My name is Kate McCulley and I travel the world for a living. Her mission to show you that yes, it is possible for women to travel on their own and independently while staying safe and having the time of their lives.This is the ultimate guide to solo female travel and inspirational adventures around the world.
Where are the best neighborhoods and hotels to stay in Bangkok? I’ve got you covered! Bangkok is one of my favorite cities in the world and I have spent a ton of time there.
What I love most about Bangkok is that it’s endlessly interesting. Beyond that, Bangkok has some of the most delicious street food on the planet. And my personal favorite: you can get massages everywhere for super cheap — only about $7 per hour! And compared to other major cities, Bangkok is super cheap.
If you’re traveling through Southeast Asia, chances are you’ll route through Bangkok several times. And if you’re visiting other destinations in Thailand, you’ll likely spend the beginning and end of your trip in Bangkok. So you should try to stay in the neighborhood that is best for you — or even multiple neighborhoods if you’ve got enough time!
Best Neighborhoods to Stay in Bangkok
Bangkok is a megacity, and it is chock full of diverse neighborhoods. You can’t paint the city with a single brushstroke. Some frenetic neighborhoods are more suited for partiers; others are more suited for people who want to get away from Bangkok’s craziness.
Your biggest consideration should be how you plan to spend your time in Bangkok. If you plan on zipping all over the city, you’ll probably be better off close to a transit station. If you’re coming here for an overnight after a trip to the islands, you might want to stay in a shopping district so you can buy tons of souvenirs without having to drag them all over the country. And maybe you want to be as close as possible to Bangkok’s insane nightlife. Whatever you’re into, Bangkok has the perfect neighborhood for you!
Bangkok (Image via Pixabay)
Best Bangkok Neighborhood Overall: Siam
It’s so hard to pick a best Bangkok neighborhood when they’re all so different! Some people are wild about Sukhumvit but it doesn’t do anything for me; some people live for Khao San Road but others are repulsed by it. It’s all about what you’re into as a traveler (and I know that whatever I write here, Bangkok superfans will complain about it).
Personally, I think the Siam area is a great neighborhood. This neighborhood is central, close to tons of shopping and activities, and home to some glorious hotels and hostels. It’s a good introduction to everyday urban Thai life, as you have tons of teenagers hanging out, taking selfies, and trying to see and be seen. (In fact, Siam Paragon was once the #1 most-photographed places on Instagram!)
In the Siam area, you can shop like crazy at the high-end Siam Paragon (when you’re sick of Thai food, head to its basement). You can head to Jim Thompson’s house and marvel at this beautiful architecture, a relic from the past. And if you want to get out, you have multiple Skytrain lines at your doorstep. You never have to go very far to find something you need in Siam.
The biggest drawback? Siam doesn’t have a neighborhood feel; it’s very commercial. It’s also very crowded, which could be a bit much if you’re looking for a low-key place.
Best Bangkok Neighborhood for Backpackers and Newbie Travelers: Khao San Road Area
For Southeast Asia backpackers, all roads lead to Bangkok, and Khao San Road is the backpacker center of the universe. Here you’ll find wild bars and fun restaurants; tons of street stalls hawking t-shirts, bathing suits, and jewelry; lots of outdoor massage stands; street food vendors; and hotels, guesthouses, and hostels. This is where Leonardo DiCaprio landed in The Beach.
Even if you don’t desire to be surrounded by backpackers, you might still enjoy this area because it’s easy. Located in the Banglamphu neighborhood, Khao San Road also makes a great landing spot for your first trip to Bangkok. You’ll probably arrive feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, and it’s a lot easier to settle in and find your first meal when you’re in a neighborhood that caters to foreigners.
I don’t recommend staying on Khao San Road itself, as it’s extremely loud. Instead, stay in the surrounding area — I particularly recommend the area around Soi Rambuttri (not Thanon Rambuttri), which is still lots of fun but quiet and lovely. The hotels I recommend below are all far enough from Khao San Road that you can get a good night’s sleep.
Khao San Road is within walking distance of the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, and you’re just across the river from Wat Arun. This is a good base neighborhood for visiting those sights.
The biggest drawback? There is no MRT or Skytrain near this neighborhood. To get to other parts of Bangkok, you could take a ferry on the Chao Phraya to Sathon Pier to pick up the BTS, or you could take an Uber, cab, or tuk-tuk.
If you’re looking for the coolest neighborhood with the best cafes and restaurants, where you’re on the verge of something hip and amazing, Ari is the place for you. For years, Ari was primarily a residential neighborhood for middle-class Thais without any attractions — but in the past few years, dozens of new restaurants and cafes have opened, making it a destination for people who love to hang out and enjoy the local amenities.
Ari has lots of delicious restaurants, quirky shops, and luxurious places as well. It has its own night market if you’re looking to eat on the cheap. And if you’re here to work, Ari has a high concentration of excellent coffee shops.
Ari is conveniently located with its own Skytrain stop, giving you access all over the city, and it’s very close to Chatuchak Weekend Market.
The biggest drawback? There aren’t a ton of hotels in Ari at this time. Many people who stay here tend to use rentals. Don’t expect to see any major hotels arriving soon, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more boutique hotels spring up in Ari in the next few years.
Best Bangkok Neighborhood for Foodies: Victory Monument
To be honest, every neighborhood in Bangkok is a great neighborhood for foodies. Bangkok is one of those cities where you can find outstanding cuisine on every corner, and some of the best dishes come from street carts. But one place shines above the others: Victory Monument. This neighborhood is home to some of the best street food in the city, for much cheaper than the tourist-driven neighborhoods.
You won’t find a ton of tourists in this neighborhood — this is where you come to live as a local.
Victory Monument is one of the major transit hubs of Bangkok, making it an ever-changing landscape of buses, tuk-tuks, and scooters, as well as the SkyTrain, and travelers from all over Thailand. As a result, you have a lot of drivers who are looking for cheap eats. And taxi drivers are aficionados for cheap and delicious food.
Soi Rangnam is one of the most hopping streets in the neighborhood, and here’s where you’ll find some of the best high-end restaurants, some of the best street food stalls, bars, and the King Power duty-free shopping mall.
The biggest drawback? This is a neighborhood for locals who live here, not tourists who are looking for things to do. It’s not as popular with expat tourists, either. That may be a pro for you, actually.
Best Bangkok Neighborhood for Nightlife: Sukhumvit
If you’re coming to Bangkok to enjoy the best parties, bars, and restaurants, head to Sukhumvit. While Khao San Road is known for being a party zone, Sukhumvit is more upscale. You’ll have easy access to the rooftop bars, high-end clubs, excellent restaurants, and fun, chilled out bars for a fun night out. Sukhumvit is home to Soi 11 is one of the best party streets in the city.
Sukhumvit is also home to some red light district hotspots, like Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza. And if you’re into shopping, there are plenty of great neighborhoods around.
Sukhumvit Road is the longest street in Thailand, and you navigate the neighborhood by the number of the soi off the main road. The Skytrain literally runs down the road, giving you easy access all over Bangkok. (Which is a good thing, as the traffic can be insane around here.)
The biggest drawback? Bangkok has a lot of sex tourists, and while they’re in every neighborhood, quite a few of them tend to congregate in Sukhumvit. Seeing older Western men with Thai women barely out of their teens is just part of visiting the city, but you may prefer to hang out where this scene is not as prevalent. It’s also a bit pricier here.
Best Bangkok Neighborhood for Peace and Quiet: Silom
As much as I love Bangkok, it’s not for everyone. A lot of travelers are overwhelmed by Bangkok’s chaos and prefer to stay somewhere quieter and more isolated. If that’s you, Silom is a great choice. Frankly, every time I’ve stayed in Silom, I’ve been surrounded by backpackers who had spent their trips in Chiang Mai or the islands and were just staying in Bangkok because they were flying out of BKK the next day.
Silom is a business-oriented neighborhood with some of the best hotels in the city. It also has nightlife access — most notably, the red-light district of Patpong, as well as Patpong’s night market (great for fake bags). It has access to both the MRT and Skytrain, making it very convenient for getting around the city.
But Silom also has easy access to Lumphini Park — and if you’re not a big city person, Lumphini Park may be what you need in order to avoid going crazy in Bangkok. Come here to run, walk, join a free workout class, or just breathe in somewhat-less-polluted air.
The biggest drawback? It’s a bit boring, to be honest. But you can always travel to the crazier neighborhoods.
Best Bangkok Neighborhood for Shopping and Stopovers: Pratunam
Pratunam is home to some of the best shopping destinations in Bangkok. You’re a short walk from the Platinum Mall, the Central World wall, and Pantip Plaza — home to five floors of electronics! If you’re coming to Bangkok to shop, especially if your visit does not coincide on a weekend day, when Chatuchak Market is open, Pratunam is the best place to set up shop. Pratunam’s eponymous market is a great spot for finding great souvenirs on the cheap.
Pratunam is also an ideal choice if you’re in Bangkok on a brief stopover. You can take the ARL (Airport Rail Link) straight from BKK Airport to Ratchapraprop and avoid Bangkok’s legendary traffic.
The biggest drawback? Like Siam, it’s crowded and commercialized here — not as much of a neighborhood feel as you might want to have. If you get anxious around crowds, you might not be a big fan of this neighborhood.
Bangkok is one of the best cities in the world for luxury hotels. There is an incredible variety of excellent luxury hotels, they tend to go for much cheaper than in other cities, and Asian luxury travel is a few levels up from Western luxury travel.
Basically, if you’re looking to splurge, this is the place. And if you’re looking for a VERY special place, the Mandarin Oriental is one of the absolute best. Everything is immaculately designed, you’ve got sweeping views over the Chao Phraya, a gorgeous outdoor pool with beautiful landscaping, and amenities like 24-hour room service, a Turkish bath, and French and Chinese restaurants on the premises.
The hotel is located in Silom near the Chao Phraya.
Looking to travel solo in Europe? You’ve come to the right place! My name is Kate and I teach women how to travel the world safely on their own. While I’m American and I travel all over the world, I’ve spent the most time in Europe. Several years, when you add it all up. I have traveled to every single country in Europe and have lived in two of them (Italy and the UK).
This continent has given me so many happy travel memories and I want you to have them, too.
And yet…you have doubts about your trip. You may have well-meaning friends or family who have convinced you that a woman shouldn’t travel on her own in Europe. And you’re Googling…hence, you ended up here.
This guide will tell you the truth about what it’s like to travel solo in Europe.
Kate in Minsk, Belarus
Why Travel to Europe Solo?
Um, why not travel to Europe solo? It’s one of the best regions of the world to have fun on your own.
Europe truly has everything a solo traveler could hope for. Are you looking for interesting cities? Fantastic cuisine? Glorious mountains? Beautiful islands and beaches? Gorgeous men or women? (Hey…Spain and Sweden. That’s all I’m saying.) Not only does Europe have all of those things, the continent has dozens of destinations that have EACH of those things.
Beyond that, Europe is a very safe place for women to travel alone. Generally speaking, it’s about as safe as your hometown, and most of the precautions you’d need to take are precautions you already take as a woman. Europe is also easy for first-time solo female travelers, as much of the continent has excellent infrastructure for travelers.
Also, know that it’s extremely common for women to travel solo in Europe. Especially European women. While you may be the only one of your friends who has traveled solo, nobody in Europe will give you a second glance for being on your own.
Kate at the Christmas markets of Passau, Germany
The Best Experiences in Europe
Man, I could make this list hundreds of items long, but here are some of the best experiences you can have in Europe:
Island-hop around Croatia or Greece. These two countries are home to the most glorious islands! Whether you book a sailing cruise (like I did in Croatia) or book ferries between islands, you’ll be experiencing some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in Europe.
Spend time underneath the midnight sun. Whether you do it in Iceland, Finland, Norway, or somewhere else entirely, it can be a trippy experience to be swimming in a lake underneath a pale pink sky at midnight. It’s even better if you skinny-dip while doing it amongst a group of nonchalant Finnish women!
Take a ride through the canals of Venice, Amsterdam, or Bruges. Find your perfect canal city and relax in a boat. There’s no better way to see the cities than from the water!
Sit in an Irish pub and listen to traditional music. Order a Guinness — yes, it tastes much better in Ireland than anywhere else — and listen to the magic as musicians join in with each other, play off each other, and make the crowd go wild. You’ll have a group of friends in no time!
Hike through the Alps — or ski down them. Europe’s most majestic mountains are begging for you to visit. Whether you go skiing in St. Moritz or get in some hiking in Italy’s South Tyrol, whether you attempt Mount Blanc in Chamonix, France, or snowboard through Austria in August, the Alps will invigorate your body and spirit.
Sit at a cafe and people-watch. It’s universal. When the sun starts going down, that’s the time to see and be seen in lots of places throughout Southern Europe. Whether you’re enjoying a glass of red on a Rome piazza while well-dressed people stroll by, or having a coffee at a sidewalk cafe in Zagreb, or enjoying cava in Madrid as kids kick a soccer ball around, it is such a quintessential European experience.
