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Ah, Lisbon. A city which evinces a simplicity on the surface just as its historical and emotional roots run deep. Experience-rich, engaging and fun — yet a lot to unpack. That's where this Experiential Guide from our recent visit to Lisbon comes in with some usual — and unusual — things to do, eat, and experience. Lisbon streets, colorful even on a winter day.
Lisbon's Mediterranean highlights are colorful. Thoughtful design is at work. Consider the architecture, the trademark Portuguese azulejo tile-work and the street art. Tasteful, playful and eclectic. Lisbon’s visual is a melange, a blend of influences which harken old world east and modern west.
As playful and friendly as Lisbon can be, there feels a certain undercurrent. Fado, the song of fate and its sentiments of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia, come as no surprise in Lisbon. You can feel those tunes echo some on local neighborhood streets. Lisbon is sea-faring and world-aware yet maybe a little world weary. Port-townish and dashed with a bit of wistful, lost colonial grandeur. At the same time, there's an overtone of renaissance as neighborhoods get a face lift, hip restaurants flourish, and international artists and creatives flock to the city.
That’s part of Lisbon’s mystique. There’s nuance, contrast, contradiction. The atmosphere: refined, yet rough at the edges. The art: edgy, yet rooted. The cuisine: emerging and upmarket, at the same time down-home. The demeanor: upbeat and friendly, yet a little downcast. It even plays out in the geography of Lisbon’s seven hills. Trams and funiculars to take you up one and down the other side, winding through one utterly distinctive neighborhood after another.
Simple human interactions abound in Lisbon, like long conversations with shoe repair men and warm encounters with locals in neighborhood cantinas. Lisbon is what San Francisco would aspire to be if it were down-to-earth.
Lisbon, full of character, stands at a moment of redefinition. When you visit, the list of things to do and what to eat runs long. The question: how to sift through it all at pace to surface that depth?
Read on, make your plan. Put on a pair of comfy walking shoes, bring a healthy appetite and get ready to tune your adventurer’s eyes and ears to the detail of the message.
How to use this guide to Lisbon: Our intent with this guide is to offer some diverse inspiration and practical advice on things to do in Lisbon, including recommended restaurants and dishes. The goal: help you plan your next trip and round out your itinerary. If you have 3-4 days, you can fit in most or all of the items below.
One of the finest experiences in Lisbon: riding a local tram end to end through the city’s narrow streets, up its hills, and around its bends. The most famous of these is the #28 tram whose path winds its way from Prazeres Cemetery (Campo de Ourique) to Martin Moniz through several different neighborhoods, including Alfama and Graça. The ride captures the essence of the city: its contours, colors, and context. Grab a window seat if you can and hang out the window (carefully, especially on those tight turns!) and interact with the humanity coursing the streets of Lisbon. It’s a ton of fun.
Simple pleasures aboard the Tram #28 as it winds its way through Lisbon.
Tip: Although you can board the #28 tram anywhere along its route, it’s worth the effort to make your way to the starting point near Prazares (Campo de Ourique) so as to get a seat (here's the schedule). Our experience suggests you take one of the single seats on the right side (facing the front) to maximize your intake of and interaction with Lisbon street life. Note: Although you can purchase tickets on the tram itself (€2.80/person), it’s easier and less expensive if you use prepaid or daily metro card.
2. Get lost in the Alfama neighborhood as you try to find St. George's Castle
We are proof that it’s possible to get lost even while trying to find one of the Lisbon's biggest and best-known landmarks, Castelo de São Jorge. While we never actually made it inside the castle, our wanderings took us through the life-on-display alleys and streets of the Alfama neighborhood, a reward in itself. If ever we encountered a crowd of tourists, it only took a turn or two to find another quiet back street again.
Although we never made it into St. George's Castle, we found several miradouros (lookouts) along the way. The one at Nossa Senhora do Monte Church was our favorite among them. From there, it occurred to us that admiring the castle from afar might perhaps afford the best view of all.
Our view of the castle (left) and Lisbon to the 25th of April Bridge.
There's also this view from just outside the castle gates where many of us who didn't get inside before closing time climbed up to catch the last light of the day.
A sunset view over the water from just outside the castle gates.
Tip: Spot the fado street art stairway (Escandinhas do Porto Carro) on the “short cut” down from St. George's Castle.
Fado street art corridor and staircase below St. George's Castle, Alfama district.
3. Take a street art walking tour
We had no idea that Lisbon had such an active, creative and high-quality street art scene. Whether or not you happen to be a hard-core street art fan, join the Lisbon Street Art Tours donation-based walking tour for an excellent street art-based introduction to Lisbon. Along the way, you'll understand better the city’s current socio-economic, cultural and political context.
Our guide, Vero, shows us Lisbon through the lens of street art.
Vero, our guide, is an anthropologist studying street art in Lisbon. She knew many of the artists, local and international, and could share a bit of the backstory on their pieces including technique, messaging, and the relationship among pieces from the same artist. She introduced us to neighborhoods and streets we might not otherwise have known about, and pointed out details that we certainly would have missed on our own.
Her philosophy about street art applies to life: “If you don’t understand small things, then you won’t appreciate the big things.”
One among 100s of Lisbon street art images we captured.
How to do a Lisbon street art tour: You can join a public street art tour (typically offered twice a week) by signing up here. If these days or times don’t fit into your schedule or you want to try your own hand at creating street art then sign up for one of their workshops or private tours. A portion of their street art tour revenue goes to support public street art projects in Lisbon.
4. Find the original pastel de nata in Belem and learn the backstory of their creation
Prior to our setting off for Lisbon, a friend instructed us to “…eat ALL the Portuguese custard tarts.” The imperative was clear, serious and ALL CAPS. After several, um, firsthand experiences with these unique flaky-crusted, creamy custard-filled treats, we now understand why.
The original pastel de nata in Belem.
But how did these delicious little tarts get their start in Belem? Turns out we have the local monks and nuns from the 19th century to thank.
