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.

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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.

 

Where To Go If For Some Reason You Happen To Find Yourself In Bratislava: Guest Post by Laura Baranik

So you’re in Central Europe for a limited time only and you want to hit the hottest of the Austro-Hungarian hot spots. These are, inarguably, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. (If you want to be really cool, you’ll throw Český Krumlov into the mix, too.) Guess which capital city hasn’t reached the top of the tourist charts? I’ll tell you, since you’ve probably never heard of it: Bratislava, the forlorn little Slovak town that – at just 35 miles away – is the schlumpy suburb to big, beautiful Vienna.

But wait! People DO visit Bratislava! Most of them are just taking an involuntary pit stop on the Danube river cruise between Vienna and Budapest, but still – I’ve occasionally even caught them enjoying themselves!
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Ok, I’m a (semi-) local, so like any good Slav, I can get a little cynical. In all seriousness, though, there are so many Bratislava spots I love that I had a hard time deciding what to put on this list. Here are the ones that made the cut*:

Korzo: You won’t find “korzo” on a map, but ask any Bratislavan and they’ll tell you – it’s the stretch of pedestrian-only cobblestone streets leading from Michalská Brána (Michael’s Gate), past the main square, and over to Hviezdoslavovo Square, the long plaza at the foot of the National Theatre. On summer nights, the korzo heaves with outdoor restaurants and bars, live music, and swarms of ice-cream-carrying promenaders. Follow the masses – and the green laser pointers.
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Kontakt: A non-tourist-trap island in an ocean of korzo tourist traps. No-frills seasonal local and international food, plus craft beer on tap and outdoor seating for people-watching purposes. Try the chicken paprikáš with (their words, not mine) “the best dumplings ever.” Cheap and chill.
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Koun: The name of this super-cute artisanal gelateria is the phonetic Slovak spelling of the English word “cone” – so pronounce it that way! Rotating flavors include marzipan, raspberry-mint, and “Sexy Chocolate” (they had me at “sexy”). Take your koun to a bench under the trees on Hviezdoslavovo Square.

The Blue Church: Of all the supposed must-see Bratislava sights (the bridge, the castle, etc.), the Church of St. Elizabeth – known to everybody as just “the Blue Church” – is the only one that you actually must see, even if it’s slightly outside the old town center. Built during the Secessionist era by Hungarian architect Edmund Lechner, the Blue Church is totally unique, and totally blue.

U Kubistu: Housed in a building designed in the rare Cubist style, this Cubism-themed café is a local favorite and a great place to stop for a meal, coffee, or cocktail after checking out the Blue Church. Creative, healthy-ish food made with local ingredients.

Kompot / Slávica: If you’re looking for souvenirs to bring home, avoid the hideous keychains and folk dolls in the tourist shops along the korzo – most of them were probably made in China, anyway – and support young local designers instead. Kompot sells tasteful souvenir t-shirts bundled into jam jars (kompot means compote, get it?) and Slovak-themed socks, which are clearly super cool because I bought three pairs just for myself. Next door, Slávica showcases Slovak and Czech design items, including jewelry, home decor, and traditional linen blueprint.
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Urban House: With its couches, cold brew, and avocado toast, this sprawling coffee shop is more Brooklyn than Bratislava. But it’s the perfect place to go if you need to get work done while you travel – the coffee is bangin’ and they’ll let you hang out and use the wi-fi for as long as you want. (Two sister branches, Urban Space and Urban Bistro, are nearby.)

Buchtáreň: Originally a food stand, this little shop serves a Slovak specialty that you’d normally be hard-pressed to find outside your grandma’s house: hand-made buchty. Imagine a fluffier version of a steamed bao bun, filled with jam or Nutella and decorated with as many toppings as you want – poppy seeds, powdered sugar, cocoa, hot melted butter… YUM. MY.

Stará Tržnica (Old Market): The area in and around the vaulted Old Market Hall has become something of a scene, with a small cluster of food trucks outside the main doors and a colorful new minibrewery pub (Výčap u Ernöho) attracting customers both day and night. On Saturdays, the hall has a farmer’s market, where you can eat a hot lokša (potato crêpe) slathered in duck fat. You didn’t come here to diet, did you?
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KC Dunaj: Drink with the cool kids at this multi-level “cultural center,” accessed through the back-alley service entrance of a Communist relic department store. There’s a beer bar on the ground floor and a greasy club in the basement, but don’t get stuck downstairs: take the freight elevator up to the roof bar and have a borovička (juniper brandy) with a spectacular view of the city. The top floor doubles as a gallery and event space, so you might find anything from a board game night to a live Balkan band. Just go with it.
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City Walls: Take an evening to explore the other side of Old Town. Turn off busy Venturská Street and follow Prepoštská westwards through the iron gate and up the shallow stone steps. At the top is Úzka (Narrow) Street, which runs alongside the last remaining section of Bratislava’s medieval city fortification walls. You might stop for an evening tea or a glass of wine at the tiny outdoor Tea Bar before wandering the wall’s pathway and crossing the pedestrian bridge over the highway to Židovská Street. The steep paths on the hill leading up to the castle are dotted with bars and pubs, and once you stumble your way to the top, you’ll be rewarded with an epic view over the Danube, and Austria beyond.


