Landmarks

Off The Beaten Path in Rome

There’s something that happens when you visit a city for the second or third time and you’re not trying to see all of the regular touristy sites. You walk a bit slower, take in the sights and sounds of the locals going about their day, and notice just how beautiful the city can be when you’re not standing in line with the crowds. Around every corner and down every street are magnificent buildings; and in no way are they well known or famous, and people don’t go out of their way to see them, but they are striking, majestic, and stunning to admire. This is not to say that you shouldn’t see the main sights in a city. I think you’d be pretty disappointed if you didn’t visit the Colosseum or the Vatican while in Rome. But if you add on a couple more days to a trip, or make subsequent visits, you can truly get off the beaten path in Rome and have a completely different experience.

Aventine Hill

This isn’t totally off the beaten path in Rome, but it’s something different and away from the hustle and bustle. Aventine Hill is Rome’s southernmost hill and walkable from the city center. It’s a quiet residential area with a lot of historical churches and monasteries. One thing we sought out was here as well – the Knights of Malta keyhole in Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. Here, there is a keyhole through a door that gives a rather impressive view of St. Peter’s Basilica. When we visited during the winter there was no one there, but now you can expect to wait 15-30 minutes. This off the beaten path in Rome activity isn’t so secret anymore! Nonetheless, it is still away from the crowds and it’s an opportunity to go to a different neighborhood in Rome.

The nearby piazza and gardens gave us a wonderful view of the city stretched out before us.

The Jewish Ghetto

The Jewish Ghetto in Rome was built in 1555 and was the mandatory home for the Roman Jewish population for more than 300 years. Most of the ghetto has been torn down, but you can still discover some remaining structures of the Jews’ notable past and modest present.

Portico d’Ottavia

Portico d’Ottavia, a big ancient ruin, is just next to the ghetto. These are the remains of an ancient gateway, which used to house a flourishing fish market. It was later turned into a church and was subsequently used by the Christians at that time to force the Jews to pray in, in hopes of converting them. Within the archeological site we walked behind an ancient theater, now with more modern buildings built into it. The back is the original rounded portico with arches, reminiscent of the Colosseum and other Roman theaters.

Trastevere

From there we crossed the Ponte Girabaldi into the Trastevere region. This is a very charming area of the city where a lot of young locals live. Small narrow streets dominate the neighborhood and restaurants and bars line the piazzas. After walking around here for a bit we had a fantastic lunch in a cute restaurant and had the best ravioli we’ve had in all of Italy!

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

We crossed back over, this time over Ponte Palatino, and stopped by the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The Roman statue called “La Bocca della Verita” (The Mouth of Truth), is here and legend has it that if a liar or a sinner puts his hand in the mouth they will lose it! The thrill of putting our hands in the statue’s mouth was strong and we couldn’t resist! We stuck our hands in and hope for the best. Alas, the harmless, but unnerving stone did not eat our hands.

Whether you’ve been to Rome ten times or only one, the Eternal City has so much to offer! No matter how many times you visit there is always more beauty and culture for you to discover and enjoy. We can’t wait to go back and discover more hidden gems when you go off the beaten path in Rome!

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Strolling the Streets of Paris with Kids

Strolling the Streets of Paris with Kids

In November of 2019 when our children were just about to turn 6 and 3 we flew to London for four days and then traveled through the Chunnel via train to Paris for four days. Since we had been to Paris before it was a pretty relaxed trip. We didn’t feel the need to run around catching all of the sights. And it was magnificent! But even if you haven’t been here, you can make Paris with young kids a memorable and fun trip for everyone. We sat on the grass outside the Eiffel Tower, went to the top of Montparnasse Tower, played in the Luxembourg Gardens, ate croissants and drank hot chocolate everyday, strolled the cobblestone streets, and made our way out to the champagne town of Reims for a day. The best part about this trip was that we were able to meet up with our close friends who were living in Germany at the time.

Family Photo

Eiffel Tower

I mean, you have to see the Eiffel Tower, especially if it’s your first time or second time here. We visited it multiple times with the kids during our stay. Since we had gorgeous weather we were able to sit on the grass, let the kids run around, and enjoy the scenery. They were impressed by its size and genuinely enjoyed seeing it from different angles and vantage points.

We had bought timed tickets to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. This was the one part of our trip that I wasn’t too excited about. We did it in 2011 during the off season and it was just as busy as any other time. But we wanted to show the kids the top and the beautiful view, so here we were. Even in November, it was crowded and pushy and overall just not enjoyable. But the views were amazing! And the kids had a really nice time and loved it! But that’s it… I’m never doing it again!

Because of the time change the kids were staying up later than normal, which worked out because we all got to experience the Eiffel Tower light display! The light show starts at sundown, takes place every hour until 1:00am, and lasts for five minutes. After a very long dinner we were able to make it there for the 10:00pm show and it was fantastic. The kids really enjoyed it, and over three years later STILL talk about it!

Luxembourg Gardens

The Luxembourg Gardens, Jardin du Luxembourg, is a popular place to relax and get away from the busy Paris streets. The expansive gardens are well maintained, with large fountains suited for toy boat sailing or reading a book. It also has an incredibly fun playground for kids called the Ludo Jardin. At the time it cost a few euros a person to enter, but what you get from an hour or two of the kids playing here will help you continue with the rest of your day in Paris! The area is fenced in so the kids can run around while parents can sit with a coffee or tea.

Montpanarsse Tower

Tour Montpanarsse is an almost 700 foot skyscraper in Paris and was the tallest building there until 2011. The tower is known for having the best views of the city, with an amazing view of the Eiffel Tower.

