A Windswept Day at Kinderdijk, Netherlands

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

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

Kinderdijk windmills

A windmill in Kinderdijk, Netherlands

Kinderdijk Netherlands

Kinderdijk UNESCO site

The UNESCO listed windmills of Kinderdijk, Netherlands

Kinderdijk windmills

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

Dutch windmill

Kinderdijk windmill museum

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

netherlands bus 90

Kinderdijk bus stop

Is a Kinderdijk day trip on your travel wish list?

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Keukenhof Gardens: A Floral Fantasy Come to Life

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

keukenhof gardens netherlands

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

keukenhof gardens

Pink tulips in bloom at Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands

keukenhof gardens

keukenhof holland

keukenhof gardens in april

Springtime in Holland

keukenhof gardens netherlands

holland flower fields

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

holland tulips

tulips holland

keukenhof holland

keukenhof gardens

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

delft blue garden

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

keukenhof gardens

All photos in this post were taken April 6, 2016

keukenhof gardens best time to visit

A flower carpet in Keukenhof Gardens

keukenhof best time to visit

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

amsterdam to keukenhof bus

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

tulip fields in netherlands

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

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Three Days in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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

ho chi minh city tet decorations

ho chi minh city nightlife

ho chi minh city street food

driving in ho chi minh city

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

ho chi minh city vietnam

tet decorations saigon

year of the rooster vietnam

celebrating tet in vietnam

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

Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City

reunification palace tank

reunification palace tour

reunification palace interior

reunification palace bunker

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

nha hang ngon saigon

vietnamese pho

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

saigon post office

Saigon Central Post Office

saigon central post office

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

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

saigon traffic

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

ho chi minh city hall

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

caravelle hotel saigon

caravelle saigon rooftop bar

saigon sunset

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

au parc saigon

au parc saigon menu

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

tet in saigon

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

l'usine saigon

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

ben thanh market saigon

ben thanh market ho chi minh city

vietnam souvenirs

ben thanh market saigon

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

bitexco tower saigon

View of Saigon from Bitexco Financial Tower

saigon skydeck view

saigon river boat

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

gia long palace saigon

ho chi minh city museum

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

temple club saigon

What’s with 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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My Top 10 Riga Day Trip Ideas

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

Sigulda

snowboarding sigulda latvia

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

turaida castle latvia

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

Jelgava

jelgava palace

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

jelgava wild horses

jelgava museum

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

Rundale Palace

rundale palace latvia

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

rundale roses

rundale palace interior

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

Bauska Castle Latvia

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

Tukums

tukums latvia

tukums latvia

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

durbe manor latvia

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

Kemeri National Park

kemeri bog walk

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

Dobele

dobele castle ruins latvia

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

dobele lilac garden latvia

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

Talsi

talsi latvia

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

Salaspils

latvia botanical garden salaspils

latvia botanic garden salaspils

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

Salaspils Memorial Latvia

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

salaspils memorial ensemble

salaspils concentration camp

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

Ogre

ogre latvia

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

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

ogre river latvia

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

Jurmala

jurmala beach latvia

majori latvia

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

jurmala beach skiing

Which of these Riga day trips are you most interested in taking?

Have any others to add to the list?

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Essential Riga: A One Day Walking Tour

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While I always recommend spending as much time as you can in a new destination, often that’s simply not possible. Many cruise ships that dock in Riga give their passengers just one day to explore the city. So how can you make the most of that precious time? I’ve put together a one-day walking tour that combines the must-see attractions with a few of my own favorite spots. So skip that boring cruise ship tour and see Riga through the eyes of a local!

8:00 am*  From the ferry terminal exit, walk to the main road (Eksporta Iela) and cross at the light. Head east down residential Citadeles iela, away from the river, then turn right on Kronvalda bulvaris and follow the tram tracks towards Old Town. Leafy Kronvalda Park, one of Riga’s many green spaces, will be on your left. At the end of the boulevard, walk around the elegant Latvian National Theater on the left corner to the crosswalk next to the bridge. Cross over busy Krisjana Valdemara iela at the light and enjoy a peaceful stroll along Riga’s City Canal, once a moat that flowed outside the Old Town walls. Those medieval fortifications were torn down in the 19th century to allow for geographical expansion, and some of the stones were used to create lovely Bastejkalns Park.

Riga City Canal

Riga Bastejkalns Park

8:45 am  At the end of the park you’ll arrive at the Freedom Monument, a beacon of Latvian independence since 1935. (Amazingly, the Nazi and Soviet regimes both chose to reinterpret the statue rather than tear it down.) Important holidays are celebrated here, often with music and always with flowers. The Latvians love flowers more than any people I know on Earth.

