We began our Turkish summer vacation in Izmir, spending four nights and day tripping to the coast and Ephesus. We opted for Izmir over the more popular Bodrum area due to flight schedule and cost (Izmir was much less expensive) after going back and forth regarding whether to stay in Izmir city, Alacati (an hour away on the coast) or further south (around Bodrum). We ended up thrilled with our decision and really enjoyed Izmir. We have already decided that we need to come back and spend a few weeks in Izmir during early retirement!
The flowers in Izmir are beautiful.
THE TURKISH CITY OF IZMIR
Contrary to what we thought prior to this trip, Izmir is a large historic city (the third largest in Turkey!) in Western Turkey on the Aegean cost. Izmir is about an hour flight from Istanbul or a few hours’ drive, which drive seemed quite popular with locals. Izmir is also only one hour from the beach and one hour from historical Ephesus (both on modern highways).
Sunset in Izmir.
Aside from having a good location, Izmir is not super touristy and feels very much like a real Turkish city. Locals abound and you will be hard pressed to find too many foreign tourists out and about on a normal evening. The locals were also nice and seemed to really be enjoying their life on the sea. In fact, we met more than one person who left their busy life in Istanbul and moved to Izmir for a better quality of life. And I think that’s part of what we liked about Izmir, it was chill, there was no pressure to do anything, Izmir is safe and not expensive, and we felt like we were really in Turkey (not dropped into a foreign country with 100s of other Americans).
Dan and I recently completed our third stay at one of my very favorite hotels – the TWA Hotel at JFK airport! Yes, this is the former TWA terminal at JFK that reopened as a hotel in 2019. You’ve almost certainly heard about the TWA Hotel, but these are my thoughts over three separate stays spanning three years. In sum, I absolutely love, love, love this hotel, but that’s due to my love of aviation and all things flying and travel, as well as the 1960s. The hotel itself, while fantastic for “av-geeks”, is, without question, overpriced and has never lived up to the standards I expect for the price. My recommendation is to go once if you love aviation, TWA or the 1960s but otherwise, I would skip an overnight reservation. The actual hotel portion of the TWA hotel only “ok” in terms of a luxury property (which its priced as). All of that being said, a day visit to the common area of the TWA Hotel is free and certainly worth the time if you have a long layover at JFK or are in the area and curious!
The TWA hotel!
The gorgeous Sunken Lounge at TWA.
A map of the public area of the TWA Hotel.
TWA Hotel Location.
The TWA Hotel is actually located inside the former TWA Terminal at JFK. The TWA Hotel is directly connected to JFK’s Terminal 5 (the home of Jet Blue!) via an elevator, which is very convenient. Those arriving or departing from other terminals can use JFK’s free AirTrain to travel between terminals. The AirTrain station is located across the street from the TWA Hotel in the parking area on the second floor. There are plenty of signs and large elevators for luggage. The AirTrain is easy to use and goes to all JFK terminals. As its free, no tickets or anything of the like are required.
The TWA Hotel! This view is from the entrance to the AirTrain across the street.
As I discussed in my last post, we spent last New Year’s Eve in Dublin, Ireland at The Church Bar & Restaurant, which hosted a prix-fixe dinner party. I have been to The Church previously (and wrote about it here), so this post specifically relates to The Church’s New Year’s Eve party. I am writing this because, despite my best efforts, I could find NOTHING regarding The Church’s New Year’s Eve party online prior to booking.
The Church from the outside (this was in February, not December!).
As further detailed in my previous post about The Church, The Church Restaurant & Bar is a former church turned modern restaurant and bar in Dublin, Ireland. The building rather old and famous, including the place Arthur Guinness (of Guinness brewery fame) married. The Church is definitely worth checking out on a visit to Dublin, even if you are not dining, and it’s popular with the tourist crowd. That being said, the crowd on New Year’s Eve was a lot of Irish people; we did not see that many tourists.
The Church from the second floor on New Year’s Eve.
In terms of a restaurant, The Church consists of two floors and an outdoor area, which was closed during our winter visit. The second floor is table seating only and overlooks the first level. The first level (or ground floor) holds a band area, a GORGEOUS bar, and bar tables and standing space. Stairs and an elevator, located outside in the silo, connect the two floors.
Reservation for NYE
Reservations for NYE opened in October 2022 (for the 2022/2023 holiday) and were announced via Instagram. To make a reservation, I emailed The Church and asked about options for 9 people. We were offered a table on the second floor with a four course prix-fixe for 120 euro per person. Done. The Church required me to pay the bill in full within seven days of making the reservation, which I did (there was a reasonable cancellation policy). The Church also provided me a sample menu when I booked, which was pretty close to the actual menu presented.
In addition to the sit down dinner, I believe there was also an option to sit in the bar area and have only small bites and a bottle of champagne. Definitely email for the latest options, as it changes yearly.
The Menu on NYE
As mentioned, the New Year’s Eve menu is pre-fixe and offers a starter (choice of 1 of 4 options), a palate cleanser sorbet, an entree (again, choice of 1 of 4 options), and a dessert plate for each person. The prix-fixe also included a welcome glass of Champagne and tea or coffee after dinner. Our table, which was on the second floor, was assigned a waiter who came around and took everyone’s individual order, and everyone at the table did not have to order the same thing.
To round out our Christmas Irish vacation, after visiting Mount Juliet Estate in Kilkennyand Galway, we spent our last three days, including New Year’s Eve and Day, in Dublin. This article explains what we did and provides some (hopefully) useful tips!
DAY ONE: IRISH COFFEE, JAMESON & A PUB CRAWL!
We arrived in Dublin around noon on the 30th of December, having driven from Galway directly to our hotel, The Davenport (see below for more info on The Davenport!). Some had a brief rest on arrival, while others walked over the River Liffey for an Irish coffee at Dan’s favorite Irish coffee shop, Vice’s. We discovered Vice’s on a Dublin food tour on a previous visit and now Vice’s is in our permanent itinerary. As always, Vice’s Irish Coffee was absolutely delicious, and this time we also split a chicken toastie (not nearly as good as the coffee). We also got a little visual tour of Dublin en route; holiday crowds were out strong.
Dan and I visited Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher for the third time last December, when we spent the week between Christmas and New Years in Ireland. We got a bit of commentary from people telling us not to go to the Cliffs of Moher in the winter, but we had a great time with better weather than our prior visit (a May trip). Moral of the story – don’t let the time of year put you off from visiting stunning the Cliffs of Moher!
Some cow friends made en route to the Cliffs of Moher.
Dan and I spent a few days between Christmas and New Year’s in Galway, Ireland. This was our third trip to Galway, and we had a lovely time, despite it being winter. This article shares information on what we did and some tips for visiting Galway between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Galway on December 27th!
WHAT WE DID IN GALWAY BETWEEN CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR’S 2023!
Galway is decorated beautifully for Christmas and Christmas decorations, with the exception of the small Christmas market on Eyre Square, stay up through New Year’s, possibly longer. As such, this is a great time to just stroll around Galway, take in the decorations, and simply enjoy the town. And that is just what we did. We didn’t have too much planned for our three days in Galway, but we ended up doing some shopping, some pubbing, some sightseeing and a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher.
Galway decorated for Christmas – with blue skies!
