Category Archives: Vacation & Travel

TripAdvisor’s Top 2 Percent?

TripAdvisor Top 2%
So I received the email above yesterday. Apparently, I’m one of TripAdvisor’s top 2% of reviewers in Paris? Hmm, I have a feeling that’s because they’re analyzing data of Paris-based reviewers for TripAdvisor.com and not TripAdvisor.fr. Especially considering I’ve only posted less than 30 reviews, I find that surprising…but hey, I’ll take it!

I still remember using TripAdvisor 10 years ago when Rio and I went to Spain for our first time. It definitely wasn’t widely used at the time, and now, I see restaurants and hotels touting “TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence” stickers on their windows and websites, and owners constantly asking people to write reviews for them after using their services. What a difference 10 years can make!

Yours in Travel,

The Top 2% (ha!)

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Provence, Pyrenees & Pays Basque Road Trip

Last August, Rio and I embarked on a road trip to explore the South of France. While we’re here, we want to see as much of France as we can and decided that a road trip commencing from Avignon to Saint-Jean-de-Luz via the Pyrenees mountains sounded like just the way to do it. What we didn’t anticipate is that we would have to do this in a Smart car. Our favorite memories of the trip include experiencing a jai alai match, hiking, visiting our friend Steeve and his family in his hometown, walking through the red ochre town of Roussillon, driving through the hills of Luberon, and, of course, wine tasting!

So despite driving through some death-defying cols, we wouldn’t change a thing about this two-week adventure…actually, we really would have liked having a normal-sized car.

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A Weekend in Cologne

Cologne
Ever since reading this New York Times article on Cologne, I’ve wanted to go…despite friends who have been to the city and said there wasn’t anything to see beyond the cathedral. Well, having spent two nights in Cologne last weekend, I have to, unfortunately, agree. There really isn’t that much to see and the town probably only warrants one night, tops. Oh well. I’m glad to have gone and crossed it off my travel bucket list, and see a German city besides Berlin. Here’s a quick recap on where we visited and ate and drank at…which probably was the best part of the trip – experiencing all the breweries!

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

Love Locks on Hohenzollern Bridge

What to See & Do
The main reason to come to Cologne is the impressive Gothic Cologne Cathedral (Kolner Dom). Stepping off the train station, you immediately come across this. For a better understanding of the cathedral, take a 7 euro guided tour, which is what we did. Tours take place 10:30am and 2:30pm on Saturdays and at 3pm on Sundays, and you meet at the interior front entrance of the church. They’re about one hour long and end with a 20 minute video with shots of the Cathedral.

After your Cathedral tour, take the pedestrian walkway on Hohenzollern Bridge and pause to take a look at the multitude of “love locks” adorning the gates. Along the way, you’ll probably turn around to snap some photos of the Cathedral, but save your camera battery for KoelnTriangle. About five minutes from the bridge, take the elevator up to the top of the observation deck for commanding views of the Cathedral and Cologne. I think it costs about three euros.

If you’re looking to do some shopping and strolling, take a walk from the Old Quarter to Ehrenstrasse Street. From Crumpler to Kiehl’s, Ehrenstrasse Street has a ton of stores for you to spend some euros.
Rhine River at Koblenz

Church in Koblenz

Koblenz

Koblenz

Koblenz

Koblenz Mascot is the Rascal
After you’ve done all of this and realized you still have a whole Sunday to fill with something to do (like we did), perhaps take a side trip to Koblenz, a small German town (pictured above) along the Rhine River that’s about one hour away. Along the way, you’ll be able to see the small towns, castles and vineyards sitting alongside the river and upon arrival, take a stroll through the Old Town, ride up to the fort on the Cable Car, walk along the river and have an alfresco meal while watching the German families enjoy a sunny weekend. Oh, and be sure to take a look at the statue of Koblenz’s mascot – the rascal – and pose like him comme moi. You can stop by the modern-looking Tourism Office to purchase a 50 centime map of the town.
Lommerzheim Brewery

Fruh Brewery

Nougatpretzel Berliner Donut
Where to Eat & Drink
As I mentioned, the best part of the trip was experiencing the different breweries. We went to three breweries that had completely different atmospheres and although I didn’t care for the German food (have I mentioned, I don’t eat meat?), it was fun to people-watch, try the different brews and see the local custom of how to order a beer. Apparently, the bartender/waiter just comes over with the a small glass of beer (it’s the shape of a long shot bottle), continues to swap it out for a fresh new one when you’re done and makes a mark on a coaster to keep track of how much you’ve drank. If you don’t want to drink until oblivion, put your coaster on top of your glass, and the bartender will know you’re done.

