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Jagged cliffs commanding the lush emerald horizon. Candy colored homes illuminated against cerulean skies. Palm trees dancing in the warm breeze. Though Viñales doesn't quite fit the traditional definition of "paradise", its unique charms assert it as just that.

While it's tempting to focus an itinerary around the captivating allure of Havana, there's more to western Cuba than its bustling capital. Quiet and underrated, Viñales offers all of the enchantments that get lost in Havana's charismatic cacophony.

Although it still feels somewhat off the beaten path, Viñales is not to be missed when planning a trip to Cuba. In fact, I'd argue that you're better off spending more days in Viñales than Havana. Surprised?  Read on to find out why you simply can't skip the Viñales Valley!



1. Soak up sublime nature



The lush Viñales Valley is best known for its arresting natural beauty, a striking contrast from Havana's crumbling urban chaos. With its majestic karst mogotes jutting out of the farmlands, the landscape feels decidedly otherworldly. Its vast sea of green evokes reverence and awe for Mother Nature.

In order to legally travel to Cuba as an American, I joined a People-to-People exchange with Discover Corp. The tour I chose, Preserving Nature's Wonders, primarily focused on exploring Cuba's tropical countryside and biosphere reserves. 

According to Discover Corp, "Despite being so close to the USA, Cuba has remained largely isolated from the primary sources of pollution - pesticides, agricultural runoff, and large scale development. Coupled with government conservation efforts, Cuba has been dubbed 'the accidental Eden'."

It's no surprise that Cuba's strict environmental policies and lack of development have left Viñales in such a well-preserved state. With the town's traditional farming practices and communities still in tact, it feels as if time has stood still here.



2. Savor small town charm

The peaceful streets of Viñales made up for everything that overwhelmed me in Havana. With its vibrant pops of color, rustic patios, and welcoming communities, it didn't take much for this small town to enrapture me. While hiking, biking, and horseback riding are popular ways to explore the town's verdant landscapes, I opted to wander the colorful streets, soak up my surroundings (along with a few fruity cocktails), and get lost in the picturesque neighborhoods.

In order to support the Cuban people and immerse yourself in the local culture, I highly recommend staying in casas particulares (homestays in privately owned bed & breakfasts). This will make for a much more authentic and personal experience than staying at an upscale state run hotel, where a room for one night costs more than the average Cuban's yearly salary.

While most casas particulares will cook you a hearty breakfast every morning, many are also able to prepare homemade Cuban comfort food for dinner. The families we stayed with in Viñales served up some of the freshest fare that I had on my trip, with every flavor-packed plate far more satisfying than its restaurant equivalent.



But along with Cuba's small town charms come a peculiar set of inconveniences. Forget about wifi, ATMs, well-stocked shops, or conveniently being able to buy whatever you forgot to pack. Since most establishments are state run, they carry the same items and run out relatively quickly. Many Cubans are accustomed to stocking up on what they need whenever it becomes available, because you never really know when or where you'll find it next. Pack accordingly!

Without having reliable access to wifi in Cuba, I took the week to unplug and intentionally live in the present. Despite the initial social media withdrawals, disengaging from my online community helped me feel that much more engaged with the local culture. As challenging as it was for me to go eight days without internet, it certainly won't be the last time I go off the grid.


3. Enjoy farm-to-table cuisine


Known for its fertile farmland, Viñales is a gold mine of organic crops. Immerse yourself in its agricultural traditions by dining at the charming Finca Agroecológica Paraíso. This organic farm and family restaurant serves delectable, guilt-free dishes featuring their own freshly grown produce. Not to mention, their cozy restaurant boasts dazzling panoramas of the Viñales Valley.

The generous family-style meals include a healthy variety of savory soups, root vegetable dishes, and succulent main courses. Not to mention, their signature anti-stress cocktail made with mint, anise, basil, lemongrass, coconut milk, pineapple juice, cinnamon, honey, and hierba buena will blow your tastebuds away (especially if you add a splash of Cuban rum)!


 

4. Buy Cuban cigars straight from the source



Even if you're not a cigar enthusiast, visiting a tobacco plantation in Viñales is a must. The Viñales Valley is home to the world's finest tobacco, where local farmers grow crops for the biggest and best cigar brands (such as Cohiba and Montecristo). However, tobacco farmers are required to sell 90% of their harvest to the government, and only get to keep 10% for themselves (thus enabling them to sell to visitors like myself).

The bucolic tobacco fields, dotted with ox-pulled carts and cigar-puffing farmers, paint a timeless picture of Viñales' idyllic countryside. Though my dad's bad habits have forever turned me off to the stench of cigars, I savored every moment of our tobacco farm tour and cigar rolling lesson. Huddled inside a barn where tobacco leaves are dried and seasoned, I took my first drag of a real Cuban cigar. And truthfully, it wasn't horrendous! (Just don't inhale.)


Farm fresh Cohibas

5. Take a day trip to Cayo Levisa



Have you ever visited an island more scenic than a Windows desktop background? Personally, the pristine white sand beaches of Cayo Levisa were the closest thing to heaven I've ever encountered.

Known as one of Hemingway's haunts, this tropical key off the northwestern coast is only about a 2-hour drive from Viñales, followed by a 45-minute boat ride. (However, be warned that the unpaved roads can wreak havoc on those with weak stomachs.)

With its sparkling sapphire waters, picture perfect palms, and sugar-white sand, Cayo Levisa is a serene slice of paradise. Despite being home to a small resort (and all the touristic activities that come along with that), the island still feels fairly isolated.

I decided to embark on a short snorkel excursion, but unfortunately the reefs were quite bleached. After another bout of motion sickness on the rocky ride back to shore, I crash-landed on the beach and enjoyed a seaside siesta in a quaint bungalow. For those visiting Cayo Levisa for just one day, skip the snorkeling and opt for a relaxing afternoon of swimming and sun worshipping. 


Although there isn't an overwhelming number of things to do in Viñales, its charms embody the true spirit of Cuba. Its idyllic landscapes, vibrant culture, and welcoming people nourish the soul. Even if you only have a few days to spare in your Cuba itinerary, the inviting magic of Viñales should not be missed.





Have you ever been to Cuba? If so, what was your experience like?
Do you prefer visiting big cities or the countryside?


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Havana had been at the top of my bucket list since high school, back when my favorite movie was "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights". Though my taste in movies has (thankfully) evolved since my teenage years, Cuba had remained one of my dream destinations. Yet in today's tumultuous political climate, I feared that my window of opportunity to legally visit Cuba could unexpectedly close any day. It was now or never.

Upon arriving in Cuba, I quickly realized that my romanticized expectations were completely mistaken. Of course I never thought it'd be just like the movies, or Europe, or even Puerto Rico. But I still expected it to be a bit more developed... and spoiler alert, it's not. But was Cuba worth the frustrations, hassles, and stomach bugs? Most definitely.

Although it was unlike anything I anticipated, Havana is still one of the most intense yet incredible places I've ever visited. It's taken me a while to digest all of its charms and idiosyncrasies, and I may never fully grasp its complexities. Despite being rough around the edges, Havana still thoroughly enchanted me.

All in all, Cuba is undoubtedly worth being at the top of the bucket list. Read on for my recommendations on where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana!


WHAT TO SEE

Habana Vieja

The crown jewel of Cuba's capital, Havana's old town is bursting with life. Crumbling, colorful and charismatic, the beauty of Habana Vieja lies in its picturesque imperfections. With its bustling markets, plazas, cathedrals, and cafes, the old town's energy is positively intoxicating.

Round any given corner, and you will stumble upon breathtaking architecture, live music, bright hues, and friendly locals. Meander down Calle Obispo, which connects the city's hub of Parque Central with old town's Plaza de Armas. Pop into the historic Farmacia Taquechel and peek into Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway used to call home. 

For the best views of Habana Vieja, head to the Cámera Oscura in Plaza Vieja. Inside you can find a camera obscura that boasts sublime panoramas of the city, projected and magnified in real time. Step outside for even more dazzling views from atop their rooftop terrace.


