PRESS PLAY ABOVE TO FIND OUT 7 FUN FACTS ABOUT THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA!
We hate to ruin our undoubtedly cool image (!), but Big & Small are, well, history geeks. So, when we were deciding on a place to settle down for a few weeks in Italy, we chose the cozy, historical town of Pisa. Of course, staying in Pisa for more than 24 hours isn’t your typical itinerary. There’s usually only one bullet point on most tourists’ checklist: a peek at the world’s most famous architectural screwup, the Leaning Tower. Admittedly, this is what Big & Small did on our first trip to the town in 2015. But upon our return, we found there was much more to love about Pisa and much more to learn about its most popular attraction.
There are few places left in this world where you can casually walk through 2,000 years of history. Wandering through Rome, Italy, you are constantly reminded of a storied empire that laid the foundation for Western civilization. Around every corner, you’ll run into a formidable ancient monument, grandly gilded cathedral, or priceless piece of Renaissance art. But behind all that outward splendor and beauty are tragic tales of power, religion, death, and destruction – this is history served up in all its brutal rawness.
To capture Rome in every bit of its glory, Big & Small Travel present this quick video of its highlights.
This mountainous isle is a land of many contrasts. Corsica is full of natural beauty and incredible food, but it comes with quite a turbulent history. It’s home to Napoleon Bonaparte and (arguably) Christopher Columbus, two dominant figures whose widespread influence is still being felt around the world today. Despite this, present-day Corsica is a fairly sleepy island packed with fascinating historical attractions and driven by an independent spirit. Here, I’ll be featuring some of the beauty of this island in pictures, and best yet watch The Big and Small Travel Corsica Video below:
In the video above, we showcase the Citadel, beaches, historic sites, food, L’Île-Rousse, and even yoga from Handstand Steph. This is a wonderful way to enjoy the intimacy and splendor of the isle of fierce beauty.
The first thing we noticed on our trip to Corsica was the ubiquitous presence of the Corsican flag. The flag is bold and striking, and revealing in its black-and-white simplicity. Against a white backdrop, it depicts a Moor’s head in black with a white bandana above his eyes—a symbol of liberation, even though Corsica has mostly been under Italian or French rule.
This flag was everywhere, reminding us constantly of Corsica‘s strong independent spirit, which can be traced back through an interesting and significant history that includes connections to both Napoleon and Columbus. When in Calvi, I recommend exploring the citadel, which is open to the public and free to roam. It is filled with lots of small passageways, breathtaking lookouts, and interesting architecture. You’ll also notice a monument to Columbus, as well as churches and historical points that refer to the island’s existence under Genoese rule.
We present many visuals to document the citadel in Calvi, as well as the beauty and attractions at L’Île-Rousse (Red Island), named because of the color of the rocky islet that serves as a natural harbor.
You can get to L’Île-Rousse by train (which offers incredible views of the coast along the way). We recommend hiking up to the top of this part of L’Île-Rousse (just behind the train station) for great views of the Genoese tower and the vivid hills of Balagne in the background. This hike is short but intense and full of nooks and crannies that allow for great photo opps of the sea and beyond.
Overall, the food (especially the cheese and wild boar), wine, and striking landscapes are enough to make anyone swoon. But what most struck me most about Corsica was the relaxed sense of efficiency and an overall dedication to self-sufficiency. Corsica seemed to be running on its own watch, despite being part of France. This made it feel like its own special little paradise.
This is a city that shines brilliantly through the darkness. It especially shimmers at night, with golden rays of light bouncing off the opulent palace in Buda and the commanding Parliament in Pest, setting the Danube River ablaze. The iconic Szechenyi Chain Bridge is in the center of it all, a symbol of both the union between Buda and Pest (the two cities were unified in 1873) and of the Hungarians’ determined resiliency (the bridge was rebuilt and reopened just four years after being destroyed in World War II).
But it’s not just this physical radiance that gives Budapest its distinctive glow. This is a city that doesn’t hide from its harrowing history; instead, it shines a big spotlight on it. And it’s a history so recent you can step right into its still smoldering remains, from the aptly named House of Terror to the many inventive ruin pubs dominating the nightlife. Everywhere you walk, there are constant reminders of a not-so-distant past, when the city lay in turmoil, and a secret police tormented citizens and tortured and killed any suspected anti-communist dissident.
