Krka National Park: Croatia’s Summer Playground

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Have you ever dreamed about swimming in a crystal clear pool fed by a waterfall? One that you reach by hiking through the mountains to a secluded location? Then Krka National Park in Croatia is the destination for you!

The Krka River gently wends through Croatia’s Dinara mountains before reaching the turquoise depths of the Adriatic Sea. The mineral-rich river cascades over travertine waterfalls, with pools forming at their base. Skradinski Buk is the largest and most dramatic of the waterfalls and considered one of Croatia’s natural wonders.

Skradinski Buk Croatia

Skradinski Buk Waterfall Croatia

A well-kept boardwalk surrounds Skradinski Buk. It took me about two hours to complete the circuit, but this included frequent stops at the many viewpoints I found along the way. Swimming is allowed in the Skradinski pool, so wear your swimsuit to take a refreshing dip after finishing the walk. Some folks bring blankets and picnic baskets and while away an entire day in the shade of the trees next to the river. Those wishing to explore more of the park can continue on walking trails to a few other waterfalls.

Krka National Park Croatia

Swimming in Krka National Park Croatia

“Krka or Plitvice, which is better?” The short answer is that there is no wrong choice. Both parks feature extraordinary mountain landscapes dotted with lakes and waterfalls. Plitvice is probably better for more serious hikers as some of the trails are quite steep. Plitvice also warrants an overnight stay due to its more remote location. But swimming isn’t allowed in the Plitvice Lakes, so if that’s your dream, head to Krka. The following photos are from my walk in Krka National Park. To see shots from my visit to Plitvice, click here.

Krka National Park Croatia

Krka National Park Croatia

Krka National Park Croatia

Krka National Park Croatia

Walking in Krka National Park Croatia

Travertine waterfall in Croatia

I drove to Krka National Park on my two-week road trip up the coast of Croatia. It was an easy one hour drive from Zadar and I found free parking at the well-marked Lozovac entrance. If I had the trip to do over again, I would spend the night in the nearby town of Skradin and take a boat ride up the Krka River to see the island monastery. There’s just never enough time to do everything!

Krka River Croatia

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Parnu, Estonia: Baltic Sea Paradise

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Paradise / noun : a place or state of bliss, felicity, or delight

What comes to mind when you hear the word “paradise?” A sandy shoreline dotted with spa resorts, perhaps? Tourism industries in far flung locales like Bali, Thailand, and the Caribbean are thriving thanks to plenty of folks seeking exactly that.

But paradise can come in many different forms – and climates. If you happen to live in Northern Europe, there’s an option much closer to home!

Parnu, Estonia is located on the Baltic coast about halfway between Tallinn and Riga. Hugged by the shallow waters of the Gulf of Riga, the pristine white sands of Parnu Beach stretch as far as the eye can see. Development has been kept to a minimum, with bird-watching towers outnumbering high-rise hotels. In fact, you can’t see any hotels from the beach. These have been tucked discretely behind the dunes, inside Parnu Beach Park. The beach features a lovely promenade, playground equipment, and, curiously, a large elephant-shaped slide. Those wishing to indulge in some serious relaxing should head to the hotel spas for which the town has become famous.

A fifteen minute walk inland will lead you to the historic center of Parnu. Founded in 1251, this picturesque town nestled between the Baltic Sea and Parnu River quickly grew into an important port. Parnu was incorporated into the prosperous Hanseatic League, which thrived during the late Middle Ages. The old town was unfortunately ravaged by fire, and later, war, so that only the medieval street layout and one lone prison tower remain intact. You’ll likely pass through Tallinn Gate, a 17th century gate that once formed part of the city’s fortifications.

Tallinn Gate Parnu Estonia

A medieval fortification in Parnu Estonia

The current architecture is an eclectic mix of 17th, 18th, and 19th century styles. Baroque stucco, half-timber facades, and Art Nouveau flourishes stand shoulder to shoulder, accented with the most wonderfully painted doors! Lutheran and Orthodox church spires punctuate the sky, and bells peal come prayer time. The main street running through the center of old Parnu is closed to traffic, making it a perfect place to stroll.

Parnu Estonia

Parnu architecture

The colorful architecture of Old Parnu, Estonia.