Riga Freedom Monument

9:00 am  Part of Riga’s charm lies in its sophisticated cafe culture, so I’d be remiss not to suggest starting your day with a cappuccino and pastry. My current go-to cafe, BakeBerry, is located in a pretty red building on Audeju iela, or Weavers’ street. To reach it, cross the tram tracks next to the Opera House and enter Old Town by way of Teatre iela, or Theater street. Turn on left on Kaleju iela, or Blacksmiths’ street, right onto Audeju iela, and the cafe will be on your left.

Riga Opera House

Riga Pastries

9:30 am  Sufficiently fueled, you’ll be ready to tackle Riga’s Central Market, one of the largest and busiest in Europe. To get there from BakeBerry, turn right onto Audeju iela, then right again onto Valnu iela, or Ramparts street. Once at the end, go down the stairs in front of you to cross under the busy road. Keep going straight through the tunnel towards the autoosta, or bus terminal, and go up the staircase at the opposite end. The market is housed in five WWI-era zeppelin hangars, each dedicated to a particular food group (i.e. fish, meat, dairy). This is a good place to find souvenirs, such as Latvian honey and woven linens, and to sample local delicacies, like salted herring or smoked chicken. Don’t miss the pickled vegetable area!

Central Market in Riga Latvia

Riga Central Market

10:30 am**  Go back the way you came (under 13 Janvara iela) and head to St. Peter’s Church. Originally built in 1209 and oft damaged due to lightning and war, restoration works remain ongoing. Inside, you’ll find a gorgeous reproduction of the 19th century wooden altar, intricate royal coats of arms, and a bronze 16th century candlestick that survived WWII in Wloclawek, Poland, and was returned to its original home in Riga in 2012. Take the lift to the observation deck in the church’s spire – the birds-eye view of Old Town is worth every penny of the €9 ticket price!

Riga St Peter's Church

Riga Latvia

11:15 am  Exit St. Peter’s Church and walk straight to Town Hall Square. This is where you’ll find arguably Riga’s prettiest attraction – the House of the Blackheads. Originally built in the 1300s but demolished during WWII, this stunning building is a testament to Latvian craftsmanship and patriotism. Locals are proud of the meticulous work that went into its post-Soviet reconstruction, and rightly so. Look for the spot outside the building which marks where the world’s first decorated Christmas tree stood centuries ago.

Riga Town Hall Square

12:00 pm  OPTION A  If you’re like me, you’ll be starving for lunch at this point. I like to take my guests to “Key to Riga” in Dome Square, opposite the Cathedral. It may seem a bit touristy and overpriced at first glance, but this medieval-themed restaurant is a great option for lunch if you know what to order. I recommend the pretty-in-pink cold beet soup and potato pancakes with sour cream and lingonberry jam, washed down with a Latvian beer. (Valmiermuiza and Mezpils are good choices.) I’ve found the service at “Key to Riga” to be friendly and efficient. Just make sure to ask for the check when the plates are being cleared away to speed up the process.

Latvian Food

12:00 pm  OPTION B  Got enough to eat at the Central Market? Then skip lunch and check out two of the city’s top attractions. Dome Cathedral has been the ceremonial heart of Riga for 800 years. While religious services were suspended during the Soviet Occupation, the church remained in use as a concert hall and its organ is renowned for its beautiful sound. Across the square, the Riga Bourse Museum boasts a large collection of 17th- to 18th-century fine arts as well as a sweeping view of Dome Square from the top floor window.

Riga Dome Cathedral

Riga Dome Square

12:00 pm  OPTION C  Museums not your thing? Then use this time to shop ’til you drop! Latvia produces some of the finest handicrafts in the world and it would be a shame to return home without a souvenir of your travels. Exceptional products include pottery, linen scarves and tablecloths, wooden children’s toys, and traditional Latvian mittens. The large craft market in Egle Square is a convenient place to find all of the above at a fair price. Just look for the stands next to the beer garden, where you can celebrate your purchases with a refreshing glass of pear cider.

Riga Craft Market

1:00 pm  Depending on which option you choose, you’ll have about 45 minutes to wander through the rest of Old Town and admire the varied architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Make your way past the Three Brothers (some of the oldest buildings in the city) to Riga Castle, the newly restored home of Latvia’s president. Head down Torna iela, or Tower street, to find the Swedish Gate and the Powder Tower, two of Riga’s most iconic structures. Around the corner, the Black Cat House faces off against the Large and Small Guilds in Livu Square. (To learn more about these fascinating buildings, read this.)

