7 Tips for Making the Most of Crowded Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is one of the most visited cities in all of Croatia— and for good reason. The Old City is encircled by ancient city walls and when you walk through the gates, you’re instantly transported through time. Inside is a maze of narrow stone streets, medieval palaces and cathedrals, and restaurants around every corner. Not to mention, its location on the Adriatic Sea makes for postcard-worthy beaches, so you can combine sightseeing with just the right amount of relaxation.

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The fact that Dubrovnik’s Old City is a historical treasure is no secret, though, and the city is visited by thousands of tourists each year. Of course, its reputation as the filming location for Game of Thrones and the Star Wars movies has only increased the city’s popularity.

While I typically get rather turned off by places that are overrun by tourists, I have to make an exception for Dubrovnik. There’s just something about this charming medieval city that lures you in and leaves you wishing you could stay longer. And with a few tricks up your sleeve, you can make the most of the city despite the crowds.

Here are a few tips I picked up during my visit that will help make your stay in Dubrovnik even more enjoyable:

1. Visit in the Shoulder Seasons

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My favorite time to travel anywhere in Europe is during the shoulder months: April and May in the spring and September and October in the fall. The shoulder seasons are a great time to travel because the weather is still nice (not too cool, not too hot), and there are typically fewer tourists around. This is the case with Dubrovnik as well. I visited in April and while the water was still chilly (though we did manage to jump in, even if only for a few minutes!), the weather was a perfect 70 degrees. We had no issues with restaurants being open or tours operating, either. Don’t get me wrong, there were still many people in the city (especially more than we were used to after traveling through the Balkans in the winter), but fewer than I’d imagine flock to the city in the summer.

2. Walk the City Walls in the Morning

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Stunning views the whole way around!

Walking the ancient city walls that surround the Old City is one of the most popular activities in Dubrovnik and is a must-do: the views are spectacular! However, the walls can get PACKED, especially midday when big crowds of people arrive from cruise ships. To enjoy the walls at your own pace and be able to take as many photos as you want without people passing through, it’s best to go in the morning. We visited right when they opened at 8am and did not regret it!

 

Generally, avoiding the midday crowds is also a good idea when wandering around the city and going out to eat as well. It’s much less crowded early in the mornings so you can get some nice photographs (such as the ones above) without a bunch of people in them, and it’s better to eat dinner out when cruise ships have left rather than lunch.

3. Stay Outside the Old City

Staying outside the Old City is a great way to enjoy all it has to offer while having the option to take a break from the crowds in a quieter part of Dubrovnik. Dewey and I stayed in an apartment that was about a 10 minute walk from Pile Gate, the main entrance to the Old City, with a view overlooking the water and the city from our balcony.

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View from the balcony

Admittedly, we had to climb quite a few stairs to get home as Dubrovnik is a hilly city, but the view was worth it! We enjoyed exploring the Old City and then retreating to our apartment for a glass of wine on our balcony in the evenings.

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As you can see, many steps!

Staying outside the Old City will also help you save money on accommodation as it’s much cheaper and allow you to see other parts of Dubrovnik beyond the walled city. It’s a win-win!

4. Visit the Less Popular Sveti Jakov Beach

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When visiting Dubrovnik, most people go to Banje Beach to hang out by the water. It’s located right next to the Old City, so it’s understandable that it’s the most popular. However, if you’re willing to venture a bit further away from the city, I highly recommend visiting Sveti Jakov (St. Jacob) Beach. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the Old City, but the walk is easy and enjoyable with many views looking out over the Adriatic along the way. Plus, the beach itself is beautiful and because it’s a bit away from the city center, there were far fewer people there. Dewey and I referred to it as our secret beach, but we are happy to share the secret with you all!

Tip: Along the walk there is a cool turn off you can take that leads to a bunch of rocks that have been flattened on top so you can sit and watch the sunset over the Old City with no one else around. I came here a few times to journal and do yoga and it was so peaceful. If you put Sveti Jakov Beach into your GPS, follow the directions about 15 minutes until you pass three benches on your left. There will be a staircase leading down to the water on your right just passed the benches, and it will take you to the rocks.

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View from the hidden rock spot

5. Get Ice Cream at Dolce Vita

What’s better than ice cream on vacation!? When you enter the Old City, there is a café right on the main drag that sells ice cream. However, don’t be tempted to go here. The lines are often so long they block the street! If you’re looking to cool off with a big scoop, seek out Dolce Vita café. It’s right off the main street and it’s way less busy. Both Dewey and I can attest that the ice cream was delicious (they had a Ferrero Rocher flavor!!) and we didn’t have to waste time standing in long lines.

6. Take Advantage of Dubrovnik’s Many Excursions

A excellent way to explore Dubrovnik without all the crowds is to take an excursion, and Dubrovnik offers many. You can take boat tours, visit nearby islands, scuba dive, jet ski, hike, and much more.

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While we were there, we did a sea kayaking tour. It was such a fun, inexpensive way to learn about the city’s history from a local guide while also getting in some exercise. Not to mention, views of the ancient city walls from the water were breathtaking. If you’re interested, you can find the tour we did here.

