I know every New Yorker has already hiked the Catskills or planned a cute little daytrip in the Hudson Valley at some point in their lives, but I’m bored and have now been to this region ten times (including four overnight trips), so I have a few tips for anyone who might want some recommendations. I love the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. As someone who loves hiking and eating, I’ll take this region over the Hamptons any day. The Catskills refers to the mountain range on the west side of the Hudson River and is a haven for artists, musicians, and writers. There’s some good hiking here and the Catskills is probably one of the best places to visit in the fall. The Hudson Valley refers to the region right along the Hudson River and has a long agricultural history, which is why every single meal I’ve had in this region has been incredible. A car is pretty necessary because there are so many towns you’ll want to explore, so many hikes to start in the morning, and so many farm stands on the side of the road to pick up apple cider donuts. It’s a quick drive from NYC, just about three hours, so you can squeeze this into any weekend.
The most ideal place to stay is my friend’s cozy 2-bedroom cabin with a fireplace, wraparound deck, and second-floor loft. Anthony and I were guests last fall and I couldn’t stop taking photos. She and her husband bought this cabin in the middle of the woods and restored it beautifully. It’s surprisingly affordable to rent on Airbnb, but due to COVID-19, it’s not available until next spring — but bookmark it for later! You’ll thank me.
Since that cabin’s not available right now, the next best place to stay is a B&B in one of the towns like Woodstock, Hudson, Kingston, or Saugerties. My friends and I stayed in a fun B&B in Woodstock called Twin Gables of Woodstock. This three-story home, owned by a couple of artists originally from Brooklyn, was exactly what we wanted from Woodstock: tasteful but quirky décor, a meditation room in the attic, a fire pit to roast marshmallows in the backyard, and the ideal location right on the main strip.
You’ll eat well in the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. It’s almost impossible not to. Perhaps my favorite restaurant in this region is Miss Lucy’s Kitchen in the quaint town of Saugerties. I ate at this farm-to-table restaurant twice in one week just because everything is so well done, from the grilled hangar steak with carrot risotto cake, to the roasted duck breast. Call for reservations.
Other restaurants to try:
Silvia in Woodstock for innovative Korean-inspired farm-to-table food (thanks to a Korean chef!). I loved my grilled octopus with charred sweet peppers and mushroom lentil pâté with pickled vegetables. Definitely make reservations because this is one of the hottest restaurants in town. We made reservations but still had to wait about 15 minutes to be seated because it is that popular.
Backbar in Hudson for Malaysian-inspired small dishes. I loved the cumin spice tots and black pepper wings with fish sauce glaze.
Lunch Nightly in Kingston for sandwiches. I’m not even a sandwich person, but the turkey sandwich with cheddar, balsamic lettuce and pickled red onions on a kaiser roll changed my life.
Alleyway Ice Cream in Saugerties for really interesting ice cream flavors. Alleyway may honestly be the best ice cream I’ve ever had. They have flavors like ube Heath bar crunch, Thai tea cookies ‘n’ cream, and sweet corn. You can tell each ingredient is homemade with love.
Grazin’ Diner in Hudson for farm-to-table burgers. You know it’s gonna be a good burger when every single ingredient’s origin is thoughtfully described on the menu.
Kingston Bread + Bar in Kingston for your carb fix. If I were a local, I’d be picking up my pastries from here every week. They have a lot of typical Jewish pastries, as well as things like cardamom buns and baklava rolls.
Lis Bar in Kingston for wood-fire grilled meats in a cozy atmosphere and movie nights on Fridays.
Supernatural Coffee in Hudson for coffee and pastries. Perfect for a quick early morning breakfast if you need to rush off to a hike.
Kaaterskill Falls might be my favorite hike in this region. There are two trails: an upper trail leading to gorgeous valley views, and a lower trail going down to a double-drop waterfall. It’s an easy hike and gets crowded early, so go before 10am to find parking. The lower trail has a staircase that gets slippery from the waterfalls, so just be careful.
Anthony and I tried to hike Gertrude’s Nose at Minnewaska State Park Preserve, but it happened to be closed that weekend, so we ended up on another trail called Millbrook Mountain. While it wasn’t the challenging, epic hike I was hoping for, the views across Lake Minnewaska are absolutely stunning, especially in the fall. Once again, get there early for parking.
While Breakneck Ridge isn’t technically in this region, it’s on your way back to the city and is still my favorite in the entire state. Quick, challenging, and rewarding, Breakneck Ridge will always hold a special place in my heart because it was the first hike I did in New York. There’s a vertical scramble that may seem intimidating but is actually quite doable if you’re moderately fit and flexible. Stop by the charming village of Cold Spring after. (While you’re here, of course check out Dia:Beacon and Storm King Art Center. I’m not gonna even bother writing about those — if you haven’t visited these obligatory art institutions yet, you’re doing New York wrong.)
Random Things to Do in Kingston(where I spent the most time)
If you’re into American history, Kingston is a fascinating place to visit. It’s pretty large compared to the other towns in this region. Kingston was New York’s first capital and was burned by the British during the Revolutionary War. You can see some of the original pre-Revolutionary buildings, as well as beautiful Victorian homes in the Stockade District.
Also in Kingston is a 2.3-mile railroad trail that follows a creek. It’s a nice way to walk through town, as it connects the waterfront to midtown.
Anthony’s former coworker opened up a bookstore bar called Rough Draft that has become the hottest place to hang out in Kingston. When you visit, you’ll see why. Housed in one of the historic buildings in the Stockade District, this cozy bookstore has lots of space for reading, grabbing a coffee or cider, and attending one of the many events they host.
Anthony and I were still in Ogunquit when we decided to book another trip to Maine just eleven days later — one last hurrah before summer ended. Of course, this was an excuse to return to Ogunquit and stay in the same B&B, but we also decided to finally visit the stunning Acadia National Park and foodie city Portland. While these two destinations are roughly three hours apart, visiting both on the same trip felt like a perfect balance. Here are my recommendations:
Because our trip was so last-minute, we only had a few options when it came to places to stay. Since we had just two days for Acadia National Park, we decided to stay in Bar Harbor, where the park’s main entrance is. If you have more time, I’d suggest staying in one of the charming villages in the southern part of Mount Desert Island. I would not recommend our B&B in Bar Harbor; nothing was terrible about it, but the dainty, dated inn did not meet my usual standard. However, I would highly recommend the chic Airbnb I found for our one night in Portland. This historic three-story home was built by a famous architect, and, more importantly, it’s just a few blocks from Tandem Coffee Roasters. Our room was spacious and stylish, and check-in was completely contact-free, which I haven’t encountered since our Airbnb in Berlin four years ago. Our Airbnb was in the West End, but if we return to Portland I might want to stay in Old Port, since most of the best restaurants seem to be there.
Acadia National Park was obviously the highlight of the trip. The park covers almost the entire Mount Desert Island, the largest island off the coast of Maine. It’s been a while since I’d been to a national park, and I had forgotten how magnificent they are. We only had two days, and while you could easily spend a week or more there, you can also get quite a bit done in just two days. A friend generously let us borrow her park pass, so we didn’t have to pay for the $30 entrance fee. The first thing we did was drive up to Cadillac Mountain. I’m still amused that you can just drive to the top. What a view! Even though there were a lot of people, there’s so much space to freely wander and enjoy unobstructed views of the island. We even saw one guy sitting by himself, reading a book, and ignoring all the tourists gawking around him — goals!
