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Author: Lana @TravelSavvyGal

Winter Bucket List: Making the Most of the Season

Winter Bucket List: Making the Most of the Season

Where has the year gone?!? I feel like I say this every December, and this year is no exception.

I started off this year with high hopes and grand plans, and I am happy to say that I have made many of them a reality. Others will have to wait another year, but in the meantime a new season is rapidly approaching.

Let me start off by saying I’m a summer baby, and luxuriate in warm – and even hot – weather. Too stifling? Jump in a pool or go to the beach.

Winter, though. That’s a whole other story.

Coeurmayeur Italy Winter Bucket List How to Make the Most of the Season 20160228_095606

Many of the things that made my ‘Winter Bucket List’ are all about ways to warm up when the frigid temperatures set in, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And for some of this, yes, you’ll have to bundle up and brave the cold weather for some frolicking in the snow.

And it will be worth it.

Read on for my plans for the season, and I’d love to hear yours!

This is what I hope to be up to in the coming months:

Marvel at the holiday decorations

Notre Dame Cathedral Paris France Winter Bucket List How to Make the Most of the Season 20141229_234635 (2)

I bet wherever you are in the world, places around you light up for the holidays. I’ve seen some of the most unexpected places – Israel and Sri Lanka come to mind – decked out with brightly colored “Christmas” lights. I love seeing the designs and creativity that go into the displays, so take advantage of the places around you that light up this time of year and just take it all in.

Go skiing

Ever since I learned to ski at the wee age of 28 (let’s not talk about how long ago that was), I’ve really embraced the fun. I’m not a double black diamond, speed-down-the-slope kind of gal – although good for you if you are – but even at my medium pace, I love feeling the wind rush by and the thrill of speed as I head downhill. Any winter sport can be fun though, whether it’s snowboarding or ice skating.

Skiing in Saas Fee Switzerland Winter Bucket List How to Make the Most of the Season IMG_1305

Play in the snow

Why not? Frolicking in the soft, powdery white stuff is not just for children. Whether you’re doing an actual activity like sledding or snow tubing, or just having a snowball fight with friends, take some time and appreciate this crazy substance that literally falls from the sky.

Snow in Bardonecchia Italy Winter Bucket List How to Make the Most of the Season

Playing in the Snow Umbria Italy Winter Bucket List How to Make the Most of the Season DSC_0146 (2)

Sip a hot beverage

Nothing to help warm you up from the cold like a hot beverage. I love a thick, gooey hot chocolate with marshmallows or whipped cream and especially enjoy some mulled wine for strolling out in the cold. I’ve even been known to heat up egg nog. Whether it’s a cuppa or a hot apple cider or possibly a spiked version of your favorite warm drink, savor it.

Hot Apple Cider Winter Bucket List How to Make the Most of the Season 20141221_182049

Hang out in front of a fireplace

I don’t have a fireplace at home – I know, epic fail! – but I do love sitting in front of a fire. Feeling the warmth and being mesmerized as the flames dance in haphazard directions is one of my beloved ways to pass time in winter. So when I go away for a weekend, it’s something I’ll seek out before choosing where to book my accommodations.

Fireplace Winter Bucket List How to Make the Most of the Season 20170819_225156(0)

Visit a hot tub or sauna

Another thing I’ll look for when I make winter travel plans? Whether a hotel has a hot tub or sauna. Especially if I’ll be doing some activities outdoors, I love being able to relax my muscles and warm up in the heat. Bonus if you can find a hot tub or hot springs to enjoy outside!

Nibble on roasted chestnuts

I may have grown up singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but it wasn’t until my time living in Europe that I really appreciated the flavor of a freshly roasted chestnut picked up from a street vendor on a stroll through a holiday market. I haven’t seen any stateside this season, but I am keeping an eye out.

Roasted Chestnuts in Milan Italy Winter Bucket List How to Make the Most of the Season 20161217_205856

Enjoy a holiday party

This doesn’t need to be a formal work event, as most cities and towns have all sorts of celebrations for the holidays, from parades to bar crawls. So far this season I’ve enjoyed a holiday celebration with small bites and lots of vino at my local Wine Market and an Ugly Sweater Party with friends. Probably have a few more celebrations up my sleeve, and can’t wait for the upcoming festivities.

Curl up with some comfort food

Chilled soup in winter? I think not. I’m all about hearty (hot) soups and stews this time of year, for something that will warm you up as it fills you up. Or, taking a page out of the northern Italian playbook, some stick-to-your-ribs polenta or risotto. Or the Swiss favorites I was thinking of just the other day – fondue and raclette – a.k.a. melted cheese yumminess.

Kippo Ramen Baltimore Maryland Winter Bucket List How to Make the Most of the Season 20170803_200232Fondue Three Ways in Switzerland Winter Bucket List How to Make the Most of the Season 20141222_202009 (2)

Take a hike

While I won’t rock climb in weather so cold I can’t feel my fingers, there are ample ways to bundle up to get outdoors for a stroll or hike in winter. Certainly dress appropriately for the weather, and then enjoy the different sights, sounds, and smells that nature provides this season. And since most people save hiking for hotter temperatures, you’re more likely to have the trail all to yourself.

Travel somewhere warm!

Okay, this may sound like cheating (shouldn’t winter be about embracing the cold?) but nothing makes you appreciate a warm destination more than arriving from winter somewhere. Don’t worry, you don’t have to go far the edge of the opposite hemisphere, there are plenty destinations not far from the equator that will be relatively easy to get to wherever you are.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BP_bomhAsCH/?hl=en&taken-by=travelsavvygal

Watch sunrise more

I’m more of a sunset than sunrise kind of gal, as I’m not much of a morning person. The rest of the year, my 7am commute to work is firmly in the hours of sunlight, but in wintertime the sun makes its appearance much later in the morning. No 4am wakeup needed, take advantage of later sunrise in the wintertime and set your alarm to wake up just a wee bit earlier and catch it more often!

What do you have planned for the winter? Anything I should add to my ‘Winter Bucket List’? What’s your favorite winter comfort food? Tell me all about in in the ‘Comments’ below!

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Winter Bucket List How to Make the Most of the Season

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Fun Facts: Things to Know About Detroit Before You Visit

Fun Facts: Things to Know About Detroit Before You Visit

“Why are you going to Detroit?”

“For fun.”

A blank stare ensues. Apparently no one goes to Detroit for fun. And my answer is not yet sufficient.

So I continue after the pause, “I have some friends who live there that I’m visiting.”

There it is, suddenly. The knowing, almost imperceptible nod of approval.

And it bothers me. So I interject –

“I hear they have a really great food scene there, I’m excited to check it out. If I didn’t want to go to Detroit, I would have asked my friends to meet me somewhere else. I’m going because I want to go.”

And that statement basically covers it, I went because I wanted to. And I had a blast because it’s a great city. Oh yeah, my friends are pretty wonderful and amazing, too =)

Most people know the city of Detroit, Michigan as an industrial giant (which it is), but these days there is oh-so-much-more to experience when you go.

I had the benefit of being hosted by two friends when I went – a native and a recent transplant – and getting some great local perspectives. Plus, I had a day of exploring on my own to get yet another view of Detroit.

Here are some fun facts I picked up along the way:

Detroit sure is known for a lot of things . . .

It is ‘Motor City.’

Motor City Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0744

Detroit is probably best known for the American car industry giants that call the city home. Many skyscrapers downtown are named for the big three: Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. And despite the financial struggles of the last decade, they are all still a strong presence in the city.

But Quicken Loans is catching up quick.

Quicken Loans Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0248

It’s not the only large financial company based in Detroit (Ally Bank also has its headquarters there), but in Detroit these days, Quicken is larger than life. The company has been expanding its footprint, and famous founder Dan Gilbert now owns a whopping amount of downtown Detroit.

Detroit is equally well-known for its music.

Sure, I knew about the legacy of Motown and rapper Eminem. And that there’s even a Motown Museum in town. So I wasn’t surprised to hear plenty of tunes from that era playing at the Food Bank Fundraiser/wine tasting event I went to my first night in town.

Less expected ‘Detroit music’ heard that night? San Francisco area band Journey’s ballad “Don’t Stop Believin’,” when everyone in the room belted out the line “born and raised in south Detroit.” Ah yes (that was the moment I realized Detroit was in that song). Except that there is no such thing as south Detroit.

Third Man Records Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0143Third Man Records Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0148Third Man Records Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0153

Detroit-area local Kid Rock gets some pretty good air time on local radio stations still. And The White Stripes are also hometown sweethearts, further cemented by the now local Jack White-owned Third Man Records, which was a blast to visit.

Detroit has a Zero Mile (Point of Origin), but it’s not as easy to find as you’d think.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Baebblgn-ZC/?hl=en&taken-by=travelsavvygal

Rapper Eminem’s movie 8 Mile brought Detroit into the public consciousness, and given that there are many mile roads throughout the city, I thought finding the marker of the zero mile spot would be a breeze. Not as famous as I think it should be, you’ll find it if you look hard enough in the right place!

          READ MORE: My experience Finding Zero Mile in Detroit

There’s a vibrant craft beer scene.

Craft Beer Scene Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0566Craft Beer Scene Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit 20171009_142325

Perhaps its the sheer number of breweries that hail from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but I definitely associate the American Midwest with beer. Detroit doesn’t disappoint on this front, with many craft breweries in the city and surrounding areas. I made it to two on my recent weekend trip – Axle Brewing Company & Batch Brewing Company – and both not only had great beer selections but some gourmet food options to give you every reason to linger.

And a cocktail scene, too.