Another excursion you can take is to the island of Lokrum, which is just a 15 minute boat ride from the Old City with ferries running every hour. It’s a picturesque island with forests to wander as well as rocky cliffs and a beautiful lagoon.

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Enchanting lagoon on Lokrum

You can explore the ruins of a medieval Benedictine monastery, hike to an old fort built by the French for panoramic views of Dubrovnik, and stroll through botanical gardens. You can also have lunch totally surrounded by nature at one of only four cafes on the island. Not to mention, the island is covered with peacocks (if you’re lucky, they might show you their feathers) and bunnies! After spending a lot of time in the Old City, it was nice to escape to nature for the day.

 

7. Check Out Events Happening During Your Stay

I always encourage looking into local events when planning a trip, and being the popular city it is, Dubrovnik will likely have something going on while you’re there. It’s a great way to see what local’s are interested in and gives you a chance to do something different than the typical tourist activities.

We lucked out and discovered that the Dubrovnik Wine Festival was happening while we were visiting. We learned from local wineries about Croatian wine and tried the most delicious cheeses and meat from a nearby farm. The best part about the event is that it took us to a different part of the city, Sunset Beach in Lapad Bay, which was a lively area with many restaurants. We were there at sunset, too, and we quickly understood how the beach got its name! Dubrovnik is more than just the Old City, and I was happy to have had a chance to see other areas.

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Tip: If you decide to visit the Sunset Beach area (which I recommend), have dinner at Pantarul. Our host recommended it to us and said it was the best food in all of Dubrovnik— we can confirm it was delicious! Eating here is a good way to avoid tourist prices at restaurants in the Old City as well.

Our week in Dubrovnik was a highlight of my trip so far, and I highly recommend visiting this unique city. I hope these tips will help you manage the crowds and make the most out of your stay.

 


 

8 Things to Do in Mostar That Make it More Than Just a Day Trip

Surrounded by massive mountains with the aqua-blue Neretva River running through it and a remarkable stone bridge, the old town in Mostar looks very much like a fairytale. It’s a city that doesn’t get as much attention as some of its Balkan neighbors; yet, its diverse ethnic makeup, complicated past, and lingering Ottoman influence make it a rich travel experience worth more than just a few hours. Though still recovering from the devastations of a war only as old as I am, restoration efforts have come a long way, and the city offers picturesque views, alluring activities, and unique learning opportunities for the curious traveler.

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What I loved about Mostar is that when I arrived from Split in Croatia, I felt like I had traveled much further than three hours. Reminders of its Ottoman past are still prevalent in the city because Bosnia & Herzegovina is one of the few Balkan countries where many people converted to Islam and remained in the country after independence. Travelers can observe elegant mosques, Turkish-style houses, a market that feels similar to a Turkish bazaar, and hear the call to prayer five times a day.

If you’re thinking about visiting Mostar, I urge you to stay overnight. When the evening comes and the tour bus crowds go home, the city lights up and begins to feel magical. With less people around, wandering through the pebbled streets of the enchanting old town past colorful houses with roofs made of stone makes you feel as is you’ve traveled back in time.

Read on to learn about all of the exciting sights and activities Mostar has to offer and discover why you should keep this intriguing city on your travel radar.

1. Walk Across the Historic Stari Most Bridge

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The Stari Most Bridge is probably Mostar’s most recognized landmark. It was built in 1556 by the Ottomans and had the widest freestanding arch in the world at that time. It survived for centuries before it was tragically destroyed in the Croat-Bosniak War in 1993. Fortunately, it has been rebuilt using the same materials and original methodology, allowing tourists to be able to admire the impressive architectural feat once again.

You can also watch adventurous men diving from the bridge, a tradition that began in the 17th century as a way of impressing the ladies in the town! Nowadays, they’ll wait until they’ve collected about 30 kuna from an eager crowd and then jump 78 feet down into the water. If you are brave enough to jump yourself, they offer a full-day training course you’ll have to take before you can attempt it on your own.

2. Visit the War Photo Exhibition

Traveling is about getting to know another culture, and understanding the country’s history plays an important role in appreciating how the country came to be what it is today. If you’re planning a trip to the Balkans and are a history nerd (like me), having the opportunity to learn about the fall of Yugoslavia from the different viewpoints of the countries involved can’t be missed.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has long been a multi-ethnic region composed of Catholic Croats, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Orthodox Serbs. With the break up of Yugoslavia and the succession of Croatia, tensions between ethnic groups began to rise within the region, and the Bosnian War of 1992-1995 was the result of these ethnic divisions. The War Photo Exhibition is a powerful series of photographs that illustrates the tragedies of the war, in which the Stari Most Bridge was bombed, and gives you insight into the lives of civilians living in Mostar at the time. It’s an excellent way to understand the complex past of a city still healing and how it came to be the beautiful place tourists enjoy today.

