What Cairo lacked, the rest of the country made up for when we flew down south to Upper Egypt (called “Upper Egypt” because the Nile flows from south to north). It was like flying to an entirely different world from noisy, overcrowded Cairo. The indigenous peoples of this region are Nubians — much darker than the Arabs we met in Cairo, and fluent in varieties of the Nubian language. They hail from one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa and are split between modern-day Egypt and Sudan. Nubia is one of the hottest, sunniest, and driest regions in the world, and is where Egypt’s most impressive temples are. If you only have a few days in Egypt, this is where I’d recommend spending your time.
At 5:00 am, a tour guide and driver picked us up from our Airbnb in Cairo and took us to the dysfunctional Cairo airport, where we caught an hour and a half flight to Aswan. There, another tour guide and driver led us on a breathtaking tour of the High Dam, Abu Simbel (my favorite!), and Philae Temple.
The High Dam was built across the Nile between Egypt and Sudan to better control flooding, provide more water for irrigation, and generate hydroelectricity. Before the dam was built, flooding was too inconsistent; some years flooding could destroy the whole crop, while other years the lack of it brought drought and famine. Unfortunately, the High Dam has also caused the relocation of over 100,000 people and many archaeological sites. Additionally, it’s created tension between various countries and contributed to the Cold War; it was partly funded by the Soviet Union.
After the dam, we fell asleep in the car as our driver sped for three hours down to Abu Simbel, one of the most spectacular sites I’ve ever seen. Abu Simbel consists of two massive temples carved into solid rock cliffs in the 13th century B.C., in the southernmost part of Egypt, right by the border with Sudan. They are monuments for Pharaoh Ramses II & his favorite wife (out of 37) Nefertari, created to both celebrate his victory over the Hittites and symbolize his power over the conquered lands of Nubia. The temples are perfectly positioned so that on October 21 and February 21 (the dates of his birth and coronation), the sun rays penetrate and illuminate the sculptures deep inside the temple. Eventually, both temples were covered up by sand and weren’t rediscovered again until 1813. The entire complex was relocated in 1968 to avoid being submerged by a flood after the High Dam was built. An international team of engineers and scientists dug away the top of the cliff and completely disassembled both temples, reconstructing them on higher ground. Skip the pyramids and come to Abu Simbel instead.
We drove another three hours back up to Aswan, from which we took a little motorboat to the island of Angilika, where the Philae Temple stands. According to legend, the god Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Set, who was jealous of the love between Osiris and their sister Isis (obviously incest was acceptable back then). Isis searched for the fragments of his body and brought Osiris back to life with her magical powers. The Philae Temple is dedicated to Isis and was nearly lost underwater when the Aswan High Dam was built, but was rescued by multiple nations with the help of UNESCO. The entire island was surrounded with a dam, and the inside was pumped dry. Then every stone block of the complex was labelled and removed, later to be reassembled on higher ground.
After a long day, we were finally dropped off at the Basma Hotel Aswan for the night. I’m always wary of hotels that tour companies select, but we loved our stay here, especially our room with a prime view of the resort.
At 5:00 am the next morning, a different tour guide and driver picked us up from the hotel and drove us three hours to Luxor, where we visited Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut, the Colossi of Memnon, Karnak Temple, and Luxor Temple. Luxor is often called the “world’s greatest open-air museum.”
Approximately 30 pharaohs contributed to the building of Karnak Temple, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity never seen before. In the Hypostyle Hall, 134 massive columns are arranged in 16 rows. The architraves on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. A roof, now fallen, was once supported by the columns. In 1899, 11 of the massive columns collapsed in a chain reaction because their foundations were undermined by ground water. An archaeologist supervised the rebuilding that was completed in 1902.
Unlike other temples, Luxor Temple was not dedicated to a god but was where many of the pharaohs of Egypt were crowned. During the Christian era, the hall was converted into a Christian church. Then for thousands of years, the temple was buried beneath the streets and houses of Luxor. Eventually a mosque was built over it, which was carefully preserved when the temple was uncovered and forms an integral part of the site today (scroll to the second photo below to see the mosque, and how much the temple was buried).
After our whirlwind of sightseeing, we spent the rest of the day relaxing in a rooftop pool at a hotel in Luxor as we waited for our flight back to Cairo. From our hotel, we could see both the Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple, as well as the row of sphinxes lining the path between the two.
Upper Egypt is breathtaking. The farther south you go in Egypt, the deeper into Egypt’s African roots you discover. Abu Simbel, Philae Temple, and Karnak Temple are enough to justify an entire trip to Egypt. I wasn’t impressed by the pyramids in Giza, but in Upper Egypt, it felt like there was still a connection between modern-day Egyptians and their ancient history. Seeing these monuments still standing, thousands of years after construction, was already incredible, but learning about their relocation and rebuilding was perhaps even more impressive. For a civilization that was so concerned with preserving its legacy, it’s only fitting that the monuments ancient Egyptians left behind would undergo many rebirths and continue to influence other civilizations throughout history.
Tips for future travelers:
We took all private tours usingEmo Tours again, which seemed to be the biggest company in Egypt. It worked pretty well. Two out of three of our guides were wonderful. I definitely recommend having a guide at all the sites to show you the short cuts and make the vast history somewhat digestible.
Abu Simbel may seem like a hassle to get to, requiring a flight and three-hour drive, but it’s worth it. Trust me. Machu Picchu, Mont St-Michel, Cappadocia, and Petra are the only other sites I’ve visited that match its grandeur. Plus, because Abu Simbel takes more effort to visit, there will be fewer tourists than all the other temples on your itinerary.
At some of the sites, you have an option of paying a fee to take photos inside. Pay to take photos inside Abu Simbel. Not doing this is one of my biggest regrets.
One of our best meals in Egypt was at El Zaeem, a popular koshary restaurant in Luxor. While it was just a couple of blocks from our hotel, Google Maps gave us the wrong address and we quickly got frustrated by the mix of hasslers on the sidewalks and chaotic traffic — the traffic laws are no different from Cairo, after all. Fortunately, someone noticed we looked lost and, as soon as I mentioned “koshary”, he led us two more blocks down to El Zaeem. We ordered koshary and ful (mashed fava bean dip with a drizzle of tahini).
We only had about 24 hours in Cusco, but even just our short time there was enough to convince us that Cusco is one of the fascinating cities we’ve ever been to. It was the capital of the Inca Empire until the Spaniards moved the capital down to coastal Lima because they couldn’t handle the altitude. When the Spanish invaded, they plundered the city and constructed their own Catholic buildings, meanwhile killing many Incas with smallpox. Fortunately, a big earthquake in 1950 toppled the poorly-constructed Spanish buildings, while the Inca architecture underneath was left standing.
We stayed at Hostal Corihuasi, a restored colonial guest house, just a brisk uphill walk from the main plaza. Our rustic room had parquet floors, hand-woven rugs, alpaca wool blankets, and wraparound windows that offered a panoramic view of the entire city. Cusco felt huge, especially after staying in little towns like Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes for the past week. From our windows, Cusco was a sea of red roofs and cathedrals, surrounded by mountains — much like Florence. Another thing we noticed in the lobby of our hotel was a huge oxygen tank, reminding us that we were 11,152 feet above sea level. We had saved Cusco for the end of our trip for that very reason, and thanks to that, we felt fine our entire time there.
