Travel Guides

São Paulo City Rocks. Or Sambas. Or Why Not Both?

I visited São Paulo last week, my first time to South America. I loved the city, beautiful and troubled and a place to stretch out and relax part of my brain.

I have few if any photos, because I couldn’t whip out my iPhone 6 on the street to snap them. Behavior standards are different: Don’t take out valuables or wear expensive jewelry, know where you’re going, keep cash in a few places.

With no photos, I’m left with words as my paintbrush. I’ll do my best to share what I saw.

Sao Paulo is ugly on first impression. Concrete block buildings, sprawl like L.A., smog and no beach.

Inside the urban jungle is a jewel.

Street art explodes all over flat surfaces. Faces and suns, dreamscapes and owls and vines, flags and flowers and animals, turning concrete into canvas. In the artists’ alley in Vila Madalena, a neighborhood of bars, houses and galleries, my guide and I met a mural painter. He comes every year to refresh his work, starting from scratch. He was tracing outlines on a red background, two men next to each other, the background uncertain bright crimson, with a note to leave the space clear and respect the work in progress.

Elsewhere, street art shares space with gang symbols that climb up buildings like spiders. In some cases, where 20 stories of a luxury building show markings like hieroglyphics, one per floor, I wonder if the painters started at the top and climbed down. It would be easier. Just break into the building and then rappel down like Batman.

Few people speak English. Portuguese is the language of everything. With my guide, I went places I never could have gone alone. I fit in until I opened my mouth.

Samba is the music of Brazil. At a bar Saturday afternoon, we had fried mandioca (cassava), polenta and coxinhas (chicken dumplings), caipirinhas and then started dancing. It was early, so families and friends danced together at tables. Aunts and daughters, husbands and brothers and boyfriends. A grandmother I didn’t know kissed me on the cheek.

My guide said people who like rock don’t like samba. And people who like samba don’t like rock. I don’t know why. I think they could marry each other and have crazy layered sex, one expression on top of the other, threaded through and inseparable.

Before that we wandered through a flea market at Praça Benedito Calixto, through odds and ends from all times and places washed up on the tables. I bought sunglasses because I didn’t have any.

At the end of every day, I felt dirty. Red clay soil, the afternoon thunderstorm that always came, high humidity and sunlight the rest of the day, grime from outdoor markets and bars and downtown buildings.

The city was founded more than 500 years ago and is far older than North American cities, but grew fantastically in the twentieth century, from 200,000 people in 1900 to more than 13 million today. New and old collide in unplanned chaos. In one trip downtown to the Sé district, my guide and I visited the Bovespa stock exchange (quiet because computers now trade contracts that pit workers used to scream about), the famous Martinelli building with a huge outdoor balcony for cityscape views, a free Mondrian art exhibit, a local cafe and a Benedictine monastery.

Afterward, I retreated to my hotel, showered and ordered room service, remembered I was a stranger, isolated in this oasis. I felt strange and calm and excited.

A futebol game was the highlight of my experience. I’d visited the futebol museum earlier. Now my guide and I climbed the path outside Pacaembu Stadium, entered with our tickets and found seats on the concrete bleachers. I’d always wanted to attend a soccer match, and to do it in Brazil was the best way I could think to fulfill this dream. We sat on the seats and cheered with the crowd for São Paulo. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, the stadium only one-fifth full so not chaotic but absolutely fun. We yelled, cheered and enjoyed the match, with the win coming 10 minutes before the daily thunderstorm soaked everything.

I was ready to leave and not ready. I’m back and I’m not back. Is it possible to live in 50 places at once and give a piece of yourself to each place, and take a piece of each place in return?

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The Solo Traveller’s Guide to the BC Ferries Inside Passage

After Nanaimo, I decided to go north. My initial idea was to go west to Tofino and Ucluelet, but when I looked at the map and saw isolated towns and wilderness stretching all the way to Alaska, my travel instincts kicked in and I wondered: How far north could I get?

The answer is: Pretty far. I discovered I could take a Greyhound bus to isolated Port Hardy at the north end of Vancouver Island. From there, I could board a BC Ferries voyage through the Inside Passage along the Canadian west coast to Prince Rupert, a small city near Alaska. And then I could visit a grizzly bear sanctuary even farther north.

I wasn’t sure how these puzzle pieces would fit together, so I called BC Ferries Vacations, and they helped me book hotels that were otherwise sold out on my travel dates (there aren’t many Airbnbs in Port Hardy) and coordinate my stays with the ferry departures and arrivals. The cost was reasonable: probably about the same as if I’d booked on my own, but with greater hotel availability.

Port Hardy

So, after a six-hour bus ride from Nanaimo to Port Hardy through coastal towns and pine forests flanked by mountains, I caught a quick sleep at the Airport Inn (no-frills but clean hotel, with a surprisingly good sushi restaurant) and then headed to the ferry at 4 a.m.

Aurora Lounge on BC Ferries Northern Expedition(Traveler’s tip: There’s only one taxi company in Port Hardy, and it has two taxi cabs running at any given time. So if you don’t book ahead, you could end up with an ungodly early departure time like 4 a.m. Book ahead by calling Town Taxi!)

Around 5:30 or 6 a.m., I boarded the ferry along with the other passengers and settled into the Aurora Lounge at the front of the ship, which has a panoramic 180-degree view. I bought some organic snacks from the gift shop (better than the cafe food) and settled in.

Ship Delay

Shortly afterward, the captain announced that one of the ship’s main engines had malfunctioned and we would be delayed while a replacement part was airlifted from Vancouver. I was relieved that we were going at all, though I understood their caution: A previous ship, the Queen of the North, sank in 2006. Waiting for the part seemed like a better idea than sailing on only one engine.

