Montenegro

We had a spare day in Dubrovnik, so we decided to take day-trip to Montenegro, as I’d seen gorgeous photos of Kotor online a few weeks before our trip. I contacted a few highly-rated tour companies and booked the cheapest one. At 7:15 am, we were picked up in front of a Hilton hotel monstrosity outside Old Town and shared a van with our tour guide, a man from Greece, and three women from England.

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With our van

As we left sleek and tidy Croatia for raw, gritty Montenegro, I fell asleep in the van until we reached the border crossing. Montenegro is not part of the EU (even though it uses the Euro), so we had to hand over our passports to the border agent. Once again, I was grateful that we weren’t visiting in the summer, as sometimes the wait can take hours. After just a few minutes, we continued on our way to the Verige Strait, where we caught a ferry across the Bay of Kotor. Narrow enough to easily monitor but deep enough to allow huge ships through, the Bay of Kotor has been a prized location for millennia and is the single best natural harbor between Greece and Venice.

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Riding a ferry through the Bay of Kotor

We got off at Budva, our first town in Montenegro. Much of the Budva Riviera feels like a resort sprawl catering to wealthy Russians, but Old Town Budva had some charm. There was a mix of Catholic and Orthodox churches, a huge citadel, souvenir shops crammed into the old stone buildings, and a mediocre beach.

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Budva harbor
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Pretty, but nothing compared to Kotor
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Citadel

When we were done with Budva, we drove the rest of the way to Kotor, the whole reason I wanted to come to Montenegro. Montenegro is one of the youngest countries in Europe and gained independence in 2006. It finds itself in a very unique position: It has become a magnet for multimillionaires from Russia and the Middle East, who have chosen to turn this new country and its lovely coastline into their very own Riviera. On the other hand, Montenegro is still struggling to upgrade what is nearly a Third World infrastructure. When it first declared independence, its economy was weak, but the privatization of its aluminum industry and the aggressive development of its tourist trade have turned things around. In fact, Montenegro has one of the highest foreign investment rates in Europe, despite its unemployment rate hovering at 19%. Regardless, nothing can mar the natural beauty of its mountains, bays, and forests.

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Kotor

With dramatic cliffs, the glimmering Adriatic, and a UNESCO-protected Old Town, Kotor is easily one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. It has been shielded from centuries of would-be invaders by both its position at the deepest point of a fjord, as well as by its imposing town wall, which scrambles in a zigzag line up the mountain behind it.

If you only do one thing in Kotor, hike the Town Walls. I was in awe the entire time we were hiking.  The 1,355 stairs climb up the sheer cliff behind Old Town. It’s about three miles long and will take about an hour and a half round-trip if you’re in shape.

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Climbing up the stairs
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Leaving Old Town
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Obligatory couple’s selfie
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Look how high we are!
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It’s windy up here!

After a well-deserved lunch and another hour of roaming around Old Town, it was time to head back to Croatia. Довиђења, Montenegro!

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Catholic church, even though most Kotor residents are Orthodox

Tips for future travelers:

Eat at City Restaurant for delicious grilled meats and a whole fish for less than what you’d pay for an appetizer in Dubrovnik.

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Lunch

Wear sneakers when climbing the wall. The marble stairs are not in the best condition and are very slippery, even when dry, as they’ve been polished by centuries of visitors.

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Slippery and crumbling marble stairs

Once you reach the top of the wall, take your time up there. You deserve it! We spent about twenty minutes taking photos of the view and the old fortress, but most people were hanging out for even longer. There’s lots of space at the top, so relax and drink some water before heading back down. This is an experience to cherish.

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Old fortress
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Taking our time coming back down

 

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Dubrovnik

I knew Croatia was going to be pretty, but I hadn’t expected to fall in love with it as much as I did. I figured Dubrovnik would feel like another Santorini — photogenic but crowded with bloggers and college students on their spring break. Turns out, April is an ideal time to visit; in fact, every Croatian we met told us how lucky we were for not visiting in the summer, when it’s miserably hot and crawling with cruise ship passengers.

Just like in Palermo, transportation from the airport into the center of town was remarkably easy. We bought Atlas Shuttle Bus tickets from the counter and took a comfortable 40-minute bus ride along the Adriatic coast to Old Town, the walled medieval section of Dubrovnik. After lugging our suitcases across cobblestone roads, Anthony gallantly carried them up the 176 stairs required to reach our apartment. It was worth it! Our apartment had a little balcony and unobstructed views overlooking the entire Old Town.

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Carrying our suitcases up 176 steps!
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View from our bedroom
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View from our balcony

Once we dropped off our luggage, we rushed out to ride an expensive cable car up to the top of Mount Srđ (pronounced “surge”), where I had booked dinner at Panorama Restaurant. We came specifically for the view, but the food and service ended up being surprisingly satisfying.

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Riding the cable car up
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Croatian wine
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I requested this exact table!

The sunset during our cable car ride back down, over the serene Adriatic Sea and Elafitski Islands, was one of the most stunning sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. What a way to make an impression on our first night!

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Possibly my favorite sunset in the world

Much like in Venice, my favorite time to wander around Dubrovnik is at night, when Old Town becomes much more charming and romantic. Dubrovnik and Venice used to be maritime rivals, so it makes sense that there are some similarities between the two cities. However, Dubrovnik is full of juxtapositions — it’s part of the Mediterranean yet connected to the Balkans; it’s majority Catholic yet surrounded by Islamic and Orthodox neighbors. In fact, its proximity to such diversity explains why its buildings, while lovely, lack the ostentation of Venice’s. Venice had to impress the Italians, Austrians, and Germans, while Dubrovnik preferred to downplay its wealth.

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Romantic lighting
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Beautiful architecture
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An old water fountain

Stradun (pronounced STRAH-doon) is the main drag of Old Town. The wide, limestone-paved pedestrian lane is lined with souvenir shops, boutique stores, restaurants, and ice cream shops. You can find both tourists and locals strolling down it day and night. The shop entrances along Stradun have a distinct “P” shape, which allows for maximum window shopping, but controlled entrance and exiting.

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Limestone-paved streets
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Stradun at night
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P-shaped entrances

Part of Dubrovnik’s incredible popularity — especially among Americans — is due to The Game of Thrones, which filmed entire seasons here. A few scenes from The Last Jedi were also filmed here, so we took a Star Wars tour since Anthony is more of a Star Wars fan than Game of Thrones. If you recall from the movie, Dubrovnik was the inspiration for Canto Bight. Our passionate tour guide printed out photos of each scene and took us to the corresponding location.

