Category Archives: ADVENTURES IN EUROPE

Tuscany Day Trip: Montepulciano and Pienza

A day trip to the towns of Montepulciano and Pienza in Tuscany: touring medieval towns and lunch at an old family-run winery

 

Part One: Montepulciano

This day trip was part of our two week trip in Italy, where we visited Venice, Florence, and Rome. We had an entire week in Rome and wanted to see a little bit of the countryside, and we love wine. So I booked a full day with City Wonders on a tour that took us north to the towns of Montepulciano and Pienza in Tuscany. We don’t normally like big bus tours, but this was the easiest way to do a day tour out out of Rome, so we took a chance.

The tour started at the meet up point at the Piazza del Popolo in Rome at 7:00 AM. As soon as we walked up to the crowds of people being sorted out by multiple tour groups, we wondered if we had made a big mistake by doing a big bus tour.

The tour guide checked us in, we received our earpiece that would help us hear our tour guide, and we got on the bus –hoping for the best. It was October, and the majority of our tour group was older, retired people. Most were American, and many were pretty embarrassing. Loud, obnoxious, pushy, not understanding how to use the headsets, etc., etc.

After about an hour drive, we stopped at a shop off the highway selling lots of different Italian foods and souvenirs, with a cafe in the back. It was 100% set up for tour groups, but there were free samples of just about all the foods for sale. It was nice to be able to try all the pestos, chocolates, olive oils, etc. for sale. We found a really nice pesto and a delicious truffle tapenade.

After another hour on the bus, we arrived at Montepulciano in Tuscany.

Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany

We weren’t expecting the temperature to be so much cooler in Tuscany than in Rome. It was also a lot windier. Many towns in Tuscany are built on hills overlooking beautiful valleys, so the elevation is much higher than Rome. We wished we had brought heavier jackets with us. Note–if taking this tour, take layers with you.

Most of the tour of the town was on a gradual uphill climb, winding through medieval buildings. It was beautiful, and I instantly couldn’t help wanting to plan my next trip back to Italy to spend at least a week exploring Tuscany. It was even more beautiful than the pictures I’d seen.

Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany

Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Old well, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany
Montepulciano, Tuscany

After an hour of exploring the town, we make our way back to the bus to head to a winery for lunch.

The winery we visited was also clearly set up for large tour groups, but it was by no means disappointing. Set on a hill overlooking the valley, Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino had its own vineyard and farm. We started by getting a brief tour of the wine cellar. The farm has been in operation since the 16th Century and is family-run.

Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Wine Cellar at Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany

Next, we were lead to the huge dining room where tables were all set for a 3 course lunch and wine tasting. A host from the farm said all of the pasta and food was made on site from old family recipes, and gave us the lowdown of which wines we should drink with which dishes, but we quickly lost track.

Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany
Fattoria Ristorante Pulcino, Montepulciano, Tuscany

I wasn’t expecting this big bus tour lunch to be one of the best meals of our trip, but it was. Appetizers consisted of bruschetta, nuts, and different flavors of pecorino cheese with local honey. We paired these with some of the white and rose wines and they were fantastic.

Our second course was Tuscan ribollita soup, which was a vegetable soup with bread in it to thicken the soup. It was fantastic. The main course was pasta, and it was some of the best pasta I’ve ever had. And to our delight, the wine kept flowing.

It may sound simple, but on the table they had a chili flake and dried vegetable seasoning mixture as well as an herbed sea salt to sprinkle on your pasta. Both added a surprising amount of flavor enhancement to the pasta. We were happy to find out that they sold both of these in their gift shop, which we purchased along with some truffled pecorino cheese. They shrink wrap the cheese for you to take home on the plane.

 

Part 2: Pienza

 

After lunch, we filed back onto our tour bus to our final stop in the town of Pienza. The retired set on our bus were a little loopy after all that wine, and some of them even passed out on the bus on the way to Pienza. Our tour guide gave us free time to explore the town as she had to deal with the passed out older folks on the bus that the poor bus driver didn’t know what to do with (he didn’t speak English). Travel now! Don’t wait until you are retired. That said, keep traveling when you’re retired, just be prepared for these kinds of things to happen….

 

Pienza is known for pecorino cheese. The guide gave us a tip that we should find the gelato shop that sells pecorino cheese gelato, so this was our first mission. We found some pretty quickly at Gelateria Artigianale. I have to say, it was pretty good.

Pecorino cheese ice cream, Pienza, Tuscany
Pecorino cheese ice cream, Pienza, Tuscany

 

Pienza was a lot like Montepulciano, with medieval buildings and cobbled streets, set on a hillside with gorgeous views of the Tuscan countryside. It was still pretty chilly and windy, and we found a little shop with a very nice men’s wool blazer for Paddy priced at 50% off.

Pienza, Tuscany
Pienza, Tuscany
Pienza, Tuscany
Pienza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany

We didn’t have a lot of time in Pienza, and our last stop was a cheese and wine shop. We bought a bottle of Montepulciano wine and admired the large wheels of pecorino cheese for sale.

Peinza, Tuscany
Peinza, Tuscany

 

This day trip only gave us a small taste of Tuscany, and left us wanting a lot more. We can’t wait to come back to the region, rent a car and a little villa, and explore the little towns on our own. We love wine tasting and visiting vineyards, and the Tuscan countryside is just as beautiful as you’ve seen in pictures. Our next trip to Italy will make the Tuscany region one of our main stops over several days.

Stay tuned for our last Italy post about our week in Rome!

 

 

Florence, Italy

 Two nights in Tuscany’s capital city of Florence: Architecture, history, a fantastic market, and wine windows

 

Day 1: Walking around, falling into a gelato tourist trap, discovering wine windows, and some delicious food.

Florence was our stop on our two week trip to Italy in between Venice (where we arrived), and Rome. We only had two nights and one full day in Florence, and we didn’t have much of an agenda.

Florence is the metropolitan hub of the Tuscany region, and is known for all the famous museums such as the Accademia Gallery (where Michelangelo’s David resides), and the Uffuzi Gallery. If you are really into Botticelli, Michelangelo, and other famous Italian renaissance works of art, Florence is definitely a place for you.

However, as much as we would enjoy seeing the statue of David and some of these amazing works of art, we didn’t want to spend our one day in Florence in museums with hoards of tourists. Sometimes I have “museum guilt” when I travel. I feel like I should be visiting art and history museums, but I just don’t have the attention span. I would rather be out enjoying the architecture, culture, food, and people-watching. Had we had one more day in Florence, we would have tried to visit at least one of these museums.

Tip for visiting museums in Florence: book your tickets in advance. I checked online the day we arrived just to see if there was availability the next day in case we wanted to go to one, and the most popular ones were sold out.

When we arrived in Florence, we were pretty exhausted from all the walking we did during our first three days in Venice. I was very thankful when we arrived by train that I had booked an Airbnb apartment so close to the train station. It was almost disorienting at first to see all the cars and motorbikes going by after being in car-less Venice for three days.

After a short rest, we went out to explore. The architecture in Florence is vastly different to Venice. Everywhere in Italy has it’s own character and unique charm.

Piazza della Repubblica, Florence
Piazza della Repubblica, Florence
Statue of David, Florence
Florence

If you want to see the statue of David but don’t want to go to the museum, there is a copy statue outside the Museo di Palazzo Vecchio that you can get a photo with:

Statue of David, Florence
Statue of David, Florence

We were shocked at how packed with tourists Florence was. There were crowds everywhere. That said, Florence is a fairly small and walkable city. In the center of the city is the Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore. The cathedral is free to enter, but had a very long line. Honestly, the outside was so impressive that it was plenty exciting to just walk around the perimeter and admire the intricate detail.

Cathedral di Santa Marie del Fiore, Florence
Cathedral di Santa Marie del Fiore, Florence
Cathedral di Santa Marie del Fiore, Florence
Cathedral di Santa Marie del Fiore, Florence
Florence Street
Florence Street
Florence Street
Florence Street
Florence Street
Florence Street

We decided to stroll down the main street of Via Por Santa Maria towards the Ponte Vecchio. Paddy wanted some water and I thought some gelato might be nice. We stopped into the next gelato place we saw that was also selling bottled beverages, and ended up paying 17 Euro for one bottled water and one very mediocre gelato. After paying just a few Euros for amazing gelato in Venice, we fell right into this tourist trap. Check the Google maps reviews before buying gelato in Florence! And check the prices before you order as well.

We reached the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone bridge dating back to the 1200s. The name Ponte Vecchio translates to “Old Bridge,” which I suppose is fitting. It has many shops along it, most of which were selling gold jewelry. We aren’t into jewelry, so we didn’t find the Ponte Vecchio super exciting other than it’s history.

Arno River, Florence
Arno River, Florence
Ponte Vecchio, Florence
Ponte Vecchio, Florence

We felt like sitting down for a bit for a beer, but were wary of all the tourist traps after the gelato debacle. Miraculously, we walked by a tiny little osteria that had a small deck with a beautiful view of the Ponte Vecchio who welcomed us in for a beer. They said they were no longer serving food but could serve beverages. I cannot find this place on Google Maps and did not note the name. It was a lucky find. We had a relaxing beer and enjoyed the late afternoon sun. We tried the Italian beer that the waiter recommended and were very pleased.

Florence beer

After a rest back at our Airbnb, we decided to venture out and try to find one of Florence’s unique hidden gems: the wine window.

The buchette del vino, (or wine window) goes back a few hundred years in Florence. Tuscany being one of the wine regions of Italy, a wine window was a way for wine-producing nobles to sell their wine out of their house without having to pay taxes.

Google Maps brought us to a wine window not far from our Airbnb at the Cantina de’ Pucchi restaurant. You simply ring the bell in the little window in the wall, someone comes and tells you the wine options, you pay, and they present you with a glass of wine to enjoy on the street. Genius.

Wine Window at Cantina de' Pucchi, Florence
Wine Window at Cantina de’ Pucchi, Florence
Wine Window at Cantina de' Pucchi, Florence
Wine Window at Cantina de’ Pucchi, Florence

This wine window happened to have four tiny two top tables on the sidewalk surrounded by a little iron fence that we could sit at. We were the only ones there at first, but after some other tourists watched us order wine from the wine window, more people wanted to join in.

Wine Window at Cantina de' Pucchi, Florence
Wine Window at Cantina de’ Pucchi, Florence

Wine was 7 euros a glass, and cards were accepted. When you finish your wine, simply ring the bell again and give the glass back. We had two rounds, the second being slightly less enjoyable due to the American family of 5 who crammed themselves into the two top table next to us. The parents enjoyed their wine while their bored kids with nothing to do stood next to our table or crawled under our table or on our chairs. The parents did become aware of their imposition and told us that they were leaving soon, to which I replied “thank you.”

Wine windows are a very unique and historical part of Florence that you shouldn’t miss if you drink wine. I found another blog that lists all the active wine windows in Florence here.

For dinner, we took a recommendation from our Airbnb host’s list of recommended local restaurants and visited Trattoria Marione.

Trattoria Marione, Florence
Trattoria Marione, Florence

While the cuisine in Venice was very seafood-focused, the cuisine of Florence is more beef and pork centric. Trattoria Marione had decent prices, and served hearty home-cooking style food in a homey atmosphere. It was plenty busy when we arrived, and became busier by the time we left.

We started with a simple fresh mozzarella and tomato appetizer, and then went for some traditional dishes. Paddy had a side salad and the Osso Buco, which was a veal dish served with peas, and I had the eggplant parmesan with a side of salted spinach.

Trattoria Marione, Florence
Trattoria Marione, Florence
Trattoria Marione, Florence
Osso buco, Trattoria Marione, Florence
Trattoria Marione, Florence
Salted spinach and eggplant parmesan, Trattoria Marione, Florence

Everything here tasted like home cooking. Nothing fancy, nothing upscale, just quality home-cooked style food. It might sound bizarre, but the salted spinach was the best spinach I’d ever had. It was perfectly cooked and perfectly salted, and was an outstanding accompaniment to the eggplant parmesan.

We called it an early night with a movie and a bottle of wine from the store back at our apartment.

 

Day 2: A much needed rest day and a fantastic market

 

We woke up the next morning with aching feet and very stiff calves. We had been doing so much walking over the last few days that we really needed a day to take it easy.

Fortunately, we had walked around and seen a lot of the main sights of Florence (except for the museums) the day before. To our delight, we discovered that there was a Chinese reflexology/foot massage place just a couple blocks from our apartment.

Starting the day with breakfast at our apartment, we then dropped into Shu-Xin massage and foot massage shortly after they opened. We were told they could do two foot massages in an hour. We strolled around a bit, had coffee in a nearby cafe, poked into a few shops and came back for our foot massages.

30 minutes later, we were restored. This is something we’ve come to make a habit during our travels after a few days of walking. We check Google maps for a Thai or Chinese massage place in the neighborhood, and it always helps tremendously.

One big attraction in Florence that we had not yet explored was fortuitously right across the street from our Airbnb: The Mercato Centrale.

Mercato Centrale Florence
Mercato Centrale Florence

The Mercato Centrale is enormous and all indoor (except for the tourist stalls outside selling leather goods and souvenirs). The lower floor is mostly meat, flower, cheese, pasta, and produce stalls. The upper floor is full of food stalls and beer and wine vendors, with tables throughout the center. Basically, it’s a huge, amazingly delicious and high-quality food court. It reminded us a lot of the Time Out Market in Lisbon, which we also loved.

Overwhelmed with choices, we took two laps around before we decided on a wine bar serving cicchetti-like bread slices with various toppings. It was crowded in the food court tables, but the wine bar had their own tables, which was convenient. We had a lovely cicchetti lunch with wine.

Mercato Centrale, Florence
Mercato Centrale, Florence

We wanted to try everything in the market, but we didn’t have enough meals left. Had we had more days in Florence, we would have gone back and eaten at the Mercato Centrale for many more meals. Everything looked delicious and there were so many things to try. Don’t miss this market!

Before we left, we couldn’t help trying one more Italian delicacy–the cannoli. We stopped at a place selling various desserts and pastries with a whole window of different types of cannoli. It was hard to choose. They were fantastic.

Mercato Centrale, Florence
Cannoli at Mercato Centrale, Florence
Mercato Centrale, Florence
Mercato Centrale, Florence

We did a little more walking around, picking up a couple souvenirs and re-visiting a couple shops that looked interesting from the day before. We didn’t want to wear our legs out too much, as we knew we had a lot more walking ahead of us in Rome the next day.

For dinner, we had made a reservation at Trattoria Za Za, which our host said was one of the most popular restaurants in Florence. It was conveniently located right underneath our Airbnb apartment, and was always packed. If you want to eat here, be sure to get a reservation.

For an appetizer, we started with the fried polenta with mushrooms and chicken liver pate. It doesn’t look super appetizing, but it was delicious.

Trattoria Za Za, Florence
Trattoria Za Za, Florence

We ordered way too much food. We also wanted to try the fried squash blossoms (another typical Italian dish), so we ordered a side of those along with our main dishes. They were lovely but a bit heavy. I had the wild boar pappardelle, which I read was a typical dish of the region, and Paddy had a steak with a side of rosemary potatoes. I added a side of spinach, after last night’s spinach was so delicious.

Trattoria Za Za, Florence
Trattoria Za Za, Florence
Trattoria Za Za, Florence
Trattoria Za Za, Florence

The pasta was fantastic. It was a much larger portion than I was expecting, and I only got through about half of it. Fortunately, we had a fridge and a microwave in our apartment so I was able to save it and eat it for breakfast the next morning. I am not sure if the Italians are weird about asking for a to-go box like the French are, but I don’t care–I’m not one to waste delicious food.

 

Florence was fun, but it wasn’t our favorite place in Italy. Had we had a few more days there, we would have opted to do a wine-tasting day trip out in the Tuscan countryside, and possibly visit a few of the famous museums. We would definitely have eaten a lot more things at the Mercato Centrale, and ventured to find more of Florence’s adorable wine windows for a pre-dinner (or mid afternoon?) glass of wine. There is a lot of Florence we didn’t get a chance to see, and if we head back to Tuscany some day I wouldn’t mind giving it some more of our time.

Stay tuned for the rest of our Italian adventure in Rome!

Read about our previous adventure in Venice here

Venice, Italy

Three nights and two days in Venice, Italy: Exploring history, food, and culture in one of Europe’s most unique cities

 

Italy was our first adventure out of the country since the pandemic had ended. Being Paddy’s first time in Italy, we opted to do three city destinations: Venice, Florence, and Rome. We only had two weeks, and Italy has so much to see. For a first trip, we thought we’d hit the big destinations. We opted to visit in October when the weather was still nice but not so hot. In the summer you have intense heat (especially in southern Italy) combined with crowds, which sounds miserable to us. October is still has a lot of tourists because the weather is usually great, however most of the families are not traveling during this time so it thins the herds a little bit.

We have always wanted to see Venice. Yes, it’s crowded and overrun with tourists. That said, it is still one of the most unique cities in the world. The most aggravating thing about visiting Venice (to locals and other travelers) are the cruise ship crowds. The ships show up, vomit off hoards of tourists, pollute the air, and then collect the tourists back up and sail away. The tourists spend very little money, as many of the tours are organized by the cruise ships, and they are not spending money on lodging or dinners.

However, if you are staying in Venice for a few days, the evenings in Venice are wonderful. The cruise ship tourists have left, and the streets and canals are lovely to stroll around in–at least in our experience. Venice is a place you should see in your lifetime if you have the chance. Just be prepared for crowds and remember to pack your patience with you.

 

Day 1: Arrival, Cicchetti, exploring

After a sleepless and eventful flight that had a passenger medical emergency (which fortunately ended up being okay), we landed at the Venice Airport. We had booked an Airbnb in the Cannaregio neighborhood of the main island of Venice.

Our lovely Airbnb host Tommaso offered to meet us at the airport and was there waiting for us at the baggage claim. He gave us our apartment key and sent us a video of how to get from the Alilaguna water bus stop to our apartment, and showed us to the Alilaguna ticket counter and told us which water bus boat to take.

It was very nice of him to meet us at the airport, however if you don’t have a Tommaso to greet you and show you where to go, it is pretty easy.

Airport tips:

1. Don’t buy an Alilaguna ticket at the machine kiosks, you can just get one from the counter outside by the boats.

2. Don’t use the airport ATMs. We tried this but it wanted a ridiculous 20% fee. We cancelled our transaction. It is easy to find an ATM once you are in Venice, and most places take cards.

Alilaguna Water Bus Stop at the airport, Venice
Alilaguna Water Bus Stop at the airport, Venice
Alilaguna Water Bus Stop at the airport, Venice
Alilaguna Water Bus Stop at the airport, Venice

After a short ride in the water bus, we arrived at our stop and used Tommaso’s video to get to the apartment.

Tips for navigating Venice:

  1. Google Maps is often wrong or directs you in ways you cannot actually go. A few times it told us we could jump over a canal to get to our destination.

2. Pack light. There are no cars in the islands of Venice, so you will be       wheeling or carrying your luggage around. We managed to keep it       down to one carry on size suitcase, one medium sized suitcase,             and a backpack each. We were very glad this is all we had packed.

3. Wear comfortable shoes. You will be doing A LOT of walking in             Venice. If you are someone who is mobility-challenged, Venice is           not very accommodating to people with mobility issues. You will           be going up and down a lot of canal bridges with stairs as well.

Venice canals
Venice canals

Our Airbnb was in a very quiet little area about two blocks from a busy main street with lots of shops and restaurants. We really enjoyed the quiet location and it was easy to get around.

Airbnb in Venice
Airbnb in Venice
Airbnb in Venice
Airbnb in Venice
Airbnb in Venice
Airbnb in Venice

The Airbnb was tall and narrow with three floors–a small kitchen/living area on the bottom floor, a bedroom and bathroom on the second floor, and another bedroom with an ensuite bathroom on the third floor. One of the best features was a view of one of the smaller canals from the kitchen window, where the gondoliers would go by.

We took an hour nap, showered, and then headed out into the neighborhood to explore and get something to eat. One of the most typical (and wonderful) things to eat in Venice are cicchetti. They are kind of like Italian tapas. They are often (but not limited to) slices of baguette-like bread with different toppings. They are typically eaten before dinner with a spritz or a small glass of wine.

Cicchetti, Venice
Cicchetti, Venice

We found a little cicchetti shop on the main street of Strada Nova that appeared to be popular with local teenagers. We selected a few and ordered a glass of wine, then went outside and found a place to sit by the canal. It is common to eat standing or sitting outdoors at cicchetti shops. Some places (particularly in Venice) will charge you a higher price to sit at one of their tables vs standing or taking to go.

We tried one of the most typical cicchetti, which is bread with a cod fish spread, as well as a small ham sandwich and another one with pumpkin, mushrooms, capers, and pickled onions. They were all delicious.

Sustenance obtained, we continued on to a grocery store called Despar Teatro which was a small grocery store located in an old theater to find some stuff for breakfast. If you’re staying in the Cannaregio area and are looking for a grocery store, this is a pretty awesome find. Lots of breads and a really nice deli, not to mention beer, wine, and many delicious-looking meats and cheeses. We made the faux pax of not weighing our bread, but the checkout clerk helped us out and was very nice about it (oops).

Later that evening we headed out to find dinner, without any real plan. We were pretty exhausted, and after strolling around a bit, we walked by a place called Osteria La Busara with a delightful seafood display in the window.

Osteria La Busara Venice
Osteria La Busara Venice

We were deliriously tired and jetlagged, and overwhelmed with the busy area and tourists. I had also read a lot about restaurants in Venice hating tourists, or having outrageously high copertos (cover charges) added onto your bill, etc. We were weary of falling into a tourist trap, but we were also just weary. And tired. So when the restaurant owner came out and asked us if we wanted a table, we said yes. The place was packed (a good sign). The owner came back out with two complimentary glasses of champagne and said it would be about a 5 minute wait. A wonderous welcome.

Osteria La Busara Venice
Complimentary champagne at Osteria La Busara Venice

A few things about dining out in Italy:

  • There are multiple courses. You can pick a couple, but you don’t have to do all of them–that would be a lot of food! An appetizer and a pasta course or an appetizer and a main course are usually plenty unless it’s a very high end restaurant where multiple courses are part of the experience.
  • The bread is not free. If there is bread or small appetizers brought to your table after you are seated that you didn’t order, you will be charged for them. If you don’t want them, it’s okay to refuse. The bread typically isn’t very expensive–so if you want it, keep it.
  • In some places like Venice, a coperto is charged for sit-down meals. This is a per person “cover charge” that covers the cost of service, such as use of the dishes and table service. It is typically only a few Euros per person, and should be listed at the bottom of the menu.
  • Don’t order a cappuccino with or after lunch or dinner. Cappuccinos and coffee drinks with milk are strictly morning only in Italian culture, and ordering one after 11:00 AM is looked down upon.
  • Don’t order a cocktail or a beer with dinner. Cocktails are for before dinner or after dinner, but during dinner it is customary to drink wine only.
  • If you would like coffee after your meal, you order espresso. Order espresso after dessert, not with.
  • Ordering a digestivo such as limoncello after your meal is a very Italian thing to do–and delicious.
  • A service charge is sometimes added to the bill. Tipping is not expected, however if you thought the service was outstanding, you can leave a few Euros or some change.

For our first dinner in Venice, I ordered the octopus with potatoes and tomatoes, and Paddy ordered the crab stuffed ravioli. We each ordered a salad as well.

Osteria La Busara Venice
Osteria La Busara Venice
Osteria La Busara Venice
Osteria La Busara Venice

The service was great, and there were definitely Italian people eating at La Busara (not just tourists), so it was a successful first dinner in Italy. The server even offered complimentary house-made limoncello at the end.

That was all we could muster for our first day in Venice, and we went to bed to sleep off our jetlag as best we could.

 

Day 2: Basilica di San Marco, The Doge’s Palace, and more exploring Venice

There are a couple big attractions in Venice in the Piazza San Marco: The Basilica di San Marco, and the Doge’s Palace. We decided to knock those out first thing, and then spend the rest of our time in Venice exploring more local neighborhoods.

After reading that these two attractions have very long lines and are very popular, we opted to pre-book a skip the line guided tour of both through Viator. We knew we had done the right thing when we saw the extremely long line for the Basilica when we arrived. Not only do you get to skip the line, but you have a guide telling you about everything in English. It was 100% worth it. If you book one of these tours, be sure to book at least a couple weeks in advance as they often sell out.

Piazza San Marco, Venice
Piazza San Marco, Venice

Piazza San Marco is the most touristy area of Venice. It is near the cruise ship ports and big attractions, and is very crowded in the day time. Pack your patience.

Our tour was a small group led by a very nice guide. We started with the Basilica di San Marco, a very impressive cathedral dating all the way back to the year 1063.

Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Basilica di San Marco, Venice

The Doge’s Palace was next, another lavish spectacle of art and architecture dating back to 1340. This is the Palace of the Doge of Venice, the supreme authority figure of the former Republic of Venice. It became a museum in 1923, and the tour included the Doge’s apartments, institutional chambers, and the prison. A famous part of the palace is the “Bridge of Sighs,” which was a bridge connecting the palace to the prison over the canal with windows on the sides. The name refers to the sighs of the prisoners as they are marched to their prison cells, as they have their last glimpse of the outside world.