So, whereas our previous schedule was to depart at 7:30 a.m. and arrive by 11:30 p.m. in Prince Rupert, we now would try to leave by 3 p.m. and arrive around 7 a.m.

My first action after the revised schedule announcement was to rush to the Purser’s Office and book myself one of the remaining cabins on-board. It was the second-best decision I made on the trip.

The best decision was booking with BC Ferries Vacations in the first place, because I gave them a quick call and they rearranged my itinerary, refunding my first night at the hotel in Prince Rupert and calling the grizzly bear tour operator to see if they would wait for my arrival. I couldn’t have gotten the hotel refund myself on such short notice, so they saved me about $150 USD right out of the gate.

Inside Passage Voyage

Sun on water in the BC Inside Passage We left around 2 p.m., a little earlier than expected, and the journey itself was amazing. There’s something about being on open water that echoes in my soul. I can’t explain it, but I feel like I could go to sleep with the rocking of the water and be entirely at peace. Much of the Inside Passage is a sheltered trip between mostly uninhabited islands, but my favorite part was the unsheltered part, open to the Pacific and rocking with the small waves.

The views on the voyage are beautiful and all nature: sea, sky, clouds, islands and trees. Sometimes travelers see whales and orcas, but nature offers no guarantee.

If you take the voyage, here are my recommendations:

Sun through doors on the BC Ferries Northern Expedition1.) Cabin – It’s so nice to have a place to stow bags, change into pj’s for a little while, and take a nap or shower (each cabin has a private bathroom with shower). Inside cabins are $90 CDN and outside cabins are $120 CDN.

2.) Salmon barbecue lunch – The lunch is on the back deck on Level 6, open to the air, and it’s delicious and affordable at only $12 CDN. Bratwurst is something like $4 CDN, I think. Nice atmosphere.

3.) Buffet dinner – Somewhat pricey ($29 CDN) but I did it because there are few other eating options in the middle of nowhere. The dinner was good and they had a lot of choices. Especially on the out-bound voyage, which was delayed, this meal kept me from being hungry all night. Much better than the cafe food. Worth the difference in cost.

Other On-Ship Tips

There are a few things to keep in mind:

Sunset on the BC Coast in the Inside Passage1.) There’s no Wi-Fi on-board, and cell service is mostly nonexistent. You’re alone with the ship, your fellow travelers, and the wilderness surrounding you. It’s awesome, but don’t plan to catch up on email.

2.) Cafe food is not that great, but the gift shop has organic snack bars and organic dark chocolate.

3.) There are many lounges scattered throughout the ship. You can come and go from all of them except the Aurora Lounge (which requires a separate key).

4.) Going outside is the best way to take photos. It can get a little chilly, even in summer, so bring a jacket. (It can also be hot out, so bring a T-shirt! The weather is quite variable.)

5.) The ship’s notification of arrival gives you 30 minutes to prepare to disembark. This is fine if you’re already dressed and in a lounge; not so great if you’re asleep in your pj’s and still need to re-pack. We arrived an hour earlier than expected, so this was a bit of a scramble.

Prince Rupert and Grizzly Bears

Once in Prince Rupert, I dropped my bags at the hotel and caught another cab to the grizzly bear tour. The taxi company, Skeena Taxi, has lots of cabs. I arrived right on time (and fairly well-rested, since I slept for about six hours in my cabin).

Eagle near the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear SanctuaryThe Prince Rupert Adventures boat tour to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary was amazing and worthwhile. We saw four grizzly bears near the inlet, eating sedge grass (apparently, they are omnivores: It’s sedge grass early in the year and salmon later). They are surprisingly adorable for creatures that I know would kill me with zero consideration.

We also saw eagles relaxing on a rock in the middle of the water, and some orcas. The tour operator feeds the eagles a couple of times a week, which I don’t love even though they’re not a main food source for the eagles. It is, however, a great photo opportunity.

We arrived back in Prince Rupert in the afternoon. The next day was Canada Day, so most things in town were closed, replaced by celebrations at the waterfront and fireworks at night.

Return to Port Hardy

Wilderness and water on the BC coastThe next morning, I hopped back on the ferry around 6 a.m., booked another cabin and enjoyed the feeling of being on the water all the way back to Port Hardy.

There’s something about being away from civilization, away from cellphone service and Wi-Fi and constant interruptions, closer to nature and good food and slow time, that’s good for the soul. As we cruised through the Inside Passage, watching orcas and whales, I looked at pine-covered hillsides overlooking the ocean and realized, “No one lives here.” Just the sea, the sky, the trees and the animals.

The Solo Traveller’s Guide to Nanaimo: Say What?

Nanaimo, British Columbia, isn’t a typical destination for solo travelers. It’s a small city on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. So you might ask why I’d write a guide for it. The answer is that I spent three days in Vancouver before taking a ferry to Nanaimo, and Vancouver and I just didn’t click. I wasn’t sure what to do or where to go, despite reading travel tips, so I don’t have much of a guide to write. In short: I wandered all over downtown, went to Stanley Park (beautiful), the aquarium (cool but pricey at $34 for adult admission) and Granville Island (a large market with food stalls and shops). I also explored West Vancouver and the delicious Savary Island Pie Company at 15th and Marina — if you go, try the lemon-buttermilk pie!

Then I caught the ferry to Nanaimo. I wondered if I should have gone directly to Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island instead, because everyone I met raved about Tofino.

But I loved Nanaimo. I’d read lackluster reviews of the city online before arriving and thought I’d probably spend most of the time inside, reading and writing and waiting to go north. Instead, I spent time with the hotel window thrown wide open, letting the sea air in, and wandering the harbor side, feeling wavelets lift the docks.