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Our tour guide
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Seeing Dubrovnik through Last Jedi eyes

One of our favorite activities was walking the walls that surround Old Town. It took us about an hour and a half, and we were stopping for photos every few feet. I was in awe of the contrast between the shades of orange terra cotta roofs and the azure sea. Apparently Dubrovnik’s iconic roofs were almost completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1667 that killed 5,000 people, and then again during the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s. More than 70% of the tiles were destroyed, and finding a similar color was difficult. Fortunately, Toulouse, France, makes similar ones, and with help from UNESCO, Dubrovnik has been able to reconstruct itself.

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Fortress
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Iconic terra cotta roofs
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Looking through ramparts
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Zdravo!
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A basketball court tucked into Old Town

While walking the walls, we passed Fort Lovrijenac (St. Lawrence Fortress), a fortress perched on a cliff above the sea on the edge of Old Town. In the 11th century, the Venetians attempted to build a fort on the same spot. If they had succeeded, they would have kept Dubrovnik under their power, but the town beat them to it.

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Fort Lovrijenac

On our last night, we stumbled upon a hidden viewpoint to watch the sunset — my vote for the most romantic spot in Dubrovnik. I cannot recommend Dubrovnik more. All you need is two or three days in this picturesque town to be impressed by its mighty history and appreciate its undeniable beauty.

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Sunset
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Lokrum Island during sunset

Tips for future travelers:

Book a table (and request a window/outdoor seat!) at Panorama Restaurant. The prices were reasonable, service was phenomenal, and you can’t really say no to the view.

Eat gelato at Dolce Vita. They have interesting flavors, give huge scoops, and you’ll feel just like you’re in Italy!

While touristy, you have to eat at one of the sidewalk restaurants near the Stradun at least once. I recommend Gradska Kavana for breakfast. Most restaurants start serving breakfast at 8am, so if you need food earlier, pick up pastries from Mlinar the night before.

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Dining on the Stradun

The night before your flight back home, check the bus schedule online. The website provides an accurate daily schedule of the bus times, which are determined by flight departures. Be aware that the departure bus station is not the same as the arrival bus station.

Croatia uses Kunas, not Euros 😦

Stay at a soba (private room), which you can find easily on Airbnb. These are cheaper and more centrally-located, while hotels are all overpriced and located outside Old Town, requiring a bus to get into town.

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Palermo

The second stop on our five-country trip was Palermo, Sicily, and it just confirmed (once again) that Italy is my favorite country. This is actually somewhat ironic because many Sicilians and mainland Italians don’t even consider Sicily part of Italy. Set right in between Europe, Northern Africa, and the Arab world, Sicily has been influenced (and invaded) by many cultures throughout history. To say Sicily is simply Italian is as reductive as saying Hawaii is American. Sicily barely saw the Renaissance that Italy is so famous for, yet its diversity in people, architecture, and cuisine exemplifies a cultural richness that cannot be found anywhere else.

We’d been to southern Italy before, so we prepared ourselves for utter chaos upon arrival, but the transportation from the airport to our apartment couldn’t have been smoother. Right in front of the airport exit was a desk dedicated to the Prestia e Comande bus service, where we bought round-trip tickets and were even given a little postcard with the bus route and timetable on it. After a scenic 45-minute bus ride, we got off outside Politeama theater and walked to our apartment, a penthouse on the ninth floor. The jaw-dropping balcony, which wrapped around almost our entire floor, was larger than our whole apartment back in Brooklyn. We enjoyed many breakfasts and evenings up there.

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View from our balcony
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Enjoying breakast

The highlight of our short time in Palermo was easily a four-hour food tour with Streaty. We met our guide, Salvo, outside the impressive Massimo Theater, which is the third largest opera house in Europe and the setting of that climactic scene in The Godfather Part III. (For those of you who haven’t blocked that movie out from memory, it’s where Sofia Coppola got shot and Al Pacino did his silent scream.)

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Massimo Theater

Salvo was a goofy and passionate art historian who handed each of us a “foodie passport” before we started. Every time we tried one of the dishes in our passport, he gave us a stamp! It was a delicious way to learn about the history, customs, and influences of Sicily.

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My foodie passport
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A close-up at the end. Look at all those stamps!

Our first stop was Capo Market, a daily street market full of locals doing their grocery shopping, as well as tour groups like ours. We found a table and tried three Sicilian specialties: panelle (flat chickpea fritters), cazzilli (potato croquettes with mint), and arancina (fried risotto balls). The chickpeas and mint are obvious signs of Arab influence.

Before we left Capo Market, we passed one of the oldest vendors, a hand-pressed orange juice cart. The owner of the cart went through dozens of oranges to make a glass of fresh orange juice for each of us.

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Fresh OJ from the oldest vendor at Capo Market

For our next stop, Salvo taught us how to order food in Sicilian dialect. We ordered sfincionello, which is Sicilian-style pizza — rectangular, thicker, and cheese-less, topped with fresh tomato, oregano, and chili. We brought sfincionello, olives, cheese, spicy sun-dried tomatoes, and bread to a local bar so we could enjoy our food with some wine. This delightful tradition is known as schiticchio. The bartender poured us some sweet Sicilian wine on tap. When we were done eating, Salvo told us to leave the rest of the food right on the bar; it’s tradition to leave food for locals to enjoy — this is so similar to the “Scrounge Table” at Reed College (except we’re feeding hungry Sicilian locals instead of Portland hipsters too cheap to buy a meal plan).

Anthony’s favorite part of our food tour was when we tried Pani ca’ Meusa (veal spleen and lung sandwich) from a cart. The rich meat is boiled in saltwater, cooked in lard, and stuffed into a bun. The Jewish people in this neighborhood couldn’t eat the spleen of animals due to their religion, so Catholics decided not to let good protein go to waste. These sandwiches were delicious, and we were two of the four people from our group of ten who dared to eat it — the ones who refused to eat it were from North Carolina and Georgia, naturally.

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Pani ca’ Meusa

Our final tasting was what everyone was waiting for: cannoli! We passed a man selling Godfather-themed products, and Salvo explained Sicily’s tempestuous relationship with the franchise. Some Sicilians, such as the man we saw, understandably use it as a way to make money. For others, however, it hits too close to home. While we felt completely safe during our time in Palermo, the Mafia still exists — it’s just hidden. Corruption has moved to the businesses and politicians, which doesn’t sound too different from America. Just think The Godfather Part II (“legitimate” crime) instead of The Godfather Part I (mobsters shooting each other).