Yet for every commemorative statue, museum, and remembrance plaque, there’s now a hip new club, a hot new restaurant (paleo and vegan options abound), or a chic new boutique quickly transforming Budapest into a city for the young, the vibrant, and the hopeful. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, between a dark history and a luminous present, and it makes for a visit that is chock full of history, music, food, drinks, thermal waters, and riverfront strolls.
Here’s a loose itinerary for three action-packed days in the gorgeous capital of Hungary.
DAY 1: Heroes, Horrors, and The World’s First Rock Star
Pop into the New York Café… then get your coffee across the street
The New York Café is a richly ornate spot built in Italian Renaissance style in 1894. It once served as a popular meeting place for the literary crowd; it’s now a tourist hotspot for cake and espresso, and the prices match the demand. We recommend taking a look around, then heading across the street to the more modern café, Hirado Kavezo, which serves a heartwarming cappuccino for half the price.
Walk or take the metro to Heroes’ Square at the end of Andrassy Avenue
Surrounded by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Art, Heroes Square’ is a spacious public area next to City Park (Varosliget). At the center is the grand Millennium Monument, featuring a colonnade with statues symbolizing War, Peace, Work and Welfare, and Knowledge and Glory. See Big explain more, straight from the square:
It may sound like a kitschy Halloween attraction, but the House of Terror is the real, terrifying deal. Previously the headquarters of the Nazi secret police, then Hungary’s communist secret police, this building holds the ghosts of countless atrocities. Several informative and interactive exhibits take you through the years and the lives of Hungarians under the Soviet regime, but it’s after entering an elevator that slowly leads you to the building’s innards that the terror truly sinks in. When the door opens, you’re led directly into the heart of the terror, including a water torture chamber, a tiny cell for solitary confinement, and an execution room fit with a noose—ominously swaying, of course. You’ll never quite be the same after visiting—and that’s exactly the point.
Step into the home of the world’s first rock star. This is where influential Hungarian composer Franz Liszt lived. It’s a small museum, but a fascinating one, too, with photographs, memorabilia, and (of course) Liszt’s pianos, and you’ll learn about his travels, his performances, and his ability to make women faint from admiration—Listzomania, indeed! If you’re not a fan of classical music, this may just change that. (Note: Beware of a (kind of) steep photography fee.)
Say hello to the Liszt statue awaiting you out front, then pop inside to take in the beautifully ornate architecture, the Greek fresco, and a sparkling bronze chandelier. For more of this type of design and architecture, head to the Alexandra Bookstore and its second-floor Book Café.
Walk to the end of Andrassy Avenue and take a right toward St. Stephen’s Basilica
Here’s another spot to see classical music (particularly involving organ), or to just gawk at more opulent neo-classical architecture.
Walk back down Bajcsy-Zsilinszky to Erzsebet Square and take a ride on the Sziget Eye
Make sure to do this in the evening, when Budapest shines in all directions (you can’t miss it—it’s that sparkling sphere hypnotizing you from all over town). The price is a bit hefty, but the 10-minute ride is romantic and intimate, giving you incredible 360 views of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. (Note: As of this writing, the Sziget Eye is closed between January 3 and April 15.)
DAY 2: Buda’s Castle District and a Tranquil Riverside Stroll
If you’re staying in Pest (recommended), today, you’ll cross the Szechenyi Chain Bridge
This may be one of Budapest’s most iconic symbols, a stately suspension bridge connecting Buda and Pest. Don’t miss the bridge’s guards: formidable stone lions which even survived WWII.
Stepping onto the Buda side, make your way up to Castle Hill
There are two main ways to climb the 170 meters to this UNESCO World Heritage site: From Adam Clark Square, hop onto the Sikló, a funicular railway originally built in 1870 (it was also destroyed in WWII), or simply walk up the Kiraly lipsco or “Royal Steps” (it’s not too bad of an ascent, we promise).
Explore Budapest’s Old Town and the Buda Castle/Royal Palace
This World Heritage Site was home to both royalty (since the 13th century) and destruction. The Royal Palace was destroyed after being controlled by the Turks, rebuilt by the Habsburgs, and then ruined again in WWII. The Palace now houses the Budapest History Museum, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the Hungarian National Library. In general, it’s a beautiful area to walk around and enjoy spectacular views of both Buda and Pest.
