But as I learned from September 11th, life trumps diligence. At the time I was pretty confident that it had been an earthquake and not a terrorist attack. Even still, since DC is not an area typically prone to earthquakes, who knew if my office building had been constructed to withstand them?

Was everything all right in the end? Yes. Yes, it was an earthquake. Yes, the earthquake was weak enough that the building was safe to re-enter shortly after the evacuation. Yes, I was ultimately able to join that conference call. Even knowing the benign details now, and that I felt an amplified version of the earthquake since I was on a high floor at the time, am I glad I followed my instincts to evacuate? Yes. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.

The Milan Duomo (cathedral)
The Milan Duomo (cathedral)

And now?

Do I think it is my stubbornness that is keeping me from feeling unsafe in Milan, my current city? I can honestly say, no. For a few reasons:

  1. Italy takes terrorist threats seriously. Although it did not get much mention in the English-speaking press, two of the Brussels bombers transited through Italy and spurred a re-examination of security measures. Even before the recent attacks, with the high number of recent refugees, all of Europe has been on increased security alert and more vigilant about airport and border checks, and I’m sure will be even more so now.

    Strade Sicure standing guard in Milan
    Strade Sicure standing guard in Milan
  2. Milan takes terrorist threats seriously. I have personally noticed changes over the past months. There are more strade sicure (“safe streets”) armored vehicles driving throughout the city on a regular basis, when usually I only see them parked in front of vulnerable locations. Local police officers are monitoring Milan’s metro platforms and riding the trains.
  3. I take my safety seriously. I am a city girl with street smarts. Even though Milan is relatively safe, I am always cautious. I keep my purse zipper facing front and my arm securely over it at all times. If I see someone suspicious-looking or who gives me an uncomfortable feeling on public transit, I switch metro cars. I walk with purpose.

Above all, I do not let terror terrorize me. I believe that tourist destinations are typically safer after an attack. And the risks (and rewards) of living in a major European city are no different than almost three years ago when I moved here: pre-Paris, pre-Brussels, pre-Istanbul, pre-Nice.

Life goes on, and travel goes on as well.

How about you?

Are you an expat living in Europe? Do you think Europe in general is safe right now? How about your city?

And is anyone out there re-thinking a European vacation they’ve already booked? Or are you someone who wasn’t planning to come to Europe and is now considering a trip?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Berlin Cheat Sheet: What to Do & Where to Eat

Berlin Cheat Sheet: What to Do & Where to Eat

Impressions

Berlin is very different from other German cities I’ve visited, and at some moments does not feel like Germany at all. It has this young, industrial bustle, is teeming with hipsters, and embraces ethnic food and the latest trends. However, there are still moments when you feel like you could be in any European city and not Berlin specifically: walking along the tree-lined Kurfürstendamm for high-end shopping, or strolling the Alexanderplatz hunting for bargains with the masses at TK Maxx (yes, just like TJ Maxx).

Modern Berlin is a city of contradictions. It is both distinct and anonymous. I’ve heard it compared to Austin, Texas, which is a city in Texas that has such a different flavor than other Texas cities, and sometimes doesn’t feel like Texas. A pretty apt comparison, in fact.

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Berlin is both rule-following and rebellious. I was there when Germany beat Slovakia in the Round of 16 of the 2016 Euro Cup. The Germans went wild celebrating in their cars, driving up the main streets with German flags streaming out of the car windows and honking their horns for hours. But the cars also proceeded in a very orderly manner, taking great care not to block the second lane reserved for buses. And while the bus drivers who monitor tickets by hand and the U-bahn and S-bahn run like clockwork, I saw many Germans ignoring the rules – smoking on train platforms and drinking on board.

Oh, and the history. I thought I knew about Berlin during the Cold War, East and West Germany, the Berlin wall. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know until visiting Berlin. I think I was most surprised by everything I learned about the Berlin wall. I was not alive when it went up, although I remember watching the wall come down on TV. And I even visited the largest (unchanged) section of the Wall outside of Germany in the late 1990s when it was part of an outdoor display of the Newseum in DC. But somehow I managed to escape that time period without a coherent understanding of what the wall was and how it came into being.

The first “wall” was really just a wall of soldiers that appeared overnight in 1961. People went to bed one night with free passage to family and friends in the other sectors of Berlin, and woke up to a human barrier around East Berlin that was already in the process of being converted into a physical wall.