Fábrica de Arte Cubano

Believe it or not, some of Havana's best night life can be found in a former olive oil factory. Part art gallery, part nightclub, this interactive exhibition offers live music, film screenings, dancing, cocktails, and galleries celebrating local artists. Though decidedly hipster, the factory's diverse array of activities and modern art asserts it as one of the city's most vibrant hangouts.


El Malecón

No trip to Havana is complete without sauntering down its iconic malecón, a seawall stretching five miles along the sparkling coast. Popular among Cubans and tourists alike, expect to find resplendent views, fishermen taking siestas, and locals eager to practice their English with you. Swinging to life after dusk, this picturesque promenade is the perfect spot to go on a sunset stroll and watch the capital come to life.


Museo de la Revolución

Havana's battered Revolution Museum is housed in what was once the Presidential Palace, symbolizing one final "F you" to Batista's regime (and perhaps capitalism in general). What was once an opulent Hall of Mirrors designed to resemble that of Versailles, and originally decorated by Tiffany's, is now in shambles. Oh, the irony.

Though the anti-American propaganda was heavy and hard to digest, the museum presents a unique perspective on Cuban history. I don't trust what I learned about Cuba in textbooks, but I didn't completely trust 100% of the information in this museum either. That said, it was fascinating to hear another side of the story, and I think it's imperative to listen to views that challenge your opinions.



WHERE TO EAT & DRINK


Café Laurent
Calle M 257, between 19 and 21

Generally speaking, the food in Cuba is nothing to write home about... unless it's Café Laurent. Perched atop a rooftop terrace with stunning views of Vedado, trendy yet unpretentious Café Laurent serves gourmet dishes with a decidedly Cuban twist. Trouncing all previous meals in Cuba, this paladar (a private restaurant that isn't owned by the state) was my most memorable gastronomic experience in Havana.


San Ignacio 214
Calle San Ignacio 214

Serving up classic Cuban cuisine with a gourmet touch, San Ignacio 214 is my favorite hidden gem in Habana Vieja. I don't usually hit up the same restaurant twice, but I made an exception for their ropa vieja with Moros y Cristianos and fried taro root chips! Embodying a juxtaposition of traditional and modern, the atmosphere of this paladar was just as delightful as the food.


La Moneda Cubana
Calle Empedrado 152, between Mercaderes and San Ignacio

As one of the oldest restaurants in Havana, La Moneda Cubana honors its history by serving traditional Cuban food. Although most Cuban food starts to taste the same after a while, this paladar still stood out to me. Perhaps it's because their rooftop terrace flaunts stunning views of Havana's harbor, and who doesn't love rice and beans with a view?


Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski
Calle San Rafael, between Monserrate and Zulueta

Though I strived to avoid state-run establishments in an effort to support the local people, I just couldn't turn down a good rooftop bar at sunset. Overlooking Parque Central and the iconic Capitolio building, the views alone made up for the overpriced cocktails. While the hotel's opulent rooftop pool made me wistful for a luxury vacation, apparently American's aren't even allowed to stay in hotels run by the Cuban government. (Let's be real, I could never afford it anyway.)


El Floridita
Calle Obispo 557

Famed for being an old haunt of Hemingway, walking into this lavish bar is like taking a step back in time. Opened over 200 years ago, El Floridita is also known as "the cradle of the daiquiri", where the drink was supposedly invented after World War I. Though its line of tourists stretching out the door deterred me from ordering a drink here, it's still worth trying to peek inside.


View from the Cámera Oscura in Habana Vieja


I took home a backpack full of cigars, but this is the only souvenir I wanted to bring back from Cuba.


WHERE TO STAY

Casas Particulares

Since most big hotels are state run, staying in casas particulares (privately owned bed & breakfasts in Cuban homes) is the easiest way to support the Cuban people and immerse yourself in local culture.

Most casas particulares will cook you breakfast every morning, providing everything from strong Cuban coffee to exotic tropical fruits. Some are also able to make you a home-cooked dinner, serving fresh fare that's likely to be better than what you'd get in a restaurant.

El Vedado

For a quaint escape from Habana Vieja, I highly recommend staying in a casa particular in the Vedado neighborhood. Marked by its mansions in ruins, Vedado enraptured me in all of its dilapidated glory. Despite being in complete disrepair, the architecture is absolutely breathtaking. Much like the rest of Havana, its derelict gems exude character and personality. The chipped paint, colorful graffiti, and boarded up windows contribute an unlikely charm to the surrounding urban jungle. It may not be pristine, but it is certainly full of life. 

Strolling along Havana's malecón


Havana is one of those places that gets under your skin. Every sense was heightened, every emotion exacerbated, every thought magnified. It was thrilling, confusing, awe-inspiring, and challenging. Despite having traveled extensively, Cuba was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I was more than ready to leave after two days, but then I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks afterwards. I'm still trying to make sense of it all.

While the city itself is bewitching, the best part about Havana is its people. Cubans are some of the friendliest, most joyous, and most interesting people I've met throughout my travels. Their vivacious spirit is infectious, to say the least.

I expected the locals to hate Americans, but I found the complete opposite to be true. People were so curious to ask me about being from the USA, what my life was like, and why I chose to visit Cuba. Their desire to connect struck me. I was captivated by their perspectives and moved by their stories, even if it meant that everything I thought I knew about Cuba was wrong.


Rooftop bar views from Gran Hotel Manzana



Have you ever been to Havana?
Was it what you expected?


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Jagged silhouettes command the horizon, and only the sound of rippling waves pierces the tranquil silence. As we glide through Lan Ha Bay towards the enchanted emerald waters of Ha Long Bay, I feel as if I have ventured onto a different planet.

Fueled by strong Vietnamese coffee and breakfast pho, we bid adieu to lush Cat Ba Island at the crack of dawn. On this misty morning, my tired eyes soak up the sublime scenery with wonder. Despite the overcast skies, this natural paradise is anything but gloomy.




Having heard horror stories of overnight boat trips gone awry (rats? Seasickness? Food poisoning? Count me out...), we opted for the cheapest day trip we could find while still on Cat Ba Island. While I never wrote down the name of the company we chose, we saw that most day trips were essentially the same. 

Despite being a type-A planner with a tendency to book everything in advance, choosing a cruise at the last minute worked out in our favor. After scouring the different tours advertised along Cat Ba's main road and choosing the best price, we opted for a route that started from Cat Ba, took us through the less crowded Lan Ha Bay, cruised through Ha Long Bay, docked in Ha Long and brought us back to Hanoi by bus.

Though our trip was interrupted by a surprise boat change once we crossed into Ha Long Bay (and naturally, as soon as I had snagged the best viewing spot on the first boat), the journey still blew me away. While it was no luxury cruise, in Vietnam it's still possible to get a high-quality experience on a tight budget. 





With its colorful floating villages and otherworldly karst giants jutting out of the water, Ha Long Bay's ethereal seascapes look like they're straight out of a dream (or a Dalí painting). As we sailed past the surreal limestone sculptures, I couldn't stop smiling. For the rest of the day, I was positively buzzing with euphoria.




Have you ever been to Ha Long Bay?
What was your experience like?


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Somewhere in Hanoi at this very moment, small plastic stools are filling up on overflowing sidewalks. Chopsticks clatter against clearing plates, marinated meats sizzle on a grill, and kaleidoscopes of exotic fruit fly through noisy intersections. Hungry spectators swarm the narrow streets, sniffing out the next stop on their gastronomic pilgrimage. This is Hanoi, where the sidewalks come to life at mealtimes.


Vietnamese cuisine seduces the senses. Each ingredient harmonizes with its counterparts, creating a sublime symphony of flavors. And when done right, street food is the most authentic way to sightsee through your tastebuds.

Hanoi's unpretentious hideaways humbly host the city's best dishes. Forget Michelin stars; inside these hole-in-the-wall kitchens is where the real magic happens. When embarking on a quest for Vietnamese street food, here's what you need to know about what and where to eat in Hanoi.