Parnu doors

An Orthodox Church in Parnu, Estonia

Parnu Estonia

A beautiful door in Parnu, Estonia

Parnu Estonia

Parnu’s most notable attraction is the Mary-Magdalene Guild. A collection of artisan workshops and studios is housed within a restored wooden house in the center of town. Visitors can meander through the studios and chat with the artists while they work. I was particularly taken with the colorful rugs in the weaving studio run by artist Mare Pernik. (To visit her Etsy shop, click here.) A shop of the ground floor offers a wide array of Estonian handicrafts for sale. The Guild is only open until 3pm on Saturdays and is closed on Sundays, so be sure to plan accordingly.

Mary Magdalene Guild Parnu Estonia

Mary Magdelene Guild

Charming cafes and restaurants abound. I recommend spending at least one night in Parnu to give yourself plenty of opportunities to enjoy them. Kohvik Supelsaksad is the best of the bunch. The menu features satisfying salads and pastas, and the whimsical decor is sure to delight. Wine Piccadilly is also a nice spot to rest cobblestone-weary feet. Their banana toffee pie is the most delicious thing I tasted the entire weekend!

Kohvik Supelsaksad is awash in pretty pastels and vintage style.

Kohvik Supelsaksad Parnu cafe

parnu wine bar

Enjoying a slice of banana toffee pie at Wine Piccadilly in Parnu, Estonia

For a more modern take on Estonian cuisine, check out the offerings at Hea Maa Restaurant. Each artistically presented plate consists of only the freshest seasonal, local ingredients; our waitress was able to tell us the specific farms from which the items were sourced!

Hea Maa restaurant can be accessed via the courtyard next to Parnu’s tourist information center.

I chose to stay at the more centrally located Parnu Hotel instead of one of the posh beach resorts. The Soviet-style hotel was built on the site of Endla Theater, which was destroyed during WWII; a memorial to the culturally significant theater stands in a park across the street. Rooms at the Parnu Hotel are sparse, but comfortable. Ask for one facing the the old town for the best view!

Parnu Hotel

Parnu Estonia

A more luxurious option is Ammende Villa. The mansion was built in 1905 by a family of wealthy German traders. Used as a casino and then a health center by the Soviets after WWII, Ammende Villa has been fully restored to its Art Nouveau glory and converted into a boutique hotel. But even if you don’t stay at the Villa, visitors are free to wander around the ground floor rooms and admire the atmosphere. The stately exterior opens onto a two-story lobby hung with a massive chandelier and a bevy of hunting trophies. The dark woods of the billiard room are offset by the light airiness of the elegant dining room and cozy mauve shades of the parlor. I can only imagine the beauty of the upstairs guest rooms!

Ammende Villa Parnu

Is Parnu, Estonia your idea of paradise?

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My Favorite Cafes in Riga, Part 3

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One thing that continually impresses me about Riga is its well-developed cafe scene. First-time visitors to the city might be surprised to find expertly-brewed coffee, delectable pastries, and free WiFi at nearly every turn. Many cafes offer affordable business lunch sets of two or three courses for less than 10 euros. You will definitely not go hungry in this city! My go-to choices remain Art Cafe Sienna, Bakeberry, Makonis, Rocket Bean, and Index – which you can read about in parts one and two of this series. But variety is the spice of life, especially when that variety comes in pastry form. Add some zest with these Riga cafes!

Cafeterius Riga

cafeterius riga

A swath of central Riga between Gertrudes and Stabu ielas has become super trendy and packed with dining options in the last few years. Among the newest entrants is Cafeterius Riga. This cute little cafe beckons visitors with its cozy window nooks and keeps them happy with outstanding service and tasty treats. I followed the advice of the friendly gal behind the counter and tried their homemade Riga Black Balsam Currant cake. I encourage everyone to do the same – it’s fabulous! Quiches, salads, and sandwiches are also available.

Beze Konditoreja

beze konditoreja riga

beze cafe riga

Best Cafes Riga Latvia

A few blocks away is popular bakery Beze Konditoreja. The display cases are filled with beautiful confections that are surprisingly affordable; I don’t feel even a little guilty about ordering two at a time! Cakes and desserts are also available for pre-order should you wish to make your next event a little more special.

