Soaking up Culture and Sunsets in Zadar, Croatia

Pin It

I find it difficult to put in words my feelings for Zadar, Croatia. The coastal city was a last minute addition to my Croatia road trip and ended up one of my favorite stops! I felt at instantly ease, as if I could move there tomorrow and be welcomed into the fold. The city had a comfortable, lived-in feel, much like a favorite pair of jeans. (This is partly due to the fact that locals outnumbered tourists two to one.) But it was so much more than that. Imagine mornings spent sipping coffee in a quiet square surrounded by ancient Roman ruins, afternoons filled with art and history, and sunsets so colorful they take your breath away. This is Zadar, Croatia.

Zadar Croatia

Romans established an outpost in northern Dalmatia in the first century BC and, amazingly, ruins from that time still stand. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the region ping-ponged between competing rulers, most notably the Byzantines, Venetians, and Austrians. The Turks tried and failed to conquer the well-fortified city. Bombs devastated Zadar during World War II, destroying the Roman Forum and a large percentage of the city’s buildings. Zadar experienced a rebirth after WWII as part of the newly-formed Yugoslavia. The old town sustained even more damage when Croatia fought for its independence, ending in victory for the new nation in 1995. Walking around Zadar today, it’s incredible to think that shells rained down as little as two decades ago.

Zadar Land Gate

Zadar city walls

Every morning, I walked from my rental apartment to the old town, entering through the impressive Land Gate. This lion-embellished Venetian archway dates to 1573 and celebrates victory over the Turks. Once beyond the walls, I made a beeline for one of the city’s many cafes to sip coffee and watch the locals go about their day. I traced their footsteps through the marble alleys and public squares, admiring centuries-old churches and architecture reflecting the various empires that left their mark on the city. My one regret is not ascending the bell tower for an overview of the terracotta rooftops and medieval street layout.

Ancient bell tower in Zadar, Croatia

zadar 5 wells

Five Wells Square, a Venetian contribution to the city.

A medieval church in Zadar, Croatia

St Donatus Church dates to the early 9th century.

St Simeon's Church Zadar

Zadar’s bounty of attractions kept me busy during the day. The Archaeology Museum provides a visual summary of the region’s many cultural influences, including a wealth of Roman artifacts and sculptures. I was particularly impressed by the Museum of Ancient Glass, which boasts one of the best collections of Roman glass outside of Italy. I marveled at the cases pretty blue vials and jars, delicate pieces that miraculously survived multiple wars and centuries of civil change.

Zadar museum

Zadar’s Museum of Ancient Glass is housed in the lovely Cosmacendi Palace.

Roman glass

Evenings were spent enjoying some of the finest food in Croatia, featuring freshly-caught seafood and produce from the local farmers’ market. My after-dinner walks along the city walls culminated at two unique modern art installations that are open to the Zadar public. Every evening at the Greeting to the Sun monument, lights dance under a large circle of blue glass, glowing brighter as darkness ascended on the peninsula. Nearby, waves resound through the so-called Sea Organ. Concealed beneath a stretch of stone stairs, a series of pipes plays an other-worldly tune as the rushing water pushes air through. This is an ideal spot to rest weary feet and appreciate the coast’s spectacular beauty.

Zadar farmers market

Zadar’s famous Sea Organ makes music of the waves.

zadar sun salutation

Greeting to the Sun monument in Zadar, Croatia.

zadar sunset

I spent four nights in Zadar and two days exploring the city. On the remaining two days I visited some of the region’s best attractions: Krka National Park and Sibenik (article coming soon). Definitely stay longer if you can!

PIN IT!

 

15 Fun Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Spring

Pin It

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?

PIN IT!

My Favorite Places in Amsterdam

Pin It

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

What are some of your favorite spots in Amsterdam?

PIN IT!

Three Days in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Pin It

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?

PIN IT!

Trakai Castle: A Medieval Fairytale in Lithuania

Pin It

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

Which of Europe’s fairytale castles is your favorite?

PIN IT!

Trakai Castle, a Medieval Fairytale in Lithuania

Crazy for Kyiv: My Four Days in Ukraine

Pin It

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

img_9487

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.