On the Water

On the first day, I took a ferry to Protection Island for lunch at a floating pub, but decided to take a walk around the island first. I found a residential enclave of houses and roads, feeling entirely safe despite its utter isolation with no help available on short notice. I wandered down to the beach on a trail that turned out to be someone’s private property, despite the markings on my map, and had a near run-in with a small fierce dog before its owner came out and invited me on to the porch. We shared stories, looked for eagles, and then she walked me to the wooded trail that led to another beach. I felt half like I was in a children’s book, half like I was in a fairy tale, and a little lost and found.

When I got to the Dinghy Dock Pub I was thirsty and downed a cider and two large glasses of water while enjoying yam fries and clam chowder, then took the ferry back to Vancouver Island.

Wind and Music in the Air

The next day was windy and warm; in fact, wind howled around my hotel room almost constantly. I was unable to figure out exactly where the sound came from, though I heard it through a vent above the foyer and saw the curtains blowing in the air when it was loudest.

At first I relaxed in the morning, listening to the wind and the sound of bagpipes that went on for hours. When I finally went downstairs to ask where the musician was, the doorman pointed me to a dockside plaza with two cannons on it. He said they play every day and then fire the cannon at noon. I walked to the plaza and watched for a few more minutes until the cannon fired, then explored the old Bastion and walked along the dock, enjoying the unusually warm weather and the sea birds that were everywhere, soaring and swooping and landing on piers and posts. A crow followed me from a dock all the way down a path toward the Newcastle Island Ferry, which I found I’d missed by one minute, so I returned to the main street and then had lunch.

Food and Gratitude

In my wanderings, I found a chocolate shop called Cherub Chocolate that surpassed anything I found in Vancouver. I enjoyed the rosemary caramel, spiced ginger and passion fruit chocolates most. I also found a good breakfast cafe, Mon Petit Choux, and an organic juice bar called Power House Living Foods.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend time here, and the unexpected surprise of a town with an interesting history and a little bit of magic near the edge of Canada. My biggest tip would be: If you go, stay downtown.

Next up: I go north.

The Solo Traveller’s Guide to Seattle: Neighborhood Edition

A week in Seattle is nowhere near enough. But I could distill my Seattle tips for solo travelers into a single recommendation: Get outside of downtown. Preferably, stay outside of downtown too.

Downtown Seattle is not terrible: There are gorgeous views of the harbor, and Pike Place Market is worth a visit with its food stalls and fishmongers. The Piroshky Piroshky bakery was a delicious stop for lunch, which I enjoyed in a secluded courtyard behind the shop. The 20-minute wait to enter the shop wasn’t terrible even in direct sun, and the potato-and-mushroom pastry was quite good (I also ordered a cabbage-and-onion pastry and a whole baked apple with frosting).

But the highlights of Seattle are in its neighborhoods, not the chain stores and high-end restaurants that dot the streets downtown.

I stayed in Greenwood in a beautiful house with a welcoming host, just down the block from a coffeeshop and within walking distance of many more. A bus line stopped at the corner and took me just about anywhere I needed to go.

Neighborhood Journeys

Throughout the week, I visited several Seattle neighborhoods. Here are my recommendations:

Wallingford is possibly my favorite Seattle neighborhood, with shops, restaurants, and the great Fainting Goat gelato made with organic milk. The goat milk flavor is delicious and simple, and the biscotti was amazing with a giant chocolate cookie in the middle of my scoop.

Ballard is the it-neighborhood right now in Seattle, and while I liked it, I’m not sure why it’s got such an outstanding reputation versus other neighborhoods. It’s totally worth a visit, and the breakfast I had at Portage Bay Cafe was wonderful, but while wandering the streets I didn’t notice anything that truly set it apart.

Greenwood Avenue was a great little street with a surprising amount of cafes, bookstores (yes!) and restaurants. I enjoyed strolling here, mainly because I was staying nearby.

Greenlake was a fantastic place for a brisk walk that doubled as a light workout. I stopped at Fix Coffeehouse after circling half of the lake, and enjoyed a yam-and-kale wrap followed by a brownie and tea. Delicious food, welcoming staff, ample table space and outlets, fast Wi-Fi, one side open to the air — Fix is a digital nomad’s dream.

I also visited the university area (though not the UW campus) and downtown Redmond.

Seattle Sum-Up

I don’t feel I’ve more than scratched the surface of Seattle, and I’d love to go back.

The people in Seattle, without exception, were welcoming and friendly, and the city’s focus on outdoors life really came through in the low-key dress code (mainly casual sportswear or just-plain casual wear). I felt at home in my traveling clothes and never once pulled my dress out of my bag.

In Nature: Olympic National Park

The highlight of my trip to Seattle wasn’t in Seattle at all: It was a day tour with Evergreen Escapes to Olympic National Park west of Seattle. The park is on a peninsula, and when you go there, your cell phone thinks you’re in Canada. But you aren’t. You’re in the U.S., in one of the most beautiful national parks.

Inside the park, there are two places that really deserve your time:

Hurricane Ridge and Hurricane Hill

Sub-alpine meadow near Hurricane RidgeDrive up 5000 feet from the shore road to Hurricane Ridge. Get out and snap a few shots of the breathtaking views, then get back in the car and drive a short way past the visitor center to the Hurricane Hill parking lot.

The Hurricane Hill trail is surprisingly wide (I’m not a fan of precipitous drops next to narrow trails, and I was fine on this trail) and offers gorgeous vistas on all sides. The hills beside the trail are steep but not cliffs, so it’s easier to enjoy the landscape around you and pause to take pictures. On our hike, we saw mountains wreathed in clouds, snow-capped peaks against bright blue skies, and evergreen trees on meadows carved out by avalanches. This trail is usually open only from June through September, but this year it opened in May, thanks to unseasonably warm weather. In the winter it’s covered by tens of feet of snow, a dangerous but appealing paradise for backcountry skiers.

