I’m Kirstie Jeffries, a Californian expat, digital marketer, and travel addict. I’ve lived in Spain as an auxiliar de conversación and then worked in Australia on a working holiday turned 457 visa, before taking off on my current journey around the world!
If you’re wild about wine, there’s no shortage of international wine tasting destinations around which to plan your travels. From Argentina to South Africa and from California to Australia and New Zealand, you can’t go too far without hitting some spectacular vineyards. But when it comes to wine tourism, where better to go tasting than the top wine-producing country in the world?
Italy produces the equivalent of over five billion bottles of wine per year. Five billion! In a country that prolific, with 350 official varieties, 1.5 million vineyard acres, and twenty designated wine regions, how does a wine fanatic narrow down which regions to visit? I spoke with fellow travel bloggers and asked them about their favorite places across Italy to taste wine. But before we dive into their picks, these are the country’s top regions by volume produced:
Major cities: Verona, Venice
Main varieties: Corvina, molinara, rondinella, merlot, prosecco, garganega
Major city: Florence
Main varieties: Sangiovese, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, trebbiano, vermentino
Major city: Turin
Main varities: Nebbiolo, barbera, dolcetto, moscato, arneis, cortese
Major cities: Parma, Bologna
Main varieties: Lambrusco, sangiovese, malvasia, trebbiano
Major city: Milan
Main varieties: Nebbiolo, pinot noir, chardonnay, verdicchio, pinot bianco
Check out Wine Folly‘s handy Italian wine regions map to explore further:
Now that you have the lay of the land, without further adieu, these travel bloggers highlight their favorite Italian wine spots and why they love them.
Bologna and Emilia-Romagna
“In Emilia Romagna, we don’t age like Tuscany, we drink!” There’s a lot of truth in this playful statement I heard from vintners and wine lovers alike in Emilia-Romagna, the fertile agricultural cradle of northern Italy. The younger and sometimes sparkling wines being produced here are exciting and stand up to the rich foods Bologna is known for. Grapes like chardonnay, merlot, riesling, and cabernet sauvignon are familiar, but pignoletto, malvasia, and barbera are really turning heads when a little sparkle is added. Here are two must-visit wineries:
Orsi, Vigneto San Vito in the Valsamoggia region of Emilia-Romagna, west of Bologna. They were early adopters of biodynamics in their winemaking to return nutrients to soil. Wines are aged in fiberglass, cement, and stainless steel for maximum bubbling. Try the sparkling barbera—it’s amazing and totally unexpected!
Corte D’Aibo in Monteveglio has made organic wines for thirty years and now is also biodynamic. The sustainable and solar-powered property features an agriturismo and restaurant (their food is amazing) with a beautiful country setting to offer guests. French oak barrels are used for the cab sav and wax-sealed terra cotta pots for their other reds making for sumptuous and elegant wines.”
Most people visit Sardinia to enjoy its amazing beaches. However, wine tourism is becoming more and more of a thing in this incredibly beautiful island at the heart of the Mediterranean. A combination of favorable weather conditions, good quality of the soil, strictly local grapes, and ancient traditions have resulted in Sardinia producing some of the best wines in the world.
Sardinia is packed with beautiful vineyards and fantastic wineries. Most of them now offer wine tasting tours. To add to this, there’s also a great number of wine festivals that take place throughout the year: from the Sagra del Vino Novello of San Vero Milis, which celebrates “new (red) wine;” to Cantine Aperte in Serdiana and Dolianova, near Cagliari (Sardinia’s capital), where each May, five vineyards spread across two small villages open their doors to visitors that wish to learn more about wine production and taste their wines; not to mention Calici di Stelle, which takes place each second week of August in Jerzu and combines wine appreciation with stargazing.
Nuragus, vermentino, bovale, monica, and carignano are just a few of the grapes which should be tasted on a good wine tasting tour in Sardinia. Among the best wines, there’s the popular Nepente di Oliena, which was appreciated by Italian revolutionary Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Turriga, of Cantine Argiolas.
The gravel under the wheels of our car was indicative of the fact that we were over terrain that had experienced harshness. It’s this aspect that contributes to the greatness of many wine regions. This element of topography is not lost on Umbria. The vines need to fight to survive, and the product, the grape, replete with character.
The white grechetto is crisp and lovely with lentils that are famous in the region. The sagrantino red is velvety and stands up to the greatest truffle dishes in the world. For a true vintner’s experience, visit the Goretti Winery and be introduced to the good life that comes from the dirt under our wheels.
The Valpolicella is a celebrated wine district in the Veneto wine region in Northeastern Italy. Remarkable cities surround this region: Venice is to the east, Milan is to the west, and the capital of romance, Verona, is just to the south. The most famous of all of the wines in the region is the Amarone de Valpolicella. This wine is a ravenous red, full-bodied in flavor, and higher in alcohol content than most wines.
The Valpolicella wines are best paired with heavy meats and cheeses, making it the perfect wine region to visit when there is a nip in the air. The top vineyard to visit is Serego Alighieri, a Venetian estate purchased by the son of famed Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. Just about twenty-five minutes from Verona, the home of Romeo & Juliet, the Alighieri estate has a delicious tasting room, food and wine pairings, and acres of lush vineyards and cypress trees.
Whether you’re a casual sipper or a full-fledged somalier, few places in the world come anywhere close to Italy’s wine tasting opportunities. When you add in the food, landscapes, towns, and weather, it’s no wonder Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world.
It’s no wonder many of my all-time favorite travel memories took place in the summer: the warm weather, abundant sunshine, verdant landscapes, and long, vibrant nights are the ingredients to a magical trip. And in my humble opinion, there’s no place quite like Europe when it comes to summer travel. The cities are buzzing, the sun keeps shining well into the evening, and some of the continent’s best attractions are more accessible than ever.
Summer sunbathing in Bled, Slovenia
If you’re thinking about planning a trip to Europe this summer, I can guarantee you’ll love every moment of it. Wondering where to go and what to do, though? Here are nine of my favorite ideas for the perfect European summer vacation.
Get Your Timing Right
There’s something about summer that makes people want to celebrate, so it’s only natural that Europe’s calendar is jam-packed during the summer months. From national holidays to cultural fairs to music festivals, there’s something big happening in some corner of Europe just about every day of the summer. Get into a wine fight in Haro, Spain and stick around the north of the country for the Running of the Bulls. Celebrate Bastille Day in style or witness the Tour de France firsthand. Check out the unique creations of Austria’s Bodypainting Festival…and that’s just to name a few. There’s never a dull moment in Europe’s summer, so find the events that appeal to you most, and plan your trip accordingly.
Sail the Mediterranean
As the summer heat settles in, where better to cool off than the Mediterranean Sea? Even if you’ve never spent a day in your life on a sailboat, tour companies like www.sailingholidays.com offer trips in which a crew takes care of all the important stuff while you sit back and relax—or they can even teach you how to sail yourself. Float around the Greek Islands or sail around the shores of Croatia or go wherever floats your boat (ha). Soak up the Mediterranean sunshine while eating the region’s best cuisine and tasting its finest wine. If that doesn’t shout “vacation,” I don’t know what does.
Pitch a Tent
Considering Europe is the world’s most densely populated continent, it should come as no surprise that most European trips revolve around visiting the major cities and capitals. But did you know that Europe is also home to more than 10,000 campgrounds? See a different side of Europe and get up close and personal with some of the continent’s stunning natural landscapes by planning a camping trip. Eurocampings offers listings and reviews of many of Europe’s campsites so you can plan ahead. And if you’re not quite ready to rough it, you can always rent a campervan and travel from campsite to campsite and even from country to country.