Head over to Trinity Square to visit Mathias Church and the Fishermen’s Bastion
The Neo-Gothic style Mathias Church, with its diamond-patterned tiles, is one of Buda’s most resplendent attractions. (Fascinating fact: It was actually turned into a mosque during the Turkish occupation.) It can be seen from many different angles throughout the city, while the nearby Fishermen’s Bastion towers majestically over the Danube, offering one of Budapest’s best (and most popular) viewpoints.
Walk or take the tram across the Danube, via Margaret Bridge, to start your Riverfront Walk in Pest, with a quick stop at the House of Parliament (Tip: Best done after sundown!)
If you have time (we didn’t, but wish we did!), make a stop at Margaret Island, a leafy and popular recreation area in the middle of the Danube. Then, make it back to the riverfront in Pest and take a leisurely stroll toward your starting point, the Chain Bridge. We highly recommend this to be an evening activity. As mentioned in my intro, this city is one of Europe’s most beautiful—particularly at night, with Buda and Pest’s golden lights colliding and reflecting off the river. Along the way, spot the Olympic rings, take a tour around the stately Neo-Gothic House of Parliament, and check out nearby memorials to learn more about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
DAY 3: Enjoy a Bath and Party at a Ruin Pub (or Two)
Yes, you were near here on Day 1, at Heroes’ Square. Now, venture inward and check out sites like the Time Wheel (essentially a giant hourglass—or “year”-glass to be more accurate), the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden, and the Vajdahunyad Castle, situated along the lake.
Bust out the bathing suit and dip into the healing waters of one of the biggest bath complexes in Europe. There are several other baths to visit in Budapest—of varying sizes, prices, and cleanliness—so it’s definitely worth researching more if you’d like a more traditional (or cheaper) experience. This one in particular has 18 indoor and outdoor pools, steam rooms, saunas, and massage and other wellness treatments. We stuck to the outdoor pools, and particularly enjoyed jumping into the whirlpool, which spins you around with water jets—seriously some of the best time you’ll have with strangers in swimsuits. You could easily spend all day here exploring the complex and simply soaking—you may need it after all that walking from Days 1 & 2. You can keep your belongings in lockers secured with your own wristband (similar to the Blue Lagoon).
Take the metro and head over to the Seventh District (the old Jewish Quarter) for eats and drinks
This area is home to the Jewish quarter, and the Great Synagogue (the second largest in the world). It’s also the hottest spot in Budapest, with its thriving cultural and culinary scene. There’s an eclectic mix of restaurants—where you can get some of Europe’s finest cheap eats, from hummus to goulash—as well as interactive entertainment in the form of escape rooms (in which you actually pay to get locked into a cell?!).
Do not miss out on one of the area’s famous “ruin pubs,” large, funky, often multi-room bars built in the area’s abandoned buildings. It’s like jumping into a surreal bazaar, with odd antiques glued to the wall, flea-market furniture and empty bathtubs strewn about, creepy toys and teddy bears mingling on tables, and other sundry pieces of trashy art and zany treasures. Reasonably priced alcohol and an eccentric mix of live bands and DJs round out the ruin pub experience. We recommend getting lost in Szimpla Kert, one of the first and largest ruin pubs in Budapest, where you can even throw back a beer in an old Trabant (an East German-made car).
Now, book that trip and enjoy your time in Budapest! We sure did. ~Big & Small
This post was originally meant to be a rumination on post-travel blues, but it has turned into something else entirely as I come to terms with settling in back home and working out my next big life step…
I’ve spent all of 2016 clicking on an endless amount of content telling me what to eat, what to do, what to be, what not to be, how to be, who to be, who I should be, who I think I am, who the enemy is, who the real enemy is, what I should care about, why I should care about it. My brain is on the fritz and I’m no more knowledgeable because of it. In fact, I’m more disillusioned, disgusted, and terrified, and I’ve had no idea how to articulate that, which makes me click on even more content to see if someone else can.