Strolling the Streets of Paris with Kids

We were excited to go here since we hadn’t been before. It’s right near a metro stop so it was easy to get to, and we had bought our tickets online so there was no hassle at arrival. Besides the view, the great thing about this visit was that it was empty… there was hardly anyone there! We were able to read about the history of the tower, some interesting facts about Paris, and enjoy the view in peace! It’s not obvious when you first arrive, but there are several more flights of stairs that you can climb in order to get to the rooftop terrace. This was our favorite as you can truly relax and enjoy the view at your own pace unlike the Eiffel Tower.

Eating & Strolling

We spent the majority of our time eating and strolling. Every morning we started our day with croissants and hot chocolate. We snacked on macarons, ate crepes with various foods heated inside, and had a lot of bread! Jon and I drank French wine while eating decadent food, and enjoyed somewhat peaceful meals while the kids played with some toys we brought. We walked around the different areas at a very relaxed pace – no running around to different sites, no early wake-ups to sightsee; we just… were.

Dinner with friends!

Traveling to Paris with young kids from the U.S. can be done! The key is finding a balance between what the kids want to do and what the parents want to do. It also helps to find activities that the whole family can enjoy together while finding times to just, be. Either way, take the time to stroll and eat your way through this vibrant city!

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Road Trip Through Ireland: Cashel, Cobh, Blarney

We planned our road trip through Ireland to start in Dublin and then Kilkenny where we had a great couple of days! After our time in Kilkenny we drove 45 minutes to Cashel to spend the night. From Cashel, we drove to Cobh, Cork, and finally Blarney Castle. This day would end up being one of our favorite days of the whole trip!

Cashel – The Rock of Cashel

Our purpose for visiting Cashel was to see The Rock of Cashel, which we had wanted to visit first thing in the morning. We arrived at our bed and breakfast and were greeted by an odd, but very friendly fellow who showed us around the b&b and to our room.

It was a Saturday night when we arrived and we must have spent about an hour walking around in circles trying to find a restaurant or pub to eat in. There was NOTHING open! It was so weird. The one restaurant we wanted to go to didn’t have anything free until 10pm. I guess that’s where everyone was since the town was dead. It was a complete 180 from what we just saw in Kilkenny a few hours prior. We finally found a pub where we had some stew and beers. There wasn’t much activity, but it had food! The town was a bit of a disappointment and I wish we had stayed in Kilkenny. But at least we still had the ROCK to see.

The Rock of Cashel is a set of medieval buildings dating back to 1100. It’s literally built on a rock and the site rises up from the rolling plains making it dominate the landscape from below. It really is quite a site to see from the town. The Rock of Cashel includes a chapel, a round tower, a cathedral, and a graveyard. It has a rich history and most of it is in its original rustic condition, though they were doing renovations while we were there. Since we arrived right when the site opened we were able to see everything pretty quickly.

Cobh

We got on the road and drove to Cobh, about an hour away. We hadn’t planned on going to Cobh, but someone on our Kilkenny tour strongly suggested that we stop there and we are SO glad we did! It ended up being one of our favorite stops!

Cobh (pronounced Cove) is a pretty seaside town on the southern coast of County Cork. It served as one of the main transatlantic Irish ports, transporting 2.5 million of the 6 million Irish people between 1848 and 1950. It was also the famous final port of call (then called Queenstown) for the Titanic when it set out of its tragic voyage.

We walked around the town for a while and went to a small market on a plaza on the water. Next to this market was the “Titanic Experience“, a unique experience detailing the history of the ship and its unfortunate journey. It’s located in the original White Star Line Ticket Office, which was the departure point for the final 123 passengers who boarded the Titanic. The first part of the experience retraces the steps of the passengers who boarded on April 11, 1912. We experienced what life would’ve been like for the different classes of passengers and saw replica set designs of rooms. The second part examines what went wrong the night the Titanic sank. The tour was extremely informative and we really enjoyed it!

Cork

We left Cobh and drove to Cork for lunch. We went to a delicious restaurant where they use most of their ingredients gathered from The English Market (it’s closed on Sunday, otherwise we would have visited it). Afterward, we walked along the water a bit, but we didn’t get to spend much time here at all. We wanted to stop at Blarney Castle on the way to Killarney and we had to continue our road trip through Ireland as we were running out of time before it closed! Oh well!

Blarney Castle

We were excited to visit Blarney Castle and its famous Blarney Stone. The castle was built nearly 600 years ago and has become one of Ireland’s most visited treasures. Blarney Stone has a lot to do with its popularity – the Stone of Eloquence stands at the top of the tower. Legend has it that if you kiss the stone you’ll never again be at a loss for words (the gift of eloquence or the skill of flattery). The word blarney has come to mean clever, flattering, or coaxing talk sweetened with humor or wit. We were fortunate that we arrived later in the day and had no crowds to battle since August is their busiest month – sometimes the line can be up to two hours to get to the top of the castle, but we walked right up!

The ritual of kissing the stone has been performed by millions of people, and luckily there are now safeguards in place to prevent people from plummeting to their deaths, which did happen. I was very hesitant to kiss the stone; not because of the height, but because of the millions of people who had kissed it before me. I had planned to get into position and put a tissue between my lips and the stone, but I needed both hands to hold onto the railing upside down. Nowadays though, they actually have people cleaning the stone with antibacterial spray after each person’s kiss. It still skeeved me out a bit, so I didn’t exactly touch it, but came close enough! *This was before Covid so I’m not sure what has changed, if anything, with kissing the Blarney Stone!

More Than Just a Castle at Blarney Castle!