After taking in enough views, we continued our drive. We learned quickly that any time you see a parking spot, take it. There are enough sites everywhere that any place you park will have something interesting to see. Keep stopping as often as you can because there are so many hidden treasures. Meanwhile, parking during peak tourist season is scarce, so take what you can get. We found a spot near Jordan Pond, a hypnotically clear lake with steep inclines on both sides. We didn’t have time to do any of the nearby hikes but did take a lifetime’s supply of photos.
Our only hike in Acadia was Beehive Trail, a short but infamously steep hike. I’ve hiked Breakneck Ridge a few times without any struggle, so I was feeling pretty cocky — until about halfway up Beehive. While most of the steep parts had ladder rungs that made climbing up pretty simple (especially since I’m flexible and, despite my short height, can crawl up like a gecko), one section had no rungs, so I was literally gripping nooks and crannies in the rocks to keep from falling from the completely vertical cliff. Something I always forget until it’s too late is that I have slight acrophobia. It’s the reason I can’t rock climb, even just two feet off the ground, and the reason I will never be able to do a handstand despite being able to do nearly everything else in yoga. For almost a full minute, I was frozen in my tracks, scared stiff. Fortunately, Anthony came up and climbed right behind me, making sure I wouldn’t fall backward as I continued up. When we got to a flatter section, fellow hikers who had been watching congratulated and informed us that we had taken the harder route. Apparently we could have avoided that terrifying part if we had just taken a more roundabout path. Darnit! That’s what I get for being cocky and rushing up without scanning all options first. Regardless, it was a (mostly) fun climb and the view was as gorgeous as expected.
In Portland, we didn’t do much besides eat, but one activity that we really loved was watching the sunrise from Portland Head Light. About a 20-minute drive from our Airbnb, this iconic lighthouse has lots of parking and a perfect view of the sunrise. We were amused by the row of professional photographers who got there before us.
Honestly, we had a pretty mediocre food experience in Bar Harbor, mainly because we had so little time. I was given many recommendations from friends but couldn’t try any of them because some restaurants were closed the day we were there, or I hadn’t booked necessary reservations. However, this was all off-set by the incredible food we ate nonstop in Portland. I would return to Portland just to eat. In fact, I would return to Portland just to eat at one specific restaurant: Eventide Oyster Company. This was the one place that everyone kept recommending, and I see why! On our first night in Portland, we went to Eventide around 5pm to put our name on the waitlist. What a joke. We were quoted a 7-hour wait time. Seven hours?! I’m from NYC and have never been quoted that long. So, the next morning, we went an hour and a half before they even opened at noon. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was worth it! We made friends in line (with some folks from New York and New Jersey, unsurprisingly) and played card games on a nearby bench. We were seated as soon as they opened! This is how to do it. Forget dinnertime (unless you put your name down around 4pm and don’t mind waiting for their call much later that night). We had some of the best oysters I’ve ever had. Until now, I’ve only respected oysters from Galway. But this meal changed my life. In fact, as soon as we finished our first dozen oysters, I immediately ordered another half-dozen of my favorite, Johns River. Everything we ate at Eventide was phenomenal, from the fried oyster roll to the bloody mary cava cocktail to the oatmeal cookie pie. I still dream about this meal every few days, and if we ever return to Portland, I will be eating here every single lunch.
The second best place we tried, and another spot I would be eating at nonstop if we return to Portland, is Tandem Coffee Roasters. This former gas station and laundromat makes some of the best pastries I’ve had in a while, from a breakfast sandwich with chorizo and smoked paprika mayo on a homemade buttermilk biscuit, to a brown butter cinnamon bun with orange glaze. We ate our pastries on the bench outside for breakfast one morning, watching the line for Tandem grow and grow down the block.
Per everyone’s recommendation, we went to Holy Donut for potato donuts. This place, as all good spots in Portland, also had a long line going down the block, but we were able to avoid it by pre-ordering our donuts online. They have some interesting flavors, such as toasted coconut and sweet potato ginger.
Maine has always seemed somewhat exotic to me, probably because I’m from Hawaii, the farthest state from Maine as possible. I’ve always had a desire to visit, fantasizing about steaming lobster in a quaint cabin we rented on the coast. Anthony and I even made friends with a couple from Maine on our Morocco trip back in 2017, and though they invited us to their riverside cabin in Edgecomb, we never made it up there. Maine always seemed just a little too far — if I was going to spend eight hours traveling, I might as well go to Europe, right? It wasn’t until COVID, when I was desperate for another road trip, that a friend informed me that a delightful beach town called Ogunquit is only five hours away from New York City. FIVE HOURS?! Our previous trip to the Finger Lakes took that long! I dove into research and could sense almost immediately that I would love it here. In fact, less than two weeks after our first trip to Ogunquit, we returned because we had so fallen hard for it. Here are some of my recommendations:
I honestly don’t know if we would have loved Ogunquit as much if we hadn’t stayed at 2 Village Square Inn. This impressive, three-story bed & breakfast overlooking the rest of town is easily the best b&b I’ve been to in the U.S. The owner, Bruce, was the epitome of a host, making each guest feel like part of a family. There are 17 charming guest rooms, and I was impressed by the detailed description of each room on the website. Both of the rooms on our two separate trips had direct views of the water, and I loved waking up to the sunrise — the first light to hit (continental) America! The rest of the b&b is just as lovely, from the heated saltwater pool and jacuzzi, to the porch with rocking chairs. Each morning, we found a different spot on the three-acre property and were given a laminated menu and dry-erase marker to make our breakfast selection. The food was as wonderful as I expected: French toast with berries on one day, scrambled eggs and hash browns with peppers another day. Bruce checked on each guest to ask if they wanted a refill on anything. Freshly-baked blueberry scones and cookies were individually wrapped and available throughout the day, as was local coffee in the lobby. I could go on and on about how exceptional 2 Village Square Inn is, but just take my word for it: Book this place and book early because it sells out quickly and is full of return guests who also know what a dream this place is.
The first thing you should do in Ogunquit is walk along Marginal Way. This 1-¼ mile winding cliff walk connected our b&b to Perkins Cove and is the most scenic way to get across town. There are 39 socially distanced benches scattered along the walk, and we appreciated the unending opportunities to climb down rocks to get closer to the sea.
Anyone visiting Maine for the first time should take a lobstering boat ride, so that’s exactly what we did. We sailed with a lobsterman and an extremely knowledgeable tour guide (as well as a few families with young children), stopping by various traps to haul in freshly caught lobsters. Lobsters are fascinating! We learned that “lobsters never die.” Basically, lobsters don’t age, they do not grow weaker, and they do not become infertile. In fact, they become more fertile in their old age. Lobsters can regenerate lost limbs and regularly outgrow their shells. Once their waistline feels a little snug, a lobster will shed its shell, pump itself full of water to grow, then harden its outside into a new shell. (This is where soft-shell lobsters come from; they’re lobsters caught during this molting period.) Lobsters that have just molted are at a vulnerable stage for about three months until their new shell grows. Since lobsters don’t have bones, they can shed and grow indefinitely. Maine has strict laws about what type of lobsters can be harvested; they must be a certain size, and cannot be pregnant. When our lobsterman hauled in a pregnant one, he threw it back out into the sea. Female lobsters carry thousands of eggs, so pregnant lobsters are much more valuable in the wild than on a dinner plate. To book a trip, just call FinestKind as soon as possible. They have multiple trips throughout the day, and other trips besides lobstering ones, but they were selling out quickly when we were there.
