In Bruges

Ah, Bruges. The charming medieval Belgian town made famous in the 2008 thriller is an all-too excellent day trip when traveling from Paris to Amsterdam, say, as I was in the summer of 2016. Beers, belltowers and the richest chocolate imaginable – I dare you to tell me a truer definition of heaven.

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While simply walking around this gorgeous town can easily fill a day, there are some spots not to be missed as you venture around.

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First up: the Belfry of Bruges. The top of the belfry is an epic, key setting in the movie, but for those who haven’t seen the film it’s still worth walking the 366 steps for the most spectacular views of the town.

After your climb, you’ll likely have worked up quite the appetite for lunch.

The restaurants lining the Main Square near the Belfry are all rather touristy and expensive, so I’d recommend taking a stroll down one of the charming side streets to find equally (if not more) delicious, budget-friendlier options. Brasserie Medard is famous for its 4 Euro large, tasty plates of pasta and charming Italian atmosphere. The Olive Tree offers affordable Mediterranean fare, and both restaurants are totally cozy and homey. And not to worry: there will be plenty of places to get your Belgian frite fix around the square if that’s all you’re craving. Any restaurant will offer local beers, which are a must-try. Bruges now has three breweries: Bourgogne des Flandres, De Halve Maan, and Fort Ladin, all of which offer tours.

For desert, pop into one of the numerous local chocolatiers for chocolate-shaped anything. My factories were the locks and tools that looked “rusted” with chocolate powder. This chocolate was insane. Rich, but somehow I ate multiple *large* pieces and didn’t feel sick. Alright, Belgium, I get it. You win.

Now, markets. Wednesdays bring the Main Square market, full of fresh fruit and flowers and absolute loveliness. On Sundays, Zand Square hosts another outdoor market with similar products, including fresh fish. Rent a bike and ride around the cobblestone streets, and make sure to bring home some delicate Belgian lace to remember this slice of heaven.

 

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When in Dublin: An Ancient Fishing Village and Game of Thrones Tour

I loved Dublin. Between Trinity College, St. Stephen’s Green, and stumbling upon Irish dancing in an old church-turned restaurant, the city was full of heritage and life. That said, we know I also love me a quality day trip, and Dublin offers some of the best day trip options around. First stop: Howth.

Howth (Pronounced “Hoat” by the locals) comes from the Norse word for “Head.” It was settled (invaded, settled, you say poayto, I say potahto) by the Vikings circa the year 819. Again, I’m floored by the fact that things were happening in the year 819. America is so young you guys. Now, the fishing village is technically a suburb of Dublin, though far more charming than the cul-de-sacs and minivans the word brings to mind. Howth is full of fishing boats, Irishfolk swimming despite the near-freezing waters, and fresh seafood. Like, boat-to-plate fresh fish.

Howth is a perfect walking village, and we mostly hung around by the fishing docks watching the boats come in and marveling at the swimmers. We opted for Beshoff’s fish and chips, a Dublin area classic, for lunch, though there are definitely some fancier, delicious looking seafood restaurants. My recommendation: find your fish lunch of choice, take your time eating it, then go for a walk around the village and the docks. If you’re from a desert or other sea-less place like me, just watching the boats do their thing was plenty charming and entertaining.

Howth can easily be combined with Malachide or Dun Loaghaire. We stopped by the Malachide Castle on our way back into the city, former home of the Talbot family and nestled amid a lovely garden. Well worth the visit.

Yes, I am a Game of Thrones fanatic, and yes, much of the show is filmed in Ireland. A tour of the filming locations, complete with complimentary cloaks and daggers, was a necessity for this Dublin trip.

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This day-long adventure takes fans through Tollymore Forest, where many of the scenes in the North and Beyond the Wall were shot. Castle Ward Estate, aka Winterfell (combined with a whole lot of CGI, as it happens), is next on the tour after a pub lunch. The waterside area around the castle dubbed as the Riverlands in the show as well. TV magic! We also toured Inch Abbey, the ruins of a cathedral where Robb was declared King In the North. #tbt.

