Madrid + Toledo

Four years ago, Anthony and I went to Europe for three weeks, and our last twenty-four hours happened to be a layover in Madrid. Because we were young and cheap and curious about Spain’s notoriety for staying out late, we sacrificed a hotel room and spent those twenty-four hours roaming the city. We hung out at Puerta del Sol, we saw a major accident occur (a truck backed into an awning that fell on top of a woman dining outdoors, severely injuring her), we ate jamon and spent an embarrassing amount of time eating churros at Chocolatería San Ginés, and we napped in Retiro Park. It was an odd experience, and I felt pretty ambivalent about Madrid. Since that was my only experience with Spain, I also had no real desire to return to Spain — until a couple of months ago when I found round-trip flights to Madrid for an astonishingly low price of $261.

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Madrid’s sleek airport
Most of our trip was spent in Andalucía, but we did spend a couple of days in Madrid, as well as a day-trip to Toledo. Turns out, I still don’t love Madrid, but at least I finally appreciated how livable this vibrant metropolis is.

Stay

We stayed at an Airbnb in the trendy neighborhood of Malasaña, which I’d highly recommend. It’s connected to everywhere by metro, walkable to all the touristy sights, and filled with award-winning restaurants, colorful street art covering the walls, and vibrant plazas swarming with madrileños (locals).

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View of Madrid rooftops from our Airbnb living room
Do

We spent our first morning doing the touristy Gran Vía stroll, starting at the elegant Palacio de Cibeles, which was once a post office, and ending at Plaza de España. It’s basically the Fifth Avenue of Madrid, with interchangeable chain stores and foreign tourists moving slowly, but it’s interesting to see the phases of architecture along Gran Vía, from Beaux-Arts to Art Deco. One of the more interesting stores to drop into is an H&M housed in a former theater.

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Palacio de Cibeles
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The Metropolis Building was designed by a couple of French brothers. The dome is topped by a statue of the winged goddess Victoria, which replaced the original bronze statue of Phoenix and Ganymedes when a rival insurance company purchased the building and the original owners took the statue with them.
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Art Deco
The rest of Madrid felt so comfortable, like any other cosmopolitan European city, that we sometimes forgot which city we were in.

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Revisiting Mercado San Miguel, which we visited last time we were in Madrid
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One of the unique things about Madrid is that you can find Mudejar arches scattered here and there
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We loved seeing these same-sex traffic lights, put up during Pride and never taken down
Eat

Most of our diet in Madrid consisted of churros con chocolate, as we went to Chocolatería San Ginés pretty much after every meal. It’s an impressive place, open 24 hours yet retaining a classy feel. Servers run around balancing elegant mugs of thick chocolate and little plates of churros.

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Churros con chocolate
Apparently we were missing southern Spain already because our favorite meal was at La Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, which is an Andalucian tapas bar just off Plaza Mayor. The gory photos of bullfighting filling every crevice of the restaurant is a bit corny, but the food is authentic and even served Granada style (a free tapa with every drink!), with a stream of regulars — perhaps Andalucian transplants? — streaming in throughout the afternoon.

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Legit!
Since it was August, a lot of the restaurants I wanted to try were closed for vacation, so one night we reluctantly went to La Barraca, a historic paella restaurant. It reminded me of Delmonico’s, a New York institution with white tablecloths and awkwardly stuffy service. However, we couldn’t deny that the paellas were very good, and the next morning we cooked our leftovers for breakfast, and we couldn’t have been happier.

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Best paella on our trip
Afternoon Trip to Toledo

Just a half-hour train ride from Madrid is the wonderfully preserved medieval town of Toledo. Once the capital of Spain, it felt like a mix of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany and Dubrovnik in Croatia, some other favorite Medieval towns of mine. Toledo sits high up on a circular rocky hill protected on three sides by the Tajo River, like a moat. It has 2,500 years of tangled history between the Romans, Jews, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians. The city reached its peak in the 1500s, when Spain was in its Golden Age. Emperor Charles V made it his “Imperial City,” and El Greco made his home here. Cervantes’ wife came from near Toledo, and he often wrote about it. In 1561, Philip II moved the capital to a small town north of here called Madrid, beginning the slow decline of Toledo. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, remaining largely intact despite numerous violent takeovers throughout history due to the fact that it was considered the holiest city in Spain. Its ornate cathedral is one of the most impressive structures in Spain, taking over 250 years to build.

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Old winding roads of Toledo
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Cervantes is beloved here
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Perched up on a hill, overlooking La Mancha
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Mudejar touches everywhere
The impressive train station sits below the town center, so we caught a city bus into town. You can  catch #5, #11, #61, or #62 to Plaza de Zocodover. One thing we love about Spain is that buses give out change.

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Sunset views from Toledo
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Mudejar style train station
Spain claims that marzipan (“mazapán” in Spanish) was invented in Toledo by nuns of the Convent of San Clemente during a famine. There was no wheat but plenty of sugar and almonds, so nuns created a paste out of these ingredients and fed the undernourished people. Mazapán de Toledo is protected by D.O., which means it must be made in the province of Toledo and be at least 50% almonds. We tried mazapán from Santo Tomé and El Café de las Monjas, and both were much better than any marzipan I’ve had in the U.S. Each one is lovingly shaped by hand, and a box of assorted mazapán is the perfect gift.

Besides mazapán, swords are another popular souvenir in Toledo, as Toledo was famous for making the very best steel during the Middle Ages. Knights considered having a Toledo-cast sword to be the highest status symbol.

Unlike on the rest of our trip, Toledo doesn’t have a thriving tapas scene. Instead, Toledo excels at game, which is hunted in the hills to the south. Typical dishes include partridge, venison, wild boar, roast suckling pig, and baby lamb. We had a lovely dinner on the outdoor terrace of Restaurante Placido.