For me, understanding the suddenness of the shift helped to explain some of the desperation I read and heard about the various escape attempts from East to West Berlin: the twenty-something student who wanted to reunite with his parents, the 80-year old woman who wanted to join her daughter. Both perished in their attempts. Or the East German border guard who jumped the wall in the early days when it was just a bunch of barbed wire, captured in this iconic photograph. Although Conrad Schumann escaped to freedom, his defection haunted him throughout his life and he committed suicide nearly a decade after the fall of the Berlin wall.

Things to Do

As you can tell, the history of Berlin really captivated me. See below for my top picks for what to do during your visit (in order of preferene within each section):

Around Town

Walking Tour

There is so much to see and history to take in, so I found it hugely helpful to have a walking tour to orient me and explain the major sites on my first afternoon. I did a tour with Original Berlin Walks that I thought was fabulous (and did not require an advance reservation, which was a plus), although there are other highly-rated walking tours available.

TIP! The walking tours that have Western meeting points typically are listed 30-minutes sooner than the Easten meeting point because you spend the first half-hour traveling east together. Unless you’re nervous, about finding the spot for yourself, arrange your itinerary for the day to arrive at the eastern meeting point at the appointed time.

TIP! While there is a small discount for booking online in advance, there is an even bigger discount if you have the Berlin Welcome Card, and pay in person on the day.

 

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Holocaust memorial

This is an outdoor memorial, which I recommend experiencing first-hand, and there is also a museum on site that does a good job of conveying information in a way that makes you think, even if you’ve been to other Holocaust memorials or museums.

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Brandenburg gate

Icon of the city, and even more special to be able to visit it today since it was inaccessible while the Berlin Wall stood. You are likely to come across this during your visit, even if you do not actively seek it out.

Jüdisches Museum

Different from the museum at the Holocaust memorial, because it gives a window into Jewish life in Germany both before and after. Famous architect Daniel Libeskind designed some of the newer sections, and the temporary art exhibit upstairs was also very good when I visited.

Haus am Checkpoint Charlie

This was probably one of the least user-friendly museums I’ve ever visited, because the written materials are written in long-form in four languages and is very hard to follow and glean key details. Despite the super-long blurbs, it is very cool to see the memorabilia that has been accummulated in the private collection, especially of methods people used to escape from East Berlin, from the more well-known car compartments to the more obscure surfboards and hot air balloon.

Checkpoint Charlie

It is cool to see the place where this border crossing once stood, although the current checkpoint is a reproduction. Named “Charlie” because the checkpoints were named consecutively using the phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie). This third American checkpoint was the most visible while the Wall still stood.

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Neue Synagoge

Although this was once the main synagogue in Berlin, it has not been fully reconstructed. It is still stunning from the outside (it is modeled after the Alhambra in Granada, Spain), and has a history of the Berlin Jewish community, including fun tidbits like the “well-known violin concert” given there in 1930 by none other than Albert Einstein.

Off the Beaten Path

Berlin Wall Memorial/Gedenkstatte Beliner Mauer

While there isn’t much of the wall itself left at this site, there is a moving set of poles marking the location of what by the end of its time was a much more elaborate barricade between East and West Berlin. The “Wall” really ended up being two different walls with empty space in between called “the death strip,” and this memorial marks many of the successful and failed attempts for those in East Berlin to escape. This is an open-air exhibit which will take you several hours to walk through and absorb the thorough written, audio, and video descriptions of this section of the wall. Most surprising to me was seeing a photo from when Martin Luther King Jr. visited the Berlin wall in the mid-1960s, even giving a speech on both sides of the wall. There is also a whole exhibit inside the local S-bahn Nordbahnhof stop about what happened to the metro system when the wall was up.

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East Side Gallery

This is an open-air exhibit of a very long section of the Berlin Wall that has been thoughtfully decorated by artists from around the world. Worth a trip, and you can visit at any time of day.  Check out this Photo Gallery of some of the most interesting sections.

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Sachsenhausen

This concentration camp is accessible by train from the city center, although it takes a while to reach. There are tours available either from Berlin or on site, although I found the audio guide quite useful during my visit. An important part of German history that I found very moving to see first-hand.