Doge's Palace, Venice
Doge’s Palace, Venice
Doge's Palace, Venice
Doge’s Palace, Venice

We enjoyed the tour, but overall these attractions were probably our least favorite Venice experience. If you have limited time in Venice, I would only tour these if you have more than one day and are really into history and Renaissance art. The tour was about 3 hours long total.

We were hungry when the tour was over, and ready to sit down for a bit. I had a cicchetti place that I found on Google Maps in mind, so we headed that way. On our way out of Piazza San Marco, we were bombarded by hoards of tourists in the tiny, narrow streets. I began to worry that the cicchetti place was in a really touristy, crowded area.

To our delight, we turned a corner and found it in a tiny courtyard with no one around. It was very small and casual, with only two little tables. The owner was very nice and we had a lovely little lunch.

Cicchetti lunch in Venice
Cicchetti lunch in Venice

After lunch, we decided to hit one more attraction before heading back to the apartment for a rest– an old book store called Libreria Acqua Alta.

Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice

The book store is narrow and the back of the store has a door to the canal behind it, with a gondola tied up in the canal outside. There is a little cup on a chair by the door to the canal with a suggested 1 Euro donation to go take a photo sitting in the gondola. No one was in front of us, so we went for it. When we were done, there was a line building to get a photo.

Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Paddy posing in the gondola at Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice

Paddy couldn’t handle the crowds any longer, so he left while I checked out the other part of the outside of the store–the famous staircase of old books. It’s basically a lot of ancient books stacked on top of each other to build a sort of “staircase” in a little courtyard behind the store. It’s also an Instagram mecca.

Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice

If you look online for Libreria Acqua Alta, you might see some Instagram shots of someone in this little book stair situation, looking all wistful and artsy. The reality is this:

Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice

I’d still recommend going here to see it, the store is pretty cool. However, go in the early morning right at 9:00 am when they open, or later in the day. They close around 7:00 PM.

Venice streets
Venice streets
Venice canal
Venice canal

After a much needed rest (and break from people), we ventured out to explore again.

Venice canals in the evening
Venice canals in the evening

Since we had dropped a little money on dinner the night before, we opted to find a less expensive meal this evening. It was a Monday night and refreshingly quiet and peaceful. A Google maps search for pizzerias with good ratings led us to Pizzeria Trattoria La Perla in the Cannaregio neighborhood.

Pizzeria La Perla had a cozy atmosphere, and a movie theme. It is located next to a movie theater, so I suppose that is a nice symbiotic relationship.

The prices here are great, as were the pizzas. They had a lot of options, including some we’d never seen. I wanted to try something unique, so I went with a pizza with pumpkin puree, tomatoes, and feta. It was delicious and more savory than I expected.

Trattoria Pizzeria La Perla, Venice
Trattoria Pizzeria La Perla, Venice

After dinner, we wandered around what felt like a more local neighborhood. Venice in the evening is lovely.

Produce stand, Cannareggio, Venice
Produce stand, Cannareggio, Venice
Produce stand, Cannareggio, Venice
Produce stand, Cannareggio, Venice
Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening

Before heading back to our apartment, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to try our first Italian gelato. Another Google Maps search brought us to Gelateria Gallonetto. Reviews claimed that it was some of the best gelato in Venice. You won’t see the gelato on display like most shops, it is kept in metal canisters. I ordered tirimisu and chocolate, and I can confirm that it is fantastic.

Gelateria Gallonetto, Venice
Gelateria Gallonetto, Venice
Venice at night
Venice at night

Day 3: The Rialto Market, a canal tour, and more delicious food

The next morning, we opted to explore the famous Rialto Bridge and the nearby Rialto Market.

The Rialto Bridge Is one of the largest bridges in Venice, as it goes over the Grand Canal. You can get some great views of the Grand Canal from the bridge, but be prepared for crowds–it’s a popular place.

Grand Canal view from the Rialto Bridge
Grand Canal view from the Rialto Bridge

We quickly tired of the crowds and crossed the bridge over to the San  Polo area of Venice. We tried to get a good view of the Rialto Bridge from the side of the canal, but it was hard to get a clear full view. There was some nice photo ops of the gondolas, however.

Ponte di Rialto on the Grand Canal, Venice
Ponte di Rialto on the Grand Canal, Venice
Gondolas on the Grand Canal, Venice
Gondolas on the Grand Canal, Venice

The Rialto Market had it’s tourist stalls selling leather goods and souvenirs, however the fish market and food stalls were refreshingly local. It was fun to see the variety of seafood and produce for sale.

Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice
Rialto Market, Venice

We explored the San Polo area a bit, and ventured to see the Ponte delle Tette, or the “Bridge of Tits.” The bridge got it’s name from being the place where topless prostitutes would gather in in the 1500s to 1700s to attract customers.

It was kind of anticlimactic, but historical nonetheless.

Ponte delle Tette, Venice
Ponte delle Tette, Venice *Bridge of Tits)
Venice door
Venice door
Venice Canals
Venice Canals

There was one classic Venice experience we had not had yet– a Gondola ride. However, our fantastic Airbnb host Tommaso offered to take us on a 1.5 hour tour around the Venice canals in his boat for 120 Euro. We opted to do this instead, as having a local Venetian show us around  the canals on an extended tour sounded like a much better deal.

If you do want to take a gondola ride, the price is set by the gondolier’s union so you won’t have to haggle. Recently I read that a 30 minute gondola ride costs about 80 Euro during the day, and 100 Euro after 7:00 PM. To take one, just find a Gondolier standing around waiting for your business. If he or she seems grumpy or gives a bad vibe, you can just go find another one.

Tommaso gave us an awesome tour, and it gave us a chance to ask him questions about Venice. He showed us some famous spots, as well as his favorite local area of bars and restaurants and gave us suggestions for dinner.

Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice

Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice– Tommaso, our wonderful tour guide and Airbnb host
Canal tour of Venice
Canal tour of Venice
Rialto Bridge, Canal tour of Venice
Rialto Bridge, Canal tour of Venice

Tommaso’s canal tour was one of our favorite experiences in Venice. If you want to book his Airbnb, you can find the listing here.

For dinner, we walked over to the area of bars and restaurants Tommaso said was his favorite, enjoying more canal views along the way. It was a nice evening, so we chose a seafood restaurant called Al Mariner with outdoor seating on the canal.

Venice
Venice
Venice
Venice

We started with a classic Venetian drink–the Aperol Spritz, and the scallop appetizer.

Aperol spritz at Al Mariner, Venice
Aperol spritz at Al Mariner, Venice
Scallop appetizer, Al Mariner, Venice
Scallop appetizer, Al Mariner, Venice

The scallops were buttery and delicious. The pasta was very nice as well. One thing about pasta that we noticed in Italy–it is very “al dente.” We were aware that Italians like their pasta this way (a bit firm), however we were a bit surprised at how firm. By American standards, many Americans would think the pasta was undercooked. We did enjoy it the Italian way, we were just a bit surprised as it was different than what we were used to.

Al Mariner, Venice
Al Mariner, Venice

We ended the meal with our first Tiramisu in Italy, and it did not disappoint.

Tiramisu, Al Mariner, Venice
Tiramisu, Al Mariner, Venice

After dinner, there were two cocktail bars we wanted to explore. The first one was a bit of a trek from our dinner location, however it was a really nice evening.

After a long and lovely walk, we arrived at Il Mercante, a craft cocktail bar in the San Polo area. Small and intimate, it was an upscale and trendy spot with subtle speakeasy vibes. We opted to sit upstairs on one of the couches. The waiter was very friendly and brought us water and some peanuts.

Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice

The menu had some unique creations on it. Paddy couldn’t resist the “Pulled Pork” cocktail, which came with a pickle.

Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice
Il Mercante, Venice

The Pulled Pork was interesting, but not a favorite.

Il Mercante’s menu changes periodically, so you can visit their website for a list of their latest concoctions. Overall it was a very nice craft cocktail bar, very intimate and a little fancy.

Our next cocktail stop was TIME Social Bar back in the Cannaregio neighborhood. We were curious about this one because it looked like they had tiki cocktails on the menu.

TIME Social bar also has an elevated cocktail experience, although the bar is much smaller and has a more Italian feel to it. We opted to sit outside again and enjoy the evening. Paddy had a traditional Tiki cocktail with rum, which came with a bamboo straw and a fancy bamboo platform with a faux monstera leaf.

I was feeling a bit tired and was happy to see that they had a mocktail menu as well. I opted for a hot non-alcoholic drink which was mostly chamomile tea, honey, ginger, and spices. It came with two little cookies and was a nice night cap.

TIME Social Bar, Venice
TIME Social Bar, Venice
TIME Social Bar, Venice
TIME Social Bar, Venice

It was time to end our stay in Venice. We walked back to our apartment, taking in our last views of the canals and little streets.

Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening
We saw these panties tagged all over the city. We enjoyed them.
Venice in the evening
Venice in the evening

If we had one more day, we would tour the outer islands of Venice, and eat A LOT more cicchetti. Our favorite experiences in Venice were honestly just walking around and taking it all in. The beautiful historic canals and bridges and architecture never got old.

Continue our Italian adventure here as we move on to Florence!

Portugal: Lisbon, Sintra, and Evora

One week in Portugal in November: Lisbon, Sintra, Evora, and a wine tour in the Setubal Peninsula. Crazy castles, a cathedral made of human bones, delicious food and wine, and beautiful historic architecture.

 

We have several friends who have done a big trip around Spain and Portugal, or Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, etc. All of them spent most of their time in Spain, and allowed just a couple days for a stop in Portugal. All of them came back saying they wished they had spent way more time in Portugal.

We were looking for somewhere to go for a one week trip over Thanksgiving week, and Portugal’s food, low prices, and gorgeous historical buildings lured us in. There aren’t any direct flights to Portugal from Seattle, but it was 100% worth the layover and a little extra travel time . Portugal is one of the most affordable countries in Western Europe–we got a great apartment on HomeAway for only $66.00 USD per night. The food was some of the best we’ve ever had, and everyone was really friendly. English is widely spoken and we had no trouble getting around. If you know some Spanish you will be able to decipher some of the signs and restaurant menus that are in Portuguese, and some phrases and words are similar to Spanish. Don’t try to speak Spanish though, most people we met spoke English as a second language over Spanish.

If you are visiting Lisbon or Sintra, you should be prepared for the hills. If Google Maps tells you your route in Lisbon is “mostly flat,” it’s lying. What it means is that your route goes up and down like a roller coaster, including one or two blocks with the steepest hill you’ve ever climbed in your life. If you’re not good with lots of hiking, don’t stress. Uber is available in both Lisbon and Sintra and is really affordable. There were several times when we were tired and called an Uber back to our apartment from wherever we were in the city, and the cost was only $3.00 USD. If you are in good shape to walk, then it just means you can justify eating more pasteis de nata.

Day 1: Arriving in Lisbon

We took an overnight flight from Seattle to Amsterdam with Delta, and then had a short 2.5 hour flight with KLM from Amsterdam to Lisbon, arriving Friday afternoon.

One thing that made the 10 hour flight from Seattle to Amsterdam tolerable was getting to see the northern lights over Canada from the plane! Horrible photo, I know. It doesn’t nearly do it justice for how gorgeous it was.

northern lights
Northern lights from the plane!

For our arrival in Lisbon, we had arranged for an airport pick up with Welcome Pickups, which from my research was only a tiny bit more than getting a taxi, and delivered door to door service. We were even able to share our pick up with our apartment host so that they would get a notification when we were picked up and could track us on the way to the apartment. Our driver was there waiting for us when we got out of customs and everything went really smoothly.

Our apartment was on the third floor of a very classic building on a small street in The Santa Catarina neighborhood. It had a fantastic view.

Lisbon Portugal apartment
Our apartment building in Santa Catarina neighborhood in Lisbon
Lisbon Portugal apartment
View from our apartment building in Santa Catarina neighborhood in Lisbon

We really liked the Santa Catarina neighborhood. It is very close to Bairro Alto, the nightlife district but far enough away to be quiet. It also felt pretty local and wasn’t as touristy as the historic Afalma neighboorhood.

After we checked in and unpacked, it was time to venture out to find sustenance. It was 5:00, so a bit early for dinner by Portuguese standards (most restaurants open for dinner at 7:00 pm and people often don’t go out to eat until 8:00 or 9:00). We had read about Time Out Market which was only a short walk away from our apartment, and it sounded like a perfect way to get an introduction to Portuguese food.

Time Out Market Lisbon
Time Out Market Lisbon

Time Out Market is a large and busy market full of many food stalls, wine shops, flower vendors, bakery stalls, etc. During the day there is a food market side as well. Many of the reviews I read about Time Out Market said it was touristy and expensive. It is. However, expensive for Lisbon basically meant that the prices were comparable to Seattle. In addition, the market has many food stalls from Lisbon’s top-rated chefs to give you a quick and less expensive sampling of their cuisine. All the food looked amazing.

After doing a loop around the busy market looking at all the food stalls, we pulled up a stool at Sea Me, as I was lured in by their octopus hot dog.

Sea Me, Time Out Market Lisbon
Sea Me food stall, Time Out Market Lisbon
octopus hot dog at Sea Me food stall, Time Out Market Lisbon
Octopus hot dog at Sea Me food stall, Time Out Market Lisbon

The octopus hot dog was two perfectly cooked octopus tentacles on a bun, with lettuce, tomato, and garlic sauce. It was delicious. Paddy had a salmon dish that was also outstanding.

As much as we wanted to eat everything in the market, we only had room for one more small thing after that, so we tried some croquettes and beers at the Croqueteria, which were also delicious.

Not sure what to do for breakfast the next morning, we picked up 6 mini pies from Chef, a stall in the center of the market (they were amazing).

Mini pies at Chef, Time Out Market, Lisbon
Mini pies at Chef, Time Out Market, Lisbon

We ended our tour of Time Out Market with some wine tasting at a little wine shop and bought a bottle of wine to take back to the apartment. Lack of sleep and jet lag were taking their tolls, so we made it an early night.

 

Day 2: Exploring Castelo de Sao Jorge and the historic Afalma neighborhood

After a full night’s sleep and eating our mini pies, we ventured out and found some excellent coffee around the corner from our apartment at The Mill.

Flat white at The Mill, Lisbon
Flat white at The Mill, Lisbon

Once we were fully caffeinated, we called an Uber to Castelo de Sao Jorge, one of the largest tourist attractions in Lisbon.

It was recommended in online forums that I read to Uber to the castle, tour it first thing in the morning, and then explore the historic Afalma neighborhood below (walking downhill). I would whole-heartedly second that recommendation. Uber was really inexpensive (only $2-$7 USD per ride just about anywhere we wanted to go in the city), and it’s best to explore the City of the Seven Hills by starting at the top of a hill, and working your way down.

Castelo de Sao Jorge has had a long and interesting history. The Castle was originally built by the Romans in 200 BC, later occupied by the Visigoths between 480-714 BC, and then the Moors from North Africa from 714-1147. It was later taken over during the Christian Crusades, and became a power stronghold for Portugal through the middle ages. In 1755 it was destroyed by the big earthquake in Lisbon and wasn’t restored until 1938.

Admission is €10 per adult, and most of your visit to the castle will be exploring the exterior grounds. There is an interior area that has been turned into a museum with excavated pottery and other items from throughout the castle’s history, Roman times to the middle ages.

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon
Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon
Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon
Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon
Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon
Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon

There is a great view of the city from the castle, and a family of peacocks roaming the grounds.

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon
Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon

After exploring the castle, we walked into the Afalma neighborhood, which is the oldest part of Lisbon. This is the only area in Lisbon that remained mostly intact after the 1755 earthquake leveled the city. It is a labyrinth of narrow winding streets with azulejo-tiled buildings and cobblestones.

Afalma, Lisbon
Afalma, Lisbon
Lisbon street
Lisbon street
Street art in Afalma, Lisbon
Street art in Afalma, Lisbon
Street art in Afalma, Lisbon
Street art in Afalma, Lisbon

We stopped by the Fiera da Ladra flea market (also called the Theives Market), which is only open on Saturdays and Tuesdays. It was fun to walk through, but I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it.

Feira da Ladra flea market Lisbon
Feira da Ladra flea market Lisbon

For lunch we found a fantastic tapas restaurant in a little alley in Afalma called O Cantinho da Rute. When we asked the owner what he recommended, he said “everything.” While that didn’t help us narrow down our selections, he wasn’t lying. Everything we ordered was fantastic. We had dish with sliced potatoes and hard-boiled eggs with paprika, garbonzo beans with chorizo in a paprika sauce, and prawns drenched in garlic paprika butter. I think they just have a vat of clarified garlic paprika butter in the kitchen that they ladle onto everything. Get bread to mop it up, it is delicious.

For dessert we tried the Portuguese ginjinha, a liqueur infused with sour cherries. It was served in a small cup made of chocolate. Most restaurants have ginjinha, or you can find small places serving it from a tiny counter bar off the street. Be sure to order some with dessert, or any time. The Portuguese even drink it in the morning.

Lunch at O Cantinho da Rute in Afalma
Lunch at O Cantinho da Rute in Afalma
Lunch at O Cantinho da Rute in Afalma
Lunch at O Cantinho da Rute in Afalma
Ginjinha in a chocolate cup
Ginjinha in a chocolate cup

After lunch, we walked until we got to the Se Cathedral, another one of the big tourist attractions in Afalma. Entrance is free, but be respectful if there is a service taking place, and be sure you are modestly dressed. The cathedral dates back to the 12th century.

Se Cathedral Lisbon
Se Cathedral Lisbon

When we got out of the Se, it was starting to rain and we were tired. We called an Uber to take us back to the apartment, which only cost €2.50.

That evening Paddy wanted to find some rock bars to have a drink at. It was really early at 6:00 PM, and not much in Bairro Alto was open yet. We stopped into a tapas bar for a cocktail, then found The Cave. We were the only customers at such a premature hour. Punk music was playing, and they had mediocre sangria. Goths, punks, and metal heads may feel at home here.

The Cave Lisbon
The Cave bar, Lisbon

We walked around Bairro Alto looking at restaurant menus and finally decided on Cervejaria do Bairro. I tried a traditional Portuguese bacalhau dish (salted cod) with potatoes and greens, and Paddy had the veal. We shared a sardine dish for an appetizer. If you eat seafood, don’t leave Portugal without trying a bacalhau dish and a sardine dish. These items are staples to Portuguese cuisine.

The food at Cervejaria do Barrio was good, but the atmosphere was bland and this meal was probably my least favorite of the trip. Since it was a good meal, that says a lot about Portuguese food.

Bacalhau at Cervejaria do Bairro
Bacalhau at Cervejaria do Bairro
Sardines at Cervejaria do Bairro
Sardines at Cervejaria do Bairro

We had a couple more drinks after dinner at Wasp, a rock bar with a bit more of a classic rock theme. This and The Cave fulfilled Paddy’s rock bar requirement of the trip.

 

Day 3: Day trip to Evora

One of the number one things on my list for our trip to Portugal was Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of the Bones) in the town of Evora, about 1.5-2 hours outside of Lisbon. This was an easy day trip, and you can either take the train or a bus. The bus has more frequent departure and return options, but we preferred the train.

I purchased train tickets from the Entrecampos station in Lisbon to Evora online before we arrived on https://www.cp.pt/passageiros/en/buy-tickets. Note that you need to create an account and enter your passport number when buying train tickets on the site. You can also buy them at the train station. You will show your tickets to the train conductor while in transit, so keep them where you can access them easily.

Paddy on the train to Evora
Paddy snoozing on the train to Evora

Evora is a small medieval town with a lot of history. It was occupied by the Romans, then the Moors, and then a Portuguese monarchy in the middle ages. Much of Evora’s medieval buildings are still standing, as well as one ancient Roman ruin in the center of town. Evora looks very different from Lisbon. It is less hilly, and the town sticks to a uniform white and gold color on all of its buildings.

Medieval church in Evora, Portugal
Medieval church in Evora, Portugal
Evora, Portugal
Evora, Portugal
Evora, Portugal
Evora, Portugal

Our train arrived at 11:00 AM, and we proceeded immediately to Capela dos Ossos, a short walk from the train. It was Sunday, and the attached cathedral had a service in session so we just visited the chapel and museum.

Capela dos Ossos was built in the 16th century by a Franciscan friar, using the bones from local cemeteries. It was meant as a contemplation about life and death, believing our time on earth to be one stop on the spiritual transition. At the entrance is an ominous engraved scripture that reads “Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos” or “We bones that are here, we are waiting for yours.” Some find Capela dos Ossos very morbid. I’m always into the macabre, and seeing human bones does not bother me so much.

Capela dos Ossos, Evora Portugal
Capela dos Ossos, Evora Portugal
Capela dos Ossos, Evora Portugal
Capela dos Ossos, Evora Portugal

The attached museum had mostly medieval art and was mildly interesting but the chapel was the star attraction. We really lucked out on our timing–there were only a few other patrons in the chapel when we were there, but when we walked out there was a huge line to get in. Go early if you can.

We were really hungry, and I had read about a restaurant in Evora specializing in suckling pig called O Parque dos Leitoes. It is on the outside of the town wall near the train station.

We didn’t expect O Parque dos Leitos to be as fancy as it was, but they were able to squeeze us in without a reservation. If you come here, dress up a bit and make a reservation if you can.

O Parque dos Leitoes specializes in pork. In many forms. Legs of cured Iberian ham hang on the wall near the entrance, sliced very thin and delicate and served as an appetizer.

Iberian ham at O Parque does Leitoes, Evora
Iberian ham at O Parque does Leitoes, Evora
Iberian ham at O Parque does Leitoes, Evora
Iberian ham at O Parque does Leitoes, Evora

Many small dishes are already on your table when you arrive, and they are not free. They are all listed in the menu, and you tell the waiter which ones you would like to keep (if any). We had the octopus salad. Given the level of white tablecloth fanciness, it felt like ordering wine with lunch was the right thing to do.

We ordered a dish with Iberian black pork medallions, and the suckling pig. Everything was delicious, and the suckling pig skin was crispy and almost candy-like. Both pork dishes were extremely tender. The suckling pig came with potato chips, which I found odd. I would have preferred a vegetable side to go with all that rich pork. The black pork medallions came with tomato bread pudding, which was pretty good but very carb heavy.

Suckling pig at O Parque does Leitoes, Evora
Suckling pig at O Parque does Leitoes, Evora

There were some mouth-watering pies and cakes in a glass case near the entrance, but we were too full for dessert. If you stay a night or two in Evora, go here for dinner and be sure you arrive hungry.

Re-fueled (perhaps a bit too much), we waddled up the gradual hill back through town to the Roman temple ruins.

Roman ruins in Evora, Portugal
Roman ruins in Evora, Portugal
Roman ruins in Evora, Portugal
Roman ruins in Evora, Portugal

It was Sunday, and many of the shops were closed. Most of the ones that were open were tourist shops. We enjoyed just walking around the narrow streets, and listening to a group of singers outside the Sao Joao Evangelista church.

Singers outside Igreja de São João Evangelista, Evora
Singers outside Igreja de São João Evangelista, Evora

There was an hour and a half to kill before our 4:45 PM train, and it was starting to rain a bit. We walked around in search of a bar or cafe we could go in and have a glass of wine at, but not much was open. We eventually resigned ourselves to waiting at the train station kiosk, but happened by a funky little cafe/bar in the Alkimia Madeirense restaurant right near the train station. It was a beacon of light and we warmed up with Irish coffee until it was time for the train.

*Self-catering tip: One of the best things about the Entrecampos train station in Lisbon is the large Lidl grocery store attached to it. We were tired and still a bit full from our huge lunch, so we thought we’d get some wine and snacks and have a quiet night in. We walked out with two bottles of local wine, bread, cheeses, cured salami, cucumber, tomato, several savory pastries for breakfast, a salad mix and two liters of water for under $18 USD.

 

*Note on Lisbon groceries: It was actually pretty difficult to find a real grocery store in our neighborhood. There were lots of mini marts but Lidl was the only store we found that was a full size grocery store. If you plan on cooking in your apartment, it’s worth an Uber ride there and back to do one big stock up trip.

 

Day 4: Day trip to Sintra

The castles of Sintra, particularly Pena Palace, are the most visited tourist attractions in Portugal. Whenever I am set on visiting a very touristy site, I always do a lot of research on how to make it the least horrible experience possible. Based on my research and experience, here is the wisdom I will bestow upon you for Sintra:

Tips for visiting Sintra:

1. If you want to see more than two attractions in Sintra, plan on staying at least two days there. You won’t be able to see them all in a day trip, even though many of them are close together.

2. If you’re visiting Pena Palace, go there first, and go there right when they open. Also, try to visit in the off season if possible. It was packed enough for us in November, I can’t imagine it in June.

3. Buy your tickets online in advance for Pena Palace. If you don’t get your tickets in advance, there is an automated ticket machine that had no line that takes cards with four digit PIN numbers only. Otherwise, be prepared to stand in a long line at the ticket counter, and then another long line to get in.