There’s a lot more to this castle than meets the eye. The grounds have expansive gardens, each with different names and purposes. Behind the castle is the poison garden, which contains a collection of poisonous plants from all around the world. The plants are labeled with information about their toxicity and traditional and modern uses. Some of the plants are so dangerous here that they are kept in large cage-like structures.

We also walked around Rock Close, which is an enchanting and magical area to be in. As you walk through you can find yourself in a shaded nook, standing on a terrace above a creek with slivers of sunlight peeking through old trees. Here one can find an ancient sacrificial alter, a druid’s circle, a hermit’s cave, a witch’s kitchen, and wishing steps. It was definitely an unexpected find and one that we’re glad we stumbled upon.

Jon made a wish, closed his eyes, and went up and down backwards in hopes his wish would come true.

Road trip through Ireland

This was one of our favorite days out of our whole trip to Ireland. Taking a slight detour from our plans to visit the small and delightful city of Cobh was so special! Having lunch with fresh market ingredients in Cork, and exploring an old castle while engaging in a centuries old tradition, really stood out during our time in this exquisite country. Our road trip through Ireland was well underway! Next up, County Kerry in Southwestern Ireland!

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Road Trip through Ireland - Kilkenny

Road Trip Through Ireland: Dublin, Kilkenny

Ireland is such an easy destination to visit from the U.S. One, it’s only about a six hour flight from the NY area. Two, it’s about a five hour time difference as opposed to six (hey, every hour counts)! And three, there are no language barriers as everyone speaks English! We chose to visit Ireland during the warmest and least rainy time, August. We spent eight days on a road trip through Ireland, starting in Dublin and ending in Shannon.

Dublin

We arrived in Dublin around 6:00am. After going through customs and renting a car we were ready to go! Driving on the left side of the road was… different. The roundabouts were tricky at first and anytime we had to make a turn we looked both ways multiple times because we kept forgetting which way the cars were coming from. There are signs all over the right side of the roads that say, “Wrong way!” and “Turn Around” for everyone not from the area.

Road Trip Through Ireland
What do I do???

After dropping off our luggage at the hotel we made an early visit to the Guinness Storehouse. We figured it wouldn’t be that crowded at 9:30am (it wasn’t) and we wanted to enjoy it while we were fairly awake. We learned all about the history and brewing process of making a true Guinness and even got a certificate on perfecting the perfect pint of Guinness – meaning, they taught us how to properly pour a pint. It was a fun and informative hands-on experience!

After walking through the storehouse we went up to the rooftop bar with our beer and enjoyed the panoramic views of Dublin.

We walked outside to find ourselves in a rainstorm! Rule number one when visiting Ireland – always carry an umbrella or raincoat as there is always some passing shower overhead. We took a cab to another area of Dublin and ate at a delicious restaurant based on a local’s recommendation. After lunch we went for a quick walk around Trinity college. However, we were so tired from our overnight flight and heavy morning beers and lunch, that we went back to the hotel afterwards and crashed until dinner.

The next morning after breakfast we walked to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a beautiful cathedral dating back to 1191. We opted not to go inside, but the outside was very impressive. We spent the next hour strolling and walking around the city.

Kilkenny

We hopped in the car and started our road trip through Ireland. Our first stop after Dublin was Kilkenny, about 1.5 hours away. Kilkenny is a busy, but charming town built on both banks of the River Nore. We really wish we had more time here, rather than rushing off to spend the night in Cashel, but we definitely didn’t realize what a vibrant town this is.

We took a two hour bike tour of the city in order to get a quick overview since we were short on time. The tour used scenic riverbank paths as out roadways, which took us not only to the town center, but to sites such as Kilkenny Castle, The Design Centre, Shee Alms House, The Tholsel, St. Mary’s Church, Rothe House and Gardens, The Courthouse (Grace’s Castle), St. Francis’ Abbey, The Black Abbey, and St. Canice’s Cathedral. We had a really nice time with the diverse group of travelers and our fun guide!

Our last stop on the tour was to St. Canice’s Cathedral and the Round Tower. The site was founded in the 6th century and worship has taken place here for over 800 years! The Round Tower is the oldest standing structure in Kilkenny. We were able to climb to the top and take in some nice views.

We were hoping to get to Smithwick’s Brewery after the bike ride, but we ran late and JUST missed the last entrance for the tour. Since we had reservations at a bed and breakfast in Cashel that night we couldn’t stay in Kilkenny to tour the next day. Instead, we bought some beer glasses and went on with our journey.

Road trip through Ireland

Moving Onward

Dublin and Kilkenny were great places to start our trip. We wish we had more time in both cities, but with limited time something had to be cut. Next up on our road trip through Ireland journey – Cashel, Cobh, Cork, and Blarney Castle!

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Spending the Morning at Pearl Harbor

Visiting Pearl Harbor was an educational and moving experience for us! There are so many ways to spend your day here. For instance, you can go to the USS Arizona Memorial, USS Missouri, check out the aviation and Pacific Fleet Submarine museum, walk through the exhibit galleries, and so much more. You could easily spend the entire day visiting all of the different sites. However, because there were ten of us with varying attention levels, we decided to just spend a morning at Pearl Harbor. We tried to get tickets to the USS Arizona, but they sell out everyday online within a couple of minutes and it was impossible to get ten at the same time. So we opted for the impressive USS Missouri!

