Paris, Part Deux

My first time in Paris was three summers ago, and it’s no secret that I had not been impressed. We’d just left my favorite place in the world (Positano), and after almost two weeks in vibrant, colorful Italy, Paris felt drab. The buildings looked too uniform, everyone wore black, the skies were almost always overcast, and not all of our meals were life-changing like they had been in Italy. Moreover, I’d made the wrong decision by booking us an Airbnb in the très hip neighborhood of République. I should have enjoyed République, as it has some of the best restaurants in Paris and we were surrounded by cool locals, but for a first-timer, the neighborhood felt a little too far from the touristy sites, and we felt out of place as we had to squeeze past crowds of bobos to get through our front door.

But Paris deserved a second chance.

We wanted to travel during Thanksgiving break this year and figured we should visit a place we’ve already been since it would be such a short trip. I was willing to redo Paris, while Anthony, who had fallen in love with it last time (despite traveling with such a bummer of a partner), was eager to return. So we booked our flights and made sure we did Paris properly this time.

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First off, Paris in the fall is a hundred times better than Paris in the summer. To me, Paris isn’t true Paris in the summer — too many of the locals are away on vacation, and herds of tourists have taken their place. But in the fall, the crisp air accentuates the architecture, and Parisians’ commitment to wearing only neutral colors finally makes sense.

Second of all, our apartment was perfect this time. I found us a charming penthouse studio located in the 4th arrondissement, just a block away from Notre-Dame. It came with a small kitchen, a washing machine, lots of light, and, most importantly, a tiny balcony overlooking Parisian rooftops. We even woke up to church bells every morning! The location was centrally located — walking distance to some of my favorite places, and just a few blocks from both the Metro station and the RER.

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Thirdly, Anthony actually planned out one of our days to celebrate my birthday again — because why have one birthday when you can have another in Paris? He decided where to pick up pastries early in the morning, booked a professional photography session with Flytographer, paid for a wine & cheese pairing class, and made reservations for a fancy dinner. He was so certain that he’d never be able to top my birthday gift to him (a surprise trip to Morocco earlier this year), but I have to say, this was probably one of the best days of my life.

I can’t recommend our Flytographer photographer enough. Olga met us early on a Saturday morning and took stunning photos of us around my favorite neighborhood, Le Marais. She gave us clear directions, made us laugh throughout the shoot, and took us to lavish gardens and quaint courtyards we didn’t even know existed. Over the years, we’ve hired a handful of other professional photographers, but Olga was by far the best. Anthony only paid for 30 photos but she ended up sending us 66!

Here are some of our photos from the shoot; for more, click here.

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Roaming around Le Marais
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A secret garden
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Fall in Paris
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Obligatory cafe shot

After the photo shoot, we had a wine & cheese pairing class at La Cuisine, just a few minutes from our apartment. We started at a fromagerie called La Ferme Saint-Aubin on the island of Île Saint-Louis, where our teacher is a regular and ordered some samples for us to try. I learned that my favorite cheese is Comté, while Anthony learned that he will eat any cheese, even the incredibly smelly one that was aged for two years. After getting enough samples, our teacher, who is also a private chef and journalist, bought some cheese for us to take back to the school. There, we sat around a dining table and paired the five cheeses with five glasses of French wine. Our classmates were incredibly interesting — one was an American living in Amsterdam, another was a Navy pilot living in Italy with his wife, and another was from India but has been living in Paris for the past few months. They were ideal classmates, with a fairly impressive knowledge of wine and cheese (so they could ask all the intelligent questions that Anthony and I couldn’t), but still eager to learn more. By the end of class, I was full and tipsy, and utterly enchanted by Paris.

My birthday dinner was at a two-star Michelin-rated restaurant called Le Clarence, housed in a grand 18th-century mansion, and was probably the best meal of my life. It was definitely the fanciest restaurant I’ve been to; it easily surpassed the only three-star restaurant I’ve been to (Jean Georges in New York). When we arrived, the doorman confirmed our names and led us inside. After coat check, we walked up a gorgeous marble staircase to the second floor, which comprised three intimate dining rooms decorated in slightly different styles, each with only four tables generously spread out. Our dining room was a plush, wood-paneled library, with a fireplace and walls lined with shelves stuffed with books — some of which are secretly menus.

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We began with some amuse-bouches of breaded clams, bite-size puff pastries, and fried langoustine, then shared three varieties of bread, and continued onto sea scallops served two ways. After that, we had the best fresh brioche of my life. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat another brioche ever again. Our next course was squid, gnocchi, and langoustine. After that, our server brought over a beautiful baked puff pastry for us to admire before he returned to the kitchen to divide and plate it for us. The pastry was filled with pigeon and foie gras, served with an oyster consommé and lettuce with marinated duck heart. Perhaps my favorite part of dinner was when a man wheeled over an entire cart of cheese to us — because why not have more cheese after our wine & cheese class? This is France! He asked about our cheese preferences and gave recommendations. When I told him about my favorite cheese, he essentially said the French equivalent of “Comté is too basic for us” — in the most unpretentious way possible, of course — and gave me three alternatives. (Apparently Comté is the most highly produced French cheese in the world.) Meanwhile, adventurous Anthony was given his own assortment of cheese. Anthony particularly enjoyed one of them and asked the cheese man if he could have the name of it; at the end of our meal Anthony was handed a thick envelope containing an official note card from the restaurant with the name of the cheese. After the cheese course, we were served petit fours, followed by vanilla macarons and chocolate truffles. Three hours and nine courses later, I was in heaven.

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The cheese cart

Despite being stuffed, I pretty much floated back home — wearing my ballgown on the Metro — and cried in bed about how much I love Paris. Typical.

Paris is one of those places you need to visit multiple times to really appreciate. There are so many characteristic neighborhoods to explore and layers of history to uncover. Paris rewards those who do their research. Because we’d been there before, we felt comfortable as soon as we landed, and we didn’t have to waste time doing some of the things we did last time, like waiting in line for Notre-Dame, trekking up to Montmartre, or wandering around the Louvre. We got to see some of the things that we hadn’t seen three summers ago, like the stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle, the perfect view of the Eiffel Tower from Bir-Hakeim bridge, and the stunning Palais Garnier theater. And then we got to return to our favorites, like the black-and-white columned courtyard at Palais-Royal and the excessive dome at Galeries Lafayette, which is even more ostentatious with the Christmas decorations.

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Palais Garner
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Palais Garnier
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Sainte-Chapelle
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Galeries Lafayette

I finally get it. Paris, you deserve all the hype.

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Tips for future travelers:

As with all major cities, I try to stay at apartments instead of hotels because they allow you to feel more like a local and give you more privacy. I didn’t find good options on Airbnb so I eventually used HomeAway, which is a more legitimate source for apartment rentals. Here’s a link to our exact apartment. Patrix was a wonderful host!

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Breakfast pastries on our balcony

We booked a dinner with a local French couple through Meeting the French. Sharing a meal with locals is usually one of my favorite parts of traveling, but the couple we were assigned to was a little strange (and may have been conservative — yikes!). They didn’t speak perfect English (and we Americans spoke little to no French, of course), so conversation was stifled. Nevertheless, we did learn a lot from each other, and it’s an experience I would still recommend.

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Dinner with a Parisian couple

Take the Metro. The subway system in Paris is fantastic; it’s clean, organized, and efficient. The 10-pack of tickets saved us a lot of money because it’s slightly discounted, and we could share the ten tickets between the two of us.

Some of the best things we ate (besides everything at Le Clarence): île flottante (soft meringue floating on crème anglaise) at Les Philosophes, turmeric latte at Cafe Kitsuné, chocolate cramique (breakfast pastry) from Aux Merveilleux de Fred, and chocolate mousse at Le Royal.