A mountain in clouds from the Hurricane Hill trailThe weather is chancy — you never know what you’re going to get. We got lucky, since the ridge was not socked in by clouds. Instead, they were drifting in the valleys below us. When we drove up the mountain, I felt disheartened by the mist until I saw it thinning, and we kept climbing out and out into the sunshine.

There’s also a small picnic area between Hurricane Ridge and Hurricane Hill, which is a perfect spot for lunch in an alpine meadow. While eating here, my group was approached by a herd of small deer that seemed almost entirely unafraid. We also were approached by a cloud that drifted over the mountains, chilling the air and providing a rare experience.

Lake Crescent and the Hoh Rainforest

Tree in the Hoh RainforestAfter the rush of heights and clouds, we returned to sea level and drove to Lake Crescent at the border of the Hoh Rainforest. Olympic National Park is home to two of the only temperate rain forests in the world. We hiked a wide, broad trail into the Hoh Rainforest, one of the world’s quietest places. With deciduous and evergreen trees coated in moss and hanging plants, it’s prehistoric, ethereal and strangely welcoming. We hiked to a small waterfall — a steep climb up stairs carved into a hill. Railings help a lot with the descent, so give it a try if you’re wearing good shoes.

Lake CrescentAt the end of the trip, we watched waves break on the shore at Crescent Lake, a blue-purple paradise with few boats or people in sight. The Lake Crescent Lodge is one of the only inns on the shore, and I’d love to return to canoe or kayak amid the silence and the sun.

Back in Seattle, I packed my bags and got ready to travel to Vancouver. I’m excited for the trip but sad to leave Seattle. I could spend a month here just wandering the neighborhoods, exploring the countryside and never getting bored. I hope I’ll be back to see more of this northwestern city.

The Solo Traveller’s Guide to San Francisco: Quiet Edition

I visited San Francisco a few weeks ago for AltConf 2015, a free conference across the street from Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). Since WWDC moved to a lottery system last year in the face of overwhelming demand, AltConf began offering networking and conference presentations for free to anyone.

Always before, when I’ve stayed in San Francisco, I’ve focused on the stretch from Pacific Heights and the Marina down to the Financial District and SoMa. I’ve rarely ventured out of this small semicircle at the northeast of the city. This time, I decided to explore some different areas, so I rented an Airbnb in Twin Peaks, a quiet residential neighborhood overlooking the Castro and Noe Valley.

When I arrived, I was stunned by the beauty of Twin Peaks. It was a clear day, and I could see from my street (and from my host’s living-room window) cleanly across eastern San Francisco to the bay. In the evening, fog drifted across the hilltop and blanketed the peaks in clouds.

Before attending AltConf, I spent a few days exploring the nearby neighborhoods, rather than returning to the usual tourist spots I’d seen before. If you’re looking for something a little different in your visit to San Francisco — a trip through quiet streets and local spots — this guide is for you.

The Castro

The Castro is renowned as a gay neighborhood and is scattered with great shops and restaurants. Here are a few I tried:

Chow on Church: Breakfast and brunch are unbelievably delicious — much better than lunch or dinner, in my opinion. I ordered a quinoa ragout with mushroom, spinach and poached eggs. I actively dislike quinoa, so I’m not sure why I took the gamble, but it paid off: This single dish changed my mind about quinoa forever. I also tried a cottage cake — a pancake with cottage cheese in the batter. With organic raspberry sauce on top, it reminded me of the jelly donuts I ate as a child from a local bakery. Advice: Don’t miss the weekend brunch — it ends at 2 p.m. Weekday breakfast is 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Eureka! Cafe: They serve organic ice cream from Straus Creamery. I ordered the brown sugar banana flavor and it was delicious. A nice end to my wanderings for the day.

Buffalo Whole Food & Grain Co.: A small but well-stocked grocer in the heart of the Castro. Tiny organic raspberries that were much tastier to me than those big Driscoll ones.

Noe Valley

Noe Valley lies just south of the Castro over a large hill (hint: don’t walk, take the bus!). It’s a family-friendly neighborhood with a strip of low-key shops and restaurants on 24th Street. A couple of highlights:

Bernie’s Coffee: A great cafe with free WiFi in Noe Valley. The food was good, but the highlight was the atmosphere: low-key and productive, with plenty of space. I never felt rushed or crowded out.

Saru Sushi: Delicious sushi and a great choice for lunch. Surprisingly, the salmon roe was the best thing I ordered, and I also enjoyed the Taramiso (marinated black cod) nigiri.

SoMa Again

When I finally ventured downtown for the conference, I wasn’t particularly happy to return to SoMA with its loud noise and heavy traffic. But I found some worthwhile places amid the hustle:

Samovar Tea Lounge in Yerba Buena Gardens above the waterfall. There’s a delicious new toast menu for breakfast (in addition to the regular menu). I had the poached eggs-with-butter toast and the Greek yogurt toast with honey and basil. It was affordable and awesome, until I ordered tea without checking the menu price. Seriously, who charges $17 for tea? Oops.

Creperie St. Germain – Not what I expected, because it’s a food truck and not a full restaurant. But the crepes were delicious and organic, and I found a nice place to eat in the shade near the Children’s Carousel Museum.

Workshop Cafe (not in SoMa but close by) – 180 Montgomery Street. This coffeeshop/coworking space has great healthy food, plus a huge amount of space. To enter the coworking space, it’s $2/hour, or you can sit in the front of the cafe for free. For first-timers, the coworking space is also free for up to 10 hours. Wonderful staff and service made this experience great, and the hot cereal with granola, steamed almond milk and organic fruit was awesome.

The Elephant in the Room

My trip to San Francisco was wonderful. The weather was shockingly warm for June, reaching into the 70s and making my black fleece jacket unnecessary on some days. Almost every day, sun streamed over Twin Peaks and lit up the valley below. I enjoyed the absolute quiet of the Airbnb where I stayed, my hosts were welcoming and wonderful, and I loved the opportunity to re-visit one of my favorite cities.