It happens that nuns once used egg whites to starch their habits, resulting in an overabundance of remaining egg yolks. In the 1820s and 1830s, when state support and subsidies were pulled from the Catholic church, monasteries, convents and churches were forced to find new revenue streams. In response, a few industrious monks and nuns combined those extra egg yolks with some sugar from Brazil (then, a Portuguese colony) to make custard tarts. The rest is history.
The first bakery in Portugal serving these custard tarts (called pastel de Belem), was Antigua Confeitaria de Belem (Rua de Belem #84 & #92, Belem). Having gotten its start in 1837, it still churns out thousands of these delicious little tarts daily. The line of people out the door all day makes the place easy to spot.
All the goodness of a Portuguese custard tart…or two.
Where else to try custard tarts in central Lisbon? You’ll find pastel de nata in most bakeries throughout Lisbon. Our favorites come from Manteigaria (Rua do Loreto 2, Chiado). Take your pastel with a bica — the local name for a longish espresso-like coffee — and move towards the back. You’ll be able to watch the tart-masters at work through the open-bakery glass. As you watch them stirring custard, patting buttery dough into small metal cups, and adding the filling, you'll appreciate even more the tarts you've likely just inhaled.
5. Savor the codfish confit at O Surf & Turf
We carry a bit of skepticism to fusion cuisine: trendy, trying too hard and chasing too many flavors at once. However, the flavor profile from the blend of of Portuguese, Asian and Peruvian influences at O Surf & Turf at Time Out Market really does work. And consistently so. The restaurant does it by snaring the best from Kiko Martins‘ other Lisbon restaurants O Asiático, O Talho and A Cevicheria.
The winner of this small plate meal: the codfish confit over chestnut puree, topped with chorizo bits, roasted pine nuts and pickled red onions. There was a delightful balance between the savory and just sweet, dashed with just the right punch of tart acidity.
Fused, but not confused. Codfish confit, O Surf & Turf, Time Out Market.
Other recommended dishes at O Surf and Turf? Check out the “cozido” meat croquettes (yes, cumin!) sided with anchovy mayonnaise. Not your average croquette. The roasted octopus, smoked duck and dark tapioca salad made for a delicious dish with a varied texture profile.
The house white wine, Cevicheria, deserves a shout out of its own. This Viognier Marsanne blend features a hint of minerality, sufficient acidity, and it pairs perfectly with much of the short menu, especially the codfish confit.
O Surf & Turf, Time Out Market. Open kitchen seating is where it's at.
Tip: Try to get a seat at the bar at the kitchen. Although the kitchen runs a bit chaotic in its apparent lack of organized flow, it’s fun to watch. Staff were very friendly and happy to answer questions about our dishes and anything else they prepared.
6. Catch a performance at a local Fado bar…and crash a birthday party
“Fado…it’s about fate and destiny…” our street art tour guide, Vero said, “…and not being able to change that destiny.”
Fado is a style of singing that got its start in Lisbon in the 1820s. Its mournful melodies and lyrics are meant to represent the “Lisbon soul,” a mood of longing and loss. The best place to experience this is in one of the city's many Fado bars.
A typical night of fado at Tasca do Jaime bar, Graça.
Fado bars are usually cozy, informal affairs, featuring a rotation of local singers whose performances unfold via an open mic. Your “entrance fee” is often a drink; you can stay or leave as you choose between sets. Singers rotate in and out every two or three songs, with lights turned on in between sets for a brief pause and an opportunity to top up your drink. We were partial to the female veterans whose voices and expressions seemed to carry an emotion built on a depth of their own life experience.
If you’re lucky, you might find yourself as we did — in the middle of a fado night crossed with a local birthday celebration where flowers, kisses and toasts are exchanged between singers. In this case, the jovial spirit of a birthday seemed to counter the mood and melancholy of fado. This seemed appropriate to Lisbon life in all..
Reflections on the broader import of International Women’s Day, including why investing in women around the world is an investment in our future generations. We also examine how travelers can seek out organizations and travel service providers who directly invest in or indirectly impact the well-being of women in communities around the world.
A belly laugh in the bazaar. Nukus, Uzbekistan
When we set off on our journey around the world over 10 years ago, we did so with the idea that to understand a place, we needed to experience it on the ground, at eye level. To walk its streets, eat its food, and talk to and interact with its people. As we spoke to both men and women everywhere we went, the importance of story to understand various sub-narratives that course throughout our lives and the world’s communities became clear to us.
We observed women and their evolving role in society. It feels strange saying this as a man — and forgive me for the sweeping generalization — but in so many places (certainly not all), as men played backgammon, dominoes, and cards and drank tea or coffee all day, the women were caring for what needed to be cared for. Whether it was the home, the market stall, the community center or the school, more often than not the women, it seemed, were the ones doing.
This observation, combined with research we consumed about the impact of investing in women, accelerated our interest in projects which focused on women's issues, including their economic and social empowerment. To complete the circle, we now consider this issue in light of how we travel and the choices we make. And we ask ourselves how individual travelers might impact this cause through their own deliberate travel decisions. We share several practical ways to do this.
As we lengthened our journey, we focused on the issue of women in development, particularly through the lens of social enterprise and microfinance programs. In one of our first photo projects in Northern West Bengal, India, we met a group of women in a kind of self-help micro-lending group whose ties to each other were not only economic but also deeply personal. The women, through their work and cooperation, lifted each other up and helped one another to grow small businesses. They used the opportunity to develop bonds and friendships across castes — something almost unthinkable in traditional Indian society — in ways that even began to surprise them.
Coming together as one community.
We observed these connections and societal changes again and again, whether we happened to be profiling microfinance projects in Latin America or visiting social enterprise projects connected to Planeterra Foundation and G Adventures in northern Tanzania.
But there was something more going on: what women were doing with the investment.
There is a reason we continue to use the word “investment” in the context of these projects. While visiting a Kiva microfinance partner outside of Cochabamba, Bolivia, we spoke to Servanda, then a borrower and member of the program.