Sailboats with Christmas lights in the River Corrib.
Dan and I spent last Christmas, as well as my birthday (!), at the absolutely lovely Mount Juliet Estate with seven other family members (9 total!). Located about 15 minutes outside of Kilkenny, Ireland, Mount Juliet is an Irish country estate with a world renowned golf course, multiple restaurants and bars, and enough activities to keep one busy for a week. It is also part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection (a surprise plus for us!). All 9 of us had a lovely time and found Mount Juliet to have something for everyone, particularly those of different generations. This post reviews our stay over the holidays as part of Mount Juliet’s Christmas Package. However, in short, Christmas at Mount Juliet was just perfect – the decorations were gorgeous and the staff took care of everything. We felt our stay was worth the cost and the food was excellent!
Christmas at Mount Juliet Estate!
THE MOUNT JULIET HOTEL
As mentioned Mount Juliet is a grand estate with lots to do for all ages, but I’m first going to talk about the actual hotel. For purposes of the hotel itself, the hotel is split between two buildings: the Manor House, the original home on the property, and Hunter’s Yard, the former stables. We stayed in Hunter’s Yard, and I was happy with our decision. Guests of either building can freely use facilities in both; vans and golf carts shuttle passengers between the two if walking is not feasible or preferred (but its a flat, paved 5 minute walk between the two).
Dan and I have found ourselves in JFK’s Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse a few times over the last year. The Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse quickly became our favorite stop at JFK (when we can get in), so here is a post on the lounge at JFK (in follow up to my posts on the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouses at Newark (New Jersey) and Johannesburg (South Africa)). Located in JFK’s Terminal 4, the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse is found in the A Gate area, near Gates A4 and A5, on the second floor of the terminal. The entrance is manned with a little checkin desk, and staff really does not like to admit those seeking entry on a card (Capital One, AmEx Platinum, Priority Pass, etc. – the access cards varies frequently). We have found they are much more likely to get in if you are nice to them! We’ve also asked when it may be open to card holders and if we can come back at that time with success. Once granted access, we simply presented my Capital One X Venture card and our boarding passes and we were in!
Dan and I visited Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flatsin April and of course, we really wanted to experience the very best of the salt flats as efficiently as possible. We, however, did not want to do a multi night Salt Flats tour, which is common, as we heard from many sources that those tours were a bit backpack-ery, and that was just not what we were looking for… We ended up taking a full day tour of the Salt Flats from Uyuni and a separate star gazing night tour the following day. This articles details our Uyuni tours, which itinerary I understand is the same for most similarly priced companies.
The Salt Flats at sunset.
For those unfamiliar, seeing Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is a wild experience. Located at over 12,000 feet above sea level, the salt flats span 4,000 square miles, going all the way from Uyuni town to the Chilean border. The salt flats are so large, you can see it from the sky, apparently even outer space. The salt flats look like a huge area covered in snow or sand, but it’s actually all salt. Yes, like the salt you put on food. Tourists come here from all over to experience the salt flats and see its unique landscape.
Dan and I lunched at one of the best restaurants I have been to in a while for his birthday in April – Restaurant Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia! Restaurant Gustu is the creation of Claus Meyer, the father of New Nordic Cuisine and co-founder of the famous (now closed) Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. Gustu means “flavor” in the local Quechua language and the restaurant uses ingredients exclusively from Bolivia. Gustu only opened in 2012, but it has won many awards since. Its currently on the 50 Best Latin American Restaurants.
Dan and I spent ten days in Bolivia earlier this year visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats and Bolivia’s wine region, Tarija. We ended the trip with a couple days in La Paz and, while not expecting to love La Paz, we ended up having a grand time. This post details what we did on our few days in La Paz, Bolivia.
LA PAZ (AND EL ALTO), BOLIVIA
La Paz as most travelers see it, is actually made up of two adjacent cities high in the Andes mountains: La Paz and El Alto. El Alto is home to the La Paz airport, where many travelers fly in (including us!), and is located at over 13,000 feet above sea level. La Paz abuts El Alto, but is located at a lower altitude, with the lowest parts being around 10,000 feet. The difference in altitude is wild! The two cities are connected by cable car but, for most casual tourists on a short visit, there’s not a noticeable difference between the two. Most tourist attractions, besides the airport, are located in the city of La Paz. La Paz is one of two capitals of Bolivia (the other being Sucre). In terms of tourist attractions, La Paz does not have many “bucket list” sites IMHO, but I listed some of the things we enjoyed below. On a quick trip, I probably wouldn’t spend more than 2 or 3 days in La Paz, unless you have something planned.
La Paz, Bolivia.
El Alto, Bolivia. La Paz is below in the background.
WHAT WE ENJOYED DOING IN LA PAZ
As I mentioned, there are not a ton of must see sites, but here are some things we enjoyed.
Vallee de la Luna: Located on the outskirts of La Paz near “the highest golf course in the world,” Vallee de la Luna (or “Moon Valley”) is a natural park comprised of an eroded mountain left with really cool clay spires jutting out of the Earth. There are clearly marked trails and the views and photo opportunities are really cool. Tourists can go on their own, but our guide gave some additional context. Note that the altitude will making walking around here much harder than you think.
Dan and I spent a few days in Tarija, Bolivia earlier this year. Located not far from the Argentinian border, Tarija has a “wine and steak” culture, similar to that in many parts of Argentina (and unlike much of Bolivia). Steakhouses are quite popular in Tarija, and Dan and I visited two, both of which seemed to be rated the highest on most “best of Tarija” lists: Casona dal Molino and Fogón del Gringo. I have no idea how accurate these lists are, but here is my review of both! If you find yourself in Tarija, I definitely recommend a meal at one of these steakhouses or something similar.
Dan and I at Aranjuez Vineyards in Tarija, Bolivia!
Before getting into the individual steakhouses, steakhouse restaurants are common in Tarija, and popular with both locals and tourists. The menus are almost always beef heavy, but we did see a couple beef alternatives, such as chicken. The standard order at these types of restaurants is a cut of beef (from which there are many to choose), which usually includes unlimited visits to a buffet or “salad bar.” These buffets and salad bars vary by restaurant in terms of quality and options, but are usually largely vegetarian and include a number of cold dishes, such as traditional lettuce salad, olives, potato salad, and a hot bar with a few types of potatoes, rice and possibly even pasta! The buffets were refilled regularly on our visits and diners went back many, many times. Meals are also usually served with crusty garlic bread and an in-house sauce or two and wine, which is extra and ordered from a wine menu (most commonly by the bottle, but there are single-serving and half bottles for sale). Finally, while not so popular in the US, it is customary to order beef well done in Tarija! Who would have thought?! We still went rare (or “inglés”) and our steaks were always cooked perfectly.
A cheatsheet for ordering steak in Tarija. As English is not very common in Tarija, I suggest using this cheatsheet.
CASONA DEL MOLINO
Casona del Molino is one of the two most well-known steakhouses in Tarija, at least according to my internet research. The other being Fogón del Gringo (keep reading for my review on Fogón). We dined at Casona del Molino twice during our stay in Tarija, and the restaurant was excellent both visits. Casona Del Molino is located right in the heart of Tarija across from the Campilla de San Juan, which was still decorated for Easter during our visit. Casona del Molina itself is a large white building that looks like it has been around for many, many years, with a deck proudly flying the red and white Tarija flag. Inside Casona is some seating, the salad bar and the large grill room (where all the food is made), but the highlight of the restaurant is the back garden where most diners will have their meal. The garden is indeed lovely! I would strongly recommend the outside if the weather is nice.
