Since we had some extra time in Venice, we decided to take a daytrip to Padua (or “Padova” in Italian), just a 26-minute train ride away. Padua is a picturesque town of about 214,000 residents, many of them students at the University of Padua — the third oldest university in Europe, one of the most prestigious, and definitely one of the most progressive. It was founded by a group of radical professors from the University of Bologna who wanted to teach without restraints from the church. Galileo taught here for thirty years and was so popular that his students saved up money to purchase his own podium, which was necessary since his lectures became too popular for a typical classroom.
We took a guided tour, which allowed us to view Galileo’s podium, as well as the Anatomical Theater. This theater, the oldest in the world, was built so the public could study dissections. Viewers would have to stand around in this cramped, candlelit room for hours over multiple days. Because dissections were technically still illegal, whenever someone from the church entered, the professor would flip the bed over quickly to hide the body, and everyone would pretend to be doing something else.
In 1678, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian noblewoman and mathematician, became the first woman in the world to receive a Ph.D., and unsurprisingly it was here, at the University of Padua. Copernicus, Dante, and Fallopius (yes, the discoverer of the fallopian tube) are some of the university’s other notable alumni.
Besides the university, Padua is just a lovely place to roam around. It has a dense network of arcaded walkways and cobblestone streets. Its town hall building, the Palazzo della Ragione, has the largest roof unsupported by columns in Europe. Right outside the Palazzo is a huge farmers market, second only to the one in Italy’s gastronomic capital of Bologna. Its Scrovegni Chapel, which must be booked in advance to enter, houses some of the most important frescoes in the world. Prato della Valle is an elliptical square and one of the biggest in Europe. In the center is a garden surrounded by a moat, lined by 78 statues of Padua’s citizens.
My favorite part of Padua, however, was the lunch we had at Osteria L’Anfora. In fact, it was the best meal of our entire trip. This discrete (no signage in front!) osteria was packed with Paduans, so we were crammed in the corner at a table with a friendly Italian student and his girlfriend visiting from France. He helped us decipher the handwritten menu — written in only Italian, of course — and taught me how to properly pronounce “bigoli” (bi-go-li, not bi-go-li), the pasta typical of this region. I had the perfectly al dente bigoli with rabbit sausage ragù, while Anthony had a tender oxtail stew served with creamy polenta full of flavor. I would return to Padua just for meals like this. I didn’t tear up on this trip — which is slightly concerning because I cry over everything — but if I did, it would have been at Osteria L’Anfora.
After about five and a half hours in Padua, it was time to return to Venice. It was just the right amount of time to do the town justice but crave a little more action in touristy Venice. We caught a northbound tram with the day passes we had bought at the station earlier and returned just in time to make our train back to Venezia Santa Lucia. Arrivederci, Padova!
Venice is stunning in any season, but if you have a choice, visit in the winter. You’ll have to deal with fewer tourists and might see an eerie fog seductively blanketing the canals. Most importantly, you’ll be visiting at a much more ethical time. In the summer, cruise ship passengers flood Venice every day, and the city’s infrastructure suffocates under the hordes of sightseers. Tourists outnumber Venetians by 140 to 1. Souvenir shops have replaced grocery stores, while luxury hotels have replaced medical offices. When I visited Venice for my second time a few summers ago, I was disappointed by how much the whole place felt like Disneyland or Las Vegas — unabashedly fake and crawling with tacky tourists who are there just to check Venice off their lists rather than to actually learn anything. So we returned this winter for my husband’s birthday and experienced the city the way it should be.
It happened to be Carnevale when we visited, an incredible time to be in Venice. We were there during the first few days of this multi-week celebration, which began with an opening ceremony of glowing floats at night and a costumed gondola parade the following morning. Carnevale brings out the most decadent side of Venice, with people parading around in extravagant costumes and colorful confetti strewn across the pavement.
The tradition of Carnevale began when the Republic of Venice won a victory in the 12th century. To celebrate, Venetians gathered and danced in St. Mark’s Square. Carnevale was celebrated for centuries, and debaucherous revelers donned masks because anything they did while their faces were covered didn’t count. The Holy Roman Empire banned the festival in 1797, and wearing masks was strictly forbidden. Carnevale gradually reappeared in the 19th century, and finally in 1979, the government decided to officially bring it back completely. What surprised us was how egalitarian Carnevale is. Sure, some people spend thousands of euros on elaborate handmade costumes and attend fancy masquerade balls, but other people just buy cheap masks — most likely made in China instead of Venice — from one of the many stands scattered throughout the city. If you want a nice medium, you can also rent authentic costumes for the day and support Italian craftsmanship at a fraction of the cost of purchasing.
If you only have one weekend to experience Carnevale, aim for the final weekend. We went on the first weekend, which felt like a low-key introduction to the festivities. The final weekend has the huge costume competition and entertaining historical reenactments.
My favorite part of Carnevale was just hanging out in St. Mark’s Square and seeing all the costumes. St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace are the perfect backdrop. Every afternoon of Carnevale, costumed people parade around, waiting for you to take photos of their hard work.
Tips for future travelers to Venice:
We stayed at 3749 Ponte Chiodo, a charming guest house that we had stayed at four years ago. It’s located in the peaceful neighborhood of Cannaregio, which feels like a world away from the hustle and bustle of St. Mark’s Square but is only a 20-minute walk or leisurely vaporetto ride away. It also has some of the best restaurants in Venice. Our room was on the top floor and had a lovely view of a small canal. The owner Mattias was as helpful as last time, offering restaurant recommendations and encouraging guests to get to know each other during our intimate breakfasts around the dining table each morning. We loved opening up the heavy, dark green front door with our key and walking through a secret garden to reach the entrance of the house, then climbing up a narrow staircase to get to our room after a long day. 3749 Ponte Chiodo was a breath of fresh air — a real home in a city full of monotonous hotel chains.