After traveling for two months, soaking up food, culture, history, different ways of seeing and believing in the big three — life, love, and death — I’ve taken to sitting on my laptop trying to find something to motivate me — to move me, because I’m not physically moving anymore. I’m filled to the brim with information and misinformation, and it’s gotten me nothing but a sore butt.
The Man Who Sold the World
This has been the ghastly state of my brain lately. And then David Bowie died. And I had received the news just as I had pressed play on “Blackstar” for at least the 100th time. I can’t even explain why this track had been haunting me so much (at least, I couldn’t before his death), other than that it is beautiful, mystical, and totally terrifying — like the most powerful images we come across on this planet. It’s Bowie pushing his toes to the edge of a cliff, scanning the endless sea below, and then diving, gleefully, into the infinite.
And the more I’ve dug into Bowie, the more I’ve fully realized what it is about him that has hit me (all of us) so hard. He represents everything this world quickly tries to beat out of us: freakiness, curiosity, rebellion. He played the system while subverting it at the same time. He even saw the internet (back in 1999, mind you) as carrying “the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious and chaotic, nihilistic.”
So I keep thinking about this idea as I mill about online. But I’m struggling with this notion, too, because I fear the internet, as the majority of us know it and embrace it, has gone the same way as rock ’n’ roll — watered down for mass consumption. The rebels, the renegades, the nonconformists, they struggle and thrive on the fringes like they always have. They may get a bigger audience now, but only in the span of a day’s meme.
I’m Afraid of the Internet, I’m Afraid of the World
Maybe it’s because the data dutifully places us with our quantifiable doppelgangers, so we’re all placed into some little fragmented digital bubble where we all mostly, seemingly share similar ideas and experiences. The internet has turned from a heated melting pot to a cold, stagnant stew, as we all float with our likeminded kind. So, when Trump or Obama or Muslims or Christians or anti-vaxxers or vegans or anyone with any sort of nebulous label threaten our little bubbles’ beliefs, we can shout at each other, share the same (mis)information with each other, and count up the likes for validation — and not learn anything in the process.
It’s easy to blame the technology, and not just ourselves. We underestimate how easily we as humans can adapt to external stimuli, even though we’re all still run by chemicals and an ego. We still form allies and enemies, heroes and villains, just now behind screens and with the illusion that it’s all based on questionable data, statistics, and science. We forget that the internet is zeroes and ones, black and white; it’s just information organized. There’s no room for the grey of reality, for true chaos, for tangible experience. The internet is not the cause of the world’s countless schisms, but it is the messenger — and we’re all getting some part of the message, curated just for us.
So when reality bursts our bubble — when a city is attacked, when women are raped, when children are killed, when the day’s mass shooting trends — we don’t know how to cope, to relate, to comprehend, to understand each other. We become afraid of others, afraid of ourselves, afraid to leave our safe little online world where we can escape to pictures of sloths and old Bowie videos.
And here’s where my current dilemma lies. My job is to write and edit content for this big, global messenger, and I’m finding it harder and harder to do just that — to write even this feels like an exercise in futility. To add to the deafening noise feels dishonest and unproductive. So, I’ve felt shiftless, and lazy, and a little scared. How do I reconcile that? How do I make a living? What would Bowie do?!
Well, he would shock the hell out of us — in a time when we can’t possibly be shocked anymore. He resurrected the ideals of rock ’n’ roll, of the internet — to subvert, challenge, and inspire — with his own departure. He made us question our own morality; he made death — the scariest thing of all — just as thrilling as life.
This going-away present has wormed its way into our collective guts. I feel it in my own, wriggling around, lighting up neurons, electrifying my brain, making me feel weird and uneasy but strangely inspired, as the best art should. It isn’t telling me what to eat, what to do, what to be, what not to be, how to be, who to be, who I should be, who I think I am, who the enemy is, who the real enemy is, what I should care about, why I should care about it. And maybe that’s all I — we — need.
Evoking the otherworldly homelands of its creators, this is electronic music for dreamers and dancers alike. Kiasmos comprises Icelandic multi-instrumentalist and award-winning composer Ólafur Arnalds and Faroe Islands native Janus Rasmussen. The duo makes atmospheric electronic with flourishes of Intelligent Dance Music (IDM), ambient, house, and pop.