Alas, that view will necessarily include the Nový Most, also known as the UFO Bridge and perhaps Bratislava’s most recognizable landmark. Ugly-architecture fetishists may find the gargantuan 1960s-style flying saucer and mass of steel cables enthralling, but I prefer to keep the spaceship at a distance: without it, Bratislava would be much less the red-headed stepchild to Vienna and Prague that it is today. In order to build the bridge and its adjoining highway, the Communist government razed a huge section of the city center, permanently erasing the centuries-old Jewish Quarter and its famous synagogue and slicing a deep, deadening gash between Bratislava’s castle and the Old Town. Looking at that self-righteous monstrosity just makes me sad, you know?

Anyway. Has the cranky Slav convinced you to visit Bratislava yet? Trust me, it might not be such a bad idea to check it out sometime. Even of your own free will.

*I did my research during the summer, so some of these are season-specific.

Laura Baranik is a writer, editor, and actor based in New York City. For two years, she was the head restaurant critic for the Czech daily newspaper Lidové Noviny, in collaboration with her own (now-defunct) food blog, The Prague Spoon. She also wrote monthly lifestyle and humor columns in the Czech-language edition of InStyle magazine and the Prague street mag Think Again, as well as occasional op-eds and features for Lidové Noviny and its supplemental magazine, Pátek. In 2017, two of Laura’s poems were included in the book New York City Haiku, published by The New York Times and Universe/Rizzoli. She is currently planning the launch of a new, NYC-oriented writing project. http://www.laurabaranik.com

Siem Reap Siem Reap Siem Reap

When we booked our Thailand trip, we added a few days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, because I figured as long as we were so close I couldn’t not see Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. I imagined that the temples would be the main draw of Siem Reap, and I’d mostly vibe with Thailand. TURNS OUT Siem Reap was my favorite part of the trip after Phang Nga Elephant Park.

First of all, Cambodia uses the American dollar as currency (along with their native riel) so the exchange rate was so obviously nuts. The amount of things that cost “one dollar one dollar one dollar” was surreal. An entire fresh pineapple or coconut, for example.

In Thailand and Cambodia we stuck to hotels rather than Air BnBs because hotels were SO cheap and felt easier to navigate with any sort of language barrier. Our little villa was part of the Angkor Spirit Palace – just close enough to the city and the temples to make tuk tuk rides unbelievably cheap, but not one of the giant resorts (which are a thing. I was not expecting giant resorts, and their proximity to the literal huts that locals lived in was especially wild). It came with hotel cats which is always a plus for me.

Angkor Spirit Palace set us up with a tuk tuk driver, Mao, for our stay. He picked us up from the super clean and lovely Siem Reap airport to begin, and from then on out we told him where we wanted to be and when and he arranged all of our rides. It was SILLY how easy this was, and getting to the city was only $2 from the hotel. Our temple DAY cost only $18.

Which brings me to the beginning of the temples! Our first night we climbed Phnom Bakheng (getting to the base via Mao, of course) to see the sunset. It was cloudy so our view was sadly obscured, but the temple itself was still an amazing introduction to the city’s insane history.

Before visiting the temples, you have to purchase a day pass. The sweet thing was that our pass for the next day included the evening before’s sunset visit since that’s such a popular trajectory. KEEP YOUR PASS ON YOU. If you lose this piece of paper you can’t get anywhere close to the main attractions. A lot of tourists had laminated lanyard pouches for them, which honestly was smart.

It’s also good to note that ladies, you must have your knees and shoulders covered. A long skirt or capris will do the trick. I opted for a skirt because of the heat, and carried around a “temple shawl” sheer scarf just in cast my shirts were ever suspect. See above coconut photo.

After the sunset viewing – as much as possible, at least – we hopped into the city for dinner. We told Mao to pick us up at 9pm since we had a 4:30am departure time the next day. More on that in a sec.

We found this totally beautiful French-Cambodian restaurant, Le Malraux, for dinner. I had forgotten that Cambodia was colonized by the French for a while. We vowed to try some traditional purely Cambodian food which we did all over the next day.

This was the first time we ate bread in two weeks. I loved the Thai rice and noodle-based meals, but MAN some fresh bread tastes amazing when you haven’t had it in fourteen days.