Amazing views

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Reichstag Dome

This iconic building that houses the German Parliament has a glass dome with an inclined ramp that is free to visit for expansive views of Berlin, although it does require advance registration. If you are booking early enough, there is the possibility of registering on-line, and guided tour registration may also be available online if you visit when Parliament is not in session.

TIP! If, like me, you are planning last-minute, you can register in person for the same day or next day in-person from 8am. While there is a small line right at 8am, by 8:20am or so there was no wait (and it can be up to an hour wait or more in the afternoon). Be sure to bring your passport or European ID card to sign up, they let in 100 people per hour.

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Fernsehturm (the TV tower)

You can buy an early-bird ticket, or just go on the early side to beat lines (and you’ll still get discounted admission if you have the Berlin Welcome Card). There is an indoor viewing window where you can walk around at your leisure and appreciate a fairly high-altitude view of all corners of the city. Like with the Reichstag Dome in-person ticket purchase, after the first 20-30 minutes of opening, you can get in without waiting.

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Berliner Dom

The Berlin cathedral is lovely to visit and in addition to housing some exhibitions and a crypt, there is also the option (which I recommend!) of climbing several hundred stairs to get up to the walkway outside of the dome for 360-degree views of the city and some exhilirating fresh air.

Best Bites

I ate really well in Berlin. Like, really well. And I don’t say that lightly. While I sampled my fair share of ethnic food, my best bites (breakfast aside) were mostly the local specialties:

Best Breakfasts

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  • Chipps

Chipps serves a variety of large portion breakfasts meant for people with appetites (like me), although there is the usual selection of pastries and yogurts for those looking for a more minimal meal. There >is also a vegan option for the bacon and sausage that accompanies some of the dishes, plus nice coffee and fresh juice options.

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  • Father Carpenter Coffee Brewers

    I had a wonderful Australian-style breakfast here – a flat white coffee drink with perfectly-seasoned avocado toast, and I got the addition of a poached egg. The pastries looked great as well, and while very centrally located, Father Carpenter’s is in a quaint courtyard with outdoor seating as well as the space indoors.

Best Street Food

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  • Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap This is *the* place for kebap, a very popular street food in Berlin. I got the “usual” version here, which comes with chicken. The bread is toasted perfectly, and the proportion of ingredients was just perfect down to the spray of juice from a lemon wedge to finish. Each kebap is made to order with care, and you will wait accordingly (1 hour when I went, so go early before usual mealtimes if you can). And be sure to go to the original at Mehringdamm, as the two locals I met in line told me that the other outposts closer to the main tourist areas are not as good.

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  • Hühnerhaus 36

    Serving Berlin’s typical fried chicken, I had a perfectly crispy and flavorful 1/2 hen with the spicy garlic sauce, which also comes with a choice of salad/fries/rice/bulgur. There is the street stand and the sit-down place across the street from each other, and they are Halal. This place is off the beaten path, although not terribly far from the East Side Gallery.

Best German food

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  • Zur Letzten Instanz

    One of the 10 oldest restaurants in the world (it is rumored that Napoleon ate here once), they have been satisfying hungry customers since 1621! But don’t come only for the history, this place serves up typical German fare done well. I don’t eat pork so I ordered the one fish dish on the menu, which was just phenomenal and came with the best sauerkraut of my life. And it wasn’t very crowded for lunch on a Friday.

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  • Marjellchen

    Although reservations are recommended, I didn’t reserve, but was able to eat at the bar. This is another spot with great typical German dishes. To drink, this is a great spot to sample the local specialty: Berliner Weisse beer “mit schuss,” with rot (red – raspberry) or grün (green – woodruff) syrup.

Best overall meal

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  • Restaurant Bieberbau.  This was the only restaurant where I made a reservation, since it’s off the beaten path and I didn’t want to arrive and get turned away. They serve high-level cuisine with amazing flavors and textures, but with helpful and friendly service, and incredibly reasonable prices. And it is not pretentious at all – my kind of place. The aperitif special the night I was there was a sparkling riesling with rose syrup and the bread basket came with red wine butter and also curry apple butter, just to give you an idea of the flavor combinations and creativity you’ll experience dining here. And you can get a half glass of wine at exactly half price of a regular one, so I got to have a lot of great sips paired with the various courses. A truly satisfying dining experience.