We ate fairly well on this trip, which is a bit of a surprise because Venice is infamous for being one of the least pleasant cities to eat in Italy. Typically overpriced and inauthentic, restaurants in this small city feel forced to cater to tourists who visit here once and never return. Fortunately, our research led us to perhaps the best meals possible in Venice.
If you’re not eating cicchetti for lunch every day, you failed at Venice. It’s a Venetian lunch tradition to stand at the bar and order an assortment of toast topped with fresh seafood, and pair it with a glass of Prosecco, the wine specialty of this region. A meal for two will cost you roughly €16. We tried a few places for cicchetti, and All’Arco was by far the best, as evidenced by the stream of locals there throughout the day.
Our favorite restaurants for dinner were Osteria Ai Promessi Sposi, Ca D’Oro alla Vedova, and Osteria ai 40 Ladroni, all of which were just a quick walk from our guest house. They’re all osterias, which is my preferred type of eating establishment in Italy. Osterias began as places serving wine and simple food, with concise menus that emphasize local specialties and whatever’s fresh that day. They are cheaper than ristorantes and have that rustic feel you want when you’re in Italy. In Venice, stick to ordering seafood, risotto, squid ink pastas, and tiramisu, paired with a carafe of house wine or Prosecco.
Dal Moro’s Fresh Pasta to Go is a fantastic place for a takeout lunch. It’s essentially fast-casual pasta, but done surprisingly well. Choose your fresh pasta noodles, the sauce, and any toppings. You can watch the pasta being made behind the glass, and when it’s done you just eat it out of a cardboard takeout container. At roughly €7, this is probably the best deal in Venice.
We decided to take a couple of walking tours with a company called La Bussola and were amazed by how many more facts we learned about Venice — and it’s my third time here! Each tour is free, two and a half hours long, and led by passionate graduate students who specialized in some aspect of Venetian culture. We learned that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, the original Venetians were a bunch of refugees fleeing attack from Germanic tribes, and that Venice was built on wood pilings that have petrified under water without oxygen. One of the tours ended on the rooftop of a fancy department store near the Rialto Bridge that offered a panoramic view of the entire city.
La Bussola also took us to what looked like a modest church from the outside, but entering completely took my breath away. Chiesa di San Pantaleone Martire houses the biggest canvas painting in the world. When you enter, make sure to look up, because an astonishingly three-dimensional painting depicting the martyrdom and apotheosis of St. Pantalon fills the entire ceiling. It was painted on canvas by Fumiani over 24 years, until he fell to his death from the scaffolding as he was giving his painting the finishing touches. Structural features of the church are continued in the architecture of the painting, creating a magnificent visual illusion. Fumiani was a master of perspective. I have been to the Vatican, and I can honestly say that I was more impressed by this than the Sistine Chapel.
If it’s your first time in Venice, make sure to check out at least these tourist attractions:
St. Mark’s Basilica: Book in advance to enter this opulent golden cathedral and symbol of Venetian wealth.
Burano: Take a 45-minute vaporetto ride to this calm, picturesque island of bright colorful homes.
Libreria Acqua Alta: This adorable bookstore stuffs its books into waterproof basins to highlight the flooding that Venice must coexist with. There is now a long line to enter because it recently exploded on social media.
One of the best ways to see Venice is by vaporetto. These water buses travel along the Grand Canal, around the lagoon, and even to the other islands. It’s easy to get lost in Venice, so while walking is often quicker, catching a cheap vaporetto is sometimes a preferable mode of transportation. If you’re under 29, you get a discount through Rolling Venice. We purchased unlimited three-day passes and validated each time we entered a station.
Perhaps Donald Trump should worry about Americans crossing the border into Mexico (instead of the other way around) because Mexico City was one of the most livable cities I’ve ever visited, with its cheap food, ideal weather year-round, and increasing environmental sustainability. “Livable” isn’t what I was expecting from this city, based on the stories and rumors I’d heard. I came to Mexico City prepared to pity the city that seems unfairly dangerous to so many Americans. That agenda went out the window as soon as we arrived, because I immediately realized that this city doesn’t need my pity at all. In some ways, life here is astoundingly better than in the U.S.
Home to a whopping 21 million people, Mexico City is the most populous city in North America and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. It’s located at an altitude of over 7,000 feet — roughly the same as Machu Picchu. Due to its tropical latitude but high elevation, it has a temperate climate — never too cold in the winter nor too hot in the summer. The city is the oldest capital city in the Americas, and is one of only two capital cities founded by Native Americans (the other is Quito, Ecuador). Originally called Tenochtitlan, it was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, a natural lake that was eventually drained by Spanish colonists. Tenochtitlan was an impressive sight laced with canals, and bridges connecting it to the mainland — much like Venice. Of course, the Spanish completely destroyed Tenochtitlan in 1521 and, while preserving the ancient city’s basic layout, built Catholic churches over the old Aztec temples and renamed it “México” because the Spanish found this indigenous word easier to pronounce.
A few decades ago, Mexico City was infamous for being one of the world’s most polluted cities; however, the city has become a model for drastically lowering pollution levels, which are now similar to those of Los Angeles. Much of this is thanks to Mexico City’s many modes of public transportation, from the subway, to suburban rail, light rail, buses, trolleys, and a bike sharing system with well-defined bike lanes. We caught the subway a couple of times but usually either walked because Mexico City is a surprisingly walkable city for such a sprawl, or caught Ubers because Ubers are dirt-cheap.
