Tag Archives: travel

Taormina, Sicily

Until my fiance decided that he wanted to trace his Sicilian roots, I had never thought of Sicily as a place that I would visit. I let him take the reigns on this portion of the trip and he suggested that we stay in Taormina, a charming hilltop town perched on the side of a mountain on the east coast of Sicily. Although warned as a chi-chi touristy destination, I found Taormina to be one of Sicily’s best-kept secrets. A hidden gem with breathtaking views and cliffs that drop down to the sea. And maybe a bit overlooked with Mount Etna and Palermo as some of Sicily’s main attractions. We spent 4 lovely days here and I couldn’t get enough of the town’s dolce vita. This island was truly different than any other place I have ever visited in Italy – a rooted Italian culture with Mediterranean influence. Here is my share of helpful tips and top recommendations for Taormina, Sicily!

Take a taxi – don’t rent a car!
While the winding roads of Sicily may look idyllic to drive, I would not suggest renting a car. Taormina is approx. 1 hour north of Catania airport (CTA), and while taxi fares to Taormina are expensive (approx. $100 Euro one way), the hassle of a rental car is worse. First, all road and highway signs are in Italian. So unless you are fluent or have a very reliable GPS, it can be very difficult to navigate. Second, gas can be pricey and we learned the hard way that if you don’t get out of the car fast enough to gas up yourself, you’ll be charged nearly double for the “gas attendant” to put the nozzle into your car for you. Third, Taormina not built for cars with their narrow streets and tight corners and is very limited with overnight parking options. We got two parking tickets during our stay because we simply couldn’t find parking anywhere else and left it on the street overnight. Last, Taormina is extremely walkable around town and offers many tour/bus options for going out of town. So stick to taxi’s and local transportation – it’ll save you from lots of headaches and parking tickets.
Mount Etna
Dominating the landscape of eastern Sicily, Mount Etna is easily the island’s natural epicenter. At 3,329m it is Italy’s highest mountain south of the Alps and the largest active volcano in Europe. From Taormina, visiting Mount Etna is the perfect day trip. There are many tour excursions and trekking adventures available, but Rob and I went on our own (and our trusty rink-a-dink rental car…). Drive time from Taormina is approx. 1 hour and 15 minutes, and there are a couple of different entrance points. We followed the south entrance which leads directly to Mt. Etna’s small village of shops, restaurants, tourist information, and transportation to the top. The “Funivia dell Etna” (cablecar of Etna) will travel up to 2,500m for approx. $30 Euro per person, and from there you can pay another $30-$35 Euro per person for special off-road busses to continue up the volcano (tour guide included).
Isola Bella
I unknowingly saw dreamy photos of Isola Bella on Pinterest before realizing that this enchanting island is just a cable car ride down from Taormina. The Mazzaro cable car from Taormina is an expressway down to the base of the mountain ($7 Euro roundtrip). From the bottom, it is a quick 7-minute walk to Isola Bella with surrounding restaurants, shops and hotels along the way. This beach is unashamedly crowded but totally worth spending the day. The beach is formed with small rocks and pebbles instead of sand, so I would recommend renting a couple of beach chairs and an umbrella at the Mendolia Beach Club for $10 Euro per person. The beach club also has a restaurant with tasty lunch options and a lovely view of Isola Bella.
Teatro Antico di Taormina
One of the icons of Taormina is the Teatro Antico di Taormina, an ancient Greco-Roman outdoor amphitheater built in the 3rd century BC which is still in use today. Unfortunately we were not able to step inside the theater because of summer concerts and events, which was a heartbreaking tease because the theater was a 2-minute walk from our B&B. Still, I hear that it is a MUST SEE in Taormina and I am using it as a reason to go back one day.
Corso Umberto I
The Corso Umberto I is the vibrant main street and soul of Taormina. The ultimate delight is to wander this pedestrian-friendly street which is lined with boutiques, restaurants, gelato parlors, and souvenir shops. Start in Palazzo Corvaja which dates back to the 10th Century and make your way to Piazza IX Aprile and its stunning panoramic views. Standing tall in the square is the Chiesa San Guiseppe, a beautiful church that dates back to the early 18th Century. The entire square is surrounded with rich history including the Torre dell’Orologio, the 12th Century clock tower. Take a break and dine at the Piazza Badia, a charming trattoria which easily became our favorite restaurant in town. We dined there nearly 3 nights in a row. Owned by the coolest couple with authentic food and home-cooking vibes. Ask for Anastasia – she will spoil you to death and will treat you like family!