3. Sit Riverside and Enjoy Mouthwatering Traditional Food

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Mostar has many restaurants with inviting terraces that overlook the Neretva River. Because Mostar is still a bit undiscovered, with the most crowded times being midday when tour buses arrive, it was easy for us to get a table at night right next to the river (another reason to stay overnight!).

Most of the restaurants offer traditional Bosnian and Herzegovinian food served in big portions at an extremely affordable price. Dewey and I split a platter of traditional food and a bottle of wine and our bill only came to $36.

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View from our table

The cuisine is similar to the rest of the Balkans with dishes like dolma and ćevapi, but some items are unique to the country’s diverse history. A specialty of the Mostar region specifically is Sogan Dolma which is onion stuffed with rice, minced meat, and seasoning. You must also try a traditionally Ottoman dish, Begova Corba (Bey’s Soup in English), a soup made of vegetables and chicken cooked until the broth is creamy and rich. It tastes like a chicken pot pie made into a soup! To finish, sip on a delicious coffee paired perfectly with a sweet treat like baklava.

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Begova Corba

4. Visit a Mosque & Enjoy Panoramic Views of the City from the Minaret

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View from the top of the minaret

There are many beautiful mosques in Mostar that, despite being damaged in the recent Bosnian War, have been restored and can be observed by visitors today. Though I had seen a few mosques throughout my travels in the Balkans, Mostar had by far the most, and the countless minarets piercing the sky throughout the city make for a striking view. One particularly well-preserved mosque built by the Ottomans in the 17th century is the Koski Mehmed Pasha mosque, which you can visit for a small fee. Take in the peaceful interior and climb to the top of the minaret for glorious views of the river, the city, and the surrounding mountains.

5. Observe the Cultural Mix of Architecture

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Mostar’s first high school built in the Moorish Revival style

Mostar has a diverse mix of architecture representative of its Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and former Yugoslavian past. Turkish houses and mosques sit next to apartments built in the geometric Brutalist style of the Socialist Era. Close by, administrative buildings constructed in the Neo-Renaissance style of the Austro-Hungarian Empire tower over the streets. In an attempt to celebrate cultural differences in the country while maintaining influence, the Austro-Hungarian Empire supported the construction of new buildings in a way that combined European designs with that of Mostar’s Ottoman past. The result was the unique Moorish Revival architecture. Mostar’s first high school is an extraordinary example of this.

6. Take an Informative Free Walking Tour

Free walking tours are one of my favorite ways to orient myself with a new city. Luckily, Mostar offers a free walking tour everyday that you can join (for more information on the tour times, click this link). Having a local share about his/her own country and traditions is always a valuable experience.

What I particularly enjoyed about the tour, though, was that the guide provided insight into life during the recent war, which gave us a better understanding of a complicated time. The tour takes you beyond the old town and shows you how much of the city is still in ruins. The guide even showed us photos of buildings that used to exist in the very spot we were standing but were bombed during the war. Taking a tour like this one was beneficial because it gave us a different perspective we might not have received had we just kept to the restored old town.

7. Browse the Markets

There are two markets held on the streets that lead to the Stari Most Bridge that you can wander. Similar to a Turkish bazaar, the market sells mostly Turkish crafts such as intricately decorated tea sets, jewelry, carpets, scarves, and gorgeous mosaic lamps. Some of it can be tourist junk, but amongst the corny souvenirs you can find some real gems. Grab an ice cream cone from one of the nearby cafes and take a stroll!

8. Explore the Surrounding Area

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Blagaj Tekija, the Dervish monastery

Mostar makes for a great home base to explore various destinations in the surrounding area. One of these destinations is the Blagaj Tekija, a Dervish monastery located beneath a massive cliff next to the sparkling blue Buna River. This was probably one of my favorite excursions so far. The water from the river is so pure you can drink from it directly. Just 30 minutes by bus or car, it makes for a perfect half-day trip. Dewey and I had fun exploring the monastery and then sat down at one of the many cafes that align the river for a peaceful outdoor lunch with an absolutely unreal view.

Another day trip you can take from Mostar is to see the Kravice Falls. As I was only in Mostar for two days (and wished I had more time), I didn’t have a chance to explore the park. The waterfalls are only about 50 minutes by car from the city, and our guide told us they’re stunning especially because they aren’t as widely known as other national parks like the Krka Waterfalls in Croatia. So, you can take in the nature without tons of tourists around.

My only regret after visiting Mostar is that I didn’t allow myself more time to explore Bosnia & Herzegovina. I have heard great things about Sarajevo, the country’s thriving capital , and I am definitely planning to include it in my future travels!

 


 

13 Traditional Bulgarian Dishes to Try

I spent about a month in Bulgaria and in that time I fell in love with Bulgarian cuisine. In fact, it was probably my favorite cuisine of all the countries I’ve visited so far.

Bulgarian history is complicated. The country has been a crossroads of many civilizations throughout time, and thus, its food is a collection of different cultures. Greek, Ottoman, and Slavic culture along with the country’s unique climate combine to make Bulgarian cuisine special.