Bún Cha



What is it?

A staple dish of Hanoi, bún cha is a flavorful noodle soup with grilled pork. Almost exclusively served during lunch, bún cha is comprised of rice vermicelli noodles, charcoal-grilled pork belly or grilled grounded pork, room temperature broth, and a basket of herbs to adorn your bowl. The broth itself is a magnificent feat, subtly enhanced by fish sauce, the cornerstone of Vietnamese cuisine.

Though undoubtedly deserving of fame in its own right, bún cha was made infamous by Anthony Bourdain and President Obama's dinner together in Hanoi. The hype is real - if you only get to try one dish in Hanoi, let it be this.

My favorite places to get it in Hanoi:

Huong Lien (aka "Bún Cha Obama")
24 Le Van Huu

Bún Cha 34 
34 Hang Than




Pho


What is it?

Vietnam's breakfast of champions. By far the country's most famous dish, the term pho actually refers to the type of noodles specific to this bowl of heaven. It's made of tender rice noodles, herbs, meat (typically chicken or beef), and a savory broth that packs a punch. In Vietnam, the best pho is judged by the flavors of its broth.

My favorite place to get it in Hanoi:

Pho Gia Truyen
49 Bat Dan

You can also find it on pretty much any given street corner. Pull up a plastic stool and dive in!




Com Bình Dân 

 

What is it?

Literally translated to "commoner's rice", com bình dân is a heaping plate of rice generously topped with a colorful array of side dishes. The expats I met in Hanoi lovingly dubbed it as "pointy rice", because you can point to all of the mouthwatering toppings your hungry heart desires. As it was traditionally a workman's lunch, a hearty plate of com bình dân will likely keep you full until dinner.

My favorite place to get it in Hanoi:

Bo De Quan (Vegetarian friendly) 
164 Au Co, Tay Ho




Bún Bò Nam Bo



What is it?

Known simply as "beef noodles" in the south, bún bò nam bo makes magic out of vermicelli noodles, roasted peanuts, bean sprouts, and fresh vegetables. To unlock the dish's true flavors, drench eat bite in the delectably tangy blend of fish sauce, sugar, lemon, and chili.

My favorite place to get it in Hanoi:

Nha Hang Bach Phuong
67 Hang Dieu


Chè



What is it?

While every chè dessert beverage or pudding is slightly different, each boasts a savory amalgam of textures. My favorite blend featured kidney beans, mung bean paste, jelly, and tapioca, stirred together and topped with coconut milk. While not overwhelmingly saccharine, a refreshing glass of chè will still satisfy one's sweet tooth.

My favorite place to get it in Hanoi:

Street Vendor

C2, Ngo 34A Tran Phu, Ba Dinh


Egg Coffee



What is it?

Savoring a fluffy cup of Vietnamese egg coffee is like drinking crème brûlée. Pioneered at Hanoi's Giang Cafe, this delicate and frothy concoction is comprised of bold Vietnamese coffee, condensed milk, and egg yolks whipped to perfection. Not only does it satisfy the need for a morning jolt of caffeine, but it also makes for a sweet afternoon treat.

My favorite place to get it in Hanoi:

Ca Phe Giang
39 Nguyen Huu Huan




Coconut Coffee

What is it?

Akin to a caffeinated slushie, sipping on coconut coffee takes me back to sunbathing on a white sand beach. While its tropical vibes feel seemingly out of place in Hanoi's urban chaos, its tastes and textures are substantially more refreshing than your average Frappuccino.

My favorite places to get it in Hanoi:

Cong Caphe
54 Hang Dieu

Tranquil Books & Coffee
5 Nguyen Quang Bich



Street Food 101 with Hanoi Street Food Tour

Not quite knowing where to start on my first day in Hanoi, I took a crash course in street fare with Hanoi Street Food Tour. Their beginner's guide to street food introduced me to some of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, while also providing me tips on how to find the best spots on my own.


Bún cha - noodles with grilled pork

Our tour guide Mango had an infectious love for Vietnamese cuisine, and her passion brought the tour to life. As we devoured a myriad of traditional dishes, Mango peppered our tour with restaurant recommendations, useful phrases, and historical anecdotes. She also offered personalized substitutions for those of us with food intolerances, and went to great lengths to ensure that everything I tried was gluten-free.


Nom bò khô - dried beef salad with green papaya and fresh herbs

Not only did we get to taste Hanoi's best dishes, but we also got to watch how some of them were made. After warming our bellies with our very first bowls of bún cha, we wandered over to a street vendor making bánh cuon thit, a steamed rice flour pancake stuffed with pork. Hypnotized by the methodical process of making this delicate treat, we were able to experience the dish's flavors more profoundly.



Bánh cuon thit

Street food is not only the backbone of Vietnamese cuisine, it's a defining element of their culture. Getting a comprehensive lesson in Hanoi's history and gastronomy helped build the foundation of a successful trip. Stuffed and satisfied, I walked away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of this vibrant community.


Never have I fell victim to such an overpowering culinary love affair. Despite my euphoric tastebuds, Hanoi still left me with an insatiable hunger for more. Until I get the chance to visit again, I'll surely be daydreaming about my next bowl of bún cha.


What are your favorite cuisines you've tried abroad?
Is there a country whose gastronomy stands out as the best?



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Disclaimer: Hanoi Street Food Tour graciously invited me on this tour, however, all opinions expressed are my own.

As a Celiac, I took this tour at my own risk. While Hanoi Street Food Tour can make substitutions to accommodate a gluten-free diet, they cannot completely guarantee avoiding cross contamination. 

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"Just hop on and hold onto me", Tara nonchalantly assures as she tosses me a helmet. "It'll be fine!" The motor rumbles, and I'm quickly awakened from my jet lagged daze. I'm greeted with my first daylight views of Hanoi from the back of her motorbike, bolting through Old Quarter's tangle of traffic.

As we dart through town, whizzing past lanky French colonial mansions and opulent decay, adrenaline is pulsing through my veins. I'm intoxicated by the city's dilapidated beauty, set to a soundtrack of blaring horns and roaring motorbikes.

There doesn't seem to be a method to the madness on the streets of Hanoi. Hurtling through intersections feels like an an all-or-nothing gamble. Yet somehow, bikers navigate the chaos with an unexpected grace that miraculously keeps everyone alive.



Mincing through the mob, we cross town and park at Cong Caphe. Exhausted yet exhilarated, I feel as if the most thrilling part of my day has passed. However, I quickly come to realize that crossing the street in Hanoi is an even more unnerving task.

"Inch your way across the street, assuming drivers will part around you. Keep your eyes forward, and don't make any sudden, unpredictable movements."

I hesitantly step off the sidewalk, lingering for several seconds too long. I anxiously hop back up, eager not to become Vietnamese roadkill. I take another deep breath and charge forward.

A sea of bikes tear past me, swerving around me and honking wildly. An elderly Vietnamese man saunters beside me, completely unfazed. Bounding through the cacophony of tenacious bikers, I cross the road unscathed. 

This enigmatic city has given me the most authentic of welcomes, and thus commences my week in Hanoi.



Exploring Cat Ba Island

After several days of soaking up Hanoi's energy and charisma, Tara and I hop a train to Hai Phong and catch a small boat to Cat Ba Island, where we spend a day exploring the terrain before sailing off to Ha Long Bay.

Eager to discover this idyllic retreat, we rent a cheap motorbike outside our hotel and take off. Island driving is a refreshing escape from the anarchic streets of Hanoi. We comfortably cruise across Cat Ba, marveling at the verdant rolling hills and jagged silhouettes of Lan Ha Bay in the distance.



Hospital Cave



We weave through misty jungle roads and stumble upon the Hospital Cave, which was used by the Viet Cong as a secret hospital and safe house during the war. We pass bucolic villages and rice paddies, stopping frequently to admire the lush scenery around us.

We pull into an empty parking lot. "Your turn to drive!" Panic ensues. Driving a car has always terrified me. Driving a motorbike?! Out of the question.