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My favorite French dessert

How to dress like a local Parisian in the fall: Black or camel coat, flat boots or loafers, thick scarf, and a baguette in your tote (seriously!). It’s true, Parisians don’t wear color. Also, you can tell who the tourists are because they’re the only ones wearing three-inch heels.

Make sure your apartment or hotel room has a balcony. You’ll thank me immediately.

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Drinking a bottle of wine on our balcony at dusk
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Berlin

Just before our trip to Germany, a massive white supremacist rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. These white supremacists held Confederate flags, brandished swastikas, and did “Heil Hitler” salutes — yes, swastikas and Heil Hitler salutes. In America. In the year 2017. As if that weren’t enough, one of the neo-Nazis rammed his car through a crowd of counter-protesters, murdering one person and injuring dozens of others. And instead of denouncing the rally and stating the obvious — that Nazis are bad — our president said there was “blame on both sides.”

Imagine the irony of going to Germany to escape Nazis.

Meanwhile, in Germany, public displays of Nazi symbols have been banned since the end of World War II. And unlike America, which still inexplicably has Confederate statues, Germany has shown an incredible sensitivity toward the ways in which they commemorate their past.

We noticed this sensitivity in Berlin especially. Having been the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich, and then divided for 28 years, hardly any other city has experienced such extreme transformation in the last century. Scattered throughout the city are thought-provoking memorials that directly confront its complex history.

My favorite memorial — in the world, perhaps — is Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Completed in 2005, this Holocaust memorial consists of thousands of gravestone-like pillars. Designed by a Jewish-American architect, it was Germany’s first formal, government-sponsored Holocaust memorial. Using the word “murdered” in the title was a big deal; Germany, as a nation, was officially admitting to a crime. The rectangular pillars stand in rows, creating narrow alleys between them, over a gently sloping ground. The location, near Berlin’s foreign embassies and government buildings, is a statement in itself — it has designated such a large amount of prime real estate to this memorial, while also forcing political leaders from around the world to observe how Germany acknowledges its past.

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We went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe twice, and I got near-lost both times. It’s disorienting. The narrow alleyways prevent you from walking through with anyone else. Once you enter, people seem to appear and disappear between the columns. Like death, you have to deal with it alone.

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Even Berlin’s parliament building, the famous Reichstag, is a sort of memorial. It was here that Nazis blamed a mysterious fire in 1933 on Communists, allowing Hitler to gain emergency powers and disband the parliament. A glass dome sits on top of the Reichstag, offering a 360-degree view of Berlin from two sloping ramps that spiral inside. The parliamentary chamber can be seen from these ramps through a mirrored cone jutting into the center. The dome, open to the public, symbolizes that the people are above the government, and that government is now transparent and will have no secrets.

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Glass dome
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Ramps to walk up the dome
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Notice the reflection of the parliamentary chamber below

While walking around Berlin, we noticed small brass plaques in the sidewalk. Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) is an ongoing memorial that marks the former homes or work locations of Nazi victims. More than 56,000 of these plaques have been installed across Europe, making Stolpersteine the world’s largest decentralized memorial. On each plaque is the name of the victim, and how and where that person died. Each Stolperstein is made of brass so it polishes when someone walks on it. The name stolperstein has multiple meanings. Nazis had an anti-Semitic saying when accidentally stumbling over a protruding stone: “A Jew must be buried here.” But in German, stolperstein also means “to stumble across something” or “to find out by chance”. Thus, the term invokes both the anti-Semitic remark of the past and also the stumbled-upon metaphor, as the plaques are not placed prominently and are recognizable only when passing at a close distance. Unlike major memorial sites, which can be easily avoided, Stolpersteine is history that disrupts your everyday life.

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A handful of Stolpersteine

Meanwhile, the site of Hitler’s death is almost completely unmarked. Hitler stayed in a bunker in Berlin for two months until he and his wife (of 48 hours) Eva Braun committed suicide on April 30, 1945. A week later, war was over. His bunker now lies beneath a parking lot. Germans tread lightly on their past. They refuse to turn Hitler’s stronghold into a tourist attraction, to give neo-Nazis a special place to convene.

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Can you find Hitler’s bunker in this photo? We couldn’t either.

World War II is just the tip of Berlin’s fascinating history. After the war, Berlin was divided by the victorious Allied powers. The American, British, and French sectors became West Berlin, while the Soviet sector became East Berlin. The catch is that Berlin was inconveniently located in the middle of East Germany (DDR) — a hundred miles away from West Germany (BRD). So, West Berlin essentially became a capitalist island in the middle of communist East Germany.

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West Berlin (the small blue, green, and orange sections) was an island in the sea of East Germany (large red)

Nearly overnight, the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, cutting through the middle of the city, completely encircling West Berlin. This 96-mile-long wall was intended to stop the outward flow of people from East to West. The wall consisted of a 12-foot-high concrete barrier with a rounded, pipe-like top and barbed wire; a death strip; silent alarms; and more than 100 watchtowers. During its 28 years, at least 138 people died trying to escape.

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A five-story watchtower
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These steel rods mark where the Wall stood
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Peeking into a deathstrip

Our apartment was located on Bernauer Straße, the very street along which the Berlin Wall ran. When the wall was erected, people were suddenly separated form their neighbors across the street. Buildings on Bernauer Straße were incorporated into the structure of the wall itself and became known as border houses. Many people in the East tried to escape through these border houses, jumping from roofs and through windows.

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Street art commemorating border houses
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Huge murals depicting snippets of the Berlin Wall era cover the sides of new apartment buildings on Bernauer Straße
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You can tell this area has become quite trendy

Not everything from this era is tragic. West Germany and East Germany had different styles of pedestrian traffic lights. West Germany had the generic human figure, while East Germany had perky little Ampelmännchen, a male figure wearing a hat. The Ampelmännchen was a beloved symbol of the East and was woven into children’s cartoons and comic strips. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, newly unified Germany sought to rid itself of the vestiges of the East–including its Ampelmännchen. But people were outraged, and a group successfully lobbied the government for Ampelmännchen’s preservation. Since then, you can find these in both sides of Berlin.

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I’ve spent a lot of time going over Berlin in the 20th century, but this city is so much more than its past. Anthony may have fallen in love with Berlin for its history, but I fell in love with Berlin for its energy and resilience. Berlin is famous for being Europe’s cheapest capital. Because it’s affordable, it attracts a young, international crowd, and because it’s youthful, there’s a lot of creativity here. Munich feels passé compared to Berlin.

It’s incredibly easy to navigate; the same transit ticket can be used for its many modes of transportation, such as its U-Bahn (subway), S-Bahn (above-ground rail), tram, and bus systems. And you don’t even need to speak German to survive here; apparently Berliners are so eager to learn English that they’d rather practice their English with you than hear you speak German.

Germany does so many things better than America does, whether it’s offering extensive public transportation, providing universal healthcare, having some of the strictest gun laws in Europe, or guaranteeing free education. But in Berlin specifically, it’s apparent that Germany is also much better at grappling with its history. In America, neo-Nazis claim that removing Confederate statues is “erasing our history” — even though most of these statues were erected in the mid-20th century, long after the Civil War — because apparently we learn all our history from tacky sculptures of dead, slave-owning white men who fought against America. Germany could definitely teach us a thing or two.

Tips for future travelers:

Book a history tour with Brewer’s Berlin Tours. These 6-hour walking tours are led by passionate history buffs who will make Berlin’s intimidating history more accessible and a lot funnier than just reading about it.

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Our tour guide explains that these colorful pipes found throughout Berlin suck up swamp water from underground to prepare for construction
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Our tour guide draws a map of post-WWII Germany

Eat dessert at Fassbender & Rausch, Europe’s biggest chocolate store. This family-owned business has been making chocolate for 150 years. We loved its elegant cafe that we went there twice. The downstairs shop has giant models of Berlin landmarks made of chocolate.