Visit the National Parks
Yes, it’s densely populated, but did you know that there are nearly 500 national parks across Europe? Even if you opt for a roof over your head instead of camping, plenty of Europe’s national parks can be explored on day trips. As the country with the highest percentage of land devoted to national parks (12.1%), Iceland simply can’t be beat if you’re looking to get out into nature. France, meanwhile, has the most national park-dedicated land by square kilometer, making it another fantastic choice. And for something a bit more off the beaten path, this list has some stunning suggestions.
Plitvice National Park, Croatia
Get (Water) Sporty
If you’re looking for another great way to cool off this summer, there’s no shortage of water sports to be found across Europe. Plan your vacation around kayaking, rafting, snorkeling, scuba diving, waterskiing, tubing, or whatever your heart desires. Europe isn’t often seen as the adventure capital of the world, at least not compared to places like Costa Rica or Thailand, but all of these experiences can be found throughout the region, giving you a chance to cool off while checking out some unbelievable views.
Bring out Your Inner Child
Whether you’re traveling with family or are just a big old kid at heart (I say as a proud Disneyland Annual Passholder), amusement parks can be a total ball. Summer is the perfect time to visit these, as some of Europe’s most popular parks open only during the summer, while others are open year-round but have longer hours or additional features like complimentary shuttle buses during the warm months. Some of Europe’s most popular theme parks include Alton Towers in Staffordshire, England (one of the inspirations for Roller Coaster Tycoon, I might add!), Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, and, of course, Disneyland Paris.
Rent a Beach House
Not an adrenaline junkie? No worries; you’ll find plenty of rest and relaxation gathering your friends or family and renting a house on the beach (or in the mountains or wherever you please!). There are tons of super cool abodes on Airbnb, and, depending on your destination, you should be able to find an accommodation that fits your budget, whatever it may be. If you’re looking for the perfect combination of sunny weather, good prices, and lovely scenery, look no further than Spain’s Costa del Sol or the Canary or Balearic Islands. Ummm set me up somewhere like this one, please.
Embark on a River Cruise
One of the best ways to see several European cities in one trip while keeping your schedule breezy is to join a river cruise. Most cruises take you down the Danube, Rhine, or Seine, stopping at cities like Vienna, Budapest, and Paris along the way. Everything you need for a relaxing vacation (accommodation, transportation, food, drinks, entertainment…the works!) is right there on the ship, and by day you can get out and immerse yourself in some of Europe’s most unforgettable cities. It’s a fantastic way to get a “best of” tour of the continent, especially if you haven’t seen much of Europe before, and summer is the perfect time to go.
Budapest and the Danube
Enjoy Live Music
Europe goes nuts for live music in the summer. Many of the world’s most popular musicians make their way to Europe for the summer leg of their tour, and there are more music festivals than you could dream of. Some of the biggest festivals, featuring the globe’s hottest acts, include Belgium’s Tomorrowland, Barcelona and Porto’s Primavera Sound, and England’s Glastonbury Festival. No matter your taste in music, you’ll find something that speaks to you. Even if you can’t make it to a major concert, keep an ear out for street performers and live music sessions at bars and—they seem to be everywhere during the summer.
Whether you’re a backpacker or a luxury traveler, whether you prefer your summers relaxing or action-packed, and whether you’re flying solo or have your family in tow, there’s something in store for you in Europe in the summer. Wherever you go and whatever you do, may this summer be your best summer yet!
This post may contain compensated links, but all opinions are entirely my own, as always.
In my Travel Talk Interview Series, I feature travelers around the world who inspire me with their adventures in the hopes of inspiring my readers as well. Most recently, I spoke with Lola Méndez of Miss Filatelista about how she began traveling, where she’s been since, what she’s doing with her blog and sustainable travel, and where she’s heading next.
I’m American-Uruguayan and lived in New York City for about seven years before I left three years ago to gallivant around the globe full-time. My career had been in public relations, so initially I worked with clients remotely on communication projects. For the last year and half I’ve focused on travel writing gigs for various digital publications and my luxury travel and responsible lifestyle blog, Miss Filatelista.
What inspired you to start traveling?
I never intended to travel full-time; it sort of happened out of necessity. When I first left NYC in March 2015 I thought I’d head to Uruguay to start a nonprofit and work with female artisans. Unexpectedly I was accepted into a cultural exchange program in Spain and couldn’t pass up on the chance to live in Europe for a year without worrying about a visa. I had been applying for jobs within my expertise, fashion PR, for years but always was turned away once they realized I was an American citizen.
After the gig in Spain finished, I accepted a role as the marketing director for a travel company based in Florence, Italy. Although I had a contract, the company dropped the ball on my paperwork for the blue card visa and hadn’t paid me for nearly three months of full-time work. My Schengen Zone tourist days were dwindling, and I had to get out of the area quickly. I took an overnight bus to Zagreb, Croatia and spent the summer exploring the Balkans. I was purely traveling and barely doing any work and realized how little I was spending and how much I was actually living. I decided then to finally pursue my dream of working with a women’s empowerment NGO in India. I headed to Morocco for a month and then enjoyed the rest of my Schengen visa days in Europe visiting friends and family.
After six months in India, I knew there wasn’t a single ounce of me that was eager to head back to America and go back to the hustle of the corporate world. It had been over two and a half years since I left the States. I hadn’t made it that far to only get that far. I decided to start focusing on creating content for my website and pitching articles to various travel publications. I’ve now spent almost a year and a half in Asia and imagine I’ll spend at last another year or two slowly exploring the region.
Although this lifestyle of constant travel that I’ve fallen into may not have been my intention, it has inspired me to continue to travel. There are so many more things to discover, locals to meet, stories to hear, foods to taste, and transformative moments that await me. Travel has become my addiction and is a thirst I’ll never be able to quench. I often worry that I won’t be able to see everything I’m eager to witness in this one little life of mine.
It’s amazing how much you’ve seen and done already! I’m in awe. Your grandfathers were a stamp collector and voyager and a postman. What impact have they had on you?
Our grandparents’ generation comes from a time when travel wasn’t an adventure; it was a necessity. My paternal grandfather moved with his family on a ship across the Atlantic from Spain to Uruguay for reasons that are unknown to us. Although we visit Uruguay often and I lived there as a child, I don’t have many clear memories of my abuelo.
My maternal grandfather enlisted in the military as a teenager in WWII and rose to be a lieutenant in the US Navy. I grew up being enamored with his stories of crossing the Panama Canal and the beautiful Pacific Islands that were the backdrop to his tales. I have mixed feelings about his service now that I know how much irreversible damage was caused in the region during the war. I had the chance to travel with my grandfather often in my youth, and when I was 19 I joined him on a month-long cruise around Latin America. I will always cherish my memory of waking up at 5 am with him to be on the deck as we crossed through the Panama Canal together.
My father also traveled out of necessity. When he was in his mid-twenties he escaped the military dictatorship in Uruguay by walking across the entire Latin American continent. His experiences were my bedtime stories, from waking up next to a python in the Amazon Rainforest to the beautiful women who helped him along the way by sneaking him food or helping him get to his next destination. My sense of wanderlust was instilled by all of these plights. They also give me a strong sense of my immense privilege to be a traveler by choice.
Those are some unbelievable stories! How did you begin blogging about your travels?