4. Don’t even think about walking to the castles from Sintra town. We did not make this mistake, but from what I read, many others have. It is a huge hike up a mountain. Take an Uber or the tourist bus.

5. If you’re doing a day trip from Lisbon, take an Uber. I read a lot about how easy it is to take the train from Lisbon, then the tourist bus up the hill to the castles. When I added up the cost of an Uber to the train station in Lisbon, then the train tickets for both of us to Sintra, then the tourist bus tickets up the mountain to the castles, it worked out to be almost the same as an Uber ride. The Uber picked us up at our apartment in Lisbon and dropped us right off at the entrance to Pena Palace. It was $30 USD each way. Quick and easy.

Pena Palace:

We had a fantastic Uber driver to Pena Palace. I was worried we might get someone grumpy about driving 40 minutes out of town, but he was very talkative and gave us lots of tips for visiting Sintra.

We hadn’t bought tickets in advance unfortunately, and when we arrived there was already a long line at the ticket booth before it was even open. Our Uber drive suggested that we walk a little ways back down the hill to the tourist office and get our tickets there and walk back up to avoid the line. We were about to do that when we noticed two ATM-style ticket machines with no one using them. We walked up to them and got behind one other tourist who successfully purchased tickets. You just need a credit or debit card with a four digit PIN number to use the machine. We were stoked that we didn’t have to wait in the long line.

What we didn’t know, was that you can opt for shuttle tickets up to the castle from the entry gate, which we did not opt for. There is, of course, a line for said shuttle as well. Given that and that we were out of shape yet able-bodied, we climbed up the steep hill to the castle. I had to take a few breaks. But we made it.

The palace is a thing to behold.

Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra

Pena Palace began as a monastery in the 1500s, later built into the colorful Disney castle type structure in the 1800s by King Ferdinand. Following the death of King Ferdinand, the palace was opened to the public as a museum in 1911. It was classified as an UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Landscape along with the entire town of Sintra in 1995.

You can tour just the castle grounds and the surrounding park by itself, or you can tour the grounds and the castle interior. The castle interior requires a full ticket and your ticket will be checked again at the castle entrance if you have opted for this option (don’t throw it away).

The interior of the castle was interesting, but the exterior was the most amazing part. The level of detail and eccentricity was mind-boggling. There were so many details to look at, and each part of the exterior was different.

Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra

Pena Palace is the busiest tourist attraction in Portugal, but it is cool enough to be worth braving the crowds.

There are several other attractions in Sintra: The Moorish Castle, The Palace of Monserrate, Quinta da Regaleira, Queluz Palace, The National Palace of Sintra, and several other parks and gardens. We knew we’d really only have the time (and energy) for two attractions, so after reviewing our options, we chose Quinta da Regaleira as our second stop. Quinta da Regaleira is not far from Pena Palace, it is at the bottom of the mountain near town. We were able to get an Uber pretty quickly from outside the main entrance of the Palace down to Quinta da Regaleira.

Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regaleira

Quinta da Regaleira is also a palace, along with a chapel in a gothic architectural style. However, the palace is less the main attraction than the property itself. There are lakes, grottoes, tunnels and caves, and various towers and structures around the property. It is gorgeous and very unique. Plan on spending some time outdoors here exploring.

Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regaleira
Grotto at Quinta da Regaleira
Grotto at Quinta da Regaleira

One of the most interesting parts of the property at Quinta da Regaleira is the Initiation Well, an inverted tower. I had seen pictures of it but didn’t know what to expect until we were there. A sign told us it was one-way only, single file entrance through a tiny door in the side of a rock formation at the top of a hill.

After waiting for several young ladies holding up the line to get the perfect Instagram photos (insert eye roll here), we began our descent down the spiral tower, not having any idea where we would end up.

Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira
Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira
Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira
Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira

We ended up in a series of underground cave tunnels. It took us a few minutes to figure out the best way out, but it was fun! Such a crazy, unique place. Apparently the tunnels and well were used for Tarot initiation ceremonies…whatever those entailed.

Caves below the Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira
Caves below the Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira

We had worked up an appetite by the time we had finished touring Quinta da Regaleira, and fortunately it was only a short walk from there to a tapas restaurant I’d scoped out online.

Tascantiga did not disappoint. Sort of like sushi restaurants, they provide you with a paper menu with quantity boxes and a pencil to fill out your selections. Most dishes are small and meant to be shared, so you can order several of them. The atmosphere was cute, with mis-matched dining chairs and cheerful colors. There was an outdoor patio for nice weather.

Everything was delicious, and we wished we could have tried more of their dishes. If you’re visiting the attractions of Sintra, this is a great lunch stop.

After lunch we felt like we had done a major hike up a mountain from all the climbing up hills and stairs and walking around the palaces, so we called an Uber back to our Lisbon apartment for a nap.

 

Later in the evening, we went for dinner at Os Bons Malandros in Bairro Alto. We were the first people there when they opened at 7:00 because we’re American and we eat early like that. We took the advice of the owner and many reviewers on Tripadvisor and ordered the avocado tuna dish, the prawns, and a dish with goat cheese wrapped in phyllo pastry with red pepper jam. Paddy ordered a steak which came with potatoes and creamed spinach.

The tuna that everyone raved about on Tripadvisor was even better than I expected it to be. I was expecting a straight ceviche-style tuna with avocado, but it was sort of a hybrid ceviche/Hawaiian poke flavor. There was a refreshing lime flavor as well as a sesame oil flavor that was not too overpowering. It came with two “mojito balls” on spoons to give a burst of mojito flavor prior to eating the tuna.

The prawns were the best I’ve ever had, and that’s not an exaggeration. They were HUGE, and tasted like little lobsters. Cooked perfectly and very tender, with a very flavorful sauce. Paddy also enjoyed his steak, and the goat cheese…well, how can you go wrong with goat cheese in phyllo pastry? It was delicious.

As it was early on a Monday and there weren’t many customers, the owner chatted with us a bit and was very fun to talk to. He recommended some fantastic local port wine for dessert.

Go here for a quiet, relaxing dinner and be sure to order the tuna and the prawns.

Marinated tuna tartare with avocado at Os Bons Malandros Lisbon
Marinated tuna tartare with avocado at Os Bons Malandros, Lisbon
Prawns at Os Bons Malandros, Lisbon
Prawns at Os Bons Malandros, Lisbon

A trip to Portugal isn’t complete without listening to some live Fado music. Fado is a traditional Portuguese style of music, usually involving a singer and a guitar or two, signing mournful, soulful, melancholy songs. Being fans of Anthony Bourdain, we followed in his footsteps to A Tasca do Chico in Bairro Alto.

The secret’s out at A Tasca do Chico, so be prepared to wait in a line at the door. The place is tiny, and people are packed in like sardines. The doors are closed during performances, which last about three songs before the doors open again, giving people a chance to leave and others to come in. We waited about 15 minutes before we were ushered in by the doorkeeper. He didn’t speak English but we deducted that he was telling us to go to the bar. We ordered glasses of wine and then he told us to stand near the door (the only available standing space) while the guitar players and singer set up. The doors closed, and the music began.

Fado at A Tasca do Chico, Lisbon
Fado at A Tasca do Chico, Lisbon

The music was beautiful, and the place was really cozy. Had we had a seat and had there not been a line of people anxious to see the Fado performances outside in the rain, we could have easily sat and enjoyed the music all evening. But we wanted to give others a chance to enjoy it, so we left after the three-song set.

There were lots of touristy places in Lisbon offering Fado, and this place may not have been as touristy prior to Bourdain’s visit, but it was touristy now. However, it still wasn’t cheesy touristy. It still had the cozy charm that I’m sure brought Bourdain’s crew there to begin with. If you’re willing to wait and squeeze in like sardines to see some Fado, it’s worth a visit.

Bairro Alto at night, Lisbon
Bairro Alto at night, Lisbon

Day 5: Lisbon’s pink street, a tiki bar, and a lot of rain

We were glad we packed our three gung-ho sightseeing days into the first three days, because when we woke up Tuesday morning, it was absolutely pouring rain. In addition, Paddy woke up with a sore throat. We felt like a lazy day was in order.

Rainy day in Lisbon
Rainy day in Lisbon

Eventually, we ventured out into the city. We had raincoats and we were from Seattle after all, so what was a little rain? We treated ourselves to Thai foot massages at Siam Thai Massage in the city center. Our feet were rejuvenated after all that walking, and it was a good rainy day activity. (Note–Siam Thai is cash only).

We walked around the commercial shopping streets a bit until we found ourselves at the Praca do Comercio, the large main square on the River Tejo.

Downtown Lisbon
Downtown Lisbon
Lisbon's shopping streets
Lisbon’s shopping streets

Under normal circumstances, the Praca do Comercio would have been a nice place to stroll and have a cup of coffee in the sun. However, the rain was relentless and we began to get a bit wet, despite our raincoats. We did a little shopping at a shop selling port wine and canned sardines, and then called an Uber back to the apartment to dry off.

Praca do Comercio, Lisbon
Praca do Comercio, Lisbon
Praca do Comercio, Lisbon
Praca do Comercio, Lisbon

That evening we had a dinner reservation at Le Petit Cafe in Afalma, which ended up being the best meal of our trip. If you are looking for a romantic dinner spot with excellent Portuguese food, Le Petit Cafe is your date spot.

I had one of the two best octopus dishes I’d ever had in my life (the other was in Tulum, Mexico). It was so tender and flavorful. We shared a chocolate mousse for dessert.

Le Petit Cafe, Lisbon
Le Petit Cafe, Lisbon
octopus lisbon portugal
Octopus at Le Petit Cafe, Afalma, Lisbon

If you’ve read much of our blog, you know we can’t resist a tiki bar, so after dinner we took an Uber to the one tiki bar in Lisbon, Bora Bora Polynesian Bar. It was very early at 8:30 PM, and we were the only people in the bar.

Bora Bora Polynesian bar, Lisbon
Bora Bora Polynesian bar, Lisbon
Bora Bora Polynesian bar, Lisbon
Bora Bora Polynesian bar, Lisbon

The waiter kept giving us weird looks while we walked around taking photos. We initially thought he didn’t like us much, but it turns out he was just a little odd and socially awkward. He was actually a really nice guy and gave me a daisy “for the lady” and told me that the Bora Bora dated back to the 1980’s. The decor was very classic mid-century style tiki bar, I would have guessed the 1970’s. A few workers were carrying in buckets of ice and they seemed to be preparing for a busy night. I would love to go back late on a Saturday night to see what kind of crowd parties here. There was a second room downstairs as well that we didn’t get to see.

The music was wildly inappropriate for a tiki bar (Meatloaf?!?) but the decor and elaborate tiki mugs were on point. The drinks were a little sugary. The menu didn’t list what was in the drinks, so we asked the waiter to identify the less sweet ones and we went with those. Paddy had a Mai Tai, and I had the Fire’s God. Mine came with dry ice “smoke.”

Mai Tai at the Bora Bora tiki bar in Lisbon
Paddy drinking a Mai Tai at the Bora Bora tiki bar in Lisbon
Fire's God and Mai Tai at the Bora Bora tiki bar in Lisbon
Fire’s God and Mai Tai at the Bora Bora tiki bar in Lisbon

Overall, it was pretty awesome. I’d like to come back and see it when it’s busy. They really do need to work on that music though.

Not ready to call it a night yet, we took another Uber down to the infamous “Pink Street” in the Cais do Sodré neighborhood. The neighborhood used to be the red light district in Lisbon, but got a makeover in 2011 complete with a street painted pink. I’d read about a bar called Pensão Amor that sounded really funky and wanted to check it out.

Pink Street, Cais do Sodré, Lisbon
Pink Street, Cais do Sodré, Lisbon

The entrance to Pensão Amor wasn’t well marked, but we heard a band playing upstairs in a building where Google Maps said it should be, so we walked up the stairs. I instantly knew we were in the right place.

Stairwell art in Pensão Amor, Lisbon
Stairwell art in Pensão Amor, Lisbon
Stairwell art in Pensão Amor, Lisbon
Stairwell art in Pensão Amor, Lisbon

Burlesque comic-style graffiti art covered the stairwells between multiple levels in the building. Each level had something different going on within the burlesque theme. There was a sex shop selling toys, a disco ball room, a room with cozy alcoves, tiger print fabric wallpaper and a display case of vintage perfume bottles and other trinkets, and the main bar with a live band. It was hands-down the coolest bar I’ve ever been in.

Pensao Amor, Lisbon
Ceramic dildo display at the sex shop level of Pensao Amor, Lisbon
Pensao Amor, Lisbon
Pensao Amor, Lisbon
Pensão Amor, Lisbon
Pensão Amor, Lisbon

There was no cover for the band, we walked right in. In the back room of the main bar were tables an chairs that looked like the set up from an 1800’s Victorian brothel. It was adorable. The band was awesome–they were from Brazil. The bar patrons were a young, artsy set and we felt right at home. It was a great evening. If funky, artsy bars are your thing, visit Pensão Amor and see what they’ve got going on. Live music, burlesque shows, open mic nights–who knows. Whatever it is, it will be worth checking out I’m sure.

Day 6: LX Factory

We slept in a while after a late night out, and Paddy was still recovering from a sore throat. We had a lazy morning, with coffee and croissants at a little cafe down the street. In the afternoon we took an Uber to LX Factory in the west part of the city.

LX Factory, Lisbon
LX Factory, Lisbon
LX Factory, Lisbon
LX Factory, Lisbon

LX Factory is an industrial part of the city that was taken over by artists and turned into a creative area with shops, galleries, restaurants and bars, and music venues. I think it’s probably most active in the evening, but it was fun to visit during the day. There are a lot of awesome murals, fun shops and some great restaurants.

LX Factory, Lisbon
LX Factory, Lisbon
LX Factory, Lisbon
LX Factory, Lisbon
LX Factory, Lisbon
LX Factory, Lisbon
LX Factory, Lisbon
LX Factory, Lisbon

At the recommendation from our friends who had recently visited Lisbon, we had a tapas lunch at A Praça. We second that recommendation.

Tapas at A Praca, LX Factory Lisbon
Tapas at A Praca, LX Factory Lisbon

After exploring all the shops, we ended our tour of LX Factory with a shared piece of chocolate cake and lemon tea at Landeau Chocolate. Their cake has been written up as some of the world’s best chocolate cake, so we had to see what the fuss was about. I have to say, it’s pretty damn good. Layers of fluffy light chocolate cake with chocolate mousse and a fine dusting of dark chocolate powder on top.

Chocolate cake at Landeau Chocolate
Chocolate cake at Landeau Chocolate

Paddy’s throat was still bothering him, so we picked up some groceries at Lidl and had another quiet evening at the apartment.

Day 6: Wine tour in Setubal region

I had booked a private wine tour through Tripadvisor for our last day. It ended up being a perfect, relaxing way to end our trip. Our tour guide Rodrigo picked us up around the corner from our apartment in the morning, and we drove south to the Setubal peninsula. Rodrigo was a great tour guide, and told us a lot about Lisbon and the Setubal region.

Our first stop was José Maria Da Fonseca Wines in Azeitao. José Maria Da Fonseca winery is a family-run winery that was founded in 1864. We took a tour of their cellars, featuring some of the largest wine barrels I’d ever seen. The oldest vintages were covered in cobwebs and we could only view them through a locked gate. It was quite a contrast to the newer wineries of Eastern Washington back home.

José Maria Da Fonseca winery Portugal
The oldest vintages in the José Maria Da Fonseca winery cellars
José Maria Da Fonseca winery Portugal
José Maria Da Fonseca winery Portugal
José Maria Da Fonseca winery Portugal
José Maria Da Fonseca winery Portugal

The tour ended with a tasting of two of their wines in their gift shop.

Our next stop was another family-run winery, Quinta de Alcube. This winery was in a much more rural setting in the Arrabida Mountains on a small farm. We were able to sit and relax and taste wine while talking to Rodrigo (and the winery cat, who was also very talkative). The wines were really nice, and it was refreshing to get a chance to see some of the beauty and charm of rural Portugal.

Quinta de Alcube Winery
Quinta de Alcube Winery
Quinta de Alcube Winery
Quinta de Alcube Winery
Quinta de Alcube Winery
Quinta de Alcube Winery

Rodrigo took us to another stop before the last wine tasting,  Azulejos de Azeitao azulejo tile factory. It wasn’t so much a factory as an artisan tile shop. Artists roll, cut, fire, and hand-paint the traditional Portuguese azulejo tiles in this small shop. We were able to get a demonstration of how the tiles were made, and see artists painting the tiles by hand. They have a shop selling the tiles individually if you would like to take one home as a souvenir.

Azulejos de Azeitao
Azulejos de Azeitao
Kilns at Azulejos de Azeitao
Kilns at Azulejos de Azeitao
Azulejos de Azeitao
Azulejos de Azeitao
Azulejos de Azeitao
Azulejos de Azeitao
Azulejos de Azeitao
Azulejos de Azeitao
Azulejos de Azeitao
Azulejos de Azeitao

Our last stop was a wine shop in the town of Palmela. Rodrigo ordered us a cheese platter to go along with our tasting, which was welcome as we were a little buzzed and getting hungry.

Palmela, Portugal
Town of Palmela, Portugal

At the end of our tour, Rodrigo offered to drop us back at our apartment, or if we were hungry for lunch he recommended a food market a lot like Time Out Market but for locals called Mercado de Campo de Ourique. We felt like we could use another snack after all that wine, so we opted to check it out. Located in the Campo de Ourique neighborhood in Northwest Lisbon, this is a great spot to sample local Portuguese cuisine in a non-touristy setting. It is smaller than Time Out Market, but had some very tasty-looking food options. We had some codfish croquettes that were delicious.

Later that evening, we had our last dinner at a restaurant right next door to our apartment, Fumeiro de Santa Catarina. We didn’t have a reservation, so we went right when they opened at 7:00 and were able to get a spot on the end of a large party table who didn’t have a reservation until 9:00. The place is tiny, so reservations are recommended. Several people were turned away after we were seated.

Fumeiro means “smoked” and that is what their specialty is. Dishes are tapas style, meant to be shared. We ordered a few dishes, but our favorites were the smoked octopus, and the scallops. Everything was delicious. I couldn’t resist the chocolate mousse swimming in port wine for dessert. It was our last meal in Portugal, after all.

Scallops at Fumeiro de Santa Catarina Lisbon
Scallops at Fumeiro de Santa Catarina Lisbon
Smoked octopus at Fumeiro de Santa Catarina Lisbon
Smoked octopus at Fumeiro de Santa Catarina Lisbon
Port wine chocolate mousse at Fumeiro de Santa Catarina Lisbon
Port wine chocolate mousse at Fumeiro de Santa Catarina Lisbon

Our flight home was at 5:00 AM the next morning, and we had arranged for  Welcome Pick Ups to pick us up at 2:00 AM to give us piece of mind in case it was tough to get an Uber. They showed up right on time and we would highly recommend them.

We absolutely LOVED Lisbon and Portugal. Paddy is ready to pack his bags and move there. The people were very friendly, the prices were affordable, and the food was some of the best we’ve ever eaten. Not to mention all the gorgeous architecture and historical buildings. We can’t wait to go back and visit Porto and some more of rural Portugal.

 

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Paris in November

Our week-long trip to Paris in November 2018: The Catacombs and their fascinating history, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Sacre Coeur and Montmartre, and exploring the delectable food of the Marais and Bastille neigborhoods.

 

We had never been to Paris, but always figured we would make it there someday. The food, the architecture, the history, the wine, THE CHEESE–there are so many reasons to visit. We found a good deal on a direct flight to Paris from Seattle over Thanksgiving week, and pulled the trigger.

Everyone has a different opinion on what you HAVE to see in Paris. We decided to follow the advice of the late Anthony Bourdain, who lamented that the worst mistake people make when traveling to Paris is to try to do too much. His advice? Just walk around and eat stuff.

We had six days, and there really is an infinite number of things to do, see, and eat in Paris. I made a list, and then whittled that list down, and then whittled it down some more. The Louvre Museum didn’t even make it onto our list, as it is way too big to see in a week and hoards of tourists pushing and shoving around the Mona Lisa with selfie sticks didn’t appeal to us much. The Palace of Versailles was the first thing I eliminated from my initial itinerary–as much as I wanted to see it, it was an entire day trip and I thought it would be too much for the limited time we had. The Catacombs were number one on my list (and did not disappoint).

Everyone has a different priority of what they really want to do and see, and to each their own. The best advice I can give when planning a trip to Paris, is to ask yourself “Is this attraction something I really want to see, or feel like I should see because it’s famous?” If it falls into the “should see” category, put it on a list of things to see if you end up having time. Be sure to leave some free afternoons for rest or spontaneity, and above all, PACK COMFORTABLE WALKING SHOES. Paris is a very walkable city, and you will be doing a lot of it. The best way to see Paris is on foot.

 

Day 1:

We arrived in Paris in the afternoon on an overnight flight from Seattle, and located the kiosks for the RER B train into Paris from the airport. Our apartment was located in the Marais neighborhood, which we chose for the cafes, restaurants, and nightlife.

Our route to our apartment required a transfer from the train to the Metro, but because we were exhausted and had luggage we exited the train station at Gare du Nord and called an Uber to transport us the rest of the way.

The owner of the apartment met us in front of the building and got us checked in. We had a reasonably priced studio in walking distance to lots of bars, shops, and restaurants with a cute courtyard view.

marais apartment paris
Courtyard view from our apartment in the Marais, Paris
Our apartment in the Marais, Paris
Our apartment in the Marais, Paris

We unpacked, rested for a few, and then headed out to find dinner.

I had done quite a bit of research on restaurants in the area before we arrived, and chose Cafe De L’Industrie for it’s good reviews and reasonably priced French fare. The cafe was warm, cute, and busy. They had an English menu upon request, and even though not all the servers understood English and our French was very limited, we had no problem communicating. We had escargot as an appetizer, I had a duck leg confit dish with spiced honey, and Paddy had a hanger steak with au gratin potatoes. Everything was delicious. If you like clams you’ll like escargot. Just forget that it is snails and dive in.

Escargot at Cafe De L'Industrie, Paris
Escargot at Cafe De L’Industrie, Paris

We didn’t know much about French wine, so we asked the server to recommend one of their selections served by the glass. It was fabulous and very affordable. Wine is generally cheaper in France than in the US. You will often pay more for a beer at a bar than for a glass of wine.

Having gotten minimal sleep on the plane, we were pretty tired and didn’t make it past 8:30 PM. We woke up once during the night at 2:00 AM, took some melatonin and went back to sleep.

**Tip: bring melatonin to combat jet lag–the part where you are awake when you don’t want to be.

 

Day 2:

We had thought ahead and picked up a baguette, butter, ham, cheese, and coffee at the store the night before, so we had a delicious and economical breakfast in the apartment. I don’t know what the French do to their butter that makes it better than every other butter in the world (sorry, even you Ireland). Don’t leave France without slathering their butter on a fresh baguette.

My friend Jenny was traveling around Europe on a photography grant, and decided to meet up with us in Paris for the week. She met up with us at our apartment and we spent the day sightseeing together.

Paris Metro
My friend Jenny and her dog Luna waiting for the Metro in Paris

The Metro was very easy to navigate, and is pretty much just like New York or any other major city’s subway system. I was able to get Metro directions on my phone through Google Maps whenever I needed them. Tickets are sold individually for €1.90 each or in packs of 10 for €14.90. Note that you cannot use a metro ticket on the RER trains, but you can transfer from an RER train to the Metro on the same ticket as long as you don’t leave the station.

**Note: Keep your used Metro or RER ticket until you have excited the station. There are periodic ticket checks and you may be asked to show your stamped ticket to verify that you paid. If you do not have your ticket, you will have to pay a €35.00 fine. With RER tickets, you will need to put your ticket through the turnstile again when you leave to exit the station.

We figured we should see the Eiffel Tower first thing, and then spend the rest of the afternoon exploring Saint Germain and the Latin Quarter.

Eiffel Tower Paris
Eiffel Tower Paris

We didn’t feel the need to go up in the Eiffel Tower. It was pretty enough from the ground. There is a park behind it that is probably great for picnics in warmer weather.

We walked along the Seine from the Eiffel Tower towards Saint Germain. It was a bit windy, so we left the riverside and walked in between the buildings for wind blockage. We logged a lot of steps on my fitness watch (23,000 by the end of the day!). We could have taken the Metro, but felt like walking. Saint Germain is a bit more of an upscale neighborhood, and economic cafes and food options seemed a bit more limited. It is a beautiful neighborhood to walk through, however.

Seine River Paris
Seine River Paris
Saint Germain, Paris
Saint Germain, Paris
Saint Germain, Paris
Saint Germain, Paris

We eventually made it to the Latin Quarter, and were ready for a break. I thought maybe we could eat at the famous Les Deux Magots cafe, where Picasso, Rimbaud, Hemingway, and other famous artists and writers used to hang out. However, the casual cafe I was expecting turned out to be a fancy affair with waiters in tuxedos and high prices.