Their set began with lush strings snaking through ambient drones, guiding us all into a head-nodding hypnosis. My mind went straight to our time in Iceland, especially driving along the Ring Road, an entrancing experience of its own, passing through barren land, gushing waterfalls, and towering glaciers. Soon enough the bass kicked in, the beats sped up, and the crowd got lost in the urge to dance.
Instrumentally dense (the lulling strings really set Kiasmos apart from other likeminded electronic music makers) and infectiously thumping, this is music meant to seduce both mind and body.
Whether or not you’re facing the woozy effects of jetlag, landing in Iceland still feels like landing in another world—the raw beauty is simply stunning. This is an island of active volcanoes, glacial lagoons, intense rainbows, resplendent fog, towering mountains, and… perhaps even a troll or two. This was the first stop for my wife and I during our two-month honeymoon and it remains a highlight—every place else seems second-rate in comparison; its unblemished beauty is unmatched.
Iceland is an underpopulated island in an overpopulated world. Here, nature is truly king. And as of late 2015, almost every natural attraction in the country is free of charge. There is rumor, however, that the government may start implementing entrance fees, so I recommend making the trip there soon. When you do, here are six must-see sites to hit. Most of these attractions are along the Golden Circle, a popular tourist route from Reykjavik, except for my #1 recommended spot, Jökulsárlón, a place well-worth the extra mileage.
Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is actually one of the younger sites on the island; it’s only about 80 years old.The glacial lagoon (or Jökulsárlón in Icelandic) started to form in the early 20th century due to warming temperatures. A lake developed after the glacier started receding from the Atlantic Ocean. The lake continues to grow as the glaciers melt, creating quite a breathtaking phenomenon. The icebergs glimmer and exude a powder-blue color, unmistakable even from the warmth of your car. It almost feels fake, like a movie set made of fantastical ice. In fact, Jökulsárlón has been the backdrop for a few films, including Batman Begins and Die Another Day. I recommend avoiding the lagoon boat tours and just wandering along the shore. It is possible to escape the crowds and find a spot to gaze at the beauty of the lagoon. You’ll want to stare at this thing for a while, trust me. I was lucky enough to get up and touch the ice and even partially stand on some of it, before it eventually floats away and melts into the sea.
2. Vik’s Black Sand Beach
The black sand beach of Vik is possibly one of the 10 most beautiful, non-tropical beaches on Earth. Both sides of the beach are accessible by car, either from downtown Vik or near Reynisdrangar. The long stretch of volcanic beach is enhanced by a cliff side that resembles a giant church organ. Meanwhile, the large rock formations protruding out of the sea at Reynisdrangar are shrouded in troll legends and Icelandic myths. In the summer months, you may even be able to spot some puffins here. Unfortunately, we just missed them, as they migrated back to life on the sea two weeks before our arrival. The area of Vik in general has an eerie sort of mystique to it, as it lies in the shadows of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier and Katla, an active volcano that could erupt at any moment.
This is a waterfall that makes Niagara seem like a fake Disney attraction. Gulfoss, meaning “Golden Falls,” is spectacular and massive. Here, you will be dazzled by a vivid rainbow (or two) on sunny days, as the mist creates a wall of drizzle. The waterfall has been a national attraction since 1875 and was almost lost to foreign investors, who wanted to use it for electricity. But because of lack of funds, it remains an unblemished spectacle.
Geysir is the gusher (as it literally means in Icelandic) in which all other geysers are named. Just east of Reykjavik and very close to Gulfoss, this is another one of the hot spots along the Golden Circle. On average, you will only have to wait about 5-10 minutes for the Strokkur geysir to shoot water up to about 98 feet in the air. We hung around the area and watched it spurt at least 5-7 times—it doesn’t get old. This is a cool area to wander around and see all the geothermal activity bubbling at your toes.
5. Blue Lagoon
Located relatively close to Keflavik Airport, the main Reykjavik hub, the Blue Lagoon is considered one of the 25 wonders of the world. The lava field around the Blue Lagoon (which reminded us a bit of Craters of the Moon in Idaho) is created from the geothermic craters of Eldvorp, which provides water for the lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a mostly natural attraction, built up to accommodate large groups, with a swim-up bar and other modern conveniences.