As we sat by the stunning Palermo Cathedral, Salvo went to fetch our cannoli and returned with a mouth-watering tray of them. I never particularly enjoyed cannoli back in the U.S., and it’s because they’re often pre-filled, sitting in a case for hours. True Sicilian cannoli should always be freshly filled with whipped ricotta (not that sugary stuff you often find in the U.S.) right when you order, and is often topped with pistachio, candied orange, or chocolate chips.

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Cannoli delivery

The Palermo Cathedral was the perfect venue to end our tour. Salvo concluded with a heartwarming statement about the importance of coexistence, since adapting to the natural shifts in populations is a crucial Sicilian tradition. Palermo Cathedral is Catholic, but it proudly incorporates Islamic art and architecture to honor the large Arab population at the time. Apparently, 12th-century Norman soldiers were more progressive than half of America.

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Palermo Cathedral

Other buildings also reflect the diversity of Sicily, such as San Cataldo and its red Arab-Norman-style bulge domes, as well as Palazzo dei Normanni’s extravagant Byzantine interior.

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San Cataldo
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Palazzo dei Normanni

Sicily is a place that everyone should visit. You can’t just visit the Italian clichés of Venice and Florence. If you enjoyed Rome, head further south because you deserve to experience Sicily, too. Most Italian-Americans hail from Sicily, so it’s even more crucial that Americans visit this island to understand such a large part of our immigrant history. Come for the past, but stay for something that Sicily can really teach us about the present — how to grapple with diversity, with the refugee crisis, and with overcoming the hate and fear that seems so prevalent in the rest of the world.

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Sicilian streets
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Clean, well-fed stray dogs, just like in Istanbul!

Tips for future travelers:

The Prestia e Comande bus is really convenient. It arrives outside the airport every 30 min and brings you to the center of Palermo in about 45 minutes. Buy round-trip bus tickets so you don’t have to worry about buying tickets on your way back. The little postcard they give you with the bus schedule is surprisingly accurate.

Obviously, take the Streaty food tour, but for other meals, try L’Anciova for a nice Italian dinner, Cannoli & Co. for the best cannoli I’ve ever had from a shop that’s been handcrafting them since 1024, and PPP-Burger for an interesting Sicilian take on the humble burger.

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Burger with black Nebrodi pork, buffalo mozzarella, apenera honey, arugula, Mediterranean sauce & extra virgin olive oil
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My favorite cannoli

Check out Quattro Canti, a Baroque square at the intersection of two major streets (Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele). The four nearly-identical facades contain fountains with statues of the four seasons, the for Spanish kings of Sicily, and the patronesses of Palermo. Quattro Canti was one of the first major examples of city planning in Europe.

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Quattro Canti

Have breakfast the Sicilian way, with a cappuccino or granita and a pastry, such as a brioche or ciambella (doughnut). Preferably on a balcony.

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Stockholm

I wasn’t especially excited to visit Stockholm, and I blame this on both my superficial knowledge of Sweden, as well as on my loyalty to our friends in Copenhagen, Stockholm’s friendly rival. Fortunately, traveling showed me how wrong I was, as it often does, and the two things I was so sure I wouldn’t appreciate in Stockholm — its food and its people — ended up being my favorites on our five-country trip.

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Wandering around Gamla Stan

Getting to and from the airport is easy. The Arlanda Express Train reaches the center of Stockholm in just 20 minutes, and its cleanliness, efficiency, and user-friendliness rival the airport trains we’ve taken in Japan and South Korea. Buy tickets at the kiosks or online if you want them in advance.

I cannot recommend our hotel, Hotel Kungsträdgården, enough. This beautiful Gustavian-style hotel is centrally located, offers a lavish breakfast buffet in its historic courtyard every morning, and provides the type of service you’d expect from a much pricier hotel. Our concierge gave us free champagne and chocolates, did research for us when we told them we were interested in subway art, and made us feel at home — from saving our favorite spot for us on a hidden balcony, to making a pot of tea for us as soon as they learned that we drink rooibos tea to end our breakfasts. Our tiny but charming room was on the top floor and overlooked Kungsträdgården (King’s Garden).

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Lobby of our hotel
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View from our room

If there are only three things you do on your first trip to Stockholm, I’d recommend exploring the city’s subway stations, wandering around Gamla Stan, and stuffing yourself with kanelbullen.

Stockholm’s famous metro system (or “tunnelbana”) has been called the world’s longest art gallery, as more than 90 of its 100 stations are elaborately decorated with artwork. In the summer, the city offers free guided tours in English, but since we visited in late March, we had to settle on following a fantastic blog that led us to nine of the most interesting stations using just one subway ticket. This was the best activity we did in Stockholm, as we got to experience the daily commutes of the locals (this is always very important to a couple of New Yorkers), and it took us on a scavenger hunt through the city, forcing us outside the touristy areas.

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T-Centralen
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Universitetet
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Tekniska Högskolan
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Rådhuset
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Thorildsplan
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Solna Centrum
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Stadion

Speaking of touristy areas, you can’t visit Stockholm without spending at least a few hours in Gamla Stan, the charming Old Town. Until the 1600s, this picturesque little island of cobblestoned streets and warm-hued buildings comprised the entirety of Stockholm.

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Prästgatan (Priests’ Lane) is quintessential Gamla Stan

Stortorget is its oldest square, lined with colorful buildings topped with gables. This tourist-filled square has a bloody past. In 1520, the Swedish aristocracy, merchants, and priests who challenged Danish rule were rounded up and beheaded here. Rivers of blood flowed through the streets. One victim’s son escaped, went into hiding, and later led a Swedish revolt against the Danish rulers. Three years later, the Swedes elected that same person (Gustav Vasa) as their first king. We noticed his name everywhere in Stockholm, as he is to thank for one of Sweden’s greatest periods in history.

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Stortorget

I had my first kanelbulle in Gamla Stan, but the best one I tried was at Fabrique, an adorable bakery chain in Södermalm (“the Brooklyn of Stockholm”). A kanelbulle is a cinnamon bun made with cardamom and topped with pearl sugar, and is possibly my favorite pastry in the world. I had at least two every day. The Swedish tradition of fika – basically, a better version of the coffee break – is to be shared with friends, taken in the morning or afternoon, and includes a pastry such as a kanelbulle. It really should have been no surprise that I fell in love with Stockholm.