Les Deux Magots, Paris
Les Deux Magots, Paris

We eventually decided on Relais Odeon cafe, and they were more than happy to welcome Jenny’s dog Luna inside to sit under our table (Paris is a pretty dog-friendly city). The prices were reasonable for a nice lunch with table service. Paddy and Jenny had salads, both said they were really good. Paddy also ordered a pate, and I had the Croque Monsieur sandwich, which came with a small salad and fries.

Lunch

We wandered around the Latin Quarter a bit more after lunch until our legs and feet began to complain.

Pantheon, Paris
Pantheon, Paris
Bakery, Paris
Bakery, Paris
Paris
Paris
Latin Quarter, Paris
Latin Quarter, Paris

When our feet had had enough, we parted ways with Jenny and took the Metro back to our apartment to rest up a bit before dinner.

That evening, I had made a reservation at Restaurant L’ Alivi, an adorable Corsican restaurant in the Marais. Our reservation was for 7:00 PM, which was right when they opened. We were the first and only people in the restaurant and for a short period of time wondered if a reservation had been necessary, until it began to fill up and people were being turned away at the door.

Restaurant L' Alivi Paris
Restaurant L’ Alivi Paris

Once the food arrived, we knew why it was so popular. The shining stars for us were the appetizers. Paddy had a creamy bacon soup dish with poached egg and gingerbread croutons (Oeuf Mollet), and I had the chestnut soup with fresh sheep’s cheese (Velouté de chataigne). For the main dish, Paddy had veal with eggplant parmesan (Quasi de Veau rôti) and I had a chicken dish that was part of the day’s special. The main dishes were good, but I’m still thinking about that chestnut soup with the big, melty glob of fresh sheep’s cheese in the middle.

Restaurant L' Alivi Paris
Oeuf Mollet at Restaurant L’ Alivi Paris
Restaurant L' Alivi Paris
Velouté de chataigne (chestnut soup) at Restaurant L’ Alivi Paris
Restaurant L' Alivi Paris
Restaurant L’ Alivi Paris

The only thing that made the meal less than amazing was the fact that the heat was turned up to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and with every table packed it easily reached 100 degrees. I was thoroughly enjoying my meal but could not stop sweating. The atmosphere was very romantic, but it is hard to feel romantic with beads of sweat forming on your face. Overall, we would absolutely recommend. Hopefully they can get their thermostat sorted out.

We were pretty tired and a bit jet-lagged, so after dinner we picked up a bottle of wine at the grocery store and relaxed in our apartment.

 

Day 3:

On our second full day in Paris, I had scheduled a guided, skip-the-line special access Catacombs tour. If you would like to visit the Catacombs of Paris, you have three options:

  1. Show up at your leisure, and wait in line (€13)
  2. Pre-purchase a ticket for a specific date and time on their website for quick-access  (€29)
  3.  Book a guided skip-the-line tour ($91.50)

After reading a lot of reviews, we opted for the guided tour. The tour was for 12:00 PM and included a two hour tour with a knowledgeable tour guide, including parts of the Catacombs that regular visitors do not have access to. This was by and far the best option, albeit more expensive. We booked through Tripadvisor.

We arrived a bit early and walked around the area for about 15 minutes, but it was raining so we eventually went to the Cafe Rendezvous tour meeting point and ordered a cup of coffee while we waited. The line for the standard self-tour of the Catacombs across the street was very long and we were glad we had not opted to wait in line in the rain. The line moves slowly, as only a certain amount of people are allowed in the Catacombs at a time.

**Note: The Catacombs requires descending 131 steps down and 112 steps on the way back up, so it is not recommended for people with limited mobility

Our tour guide was on time, and we walked right in past the long line of waiting people. There were some rules to follow: No selfie sticks or photos with flash, no touching the bones, no large bags, and if you have a small backpack you will need to carry it in front of you in the section containing bones. We had to go through security on the way out and in.

Paris Catacombs rules
Don’t touch the dead people

We descended the long spiral staircase and into the tunnels, with our guide stopping to explain the history of the tunnels along the way. The labyrinth of tunnels under the city dates back to medieval times, originally used for limestone quarries. In the late 1700’s, parts of the expanding city began collapsing. The tunnels were then reinforced. The working conditions for reinforcing the tunnels were dangerous, and most of the workers died by age 28 or went blind from working in continuous darkness.

Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris

Our guide led us to large areas of the Catacombs that required a guard to unlock gates to let us in and out. One of the unexpected and interesting exhibits were the sculptures done by a man named Décure. Décure created elaborate carvings in secret, and was sadly killed by a tunnel collapse while working.

Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Carvings of Décure, Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris

In 1785, the city’s graveyards were overflowing, and something needed to be done to make room for new burials. Bones were dug up and transported to the Catacombs, creating sectioned “piles” for each graveyard. The femurs and skulls were arranged in front, sometimes artfully, and the rest of the bones were piled behind. Most have a limestone plaque stating what cemetery the bones are from and the dates.

Catacombs of Paris
“Stop: You are entering the empire of the dead”
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris

It was eerie and surreal to be among so many bones. We only got to see a portion of them–there are a total of approximately six million corpses in the Paris Catacombs.

Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris

There is only a small section of the Catacombs open to the public, and exploring other sections is illegal and dangerous. It is easy to get lost and unable to find a way out. And if your flashlight dies, good luck. That doesn’t stop people, of course. There are “cataphiles” out there, who know secret entrances and exits, have large dance raves and dinner parties in secret rooms, and even built a fully functioning movie theater.

I won’t share all the secrets and history our tour guide gave us, you’ll have to take the tour for yourself. It is a very interesting place with fascinating history, and the tour was 100% worth the price of admission. Book this tour at least a couple weeks in advance, however. It sells out, especially during the busy season.

When the tour was finished, we were pretty hungry. We ended up having lunch at the Fourteen Cafe near the Catacombs exit. We each had a different salad, which weren’t amazing by French standards, but pretty good. I enjoyed the fresh anchovies on my Nicoise salad.

I was excited to try Parisian hot mulled wine as it was cold and we were going into the holiday season. This cafe was my first experience with French vin chaud (hot wine), and it left something to be desired. Instead of hot mulled wine, I got a cup of plain hot wine with a sugar packet and shaker of cinnamon on the side. It was still a nice winter warmer on a cold rainy day, however.

Nicoise salad at the Fourteen Cafe, Paris
Nicoise salad at the Fourteen Cafe, Paris

We were pretty tired after lunch and the weather was pretty crappy, so we headed back to the apartment to rest and read for a while.

For dinner, I had made a reservation at Au Passage, a little restaurant right around the corner from our apartment that was featured on the Paris episode of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover.

Au Passage is a bit of a splurge, and is all small plates to share. The service was excellent, and all the waitstaff spoke English and were more than happy to help translate and describe the menu. We ordered five dishes and a dessert, all were works of art. Our favorite dishes of the evening were the scallop tartare and the veal sweetbreads. Neither of us had eaten sweetbreads before, but when in Paris! The sweetbreads are typically organ meat from the thymus gland and pancreas. These were lightly breaded and sauteed. The texture was a bit like tofu, and they tasted a lot like pork.

Scallop tartare dish at Au Passage
Scallop tartare dish at Au Passage
Broccoli dish at Au Passage, Paris
Broccoli dish at Au Passage, Paris
Abalone dish at Au Passage, Paris
Abalone dish at Au Passage, Paris
Sweetbreads dish at Au Passage, Paris
Sweetbreads dish at Au Passage, Paris

After dinner we met up with my friend Jenny again and went to La Fee Verte, an absinthe bar in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. If you’ve never tried absinthe, this is a great place to go. The absinthe menu at La Fee Verte is extensive, and they will bring an old fashioned water fountain over to your table with multiple spouts. You position your glass of absinthe under the spout with an absinthe spoon across the top and a sugar cube on top of the spoon. You turn on the spout so that the water drips slowly onto the sugar and dissolves it, draining through the grate in the absinthe spoon. This creates a “louche” effect turning the absinthe cloudy.

La Fee Verte absinthe bar, Paris
La Fee Verte absinthe bar, Paris
La Fee Verte absinthe bar, Paris
La Fee Verte absinthe bar, Paris
Absinthe louche fountain at La Fee Verte, Paris
Absinthe louche fountain at La Fee Verte, Paris

Most absinthe has a strong anise or herbaceous flavor. I can’t drink a lot of it as the anise is a little much for me. If absinthe isn’t your thing, La Fee Verte has plenty of other beverages on their menu as well as food. We didn’t see the green fairy, but we had a good time.

Our final stop of the evening was Le Tiki Lounge, also in the 11th arrondissement, because if there is a Tiki bar, we have to go there.

Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Le Tiki Lounge, Paris

Le Tiki Lounge was fairly empty, but had a few loyal patrons. Paddy and I both had the La Machete cocktail with tequila and hibiscus. It was pretty tasty. They also carry Hinano beer here, which is very rare in Europe. Obviously, this is because Hinano is from French Polynesia.

La Machete cocktail, Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
La Machete cocktail, Le Tiki Lounge, Paris

The downstairs has a secluded little hangout room which was empty but pretty fun. Overall, it wasn’t my favorite Tiki bar that I’d been to, but it had heart. We were a bit sad that they had sold out of their souvenir Tiki mugs. Maybe next time.

Downstairs room at Le Tiki Lounge, Paris
Downstairs room at Le Tiki Lounge, Paris

 

Day 4:

On Wednesday, we thought we’d start the day by exploring the nearby exploring Père Lachaise Cemetery. We knew Père Lachaise was a big cemetery, but we weren’t quite prepared for how big. It is also not flat, and even on the flatter parts the uneven cobblestones are hard on your ankles.

Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

Père Lachaise Cemetery is a beautiful cemetery, however and definitely worth visiting. Everyone goes there to see the final resting place of American poet and musician Jim Morrison, but his grave is one of the least remarkable in the whole place.

It was a bit confusing to navigate, and we ended up using Google Maps a bit. We located Oscar Wilde’s tomb and the family tomb of famous French singer Edith Piaf.

Edith Piaf's family tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Edith Piaf’s family tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

We ended up stumbling onto a row of Holocaust concentration camp memorials that were very moving. Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Oranienburg and Sachsenhausen each have a specific monument, and the statues on most of them are very sad, a realistic monument to the horrors of the WWII Nazi genocide.

Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris
Holocaust concentration camp memorial at Père Lachaise Cemetery Paris

We finally located Jim Morrison’s grave after a hike to the other side of the cemetery.

Jim Morrison's tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Jim Morrison’s tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

We were getting hungry and tired of walking around cobblestones, so we ended our tour there. There was a lot more to see, but we had seen all we wanted to.

It did take us a while to find our way out of the walled-in cemetery, and when we did make it out we didn’t know where we were in relation to the Metro. We were tired so we just called an Uber back to Oberkampf Street near our apartment to look for a takeout lunch.

One thing we heard that we should eat in Paris is a roast chicken. We had passed Boucherie Oberkampf on the way to the Metro earlier, and returned as we decided that today was chicken lunch day.

Boucherie Oberkampf Paris
Boucherie Oberkampf Paris

Chickens were twirling around in a giant rotisserie behind the counter, their drippings pooling on the bottom on a pile of small potatoes. We each got a whole chicken leg and a large side of the roasted potatoes for about €6 total. We also picked up a delightful thing with lemon curd and raspberries at a bakery for €3.50. Everything was delicious and it was a very economical lunch.

Boucherie Oberkampf Paris
Boucherie Oberkampf Paris

 

Later that afternoon, we got on the Metro and headed to the Montmartre neighborhood. We walked up a hill to the Sacre Coeur Basilica.

Paris is mostly flat, but this is an area that requires some climbing. Once we approached Sacre Coeur, we realized (thankfully) that the Metro had let us off halfway up the hill to the Basilica. We kept climbing, taking breaks along the way to rest and enjoy the view. It was close to sunset, and the afternoon sun lit up the Basilica beautifully. If you visit Sacre Coeur, try to visit on a sunny day around sunset. There are lots of places to sit and enjoy the view.

View from Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris
View from Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris

Eventually we made it to the Basilica, which was an impressive site inside and out. There were many signs inside the Basilica that said that photos inside were prohibited, but I noticed a lot of rude tourists clicking away on their phones anyway. There was a service going on, so we stayed on the perimeter so as not to disturb.

Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris
Sacre Coeur Basilica, Paris

After touring the church, we continued past into the Montmartre neighborhood. We were expecting it to be a little touristy, but it was a lot more touristy than I thought it would be. Many tourist shops selling the same things and touts trying to get you to hire them for a portrait drawing on the street. Loud, embarrassing American tourists drinking wine on the cafe terraces.

It was unfortunate, because Montmartre is a very cute neighborhood. I’m sure there is more to see beyond the main tourist area, but we didn’t venture far.

Montmartre, Paris
Montmartre, Paris
Montmartre, Paris
Montmartre, Paris

We ducked into a cafe called Aux Petit Creux to have some beer and vin chaud and wait to meet up with Jenny. The vin chaud here was delicious. Very spicy and a little sweet and with an orange slice floating in it. My mulled wine in Paris dreams were fulfilled.

Jenny met us and we had another round of drinks and then headed down the big hill in front of Sacre Coeur towards the Pigalle neighborhood. Sacre Coeur was gloriously illuminated at night as well.

Sacre Coeur, Paris
Sacre Coeur, Paris

Pigalle is the red light district, but also home to the infamous Moulin Rouge and Paris’ other Tiki bar, Dirty Dick.

We walked down Boulevard de Clichy past tourist shops, adult shops and strip clubs. If you are looking for tits and a souvenir shot glass, this is a one stop shop.

Pigalle Paris
Jenny’s dog Luna makes friends wherever she goes. Boulevard de Clichy, Pigalle, Paris
Pigalle Paris
“Unique” souvenir on Boulevard de Clichy, Pigalle, Paris
Pigalle Paris
Boulevard de Clichy, Pigalle, Paris

We made it to the Moulin Rouge for a photo op. I had waffled about booking tickets for their show, trying to determine if the price was worth it or if it was too touristy. Ultimately, we decided not to drop the dough. I have had a few friends say they really enjoyed the show, so maybe we’ll check it out next time.

Moulin Rouge, Boulevard de Clichy, Pigalle, Paris
Moulin Rouge, Boulevard de Clichy, Pigalle, Paris

If you are looking for a cabaret show in Paris, Moulin Rouge isn’t the only option. Lido and the Crazy Horse are two other large production cabarets and there are other, smaller productions as well.

We’d had our fill of the sights of Boulevard de Clichy, so we made our pilgrimage to the last stop on our Montmartre/Pigalle neighborhood tour: Dirty Dick Tiki bar.

Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris

Dirty Dick was a bit more classic. It was dark and loungey, with a drink menu that was a bit more extensive. The bartenders were friendly and welcoming. Jenny and I shared a volcano bowl, because drinks that are on fire are exciting. When it arrived, the bartender poured cinnamon on the flame to make it flare up dramatically. A+ for presentation!

Volcano bowl, Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Volcano bowl, Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Volcano bowl, Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris
Jenny and I sharing the volcano bowl, Dirty Dick Tiki Bar, Paris

The volcano bowl was boozy and delicious, with real fruit juices. We were also very excited that they had one last souvenir Tiki mug available, which we purchased. We were there early in the evening, but around 6:30 it started to get very busy with the after-work crowd. Overall, we enjoyed Dirty Dick more than Le Tiki Lounge, but both were really fun. I forgot to ask the bartender at Dirty Dick about the origin of the bar name.

We were tipsy and hungry, and after dropping some dough on a Tiki mug and a volcano bowl we wanted something inexpensive for dinner. We had seen Phil Rosenthal rave about L’ As Du Fallafel on I’ll Have What Phil’s Having, and multiple people had told us to go eat there as well. In fact, on my last day of work before our Paris trip, my boss wished me well and left for the day. He then called me from the parking lot to tell me to make sure to go to the fallafel place.

We took the Metro back to the Marais neighborhood and located L’ As Du Fallafel. The dine-in part of the restaurant was full, but the line was not so long. Unfortunately, they didn’t allow dogs and Jenny had Luna with her. They did however have a take out window, so we ordered to go.

L' As Du Fallafel, Paris
L’ As Du Fallafel, Paris
L' As Du Fallafel, Paris
L’ As Du Fallafel, Paris
L' As Du Fallafel, Paris
L’ As Du Fallafel, Paris

Jenny and Paddy had the fallafel sandwich, and I had the Schawarma sandwich. It was packed full of veggies, sauces, and roasted eggplant. The eggplant was a delicious addition. The only bummer was that there was no where outside to sit. We ended up walking all the way back to our apartment to finish eating, about a 15 minute walk. It wasn’t ideal. The sandwiches were amazing though. Go to the fallafel place.

L' As Du Fallafel, Paris
L’ As Du Fallafel, Paris

 

 

Day 5:

Our original plan for the day was to get up early, get in line to climb the 387 steps to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, and then on to more sightseeing. However, after the crazy amount of walking we had done in the last three days, we were tired. Sometimes, you need to get over your FOMO (fear of missing out) on major tourist attractions and realize that all that matters on a trip is that you had a great day. We scratched all of our touristy day plans, and ended up having the best day of our whole trip.

We slept in, and then walked down to the Bastille neighborhood, stopping at a bakery along the way for a snack. We went to Foot Massage by Bansabai and treated ourselves to a 30 minute foot massage to restore our worn-out feet.

Feeling refreshed, we wandered around Bastille. We poked around in shops and markets and tasted cheese.

Macarons, Paris
Macarons, Paris
Beautiful chanterelle mushrooms at a market in Bastille, Paris
Beautiful chanterelle mushrooms at a market in Bastille, Paris

Oh yes, THE CHEESE. We ducked into the Fromagerie Laurent Dubois on Rue Saint-Antoine and tasted some of their amazing cheeses. We purchased a creamy one to eat with breakfast the next morning, and were tempted by a firmer cheese infused with black truffle. We weren’t sure if we could bring it back through customs. I read the customs guidelines online and it seems that firmer cheeses that are sealed well can usually be brought back to the US. The friendly shop staff vacuum-sealed it for us and we did manage to get it back home.

Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris
Cheeses at Fromagerie Laurent Dubois in Bastille, Paris

**Note on US customs: Soft cheeses are not allowed through customs. Fruit, vegetable and meat products are not allowed into the US unless they are canned, and no beef products from Europe are allowed in at all. If you are bringing something back, ALWAYS declare it. The worst that can happen is that you get it taken away. If you don’t declare and they find it, you will face a $10,000 fine. More info here.

We ate lunch at a restaurant called Au Bouquet Saint Paul, mostly because they had a cheese and charcuterie plate on the menu and we wanted to keep sampling cheese. I had a shrimp and avocado appetizer as well, which was sort of like guacamole with mayo and shrimp with a side salad.

Lunch at Au Bouquet Saint Paul in Bastille, Paris
Lunch at Au Bouquet Saint Paul in Bastille, Paris
Lunch at Au Bouquet Saint Paul in Bastille, Paris
Lunch at Au Bouquet Saint Paul in Bastille, Paris

After a nice lunch with wine we did a little more shopping and poked into a little bakery to get some pastries to go. I wish we had had more time to sample more of all the gorgeous French pastries that were on display in all the bakeries, but there are really only so many pastries one can consume in a week. We got a chocolate eclair, a chocolate ganache thing with a chocolate flower on top, and a pistachio “escargot” pastry. The eclairs in France are a fraction of the size of the eclairs in the US, and with much more flavor.

Gorgeous pastries at Miss Manon Bakery, Paris
Gorgeous pastries at Miss Manon Bakery, Paris
Gorgeous eclairs and pastries at Miss Manon Bakery, Paris
Gorgeous eclairs and pastries at Miss Manon Bakery, Paris

Later that evening, we did have one touristy item on our agenda: a champagne tasting boat tour on the Seine. Tourism that involves sitting and drinking champagne while sightseeing was exactly the kind of tourism that we were in the mood for that day.

I had booked the tour through Viator. It was a one hour river cruise on one of the tour boats open to everyone. However, if you booked the champagne tasting cruise you got priority boarding, a private area at the front of the boat, and a sommelier pouring you glasses of three different champagnes while pointing out the various buildings and historical sights along the way.

The tour departed from the front of the Eiffel Tower at 6:00 PM, which we had not yet seen lit up at night yet so that was an added bonus. We arrived a bit early, so we sat and had a drink in a heated tent near the boat dock.

Eiffel Tower from the front side
Eiffel Tower from the front side

The champagne tour was nice, and the sommelier was liberal with his champagne pours. I think that for sightseeing you would see more of Paris from the Seine in the daytime, but whatever. We were mostly there for the champagne.

On the champagne tour boat in Paris
On the champagne tour boat in Paris

When the tour ended at 7:00 PM, we rushed off the boat to catch the hourly Eiffel Tower light show that happens on the hour after dark. It was impressive–both with the light show and with just the regular nighttime illumination. Seeing the Eiffel Tower at night was the highlight of the sightseeing tour, even though it wasn’t actually part of the tour.

Eiffel Tower at night with light show
Eiffel Tower at night with light show
Eiffel Tower at night with regular illumination
Eiffel Tower at night with regular illumination

After the tour we were hungry (and a little buzzed). I had researched Spanish restaurants in Paris for a little change up from French food, and we took an Uber back to the Marais for dinner at Le Jamoncito.

Le Jamoncito, Paris
Le Jamoncito, Paris

Le Jamoncito is a small, adorable little Spanish tapas restaurant tucked in a small side street in the heart of the Marais nightlife. The restaurant owner was welcoming, and more than happy to recommend his favorite dishes when we asked. Before we knew it we had a slew of dishes being brought to our table, all of them were amazing.

Tapas at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris
Tapas at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris
Whitefish salad at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris
Whitefish salad at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris
Octopus and cured ham plate at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris
Octopus and cured ham plate at Le Jamoncito Spanish restaurant, Paris

At the recommendation of the restaurant owner who was serving us, we ordered a selection of cured Spanish ham, a dish with octopus and potatoes (pulpo a la gallega), a white fish and roasted red pepper salad, fresh anchovy toasts, and another cured ham toast with tomatoes and olive oil. We LOVED all the French food we had in Paris, but the Spanish tapas at Le Jamoncito ended up being our favorite meal of the trip. The food was delicious, the atmosphere was adorable and romantic, and the owner was very friendly and obviously proud of the food he served.

After dinner, we walked around the Marais a bit. Some of the streets had Christmas lights up, which was fun to see. Overall, it was a great day.

Christmas lights in the Marais neighborhood, Paris
Christmas lights in the Marais neighborhood, Paris
The Marais neighborhood, Paris
The Marais neighborhood, Paris
Christmas macarons in a store window, Paris
Christmas macarons in a store window, Paris

 

Day 6:

On our last day, we figured we should do some last minute touristy stuff. Our first stop was the Notre Dame Cathedral. It was extremely foggy, so we didn’t bother trying to get to the top to see the gargoyles and the view. I can’t say I’m super sorry about not climbing all those steps, but I have heard the view is great.

Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris

Both the interior and exterior of the cathedral are very impressive and intricate. It is free to go inside the cathedral (you only have to pay if you want to climb to the top). Signs showed photography allowed without a flash, at least that I saw. There was a choir singing when we entered, so we sat for a few minutes and marveled at the acoustics. It was really beautiful.

Notre Dame Paris
Notre Dame Paris

After Notre Dame, we walked a block over to visit the Conciergerie. The Conciergerie building dates back to medieval times when it was built as a palace. It was later converted into a prison, and was the primary prison during the French Revolution. It’s most famous prisoner was Marie Antoinette, who was held in the Conciergerie for several months prior to her execution in 1793. Admission is 15.00

Conciergerie, Paris
Conciergerie, Paris
Conciergerie, Paris
Conciergerie, Paris

The Conciergerie was pretty interesting, but of all the things we saw and did in Paris, it was probably the least exciting for me. If you are short on time and trying to whittle down your sightseeing list, you might consider cutting this one out. I would recommend the Conciergerie to someone who is very interested in the history of the French Revolution and medieval architecture. If that’s not your thing, consider skipping it.

Later in the afternoon, we ventured out again to the La Defense Christmas market. I really wanted to see a European Christmas market, and La Defense was the only one open, having just opened the day before. (Most of the Christmas markets in Paris don’t open until after December 1st). I read that it was the largest and best Christmas market, albeit a bit far from the city center.

On the way we got off the Metro and stopped at the Arc de Triomphe for a quick photo. The Arc de Triomphe is one of the largest tourist attractions in Paris, and you can climb to the top if you like. We just opted for a quick photo op from the street.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris
Arc de Triomphe, Paris

La Defense is the modern business district of Paris, with modern skyscrapers. It is a bit of a metro ride away from the main tourist areas of Paris, but not too far. There is also a huge shopping mall there. If you are looking for history and culture in Paris, La Defense is the opposite experience. La Defense is a very modern and commercial part of the city.

La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris

The Christmas market was in full swing on it’s second night. After passing through security at one of the multiple entrances, you can wander around rows of huts selling various gifts and foods. There were quite a few food stands as well selling soups, sandwiches, Mexican cuisine, churros, crepes, vin chaud (hot spiced wine), and other items. We shared a foie gras sandwich and then got some vin chaud and walked around.