The day that I accepted the job in Spain I came up with a pseudonym and created a blog, Twitter, and an Instagram page called Miss Filatelista. I had high hopes for my abilities to thoroughly document my memories as I transgressed foreign lands, but I seriously underestimated how much work that would take. I wrote about four posts as I first started traveling about New York City, Santa Fe, Rome, and the Vatican. Rome was my first stop on my overseas travels so I didn’t get very far with writing an entry for each place I visited. I decided to focus on Instagram as it was easier to create quick and quality content and share it in real time.
I posted a few more times over the following two years but didn’t really commit to creating constant content until last summer when I was in Sri Lanka and started to be approached by tourism brands for partnerships. I wouldn’t recommend taking a similar path. Although my blog is three years old, I didn’t really start posting regularly until less than a year ago. My advice would be not to create a travel blog until you can commit to at least one post a month. There are probably about 40 countries I’ve visited that I haven’t written about, yet!
I can relate to that! I have so many more countries to write about. You’ve traveled to 53 countries so far. Can you pick a favorite? What did you love about it?
I absolutely cannot! Which is funny because I ask people to choose a favorite country as a part of the Meet The Stamp Collectors interview series on my blog. If I had to give you a rapid-fire response, my favorite country for culture is India, for food Thailand, for people is Uruguay, for architecture Morocco, and for nature Sri Lanka.
If a traveler came to you saying they had 24 hours to experience the very best of Madrid, what would you recommend they do and see?
As I didn’t really love Madrid, I’d tell them they made the right choice to make it a quick visit and should instead head outside of the city center on some incredible day trips to discover medieval architecture, incredible nature, and historic cities.
For their day in Madrid, I’d recommend waking up early and paying a visit to the beautiful Museo de Romanticismo – be sure to enjoy a coffee at the garden cafe. In the late morning, stroll through Retiro Park until you find the Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez, where peacocks roam freely. The rose garden and Crystal Palace in the park are also lovely and worth visiting. Have a glass of wine at the Terraza Cibeles for amazing views of Madrid, then go on a tapas bar hop in La Latina, where you’ll find more locals than tourists. In the evening, make your way towards the Templo de Debod to watch an epic sunset over the Madrid valley and see the fantastic Egyptian structure glow in the golden hour light. After that, head to Pez Tortilla for dinner, then 1862 Dry Bar for cocktails.
You also are passionate about sustainable travel. How have you been mindful of this while exploring the globe? Any tips?
I’m a responsible travel writer, and I practice what I preach. There are so many small changes we can make in our daily ways to decrease our carbon footprint and better serve our communities, at home, and wherever we visit. To provide expert tips on how to become a mindful traveler, I’ve launched a 2018 Responsible Travel Challenge on my site. Each month is dedicated to a new topic and includes actionable ways to become a more sustainable traveler.
So far, I’ve released articles focusing on ethical animal interactions, booking sustainable accommodation, respecting local culture, and ethical beauty. Readers can expect the series to evolve to include tips on becoming less wasteful and banning plastic, reputable tour operators, a discussion on voluntourism, sustainable fashion, transportation methods, and more in the coming months.
I love what you’re doing with that! What trips do you have planned? What’s on your bucket list?
I’ve been back in the States for a few weeks spending time with my family in Florida but will soon head back to Asia. I’ll be going back to my beloved Chiang Mai for a month to work with Venture With Impact and one of their charitable partners, Thailand Life Development Center. I’ll be helping the nonprofit develop their agritourism site, vocational training program, and other marketing projects. Keep in mind that this is my field of expertise – I am a big advocate that volunteering is only ethical if you are offering a senior level skill.
After Thailand, I’ll be heading to some new countries, which I’m really looking forward to! I plan to spend three months slowly traveling south to north in Vietnam and then a month in Laos, Cambodia, and off to the Philippines! Anywhere I haven’t been is on my bucket list, especially cities and towns that I didn’t get to visit in countries I’ve gone to in the past. I’ll probably stay in Asia for a while, so, as far as that continent goes, I’m really eager to visit Japan and Taiwan. After, I’ll likely head to Oceania or the Middle East, as I’d love to learn about the history of the silk road across the ‘stan countries.
In the eighteen months I lived out of a backpack while calling a new city home every few days, the closest I ever came to “home decor” was hanging a towel out to dry on a hostel bunk bed. But as I leave my vagabond days in the past and settle into my new apartment, I find that furnishing a home is really fun. Even more fun? Finding ways to infuse every inch of my place with reminders of travel, from photos to kitchenware to souvenir knick-knacks.
With the right travel decor, you can see the world without ever having to set foot outside. Whether you’re a repatriated nomad nostalgic for your days of yore, a travel fanatic looking forward to your next trip, or someone who just loves sparking the imagination with your furnishings—or if you’re looking to surprise someone who is—you can’t go wrong with these travel-themed home decor ideas.
No need to be modest; I’ve seen your Instagram, and you’ve taken some unbelievable shots around the world. Make your home truly your own by printing your favorite travel photos as photo magnets, collages, or canvases. Wanting to give my new apartment some Spanish flair, I turned to The Canvas Factory for the latest addition to my decor. I chose a snapshot I took in Madrid (one that perfectly encapsulates how the city makes me feel, of course) and had it printed on a 16×20″ canvas. It was super easy to order and turned out great, and I love the personal touch it adds to my humble abode.
I’m giving away one of these canvas prints to a lucky reader so that you can adorn your walls with a photo that reminds you of your favorite travel memories! Keep reading to the end to see how you can win.
My Madrid canvas print. (Yes, those are Mulder & Scully votive candles.)
They say smell is the scent that triggers the strongest memories, so how better to remember your travels than by filling your home with delicious scents reminiscent of your travels around the globe? Seek out candles that evoke specific memories (if you’re in the U.S., Ross, Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, and HomeGoods have super cheap candles), or check out Anywhere & Everywhere‘s line of travel-themed candles like pineapple and mango for Costa Rica or green tea for Sri Lanka.
Some of the cheapest souvenirs when traveling – and the easiest to fit into your limited luggage – are postcards. Sure, they’re designed to mail home to your friends and family, but for 20 to 50 cents per destination, you can pick up an extra for yourself and have a concrete reminder of that amazing place you visited.
But what to do once you’ve returned from your adventures? Arrange them as a collage, either taping the postcards directly to your wall or attaching them to a poster board. It creates fun, colorful art and a great conversation piece. Or if you don’t trust your own collage skills, pick up a few magnetic frames and place your favorites on your fridge. My only question now is how I can possibly fit all of my postcards in one apartment!
I may have bought waaay too many Sevilla postcards when I lived there (photo credit)
All right, you’ve earned it: go ahead and brag a little about the amazing places you’ve been. Scratch maps are super fun for keeping track of the places you’ve been, dreaming about where you’ll go, and becoming a geography buff in between. Or for something a little different, make your way through your bucket list with a 100 Places Scratch Off Bucket List poster.
Travel Subscription Boxes
What’s even more fun than picking out your own travel decor? Being surprised each month by new additions! Travel-themed subscription boxes such as are a great way to keep the souvenirs coming, even if you can’t be out on the road collecting your own. GlobeIn, for example, sends handmade artisan goods from around the world, anything from coasters to pottery to jewelry. (You can even get $10 off any Artisan Box Subscription with the promo code WELCOME.)
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: I’m giving away one Canvas Factory 16×20” (40x50cm) canvas print of the photo of your choice, worth up to $129! If you have a favorite photo from your adventures around the world, this is the perfect opportunity to adorn your wall with your worldwide memories. Just enter via the Rafflecopter widget below. Note: this giveaway is open only to residents of the U.S. and Canada.