The average water temperature is around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and suitable even on a blustery day. Some of the simpler pleasures came from roaming around the vast lagoon and finding various hot spots. There’s also an area to scoop out some silica-based mud to rub on your face for a quick spa treatment. The small waterfall, tucked in the corner of the lagoon, is a real sweet surprise—duck underneath it to get a powerful water-driven shoulder and back massage. I recommend getting there right when the Lagoon opens. The crowds start to stream in around 10-11am.
6. Reykjadalur Hike
Located roughly 35 miles from Reykjavik, the area of Reykjadalur (meaning “hot river”) is perfect for a moderate-level hike, which ends at a natural hot spring (which is free!). This hike feels like classic Iceland, you’ll come across beautiful vistas, walk through patches of fog, and even see the earth bubbling at your feet. It takes about an hour to get to the spot set aside for soaking in the hot spring, but it is definitely worth it. Hopefully, you’ll have better weather than we did—we got stuck in a storm in the middle of the hike and came back completely drenched! Be prepared to get wet and muddy—bring good shoes, a swimsuit, and a towel.
As of Fall/Winter 2015, all of these natural attractions (except for the Blue Lagoon) were free of charge. There is rumor, however, that the government may start implementing entrance fees, so I recommend making the trip there soon. Bon voyage and happy travels!
Check out the wonderful Ever in Transit travel blog for more pictures from these Top 6 Iceland attractions listed above too.
It’s hard to pick the most breathtaking spot in a country full of them, but this is one part of Italy that will truly wow you into submission. On the coast of the Italian Riviera, in the Liguria region, Cinque Terre or “The Five Lands” comprises a quintet of quaint villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The stunning and jaw-dropping architectural beauty of Cinque Terre was created over a millennium by farmers and residents. Houses and buildings rise sharply from the sea, as do intricate rows of grapevines.
Our home base while visiting Cinque Terre was in La Spezia, a mid-sized town just south of Riomaggiore. It’s a convenient and more affordable spot to stay when visiting the area, and has easy access to the train line that runs between the villages. It’s also a great base for a day trip to Pisa (just a 1-hour train ride) or even Florence (a little over 2 hours on the train). Each town has its unique flair: Be sure to purchase a hiking and train pass to make a stop at each. We recommend grabbing an espresso in Monterosso, sharing a pizza in Vernazza, slurping up a basil-olive oil gelato in Corniglia, digging into stuffed mussels in Manarola, and topping it all off with a glass of red in Riomaggiore. (Don’t worry, the steep, sometimes treacherous, hiking will burn it all off!)
Enjoy our photos and videos showcasing one of the world’s most charming corners.
The oldest capital in Western Europe, Lisboa seems to have been neglected on the tourist circuit for quite some time, but is now a hot spot, mainly because of its warmer weather and cheaper prices. We spent one week in this historic city, climbing its steep hills, walking on the slippery and beautiful mosaic sidewalks, riding its trams, checking out its street art, and eating its delicious desserts. You’ll discover that Lisbon is unique, for a European capital, because of its history, size, and lack of exposure to the rest of the world. Here are a few things we learned along the way:
Eat Pastel de Nata—As Often As You Can!
Portugal’s hand-sized custard tart is an absolute delight. It’s creamy, flaky, and decadent but not too sweet. We found it to be a great breakfast treat, afternoon pick-me-up, or late night sweet delight before climbing Lisboa’s steep hills. Pasteis de Belem is the place to go according to many tourist guides, but the pastries can be found at pretty much every café and patisserie throughout Portugal, starting at around 1 EU. Our favorite came from a small bakery called A Padaria Beira Tejo bakery in the Principe Real neighborhood, which is one of the hipper areas, with plenty of boutiques and artisanal food.
Take a Day Trip to Sintra
For under 5 EU round trip, the 40-minute train ride from Lisboa’s Rossio station will get you to this lush, beautiful area rich with history, and dotted with exquisite castles, palaces, and gardens. Places to visit include: the gothic Palacio Nacional, the Moorish Castle ruins, the colorful Pena Palace, the grand Palacio de Monserrate, and the lush gardens of Quinta da Regaleira. The most popular attraction is the Pena Palace, but we decided to check out the Moorish Castle, the oldest of the sites—by far—dating back to the 9th and 10th century. Our second choice was Quinta Da Regaleira, which consists of a palatial mansion, luxurious park, lakes, grottoes, fountains, and mysterious symbols. Unfortunately, we got stuck in the rain on our visit, but we were able to duck into a corner spot in central Sintra called Loja Do Vinho to enjoy some local port and rose.