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Roasted baby lamb
Tips for future travelers:

  1. It’s simple enough to get from the airport into Madrid by subway, but if you have a lot of luggage or don’t want to transfer, you can also take the comfortable Exprés Aeropuerto to Atocha train station, and then getting a cab. This yellow bus departs every 15 minutes, runs 24 hours a day, and takes about 40 minutes to reach Atocha.
  2. For our few days in Madrid, buying a 10-pack of Metro tickets was perfect for us. We first had to buy a cheap refillable card, and then we were able to share the ten rides. Madrid’s Metro system is fantastic and reminded us of Paris. Lines are color-coded and numbered. You can just tap your Metro card to the yellow pad to open the turnstile — no need to take it out again to exit.
  3. The best itinerary for Toledo is to take a late afternoon train there, so you can see things just as the daytrippers are leaving for the day, and watch the sunset. Then leave the following morning, after exploring a few of the sights that had been closed when you arrived the previous day.
  4. Buy your train tickets to and from Toledo in advance, as they often sell out to commuters. (Since Toledo is so close to Madrid, it makes sense that some people live in Toledo and work in Madrid.)
  5. When on Gran Vía, take a break and head up to Gourmet Experiences (a food court in El Corte Inglés) for a spectacular view of the Schweppes Building.

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Granada

Granada was the main reason I wanted to visit Spain this summer. While I’d never had much of an interest in Barcelona, Madrid, or even Sevilla (though, clearly I had been wrong about Sevilla), Granada has everything I’m passionate about: white-washed homes spilling down hills, seductive views of the Alhambra, diversity, a significant Arab influence, and incredibly cheap food.

Due to a scheduling issue, we had to catch a later train from Córdoba to Granada and arrived at our Airbnb two hours later than we had planned. Our affectionate Airbnb host Ana, who seemed to be more anxious than us to make our time slot for the Alhambra, gently rushed us out after we dropped off our luggage and ushered us to a taxi. As we drove through our winding cobblestone neighborhood of Albayzín, Anthony and I looked at each other and knew we were going to love our few days here.

We didn’t deserve to get into Alhambra, but Anthony coaxed the guard into letting us in fifty minutes after our time slot. The initial chaos was worth it! The Alhambra is a palace, citadel, and fortress that sits on a small plateau overlooking the entire city, enhanced by the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains. While Europe slumbered through the Dark Ages, the Moors were creating magnificent palaces like the Alhambra, with ornate stucco, plaster stalactite ceilings, ceramic tiles, scalloped windows that perfectly frame views of Granada, lush gardens, open-air courtyards, and water — a precious symbol of life back then — everywhere. It’s the last and greatest Moorish palace in the world and once housed a city of a thousand people fortified by a 1.5-mile rampart, built in the 13th century for the Nasrids (one of the ethnic groups of Spanish Muslims). In the 15th century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel expelled the Moors from Granada and moved into Alhambra, and it was here that Christopher Columbus requested royal endorsement to fund his sea voyage that year. The Holy Roman Emperor eventually took over, but because he respected the Moorish palace, built his own palace using the existing Alhambra instead of destroying everything. Moorish craftsmanship of Alhambra is first-class. Lead fittings between the pre-cut section of the columns allow the structures to flex during earthquakes, preventing destruction.

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View from Alhambra
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Intricate carvings everywhere
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Patio de Arrayanes
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Patio de los Leones
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Views everywhere
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Islamic architecture
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Look at that stalactite detailing!
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Gardens
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Open-air rooms
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Geometric patterns
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One more view from above
After a rousing start to our time in Granada, we were ready for food. And what a city for food! Granada is one of the only remaining cities in Spain to offer a free tapa with every drink, which makes eating out in Granada almost ludicrously inexpensive. Most bars will cook a large pot of something and hand out a small plate of the dish with every drink. It’s a brilliant way to eat, but will sadly never exist in America. Our favorite tapas were at El Tabernáculo (a tiny tapas bar filled with kitschy religious decorations), Bar Los Diamantes (multiple locations throughout the city), Bodegas Castaneda (always crowded), and Taberna La Tana (perfect for wine snobs).

 

With our bellies full, we were finally ready to check out our Airbnb, the place I’d been most excited about staying at on this trip. Our neighborhood retains the narrow winding streets of its Medieval Moorish past and has been declared a World Heritage Site. Our room was on the second floor, with a direct view of Alhambra. Our rooftop, which is where we spent siestas and had breakfast every morning, had an even better view, and we loved that we didn’t have to trek out to the crowded viewpoint nearby, where all the other tourists have to wait around for hours.

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Wondering why we even deserve this rooftop
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Breakfast every morning
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Casual rooftop views
To get to the rest of the touristy sites, we had an entertaining downhill walk through Albayzín’s winding tight alleys. We never took the same path twice because it’s so easy to get slightly lost. But Albayzín is so hauntingly beautiful that you almost want to get lost in it, like you do in Venice.

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Typical street in our neighborhood
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Watch out for the tree!
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View of Alhambra from every corner
One of the most interesting things to do in Granada is to visit Alcaicería for Granada’s Great Bazaar, especially if you haven’t been to a Muslim country before. Like the souks we visited in Marrakech, Amman, Cairo, and Istanbul, you can find spices, precious goods, and other souvenirs. The original Alcaicería was built in the 15th century and survived until the 19th century, when a fire destroyed it. A replica was built, but only half the size of the original labyrinth. Nearby is Corral del Carbón, a caravanserai (protected place for merchants to rest their animals, spend the night and eat). This is the only surviving caravanserai of Granada’s original 14. Granada was a stop on the Silk Road, as silkworm-friendly mulberry trees flourished in the countryside.

While you obviously come to Granada for the Alhambra, we fell in love with this city for its views and its soul. We spent hours sitting on our balcony and aimlessly wandered the streets. It’s impossible not to be enchanted here.

Tips for future travelers:

If you’re sick of tapas, have a fancier meal. Make reservations at Mirador de Morayma and request a table with a view of Alhambra. For piononos (a small, sweet cylindrical pastry from Granada), try Casa Ysla, which offers piononos in various flavors.

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View during our dinner at Mirador de Morayma
Our default drinks to order at any bar in Andalucia were tinto (house red), tinto de verano (house red with carbonated water or lemonade, served with ice), vermút (fortified white wine we know as vermouth, sometimes served with soda), or a cerveza (beer).

Take in the views of the city at Mirador de la Churra. While we didn’t have to go to the crowded Mirador San Nicolas because the view from our apartment was basically the same thing, we did go to Mirador de la Churra for an incredible view of Albayzín. Most tourists don’t know about this viewpoint, as it was completely empty when we were there.