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Day one at Fassbender & Rausch
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Day two at Fassbender & Rausch

Check out the DDR Museum, an interactive museum that offers an unbiased look into former East Germany. In America, we only like to learn the negative aspects of communism, but this museum highlights the truth about life in the DDR. For example, 90% of East German women held jobs (compared to only 50% of West German women), and divorce and abortions were legal, giving East German women way more rights than in the West.

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Consider staying in Prenzlauerberg. I’ve compared “Pberg” to both Park Slope and the West Village. This charming neighborhood was once a haven for artists and bohemians, but now it’s full of young families and great restaurants.

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Don’t just eat German food. While we never got sick of sausages in the other German cities, we were thrilled to be back in a cosmopolitan city — which means you can find every cuisine here. We had vegan Vietnamese on our first night, Lebanese our second night, dim sum on our third night, and so on. Of course, you can’t come to Berlin without trying currywurst. Created in Berlin after World War II, this cheap dish was invented when a fast-food cook got her hands on some curry and Worcester sauce from British troops stationed here. She grilled pork sausage, cut it up, then smothered it in curry sauce. Eat these with a toothpick or small wooden fork, with some fries on the side.

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Currywurst from Curry61

Take a guided tour of the Reichstag building, which is the only way to walk up the dome. To do this, you’ll need to register in advance, and the Bundestag will vet you before accepting your reservation. Bring your passport with you!

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Our tour guide was the most German man we encountered on our trip. We were his biggest fans!
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Parliamentary chamber
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Relaxing at the top of the dome
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Notice the absence of parliamentary members during the Nazi era

Unsurprisingly, my favorite tour we took in Berlin was a 3-hour food tour with Bite Berlin. Our guide led us through Berlin and provided seven generous food samples: buttered pretzels, currywurst, buletten (meatballs), Vietnamese bao burgers, one of the best cinnamon rolls of my life (I loved it so much, we went back the next morning), cakes, and East Berlin sparkling wine. It was a delicious way to learn more about Berlin’s cultural and immigrant history. One of the most mind-blowing facts we learned in Berlin was that, during the Cold War, West Berlin accepted South Vietnamese refugees while East Berlin invited North Vietnamese workers to help build infrastructure (including the wall). There was a Vietnam for each side!

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Trying Vietnamese bao burgers
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Cinnamon roll from Zeit für Brot

Hamburg

If Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a Germany stuck in time, and Nuremberg is a Germany cautiously toeing the line between past and present, Hamburg is a Germany dashing into the future. While popular with domestic tourists, Hamburg is usually absent from the travel itineraries of foreign tourists, and that’s somewhat understandable — Germany’s richest and second-largest city doesn’t have time for lederhosen or quaint half-timbered homes! Hamburg feels a lot more like Scandinavia than stereotypical Germany. It has more bridges than any other city in the world, and more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined. While I found Munich and Berlin to be more interesting German cities to visit, I sure wouldn’t mind living in Hamburg.

But first, some history. With its crucial port and strategic transportation links, Hamburg was a prime target for Allied bombers during World War II. Bombers hit the city with air raids that destroyed roofs, broke water mains, and tore up streets. Since that summer of 1943 had been especially dry and hot, the result of the attack was an unprecedented firestorm. A tornado of flames raged, baking many inhabitants inside their bomb shelters, and sucking those who ventured outside off their feet and into a heat vortex. Roads and sidewalks caught on fire, and anyone who tried to run across got stuck in boiling asphalt. In just three hours, the inferno killed 42,000 civilians. After the eight days of air raids, roughly one million survivors were evacuated, leaving behind a demolished city.

Of course, you can barely tell now. Hamburg has successfully recovered, growing wealthier than ever, and its new port is currently the second busiest in Europe. The port left its original location to accommodate larger modern container ships, leaving behind vacant prime real estate, which is being developed into HafenCity, Europe’s largest urban development project. When it’s done, downtown Hamburg will be 40% bigger, employing 15,000 workers and housing 10,000 residents.

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Hamburg’s bustling port reminded me of Istanbul
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Beautiful sunset views of the port from HafenCity

The pride and joy of Hamburg — and an icon of modern Germany — is Elbphilharmonie, a stunning building that just opened this year, and houses a concert hall, hotel, apartment complex, and shopping mall. Its wavy silhouette and reflective exterior resemble water and steamer ships, both of which have been so integral to Hamburg. When we visited Elbphilharmonie on a random Tuesday evening, hundreds of Hamburgers of all ages were sitting right outside, elegantly drinking wine while watching a free live screening of the Philip Glass/Vivaldi concert that was taking place inside. Free classical music for the masses, while watching the sunset over the water? Hamburg has clearly figured out the good life.

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Crowd outside Elbphilharmonie

Our time in Hamburg was brief, but it offered us a sufficient preview into another side of Germany: the Germany that isn’t bogged down by its history, as so many of its other cities are. Americans tend to visit Germany for two reasons: getting drunk off good beer, and satiating our obsession with World War II history. Hamburg doesn’t pander to those; it’s too absorbed with its own future and I respect that. Compared to all the other German cities we visited, this was where we heard English the least, which makes sense since its economy doesn’t depend on English-speaking tourists as much. Hamburg is still rapidly developing, and I look forward to returning someday to see how much has been transformed.

Tips for future travelers:

One of my favorite areas was touristy Landungsbrücken, which includes a half-mile-long floating dock designed to accommodate the Elbe River’s 13-foot tides. The best meal we had in Hamburg was from one of the many fish stands at Landungsbrücken — “Fischbrötchen und Pommes”, or pickled herring in a bun, with a side of fries (and the best ketchup I’ve ever had!). In fact, we loved it so much that we had it twice in one night.

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First Fischbrötchen of the day
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Second Fischbrötchen of the day

If you still like the Beatles, visit the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s Red Light District. Sure, you can find prostitutes if that’s your thing, but there are also some pretty legit music venues here. The Beatles were unknown when they first arrived in Hamburg from Liverpool, but after a season of gigs in front of tough crowds in the Reeperbahn, they launched into international stardom.

Check out the Schulterblatt neighborhood for cafes and restaurants. Nicknamed “Latte Macchiato Boulevard,” this gentrifying neighborhood is oozing with creative energy thanks to its squatter-building-turned-arts-venue.

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We stayed at the Scandic Hamburg Emporio, which is actually a Swedish hotel chain, but it felt appropriate for Scandinavian-esque Hamburg. Each room has huge windows, and the hotel provides the most lavish breakfast buffet I’ve ever experienced.

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To get to HafenCity, catch the 7-minute public ferry, which takes you straight to Elbphilharmonie. Once there, wait in line at the main entrance for a free ticket to the public plaza on the sixth floor. It’s a great place to watch the sun set.

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Nuremberg


Nuremberg made me cry. No, it wasn’t because of the spine-chilling Nazi sites. I cried over some tiny bratwurst. (To be fair, I do have a tendency to weep over really good food, but usually it’s food that I’m already passionate about, like kaiseki in Kyoto, or baked pork buns at a Michelin award-winning dim sum restaurant.) As for my sudden tears during a meal in Nuremberg, it’s a long story.

Before our Germany trip, the only thing I knew about Nuremberg was its atrocious Nazi past. Appropriately, the first thing we did after checking into our hotel was take a tram to the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, which comprise an immense complex of buildings designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect. One building, Hitler’s unfinished Congress Hall, is the largest surviving example of Nazi architecture and houses Dokumentationszentrum (Nazi Documentation Center), an in-depth museum that attempts to answer the big question: How did this happen?

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Huge photos of Nazi rallies inside the museum

Meanwhile, neighboring Zeppelin Field was where the actual rallies took place. Now, anyone can climb up to Hitler’s grandstand in front of the Zeppelin Tribune and experience the sheer audacity of it all.