Kate in Zadar, Croatia
Is Europe Good for First-Time Solo Female Travelers?
Yes, Europe is perfect for first-time solo female travelers! Europe is easy, safe, and a lot of fun. Here’s where Europe particularly shines for first-timers:
Infrastructure. Travelers have been coming to Europe for centuries. Europe has all kinds of hotels, restaurants, and tours catering to travelers, particularly in its most popular destinations. And if you’re from North America or Australia, you’ll be blown away by how much better the public transportation is, especially the trains.
Well-worn tourist trail. While it seems like so many people are talking about getting off the tourist trail, it can be very beneficial to newer travelers. Knowing that lots of travelers go from Rome to Florence to Venice can make your own travel planning a lot easier. (And then you can flesh it out with side trips to Pienza and Bologna!)
Familiarity. It can be jarring to head to Asia or Africa for your first solo trip. And if you’re heading to India or China, yikes, that’s a big cultural leap. But Europe is familiar and easy for Westerners. You’ll understand the food; you can converse with the people. Save Africa and Asia for once you get a little more comfortable traveling on your own.
English proficiency. Of course this varies quite a bit throughout the continent, but for the most part, you can find someone who speaks English when you need it. English proficiency tends to be the highest in The Netherlands and the Nordic countries, plus you have Britain and Ireland; I found English proficiency to be the lowest in less-developed countries like Albania, Moldova, and Belarus.
Natural and human-made beauty. Whether you want cliffs or castles, fjords or palaces, Europe is arguably the most photogenic continent on the planet. Whether you want to be holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or standing in front of the tiny island in Lake Bled, you’ll have beautiful photos no matter where you go.
Kate in Colmar, France
Is Europe Good for Experienced Solo Female Travelers?
Absolutely, Europe is great for experienced and expert travelers! Even though I’ve traveled to every country in Europe, lived in two countries in Europe, and have spent years here altogether, I’m going to keep returning to Europe as often as possible. I love Europe that much.
In fact, when you’re more experienced, you feel more freedom to concentrate on lesser-known areas. A first-timer might travel to London, Paris, and Amsterdam — but I’ve done that. Recently I chose to visit the Alsace region of France and I absolutely LOVED it. This is more of the kind of Europe travel I want to do: concentrating on a smaller region in depth rather than hitting up Europe’s greatest hits.
If you’re not into Europe, that’s fine — but don’t let anyone tell you that Europe is only for beginners. I’m speaking specifically of travel snobs who try to convince you that Europe is full of novice travelers and thus boring. NOT TRUE! There are plenty of stones left to overturn.
Kate in Taormina, Sicily
Is Europe Safe?
Most women are nervous about visiting Europe because they’re not sure whether it’s safe. Many of these women have well-meaning relatives and friends who tell them that sure, Europe’s safe if you have a man with you, but it’s not safe for a woman on her own.
Those well-meaning relatives and friends are wrong. They’re coming from a place of love and concern, but they’re wrong.
I always tell travelers to consider the source. Who is giving you this advice? Ask yourself the following questions:
Does this person travel?
Does this person travel in my style of traveling (i.e. backpacking as opposed to resort travel)?
Has this person been to this destination?
Has this person been to this destination recently (in the past 3-5 years)?
If the answer is yes to all of these, chances are you have an accurate source and should listen to what he or she has to say. But if the answer to one or more of these questions is no, you should seek out opinions elsewhere.
A lot of people who claim that Europe is unsafe have never traveled there and are remembering something bad about Europe they heard on cable news a few years ago. Or maybe their friend got robbed in Madrid in the 90s and they’ve been holding that experience in their mind ever since. Or maybe they saw Taken a few too many times.
Generally speaking, Europe is as safe as your hometown. And your hometown is probably a very safe place — but that doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens there. You could be killed by a drunk driver any day, but that doesn’t keep you from leaving your home.
There are two main risks that women traveling solo to Europe need to be aware of: petty theft and intoxication. You need to be ready to keep your belongings close while out and about, and you should drink much less than you do at home. Read on for more tips on both of those.
Kate somewhere in Albania
Travel and Safety Tips for Europe
The main risk you face in Europe is petty theft. The best way to guard against that is to protect your belongings in your room and on your person. Lock up your belongings in a portable safe and lock it to something sturdy in your room. When you’re out, use a crossbody purse that zips shut (see more here on what kind of handbag is best for travel) and you may want to try a Speakeasy Travel Supply Scarf, which has a hidden pocket for your valuables that no pickpocket will know about. Use a good day bag that locks if you’re carrying your camera and lenses; I use this one.
Keep a backup stash of cash in USD and an extra debit card in your luggage. Hide these in different, random places.
Pickpocketing is much more common in Europe than in the US. Two cities where it’s particularly insidious are the tourist hotspots of Paris and Barcelona. Be extra cautious with your belongings. Hold onto your bags when on public transportation. Don’t let your purse stay behind your back.
Dress to blend in with European women. European women tend to be well dressed and groomed, especially in the cities; dressing this way will help you keep a low profile. Don’t wear athletic wear, shorts, baseball caps, or torn jeans. Any of these items will instantly mark you as a clueless tourist.
Don’t wear athletic sneakers or flip-flops; instead, bring nice flats, boots, sandals, or fashion sneakers (think leather). The Walking Company is my go-to for comfortable shoes that are cute; I strongly recommend black ABEO flats, which have fantastic arch support. I prefer to dress up in Europe; it makes for better photos. I tend to wear tailored dresses in the warmer months and nice jeans, boots, and a black jacket with a Speakeasy scarf in the cooler months. Sunglasses are always important.
Be very cautious about your drinking. Europeans tend not to drink to excess (with some exceptions — hello there, Britain). Be aware of your drinking limits and drink less than you usually do when at home. Limiting yourself to two drinks is often a pretty good rule. Keep an eye on your drinks and only take drinks from the bartender.
Learn the best travel routes in Europe. My favorite site and app for this is Rome2Rio, where you put in two different cities and they tell you how to get between them. This is especially valuable for unusual routes in Europe (like when I went from eastern Slovakia to southern Poland). You can safely travel Europe by train, plane, or bus.
Ignore the Roma (formerly known as gypsies, a racist term that you should phase out of your vocabulary) and try to keep your distance. The Roma target tourists for scams in the popular tourist zones of Europe, whether that’s panhandling while holding a sedated baby or poking you to distract you while they pickpocket you. DO NOT GIVE THEM MONEY. You are rewarding a system where the men enjoy the money and force the women and children to work.
You are not obligated to tip the musicians who play near or in restaurants. However, if you make eye contact or make any indication that you’re enjoying the music, they will hound you for tips until you give in. And if you are enjoying the music, you should give them a euro.
Ask your taxi driver to use the meter. If not, you could be charged an obscene amount. If there is no meter and no other option for a ride, negotiate the rate in advance.
Consider faking a phone call when you get an Uber or cab. Sometimes if you’re taking a cab at night or in a rural area, it can help if you fake a call on your phone. Pretend to call a friend, read the driver’s license plate clearly, making sure the driver sees, say that you’ll be there in a few minutes, then get in the car. While most cabs and Ubers are fine, this just adds another layer of security.
Prepare for all kinds of weather. Europe’s climate varies widely. Summers can be extremely hot in Southern Europe; however, an August trip to Paris or Edinburgh or Copenhagen could be cold and drizzly the whole time. Or it could be a little of everything. Bring a variety of layers. No matter where you’re going, bring a high quality umbrella!
In hot destinations like Spain or southern Italy, shops often close in the early afternoon for a siesta during the hottest part of the day. Be sure to hydrate frequently and wear broad-spectrum sunscreen.
The water is safe to drink in most of Western Europe, but not everywhere.See this graphic for a guide on water safety. While most travelers in Europe rely on bottled water, it creates a major waste issue, even in countries that recycle. For this reason, I recommend you bring a reusable bottle and invest in a SteriPen water purifier (much better and faster than tablets) if you’re traveling to areas where the water isn’t safe.
Consider bringing a Speakeasy Travel Supply scarf. These beautiful scarves are designed and sewed by my friend and have a hidden passport pocket in them. I love these scarves (I even designed my own!) and they are so good at keeping your valuables hidden. They’re also extremely chic, enough to work in a fashion-conscious city like Paris or Rome.
Don’t let food allergies stop you from traveling in Europe. It’s easy to communicate food allergies in English-speaking countries or countries with high English proficiency like the Netherlands or the Nordics. Beyond that, many countries are very understanding about food allergies, especially Italy.
If you’re a celiac, my friend Jodi has written excellent, in-depth gluten-free translation cards for Greece, Italy, France, Portugal, Germany and Spain (both Spanish and Catalan). Each card is tailored to the local dishes of the country.
Finally, invest in a guidebook. Even as an expert traveler, I love guidebooks. They’re filled with detailed information about everything from travel times between cities to medical clinics serving foreigners. I’m a Lonely Planet fan and I recommend Lonely Planet’s Europe guidebook. I buy the digital version and store the PDF on iBooks on my phone. You can either buy the whole book or individual chapters, which is a budget-friendly option if you’re visiting a few different parts of Europe.
Easiest Destinations in Europe for First-Time Solo Female Travelers
If you’re completely new to international travel, I recommend starting somewhere on the easier side. I encourage first-timers to visit countries where English is widely spoken (or where you speak the local language), where there is good infrastructure, and where it’s easy to have a..
Harlem is one of the most exciting neighborhoods in New York City. It’s the center of black America and has been for well over a century. It’s beautiful and endlessly interesting and the music seems to spring out of everywhere. And no visit to New York is complete until you get a taste of Harlem.
Lots of people want to visit Harlem — but they have no idea what to do once they get there. They want to experience the neighborhood, and maybe walk around and get some soul food, but they’re not sure what to do specifically. And that’s where I come in.
I am a Harlem resident and have lived here for three years. I love this neighborhood fiercely. That’s the difference between this guide and every other “things to do in Harlem” guide that dominates the search results. Those ones are written by overworked and underpaid writers who rely on Google. I live here. This is my community. I actually go to these places.
Harlem is a huge and diverse neighborhood — much more than most people anticipate. It’s way too big to fully cover on foot. And while Harlem is the epicenter of urban African-American life, it’s also home to communities from the Dominican Republic (Hamilton Heights), Puerto Rico (East Harlem) and West Africa (116th St.).
Come to Harlem for jazz, gospel, and blues. Come to Harlem for braised oxtails and chicken and waffles. Come for the history. Come for the art. Come to support as many black-owned businesses as possible. And don’t just reserve one afternoon for Harlem — once you get here, you’ll wish you had a few days to see it all.
Harlem-125th (via Pixabay)
How to Get to Harlem
Harlem is part of Manhattan. While it’s not its own borough, like some tourists think, Harlem is enormous and broken into several different neighborhoods.
In the simplest terms, Harlem runs roughly from 110th St. to 155th St. It starts a bit lower on the east side (96th St.) and a bit higher on the west side (about 125th St.), but overall those are the approximate borders.
Many of the streets have different names in Harlem than further downtown. For example, 8th Ave. is Frederick Douglas Blvd. in Harlem. 7th Ave. is Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. in Harlem. 6th Ave. is called Lenox Ave. or Malcolm X Blvd. in Harlem (either name works).
Central Harlem is the core of Harlem and generally runs north from 110th St. to 155th St., between Amsterdam Ave. and Fifth Ave.
South Harlem, which is within Central Harlem, generally refers to the area north of Central Park to 125th St. (Do not call it SoHa. Real estate developers have been trying to rebrand this popular area as SoHa and locals have been fighting against it.)
Manhattanville runs from 125th St. to 135th St. on the west side, west of Amsterdam.
Hamilton Heights runs from 135th St. to 155th St. on the west side, from Riverside to Edgecombe.
Sugar Hill is an official historic district. It runs from 145th St. to 155th St. and from Amsterdam to Edgecombe, all of which is part of Hamilton Heights.
East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem, runs north from 96th Street and east from Fifth Ave. As a Latinx neighborhood rather than a black neighborhood, East Harlem has a different feel from the rest of Harlem.
And then there are the Harlem-adjacent associated neighborhoods that some call uptown or Upper Manhattan. Morningside Heights, from 110th St. to 125th St. on the west side, is dominated by Columbia University; Washington Heights, a largely Dominican enclave, runs north of Harlem from 155th St. to 181st St.
Harlem (via Pixabay)
Is Harlem safe?
Yes, Harlem is very safe. All of Manhattan is safe to visit. You simply need to take the precautions you would take in any other neighborhood: Don’t walk around with an open purse behind your back. Don’t get blackout drunk. Don’t buy drugs.
Additionally, it’s important to be respectful — more so than in other neighborhoods. Harlem has historically been an oppressed and economically disadvantaged community of color. People who live in SoHo expect that you’re going to photograph everything in sight, but many Harlemites are not happy that their neighborhood has become a tourist destination. Remember that this is a place where people live and work; Harlem does not exist for the entertainment of tourists.
If you want to photograph someone in Harlem, ask him or her for permission. Do not photograph children at all.
Do not call it “the hood” or “the ghetto.” These are racist insults.
