Paris (Pt. 3)

We’ve been to Paris three times in the last three years; at this point, we feel more comfortable in Paris than we do in Los Angeles. Just like our recent trip to Rome, this trip allowed us to stay in a different neighborhood, redo our favorite activities, and check off any bucket-list items that we hadn’t been able to do previously. Here’s some advice for Paris that we learned this summer:

Take a class at La Cuisine Paris. When we were here in November, we took a wine-and-cheese pairing class and loved it so much that we decided to take a croissant and breakfast pastry class this time. Our adorable French instructor Segolene taught us how to make croissants, pistachio twists, pain au chocolat, vanilla custards, cinnamon almond snails, and more. I eat croissants on a daily basis in New York, and now I have a much bigger appreciation for them knowing how much effort each one takes. We learned to throw our dough at the counter for elasticity — “think of someone you hate; I want you to leave here stress-free,” Segolene instructed us. We delicately added butter onto our dough before folding it and again and again and again. We cut the painstakingly folded dough into long triangles, made little Eiffel Towers out of them, and rolled them into croissants before baking and brushing egg wash onto them. I am always the worst one in every baking class, but I am incredibly talented at eating the final products. In the end, we enjoyed our pastries with coffee and tea and were able to bring our remaining pastries home.

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Naked croissants
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Coating them with eggwash
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Pain au chocolat
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Filling these with our toppings of choice
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Some of our pastries

Stay in an apartment. This was our first time staying in a hotel in Paris, and though our room at the stylish Hôtel Notre-Dame Saint Michel had a spectacular view of Notre-Dame (I made sure to request this view after booking), I couldn’t help but miss our apartment from last November, with its tiny balcony overlooking a sea of grey rooftops. When in any major city, I always recommend staying in Airbnbs or apartments to feel more like a local.

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Each room was designed by Christian Lacroix
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Great view, but no balcony
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Colorful staircases
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Our room faced Notre-Dame

Have tea at Mariage Frères, a French gourmet tea company founded in Paris in 1854 by the Mariage brothers. Tea is huge in France (perhaps that’s why their coffee sucks?), and the Mariage family was sent around the world on behalf of the royal court just to bring tea back home. There are five tearooms in Paris. We went to the one in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing, elegant afternoon. When we sat down, we were given an entire book about tea, which we spent a couple of hours reading. It covered everything, from the history of tea to proper brewing techniques.

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Madeleines and tea

Stroll through Promenade Plantée, an elevated park built on top of old railroad tracks that inspired New York’s High Line. Running nearly three miles from Bastille to Boulevard Périphérique, it passes some very interesting modern buildings. My favorite building is split in half by the park. Most Parisians thought the park was a waste of money when it first opened, but now cherish it, which is similar to their reaction to both the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre pyramid. When we were strolling, a sweet Parisian woman stopped her jogging session to randomly ask if we wanted our photo taken. Of course we said “oui”. She took a few from different angles, which I always appreciate, and when we passed by her again a few minutes later she laughed and offered to take a few more in front of this pool. She even directed us to stand in specific spots — and to “Bisou!”, so we immediately obliged. This may have been the best thing about Promenade Plantée. For some reason, many tourists don’t know about it, so we were surrounded by smiling locals (yes! Parisians do smile when you actually stumble across them outside of the touristy zones) who seemed to appreciate that we had done a little more research on our trip.

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My favorite building
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Very reminiscent of the High Line
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View of Paris below
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Bisous!

Visit Shakespeare & Co. once in your life. This was our first time staying on the Left Bank, so we finally remembered to check out this famous bookstore. It’s mobbed by American tourists, but you can understand why when you enter. It’s stuffed with English language books, contains cute little nooks to curl up with a novel, and has a no-photo policy.

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Picnic along Canal St. Martin. This neighborhood has transformed from Bushwick into Williamsburg, and while it’s probably become too glossy for true bobos anymore, I felt at home in Canal St. Martin, which was where we stayed in a tiny Airbnb back in 2015. Despite the change, young Parisians can still be found picnicking along the canal. Buy some cheese from a fromagerie, a baguette from the nearest boulangerie, and a bottle of wine. You’ll feel more Parisian doing this than dining at any restaurant.