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The Tribune was based on the design of the ancient Greek Pergamon Altar
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Climbing up the steps to the Tribune at Zeppelin Field

Why did Nuremberg appeal to Hitler so much? For practical purposes, Nuremberg is centrally located in Germany and thus a convenient meeting point for Nazi supporters. Hitler also had a friend here named Julius Streicher, who spread Nazism with his inflammatory newspaper Der Stürmer (The Storm Trooper). Most importantly, however, Nuremberg is steeped in German history. Long before Nazism, the city was once home to the Holy Roman Emperor and Germany’s most famous artist, Albrecht Dürer. Its Old Town is packed with Gothic buildings in the quintessential German style — and as I had learned from our last town, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Hitler had a thing for those. As one of the most important cities of medieval Europe, Nuremberg was the perfect place for Hitler to legitimize his Third Reich by invoking Germany’s glorious past.

In other words, our first afternoon in Nuremberg was pretty depressing, and I was not very fond of the city. However, my mind changed completely when we returned to Nuremberg’s Old Town and started exploring the rest of Nuremberg.

Long ago, Nuremberg consisted of two distinct walled towns separated by a river. As both towns grew, they merged and the middle wall came down. Hauptmark (main market square) was built by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and became the center of the newly united city. Year-round, Hauptmarkt is bustling with fruit, flower, and souvenir stands. For a few weeks before Christmas, it hosts Germany’s largest Christmas market.

My favorite area in Nuremberg was way uphill, near Kaiserburg (Imperial Castle). In the Middle Ages, Holy Roman emperors stayed here when they were in town. The castle is a huge complex of 45 buildings that can be partially accessed by ticket, but a stunning view of Nuremberg near the round tower is completely open to the public.

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Free views are the best!

Just below Kaiserburg is a popular socializing spot for a young, artsy crowd. Nuremberg is rich in art. During World War II, artwork was carefully protected from air raids in a series of cellars. Nuremberg was bombed relatively late in the war, which allowed the city to prepare for the attack. Artwork was packaged inside wooden crates and padded with sandbags, then hidden in a climate-controlled environment behind thick fireproof doors.

Albrecht Dürer is Nuremburg’s most famous resident. He studied in Italy, brought the Renaissance to medieval Germany, and undoubtedly influenced many artists like Raphael and Titian. He did things that were radical in northern Europe at the time, such as signing his own works, and painting things simply for study instead of on commission.

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Albrecht Durer’s house in Nuremberg

In the same neighborhood, a street called Weissgerbergasse (Tanners’ Lane) is lined with Nuremberg’s finest collection of half-timbered houses to survive the war. These well-crafted homes attest to Nuremberg’s considerable prosperity. The iconic dark-red color in the painted beams of these homes is oxen blood, which helped prevent rot and termite damage.

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Homes on Weissgerbergasse

I was so overwhelmed by the vibrancy throughout Nuremberg that, by the time we were eating dinner at Bratwursthäusle, I struggled to blink back my tears. Maybe it was the wine — I was downing my glass of Riesling (why is German wine so much better than American wine?!). Maybe it was the bratwurst, which was made in-house by the restaurant’s own butcher and cooked on a beechwood grill. Maybe it was the atmosphere — Christmas lights strung over the patio, right across the street of an important church. Or maybe it was my guilt that I had thought so little of this city just a few hours ago.

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My favorite meal of our entire trip

Whatever it was, Nuremberg clearly taught me a couple of crucial lessons: Give a city more than four hours to judge it. More importantly, what many Americans know about other countries does not do those places justice at all. Nuremberg’s infamous Nazi past is such a small part of its lengthy history, though barely anything else is taught in our schools. (In America we love to over-learn World War II because we were the “heroes” of that war). Furthermore, Nuremberg is so much more than its past. It’s a thriving place and the second largest city in Bavaria. A whopping 40% of its population are immigrants (mostly from Turkey and Yugoslavia), and well-known German companies such as Adidas, Faber-Castell, Playmobil, and Siemens also call Nuremberg home. Nuremberg reminded me of Florence in many ways. Both are comfortable, hilly cities located inland, filled with art, history, and incredible food. Both pleasantly surprised me, and both will have a special place in my heart forever.

Tips for future travelers:

Check out the Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Germanic National Museum). If you have any interest in German history or culture, you can easily spend an entire day in this sprawling museum.

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Germanisches Nationalmuseum

After visiting the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, have lunch at Guttmann’s Biergarten, a lovely beer garden overlooking a nearby lake. Here you can try the obligatory “3 im Weckla”, a Nuremberg specialty. “3 im Wekla” refers to three tiny bratwursts stuffed into a bun. Nuremberg has been making these sausages for 700 years. The use of mace, pepper, and marjoram in the sausage is proof of Nuremberg’s significance as a trading city in the Middle Ages. Why are Nuremberg sausages so small? One theory claims that their diminutive size allowed them to be shared with hungry travelers through keyholes in the city gates after the nightly curfew. Another theory claims that the size was just a response to a spike in pork prices in the late 16th century.

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The perfect lunch: “3 im Wekla” and a 1/2 liter of Hefeweizen

Have at least one meal at Bratwursthäusle. It was my favorite meal on our entire trip. Maybe you’ll cry, too.

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Rothenburg ob der Tauber

After visiting Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Neuschwanstein, it only made sense that our next stop would be Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the medieval town that inspired Disney’s Pinocchio. Like Amsterdam and Santorini, I came for the photos but ended up appreciating its beauty much more after learning about the town’s tumultuous history.

The name of the town means “red fortress above the Tauber,” because it’s located on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River. In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg was a free imperial city, which meant that it was self-ruling and enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy. It was also a strategic stop on trade routes throughout Europe. With a population of 6,000, this thriving town was one of Germany’s largest. However, Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s fortunes tumbled suddenly due to occupation and ransacking during the Thirty Years’ War and a plague that followed. The town never fully recovered, which is why it became (and still is) Germany’s best preserved medieval town — which is fortunate for tourists like us!

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But this picturesque town is more than just a pretty face. Rothenburg ob der Tauber has been admired by many, including Nazis. For them, Rothenburg was the quintessential German town and was even hailed by Hitler as “the most German of German towns”. The Nazis used to organize regular day trips to Rothenburg from all across the Reich. And unfortunately, the town was not an innocent bystander. If you recall from my Munich post, the region of Bavaria had been a hotbed of conservatism. Rothenburg’s townspeople were sympathetic to National Socialism and expelled its Jewish citizens in 1938.

During World War II, bombs were dropped over the German town, killing 37 people and destroying hundreds of buildings. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy was familiar with the Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s historic importance and beauty, so he ordered his army not to use artillery against it. Instead, his army negotiated the surrender of the town. The local military commander surrendered, ignoring Hitler’s orders, saving Rothenburg ob der Tauber from total destruction. After the war, donations for rebuilding were received from all over the world.

Since the town has been preserved in its medieval state, it’s easy to appreciate how self-sufficient it used to be. In the main square, there’s a large 17th-century fountain with long metal gutters that slide to deposit water into villagers’ buckets. The town had an ingenious water system that serviced a series of fountains to provide drinking water, store fish for market days, and fight fires. Because of its plentiful water supply, the town never burned entirely, as so many neighboring villages did. Meanwhile, many of the town’s half-timbered homes were filled with a year’s supply of grain so they could survive sieges.

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Fountain in the main square
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This big wooden door has a tiny door cut into it. If you tried to enter town after curfew, you’d need to bribe the guard, and maybe he’d let you through the tiny door, which was small enough to keep out any fully armed attackers

For better or for worse, Rothenburg ob der Tauber has been frozen in time. It’s a fantastic way for visitors to explore a snippet of medieval life. It’s easy to see why Hitler was charmed by this town. It’s also easy to see why, despite Rothenburg’s awful anti-Semitism and support of Nazism, an American decided that this place was still worth saving.

Tips for future travelers:

Go on the Night Watchman’s Tour. This was our favorite part of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. A man named Hans Georg Baumgartner has been leading this one-hour historical tour for years, dressed up like a night watchman and telling gritty tales of the medieval town. No need to make reservations; just find the large group of tourists congregating at the main square at 8 pm every night.