A highlight of the tour by far was meeting Thor and Odin, two wolf dogs that made their TV debut as the Starks’ direwolf pups. I love dogs, and I especially love big dogs, and if I didn’t live in an apartment in New York City I’d rescue the biggest dog I could find. So these fluffy, majestic boofers were a dream to pet in real life. Plus, their owner, who’s also a wildling on the show, was super nice. His brother played Ramsay Bolton’s main guard when that was a thing, and their father was a Dothraki in Season One. Basically HBO walked in and changed this Irish fisherman’s family’s life forever, all thanks to the fact that they happened to own a litter of wolf dog puppies. TV magic.

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There were still plenty of places we didn’t get to explore around Dublin, since we only had three full days there. All inspiration for the next trip.

The Venice of the North

Amsterdam smells like bread in the evenings. When you’re biking along the canals and cobblestone roads at the end of the day, the smell of rising flour and spelt on the wind is the perfect inspiration for a warm Dutch dinner. Amsterdam’s skies are woven with thin buttery light, the exact light captured in so many 17th century paintings that seeps through the clouds and dances over the water. It is a city that stays with you long past your visit.

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“Winter Landscape with Iceskaters” by Adriaan van Ostade

The Dutch have a word, gezelligheid, which roughly translates to mean the warm, cozy feeling one has sharing a bliss with other people. This word perfectly sums up how Amsterdam in the summer (I spent time there two separate summers, so yes, I might be a bit biased having never experiened a Dutch winter) felt to me. While I wish I could bottle the bread scent and feeling of gezelligheid into a delicious perfume and give it to you, I cannot. The best I can do is insist that you must visit this magic city at some point, and offer these recommendations.

My first summer in Amsterdam was for a study abroad program, so I ended up buying (and then selling back) a cheap used bike. If you are able, I 1000% recommend biking your way through the city and its outskirts. This might mean brushing up on your cycling skills before hand so you can keep up with traffic, but it is absolutely a worthwhile endeavor to properly experience Amsterdam as it is intended.

Nights are long during the summer, with the sun setting around 10:30pm, which means there’s plenty of time to explore. You can spend four days and really get a sense of things in the summer, though Amsterdam is one of the places where more time than necessary won’t leave you bored.

Amsterdam famous for its canals, giving it the nickname the Venice of the North. A canal tour is definitely worth your time; especially a sunset one that’ll lead you around the lit-up nighttime bridges. Canal tours are a great way to hear about Amsterdam’s history while taking in its stunning architecture. These tours range in price and amenities – full dinner tours or wine and cheese tours exists for a romantic option, as do headset-operated ones for a practical group experience.

My favorite neighborhood in the ‘Dam is the Jordaan, a hub of cafes and boutiques including the Nine Streets shopping district. Here you can find pricier local options as well as some of the most incredible thrift stores known to man. There are some incredible specialty shops as well, from home goods to eyeglasses to books. If you can snag an Air B-n-B in your budget here, definitely take advantage of staying in the Jordaan. A few hostels in the area, such as the Shelter Jordan, are extra budget-friendly and offer access to the best of the area: close enough to the tourist attractions without being on top of them, and nestled in the coziest streets imaginable.The one issue with biking everywhere is that I wasn’t able to stop and take photos as often as I would have liked (which would have been once a minute, practically) so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Amsterdam’s Museumplein houses the famed Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, and Stedelijk museum of modern art, among others. There are so many museums in Amsterdam that the choice (not to mention the length of the lines outside) can feel overwhelming. Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh are a must in my book, and it’s well worth getting tickets for Van Gogh ahead of time. Also definitely get Anne Frank haus tickets ahead of time; the wait for ticketed patrons can still take up to two hours. Bring a good book or some Heinekens to sip while you wait.

 

During my second trip to Amsterdam there was a Bansky pop-up museum on the plein, so keep your eyes and ears out for the temporary exhibitions as well.

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Now, parks. Amsterdam has some of the most beautiful parks in Europe which are, of course, very bike-able. Vondelpark is right next to the Museumplein and a great place to rest after you’ve ingested the Dutch masters. Westerpark is, as you might imagine, to the west of city and has a beautiful flea market on Saturdays. Westerpark is also slightly less populated than Vondelpark, and both park house some great restaurant options in the middle of the lush vegetation. For an escape within your Amsterdam escape, cozy in to Pacific Park or Mossel & Gin for the evening.