USS Arizona Memorial spend the morning at Pearl Harbor
USS Arizona Memorial
USS Missouri. Spend the morning at Pearl Harbor
USS Missouri

The USS Missouri

The USS Missouri is located on Ford Island. From the visitor center you take a quick shuttle and you’re there! It was quite an impressive sight! The battleship is ripe with history featuring exhibits, historical information, and free guided tours. We were impressed with the amount of things to see and do on the ship. Each deck has different areas to read and learn about, and we were able to explore at our leisure. It was an incredible feeling knowing that we were standing in the very spot where the signing of Japanese surrender happened during WWII. It is also important to note that this was the last battleship ever built. The USS Missouri was launched on January 29,1944 and remained active for over 70 years since then.

The kids had a blast looking at the massive size of the ship. In addition, they were fascinated with how the military lived and worked onboard. Some of the bunk beds had three beds each to them! The workers even had a small scavenger hunt for kids which had them hunting for certain objects around the ship. It kept them entertained and happy! They even learned a bit about WWII and the sacrifices that our military makes to defend our country.

We spent over two hours on the ship, going up and down very steep staircases and dodging low hanging doorframes. I definitely could have spent more time reading all of the information at the exhibits and exploring a little more. There was so much interesting stuff to comb through. However, we managed to see every deck and room, and we made it out of there before it got too hot!

Food and Pool

Since the temperature was quickly rising and we were just a little parched, we bought some amazing shaved ice from one of the food trucks just outside the Missouri. This provided a nice break and relief from the heat!

We took the shuttle back to the Pearl Harbor visitor center and couldn’t believe how crowded it had gotten. The line for the shuttle to the USS Missouri was wrapped around the bend. This was one of many benefits to our early rising because of the time change… we beat the crowds and the heat!

On the way back to the resort we went into Pearl City and picked up some poke bowls to go from Poke On Da Run. They were divine! Spending the morning at Pearl Harbor was a great option for us as we then spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the pool. It was the perfect day filled with education, awe, and pool time.

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10 Days Trip Madrid, Spain

10 Day Trip to Spain: Madrid

Plaza Mayor

After finishing our stay in Toledo, Spain, my husband, his parents, and I packed up the car and started the short drive to Madrid. The capital of Spain, Madrid is the country’s largest city and the third largest city in Europe. There are so many things to see in Madrid – we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves!

The interesting thing about Madrid is that there’s not one specific thing that people flock here to see or one specific thing that it’s famous for. There’s something here for everyone! For instance, Madrid is well known for its art museums, nightlife, parks, and first-class restaurants and tapas bars. 

We took full advantage of everything!

Must-See Museums in Madrid

One of the first things to see in Madrid is its wealth of museums. We first went to Madrid’s most famous art museum, the Prado Museum, which has one of the largest art collections in the world. It features artists such as Velasquez, Goya, Rembrandt, El Greco, Picasso, and many others. There were so many rooms to explore and countless pieces of art to view.  Even though it was a little overwhelming, we were impressed! 

Overall, we found the museum elegantly designed. The pieces of art were very interesting, and even controversial at times. We spent a long time admiring everything  here. Unfortunately, the museum didn’t allow us to take any pictures. 

 

A Church right outside the Prado

We also went to the Reina Sofia Museum, which is a modern art museum. Our main goal here was to see Picasso’s famous painting, “Guernica,” and to see more of Picasso’s well known (and not so well known) paintings. But, Picasso wasn’t the only artist represented here. We also enjoyed seeing work by Dali.

If you ask me to evaluate the museum in general, I’d say it’s … interesting. Similar to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, some of the modern art pieces left us questioning the sanity of some of the buyers and admirers of the pieces. 

The outside of the museum

Madrid’s Magical Ambiance

In between our time at the two museums, we walked through Retiro Park, which provided us with shaded areas to sit and enjoy the scenery. The park was full of joggers, bikers, families picnicking, and couples reading on blankets. It reminded me a lot of Central Park in New York.

Before aperitifs and dinner, we walked to the Royal Palace of Madrid. The building was lit up beautifully  against the dark sky. This is definitely one of the best things to see in Madrid, and we wished we had time to go inside. But, we decided to sit outside and share a bottle of wine instead. It was the perfect way to spend our last night in Spain. 

Not surprisingly, dinner was fantastic and was one of our best meals throughout the whole trip.

Sad to Leave…

The next day, we packed up the car for the last time and headed to the airport. We thought that ending our trip with Madrid was fitting, since we’d started out in a large city. 

During our ten days in Spain, we didn’t have one bad or average meal. The food was excellent, and the variety and flavors made it a new favorite cuisine of ours. 

All in all, we saw nine unique and incredible cities filled with history, art, and charm – and we explored it all in a van that was way too big for most of them. 

The best part about the trip, though, was that we got to spend it with family. Thanks for a fantastic trip Lori and Joe!

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spain

10 Day Trip to Spain: Valencia and Grenada

After a great stay in Bilbao, we pressed on with a visit to Valencia and Granada. After packing the van with all of our luggage and backpacks, we drove 3.5 hours to Valencia. Valencia is Spain’s third largest city and is known for its excellent paella (which of course we feasted on).  Soon after we arrived we unloaded, changed, and set our sights on walking through town.

A Quick Spree through Valencia’s Top Spots

The first location on our list was Valencia’s central market. But, when we got there it was closed for the day. So, we decided to grab a late lunch before we explored the rest of the places on our list. 

After lunch, we walked towards the old town, taking note of the medieval buildings and the old cathedral. Later, we made our way to the Torres de Serranos, the only remaining part of the city walls. Then, we took a walk through Jardin del Turia park, and we headed back to the hotel.

Immersing Ourselves in Valencia’s Science Museum

The next day we went to the City of the Arts and Sciences, which is a huge complex consisting of five different areas. It includes an opera house and event space, an IMAX theater and planetarium, a walkway and garden, an open air oceanographic park (home to Europe’s largest aquarium), and a science museum. 