If you’re not street smart or used to spending time in cities, there are parts of Harlem where I would exercise more caution. I would especially be cautious around 125th St. around Park and Lexington Aves, which is on the east side, and around the public housing developments in the lower 100s on the east side. These areas tend to have crowds of homeless people and addicts, and if you have to commute through there regularly, it can be difficult to witness their pain first-hand.
If you’re already used to city life, you’ll be fine in any part of Harlem at any time of day.
How to Be a Good Visitor to Harlem
The best way to give back to Harlem is to peruse its small businesses — particularly black-owned and POC-owned businesses. This is especially important as Harlem continues its rapid gentrification.
Why? Because for decades, the city divested in Harlem and it was nearly impossible for black people to get business loans. Combine this with the economic hardships of generational poverty and Harlem’s business growth was stagnant.
In the past decade, Harlem has gentrified rapidly — some neighborhoods much faster than others. As a result, rents have risen sharply, longtime businesses can’t afford to stay, and high-end coffeeshops and bars are moving in to target an increasingly white and wealthy clientele.
While these businesses have shuttered, longtime Harlem residents who can’t afford their rent have been forced to move further out — to cheaper neighborhoods that are less safe and where public transportation is less prevalent, making their lives harder. Others have found themselves homeless or unable to get mental healthcare, making them susceptible to substance abuse and addiction.
So what can you do about this? You can be mindful about the businesses you visit in Harlem. This guide contains 50 black-owned businesses and 7 POC-owned businesses, each labeled clearly. Please make an effort to visit them and businesses that don’t exclusively target the wealthy.
So yes, feel free to go to dinner at a fancy restaurant like Red Rooster or Clay — but also make time to grab a book at Sisters Bookstore, try a ginger turmeric tea at Serengeti Tea, write poems at Langston Hughes’s brownstone with the I, Too Arts Collective, and buy a shirt or cap at Harlem Underground.
Now that you have an understanding of the neighborhood, it’s time to figure out what to do in Harlem!
There is nothing more iconic in Harlem than catching a show at the Apollo. This theater on 125th St. has been the center of African-American musical culture since its opening in 1914. If you’re a famous black musician, you have played here.
If there’s any one show you should see, it’s Amateur Night. People from all over the US compete to be the next big star — and are cheered or booed by the audience. James Brown, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, and D’Angelo launched their careers at Amateur Night. Who knows who you’ll see? (Don’t discount the losers — Lauryn Hill got booed at Amateur Night when she was just 13!)
If you’re new to Harlem, this food and culture tour is the first thing you should do. When my family comes to New York, my sister and I take them on this tour to introduce them to the history and culture of Harlem while enjoying yummy bites along the way!
This tour takes you to several of the best restaurants and historic sites along the way. Try African teas, Senegalese food, and see some murals no other guide will point out to you. If you’re lucky, you might get to sample the sweet and spicy chicken and waffles at Red Rooster, which are so delicious it should be criminal.
If you’re coming to Harlem, you absolutely must try some soul food. Soul food is the African-American cuisine that originated in the South and spread across the country when blacks migrated to cities during the Great Migration. It’s more than fried chicken and collard greens — try braised oxtails, short ribs, grilled catfish, barbecue ribs, and more.
Sylvia’s Restaurant (black-owned) is perhaps the most iconic soul food restaurant in New York City, if not the world, operating since 1962. That said, it’s definitely the most touristy restaurant in Harlem, so be prepared for crowds. They do a gospel brunch on Sundays.
Amy Ruth’s (black-owned) is another popular soul food restaurant in Harlem. They’re famous for their chicken and waffles in particular, and their dishes are named after celebrities, from President Obama to Ruby Dee to Ludacris.
Melba’s (black-owned) is my personal favorite soul food restaurant in Harlem — in part because it’s got all of the quality without the tourist crowds. Melba was raised in the soul food restaurants of Harlem and threw everything she learned into this restaurant. I like the salmon here.
Manna’s (POC-owned) is a good spot for soul food on the cheap. Opened by a Korean immigrant who promptly and deeply integrated herself deeply in the Harlem community, Manna’s now has three Harlem locations where you serve yourself from the buffet and pay by the pound.
Seasoned Vegan (black-owned) fulfills an important role — it provides soul food dishes that vegetarians and vegans can actually eat! It’s not a soul food restaurant, but they have veganized versions of soul food dishes like smothered “chicken”, barbecue “riblets,” and mac and “cheese.”
Have you always wanted to go to church in Harlem? This is where you want to do it. Abyssinian has its roots in rebelling against racial inequality and striving for social justice. Worship services are a celebration of God’s creation, complete with passionate sermons and a gospel choir.
Abyssinian has a very strict policy for tourists. This is not a gospel performance; it is a religious service that happens to include gospel music. Abyssinian welcomes visitors, but asks that you only attend the 11:30 AM service on Sundays, major holidays and August excluded. Tourists must stay for the full 2.5-hour service. Dress modestly: both women and men should cover shoulders, and flip-flops, tank tops, shorts, and leggings are not allowed. No backpacks are permitted. All tourists must enter at the Tourist Entry Point.
5. Have a Picnic in the Northern Part of Central Park
Here’s a secret: the northern edge of Central Park gets almost no tourists. Most of the tourists are concentrated in the southern part of the park. The northern part is blissfully open and filled with locals.
One of the nicest parts is the Harlem Meer — meer is a Dutch word for “small sea.” This little lake is surrounded by willow trees and benches. The North Woods is another nice part of this part of Central Park, and the vegetation is so dense that you’ll feel like you’re out in the countryside!
But what makes Central Park even better? A picnic — Harlem-style. Go to Best Market, a local supermarket on Frederick Douglas Blvd. at 118th St., and order some barbecue brisket and mac and cheese at the counter. Grab a drink and head eight blocks down to Central Park, enjoying your magnificent meal outside in the sunshine.
Chef Marcus Samuelsson already had Food Network fame as the chef who was born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden, and moved on to the United States, melding his three home cuisines together. But he truly made his mark with Red Rooster (black-owned), a restaurant that simultaneously elevated him to new heights and brought him deeper into the community in Harlem.
Red Rooster’s goal was to be an integral part of the Harlem community. In the evenings you’ll hear local musicians performing as locals fill and staff the restaurant. On the menu you’ll find a mix of soul food classics, Ethiopian-influenced flavors, and even some Swedish fare (Marcus makes great meatballs). And they give back to the community as well. Come on a Saturday night and you’ll be swept up in music, cocktails, and feeling like you’re in the middle of a throwback — but something very modern, too.
Fact: I decided to move to Harlem after dining at Red Rooster (the sweet potato donuts put me over the edge). I was so inspired by its joy and diversity and thought to myself, “I want to be part of this neighborhood.”
This is sponsored advertising content by Chase. All opinions, as always, are my own.
It’s evening in Dallas and the moment has arrived. Our performer, a legendary British rocker and singer-songwriter whose music has permeated our lives for decades, is stepping out onto the stage. No opening act, because who on Earth could open for him?!
And there he is, as I’ve always imagined him. A sparkly lavender suit. Outlandish sunglasses.
He sits down at the grand piano dwarfing the stage and plays a single chord. A G and a G with his left hand. A B and a D and an F# and a B with his right.
One chord. That’s all it takes. It’s immediately obvious what song he’s about to play, the song about the electric boots and the mohair suit. It’s one of his most beloved hits and the crowd absolutely LOSES IT.
There are few performers who can make a stadium scream with a single chord.
Rocking in the Lone Star State
I’ve never been to Dallas in my life, but I’m here for my third event for select Chase Cardmembers. If you have the British Airways Visa Signature Card from Chase, you have access to signature events throughout the year. These events are just for cardmembers and not open to the public.
And this Dallas experience was a concert — bit so much more. This performer is popular enough to sell out like crazy, but instead of just regular seats, we’re watching from a private box. It comes with all the trimmings, including tons of food and an open bar. Beforehand, there’s a reception at one of Dallas’s most recognizable buildings, and the next morning there’s breakfast reception for everyone.
Before the Event
I arrive and check into the Hyatt Regency Dallas, located in the heart of downtown. Everything really is bigger in Texas, I think to myself as I check into the behemoth of a hotel, sprawling what seems miles in every direction. A night at the hotel is included.
My friend Alexa has flown down from New Hampshire to join me at the event. We primp — I opt for a hot pink jumpsuit, while Alexa goes for a black cocktail dress — and head downstairs.
Our pre-concert reception is at the top of the Reunion Tower, which has the tallest observation deck in Texas. A giant ball studded with lights atop a skyscraper, it cuts an instantly recognizable silhouette through the Dallas skyline. It also happens to be connected to the Hyatt Regency, so we don’t need to even go outside!
Everyone up here is here for the concert. We have a live British tribute band performing everything from the Rolling Stones to the late great David Bowie (side note: anyone else still devastated that he’s gone?). Waiters with canapés are circling the room and Alexa and I toast two glasses of champagne.
Listening to “Space Oddity,” enjoying appetizers, and feeling the lightness of champagne bubbles, it’s the perfect start to the evening. And even though it’s chilly and rainy, I step out onto the outside deck to take in the view.
You probably noticed that I haven’t named the British singer-songwriter in question. There’s a reason for that. But I’m sure you can figure it out — after all, who else wears sparkly lavender suits with outlandish sunglasses and plays the piano?
He’s a legend. His songs were the soundtrack to my life growing up — as they were for the other guests in their forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies.
We’re experiencing the concert in the best way possible — in a private box. I’ve experienced a few private boxes over the years, and if you ever get the chance to experience one, you must. The advantages? Getting to move around as you please, an open bar (with delicious Moscow mule specialty cocktails), bathroom access away from the masses, and tons of food. You don’t have to worry about tall people blocking your view, or being squished together with the drunken masses. This is how celebrities get to experience concerts and it’s amazing.
This is perhaps the best way possible to experience a legendary performer. And did he ever come to play.
There was the opening song that I thought was named after the gangs from West Side Story, the one that I swear Frank Ocean used as inspiration for his song “Super Rich Kids” 40 years later.
There was the song that Ewan McGregor sang to Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!, a song that I became smitten with as a 17-year-old and went on to perform at a coffeehouse in high school.
And of course, the song that always reminds me of the episode of Friends when Phoebe gets the lyrics wrong and thinks he’s singing to Tony Danza.
(Okay…if you can’t figure out who the singer-songwriter is by now, I don’t know what to tell you!)
This is the last round of touring for him. (Well, so he says right now. You never know.) In between the songs, he talks about the most meaningful moments in his life. How he would write songs together with his songwriting partner of decades, his partner first writing the lyrics, then how he wrote the perfect music for them.
How he found sobriety, and how it saved him from dying at an early age like many of his musical peers.
How he found meaning in building a foundation to fight HIV/AIDS, and how much of his activism stemmed from guilt for not doing more during the apex of the crisis.
And the joy he found in finding his family — falling in love with his husband, then becoming a father to two little boys.
And yes, the talk is nice, but really, we’re here for the music above all else. Soon, nearly everyone is on their feet, dancing to his biggest hits from the seventies. He is playing nearly every hit he’s ever had. The memorial song in tribute to his friend Princess Diana. The expletive-laden 1974 comeback song that many radio stations refused to play due to its vulgarity. And the one about the sharp-toothed animal from the swamp rocking out, where the entire stadium sings along with, “YAAAAA! YA-YA-YA-YA-YAAAAA!”
The Morning After
The next morning I wake up for one final experience. Alexa, who keeps the hours of a vampire, elects to sleep until fifteen minutes before checkout, while I head downstairs for one final breakfast with the crew.
I grab a table with an affable couple, her from England and him from Texas, and we talk about our shared love for Boston. Once again, I marvel at how so many interesting people come to these events. We enjoy our omelets as a musician plays the guitar, singing more British hits of the sixties and seventies.
I loved this event. I love that I got to see this performer once in my life, on his final tour, and that I did so in the best way possible, with the private box, the pre-concert reception, and so much fun from beginning to end. I may not go to a ton of concerts, but this was easily the best concert experience of my life.
How to Get These Experiences For Yourself
This is just one of many exclusive experiences available to you with the British Airways Visa Signature Card from Chase. These are unusual and special events that money can’t buy — but they’re available for surprisingly good prices, just for being a cardmember.
I have loved the events I experience this year. Most memorable was meeting Chef Darren McGrady, former personal chef to Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana, and actually getting to spend time with him, have conversations with him, and ask him things I’ve always wanted to
know about William and Harry! You can’t put a price tag on that.
There are lots more Chase British Airways Visa events on the docket for 2019. In March, there will be a Chicago event for St. Patrick’s Day where you can celebrate the dyeing of the Chicago River green — something I’ve always wanted to experience myself! The event includes dinners and a cooking demonstration by Irish celebrity chef Stuart O’Keeffe. Next up will be an ultimate Florida golf experience in Sawgrass, Florida, including two full rounds at iconic courses.