I wasn’t too eager about checking out the beaches in Maine (I’m from Hawaii, after all!), but when we first went to Footbridge Beach around dusk, I was in awe. After crossing a little wooden bridge over idyllic marshland that gave me flashbacks of Normandy, we arrived at the most expansive beach I’ve ever seen. With soft sand that reminded me of Lanikai, this wide, flat beach with a low shore is the perfect place for young children learning how to swim. It’s also much less crowded than other beaches in Ogunquit, and it was so tranquil walking along the water. We visited a second time in the late morning, and it was decidedly less romantic and filled with more families, but it’s so spacious that even then it was hard not to appreciate the beach. It’s best to either walk or catch the trolley to Footbridge Beach, as the nearby parking lot charges $25 for the whole day. If you get there early and leave before 8am, or come late, I think they stop charging for parking.
Obviously, we had to eat lobster at every meal. It was my first time in Maine! Our favorite lobster happened to be the first place we tried, and it also happened to be the cheapest. We ate at The Lobster Shack twice during their lunch special: $20 for two one-pound lobsters, corn on the cob, and coleslaw. Yes, you read that right: $20 for two really good lobsters. I have yet to see a better deal anywhere else. The casual restaurant is housed in a former shack that once stored traps, rope, buoys, and other fishing equipment for lobstermen.
Our b&b gave us a $100 gift certificate (see, aren’t they perfect?) to Ogunquit Lobster Pound, so we had two dinners there. On our first night, we went on a Saturday around 7pm. Big mistake. The restaurant comprises both an indoor space that resembles a gigantic log cabin and a vast outdoor area that reminded me of camp. But the size of the space didn’t matter; it seemed like all of Ogunquit was here for dinner. We ended up waiting an hour and a half to be seated. For the second dinner, we learned our lesson and arrived earlier (and on a Sunday) and were seated immediately. To order, we walked up to the tank and chose which lobster we wanted, then they cooked it and brought it out to our table. It was a fun experience and a great way to enjoy lobster. Random tip: Their free bread is phenomenal!
Another lobster spot we tried was Barnacle Billy’s, which seems to be on everyone’s must-trys. I preferred The Lobster Shack for its lunch deal, but this restaurant was more atmospheric because you can eat right on the water.
If, for some reason, you’re sick of lobster, Brix+Brine is a chic raw bar. Don’t forget that Maine is also amazing at oysters!
Quick Day Trips
About a half-hour drive north is Kennebunkport, the fancier version of Ogunquit. It’s where the Bush compound is, if you’re into that. We had some extra time so we drove up to have lunch at the famous Clam Shack. There was a long line, but the lobster rolls were worth it! Cheap parking is available in the lot behind The Clam Shack. Also check out Rococo for ice cream flavors like chai cardamom, goat cheese, and guava and Maria cookies.
A 15-minute drive south is Cape Neddick, a gorgeous little peninsula that houses the iconic Nubble Lighthouse. If we had more time in southern Maine, I probably would have wanted to spend a night on Cape Neddick!
What does a travel blogger do when they’ve had to cancel three trips to Europe because Americans are banned from most of the world? Rediscover their own country. I’ve never had much interest in this, as I feel like I’ve already explored much of the U.S. — I’ve been to at least half of our states and am apathetic about the other half. But after quarantining in the same city for four months, even just a road trip upstate excites me now.
Our friends generously let us borrow their car, so after a successful overnight trip to the Hudson Valley, we decided to be a little more ambitious and drive all the way up to the Finger Lakes. I knew almost nothing about the Finger Lakes except that it’s absolutely beautiful, and I was kind of intrigued by how far away it was — if you look on a map, it’s basically Canada! So, on a weekend that NYC was about to experience a heat wave, we left for a long 5.5-hour drive to the Finger Lakes. Here are some of my recommendations:
We decided to stay in Watkins Glen, a village on the southern tip of Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of the eleven Finger Lakes. While the village is known for hosting NASCAR and Formula One races — a huge turnoff for us! — it’s also the location of Watkins Glen State Park, the hike I was most excited about, and is close to many of the best wineries in the region.
We stayed at The Blackberry Inn, an adorable bed & breakfast owned by a hilarious gay couple that cooks phenomenal three-course breakfasts every morning, from carrot cardamom muffins to corned beef hash to homemade granola and yogurt. There are just three guest rooms, each with a private bathroom, mini fridge, robes, wine glasses and a corkscrew, and a bottle of hand sanitizer.
If you’re only going to do one hike in the Finger Lakes, do Watkins Glen State Park. Since we were just a seven-minute walk from the entrance, we woke up at sunrise and walked over first thing in the morning. It was almost completely empty! It’s barely a hike, more of a stroll on a long, mostly-paved path, with a few small staircases. The narrow gorge looked so otherworldly that I was expecting dinosaurs to pop out at any second. We took the Gorge Trail, which has the best views. Due to covid, it’s only one-way now, so we had to either hike back on the Indian Trail or South Trail, which are higher up and don’t have much view due to the foliage. I imagine Watkins Glen State Park might be a bit frustrating when it’s crowded, as everyone has to follow a single path around the rim of the gorge, so make sure to come early or late, especially during the pandemic. The entire hike took us just over an hour.
On another morning, we drove 30 minutes to Taughannock Falls State Park right after sunrise. This park is named after Taughannock, a Lenape chief who was thrown over the falls after a battle against the Cayugas. In the Algonquin language, the name Taughannock means “full of trees.” We were in a bit of a rush to make it back to our b&b for breakfast, so we only had time to do the Gorge Trail, which was even less of a hike than Watkins Glen State Park — it’s a 15-minute stroll to a spectacular view of the waterfall. If we had more time, I’d love to do the Rim Trail for a view from the observatory deck. Since we were there at 7:00 am, it was almost completely empty again. The only folks who were there were a handful of locals, doing their morning stroll with cups of coffee. They were very friendly, which surprised us because we saw so many Trump signs throughout the Finger Lakes! (Maybe those who like to hike and those who support Trump don’t overlap, even in the same region?)
The Finger Lakes is New York’s largest wine region. The lakes’ depth provides a “lake effect” for the vineyards, warming them up in the winter and cooling them off in the spring. The Finger Lakes produces some of the best Rieslings in the world, and Riesling happens to be my favorite white wine, so of course we went to a couple of tastings while we were here. Due to covid, reservations are required and tastings are held at individual tables, which I actually prefer over awkwardly standing at the bar (as a short person).
Our first tasting was at Hermann J. Weimer, where we sat outdoors near some large wine press equipment. They offered tastings by the glass, half-glass, and bottle, so Anthony and I shared a couple glasses of Riesling, which came with nuts and popcorn. We enjoyed the semi-dry Riesling so much that we took home two bottles. It’s always best to buy wine directly from the source because they’ll cost a fraction of the price you’ll pay anywhere else.