Servanda shows us her farm in a village outside Cochabamba, Bolivia.
She gave us a hint of the importance of this concept and approach: “Never before did anyone invest in us, believe in us. Even we didn’t believe we were worthy of investment, that we could build something. Now we know that we are able to create our own businesses.” She emphasized that she and her counterparts were not looking for handouts, but access.
Access. To education, to credit, and to opportunities to participate equally in society.
What happens when we invest? Where will that money go when placed in the hands of women who care?
As we asked women involved in these projects — from India to Guatemala to Tanzania — what they would do with the fruits of their business efforts and their newly earned income, their responses echoed a similar theme.
“I want to send my children to a better school.”
“I want to be able to buy better food and take them to the doctor when they need it.”
“I want my daughter to finish school, unlike me.”
The women of the clean cookstoves project in northern Tanzania share a laugh.
The G Adventures and Planeterra Moshi Mamas project near Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania provides business training and market access to sell crafts and services through a locally run social enterprise. Shoshe, one of its participants, summed up her aspirations and hope in the program: “I want to break the cycle for my daughter. I want to prove women can work and earn money.”
To put this in context, according to Kiva, a microfinance organization which lends money via the internet to low-income entrepreneurs around the world, women reinvest 80% of the income they earn into the education and wellbeing of children.
TL;DR: Investing in women is an investment in our future generations.
How can the travel industry invest in women? And how can tourism be linked to women’s development? And what impact can all this have?
We asked Adrienne Lee from the Planeterra Foundation, where she's worked on many of the organization’s projects involving women’s economic and social empowerment:
“When you invest in women and a women-owned or women-led business, women gain greater agency and freedom to determine how money is spent. This strengthens decision-making powers, builds self-esteem, and promotes leadership in communities.
Directly, tourism creates opportunities and jobs. It can enhance lives and livelihoods. Tourism is one of the few industries that can take untapped transferrable skills and transform them for use in the formal economy.
Indirectly, tourism can also alleviate some of the challenging burdens that are too often delegated to women worldwide. In many emerging economies, women often carry the heavier burden of being in charge of the household’s needs, for examples, having to acquire their household’s water, fuel, and food. With developing tourism infrastructure for travellers, resources such as water tanks and electrical grids installed to support tourists, can also support local communities’ infrastructure.”
At this point you might be thinking: “All this sounds great, but this investment in women is the work of NGOs and international development organizations. What can I, the average traveler, do to contribute to women’s development? How do my choices connect to providing women access to income generation, education and services?”
Quite a bit, it turns out. When travelers align their decisions and purchases with their values, the impact on local organizations and communities can be substantial. However, travelers often don’t know where to look for travel experiences or tourism-related services that support women.
Here are a few ideas to get you started for your next trip.
1. Look for tours which incorporate a women-oriented project in the itinerary.
This may require doing a bit of research and even contacting the tour company or travel agent to ask specifics about the itinerary. Regardless, there are tour companies who work with women’s organizations, and explicitly call out this collaboration in their itineraries. Increasingly, they do this not only as a matter of expressing their values, but also to meet the growing travel demand for engaged, cause-oriented, experience-enhancing travel interaction.
For example, Planeterra Foundation's portfolio includes 13 projects that work with local organizations connected to women's empowerment and are incorporated into G Adventures tour experiences. This means that if you travel to Nepal on a G Adventures tour you will likely take a cooking class with women from the local organization Sasane, an NGO which trains survivors of human trafficking to be paralegals so they can help to defend other victims. A portion of the proceeds from the cooking class and lunch is used to fund Sasane’s projects, so it may expand both its reach and its service offering in Nepal. In this way, each traveler makes a small contribution to the Sasane mission of breaking the cycle of human trafficking in Nepal.
In this particular travel experience, the traveler learns how to make Nepalese momos (dumplings, and delicious!) and enjoys the interaction of having lunch with local women. These tours, offered continuously, host a constant stream of travelers. Sasane can count on this as a reliable source of funding for its activities and can reduce the time it spends chasing grants and charity donations. Finally and most importantly, the local women leading the instruction and experience earn money to support themselves and their families.
Adrienne Lee also spoke to us about the importance of travel market access these Planeterra / G Adventures initiatives provide to the local organizations they work with:
“This was a dream of one of our community development partners for close to ten years. They had received numerous training and consulting services over the last decade, but the link to a market partner (G Adventures) helped them turn around and launch their business. From our initial meetings with this partner to when G Adventures started to pilot their first groups – we launched this social business for marginalized women in less than a year. We anticipate it will be open to the public in just a few months, and the business has already started to see a four-fold increase in their revenue.”
Planeterra has just announced that it is launching four more projects connected to women in Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Namibia — offering further opportunities to connect your travels to projects that work with local women. We are particularly excited about the Rwanda project as we first visited the local organization — Nyamirambo Womens Center – during our visit to Kigali, Rwanda several years ago. We passed the organization's contact information onto Planeterra as we were impressed with the NGO’s work in the local community.
Travelers, if you ever wonder about your impact, even suggestions based on firsthand experience can make a difference to the way business is done, and eventually to the lives of people on the ground. For us, it is satisfying to see things come full circle.
2. Travelers can seek out social enterprises that work with women and children
A social enterprise is essentially an organization that functions on one level like a business to earn money, but whose profits are given back to the community. In addition, social enterprises often train and employ people from disadvantaged backgrounds, sometimes including those who were previously homeless, trafficked or struggling with substance-abuse issues who often don't get a second chance. While the traveler enjoys a great meal, handmade souvenir, or walking tour, proceeds from these experiences fund the community development work of those social enterprises.
On our recent trip to Cambodia, Audrey sought out a social enterprise offering manicures and pedicures. At Friends Nail Bar in Phnom Penh, beauty salon staff are former street children who have been given training in practical job skills through Friends International NGO; they can now support themselves through their work. Audrey emerged with nice nails and a pleasant experience, and the money she spent helped pay salaries and fund training for more young adults in similar or other job skills.