Unlike Aguas Calientes, which is pretty much mocked by everyone we meet, Cusco seems to be universally loved. Remnants of both the Inca Empire and the invasion of Spanish conquistadors share Cusco’s narrow cobblestoned streets, creating a unique mashup of Andean and Spanish styles that makes Cusco like no other place on earth.
We joined a free historical walking tour, wandered around Mercado San Pedro, bought chocolate at the ChocoMuseo, got kissed by an alpaca, and then later ate alpaca burgers. If I could spend a month in only one place in Peru, Cusco would be my first choice because it felt incredibly livable.
By the time our cab arrived to take us to the airport, I wasn’t ready to leave Peru yet. This country didn’t hit me immediately the way my other favorite countries (Italy, Turkey, and South Africa) did. In fact, I didn’t start crying until our plane took off and I started going through my photos from Ollantaytambo. Peru was magical, but in a quiet way. This trip was my first venture into Latin America, opening a new world (pun intended) to me, and I can’t wait to return.
Tips for future travelers
We hired Taxi Datum for all our cab rides throughout Peru. It cost 127 soles from Ollantaytambo to Cusco, and 20 soles from Cusco to the airport. It’s easy to book online, and they’re always prompt.
The two alpaca burgers we tried were phenomenal. Chakruna Native Burgers is a fun burger shop in San Blas. Make sure to order a side of fries (even though each burger already comes with fries) because they are wonderful and are accompanied by five different sauces. Meanwhile, Hanz Homemade Craft Beer & Food had an even better alpaca burger and is entirely run by one man who took everyone’s orders, walked them to the outdoor restroom so they wouldn’t get lost, and kept us entertained throughout dinner. I’d probably be a regular at Hanz if I had my dream month in Cusco.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The second stop on our five-country trip was Palermo, Sicily, and it just confirmed (once again) that Italy is my favorite country. This is actually somewhat ironic because many Sicilians and mainland Italians don’t even consider Sicily part of Italy. Set right in between Europe, Northern Africa, and the Arab world, Sicily has been influenced (and invaded) by many cultures throughout history. To say Sicily is simply Italian is as reductive as saying Hawaii is American. Sicily barely saw the Renaissance that Italy is so famous for, yet its diversity in people, architecture, and cuisine exemplifies a cultural richness that cannot be found anywhere else.
We’d been to southern Italy before, so we prepared ourselves for utter chaos upon arrival, but the transportation from the airport to our apartment couldn’t have been smoother. Right in front of the airport exit was a desk dedicated to the Prestia e Comande bus service, where we bought round-trip tickets and were even given a little postcard with the bus route and timetable on it. After a scenic 45-minute bus ride, we got off outside Politeama theater and walked to our apartment, a penthouse on the ninth floor. The jaw-dropping balcony, which wrapped around almost our entire floor, was larger than our whole apartment back in Brooklyn. We enjoyed many breakfasts and evenings up there.
The highlight of our short time in Palermo was easily a four-hour food tour with Streaty. We met our guide, Salvo, outside the impressive Massimo Theater, which is the third largest opera house in Europe and the setting of that climactic scene in The Godfather Part III. (For those of you who haven’t blocked that movie out from memory, it’s where Sofia Coppola got shot and Al Pacino did his silent scream.)
Salvo was a goofy and passionate art historian who handed each of us a “foodie passport” before we started. Every time we tried one of the dishes in our passport, he gave us a stamp! It was a delicious way to learn about the history, customs, and influences of Sicily.
Our first stop was Capo Market, a daily street market full of locals doing their grocery shopping, as well as tour groups like ours. We found a table and tried three Sicilian specialties: panelle (flat chickpea fritters), cazzilli (potato croquettes with mint), and arancina (fried risotto balls). The chickpeas and mint are obvious signs of Arab influence.
Before we left Capo Market, we passed one of the oldest vendors, a hand-pressed orange juice cart. The owner of the cart went through dozens of oranges to make a glass of fresh orange juice for each of us.
For our next stop, Salvo taught us how to order food in Sicilian dialect. We ordered sfincionello, which is Sicilian-style pizza — rectangular, thicker, and cheese-less, topped with fresh tomato, oregano, and chili. We brought sfincionello, olives, cheese, spicy sun-dried tomatoes, and bread to a local bar so we could enjoy our food with some wine. This delightful tradition is known as schiticchio. The bartender poured us some sweet Sicilian wine on tap. When we were done eating, Salvo told us to leave the rest of the food right on the bar; it’s tradition to leave food for locals to enjoy — this is so similar to the “Scrounge Table” at Reed College (except we’re feeding hungry Sicilian locals instead of Portland hipsters too cheap to buy a meal plan).
Wine on tap
Anthony’s favorite part of our food tour was when we tried Pani ca’ Meusa (veal spleen and lung sandwich) from a cart. The rich meat is boiled in saltwater, cooked in lard, and stuffed into a bun. The Jewish people in this neighborhood couldn’t eat the spleen of animals due to their religion, so Catholics decided not to let good protein go to waste. These sandwiches were delicious, and we were two of the four people from our group of ten who dared to eat it — the ones who refused to eat it were from North Carolina and Georgia, naturally.
Our final tasting was what everyone was waiting for: cannoli! We passed a man selling Godfather-themed products, and Salvo explained Sicily’s tempestuous relationship with the franchise. Some Sicilians, such as the man we saw, understandably use it as a way to make money. For others, however, it hits too close to home. While we felt completely safe during our time in Palermo, the Mafia still exists — it’s just hidden. Corruption has moved to the businesses and politicians, which doesn’t sound too different from America. Just think The Godfather Part II (“legitimate” crime) instead of The Godfather Part I (mobsters shooting each other).
As we sat by the stunning Palermo Cathedral, Salvo went to fetch our cannoli and returned with a mouth-watering tray of them. I never particularly enjoyed cannoli back in the U.S., and it’s because they’re often pre-filled, sitting in a case for hours. True Sicilian cannoli should always be freshly filled with whipped ricotta (not that sugary stuff you often find in the U.S.) right when you order, and is often topped with pistachio, candied orange, or chocolate chips.
The Palermo Cathedral was the perfect venue to end our tour. Salvo concluded with a heartwarming statement about the importance of coexistence, since adapting to the natural shifts in populations is a crucial Sicilian tradition. Palermo Cathedral is Catholic, but it proudly incorporates Islamic art and architecture to honor the large Arab population at the time. Apparently, 12th-century Norman soldiers were more progressive than half of America.
Other buildings also reflect the diversity of Sicily, such as San Cataldo and its red Arab-Norman-style bulge domes, as well as Palazzo dei Normanni’s extravagant Byzantine interior.