La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
Nougat stand, La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
Cheese stand, La Defense Christmas Market Paris

We ended up purchasing some truffle oil products. Many vendors had tasting samples to try. Overall, I think I enjoyed myself more than Paddy did. Christmas markets aren’t really his thing.

There were some Christmas light displays to wander around in as well.

La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris
La Defense Christmas Market Paris

By the time we made it back to the Metro, we were tired and ready to sit down and have a drink. The Metro was a bit crazy as it was rush hour, which made the ride back a little claustrophobic.

We ended the evening with beers at Le Black Dog, a heavy metal bar in the Marais that was on Paddy’s list of bars he wanted to visit. It was small and crowded, but the bartenders were friendly and we managed to snag the last table.

We were to fly out the next day, and I received an email that evening notifying us that our direct flight back to Seattle was cancelled and we were on a later flight with a layover in Los Angeles. We didn’t get our reserved two-seat row selection that we had paid extra for, and got home at 3:00 AM Sunday morning instead of 11:00 AM Saturday morning. We weren’t pleased, to say the least. I contacted Air France to get a refund of our reserved seat fee, and to our surprise we got our reserved seat fee back plus €600.00 each! Apparently, there is a law within the European Union that passengers are due compensation if a flight is cancelled or delayed for reasons other than weather. 

*Pro tip: If your flight is cancelled or delayed in Europe, always check to see if you are due compensation. A friend of mine said he has received €200.00 before for a flight that was delayed over two hours in Europe. 

 

We absolutely loved Paris. There were a lot of things we wanted to see and do that we didn’t have time (or make time) for, but I have a feeling that we will be back someday. We would love to see France’s wine country as well, and explore more of French cuisine. There is also so much history and beautiful architecture to explore in Paris. Having spent a week there, I would absolutely agree with Anthony Bourdain’s advice. Don’t try to pack too much in. Pick one or two things to see/do for each day, and fill the rest in with spontaneity and wandering. Walk around and eat stuff. You won’t be disappointed.

 

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Denmark 2017: Copenhagen, Fanø Island, and Esbjerg

When I was sixteen, I got on a plane and flew halfway across the country to live with a family I didn’t know in a country I’d never been to, and learn a language I’d never even heard spoken before. It was the most important thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t know who I would be if I had not done it.

It was hard. It was amazing. It was frustrating. It was an educational experience that surpassed anything I could ever learn in a classroom. I made life-long friendships with other kids from all around the world, and I gained a second family. I learned about the world. I learned how to be independent.

Fanø, Denmark
Me on the first of many ferry rides to Fanø island, July 1997
Denmark
Me (standing, second from left) with exchange student friends in Skagen, Denmark 1998

Nineteen years later, I was boarding a plane again with Paddy back to Denmark. We’ve embarked on many international adventures together, but this one was different. I wasn’t going away this time. I was coming home.

I was nervous. The last time I saw my host family and classmates was when I was 17. Would they even want to see me after nineteen years? Did they even remember me that well? When I left Denmark in 1998, email was a new phenomenon. I had managed to find almost all of them on Facebook around 2006 or so, and I’d maintained some contact with everyone on social media since then. My classmate Ann visited me in Seattle in 2011, and urged me to come back to visit. I wanted to, but building up vacation time is a bit more of a challenge for Americans, and there were so many places in the world that I hadn’t seen yet.

Finally, I decided I had to go. I made plans with my host family and friends, brushed up on my Danish with the Duolingo App (wish I had that when I was an exchange student!), and bought our plane tickets.

We began our trip with four days in Stockholm, Sweden as I didn’t get a chance to see Sweden during my exchange year. We got over our jet lag and had a little tourist time before boarding the train to Copenhagen. Read about our adventures in Stockholm here.

Copenhagen:

Day 1:

I had booked tickets in advance through the Scandinavian Rail website. With train tickets, the earlier you book, the better rate you get. I think the earliest you can book in advance is three months. You do need to print your ticket. I had forgotten to print my ticket, and had only printed the confirmation. The info desk at the Stockholm Central station directed us to the auto kiosks where we were able to print our tickets using our reservation number.

Train to Copenhagen
Train to Copenhagen

We weren’t sure which train car we were supposed to be in, and we ended up in the right seats in the wrong car. We found this out when someone else showed up with a reservation for our seats. We located the correct seats, but they were unfortunately facing backwards. I get extremely motion sick if I don’t face forward in a vehicle. Fortunately the train employee was able to find us two seats facing forward that didn’t have a reservation.

When we arrived at Copenhagen Central Station, my friend Pan was waiting for us. Pan was a fellow exchange student from Thailand during my year in Denmark, and liked Denmark so much she ended up moving there and working for MAERSK. She had invited us to stay with her and her boyfriend Sebastian from Germany in their apartment near the Copenhagen airport.

Denmark
Me and Pan with two other exchange student friends, 1998
Sebastian and Pan

If you’ve read about our travels in Thailand, the lake safari tour that we took on the floating lake house in Thailand is run by my friend Pan and her family. She runs the website from Denmark. Her family’s lake safari tour is one of our most memorable travel experiences and we highly recommend it.

It was strawberry season in Denmark, and Pan welcomed us with a traditional danish tart with strawberries and marzipan and tea. Danes have a tradition of having cake after work on Wednesdays.

For dinner, Pan showed Paddy how to cook several home-style Thai dishes that she grew up with. We were impressed with the variety of Asian produce available in Copenhagen.

Pan showing Paddy how to cook Thai food
Pan showing Paddy how to cook Thai food
Pan showing Paddy how to cook Thai food
Pan showing Paddy how to cook Thai food
Pan showing Paddy how to cook Thai food

Our first meal in Denmark consisted of Thai home cooking and German beer. It was delicious.

 

Day 2:

Pan and Sebastian had to work, so Paddy and I set out to be tourists in Copenhagen for the day. We got some breakfast sandwiches and coffee at a little cafe in the mall across the street, and then caught the Metro into the city center.

The Copenhagen Metro is very easy to use. If you don’t have a multi-use pass, you can purchase single use tickets from the electronic kiosks. There is often a metro employee on site to answer questions or help if needed.

Copenhagen Denmark Metro map
Copenhagen Metro map

No one takes your ticket when you get on the train, and there are no turnstiles to scan your ticket through to get to the train platform. If you are tempted not to pay and take a free ride, don’t. Metro employees randomly (and semi-frequently) do ticket checks on the trains and the fine for not having a ticket is pretty steep.

There was no metro in Copenhagen back in the late nineties, so it was nice to be able to easily and quickly get around the city.

We got off the train at Kongens Nytorv, which is the stop fairly close to the city center (Indre by). We used Google maps on our phones to navigate to Strøget, the pedestrian shopping street.

Strøget, copenhagen denmark
Strøget, the famous pedestrian shopping street in Copenhagen

I remembered always wanting to go to Strøget as a teenage exchange student when I visited Copenhagen, but we walked around for approximately 5-10 minutes before we decided that there wasn’t really anything we wanted to shop for. There are some interesting shops and cafes, but clothing and other merchandise in Denmark is very expensive. It’s a nice area to see for a short amount of time, however.

Strøget Copenhagen Denmark
Strøget, the famous pedestrian shopping street in Copenhagen

We walked over to Christiansborg Palace and admired it from the perimeter. Christiansborg is the Danish parliamentary building, housing the offices of the Prime Minister and the Danish supreme court. The Danish Royal Family uses portions of the castle for receptions and events.

Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark

Several royal castles had been built and re-built at Christiansborg’s location since 1167. Christiansborg was first built in 1733 but burnt down and was rebuilt twice, with the third and current version standing since the early 1900’s.

You can tour many parts of the palace including the royal reception rooms and chapel, and some ruins of the very first castle that were excavated in the palace basement. Paddy wasn’t feeling too up to touring fancy palace rooms and I’d seen it once before, so we moved on.

We walked across the canal to the Christianshavn neighborhood. Christianshavn is a man-made island surrounded by canals. It is also home to the infamous Christiania neighborhood.

Christianshavn
Boats in the canal at Christianshavn

Christiania is a “free town, ” (AKA hippie commune) that began when some hippies took over some abandoned military barracks back in 1971 and set up camp. In addition to the military barracks that were there, people built their own houses with whatever free materials they could find, making for some pretty artsy and funky little abodes.

Christiania neighborhood, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania neighborhood, Copenhagen
Christiania neighborhood, Copenhagen
Christiania neighborhood, Copenhagen

The original settlers of Christiania wanted to be able to make their own laws and government, including making marijuana legal. As you can imagine, controversy ensued and the area has had off and on battles with the police. In the 1970’s hard drugs were also part of Christiania’s culture, but after several overdoses and problems, the people of Christiania have outlawed all drugs other than marijuana. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been a completely successful campaign and problems with drug dealers and criminal gangs has been an intermittent issue.

If there is a “sketchy” neighborhood in Copenhagen, I suppose this would be it. I don’t feel threatened there but police raids are still known to happen and there have been violent incidents here in the last 10 years. Use caution, but don’t be afraid to check it out in the daytime.

If there has not been a police raid lately, you will probably see pot dealers on Pusher Street selling their wares. Note that cameras are not allowed in this area by the residents, and if you take a photo of a pot dealer he/she will not be happy with you. Leave the camera/phone in your bag.

Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
“Pusher Street” from a distance. Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen

Christiania has a number of cafes and music venues, as well as art galleries and a few shops and souvenir stands. We stopped into a bar and had a beer outside in the sun. Bring cash if you want to buy something, I’m not sure if credit cards are accepted.

On the way out we tried to stop into an art gallery but it was closed for another hour or so. I wouldn’t plan on visiting Christiania in the morning, things seem to open a little later around here. Early evening or late afternoon would probably be the best time to go. Do your Copenhagen sightseeing earlier in the day, and then come to Christiania to have a beer and check out the scene.

Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen
Christiania, Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania, Copenhagen

We hung out for a little while until it was time to meet my friend Jakob for a late lunch.

Jakob had been one of my AFS exchange program orientation leaders when I was an exchange student. He was only three years older than me and one of three young Danish volunteers that our orientation group had a lot of fun with. He had also been on exchange in South America in the mid nineties.

Jakob and I reuniting at Ravelinen restaurant

We had originally planned on meeting Jakob for coffee, but we hadn’t had lunch yet and were hungry. Jakob suggested Ravelinen restaurant nearby, which served upscale traditional Danish smørrebrød in a nice quiet location on the water.

Ravelinen restaurant Copenhagen Denmark
Ravelinen restaurant Copenhagen
Ravelinen restaurant Copenhagen Denmark
Ravelinen restaurant Copenhagen

Danish smørrebrød is probably the cuisine that Denmark is known the most for. It literally means “butter and bread” and consists of an open-faced sandwich on rugbrød (hearty pumpernickel bread). Rugbrød is an acquired taste for many people (myself included), but it is very hearty and healthy. You don’t need to eat very much of it to be full and you stay full for hours.

Rugbrød is just a vehicle for other delicious foods, however so if you don’t like the taste just pile on the toppings.

Jakob and I each had a dish with herring, and Paddy had a pork dish. My herring came with apples and curry and dill, and was delicious. The dishes look small, but when you put them on rugbrød and create multiple open-faced sandwiches, you soon become very full.

Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen
Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen
Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen
Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen
Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen
Smørrebrød lunch at Ravelinen restaurant, Copenhagen

I can count on my hand the number of times I remember eating out at a restaurant during my year in Denmark, and I don’t even think it totals more than five. So needless to say, this was the fanciest smørrebrød I’d ever had. It was also priced accordingly.

Danes don’t go out to eat very often. Going out to eat is very expensive in Denmark, so when Danes do go out to eat it is usually a special occasion or while on vacation. You won’t find a lot of mid-range restaurants in Denmark (or Scandinavia). You will either find cheap casual eateries or fancier pricey places.

If you want to experience some traditional Danish food done very upscale, Ravelinen is a great place to go and in the summer has a nice open air view of the water.

After lunch we said goodbye to Jakob and headed back towards the metro. Paddy’s allergies were really acting up as the grass pollen was really high, so we went back to Pan and Sebastian’s apartment to rest for a while before meeting up with them for dinner.

*Note: If you have allergies or think you could possibly need any kind of over-the-counter American medicines while in Denmark, bring them with you. Most medicines in Denmark are available by prescription only, and even cold medicines aren’t available.

That evening Pan and Sebastian took us to their favorite Szechuan restaurant near the Copenhagen Central Station called Magasasa.

Magasasa Szechuan restaurant, Copenhagen Denmark
Magasasa Szechuan restaurant, Copenhagen

We didn’t expect the best Szechuan food we’d ever had to be in Copenhagen, Denmark, but it was. If you are in Copenhagen and need a break from Scandinavian cuisine, definitely check this place out.

We told Pan and Sebastian just to order their favorites and we would share. We had the crispy duck, string bean pork, beef with black pepper sauce, tofu with mixed seafood, and chow mein.

Magasasa Szechuan restaurant, Copenhagen Denmark
Magasasa Szechuan restaurant, Copenhagen

The string bean pork and the crispy fried duck were absolutely the best we’d ever had. Everything was amazing. The prices were pretty reasonable too (for Denmark anyway).

Pan and Sebastian had annual passes to Tivoli Gardens amusement park that included two guests free of charge. Tivoli Gardens is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Copenhagen, for Danes and international tourists. It is nothing like an American amusement park–you won’t find deep fried butter or toothless carnies manning sketchy rides with half of the light bulbs working.

Tivoli is meticulously maintained down to the most finite details. Beautiful manicured gardens, stages for musical acts and other performances, bars, restaurants, shops, and a variety of fun rides. Peacocks and other exotic birds freely roam the grounds.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen

It was raining and after 9:00 PM, so there were very few other people in the park. All the lights were coming on, and it was actually really nice to stroll around in rain coats. Downright “hyggelig,” as the Danes would say.

You may have read about the Danish word/concept of “hyggelig.” It doesn’t translate entirely to English, the closest word we have in English is “cozy.” But hyggelig is more than just warming up by a fireplace in a sweater with a hot mug of cocoa. It is about nice atmosphere, and spending time with friends and family. Inviting your friends over to drink wine and play board games on a stormy winter night with candles is hyggelig. Having a picnic dinner in a nearby park is hyggelig. Walking through Tivoli Gardens in the rain with friends and lots of colorful lights is hyggelig.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Fun mirrors at Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Fun mirrors at Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen

We got some beers (Carlsberg and Tuborg, of course) from an outdoor beer stand and sat and talked under a covered patio for awhile, and then walked around some more. I was glad we didn’t pay full price for the short time that we were there, but we had a really nice time exploring the park and catching up with our friends. It was really beautiful at night with all the lights, and the rain didn’t bother us. We’re from the Pacific Northwest, we are used to outdoor activities in the rain.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark

We stayed at Tivoli until closing time at 11:00, and decided that a few more beers might be in order before we went home. Sebastian took us to Vesterbro Bryghus (Vesterbro brewery) right around the corner from Tivoli Gardens. It was a cozy little spot with live music and good craft beer. Craft beer wasn’t really a thing in Denmark back in the 90’s, but has since become extremely popular (much like it has in many parts of the US).

Vesterbro Bryghus Copenhagen Denmark
Vesterbro Bryghus Copenhagen
Vesterbro Bryghus Copenhagen Denmark
Paddy and Sebastian with beer samplers at Vesterbro Bryghus Copenhagen

 

Day 3:

Not wanting to overstay our welcome with Pan and Sebastian, and needing a couple days of alone time, we had arranged to check into an Airbnb in downtown Copenhagen for the next two nights.

Note: Airbnb is the best way to go for lodging in Denmark. Hotels are extremely expensive and tiny. With Airbnb you can find a one bedroom or studio apartment with a kitchen for less than the cost of a hotel room. We ended up staying in a hotel the last three nights of this trip, and what you get for your money in a budget hotel is pretty disappointing.

We met our Airbnb host at 11:00 AM for an early check in, which we appreciated. The apartment was located in some historic military barracks in the northern part of downtown Copenhagen, and had everything we needed including a fully stocked kitchen.

Airbnb in Copenhagen
Airbnb in Copenhagen
Airbnb in Copenhagen
denmark
Our airbnb in Copenhagen

To get across town, we had to take the train to the Osterport station, and then walk about 10 minutes with all our luggage. An easy walk if you aren’t carrying a bunch of stuff. Not so much if you are. (*Tip: pack light. You will be doing a lot of walking).

After a short rest, we walked down to Nyhavn, Copenhagen’s famous picturesque harbor. If you see any tourist brochure or guidebook for Copenhagen, Nyhavn will probably be the picture on the cover. It really is colorful and lovely.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark
Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark

Pan had suggested that we take a canal tour of the city from Nyhavn. While super touristy, this ended up being a fabulous idea. It was a nice day, and we were a little tired from lugging our stuff around and walking around the city a bit that morning.

The canal tour was 80 Kr (about $13 US) each, and leaves Nyhavn once every hour. We showed up right as one was about too leave–perfect timing.

Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn
Canal tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn

The tour takes you through all the canals around the city: Christianshavn, the canal around Christiansborg palace, and out to the Little Mermaid statue. Don’t expect a good view of the Little Mermaid (Lille Havfrue) from the canal tour, you only see her backside from far away. Mostly you get a view of all the tourists taking photos of her.

In fact, you don’t really get a good tour of anything in particular, but you get a nice relaxing, restful boat ride with a guide telling you about parts of the city in English, Danish, and German. If you’re tired of walking and need a break, the canal tour is a good way to rest and keep sightseeing at the same time.

After the tour we stopped at the little hotdog kiosk next to the harbor. I had the frikadeller sandwich, and Paddy had a red hot dog.

Danes love their hotdogs (pølser.) The “red hotdog” (røde pølser) is just that–a bright red hot dog. It is dyed with a red dye, which can’t be good for you. I have no idea why it’s red (maybe to match the Danish flag??). In any event, it is a very Danish fast food item. Not all the pølser at the kiosks are red, however– in case you want to try the Danish hot dogs without day-glo artificial dyes.

røde pølser
Danish red hot dogs (røde pølser). Image from Wikipedia.

Paddy’s allergies were acting up again, so we decided to go back to the apartment to relax for a few before heading back out again. On the way back, we stopped in a few shops and visited Amalienborg Palace, the home of the Danish queen and royal family.

Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
The Marble Church at Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark
The Marble Church at Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen Denmark

Flashback! Me at Amalienborg Palace in 1997:

Me (age 16) at Amalienborg Palace in October 1997

Later in the afternoon we decided to walk to see the Little Mermaid statue, the proverbial Eiffel Tower of Denmark and an ode to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. I suppose everyone has to see it, it is the number one tourist landmark in the country, but it really is rather disappointing. I’d seen it before during my exchange year but felt like I should go back and see it again with Paddy. It was early evening and the weather was nice. We had a lovely stroll through the park on the way there.

Garden in Langelinie Park on the way to the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
Garden in Langelinie Park on the way to the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
Church in Langelinie Park on the way to the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
Church in Langelinie Park on the way to the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Denmark
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Denmark
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Denmark
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Denmark
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Denmark

The Little Mermaid has been a victim of vandalism by teens and political activists over the years. She has had her head and arm taken off (I think more than once?), and has been painted different colors. The week before we arrived, she had been painted red as a protest against the pilot whale slaughter in the Faroe Islands.

It turned out early evening was a good time to visit Den Lille Havfrue, most of the tourist crowds visit during the day. There were a few tourists but not too many. As we were walking away I heard a man say to his friend, “She really is unremarkable, isn’t she?”

If you are a fan of Hans Christian Andersen and the Little Mermaid story, I’d suggest visiting his house and museum in the town of Odense on the island of Fyn. Odense is an easy two hour train ride from Copenhagen and the museum is just a short walk from the train station. The museum has the original hand-written stories including Den Lille Havfrue from 1837. I find his house and the museum to be much more interesting than the statue.

On the way back to the apartment we grabbed some pizza from a nearby fast food pizza restaurant for dinner. Pizza in Denmark is everywhere and cheap. It is often the preferred snack of drunk young Danes at 4:00 AM outside the bars.

Copenhagen
Evening stroll in Copenhagen
Copenhagen
Copenhagen

At 8:00 PM we met up with a former classmate of mine, Ann and her husband Martin at a restaurant called Cofoco. Cofoco is located in the Vesterbro neighborhood not far from Copenhagen Central Station. Ann had been one of my closest classmates during my year in Denmark, and had visited us in Seattle back in 2011. It was really great to see her again and meet her husband.

Cofoco is a fancier restaurant with small plates, and we just wanted to have a few small things and some drinks. I had the ceviche dish, and the kaffir lime ice cream for dessert. Both were delicious, the ceviche was a unique preparation with green tomatoes and herbs. The kaffir lime ice cream came with white chocolate cream, crisp honey cakes, and fresh strawberries.

Ceviche at Cofoco restaurant, Copenhagen
Ceviche at Cofoco restaurant, Copenhagen
Kaffir lime ice cream at Cofoco restaurant, Copenhagen
Kaffir lime ice cream at Cofoco restaurant, Copenhagen

We finished our evening at Copenhagen’s tiki bar Brass Monkey. Because you know we just had to go to the tiki bar in Denmark.

We had originally tried to get a group of classmates together for the evening, and Ann had booked a table for us. However, it ended up just being us as one classmate came down with the flu, another had a sick child, and another was having a difficult pregnancy and ordered to be on bed rest from her doctor. It was disappointing not to see them, but I assured them I’d be back in town again in a few years. I suppose I timed my visit to be at a time when many of my classmates are at the age where they have small children to tend to. I’ll try my next visit in 5 or so years when their kids are a bit older.

Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Ann holding my “welcome back” sign

Brass Monkey was a great tiki bar. The DJ played a lot of great American garage and surf hits from the 60’s, and the decor was on point. The drinks were delicious, albeit expensive (it’s Denmark after all). Ann and I shared a Volcano Bowl and then I tried a classic daiquiri. The drinks tasted like they used real fruit juice and were not overly sweet.

Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Ann and Martin, Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Volcano bowl cocktail, Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Menu, Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark
Brass Monkey Tiki Bar, Copenhagen Denmark

It was a fun evening, and we made plans to do something the next day as Ann and Martin had the day off.

 

Day 4:

We slept in and had breakfast at the apartment, and then met up with a friend and her husband for coffee at The Corner coffee bar at Restaurant 108. The coffee and pastries were great, the barista was extremely pretentious. He was annoyed when Paddy ordered a drip coffee and said that they were out and he didn’t want to make any more, so Paddy got an Americano instead. I was snapped at when I ordered a pastry off the menu that he was out of as well. Despite snobby man bun barista with the attitude, the coffee was good and we had a nice visit.

Ann and Martin had originally planned on going sight seeing outside the city with us, but I got a message from Ann that she was very hungover from the night before and would need to rest, leaving us with a free day.

We spent the afternoon walking around the neighborhood near Copenhagen University. We found some fun shops on

In the Gameltorv (Old Square) we found a festival of Thai food and culture going on. There were many Thai street food booths and some Thai dancers performing.

We took a rest in the late afternoon back at the apartment and then headed out for dinner and a couple of drinks.

We had dinner at one of the many casual Middle Eastern “kabab” restaurants on the pedestrian shopping street. It was good and affordable. Not as cheap as in the US, but much less expensive than if we went out to a nicer restaurant.

kabab dinner Copenhagen Denmark
Kabab dinner

After dinner we went to a bar called the Voodoo Lounge, which seemed like a funky little dive bar that  Paddy would like.

Voodoo Lounge Copenhagen
Voodoo Lounge Copenhagen

There was some metal playing on the juke box, and lots of novelty shot specials on the drink menu. I took this opportunity to make sure that Paddy didn’t leave Denmark without trying a shot of the Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for only 20 kr (about $3).

Paddy trying Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for the first time.
Paddy trying Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for the first time.
Paddy trying Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for the first time.
Paddy trying Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for the first time.

It wasn’t his favorite. However, you shouldn’t go to Denmark without trying it once. It is very Danish.

It was early was early and we were the only patrons at the Voodoo Lounge aside from a group of 18 year old kids a couple booths down who were getting their Saturday night started early.

Young people in Denmark usually don’t go out until about 11:00 or so in the evening, after having several drinks at home with friends first to save money. Many bars don’t close until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, so a night out for the youth crowd pretty much means all night.

Good news for the older folks: You can usually go out and have some drinks earlier in the evening and head home around 11:00 PM,  avoiding the weekend warrior brigade of drunk youngsters.

We called it a night pretty early, as we had a train to catch at 9:00 AM the next morning and we didn’t have much money to drink out at bars with (Denmark is expensive!).

Tip: Beer, wine, and booze are easily purchased at local grocery stores and bodegas, so it is easy to have a few cheap drinks in your room to save money. This isn’t the case in other Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Norway, and Iceland where you have to buy all alcohol in a government liquor store. Denmark is much more liberal with their alcohol laws and alcohol is cheaper in Denmark than elsewhere in Scandinavia.

Fanø Island

 

Day 5:

Today was the day that I would travel to Fanø Island to visit my host family for the first time in 19 years. I was excited and nervous.