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Peeking through someone’s gate
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View of our neighborhood. Can you spot our Airbnb?
As soon as you know when you’ll be in Granada, book your tickets to Alhambra because tickets sell out months in advance. You must enter within 30 minutes of your selected time.

Córdoba

When I was a sophomore in high school, I took an art history class that changed my life. I didn’t end up majoring in art or art history in college like I thought I would. Nor did I become a curator like I had dreamt of becoming when I was 15. But I did gain an appreciation for and an insatiable drive to see what I had studied in real life. This is why I became obsessed with Istanbul and teared up when I finally visited Hagia Sophia. And this is also why I couldn’t visit Andalucía without stopping by Córdoba, a quaint little town conveniently located between Sevilla and Granada. Córdoba has the famous Mezquita, one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen. I’d put it up there with Petra, Mont St-Michel, Machu Picchu, Venice, and Abu Simbel as man-made sights that one must visit in one’s lifetime.

Stay

We stayed at an adorable bed & breakfast in Barrio Santa Marina, a neighborhood of winding cobblestone roads, low white-washed buildings, and lots of dogs. Oddly enough, it reminded us of Ollantaytambo in Peru. Our charming host María José brought our breakfasts of pan con tomate y jamón, fresh coffee and orange juice, and Spanish biscuits up to the rooftop in the morning.

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Buenos dias from our rooftop!
Do

Obviously, the highlight of our time was visiting La Mezquita. This former 10th-century mosque was once the center of Western Islam and rivaled Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul!). It contains over 800 arches which, despite appearances, aren’t painted red and white but are actually alternating red brick and white stone. The columns are topped with double arches — a round Romanesque arch above a Visigothic horseshoe arch. They were recycled from ancient Roman ruins and conquered Visigothic churches. They seem to recede into infinity. Ferdinand III conquered the city in 1236 and turned the mosque into a Gothic church, but 70% of the original mosque structure survives to this day. A giant 16th-century cathedral now sits awkwardly in the middle of the mosque. While the mosque is about 30 feet high, the cathedral’s space soars 130 feet up. Its glorious ceiling will make you forget you were in a former mosque just seconds ago. Though it would have been quicker and less expensive for Christian builders to destroy the mosque entirely when they wanted to build a church in the center of Córdoba, they respected La Mezquita’s beauty and built their church into it instead. The differences between Catholic and Islamic aesthetics and psychology are glaring in here: horizontal vs. vertical, intimate vs. intimidating, dark vs. bright, simple vs. elaborate…

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Over 800 of these columns
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Double arches
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One of the most important Islamic sites in the world
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A cathedral sits right in the middle of the mosque
In Córdoba, patios are taken seriously, especially in May, when the city even hosts a competition for most picturesque patio. You can pop your head into any wooden door that’s open, as homeowners love to show off their patios. Calle de San Basilio has the highest concentration of patio-contest award-winners.

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Flower pots of Calle de San Basilio
Walk along the iconic Calleja de las Flores. It’s congested for obvious reasons.

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Calle de las Flores
Eat

Eat dinner at Al Grano, where we had our best meal in Córdoba. We sat at an outside table overlooking a little neighborhood basilica tucked away from the touristy areas, and our squid ink paella was blowtorched at the table. We ended our meal with unlimited amounts of limoncello and hazelnut liqueur.

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Atmospheric setting
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Paellas
Order a “fino fresquito” for a chilled white wine from the nearby Montilla-Moriles region.

Other tips

  1. Buses are convenient to catch from the station into town. You can purchase a €1.30 ticket onboard.
  2. No need to make advanced reservations to La Mezquita. Just purchase a €10 ticket from the ticket booths inside the courtyard the day of.
  3. If you only have a limited time in Córdoba, I’d recommend arriving in the late afternoon, going straight to La Mezquita, which doesn’t close until 7 pm in the summer, and then enjoying the rest of the city at night, before leaving the next morning. Córdoba was the hottest city we went to — even hotter than sizzling Sevilla — so the evening was a much more pleasant time to appreciate other sights and take a paseo with the locals while all the daytrippers have left.

Sevilla

I fell in love with Sevilla, the first city on our ten-day trip to Spain this summer. Andalucía has always seemed like a region I’d find fascinating (it’s that blend of cultures that always gets me), but I didn’t realize that flamboyant Sevilla — stereotyped by other Spaniards as being kind of a tacky city — would be the place I loved so much that it made me cry on our last day there.

Stay

We stayed in a comfortable Airbnb in the neighborhood of San Lorenzo, about a 12-minute walk from the touristy Barrio Santa Cruz district and surrounded by some of the best restaurants in town.

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Our street in Sevilla

Do

The most stunning site in Sevilla is the Real Alcázar, a lavish 10th-century palace built for Moorish royalty and the oldest palace in Europe still in use. I’m not usually a fan of palaces, but the Mudejar design (mix of Islamic and Christian styles) found throughout is absolutely stunning. For example, the place’s façade seems to be classic Islamic with scalloped arches and intricate stucco patterns, but there are also Christian elements, such as a coat of arms and depictions of animals. In the Courtyard of the Maidens, the first floor of the open-air courtyard has colorful ceramic tiles, coffered wooden ceilings, and intricate scalloped arches typical of the Islamic style, while the second floor has rounded arches and minimal decoration in Renaissance style. I could have spent an entire day at Real Alcázar.

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Entrance of Real Alcazar
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The iconic Courtyard of the Maidens. Notice how the first floor is Islamic, while the second floor is Renaissance style
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Look at that ceiling!
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Underground cistern – the coolest part of Sevilla
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Another room in Real Alcazar
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One of my favorite rooms – so sunny!

Our favorite thing we did in Sevilla was take a flamenco class, which is a must in Sevilla, the home of flamenco. We spent an hour and a half at a dance school called Maestdanza, learning about the fascinating history of flamenco (a result of the mix of cultures here, of course) and learning a pretty lengthy dance combination that we were able to record ourselves at the end. 

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On our first night, we took a tapas tour with Pancho Tours. While the tour itself was not the greatest (our guide offered little information to us as we sampled everything), we were taken to four fantastic and very different tapas bars, most of which we wouldn’t have stumbled upon on our own. We started at a historic bar, continued to a sleek restaurant, then onto a former convent, and ended the night watching the sunset from a swanky rooftop bar where we tasted orange wine and piononos for my first time.

