A day in…Berkeley, CA

U.C. Berkeley is associated with political activism and it gave birth to the Free Speech Movement, the Center for Independent Living (providing accessibility for people with disabilities), and environmentalism.

A day in Berkeley, California can be an exhilarating college town experience replete with interesting walks,  good food, and a taste of post-war political history. Any tour would have to include the acclaimed University of California at Berkeley campus (known as “Cal” to sports fans) as the college dominates the city. 

Morning:

Start your day in the quaint Elmwood section of Berkeley. Enjoy breakfast at Bakers and Commons (2900 College Ave). Window shop through the main College Avenue area. Don’t miss Mrs. Dalloway’s Books (the store has a robust collection of gardening books) and Goorin Bros Hat Shop, or bring out your inner candy-loving child at Sweet Dreams Candy and Boutique. 

Incense for sale at bohemian giftshop, Annapurna on Telegraph Ave.

Walk northwest to the quintessentially grungy Telegraph Avenue. If you are interested in learning about Berkeley history you can download this interactive app. You can envision remainders of the anti-establishment Beat Generation which still linger along this street, along with social problems such as homelessness.

UC Berkeley has a free self-guided audio tour (PDF, Website) for a stroll through the campus.  Personal favorites are the iconic Sather Gate, the North Building, the Campile Tower (you can ride up it for $4), the Hearst Memorial Building, the Doe Memorial Library and the T-Rex. 

Take a coffee break and absorb the campus vibe at Caffe Strada or the Free Speech Movement Cafe, both of which are Cal students’ favorites. 

Afternoon: 

For those who want to accelerate their heart rate: you can walk one mile uphill from Normandy Village (photo above) to Rose Garden and then another mile to the Indian Rock Park and take in some interesting sights. 

From the campus, head north to the aptly named apartment complex, Normandy Village.

From Normandy Village take the 67 Bus to Indian Rock Park (which provides a view of the East Bay and San Francisco – or just the fog.) From there, walk one mile downhill to the Rose Garden (there is a tunnel to the cement slide, which is equally fun for adults and children.)

Evening: 

I would recommend Jupiter, a gastropub which provides live music. For the foodies, Chez Panisse caters to an upscale market (you can also get dessert and a glass of wine on the second floor). Comal is a great Mexican restaurant (fun fact it is owned by the former manager of the band Phish). If you go to the left you will be in the less-expensive taco section. 

The iconic Landmark’s California Theater.

Berkeley has an abundance of theaters: UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), provides free screenings during the summer. Within the downtown there are a number of cinemas (Landmark’s California Theater, BAMPFA, and Regal UA Berkeley) and theatrical performance locales (Berkeley Repertory Theater, California Shakespeare Theater, and Shotgun Players). The Greek Theater is beautiful (with great views of the city) and frequently has live concerts. 

A personal architectural favorite is the Berkeley City Club designed by Julia Morgan. You have to ring the bell to enter, just mention that you are on vacation and want to look around. They have a small “museum” dedicated to Julia Morgan, who also designed the Hearst Castle.

There are farmers markets at various Berkeley locations on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For those who like to shop, 4th St and San Pablo Ave (South of University Ave) provide a mix of both independent and large retailers. If you visit the west side, you should not miss a stroll through the Marina, nor sake tasting at Takara Sake. For hikers, Tilden Park provides beautiful views of the East Bay and, on good days, San Francisco. Those architecture lovers, note that Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck have left large footprints on the architecture around town. Sunday you can enjoy a dollar dog while watching horse racing at the Golden Gate Fields in Albany, just north of Berkeley (this could be complicated on public transit and is probably easiest via Uber.)

A huge thank you to Allison and Sean for showing me around their beautiful neighborhood. Another thank you to Shirin, Meghan, Alex, and Sarah for helping!

If you like exploring the bay area in day trips, check out my “A Day in” itineraries for Carmel, Oakland, Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Mission District.

A day in…Crown Heights, BK

Crown Heights hosts the annual Labor Day Carnival celebrating Caribbean culture. I would recommend going during the day, because the evening can often get rowdy. Above: a fiery female dressed in the traditional Carribean Day clothing.

The neighborhood that made national news during the three-day racially charged Crown Heights Riot in 1991 is undergoing gentrification.  Historically, Crown Heights has been the home to a large population of Jewish residents, and the headquarters of the Lubavitch movement is located on Eastern Parkway.  Crown Heights also has a large population of African Americans and people from the West Indies, and it hosts the annual Labor Day Carnival celebrating Caribbean culture. 

The area is forever evolving and is becoming one of the hippest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. With gentrification, Crown Heights has seen much change over the last decade, including a thriving foodie scene on Franklin Avenue.  However, Crown Heights still has great spots that showcase its roots as a split community of African- and Carribean-American and Jewish cultures. 

If you like exploring different neighborhoods in NYC, check out my day itineraries in Red Hook, Prospect Heights or Downtown Brooklyn.

Without further adieu here is your one day tour of Crown Heights: 

The tree-lined Eastern Parkway, is a great location for biking, walking, or running.

Start your morning off with a bagel from Bagel Pub at 775 Franklin Avenue. Then grab a coffee from either Breukelen Coffee House at 764 Franklin Avenue or Little Zelda’s at 728 Franklin Avenue. 

Spend the early morning checking out the Hunterfly Road Historic District in Weeksville Heritage Center. Weeksville was one of the largest free black communities. Slavery was abolished in NYC in 1827 but not nationally until 1865, so this enclave became a safe haven for freed men and runaway slaves. It is one of the few historically preserved areas for the African-American community from that time period. 

Beautiful Brooklyn Museum at 200 Eastern Parkway.

Continue your tour by taking a leisurely stroll among the Cherry trees and through the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden within the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens at 990 Washington Avenue at the edge of Prospect Park.  You may also enjoy a visit to the nearby Brooklyn Museum. Both of these call for a paid admission.

For lunch, try the tacos and a Margarita from Gueros at 605 Prospect Place. They also have great lemonade! 

The area became the outpost for Brooklyn architects such as Cohn Brothers, Parfitt Brothers, and Montrose Morris who designed many mega-houses. Don’t be surprised to see Tzitzits (Jewish garment with white strings hanging down, reminding practitioners to follow the Commandments and not their eyes or heart) being worn in the neighborhood.

After Gueros, take a self-guided architectural tour through South Crown Heights. You can see turn-of-the-century brownstones along tree-lined boulevards. Most of the real beauties are on President St between New York St and Kingston St.

After some cultural and historic intake, peruse the Anyone Comics store before trying a cocktail and a slice of pie from the female-owned bar, Butter and Scotch.

Crown Heights has much to offer on the food scene. Based on what you are craving I would recommend: Barboncino at 781 Franklin Avenue for pizza, Chavela’s at 736 Franklin Avenue for good Mexican food and ambiance with its Spanish-tiled bar and día de los muertos decor, or colorful Glady’s at 788 Franklin Avenue for some delicious Jerk Chicken (and a nod to the Caribbean community that unfortunately gentrification is slowly displacing). If you are with a big group and just want to hang out for a while, Berg’n Foodcourt at 899 Bergen Street is a fun place which provides a food court with many options.

There are many bars to enjoy either a laid-back beer or a well-crafted cocktail. Franklin Park, Mayfields, The Crown Inn, Covenhoven, and King Thai all offer libations. 

If you are into music, consider the Murmrr Theatre located on the third floor of a synagogue at 17 Eastern Parkway.  It is a great and interesting locale for a concert, although I’m not sure everything is up to Code. The Way Station (a Dr. Who-themed nerd bar at 683 Washington Street) and Friends and Lovers at 641 Classon Avenue regularly offer live music and may be worth checking out.

If you enjoy learning more about Brooklyn, consider checking out some of my A Day In itineraries in Red Hook, Prospect Heights and Downtown Brooklyn.

Thank you to my (current or former) Crown Heights locals for all their suggestions on how to enjoy their neighborhood! Andrew, Lauren, Laura, Adam, Tricia and Chris!

A trulli, a cave, and a masseria oh my!

View from the courtyard of our stay in Masseria Santa Lucia.

Your first question is probably: what’s with all these weird words in the title? The answer: they are different types of accommodations that we tried while in the Puglia and Basilicata (the heel and instep) regions of Italy. My main reason for travelling to these destinations were a) I kept seeing cool instagram photos from Matera, and b) my friend Jen from World On A Whim mentioned that the city of Matera is the 2019 Cultural Capital of Europe.  So we set a date (really it’s all around my school schedule) and booked our flights. Here is a brief list of the accommodations that we stayed in:

What is a Trulli?

Photogenic Trullis. Alberobello is filled with camera-carrying tourists taking pictures of the trullis, some of which have been converted to use by the tourism industry as gift shops, museums and high end restaurants.

A Trulli is a small hut-like building with a conical roof which gives it the appearance of a hobbit or troll house.  The uniformly white bases of these iconic structures are constructed from limestone masonry and are topped off with a wheat-colored dome-like roof.  Theses idiosyncratic homes are plentiful in the Puglia region of Italy. The largest collection are located in the town of Alberobello, which is well- known for their signature Trulli houses. The region’s abundance of limestone, karst and calcareous sedimentary was utilized to create the mortarless houses. Why mortarless? As the 18th century population increased, people created the commune of Alberobello.  The local Count didn’t want to pay taxes for a new development to the Spanish Viceroyal of Bourbon and therefore requested his citizens to create housing that was easy to dismantle and fool the tax assessors.

If staying overnight, I would recommend either staying in the new part of Alberobello or outside in the countryside. While we really enjoyed walking around and seeing the trullis you could enjoy a day-trip here and move on.

What is it like staying in a cave?