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Kanelbulle at Fabrique
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View of Södermalm

One morning, we decided to visit the Vasa Museum on Djurgården, a lush island that contains a handful of museums. I had no interest in an old ship, but I ended up finding it fascinating. The size of the massive Vasa ship is impressive but was also its downfall. Vasa sank after just 40 minutes into its voyage in 1628. After spending 333 years at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbor, Vasa was raised in 1961 and is now housed in a beautiful interactive museum built just for it. While it seems unfortunate that it was barely used, it’s actually had a longer life than most Swedish ships; ships are usually scrapped after just a few years for reuse, so Vasa is easily the best-preserved ships of its time. It was designed by a Dutch shipbuilder, and it sank because it was built too high and too skinny, causing it to tip over easily. Arrive at the museum early to avoid long lines, and take the free 25-minute tour.

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Vasa

On our way to the ferry, we got distracted by a sign that read “Tastings” and found ourselves at the Spritmuseum. The exhibit itself is just decent, but we paid extra for the Swedish liquor tasting and really enjoyed it even though I couldn’t handle most of the liquors. When we were sufficiently tipsy, we continued on our way to the quick harbor shuttle ferry, a convenient way to cross the harbor and return to the other islands.

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Our liquor tasting

Another museum we visited was the Nobel Museum, a small comprehensive museum about Alfred Nobel and his legacy of the Nobel Prizes, which are awarded in Stockholm annually. The free 30-minute tour taught me more than I’ve ever known about the Nobel Prizes.

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Nobel Museum

We had so many good meals in Stockholm, but I’ve narrowed it down to my three favorite places. Bakfickan is well-respected for its food, and notorious for its hard-to-come-by tables. Somehow, we were able to get a seat right away on our second try, and it was worth all the hype. Rolfs Kök is a trendy bistro that serves Swedish classics. We were able to make an online reservation the day of. Nystekt Strömming is a food cart on the edge of Gamla Stan. Eating fried herring on a paper plate by the waterfront is just one of the best feelings in the world.

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Blood pudding w/ lingonberries, caramelized apples & bacon at Bakfickan
P1060492
Seared tenderloin w/ raw egg yolk, caramelized onions, dried shredded horseradish & potatoes at Bakfickan
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Nystekt Strömming
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Fried herring,  potato purée, caraway rye crisps, and our choice of three sides (remoulade, lettuce & red onions) from Nystekt Strömming

After three days of some of the best meals we’ve had abroad, it was time for the next stop on our trip: Sicily! Hej då, Stockholm!

Cappadocia

Cappadocia is the type of place you see in a photo once and it stays with you forever. At least, that’s what happened to me. Years after seeing an online photo of Ortahisar, one of the fortresses cut into Cappadocia’s iconic rock formations, I finally booked a flight to Cappadocia on our way home from South Africa.

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Ortahisar

It’s interesting to see another side of Turkey. Previously, I’d only been to Istanbul, one of my favorite cities in the world, partly because it seems like the center of everything. Meanwhile, Cappadocia is so dependent upon international tourists that it very much feels like not the center of the world; instead, Cappadocia is a reflection of the rest of the world. We were two of the few non-Chinese/Russian tourists, and almost every Cappadocian we met is learning Mandarin because Chinese tourism is so vital to the region.

Our flight from Istanbul only took an hour and a half, and from there, a shuttle that we had booked through our hotel drove us an hour into Göreme, one of the towns that makes up Cappadocia. Cappadocia refers to an entire region, and while the name originated during the 6th century B.C., only those in the tourism industry still use it today to characterize the region.

Cappadocia plays a critical role in the history of Christianity and is dotted with hundreds of churches. Christians fleeing religious persecution during the Holy Roman Empire moved here, building monasteries and homes inside chimney-like rock formations, which are a product of volcanic eruptions and erosion.

We hired a private guide for a full day since we only had a short time there, and the sites are fairly spread out. Our first stop was Kaymakli, an underground city connected by dozens of tunnels. We learned first-hand how impeccably planned these cities were. Stables were located on the top floor to direct animal smells to the outside, as well as to trick enemies into thinking only animals were housed there. These cities were eight floors deep, but only a fraction of them are currently open to the public. We had fun scurrying through the tunnels, which led past chapels, bedrooms, kitchens, storage rooms, and graves.

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Kaymakli Underground City

After climbing back up to daylight again, we visited Love Valley, famous for its phallic-shaped rock formations. (Yes, rock-hard penises!) It’s hard to believe that these are natural, but they really were formed as a result of ancient volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, covering the region with thick ash that solidified into soft rock, which was then eroded into these odd shapes due to wind and rain.

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They look like penises, right?
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You’re allowed to climb into these caves, but some of them don’t look quite safe
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More valleys and rock formations

For lunch, our guide took us to Büyük Adana Kebap, where we tried adana kebap (grilled ground lamb) spread over a long soft pita, served with roasted pepper and tomato, all of which we rolled up to bite. I can’t think of a more ideal lunch than this. In typical Turkish style, our entire table was covered by little plates of dishes I couldn’t name.

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The adana kebap is to the right

Our next hour was spent at Goreme Open Air Museum, a vast complex of monasteries. If you’re religious, this will probably be the highlight of your time in Cappadocia. This UNESCO World Heritage Site contains a series of stunning rock-cut churches with impressive frescoes dating back to the 10th to 12th centuries. As atheists, what Anthony and I probably enjoyed most was listening to our Muslim guide describe passages from the Bible.

After a few more sites, we finally made our way toward Ortahisar, the very site that is to blame for our entire side-trip to Cappadocia. We didn’t actually go into Ortahisar; our guide instead drove us to an outdoor cafe that had a perfect view of the fortress. At almost 300 feet high, Ortahisar stands proudly above the cascading town below. It was just like the photo I’d seen years ago.

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Ortahisar with a dog!

To end our tour, our guide brought us to Rose Valley to watch the sunset. As usual, we weren’t quite impressed by the sunset (this is what happens when you’re from Hawaii!), but we loved hiking through the valley as we waited for the sun to set, winding our way along narrow paths and treacherous cliffs. It was especially nice to stretch our legs out for a few hours after being cooped up in a car throughout the day.

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Rose Valley

Our dinner at Topdeck Cave Restaurant was probably the best meal I’ve ever had in Turkey — and this is including our first trip to Istanbul last year. From our hotel, it was just a five-minute downhill walk to the restaurant, and as we made our way through the dark, adhan began. If you’ve never visited a Muslim country before, you’re in for a treat. Adhan is the Islamic call to worship that occurs five times a day. It’s projected through a loudspeaker from a mosque, summoning Muslims to mandatory worship. When we first heard adhan in Marrakech last year, I was slightly terrified. Now, whenever I hear it, though, it’s music to my ears — like church bells in Paris.

