My Favorite Places in Amsterdam

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I love Amsterdam for many of the reasons I love Paris: stunning architecture, a wealth of art, and an unpretentious food scene. Both cities are easy to explore on foot, or by public transport when you get tired. And both have enough quality attractions to keep even the discerning traveler occupied for at least a week. I’ve been to Amsterdam three times and still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I dug a lot deeper on my most recent visit thanks to the Amsterdam Museum Card. As in Paris, the card helped me discover a few gems I might otherwise have missed, like Museum Van Loon and the Hermitage. It also helped alleviate the guilt for quickly leaving one if it wasn’t my cup of tea. But museums aren’t the only top attractions in Amsterdam! Read on to find out which spots make the cut.

Canal Ring

amsterdam canals

The best attraction in Amsterdam is arguably the city itself. Designed in the 17th century, Amsterdam’s UNESCO-listed Canal Ring is an engineering marvel. In order to expand the medieval city, it was necessary to drain the surrounding swamps. A network of canals were dug and the land in between filled in. Gabled townhouses were added once the project was completed, and the rest, as they say, is history. If I did nothing other than stroll along the canals and ogle the city’s distinctive gables, it would be a trip well spent.

amsterdam canal houses

amsterdam netherlands

amsterdam canal boat

amsterdam canal boat tour

A canal boat ride in Amsterdam

amsterdam sunset

amsterdam night shot

Museum Van Loon

van loon house amsterdam

Want to see inside one of those lovely buildings lining the canals? Head to Museum Van Loon, the only canal house in Amsterdam to retain both its garden and coach house. While the Van Loon family still resides on the upper floors, it’s possible to tour the rest of the home all the way down to the basement kitchen. Wandering from room to sumptuous room past the family’s private possessions, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of a secret world. It was delicious!

van loon house amsterdam

van loon museum amsterdam

I enjoyed the fashions and family portraits displayed in each room

van loon house museum amsterdam

van loon house museum amsterdam

The Van Loons’ Carriage House

Van Gogh Museum

van gogh museum amsterdam

Do you have a favorite artist? Mine is Vincent van Gogh. I’ve long been drawn to his use of bold, rich colors and thick brushstrokes. It fascinates me that someone with such a troubled mind could see and express such beauty. Largely unsuccessful during his lifetime, van Gogh’s paintings didn’t make waves in the art world until after his suicide at the age of 37. He had been painting for just 10 years. But what a legacy he left behind! The Van Gogh Museum does an excellent job of bringing the enigmatic artist to life. Many of his masterpieces are on display – including several self portraits – as well as works by those who inspired him. You’ll want to allow several hours to explore the collection and peruse the gift shop. Photos aren’t allowed inside the museum, presumably to encourage visitors to buy prints.

Almond Blossom, 1890, Vincent van Gogh. Image source

Rijksmuseum

rijksmuseum amsterdam

Delve further into Dutch art at the Rijksmuseum. Nearly 8,000 artworks are on display, including many paintings by Dutch Masters including Jan Steen, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer. Pride of place goes to the Night Watch, Rembrandt’s monumental masterpiece. The biggest surprise was Cuypers Library, which was recently restored to its original grandeur. Tucked in a back corner of the museum, I stumbled upon the gorgeous room almost by accident. The Rijksmuseum Gardens, designed by the building’s architect Pierre Cuypers, are especially lovely when the spring flowers are in bloom. The gardens abut Museumplein, where you’ll find the famous “I amsterdam” sign from the tourism board’s genius marketing campaign. Good luck getting a photo!

night watch rijksmuseum

rijksmuseum treasures

The Rijksmuseum Cuypers Library in Amsterdam

rijksmuseum gardens

Anne Frank House

A statue of Anne Frank in Amsterdam

For all of Amsterdam’s beauty, it has a dark side, too. After Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands during World War II, many Jews went into hiding. One family was Otto Frank’s, a German Jew who relocated to Amsterdam after Hitler came to power. Anne Frank, Otto’s daughter, kept a diary during the two years the family was in hiding. It provides an intimate look at their lives seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. Anne, a talented young writer, was also working on a novel about the family’s ordeal but never got to finish it. In 1944 the secret annex was discovered and the inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz. Only Otto Frank survived. He eventually published Anne’s diary, fulfilling her wish to become a writer. I encourage everyone to visit the Franks’ secret hiding place, which is now a part of the well-done Anne Frank House Museum, to learn about this tragedy and honor the memory of the victims.

anne frank house amsterdam

Original entrance to the building where Anne Frank and her family hid during WWII.

Royal Palace

royal palace amsterdam

Originally built to be Amsterdam’s Town Hall in the 17th century, the grand structure was converted into a Royal Palace by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother) in 1808. Louis’ reign was short lived, but his French Empire-style furnishings have endured. In fact, the Palace boasts one of the finest collections in the world! The fully furnished rooms, illuminated by heavy gilt chandeliers, are a feast for the eyes. The cavernous central hall is equally impressive. Gleaming marble floors are inlaid with two hemispheres which demonstrate Holland’s global importance during the Dutch Golden Age.

The Dutch Royal Palace of Amsterdam

amsterdam royal palace empire furniture

amsterdam royal palace tour

Hermitage Amsterdam

hermitage amsterdam museum

Interestingly, a branch of the famed Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg can be found in Amsterdam. Opened in 2009, the Hermitage Amsterdam was intended to highlight the long relationship between the Netherlands and Russia. Today, the permanent exhibition is entitled, “Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age,” and features group portraits of prominent 17th century Dutch citizens. At the time of my visit, another large exhibition held the works of Spanish Masters from the Hermitage Collection. Check the museum website to see the current schedule. The vast building, Amstelhof, served as a home for the elderly for over 300 years until it was converted into museum space.

hermitage amsterdam portrait gallery

dutch masters hermitage amsterdam

amsterdam tulip festival

Red Light District

amsterdam red light district

You don’t need the Museum Card to enter Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District, but you do need an open mind and some discretion. Prostitution was legalized in the Netherlands in 1810, though it was quietly tolerated by the authorities at least a century before. De Wallen, Amsterdam’s largest red light district, is also its medieval Old Town. The Oude Kerk, or Old Church, was built in the early 1300s and is Amsterdam’s oldest surviving structure. The neighborhood is more sedate than one might expect since many of the brothels are tucked away in narrow alleys. Often, you can’t see the women until you are standing directly in front of their window. Most seemed bored and were checking their phones, perhaps a way of ignoring the leering crowds constantly passing by. But I was there during the early evening, so the atmosphere could liven up as the night progresses.