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Traditional tapas and cava at the bar
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Former convent
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Fried eggplant with orange marmalade and a glass of rioja
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Orange wine from a rooftop bar
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Sunset

I loved wandering around charming Barrio Santo Cruz and entering any patio whose doors were left open for the public. In Andalucía, traditional homes have interior patios (much like Moroccan riads) and those who have decorated them extravagantly with flower pots and fountains like to show them off to the masses.

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Anytime the doors are open to a patio…
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…you’re welcome to peek inside

We visited Plaza de España and Metropol Parasol, two new sites that are almost comically flamboyant and, thus, extremely Sevillian. Plaza de España is a remnant of the failed 1929 international fair. It’s like Las Vegas attempting Mudejar style. Meanwhile, Metropol Parasol was built just a few years ago. It’s a giant undulating canopy of five waffle-patterned wooden structures that look like mushrooms. Locals still don’t quite know what to make of it, but no one is arguing about the shade that the large canopy provides.

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Extravagance at Plaza de Espana
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Lots of columns
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Nice views from the balcony
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You can rent a rowboat
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Fake bell tower
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Metropol Parasol
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You can go up to the roof and walk along the winding path

On our last night, we crossed the Guadalquivir River and roamed around Triana, the equivalent of Rome’s Trastevere (formerly working-class neighborhood across the river with good food and a lot of character). I had my best meal of the trip in this neighborhood, and as we sat outside after dinner at 11pm surrounded by locals, I teared up, realizing then how much I had fallen in love with Sevilla.

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Tearing up in Triana

Plaza del Cabildo is a lovely semi-circular square near the Sevilla Cathedral but tucked away from the crowds.

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Plaza del Cabildo

Eat

Every single meal we ate in Sevilla was incredible, which probably explains why this city is so dear to me. The best restaurants we tried were Las Golondrinas, Castizo, Bodega Dos de Mayo, and La Cata Ciega. Sit at the bar and order a tinto de verano (a popular summer drink of red wine and spritz) and share a few tapas. You will wonder why the rest of the world eats any other way.

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Grilled pork, mushrooms, and squid
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Best meal of our entire trip was at Las Golondrinas in Triana

Other tips

The city center is very walkable, but we took a cab from the Santa Justa train station into town since Ubers are cheap.

Sevilla is sizzling. Literally. It’s the hottest large city in Europe, and temperatures hovered in the high 90s each day we were there. However, it’s a dry heat, and we prepared properly by wearing our lightest clothing, walking on the shady side of the road, and taking siestas during the hottest time of the day (4-6pm). In the end, it was doable and most definitely worth it.

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Another flamboyant building in Sevilla

Upper Egypt

What Cairo lacked, the rest of the country made up for when we flew down south to Upper Egypt (called “Upper Egypt” because the Nile flows from south to north). It was like flying to an entirely different world from noisy, overcrowded Cairo. The indigenous peoples of this region are Nubians — much darker than the Arabs we met in Cairo, and fluent in varieties of the Nubian language. They hail from one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa and are split between modern-day Egypt and Sudan. Nubia is one of the hottest, sunniest, and driest regions in the world, and is where Egypt’s most impressive temples are. If you only have a few days in Egypt, this is where I’d recommend spending your time.

At 5:00 am, a tour guide and driver picked us up from our Airbnb in Cairo and took us to the dysfunctional Cairo airport, where we caught an hour and a half flight to Aswan. There, another tour guide and driver led us on a breathtaking tour of the High Dam, Abu Simbel (my favorite!), and Philae Temple.

High Dam

The High Dam was built across the Nile between Egypt and Sudan to better control flooding, provide more water for irrigation, and generate hydroelectricity. Before the dam was built, flooding was too inconsistent; some years flooding could destroy the whole crop, while other years the lack of it brought drought and famine. Unfortunately, the High Dam has also caused the relocation of over 100,000 people and many archaeological sites. Additionally, it’s created tension between various countries and contributed to the Cold War; it was partly funded by the Soviet Union.

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At the High Dam, facing Sudan

Abu Simbel

After the dam, we fell asleep in the car as our driver sped for three hours down to Abu Simbel, one of the most spectacular sites I’ve ever seen. Abu Simbel consists of two massive temples carved into solid rock cliffs in the 13th century B.C., in the southernmost part of Egypt, right by the border with Sudan. They are monuments for Pharaoh Ramses II & his favorite wife (out of 37) Nefertari, created to both celebrate his victory over the Hittites and symbolize his power over the conquered lands of Nubia. The temples are perfectly positioned so that on October 21 and February 21 (the dates of his birth and coronation), the sun rays penetrate and illuminate the sculptures deep inside the temple. Eventually, both temples were covered up by sand and weren’t rediscovered again until 1813. The entire complex was relocated in 1968 to avoid being submerged by a flood after the High Dam was built. An international team of engineers and scientists dug away the top of the cliff and completely disassembled both temples, reconstructing them on higher ground. Skip the pyramids and come to Abu Simbel instead.

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Abu Simbel
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In awe
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Entrance of the larger temple
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Entrance of the smaller temple
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We couldn’t take a photo inside, so this was the closest we got

Philae Temple

We drove another three hours back up to Aswan, from which we took a little motorboat to the island of Angilika, where the Philae Temple stands. According to legend, the god Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Set, who was jealous of the love between Osiris and their sister Isis (obviously incest was acceptable back then). Isis searched for the fragments of his body and brought Osiris back to life with her magical powers. The Philae Temple is dedicated to Isis and was nearly lost underwater when the Aswan High Dam was built, but was rescued by multiple nations with the help of UNESCO. The entire island was surrounded with a dam, and the inside was pumped dry. Then every stone block of the complex was labelled and removed, later to be reassembled on higher ground.

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Taking us on his little boat to Philae Temple
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There it is!
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Entrance
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Philae Temple
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Hieroglyphs everywhere
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Christians carved off the faces of gods

After a long day, we were finally dropped off at the Basma Hotel Aswan for the night. I’m always wary of hotels that tour companies select, but we loved our stay here, especially our room with a prime view of the resort.