At Topdeck Cave Restaurant, we took our shoes off and sat on beautiful Turkish rugs and pillows. We started with a comforting bowl of yoğurtlu çorba (yogurt soup cooked with mint, spinach, parsley, rice, and chickpeas). Then we shared a plate of börek (baked, stuffed phyllo rolls) and a succulent lamb platter. For dessert, we shared baklava and dondurma (sticky ice cream made of mastic). Contrary to popular belief, baklava was invented in Turkey, not Greece. Turkish baklava is typically cut into small rectangles, as opposed to the large triangles we find at Greek restaurants in America. Anthony also tried a glass of raki, an alcoholic anise drink, and the national drink of Turkey. Anthony was not a big fan.

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Borek and lamb
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Baklava and dondurma

As soon as we woke up the next morning, I ran out to the rooftop of our cave hotel, Sultan Cave Suites. Our rooftop is actually one of the things I was most excited for in Cappadocia. It’s basically a blogger’s wet dream, with unobstructed views of the city, lots of stylish rugs and furniture, and an adorable dog who silently strolls through the hotel. Every morning (if the weather is nice), dozens of hot air balloons fill the sky to watch the sunrise. It’s a magical sight. We hung out on that rooftop — with a handful of Chinese tourists — as long as we could. It was too cold to have breakfast up there, but the hotel provided food props just for our photos! (I’m a big fan of people who understand the gram.)

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Watching the sunrise
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Kahve props
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Food props
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Such a dream

There are so many places that look better in photos than in real life (e.g., Santorini), but Cappadocia is not one of them. Cappadocia blew my mind. I came to take a few photos, but the history, geology, religious significance, and even just the shrewdness of its tourism industry captivated me as well. I don’t typically recommend traveling to places just for photographic purposes, but sometimes these types of trips can be absolutely worthwhile.

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Travel partner

Tips for future travelers:

Stay at Sultan Cave Suites. If you’ve seen any photo of a hotel in Cappadocia on Instagram, chances are it’s this one. Besides the picture-perfect rooftop, Sultan Cave Suites has lovely rooms (our suite consisted of a huge bedroom, living room, foyer, and tiny bathroom) and a lavish complimentary breakfast buffet. Unsurprisingly, the Turks brunch hard. If you can’t get a room here, as this small hotel is extremely popular, make sure you at least stay in a cave hotel — otherwise, what’s the point?

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Breakfast room at our hotel

Hire a guide. We used Cappadocian Guide, which we recommend, though I think all tour companies here are about the same. We paid about $80 for a full day.

Book your airport transfer either through the hotel or guide.

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Cape Town

I set impossibly high standards for our final city in South Africa, and somehow — even during a drought – Cape Town met them effortlessly. I couldn’t help but compare it to my hometown of Honolulu, as both places are known for beaches, hikes, diverse populations, and incredibly welcoming people. However, there are glaring differences. Cape Town has a population three times the size of Honolulu’s, more exciting animals (penguins and baboons!), and more efficient public transportation. Meanwhile, Honolulu has calmer weather, better beaches, and less segregation. Oh, and no drought problem.

Yes, Cape Town is in the middle of an unprecedented water crisis. Day Zero, the day on which its taps will be completely shut off and residents will need to line up for water at collection points, is set for July 15. Cape Town will be the first major city in the world to run out of water. This crisis can be blamed on a few factors: huge population growth in the past two decades, dry summers, poor management, and short-sightedness.

While we were there, we noticed signs everywhere urging us to conserve water. We used hand sanitizer in bathrooms, limited our showers, and drank out of paper cups instead of glass cups at certain dining establishments. In other words, we experienced minuscule effects, but I can’t imagine what it must be like for a struggling family living here. The world should be watching Cape Town. Australia and western states like California, Arizona, and Nevada have also been dealing with historic droughts, and I don’t think they’re far behind. We were intrigued to be visiting Cape Town during such a precarious time.

As soon as we landed, we were in love. Right outside the airport is a huge shuttle bus station, and one of the workers immediately offered to help us purchase tickets. As New Yorkers who have to deal with JFK AirTrams and taxi lobbyists, we were amazed by the convenience of Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus. Departing every 30 minutes, it offers a nonstop route right into downtown. When we got off the bus, we were promptly introduced to famous Cape Doctor. In the summer (October through March), a strong south-easterly wind blows through the city, clearing up the air and moderating the summer heat. Capetonians call this the “Cape Doctor” because early settlers believed it blew away any bad air and illnesses.

The two blocks we had to walk to our Airbnb felt treacherous as we struggled to avoid getting dust into our eyes due to the Cape Doctor, but at last we made it and stepped into one of the swankiest lobbies we’ve ever entered. Our stylish apartment was on the tenth floor, with two walls of windows facing Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. Our host had left us a bottle of sauvignon blanc, a list of restaurant recommendations, and a friendly reminder to conserve water. During our entire time there, we only showered once and flushed the toilet only after pooping.

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Living room
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View of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head from the apartment

Like in Johannesburg, we hired a private guide to take us around because the sites are fairly spread out. Sarel was our hilarious tour guide who drove fast, had the most entertaining anecdotes to tell, and seemed to know everyone in Cape Town, so we were given VIP treatment everywhere we went.

Our first stop was the flat-topped Table Mountain, the oldest mountain in the world, at 600 million years old. We caught the revolving cable car up to the top. This is brilliant! Each cable car can hold 65 people, and the floor rotates so that each person gets a view throughout the five-minute ride. When we got to the top, I was amazed by how spacious the summit is – a lot more comfortable than Diamond Head in Hawaii! The summit is a two-mile-wide plateau, flattened after centuries of wind and rain erosion. We happened to be there on a clear day, so we could see the entire city below, including Robben Island. On other days, however, condensed moisture from the Cape Doctor lingers near the summit, forming a “table cloth” of cloud covering Table Mountain. Sarel pointed out the unique fauna and flora growing on the summit, many of which can only be found on this mountain.

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Riding up the cable car, with a view of Lion’s Head below
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Granite
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View of Cape Town
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Some of the plants on Table Mountain

Due to the wind, our next site, Chapman’s Peak Drive, was closing early, so we had a mere half an hour to take the cable car down, find our car, and drive to the beginning of Chapman’s Peak. This was one of my favorite moments in Cape Town – watching Sarel presumptuously speed along the coastline and sweet-talk the guards to let us through even though they’d already shut the drive. We made it! Note to self: Hiring a charming private guide is always worth the money. Chapman’s Peak is the name of the mountain on the western edge of the Cape Peninsula. Chapman’s Peak Drive runs along the mountain’s near-vertical cliffs that drop into the Atlantic Ocean, offering one of the most stunning drives in the world. Once again, I couldn’t help but compare it to Hawaii – my drive from Kahala to Sandy’s, specifically – so I wasn’t quite as enthralled as most tourists probably are, but it was still lovely to see.