That said, San Francisco has downsides as well as highlights, and it would be dishonest to ignore them. The biggest downside is probably this: For a city awash in so much money, the size of the homeless population is staggering. One of New York’s best organizations for combating homelessness has been Pathways to Housing, which uses a “housing first” model: Just place people in housing and then deal with their other problems later. It works, and it’s expanding to other cities. Before San Francisco cycles from boom to bust yet again, the city and its residents would do well to channel some of that boom money toward housing the homeless.

This may not be the brightest note to end this trip log on, but it’s an honest one.

The Traveller’s Guide to Budapest in 3 Days

Statue near Buda CastleBudapest is a mass of old buildings, made new again stone by stone, step by step, address by address.

Modern boutiques share space with old, abandoned mansions, boarded-up windows next to sleek glass.

Two cities face each other across the river, united and unique. Buda is a quiet town of rolling hills, castles and green spaces; Pest is a vibrant district of restaurants, traffic and shops. Bridges strung in lights connect the two across the Danube River.

I spent three days in Budapest last week and wish I’d spent ten. Here are tips to make the most of your journey, no matter how much time you spend there.

Tips for Travellers

Watch out for traffic and bikes. Cars will not necessarily stop for you if you jaywalk, and some intersections are extremely busy. Bike path signs are clearly painted on the sidewalk — pay attention to them! Not that I learned this from experience or anything…

Visit the Museum of Terror. More similar to a war memorial than a simple museum, the Museum of Terror occupies the former Nazi and Soviet intelligence service headquarters on Andrassy Street in Pest. The aim is to remind people what happened here and how it ended. One of the most effective museums I’ve ever visited — emotional, horrifying and informative. Afterward, walk down the street to Heroes Square, where statues of ancient Hungarian rulers stand guard.

Statues in Heroes Square

Statues in Heroes Square

Check out the schedule at the Hungarian State Opera house. I saw a matinee production of Falstaff, which was enjoyable and far less expensive than the Vienna State Opera. Good single seats were available one day prior, although the ballet at night was sold out. The opera house is old, gorgeous and majestic — worth seeing.

Eat breakfast at Gerloczy’s. Just behind City Hall is a small restaurant at a triangular intersection serving some of the best food in Budapest. Breakfast isn’t a big meal here, so it’s a real find. I had simple food: muesli with yogurt and an almond roll, which was hot from the oven and full of sweet almond paste. So delicious I returned the next morning too.

Get Hungarian forints and don’t rely on euros. I used a money exchange at a tourist information point and paid just over 2 euros in commission to change 50 euros, but that commission stays steady up to about 200 euros. Many businesses take only forints or credit cards, and if you want to use public transportation, you may need forints to buy tickets or passes.

Visit a spa. Because I was only in Budapest for three nights, I didn’t get around to visiting a spa, but if I return I’d love to try the Gellert Bath or Szechenyi Bath.

Where to Stay

Fisherman's Bastion in Buda

Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda, overlooking Pest

This decision depends on your personality. I stayed at the St. George Hotel near Buda Castle because I got a great price on Booking.com. It was beautiful, near Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the entire city. All of the rooms are actually suites, with a living/dining room, kitchenette, bathroom and bedroom. Furnishings are antique-style and gorgeous. In the morning, the number 16 bus (not the 16A) took me directly to the center of Pest within 15 minutes.

If you’d rather stay in the center of nightlife and action, Pest is more suitable. To avoid ending up somewhere loud, check out the reviews and neighborhood online before booking. One promising option is the Gerloczy Rooms de Lux, above Gerloczy’s restaurant. I picked up a brochure while eating breakfast, and the rooms look beautiful. It also has 5 stars on TripAdvisor.

If you’re more inclined toward Airbnb, there are some fantastic, affordable places on offer. Because I was only staying for three nights, I went with a hotel, but I’d love to return for a longer stretch of time and rent an Airbnb.

Getting to Budapest

There’s an airport for travellers arriving from a distance, but getting to Budapest by rail is easy from Vienna, and that’s what I did. The Austrian OEBB train service runs every two hours from Vienna Wien Meidling station to Budapest Keleti station. The trip takes three hours, and the train travels through flat farmland (it’s not an alpine train).

Interestingly, I found a flexible fare that was cheaper than the restricted-schedule fare, so don’t assume the “SparSchiene” tickets are always cheaper.

If you want to reserve specific seats on the train, you’ll need a 6-euro reservation, sold alongside the basic train ticket, although these trains are rarely sold out.

Traveling within Budapest

Budapest has an excellent public transit system, and a map of the main tram and bus lines is available, although I couldn’t find a full bus map. The best option for me was to buy a 24-hour transit card that allowed unlimited trips on all trams and buses. It cost less than 2000 Hungarian forints (about 6 euros). If I’d known about this card’s existence sooner, I’d have gotten the 48-hour card instead of paying for some individual bus trips.

Taxis tend to be relatively expensive but are useful for late-night trips or for transport to and from the train station or airport.

The Vibe

I loved Budapest. It was beautiful, modern, evolving and dynamic, with great food and the sense of a city on the rise. Since leaving, I’ve been thinking about returning to continue sightseeing and settle into the rhythm of the city, as I did during my 10 days in Florence.

I’ve also read about the city’s nascent startup culture and would love to meet some of the entrepreneurs who are making Budapest their base. With its combination of affordability, things to do, beautiful scenery and good Internet (much better than in Florence or Tuscany), Budapest’s momentum is promising, and it’s simply a great place to visit and explore.