This place is a city of its own, with very futuristic buildings and beautiful grounds. Unfortunately, we only had time for one activity so we spent our time at the science museum. The great part about the science museum is that you are encouraged to try (and touch) everything! With that in mind, it wasn’t a hard decision to choose this particular place. (If you have kids, this should be a top spot on your list!) 

This museum is geared towards learning science through hands-on experiences and we were very excited to try it out! We were practically running throughout the museum, excited to explore the exhibits and touch and play with as much as possible. 

Some of the cool things we discovered were how many centimeters high we can jump, how hard we can kick a soccer ball, how well we can balance, and how many decibels loud our screams are. 

It was truly an immersive experience, and we were so glad we went there! We spent a good two hours inside, but soon had to leave. 

Granada was calling our names, and it was a five-hour drive away. 

Soon after leaving Valencia, we were again driving through the countryside of Spain. The drive from Valencia to Grenada is gorgeous, with flat land around us and mountains from the Sierra Nevada in the distance. 

During our drive, we passed beautiful sunflower fields. Plus, we saw metal bulls on top of nearby hills that seemed to show us our way…

Royalty Like None Other in Granada

Grenada is located in the south in the region of Andalucia. We first noticed that, while the city is big, it still had a quaint feeling to it. Grenada also seems to be a young and vibrant city, with many people dressed nicely, sitting outside having sangria with some tapas before dinner. You can really relax and enjoy yourself here, completely undisturbed.

Our hotel was located down a very narrow, car-free street with restaurants and small boutique shops around the corner. A shop filled with new and fresh spices and teas caught my eyes, and I purchased some excellent products!

The day after we arrived, we went to the Alhambra, an Islamic palace and fortress built in the 9th century. It sits on top of a large hill named La Sabika. It has gardens, streams, fountains, a mosque, and a palace, all within a fortress wall and bordered by 13 towers. 

Jon and I have been to our fair share of palaces, castles, and fortresses in Europe, but this was so very different from all of the others we’ve visited. The decoration of the Alhambra was particularly distinct, consisting of Arabic inscriptions, colorful geometric patterns, and many columns and arches. We were truly impressed with the palace’s intricate designs and decor. We can’t begin to fathom all of the man-hours it must have taken to complete the beautiful details, let alone the sheer scale of the grounds. 

Later, after our tour of the Alhambra, we strolled down the long winding path to the city center. There, we stopped for a delicious lunch, topped off by incredible sangria, to fill our stomachs for the drive to our next destination. 

Our 10 Day Trip to Spain Is on a Roll! Next Stop…

As always, we were sad to leave. Our visit to Valencia and Granada gave us such a wonderful experience! But once again we found ourselves on a beautiful drive through the countryside, making our trip to Spain even more memorable! 

Next stop: Cordoba and Seville!

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salzburg

A Memorable Day Trip to Salzburg, Austria

From Munich, you have so many options for great day trips. After weighing our options between the amazing beauty of Innsbruck or the beauty and cultural attractions of Salzburg, we decided that a day trip Salzburg was the way to go. 

The drive to Salzburg from Munich was just 1.5 hours, and we couldn’t wait to begin exploring this magical city. Salzburg is famous for its rich history. It’s a common destination for music lovers of all kinds, as it’s the birthplace of Mozart and the setting of The Sound of Music.

Still, there’s even more to experience…

Walking in Mozart’s Footsteps

First, we walked through the Mirabell Gardens on our way to the Old Town. The gardens are well maintained, with bright red flowers blooming in circular patterns, dynamic sculptures, and gorgeous fountains. The space seemed to direct everyone’s attention to Hohensalzburg Fortress perched high ahead of us.

Next, we went to Mozart Wohnhaus, which is a house where Mozart lived. The house is small, and the items on display are sparse, but we learned a lot about his life. The museum does a good job immersing you in the life and experience of Mozart.

The outside – no pictures allowed inside

After that, We crossed the river and headed over to Mozart Gerburtshaus. This is Mozart’s birthplace and home for the first 17 years of his life. Throughout the museum, you could explore artifacts and explanations of his history, family, and the development of his talent. We walked away with a thorough understanding of Mozart as a family man as well as a composer. 

Next, we strolled around the crowded Old Town, wandering through the streets that seemed to remain untouched since Mozart traipsed through them. The architecture is beautiful and the cobblestone streets are full of cozy cafes, shops, lanterns, and churches.

After lunch we made our way to our last stop of the day, the Salzburg Fortress (Festung Hohensalzburg). The fortress is around 900 years old and is one of the best preserved castles in Europe. We rode the fast funicular (which is like a tram) up the hillside. This gave us a wonderful view of the city. But once we arrived at the top, even more stunning views of Salzburg welcomed us.


The fortress has many points of interest, including small museums and exhibitions. You can also access some rooms that were once occupied by military and church figures. As we explored the fortress, we couldn’t help but imagine what life would have been like for people hundreds of years ago. Overall, we found it truly amazing to realize that we were walking exactly where they once walked…

A Day Trip to Salzburg Well Spent

We had a nice day in Saltzburg, Austria and enjoyed our time there. We learned a lot about Mozart’s life and about some of the history in this beautiful city. 

With some areas of the city looking so unchanged and with classical music playing in the streets, we felt transported back to another time.

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prague

A Walk through Prague’s History

Oh Prague… how we love thee! Prague, Czech Republic has to be one of the most beautiful cities we’ve ever seen. It is definitely included in our top five places in Europe. The city boasts an assortment of remarkable architecture, ranging from Renaissance, Gothic, and baroque, to neoclassical, cubism, and art nouveau. Looking out over the city we noticed that many spires dot the city in what seem to go on forever. All of these magnificent buildings tell the history of Prague throughout the centuries and made an imprint on us as we visited. Of all the places we visited, the Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, and the Jewish Quarter in Prague topped the list.