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Unless you are really into Louis XIV, skip Versailles. Visit Neuschwanstein in Germany, Himeji Castle in Japan, or Pena Palace in Portugal instead. Almost everything about Versailles — the gaudy bedrooms, the crowded Hall of Mirrors, and even the overly-manicured gardens — was underwhelming. However, we did enjoy renting a boat and rowing in a lake alongside comical ducks and monstrous swans. If you do decide to visit Versailles, go early in the morning to beat some of the crowds.

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One of the first to step foot in the courtyard that morning!
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Getting that bicep workout
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Hall of Mirrors

Pick up pastries for breakfast from your neighborhood boulangerie. My favorite was award-winning Boulanger Patissier, located in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It was just a few blocks from our hotel and put all the croissants I made in class to shame. Furthermore, everything here is dirt cheap. It’ll make you upset that the only things this cheap in the U.S. are Dunkin’ Donuts.

Paris still has one of my favorite metro systems in the world. Sure, it’s not as sleek and shiny as Tokyo’s, but I think it works surprisingly well (except for its absurdly tiny single-use tickets) and runs on time, at least in our experience. Take advantage of its numbered exits in the stations. When you look up a route online, Google Maps will tell you which exit to take. These are so helpful! I wish New York’s subway exits were also numbered so I would know which part of the train I should aim for ahead of time. One more tip for the Paris Metro: Always pay your fare. When we were heading to the airport, the ticket machine at our metro station wasn’t working, and the turnstiles were letting everyone through without tickets, so we caught the train without paying. Sure enough, metro workers were at the airport entrance checking each passenger’s ticket, and we left Paris €100 poorer.

Eat at Pierre Sang Oberkampf, one of the most innovative dining experiences I’ve ever had. It offers a blind tasting menu, which means that each ingredient of your dish is explained to you after you finish eating it. For only €39, I had six courses of French-Korean dishes (think steak with gochujang, beet purée, and beans). We booked seats at the bar and had a direct view of the kitchen. Immediately after our dinner, we attempted to book a table for the following evening, but the menu only changes every two weeks.

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The best view at any good restaurant is always of the chefs hard at work
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Steak
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Prawns
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Second to last course was cheese, of course
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Last course

Apparently French-Asian fusion is blowing up in Paris because another fantastic meal we had was at Les Enfants Rouges. Again, we sat at the bar to watch the kitchen as they prepared our fried foie gras on creamy corn and coffee mousse, tempura monkfish, and figs with a coconut sorbet and pistachios over matcha cream.

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Fried foie gras on creamy corn and coffee mousse
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Figs topped with coconut sorbet, on matcha cream and pistachios

Visit in the fall. As much as I enjoyed the extra-long days and leisurely nights sitting out along the Seine (stay out past midnight to see the Eiffel Tower glitter!), I still prefer Paris in the fall, when the weather is crisp and more locals have replaced tourists.

Each time we visit Paris, we eat better meals, know more about each neighborhood, and notice the little changes that have occurred since our last trip. Anthony and I felt so comfortable in Paris that, although we don’t speak French at all, we could easily see ourselves living here. It’s such a diverse, stimulating city with good food — and, most importantly, cheap croissants. Paris was the perfect way to end our Ireland and France trip. I’m not sure how many more times I want to visit Paris, but I am desperate for an excuse to explore more of the French countryside, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself back here soon. If that’s the case, I will most definitely be making another reservation at Pierre Sang Oberkampf. Au revoir for now!

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Bayeux

When our train pulled into Bayeux, we had only an hour and a half to check into our B&B and eat lunch before our tour. I randomly chose Bayeux because it was one of the towns conveniently located for the D-Day Tours, but as Anthony quickly navigated us from the train station to our B&B, I had to pause every few seconds just to take it all in. Bayeux is heartbreakingly charming! We had just arrived from Mont Saint-Michel, which was lovely but an otherworldly experience, so Bayeux felt like the first French town outside of Paris that we were actually exploring.

There’s a reason why I have such a soft spot for Italy, Germany, and Japan — and, no, it’s not because they were our enemies during World War II. It’s because we actually dedicated some time to their smaller towns, whether it’s Positano, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, or Nara. To visit only major cities when traveling does that country a disservice. Bayeux is a charming medieval town in Normandy. Located four miles from the coast of the English Channel, it was the first French town to be liberated by the Allies in June 1944.

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Place Charles de Gaulle

Eventually, we checked into our stylish B&B, Le Petit Matin. Our room had a tasteful sailing theme, with gorgeous parquet floors, a walk-in closet, and a view of the genteel square across the street.

