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Month: March 2017

What It’s Like to Go Up Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, World’s Tallest Building

What It’s Like to Go Up Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, World’s Tallest Building

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Dubai.

I knew Dubai was highly commercialized, a city that was constantly focused on building the latest modern skyscraper and where foreigners outnumber locals by a margin of around 10 to 1. I had transited through before, but never left the airport. But this trip, with my Emirates airline status on the verge of expiring, I figured it was worth it to finally spend a few days in the city. If nothing else, I could take in the spectacle. Plus, my sister who joined me for the week-long road trip in Oman was interested in visiting as well.

What I didn’t expect? Getting caught up in the sense of wonder, feeling like a child in awe of seeing something incredible for the first time.

In a way, it felt as if I had never seen a city or tall buildings before, because Dubai was a city like none I’d ever seen. Even visiting the Empire State Building and World Trade Center as a young kid, I had a sense ahead of time of what to expect. So while I was impressed by the sheer stature of those New York landmarks of my childhood, they looked like buildings I had seen before, just taller versions.

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s current tallest building, is different. Instead of a square or rectangular base, each floor is shaped like the letter Y with curved edges. The outer silhouette has sections of tower reaching staggered heights, producing an aesthetically pleasing effect. It sparkles with a silver sheen during the day, and projects colored lights at night. It is quite simply, a work of art.

The Burj Khalifa is also impressively high. It dwarfs the next tallest buildings and radio towers in the world by a healthy margin. Its height noticeably exceeds Dubai’s surrounding cityscape. In fact, the Burj Khalifa is so high that people on the uppermost floors must wait several additional minutes to break the Ramadan fast compared to the rest of Dubai, because they have a few extra minutes of sunlight each day!!

Fortunately as a modern skyscraper, in addition to its commercial and residential spaces, the Burj Khalifa also offers spaces for your average tourist: The Observation Decks.

Despite the hefty price tag, I had a wonderful experience lingering and taking in the views from the Observation Decks. So much so, that my sister had to practically tear me away when she started getting hungry for dinner and I was still standing outside, happily mesmerized by the lights of the city.

View Level 148 Burj Khalifa Dubai UAE DSC_0881

Do I recommend that you visit the Burj Khalifa while you’re in Dubai? Absolutely. But there are definitely things that are helpful to know in advance, including what to expect during your time on the observation decks. Read on for all the details…

Buying Tickets

First, visiting the Burj Khalifa will be busier at certain times that you should avoid, if possible. In the Middle East, the weekend falls on Friday and Saturday, so plan your visit for another day of the week if you can. And of course Dubai as a whole will have more visitors during typical holiday times like around Christmas and New Year’s.

If you have limited time in Dubai and have only a small window to visit the Burj Khalifa, you’ll probably want to purchase your tickets in advance online here for your desired time slot. Internet purchase of tickets is also a good option during the busiest tourist periods to avoid extra queuing.

If you’re uncertain about your schedule while in Dubai (and it’s not the winter school break), purchasing tickets in person is a feasible option as well. My sister and I bought our tickets in person, about an hour before our scheduled time. When you arrive, there is one line for those who already have tickets and are waiting to enter and a different line to purchase tickets, so be sure you’ve joined the correct one.

As for admission, this is where it gets a bit complicated. There are two main types of tickets, ones for “At the Top SKY” and others for “At the Top.” The basic “At the Top” tickets grant you access to the Level 125 Observation Deck and the exhibits on Level 124. The “At the Top SKY” ticket also offers access to the Observation Deck on Level 148, followed by the same levels as the basic one.

There is also a big price difference for prime hours, when tickets within each tier are more expensive. For Level 125, prime hours are only between 15:30-18:00, with entry times both before and after being considered non-prime. For the top Observation Deck on Level 148, prime hours all day until 18:00, with non-prime prices only kicking in after 6pm.

So, what did we do? My sister and I figured that this would be our one and only visit to the Burj Khalifa, so opted for “At the Top SKY” with access to Level 148. Although we did wait until after 6pm so we could get the discounted non-prime prices.

And yes, the view is *different* up there! Level 148’s observation deck is about 100 meters (over 300 feet) higher than the one on Level 125, so offers a bit of a different perspective on the city. It’s also far less crowded due to the higher ticket price, so it was much more pleasant to stroll around outside and far easier to get pictures of the view.

Entering the Burj Khalifa

The entrance to the Burj Khalifa is found inside the Dubai Mall, which is easily accessible on the Dubai metro system. Although be warned, the walk from the metro station to the mall is long, and then it’s a bit more walking to arrive at the Burj Khalifa entrance, so leave plenty of extra time to arrive. Taking into account, of course, that you’re meant to be there a bit before your scheduled time.

The line for entering can be easily confused with the separate line for buying tickets, so be sure you’ve joined the correct queue. And then you’re let past the entranceway and the full Burj Khalifa experience begins!

Welcome Burj Khalifa Dubai UAE DSC_0848

There are a few displays about the construction of the Burj Khalifa, and then you are ushered into a staging room where they distract you briefly with coffee and dates.

Coffee and dates are an essential part of Middle Eastern hospitality. Sip and enjoy if you’d like, although honestly these were not the best versions of either item during my travels in the Middle East. Plus, if you’re doing the SKY experience that takes you to Level 148 like we did, I’d say it’s worth waiting for the refreshments at the top.

The best part of the lead-up to the Observation Deck for me was the elevator. When was the last time you were in an elevator where the floors went above 150?!? Although Level 148 was our destination, our elevator had floors listed up to 154.

Elevator Burj Khalifa Dubai UAE DSC_0850 compressedElevator Burj Khalifa Dubai UAE DSC_0851 compressed

Level 148: “At the Top SKY”

Arriving at the SKY level on floor 148 is like entering your own private gala. Well-attired servers are circulating, and within moments of arriving they’ll offer you selections from a tray of snacks and a tasty (non-alcoholic, of course) beverage. My choices? A vanilla mini-macaroon and a date stuffed with marzipan. Very delicious, and I felt oh-so-chic.

Food at SKY Burj Khalifa Dubai UAE 20161211_182655

If you’re like me, after the food serves as a brief distraction, you’ll be drawn to the floor-to-ceiling windows to check out the view. Your initial disappointment that the windows are not particularly clean and in the way of the view will fall by the wayside as you realize that the outdoor observation decks are where it’s at! The glass is quite clear there and you’ll have fabulous vistas over Dubai in all directions as you stroll the length of the outdoor areas.

View Level 148 Burj Khalifa Dubai UAE DSC_0881

I think the total visit for us lasted around 2 hours, and a good hour-and-a-half of that time was spent on the outdoor observation area on Level 148. It’s captivating, and I couldn’t get enough!

TIP! It is chilly at the top. Even if it’s sweltering at ground level, you’re so high up it can get cold (especially at night) and it can also be windy since you’re several hundred meters in the air. Bring layers of clothing, so you’re not tempted to cut your enjoyment of the outdoor areas short.

SKY Burj Khalifa Dubai UAE DSC_0895

In addition to the stunning views (and lots of people striking a pose, us included), we also had the good fortune to be on this outdoor area when the light show began after dark. It’s fascinating in a completely different way to be up close and personal as the lights move and change color along the building itself.

Light Show Burj Khalifa Dubai UAE DSC_0941

Level 125: “At the Top”

The next part of the visit (whenever you manage to tear yourself away) takes you down to Level 125, which will be your initial destination if you opt for the more basic ticket. The outdoor space is larger than on 148, but it is also much more crowded. And as I mentioned, even though you might not expect it, being so many floors down offers a different perspective and view of the city.

View Level 125 Burj Khalifa Dubai UAE DSC_0987

The bulk of the exhibits are between Levels 125 with the outdoor area and Level 124, which is accessible with both ticket options. Just when we expected to be at the end of things to see, there was one more turn, one more area to explore, before heading back down to ground level.

Goodbye Burj Khalifa Dubai UAE DSC_0005

Yes, this queen of getting ‘hangry’ delayed dinner to be able to have one last glimpse – or let’s be real, several – of the captivating view from the observation deck (apologies to my poor sister!). Ascending the Burj Khalifa was a carefully curated visit that I found worth it for the unparalleled views of Dubai, resulting in an incredible overall experience that goes far beyond crossing an item off my bucket list.

READ MORE: Top 10 Things to See and Do at the Dubai Mall (that aren’t shopping!)

Have you been to Dubai? Were you as wowed as I was? What other tips do you have for someone visiting the Burj Khalifa for the first time?

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Dubai Bucket List - Tips and What You Need to Know about Visiting the Burj Khalifa

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10 Amazing Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Stockholm

10 Amazing Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Stockholm

I consider myself an avid and fairly knowledgeable traveler, yet on my first trip to Stockholm last year for a blogging conference, I realized how woefully inadequate my knowledge of Stockholm and Sweden really was. Other than devouring The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo book series that is set there, what did I really know about the city?

Scandinavia for me, even when I was living in Europe, was always put off as a travel destination because there were cities I could get to for cheaper for a weekend escape. Unless I was going skiing or to see the northern lights, winter was probably not the right season for a trip, and the timing never seemed to be right during summer. Although after having visited Stockholm in July, I now think that Stockholm would be even better to visit outside of summer, maybe during the spring or fall.

Perhaps because I had so few expectations, was Stockholm able to surprise me with so many quirks and unexpected twists of history that crossed the city’s path. From sights and foods that I had no clue about, to observations about the city and Swedes in general, I left with a whole new appreciation for Stockholm. Compiling this list is making me yearn for a return visit, and will make you want to visit as soon as you can!

Some things that surprised me…

#1 | Stockholm is a City on Water

City on Water Stockholm Sweden DSC_0798City on Water Stockholm Sweden DSC_0003

When I say this, I don’t mean that Stockholm has a river running down the middle. The whole city is made of up islands! It’s not the only city with this moniker, but many refer to Stockholm as the ‘Venice of the North.’ Stockholm is made up of a bunch of 14 islands and 57 bridges, all of which compose part of Sweden’s largest archipelago. I loved crossing the bridges on foot to move between the sights on the different islands, and there are some stunning views across the water, as you can see. I really was clueless on this one before my visit, so don’t feel bad if you were, too! I always pictured Scandinavian cities as having quaint buildings in close proximity, but I was totally unprepared to visit a city I thought of as being squarely on land that instead had waterways seemingly everywhere you looked.

#2 | What’s the currency?

Cash Stockholm Sweden DSC_0896Cash Stockholm Sweden DSC_0838

I’m used to handling currency with the faces of serious historical figures or past presidents, prime ministers, and royalty. Sweden? They put Swedish figures of all flavors on their money, from movie stars to authors, including multiple women! Pictured above is the 20 kronor note is Astrid Lindgren, author of Pippi Longstocking (who you can also see pictured on the bill if you look closely). Other current banknotes in circulation depict Greta Garbo and Ingmar Bergman. But as cool as the cash is (to me as a foreigner, anyway), there is a strong move toward using cards and not cash. Credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere, for any size transaction, and some places won’t even take cash! Check out that sign above from Fotografiska, a Stockholm photography museum that won’t accept cash for its admission.

