Bests of Berlin

Berlin is one of the most open, accepting cities in the world, a fact that exists almost in direct contrast with its sordid history. From the rise of the Third Reich to the imposing Berlin Wall, the city has endured a lot of pain. Berlin acknowledges and memorializes its heavy past, ensuring that the history is remembered as the city evolves into one of unparalleled nightlife, art, and inclusivity.

 

When visiting Berlin, there are a number of historical sights that demand a visit. The East Side Gallery, housing the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall still standing, is famed for its panel-like paintings commissioned from artists around the world after the wall fell. It’s rare for a city to boast a site that contains history, art, and a beautiful atmospheric walk all in one, but the East Side Gallery does just that and is a perfect introduction to Berlin.

 

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Also unmissable when it comes to art is the Berlinische Galerie. This modern art museum, one of Berlin’s newest, features a standing collection as well as rotating exhibits of Berlin art from 1870 onward. A visit to Berlinische is well worth it, and usually less crowded than the touristy Museum Island. The first Monday of every month entrance is only 4 Euros, a nice treat for your travel budget.

 

Berlin has some excellent walking tours, and most will take you around Brandenburg Tor and the surrounding monuments. It’s definitely worth spending extra time wandering amongst the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial, designed by architect Peter Eisenman, is a field of gray concrete slabs that rise in height towards the center, invoking feelings of claustrophobia and oppression. The memorial is controversial for many reasons, but I was extremely moved by it. A formal Halocaust museum stands adjacent to the concrete slabs and is also worth visiting, though be prepared for hour-long lines at peak visiting hours.

 

 

Two neighborhoods stood out during this particular Berlin visit. Kreuzberg, where we were lucky enough to stay with a friend of mine, was reminiscent of some neighborhoods in Brooklyn with its abundance of thrift stores, cocktail bars, and multinational restaurants. Some highlights were Limonadier cocktail bar (happy hour until 8pm for some of the most inventive drinks you’ve ever tasted), Dolden Mädel brew house, and La Bionda pizzeria. A whole burrata arrives atop the Nona pizza, and there are very few things I wouldn’t do for a whole burrata. The leftovers make for the perfect breakfast food as well.

 

Mitte, the city’s middle area, is home to all of the shopping your heart could desire, plus some amazing restaurants and the grand, imposing Volksbuehne theater. For breakfast or lunch, Strandbad Mitte and House of Small Wonder will fill your appetite and your aesthetic sould. House of Small Wonder has a flagship location in Williamsburg (of course we would travel across the ocean to visit a New York cafe) and will probably have a wait, so if you’re starving, head to Strandbad first. Their traditional German breakfasts are filling and delicious, and definitely shareable.

 

Lebensmittel in Mitte was probably our favorite meal in Berlin. The traditional German fair is served on large wooden tables with giant candles burning between guests, making the whole place feel like someone’s homey Bavarian dining room. From traditional gulash and schnitzel to schupfnudel, a kind of potato pasta I’d never had before and am dying to eat again, the menu is hearty and warm with a familial, cozy feel to it. Lebensmittel has an amazing selection of local wines and beers, as well as an unbelievable fruity cakey ice cream-adorned dessert, the name of which I can’t remember because our friend Yannic ordered it for us and I was too busy salivating over it to ask.

 

Last but never least, Berlin has some of the best street food on the planet, period. Make sure to eat at least several doner kebabs and try a currywurst, superior to bratwurst in my opinion. These local foods are easy on the wallet and will definitely sustain you for several hours of city trekking. Don’t forget to wash them down with some gluhwein.

 

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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.

 

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.

Phang Nga Bay by Speedboat

So you’re traveling through southern Thailand, based in Phuket or perhaps Krabi right now, and you want to see Phang Nga Bay. You’re correct – Phang Nga Bay is a must if you’re within a two-hour drive. And the best way to hit the sites? A day-long boat tour stopping at different islands for an hour or so at a time.