For our second tasting, I booked a special lunch pairing at Ravines Wine Cellar. We began with a tour of the cellar as we tasted their 2012 methode champenoise sparkling wine and snacked on housemade lavash crackers. Then we sat at an antique farm table inside a huge open-air barn and lunched on a flight of eight wines and a plate of delicious snacks. This was one of our favorite meals of the trip! We loved the dry Riesling and Pinot Noir so bought another couple of bottles here. If you only have time for one winery, go to Ravines Wine Cellar for this lunch pairing.
Our b&b was a ten-minute walk from Seneca Harbor, so we ended up there multiple times throughout our trip, since the waterfront is always the coolest spot in any town. There’s a rocky path that juts out from the pier, and we sat there for hours, just taking in the immense lake and feeling the breeze.
While all drives along the Finger Lakes are beautiful, the drive from Champlin Beach on Keuka Lake to Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake reminded me so much of Tuscany, with its vineyards, hills, and winding roads. Considering we had to cancel our trip to Tuscany back in April, it was nice to pretend we were there for about 20 minutes.
The Finger Lakes is known for its wine, not its food, but we ended up really enjoying most of the restaurants we tried. We had to eat indoors for the first time (since NYC still doesn’t allow indoor dining due to covid), so we were a bit anxious about the seating arrangements, but everything seemed safe enough, and restaurants spaced out their tables properly and had the doors wide open for ventilation. (However, I am still against indoor dining in NYC!)
The hottest restaurant in town was Graft Wine & Cider Bar. Everyone kept mentioning it to us, so we decided to drop by. They don’t take reservations, but fortunately there were tables available, even at 8:00 pm on a Saturday night. Everything was fantastic, from the fresh sourdough with vegan butter, to the PEI mussels with red curry cream, to the roasted chicken and braised kale. Each of our dishes was only $18, and the wine prices were as cheap as in Europe! No wonder people were obsessed with this place.
Another restaurant we loved was Stonecat Cafe because of their cornmeal crusted catfish with smoked tomato coulis and black posole. I’ve never had catfish like that before! Request a table on the back patio for sunset views from the eastern side of Seneca Lake.
When searching for a dessert spot, I found a tiny Italian bakery called Scuteri’s Cannoli Connection and was shocked that this town had such incredible cannoli! The cannoli were filled to order, like any respectable cannoli shop, and their other pastries had sold out by the time we got there in the early evening, so come early if you want to try their other products.
The second half of our trip couldn’t have been more different from the first half. Both places may speak Spanish, and it may only take an hour to get from one destination to the other, but Tulum was another world from Cuba. It’s beautiful here. Like, really beautiful. I’m from Hawaii and even I was in awe of the beaches, the cenotes, and the jungle. Unfortunately, the rest of the world also knows how beautiful Tulum is, which is why it’s probably one of the most touristy places I’ve ever visited. After interacting with locals constantly in Cuba, it was off-putting to be surrounded by so many influencers and wealthy Europeans in Tulum. Regardless, Anthony and I made the most of it and tried our best to find ways to do Tulum differently.
Most tourists in Tulum stay in outrageously expensive resorts on the beach. Many of these resorts are imaginatively designed and undeniably stunning, so if you have some extra cash, you can stay at Azulik, where you pay $700/night for a villa with no roof or no WiFi. We stayed at a glamping hotel called Nativus Tulum. The hotel contains six tents tucked into their own little corners of the property, each with zippered screens to keep any bugs out, a spa-worthy outdoor bathroom (outdoor shower included!), and a backyard with a hammock and outdoor seating. We’ve had an outdoor shower before — in our extravagant hotel on our safari in South Africa — but it was the first time we felt that there was complete privacy, so we really enjoyed using ours here, in utter paradise. The entire property had WiFi, complimentary bike rentals, an outdoor yoga studio, and huge breakfasts every morning. The best part, however, was direct access to a cenote, where we kayaked, paddleboarded, and watched the sunset from the deck. And if we wanted to go to the beach, all we had to do was cross the street and enter through a hotel. Since our hotel was on the southern end of Tulum, this part of the beach wasn’t crowded at all. This is how to do Tulum.
We stayed in Tent #5 (cinco)
Loved the design of our outdoor bathroom
Comfortable bed, with outlets, WiFi, and all the necessities
Our outdoor shower
The entrance to our hotel
Fresh eggs and quesadillas for breakfast
Breakfast, part 2
Our hammock right in front of our tent
View of the cenote from our hotel
Anthony goes paddleboarding
Watching the sunset from our deck
Of course there’s a yoga area at our hotel
We were very adamant about not sitting on the beach all day, so we booked a couple of all-day tours with MexicoKan. Our first tour, Mayan Inland Expedition, was our favorite. We were driven deeper into the state of Quintana Roo to the ancient Mayan city of Cobá, which was once the most powerful in the region and is estimated to have had a population of over 50,000 at its peak. Massive pyramids and monuments have been buried in the jungle for over a thousand years, only recently discovered by archaeologists. Lush vegetation still covers most of the city, and it’s exciting to see only half-excavated ruins emerging from the vines and tree roots. We biked through Cobá and climbed Ixmoja, the largest pyramid. The climb up isn’t too bad, but coming down the steep, slippery steps is the hard part.
Climbing up Ixmoja
We were the first ones to the top! And wearing sandals instead of sneakers!
Climbing down was the scariest part
Our hilarious tour guide
Riding a children’s bike to different ruins
After returning our bikes, we visited the stunning Punta Laguna nature reserve, where we searched for spider monkeys (it wasn’t difficult, their screeching are blood-curdling), ziplined across a turquoise lake, canoed, and were blessed in a Mayan ceremony.
After ziplining and canoeing across this lake, we took in the views
For lunch we went to the nearby village of Nuevo Durango, where we visited the house of a local family who created a project that nurtures injured or endangered animals and reintroduces them into the wild. They have all types of birds and farm animals, as well as medicinal plants and honey bees that don’t have stingers. We made tortillas and had a delicious home-cooked meal there.
Wanted the recipe for this soup!
Our last activity on this tour was swimming in a cenote that our group had all to ourselves. A cenote is a deep, water-filled sinkhole in limestone that is created when the roof of the underground cavern collapses. This creates a natural pool which is then filled by rain and water flowing from underground rivers. The word cenote comes from the Mayan word dzonot, which means “well.” The water in these cenotes is crystal-clear, cool, calcium-rich freshwater. The calcium levels are so high, in fact, that it’s hard to tread the water; I had to wear a lifejacket because my arms were getting so tired! The Yucatán Peninsula has thousands of these cenotes because the ground is primarily made up of limestone, which is porous. Cenotes were the area’s main source of water and played an important role in ancient Mayan civilization, as passages to the underworld and sites for sacrificial purposes. Some cenotes are easy to access, with staircases leading down to the water, while others are a bit more tricky, with ladders. Anthony and a couple other brave souls jumped from the very top, which was 8 meters high.
Imagine stumbling across this!
Wearing a lifejacket because my arms got tired!