Charles Bridge & Old Town Square

We walked our way across Prague’s famous Charles Bridge. It is a very touristy and crowded spot, and from what I’ve heard, it’s like that year round. As we made our way across the bridge, dodging other tourists trying to get their pictures and presents from vendors, we took notice of the different statues that line the unique bridge.

Next, we made our way to the Old Town Square where we saw the 500 year old Astronomical Clock and the rest of the Old Town. Men were playing accordions, and women were singing opera making the streets sound very lively.

The Jewish Quarter in Prague, Czech Republic

During our second day in Prague, we spent time in the Jewish Quarter and so we’ve termed it our “Jewish Day.” The Jewish Quarter consists of many historic and preserved Jewish buildings and synagogues. This includes the Prague Jewish Museum, whose collection only exists because the Nazis gathered objects from 153 Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia in order to plan a “museum of an extinct race.”

We weren’t allowed to take pictures in any of the synagogues, except for one. And we saw so many synagogues! We started with the Pinkas Synagogue. This is now a memorial to the Holocaust with the names of 77,297 Czech Jews inscribed on its walls.

Next to this synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery, which holds 12,000 visible tombstones with as many as 100,000 people buried there (12 layers deep!) dating back to 1439. The cemetery is full to the brim with tombstones, with some right on top of each other, showing partially erased Hebrew inscriptions.

We ended up seeing so many more synagogues within the Jewish Quarter of Prague. The Old New Synagogue is the oldest still-functioning synagogue in Europe, dating back to 1270. We saw the Klaus Synagogue, which contains many items pertaining to the everyday life and customs of Jews. Similarly, the Maisel Synagogue exhibits old Jewish items. Finally, the Spanish Synagogue, which was built in 1868, is very ornate with old Moorish architecture. We’ve never seen a synagogue with decor quite like this one and spent a lot of time gazing up at the intricacies and detail. 

Old New Synagogue

Our last stop was the Jerusalem Synagogue, built in 1906, and also known as the Jubilee Synagogue. While this isn’t located within the Jewish Quarter, we’re glad that we spent the extra time finding it. Sandwiched between two buildings, the synagogue is very unique with Moorish influences and a variety of patterns and colors.

John Lennon Wall

At this point, we decided to leave our Jewish self-guided tour and head back over the Charles Bridge. Given that we had seen about six synagogues, I think we were done! To end our stay in Prague, we went to the John Lennon wall.

After his murder, Lennon became a pacifist hero for many Czechs. Subsequently, the Czechs painted an image of him on this wall along with Beatles lyrics and political graffiti. Even though the police tried to paint over the wall numerous times, it became a focus for the youth of Prague who weren’t allowed to listen to Western pop music.

Later, after the fall of communism in the country in 1989, visiting tourists began to make their own contributions. It was only a few years ago that the city gave into the inevitable and “allowed” tourists and locals to leave their mark on the wall. Locals state that it never stays the same for long and you should leave your mark while you can. Naturally, we wrote a loving message from us on it.

All in all, we saw and did so much on our trip to Prague, Czech Republic that we found it impossible to put it all in one post. We really managed to pack a lot into four days! My next post will talk about the Prague Castle, cathedral, and gardens.  Stay tuned!

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caserta palace and gardens

Why You Should Visit Caserta Palace and Gardens

Caserta Palace and Gardens is located about 25 miles from Naples, which made it easy for us to visit for the day. It was built in the 18th century to rival Versailles. While the palace has around 1200 rooms, it’s largely overlooked by tourists and travelers. The lack of crowds is nice as a visitor, but after visiting here, we can honestly say that this is should be on every traveler’s list!

Inside the Palace

The complex is an exceptional establishment, with an imposing palace and lush gardens. The magnificent marble staircase (which was used as a stand in for the Vatican in “Angels and Demons” and in the “Star Wars” Episodes I and II) led us up to the rooms of the palace. In the rooms, we found gorgeous pieces of art, ornate walls, original royal furniture, and frescoed ceilings.

The Gardens

Following our time inside the castle, we walked outside to the gardens. They are undeniably an impressive sight!

Stretching 2.5 miles from the palace are a series of cascades, fountains, and lifelike sculptures. Following that, you can find a wide canal that leads to the Grand Cascade. If you don’t want to walk, you can try one of the palace’s alternatives: horse-drawn carriages, bikes, and trolleys.

At just about 90 degrees with strong sun, we walked all of the gardens and back! During our walk, we passed by locals having picnics in the shade, families getting their history fix for the day, and runners taking advantage of the wide paths.

Where’s the Waterfall?

Unfortunately, the waterfalls were not too impressive, as they were lacking an essential component… water!

From afar the “waterfall” looked like a big dry hill. We were able to see tiny streams trickling down from the top, but nothing like we were expecting. Here is what we saw on our day:

And here is what they usually look like:

Oh well, can’t win them all!

After a stop for gelato and water, we went to the right of the main gardens, to see the botanical garden, or “The English Gardens.” Here, we happened upon a wonderful surprise: a small tranquil pond surrounded by an old cave like dwelling.

Exiting the English Gardens, we soon realized we had a daunting task ahead of us…

We could definitely see parallels between Caserta Palace and Gardens and Versailles and can see why the two palaces rivaled each other back in the day.

With its impressive grounds, it’s amazing that this treasure is just a short drive away from our home.