While other cliffside towns are built on top of the deep ravine, the houses and entire sassi are built into and complementary to the preexisting caves.  With hundreds of years of layers placed in one building it is hard to differentiate when different additions were added.

Tragically beautiful Matera has gone from obscurity to fame over the past century.  Evacuated in the 1950’s for rampant poverty and disease, Matera was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1993 and 2019 European Capital of Culture recognition.

View of the room does not give it justice. Definitely great sleep was had here, staying in a cave provides that not much natural light will wake you up in the morning.

Matera has been inhabited since the Paleolithic time. In ancient times, cave-dwelling settlers moved into the tofu rock caverns of the steep ravine. Eventually more people moved in and the community of cave-like dwellings became known as the Sassi (Italian for “the stones”). We stayed in a carefully renovated, beautiful cave hotel. I would recommend this unique experience.

If you are looking for a more in depth weekend itinerary for Matera, please find it here: A weekend in Matera, Italy.

What is a masseria?

A “masseria” is an Italian version of a plantation or hacienda. The name masseria is known mostly in the Puglia region of Italy. From the 16th to18th century,  masserias were the farmhouses in which workers and “pedrones” (English: master/boss) would reside while harvesting large farms. Italy has a number of farmhouses which are still on functioning farms and which are available as lodging alternatives. We stayed at a converted 16th century farmhouse. The owners made the best meal of our vacation, with fresh ingredients from their gardens. For a uniquely satisfying experience, I would recommend staying in a farmhouse in any region of Italy for one or two days . Research agriturismo.it or bookings.com for farmhouse lodging options.

Here is a link to a post on how to find a masseria.

A Mystical Two Days in Meteora, Greece

The sandstone columns topped with ornate monasteries provide a breathtaking backdrop to the sleepy town of Kalambaka and the neighboring village of Kastraki. I am sure the mountainous northern region of mainland Greece is not what you expect when thinking of a Greek getaway.

The majestic cliff-top monasteries of Meteora will awe you into feeling like you are the star of a Lord of the Rings movie. Two days in this UNESCO World Heritage Site provide a unique refuge from the hustle and bustle of Athens or island-hopping festivities. Each monastery provides centuries’ worth of history and an instagram-worthy photo-shoot. Meteora allows any tourist to admire nature and ponder the lives of the early inhabitants of this distinctive, stunning  location.

The rickety wooden ladders and pulleys were used for access to these locations and were only replaced when they broke (hope no one was on it!) You could not pay me any amount of money to try the ladders.

Meteora’s religious community dates back to a few solo hermitages in the early 11th century. The dilapidated, wooden hermitages were used until the 19th century. Eventually (mostly during the 14th and 15th century) numerous monks moved here and created the beautiful monasteries and a larger skete community devoted to the austere way of life.

Getting there: Kalambaka is a 4 hour drive or a 5 hour train ride (~30 euros) from Athens. I took the train and was able to walk to my accommodation a few blocks away. Please see the website to book trains here. I chose to make sure I did not have to switch trains, since I do not know the language and my understanding of the Greek alphabet is solely based on my college sorority days. Typically, I take a screenshot of the directions from my hotel in Athens to the train station, and then from the train station in Meteora to my local hotel, so that I know the directions once I depart the train, even if my phone has no service.

While I chose to hike up and then walk between the monasteries, I would only recommend this to those who consider themselves fit. You will do a reasonable amount of unshaded walking between the monasteries.

Tips: For my entire time in Meteora I chose to hike. While this is the norm for a good portion of the people in Meteora there are other transportation options for every type of traveller, including taxis, public busses, or chartered bus tours. Choose whichever suits your fitness level and travel style. I recommend packing sunprotection and an additional layer, both for respite from the sun, and also for entrance into the monasteries as guests are expected to cover their shoulders and legs. Women are not allowed entrance into some monasteries without a skirt. All of the monasteries have a three euros, cash only, entrance fee.

Timing: If you want to see all of the monasteries, I would recommend 1.5 days and 2 nights in Meteora, as the six monasteries have different days and hours that they are open. Otherwise, you could see some of the monasteries in one full day and night. I went during the summer, so I had some down-time after seeing all the monasteries and before sunset. Meteora was great in summer and I have heard good things about the fall foliage. This can easily be added to the beginning or end of a ten day itinerary in Greece.

Day 1: Sunset

Sunset at “Psaropetra Lookout”

Arrive in Meteora in the late afternoon, check into your hotel. Make it to “Psaropetra Lookout” for breathtaking panoramic sunsets on the mountain top. The location is clearly marked on maps, and your hotel can arrange for a taxi. Get a late dinner in Kalambaka before getting to bed in time for an early morning. Meteora is known for its religious pilgrimages and trekking tourism, so don’t be surprised to find at least one orthodox priest at every restaurant you go to. That being said there is not much in the way of vibrant nightlife. I wanted to experience the full village life and only went to tavernas (small Greek restaurants), all of which were inexpensive. The three taverna restaurants I recommend are: Taverna Paramithi (has live music), Taverna Gardenia (in Kastraki), and Archontariki Taverna. Enjoy eating in both Kastraki and Kalambaka once, just to compare the two villages.

Day 2: Hiking and Monasteries

Check on opening and closing times to determine which monasteries you are going to see on which days. I decided to make a loop of the monasteries that were open, but save two for the following day. I woke up early so I could arrive at the first monastery at opening time. Travelling from Kalambaka it was roughly a  3.4 mile (~5500 meter) hike to Moni Agias Triados (Holy Trinity) (open from 9:00 AM-5:00 PM, but closed on Thursdays.) Be prepared to climb up stone mountain stairs in order to get to the entrance. For any 007 fans, this monastery was featured in the 1981 James Bond film For your Eyes Only.

Our second event involved a 15 minute walk east along the main road (okay, it took us longer because we  stopped for picture-taking) to Moni Agias Stefanou (open hours 9:00AM-1:30 PM & 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, but closed on Mondays.) Beware of the break in the middle of the day. The entrance is a small bridge with a terrifying drop!

Our next trek involved 4 km walk (which took about an hour) to Moni Varlaam (open hours: 9:00 AM-4:00 PM, but closed on Fridays.) A visit to Moni Varlaam should be combined with a visit to Moni Megalou, which is fifteen minutes away.

Moni Megalou Meteorou, or “Grand Meteoron” (open hours: 9:00 AM -5:00 PM, but closed on Tuesdays) is the most impressive of the monasteries.  Founded in the 14th century, it became the richest monastery when the Serbian Emperor Symeon Uros donated all of his money and became a monk. One can walk back to town from here or ask an attendant for directions to the bus stop.

Evening: see Day 1 Sunset itinerary, and repeat with a different dinner location.

Day 3: Half day of hiking and monasteries

For Day-3, we did a reverse loop, what I call the “Kastraki loop,” as that was our starting point. Give yourself some time to hike a few of the sights near Kastraki, such as St. George Mantilas, the ruins of old cave dwellings, and St. Nicholas Bantovas, a still-functioning monastery.

View from a monks dormatory in Moni Agiou Nikolaou

We stopped at Moni Agiou Nikolaou (English: St. Nicholas; open hours: 9:00 AM-3:30 PM, but closed on Fridays) which is about 0.2 km from Kastraki village square.

Our last visit was to Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou (open hours: 9:00 AM-5:45 PM, but closed on Wednesdays.) Near closing time, be alert for the call to vespers (evening prayer) made by a wooden talando.

If you are going at a relaxed pace, you can stay another night in Kalambaka. For those with a tighter schedule, I would recommend leaving in the late afternoon to your next destination.

For an easier visual here are the two hiking routes I created in numeric form.

“Kalambaka loop”, starts in Kalambaka:

  1. Moni Agias Triados (Holy Trinity) (open from 9:00 AM-5:00 PM, but closed on Thursdays.) This is roughly a  3.4 mile (~5500 meter) hike from Kalambaka town.
  2. Moni Agias Stefanou (open hours 9:00AM-1:30 PM & 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, but closed on Mondays.) This is 15 minutes east from Moni Agias Triados.
  3. Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou (open hours: 9:00 AM-5:45 PM, but closed on Wednesdays.)
  4. Moni Varlaam (open hours: 9:00 AM-4:00 PM, but closed on Fridays.) A visit to Moni Varlaam should be combined with a visit to Moni Megalou, which is fifteen minutes away.
  5. Moni Megalou Meteorou, or “Grand Meteoron” (open hours: 9:00 AM -5:00 PM, but closed on Tuesdays), there is a hiking path to get here which is shaded. At the T, so to the left which will lead to the entrance.
  6. Moni Agiou Nikolaou (English: St. Nicholas; open hours: 9:00 AM-3:30 PM, but closed on Fridays) which is about 0.2 km from Kastraki village square.

“Kastraki loop,” starts in Kastraki:

  1. Moni Agiou Nikolaou (English: St. Nicholas; open hours: 9:00 AM-3:30 PM, but closed on Fridays) which is about 0.2 km from Kastraki village square.
  2. Moni Megalou Meteorou, or “Grand Meteoron” (open hours: 9:00 AM -5:00 PM, but closed on Tuesdays), there is a hiking path to get here which is shaded. At the T, go to the left which will lead to the entrance. This is a less travelled hiking area but the path is clearly demarcated.
  3. Moni Varlaam (open hours: 9:00 AM-4:00 PM, but closed on Fridays.) A visit to Moni Varlaam should be combined with a visit to Moni Megalou, which is fifteen minutes away.
  4. Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou (open hours: 9:00 AM-5:45 PM, but closed on Wednesdays.) Near closing time, be alert for the call to vespers (evening prayer) made by a wooden talando.
  5. Moni Agias Stefanou (open hours 9:00AM-1:30 PM & 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, but closed on Mondays.) This is 15 minutes east from Agias Triados, so you will pass Agias Triados Agias Stefanou then backtrack to Agias Triados.
  6. Moni Agias Triados (Holy Trinity) (open from 9:00 AM-5:00 PM, but closed on Thursdays.) This is then a downhill walk back to Kalambaka town center, which you can either walk back to Kastraki or stay here.