Tell me: are YOU ready to add Kyiv, Ukraine to your travel itinerary?

PIN IT!

Top things to do in Kyiv, Ukraine

Unexpected Delights in Daugavpils, Latvia

Pin It

Daugavpils is Latvia’s second-largest city with a population around 90,000, fully half comprised of ethnic Russian speakers. During Soviet times, factories were set up in Daugavpils thanks to its strategic location near the borders of Belarus and Lithuania, and workers from other Soviet republics were brought in. Some factories closed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but many workers and their families remained. The economy of the region has suffered with the decline in manufacturing, while more and more young people have relocated to the country’s dynamic capital, Riga.

Daugavpils Latvia

Driving through Daugavpils past its many red-brick buildings and smoke stacks, I was reminded of post-industrial “rust-belt” cities in the U.S. like Buffalo, New York and Cleveland, Ohio. And that gave me hope because both of those cities are experiencing a renaissance. Daugavpils isn’t there yet, but I saw a lot of potential. Crumbling apartment buildings rub shoulders with lovingly restored churches of various denominations. Chic cafes and thoughtfully curated museums are fronted by well-tended parks and immaculate, though often empty streets. Boutique shops and artist studios stand next to graffiti-covered ruins and liquor stores. I imagine the city can look rather bleak during the gray and wet winter months, but Daugavpils was in full bloom during my spring visit.

daugavpils-latvia

Daugavpils Orthodox Chapel

St. Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Chapel

Daugavpils Latvia

The Daugavpils Museum of Regional History and Art is housed in a grand Art Nouveau mansion overlooking leafy Dubrovin Park. The surprisingly robust collection includes archaeological finds from the nearby Jersika castle mound, gilded icons of the region’s predominant Orthodox religion, Art Nouveau artifacts, and remnants of Latvia’s Soviet occupation. At the time of my visit, the museum’s top floor was dedicated to local contemporary artists. The Latvian still life painting featuring Riga Black Balsam was my personal favorite. The museum’s only drawback was the lack of English translations.

Daugavpils History Museum

Daugavpils History Museum

Daugavpils Art Museum

A short drive from downtown Daugavpils, the fantastic Mark Rothko Art Centre capitalizes on the city’s claim to fame as the birthplace of the abstract expressionist painter. While not a huge fan of Rothko’s minimalist color fields, I was very impressed with this museum. Interactive digital displays illustrate the painter’s life and the history of the city, known by the Russian name Dvinsk (and part of the Russian Empire) at the time of Rothko’s birth. Several original masterpieces are on display, though are extremely well-guarded and photos strictly forbidden. The center’s upper floors are dedicated to showcasing the works of Latvian and international contemporary artists, many of whom drew inspiration from Rothko.

Daugavpils Mark Rothko Centre

Mark Rothko Daugavpils

The Rothko Centre is located on the grounds of Daugavpils Fortress, the only one of its kind remaining in Northern Europe. The vast military bastion was constructed in the early 1800s to repel an attack by Napoleon, but was already considered obsolete by the end of the century. Although subsequently used as a warehouse, WWII prisoner-of-war camp, and Soviet military school over the years, the layout of the fortifications was left unaltered. The buildings fell into ruin, however, and restoration works are ongoing.

Daugavpils Fortress

Daugavpils Fortress Latvia

Daugavpils Fortress

On your way back to town, stop in at the Daugavpils Clay Art Centre. Master potters from Latgale have set up studios in a unused factory where they turn out the beautiful ceramics for which the region is known. For a two euro entrance fee, I was shown gleaming new kilns and a demonstration of the pottery-making process (in Latvian). The center was established by the Daugavpils city government to promote a folk tradition that’s deeply embedded in local culture. Do your part by taking home a Latgalian pottery souvenir!

Latgale pottery center Daugavpils

Latgale ceramics

Ceramics from Latgale are renowned for their bright colors and glossy glaze.

Another post-industrial site that’s been given a new lease on life is the Daugavpils Lead Shot Factory. The historic 19th century building with its distinctive red-brick tower has been opened for tourists! Here’s the thing: this ammunition plant is still operational, making it the only place in Europe where you can see how bullets are made. Shots are cast by dropping molten lead inside the tower and then sorted by caliber. When I visited, some raw materials (don’t touch!) and spent casings were on display along with some cool Russian factory paraphernalia.