Next on the blog (and my favorite place in the entire world), PARIS! Check back soon!

xx

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Venice, Italy

“My love of Venice begins with the lagoon in which it stands. Although often overlooked, this 550-sq-km shallow bowl is as great a marvel of engineering as San Marco’s golden domes. Every palace and every person is reflected in its teal-colored waters creating the mirage-like double image that lends the city its magical quality. Not only has it inspired the extraordinary physical fabric of the city and countless creative and technological inventions, but it also shapes the unconventional and creative spirit of all who reside here. Therein lie possibilities barely imagined in other cities.”
– Paula Hardy

Taking a trip to Venice is like taking a gondola ride back in time, to a fairy tale city of marble palaces built on a lagoon. Kind of sounds like Disneyland actually. But Venice is truly unlike anything I have ever seen before. Imagine the world’s biggest outdoor promenade with the best selection of Venetian cuisine, Prosecco, endless shopping, masquerade influence, canalside bistros, and sightings of romantic gondola rides floating through emerald green and enchanting blue waters. One of the strangest and loveliest things about the city was the absence of cars. No honking, no roads, no traffic, no chaos. Just boats and gondolas taking their sweet time with their awe-inspired passengers. I wish I could have spent a little more time there. If you ever get a chance to visit, and I hope you do, here are some of my personal recommendations and highlights:

GET LOST
Put down your map and wander. Don’t bother trying to find your way – you’ll get lost in Venice no matter what. Even with the best GPS. But that’s the fun part! If you work tirelessly trying to navigate the impossible maze of Venice, you’ll miss what else Venice is hiding; the calming serenade of gondoliers, a morning Spritz in a sunny square, unassuming bars with lavish spreads of cicheti (Venetian tapas), storefront windows displaying the most beautiful Masquerade pieces, and fuschia-pink sunsets that have inspired centuries of artists. I think in Venice they would call these pleasures la bea vita (the beautiful life).
Hotel Mercurio
If you want affordable and authentic lodging in Venice, I would suggest Hotel Mercurio. Just a quick 4-minute walk from the San Marco ferry stop, but perfectly tucked away in Venice and all of its magic. For an unbeatable price, we upgraded to a suite with a canal view which happened to face Mozart’s home. Can’t get more historic than that! Our room was beautifully decorated with Venetian art, high ceilings with wooden beams, Italian furnishings, and marble floors. The hotel also delivered Prosecco to our room and offered complimentary breakfast every morning. Lovely. Just lovely.
Piazza San Marco (aka St. Mark’s Square)
Piazza San Marco is the heart of Venice. I’ve seen it in countless movies, but I never realized it was in Venice. The “lightbulb” moment happened for me when I saw swarms of pigeons frantically fighting for rice and crumbs and I had a flashback of Ashton Kutcher fighting them off in Just Married. Visiting Piazza San Marco is definitely a MUST; here you will see St. Mark’s Basilica with its great arches and marble decoration, the stunning palace of Doge, Piazzetta di Leoncini, the free standing Campanile, the Clock Tower, and a handful of shops and restaurants lining the square. And definitely take some playful photos with the pigeons.
Dal Moro’s – Fresh Pasta To Go
Customized made-to-order food is universal. We all love it. For America it’s Chipotle, and for Venice it’s Dal Moro’s. They were also voted #1 for Italian food in Venice! This unassuming take-out spot serves fresh pasta with made-to-order sauces in Chinese to-go boxes, leaving you to explore Venice with lunch in hand. I sadly did not have a chance to experience Dal Moro’s, but my sister swears by it and I did see the line of people wrapped around the block. That was convincing enough of their popularity.
Lavanderia Gabriella
Laundry. Totally random, but totally necessary. My sister recommended Lavanderia Gabriella after her trip to Venice. And after living out of a backpack for two weeks, I was in desperate need of clean clothes. Gabriella and her adorable mother run their own laundromat and they are perfectly affordable, approx. $15-$20 Euro for 1-2 hefty loads! They’ll even fold your laundry for you. Did I mention Gabriella speaks English? TOTALLY WORTH IT.
Rialto Bridge
Crowded, but another MUST. Ponte di Rialto is Venice’s most popular bridge and overlooks the Grand Canal. The view from the top and center of the bridge offers the most iconic view of Venice where you can observe the gondolas, ferries and boats travel between the most mesmerizing buildings. Try visiting the bridge at sunrise. You won’t regret it.