Solo Traveller’s Guide to Florence – Part 2

Oltrarno B&B

The windows in my room at the Oltrarno B&B

This is my last morning in Florence. I wake up, pull back the curtains, watch the traffic flow on the street outside. My B&B right now is in the Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno River), which has given me a chance to explore beyond the usual tourist bounds of central Florence. One thing I’ve noticed is that almost everyone who lives in Florence is originally from Florence, the opposite of melting pots like New York, London, Berlin or Barcelona.

I’ve found that the restaurants are better, on average, in the Oltrarno. I’ve met locals, enjoyed the slower pace, and only once felt uncomfortably stared at during lunch. I’ve also found myself overwhelmed by the age and artwork of Florence.

Pitti Palace sculpture

This sculpture was one of my favorite in the Pitti Palace.

I love the history of the city. It was once the most influential place on Earth, where Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo and Michelangelo helped the world move past the Black Death period and forward to what came next. I wish I could have seen Florence then.

In the past few days, I visited Donatello’s tomb and learned about the Medicis. I saw Michelangelo’s David statue in person, and it is categorically different than most other sculpture. It has its own life, apart from the crowds of tourists who throng the Accademia Gallery. I can only encourage you to see it in person if the opportunity arises.

Here are some other highlights from the past few days.

The Firenze Card

Final assessment: Totally worth it. For maximum enjoyment and minimum burn-out, activate it around 1pm on a Tuesday so that it expires around 1pm on Friday. This will allow you to avoid weekend crowds and Mondays, when many museums in Florence are closed. I skipped the lines everywhere I went and saw the major museums in about three hours a day, along with everything else I wanted to do (hint: eating, wandering). My favorites were as follows:

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo’s David – different view

Uffizi: Great art and a sense of history.

Gallerie dell’Accademia: Michelangelo’s David.

Pal Davanzati: After the Uffizi and the Accademia gallery, this was my favorite museum in Florence. It’s a small palace once occupied by a wealthy family and meticulously preserved, down to the authentic drawings on the walls. Apparently, writing and drawing on the walls was a thing in Renaissance Florence (the Palazzo Vecchio also has drawings on the back of a fireplace there).

Pal Davanzati

Escheriffic – the Pal Davanzati.

The Duomo: The first medieval cathedral not to give me the shivers but instead to have an actually inspiring vibe. I also climbed the stairs to the cupola, a serious workout but worth it for the experience, especially the part where I edged around the giant dome, separated from space by a glass barrier.

Dante House: I was just walking down a street and saw this museum, so I went in and enjoyed it more than expected. Some great story-telling in the exhibits.

I must admit that I didn’t enjoy the Pitti Palace all that much — I think I had art overload — although the Boboli Gardens were nice. Note that they are populated by bees during October (I was hoping they’d be gone by now, but it’s still in the high 70s every day).

More Food

Trattoria Da Sergio: A meat-eater’s restaurant to the core. I treated myself to potato-filled ravioli with a sausage ragu. This was my best meal in Florence, bar none. I tried to return yesterday, but it’s closed on Mondays.

Perche No!: Great cioccolata gelato. Reasonably good mascarpone gelato. Perhaps my fault for ordering them together, allowing the cioccolata to overwhelm the mascarpone.

Grana Market: The owner made me a custom sandwich with ricotta, provolone and pecorino cheeses on a baguette. It cost about 3.50 euros and was amazingly delicious. I ate it at a wooden picnic-table in the back of the store.

Il Cantuccio di San Lorenzo: This bakery specializes in the biscotti, which was superb. The non-biscotti thing I got was just okay; focus on the biscotti.

La Via del Te: Yep, I found a tea house in the Oltrarno. The food is okay, but the tea is spectacular. I tried Oriental Beauty tea for the first time in many years, and it was as good as I remember. I stayed for a second pot of tea recommended by the staff, which was also great.

Bakeries along Via Pisana and Borgo San Frediano: Generally good and much better than bakeries in central Florence. Try whatever catches your eye. There is even an organic bakery. One thing that is hard to find is a bakery/cafe with good Wi-Fi and tables inside that invite lingering. I looked all week for a place like this, finally settling for a place that was half-bar, half-cafe. (Edit: I found one today near the Santa Maria Novella train station.)

The Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

A view of the Cinque Terre in the morning.

I took a day trip to the Cinque Terre, a group of five small villages clustered along terraced cliffs by the Mediterranean Sea. It was a slow day, a nice break from the inland noise of Florence. Many of the paths between the villages are closed due to damage in a storm three years ago, but I’d love to return when they reopen to hike between and behind villages, through vineyards and rocks and waystops. For now, the trip I took was perfect, with boat and train rides among the villages and leisurely walks along the beach in Monterosso del Mare.

What’s Next

I’m heading to Tuscany today to spend some time on a farm. My goal is to remove distractions as easily as I added them in Florence. I’ll miss Florence, but at the same time I feel like I’ve seen most of the things I came here to see, and am ready for the next stop.

Tips for train travelers: At the Santa Maria Novella train station in central Florence, you need a ticket from a small machine in the biglietteria (ticketing) room before you do anything, even ask for information. Once you have this ticket, your number will appear on the overhead screens for you to buy a ticket or ask for information. The information window is window 19, and there is often a line at this window.

Also, if you’re going a short distance from Florence, you can go with your ticket to the Tabacchi (tobacco/convenience store) in the same room and get a “kilometric” ticket with only a short wait. It will allow you to travel a short distance to your destination without needing to reserve a specific train number/time.

Solo Traveller’s Guide to Florence – Part 1

Florence is a museum. It’s a chaotic, beautiful, slow, delicious, bureaucratic, welcoming place. It’s full of history and contradictions.

Florence ApartmentI’m staying in the center on a small side street near the Santa Maria Novella train station. My host’s apartment is where she grew up as a girl, now occupied by her daughter and other guests, variably. Today I met the grandparents.