Laci

laci cafe riga

laci bakery riga

Famed Latvian bread maker Laci has opened a new cafe on Terbatas iela, and the aroma wafting out its doors is irresistible. Inside on the counter, baskets overflow with freshly baked cinnamon buns and savory meat pies. Cases by the door are stacked with pretty pastries and topped with trays of marmalade candy. Sip a latte while enjoying your treats in the back cafe area, then pick up a loaf of bread to go. Whole cheesecakes and tortes are also available.

Vest

vest riga

vest knockout barbershop riga

Latvian men have jumped on the facial hair bandwagon and a slew of chic barber shops have opened accordingly. One is Knockout Barbershop, which has several locations around Riga including one inside the hipster pub, Vest. The dining room/bar area overlooks the barbershop so that you essentially get free entertainment while you eat. While not technically a cafe in the truest sense, Vest offers one of Riga’s better business lunches (two courses for €7). Bonus: all the waitstaff are impeccably groomed.

Trusis

Trusis means “rabbit” in Latvian and, as you would guess, this cafe serves up healthy vegetarian lunch sets. (One meat option is also usually available.) The tastiest dishes tend to sell out so arrive early for the best selection. And if you see vegetarian lasagna on the menu, run don’t walk for a slice of that cheesy goodness. But I’d skip dessert.

Mon Amour

mon amour cafe riga

mon amour riga cheesecake

You’ll find sweeter offerings at Mon Amour cafe, tucked in an Old Riga alley near St. Peter’s Church. Mon Amour’s homemade cheesecakes are divine! My luscious slice was topped with a silky caramel ganache and fresh strawberry sauce – definitely a winning combination! This charming spot also serves savory snacks for lunch and weekend brunch.

Pasedet

pasedet riga

Caffee Pasedet immediately grabs your attention thanks to its half-timber facade. The interior is just as striking, with its brightly colored retro decor. In addition to an excellent value business lunch set (two courses and a drink for €5.30), Pasedet serves a variety of soups, salads, and pastas, as well as more substantial dinner plates.

Parunasim

Parunasim bills itself as “the most romantic cafe in Riga.” I don’t know if that’s true, but Parunasim does have one of the best locations: it’s hidden within an alcove of St. Jacob’s Church, which dates to the Middle Ages. Pricing, though, is definitely 21st century. The creamy fruit pies here are delightful, and you can never go wrong with a glass of vino. Other items are hit or miss.

Martina Bakery

martina bekereja riga

A more dependable, albeit less glamorous, cafe is Martina. Favored by locals, Martina churns out high-quality baked goods at affordable prices. Martina is so popular, in fact, that it can be hard to find a seat. Take your goodies to go instead and enjoy them on a nearby park bench. A half dozen mixed berry tarts should do the trick 😉

Vecriga

vecriga kafejnica

abolu kartaina

Another local favorite is Vecriga, a chain specializing in old fashioned pastries like grandma used to make. The star item in their repertoire is abolu kartaina, or apple “puff.” Kind of like a sheet pie, abolu kartaina consists of a cinnamony apple filling between layers of flaky pastry crust. The dish is a classic, and a Latvian friend assured me that Vecriga makes the best.

Ze Donats

ze donats riga

For more modern confections, head to Ze Donats cafe. The wildly colorful donuts were a hit with my family and guests. The hazelnut cream donuts (lazduriekstu kremigs) are reminiscent of Nutella and were unsurprisingly a crowd pleaser. Ze Donats’ coffee is also pretty good. I usually take everything to go, though seating is available.

Fat Cat

fat cat eclairs riga

Those with a serious sweet tooth should check out the vibrant eclairs at Fat Cat bakery. Opened in April 2017, Fat Cat already has a loyal following and it’s easy to see why. The gorgeously decorated eclairs come in a wide array of scrumptious flavors, like dulce de leche, white chocolate and lavender, and rum-raisin. Good luck deciding which to try first!

BONUS: Rocket Bean Bruvetava

rocket bean old riga cafe

rocket bean coffee riga

Fans of Rocket Bean Roastery will be delighted to find a branch in Old Riga! This small coffee shop, dubbed Rocket Bean’s “little brother,” serves the perfect fuel for a long day of sightseeing.

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Do you have a favorite Riga cafe? Tell me about it in the comments!