Cocktail Scene Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0947 (2)

Less expected for me was the Detroit cocktail scene, with expertly crafted cocktails that rival the best bars in London and New York. We’re talking crazy flavor combinations, house-infused spirits, and expert mixologists making your taste buds swoon. Sugar House and Standby have some great cocktails. Sit at the bar for a front row seat to the action.

Plus, it’s the only American city with all 4 major sports arenas downtown.

Major Sports Arenas Downtown Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0434

It may not seem like a big deal to have the major arenas all downtown, but professional sports is a huge draw, and that is an influx of money into a downtown that needs the investment. Plus, it’s an easy stroll to the various Detroit arenas – not intentionally, but I passed them all just strolling around!

Lots of immigrants have left their mark.

Greektown Craft Beer Scene Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0761

Without even seeking out ethnic neighborhoods, I encountered quite a few during my weekend in Detroit. Centrally located downtown is Greektown, which you’ll spot almost instantly by the blocks of restaurants serving up Greek cuisine. Corktown, the Irish part of the city, has plenty of restaurants and bars alongside buildings showcasing the neighborhood heritage, like the Gaelic League.

Corktown Craft Beer Scene Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0550

And while I didn’t make it to Dearborn, known for its Arab population and the largest mosque in North America, I knew of its prominence. You’ll also see plenty of British influence around town, from the layout of the Grand Circus to the ‘upper peninsula pasty’ on offer at local spots.

Joe Lewis.

Joe Lewis Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0285 (2)

Known for being a boxing heavyweight champion for over a decade in the 1930s and most of the 1940s, Joe Lewis is considered by many to be America’s first black hero, seen as a national hero and not just for the color of his skin. His physical prowess also came at a time of national unity aimed at fighting the Nazis during World War II. It is in this context that you visit the sculpture of Joe Lewis’s fist in the heart of downtown, as a show of strength for the man who moved to Detroit at the start of his teenage years and achieved his successes from his time in the city.

Street art is everywhere – even parking garages have crazy artwork!

Street Art Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0647

There is a lot of street art all over Detroit, but in a parking lot?!? Yes, that’s where you’ll find some of the best stuff! Head to the Gallery for the Z Project to check out winding walls of creation after creation. And keep your eyes open around town, too 😉

Street Art Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0616 (2)

Canada is right there.

Canada Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0693

Before my trip I spent some time poring over the Detroit map to get acclimated, and that’s when I realized just how close Canada is – a short distance just across the river. Walking the waterfront, the expanse definitely seemed swim-able, although with boats and the bridge going across, a dip in the water wouldn’t have been necessary.

Detroit was a major outpost on the Underground Railroad.

Underrground Railroad Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0702 (2)

Thanks to its proximity to Canada, Detroit was a huge part of the Underground Railroad, serving as many slaves’ final stop before freedom on the far side of the river. Surprisingly, this fact didn’t come up in any of my reading about Detroit, and was only something I noticed in my wanderings on foot. There is a large memorial on the RiverWalk and museum exhibits as well as churches that served as safe houses. You’ll also see smaller plaques at various buildings strolling around downtown if you’re paying attention:

Underrground Railroad Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0588

Pewabic Pottery should be decorating your house.

Pewabic Pottery Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0859Pewabic Pottery Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0875 (2)

Another item I had never heard of before this trip, Pewabic Pottery has been around for over a century and is Michigan’s only historic pottery. It’s signature glaze gives it a unique sheen, and Pewabic tiles are used locally in fireplaces, kitchen counters, and anything else you can imagine. Even if you’re not planning on a purchase, visiting the National Historic Landmark is free and you can peruse various artists’ take on the style. I couldn’t resist the appeal, and took home some Pewabic art of my own:

Pewabic Pottery Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0877 (2)

They sure love their Art Deco in Detroit.

A lot of historic buildings in Detroit have stood the test of time, so there are plenty of Art Deco gems lurking in easy walking distance of one another downtown, with a few further afield. Most famous are the Guardian and Penobscot Buildings, which you can see in all their fabulous glory:

Guardian Building Art Deco Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0635

https://www.instagram.com/p/BZ9XSrjHLPk/?hl=en&taken-by=travelsavvygal

Watch out for those Michigan lefts.

I had never heard of this, but if you’re driving around Michigan, taking a Michigan left at some point is probably inevitable. It’s sort of like a u-turn, sort of like an on ramp going from the left lane of the road to the left lane heading the opposite direction. Definitely proceed with caution.

Coney dogs are a thing.

Coney Dog Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0385

As a native Brooklynite, anything named ‘Coney’ conjures up the sights and smells of iconic New York destination Coney Island. In Detroit, ‘coney dogs’ were recommended to me again and again as a local specialty that is consumed at all times of day, and especially late night on a weekend. And depending on who you ask, hot dogs originated at New York’s Coney Island, while the ‘coney dog’ is a Michigan original, consisting of a hot dog topped with beanless chili, mustard, and chopped raw onion. Eater has a thorough take on the history and controversy of the ‘coney dog.’

Cider Mills are an autumn must do!

Yates Cider Mill Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0185

These weren’t on my radar before my trip, but that’s the benefit of visiting a city with locals – it was on the itinerary to go to a cider mill even before I arrived. They’ve been in Michigan since the mid-1800s and there are dozens around, many offering pony rides, petting zoos, and carnival games to entertain families with children. But the main attraction is the locally made apple cider – whether chilled, piping hot, or in slushee form – and the incredibly fresh donuts that come in original and cinnamon sugar varieties. Even if you don’t stay long, it’s worth a wait in the long line to score these goodies!

Yates Cider Mill Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit DSC_0195Yates Cider Mill Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit 20171008_145006

As you can tell, I ate and drank well in Detroit, while taking in some beautiful scenery and sights. There is definitely more than meets the eye, and certainly more than I expected. Yet another reason to get out there and explore places for yourself!

What’s the most interesting thing you learned about a place while visiting? Anything else you’ve discovered about Detroit? Or anything else you’d like to know before you go? Share in the ‘Comments’ below!

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Happy Travels!

Lana

Fun Facts Things to Know About Detroit Michigan Before You Visit

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Top 7 Excuses for NOT Going on a Cruise – & Why You Should Anyway!

Top 7 Excuses for NOT Going on a Cruise – & Why You Should Anyway!

Note: This post may contain affiliate links.

Only when I has published my Top Tips for Taking a Cruise, did I realize that lots of people are resistant to even going on a cruise in the first place. Some were vaguely unsure about the idea, but plenty of others had very specific reasons why cruises just weren’t for them.

As someone who loves boats, and hops on the local water taxi as often as I can, I must admit – I was a bit surprised.

Cruise Ship View Top 7 Excuses for NOT Going on a Cruise – And Why You Should Anyway!DSC_0354

For me, cruises conjure up images of me inhaling the fresh sea air and looking out over the horizon, relaxing as the waves lap up on the boat, and listening to the rhythmic movement of the water. Of course, for others, cruises are viewed as either impractical vacation choices, not matching a personal travel style or budget, or just not the preferred mode of travel.

Within these reasons, though, are quite a few misconceptions about what cruise travel is or isn’t. And if you haven’t cruised before, you may not be aware of the variety that is out there, from the size of the cruise ship to the itinerary to the amenities available. There are lots of ways to make informed choices that do match your travel style, and offer a level of convenience and variety of destinations that would be difficult without a cruise ship.

So here they are. The top 7 excuses for not going on a cruise – and why you should go anyway!

Excuse 1 | Seasickness

It’s a common problem. Lots of people have motion sickness or sea sickness, although if you’ve never been on a cruise, your boating experience is likely limited to small vessels, like sailboats or a ferry. Most cruise ships are HUGE. Which means that it’s much more stable in the water, and even if get seasick on smaller ships, you may not when on a cruise.

Porthole Seasickness Top 7 Excuses for NOT Going on a Cruise – And Why You Should Anyway!20170714_194407 (2)

Even if you find that you are seasick on a cruise ship, modern (and ancient) medicine has got your back. From pills to acupressure to magnets to wristbands to ginger supplements, there are lots of options to counter any seasickness you may feel. And if whatever you brought doesn’t work, your cruise reception desk likely has remedies available for free once you’re on the ship.

Dramamine Motion Sickness Relief Original Formula, 36 Tablets, Packaging May Vary

 

 

Sea-Band Adult Wristband, Natural Nausea Relief, 1-Pair, Colors May Vary

 

 

Sailors’ Secret Premium Ginger | The Natural Remedy for Motion Sickness 36 Capsules/250 MG

 

Excuse 2 | Fear of being “stuck” on the boat

It’s true, when you’re on a boat in the middle of the sea or ocean, you can’t just disembark at will (or at least I wouldn’t recommend it). For some, it may be an existential fear, or simply not wanting to feel like they are trapped. A cruise ship really is a floating city, and is like any self-contained resort that you might visit for 5 nights or a week and never leave.

Ship Activities Band Top 7 Excuses for NOT Going on a Cruise – And Why You Should Anyway!20170720_193523 (2)

If the prospect of a full day at sea still puts a jolt of fear in you, just choose the right itinerary. Some cruises involve many days at sea, while others visit a series of ports in close proximity, so you are docked at land all day, and the boat transports you at night to the next destination. There are plenty of sailings in Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean that involve no entire days at sea.

Excuse 3 | Worry about keeping a diet

With a cruise ship essentially as a floating city, it also loads up at the start of each sailing with all of the food supplies for the entire duration. And yes, that’s a lot. You’re likely to have a buffet available as an option for every single meal, and for some people, that can get dangerous.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BW_Q6sblLK5/

But keeping a diet on a cruise ship is really just like keeping a diet at home. While buffets will be an option, there is also typically a portioned, sit-down option available for each meal as well. If you’re concerned about portion size, take advantage of ships with varied dining choices. You can also stick to salad for lunch, limit your alcohol intake (fruity cocktails add to your calorie count quickly!) and only eat dessert once a day.