Fanø is a popular summer tourist destination for Danes and Germans who visit Fanø for its big, sandy beaches. To get to Fanø Island, you have to catch the ferry from the west coast city of Esbjerg.

The train from Copenhagen to Esbjerg takes about three hours with no transfers. The further in advance you book your train tickets, the cheaper they are. I booked the orange non-refundable tickets on the Danish DSB train website for about $15 per person a month in advance, which was a really good deal.

We managed to find our correct train car this time, and the train ride was pretty smooth.

Train from Copenhagen to Esbjerg Denmark
Train from Copenhagen to Esbjerg

We arrived in Esbjerg about noon, and proceeded to walk through town to the Fanø ferry. (We later learned that we could have caught the bus from the train station to the ferry, the bus is usually timed with the train and ferry arrivals). It is about a 15 minute walk.

Esbjerg was where I went to school when I lived in Denmark and where I spent a lot of time with my friends. It was a quiet Sunday, and most of the shops weren’t open quite yet despite it being past noon.

I’ve had so many dreams about going back over the past 19 years. Walking through Esbjerg, catching the ferry, walking up my host parents’ driveway. It was surreal to finally do it.

The Fanø ferry terminal had been expanded since I lived there in the 90’s, and the ferries were different. No more smoking section!

Fanø ferry departing Esbjerg Denmark
Fanø ferry departing Esbjerg Denmark
Fanø ferry
Fanø ferry
Fanø ferry
Fanø ferry

The ferry takes about 12 minutes and leaves every 30 minutes in the summer (every hour in late evening and certain times in the winter). The cost for a an adult walk on passenger is 45 Kr (about $7.25) round trip.

After another 10 minute walk through town, we arrived at my host parents’ house. My host parents (Mogens and Tove) were working in the garden. It was so great to see them after all this time.

My host parents’ house on Fanø.
My host parents’ house on Fanø.
My host parents' beautiful garden on Fanø.
My host parents’ beautiful garden on Fanø.
My host parents' beautiful garden on Fanø.
My host parents’ beautiful garden on Fanø.
My host parents' beautiful garden on Fanø.
My host parents’ beautiful garden on Fanø.

Mogens and Tove welcomed us and prepared a traditional Danish smørrebrød (open-faced sandwich) lunch in their little garden house. We had pickled herring, ham and deli pork with a mayonnaise-vegetable salad, and hard boiled eggs with tomatoes, all served with Danish rugbrød (dense pumpernickel bread).

Mogens and Tove’s garden house
Traditional Danish smørrebrød (open faced sandwich) lunch
Traditional Danish smørrebrød (open faced sandwich) lunch
My host parents, Mogens and Tove–love this photo of them!

Shortly after lunch my host brother Jeppe and his family came over for cake and coffee, along with my host sister Sofie and and her husband. It was so great to see them, and quite a warm welcome.

Paddy and I stayed in my old room, which was just what I had hoped we would do. Mogens and Tove’s lovely house looked pretty much the same as it did in 1998, save a few updates and improvements in the kitchen and upstairs bathroom. They run a bed and breakfast during the busy summer season on Fanø called Engbo Bed & Breakfast. If you visit Fanø in the summer, you can stay with them too–and I highly recommend you do. They are wonderful people and their house is central to everything in the main town of Norby.

Engbo Bed and Breakfast Fanø Denmark
My old room–also a room for rent at Mogens and Tove’s bed and breakfast
Upstairs living area at Mogens and Tove’s house

Tove wouldn’t let me help her with dinner that evening, so I took a short walk around town.

Fanø has many traditional grass-roof houses that date back to the 1700’s and 1800’s. They are very cute and well-maintained to this day.

Grass-roof house on Fanø
Grass-roof house on Fanø
Grass-roof house on Fanø
Grass-roof house on Fanø

Fanø
Hovedgaden, the main street through Norby town on house on Fanø

Flashback! Here I am riding a bike on Hovedgaden back in 1997:

Fanø
Me on a bicycle riding through Fanø town in July 1997.

We had a really nice home-cooked dinner that evening with Mogens and Tove, drinking wine and catching up on the past 19 years.

 

Day 6:

We had breakfast in the garden in the morning–bread rolls with cheese and jam and yogurt with muesli. I love the Danish muesli-it isn’t so sweet like American granola and is much healthier for you. Yogurt in Denmark comes in milk cartons and you pour it into a bowl and put muesli on top.

After breakfast, Mogens took us on a little adventure down to Sønderho, the town on the south end of the island.

We stopped by the beach on the south end in attempt to see the seals that are often laying around on the sand bars there, but the seals were pretty far out and you needed waterproof rain boots to walk to them. It was pretty windy as well, so we skipped the seals and headed into Sønderho town for some coffee.

Funny thing about the seals–they weren’t there in the 90’s when I was living on Fanø. They showed up some time later and are now a large tourist attraction.

Sønderho beach, Fanø
Sønderho beach, Fanø
Having coffee with Mogens and listening to stories about the history of Fanø

The restaurant Mogens took us to wasn’t open yet, but the owner let us in and served us some coffee anyway. Mogens told us all about the history of Fanø.

After coffee, we stopped by Hanne’s Hus (Hanne’s house), a historical house made into a museum to show a typical home during Fanø’s “golden age” of ship-building back in the late 1700’s. It wasn’t open as it was a Monday, but we peeked inside anyway.

Hanne's Hus Fanø Denmark
Hanne’s House, Sønderho, Fanø
Fanø
Mogens telling Paddy the stories of Fanø
Traditional grass-roof house in Sønderho, Fanø Denmark
Traditional grass-roof house in Sønderho, Fanø
Traditional grass-roof house in Sønderho, Fanø Denmark
Traditional grass-roof house in Sønderho, Fanø
Fanø, Denmark
Traditional grass-roof houses on Fanø
Fanø
Fanø
Fanø
Fanø

Before heading back, Mogens took us on a walk to see an old duck trap on the island. It’s use for hunting was prohibited in 1931, but was used after that for many years to put tracking tags on the ducks for the purpose of scientific study. There is a large outdoor informational display at the duck decoy/trap about birds and wildlife on Fanø and the history of the duck trap.

Duck decoy/trap on Fanø (no longer in use)
Duck decoy/trap on Fanø (no longer in use)

On the way back to the car, Mogens suddenly darted off the path and out into the field, and came back with a plant that is a relative of the venus fly trap. It looked like a venus fly trap, but very tiny. A little online research upon returning home revealed it to be a relative of the venus fly trap, but a smaller carnivorous species called drosera intermedia or a “”sundew.”I’d never seen one in the wild before. Mogens took it home to try and pot it.

Venus fly trap type plant
A “Sundew,” relative of the Venus Fly Trap  Drosera intermedia

When we arrived back in Norby, Mogens and Tove had some things they had to do, so we took a walk through town and poked around in some of the shops. It was mostly standard butik shops and tourist fare.

On the way back we stopped at Fanø Vaffel og Bolsjehus for some soft ice cream. Before you leave Denmark,  be sure to try the ice cream. The soft ice cream (soft is) is very sweet and creamy and different than the soft ice cream in the US.  It is often served with sprinkles or chocolate dust on top.

Danish soft ice cream
Danish soft ice cream

Hard ice cream is also delicious in Denmark, and is served with real whip cream and a sweet cream on top. It’s hard to describe–just try it. As a matter of fact, don’t leave Denmark without trying some sort of local dairy product. Cheese, ice cream, butter–try it all. Dairy is something that Danes do very well.

Fanø Vaffel og Bolsjehus is also a great place to buy candy to take home to share with family and co-workers. Danes love hard candy and gummy candies, especially black licorice. Try the salt licorice–it’s an acquired taste but very Scandinavian.

Later that evening I helped Tove harvest some new potatoes from her garden for dinner. When I lived in Denmark, we didn’t always have fresh garden potatoes for dinner, but we always had potatoes. Every night. I didn’t know how to cook when I was an exchange student, but I could peel potatoes and wash dishes. So that’s what I did every night. Every night. Fortunately, I love potatoes.

Tove harvesting delicious new potatoes from her garden for dinner

For dinner Tove and Mogens made the quintessential Danish dinner, Frikadeller. Frikadeller are fried meatballs made with pork or a combo of beef and pork, and usually served with boiled potatoes and some sort of gravy sauce. Mogens and Tove argued about how they should be cooked, Mogens thought they should be crispy on the outside and Tove was worried that he would burn them. They turned out delicious, whatever the cooking consensus.

Mogens cooking traditional Danish frikadeller
Mogens cooking traditional Danish frikadeller
Danish frikadeller
Danish frikadeller

We had a traditional Danish appetizer while cooking of some laks (smoked salmon lox) on French bread with butter and fresh dill from the garden. I remember my host parents serving this at Christmas and whenever we had company over for dinner. It’s delicious with white wine.

Laks (salmon lox) appetizer
Laks (salmon lox) appetizer
Danish frikadeller dinner with boiled cauliflower and salad
Danish frikadeller dinner with boiled cauliflower, carrots, and salad

Dinner was just how I remembered many dinners as an exchange student, and it was really nice to share the experience with Paddy.

After dinner we sat at the table and had coffee, wine, and snaps, talking until late in the evening.

Danish snaps (schnapps) is not like what we consider schnapps in the US. It is more of a vodka/potato based aquavit type of liquor, not a sweet syrupy flavoring liqueur.

Mogens had a couple kinds of snaps he flavored with berries and herbs from his garden. Danes drink snaps at celebrations, when company comes to dinner–or any time at all, really. It is a drink meant to be sipped.

 

Day 7:

After another lovely breakfast of bread, cheese, and yogurt with museli, Paddy and I ventured out into town in search of the infamous Fanø seals. Mogens and Tove told us that they often like to lay on the sand bar near the Norby ferry.

Sure enough, there were many fat, lazy, happy seals sunning themselves on the sand bar by the ferry. They were in many different colors, and all seemed to be smiling and quite pleased with themselves.

Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals
Fanø seals

After enjoying the seals, we continued down to the ferry dock and strolled along the beach near the ferry in search of more seals, and amber. We found a few amber-colored rocks, but no amber.

Amber (fossilized tree sap) washes up on the beaches of Fanø during storms, and can be polished up to make jewelry. You can find amber jewelry in the little shops in Norby to buy as a souvenir. The best place to look for Amber is on the southern beaches of the island.

Fanø ferry beach
Fanø ferry beach
Fanø ferry beach
Fanø ferry beach with Esbjerg in the distance

We happened to be on Fanø during the Fanø International Kite Festival, which happens every June. I remembered the festival from my exchange year, and was excited to see it again. People come from all over the world to fly unique and interesting kites on Fanø’s immense sandy beaches.

Fanø Kite Festival, June 1998
Me at the Fanø Kite Festival, June 1998

Tove and Mogens let us borrow their bikes, so we rode to the beach to check it out.

Bikes are a main mode of transportation for many people in Denmark, and was my only mode of transportation around the city and island when I was an exchange student. My host family didn’t even own a car back then. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was about 18 years old, but turns out–you really don’t forget how to do it.

Riding a bike on the Fanø Strand
Riding a bike on the Fanø Strand
Riding a bike on the Fanø Strand
Riding a bike on the Fanø Strand
Riding a bike on the Fanø Strand
Riding bikes on the Fanø Strand

It was a little less windy than the day before (there is such a thing as too windy for kites), and closer to the weekend so there were many kites out on the beach.

Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival
Fanø International Kite Festival

We could have ridden for miles and looked at all the kites, but the wind was a bit difficult to ride a bike in, so we just went a little ways.

On the way home, we stopped at the Mission Afrika Genbrug thrift store. If you see a shop in Denmark that has “genbrug” in it’s name, it means thrift store (literal translation: recycle/reuse). I love thrift stores in foreign countries, you can often find a very inexpensive and unique souvenir.

I hit the jackpot on this thrift store visit– I found a Norwegian wool sweater for only 40 kr –a little over $6.00 USD. Norwegian sweaters are upwards of $200-$300 USD new, and this one fit me and was in great condition. Score!

Norwegian sweater score at the Mission Afrika Genbrug thrift store on Fanø
Norwegian sweater score at the Mission Afrika Genbrug thrift store on Fanø

We ended the afternoon with a beer at the new Fanø Bryghhus across the street. Inside the brewery was pretty production oriented, but you could ring a bell and buy a glass of beer on tap from one of the workers inside. I tried the special kite beer they had for the festival weekend. It was really good. There was outdoor seating available.

Fanø Bryghus (brewery)
Fanø Bryghus (brewery)
Fanø Bryghus (brewery)
Fanø Bryghus (brewery)
Fanø Bryghus (brewery)
Fanø Bryghus (brewery)

That evening Mogens and Tove had invited my host Aunt and Uncle and my AFS liason from my exchange year and her husband over for dinner. My AFS liason Marianne had also been the host mother of one of my closest exchange student friends. Paddy is a great cook, and we wanted to cook an American dinner for everyone. We decided prior to traveling that we would do this, and brought along  a recipe for Louisiana style shrimp and grits with collard greens and cornbread.

Grits, collard greens, and cornbread are all things that you won’t find in Denmark (at least they would be very difficult to come by). Anticipating this, I had been lugging a box of grits, cornbread mix, Cajun seasoning, and smoked paprika around in my suitcase since we landed in Stockholm.

Having purchased our shrimp earlier that day at Fanø Fisk in Norby, we walked next door to the shiny new Super Brugsen in search of the rest of our ingredients.

We managed to find a type of green leafy cabbage that was similar to collard greens, and we found everything else we needed including a spicy sausage that ended up tasting just like Cajun andouille sausage. We even found cheddar cheese for the grits–which I’ve never seen in any household in Denmark, but someone must eat it if they sell it at the grocery store.

It was successful! I think our dining companions found the food to be tasty but a bit rich to eat very often. We chose southern American food because Pacific Northwest food would be a delicious salmon dinner–and salmon is already common meal in Denmark as well. We wanted to go with something different and possibly something new that my Danish family hadn’t had before.

Shrimp and grits with collard greens and cornbread

Shrimp and grits with collard greens and cornbread

It was so nice to catch up with everyone and I felt very welcomed “home.” After dinner the conversation turned into mostly Danish and I felt a bit bad for Paddy as I could follow most of it but not all…but then again that was what the first three months of being an exchange student was like:  a lot of participation in family activities and not understanding anything. Paddy was a good sport.

 

Esbjerg:

Day 8:

The next day, it was time to say goodbye and head back to Esbjerg. We took some photos in the garden and then Mogens drove us to the ferry. They said they would like to come visit us in Seattle next summer and I hope they do.

Saying goodbye to my host parents Tove and Mogens

Mogens stood on the pier and waved at us until the ferry was out of sight. I teared up a little.

Saying goodbye to Fanø
Saying goodbye to Fanø

At the Esbjerg ferry terminal we were able to catch the bus to the train station. The driver was even able to provide change.

From the train station we walked a short block over to the Cabinn Hotel on Skolegade. Our room was ready. This was our first taste of a budget hotel in Denmark–the Cabinn was like getting the shittiest room on a cruise ship. The bathroom had a very airplane bathroom-like quality to it. The shower was pretty much on top of the toilet. This is what you get for $135/night in Denmark. I think I booked the second from the lowest rate room as well. The “economy” room advertised a very skinny twin bed with an equally skinny pull-out trundle bed underneath. The rate did include a more than adequate continental breakfast, however.

Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg
Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg
Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg
Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg
Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg
Cabinn Hotel Esbjerg

Esbjerg was the city I went to school in during my exchange year, and the city where most of my classmates lived. I spent a lot of time in Esbjerg, and it was a trip to be back after so long.

We freshened up at the hotel and then walked around the pedestrian shopping street (Kongensgade) and main square a bit. We wanted to get something inexpensive for lunch, but there weren’t a lot of casual, affordable lunch options. We settled on dönerkebab sandwiches at Babylon Pizza on Skolegade. Skolegade street is where all the bars and nightlife are, and I remember going to Babylon Pizza for a late night slice or two back during my exchange year. I’d never been there in the light of day. The chicken dönerkebab I had was really good. It was huge, a bit too big for me to finish. Good value for an inexpensive lunch.

Pizza, Esbjerg
Dönerkebab at Babylon Pizza, Esbjerg

After lunch we walked around Esbjerg some more. The town square looked just as I remembered it.

Esbjerg town square, Denmark
Esbjerg town square

We also walked up to my old school, which was a different school now. There wasn’t anyone there, exams were over and the school was empty. The door was unlocked though, so we walked in and peeked inside. It looked exactly the same.

Me in front of my old school in Esbjerg

Later that evening, we met up with some of my old classmates at the restaurant Dronning Louise in the town square. Dronning means queen in Danish, and Dronning Louise restaurant and bar has been around since before I was an exchange student. I remember many nights dancing until the wee hours in the upstairs bar with my classmates. I’d never eaten at the restaurant though–eating out in Denmark was too expensive for me back then.

It was really great to see some of my classmates again. We had a really nice time catching up. I wished I had more time in Esbjerg to spend with them other than just the one evening.

Dronning Louise in Esbjerg
Dinner with old classmates at Dronning Louise in Esbjerg

The menu was good, mostly upscale pub grub. Expensive, but not too outrageous. Paddy and I both ordered burgers. I had the grilled halloumi burger with portobello mushrooms, avocado, red onion, and pepper chutney. It was delicious, but HUGE. I only made it through half of my burger–I definitely wasn’t expecting the biggest burger ever to be served to me in Denmark.

burger at Dronning Louise in Esbjerg
Halloumi burger at Dronning Louise in Esbjerg
With my old classmates at Dronning Louise in Esbjerg

It was a Wednesday night, so we didn’t make it a late one. Paddy and I had an early train to catch the next morning anyway. It was a really nice evening, the best weather we’d had so far during our trip.

Esbjerg town square in the evening
Esbjerg town square in the evening

 

Back to Copenhagen

Day 9:

The Cabinn had a nice continental breakfast, despite the small, cramped rooms. It was typical Scandinavian breakfast fare– breads, meats, cheeses, cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, museli, etc.

The Cabinn location next to the Esbjerg train station was also a big bonus.

Once again, we ended up in the right seats in the wrong train car. The train cars were not labeled with the same car numbers as on the tickets when we boarded, and the digital car numbers weren’t changed until after we had settled in. So we had to get all our bags and move once again, which was super annoying. Be sure to double check your train car number.

View from train window on the way from Esbjerg to Copenhagen

We had booked two last nights in Copenhagen before flying home at the First Hotel Twentyseven near the Copenhagen Central Station. I realized as we walked the half mile to the hotel that “near” is a relative term when carrying luggage.

Our room wasn’t ready, but they were happy to store our luggage while we walked around. We were hungry, so we began a hunt for an affordable lunch in the area. This once again proved difficult. If you don’t want pizza, kebab, or McDonalds, you are pretty much going to pay high prices.

We circled around a few times, realizing that we were in the touristy area of Copenhagen. We finally settled on a place called Rio Bravo, which had a comical American “wild west” theme but served Danish food. Mostly, we just wanted to sit down and kill time and have a beer and some lunch. It was close to the hotel. Not cheap, but we were there, so we went in.

Rio Bravo restaurant, Copenhagen
Paddy at Rio Bravo restaurant, Copenhagen

Paddy had a Caesar salad with chicken and I had a Danish fried fish dish with pumpernickel bread, and we each had a beer. I think we spent around $50. The food was alright. Not $50 alright, but alright.

Back at First Hotel Twentyseven, we waited until check in time exactly before our room was ready. The hotel definitely has a hipster theme going on.

First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen

Our room was small, but not too cramped with a nice bathroom. It included complimentary instant coffee, tea, and a few snacks. I think we spent about $175 a night, breakfast not included. The bed had an older, saggy mattress which was disappointing. Overall, we can’t recommend Airbnb enough. Hotels in Scandinavia are expensive and just not worth the price.

First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen
First Hotel Twentyseven Copenhagen

We spent a little while relaxing and then walked to the metro station to take the metro to visit my host sister Ny and her family for dinner at her house. It was great to meet her husband and beautiful daughters, and there was even a surprise visit from my host cousin Johan.

Me with my host cousin Johan and host sister Ny at her house in Copenhagen

On the way back to the hotel from the metro station we walked by Mojo Blues Club and went in. A Danish woman and her band were performing classic American blues songs. It wasn’t what we were expecting to find in Copenhagen, but the band was really good. We wanted to stay longer but the cigarette smoke was too much. We found it odd that it is illegal to smoke in all bars in Denmark except this one (??). It’s too bad, it’s a great music spot.

Mojo Blues Club Copenhagen
Mojo Blues Club Copenhagen

 

Day 10:

On our last day in Denmark, I had grandiose plans of getting up early and taking the train to Kronborg Castle (AKA “Hamlet’s Castle) in Helsingør, as it was my favorite castle that I saw during my exchange year. I had also wanted to try and tour Rosenborg Castle as well in Copenhagen.

However, after non-stop going from place to place and visiting people, we really just needed a lazy day. We had a great time visiting everyone, but we kind of felt like we needed a vacation from our vacation. So we slept in late, and then went and had coffee and sandwiches at Kontra Coffee around the corner from our hotel. Their coffee was delicious and came with a little piece of chocolate to dip in. The sandwiches were also great and the price was reasonable.

Kontra Coffee Copenhagen
Kontra Coffee Copenhagen
Delicious coffee and sandwiches at Kontra Coffee Copenhagen
Delicious coffee and sandwiches at Kontra Coffee Copenhagen

We spent the rest of the afternoon resting and reading books and doing a lot of nothing.

That evening we had dinner plans with my friend Ann and her husband again at their house in the town of Ganløse, about an hour’s train ride northwest of Copenhagen.

We met Ann at the train station in Hillerød and she drove us by Fredericksborg Castle on the way home. The castle was closing and it began pouring rain, so we didn’t get a great look at it but it was really awesome. Fredericksborg Castle is a good day trip idea from Copenhagen if you have a few days in the city.

Fredericksborg Castle in Hillerød
Fredericksborg Castle in Hillerød
Fredericksborg Castle in Hillerød
Fredericksborg Castle in Hillerød

Ann introduced us to her kids and she and her husband Martin made a delicious home-cooked Danish dinner. We wished we could have stayed later to continue catching up with them, but we had a 6:00 AM flight back home the next morning so we couldn’t stay that late. It was a nice evening.

My friend Ann and her beautiful family

We had originally chosen First Hotel Twentyseven because it was close to the Copenhagen Central Station so that we could easily get to the airport when we left. After considering the half mile walk with luggage, the pouring rain, and leaving for the airport at 3:00 AM, we opted just to take a taxi to the airport from the hotel. It was expensive–about $50 USD but worth it to avoid the hassle of carrying luggage in the rain and trying to catch a train at 3:00 AM. Sometimes your convenience is worth it, and this was definitely one of those times.

 

My return to Denmark was the trip I had hoped it would be. I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to see, and I had wanted to do a few more tourist things with Paddy, but overall it was a fantastic trip back.

If you are visiting Denmark for the first time, my biggest piece of advice for you is to get out of Copenhagen. Most tourists just stop off in Copenhagen and call it good. There is much more to Denmark than Copenhagen. It may be a tiny country, but it has some interesting things to offer.

Here is a list of suggested places to visit in Denmark outside of Copenhagen:
  1. Kronborg Castle in Helsingør

2. Fredericksborg Castle in Hillerød

The city of Odense, including Hans Christian Anderson’s house

3. The city of Århus (Aarhus). A fun college town with an old town museum where you can see traditional Danish culture and buildings on display. 

4. The town of Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town. The Ribe Cathedral dates back to the 1100s. There is a viking museum with ancient artifacts and many other historical attractions.

5. The town of Skagen–the northernmost tip of Denmark. A quaint artsy beach town with miles of beautiful sandy beaches

6. Legoland in the town of Billund. Did you know Legos are from Denmark? Now you do.

7. Fanø island (highly recommended!).

 

And finally, if my host family or Danish classmates are reading this, I want to say thank you. Thank you to my host family for taking a strange American girl into their home for a year and making her part of your family. Thank you for such a warm welcome “home.” And thank you to my classmates for accepting me for who I was, helping me learn Danish, and helping me navigate teenage Danish culture. Being an exchange student in your country grew my soul and helped define the person I wanted to be more than any other experience in my life. I went home humbled, empowered, confident, and hungry to see the world. I promise it won’t take another 20 years for me to make it back to Denmark again. Thank you.

Me with my host sisters and host cousins, June 1998

 

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Stockholm, Sweden 2017

Stockholm, Sweden 2017: Exploring the old world charm of Gamla Stan and up-and-coming Södermalm, dinner at a viking restaurant, and the ABBA Museum

Paddy and I were heading to Denmark in 2017, my first time visiting the country since spending a year as a high school exchange student back in 1997-98. During my exchange year I visited Norway twice with my host family, but never made it to Sweden. (Okay technically we drove through Sweden once in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t count). Since it was easy to book our flight into Stockholm and out of Copenhagen, we spent the first four days of our Scandinavian adventure in Stockholm.