 

Speaking of food, there are some Dutch classics you can’t leave without tasting. First and foremost, Stroopwafels. These caramelly waffle cookies fit perfectly atop your morning cup of coffee and tea so that the steam melts their caramel core, both sweetening your drink and making the cookie the best snack you’ve ever tasted. I ate about a pack of these a week.

Next on the breakfast front: Dutch pancakes. A mix between an American pancake and a crepe, these huge thin spheres come in savory and sweet flavors and can be found all over the city. A tourist favorite is the Pancake Bakery on Prinsengracht, or Pancakes Amsterdam, which has a few locations.

 

Along with the cheese in Amsterdam – old Dutch cheddar will change your life – pick up some bitterballen with a pint or two at your local bar. Potatoes, beef, and cheese make up these croquette-esque snacks that are super dipped in Dijon mustard.

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Image credit: Stuff Dutch People Like

The Dutch also have excellent coffee. I’d recommend spending every morning at a canal-side cafe with a coffee and stroopwafel before embarking (dare I say em-bike-ing?) on the day’s explorations. Finish your evening in a neighborhood bar or restaurant, listening to the locals speak this musical language and wondering when you can move in.

Whisky Stramashing Through Edinburgh

The end of May and beginning of June of 2015 found me in Scotland’s most charming (and most touristy) city. Edinburgh is made up of the Old Town and the New Town, and I can tell you right now the Old Town is where the magic happens. I had a week to make the city my own, but here are the highlights you can do in just a couple of days.

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First of all, the Edinburgh Castle is a force of a medieval structure that has presided over the city since 850 BC. Paying for the castle tour is well worth it, especially for the VIEWS. As someone who’s grown up in a 200-year old country, anything that was built before the AD years really gets my goat. To top that off, the castle was built on a 700 MILLION year old extinct volcano. The earth is a crazy place.

 

And speaking of views, the only point in Edinburgh perhaps more popular than the castle is St. Arthur’s Seat. The hike to the summit is beautiful and green (wear proper shoes though, it’s no joke) and the top delivers sweeping views of both the city and the North Sea. My companions and I did the hike just before sunset, which meant that our descent was just in time for a proper whisky stramash.

 

Stramash is my favorite word thanks to the Scots, which can mean either a racous uproar, or a whisky tasting. I imagine stramashes often lead to stramashes. We tasted (and straight up drank) plenty of Scotch whisky over that week, and my favorites were the Highland varieties (“women’s Scotch,” one bartender told me. Yeah yeah yeah, I reject your stereotypes but at the same am accept that I fall into them).

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Next up on the Scottish alcohol tour: The Jolly Botanist gin bar. Ignorant American that I am, I associated gin with England and not at all with Scotland, but Scottish gin was delicious (and cheap!) I especially loved elderflower gin, and should have brought a whole bottle back but unfortunately they didn’t make carry-on sizes of the flavored varieties. Sometimes, sometimes only bringing carryons can come back to bite you. Never fear, though, plenty of mini bottles of Highland Scotch and un-elderflower gin did make it back.IMG_1889An important thing to note about Edinburgh: restaurants close at around nine pm or so, make sure you eat accordingly. (Bars and pubs will stay open later, but late night food is not readily available outside of Tesco.) This can be especially confusing in the summer, since the sun goes down so late. My internal clock always wanted fish and chips at 10:30 pm, alas.

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Thankfully, there are always the funky UK candy options when you’ve missed kitchen final calls.

Edinburgh old town makes for some incredible walking. Streets curve, they’ve got banners, their tops are multicolored. And for Harry Potter fans (ahem, moi), the city is full of fandom gold mines. There’s the Elephant House, where JK Rowling allegedly wrote the first book (it turns out this is one of the cafes where she wrote; the real original doesn’t exist anymore so Elephant House gets to claim the title. It was definitely exciting enough for me to feel the magic when I wrote there.

Around the corner from Elephant House is Greyfriar’s Bobby and the adjoining cemetery where JK filched (see what I did there) a lot of the names of her characters. You’ll find McGonigal and Tom Riddle himself buried in these grounds.

Although I missed this, I’ve heard that haunted tours are Edinburgh are also pretty cool. I’d love to hear if any of you have checked those out! I spent most of my free time exploring whatever I could about the city, inlcuding accidentally making it out to the suburbs. UK suburbs are forever more charming than US ones, though, so it was all groovy.