Excuse 4 | Activities – what will I do all day at sea?

How entertained you will be on a cruise ship is really up to you. Ships with the most amenities will have sports available (I’ve been on cruises with rollerblading tracks, a rock climbing wall, and an ice skating rink), a gym with weight and cardio machines, fitness classes, a spa, a casino, and a rotating entertainment schedule each night.

And like with the second Excuse about being “stuck” on the boat, if you are concerned about running out of activities to do on the ship, simply choose a cruise with more days in port and fewer (or no) days at sea. Having a new city or town to explore each day, will keep your cruise filled with a variety of activities.

Check out this view from Fort Fincastle in Nassau in the Bahamas. Close to the heart of downtown, the Fort was surprisingly empty when I visited with a bunch of friends from the cruise ship, which is so close you can spot it in this picture along with the other ships in port that day ⛴ As you can see by the directions the cannons are facing, it was initially meant to defend Nassau's harbor, but was never needed and just ended up being used as a beacon for arriving ships. I love exploring further inland than other tourists (just a 15-minute walk in this case!) and I got to see a few slices of Bahamian life on the way to the Fort. For all of my top things to do (including food and drink!) in one day in Nassau, head to the blog, link in bio. Where was the last spot you wandered off-the-beaten-path? ⛴ ⛴ ⛴ ⛴ ⛴ #cruiseship #instacruise #bahamas #bahamascruise #itsbetterinthebahamas #nassau #scenicview #visualsoflife #greettheoutdoors #travelblog #blogger #blogging #TBSCommunity #IamATraveler #bbctravel #guardiantravelsnaps #ForbesTravelGuide #keepexploring #openmyworld #travelmore #mytinyatlas #worlderlust #traveldiaries #getoutthere #welivetoexplore #globetrotter #worldplaces #travelstoke #travelawesome #neverstopexploring

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Being on a cruise ship is also a wonderful opportunity to kick back, relax with a good book, and read uninterrupted in peaceful surroundings. Sometimes doing nothing can be quite nice, too =)

https://www.instagram.com/p/BWiXsfhFSqh/?hl=en&taken-by=travelsavvygal

Excuse 5 | Not wanting to eat with strangers

If you weren’t aware, many cruise ships as a default will seat people together in the formal dining room for dinner each night. On my last cruise, we were a table of twelve – six couples seated together, and none of us knew each other beforehand. While the idea of eating with complete strangers might seem a little strange, it can be a great way to socialize on the ship, and I had a wonderful experience with this.

But if you’re headed on a romantic getaway and would like some seclusion, just let your cruise line know. Most will be able to accommodate your request for a table on your own if they know in advance. You can also opt out of the formal dining room and simply visit the buffet for dinner. Larger cruise ships in particular tend to have expanded dining options as well, like a private table not tied to a particular dinner seating and specialty restaurants that you can reserve.

Specialty Restaurants Top 7 Excuses for NOT Going on a Cruise – And Why You Should Anyway!20170714_181043 (2)Specialty Restaurants Lobster Small Portion Size Top 7 Excuses for NOT Going on a Cruise – And Why You Should Anyway!20170714_192826

Excuse 6 | Ship will be full of <insert age group here>

Yes, there are many bad stereotypes about cruises out there, but not all of which are true. Some people are concerned about too many children on a sailing, who might make lots of noise and disturb peace and quiet. Others might be concerned about too many older cruisers, and be looking for more of a young vibe and party scene. And families might be seeking cruises that are kid-friendly, with not too many young cruisers partying all night.

Like with everything about cruise ships, it depends. Certainly a cruise during the summer or school holidays will be more likely to have families with children on board. Expensive cruises, like those to Antarctica or the Galapagos Islands tend to have more retirees who have both the time and money for the journey.

The itinerary will also be a factor, as well as the amenities on board the ship. For me, the composition of the other cruise guests has always been a mix, and even my recent July cruise that I expected to be packed with kids did not have a huge proportion of families on board.

TIP! If too many children on board the ship is a concern, seek to travel on a ship with an adult-only pool area.

Excuse 7 | Will be over budget buying extras on board

Certainly not everything is included in the price of your room aboard a cruise ship. There might be mandatory tipping, some casino losses, and the money you spend on cocktails by the pool and wine at dinner. And if you’re not paying attention, the extras can add up.

The way to avoid an unpleasant surprise at the end of your cruise when you get the room bill is to plan for it! When you first book your cruise, inquire about things like mandatory tipping and which items are included in the base price, and factor these in when budgeting for your trip.

Cocktails Alcoholic Beverage Package Top 7 Excuses for NOT Going on a Cruise – And Why You Should Anyway!20170713_215855 (2)

If there is an extra that you’ll consume a lot of – whether soda, specialty coffee drinks, or alcoholic beverages – most cruise ships offer packages that are usually a better deal than purchasing these things as you go. Planning to go on official trip excursions? There is often a discount if you book in advance of the cruise and sometimes even pre-cruise sales to reserve at the best possible price.

       READ MORE: Top Tips for Taking a Cruise

Overall, the main key is to decide what you want or need in a cruise ahead of time. Identify your budget, and then be sure the cost of the sailing plus any anticipated extras (tipping, excursions, beverages) fall within it.

There are so many options available around the world, from small to large ships and a wide range of itineraries, that you really can tailor the ship and the cruise line and the itinerary to your needs. This article with a comparison of different cruise ship sizes, including specific cruise lines for each, is a good place to start. Or check out this recent run-down of the best small cruise lines, for those looking for a more intimate overall experience.

Even if you last cruised five or ten years ago, you might be surprised about the range of options now available for those interested in taking a cruise vacation. The question is not whether or not to cruise, but simply which cruise option is right for you.

Happy sailing!

Lana

Have you ever been on a cruise? If you don’t want to go on a cruise, why not? Are you convinced after this article? Share away in the ‘Comments’ below.

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Top 7 Excuses for NOT Going on a Cruise – And Why You Should Anyway!

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Finding Zero Mile in Detroit

Finding Zero Mile in Detroit

“You’re going to Detroit? Why? Isn’t in dangerous there?”

It’s a question I received again and again leading up to my long weekend in Detroit, Michigan, to spend time with friends from Milan, Italy (random, I know). Not only was I looking forward to catching up with them, but also to exploring an American city I had never visited for the first time.

And then, the inevitable follow-up question in the conversation would come: “Isn’t that where the movie 8 Mile was filmed?”

It seems that most Americans’ (and foreigners’) ideas of Detroit come from the movie 8 Mile, based in large part on rapper Eminem’s upbringing and struggles growing up in the rough neighborhoods around the road ‘8 Mile’ in Detroit, a de facto dividing line between black and white, and poor and rich communities still.

Given that the Detroit reference point for most people was a road counting out 8 miles from the center of town – and that there are lots of other “mile” roads counting out from the city before and after it – I expected the central point, or zero mile marker, to be obvious.

But let’s back up a little bit.

Kilometer Zeros Around the World

As most of the world is on the metric system, it is far more typical to see a ‘kilometer zero’ than a ‘zero mile’ marker, but there are plenty of both to be found all over (thanks, British Empire).

For anyone who’s visited the famous Cathedral Notre-Dame in Paris, France, you may have come across this marker perched in the cobblestones out front like I did:

Point Zero Paris France Notre Dame DSC_0780

It was a bit of a ritual for me to seek out the point from which all roads in France are measured, especially in such a lovely locale in Paris’s center.

Although I haven’t been to Madrid, Spain yet (I know, I know), there is also a quite prominent zero kilometer marker there as well:

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Like in France, it marks the highway kilometer counts and is also the central point for the numbered roads within the city of Madrid.

While most of the ‘kilometer zero’ markers are still used and prominent today within the specific city or country where they’re located, few I expected to be as iconic and visible as the ‘zero mile’ in a city known for roads like Six Mile, Seven Mile, Eight Mile, Nine Mile, and so on.

Nine Mile Road Finding Zero Mile Detroit Michigan Point of Origin DSC_0969

The Quest

Surely, I thought that finding the ‘zero mile’ marker of Detroit to be a quick stop on my first day in town. I was mistaken.

I don’t know how this is possible, but no one knew where it was!

Not my friend who was born and raised in Detroit.
Not my friend who moved there recently and lives right downtown.
Not the guard at the nearby courthouse in the Penobscot Building.
Not even park patrol at Campus Martius, the supposed site itself, while standing with a dozen steps of the actual spot.

I finally located the ‘Zero Mile’ in Detroit on my third try, my final day in town, only realizing then that I had actually been standing right next to it my first day exploring.

Detroit’s Zero Mile Marker

So how long had that thing been around anyway, that nobody seems to know about it?

It took quite a bit of searching on the internet across my multiple searches to even find enough information to locate the spot in the end. And was hard to find even when I knew what to look for. Although Detroit has numbered mile roads that led me to seek a ‘Zero Mile,’ the central spot where counting began is actually known primarily as the ‘Point of Origin.’

Historically, Detroit’s current road system was laid out after an 1805 fire that decimated the city despite causing no fatalities. A local judge created a wheel-and-spoke system modeled after Washington DC’s street layout, designating where the mile count would start.