A delectable three days in NOLA

Whether you are visiting New Orleans (“NOLA”) for a bachelor(ette) party, Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, or just a weekend getaway prepare to indulge all of your senses with music, food, drinks and culture in this one-of-a-kind city.  The aromas of Cajun cooking billow into the streets from restaurants and houses, watering your tastebuds. Live jazz flows at all hours from the bars and cafes along Bourbon and Frenchman Street. Whatever you are coming for, the city is bursting with a melange of culture and life.

First claimed in the 17th century under French Rule, with a brief stint under the Spanish in the late 18th century, NOLA was later sold to the United States by Napoleon in the 1805 Louisiana Purchase. The medley of French, Spanish, African-American, and Creole influences are in abundance in the architecture, cooking, and culture of the city today.

Timing: Many people visit the city for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (nicknamed: “Jazz Fest”) which is usually held at the end of April/early May (details can be found here). Mardi Gras, first documented in 1699 by the French, it is now a two-week festival leading up to Ash Wednesday. For more information please follow this link.

Three people to know before you go: Maria Laveau, known as the voodoo queen of New Orleans, Jean Lafitte, a French pirate and smuggler based out of New Orleans who made a deal to help Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans from the British in return for a pardon, and  Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial, governor of Louisiana for over a decade and the last governor of New France, known for building New Orleans into the rich port city which is sometimes called petit Paris.

Arrive Thursday evening and check into your hotel.

Dinner:  Kingfish for dinner and then stop by Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, located at the corner of Bourbon Street and St. Philip Street in the French Quarter. Legend has it that Jean Lafitte ran a business here, and it is also claimed to be the oldest structure housing a bar in the United States.

Day 1: Friday

Start your morning off at Café Du Monde for chicory coffee and Beignets (French deep-fried choux pastry, and don’t wear black because the powdered sugar will be everywhere!) Fried dough for breakfast? Definitely indulging in every 7 year old’s impulses! Bring money because Café Du Monde is cash only.

Enjoy the afternoon at a Swamp Tour with Cajun Encounters, and keep in mind that for a small additional charge they pick you up at your hotel. This was one of my favorite things. Listen to authentic Louisiana accents, and see wild boars and alligators.  I wore my best camo outfit to blend in. Observe how people live in the Bayou. Behold the houses on stilts with motor boats for transportation, which safeguards property from flooding.

Drake enjoying Gene’s Poboy in his music video “In My Feelings”.

Grab some po-boys for snack time. There are two po-boy shops I recommend: Gene’s, which was featured in Drake’s “In my Feelings” music video, or the Parkway Bakery and Tavern, which has been around for over 100 years.  For an afternoon activity, I would recommend one or more of the following: Do a bar-circuit to sample famous drinks (like the iconic and tropical Hand Grenade drink) while people-watching the antics of Bourbon St. It may seem like an adult frat party.  Check out the two-story verandas on the mansions in the historic garden district, or some Voodoo shops, or try all of the above.

Enjoying dinner at Three Muses. Please ignore our “sippie cupes”, for drinking in the street!

For the evening, I recommend dinner at the bohemian Three Muses. The restaurant offers live music, small plates, and house cocktails. What more could you ask for!

New Orleans has everything from Jazz, Cajun and Brass Bands playing every night. Enjoy a night of live music wandering around the French Quarter to find your favorite live music location (try Bourbon Street or, for a different vibe, the less crowded Frenchmen Street which many people find to be more enjoyable).

Make a pitstop at the Frenchman Art Market while walking through bars looking for live music.

Day 2: Saturday

Start your morning off at the Court of Two Sisters for their Jazz Brunch. The purple flowers of the willow trees cascade over the courtyard, the dappled lighting is supplemented by draped twinkle lights. The buffet offers a leisurely brunch while you imagine life as an aristocratic French Colonialist.

Learn about the history of burial in New Orleans, with a St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Tour.  A guided tour is a must, in accordance with archdiocese rules, so make sure to book ahead of time. The tour guides are local historians who will lead you through the one mile walk over cobblestones.  The guide will point out the unique above-ground burial vaults which are a necessity because of the high water table. Buried here are Homer Plessy (of the landmark civil rights case Plessy vs Ferguson), voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, and a pyramid shaped tomb purchased by Nicolas Cage.

Enjoying dinner at Mr. B’s Bistro.

In the evening, try a swanky night of pre-dinner drinks at Carousel Bar. Grab seats at the spinning bar! Continue on with dinner across the street at Mr. B’s Bistro. They are known for their shrimp and gumbo! If up for it, enjoy another fun night out listening to the live music. If you went to Bourbon Street the night before try Frenchmen Street, or vice versa.

Day 3: Sunday

Check out, get a beignet to go, and fly home.

Ten Days in Italy: Rome, Florence and Venice

Imagine a burnt-orange sunset over the Tuscan capital of Florence, a romantic, moonlit glide in a gondola along the winding canals of Venice, or the buzzing Vespa traffic past three thousand years of urban development in Rome. Italy offers adventures for any type of traveller with any company: whether it be a honeymoon, a group tour, or a family vacation. With a  gelato shop at the corner of every fountain laden piazza, there is no wonder Italy was the setting for the movie “La Dolce Vita.” Do I even have to mention the birthplace of pizza? Italy is at the top of the “must-see” list for just about every traveler.

This is a simple ten day guide to Italy which should be especially helpful to first time visitors, starting with what I consider to be the big three: Rome, Florence, and Venice. Italy has an abundance of  cultural and historical sights to visit with gourmet food and fine wine to enjoy between tours. I enjoy travelling from big cities with a lot of cultural institutions to progressively smaller cities so that when fatigue sets in from sightseeing, the last few days are reserved for a more relaxed pace. For that reason this itinerary goes from Rome north to Florence and then ends in Venice with its international airport.

Gondoliers on a break in Venice, Italy.

Timing: The weather is most comfortable from April until October, and I personally prefer travelling on the “shoulder” seasons, meaning May/June or September/October, to alleviate  the long lines, congestion and heat. My two exceptions to this plan could include the Carnival in Venice, which is usually in February and during Holy Week (Italian: “settimana Santa,” the week leading up to easter).

You may also be interested in visiting the southern countryside. I wrote about the unique accommodations in the Puglia region.

Day 1 of 10: Rome

Fly into Rome.

Roma Caput Mundi is a Latin phrase meaning “Rome capital of the world” and it conjures up an image of the  historical significance of Rome.  The steeple loaded skyline reminds visitors that Rome is the capital of the Catholic Church and the seat of the Papacy. The layers of over 4 millenia worth of history interwoven into a modern city attest to the vitality and vibrancy of a city still buzzing with life (and Vespas). Simply walking the streets of Rome, sometimes referred to as “the open air museum,” opens up the famous sights including artistic masterpieces from every century of European history. While exploring without a plan will provide a treasure chest worth of sights, I would recommend sticking to a more concrete itinerary if this is your first time in Rome, or lest you miss the major sights. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it cannot be described in one paragraph nor seen in four days.

I would suggest reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, which is set in Rome. I would also recommend seeing some movies set in Rome, such as Eat, Pray, Love and the gore and glory of Gladiator to prepare you for the colosseum, or flash back to your tween years and watch the Olsen twins movie, When in Rome, for the sights of the city. Don’t forget Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday.

Bruin on a Budget tip: I put out a travel alert on the Google search engine. This should enable you to receive email alerts regarding cheap flights from your home city to Rome. I work in education, so I have flexibility during the summer as to when I can book flights, and I have the patience to wait for a good deal. There are many different housing options, and one interesting and less expensive option is to stay at a converted convent. While it will not be luxurious, it will reduce costs, it may be memorable, and you may meet some interesting fellow travelers.

Get settled into your hotel and put your stuff away. Get a recommendation from the hotel as to where to dine.

Day 2 of 10: Catholic Rome

The interior of St. Peter’s Basilica

Prepare to spend the entire morning and afternoon at the awe-inspiring but crowded Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St Peter’s Basilica. Make sure to pre-book these tickets online to save time.  Some people have had the feeling of being herded through the exhibits, so you should plan for rest, food and water breaks. The sights are wonderful: The Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s masterful ceiling. The Matisse Chapel featuring 16 foot paper cutouts for a stained glass design of a French Chapel is featured within the Modern Religious Art at the Vatican Museums.  Raphael Rooms (Italian: Stanze di Raffaello) within the Vatican Palace, considered the eponym’s masterpiece. This over-500 year old palace is all encompassing in its number of European masterpieces.

Matisse’s colorful cassocks (robes worn by priests) within the Modern Religious Art at the Vatican Museums

Bruin on a Budget tip: Rick Steves has a free audio guide in which he offers a splendid narration of the highlights of the tour.

Have lunch near the Vatican, where there are many good places to re-fuel for the rest of the day, then take a walk by Cast D’Angelo at the Tiber River.  At some point in the afternoon, do yourself a favor and have a well-deserved nap.

There is a bustling Tiber riverside market (more info can be found here) which is open from 6 pm – midnight every night in the summer.

In the evening walk around the Tiber River at dusk.   This is a great location to enjoy a sunset cocktail. End your evening walking through Trastevere’s charming streets to a dinner destination. We had a delightful dinner at Grazia and Graziella in Trastevere. The Italians eat late, so prepare to begin dinner around 9:00 pm, unless you want to be the only diners. Back over the bridge in Campo de Fiore is buzzing with nightlife and is the perfect place for a nightcap or an evening stroll.