A brothel sits prominently next to the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam’s Red Light District

Amsterdam's historic Red Light District

amsterdam red light district

De Wallen, Amsterdam’s oldest neighborhood

Begijnhof

begijnhof amsterdam

Another historic Amsterdam neighborhood is Begijnhof. In the 14th century, almshouses were built around a quiet courtyard as a sanctuary for a group of Beguines – religious women who took a vow of chastity. Although the last official beguine died in 1971, community residence is still restricted to women. The charming brick homes, with their leaning frames and gabled roofs, mostly date to the 17th century. Only one wooden house from about 1520 remains. Spui, the large square outside Begijnhof’s entrance, hosts a weekend flea market that’s also worth a gander.

begijnhof amsterdam

The oldest wooden house in Begijnhof, Amsterdam

Shopping

amsterdam cheese shop

While the city boasts many fabulous shops, two won my heart. The Amsterdam Cheese Company specializes in artisan Dutch cheeses and spreads. The friendly sales woman let me try as many samples as I wanted until I was sure of my choices. Of course I would have loved to load my suitcase with the entire contents of the store, but settled for two wheels of Dutch Gold Gouda (7 Months and Cumin) and a jar of Honey Thyme Mustard.

I also took home a few Delft Blue KLM Houses sold at Kramer Arts & Antiques. The family-owned shop may be best known for its stock of antique tiles, but I couldn’t resist snagging a few of the charming little houses as a souvenir of my trip. Originally filled with Dutch gin, or genever, the porcelain bottles are modeled after actual buildings in Amsterdam. Since the 1950s, KLM Airlines has given one to every passenger lucky enough to fly in World Business Class.

kramer antiques amsterdam

What are some of your favorite spots in Amsterdam?

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A Windswept Day at Kinderdijk, Netherlands

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No image is more iconically Dutch than the windmill. (Well, except maybe the tulip.) For centuries its sails have harnessed the power of wind to help manufacture items as varied as paper, mustard, and chalk. Saw mills were particularly important in early shipbuilding when a large naval fleet was a key to economic success. Later, as natural drainage systems in the Netherlands began to fail, pumping mills controlled water levels and reclaimed land for the low-lying country. The advent of the steam engine eventually rendered traditional mills obsolete, though thankfully 1,000 or so still stand. One of the best places to see historical windmills in action is Kinderdijk. The network of 19 mills has been so perfectly preserved that it’s been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. When a friend casually mentioned that she wanted to race past the windmills like Hans Brinker, I didn’t need much convincing.

We rented bikes from a shop near the entrance and pedaled merrily along the dykes and canals. The wind was brisk, as was to be expected, but not unpleasant. The further along the path we rode, the thinner the crowds became. Local men sat fishing while sneaky ducks and birds tried to steal their catch. A lone woman on horseback sauntered past, presumably from one of the neighboring villages which I wish I’d had time to explore. The complete cycle route around Kinderdijk is 60 kilometers long, though at my snail’s pace that would take me two days at least.

Kinderdijk windmills

A windmill in Kinderdijk, Netherlands

Kinderdijk Netherlands

Kinderdijk UNESCO site

The UNESCO listed windmills of Kinderdijk, Netherlands

Kinderdijk windmills

Two of the historic Kinderdijk windmills have been converted into museums. The 1950s-style interiors have been left intact, giving visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the families that lived in and operated the mills. One family had 12 children! It’s incredible to think about all those kids sleeping next to churning gears and playing in the yard while the sails swung round and round.

Dutch windmill

Kinderdijk windmill museum

It’s possible to travel from Amsterdam to Kinderdijk via public transportation, but plan for a full day trip. I took the train from Amsterdam to Utrecht, then rode bus 90 to Kinderdijk. The most challenging part of the journey was buying the bus ticket in Utrecht, as the line at the counter was long. In hindsight, it might have been faster to transit through nearby Rotterdam, but I enjoyed the two hour ride through the bucolic Dutch countryside. Food options at the park are limited, so bring your own provisions. I bought a sandwich at the Utrecht train station and ate it on the bus.

netherlands bus 90

Kinderdijk bus stop

Is a Kinderdijk day trip on your travel wish list?

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Keukenhof Gardens: A Floral Fantasy Come to Life

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Tulips have long been my favorite flower. Among the first to grace shops and sidewalks, their brilliant hues brighten the gray days of winter like gemstones and foretell of warmer days to come. I relish the ritual of buying that first bunch every year! Although the tulip originally hails from central Asia, it is most associated with Holland. In the 17th century, the Dutch became enraptured with the exotic tulip and a buying frenzy of bulbs caused prices to skyrocket. Thus “tulipomania” was born, the flower forever embedded within the fabric of Dutch culture. There is no better place to experience tulip fever than Keukenhof Gardens.

keukenhof gardens netherlands

What began as a small kitchen garden of a 15th century countess has grown into an annual extravaganza featuring more than 7 million bulbs! 800 tulip varieties are on display, along with a multitude of spring perennials such as daffodils, crocuses, and hyacinths. Flower beds flow through the park like the rivers of candy in Willy Wonka’s factory. Swans and ducks ply the actual waterways, while a traditional wooden windmill pirouettes through the sky. The whole place is pure magic.

keukenhof gardens

Pink tulips in bloom at Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands

keukenhof gardens

keukenhof holland

keukenhof gardens in april

Springtime in Holland

keukenhof gardens netherlands

holland flower fields

Large pavilions host an assortment of floral shows throughout the spring season. I was most impressed by the tulip exhibition inside the Willem-Alexander Pavilion. Delighted visitors were greeted with row upon row of vibrant blooms and I could easily have spent several hours admiring them all.

holland tulips

tulips holland

keukenhof holland

keukenhof gardens

Every year Keukenhof Gardens boast a new theme. When I visited in 2016, the theme was the “Dutch Golden Age,” a period of history in which Holland achieved great artistic success and economic prosperity. This was supposedly demonstrated by a mosaic made of flowers, but it wasn’t well marked on the map and I missed it completely. However, I did stumble upon a sweet little garden created using broken bits of Delft Blue pottery.

delft blue garden

So when is the best time to visit Keukenhof Gardens? Well, that depends. The park is open every year from late March until mid May, but the weather of the preceding months can greatly affect the blooming season. I went once during the first week of May and sadly most of the tulips had already been cut; a heatwave had caused all the bulbs to blossom much earlier than normal. I overcompensated on my next visit by going the first week of April; the weather was chilly and many of the buds had yet to open. When I eventually return, I’ll aim for the the middle of April – hopefully third time’s the charm! (For those planning a visit to Keukenhof, the blog Tulips in Holland provides a weekly bloom forecast.)

keukenhof gardens

All photos in this post were taken April 6, 2016

keukenhof gardens best time to visit

A flower carpet in Keukenhof Gardens

keukenhof best time to visit

The Keukenhof Express bus is a convenient way to travel to the gardens from Amsterdam. Buses depart from Schiphol airport, outside arrivals area 3-4. (Look for the inflatable tulips.) The ride to Keukenhof took about 30 minutes, and the combination ticket included entrance to the gardens at a discounted rate.

amsterdam to keukenhof bus

If you want to tiptoe (or bike) through the neighboring tulip fields of Lisse, give yourself plenty of time. I was exhausted after many hours wandering through Keukenhof and so had to content myself with blurred glimpses from the bus window on my way back to town. Had more fields been blooming, I would have made them a priority.

tulip fields in netherlands

Is a spring visit to Keukenhof Gardens on your travel wish list?