A 6-foot tall square granite pillar was erected to literally mark the spot where the surveying began, although over time it became buried and hidden, only visible at ground level by the accompanying marker, the ‘Point of Origin.’ The Detroit ‘Point of Origin’ marker used to be easier to find, looking like this:

Image: Waymarking
Image: Waymarking

The Campus Martius park had an overhaul as part of downtown renovations and revitalization, with the park being rededicated in 2004, and according to my research was the location of Detroit’s ‘Point of Origin,’

Despite having seen a picture online of what I now know to be the old ‘Zero Mile’ marker, and knowing the narrow park area contained it, I saw nothing even approaching this photo in my strolling.

So what does it look like today?

Zero Mile Marker Point of Origin Finding Zero Mile Detroit Michigan DSC_0255

As you can see, the marker is quite unobtrusive, with the year after the fire only vaguely visible. You’re only likely to find it if you’re specifically seeking it out!

To get there, go to Campus Martius, a prominent oval-shaped park in central Detroit. Go to the side of the fountain facing the restaurant, and there it is, in the ground, right by the entrance:

Campus Martius Finding Zero Mile Detroit Michigan 20171009_170554 (2)

I’m not sure why Detroit hasn’t kept the old lettering that boldly announced the presence of the ‘zero mile’ marker, Detroit’s ‘Point of Origin.’ But if you’d like, you too can visit the spot where it all began!

Have you visited any ‘zero mile’ or ‘kilometer zero’ markers either in your hometown or in your travels? Or managed to find Detroit’s ‘Point of Origin’ like I did? Tell me all about it in the Comments, I’d love to visit more!

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Finding Zero Mile Detroit Michigan Point of Origin

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7 Reasons to Visit Israel during Chanukah

7 Reasons to Visit Israel during Chanukah

I hadn’t planned to go to Israel during Chanukah two years ago, it just sort of happened. I knew that I was targeting the first weekend in December for a short trip somewhere, since it was a holiday weekend in Milan. After asking around a bit, I couldn’t find a single friend who was available to travel – most people already had plans.

Then, on a whim, I checked on flight prices to Israel. I have some family there, and since it’s only a 4-hour direct flight from Milan to Tel Aviv, they had been asking me when I’d visit ever since I moved to Europe.

It seemed like the next option to try, just to see. Then up pops EasyJet, one of the European discount carriers, with a fare of 68. Round trip. For direct flights in both directions.

Obviously I took this as a sign, and I booked my flights immediately. Only after that did I realize that my visit would coincide with the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. I was busy with university coursework during Chanukah the year I lived in Israel, so experiencing the fun of Chanukah there as a tourist for the first time was a welcome surprise.

Here’s why Israel is a great destination to visit during Chanukah:

Lights

Lights 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151203_173036

Chanukah is known as the ‘Festival of Lights’ and just as you might expect, the whole country is decorated in lights during the 8-day celebration. It is a beautiful time of year for a visit, with everywhere from small towns to big cities lit up at night, like you might expect to see in other places for Christmas. You may also get the chance to progressively light Chanukah candles during the eight nights, a special tradition to share even if you aren’t Jewish.

Potato Pancakes

I promise you, I ate lots of latkes during my Chanukah in Israel. They are traditional potato pancakes that are cooked in oil to commemorate the miracle of the holiday, when a small amount of oil lasted unexpectedly for eight nights.

In Israel, I devoured home-cooked latkes at several friends’ and family’s houses, grabbed a few when out for other meals at regular restaurants serving it as a menu special, and snagged a few more when I went to Chanukah parties around Tel Aviv.

What didn’t I do? Photograph any of the ones I ate during my trip! So here’s a shot of latke-making in the US with my family from last year to give you an idea of what to expect:

Latkes 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20161225_184259

Doughnuts

Sufganiyot Doughnuts Donuts 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151204_113317

Doughnuts as far as the eye can see is the view that will greet you walking into any bakery during the holiday of Chanukah, and this seemed to be the most-consumed Chanukah food. Doughnuts are known in Hebrew as sufganiyot, and you’ll hear that word quite a lot during a holiday visit. Like latkes, they are a traditional festive food because they are fried in oil, commemorating the Chanukah miracle.

Sufganiyot Doughnuts Donuts 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151210_211231

Practically, sufganiyot for Chanukah are an excuse for bakeries to take their sweets to the next level, with all sorts of crazy flavor combinations you won’t see at other times of the year. From elaborate decorations to injectable “shots” of doughnut filling, it is a foodie dream to explore all of the different doughnut varieties available. And the good news is, you have 8 nights to do it!

Sufganiyot Doughnuts Donuts 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151211_092257 (2)

TIP! Jewish holidays go by the lunar calendar, so during the nights of Chanukah you’ll find doughnuts overflowing out of bakeries across the country. On Day 8 of Chanukah, following the eighth night, it’s back to the regular bakery offerings – so get your fix of specialty doughnuts before then!

Other Winter Specialties

In addition to the two traditional Chanukah foods you’ll find in abundance – latkes and sufganiyot – there are also some other winter culinary specialties that if you visit for Chanukah, you’ll get to enjoy just by being there in the right season for it.

Top of that list for me is the Krem Bo, a dessert that comes individually wrapped, and is only available during the winter time. It consists of a circular graham cookie base, a marshmallow-like meringue mixture piled high on top, with a thin coating of chocolate around everything but the bottom.

Since it’s covered in chocolate, it would melt in Israel’s hot climate at other times of year, so is only available during winter. Most convenience stores and markets will have it in one or more flavors – if you don’t see it, just ask!

Krem Bo 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151203_185545Krem Bo 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151204_102514 (2)

Another cold weather favorite is the aromatic, creamy Arabic beverage known as sachlav, which will be served at outdoor stands piping hot just like hot chocolate or mulled wine in other parts of the world. Head to the nearest market – or just keep your eyes open around town – and you’ll definitely find a vendor to sample this specialty.

READ MORE: Foodie Bucket List: 16 Best Local Foods (and Drinks) in Israel

No Special Religious Restrictions

A lot of Jewish holidays are of great religious importance, and observant Jews will treat it like the Sabbath, not using their phones or computers or even turning on lights around the house. The benefit of Chanukah is that it is a relatively minor holiday not subject to the same restrictions.

So other than the typically one Sabbath that will fall over the 8 days of Chanukah, you can cook latkes with your religious friends and family with abandon, which I especially savored this trip since I have extended family members who are observant who I otherwise would not have been able to spend as much time cooking and celebrating with.

TIP! Even if you won’t be hanging out with any religious Jews when you go, there won’t be any special closures of public buses or businesses for Chanukah to worry about and track along with your itinerary.

Festivities

Festive 7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah 20151207_225916 (2)

Israelis are always looking for a sibah l’msibah, a reason to party! While Israelis might be traveling at the end of December to spend New Year’s somewhere special, people are typically around through the rest of the month, and celebrate accordingly.

I spent most of my Chanukah in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. It has a bustling nightlife during a regular week, which goes into overdrive for the Chanukah celebrations. There were multiple parties happening across the city on any given night, from low-key gatherings to late-night clubbing on the beach. Get a special taste of festivities across the country by coming during Chanukah!

Great Travel Deals

Late in the year, there is a jump in prices in late November with increased American tourism around when Thanksgiving falls and again between Christmas and New Year’s Day as many people everywhere have work holidays during that time. The typical timing of Chanukah in early-mid December positions it between those other holidays, and I was delighted to find great deals for travel during that period.

Not only did I get possibly my best flight deal ever traveling to Tel Aviv from Milan for cheaper than a domestic train ticket, but other tourist amenities were also cheaper after I arrived. Spending Friday night in Jerusalem was a no-brainer after finding availability at a decent hotel in the center of town for just $60/night, so my budget went just that extra bit farther and I was able to see more throughout the entire trip.

What holiday celebrations have you enjoyed on the road? Have you ever visited Israel during Chanukah? Anything else you want to know before you go? Let me know in the Comments!

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7 Best Reasons Why Visit Israel During Chanukah

READ MORE ABOUT ISRAEL TRAVEL:
Insider Bucket List: 20 Top Experiences to Seek Out in Israel

Impressions & Top Insider Picks for What to Do in Jerusalem

8 Best Wineries to Visit in Israel

Best Places to Eat (& Drink) in Israel

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How to Spend One Day in Bergamo, Italy

How to Spend One Day in Bergamo, Italy

Imagine a raised plateau, like one of the mesas of the American southwest or Uluru (formerly Ayer’s Rock) in central Australia. Usually you’ll encounter a formation like this out in nature. But in northern Italy’s town of Bergamo, there is a large plateau with a UNESCO World Heritage old town perched at the top, surrounded by modern Bergamo, Italy.

It is this division that makes Bergamo unique, split into the historical, raised Città Alta with its meandering pedestrian cobblestone walkways and the lower Città Bassa with a bustling, modern city.

Bergamo is so close to Milan that it houses one of the three airports of the metropolitan area, and is easily reached by car or train in around an hour (more details in the ‘Getting There‘ section below). The upper city has incredible charm and a quite lengthy history, with all of its attractions close to one another in easy walking distance, making it an ideal destination for a day trip.

Here’s how to make the most of a one-day visit:

Around Town

Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of items listed below as sights to see. Bergamo is a town made for wandering, and the Città Alta is so compact that you can easily stroll between everywhere I’ve listed at a pretty leisurely pace.

Piazza Vecchia

Piazza Vecchia How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0355

The Piazza Vecchia, or old square, is the central space in Bergamo’s Città Alta, with many of Bergamo’s sights either on the square or nearby. It is a gathering place that is especially lively on weekends, with many visitors and street performers clustered all around.