It’s an ideal mix of fresh vegetables, yogurt, cheese, spices and grilled meat, but what I particularly loved about Bulgarian food was not just what they eat but how they eat it. Bulgarians cherish time with family, and eating together is one of the best ways to enjoy each other’s company. Traditional dishes are shared amongst friends and family over the course of a few hours. One night, Dewey and I went out to a traditional restaurant and we were seated next to three older Bulgarian men who were still there chatting, laughing, and eating after we had paid the bill (and we were there for 2.5 hours)! Bulgarians never rush to finish their meal, and the waiter will often leave you be until you call him/her back over to order more.

Here are some of the many delicious specialties you should try while vacationing in Bulgaria:

1. Banitsa

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If you’re like me and prefer savory over sweet dishes, banitsa is the perfect breakfast option for you. It’s a popular pastry made with filo dough, butter, and Bulgarian cheese and then baked in the oven. Though not low in the calorie department, it’s definitely worth a try. Plus, it’s a great for munching on-the-go while you explore the city. One of the tour guides I had in Sofia told me he eats one every morning!

2. Lyutenitsa

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Lyutenitsa is a spread made mostly of smashed red peppers and tomatoes and packed with flavor. There are many variations of it: puréed or chunky, spicy or mild, and different vegetables can be added as well. Most Bulgarians grew up eating their Grandmother’s homemade version on toast for breakfast. I wasn’t lucky enough to try the homemade kind, but fortunately it’s sold in grocery stores all around Bulgaria. I tried various takes on the spread, but my favorite was the chunkier kind with eggplant added. I ate it almost everyday I was there (I especially liked having it with scrambled eggs— though not typically eaten this way, I’d definitely recommend it). I even bought two jars to carry with me to our next destination!

3. Yogurt

It would be a crime to leave Bulgaria without tasting the yogurt (or to Bulgarians, “sour milk”). Bulgarian yogurt is so important that it’s considered to be a part of the people’s identity and something they are extremely proud of producing. Seriously, yogurt is everywhere and consumed in every way: as a dip, salad, cold soup, drink, or sold homemade in jars outside of locals’ homes! What makes their yogurt different is a special kind of bacteria, Lactobacillus bulgaricus (yes, even the bacteria is named after the country), that grows naturally in the Bulgarian climate. It makes the yogurt thicker and SO fresh. Locals believe it’s linked to good health, cures hangovers, helps sunburns, and can even make you live longer!

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My favorite dish that you’ll find on almost every restaurant menu was the yogurt salad. It’s made with cucumber, dill, garlic, and walnuts. It was so simple yet so refreshing especially before a heavier grilled meat dish. Another common dish that I didn’t have a chance to try (but I will on my next visit) is the cold yogurt soup called tarator, which is made with similar ingredients as the salad and eaten in the summer.

Even if you’re not a yogurt fan, give Bulgarian yogurt a chance. It’s unlike anything sold in grocery stores in the States!

4. Ayran (Sour Milk Drink)

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I became obsessed with this drink while I was visiting Bulgaria. It’s sour and slightly salty and made from the same Bulgarian yogurt mentioned above. It can be sipped with breakfast or lunch; I usually had it with a banana in the morning, and it kept me full for hours. You can find it served fresh in restaurants or sold by the bottle in grocery stores. It contains that same bacteria that’s in the yogurt, so it’s great for your health!

5. Shopska Salad

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Can you see the colors of the Bulgarian flag?

Every restaurant in Bulgaria will have shopksa salad on the menu, and that’s because its creation is tied to when the country was under Communist control. The government wanted to create a dish that represented Bulgaria and could be replicated and sold in every restaurant. So, the shopska salad was invented. It’s made with red pepper, cucumber, tomato, onion and topped with freshly grated cow cheese. The ingredients are meant to represent the colors of the Bulgarian flag.

Though no longer a Communist country, the shopska salad remains a staple of Bulgarian cuisine. What makes a shopska salad so delicious is the freshly grated cow cheese on top. Dewey and I found it so flavorful we didn’t need to add any dressing!

Nowadays, you can find many other salads offered on the menu, such as a shepard’s salad, which is essentially the same as shopska but with ham and egg. I found the produce in Bulgaria to be so fresh that any salad you pick will be tasty!

6. Rakia

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Rakia can range is color from clear to a yellowish tint

Rakia is the national drink of Bulgaria. It’s a fruity brandy with high alcohol content that is popular across all of the Balkans; however, Bulgarians argue that it originated in their country. Warning: asking a Bulgarian where it originated is a sensitive question! It’s a staple of Bulgarian culture and they believe it can help cure anything. Upset stomach? Drink rakia. Sore throat? Drink rakia. Headache? Drink rakia.

It can be made from various fermented fruit, though Bulgarians commonly use grapes, apricots and plums. It’s served in a small glass and traditionally consumed throughout the meal. Bulgarians never drink it without food, as it’s very strong— especially if it’s homemade. Though Bulgarians usually drink a few glasses of it during dinner, I suggest trying one glass with your salad or appetizer and switching to wine if you want to remember the rest of your meal!

