Munich

After postcard-perfect Amsterdam, it was nice to be in a real city. Munich is located down south in the German state of Bavaria and is the third most populous city in the country. Though Bavaria has long been a bastion of conservative politics in Germany, Munich is an island of liberalism, and I could easily see myself living here. It reminded me of Milan in many ways; both are stylish, livable cities with grand architecture and low crime, and both are considered second cities to Berlin and Rome, respectively.

Munich has been a major European cultural center for hundreds of years, but not all of its history is admirable. In 1920, Munich became home to the Nazi Party. Hitler’s famous “Beer Hall Putsch” happened in a beer hall in Munich, at which he and his supporters attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic and seize power. Half of Munich was destroyed by bombing during World War II, but it recovered and, since the 1980s, has had one of the fastest growing economies in the country. Munich is what many Americans envision when they think of Germany (think beer halls and lederhosens), so we figured it was the best place to start our trip.

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View of Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) from the top of St. Peter’s Church in Marienplatz

I wasn’t too excited about German cuisine before our trip, but the food ended up being one of my favorite things about Germany. Munich specializes in Weißwurst (white sausage made of minced veal and back bacon, flavored with parsley, lemon, onions, and cardamom) served with Weißwurstsenf (sweet mustard) and freshly-baked Brezen (pretzels). Traditionally, the sausages are made early in the morning and eaten as a snack before noon, since preservatives aren’t used and the meat is not smoked. They’re heated in water for about ten minutes and brought to the table in a big bowl of hot water. I couldn’t get enough of this meal!

And just thinking about the beer we had in Munich makes me salivate. I’m usually quite picky about my beer — “dark ales from craft breweries only, please” —  but every single beer I had in Germany was infinitely better than anything I’ve had in the U.S., and Bavaria takes its beer even more seriously than the rest of the country. Since 1516, German beer has been brewed according to Reinheitsgebot (the German Beer Purity Law), which stipulates that water, barley, hops, and yeast are the only ingredients that may be used in production. This law was introduced partly to prevent price competition with bakers; since only barley could be used for beer, other grains like wheat and rye were saved for bread. Thanks to Reinheitsgebot, German beer is absolutely delicious and the reason I will never drink American beer again (sorry, Brooklyn Brewery).

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Biergartens (beer gardens) are a central part of Munich culture. The concept originated in Munich in the 19th century because breweries wanted to reduce the temperatures inside beer cellars in the summer, so they covered river banks with gravel and planted shady chestnut trees for cover. One of our dinners was at a biergarten in Viktualienmarkt, a huge, historic open-air food market. As New Yorkers, Anthony and I couldn’t help but wonder how such a traditional place survives, taking up a hefty amount of space, year-round, on the most expensive real estate in Munich. Turns out, the government understands how much locals love Viktualienmarkt, so it charges vendors only a small percentage of their gross income and bans fast-food chains, allowing beloved old-time shops to still exist. Imagine if America could put the interests of its people above making the highest profit!

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Like all good cities, Munich has numerous public parks. We spent one afternoon in Englischer Garten, one of the largest urban parks in the world. With rolling lawns, a famous nudist area, and multiple biergartens, it’s no wonder we loved this park. In fact, the highlight of our entire stay in Munich may have been watching surfers at Eisbach, a small man-made river that flows through part of Englischer Garten. Yes, you read that right — you can go surfing in the middle of Munich. Just past a bridge near the southern edge of the park, Eisbach forms a constant standing wave that has become a popular river surfing spot for experienced surfers. There are even surfing competitions here. We spent hours watching them, completely mesmerized — and we’re from Hawaii!

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If someone only had time to visit one city in Germany, I’d probably tell them to visit Munich. They’ll get all the obligatory beer halls, World War II history, art museums, and famous concert halls, but they’ll also get a glimpse of the way in which modern-day Germany does everything better. It grapples with its tumultuous history better than America does. It cares about the well-being of its people more (and I haven’t even touched upon its free college tuition yet!). It makes better beer. It’s even created a more efficient way to surf. Throughout the rest of our trip, Germany just continued to prove to us that it does life better.