(More) Practical Tips for Visiting

I’ve included a few practical tips above next to the relevant attraction. Here are a couple more general tips for Berlin:

Berlin Welcome Card

Berlin is huge! It basically developed as two different cities when the wall was up, and then was reunited as one, so there is huge sprawl. Even with unlimited public transit travel, I walked a huge amount each day. I can’t imagine *not* using public transit very heavily as a tourist.

I bought a 5-day Berlin Welcome Card, and found that it was only slightly more expensive than just getting an unlimited transit pass for the same amount of time. Plus, with the Berlin Welcome Card, I received discounts for: my walking tour, going to the top of the Fernsehturm (TV tower), the Jüdisches museum, the Neue Synagogue, and Haus am Checkpoint Charlie.

TIP! You can buy the Berlin Welcome Card ahead of time online.

TIP! If you don’t buy online, there are points of sale for the Berlin Welcome Card at both major airports. And if you buy at the airport, your initial public transit trip into the city will be included. Plus, the line was much shorter to get the Berlin Welcome Card than just a ticket for the bus.

TIP! Know in advance how many days you’d like the pass (2-6 days) and whether you want it for zones A-B for just the city or A-B-C, which includes the periphery like Potsdam.

Get a phone data plan

While I am often an advocate of sticking to WiFi connections and using phone GPS without data for navigating, I found phone data hugely helpful in Berlin. The city is huge, and if nothing else, active data is a helpful tool to navigate efficiently on public transit from one location to another.

Have you visited Berlin before? What was the highlight for you? And what was the most surprising part of its history did you learn during your visit? Tell me more in the Comments below.

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Berlin Germany Cheat Sheet - Tips, What to Do, & Where to Eat

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Top 10 ways to experience Italy like a local

Top 10 ways to experience Italy like a local

In Italy, there is one correct way to do everything. Yes, you may think you have a better way, the way things are done do not seem logical, or it’s not how things are done at home – none of that matters because you are talking about hundreds, if not thousands of years of history behind the ways of Italian life. You won’t change them during your short stay, but you can embrace them.

Locals are likely to take one look at you and know you’re a tourist. So if you want to disregard everything below, go ahead – it’s your vacation and it is all about enjoying yourself.

But if you’d like to experience a slice of living as the Italians do, here are my top 10 ways to experience Italy like a local:

1.  Consume a typical Italian breakfast of capuccino and a brioche, or something else sweet to start the day. A brioche is a sweet pastry that looks like a croissant, but tastes neither like a croissant or French brioche bread. It is a slightly different but equally delicious pastry, and can come plain (“empty”) or filled with marmalade, cream, chocolate, or other fruit/nut fillings.

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2.  Avoid cappucino past mid morning, or around 10/10:30am. The acceptable post-lunch and dinner coffees are either an espresso or a caffe macchiato (espresso with a touch of foamed milk on top).

3.  Have bottled water at each of your meals. Drinking tap water is just not done. Your decision is between acqua naturale (still) and acqua frizzante/gassata (sparkling).

4.  Eat on an Italian schedule on the late side, especially for dinner. Many restaurants do not open until at least 7:30pm for dinner, but you won’t see Italians at that hour. Wait until 8:30pm or later to be eating with the Italians, and tide yourself over in the meantime by enjoying an aperitivo somewhere.

5.  If you’re ready to leave a restaurant, request the check: il conto, per favore. They will almost never bring you the check unless you ask. It’s not considered bad service, just being polite.

6. Blow-dry your hair before venturing out. Italians do not leave the house with their hair wet. It is another one of those things that is just not done.

Lana flip flops

7.  Save your flip flops for the seaside. Everything has its place. Flip flops (or thongs, for the Aussies) are beach shoes, and only city shoes are worn in the city.

8.  Save your gym clothes for the gym, too, unless someone is in the act of running you almost never see anyone on the street in workout attire. Locals walk into the gym looking impeccable, work out, shower, blow-dry their hair, and exit also looking impeccable.*

Ita Cremona 20160417_140742

9. Stick to what food combinations are recommended. The one correct way to do something extends to food as well. Usually there is one or a small few acceptable pasta shape and sauce combinations, and a seasonal or daily menu is always a good bet. If you’re not sure what is recommended, ask.

Ita Milan market DSC_0651

10. Venturing to the market? Ask for advice at each stall to get the best product being offered (and don’t touch the produce yourself either). Market vendors are just as particular as other Italians. I’ve tried to buy a certain type of apple once and had it switched out for another when the person helping me found out I was using it to bake. Or buying porcini mushrooms, I had parsley thrown in the order automatically because obviously that is what I would need to cook the mushrooms with the proper flavors.