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View from our balcony at Basma Hotel Aswan

At 5:00 am the next morning, a different tour guide and driver picked us up from the hotel and drove us three hours to Luxor, where we visited Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut, the Colossi of Memnon, Karnak Temple, and Luxor Temple. Luxor is often called the “world’s greatest open-air museum.”

Karnak Temple

Approximately 30 pharaohs contributed to the building of Karnak Temple, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity never seen before. In the Hypostyle Hall, 134 massive columns are arranged in 16 rows. The architraves on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. A roof, now fallen, was once supported by the columns. In 1899, 11 of the massive columns collapsed in a chain reaction because their foundations were undermined by ground water. An archaeologist supervised the rebuilding that was completed in 1902.

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Hypostyle Hall
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Sphinxes lining the entrance of Karnak Temple
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The security guard told us to stand on these stones and do these poses — for a tip
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Obsessed with these massive columns

Luxor Temple

Unlike other temples, Luxor Temple was not dedicated to a god but was where many of the pharaohs of Egypt were crowned. During the Christian era, the hall was converted into a Christian church. Then for thousands of years, the temple was buried beneath the streets and houses of Luxor. Eventually a mosque was built over it, which was carefully preserved when the temple was uncovered and forms an integral part of the site today (scroll to the second photo below to see the mosque, and how much the temple was buried).

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Hiding behind fluted columns at Luxor Temple
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That window used to be at ground level!
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The Romans drew themselves into history

After our whirlwind of sightseeing, we spent the rest of the day relaxing in a rooftop pool at a hotel in Luxor as we waited for our flight back to Cairo. From our hotel, we could see both the Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple, as well as the row of sphinxes lining the path between the two.

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Our rooftop pool
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View from our hotel in Luxor

Upper Egypt is breathtaking. The farther south you go in Egypt, the deeper into Egypt’s African roots you discover. Abu Simbel, Philae Temple, and Karnak Temple are enough to justify an entire trip to Egypt. I wasn’t impressed by the pyramids in Giza, but in Upper Egypt, it felt like there was still a connection between modern-day Egyptians and their ancient history. Seeing these monuments still standing, thousands of years after construction, was already incredible, but learning about their relocation and rebuilding was perhaps even more impressive. For a civilization that was so concerned with preserving its legacy, it’s only fitting that the monuments ancient Egyptians left behind would undergo many rebirths and continue to influence other civilizations throughout history.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. We took all private tours using Emo Tours again, which seemed to be the biggest company in Egypt. It worked pretty well. Two out of three of our guides were wonderful. I definitely recommend having a guide at all the sites to show you the short cuts and make the vast history somewhat digestible.
  2. Abu Simbel may seem like a hassle to get to, requiring a flight and three-hour drive, but it’s worth it. Trust me. Machu Picchu, Mont St-Michel, Cappadocia, and Petra are the only other sites I’ve visited that match its grandeur. Plus, because Abu Simbel takes more effort to visit, there will be fewer tourists than all the other temples on your itinerary.
  3. At some of the sites, you have an option of paying a fee to take photos inside. Pay to take photos inside Abu Simbel. Not doing this is one of my biggest regrets.
  4. One of our best meals in Egypt was at El Zaeem, a popular koshary restaurant in Luxor. While it was just a couple of blocks from our hotel, Google Maps gave us the wrong address and we quickly got frustrated by the mix of hasslers on the sidewalks and chaotic traffic — the traffic laws are no different from Cairo, after all. Fortunately, someone noticed we looked lost and, as soon as I mentioned “koshary”, he led us two more blocks down to El Zaeem. We ordered koshary and ful (mashed fava bean dip with a drizzle of tahini).
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Ful from El Zaeem

Cairo

Cairo was tough for us. With 20 million people and a notoriously corrupt government, Cairo was quite the culture shock after perfect, civilized Amman. We could feel the pollution in our lungs as we attempted to explore the city. We were unable to cross a street without risking our lives because traffic laws barely exist, so we resorted to shamelessly walking alongside locals who happened to be going our way. And it felt like a third of the Cairenes we met were either trying to scam us or at least pressure us for tips, as if all of Cairo were Times Square. If Jordan gave us hope for the Middle East (and humanity in general), Egypt reminded us of why we need so much hope.

That’s not to say that I regret visiting. We could have flown straight to Aswan for the temples in southern Egypt and merely stopped by Cairo on a daytrip to see the pyramids, but that wouldn’t feel right — the same way that I don’t think it’s right to visit the Yucatán peninsula without exploring Mexico City as well, or to go on a safari in South Africa without also visiting Johannesburg.

The best thing we did in Cairo was take a food tour with the only food tour company in the city, Bellies En-Route. For nearly six hours, our guide Laila impressively led seven naive tourists through the crazy streets of downtown Cairo to eight different spots. She took us to places we never would have found on our own, and everything we tried was incredible. In fact, we returned to two of the restaurants later because we loved them so much (and it’s kind of a hassle trying new restaurants in Cairo on your own).

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Koshari is Egypt’s national dish, made of boiled macaroni, spaghetti, vermicelli, lentils, rice, hummus, and fried onions, topped with tomato sauce and a garlic/vinegar dressing
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Arabic coffee is made with very lightly roasted bean that almost stays green, with cardamom
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Molokhhia: stew made with okra leaves, garlic, and stock
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Fresh sugar cane juice
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Lentil soup, fried eggplants, and lots of fava bean dishes
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Kunafa, basbousa, and zalabya

We rode camels near the Giza Pyramids. The camel rides got us some great photos, especially since the herders knew exactly where to place us for the perfect shots, but I couldn’t help but compare them to the peaceful camel rides we took through the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Like everything in Egypt, the camel ride felt transactional, and our camel herder bluntly told us to give him a tip while we were still riding our camels.

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Look how proud Anthony’s camel looks!
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Our camel herder told me to lift my arms over my head, but I couldn’t because my jumpsuit was too tight 😦

The Giza Pyramids were constructed roughly 4,500 years ago. They’re so old that the time period in which Cleopatra lived is closer to us than to the Pyramids. Pharaohs erected these massive pyramid tombs for themselves, filling them with everything one might need in the afterlife. The largest of the Giza Pyramids was dedicated to Pharaoh Khufu. Khufu’s son, Pharaoh Khafre, built the second one, as well as the Great Sphinx, a limestone monument with the body of a lion and Khafre’s own head. Sphinxes were guard dogs of the pyramids. The third of the Giza Pyramids is considerably smaller than the first two, built by Pharaoh Menkaure. The mere existence of these pyramids testifies to the resourcefulness and organization of ancient Egypt.