7. Mezze

 

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Lukanka

Reflecting its Greek past, mezze is a big part of dinner out in Bulgaria. If you’re unfamiliar with Greek mezze, it’s essentially a selection of small dishes served as appetizers. I love this tradition. There’s just something so pleasant about chatting with friends and family, drinking wine (or rakia as the Bulgarians do) and enjoying small bites. Many different options are available to order, but most common is white cheese and dried meat called lukanka (Dewey’s favorite). I liked the stuffed vine leaves the best. Order a selection of plates, and be sure to take your time eating just as the Bulgarians do!

8. Stuffed Peppers

Peppers are found in many Bulgarian specialties, so it’s no surprise that they also eat them stuffed. Usually made with red peppers for more flavor, they’re filled with minced meat (either pork or veal), rice and a variety of spices. They can be either boiled or baked and sometimes even fried. You can order them as an appetizer or pick them up at a local market (check out the Ladies Market or the Central Market Hall by the Sofia History Museum) and have as a snack between sightseeing like I did!

9. Beans

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As a majority of the country is Orthodox, most Bulgarians fast around Christmas and have to avoid eating anything that comes from an animal. Thus, beans became a popular alternative for protein. The most common dish is the bean soup. It’s slowly cooked and full of spices. You can also find them roasted and served as a starter (like the ones in the picture above).

10. Kebapche & Grilled Meat

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Pork filets, kepabche, sausage, and a meatball

Okay, so kebapche (similar to ćevapi) is a dish common across all of the Balkans, but it’s still worth trying during a visit to Bulgaria. It’s a type of grilled minced meat similar to kebabs made with spices and often eaten with fries.

Bulgarians are meat lovers, so you can also find other grilled meat on the menu, such as meatballs, pork filets, roasted lamb, pork neck, and sausage. It’s all quite simple, but the spices make it so tasty!

11. Clay Pot Dishes

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Stew with pork, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and peppers— still on fire!

Bulgarians make many wonderful stews and casseroles in clay pots— a tradition that stems from Ottoman times. You will find beautiful pottery sold all over Bulgaria, and that’s because they believe cooking with them adds more flavor, and I couldn’t agree more! They make many specialties with clay pots, but most common is a slowly cooked mixture of chopped vegetables with chicken, beef or pork.

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Onion pie baked in a clay pot

Various pies, soups, eggs, and more can also be cooked in these clay pots. The combination of the colorful pottery and the hearty flavors makes this tradition the perfect meal to eat after a long day of sightseeing.

12. Moussaka

The Bulgarians have a history with the Greeks that dates back to when the Thracian people first migrated to the area. So, naturally, there is a lot of Greek influence in their food. However, Bulgarians like to add their own twist to some traditional dishes like moussaka. Rather than making it with eggplant like the Greeks, they use potatoes, yogurt, yellow cheese and minced meat. I don’t have a picture because I didn’t have the chance to try it, but it’s definitely at the top of my list for when I return (especially knowing how delicious Bulgarian yogurt and cheese is)!

13. Bulgarian Wine

I had no idea wine production was a big industry in Bulgaria before I arrived, but I had fun tasting a variety of local wines with my dinner— especially red wine. I quickly learned that I didn’t need to ask the waiter whether the wine was dry because almost all Bulgarian wines are dry (which I prefer). Wine production dates back to Thracian times in Bulgaria and they are arguably as tasty (and WAY less expensive) as Italian wines!

 


 

The Reality of Travel: A Disaster in Bulgaria

When traveling for a long time like I am, issues are bound to happen. Even if you’re only traveling for a week, problems can occur. Everything isn’t going to run as smoothly as you might hope. That’s just the reality of travel. You can do your best to research and plan so that you’re prepared, but at the end of the day, things happen that you just can’t predict. I know this because I’ve had to learn this lesson a few times— one of them being the time we accidentally scaled a mountain in Bulgaria…

While in Varna, Bulgaria, Dewey and I decided to take a day trip to see a fortress in the mountains of a small town called Provadia.

When we arrived at the tiny train station, Dewey pulled out his Google Maps for walking directions to the fortress, which we could see from where we were because it sits on a cliff plateau overlooking the town. Everything was fine until the directions told us to take a left turn. When we looked to our left, there was nothing but a steep forested hill. There was a slight break in the trees that I guess looked like it could have been a path, and it was heading towards the fortress, so we figured that’s the way we were supposed to go. Who are we to go against Google Maps’ directions!?

We began to hike up this so-called path. As the hike went on, I became more and more doubtful, but Dewey remained optimistic… and so we trudged on.

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We reached a point where the “path” looked like it used to be a river but had dried up and left only rocks. It was getting steeper, too, like almost a 90 degree incline. This is where you’d probably think we’d recognize that this was DEFINITELY not the way to the well-visited fortress and turn around. NOPE. We kept going. And for two reasons: I think we both thought that we had come so far already (we had been hiking for about an hour) we didn’t want to give up. Also, we were hopeful that even if this wasn’t the way, we might run into the correct route if we went just a bit further. Wishful thinking?