Enjoying the cenote with our new friends
The next day, we had another tour with the same company. The World Wonder Discovery tour was very different; instead of adventurous millennials, we were surrounded by mostly uncultural middle-aged Americans, and the pace was much slower. We started off at Chichen Itza, one of the New Wonders of the World. The iconic Temple of Kukulkan is a step pyramid of nine square terraces. The four faces of the pyramid have protruding stairways that rise at an angle of 45°. Around the spring and autumn equinoxes, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase. It’s widespread belief that this effect was achieved on purpose to record the equinoxes.
Nearby is the Great Ball Court, the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. This sport was played throughout the Mayan civilization, but it was more than just an athletic event; it was also a sacrificial and religious event. The winning team’s captain was decapitated, an honorable sacrifice to the gods. A rubber ball could be hit with the right hip, right elbow, and right knee, but no hands. The aim was to move the ball through the stone ring up high.
After Chichen Itza, we had lunch at a touristy but beautiful former mansion in Valladolid, a quiet colonial town. Then we swam in another cenote, which was even more impressive than yesterday’s. It had a rope running through the middle just in case you got tired from swimming in the calcium-rich waters. On our way out, we looked at the fossils inlaid in the cenote walls — proof that the entire Yucatan used to be underwater.
Beautiful restaurant for lunch in Valladolid
Mole on chicken enchiladas
Most of our meals in Tulum alternated between just two places (a dirt-cheap taco joint on the beach, and a mid-range vegan spot just a few steps from our hotel) because everything else by us was so overpriced, we felt like we were back in New York. Tulum caters to tourists so much that all places take USD and Euros; I sometimes forgot that I was in another country. Fortunately, we found two spots near our hotel that didn’t hurt our heart or wallet too much: Charley’s Vegan Tacos (a vegan spot with fun decor) and Taqueria La Eufemia (a boisterous beachfront taco shop where we saw the most locals in the entire region).
Crispy fish and grilled shrimp tacos at La Eufemia
If we had another day in Tulum, I’d try to make reservations at Hartwood, the most prestigious restaurant in Tulum that was even beloved by locals.
Tips for future travelers:
There are ATMs everywhere, and many of them only give out USD, which just highlights how tourist-centric this place is.
Tip restaurants 15% and tour guides $50-70 per person. 1 USD = 19 Mexican Peso.
We used a car service called eTransfers to pick us up from the airport and to take us back. I paid online, and they showed up on time and in a comfortable van.
If you only do three things in Tulum: enjoy the beach, visit a few cenotes (they’re all unique, so you’ll want to explore more than one), and book the Mayan Inland Expedition tour with MexicoKan. MexicoKan Tours picks you up directly from your hotel in the morning and drops you off just before sunset.
Wake up early and watch the sunrise from the beach, since it faces east.
The U.S. government is desperately trying to discourage Americans from visiting Cuba. Cruise ships are prohibited from stopping in Cuba, tourists are no longer allowed to travel under the convenient People-to-People category, and the exchange rate for USD to CUC is hit with an extra 10%. But I’m begging you: Don’t let these deter you, because if you do, you’ll be missing out on one of the most vibrant countries we’ve ever visited, filled with some of the most well-informed, welcoming people I’ve ever met.
Anthony and I were nervous about visiting Cuba for obvious reasons. We knew we had to bring all the cash we’d need for the entire trip since American credit cards don’t work in Cuba. Also, we were traveling under the Support for the Cuban People category, which requires a “full-time schedule of activities that support the Cuban people” that we must document and retain for five years. We tend to travel this way anyway, staying at Airbnbs, eating at local restaurants, and filling our days with cultural activities — but still. It was a bit exhausting just feeling like we’d have to justify what we were doing.
Guess what? That law is complete bullshit because absolutely no one questioned us about Cuba.
In fact, for the most part, Cuba was a breeze. I booked our casa particular (private homestay) and majority of our activities through Airbnb. We stayed in a wonderful casa particular in Old Havana, where most tourists stay. Our charming room had huge French doors that opened up to a small balcony overlooking a lively street, WiFi (a rarity in Cuba!), and a large shower. We had a hefty breakfast each morning, and our host Laura was the first of many Cubans to openly share how she felt about living here.
On no other trip did we get to interact with so many locals, and on no other trip were locals so honest and excited to share their thoughts with us. For our first night, I booked us a Food & Culture Tour with a couple named Maryla and Ricardo. Maryla is a sweet orthodontist and Ricardo is a talkative photographer, both of whom make more money leading these tours than from their actual careers. The tour brought us to three delicious spots in the neighborhood of Vedado, where I drank the best mojito of my life (it’s blended and uses spearmint instead of mint), discovered frituras de malanga (my new favorite dish!), and ended the night at a cute coffee shop. However, the highlight of the tour was discussing the pros and cons of Cuba, why some Cubans leave and why some stay, and what needs to happen for their country to function properly. Only about 25% of Cubans have the ability to leave, either by having family outside or by selling off their whole life to gamble with emigration. Maryla and Ricardo explained that everyone, even the government, relies on the black market. For example, because WiFi is so hard to come by, Cubans created something called “The Package”: 4 terabytes of pirated media for 1 CUC/week. Cubans sometimes get access to movies before Americans do. By the end of the tour, Maryla and Ricardo felt like old friends, and they actually helped us book another tour a few days later with their friend. Everyone in Cuba knows someone who knows someone who could be useful.
Delicious mojito from La Paila
With our tour guides
After the tour, we took the long way home along Malecón, Havana’s iconic waterfront road that curves along the coast. You can find everyone here, from romantic couples to groups of rowdy teenagers to families, all getting splashed by waves that crash against the rock wall every few minutes.
We took salsa lessons on our second day. A young Afro-Cuban led five of us to a dance studio in Central Havana and taught us a few basic moves. After class we had lunch at Dos Pelotas, where $5 lunch portions were so large that we were able to eat our leftovers for dinner that night. The meal was better and cheaper than any meal you can get in Old Havana. Afterward, our instructor took us to a juice shop that makes incredible coconut batidos (smoothies). Locals bring in their own plastic bottles and have them filled up with a batido. We tried to return a few days later to buy another coconut batido, but apparently they only take CUP, the local currency, unavailable to tourists! I was devastated.
Still in a dance mood, we decided to see a ballet a few hours later. Ballet is huge in Cuba. Ballet Nacional de Cuba is the largest ballet school in the world, and I remember when my ballet company in Hawaii used to fly in Cubans to dance with us during our summer intensive programs. They put us all to shame. Coincidentally, there was a performance that very night, costing only $30 (and even less for locals). Seats seemed to be assigned randomly, but fortunately we ended up with prime orchestra seats. It was the first time Anthony actually enjoyed a ballet I had dragged him to!
The next day, we were picked up in a teal ‘57 Chevy and driven 45-minutes away to San Antonio de Los Baños, where we learned how to cook typical Cuban food in our host’s home. Also in attendance was another couple who were professors from Toronto, though one of them is originally from South Africa, and his partner is from Nevada. Our host, Alejandro, taught us how to make Cuban-style pork tamales, which are boiled instead of steamed and are much wetter than Mexican tamales. We also learned to make tostones (fried smashed plantains), frituras de malanga (fried shredded taro root), and a fruit salad. During a break, Alejandro made us tinto de verano with crushed pineapple. We then packed up everything into his car and drove a few minutes to the Ariguanabo River to have a picnic. Alejandro made us some mojitos as we savored our meal. After lunch, we took rowboats out and felt like we had the whole river to ourselves. Cuba Libres were waiting for us back at the dock. Obviously, this was my favorite day of the entire trip.