Repatriation is never an easy process for anyone who’s spent time overseas, but if there’s one city that makes the transition easy, it’s my hometown, Los Angeles. With a history steeped in cultural confluence, 224 distinct languages spoken by its residents, and an endless variety of things to do, see, and eat, L.A. is a dream come true for the internationally curious.
A sidewalk shrine in Los Angeles’ Thai Town
This former nomad is officially nomadic no more: since February, I’ve been settling into a new, full-time office job and an apartment of my own. I’ve traded border hopping for deadlines, a backpack for drawers, and spontaneity for routine – and I’m loving everything about it. Of course, I’m still a traveler at heart, so I’ve been thrilled to explore my hometown through new, wanderlustful eyes. In November, TripAdvisor inspired me to join a Downtown Food Tour, which shed a whole new light on a city I thought I knew so well.
Eager to dive even deeper into Los Angeles culture and cuisine, I scanned TripAdvisor Attractions again until one tour jumped out at me that was right up my alley: Urban Adventures’ Ethnic Neighborhoods Food & Culture Tour. I’ve always been proud of L.A.’s multiculturality, and who doesn’t love trying new dishes and cuisines? After an easy booking process, I was ready to start eating my way through L.A.
Korean sides in Koreatown
We met our guide, Aerienne, right in the heart of Koreatown, in front of the historic Gaylord Apartments and opposite the former site of The Ambassador Hotel, where senator and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated. With over 110,000 Korean-Americans living in Los Angeles, no city outside of Korea can rival L.A.’s 2.7-square mile Koreatown. There, you’ll also find more Korean restaurants than you can possibly imagine, making it the perfect spot to kick off our tour.
Our first stop? Ham Ji Park, a family-run restaurant where we tasted delectable barbecue pork ribs accompanied by banchan (Korean sides) and rice tea. I could have gone home happy after this meal, but there was plenty more to see! Sticking to Koreatown a little longer, we then made our way to Zion Market. In this bustling Asian market, we had a wander around and then tried a few freshly prepared desserts: sweet buns shaped like goldfish and walnut pastries.
There’s no place like Koreatown for delicious meat
You could spend an entire lifetime exploring L.A.’s Koreatown and barely scratch the surface of delicious restaurants, but we were off to another part of the world: Armenia. We hopped on a bus toward East Hollywood, en route to Little Armenia. Nearly half of the U.S. Armenian population calls Los Angeles home, and, while the majority of Armenian Angelenos reside in the L.A. County city of Glendale, you’ll find a big concentration in East Hollywood’s Little Armenia as well. I visited “Big” Armenia last summer and absolutely adored it, so I was particularly excited to head to this part of town on the tour. At Sasoun Bakery we tasted cheese borek (a cheesy pastry) and lahmajune (ground beef and dough).
It wouldn’t be L.A. without an unexpected mashup of cultures, so our next stop in Little Armenia was – can you guess? – a Northern Thai restaurant. Spicy & BBQ is a tiny hole in the wall you might not otherwise notice, but its flavors were unforgettable. We began the tasting with glasses of Thai iced tea, and then we tried khao soi, a creamy, curried egg noodle soup. Although our tongues were burning by the time we reached the bottom, this had to have been one of the tastiest Thai dishes I’ve ever tried. I only regret not having a high enough spice tolerance to finish it all.
Khao soi soup
From Thai food in Little Armenia, we headed to nearby Thai Town, with Aerienne explaining some of the native and imported plants, flowers, and trees growing along the way. To make things even more confusing, our first Thai Town stop was, well, a Lebanese restaurant. Carousel is a beautifully-decorated spot offering some of the tastiest Lebanese dishes you’ll find anywhere. We tasted their lule (sausage), hummus, and muhammara (red pepper dip), and although I was reaching my limit after trying so many amazing things in one afternoon, I loved every one.
Last but certainly not least, Aerienne led us into a parking structure of all places, and there we found carts selling Thai deserts. We tried “Thai taco” pastries to top off the day’s feast before wandering around Silom Market, a Thai grocery store offering all sorts of goodies. Although I wasn’t ready for the tour to come to an end, I may have exploded if I’d had one more bite, so perhaps it was for the best that our tour concluded here.
Excited to explore L.A.’s diversity, I went into the tour with high expectations, yet somehow they were surpassed. Aerienne was a wonderful guide: knowledgeable, fun, and clearly very passionate about Los Angeles and its wide variety of cuisines. The small group size allowed us to ask all the questions we wanted and get to know each other well. And the food was absolutely divine at each and every stop.
The group with our Thai tacos at our final stop (Photo credit: our guide, Aerienne)
Best of all, this tour highlighted a side of Los Angeles few tourists ever get to see, a side I think is far more fascinating than any of the city’s typical tourist destinations. We visited neighborhoods that may not be as glamorous as Rodeo Drive or as famous as Venice Beach but that are real places where real Angelenos live, work, and eat. We tried mom-and-pop restaurants you could pass every day without noticing. We learned about the history and cultural blend that makes L.A. unique and spectacular. I walked away from the tour loving my city even more than I already did.
Whether you’re a culturally curious visitor or an L.A. local looking for even more reasons to love your city, I highly recommend booking Urban Adventures’ Ethnic Neighborhoods Food & Culture Tour through TripAdvisor. It’s a strange thing to go from traveling all over the world to staying put in my hometown, but in Los Angeles I can explore the entire globe without setting foot outside the city’s boundaries. I can’t wait to see what else I discover.
Mountains, cafés, rivers, bars, deserts, temples, beaches, cathedrals… When it comes to travel, I love seeing it all. Keep me under a roof or send me to the great outdoors, and I’ll be thrilled, as long as I’m exploring something new. And one of the best places to explore new things is museums, where you’ll find yourself face to face with thousands of years of history, millions of citizens’ stories, or an infinite wealth of knowledge all at your fingertips.
The Louvre (photo credit: Unsplash)
As I’ve traveled the world, I’ve had the chance to explore dozens of museums. Whether they’ve contained world-class art, eccentric curiosities, or cutting-edge science, they’ve housed some of the most captivating discoveries of all. Here are five of my favorite museums around the world that I’d return to in a heartbeat to discover deeper.
The Newseum, Washington D.C., United States
I could populate this entire list just with museums found in Washington D.C. All of the Smithsonians are unbelievable (and free!), and the National Holocaust Museum is beautifully harrowing. But my favorite museum in D.C. – and, in fact, anywhere in the world – is the Newseum. Back in the summer of 2009, my family stumbled upon it by accident, walked in figuring we’d spend an hour max there, and wound up exploring it for an entire day. It blew me away, and I absolutely intend to revisit it the next time I’m in D.C.
This interactive museum covers all types of communication, from newscasting to journalism, politics, entertainment, computer technology, and beyond. If you’ve ever turned on the TV or connected to the internet, I promise you’ll find something that speaks to you. At the Newseum, you can also visit sections of the Berlin Wall, a 9/11 journalism gallery, an interactive newsroom (ever wanted to make believe you’re a reporter?), and tons of other amazing displays. Let yourself get lost in all it has to offer.
A 9/11 journalism exhibit in the Newseum
The Louvre, Paris, France
The one time I’ve been inside the Louvre, during my December 2009 visit to Paris, I loved it for two main reasons: Umberto Eco, author of my favorite book, Foucault’s Pendulum, was curating a temporary exhibit at the time, and it was a warm and cozy refuge from the grey, snowy days Paris had greeted us with. Although Eco’s exhibition is long gone (rest in peace, Mr. Eco) and most Parisian days aren’t nearly as brutally cold as that one was, the true merits of the Louvre remain.