Cafeterius Riga
Address: Terbatas iela 45, City Center, Riga, Latvia
Pricing: €€

Beze Konditoreja
Address: Brivibas iela 76, City Center, Riga, Latvia
Pricing: €

Laci
Address: Terbatas iela 34, City Center, Riga, Latvia
Pricing: €

Vest
Address: Stabu iela 1, City Center, Riga, Latvia
Pricing: €€

Trusis
Address: Dzirnavu iela 43, City Center, Riga, Latvia
Pricing: €€

Mon Amour
Address: Jana iela 14, Old Town, Riga, Latvia
Pricing: €€

Caffee Pasedet 
Address: Stabu iela 10/2, City Center, Riga, Latvia 
Pricing: €€ 

Parunasim
Address: Maza Pils iela 4, Old Town, Riga, Latvia
Pricing: €€€

Martina Bakery
Address: Valnu iela 28, Old Town, Riga, Latvia
Pricing: €

Vecriga
Address: Multiple locations; I like the one on Krisjana Valdemara iela
Pricing: €

Ze Donats
Address: Krisjana Valdemara iela 18, City Center, Riga, Latvia
Pricing: €

Fat Cat Eklernica 
Address: Maza Jauniela, Old Town, Riga, Latvia
Pricing: €€

Rocket Bean Bruvetava
Address: Kaleju iela 21, Old Town, Riga, Latvia
Pricing: €€

15 Fun Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Spring

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Spring in Latvia can feel a bit like chasing a unicorn. You want so desperately to catch it, but can’t be sure it even exists. Winter starts in November and by the time March rolls around, it can be hard to remember that there are in fact other seasons throughout the year. But slowly, surely, the days grow steadily longer and the snow melts away. April is the great awakening, when people once again venture outside and buds appear on the trees. Then after a few days of brilliant sunshine, spring rumbles forth like a runaway train. May is the best time to visit Latvia, when the skies are blue and flowers are plentiful, while June tends to be cool and rainy. But no matter the weather, there’s always something fun to do. Here’s my list of the top ways to make the most of the spring season in Riga!

Shake Off Winter’s Chill at Egle 

Egle can be found under the white tents in the bottom center of this photo.

Egle Riga

Egle Beer Garden is hands-down my favorite spot in Old Riga. In all my travels across Europe, I’ve yet to come across another venue that provides such quality musical entertainment for the price of a €3 beer. Local acts perform under the tents each night of the week; you’ll hear everything from Latvian folk tunes to 90s rock covers and 50s swing. There’s a large selection of Latvian beers on tap, and the food is surprisingly good. (Go for the pork belly.) And don’t be put off by cold temperatures – blankets and heat lamps will keep you warm even on the chilliest spring night!

Wade through a Sea of Blue in the Great Cemetery

small blue early spring flowers

Great Cemetery Riga

Spring’s first flush spreads across Riga’s Great Cemetery, where thousands of tiny blue flowers carpet the ground between gravestones. Internet research tells me these early spring flowers are Siberian Squill, which thrive in places with a cold winter. Latvia certainly fits that bill! The cemetery itself is a vast park dotted with the crumbling remains of 18th and 19th century tombs which survived the bulldozers of the Soviet era. In the morning and afternoon hours, you’ll find lots of locals wandering through the park, pushing baby strollers and walking dogs. But the piles of empty vodka bottles inside some of the crypts tell me this spot is best avoided after nightfall. To reach the Great Cemetery, take tram 11 which runs along trendy Miera iela. (Don’t miss Rocket Bean Roastery while you’re in the neighborhood.)

Go Cherry Blossom Peeping in Uzvaras Park

Riga cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms in Riga's Uzvaras park

Riga cherry blossoms

Uzvaras parks riga

Riga Uzvaras Park

I was stunned when photos of pretty pink blossoms starting popping up in my Instagram feed. Could there be cherry trees in Riga? Sure enough, there’s a large cluster of them across the Daugava in Uzvaras Park. The beautiful trees were a gift from Japan in 2012 and have been delighting locals ever since. To get there, take tram 10 or any bus bound for Slokas iela.

Celebrate Freedom on Latvia’s Restoration of Independence Day

Latvian Independence Day

Latvia flower map

Celebrating Restoration of Independence Day in Riga, Latvia

On May 4, 1990, after five decades of occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Latvia declared that it was an independent nation once again. The holiday is celebrated in Riga with much pomp and circumstance on the grounds of the Freedom monument. Marching bands perform, speeches are given, and a good time is had by all. My favorite part of the day is the parade of people leaving flowers at the base of the Freedom Monument. It begins with the country’s top politicians and dignitaries, then finishes with locals and children. By the end, a map of Latvia has been created out of the blooms.