We stayed at an Airbnb in trendy Colonia Roma partly because some of the city’s hottest restaurants are there, but the most memorable meals we had were street food from outdoor stalls and markets. Mexico has one of the most extensive street food cultures in the world, and it’s not a surprise that Mexico City consistently ranks as “the number one food destination in the world.” The skilled cooks who prepare the tacos and tortas at these stalls are masters of their art and deserve just as much prestige as Japanese sushi chefs. Every major neighborhood has its own market(s) at which residents (“chilangos”) buy everything from fresh produce to spices to children’s toys. Meanwhile, outdoor stalls are set up around the city — near parks, along sidewalks, sometimes literally on the street. We ate delicious 30-cent tacos on plastic stools, jealous of all the chilangos eating alongside us.
Tips for future travelers:
Take a food tour with Sabores. Our tour lasted four and a half hours and brought us all over Centro Histórico. We tried grasshopper salsa and ate ants from a plastic bag, learned what tomatoes should actually look like vs. what society wants them to look like, chewed chilcuague (a medicinal root that makes your whole mouth tingle, and makes water taste like sparkling water if you drink it right after one nibble of the root), and discovered what good mole is. Mole is a sauce made of fruit, chili pepper, and spices such as cinnamon and tomatoes, all of which are roasted and ground by hand for at least one day.
Visit Coyoacán, my favorite neighborhood in Mexico City. It feels more like a small town due the numerous parks and cobblestone streets. The Frida Kahlo Museum and Trotsky House are located in Coyoacán, but even just wandering around this colorful neighborhood is enough to fall in love. Homes are painted bright colors, the plazas are full of families eating ice cream, and the massive Mercado de Coyoacán is the perfect spot for lunch.
Hang out in Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City. The term zócalo means “base” and was only adopted into the common Mexican lexicon in the 19th century. Supposedly, plans had been made to construct a large monument in the center of the plaza, but nothing besides the base was ever constructed, hence the term zócalo. The name stuck and even spread to other cities across Mexico, which began to use the term zócalo to refer to their main squares. We visited Zócalo almost every day because it was so centrally located and served as a meeting point for our tours. One day, we stumbled upon a huge Oaxacan festival there. Tents were set up and vendors sold Oaxacan goods, quickly convincing me that my next trip to Mexico must include Oaxaca, a state best known for its indigenous people and unique gastronomy.
If you’re interested in architecture, check out Museo Soumaya, a stunning contemporary art museum covered by 16,000 hexagonal aluminum tiles. Also check out the Torre Latinoamericana, the world’s first major skyscraper successfully built on highly active seismic land. Torre Latinoamericana doesn’t look like much now, as its design is fairly straightforward and it is no longer the tallest building, but the fact that it withstood the 8.1 magnitude 1985 earthquake that toppled other buildings nearby is quite impressive. There is an observatory at the top that includes access to a gallery showcasing the history of construction projects around Mexico City.
Stroll through Alameda Central, the oldest public park in the Americas. Some of our best meals were street tacos from two of the stalls on the southwest corner of the park that open up every night.
Palacio de Bellas Artes is an opulent performing arts center made of Carrara marble and dreanlike yellow and orange crystal dragon scale tiles. For the best view, you can wait an hour to sit in a crowded open-air cafe at Sears (yes! Sears still exists). For the second best view, squeeze your way through Sears’ gardening equipment on the same floor and see almost the same thing for free without a wait.
The best way to get to Mexico City from the airport is to exit baggage claim and find a booth marked “Taxi Autorizado”. Tell the ticket seller your destination, pay for your ticket (we paid 200 pesos, or roughly ten bucks for a cab to Colonia Roma), and present the ticket to one of their drivers outside. The best way to return to the airport is to Uber; it’ll be even cheaper.
Don’t drink the tap water. Instead, try pulque, mezcal, jamaica (hibiscus juice), horchata, Mexican cola, or tequila. We were worried about the ice in our drinks since tap water is unsafe to drink, but we never had an issue; restaurants use filtered water for their ice, and most of the beverages you’ll have on the street don’t come with ice.
How can you tell if a food stall is safe? Look for the crowded ones. Locals tend to know what is good, and a busy one indicates that the food is not sitting around. We didn’t get sick once in Mexico City.
Book tickets to the Frida Kahlo Museum in advance. You’ll still have to wait in a line outside, but you’ll be able to enter as soon as it’s your time slot.
We only had about 24 hours in Cusco, but even just our short time there was enough to convince us that Cusco is one of the fascinating cities we’ve ever been to. It was the capital of the Inca Empire until the Spaniards moved the capital down to coastal Lima because they couldn’t handle the altitude. When the Spanish invaded, they plundered the city and constructed their own Catholic buildings, meanwhile killing many Incas with smallpox. Fortunately, a big earthquake in 1950 toppled the poorly-constructed Spanish buildings, while the Inca architecture underneath was left standing.
We stayed at Hostal Corihuasi, a restored colonial guest house, just a brisk uphill walk from the main plaza. Our rustic room had parquet floors, hand-woven rugs, alpaca wool blankets, and wraparound windows that offered a panoramic view of the entire city. Cusco felt huge, especially after staying in little towns like Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes for the past week. From our windows, Cusco was a sea of red roofs and cathedrals, surrounded by mountains — much like Florence. Another thing we noticed in the lobby of our hotel was a huge oxygen tank, reminding us that we were 11,152 feet above sea level. We had saved Cusco for the end of our trip for that very reason, and thanks to that, we felt fine our entire time there.
Unlike Aguas Calientes, which is pretty much mocked by everyone we meet, Cusco seems to be universally loved. Remnants of both the Inca Empire and the invasion of Spanish conquistadors share Cusco’s narrow cobblestoned streets, creating a unique mashup of Andean and Spanish styles that makes Cusco like no other place on earth.