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Three Days in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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I recently returned home from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and am excited by the changes I witnessed since my first visit four years ago. The city’s skyline has so many glitzy new additions as to be almost unrecognizable. The massive coils of electrical wires that once snaked overhead have been neatly buried, while pedestrian crosswalks (with lights!) have been added at many intersections. Western chains like Starbucks and Carls Jr. have spread like wildfire. Yet some things remain charmingly familiar: women in traditional hats selling fruit and snacks from baskets on the sidewalk; scooters swarming the streets like schools of fish; crumbling French colonial facades overgrown with tropical plants.

ho chi minh city tet decorations

ho chi minh city nightlife

ho chi minh city street food

driving in ho chi minh city

My parents joined me this time around, keen to explore a place of historical significance for Americans of a certain age. Our visit coincided with the lead-up to Tet, what the Vietnamese call Lunar New Year. Colorful decorations heralding the Year of the Rooster lent a fun and festive air to the already vibrant city. I loved having my family along even though it meant a less strenuous sightseeing schedule than normal. But even with our leisurely pace, we managed to see a lot thanks to the city’s easy walkability. It also helps that many of the key attractions are centered in District 1. The itinerary I’m sharing here combines the best of both trips, highlighting the Saigon of yore and the rapidly developing Asian metropolis of today. Here is how I recommend spending three days in Ho Chi Minh City.

ho chi minh city vietnam

tet decorations saigon

year of the rooster vietnam

celebrating tet in vietnam

A good starting point is Reunification Palace, the seat of power of what was once South Vietnam. Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1975, marking the end of the Vietnam-American War. Two of the tanks that crashed dramatically through the palace’s front gates remain parked on the lawn, symbols of the North’s victory. The building has been turned into a museum, with the 1970s interior left intact. Visitors can wander three floors of fully furnished rooms, as well as the rooftop veranda and underground bunker still hung with military maps. Reunification Palace closes every day between 11:00-13:00, so be sure to plan accordingly. Also note that the building doesn’t have a/c and can get oppressively hot in the afternoons.

Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City

reunification palace tank

reunification palace tour

reunification palace interior

reunification palace bunker

Take an early lunch break at Nha Hang Ngon, which I happily discovered on my last trip to Vietnam. While I thought the quality had diminished slightly since that first euphoric experience, you really can’t go wrong with a big steaming bowl of pho inside an old French villa!

nha hang ngon saigon

vietnamese pho

The French colonial empire of Indochina, which included most of modern-day Vietnam, lasted from 1887 to 1954. During that time, French authorities constructed an array of lovely government buildings and theaters in the hopes of wooing European settlers to the exotic outpost. The Saigon Central Post Office is a shining example from that era. A sunny yellow exterior (freshly painted since my last visit) fronts a cavernous space bustling with activity; my mom was amazed to find that the beautifully restored edifice still serves as a working post office! It’s a great place to buy postcards and stamps, as well as magnets, books, and other souvenirs.

saigon post office

Saigon Central Post Office

saigon central post office

Notre Dame Cathedral floats in the center of a busy street a few steps from the post office. This Roman Catholic church, erected on the site of a disused pagoda, was established in Saigon in the 1880s to serve the needs of French colonists. All the building materials were imported from France, while the statue of Our Lady of Peace gracing the small garden out front is made of Roman granite. Today the cathedral is only open for religious services.

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

saigon traffic

A few blocks away is the unmissable Ho Chi Minh City Hall, a near replica of the Hotel de Ville in Paris for which it was originally named. A statue of “Uncle Ho,” arm outstretched to greet his followers, towers over the square out front. While not open to the public, the elegant building makes a perfect backdrop for photos.

ho chi minh city hall

My parents were ready for a break at this point, so we headed back to our hotel for a bit. I chose the Caravelle Saigon both for its convenient District 1 location next to the Saigon Opera House and for its historical status. Originally opened by the French in 1959, the Caravelle became home base for foreign journalists covering the war. It’s said that towards the end of the conflict, as the front moved ever closer to Saigon, reporters could watch the action from the rooftop bar – then the highest point in the city! That famous bar is still there, though thankfully a fiery sunset is the most action it sees these days.

caravelle hotel saigon

caravelle saigon rooftop bar

saigon sunset

We kept the French theme going with dinner at Au Parc Saigon. The Mediterranean menu has something for just about everyone, from hummus and falafel to pasta and grilled seafood. I opted for a Greek salad, Middle Eastern spiced chicken, and a cup of dark chocolate mousse. Every bite was perfection!

au parc saigon

au parc saigon menu

After a leisurely morning checking out some of the neighborhood shops, we stopped by L’Usine for an early brunch. I savored the pulled pork, pumpkin, and potato hash while my parents thoroughly enjoyed pillowy pancakes topped with honey butter and mixed berry compote. The coffee here is also excellent. After the meal, we perused L’Usine’s expertly curated shop. If I lived in HCMC, this is a space I would frequent!

tet in saigon

The entrance to L’Usine is through the “Art Arcade” on Dong Khoi, opposite the Caravelle.

l'usine saigon

Ben Thanh Market was built in the 1870s, making it one of the oldest French structures in HCMC. The cavernous space is filled to the rafters with a vast array of souvenirs, and throngs of tourists jostle for space along the narrow flues. We bought our requisite t-shirts and moved quickly on to the next attraction, eager to escape the crowds.

ben thanh market saigon

ben thanh market ho chi minh city

vietnam souvenirs

ben thanh market saigon

The Bitexco Financial Tower is easily identified thanks to the jaunty helipad perched on the side. Even with a slew of new high rises, the 68-story tower remains the tallest in HCMC. Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor offers sweeping 360-degree views, and unique high-quality souvenirs can be found in the gift shop. To admire the distinctive helipad from ground level, stroll over to the Saigon River where a new park has been added.

bitexco tower saigon

View of Saigon from Bitexco Financial Tower

saigon skydeck view

saigon river boat

Dedicate the afternoon to one of the city’s many museums. Ho Chi Minh City Museum is housed in lovely Gia Long Palace, another French-era construction. The grand staircase, long airy corridors, and tile floors are definitely worth a gander. The museum itself features an odd assortment of exhibits ranging from natural history and farm equipment to old maps and coins. There is an interesting display on the wedding rituals of the country’s various ethnic groups, including costumes, bride gifts and dowry items. Vietnam’s war history is also covered in depth.

gia long palace saigon

ho chi minh city museum

My favorite restaurant from the earlier trip, Temple Club, was a bit of a disappointment the second time around. In fact, I hesitated to include it here. But that first meal was SO GOOD that I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt – maybe they were simply having an off night. Every table in the place was full, after all.

temple club saigon

What’s with all this lettuce?