The first brewery we went to was Fruh. Located right by the Cathedral, a friend had recommended it and it was a great introduction to the breweries in Cologne. This is a large brewhouse with several rooms providing different atmospheres depending on what you’re looking for. So just decide whether you’d want to sit in a rowdier room, a more intimate room or a restaurant-style dining room. The next day, after our tour at Cologne Cathedral and our visit up KolnTriangle, we took a walk to Lommerzheim. Unlike Fruh, which definitely had a tourist clientele, the smaller Lommerzheim was packed with locals. They also have an outdoor area, which would be a great spot to enjoy a local brew on a sunny day. On our last night, we decided to try the giant schnitzels I had read about at Bei Oma Kleinmann since they apparently had a vegetarian “cheese schnitzel” I could eat. Well, those schnitzels are deifnitely huge…whereas my cheese schnitzel was basically a huge mozzarella stick in square shape. It was a lively atmosphere though with really friendly bartenders, so I would definitely recommend this bar/restaurant.

For a sweet mid-day snack, I had read about the nougatpretzel (pictured above) at Merzenich, so made sure to stop by this bakery chain to try one of these caramel, chocolate and nut-covered pretzels. Umm, I did not like it and neither did Rio. Why on Earth do people recommend that thing? Blech. While at Merzenich though, we did buy a Berliner, which was a pretty good sugar-covered jelly donut.

Where (Not) to Stay
We stayed at Hotel Lyskerchin, which is about a 20 minute walk from the train station. Since this four-star hotel was close to the Old Quarter and a good price (158 euros for two nights), I thought this would be a good option. Although it was fine for a place to rest your head (although your back would probably hurt the next day since the beds sink in), this is certainly not a four-star hotel as advertised. It is probably a 3 star hotel for European standards – I think the only reason it’s listed as four stars is because they have a sauna and swimming pool. Besides the sunken-in beds, the hotel charges an exorbitant amount for WiFi (17 euros for one day) and charges you to use the Internet on the hotel lobby’s computer too. As for amenities, they provide a shampoo/body wash combo, body lotion, nail file, blow dryer and a bar of soap. No shower cap and no q-tips included. I imagine if we asked, they might have been able to provide this though? On a positive note, we had forgotten our adaptor, and the hotel was able to lend us one during our stay.

Location-wise, it’s about a 20 minute walk to the train station and the cathedral, which is why I chose this hotel. However, after having spent a weekend in Cologne, I would’ve preferred a hotel that was closer to the lively shopping area (Ehrenstrasse Street) with the bars/restaurants. If you want to just stick with being close to the Old Town though and not venture out to areas of Cologne, this is probably fine. Either way, a taxi ride to breweries in a livelier area are only about 8 euros. A taxi ride to the train station is also about 8 euros.

Finally, as for the staff, they were professional but not the friendliest bunch. I would say their responses to questions and the check-in experience were pretty much no fuss, no muss. When asking for ideas on where to go, they didn’t really have much advice. Your best bet for that is to ask the tourism office.

Overall, it was a decent hotel, but I probably wouldn’t stay here again if I visited Cologne.

Ok, c’est tout and “danke” for reading my recap of Cologne!

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Istanbul Vacation: In Video


I really wanted to post more photos and a day-by-day itinerary of our October trip to Istanbul, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So in the meantime, here’s a video Rio made of our trip to the city of domes and minarets.

Missed the one post I’ve done so far on Istanbul? Here’s the post.

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A Trip to Istanbul: Day 1

Istanbul
I have wanted to visit Turkey for several years now, so it was with much excitement that I was finally able to spend some time in this Euro-Asian country this past October. With five nights, we decided to not rush through the country and hunkered down in the country’s largest city: Istanbul. From the food and the hotel to all the sights and our day trip to Ephesus, I have so much to share about this trip. But for now, I’ll break it down by day, and then hopefully do a post that summarizes everything with a link to my itinerary. God – I feel like I also said that about so many other places we’ve traveled to, and never came through on. Umm, Sri Lanka, Corsica, Provence/Pyrenees, to name a few. Fingers crossed for Istanbul…

As I looked out of the taxi during the drive from the airport to our hotel, I couldn’t help but thinking how accurate it was that someone described Istanbul as a “city of domes and minarets”. Pretty much everywhere you look, you’ll see this – and there’s nothing like hearing the call for worship reverberating through the streets from these domed mosques. So after drinking in my first views of the city during the 30 minute taxi ride to the Beyoğlu neighborhood, we arrived at what is now one of my favorite hotels – Witt Istanbul Hotel – enjoyed a welcome drink, and headed out to explore.