The next morning, Mao picked us up at 4:30am, bright eyed and bushy tailed for our sunrise Angkor Wat visit. Okay, so every tourist who ever goes to Siem Reap does a sunrise Angkor Wat visit, and you will feel like you are competing with all of them for a spot on the lake. But this phenomenon was 1000% worth the early hours and swarms of people. Once you get a good spot – I recommend the left bank of the lake, less populated with just as clear a view as the center – watching the sun rise is totally transfixing.

After sunrise, we explored Angkor Wat in the daylight like normal humans. Our day’s temple tour afterwords included Bayon, Phimeanakas, Thommanon, Baphuon, Ta Keo, and Ta Prohm. Angkor Spirit Palace recommends this route as their sunrise day tour, and we were thrilled with it. Chances are, your hotel in Siem Reap has a tour and driver available to recommend when you book your reservation, and Angkor Spirit Palace’s was significantly cheaper than any tour site packages. Plus, Mao packed us breakfast and a case of water (almost all of which we drank. It’s HOT in Cambodia in January).

I matched this local horse and thus bonded with it. Doug, wearing purple, did not match and the horse bit his foot.

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My favorite temple was Ta Prohm, which a big tourist grab since Tomb Raider was filmed there. Another perk of our sunrise tour was that we still arrived early to the temples, beating the midday rush. The colors of Ta Prohm were so gorgeous, and the entire temple has been taken over by massive tree roots. It’s also huge, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get lost exploring which is exactly what I love to do.

It was about 2:00pm when we got back to the hotel, and we were exhausted. Lots of stairs on those temples! We napped HARD before going out to properly explore Siem Reap’s nightlife.

We opted for a traditional dinner of Lamok and Lap Khmer and went for a pub crawl on Pub Street (literally called “Pub Street,” lest we become confused as to where to find the pubs). Drinks, especially beer, were so cheap so we sampled quite a few places. W also indulged in rolled ice cream and taking in the night market sites. Siem Reap felt alive at night in a different way than Phuket. Yes, Siem Reap still housed many tourists, but it felt like the whole city was in on the fun and it wasn’t just a show for the tourists.

During our three days in Siem Reap I certainly felt like we accomplished our list of things to see, but I’d love to go back for another week to visit the outer temples and really become immersed in the city. Maybe I’ll have the guts to try fried cricket next time.

Segovia: The Must-Do Madrid Day Trip

Roman aqueducts, a Gothic Catholic cathedral, and suckling pig for days (if you’re into that sort of thing).

When deciding between Toledo and Segovia for our Madrid-based day trip, Segovia won largely because of the aqueduct. I’d never seen a Roman ruin before, and the opportunity to do so was not something I could pass up, especially when they’re only a 30 minutes away via local Renfe train.

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I mean, LOOK at this beaut! It was built around AD 50 and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. It still stands in nearly peak condition and is flanked by many a restaurant and tapas bar where you can have a bite to eat and bask in its glory.

Speaking of bites to eat, Segovia is known for its cochinillo asado, or suckling pig. It was usually rather expensive and I’m generally wary of eating baby animals, so we skipped it. If you’re a meat connoisseur, though, it’s supposed to be delicious. (We noticed that a lot of restaurants in Spain advertised serving literal “baby” animals. Like the word “baby” was printed on the menu. In America we try to mask that sh* with words like veal; even serving “lamb” isn’t saying “baby sheep.” Way to go for the transparency, España. I see you with that branding.)

If, like me, the baby pig option isn’t for you, fret not. You can still try a traditional Castilian soup, also famous in Segovia, called  judiones de la granja. It features large white beans in a tomato broth and was an excellent appetizer to my local fish lunch.

After eating, we wandered past the aqueduct (bye bb, be back so soon) to the Roman Catholic cathedral. This guy was impressive. It looms over the main square with its intricate Gothic spires and stained glass windows. It was built between 1525-1577 and is entirely worth just staring at for a while.

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We wandered through the beautiful, quaint old town to the top of the hill where the Segovia Castle presides over the surrounding area. DEFINITELY buy the entrance ticket for the castle, and it’s worth tacking on the 8 Euros to climb to the top of the highest tower as well. The VIEWS.

 

After feeling like proper Medieval royalty for a few hours, we wandered down to have a cerveza and quick bite below the aqueduct (See! Promised I’d come back!) before catching the return train to Madrid. Almost as amazing as our proximity to the aqueduct was the fact that this collasal remainder of the Roman Empire was so not a big deal to the locals around us.

We bought our train tickets online the night before after experiencing the horror that was Lisbon train station ticket lines. Madrid’s station didn’t appear to be nearly as bad, but having tickets in advance certainly made for some breezy travel. We gave ourselves seven hours in Segovia, which might have been a bit too long, but we were definitely able to relax and just exist in the town for a few hours, which is never a bad thing. When we arrived back in Madrid we were perfectly full of adventure, culture and papas bravas.