In the apartment, with its polished wooden ceilings and solid wooden doors and arched gateways, I feel at home, floating above Florence’s street noise.

Outside, I feel a bit lost, mainly because it’s easy to get lost! Cellphone GPS helps, but even so I’ve found myself lost three times. Each time, I encountered interesting places, and I’m finally learning my way around the Duomo and its environs.

A few tips for fellow travelers to Italy:

The Paperwork

Consider booking your first night in a hotel. Why? It turns out that hotels take care of some paperwork that you may need to complete yourself otherwise. In my case, that meant spending two hours in a crowded immigration hall instead of at the Uffizi this morning.

This is actually unlikely to happen to you. As far as I can tell (and I am not an expert), it only arises under a specific set of circumstances:

1.) You are staying in Italy for more than eight business days after your arrival; and

2.) You came to Italy via another Schengen (EU) country (this includes connecting flights), instead of getting your passport stamped at an airport in Italy; and

3.) You aren’t staying in a hotel for the first several days (e.g., if you are a guest, staying with family/friends, or hostelling/camping).

Granted, if you ignore this paperwork, nothing is likely to happen. But if you need to go to the police for any reason after your eight days, you could be deported, which sucks and could have other repercussions. I’m staying for a month, so I dealt with the two-hour paperwork process this morning. The whole process made me feel uncomfortable.

Next time I will just book a hotel for the first night.

The Firenze Card

Status in Uffizi

Great art, ignored, and appropriately distressed about it.

Consider buying the Firenze Card if you can make it work for you. This card provides access to nearly all of the major museums in Florence, plus the Boboli Gardens. It works for 72 hours from the time of activation. This is generally inconvenient because:

1.) You may feel pressured to go to as many museums as possible instead of exploring the city as a whole; and

2.) You could end up with museum overload, where you rush past great art because, “Hey, I’ve already seen 50 Botticellis today and I’m hungry.”

But here is the really good thing about the Firenze Card:

It lets you skip the lines.

Bird in Flight by Tower

A bird in flight by the Arnolfo Tower.

If you have seen these lines, which can be hours long, you will know this is a giant benefit. I waited approximately 5 minutes to enter the Uffizi Gallery today and 2 minutes at the Palazzo Vecchio. What is an hour of your time worth? Right. So I got the card. It also comes with a free bus pass; I haven’t used it yet since I tend to walk everywhere, but I like having the option.

I decided to try to spread the Firenze Card’s goodness over four days instead of three, allowing me to maintain a leisurely pace and do non-museum things too. So I activated it Tuesday at 1pm. It’s good until Friday at 1pm.

Tuesday afternoon, I saw the Uffizi Gallery, Palazzo Vecchio and Torre Arnolfo (tower). No lines, so all of this took about 3 hours. Then I meandered through the streets to my favorite gelato place. On my way home, I passed the Basilica de San Lorenzo, so I ducked in there just before closing time. Then I went back to the apartment to upload my pictures, went out for dinner, and returned home to blog and do nerd-related self-directed learning. So far, the Firenze Card is working for me.

The Food

The food is amazing if you know where to go: The TripAdvisor top restaurants list is a good start. I’ve tried four of the top 30 so far, plus some other places:

Mario: The owner of the apartment where I’m staying recommended this place near the Central Market, and it may be the best pasta I ever ate. Clearly homemade, al dente to perfection, with tomato sauce that was light, fresh and not overwhelming. Go early because there’s always a wait, but it’s shorter before noon.

Edoardo Gelato Biologico: There’s a huge line most of the time. It’s still worth it. The plain Crema flavor (fresh eggs with vanilla) is my favorite — always a good sign with food — though I loved the now-vanished weekly special, Honey & Poppyseed.

Ete Bistro: Organic bistro just a few blocks away from where I’m staying. Had a delicious spinach-ricotta gallette for dinner, which was the daily special.

Marco Ottaviano Il Gelato Gourmet: It was very good gelato, with great pistachio and Crema del Duca (lemon) flavors, but I preferred Edoardo. Both places far surpassed the gelato I ate in my life prior to Italy.

Amorino: Awesome panini and extremely friendly owner — I had tuna, capers and olive oil on flat focaccia bread.

Central Market food court: The cheese place at the end on the left has amazing fresh ricotta, which I paired with a small roll from the bakery a few stands down. The other cheese place has a wider selection, and I took home a piece of smelly but delicious raw cow milk cheese. The fruit stall has good fruit except for the squishy plum I received, and the yogurt was tasty. I took home supplies for several days because breakfast is not a big thing in Italy. Most people just have a pastry with coffee. I need a bit more substantial food.

On a not-so-great note, during an otherwise-good lunch at Gilli, I was charged 7 euros for a tiny pot of tea holding about 8 ounces of water. That’s about $10 for one teabag and a cup of water. I was planning to buy a pile of chocolates from this place, but I decided not to. Instead I bought a 2-euro pastry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also was not that great.

The Language

I am learning a bit of Italian with the help of Rosetta Stone, about half an hour per day. Each day I understand a little more. Moreover, I have found absolutely everyone to be understanding (or at least tolerant) of my limited-language skills. I’ve also found almost everyone to be very courteous. As a solo traveller, I was a little worried about this, but Florence has been a largely great experience so far.

On to the next day! By the time you read this, I’ll be out of the apartment exploring the city. Ciao!

Quebec City as a (Sort-of) Solo Traveller

I spent the past week in Quebec City, now one of my favorite North American cities.

Old Quebec (Vieux Quebec) is a walled city with buildings from the 1600s. A great benefit of this architecture is that a car isn’t necessary. I traveled from New York City on Amtrak, switching to VIA Rail in Montreal.