I'm finally persuaded to take the driver's seat and hit the gas. I swerve a few times before I get the hang of it, and the next thing I know, I'm speeding across the lot.

"Ready to hit the road?" Not quite.

With the wind whipping through my hair and a smile plastered to my face, we continue our journey across the island. We wrap up our bike tour at the dreamy, deserted paradise of Cat Co 2. The jutting shadows of Lan Ha Bay command the horizon, while enchanted emerald waters beckon us to the bay. 



Day Trip to Chua Thay

After settling back into Hanoi, Tara and I motorbike through bustling villages and farmlands to explore the ancient temples of Chua Thay. With mountaintop shrines, a gargantuan cave, and a pagoda over 900 years old, this town off the beaten track is a refreshing escape from Hanoi's colorful chaos.



Just 40 minutes from Hanoi's Old Quarter, this hidden gem has all the makings of a perfect day trip. We explore the village and pagoda below, then hike our way up to Chua Thay's breathtaking mountaintop temples. Making the climb is surely the best way to burn off all those Vietnamese spring rolls and bowls of pho.

Chua Thay also boasts an otherworldly limestone cave, which is rumored to contain the bones of soldiers from the Vietnam War. The steps to the cave are steep and nearly treacherous; don't try to rock climb in sandals (lesson learned).


Getting to know Vietnam by motorbike is one of the most enchanting ways to discover its soul. It's not just a means of transportation, it's a way of life. Exploring like a local can be slightly terrifying, but it's easily the most memorable way to discover this enigmatic country.




Enamored by Vietnam's energy and feeling like pictures couldn't quite do it justice, I tried my hand at making my first travel video. Check it out, and witness me fumbling with chopsticks, zipping through the Vietnamese countryside, cruising Ha Long Bay, and devouring all the street food.

VIETNAM 2017 - YouTube


Have you ever ridden a motorbike in a foreign country?
If not, would you try it?





Disclaimer: Ride at your own risk. All the information provided on adelanteblog.com is for general information and entertainment purposes only, and is the expressed opinion of myself. Any action you take upon the information on this website is strictly at your own risk. Under no circumstances will I be liable for any loss or damage (including without limitation indirect or consequential loss or damage) arising out of or in connection to the use of this website.


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Say hello to California's newest resident! In case you missed it on Instagram, in May I packed my bags and bid rainy Washington adieu. Since then, I've asked myself every day in awe, "Do I actually live here? Is this real life?"

I never thought any city could excite me as much as Madrid. Los Angeles has effortlessly stolen my heart, and I truly wonder how it took me this long to end up here.





After reaching my breaking point with the weather and feeling irreversibly burnt out on teaching, it was time for a change of climate and careers. I'd been flirting with the idea of moving to LA for years, and it finally seemed like the right time to take the leap.

From there, everything serendipitously fell into place. I stumbled upon my dream job at Daniel Wellington, moved in with my best friend Meghan in downtown Los Angeles, and settled into a life that suits me far better than Seattle ever had.


The Last Bookstore

Aside from nesting in my apartment and adjusting to my new job in social media, I've been making a solid effort to discover the city through my tastebuds, explore new neighborhoods, and soak up enough sun rays to make up for 20+ years of Vitamin D deficiency.

From brunches to beach days, sometimes I still feel like I'm on vacation. Every time I smell the sea breeze on my way to work in Santa Monica, I half expect to be woken up from a dream. While at times it all feels too good to be true, I have to remind myself that it was an tumultuous journey to get here.

Breaking up with Madrid and trying to put down roots in Seattle resulted in one of the toughest years of my life. I had outgrown the Pacific Northwest, and coming back felt like forcing a puzzle piece into a space that didn't quite fit. Combined with seasonal affective disorder and a teaching position that wasn't my passion, I needed to hit a hard reset. Now that I'm in LA, every day is like a breath of fresh air.


Brunch at Bottega Louie

While I feel like the universe conspired to get me here in the most unexpected of ways, I can honestly say that I haven't been this happy since Spain. 

As the chaos of moving has subsided and I'm settling into life as an Angeleno, my intention is to be much more consistent with this blog. Some exciting changes are ahead, so I hope you stick around!


LACMA Lights

Having a La La Land moment at Griffith Observatory


Are there any places in Los Angeles that I need to check out immediately?
Let me know your favorite spots!


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In lieu of celebrating my third expat Thanksgiving in Spain with a roasted turkey, I had a hankering for pizza. Pillowy mozzarella, juicy tomatoes, tart arugula and buttery prosciutto. I could almost taste the tangy bliss. But the last time I went to Italy, things didn't go so smoothly.


Pizza, pasta and pain

A month before I was diagnosed with Celiac disease in 2010, I ventured to Rome to Eat, Pray, Love  my way through the Eternal City. In between gooey pizzas and heaping plates of spaghetti, I spent my time running to the bathroom, keeling over in abdominal pain, and fighting fatigue and soreness throughout my entire body. Trying to keep up with the fast pace of sightseeing was positively grueling.

At the time, I couldn't connect my pain to what I was putting in my body. I just figured it was normal to get sick after two beers or a bowl of pasta. After all, doctors had been giving me various nonsensical explanations for the past 11 years. From, "You're not eating right for your blood type" to, "You're just drinking too much coffee", no doctor ever pegged gluten as the culprit. So neither did I.


Fast forward six years, and I now have the common sense (as well as the diagnosis) to know that, no, it's not normal to get sick after every meal. Furthermore, it's not normal to visit Italy and suffer through constant pain the entire trip.

Thankfully, it's surprisingly easy to navigate Italy as a Celiac. In fact, I've found Florence to be the easiest place to eat gluten-free throughout all my travels. Italians are incredibly well-informed about Celiac disease, and knowing how to deal with gluten-free needs is common knowledge in restaurants.

Why are Italians winning the gluten-free game?

According to the Associazione Italiana Celiachia (AIC), about 1% of Italians have Celiac disease. Though that may sound high, this statistic is roughly the same in the USA and across Europe. But with gluten as the cornerstone of Italian gastronomy, the need to accommodate Celiacs is significantly greater.

To understand why so many gluten-free options abound in the land of pizza and pasta, let's contemplate the Italian culture of cuisine. Of the many things that Italians are known for, perhaps their most notable qualities are their social nature and deeply ingrained love of food. Life happens at the dinner table, so to deliberately leave someone out of the mealtime merriment would be simply preposterous.

In a culture that places the utmost importance on enjoying food, eating gluten-free isn't a fad, it's an ailment that needs to be dealt with. That's probably why the AIC recognizes over 4,000 gluten-free restaurants in Italy. The Italian government even gives Celiacs a stipend of up to 140€/month to cover additional food costs. So... when can I move there?!


Art, architecture and accommodating intolerances are just a few things that Italians do right

Senza glutine, per favore

With a myriad of gluten-free options and an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards accommodating Celiacs, eating gluten-free in Florence shouldn't be a considerable challenge. The following restaurants have my favorite senza glutine (gluten-free) menus in Florence, so prepare your tastebuds for a gluten-free feast of Italian treats.

Just in case, print out a gluten-free Italian restaurant card to show your waiters if you have any doubts about a dish's ingredients.


Ristorante Ciro & Sons

Via del Giglio, 28/r


I began my feast at Ciro & Sons with the gluten-free bruschetta topped with succulent tomatoes, fresh arugula and a light drizzle of olive oil. The refreshing combination of flavors invigorated my tastebuds and helped tide me over until my pizza finished cooking to perfection.

Next, I devoured the decadent gluten-free Vesuvius pizza with prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, truffle, arugula and tomatoes. The gooey mozzarella melted in my mouth, while the fluffy crust actually made me ask the waiter, "Are you sure this is gluten-free?"

I washed it all down with a gluten-free Peroni beer, which was the first Celiac-friendly beer I've truly enjoyed in months. While I was extremely tempted by the dessert menu, I passed it up in favor of more gelato. (When in Rome Florence, right?)