I could have stayed forever, but it was time to visit some castlesAuf Wiedersehen, Munich!

Tips for future travelers:

Have dinner at Hofbräuhaus. I didn’t think I’d enjoy this famous beer hall because it’s incredibly touristy, but we loved it so much that we went twice! It’s boisterous, it’s loud (especially when the oompah-music starts at night), and the floors are sticky with beer — but what an experience! Munich wouldn’t be Munich without it. Plus, the food is fantastic. Get yourself some Weißwurst.

Climb up St. Peter’s Church for the best view of Munich. There’s a €2 entrance fee and 306-step climb, but the view is well worth it.

Our hotel, Hotel Splendid-Dollmann, was pure class. The lobby has a wood-paneled library, the breakfast rooms made us feel like we were dining with royalty every morning, the hotel left us a couple of hardcover German novels on our bed to take as souvenirs, and it was just a quick walk to Marienplatz. It was the perfect place to stay in elegant Munich.

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Our hotel’s breakfast room
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Our hotel’s library in the lobby

Try a Schmalznudel at Schmalznudel Café Frischhut. This light, fried, yeasty dough is basically a glorified funnel cake, but it was a delight watching the pastry chef make this in front of the shop window. You’ll get to witness the terrifying amount of butter he uses, as well as the impressive number of regulars who drop by for one of the four pastries made here.

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Other things to check out: Pinakothek der Moderne for modern art in a gorgeous museum, Asam Church for the most ostentatious church you’ve ever seen, and Cafe Luitpold for fancy cakes

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Asam Church was less a church and more a showroom for the architect brothers to get clients
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Cafe Luitpold’s signature cake, with marzipan, white wine cream, and cognac
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Auf Wiedersehen, Munich!

Milan, pt. 2

11742741_10206579756909192_225276506331837487_nReturning to Milan felt like waking up from a lackluster dream and returning to reality. Our time in Paris and England had only made me miss Italy, so I was relieved to be back. For those of you who haven’t been following our journey, Milan was the very first stop on our Euro Trip, and I had surprised myself by immediately falling in love with it. This second chance to explore the city only solidified my ability to see myself living here.

We were able to catch the Malpensa train into the city center like pros this time. Anthony effortlessly led us to Hotel Star without even glancing at Google Maps. And even the receptionist at our hotel remembered us from last time. Who knew how quickly one could become regulars in a foreign country?!

After taking our time to settle into our room, we caught the train to the Expo, about half an hour away from our hotel. Expo Milano 2015 is basically the World’s Fair, taking place for six months in a different city each year, to showcase exhibits from countries around the world. This year’s theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, which seemed fitting for us. Throughout our entire trip, we hadn’t been able to escape the country’s excitement over the Expo, as there were advertisements for it in every Italian city we visited. It seemed to be perfect planning to end our trip with such an important event.

China's Pavilion
China’s Pavilion

We arrived in the early afternoon, which was probably not the best idea. We had completely forgotten that Italians take afternoon siestas! Many of the Expo workers, clad in colorful Expo t-shirts, were just arriving, and some pavilions weren’t open yet.

Cooling off with some Vietnamese iced coffee
Cooling off with some Vietnamese iced coffee

We started from one end of the Expo and tried to make our way through every pavilion. This turned out to be an impossible feat, as there were way too many pavilions to count. We did make a few observations as we traveled the world through pavilions:

  1. Most Western countries were more focused on sustainability. Belgium was especially proud of its PermaFungi technology.
  2. The poorer countries were clustered together, presumably because they could not afford their own pavilions, and centered around a common theme such as chocolate, rice, or fruit. These pavilions were more dedicated to selling goods than to anything else.
  3. The Muslim countries always outclassed everyone else. Countries like Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia had incredibly lavish pavilions.