#3 | The World’s Longest Art Exhibit

Image: stephmcg via Wikimedia Commons
Image: stephmcg via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve seen art in metro stations before, but the sheer scope of the art in Stockholm’s 110 kilometers of subway stops has led to it being called the ‘World’s Longest Art Exhibit.’ Originally conceived as a way to bring art to the people, over 90 of Stockholm’s 100 subway stations have artists’ works, each specifically designed for the station and covering many different themes and types of art. This gallery with photographs of different station art gives a sense of how colorful and varied the artists’ approaches have been over the years, and in some cases, how the final artwork is an all-encompassing experience for those passing through the station.

#4 | Stockholm Resurrected a Ship After Over 300 Years at the Bottom of the Sea

Vasa Museum Stockholm Sweden DSC_0163Vasa Museum Stockholm Sweden DSC_0454

The most famous shipwreck I had never heard of before? The 1628 sinking of the Vasa warship just over a kilometer after it departed on its maiden voyage. You might wonder if it was under attack or perhaps had struck something and then sunk? Nope. Covered in cannons, the boat was a bit top-heavy, and tragically tipped over and sunk after some wind gusts caused water to gush in and the ship couldn’t right itself. Many onlookers had crowded Stockholm’s shores to see the ship off, so the tragedy was witnessed by many, with 30 of the crew perishing in the accident. After several failed attempts at the time to recover the ship, it lay nearly forgotten until centuries later.

The 1st cool thing – Sweden raised the ship after 333 years! This was no small feat, as they raised the entire ship, not just bringing up the sections piecemeal. The 2nd cool thing – how they preserved the ship once it was recovered. Apparently you can’t just take a ship out of water after several hundred years and expect it to be like new. For 17 straight years, the ship was continuously hosed with a special solution to keep it preserved and prevent cracking as it dried. The combination of the brackish water (not quite as salty as an ocean) and cold temperatures meant that when the ship was raised, its contents were incredibly well-preserved. Apparently the waters surrounding Stockholm were also quite polluted during that time, keeping away many of the critters that would have otherwise consumed the wood. And today you get to visit the continued preservation home of the Vasa ship, where you can see the intricate wood ornamentation up close at Stockholm’s Vasa Museum, constructed around the ship.

#5 | Behold, the Cardamom Bun

Kardemummabullar Cardamom Buns Stockholm Sweden 20160713_103433Kardemummabullar Cardamom Buns Stockholm Sweden 20160717_125815

Sure, you’ve heard of a cinnamon bun, and maybe even knew from visiting your local IKEA store that cinnamon buns are a Swedish thing. What you probably didn’t realize is that when you are in Stockholm the more common (and in my opinion, more delicious) sweet bun is actually the cardamom bun. If you’re not familiar, cardamom is an aromatic spice that shows up in chai tea and that I’ve only ever used before for cooking Indian recipes like curry. So what on earth is it doing as the main spice to accompany the sweets enjoyed during fika, the Swedish coffee break?

Legend has it that cardamom was introduced to Scandinavia by the Vikings quite some time ago, and now cardamom is all the rage in breads and other pastries there. I had at least 1 cardamom bun a day while I was in Stockholm, and they are just the right mixture of savory and sweet for me. After all of my reckless consumption research, check out my post on the Best Bites in Stockholm for where I enjoyed my favorite version.

#6 | Swedes take Design Very Seriously

Swedish Design IKEA Stockholm Sweden DSC_0625Swedish Design Stockholm Sweden DSC_0027

For many, IKEA is synonymous with Swedish design and with good reason. The company’s streamlined approach has made millions of people all across the world familiar with assembling an IKEA bookshelf or table. It’s not just the result of a designer making a pretty drawing, though. As you can see above, the steps of a homemaker were traced and recorded, leading to the design of an IKEA kitchen that would be as efficient as possible. There is also a sense of design even in the public spaces around Stockholm. From outside gathering areas to the quotes you can see above that were interwoven into street pavement, it is all about the little touches and detail that enhance your everyday experience.

#7 | Sweden was Neutral During World War II, But Played an Important Role

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Since Sweden was officially neutral during the Second World War, I don’t think I had given much thought to any role it might have had. However, there are many reminders around the city of Stockholm of ways that Sweden played a part. During the war, Sweden gave asylum to nearly 1,000 Norwegian Jews and accepted (and saved) nearly the entire Danish Jewish population after Denmark became occupied by the Nazis. And commemorated in the Stockholm memorial pictured above is Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat stationed in Budapest during the war who issued protective passports to tens of thousands of Jews there. He was supposedly captured by the Soviets before the end of the war, and never resurfaced, with a formal declaration of death only just being issued in late 2016.

#8 | Nobel’s Legacy in Stockholm

Alfred Nobel Stockholm Sweden 20160715_164313

I follow the hoopla surrounding the Nobel prize winners each year, but I don’t think it clicked that with the exception of the Nobel Peace Prize (which is given in Oslo, Norway) all of the other prizes are awarded in Stockholm. The annual banquet is held at Stockholm City Hall, and you can visit the Hall there that serves as the current venue for the illustrious meal. Stockholm also boasts a Nobel Museum that I visited, with many significant objects on display that past prize winners donated and information about their contributions. Honestly, the museum was quite outdated, but I geeked out anyway. And for any future visits, a major modernization effort for the museum is currently in the works.

#9 | Gourmet Hot Dogs Everywhere You Turn

Korv Stockholm Sweden DSC_0143Korv Stockholm Sweden 20160716_153901

I was ready for the Swedish food – cinnamon buns, meatballs, cured salmon, lingonberry jam, but . . . hot dogs?!? And we’re not just talking one or two different varieties, here. Many vendors I saw had dozens of different varieties of Swedish hot dog or korv, each with its own unique blend of spices combined with different types of meat. Korv definitely made my list of ‘Unexpected Foods to Seek Out in European Cities’ and with the perfect spicy, meat blend on a toasted baguette and the right mix of condiments, this also ended up being one of the best things I ate during my visit. Head to my post on Stockholm’s Best Bites for where I enjoyed the best hot dog of the trip.

#10 | A Whole Museum Dedicated to ABBA

ABBA Museum Stockholm Sweden DSC_0172ABBA Museum Stockholm Sweden 20160715_205846

ABBA, the 70s pop group that took the world by storm with chart toppers like “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen,” formed in Stockholm. So I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that there is an entire museum dedicated to not only their music, but the outrageous outfits and good time that they inspired. Entering immediately transports you to the 70s, with bell bottoms and bright colored lights everywhere you look. It’s hugely interactive, from karaoke opportunities to starring in your own music video where you get to dance along to the ABBA hits. And if you’re like me, the catchy tunes will be swirling around in your head for days afterward.

 

It’s not often that a city surprises me as much as Stockholm did. Some of the things I discovered might have come up in more thorough research before my trip, but other items on my list I feel like I only would have learned by visiting and exploring in person. The beauty of travel =)

What was the last travel destination that caught *you* by surprise? Anything else that surprised you about Stockholm that didn’t make my list? Share in the ‘Comments’ below.

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10 Amazing Things You Probably Didn't Know about Stockholm that Will Make You Want to Visit NOW

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Bath: A Great Weekend Trip from London

Bath: A Great Weekend Trip from London

The town of Bath, an easy train ride from London, lived up to and far exceeded my mental picture of what it would be like to spend a few days in a quaint British town. Trying to coordinate visiting two different friends in London this past fall (and seeing an NFL game in London in the process!) I ended up with two packed weekends and no plans in between. Which didn’t seem like the worst outcome to me, especially since the value of the pound had fallen quite a bit by then following the Brexit vote. So it just became a matter of how I would spend the days in between.

I’ve been to London a number of times, but have never really ventured much outside of the city (other than visiting Stonehenge back in 2007). After polling a bunch of British friends, the most frequent suggestion I received was to go to the town of Bath. The site of the only natural hot springs in the United Kingdom, if the town was good enough to be beloved by the Roman Empire, surely I could find a few things to do over a couple of days in town. Plus, although I didn’t realize this before making my plans, the entire town of Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In the end, Bath really wowed me, and I felt like I had a variety of interesting things to do, time to relax, and ate some really great food along the way. Bath is also a popular family destination, and my time there was quite crowded as it coincided with a school holiday week (who knew that ‘half-term’ was a cause for vacation?). So if I fell in love with the town on a busy week, just imagine how much you’ll love it when you go.

Things to Do

Around Town

Bath Abbey

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Located in the town’s central pedestrian area, the Abbey is not to be missed. The interior is filled with high arches and colors streaming in through the stained glass windows, but even more intriguing is the Tower Tour that will take you to the hidden stairwells, the bell ringing chamber, and onto the roof for excellent views in all directions.

Bath Abbey Tower Tour Bath UK DSC_0613

Jane Austen House

Although I did not visit, I’m including the Jane Austen House on my list because it is one of Bath’s most popular attractions. Jane Austen lived in Bath for five years, and while she supposedly did not like it, she did end up setting two of her novels in Bath – Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. The house has period furnishings and tells of Jane’s time in Bath.

The Roman Baths

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Once the Romans discovered the natural thermal springs of Bath, they did the only logical thing – they built a spa! Not to be confused with the modern spa (see below), this is the incredibly well-preserved historical site. It’s a huge complex that will take a couple of hours to fully explore, as you progress through the temple and various treatment rooms of ancient times. The audioguide is excellent, and offers different perspectives, including some commentary by one of the funniest authors I’ve ever read, Bill Bryson. Be sure to take a (small) taste of the thermal spring water at the end before you leave.

Thermae Bath Spa

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With pools fed by the natural hot springs, this is a world-class spa to have a relaxing several hours during your stay in Bath. There are steam rooms with different calming aromas, pools of different temperatures and with jets to soothe sore muscles, and a hot pool on the roof with an expansive view of town. In addition to the several hours of lounging in the different pools that was included in my package, I also had an excellent massage here.

TIP! If you will be in Bath on a weekend or during school holidays, book ahead of time to ensure that you can get in to the spa.

TIP! As long as no masseuses call in sick, additional slots may open up in the morning for the same day. Call the reservation line first thing in the morning if you haven’t been able to reserve in advance.

TIP! There are a lot of good package deals including massages, especially mid-week. If you’re not sure which one to choose, I’d definitely recommend either talking through the options and their relative prices with someone over the phone or in person at the spa before you reserve.

Off the Beaten Path

The Holburne Museum

Holburne Museum Bath UK 20161024_161011Holburne Museum Bath UK 20161024_164157

This is one of my favorite museums of all time! I’m not always a museum person, but I’m so glad I strolled a bit out of the center to arrive here. The main collection is free, and has so much character and a wealth of interesting items that Sir William Holburne collected during his lifetime. I didn’t have nearly enough time, so I’d recommend coming early enough in the day that you have the time to be leisurely.