Before dinner, try to make it for the Call to Vespers at St Cecilia’s church in Trastevere.  

Day 3 of 10: Ancient Rome

The grandiose Colosseum is an icon of Imperial Rome with all of its ancient glory. This Flavian amphitheatre could seat 87,000 people in it’s day; just for reference the New England Patriot’s NFL stadium seats 66,829 and the Rose Bowl can seat 90,888.

Enjoy the morning filled with sights from the Roman Empire: the Colosseum, Palatine Hill to the Roman Forum.

View of Constantine’s Arch from the Colosseum.

Stroll through the Campo de’ Fiori to see the locals and the tourists shopping at the farmers’ markets, and find a place to eat a leisurely lunch.

The Parthenon.

After lunch take a walk through a much-filmed route from Piazza Navona, Parthenon, Galleria Alberto Sorti, Trevi Fountain, and end at the Spanish steps. Make sure to stop for gelato as needed!

Refresh yourself with an early afternoon riposo (siesta), and before sunset, make your way to Piazza Venezia and atop the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument (Italian: Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II) for a panoramic view of Rome. Saunter over to dinner at the popular Ai Tre Scalini in the Monti section of Rome, with its Bohemian style. If there is a line grab a beer at Barzilai across the street, as they have 6 beers on tap which is plentiful for Italy.

Day 4 of 10: Rome to Florence

If you are an architecture nerd like me, you will love spending the morning looking around the Art Nouveau neighborhood called “Quartiere Coppedè,” designed by early 20th century architect Gino Coppedè. Visit the nearby La Casina delle Civette, the fairy-tale like former home of the Torlonia family with its exquisite and creative details. Typically, it’s not crowded.  Grab a coffee and snack here before heading out on an early afternoon train to Florence (the high speed train takes about an hour and a half). Be mindful of which train station you are leaving from, as there are a few.

Florence:

Idyllically charming Florence (Italian: Firenze) may be my favorite place in Italy. Known as “the cradle of the Renaissance,” Florence came to prominence during the 14th century and hit its peak in the 16th century as an economic and artistic center of the Mediterranean. A turbulent political history provides many stories shrouded in secrecy and scandals mostly surrounding the powerful Medici family. The Medicis were patrons to much of the development of the City of Masterpieces, having provided  financial support for works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli. This city is best explored on foot, walking down the cobblestoned streets while admiring the Renaissance art and architecture and the frescoe-filled churches. The capital of the Tuscany region of Italy, Florence also has much to be indulged in the food and wine scene.

Arrive from the train station and settle into your hotel. Enjoy a delicious dinner and good service at Il Vezzo.

5 of 10: Renaissance Florence

Start your day at the Accademia Gallery (Italian: Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze), where you can see magnificent artwork including Michelangelo’s masterpiece of white marble, David among other sculptures.

Mercato Centrale Firenze

Enjoy breakfast or a  snack at the Mercato Centrale Firenze. The two story cast-iron and glass-vaulted building opened its doors in 1874, and it is still offering fresh produce today. Walk around the artisan San Lorenzo Market, which is outside the central market. Don’t hesitate to join in the fun of bartering before you buy.  

A clock with the Duomo in the background.

Weave your way through the pedestrian streets towards the Duomo (full name: Cathedral of Santa Maria de Fiore) with its garnd bell tower.  Check out the Duomo itself, the bell tower and the Duomo Museum.

Walk across the plaza to the octagonal Baptistery of St. John (Italian: Battistero di San Giovanni), which was built between 1059 and 1128, and don’t overlook its bronze doors with “The Gates of Paradise,” which took the artist 27 years to create.

While you’re in the area, you have to give I Fratellini a try. It’s a hole in the wall food shop where you can grab a quick and delicious panini and a glass of Italian wine and blend in with the locals who make the place popular.

Saunter down to the Piazza Della Repubblica to the 1551 “New” Market (Italian: Mercato Nuevo) and rub the nose of the wild boar at the Fontana del Porcellino, which, legend says, ensures a return to Florence. Stop in the Oranmichelle Church (former granary), and down Via Calzaiuoli (pedestrian road) to Piazza della Signoria. Take in the sights of Palazzo Vecchio (or City Hall). For those who are geographically inclined, venture into the Medici wall of maps. From the Piazza make your way to Basilica Santa Croce to see the tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo. Enjoy gelato as needed, a few favorites are grom and gelateria dei neri.

Enjoy a siesta before an Italian-style long meal at Aqua al II.  I would recommend getting the pasta and meat sampler which includes five different pastas and 3 different steaks.

6 of 10: Oltrarno

Start your morning off with a tour of the Uffizi Gallery, which consists of 45 rooms stocked with 1500 works of art including Renaissance masterpieces by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. This was once the workplace of the wealthy, powerful and controversial Medici family. The nouveau riche family were generous patrons of the arts, but they were often enmeshed in scandal, backstabbing, and ambitious social climbing to the fascination of the greater population.  Catherine Medici became the Queen of France and brought onion soup, the fork and gelato to the French, in addition to her rumored poisons. As one Medici became the pope, he created the title “Duke of Florence” and subsequently “Grand Duke of Tuscany” and crowned various family members, elevating the family legacy into royalty.

At the Arno River, the landmark Vasari Corridor,  an enclosed, elevated “secret” passageway built in 1564 is worth noting.  Unfortunately, it has been closed for construction since 2016, with a reopening planned for 2021. Georgio Vasari, an artist, architect and writer who is often called the first art historian for his writing of “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptures, and Architects,” built the Vasari Corridor for Cosmos I de Medici so that he could travel safely from his residence to the government palace without interacting with any of the townspeople.

Grab some sandwiches-to-go from All’Antico Vinao (get anything with cream di pecorino, artichoke spread, or truffle spread on a large focaccia.) Save these for lunch at Boboli Gardens.  Along the way, take a brief passiegiata (or stroll) on Lungarno Generale Diaz, parallel to the leisurely flowing Arno River as it provides a beautiful vantage point of the Ponte Vecchio Bridge.

The Arno River reflects the blush, amber, and apricot hues of the much-photographed medieval bridge at sunset. Window shop through the kiosks along the bridge.

Now in Oltrarno, make your way north to the Boboli Gardens, a beautiful public park located behind the Pitti Palace.  Enjoy the fountain of Neptune, and various other sculptures dating between the 16th-18th century. Pick a spot to sit back and enjoy your sandwich while soaking in the beauty of the park, which closes at 6:30 pm.

Take a leisurely walk over to the Basilica San Miniato Del Monte. It’s about thirty minutes, or more if you factor in stopping for photos. You can walk along the medieval walls on Via di Belvedere, opening up to the Porta San Miniato.  Be prepared for an uphill walk with some stair-climbing as the church is located at one of the highest points in Florence. Monks perform a Gregorian Chant at the church daily at 5:30 PM. You can find more information here. The church itself closes at 7:00 PM.  

Sunset from Piazzale Michaelangelo.

Take the five minute walk down hill to Piazzale Michelangelo for a romantic sunset over the breathtaking city. From this viewpoint the varied colors of the sunset are illuminated by the Florentine skyline consisting of a palette of red tile roofs, yellow and salmon-colored buildings, and the commanding presence of Brunelleschi’s burnt orange dome.

To cap off your day in Oltrarno, take a taxi to Trattoria 4 Leoni for a snack; you can’t go wrong with the pumpkin ravioli.

7 of 10:

Morning Train to Venice

Gondola’s in the Venetian Lagoon. Venice consists of 118 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon.

The historic and still  vibrant city of Venice, famous for gondolas gently floating along winding canals, deserves a spot on your must-visit list. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Italian people fled the mainland in fear of Barbarian invasion. They found refuge in the marshy lagoons mostly occupied by fishermen. With more refugees finding safety in the islands, there was a need for more infrastructure. Therefore, the people created hundreds of canals and packed wooden stakes into the bottom of the lagoon.They  topped the wooden stakes with wooden platforms as the base on which to construct buildings and bridges. Most of the wood for this undertaking was imported by water from Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro. Venice is an engineering marvel, as the sediment consisting of silt and soil was absorbed into the oak or larch wood pilings and the mixture petrified the wood into a stone-like substance.

Walking through the narrow streets, you will be impressed by the marble palazzi (palaces), fine restaurants and cultural sites located within the compact area around the square.   Depending on when you visit, you may be able to witness religious traditions such as the Carnival of Venice which is famous for its elaborate masks. Venice was home to Renaissance artist Titian, Baroque Musician Vivaldi, playwright Galdoni, and original philanderer Casanova. A sultry and sometimes scandalous history makes Venice or La Serenissima (“The Most Serene” Republic of Venice)  truly one of a kind.

From the train station take a vaporetto #1 to St. Mark’s Square and settle into your hotel. Meander through the streets before ending your night with a bellini from Cafe Florian (boasting the oldest cafe in Europe which was the first to allow women in, placing the cafe on the frequent-must-visit list for Casanova) and take in the grandiosity of St. Mark’s Square in the evening. Enjoy the music of the dueling orchestras from Caffè Florian and Ristorante Quadri.

8 of 10

Campanile and St. Mark’s Cathedral.

Start your morning on the top of the Campanile. Take in all the sights of St. Mark’s Square and meander your way to the Rialto Bridge, window shop the many jewelry stores and tourist shops. Over the bridge make your way to Mercato di Rialto selling artisan products and fresh food. Buy some fruit for the day.

Don’t miss a peak at Albert Sarria’s paper-mâché masks.  

Weave your way back over the Rialto Bridge to lunch at the no-frills Rosticceria Gislon (recommended SEPA – calle della bisse, Farini). You can order at the counter or go upstairs for the full-service restaurant. We opted for the counter service to save time.