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We look like we’re on an engagement photo shoot
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Obligatory

While I typically don’t have much interest in Egyptian artifacts, touring the colossal Egyptian Museum ended up being one of my favorite activities in Cairo. Seeing artifacts in the actual country instead of in England, France, and Germany is a sensational feeling. Commissioned in 1835 to stop widespread plundering and looting of the country’s many archaeological sites, the Egyptian Museum is home to 120,000 Egyptian artifacts. An entire section is dedicated to Tutankhamen, the most famous of all Egyptian pharaohs, as his tomb was relatively intact when it was discovered in 1922.

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Mummy
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Queen Nefertiti. Her more famous mask is in Berin
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Guard dog

My other favorite activity was sailing down the Nile on a felucca. These traditional sailboats are perfect for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city. It was the only time I felt calm in Cairo. Even with the invention of motorized boats, feluccas have remained the primary transportation of the Nile.

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Lots of space
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We’re so relaxed!

Those were the highlights of our time in Cairo; honestly, everything else was either underwhelming or tension-filled. The airport is dysfunctional, traffic lanes are meaningless (a two-lane road becomes a four-lane road in Cairo), Ubers don’t have seatbelts, and even the supposedly fancy part of Cairo (Zamalek) felt like a desolate place to live since people just seemed to stay in their mansions. I’m reluctant to blame all of this on Egypt itself because so many of its problems stem from colonialism. I’ve been to Manila a few times, so I’m familiar with what this can do to a society. It’s a real shame, especially for Egypt, because the citizens of this country seem detached from their impressive history. We left Cairo for Aswan and Luxor, where ancient history felt a little more immediate.

Tips for future travelers:

I struggled to get an e-Visa before our trip (surprise, surprise, the website was not functioning properly), so we resorted to getting our visas upon arrival. Fortunately, this was a simple process. Just go to a bank window by baggage claim and pay $25 for a visa sticker. Bring this to customs, and they’ll put the sticker on a blank page in your passport.

Ubers are not allowed at the airport, so you’re going to have to walk out to the parking lot and request one there. Be ready for no seat belts.

Stay at a hotel. I booked an Airbnb because I usually prefer apartment rentals while staying in big cities so I can feel like a local (it really worked for us in Rome, Paris, Istanbul, Berlin, and Mexico City!), but I would not recommend an Airbnb in Cairo. It was always difficult for drivers to find our apartment, and, while we did find a decent place in the center of town, it was definitely one of my least favorite Airbnbs we’ve ever stayed in.

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View from our Airbnb

For every tour except the food tour, we used Emo Tours, which seems to be the biggest company (and probably sponsored by the government) in Egypt. It worked pretty well. Most of our guides were entertaining and knowledgeable, and the company was good about communication, but we did notice that our one-hour felucca ride ended up being only 20 minutes, and our 30-minute camel ride ended up being only 15 minutes. Regardless, I definitely recommend having a guide at the Egyptian Museum, Giza Pyramids, and Khan El Khalili Bazaar because people will hassle you less when they see that you’re with a local, and it’s nice to have guides deal with purchasing tickets.

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Khan El Khalili Bazaar

Tip everyone.

Eat koshari, ful (mashed fava beans with pita bread), ta’ameya (falafel made of fava beans), molokhia (okra stew), and hamam mahshi (grilled pigeon).

Buy basbousa and kunafa at El Abd and Mandarine Koueider.

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Amman

I have a soft spot for Amman not only because it reminded me of Istanbul — a hilly, cosmopolitan city of mosques, pistachio desserts, and rich history — but also because it was in Amman that we could really appreciate the inclusion of immigrants for which Jordan is so famous. Jordan is a tiny country surrounded by much larger, much more powerful countries. Despite its inevitable vulnerability to regional turmoil, Jordan has graciously welcomed refugees, i.e., cleaned up other countries’ messes. 60% of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, mostly refugees who fled the Arab-Israeli War and Six-Day War. Jordan is the only Arab country to fully integrate the Palestinian refugees of 1948. It has not been easy; schools must operate on double shifts, with teachers working both shifts, and since 2011, Jordan has also been taking in Syrian refugees fleeing the  Syrian civil war. Yet Jordan remains one of the most generous places I have ever visited, and its immigrants have only added to its tapestry of cultures.

We didn’t have much time in Amman, but we made sure to take a cooking class, smoke shisha at a rooftop bar, hike up to Amman Citadel for the best view of the city, eat the best kunafa of my life, and cautiously climb the steep steps of the Roman Theater.

We always take a cooking class or food tour in every country we visit. In Jordan, we took a cooking class at Beit Sitti, run by three sisters who want to keep their grandmother’s recipes alive. We learned to make maqluba (meat, rice, and vegetables cooked upside-down), mutabal (eggplant dip), shrak (flatbread), fattoush (salad), and basbousa (baked semolina and coconut soaked in rose water). Beit Sitti means “grandmother’s kitchen”, and after our class in the outdoor patio, we went inside to eat in her charming dining room and living room.

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Making maqluba
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The dining table, where we’d enjoy our hard work

Located on top of the city’s highest hill, the Amman Citadel has been inhabited by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans throughout its history. The site contains fragments of a colossal stone statue of Hercules that was destroyed by an earthquake. All that remains are three fingers and an elbow. It would have been 42 feet high, making it among the largest statues in the world.

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Hercules’ hand

The Roman Theater is a 6,000-seat theater that dates back to the 2nd century, when the Romans called this city Philadelphia. Unlike other Roman theaters, which are built from the ground up, this one was carved into the hillside. Even the highest section of seats can see and hear clearly, thanks to the steepness of the cavea. It faces north so audiences are protected from the sun. The theater is still used for cultural activities, such as the International Book Fair, marathon prize ceremony, and musical concerts.