Ciro & Sons boasts an extensive gluten-free menu, although some dishes can be on the pricier side. Their claim to fame is winning first place in the World Championship for Gluten-Free Pizza and the World Championship for Organic Pizza. (Side note: what's a girl gotta do to be a judge in these competitions?) They even sell boxes of their famed gluten-free crust at the restaurant.


Gluten-free bruschetta? That's amore.

Note that reservations are required if you plan on ordering their gluten-free pizza.



Da Garibardi

Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 38/r

Nestled next to Florence's Central Market, Da Garibardi is packed with lively locals rather than hungry tourists looking for their next quick bite. As the only native English speaker (and solo diner) in the joint, I surely stuck out like a sore thumb. Granted, that made the restaurant feel all the more genuine.

Unabashedly loud families and overly-affectionate couples surrounded me, and I had to admire how quintessentially Italian it all felt. Then there was me, seated in the corner, alone on a hot date with a colossal bowl of gnocchi. Elizabeth Gilbert would have been proud.

Picking just two dishes from the vast gluten-free menu was a difficult feat, but I eventually settled on the crostone cavolo nero e fagioli: gluten-free toast with Tuscan beans, cabbage, olive oil and garlic. Once again, the bread was so crispy and delectable that I had to double check if it was really senza glutine. The hearty combination of beans and cabbage made for the ultimate winter treat, and I could have easily indulged on more if I hadn't also ordered the gnocchi al pesto di cavolo nero e pancetta croccante: gluten-free potato gnocchi with pesto and crispy pancetta.

The gnocchi effortlessly achieved the perfect level of creaminess, while the pancetta added an extra savory punch. I sipped on a glass of Chianti as I relished my meal, and predictably skipped the gluten-free dessert menu in lieu of more gelato.


More Tuscan beans, please


La Luna
Via Gioberti Vincenzo, 93

Cozy and unpretentious, La Luna is the neighborhood pizza joint you'd take your family to on a typical Friday night. This mom & pop eatery is tucked away in a residential neighborhood, so you're bound to be the only foreigner in the joint. Though this hole in the wall could easily be missed, its simple charm and authenticity make it well worth the trek.

The staff's English was rusty, but after a few smiles, per favore's and grazie's, I was happily devouring my meal. I started with the fried mozzarella, which wasn't particularly extraordinary other than the fact that I hadn't eaten mozzarella sticks in over six years.

Next, I gorged upon the gluten-free Margherita pizza draped in buttery mozzarella, tangy tomatoes and pungent basil. As this was my first meal of the trip, I made the mistake of trying to eat my pizza with my hands, American-style. I watched in horror as the molten cheese promptly slid into my lap. Feeling publicly shamed, I took an inconspicuous peek at the other diners and noticed that they were all eating pizza with forks and knives. Duly noted.

I topped off my feast with the gluten-free tiramisu, which left me positively satisfied (and desperately in need of someone to roll me back to my hostel).


Salute, Firenze!


Starbene Gold

Via dei Neri, 13/r


As Florence's only gluten-free bakery, Starbene is unquestionably Celiac Heaven. Just a five minute walk from the central Piazza della Signoria, this quaint pastry shop was one of the best stops on my gluten-free pilgrimage. The owners are remarkably friendly and were eager to recommend their favorite specialties to me.

When I asked what their favorite Florentine treat was, they pointed me to a gluten-free cream puff saturated with rich pistachio filling. Fluffy and oozing with flavor, I savored each bite as if it were my last meal on earth. I also picked up a creamy chocolate tart to take back to the hostel with me (with the intention of saving it for breakfast, but you can only imagine how successful that was).


Grazie, gluten-free dessert gods


Grom

Via del Campanile, 2

This popular chain crafts their scoops of high-quality gelato from organic ingredients and fresh seasonal fruit. Focused on sustainability, Grom also utilizes biodegradable spoons and cups. The staff were well-informed about which flavors were gluten-free, making sure to steer me away from any scoops that weren't Celiac-friendly. I've heard they're also pretty careful about avoiding cross-contamination, but I was too busy flirting with the cute gelato scooper to notice any of that.

On my first venture to Grom, I paired caramel and Himalayan salt with hazelnut gelato. It was the ultimate trifecta of sweet, salty and savory. The next morning I tried a seasonal scoop of persimmon gelato, because who says you can't have gelato for breakfast?


The breakfast of champions


Gelateria Edoardo

Piazza del Duomo, 45/r

In the shadow of the iconic Duomo, Gelateria Edoardo is best known for their whimsical flavors made from all organic ingredients. Though located in the heart of touristlandia, you will only find the purest and highest quality ingredients here. Their gelato is free of preservatives, additives and artificial flavors - so you can eat as much as you want without feeling guilty... right?

While there were plenty of gluten-free options to choose from, I landed on cinnamon paired with honey and poppyseed gelato. The cinnamon was exceptionally creamy, while the smooth honey and poppyseed was packed with flavor. With such unique and decadent flavors, it's no wonder Edoardo is rising to the top of Florence's artisan gelato scene.


The near freezing temperatures outside had nothing on this view

For more gluten-free options in Florence, check out the top floor of Terracafè next to the Santa Maria Novella train station for snacks, light meals and other sweet treats. Le Botteghe di Donatello in the Piazza del Duomo also has a tempting gluten-free menu featuring a delectable assortment of pasta, pizza and meat dishes.




Do you have any food allergies or intolerances?
If so, how do you deal with them on the road?
Have you had a similar experience in Italy?



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It's no secret that I sightsee through my tastebuds. 

Although I was diagnosed with Celiac disease in 2010, avoiding gluten has not stopped me from tasting my way around the globe. Upon traveling to Croatia with my mom, a fellow Celiac, I was determined to make it one of our best foodie adventures yet.

Croatia had been at the top of my bucket list for years, but I knew relatively little about its cuisine. As we ate our way through Croatia, we were surprised and delighted by how Celiac friendly the food is.


With each stop on our adventure through Croatia, it became easier to find gluten-free options. We started off in Zagreb, venturing into Zagorje to visit Trakošćan Castle and Varaždin. We stopped in Plitvice Lakes National Park on our way to Split, where we sunned ourselves until hopping a ferry to Hvar. After a heavenly island escape, we ended our trip in the magical city of Dubrovnik.

While Croatia itself is a dream destination, the gastronomy alone is reason enough to visit. If you're planning a trip to Croatia with Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, here is my complete guide to eating gluten-free in Croatia.

HELPFUL HINTS

While most restaurants don't have a separate gluten-free menu, some may mark which dishes are bez glutena (gluten-free). If the menu doesn't specify, don't hesitate to ask the restaurant if a dish contains gluten or can be prepared gluten-free.

In general, be wary of sauces, desserts, and most polenta. Always double check when ordering soups and stews, as many can contain flour or pasta. Just in case, print out a gluten-free Croatian
restaurant card to show your waiters if you have any doubts about a dish's ingredients.

Surprisingly, most restaurants are actually quite knowledgeable and accommodating. This could be due to the heavy influx of tourists in recent years, or simply because Croatian cuisine is naturally gluten-free friendly. In fact, most of my waiters already knew which dishes were safe to eat without having to go back to the kitchen to ask.


Eating gluten-free in coastal Croatia

Cuisine on the Dalmatian Coast is remarkably similar to Italian fare, which makes it all the more convenient to navigate as a Celiac. Due to its fresh Mediterranean flavors, you usually can't go wrong with seafood, grilled fish and meat, vegetable dishes, or prosciutto with melon.

Authentic Croatian risotto is not prepared with flour, which usually makes it a reliable choice. (That said, it's wise to double check with each restaurant.) If you're feeling adventurous, try the crni rizot, a black risotto made with squid ink. Be sure to also try peka, a method of cooking meat and vegetables under a domed baking lid.

Eating gluten-free in continental Croatia

Continental Croatian cuisine, on the other hand, is heartier than its coastal counterparts. Continental Croatia features a stronger emphasis on meat dishes and heavy stews. As opposed to the Italian-inspired gastronomy of Dalmatia, this region's cuisine is influenced by its central European neighbors. The Austro-Hungarian tastes make it slightly more difficult to find naturally gluten-free options.