TIP! Open all of the drawers in the main collection, as some of the most interesting tidbits and interactive displays were inside.

Prior Park Landscape Garden

I didn’t make it to this National Trust site as it’s a bit outside of the city and I ran out of time, but it looks absolutely beautiful from the pictures I’ve seen, especially of the Palladian Bridge located there. I’d say it’s worth the time going from town on public transit, which looks pretty straightforward, and certainly is a place to pop into if you have a car.

Royal Crescent

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The Royal Crescent is a quite lengthy curved section of connected houses, which is distinctive-looking both for its curvature and sheer size. The math geek in me can’t help but point out that it is semi-elliptical, not semi-circular. The entire Royal Crescent was built in the late 1700s, and the house that stands at No. 1 Royal Crescent is actually a museum you can visit, with period furnishings.

Royal Victoria Park

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If you’ve spent a bit of time exploring in town, this park that is a relatively easy walk from the center and is a great spot to get a dose of greenery and stroll in nature. I spent a bit of time wandering one of my mornings, and it was a great way to have a relaxing start to my day. It is also notable for being the first park named after the 11-year old (not-yet-Queen) Victoria.

Best Bites

Boston Tea Party

Boston Tea Party Bath UK 20161025_091042Boston Tea Party Bath UK 20161025_091906

A cute, centrally-located cafe where I enjoyed breakfast one of my mornings, there is an array of coffee, tea, pastries, and breakfast dishes to choose from. I enjoyed their sweetcorn hash, with haloumi, poached eggs, and avocado. A great savory way to energize for a busy day of sightseeing.

The Bridge Coffee Shop

The Bridge Coffee Shop Bath UK 20161024_171744

On the way from town to the Holburne Museum (see above), this coffee shop serves up great hot beverages, although the big draw is the lovely view of the river. Even if the tables on the river side of the shop are taken when you arrive, keep an eye out for departing guests so you can relocate to take in the scenery as you sip.

Chaiwalla Indian Street Food

Chaiwalla Indian Street Food Bath UK 20161025_125651

Right in the heart of town, the vegetarian Indian food served here at super-reasonable prices will satisfy your hunger. The friendly owner/chef can help you decide between the excellent options, or just keep an eye on the dishes prepared to order ahead of you for a sense of which flavorful and delicious option you’d like to order. Conveniently, there are several benches across the street to enjoy your takeaway meal.

Olé Tapas

Ole Tapas Bath UK 20161025_202518

Oh my goodness, you must come here for dinner! Recommended to me by a friend who lives in London, it’s a really great Spanish tapas spot that was quite crowded when I went. Fortunately as a solo traveler I didn’t have to wait long before being able to snag a seat at the bar, but if you’re in a party larger than one, you probably want to reserve a table in advance as the space is small. The tapas are excellent, the staff is friendly, and anything you order off their special gin cocktail menu (ask for it if needed) will be crafted with incredible care and wow you with its unique flavor combinations.

Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House & Museum

Sally Lunn's Bun Bath UK DSC_0495Sally Lunn's Bun Bath UK 20161026_082355

Located in one of the oldest houses in Bath, you’re likely to encounter a line out the door to dine in for one of Bath’s specialty buns. Fortunately, if you’re not interested in dining in, you can bypass the line to visit the display area downstairs with some history of the house and the bun, as well as purchase a freshly-baked Sally Lunn bun. The bun has a crust around the outside, is like an airy brioche inside, and comes in one size only that is as big as your head!

The Scallop Shell

The Scallop Shell Bath UK 20161024_140729

Come here for the same reason as everybody else – their award-winning fish & chips. The fish is quite fresh, and unlike some other spots, you get a choice of the type of fish to be fried up with your chips. You can also get your dishes to take away, which can be an appealing option when the restaurant is busy and the line is long.

(More) Practical Tips for Visiting

Bath was a great place to spend a few days, and certainly one of the things that stands out for me was how easy transportation was both to get to Bath and once you arrived. And the town is definitely set up for visitors, with user-friendly pedestrian maps posted in several spots around town. There are plenty of coffee shops around as well, with proper espresso-based drinks as well as the tea options you’d expect in England.

TIP! The buses within Bath are cheap and easy to use, so if you’re traveling a long distance or are simply tired of walking, take advantage. My guesthouse was a bit far from the train station, so I also took a bus when I was arriving and departing with my luggage.

TIP! Bath is a popular family destination, so it will be significantly more crowded during school holidays. Check for the dates of local holidays so you can book accordingly.

TIP! Although the timing wasn’t right during my visit, there are quite a few live theatre performances that take place in Bath. You can peruse the options here. There are also lots of restaurants with pre-theatre meal specials.

Have you been to Bath? What were the highlights for you? Or do you have a different favorite trip for a few days outside of London? Share in the ‘Comments’ below!

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How to Spend Two Days - 48 Hours - in Bath UK

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Top 12 Things to Do in Oman

Top 12 Things to Do in Oman

A friend first sang Oman’s praises around two years ago, talking about this country as being unspoiled Middle East. Then last April my sister had a similarly wonderful experience. After my December road trip there with my other sister, I too came back raving about this lesser-visited corner of the Middle East. So much so that Oman made my list of Top 10 Destinations for 2017, and I keep recommending it when people ask for somewhere ‘off the beaten path’ to go. But just because you won’t find Oman inundated with tourists doesn’t mean that it’s any less stunning than other nearby destinations. It’s less commercialized than other countries in the region, making it a more authentic-feeling experience. And the Omani hospitality is incredible everywhere, so you can’t help but to feel welcome when you visit.

The highlights of my week-long visit vary from natural attractions to modern buildings to UNESCO World Heritage sites dating back millenia, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that each was a special experience during my time in Oman:

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Muscat Oman 20161205_091718Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Muscat Oman DSC_0739Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Muscat Oman DSC_0709

This mosque in Oman’s capital city of Muscat is part of a huge and breathtakingly beautiful complex of prayer rooms, pathways, and gardens. The main prayer room is notable for having the second-largest chandelier and carpet in the world, and this is certainly where you’ll find the largest concentration of tourists. But the complex is vast enough that you can be alone for a lot of your wandering, just taking in the small details of every architectural feature and decorative element. And despite being only about 20 years old, the mosque transmits a strong sense of history as you explore. It’s also stunning when lit up at night.

Al Alam Royal Palace

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I knew in advance that there would be no possibility of visiting the inside of the Sultan’s palace in Muscat, so I expected that it would be a quick stop to snap a few photos and then continue on. But like many things in Oman, there is more beauty to take in than you ever could have expected. You’ll know you’re looking at a picture of the Sultan’s Palace by its distinctive bright colors, but of course it is not just a single building but a huge area with many buildings and broad pedestrian walkways leading up to the palace. Close to the water, there are also several former Portuguese forts that are visible on the nearby hills.

Walk to Sawadi Island

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Yes, you read that correctly, we walked to an island! About an hour’s drive north of Muscat along the Omani coast are a series of islands, and during low tide you can make your way across on foot from Al Sawadi beach. This was one of my Travel Superlatives for 2016, as one of the most adventurous things I did all year. My sister and I crossed about two hours before low-tide, and the water level reached just above the knees for both of us, and then returned on foot in shallower water close to low tide and sunset. Fortunately we both had our water-ready sport sandals on, and so when we arrived on the island, we were able to hike to the top of the island’s hill where there is a fort complex to explore. And the best part? It was a weekday and we had the island all to ourselves.

Forts and Castles

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It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the forts and castles (and some structures were used as both at different points in time), but there are hundreds across Oman and you’ll definitely see quite a few during your visit. I certainly didn’t know to expect one walking to Sawadi island, and they turned up unexpectedly many times during the trip. Although I did visit the Bahla Fort, one of the UNESCO-designated ones, there was poor signage in most places, which took away from the visit. The Nizwa Fort is also notable, with a distinctive cylindrical tower and close to a centrally located town where we spent a couple of nights. Certainly my favorite one to visit was the Jabreen (Jibreen) Castle, which has extensive signage and explanations of the different areas, and also has a lot of original decorative elements still visible.

Jabal Shams & the Grand Canyon of Oman

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This mountainous area northwest of Nizwa known as the Jabal Shams contains many peaks as well as deep valleys and canyons, the area known as the Grand Canyon of Oman. Accessible only by a 4×4 vehicle, you’ll either need to have rented one or hire your own tour guide. There is some information you can get at your accommodations in terms of hiking routes, although if you are not especially comfortable on your own you’ll want to hire a guide. Definitely spend a day here, wandering the hiking trails, taking in the views, and seeing some of the water-blessed areas sprinkled throughout.

Aflaj, Oman’s Ancient Irrigation Channels

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Aflaj is the plural of falaj, the local name for a single ancient irrigation channel. The aflaj system throughout Oman and dating back around 2,000 years is so remarkable that it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I too was wowed by its ingenuity. These clever channels are no longer used as a water source for drinking, but still to this day capture and funnel water for different farming purposes and even to fill pools for swimming. Typically there are stones that are fit to the gaps between different channels, allowing for control of the water flow depending on the needs of the moment. The simplicity and elegance of this ancient system for me rivaled the aqueducts of the Roman Empire, and I loved being able to see them in different parts of the country. The most intricate falaj I saw was at Misfat al Abriyyin, although they are also visible at Falaj Daris Park by Nizwa, and in several wadis, inlcuding Wadi Bani Khalid (see more below).

Stay Overnight in the Desert

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Oman, like other countries in the Middle East, is comprised of quite a few desert areas that still have nomadic peoples wandering through. There are also a number of options for staying overnight in the desert, from desert camps where you’ll stay in a tent to regular hotel rooms that are simply far away from the rest of civilization. I love staying in tents whenever I can, for the peace of the desert at night and for visibility of the stars on a clear night.

Wadi Bani Khalid

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This is the destination for a popular weekend trip, even for those who live several hundred kilometers away in Muscat. The waters in this desert oasis are ample year-round, and there are quite a lot of marked trails and a couple of restaurants on site to cater to all the visitors. This wadi is known for its caves, which remain difficult to access unless you find a hospitable Omani like we did, and for its connected pools where you can do a water hike between the different levels. As many locals come here – especially on the weekend of Friday and Saturday – be sure to dress modestly, even for the time you’ll spend in the water swimming. Like many wadis, the water here is filled with fish that will give you a natural pedicure by nibbling off the dead skin on your feet. I tried this, but decided that the sensation was just not for me, although most people seemed to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the nibbling for the smooth feet you’ll get if you’re patient.

Bimmah Sinkhole

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Called the “world’s most stunning sinkhole” by the Daily Mail, this sinkhole about an hour’s drive south of Muscat along the coast is a burst of turquoise beauty in the middle of an otherwise arid region. Especially on the weekend, it’s a destination for locals, expats, and tourists alike, jumping off into the deep well that for me was reminiscent of a Mexican cenote. Like other nearby bodies of water, the fish that eat the dead skin off your feet are here as well, so you can treat yourself to a natural pedicure even if you don’t join in the swimming. It’s also a popular spot for a picnic and even has visitor facilities.