Over the last few years we’ve found more social enterprises emerging, sometimes in surprising places. To help you get started in your search for social enterprises on your next trip, consider checking out the Grassroots Volunteering social enterprise database.
3. Support women’s initiatives and women-owned businesses directly when you travel.
Think of all the services one needs as a traveler – food, tours, guiding, accommodation, transport, etc. Then ask yourself: is it possible to support or choose women-owned businesses or businesses with innovative women’s programs as you fill these needs? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In any event, it's worth being aware of the possibility so that you might connect your decisions and spending with services that support women.
Wisdom. Taken at a street market in Alexandria, Egypt, just after Arab Spring.
It’s no wonder that the great verbal constructs of stewardship and care — “Mother Earth”, “Pachamama”, “Mother Nature” — all position the force that underlies humanity and brings us together as that of a woman.
As we consider the world’s most pressing issues, including social and economic justice and environmental stability, maybe we ought to look more closely at this force and give it the resources it needs to innovate and craft sustainable solutions.
And when we honor women and their untapped potential, I suspect we will better serve the needs of everyone on the planet.
Disclosure: This article is part of our partnership with G Adventures in its Wanderers program. We are compensated for our work and articles connected to this partnership. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.
If you visit Kyrgyzstan, it’s possible to overlook the Central Asian cultural mixing bowl that is the city of Osh. For many travelers, Osh serves as a transit point en route to the Pamir Mountains, Irkeshtam Pass to China, Dostyk crossing to Uzbekistan, or the newly marked trekking trails in the Alay Mountains.
However, if you’re looking to encounter a unique blend of cultures and history, lively markets, gregarious people, and a culinary scene which many Kyrgyz call their favorite, then we recommend giving Osh a closer look. The diversity you’ll see owes itself to over 3000 years of history and the city's favorable position as a midpoint along one of the Silk Road's main East-West arteries. From there, trade and migration helped evolve Osh into the urban tapestry of cultural interchange you see today, a regional crossroads home to more than 80 ethnicities.
We’ve visited Osh a couple of times over the last ten years, each time peeling back an additional layer of its living history, unpacking nuances of its blended culture. Osh stands unique in both Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia.
Here are some of the experiences to look for when you go, so you can understand why.
1. Climb Suleiman-Too (Solomon Mountain) for the Best Views of the City and its History
If you’d like to understand Osh geographically and historically, there’s no better way to do so than to make the short climb up Suleiman-Too (Solomon Mountain or Solomon's Throne). Besides offering the best views of Osh and the surrounding area, a walk up the UNESCO World Heritage mountain-cum-sacred pilgrimage path is a walk through the region’s pre-Islamic (e.g., Zoroastrian, Shamanistic) and Islamic history. Your experience will also be one of living history as you witness present-day visitors performing rituals, much as they have been doing for millennia.
The Suleiman-Too paths…to peaks and sacred caves.
Along the way, peer into caves and niches dotted with prayer relics and the occasional petroglyph, take a run down the now well-worn “fertility slide”, drop a coin into the fortune-telling wishing well, interact with locals, and check in with the imam giving blessings in a small mosque at the top. (Note: After spending some time meditating in Osh, Babur — the one who built the original mosque in 1510 — later went on to found the Mogul Empire in India. Look closely and you’ll find evidence of cultural exchange between the two regions in shared features like the use of the tandoor oven and spices like cumin, and in certain regional dishes.)
If a deeper, quirkier dive into regional history and archaeology interests you, spend some time at the Soviet-style archaeological museum. There, you can catch up on some additional pre-Islamic history, including “the cult of the horse.” Plan for about 60-90 minutes for a straightforward climb up and exit down the other side. Add another hour or two for a longer museum and petroglyph wall visit.
Learning the meaning behind the petroglyphs located below Suleiman-Too.
Suleiman-Too Historical Walking Tour: For an in-depth understanding of Suleiman-Too, including local legends and an overview of the history of Osh, consider taking the Suleiman-Too walking tour organized by Destination Osh.
2. Learn to Make — And Eat! – a Giant Osh Samsa as Big as Your Fist
While traveling in Kyrgyzstan, it’s very likely you’ll eat samsa (also known in Uzbek as somsa), dough pockets tucked with meat, onions and spices. However, if you wish to visit samsa central, a visit to Osh is a must. Elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, samsas are often baked in a ordinary oven, whereas the “Oshski samsa” is baked inside a clay tandoor oven.
Giant Osh Samsas, fresh from the tandoor.
Our favorite among samsa experiences, bar none, was the samsa class at Bismilloh Samsakana (232 A. Navoi Street). Maybe it’s my favorite because, in this part of the world, samsa-making is a man’s job. Although our instructors made the rolling of dough rounds and measuring and tucking of meat look speedy and trivial, I assure you it’s not. But that does not stop untold 1000s from being cranked out each day.
Dan attempts to learn the secret behind the famous Osh samsa.
Of the different varieties that Bismilloh serves, my favorite is what I might call a soup samsa, one known locally as a Giant Osh Samsa or Chon Samsa. After being packed with one pound of meat filling, it is then tucked, turned and slapped to the inside of a hot tandoor oven. The resulting samsa emerges with a firm bottom crust, which is then cut, revealing a sort of built-in samsa soup bowl.
Build up an appetite for one of these, or go for the smaller Parmuda Samsa on offer. Note that Osh is no stranger to spice, either. Some samsa are tucked with a slice of hot pepper and issued with a warning of black sesame or nigella seeds on top.
For those of you who like to make historical connections through cuisine, note that the word samsa resembles its Indian/South Asian cousin, samosa. Although we initially believed the samosa made its way north and gave rise to the Central Asian samsa, it is in fact the other way around. Samosas likely originated somewhere in the Middle East, yet were introduced to the Indian subcontinent in the 13th or 14th century by Silk Road traders from Central Asia.