More adventurous types would do well to book a food tour with Saigon Street Eats. I previously ate my weight in crustaceans on the Seafood Trail tour, and would recommend it to anyone keen to experience the local culture.

saigon street eats seafood tour

Another highlight from my first trip was a visit to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, which was erected by Cantonese immigrants in 1909 to honor the preeminent Taoist god. The colorful temple filled with incense, worshipers, tourists, and a handful of feral dogs doubles as a turtle sanctuary. Feeding the creatures is a popular merit-making ritual for religious faithful. Jade Emperor Pagoda is a pleasant 30-minute walk from the Caravelle Hotel.

jade emperor pagoda saigon

Take a slight detour on the way back to enjoy lunch at Pho Hoa Pasteur, one of the city’s most popular pho noodle joints. You’ll be rewarded with simple, hearty flavors in a lively yet unpretentious atmosphere.

pho hoa pasteur saigon

For a decadent dessert, make your way to Fly Cupcake Garden Cafe. While I haven’t been to the new location, Fly Cupcakes are some of the most creative and delectable I’ve had the pleasure of eating. I know from experience that it can be difficult to choose between the many varieties, so order two to make up for all the calories lost wandering around HCMC in the searing heat.

fly cupcake saigon

If the weather is nice, consider spending the rest of the afternoon relaxing by the Caravelle’s outdoor swimming pool. This is a vacation after all!

caravelle saigon pool

Alternatively, you can opt for a day trip to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels. The tenacious Vietnamese dug a vast network of underground tunnels to aide in their fight for independence against the French. Several decades later, the tunnels played a key role in the North Vietnamese defeat of the American-South Vietnamese alliance. Going down into those same tunnels as a tourist is a surreal experience. Even though those at Cu Chi have been widened enough for larger Westerner-sized bodies to squeeze through, I still felt claustrophobic after a five minute crawl. I can’t imagine living down there in the dark for months at a time! The site’s anti-American vibe might be a bit disconcerting for some – which is partly why I didn’t take my parents – but it was enlightening to learn about the war from a different perspective.

cu chi tunnels vietnam

How would you spend three days in Ho Chi Minh City?

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My Top 10 Riga Day Trip Ideas

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Given Riga’s considerable charms, visitors may be reluctant to leave the Latvian capital for even a short time. But a day trip to a nearby town or national park can provide an even richer picture of life in this Baltic nation. Thanks to Latvia’s compact size, most places within its borders can be seen in a day if you have your own wheels. For the purposes of this post, I’m sticking with destinations reachable via public transport. Latvia’s bus and train connections are extremely affordable, and the English websites fairly easy to use so long as you know the station names. (AO is short for “autoosta,” Latvian for “bus station”.) It’s worth researching both options to find the time and route that best fits your schedule, though I note my preferred way to reach each spot in the descriptions below. Without further ado, I give you my 10 favorite Riga day trips!

Sigulda

snowboarding sigulda latvia

Whether you’re a winter sports enthusiast or an avid hiker, an adrenaline junkie or a medieval history nerd, Sigulda has you covered. Situated in picturesque Gauja National Park, Sigulda boasts some of the steepest hills that remarkably flat Latvia has to offer. As such, it’s one of the country’s premier winter sports destinations. Here you can find downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and a professional-grade bobsleigh and luge track that operates year round.

turaida castle latvia

For those craving less strenuous pursuits, Sigulda is home to some fascinating medieval castle ruins and museums. To make the most of your time at the spectacular Turaida Museum Reserve, catch bus mini bus 3112 from Sigulda station. The bus services the 5km circuit between Sigulda, Turaida, and Krimulda Manor and costs €0.50 each way. October is arguably the best time to visit Sigulda, when the colorful foliage is at its peak. A cable car across the Gauja river provides expansive views of the pristine forest and easy access to Krimulda Manor. You can pick up free maps at the Tourist Information Center located inside the train station. Riga to Sigulda: 1 hr 15 min via train. 

Jelgava

jelgava palace

Despite nearly being wiped off the map during WWII, Latvia’s fourth-largest city has much to recommend it. Begin your day at the Holy Trinity Church (a 15-minute walk from the station). The lone surviving tower offers sweeping city views from a glassed-in observation deck. Look for Jelgava Palace on the horizon, a crumbling pink relic of the Duchy of Courland that now serves as the Latvian University of Agriculture. Don’t miss the 40-strong herd of wild horses that graze in the meadows behind the palace!

jelgava wild horses

jelgava museum

Another pretty-in-pink structure is Academia Petrina. Originally the first university in Latvia, the striking building now houses the Jelgava History and Art Museum, a must for anyone who wants to better understand the city’s heart wrenching history. In August, Jelgava hosts the annual Milk, Bread, and Honey Festival showcasing – you guessed it – locally-made milk, bread, and honey. Riga to Jelgava: 49 minutes via train. 

Rundale Palace

rundale palace latvia

To get a taste of Latvia’s lost 18th century grandeur, head to Rundale Palace. Fondly referred to as “the Versailles of Latvia,” the summer home of the erstwhile Dukes of Courland has been painstakingly restored and lavishly refurnished with antiques. Guided tours are available, though visitors are free to wander through the sumptuous rooms on their own. Pay special attention to the intricate stucco work and blue-and-white porcelain stoves – three of which are original! Rundale is lovely year round, though it shines brightest during the summer months when the gardens are in bloom. Riga to Rundale Palace (via Bauska): 1 hr 30 min via bus, plus wait time between buses.

rundale roses

rundale palace interior

Since you’ll need to pass through the town of Bauska to get to Rundale Palace, you might as well stop and explore a bit. From the bus station, it’s a 15 minute walk to the Tourist Information Center in Town Hall Square. Here you’ll also find the Bauska History and Art Museum and Tornis Taverna, a great option for lunch. The surrounding streets are lined with heritage wooden architecture, and the town’s old white church is worth a gander.

Bauska Castle Latvia

If time permits, continue another 20 minutes or so on foot to Bauska Castle. Perched on a hill between two forks of the Lielupe River, the crumbling Livonian castle ruins offer a terrific vantage point for admiring the quaint little town. A restored 16th-century manor house abuts the castle and serves as a somewhat sparse museum, though it’s worth the price of admission to admire the colorful tiled floors! Riga to Bauska: 1 hr 15 min via bus.

Tukums

tukums latvia

tukums latvia

In the 13th century, the Livonian town of Tukums gained significance as a stop on the trade route to Prussia. After the Livonian Order gave way to the Duchy of Courland, trade routes expanded and industry in Tukums boomed. All that remains of the Livonian’s once-great castle is a solitary tower, now the Tukums Museum. The charming old town has retained its original layout, with the market square at its center. The surrounding cobbled streets are lined with historic storefronts, art galleries and churches. Riga to Tukums: 1 hr 20 min via bus or train. If you take the train, be sure to get off at the Tukums 1 stop, which is much closer to the old town than Tukums 2.

durbe manor latvia

A half-hour walk from Tukums 1 Station away from the old town will lead to Durbes Pils, a restored 17th century manor house. The grand estate was owned by various Baltic German nobles before being bestowed upon famous Latvian poet and playwright, Rainis. During the Soviet era, Durbe Manor was used as a sanatorium; it was taken over by the Tukums Museum in 1991. Today, the ground floor recreates the scene of 19th century aristocratic life, while the first floor exhibits focus on the works of Rainis.