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We booked our tour through Tour East. It included a van pickup from our hotel in Phuket (the cheapest hotel yet at $15/night with all of the amenities), a speedboat tour of four of the islands (including James Bond island, of course), canoe tour through Panak and Hong Islands, and lunch in a floating village. Totally ideal for a nine hour tour.

The day started off to an excellent start when our tour guide introduced himself as Sexy Linda. Moral of this post: when given the opportunity to take a tour through the coast of Western Thailand or really anywhere via someone named Sexy Linda, DO IT. Mind you, this person was totally male-presenting and identified as male, and just happened to be called Sexy Linda. I was into it.

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The first island of the day was Koh Khai, a lovely little spot with lots of fluorescent green tropical fish swimming around it. Luckily, Sexy Linda provided us with snorkel masks to observe the fish and the coral with. The island also had plenty of feral cats and Coca Cola vendors. Everything you need at 10am on a Thai morning.

Next up was my personal favorite part, the canoe tour of Koh Panak and Koh Hong. These islands are full of moss-covered limestone caves, I.e. The most beautiful stuff of your life (especially if you’ve grown up in a desert). Most of these caves are so small that you can only get to them via canoe, hence that aspect of the tour. And guys. This was Pure. Magic. Some of the cave entrances were so low that we had to lay down in the canoes to fit through them, which was an adventure in itself. Being so close to the water is so calming and peaceful, and once we entered the caves they were all far bigger than I expected. Like I said, pure magic.

After canoeing came lunch on Koh Panyee, the village on stilts. This place. Was. So. Cool. First of all, our lunch was so fresh and delicious (like everything in Thailand thus far), and consisted of Tom Ka Kai Soup, spring rolls, yellow curry, and some kind of unidentifiable coconut dessert. Koh Panyee is fascinating not just because it’s a “floating” village, but because the whole village practices Islam and is therefore a lot stricter than the rest of Thailand. Women had to have shoulders and knees covered, for example, a la the Buddhist temples, and there was no alcohol allowed on the island. (Never fear, though; Sexy Linda made sure we knew that the next island included on-site bars.) We visited the floating soccer field where some Australian tourists were playing soccer with local kids, which was just great to watch, and lots of shops advertising fresh coconut and Thai pearls.

The final two islands of the day were Koh Ping Kan (James Bond island), and Kai Nai, the aforementioned island bar island. Koh Ping Kan is famous because the James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) was filmed there. Honestly, it was just as beautiful as the rest of the islands, but since I haven’t seen the film, that part of the charm was lost on me and the tourist to island ratio made it the low point of the tour for me. It did have a nice little hike, though, and let’s be clear – by low point I mean I only enjoyed it very much instead of incredibly much. So. Still a win.

Kai Nai, the final stop, featured some delicious Thai cocktails, hammocks, and a pearl shop. I bought *wildly cheap, authentic* pearls for my sister and myself, and we spent most of our stay on this island swimming in the unreal turquoise-colored water.

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Oh, now might be a good time to mention that Doug and I pretended to be British for the whole trip, as some sort of only slightly sociopathic challenge for ourselves. By the time the nine hours on a boat were coming to a close, and we were getting fatigued, I had to often elbow him to remind him that as far as the South Africans and the New Zealanders on our boat knew, we were from the motherland on an extended spiritual journey. I remain convinced that we pulled it off; Doug thinks we were found out from the beginning. WHO’S TO SAY?*

*(Hello, nice South African family who was on our Phang Nga boat tour on January 3, 2017. If you’re reading this, it’s you. You’re to say. Please tell us if we were convincing Brits.)

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Regardless of whether or not we successfully duped a boatful of people into believing we hailed from another nation, the Phang Nga Bay boat tour was a standout highlight of our Thailand trip. When visiting the area, especially if you’re stationed in Phuket, I will not forgive you if you miss this. Neither will British Natalie from Brighton.

 

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.