By the time we finished our drink and took the requisite photos of our hotel room though, we didn’t head out until the early evening. Since it was the third day of  one of the most important holidays in the Muslim religion, the Feast of the Sacrifice, and it was raining, we didn’t expect to see or do much since a lot of sites would be closed. That was ok though – after many years, I’ve finally started to take it easy when it comes to travel and don’t jam-pack my schedule by the hour. So, off we went exploring! Our first stop was the Galata Bridge where we saw the fish market and all the men casting rods over the bridge in hopes of catching fish from the Bosphorus.
Istanbul

Istanbul - Galata Bridge

Istanbul
With the sun quickly setting, we crossed Galata Bridge, being careful not to get hit by anyone swinging a fish rod, and walked to Süleymaniye Mosque. Sitting atop the third hill in Istanbul (there are seven), Süleymaniye Mosque is the largest mosque in the city and after centuries of earthquakes, doesn’t have a single crack from them. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, Süleymaniye was already closed to the public for the night so we just walked around the exterior and took in the gorgeous golden lights.Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque
After strolling around Süleymaniye, we decided to head back in the direction we came from and search for dinner back on our side of the Bosphorus. Right before crossing Galata Bridge, we passed by the 400 year old New Mosque (Yeni Cami) in the Eminönü neighborhood and people-watched in the courtyard for a bit.
New Mosque

New Mosque
After our New Mosque break, we were getting pretty hungry at this point…and therefore cranky, so we went off in search of some dinner. Surprisingly, two of the restaurants we tried to go to were fully booked (apparently, reservations are a must in Istanbul!), so the crankiness quotient quickly increased. After more wandering around, we finally decided to head uphill in the Beyoğlu neighborhood, passing by a lit-up Galata Tower on the way, and see if we could get a table at Refik – a popular meze spot the hotel had recommended. Luckily, they were able to squeeze us in and once we were both sipping on an Efes beer, all hunger pains quickly dissipated.
Galata Bridge Galata Tower

Efes Beer

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A Weekend in Berlin

Berlin
For the Toussaint holiday weekend a couple of weeks ago, we decided to take a trip to Berlin with Rio’s brother Roel in tow. Below are some photos and recommendations from our stay in the capital of Germany – a city I surprisingly found myself liking despite the teeth-chattering weather and scores of construction zone sites.

While in Berlin, you get the sense that something big is about to happen in this historic, tumultuous city. And perhaps that’s why many people compare Berlin to a younger New York. There’s a youthful, energy in the air that’s subtle, but undoubtedly growing with each passing day. Soon enough, Berlin will have to shed its “Poor, But Sexy” status as more tech companies and startups take root there and transform it to what’s already being touted as Europe’s Silicon Valley.
Berlin Collage

Walking Tour
Above: Ready for a 4 hour+ walking tour! Below: Berlin Cathedral.

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral View

Heinrich Heine
Rough Translation: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people.” – Heinrich Heine. Below: Holocaust Memorial, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Holocaust Memorial

Holocaust Memorial

Berlin Wall

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

Berlin Collage 2 Berlin Collage 3

Brandenburg Gate

Where to Stay
Hands down, The Circus Apartments! With Rio’s brother Roel traveling with us, it made more financial sense to book an apartment instead of two hotel rooms. I had heard great things about The Circus Hotel, so I decided to book us a two-bedroom, two bath apartment at their sister property – The Circus Apartments. Wow – what a freaking apartment! The concierge is located in The Kitchen Cafe on the main floor of the building and were extremely helpful. Prior to the trip, they had also contacted us with detailed directions, a list of their favorite local spots to check out and welcomed us with a goodie bag of drinks (non-alcoholic) and snacks. Loved this place and highly recommend it for families, friends and couples traveling together.