Kemeri National Park

kemeri bog walk

On the Baltic coast not far from Tukums sits the vast expanse of Kemeri National Park. The huge territory is covered by forests, lakes, and wetlands that are home to a wide array of birds and mammals. One of the best ways to experience this special ecosystem is the Great Kemeri Bog Boardwalk. Raised wooden trails loop around the peat marsh, making it easy to traverse the challenging terrain. Be sure to climb the wooden tower at the boardwalk’s halfway point for a birds-eye view of the unusual landscape. Riga to Kemeri: 1 hour via train. Note that it’s a three kilometer walk from the train station to the raised bog, but bicycle rentals are available.

Dobele

dobele castle ruins latvia

This tiny town traces its roots to the Middle Ages when the Livonian Order ruled the land. Dobele Castle, the knights’ sprawling command center, was left in ruins after centuries of war. But what splendid ruins! I thought they were some of the most impressive Latvia has to offer thanks to their unrestored appearance. The old town square is a short 10-minute walk from Dobele Castle and is noteworthy for its historic Lutheran church and large well-shaped fountain.

dobele lilac garden latvia

Believe it or not, Dobele is also home to the largest lilac garden in Europe. In the 1950s, Peter Upitis began cultivating lilacs and today his namesake garden boasts over 200 lilac trees. The annual Dobele Lilac Festival, which takes place in late May when the garden is in full bloom, is not to be missed! Riga to Dobele: 1 hr 30 min via bus.

Talsi

talsi latvia

To experience an idyllic slice of small-town Latvian life, head to Talsi. I was completely enchanted by its cobbled streets, historic architecture, friendly locals, and peaceful lake-side setting. A well-tended wooden boardwalk circles the lake, making it an excellent place for a walk. Talsi’s main attractions are the District Museum and Creative Yard, a work and exhibition space for local artists. Dining options abound, though I strongly suggest having lunch at Martinelli’s Restaurant and an afternoon snack at Piena Seta, a bakery next to the dairy factory. Wheels of Talsi cheese make an excellent souvenir! Riga to Talsi: 2 hr 10 min via bus.

Salaspils

latvia botanical garden salaspils

latvia botanic garden salaspils

Latvia’s National Botanic Garden boasts the largest collection of plants, flowers, and trees in the Baltics. What began as a small nursery in the 1800s has grown to include some 14,000 species from around the world. The Garden is spread over 129 hectares and open year round. I visited in spring when the tulips and snowdrops were in bloom. A highlight is the gleaming new greenhouse stocked full with cacti and diverse tropical flora. The main entrance to the Botanic Garden is directly adjacent to the train station, and the ticket office doubles as the town’s tourist information center. In summer you can rent bicycles to help you reach the other points of interest in Salaspils. (My friend and I hired a taxi for a few hours for around €20.) These include the riverside ruins of St. George’s Church and a Monument to Soviet Prisoners of War. Riga to Salaspils: 25 minutes by train.

Salaspils Memorial Latvia

The entrance to Salaspils reads: “Behind this gate the earth groans.”

salaspils memorial ensemble

salaspils concentration camp

The Salaspils Memorial stands in stark contrast to the natural beauty of the Botanic Garden a mere five kilometers away. In 1941, the Nazis established a work and prison camp in Salaspils, which was located on the main train line between Daugavpils and Riga. Between 1942 and 1944, thousands of prisoners passed through the camp, many on their way to larger camps in Poland and Germany. Those who were incarcerated at Salaspils were forced to work in dismal conditions. Many died of starvation and disease, while others were executed. Sadder still is the knowledge that young children were among the many victims: a mass grave on the site has been found to contain the remains of over 600 children. Stand quietly on the camp’s concrete foundations to hear the steady heartbeat of a metronome, a constant reminder of the lives lost. Soviet authorities established the Salaspils Memorial in 1967. The site is difficult to reach without a vehicle, but I’m including it because of its historical and cultural importance.

Ogre

ogre latvia

Ogre is pronounced “Ooh-uh-gray” in Latvian

That’s right, there’s a town in Latvia named after a hideous people-eating monster! Or is there? According to local legend, Empress Catherine the Great, who was born in the region, named the river угри or ugri, after the eels which once swam its depths. Whatever the reason for the unusual moniker, I knew I had to see this place for myself.

ogre river latvia

Ogre is a popular place to live thanks to its easy striking distance of Riga, and is actually one of the few towns in Latvia with an increasing population. The town itself is adorable, though admittedly low on attractions. The map I picked up at the tourist office proudly pointed out each of the heritage buildings lining the main street. There’s also a small history museum and a smattering of cafes. But mostly, people come to Ogre for the nature. A walking path follows the gently meandering Ogre River, which is spanned by the longest arched bridge in Latvia. I had hoped to visit the much lauded Zilie Kalni – or Blue Hills – Nature Park, but the walking distance from town was too great, even for me. Riga to Ogre: 40 minutes via train.

Jurmala

jurmala beach latvia

majori latvia

Last but not least is Jurmala, the famous resort town on the Baltic Sea. Located a mere 25 kilometers from Riga, it’s easy to see why this is the most popular location with day trippers. What’s surprising is the lack of development. The pristine white sand coast is backed by seemingly endless pine forests, with only a handful of hotels visible on the horizon. Mostly you’ll find secluded holiday homes and quaint townships tucked among the trees. A pedestrian promenade lined with shops and cafes connects the two most popular areas, Dzintari and Majori, known for their blue flag beaches. Visiting in winter? Go cross-country skiing over the frozen sand! Riga to Jurmala: 30 minutes by train. You can disembark at either Dzintari or Majori, though the latter has a nicer station area.

jurmala beach skiing

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Celebrating Christmas in Taipei, Taiwan

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I have a little secret to share: While I continue to report on locales across Latvia and Europe, for the past few months those dispatches have been sent from the tropical island of Taiwan. Technology is amazing, no? Although I missed Riga terribly at first, Taipei has charmed me with its fascinating mix of cultures and religions. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity coexist peacefully, with temples, churches and shrines tucked in every nook and cranny. Although Christians make up just 4% of the island’s population, the Christmas holiday is widely embraced. The friendly people of Taiwan love all things cute, including Santa and Rudolf!

churches in taipei

Christmas decorations around Taipei range from the adorable (an inflatable Canadian moose) to over-the-top consumerist (an electric beer bottle topped with a star). Santas can be found shimmying up palm trees and strings of twinkle lights brighten the balmy December nights. With snow only a remote possibility in these parts, I give the Taiwanese a lot of credit for creating such a festive atmosphere!