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Steep, slippery stairs
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Perfect acoustics

One of the best things we did was take an “Alternative Downtown” tour through Airbnb with a young Palestinian guide named Anas. He led us through the oldest souk in Amman, where he bought us some necklaces when he noticed how touched we were by the legends he told of displacement and resilience. Then he took us to a Palestinian neighborhood, where we ran into his friends who bought us coffee and invited us to breakfast in their tire shop. We wandered around downtown and met the “duke” of Amman, who purchased a historic home that was about to be demolished for a new hotel and turned it into a cultural center instead, and invited us to join him for another breakfast. Anas then brought us to Habibah, where the kunafa is so good that I went back twice that day to get more. Next, he led us to the top of a parking lot for a secret view of the city. And finally, we ended at a neighborhood covered in street art, where more of his friends offered us drinks and welcomed us into their nonprofit restaurant that donates meals to the hungry.

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Overlooking Amman from the Palestinian side of town
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The Duke’s Diwan

Jordan, more than any other country I’ve been to, is proof that it is possible to be surrounded by corrupt countries (e.g., Israel and Saudi Arabia) and war-torn countries (e.g., Syria, Iraq), yet still remain peaceful, civilized, and open-minded. This country is not perfect, but I think it has done as much good as it can and should be a model for the rest of us.

Tips for future travelers:

Eat at Hashem, a popular restaurant that serves Jordanian street food 24-hours a day. Order falafel and a bunch of spreads for a perfect dinner.

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Our first dinner in Amman

Stay at The House Boutique Suites, a hotel that perfectly matched civilized Amman. Our stylish room came with a kitchen and a huge bed we never wanted to leave. The hotel offered a lavish breakfast (make sure to walk over to the Middle Eastern section on the opposite side of the Western food section), free self-service laundry facilities, and a rooftop pool overlooking Amman.

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Our room
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Rooftop pool

Use your Jordan Pass to enter the Amman Citadel and Roman Theater for free.

Try kunafa at Habibah. Kunafa is made of a fine semolina dough prepared in a large round shallow dish, soaked in sugar syrup and layered with a mild white cheese, topped with crushed pistachios. It closes at midnight, which is fortunate because you’ll definitely want to come back after every meal throughout the day.

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Kunafa

Eat mansaf as often as you can. Mansaf is Jordan’s national dish and one of my favorite dishes in the world. Made of tender lamb cooked in a dried fermented yogurt sauce, sitting on rice and a thin flatbread, topped with pine nuts and parsley, and dipped into more yogurt sauce. Also eat maqluba (meat, vegetables, and rice cooked in a pot upside-down), falafel, hummus, ful medames (mashed fava beans and olive oil), and baklava.

The city is built on seven hills, which you’ll notice immediately while walking around. Much to our delight, Amman is surprisingly walkable, though you’ll have to get used to holding your hand up and making eye contact with drivers to stop traffic as you cross the street.

Petra + Wadi Rum

I knew I’d enjoy Jordan, but I had no idea that it would immediately become one of my favorite countries in the world. We spent the first half of our time in Jordan with a tour company that brought us to Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba, and the Dead Sea. If you only have a short time like we did, our two-day tour package is the way to go.

We were exhausted when we landed in Amman after undergoing two red-eye flights in a row — we took one red-eye from New York to Frankfurt, spent the day exploring Heidelberg, then returned to the airport for another red-eye from Frankfurt to Amman. However, between sporadic naps on our three-hour drive to Petra, we couldn’t help but find ourselves intrigued by our guide Hassan, who was born in Amman to two Palestinian refugees. His father came to Jordan during the 1948 war, while his mother came during the 1967 war. He described the Palestine-Israel conflict as a “long, sad story” that he doesn’t think he’ll “see the end of.” Nevertheless, he is a proud citizen of Jordan and was eager to share with us how welcoming the country is to all groups of people.

The Smallest Hotel in the World

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On our way to Petra, we stopped at “the smallest hotel in the world” — a converted Volkswagen Beetle owned by a charming old man who didn’t speak much English but who did introduce us to the generosity of Jordanians. His goal was to bring tourism to his hometown of Al Jaya because this overlooked desert village has some of the most beautiful scenery in the region. The hotel has been open since he retired in 2011 and was furnished by his daughter, who adorned it with handmade embroidered sheets and pillows. Even though we weren’t staying there, he let us take photos in the hotel, served us Turkish coffee in the lobby (located in a small cave across the street, where he also sells fossils and coins that he found in the area), excitedly showed us a photo of Eliot Spitzer visiting his hotel when he found out we were from New York, and then gave us some fossils to take with us.

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I think we just fit!
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The lobby/shop in a cave across the street

Petra

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The Treasury at Petra

After that heartfelt stop, we continued on to Petra, the main reason I wanted to visit Jordan. Hassan found us a fantastic guide named Shuayb, who was funny and incredibly knowledgeable about the site since he was born and raised in Petra. He helped us appreciate many things that we wouldn’t have even noticed and knew all the best angles for photos with the Treasury.

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Shuayd found this spot for us
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Wearing a keffiyeh, which I purchased from one of the vendors outside Petra
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Incredible rock carvings

Obviously we came for the Treasury, but we hadn’t realized how impressive the rest of Petra was until we started exploring. Petra was once the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom in the 4th century B.C. and was an important trading hub. Shuayb led us through the Siq, a narrow gorge leading to Petra’s famous buildings carved out of the cliffs. The Siq made the ancient city one of the most protected in its time. Petra is also called the Rose City due to the color of the stone out of which it is carved. Some of the stone patterns were so stunning that they look like paintings. Every so often, Shuayb would point up at a rock and exclaim “Monet!” or “Van Gogh!” or “That’s definitely a Picasso”, and the natural patterns on the rocks really did look like an artist painted them.

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A whole city carved into rock
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Royal tombs
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Great for framing!
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Those colors are not painted — they’re natural!
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Surrounded by camels

To top off our trip to Petra, Hassan took us to a picturesque restaurant called My Mom’s Recipe, where I had mansaf, the national dish of Jordan. Made of lamb cooked in a sauce of dried fermented yogurt and served with rice over a layer of flatbread, topped with pine nuts and parsley, mansaf is one of my new favorite dishes. It’s comforting but refreshing, something only a place like Jordan could master. Anthony had maqluba, another traditional dish, consisting of meat, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, and eggplant placed in a pot, which is then flipped upside down when served.