How to take a samsa-making class: This is offered by Osh Travels and costs 1000 KGS ($14.50) per group for the demonstration and cooking class segment (Russian speaking guide), plus the cost of samsas (100 KGS/$1.50), soup and tea.
3. Look at the Eyes
What do you mean, “Look at the eyes,” you ask? Osh is a crossroads of peoples and pilgrims, of Silk Road trading, of Stalinist Soviet border drawing. As a result, Osh is a human tapestry of ethnic groups, including Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, Tatar, Russian, and Turkish to name a few. As you walk the streets and markets in Osh, look at the people. At any turn, you might imagine yourself further East in China, just South into the Wakhan Valley of Tajikistan/Afghanistan, or further West into The Caucasus. The people of Osh and their features serve as visual evidence of intermixed and intermarried cultures having left their mark.
Our host in Uzgen. Look at the eyes.
If there’s ever a full accounting of the evolution of human ancestry, and of cultural migration, one of the highest-traffic intersection points would have to be Osh.
To know that so many cultures have left an impression on this place, just step back and look at the people. Look at the eyes. They tell us a story, one that is deep, complex, and unfolding.
4. Day Trip to Uzgen, Visit a Silk Road Mausoleum and See How Red Rice is Grown and Processed
No trip to Osh is complete without a day trip to the nearby town of Uzgen, once the home of the ancient Turkic Karakhanid dynasty, now the site of the Silk Road sites of an 11th century minaret and 12th century mausoleum. Our English-speaking guide there, Husniddin Sharipov, was a knowledgeable storyteller and offered history and context for what we saw. Photographers note: late afternoon offers better light on the mausoleum and less contrast with the snow-covered Pamir Mountains in the distance.
The minaret (11th century) and mausoleum (12th century).
After taking in the historical Silk Road sites in Uzgen, seek out the story behind Uzgen rice. Uzgen red rice is said to be the best rice for the preparation of plov (a rice and meat dish popular throughout Central Asia). A visit to a traditional rice factory includes a walk around the edge of the rice plantation and a look inside the facility. Hydro-power water wheels and stone milling equipment are used to remove the husks from the kernel. In this way, not much has changed in 2,000 years.
The rice master demonstrates how to test whether one's red rice is “authentic.”
Although you may have visited the Jayma Bazaar in Osh and had your fill of nuts, dried fruits and spices, we recommend a stop at the Uzgen Bazaar. From the picturesque and quaint tile work and Cyrillic lettering at the entrance, to the approachable environment inside, it’s well worth a visit. We found the people friendly, gregarious and generous. While there, we sampled a host of dried fruits and nuts, several variations of a fermented drink called “bozo” and various homemade chili sauce concoctions. Shopping tip: Prices for nuts and dried fruit in the Uzgen Bazaar are quite a bit lower than in Osh.
5. Watch the Blademaster of Osh Fashion Give Life to Recycled Materials
If you happen to be in or near the mahalla (neighborhood) near Craftsmen Street (formerly known as Alebastrova Street), take the time out to stop by the little hole-in-the-wall knife-making workshop run by Zakir Jon, the friendly knife craftsman of Osh. He learned his trade when he was just 11-years old from a master craftsman traveling through the city. Even after 57 years of experience of knife-making under his belt, this craftsman sports a youthful and playful approach to his craft, and to life.
Zakir Jon at work in his studio.
Zakir Jon runs a simple set up. A coal-powered fireplace heats the metal to the point where it can be flattened and shaped with a hammer. Each knife takes between 25-28 hours to make, including the blade and custom handle. You can admire the work on display as you watch him turn the grindstone, pound the metal and form the makings of an honest-to-goodness hand-smithed blade made from scrap metal. Better yet, ask Zakir Jon how he makes his knives from recycled car parts and industrial materials. You'll notice that many of the blades are engraved with stars, his trademark symbol. As he tells it, when he was young the coolest thing going were Soviet cosmonauts.
And buy one, like I did. Each one has a story and comes with its own hand-decorated leather sheath. I use mine just about daily — to dice garlic, slice tomatoes, cut meat. It remains sharp, and the artistic flourish at the base of the blade always draws me in. Each time I pick it up, I glance at the colors in the handle. I think of the experience and consider how that knife was made. And I kind of marvel at how the world works.
Zakir Jon shows Dan one his hand-made knives.
6. Relish and Explore Osh's Jayma Bazaar
Wind your way through lanes old and new in the Jayma Bazaar, a 2,000-year old marketplace that has stood the test of time as the heart of the city's trading center. At several kilometers long, it's one of Central Asia's biggest.
It overwhelms at first. At a minimum, we recommend you sample your way through the section with the dried fruits and nuts. You'll find a vast array from not only Kyrgyzstan, but also nearby Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and even Iran. Don't be afraid to try several types of almonds, pistachios, raisins or dried apricots before deciding your favorite. Note: If you are going trekking or on a Pamir Highway road trip, we recommend stocking up here. You'll be thankful for these healthy snacks later on.
Where to begin? Nuts and dried fruit at the Osh Bazaar.
Around the corner, check out the spice mounds and get yourself into a conversation regarding the finer points of custom laghman spice blends and different grades — or potency — of chili powders. Spice mounds, Osh's Jayma Bazaar.
Should you tire of fruits, vegetables and food, check out some of the craftsman and metalsmith areas. Or strum a handmade komuz, a traditional Kyrgyz stringed instrument you'll likely hear across your travels in Kyrgyzstan.
Enjoy an impromptu komuz concert at Jayma Bazaar
Note: The Destination Osh office at 15 Gapar Atiev Street offers free Jayma Bazaar maps and suggested themed routes through the market.
7. Make Your own Lepyoshka Bread and Design
The importance of bread to the culture and daily routine is no less true than in Osh. Several types of bread make the rounds in bakeries, on the streets, stacked in bazaars, and in restaurants. However, the bread that stands out for its ubiquity, flavor and design is the Uzbek-style traditional bread called lepyoshka. You’ll know it when you see it in stacks in markets and in bakeries. It will arrive at your table during virtually every meal.