Riga Castle

2:00 pm  OPTION A  Old Riga is so charming that it can be easy to forget Latvia’s difficult history. That’s why I think visiting the Occupation Museum is so important. Currently housed in the former U.S. Embassy building on Raina bulvaris (one block from the Freedom Monument), the museum explains in detail the dark days of Latvia’s Soviet and Nazi occupations during and after WWII. Knowledgeable guides give 45-minute tours (€3 per person) in English everyday at 14:00, and the personal tidbits they share will give you a fuller picture of the damage done.

Riga Occupation Museum

2:00 pm  OPTION B  If you already know a bit about the Soviet Occupation, or would rather spend your afternoon looking at pretty things (no judgment!), then maybe the Latvian National Museum of Art should be your next stop. The historic building only recently reopened after a multi-year restoration and is truly extraordinary to behold. The permanent exhibit on the top floor showcases the best Latvian painters and sculptors, including Janis Rozentals, Johans Walters, and Vilhelms Purvitis, to name a few. I thought it was interesting to see the progression of these artists’ styles during their careers, as well as Latvian art as a whole throughout its oft-turbulent history.

Latvian Museum of Art

Latvian Museum of Art Staircase

3:00 pm  No visit to Riga would be complete without stopping to gape at the impressively detailed buildings of the Art Nouveau district. From 1900-1913, Riga experienced unprecedented economic and geographic growth. The old city walls were demolished and hundreds of new buildings constructed, many of them in the Art Nouveau style. Jugendstil, as it’s also known, is characterized by the use of fanciful decorations that celebrate womanly beauty, nature, and mythology. While over one-third of Riga’s buildings are Art Nouveau, the largest concentration can be found along Elizabetes and Alberta ielas.

Riga Art Nouveau Architecture

If you have time, check out the Art Nouveau Museum to get an idea of how these sumptuously decorated apartment buildings looked when they were first built. The ground floor of Albert iela 12 has been beautifully restored and lavishly decorated to recreate early 20th century Riga life, while staff in period costume complete the effect. Even if you don’t have time to go through the whole museum, at least go inside the lobby and look up at the wondrous spiral staircase!

Riga Art Nouveau Museum

3:30 pm  Sadly, your day in Riga has come to an end and you must rejoin your fellow passengers on the boat. Walk to the end of Elizabetes iela, carefully cross the street, and make your way to your ship’s embarkation point. Then immediately start planning your return visit. There’s so much of Riga left to explore! Have a bit more time before departure? Art Cafe Sienna on Strelnieku iela is a perfect place to wait!

Riga Art Cafe Sienna

* The cruises that stop in Riga have wildly different schedules, so please adjust this according to your trip’s timetable to ensure you’re back on the boat before it leaves!

** Most museums and attractions don’t open until 10:00 am and are closed on Mondays.

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How to Travel and Have Fun Alone

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As the only child of two working parents, I learned to keep myself entertained from a very young age. I would create elaborate soap operas for my Barbie dolls and challenge my alter ego in games like Connect Four and Battleship. (I grew up before computers and smart phones. Can you imagine?) But as a young adult, the idea of going out to dinner or the movies alone was terrifying. What would people think?

My memory of the first time I dined alone remains vivid. I had just moved to Manhattan after college and knew no one in the city. After getting my fill of bagels and pizza I wanted a real meal. So one day I took a book to a charming restaurant I often passed on my neighborhood walks and requested a table for one by the window. There I was: all alone, on display for the world to see. Or so it felt at the time. In hindsight I’ve realized that the only person thinking about me was me.

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Just me and my shadow. Or something.

When it comes to overcoming the fear of doing stuff solo, the first step is really just getting over ourselves. We are our own worst critic and waste too much time worrying about the opinions of others. Who cares what strangers think, anyway? We will likely never see them again – and if we do, so what? Should their opinion have so much sway over our daily joy?

After that first solo dinner, I soon branched out to Broadway shows and movies. These are perfect activities to enjoy on your own because a) it’s dark, and b) there’s no talking. Plus, the concession stand clerk has no idea that that extra large popcorn is yours alone. Did I mention that you won’t have to share your snacks?

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All for me! Yeeeesssss.

