Positano

If you’ve known me for a while, you probably know that I tend to cry when I travel. When I fall in love with a place, I either cry because my heart feels so overwhelmed by happiness, or I cry on our last day because I’m devastated that we have to leave. I’m pretty ridiculous. I’ve shed tears all over the world: Istanbul, Cape Town, Paris, Kyoto, Nuremberg… but the place that started it all is Positano, a popular cliffside town on the Amalfi Coast. My first time visiting was in 2015, and after we left I cried for days.

I was so sure I could keep it together this time; there’s no way Positano could still surpass my impossibly high expectations and idealized memories built up over the years. I was completely wrong. In fact, everything was better than last time, even starting with just our journey to Positano. We finally learned that the best way to reach Positano is to take an express train from Rome to Salerno, then a ferry from Salerno to Positano. It’s less hectic than going through Naples or Sorrento, and more pleasant than riding a bus.

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Leaving Salerno
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Arriving in Positano by ferry

We stayed at the same hotel — in the exact same room, in fact — as last time. So much of my attachment to Positano is due to La Tavolozza, a family-run hotel with only six rooms that cost a fraction of the price of all the hotels surrounding it. Why is it so affordable? There is no pool (why would you swim in a pool when you’re right by the sea?), and the WiFi is only strong out on the balcony. But you feel like you’re staying with family here. We stayed in the Blue Room again, which has high ceilings, blue tiled floors, and, most importantly, a huge balcony that we were reluctant to leave every morning. Every time I woke up at La Tavolozza, on our bed facing the view, I couldn’t help but pity every other person in the world. I am my happiest here, it’s as simple as that.

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View of our balcony
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Buongiorno!
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Fluffy croissants filled with marmalade, orange juice, and cappuccino on our balcony every morning
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This is what 9pm looks like in Positano

Last time, the only pitfall I noticed in Positano was the food. The few restaurants we tried seemed overpriced and touristy, especially after coming from Rome and Florence. This time, however, I did a little more research and took some suggestions from locals, and we ended up having some of the best meals of our trip. I highly recommend Lo Guarracino, a romantic ristorante off the beaten path, with views of Fornillo Beach. We also enjoyed La Cambusa and Da Vincenzo. When eating on the Amalfi Coast, make sure to stuff yourself with seafood, lemons, and candied oranges.

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Our view at Lo Guarracino
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Ready for dinner!
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Spaghetti vongole and local olive oil
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Meeting up with a family from our cooking class at Da Vincenzo

Speaking of food, the highlight of Positano was our cooking class with Marina in Cucina. We always enjoy cooking classes, but Marina’s home and the friendships we formed during class made this night one of the most memorable nights of my life. Marina lives in a stunning villa up in the hills — a former convent with views of the sea below. She’s a chef but also an interior designer, which is apparent in her tastefully-decorated home and enviable kitchen. We made fresh pasta on the patio, kneading dougg, cutting it into strips, and drying the strips on a gorgeous ceramic table hand-crafted in Positano. We snacked on olives tossed with delicious lemon rinds and drank “caprese water” (water steeped with whole tomatoes and fresh basil leaves). We watched Marina make mattafama (bread salad), limoncello chicken, and a lemon ricotta dessert. And then the nine of us spent the next few hours dining together on her patio, late into the night. Unlike our other cooking classes abroad, we learned tips that we can actually bring back home, such as tilting the pan when heating oil so that the garlic doesn’t burn, and topping pasta with candied orange instead of cheese for a different flavor. Marina was able to use so many ingredients from her garden; it was inspiring to watch her go outside to collect basil or lemons and incorporate them into the dish we ate just a few minutes later. This is why Italian food is so good.