How do you effectively pack for the Camino de Santiago — light and prepared? This is the place to find out. But first, some quick background.
A beautiful walk, a memorable journey — one that comes up in conversation over and over again. That is our Camino de Santiago. Lessons learned, a stack of stories in six weeks and 600 miles/960 km, a metaphor for life. Walking the Camino de Santiago together as a couple, a rare selfie moment.
The greatest bit of preparation you can do to influence your comfort on that journey — so that you can focus on what's around you rather than the burden of your backpack — is to know what to pack for the Camino, and why.
Based on our experience — an exceptional one that combined the Caminos del Norte, Primitivo and Frances and Finisterre — we were 95% happy with the packing choices we'd made and learned the other 5% in lessons. In this Camino de Santiago packing guide for men, women and couples, you get the 100% so you can benefit from all our experience.
If you are considering walking the Camino de Santiago, no matter what distance, the short answer: yes. We’ll cover other planning factors for the Camino de Santiago — choosing a route, when to walk, accommodation options, how to eat amazingly well and cheap, and more — in a series of other articles. Before that, however, one of the essential lessons of the Camino de Santiago lands when you realize how little you need to pack and carry. Just 787km on the Camino del Norte until Santiago!
Having done it ourselves, we realize that researching the Camino de Santiago can be delightful and overwhelming at all at the same time — especially when it comes to how to pack for it. This results in Camino-onset packing and planning paralysis. There are endless forums and websites dedicated to the topic of planning and packing for the Camino, including an underlying machismo competition for the “right” way to do it. Before: the pile all the gear we planned to take with us on the Camino. Not everything made the cut.
After: Ready for the Camino!!
So, we'll stay away from absolutes here. Below is a snapshot of our packing approach based on our personal experience walking the Camino de Santiago for a total of 960km, about 100km more than we had originally expected. The beauty of our packing, however, was it really didn’t matter how many kilometers or days we walked. We were prepared for just about anything.
Our advice: pack what you need to pack. Try to err on the side of “less is more,” but don’t let anyone make you feel bad about your choices. Sure, you'll make some mistakes — maybe you miss something essential, or you overpack. It's not the end of the world, nor your Camino.
Desired weight of your backpack: There's endless discussion and competition on what's the “right” weight of a pack for the Camino. Again, do what makes sense for you and fits your body's needs. For us, we found that carrying around 7-8 kilos/15-18 pounds was a good weight for each of us. Having a quality backpack that is properly fitted to your body will help tremendously in distributing this weight so you don't have aching shoulders, back or hips. Along the Camino Primitivo (“The Original Way”), the first Camino route starting in the 9th century. Keep in mind: pilgrims have been walking this route for over 1,200 years without the fancy gear or technology we have today. Think of it this way: anything above the bare essentials of shoes, clothes, walking stick, water, and food is kind of a bonus.
Our Camino Routes: Norte, Primitivo and Finisterre
Many people think that there is ONE Camino — one route — and don't realize that there are actually twelve official Caminos de Santiago. One reason for this misunderstanding is that most people (around 85%) who walk the Camino choose the Camino Francés. If you're curious about all the different ways to reach Santiago de Compostela, here's a map with all the official Camino routes. (Note: there are endless discussions on the advantages and disadvantages of each route, but we will leave that discussion to the next Camino article.) Our Camino “passport” marking our entire journey across Spain, from the border with France to Spain's western coast.
For our journey, we combined three different Caminos: Camino del Norte from Irun to Oviedo, then the Camino Primitivo from Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela and finally the Camino Finisterre to the coast, with an additional walk to Muxia. We met up with family along the way so about half of the journey was just the two of us, while the other half we were a group of five together with Dan's sister, niece and nephew. The whole gang makes it to Santiago! Tired, but very happy.
In total, our Camino came in at 960km/600 miles and took around six weeks, including a handful of planned (and unplanned) rest and “exploring Basque food” days (definitely recommend extra days in San Sebastian and Bilbao just to eat Basque food!!). If you're looking for an experience that is filled with stunning coastal and mountain landscapes that will also challenge you physically, then consider this combination of Caminos.
Camino Packing Principles and Basics
Our journey began mid-April and ended late May so we had to be prepared for unpredictable and potentially rainy weather, especially along the northern coast. The packing approach below should work for whichever Camino route you choose and can be adjusted up or down in terms of layers depending upon the season.
3 Comfort Principles: Layers, Thin, and Light
As with any walk, hike or trek, layers are key to keeping dry and moderating temperature. Especially if you plan to walk the Camino de Santiago in spring or autumn, you'll want to be prepared for temperature swings and precipitation. If you are walking the Camino in the summer, adjust your packing accordingly. Always look to collapse and roll what you pack, whenever possible. Our clothing might even sound like a lot, but everything we brought usually doubled as something else, could be layered in the cold, and could be compressed. And not everything needs to cost a fortune. (Consider the type of workers gloves Dan carried.) Mornings were usually chilly along the Basque Coast so we'd start our day with several layers and peel them off during the day.
Especially if you pack cold weather items like a hat, gloves and fleece pullover, think thin and light. Same even goes for warm weather gear. The goal: minimize volume, maximize space. Minimize weight, maximize joy.
Don’t carry camping gear
All different Camino routes are set up so that you have affordable accommodation options within reasonable distances so that you don’t need to camp. We did come across a few pilgrims walking the Camino who carried camping gear for emergencies, but we would advise against it. In fact, one guy we spoke to had only used it once in the four weeks prior to when we met him. If you do insist on bringing camping gear to give yourself additional sleeping options or to save money on accommodation, we suggest you carry a hammock tent. We met one Danish guy who said this was light and worked well for him the few times he used it.