For lunch, Sarel took us to a beachfront restaurant that was so picturesque that I was sure the food would be mediocre, but I ended up loving my fresh mussels and glass of South African bouquet blanc. After that, we walked over to Boulders Beach, a beach famous for its colony of endangered jackass penguins that settled there in the ‘80s. These penguins can only be found on the coastlines of South Africa and Namibia, and are called jackass penguins because they sound like donkeys (they really do!). On Boulders Beach, they wander freely in their naturally protected environment, thanks to huge granite boulders. I could have watched them all day, but it was quite windy, and we had more sites to visit.

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Lunch view
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Boulders Beach

After that, we made our way to the Cape of Good Hope, passing beaches and quirky towns, finally reaching the tip of the African continent, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias sailed here in an attempt by the Portuguese to establish direct trade with the Far East. It’s another extremely windy area, and I struggled just to walk a few feet. It reminded me of the black sand beach we tried to walk on in Iceland last year – just about 50° more pleasant.

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Tip of Africa
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Very windy!

We also visited an ostrich farm, where Sarel tried to feed one, but the ostrich was probably too dumb to realize what was happening — seriously, their brains are the size of half a teaspoon. Then we stopped by the quirky town of Kalk Bay, where we had rooibos (South African bush tree) ice cream. We did wine tasting at the oldest winery in South Africa, where Sarel got us free glasses of muscat and rosé. Apparently there’s wine production in South Africa because of the French Huguenot refugees who settled in Cape Town in the 17th century. We ended our long tour watching the sunset from Signal Hill. It seems every tourist goes to Signal Hill to watch the sunset, because we were surrounded by Europeans and Americans. Just like in Santorini, we weren’t too impressed by the sun setting on water, so we left our spot on the slope, walked closer to the parking lot, and actually preferred the view from there because it included Lion’s Head in the background.

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Our guide, Sarel, is on the right
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Groot Constantia, the oldest winery in South Africa
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Wine tasting
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Sunset from Signal Hill
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We came for the hot chocolate

We didn’t spend too much time exploring the city center even though we were staying there, but we did walk to Company’s Garden, which struck me as an odd “must-see” for tourists. Company’s Garden is a former vegetable garden that was built when European explorers roamed the coasts of Africa attempting to find a sea passage from Europe to Asia for spices. The Dutch East India Company chose this site as a permanent station because Dutch colonists feared that the British wanted to annex the Cape. In other words, Company’s Garden reeks of colonialism, and there’s even a statue of Cecil Rhodes here, the imperialist who was obsessed with “civilizing” the African continent.

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Company’s Garden

The Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront is one of the most touristy areas in Cape Town, which is why I initially wanted to avoid it, but we ended up having so much fun there that we went twice. It does have a corny ferris wheel and a fancy mall filled with chain stores, but it also has an interesting food hall, an open-air coffee shop, and free performances – one of which made me cry.

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Very touristy waterfront

One afternoon, as I was drinking an iced turmeric latte and appreciating my view of Table Mountain, an informal band comprising a few trombones and French horns started playing Cher’s “Believe.” It was our last day in South Africa, and the song just melted my heart. Cape Town’s natural beauty is obvious, but what made me cry was the spirit and resiliency of the people we met across the country. Throughout our trip, locals told us, “Welcome home,” referring to the fact that South Africa is the cradle of humankind; the oldest human fossils are from this country, so technically we all come from here. When locals eventually found out where we were from, they’d tell us, “It’s so nice to see Americans again.” South Africans are well aware of what our president says about their continent, and with so many Americans living in fear these days, South Africans don’t see that many Americans anymore. Being here has been such an honor, and South Africa will always be one of my favorite places in the world.

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Last meal in South Africa

Tips for future travelers:

We only had a short time in Cape Town, but we tried to live like Capetonians as much as we could. We stayed at an Airbnb instead of a hotel. For breakfasts, we fell in love with a fantastic neighborhood bakery called Jason Bakery and quickly became regulars, thanks to one of our waiters who had to help us get in touch with Sarel on our first day. When we were too lazy to go out, we used UberEats to order two of our dinners – and this led to more interactions with our doorman, who made us feel like permanent residents. Always try to interact with locals any chance you can, because they are the ones who make the city.

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Green pancakes (spinach, chili, onions, arugula, kale, poached egg) at Jason Bakery

Eat at the V&A Food Market. This former power station is now a food hall, with a biltong shop, a place that specializes in samosas, an African vendor that sells pap and Durban curry, as well as the usual things like Neapolitan pizza, craft beer, and Belgian waffles.

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Biltong = jerky

Stay near the V&A Waterfront. While I loved our Airbnb and our neighborhood bakery, at night the area got a bit sketchy with homeless people and very little nightlife. The Waterfront is stunning, and there are always things to do.

Buy tickets to the Table Mountain cable car in advance. The weather changes every minute, and you’ll need to check online continuously to see if they’ve shut down the cable car yet. Tickets will let you bypass long lines, and even if the weather is bad that day, the ticket allows you to use it another day.

Hire a private guide. Just like in MoroccoJohannesburg, and Cappadocia, our trip could only be possible with a guide. We had so many sites to see in such a short amount of time, and it was handy to have someone provide commentary. It’s also a great way to get to know a local well. Sarel felt like an uncle by the time we had to say good-bye to him.

Conserve water. In Cape Town, we were so aware of the amount of water we typically use, from flushing the toilet, to washing dishes. It’s heartbreaking — almost unjust — that such a beautiful city has to deal with this.

If you’re visiting other parts of South Africa, save Cape Town for the end. Cape Town is the Positano of South Africa; I really left my heart here, and I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed Johannesburg or even the safari if we had not done them first.