Now I think nothing of hopping a plane to Barcelona or Hong Kong, or a long-distance bus to Vilnius, and exploring the city completely by myself. Think that’s crazy? Read on for some strategies that will have you singing a different tune!

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Sometimes you have to just grab life by the horns!

Start Small

Attend a movie matinee. Treat yourself to a pedicure. Watch a fashion show at the local mall. Go to a cafe and sit down with your coffee instead of taking it to go, then work up to having lunch. Museums are great for solo exploration because they encourage quiet reflection. Ride the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus and listen to the often-interesting tidbits on your headphones. The opportunities are endless! Once you are comfortable doing some things by yourself, the next challenge is to put down your phone or book and simply enjoy the experience for what it is.

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I had this view – and this glass of port – all to myself.

Cultivate a New Hobby

Like photography? Grab your camera and go for a long walk. Always wanted to know how to knit/bowl/ski/etc? Take lessons or join a league. Many cities have clubs for outdoor running or public speaking. I once came across a group of people staring silently up at a tree in Central Park. Creeping over, I eventually saw the bird they were watching with keen interest. Whatever you’re into, there’s a group of people out there already practicing it. Join them! At the very least, the experience will give you some stories to tell at happy hour.

Horseback Riding in Yunnan

Horseback Riding in Yunnan, China

Be Open

Doing something alone doesn’t mean avoiding people. Consider joining a free walking tour or taking an art class. Grab a beer in a pub and chat up the locals. One of my best nights in Hong Kong happened after asking directions from strangers on the street and then accepting an invitation to join them for dinner. Once you open yourself up to new possibilities, it’s amazing what fun you’ll have! And you might make some new friends in the process.

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Rooftop selfie in Hong Kong.

Practice Makes Perfect

My first experience with solo travel was a business trip. My company sent me to meet with a vendor and I used my downtime (lunch, dinner, the morning before my return flight) to do a little exploring. Sent on a return trip a few months later, I asked to go on Sunday instead of Monday and used the extra day for sightseeing. After that, I was hooked! I worked hard and was rewarded with more business travel and thus more adventure. One trip required me to fly into Salt Lake City and drive a rental car to Provo for a meeting the next morning; I took a short detour to Park City to marvel at the snow-covered mountains and Old West architecture. Those opportunities boosted my confidence tremendously. Once I moved to Shanghai, visiting a far flung temple or enjoying afternoon tea by myself didn’t seem scary at all.

Sure, the first few times you venture out by yourself might be intimidating. But it will get easier, and the confidence and self-awareness you gain will be priceless. Don’t miss out on all the fun just because there’s no one to go with!

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Winter Packing Tips for People Who Hate to Be Cold

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My parents live in the American South where the climate is so mild my dad can play golf year round. They have never particularly enjoyed cold weather and passed that trait onto me. Yet I often seem to find myself in frosty climes. I spent five winters in New York City shivering and bemoaning the piles of dirty snow on the sidewalk. Now I live in Riga, Latvia, a city situated so far north that its river has been known to freeze over.

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Before the move I received two pieces of advice that have proven helpful and mostly true. The first is an oft-repeated quote by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a British adventurer who has climbed Mount Everest:

There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

The second point I heard was that nowhere in Europe is especially warm in winter so I might as well embrace the cold. I thought I’d circumvent this last January with a trip to sunny Istanbul but was welcomed with a blizzard instead. And you know what? I LOVED IT! The snow-covered city was stunning and blissfully free of tourist crowds. Plus, I was toasty-warm in my winter gear.

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Before I packed my bags for Latvia, with thoughts of icicles and hypothermia running through my head, I invested in some key pieces that have protected me from the elements across the continent from Norway and Estonia to Belgium and Turkey. Here are my tips for conquering the cold this winter travel season.

Coat

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A good coat is the most important article of clothing you can pack. Puffy down coats will likely be warm enough, but the issue I’ve found is that they don’t stay dry. It snows and rains a lot in Europe and, even with an umbrella, you can quickly find yourself soaked to the bone. To avoid this undesirable situation, look for coats with water resistant material and a hood. I’ve been very happy with the Arctic Down Parka from the North Face.

Boots

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I don’t know about you, but cold feet make me miserable. Wet feet are even worse. That’s where waterproof insulated boots come in handy. Standard Uggs are warm but can become sodden. Wellies provide excellent rain protection but tend to feel like frozen blocks of cement – even with fleece wellie socks. I’ve found that boots from LL Bean provide the perfect amount of protection. I wear the classic version paired with thick wool socks, but if you’re really worried about the cold or are heading to the Arctic, upgrade to the shearling-lined version. Whatever you do, leave the heels and dress boots at home. Those cobblestones can be treacherous!