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Taking in the view from Marina’s patio
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Marina tosses mattafama
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Tilting the pan to concentrate the oil so the garlic doesn’t burn

Besides the cooking class, the other new activity we did on the Amalfi Coast this time was take a daytrip to Capri. We didn’t initially have much interest in Capri, as it’s known as an island for rich vacationers, but we completely underestimated how charming Capri is. We rented a small boat around the island and finally understood the hype. From jagged coastline to dramatic rocks jutting out of the water to grottos that look like vaginas, Capri is just really sexy. After our boat ride, we took a hair-bending bus ride through the town of Anacapri, where we rode a funicular up to the top of Monte Solaro. It’s a single-seat funicular, so it’s pretty funny because you have to ride up by yourself, and then stare awkwardly at the people riding back down on the other side. The views are well worth it, though. There’s a cafe and gardens to explore at the top. After the funicular, we caught another hair-bending bus ride to Capri Town, which is the glitzier part of Capri, with designer shops and famous hotels.

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On our way to Capri
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Rented a little boat to see the island
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Inside a grotto
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Left the boat early because Anthony was feeling sick waiting in line for the Blue Grotto
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View from the top of Monte Solaro
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We were just down there with those boats!

When we returned to Positano after our daytrip, we felt like we had returned home. Positano is such a small town, yet I never felt bored, the way I feel bored in practically every other city that has fewer than 8 million people. There was so much to do. We hired a professional photographer via Flytographer to commemorate our second wedding anniversary. We bought colorful ceramic dishes with lemons on them, an Amalfi Coast specialty. We read books on our balcony. We hung out on the pebbly beach (in the free section because we’re cheap) early in the morning to beat the crowds. We watched the World Cup at a beachfront bar and mourned when Japan lost. We went grocery shopping at Delicatessen, a small grocery shop just down the stairs from our hotel that has fresh meat and huge wheels of cheese. We worked off all our pasta by walking up and down the staircases weaving through Positano — the only way to get around town. I could have done this forever.

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With the cliffs of Positano
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Iconic pastel colors
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By the sea
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Married for two years!
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Would trade the Pacific for the Mediterranean in a heartbeat
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Surrounded by fishing boats
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Very Big Little Lies, in my opinion
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Uphill
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And this is when everyone in Positano noticed my dress is see-through
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Reeks of wedding proposal
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Pure joy
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More fishing boats
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In front of a plaque for Flavio Gioia, who perfected the sailor’s compass and was born on the Amalfi Coast

By the time we had to leave on our fourth day, I had been emotionally preparing and told myself I wouldn’t cry. I was so ready for it — but as we checked out of La Tavolozza, we had a long chat with Paola, my favorite of the family members who runs the hotel. During our stay, we had seen her every day, either on our way out or right before breakfast, when she would bring a tray of cappuccino and croissants to our balcony. She told us such heartwarming things about Positano, how much she enjoys seeing return guests, and why her family loves what they do. So of course I cried like a baby as we hugged her good-bye.

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Saying “arrivederci” to Paola

When I booked this trip, I had assumed it would be our last time in Positano. This was actually the reason we stayed for so long; I was hoping I’d eventually get sick of it. But, turns out, it’s impossible to get sick of Positano. I can still think of more things we need to do here, like take a daytrip to Ravello, go hiking above Amalfi, swim at the Fiordo di Furore, and have drinks at Villa Treville. Just as Francesca (Paola’s mother) told us when we checked out of La Tavolozza three years ago, “There’s something magical about Positano, isn’t there?” We will be back. I don’t know when, and I don’t know how, but it’s going to happen. My happiness depends on it.

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Some simple advice: Find someone you want to see the world with. Then, see the world with that person.
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Florence (pt. 2)

Our original plan was to take a daytrip to Civita di Bagnoregio, a small hillside town in Tuscany that we’d never been to, but we decided to revisit Florence instead, for a few of reasons: to see my favorite sunset again, eat at one of our favorite restaurants, and climb the campanile (bell tower) of the Duomo, which we had to skip when we were here three years ago. Looking back now, I’m not sure if this was the best decision – we probably should have explored a new town – but Florence is never a bad idea.

Since we wanted to climb the campanile in the early morning to avoid the summer heat and crowds, we decided to stay overnight and rented an apartment in the neighborhood of Oltrarno (“other side of the Arno River”), similar to Rome’s Trastevere. Our apartment was on the top floor of an 18th-century building that once housed officials of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It had luxuriously high ceilings, beautiful terracotta floors, and dozens of bookshelves – but no air conditioning, and a bathroom with one of those doorless showers that gets the entire bathroom wet. In other words, we felt like true Florentines.