Sicily is a place that everyone should visit. You can’t just visit the Italian clichés of Venice and Florence. If you enjoyed Rome, head further south because you deserve to experience Sicily, too. Most Italian-Americans hail from Sicily, so it’s even more crucial that Americans visit this island to understand such a large part of our immigrant history. Come for the past, but stay for something that Sicily can really teach us about the present — how to grapple with diversity, with the refugee crisis, and with overcoming the hate and fear that seems so prevalent in the rest of the world.
Tips for future travelers:
The Prestia e Comande bus is really convenient. It arrives outside the airport every 30 min and brings you to the center of Palermo in about 45 minutes. Buy round-trip bus tickets so you don’t have to worry about buying tickets on your way back. The little postcard they give you with the bus schedule is surprisingly accurate.
Obviously, take the Streaty food tour, but for other meals, try L’Anciova for a nice Italian dinner, Cannoli & Co. for the best cannoli I’ve ever had from a shop that’s been handcrafting them since 1024, and PPP-Burger for an interesting Sicilian take on the humble burger.
Check out Quattro Canti, a Baroque square at the intersection of two major streets (Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele). The four nearly-identical facades contain fountains with statues of the four seasons, the for Spanish kings of Sicily, and the patronesses of Palermo. Quattro Canti was one of the first major examples of city planning in Europe.
Have breakfast the Sicilian way, with a cappuccino or granita and a pastry, such as a brioche or ciambella (doughnut). Preferably on a balcony.
Just before our trip to Germany, a massive white supremacist rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. These white supremacists held Confederate flags, brandished swastikas, and did “Heil Hitler” salutes — yes, swastikasand Heil Hitler salutes. In America. In the year 2017. As if that weren’t enough, one of the neo-Nazis rammed his car through a crowd of counter-protesters, murdering one person and injuring dozens of others. And instead of denouncing the rally and stating the obvious — that Nazis are bad — our president said there was “blame on both sides.”
Imagine the irony of going to Germany to escape Nazis.
Meanwhile, in Germany, public displays of Nazi symbols have been banned since the end of World War II. And unlike America, which still inexplicably has Confederate statues, Germany has shown an incredible sensitivity toward the ways in which they commemorate their past.
We noticed this sensitivity in Berlin especially. Having been the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich, and then divided for 28 years, hardly any other city has experienced such extreme transformation in the last century. Scattered throughout the city are thought-provoking memorials that directly confront its complex history.
My favorite memorial — in the world, perhaps — is Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Completed in 2005, this Holocaust memorial consists of thousands of gravestone-like pillars. Designed by a Jewish-American architect, it was Germany’s first formal, government-sponsored Holocaust memorial. Using the word “murdered” in the title was a big deal; Germany, as a nation, was officially admitting to a crime. The rectangular pillars stand in rows, creating narrow alleys between them, over a gently sloping ground. The location, near Berlin’s foreign embassies and government buildings, is a statement in itself — it has designated such a large amount of prime real estate to this memorial, while also forcing political leaders from around the world to observe how Germany acknowledges its past.
We went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe twice, and I got near-lost both times. It’s disorienting. The narrow alleyways prevent you from walking through with anyone else. Once you enter, people seem to appear and disappear between the columns. Like death, you have to deal with it alone.
Even Berlin’s parliament building, the famous Reichstag, is a sort of memorial. It was here that Nazis blamed a mysterious fire in 1933 on Communists, allowing Hitler to gain emergency powers and disband the parliament. A glass dome sits on top of the Reichstag, offering a 360-degree view of Berlin from two sloping ramps that spiral inside. The parliamentary chamber can be seen from these ramps through a mirrored cone jutting into the center. The dome, open to the public, symbolizes that the people are above the government, and that government is now transparent and will have no secrets.
While walking around Berlin, we noticed small brass plaques in the sidewalk. Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) is an ongoing memorial that marks the former homes or work locations of Nazi victims. More than 56,000 of these plaques have been installed across Europe, making Stolpersteine the world’s largest decentralized memorial. On each plaque is the name of the victim, and how and where that person died. Each Stolperstein is made of brass so it polishes when someone walks on it. The name stolperstein has multiple meanings. Nazis had an anti-Semitic saying when accidentally stumbling over a protruding stone: “A Jew must be buried here.” But in German, stolpersteinalso means “to stumble across something” or “to find out by chance”. Thus, the term invokes both the anti-Semitic remark of the past and also the stumbled-upon metaphor, as the plaques are not placed prominently and are recognizable only when passing at a close distance. Unlike major memorial sites, which can be easily avoided, Stolpersteine is history that disrupts your everyday life.
Meanwhile, the site of Hitler’s death is almost completely unmarked. Hitler stayed in a bunker in Berlin for two months until he and his wife (of 48 hours) Eva Braun committed suicide on April 30, 1945. A week later, war was over. His bunker now lies beneath a parking lot. Germans tread lightly on their past. They refuse to turn Hitler’s stronghold into a tourist attraction, to give neo-Nazis a special place to convene.
World War II is just the tip of Berlin’s fascinating history. After the war, Berlin was divided by the victorious Allied powers. The American, British, and French sectors became West Berlin, while the Soviet sector became East Berlin. The catch is that Berlin was inconveniently located in the middle of East Germany (DDR) — a hundred miles away from West Germany (BRD). So, West Berlin essentially became a capitalist island in the middle of communist East Germany.
Nearly overnight, the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, cutting through the middle of the city, completely encircling West Berlin. This 96-mile-long wall was intended to stop the outward flow of people from East to West. The wall consisted of a 12-foot-high concrete barrier with a rounded, pipe-like top and barbed wire; a death strip; silent alarms; and more than 100 watchtowers. During its 28 years, at least 138 people died trying to escape.
Our apartment was located on Bernauer Straße, the very street along which the Berlin Wall ran. When the wall was erected, people were suddenly separated form their neighbors across the street. Buildings on Bernauer Straße were incorporated into the structure of the wall itself and became known as border houses. Many people in the East tried to escape through these border houses, jumping from roofs and through windows.
Not everything from this era is tragic. West Germany and East Germany had different styles of pedestrian traffic lights. West Germany had the generic human figure, while East Germany had perky little Ampelmännchen, a male figure wearing a hat. The Ampelmännchen was a beloved symbol of the East and was woven into children’s cartoons and comic strips. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, newly unified Germany sought to rid itself of the vestiges of the East–including its Ampelmännchen. But people were outraged, and a group successfully lobbied the government for Ampelmännchen’s preservation. Since then, you can find these in both sides of Berlin.
I’ve spent a lot of time going over Berlin in the 20th century, but this city is so much more than its past. Anthony may have fallen in love with Berlin for its history, but I fell in love with Berlin for its energy and resilience. Berlin is famous for being Europe’s cheapest capital. Because it’s affordable, it attracts a young, international crowd, and because it’s youthful, there’s a lot of creativity here. Munich feels passé compared to Berlin.
It’s incredibly easy to navigate; the same transit ticket can be used for its many modes of transportation, such as its U-Bahn (subway), S-Bahn (above-ground rail), tram, and bus systems. And you don’t even need to speak German to survive here; apparently Berliners are so eager to learn English that they’d rather practice their English with you than hear you speak German.