I’m a longtime user of the British Airways Visa Signature Card from Chase. I first started using it in my early days of travel, just after getting home from my first six-month trip to Southeast Asia, and I loved accumulating Avios, British Airways’s points system. I quickly accumulated a big Avios bonus but instead of blowing them all on a first class flight to Asia, I used them little by little for dozens of economy flights all over Europe. When I was based in the UK, I could get flights within Europe for as little as 4,500 Avios each way — so I used a TON of them, just from my regular purchases!
Is it safe for a woman to travel alone in Mexico? ABSOLUTELY.
Mexico gets a undeserved bad reputation for travel, particularly in the United States. Much of this is due to the cable news environment with its exaggerated narratives that Mexico is full of drug cartels and murderous immigrants.
This is not what Mexico is actually like. In fact, the real Mexico is so different that you’ll be stunned.
My name is Kate and I write about solo female travel for a living. And I’ve spent a lot of time traveling in Mexico. Even though I’ve been to 77 countries and all seven continents, there’s something about Mexico that pulls me back again and again. I literally got back from my last trip two weeks ago and I’m already trying to figure out when I can go back next!
Mexico is one of my favorite countries — both in general and for solo female travel.
Mexico is Great for Both New and Experienced Solo Female Travelers
If this is your first time traveling solo, Mexico is a great choice. Mexico has good travel infrastructure, excellent hotels at a variety of price points, and several well-worn tourist trails, especially in the Yucatán. The food is familiar and delicious. English is spoken in touristy areas, but even when it’s not, Spanish is an easy enough language to pick up on your own. And the people are kind and helpful.
My advice for first-time solo female travelers is to plan your itinerary carefully — especially transportation. Figure out where you’ll be staying ahead of time, plan your forms of transportation (whether you take buses, rent a car, book a shuttle transfer, or fly between destinations), and the tours and activities you’d like to do. And don’t skip on getting a SIM card (I get one from Telcel). It can help you with everything from GPS to translation.
I usually advise travelers to be flexible with their itineraries, but I think first-time solo female travelers benefit from having more structure.
If you’ve previously traveled solo, you’ll find Mexico to be an easy destination, especially if you speak some Spanish. But Mexico doesn’t have to be a lie-on-the-beach-and-don’t-leave-the-resort kind of destination. Whatever you’re into — cool cities, crazy scenery, diving or surfing or hiking — Mexico has everything in spades. See below for suggestions on where to go.
Is Mexico Safe?
As soon as you announce that you’re planning a trip to Mexico, one of your parents or relatives or coworkers will say, “Don’t go to Mexico — it’s not safe.” And that may give you pause, especially if the person is someone you love or respect. But you need to consider the source first.
Considering the source is one of my top travel safety tips for women, and this is especially true for women traveling to Mexico. Most people have an opinion about Mexico, and if they’re not experienced in traveling the country, it’s likely a bad opinion informed by cable news.
Every time someone gives you advice about traveling to a destination, you should ask yourself the following questions:
Does this person travel?
Does this person travel in my style of traveling (i.e. backpacking as opposed to resort travel)?
Has this person been to this destination?
Has this person been to this destination recently (in the past 3-5 years)?
If the questions to all four questions is yes, then you’ve likely got a reliable source and should listen to him or her. If not, you should find someone who knows better.
And I’m someone who knows better. I’ve been teaching women how to travel the world safely for nine years now, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico. I designed this guide to dispel myths and help women enjoy their trips to Mexico.
Here’s the most important part: CABLE NEWS DOES NOT GIVE YOU AN ACCURATE PICTURE OF WHAT IT’S LIKE TO TRAVEL IN MEXICO. Ever since 24-hour cable news debuted in the US, there has been a disproportional focus on horrors around the world, particularly in Mexico and the Middle East. And that goes triple for Fox News, a channel that frequently and blatantly lies to the public for the purpose of consolidating money and power, then avoids lawsuits because they’re branded as “entertainment,” not news.
Reporting exclusively on horrors outside the US borders and never showing any of the good stuff does not show you anything about what it’s like to travel in Mexico. The good stuff dominates — but it doesn’t make for compelling news.
But aren’t there drug cartels in Mexico?
Yes, but as long as you’re not going to Mexico for the purpose of trafficking drugs, you are not going to be involved in that. How often do you waltz into drug deals in your home country? How often do you accidentally end up in a meth lab? How often do you get in the way of drugs being transported? Most drug cartels operate in areas nowhere near where tourists go.
You’re not Walter White. They don’t care about you.
But aren’t there caravans of immigrants?
That’s not an issue for you and not a safety issue for anyone. The goal of migrants is to get to the United States safely. You likely won’t see any migrants if you stick to the tourist trail, and your chance of seeing a caravan is nearly zero. If you do, they won’t be interested in you.
But most importantly, the reason why so many Central Americans are fleeing their countries in the first place is because America’s interventionist policies in Central America ended up leaving the region destabilized and dangerous.
Aren’t they rapists?
That’s a pretty racist thing to say. Rapists are everywhere, and nine times out of ten women are raped by men they already know.
But I heard about something bad that happened in Mexico. Is it safe?
I’m not saying that tragedies never happen to travelers in Mexico. They do happen — but they’re rare. Far rarer than the public would have you believe.
A woman will occasionally die while traveling in Mexico — from a car accident, from a drink spiking or poisoning, or from drowning — but these are extremely rare incidents. Just as they are rare in your home country. And being kidnapped by cartels is something that happens far more in movies than real life. (Also, if you google “woman dies in Mexico,” most of the results pertain to botched cosmetic surgeries.)
Also, keep in mind that Mexico is a large country. Just because something bad happens somewhere in Mexico, it doesn’t mean it will affect your trip. An appropriate analogy would be to say, “It’s dangerous to go to Philadelphia — there’s drug violence in East St. Louis!” Or “It’s dangerous to go to the Grand Canyon — I just heard about a shooting in Chicago!” Or “You shouldn’t go to Martha’s Vineyard — there was an earthquake in Los Angeles!”
What You ACTUALLY Have to Worry About in Mexico: Water Safety and Noise
The water in Mexico is not safe to drink. If you’re not used to Mexican water, drinking it can lead to illness. There are two ways around this: drink bottled or sterilized water, or sterilize it yourself.
While most travelers in Mexico rely on bottled water, it creates a major waste issue. For this reason, I recommend you bring a reusable bottle and invest in a SteriPen water purifier (much better and faster than tablets). Alternatively, you can bring a LifeStraw, a bottle that purifies water as you drink it through its straw.
Noise is more of a convenience thing than a safety issue. Mexico is loud. Church services blare music into the night. Firecrackers explode with regularity. Trucks drive down the streets with loudspeakers blasting advertisements. And bus rides always have movies playing at top volume. If you’re not prepared, the noise of Mexico can drive you insane.
Dress to blend in with Mexican women. Your goal is not to “pass” as Mexican — it’s to look like you’re a longtime resident, not a tourist. Dressing similarly to locals helps immensely with this. Mexican women, like many Latin American women, tend to wear long pants but don’t have qualms about showing more skin up top. It’s good to dress a bit more conservatively than usual, especially in traditional areas. If you’re visiting a church or religious site, cover to your shoulders and knees. You have more leeway in resort areas. Only wear swimwear at the beach. The Walking Company is my go-to for comfortable shoes that are cute; I strongly recommend black ABEO flats, which have fantastic arch support.
Consider bringing a Speakeasy Travel Supply scarf. These beautiful scarves have a hidden passport pocket in them. I love these scarves (I even designed my own!) and they are so good at keeping your valuables hidden. They’re also extremely chic and they come in different fabrics for all kinds of climates.
Get a SIM card. If your phone plan doesn’t work overseas (don’t roam, it’s crazy expensive), pick up a SIM card in the airport or in a shop on the street. This way you’ll always have internet on your phone in case of an emergency. I usually get a Telcel SIM card when I’m in Mexico.
Keep your drinks close to you. Don’t take drinks from strangers and don’t leave them out when you’re drinking them. Watch your drink like a hawk.
Don’t drink too much. Know your limits, and drink less than you usually do at home. Be in a state where you’re aware of your surroundings.
Peel your fruits and vegetables. If you’re going to eat raw fruits or vegetables, make sure they’re peeled.
Malaria is present in parts of Mexico.This is the Mexico malaria map from the Center for Disease Control in the US. Some travelers choose to take malaria pills and some choose not to. I’m not going to tell you what to do because that’s a conversation you and a medical professional should have. I recommend seeing a travel doctor.
The zika virus is also present in Mexico.Here is a map. Zika should be a concern of pregnant women, partners of pregnant women, and women who intend to become pregnant soon, but if you’re none of those things, you don’t need to worry. Some destinations in Mexico, like Mexico City, are at a high enough altitude that mosquitos are not present and zika is not a factor. Again, this is a conversation to have with your doctor.
Climates vary enormously in Mexico. It’s not all hot and tropical. I’ve had friends plan trips to cities like Mexico City and Guanajuato in winter, and they ended up freezing their buns off and buying a new wardrobe because they thought it would be summer weather like in Cancún. Do your research before you arrive.
Do not take drugs, even if you’re a party drug enthusiast. First, drugs in Mexico can be cut with poisonous substances. Second, if you’re caught, the police are not forgiving. Do what you want at home. Mexico isn’t the place.
Don’t be afraid of street food. Street food is life in Mexico, especially when it comes to tacos! Go where the crowds are; if there’s a line, it means the food is great and there’s high turnover. You may want to start with vegetarian food and slowly ease yourself into meat.
Hide your money in multiple places. Only take a small amount of cash and a debit card with you when going out. Keep the rest locked up in your room. Make sure you bring multiple debit cards, too, in case one gets lost or stolen.
Protect yourself from the sun and heat. Bring sunscreen and a hat. If you plan on snorkeling or diving, use reef safe sunscreen (Stream2Sea is a good reef safe brand). Hydrate constantly. Water is ideal, but coconuts are great for the electrolytes! Don’t forget your reusable bottle and SteriPen so you can drink the local water safely.
Finally, invest in a guidebook. Even as an expert traveler in the year 2019, I love guidebooks. They’re filled with detailed information about everything from travel times between cities to medical clinics serving foreigners. I’m a Lonely Planet fan and I recommend Lonely Planet’s Mexico guidebook. I buy the digital version and store the PDF on iBooks on my phone. You can either buy the whole thing or individual chapters, which is great if you’re only visiting a small part of the country.
Mexico is full of interesting experiences. Here is just a sampler of things you can do:
Learn to surf. If you’ve ever dreamed of hanging ten, Mexico’s west coast is a great place to learn. I took a lesson in Punta de Mita and you might enjoy Sayulita, Puerto Escondido, or Cerritos.
Have a world-class meal for a low price. Pujol in Mexico City is regularly ranked one of the top ten restaurants on the planet and while the tasting menu is pricey, you will pay far less than you would for a restaurant of that caliber in New York, Paris or Tokyo. Last I heard, the six-course lunch tasting menu was $128 in 2018.
Catch a Lucha Libre match. This tradition, Mexican pro wrestling, is a fun and wacky night out! It’s all fake but it’s got so much drama. And the masks are fun.
Swim in cenotes. The Yucatán peninsula is full of cenotes — natural sinkholes created by collapsed limestone, revealing the fresh groundwater underneath. They’re amazing places for a cool swim.
Shop in markets. From tiny markets in small towns to behemoths in major cities, Mexican markets are an adventure. Here you can find some of the best cheap dishes in town, as well as cheap clothing, fresh fruit, electronics, and all kinds of souvenirs.
Get into Mexican nightlife. I love partying in Latin America more than any other region in the world, and Mexico is no exception — the music is joyful, the dancing is contagious, and the people are so welcoming. There is none of that pretentious club atmosphere you often get in the US.
Experience Mayan Ruins. Mexico is home to some of the best Mayan pyramids in the world. If you’re in the Yucatán, check out the Chichen Itza, pictured above. If you’re going to Mexico City, save an afternoon for Tehotihuacan. And if you’re traveling between San Cristobal de las Casas and the Yucatán, be sure to check out Palenque.
Get up close and personal with whales. Baja California is renowned for its whale watching, but on the island of Holbox, you can go swimming with tiger sharks!
Celebrate the Day of the Dead. From October 31 to November 2, Mexicans honor their departed relatives by spending the days with them at cemeteries, creating offerings for them. While the holiday is celebrated throughout the country, the best place to celebrate is the city of Oaxaca. The cities put on public celebrations, but keep in mind many Mexicans celebrate quietly and privately.
Get dive certified, or snorkel like crazy. Cozumel is the best diving destination in Mexico, and it’s covered with gorgeous reefs. I really enjoyed snorkeling with sea turtles in Akumal. If you’re diving or snorkeling near reefs, be sure to wear reef-safe sunscreen.
Learn to love mariachi. Mariachi bands are too often painted as a punchline in the States, but it is a gorgeous musical tradition. One of my favorite experiences in Mexico was randomly wandering into a karaoke bar and listening to everyone perform traditional Mexican songs.