Daugavpils Lead Shot Factory

Daugavpils Lead Shot Factory tour

The factory is down the street from Saints Boriss and Gleb Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the largest of its kind in Latvia. The massive blue-and-white structure can hold 5,000 worshipers beneath its golden onion domes. The cathedral’s stunning interior – which I was allowed to photograph with a small donation – features a polished oak iconostasis that some believe to be a copy of the one in St.Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral Daugavpils

Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Daugavpils, Latvia

Daugavpils Russian Orthodox Cathedral interior

The cathedral is the crown jewel of Baznicas Kalns, or Church Hill, upon which stand four churches of different denominations. In addition to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral there is the Martin Luther Lutheran Cathedral, the Roman Catholic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Church of the Community of Old Believers. Given the current state of the world, it’s refreshing to see different faiths coexisting peacefully side by side.

Daugavpils Church Hill

Daugavpils Martin Luther Cathedral

I spent two nights at Villa Ksenija, a charming guest house conveniently situated on Church Hill between the Orthodox cathedral and Lead Shot Factory. (I could see the factory’s tower from my balcony!) The small boutique hotel (six rooms) has been open since 2013, though the physical mansion dates to 1876 and is a registered architectural landmark. The interior is stately, yet comfortable, and the delicious breakfast spread is so filling you won’t need lunch. (The restaurant is also an excellent choice for dinner.)

Villa Ksenija

Another good option is Gubernators, Daugavpils’ top restaurant according to TripAdvisor. Gubernators serves up rich and hearty Eastern European comfort food in a rustic beer hall setting – and brews its own beer to boot. I opted for a bowl of tangy solanka and succulent roast ham with potatoes and sauerkraut, paired with a citrusy wheat ale. Prieka!

latgale12

Would you consider adding Daugavpils, Latvia to your Baltic itinerary?

PIN IT!

Daugavpils Latvia Travel Guide

48 Hours in Helsinki Finland

Falling in Love with Helsinki, Finland

Pin It

Have you ever visited a new destination and felt instantly at home, as if you could move there tomorrow and your life would fit in seamlessly? I’ve traveled through over 40 countries, but only felt that sort of serious connection to a handful of places, including RigaDublin, Budapest, Paris, and New York. Another city I’d be happy to move to is Helsinki, Finland. It’s quiet, unassuming, and a little quirky – like me! I only spent a weekend in Helsinki, but it left an imprint on my heart. Here’s how I made the most of my short time there, and why I’m so eager to return.

Helsinki Finland

Helsinki is a shopper’s paradise, with boutiques and designer stores at every turn. Famous names like marimekko and iittala might be the big draw, but Helsinki’s Design District boasts more than 200 venues where one can peruse the latest in fashion, jewelry, and home decor. I loved being surrounded by that level of creativity, even if I could only afford to window shop!

Helsinki iittala store

marimekko helsinki store

Vibrant marimekko fabric for sale at the brand’s flagship store in Helsinki.

Helsinki Design District

The distinctive Finnish aesthetic can be further appreciated at the Design Museum. The ground floor takes visitors on a walk down memory lane through showrooms filled with innovations by decade. Upstairs, it’s all about fashion. It’s really a shame some of the styles never caught on!

Helsinki Design Museum

During the warm summer months, artisans and farmers sell their wares in Market Square next to the harbor. This is a great place to pick up affordable souvenirs, seasonal produce, and fresh fish. Nearby in the Old Market Hall, you can find all manner of Finnish delicacies. My friends and I put together a picnic of cured reindeer meat, crusty rye bread, sea buckthorn jam, and cold pear cider.

Helsinki harbor market

Helsinki harbor market fresh fish

Old Market Hall Helsinki

We enjoyed our picnic on Suomenlinna, a UNESCO-listed island fortress not far from the city. Built by Sweden in the 1750s to protect against Russian expansion, the fortification changed hands several times over the centuries, as did Finland itself. No longer used for military purposes, Suomenlinna – which means “Castle of Finland” – is a grass-covered haven for tourists and locals alike. To get there, hop aboard the ferry which departs from Market Square harbor. Tickets cost €5 and are good for 12 hours.