Casona del Molino entrance.
The deck of Casona del Molino.
Campilla San Juan for reference.
Some interior seating. I loved the design.
The back garden. This was a beautiful spot for a meal.
The indoor grill room. Insanely large.
Moving on to the food, Casona del Molino has a large menu with many cuts of steak. I am not entirely sure what I ordered, but it was a HUGE steak, cooked perfectly rare on my request, that cost less than $15 USD. Crazy! Every steak at Casona del Molino is seved with a little Tarija flag, very cute! Casona del Molino also has a large wine menu, but we skipped wine as we were eating in the middle of a wine tour…
Our delicious steak.
Like at most steakhouses in Tarija, our Casona del Molino order came with unlimited visits to the salad bar, and Casona’s salad bar was something special. I have some pictures below, but they do not do it justice. On offer were an insane number of pickled things, olives, various types of cold salads, pasta, a bruschetta, and a hot bar with a really good rice/egg/vegetable dish and delicious french fries. And that list is not at all exhaustive. Casona del Molino’s salad bar was the best that we saw, and everything was fresh and tasty.
The “pickled things area.”
More traditional salads.
Additional salads. The hot bar is in the covered portion at the end.
Like most steak restaurants, every meal also comes with crusty garlic bread and some dipping sauces (at least that is what I called them), at Casona del Molino we received an eggplant caponata, a green aioli type dressing, and my favorite Bolivia hot sauce, Llajua (found everywhere in Bolivia – made with watermelon and peppers!). These dipping sauces at Casona were particularly good!
Casona’s dipping sauces.
For reference, some of my carb heavy buffet visit. The fries were also particularly good.
After eating at Casona twice, I would certainly return to Casona del Molino and recommend it to others. The vibe is upscale, but we were fine dining in shorts and a nice top (shorts & polo for Dan). I would suggest making a reservation, especially if you want a nice table in the garden. Credit card was accepted and not many people spoke English (true in Tarija in general).
CHURRASQUERIA EL FOGÓN DEL GRINGO
Moving on to the other popular steakhouse in Tarija, Fogón del Gringo also has a great location, just across the street from Los Ceibos Hotel (where we conveniently stayed). Fogón is very well lit with the Tarija flag and colors flying strong. Fogón has a small outside area with tables and an insanely large open air grill, where you can watch your dinner being made, as well as ample interior seating, including a private room that looked for nice for a party. We were seated without a reservation on a Wednesday at 8 PM, although the place did fill up soon thereafter with locals.
Fogón del Gringo from the outside.
A small sample of the menu for reference.
Like at Casona del Molino, every meal at Fogón begins with crusty garlic bread and homemade sauces. The Llauja was particularly good at Fogón, and even more so on the garlic bread. As we ordered a huge steak for two – the Churrasco di Filete to be precise, it came with access to the salad bar and hot potato and pasta buffet for both of us. While not as photographable or large as those at Casona del Molino, the food was on the buffets was decent and replaced pretty frequently.
Fogón’s sauces and garlic bread.
Here is a small snippet of the buffet at Fogón. Its not as fancy as Casona but it was decent.
And not to forget our Churrasco di Filete, it was great! Perfectly cooked as we asked and humongous – a real steal for $24 USD. As it was Dan’s birthday, the staff brought a complimentary dessert with a candle. A very nice touch!
The Churrasco di Filete for two. This was more than enough for me and Dan.
Dan’s very sweet birthday dessert.
Like Casona, Fogón also has an extensive wine menu with a wide range of Bolivian bottles, include single glass bottles. As it was Dan’s birthday, we splurged for the Aranjuez Juan Cruz (around $50 USD), which is probably Tarija’s most famous wine. It was really great. I also had a single glass bottle of the Cabernet France from Aranjuez (where the photo of us above was taken).
The Juan Cruz Tannat. It literally won awards.
A single serving of Cabernet Franc. It’s common to serve glasses by the small “airplane bottle” like this.
All in, Fogón was also a good dinner. We again wore shorts and did not feel under dressed, although locals dressed up a bit more. Credit card was accepted and, like in Tarija generally, no one really spoke English. We still ordered and paid fine.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Casona del Molino: Loma de San Juan, Bolivar, Tarija, Bolivia. Open daily 12 – 3 and 7 – 12, except on Sunday when its only open for lunch. I suggest a reservation, even if it’s only calling earlier in the day. Casual (we wore shorts), but the locals tend to dress nicely. Credit card accepted.
Churrasqueria El Fogón del Gringo: La Madrid, Tarija, Bolivia. Open daily 12 – 3 and 6:30 – 11, except Sunday when the restaurant is only open for lunch (common in Bolivia). I suggest a reservation, even if it’s only calling earlier in the day. Casual (we wore shorts), but the locals tend to dress nicely. Credit card accepted.
Dan and I stayed a few nights at the Hotel Palacio de Sal in April 2023 on our trip through Bolivia. We selected this hotel because it is super close to the Uyuni Salt Flats, looked luxurious online, and had a lovely looking pool. This article reviews the hotel and its amenities and food.
Hotel Palacio de Sal, located in the middle of nowhere.
HOTEL PALACIO DE SAL
Located just outside of the Uyuni Salt Flats in literally the middle of nowhere, Hotel Palacio de Sal self-identifies as the “first salt hotel” in the Uyuni Salt Flats. I’m not sure if this is accurate, but it is one of two hotels very close to the salt flats that I could find when booking our accommodation (the other being Hotel De Sal Luna Salada). We settled on Hotel Palacio de Sal for the sole reason that the pool looked nicer in photographs (and the pool did end up being one of my favorite parts of the hotel).
In any case, Hotel Palacio de Sal is located right on the edge of the Uyuni Salt Flats, near absolutely nothing else within an easy walk. Guests are pretty much “stuck” at the hotel unless they leave via car. This was fine, and we figured this going in. The hotel is also alleged “made of salt” from the salt flats. While it’s definitely not totally made of salt, some parts are made of salt, including the roof of our hotel room. Salt is also featured prevalently throughout the hotel, kind of like sand often is at beach hotels. This was a cool feature!
Here is the hotel. It does indeed look outerspace-ish. The domes are all made of salt!
As Christmas was essentially cancelled in 2020, Dan and I moved up our planned Costa Rica New Years Eve trip to leave on Christmas day, spending and working a few days in San Jose before moving on to the La Fortuna area, our original NYE destination! You can read about our experience in San Jose here. In La Fortuna, we spent most of our time at the Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa, which has lovely, amazing thermal pools. This article details our experience at the Tabacón.
Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, Costa Rica.
For those unfamiliar, La Fortuna is a small, touristy town about a 3 hour drive from San Jose. The centerpiece of La Fortuna is the Arenal volcano, which towers over the town and is quite magnificent on a clear day (which apparently doesn’t happen that often). La Fortuna’s surrounding area also offers lots of adrenaline-fueled jungle activities, including white water rafting, zip lining, and rain forest hikes. However, due to the Arenal Volcano, the area around La Fortuna also has lots of less-adrenaline fueled thermal springs – or water sources naturally heated by the volcano. Since we love a good hot spring, we decided to stay at one of the resorts planned around said hot springs. We opted for the Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa because it looked very nice online and is part of the Hyatt hotel network.