 

My favorite part, however, was our host Pascal, who served us homemade quiche and fresh apple cake (in addition to a table full of croissants, Normandy cheeses, yogurt, and fruits) at breakfast, and gave us suggestions for restaurants, such as Le Pommier, which turned out to be my favorite meal of our entire trip. At Le Pommier, we started with a couple of bottles of Bayeux cider brut (a Normandy specialty), then I had duck breast with balsamic juices and a crème brûlée, while Anthony had lamb with thyme and candied carrots, and a flaky apple pie (another Normandy specialty). We ate outside on a quaint street bustling with restaurants and a view of the Bayeux cathedral down the road.

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Bayeux cider brut
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Duck breast
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In heaven

Europe is full of stunning churches, but I have to say, the uplighting on the Bayeux Cathedral in the summertime puts everyone else’s to shame. Stories celebrating France’s journey to liberty are projected onto the cathedral. Apparently these light shows are a thing around Normandy, with the cathedral in Rouen also covered in bright colors at night.

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Norman, Romanesque, and Gothic influences
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Look at that uplighting!

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While I could have spent our entire time in Bayeux pretending I was in an Impressionist painting, Anthony was excited for our D-Day Beaches tour with Normandy Sightseeing Tours. For five hours, our entertaining guide Olivier drove us to the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and a cemetery filled with white crosses representing American lives that were lost at Normandy. I was fascinated by the aberrations — we found one Hawaiian, a Mexican, and a few Blacks in the cemetery. Jews had Stars of David instead of crosses.

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The beaches of Normandy
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My husband and his Metal Earth models
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Inside a bomb crater
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American cemetery

While Americans tend to visit Normandy for the World War II sites, British and French tourists visit for the Bayeux Tapestry, which we decided to see more out of obligation than anything else. However, we were awed by it. The tapestry is an embroidered cloth nearly 230 feet long and 20 inches tall. It wraps around an entire gallery and is housed in a building dedicated entirely to it. In roughly 50 scenes, the tapestry intricately depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. Its survival is nothing short of miraculous. The museum ticket comes with a free audio guide, which is perfectly designed to pace listeners and showcase the craftsmanship of the tapestry. For the first time in 950 years, it will be leaving France and loaned out to the British Museum for the next few years — a thought that initially upset us (why does England have to take all good things?!), but we were quelled when we found out that the Bayeux museum is undergoing construction and thus needed housing for its tapestry.

Fewer than 14,000 people live in Bayeux. In the U.S., I can’t stand small towns. They make me anxious. They’re usually filled with conservatives and bad food, but Bayeux proved that small towns in France (and probably much of the rest of the world) are pretty fantastic. I was ready to move in. Everyone we met was incredibly welcoming, and the food we had here was honestly better than anything we’ve ever eaten in Paris. But speaking of Paris, it was time for us to make our way down there again. When we checked out of Le Petit Matin, Pascal handed us a bottle of local cider, making my heart melt just a little more. Au revoir, Bayeux!

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Mont Saint-Michel

It was a trek to reach Mont Saint-Michel, but the journey is easily worth it. I had first heard of Mont Saint-Michel years ago, when my dad scoffed that I was going to Paris and told me about a mysterious monastery that becomes an island during high tide that I should be visiting instead. It took me a while, but I finally made it after seemingly every Instagram blogger had made it there, too.

We first flew into Paris from Ireland, caught a Le Bus Direct to Gare Montparnasse, then a train to Rennes. All of this went surprisingly smoothly, but when we got to Rennes, the next bus to Mont Saint-Michel wasn’t leaving until late afternoon, so we were stuck in Rennes for a few hours instead of making the most of our already short time in Mont Saint-Michel. Thankfully, Rennes is a fairly interesting city with a large student population, so we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and explored the impressive public library.

During lunch we learned the difference between crêpes and galettes, both of which originated in this region. A crêpe is a sweet wheat flour pancake often filled with Nutella or fruits, while a galette is a savory buckwheat pancake often filled with cheese & ham. In the U.S. we erroneously call galettes “savory crêpes”, or — even worse — we put savory ingredients inside a crêpe. I ordered a crispy galette filled with emmental, andouille & potato galette, and then for dessert we shared a flambéed Grand Marnier crêpe.