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Ciao, from the bathroom window!
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Terracotta floors, low bed, and high ceiling
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View of the rooftops from our bedroom

If you only do four things in Florence, do these:

Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo. This sunset has ruined me for all other sunsets (I’m looking at you, Santorini). There’s something so magical about Florence’s sea of iconic red roofs, massive dome dominating the skyline, the colors of the sunset reflected in the Arno River bisecting the city, and the purple mountains in the background. Get there early to claim a good spot.

 

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Sunset
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Worth the wait

Check out Mercato Centrale, an impressive food hall and gastronomic dream. Designed by the same architect who built the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, this huge iron-and-glass complex has two floors: fresh groceries on the bottom floor, and the best food court you’ve ever seen on the top floor. Anthony and I spent a few hours on the top floor, slowly eating our way through various vendors. Each vendor specializes in a type of food (mostly Tuscan). Everything you could ever want is here – a cheese station, a pasta station, a truffle station, a beer station, a gelato station, a seafood station, a burger station, a French fry station, even a dim sum station. Everything is made fresh, and vendors use ingredients from downstairs. Did I mention that workers come around to bring you wine right to your table? Did I also mention that there’s a whole section for a cooking class, where each participant gets their own cooking station?? Next time I’m in Florence, this is going to be the first thing I do.

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Light-filled market with high ceilings and lots of seating
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Bucatini
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Gelato
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Fresh seafood salad with a glass of white wine

Climb the campanile in the morning for a more pleasant experience; climb it in the late afternoon for better photos. Book online and prepare for 414 steps. The climb is pretty easy, since there are several stops along the way. You’ll get to see the dome and all of Florence through a fenced rooftop.

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Short people problems
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View of Florence
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Through the fence
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Duomo
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Come in the afternoon for better lighting. The dome was backlit when we were there

Eat at Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolò, our favorite restaurant abroad. Last time we were in Florence, we stumbled upon this restaurant and fell in love. Three years later, the menu has changed slightly, and the prices are a bit higher, but the meal was probably even better than our first time here. We shared slices of pecorino and honey, a plate of grilled beef marinated in balsamic vinegar, roasted potatoes, salted spinach, a ricotta cheesecake topped with chocolate shavings, and a half liter of house red wine. All of this was €53.

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Pecorino and honey, salted spinach, roasted potatoes, and a plate of grilled beef marinated in balsamic vinegar
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Ricotta cheesecake topped with chocolate shavings
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Pouring a glass of that 7-euro house wine

If you have extra time in Florence:

Visit the Leonardo da Vinci Museum. Three years ago, we stayed at a hotel located above this museum but were always too busy to visit. Anthony was determined not to make the same mistake. This delightful museum has a spectacular array of da Vinci’s inventions, and you’ll leave with a much better appreciation of his genius.

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Flying machine?
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Workout machine
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Tank (exterior)
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Tank (interior)

Relax in Giardino Bardini, a garden that offers panoramic views of Florence. And nature, if you’re into that. During the spring, it’s particularly lovely because the trellis is filled with wisteria. Be careful of mosquitoes.

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No wisterias in this trellis in the middle of summer 😦
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View from the garden

Check out Palazzo Strozzi, a modern art museum housed in a former palace.  Currently, there’s a huge metal slide that spirals down the inner courtyard.

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You can slide down!

Have breakfast or a coffee at La Ménagère, an adorable restaurant, cafe, cocktail bar, and flower shop. It’s a great place to hang out.

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Feels just like Brooklyn

Visit the Baptistery. This small basilica often gets overlooked — it has to compete with the neighboring Duomo, after all — but inside is a stunning ceiling, inspired by Byzantine mosaics.

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Mosaic ceiling

Florence didn’t hit me quite as hard as it did three years ago. It’s an undeniably beautiful city, but after our 24 hours here, I was ready to return to the chaos and diversity of Rome. Florence has so many of my favorite things – my favorite restaurant, my favorite sunset, my favorite food hall, and my favorite cathedral – it’s odd that it isn’t also my favorite city. But whatever the reason, I’m glad we got to experience it again.