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Safari

There are certain life experiences that sometimes I just can’t believe I’ve been able to have. Riding a camel across the Sahara Desert is one of them; snowmobiling on a glacier is another. Going on a safari is the latest experience that made me want to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

South Africa has an overwhelming number of options for safaris, but we chose Pilanesberg National Park & Game Reserve because one of Anthony’s coworkers recommended it — and I can’t thank her enough. Pilanesberg is roughly the size of Singapore, which seems large, but it can actually fit into the more famous Kruger National Park 38 times. Unlike other parks, Pilanesberg is malaria-free (no shots necessary!) and is set in an extinct volcanic crater that was formed 1.2 billion years ago. Its relatively small size and varied landscape of ridges, grasslands, wooded valleys, and rock formations dramatically increase guests’ chances of encountering the Big Five: elephants, black rhinos, buffalos, lions, and leopards.

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Scenery of Pilanesberg

Like other parks, Pilanesberg offers a wide range of accommodations, from tents to B&Bs to five-star hotels. We decided to stay at one of the more upscale hotels called Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge. I’m not usually a fan of all-inclusive resorts, but for a safari it made a lot of sense, as I wanted to be comfortable in such a new environment, and it’s not like we could have gone off on our own to discover little hole-in-the-wall restaurants like we usually do when we travel.

Someone from Shepherd’s Tree picked us up from our hotel in Johannesburg and drove us three hours to Pilanesberg. After receiving welcome drinks and touring the grounds, we had lunch at the stunning restaurant downstairs – and, oh boy, I had not expected to like the food on a safari this much. Every meal was included, from our breakfast buffet, to our three-course lunches and dinners. It’s a good thing our safari was only three days because I would have definitely gained ten pounds if it were any longer.

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Outdoor patio of the restaurant
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One of my favorite desserts

After lunch we were taken to our room. The entire hotel contained only a handful of rooms, sprawled across a ridge. Our room was one of the nicest rooms I’ve ever stayed in, with a canopy bed, chaise lounge chair, balcony that looked out into the bush, and French doors opening up to a huge bathroom with a tub and outdoor shower.

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Bathroom

Each morning, a ranger picked us up from our room in a golf cart at roughly 5:15 am and drove us to the pool area, where coffee, tea, and pastries were waiting for us and the other guests. By 6:00 am, we were in a 10-seat jeep with some fellow guests, ready for our three-hour drive around the park. The route of each drive was up to our ranger, who worked hard to find us the most interesting animals. Some animals, like impalas and zebras, are so common that we eventually got tired of seeing them, while others are more exciting. Rangers communicate to each other by walkie-talkie, so if someone spots a lion, everyone makes their way over. This whole process is fascinating to see in action.

We were fortunate. We went on four drives during our stay, and each drive entailed a close encounter with a different animal. On our first drive, a herd of elephants surrounded our jeep. On our second drive, a tree above us was full of baboons, who jumped down and ran across the road. Our guide had to remind us that baboons are dangerous and can bite. On our third drive, we came across a sleeping lion, another troop of baboons, and some dung beetles. On our last drive, the grand finale was a rhino (my husband’s favorite animal!) who decided to block our road back to the hotel and just stand there for about ten minutes.

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Herd of elephants
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Dangerous baboons
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This lion woke up for a few seconds then went back to sleep
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Rhino blocking our path
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Close-up of our rhino thanks to our safari guide and his binoculars

My favorite experience on the safari, however, was when some elephants came right up to our hotel. One afternoon, we were lounging by the pool, and all of a sudden another guest shouted, “Elephant!” We all ran to the balcony, and sure enough, an elephant was unabashedly walking over toward us. There’s a watering hole right next to the hotel, and apparently elephants come by pretty often. The next morning, we were eating breakfast outside, and another elephant came by and drank from the watering hole right behind me. Driving out to see animals out in the wild is fun, but having them voluntarily come to you while you’re swimming or eating toast is why I really wanted to go on a safari.

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Watching an elephant from the pool
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Another one came!
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View from our pool balcony
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Eating breakfast while an elephant stops by

After each drive, we ate breakfast or lunch with our safari group, which was a great way to get to know each other and reminisce over the highlights of each drive. We made friends with a lovely Spanish family from Madrid, a Turkish woman from Istanbul, a dentist from Canada, and two women from Johannesburg who were there on business for their textile company.

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With our new Turkish friend

Our two safari rangers were fantastic. They were able to spot animals miles away because they knew every inch of the park by heart. One of the highlights of our game drives was when our guide, Peter, stepped out of the vehicle to show us some dung beetles on the side of the road. It was my first time seeing a dung beetle and they were probably the most fascinating creatures in the whole park! We watched them roll rhinoceros poop into huge balls and attempt to fit the balls into tunnels so that they could eventually lay their eggs in them. It was mesmerizing, and now I want a dung beetle.

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Peter explains how rhinos spray their urine to mark territory

I can’t recommend going on a safari enough. As someone who thinks French bulldogs are normal, even I could appreciate wild animals in their natural habitats. I’ve never really enjoyed going to zoos, but seeing springbok and giraffes roam around in herds, with acres of freedom, was an unforgettable experience.

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Springboks crossing the road

Tips for future travelers:

Three days is the ideal amount of time. Any longer and we may have gotten bored. Safaris are very sedentary; you’re either sitting in a car, lounging on a balcony or by the pool, or eating. It’s not the healthiest vacation to take, so I wouldn’t recommend staying too long.

Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge was perfection. Every detail was taken care of, from providing blankets when we got cold during our game drives, to handing us fresh face towels as soon as we returned, to ensuring strong Wi-Fi throughout the hotel. The entire complex was tastefully designed, taking full advantage of its surroundings. Additionally, we had some of our favorite meals on the entire trip right here.

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Our pool
How to dress? Before our trip, I was stressed out about what to wear on the safari. It’s wise to wear earth-colored neutrals (think tans and olive greens), but in the end, as long as you’re not wearing red, which can scare animals, you’re fine. Most of your body will be hidden behind the vehicle anyway. I wore sneakers every day and usually wore jeans or workout pants. Bring a sweater because it gets very chilly, as you’ll either be starting very early in the morning or ending late at night.

What to bring? Our hotel had a pool, so I brought a bathing suit and a book in case we had some down time. I thought I’d get bored on our three days, but we actually had very little down time. The one afternoon that I thought I could get some reading done, a couple of elephants showed up to the hotel, so obviously I had to put my book away. If you’re staying at a hotel like ours, you won’t even need snacks because our hotel was constantly feeding us. Even on our drives, we always took a break toward the end to drink wine or coffee and snack on biltong and cookies.