After lunch, stop at the much-instagrammed Librería Alta Acqua, which was cute but overrun with tourists (myself included) when we visited.

We went to the Museo Correr, but if you have already seen the Vatican and Uffizi Gallery, this is far less exciting and can be skipped in deference to other sights and experiences, or for a more leisurely pace.

After lunch make your way over to St. Mark’s. Spend some time in the church. Do not miss the ornate Pala D’Oro (or golden enamel high altar). 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts.

Doge Palace: With day trippers gone and the locals enjoying the early evening, we enjoyed some respite from overdone tourism.

Top the day off with an evening at Doge Palace (Italian: Palazzo Ducale) its open until 7:00 PM. We had the place almost to ourselves.  

Don’t miss the Bridge of Sighs next door.

Meander through the narrow winding streets of Venice along canals, shops and houses for less than a mile to find a hidden gem of a restaurant: Al Timon.   Al Timon has the occasional tourist venture to this restaurant, and the engaging owner and the staff are very welcoming, but this I am happy to report that this place is quintessentially Venetian. Enjoy a glass of regional wine and/or Italian beer with a small cichetti while waiting for a table. We chose to eat at a table outside, along the canal, next to a small boat permanently docked at the edge of the water for additional seating.

We shared a large platter featuring the house specialty of Italian steak, potato wedges and an array of vegetables. Highly recommended restaurant for a memorable meal.

9of 10

Start your morning off at Museum Accademia.

Colorful streets in Burano

Take a Venetian Lagoon boat tour to the glassblowing island of Murano, stop for lunch at the colorful fisherman’s island of Burano, and step into the Basilica on the island of Torcello.

End your evening back in Venice with panoramic views from the rooftop of the upscale T Fondaco dei Tedeschi mall.

10 of 10 Ciao Bella!

Fly home!

If you are interested in other 10 Day European itineraries check out my posts on Puglia, Italy; Andalusia, Spain; or Greece: Athens, Santorini, Mykonos. If you are interested in exploring the Southern region of Italy, check out my itineraries for the breathtakingly beautiful Matera, iconic Alberobello, relaxed beachside Polignano e Mar, quaint Locorotondo, Lecce, and Martina Franca.

An Ideal 3 Days in San Diego

San Diego, this vibrant coastal city with a laid back vibe allows for any traveler to have a relaxing escape. Don’t be surprised if you hear F18 aircrafts flying overhead because this city has a foundation as a military town. Whether you are a foodie, family of five, or college student on spring break San Diego has something for you. It offers canyons and peaks to hike, beaches to sunbathe or learn to surf at, and is home to many micro breweries to indulge in.  

Torrey Pines.

Friday: Brewery Tours

Enjoying a cold brew in Stone Brewery’s beer garden.

Start your day off with a self-guided brewery tour in Miramar, take an uber because those IPA’s are strong!  Miramar hosts Ballast point, Green Flash, Saint Archer, Ale Smith, 32 North, and the glute-friendly Duck Foot.

Soak up some of the hops with lunch from the hole in the wall, Punjabi Tandor. A personal favorite is chicken tikka masala and the garlic naan.

Entrance of Stone Brewery at night.

In the evening enjoy happy hour and sunset at subscale Vintana in Escondido. Then end your day of breweries with dinner in the lush beer garden at Stone Brewery.

Saturday: Coastal Adventures in chic seaside community of La Jolla

Cafe Caroline in La Jolla Shores.

Start your day off with a low key breakfast at Café Caroline on top of a UCSD Oceanography building in La Jolla Shore. Get a morning coastal hike in at Torrey Pines. La Jolla Cove is known for good kayaking if you would prefer a water sport.

Rocks along the beach at Torrey Pines.

Grab a well earned lunch at Puesto in La Jolla Village. You can’t go wrong with any of the crispy cheese tacos and their rotating seasonal guacamole. Take some time enjoying the sunshine and water in La Jolla Cove.

Make it to a quaint early dinner and/or happy hour at Herringbone La Jolla.

Evening options: Little Italy for gelato or nightlife and a speakeasy if you are into it in the Gaslamp district

Sunday: Coronado and Balboa Park

Brunch at Coronado’s Clayton’s.

Get breakfast at Clayton’s Diner or Leroy’s on Coronado. Despite being called “Coronado Island” this section of San Diego is actually a man-made peninsula, and home to a Naval Base. Walk to Hotel Del Coronado (known locally “Hotel Del”) for some sunbathing.

Drive to Balboa Park and enjoy one of the many cultural exhibits (San Diego Museum of Art, Japanese Tea Garden, Rose Garden, Air and Space Museum, etc.) Get a lunch at Cucina Urbana in Bankers Hill, all of their pizza and pasta is phenomenal. They also host a seasonal 9 course Beast Feast.

Enjoying a walk through Balboa Park with friends.

Enjoy dinner and nightly Mariachi performances in Old Towne. Old Towne is the location of the Mission San Diego de Alcála, by which the city is named after. I recommend Casa Guadalajara, with its vibrant decorations and price conscious happy hour deals.

Mariachi display in Olde Town.

Evening options: the alternative from the night before either Little Italy for gelato or nightlife in the Gaslamp district.

Ten Day Itinerary in Greece: Athens, Santorini, Mykonos

Sunset in Santorini

The awe-inspiring sunsets of Santorini, the history laden strolls through Athens, and the spirited parties on the island of Mykonos make Greece an ideal vacation spot for any type of traveler. With sun-glistening views of the Aegean and 4 millenia worth of history it is no wonder that Greece continues to rank on the top ten bucket list vacations on such sites as Pinterest and Instagram. It can be a romantic getaway for two, a great girls trip, or a history buff’s haven. Greece also offers a child friendly vacation itinerary.

Generally I like to go from big cities with a lot of cultural institutions to progressively smaller cities so when exhaustion sets in from sightseeing, the last few days are reserved for a more relaxed pace. For that reason this itinerary goes from Athens to Santorini to Mykonos. The reason for placing Mykonos last was because of its international airport.

Greek Flag

Athens gets a bad rap. Many travelers suggest that you should get in do your thing and get out. I did exactly that but enjoyed my time. The vibrant city is a testament to the juxtaposition of modern and ancient; the layers of history surround you with every step. In anticipation of the 2004 Olympics, the City of Athens worked to clean up the congested concrete jungle. Post-Olympics,  they have continued to clean up and to pedestrianise many shopping thoroughfares.

A couple of tips:

  1. Plan early and book ahead. By the time we were looking at accomodations, we realized the majority had already been reserved.
  2. Look up the Athens and Epidaurus Festival and see if you can attend an event in the “Odeon of Herodes Atticus.” We researched the festival and ended up traveling to Epidaurus for an ancient Greek play, which was cool to see but I would recommend not taking the day out there and seeing something you would enjoy either way.

Checkout World on a Whim’s blog post on Greece, written by a dear friend and inspiration for starting my blog, for where I got the backbones to this itinerary, before travelling myself!

You may also be interested in adding an additional two days to hike the iconic cliff hanging monasteries in Meteora, Greece.

Day 1 of 10

Nightime views on the Acropolis Museum

Fly into Athens. Housing: I recommend finding something in the Plaka region. We were able to find a great Airbnb apartment, right in the bustle of the city.

We pushed ourselves to go the the Acropolis Museum on Friday night [ Summer hours: 8am-8pm, 10pm on Friday nights, 4pm on Mondays; 5 euros.] Book this ahead of time to ensure that your preferred time slot is not sold out. The Acropolis Museum, built in 2009, is a magnificent testament to modern architecture. It looks like a half-turned concrete and glass illuminated Rubik’s Cube in the Athenian skyline. The best part for me was that it is completely dedicated to the Acropolis and you can dedicate only about an hour and half and be done. I would recommend going to the Museum first so that you know what you are looking at when you visit the Parthenon/Acropolis. As opposed to the National Archeological Museum in which the average traveller will feel the information overload, I appreciated a museum completely dedicated to one site. There is Friday night Jazz in the Acropolis Museum. Bruin on a Budget tip: Rick Steves has a free audio tour of it, a great one-hour walk-through. Try to get there 1-1.5 hours before sunset (it won’t be crowded and there is a nice view of the Acropolis from the Museum.)

While the sunset and nighttime views of the Acropolis are magnificent from the restaurant, the food itself leaves customers wanting more. Instead get a glass of wine, take in the sights and then get a bite to eat in the surrounding neighborhood.

Day 2 of 10

Monastiraki square in Athens. You can try the battle for the best gyro between Savvas and touristy O Thanasis.

We had a quick breakfast of yogurt, muesli, and honey before taking the Free Walking Tour at 10:00 AM (ag. Asomaton 5, Athina 105 53), which we found to be a great foundation to the city. Our tour guide provided the history of many sights such as the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Hadrian’s Library, Theater of Dionysus, Ancient Agora Museum (Bruin on a Budget tip: Rick Steves has a free audio guide to the Ancient Agora Museum), Roman Agora, Kerameikos Cemetery. Our tour guide also spoke about different political movements she took part in as a young thirtysomething University educated Greek woman.

Mask of Agamemnon on display at the National Archeological Museum.
This is believed to be the burial mask of the Mycenean king Agamemmon, leader of the Achaeans the Trojan War.

An optional add on to the day is the National Archeological Museum [summer hours: 8:00 AM-8:00 PM] which is expansive. Santorini/Mykonos/Naxos/ and/or Paros are all apart of the Cycladic Islands, which are known for their ancient skinny figurines in this museum. I generally like to see artwork from the places I am going to bring it all together.