Germany does so many things better than America does, whether it’s offering extensive public transportation, providing universal healthcare, having some of the strictest gun laws in Europe, or guaranteeing free education. But in Berlin specifically, it’s apparent that Germany is also much better at grappling with its history. In America, neo-Nazis claim that removing Confederate statues is “erasing our history” — even though most of these statues were erected in the mid-20th century, long after the Civil War — because apparently we learn all our history from tacky sculptures of dead, slave-owning white men who fought against America. Germany could definitely teach us a thing or two.
Tips for future travelers:
Book a history tour with Brewer’s Berlin Tours. These 6-hour walking tours are led by passionate history buffs who will make Berlin’s intimidating history more accessible and a lot funnier than just reading about it.
Eat dessert at Fassbender & Rausch, Europe’s biggest chocolate store. This family-owned business has been making chocolate for 150 years. We loved its elegant cafe that we went there twice. The downstairs shop has giant models of Berlin landmarks made of chocolate.
Check out the DDR Museum, an interactive museum that offers an unbiased look into former East Germany. In America, we only like to learn the negative aspects of communism, but this museum highlights the truth about life in the DDR. For example, 90% of East German women held jobs (compared to only 50% of West German women), and divorce and abortions were legal, giving East German women way more rights than in the West.
Consider staying in Prenzlauerberg. I’ve compared “Pberg” to both Park Slope and the West Village. This charming neighborhood was once a haven for artists and bohemians, but now it’s full of young families and great restaurants.
Don’t just eat German food. While we never got sick of sausages in the other German cities, we were thrilled to be back in a cosmopolitan city — which means you can find every cuisine here. We had vegan Vietnamese on our first night, Lebanese our second night, dim sum on our third night, and so on. Of course, you can’t come to Berlin without trying currywurst. Created in Berlin after World War II, this cheap dish was invented when a fast-food cook got her hands on some curry and Worcester sauce from British troops stationed here. She grilled pork sausage, cut it up, then smothered it in curry sauce. Eat these with a toothpick or small wooden fork, with some fries on the side.
Take a guided tour of the Reichstag building, which is the only way to walk up the dome. To do this, you’ll need to register in advance, and the Bundestag will vet you before accepting your reservation. Bring your passport with you!
Unsurprisingly, my favorite tour we took in Berlin was a 3-hour food tour with Bite Berlin. Our guide led us through Berlin and provided seven generous food samples: buttered pretzels, currywurst, buletten (meatballs), Vietnamese bao burgers, one of the best cinnamon rolls of my life (I loved it so much, we went back the next morning), cakes, and East Berlin sparkling wine. It was a delicious way to learn more about Berlin’s cultural and immigrant history. One of the most mind-blowing facts we learned in Berlin was that, during the Cold War, West Berlin accepted South Vietnamese refugees while East Berlin invited North Vietnamese workers to help build infrastructure (including the wall). There was a Vietnam for each side!
Nuremberg made me cry. No, it wasn’t because of the spine-chilling Nazi sites. I cried over some tiny bratwurst. (To be fair, I do have a tendency to weep over really good food, but usually it’s food that I’m already passionate about, like kaiseki in Kyoto, or baked pork buns at a Michelin award-winning dim sum restaurant.) As for my sudden tears during a meal in Nuremberg, it’s a long story.
Before our Germany trip, the only thing I knew about Nuremberg was its atrocious Nazi past. Appropriately, the first thing we did after checking into our hotel was take a tram to the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, which comprise an immense complex of buildings designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect. One building, Hitler’s unfinished Congress Hall, is the largest surviving example of Nazi architecture and houses Dokumentationszentrum (Nazi Documentation Center), an in-depth museum that attempts to answer the big question: How did this happen?
Meanwhile, neighboring Zeppelin Field was where the actual rallies took place. Now, anyone can climb up to Hitler’s grandstand in front of the Zeppelin Tribune and experience the sheer audacity of it all.
Why did Nuremberg appeal to Hitler so much? For practical purposes, Nuremberg is centrally located in Germany and thus a convenient meeting point for Nazi supporters. Hitler also had a friend here named Julius Streicher, who spread Nazism with his inflammatory newspaper Der Stürmer (The Storm Trooper). Most importantly, however, Nuremberg is steeped in German history. Long before Nazism, the city was once home to the Holy Roman Emperor and Germany’s most famous artist, Albrecht Dürer. Its Old Town is packed with Gothic buildings in the quintessential German style — and as I had learned from our last town, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Hitler had a thing for those. As one of the most important cities of medieval Europe, Nuremberg was the perfect place for Hitler to legitimize his Third Reich by invoking Germany’s glorious past.
In other words, our first afternoon in Nuremberg was pretty depressing, and I was not very fond of the city. However, my mind changed completely when we returned to Nuremberg’s Old Town and started exploring the rest of Nuremberg.
Long ago, Nuremberg consisted of two distinct walled towns separated by a river. As both towns grew, they merged and the middle wall came down. Hauptmark (main market square) was built by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and became the center of the newly united city. Year-round, Hauptmarkt is bustling with fruit, flower, and souvenir stands. For a few weeks before Christmas, it hosts Germany’s largest Christmas market.
My favorite area in Nuremberg was way uphill, near Kaiserburg (Imperial Castle). In the Middle Ages, Holy Roman emperors stayed here when they were in town. The castle is a huge complex of 45 buildings that can be partially accessed by ticket, but a stunning view of Nuremberg near the round tower is completely open to the public.
Just below Kaiserburg is a popular socializing spot for a young, artsy crowd. Nuremberg is rich in art. During World War II, artwork was carefully protected from air raids in a series of cellars. Nuremberg was bombed relatively late in the war, which allowed the city to prepare for the attack. Artwork was packaged inside wooden crates and padded with sandbags, then hidden in a climate-controlled environment behind thick fireproof doors.
Albrecht Dürer is Nuremburg’s most famous resident. He studied in Italy, brought the Renaissance to medieval Germany, and undoubtedly influenced many artists like Raphael and Titian. He did things that were radical in northern Europe at the time, such as signing his own works, and painting things simply for study instead of on commission.
In the same neighborhood, a street called Weissgerbergasse (Tanners’ Lane) is lined with Nuremberg’s finest collection of half-timbered houses to survive the war. These well-crafted homes attest to Nuremberg’s considerable prosperity. The iconic dark-red color in the painted beams of these homes is oxen blood, which helped prevent rot and termite damage.
I was so overwhelmed by the vibrancy throughout Nuremberg that, by the time we were eating dinner at Bratwursthäusle, I struggled to blink back my tears. Maybe it was the wine — I was downing my glass of Riesling (why is German wine so much better than American wine?!). Maybe it was the bratwurst, which was made in-house by the restaurant’s own butcher and cooked on a beechwood grill. Maybe it was the atmosphere — Christmas lights strung over the patio, right across the street of an important church. Or maybe it was my guilt that I had thought so little of this city just a few hours ago.