Tantalize your Taste buds during Riga Restaurant Week

Riga Restaurant Week Menu

Every spring (and autumn), Riga’s talented chefs work their magic with the seasonal bounty. Rhubarb, sorrel, and birch sap are a few of the ingredients you can expect to see on menus across town. Even better, the value pricing makes it possible to enjoy haute cuisine with a more limited budget. But don’t miss out – reservations are essential during Riga Restaurant Week.

Revel in Culture on Museum Night

Riga Art Nouveau Museum

Riga art nouveau museum

Costumed performers add to the museum’s fine ambiance.

Riga Pharmacy Museum

Don’t miss the sauna display in the back courtyard!

Riga medical museum

The Museum of Medical History occupies every floor of this grand old mansion.

Dioramas bring the museum to life.

For one night in May, many of Riga’s museums open their doors after hours for a night of culture. (You can find the schedule of events and locations for Riga Museum Night here.) The 2017 theme is “Wheel of Time” and sounds fascinating. My museums of choice are the Riga Art Nouveau Museum, the Pharmacy Museum, and the Paul Stradins Museum of the History of Medicine. Trust me, that last one is WAY more interesting than it sounds!

Find a New Favorite Ale at Latvia Beer Fest

Latvia Beer Fest

With more than 200 brews on tap, Latvia Beer Fest is the largest beer festival in the Baltics. The annual event takes place in Vermanes Park and lasts several days. All the major Latvian breweries are represented, including Valmiermuiza, Aldaris, Tervete, and Uzavas. You’ll also be able to sample some of Latvia’s finest craft beers, like those from Labietis. Classic Belgian and German brews are available, as is Guinness, though you’d do well to stick with the local varieties. Valmiermuiza is a top pick among foreign visitors.

Become a Beer Connoisseur at the Aldaris Brewery

Riga brewery tour

Riga beer tasting

Aldaris brewery Riga

If you’re not in town for the festival but still want to explore Latvia’s beer scene, head to the Aldaris Beer Museum in Riga’s Sarkandaugava neighborhood. The gleaming new museum was opened in 2015 inside one of the brewery’s historic buildings after a million euro renovation. Visitors can see original copper vats from the 1930s as well as other rare artifacts. Aldaris Brewery was founded in 1865, then known by its German name, Waldschlosschen. In Latvian, this word translates to Mezpils, or Forest Castle. Today, one of Aldaris’ most popular brands is Mezpils Alus, reportedly created to compete with the highly rated Valmiermuiza ales. To get the most out of the visit, sign up for the master class for beer connoisseurs. You’ll get to taste a variety of Aldaris brews along with expertly paired snacks. The class includes a guided tour of the museum and brewery.

Marvel at Mountainous Rhododendrons at the Botanical Garden

Riga rhododendron

Riga Botanical Garden

Thanks to my friend Jan for getting some shots of me in action!

riga rhododendron

Before coming face-to-face with a wall of blossoms at the Riga Botanical Garden, I had no idea rhododendrons could grow so big. The azaleas we have in North America are pretty but typically more petite. Apparently the cold, damp Latvian weather creates a hardier plant. The University of Latvia boasts the largest rhododendron collection in the Baltics, and maintains much of it at the Riga Botanical Garden. Several gigantic specimens welcome visitors near the main entrance, but the nursery area towards the back of the park is most impressive. Take tram 4 to reach the Botanical Garden, which is located across the Daugava.

Get Off the Beaten Path with a Walking Tour

This great mural maps out all the major sights in Riga’s Moscow neighborhood

Riga’s Old Jewish Cemetery

Riga Soviet architecture

The Latvian Academy of Sciences building, Riga’s most imposing Soviet structure

The Science building has a rooftop terrace with panoramic city views

While there are plenty of free walking tours of Riga’s Old Town, you’ll learn more about the city if you leave the medieval cobblestones behind. E.A.T. Riga Tours offers a variety of interesting options, such as the Soviet Riga Walking Tour and the Latvian Food Tasting Tour at Riga Central Market. Most tours last from 2 to 6 hours and all are led by a professional local guide. I took a tour of the Moscow District and former Riga Ghetto, and found the experience engaging and informative.