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Climb up Rathausturm (the spire of Town Hall) for the best view of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It takes 214 steps and is comically narrow and steep at the top. In fact, some of the staircases are so narrow that a traffic stoplight will let you know when there’s enough room for you to proceed to the next staircase. (German efficiency!)

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This spiral staircase is the easy part
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Wait for the red light to turn green before climbing up to the next level
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Anthony barely fit

Check out the Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum (Medieval Criminal Museum), one of the quirkiest museums I’ve ever visited. Torture was common in the Middle Ages — not necessarily to punish but to extract confessions. Just the sight of these tools was often enough to make an innocent person confess. The museum has painful-looking artifacts like spiked chairs and thumbscrews, but my favorites were the shame masks. Shame masks were intricately decorated to indicate the crime — chicken feathers indicate promiscuity, a snout indicates piggish behavior, and a giant tongue indicates a tendency to gossip. Those convicted of immoral behaviors were forced to wear these masks while being chained in public places for all to see and humiliate.

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“Baker’s Baptism”

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Eat a meal at Zum Pulverer, a traditional Weinstube (restaurant specializing in wine). Weinstuben are mainly found in the wine-growing regions of southern Germany. Zum Pulverer has a cozy interior with wooden chairs carved into the shapes of past senators of Rothenburg. Like beer, wine in Germany is better than any wine I’ve ever had in the U.S.

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Stay at Hotel-Gasthof Goldener Griefen, which was once the home of Mayor Toppler. This 650-year-old hotel has a pleasant garden and is located just off the main square. It will make you feel like you’re a prosperous person living in the Middle Ages.

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Hotel-Gasthof Goldener Grefein is the green home on the right
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Tiny, heavy medieval doors

Go shopping. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is unabashedly touristy, and many of its tourists are actually Germans from other parts of the country. Its streets are filled with quirky shops such as the German Christmas Museum, Waffenkammer (the “weapons chamber,” where tourists can try on armor and pose with medieval weapons for photo ops), and pastry shops selling Schneeballen (leftover flour strips rolled into a ball and covered in icing).

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Of course Anthony loved Waffenkammer

Most tourists come only on day trips. Don’t be one of those. Rothenburg ob der Tauber deserves a little more of your time. Around dusk, the obnoxious tour groups vacate, and the cobblestone roads glimmer with romance. At night, it gets even better, and early in the morning you can take all the photos you want without other tourists in your way.

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Early in the morning, before the day-trippers arrive, you have Plonlein to yourself!

Neuschwanstein

For those of you who don’t know my husband, Anthony likes to make Metal Earth models for fun. He’s really good at constructing these intricate, laser-cut metal models and has even become a minor celebrity on Instagram because of them. Many of them are iconic landmarks from around the world, so he usually brings at least one on our numerous vacations. Since we were in Munich this summer, we decided to take a day trip down to see Schloss Neuschwanstein (Neuschwanstein Castle), as Metal Earth happened to design a model of the stunning castle.

You probably recognize Neuschwanstein even if you’ve never heard of it. The castle has been featured in several movies such as The Monuments Men and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and served as the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. This is the castle of all castles, the epitome of fairy-tale castles throughout time. Perched high above the town, even its setting on the lush foothills of the Bavarian Alps is dramatic.

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Bavarian Alps
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Lookout point

Neuschwanstein was commissioned by King Ludwig II, who ruled Bavaria for 22 years in the 19th century. Rather than deal the politics in Munich, he preferred to spend most of his time in Schloss Hohenschwangau, his family’s palace that was built by his father. Much of King Ludwig’s adult life was spent constructing Neuschwanstein on a neighboring hill. He spent 17 years building it, but only lived inside for 172 days. Soon after he moved in, he was declared mentally unfit to rule Bavaria and was taken away. Two days later, he was found dead in a lake. Less than six weeks later, Neuschwanstein became open to the public, and now over a million tourists visit per year.

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View of Hohenschwangau

During World War II, Nazis used Neuschwanstein as one of their secret storehouses for stolen art from France. Due to its secluded location, it survived both wars without destruction. After the war, Allied forces spent years sorting through and redistributing the art.

Even without its historical significance, Neuschwanstein is impressive. Out of all the photos we’ve taken of Metal Earth models in front of their respective landmark, Neuschwanstein may have been my favorite to take. It may have necessitated quite a journey to take the photo — we first took a train from Munich and a bus from the station to town, missed our guided tour, power-walked up a short mountain, attended an audio guide tour through the castle, then stood in a long line to cross a bridge — but our efforts were well worth it.

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We made it!
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So perfectly framed

Tips for future travelers:

Skip the castle tour. Unless you’ve never been to a castle before, the interior of Neuschwanstein isn’t that remarkable. The only way to see the interior is to book timed tickets in advance, and timed tickets can be stressful, especially if your train is running late like ours. Trust me, you didn’t come here for the interior; you came to gawk at the exterior, which is completely free and unconstricted by time!

Hike above Neuschwanstein to Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge), which has the best view of Neuschwanstein. Any photo you’ve seen of the castle was probably taken here. The bridge spans the Pöllat Gorge and is completely free to climb — you know that if this were in America, we’d be charging entrance tickets.

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If you look closely, that bridge behind us is Mary’s Bridge
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This might be challenging for people who are afraid of heights
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Even the view on the non-castle side of the bridge is gorgeous

If you’re coming from Munich, buy a Bayern Ticket, which covers all train and bus rides to and from Munich. Aim to leave Munich in the morning, as a one-way trip takes roughly three hours.

Much of your walking will be uphill, but the hike really isn’t that bad if you’re in decent shape. Anthony and I made it up to Neuschwanstein and Marienbrücke in half the time that our guide book quoted. There are shuttle buses and horse-drawn carriages, but the lines for those are pretty ridiculous, and you’ll still have to walk part of the way even if you ride them.

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Enjoying the hike
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If you hike, you’ll feel more rewarded by this view

Go in the afternoon for the best lighting.

Don’t forget to check the times for your return train back to Munich.

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Munich

After postcard-perfect Amsterdam, it was nice to be in a real city. Munich is located down south in the German state of Bavaria and is the third most populous city in the country. Though Bavaria has long been a bastion of conservative politics in Germany, Munich is an island of liberalism, and I could easily see myself living here. It reminded me of Milan in many ways; both are stylish, livable cities with grand architecture and low crime, and both are considered second cities to Berlin and Rome, respectively.

Munich has been a major European cultural center for hundreds of years, but not all of its history is admirable. In 1920, Munich became home to the Nazi Party. Hitler’s famous “Beer Hall Putsch” happened in a beer hall in Munich, at which he and his supporters attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic and seize power. Half of Munich was destroyed by bombing during World War II, but it recovered and, since the 1980s, has had one of the fastest growing economies in the country. Munich is what many Americans envision when they think of Germany (think beer halls and lederhosens), so we figured it was the best place to start our trip.

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View of Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) from the top of St. Peter’s Church in Marienplatz

I wasn’t too excited about German cuisine before our trip, but the food ended up being one of my favorite things about Germany. Munich specializes in Weißwurst (white sausage made of minced veal and back bacon, flavored with parsley, lemon, onions, and cardamom) served with Weißwurstsenf (sweet mustard) and freshly-baked Brezen (pretzels). Traditionally, the sausages are made early in the morning and eaten as a snack before noon, since preservatives aren’t used and the meat is not smoked. They’re heated in water for about ten minutes and brought to the table in a big bowl of hot water. I couldn’t get enough of this meal!