Whatever it was, Nuremberg clearly taught me a couple of crucial lessons: Give a city more than four hours to judge it. More importantly, what many Americans know about other countries does not do those places justice at all. Nuremberg’s infamous Nazi past is such a small part of its lengthy history, though barely anything else is taught in our schools. (In America we love to over-learn World War II because we were the “heroes” of that war). Furthermore, Nuremberg is so much more than its past. It’s a thriving place and the second largest city in Bavaria. A whopping 40% of its population are immigrants (mostly from Turkey and Yugoslavia), and well-known German companies such as Adidas, Faber-Castell, Playmobil, and Siemens also call Nuremberg home. Nuremberg reminded me of Florence in many ways. Both are comfortable, hilly cities located inland, filled with art, history, and incredible food. Both pleasantly surprised me, and both will have a special place in my heart forever.
Tips for future travelers:
Check out the Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Germanic National Museum). If you have any interest in German history or culture, you can easily spend an entire day in this sprawling museum.
After visiting the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, have lunch at Guttmann’s Biergarten, a lovely beer garden overlooking a nearby lake. Here you can try the obligatory “3 im Weckla”, a Nuremberg specialty. “3 im Wekla” refers to three tiny bratwursts stuffed into a bun. Nuremberg has been making these sausages for 700 years. The use of mace, pepper, and marjoram in the sausage is proof of Nuremberg’s significance as a trading city in the Middle Ages. Why are Nuremberg sausages so small? One theory claims that their diminutive size allowed them to be shared with hungry travelers through keyholes in the city gates after the nightly curfew. Another theory claims that the size was just a response to a spike in pork prices in the late 16th century.
Have at least one meal at Bratwursthäusle. It was my favorite meal on our entire trip. Maybe you’ll cry, too.
After visiting Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Neuschwanstein, it only made sense that our next stop would be Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the medieval town that inspired Disney’s Pinocchio. Like Amsterdam and Santorini, I came for the photos but ended up appreciating its beauty much more after learning about the town’s tumultuous history.
The name of the town means “red fortress above the Tauber,” because it’s located on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River. In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg was a free imperial city, which meant that it was self-ruling and enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy. It was also a strategic stop on trade routes throughout Europe. With a population of 6,000, this thriving town was one of Germany’s largest. However, Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s fortunes tumbled suddenly due to occupation and ransacking during the Thirty Years’ War and a plague that followed. The town never fully recovered, which is why it became (and still is) Germany’s best preserved medieval town — which is fortunate for tourists like us!
But this picturesque town is more than just a pretty face. Rothenburg ob der Tauber has been admired by many, including Nazis. For them, Rothenburg was the quintessential German town and was even hailed by Hitler as “the most German of German towns”. The Nazis used to organize regular day trips to Rothenburg from all across the Reich. And unfortunately, the town was not an innocent bystander. If you recall from my Munich post, the region of Bavaria had been a hotbed of conservatism. Rothenburg’s townspeople were sympathetic to National Socialism and expelled its Jewish citizens in 1938.
During World War II, bombs were dropped over the German town, killing 37 people and destroying hundreds of buildings. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy was familiar with the Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s historic importance and beauty, so he ordered his army not to use artillery against it. Instead, his army negotiated the surrender of the town. The local military commander surrendered, ignoring Hitler’s orders, saving Rothenburg ob der Tauber from total destruction. After the war, donations for rebuilding were received from all over the world.
Since the town has been preserved in its medieval state, it’s easy to appreciate how self-sufficient it used to be. In the main square, there’s a large 17th-century fountain with long metal gutters that slide to deposit water into villagers’ buckets. The town had an ingenious water system that serviced a series of fountains to provide drinking water, store fish for market days, and fight fires. Because of its plentiful water supply, the town never burned entirely, as so many neighboring villages did. Meanwhile, many of the town’s half-timbered homes were filled with a year’s supply of grain so they could survive sieges.
For better or for worse, Rothenburg ob der Tauber has been frozen in time. It’s a fantastic way for visitors to explore a snippet of medieval life. It’s easy to see why Hitler was charmed by this town. It’s also easy to see why, despite Rothenburg’s awful anti-Semitism and support of Nazism, an American decided that this place was still worth saving.
Tips for future travelers:
Go on the Night Watchman’s Tour. This was our favorite part of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. A man named Hans Georg Baumgartner has been leading this one-hour historical tour for years, dressed up like a night watchman and telling gritty tales of the medieval town. No need to make reservations; just find the large group of tourists congregating at the main square at 8 pm every night.
Climb up Rathausturm (the spire of Town Hall) for the best view of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It takes 214 steps and is comically narrow and steep at the top. In fact, some of the staircases are so narrow that a traffic stoplight will let you know when there’s enough room for you to proceed to the next staircase. (German efficiency!)
Check out the Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum (Medieval Criminal Museum), one of the quirkiest museums I’ve ever visited. Torture was common in the Middle Ages — not necessarily to punish but to extract confessions. Just the sight of these tools was often enough to make an innocent person confess. The museum has painful-looking artifacts like spiked chairs and thumbscrews, but my favorites were the shame masks. Shame masks were intricately decorated to indicate the crime — chicken feathers indicate promiscuity, a snout indicates piggish behavior, and a giant tongue indicates a tendency to gossip. Those convicted of immoral behaviors were forced to wear these masks while being chained in public places for all to see and humiliate.
Eat a meal at Zum Pulverer, a traditional Weinstube (restaurant specializing in wine). Weinstuben are mainly found in the wine-growing regions of southern Germany. Zum Pulverer has a cozy interior with wooden chairs carved into the shapes of past senators of Rothenburg. Like beer, wine in Germany is better than any wine I’ve ever had in the U.S.
Stay at Hotel-Gasthof Goldener Griefen, which was once the home of Mayor Toppler. This 650-year-old hotel has a pleasant garden and is located just off the main square. It will make you feel like you’re a prosperous person living in the Middle Ages.
Go shopping. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is unabashedly touristy, and many of its tourists are actually Germans from other parts of the country. Its streets are filled with quirky shops such as the German Christmas Museum, Waffenkammer (the “weapons chamber,” where tourists can try on armor and pose with medieval weapons for photo ops), and pastry shops selling Schneeballen (leftover flour strips rolled into a ball and covered in icing).
Most tourists come only on day trips. Don’t be one of those. Rothenburg ob der Tauber deserves a little more of your time. Around dusk, the obnoxious tour groups vacate, and the cobblestone roads glimmer with romance. At night, it gets even better, and early in the morning you can take all the photos you want without other tourists in your way.
Istanbul is the most incredible place I’ve ever visited, and so far it is the only city that’s made me question whether or not New York is actually the center of the world. It’s difficult for me to write about Istanbul. For one thing, it’s such a complex, paradoxical city that a superficial travel post cannot do it justice. For another thing, I’ve been obsessed with Istanbul for years; visiting it has been one of the highlights of my life, and every time I try to write this, I have to stop and catch my breath.
Istanbul will make you feel breathless, too. This huge metropolis, with a population nearly twice the size of New York, has the most spectacular setting in the world. It straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. A sea channel called the Bosphorus Strait divides the European side from the Asian side, while a horn-shaped waterway called the Golden Horn bisects the European side into an Old Town and a New District. Istanbul is also bordered by two seas: the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (which flows into the Mediterranean Sea). As the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean — not to mention its location along the Silk Road, and extensive rail networks between Europe and the Middle East — it’s easy to see how strategically placed Istanbul is, and why it feels like the center of the world.