First, a note about Stockholm: Like the rest of Scandinavia, it’s EXPENSIVE. After a bit of research while planning this trip, I came to the conclusion that renting an Airbnb is hands-down the best way to go for lodging. I had a difficult time finding a hotel room in a good location with a private bathroom for under $200 USD per night. I was able to find us a one bedroom apartment in Södermalm (the southern, “hipster” neighborhood) in a great location near public transit for $150 a night. Not only did we get a full one-bedroom apartment all to ourselves, we had a full kitchen and were able to save a lot of money on breakfast and lunch through self-catering. If you are looking to do Stockholm on a budget, Airbnb is definitely the way to go.

Day 1:

We arrived in Stockholm in early evening after approximately 15 hours of travel from Seattle (10 hour Delta flight from Seattle to Amsterdam, and a two hour KLM flight from Amsterdam to Stockholm). We collected our luggage and after a fair amount of walking through the airport located the airport train station.

*Side note about Delta’s long-haul international flights: I haven’t always had the best experiences with Delta’s domestic flights within the US, but we were surprisingly pleased with the international flight. The flight attendants were friendly, we were fed a hot meal and two snacks, had a wide array of free movies to choose from on individual seat-back screens, and we were provided with alcoholic beverages free of charge. We were even given hot towels at the beginning and end of the flight.

The Stockholm Arlanda Airport train station (look for the Arlanda C signs in the airport) has three train options to choose from. There is the Arlanda Express, the high speed train between the airport and Stockholm Central Station downtown, the SJ train for long distance commutes outside of Stockholm, and the Pendeltåg commuter train which makes more stops throughout the city and south of the city.

Since we were going past the city center to the southern Södermalm neighborhood, the Pendeltåg commuter train was the one we wanted, according to Google Maps. (The Google Maps app has become my most valuable app while traveling, it is great at figuring out public transportation almost anywhere). There were automated machines for tickets on the Arlanda Express and the SJ trains, but we didn’t see one for the Pendeltåg. We were able to buy our tickets directly from a ticket seller in the train station and pay with our credit card. It was roughly $17 per person for the train tickets, including the airport transportation fee (120 SEK per person).

Stockholm Arlanda airport train station
Stockholm Arlanda airport train station (Arlanda C)

The Pendeltåg took 40 minutes to get to Stockholm Södra station (twice the time of the Arlanda Express to Stockholm Central) but it was an easy ride.

From Stockholm Södra station we used Google Maps to navigate to our Airbnb apartment on Högbergsgatan. It was a bit more of a walk than we anticipated, mostly because Google Maps took us through some sort of “short cut” through a couple parks and we got a bit confused. When we arrived at the apartment, our Airbnb host Marco was waiting for us with the key and made sure we were able to find everything we might need in the apartment.

Airbnb apartment in Stockholm
Airbnb apartment in Stockholm
Airbnb apartment in Stockholm
Airbnb apartment in Stockholm
Airbnb apartment in Stockholm
Airbnb apartment in Stockholm

After unpacking and washing up, we were starving. We headed out in search of sustenance.

We walked over to the main arterial street Gotgatan and found ourselves eventually in Medborgarplatsen, or “citizen square.” It was about 8:00 PM on a Saturday night, and there were several outdoor eateries and beer gardens full of people getting their evening started. We looked at several menus and decided on fish and chips from Bodanra By Melander.

Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm Stockholm
Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm Stockholm

Two relatively small portions of fish and chips and two beers ran us about $47.00 USD. More than we wanted to spend, but those are typical Swedish prices for you. The fish and chips were delicious, though, and came with a side of Danish curry remoulade.

Bodarna By Melandar in Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm Stockholm
Bodarna By Melandar in Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm Stockholm
Fish and Chips from Bodarna By Melandar
Fish and Chips from Bodarna By Melandar

It was a nice evening, but not super warm. There were carts of complimentary blankets out for diners to keep warm. Nice touch.

Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm, Stockholm
Paddy enjoying a first beer in Sweden at Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm, Stockholm

**Money saving tip: If you like to drink, bring booze with you.

One of the most expensive things that you will encounter in Sweden is alcohol. A beer at a bar will run you between $7-$10 each, a glass of wine $10-$12, and a cocktail $15-$20. Sweden imposes a high tax on alcohol, with the highest alcohol content incurring the highest tax (cocktails and hard liquor). Beers sold in the grocery stores are only allowed to be 3.5% alcohol. Beer with higher alcohol percentages and all other wines and spirits are sold only at Systembolaget state-run liquor stores. These stores are closed on Sundays and in the evenings.

Having read this before traveling, we brought box wine with us from home. According to the Swedish customs website, you are allowed to bring one liter of spirits or four liters of wine per person into the country. Box wine packs well in a suitcase and fits four bottles of wine per box. We like the Bota Box brand. It’s cheap, but decent quality.

After our $47 fish and chips and beer, we headed back to the apartment to have a couple glasses of our box wine before bed. We stopped at the grocery store near our apartment building and picked up some bread, cheese, and other items for breakfast in the morning. We found the Swedish grocery prices to be very reasonable, and not much different from in the US.

**Regarding tipping at bars and restaurants: It isn’t customary to tip in Stockholm, which helps ease the pain of the high prices a bit. It isn’t uncommon however to tip for exceptional service. If you do tip your server, the standard tip is 10%. We tipped our server 10% at the two nicer dinners we had at this trip, as the service was very good.

 

Day 2:

After making our own coffee and breakfast at the apartment, we were ready to go explore Gamla Stan.

Gamla Stan is the original old town of Stockholm, dating back to 1252. The old buildings are well-preserved and it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. If you are looking for quaint little shops and restaurants and souvenirs, this is the place to find them.

Stockholm map
Stockholm Map. Image from http://www.lonelyplanet.com/maps/europe/sweden/stockholm/map_of_stockholm.jpg

Gamla Stan was only a half mile north of our apartment in Södermalm, so we were easily able to walk there. If you aren’t someone who is able to walk a lot, the T-Bana (Tunnelbana) subway train is a good option from most parts of the city. It can get pricey for single-use tickets, however at $5.00 USD per person per ride. The train is very easy to use, and you can buy tickets with your credit card from any of the electronic kiosks available when you enter the underground stations.

Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm

We wandered through the narrow medieval cobble-stone streets until we ended up on the north end of Gamla Stan in front of the Royal Palace.

Royal Palace, Stockholm
Royal Palace, Stockholm

The Royal Palace wasn’t too crowded, so we decided to check it out. If you are someone who is interested in European monarchies and history, this would probably be a good attraction for you. It was interesting, but not the highlight of our trip. There are several sections of the museum to explore, but we just toured the Royal Treasury and the Royal Apartments.

We started with the Royal Treasury as that is where you purchase tickets. It was interesting to see all the royal crowns, sceptres, and orbs of past royal family members.

We moved on to the Royal Chapel and Royal Apartments.

The Royal Palace, Stockholm
The Royal Palace, Stockholm
The Royal Palace, Stockholm
The Royal Palace, Stockholm
The Royal Palace, Stockholm
The Royal Palace, Stockholm

It was all very regal and somewhat interesting and worth a stop. However, if you are trying to fit a lot into a short amount of time in Stockholm and don’t have time for everything, I think this is one attraction that you can skip if you aren’t really interested in Royal family history.

When we had enough of the Royal Palace, we found an exit and ended up walking out into a front row view of the changing of the guards, which a large crowd of people had obviously been waiting a while to see. I’ve seen a few changing of guards in my day, and it’s not THAT exciting. It’s cool to see if you happen upon it, but it’s not something I would wait around for in a crowd.

The Royal Palace, Stockholm
Changing of the Guards at The Royal Palace, Stockholm

We wandered around Gamla Stan a little more, stopping by the infamous Stortorget (big square) in the middle of Gamla Stan. It is the oldest town square in the city, and host to colorful and picturesque buildings. I read that in December Stortorget is host to a big Christmas market, which sounds like it would be fun to see if you are visiting at that time.

Stortorget in Gamla Stan neighborhood, Stocholm
Stortorget in Gamla Stan neighborhood, Stocholm
Stortorget in Gamla Stan neighborhood, Stocholm
Stortorget in Gamla Stan neighborhood, Stocholm

By this time it was late afternoon and our feet were getting a bit tired, so we walked back to our apartment in Södermalm for a rest.

That evening we had a dinner reservation at Aifur Krog and Bar Viking Restaurant in Gamla Stan. Aifur Krog and Bar ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. Aifur was a surprising example of touristy done right.

Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm

**Tip–definitely make a reservation here, it’s a popular place. I easily made a reservation through their website a week prior to our trip.

Aifur is set up to look like the inside of an old medieval viking tavern or ship. The tables are communal and the light is from candles. Sheep skins are draped across the benches at the tables and the silverware is modeled after old viking utensils. The staff dress in old viking attire and appeared to enjoy their jobs. The attention to detail throughout the restaurant was very impressive.

Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm

When you arrive, the host asks your names and where you are from, and then blows on a sheep horn and loudly announces you to the entire restaurant. Everyone claps.

We were seated next to a couple who didn’t seem to want to be social, but they left shortly after we arrived. Our next dining companions were a woman from California and her Mom (announced to the restaurant by our host as “Lydia and her Mom”). They were much friendlier.

We ordered mead, as it seemed like the right thing to do. The mead menu was extensive. I had a berry mead and Paddy had a spicy chili mead. The waitress let us sample the meads before we committed to a full glass, which was nice. The chili mead was really good. Not sure if they had chili peppers back in the viking days, but it was damn good.

Aifur’s menu was full of historical detail about each dish. I went with Varangian’s Roasted Dwarf Chicken, and Paddy had the Indulgence of the Raven Lord. Paddy chose his mostly on title alone, because he couldn’t not try something called “The Indulgence of the Raven Lord.” The Indulgence was a marinated flap steak, with juniper roasted pork belly, parsnip cake, sprouts, baby onions, and a red wine sauce.

Indulgence of the Raven Lord
Indulgence of the Raven Lord
Varangian's Roasted Dwarf Chicken
Varangian’s Roasted Dwarf Chicken
At Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
At Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm

The dishes were plenty hearty by themselves, we were glad that we hadn’t ordered appetizers.

Towards the end of our meal, the restaurant was looking more and more empty. We wondered for a moment if reservations had been necessary, but were assured that they were when our host blew the sheep horn and announced the arrival of “a bunch of Austrian bankers.” The restaurant was soon filled with Austrian bankers, ready to eat, drink, and make merry. We asked for our bill, as the waitstaff was quickly becoming overwhelmed with the new guests.

Aifur viking restaurant was a bigger highlight of our trip to Stockholm than we expected it to be. The attention to detail in everything from the decor to the well-researched menu to the attire of the waitstaff was phenomenal. If you’re going to Stockholm, try not to miss this place. Be sure to make an advance online reservation.

After dinner, we thought maybe we’d continue with the theme and duck into the bar at nearby Sjätte Tunnen medieval restaurant for a drink.

Sjätte Tunnen was a little campier than Aifur, but still looked like it might be fun. I ordered their rose hip mead special, which was good but a very tiny pour, not sure it was $8.00 USD worth. The bar portion of the restaurant was rather empty and isolated, good for a date or intimate conversation if that’s what you are looking for.

We would have loved to have some more drinks and explore more bars in the Gamla Stan area, but it was just too expensive. We brought box wine for this reason, so we went back to our apartment to relax.

**Money-saving tip: If you do bring your own booze but don’t want to drink in your room/apartment, bring a water bottle or thermos and take it to the park.  It is not illegal to drink in parks in Sweden. Even cheaper–get some food at the grocery store and have a picnic for dinner.

 

Day 3:

Our second full day in Stockholm was my birthday, and the thing I wanted to do most was go to the ABBA Museum. I’m not a huge fan of ABBA, but I am all about unusual museums. I am also not at all opposed to getting on the dance floor when “Dancing Queen” comes on at a wedding reception. ABBA did write some catchy tunes.

Just about all the museums in Stockholm are conveniently located in one island location in the city called Djurgården. You can easily get to Djurgården by passenger ferry from the Slussen/Gamla Stan ferry terminal, tickets are just like the T-bana and are $5.00 USD per person each way. You may purchase tickets at the ticket window at the ferry terminal.

Djurgården ferry, Stockholm
Djurgården ferry, Stockholm
Djurgården ferry, Stockholm
Djurgården ferry, Stockholm

I had read that the ABBA Museum get’s pretty busy, and they only allow a certain amount of visitors into the museum at a time to make the experience enjoyable and not over-crowded. You can also buy your tickets in advance online for a slight discount.

We didn’t want to have a set schedule, so we just got up early and arrived shortly after the museum opened. The ABBA Museum was a short walk from the Djurgården ferry. 

On the way to the museum, we witnessed a procession of policemen on horses. Not sure what this was about.

Policemen procession at Djurgården.
Policemen procession at Djurgården.

When we arrived, the ABBA Museum was pretty empty, and no one was in line. Tickets were a bit more than I expected at $30 USD per adult, but se la vie.

We walked down a spiral staircase into a brightly colored disco-tastic experience, but this was only the pre-ABBA museum area. The museum combines the main ABBA attraction with a Swedish music and pop exhibit, which you can view before and at the end of the ABBA experience.

ABBA Museum Stockholm
ABBA Museum Stockholm
ABBA Museum Stockholm
ABBA Museum Stockholm
ABBA Museum Stockholm
ABBA Museum Stockholm

We left the rainbow disco room through a black curtained door, and were immediately assaulted by a larger-than-life movie screen montage of ABBA music and performances. After that, we entered the main portion of the ABBA museum. There were very detailed exhibits on each performer’s history and background, what their recording studio and dressing rooms would have looked like, and all of their glorious (or horrendous?) costumes.

ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
Life-size wax figures, ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm

There were interactive exhibits as well where you could sing (and record and purchase) your karaoke ABBA track, or have a photo of your face imposed on each ABBA member’s face and dance around, your moves reflected back on a video screen (this part was a bit creepy). You could also go onstage and karaoke your favorite ABBA song with projections of ABBA dancing and performing on a stage along side you. If you are someone who is really into ABBA, you will probably have a great time.

ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm

The museum ended with more of the Swedish music exhibit, complete with videos of famous bands from the US, UK, and other countries performing at the amusement park next to the ABBA Museum (Tivoli Grönalund).

There are all sorts of fun, over-priced things to tempt you in the gift shop on your way out, we left with a Christmas ornament, magnet, and some ABBA Museum chapstick. We passed on the $25 coffee mugs and the “knit-your-own Agnetha hat” kit.

Knit your own Agnetha hat in the ABBA Museum store
Knit your own Agnetha hat in the ABBA Museum store. Also sold online: http://www.abbathemuseum.com/en/shop-en

When we left, there was a line at the ABBA Museum that we were glad we avoided by getting there early.

There are a number of museums in Djurgården, all within walking distance from each other. There is only so much museum we can handle in one day, so we thought we’d check out the most popular of all the museums, the Vasa Museum and then call it good for the day. The Vasa Museum is an exhibit of the infamous Vasa ship that sank in Stockholm Harbor in 1628, and was dredged up and made into a museum 333 years later.

Vasa Museum
Vasa Museum–view from the Djurgården ferry

To our disappointment, we didn’t get to the Vasa Museum early enough. The tour buses had all arrived, and the line to get into the museum was almost a half mile long. We decided it wasn’t worth it.

In retrospect, it might have been a better idea to visit the Vasa Museum first right when it opened, and then the ABBA Museum afterward as the Vasa Museum was clearly the most popular attraction.

If you are interested in other museums, there is also the Nordiska Museum (Nordic Museum of Swedish Culture and History), an aquarium, The Spirit Museum (a museum of booze), The Biological Museum (museum of Swedish plants and animals) and the Tivoli Grönalund amusement park.

We made our way back to the ferry, fighting through the massive ticket crowds outside the Tivoli amusement park, and enjoyed a nearly-empty boat ride back to Gamla Stan while incoming ferries arrived overflowing with tourists. We were happy to escape.

Tivoli, Stockholm
Tivoli, Stockholm
Stockholm Harbor
Stockholm Harbor

We were pretty hungry when we arrived back, so we stopped at the nearby fried-herring food truck called Nystekt Strömming  just a short walk from the ferry towards Södermalm in Slussen. For a very reasonable price, we enjoyed delicious fried herring burgers and sparkling waters. Also offered were fried or grilled herring plate lunches with mashed potatoes and pickles. This was probably the most affordable authentic Swedish food we encountered on our trip.

Nystekt Stroming food truck in Slussen, Stockholm
Nystekt Stroming food stand in Slussen, Stockholm
fried herring burger at Nystekt Stroming food truck in Slussen, Stockholm
Fried herring burger at Nystekt Stroming food truck in Slussen, Stockholm

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring some of the shops on Götgatan Street in Södermalm. My favorite was a shop called Flying Tiger that had a bunch of really random (but fun) inexpensive stuff.

For dinner that evening, we decided to splurge as it was my birthday and all. We had made a reservation at Pelikan, an upscale traditional Swedish restaurant in Södermalm that was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations.

Pelikan Restaurant, Stockholm
Pelikan Restaurant, Stockholm
Pelikan Restaurant, Stockholm
Pelikan Restaurant, Stockholm

Pelikan has been a restaurant in Stockholm since 1664, has moved twice and has been in it’s current location since 1931.

The service was excellent, as was the food. We started with the charcuterie plate and the Gubbröra, a sort of salad with eggs, fresh anchovies, parsley and dill served on sweet brown bread with an egg yolk to put on top. The charcuterie plate included prosciutto, reindeer salami, pickles, and two types of Swedish cheeses. The reindeer salami was our favorite thing on the charcuterie plate, hands down.

Gubbröra and charcuterie plate starters at Pelikan, Stockholm
Gubbröra and charcuterie plate starters at Pelikan, Stockholm

The Swedish aquavit menu was quite extensive. I’ve never tried aquavit before, so I asked the waitress what she would recommend. She brought us two different kinds, mine had “floral” flavors. It was served on ice and definitely tasted like flowers. Paddy had only tried an anise-based aquavit before, and he found it refreshing to taste a more herbaceous variety. We had no idea there were so many different kinds. From what I understand, aquavit is essentially a vodka distilled with herbs and other flavors. It is something you sip slowly and is often served at celebratory dinners or gatherings.

Aquavit at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Aquavit at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm

For our entrees Paddy tried the roasted reindeer with root vegetable terrine and lingonberry sauce, and I had the fish special with fresh herbs, bleak roe, and mushrooms with a light sauce (I am not sure exactly what fish it was, but it tasted a bit like trout). It was light and fragrant and delicious. Paddy really enjoyed his reindeer, which he said had a strong, rich flavor.

Roasted reindeer entree at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Roasted reindeer entree at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Fish special at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Fish special at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Trying aquavit for the first time at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm

For dessert we shared the chocolate terrine, which was delicious. It wasn’t super sweet–almost kind of like a chocolate cheese. It’s hard to describe but was very good. The waitress even added a candle for my birthday.

Chocolate terrine at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Chocolate terrine at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm

Pelikan was the biggest meal splurge on our trip to Stockholm and Denmark, and it didn’t disappoint. If you are looking for upscale traditional Swedish cuisine in an historic beer hall location, this is your place.

Having spent a pretty penny on dinner, we opted not to go out for some drinks afterward, but to relax back at the apartment with our box wine.

 

Day 4:

 

Our last full day in Stockholm had the best weather. There were a number of things we could have done with our day: day trips to either Drottningholm Palace or the historic viking village of Sigtuna, a ferry ride in the Stockholm archipelago, or another attempt at the Vasa Museum. But we didn’t really feel like having a plan, or dealing with buses or ferries or trains. So we opted just to walk around and see a bit more of Gamla Stan and Södermalm.

We walked around Stockholm harbor in the sunshine, and then back through Gamla Stan for a little bit of final souvenir shopping.

Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.
Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.
Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.
Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.
Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.
Naked statue in front of Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.

After much walking in the sun, we decided to take a “fika” (Swedish coffee break) at Wayne’s Coffee in Södermalm. Paddy had a coffee and I had a mojito lemonade (lemonade with mint leaves) and a kanelbullar, which is pretty much the national pastry of Sweden. It is essentially a yeast-bread cinnamon bun, but without all the nasty frosting and extra sugar the American cinnamon buns come with. Instead, it is light and airy, and has a sprinkling of pearl sugar on top with a light egg wash glaze. It was a perfect little afternoon snack.

Kanelbullar--Swedish cinnamon bun.
Kanelbullar–Swedish cinnamon bun.

We spent some more time walking around Södermalm. Most of the interesting shops were on Götgatan.

For dinner that evening we decided that we couldn’t leave Sweden without trying a tunnbrödsrulle.

A tunnbrödsrulle (“thin bread roll” in Swedish) is a hot dog rolled up in thin flat bread with mashed potatoes, lettuce, onions, ketchup, mustard, and shrimp salad. It is typically something Swedes get at a kiosk on the way home from the bar in the wee hours of the morning. However, since we did a mega-splurge for dinner the night before, we thought this would be an inexpensive dinner option.

 tunnbrödsrulle
tunnbrödsrulle

We ordered from the Maxi Grillen on Gotgatan  near the Medborgarplatsen. Service was less than friendly, but food was served fast. The tunnbrödsrulle came with a fork.

 tunnbrödsrulle
tunnbrödsrulle
 tunnbrödsrulle
tunnbrödsrulle

Our verdict: Definitely order sans ketchup. The ketchup was a bit overly sweet. Also, I think it might be better with a higher quality shrimp salad. This just tasted like bay shrimp drowned in mayo and thousand island dressing. I didn’t make it all the way through mine, it was really rich and gave me a bit of a stomach ache. In any event, it was uniquely Swedish and we were glad to have tried it.

If you go to Stockholm and want to try a tunnbrödsrulle sober, I would recommend trying chef Magnus Nilsson’s tunnbrödsrulle at Teatern in Södermalm. Otherwise, the junky kiosk dogs might be tasty after many, many beers. If you do try Magnus Nilsson’s tunnbrödsrulle, please let us know how it was–we wanted to go there but didn’t have time.

After our tunnbrödsrulle adventure, we got on the T-Bana subway and headed north to the Tiki Room bar in the Vasastan neighborhood.

If you’ve read much of our blog, you may have noticed that we have a tiki bar fascination.

Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm

It was very early in the evening, and most of the bar patrons were upstairs enjoying the outdoor patio. The patio was nice, but we came for the tiki bar. We ordered some drinks downstairs in the tiki lounge area and chatted with the bartender.

Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm

Since we were in Stockholm, the drinks were pretty ridiculously expensive. At $15-$20 a drink, we could really only afford to try one each. The drinks were very good, however. Tiki drinks are often made a bit too sweet, but these were perfect. I had the Red Tide, which I really enjoyed (and wished I could have tried another one).

The bartender was super friendly, and after talking to us for awhile, he ended up only charging us for one drink (sweet!).

The Tiki Room was a pretty classic-style tiki bar, very nicely done with a lot of attention to detail. There was a private back room area that I assume you can reserve for parties.

Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm

We would have loved to explore some more bars in Stockholm, but the cocktails were just too pricey. The Vasastan neighborhood was lively with people enjoying dinner and drinks at various restaurants, but most of the shops had closed by 6:00 PM. We walked around a little before heading back to the T-Bana train.

 

Overall, we had a great four days in Stockholm. Gamla Stan was definitely a highlight, with it’s old buildings, cobbled streets and cute little alleyways. Stockholm isn’t the best place to visit on a budget, so if you don’t have a lot of money to spend you won’t be going out much. Nice dinners and nightlife are not something that should be on your agenda if you need to be frugal. There are many things to do and see during the day, however. If you visit during the summer, there are lots of parks and places to enjoy a picnic in the evenings and the sun doesn’t go down until after 10:00 PM.

If we were to return to Stockholm again, I would like to explore the Stockholm Archipelago and take a day trip to the ancient viking town of Sigtuna to look at the ancient viking rune stones.

Stay tuned for the rest of our Scandinavian adventure in Denmark…

 

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The Blue Lagoon, Iceland

The Blue Lagoon, Iceland: A two day visit to the milky-blue geothermic hot spring in a lava field in the small town of Grindavik.

 

Excerpt from original post Iceland 2015: Reykjavik and the South Coast. Read about all of our adventures in Iceland here.

Day 1:

 

The Blue Lagoon is the number one tourist attraction in Iceland, and I have to say, it was also one of the things that I was looking forward to the most. The Blue Lagoon formed from the mineral and water runoff of the nearby geothermal power plant that harvests geothermal energy from the lava field near the town of Grindavik. The pale blue color of the lagoon is a result of the white silica mud at the bottom, giving it a milky blue color. In the 1980’s, locals discovered the lagoon and began sneaking in for a swim.

Blue Lagoon Iceland
The Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon Iceland
The Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon Iceland
The Blue Lagoon–lava rock covered with white silica mud and algae makes up the bottom of the lagoon

Eventually, it was developed into the giant hot spring swimming lagoon that it is today, and The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel was built nearby. The silica mud is supposed to be good for your skin, and particularly good for people with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel is also a clinic for people with doctor referrals for skin treatments, but for the most part it is a nice hotel with a spa-like atmosphere and it’s own smaller private lagoon for guests only. It is small, although it has plans to expand by next year. It is recommended that you make your reservations far in advance.