Read Mexican literature while on your trip. I recently read Laia Jufresa’s Umami while in Mexico, which takes place in Mexico City, and it is nothing short of sensational. A beautiful book, a gentle book, an easy-to-read book, and a book so gorgeously translated that you’ll be floored it was originally written in Spanish.
Where to Go in Mexico
Ah, here’s my favorite part of the post to write. There are so many amazing places to travel in Mexico! I keep adding more and more to my list!
If you love beaches, Mexico is chock full of beauties. Many people head to Cancún and the surrounding beach towns of the Quintana Roo region — think Playa del Carmen, Tulum, the Riviera Maya. My favorite is the island of Holbox. Other great destinations are Baja California (think Los Cabos), the Riviera Nayarit (Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta are great), and the Oaxaca coast (check out Zipolite and Puerto Escondido).
If you love cities, Mexico City is nothing short of spectacular. It’s filled with art, culture, an amazing culinary scene, and hip neighborhoods, all for a very reasonable cost. One of Mexico’s most visually stunning cities is Guanajuato, a few hours from Mexico City. And I really love the smaller, low-key city of Mérida, the safest city in Mexico, home to unique..
Some months feel like they go by in a flash. This month was LONG. So long that I had to keep checking and making sure I didn’t miss a recap.
My weeklong trip to Mexico was undoubtedly a big part of the month, but I also got in a very busy networking week and a lot of more relaxing good times in New York as well.
New York, New York
Holbox and Mérida, Mexico
A fantastic trip to Mexico. This trip was perfect — in some ways, it was the best trip I’ve taken in a long time. Just a week long, escaping the cold for warmth, to new destinations in a familiar country, a mix of beach and city, enjoying one of my favorite cuisines, seeing old friends and making new ones. It was perfect in its simplicity.
Holbox is one of my new favorite islands in the world. It has such a chill atmosphere, it’s easy to get to but not too developed, and Casa Sandra is one of my favorite boutique hotels ever.
Mérida was a lot of fun, too. I stayed with my friend Nathan, a.k.a. Foodie Flashpacker, and he took me to tons of great restaurants all over the city! There’s a nice little travel blogger community in Mérida these days, and I love how relaxed the city feels. I’m sure I’ll be back for more.
A fabulous IMM and New York Times Travel Show. This is one of my favorite weeks of the year because it’s when all my friends descend upon my city! I always host someone, and this year I hosted my friend Jeremy from Living the Dream and Discover the Burgh. IMM is my favorite networking event of the year, and I met with around 30 different travel brands. I’m really excited about my travel plans for 2019 — I am planning SUCH cool trips. One clue: Canada.
On industry day at the New York Times Travel Show, I spoke on The Future of Travel Media panel for the third year in a row and got a lot of nice compliments afterward.
And because all of the bloggers were in town, we had a lot of nice evenings out. Best of all was our final bloggers-only party where we could finally hang out and catch up without being pressured to network and make connections.
Cooking up a storm with my Instant Pot. My dad got me one for Christmas and I immediately became obsessed with it. So much that I almost don’t want to cook something if I can’t do it in my Instant Pot!
I’ve made Indian dishes, risotto, stews, chili, rice, hard-boiled eggs, all in the fraction of the time it takes to make something regularly. You’ve got to get one! Next up, I want to tackle some Korean recipes, a dairy-free risotto using duck fat instead of butter, and…I must admit it…mac and cheese.
An exciting time in politics. It was inspirational to see so many badass women sworn into Congress for the first time, and it’s been exciting see so many great people announce their candidacy for president in 2020. This is the first time since 2004 that I didn’t commit to a candidate immediately, so it’s nice to take my time in picking who to support. If I were a betting woman, though, I’d put my money on Kamala Harris to win the primary. I think she’s the one to beat. We’ll see how that pans out.
Enjoying living in the best city in the world. I checked out some places for the first time like Industry City (and the Avocaderia), restaurant No. 7 with its famous broccoli tacos, the Whitney and its Andy Warhol exhibit, and the Felix coffeeshop, which looks like it’s straight out of a Wes Anderson movie.
Losing a friend. See In Memoriam at the bottom of this post for more about that. Everything else that happened this month pales in comparison.
Food poisoning. I like to say I have a cast-iron stomach — in all these years of travel, I’ve only gotten sick from food twice. Once in Cambodia and once in Thailand, both within a month of each other in 2013.
Then came Mexico, and I know exactly where I got it — a tiny restaurant at the Mexico City airport that looked terrible, but they had chilaquiles on the menu, and I REALLY wanted chilaquiles. The waiter brought them to me and they didn’t look good — they looked microwaved, and the chicken was tepid. But they were there, so I ate them. And I paid a huge price. (I know this was the place because Nathan and I ate all of the same food in the preceding 24 hours and he was fine.)
I’m just relieved the gastrointestinal purging didn’t hit until the morning after I got home, where I could deal with it in the privacy of my apartment. Thankfully it didn’t last long and I felt much better by the evening.
This month I listened to two very different podcasts — one lighthearted and one tragic. The lighthearted one is The Habitat. It tells the story of six strangers who sign up to simulate a mission to Mars by living in a tight, enclosed space on the side of a volcano in Hawaii. This podcast isn’t about the science, it’s about the sociology. The relationships formed, the bonds people made, the fights they had, and how they coped with being in each other’s faces for a full year. It’s a short, fun listen. By the fourth episode I was SO into it.
The more serious one is Broken Harts, about the Hart family. The two white mothers, their six adopted black children, and the mother who drove her entire family off a cliff last year, killing them all. The podcast delves into how this could have happened, and the intersection with race, adopting from the foster care system, being queer in less-than-welcoming regions, and how people create different versions of their life on social media. But overall, it’s an indictment on how we don’t value the lives of black children the way we value the lives of white children.
I have long been uncomfortable with violent true crime — I don’t like the idea of being entertained by the death of an innocent person. But I decided to try out this podcast on the recommendation of a friend to see if I still felt that way. The verdict? I got really into it, but I felt guilty about being into it. I’ll stick to nonviolent true crime from now on (like Slow Burn, about Nixon and Clinton’s scandals, and Last Seen, about the Gardner Museum heist).
If Beale Street Could Talk Trailer #1 (2018) | Movieclips Trailers - YouTube
What I Watched This Month
Um…how about those Fyre Festival documentaries?! I love a good documentary, and these ones were fascinating. I watched Hulu’s first, then Netflix’s, and both of them covered the disaster of a festival from interesting angles.
Beyond that, this month I really enjoyed Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix. It’s a sweet reality show in the same vein as Queer Eye and The Great British Bake-Off — just nice people doing interesting things. I’m reading her book now and I’m sure I’ll be doing my own KonMari purge in the next few months.
Movie-wise, If Beale Street Could Talk was one of the most beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding movies I’ve ever seen. The whole thing was LUSH. Watch the trailer above — you’ll fall in love with it before seeing it.
I also really enjoyed Vice — especially Steve Carell’s demented depiction of Donald Rumsfeld, often breaking into Brick Tamland-esque giggles!
What I Read This Month
It’s a new year and time for a new challenge — the Book Riot #ReadHarder 2019 challenge! I like this challenge because it’s 24 books instead of 52 and it challenges you to really expand the kinds of books you read, especially from authors who don’t get enough attention. And because I’m insanely competitive with myself…I read 10 books this month.
Another delight — I finally (FINALLY!) got a New York Public Library card this month. I honestly can’t believe it took so long. But now I’m borrowing books like crazy! It’s like an invitation to read even more!
Here are the books I read this month, ranked from favorite to least favorite:
Umami by Laia Jufresa (2014) — The Belldrop Mews in Mexico City is home to several families, each of them living with grief — whether it’s the death of a younger sister, the disappearance of an ambivalent mother, or the passing of a lifelong partner. Each character muses on death and what it means for his or her own life now, and each of the characters interacts with each other in different ways.
This book is WONDERFUL — written so beautifully that I marveled at it continuously. It sounds like a bleak subject, but trust me — it’s magical and life-affirming and peaceful. Jufresa has so much compassion for each of her characters, and later in the book, the plot has a twist you’ll never predict. Just utterly, utterly wonderful from start to finish. It’s worth noting that last year I read a lot of translated books that I didn’t enjoy, and I attributed that in part to the translation, but the translation here is so lyrical you’d never guess it was originally written in Spanish. It was especially nice reading such a great book by a Mexican author while I was in Mexico. Category: an #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2007) — Dr. Alice Howland is an accomplished psychology professor at Harvard, a wife, a mother, a runner, a traveler. She begins experiencing forgetfulness here and there, but then it worsens when she can’t read the word “lexicon” aloud during a presentation. And one day while out running she can’t figure out how to get home. After seeing doctors, she’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50. The book is told from her point of view as she and her family cope with her diagnosis, and little by little, her memories fade away.
I could not put this book down — I finished it the same day I started it. It’s so tragic, but also beautiful at the same time. What would you do if you were diagnosed? What would you do if you did genetic testing and found out you would get it someday? What would you do if it were your spouse or parent? This book gave me new compassion for people living with Alzheimer’s — both victims and their loved ones. Lisa Genova herself is a neurologist, and I see she’s gone on to write more books about neurological conditions. I might check them out. Also, this book was turned into a movie and Julianne Moore won a long-overdue Oscar for her role as Alice. Category: a self-published book (the book was originally self-published and was later picked up by a publisher).
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (2014) — When you work in academia, you have a lot of letters to write — letters of recommendation, emails to your department chair, messages to both your ex-wife and former mistress apologizing for doing them both wrong. Jason Fitger is a creative writing professor at a middling university facing budget cuts across the board, and the story is told in witty, snarky, passive aggressive, curmudgeonly letters. The narrator is both unreliable and unlikable, but you can’t resist rooting for him, especially when he’s advocating on behalf of his best students.
This book reminded me so much of a history teacher I had in high school who took every opportunity to write overly flowery letters for the most mundane of subjects. (Yes, RMHS folks, it’s exactly who you think, and it was further hammered home when he uttered a “Huzzah!”). The letters are fun and I laughed continuously. If you work in academia, I think you’ll especially love this book. But more than anything, it’s a romance — a great love letter to language. Jason take every opportunity possible to dance joyfully with the written word. We should all celebrate that. Category: an epistolary novel or collection of letters.
George by Alex Gino (2015) — Everyone thinks that George is a boy — but she knows that she’s a girl. She’s never felt like a boy in her life. She reads girls’ magazines in secret, wanting to be just like them someday. George wants to play Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte’s Web, but her teacher won’t let her because she thinks George is a boy. This makes George upset because she knows if she plays Charlotte, her mother will realize who she really is. But George and her best friend Kelly have a plan, and soon George learns to soar like the girl she truly is — a girl named Melissa.
This is such a sweet and heartfelt book. I want everyone who has an eight-year-old in their life to read them this book. It shows you what it feels like to grow up trans — and what it means to be a good friend. I wanted to hug George and his friend Kelly so many times. I’ve always believed in the power of literature to instill empathy and compassion, and this book will do that for kids and adults alike. Category: a children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009.
You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson (2016) — In this collection of essays, Phoebe Robinson shares her thoughts on being a black woman in comedy today. From her love of U2 to adorable advice for her new biracial niece (she tells her how to be black, and you’ll laugh when you see who she got to teach her how to be white!), her stories will keep you captivated.
I really enjoyed this book — it was a perfect casual beach read while I was in Holbox. I especially loved the parts she wrote about behind the scenes in film and TV. One reason why humor memoirs by black authors aren’t read as much is because non-black readers don’t think they’ll be able to relate to them. Well, you know what? If you’re not black, you’re going to learn about a lot of things you’ve never had to think about before. Many of them about black hair. That being said, this book is for everyone, you will relate to it, and it will make you laugh. Category: a humor book.
New Erotica for Feminists by Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer (2018) — What do feminists TRULY want? This book imagines it with wild hilarity. Maybe it’s the hot firefighter who saves all your animals — then goes back in and saves your first edition of Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Maybe it’s going on a date with a scientists who tells you how his team created a serum to make Ruth Bader Ginsburg immortal. This book is a collection of vignettes about just how good life could be.
I got this from my friend Amelia in our book club’s Secret Santa. I hinted that I wanted a feminist book and she told me this was the funniest one she could find. It’s a quick read, as a collection of scenes more than stories, but it’s a conversation piece to keep out on your coffee table. Category: a book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads.
Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan (2018) — In 1980, six college friends enter Philadelphia’s abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary at night; one of them disappears and is never seen again. Decades later, the body finally turns up, and one of them is arrested. The only person who can give an alibi to her arrested friend is Judith — formerly Quentin. In the late 1980s, she realized she was trans, faked her own death, transitioned, and lived a quiet life in Maine where nobody knew about her past. Judith realizes she needs to come out to the world in order to clear her friend’s name.
I’m pretty mixed on this novel overall, the first novel I’ve read by a trans author (though George ‘s author, Alex Gino, identifies as nonbinary). There were action-packed parts where I was so drawn into it, I couldn’t put the book down. And there were parts that made me cringe. Strangely, the worst parts were those written from the point of view of Judith. It was treacly and terrible and so hard to believe. Overall, I felt like the book didn’t deliver overall. Category: a novel by a trans or nonbinary author.
Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood (2014) — Last year I read and loved Patricia Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy, about growing up with a priest for a father. This year, I decided to check out the poetry that made her famous. It’s bizarre, and graphic, and wild. Personally, not my cup of tea, but with one big exception: “Rape Joke.” If you can find Patricia Lockwood’s poem “Rape Joke” anywhere, you should go and read it right now. That one poem hit me harder than anything else I read this month. Category: a collection of poetry published since 2014.
I always knew I would travel to Holbox on my next trip to Mexico — thanks to the fervent recommendations of my friends. A few years ago, when tons of travel bloggers were living in Playa del Carmen, many of them told me that Isla Holbox (pronounced HOLE-bosh) was their favorite place in the region.
And if you’re already living in a beach resort town but go to a different place for your beach holiday, well, that place must be special.
Times have changed. The bloggers moved on to Mérida and Mexico City and Oaxaca. But Holbox never left my mind. “Someday,” I promised myself, “I will go there.”
I planned to hit up the Caribbean in January — an escape from the brutal New York winter and a chance to recover in between the holidays and my work conferences. Then my friend Bianca told me she was going to be in Mexico in January, and how about I join her for a few days in Holbox? What a lovely idea.
Travel to Holbox for the Chilled Out Vibe
Back in 2015 I went to Tulum with my friend Erisa and I expected a bohemian community with beach huts and cheap eats. It wasn’t anything like that. Tulum is a city, complete with traffic jams and hordes of tourists, and unpredictable weather had turned its trademark turquoise waters a murky brown.
We had a lot of fun — even though I only wrote about that trip in the monthly recap. We ate fancy mole, drank Thai margaritas, biked to the Gran Cenote and swam with turtles in Akumal. But Tulum wasn’t what I expected — it was busy, it was commercialized, it was hectic.
Holbox is EXACTLY what I thought Tulum would be.
Imagine a tiny island filled with dirt roads. The only way to get around is by bike or golf cart. Buildings are covered in murals. Street vendors serve up every kind of taco you can imagine. The downtown is lined with ramshackle restaurants, a few bougie boutiques peering out in between.
Here’s what you won’t find — bars with drinking contests, Bali-style stores selling shirts that say UP THE BUM NO BABYS, chain hotels. Or any chains, for that matter. Everything on Holbox is small and local — and they intend to keep it that way. More on that a bit later.
And then you get to the beach, and sure, there’s a thick layer of seaweed on the shore that every Instagrammer seems to crop out, but once you get past that, it’s truly exceptional water.
So clear. So turquoise. And so shallow! I may have seen brighter shades of turquoise before — I still think the neon waters of Belize rank first — but in Holbox you can walk fifty feet out and the water won’t even reach your knees.
The beach scene is great, too. What I love is that you can find a chair on the beach and just chill out without anyone bothering you.
I love how casual it is here. Go to a similar environment in Thailand, and as soon as you sit down on a beach chair, vendors will be chasing you with menus or trying to get you to pay for the chair.
Not here. You can just sit. This is one of the few places I’ve been where you can sit down in a chair and nobody cares or chases you down. Even the vendors selling on the beach and don’t come up to you directly — they just walk by announcing what they’re selling, and if you’re not into it, no problem.
Find a day bed with a sun-shielding palapa on top and you’re good for the day.
As for the people, this is definitely a gringo destination. Some beach destinations in Mexico cater to Mexican travelers as much as international travelers, but Holbox is not one of them. While there are plenty of Mexican locals and some vacationers, you don’t see hotels full of Mexican families like you do in Cancún. Among the international travelers, I saw very few people of color.
It’s a different kind of clientele — everyone here is an independent traveler. Even the parents with babies are independent travelers who grew up and had kids. Not the kind of people who need to be hand-held while in Mexico.
The people I did meet in Holbox were amazing. One of my favorite instances was when I was looking for a Telcel store to get a SIM card, and the store I was directed to happened to be closed. As I was leaving, a local woman came up to the store and was disappointed to see it was closed. She told me to come with her and we walked a few blocks away to another Telcel store. We chatted as we strolled, then she said goodbye at the door.
“Wait, you’re not going in?” I asked.
“No, I just wanted to make sure you got there,” she replied.
How nice is that?
Holbox Chose Sustainability Over Money
In October 2018, Holbox became the first island in a Protected Natural Region of Mexico to ban single-use plastics. Seriously!! How amazing is that?!
I found it notable when I first got to Holbox, ordered a mojito, and wasn’t given a straw — then I was delighted to hear that this was a new policy throughout the island. They won’t give you plastic cups, plastic bags, or plastic coffee-stirrers, either.
And that’s not all — they also launched several sustainability initiatives, including reducing wastewater dumping and banning tourists from bringing nonbiodegradable items to the island (though they didn’t check our luggage).
The big one? They banned new construction. Holbox has tons of land that could easily be developed into resorts, golf courses, luxury rentals. But thanks to a construction ban, they’re not going to let that happen. The island is simply going to keep what they have and use that.
I’ll be honest — when I first got to Holbox, I felt nervous about promoting the island. It seemed like it was right at the spot where tourism was about to explode. Overtourism was the last thing I wanted to see here.
After learning about the single-use plastics ban and construction ban, I feel like I can promote Holbox in good conscience. I’m proud to send you there, my dear readers, and I hope more islands follow Holbox’s example.
Sunset is Religion in Holbox
One thing is for sure: island communities LOVE their sunsets. Every night it becomes the hottest show in town. Holbox is no exception.
I had my first Holbox sunset on the ferry ride over, but I spent the next three nights in different places:
My first sunset was at the most iconic sunset spot on the island: Punta Cocos. Being on the western edge of the island, this is where everyone comes out for sunset. And your photos will be spectacular.
Do note that the mosquitos here are FIERCE as soon as the sun begins to set. I urge you to wear long pants and sleeves and bring mosquito repellant. One got me in the middle of my forehead!
Don’t walk here — come by bike or golf cart. It’s a long walk back. And if you come by bike, be sure to leave right after sunset so you have enough light to get home. Keep in mind it’s rustic on this island. There are no streetlights.
My friend Bianca does PR for a tiny boutique hotel on the island called Casa Sandra, and she invited me to come along with their team for sunset. If you stay at the resort, they drive you out and set up comfy chairs and wine. It brought me back to our sundowners in Kenya!
My second sunset was at a casual bar on the beach called Raices. I had no idea at the time, but apparently this bar is famous for being cheap and cheerful. I ordered a Sol beer, paid 30 pesos ($1.50? Yes please), and sat down to watch the sun sink into the horizon. An indigenous man performed a dance in an owl costume and even put his foot into the fire.
I didn’t take photos here — it didn’t feel necessary after last night’s show, and as someone whose job it is to GET PERFECT PHOTOGRAPHS OF EVERY SUNSET POSSIBLE when on the road, sometimes it’s nice to lean back and say, “You know? It won’t be the end of the world if I don’t get this one.
But I do like photographing people who photograph the sunset.
My third sunset was definitely the local option. A new friend of mine named Lucie invited me out to a bar called Zomay. Lucie is from the UK, she’s been spending much of the year on Holbox for years, and she has blogged about it here. Do check out her Instagram — she has such beautiful images of Holbox!
I couldn’t imagine myself doing that anymore — but the beach life still looks pretty sweet when you view it from this angle.
That sunset turned into a NIGHT. OUT. With cocktails the size of our skulls, consumed while sitting on swings. Mine was a Mai Thai and I’m pretty sure Lucie’s was a Long Island.
After having a sunset cocktail at Zomay, we went to Barba Negra for dinner. They have great tacos — their vegetarian cauliflower tacos are HUGE, and we had some cilantro margaritas. Next up was Pura Vida for the aforementioned giant cocktails on swings, and later we joined the crowds at Hot Corner.
Holbox doesn’t have a crazy club scene — it’s more of a casual bar night out. No need to dress up — just grab some drinks and enjoy your night. You can even buy cheap drinks at the convenience store and hang out drinking them in the street. Exactly how a beach town should be.
Oh, and don’t forget to catch at least one sunrise!
Exploring the Nearby Islands off Holbox
One of the popular day trips from Holbox is to do a multi-island tour around the region. Lots of companies sell this tour throughout Holbox; I joined Bianca on her tour through Casa Sandra.
Our first stop was Cabo Catoche, the easternmost point of Holbox. It’s about a 45-minute speedboat journey from the main part of the island. (And if you have boobs, you’ll want to wear a supportive bra. It’s very bumpy.)
Cabo Catoche is home to a beautiful soft white sand beach. But the real magic is when you go down the river that bisects the island.
Is it even possible to travel in Antarctica as a solo female? Absolutely! I did so and I’m very proud that I’ve now traveled solo on all seven continents.
Now, I’m not talking about actually going to Antarctica completely alone, on a raft, without any support. That would be suicidal. The only people who get left alone in Antarctica are scientists, and they have extensive training and support to keep them safe. FYI: You are not a scientist.
I’m talking about booking a spot on an expedition cruise, like my voyage with Quark Expeditions, as a solo traveler. Something that quite a few women do. I think it’s a fantastic way to explore Antarctica — perhaps even the best way.
Antarctica Isn’t for Everyone
It’s one thing to convince a friend to come with you to New Orleans for the weekend — but Antarctica is a much tougher sell. It’s probably the most expensive trip you’ll ever do. You’ll need to buy gear. And it requires a long flight to Ushuaia, Argentina (or Punta Arenas, Chile, for fly-cruises). The two-day journey across the Drake can be extremely rough; while I lucked out with relatively smooth crossings on my trip, some of my friends spent their crossings with their head in the toilet.
And yes, it’s worth it. I always tell people that Antarctica is the best place I’ve ever been and the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.
But it’s a lot to ask for a casual traveler.
There’s a good chance that your usual travel buddy, or even your romantic partner, won’t be up for the trip. And that’s fine. If Antarctica is your dream trip, you shouldn’t wait for someone who wants to join you. You should go to Antarctica solo.
You Won’t Be the Only Solo Traveler
I met tons of solo female travelers in Antarctica! There were a lot more solo women than men. They came from Australia, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, all over North America, and from every age range. Most were in their forties and fifties.
If you’re hesitant about traveling to Antarctica on your own because you’re afraid of being the only one, you can throw that theory out the window.
You Will Make Tons of Friends
I adore the friends I made in Antarctica. When you share such a mind-bending experience, you’ll immediately bond with the people around you. I’ve kept closely in touch with lots of my Antarctica friends; I’ve met up with several of them since the trip and even hang out with one in New York on a regular basis!
Here’s why it’s easy to make friends in Antarctica:
Meals are at large communal tables. Tables are not assigned and most people tend to switch up their seating assignments, so you’ll get to know lots of different people this way.
As an introvert, it’s a bit tougher for me to start up conversations with strangers, but I found that the large tables led the most extraverted people to start the conversation and keep it going. And if you’re stumped for topics, you can always ask people about what they’ve seen that day!
There’s a good amount of downtime. With a two-day journey each way, a lot of us spent our time in the lounge, sipping tea and coffee and eating the seemingly endless supply of cookies. This was a good way to get to know people before we hit the seventh continent.
There are fun activities. The kayakers have their own little group throughout the trip, going out whenever possible. There could be other adventure activities throughout your trip, like hiking or snowshoeing. And there are activities on the boat as well, like trivia night and a barbecue out on the deck.
People like to party. Well, not everyone, but there is definitely a contingent hanging out in the bar every night. Walk in and grab yourself a glass of wine!
You Won’t Be Charged Extra for Traveling Solo
One thing that holds women back from going on a cruise solo is that they’ll have to pay an expensive single supplement. Most cruises are priced with couples in mind, but that doesn’t happen on an Antarctica expedition. An expedition is nothing like a regular cruise.
If you’re traveling alone to Antarctica, you can be assigned a roommate. On my trip, double and triple rooms were available and people were paired with roommates of the same sex.
I noticed that most of the solo female travelers tended to be paired up with people close in age. The 40- and 50-something solo female travelers tended to be grouped together. My own roommate, Leanne, was a few years older than me. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but it was nice.
And if you want to pay more to have your own room, you can absolutely do that. (In fact, one of the solo female travelers on the trip, a woman from Hong Kong, showed up in Ushuaia at the last minute and snagged a single room at a discounted rate! There are a lot of last-minute deals on various expeditions.)
Please note that every company is different, but Quark and many other companies room solo travelers together.
It’s Safe to Travel to Antarctica — and Not Scary
One of the common misconceptions is that Antarctica is for extreme travelers only, marathoners and mountain climbers and the like. This couldn’t be less true. A typical Antarctica expedition is not a physically demanding trip.
The only requirement is that you be in reasonably good health — able to walk for an hour or so, climb into and out of the zodiacs, and climb the stairs of the gangway with regularity. Some of the older people on board struggled with the gangway stairs, but the crew was helpful to them.