Christmas at the Taipei Zoo

taipei love sign

Creepy anime Santa outside the Miramar Entertainment Park.

santas in palm trees

heineken christmas

Surprisingly, I was able to get my European Christmas market fix at the Strasbourg Christmas Market in Taipei. 15 wooden cabins were set up in a plaza under the shadow of the Taipei 101 and stocked with everything from mulled wine and pastries to embroidered dish towels and woolen hats. I wasn’t able to purchase any French treats, as all the tickets for the event had been sold out, but was content to wander under the vibrant illuminations and soak up the holiday cheer.

taipei 101 christmas market

christmas in taipei

While I decided to forgo getting a tree for my apartment, I did stock up on colorful poinsettias at the local flower market. Considering they cost less than US$5 a pop, how could I resist? Taipei’s Jianguo Weekend Flower Market is a veritable treasure trove of seasonal plants and lawn decor. It’s also a great place for watching locals push their pampered pooches around in baby strollers. Yup, that’s a thing!

taipei weekend flower market

taipei weekend flower market

dogs of taiwan

One thing Asia does exceedingly well is seasonal desserts. Meticulously embellished with vivid details, these confections are almost too pretty to eat! Krispy Kreme’s red Santa donuts filled with dark chocolate pudding were my favorite, though the green matcha cakes filled with red bean paste were a close second. (This was a surprise as I didn’t think I liked red bean paste. I guess tastes change!)

krispy kreme christmas donuts

reindeer bread

fancy cakes taiwan

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Celebrating Christmas in Taipei, Taiwan

A Merry and Bright Christmas in Lisbon, Portugal

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When I traveled to Lisbon in December, I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of holiday cheer. Would there be enough things to do in Lisbon at Christmastime? I’m pleased to report that the answer is a resounding yes! Elegant strings of lights glinted off the city’s renowned tile walkways, colorful window displays beckoned shoppers, and decorated trees illuminated public squares. Lisbon’s Christmas markets were overflowing with smoked sausages and wonderfully stinky cheese, while hot sangria replaced the standard mulled wine. Plus, the pleasant weather made it possible to stay outside for hours enjoying the festive atmosphere. If you are looking for a non-traditional European Christmas destination, you might want to give Portugal a try!

lisbon christmas lights

lisbon christmas lights

lisbon holiday lights

Christmas lights in Lisbon, Portugal

christmas in lisbon

lisbon in december

Lisbon’s Christmas Market, or Mercado de Natal, is held inside Campo Pequeno, a lovely red-brick bullfighting arena that was opened in 1890. Several dozen artisans and vendors set up tables around the floor and visitors can browse at their leisure. I bought some wine and cheese, of course, and regretted not having more room in my suitcase for a few pieces of pottery. This neat event is unfortunately a one-off, held either the last weekend in November or first weekend in December. Daily tickets cost a nominal €2 each.

campo pequeno lisbon bullring

lisbon christmas market

lisbon christmas market

lisbon bullring christmas market

lisbon christmas market

portuguese spices

If you miss the Mercado de Natal, you might still be able to catch the Mercado de Baxia. Once a month, tents are set up in Praca da Figueira and a glorious food market takes over. The event has a Christmasy air in November and December when local artisans also sell their wares. I loved browsing with a cup of hot sangria in hand!

mercado de baxia

lisbon food market

mercado de baxia lisbon

Don’t worry if your visit to Lisbon doesn’t coincide with either of these markets. You’ll still find plenty of treats to put you in the holiday spirit. One such treat is ginja, a sweet-and-tart cherry liqueur that owes its origins to Francisco Espinheira, a Galician friar who made creative use of the local Portuguese cherries. The potent drink was first sold commercially in Lisbon at A Ginjinha bar in the Rossio over 170 years ago. Join the crowd outside for a shot or two and you’ll soon be a festive mood!

Lisbon A Ginjinha Bar

Ginjinha Liquor in Lisbon, Portugal

Another centuries-old Lisbon specialty is the egg custard tart. In the 1830s, after a revolution resulted in the closure of monasteries, an out-of-work monk began selling homemade pastries to make ends meet. He operated out of a shop next to a sugar refinery in the Lisbon suburb of Belem. The venture was so successful that the bakery Pasteis de Belem was officially opened in 1837. The recipe for the famous tarts has remained a closely guarded secret ever since, known only to the shop’s master bakers. Whatever’s inside, you won’t be able to have just one!

Pasteis de Belem Lisbon

Pasteis de Nata Belem

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Celebrating Christmas in Lisbon, Portugal

Trakai Castle: A Medieval Fairytale in Lithuania

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I love a good castle. This fact traces to my childhood, when my favorite movie was Disney’s Robin Hood. I delighted in watching the cartoon animals sing and frolic around ye olde countryside and dreamed of being Maid Marion in a castle of my own. (Dramatic scenes were often reenacted on my backyard jungle-gym.) What I didn’t know then was that real stone fortresses are scattered across Europe, just waiting to be explored. While many have been left in ruins due to centuries of war and neglect, others, like Trakai Castle in Lithuania, have been restored to their former glory.

trakai castle

trakai castle

Trakai Castle in Lithuania

Trakai Castle was originally built in the late 1300s to help protect the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and nearby capital Vilnius from crusading Teutonic Knights that plagued the Baltic region. After the troublesome knights were trounced in the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai was no longer needed as a military bastion. Instead, it was refashioned into a ducal palace that remained in use until the end of the 17th century.

trakai castle restoration

The Ducal Palace of Trakai Castle

Ducal Palace of Trakai Castle

Interestingly, several different empires and occupiers had a hand in the restoration of Trakai Castle. Work that was begun by Imperial Russia in the early 1900s was continued by Germans and Poles until the end of World War II. Soviet authorities finished the job and established the Trakai History Museum. The end result is surprisingly cohesive and the stuff childhood fantasies. Stone foundations are topped with red brick towers in the French Gothic style and wooden balconies encircle every floor of the soaring ducal palace. Allow yourself plenty of time to poke around the nooks and crannies, both inside and outside the castle’s thick walls.

trakai castle

trakai castle museum

trakai castle museum

Period furnishings and displays attempt to bring the Middle Ages to life

trakai castle

Trakai Castle is located on a island in Lake Galve and connected to the mainland by wooden bridges. Originally, a second castle protected the shores of the lake, but all that remains of that one are a few watch towers and some crumbling walls. Both castles are encompassed within Trakai Historical National Park, which is on the Tentative List for UNESCO World Heritage status.

trakai historical national park

trakai lithuania

The surrounding town is button-cute, with brightly colored wooden houses fronting immaculate streets. Trakai’s small population is surprisingly diverse, with Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, and Karaites calling the place home. A few restaurants were open during my off-season visit, but I was happy to make do with piping hot kibinai (sweet and savory pastries) from a convenient food truck. I stopped at Trakai en route to Kaunas, but the castle’s proximity to Vilnius makes it an ideal day-trip destination.

trakai lithuania

trakai lithuania wooden architecture

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Trakai Castle, a Medieval Fairytale in Lithuania

The Best Meals We Ate in Kyiv, Ukraine

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Prior to my trip to Kyiv, the only Ukrainian dish I was remotely familiar with was Chicken Kiev. Or so I thought. As it turns out, Kyiv’s best restaurants offer a delightful mix of regional flavors, from Crimea to the Carpathians, and put their unique spin on a range of classic dishes including crispy potato pancakes, pillowy varenyky (pierogi), stuffed grape leaves, cabbage rolls, salty cheese crepes, and good old apple pie. Trendy spots serve up more modern fare and a surprising array of Ukrainian craft beer. Even better, affordable prices make it possible to sample a variety of delicacies without breaking the bank. Here are my favorite meals of the trip, with addresses and pricing information listed below. Know of any other great restaurants or cafes in Kyiv? Share them in the comments!