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Rome (Pt. 2)

Rome, like any metropolitan city, deserves multiple trips. This was my third time in Rome (I visited once as a baby to visit my grandparents, and again a few years ago with Anthony), and each time has gotten better and better. We stayed in a more interesting neighborhood, redid our favorite activities, and checked off some bucket-list items that we hadn’t been able to do last time. Here’s some advice for Rome that we learned on this trip:

Stay in Trastevere. This is easily the most charming neighborhood in Rome, with maze-like cobblestone streets that wind past pretty churches and colorful, crumbling buildings. Trastevere means “beyond the Tiber River”, and those who grew up here have a sense of pride similar to those who grew up in Brooklyn — they consider themselves Trasteverini before they consider themselves Romans. Like Brooklyn, Trastevere is also a foodie destination, with some of the best restaurants in Rome right around the corner from our apartment. It’s convenient to most touristy sites, so we were able to walk almost everywhere.

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Across the Tiber River

Although the secret has been out for a while and Trastevere is now packed with tourists and exchange students at night, we still felt like locals staying there as we entered a nondescript door and walked up three narrow flights of stairs to reach our apartment. Our host welcomed us with a bottle of wine and a binder full of recommendations, which I followed diligently. Our apartment had lovely terracotta floors, vaulted ceilings, and a tiny balcony. We took afternoon siestas and cooked pasta leftovers in the compact kitchen.

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View from our balcony

Visit the Colosseum and Roman Forum as early as possible. Last time, we were there midday, and it was awful. The heat was so bad that I was too miserable to appreciate any history and spent the entire time jumping from shady spot to shady spot. This time, we booked tickets for the first entrance of the day, which meant fewer tourists and much cooler temperatures.

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Outside the Colosseum
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Cross-section of the Colosseum
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Inside, before all the tourists arrive

Two other places to visit as early as possible are the Pantheon and Spanish Steps. The Pantheon does not require tickets as it is a public church, so we got there before it opened and were among the first to enter. The Pantheon is one of the best-preserved Ancient Roman buildings in the world, mainly because it has been in continuous use throughout its history, first as a temple and then as a church. The Pantheon is blatant proof that one can only survive if one adapts. Its most famous feature is its huge coffered concrete dome, with an oculus that opens up to the sky and lets rainwater in. Built two thousand years ago, this dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

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Heading to the Pantheon
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Oculus
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The emptiest the Spanish Steps will ever be

Visit Piazza Navona at dusk. Though inundated with tourists and street performers, this lively square has always been one of my favorite parts of Rome. It is built on the site of a stadium from the 1st century, and was later transformed into a stunning public square filled with Baroque Roman architecture, such as the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers). Dusk is the most romantic time to come, when the marble glows a soft rose color, Romans and tourists are relaxed after the hot day, and musicians start playing corny American love songs. I even teared up here on our last night, when some guy played “My Heart Will Go On”, a song that I typically hate — but then again, everything sounds better in Italy.

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Fontana Quattro dei Fiumi

Visit the Trevi Fountain in the morning and in the evening. This fountain is what I was most excited to see in Rome. It was closed for renovation last time, so I made sure it was the first thing we did when we returned. At night, it’s magical, but early in the morning, you can better appreciate all the intricate details of the marble and the crisp blue of the water.

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Romantic at night
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Early morning visit

See Bernini and Caravaggio at the Galleria Borghese. Advanced reservations are required, and each ticket includes a mandatory guided tour, which we enjoyed tremendously. Our quirky guide focused on just a few of the pieces throughout the museum and really helped us appreciate the sculptor Bernini and painter Caravaggio.