Suomenlinna Island Fortress

Helsinki Suomenlinna Fortress

IMG_6126

Interestingly, around 800 people live on Suomenlinna year round.

Helsinki’s Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral is a striking visual reminder of the century Finland spent within the Russian Empire. The redbrick church topped with golden onion domes is perched on a hillside above the city where it captures the morning light.

Helsinki Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral

Helsinki Orthodox Church

It’s possible to visit Helsinki as a day-trip from Tallinn, Estonia, but I don’t recommend it. Helsinki deserves much more than a single day (as does Tallinn)! Plus, where else can you spend the night in jail and not have it show up as an offense on your permanent record? Hotel Katajanokka is located in a historic building that was used as a prison until 2002. Although tastefully updated into a modern boutique hotel, many of the prison’s interior features have been left intact. It was definitely one of my more memorable hotel stays!

Helsinki prison hotel

As ever, I ate well during my time in Helsinki. The Sea Horse restaurant has been serving up traditional Baltic fare since 1934. I feasted on pickled herring, Finnish meatballs, and pancakes sweetened with homemade strawberry jam in the homey bistro setting. At the other end of the dining spectrum, Restaurant Kuu puts a modern spin on those classic flavors. Reindeer steak is updated with barley risotto and a port wine reduction; the humble salmon is elevated with a delicately herbaceous broth. I regret not sampling one of Kuu’s innovative desserts, but I was saving room for salmiakki, or salty licorice, ice cream and all the Fazer chocolates.

Helsinki Sea Horse Restaurant

Helsinki Restaurant Kuu

Finnish Salmiakki Ice Cream

I think part of the reason I felt such a connection to Helsinki is that it reminded me of my beloved Riga, particularly the architecture. I had a constant crick in my neck from looking up at the unusually-shaped buildings decorated with unexpected details. Pear cider in a leafy park helped me recuperate.

Helsinki 25

Helsinki train station

Helsinki architecture

Helsinki in summer

Like Riga, Helsinki comes alive during the summer months.

Tell me: how would YOU spend 48 hours in Helsinki?

PIN IT!

48 Hours in Helsinki, Finland

Island Hopping in Stockholm, Sweden

Pin It

Summers in Northern Europe are short but oh so sweet. Endless daylight hours and cool breezes create an ideal climate for sightseeing, while the tourist crowds tend to be fewer than in the sunny South. One of the loveliest Nordic destinations is Stockholm, whose many attractions are spread across 14 different islands in the Baltic Sea. The best way to explore them all is, of course, by boat. Let’s sail away to some of Stockholm’s top sights!

Swedish Flag

To get the lay of the land – er, sea – I started with an “Under the Bridges of Stockholm” boat tour. We cruised under 15 of Stockholm’s 57 bridges and through one of the locks that regulates the surrounding water level. The two hour-and-15-minute journey was accompanied with highly informative factoids delivered via personal headsets, and I thought it was €25 well spent. Sit on the right side of the boat for the best view, and be sure to bundle up as the air blowing through the windows can be quite chilly – even in July!

Stockholm Sweden

grona lund amusement park stockholm

Grona Lund, Stockholm’s thrilling amusement park.

stockholm boat tours

For an even longer ride past some of the city’s more idyllic islands, hop aboard the ferry to Drottningholm Palace, a UNESCO-listed residence of the Swedish royal family. Although built in the 1660s, the palace’s most notable feature is the stunning 18th century French-inspired interior. I spent half a day wandering through the ornately furnished rooms and marveling at the fine details! Drottningholm is located on Lovon island and the journey takes one hour each way. I recommend purchasing a combination ticket that includes the boat ride and entrance to the palace.