And just thinking about the beer we had in Munich makes me salivate. I’m usually quite picky about my beer — “dark ales from craft breweries only, please” —  but every single beer I had in Germany was infinitely better than anything I’ve had in the U.S., and Bavaria takes its beer even more seriously than the rest of the country. Since 1516, German beer has been brewed according to Reinheitsgebot (the German Beer Purity Law), which stipulates that water, barley, hops, and yeast are the only ingredients that may be used in production. This law was introduced partly to prevent price competition with bakers; since only barley could be used for beer, other grains like wheat and rye were saved for bread. Thanks to Reinheitsgebot, German beer is absolutely delicious and the reason I will never drink American beer again (sorry, Brooklyn Brewery).

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Biergartens (beer gardens) are a central part of Munich culture. The concept originated in Munich in the 19th century because breweries wanted to reduce the temperatures inside beer cellars in the summer, so they covered river banks with gravel and planted shady chestnut trees for cover. One of our dinners was at a biergarten in Viktualienmarkt, a huge, historic open-air food market. As New Yorkers, Anthony and I couldn’t help but wonder how such a traditional place survives, taking up a hefty amount of space, year-round, on the most expensive real estate in Munich. Turns out, the government understands how much locals love Viktualienmarkt, so it charges vendors only a small percentage of their gross income and bans fast-food chains, allowing beloved old-time shops to still exist. Imagine if America could put the interests of its people above making the highest profit!

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Like all good cities, Munich has numerous public parks. We spent one afternoon in Englischer Garten, one of the largest urban parks in the world. With rolling lawns, a famous nudist area, and multiple biergartens, it’s no wonder we loved this park. In fact, the highlight of our entire stay in Munich may have been watching surfers at Eisbach, a small man-made river that flows through part of Englischer Garten. Yes, you read that right — you can go surfing in the middle of Munich. Just past a bridge near the southern edge of the park, Eisbach forms a constant standing wave that has become a popular river surfing spot for experienced surfers. There are even surfing competitions here. We spent hours watching them, completely mesmerized — and we’re from Hawaii!

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If someone only had time to visit one city in Germany, I’d probably tell them to visit Munich. They’ll get all the obligatory beer halls, World War II history, art museums, and famous concert halls, but they’ll also get a glimpse of the way in which modern-day Germany does everything better. It grapples with its tumultuous history better than America does. It cares about the well-being of its people more (and I haven’t even touched upon its free college tuition yet!). It makes better beer. It’s even created a more efficient way to surf. Throughout the rest of our trip, Germany just continued to prove to us that it does life better.

I could have stayed forever, but it was time to visit some castlesAuf Wiedersehen, Munich!

Tips for future travelers:

Have dinner at Hofbräuhaus. I didn’t think I’d enjoy this famous beer hall because it’s incredibly touristy, but we loved it so much that we went twice! It’s boisterous, it’s loud (especially when the oompah-music starts at night), and the floors are sticky with beer — but what an experience! Munich wouldn’t be Munich without it. Plus, the food is fantastic. Get yourself some Weißwurst.

Climb up St. Peter’s Church for the best view of Munich. There’s a €2 entrance fee and 306-step climb, but the view is well worth it.

Our hotel, Hotel Splendid-Dollmann, was pure class. The lobby has a wood-paneled library, the breakfast rooms made us feel like we were dining with royalty every morning, the hotel left us a couple of hardcover German novels on our bed to take as souvenirs, and it was just a quick walk to Marienplatz. It was the perfect place to stay in elegant Munich.

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Our hotel’s breakfast room
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Our hotel’s library in the lobby

Try a Schmalznudel at Schmalznudel Café Frischhut. This light, fried, yeasty dough is basically a glorified funnel cake, but it was a delight watching the pastry chef make this in front of the shop window. You’ll get to witness the terrifying amount of butter he uses, as well as the impressive number of regulars who drop by for one of the four pastries made here.

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Other things to check out: Pinakothek der Moderne for modern art in a gorgeous museum, Asam Church for the most ostentatious church you’ve ever seen, and Cafe Luitpold for fancy cakes

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Asam Church was less a church and more a showroom for the architect brothers to get clients
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Cafe Luitpold’s signature cake, with marzipan, white wine cream, and cognac
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Auf Wiedersehen, Munich!

Amsterdam

We were only in Amsterdam for a short time on our way to Germany, just long enough to meander through the postcard-perfect city and dodge bikers every few seconds. One thing I noticed immediately is that it must be nice to be an Amsterdamer. Amsterdamers are tall, beautiful, and lean (must be all that biking!), and it’s hard to imagine anything too unpleasant happening in such a progressive, affluent town full of flowers, art, and open markets.

The very existence of Amsterdam is an engineering feat. The Dutch used windmills to pump excess water into canals, creating pockets of dry land on which they built an entire city from scratch. Meanwhile, the canals became an essential part of the transportation infrastructure. What started as a small fishing village in the 12th century grew into the world’s richest city during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century.

Since Amsterdamers’ property tax was based on the width of their homes, most houses are tall and narrow, but extend quite far back. The city’s iconic gables are merely facades to enhance their sharply pointed roofs. The most popular gables are the point, bell, step, spout, neck, and cornice gable.

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If a house is considered historic, owners need special permission and a lot of money to renovate. Some lucky Amsterdamers were able to simply tear down their house and replace it with a cheaply-made modern building — as long as it was done before the 1980s, when the city started enacting stricter building codes to preserve a cohesive architectural style. Other Amsterdamers either missed that window of time or had more money, so they recreated historic-looking homes that were completely modern inside.

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Amsterdam has just as many bikes as residents, and it’s famous for being an ideal city for biking — flat, with bike lanes everywhere. In fact, the number of bikes almost felt overwhelming, as we had to look right and left multiple times any time we wanted to move, just in case a bike suddenly appeared. The amount of effort required to simply cross the street actually reminded us of Marrakech‘s rowdy medina. We must be the only people who think Amsterdam is like Marrakech!

For the past few years, local politicians have been trying to discourage more tourists from coming.  It’s not hard to see why. For a city that has only 850,000 inhabitants yet is inundated by 17 million tourists a year, Amsterdam reminded me of Venice in more ways than one. Amsterdam has been nicknamed “Venice of the North” due to its impressive number of canals, but another undeniable similarity between the two cities is that they are both turning into a sort of Disneyland, with an atmosphere catering more to tourists than to locals. To curb tourism, the government has stopped the development of new hotels and capped the number of days people can rent out their homes on Airbnb.

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Despite the over-tourism and menacing bikers, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Amstserdam. Like Santorini, I came for the photos but was considerably more impressed by Amsterdam’s history and development. If you have any interest in urban planning, you’ll be awed by the layout of this city. If you appreciate Van Gogh, Rembrandt, or Vermeer, you’ll love its art museums. And if you don’t mind biking in sardine-packed bike lanes, this is your place. It’s easy to see why Amsterdam continues to rank as one of the best cities to live in. As for me, however, I’d rather live in the next city on our trip: Munich. Vaarwel, Amsterdam!

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Eat Rijsttafel (Indonesian rice table) for at least one of your meals. Indonesian food is popular here since Indonesia was a Dutch colony from 1602 up until World War II. You’ll be served a lavish spread of dishes and sauces. Begin with a mound of rice in the center of your plate and surround it with a small sampling of each dish. We had a great meal at Sampurna.
  2. De Silveren Spiegel is a romantic restaurant with an affordable tasting menu that allows you to experience Dutch food actually done well — because you can only eat pancakes, bitterballen, and herring so many times, right? Don’t forget to make reservations.
  3. Roam around Jordaan for quintessential Amsterdam. Originally a working-class neighborhood, the Jordaan has become one of the most desirable parts of the country. Rembrandt and Anne Frank lived here.
  4. Take a canal cruise at night.
  5. If you’re a history buff, check out the Amsterdam Museum, which was once a 500-year-old orphanage but now contains thorough exhibits of Amsterdam’s history. Their point-and-sync audio guides are fun to play with — just aim your audio guide at one of the red buttons, wait for a beep, then listen.
  6. We enjoyed our stylish hotel, Sir Albert Hotel, located in the southeast neighborhood of De Pijp. They left funny little notes in our room and offered us a free glass of champagne every time we entered the lobby. We were upgraded to the top floor and had a balcony with a view of Amsterdam’s comically flat skyline.
  7. Book your tickets to Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Anne Frank House in advance.

