A Cooking Class in Tuscany: Why it’s Sometimes Worth it to Splurge

As Dewey and I are currently living off a modest budget that we saved up for over two years, we’re quite versed in the art of picking and choosing what to spend our money on while making our way across Europe. In general, my philosophy is to value experience over material items. For example, if I had to choose between shopping for new clothes or taking a boat ride along the Amalfi Coast, I’d definitely choose the latter (hence why I’m wearing the same outfit in most of my photos!). That’s why when I came across the opportunity to take an Italian cooking class in a 13th century farmhouse in Tuscany, I couldn’t pass it up, despite it being a bit out of our normal price range.

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Part of the farmhouse

We were a group of seven as my brother, his fiancé, and a few of our friends were visiting us in Italy to celebrate our recent engagements (my brother and I unknowingly got engaged on the same day in different cities in Italy!!). The farmhouse was located about 30 minutes outside of Florence at the end of a windy dirt road at the base of a mountain. We were all excited to spend the day in the Tuscan countryside— quite a different scene than the hustle and bustle of Florence’s city center.

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The tower from the 13th century

Giovanni, an elderly man and the owner of the farm, greeted us. He had coarse hands from years spent working at the farmhouse and though he hardly spoke English, his kindness made us feel instantly welcome. He told us that the farmhouse has been in his family for generations, and he and his brother currently run the vineyard’s operations together. Next, we met Manuela, our chef and teacher for the day. Manuela is from Sicily where she grew up with a passion for food (as I expect many Sicilians do). She moved to Florence where she worked in restaurants for years as well as taught Italian language and culture classes. She decided to host cooking lessons as a way to combine her love of teaching and cooking with visitors.

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Giovanni and my friend Gina pose for a photo

We began by making dessert first: tiramisu. Manuela informed us that it needed to sit for awhile in the fridge. Most of us had rather basic cooking skills, but it didn’t matter. Manuela was so sweet and patient as we tried our best not to mess up the quintessential Italian dessert. While we were dipping the lady fingers (or as Italians call them, savoiardi) into coffee, Manuela’s husband, Simon, and their two young daughters came into the kitchen. The girls were excitingly slipping their rain boots on to get ready for a scavenger hunt in the garden that their dad had set up for them. They girls both spoke fluent English and Italian, and I suddenly felt myself getting jealous of eight year olds…

I began to feel like this wasn’t going to be just a cooking class, but a chance to share a day in the life of an Italian family.

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Prepping the tiramisu

We moved on to the sauce for our pasta using fresh tomatoes. As we peeled and strained the tomatoes, Manuela talked to us about classic Italian cooking and the differences between what we as Americans think of as Italian dishes. She told us that chicken parmigiana (a classic dish on Italian restaurant menus in the US) is confusing to her. In Italian, parmigiana is a cooking style in which a dish is prepared in layers (for example, with eggplant or pasta). So, when she hears “chicken parmigiana” she thinks of slices of chicken stacked on top of each other. Silly, right? She also mentioned that chicken and pasta with tomato sauce is quite a strange combination for most Italians (though, she kindly acknowledge that it’s probably delicious!).

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My brother and his fiancé making the pasta sauce

The next item on the menu was fresh bruschetta (pronounced bru-sketta, I quickly learned). Manuela ran out to the garden to pluck some fresh basil for our mixture while we chopped the cherry tomatoes. As we worked, Manuela debunked some myths about Italians. Although she’d like to support the idea that every time Italian families eat pasta it’s fresh and homemade, she said that’s just not realistic. It’s very time consuming to make pasta from scratch, and apart from holidays and special occasions, Italian’s eat pasta from a box just as we do!

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The most delicious bruschetta

Finally, it was time for the part I had been looking forward to all day (other than actually eating the food, of course): making spaghetti from scratch. Using a wooden rolling pin, we flattened the dough we had prepared earlier as thinly and evenly as possible. Manuela brought out a pasta maker, which is called a chitarra (guitar in Italian) because the machine has metal strings like that of a guitar. Placing the dough on top of the chitarra, she used the rolling pin to firmly press the dough through the strings, and we watched as it fell apart into perfect strands of spaghetti. Of course, she made it look easy… the rest of us… well let’s just say we are far from being pasta professionals. It was so much fun though, we couldn’t stop laughing. I decided I was going to get a chitarra when I’m back home so I can host pasta-making nights at my house.