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Climbing on all fours, we gripped on to grass patches as shards of rock shattered and fell out from under our boots. We were both drenched in sweat, with cuts on our hands and scratches on my legs from thorns poking at me through my leggings. We were literally scaling a mountain. At this point, what we were doing was not only stupid, it was dangerous.

Out of breath and patience, we finally reached the top and my heart sank. We were nowhere near the fortress. Instead, we were standing at the base of the massive cliff plateau, and there were no signs of any marked path around us. We were feeling exhausted and defeated. We’d come all this way, climbing a mountain for nearly two hours only to reach a dead end. Not to mention, the way up had been so steep that I didn’t think it was possible to go back without getting seriously injured.

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The totally wrong route we took up the mountain

But, with no other choice, we descended back down. Immediately, my feet slipped out from under me and I fell onto my back. Hard. Luckily, this was the only time either of us fell.

A total of four hours later and with sticks in our hair, an aching back, dirt on our pants and wounded pride, we arrived back at the spot where we had originally made that dreadful decision to turn left.

And sure enough, if we had walked just 50 feet further, to our left, there was a marked entrance and a concrete walkway to the fortress.

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When traveling, you have to make the most of whatever situation you’re in. You can’t dwell on the mishaps or you’ll ruin the rest of your vacation. Especially when traveling long term, bumps in the road are inevitable.

Even though we were both feeling frustrated, tired, and beating ourselves up about our mistake, we decided not to let the disastrous four-hour detour get in the way of our plans to see the fortress. We could have turned around and gone home right then, but I’m so happy we didn’t.

We strolled through the ruins of the old gate along the rickety wood bridge and explored the remains of a medieval church. We ate our well-deserved sandwiches while taking in stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the town below. We were the only people there, and it was so peaceful. The sun was setting, which made my photos even more beautiful.

Nothing is ever as perfect as that Instagram photo makes it seem. Social media is misleading. While my Instagram might be a collage of beautiful places intended to inspire people to travel the world, it’s important to remember the reality behind the photos. Traveling isn’t always dazzling views and luxurious places— it can be difficult, uncomfortable, and tiring, too. I might be smiling in this photo with Dewey at the top of the fortress:

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… But what you can’t see is my sore back from falling, and the fact that I was sweating uncontrollably an hour before, unsure if we were going to have to call the Bulgarian police to come rescue us. (As if we had cell service anyway…)

This is just one of many not-so-desirable instances Dewey and I have run into on this trip. I’ve been attacked by spiders while sleeping in my bed and had to switch Airbnbs (literally my WORST NIGHTMARE come true). In Moldova, our host canceled our reservation the day we were arriving and we had to quickly find somewhere else to sleep. We even spent an entire day commuting and $100 trying to hike to glacial lakes in Bulgaria only to find out that the mountain was too snowy and the route was closed, so we had to go all the way back home.

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Posing after our failed attempt at hiking to the glacial lakes— Our cab driver felt bad for us & let us snag a few pics on the way down the mountain.

Through all of these issues, I’ve learned that what matters is how you deal with the problem. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be negative. Sometimes you just have to have an “it is what it is” attitude and move past it. Overall, the good that has come from this trip of a lifetime has definitely outweighed the bad, and I don’t regret a single moment of it (okay, I could have done without the spiders…).

Whether you’re traveling for a week or a year, expect problems to occur, and try to have a good attitude when they do. Something might happen with your accommodation, you miss your train, you lose your favorite pair of sunglasses (or gloves in my case, RIP somewhere in Switzerland). But don’t let it ruin your entire vacation. Deal with it and move on so that you can make the most of the rest of your time.

Dewey and I look back at the fortress story now and laugh. I’ve never taken the saying “you live and you learn” quite as seriously as I do now!

 


 

 

 

Why Vienna is the Perfect City To Visit in the Off-Season

Traveling in the off-season has its perks; the low airfares and discounted accommodation enables you to travel abroad without spending a fortune and sights are often less crowded. Also, workers can sometimes be nicer and more helpful because they aren’t dealing with the craziness and large amounts of people that accompany the tourist season (okay, this isn’t guaranteed either way, but I definitely noticed a difference). But it can also mean that activities that are normally available in the touristy season are not offered in the low season, sights are closed, and tours are not operating. So, if you choose to travel in the off-season, you need to be cautious about where you go and ensure that it has plenty to do during the less-visited time of year.

I began my backpacking trip in December, so most of my travels so far have been during the low season. When planning my route around Europe, I did my best to choose cities that would have plenty to offer even during the winter months. Vienna, the vibrant capital of Austria, sticks out in my mind as one of those cities. The large capital has a vast royal history, gorgeous architecture, more than enough museums, and a variety of restaurants and cafes to choose from. It reminded me of Paris, with its wide streets, big parks, grand buildings with styles from different time periods, and a river flowing through it. Except, it felt a bit more laid back and undiscovered. I was there with my parents for two weeks, and we were busy sightseeing each day despite it being the middle of January (so busy that I needed to take a few rest days!).