We arrived The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel at 2:00 PM, which was check in time. The lady at the front desk told us our room was not ready and to come back at 2:00. When we informed her it was 2:00 she apologized, it had been a crazy day for the housekeeping staff and she asked us if we wouldn’t mind waiting about 30 more minutes. They had a nice guest lounge area, so we didn’t mind. We sat and read for a little bit. When she came back and told us our room was ready, she gave us a gift pack of Blue Lagoon lotion products as a thank you for waiting. We learned later how expensive those lotions were–about a $40 value. It was very nice of her.

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Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel guest lounge

Our room was very nice, with a really comfortable bed and a view of the moss and snow covered lava fields. It included a mini fridge, fluffy bathrobes, and even had a towel warmer in the bathroom that ended up being perfect for drying our bathing suits.

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View from the deck of our hotel room at the Blue Lagoon Clinic
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The moss is flammable…
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The private blue lagoon for hotel guests only

The price per night was about $250.00, which is the off-season rate. It is pretty expensive, but worth it. The price includes a breakfast buffet, use of the private blue lagoon for guests only, and one daily admission per person for each day to the main Blue Lagoon, which is about a 10 minute walk through a path in the lava field. The regular admission price at the Blue Lagoon is about $50.00 per person, which doesn’t include a towel or robe. The hotel guest vouchers include towels and robes, and no advance reservation or ticket purchase is needed.

**Note: If you are visiting the Blue Lagoon without a tour group or staying at the hotel, you will need to make advance reservations. This is a new rule as of 2015, due to increased tourism maxing out the lagoon’s capacity.

After getting settled,  we were ready to check out the lagoon. We put our bathing suits in a plastic shopping bag, collected our voucher from the hotel, and walked across the slushy, icy path to the lagoon through the lava field.

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Checking in was easy, there was a separate line for people with vouchers and we breezed right in. We were given electronic bracelets that lock and unlock your chosen locker, and are used as a running tab for any purchases from the little cafe or the swim up bar in the lagoon. When you leave, you give your bracelet to the cashier to pay for anything you purchased while in the lagoon. It was a pretty awesome system.

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In the locker room, you are expected to take a shower with soap before putting your bathing suit on and going out to the lagoon. There are even attendants in the locker room to help people find the next open shower stall (and tell you that you need to shower). There are even diagrams in the shower showing you what areas to wash–armpits, feet, crotch. It was very specific.

I had a hard time figuring out how to lock the locker with my bracelet at first, but figured it out after a few tries. You have to close your locker door, and then scan your bracelet on the main scanner on the locker block, which locks it and confirms your locker number.

Paddy didn’t have the best experience at first–in the locker room he set his robe and towel down for a second on the bench and turned around and his towel was gone. Super lame. Watch your towel….maybe more so in the men’s room than the women’s.

Once out of the locker rooms, you walk out the door onto the deck and it is a mad dash in the bitter cold to hang up your robe on the outdoor hook and get in the lagoon.

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The water is really nice, and the bottom of the lagoon ranges from sandy and a little rough to soft squishy silica mud. There are geothermal heat regulators in various areas, and the water gets a lot hotter near them. We got beers and little packets of algae face mask from the swim-up bar.

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Blue Lagoon Bar
Blue Lagoon Iceland
Algae mask
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algae mask

There is a wood box on the far edge of the lagoon full of the white silica mud to use on your face as well. The lagoon also has a steam room, dry sauna, and a steamy cave that looks like a hobbit house, all located off the deck on the right side of the lagoon facing the main building. On the way out, you can get a good view of the lagoon from the observation deck at the top of the building–accessible by stairs in Lava Restaurant.

**Note: The silica and sulphur in the water really dry out your hair. My hair felt like it does after swimming in the ocean but amplified. It took two deep condition washings to finally get it back to normal, so some heavy-duty conditioner is advised for longer hair. They do provide conditioner at the lagoon in the showers, but it wasn’t very good. Wearing your hair up can help, but it gets so steamy that it’s difficult to keep it from getting wet.

After a good soak, we went back to the room to change and head into Grindavik for dinner.

Grindavik is a very tiny coastal fishing town. There isn’t a lot to see, aside from the Saltfish Museum. There are a few small restaurants, and after reviewing the options on tripadvisor, we decided to eat at Salthusid. We drove into town thinking there would be a main strip with restaurants or something by the waterfront, but there wasn’t. It was actually a little hard to find. Saldhusid is located just off the main road behind the grocery store Netto.

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Salthusid Restaurant

Salthusid was cozy and inviting, very Scandinavian. The name means “The Salt House” in Icelandic.

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Salthusid Restaurant

The waitress was very friendly, and it ended up being one of the best meals of our whole trip, second to Dill. We shared the lobster soup to start, and it was amazing. If Stokkseyri has the best lobster soup in Iceland, I would be very interested to compare their soup to Salthusid’s. It was so flavorful without being too heavy on the cream, with big fresh hunks of lobster in the bottom.

The best lobster soup ever at Salthusid
The best lobster soup ever at Salthusid

Paddy had a lamb tenderloin and I had cod with ratatouille. Both were outstanding. We had read that they make very good chocolate cake at Salthusid, but we were too stuffed to eat another bite. If we ever come back to Grindavik, we will be making this restaurant our number one dinner stop.

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Lamb tenderloin at Salthusid
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Cod with ratatouille at Salthusid

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On the way back to the hotel we could see the geothermal power plant all lit up and hard at work:

Geothermal power plant that accidentally created the Blue Lagoon
Geothermal power plant that accidentally created the Blue Lagoon
Day 2:

Friday was our last day in Iceland, and while the snow was melting now, it was WINDY. When we had left the Blue Lagoon the day before we had been leaving right as a huge tour group was coming in, and we were wondering if we could have the same luck of timing on our second trip. We went to the front desk to retrieve our daily voucher and to see if the tour groups come at certain times (they don’t), and they told us the weather was only going to get worse this afternoon, so it was best we go as soon as we can.

We seemed to luck out and get in between big tour groups again, fortunately. It was busy, but not crazy busy. Paddy slipped on the ice on the trail from the hotel to the Blue Lagoon and cracked his elbow. If you are walking on a snowy or icy day, be extra careful.

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The Blue Lagoon

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It was much windier than the day before. While the water was still really warm, the cold wind was uncomfortable on our heads. We went between the dry sauna and the lagoon, sitting under the walking bridges to shield ourselves from the wind. We finally found the best spot for a sheltered soak under the bridge and around the corner from the bar, up against some lava rocks. The water is hotter over there and the rock behind us blocked the wind a bit.

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The area in the lower left corner of this photo is be best spot to soak when it’s windy–the rock shelters you a bit and the water is extra hot.

We didn’t stay as long this time, we figured we had a good time the day before and the wind was getting to be a little much.

When we left, there was another HUGE tour group line waiting to get in. We were so glad we left when we did. At the end of the line near the parking lot we could hear some Germans shouting obnoxiously. We made it a little ways down the path to the hotel when I realized that I left my bathing suit bag in the gift shop at the front counter. I ran back to get it, and the whole time, the Germans never stopped shouting. It sounded like they were drunk….or angry? I don’t know. It was unbelievably obnoxious.

One of the biggest reasons we would recommend staying at the Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel is that it has it’s own private lagoon for hotel guests only. That way, you can enjoy soaking in the lagoon again after you get back from the main one, and it is quiet and much more relaxing. They also have an indoor lagoon area for when the weather is bad.

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Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel Private indoor/outdoor lagoon
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Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel Private indoor/outdoor lagoon

The indoor lagoon has a door in the corner for you to go out to the outdoor lagoon from the water, which was nice. I braved the wind for a little while that afternoon, but it was too much. It was a little disappointing, because I was hoping to get some relaxing time in at the private lagoon as well before we left.

One thing the hotel doesn’t have is a sauna or steam room, which I think would be a great addition.

We relaxed the rest of the afternoon and read books. Some people may find the Grindavik area a little boring, but we were really enjoying the relaxation time before heading home and back to our jobs.

For dinner, we had made prior reservations at Lava Restaurant at the main Blue Lagoon, our last and final splurge dinner. Head chef Viktor Örn Andrésson specializes in modern Icelandic cuisine and won Iceland’s Chef of the Year award in 2013 and Nordic Chef of the Year in 2014.

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Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon
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Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon
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Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon
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View from our table, Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon

The restaurant is huge, and a more traditional style than the infamous Dill restaurant in Reykjavik. The menu was an a la carte menu featuring starters, entrees, and desserts.

The wine list was pricey, and their selection of US wines were a bit questionable (Barefoot Merlot? Turning Leaf Zinfandel? Those are cheap $6.99 bottom shelf grocery store wines…on the wine list for $40 each). Not that we wanted American wine, but their American selection made us question the value of the rest of the high-priced wines. We stuck with less expensive house wine by the glass.

For starters we had the slow cooked arctic char with fennel, pear, and char roe, and the smoked haddock with apple and sun chokes. Both were outstanding, but the arctic char was the clear favorite for both of us. The char roe exploded in your mouth and added an unexpected complimentary complexity to the pear and char.

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Smoked haddock starter at Lava Restaurant
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Slow cooked arctic char starter at Lava Restaurant

For our entrees, Paddy had Viktor Örn Andrésson’s winning dish from the Nordic Chef of the Year competition, which was fried rack of beef and beef cheek with carrot, potato, morel and port wine glaze. I had the pan fried cod with roasted langoustines, cauliflower, fennel, pear, and dill. My cod was good, cooked perfectly and the flavor was great–however it was a little overly salty. Paddy practically licked his plate clean, he said the beef dish was truly award-winning.

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Pan fried cod and roasted langoustines at Lava Restaurant
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“Award-winning” beef rack and beef cheek dish at Lava Restaurant
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At Lava Restaurant

For dessert I tried the “award-winning” Nordic Chef of the Year dessert: Cranberries and organic dark chocolate with marzipan, lemon, hazelnuts, and meringue. Paddy had the apple and brown butter dish with brown butter ice cream, apple and celeriac foam, apple, caramel, brioche. Both were fantastic.

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Overall, we spent about the same amount of money at Lava as we did at Dill in Reykjavik. They were both great meals, but if you only have room in your budget for one big splurge in Iceland, I’d go with Dill. They are two completely different restaurants, however. If you’re not into 7 small tasting courses and would rather have a starter, larger entree, and dessert, Lava might be the one for you. We liked the tasting courses and variety at Dill, along with the very Icelandic and less-touristy atmosphere.

 

Overall, I feel the Blue Lagoon lived up to the hype. We would absolutely do it again, but to be honest we’d probably spend the majority of our time at the private lagoon at the Blue Lagoon hotel. The only thing we disliked about the Blue Lagoon was the hoards of tour bus tourists. Unfortunately, that is par for the course at a number one tourist attraction. The Blue Lagoon’s proximity to the airport makes it an easy and relaxing end to any trip to Iceland.

 

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Vik, Iceland

Two nights in Vik, Iceland. A tiny town on Iceland’s southwest coast that is a great home base for southern ring road adventures.

We visited Vik, a small town in southwest Iceland for two days on a week long trip to Iceland in March 2015. It was winter when we visited, and road conditions were very unpredictable. We had to check the weather report daily to see when and if we would be able to drive that day or not, due to extreme winds and snow. We used Vik as a home base to see several attractions on the southern ring road. In good weather, Vik is only about a two and a half our drive from Rekjavik. There isn’t much to the town, but it is a great place to visit and use as a home base for exploring for a couple of days.

 

Excerpt from original post https://childfreelifeadventures.com/iceland-2015-reykjavik-the-south-coast/

Day 1:

We left Hveragerdi in the morning as early as soon as the sun came out. The weather report told us that the morning would be pretty clear and mild, but that a storm was moving in that afternoon. We got on the road as early as we could, headed east on Highway 1 to the coastal town of Vik. The drive wasn’t too bad in the beginning, and we stopped at two of Iceland’s iconic waterfalls.

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Seljalandsfoss: 

Seljandsfoss waterfall is just a very short drive off the main highway 1, and there are signs for it. In warmer weather, you can actually walk behind it which is pretty awesome. It was icy and cold when we visited, so we didn’t attempt the walk behind it. There was also a fair amount of icy spray from the falls so we didn’t get super close. This waterfall is definitely worth a stop.

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Seljalandsfoss

Skógafoss:

Just a short ways down the road from Seljandsfoss is Skogafoss, which you can actually see from the highway. This 200 foot, 25 meter-wide waterfall is one of Iceland’s biggest and most impressive. There are bathrooms at the falls, as well as a little restaurant if you’re hungry. We had packed sandwiches and ate them in the car to save money and use up our groceries.

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Skogafoss
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Skogafoss

We didn’t have far to go to Vik, but the black storm clouds on the horizon warned us that we had better hurry it up. It started getting a little dicey right before we descended into the town, but we made it. The winds were picking up and the powdery snow was blowing across the road, making it difficult to see.

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Menacing black storm clouds closing in
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Farmer herding his horses in as the storm approaches

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Snow blowing in the wind
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Snow blowing on the road

We finally reached Vik, very relieved to have made it just as the storm began raging.

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Little church in Vik

We were staying at the brand new Icelandair Hotel in Vik, which had just opened in June 2014. At $175 a night, it was one of our most expensive accommodations on the trip, but very comfortable and modern. In the summer, forget it–the rates shoot up to $300/night. Way out of our budget.

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Icelandair Hotel Vik
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Icelandair Hotel lobby
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Icelandair Hotel lobby bar
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Ocean view room, Icelandair Hotel Vik
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View from the huge windows in our room

We checked into our room, happy to be out of the weather. I had woken up with a sore throat that morning and it became apparent by afternoon that I was coming down with a mild cold. We decided to relax in the room the rest of the afternoon and watch the stormy sea from our huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows in the room. I was glad that I had packed some cold medicine and vitamins just in case.

For dinner that evening, we asked the receptionist what our restaurant options were in town. The town is tiny and there aren’t a lot of choices. She talked up the Icelandair Hotel restaurant on site, and then mumbled disdainfully about “the grill across the street,” and “another place up the road and to the left.” I suppose it’s her job to steer us to the hotel restaurant.

Berg Restaurant at the hotel was very expensive, and looked a little overpriced. The grill across the street was a very affordable option, attached to the gas station, but we also weren’t in the mood for fried food. I consulted Tripadvisor and  decided to check out Halldorskaffi up the street.

The main street in Vik is Vikurbraut, which has a small grocery store, post office and liquor store (you do need to buy beer and wine at the liquor store, which closes at 6:00 PM), and two restaurants–HalldorsKaffi and the Lundi Restaurant in the Puffin Hostel.

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Vikurbraut St. in Vik
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View of church in Vik from Vikurbraut St
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Halldorskaffi Restaurant

Halldorskaffi Restaurant Doesn’t have a sign, we recognized it from the photo someone posted on Tripadvisor. After looking at all the options, I will say that it is the best restaurant option in Vik.

Service was very friendly. The best deal they have is their daily soup special, which is a self-serve all-you-can eat soup station with homemade bread. I had the soup of the day (cauliflower) and it was delicious. I also ordered the smoked salmon appetizer and it was also very good. Paddy had a burger and fries. They serve full entree dinners (mostly fish and lamb), pizzas, burgers, salads, and sandwiches. The prices were very reasonable.

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All you can eat soup at Halldorskaffi
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Lox (smoked salmon) appetizer and burger at Halldorskaffi
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Delicious homemade cakes and pies at Halldorskaffi

There isn’t any nightlife in Vik, and I wasn’t feeling so hot because of my cold so we spent the rest of the evening in the hotel room reading and listening to the storm.

We were super excited to find out from the front desk lady that the storm was supposed to pass overnight, and that we could actually expect some sun the next day.

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and the Southern Ring Road

Day 2:

Much of the snow had melted off the road overnight, and the weather forecast was actually good for the day. We got up early, ate some yogurt, bread, and leftover tuna salad for breakfast (we just used the car as our refrigerator for the night), and set out to do a marathon sight-seeing trip on our one unicorn-day of good weather.

An hour past Vik, there is another small town called Kirkjubæjarklaustur, but not much else for miles. (Be sure to have a full gas tank). Just a short ways past Vik is an area where part of Game of Thrones was filmed, and we could definitely see why. We realized that we were really out in the “wilds of Iceland,” with nothing but snow, ice, and glaciers. It was beautiful and humbling at the same time.

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After two and a half hours or so, pretty much driving on a solid sheet of ice in some parts of the road, we reached our main destination:  Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. It is one of the big attractions in Iceland, and in the summer I’ve read that it is a conveyor belt churning out loads of tourists through boat tours. It was busy, but not too busy when we were there.

The sun was starting to peek out, but the wind was brutal. We walked towards the lagoon and climbed up on top of the grassy hills to get a good view, and were almost blown away.

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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

We descended to the beach, which was better but the wind was still icy cold. It was a beautiful site to see, but we didn’t stay as long as we wanted, the wind was just too much. No boat tours were being offered either, which was fine. The view from the beach was pretty good by itself.

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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
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Freezing!
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Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

Fortunately, there is a small cafe and gift shop selling seafood soup, pastries, and hot drinks. We had some seafood soup for lunch, which was mediocre but hot and warmed us right up. We used the restroom, picked up a couple souvenirs and turned around to head back.

On the way back we stopped at Skaftafell National Park. Visiting Skaftafell and hiking to glaciers and waterfalls in the park had originally been part of the plan, but we realized that this was a much better destination in the summer or early fall. We didn’t have a lot of time, but thought we’d pull in and see if there was anything to be seen within a short walk of the visitor’s center. There wasn’t. Even nearby Svartifoss required crampons to even attempt the trail. We checked out the visitor’s center and then moved on.

The sun was out full force while we drove back, and we were just happy that we got to see the Glacier Lagoon and the rugged, wild winter terrain of the southern Ring Road. It was even more beautiful on the drive back, as the blue sky and bright sun added some more contrast to the landscape.

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Icy wild arctic tundra without a soul around for miles

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Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

Arriving back at the hotel in Vik, we stopped by the room to freshen up and then got back on the road a short drive west of Vik to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. We were hoping to catch a sunset but snow clouds were rolling in, and it began to snow a little bit. It was still a nice stroll on the beach, with the snow coming down.

Reynisfjara Beach is a must-see stop just off the Ring Road in south Iceland. The beach is covered in black sand and lava rock, with towering jagged sea stacks that look like monster teeth jutting out of the raging ocean. To the west is a rock arch going into the ocean.

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Reynisfjara Beach
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Reynisfjara Beach

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Rock arch, Reynisfjara Beach
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Big lava rocks on Reynisfjara Beach
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Reynisfjara Beach

Hálsanefshellir sea cave is to your right (as you face the ocean), made up of hexagonal basalt columns much like the ones we saw at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The columns are a natural geological wonder formed from lava pouring out of the land and cooling slowly over time. They are very rare but found randomly all over the world, and also make up the waterfall cliff at Svartifoss in Skaftafell National Park. The columns at Reynisfjara are also called the “organ pipes.”

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“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach
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“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach
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“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach
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“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach

**Note: The waves and current at Reynisfjara are very dangerous. Do not wade in the ocean or get close to the edge of the shore, waves have been known to come out onto the beach further than expected and the current can pull you in, even from knee-deep water.

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Raging sea at Reynisfjara

After the beach, we went back into town and had dinner at Halldorskaffi again. Paddy had the lamb burger and I had a chicken sandwich with fries. Both were delicious, but we were starving and it didn’t quite fill us up. We picked up some snacks at the convenience store across the street from our hotel on the way back.

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Evening sun in Vik

Back at the hotel, we went down to have a drink at the swanky hotel bar with (yak??) fur barstools. There were a few other tourists down in the lounge area, but it was otherwise pretty quiet. There were a few people eating in the restaurant.

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Before coming to Iceland, we watched a few travel documentaries which all featured the infamous Icelandic liquor Brennivin, otherwise known as “The Black Death.” Brennivin literally translates to “burning wine” and is a type of schnapps made from potato mash and flavored with caraway. It has a very herbal flavor to it, and after doing a shot of that, my cold went away. No joke. It was a pretty mild cold, but I’d like to believe that the “Black Death” brought me back to life.

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We had a couple beers and enjoyed the ambiance for a bit, but the drinks were expensive so we didn’t stay long.

Regarding Icelandic beer–beer was actually banned in Iceland from 1915 to 1989. The most popular and widely available beers are Gull, and Viking, which we found to taste like cheap, watery Budweiser or some other comparable American beer. Paddy did find a couple Icelandic beers that he liked, and said the Viking Classic wasn’t too bad. My favorite was the line of beers from the Einstök microbrewery. I didn’t get to try all of the Einstock beers, but the white ale and the toasted porter were delicious. Give Iceland a few more years, I think more craft beer may be on the way.

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While Vik may be a tiny town, there is a lot to see nearby. We would definitely recommend Vik and the Icelandair Hotel, although the price was a bit high, and it was the only hotel/hostel we stayed at that didn’t include breakfast. Exploring the southern ring road was one of the highlights of our trip. It really feels like a desolate other-worldly arctic landscape, unspoiled and wild. Just be sure to keep an eye on the weather in the winter, it can be one of the most dangerous parts of the country in high wind.

 

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases from product links on this site.

Renting a Car in Iceland

Renting a Car in Iceland: What you need to know about road safety, insurance, and how to avoid unexpected charges.

 

Excerpt from original post Iceland 2015: Reykjavik & the South Coast

Things to know about renting a car in Iceland:

There are tons of threads on Tripadvisor about renting a car in Iceland, many of them filled with horror stories of being charged hundreds or even over a thousand dollars for dings, dents, etc. After reading through many of them, I determined that the big name car rental companies had the most horror stories, and Blue Car Rental had the least horror stories, so we went with them. In general, here is what you need to know:

1. The insurance barely covers anything.

If you damage the car in any way, there is a high deductible that you have to pay. This includes small dents. Blue Car Rental’s deductible was $1,100.00. If the windshield is cracked and needs to be replaced, you pay $100.00. If the chassis/underside of the car is damaged due to off-roading or driving too fast on rough bumpy roads, you are responsible for the whole amount of the damage. If the strong winds blow the doors off the car (it happens), you will be responsible for the damage as well.

2. You must pre-pay with most companies.

Reserving a car online was very easy, and I asked a couple questions via email to Blue Car before reserving, and they were very responsive and helpful. However–you have to pre-pay, and if you cancel your trip last minute, you might not get all your money back. (Your might consider travel insurance for emergency cancellations on your trip).

3. Rental rates double in the summer.

Renting a car in Iceland is going to be expensive regardless, but consider going in the spring, or after September 15th to get the best rates. Like hotel rates, everything is double the price in the peak summer season.

4. Get the sand and ash protection.

Winds in Iceland can be insanely strong. Right before we went we read news stories of cars being blown off the road by the wind and rocks being blown off cliffs into people’s car windows. These are extreme examples, but the winds are strong at times and will blow sand and volcanic ash at your car, causing damage to the paint. The sand and ash protection doesn’t cost that much extra, and could save you some money in the event that you run into these conditions.

5. In the winter, pay close attention to the road conditions and weather reports.

The most invaluable website during our trip was http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/, which we were checking several times a day. They keep the road conditions up to date and you must check to make sure your route is clear before venturing out, especially in the winter. You don’t want to end up a search-and-rescue tourist trapped in a snow storm. For an up to date weather report for the day, http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ is the Icelandic weather site. If a storm is predicted in the area you are planning on driving to, check with locals to see if they think going there is a good idea. If not, you may need to change your plans.

6. American credit cards and debit cards without chips don’t work on Icelandic gas pumps.

As of the end of 2015 American cards are supposed to now have “chip and PIN” card model that has been used in Europe for years. My credit card has it now, but my debit card still doesn’t. I’m hoping this will change soon. Most bars, restaurants, and shops have card machines that can process the old-style magnetic strip that American credit cards have, but gas pumps don’t. We didn’t have cards with the chip yet when we were in Iceland. We were able to get around this by pre-paying the gas station attendant, either by having them open the pump or put a pre-paid amount on the pump, or the N1 stations could provide a pre-paid gas card that could be used at the pump. If you are going out into no-man’s land, make sure you fill up your tank first. You may also want to buy a pre-paid gas card at the N1 to use at any N1 stations that might not have an attendant. Worst case scenario, have some cash on hand for emergencies–you might have to wait for someone with a card to come along that you could ask to buy the gas for you in exchange for cash. If you don’t have a card with a chip in it yet, talk to your bank and find out when they will be getting one for you.

 

Here is a video about driving in Iceland that I found on Icelandair’s video selection on the plane. It was corny, but pretty helpful.

Overall, everything worked out with renting a car, the wind didn’t blow our car doors off, no rocks or hail flew through the air and dented the body or nicked the paint. We received no additional unexpected charges. We would Recommend Blue Car Rental, and from what we read, would also recommend avoiding the big name car companies. Just be cautious, don’t drive when there’s a storm, and stay on top of the weather report. Renting a car in Iceland is the best way to see the country.

 

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases from product links on this site.