We joined a free historical walking tour, wandered around Mercado San Pedro, bought chocolate at the ChocoMuseo, got kissed by an alpaca, and then later ate alpaca burgers. If I could spend a month in only one place in Peru, Cusco would be my first choice because it felt incredibly livable.
By the time our cab arrived to take us to the airport, I wasn’t ready to leave Peru yet. This country didn’t hit me immediately the way my other favorite countries (Italy, Turkey, and South Africa) did. In fact, I didn’t start crying until our plane took off and I started going through my photos from Ollantaytambo. Peru was magical, but in a quiet way. This trip was my first venture into Latin America, opening a new world (pun intended) to me, and I can’t wait to return.
Tips for future travelers
We hired Taxi Datum for all our cab rides throughout Peru. It cost 127 soles from Ollantaytambo to Cusco, and 20 soles from Cusco to the airport. It’s easy to book online, and they’re always prompt.
The two alpaca burgers we tried were phenomenal. Chakruna Native Burgers is a fun burger shop in San Blas. Make sure to order a side of fries (even though each burger already comes with fries) because they are wonderful and are accompanied by five different sauces. Meanwhile, Hanz Homemade Craft Beer & Food had an even better alpaca burger and is entirely run by one man who took everyone’s orders, walked them to the outdoor restroom so they wouldn’t get lost, and kept us entertained throughout dinner. I’d probably be a regular at Hanz if I had my dream month in Cusco.
We visited Machu Picchu on Christmas Day. It was such an easy, straightforward experience that I almost wish we had struggled a little more — if only to make the buildup to Machu Picchu a little more epic.
Our journey began with a comfortable hour and a half train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The ride through the Sacred Valley up into the Andes was like something out of an romanticized nature documentary. There are two train companies to choose from (PeruRail and Inca Rail), and we went with PeruRail, the older and more established company. Our ride on the Vistadome included a sandwich wrap and a beverage. We tried our first chicha morada, a fermented, slightly alcoholic drink made from purple maize.
I was glad our hotel sent someone to meet us at the chaotic station as soon as our train arrived. Our hotel opened up just last year and is rated “#1 Hotel in Aguas Calientes”. It’s easy to see why (e.g., the facilities are brand new, our luxurious room had a jacuzzi tub and a panoramic view of town, and the breakfast buffet was satisfying and served on the top floor with an even better view than our room), but it’s also easy to see why Aguas Calientes gets its unfavorable reputation — the hotel has three different names online, and most of the staff didn’t seem to know what they were doing.
Anyone who visits Machu Picchu must at least pass through Aguas Calientes. We had heard only horror stories of this odd town prior to our trip, so we were expecting the worst but found ourselves surprisingly delighted by it. Sure, some streets are obscenely touristy, but the town itself is tucked into such a naturally stunning setting that we found it easy to overlook all the English menus being thrust into our faces. Aguas Calientes lies deep in a gorge, just a few miles below Machu Picchu. It’s enclosed by lush forests, rushing rivers, and stone cliffs. All over town are large granite rocks that have gorgeous sculptures carved into them. Since we arrived the day before Christmas, children were popping fireworks on the street, making the place feel lively, if not also a bit dangerous.
We had surprisingly good food in Aguas Calientes. In fact, we went to one restaurant twice in our two days there because we couldn’t imagine having a better meal anywhere else. We tried alpaca (tastes like beef!) and Peruvian craft beer for our first meal at Mapacho, and then we returned to Mapacho the next day for a trio of appetizers (trout ceviche, yuca ball, and causa limena) and roasted guinea pig. Guinea pigs are our new favorite meat — fatty with a crispy skin! We had the same sweet waitress as the night before, and she gave me a hug on our way out.
When we woke up the next morning, it was the big day, the whole reason we were in Peru. I had read the same piece of advice over and over: Wake up at 3 am and stand in a long line for the morning buses to Machu Picchu. Regardless, we decided to wake up at a leisurely 5:30 am and enjoy the complimentary breakfast at our hotel before heading out to the bus station. Much to our relief, there was a line of buses waiting to take people up, and almost no people waiting. In fact, we had to sit on our bus for a few minutes so it could fill up. At last, our bus began winding its way up the mountain for 25 minutes, entering another world. The massive lush mountains partially obscured by the morning fog was straight out of Jurassic Park. We expected dinosaurs to pop out at any moment.
We spent the first hour milling around the watchkeeper’s hut, waiting for the fog to dissipate so we could anxiously take perfect photos. Once we felt that we had taken enough, we finally explored the site, climbing through ruins and hiking up terraces. We had no idea how vast Machu Picchu was. It includes more than 150 buildings, 600 terraces, and over 100 flights of stairs, most of which were carved from a single slab of stone. Many of the stones weigh more than 50 pounds, but no wheels were used to transport them up the mountain. Instead, it is believed that men either pushed the heavy rocks or chiseled the rocks from the side of the mountain itself. Its sacred Intihuatana stone accurately indicates the two equinoxes; twice a year, the sun sits directly over the stone, creating no shadow.
The Incas built Machu Picchu in the 15th century but abandoned it only eighty years later when the Spanish started colonizing other parts of their empire. It was never discovered by the Spanish and was thus saved from plunder and destruction. It remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911. Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls without the use of mortar, and still stands strong despite sitting on two fault lines. In Quechua, the name means “old mountain”.
A few hours later, we were satisfied enough to leave. One could spend an entire day at Machu Picchu, but it was starting to sprinkle and we were getting pretty hungry, so we decided to return to Aguas Calientes for a late lunch. A bus was waiting for us outside, and we rode it back, surrounded by other awestruck, exhausted tourists.
Tips for future travelers:
If you’re short on time like we were, take the train to Aguas Calientes. However, if you have more time, you might as well brave the five-day Inca Trail hike. We’re still young, and I expect we’ll be back in Peru at some point, so we’ll definitely hike it next time.
