24 hours in Venice

Going to Italy during Semana Santa helped me realize something about myself–I hate tourists. Not just other people, but I don’t like being one myself. It’s probably why whenever I go anywhere I even moderately connect to, I’m convinced I’ll move there one day and experience the place like only a true local can. That said, I don’t want to move to Venice. Venice is like Prague to me–too magical to be real. I couldn’t ruin Venice by actually moving there and having to worry about running late for work or changing the kitty litter or any other real life burdens. I want to preserve it’s otherworldly charm, but I do still want to go back. Because of Semana Santa the cheapest hostel I could find was over $45 and I could only afford a night there.

Venice was my second stop of 17 day trip over Semana Santa, and to be honest about the fact that travel is not all wonderful all the time, my night in Venice was not the best. Usually I love traveling alone, but after Rachel left Italy to go back to London, I was facing another week alone before Gareth and I met in Zagreb, and I suddenly felt really lonely. Add in that I didn’t arrive until the sun was beginning to set, and that Venice is not exactly the ideal place to be a single– I spent the most of the night sticking close to my hostel and on the phone with Gareth. Lame, I know.

Luckily after a good night’s sleep I remembered how much I actually love solo travel, and got my mojo back. I spent the day wandering through the maze like passages, stopping in awe every few minutes that a place like that actually exists.

    

I don’t have a ton of suggestions for how to best “do” Venice, because I don’t think I did it properly. I have a few suggestions based off of lessons I learned, however.

Book early – and by this I mean everything. Accommodation, certainly. But there are places online you can arrange a gondola share, because they are privately hired and seriously expensive. That said, the looks on people’s faces as they rode convinced me they are worth it.

Get off the beaten track – the restaurants that have their menus in a dozen different languages aren’t going to be the ones with food you never forget. One of my biggest regrets was the place I chose for dinner. I was staying in the Jewish area, an immediate left after crossing the Guglie bridge. I had wandered deeper into the city, and it was getting dark. I knew it was a bad idea, but I settled for a place on Rio Terà San Leonardo that was filled with tourists and served legitimately bad food. On the five minute walk back to my hostel, along Fondamenta Cannaregio, I passed about three places lit by candle lit and filled with Italians. Learn from my mistakes. And probably go to dinner on that street cause it looked amazing.

Buy a water bus day pass. The pass is 20 euros and a single journey is 7.50. The ride is such a good tour of the city, and to have been able to go to San Marco, Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore, and back to Guglie all on a water taxi would have been great.

Set aside time to get lost – this, I did, and it was one of my favorite parts of the day. As I wandered back from San Marco to Guglie, I passed through quiet, residential areas that were nearly empty, and offered just as much charm as the packed city center. I also stumbled upon La Bottiglia, which is an amazing deli. They asked me to trust them and built me the most incredible sandwich. If you like sandwiches, this is your place.

Saint Mark’s Square – They charge an outlandish price to sit and have a drink, but you should do it anyway. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s everything you imagine when you think of Venice. Have the Prosecco, obviously. Sit and listen to music and watch people try get a photo with the pigeons. Drink in the magic of the city, and if you’re like me have to remind yourself over and over again that you haven’t fallen into a movie set, but that Venice is a real place that exists in the world.

 

A Weekend in Prague at Christmastime

It’s getting downright frosty here in London, and the sun has set by around 4:00 every day. Instead of finding this a depressing shock to the system, I’ve decided to get into the Christmas spirit early. The one good thing about living abroad where American Thanksgiving is strangely ignored, is that post-Halloween (another largely ignored holiday), it’s basically Christmastime.

I’ve booked a few trips for December, and planning them has me thinking about what an incredible trip I took over the puente last year in Spain. As I said before, it was a whirlwind trip from Berlin to Amsterdam to Prague to Poland. I only got around to writing about Berlin last year, but it’s time (or about 10 months past time) to talk about the others. Because they were fantastic.

I’m starting with Prague because Prague in December is quite literally the most magical place on earth. As much as I like to explore new places, had I found affordable tickets I’d be spending a weekend in Prague this December, without a doubt. While Berlin was a bit crowded and overwhelming, Prague was much less packed. It honestly looked and felt like we’d time traveled back a few dozen (hundred) years. The Christmas market was filled with wooden stalls where people were making their crafts–metal workers, jewelry makers, booksellers, wine vendors–it was a nice departure from the more modern and pricey markets I’d been to elsewhere. There were also animals around, and a little place where you could feed donkeys. While it got a bit crowded at night, it was never to the point where you couldn’t mill around comfortably, and take in the views of the beautiful tree or the church or the astronomical clock.