THE TABACÓN THERMAL RESORT & SPA
The Tabacón Thermal Resort and Spa is a resort complex located about a 15 minute car ride from downtown La Fortuna. While you cannot easily walk between the Tabacón and La Fortuna, there is plenty in the Tabacón complex to keep guests busy, from four restaurants, to a lovely pool, a shop, lots of space to walk around, complete with wildlife and perfectly manicured grounds, to the amazing hot springs, and guests will not want for activities to fill the time. Indeed, guests could stay here for several days without leaving, if that is what you are look for, or simply leave the resort and go into town, making the Tabacón a good choice for may types of travelers.
Back in 2020/2021, Dan and I spent Christmas and New Year’s in Costa Rica, starting in San Jose and moving to La Fortuna for the New Year. I have been meaning to post about this forever, so this article details what we got up to in La Fortuna.
Let’s set the scene…your dream safari trip is booked and around the corner, but its forecasted to rain every day. What happens?? Well, I am here to tell you that this exact scenario happened to to me last year thanks to some crazy, unseasonable rainstorms that came out of nowhere the day before we left. We still went forward with the safari and had an absolutely amazing time. So nope, rain will not ruin or cancel your safari, and you should certainly still go! That being said, here are some things you can do to prepare if rain is in your safari forecast based on my personal experience!
1. First up, if it rains on your safari, you will mostly likely still go forward with the safari drives, with or without a top on the safari vehicle. So, don’t worry, the safari will not be cancelled! Cancellation is the absolute last thing safari lodges want to do.
Our safari vehicle. It rained later on this safari drive.
On trip to Albania and Greece last summer, Dan and I spent a few nights in Ksamil, Albania, a small beach town on the Albanian Riveria, just south of Sarandë, next to Butrint. We stayed at what may be Ksamil’s nicest hotel: the Poda Boutique Hotel. As I could not find much good information on this hotel online, here is my review of our four-night stay stay.
PODA BOUTIQUE HOTEL: LOCATION AND HOTEL BUILDING
The Poda Boutique Hotel is located right in the middle of beachfront Ksamil, just behind the insanely busy and Instagrammable Poda Beach. Seriously, its a 1 minute walk from the beach and Adriatic. There are numerous restaurants and bars within a five minute walk (although some an uphill walk), as well as the tacky Ksamil vendors hawking trinkets and carnival rides at all hours. Despite the crowded beach and busy area, we found Poda to be pretty quiet at night and the hotel itself never felt too busy. Ksamil proper, including grocery stores, gas stations, banks, etc., are located an uphill walk from Poda. We made the walk pretty easily, but it would be annoying for anyone with any mobility issues, especially in the summer heat.
On Dan and my trip to South Africa last year, we ended our grand vacation with a day of activities on the Cape Peninsula. This was the second time that Dan and I have done a tour of this area and, in my opinion, its one of the very best things to do in greater Cape Town. The natural beauty is outstanding, and I feel like one would miss out if this area was not visited. A lot of people do this type of tour on their own with a car, which is certainly doable, but we liked having a guide and the biking portion. In any case, this is a review of what we did on our most recent trip.
PICK UP FROM HOTEL
Our morning started with a pick up at our hotel around 8:00 AM. Our guide showed up on time in a white van with several heavy duty road bikes pulled behind. Very intense. Luckily, we had eaten breakfast at the hotel, as we would not have lunch for a looooong while (although this was the tour, not lack of food or restaurants en route).
Our trusty van for the day, along with our bicycles.
DRIVE DOWN THE CAPE PENINSULA
After pick up, we began the gorgeous drive down the Cape Peninsula, which runs along the coast and is absolutely stunning. We did not stop for photographs due to time constraints, but I took some shots from the van. If you are doing this drive, Muizenberg is a good place to stop, very popular with surfers. Its also home to those adorable multi colored beach huts that you see in pictures! You can see surfers in the back ground of the second picture below if you look closely.
A gorgeous drive down to Cape Point.
Muizenberg Beach in the background. If you look closely, you can see SO MANY SURFERS (the little black dots).
BOULDERS BEACH AND SIMON’S TOWN TO SEE PENGUINS!
After about 40 minutes on the road, we reached Simon’s Town, South Africa. Simon’s Town is small town south of Cape Town proper on False Bay. Simon’s town is practically known as a prominent South African Naval base, but for tourists, its home to Boulders Beach! Boulders Beach is part of Table Mountain National Park, and its home to so many adorable African penguins. We parked our car in Simons Town and walked about 5 minutes (straight walk) to Boulders Beach. We paid the fee to enter (around $8.50 USD) and walked out to the beach to see the African Penguins! And we saw so many, including baby penguins that had not yet lost their brown fur! We also saw a few Dassies, or little brown mammals (similar size to a rabbit) that are close related to the elephant. Who knew?! We spent about 30 minutes at Boulders Beach watching the penguins. I would note that guests must stay on raised platforms and cannot touch, interact with or feed the penguins (they bite, and there is a fine involved if caught).
Simon’s Town – its very pretty. I would love to spend a weekend here.
Since starting to travel to Italy over a decade ago, I had always been cautioned about visiting Naples (or, properly in Italian, Napoli). I’ve heard its dirty, rough around the edges, not pretty and at its worst, plain dangerous. I trusted that most of these stereotypes were overblown, but prior to 2022, I had only passed through the Naples train station en route to the Amalfi Coast. Well, I finally got a chance for a brief visit in May 2022, and I throughly enjoyed it. I stayed in the tourist center during this visit, but I found Naples to be beautiful, safe enough (for most tourists, a pick pocket or the crazy drivers are probably your biggest worry), and home to some absolutely delicious food. To hit some great spots, Dan and I signed up for a food tour with Eating Europe and that was a great way to eat our way through the tourist center.
Street side groceries.
We met the rest of our food tour, which was just one other family visiting from Germany, in the GORGEOUS Galleria Umberto I. Galleria Umberto I is a fabulous old shopping mall, which reminded me a lot of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milano (but with less luxury stores). I could not help but pick up a few souvenirs before our tour started… Regardless of tours or shopping, every visitor to Naples should pass though the Galleria Umberto I – its free to enter and not far from the train station and ferry port.
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, my second favorite holiday (after my Birthday), I am sharing three really lovely pubs that I visited in December in Kilkenny, Ireland. This was my second visit to Kilkenny, Ireland, and Kilkenny is home to many great pubs and restaurants. As such, there are certainly other great pubs in Kilkenny, but I enjoyed these three a lot!
TYNAN’S BRIDGE HOUSE BAR
Tynan’s Bridge House Bar was, by far, my favorite pub in Kilkenny, and ranks among my favorites of all time. Tynan’s is located right of the River Nore in the heart of Kilkenny. Tynan’s is a quintessential Irish pub that is filled with character and charm. The bartender gave us a very warm welcome despite it being 11 AM on Christmas weekend…. Like any real Irish pub, Tynan’s serves no food and there are no TVs in the bar. I enjoyed several Guinness here during my visit in December. Tynan’s is a must-visit for pub lovers in Kilkenny.