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Some of the stunning buildings lining the streets

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Heldenplatz in front of the Hofburg

 

Here are all of the reasons Vienna makes the perfect destination for travel in the off-season:

It’s Easy to Get Around

During the winter months, you don’t want to be outside walking for very long in the cold weather. Luckily, the Vienna public transport system is advanced and includes trains, buses, and trams that can get you anywhere need to go. Though I stayed in an apartment outside the city center (money saving tip), it was no problem because the closest metro stop was a 5 minute walk and could get me downtown in 10 minutes. There are a variety of different travel passes that can help you save money and are valid on all forms of local transport, such as a weekly pass or 72 hour pass depending on your needs. This site does a great job explaining the various options. I was there for two weeks, so I opted for the weekly pass which made travel easy as I didn’t have to buy a ticket each time. I could just hop on and go.

The City’s Main Sights Offer an Escape from the Cold Weather

Because of its complex history associated with the powerful Habsburg monarchy who ruled from the city for more than six centuries, Vienna has grand palaces, exemplary churches, and high-quality museums to explore that are all open during the low season. Here are just a few of the many places you can visit to avoid cold, snowy, or rainy weather in the city:

Imperial Apartments at the Hofburg

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The Habsburgs were one of the most prominent royal dynasties in Europe. Known for increasing their power across countries through marriage rather than war, the Habsburg’s influence spread from Eastern Europe into Germany and Spain and even as far as Mexico. They were connected to the French royal empire as well, as Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI who was famously beheaded during the French Revolution, was a Habsburg.

The Habsburg’s palace in the city center reflects the grandeur of their reign. Visiting the Imperial Apartments gives you a glimpse into the massive wealth and way of life of the Austrian monarchy. And visiting the apartments during the off-season is even more enjoyable. I’d imagine touring the apartments in the summertime can get as crowded as the famous Palace of Versailles in Paris. However, when my family and I visited the apartments, there were so few people there that the guided tour we decided to join ended up being a private tour with our own personal guide! We could take our time, ask as many questions as we liked, and gain a deeper understanding of the Habsburg’s complicated royal lineage.

Schönbrunn Palace

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The Schönbrunn Palace was the Habsburg’s summer residence and like the Imperial Apartments, its splendor is not to be missed. Again, we were able to stroll through each room of the palace with few crowds, which made the experience much more pleasant. I’ve visited many popular tourist destinations in the summer like Versailles and the Vatican, and each time it’s been so packed that we were literally shuffled from room to room like herds of cattle. It’s so much better when you don’t feel rushed and you have the time to really take in all of the gorgeous decor around you.

Of course, the only downside to visiting in the off-season is that the gardens are not blooming. However, instead of roaming the gardens we had coffee and cakes at the palace’s café, Café Restaurant Residenz, which was one of our favorite cafés in Vienna!

Imperial Treasury

As one of the longest ruling monarchies in Europe, it’s no surprise that the Habsburg’s have one of the most impressive treasuries in the world open to visit in the low season. You can see ornate crowns dating back to the 10th century, intricate relics, swords made of “unicorn” (narwhal tusk), and glittering jewels collected by the Habsburgs over centuries.

Kunsthistorisches Museum

The Habsburgs were great admirers of art and their vast collection of masterpieces can be seen in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The museum exhibits paintings by artists such as Raphael, Titian, Rubens (one of my favorites), Rembrandt, and Vermeer. In addition to the splendid works of art, the museum building itself mimics a royal palace with a gorgeous grand hall and massive staircase. You can spend hours here escaping the chilly winter temperatures.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

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The famous cathedral towers over the city’s main pedestrian street, Graben. You can marvel at its stunning mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture and pop inside to see where Mozart was married. Rick Steve’s offers a self-guided tour on his app, Rick Steves Audio Europe, that I recommend downloading before your visit to give you a better understanding of the historic cathedral.

You can listen to music at year-round performances in one of Vienna’s many music venues

Known as the City of Music, Vienna has a renowned musical history and many famous composers such as Mozart and Beethoven once lived in the city. It’s reputation for being the center of music has only increased with time and has led to the construction of beautiful concert halls where you can watch a variety of performances.

My family and I had a wonderful time seeing Cinderella at the famous opera house, the Staatsoper. There are performances happening year-round and the opera is even translated on a screen in front of your seat so you can easily follow along. I recommend looking into the various performances happening not only at the opera house, but across all of the venues Vienna has to offer and booking your ticket ahead of time, as they might sell out even in the low season.

You can warm up with a cup of coffee and delicious pastry in a Viennese coffee house

Coffee is a big part of Viennese culture, and a trip to Vienna is not complete without visiting a Viennese kaffeehaus. It’s very common and encouraged to order a coffee drink, read a newspaper, and sit for hours enjoying the slower side of life. The Viennese take their coffee culture very seriously, and the waiters even wear full black and white suits— it feels as if you’ve stepped back in time to the 1930s! The cafes also serve extravagant pastries. You can try the classic sachertorte (though not my personal favorite as I’m not a big fan of chocolate), a fruity apfelstrudel, or one of the many other delicious creations on the menu.