The museum displays over 38,000 objects, ranging from paintings to sculptures to prehistoric artifacts. It doesn’t take an art buff to marvel at world-famous pieces like the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and Hammurabi’s Code. It’s hard to believe how many masterpieces can be found under one roof. Whatever your level of appreciation for art, the next time you’re in Paris, I highly recommend you visit the Louvre Museum and dedicate a day to exploring its 782,910 square feet of culture.
Stopping outside the Louvre with my siblings in 2012
The Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain
I’ll be the first to admit I’m no art connoisseur, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good work of art when I see it. And many of my favorite works of all time can be found in Madrid’s Reina Sofía modern and contemporary art museum. Located right near the more famous Prado (where you’ll find mostly traditional pieces from artists like Goya, Velásquez, and Bosch), the Reina Sofía really can’t be missed on a visit to Madrid. If Dalí, Picasso, or Miró take your fancy, many of their most impressive works are housed right here.
Don’t leave the Reina Sofía without paying a visit to Picasso’s Spanish Civil War masterpiece, Guernica. No matter how many times you’ve seen reproductions of this work, the 25 ½-foot wide painting is unbelievable in person. If you’re on a budget, the museum’s got your back! Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 7 to 9pm and Sundays from 1:30 to 7pm are totally free, or students, teachers, seniors, and several other groups get in free anytime. Be sure to also wander around Madrid’s amazing Retiro park while you’re in the area, and consider a visit to the adjacent Prado and Thyssen museums as well.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, carried out a genocide that killed nearly one-third of Cambodia’s population. It’s a horrendous story that often gets overlooked in Western textbooks, and it’s a period in history I strongly believe we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves on and learn from. Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh can be truly eye-opening, and one of the most heartbreaking sights of all is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
If you’re ever in Phnom Penh, I highly recommend a visit to the Killing Fields, where Pol Pot’s regime murdered and buried more than a million people during that four year period. However, I found myself even more moved by the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, perhaps because I knew little about it before visiting, but also because of how effective it is in bringing the genocide to life. The museum is housed in a former school that was turned into a prison and execution center during this dark period, and it now showcases photos, letters, and stories of the victims who were brought there. We’re lucky to have opportunities to travel the world, but amidst all the fun, it’s important to take time to understand a destination’s past, no matter how dark.
The prison’s inhumane rules. “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.”
The Drug Elimination Museum, Yangon, Myanmar
The award for the strangest museum in the world, hands down, goes to the Drug Elimination Museum in Yangon, Myanmar. Having read bizarre accounts of this museum online, I knew I had to experience it for myself, and it did not disappoint. Located several miles from anything worth seeing in Yangon, catch a cab to this concrete eyesore, venture beyond its imposing gates, and wander inside. There’s a good chance you’ll be the only tourist that’s stopped by for hours, and the imposing silence sets a spooky tone from the moment you enter.
The Burmese government created this museum to grandstand its alleged success in its war against drugs. You’ll find displays and dioramas, on par with those you’d see at a middle school science fair, explaining the relative dangers of various types of narcotics and lauding the government’s purported elimination of all drugs from the country. (Sure, if you say so…)
But the party really starts when you enter the addiction exhibit. Each scene features amateurly-crafted papier-mâché figures moving through the stages of addiction. The walkthrough culminates, naturally, in their painful, very neon and strobe-lit deaths. But drugs don’t just kill you, people! The exhibit concludes with an animatronic zombie hand reaching out from the grave. Because, apparently, if you smoke a little pot, before you know it, you’re the walking dead.
All that space just to warn the Burmese about drugs. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside the museum.
I’ve lost track of the number of magnificent museums I’ve seen around the world, but these five are hard to forget. Whether they showcase art and culture, remind visitors of important periods in history, or are just plain bizarre, they’ll leave a lasting impression on you and leave you eager to discover more.
Disclaimer: this post contains a partner link, but all opinions are entirely my own, as always.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: travel doesn’t need to be expensive. With new booking technology, cheaper transportation options, and handy online resources popping up every day, there are a gazillion ways to make travel work for you, no matter your budget. A bed in Bangkok could cost you as little as $4 or as much as $1400, a meal in Madrid could set you back anywhere from $2 to $200, and an excursion in Ecuador could cost $50 or $5000. You have a remarkable amount of control over most of what you spend while traveling, but if there’s one cost that’s significantly less flexible, it’s airfare.
Flying over New Zealand’s glorious Milford Sound
Flights often eat up the majority of a travel budget, but don’t let their pricetags deter you from traveling. Inexpensive travel starts with cutting costs on your airfare, and who doesn’t love having those extra bucks to spend when you touch down? Here are a few of my best tips for inexpensive travel that I’ve discovered jetsetting around the globe.
Let the fares dictate your travels
If your schedule is sufficiently flexible, why not put your itinerary in the hands of the airfare gods and plan your trip around cheap flights? As a student and later teacher in Spain, I consistently had three, four, or even five-day weekends, meaning I was always looking for a chance to hop over to another country. Of course, student and teacher budgets are limited, but remaining open-minded about my destination enabled me to spend my weekends gallivanting around Europe.
Sure, there were some trips where I wanted to be in a specific place at a specific time, like when I traveled to England for the Stonehenge Summer Solstice Festival or met travel buddies in Vienna for a tour group reunion, but my overall flexibility has allowed me to snag some incredible flight deals over the years. Use a flight comparison engine or look directly on an airline’s website, insert the dates you’re available, and play around with destinations – in some cases, you may even be able to set the destination as “Any.” You’ll be blown away by the offers you find when you’re keen for anything and anywhere.
Celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge
Know when to book your flight
Spontaneity can be a ton of fun when you’re traveling, but, if you’re on a tight budget, the more you can plan ahead, the more you’ll find yourself saving. Giving yourself plenty of time to research your travel options will allow you to discover the very best deals out there. The challenging part is knowing the ideal time to book. Should you wait to see if fares drop? Snatch up this deal before it disappears? Studies have shown that airfares are the lowest 47 days in advance, so aim for this sweet spot.
Timing is everything when it comes to flight booking, so figure out the perfect time to fly as well. Avoid peak seasons like summer and Christmas, and research whether your destination has any of its own peak times like local festivals. Mid-week flights, particularly Tuesdays and Wednesdays, will always be cheaper than Fridays and Sundays. Many routes boost fares for business travelers, so avoid times when most people fly for work, such as early morning and evening.
Exploring London in the off-peak autumn
Don’t disregard budget airlines
If I had to limit this list to one suggestion, it would be this. Despite all the complaining I’ve done over the years about Easyjet’s ridiculous baggage restrictions or Ryanair’s incessant in-flight advertisements, let’s be real: without these discount airlines, I wouldn’t have been able to afford a tenth of the unforgettable trips I’ve taken. Sure, you may end up wearing thirty-two layers of clothing or battling fellow passengers for that last aisle seat, but these airlines get you exactly where you want to go, and they do it for a fraction of the price.
I mean, I’ve booked a handful of international flights for under €10. Ten euros! To see a whole new country! Most people spend more than that in one meal. As long as you research and abide by the airline’s requirements, you’ll be just fine.
Flashback to that time I found flights from Madrid to Menorca for just €7
Consider nearby airports
Even if you’re dead set on traveling to or from a particular location, your options remain far from limited. Airfares vary dramatically based on factors like time of day, day of the week, and airline, so having flexibility in just one of these areas may help. On top of all that, once you begin to think outside the box and consider other easily accessible airports you can fly to or from, you’ll be finding unbelievable flight deals in no time.