Most people have awful experiences in Aguas Calientes, and I think part of that has to do with their hotel. While our hotel had a couple of flaws, we thought it was an incredibly relaxing place that matched the dramatic setting of Aguas Calientes. At $140/night, it was the most expensive place we stayed during our time in Peru, but it was worth it.
Make sure you book your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu months in advance. You’ll need to decide what hikes you want to do before you book. I’d recommend just doing the Inca Trail hike, but then forgoing all the hikes at the actual site. You’re there to enjoy!
Take the bus up to Machu Picchu. The 90-minute hike up the mountain follows the same road that the bus takes, and I pitied any hiker we passed on our way up. It’s no fun to walk alongside vehicles! Purchase your bus tickets in Aguas Calientes the night before, just in case there are long lines the day of. The bus ticket office is open until 9 pm every day.
Aim for a family-centric holiday. I think the main reason we dealt with no lines is that we decided to go on Christmas Day, when most people (Peruvians and tourists alike) would rather stay home with their families.
Eat at Mapacho and Full House. At Mapacho, walk up to the second floor for an even better view of the rapids.
It’s called Aguas Calientes for a reason. Bathe in the hot springs, or at least get a massage like we did. I recommend Nature Spa Healing Hands for a no-frills massage.
If you are prone to carsickness, don’t sit in the back of the bus on your way to or from Machu Picchu. It’s a winding, bumpy ride.
What to bring to Machu Picchu? Passports (yes, they check!), snacks, water, and a poncho.
We went in the early morning, and it was kind of romantic with the morning fog. However, for a better view, stay until the afternoon. It will get more crowded but the fog will clear up.
On our train ride to Aguas Calientes, we rode the Vistadome (the 2nd cheapest train), but on our way home, we rode the Expedition (the cheapest train) because I figured going home would be less exciting; plus, it was night time so there’s not much of a view anyway. The Expedition is a slightly older train and does not include a meal, but it still had huge windows and great service.
I could immediately tell that Peru was going to pull my heartstrings because even our flight into Cusco was breathtaking. The pilot made an announcement that we were about to land, but instead of descending, our plane kept getting higher and higher, past snowy mountain peaks and through the clouds. That’s how high Cusco is. At 11,154 feet above sea level, this was the highest at which I’ve ever spent a significant amount of time.
As soon as we found our guide Willian, who was eagerly waiting for us at the airport, we started our half-day tour through the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was Chinchero, where we drank our first of many coca teas, watched traditional weaving demonstrations, and learned the difference between llamas and alpacas. Llamas are generally larger, have longer ears, and are more independent. Meanwhile, alpacas are smaller, have more smooshed faces, and produce a softer fiber (thus, more expensive sweaters). Anthony ended up buying a llama sweater. All of the garments made here are dyed using pigments found only in nature, then tightly spun.
Our next stop was the main plaza of Chinchero, encompassing a charming adobe church and Inca stone walls, surrounded by hillsides of fertile terraces that grow potatoes and quinoa. Chinchero is located even higher than Cusco, which is why we were huffing and puffing just climbing the few steps leading through town.
Inca masonry is legendary. Their structures feature precisely cut stones tightly fitted without mortar. The Inca split the stones along their natural fracture lines using stone, bronze, and copper tools. Walls are usually slightly inclined inside, while corners are rounded. This means that Inca buildings can withstand earthquakes.
After leaving Chinchero, we drove half an hour to Maras to view the salineras. Salt ponds were dug into this canyon thousands of years ago. Salty water from a local subterranean stream is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto these terraced ponds. The ponds are shaped into polygons and carefully monitored by workers. As the water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated. The pond’s keeper then closes the water-feeder notch and allows the pond to go dry. Within a few days, the keeper harvests the salt by scraping the dry salt from the sides and bottom.
Our fourth stop, Moray, is famous for its grass-covered, terraced circular depressions. The temperature differences between each terrace creates a series of micro-climates that matches the varied climates of the Inca Empire, leading many to believe that Moray was a test bed to see what crops could grow where. Even the soils come from different regions. These ruins never flood despite Peru’s infamous rainy season, so there must also be an underground irrigation system.
Finally, Willian ended our tour in Ollantaytambo, where we were staying at an adorable hotel called Kamma Guest House. After touring four incredible Inca sites, I felt almost humbled to be staying in the same village as descendants of the Incas.
Like most tourists, we had come to Peru for Machu Picchu, but I actually preferred the couple of days we spent in Ollantaytambo, a small town of cobblestone streets and ancient Inca buildings. This town is where the Incas retreated when the Spanish started colonizing. Ollantaytambo is surrounded by spectacular green mountains dotted with old ruins. A few small canals run through the town, and a vibrant community still lives in pre-Columbian dwellings. Many of the women still wear traditional attire, and people speak the indigenous language of Quechua.
On our first night there, it seemed like the whole town was in the central square for a Christmas children’s performance. Peruvian children are adorable! Due to the high altitude, they were born with bigger lungs and highly oxygenated blood that causes a red flush in their cheeks.
While roaming around Ollantaytambo, I noticed trapezoids everywhere, especially in the doors and windows. The trapezoid is an extremely stable shape — structurally much more stable than rectangles. Given that the Inca Empire ran through the Andes in a seismic zone, Inca architects learned over time that trapezoids provided extreme stability in times of earthquake.
One morning, we hiked to an archeological site called Pinkuylluna, which consists of grain storehouses built on the side of a mountain. The entrance was right across from our hotel, and though the hike wasn’t exceedingly high, we were still acclimating to the altitude and needed to take multiple breaks on our way up. Along the way are stunning views of Ollantaytambo. The storehouses were built up there to keep grain dryer and cooler than down in the valley below. They’re now empty, providing an interesting setting for photo shoots.