Options: transport services for your bag do exist
If you prefer not to carry everything on your back during the day, there are services available that will pick up your bag in the morning from the albergue and transport it to the next town where you plan to stay. Often, the accommodation where you are staying can provide you with contact information for this or you'll find advertisements posted at albergues along the way. The cost varies depending upon which Camino route you are walking and how remote you might be, but it usually varies between €3-€10/bag per day.
Remember: you can always buy things in Spain
If you have doubts about whether you really need it, leave it behind with the knowledge that you can most likely pick it up in Spain if you do decide you can’t live without it. There are enough bigger towns and cities that you walk through that would have whatever you need. This goes for clothing, shoes, socks, medical gear, toiletries, and other accessories. Also, if something isn’t working for you or is falling apart then replace it. We even met someone who bought a whole new backpack along the Camino because the one he borrowed from his girlfriend started falling apart.
Walking clothes and resting clothes
Think of your clothing strategy in two components: a walking “uniform” and resting or sleeping “uniform.” You only need one or two items in each category. This will make you realize how little you really need to bring in the clothing department. More on how this works in practice below.
Focus on the feet. Ankles and knees, too.
Your Camino packing strategy should absolutely take into consideration the threat of blisters, sore feet, and weak ankles. These are real threats to your enjoyment. A walking stick can come in very handy along the Camino, especially with sprained or weakened ankles.
From the very first moment you feel a hot spot, pain or discomfort in your feet during the walk, stop and address the issue. This is not the time to soldier on. Instead, it's time to adjust and address the underlying problem in your feet — be it rubbing, cramping, moisture or all of the above. Adjust your socks, change them if necessary and use Compeed, duct tape and other methods. If you don't, there's a good chance your feet will take revenge on you and erupt in blisters. Particularly on days where you'll walk a lot of asphalt roads, you should be especially careful. Our packing strategy below addresses this.
If you are certain to have unstable ankles or knees, bring your brace. You can also buy ankle braces and knee braces in pharmacies along the Camino. The moment you begin to feel something, put on the ankle brace and wear it regularly. There is no shame, only foresight. After Dan twisted his ankle, an ankle brace was essential to recovery and comfort.
Doing laundry along the Camino
No one is expecting you to smell like daisies or have perfectly pressed clothes along the Camino. We did proper laundry (i.e., with a washing machine and dryer) about once every 5-7 days, and then hand-washed in the sink the rest of the time. A lot of accommodation, especially the municipal and private albergues, do have washing machines and areas where you can wash clothes in a sink and hang them to dry on a line (or over the side of your bed frame). If something doesn’t dry overnight, then tie it to the outside of your backpack to let the early morning sun and breeze do its magic.
Choosing a Backpack for the Camino
If you don’t already have a trekking backpack that you love, take the time to research and test out backpacks. The fit of the backpack can really make or break you on the trail. Think: blisters on hips, shoulder pain, back pain, etc. Go to REI (or a similar outdoor store) and try on as many backpacks as you can that are of the size you want (more on that below). Ask the store staff to properly fit the backpack to your back, straps and all. This is especially important if you are tall as not all backpacks are geared towards long backs like yours.
There is no “right” size of backpack to take on the Camino as there are so many factors to consider irrespective of size, including how the pack fits your back. However, as a general rule we’d advise getting something in the 28-40 liter range. Remember: you don’t have to fill all the space even if you do buy a bigger backpack.
What to look for in a backpack for the Camino:
Easy-to-get-to-from-the-outside top compartment (otherwise known as the “brain”) so that it’s easy to get access to sunscreen, Leatherman and/or utensils, tissues, snacks, etc.
Side/bottom compartments to for easy access to ponchos or other rain gear.
Convenient trekking pole holder.
Comfortable, wide waist strap.
Backpack cover included. This not only ensures it’s the right size, but it’s usually connected at the bottom in an easy-to-store place.
Outside zipper that allows you to easily get to something at the bottom of the pack.
Place to hold a water bladder or water bottle.
We spent time going to several stores, asking for advice, and trying on multiple backpacks. We highly recommend you do the same. After all of this testing we were really happy with the backpack choices we made.
Recommended Women's Backpack for the Camino
Deuter ACT Trail Pro 32 SL Backpack: I could not be happier with this backpack. The shoulder and waist strap were specifically designed for women, which worked really well for my build. The actual bag itself is quite light with all sorts of functionality like a built-in rain cover, water bladder compatibility, wide waist belt for stability, several external compartments for storing rain and other gear, outer zippers that made it easy to get into the brain and main section, walking pole holder, and more. My 32-liter Deuter backpack: light, versatile, and comfortable. Highly recommended.
I was tempted to get the smaller Deuter ACT Trail Pro 28 SL backpack as a way to force me to pack super light. However, a person at an outdoor store convinced me to go for the bigger size (32 liters) because the smaller backpack didn’t have the wide waist strap and if I wanted to use the backpack for another trek when I’d need additional warm-weather gear I’d appreciate the extra space. In the end, his advice was spot on as I really appreciated the support of the wide waist strap and I enjoyed having a little extra space to fit in foodstuffs and snacks.
Osprey Packs Exos 38L Backpack: At first Dan wanted a backpack in the 30-32L range, but the smallest size available in the Large frame size made for tall people was 38 liters. After trying on dozens of packs, Dan realized how much better it feels to carry a backpack that is properly sized to your back. Moral of the story: go for the backpack that fits your back and shoulders best irrespective of the size. Remember, you don’t need to fill it up all the way.
“Add a little sugar to the saffron,” Farzane said as she worked the combination in her mortar and pestle. “It makes it easier to grind.”
Farzane, a 20-year old refugee from Afghanistan who’d come to Berlin with her family in the last year, was deep in the process of teaching us how to prepare several Afghan dishes she’d grown up cooking in her home town of Herat. In the heart of Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood, she guided us through the creation of dishes like zereshk polo (burberry rice pilaf) and khorecht lawang (lamb in a fermented yogurt sauce), among others.