Stay close to the action. We stayed at Prague Square Hostel which I highly recommend. It wasn’t that expensive (about 10 euros a night for an 8 bed room), but only a two minute walk from Old Town Square, and an easy walk to all the other main things you’d want to see in Prague. If you stay around here, Cafe–Cafe had a few good breakfast options (including eggs!) and some really delicious cakes and coffees.

We did a loop, which ended up being a great walk around all the sites of the city.

We missed it, but I’d recommend starting with a trip to the Old Jewish Cemetery. Then walk across Manesuv Most bridge up to Prague Castle. This is up a hill and offers some great views of the city. Walking around this area is a look into what the less touristy side of Prague looks like, compared to Old Town Square. If I came back anytime other than December, I’d try to stay around here.

The Castle is incredible, and parts are free to walk around. We didn’t actually go inside, though if you have the time and money I’m sure it would be worth it. Instead we walked around the grounds–there’s an area called Golden Lane where Kafka used to have a house, that I’d recommend checking out, and a little old toy store built into the castle where I really regret not buying something for a future kid, because everything in it was wooden and gorgeous. When we were there were quite a few stalls selling food and mulled wine, and it was a really nice place to spend some time.


From there we headed down to Kampa island, which is a teeny island off of the western side of the river that divides the city. It has a nice park, and some great views of the other side of the river.

On our way to the bridge we found Lennon’s Wall, and joined the dozens of French tourists taking pictures in front of it. Then we made our way up to the bridge (this was actually fairly confusing and eventually a guard just walked us there). I was honestly not expecting much–how big of a deal can crossing an old bridge be, really? But it was so beautiful, the sun was close to setting, and there was live music playing that just heightened it all. It was definitely a, “how is this real life??” kind of moment, one of the ones that make traveling so special.

After the bridge we went back into Old Town Square, where we had a really great dinner right on the square, overlooking the market. I’d recommend being a bit picky about the restaurant you choose–so many were incredibly touristy, with the menu is dozens of languages and a bit void of heart. Instead we tried to pick one where it was mainly Czech people eating, which ended up being the right call. We ended up at Restaurant White Horse, which I highly recommend. We sat outside, because the Christmas market was a lovely view, but the inside looked incredible as well. I had Goulash and it was so, so yummy. Definitely give that a try, and the pork knuckle is meant to be delicious as well. We didn’t get to go to Svata Klara for dinner, but it’s on my list of places for if I ever return. If you go, please have dinner there and report back–it looks so cool!

We saved the actual market for the next day, and after a lie in and a detour to buy warmer jackets (it is literally freezing in Prague at that time of year, bring the heaviest winter coat you can find), we spent hours exploring the stalls, trying the food and drink (find a stall with honey wine, you won’t be disappointed!). We also used this time to go to the top of the Astronomical Clock, which is something you can’t miss. The views, especially when overlooking the market, were so pretty, and a great overview of everything you’re experiencing down below.

Prague was everything I ever dreamed a Christmas market could be, and though I see the value in visiting during other parts of the year, I’m already trying to figure out how to make annual December trips part of my life plan for the next few decades!

24 Hours in Bruges

Before leaving for Belgium I heard over and over again that Brussels wasn’t worth visiting and Bruges is where we should have planned to spend most of our time. It’s the Venice of the north, they say. It’s like a fairytale. And as Venice is one of my favorite cities in the world, and the two fairytale like cities I’ve visited have forever charmed me, it was hard not to have some regrets that we’d only planned a day trip.

However, I have to say I am pleased it worked out as it did. We went on a random weekend in January and Bruges was so full of tourists it almost felt like a resort. Brussels was big and exciting, and was meant to be international. Bruges was gorgeous but felt set up mainly for tourism and a day trip with the following itinerary was the perfect amount of time to see and do everything we wanted. I’m sure long term you could get off the tourist track and see the local side, but I don’t think adding a day or two would have accomplished that.

If you’re traveling by train from Brussels, note that there are stops at multiple stations in the city, so you can find the most convenient one based on where you’re staying. ALSO please note that a relatively direct train will take you about 90 minutes, and the others will take MUCH LONGER and move at what one might describe as the pace of a snail. We are obviously smart people who planned to take the fast track there… back however, we just got on the next available train. It was a mistake, but I read nearly an entire book during the never-ending journey, so at least there’s a bright side.