After a big family trip to Italy over Thanksgiving in 2021, we did another group trip trip to Ireland this past Christmas and New Year. This time we had 9 instead of 8 people, including my parents, Dan’s siblings, our friend Pryor and her husband and mother, and stayed for 11 days! We toured a decent bit of Ireland and I think everyone remains on speaking terms, LOL. I’ll be writing about more specific bits of our trip later, but here is a summary for those interested in doing something similar!
Christmas in Ireland!
DAYS 1 – 4: KILKENNY, IRELAND & MOUNT JULIET ESTATE
After an overnight flight from New York, we landed in Dublin early in the morning. A van, with a lovely driver, John, was waiting for us and drove us 1.5 hours to the Mount Juliet Estate, just outside of Kilkenny, where we had booked a four day Christmas package. We got lucky and blue sky came out just as we arrived at Mount Juliet Estate.
In light of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day holiday (i.e., my favorite holiday after my birthday!), I am writing all about Dan and my vacation to Ireland over Christmas and New Years! On this trip, since we visited with a number of Ireland first timers and whiskey lovers, we visited three whiskey distilleries in Dublin! This is my comparison of the three, after having visited each multiple times.
Dan and I spent a long weekend in Copenhagen, Denmark last Labor Day, which fell on the first weekend of September. We flew direct from New York and spent four days in the city. This ended up being a bit far travel for such a short time, but we still had fun. This post highlights what we did over those four days in Copenhagen!
Made it to Copenhagen, Denmark!
DAY ONE: A LONG DELAY AT JFK, A DECENT LOUNGE, & SMØRREBRØD.
Our Labor Day long weekend began with a looong delay at JFK. Major bummer. All started well, and we were lounge hopping between the American Express Centurion Lounge and the Virgin Atlantic Lounge, but then our flight was delayed by hours. We finally departed several hours late and arrived in Copenhagen around 2:00 PM, rather than the planned 11:00 AM…. It was after 4:00 PM by the time we arrived at our hotel, the Marriott Copenhagen. In any case, we were able to immediately check in, take a short nap, and still make happy hour at the Marriott Executive Lounge before heading out to dinner in Nørreport. The delay certainly could have been worse, but it was a stressful start to our weekend getaway. In any case, the happy hour was pretty decent, especially for pricey Copenhagen – soft drinks, beer, wine, cheese and other cold appetizers and a few warm appetizers each evening.
This cute water park was just outside of our hotel. Locals were using this daily – it would have been far too cold for us!. It is cool that the Nyhavn River is clean enough to swim in! Imagine that in NYC!
Complimentary Carlsberg at the Marriott Executive Lounge! A great perk in pricey Copenhagen!
Late last Spring, Dan and I found ourselves in Rome unexpectedly. This gave us an opportunity to try new restaurants that we otherwise may have missed (i.e., with more time to make reservations). Dan decided that he wanted tripe, which is a Rome delicacy (at least to some), so I set out on the world wide web to find fantastic tripe in Rome. Not surprisingly, a restaurant in Testaccio came up multiple times, which is an area well-known of its offal based cuisine. I called and made a same day reservation.
Rome in the Spring.
We taxied from our hotel, the Cavalieri, and arrived at Checchino dal 1887 about 20 minutes later, where we were greated with our reserved table. I suspected Checchino dal 1887 was old-school due to its location and description online, but I underestimated how old school. Checchino dal 1887’s dining room is a true blast from the past, with a domed ceiling and wood paneled walls lining the restaurant. Old Rome drawings, advertisements, announcements, certificates, books and paintings line the wall, and there is a real fire place in the restaurant. Our friend Jenna, who joined us for dinner, described it as as “so old school, there are even cobwebs on the lamps.” LOL, this was actually true, but in the best way possible.
My husband and I visited Copenhagen last September for a long weekend. One fun thing we did was take a food tour in Nørreport, Copenhagen. This post discusses the stops that we made and the foods that we tried. All in, the food was really interesting and tour taught us a lot about Danish culture and food. And, we had one of the best hotdogs I’ve had in a very long time!
Our tour started on a sunny morning outside of Torvehallerne Food Hall, one of Copenhagen’s most famous food markets. And even if you don’t take a food tour, a lunch visit to Torvehallerne is a must for all foodies in Copenhagen!
Outside Torvehallerne. A perfect late summer morning.
Torvehallerne Food Hall.
Inside Torvehallerne – worth a visit/lunch even if you do not take a tour.
STOP 1: DANISH CHEESE AT ARLA UNIKA IN THE TORVEHALLERNE FOOD HALL.
The first stop of our food tour was inside Torvehallerne at a famous Danish cheese shop, Arla Unkia. Arla Unkia is apparently quite famous in Denmark and this location had a large the selection of Danish cheese. This tasting was a selection of three cheeses, all from Denmark and of varying ages. We paired the cheeses with a slightly spicy tomato jam and type of dessert apple wine. Everything was great, and I purchased some of the tomato jam to bring home.
Arla Unika at Torvehallerne.
Arla Unika at the Torvehallerne food hall. Very accessible even if you are not on a food tour.
The red apple wine that we tasted.
Our three cheeses, red liquor and the local marmalade.
We’ve been to Galway a few times, and Galway always offers fun restaurants serving good food. Some previous favorites are Ard Bia at Nimmos, the Dough Bros., and Kai Café. Ard Bia and Kai Café, my standbys, were closed this trip because we visited between Christmas and New Years, so I tried a new restaurant opened in 2020 – Ean! Self-described as “an inventive bakery, restaurant & wine bar,” Ean is a product of Galway’s Michelin-starred Loam (closed during my visit). Located on a quiet street, Ean’s interior is a clean space of large tables perfect for sharing. We made a reservation for 9 people via email about a month prior to our visit.
Galway during the holidays! Highly recommened.
Making the reservation was easy and an email confirmation was sent a day or two in advance. We arrived right on time and our table was waiting. While it changes daily, Ean’s dinner menu is a selection of dishes meant to be shared in a variety of sizes, ranging from small croquettes to large dishes that could serve as a main. The wait staff helped us select a number of things to share between nine people, which I’ll go thorough below.
Beirut Sur Mer is a fun, local restaurant set right off Abu Dhabi’s famous Saadiyat Beach. Dan and I dined here on our last night in Abu Dhabi before flying to the Seychelles. We choose Beirut Sur Mer because (1) we looove Lebanese food(!) and (2) I saw it on a IG influencer’s page and it looked delicious! The pictures ended up holding true – this was a great dinner.
One of the funnest things that Dan and I did in the Seychelles last November was visit the Seychelles’ very own Takamaka Rum Distillery (which Dan almost skipped!). If you drink rum and are in the Seychelles, Takamaka is not to be missed!
A Takamaka banana Daiquiri.
Takamaka Distillery was started by a Seychellois family back in 2002 (under a different name). Takamaka is still owned by the same family and has a presence all of Mahé – a great success story. While initial distilling began in the family swimming pool, Takamaka’s current location is at La Plaine St. André, which is a grand property dating back to 1792. Takamaka has already done a lot of work on La Plaine St. André, but is continuing to restore it and open more of the property to the public. I’m here for it!