Another guide picked us up the next morning and drove us two hours to touristy but beautiful Viñales. The Valley of Viñales is a karstic depression with dramatic limestone cliffs called mogotes that rise up 300 meters from the bottom of the valley. We saw the Mural of Prehistory, an overhyped mural about evolution painted on a perpendicular slope of one of the elevations.
Eventually, we arrived at the tobacco plantations, where we learned about cigars, rum, and coffee. Cigars are like wine; it’s all about the terroir. Soil, climate, and weather make all the difference, and every cigar maker has their own style and traditions. When the U.S. imposed a trade embargo against Cuba in 1962, many former Cuban cigar manufacturers moved to other countries (primarily the Dominican Republic) to continue production. But any cigar connoisseur can taste the difference — the fertile, iron-rich red soil of this region produces a longer aftertaste and unique flavor.
Different tobacco leaves are used for different purposes. The top leaves receive the most sunlight, so have the strongest flavor and are used for the body of a cigar. The middle leaves aren’t as good so they’re used to wrap the outside. Meanwhile, the bottom leaves receive very little sunlight and have very little flavor; since these leaves are combustible, they’re perfect for the end, which will be lit. Leaves are dried for several months, then fermented. Handmade cigars have the stem removed, therefore removing all the nicotine and making them non-addictive, while factory cigars leave in half the stem. If you don’t like the taste of the cigar by itself, dip the end in honey. Don’t inhale, just puff, hold, and release.
We then tried Guayabita del Pinar, a rum that is not allowed to be exported, and even tourists can only purchase two bottles max. In this region, there’s a particular tree whose berries are tiny guavas about the size of a blueberry. The rum is infused with this guava, and it’s probably the only rum I’ve enjoyed sipping straight.
We ended the tour with an unpleasant one-hour horse ride (I definitely should not have worn shorts!) and a couple of mojitos before purchasing some cigars to take home. Yes, the U.S. allows Americans to bring back up to $100-worth of cigars from Cuba.
On our last full day in Cuba, we took a 3.5-hour walking tour with an economist named Jorge. It was our most informative and interesting tour yet. We met Jorge in my favorite neighborhood of Vedado, where we chatted in a park before catching a public bus into a less touristy neighborhood. He answered every question we had, and answered questions we didn’t even know we had. Here’s a snippet of what we learned:
The average salary in Cuba is $40/month, which no one can live on. Between the 1960s and 1980s, there were ration cards that were enough to supplement the low salaries, providing food and other necessities. People often forget that Cuba had been doing pretty well back then, up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. That changed everything. Now, it’s impossible to live on the salary and ration cards because the ration cards have covered less and less. Pretty much every Cuban has a “surge” (side hustle): Doctors take off work to do house calls, teachers cancel class to do private tutoring, and taxi drivers skip out on their last shift to sell the fuel. Cubans know how to hustle.
Very few people can completely retire because the pension is only $10/month. Unsurprisingly, the suicide rate for old men who cannot work is on the rise. Most retired people do things to supplement their pension, such as selling snacks or mending clothing. We passed by a house at which a retired man was sitting outside, selling roasted peanuts conveniently wrapped in a folded paper cone; Jorge purchased us a couple to snack on.
When Anthony wanted to buy a bottle of water, Jorge took us to a huge state-run mall, and we tried the food court. None of the shops had water! We eventually found it at a new private store a few blocks away. That is the difference between state-run stores and privately-owned stores. Jorge explained that when stores claim a product is “out of season”, Cubans just ask around because someone will know someone who has what you need, and this is where the “surge” comes in again. When Jorge needed a new mattress, none of the stores had it, so he asked around and eventually someone found one for him. Jorge ended up paying more than he would have at the store, but the mattress was delivered straight to him and, mostly importantly, it was available.
The crumbling buildings that tourists find so charming about Havana are dangerous and have collapsed onto children recently, killing them. However, the government can’t do anything about these buildings since they’re private property usually passed down through generations; meanwhile, homeowners can’t maintain them since their salaries are so low.
President Obama brought huge changes to Cuba. He was the first president to ever visit Cuba, and when Cubans saw him being a decent human being, treating his wife with love and respect, and eating at local restaurants, for the first time Cubans couldn’t blame America for all their problems, which is what their government had taught them to do. With American tourists swarming into Cuba thanks to the ease of Airbnb and direct flights, Cubans were able to interact with real Americans and learned to hold their own government accountable. This forced their government to improve!
Unfortunately, Trump brought back the embargo against Cuba and increased sanctions, making it easier for the Cuban government to revert back to blaming America for the economy’s shortcomings. The embargo, which prevents American businesses from conducting trade with Cuba is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history. The U.S. has also threatened other countries if they conduct non-food trade with Cuba, which affects the fuel that they depend on from Venezuela. The embargo is cruel and illogical, serving only to undo anything that Obama previously did.
Our tour ended at Jorge’s abuela-in-law’s home, where she made us snacks and offered her opinions. She lived through the Cuban revolution and remembers everyone being excited about it, but she is not a supporter. “Batista never took anything from us. Castro took everything from everyone.” Because she was privileged and lived in Havana, her parents had jobs and owned a second house that they would rent out. After the revolution, the government took that house away and gave it to people who needed a place to live. Jorge clarified that hers is one perspective. His own family is from the countryside where everyone adores Castro because their lives improved after the Revolution. Before the Revolution, no one in the countryside had doctors, hospitals, enough schools, or utilities. Castro gave them all of that. In the countryside, the revolution is revered, while in the city, it’s much more mixed.
The amount of information we learned from Jorge was overwhelming. If you want to visit Cuba to actually learn about Cuba, you must do this tour. In fact, all of our tours felt pretty necessary. Sure, Cuba has gorgeous beaches and photogenic architecture, but what makes Cuba so unique — why Cuba is the only place in the Caribbean that we’ve ever had an interest in visiting — is its people. Every single person we met was way more aware of their circumstances than the majority of Americans are of theirs. Cubans are extremely educated, honest, open, and appreciative that we came to visit, despite our country’s blatant discouragement. So, ve a Cuba!
Tips for future travelers:
Download the maps.me app (and its Havana map) before you leave the U.S. It works offline and is a lot better than Google Maps.
The only really difficult thing about visiting Cuba is that credit cards and ATMs don’t work for Americans. So, you need to bring all the cash you’ll use for your entire trip. If you have any other currency besides USD (we lucked out and found some Euros in my wallet), you’ll get a much better exchange rate. There are currency exchanges at the airport, and I recommend you just exchange all of it there so you don’t have to waste any time standing in line at currency exchanges during your trip.
If you do need to exchange more money, we had more luck at cadecas (currency exchanges) than at banks, which have very limited hours. There are cadecas in every neighborhood, and while they may open a few minutes later than the sign says, the hours are still more generous than banks.