Piazza Vecchia How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0248

Palazzo della Ragione

Palazzo della Ragione How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0223 (2)

Right on the Piazza, this regional palace served many functions over many centuries, and has exhibitions that rotate seasonally. My favorite spot is underneath the open archways at street level, where there is a centuries-old sundial, that still marks the passing seasons. At noon daily, the sun will still meet the mark on the ground corresponding to the month and day.

Palazzo della Ragione Sundial How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0229 (2)The sun shines on the line each day at mezzogiorno (aka noon)

Campanone Civic Tower

Campanone Civic Tower How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0224 (2)

If you’ve been reading the blog for a bit, by now you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I both like to climb things and also enjoy an expansive view in a new place. Ascending this Civic Tower (by elevator or on foot) gives you the highest perspective you’ll get on the already high up Città Alta, getting a sense for the overall layout of the small area and providing some pretty fabulous glimpses of the surrounding countryside.

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0235 (2)Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0234 (2)

Just a quick glance at the outside of this stunning Basilica gives an inkling of the treasures that must be contained within its walls. Leave some time to go inside and explore, as you can easily get lost in the many works of art.

Baptistery

Baptistery (Battistero) How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0236 (2)

There is also the nearby ornate Baptistery, or Battistero, where babies would be baptized before being allowed into the main church. Originally built inside the Basilica, it has now been relocated and is officially part of the Cathedral.

Duomo (Cathedral)

Duomo Cathedral How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0233 (2)

Pretty much every town in Italy has a main cathedral, and Bergamo is no exception. While beautiful, most visitors find it overshadowed by the Basilica, and will spend more of their time there.

Off the Beaten Path

There is plenty of wandering to be done on foot around the Città Alta, which I recommend leaving time to do. As you stroll, here are two spots of particular interest:

Convent of San Francisco

Convent of San Francisco How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0259

This ex-convent is a quiet spot away from most tourists with a lovely inner courtyard and a great view over the surrounding Città Bassa down below. The complex also houses the History Museum of Bergamo, which I didn’t visit, although I loved strolling along the grounds despite my expression in the shot below.

Convent of San Francisco How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0268

Venetian Walls

Venetian Walls How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0343

What good is having a city on an elevated plateau without some defenses? For over three centuries Bergamo was part of Venice’s extended empire, hence the aptly named Venetian walls. Yes, the walls are old, but really I love exploring any old city walls – not just for the history they represent, but also for the great views!

Best Bites

Città Alta

Ristorante Trattoria Bernabo How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0375

Ristorante Trattoria Bernabo

Although there are several higher-end restaurants scattered across Bergamo’s Città Alta, I’m all about down home cooking of the region when it comes to Italian food. This restaurant not only has wood seating and décor that speak to the city’s history, but delivers basic, humble, and delicious local cuisine to satisfy your hunger and nourish your soul. It’s an especially great spot for lunch, with daily set menus and specials.

Gelateria Pasticceria Dei Mille

Although this spot is located right on the Piazza Vecchia, the main square, it hits that perfect balance between intense, pure flavor of the ingredient and creamy texture that I look for in a gelato. Their fruit flavors are particularly delicious, with very concentrated flavor, and this ranks as one of the favorite gelato spots after three years of living in Italy (and much gelato consumption, trust me).

 

TIP! It’s also lovely to grab a drink anywhere there is outdoor seating, there are several spots with beautiful views around the Città Alta where you can linger and enjoy.

Città Bassa

Taverna Valtellinese

I once drove from Milan to Bergamo just for a few hours to meet someone for dinner. It seemed like a hassle to go up to the Città Alta just to eat (although that would have been very possible as well), so I found this gem in the Città Bassa, the lower, more modern part of the city.

The cuisine hails from the Valtellina region almost due north of Bergamo, although there are some general items you’d see on any Italian menu as well. The highlight was the carne al bastone, a two-foot long stick of white ash tree with beef wrapped around it, cooked, and then served on the stick! I think I was so enthralled I completely failed at any picture-taking, but trust me, it’s a sight to be seen – check it out on the left plate in this photo here.

Getting There

City Gate - Entrance How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0378 (2)

Arriving in Bergamo

Orio al Serio Airport

As I mentioned before, one of Milan’s 3 major airports is located in Bergamo, and principally serves low-cost carriers like Ryanair. You can also arrive at Bergamo’s airport by transfer from other Milan-area airports. From the Bergamo airport, there is a bus transfer that will take you to the center of town, and there are of course taxis as well.

Bus/Train

Other than arriving by bus from the airport (see above), the easiest way from the city of Milan to Bergamo is by train. You can check schedules and fares on the TrenItalia English website.

TIP! There are multiple train stations in Milan. Be sure to check which one you’re departing from, although you can search for all options at once on the TrenItalia website by selecting “Milano (tutte le stazioni).”

Driving

Driving was my most frequent method of arriving in Bergamo, which is right off the major east-west highway in norther Italy that runs between Turin and Venice. There are ample parking lots in the center of Bergamo’s Città Bassa (lower city), with several well-signed garages that you’ll find by a blue sign with the letter P.

TIP! Thorough instructions on How to Get to Bergamo by all the methods listed above.

Going up to the Città Alta

Looking from Bergamo's citta bassa up at the citta alta

All of the ways listed above will get you to the Città Bassa, but if you want to get to the historical Città Alta, there are two main methods of arriving:

Funicular

Our transport up the steep incline

The funicular, a tram up the steep slope connecting the Città Bassa to the Città Alta, is the main way to arrive for most visitors. You can check out the timetable at the Funicular link above (it is Funicular C at the bottom of the page), but it runs so often, just go to the station and buy your ticket when you arrive.

Walking

Walking to the Citta' Alta How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0345Featured Walking to the Citta' Alta How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy DSC_0348

The less-frequented path along a few streets is a bit steep, but worth meandering along for the lovely views along the way. While facing the funicular station, start ascending to your right and follow the street until it ends and winds around to the left. It’s a little over a kilometer to the city gate, and will probably take around 20 minutes to arrive at the Città Alta entrance:

Bergamo with my uncle visiting from Hong Kong

However you decide to structure (or not structure) your exploring, the town of Bergamo is an incredibly fun day trip with quite unique views as you see and stroll the two levels of the city. One I liked so much I returned to again and again during my time living in Milan!

Have you been to Bergamo? Any spots you enjoyed that didn’t make my list? Any other questions about making the trip? Let me know in the ‘Comments’!

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How to Spend One Day in Bergamo Italy - Day Trip from Milan

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Top Tips for Not Losing Things When You Travel (& How to Handle It When You Do)

Top Tips for Not Losing Things When You Travel (& How to Handle It When You Do)

Lost or misplaced items can be incredibly frustrating, especially if it was something expensive or with sentimental value. But this is an experience I honestly haven’t been very familiar with, despite my frequent travels. Until this year.

I still can’t pinpoint what exactly has changed. Is it that I’m getting older? Is my mind just overloaded with the stress and changes of moving back to the US after 5 years abroad? Or maybe I’ve always lost things, and it’s just that I’ve lost more precious things this year so I noticed it more?

Who knows, and honestly the reason is not nearly as important as the result – this year, I’ve definitely been losing things far more often than I’d like.

Things that were expensive to replace. Things that I picked up in past travels and had a special place in my heart. And things that were just inconvenient to not have anymore.

The good news is that an ounce of prevention goes a long way. And fortunately – for my sanity and my wallet – I manage to hold on to my possessions successfully most of the time. Here’s how.

Tips for Not Losing Things When You Travel

Certainly the easiest course of action is not losing things in the first place. While that is never 100% guaranteed, here are some things you can do to greatly minimize the number of things you will misplace or lose while you’re on the road:

Pack brightly colored objects.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost black or navy umbrellas. I’ll be sitting down at a restaurant and leave it on the seat next to me, and never spot it when I leave as it blends into my surroundings.

My bright pink umbrella? I’ve had it for years! Even the few times I’ve walked away without it, inevitably a server or friend will see it and pass it back to me. Choose bright or unusual colors when you can, and you’ll be much more likely to hold onto important objects on the road.

It was a little foggy and rainy. You're *supposed* to be able to see the model for the Disney castle behind me.

Have a designated spot for the items you always travel with.

Some people make lists. I travel enough that I just know which items I keep where. For my well-traveled wheeled carry-on bag, I know that my deodorant, toiletries bag, and hairbrush always gets packed in the small outside pocket. My cell phone charger is always in my purse.

However you need to remember it (there’s probably an app for that), set up locations that you’ll always use for all of the items you’ll need on a trip. It’s much easier to see if something is missing or forgotten if you have one place it will always be in your luggage.

Have secure places to store sensitive items.

Of course, for things like your passport or driver’s license or credit card, you don’t want to have those items easily accessible to possibly be snatched or fall out of your bag. Be sure to have an extra zippered compartment to seal with your valuables inside.

And for longer journeys, consider hidden compartments in your main luggage for some emergency cash or to store your second credit card or bank card as a backup just in case the unexpected happens.

Put things back where you got them from.

Having those set places to put certain objects only works if you consistently put things back where you got them. Every. Single. Time. It may seem tedious, but this is the only way it works.

Exploring a new city or country can make you more on edge than normal – that’s part of the excitement! – which means that is especially important to follow the system you set up. Even if it means stopping for an extra minute before getting a start on your day or taking extra care when packing your bag.

Routine, routine, routine.

Most of your time traveling will not be in the moment of packing or unpacking at home or at your hotel or accommodation. It will be you in the airport or train station, boarding a bus, or on foot exploring. This is how you’ll make the most of your time traveling, but also consists of hundreds of little opportunities to possibly leave something behind.