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Manuela showing us how it’s done

While the food finished cooking, Simon and Giovanni took us around the farm to show us how they make their wines on the vineyard. It turns out that while Manuela hosts her cooking lessons, Simon helps Giovanni with the wine production (oh, what a life, being married and working together on a Tuscan farm…). On the tour, we saw where they ferment the wine, store it (in the naturally cool, underground part of the old tower), and bottle it. Simon translated as Giovanni explained each step in the winemaking process. From the way he spoke, I could feel his eagerness to share his passion for his craft with us, despite the language barrier. I felt lucky to be listening to his years of knowledge passed down through his family.

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The basement of the 13th century tower where the wine is stored

When the tour was over, it was time to eat! Manuela had an inviting dinner table set up in the upstairs room of the old stone tower in front of a window that peaked out into the surrounding countryside. She and her adorable daughters served us all four courses that we had made while Giovanni came to pour us various wines from his vineyard.

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The dining table

The simple, yet flavorful dishes combined with the delectable wines, cozy ambience, and the company of Italian locals, made the day on the farm a truly once in a lifetime experience. One of our friends enjoyed it so much he joked that he would be happy to work for free on the vineyard as long as he could eat Manuela’s food and live in the farmhouse (although, I don’t think he was really joking!).

The reason I love to travel is for experiences like this. Traveling is about making connections with people from different cultures and learning from them. Spending the day with Giovanni, Manuela, and her family gave us the chance to do just that. We were so warmly welcomed into a true Italian home for the day and left feeling like we had made new friends. Though Dewey and I are careful about budgeting, I’ll never regret spending money on authentic and intimate experiences such as this one. The saying really is true: travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.

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The group and our cooking class certifications!

If you are interested in trying this experience yourself, you can find it here.

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!

 


 

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.

 


 

 

Day Trip to Peles Castle

Day Trip from Bucharest or Brasov, Romania

Peles Castle’s stunning Neo-Renaissance architecture and location in the scenic Carpathian Mountains in Sinaia, Romania makes this castle a must-see if you are staying in Bucharest or Brasov. Its beauty is considered to rival that of Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria (I personally preferred Peles, but that’s just me). Built in the late 19th century by King Carol I, under whose rule Romania gained independence, the castle was the summer palace for the Romanian royalty.

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What I loved about this castle is the combination of European styles in the castle’s interior. Designed by German architect Johannes Schultz, the castle combines classic Italian, German, French, Turkish, and Austrian styles, transporting you to a different country each time you enter a new room. In addition, the entrance hall is an extraordinary example of intricate woodwork and contains a magnificent wooden spiral staircase. The castle’s beauty truly is the epitome of fairytale romance and needs to be seen in person!

 

To visit the interior, you must join a guided tour. I enjoyed having a guide because we learned so much more about the castle, and she even showed us secret doors and passageways that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own.

On your way to Peles, you can also stop and wander the peaceful Sinaia Monastery, located conveniently along the route to the castle. It’s a beautiful Orthodox monastery that dates back to the 17th century.

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After you have finished exploring the castle and monastery, you can relax with a meal at one of the many restaurants located in the town of Sinaia while you wait for your train. Dewey and I enjoyed some Romanian beer and Mamaliga, a traditional Romanian dish similar to polenta served with cheese and sour cream. Yum!

The combination of the striking Carpathian Mountains, the enchanting castle, and the charming monastery made this day trip a highlight of my time in Romania that I highly recommend if you are visiting Brasov or Bucharest.

How to Get There

The castle is just a short train ride from either Brasov or Bucharest.

Traveling from Brasov
Train time: 1hr 10min
Cost: 1-3€ one way

Traveling from Bucharest
Train time: 1hr 40min
Cost: 4-7€ one way

Finding the castle is simple once you arrive in Sinaia. From the train station, simply follow the signs that take you to a forest path that leads to the castle. The Sinaia Monastery is located along the path to the castle and is impossible to miss.

Castle Information

Opening Times

Summer: open daily from 9:15-4:15pm, Wednesdays 11:00-4:15, closed Mondays
Winter: open Thursday-Sunday 9:15-4:15pm, Wednesdays 11:00-4:15pm, closed Mondays and Tuesdays

Cost

The castle has two guided tours you can take. The main tour takes about 45 minutes and includes most of the castle except the upper floor, while the optional tour takes 1hr 15min and includes some rooms on the upper floor. I recommend taking the full tour while you’re there; it isn’t much more expensive and the rooms are spectacular!