Ollantaytambo was breathtaking not only because of the high altitude, but because of the remnants of the Inca Empire, as well as the seemingly untouched villages scattered across this region. I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the people we met; they come from such a rich, brilliant civilization. I fell in love with everything we met here — alpacas, Peruvian children, stonework, high-quality salt… you name it. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me that Ollantaytambo was the one town in Peru that brought me to tears when it was time for us to leave.
Tips for future travelers:
The best way to acclimate to the high altitude is by starting in the lowest area, then ending your trip in the highest. We stayed in Ollantaytambo first, moved up to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, and saved Cusco for last. Our first couple of days in Ollantaytambo were still a little rough, but by the time we got to our most important hike in Machu Picchu, we were fine. I took some acetazolamide pills before and during the trip, and we drank coca tea whenever we had a chance. Coca tea is available everywhere for free.
Hike Pinkuylluna in the morning to avoid the intense sun and larger crowds. It takes about an hour and a half.
Our six-hour Sacred Valley tour with Taxi Datum cost $65, which included an airport pickup and a hotel drop-off. Just be aware, our guide was more of a driver than a comprehensive tour guide.
Things to eat: potatoes (Peru has over 4,000 varieties!), alpaca (tastes like beef), cuy (guinea pig), corn, pisco sour, Cusqueña negra, chocolate, grains
All the meals we had in Ollantaytambo were good, but the most unique one was at Chuncho. “Chuncho” comes from the Quechua word meaning native. Everything on the menu is local and organic — even the cocktails (yes, all their alcohol is distilled on site!). We grated our own salt onto some toasted corn and tried cuy for the first time. I also found my favorite potato (the one with a purple skin and white flesh that makes perfect chips).
A big reason that I fell in love with Ollantaytambo was our hotel, which has only five guest rooms, a view of the entire town from the rooftop, and the sweetest host who gave us restaurant recommendations and made us feel at home. Our room overlooked a small water channel, so I was able to fall asleep to the calming sound of moving water. Breakfast was served on the roof, and our host remembered my random food preferences. Our room cost $65/night.
Lisbon was pretty, but I preferred the gritty, working-class city of Porto, located in the northern part of the country. Porto fees less polished but is better preserved because it was spared by the 1755 earthquake that demolished Lisbon. Houses with red-tiled roofs spill down steep hills to the riverbank, while flat-bottomed boats meander along the lazy Douro river. The city is made of dark granite, which contrasts perfectly with the bright tiles everywhere.
It’s not hard to fall in love with Porto immediately upon arrival because its train station is absolutely magnificent. São Bento Railway Station is covered with some of Portugal’s finest azulejos that depict historical and folk scenes of the Douro region.
While steep, nearly everything is within walking distance, and we arrived at our guest house in just a few minutes. Tucked into a little courtyard is InPatio Guest House, which is run by an adorable couple who renovated a 19th-century building into five sleek rooms with modern furnishings like heated floors and a luggage lift. We had one of the best breakfasts here, consisting of chorizo and ham from northern Portugal, cheese from southern Portugal, an assortment of fresh bread and croissants, homemade carrot cake with walnuts, fruits, pear yogurt with pomegranates, fresh squeezed orange juice, and made-to-order cappuccino. They also left us glasses of port and little pastries in our room.
We only had a short time in Porto so we decided to go on a four-hour port tasting tour with Porto Walkers. We met a large group at the entrance of Luis I Bridge and crossed the Douro river to the neighboring town or Vila Nova de Gaia. Port is called port not because it is produced in Porto. It’s actually produced about 60 miles upstream in the Douro Valley. Port is not even aged in Porto; it’s aged in Vila Nova de Gaia. On our tour, we learned that the only reason port is named after Porto is because it’s shipped from Porto, so that’s what shipping labels called it. We visited four different wine lodges and tasted seven types of port. I learned that my favorite is tawny port, which has a delicious oak flavor because it was aged in a smaller barrel, thus exposing it to more of the wood. Ruby port is the cheapest, while vintage port is the most expensive. Late Bottle Vintage was invented after World War II, when British wine lovers couldn’t afford true vintage port, so they would blend wines from a single year and age them together for a short time.
The rest of our night was spent tipsily crossing the bridge in the rain back to Porto with our new Australian friends from our tour, trying blood soup, and ending the night with an espresso and some pastéis de nata at Manteigaria, which I had discovered back in Lisbon.
The next day was raining on and off, but we woke up early to walk around the riverfront again. The sunrises are just as beautiful in Porto as they are in Lisbon. We crossed the bridge to stare at the Porto skyline across the Douro river one last time. Barrels of port used to sail down this river from the valley. It was a dangerous and time-consuming journey, so now port is just driven in by trucks.
From this side of the river, we could see all the different modes of public transportation available in Porto: buses, trolleys, metro, funiculars, tuk-tuks, even cable cars connecting the riverfront with a historic monastery. It reminded me of Istanbul, which is always a good thing. Our time in Porto was way too short, but I’m glad we had at least a brief introduction to another part of Portugal. Tchau, Portugal!
A day-trip to Sintra was actually my favorite thing we did during our time in Lisbon. Located 15 miles northwest of Lisbon, Sintra is just a 44-minute train ride away. Portugal’s aristocracy considered it the perfect place to escape from city life, and while it’s filled with tourists now, it still feels like an escape — from Portugal, at least. We visited two castles here, the Castle of the Moors, which looks like the Great Wall of China, and Pena Palace, which looked like a German storybook castle.