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Istanbul

Istanbul is the most incredible place I’ve ever visited, and so far it is the only city that’s made me question whether or not New York is actually the center of the world. It’s difficult for me to write about Istanbul. For one thing, it’s such a complex, paradoxical city that a superficial travel post cannot do it justice. For another thing, I’ve been obsessed with Istanbul for years; visiting it has been one of the highlights of my life, and every time I try to write this, I have to stop and catch my breath.

Istanbul will make you feel breathless, too. This huge metropolis, with a population nearly twice the size of New York, has the most spectacular setting in the world. It straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. A sea channel called the Bosphorus Strait divides the European side from the Asian side, while a horn-shaped waterway called the Golden Horn bisects the European side into an Old Town and a New District. Istanbul is also bordered by two seas: the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (which flows into the Mediterranean Sea). As the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean — not to mention its location along the Silk Road, and extensive rail networks between Europe and the Middle East — it’s easy to see how strategically placed Istanbul is, and why it feels like the center of the world.

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The former capital of two empires (Byzantine and Ottoman), Istanbul’s significance throughout history is undeniable. It started as a Neolithic settlement back in 6000 B.C., but fast forward to year 330 A.D., when Emperor Constantine made Istanbul the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. When the western side fell, the Eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire, and Istanbul was called “Constantinople”. Constantinople was a crucial center of Christianity and shifted Roman power eastward as the empire expanded its borders and lasted for over a thousand years.

Eventually the empire fell, and in the mid-15th century, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and made it the new capital of their empire. Mosques were built, population boomed, and the borders of the Ottoman Empire expanded as far west as Hungary and as far south as North Africa. Constantinople, which was renamed “Konstantinye”, became the largest and most prosperous city in the world.

However, by the 18th century, the empire was struggling once again and collapsed during World War I, after over 600 years of reign. From the ashes of the war came Turkey’s greatest hero: Atatürk. Born Mustafa Kemal, the army officer led Turkey on a three-year-long liberation movement to repel invading armies. He prevailed and established the Republic of Turkey in 1923. He was even bestowed an honorary last name “Atatürk”  (father of the Turks) by parliament. He is responsible for the secularization and Westernization of Turkey, and Constantinople was officially renamed “Istanbul”. Turkey’s fascinating and tumultuous history is far from over, and our trip to Istanbul happened to be during an extremely contentious time — when the country was to vote for or against increasing the power of conservative President Erdoğan (pronounced AIR-doh-wan) to an almost dictatorship level of power. We were intrigued by the prospect of witnessing history first-hand.

After landing at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, Anthony and I caught a cab from the airport to our apartment in the New District. The cab driver was surprised when I told him to take us to Galata Kulesi, which is the Turkish name for Galata Tower. “You speak Turkish?” he asked, impressed. “Hayir,” I responded, which means no and was one of the four Turkish words I had learned right before our trip.

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The iconic Galata Kulesi from our balcony

During our half-hour ride along the waterfront, I started tearing up as we got closer and closer to the Istanbul I recognized after years of obsession. There’s the Hagia Sophia! The Galata Bridge! Those infamous seagulls! And those blue-domed mosques that I can’t tell apart from each other!

The cab dropped us off at Galata Kulesi since our apartment was less than a block away. Our neighborhood of Beyoğlu (pronounced bey-yo-lu) was incredibly charming, with historic buildings, lots of cafes, and cobblestone streets. It was reminiscent of New York’s Soho, but with better views because Beyoğlu sits at the peak of a hill. In fact, I wasn’t expecting how much uphill walking we’d be doing in Istanbul. The Galata Kulesi was once an observation tower, then a prison, and is now a tourist attraction. We arrived at such a magical time, when dusk gave the tower a warm glow.

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Our neighborhood

Our Airbnb, one of two apartments on the sixth floor of a luxury building, was even better than our Athens Airbnb! The expansive studio had modern appliances, a fireplace, and two balconies — one with a panoramic view of the Golden Horn, the other was practically touching the Galata Kulesi. On our first day, we spent the evening watching the sunset from one of our balconies, as the skyline of domes and minarets slowly became silhouettes and the Golden Horn glittered with light reflections. It was much more extraordinary than watching the sunset in Santorini, if you ask me.

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View from our second balcony

One of the first things we did was visit Hagia Sophia (pronounced ay-EE-uh so-FEE-uh), a building that may have actually changed my life; ever since I studied it in AP Art History back in 10th grade, Istanbul has been at the top of my bucket list. Originally a Greek Orthodox cathedral, then an Ottoman mosque, and now a secular museum, Hagia Sophia is a literal representation of Istanbul’s history as a crossroads of cultures. When the Ottomans converted the cathedral into a mosque, the bells, altar, religious paintings, and any mosaics depicting icons were destroyed or plastered over, while Islamic features, such as the four minarets outside and a mihrab that points to Mecca, were added. In 1935, it was converted to a museum but retains its unique elements of both Orthodox Christianity and Islam. The architecture of Hagia Sophia has influenced architects around the world ever since. I actually cried when we were inside.

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The Hagia Sophia is immense
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That ceiling!

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The area surrounding Hagia Sophia is touristy but quite pretty. We were lucky enough to be there during tulip season, when exultant yellow tulips could be found everywhere. The word tulip derives from the Persian word “turban” — an appropriate name since its shape resembles turbans, the fashionable accessory of the Ottoman Empire at the time.

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We visited two functioning mosques, Sultan Ahmet Camii (better known as the Blue Mosque) and Süleymaniye Camii, both of which look very similar to each other. The Blue Mosque was constructed in the 1600s and took just seven years to construct. With five huge domes, six minarets, eight smaller domes, and hand-painted blue ceramic tiles filling the interior, the Blue Mosque is stunning and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. It is the only mosque in Istanbul with six minarets. According to folklore, an architect misheard the sultan’s request for “altın minareler” (gold minarets) as “altı minare” (six minarets). At the time, only the central mosque in the holy city of Mecca had six minarets, so the sultan in Mecca built a seventh minaret so as not to be upstaged by Istanbul.

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View of the Blue Mosque from a rooftop restaurant
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Islamic symmetry

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We then walked down to the Underground Cistern, a vast subterranean reservoir that dates back to the Byzantine Empire and is roughly the size of two football fields. The reservoir was built to meet the needs of a growing wealthy city and to provide water in case of a shortage. 336 columns support the brick ceiling, and most of them were recycled from earlier Roman ruins found in Constantinople. Water once filled the space halfway to the ceiling, but eventually the cistern fell out of use, and today it’s just a shallow pond, formed from rainwater that leaks in through cracks in the ceiling. For any James Bond fans, you may recognize the Underground Cistern from the 1963 film From Russia with Love.

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One of my favorite areas in Old Town is Hasırcılar Caddesi, a street filled with vendors selling things for actual locals, which was a nice change after walking through the touristy Grand Bazaar. We smelled spices from the nearby Spice Market, picked up some coffee from a vendor that had a long line of loyal customers waiting to buy bags of fresh beans, and tried a snack called künefe, which consists of layers of shredded wheat soaked in syrup, filled with soft cheese, cooked in a flat copper pan, and served with pistachios.

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The most vibrant part of Istanbul is right by the Galata Bridge. It’s as chaotic as any New York subway station during rush hour, except instead of being packed in a smelly rat-infested tunnel, Istanbullus get jaw-dropping views of the Golden Horn. Ferries carry thousands of commuters between Old Town and the New District, between the European side and the Asian side, and up and down the Bosphorus. The Galata Bridge, which is what we walked over each day to get to Old Town, is bustling with pedestrians and rows of fishermen on the upper level, while seafood restaurants line the bottom level. One afternoon, we bought a balık-ekmek (fish sandwich) from one of the small boats near the pier. Fresh mackerel is caught that day, grilled right there on the boat, and stuffed into a baguette with some lettuce.