Farzane sets the scene and our roles in the Afghan feast.
As she taught our group how to make schole sard, an Afghan-Persian dessert that served as the finishing touch to our feast, she gathered us around for a final stroke of decoration. Taking one of the bowls of sunny, saffron-infused rice pudding, she dashed atop it an elaborate design of ground cinnamon, almonds and pistachios.
Farzane made it look so easy, so elegant. Then it was our turn. As we struggled with our own designs – powder lines of cinnamon and sprinkles of pistachio flecked almond flair — Farzane’s shyness yielded. She smiled, maybe even laughed. And we laughed at ourselves, the circle of vulnerability complete.
Cooking Across Borders: Deep Travel in Berlin
Why were we learning how to cook Afghan food in Berlin?
Last year we partnered with Context Travel as Deep Travel Ambassadors to help develop a new tour in Berlin. The goal: a shared experience focused on connection between travelers and a local community organization. After considering the various social and geopolitical issues that impact Berlin and the world, Context Travel, together with our help, set its sights on contributing to refugees and their integration in Berlin, while providing travelers a human lens through which to view a complex and often misunderstood issue.
Über den Tellerand means “about the plate” so it’s not surprising that a large number of their projects feature food and face-to-face encounters between people with different cultural backgrounds. They organize pop-up restaurants with refugee chefs, cooking groups for refugee women, and other initiatives that bring people together through shared interests such as cuisine, gardening, and beekeeping. The common thread — just as it is with Cooking Across Borders — is an activity which bring us together, allowing us to meet one another where we are at.
Chopping pistachios, a serious business.
A Cooking Across Borders experience begins with a brief seminar from an historian or migration expert about the history of immigration in Berlin, including the latest wave of refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. This isn’t the first time persecution and wars have intersected with the arc of Berlin. The city’s past has produced its own share of refugees, many of whom found themselves emigrating permanently elsewhere around the world.
The city has also at times served as a haven for those fleeing persecution. For example, the prominent French Cathedral on central Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt stands testament to how the city offered asylum to 17th century Protestant Huguenots fleeing France. The flow and lasting imprint of diverse cultures has helped shape the energy of the city we know today.
Cooking Across Borders participants then embark on a cooking workshop led by a female refugee in Berlin. This experience pairing allows travelers the opporunity to understand the recent refugee crisis first more generally, then through a personal story, one that peeks behind the statistics and broad strokes of the news cycle. Along the way, travelers also learn how to prepare select dishes from the instructor’s home country. The questions, answers and anecdotes that unfold in conversation along the way help provide an understanding of each element of the meal and its cultural relevance.
Farzane: One Young Woman, Representative of Many
Farzane’s story, while personal and the story of one, is illustrative of many. Her previous home was Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan, considered the gateway to Iran. She left with her parents and three other siblings about one year ago. Her family's decision, motivated by safety concerns, politics and violence, prompted a quick departure. She still has other family and friends back in Heart and remains in contact with them via Whatsapp, aided by the free wifi signal at the metro station near her home in Berlin.
Farzane, spices in hand.
In one of my recent meetings with her, I showed her an article about the Herat Friday Mosque and a few local artists working to renovate it. As Farzane scrolled through the images in the article, a smile appeared and widened on her face. “It's beautiful,” she said, but how much more beautiful it was in real life.
In Herat, cooking was nothing remarkable for Farzane; it's something every young woman in Afghanistan does. Farzane began helping her mother in the kitchen at 14 years old. Here in Berlin, the food she grew up with developed into something special, something to be shared, a vehicle to connect with others in a new land. Her interactions with Über den Tellerrand also provided an outlet for her to be with other women and use the German language, which she learned in nine months — a remarkable feat considering it often takes others several years. (I speak from personal experience.)
Zereshk polo. The art of presentation in Afghan cuisine.
I discovered during the evening of our meal together, that Farzane had an interview with German authorities regarding her refugee status earlier that day. Her circumstances were being examined closely because she is over 18 years old, technically an adult. Where she goes from here in terms of process is uncertain. Her life this last year, it occurred to me, has been one of chronic uncertainty.
Cooking Across Borders: Levels of Impact
Food, cooking, creation – these forces bring us together. Food is fun, it teaches us, it levels. After all, we all need to eat. Whether one is focused on chopping pistachios or transforming saffron threads into a fine powder, a sense of our similarities tends to outweigh whatever our differences might be. It's your turn to decorate the schole sard.
The impact does not end with a culinary lesson and experience for the traveler, however. A portion of tour fees provides the instructor with another source of income and professional development. An additional annual contribution from the Context Foundation helps fund a bi-weekly women’s cooking group which brings together refugees and members of the community.
Many of these women, especially those coming from refugee shelters, don’t have access to a kitchen. They’re unable to cook at home, a concept many of the rest of us take for granted. For the women, the Über den Tellerrand kitchen serves as a therapeutic outlet, a reprieve from the day-to-day challenges as a refugee, a place where one can have some semblance of order or comfort, even if only for a short while.
These “cooking afternoons” also fulfill the role of group support. With other refugees, women can discuss family, challenges and opportunities away from the shadow of their husbands and the immediacy of their children’s needs. The connection with German women from the community facilitates further support, cultural exchange, and language acquisition.
Cooking Across Borders: The Why
An experience like Cooking Across Borders conveys, in ways large and small, not only that we are interdependent but also that the fluidity of history is integral to the connections we share. If Berlin’s story of destruction and rebirth teaches us anything, it is that nothing is permanent — except, perhaps, the importance of our shared humanity.
Sometimes it takes grinding some saffron and pistachios to understand how it all, this life, really works. Sometimes it takes an experience that encourages us to care. And the more we care, the more we engage. The more we engage and align our decisions with our values, the more likely we’ll give to the forces that bring us together, rather than giving into those forces that seek to divide us.
Disclosure: In our role as Context Travel Deep Travel Ambassadors we received compensation for our advisory, participation and content creation around this project. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.