But Heather, I hear you say, we have plans to attend the opera/ballet/theater in Europe. Won’t we want to wear fancy shoes to the performance? Yes, you will. Carry them with you and change in the coat check. Everyone will think you’re a local!

Layers

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The tricky part about dressing for winter is not overdoing it on the layers. You need to strike a balance between being warm outside and not sweating to death indoors. My go-to options are a Uniqlo Heattech t-shirt and fleece-lined tights (NOT leggings – the feet are important), worn beneath jeans and a merino wool sweater. Avoid cotton undershirts as they won’t wick away perspiration.

Accessories

Oslo in April

Don’t forget your sunglasses! When the sun does make an appearance, it will feel exceptionally bright.

You will want a scarf and hat, even if your coat has a hood. Wool and fleece are good materials, though you should choose whatever makes you comfortable. It’s no fun to be itchy! The item I have the most trouble with is gloves. I take a lot of photos and need my fingers, which quickly freeze when left unprotected. Last winter I bought e-tip gloves from the North Face and they worked okay, but weren’t really warm enough for lengthy periods outside. Lately I’ve been rocking fingerless Latvian mittens, but that won’t cut it once the temperature drops below zero. If anyone has a solution, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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Winter Packing Guide

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Tips for Visiting a Traditional Latvian Sauna

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Nē, nē, nē, duša ir pirmais!  These were the instructions given by a Latvian grandmother in her birthday suit after I entered the bath complex and reached for the steam room door. Never mind that I was already clean. The Latvian sauna ritual always begins with a shower. Perhaps amused by my halting Latvian and my eagerness to learn her culture, this grandmother – with the trim and powerful body of a former Olympic swimmer – took me under her wing and literally walked me through the many steps of the sauna ritual.

If you can’t find a friendly local to adopt you for the day, follow these steps to look like a pro!

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Have the Right Supplies

I showed up to the sauna empty handed and had to buy or rent the necessary accouterments (for a minimal cost). You will want to have: plastic sandals, towels, a washcloth, soap, a mud mask and/or exfoliating scrub, a dried birch branch, and a wood or plastic board to sit on. Many of the women present during my visit brought along their own buckets, and two had pumice stones for their feet which I thought was genius.

Hydrate!

It is critical that you drink plenty of water before, during, and after your sauna experience. I also recommend eating a light meal before you go. Both spas I’ve been to have had pitchers of fresh drinking water and apples on hand.

Get Comfortable with Nudity

This goes for your own as well as that of others. I brought a bathing suit with me but quickly realized that it would look strange to wear it when everyone else was without. I kept my towel wrapped tight around me until it became sopping wet and then gave up on any attempt at modesty. It was actually quite liberating! Note that some saunas have separate bathing areas for women and men while others are co-ed.

Watch and Learn

Assuming a fellow bather doesn’t show you what to do, simply observe the other sauna patrons and follow their lead. Try not to be too creepy about it. Remember: you’re all naked.

Balta Pirts Riga

Image source: Balta Pirts

Shower, Steam, Repeat

Begin your sauna ritual with a shower, making sure to work up a good soapy lather. Rinse off thoroughly, then enter the steam room. The temperature here is moderate and more gentle. Sit and relax for a while, then cool off with a shower. Repeat this process several times.

Scrub-a-dub-dub

Once your skin is warm, it’s time to exfoliate. My Latvian granny very cleverly eschewed expensive exfoliating cream in favor of used coffee grounds, and was happy to share her stash. In fact, I was made to brace myself against the wall while Granny vigorously rubbed the grounds into my back. She claimed it was for enerģija. I did feel very much alive afterwards.

Another option is to give yourself a mud mask. But don’t just focus on your face – cover yourself from head to toe! Let the mud dry for a few minutes before rinsing it off to really deep-clean your pores. Head back into the steam room to warm up afterwards.

Balta Pirts Riga

Image source: Balta Pirts

Sweat It Out

When you are acclimated to the temperature – and well hydrated – it’s time to enter the main sauna. The atmosphere here will be extremely hot and dry thanks to a well-stoked fire. Take your plastic board to sit on and protect your sensitive bits. There are usually multiple levels of wooden benches, with the heat intensifying as it rises. Diehard sauna aficionados will recline on the top benches and wear woolen caps to trap even more heat in their body. I politely declined one offered to me and stuck to the lower bench, as I’m a wimp. It’s important to know your limits.