Be Patient with Customer Service and Be Aware of Seemingly Free Extras and Appetizers
Customer service in Portugal is somewhat lacking. For example, we were asked to change tables—even while eating!—at three different places within our weeklong stay in Lisbon. I believe this was to accommodate as many people as possible, but it was a bit off-putting. We also noticed the staff would be changing constantly. In one restaurant, we had five different people we had ordered from—we weren’t quite sure what we would be getting.
Also, never assume that bread, olive oil, or butter are free—most often they are not—even if they serve it to you without you asking for it. The worst situation we came across was in Alfama at a fado restaurant. Right as we were seated, a waiter brought out a lush dish of appetizers including mussels and olives, along with bread. We said we didn’t want these, and saw that 10 extra Euros were crossed out from our bill at the end of the meal. Also, if you share an appetizer, you may be charged per person for it. Always ask the staff if what you are receiving is free, and be sure to carefully look over your bill.
Visit the Sao Jorge Castle and Wander Around Alfama, But Avoid the Fado Restaurants
Alfama is a beautiful neighborhood to get lost in. Its winding streets get you from the riverfront to the Sao Jorge castle. The grand Sao Jorge sits high atop Lisbon and is full of nooks and crannies and beautiful vistas. Note that the castle may close on a rainy day (this is what happened to us!), because it can get slippery and dangerous walking around. And be sure to give yourself plenty of time to wander around (at least 1.5-2 hours), as its hard to see once the sun goes down.
The Alfama neighborhood is also home to fado. This soulful form of music (which literally means “fate”) is built on mournful, passionate lyrics peppered with feelings of resignation and melancholia—sentiments we felt summed up the overall feel of Portugal and its people. The music is beautiful and impactful and we highly recommend catching a show, but choose wisely. Alfama is filled with touristy restaurants that offer a free fado show with a very overpriced, often tasteless dinner. We made this mistake, and only found out after the fact that there are a number of spots and bars throughout the city in districts like Bairro Alto, offering free fado shows.
Explore Various Neighborhoods, but Be Aware of Drug Dealers.
The city has several neighborhoods and areas to explore, including hot spots Baixa, Chiado, Bairro Alto, Principe Real, Avenida Da Liberdade, and Belem. If you visit Belem go along the waterfront and check out the 25 de Abril Bridge, which has an uncanny resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge. Our favorite spot was Principe Real because it was a little less touristy, with cute boutiques and modern cafes. The broad, tree-lined Avenida Da Liberdade is exquisite and dotted with outdoor cafes, some that even include a DJ.
A warning, though: when walking through these super touristy areas, especially around Rossio Square, be aware of street peddlers trying to get your attention. Drugs may be brazenly offered to you. We were offered everything from marijuana to hashish to cocaine. One guy even had a coke ball in his hand and showed it to me without hesitation or qualms. Decriminalization of recreational drugs has made it easier for this to happen, and often the dealers are peddling fake drugs.
Overall, Lisbon feels quite different from its fellow European capitals. Its dark history, which includes an oppressive dictatorship, along with its current economic struggles has clearly had an impact on its people and culture, while Lisbon itself feels stuck in time, from its trams to its small restaurants with written paper menus hanging outside. It’s one of the rawest, humblest, and most unrefined spots of Western Europe.
Rich Food, Playful Puppets, River Walks & Hidden Passageways
The third largest city in France, Lyon is constantly in the shadows of big sister Paris, 300 miles to the northwest. In recent years, however, its gained notable attention as the “gastronomic capital of the world,” home to a number of Michelin star establishments. The city seems to throb to the pulse of the pig (or the duck), the main source material for its rich, fatty cuisine. While Lyon is modern in its hectic traffic and its hefty prices (which rival Paris, at least for food), it also feels a bit stuck in time, resolute in keeping the proud traditions of the French—which seem to revolve almost exclusively around food—completely unchanged and continually revered.