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Can you believe that’s marble?
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Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne
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Bernini’s David
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Beautiful fresco ceiiing by Mariano Rossi
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One of Caravaggio’s famous paintings, exemplifying his dark and realistic depictions of religious themes

Take a food tour with Eating Italy. We signed up for a four-hour Twilight in Trastevere tour, which took us to seven different places around our neighborhood, from a secret wine cellar that once housed bronze sculptures from the ancient Roman times, to a 90-year-old cookie shop that’s won dozens of awards yet has no signage in front, to a takeout spot that specializes in Roman street food specialties. As usual, the food tour was my favorite activity of our entire stay. It’s a great way to meet other people, learn about the culture, and be introduced to places we’d never find on our own.

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This wine cellar was an ancient Roman courtyard that had been buried until excavation in the 19th century
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Ready for wine!
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Julius Caesar’s favorite dish: pork stew with fish sauce
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Stefania and Giuliano have been running this biscotteria (cookie shop) for decades
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Trying lemon, chocolate, and hazelnut biscotti
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The porchetta, gorgonzola, prosciutto, and beer were all delicious, but our favorite thing was the owner’s son, who hammed it up for the cameras
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Trying supplì (fried rice balls mixed with tomato sauce and mozzarella)
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Roman-style pizza is thin and crispy, baked in a metal pan, topped with nothing but fresh tomato sauce, and served by the slice
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Trying pasta at a ristorante
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Two of Rome’s most typical pasta dishes: amatriciana (guanciale, pecorino, tomato, onion) and cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper)
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Fior di latte and hazelnut gelato from Fatamorgana

I ate carbonara every day but never got sick of it. Our tour guide explained that there’s a reason you can eat pasta every day in Italy but not feel bad about yourself; it’s just made differently here. Less processed.

Here are some of my favorite eateries we tried:

Osteria Da Zi Umberto: This trattoria, just a couple of blocks from our apartment, was filled with locals. Reservations are a must, though we lucked out with a last-minute table, and the carbonara was the best I had on the trip. Anthony tried (and fell in love with) trippa alla romana (Roman-style tripe!).

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Carbonara, roasted rosemary potatoes, trippa alla Romana, and a half liter of house wine

Trapizzino: This is a new trend in Rome. It takes a traditional street food, pizza bianca (plain pizza dough), creates a pocket with it, and stuffs it with classic Italian dishes, such as rosemary chicken or veal tongue with anchovies. It was my favorite way to eat Roman pizza. Trapizzino has been so successful that it’s expanded to multiple locations across Italy.

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Trapizzino

Da Enzo al 29: This popular restaurant is usually booked weeks in advance, but we were able to try it because our food tour guide is friends with the staff. I had a dish of burrata, prosciutto, and grilled eggplant. Da Enzo deserves the hype!

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Grilled eggplant, burrata, and prosciutto

Gelateria La Romana: We revisited this gelateria after discovering it on our trip last time, and we are happy to say that the gelato is still as delicious, sustainable, and dirt-cheap (2.50 euros for two scoops! You’re not going to find a better deal anywhere else!) as we remembered.

Some other tips for dining in Rome:

  1. Stick to trattorias for your main meals. Trattorias specialize in traditional Italian food and are more casual than ristoranti. Order a carafe of house wine and enjoy incredible food for cheap. It’s the best way to experience Roman cuisine, and the rustic atmosphere is exactly what you came to Rome for.
  2. Eat breakfast the Italian way: standing up at the counter, drinking a cappuccino and eating a pastry. Even if your hotel provides free breakfast, I urge you to skip it and head to the nearest coffee bar instead. Those hotel breakfast buffets usually consist of poor-quality cured meats and cheeses, old pastries, cereal and yogurt options, and coffee that no self-respecting Italian would drink. Trust me, they’re catering to lazy Americans. You’ll have a much better experience waking up early and surrounding yourself with Italians on their way to work.

Though it was not my first time in Rome, it was the first time I fell in love with it. I’d always been somewhat intimidated by it as a city, preferring genteel Florence or glitzy Milan. But this time, we did Rome properly. We felt so at home here; some of our most memorable experiences were just watching the World Cup at a couple of our neighborhood spots, cheering with locals and tourists alike. If we ever decide to live abroad, Rome is Anthony’s first choice — and it’s hard for me not to agree.

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

 

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