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Walking home on the Galata Bridge
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So much going on!

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Another lovely meal we had was breakfast at Cafe Privato, a cafe in our neighborhood with outdoor sidewalk seating and a small patio in the back. In fact, it was so good that we went two days in a row. Turkish breakfasts are sumptuous feasts. They typically include fresh bread, an assortment of cheese like feta and kashkaval, marinated olives, sweet butter, honey, fruit preserves, eggs served in a skillet, spicy sausage, börek (phyllo pastry layered with meat or cheese), kaymak (clotted cream), sliced vegetables, and unlimited cups of Turkish tea. Anthony actually got dizzy from looking at the overwhelming amount of dishes on our table.

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Whenever we travel, I always try to organize either a meal with a local family or a cooking class, and the cooking class we took in Istanbul was our absolute favorite. Cooking Alaturka is run by a hilarious couple that teaches classes in their intimate restaurant. We learned how to make five traditional dishes, and this was the most hands-on class we’ve participated in so far. There was just one other student, an Indian woman from Bahrain, so we got to spread out in their spacious kitchen and take turns practicing numerous cooking techniques. We made ezogelin çorbasi (a comforting red lentil and bulgar soup with mint and chili), kabak mücveri (lightly fried zucchini patties with herbs, served with feta), etli yaprak dolması (grape leaves stuffed with minced meat), imam bayıldi (eggplant braised in olive oil and stuffed with onions and tomatoes), and incir tatlısı (walnut-stuffed figs in syrup). Each dish involved completely different ingredients and cooking techniques as the others, which doesn’t always happen at cooking classes. After two hours of cooking, we spent the next three hours dining together and discussing everything, from the upcoming referendum (our teachers forlornly and correctly predicted that the “evet” [yes] campaign would win), to nail art (everyone gushed over my travel-inspired manicure), to observations of different countries’ reactions to Turkey’s travel safety warnings (European and Asian tourists still seem to be flocking to Istanbul despite the warnings, while Americans are the only terrified hypocrites).

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Our cooking class! Our teachers are on the left
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My favorite dish was the stuffed eggplant

On the days leading up to the highly anticipated referendum, we couldn’t help but notice “evet” banners all over Istanbul, while only in certain neighborhoods, such as ours, had some “hayir” (no) banners. Clearly, there were disparities between the two campaigns. April 16 was the day of the referendum and we actually forgot about it for the most part, as the city was running as normal and we didn’t notice any obvious chaos. When we got home that evening, we turned on the news and heard that the “evet” vote had narrowly won, with the major cities voting against it and rural areas voting for it — sound familiar? The results are widely contested since as many as 1.5 million unstamped ballots were counted. Nevertheless, the existing parliamentary system will soon be replaced by an executive presidential system. Those in favor of the “evet” vote believe that this will bring a more stable government, while the “hayir” campaign argues that it gives too much power to President Erdoğan. Just like the U.S.’s disappointing and potentially rigged presidential election last year, Turkey’s referendum results will pose similar challenges to the future of the country.

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One of the rare “Hayir” signs we saw

On our last full day in Istanbul, we caught one of the many ferries from the dock in Old Town. It was packed with tourists eager for a cheap ride up the Bosphorus, as well as a few vendors walking around selling tea, simits (Turkish bagels), and helva (Turkish halva). After a picturesque turn at the Golden Horn, our ferry took us up the Bosphorus, past the Ortaköy Camii, Dolmabahçe Palace, and Rumeli Fortress. We rode under the Bosphorus Bridge, which is the first intercontinental bridge in the world, and past waterfront mansions that constitute some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Just when I thought I knew Istanbul, the city humbled me again. Istanbul is huge, and our ferry ride helped me visualize exactly how 15 million people can fit into this captivating city.

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Istanbul. No other word evokes so much in me. When I hear it, I’m taken back to the squawks of seagulls plunging through the air and the clanging of long metal ice cream scoopers. I’m taken back to the smell of pistachios and freshly grilled fish on rocking boats. Most of all, I’m taken back to the sun setting on the Golden Horn and the energy of a city so precious that two empires claimed it as their capital. It was an honor to visit Istanbul, and I will be back.

Tip for future travelers:

  1. Get an e-Visa before your trip. Just purchase it online, print it out, and bring it with you. When you arrive at the airport, you can go straight to customs instead of standing in another line at the visa kiosk.
  2. Stay in the New District — preferably somewhere with a view of the Golden Horn. For information on our Airbnb, feel free to message me. I can’t recommend it enough!
  3. Uber works well in Istanbul and is sometimes cheaper than a normal taxi. When taking any cab, make sure the meter is on. If it’s not, just say, “Taksi metre, lüften.”
  4. When catching a ferry, aim to be there at least ten minutes before it’s scheduled to depart so you can claim the best seats (upper deck, left side, up front). Otherwise, you can always stand in the back, but you won’t have a seat.
  5. Things to eat: pide (Turkish pizza), lokum (Turkish delights), as many pistachio desserts as you can stuff into your stomach, simit, ice cream (Turkish ice cream has a uniquely dense, sticky texture, and the entertaining vendors will play a game with you before handing over the ice cream), midye dolma (stuffed mussels with aromatic rice, herbs, and spices), kokoreç (grilled lamb intestines), and balık-ekmek. Many things that we think of as Greek are actually Turkish, so you might even prefer things like baklava here than anywhere else in the world. The best baklava I’ve ever had was at a little shop in our neighborhood called Sakarya Tatlicisi. When buying Turkish delights, make sure to customize your own selection; those pre-made boxes are not as good.
  6. Take a cooking class with Cooking Alaturka. Schedule it for the beginning of your trip because the teachers give helpful travel advice at the end of class.
  7. For unbeatable views of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, have a meal on the rooftop of Seven Hills Restaurant.
  8. To avoid the crazy lines at Hagia Sophia, go right before it opens. However, the best lighting for photography is later in the day — when it gets crowded. The choice is yours. If you’re visiting other museums, purchase a Museum Pass from one of the museums, and it will give you free access to the others.
  9. Skip the Grand Bazaar. While its status as the world’s oldest shopping mall is impressive, it feels just like that — an old shopping mall. Most vendors sell the same trinkets, and the Grand Bazaar actually felt somewhat underwhelming since we had recently visited Marrakech, which now has even crazier markets in the medina.
  10. If you only have time for one, go to the Süleymaniye Mosque instead of the Blue Mosque. They look almost identical both inside and outside, but Süleymaniye is much less crowded. Ladies, you’ll need to cover your hair, shoulders, and legs, but mosques provide clothing if you forget to bring a scarf.
  11. Drink tea during breakfast. Turkish coffee is much less popular (despite its dominance in Turkish restaurants found in the U.S.), and the tea will sometimes be free.
  12. Stop being fearful. Some well-intentioned people were so terrified of our trip that they even demanded we cancel it. As you can see, Istanbul is completely safe if you’re a savvy traveler, and the rest of the world excluding America seems to understand that. Traveling obviously teaches me about the destination, but it also teaches me a lot about my own country. The reactions we received and the misunderstandings we had to deal with were, frankly, disappointing. Americans disappoint me in many ways, but the hypocrisy of some — merely because Turkey is a majority-Muslim country dealing with political issues like everywhere else — really saddened me. When we returned to the U.S., the customs guy asked me incredulously why we went to Turkey. I gave him a brief lecture on Byzantine architecture and told him to educate himself a little more. Readers, if you base all your travels on safety advisories, you will never travel to anywhere interesting. As of today (5/4/17), the Bahamas, Belgium, Brazil, China, France, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, and Thailand are just a few of the countries that are currently at “high risk”. I plan on traveling to almost all of those in the near future.

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