I usually have both a cardigan and a scarf with me when I’m traveling, in case the weather cools down or I enter a museum with the air conditioning on full blast. This means that these two items are laid over the top of my purse, which means that every now and again, and each time I leave a place, I reach over and confirm that I still have both.

Of course, the one scarf I did lose recently (a beautiful one I had purchased in Barcelona traveling with a friend), was when I decided that in Belize that I didn’t need to keep it out anymore, and put it into my backpack and then wore it again without checking that I still had it.

Scarf Tips for not losing things when you travel IMG_3549 (2)

Check thoroughly every time you leave somewhere.

There are a few places where you’re most likely to leave a treasured item behind: your accommodation, transportation, or at a restaurant or concert/performance. Out and about, I’m most likely to leave a sweater or umbrella or shopping bag behind. Or my phone charger or something in the bathroom wherever I’m staying. Knowing which items you frequently forget can help with your checking, including having a list of those final things to confirm you’ve got.

When I’m carrying multiple items, I’ll do something that I recently discovered that oddly my mother and I both do – count how many items I’ve carrying, and then check for that number of items. If I know I’m carrying 3 things and I only count 2, I know I’ve missed something.

The real bottom line, though – whether you’re a counter, or list-maker, or simply a thorough searcher – find a checking method that works for you and USE IT consistently!

Leave an obvious reminder somewhere you’ll definitely notice it.

It may sound silly, but I’ve been known to leave something on the floor exactly in front of a hotel door to make sure I can’t leave without grabbing it. Or hold my wallet in my hand until I put my credit card back inside after paying the bill.

While those suggestions may seem over the top, there’s no better way than something extremely prominent to get your attention and make sure you don’t leave a beloved item behind!

How to Handle It When You Do Lose Something

Of course, even with the best preventive methods, it’s still possible to lose something. In some cases, the item might be expendable, but of course the incidents that stick out most in my mind (and probably in yours, too!) are those where it was something critical like an ID or bank card or some object or item of clothing with sentimental value.

A few things I’ve lost recently have really thrown my world upside down, since I’m not accustomed to losing things. In my effort to retrace my steps and find the missing items, I have picked up a few tips on how to best do this, and which methods were most effective.

While some of these suggestions may seem obvious, it’s definitely worth mentioning them all as I’ve (foolishly) overlooked them at one time or another. And shouldn’t have.

Act quick.

Especially if you lose something while in transit, you may first realize the loss upon your arrival. By which point you might be exhausted or jet lagged or both. The inclination in the moment will definitely be to delay reporting an item as missing, but this is never the right choice. The quicker you act, the more likely you’ll be able to locate whatever you’ve lost.

Go in person. Otherwise call.

Again, this seems so simple, but you’d be amazed at how much a difference it makes to search for your item in person. It’s much easier for someone to blow you off on the phone, or only look for your missing item half-heartedly. When there is a distraught person right in front of them, there will be a more thorough search.

When I lost my work ID a few months ago and was fairly certain I had left it at the gym. I called and they said the looked for it but to no avail. When I arrived in person the next morning to ask about it, they located my ID in under a minute.

Depending on where you lose something, you might also run into an automated phone line where it is difficult to get connected with an actual person. So make that extra effort if you really want to recover the item you’ve lost.

Officially report valuables as lost.

For any important document like a passport, credit card, or bank card, be sure to contact the bank or company that issued your card or the relevant consulate to make an official report IMMEDIATELY. As bad as it is to lose something, it is even worse to have to deal with unauthorized bank withdrawals, surprise charges on your credit card, or identity theft.

TIP! Keep a hard copy list of important phone numbers, like your bank, credit card company, and local consulate or government office, so you can contact them if needed. If you have access to WiFi, you can always call on Skype or dial the collect number.

TIP! Some companies allow you to place a hold on your card instead of canceling it, so you can reactivate it and continue using it throughout your travels if it’s later recovered.

Continue checking every possible spot.

You’ll probably replay your step-by-step movements and might even become convinced that you know exactly where you lost something. Don’t trust your memory! Especially after replaying events over and over in your mind, you may be rewriting history. Continue to check everywhere.

It’s hard to check with lots of places and you may start to feel silly asking again and again, but push through and go through all the motions for your best shot at recovering what was lost. Decide how much you want to avoid sounding like a careless person by inquiring in multiple places versus how badly you’d like your item back.

When I lost that beloved scarf I had bought in Barcelona, Spain, it was on my way back to the US from Belize. I was unsure if it had been left behind at the airport in Belize, the Houston airport where I connected, the airport restaurant where I ate dinner, or in my Lyft ride home.

Although I I filed a lost item report with the airline online, there was no one to call or way to upload a photo, and I never personally checked with any of the other possible locations. In retrospect I should have also called each of those locations to speak to someone personally and leave no stone unturned in my search.

Four months later, and my scarf has not been recovered (and probably never will be).

De Halve Maan brewery tour
Happier times wearing my scarf in Brugges, Belgium

Trust me, if you’ve never lost something important, it can feel devastating in the moment. And if you’re like me and don’t typically lose things, it can be unnerving as well.

Of course, credit cards that need to be canceled or a lost passport can be difficult and possibly expensive to resolve. But even the sentimental items with low monetary value can be quite upsetting to lose as well.

Think more deliberately about how you safeguard your valuables and keep track of all of your belongings on the road. And keep these top tips in mind in case you do lose something, so you can take all the right actions as quickly as possible.

How do you keep your belongings safe on the road? Or secure when you’re out and about where you live? Any tips that I missed?

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Top tips for not losing things when you travel and how to handle it when you do

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How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia

How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia

Charlottesville may be a college town, but it is much more than a destination for the University of Virginia.

There are several US presidential estates in the area, most famously Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Estate, but not only. Charlottesville is nestled in some of the greenest areas of Virginia, offering many opportunities for hiking and outdoor exploration. And the reason I keep coming back again and again? All of the delicious food and wine all nestled into a small, beautiful area.

It is definitely useful to have a car for a weekend in Charlottesville, because many of the sights you’ll want to see will be out of town. Also, if you’re like me and planning to do a bunch of wine tasting (and purchasing), it is handy to have the trunk of a car to transport it all. And of course, road tripping gives you the ultimate flexibility of how to spend your day.

Read on for all my top recommendations on ‘Things to Do’ and ‘Best Bites & Sips’ for when you visit.

Things To Do

Monticello

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Former presidential estate of Thomas Jefferson, this is probably the most well-known landmark in the area and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tours are required, but you can get a ticket to do this at your own pace, or one that focuses on a specific aspect of the estate, like the lives of slaves on the plantation or Jefferson’s gardening interest and research. In the years since my last trip there, Monticello tourism has exploded, especially in summertime. Definitely try to time your visit for spring or fall, and plan to get an early start to beat the crowds.

TIP! You can get tickets online in advance at a discount, and this will save you waiting in line when you arrive. These are available until midnight the day before your visit.

TIP! There are quite a few quite easy walking trails across the property, so leave additional time if you’d like to explore more on foot beyond the estate and its buildings. A trail map is here.

Highland

James Monroe Highland Estate How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia DSC_0846James Monroe Highland Estate How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia DSC_0855

Although James Monroe’s Highland Estate was (deliberately) close to Monticello, it attracts far fewer visitors. Certainly it is a smaller estate, but it also limited since the original house burned down at one point. The up side for visitors to the area is that even at the peak of summer travel when other spots are quite busy, you can still stroll in and enjoy the relaxing and quite informative tour of the grounds. A lot is still being discovered on the property, so even if you’ve visited before, it’s worth another look on your next Charlottesville trip.

TIP! Highland is so close to Monticello that it is quite easy to visit both together in a single morning or afternoon.

Explore Nature

https://www.instagram.com/p/BX0rKqIlNOk/

There are a ton of nearby green spaces to explore, most famously Shenandoah National Park and its scenic Skyline Drive. There are also a lot of nearby hikes that you can research through the national park website. There are also trails on the Monticello Estate, see more in the above TIP!

Historic Downtown Mall

Historic Downtown Pedestrian Mall How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170610_184947

This pedestrian area is the social center of Charlottesville and has a great variety of shops, galleries, and restaurants to enjoy over the course of an afternoon or evening (see ‘Best Bites & Sips’ below). Envisioned as an ‘urban park’ there are a ton of outdoor events scheduled here, especially in summer. Plus, there is an ongoing schedule of concerts and festivals at the adjacent Sprint Pavilion.

University of Virginia (UVA) Campus

Even if you’re not a prospective student or the family of one, you might want to explore the campus of the University of Virginia. It was founded by Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s and is the only college campus in America that is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Explore the campus on your own, or join UVA University Guide Service for one of the historical tours that take place most days at 10am, 11am, and 2pm. There are also tours about the ‘History of Women’ and ‘History of African Americans’ at the University by request.

Alcohol Alley

Nearby Route 151 is not the only place to find great wineries, breweries, and cideries in the Charlottesville area, but it sure has a lot of them – hence how it got nicknamed by locals. Certainly even if you do no research and have no plan for tasting the local libations, you can explore along this road and follow the excellent signage to pop into a few random spots. Silverback Distillery below was an impulse stop along this stretch of road, and there is lots more to explore.

Monticello Wine Trail

https://www.instagram.com/p/BVQmk07grgO/

Honestly, the wineries (and the delicious food – see below) are the main reason I keep recommending Charlottesville as a great weekend getaway. You visit one or two of the 30+ local wineries over the course of the weekend or can set an ambitious schedule – like I *might* have done – hitting up 4-5 wineries in a day. It’s definitely possible to do that without feeling rushed, but of course it all depends on how early you start 😉

TIP! Most local wineries are open from 10 or 11am until 5 or 6pm.