Bruin on a Budget: Rick Steves free audio guide is great to preview the highlights. It also helps narrow down this extensive history into a two hour audio guide to prevent your brain from exploding from the information overload.

Epidaurus Theater

We ended up doing a night trip to the Epidaurus Festival for a play. Although I am glad I did this, a non-history buff may find that the ride was too long for the eventual entertainment. I would see if you can attend a concert or other event in the “Odeon of Herodes Atticus” or the theater actually on the slopes of the Acropolis. Festival dates and ticketing information can be found here. The website itself is not the most user-friendly, but getting to see a concert in an ancient theater is priceless, (please reach out to me if you have any questions.)

Day 3 of 10

Enjoying some afternoon drinks while watching the world go by in Hydra.

Athens day trip to Hydra: if your itinerary can handle it, I would recommend staying overnight. The serenity of this small Sardonic Island of Hydra is a much needed day trip after the hustle and bustle of Athens. As you enter the harbor by ferry you are surrounded by the horseshoe of blanketed whitewashed houses and mansions surrounding the small harbor. There is no wonder this is the favorite day trip from Athens. This traffic-free island is as if time stood still to preserve a simpler way of life. Spend the day eating, sunbathing and lounging around Hydra.

Once off the ferry you will notice the fleet of donkeys with decorative beads on their heads ready to transport you to anywhere you want to go. For better smelling means of transportation, you can always take a water taxi. Or for travellers like myself you can just walk around getting lost on the side streets until you come to a quaint restaurant that is serving scrumptious sousaka.

Tips: I would book my ticket in advance, especially if going on the weekend because this seems to be a popular weekend getaway for the Athenians. Since we wanted to see Santorini and Mykonos, we took the 1.5 hour ferry there and back in one day.

We ended our night back in Athens with a nightcap at the Anglais, a rooftop bar in Monastiraki with views of the Acropolis.

Day 4 of 10

FYI: the Acropolis is the hill and the Parthenon (in the photo) is the temple on top.

Parthenon/Acropolis [8:00AM – 5:00 PM] 20 euro. The line to buy tickets was huge on Saturday morning probably because cruise ships stop on Saturdays in Athens. We saved this until Monday morning  (buy them online or at another site). I would recommend hiring a guide to give you the background on the sights. Bruin on a Budget tip: Again there is a Rick Steves free audio tour (download while you have wifi) which provides lots of information.

Late afternoon flight to Santorini: We flew from Athens to Santorini, as my friend and I had gotten seasick and the thought of remaining in a boat for 8+ hours seemed miserable. Check in to your hotel and relax for a little. We spent three nights in Santorini and each night we tried to get a different island sunset view.

Sunset in Thira, Santorini

The island of Thira (“Santorini”) was made by a volcanic eruption in the Bronze era, and is believed to be the origin of the legend of Atlantis. The cliff clinging whitewashed cave dwellings contrast with the blue domes and reflect the sunset hues of yellow, orange and pink. They create the awe-inspiring aesthetics for which Greece is known. Many photos you take on this island will be postcard-worthy. Santorini reminds me of Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and Mama Mia!, both of which were much of my inspiration for wanting to travel to Greece.

Tip: Reserve your housing ahead of time. We stayed in the main village of Fira, and travelled to Oia when we wanted, but even with 4 months advanced planning we had limited options within our budget. Make sure to make reservations early (even as early as a year) to ensure that you are getting the best deal possible. Be prepared to pay high prices (which are worth it to see this beautiful island.)

On top of the “caldera”

Caldera Sunset Cruise:  Enjoy a beautiful sailboat with stately woodwork. Learn from our mistakes: We did the Volcano and Caldera tour, which allowed us to hike the (still active, eek!) volcano (the caldera) and swim in the springs. The “springs” are more like lukewarm rust-colored water on the coast (I personally found the springs underwhelming). When I envisioned springs I was thinking of the blue lagoon of Iceland. It was interested to have a geological understanding of Santorini, but we did not find that it was worth the trip. Obviously you can decide. The boat ride surpassed the sights on the enjoyment scale.

Day 5 of 10

If you feel up to it hike to Oia. The adventure can take anywhere from three to five hours depending on fitness level, but is well worth it for the tantalizing views of white splashed, blue capped villages cascading down the mountain. Pack a hat, sun protection, and bottle of water because the hike is unshaded.

There is a supermarket and also Lolita’s gelato by the bus stop. Treat yourself to some well deserved ice cream. Spend some time window shopping around the picturesque village of Oia.

The nerd in me cannot resist a browse through a bookstore. If you feel similarly, take a few minutes to check out the cavernous Atlantis Books. Then find a cafe with a good view for an iced coffee or aperol spritz. Photo taken from the Atlantis website.

We continued our walk and ate at Restaurant Katina, which is located down in Oia’s port. There are no donkeys here to take you up and down the stairs, but the view of the cave dwelling luxury hotels are well worth it. This may have been our best meal of the vacation, and was reasonably priced compared to everything up in the city. I like fish, and you are asked to literally pick a fresh fish (head and eyes intact) from the window. (We asked them for help!) Our stomachs full of wine and fish we sauntered all the way back up those stairs. I have also heard good things about Dimitris Ammoudi Taverna, which has a similar ambiance to Katina.

Leave plenty of time to get a good spot for viewing the sunset, as the whole village seems to move to the west side to watch the setting-sun. After sunset, the camera-laden tourists disperse to their different evening plans.

Transportation: If spending the day and evening in Oia, I would recommend double checking the bus schedules and take the second to last bus back to Fira. They sometimes leave early and you don’t want to get stranded. The public bus is actually a coach and they fill it beyond capacity, with passengers are standing in the aisles. It was a not-so-enjoyable ride while being one of the people standing in the aisle, but it was definitely memorable! Taxicabs can cost up to 100 euros.

Day 6 of 10

Rent a car and hit up all the towns and beaches. The rental company dropped the car off at the hotel in the morning, and then we dropped it off at the port the next morning (before our ferry to Mykonos.) Unlike in the United States, this rental car came nearly empty and one of the first things we needed to do was fill up on gas. The rugged, windswept island terrain is interesting to see and compare to the touristy and whitewashed villages of Oia and Fira. Here is where we went:

  • First stop: Vathonas (every building is cut into the mountain) Literally just parked for 5 minutes to look at the town then went on to  →
  • Pyrgos. We walked up to the monastery at the top of the hill for a good view of the island. We went to Kantouni Cafe for coffee and snacks and some people watching. Seemed to cater mostly to locals. →
  • The nerd in me wanted to see the ancient town of Akrotiri, similar to Pompeii (but on a smaller scale). This town went under ash when the Theran Volcano erupted (and yes that is the active volcano that created Santorini!) I recommend waiting for a guided tour; its $100 but they wait for ten people so it’s 10 each. You can have your hotel call and ask when the guided tours are scheduled. There is free parking across the street, which we utilized to walk to lunch and Red Beach→
Red Beach (named after the red rocks behind it.)
  • We walked to lunch at Dolphins Fish Tavern down the road and from there walked to Red Beach  →
  • Afterwards, we drove to Kamari Beach which was our favorite and where we relaxed and unwound for a while. It is a black sand beach and the most beautiful one we found →
This placed this in third place in our rankings of the sunset, (Oia #1, Fira #2 and the lighthouse #3) but still worth the drive.
  • After a few hours of soaking up the sunshine and the Aegean sea, we stopped for sunset at the lighthouse (which is more or less inaccessible without a car.)

Day 7 of 10

Take the ferry to Mykonos:

View from our BnB in Mykonos!

Check into your hotel and get acclimated to Mykonos. Walk around Old Town, Windmills (the sunset is beautiful here, too). We loved high-end window shopping at night and then checking out all the galleries. Most of the artists and gallery workers were friendly and happy to show us around and talk about their art work. Our favorite was the three story Dio Horio: they do art residencies for newer or lesser known contemporary artists. They also have a rooftop bar which is a great spot to enjoy a drink. All of the galleries close for “siesta” but reopen and remain open until midnight or after.

Mr. Brainwash on display at Kapopoulos Fine Arts hall. This summer was the first ever Mykonos Arts Festival, which showcases art from around the country. The tourism board is hoping that Mykonos will become a cultural center in addition to a party hub.

We loved and had our best (and longest) meal at Kounelas Fish Tavern. To order your fish meal: you have to go to the kitchen and they literally have fresh fish (head and eyes intact) in 6 metal drawers which they display. I consider myself a fish lover but was taken aback having to decide which one to order; obviously we asked for help! If the food had not been so delicious, I would have nightmares of fish in all my shelves at home.

Day 8 of 10

We rented an ATV and drove over to the beaches. Our first stop was on the West Coast to Agio Ioannis (secluded beach) for lunch. You can use this nice lunch restaurant as your home base if you want to go in the water; otherwise the umbrella and chairs are 40 euros). We drove through Kapari which was super-secluded, just around the corner from Ioannis, then back to Ornos beach which seemed family-friendly and quieter.

Turning around was a lot harder than it looks.

Funny story: while driving the said ATV my friend and I got stuck on a hill. Like the kind friend I am, I told her to get off that she was too much weight. The ATV was still stalling in the middle of a giant hill…So, both of us had to get off and push the ATV up the hill. All of this was while still pressing on the gas button and keeping the steering wheel straight…we must have been quite a scene to look at! Schlepping up that hill was not exactly the hair flowing, ATV driving Mama Mia! moment I had envisioned as I planned my trip to Greece!

Then we drove over to Psarou which was densely developed with ritzy shopping and nice public bathrooms at the beach side “mall.” We parked near the top of the hill because we were worried that our ATV wouldn’t make it back up (we saw a smart car get stuck, eek!) There were lines of parked luxury cars to impress. We found this beautiful, sandy beach to be the best for people-watching.