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Sassi of Matera

Sassi of Matera

Matera, Italy is one of the most unique and unusual cities we have ever seen! Here, you’ll find one of the oldest cities in the world, which is famous for a very unusual thing: Sassi. The sassi of Matera are stone houses that are carved out of caves and cliffs. They stand on either side of a deep ravine, and the people of Matera have inhabited them for centuries.

Until the 1950s, hundreds of families were living in the cave houses, crowded tightly and dealing with unbearable conditions. But then, they were forced out by law and moved to more modern buildings. The sassi remain a reminder of the past, with more cave houses being converted into restaurants, hotels, and comfortable houses. During our time in Matera, we were lucky to stay in one of the renovated cave hotels.

We spent our time wandering around the sassi districts, where narrow maze-like alleys lead every which way. Sometimes, the streets are even rooftops of people’s homes. It was amazing to see the historical, architectural, and natural heritage packed into the sassi of Matera.

While walking around we developed a feeling for this ancient city and discovered its structures, significance, and cultures.

Like many Italian cities, Matera boasts many churches and piazzas:

Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario

We also visited the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. This is a cave house filled with items to show how a typical cave house was set up. It was unbelievable how the people lived here…

Chickens lived under the bed. A horse stayed in the corner. There was a separate space for manure. Children slept wherever they could find a spot. And these are the conditions they lived in until the 1950s! During the audio description it was interesting to learn how they made do with these restricted living environments.

Belvedere di Murgia Timone

We then headed over to the Belvedere di Murgia Timone, which was on the opposite side of the 200 meter ravine. We walked about two kilometers to the top, and saw the most impressive views of Matera. This is definitely something not to miss while here!

Before visiting Matera, Italy we made sure to read about the history of this amazing city. We think it really helped to have a bit of historical background so we could make sense of the sites here. It is without a doubt, one of the most interesting and unique places we have ever seen!

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belgium

4 Great Places to Go in Belgium

When we visited Belgium, there were five things we were very excited about: beer, waffles, mussels, chocolate, and fries. After all, what better way to experience a different culture than to dive right into the food? So that’s exactly what we did! The cool part was that we indulged in all of it from major cultural hotspots in the country. Overall, I think we visited some of the best places to go in Belgium!

1. Brussels: There’s More than One Way to Make a Waffle

Jon loved the strong Belgian beers, and I was extremely happy that every meal consisted of a pot of mussels. Waffle stands were around every corner! Although there were a number of ways to spruce up a Belgian waffle (chocolate, Nutella, whipped cream, strawberries, bananas, kiwi, or all of the above combined), we decided that we thoroughly enjoyed the plain version, which had some caramelized sugar on it, providing a welcomed light crunchiness.

We spent Friday walking around the main area of Brussels. Here, we saw the Grand Place, a beautiful central market square where you’ll find most people admiring the extraordinary buildings or relaxing on a terrace with a beer or waffle. We also saw “Manneken Pis,” a 1618 bronze sculpture of a naked little boy urinating into a fountain.

2. Old-World Charm in Bruges

On Saturday we took the train to Bruges, a very popular destination that looks and feels like it’s suspended in the medieval time period. Horse drawn carriages, whitewashed cottages, and smooth canals speckle the city, as well as small restaurants and shops to lure tourists in.

We climbed 366 steps of the belfry, a bell tower in the historical center, and had gorgeous views of Bruges. We also walked through the begijnhof, which are small cottages established in the 13th century as homes for a Catholic order of single and widowed women. Now they are homes to Benedictine nuns.

3. Views in Ghent

From Bruges, we took the train to Ghent and enjoyed the old time buildings. We also climbed the belfry in Ghent and once again were able to see beautiful views of the city and of the cathedral. On a stroll, we stopped at the Waffle Factory where the first waffles were made! Yes, we enjoyed a couple of our own.

We returned to Brussels for dinner and of course had some mussels and fries. Later on, we went to a bar where people singing along to typical American party songs.

After midnight it got a little… weird. People started to dance on the tables, including a guy wearing bunny ears and a pink inner tube. Naturally, Jon and I had to join in and dance to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” since we were the only ones still on the ground. Good times.

At the bar… on the table…

4. History and Culture in Antwerp

Antwerp was on our agenda for Sunday. The weather was poor, but we spent the time walking around the city. We checked out the cathedral, the water, and the old buildings in the historic center. We had to catch our plane, so after a quick fry stop (where I was yelled at by the mean Dutch fry lady for spilling ketchup on the counter.. she made me cry!) and a train ride, and we were back in Brussels.

While we enjoyed our time in Belgium, it’s the first time we don’t have a strong urge to return. Despite this, the country provided us with fun experiences, delicious food, and an insight to another culture that we appreciated and will always remember!

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visiting stonehenge

The Mystery of Stonehenge

During our trip to London, we decided to use one of the days to see Stonehenge, Salisbury, and Bath. We used London Golden Tours to drive us between these sites, get our tickets into different venues, and provide us with some useful information and funny tidbits along the way. During our first stop, we were mesmerized by the mystery of Stonehenge. This famous landmark is 1.5 hours from London, and you can see it clearly from the highway. Once inside, there’s a path around the site so you can see it from all angles without getting too close.

(Spoiler alert: It wasn’t anything like European Vacation where Chevy Chase backs his car into the stones.)

A Brief History

We have to say that the main draw of Stonehenge is the mystery behind it. It’s a very unique monument and an important part of prehistoric history. Some of the stones date back to 3100 BC! It was built it several stages, demonstrating 2,000 years of continuous use. It began as a circular ditch and bank, which you can still see. The stones are large, with the heaviest weighing about 45 tons, and they come from places up to 150 miles away.