In Zagreb and Zagorje, we relied on roasted lamb, potatoes, and charcuterie plates. Vegetables are generally used less in continental fare, but we were still able to find the occasional salad. While it was less convenient to eat gluten-free in continental Croatia, we still found a plethora of viable options.


With a myriad of gluten-free options and a cuisine that naturally accommodates Celiacs, eating gluten-free in Croatia shouldn't be a considerable challenge. The following restaurants have my favorite gluten-free dishes, so prepare your tastebuds for a gluten-free feast of Croatian treats.

DUBROVNIK

Proto
Široka 1

Founded in 1886, Proto is one of Dubrovnik's oldest and most revered eateries. Known for its exquisite seafood, Proto specializes in fish dishes using traditional recipes from local fishermen. Atop the elegant terrace, one is sure to enjoy five-star service and cuisine.

Proto has attracted a distinguished list of patrons, including a glamorous array of actors, musicians and royals. If you're willing to splurge, look no further than Proto. Reservations recommended.

Contemplating the GF menu on Proto's breezy terrace

Stara Loza
Prijeko 24

This romantic rooftop restaurant, perched atop the chic Hotel Prijeko Palace, offers an entirely unique gastronomic experience. Serving a tasty array of Mediterranean-inspired dishes, Stara Loza incorporates gourmet flavors with memorable twists. My tastebuds rejoiced as I indulged on a fresh citrus salad and juicy sirloin steak with Brie, wasabi and pepper jam.

While the cuisine is decidedly out of this world, the dreamy vistas and whimsical settings make Stara Loza all the more impressive. Reservations recommended.


Stara Loza's rooftop views at blue hour

SPLIT

Bokeria 
Domaldova 8

Named after Barcelona's most iconic market, Bokeria is a mecca of modern Mediterranean cuisine. This bustling restaurant thrives in a former hardware store, where contemporary flavors are reflected in the fittingly sleek and industrial decor.

After our first lunch here, the heavenly flavors and impressive wine list convinced us to come back for a second meal. I still dream about the carpaccio with pickled onions, candied walnuts and honey mustard, along with the pear, asparagus and gorgonzola risotto. (Reservations recommended.)

Legendary carpaccio at Bokeria

Paradigma
Ulica Bana Josipa Jelacica 3

My rooftop feast at Paradigma was the crown jewel of gastronomic experiences in coastal Croatia. Resting atop an elegant terrace with inviting views of the sea and old town, Paradigma serves a blend of traditional Mediterranean gastronomy with unique contemporary twists. Indulgence is the name of the game here, as exemplified by our decadent feast.

We started our meal with champagne and fresh oysters, which were served in a variety of flavors including raspberry tapioca, cucumber foam, fresh watermelon, burrata, and jamón ibérico. The unconventionally sublime flavors effortlessly seduced my tastebuds. Next, we savored a Jerusalem artichoke and rose soup, followed by baba ghanoush risotto with green olives, goat cheese and eggplant espuma. (Reservations recommended.)

Bokeria's pear, asparagus and gorgonzola risotto

Uje Oil Bar 
Dominisova 3

Pioneered by Croatian olive oil retailers, this trendy bistro is hailed for its seasonal Dalmatian fare. The interior is cozy yet refined, while its romantic alleys offer picturesque al fresco dining. You can also sample a variety of Uje's extra virgin olive oils, which may tempt you to pick up a bottle of liquid gold on your way out. Whether you're in the mood for cheese and charcuterie or hearty Dalmatian classics, look no further than Uje Oil Bar.

HVAR

Giaxa
Petra Hektorovica 3

Our most decadent meal in Hvar was enjoyed at Giaxa, where we savored carpaccio with black truffle and Parmesan, lamb rack with white polenta, and green beans with pancetta. After an extravagant meal and several glasses of Pošip wine on the cozy terrace, Giaxa goes down as one of my favorite restaurants on the Dalmatian Coast. (Reservations recommended.)

Gariful's fresh mussels (not pictured: a phenomenal glass of local rosé)

Gariful
Riva 21

Along Hvar's polished waterfront lies the elegant terrace of Gariful, where the sparkling seaside views are almost as sublime as the seafood. From the patio's white tablecloths adorned with fresh seafood and world-class wines, one can watch opulent yachts sail into the harbor and chic passersby strolling the Riva (and maybe even spot a celebrity or two).

The refined nautical settings exude luxury. Though the prices are steep, the locale and fresh fare are worth the splurge. Reservations recommended.

ZAGREB

Vinodol
Nikole Tesle 10

Located in the heart of downtown Zagreb, Vinodol serves some of the capital's best cuisine. Gourmet yet unpretentious, Vinodol is revered for its classic continental dishes. Their succulent meals are prepared using seasonal ingredients, which follow traditional Croatian recipes. 

Savor the spit roasted lamb, seasonal soups, and charcuterie plates piled high with local sausages and cheeses. Pair them with a velvety glass of Croatian wine from Vinodol's phenomenal wine list. For a romantic and relaxed meal, reserve a spot on the airy covered patio.

Vinodol's platter of spicy sausages and fresh cheese

VARAŽDIN

Restoran Bedem
Vladimira Nazora 9

Named one of the Top 10 restaurants in Croatia, Bedem is the crown jewel of Varaždin. Two distinguished Croatian chefs have come together to establish this gastronomic gem, which is nestled just behind Varaždin's castle. Using fresh and local ingredients, Bedem serves some of the highest quality creations in continental Croatia.

Here I indulged on a five-course meal that was arguably one of the best dining experiences of my life. Every dish was bursting with flavor, and the chefs went above and beyond to accommodate my gluten-free needs. Out of all the incredible meals I devoured in Croatia, my feast at Bedem was surely the most memorable.


A five-star meal at Bedem

Note: Although I'm usually quite sensitive to cross-contamination, I didn't get sick from any of these restaurants. That said, I did not look into how these restaurants prevent (or fail to prevent) cross-contamination, so eat at your own risk.


Do you have any food allergies or intolerances?
If so, how do you deal with them on the road?



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Happy New Year! I apologize for my recent absence, for these past few months have been an absolute whirlwind. While I acknowledge that this post is terribly overdue, 2016 was too epic not to pay tribute to!

This past year had its fair share of low moments, including getting detainedbreaking up with Madrid, and working through the hardships of repatriating. But 2016 also brought me to 12 countries and over 35 cities, gave me a sweet ending to my memorable chapter abroad, and brought me back to the beloved Pacific Northwest.

Between the legendary adventures and unfathomable challenges, it was truly one hell of a year. To celebrate this year of extremes, here's a look back at my 16 favorite travel memories of 2016.


1. Skydiving in the Swiss Alps



My first adventure of the year was a solo trip to go skydiving in Interlaken, Switzerland. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, skydiving out of a helicopter in the Swiss Alps was by far the most memorable thing I've ever done abroad.

As I experienced an unparalleled adrenaline rush while surrounded by the most striking scenery, I was filled with an incomprehensible amount of joy. My exhilaration was positively surreal. After the free fall, I was buzzing with euphoria and couldn't stop smiling for weeks.


2. Venturing through Petra


While planning my spring break trip to Israel, I knew I couldn't travel all the way to the Middle East without fulfilling my dream of visiting Petra, Jordan. Ultimately, spending a day channeling my inner Indiana Jones was one of my all-time favorite adventures. I'm eager to get back to Jordan someday to explore more of what this amazing place has to offer!


3. Experiencing Tel Aviv like a local



When one of my sorority sisters moved to Tel Aviv, I saw it as my golden opportunity to finally visit Israel. Between exploring local markets, attending a local synagogue, and observing my first proper Shabbat, I got to go deeper than the traditional tourist experience. 

I felt overwhelmingly grateful to have a local guide show me Tel Aviv's authentic charisma. By the end of my trip, I had my heart set on finding a way to move there someday. (On that note, does anyone know how a shiksa can get a job in Israel?!)