Main tour:
Adults- 30 lei (6.50€)
Students- 7.5 lei (1.50€)

Optional tour:
Adults- 60 lei (13.00€)
Students- 15 lei (3.00€)

Things to Do in the Winter in Copenhagen

With Christmas markets, glogg stands, museums, and the magical Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen is one of the best European cities to visit in the winter. We spent 5 days in the city, which was plenty of time to enjoy the sights and relax. Whether you are visiting for a week or just a few days, here is a list of things to do for your winter stay in Copenhagen:

Get lost in Tivoli Gardens

Tivoli Gardens is a winter wonderland in December. When you enter the park, you feel like you’re walking inside a snow globe. Every pine tree is decorated with ornaments, fairy lights line the walkways, there is fake snow sprinkled across the ground and in the trees, and nonstop Christmas music plays from the speakers. They even serve Nordic street food… which is reindeer meat served in a pita (run, run Rudolph!).

Visiting the amusement park is a great way to get into the holiday spirit. They have a few rollercoasters, but don’t expect anything too extreme like those you’ll find at Six Flags in the US. You can get a pass for unlimited rides, or you can simply pay to enter and then pay individually for each ride. I’m not a huge fan of rollercoasters or anything that spins, so my boyfriend, Dewey, and I bought entrance tickets. We meandered around the park taking in all of the glorious Christmas decorations, window shopped at the little log cabins selling goodies, and picked up yummy snacks along the way. Yes, we tried the reindeer meat, and we loved it! We also had a lot of laughs playing carnival games and winning silly prizes.

Overall, I recommend going just for the scenery alone, especially in December. It’s right in the city center, so you can enjoy the park and then continue exploring after.

Wander Strøget Street

Strøget is Copenhagen’s pedestrian-only cobblestone street that winds through the center of the city and leads to the popular waterfront area, Nyhavn. String lights and garland decorate the street in the winter and it’s filled with restaurants and shops. It’s a busy area with squares where street performers play classic Christmas jingles. We enjoyed strolling down the street while munching on Danish hot dogs and people-watching.

Take it all in at the Nyhavn District

Nyhavn is Copenhagen’s well-known canal and waterfront district. It is worth visiting just to see the vibrant colored houses and the house where the famous Danish writer, Hans Christian Anderson, lived. It’s lined with restaurants, but you don’t need to spend money here— unless you enjoy an overcharged meal! Simply take a walk and enjoy the scenic atmosphere.

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Browse the Christmas markets

In December, Strøget street and the Nyhavn area are filled with Christmas markets. Decorated stalls sell everything from intricate Christmas ornaments to different kinds of savory cheeses and meat. Of course, you must sip on some Glogg (mulled wine) to keep you warm as you browse the stalls! Dewey and I have been to lots of Christmas markets on this adventure so far, and we can confidently say the mulled wine in Copenhagen was our favorite because it’s served with shaved almonds and juicy cranberries. For an extra kick, ask for a shot of whiskey with it!

Relax with Danish beer and a movie

Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break from all the sightseeing and just relax. When I’m traveling, I like spending a day doing things that aren’t typical tourist activities, like seeing a movie with Danish subtitles! On our walk into the city center, we passed a large pink building that was odd-looking and made me curious. Turns out, it was a movie theater. We went to see a movie and it ended up being a unique experience because it was the premiere of the new Spider-Man movie, which was apparently a big deal in Copenhagen. The lobby of the theater was blasting music and had fog machines and laser lights made to look like a spider web. It was packed full of movie-goers and had a red carpet with people posing next to cardboard cut-outs of Spider-Man.

Afterwards, we headed to Taphouse for a beer. They have over 60 taps serving both local and international beer. It’s a cool place and great for trying different Danish beers. Go at happy hour for even better deals!

Stroll through Christiania

Christiania is a hippy commune that developed in a squatted military area in 1971. It’s a Freetown that has its own rules independent from the Danish government, though its legal status is controversial. It’s a peaceful place where yoga and meditation are practiced and important to its citizens. I originally thought it wasn’t going to be very impressive, but the commune is much more modernized than I expected. It has a concert venue, food stands, small bars and restaurants, and even a large market inside an old warehouse.

We strolled down the main drag known as Pusher Street, where hash used to be sold openly out of stalls (it is still sold, but the stalls are gone and it’s definitely not as open as it used to be). We enjoyed listening to a jazz band and ate traditional Danish open-face sandwiches purchased in the market. It was truly a unique place that you should go to just to see and get a sense of the hippy culture that is so strikingly different from the rest of the city.

If you go, be sure not to take any photographs! The town does not allow tourists to take pictures.