Eat Omani Food (this will not be easy!)

 

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One of the more surprising things about visiting Oman was how challenging it was to find Omani food. Omanis typically eat at home, and like some of its Middle Eastern neighbors, Oman has a lot of workers from other countries that seek out their home cuisine. Which means that it is easier to find Indian or Lebanese dishes than ones native to the area. That said, Oman has been at the crossroads of trading routes for quite a long time, so the cuisine is comprised of a mix of influences, including some Omani versions of curry. One of the most typical Omani things I ate were halwa, a date-based sweet spread often flavored with rosewater. Also typical was shuwa, a dish made from meat that has been spiced, wrapped in banana leaves, and buried with hot ashes underground to cook for 24 hours.

Enjoy Omani Coffee and Dates (this will be a breeze)

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A key component of Omani hospitality, coffee and dates are often the complimentary dessert served at the end of the meal, or the snack available at all hours at your accommodation. Omani coffee is a very aromatic, spiced concoction and will likely not taste anything like the coffee you typically consume, so approach it as an entirely new beverage. And the dates of Oman are incredible – I ate the best dates of my life on this trip.

Traditional Boat Tour in the Musandam Peninsula

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The Musandam peninsula is by the Strait of Hormuz close to Iran, and while still part of Oman, it is geographically separate from the rest of the country, with the United Arab Emirates located in between. Musandam is accessible by flying or by car transfer from Dubai, with the town of Khasab as the traditional departure point for the boat tours. Musandam is comprised of stunning fjord-like inlets, and of course the traditional dhow boat tour is an excellent way to explore the beauty of this area. There are many tour providers, all of which will follow a similar itinerary, stopping at several points in the area, providing snorkel equipment to explore the crystal-clear water, and providing traditional Omani meals and refreshments on board. And in all likelihood the dolphins will come out to play at several points during the day, putting on quite the show.

 

 

Oman really was such an incredible vacation destination for a week, and one country I was so glad to visit with my sister. We did encounter some solo travelers, but I find that road trips are always more fun with a buddy, and in this case was strategic with the adventure of navigating. There were so many beautiful sights (and plenty of camels) that we saw along the way, this list just scratches the surface of what you’ll find in Oman.

Which attraction interests you the most? Anything you’d still want to read about Oman in a future post to help plan a visit? Or something you think should have been included on this list of top things to do? Let me know in the Comments!

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Top 12 Things to Do in Oman

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Visiting the Site of the Largest Unsolved Art Heist: Boston’s Gardner Museum

Visiting the Site of the Largest Unsolved Art Heist: Boston’s Gardner Museum

This Saturday marks the 27th anniversary of the largest unsolved art heist, which took place on March 18, 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. I can’t help but be swept up in a great story, and the details behind this art theft smack of any literary thriller that’s ever consumed you. That’s in fact how I first learned about it – from reading one of the many books that has been published in the nearly three decades since the theft.

The Heist

The art heist at the Gardner is unusual in several respects. Of the 13 works of art that were stolen, they were not all the most valuable pieces of art at the museum, although their cumulative value tops $500 million. It is even questionable what kind of art expertise the thieves possessed, as some of the paintings were carelessly slashed from their frames. The haul is also a mix – some famous paintings (including Rembrandt’s only seascape), sketches by Degas, and even the eagle from the top of a flagpole. The Gardner Museum has a page on its website with the details of the theft for the perennially curious, including a list of all of the missing artwork and even a virtual tour. And who to contact if you have any tips 😉

What made the heist so successful? For one, the thieves posed as police officers, under the guise of replying to a previous call at the museum, a clever way to establish authority. Is is that the security guards on duty did not follow protocol? The men posing as officers were allowed entry to the secure area, and then were able to lure both guards away from their post and the only alarm button. The guards were restrained, and the theft was only first discovered when the morning security guards arrived to start their shift, giving the thieves ample time to make their escape.

In the years since the theft, detectives believe they have come close to the artwork, with rumors leading them to many places from Philadelphia to Miami to Corsica, a French island in the Mediterranean. Not a single piece of art has been recovered yet, which is unusual for a heist of this size and also for the amount of time that has elapsed since the artwork went missing. The reward leading to the stolen works has been increased over time and now stands at $5 million, although it’s unclear whether investigators are actually any closer than before to solving this mystery as the next anniversary looms.

The Museum

Visiting the Gardner Museum was not my reason for visiting Boston, but was an outing I just could not resist. And while admittedly the art heist was the impetus for going to the museum, there was a world of wonder and whimsy I discovered there that make the museum worth a visit, regardless of whether the artwork is recovered someday.

Isabella Stewart Gardner was a bit of an eccentric heiress who founded the museum after her husband’s death in the late 1800s. One insight into her playful personality is the structure for discounted or free admission to the museum that persists to this day. There are of course some of the typical discounts, for students and teachers and museum pass holders.

So what are some of the less typical ways to get discounted or free admission?

  • If you’re named Isabella, there is lifetime free admission (once you register on their site here).
  • Admission is free on your birthday.
  • There is a discount for wearing paraphernalia of the local baseball team, the Boston Red Sox.

Unfortunately I didn’t qualify for any of these (and I’m a lifelong New York Yankees fan, division rivals of the Red Sox), but if you’re named Isabella or it happens to be your birthday, you’re in luck!

In any case, once you have a ticket in hand you proceed to the courtyard, an incredible space that really sets the tone for the rest of the museum. It feels like you’ve stepped into the interior of a European villa, with the columns, greenery, and large central mosaic. Almost everyone, including me, stopped in their tracks to take in this peaceful space. Some stayed and lingered on the bench surrounding the garden space, while others popped in and out of the surrounding rooms, returning for a few moments to appreciate the garden in between. As you enter the museum rooms, all of which are clustered around the central courtyard, the view outside morphs ever so slightly, especially on the higher floors. And for me, as I entered each new space, my eye was initially drawn in the direction of the courtyard, observing the new perspective and angle of the sunlight. This experience was certainly part of the museum’s design, and provides continuity and a sense of space throughout.

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Isabella also had a clear vision for how she wanted the art to be displayed for the public inside the rooms, from the floor coverings to the ceiling to the furniture to the artwork. She took a holistic view on the curation of the pieces and how they were displayed in the various rooms and levels of the museum. When you enter each space, it has a distinct feel. Some are crowded, while others are sparse. Some are dark-paneled and regal, while others have sunlight streaming in and have a light, airy, open feel about them.

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Isabella Stewart Gardner collected much of the art during her international travels, hence the European feel of many of the spaces. The building housing the museum was commissioned to be in the style of a famous Venetian palazzo – the style of buildings typical along the Grand Canal of Venice, Italy. Isabella even hand-arranged the Spanish tiles in one of the open-air spaces off the courtyard, and her direct hand in the museum is apparent throughout. She saved her correspondence with famous artists and composers of the day, and there’s even a case featuring letters from some of the first American presidents that she acquired over the years. In fact, Gardner was so particular that the permanent exhibition cannot be significantly altered, a provision that has made the aftermath of the heist particularly visible because no other artwork can be put in place of the pieces that were stolen.

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Another highlight of the museum for me was the temporary exhibit currently on display until September called Listen Hear: The Art of Sound. Since the permanent exhibit can’t really be changed per Isabella Stewart Gardner’s explicit wishes, including special exhibits is a wonderful way to enhance the art already on display and be able to interact with it in new ways. Some of the sound exhibits are meant to align with the artwork in certain rooms, or to represent specific pieces that were stolen, like Vermeer’s The Concert. In the courtyard, one of the exhibits emits sounds meant to imitate the insects that are absent from the garden, providing the background noise that is normally missing. In another ground floor space is an intricate series of small sculpted glass orbs, some of which have been filled with different colored liquids, from tea to olive oil. Embedded in the sculpture are sensors, and as you walk underneath the sculpture or wave your hand nearby, cascading sounds are emitted. I was a bit mesmerized by this one, and spent quite a bit of time staring and playing.

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You can’t help but have fun visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and from everything I’ve learned about the woman, that is exactly what Isabella always hoped for.

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Have you visited the Gardner Museum? What part of the experience stands out for you?

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Boston's Gardner Museum - Site of the Largest Unsolved Art Heist USA

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8 Foods You Must Try in Singapore

8 Foods You Must Try in Singapore

Singaporeans are all about the food! Many say that eating (and arguing about the best restaurant or hawker stand for a particular food) is a national pastime, making Singapore a great foodie destination or perfect for anyone who just loves to eat. Singaporeans take their food pretty seriously, which you can get a bit of a sense of from one of my top books to inspire travel. Of course you’ll understand much better when you enjoy the delicious result that comes from a culture that is so culinarily inclined.

This also means that when you search the internet for what foods to try while you’re visiting Singapore, you’ll have the experience that I did – finding website after website with suggestions of specific dishes, some with lists of 30 items or more. Unless you’re moving to Singapore, you’ll need a much smaller list of typical dishes to reasonably be able to sample during your visit. Even more so if you’ll only have a layover to explore. But not to worry, over my week there I worked my way through a ‘To Eat’ list and am now sharing with you my top foods to seek out while you’re there. Of course, this is all in consultation with my friends (including some native Singaporeans) who were generous enough to take me around and make sure I ate well during my visit. Which seems to be the very serious responsibility of any Singaporean host: making sure the guest eats well.

The culinary landscape in Singapore is focused on a lot of hawker stands, meaning open market areas with plenty of food stalls, each with one or a few specialties they’ll serve. For many of the dishes I mention below, you could enter nearly any market in Singapore and find a tasty version. There are also plenty of sit-down restaurants that will provide longer dining experiences, and of course be just as delicious.

Here is a doable Foodie Bucket List for your time in Singapore:

Carrot Cake

Carrot Cake Singapore 20161101_212658

This Singaporean specialty does not resemble the moist orange cake with cream cheese frosting in the least. Carrot cake in Singapore is closer to the radish cake you may be familiar with from eating dim sum or yum cha. It comes two ways: white and black. The white version is savory and fried with egg like an omelette, while the black version is sauteed with soybeans and somewhat sweet like the Thai noodle specialty pad see ew. I didn’t want to have to choose, so I ordered from a hawker stand where I could get both versions on the same plate. Which did I like better? I couldn’t decide, so alternated my bites between the two.

Where I enjoyed it: Telok Ayer market, close to the Marina Bay Sands hotel and Gardens by the Bay, although I later walked past some great looking versions of carrot cake in Chinatown as well

Char Kway Teow

Many countries have some sort of peasant food dish that packed a lot of calories into a small plate, ideal for utilizing leftovers and keeping manual laborers well fed. This rice noodle stir fry dish is the Singaporean version, also claimed by some of its neighbors. The version I saw most often in Singapore used pork as the protein and also typically included egg and bean sprouts, although the other vegetables varied in the different interpretations of the dish.

Where I enjoyed it: Straits Kitchen, which is a good place to sample many Singaporean specialties because it’s a buffet, especially if you have limited time in country. While the dish is typically made with pork, this buffet is halal so offers a non-pork version.