Choosing to kayak in Antarctica is a much bigger physical commitment, as you’ll be kayaking for a few hours at a time whenever possible. You’ll need to know the basics of kayaking and how to perform a wet exit. (One person fell in during our trip.) Some other physical activities require a higher fitness level.
The crew takes such good care of you on Antarctica expeditions. Their goal is for you to be safe.
My one scary moment was on Deception Island, the final landing of our trip. A huge fur seal began to charge at me. All I did was lift my arms in an X and that was enough to stop him in his tracks. The crew had warned us of this ahead of time and we fended them off with ease.
One thing I’ll add is that Antarctica is not a place to take risks. Stay within the area the crew allows you to go. Dress properly (no stiletto-and-ballgown photo shoots). Don’t antagonize the wildlife. If you’re sick or injured, let a crew member know immediately.
What I loved most about Antarctica was feeling dwarfed by its nature. It made me feel so small and insignificant — and that was beautiful. I honestly feel like my trip to Antarctica rewired my brain. I’m not the same person I was when I got on the ship.
I’ll be chasing that feeling for the rest of my life.
And the truth is that if you’re constantly spending your trip by someone’s side, you’re not going to have that same experience.
Even if you’re traveling with a friend or partner, take time to experience Antarctica alone. Go for a walk on your own. Spend time watching the penguins play in the water. Admire the beauty without snapping photos. Breathe in the frigid air and just take it in.
What to Pack for A Solo Trip to Antarctica
Antarctica is one trip where you need to pack carefully — you can’t exactly pop over to the mall if you forget something. The Quark Expeditions ship did have a boutique on board, which was extremely helpful, but it’s better to be prepared.
Here are the most important items to pack:
The absolute best waterproof mittens or gloves you can find (I used these)
That’s not so easy at the bottom of the world. But many expedition ships have satellite internet connections. The internet on board our ship was grotesquely expensive ($100 for 100 MB), but there was a much cheaper package for email only.
I chose to pay the one-time $35 fee to have “ship wifi” — a new email address that only worked on the ship. This was the best case scenario because it allowed me to send “I’m alive” messages to my loved ones without getting sucked into my usual inbox. If your ship offers this option, I highly recommend taking it.
Other than that, I recommend staying off the internet. A digital detox does amazing things for your brain.
And a Word on Antarctica Romances…
Yes, romance can happen on an Antarctica expedition. I saw some things and heard some more things. YOU GUYS GOT UP TO SOME SHIT ON THAT TRIP. (And believe me, the most salacious Antarctica romances occurred in the 50+ set.)
Definitely don’t go on this trip with the intention of finding someone; there are a lot less expensive ways to do that. And if you’re clearly on the prowl, people will notice. (I’m talking to you, lady of a certain age hitting on a different man of a certain age every night.) But hey…you never know. A lot of people metaphorically go to the ends of the Earth to find love — maybe you have to do it literally!
Essential Info: I traveled to Antarctica on Quark Expeditions‘ Crossing the Circle: Southern Expedition in March 2018. The 2019 voyage starts at $8,995. The kayaking supplement is $995, which includes kayaking throughout the voyage, but starting Quark is now offering one-day “paddling excursions” that are better suited for people with less experience who don’t want to kayak every day.
Quark often has sales — I recommend following them on Facebook and checking out their website. Additionally, some people can get deals by flying down to Ushuaia and jumping on a last-minute discounted trip — though this is risky! You never know what will be available. If you’re looking to kayak, book as early as possible, as kayaking slots are limited and sell out quickly.
While Quark has Antarctica-specific evacuation coverage for emergencies, you need to have your own travel insurance as well. For my trip to Antarctica, I used World Nomads, which I highly recommend for both Antarctica and elsewhere.
This post is brought to you by Quark Expeditions, who hosted me in full on this trip and covered most of my expenses including the full cost of the expedition, kayaking supplement, two nights’ accommodation in Ushuaia, and round-trip airfare from New York. I paid for all incidentals, staff gratuities, gear excluding the Quark parka, and all expenses in Ushuaia excluding the hotel. All opinions, as always, are my own.
My travel blog has been my sole job for more than eight years. This was never my intention when I started, and when I walked out of my office on September 14, 2010, I assumed I’d be walking back into another within a year.
At the beginning, I didn’t even plan to make money. How did people even make money with travel blogs back then, anyway? All I wanted was to have one of the biggest travel blogs in the world.
But soon I started making money — $50 here, $100 there. A few months later, while sipping a coconut in Krabi, Thailand, I decided that I would try to earn $1000 per month — enough to live comfortably in Southeast Asia.
I hit that goal, and soon surpassed it. I tried new things, the money increased, and now I live in my own apartment in Manhattan while still managing to travel quite a bit. I get to work with partners who bring me to remote, otherworldly places like Antarctica and Western Australia, while still having time and money to pursue my own travel goals, like visiting every country in Europe.
That’s not all, though. I remember crying through a sweltering train ride in Bulgaria as I panicked over being down to $200 in my checking account and being owed more than $9,000 from various partners who weren’t paying on time. The trips I invested in, only to have partners cancel on me at the last minute. And the time I was gaslit by a group of male travel bloggers who insisted I was lying about never having been to The Gambia.
Not a lot of women in my position have survived for this long. We’re the exceptions in our transient industry.
I’m ready to share what I’ve learned. Here is the first in a series of posts highlighting digital entrepreneurship for women today.
Starting with the biggest mistakes that female entrepreneurs make.
Underestimating the Extent of Gender Inequality
We were raised being told that we could do anything just as good as boys could. This is especially true for those of us who were raised by second-wave feminists who came of age in the sixties and seventies.
But the truth is that even today, women face constant obstacles in the workplace. Here’s just a taste:
42% of women have faced gender discrimination on the job.*
American women make 80 cents for every dollar a man makes — but black women make 63 cents on the dollar, while Latina women make 54 cents on the dollar. Some studies measure it as far less.*
Men are four times likely to ask for a raise than women, and when women ask, they tend to ask for 30% less.*
Women CEOs only comprise 24 of the Fortune 500 companies, or less than 5%.*
Historically female-dominated industries tend to pay less than male-dominated industries.*
And this doesn’t end with entrepreneurship. Simply giving up an office and a boss doesn’t make you immune to the struggles. You still have to negotiate deals with partners. You still have to sell yourself to clients. And when you’re the face of your business, likability becomes a huge factor.
Success and likability are negatively correlated for women, which is the opposite of men. This has been shown in study after study.*** The attributes that help men become successful are interpreted differently for women. An aggressive male executive is labeled a go-getter; an aggressive female executive is bossy. A highly intelligent male coworker is brilliant; a highly intelligent female worker is full of herself. A father who puts in long work hours is providing for his family; a mother who puts in long work hours is neglecting her family.
Are these barriers insurmountable? No. But you have to acknowledge them if you’re going to fight through them.
What to do instead: Acknowledge that these differences exist and you’ll have to work much harder than a man in your position would. Spend extra time making sure your arguments are iron-clad to make them more persuasive. Reserve extra time and energy for your passion projects because you will likely need it.
Trying to Please Everyone
Women are raised to put others’ needs above our own, and we often interpret that as needing to please everyone. During our whole lives we’ve been told, consciously and unconsciously, that our role is to nurture, care, and support. Think of the jobs that are stereotypically assigned to women: nurses, teachers, secretaries. Each role is to be a caretaker, putting someone else’s needs ahead of their own.
Even if you become phenomenally successful in your business, you’re never going to be able to please everyone. And you’re not going to please your particular customers all the time.
And don’t I know it. If I cover Antarctica, someone complains it’s too expensive; if I cover Long Island, someone complains it’s too boring; if I cover Southeast Asia, someone complains it’s too far; if I cover Europe, someone complains it’s too cliché. Not to mention my favorite recurring comment, “You say you write for women but technically a lot of stuff in this post applies to men too!”
But you know what? If you’re good at your work, the majority of your customers will stick with you. Don’t beat yourself up over the fair-weather fans.
What to do instead: Accept early on that not everybody is going to be a fan. When criticism comes, it’s okay to be hurt — but let it go. It will become easier in time. If you hone your key product well, your core customers will stick with you.
Waiting for Perfection
From a young age, women are groomed to be perfect.This energy is often channeled in a positive way — women now outnumber men at universities in the United States — but more often it’s channelled in unhealthy ways.
How often have you stalled because you couldn’t get your product, or project, or even blog post to fulfill your high standards? As a result, many content creators often languish for weeks or months with no new content because they can’t live up to their own impossible standards. The vast majority of regular people wouldn’t even notice those imperfections.
One of the biggest problems, and one that I’ve often struggled with myself, is that women often won’t get their biggest projects off the ground because they can’t get it perfect before they launch. And instead of a product that does well, they end up creating no product at all, losing time and money on what they created, and remain at square one once again.
Perfect is the enemy of good. Remember that.
What to do instead: As far as your final products go, remind yourself that perfect is an impossible deal, and make peace with delivering a 98/100 if it saves your sanity.
Not Knowing How to Negotiate
One of the starkest differences between men and women in business is how they negotiate. According to negotiation expert Linda Babcock, most women don’t negotiate in the first place, and those who do tend to receive 7.6% less than men in the same position.*
In a traditional job, this could cost you thousands of dollars and years of your life. As an entrepreneur, this could be the difference between negotiating enough money to bring your business to the next level or having to close down within a year.
It could make the difference in working for yourself forever and having to go work for someone else again.
Want to learn more? Get my free guide on how to negotiate better as a woman.Focusing on the Wrong Areas to Improve
“Everything will be better if I learn how to pin the right way,” women entrepreneurs tell themselves, and they sign up for a $700 course on mastering Pinterest. “If I get more Pinterest traffic, things will finally start working for me.” Or maybe it’s a course on Instagram, or graphic design, video production, or branding.
Of course you’re going to improve your skills if you actively work to improve them. But are you choosing the right areas on which to concentrate?
So many women focus on the wrong areas to improve. They lean into specifics when they should be focusing on generalities. It’s the equivalent of spending all your time and money learning how to do 10 different smoky eye looks while still washing your face with Liquid Dial. It’s like booking a trip to climb Kilimanjaro when you don’t even exercise in the first place.
It doesn’t address the root causes of your problems; instead, it simply paints a shiny veneer on a crumbling facade.
What to do instead: Invest in products that fix you from the core. Learn to fix what’s wrong before focusing on the bells and whistles. See the forest for the trees, not the teeny tiny pinecones that fall off the branches in May.
Bringing Their Romantic Partner Into the Business
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this end badly. A woman builds a YouTube channel on her own, she grows her business steadily, she gets into a new relationship, and within a few months, “Ashley’s Vegan Kitchen” has become “Vegetarian Eats with Ashley and Blake.”
Who the fuck is Blake?! Some guy who can’t give up cheese, apparently.
Very often, women bring their partners into their business to share the benefits — time freedom, not having to work a traditional job anymore, location independence and the ability to travel the world. And often they do it to fix resentment issues in their relationship, where the woman has the “cool job” and her partner feels like he’s not providing adequately.
But their partners are often starting with a limited skillset and thus find themselves enjoying the benefits without performing equal work.
And very often, the relationship ends in a breakup. And the woman entrepreneur who painstakingly built up her business from scratch now needs to divide it up with someone whom she taught everything.
I get that you love your partner. I get that you think he or she has skills. But do not give away the keys to the castle.
What to do instead: Don’t consider involving your partner until you’re married or at the equivalent level of financially-merged-forever-relationship. Even then, be cautious. If your partner has skills for which you were going to hire someone anyway — photography skills, programming skills, accounting skills — consider hiring him and treating him like a regular employee. Pay him a fair market rate, give him deadlines, treat him like you would any other vendor.
Copying Every Other Woman in the Field
One of the reasons why I’m still a successful travel blogger nine years later when so many of the originals have given up is because I’ve always focused on originality. These days, a version of almost every generic travel post I write ends up on a variety of other travel blogs, often down to the same headings. That pushes me to write offbeat, different, and personality-filled posts that would be much harder for someone to blatantly copy.
Think of the famous “Follow Me To” Instagram account where the woman led her partner around the world, dragging him by the hand. Thousands of Instagrammers copied that account again and again. Did anyone else get famous doing that? No. It was too obvious that they were copying the people who perfected the theme and made it famous.
It’s easy to think that just because a certain woman was successful with her business, that things will play out for you the same way. They likely won’t. Some people are more successful because they started at a different time, because they have different connections, or because they have access to other resources. Most of what happens in a business takes place behind the scenes and a bystander wouldn’t be able to observe it.
And the worst part? If your industry is closely watched, it will be obvious to people that you’re copying someone else.
What to do instead: Sketch out a business based on who you are and what your strengths are. Constantly question whether you’re imitating something you’ve seen someone else do. Try to create something that nobody else has done yet, and push it hard.
Working Harder, Not Smarter
Perfectionism often rears its head in strange ways. And it’s something that women do all the time, even when we don’t think we’re doing so. Toiling away at details that no other human would have noticed, only to realize you’ve spent several hours working on something that didn’t need fixing.
“But shouldn’t my work be perfect?”