4. Being blown away by Jerusalem



Jerusalem is easily the most captivating city I've ever been to. Visiting "the most contested piece of land in history" was an emotion-filled day, and required quite a bit of processing afterwards.

Tensions were high, but the spirit of the city was full of life. Jerusalem took my breath away in countless ways, but absorbing its character was an experience I'll never forget.

5. Floating on the Dead Sea



While Israel's variety of beaches is nothing short of sublime, nothing quite compares to floating like a cork on the Dead Sea. After visiting Masada's commanding ruins, we ventured to the resort town of Ein Bokek for a lazy afternoon along the Dead Sea.

More than 400 meters below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. Due to the unusually high concentrations of salt, effortlessly floating in the water makes for a relaxing, otherworldly experience. (Just don't get the salt water in your eyes!)

6. Eating my way through Asturias


The colorful fishing village of Cudillero

Nestled along the rugged coast of the Bay of Biscay, Asturias is truly Spain's best kept secret. Time and time again, Asturias seduces me and reminds me of the incredible diversity that is to be found within Spain.

And the food... oh, the food! From fresh seafood to rich fabada, Asturias is a culinary mecca. As I ate my way through Oviedo and Cudillero, I probably consumed a year's worth of calories. Spicy chorizo a la sidra, tangy Cabrales cheese, hearty and comforting cachopo, creamy arroz con leche... the list goes on. Washed down with a crisp glass of hard Asturian cider, and my taste buds were in a complete state of euphoria.

7. Soaking up Seville



As the first place in Spain to capture my heart, I felt inclined to bid Seville adieu before leaving the country. Though I've visited countless times, I just can't get enough of its southern charm.

I had less than 24 hours to revisit my favorite places, and I even squeezed in a tapas crawl with Devour Seville Food Tours. While my quick farewell trip wasn't nearly long enough, I know in my heart that I'll be back.

8. Returning to Cádiz



For the first time since studying abroad in 2010, I finally made my return to Cádiz. Though the city hasn't changed much in six years, I felt like a completely different person. (Can you believe that back then, I actually hated living in Spain?! Blasphemy!)

While revisiting old haunts felt entirely bittersweet, I had an incredible time giving the city the second chance it deserves. After this visit, I felt like things have finally come full circle.

9. Stopping in Stockholm with my BFF


Spotted in my natural habitat

We came, we ate, we conquered. After a marvelous week of hosting my best friend in Madrid, we took off to Stockholm for a weekend. Scandinavia never fails to enamor me, and Sweden is certainly no exception. From the pristine waterfront views to the colorful architecture, Stockholm had me swooning. 

10. Coming home to Paris for a weekend



As Gertrude Stein ever so wisely proclaimed, "America is my country, and Paris is my home town." Paris was the first city I ever truly fell in love with, and despite countless visits and a magical study abroad stint, my intense love affair has yet to subside.

I knew I had to visit one more time before moving across the pond, so I spent a long weekend getting lost, catching up with old friends, and devouring as many Ladurée macarons as possible. It was even more perfect than I had imagined.

11. Exploring the Dalmatian Coast with my mom


The sun-drenched coast of Dubrovnik

My European farewell tour concluded with an unforgettable trip through Croatia with my mom. We started off in Zagreb, venturing into Zagorje to visit Trakošćan Castle and Varaždin. We stopped in Plitvice Lakes National Park on our way to Split, where we sunned ourselves until hopping a ferry to Hvar. After a heavenly island escape, we ended our trip in the enchanting city of Dubrovnik.

While Croatia abounds with dreamy escapes and enthralling adventures, there's nothing quite like the dramatic beauty of the Dalmatian Coast. Each place we visited effortlessly seduced us. While I'll always cherish my memories from this trip, a part of me will always dream of going back.


Split's seaside promenade, the Riva

12. Dining in a family olive grove in Hvar



One of the most memorable parts of our journey through Croatia was escaping Hvar's Old Town for a home-cooked dinner in a family-owned olive grove, surrounded by striking views of the Stari Grad Plain. Our gracious hosts prepared an authentic Dalmatian feast for us, complete with homemade cheese, tapenades, wine, and freshly caught sea bass.

As the sun lazily sank into the rolling hills below us, we chatted with the family about their olive grove, their families, and Croatia's tumultuous history. Amid the hordes of tourists abounding in Croatia, genuinely connecting with locals was a refreshing change of pace. 

13. Checking Plitvice Lakes off my bucket list



Though it looks like a scene from a wooded fairytale, Croatia's resplendent Plitvice Lakes National Park is anything but a figment of the imagination. Sixteen cascading lakes beget a series of majestic waterfalls, highlighted by pools of clear jewel-tone water. A most impressive feat of nature, Plitvice Lakes is the ultimate bucket list-worthy adventure.

14. Snorkeling in Iceland's Silfra fissure



Located in Thingvellir National Park, the Silfra fissure is where two continents rip apart. Thanks to Arctic Adventures, I was able to snorkel between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This crack between the continents is filled with glacier water clear enough to see down to 100 meters!

The water gets its pristine qualities from being filtered through underground lava for 30-100 years. Due to its extreme visibility, the Silfra fissure is widely regarded as one of the best dive sites in the world.


The Silfra fissure is the only place in the world where you can snorkel between two tectonic plates

15. Jet setting to Los Angeles for birthday celebrations galore


Posing with the LACMA lights

Since my best friend Meghan lives in downtown Los Angeles (and Seattle constantly deprives me of Vitamin D), I find myself taking frequent trips down to LA. I booked a spontaneous trip for my birthday in July, and followed up with a trip in December for my BFF's 30th birthday. 

I could certainly see myself living in Los Angeles someday. Between the sunshine, bustling city vibes, and the wonderful friends that live there, I can't stop buying tickets to visit. (Thank goodness for Alaska Airlines miles!)


16. Taking an impulsive solo trip to Puerto Rico



When I spontaneously booked my ticket to Puerto Rico two weeks before leaving, I had no idea what to expect. As it turns out, it was my favorite solo trip I've ever taken.

Between the stunning scenery, vibrant culture, mouthwatering cuisine, and incredible people I met, I fell more and more in love with this island as each day passed. Exploring Puerto Rico brought me back to life, and ultimately gave me the energy I needed to start the new year with a sense of purpose.

A snorkeling trip to Vieques, Puerto Rico

WHAT'S IN STORE FOR 2017?

While 2016 will be a tough year to beat, 2017 is already shaping up to be quite memorable. I rang in the new year on the road, I started taking Portuguese classes, and I just moved into a new apartment near downtown Seattle!

For my spring break in April, I'll be heading to Hanoi, Vietnam to visit one of my best friends that I taught English with in Madrid. It'll be my first time in Southeast Asia, and I couldn't be more excited to explore a new corner of the world. On my way home, I plan on taking advantage of an extended layover in Seoul, South Korea.

Given my newfound love for the Caribbean, I'm also in the midst of planning a potential trip to Cuba in July. I need more sunshine, palm trees, and a rum cocktail in hand, por favor!

As you can see, I have a terribly long backlog of blog posts to crank out. I can't wait to share more photos and stories from the past year's adventures, so stay tuned!

Cheers, 2016!


What were your favorite travel memories of 2016?
Do you have any exciting travel plans for 2017?




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Crumbling, colorful and crass, the beauty of Porto lies in its picturesque imperfections. A true diamond in the rough, this city is lived in and well loved.

Often overlooked by tourists in favor of Lisbon's notoriety, the hidden charms of Porto make it all the more enchanting. Its decrepit elegance asserts it as one of the most unique and unpretentious European destinations. Unabashedly effervescent, Porto is a small city with a big personality.


While absorbed in Porto's electric reverie, it's impossible not to become infatuated with its brazen personality. Battered yet beautiful, unrefined yet exquisite, the city's contradictions make it peculiarly magnetizing. Its charisma is one of a kind, and should therefore be experienced accordingly.