What to See & Do
Consider buying the Berlin Welcome Card for discounts at many of the city’s sights, as well as unlimited transportation on the metro and buses. We ended up saving about 10 euros with the card.

Climb up the easy 200+ steps to the dome of the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom). Four euros gains you entry into Berlin’s largest church and views of the city.

Sign up for a “Discover Berlin” guided walking tour with Original Berlin Walks. 12 euros for four hours (9 euros if you have the Berlin Welcome Card) was more than worth it.

If you only have time to visit two museums (or only that much patience), be sure to visit the comprehensive German Historical Museum. Housed in the oldest building on Unter den Linden, this museum shares the country’s checkered history over the last 2,000 years. After spending half a day here, visiting the Topography of Terror won’t seem that interesting. And the two-part The Holocaust Memorial, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a moving, powerful memorial that every Berlin visitor must see. Aboveground, walk through the field of stelae and come to your own conclusion on what it means. Below ground, the museum details the personal lives of the 6 million Jewish people who were murdered during WWII.

Walk along the East Side Gallery. When you reach the end of the wall, you’ll see a photo exhibit showcasing other places in the world that are separated by walls. Afterwards, cross the Mitte River and keep a look out for the various street art in the hip neighborhood of Kreuzberg – the equivalent of Shoreditch in London or Williamsburg in New York.

Pass through what many others couldn’t nearly 25 years ago: Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor). Berlin’s former city gate  stands as a symbol of what was a once-divided city. While there, don’t be surprised to see a variety of tourist acts like humans in bear costumes (the symbol of Berlin) and people dressed up in old military uniforms.

In Berlin on a Sunday? Head to the Mauerpark Flea Market for karaoke, boozing and shopping.

Where to Eat & Drink
Monsieur Vuong
– the spring rolls at this no-reservations Vietnamese restaurant were beyond delicious! Perfect ratio of crispiness, and shrimpy goodness on the inside. And it wasn’t too oily.

Grab a drink amongst the hipsters at Mein Haus Am See, and try to avert your eyes from the couples sucking face in the smoking room. There’s a club downstairs too if that’s your thing.

If you’re in the Gendarmenmarkt area, pop in Bavarian beer house Augustiner for sausages and a liter of beer…all to yourself.

Don’t Forget to Download (For Free!)
Berlin is home to more street art than I’ve ever seen. If you want some insight into the artists and graffiti you discover while wandering the city, then download the Street Art Berlin app.

Listen to the Berlin podcasts on the Rick Steve’s Audio Europe app to learn about what it was like to be in Berlin during the fall of the wall, and what it’s like to live in Berlin today. Sadly, there isn’t a walking tour for this city, but, it’s still a good listen anyway.

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A Weekend in Amsterdam: In Video


This is about four months late, but here’s a video Rio put together of our weekend in Amsterdam back in July. If you’ve ever seen our Sri Lanka, Nice or Rome videos, then you can tell his videos have really improved. He may not be a professional, but considering he’s taught himself Final Cut Pro via random online tutorials and does this for fun, I think he’s done an amazing job!

For more Amsterdam photos and tips, click here, here and here. And for a recommendation on where to stay, here’s what I thought of Vondelview B&B.

Next video coming up? Istanbul!

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A Day in Normandy

With “I want to see the countryside” about as much direction as my parents gave me when they came to visit, I decided to rent a car for their first weekend so we could have complete flexibility on what they wanted to see. Plus, when I looked up trains to go to Normandy, it was about 75 euros each way, which would end up costing a lot more than a rental car. Here are some photos from our day trip. We started off by the D-Day beaches and ended the night at Honfleur before returning to Paris.
Arromanches
Approximately a three-hour drive northwest of Paris, we began our journey in the heart of the D-Day beaches where the Normandy landings took place on June 6, 1944 – Arromanches. After a quick lunch at Restaurant Le Pappagall (the mussels are highly recommended), we walked to Port Winston. This is not only where the Allied troops managed to move 600,000 tons of concrete and equipment across the English Channel to create an attack base against the Nazis, but it’s also where thousands died. You’ll see in the photo above that there was some sort of exhibit where human-shaped stencils were laid out along the beach to symbolize all the lost lives at this location during WWII. After taking this in, we walked about 20 minutes uphill to  Arromanches 360, a circular theatre with nine screens that sits on the Arromanches cliff tops. Not only did we watch a 20-minute movie with unpublished archive footages retracing the 100-day battle that took place at Port Winston, but because of the theatre’s location, we were also able to take in the views of the town below.
D Day Beaches