Musafir

Musafir Restaurant Kiev

Crimean food

Musafir was once the most popular Tatar restaurant in Crimea until Russia annexed the region and forced the owners to relocate to Kyiv. But Crimea’s loss is the capital city’s gain, as Musafir delights locals and tourists alike. Waitresses wear traditional ethnic costumes and the decor hearkens to Turkey or Uzbekistan. All the food at Musafir is halal (Tatars are traditionally Muslim) though Ukrainian beer is available except during Ramadan, because all are welcome here. My favorite dish was yantiki, a baked pouch of thin dough stuffed with meat, cheese, and mushrooms. Served with sour cream and tomato salsa, it reminded me a bit of a Mexican quesadilla. The beef-and-onion manty (dumplings), on the other hand, seemed similar to Tibetan momos. Good food is universal, it seems!

Кіфлик (Kiflik)

Кіфлик Kiflik Restaurant Kiev

Carpathian Mountain Cuisine

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Varvar is a new Ukrainian craft brewery which opened in 2015.

Billed as an “Ethno Gastro Pub,” Kiflik brings the flavors of the Carpathian mountains to downtown Kyiv. There was no English menu at the time of my visit, so I asked the friendly owners to bring me dishes that best represented the region. The first course was a creative take on bruschetta, with thick slices of doughy bread topped with a variety of ingredients including smoked sausage and salty cheese. Next up were dense potato pancakes in a creamy mushroom sauce. The star of the meal was a plate of glazed pork ribs over cabbage noodles which I was very reluctant to share. How I’d love to have another plate of those right now!

Чачапури (Chachapuri)

Chachapuri Restaurant Kiev Ukraine

The bill was delivered in a faux Georgian passport complete with immigration stamp!

Georgian Cuisine

I stoked my curiosity about Georgian cuisine at Chachapuri, one of the top rated restaurants in Kyiv. Grilled meats reigned supreme, from well-seasoned lamb kebab with pomegranate seeds to succulent chicken-and-cheese sausage with buttery zucchini. Everything came heaped with dill and crispy onions. The menu was a bit overwhelming and we definitely ordered too much food, but nary a crumb was left behind. We even devoured the free canapes and vodka (or some other potent clear liquor) that was sent to our table with compliments from the chef. I know that I will eat well when I eventually make it to Georgia!

Lviv Handmade Chocolate

Lviv Handmade Chocolate Kiev

Even though I was stuffed after all that yummy Georgian food, I still managed to roll myself next door to Lviv Handmade Chocolate. Originally dating to the Hapsburg era, the confectionery from western Ukraine has become so popular that branches have opened across the country. You can create your own collection of pretty truffles and bon-bons, which have adorable names like nutty whirligig and pistachio whims, or choose from the boxed assortments. My favorite treat was called honey barrel, though I might need to taste a few more to be sure.

Kocatka

Kosatka Kiev

kyiv16

Kocatka was packed with locals and it’s easy to see why. This hip, European-style gastro pub impressed me with its relaxed atmosphere, friendly service, and, most importantly, some very tasty food. The stewed chicken with lemon and honey came with a heaping serving of baked apples and I worried it would be too sweet, but the combination was wonderfully savory thanks to the use of fresh herbs. Likewise, the creamy chicken and dumplings benefited from a big bunch of peppery arugula. The servings were a little smallish, but that just left room for dessert. I highly recommend ordering a slice of warm apple pie with hints of caramel and ginger! Kocatka is about a 10-minute walk from St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery, making it an ideal spot for lunch on a busy day of sightseeing.

Andrew’s Descent Cafe

kyiv18

I don’t know the name of this little sidewalk cafe on Andrew’s Descent, nor do I know if it’s open year round. But if you see a bunch of umbrellas around the bend from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Museum, pop in for a plate of potato pancakes and a beer. Hungry or not, it’s a great spot for people watching! If I lived in Kyiv, I’d be a regular on weekends.

Restaurant Matisse

City Hotel Kiev

Restaurant Matisse is located on the 15th floor of CITYHOTEL Kyiv.

Traditional Ukrainian Food

Chicken Kiev

Let’s have a close-up of all that butter.

You didn’t really think I’d go all the way to Kyiv and not try the city’s namesake dish, did you? I actually enjoyed Chicken Kiev my very first night in the city! Tired from a day of travel and touring, I opted for dinner in my hotel’s restaurant. While Matisse is primarily known for Italian cooking, I saw online that the chef also offers a menu of Ukrainian specialties. The waiter seemed momentarily surprised when I asked for that one instead of the Italian one offered, but quickly and politely acquiesced. (Of note, the prices on the “national cuisine” menu were drastically lower.) I’m sure the pasta dishes are great, but HELLO CHICKEN KIEV! Herbed butter oozed out in all the right places and it was more wonderful than I dreamed.

City Hotel Kyiv Breakfast

CITYHOTEL’s breakfast buffet, served in Restaurant Matisse, is also worth mentioning. Platters of cold cuts, cheeses, and fresh fruits and vegetables supplemented cooked items, such as potato pancakes with creamy spinach-and-mushroom sauce and perfectly poached eggs. All this was offered alongside warm bread and beautiful pastries which changed daily. Considering breakfast was included in the room rate, I thought CITYHOTEL went above and beyond what was expected. I would definitely stay there again!

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The Best Restaurants in Kiev

Musafir
Address: Saksahanskoho St, 57А, Kyiv, Ukraine
Pricing: €

Кіфлик (Kiflik)
Address: 4 Shota Rustaveli St, Kyiv, Ukraine
Pricing: €€

Чачапури (Chachapuri)
Address: Tarasa Shevchenko Blvd, 36А, Kyiv, Ukraine
Pricing: €€

Lviv Handmade Chocolate
Address: Tarasa Shevchenko Blvd, 36/16, Kyiv, Ukraine
Pricing: €€

Kocatka
Address: Velyka Zhytomyrska St, 25/2, Kyiv, Ukraine
Pricing: €

Andrew's Descent Cafe
Address: Andriivs'kyi descent, 13Б, Kyiv, Ukraine
Pricing: €

Restaurant Matisse @ CITYHOTEL Kyiv 
Address: Bohdana Khmel'nyts'koho St, 56, Kyiv, Ukraine
Pricing: €€

Crazy for Kyiv: My Four Days in Ukraine

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I was searching for flights for a last minute getaway from Riga, and the cheapest direct flight was to Kyiv. Until that moment, Ukraine wasn’t on my travel radar. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was big news in Latvia and the 2014 Euromaidan riots still seemed all too recent. Was it safe to visit Ukraine? Mr. Google said yes so I quickly booked flights and a hotel. What followed were four incredible days discovering a dynamic European capital keen to shake off its turbulent past and welcome tourists with open arms.