Dan and I paid a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque last November on a weekend layover in Abu Dhabi en route to the Seychelles. We had a lot of questions, including what to wear(!), before our visit, so here is what we learned to help you on your visit!
Mosque views. The entire Mosque campus is gorgeous.
THE SHEIKH ZAYED GRAND MOSQUE
First off, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is absolutely gorgeous. Honestly, one of the most beautiful and interesting things we have seen in a good while. Any visit to Abu Dhabi should not miss this important site.
En route to the Seychelles last November, Dan and I spent the weekend in Abu Dhabi! This was mostly due to the fact that we needed to connect in the Middle East and had already visited Dubai(en route to the Maldives). In any case, I had been wanting to visit Abu Dhabi and the flights worked out. There is plenty to do in Abu Dhabi to fill a weekend and even longer, but we only had the weekend. Here’s what we managed to do during that weekend, which we highly suggest to other visitors, whether in transit or on vacation in Abu Dhabi.
FIRST DAY IN DUBAI – 12.5 HOUR FLIGHT & ARRIVAL IN ABU DHABI!
We flew direct from JFK (New York) to Abu Dhabi on Etihad’s 10:00 PM flight, which arrived the following evening in Abu Dhabi (losing almost a whole day). We arrived a few minutes early and made it to our hotel, the Marriott Hotel Downtown Abu Dhabi, without much fuss. Abu Dhabi lifted all Covid restrictions just before our trip, so we didn’t have to deal with anything relating thereto. Due to our Marriott Platinum status, we received access to the Marriott’s Executive Club Lounge, which was open for complimentary drinks for almost an hour after we arrived (a fun surprise in Abu Dhabi where alcohol is $$$). As such, we quickly checked into our room and immediately proceeded to the Executive Club Lounge.
F1 chocolates waiting in our room. This was particularly fun, as we didn’t even know it was F1!
While visiting the Seychelles last November (2022), Dan & I took a day trip to Moyenne Island from Mahé to “snorkel.” We didn’t really know what to expect besides a boat ride and snorkeling, so here is a review of our day if you are considering something similar. First up, Moyenne Island is a small island in the Seychelles’ Sainte Anne Marine National Park. Hundreds of years ago Moyenne Island was a pirate island, but in the recent past, it was abandoned from 1915 until the 1960s when a sole English newspaper editor purchased the island and lived on Moyenne Island alone until he died 2012. Wild, and kind of scary… Moyenne Island is now a national park and a flora and fauna reserve, and its very popular with tourists.
Our boat waiting for departure for Moyenne Island!
The easiest way to reach Moyenne Island for many tourists is by way of a group day tour, which is exactly what we did. Due to the relationship our hotel, the Mango House, had with Creole Travel Services, we took our trip to Moyenne with Creole Travel Services. We were happy with the company, but a number of other companies seem to do a very similar tour and I wouldn’t necessarily pick Creole over another company. In any case, our morning started with a pick up at the Mango House and a 25 minute drive to an old, seemingly abandoned, port near the airport. We were a little iffy on entering the abandoned port…
If you read my first blog post this year, you know that Dan and I spent US Thanksgiving in the Seychelles, an island nation off the coast of East Africa! During our trip, we stayed at Hilton’s new LXR property, the Mango House (its featured on some Hilton IG ads). Our stay was great and we could have stayed longer. This article reviews the hotel and its amenities.
Flying back from the Seychelles last November, Dan and I had an overnight layover in Abu Dhabi. Due to the flight times (arriving around 9:30 PM and leaving the next morning around 10:00 AM), we decided to stay in a hotel near the airport to get some sleep prior to our flight home. Turns out that the Abu Dhabi airport has its own hotel in Terminal 1, so we booked a room there for the night. This is my review of that room and hotel.
Back in the Seychelles. We were sad to leave!
LOCATION OF THE AIRPORT HOTEL
The Abu Dhabi Airport Hotel T1 International Departures hotel is located in Abu Dhabi Terminal 1. It’s easy to find and connected to the Al Dhabi Lounge. Terminal 1 is connected to Terminal 3 and travelers can walk between the two terminals without going through security – easy peasy. The walk takes about 10 minutes, maybe longer with mobility issues.
Dan waiting to get into the lounge next to the hotel. There was a line due to the crowds in Abu Dhabi this weekend.
Dan and I travel every US Thanksgiving, mainly because its quiet and we get two days off of work without taking any vacation. This year we traveled to the Seychelles (after 3 nights in Abu Dhabi) to explore more of the Indian Ocean (after going to the Maldives two Thanksgivings ago). We loved our time in the Seychelles, but due to the time it takes to get to the Seychelles, would probably reserve another visit for when we have longer to explore the surrounding area. This is my review of what we did and where we stayed during our week on the Seychelles!
Rainbow in the Seychelles.
THE SEYCHELLES ISLANDS
The Seychelles (pronounced like the plural of a “seashell” found on the beach) are are group of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa, directly east of Tanzania and north of Reunion and Mauritius (and along with Comoros, Madagascar, and Mayotte, referred to as the Vanilla Islands). The Seychelles is its own country that is a part of the continent of Africa. Prior to gaining its independence, the Seychelles were occupied by both the French and the British. As a result, most people speak English, French, and the local Seychellois language. Here is a map of the Seychelles’ location – kind of in the middle of nowhere in the best way possible.
To celebrate the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022, Dan and I flew to Lisbon, Portugal (where we got married!) for four nights and five days. We had great weather and a lovely time, despite the crazy Omicron Covid testing requirements in place at the time (no longer in place). This article details what we did, ate, and drank in Lisbon in the winter!
Me and Dan celebrating 2022!
DAY ONE – LANDING IN LISBON, EATING AT THE TIME OUT MARKET, & A 25 EURO TASTING MENU!
Dan and I arrived in Lisbon very early in the morning and luckily, we were able to immediately check into our hotel room at the Intercontinental Lisboa. Not surprisingly, the Intercontinental Lisboa was still decorated for Christmas and everything looked very nice. Due the early hour of our arrival, a nap was most certainly in order.
Christmas decor at the Intercontinental Lisboa!
After a pretty sizable nap (we did arrive before sunrise), Dan and I walked from our hotel to Lisbon’s TimeOut Market for lunch. The walk from the Intercontinental Lisboa to the TimeOut Market goes through some pretty parts of Lisbon and we took lots of photos. We also picked up some Covid tests en route, as the rules were super strict and if we couldn’t get a PCR test, we would need to self-test before entering any restaurants, etc. Unlike the US, at-home Covid tests were cheap and plentiful.
In light of the Thanksgiving holiday coming up in the United States, I am writing about a fun restaurant that I have been to on two separate US Thanksgivings in Venice – Osteria al Squero! While I love this place, I will disclose that Osteria al Squero is by no means a secret or even “off the beaten path.” In fact, Osteria al Squero is listed in many a guidebook, including Rick Steves (with whom I have a love/hate relationship, LOL), and it definitely falls into the “touristy” category. All of that said, Osteria al Squero is still a fantastic spot for tourists to try cicchetti, or “Venetian tapas” for those not in the know. This article details how to enjoy cicchetti at Osteria al Squero.