My top 2 picks are DelFosse Vineyards & Winery and King Family Vineyards, but for more on the best local wineries – including which ones have the best lunch options and picnic grounds – head to my post all about Charlottesville Wineries.

READ MORE: Best Wineries in Charlottesville, Virginia

Silverback Distillery

Silverback Distillery How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia DSC_0782 (2)

This was an impulse stop on a day of hitting up multiple wineries and a great find. Although the Distillery is only a few years old, it offers rye and honey rye, plus boasts several award winning alcohols including a very uniquely aromatic gin that I just loved. They also craft some pretty creative cocktails on the weekend, and I might have been just a little mesmerized by them setting a chunk of bark on fire to infuse their smoky Old Fashioned.

Silverback Distillery How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia DSC_0786

Best Bites & Sips

I have not had a bad meal in Charlottesville. There is a definite foodie culture in this university town and many outstanding options to choose from, from low-key dishes done well to high-end experimental cuisine. I certainly have not sampled them all (yet!) but I have done quite a bit of research into the spots where I did land on my trips, and have only included the spots of my most outstanding meals here.

A lot of the best spots are clustered in the downtown pedestrian area that extends for many blocks, and I’d definitely recommend staying walking distance from this part of town. There are several coffee and breakfast places to hit up in the morning, and dozens of exceptional restaurants to explore each evening.

Breakfast

Bluegrass Grill & Bakery

Bluegrass Grill and Bakery How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170611_102411 (2)Bluegrass Grill and Bakery How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170611_103206

This place has a bit of something for everyone, kind of like a diner with more flavor combinations for each dish. And they might be just a wee bit obsessed with bacon, based on all of the signs and puns scattered around. No reservations, so be prepared for a wait, especially if you’re in a larger party.

TIP! It’s usually easier to snag a seat at one of the bar stools, which lets you leapfrog the list if you see a spot open up. I was seated in about 2 minutes on a crowded Sunday this way, and got the added entertainment of being able to see into the kitchen.

TIP! There are lots of vegetarian and vegan options here, in all sorts of delectable combinations.

Bodo’s Bagels

First off, let me say that I am a native New Yorker. Saturday memories of my childhood are filled with the aroma of steaming bagels piled high in a paper bag that my dad would go out and get fresh early in the morning. Any time I’ve lived outside of the New York City metro area, I usually transport bagels by the dozen to freeze and defrost one at a time for eating, because I’ve found that frozen and reheated NY bagels are still usually better than what I can find locally.

Bodo’s serves up a very respectable and delicious bagel, and it’s definitely worth seeking out on your visit, especially if you don’t have access to great bagels back at home. You’ll find each location packed with locals when you go!

Dinner

Brasserie Saison

Brasserie Saison How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170609_204407Brasserie Saison How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170609_205012

It’s French cuisine with a twist, and easily accessible right on the downtown pedestrian mall. While I wish that the steak frites had been more traditional, their daily specials that you see were out of this world and there was a comprehensive wine and beer (and cocktail) list to accompany all these delicious bites. An outstanding spot – the only thing missing is to have some bread at the table to sop up all their amazing sauces!

TIP! The Brasserie is the only place in this section of the list that also serves lunch, if you’re looking for an upscale midday meal.

C&O Restaurant

This restaurant, named after the old Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) train station across the street, may also be a local classic from many years ago, but you’ll get a delightfully modern and local take on food when you dine here. It is a bit upscale, although if you are visiting from a major US city, you may just see the prices as what you’d find at a neighborhood spot back home. The food is so delicious and beautifully presented in a great atmosphere with excellent service, that you’ll blissfully enjoy your time dining here. Added bonus? It’s right off the downtown pedestrian mall.

Ivy Inn

Ivy Inn How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170610_201120Ivy Inn How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170610_214111

First of all, this is the one spot that is a bit far from the central pedestrian area I keep talking about, close to the UVA campus. But trust me, it’s worth the trek. The décor is a bit old school, but the innovative takes on dishes and flavor combinations are divine and every bite here was one to savor with just the right balance of textures as well. Plus, everything was beautifully presented, and they added some extra special touches for my birthday as you can see in the photos.

Zocalo

Zocalo is a Latin-inspired restaurant on the downtown pedestrian mall that was relatively new to the scene when I first visited a decade ago, and it is still just as good as it ever was. Their flavors are bold, execution flawless, and it is just really delicious food. Now a Charlottesville mainstay, it is a great spot for exploring all that the local food scene has to offer.

To Drink

Commonwealth Restaurant and Skybar

Commonwealth Restaurant Bar How to Spend a Weekend in Charlottesville Virginia 20170610_184642

I can’t speak to their food although as you can tell from the name it is also a proper restaurant. I can vouch for their great beer selection and solid cocktails, though. My favorite part was sitting outside at the Skybar doing some people-watching, since it overlooks the central pedestrian area below.

TIP! Seating in this upstairs section is first-come, first-served.

Some Final Thoughts

Admittedly, my first forays into Charlottesville were to watch college lacrosse games. The University of Virginia (UVA) usually has a solid team, and sometimes I even did day trips from Washington, DC to see them play my alma mater.

The reason I’ve returned to Charlottesville time and again is not just the variety of things to do and great places to eat, but that there is such a high quality and friendliness everywhere you go.

This really is a superlative spot to spend a few days, and after recent events, Charlottesville is definitely in need of some tourist love. Get to it!

Have you been to Charlottesville? Are there any places that didn’t make my list but should have? Share away in the ‘Comments’ – I’ll definitely be back!

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Hidden Gem: The Tile Museum in Palermo, Sicily

Hidden Gem: The Tile Museum in Palermo, Sicily

“I’m sorry, we’re not doing any tours today.”

As a visitor intent on seeing a particular sight, this can be one of the most disconcerting messages you hear in your travels. But of course it is one that comes up every now and again, and is simply part of the whole travel experience, which does not always work out perfectly.

Visiting the Palermo Tile Museum was a complete fluke. My friend Isabel and I left it until the last day of our long weekend in this Sicilian city to even attempt to visit for the first time. We had a bunch of hours to enjoy Palermo before catching our return flight to Milan in the afternoon, and a few last things to see.

And even seeking out the Tile Museum at all was somewhat random, as it didn’t come up in most of my pre-trip research – although where I found any information, it received rave reviews.

So this Monday morning, we walk up to the street address for the museum entrance and are faced with what looks like your standard Italian apartment building, with a row of labeled buzzers.

At first, we think that surely we’re in the wrong place. There is no prominent sign labeling any type of museum, and certainly no open entrances to welcome us in.

Only after walking up and down the block a few times do we realize that the address is in fact correct, and that one of the buzzers, if you peer closely, lists the museum and displays a phone number.

I call the cell phone number indicated, and find out that a reservation is needed. At this point, I’m cautiously optimistic, and hoping that since Isabel and I speak both English and Italian, surely there will be a tour we can join in one of those languages.

Unfortunately there is no tour planned until after our flight back to Milan – that disappointing message of “I’m sorry, we’re not doing any tours today.” So I say a polite thank you, relay the disappointing news to Isabel, and we start strolling in the direction of Botanical Garden as a backup plan.

This is when we have what I’m starting to think of more and more as one of those magical Italian moments.

My phone rings, and the number looks vaguely familiar. It is the same gentleman calling back, offering us a tour in Italian for just the two of us. It sounds cliché, but my heart leapt with the news after the disappointment of hearing that a tour would not be possible. We were getting to see this mystery of a place!

As you can see in the photo below, entering this apartment really is just like any other residential building:

Entrance Palermo Tile Museum Stanze al Genio Palermo Sicily Italy 20150622_120945 (2)

We find out at the start of the tour with our passionate, knowledgeable guide that this is because one of the most impressive tile collections in the world was part of someone’s private collection.

The apartment that houses the museum is called the Stanze al Genio, the rooms of the genius? Or genie? It is not large, but the tile collection is so enormous that it feels like every available space is dedicated to displaying these lovely items.

Palermo Tile Museum Stanze al Genio Palermo Sicily Italy 20150622_124331 (2)

Tiles in the south of Italy are commonly seen in hues of blue, yellow, and green, but the variety of this collection goes well beyond that. Colorful hues, interesting designs, and even some tiles with images like those you’ll find at the ruins of Pompeii, outside Naples:

Palermo Tile Museum Stanze al Genio Palermo Sicily Italy 20150622_124347 (2)

And there’s nothing better than a tour guide who is excited about the collection to share interesting tidbits and answer your questions with enthusiasm.

Tile museum

I felt incredibly fortunate to have made it inside the doors of this museum at all. And while not large, the museum contained one of the most unique and well-curated collections that I’ve been privileged to visit in my travels.

I think for both me and Isabel, it was one of the most memorable moments of our weekend trip. And a spot I recommend to anyone visiting Palermo!

Certainly, we were very lucky on the day we visited, but if you want to visit the Stanze al Genio, I wouldn’t count on winging it, here’s the right way to visit:

Stanze al Genio

Visits are available 7 days a week, by appointment

E-mail or call *in advance* to schedule:

stanzealgenio@yahoo.it

English: +39 380 367 3773

Italiano: +39 340 097 1561

The website is currently under construction, but check the link above for the most updated information.

There’s also a Bed & Breakfast on the property!

I didn’t stay here, but if you are interested in having these spaces be your accommodations in Palermo (or just want to check out photos of more beautiful tiles!), check out their site here.

Happy travels!

Where was the last hidden gem you discovered? Any other spots you loved in Palermo? Let me know in the Comments!