Our bus arrived right on schedule, and an hour and a half later we were finally in Mont Saint-Michel. Unfortunately, I hadn’t confirmed exactly which bus stop to get off at, so we watched as our bed & breakfast passed us by and anxiously got off at the next stop. Apparently our B&B is officially in the neighboring town of Beauvoir, as the only hotels in the tiny enclave of Mont Saint-Michel are either soulless chains filled with Japanese tour groups or ridiculously overpriced hotels actually located on the island. It was only a 13-minute walk back to our B&B, but trust me, lugging suitcases through fields on the side of the road for 13 minutes, dressed for rainy Ireland instead of sunny France, felt like forever. We must have been quite a sight to all the cars driving by.

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New Yorkers trekking through fields

At last, we arrived. And what a lovely welcome! Our room at Les Vieilles Digues opened up to a private backyard, and breakfasts included all the camembert I could dream of. Our affectionate host Danielle spoke fluent Japanese and, upon first greeting us, exclaimed, “So petite! So beautiful!” After we settled in, we made our way to the island, which, as we’d quickly learn, is farther out than we had expected. We knew about some free shuttles, but as New Yorkers we had wanted to walk instead. What a joke. From the tourist center, it’s about a 45-minute tedious walk along a causeway. Since we had dinner reservations, we gave up about a quarter of the way and decided to just stare at the island for as long as time permitted before turning back and heading to the restaurant in Beauvoir.

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Our room at Les Vieilles Digues
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Backyard

Our dreamy dinner at La Ferme Saint Michel reminded me of how absolutely tragic the United States is. Beauvoir is a simple village of roughly 400 people. It is not one of those prestigious French towns filled with Michelin-rated restaurants, but it does believe that eating home-cooked, organic food shouldn’t have to be a privilege. At La Ferme Saint Michel, I paid €26 for an incredible three-course meal of carrot soup with foie gras, locally-raised lamb, and crème brûlée (which came with a huge candle!), while dining in a beautiful historic farmhouse. A meal of this caliber would have cost four times as much in New York — and wouldn’t even be conceivable in the rest of the country. I’ve roadtripped across America multiple times, and there is no such thing as affordable, freshly-made, three-course dinners for the majority of Americans, even in towns that obviously grow food. This is because our country values capitalism and making a profit for Big Farms over feeding its citizens good, healthy meals. Instead, many Americans are forced to eat at Waffle Houses or the nearest dreadful chain restaurant (e.g., Applebee’s, Olive Garden) that charges unethical prices for food pumped with preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup.

Besides three courses of food, we also ordered a three-course beverage menu. For €9 each, we got a sparkling orange apertif, a carafe of wine, and coffee. Ireland certainly impressed me with its delicious farm-to-table food, but I still can’t help but prefer French food. I was in heaven.

After our meal, the sun had already set, but shuttles run late in the summer so we decided to attempt Mont Saint-Michel one more time. The shuttles are so convenient; no wonder everyone takes them! These sleek shuttles were designed to elegantly match the terrain, and they drop everyone off on the middle of the bridge, leaving passengers with a drop-dead gorgeous view of the island.

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View of when we attempted to walk instead of catch the shuttle

Some history about Mont Saint-Michel: It was built after a bishop dreamt about Archangel Michael, who ordered him to build a sanctuary on the rocky island at the mouth of the Couesnon River. The island has housed a vertical, gravity-defying abbey since the 8th century. Mont Saint-Michel was one of the most important pilgrimage destinations during the Middle Ages. Such was the difficulty of the journey that it became a test of penitence, sacrifice, and commitment to God to reach the Benedictine abbey. The English couldn’t conquer Mont Saint-Michel during the Hundred Years’ War due to the abbey’s strong fortifications.When pilgrimages were in decline during the Reformation, the abbey closed and was converted into a prison, holding priests and high-profile political prisoners, such as Victor Hugo. Closing the prison in 1863, Napoleon III ordered the 650 prisoners to be transferred to other facilities.

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Heading to Mont Saint-Michel

The island is cut off from the mainland twice a day at high tide, which rises 46 feet. The tide is said to travel at the speed of a galloping horse. The flooding has created salt marsh meadows that are ideally suited to grazing sheep. Richly-flavored meat resulting from the sheep’s diet makes a dish called agneau de pré-salé “salt meadow lamb”, a local specialty served on the menus of surrounding restaurants. I had this lamb during our dinner!