Chili Crab

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This was the first item that was on my ‘To Eat’ list for Singapore, as my sister’s top notable bite when she visited. The whole crab is cooked in a deliciously spicy umami bomb of flavor, which keeps you coming back for more as you enjoy each chunk of crab. Eating is a messy business, but the flavor is so delicious you’ll want some sort of bread or rice to absorb the goodness of the sauce as you eat.

Where I enjoyed it: No Signboard Seafood, although do research into which of their locations you frequent, as some branches have more consistently good food than others. I also hear great things about Long Beach Seafood (which is actually next to where I enjoyed fish head curry – see below)

Fish Head Curry

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Like the cultural mix that is Singapore itself, fish head curry is considered to be a cross between an Indian curry and the Chinese delicacy of eating a fish head. While seeing the fish’s eyes staring back at you may give you pause, the rich fish cheeks are to be savored, especially along with the curry sauce.

Where I enjoyed it: Samy’s Curry, close Singapore’s Botanic Gardens

Hainanese Chicken Rice

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Although named after a Chinese province, it is believed that this dish really was created in Singapore by Chinese immigrants. The chicken is slow poached and then served sliced, with or without the skin. It is the texture and flavor imparted to the chicken during the cooking process that makes this basic-sounding dish so unique and delicious.

Where I enjoyed it: Boon Tong Kee, which started out as a food stall and now is a sit-down restaurant

Laksa

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The story of this dish’s origin varies, but the important thing is that it is beloved by Singaporeans and claimed as their own. Laksa is a soup version of a coconut-based Asian curry, with rice noodles and various types of seafood to soak up the broth that is a perfect balance of salty, spicy, sweet, and sour notes.

Where I enjoyed it: 328 Katong Laksa, a Bib Gourmand pick for great value in the inaugural Michelin Guide for Singapore

Satay

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Satay is grilled meat on a skewer, with the types of meat varying by the place. I love getting an assortment of meats, all of which impart a different flavor as you dip it in the typical peanut sauce served alongside. You’ll smell the aromas of the meat wafting toward you from many hawker stalls, although you’ll get authentic versions pretty much anywhere in Singapore.

Where I enjoyed it: Lantern Rooftop Bar at the Fullerton Hotel, overlooking the marina

Singaporean Breakfast

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I can’t stop raving about Singaporean breakfast, so much so that I wrote an entire blog post about it, which you can check out here. The typical local breakfast involves Singaporean coffee (they roast the coffee beans in butter!) along with kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs. The kaya spread is basically a coconut jam, but its sweetness is a great contrast to the eggs made savory with soy sauce sprinkled over top. Eat this every day you’re in Singapore!

Where I enjoyed it: Several places you can read about in my blog post, although my favorite spot for the quality of its kaya spread was Killiney Kopitiam, which has several branches across Singapore

What is your favorite local food in Singapore? Anything I missed that you think should also be on this short list? Let me know in the ‘Comments’ below.

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8 Foods You Must Try in Singapore - Foodie Bucket List

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The Day Trip from Rome I Can’t Recommend Enough: Orvieto

The Day Trip from Rome I Can’t Recommend Enough: Orvieto

Italy is blessed with many picturesque hilltop towns, and I’ve been to many, but Orvieto is one of the best for its sweeping views of the surrounding valley and incredible history and beauty of the attractions in town. It’s an easy day trip from Rome by train, which is how I visited. Even gazing up at the walled town from the bottom of the funicular when you arrive, Orvieto is distinctive and breathtaking, and doesn’t disappoint when you ascend to the top.

My favorite day trips in Italy in general involve having enough interesting sights to fill the time (although not too many to be overwhelming), beautiful views, and great food options. Orvieto has all of this, and millenia of history that is visible seemingly everywhere you turn. Read on for all of the wonderful attractions I was able to squeeze into my single day there.

Things to Do

Around Town

Duomo (Cathedral)

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One of the more stunning cathedrals I’ve seen in all of Italy, the Orvieto Duomo is the main draw to the city for many. The outer facade is incredibly intricate, mixing different styles of sculpture, mosaics, and design. Its beauty is evident when you first venture inside as well, in particular visiting the frescoes of the adjacent San Brizio chapel.

Orvieto Underground

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If you read my Naples Cheat Sheet, you know that I find underground passageways intriguing. This is especially dramatic in Orvieto, as the underground rooms and passageways extend underneath nearly the entire city, dating back to several hundred years before Christ. Of course, you’ll only see a section of the underground areas on the approximately hour-long tour that begins close to the Duomo, but these include areas for raising pigeons and the location of the olive press, with beautiful views over the valley.

Torre del Moro (Moro Tower)

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It’s worth climbing the tower’s 250 steps for the views at the top across Orvieto and the surrounding countryside, and the tower is located right in town. On the September day when I visited, there were quite a lot of bugs milling about at the top, but walk around to find a comfortable viewing spot as they tend to congregate toward just one side of the viewing platform.

Church of Sant’Andrea

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The church itself is nice and includes a distinctive multi-sided bell tower, but the real treasure is its extensive underground to see with a guide. It is well worth the extra fee for the friendly, bilingual tour guide who walks you through the history underneath the main level, including fabulous mosaics and ancient roads.

Pozzo della Cava

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A series of caves with history going back nearly 3,000 years, this attraction is privately owned and very tourist-friendly with explanatory signs in several languages. I found it helpful to visit after the ‘Orvieto Underground’ tour, which helped me put into better context some of the areas I was seeing. And be sure to pop into the restaurant, stand on the clear section of plexiglass in the floor, and look down if you dare.

Off the Beaten Path

Around the medieval town of Orvieto Italy 20160930_172540

Church of San Giovenale

The church is Orvieto’s oldest and contains some beautiful artwork. It’s worth stopping into on this end of town, which is a lovely area to explore on foot.

Town Walls

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Orvieto is a walled city on a hill, and some of the best views you’ll have of the surrounding valley is by strolling across them on foot.

Communal Gardens of Orvieto

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I strolled into this site right by the funicular by accident, but was so glad I did because it offers lookout points and great views of the valley below Orvieto. This was one of the few spots in town where I saw more locals than tourists.

TIP! The opening hours change by season, so be sure to leave enough time at the beginning or end of your day to spend some time here.

Pozzo di San Patrizio

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This well was constructed as a backup water source in the 1500s when Pope Clement VII was hiding out in Orvieto. Today it’s a beautiful architectural remnant from that period located on the other side of the funicular than the Communal Gardens, behind the remains of an Etruscan Temple.

Where to Eat – Best Bites

Duca di Orvieto

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I had done a bunch of research about restaurants in town serving the local fare, and even walked past a few and checked out their menus on my walk into the center, but somehow I overlooked this restaurant that is the single place I’d recommend to anyone visiting. How did this restaurant make such a deep impression on this self-proclaimed foodie? Well for one, a lot of their recipes are from local families dating back to the 1500s!! (No, that is not a typo. When was the last time you dined on 16th-century specialties?) A lot of the dishes take many hours or even days to prepare, so you’ll be hard-pressed to find them anywhere else in town. And the result is incredibly rich and delicious. I enjoyed a local pasta cooked in red wine for many hours and a beef dish slow cooked with pears and nothing else. The locals know that this is the spot to go, as I was the only non-Italian on my visit, and even the local police officers took their lunch break here. Definitely not to be missed! If you’re not sure what to order, rest assured, the staff is wonderful and will steer you in the right direction.

(More) Practical Tips for Visiting

If you are coming to Orvieto as a day trip from Rome, your best bet is to arrive by train. There are many trains making the journey, so you’ll have several choices to find the schedule that works best for you. I definitely recommend getting an early start if you can, so you can maximize the time you’re in Orvieto during tourism hours. You can search for trains between ‘Roma’ and ‘Orvieto’ on TrenItalia’s English website here, including the cost and traveling time for each option.

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So your transiting goes smoothly, there are a few things to keep in mind:

TIP! There is always the danger of a train strike (sciopero) in Italy, and these happen more often than you’d think. Ask at your accommodations or do an internet search before choosing which day you’ll visit Orvieto.

TIP! Most trains from Rome to Orvieto leave from platforms at the far end of the station, so leave extra time to walk there to avoid missing your train.

TIP! As the day goes on, trains can become progressively more delayed, so you may want to see when you’re ready to leave the city before committing to a timed train ticket.

TIP! When you arrive in Orvieto, you will be in the lower part of town while the main attractions are all on the hilltop. Fortunately, the funicular station is immediately across the street from the Orvieto train station, and it runs relatively frequently, so you’ll never be waiting for long in either direction.

TIP! If you’re planning on a full day in Orvieto, take a picture of the return funicular schedule, especially if there’s a specific train you’re trying to catch back to Rome in the evening.

 

I spent a really delightful day in Orvieto and felt like I had pretty thoroughly explored the town in that time. It would certainly be a good spot to make a home base for a few days as well, and I met some tourists who were doing just that, with leisurely days sightseeing in town and on other days driving a rental car to other nearby attractions and wineries. However you fit it into your Italy itinerary, this is a spot that is definitely worth a visit!

Any sights in Orvieto that I missed? What other day trips from Rome would you recommend?

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One Day in Orvieto Italy - Day Trip from Rome

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What It’s Like Moving Back “Home” After Living Abroad & Tips on How to Adjust

What It’s Like Moving Back “Home” After Living Abroad & Tips on How to Adjust

They say that the hardest adjustment for an expat is moving back “home” after living abroad. They’re not wrong.

I studied and volunteered in Israel for a year after high school, and was surprised that after 18 years of living and growing up in the United States, and only 1 year of living in Israel, I came home with culture shock. Of course, I wondered how it was possible that I could feel so out of place in America, yet I noticed it when the food didn’t taste how I expected and also when shopping for a few things at the supermarket (why is this always such a salient cultural adjustment?) when I felt the urge to elbow everyone out of way in the aisles with an impatient Israeli s’licha. It was the food and culture, the words of Hebrew I was accustomed to interjecting into my everyday English conversation, and the flow of my daily and weekly routine.

Of course, that effect has been significantly amplified after the past 5 years living abroad in Australia and Italy and now being back in the US, living in Baltimore, Maryland. I’ve now been back around two months, but the adjustment has been a challenge, and this is the first time I’m feeling comfortable enough discussing it to write about it for the blog.Moving boxes 20161017_140227A fellow expat in Milan, who’s done a fair bit of moving around over the years, counseled me that I should focus on the positives about the move. Because the negatives will be glaringly obvious and I’ll realize them quickly anyway, but the upsides might be harder to come by in the midst of the adjustment. Here’s what I’ve discovered…

The Good

The biggest, most obvious upside for me about moving back to the US is being closer to friends and family. Already since being back I’ve been able to celebrate the holidays with my family, make it out for a friend’s birthday in New York, and be there in person for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. Slowly I’ve been taking trips to see friends I haven’t spent quality time with in ages. Last-minute group dinners that I organized when I was an expat just back for a visit have been replaced by one-on-one time catching up with people. It’s been a refreshing change to have time for deep conversations and not just a quick catch-up when I see friends and loved ones.Dinner with a friend 20170217_181244I’m also really excited about the professional opportunity, aka being able to have a full-time job again. While I did work full-time in Australia, I barely even looked for full-time work in Italy, instead cobbling together different paid and volunteer opportunities to keep me occupied and engaged. Because the economy is struggling so much in Italy, any full-time work I might have found would have likely involved long hours and not great pay. Plus, not having a full-time work obligation left me flexible to travel at the last minute when the opportunity arose and be an engaged hostess when visitors came from abroad to visit. However, being back in the US I am looking forward to the structure and routine of full-time work, and the chance to impact urban education, one of my passions.