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Hidden Gem Palermo Tile Museum Stanze al Genio Palermo Sicily Italy

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Fun Facts: Things to Know about Belize Before You Visit

Fun Facts: Things to Know about Belize Before You Visit

Usually I’m a planner. I learn about a new city or an event happening in a country I’ve never been, and add it to my Bucket List for a future visit.

In the case of Belize, I had overlooked it during my Solo Trip to Mexico in 2009 since it was a bit outside of my backpacker budget to do a quick trip there and back from the Yucatan. And I hadn’t really thought about it much since then until I was starting a new board on Pinterest and was intrigued by all of the outdoor adventure activities and beautiful beaches.

So when I had a week open up in May for a trip, I ignored the budget flights to Iceland and Europe and impulsively went in a new direction – Belize!

I only booked my flights two weeks in advance, so it was a bit of scramble to get things planned for my time there and I didn’t have the opportunity to do my typical advance reading to prepare for a trip. Which made the trip even more exciting as I discovered all of these quirks and local sayings and particular history of the region.

Here’s what I discovered:

Belizeans sure love their flag. You’ll see it proudly displayed pretty much everywhere you go.

And Jesus, too. Not only are Christian religious symbols prominently displayed outside homes and businesses, but there are also large signs with the ten commandments written out that you’ll also see in a lot of different spots around the country.

The Ten Commandments Things to Know About Belize Before You Go 20170515_080414 (2)

Bus Stations really are an incredible crossroads…

In Belize, the bus station accepted 4 types of currency! To be fair, both the Belizean dollar and US dollar can be used to pay for anything around the country, but you can also use Mexican and Guatemalan currency there if you need to.

Even the bus station vendors have hot sauce available. It really is the universal condiment around Belize, but I was still amazed at its presence next to the pre-cooked food already divided into different take away baggies.

Street Food stands at bus station with Marie Sharp's hot sauce Above ground coffins at cemetery Things to Know About Belize Before You Go20170508_115008

Everyone can tell you where and when next bus is leaving. There was no information booth that I saw (although any tourist office can help with bus schedules). But equally reliable? Asking any Belizean hanging out at the bus stop when the next bus will be. They’ll give you times, tell you whether it’s local or express, how much it will costs, & which area it leaves from. Just incredible!

It’s a small enough country to have some national standards…

Like Marie Sharp’s hot sauce. Marie started her company in Belize back in the early 1980s and she has already been inducted into the Hot Sauce Hall of Fame. And it is her Belizean brand that is the standard that you will see at street food stands and on restaurant tables – unless there is a homemade version.

Marie Sharp's Hot Sauce on Every Table Things to Know About Belize Before You Go 20170510_080547 (2)

Or Belikin, Belize’s national beer. If you ask for a “beer,” you’ll get the Belikin standard brew. If you ask for a “stout” or a “lager” you’ll get the Belikin version of those styles. Any other beer you must ask for by name.

Belikin Beer Things to Know About Belize Before You Go 20170511_213022

Beers are smaller! You’ll notice that Belikin beer comes in 250 mL bottles, which is just small enough compared to the standard 330 mL bottle of beer that you will notice the difference!

You might experience a 4-bath day when you go. If you’ve ever heard of the expression (or musical band) ‘three dog night,’ this is a similar notion. A three dog night refers to a cold night out in the Australian outback, when you have to cuddle up with 3 dingoes (the dogs) to stay warm. A 4-bath day in Belize . . . that’s a hot and sweaty one.

Houses are colorful. There is something about the tropics that lends itself to brightly colored houses. You’ll see plenty of these around Belize, including many in a shade I started calling ‘Belizean blue’ because you’ll see that exact shade in so many places.

Houses are Colorful Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0704Belizean Blue Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0435

Buses are the way to go for some local flavor . . .
Repurposed American schoolbuses are the main mode of transportation. Different companies may paint the outside in different colors, but the inside is the same school bus with benches set up you may know from your childhood. And just like back then, the seats get sticky in the heat and there is no air conditioning. But it’s definitely the most affordable way to travel Belize while getting a taste for how the locals live.

School Buses Things to Know About Belize Before You Go 20170510_093441

And they’ll play music very loudly. Buses may be the cheapest way to get around, but they’re certainly not the most serene. Most of the ones I traveled on had upbeat music playing quite loudly for most or all of the ride. I wasn’t sure if this was a strategy to keep people happy and quiet, but that certainly seemed to be the effect.

Non-express buses will stop at pretty much any point along the route. This is a great convenience for anyone who lives off-the-beaten-path, but you can imagine how much time all of these stops will add on to your trip. There’s a reason the express buses are a bit pricier.

Some unexpected foods you’ll find everywhere. There are Caribbean and Latin American specialties and their variations, but there’s also an abundance of banana bread and fried chicken. Who knew?

But in general you’ll find the best local specialties at street food stands. Whether it’s seeking out the best rice and beans (look for a giant pot) or getting salbutes fried to order, the flavors you get at the street food stands outpace any brick-and-mortar restaurant I visited.

Street Food Things to Know About Belize Before You Go 20170512_144632

     READ MORE: How to Eat Like a Local in Belize

Expect that you’ll frequently be all by yourself with relics. Sure, there was someone staffing the booth when you bought your admission ticket to the museum or archaeological site. But chances are that as you explore the rooms with the priceless artifacts, or even the pyramids, you’ll be all on your own.

Archaelogical Relics to Yourself Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0786Archaelogical Relics to Yourself Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0714

And that there’ll be almost no safety measures for climbing all those Mayan pyramids. I scaled my fair share of pyramids during my week-plus in country, and there were very few handrails or markers for dangerous sections or to prevent you from falling off the top. A local shared that the vast ruins of Xunatunich only had railings put in just last year – and only 2 of them across a huge area! Tread carefully.

No handrails at Mayan pyramids Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0577

Belizeans are genuinely friendly. They’ll chat you up on the street and then share their favorite local spot for a meal. Not for a monetary tip, but just to welcome you to their beautiful country.

Simone Biles is the most beloved athlete. Maybe it was my visiting within a year of the Rio Olympics, but although there are Belizeans who have somewhat “made it” in professional sports, American gymnast Simone Biles (who is of Belizean descent) is the true star if you ask any local.

Belize City is not the capital. I guess I spent my childhood gazing longingly at an outdated globe, because even though the capital city shifted to centrally-located Belmopan back in 1970, I had it in my head that it was Belize City until my visit. Oops.

Cemeteries have above-ground coffins. Like many of the houses and buildings in Belize, cemeteries are colorful places. And instead of burying the dead, I saw plots with elevated coffins where relatives come to pay their respects.

Above ground coffins at cemetery Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0004Above ground coffins at cemetery Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0009

English reigns supreme . . .
More currency with Queen Elizabeth. If you travel a lot, you’ve probably seen her face on quite a lot of currency by now. Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize is still part of the British Commonwealth.

English British Commonwealth Coins Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0716 (2)

It’s not just lip service though, the Queen came for a visit! Queen Elizabeth II has visited Belize twice – one in the mid-1980s, another time in the mid-1990s. Of course, the part of her visit that people referenced the most during my trip was when she ate a local rodent whose meat is considered a delicacy, the gibnut, now also nicknamed the ‘Royal Rat.’

Everyone speaks English and takes US dollars. I feel like some travelers harbor fear of foreign countries due to the language barrier. Perhaps a fear of not being able to make yourself understood? In any case, there’s no need to worry in Belize as everyone speaks English. And you can pay with US dollars anywhere, even in small towns or on local buses (although you’ll often get change in BZD, with 2 Belize dollars equaling $1).

Visitors Centers are mostly in English. Although there are quite a lot of Spanish speakers around, interestingly the Visitors Centers I popped into seemed to cater exclusively to English speakers. That said, they were quite helpful.

Some expected groups….
Maya tribes still exist. For some reason I always lumped the Maya in my head with the now-extinct Aztec and Inca Empires. However while the Maya experienced a decline, their culture and traditions continue on across Belize and some nearby countries. I got my most personal experience on a tour of a Mayan chocolate producer, carrying on the traditions of many centuries ago.

And some unexpected ones…
The Chinese. Originally brought to Belize from China as laborers, many of those original Chinese stayed. Today there is also a more recent influx of Chinese looking to build businesses and wealth, or to use Belize as a stepping stone for ultimate relocation to the United States.

Mennonites. It was a surprise when I spotted my first Mennonite family in Belize – the wife in a bonnet and long dress & the husband in denim overalls with a wide-brimmed straw hat. Just like in other places, they also shun technology in Belize and focus on hard work and farming the land.

Belize has the lowest population density in Central America. There are a lot of natural reserves and open, lush swaths of green as you make your way across the country. Enjoy!

Featured Things to Know About Belize Before You Go DSC_0353

And it’s a peace-loving country, one of the few in the region that has not had a civil war. You may associate Central America with some violent conflicts, but it is a point of pride in Belize that handover of power has been a peaceful affair.

Belize also boasts the second-largest barrier reef in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The reef system is just off the coast along most of the country, and is so lengthy that even Charles Darwin was impressed. Opportunities to snorkel and scuba dive abound.

Like anywhere I’ve ever visited, Belize has a bunch of quirks that come with any country, along with some pretty impressive products and traditions and diversity for such a small nation.

    READ MORE: 9 Reasons Belize Should Be Your Next Travel Destination!

But Belize also had so many things that surprised me along the way – I was already jotting down some observations on my first taxi ride from the airport to the bus station!

What’s the most interesting thing you learned about a place while visiting? Anything else you discovered about Belize if you’ve traveled there? Or anything else you’d like to know before you go? Share away in the ‘Comments’ below!

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Fun Facts - Things to Know About Belize Before You Go

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