Remember that when locals try to steer you in a different direction, they have your best interests at heart and want you to get maximum enjoyment – it’s up to you to listen!

 

*this is the only item on this list I don’t follow regularly, but I sure look out of place on my brief walk to and from the gym

How To Experience Italy Like a Local

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What is aperitivo (and why are you not enjoying one)?

What is aperitivo (and why are you not enjoying one)?

If you visit pretty much anywhere in Italy these days, you’ll see locals enjoying an aperitivo, or aper, in the early evening starting around 6pm and lasting until 9 or 10pm. While the exact origins of the aperitivo tradition are disputed, aperitivo is considered to have taken off in Milan in the 1920s and Milan is still considered to be the “capital” of aper. Nowadays it is more typical to find aperitivo in the north of Italy, although I’ve had quite a few in Tuscany as well.

While the word aperitivo – or aperitif in French – means a beverage to have before your meal, in recent years it has evolved to bars/restaurants trying to one-up one another with the assortment of free food, sometimes even a full buffet that is included in the (slightly-higher-than-usual) cost of your drink. Don’t worry, in Italy a “pricey” drink runs about 10 Euros. And some, but not all places will offer a discount for your second drink, the seconda consumazione.

So what does one drink for aperitivo?

Probably the most visually identifiable aperitivo beverage is the spritz, made with prosecco, soda and either Aperol (bright orange) or Campari (red). Both Aperol and Campari, now owned by the same company, are forms of bitters. The idea is that the bitterness of the drink will act as an opener for your stomach, stimulating hunger to get you ready to eat dinner. And aperitivo drinks, like the spritz, typically have low alcohol content.

Ita Firenze April 2014image (11)

The negroni is another typical, bitter aperitivo drink made with Campari. The traditional negroni is made with gin, vermouth, and Campari, and is not for the faint of heart! I’ve ordered this a few times, and it usually takes until I’m most of the way through the drink until I can savor the bittnerness and not just have my lips pucker with each sip.

And there is of course the negroni sbagliato (a “wrong” or “mistaken” negroni), that was born of an accidental pouring of prosecco instead of gin at Bar Basso in Milan in 1968.

As for me, I tend to stick with either prosecco, a glass of wine, or the Aperol spritz. For me, the Aperol spritz was an acquired taste, but now I love them – it strikes just the right balance between bitter and aromatic.

 

And what kind of food might be included as part of aperitivo?

In general, beverages are not served without some kind of snack. At the most basic level, when you order a drink at any time of day, it usually arrives with some combination of olives, nuts, and potato chips.

Ita Naples lungomare 20151025_185631

 

For an advertised aperitivo, there is usually a small plate or tray of small bites delivered to the table or a full buffet of food where you can help yourself. Especially for those places offering a food buffet, aperitivo has evolved into an apericena, a blending with cena, the word for dinner.

Ita Milan aper 20160727_201029 Ita Milan aper 20160727_201043

Apericena describes a buffet that is intended to be a substitute for dinner because there is enough food to call it a meal. This is a quite popular way for students or others struggling to make ends meet in Milan of having a satisfying meal without spending much money.

TIP! Since snack plates or buffet spreads can vary widely, it is always a good idea to take a walk inside to look at the food being offered before committing to stay for an aperitivo, especially if you’re planning on it being your dinner.

What if you don’t live in Italy, and won’t be visiting any time soon?

Don’t worry, an aperitivo can be just as refreshing (and appetite-stimulating) at home. Even though I live in the ‘aperitivo capital’ of Milan, lately I’m much more likely to have at least an aperitivo beverage in the comfort of my apartment. I keep a bottle of prosecco and some Aperol handy, and you can do the same for the ingredients in your aperitivo beverage of choice, so supplies are always on hand to mark the end of the work day and lead into dinner with an aperitivo drink.

And if you live in the US or will be going there soon, the spritz (and its many possible variations) is starting to become trendy and more available. The New York Times gives a good overview of how the spritz is evolving and where you can sample some of the variations stateside.

What are your thoughts on the spritz and negroni? Or do you have another preferred aperitivo drink? And has anyone sampled (or made their own!) spritz variations?

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