You’ve been hired as a professional; you should be delivering quality work. But too often women waste time on things that don’t actually bring in money — agonizing over website plugins, newsletter sequences, the aesthetics of their Pinterest boards, and Google Bloody Plus when they could be equally successful with a pared down website. Too often women get bogged down in the details of things that don’t actually make a significant difference in your income, and as a result they don’t prioritize the work that pays.
What to do instead: Audit the work you’re doing and the income you’re bringing in. See what brings in money and what doesn’t. See how your time is best spent and what areas of your business you should be focusing on expanding. See what you can outsource and what you should handle personally.
What is the biggest lesson you learned from running your business?
And just like that, 2018 is over. December was a nice way to end it, though. I spent most of my time in New York with a few quickie trips to Texas and Massachusetts via Connecticut, and longer time in Mass over Christmas.
Each year, I try to crank out my final posts of the year early so I can relax — and I’m glad I pulled it off this year. And every year I stay off business email between Christmas Eve and New Year’s. (Though I did get one urgent press request on December 24 with a due date of December 28 — who does that?)
Here’s what I got up to in December.
New York, New York
Wilmington, Reading, Lynn, and Newburyport, Massachusetts
Stratford and Ansonia, Connecticut
A trip to Dallas and an unforgettable concert. And making it even better was that my friend Alexa flew down from New Hampshire to join me! My final event with Chase this year was attending the concert of a certain legendary British singer-songwriter — you know, the one with the sunglasses and the crazy suits. The event included a cocktail reception beforehand and a private box at the concert, which was SO swank and such a luxurious way to experience the performance. More on this event soon.
I’m glad we made time to explore a bit of Dallas, too, as neither of us had been before. Thanks to your suggestions, we went to the Deep Ellum neighborhood and had barbecue at Pecan Lodge followed by pie at Emporium Pies. We also went out for some Tex-Mex and got some melted queso. All delicious! Tourism-wise, we checked out The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the museum dedicated to JFK’s assassination. It is in the actual building where Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK and you can see the window. Highly recommended if you’re visiting Dallas.
Guesting on an awesome podcast. Jeopardy! champion Austin Rogers (a.k.a. the hilarious bartender) invited me to be on his podcast, A Lot to Learn with Austin Rogers. Each week he delves into a new topic, and we talked about solo female travel. I love this interview — it was fun with so much banter. You can listen to it on Apple Podcasts here or on Spotify here.
Spending Christmas at home. It was a nice and cozy Christmas — lots of downtime, movie-watching, wine drinking, cooking, and spending time with immediate family, extended family, and friends.
Taking part in Reddit Secret Santa for the first time. I’ve been a Redditor for a long time but this was my first time taking part in Secret Santa, where you send a gift to a random person. (Bill Gates and Snoop Dogg are some of the celebs that take part!) I had fun putting together a gift for my giftee, and my Santa sent me two books that are exactly my style.
The Points Guy Awards gala. For the first time, The Points Guy threw an awards ceremony and I was impressed by how high-end it was. It was a black-tie gala at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Bebe Rexha performed. Captain Sullenberger got an award. Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gwobee moved us with her words. Crazy amounts of money were donated to charity. There were DJs, parties, open bar, the whole nine yards.
I brought my friend Anna as my date and tons of our blogger friends were there as well. A good time had by all? Most definitely.
Celebrating a friend’s baby shower in Massachusetts. Yep, Auntie Kate is going to have another baby friend to dote on very soon! I’m super excited for my friend to be a mom.
Amusingly, my three best friends and I took a glamour picture with jazz hands, which we’ve done periodically since high school. At the last baby shower last spring, the four of us were all wearing bright and happy colors. At this one, we were all dressed in black and gray — it looked like a surprisingly festive funeral!
An Antarctica reunion in New York. My friend Kirsty (who moved from Australia to New York a few months ago) and I met up with our friend Leo from Brazil, who stopped in in for the weekend en route to California for a business trip. It was so nice getting to hang out again. I have the feeling I’m going to see my Antarctica friends over and over again!
Meeting my friend’s new kids. A few months ago, my friend and her husband began the process of adopting four siblings from the foster care system. I’ve been following their story closely — ever since reading Nia Vardalos’s memoir Instant Mom years ago, I’ve been interested in stories about adopting from foster care. It’s very different from how the media depicts it.
This month I got to meet two of the kids. And they are AWESOME. But even better was seeing my friend as a mom, and she is beyond a natural at it. My heart is full of joy seeing how they are building their family.
A cozy New Year’s Eve in Harlem. By this point, I feel like New Year’s is Amateur Hour, and it’s much better spending it at home, away from the madness and high prices. I went to my sister’s and her boyfriend’s and we drank champagne, ate dinosaur chicken nuggets, and watched Leslie Jones and Chrissy Teigen on NBC. It was perfect.
Good times in New York. A few things of note: finally going to Barney Greengrass with my buds the 2 Food Trippers, another Antarctica reunion when Kirsty’s mom and sister came to visit, and lots and lots of Christmas parties, including my book club’s first potluck!
I was lucky — I can’t think of anything that went badly this month.
Hello from Rolf’s! This New York restaurant goes all out with the Christmas decorations — and they stay up for months after. It’s insanely crowded, but worth a quick duck-in for a drink (if the line isn’t around the block!). For more updates from my travels, follow me on Instagram at @adventurouskate.
What I Wore This Month
I don’t have any amazing fashion photos this month, but I did try out a few cool outfits!
First off, in Dallas I was going to the concert of a flamboyant performer whose 70s outfits were legendary. He himself wore a sparkling lavender suit during the show. So what do you wear to that? PINK JUMPSUIT! This one was by Black Halo, and I rented it from Rent the Runway.
Black Halo tends to do a lot of straight-across necklines, which I’m not always a fan of, but they do make your boobs look GREAT!
This black dress by Alexia Admor was a miracle. One of those dresses that you put on and it feels like it was made for you! It works for both casual and more upscale events, it’s insanely flattering, and it FEELS very expensive. This one was from Rent the Runway as well.
And a bonus! After I rent something that I really like, I take a look online to see if I can find it for cheaper than what RTR is selling it for. (Tip: type the dress’s name into Google Shopping.) The dresses are often a few seasons out, so you can find them for super-cheap. This dress originally retails for $350 — and I found it for $154! My mom kept insisting I buy it and once I found it at this price, I had to (and she helped me buy it as a Christmas gift).
Honestly, I had a bit of a fashion disaster for The Points Guy Awards — I had already worn my red gown at the Qatar Airways gala a few days before, so I needed something new and fast. I went to the RTR flagship store in Manhattan but I had accidentally made my appointment for a week later — so they didn’t have a lot of stuff for me to choose from. It seemed like almost everything in the store was Size 2 or smaller and Size 12 or larger, with very little in between.
I ended up going with this Cinq a Sept dress. The neckline was straight and much lower than I’d like, but it was slinky and sexy. (I did need Anna to zip me into it, though. The only bad thing about living alone!) If I had the chance, I’d have gone with something more colorful and outlandish.
This month, Anderson .Paak performed on Saturday Night Live and pretty much everyone in the SNL subreddit had the same reaction: “Wow, this guy is amazing!” Since then “Tints” has become one of my favorite songs of the year and I’ve been diving into more of his material. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of him; his creative hip-hop mashups are exactly my style. Plus he plays the drums while singing — that is HARD!
Bird Box | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix - YouTube
What I Watched This Month
Bird Box. I watched it the day after it came out on Netflix — and soon the memes were pouring in. It’s not the greatest movie of all time, but it was a fun watch. And my ABSOLUTE favorite thing was that 54-year-old Sandra Bullock was romantically paired with 28-year-old Trevante Rhodes! And it didn’t feel weird or awkward at all — it was sexy and normal. MORE OF THAT, PLEASE, HOLLYWOOD.
Vice was great, too. I love Adam McKay’s style, infusing comedy into otherwise serious topics. I can’t believe Dick Cheney went from looking like Christian Bale to looking like Dick Cheney!
Now that Oscar Season is upon us, I plan on heavily using my AMC A-List Pass. It costs $19.95 per month and you can see up to three movies per week. Considering that a single movie in New York costs $17 or so, it is absolutely worth it.
My 2018 Christmas Card
What I Read This Month
I ended up finishing 61 books in 2018 — and the last two were finished within hours of the ball dropping! Not quite as good as my 72-book record of 2017, but I’m happy with the results. Be sure to check out My Favorite Reads of 2018 if you haven’t yet; it has longer reviews of my favorite books of the year.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (2018) — Willa thought she and her family had done everything right — they worked hard, raised two smart kids, and while she didn’t expect to be rich, she thought they would at least have security. Then the magazine she works for folds, the university where her husband was a tenured professor shuts down, her terminally ill father-in-law requires round-the-clock care, her vagabond daughter comes home from years of living in Cuba, and her Harvard-educated son, the one who seemed destined for success, suffers a terrible tragedy. Now they need to cope with financial hardship, loss of career and identity, and a house falling apart around them, while also caring for a father-in-law and newborn grandson.
But that’s not all — the book goes back to the 1870s, focusing on another inhabitant of the same house, a newlywed science teacher named Thatcher Greenwood. He wants to teach Darwinism to his kids, but the scandalized town won’t let him do anything remotely close. He then befriends his next door neighbor, Mary Treat, who turns out to be one of the world’s best female scientists of the 19th century and a correspondent of Darwin himself.
I listed this book in My Favorite Reads of 2018, so I’ve already reviewed it there in greater depth. But there was SO much I loved about this book. Barbara Kingsolver is one of the best at creating huge communities with larger-than-life characters, each with their own personality and voice, and weaving them in and around major issues. The contemporary family is one of my favorite families in literature, ever, and I still wonder about what the characters are up to today. Beyond that, this book has caused me to reevaluate what I’m doing in my life to protect myself financially and to conserve resources. I’m going to be making more changes this year because of this book.
The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart by Emily Nunn (2017) — Emily Nunn’s life blew up all at once. Her brother committed suicide, her longtime fiancé broke up with her as she was in the throes of grief, and since she had been a stay-at-home stepmom to his daughter, she was suddenly without money and without a family. She was also dealing with a resurgence of alcoholism. In this book, she decides to travel her native South, reconnecting with family members and learning about the dishes that give us the most comfort.
I feel like this book had so much potential, but it was hampered by having a narrator with little self-awareness. Everything that happens to Emily seems to be someone else’s fault — and though she has toxic family members and went through an awful end of a relationship, it seems like so much is missing, like she omitted all the parts where she is as fault. I did like how she eventually built a family with some of her old friends, though. There are lots of recipes in the book, including one for SPOON BREAD (which I discovered on my Williamsburg trip last year and ADORE) and I plan to soon make her “beauty soup,” a lentil vegetable soup made of ingredients that make your skin look beautiful.
The Autobiography of Gucci Mane by Gucci Mane with Neil Martinez-Belkin (2017) — Gucci Mane has become one of the top hip-hop stars coming out of Atlanta, the world’s epicenter of hip-hop. Unfortunately, his fame has been marred by a number of prison stays as well as a charge for murder (he got off by it being in self-defense). This book starts in his childhood in Alabama and progresses to him being a teenager selling drugs, then finally an artist finding redemption through music. But it seems like his life is always one step forward, two steps back. As soon as he creates his greatest album yet, once again, he’s back in prison, and usually for probation violations. At the end, though, he finally gets it together, and as far as I can tell, he’s been clean and happy since.
I read this book because Roxane Gay loved it, and she and I have the same taste in books, so I figured we’d be on the same page. Despite being a hip-hop fan, I had never listened to much of Gucci. This book was fascinating and takes you into the world of hip-hop in Atlanta, as well as the underworld of selling drugs. I loved the atmosphere — but this memoir, like The Comfort Food Diaries, once again had a narrator without any self-awareness. Gucci feuds and falls out with what seems like every rapper in Atlanta, yet he has no reflection. He doesn’t recognize any faults in himself, and I think that’s what holds it back from being a truly great memoir. That being said, I still really enjoyed it.
And after I finished it, Spotify randomly recommended me Gucci’s song “Have It All” with Pharrell. That was an instant add — I’ve been listening to it all the time!
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant (2015) — Seeking a slower-paced lifestyle after living in New York, British travel writer Richard Grant buys a ramshackle mansion in the Mississippi Delta: also known as the South of the South. He and his girlfriend discover a world where your garden is attacked by overnight weeds and armadillos, where owning a gun is mandatory, where bankers offer to take on your mortgages because you seem like a nice person, and where race relations are complicated and peculiar and wrapped up in centuries of knots. Through all of it, he and his girlfriend turn the house into a home and settle into their new Delta life, complete with hunting deer.
This book was a gift to me from my Reddit Secret Santa, and she knew what she was doing — this was SO my style. I love nonfiction books about quirky destinations, especially in the South (hello, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and honestly, the Delta is FAR stranger than anything in Savannah. I found it fascinating, especially reading the point of view of liberals going into a deeply conservative culture with open minds. A lot of the book was about the Delta’s complicated race..