    Typical pavilion for a Muslim country
    Typical pavilion for a Muslim country
  4. Surprisingly, our favorite pavilion belonged to Estonia. Apparently, they invented the swing set and Viks bike, which Anthony had fun riding. The pavilion also showcased a classical concert, restaurant, and mirrored forest. These smaller European countries were definitely trying to lure future tourists.
A couple Italian boys were very impressed by Anthony while he rides a Viks bike through Estonian streets
A couple Italian boys were very impressed by Anthony while he rode a Viks bike through Estonian streets
Walking through Estonia's mirrored forest
Walking through Estonia’s mirrored forest

By the time dusk came around, more and more Italians arrived at the Expo, and everything finally felt more alive. We watched costumed Italian men dance with flags and batons. They were much better than cheerleaders!

Better than cheerleaders!
Better than cheerleaders!

At the end of the night, we gathered around the Tree of Life for an epic light/water/fireworks show. The Tree of Life is a huge lit-up tree in front of the Italian Pavilion. It was during the light show that I started crying. Not again! My emotions were a mix of overwhelming happiness for being in Italy again, and bittersweet envy that all these people around me could live in this extraordinary country while I had to leave tomorrow. My heart ached, just as it did when we were leaving Positano for Paris. Leaving Italy the second time is no easier than the first.11745834_10206576956599186_8156883170233717353_n11694874_10206580259481756_4698845474608685370_nThe next day, we visited Milan’s extravagant Duomo, which took six centuries to complete. The interior is huge — the fifth largest in the world. Even Anthony was impressed by the Gothic architecture. We took the stairs to the ornate rooftop, which was unlike any other roof we’ve ever seen. It was so ostentatious, with flying buttresses, spires, and bronze Baroque sculptures.12032969_10206999683487094_8103639040867713354_n11760218_10206589223185843_3368747990746748853_n12039478_10206999780289514_4461116954378988770_n12032156_10206999737288439_3021593819322654588_nMy favorite part of visiting the Duomo was sharing the roof with three Tibetan monks. They were such an odd sight, wearing bright orange and taking photos of each other. (Monks can own smart phones??)12003244_10207000902797576_8222685746984218862_nAfter the Duomo, we returned to the stunning Vittoria Emanuel Galleria, where I once had the best gelato of my life. We went to the same gelateria and tried a different flavor (fior di latte) to confirm that it was still the best. Was it? Just like the city itself, the gelato was as fantastic as I had remembered.1972244_10206592609470498_193784403652219991_nWe roamed around Brera, an adorable neighborhood full of art galleries and colorful apartments that reminded me of Rome, and watched as chic women in stilettos biked through the cobblestone roads. Milanese women will have my absolute respect for the rest of my not-as-stylish life.

Brera
Brera

After our last Italian meal, we headed to the airport. My heart was heavy as our trip was coming to an end — but it’s not over yet… ¡Hola, Madrid!12037990_10207006470376762_4918714082263676526_nTips for future travelers:

  1. Fly into Europe on a round-trip ticket. Not only are round-trip flights usually cheaper, it’s nice to start and end your trip in the same place. Beginning and ending our trip in Milan helped everything feel complete, like we could tie up the loose ends of our journey.
  2. Stay at the Expo until the very end. The Tree of Life show was the best part of the entire Expo and was one of the most touching spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. It easily topped 4th of July fireworks and Bastille Day in Paris.

Milan

Anthony and I just came back from a 22-day trip to Europe. We visited Italy (Milan, Venice, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Positano, Amalfi, and Sorrento), Paris, England (Brighton, Oxford, and London), and Madrid. These next few posts will cover my experiences in each city, as well as some tips for future travelers.

Initially, I hadn’t wanted to go to Milan; in fact, the only reason we started our European trip in Italy’s fashion/banking capital was because it was the cheapest city to fly into from JFK.

After landing at MXP, we had some trouble buying our Malpensa Express Train tickets. The ticket machine by baggage claim wouldn’t take either of our credit cards and didn’t accept cash. We must have looked like such stereotypes: two anxious, disoriented Americans scurrying around helplessly at the airport. Fortunately, Anthony asked someone for help (“Parla inglese?”), and we were directed downstairs, where there were more ticket machines. The next machine we tried accepted cash, so I was grateful that we had brought a couple hundred euros with us. We rushed down to the platform and just made the train about to shut its doors. About 35 minutes later, we were dropped off at Cadorna, right in the center of Milan. It’s infuriating that New York doesn’t have a convenient train to the airport, thanks to taxi lobbying (and, more generally, American capitalism).