The Stories Behind Stonehenge’s Mysterious Past

The stones are carefully fitted together and leveled for alignment with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, but its exact purpose remains a mystery . Historians know that it was used as a burial ground because they found 64 cremations and about 150 buried individuals. They’ve also found objects that accompanied the burials. These include small ceramic pieces, a stone macehead, flint tools, and bone skewer pins.

Historians say it also appears to have been a ceremonial site; a temple to mark the passing of time, seasons, and cycles of life and death.

Theorists have proposed many other ideas about Stonehenge, including that it was a place for Druid worship, a place for sun worship, a huge calendar, an astronomical computer, a center for ancestor worship, or as a cult place of healing.

The Mystery of Stonehenge depiction
A painting showing what Stonehenge would have looked like

Historians and visitors alike also question how ancient people managed to carry these huge stones from so far away. Plus, how were they able to build this amazing structure using only primitive tools?

The mystery remains at Stonehenge, but it will never fail to impress!

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first trip to london

Things to Do Your First Time in London

Although he’s been there twice, Jon was more than willing to come back to London so I could visit. What a fun city, steeped in a rich history! The architecture in London is amazing, and even as the modern buildings try to take over, we don’t think it will ever lose that old school charm. Even though we’ve seen our share of history, the history in London is more relatable to us. Here, there is really no shortage of sites to see and activities to try out. But, I think we chose well and found the perfect things to do our first time in London!

Bike Tour of London

We looked to Fat Tire Bike Tours to give us an overview of the major sites. Our four-hour bike tour took our small group to famous sites such as Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, and Princess Diana’s memorial.

We rode through all four royal parks and heard anecdotes about each place from our guide, David. These stories included the numerous break-ins to Buckingham Palace, an arrogant but successful general (Wellington), the city’s reaction to Diana’s memorial (they didn’t like it and thought it was too plain), and people jumping into the fountains at Trafalgar Square after Spain won the World Cup in 2010.

Honestly, this was a great thing to do our first time in London, because it introduced us to the sites and the history all at once! Plus, we got some exercise – win, win, win!

Jack the Ripper Tour

That night, we went on a Jack the Ripper tour. Our guide brought this mysterious crime to life and led us to the actual places where the Ripper victims were killed or found.

It was very eerie to know that 124 years ago, in the then-impoverished area of Whitechapel, with no lights down these streets and alleys, these gruesome murders were committed. Our guide also carried with him something they call “Ripper Vision” which is a handheld projector. Through this, we were able to see the actual shocking photos of the victims, letters sent from the Ripper, and sketches and headlines from the newspapers of that time.

Very creepy stuff, but a great tour!

Our hotel was right across from Parliament and Big Ben so we walked across the Westminster Bridge over the Thames River quite a few times.

Tower of London and the Crown Jewels

One day, we walked along the water all the way down to the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. This castle, first built in 1066, was used for different purposes, including a palace, a fortress, and a prison. Throughout time, different monarchs added to the fortifications of the tower, making it almost like a small village.

We were also able to see the Crown Jewels. This included a number of magnificent items such as crowns, scepters, orbs, rings, swords, spurs, bracelets, and robes. The Imperial State Crown alone had 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and 5 rubies on it.

One scepter had a 563 carat diamond on it! Yikes!

Guarding the jewels. London
Guarding the jewels!

Eating and Strolling

Besides touring the sites, we ate at a few of the many pubs in London. We thoroughly enjoyed all of the food on the menus of these fine establishments! Usually, we’d find fish and chips, banger, beans, mash, hamburgers, many lunch pies, and a ton of British beer. Yum!

Final (Important!) Reflections

One observation about the city was that at almost every intersection “look left” and “look right” were painted on streets. I guess the city has had a lot of close calls with non U.K. members looking the wrong way. I can’t say that we always looked the right way when crossing (or was it left?).

Overall, our first time in London was a fantastic experience, and we really enjoyed the city. It’s easy to get around, there’s no language barrier, and there’s so much to do!

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visiting mt vesuvius

What to Expect at Mt. Vesuvius

We visited Mt. Vesuvius several times over two years, with many different visitors. The first time we visited, we went with our friends, Dave and Carla, who came in hot and were ready to hike and take pictures of beautiful scenery. We took them to Mt. Vesuvius because it boasts some of the greatest views of Naples and beyond.

Mount Vesuvius is an active volcano. Its best known for its eruption in 79 AD, which led to the burying and destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The last eruption was in 1944, and it is overdue for another one! Hopefully it holds on just a little bit longer!

Getting to Mt. Vesuvius

I wouldn’t necessarily call the trek up to Vesuvius a hike. You drive about 3/4 of the way there and then walk up steep winding hills to the top.

Along the way, we noticed that we didn’t have the best views because of the haze, but the mountain tops and islands peaking over the clouds were a sight to be seen!

Views and Volcano Smoke

At the top, we looked down into the ominous crater, which had steaming smoke coming from it.

After walking around the crater, we stopped to have a snack and look out to the world in front of us. Our snack consisted of amazing parmigiano cheese and salami, which we’d picked up at a market. We threw in some Triscuits for good measure… Italian with an American flair to it!

It was a delicious snack that helped satiate our stomachs until the next course… and the next course… and the next course…

December Is the Perfect Time to Go

We didn’t know what to expect at Mt. Vesuvius, but I have to say it was an awesome experience! Because of the time of year that we went (in December), we had the volcano to ourselves!

We later went there during the months of May and June, and while we enjoyed those experiences, it was HOT! Nevertheless, no matter what time of year you go, climbing Mt. Vesuvius is not to be missed!

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