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Image source: China Sauna

Birch Branch Massage

Next comes the most interesting part of the sauna ritual. Soak your dried birch branch in warm water until the leaves are rehydrated, then take it with you into the main wood sauna. If you’re lucky, one of your Latvian friends will take your branch and work you over with it. Granny had me lay down on one of the benches while she “massaged” my back, legs and feet with the branch. This apparently loosens muscles while providing aromatherapy benefits and fanning the heat in the room. Win-win-win!

Take a Refreshing Dip

It doesn’t get more exhilarating than jumping naked into a pool of cold water! After several rounds of extreme heat, your body (and mind) will be craving relief. Take a swim in the pool, if there is one, or dump a bucket of icy water over your head. This was Granny’s method of choice, which she claimed was good for your health. Veselīgs!

Tidy Up

Even if the sauna has a bath attendant, it’s still polite to clean up after yourself. Make sure your coffee grounds and mud are washed down the drain, pick up your errant birch leaves, and throw away your empty water cup. If you’ve rented any items, return them to the front desk and put your wet towel in the bin. Your neighbors will thank you.

Replenish Those Calories

You will sweat a lot throughout the Latvian sauna ritual and will need to feed your body afterwards. I was absolutely ravenous! Potato pancakes and a beer are just what the doctor ordered.

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Latvian saunas, or pirts, have been an important part of the culture for centuries. Traditionally the warmest and most sanitary area of the home, the sauna doubled as a smokehouse for meat and a birthing room for Latvian babies and mothers. Can you imagine entering the world in a haze of wood smoke and cured sausage? Those were some lucky babies!

Most Latvians will tell you that real saunas only exist in the countryside, ideally situated next to a pond or river for jumping into afterwards. But city dwellers can enjoy saunas, too. I recommend Balta Pirts in Riga, which has been helping locals relax since the early 1900s. A one-day pass costs between €13-€15 and you can stay as long as you like.

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Latvian sauna ritual

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Two Weeks in Croatia: The Highlights

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I’ve just returned from a two week road trip across Croatia and am still reeling from the country’s staggering scenery, lovely old architecture, and friendly culture. My adventure began in Dubrovnik, where I rented a car and drove north to Rovinj on the Istrian Penninsula. All told, I explored eight towns and cities, two national parks, and six UNESCO World Heritage sites. I plan to write about each destination in depth, but this overview may give you some ideas for where to go in Croatia – because you should definitely go!

Dubrovnik juts out into the impossibly blue Adriatic like a diamond engagement ring, full of promise and beauty. After reading reports of cruise ship tourists choking the old city’s streets, I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy my time there. Thankfully Dubrovnik wasn’t nearly as crowded as I expected; I’m sure visiting during the low season helped. I spent three blissful days exploring the steep, narrow alleyways within the medieval walls, walking the length of said walls, and taking in the view from on high at the mountaintop Panorama restaurant. Some of my happiest moments were spent at a cafe by the harbor, sipping coffees (and beers) and watching the never-ending stream of boats.

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I loved Dubrovnik so much that I only took one day trip: a boat excursion to Cavtat, a small town near the border with Montenegro. Although short on sights, I was all too content to while away a lazy afternoon by Cavtat’s peaceful harbor with a cheese plate and a half bottle of wine. A word to the wise: if you plan to visit Cavtat from Dubrovnik, go with the Adriana boat company – their boats seemed the most frequent and reliable. My tour company’s boat never showed up for the return trip, but I was able to bum a ride back thanks to a kindly Adriana captain!

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I found Dubrovnik’s missing cruise ship passengers in Split, which felt more crowded and chaotic due to the compact size of the historic district. Split has more attractions than Dubrovnik, but two days was enough time to explore. Split’s old city grew up within the walls of a ruined palace belonging to a retired Roman emperor, Diocletian. It is a labyrinth of alleyways with cafes and restaurants crammed into every available nook and cranny! For the best view of the jumbled rooftops, head to the observation deck of the cathedral bell tower.

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Trogir is an island and ancient trading port surrounded by stone walls and water so beautiful it doesn’t look real. The view from the crumbling old fortress tower provides a nice overview, but the water is best appreciated from the bridge to neighboring Ciovo Island. I took the local bus from Split to Trogir (one hour) and spent a pleasant afternoon wandering Trogir’s narrow cobbled lanes and eating pizza by the sea.