Relaxing Through Madrid

So, back to Spain. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten to chronicle our last few days in the glorious land of papas bravas and sangria.

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Thankfully I had an extra dress in my bag to serve as a Parque pillow.

After getting back from Segovia, we decided to finally tackle El Parque Retiro, the Jardin Botanico, and have lunch at Sobrino de Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world. Sadly, Goya is no longer a server there (or alive), but he was once, and that was exciting enough for me.

Let’s start with Botin, because starting with food is always a good way to go. When visiting Madrid, go to Botin, and when going to Botin, get a reservation. We were the first people there as they opened for lunch, and we still barely snuck into a table. Also, it’s tough to do a light or cheap lunch, so I’d recommend going IN for this meal. You’re in the oldest running restaurant in the world – you deserve it!

First of all, we shared a carafe of sangria because we’re not idiots, and it was hands down the best sangria I’ve ever tasted. Not too sweet, with the perfect amount of citrus, and refreshingly chilled. I asked what the secret recipe was, but that was a long shot. I remain in the dark about what made it so special but am okay with it, because it entered my body and that’s what matters.

Doug had some gazpacho which was – you guessed it – the best gazpacho either of us had tasted, creamy instead of watery and fresh fresh fresh. We each had salads that were prepared at our table, because of course they were. Now, we didn’t have any meat because we had dinner reservations for Maricastaña that night, but we were seated at the meat-dressing table so we got to watch as the servers lathered ham shanks and slabs of beef with sauces and potatoes. It was a production, it was

choreographed, it was old-world dining meets new-world Michelin standards. The whole event was beautiful.

On our way to Parque Retiro and the botanical gardens, we stopped at the loveliest little bookstore, Desperate Literature. They have books in Spanish, English, and French, as well as some gorgeous classics and a typewriter in the middle of the store where you can let out your inner bohemian writer. I love visiting bookstores in other cities, and Desperate Literature is a gem.

Onward to el Parque. We hung out around the Palacio de Cristal, or crystal palace, a beautiful structure overlooking the Crystal Lake. The lake was full of turtles and the air was delightfully breezy, so this was an excellent resting place (or retiring place, if you will).

Next, the beautiful Jardin Botanico. I love botanical gardens, and Madrid’s is no exception. I felt like I was in some kind of magnificent hidden jungle the whole time, and especially loved the desert room. It’s always nice to be reunited with your people.

 

On our way home we stopped at Mint and Rose for some handmade Spanish espadrilles (my birthday present from Doug, thanks Doug!) If you want a pair of espadrilles that are extra durable and can be dressed up, Mint and Rose has so many beautiful designs. I am the happiest with my shoes and will wear them until the last leaf falls off of the NYC trees, dammit.

Finally, dinner was at Maricastaña in our fav neighborhood Malasaña. It included burrata, my favorite thing on God’s green earth, sweet potato fries with truffle and egg, and flourless chocolate perfection cake. I was too distracted by the deliciousness to get a photo of my tuna steak dinner, but know that it too was impeccable. We did not want to have to say goodbye to Spain the next day, but I was more than happy for this to be our ultimate Madridian meal.

My next trip to Spain will surely include Barcelona and the north. Madrid, you were an excellent place to start.

 

 

Green, Red, or Both?

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, this question refers to types of chili sauce. Not that I’m telling you how to live your life, but the answer is both. The answer is always both.

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The City Different has an extra special place in my heart because it’s where my grandmother lives, and it’s where my sister and I used to spend summers at music camp. It remains one of the most beautiful places on earth, in my humble opinion, with its endless skies and summer rains, its turquoise and adobe. When visiting Santa Fe, here are some places not to miss.

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Food:

A traditional New Mexican meal is a must, with all of the chilies. Tia Sophia’s just off of the Plaza is a great place to start, since you’ll no doubt want to explore the Plaza and its surrounding museums. More on that in a sec. Tia Sophia’s has standard New Mexican fare, your classic enchiladas and chiles rellenos, and SOPAPILLAS. Sopapillas taste like happiness and sunshine, and they are a specifically New Mexican situation. Fried puffy bread that you drizzle and dip in honey. They are somehow both an appetizer and a dessert, and they are perfect.