Another upside of America? Convenience. American life is very much about convenience, from pre-packaged ingredients and meals at the supermarket to one-stop shopping at mega-stores that have clothes, food, and toiletries all under one roof. For me, it’s also the convenience of knowing where to go to buy things. Even in Australia where I hypothetically spoke the language (minus the many Aussie abbreviations and slang), the store names were mostly unfamiliar. You’re not going to find US supermarket chains or clothing stores, so figuring out *where* to go to purchase a particular item could be just as time-consuming as the shopping trip itself. Of course, living in Italian in Milan posed the same challenge, exacerbated by the fact that many stores are local and don’t have an online presence, so sometimes the best way to find a specific item is by keeping your eyes open as you walk through different neighborhoods and popping into the first store you walk past that sells what you need. It sounds old-school, but that is the reality of life in Italy.

Speaking of convenience, an upside about American life that I realized even before leaving Milan is laundry. More specifically, having a dryer! Yes, darling readers, it’s true. Most Italian homes have a washer, but no dryer. What does doing laundry in Italy involve? Running a load through the washer, hanging it on a drying rack, and then waiting 24 hours for it to dry before doing your next load. Unless it’s winter, in which case the clothes may take even longer to dry. Laundry in Italy involved a lot of strategizing. If I had three or four loads to do in advance of weekend guests, the process would start on Monday. Really. So yes, having access to both a washer and a dryer living back in the US may sound shallow, but for any recently returned expat is a big deal. I can do more than 1 load in a day! And they’ll both be dry within hours! Having dry (and fluffy) laundry never made a gal so happy =)

Another adjustment, and certainly a positive one – everyone speaks your language! In my first few weeks back, I found myself consciously noticing as I walked down the street that everyone who passed was speaking English. I would think, “how weird,” before realizing that I was back in the US and this was in fact normal and expected to be walking down the street and overhearing English conversations constantly. Living in English again meant that there was no hesitation or much thought involved before I would engage in small talk or strike up a conversation waiting in line or with a cashier or store clerk, a level of comfort you never quite reach living in a foreign language.

Visiting the US as an expat, I would always take advantage of all the ethnic food that is available, most of which is absent or not that great in Italy. Now back living here, I know that quality ethnic food is widely available, from Chinese to Mexican to Thai to Ethiopian. And you can believe that I’ve been savoring all of the opportunities to take advantage of the access.Ethnic Food Washington DC Bad Saint 20161230_213225And if you’ve seen my posts on wineries – in the Piedmont region of Italy or Israel – or even posts that involve wine tastings (like my overviews of Liechtenstein or Plovdiv, Bulgaria), you may have guessed that I had a fair few bottles of wine from around Europe that I brought back to the US when moving. What you may not realize is that there already were a few cases of wine waiting for me in the US, mostly from California and Australia, acquired before moving to Italy. Because they are bottles that I knew would age well, and frankly, it just seemed silly to ship wine *to* Italy. It’s been a lovely trip down memory lane to remember past travels by enjoying wine I acquired there.

Wine collection 20170306_165231

The Bad

I know, I know, I put the good things first, so it sounds like roses and confetti to move back to the US and take advantage of all the opportunities and conveniences the country has to offer. But as much as there is to be grateful for, there are definitely downsides that I have been feeling quite acutely these past months.

There are a lot of things that I’ve been missing since moving back. First and foremost, I miss my Milan friends. I was very fortunate to have met so many incredible people during my 3 years living in Milan, and I actually had a much easier time making friends in Italy than in Australia, even outside of the expatriate community. Since Milan is the business center of Italy, I found that many interesting Italians from all over the country ended up in Milan for work, as well as the city attracting people in many professions from all over Europe and the rest of the world. It felt relatively easy to form deep connections and friendships, and I miss all of the people I used to be able to see on a regular basis and who are now an ocean and a six-hour time difference away.

I also am missing the city of Milan and life in Italy quite tangibly and still daily. When I walk out my front door, I no longer have the stunning Italian architecture to greet me. I don’t stroll past the Last Supper on a nearly daily basis or pass one of the five largest cathedrals in the world on my walk to Italian lessons. Plus, the Italians have a way of savoring everyday pleasures, from a quick cup of espresso to gelato to an evening aperitivo.Santa Maria delle Grazie Milan Italy IMG_20160520_073301

Speaking of which, I really miss all of the food and drink I was able to access living in Italy. Coffee is an integral part of the Italian day, and the entire country is set up so that you can pop in for a 1 Euro (or less) espresso anywhere you are, any time of day. Here in America, if I’m out and feel like a coffee, I’m hard pressed to find a proper espresso and it will cost at least a few dollars even for a single shot. Plus, I can’t necessarily find one when the mood strikes. And even though I brought back quite a few Italian cooking supplies, like carnaroli rice for risotto and “00” flour for fresh pasta-making, the quality of the produce in the US is not as good and so dishes don’t taste nearly as delicious as they did there. When it’s the early evening and I’m feeling like an aperitivo drink, it’s a much costlier endeavor than it ever was in Italy. In Milan, I could buy a decent bottle of Prosecco for 3 Euro at the local supermarket in Italy, but am hard-pressed to find a bottle for under $15 in the US. The same goes for my favorite ingredient to make a spritz – Aperol. For a bottle that would be about $8 in Italy, I’m now paying $25! So while my instinct is to preserve life in Italy as much as possible living back in the US, it’s just not financially reasonable to keep the identical habits without at least some practical adjustments.Pizza Milan Italy 20161216_130354One thing I didn’t realize before moving to Milan, but really came to appreciate, was the travel accessibility. With 3 airports, there are a ton of direct flight options from Milan all over Europe, including several discount carriers like Easy Jet and Ryan Air. Even at the last minute, I could reliably find round-trip airfare for under 100 Euros, and sometimes for significantly cheaper. And Milan is so centrally located that there are plenty of cities and towns within a short train ride or a drive of an hour or two, including a lot of Switzerland. And even small towns in Italy have so much to offer that it’s well worth a trip, even for a day. It’s just not quite the same back in the US, and even a weekend away is much costlier than what I’ve become accustomed to in Milan.

Another thing that I’ve been missing that I hadn’t anticipated – speaking Italian. I lapse into Italian often when I’m with a fellow speaker, and on my few flights I’ve had I find myself seeking out the Italian language movies. Being in the US I’ve actually been exposed to a lot of Spanish since being back (which I also speak), but it has just made me feel the loss of being so distant from Italian. I’ve been doing a lot of reading in English lately, but my next books to tackle will some of the ones in Italian I brought back with me, because I am just missing the lilting language as part of what I hear and absorb every day.

The Bizarre

When I first thought about writing this post months ago, I figured that there would be good things and also some negatives about moving back “home.” What I didn’t anticipate was quite a few items that didn’t really fit either category, but was just an oddity of the experience of being an expat living abroad for many years and then returning back to my native country.

As you read above, I always seem to have trouble in supermarkets. I’m not sure what it is, but that for me seems to be one of the venues where every culture and nationality handles the experience differently, and I become acclimated wherever I live. This wasn’t just an issue after my time in Israel, but something I noticed after living in Perth, Australia (where did all the Asian produce go?) and have certainly noticed over the past couple of months being back from Milan. There are some of the practical details that I’ve struggled to remember. Like how in Italy you need to code and weigh your produce on your own, printing out the sticker with the bar code from the scale in the produce section and affixing it before you reach the checkout line. While in the US the cashier knows and enters the code, or you look it up yourself in the self-checkout lane. Or that there are so many food items on the shelves at American supermarkets that I forgot existed and find myself craving. Not because I want to eat them necessarily, but simply because I haven’t seen them in ages and now I *can* have them. Like Oreo cookies, for one.supermarket scale (2)

Another oddity of moving back has been the food I gravitate toward cooking at home. In Milan, cooking at home involved a lot of ethnic food, making versions of favorite dishes that were better than what I could find in a restaurant locally. Thai curries, Korean rice bowls, fish tacos (with homemade tortillas), and Chinese stir-fries were all in heavy rotation in my Milan kitchen. Now back in the US? I’ve been cooking a lot of authentic Italian dishes, and haven’t even braved going out to an Italian restaurant yet, even though Baltimore actually has a decent-sized Italian population and its own ‘Little Italy.’ One day I’ll muster up the courage, but for now I’m enjoying making my own Italian food, knowing I won’t be disappointed with the resulting meal.

And when it’s time to order food for delivery, especially for ethnic dishes I no longer feel compelled to cook on my own, I don’t even know the current apps and websites to do this. Although I never actually ordered food in the whole time living in Milan, I knew the European apps that were out there – Deliveroo, Foodora, JustEat. Being back in the US was initially baffling and involved a bunch of asking around to figure out that for food I could use GrubHub, OrderUp, or UberEats to get food to show up at my door. In the 5 years I’ve been gone, the landscape has changed quite a bit, and is another one of those weird adjustments you don’t expect needing to learn.

And even though I’ve been living and shopping in the US for a couple of months now, there are still signs all over the house that I’ve just moved back from a posting abroad. There are still plenty of household items that are in a foreign language (like the dish soap, for one). Things that were purchased in Italy and now are part of the things I see daily that are reminders of no longer being in Milan. And I’ve seen it in the homes of other expats who’ve recently returned home – those reminders of the life you left behind.Dish Soap 20170306_165438It’s also weird that it’s not just instant acclimation back into an old life. For you, the expat, it feels like you should just be slotting back into your previous life since you’re now back and everyone is excited to have you nearby. The reality? You arrange an initial meet-up with friends, but as other gatherings crop up – kids’ birthday parties & nights out – friends are liable to forget that you are now around and you only find out about events after the fact.

Tips on How to Adjust

So, what is a recently-returned expat to do? What steps have I been taking that I’ve found have helped with the adjustment back “home”? How do I manage all of the changes and gaps in my day-to-day life? I’m not an expert by any means, but here are a few things that I’ve found helpful over the last two months.

Connecting with old friends. Some days it may feel like you know no one, but the reality of course is never that severe. Sure, you may need to do a lot of the initiating at first, but there are definitely old friends in the area that will want to spend time with you, even if it’s been a while. What I love about close friendships is that even after much time and distance apart, you can get together and practically pick up right where you left off. And it’s important to make it a priority to see people. For me, that has meant some day trips and a weekend spent in Washington, DC where I lived for nearly a decade and have a strong friend base. During that time I’ve been able to hang out with some of my oldest friends and feel a bit more connected to life in the US again.