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Zadar was a last minute addition to my Croatia itinerary and ended up being one of my favorite destinations of the trip! The northern Dalmatian city spices up its wealth of Roman ruins with a vibrant cafe scene, interesting museums, and unique public art displays. Of the cities I visited, Zadar had the most lived-in feel, probably thanks to its large university population. I spent four days there – two exploring the city and two day-tripping to surrounding attractions.

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I can’t write about the highlights of my time in Croatia without mentioning stuffed squid. I enjoyed this dish twice, and the version from Zadar was so mouthwatering that it’s now on my list of top-ever tasties! Don’t worry, I’ll be dedicating a separate post to my favorite meals in Croatia – the new-to-me cuisine was a revelation.

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Krka National Park is a special place. The impossibly clear Krka river has carved a path from mountains to the sea, creating a series of waterfalls and shallow swimming pools. I spent about two hours ambling along the wooden boardwalk surrounding Skradinski Buk, the park’s loveliest waterfall, and regretted not wearing my swimsuit for a refreshing dip at the end. Food options at the park are limited; I packed a sandwich for lunch and made it back to Zadar in time for dinner. It was an easy one-hour drive from Krka’s free car park (at the Lozovac entrance).

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Another great day trip from Zadar is Sibenik, a well-preserved medieval town that couldn’t be more charming if it tried. I spent a fabulous day winding through the tangle of tiny streets that climb the hill at the town’s center. The hill is topped with a restored fortress that affords sweeping sea views. A pretty monastery garden and UNESCO-listed cathedral round out Sibenik’s list of attractions, though I was surprised to see so few tourists enjoying them. It made a nice change for an afternoon!

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Plitvice Lakes National Park boasts one of the most extraordinary landscapes I’ve ever seen. With its shimmering turquoise pools surrounded by steep white cliffs and thick foliage, Plitvice looks like an enchanted forest come to life. I fully expected to see fairies and elves dance across the boardwalk in front of me! I followed the “H” trail through the upper and lower falls and took between five and six hours to complete. If you have the time, I highly recommend it!

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Rovinj is a colorful gem of a town on the Istrian peninsula and was the last stopover point of my Croatia trip. I spent three days exploring this pretty fishing village, poking down quiet lanes that lead to the sea. I was surprised by Rovinj’s wealth of unique art and specialty stores and its many fetching cafes and restaurants. A string of bars along the waterfront facing the old town make a perfect spot for a sun-downer cocktail. I wish I could click my heels and be back there, glass in hand and warm breeze on my face. It was heaven!

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From Rovinj I drove to Padua, Italy and swung by tiny-but-historic Porec, Croatia along the way. Porec’s piece de resistance is the Euphrasian Basilica, a 6th century treasure containing some of the world’s finest Byzantine mosaics. This UNESCO site is not to be missed!

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Driving in Croatia proved to be relatively painless. Thanks to my American inability to operate a vehicle with manual transmission, the rental company gave me a free upgrade to a Mercedes with built in GPS – the only automatic they had on the lot! Aside from one harrowing drive through the mountains (from Plitvice to Rovinj), I mostly stuck to the spiffy new A1 highway to save time. Tolls were a bit pricey, though the booths were easy to use. I drove the jaw-dropping coastal road from Dubrovnik to Split via Bosnia. Apologies to the drivers behind me for my slow speed, but I didn’t want to miss a thing! Can you blame me?

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How to Have Fun Almost Anywhere

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When I started this blog two and a half years ago, one of my hopes was to show a few naysayers that I was capable of living beyond the comforts of North America and Europe. From the wilds of the Cambodian jungle to the crowded Beijing metro, I have tried to make the most of every experience and tackle every challenge with a smile. While I have bad days like anyone, I’m an eternal optimist who never stays down for long. Some writers highlight their travel mishaps and point out what they didn’t like about a particular city or sight. That information can be useful, but it’s more my style not to dwell on the negative. In this spirit, I bring you my six tips for having fun almost anywhere!

Loy Krathong Festival

1. Keep an Open Mind

Try not to be too swayed by any one person’s opinion. Just because one person loves or hates a place doesn’t mean you will. Personal experiences and preferences can vary wildly, and factors such as weather and travel season can have a big impact. We were warned against visiting Bangkok because of the touts outside the royal palace (which we didn’t encounter). Others have sworn off tuk-tuks because, allegedly, all the drivers are swindlers. (Yet we’ve taken dozens of tuk-tuk rides across Asia and our drivers have ranged from pleasant to downright awesome.) The Huffington Post recently had the gall to say the Statue of Liberty was overrated (it’s not). If we relied solely on others’ opinions, we’d probably never travel anywhere.