The Castle of the Moors was built by the Moors (indigenous Muslims during the Middle Ages) in the 8th and 9th centuries, and was an important strategic point during the Reconquista. In 1147 it was taken by Christian forces after the fall of Lisbon. Situated on the top of the Sintra Mountains, this former military outpost follows meanders over the granite terrain of a mountainous cliff.
After the Castle of the Moors, we hopped on a bus to the next castle, Pena Palace, which is what I really came to Sintra for. If it reminds you of Neuschwanstein, there’s good reason — in the 19th century, German-born Prince Ferdinand (cousin of Neuschwanstein’s King Ludwig) hired a German architect to build his fantasy castle, mixing elements of German and Portuguese style. It’s the most flamboyant castle I’ve ever seen, filled with Gothic towers, Renaissance domes, Moorish minarets, and Manueline carvings in bright yellow, dusty red, and azulejos. We bought tickets for the interior but ended up not using them because we were so intrigued by the exterior as we followed the walls surrounding the castle. We probably spent about twenty minutes taking photos of the courtyard, which was once the cloister of a monastery.
Tips on how to do Sintra:
Since we went on a weekday in November, the train station in Lisbon wasn’t too crowded, but if you’re here in the summer, especially over the weekend, avoid the lines by purchasing tickets or refilling your Viva Viagem the night before.
Check the times for the trains to Sintra. You don’t have to book in advance, but you don’t want to just miss it, and you want to get there early enough to you can claim a seat on the train.
Once you exit the train station at Sintra, make a right and hop onto the #434 bus. Someone should be there selling all-day tickets as you board the bus. You can hop on and hop off at any castle, and then it brings you back to the train station.
Purchase your castle tickets in advance so you don’t have to waste time standing in line.
We did Sintra in about half a day (left Lisbon after a leisurely breakfast, and returned to Lisbon in the late afternoon), but we easily could have stayed a couple of hours more if we were interested in the other castles or wanted to wander around Sintra town for lunch.
We flew to Portugal over Thanksgiving weekend, trading turkey and pumpkin pie for bacalhau and pastéis de nata. Our short trip began in Lisbon, which really is as pretty as everyone says, filled with mosaic sidewalks and colorful buildings, yellow trolleys rattling up and down the hills, and jaw-dropping views scattered throughout the city.
Stay We stayed at B&B Zuzabed, an adorable bed & breakfast owned by Luis Zuzarte, who also owns a handful of other properties around Lisbon. From the moment we booked our room, I knew he’d be an unbelievable host. He spent half an hour with us going over every single detail — from how to properly close our sliding balcony door, to which route to take for the most picturesque walk to Alfama. He even let us borrow a cell phone during our stay and called it while we were still with him so we’d be able to recognize the ringtone when we got a phone call. Portuguese hospitality is next level.
Do Since our time was short, we woke up early each day, packed in a lot, and returned home late each night. However, if we had wanted to narrow it down to just the very best activities, here’s what we would have done:
Watch the sunrise from Miradouro das Portas do Sol. We were pleasantly surprised by how empty it was when we got there; we were worried it would be like Santorini at sunset.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is a huge, white limestone monastery that was financed with “pepper money” (a 5% tax on spices brought back from India). It’s classic Manueline architecture — intricate, lacy, and influenced by Gothic and Moorish architecture. Go toward the end of the day for smaller crowds and romantic lighting.
Listen to a fado performance. Fado is intense, mournful, traditional Portuguese music, often focusing on heartbreak and lost sailors. It’s mainly for tourists now but is still a unique thing to do in Lisbon and a nice way to spend dinner.
Eat Compare the pastéis de nata at Manteigaria and Pastéis de Belem. There’s a fierce rivalry between the two, and everyone seems to have an opinion on which one is better. The truth is that they’re both fantastic. Manteigaria is more conveniently located, slightly cheaper, and has a smoother pastry crust. Pastéis de Belem is the birthplace of pastel de nata and only serves them fresh out of the oven, which means the egg custard is the best. There’s usually a long line outside, but it moves quickly.
Our favorite meal on the entire trip was at O Nobre, run by female chef (!) Justa Nobre and her husband. We had a fantastic ten-course tasting menu for under €90 — a perk of eating in the cheapest country in Western Europe.
Transportation Uber is incredibly cheap in Portugal. A ride all the way from the airport to the center of town was only $14. Public transportation is also really easy to use. Their subway system is similar to Boston’s (small and efficient), and their iconic yellow trolleys are filled with little old ladies. Take the #28 trolley to Alfama or the #15 to Belém. On one of the days, we bought a 24-hour Via Viagem card because we were taking multiple rides on public transportation (a train to Sintra, bus to Belém, and subway to Campo Pequeno). If you’re only going to take a few rides over time, you can just buy a refillable card and put in the appropriate amount of money.
We’ve been to Paris three times in the last three years; at this point, we feel more comfortable in Paris than we do in Los Angeles. Just like our recent trip to Rome, this trip allowed us to stay in a different neighborhood, redo our favorite activities, and check off any bucket-list items that we hadn’t been able to do previously. Here’s some advice for Paris that we learned this summer:
Take a class at La Cuisine Paris. When we were here in November, we took a wine-and-cheese pairing class and loved it so much that we decided to take a croissant and breakfast pastry class this time. Our adorable French instructor Segolene taught us how to make croissants, pistachio twists, pain au chocolat, vanilla custards, cinnamon almond snails, and more. I eat croissants on a daily basis in New York, and now I have a much bigger appreciation for them knowing how much effort each one takes. We learned to throw our dough at the counter for elasticity — “think of someone you hate; I want you to leave here stress-free,” Segolene instructed us. We delicately added butter onto our dough before folding it and again and again and again. We cut the painstakingly folded dough into long triangles, made little Eiffel Towers out of them, and rolled them into croissants before baking and brushing egg wash onto them. I am always the worst one in every baking class, but I am incredibly talented at eating the final products. In the end, we enjoyed our pastries with coffee and tea and were able to bring our remaining pastries home.