Finding new social circles. Let’s face it, after time living abroad, you’re not exactly the same person you were when you last left home. And even if you haven’t changed much when it comes to things that matter, your community is not the same as when you left. Friends have moved away or had children and aren’t likely to have as much free time as you do when you first return. Since moving back to the US I have been active on Facebook and Meetup to find other former expats and like-minded people to connect with. So far I’ve joined a book club, found buddies for rock climbing, and reached out to a group that sees live theater locally. I’ve even found some Italians in the area. My social calendar is certainly not full, but it’s been a great feeling to find people in my new city with shared interests.

Finding the things that keep me grounded and give me a sense of continuity or normalcy, and focusing on those. For me, the biggest thing that has helped to keep me grounded since the move is this blog! I’m still an internet connection away from a lot of the friends I’ve made through blogging, so it feels like nothing has changed in that respect. And I know that putting effort into Travel Savvy Gal – writing posts, becoming more active on social media, attending webinars about blogging – will not be wasted. I can see the tangible results of my hard work, from a larger Instagram following to Twitter re-tweets and increased website views. For my mental and emotional sanity, I’ve sought out rock climbing (my biggest stress reliever) and seeing live theater, an activity that deeply nourishes my soul. It gives me that extra bit of a boost that sustains me on the rougher days. And when you’re least motivated to seek out a pick-me-up, that’s of course when you need it the most.

Having low to no expectations. Things that can be most disappointing are those times when you expect things to go a certain way, and then reality doesn’t live up to your preconceived notions. The best way to combat disappointment? Don’t start off with expectations. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but starting from a blank slate means that everything you get from that point forward is something extra and unexpected. I’ve been trying my best over the past two months to keep an open mind about each day, and then appreciating the good things that come my way.

Focusing on what I’ve gained, not what I’ve lost. I’ve talked before on the blog about practicing gratitude, and I really believe it has the power to be transformative. When you spend time at the end of each day thinking about the things you are grateful for, it means that the following day your brain is on the lookout for things to appreciate for the following night’s round-up. The brain is a muscle like any other in the body, and can be trained to seek out the positive parts of your day, every day. While there have certainly been many frustrating moments, I am still incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to live abroad and experience other cultures, and now have the time to integrate back into American life while still working on the blog and sharing my travel tips and experiences, something I’ve found incredibly rewarding these past several months.

What’s next?

Well, the first order of business for me is finding a job. Unfortunately that means that most travel planning is on hold for the moment, although I do have a few weekends away planned. I’m also hoping to attend some upcoming travel blogger conferences – one in the US and one overseas – but again, I haven’t made any exact plans yet. Of course, the inability to plan while I’m in limbo has contributed to my overall frustration, but I’m trying to take everything in stride and focus on the positives.

And although I haven’t found a full-time job yet, I am admittedly nervous about the small number of vacation days that come with many US jobs. Sometimes it can be as little as 2 weeks, compared with the 6 weeks I received working in Australia that is common in Europe as well. Again, this is a wait-and-see situation, and I’m putting a lot of trust in the universe – and putting forth much effort – so that things will turn out well in the end.

The other question you’re probably wondering is what this means for the blog. For now certainly, things will carry on as usual with Travel Savvy Gal. I don’t know about you, but I certainly can’t job hunt and write cover letters for 8 straight hours a day, so I’ve been interspersing blogging activities with my job hunting. There will still be posts every Tuesday and Thursday, so continue keeping an eye out for that and show your love in the Comments.

Of course, I’ll be keeping you wonderful readers updated if and when anything changes. I was an avid traveler before becoming an expat and living abroad (when I was working full-time in the US) and I will be an avid traveler again being back here. In the meantime, I’m taking deep breaths through this transitional time and working on making the most of the days that I am able to travel at the moment. And there’s plenty of destinations I’ve traveled recently and haven’t written about yet, so those will be coming to a blog post near you sometime very soon.

For anyone who’s had to make a big living adjustment or also moved home after time abroad, what was it like for you? What things were the biggest help as you were getting re-acclimated? I’m still in the process myself, so any additional tips or intel would be greatly appreciated!

What It's Like

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Insider Bucket List – 20 Top Experiences to Seek Out in Israel

Insider Bucket List – 20 Top Experiences to Seek Out in Israel

Many people travel to Israel as religious pilgrims, but this tiny country on the Mediterranean has so much to offer every type of traveler. From outdoor adventure to Roman ruins to burgeoning boutique wineries to relaxing beach days, there is a seemingly endless list of attractions and superlatives to seek out. You can treat this post as a bucket list, or merely as a starting point to get a sense of all of the ways to spend your visit to Israel, and then decide on which ones appeal to you most or work with your time limitations.

This list is compiled from the top experiences that stand out for me, after my time living in Israel and my recent return visits. I am a bit of an eclectic, so you’ll see different aspects of my foodie, nature-loving, history-enthralled self coming through. Enjoy!

#1 | Jersualem’s Old City.

Dome of the Rock Al Aqsa Mosque Jerusalem Israel CIMG0718 (2)

There are millenia of history in the layers of Jerusalem stone, and there have been enough excavations over the years that you can literally walk in the footsteps of history. The Old City, despite its small size, contains some of the holiest sites of the world’s three main monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. And the historical remnants abound – yours to discover as you wander on foot or take part in an organized itinerary. Check out my top picks for what to do in Jerusalem here.

#2 | Eat your way around a market.

Produce in Israel tastes incredible because it is just so fresh. It was only when I lived here that I started eating tomatoes and many other fruits and vegetables because it just tastes so much better from the markets. Markets also have plenty of vendors selling prepared food products, including many of Israel’s local specialties. Even the smallest Israeli town will have a market at least a couple of days a week, so ask wherever you go. Top markets to visit include Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem or Carmel Market in Tel Aviv.

#3 | Cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv feels much like any bustling European city, and it will probably remind you of some when you visit. Sheinkin Street is a great shopping destination with some funky stores and plenty of nearby restaurants and cafes to refuel. On Tuesdays and Fridays, my favorite craft market is held all day on block after block of the pedestrian street Nahalat Binyamin – it’s a great place to pick up souvenirs or treat yourself. I still wear a ring I purchased here in the 1990s daily. And of course, there is the cafe culture of Tel Aviv to soak up. Linger as the Israelis do, drinking coffee, grabbing a light bite to eat, and catching up with friends or work leisurely on your laptop. Rothschild Boulevard is a popular spot for outdoor cafes and people watching, including the beloved cafe at Rothschild 12 and you can check out some other top recommendations from Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz here.

#4 | Old Port City of Jaffa.

Jaffa CIMG0236

On the southern side of Tel Aviv lies this ancient port city, which for me is all about wandering and exploring. Take in the views overlooking the sea and Tel Aviv’s beach, stroll through the HaPisga Gardens, wander the narrow passageways and pop into artist’s studios along the way, and explore the antique offerings at the local flea market. There are also some great restaurants overlooking the water and some trendy bars that have opened recently.

#5 | Baha’i Gardens in Haifa.

Haifa Bahai Temple 20151208_152741

One of the two holiest sites for the Baha’i religion is in Haifa, a dramatic series of terraced gardens leading up to a Temple. Entrance is free and the gardens are open 7 days a week except holy days, although some of the interior gardens close at noon. The city of Haifa hasn’t always wowed me, but this is is one thing worth traveling to Haifa to seek out.

#6 | Beaches.

Tel Aviv Beach View CIMG0243 - Copy

Israel has a whole coast of beach possibilities, from the one essentially in downtown Tel Aviv to some of the more secluded options further from the cities. Definitely build some down time into your trip to go and enjoy the warm Mediterranean waters and the beach scene. And if you make it to Herzliya, definitely check out their beach’s main attraction – a hermit house built from discarded materials that has been around since the 1970s.

#7 | Play sheshbesh at a bar or cafe.

In the US, people gather at parks to play a game of chess – in Israel, they gather at bars and cafes to play sheshbesh, which you may know better as backgammon. If you’re not from the Middle East, you may not have grown up playing backgammon, but in Israel it is all the rage. Many bars and cafes will have playing sets available, and it is definitely the local pastime. Often enjoyed in conjunction with some flavored tobacco smoked from a water pipe, known locally as hoookah or nargila or shisha, it’s a way to experience life like a local for an afternoon or evening.

#8 | Enjoy a Traditional Shabbat.

For religious Jews, Shabbat (the Sabbath) is a day when time stands still, lasting from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. You don’t use electricity or cell phones, but take the time to pray and enjoy time with friends and family. It’s a great escape or digital detox for a day, and is worth seeking out a way to enjoy a Shabbat in Israel, whether it means attending a synagogue service or sharing a traditional meal with locals.

#9 | Bargain at the shuk.

Shuk Old City Jerusalem Israel CIMG0731

The shuk, or market, is a central part of shopping and eating for many Israelis. In addition to food, there are plenty of household items for sale plus souvenirs for any type of tourist, from t-shirts to jewelry to spices to hand-carved chess or backgammon (sheshbesh) sets. Of course, this being the Middle East, you don’t want to simply accept the first price that is offered. Haggling is expected, and it is at its most dramatic in this country of bargaining experts.

#10 | Check out the Natural Grottoes at Rosh Hanikra.

Rosh_Hanikra_(12276775196) Israel
Image: sunshinecity via Wikimedia Commons

Located atop steep cliffs at the Israel-Lebanon border on the Mediterranean coast, Rosh Hanikra is also the site of a series of natural sea grottoes. From the visitor’s center you can descend in a cable car and explore the area of the grottoes on foot, taking in the natural landscape.

#11 | Stunning Archaeological Ruins.

Many empires have ruled the land that is now Israel, so there are ruins all over, many dating from Roman times thousands of years ago – and others from long before. Some of the my favorite ruins to visit (I’ve been to all of them multiple times over the years):

Akko Acre Israel CIMG0762

  • Akko/Acre – One of the few natural ports along Israel’s coast, Akko has been used by many civilizations who have left their mark. Walk Old Akko’s walls and explore the underground crusader city. Another reason to go? Enjoying the epic tasting menu at one of my all-time favorite restaurants in the entire country, Uri Buri.Caesarea Israel CIMG0785 - Copy
  • Caesarea – Named for Julius Caesar, the ruins here are massive and rival any that I’ve seen in Italy or Greece. Set aside plenty of time to explore all of the areas, including an Amphitheater and Hippodrome, dramatically located right on the Mediterranean coast.Megiddo Israel CIMG0816
  • Megiddo – The biblical site of Armageddon, this is one of the more ancient settlements whose mark is still visible today. James Michener’s masterpiece novel The Source is generally based on the archaeological excavations here, especially around the impressive underground water tunnel that you can explore on your visit.

#12 | Visit Wineries.