Up next…SICILY! Specifically Taormina. Come check back soon!

xx

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Rome, Italy

Oh, Rome… a historic powerhouse with haunting ruins, inspiring art, and vibrant street life. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, it is literally impossible to see Rome in day. In my opinion, you need at least seven. We only had 2 short days in Rome so we saw as much as we could, ate as much as we could, and consumed as much coffee and gelato as we could. The “eternal city” is no doubt the epicenter for artistic heritage and architectural masterpieces, but the Roman lifestyle has a lovely and delicate culture outside of its historic landmarks. In between the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and St. Peter’s Basillica are little details which often go unnoticed, but are an every day part of Rome: the cobblestone streets and hidden corners, charming trattorias and street-side gelato shops, couples embracing each other on the Spanish Steps, the aroma of freshly ground coffee wafting out of its cafes. Rome’s streets and piazzas perfectly made for strolling and people-watching. Something I wish I captured more photos of, but probably wouldn’t have appreciated as much if I had my face behind a camera the entire time. I guess it’s something that should be experienced organically.

Overall, a lovely couple of days spent in Rome. Venice on the blog soon!

xx

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Amsterdam, Netherlands

For those who have never visited Amsterdam, it’s easy to assume a young, daring city with the reputable “coffee shops”, Red Light District, exciting nightlife, and Space Cake. I personally associated it with the hash brownie scene from Eurotrip. But Amsterdam is SO much more than that. It’s a city thriving with history and artistic heritage, a maze of canals and narrow houses, 17th century buildings that tilt at impossible angles, a beautiful countryside with some of the last remaining windmills that are centuries old, and the best made Gouda you will ever have in your life. There are few cities that can combine history with modern urban flair like Amsterdam. This city truly holds a special “personality” if a city could have one.
Bikes, Bikes, Bikes!
Cycling is the heart to Amsterdam’s character. It is a way of life and there are are nearly double the amount of bicycles than residents. Most people own two bikes; one for work, and one for leisure. Bikes are how Amsterdammers do everything – whether riding to work, or meeting a friend for coffee, or heading to a dinner date. If you’re feeling daring, head to a rental shop and take a spin. But you better keep up! Everyone yields to bikes. They simply rule the city.
Canal by Boat
If locals aren’t on a bike, they may well be on a boat. Amsterdam has an endless network of canals and many options for taking a boat ride. I would suggest taking an open-air canal boat or one of the free ferries behind Centraal Station. If you really want a workout, try the paddle-boats. But speaking from experience, it’s only fun for the first ten minutes… and make sure you can paddle and steer fast enough to get out of the way of every other boat on the canal. Paddle-boats never have the right-of-way.
Gezellig!
Amsterdam has a feeling of gezellig, a Dutch trait that translates something similar to content and cozy. It’s easier to experience than define. It’s as if time stands still, an awareness of the present that puts all of your stresses aside, at least until tomorrow. You can feel it anywhere, whether you’re sipping coffee at a traditional cafe, walking aimlessly through the flower market with the smell of fresh waffles in the air, or simple chatter after a tasty dinner. There is a calmness and quietness about this city – and I think it’s gezellig.
Zaanse Schans
Windmills are the icon of Holland. Amsterdam used to be filled with windmills for various purposes, whether to prevent the city from flooding or grinding seeds for mustard. Most of the country’s windmills have been taken down, some relocated to the outer city where wind conditions are more favorable. We ventured out to Zaanse Schans in the Dutch countryside for a day trip to see some of Amsterdam’s remaining windmills, followed by Marken and Volendam. I would highly recommend taking the trip!
Red Light District
Back in the day, as in the early 1300’s, women would practice the “worlds oldest profession” by carrying red lanterns (due to their flattering light), and waiting for sailors near the port. Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District is a neighborhood of vice, skimpy prostitutes in brothel windows, seductive bars, haze-filled “coffeeshops”, strip clubs, and sex-themed museums. It’s not for everyone – but if you choose to satisfy your curiosity, here are some tips:
1. Watch for pickpockets. The Red Light District can be crowded, especially at night. Sticky fingers could be anywhere…
2. Don’t take pictures or videos of the prostitutes. I’ve heard that pimps will harshly take your phone and toss it into the nearest canal.
3. Have an open mind. The Red Light District leaves nothing to the imagination.
Grub
I noticed an on-going theme with the cuisine in Amsterdam. Dutch waffles (which are thin wafer-like cookies filled with honey or syrup), Gouda which is commonly paired with mustard, French Fries with mayonnaise, and croquettes with ham and cheese. Oh, and Heineken. All of which I was happy to eat in excess every day while I was there. But Amsterdam has inherited a variety of international cuisine including Argentinian steakhouses, Italian trattoria’s, Indonesian cuisine, and German Schnitzel. There is something to satisfy every type of craving. So you better have a big appetite!