We spent about 48 hours in Lyon and packed quite a bit in. We stayed near Place Saint Vincent in the 1st arrondissement, an ideal spot, in my opinion. It’s a neighborhood of AirBnBs and local residents that is also a quick walk to the touristy Vieux Lyon (the old town). Here are some highlights from our quick trip, from belly-filling delights (and disappointments) to numerous ways to walk them all off… oh, and a puppet show!
EAT YOUR HEART OUT: Bouchons, Boulangeries, and a Biocoop
Admittedly, traditional French food is not my favorite cuisine. I cannot deny, however, that the ingredients and quality are unmatched. I had not had one bad meal in my two weeks in France—that is, until we sought out one of Lyon’s famed bouchons. This type of restaurant serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine in all of its carnivorous glory (there’s even calf’s head for the more adventurous bellies).
There are some 20 “officially certified” bouchons in the city, denoted by a Les Bouchons Lyonnais symbol, and they are determined by such key factors as “products, dishes, décor, architecture, ambiance, customer welcome, etc.” We found one of these stamped-with-approval establishments in Vieux Lyon, called Le Laurencin, where the prices were incredibly reasonable (about 15 euros for entrée, main plate, and dessert)—and we soon discovered why. The salad greens withered in a bath of watery dressing. The main plates were filled with a mound of potatoes, and a pile of animal parts of your choosing. The praline tart (another Lyon specialty) was the best part, if not just because the sweetness danced nicely on the tongue after all the flesh and intestines.
That said, Lyon is packed with top-notch charcuteries, patisseries, fromageries, and poissoneries. The first day, we stumbled across Les Halles de Lyon Market – Paul Bocuse, near the Part Dieu train station, a must-stop for any aspiring foodie. Rue Merciere is another hot spot, lined with numerous restaurants, as well as Place Sathonay, where I enjoyed a salad topped with duck (the parts of which I’m not entirely sure of!) at Café de la Place. Our favorite boulangerie, Saint Vincent, was right around the corner from our AirBnB, in perfect view of the cool Lyon frescoes.
We also found the excellent chocolate shop, Guillaume Daix, on the edge of the old town, where we came across chocolates flavored with such ingredients as dill, rosemary, and sweet pepper. Our choice was the dark chocolate pieces generously dusted in hibiscus. For the organically minded, head to the natural-food store Biocoop near Place Bellecour—one of the few refuges for vegans and vegetarians.
WALK IT ALL OFF: Riverfront Paths, Traboules, and a Hill Climb
Lyon is a fairly walkable city, which is great news after all of that… sustenance. Two rivers, the Saône and Rhône, divide the city into three segments, and converge at the southern tip. There are pedestrian bridges that connect the city, as well as great walking and running paths along both rivers.
Another great way to get some mileage around the city is to do a traboule hunt. Traboules are covered passageways throughout the city. They were used to transport products, particularly silk and textiles, throughout the city. You’ll find most of them in the old town, but there are a few in the La Croix-Rousse area as well. Pick up a map from the tourist office, which marks where each traboule is located. Most of them are actually closed, and are used as apartment entrances. We did find an open one on the southern edge of the old town—I won’t tell you where; that’s the fun!
For a true calorie-burner, though, I highly recommend bypassing the funicular ride up Fourvière hill to climb the stairs from St-Paul station to the top. It’s a great workout, and you’ll pass the Tour métallique de Fourvière, a TV tower that attempts to be a mini Eiffel Tower, before reaching the 19th century Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere and getting an incredible panoramic view of Lyon. From there, you can easily reach the grand Theatres Romains, built around 15 BC by the Romans, before circling back to the windy, narrow streets of the old town.
TAKE IN A PUPPET SHOW: GUIGNOL!
Once you reach the old town, the walk is best capped off with a puppet show! Guignol is the witty main character of this Lyon tradition; he represents the workers in the silk industry. Though the shows are all in French, and the audience is dominated by giddy kids, it’s a treat to see. We arrived late to the show, but were allowed to take the last two seats in the back for free. Check out this quick snippet we caught:
While Lyon is a fairly big city, it’s totally doable to see the highlights in just 48 hours. Be prepared to stuff yourself and get in a good hill climb or two, too. And do catch a Guignol show, no matter what age you are (and what language you speak)! Bon voyage!