Only seven people live on the island. It was past 10 p.m. when we arrived, so all the daytrippers were gone and most of the shops were closed, giving the island an eerie medieval feel. It was a stormy night — no rain, but lots of thunder and lightning. I am not a religious person, but I could understand why one might believe in a higher power as we strolled through the empty streets and climbed staircases toward the abbey. Wandering here at night has to be one of the most magical moments of my life — it’s up there with going on a safari in South Africa, watching hot air balloons during sunrise in Cappadocia, and waking up in Positano. Some experiences make you feel so lucky.

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Roaming around at night
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Abbey

We woke up early the next morning, still on a high from last night, and decided to return to Mont Saint-Michel. It was raining this time, but we had our umbrellas, and we huddled under the roof of the tourist center to catch the first shuttle of the day. As we rode the shuttle over the causeway toward Mont Saint-Michel, I couldn’t help but envy the pilgrims who trekked here centuries ago and had heard tales of this abbey but had no idea what it would look like. Can you imagine how epic it must have been for someone who wasn’t expecting this island?

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Rainy morning

It was still too early for the shops to be open and the daytrippers to arrive, so Mont Saint-Michel had that same otherworldly aura, but in daylight instead of in darkness.

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By the time we returned to our B&B, breakfast was ready. Danielle had prepared a spread of cured meats, fresh breads, lots of Camembert, and yogurt. Camembert is a moist, soft, creamy cow’s milk cheese from this region — and one of my favorite cheeses — so I was pleased with an obligation to stuff myself with it.

It was time for us to leave right after breakfast, and as we checked out, Danielle immediately told us that she’d drive us to the bus station. It was only a ten-minute walk, but we weren’t about to refuse a free ride in her Benz and more time to chat with her. We arrived a few minutes before a bus took us to Pontorson, where we caught a train to Bayeux, our next stop on the trip.

Mont Saint-Michel is one of those places that is just as stunning in real life as in all the photographs you’ve seen online. When you glance at it from the mainland, it looks like a mirage, like something from a movie. And if you come late at night or early in the morning like we did, you’ll also feel like you’re in a movie. Experience it for yourself.

But, back to reality. Up next: Bayeux, my favorite place in France so far!

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Galway

Dublin had already changed my mind about Ireland with its rousing history and rebellious spirit, but Galway’s people and landscapes are what really made me fall in love with Ireland. Galway is artsy, bohemian, and filled with students, who are a large reason why the music scene here is one of the best in the country.

One of the first things we did was stumble into a free walking tour — the only walking tour that has ever made me tear up! Besides taking us on a fascinating walk through Galway and teaching us about its history (full of invaders) and cultural traditions, our guide — aware that the majority of tourists are Irish-Americans — spent a minute to affectionately acknowledge them. “We genuinely welcome you back. Your ancestors had to leave Ireland for a better life, and they succeeded. Because they succeeded, you are able to come back here today, and we are so, so proud of you.” What a welcome! I had never wanted to be Irish so badly!

During the tour, she brought us to a church that didn’t look like much, so when she told us that it was her favorite church in the world, I was intrigued. In 2002, the first public blessing for a same-sex couple in an Irish church occurred here. This Protestant church also allowed Catholics to worship here when their own church was being refurbished — a shocking gesture when you consider the history of Ireland. This church is regularly used by the Romanian & Russian Orthodox Churches, as well as a Syrian church. In a world full of division and hatred — especially between religions — this church exemplifies a type of humanity I wish I could see more of. Ireland may be known as a Catholic country, but the Irish people we met both in Dublin and Galway were all incredibly progressive.

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St. Nicholas Collegiate Church

Galway is compact, with brightly painted pubs and seafood restaurants filling the main roads. A salmon-stuffed river runs through the city, and a long waterfront promenade leads to Galway Bay. That was where I first encountered real Irish grass. I just could not get over this grass. We should be banning all sprinklers because this blindingly-green grass nourished naturally from the sky and sea (using seaweed fertilizer!) should be the only grass allowed around the world. Love songs should be written about it. I am not a nature person, but this landscape had me in awe. I’ve never seen anything like it. It made me want to put up with the nonstop rain.

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Grass in Galway

That night, I had the first oysters I’ve ever liked. Apparently the oysters are reason enough to visit Galway, which hosts an international oyster festival every year. Oysters from Galway Bay are huge, flat, and known as some of the best-flavored in the world. Although we only had two days in Galway, we ate oysters three times because I was so amazed by how good they were.