Riding the Malpensa Express Train to Milan! He's all ready with our Rick Steves guide book.
Riding the Malpensa Express Train to Milan! He’s all ready with our Rick Steves guide book.

As soon as we exited the station, that’s when it hit me. It’s hard to explain, but it reminded me of the same feeling I got when I first visited New York years ago — that overwhelming sense of passion and vitality and a need to live there. All around us were different modes of transportation: Fiats and Smart Cars, Vespas, jaywalkers, street cars, bikers. Beautifully-dressed men and women (in heels!) biked around the city, often using BikeMi, Milan’s public bike sharing system. The city was a lovely mix of grand old buildings and modern designer shops. Out of all the Italian cities that stole my heart, Milan turned out to be the only one in which I could realistically imagine myself living.

Milano Cadorna station with BikeMi bikes ready to be rented.
Milano Cadorna station with BikeMi bikes ready to be rented.

Using my Google Maps (thank goodness my T-Mobile plan gives me unlimited texting and data all over the world!), Anthony found our hotel effortlessly. One thing I’ve learned on this Euro trip is that we’re the perfect traveling pair. I did all the research and planning beforehand, while Anthony navigated in each country.

I plan, he navigates.
I plan, he navigates.

Our hotel, Hotel Star, was located on a side street just off a major pedestrian-only road. I’m glad I knew what the outside looked like, so it was easy to spot Hotel Star’s orange sign. The hotel was recommended by Rick Steves, and though it was probably our plainest hotel room, the location (just a few blocks from the Duomo and Galleria) couldn’t be beat. Another thing I learned from this trip is that Rick Steves is my idol. Almost all of his advice has been spot on, and I only hope he’ll expand his travels to Asia since that will be our next trip.

View from our hotel room -- just like Brooklyn!
View from our hotel room — just like Brooklyn!

I wanted the first dinner of our trip to be nice, so we ate on the top floor of La Rinascente, an upscale 150-year-old Milanese retail chain, now with eleven shops all over Italy. I had heard that this particular shop has a direct view of the Duomo, which seemed like a fun way to start off our adventure.

View of the Duomo from dinner at La Rinascente
View of the Duomo from dinner at La Rinascente

La Rinascente is located on Piazza del Duomo, which also houses Milan’s beautiful Duomo, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and a bunch of palaces. Italy does piazzas well. It’s really unfortunate that the U.S. values cars over humans and has nothing in comparison to the huge open squares we’ve seen all over Europe. Piazzas are the perfect place to socialize, cool off on a warm summer day, and appreciate the surrounding architecture. Italians are known for enjoying life, and being in a piazza is the easiest way to witness that stereotype first-hand.

Piazza del Duomo
Piazza del Duomo

After entering La Rinascente, we made our way to the seventh floor, where eight restaurants are located. We decided on Maio because the seating looked great and the prices were reasonable. We were escorted to a table right up against the Duomo, which had to be one of the best seats in the house. I started off with a glass of rosé — because we’re in Europe! Every restaurant we went to in Italy gave us a bread basket, and they varied in quality. Those that were extremely good, offering at least two types of bread and crispy breadsticks from Turin, were usually not complimentary; we noticed a small fee on our bill afterward. Another thing we had to get used to paying for was water. Since Italians prefer sparkling water, we had to ask for “acqua naturale,” and sometimes our servers interpreted this as free tap water, and other times our servers interpreted this as bottled still water. But think of it this way: you don’t have to tip in Italy!

Wine every night in Italy.
Wine every night in Italy.

My risotto alla parmigiana was made with parmesan and pearls of balsamic vinegar. Anthony ordered polpo del mediterraneo, which is octopus with chickpea hummus, papaya, and valerian leaves. It wasn’t as good as some of the mind-blowing meals we’d soon have all over Italy, but Maio definitely gave us a taste of glitzy Milan. We watched as groups of well-dressed Italians streamed into the restaurant as the night went on.

Risotto alla parmagiana
Risotto alla parmigiana
Popolo del mediterraneo
Poplo del mediterraneo

After dinner, we roamed around the piazza, making our way to Milan’s Duomo. It’s stunning, isn’t it?