During my visit I found Ukrainian flags flying proudly against a backdrop of stunning architecture, UNESCO-listed monasteries glittering in the sun, vibrant street art, hipsters sipping lattes in stylish cafes, and kids on pony rides in leafy parks. It felt a lot like Budapest, but without the annoying crowds. There were so many interesting things to do in Kyiv that I could have spent a month there and still not have done it all. Four days simply weren’t enough.

Kyiv Ukraine

Kyiv Ukraine

Ukrainian Flag

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Kyiv Street Art

Kyiv Soviet Architecture

My first stop was Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, scene of the heaviest violence in 2014. Two years later few signs of destruction were visible. The burned-out Trade Unions Building was draped with white canvas sheets and two vehicles were left parked across the street. A memorial wall dedicated to the dozens of Euromaidan victims stretched up the hill towards Hotel Ukraine.

Kyiv Maidan Square

Kyiv Maidan Memorial

Kyiv Independence Monument

The square itself was completely rebuilt after World War II when Kyiv was all but obliterated by Soviet forces. The new buildings were constructed in the heavy “Stalinist Empire” style and now look wonderfully retro with their colorful block letter signs. All the Soviet monuments came crashing down along with the USSR itself in 1991 and were replaced by symbols of an independent Ukraine.

Kyiv Maidan Square

Kyiv Stalinist Empire Architecture

Many of Kyiv’s main attractions fan off from Maidan and it took me over two days to explore them. One of the most stunning is St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. The cornflower blue cathedral is actually a modern reconstruction of a medieval church destroyed by the Soviets for having “no historical value.” Thankfully, many of the original mosaics were removed before demolition and have since been returned to their rightful place inside the cathedral.

Kyiv St Michaels Golden Domed Monastery

St Michaels Golden Domed Monastery Kyiv

The nearby Saint Sophia’s Cathedral fared much better under the Soviet regime and was saved from destruction by the efforts of scientists and historians. Constructed during the 11th century during the reign of Vladimir the Great, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral was meant to rival its namesake, the Hagia Sophia, in what was then Constantinople. After Vladimir’s baptism, Kyiv became ground zero for the spread of the Orthodox faith in the region. Saint Sophia’s breathtaking mosaics and frescoes, created with the help of Byzantine masters, remain largely intact. It’s no wonder this was the first site in Ukraine to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Kyiv St Sophias Cathedral UNESCO

St Sophia Bell Tower Kyiv

Be sure to climb St. Sophia’s bell tower for terrific views of the city!

A little further north is Andrew’s Descent, a steep cobblestone street that winds between two of Kyiv’s historic neighborhoods. The descent is named after the landmark St. Andrew’s Church, a Baroque beauty designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the same architect responsible for the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. About a quarter of the way down is Mikhail Bulgakov’s House, a museum dedicated to the Kyiv-born author. I took a tour given entirely in Ukrainian and understood not a whit, but am now eager to read his novel the White Guard.

St Andrews Church Kyiv

Kyiv Bulgakovs Museum

Kyiv Andrews Descent

Andrew’s Descent is perhaps most famous for the souvenir stands that line the street. Some true gems can be found in with the tourist tack, including vintage Ukrainian fabrics and hand-painted wooden eggs. The sellers were super friendly and happy to pose for photos and have a chat – one man even got an album out of his car to show off the huge fish his son had recently caught!

Kyiv Souvenir Shopping

The Podil neighborhood at the base of Andrew’s Descent is home to the Chernobyl Museum which provides an in-depth look at the world’s worst nuclear disaster. When a reactor at a power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine exploded in 1986, it released 400 times more radioactive material than the Hiroshima bomb. Informative headsets walk visitors through every stage of the cataclysmic event, from the initial explosion and aftermath to the continuing impact of radiation poisoning on humans and the environment. The museum calls out the Soviet regime for attempting to downplay the disaster and blame the reactor’s operators rather than admit to faulty design and inadequate training as the main causes. The whole situation is astounding, and you’ll want to allow several hours to fully absorb the details.

Kyiv Chernobyl Museum

Kyiv Chernobyl Museum

Kyiv Chernobyl Museum

South of Maidan you’ll find architectural landmarks including the Golden Gate, National Opera of Ukraine, and House with Chimeras. I had hoped to see Mariyinski Palace, but it was undergoing restoration at the time of my visit and completely hidden from view. The Museum of Western and Oriental Art was a very pleasant surprise, however. In 1918, at the “urging” of the new Soviet regime, Varvara Khanenko “donated” the private collection of her recently deceased husband, Bohdan, along with their beautiful home to the city of Kyiv. European paintings, Chinese porcelain, Roman sculptures, and Byzantine icons are displayed inside the rooms of the restored mansion. My mouth dropped open when I first entered and saw the grand wooden staircase – and it only got more impressive from there!

Kyiv Landmarks

Last but certainly not least is Pechersk Lavra, or Cave Monastery, a unique complex included in the UNESCO listing for Saint Sophia’s. Commanding center stage are the Dormition Cathedral and Great Bell Tower, which is absolutely worth climbing for its spectacular views. The cathedral was blown up during WWII and rebuilt in 2000, but you’d never know it. The reconstruction was meticulous!

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra UNESCO

Kyiv Dormition Cathedral

I may have snuck a photo of the interior. Shhh.

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Great Bell Tower

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

What makes Pechersk Lavra unique is the labyrinth of caves hidden below ground. At one time, 1,200 monks lived in these subterranean cells. The narrow corridors are supposedly lined with the mummified remains of some of the monks, but I can’t confirm this. I didn’t have time to explore the caves because I spent too long gaping at all the pretty things in the Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Folk Art, housed in one of the monastery buildings. But seriously, look at these gorgeous fabrics! I’ll just have to go back to Kyiv to explore the rest of the complex.

Kyiv Ukranian Folk Art

Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Folk Art

Kyiv Folk Art Museum

I wasn’t able to get my hands on a guidebook in time for my trip, but it turns out that I didn’t need one. The tourist map I got from my hotel was so detailed that it even listed the hours and addresses of all the top sights. Super helpful and time saving on a short visit – kudos to the Kyiv tourism board!

I was also impressed with Kyiv’s extremely efficient metro system. Three lines make it easy to access nearly all parts of the city, and rides cost a mere four hryvnias (about 15 cents). Some stations are decorated with the standard Soviet motifs of wheat boughs, stars, hammers and sickles, while others feel more modern. The Arsenalna station – which you’ll pass through if you go to Pechersk Lavra – is the deepest metro station in the world!

Kyiv Metro

Stay tuned for my Kyiv restaurant recommendations in an upcoming post.

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Top things to do in Kyiv, Ukraine