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Snacks on our safari drive

Johannesburg

I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Johannesburg is still dealing with the effects of apartheid (the system of institutionalized racial segregation that began in 1948 and lasted until 1991), and many residents live in conditions that no one would be living in if this were a just world. However, we’ve seen worse situations in Mexico and the Philippines — and even parts of the U.S. — so I’m not sure why Johannesburg (“Joburg” or “Jozi” to locals) has such a bad reputation. Out of the five cities on our trip, Johannesburg was the one in which we felt most welcomed. The people we interacted with were proud, full of love for their city but who had a frank relationship with it, as well.

Before our trip to South Africa, I had only heard negative things about Johannesburg — the poverty, the crime, and, of course, apartheid. I had wanted to skip it and fly straight into Cape Town instead, but our safari was closer to Johannesburg, and Anthony was eager to visit (he did study the apartheid, after all!), so we decided to start our trip here. I did not expect this city to touch my heart the way it did.

When we arrived at the airport, our guide, Mthandeni, was already waiting for us, and he started his tour immediately. In fact, by the time we were exiting the airport parking lot, we had already practiced some Xhosa pronunciations and learned how mineral-rich Johannesburg is, with its abundance of diamonds, gold, and platinum. I’m not always a fan of hiring private tour guides, but Mthandeni was exactly what we needed. He gave us an honest insight into the history and current situation of South Africa.

He drove us past townships (what we could call slums), which were created on the outskirts of the city so that nonwhites could work — but not live — there. Blacks originally lived in the center of Johannesburg, but once the city became more developed, a specific apartheid act decreed that only certain races could live in certain areas. Entire black populations were forced out of their homes and into townships. Mthandeni reminded us that just a couple of decades ago, as foreigners, we would not have been allowed to be in his car.

We drove to Soweto, which stands for South Western Townships. This area is famous for the Soweto Uprising, the mass protests during apartheid that erupted over the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans (the language of the Dutch colonizers) rather than their native language. Police opened fire on 10,000 students, killing 23 people. The impact of the Soweto Uprising reverberated across the world, leading to economic and cultural sanctions.

The first stop was on our tour was the Apartheid Museum. It was a well-designed museum, with some heartbreaking reminders of apartheid, such as footage from the Soweto Uprising, and a huge Casspir in which armed policemen used to ride through black neighborhoods at night.

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The entrance of the museum
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More segregation signs
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Imagine this roaming your neighborhood at night!
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Me, for scale

Soweto is also famous for being home to Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Trevor Noah. After the museum, we stopped by Nelson Mandela’s house, a small four-room “matchbox” house common in Soweto. It still has bullet holes in the walls and scorches from Molotov cocktails.

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Outside Mandela’s House, now a museum

While most tourists seem to come to Soweto just for the Apartheid Museum and Mandela House, Mthandeni led us to a nearby restaurant where we had a lunch buffet with a stylish black crowd and tried mieliepap (or “pap”) for the first time. This traditional cornmeal porridge is a working-class staple of South Africans. We were familiar with pap because we’d watched Anthony Bourdain eat it on his No Reservations episode in Johannesburg, but the show had not done it justice. Pap is delicious! We tried three different varieties, topped with a rich tomato and onion sauce.

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Eating pap and various meats with our tour guide, Mthandeni

Toward the end of our tour, Mthandeni asked if we wanted to meet a South African family living in Soweto. We were hesitant at first, reluctant to partake in slum tourism, which turns poverty into a form of entertainment. He convinced us, however, when he explained that these families look forward to when he brings tourists because they benefit greatly from the small tip we are expected to leave at the end. We met Princess, a mother who kept an impressively tidy one-room, tin-roofed home, where she slept on a small bed, her children slept on the floor nearby, and a paraffin stove stood in the corner.

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Walking through Soweto
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Princess in her home
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Checking out the parrafin stoves until I hear something outside
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Look at these children! The kid in the striped shirt stole my heart

In the end, our tour did take us to the negative things I’d heard about Johannesburg. It would not only be impossible, but also disrespectful, to avoid them. The people of Johannesburg take pride in their resilience. They speak bluntly about their past, which is honestly more than I can say about Americans.

My favorite part of our time in Johannesburg was watching Black Panther at the mall next to our hotel. It’s always an interesting anthropological study to watch movies in another country, especially a movie as significant as Black Panther, in a country as relevant as South Africa. One thing we noticed was that the commercials featured more blacks than I’d ever seen on screen.

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Crowd outside Black Panther

While waiting for the theater to be cleaned between showings, a group of teenagers who had watched the previous showing asked us if we could take a photo of them. They stood with their arms crossing their chest and shouted, “Wakanda forever!” Black Panther was inspirational to me, but I can’t imagine how even more meaningful it was to these South Africans. It was heartwarming to hear the excitement of the audience when they recognized their language in the film. Additionally, many of the actors are from South Africa. It’s not that South Africans necessarily need a movie like Black Panther to inform them of how powerful they can be; it’s that now there’s hope that maybe the rest of the world will finally see them as the resilient, culturally- and minerally-rich society – despite the undeniable poverty and lingering segregation.

In South Africa, there’s a term called “ubuntu”. It means humanity toward others, or the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Ubuntu reminded me of one of the vendors who was closing up his shop on the side of the road. He greeted us when we got out of the car and called me “sister” – perhaps the greatest honor I’ve ever received. Ubuntu reminded me of Princess, the mother in Soweto who let us take photos of her home and children for a tip so that she could take care of the very home we entered and the children we met. I cannot think of a better word to describe my experience here.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Hire a tour guide. Even if you don’t usually hire guides, Johannesburg is a place you’ll want one, as sites are somewhat spread out. While we had done lots of South African history research before this trip, having a local offer first-hand knowledge and anecdotes is invaluable. I highly recommend Mthandeni.
  2. We stayed at the Monarch Hotel in Rosebank because everyone told us to stay in a suburb. While I can’t attest to whether or not the requirement to stay in a “safe” suburb is justified, we loved our hotel, which was conveniently located to the airport via train, and walking distance to Rosebank Mall. Our booking came with a lavish breakfast that included both a buffet and a la carte items, and when our driver was running late the next morning, the staff at the front desk went out of their way to help us contact him.
  3. Tip everyone, from your tour guide (R50 per person), to the hotel staff (10%), to the family you visit at the township (R100). R10 = less than $1, so you won’t even notice your tips.
  4. If you haven’t seen Black Panther yet for some reason, watch it now.
  5. Understand that people around the world are more alike than different. South Africa may have dealt with apartheid, but the U.S. is also guilty of institutionalized racism, and if you looked at most neighborhoods in America, you’ll notice how segregated we are, too. If anything, South Africa is just more honest about its racism, and our society would benefit greatly if we practiced a little more ubuntu.

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