Major cities are often serviced by multiple airports, and prices may vary quite a bit from one to the next, particularly if different airlines operate from each. Most airports lie far from the city center anyway, so why not expand your radius a bit to see if there are airports in the area that offer cheaper flights? For example, if you’re traveling to Liverpool, the public bus from Liverpool John Lennon Airport will get you to the city center in about the same amount of time and for around the same price as a train from Manchester Airport. Visiting Vienna? Bratislava is less than an hour away by train and often offers far cheaper flights.
How about that time I found a flight all the way from Sofia, Bulgaria to Liverpool, England for only €20?
Master the art of sleeping on the go
Sometimes saving big bucks on airfare requires major sacrifices, particularly when it comes to your sleep schedule. The cheapest flights are often at odd hours or have long, overnight layovers, so avoid exhaustion by converting yourself into a dozing doyen. I’ve met plenty of people who say they can’t sleep while in transit, but, believe me, with enough incentive, you can train yourself to sleep anywhere.
Packing the right equipment can go a long way. Invest in earplugs, an eye mask, and a comfortable travel pillow. Bring plenty of layers to wrap around you and stay warm; a sarong or microfiber towel can serve as a nice blanket without taking up too much space in your luggage. If you have a long layover, find a quiet spot in the airport away from foot traffic. Some airports, like Doha’s, even have designated quiet rooms!
A night spent in Milan’s airport. Can you guess the age of this picture based on my phone?
Research other transportation options
If all else fails, compare airfares to the cost of taking a bus, train, or boat to your next destination. Certain routes will be pricey no matter how many travel hacks you attempt, so it’s up to you to decide whether the splurge is worth it or if you have decent alternatives. Keep in mind that other modes of transportation may take significantly longer and aren’t always as comfortable, so decide if you have the time and patience for those or if flying’s your best bet.
During my travels in Southeast Asia, I noticed that most fellow backpackers were relying primarily on trains and buses to get from point A to point B, while I stuck mostly to flights. These travelers were able to get the absolute cheapest deals by choosing ground transportation, but, in many cases, budget airlines got me there for a similar price. Sure, spending only $10 to get to my next destination was tempting, but when I found a flight for $40 and could get there in one hour instead of fifteen, heck yes that extra spend was worth it. You’ll need to weigh all of these variables for yourself, but remember that you do have options.
Well, that’s one mode of transportation. In Banaue, Philippines
No matter how much you’re willing or able to spend, if you’re dreaming of seeing the world, there will always be a way to make it happen. With a bit of strategy, you can fly just about anywhere without breaking the bank. I’ve been blown away by the number of places I’ve been able to see even on a tight budget. I hope you get a chance to as well!
Majestic mountains, glorious glaciers, hobbit houses, and, on top of all that, a booming wine scene. What more could you ask for in a country? New Zealand is, without a doubt, one of the most remarkable countries I’ve explored, and I’ve yet to meet a traveler who thinks otherwise. The land down under-er is also one of the world’s top twenty wine producers, so if you enjoy tasting a glass or two while looking out over some of the planet’s most stunning scenery, NZ simply can’t be overlooked. I spoke to several Kiwi and Kiwiphile travel bloggers about their top picks for the best wineries and wine regions across New Zealand. Here’s what they had to say.
The Gibbston Valley is a short thirty-minute drive from Queenstown on the South Island and forms part of New Zealand’s famous Central Otago wine region. Known as “The Valley of the Vines,” the Gibbston Valley is home to just twelve wineries surrounded by some pretty spectacular scenery.
Because the Gibbston Valley is the coolest and highest wine region in Central Otago, it is said to produce some of the region’s best wines. From some of the world’s best pinot noirs to crisp cool climate whites, there is something for all tastes.
My personal favourite is Chard Farm (pictured). It sits perched on a rocky mountain slope above the Kawarau River with the vines growing either side of the gravel road that leads to the Tuscan villa style tasting room. My pick of their delicious wines is the pinot gris and their special reserve Judge & Judy Chardonnay.
Marlborough is a region in the northern part of New Zealand’s South Island, which since 1973 has become famous for its sauvignon blanc wines. Pioneered by Brancott Estate, there have since been around 140 other wineries that make the region home, having seen the quality and success the region was producing.
As our campervan approached the region, we first saw a trickle of vineyards come into view in small quantities. But as we drew nearer, it became increasingly clear that this is wine country. Infinite arms of vines reached for the horizon, leaves yellowed by the cooling autumnal temperatures.
Brancott Estate is no doubt one of the best places to take in the view. With their pick of the land, they built the cellar door up on a small hill offering a breathtaking view over their vines: surely one of the best places for cheese and wine tasting I’ve experienced.
New Zealand has started to make inroads on the wine scene, and, after working for a couple months in Martinborough, I can vouch for it as a great boutique wine region for wine tasting. The town itself is quiet at the best of times yet less than ninety minutes from Wellington. The region has good weather year round (by New Zealand standards), which helps create consistently solid and improving wines, with pinot noir the leading grape variety, followed by sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
When you arrive in Martinborough, the best way to see the wineries is by crocodile bikes! These are four-seater bikes that are a blast. They’re safe, as the locals are used to them, so they give you lots of room as you ride along. And don’t worry: you never have to ride more than a thousand metres to get to the next winery.
Despite being one of the smaller wine regions in New Zealand, Nelson is home to some of its most successful wineries. All of the wineries in the region are family-owned, so visiting them feels more intimate than your typical corporate operation. The region mostly produces white wines, as they are best suited for the climate. 90% of wine from Nelson is sauvignon blanc. There are over two dozen wineries around Nelson, including Fossil Ridge, Waimea Estates, Neudorf Vineyards, Milcrest Estate & Seifried Estate. The vineyards are relaxing spots to enjoy a local wine with some local cheese on a sunny day. In addition to a great wine scene, Nelson is also famous for other drinks. Beer drinkers will appreciate that Nelson is a famous hop-growing region, while cider drinkers will appreciate the local apple orchards.
Waiheke Island is one place in New Zealand that no wine lover should miss. Just a 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland, this is known as New Zealand’s “Island of Wine.” And rightly so: its 92 square kilometers are home to more than 30 vineyards.
This is predominantly a red wine area, with merlot and syrah the main varietals, although white wine is starting to catch up. Around 20 of the vineyards offer wine tastings, normally with no pre-booking required. And some of them also serve excellent food.
If you are just in Waiheke without a car, I would recommend following the walking track between Obsidian and Te Motu vineyards (island buses go close to the beginning and end of the route). This is a beautiful, if slightly hilly, walk across the island passing through vineyards and the occasional olive grove, and with opportunities for wine tasting at either end. What more could you ask for?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: traveling the Balkans ruined my life. Back in 2013, wrapping up my three years as a Spanish resident, I set out on what I thought would be one final grand adventure. Five weeks of backpacking around the Balkan Peninsula were bound to be a blast, but I had no idea just how much the region would change me.
Over those weeks, as several friends and I made our way through Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, I was hit by a realization I simply couldn’t ignore: never again would I be content to live a sedentary lifestyle. I’d been bitten by the travel bug harder than ever, and the wanderlust that the Balkans had instilled in me couldn’t be easily satiated.
Two and a half years of living in Australia and eighteen months of backpacking later, I may be content to stick around the U.S. for a while, but travel will always be an enormous part of my life, and I blame it all on the Balkans.
I had the chance to return to the Balkans this past May, spending time in Serbia, Kosovo, and Bulgaria and further cementing my love for the region. I mean it when I say you absolutely have to see it for yourself to understand what an amazing place it is. While it was tough to narrow it down to just six, these are my top reasons the Balkan Peninsula is the place to visit this year.