Stay in an apartment. This was our first time staying in a hotel in Paris, and though our room at the stylish Hôtel Notre-Dame Saint Michel had a spectacular view of Notre-Dame (I made sure to request this view after booking), I couldn’t help but miss our apartment from last November, with its tiny balcony overlooking a sea of grey rooftops. When in any major city, I always recommend staying in Airbnbs or apartments to feel more like a local.
Have tea at Mariage Frères, a French gourmet tea company founded in Paris in 1854 by the Mariage brothers. Tea is huge in France (perhaps that’s why their coffee sucks?), and the Mariage family was sent around the world on behalf of the royal court just to bring tea back home. There are five tearooms in Paris. We went to the one in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing, elegant afternoon. When we sat down, we were given an entire book about tea, which we spent a couple of hours reading. It covered everything, from the history of tea to proper brewing techniques.
Stroll through Promenade Plantée, an elevated park built on top of old railroad tracks that inspired New York’s High Line. Running nearly three miles from Bastille to Boulevard Périphérique, it passes some very interesting modern buildings. My favorite building is split in half by the park. Most Parisians thought the park was a waste of money when it first opened, but now cherish it, which is similar to their reaction to both the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre pyramid. When we were strolling, a sweet Parisian woman stopped her jogging session to randomly ask if we wanted our photo taken. Of course we said “oui”. She took a few from different angles, which I always appreciate, and when we passed by her again a few minutes later she laughed and offered to take a few more in front of this pool. She even directed us to stand in specific spots — and to “Bisou!”, so we immediately obliged. This may have been the best thing about Promenade Plantée. For some reason, many tourists don’t know about it, so we were surrounded by smiling locals (yes! Parisians do smile when you actually stumble across them outside of the touristy zones) who seemed to appreciate that we had done a little more research on our trip.
Visit Shakespeare & Co. once in your life. This was our first time staying on the Left Bank, so we finally remembered to check out this famous bookstore. It’s mobbed by American tourists, but you can understand why when you enter. It’s stuffed with English language books, contains cute little nooks to curl up with a novel, and has a no-photo policy.
Picnic along Canal St. Martin. This neighborhood has transformed from Bushwick into Williamsburg, and while it’s probably become too glossy for true bobos anymore, I felt at home in Canal St. Martin, which was where we stayed in a tiny Airbnb back in 2015. Despite the change, young Parisians can still be found picnicking along the canal. Buy some cheese from a fromagerie, a baguette from the nearest boulangerie, and a bottle of wine. You’ll feel more Parisian doing this than dining at any restaurant.
Unless you are really into Louis XIV, skip Versailles. Visit Neuschwanstein in Germany, Himeji Castle in Japan, or Pena Palace in Portugal instead. Almost everything about Versailles — the gaudy bedrooms, the crowded Hall of Mirrors, and even the overly-manicured gardens — was underwhelming. However, we did enjoy renting a boat and rowing in a lake alongside comical ducks and monstrous swans. If you do decide to visit Versailles, go early in the morning to beat some of the crowds.
Pick up pastries for breakfast from your neighborhood boulangerie. My favorite was award-winning Boulanger Patissier, located in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It was just a few blocks from our hotel and put all the croissants I made in class to shame. Furthermore, everything here is dirt cheap. It’ll make you upset that the only things this cheap in the U.S. are Dunkin’ Donuts.
Paris still has one of my favorite metro systems in the world. Sure, it’s not as sleek and shiny as Tokyo’s, but I think it works surprisingly well (except for its absurdly tiny single-use tickets) and runs on time, at least in our experience. Take advantage of its numbered exits in the stations. When you look up a route online, Google Maps will tell you which exit to take. These are so helpful! I wish New York’s subway exits were also numbered so I would know which part of the train I should aim for ahead of time. One more tip for the Paris Metro: Always pay your fare. When we were heading to the airport, the ticket machine at our metro station wasn’t working, and the turnstiles were letting everyone through without tickets, so we caught the train without paying. Sure enough, metro workers were at the airport entrance checking each passenger’s ticket, and we left Paris €100 poorer.
Eat at Pierre Sang Oberkampf, one of the most innovative dining experiences I’ve ever had. It offers a blind tasting menu, which means that each ingredient of your dish is explained to you after you finish eating it. For only €39, I had six courses of French-Korean dishes (think steak with gochujang, beet purée, and beans). We booked seats at the bar and had a direct view of the kitchen. Immediately after our dinner, we attempted to book a table for the following evening, but the menu only changes every two weeks.
Apparently French-Asian fusion is blowing up in Paris because another fantastic meal we had was at Les Enfants Rouges. Again, we sat at the bar to watch the kitchen as they prepared our fried foie gras on creamy corn and coffee mousse, tempura monkfish, and figs with a coconut sorbet and pistachios over matcha cream.
Visit in the fall. As much as I enjoyed the extra-long days and leisurely nights sitting out along the Seine (stay out past midnight to see the Eiffel Tower glitter!), I still prefer Paris in the fall, when the weather is crisp and more locals have replaced tourists.
Each time we visit Paris, we eat better meals, know more about each neighborhood, and notice the little changes that have occurred since our last trip. Anthony and I felt so comfortable in Paris that, although we don’t speak French at all, we could easily see ourselves living here. It’s such a diverse, stimulating city with good food — and, most importantly, cheap croissants. Paris was the perfect way to end our Ireland and France trip. I’m not sure how many more times I want to visit Paris, but I am desperate for an excuse to explore more of the French countryside, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself back here soon. If that’s the case, I will most definitely be making another reservation at Pierre Sang Oberkampf. Au revoir for now!