The former capital of two empires (Byzantine and Ottoman), Istanbul’s significance throughout history is undeniable. It started as a Neolithic settlement back in 6000 B.C., but fast forward to year 330 A.D., when Emperor Constantine made Istanbul the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. When the western side fell, the Eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire, and Istanbul was called “Constantinople”. Constantinople was a crucial center of Christianity and shifted Roman power eastward as the empire expanded its borders and lasted for over a thousand years.
Eventually the empire fell, and in the mid-15th century, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and made it the new capital of their empire. Mosques were built, population boomed, and the borders of the Ottoman Empire expanded as far west as Hungary and as far south as North Africa. Constantinople, which was renamed “Konstantinye”, became the largest and most prosperous city in the world.
However, by the 18th century, the empire was struggling once again and collapsed during World War I, after over 600 years of reign. From the ashes of the war came Turkey’s greatest hero: Atatürk. Born Mustafa Kemal, the army officer led Turkey on a three-year-long liberation movement to repel invading armies. He prevailed and established the Republic of Turkey in 1923. He was even bestowed an honorary last name “Atatürk” (father of the Turks) by parliament. He is responsible for the secularization and Westernization of Turkey, and Constantinople was officially renamed “Istanbul”. Turkey’s fascinating and tumultuous history is far from over, and our trip to Istanbul happened to be during an extremely contentious time — when the country was to vote for or against increasing the power of conservative President Erdoğan (pronounced AIR-doh-wan) to an almost dictatorship level of power. We were intrigued by the prospect of witnessing history first-hand.
After landing at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, Anthony and I caught a cab from the airport to our apartment in the New District. The cab driver was surprised when I told him to take us to Galata Kulesi, which is the Turkish name for Galata Tower. “You speak Turkish?” he asked, impressed. “Hayir,” I responded, which means no and was one of the four Turkish words I had learned right before our trip.
During our half-hour ride along the waterfront, I started tearing up as we got closer and closer to the Istanbul I recognized after years of obsession. There’s the Hagia Sophia! The Galata Bridge! Those infamous seagulls! And those blue-domed mosques that I can’t tell apart from each other!
The cab dropped us off at Galata Kulesi since our apartment was less than a block away. Our neighborhood of Beyoğlu (pronounced bey-yo-lu) was incredibly charming, with historic buildings, lots of cafes, and cobblestone streets. It was reminiscent of New York’s Soho, but with better views because Beyoğlu sits at the peak of a hill. In fact, I wasn’t expecting how much uphill walking we’d be doing in Istanbul. The Galata Kulesi was once an observation tower, then a prison, and is now a tourist attraction. We arrived at such a magical time, when dusk gave the tower a warm glow.
Our Airbnb, one of two apartments on the sixth floor of a luxury building, was even better than our Athens Airbnb! The expansive studio had modern appliances, a fireplace, and two balconies — one with a panoramic view of the Golden Horn, the other was practically touching the Galata Kulesi. On our first day, we spent the evening watching the sunset from one of our balconies, as the skyline of domes and minarets slowly became silhouettes and the Golden Horn glittered with light reflections. It was much more extraordinary than watching the sunset in Santorini, if you ask me.
One of the first things we did was visit Hagia Sophia (pronounced ay-EE-uh so-FEE-uh), a building that may have actually changed my life; ever since I studied it in AP Art History back in 10th grade, Istanbul has been at the top of my bucket list. Originally a Greek Orthodox cathedral, then an Ottoman mosque, and now a secular museum, Hagia Sophia is a literal representation of Istanbul’s history as a crossroads of cultures. When the Ottomans converted the cathedral into a mosque, the bells, altar, religious paintings, and any mosaics depicting icons were destroyed or plastered over, while Islamic features, such as the four minarets outside and a mihrab that points to Mecca, were added. In 1935, it was converted to a museum but retains its unique elements of both Orthodox Christianity and Islam. The architecture of Hagia Sophia has influenced architects around the world ever since. I actually cried when we were inside.
The area surrounding Hagia Sophia is touristy but quite pretty. We were lucky enough to be there during tulip season, when exultant yellow tulips could be found everywhere. The word tulip derives from the Persian word “turban” — an appropriate name since its shape resembles turbans, the fashionable accessory of the Ottoman Empire at the time.
We visited two functioning mosques, Sultan Ahmet Camii (better known as the Blue Mosque) and Süleymaniye Camii, both of which look very similar to each other. The Blue Mosque was constructed in the 1600s and took just seven years to construct. With five huge domes, six minarets, eight smaller domes, and hand-painted blue ceramic tiles filling the interior, the Blue Mosque is stunning and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. It is the only mosque in Istanbul with six minarets. According to folklore, an architect misheard the sultan’s request for “altın minareler” (gold minarets) as “altı minare” (six minarets). At the time, only the central mosque in the holy city of Mecca had six minarets, so the sultan in Mecca built a seventh minaret so as not to be upstaged by Istanbul.
We then walked down to the Underground Cistern, a vast subterranean reservoir that dates back to the Byzantine Empire and is roughly the size of two football fields. The reservoir was built to meet the needs of a growing wealthy city and to provide water in case of a shortage. 336 columns support the brick ceiling, and most of them were recycled from earlier Roman ruins found in Constantinople. Water once filled the space halfway to the ceiling, but eventually the cistern fell out of use, and today it’s just a shallow pond, formed from rainwater that leaks in through cracks in the ceiling. For any James Bond fans, you may recognize the Underground Cistern from the 1963 film From Russia with Love.
One of my favorite areas in Old Town is Hasırcılar Caddesi, a street filled with vendors selling things for actual locals, which was a nice change after walking through the touristy Grand Bazaar. We smelled spices from the nearby Spice Market, picked up some coffee from a vendor that had a long line of loyal customers waiting to buy bags of fresh beans, and tried a snack called künefe, which consists of layers of shredded wheat soaked in syrup, filled with soft cheese, cooked in a flat copper pan, and served with pistachios.
The most vibrant part of Istanbul is right by the Galata Bridge. It’s as chaotic as any New York subway station during rush hour, except instead of being packed in a smelly rat-infested tunnel, Istanbullus get jaw-dropping views of the Golden Horn. Ferries carry thousands of commuters between Old Town and the New District, between the European side and the Asian side, and up and down the Bosphorus. The Galata Bridge, which is what we walked over each day to get to Old Town, is bustling with pedestrians and rows of fishermen on the upper level, while seafood restaurants line the bottom level. One afternoon, we bought a balık-ekmek (fish sandwich) from one of the small boats near the pier. Fresh mackerel is caught that day, grilled right there on the boat, and stuffed into a baguette with some lettuce.