Crash courses in an area’s history are one of my very favorite parts of traveling. One of the most fascinating ancient and recent histories you’ll find anywhere around the world, in my humble opinion, is that of the Balkans. Archaeologists can trace the region’s inhabitants all the way back to the prehistoric Neolithic Age, and historians detail centuries of civilizations that ruled the peninsula, including the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans. These conflicting cultures led to severe fragmentation that erupted violently in the 20th century.
The Balkans have been through more chaos and political upheaval in the last century alone than some areas have experienced since the beginning of time, and traces of the tumultuous 20th century can be seen everywhere today. If you recall watching the news in the 1990s and seeing images of the horrific Balkan wars, you’ll be stunned by what a complete 180 the peninsula has undergone in such a short time. Today, the region is incredibly safe, and, for the most part, politically stable. Keep your eyes peeled for military bunkers and ruins, be respectful of cultural divisions that remain, and take time to appreciate how peaceful and beautiful the Balkans have become.
Bunkers still lining the road between the Albanian and Macedonian borders
I’ve tasted some ridiculously magnificent meals around the world, but some of the very best have been in the Balkans. Some of my favorite memories during my travels through the peninsula revolve around meals: stumbling upon cozy restaurants, asking the servers about how dishes are made, and listening to live music while expanding my palate.
Each country specializes in its own dishes, but I have yet to meet a Balkan cuisine I don’t love. Grilled meats, tasty breads, homemade cheeses, stuffed vegetables, and savory pastries seem to be staples around the region, and I’m drooling just thinking about the ones I’ve tried. The best part is that eating out in the Balkans tends to be fantastically inexpensive, meaning you can’t go wrong ordering a plethora of dishes you’ve never heard of. You never know which new favorites you may discover.
Tasting Bulgarian dishes in Sofia this past May
When you’re enjoying the finest Balkan cuisine, you simply can’t forget the drinks! Alcohol is a big part of Balkan culture, and you’d be remiss to not try some of the region’s local specialties. Rakia (sometimes spelled rakija) is the go-to drink in many of these countries. This strong fruit brandy is often homemade and in extreme cases can be comprised of up to 90% alcohol. Serbians drink more rakia per capita than any other country, and, fittingly, Serbia is also its world’s largest producer. It’s not uncommon to see Serbians accompanying each meal with several servings of rakia.
Although sipping on rakia may help you blend in with the locals, it does take a bit of getting used to. Beer and wine may be more your speed, and, fortunately, the Balkan countries excel in these areas too. I always love to try the local, inexpensive lager wherever I go, and you’ll find plenty of different beers throughout the region. Craft beer is also seriously on the rise in the Balkans, and there are plenty of tasty brands to try on your next visit. And while Balkan wine may not be known worldwide, the viticultural tradition dates back centuries, so don’t be shy in ordering a glass with your next meal. You may even consider spending part of your trip exploring the region’s vineyards.
Kosovar beer in Peja, Kosovo
When it comes to new travel destinations, there’s nothing that wins me over quite like reasonable prices. So it’s no surprise I fell in love with the Balkans, one of the least expensive spots in Europe. Though costs differ from one country to the next, each is significantly more affordable than North America, Australia/New Zealand, or Northern Europe. Whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or have the funds for luxury travel, you’ll be delighted by how much further your dollar (or euro or lek or dinar) will stretch while traveling the Balkans.
Depending on your location, a bed in a hostel dorm may set you back only about €5 to €15 euros per night, or if you’re looking for your own space, you’ll find private Airbnbs for under €20 a night in some places (and you can get €33 off through my link!). A multi-course meal at an upscale, sit-down restaurant may cost only €5 to €10 per person, and there’s bargains to find everywhere. Plus, if you’re flying from elsewhere in Europe, you’re likely to find unbelievable airfares on discount airlines. Hard to say no to that, huh?
The Nature and Adventure
If you love to leave big cities behind and get out into the great wide open when you travel, the Balkans are an amazing place to visit. The area’s stunning and diverse mountains, lakes, and rivers are the ideal spots for walking, hiking, and getting a breath of fresh air. National parks abound throughout the region and many are off tourists’ radars, meaning you’ll find plenty of peace and quiet in each.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie when it comes to travel, the Balkans are one of the world’s best up-and-coming regions for adventure activities. You’ll find plenty of tourists embarking on activity holidays in Greece, heading to Albania for lake kayaking, exploring Macedonia by rock climbing, or setting off on whatever adventure their daring hearts desire. Whether you’re skydiving in Serbia or caving in Croatia, the Balkans are bound to serve up a true adventure.
Zipping around Santorini by ATV
If I’m home, inside, and have a blanket and a good book or Netflix to keep me company, I absolutely adore rainy, overcast days. When I’m traveling? Sunshine all day, every day, please! Let’s face it: inclement weather can be a major bummer when you’re sightseeing. Fortunately, Balkan weather is pretty delightful year-round. It’s a big, mountainous peninsula, so, naturally, temperatures and rainfall vary from one location to the next, but the climate tends to range from bearable to lovely year-round.
The northern and central parts of the peninsula do face cold winters – perfect if you want to hit the ski slopes! – but the rest of the year tends to be pleasant, and the rainy seasons lead to gorgeous greenery. The central and southern areas experience a Mediterranean climate, meaning mild winters and hot yet dry summers. If you’re a beach fanatic, you’ll absolutely adore the Balkan coast and islands in the summer. (As if you needed any more convincing to embark on a Croatian cruise or sunbathe in Santorini.)
Soaking up the summer sun in Bled, Slovenia
While some spots – like the Greek islands – have been tried and true tourist favorites for years, the Balkan Peninsula remains chock-full of hidden gems awaiting your discovery. My two trips to the Balkans have turned me into a full-fledged evangelist for the region for these reasons and many more. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that you get a chance to experience this part of the world for yourself and fall just as in love with it as I have.
Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post, but all opinions are entirely my own, as always.
Well, folks, we made it through another year. And what a year it was. While most of the world sought redemption for the world events of 2016 but were met with a new crop of issues, I had my own roller coaster of a year. I saw eighteen countries, half of which were new to me, and made some of my all-time favorite travel memories before returning home to face the challenge of building a stable life after years abroad.
Georgia (the country, not the state!), my favorite new country of 2017
Since 2011 I’ve summed up my adventures in a year-end recap (check out 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 as well), so I’m back with another edition. Without further ado, my travel recap of 2017!
When I launched my fabulous backpacking adventure of 2016, I was certain I’d be wrapping things up and settling back in the U.S. by the end of the calendar year. However, the best part of travel is that it’s unpredictable. After exploring South America in the final months of 2016, I found myself completely hooked on Latin America, so I kicked off the year by heading down to Central America.
Snorkeling with sea turtles in Caye Caulker, Belize
First stop: Belize, where I spent a week visiting Belize City, the stunning island of Caye Caulker, and the inland town of San Ignacio (including the nearby ATM Cave). I crossed the border into Guatemala and fell in love with the country as I checked out Flores and the Tikal Maya ruins, the natural pools of Semuc Champey, and the colorful colonial buildings of Antigua.
Exploring Guatemala’s Maya ruins of Tikal
Action-packed January then took me to a country I’d been dreaming of for fifteen years: Nicaragua, where I got to see Managua and León, stay in a hostel on a private beach at Islas Brasiles, and experience the city named for the Spanish destination that first made me a true traveler, Granada.