If you want a typical traditional experience in a café whose interior looks like it hasn’t changed in decades, try Café Bräunerhof. For a bit more modern take on the tradition, (and my favorite) try Café Diglas. Of course, coffee houses are open year-round, and it’s the perfect way to warm up during the colder months that will leave you feeling like a true Viennese!

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The Danube Canal

During my two weeks in Vienna in January, there was only one activity I was interested in that I wasn’t able to do, and that was see the Lipizzaner horses in action at the Spanish Riding School. This was because they were taking a short break from shows the two weeks I was there (not the whole winter, don’t worry). But, like my mom says, you always need to have a reason to come back to any place you’ve visited (smart woman, my mother)!

Overall, traveling in the low season has some awesome benefits like saving money and less crowds. But, you shouldn’t have to compromise anything when planning your vacation, either. Vienna is a city that offers beautiful sights, significant history, delicious cuisine and plenty of activities regardless of the time of year you visit, which makes it a great choice for travel in the off-season.

 


 

 

Charming Sachseln

I sat in awe, staring out of a wide, clear window as our train weaved through massive snowcapped mountains past glacial-blue lakes. I knew that Switzerland is one of the most beautiful countries in Europe; it’s a popular destination favored by travel accounts and I’d seen it on my Instagram feed many times. But even the best photograph doesn’t compare to being there in person. Everything was so green. So blue. So vivid in color that it didn’t look real. And so clean! It was one of those moments where I thought to myself, wow… the world we live in is so damn beautiful. I could feel the excitement bubbling up inside me as we pulled up to Sachseln’s tiny train station.

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Dewey and I found Sachseln by chance when we were looking for Airbnbs. I did a quick Google Image search of the place and was immediately sold. Sachseln is a small town in the Swiss countryside nestled in a valley next to Lake Sarnen. It’s about a 30 minute train ride from Lucerne, which we thought was perfect. While we could enjoy the benefits of a city, we could also escape to an undiscovered place and relax in the serene mountains. Little did we know, Sachseln offered so much more than we expected.

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Our hosts picked us up from the station and drove us up… and up… until we reached our apartment which was situated at the top of a steep private road. The houses in Sachseln are dispersed from the bottom by the lake all the way up along the side of the towering mountains. Our apartment was located high up on the mountainside, overlooking the center of town and the lake.

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View from our apartment

We immediately felt the charm of Sachseln. It’s tiny, but has everything you need: one grocery store, one pharmacy, two banks, and about three restaurants. We were definitely the only tourists, and we got the sense that everyone there knew we were foreigners. Yet, whenever we passed by someone on our walk into town each day, they would always smile and greet us with a kind hello (or in Swiss German, “Grüezi”).

We strolled passed neighbors salting and shoveling their driveway, pink-cheeked children sledding and playing in the snow, an older woman feeding carrots to her pet bunnies, and farmers tending to their cows. We became regulars at the local café, drinking our coffee amongst older men reading the paper and enjoying a lunchtime beer. There was no sense of urgency here.

Dewey and I were eager to embrace the quieter life. Having just spent 10 busy days in Paris, we were ready to relax a bit. One afternoon, we walked out to the edge of a snowy hill just across the street from the entrance to our private road. There were no benches, so we laid down plastic trash bags to sit on. We sipped on our $1 beer brewed in Lucerne and purchased at the local grocery store and watched the sun set behind the Alps. It was the happiest of hours!

Another time, we brought a picnic down to the lake and watched ducks dive for food in the turquoise water. It was the first time in awhile on this backpacking journey that I didn’t feel pressure to do anything. I didn’t have to jam a bunch of activities into the day. I didn’t have to sightsee or go to museums to feel like I was getting the whole experience of visiting the country. If you have ever traveled for a long time, you know that breaks like this are important. They give you the rest you need to continue.

Staying in Sachseln provided an intimate view of life in the Swiss countryside. The only downside to staying outside the city was the price of train tickets; it cost $10 one-way into Lucerne. However, the benefits of getting to live amongst locals in this quaint village definitely outweighed the costs for us, and we were still able to spend a day in Lucerne, another day visiting the summit of nearby Mount Pilatus, and even took a day trip to Bern.

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View from the top of Mt. Pilatus

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The beautiful city of Bern

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Lucerne’s charming old town

If you know me, then you know I am the type of traveler who enjoys exploring lesser-known destinations across the world. I believe that traveling is about getting to know new cultures, and that can be difficult to do in super touristy places. Even when I am in a touristy place, I try to seek out those restaurants or parks or other experiences enjoyed by locals. That’s why I fell in love with Sachseln; it gave me a glimpse into the real life of a small Swiss village.

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If this sounds like the type of experience you would enjoy, you might want to consider staying outside of a major city when visiting Switzerland. There are countless smaller towns located just outside cities like Lucerne, Bern, and Geneva that could give you more of an authentic trip. Who knows what other charming places in Switzerland are just waiting to be discovered by the curious traveler!