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Mansaf
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A close-up of my mansaf, with Anthony’s maqluba in the background

Wadi Rum

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Stretching on Mars

We drove an hour and a half to Wadi Rum, which is what Anthony was looking forward to the most, since Wadi Rum has served as the setting for Mars in pretty much every Mars-related movie and TV show. Hassan said good-bye to us as we joined two women in the back of a pickup truck. Two years ago we rode camels through the calm Sahara Desert, so it was a nice change to ride in the back of a pickup truck without a seatbelt through the rugged Wadi Rum. We quickly made friends with our truckmates, Loes from the Netherlands and Anna from Belarus, who ended up joining us in Aqaba, the Dead Sea, and Amman!

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So grateful to be here
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With our friends Anna and Loes

Wadi Rum is stunning. I was skeptical because I didn’t think Wadi Rum could compete with the smooth orange dunes of the Sahara, but the two are incomparable. Wadi Rum means “valley of the moon” and is red due to iron oxide. Exploring it is a voyage through the geological evolution of Earth.

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The truck dropped us off at a bedouin camp with about twenty private tents, a large dining tent, and separate bathroom tents. Our first bed in three days! We joined the rest of the campers, most of whom were European, for a buffet dinner cooked by bedouins. It was April, so by nighttime the temperatures dropped to almost freezing, but the plush blankets in our tent kept us toasty.

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Bedouin tents
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So cozy!

The next morning we had a buffet breakfast (which included my favorite, za’atar!) before the four of us left the camp and took a guided tour of Wadi Rum. We drove past massive plateaus that had popped straight up from the sand due to tectonic movement. We climbed natural rock bridges that were shaped by blowing sand and winter floods. We took photos of hieroglyphs, which trace human existence back 12,000 years.

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Hiking up sand dunes
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My astronaut
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My astronaut
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Climbing through gorges
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My astronaut

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Aqaba

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Water, at last

After being surrounded by desert for the past 24 hours, Hassan drove us about an hour to Aqaba, the only coastal city in Jordan, located on the tip of the biblical Red Sea between the continents of Asia and Africa. Aqaba is the only seaport of Jordan so pretty much all of Jordan’s exports depart from here. From the beach, you can see Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia (if you really crane your neck). Hassan knew thow much I love food so he led us through a market to watch goat meat being chopped for mansaf, into a crowded bakery where he bought us some fresh shrak (flatbread), and to a lovely lunch spot for our only seafood on the entire trip. We tried sayadiyah, a dish consisting of grouper fish, rice, onions, turmeric, cumin, paprika, coriander, cinnamon, garlic powder, and pine nuts.

Dead Sea

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Floating in the Dead Sea

From the Red Sea, we drove three hours to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth (1,410.8 feet below sea level!) and nine times as salty as the ocean, which means anyone can easily float in it owing to natural buoyancy. Due to the saltiness, plants and animals cannot flourish here, hence its name. The mineral content of the water, low content of allergens, and higher atmospheric pressure have positive health benefits especially for people with cystic fibrosis, psoriasis, and osteoarthritis. Though it’s constantly sunny, UVB rays are weaker in the region, so it takes longer to sunburn. The Dead Sea is receding at an alarming rate, and experts worry that it may be completely gone by 2050. Considering we had just left Mars, and now we were floating, Jordan has to be one of the most extraordinary places on Earth.

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Mud mask
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Hmm… what’s on our itinerary today?

After a long day, Hassan finally dropped us off in Amman, where our time in Jordan was about to get even more extraordinary.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Buy a Jordan Pass in advance. It will waive the expensive visa fee and will allow you entry to all the sites you want to see, like Petra, Wadi Rum, and the Amman Citadel. You can buy it online, print it out before you leave, and show it to customs before receiving your visa.
  2. Our tour was through Jordan Private Tours and Travel and I couldn’t recommend it more. It was organized, efficient, and led us to Hassan, whom we loved so much that we hired him again in Amman to take us to the airport.
  3. If you want to wear a keffiyeh (it looks great in photos!), don’t pay more than 5 JOD and get the salesman to teach you how to tie it on your head so you can wear it the next day, too.
  4. Aim for Petra in the morning or late afternoon. If you go midday, you’re going to experience rush hour in the Siq. We arrived at 10am, and by the time we were leaving around 1pm, it was noticeably more crowded.
  5. Always have some spare JODs for tips! While Jordanians aren’t obnoxious about tipping like Egyptians, you’ll want some extra cash to tip people because everyone here is so darn helpful.

Padua

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.

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Students call this the Old Courtyard. It’s lined with plaques of every student
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Galileo’s podium
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Imagine defending your dissertation here!
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The “new courtyard”

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.

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A model of the Anatomical Theater
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We are inside the real Anatomical Theater, down below where the dissections occurred

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.

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Statue dedicated to the first female graduate in the world

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.

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Pretty arcaded streets
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Prato della Valle
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Cobblestone streets
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Palazzo della Ragione

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.

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Bigoli and oxtail

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 (Pt. 2)

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.

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Foggy afternoon in St. Mark’s Square

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.

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Matching masks

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.

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But why is everyone around us dress like peasants?

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Sisters?
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Who’s that creeper on the left?
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She is wearing a Colombina mask, while he wears a Bauta mask

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.

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Our bedroom at 3749 Ponte Chiodo
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View from our bedroom
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Request the blue room!

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.

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Cicchetti and fresh octopus with two glasses of prosecco at All’Arco
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A mix of locals and food tours come here
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My 2nd favorite place for cicchetti: Al Portego

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.

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The Rialto Bridge was the only way to cross the Grand Canal by foot until the Accademia Bridge was built nearly 300 years later. It was burnt down in 1310, collapsed under weight during a wedding in 1444, and collapsed a third time in 1524. It was finally rebuilt with marble and is anchored at each end with no support in the middle – an architectural marvel!
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View from the rooftop of Fondaco dei Tedeschi
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The bottom of Fondaco dei Tedeschi is not so bad either
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Built on wood pilings driven into clay

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.

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Photos are not allowed inside, so this photo is from Arttrav

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.
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St. Mark’s Basilica is a hodgepodge of styles
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The island of Burano is more relaxed and more colorful than Venice
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Visiting Libreria Acqua Alta four summers ago

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.

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