Another lovely meal we had was breakfast at Cafe Privato, a cafe in our neighborhood with outdoor sidewalk seating and a small patio in the back. In fact, it was so good that we went two days in a row. Turkish breakfasts are sumptuous feasts. They typically include fresh bread, an assortment of cheese like feta and kashkaval, marinated olives, sweet butter, honey, fruit preserves, eggs served in a skillet, spicy sausage, börek(phyllo pastry layered with meat or cheese), kaymak (clotted cream), sliced vegetables, and unlimited cups of Turkish tea. Anthony actually got dizzy from looking at the overwhelming amount of dishes on our table.
Whenever we travel, I always try to organize either a meal with a local family or a cooking class, and the cooking class we took in Istanbul was our absolute favorite. Cooking Alaturka is run by a hilarious couple that teaches classes in their intimate restaurant. We learned how to make five traditional dishes, and this was the most hands-on class we’ve participated in so far. There was just one other student, an Indian woman from Bahrain, so we got to spread out in their spacious kitchen and take turns practicing numerous cooking techniques. We made ezogelin çorbasi (a comforting red lentil and bulgar soup with mint and chili), kabak mücveri (lightly fried zucchini patties with herbs, served with feta), etli yaprak dolması (grape leaves stuffed with minced meat), imam bayıldi (eggplant braised in olive oil and stuffed with onions and tomatoes), and incir tatlısı (walnut-stuffed figs in syrup). Each dish involved completely different ingredients and cooking techniques as the others, which doesn’t always happen at cooking classes. After two hours of cooking, we spent the next three hours dining together and discussing everything, from the upcoming referendum (our teachers forlornly and correctly predicted that the “evet” [yes] campaign would win), to nail art (everyone gushed over my travel-inspired manicure), to observations of different countries’ reactions to Turkey’s travel safety warnings (European and Asian tourists still seem to be flocking to Istanbul despite the warnings, while Americans are the only terrified hypocrites).
On the days leading up to the highly anticipated referendum, we couldn’t help but notice “evet” banners all over Istanbul, while only in certain neighborhoods, such as ours, had some “hayir” (no) banners. Clearly, there were disparities between the two campaigns. April 16 was the day of the referendum and we actually forgot about it for the most part, as the city was running as normal and we didn’t notice any obvious chaos. When we got home that evening, we turned on the news and heard that the “evet” vote had narrowly won, with the major cities voting against it and rural areas voting for it — sound familiar? The results are widely contested since as many as 1.5 million unstamped ballots were counted. Nevertheless, the existing parliamentary system will soon be replaced by an executive presidential system. Those in favor of the “evet” vote believe that this will bring a more stable government, while the “hayir” campaign argues that it gives too much power to President Erdoğan. Just like the U.S.’s disappointing and potentially rigged presidential election last year, Turkey’s referendum results will pose similar challenges to the future of the country.
On our last full day in Istanbul, we caught one of the many ferries from the dock in Old Town. It was packed with tourists eager for a cheap ride up the Bosphorus, as well as a few vendors walking around selling tea, simits (Turkish bagels), and helva (Turkish halva). After a picturesque turn at the Golden Horn, our ferry took us up the Bosphorus, past the Ortaköy Camii, Dolmabahçe Palace, and Rumeli Fortress. We rode under the Bosphorus Bridge, which is the first intercontinental bridge in the world, and past waterfront mansions that constitute some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Just when I thought I knew Istanbul, the city humbled me again. Istanbul is huge, and our ferry ride helped me visualize exactly how 15 million people can fit into this captivating city.
Istanbul. No other word evokes so much in me. When I hear it, I’m taken back to the squawks of seagulls plunging through the air and the clanging of long metal ice cream scoopers. I’m taken back to the smell of pistachios and freshly grilled fish on rocking boats. Most of all, I’m taken back to the sun setting on the Golden Horn and the energy of a city so precious that two empires claimed it as their capital. It was an honor to visit Istanbul, and I will be back.
Tip for future travelers:
Get an e-Visa before your trip. Just purchase it online, print it out, and bring it with you. When you arrive at the airport, you can go straight to customs instead of standing in another line at the visa kiosk.
Stay in the New District — preferably somewhere with a view of the Golden Horn. For information on our Airbnb, feel free to message me. I can’t recommend it enough!
Uber works well in Istanbul and is sometimes cheaper than a normal taxi. When taking any cab, make sure the meter is on. If it’s not, just say, “Taksi metre, lüften.”
When catching a ferry, aim to be there at least ten minutes before it’s scheduled to depart so you can claim the best seats (upper deck, left side, up front). Otherwise, you can always stand in the back, but you won’t have a seat.
Things to eat: pide (Turkish pizza), lokum (Turkish delights), as many pistachio desserts as you can stuff into your stomach, simit, ice cream (Turkish ice cream has a uniquely dense, sticky texture, and the entertaining vendors will play a game with you before handing over the ice cream), midye dolma (stuffed mussels with aromatic rice, herbs, and spices), kokoreç (grilled lamb intestines), and balık-ekmek. Many things that we think of as Greek are actually Turkish, so you might even prefer things like baklava here than anywhere else in the world. The best baklava I’ve ever had was at a little shop in our neighborhood called Sakarya Tatlicisi. When buying Turkish delights, make sure to customize your own selection; those pre-made boxes are not as good.
Take a cooking class with Cooking Alaturka. Schedule it for the beginning of your trip because the teachers give helpful travel advice at the end of class.
For unbeatable views of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, have a meal on the rooftop of Seven Hills Restaurant.
To avoid the crazy lines at Hagia Sophia, go right before it opens. However, the best lighting for photography is later in the day — when it gets crowded. The choice is yours. If you’re visiting other museums, purchase a Museum Pass from one of the museums, and it will give you free access to the others.
Skip the Grand Bazaar. While its status as the world’s oldest shopping mall is impressive, it feels just like that — an old shopping mall. Most vendors sell the same trinkets, and the Grand Bazaar actually felt somewhat underwhelming since we had recently visited Marrakech, which now has even crazier markets in the medina.
If you only have time for one, go to the Süleymaniye Mosque instead of the Blue Mosque. They look almost identical both inside and outside, but Süleymaniyeis much less crowded. Ladies, you’ll need to cover your hair, shoulders, and legs, but mosques provide clothing if you forget to bring a scarf.
Drink tea during breakfast. Turkish coffee is much less popular (despite its dominance in Turkish restaurants found in the U.S.), and the tea will sometimes be free.
Stop being fearful. Some well-intentioned people were so terrified of our trip that they even demanded we cancel it. As you can see, Istanbul is completely safe if you’re a savvy traveler, and the rest of the world excluding America seems to understand that. Traveling obviously teaches me about the destination, but it also teaches me a lot about my own country. The reactions we received and the misunderstandings we had to deal with were, frankly, disappointing. Americans disappoint me in many ways, but the hypocrisy of some — merely because Turkey is a majority-Muslim country dealing with political issues like everywhere else — really saddened me. When we returned to the U.S., the customs guy asked me incredulously why we went to Turkey. I gave him a brief lecture on Byzantine architecture and told him to educate himself a little more. Readers, if you base all your travels on safety advisories, you will never travel to anywhere interesting. As of today (5/4/17), the Bahamas, Belgium, Brazil, China, France, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, and Thailand are just a few of the countries that are currently at “high risk”. I plan on traveling to almost all of those in the near future.