Indulge your Senses at the Opera Festival

Riga opera house

Latvian national opera

The stunning interior of the Latvian National Opera House in Riga.

Latvian opera performance Madama Butterfly

As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, I adore the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. The spring season culminates in June with the Riga Opera Festival, now in its 20th year. The highly-acclaimed festival showcases the best opera productions from the company’s repertoire, and often features award-winning singers from around the world. My favorite operas are La Traviata and Madama Butterfly, but all the performances are stellar.

Go Behind the Scenes with an Opera House Tour

Riga opera house tour

cafe opera riga

riga opera house

After Riga’s original opera house burned down in 1882, a new and improved version was erected on the banks of the canal just outside the Old Town. In order to prevent another fire, old-fashioned gas lighting was replaced with electricity that was generated by a ground-breaking power plant built directly beside the theater. Although that plant is no longer in use, its distinctive white tower remains. The Opera House’s lavish interior, with its red velvet curtains and abundance of gold paint, appears unchanged since the 19th century, but was fully refurbished in the early 1990s. For a peek behind the curtains, sign up for a Backstage Tour. Guides speak multiple languages and share a wealth of interesting information. My group was able to watch orchestra members and ballet dancers practice in their respective wings.

Enjoy the Cinema in Grand Style at Splendid Palace

splendid palace riga

splendid palace riga

Another Riga theater worth a look is the aptly-named Splendid Palace. The epitome of luxury, Splendid Palace was opened in 1923 when silent films were accompanied with a live orchestra sound track. Even after “talkies” eliminated the need for an orchestra, Splendid Palace remained the premier movie theater in the Baltics. When the Soviets took over, they didn’t wantonly destroy Riga’s beautiful structures, but did take pains to make them less ostentatious. Thus, in 1963, a large black rectangle of a building was put up directly in front Splendid Palace, renamed Cinema Riga. That Soviet contribution still obscures the theater’s entrance unfortunately, but it’s the interior you’re coming to see. (For current movie showtimes, click here.)

Stock up on Souvenirs at the Annual Latvian Craft Fair

Annual Latvian craft fair

Latvian arts and crafts fair

A Latvian woman in traditional national costume

Riga annual craft fair

One of the biggest events on Riga’s social calendar is the annual Latvian Arts and Crafts Fair. Now in its 47th year, the fair is typically held the first weekend of June on the grounds of the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum. Artisans and crafts people from all over Latvia gather to show off their wares – everything from pottery and baskets to mittens and fresh cheese. It’s also a great place to watch traditional folk dances and sample local beer and snacks. Locals tend to spend the better part of a day browsing through all the treasures and soaking up the festive atmosphere. To reach the fair grounds from central Riga, take bus 1 to the Brivdabas muzejs stop. This is a popular event and buses fill up fast so go early! You can skip the line at the entrance by getting tickets in advance at the Opera House box office.

Greet the Midnight Sun during Ligo

Setting of the midnight sun in Riga, Latvia

Riga Summer Solstice Festival

By the time June 23 rolls around, the sun is barely setting in Latvia. Riga’s Midsummer Festival, which takes place on the eve of the Summer Solstice, is the party of the year. Traditionally, Latvians celebrate Ligo with friends out in the countryside, but more and more people are enjoying the festivities in Riga. Locals don their colorful ethnic costumes and perform folk dances on stages across town. In a nod to ancient pagan traditions, heads are crowned with garlands of wild flowers and oak leaves. A large farmer’s market takes over Riga’s Dome Square, while sprigs of birch branches decorate buildings and cars. Down on the November 11 Krastmala, stands sell beer, grilled meat, and special holiday cheese with caraway seeds. Though the event is often plagued by rain, a large bonfire helps chase away the chill. Expect the merrymaking to continue until the new day dawns – no one sleeps for Ligo!

How would YOU like to enjoy spring in Riga?

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An Extraordinary Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

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On a field in rural Lithuania, a Hill of Crosses rises on the horizon. Visible from a considerable distance in the flat landscape, it is an impressive sight to behold. I’ve read reports that the site contains 100,000 crosses, but I’m not sure how anyone could know that. Impenetrable walls surround the narrow walkways, with crosses crammed into every nook and cranny. Others have been stacked high in piles that have toppled over. Rosaries, meanwhile, are draped around wooden necks like Mardi Gras beads. Counting the crosses would be an insurmountable task.