A charming city that surprised me in every way. I truly cannot wait to return to Amsterdam one day. Come back soon for when I recap my time in Italy!

xx

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HAVANA DIARIES: PART III

As I reflect back on my time spent in Havana, the most lingering feeling is how much Cuba surprised me. I remember in the middle of the trip while cruising in a vintage car, my best friend said, “I feel nostalgia for a time I was never a part of. A simpler time.” Havana was a time-machine for us. A chance for us to visit the 50’s, to ride around in old-fashioned cars, to see people interact organically without technology getting in the way. We wandered aimlessly through the streets of Old Havana, stayed content off-the-grid, and were fully present while absorbing the Cuban culture. To me, that was the best part of the trip.

Along with this, there were a few other highlights. A few places that were planned ahead of time, and some that we simply stumbled upon. For future visitors, be sure to make time for these places! I promise, it will enhance your trip [and you can thank me later].

Book Market in Plaza de Armas (Old Havana)
Don’t let the words “Book Market” defer you. This ain’t no outdoor library. It’s more of a vintage market buried in Plaza de Armas, but locals will refer to it as the “book market”. A handful of vendors will gather to offer antique and vintage goods for unbeatable prices. You can find anything from vintage cameras to cigar labels, stamps, old and new books including Hemingway, vintage postcards, jewelry, etc. I bought a vintage film camera for only $25 CUC!
La Floridita (Old Havana)
Buried in Old Havana is La Floridita – home to Hemingway’s favorite daquiri. He claimed it was the best in the world. Once inside, it is jam-packed with tourists. I actually never enjoyed a drink, but it was a beautiful old-fashioned  restaurant/bar to see. Hemingway’s bar stool is still inside, protected by a velvet rope. No touch-ee.
Fabrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C) (Nuevo Vedado)
This former cooking oil factory is now a well-curated art exhibition and entertainment club in Nuevo Vedado. F.A.C. is easily the most impressive venue/nightclub I have ever visited, far from the nightclubs we are used to in the US. This multi-level venue is an endless display of creative work, music, local influence, and innovative architecture. AND, there are multiple bars! I enjoyed the largest mojito I’d ever seen; it was literally served in what looked like a flower vase. A truly remarkable place to see a younger, edgier, emerging Cuba.
Paladar La Guarida (Central Havana)
Hands down, the most stunning rooftop bar I’ve ever seen. The unassuming entrance into the building off of a run-down street in Central Havana invites you into a truly magical place. The building, originally known as La Mansión Camagüey, remains historic with its magnificent wooden entrance door and marble staircase up the two flights of stairs to the restaurant itself. At the top, you’ll have the most breathtaking views of Havana and lovely rooftop seating. Their menu also offers tasty nibbles and delicious cocktails.
Coppelia Ice Cream (La Habana)
Coppelia is the ice cream parlor chain of Cuba. Like our Dairy Queen, but cuter. Cheap ice cream, served in old-fashioned 1960’s ice cream cups. Need I say more?
Hotel Parque Central (Old Havana)
Next to Central Park and short walk from the National Capital, the rooftop bar at Hotel Parque Central had equally if not the most stunning views than all of the rooftops we visited in Havana. This beautiful historic hotel maintained its Spanish-colonial charm combined with modern amenities. The staff is extremely welcoming and friendly, and invites non-hotel guests to their rooftop bar. The bar is pool-side and has a wonderful menu of affordable cocktails and food. We devoured two Margherita pizzas. Random, but SO good!
The Malecón (Havana)
There is almost no other place to see more of Havana’s soul than walking along the long stretched Malecón. This boulevard runs nearly 8km along the coast of Havana, from the historical center (Habana Vieja) to residential Vedado. Between the charming buildings and endless sight of vintage cars, the Malecón is a resume of Havana’s history. The Malecón, which translates to “pier”, will give you the real feeling of Havana, and is a prime spot for sunsets.

 

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