La Casa Sena, also downtown, has excellent modern New Mexican options. I opted for stuffed peppers with quinoa, fried kale, and pimento cheese. So good. Basically what I’ve learned from Santa Fe restaurants is that if you stuff a chili pepper with basically anything and cover it with red and green sauce, we’ll have a good time.

 

 

 

After your Casa Sena meal, you MUST visit Todos Santos, a chocolate shop unlike any other. I ate dark chocolate chili-infused truffles, sticking with the theme. It was all I could do not to buy three large bars of the stuff. Next time.

For those of you vegan and gluten free folks, never fear! Rasa Juice bar has all manner of smoothies, yes, but also vegan and GF takes on New Mexican classics. This black bean and veggie soup with avocado and vegan sour cream was SO TASTY and filling.

If you have some extra dough to spend, The Compound off of Canyon Road is arguably the nicest restaurant in town. It’s certainly delicious, seasonal, and a beautifully curated fine dining experience. This trip, we were celebrating my grandmother’s 90th birthday (!!), and The Compound was the perfect place for a celebration. Look at this lobster risotto feat. chanterelles and tell me your heart rate didn’t just increase.

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The Compound also has an incredible pastry chef, Becky, who made my grandma a custom lemon blueberry cream cake for the occasion. I’d recommend one of her cakes even if you’re not dining in, though seriously, save some cash and find a way to have a meal at The Compound. Your taste buds will thank you.

 

 

Art and Attractions:

Santa Fe has a vibrant, varied art scene. Let’s start with the Plaza. The center of downtown SF, it’s full of boutiques, jewelry stores, souvenirs, and flanked by museums. If you want to some authentic Native American turquoise, the Plaza is the place to go. The jewelry makers that set up blankets of goods have to be certified 100% Native, for one thing, and prices are reasonable and bargain-able.

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The New Mexico Museum of Art is located directly off of the Plaza, and houses rotating exhibits of local art. It’s also in one of the most beautiful adobe buildings in sight.

 

 

The Georgia O’Keefe Museum is also downtown and also well worth a visit to soak in these floral beauties. Next, a quick drive out of town and to Museum Hill will surround you by some of Santa Fe’s best muesos: the Museum of International Folk Art, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. If you didn’t get your turquoise on the Plaza, the Weelwright’s gift shop has stunning pieces, also by local artists. The Santa Fe Botanical Garden is also along Museum Hill. Finish your day with a walk through the local desert foliage, aka my favorite plants on earth.

 

 

 

Now. MEOW WOLF. Fun fact: George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones books and my personal bibles, lives in Santa Fe and is a huge contributor to the arts scene. He owns the Cocteau movie theater and helped fund the new-ish Meow Wolf: House of Eternal Return interactive art experience extravaganza. The installation is in the old bowling alley and features an entire house with some wild secrets. By exploring the family’s home, basically by snooping their mail and journals, the Meow Wolf guests are given the opportunity to uncover a mystery that leads into all kinds of other dimensions. It’s trippy and insane and so, so fun. You can spend hours putting together all of the pieces or just playing with the crazy rules of the multiple dimensions from portals in the house. Trust me, just walk into the fridge. You’ll find way more than moldy cheese and ketchup bottles.

 

 

 

 

Last but not least, take a stroll down Canyon Road and pop into the many galleries lining the street. Sculpture, painting, photography, you name it, it exists on Canyon Road, and you’ll want to cover your home in your findings.

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Photo courtesy of Hotel Chimayo de Santa Fe

Santa Fe is also surrounded by gorgeous hikes. Rent a car, get close to the ski basin, and explore the mountains. Be sure to drink a lot of water – the 7,000 ft altitude sneaks up on you, but getting close to nature here is the most worth it. And expect rain. In the summer, it rains for about ten minutes almost every day, a phenomenon that has always felt magical to me. I prefer to soak it in sans umbrella, but that’s just me.

 

Weekly Update

Hi folks,

This week I don’t have a formal blog post because I’m currently traveling (another domestic destination) and planning / writing up a storm.

Coming up this winter I’ll be heading to Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Berlin, and Stockholm. I’m taking allll the recs if you have any! Check in next week for a post about my southwestern adventures. ✌🏼