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

Stairs lead up the center of the hill and are flanked by towering crosses. A sculpture of Christ the Redeemer welcomes pilgrims near the entrance. Crosses of every conceivable size and denomination have been left by worshipers from around the world. I even saw a Jewish star in the mix.

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

hill of crosses

An Extraordinary Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

The hill first took shape in the 19th century, when Lithuanians erected crosses in protest of a ban imposed by their Tsarist overlords in the Russian Empire. More were added after an apparition of Mary holding the baby Jesus was reportedly seen. When the Soviets occupied Lithuania after World War II, they saw the Hill of Crosses as counter to Communist ideology and bulldozed it into oblivion. Devout Lithuanians were none too happy with this destructive act and fervently rebuilt the hill, secretly adding more crosses under the cover of night. Soviet forces demolished the site five times before conceding defeat. Today, the Hill of Crosses stands as a testament to the fortitude and resilience of the Lithuanian people. The site was made more famous in 1993 by a visit from Pope John Paul II.

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

The Hill of Crosses is located near the town of small town of Siauliai, about 220 kilometers from Vilnius. I drove from Riga as part of a Lithuanian road trip, though it’s possible to visit using public transportation. Take the train from Vilnius to Siauliai, then continue by bus to the Hill of Crosses. The journey will take around 3 hours each way. Food options at the site are extremely limited so pack something or plan to eat in Siauliai. Religious souvenirs – including crosses! – are available, however.

hill of crosses

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The Best Meals We Ate in Amsterdam

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What comes to mind when you think of Dutch food? For me, it’s Gouda cheese and stroopwafels. But surely a culture of explorers and spice traders must have more to offer. With one full week in Amsterdam, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Dutch cuisine but had plenty of time to delve into the national dishes.

So, what is there exactly? For one, a popular snack called bitterballen, or deep-fried meatballs with a texture reminiscent of Spanish croquettes. These tasty little nougats are best served with grainy mustard and icy beer. Another Dutch delicacy is stamppot, a hearty mash of boiled potatoes and assorted vegetables. Stampot is often served with links of smokey sausage, though I did see vegetarian options on some menus. For dessert, it doesn’t get any better than apple pie. Thicker and drier than the American version, Dutch apple pie is almost cake-like in its consistency. Served with a generous dollop of cream, it’s the perfect end to any meal!

Dutch bitterballen and kroketten

Here are the best restaurants I found during my stay in Amsterdam. Addresses and pricing information can be found at the bottom of this post. If your favorite spot isn’t included, be sure to tell me about it in the comments!

Cafe Loetje

Our first meal at Loetje was so delicious we went back a second time later in the week. The house specialty is a thick filet of tender steak slathered in buttery gravy. My mouth waters looking at the photo! You can get the steak topped with extras like sauteed liver and onions, but sometimes unadulterated is best. For something a little “lighter,” I recommend the pork schnitzel. Side salads are large enough for two to share, but you might want your own order of crispy fries. Loetje is a good place to sample veal bitterballen, though I preferred the more delicate flavor of their shrimp kroketten. Loetje’s apple pie is also excellent, should you manage to save any room.

cafe loetje amsterdam

port schnitzel

Moeders Restaurant

It’s hard to imagine a more charming restaurant than Moeders, which is Dutch for Mothers. The walls are plastered with photos of smiling, happy women – mothers of people who have dined there over the years. Tables are set with mismatched china, also bestowed upon the restaurant by generous patrons. The end result is a comforting, homey atmosphere that immediately puts you at ease. Moeders’ cooking is equally satisfying, featuring an assortment of Dutch classics and comfort food. I opted for “Mother’s spare-ribs,” a half portion of delectable barbecue ribs served with fries and a cabbage salad. Those with bigger appetites should order the “Father” sized portion. Reservations are essential.