Don’t forget to bring your passport when you exchange money! Count the bills in front of the cashier before handing them your money (just like you should in any country). You should get 87 CUC for every 100 USD, since there is a 3% exchange fee plus a 10% US fee (fuck you, Trump).
U.S. citizens need to purchase a Tourist Card before arriving in Cuba. Sometimes the airline takes care of this (I think JetBlue includes it in their fee?), but if you’re like us, you can just purchase it at your departure airport, either at the check-in desk or the boarding gate. Since we had a layover in Panama, we purchased our Tourist Cards for $20 each, right before boarding the plane from Panama City to Havana. Easy!
Foreign health insurance doesn’t work in Cuba, and depending on who’s working at customs when you arrive, you may or may not be forced to purchase Cuban health insurance there. It’s not a big deal. We were directed to a booth where we purchased health insurance for a few dollars a day (they take USD). You’ll get a little packet of paperwork, and you should carry this around with you at all times.
Coordinate the airport pickup with your Airbnb. Just like at a lot of airports, there will be a swarm of taxi drivers trying to get your attention as soon as you exit. Avoid the chaos by having your Airbnb hire someone who is familiar with your destination.
While we loved our Airbnb in Old Havana, I would have preferred to stay in Vedado, which is slightly less touristy, has better restaurants, and would have been more convenient for all our tours. We ended up walking about 40 minutes almost every day to start a tour in Vedado.
Drink lots of coffee! Cuban coffee is as good as Italian coffee, so it’s no surprise that Cubans drink it like Italians (standing up at a bar, and often).
One of our favorite activities was just people-watching at our neighborhood park. We bought churros from a churro cart and laughed at the silly children running around.
Tip everyone, from your tour guides to your taxi drivers. We tipped our all-day tour guides between 5 and 10 CUC per person.
It’s always hot in Cuba, and basically anything goes when it comes to what to wear. Bring sneakers if you’re going to walk a lot because the streets aren’t always flat. I alternated between a tank top and shorts and summer dresses.
If you’re interested in Cuban history, check out the Museo de la Revolucion, which is a former presidential palace and houses a pretty impressive exhibit, as well as Fidel’s jacket and Che’s hat!
El Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bars, is touristy, but you can’t not come here at least once. The frozen daiquiris are actually quite good and surprisingly affordable. Get there before they open because the crowd streams in as soon as it does.
If you’re looking for a cheap local spot, we loved Donde Adrian, which we discovered through our salsa instructor. Portions are huge, and the total cost for both of our tasty meals was $5. In fact, half our dinners were just leftovers because our lunches were so large. You can eat really well in Cuba if you go to the local spots, just be aware that some of the menu may not be available because grocery stores are often sold out of produce.
If you’re looking for a memorable meal, La Guarida is a must. Every tourist eats here, and it is touristy and expensive by Cuban standards, but the food is phenomenal and the restaurant is gorgeous. La Guarida is one of the first paladars (private restaurants) in the city. It’s easy to pass it on the street, but a stunning marble staircase inside a seemingly vacant lobby leads to a warm, candlelit restaurant upstairs. Request a balcony table and order the rabo del toro with risotto.
I didn’t want to spend my 30th birthday in the U.S., so we booked a last-minute flight to Milan and planned out a brief trip to Emilia-Romagna. While it would be my sixth time in Italy (it is my favorite country, after all!), it was my very first time in this region, the culinary capital of the country.
After an hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Bologna on a dreary morning and checked into our Airbnb. There was a free walking tour starting in ten minutes, so we scurried to the starting point at Torre degli Asinelli, the iconic twin towers of Bologna. Bologna used to have hundreds of these towers, but only two remain, and one of them is comically crooked — Bologna’s own Leaning Tower! Our tour led us to the University of Bologna, the oldest university in continuous operation, and Basilica di San Petronio, a church that is only half covered in marble. Apparently the Pope had gotten jealous of the size of this church, so he ordered marble suppliers in Carrera to stop the shipment of marble to Bologna and it was never completely finished. As we wandered around town, we noticed how many porticoes there were. Bologna is a city of porticoes; there’s actually a law for each block to have them. Porticoes make so much sense, especially in the rain or snow, and they make the entire city pedestrian-friendly.
On our first night, we took a cooking class in the snug apartment of a former chef named Dennis, who hosted us and another couple. We learned how to make five different pastas (tagliatelle, ravioli, tortellini, garganelli, and agnolotti) and five fillings (various mixtures of ingredients such as Ricotta, spinach, potatoes, bergamot oil, truffle oil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano), and then tossed our pasta creations with a simple butter and sage sauce. For some reason, I’m awful at rolling garganelli noodles (it kept getting stuck!) but can make a pretty good tagliatelle, which I loved magically unraveling off my knife before hanging on the drying rack. As we drank Chianti and snacked on Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Ricotta, Dennis let us design our own fillings using his enviable collection of bottled oils.
Tagliatelle al ragù and tortellini in brodo are two of the most iconic Bolognese dishes. According to legend, Tagliatelle was created by a chef in love with a noblewoman named Lucrezia Borgia, and the noodles represent her long blonde hair. These flat, thick, ribbon-like noodles are best served with a rich sauce like ragù (also called “bolognese”). Such a thick sauce should always be served with a thick noodle that can handle it, which is why anytime you see “spaghetti bolognese” on a menu, you should run away from that restaurant immediately. Meanwhile, tortellini is a cute little stuffed pasta that represents the navel of Venus and is best served “in brodo” (in a chicken on vegetable broth).
One of my favorite things we did in Bologna was walk the longest portico in the world, which runs from the edge of town up to the Basilica di San Luca, a church sitting up on rolling hills above Bologna. The pilgrimage is a steady uphill walk through ornate covered porticoes – 666 of them in all! – stretching 4 kilometers. This walkway was built in 1674 as a way to protect the Madonna di San Luca as she was carried on her yearly visit into town. Many Bologna residents use this as a walking path or exercise run, and we enjoyed seeing so many locals out and about on a Sunday morning.
After our walk, we caught a 51-minute train ride to Parma, an elegant, compact city that’s also part of Emilia-Romagna. It’s famous for Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma, being the home of Barilla (the world’s biggest pasta maker), and was the first city in Italy to be named “Creative City for Gastronomy” by UNESCO. Besides food, it’s also known for its artists, such as opera composer Giuseppi Verdi, Renaissance painter Correggio, and conductor Arturo Toscanini, and is the headquarters of Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini. Yup, good food, opera, and fancy cars. You can sense the affluence as soon as you set foot here.
It was raining hard when we arrived in Parma (too bad Parma’s sidewalks aren’t covered by porticoes like in Bologna!), so we didn’t get to explore as comfortably as we would have liked, but we did get to see the stunning Correggio dome in the Parma cathedral. The fresco of the assumption of Mary is bursting with color even today.
For lunch, we couldn’t get into the first two restaurants I wanted to try, so we settled for a nondescript cafe called Cardinal Bar, which turned out to be an outstanding meal. When a city is this competent at food, you don’t even have to try finding a specific restaurant; you can stumble into anywhere and have the best Prosciutto and tortelli (large tortellini) of your life.