A wine town in the mountains of Rhodes, Greece probably does not come to mind when thinking of this beachey destination just of the coast of Turkey. However, there is such a town, named Embonas, in the mountains about an hour outside Rhodes Town. Embonas is famous for its wine and grilled meats! Its also a small town and an easy way to spend a morning or afternoon on Rhodes. We planned a morning wine tasting in Embonas on our recent trip to Greece!
I guess this means winery in Greek!
As Embonas is located about an hour from Rhodes Town, on some very twisty roads, we hired a driver to drive us around and stop at wineries that the driver had picked out and reserved in advance. This was super helpful, because we would not have known where to start. Information online is…sparse at best. We left Rhodes Town around 9:30, stopping for some fantastic coastal pictures en route, and ended up at our first winery about 30 minutes later (outside of Embonas).
Leaving Rhodes Town and driving to Embonas. This is a view point en route.
While in Rhodes, Dan and I took a day trip from Rhodes to neighboring Symi Island, as it was ranked as one of the top “things to do” on Rhodes. All, in, it was a good day trip, but I’m not sure its worth the time if you only have a few days on Rhodes. The day trip to Symi is better suited for those spending a full week on Rhodes, IMO. That being said, I did find Symi stunning and would love to return for a few quiet days of relaxation.
Arriving in Symi via boat from Rhodes.
WHAT IS SYMI ISLAND?
Symi Island is a tiiiiiny Greek island 25 miles from Rhodes, very close to the Turkish coast. A visit to Symi a popular day trip from Rhodes, due to the islands’ proximity. Despite being neighbors, Symi Island has a totally different feel than Rhodes, being much, much smaller and more Italian than Turkish feeling. While Symi almost exclusively a tourist island now, Symi has historically been known for sponge diving. It’s also well known for its tiny Symi shrimp.
Dan and I finally returned to Europe post-Covid over the American 4th of July holiday 2021, a little over a month after Greece re-opened to tourists. Our trip began in Rhodes, Greece, a Greek island very close to Turkey, and we spent one day in the lovely town of Lindos, Rhodes!
Dan and I made our triumphant return to Europe in 2021, heading to Rhodes, Milos, and Athens, Greece. After a significant delay at Newark, we FINALLY made it to Rhodes – six hours later than expected (and missing our flight to Athens….). This article shares my experience in 2021 and offers some recommendations and tips for visiting Rhodes, Greece!
Final approach into Rhodes, Greece.
Rhodes, Greece is a large Greek island located very close to the Turkish coast. Rhodes is one of Greece’s largest islands and one of the furthest from Athens. Unlike the “blue and white” Greek islands that most Americans think of when they think Greek (i.e. the Cyclades), Rhodes has a lot of Ottoman influence, very rich history with influences from many cultures, much related to the Knights Period, medieval things, and very little “blue and white” architecture. Today, while absolutely gorgeous in certain parts, Rhodes is super touristy, receiving big box tours from Europe, as well as its fair share of cruise ships. You’ll find stunning old walls and flowers in the Old Town, as well as weird toy and candy shops and tourist trinket stores targeted to cruisers. In my opinion, Rhodes Town was best early or late, when most of the cruisers and day trippers leave the island.
Very touristy Rhodes, Greece. You can see a weird toy/candy store in the background.
Contrast this Old Town Wall and flowers with the touristy square.
When Dan and I visited Greece last summer, we spent a fair amount of time in Athens’ Schengen terminal, flying from Athens to Rhodes and then from Rhodes to Athens to Milos. For Priority Pass members, the Schengen terminal has two lounge options, neither of which are fantastic: Goldair Handling CIP Lounge and Skyserv Melina Merkouri Lounge. Of the two, I slightly preferred Goldair for drinks and food and Skyserv for the space. I wouldn’t go out of my way to return to either, but for free it was fine to wait out our layovers. This article details our experience in both.
Just before traveling to Athens last summer, Dan and I spent four nights on Milos island, the southernmost Cycladic island in the Aegean Sea. In other words, its part of the same blue-and-white island group as Santorini and Mykonos, but located a little further south, a bit north of Crete. We found Milos to be quieter and more authentic than Santorini and Mykonos, but with enough to do to occupy tourists for several days. This article details what we did and where we stayed and ate on Milos.
Dan and I dined at an amazing restaurant in Athens, Greece last summer – Mystilli. It was my favorite meal of our trip and I still think about it! Mystilli is located very, very close to the Temple of Hephaestus with views of the Acropolis in the background. Mystilli offers indoor and outdoor seating along a pedestrian thoroughfare and, in the summer at least, Mystilli is decorated with bright flowers. Offering modern Greek and Mediterranean fare, don’t miss a meal at Mystilli when in Athens!
Mystilli views of the Acropolis in the background.
Dan and I had 24 hours in Athens at the end of our Greece trip last summer. We had been to Athens twice previously, so just wanted to hit the highlights and enjoy our last day of vacation. It felt like a Bourdain The Layover episode. Our 24 hours began with a short 25 minute flight from Milos to Athens International Airport, arriving at 10:20 AM.
Approach into Athens.
We quickly grabbed a taxi and went directly to our hotel – the Fresh Hotel. We checked in and set out for, at least what we call, traditional Greek food – AKA a gyro and saganaki. We found generally what we were looking for at a casual restaurant called Oavaons (my English spelling of Greek letters…) just off Monastiriki Square. The food was pretty good and satisfied our “traditional Greek food” request. That being said, I would not necessarily recommend Oavaons over other similar places.
Saganaki cheese with lemon! A personal Greek favorite.
As part of our big family trip to Italy in November 2021, Dan and I signed everyone up for an evening food tour through Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. We did this for three reasons: (1) several of us on this tour love a good food tour, (2) Dan and I lived in Trastevere when we studied in Rome wayyyy back in 2008 and we wanted our families to see the area, and (3) we previously did a food tour through Testaccioand really loved it! We booked our tour with Eating Italy Food Tours for our first evening in Rome, meeting on Tiber Island around 5:00 PM. Unfortunately, we got hit with an insane rain storm en route to the meeting point and we all got soaked… In any case, the tour went on! Due to the rain, we quickly moved to our first location in Trastevere, which I was verrrrry excited about!
En route back from our food tour, without rain!
Stop 1: Trattoria Da Enzo al 29
Yes, you read that correctly. Our first stop was at the famous Trattoria Da Enzo al 29. Da Enzo is a well known Roman trattoria that is very, very popular. You will frequently find it on “best food in Rome” lists. Da Enzo does not take reservations and there is almost always a wait. As such, our group actually got in before the restaurant opened to the public, something we never could have pulled off on our own! Our group and another couple on the tour were seated between two tables dressed in red checkered tablecloths. Classic southern Italy. Our guide poured everyone a glass of Prosecco and out came the food. First, the famous carciofi alla giudìa (or Jewish fried artichokes). These artichokes are famous Rome and not difficult to find when in season, but tough to find elsewhere in Italy. Basically, this is a deep fried artichoke topped with quality sea salt. Very simple, yet incredibly good. On the table was also Italian bread, burrata, tomatoes, and olive oil, which were suggested together as a type of little bruschetta. I loved the burrata and actually preferred it to the artichoke. Stop 1 was off to a good start.
Berat was Dan and my first stop on our Albania vacation this summer. This article provides some information on traveling to Berat, as I could not find much good information online prior to our visit.