Stockholm Drottningholm boat

Stockholm Drottningholm Palace

Drottningholm Palace tour

Drottningholm Palace garden

The Drottningholm Palace ferry departs from the pier next to Stockholm City Hall, which is worth visiting in its own right. The red brick building went up in 1923 and has hosted the Nobel Prize Banquet since 1930. After dining in the Blue Hall, guests ascend the stairs to dance the night away in the showstopping Golden Hall. Our tour guide demonstrated how the staircase was especially designed to accommodate women’s ball gowns and high heels. Talk about a grand entrance!

Stockholm City Hall

Stockholm City Hall Golden Room

The Golden Hall glitters with 18 million mosaic tiles.

Stockholm City Hall tour

Stockholm’s most famous island is home to the picturesque Gamla Stan, or Old Town. The colorful buildings have been wonderfully preserved, with many dating to the 13th century. The cobbled lanes, some so narrow that you can touch the houses on either side, are a photographer’s dream! Souvenir shops and restaurants line the main streets and squares, though quiet nooks can be found at every turn. You’ll definitely want to linger here!

Stockholm old town

IMG_4384

Stockholm old town

The Royal Palace of Stockholm is the official residence of the King of Sweden and a sumptuous setting for state functions. It is also a major tourist attraction, drawing in hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Tickets include entrance to the Royal Apartments and the Treasury, where the crown jewels are on (well-guarded) display. I watched the Changing of the Guards ceremony before heading inside the palace; to be honest, it was a little anticlimactic. I wish I’d spent those precious extra minutes in the gorgeously appointed rooms!

Stockholm Palace

Stockholm Palace throne room

The Swedish throne is made of solid silver!

Stockholm palace tour

Stockholm palace church

The breathtaking Royal Chapel is free to visit during the summer months.

Skansen, a vast open-air ethnographic museum and zoo, is my favorite Stockholm attraction. Founded in 1891, Skansen uses actual historical buildings and costumed performers to recreate centuries of rural Swedish life. I love these types of museums because they give you a real taste of a place’s culture and its development over time. Plus, this one has animals! The Skansen zoo showcases Scandinavian species such as moose, elk, bears, and wolverines, alongside more exotic breeds. Fun fact: the European bison was brought back from near-extinction thanks in part to a herd living in Skansen!

Stockholm Skansen open-air museum

Skansen Stockholm

Skansen animals

Swedes today may be known for their prowess on the water, but this wasn’t always the case. In 1625, the Swedish king and a Dutch master shipbuilder set out to forge Vasa, the most powerful warship in the Baltic. Three years later, and a mere 1,300 meters from shore, Vasa toppled over and sank to the bottom of the sea. There it remained until the 1950s when the colossal wreck was discovered and eventually raised. 98% of the original vessel, including masts and sails, remains frozen in time. Sweden’s greatest boondoggle has given the world its only preserved 17th century ship. It is on display at the Vasa Museum along with the the bones and personal effects of some of the men and women who perished in the disaster. The whole thing is tragically fascinating.

Stockholm vasa museum photos

The Vasa Museum and Skansen are both located on Djurgarden island. I rode the “Hop On Hop Off” boat over from the ferry terminal near the entrance to the Gamla Stan, but had to take the tram back as the boats stop running at 4:30pm. Tickets are valid for 24 hours, so I could have used mine to explore even more of Stockholm’s islands – if only I’d had the time!

top things to do in Stockholm Sweden

Tell me: What do YOU think are the TOP things to do in Stockholm?

For my Stockholm restaurant recommendations, please click here.

PIN IT!

IMG_4368c

Beautiful Bergen: Gateway to the Fjords

Pin It

Nestled in a mountain valley next to the sea, Bergen, Norway is an ideal jumping off point for those wishing to venture into the spectacular Norwegian fjords. But Bergen deserves a visit all its own! I spent four and a half days exploring the city’s charms and could easily have stayed a week. Museums, architecture, cafes, shopping, and killer views – Bergen has everything!

Your first stop in Bergen will undoubtedly want to be Bryygen, the city’s UNESCO-listed Old Town. In the Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League set up shop along the wharf, turning it into a prosperous center of trade that lasted for centuries. Bryygen’s brightly painted wooden buildings still stand, although they lean so precariously against one another a mountain troll could probably tip them over like dominoes.