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Oysters with a shot of Guinness and salsa

The next morning we began our all-day tour with Galway Tour Company. When I saw the huge tour bus, I had flashbacks of Iceland, but fortunately summertime in Ireland is a lot more pleasant than wintertime in Iceland. Our tour guide did not make me tear up but he was hilarious and knew exactly how to make the drive entertaining: silly jokes and frequent rest stops. We stopped by a castle, a cemetery, and a charming town in which we filled up on delicious seafood chowder and homemade fudge, before finally arriving at the Cliffs of Moher.

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Dunguaire Castle

The Cliffs of Moher rise 702 feet nearly vertically above the Atlantic Ocean. Legend has it that there is a lost city called Kilstiffen beneath the Cliffs, but the shoreline was pummeled by an evil witch who lived there and fell in love with a hero of Irish mythology. He did not return her affection, so she pummeled the shoreline, giving the cliffs their distinctive shoreline. We spent about three hours here and I could’ve spent longer. Sure, we’ve seen coastlines before (I’m from Hawaii, after all), but there’s something particularly magical about the Cliffs of Moher — perhaps it’s the crisp air (the cleanest air in the world!), the perfect Irish grass everywhere, or the finicky weather (if it’s raining anywhere in the country, it’s on the western coasts of Ireland, so the fact that the skies eventually cleared up and didn’t rain a drop on us made it feel all the more special). They like to say that on a clear day, you can see the Statue of Liberty, reminding the Irish of their diaspora in America.

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Lounging on the softest grass
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Hello!
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Iconic view

When we returned to Galway that evening, we had about eight hours until our early morning bus ride to the airport. We spent that time strolling along the river, stuffing ourselves with oysters and Murphy’s ice cream (yes, there is a Murphy’s in Galway — thank goodness!), wasting time at bookstores, and having Anthony’s favorite meal of our entire trip at John Keogh’s.

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You know the steak is going to be good when an entire page of the menu is dedicated to it

When it was time to leave Ireland and hop over to France, I felt like a slightly different person. Our five days in Ireland had changed me in so many ways. I eat oysters now. I am fond of Irish accents, which until this trip I found unappealing. I am a grass snob. Most importantly, however, I have a new appreciation for the people of this stunning country.

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Tips for future travelers:

It’s astounding how convenient the bus system is in Ireland. Galway is on the other side of the country, but a comfortable Citylink bus took us straight from the Galway station to the airport in Dublin in just an hour and 20 minutes.

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Waiting for a Citylink bus

Oysters are probably good everywhere in Galway, but we tried them at McDonagh’s, John Keogh’s, and The King’s Head.

Besides oysters, eat ice cream at Murphy’s and flaky, savory pies at The Pie Maker.

We stayed at a charming bed & breakfast called Petra House, just a few minutes from the Latin Quarter. I always love breakfasts at B&Bs, but Petra House took it to another level. When we sat down in the breakfast room, we were given an entire menu to choose from. I chose a bangers and rashers, Anthony chose potato waffles, and then we shared porridge topped with Baileys liqueur. Each dish came with an Irish bread basket with fresh butter, coffee, and orange juice.

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The outside of our B&B
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Bangers & rashers
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Porridge with Baileys

Our free walking tour with Tribes was probably the best walking tour we’ve ever been on. Because it was free, guides work harder since their salary depends on tips. It was the perfect way to begin our time in Galway.

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Dublin

Ireland humbled me. I wasn’t excited to visit at all, but I ended up falling in love with the people, the landscapes, and surprisingly, even some of the food.

Anthony and I spent our first three nights in Dublin, staying at a bed & breakfast near St. Stephen’s Green. The location was perfect, as we were able to walk everywhere and appreciate the genteel Georgian homes in our neighborhood. Why does Dublin have so many colorful doors? After Queen Victoria died, England ordered Irish citizens to paint their doors black in mourning. The Irish rebelled. This rebellious spirit was one of the reasons I found Dublin so captivating. The Pope was scheduled to arrive in Dublin during the tail-end of our trip, and throughout the city were protest signs directed at him, demanding him to address the Church’s sex abuse scandals.

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These colorful doors all over Dublin are symbols of protest

Since it was my first time in Dublin, we did quite a few touristy things. We gawked at the stunning Long Room at Trinity College, which has the rights to receive materials published in Ireland and the United Kingdom free of charge.