BERAT ALBANIA – BACKGROUND
Berat, Albania is an Ottoman city in central Albania on the Osum River. Referred to as the “city of 1,000 windows,” Berat is located around a 1.5 hour drive from Albania’s capital, Tirana, and a 5 hour drive from Saranda. Berat is famous for its well preserved architecture influenced by the Ottomans and Byzantines, including both churches and mosques and those famous windowed buildings. Designated a UNSECO site in 2008, Berat is also famous for its hill top castle that is still inhabited to-date. I recommend spending at least 1 full day and 2 nights in Berat to see everything Berat has to offer, longer if you have more time or want to visit surrounding wineries.
Roadside in Berat pointing toward the Kala.
For tourist purposes, Berat is split into three areas: the Kala, the Mangalem, and the Gorica area. The Kala is at the verrrry top of Berat and is an inhabited old castle. The Mangalem the old part of Berat, and in my opinion the most important for tourists purposes. When you look at the 1000 Windows view, you are looking at the Mangalem. Gorcia is across the Osum River from the Managlem and is, from what I heard, a bit more modern. All are pretty close to each other and easy to walk between (except the Kala, which is up a steeeeeep hill).
WHAT WE DID IN BERAT, ALBANIA
Compact Berat can be quickly “done” in a day, or can occupy several relaxing days. Dan and I spent three nights and two full days in Berat. We felt like we had plenty of time to see and do everything, but we were not rushed. Here’s what we did, and a few things we missed.
1000 Windows view. The “1000 Windows” view is the postcard of Berat. Catching the view takes only a few minutes, but its worth catching at different times of the day. To see the famous view, cross the Old Bridge to the Gorica area. The best views, IMHO, are from both sides of the Old Bridge.
The famous view. Just as pretty in person.
The Kala (aka Castle of Berat). The Kala is Berat’s second most famous site (again, IMHO). Located a very steep walk (or short taxi ride) from Berat’s town center, the Kala is a somewhat intact citadel built in the 13th century, but apparently dating back centuries longer. Once at the Kala, you will notice that it’s still inhabited and a number of shops and restaurants operate for tourists.
Long way up to the Kala.
Almost at the top! Starts to look al little like Italy!
Views from Berat Castle.
Inside Berat Castle. Again, looks like Italy!
The Onufri Iconography Museum. This museum inside the Kala is dedicated to Byzantine art and iconography and is worth a 30 minute (or longer if you are interested in this area of art) visit. The Onufri Museum is actually inside the 18th-century St. Mary’s Church and holds some fantastic orthodox iconographic paintings, including by its namesake Onufri, a painting headmaster of the 16th century!
A highlight of the Onufri Iconography Museum.
Church of St. Mary of Vllaherna. Also in the Kala, the Church of St. Mary of Vllaherna is a bit of a walk from the Kala’s entrance. Due to this, and the 100 F weather, we skipped this church. That being said, its supposed to be well-preserved and I’m confident the views would be great. You can see it way up on on the hill from the Gorica area.
We didn’t walk up to the Church – this is a view from below.
The Ethnographic Museum. In addition to the Onufri Iconography Museum, the Ethnographic Museum gets high marks from visitors. We skipped this museum in favor of an air conditioned nap, but I heard it’s quite nice inside a traditional house.
The Bulevardi Republika. Bulevardi Republika is a pedestrian promenade at the bottom of Berat near the Ostuni river. The promenade is lined with cafes and makes for fantastic people watching in the late evening, especially on the weekends. We loved watching multigenerational families taking their evening promenade and enjoying the day. To do this, we simply set up with drinks and/or shisha at an outdoor table at one of the many cafes (Bar Bazar, with relatively decent cocktails and shisha, was our favorite). If you are more for a promenade yourself, street vendors set up in the evening (corn is particularly popular!) and dogs seemingly without masters will be joining you!
Shisha on the Bulevardi Republika.
Loved the people watching here!
Drinks on Bulevardi Republika.
A statute at the end of the Boulevard of a girl playing a flute. She was apparently a heroine and member of the anti-nazi resistance during the second world war.
The Old and New Bridges. While not necessarily a “sight,” two bridges in Berat cross the Osum River, linking the Mangalem and Gorica districts. Both are worth a cross over if that interests you. While the Old Bridge is much prettier, the new one sways a tiny bit when you cross it.
The Old Bridge.
The new bridge.
Churches and Mosques. Berat is home to numerous churches and mosques that frame the small city’s skyline. Definitely photographable.
St. Demetrius Cathedral.
Albania wineries. Berat is right in the middle of Albania’s small “wine country.” Yes, like its neighbors Montenegro and Serbia, Albania also produces its own wine, mostly for domestic consumption. In fact, many restaurants will serve their own wine produced by family members. We visited two wineries within about 20 – 30 minutes via car from Berat: the Cobo Winery and Alpeta. We preferred Alpeta due to its stunning setting, but either or both are worth a visit.
Alpeta winery in Berat.
WHERE WE ATE IN BERAT, ALBANIA
We definitely did not miss out on good food in Albania. Berat is home to many restaurants, most serving traditional Berati fare – think meats, fresh vegetables, local wine, etc. Here are some of the places we ate – reservations probably not required except at Lili!
LiLi Homemade Food. LiLi Homemade Food is a restaurant actually inside Lili’s home in the Mangalem district of Berat serving local Berati food. And, true to its name, everything is homemade! We loved our meal at LiLi, and it was probably the best of the trip (certainly in Berat)! I’m going to write more on LiLi, but in sum, the food was fantastic, the service top notch, and the entirety of the below pictured table was only $26 USD. Make a reservation and eat here if you are in town.
$26 US meal at LiLi.
Restaurant Onufri. Located inside Hotel Onufri, we had our first Berati dinner here. Arriving late, we split a salad and the Vienz or “Berati Beef,” and it was the best Vienz that we had in Berat! The Vienz or Berati beef is actually not beef at all, but fried pork stuffed with cheese. Hotel Onufri’s was excellent. The salad was basically a Greek salad and was quite fresh. We would have dined at Restaurant Onufri again had we stayed more days in Berat.
Albanian version of a Greek salad.
Eni Traditional Food. Our second dinner in Berat was in the Gorica area, across the Old Bridge from the Mangalem district. Receiving very high ratings on Trip Advisor, Eni serves a simple menu of traditional Berati food. We opted for the Vienz, stuffed peppers and eggplant, a dish of potatoes topped with a local sauce, and local Berati bread with olive oil and garlic. The food was good, but not fantastic as portrayed on Trip Advisor. The homemade red wine, however, was excellent. Our waiter, the owners’ son, also spoke great English.
Menu at Eni.
Piccolo Grande Amore. We had our first lunch at Piccolo Grande Amore based on its Trip Advisor reviews. Piccolo Grande Amore is located on the top floor of a building in the Mangolem very close to the Saint Demetrius Cathedral. After climbing about three flights of stairs, we reached the restaurant and were treated to phenomeal views of Berat, which was definitely the best part about Piccolo Grande Amore. In terms of food, my pizza was meh (and I got ham in lieu of mushrooms…), but Dan’s local lamb stewed in something like collared greens was quite good, especially with local garlic bread.