The path for “hiking.” As you can see hiking attire unneccessary.

From Psarou there is a beachside path for hiking between all the beaches and you can compare and contrast. You can obviously stop along the way to grab a drink or relax on the beach. The hike was a highlight of our trip. There is also a bus that you can take back if you get too tired. On your way back the rocky area by the campground between Parada and Paradise is a great spot for seeing the sunset.  

  • We went to Psarou, which seemed to be the most chic; it had the most high-end restaurants and shopping→
  • Platis gialos: This is an incredibly clean beach. The vibe was more of a relaxing beach day instead of a seaside party. This beach also was family friendly. The beds were more affordable at 2 for 20 euros. Really nice restaurants. The beach itself is the attraction.→
  • Agia Anna: This beach was very low key. Good for a more secluded, romantic couples beach day→
  • Parada Beach: The two clubs on this beach had unexpected surprises: one had a large pool party and the other had a sax player standing on the bar itself and festive champagne bottles with sparklers. The sand of the beach itself seemed grittier and the party was the attraction here.→
  • Kalamopodi or ”Paradise”: The crowd seemed a little younger than the last few. Reminded me a bit of a college party. When we were there people were dressed for theme days (togas and spartan outfits). The attraction is singing, dancing and mingling at the club.→
  • Plintri or “Super paradise”: We never made it here, but we were told that it provided the largest party.

Day 9 of 10

Relax and walk around Old Town which is small and walkable. Enjoy a pastry from Psillos, an unmarked, no frills family-run bakery or from Il Forno, a bakery with seating and ambiance.

Terrace of the Lions in Delos. This Pagan religious Mecca is believed to be where Apollo and Artemis were born.

Mykonos Excursion to Delos: Half day boat trip to uninhabited Delos. There are day trips twice daily, from a small kiosk at the old port of Mykonos. If the weather is foreboding the trip will be cancelled. The original excavations were done by the French School of Athens and therefore the museum offers Greek and French tags for all the items.

Make sure to make it back in time for sunset in “Little Venice”.

Other restaurants: we went to Pasta Fresca, just for a little change of pace from Greek food. It was intimate and had a buzz, but can’t compare to a Fish Taverna with Greek authenticity.

Sakis is the most popular gyro spot, and seems to be most popular with the late night crowd.

Day 10 of 10

Goodbye Mykonos!
Cheers to a wonderful vacation!

Mykonos has an international airport (although there were lots of delays…) You can either connect in Athens or fly out to another airport.

You may also be interested in adding an additional two days to hike the iconic cliff hanging monasteries in Meteora, Greece.

If you are interested in other 10 Day European itineraries check out my posts on Italy: Rome, Florence and Venice; Puglia, Italy; or Andalusia, Spain.

The ultimate long weekend in Mexico City: 3 day itinerary

Ballet Folklorico de Mexico in the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Mexico City has been on the top of my ‘must see’ list ever since watching the opening scene of the movie Spectre, showing James Bond chasing a villain in the ‘Zocola’ (City Center) during a colorful Day of the Dead festival. I absolutely loved Mexico City! It is the perfect long weekend trip because you can see diverse cultural attractions ranging from Mayan Ruins, Colonial-era Spanish Cathedrals, and Diego Rivera murals all within a few blocks of each other (and all free). The city has a vibrant food scene ranging from street food to upscale dining, with everything in between. With the favorable peso to dollar conversion rate, a long weekend away will not break the bank. Obviously, in a major metropolitan city there is always more to see, but in a long weekend you can check off a lot of major sites while having a good time.

A GIF from the beginning of the Spectre Movie.

This often overlooked cosmopolitan city dates back to 1325 when it was known as “Tenochititlan,” the cultural and political capital of the Aztec empire. Later conquered by the Spaniards in the 1500’s, the layers of historical and cultural influence are interspersed into the now modern city. Mexico City or locally known “DF” and “CDMX” (short for the Spanish Districto Federal and Ciudad de Mexico, respectively) has the second largest number of museums outside of Paris and a majority are free.The city is known for murals from Diego Rivera to a large street-art scene and a lively nightlife for any type of traveller. Although public transportation is an option, Uber is abundant and none of my rides cost more than $4.50 (roughly around 88 pesos).

Street Art in Mexico City

Hotels and flights: I would recommend staying in either Condesa, Roma Norte, or Polanco.  All have great food and exciting nightlife. We opted for an airbnb in Condesa. You can research accommodations through various sites such as hotels.com, bookings.com, and airbnb. I checked flights for Mexico City for a while and was able to get an Aeromexico flight for $260 round trip from NYC over a long weekend. I arrived on Thursday night after work, so I got the full day of Friday to explore. Before going I watched the movie, Frida, a biography of the artist, Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek which gave an interesting perspective on her life (1907-1954) and the central role she and Diego Rivera played in the the Mexican artistic and political scene.

Day 1:

We stayed in Condesa and went to the restaurant Lardo for breakfast. They have wonderful breakfast options and huge windows overlooking the street. If you are staying in Roma Norte I would recommend trying out one of the three: Huset, Panaderia Rosetta, or Blanco Colima for breakfast. All have great food and equally appealing ambience.

Take the morning and early afternoon to walk around the the center. Make sure that you see the major sites in the Plaza de la Constitución, colloquially known as the “Zócalo.” The massive square hosts Templo Mayor, a 13th century Aztec temple and both the Spanish Cathedral and Basilica. Construction on the Cathedral commenced in the 1500’s and wasn’t completed until the 19th century. The Templo Mayor was destroyed and buried, but centuries later the buried remains of the Temple were discovered by electrical workers and, over time, excavated and restored.

If you need a coffee break, walk over the the beautiful Gran Hotel Cuidad de Mexico for a coffee or a drink at the rooftop bar. The hotel features an ornate interior of wrought iron elevators, tiffany glass ceilings, and birds chirping in the entrance.

Make sure to make it to the Palacio Nacional, which showcases murals by Diego Rivera. The entrance is on Calle Moneda and if  you continue walking away from the Zócalo for a few blocks you will be bombarded with numerous vendors with low cost trinkettes, street carts with food and street artwork.

Some of Diego Rivera’s work in the National Palace

Make your way back to Avenida Hidalgo to Cafe de Tacuba, where you can enjoy a leisurely lunch. It has beautiful tile-work and  is the location of one of Diego Rivera’s weddings. After lunch walk the last few blocks to Palacio de Bellas Artes to purchase tickets for Sunday. Don’t miss the Diego Rivera murals called “Man Controller of the Universe” and “Carnaval de la Vida Mexicana.” If you’re up for it, you can elect to the go to the top of Torre Latinoamericana for views of the cityscape.

Palacio Bellas Artes

In addition to Cafe Tacuba, there are a few different places in the city center that I would recommend, all within a few blocks of each other: Azul Historico (probably the most fancy of the recommendations), Hosteria Santo Domingo, and limosneros, which is located in a converted convent.


Mariachi tip: I would skip tired and seedy Garibaldi Square and opt to hear Mariachi performers at either the unassuming Cantina La Guadalupana after a trip to Frida Kahlo’s Museum or while riding a trajineras in Xochimilco (see Sunday’s itinerary for more details.)  

After lunch, that an Uber to the Chapultepec park which has both the Chapultepec Castle and the National Museum of Anthropology. I would recommend double checking the open hours for the museum, because we arrived at 5 thinking it closed at 7pm (listed on Google) and they were closing. The museum will give you better context to the day trip to Teotihuacan on Day 2.

Inside Chapultepec park are street performers called Danza de los Voladores (translated to “Dance of the Flyers”), in which four or five colorfully dressed dancers fly around a 30 foot pole while attached to it with a rope.

End the night with an amazing meal at Contramar in Condesa.

Day 2:

Spending the day out in the Ruins of Teotihuacan. Bring layers and sun protection because the temperature is cold in the morning and warms up by midday and there isn’t much shade.

Take a half-day trip to the ruins of Teotihuacan, an hour outside of Mexico City. (Try to say that name ten times fast). Our tour guide, Tomas Alberto Ortega Corona (Teotihuacan al extremo), is actually an archaeologist who grew up in the town of Teotihuacan. He gave an extensive history of the site (which I knew nothing about) and even provided home videos of excavations he had been on. Bruin on a Budget tip: Take an Uber to the bus station and then take the public bus to the site, instead of hiring an all inclusive bus trip. Our tour was 120 pesos total (which is roughly 6 dollars.)

When we got back to the city, we rested and then spent the rest of the day and into the evening window shopping, dining and mezcal-tasting around Roma Norte.

Day 3:

A dancer in the Ballet Folklorica

On Sunday we elected to go to the 9:30 AM Ballet Folklorica in the beautiful Palacio de Artes.  It was a great start to the day; the traditional costumes and dances provide a history of the culture of Mexico. The music and dancing is contagious. Don’t forget to take note of the Tiffany curtains and the Diego Rivera murals.

Gondola like “trajineras” in Xochimilco

In the morning enjoy a tour of Xochimilco. At one point in time this was a unique city outside of CDMX, and it still has a suburban feel. During the Pre-Hispanic period, this was the location of Lake Xochimilco. What remains is a canal system and man-made island farms called “chinampas” or floating gardens. Visitors in colorful boats called “trajineras” while a mariachi band serenades you and lunch is served. These boats can fit up to 20 people and often carry groups celebrating a birthday, anniversary, or some other festive gathering.

Self Portrait by Frida Khalo on displayin Casa Azul.

We then took a car to Frida Kahlo’s Museum or “Casa Azul” in the southern neighborhood of Coyoacán. I would recommend reserving timed tickets from boletosfridakahlo, because there is always a long line. Coyoacán has an identity of its own and I would recommend shopping at the Mercado de Coyoacán, a classic public market; grabbing a coffee from Cafe el Jarocho, and enjoying a mariachi band over an dinner at the lively and unpretentious Cantina La Guadalupana.