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Long Room

We drank Guinness at the Guinness Storehouse, a huge pint glass-shaped structure with multiple floors of information and a panoramic view of Dublin at the top. We learned that a “perfect pour” takes 119.5 seconds: pour the Guinness at a 45° angle, then rest. This rest is crucial. After a pause – long enough so that the liquid in the glass is pitch black – fill the rest of the glass at a 45° angle. Serve with a creamy head and at exactly 42.8F.

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Drinking Guinness at the Storehouse bar at 10:00 am
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Look at that head!

We also toured Kilmhainham Gaol, a former prison where leaders of the uprisings against the British were executed, but also where many Irish convicted of petty crimes (such as stealing bread) were imprisoned. It was built for 100 prisoners but at one point held over 9,000. The youngest prisoner was 5 — held here for stealing an iron chain. Quality of life here was awful, but during the famine, people were so desperate for food that some committed crimes on purpose just so they could be imprisoned here and be fed.

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Kilmainham Gaol

My favorite activities, however, were drinking tea with a local Dubliner and joining a musical pub crawl. A small museum, appropriately called The Little Museum of Dublin, organizes a program called City of a Thousand Welcomes, in which Dubliners can volunteer to hang out with tourists for a beer or a coffee/tea. Our local Dubliner was a retired farmer who taught us about the Easter Uprising, explained the crazy weather in Ireland, and gave us tips on where to eat and how to avoid the Pope chaos tomorrow. Thanks to the program, we had a free afternoon tea at the lovely Merrion Hotel with him. Every major city should have this program! He only had to hang out with us for an hour, but after our leisurely tea, he walked with us through the rain to our next destination before heading back home on the commuter train. Our entire trip was a confirmation that the Irish really are the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, but our Dublin friend also proved how helpful and out-of-the-way considerate they can be as well.

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Tea at the Merrion Hotel

A few hours later, we joined our musical pub crawl, which was probably the highlight of our time in Dublin. For about 3 hours, we followed a couple of professional musicians to different pubs, listening to Irish music and watching a private Riverdance performance. It was such an entertaining way to learn about the rivalries between Irish cities, as well as Irish stereotypes of other European countries.

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Musical pub crawl

Ireland has so often been an underdog throughout history, and as a nonwhite woman in America, I can’t help but relate to and root for the Irish. People often come to Ireland just for the countryside (which is completely understandable; the Irish countryside is otherworldly), but we were utterly charmed by Dublin. If not for the weather, which was a bit dreary for summertime, we could easily see ourselves living here.

Random tips for future travelers:

Roam around the Temple Bar neighborhood. Temple Bar had run into decay and ruin during the 20th century. In the 1980s, a transportation company made plans to level the whole place and build a bus terminus. However, after protests from artists, gallery owners, and small shop owners, the company canceled its plans and the government helped develop Temple Bar into a vibrant cultural center filled with bars and restaurants and shops that attract both locals and tourists.

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Bustling Temple Bar

It’s easy to reach Dublin from the airport. An Aircoach bus brought us straight from the airport to a few blocks from our B&B in 35 minutes. I bought tickets in advance, but you can purchase tickets right at the station. Buses come every 15 minutes, running throughout the day.

Visit the Long Room as early as possible. It gets extremely crowded, and you want to have enough time and space to appreciate the architecture.

Restaurants we loved: L. Mulligan Grocer (where the menus are hidden in old books, each dish is paired with a beer or whiskey, and the food is phenomenal); Etto (dine early to catch the affordable pre-theater menu); and Klaw (fresh seafood in a relaxed environment).

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Outside L. Mulligan Grocer
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Scotch egg at L. Mulligan Grocer
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Hake & cockles at Etto

Most importantly, though, eat ice cream at Murphy’s. We went to Murphy’s every single day (literally!) that we were in Ireland. Ireland is going through a culinary renaissance right now, excelling at the farm-to-table movement, so it was no surprise that Ireland’s most beloved ice cream shops does not use colorings, flavorings, or milk powder. Everything starts with fresh-from-the-farm milk, local cream, free-range eggs, and organic sugar. Then they toast, simmer, bake & extract real ingredients, whether distilling Dingle rain to make sorbets, making sea salt from Dingle sea water, or infusing gin by hand. My favorite flavors were Caramelized Brown Bread, Dingle Sea Salt, and Kieran’s Cookies. I would return to Ireland just to eat Murphy’s ice cream.

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Murphy’s ice cream

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 dough, 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.

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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