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Visit the National Museum of Denmark

A trip to a foreign place is not complete without learning a bit about its history. Plus, museums are a great activity for escaping the cold. The National Museum of Denmark covers 14,000 years of Danish history and it’s easy to spend hours there! The “Stories of Denmark” exhibit was a highlight for me because it does a great job of showing you what life was like for the Danish throughout different periods in history all the way up until the present. Learn about Vikings, gaze at the Sun Chariot from the Bronze Age, and stroll through a room filled with intricately made dollhouses (one of my favorite rooms). You can even see an old hash stall from Christiania before Danish authorities banned cannabis trade in the commune. All in all, it’s a unique museum and should definitely be added to your list! They don’t offer student discounts, but it’s worth the $15 ticket.

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Old hash stall on display at the National Museum of Denmark

 


 

 

A Day Trip to Howth

4E77DAD6-B0AF-45A5-A560-7F5AB81B56B4The sky is overcast with strips of sunlight piercing through the clouds. The air is crisp, with a faint, salty smell from the fishermen’s most recent catch in the harbor below. It’s a cool 45 degree day, and I am comfortable in my white down jacket and beanie hat that covers my ears. I’m walking along a narrow, dusty path that traces the side of the mountain. In front of me are strikingly green hills sprinkled with yellow ferns and vibrant purple heathers. The hills transform into moss-covered rock as they approach the sea, and the water calmly laps against the edges. It’s my first time venturing out of the city, and I now understand why Ireland is so famously called the Emerald Isle. The sight is spectacular and I am happy to have left the busy city for a day spent exploring the coastal town of Howth.


If you are visiting Dublin, a trip to Howth (pronounced Hoth) is a must. It is a small coastal town with gorgeous views, plenty to do, and provides a calming escape from the city. It’s only about a 35 minute train ride on the DART (the Irish rail system) from the city center and costs about 3.50 euro each way. Keep reading for ways to make the most of your day.

1. Meander through the Howth Market

Conveniently located directly across the street from the rail station is the Howth Market. An array of Irish crafts, such as handmade jewelry, are sold here and are great for gift shopping. However, there are some touristy-type items as well, such as overly-priced souvenirs, so be weary of that.

There’s also plenty of food vendors offering everything from steamy empanadas and sausages to freshly baked goods. If you’re like me and enjoy some hot soup when it’s a bit chilly out, I recommend getting the chowder. It’s creamy, filled with vegetables and chunks of fresh salmon and cod, and it’s the perfect snack to give you some fuel for the hike ahead.

2. Pick a trail and get hiking!

There are four hiking trails (blue, red, green, and purple) that provide scenic views of Howth, Dublin Bay, Baily’s Lighthouse, and Ireland’s Eye, an island just north of the harbor. Fortunately, there are signs for each trail immediately when you exit the rail station. Each trail has a varying level of difficulty with red and purple being the longest/most difficult.

I chose the green trail, which was relatively easier than I had anticipated. It was more of an upwards stroll rather than a hike, but it was relaxing and a great option if you are traveling with kids or want to bring your dog along (I met a cute Labrador named Trixie). The views were fantastic and the trail offered many photo-ops!

If you are looking to see the views but in need of something a little gentler than a hike, there is an option to drive or take a bus to the summit and then walk your way down until you reach the town of Howth.

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3. Have a beer at the Summit Inn

Once you’ve made your way to the top, you’ve earned yourself a nice cold brew. The Summit Inn serves a variety of hearty food and has relatively cheap beers on draft. It was originally built as a cottage in the 19th century and has an authentic Irish pub feel. It’s the perfect place to rest your feet before you begin the walk down to the town.

4. End the day with dinner at one of Howth’s many restaurants

Being a coastal town, most of the restaurants here are known for their freshly caught seafood. Having had chowder earlier in the day, I opted for something a bit more hearty, yet still an Irish classic: Shepard’s Pie. I ate at Dog House Blue’s Tea Room, a funky restaurant that features a dining area set up like a cozy outdoor living room with soft cushion chairs and couches. They have a wide selection of tea and coffee perfect for sipping in front of their fireplace.  It’s BYOB, so if you’d like to drink you’ll need to stop by a convenience store first.  They have heat lamps, so no need to worry about being cold!

If you are interested in sampling Irish fish and chips, many have recommended getting take away from Beshoff’s, a popular place with Dubliners. It’s a great option if you are looking to nibble on a classic as you stroll down the pier.

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At the end of the day, all you have to do is hop on the train and it will take you directly back to Dublin’s center.

If you are only in Dublin for a few days but would like a chance to see all of the green that Ireland is so famous for, or if you would just like a calming escape from the bustling city center, Howth is great option.

Though it’s not necessary to plan much (half the fun is just discovering things to do as you go!),  Here is a link that provides more detail on things to do and places to eat in Howth.