Milan's Duomo
Milan’s Duomo

We didn’t spend too long at the Duomo, since we’d be returning to it at the end of our trip. The magnificent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II beckoned us in. The Galleria is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls and was named after the first king of Italy. American shopping malls are such a disgrace to this place, which has open-air, glass-vaulted arcades, a huge dome in the center, and mosaics depicting Italian history. Luxury stores and restaurants are the only businesses allowed in the structure. Apparently, when McDonald’s tried to renew its lease here, the mall denied it and instead opened up a second Prada store in its place.

Beautiful mosaic tile floor at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Beautiful mosaic tile floor at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Besides designer shops, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II also houses my favorite gelateria in the world — and we had gelato almost every day in Italy. While Ristorante Savini serves overpriced food, its fantastic gelato is served from a neighboring stand. For only €3, I was given a huge serving of the most complex pistachio gelato I’ve ever had, with a wafer on top. Anthony’s madagascar vanilla gelato was even better — and when is vanilla worth talking about?

Savini's pistachio gelato. That's a small!
Savini’s pistachio gelato. That’s a small!

After I had taken enough photos of my gelato and the beautifully-lit Galleria, we made our way back to our hotel. I fell in love with the winding streets, many of which have restricted access to cars.

One more shot inside the Galleria
One more shot inside the Galleria

Later that night, I woke up at 4 am, not because I had any issue with our hotel room, but because I was too excited. Unsurprising for someone who used to be so excited for my first day of elementary school that I used to sleep with my backpack. After a couple of hours of lying still eagerly, Anthony finally woke up at a normal hour, and we went downstairs for our complimentary breakfast. It was so lavish! We had gotten there as soon as the breakfast opened, so a woman was still bringing out more and more trays of food. Italians don’t really do breakfast — think coffee and a pastry. We would learn (and get sick of) this later, but for our first breakfast in Italy, Hotel Star did well. I was amazed by the assortment of bread, meats, spreads, and cookies. I picked up a sugar cornetto, pâté, parmareggio, nutella, speck, toast, and milk (since I was too lazy to figure out the self-service espresso machine). At one point, scrambled eggs and bacon were brought out, which we would never see at any of our other hotels. Hotel Star sure knows how to cater to Americans.

Italian breakfast. For my next course, I had a more American style breakfast of eggs and bacon.
Italian breakfast. For my next course, I had a more American style breakfast of eggs and bacon.

After breakfast, it was soon time for us to go to catch the train to Venice. If only I had known I’d like Milan so much! We checked out of Hotel Star and walked about 40 minutes to the train station. You know we’re New Yorkers because that walk was nothing, and it was a great way to see Milan and fall in love with it more. We passed through the swanky district near La Scala and the more business districts where impressive women in 3-inch heels glided across cobblestone streets.

Milano Centrale is one of the primary railway stations in Europe, connecting Italy to France, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, and Germany. I was glad I had booked our Trenitalia tickets online. Trenitalia is the main train operator in Italy. For traveling to different cities, this is the most efficient way of getting around. We had reserved seating that shared a table with an old American couple from the Bay Area. I caught up on my lack of sleep the night before and woke up in another world. Ciao, Venezia!

Trenitalia to Venice
Trenitalia to Venice

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Make sure to have some euros when you arrive in Europe. You never know where the nearest ATM will be, and you can’t always depend on plastic.
  2. Some hotels, especially in these old cities, can be difficult to find. Do your research and figure out exactly how to get to them and what they look like from the outside. Lots of hotels realize how tricky this can be and will give you directions, while TripAdvisor is a great place for advice and photos.
  3. If your travel plans are set, book your Trenitalia tickets in advance. It’s cheaper, you’ll have more time options, and your seat will be reserved.
  4. When you are only in town for a night or two, location is key. Initially, I had made reservations at an Airbnb, hoping to get a real Milanese experience, but it would have taken us 30 minutes to reach all our sites. I ended up cancelling the reservation and finding a hotel just a few blocks from everything. Save those live-like-a-local experiences for when you have at least five days in the city.