To soak in all of Porto's unpredictable charms, it's ideal to stay at least three nights. Be sure to balance out the sights with plenty of aimless wandering. Fully experiencing the magic of Porto means making time to get lost within its enchanting streets.

It's imperative to sightsee with your tastebuds here, and climbing the city's unapologetically steep hills will help burn off the calories from all of the delectable petiscos you are sure to devour. For a deeper look into Porto's history and cuisine, I highly recommend taking a tour with Taste Porto Food Tours.


For backpackers and luxury travelers alike, Porto is sure to seduce the senses. It's only a matter of time until this underrated destination becomes one of Europe's most popular, so now is the time to fully enjoy its raw beauty and unadulterated authenticity.



Are you ready to revel in Portugal's most mouthwatering dishes, memorable wines and breathtaking sights? You could easily spend a lifetime basking in Porto's simple pleasures, but a long weekend will happily suffice.

To maximize your time and experience the city's best restaurants, wineries, shops and monuments, allow me to share with you my complete weekend guide to Porto, Portugal. Saúde!



EAT



Mercado do Bolhão
Rua de Fernandes Tomás

Perhaps the most iconic open air market in Portugal, Mercado do Bolhão has been serving up fresh and local ingredients for over 100 years. Although the structure is in mild disrepair, this historic marketplace showcases a kaleidoscope of produce and a quality selection of fish and seafood. Many of Porto's finest restaurants and hotels primarily buy their ingredients here, for their products are widely regarded as the freshest.


Sardines marinated in olive oil and chili pepper at Bolhão Wine House

Taberna Santo António
Rua das Virtudes 32

Dining at Taberna Santo António is like partaking in a large family dinner. Comfort food takes on a new meaning at this no-frills eatery packed with hungry locals, each devouring traditional home-cooked meals such as rich cozido á Portuguesa (meat, potatoes, rice, cabbage and carrots) and bacalhau á Braga (Braga-style codfish). If you're craving an authentic Portuguese experience, look no further than here.

Casa Santo António
Rua da Assunção 40

This darling and unpretentious tasca serves small Portuguese tapas, also known as petiscos, in an all-you-can-eat fashion until you tell the waiters to stop serving you. Multi-course meals can include delectable fresh goat cheese with honey and raisins, cured ham, marinated olives, curried carrots, black eyed peas salad, specialty cod dishes, spicy pork and grilled chouriço served atop a flaming grill. Don't miss the rich chocolate mousse that tastes delightfully akin to brownie batter.

Flor dos Congregados
Travessa dos Congregados 11

Over 150 years old, this iconic hole in the wall is famous for its "24-hour sandwich". Juicy pork belly is marinated in spices for 20 hours, and then the meat spends four hours cooking to perfection in a wood-fired oven. Combined with cured Portuguese ham and roasted tomatoes, this dish provides the perfect balance between sweet and savory.


Cozido á Portuguesa at Taberna Santo António

Ó Maria
Rua de Conceição 106

This trendy kitchen is known for their unique mariazinhas, which are gourmet bite-sized sandwiches. Pair a craft cocktail with sliders made of alheira (smoked Portuguese sausage), goat cheese, spinach and caramelized onions, or boar loin with goat cheese, tomato confit, caramelized onions and pesto. Gluten-free bread is also available.

Café Progresso
Rua Actor João Guedes 5

Open since 1899, Café Progresso asserts itself as Porto's oldest café. Head to this cozy coffee shop for a leisurely brunch or a quick caffeine jolt. For less than 6€, you can fuel up on a traditional breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast or fresh fruit salad, coffee and orange juice.

DRINK


Taylor's
Rua do Choupelo 250, Vila Nova de Gaia

Across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia lies Taylor's, one of Porto's oldest and most celebrated wineries. For a 7€ tour and tasting, you can try their delectable white, tawny and ruby Port wines. Not only does the tour cover the basics of Port wine, but it also delves into the history and culture of Portuguese winemaking. However, the best part of the tour is sipping on the sweet liquid gold that helped put Porto on the map. 


Bolhão Wine House
Mercado do Bolhão, Loja 9

A hidden gem in the historic Mercado do Bolhão, Bolhão Wine House offers three Port wine tastings for 7€ (Mondays through Saturdays). This up-and-coming wine bar is run in the owner's grandmother's old flower shop, and aims to utilize products from other stalls in the market so that everyone can benefit from their success. Aside from exquisite local wines, you can also purchase gourmet snacks and artisan souvenirs.

Pass the Port, please!

Prova
Rua de Ferreira Borges 86

This quaint wine bar serves an unparalleled selection of quality wines, thanks to top-notch sommelier Diogo. Highlighting wines from every region of the country, it's hard not to leave with a newfound appreciate for Portuguese vinho. My favorite pick was the 2007 Hereditas from the Alentejo region, which was delightfully full bodied and spicy.

SHOP



Livraria Lello & Irmão
Rua das Carmelitas 144

Did you know that JK Rowling began writing the first chapters Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone while she was teaching English in Porto? Rumor has it that the Hogwarts uniforms were even inspired by the uniforms of University of Porto students. After visiting this whimsical bookshop, it's no surprise that this locale was also a possible inspiration to Rowling. Gliding up and down the shop's staircases makes you feel as if you're wandering through the halls of Hogwarts. It costs 3€ to enter, but your ticket acts as a voucher if you choose to later make a purchase.


A Vida Portuguesa
Galeria de Paris 20

This gift shop nestled just around the corner from Livraria Lello is known for its colorful assortment of authentic "made in Portugal" souvenirs. Here you can pick up local treats such as fragrant soaps, colorful tiles, artisan kitchen supplies and unique postcards. They also offer a tasty variety of Portuguese delicacies, which unsurprisingly make for the best gifts for friends back home.


EXPLORE

Sunrise from the Dom Luís I Bridge

Dom Luís I Bridge

If this double-decker metallic bridge looming over the Douro River reminds you of the Eiffel Tower, you are definitely onto something. This impressive structure connecting Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia was built in 1886 by Téophile Seyrig, one of Gustave Eiffel's protégés. While the towering bridge is a magnificent feat within itself, its upper deck also boasts some of the most spectacular views of the city.


Miradouro da Vitória

Though seemingly derelict, this hidden lookout offers some of the most sublime panoramas of Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia and the Douro River. Stop by around golden hour to truly capture the city's magic.


Golden hour views at Miradouro da Vitória

Sé Cathedral

This Romanesque cathedral is not only stunning in its own right, but it also offers some of the most striking vistas of the city. Peek inside for a quick dose of culture, or simply take in the remarkable views of Porto from above. 


Porto's Sé Cathedral

Ribeira Neighborhood

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, Porto's historic center is brimming with dilapidated charm and unabashed charisma. The darling medieval streets flaunt crumbling tiles, bold details and bright pops of color. Wander through the twisting alleys, gaze up at the locals perched on their balconies, and soak in the neighborhood's picturesque imperfections.


Rustic charm in the Ribeira

São Bento Railway Station

Perhaps the crown jewel of all train stations, the interior of São Bento is covered in elegant azulejos that depict the history of Portugal. Over 20,000 traditional blue and white tiles adorn the walls of the station, creating one of the most arresting sights in the city.

ESCAPE


Matosinhos

Dip your toes in the ocean and eat some of the region's best seafood in this seaside town just 15 minutes from downtown Porto. With surfing schools on the beach and vast stretches of sand to soak up the sun, Matosinhos is the ideal oceanside escape.

When hunger strikes, head to O Gaveto (Rua Roberto Ivens 826) for fresh seafood, traditional caldo verde (soup with kale, potatoes, chouriço and olive oil) and invigorating vinho verde (young Portuguese wine). Don't miss out on their heavenly clams served in a fresh olive oil, garlic, cilantro and white wine sauce.

To get to Matosinhos from downtown Porto, take bus 500 from Praça da Liberdade. With a single ticket costing only 1.50€, the ride boasts sublime views of the coast. Or, take the blue metro line to the Matosinhos Sul stop, which costs 1.50€ for a single ticket.



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