Golan Heights CIMG0833 (2)

Modern wine-making has been taking place in Israel for over a century, but it is more recently that boutique and family-run wineries of quality have emerged onto the scene. There are many winery tours and tastings you can experience, both in the more traditional wine-growing regions and at some excellent producers cropping up in the desert areas south of Jerusalem. Click here for my rundown of all of the best wineries for a visit when you go.

#13 | Mystical City of Tsfat/Safed.

Tsfat has been the seat of Jewish study and Kabbala (Jewish mysticism) for quite some time, and many people travel here to learn. Overall, it’s a quiet place with stunning views, although the synagogue scene gets quite lively over Shabbat. Like Jaffa near Tel Aviv, there are also a lot of artists who make their home here and have galleries that are open to the public during the week. There are also many local dairies producing some excellent cheese.

#14 | Outdoor Adventure.

Banyas Waterfalls CIMG0906

Israelis like to seek out their fair share of adventure, and with the varied terrain and coast, there are many great options. Some top possibilities for outdoor adventure include hiking, rock climbing, rappelling (known in Hebrew as snapling), skydiving, scuba diving, and canoeing or kayaking. Take your pick!

#15 | Hike Masada for Sunrise.

Masada Israel Sunrise CIMG0646Masada Israel CIMG0653

Masada is well-known for being the site of a famous siege and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jews were isolated on the plateau and after a long standoff with the Romans, committed mass suicide before they could be captured. The archaeological excavations of the settlement at the top are extensive, and it’s a beautiful (if hot) early morning hike to the top to watch sunrise over the mountains and the Dead Sea, and then visit the complex.

#16 | Float in the Dead Sea.

Dead Sea Israel CIMG0702

The lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea also has an incredibly high salt concentration. Which means that you will be incredibly buoyant when you enter and can’t help but float – a disorienting and incredibly fun experience. You can see from me reading a book in the quintessential photo above that even if you normally have trouble floating, you can’t help but float here. The one think to be careful about is any cuts, no matter how microscopic. So maybe forgo shaving the morning before you go, as you will acutely feel any open wounds with the salinity.

#17 | Ein Gedi Oasis.

Ein Gedi Israel CIMG0668

Israel’s largest oasis, this is a great spot for hiking and exploring for a day. Amidst the desert, there are springs, streams, and even waterfalls. Especially incredible given its proximity to the Dead Sea, it’s incredible to see all of the greenery and wildlife interspersed in an otherwise arid area. There are several trail options and lookout points to get a view of the surrounding area.

#18 | Trek the Desert.

Negev Desert Me on a Camel Israel (2)

I once volunteered at a camel riding outpost for three weeks, which involved living on a sand dune in the middle of nowhere with very few people around. In the middle of the desert, you can’t help but be in touch with the rising and setting sun and the expanse around you, I had no trouble seeing how many of the world’s religions were born in desert surroundings. It’s worth exploring Israel’s many desert landscapes during your visit, which you can do on foot hiking, biking, or riding a camel. And outside of the city lights the night sky is spectacular, so spend an overnight under the stars if you can.

#19 | Visit a Kibbutz.

A kibbutz is an Israeli collective – a community working together and jointly benefiting from individual efforts. Initially most kibbutzim were socialist farming communities and many even raised their children collectively, although in recent years many have shifted to a less socialist model. The fact that several of these uniquely Israeli communities are thriving today is a sight to see – many offer tours or meals, or even the possibility of staying overnight.

#20 | Check out a Machtesh.

Machtesh Ramon Israel
Image: Orhat via Wikimedia Commons

I would have written this article about how a machtesh in Israel is a must-see sight – if the Globe and Mail hadn’t already beaten me to it. A machtesh is an erosion crater unique to southern Israel and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, and the largest of the five is Machtesh Ramon, which is over 40 kilometers (25 miles) long! Machtesh Ramon is the most humbling and also best equipped to direct tourists to its many hiking trails and lookout points

Are there any top experiences in Israel I missed? What stands out most in your mind? And any other questions about visiting Israel or any of the activities I listed? Share and ask away in the Comments!

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Insider Bucket List - Top 20 Experience in Israel

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Best Places to Eat (& Drink) in Israel

Best Places to Eat (& Drink) in Israel

Israeli cuisine is quite varied, but mostly local, so when a specific restaurants stands out for me, it’s really something special. Living there, I shopped for fresh produce at the shuk (market), bought my pita in stacks of ten several times a week, and mostly cooked at home. And with such fresh ingredients – the fruits and vegetables are at the peak of ripeness – you don’t need to do much to make them taste amazing. Not surprisingly, salads and spreads made from this excellent produce constitute a good part of the Israeli diet. And in the case of most of the local specialties that comprise my ‘foodie bucket list’ when I visit these days, these typical foods are available nearly everywhere, and every neighborhood has its best local place to consume them. If asked, any two Israelis are likely to argue over the best falafel spot down the street or which restaurant serves up the best shakshuka.

So in an environment like this, how did I possibly compose a list of “best” places to eat and drink across the country?

There are a small number of traditional and experimental foods and drinks that have made such an impression on me that I can still recall my meal in great detail. Some single flavor combination that is so spot-on or well-balanced. Or a unique ambiance that enhances great food and drink all the more. Or a basic establishment that serves such standout dishes that I want to come back for a return visit – and I have!

These are my best bites and sips. Israeli restaurants, cafes, and bars that I would come back to again and again (and probably will on my next visit):

Acre/Akko

Uri Buri

Uri Buri CIMG0754 (2)Uri Buri CIMG0757 (2)Uri Buri CIMG0758 (2)

The meal I savored here still counts as one of the most epic tasting menus I’ve ever consumed. The philosophy is that they’ll keep bringing out specialty dishes of the house until you’ve decided that you’ve had enough for one night. Not a budget endeavor, but completely worth it for the cozy atmosphere in an old stone building and the whimsical and enticing dishes that exit the kitchen one after another. It was one of the first dishes that were served – a salmon sashimi with wasabi gelato – that really set the tone for me that I would be in for a special evening delighting my foodie tastebuds. While Uri Buri is a fish restaurant, it is not kosher (so will serve up shellfish), although there is also the option to dine a la carte if that’s a concern. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get a view of Uri Buri himself in the kitchen and greeting diners. He looks a bit like Santa Claus with a long white beard and lots of jolly laughter, so you’ll know it’s him if you see him. Only such joy could produce food this good.

Haifa

Fattoush

Fattoush Haifa Israel IMG_20170302_103307

 

On the main street in Haifa that leads to the Baha’i Temple is this wonderland of Middle Eastern culinary specialties, with enough options to satisfy anyone’s appetite. There are ample vegetarian dishes and more meat dishes than you can imagine. Plus, you can’t beat eating inside the quaint courtyard on a beautiful day. Make sure to leave room for dessert and get their tahini ice cream – a frozen delight based on the sesame spread – something you’re not likely to be able to enjoy anywhere else.

Jerusalem

Gatsby Cocktail Room

Gatsby Cocktail Room Jerusalem Israel 20151205_182829 (2)Gatsby Cocktail Room Jerusalem Israel 20151205_185436 (2)

I’ve had my fair share of cocktails during my time living in and visiting Israel, however the one that stands out in my mind I enjoyed at Gatsby. It’s a speakeasy on par with any I’ve been to in the world, bringing creativity and whimsy to its well-balanced creations. Being a speakeasy of course, it’s a bit tricky to find. To the right of the entrance to the Aroma Cafe is an unmarked door. Entering will bring you to a room where someone will be there to swing the bookcase open (!!) and let you inside. I was able to get in right when they opened on a Saturday after Shabbat ended, but in general reservations are recommended.

Machane Yehuda Market

Machane Yehuda Market Jerusalem Israel 20151204_141133

This market has been around Jerusalem for around a century, with countless vendor stalls selling all of the local specialties you could dream of, from bourekas to halva to baklava. It’s a great spot to pick up goodies for a picnic meal, or food for over the Sabbath from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown, when many restaurants in Jerusalem are closed. Relatively recently, the market after hours has also become a destination, especially for the younger Jerusalemites. There are a ton of sit-down restaurants of local and global cuisine that make this area a nightlife hub once the daytime vendors have closed shop for the evening. If you’ve never been, I’d check out the market both during the day and again in the evening to fully appreciate all it has to offer.

Marzipan Bakery

Marzipan 20151204_123955 (2)

A spot not far from Machane Yehuda Market (see above), no visit to Israel is complete without rugelach, a chocolately rolled mini-pastry, as prepared here. Bold words, but I absolutely mean it and am not alone – many foreigners make Marzipan their final travel stop before heading to the airport so they can take fresh rugelach home for loved ones. You’ll want to be sure to go when you’re in Jerusalem, too.

Tmol Shilshom

I’ve been coming to this bookstore/cafe for nearly two decades. And it’s just as charming as it was on the day I first wandered down an alleyway off Jerusalem’s touristy downtown pedestrian area and entered its cozy interior. Its shakshuka has been named one of the 10 best breakfasts in the world by Lonely Planet and its evening fare consists of the typical light, yet filling dishes you’d find at a cafe. Even as a teenager, I appreciated this oasis in the middle of an otherwise chaotic part of town, especially in the evenings. And sitting in plush chairs among the bookshelves just has a way of making you feel at home.

Tel Aviv/Jaffa

Hummus Habayit

Hummus HaBayit Tel Aviv 20151210_151816

In a teeny outpost on Allenby Street sits this self-proclaimed ‘House of Hummus’ serving up delicious plates of hummus with some of the friendliest service you’ll find in all of Israel. Here, the hummus is the main event, to be slowly enjoyed by ripping off small chunks of pita and swirling it through the plate of hummus. It’s a relaxing ritual, and you’ll want to eat slowly and savor all your bites at this spot that claims to be No. 2 in all of Israel. Number 1 according to the chef? Your first hummus ever. After that, this is the spot to go.

The Old Man and the Sea

Old Man and the Sea 20151210_222115Old Man and the Sea 20151210_224752

Named after the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, this restaurant has been around Tel Aviv for a while and boasts multiple branches, although the one in the port city of Old Jaffa has the best view. Come with a group of friends if you can, as your table will be covered with salads and spreads to devour, and that’s even before your fish arrives. The food is great, the atmosphere makes it.

Sabich Frishman

Sabich Frishman 20151213_203045Sabich Frishman Tel Aviv 20151213_204404

Okay, so sabich may be my new Israeli food obsession. This pita stuffed with fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg, and a range of vegetables and condiments has all the ingredients and balance that for me make a perfect bite. And the version you’ll get at Sabich Frishman is considered by many to be the best in Tel Aviv, possibly in all of Israel. There is likely to be a line snaking out the door at most hours as locals line up. I like mine with cheese, all the vegetables and condiments, and a bit of spicy sauce, but you can just let them know when they efficiently take your order at the front.

Have you been to any of these spots? Any place I should have included that’s not listed? Any other questions about eating out in Israel? Let me know in the Comments!

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Best Places to Eat & Drink

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