Fly home either Sunday evening or Monday morning

The ultimate long weekend in Barcelona: 3 day itinerary

Parc Guell

Barcelona, this vibrant coastal city buzzing with life, has long been one of my favorite cities in the world. The Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí, modernized the city with colorful and eccentric buildings such as Casa Batllo, La Pedrera, and the Sagrada Familia church that add to the enjoyment of Barcelona make it more memorable. This unique city offers much on the arts, food, beach, and nightlife scene. It has something to satisfy every type of traveller.

Barcelona, the Catalan capital was originally founded by the Romans as a walled colony named “Barcino”, and some of the ancient walls are still visible in the city center. The narrow medieval maze of the Gothic Quarter (Catalan: Barri Gòtic – Spanish: Barrio Gótico) bears witness to the economic boom of the Middle Ages, when Barcelona was the political and economic center of the Western Mediterranean. The Gothic Quarter makes way to the bohemian El Born neighborhood which was created as an expansion of the walled city in the 1500’s. These historic sites are meant to be explored on foot.  

Barcelona was in the forefront of the artistic movement of the 20th century, following an economic and cultural expansion during the textile industry in the 1800’s. Notably, in 1862, Hans Christian Andersen remarked that Barcelona was the “Paris of Spain”. It is no wonder that many members of the nomadic “Lost Generation” were frequent visitors to Barcelona for literary inspiration as well as binge drinking. The Barcelona waterfront area bubbles with life offering a spot for sunbathers, a strip of nightclubs for night owls, and a beautiful stroll to be explored on foot or bicycle. Enjoy a café  con leche or signature churros con chocolate in one of the numerous cafes. Many of the cafes are called “granjas” and one can image Picasso, Dali and Hemingway creating the artistic vitality that Barcelona is still known for today. The passionate Spanish are stereotypically known for their love of the 5 F’s: food, family, fútbol and fiesta, and I can jump on board with that.

I would recommend reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which is set in Barcelona around the end of the Spanish Civil War. I would also recommend watching Vicky, Cristina Barcelona starring Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, and Penélope Cruz, which also has its setting in Barcelona.

Accomodation and transportation: I have generally been able to find flights from NYC for $400 round trip. I would opt to stay in El Born, the Gothic Quarter, or stay in larger Eixample neighborhoods. Much of Barcelona’s city center is meant to be walked and staying in one of these neighborhoods will ensure that you are able to walk down the winding alleyways, or saunter through some of the numerous palm-tree-lined squares. The subway system is extensive and easy to use, and you can get multi-trip passes (I would recommend the T10 for ten trips).

Timing: The weather is best from April until October, and I personally prefer travelling on the “shoulder” seasons, meaning September/October or May/June, to avoid the crowds. I would also recommend going to the festival of La Mercè, which is held at the end of September. Check out World on the Whim’s blog post about La Mercè. Another fun festival is the Festas de Gràcia, which is held in August, where each street of this lively neighbourhood is completely transformed based on a different theme.

Bruin on a Budget: Bring a student or teacher ID and see if it works for discounted prices. At some locations you must be from the EU, but others accept any form of ID.

Warning: When walking on Las Ramblas, be on alert for pickpocketing. For men, I would recommend putting your wallet in your front pocket, and for women I suggest carrying a purse zipped and in front of you.

Without further adieu here is my 3 day itinerary for Barcelona:

Day 1:

Start at Plaça Catalunya. Walk south down the pedestrian boulevard, Las Ramblas, which runs from the city center to the port, and is bustling with life. It is lined with street performers, flower stalls, and pushcart vendors offering various trinkettes. Along the walk you will see the Font de Canaletes, a famous wrought-iron fountain, which, legend says, if you drink from it you are destined to return to the city. This is the fountain Barça supporters go to for celebrating championship titles. Continue on Las Ramblas to breakfast at Pinotxo Bar in La Boqueria (full name is “El Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria”) an open-air market. I like to stock up on fruit from the market for later consumption.

Dancers still raise their arms to dance the Barcelona traditional dance, the Sardana, in front of the Cathedral on weekends (Saturdays at 6 pm and Sundays at noon).

Spend a leisurely morning strolling down Las Ramblas and into the Gothic Quarter. Take time to visit the Cathedral, Plaza Real, and the Palace of Music. The Gothic Quarter has storefronts with wares that overflow into the street. The same neighborhood can seem dark and moody, but still safe, in the evening, reminding a tourist of its Medieval history.

Take a break at Caelum (Carrer de la Palla, 8), a former women’s bathhouse now converted to a tea parlor. If you want something sweeter, you will have to try churros con chocolate, a Spanish donut served with dipping chocolate, and a Barcelona favorite! I love Granja M Viader, a cafe located off Las Ramblas in the Raval neighborhood. This stately restaurant, which has been running since 1870 and has been passed down for five generations, serves breakfast, lunch and dessert. You may also want to take a walk down Carrer de Petritxol, a quaint street in the Gothic Quarter, which has many pastry shops to choose from, and La Pallaresa is another favorite bakery for churros y chocolate.

In the afternoon take a trip to the Picasso Museum (if you are a fan). It is located in the Born neighborhood. I would recommend making reservations online to avoid a long wait. Additionally, you may want to pack some snacks and visit the Parc de la Ciutadella (Citadel Park.) Park Ciutadella, a magnificent park for picnicking. After, you can walk up to the Arco de Triunfo (Arc de Triomf).

After all this you may want to plan for a well-deserved siesta.

For Saturday evening, head out for a sunset drink on the Catalan Art Museum’s terrace.  The museum is free on Saturdays after 3:00 PM, and entrance to the terrace is 2 euros. Don’t miss the “Magic Fountain,” a light show beginning every half hour starting at 9:30 PM, on Thursday through Sunday, from May to October. The Spanish do not eat dinner until 9:00 PM so head over to the Gothic Quarter, Born, or Gràcia neighborhoods for dinner.

If you are interested in the clubbing scene: Barcelona has numerous popular places and among the favorites are: Razzmatazz, Pacha, La Terrazza, ShÔko, and Opium. They name their nightclubs as randomly as celebrities name their children.


Day 2: The Modernist Day

Start your day off at Gaudí’s Parc Güell, with its much photographed and instagrammed mosaic benches and salamander stairway. The €7 entrance fee for the park also includes access to the museum. There is superb vantage point of the city (I believe it may actually be a cross).

The ornate exterior artitecture of Casa Batlló.

From Parc Guell take a winding 1.6 mile walk (or taxi ride) through the Gràcia neighborhood to Casa Milà or La Padrera (“stone quarry”). En route, stop to view the exterior of Casa Vicens and Casa de les Punxes. When visiting the interior of Casa Milà, take note of the ornate roof.  From there, it is a 5 minute walk to a block of Gaudí houses: Casa Batlló, Casa Morera, or Casa Amatller. From early June through mid-September you can listen to jazz on the rooftop of La Pedrera.Find the information here.

Stop for lunch in the Gràcia or Eixample neighborhoods. A personal favorite is Napa, a Catalan restaurant with great service and reasonable prices.

Take a taxi or metro to Gaudí’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia Church.

Evening: enjoy a leisurely paella meal or go tapas-tasting around a few different restaurants.

Day 3:

An interesting look-out stop is the “W” hotel, so bike up to the right side of the hotel and enjoy the awesome water view.

For fun and exercise other than walking, rent a bicycle for two hours. Rental bikes are available at Passeig de Joan de Borbó, down by the Barceloneta metro stop. (Directions: From the metro station, cross the busy street towards the water and continue for about 10 minutes down the street to the rental place. The location is well-situated for a beautiful bike ride along the water to see the port.

Rub elbows with locals at Can Paixano. This place is usually standing room only, so if you don’t like crowds, don’t go here.

You may want to mix in with the locals at a hole in the wall called Can Paixano (Calle de la reina Cristina, 7). You can order a bottle to split between you and a friend and it comes with two tapas. Roset (or pink champagne) is my favorite, along with the croquetas, fried cheese or ham.

From Barceloneta you can take the scenic funicular to Monjuic and spend the day roaming around the Olympic stadium, museum, and castle.

If you want to get out of the city you can take a day trip to the mountaintop monastery of Montserrat or the coastal town of Sitges. Both are great half-day trips, if you have the time. Montserrat has a boys’ choir who perform everyday but Saturday, so try going on a Friday or Sunday to hear them. Montserrat is serene and peaceful and has a farmers market with fresh local produce. Hiking to Montserrat is a full day trip, you can walk from Monistrol de Montserrat (a town below the mountain) up to the monastery and then up to the top of the mountain, at about 1237m above sea level.

Cafes:

Enjoying hot cocoa and churros (the hot cocoa here is like a melted dark chocolate bar so you need something to balance it off.)

Basically every café can be fun and the people-watching can be interesting for visitors to Barcelona. You must at least try café con leche (even if you don’t like coffee) and hot cocoa and churros. You also need to try goffrees (fried waffle-type things with ice cream on top).  Here are a couple of suggestions for cafes:

Outside of Granja M Viader

Café de l’Òpera: This cafe, known for its old world charm, is probably the most famous cafe in Barcelona. It is located on La Ramblas, on the left side of the street if you are walking from Plaça Catalunya towards the water. I highly recommend a visit.

Café Zurich: This cafe has a great location at the corner of Las Ramblas and Plaça Catalunya, with outdoor seating. A must-visit place during good weather, as it is perfect for people watching and for taking in the street scenes. Good for coffee and a snack, not the best place for connoisseurs of fine food.