It almost seems unnecessary to write about Santorini, as most people just want to look at this Greek island. However, what I found most interesting about the second stop on our Greece & Turkey vacation is its geological history. In fact, Santorini’s beauty felt somewhat underwhelming to me, which I blame on two things: 1) I’ve been spoiled by having grown up in Hawaii and already being accustomed to seeing breathtaking sunsets surrounded by deep blue ocean every day; and 2) I made the mistake of visiting Positano on the Amalfi Coast first, which I think is much more charming than Santorini.
Regardless, even the Hawaiian in me could appreciate Santorini’s fascinating geological setting and connection to the legend of Atlantis. The island of Santorini, located in the southern Aegean Sea, is essentially all that remains after one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history. The devastating “Minoan eruption” occurred roughly 3,600 years ago at the height of Minoan civilization. Parts of the ring-shaped island disappeared as the caldera collapsed and water rushed in. An oval lagoon is now surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, which gives Santorini its iconic shape. There’s evidence that Atlantis, the prosperous land that mysteriously disappeared into the sea, can be traced to Santorini. Many believe that the “Atlantis” referenced in Plato’s story about an advanced civilization that became sinful and had to be punished by the gods, alludes to the eruption that destroyed the Minoan civilization on Santorini. The island in Plato’s story is circular with concentric structures, just like Santorini was before the eruption. We do not know what happened to the Minoans, as no human remains have been found since; it’s possible that a series of earthquakes had warned the residents to evacuate the island before the eruption. This legend is precisely why Anthony was so excited to visit.
To reach Santorini, Anthony and I caught the only Blue Star ferry of the day from Athens. The ride is eight hours long, but it’s a comfortable ride if you book Business Class seats and claim a table up front with a view. (Though, honestly, the view coming into Santorini also can’t compare to the view coming into Positano.)
When we arrived at the port, everything became chaotic. Every passenger had rushed from their seats and crammed near the exit, while dozens of drivers on land eagerly waited to pick them up. I was relieved that I had booked a driver through our hotel so we could walk past the taxis, buses, and disoriented passengers who hadn’t prepared. Our driver expertly told us to meet him a few shops away from the mess, and we found him easily, waiting for us at a coffee shop and holding a sign with our hotel’s name on it.
The drive from the port in Fira to our hotel on the edge of Oia (pronounced EE-uh) took about half an hour. It was a scenic drive that hugged the sides of cliffs, and was the first — but definitely not the last — time Santorini reminded us of Hawaii. Although Santorini is an island, water is scarce. It has no rivers, and rain is rare for half the year, so plants depend on the early morning fog for dew. Most of the buildings in Santorini are whitewashed, low-lying cubical stone structures.
Our hotel was located in Oia, the most picturesque town in Santorini, lying on the northwestern part of the island. Oia was built on a steep slope of the caldera, and narrow cobblestone paths lead to the homes and restaurants built into niches carved into the slope. Staying in Oia is quite expensive so I was grateful to find Strogili Traditional Houses, an affordable hotel that offers a caldera view and cave rooms.
One of my favorite places in Oia was Atlantis Books, a quirky little bookshop that was opened in 2004 after two college students from England vacationed in Santorini and noticed there was no bookshop. After graduating, they gathered some friends and saved enough money to open up Atlantis Books. Anthony and I loved it so much that we visited it twice during our short time in Santorini and purchased a couple of Greek books.
Before sunset, herds of tourists, including those from Fira, flock over to various viewpoints in Oia and camp out for hours, waiting for the highly anticipated sunset. Oia is famous for its sunsets, as its cliffs facing west offer unobstructed views of the sun setting on the sea. In case you’re also from Hawaii, the sunset looks exactly the same, so you may not be as impressed as someone from, say, a landlocked city. However, what is different is the reflection of the sunset on the whitewashed homes of the cliffs. Face the opposite direction of everyone else for views worth traveling to Santorini for.
A highlight of our trip was the hike from Oia to Fira. It takes roughly three hours along a pedestrian path, up and down mountainous peaks with scenic views of the caldera and hotels below (unless you miss a turn and end up walking alongside speeding cars on the dangerous cliffside road for about 20 minutes, like we did). We walked through two other towns and ate some fantastic souvlaki on our way.
I was not a huge fan of Fira. It was swarming with tour groups and cruise ship passengers, and most of the charm we had found in Oia was nowhere to be found in Fira. The best things to do there are purchasing souvenirs, watching the cable cars carry passengers from the cliff down to the port, and dining at a restaurant with a view.
If anything, Fira made me appreciate Oia a little more. Once we returned to our side of the island, I read my book of Greek poetry on the rooftop of some castle ruins, stopped comparing everything to Positano, and finally started enjoying Santorini.
Tips for future travelers:
Stay in Oia. Fira is not as pretty and reeks of tour groups. All the photos you’ve seen online of Santorini were taken from Oia. Besides, Fira is easy enough to reach by foot, bus, or cab.
Look up what time the sun is supposed to set, as it changes throughout the year. If you want a good view, you’re going to have to claim a spot early.
If you have a choice, visit Positano instead of Santorini. Santorini has become overwhelmingly crowded in recent years. I’m envious of those who visited Santorini a decade ago, before it became a popular place for films and photo shoots. We didn’t even visit during tourist season in the summer; I can’t imagine how awful it must be from June to August!
Do the hike between Fira and Oia, and take a bus or cab back. It’s a really lovely journey, and, honestly, there’s not much else to do on the island. Along the way, you’ll be able to peek into some obscenely fancy hotels. Just try not to miss the pedestrian path or you’ll end up walking by the road.
The best things we ate: souvlaki (skewered meat) or gyro (meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie), red onions, and fries wrapped in pita; paprika-covered peanuts; and a dinner at Floga. Floga has a private fisherman who catches the restaurant’s fish of the day, and I’m still thinking about the salad I had there, which consisted of arugula, lettuce, sesame-covered cheese, sun-dried cherry tomatoes, prosciutto, cashews, and balsamic vinegar. You can tell Floga has a sense of humor because Anthony’s lamb dish came with a little satchet of olive oil that you’re supposed to cut open and pour over the meal, while our digestif was served with dry ice, reminiscent of Santorini’s volcanic background. Because of Santorini’s unique ecology and climate, the island has exceptionally good cherry tomatoes that are the tastiest and sweetest you’ll ever have. Santorini is also known for fava, white eggplants, capers, and white wine.
Have your hotel book a driver to pick you up when you arrive. It’s much less stressful and saves a lot of time.
Make sure your hotel has a view of the caldera — otherwise, what’s the point? Our hotel had a gorgeous view of the caldera, but if I ever come back to Santorini, I’d try to find a hotel closer to the main part of Oia so we also have a view of the cliffs, since staring at just water doesn’t really impress me. Also, make sure your hotel has cave rooms. The coolest thing about Santorini is its volcanic history, so staying in a cave room is a unique and pertinent experience. Anthony’s a huge Star Wars nerd, so he especially loved that our room felt like the Lars’ homestead on Tatooine.