Parents in Normandy Arromanches View Arromanches
After Arromanches, Rio and I would’ve probably gone to the American Cemetery, but my parents were ready to move on. So we headed about an hour east to Honfleur for a completely different take on Normandy. I can see why Parisians call Honfleur the 21st arrondissement of Paris. A quaint harbor town, Honfleur is lined with narrow cobblestone streets, timber-framed houses, small art galleries and shops, and a bustling port area packed with boats, bars and restaurants. Upon arrival, we bypassed the town and drove straight uphill to see the views overhead, but having done that, I feel inclined to tell you that it’s not worth it. The views are quite industrial, and there’s not a natural viewpoint (at least that we could find) along the street to see the rooftops of the town. So I recommend heading straight to the center of Honfleur (after parking near the outskirts of town). In Honfleur, you can easily spend a few hours getting lost in the snug streets and taking in the dockside activity. But be sure to pop in a store for a Calvados tasting (the local apple brandy), gaze up at the ceiling of France’s largest wooden church, Church of Saint Catherine, which resembles a ship if turned upside down, and see what inspired artists like Monet and Boudin to paint this small maritime city. That’s exactly what we did before eating a filling dinner at Le Hamelin, even for American standards, before making our two hour-plus drive back to Paris.
Honfleur

Honfleur

Honfleur

Honfleur

Honfleur

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Recently on Instagram

I know I don’t post nearly enough about Paris. The simple fact is I don’t visit any tourist sights unless guests are in town, and I don’t necessarily feel comfortable looking like a tourist or snap-happy blogger by whipping out a huge DSLR camera (or even a regular point-and-shoot camera for that matter) when I’m out trying a new bar or restaurant. I’ll occasionally sneak in an iPhone photo, but even then, those aren’t the best quality since I’m trying to be pseudo-discreet. I’m also just not the kind of person that simply wanders around the city for hours with a camera taking photos of beautiful everyday activities and sights. I really wish I was, but I’m not. In fact, I’m afraid that if I ever leave this beloved city of mine, that I’ll regret I didn’t do that. All this is to say that this is the reason most of my photos tend to be of my recent travels (apparently, I don’t have any qualms about looking like a tourist then), with an occasional Paris shot in between. Oh, and a shot of Tyler too, of course.

However, since I did have guests in town recently and even got to visit Barcelona and Madrid again after nearly 10 years, here are a few things I managed to capture on Instagram, Paris sights included.
Après New York on Instagram
Clockwise from Top Left:

  • This is actually an Instagram video. I know it’s cheesy to say this, but there’s something about a French flag waving in the wind that really resonates with me. Yes, I know I’m American, but I can’t help but feel some sort of heavy connection when I see a French flag. Rio thinks I’m nuts. My friend Alan says I’m a romantic.
  • We’ve been lucky with the weather in Paris lately (I know I just jinxed this now), so for the second night of my friends’ visit, I took them to En Attendant Rosa on Les Berges by the Seine for evening al fresco drinks and apéros. This is the view we took in – my favorite bridge Pont Alexandre III. If you’re ever visiting Paris and the weather is nice, then I recommend settling in at one of the few riverside bars or restaurants on Les Berges and doing the same.
  • On the last day of my friends’ visit, I took them to one of my favorite sights: Sacré-Coeur. Did you know the reason Sacré-Coeur always stays so white is because it’s made of a type of limestone called travertine that constantly self-cleans because it exudes calcite when it rains – kind of giving it a fresh coat of white paint? I always love sharing this fun fact with guests when playing a “Paris Fact: True or False” game with them. And oui, I actually do this because I am a nerd.
  • My parents also visited this past week. Before arriving, my dad said to me, “I’ve already been to Paris, I want to see another city and country”. Um, ok. What am I, chopped liver? So with that in mind, I took them to Spain for the week. For our last day in Madrid, we visited El Retiro Park, which is where this pond is located.
  • We also managed to take a day trip from Madrid to Segovia. This is a shot of the impressive Cathedral of Segovia, located right by the main square Plaza Mayor.
  • After literally two weeks straight of traveling and entertaining guests, I was one exhausted lady. Coupled with the fact that I ended up catching the cold my visiting friend Brian had, I decided to stay in and rest all weekend. Tyler did the same.
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