Bangkok temple

Bangkok tuk-tuk

2. Have Reasonable Expectations

This goes hand-in-hand with the first point. If your hopes for a particular destination are sky-high, you risk setting yourself up for disappointment. I’ve found that when I go in managing my own expectations, I often enjoy myself more. This can be tough, especially when visiting famous cities and landmarks you’ve dreamed of for years. Just know that you probably can’t recreate the Eat, Pray, Love experience in Bali or meet a dashing stranger on a train and have an unforgettable night in Vienna à la Before Sunrise. It’s better to visit a place for its own merits and let yourself be pleasantly surprised. You won’t fall in love with every place you visit, and that’s okay. You don’t need to move there.

Yangshuo China

I had no idea what to expect in Yangshuo and it ended up being one of my favorite spots in China!

3. Be prepared

I’ve found that understanding some of a place’s culture and history will enrich your travel experiences. In addition my trusty guidebook, I like to read as much as I can before packing my bags. Novels set in the destination country can provide a wealth of historical and cultural context. Heading to China? Check out Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. Cruising the Greek Isles? Get lost in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Crossing Angkor Wat off your bucket list? Read First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, a non-fiction account of Cambodia’s civil war. That last one was absolutely heartbreaking, but it gave me a much deeper appreciation for the kind people of Cambodia.

Cambodian girl

Doing a little research about your destination is also a great way to stave off disappointment (see Tip 2). I saw countless people turned away from the temples and ruins in Thailand and Cambodia because they weren’t dressed appropriately. Even just having an idea of how you’ll get to your hotel from the airport can spare you some stress.

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Reapplying mosquito repellent in Bangkok. Nothing spoils a good time like malaria.

Koh Lanta, Thailand

Taking a speed boat to our hotel on Koh Lanta. This was infinitely more enjoyable than a public ferry.

4. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

This is another one that can be tough to pull off in the heat of the moment. But some things you just have to let roll off your back. Did the street-food vendor charge you more than the local in front of you? It was pocket change, so let it go. Does your hotel in Southeast Asia not have running water when you come back from a day of sightseeing? Go for a swim if there’s a pool, otherwise get a drink at the bar. No one cares if you’re sweaty; they are too, and you’ll never see them again anyway. Did a gust of wind blow a US$50 bill out of your hand and over a cliff? (True story.) Take a deep breath and forget it.

The restaurant is going to mess up your order, your flight is going to be delayed and your bus may even break down (on the side of the Autobahn in August – another true story.) Mishaps on the road are inevitable. It’s how you deal with them that counts and earns you your travel stripes. If you can laugh at yourself and some of the situations you find yourself in, your trip will be much more pleasant.

The Netherlands

Trying to enjoy Keukenhof gardens in the freezing rain.

Chicken foot

If you find a chicken foot in your hotpot, just laugh it off.

5. Be True to Yourself

Whether you want to hike the Inca Trail or relax at an all-inclusive resort, there is no right or wrong way to travel. I’m all for immersion in the local culture and for pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. But you don’t need to make yourself miserable doing that every hour of every day. Travel can be exhausting and if a Big Mac will prevent a meltdown at the airport, by all means, enjoy one. There is nothing wrong with ducking into a local mall to enjoy the air conditioning or getting your Starbucks fix when you’re abroad. Once the craving for creature comforts has been sated, try to get back out there!

Santorini

This is how I spent five days on Santorini. And I’m okay with that.

KFC China

A delicious lunch in Xi’an, China.

6. Take Delight in the Little Things

It doesn’t take much to amuse me. Ice cream on a hot day. Baby animals. People walking around town in their pajamas. A cardboard cutout photo prop is sometimes all it takes. I’m not saying that every travel day has been smooth sailing, but I would have missed out on so many great moments had I let a negative attitude get in the way. Once, after spending the better part of a day exploring the Forbidden City in Beijing, we rushed across town to see the Temple of Heaven, only to find the gates closed. Our disappointment was short-lived, though: walking back to the subway, we came across a group of older Chinese women dancing gleefully to Jingle Bells. This odd scene in the middle of spring remains one of my favorite China memories, and one we might not have witnessed rushing off in a huff!

Xi'an warrior

Why yes, that is a bronze Terracotta Warrior with a fork head.

Dancing in Beijing

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…

How do you make the most of your travels? What are your tips for dealing with stressful situations?