Atop León’s cathedral
I continued my journey south through Central America with a visit to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua and wrapped up my two-week Nicaragua journey by relaxing in San Juan del Sur. I hopped in a southbound van and crossed the border into Costa Rica, where I ziplined through the jungles of Monteverde and chilled in the hippie beach town of Puerto Viejo. Also while in Puerto Viejo, I took a tour of the Jaguar Rescue Center, which (spoiler alert!) ended up playing a major role in my life the following month.
The second I saw these guys, I knew I’d be back.
My final destination on this Central America trip was Panama. First, I visited backpacker island paradise in Bocas del Toro, and then I ventured deep into the jungles of the Chiriquí Province to stay at a part-hostel, part-escape room/scavenger hunt called Lost and Found. After a few days away from civilization, I traveled to Panama City to witness the Panama Canal and enjoy the colorful architecture of Panamá Viejo. Last but certainly not least, I headed to the San Blas islands, where I stayed in a hut on a tiny island surrounded by the bluest water I’ve ever seen.
Who knew water could be this blue? San Blas, Panama
All good things must come to an end, so I said adiós to Central America and returned home to Southern California to celebrate my brother Ean’s bar mitzvah and enjoy a bit of family time before setting off on my next adventure.
I began the month at home sweet home in California, spending time with family, attending a UCLA basketball game and gymnastics meet, and visiting my beloved Disneyland.
But I knew I wasn’t quite ready to end my days as a nomad, and I was crazy about the amazing animals at Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica‘s Jaguar Rescue Center, so I returned south to spend a month volunteering with injured and abandoned animals there. While some days involved unglamorous tasks like moving rock piles or cleaning up monkey poop, I also had the unique opportunity to feed sloths, play temporary mother to baby monkeys, babysit an anteater, and take four rambunctious raccoons on forest hikes.
My life for a month. (I blame the monkeys for the hair.)
It was challenging but completely rewarding, plus Puerto Viejo is an adorable, laid-back town that was a delight to call home for a month. Each day, I woke up, hopped on a bicycle, and rode for several miles along tropical beaches before helping the animals. I guarantee no work commute will ever compare to that. While volunteering, I was also visited by a friend I’d met in Nicaragua and my sister, and I had a chance to explore the surrounding region with both.
I wrapped up my volunteer stint in Costa Rica in early April, spending my final week removed from civilization at their jungle release center. I said goodbye to Puerto Viejo with a chocolate tour, an unbelievable sunset, and a river rafting expedition, and then it was back to California for a few weeks, including a visit to the San Francisco Bay Area and wine tasting with my best friend in Sonoma Valley.
One of my favorite raccoons I took on walks for a week
After meeting amazing people from around the world during my years of living abroad and backpacking, I decided I’d conclude my time as a nomad by returning to Europe to revisit some old haunts and catch up with travel friends. I found an inexpensive flight to Paris, France and spent a few days hanging out with my friend Lauren, whom I’d known from my days teaching in Spain.
Visiting the Moulin Rouge with Lauren
The real catalyst for the trip, though, was a reunion with the travel group I’d spent three weeks with in South America in November. I traveled to Vienna, Austria to see some of these amazing people and rediscover Vienna, as I’d disliked it a lot when I visited in 2012 but totally changed my mind on this trip.
Exploring Vienna with my friend Jeanine, whom I’d met in Bolivia
May is my favorite month of the year, as it’s my birthday month, and, this year, May definitely impressed. After seeing Vienna, my local friend and tour guide Philipp led me on a road trip around some of the most beautiful parts of Austria, including small Alpine villages and gorgeous towns like Salzburg and Hallstatt. We returned to Vienna, and then I spent several hours revisiting Bratislava, Slovakia (I’d loved the city on my 2012 visit) before flying to my next destination.
A flight for a mere €10 (I miss European budget airlines!) took me to Niš, Serbia, where my friend Sarah (another friend from teaching in Spain) was living at the time. She and her Serbian boyfriend played perfect hosts and guides – so much delicious food! Then Sarah and I headed to fascinating Kosovo, where we stayed in Pristina and took day trips to Prizren and Peja. From there, I took a bus to Sofia, Bulgaria, which I’d seen in more depth in 2013 but enjoyed again for a day.
Drinking Peja beer while overlooking Peja, Kosovo after a hike with Sarah
I managed, through my own error, to miss my fabulously inexpensive (just €20!) flight all the way from Sofia to Liverpool, England, but I was able to grab another one there the next day, my birthday. I celebrated with a Vietnamese dinner and an escape room with my Scouser friend I’d met in Vietnam the previous year, Tom. He and his friends showed me around Liverpool, which, I must say, is far nicer than most people give it credit for, and then we took a road trip to Wales. There we stayed in Llandudno and explored the area, including a day spent ziplining and trampolining inside caverns.
From Liverpool, I hopped on over to the country that will forever have my heart, Spain. I flew into Málaga and then visited Sevilla, where I lived from 2011 to 2012, and met up with old friends. While living in Spain, I’d managed to visit sixteen of the seventeen comunidades autónomas (similar to states). On this trip, I finally crossed off the final one, Murcia, by meeting my friend Tomás in lovely Cartagena. I wrapped up my birthday month in my favorite city in the world, also my home from 2009 to 2010 and 2012 to 2013, Madrid.
My backpacking days were coming to an end, but I wanted to go out with a bang, so I chose a region I’d always been curious about but had never seen: the Caucasus. I started in Tbilisi, Georgia, a city I fell head over heels for, met a fantastic group of travel buddies on a free walking tour, and then joined Envoy Tours for several day tours that enabled me to see much of the country in a short time. If I had to pick one favorite country I visited in 2017, it would absolutely be Georgia, and I would highly recommend it to all.
I next caught a van to Yerevan, Armenia, and for the next few days I explored many of the country’s monasteries and mountains with Envoy Tours, stopping for memorable lunches with local families along the way. Due to border conflicts, I had to return to Tbilisi before continuing on to Azerbaijan, but I had the chance to stop at many of Armenia’s gems along the way. Back in Georgia, I reunited with some of my new travel friends and took a day trip to wine country, Kakheti, with an incredibly friendly and generous local I’d met.
Checking out Armenian khachkars
A friend from the free walking tour and I rushed back to Tbilisi and caught the overnight train to Baku, Azerbaijan, the train itself being one of the most memorable parts of the year. I then spent a few days exploring Baku’s dichotomy of old and modern, drinking 50¢ pints of beer, and ending my backpacker days on a total high. I’ve visited 72 countries now, but, of all of them, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were three of the most amazing, and I feel very fortunate to have spent my last days as a nomad there.
It was tough to leave, but back to California I went, driving up to Palo Alto to celebrate my sister’s graduation from Stanford Law School. I stuck around the Bay Area for a few days after, exploring California’s wine country in Napa and Sonoma Valleys with my aunt, uncle, sister, and her boyfriend, catching up with college buddies in the area, and then seeing friends from Sydney in San Francisco before returning home to the Los Angeles area.
Wine tasting with the family
I returned to the Bay Area in early July to visit a friend near Sacramento and spend Fourth of July at San Francisco‘s Golden Gate Park. The following week, another friend from Sydney, a San Diego native, showed me around his beautiful city.
Three guesses where this was taken.
For most of the month, I was back in the L.A. area, building up my freelance business, doing a bit of casual job hunting, and spending time with friends and family. But that’s not to say it was uneventful: highlights of July include meeting my now-boyfriend, going to an Eagles concert with my Eagles-adoring dad and family, exploring L.A. destinations like..
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