Back in Bologna, we had dinner at Osteria del Cappello, a traditional restaurant that’s been around since 1375. We tried more Bolognese specialties, such as Tortellini in Brodo, Gramigna alla Salsiccia (short, squiggly hollow pasta noodles with sausage and tomatoes), Squacquerone (a soft, creamy cheese), Tigelle (a flatbread baked in a round electric griddle), Gnocco Fritto (a puffy fried bread), and Mortadella (what Americans call “baloney” but is on a completely different level from what you can get in the U.S.).
On my actual birthday — the only sunny day of our trip — we woke up early for a ten-hour food tour with Italian Days. This tour was one of the best experiences of my life. It’s up there with riding a camel through the Sahara Desert, waking up in Positano, eating a private meal at our ryokan in Kyoto, and riding on the back of a pickup truck through Wadi Rum.
We were promptly picked up from our Airbnb and driven for about 40 minutes to the tranquil countryside of Modena. Our first stop was a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory, at which we were greeted with espresso and given disposable robes, hair caps, and shoe covers to wear for sanitation purposes. We watched the painstaking process of making official Parmigiano-Reggiano and learned the vast differences between Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano D.O.P., which must be aged for at least 12 months and will have the official Parmigiano-Reggiano branding on its rind if it passes inspection. Inspectors come to the factories and tap different sections of the cheese wheel, listening for any flaws. If a Parmigiano-Reggiano doesn’t pass inspection, it is stripped of its rind and sold as grated “Parmesan” — no longer deemed worthy of the name Parmigiano-Reggiano.
From there, we were driven just down the road to Antica Acetaia Cavedoni, where the Cavedoni family has been producing balsamic vinegar since 1860. This was probably the most fascinating part of our entire tour. Only 150 families are allowed to produce real balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena D.O.P.), and they all live in this region. Each bottle is made from a set of barrels designated for a specific family member as soon as he or she is born, which is why the barrels were traditionally used as a dowry. Bottles made from these barrels are only sold to the public when that specific family member has passed away. I had no idea balsamic vinegar was so personal!
The highest quality of balsamic vinegar is D.O.P., which is made of only cooked grape must and aged for at least 12 years. To produce one bottle, 10,000 kilos of Trebbiano grapes are used. Families must send their balsamic vinegar to a consortium and pay €200 for inspection. If it passes, they must pay another fee for the bottle, since D.O.P. balsamic vinegar is only allowed to be in a specific type of bottle, and another fee for the special label (a red label for 12-14 years of aging, a gold label for over 15 years of aging). After all those fees, families must pay a 54% tax on any sales. Clearly, this is a passion, not for profit.
After our balsamic vinegar tour, we sat around a cozy table, eager to finally try some food. We started with Lambrusco and Parmigiano-Reggiano, continued to Prosciutto and Mortadella, and finally ended with balsamic vinegar. D.O.P. balsamic vinegar is undeniably sweeter, thicker, and less sour and acidic than the balsamic vinegar most of us are used to, which is a blend of wine vinegar, cooked grape must, and usually caramels and preservatives to fake the fact that the vinegar hasn’t been aged anywhere near long enough. I.G.P. is another type of balsamic vinegar produced in this region, identifiable by its blue/yellow label. It may have more than just two ingredients and can age for a minimum of only 2 months, but the good ones are only cooked grape must and wine vinegar, and aged for at least five years. Condimento falls somewhere between D.O.P. and I.G.P., using the methods of D.O.P. but the ingredients of I.G.P. Anthony and I ended up purchasing a 3-ounce bottle of 15-year-old D.O.P. for $68 and a 3-ounce bottle of condimento for $38 — a bargain after learning about this industry, and after comparing the prices we’d be paying in the U.S.
Our third stop was a Prosciutto factory hidden in what looked like a normal three-story house. Prosciutto di Parma can only be produced from the hind legs of specially selected heritage breed pigs raised in 11 regions of Italy according to the highest standards, on which they are monitored, inspected, and approved by a consortium. The hind leg is cleaned, salted with only Italian sea salt, and cured for about two months. During this time, it’s massaged carefully to drain all the blood left in the meat. Next, it is washed and hung in a dark, well-ventilated environment. The surrounding air is important to the final quality of the Prosciutto. When ready, an inspector comes in and uses a horse bone to poke into the hind leg at various points and sniff it for quality. Only after the Prosciutto passes can this smell test can it have the D.O.P. stamp. We sampled some Prosciutto di Parma with a glass of Lambrusco, and it was easily the best Prosciutto of my life.
Our final stop on the tour was an agriturismo up on the hills overlooking the Emilia-Romagna countryside. Agriturismi (“farm stays”) are popular in Italy. A nonna prepared our seven-course meal of pasta, veal, meatballs, chicken, zucchini, potatoes, and unlimited wine. Since we had been spending the past seven hours together, our tour group felt like old friends by this time. In fact, when our tour guide was asked why she wasn’t counting any of the Euros we handed over to pay for the tour, she told us, “If you want to pay me less than you owe, I have failed on my part.” With our bellies and hearts full, Anthony and I were dropped off at the Bologna train station, reluctant to head to Milan. Arrivederci, Emilia-Romagna!
Tips for future travelers:
If you only have a short time in Emilia-Romagna without a car, stay in Bologna. It’s the largest city in this region and is easily connected to the other towns by train.
In Bologna, hike the Portico di San Luca (the longest portico in the world) and climb the Torre degli Asinelli (the twin towers of Bologna). Both offer great views and a way to work off all the pasta you’ve been eating.
Eat: Tortellini in Brodo, Tagliatelle al Ragù, green lasagna, Mortadella, Gramigna alla Salsiccia, Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano, gnocco fritto, balsamic vinegar, tigelle, and gelato (while gelato wasn’t invented in Emilia-Romagna, the best gelato of my life was at a gelateria in Bologna called OGGI)
If there’s only one thing you get from this entire post, it’s that you should take the Food & Wine Tour with Italian Days. It is hands down the best food tour I have ever been on — and we’ve gone on food tours everywhere (Rome, Cairo, Sevilla, Mexico City, Palermo…). It’s €150 per person, starts at 7 am and ends around 5:30 pm. There were ten of us in total, and we rode in two comfortable Mercedes vans between each site. Our tour guide Arianna was spectacular. I wish she could narrate my life! She had an infectious energy throughout the entire day, and taught us so many things we never would have learned on our own. The tour changed the way I eat food, appreciate Italy, and view the world.
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 jamón 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.
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.
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, and vibrant plazas swarming with madrileños (locals).
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.
The rest of Madrid felt so comfortable, like any other cosmopolitan European city, that we sometimes forgot which city we were in.
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.
Apparently we were missing southern Spain already because our favorite meal was at 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? — throughout the afternoon.
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. The next morning we cooked our leftovers for breakfast, and we couldn’t have been happier.
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.
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.
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.
Tips for future travelers:
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
Sausages, tomatoes, and olives
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
Walk along the iconic Calleja de las Flores. It’s congested for obvious reasons.
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.
Order a “fino fresquito” for a chilled white wine from the nearby Montilla-Moriles region.
Buses are convenient to catch from the station into town. You can purchase a €1.30 ticket onboard.
No need to make advanced reservations to La Mezquita. Just purchase a €10 ticket from the ticket booths inside the courtyard the day of.
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.