Upon arrival, you can follow the hordes of people to the city center. I was not expecting Bruges to be so touristy, but I swear for every local person I saw, there were ten tourists. For breakfast, we went to Marie’s House, because we heard they had good waffles. With the caveat that we weren’t able to try their signature dish, I have to say I wouldn’t recommend them. First, they don’t start serving waffles until 2:00, so you have to time it right (aka waffles aren’t breakfast for anyone in the world but Americans), but also, a bottle of ketchup randomly exploded all over us and the staff saw it all happen and did not react. They didn’t give us anything to clean it up without us having to ask, or try to replace the food or drinks that were covered in ketchup. It was all just a bit meh. Instead, you should try Books and Brunch, which sounds incredible and about which I’ve only heard good things (though be sure to have a reservation).

From there head to Markt, the main town square. Markt is gorgeous. Take some pictures of the buildings, check out the horse drawn carriages, and maybe stop into some of the bookstores. They all have an English section, and the books range from popular current fiction and non-fiction, to books about the local city, which I love.

After getting your fill of Markt, head over to Rozenhoedkaai, which is the most photographed place in Bruges. It reminded me a bit of “The Most Photographed Barn in America” from White Noise, but it was incredibly gorgeous, so again, justified.

    

From there, if you’re interested in getting off the beaten track and a fellow book lover, you can head to In Den Eenhoorn, which is just outside of the main part of town. I loved this walk because it felt much less touristy and a bit more like the Bruges locals see. The bookstore is huge and has books in so many different languages. We picked some up in Spanish to challenge ourselves.

There are so many cool museums, like the Torture Museum, a Dali exhibition, and the Frietmuseum which is the history of frites! After checking out some of the collections, wander a bit and take in more of the gorgeous surroundings, and if you need a break find a coffee shop to get a snack, waffle, or some tea.

Of course, you can’t forget the beer. Go to Duvelorium Grand Beer Cafe, if you have time wait for a table by the window, and enjoy your pint with a perfect view of Markt Square.

One of the chocolatiers we stopped into had a huge box (17 pieces) for a flat rate of 6.50 euros. We asked if we could fill it with less than 17 pieces, trying to exercise some form of self control, and the woman looked at us incredulously–she couldn’t begin to understand why would we ever WANT to do that. That is my kind of place.

Plan your 24 hours in Bruges well, i.e. do not take the next train but the fastest train, and you’ll leave happy you went but also feeling like you’ve seen everything you needed to see.

24 Hours in Brussels

 

I was not excited or mentally prepared for this trip. It was January 20th and since Thanksgiving, I’d either been traveling or hosting straight through, and even without those factors the weekend’s schedule was daunting. We were traveling/sleeping in buses or airports both Thursday and Saturday night, and only had accommodation booked for Friday. My outlook was more defeated exhaustion than one of energetic excitement. Add in that I had not heard the best things about Brussels, and those 30 euro return tickets started to feel like more trouble than they were worth.

But! I was so wrong! Belgium was amazing. I had heard Brussels was pretty boring but Bruges would be like a fairytale, and while the latter was correct, I loved Brussels! The international vibe, the gorgeous architecture, the super nice people, the bilingual population, and also THE FOOD. So much chocolate. So many frites. And the waffles. Man, those waffles. Brussels is a chocolate and beer lovers heaven on earth.

We only had a day to spend in this amazing city, and while knowing what I know now I wish I had planned more time there, I think we had a good itinerary for the time we had. Check out my itinerary for 24 hours in Brussels below.

First thing in the morning, head towards Grand Place. We took some pictures of the amazing square, and at this time of day the sun is out and makes the gold buildings shine in such an incredible way. It’s also central to everywhere else you’ll want to go.

From there walk just around the corner to Maison Dandoy, which is SUPER cute and delicious. It has an upstairs that feels like you’re sitting in someone’s living room, and it is a great place for your first waffle experience.

And as delicious as those waffles are, one isn’t nearly enough, but that’s perfect because it leaves room for Fritland, which is AMAZING. Man do they give you an insane amount of insanely delicious frites. Not going to lie, I ate an entire order all on my own. And it was so worth it. Fritland is again, just around the corner.