Bryygen in Bergen Norway

Bryygen UNESCO Site Norway

IMG_0155

Bryygen Norway

The nearby Fish Market is a lively spot for a stroll and a quick meal. Simply choose the crustacean you want and have it grilled on the spot! Yes, it’s pricey, but when else are you going to eat freshly caught seafood in Norway? The market is also a good place to shop for fun souvenirs like moose sausage and tinned fish. You’re welcome, family!

Bergen Fish Market

Fresh Seafood in Bergen Norway

Bergen Fish Market

Worth the splurge!

Bergen is surrounded by seven mountains, making for some truly dramatic scenery. Mount Floyen is closest to the city center, and easily reached thanks to a funicular railway (Floibanen) that stops conveniently near Bryygen. We visited Bergen in June during a rare span of good weather (a local told us it rains 360 days a year), and fleeting rays of sunshine danced through cottony clouds over water as smooth as glass. I’d love to go back during a season when the sun actually sets to watch the sky turn a million shades of pink.

Bergen Mt Floyen Viewpoint

Mount Floyen Bergen

IMG_0591

IMG_0586

Mount Ulriken, Bergen’s highest point, is a popular hiking destination for locals and tourists alike. A vintage cable car whisks you to the top in minutes, some 643 meters above sea level. You can return the same way or paraglide down, if you dare. I recommend giving yourself several hours to hike around the extraordinary mountain terrain dotted with lakes and secluded cottages. Just know that if you take the tourist bus from the fish market, the last return from Ulriken is 5:30pm. We only found this out at 6pm when we showed up at the bus stop and were told we’d have to find another way to get back to town (i.e. walk to the main road and catch a local bus).

Bergen Mt Ulriken View

Mt Ulriken Bergen NorwayMount Ulriken Bergen

Mt Ulriken Hiking

Art lovers should make a beeline for KODE, the Art Museums of Bergen. Comprised of four separate buildings in the heart of the city, the museum’s extensive collections could easily take a full day to admire. My favorite was the Rasmus Meyers Collection in KODE 3, the 18th century mansion of Dutch Consul Henrik Fasmer. Visitors can enjoy the historical details of the house before moving into brightly-lit rooms of contemporary Norwegian paintings. Edvard Munch is naturally the star.

KODE Art Museum in Bergen

Norwegian Paintings

Another point of interest in Bergen is Fantoft Stave Church. Although the original 12th century building burned down in 1991, an exact replica now stands in its place. You’ll need to take public transport to reach the church, but it’s worth the effort to see those fantastically carved eaves!

Fantoft Stave Church

Stave Church in Bergen, Norway

Of course, my favorite thing to do in Bergen was simply to wander its quaintly cobbled streets in search of pretty architecture and cozy cafes. I found both in spades, along with a surprising amount of street art. Bergen is a university town with a cool vibe in a historic setting. It’s the kind of place I could happily call home for a while.

Bergen Norway Alleyways

IMG_0533

I’ll be moving into this house. Hopefully the owners won’t mind!

Bergen Norway Architecture

Street in Bergen Norway

Bergen Street Art

All that sightseeing will work up quite an appetite (at least if you’re me). Thankfully, Bergen’s dining scene has you covered. Cafe Bastant is an excellent lunch spot near Bryygen, dishing up hearty bowls of soup and toasted cheese sandwiches. It’s the perfect way to chase away the chill!

Bergen Bastant Cafe

Pingvinen serves traditional Norwegian fare (lamb sausage, grilled fish, lots of pickled things) in a fun brew pub setting. Be sure to sample some of the tasty craft beers, which pair well with the savory food. Pingvinen is incredibly popular so you might have to wait for a table at the bar.

Bergen Pingvinen Restaurant

To experience Norwegian fine dining, head to Lysverket and prepare to delight your senses. We opted for the 7-course tasting menu, which involved a lot of interaction with the waitstaff. Each dish was beautifully presented and elegantly prepared, from the artisan bread and butter to the homemade donuts with rhubarb chutney. It’s a culinary adventure I won’t soon forget!

Lysverket Bergen

Lysverket Tasting Menu

How would YOU spend four days in Bergen, Norway? Tell me in the comments!

PIN IT!

IMG_0438a