moeders restaurant amsterdam

moeders restaurant amsterdam

The Pantry

Another cozy nook is the Pantry. This highly-rated restaurant specializes in Dutch home cooking with a focus on quality over quantity. The Pantry’s limited number of dishes are divided into four set menus, each with three courses. My set began with crunchy, gooey goat cheese croquettes and ended with a plate of fluffy poffertjes, or mini pancakes dusted with powdered sugar. The main course was a flavorsome casserole of mashed potato, cauliflower, curried ground beef, and Dutch cheese. It was an excellent welcome on our first night in Amsterdam. (Incidentally, when we showed up to the Pantry without a reservation, I mentioned to the waiter that we had just arrived in town. He was so tickled that we chose his restaurant for our first meal, that he made room for us even though they were fully booked. His warm hospitality set the tone for the entire trip!)

pantry amsterdam menu

pantry restaurant amsterdam

Long Pura

Delicious as all that Dutch food was, it was a little heavy to eat every day for a week. To mix things up, we decided to check out Amsterdam’s Indonesian food scene. The Dutch East India Company was established in what is now Indonesia in the early 17th century. A booming spice trade was soon underway, introducing the exotic flavors of Southeast Asia to Northern Europe. Dutch colonists also introduced the rijsttafel, or rice table, as a means of trying many Indonesian dishes in one sitting. We enjoyed our rijsttafel at restaurant Long Pura, which aims to recreate the ambiance of a Balinese temple in the middle of Amsterdam. We were each served a generously-sized appetizer, then given a total of 12 dishes to share. The chicken satay, egg in a spicy chili sauce, sauteed green beans with tofu, and chicken stewed in coconut milk were especially memorable.

long pura rijsttafel amsterdam

Long Pura Indonesian Restaurant Amsterdam

La Oliva

While the Dutch Republic was dominating the eastern spice trade, the surrounding Low Countries were under the thumb of the Spanish Crown. After centuries of fighting, a French, British, and Dutch alliance finally succeeded in severing ties with the Spanish Empire and returning control of the region to the Austrian Hapsburgs. Thankfully, that tense history is long buried. Today, Spanish culture is celebrated in Amsterdam with tapas bars all over the city. At La Oliva, beautiful little pintxos line the bar, each more appealing than the last. We made our selections after having them all described by the waitstaff, and toasted a successful day of sightseeing with glasses of Rioja.

la oliva amsterdam restaurant

Winkel 43

For dessert, we walked a few blocks to Winkel, a cafe renowned for its apple pie. Each towering slice is crammed with tender slices of apple, perfectly seasoned with cinnamon, and accented with fresh cream. You will absolutely want your own piece! Don’t be put off by the line of people waiting outside; our party of four was seated quickly.

winkel apple pie

Pancakes Amsterdam

Another Dutch treat you must try is pancakes. The traditional varieties come topped with bacon, cheese, and apple. I went all out with a savory pancake covered in goat cheese, spinach, and pine nuts. It was out of this world! Pancakes Amsterdam uses a buckwheat flour batter for its dinner plate-sized creations, though you can request gluten-free if needed.

pancakes amsterdam

B&B Keizers Canal

Every morning in Amsterdam began with a lovely breakfast prepared by Paulo, owner of the B&B my friends and I rented for the week. Our wonderful host plied us with assorted cheeses and cured meats, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, fresh fruit and orange juice, and eggs cooked any way we liked them. While we ate, Paulo provided helpful advice about our day’s agenda and kept our coffee cups full. The B&B’s two basement rooms were surprisingly large and bright, and the townhouse’s central location makes it a great base for sightseeing. Since my friends and I rented both rooms, it was like we had our own private house for the week.

b&b keizers canal breakfast

B&B Keizers Canal Amsterdam

B&B Keizers Canal occupies the ground level and basement of this elegant building.

Which Dutch treat would you most like to try?

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Amsterdam Restaurant Guide

Cafe Loetje
Address: Johannes Vermeerstraat 52, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€

Moeders Restaurant
Address: Rozengracht 251, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€

The Pantry
Address: Leidsekruisstraat 21, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€

Long Pura
Address: Rozengracht 46-48, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€€

La Oliva
Address: Egelantiersstraat 122-124, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€€

Winkel 43
Address: Noordermarkt 43, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €

Pancakes Amsterdam
Address: Multiple locations; I visited the one in the Nine Streets neighborhood
Pricing: €€

B&B Keizers Canal
Address: Keizersgracht 669, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€€


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

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

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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

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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

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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 this lettuce garnish?

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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