After that you can wander around the area a bit heading towards Au Bon Vieux Temps, which is the oldest bar in Brussels, open for over 300 years. On the way, check out some chocolate shops, because that chocolate is amazing. The bar really actually looked like an old bar, and you could feel the history. That said, they were playing 80s pop pretty loudly, so the ambience was a bit compromised, haha. Here we took a little break, had some delicious beer, and discussed how surprised we were with how much we like the city. Maybe our expectations were really low, but we were all really enchanted.

Then you have time to wander through Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, which was gorgeous but pretty expensive. My camera died, but the window displays were incredibly creative and artistic, well worth the trip. There is also a bookstore that I really wanted to check out, but we didn’t have time to stop in. If you like books, I’d check out both that and Muntpunt, a library and information center, as it is one of the coolest and most unique libraries I’ve been to.

From there, you’re right next to street full of restaurants, but most have people out front trying to force you inside. I don’t trust/like this method, and we ended up going to Chez Leon which didn’t have anyone peddling out front. I highly recommend it! The place looked small but was actually huge, made up of about 10 different cozy rooms connected by maze like hallways. The food was delicious and there was a wide variety of prices on the menu. We got the mussels, which were incredible. If you go, get the mussels.

If you feel like an after dinner walk, Grand Place is beautiful lit up at night, and well worth the quick stroll.

After that we headed back to our hostel, Meininger Hotel, which I also recommend. The common areas were really lively, there was a bar, a kitchen, and our rooms were comfortable and well designed (each bed had a plug and a personal light). At $25 a night in the city center, it’s  fairly priced, and they also let us hang in the common room until 4 am on our last night, even though we hadn’t booked a room. We had an early night partly because we hadn’t slept at all the night before, but also because we were waking up early the next day to go to Bruges!

Like I said, I hadn’t expected much from Brussels, and while I do think we got a great feel for the city and saw the most important parts, looking back I would have planned to stay longer. I wanted to check out the flea market and the EU Parliament. Guess it’s just another city I’ll have no choice but to return to!

Dinner at Il Teatro del Sale

Il Teatro del Sale is an all you can eat dinner followed by a show, and the kind of dining experience you’ll remember forever. You’d think it would be overflowing with tourists, but when we went we were the only non-Italians in attendance. It’s the kind of place you immediately feel at home in, almost like you’re all having dinner in someone’s (huge) living room. There are private tables and community tables and as everyone gets up to collect the next dish at the same time, it feels like one big group dinner.

It’s run by a husband and wife team, he handles the food, she handles the entertainment. Together, they make quite the pair and have turned the place into a Florentine treasure. There are hundreds of dinner options in Florence, but you can tell this one is in the heart of the city and its history.

It’s a members only club, so to attend you have to become a member. It’s 7 euros to join and around 35 for the meal. Not exactly cheap, and also the (unlimited) wine that is included is quite literally undrinkable–and this is coming from a girl who thinks Franzia and two buck chuck is surprisingly tasty. We kept checking to see if other people were drinking it, wondering if maybe it had oxidized and no one noticed, but no. It was only a small few, but some people went back for seconds. We tried to power through, if only to be polite, but it was honestly like drinking nail varnish. Suffice it to say, we did not finish our (small) glasses, and they only sell wine by the bottle. The cheapest is another 30 euros, not ideal, and not an inexpensive night.

That said, everything else was amazing. The food was delicious. Like, really, really good. And there was tons of it. I eat a lot and even I was super overwhelmed with the amount and variety in front of me. The service was excellent, though we had an amazing language barrier experience.

The way the place runs is there’s always food being served on a table that you can just go grab. While this is happening the chefs are cooking a ton of other things right from the kitchen, and when that is ready the chef yells out, in Italian, what the next course is, and you line up and wait for them to hand you a plate. Easy enough. However, this was described to us as “when the cook screams, you must go running because there is a situation in the kitchen.” After a slightly concerned second wondering exactly what situation occurring in the kitchen would cause the chef to scream, we realized what he meant. It was hilarious and sweet and so nice to not be the one making little sense in a second language for a change!

The show afterwards was my favorite part. It was two older guys, and I’ve never seen anyone love what they do so much. One of them was literally grinning and jumping around the entire time, and if I can be half as happy and content as he is, I will consider myself a success.

They serve brunch as well, and next time I’m in Florence I will definitely be back. I highly recommend this place to anyone wanting an authentic Italian experience!