Upon arrival in Quebec City in late afternoon, cabs were waiting at the train station, and it was a quick trip and a reasonable fare (about CAN$8) to B&B de la Fontaine.

B&B de la Fontaine

The owner wasn’t there when I arrived, but her instructions were clear and I easily accessed the lobby and checked in to my room.

It was beautiful! Wood floors, high ceiling, stone fireplace with exposed-brick wall, a comfortable queen-size bed, artwork, a small refrigerator, table and chairs, wardrobe, and work desk. My bathroom was small but functional, with enough space to move around in and a beautiful blue-and-gold mosaic tile design. Plants decorated the ledge atop the bathroom, and a fan spun lazily (there was also AC). Because my room was on the first floor, I drew the drapes, which were heavy and sufficient to block out any light or street views.

B&B de la Fontaine - Quebec City

After getting settled, I wandered around the old city. The location of the B&B was terrific, one block away from a park behind the Chateau Frontenac, away from noise but central to old Quebec and a short walk to the Lower Town stairway. The owner, Victoria, served a full homemade breakfast every morning in the dining room, which was included in the price. On various days, breakfast included eggs, pancakes, french toast, multigrain breads, jam, berries and other fruits, cakes, juice, tea and coffee.

This helped me save money because I basically ate one large meal out per day, plus a late-day snack.

Quebec City: No Car Required

I didn’t have a car, although my parents visited by car for a few days and stayed at a different B&B (thus the “sort-of” qualifier in this post title!). While they were in town, we visited Ile d’Orleans, which requires either a bike or car. (If you bike, I recommend spending an entire day at least. There are also plenty of guest houses on the island.)

Other than that brief trip to Ile d’Orleans, I walked. And I discovered that Quebec City is made for walking — if you have comfortable shoes. With hills, cobblestone streets and stone-paved sidewalks, stiletto heels are not a good idea. I wore low wedge heels, and I was fine.

Quebec City cobblestones

Best of Quebec City

Here are some great treasures I discovered:

The small park behind the Chateau Frontenac: Beautiful, quiet, an escape from the tourist buzz in front of the hotel.

Quebec City Park behind Chateau Frontenac

Lower Town: Turn left instead of right at the bottom of the first set of stairs, and you’ll explore a less-trafficked, more local part of the city, with restaurants, antique shops and art galleries.

Le Lapin Saute: Right in the middle of a touristic street in Lower Town (turn right at the bottom of the first set of stairs) is this brilliant restaurant that serves rabbit as its specialty. I ordered rabbit liver-and-kidney salad and onion soup with local Quebec cheese, and also sampled rabbit rillettes (pulled rabbit pate) and rabbit liver and kidneys sauteed with onions and served with vegetables and potatoes. Everything I tried was amazing, five-star quality, and the setting is beautiful, with outdoor tables and chairs next to a wooded square with flower beds. This was the best meal I ate in Quebec City and possibly all year.

Erico: The best chocolates I found in the city. The shop is on Rue St-Jean, which stretches from Old Quebec out to a more commercial and then residential neighborhood. It’s about a 15- to 20-minute walk from Old Quebec, so don’t get caught in the rain like I did! Their pistachio chocolates are sublime. They also serve different types of hot chocolate and gelato that can be dipped in chocolate.

La Carotte Joyeuse: A store featuring local and organic foods. Excellent if you like to eat healthy and have a refrigerator, and if you’re on a budget that limits restaurant meals. It’s a few doors away from Erico. I bought food here for the train trip back to New York.

Paillard: Budget-minded bakery cafe on Rue St.-Jean in Old Quebec where you can get a reasonable, delicious lunch and dessert.

Tournebroche near the Hotel de Vieux Quebec on Rue St-Jean in Old Quebec: This restaurant specializes in local, organic food. I had a cheese plate (good but not spectacular) and one of the best salads I ever ate, with mesclun, beets, tomatoes and vinaigrette, topped with ricotta and some kind of fruit paste. It’s weird to be recommending a salad, but I am.

Quebec Summer Music Festival

I was lucky to be in Quebec during the annual Summer Music Festival (Festival d’ete de Quebec). I purchased a festival pass for US$72, which allowed entry to any event on any day, and saw several great shows ranging from Bonobo to the John Pizzarelli Quartet. It was a perfect opportunity to let my right brain soak in abstract sounds and neon lights after a month of left-brain, programming-focused thinking. I left feeling refreshed, inspired and fired-up for the summer of hard work ahead of me back in New York (more on that later).

On Safety

I found Quebec City very safe, although as in any place, I tried to be reasonably smart. At night, I stayed on streets where there were other people, I looked around before entering the B&B, and I didn’t get drunk at the music festival or stumble home at 3am. I made sure my cell phone was always charged.

On Solitude

I will say it felt weird to be travelling out of the country by myself, even for a few days after my parents left. I’ve travelled alone in the U.S. quite a bit, but always with others beyond its borders. This was an experiment.

I found I enjoyed the days spent alone differently and more intensely, wandering through neighborhoods, discovering restaurants and stores, and enjoying the flow of people in their own worlds. At breakfast, staying alone had huge perks because I met all the other B&B guests and the wonderful owner. Our conversations ranged from, “Where are you from?” to restaurant recommendations to a comparison of public-health issues to the prisoner’s dilemma in economics. I loved it.

A Friendly Place

Lastly, my experience was that the people in Quebec City are among the friendliest I’ve met anywhere. I don’t speak French. I can say, “Bonjour,” quite well, and “Merci,” and “Ou sont les toilettes?” That’s about it. I did my best, smiling and greeting people with my limited French and then switching to English.

Unlike in Paris, I was not shunned. Universally, every single Quebecois I spoke with was kind, friendly and welcoming, willing to share information about the city, its history, and themselves. At this point I would like to learn French, just to speak this beautiful, descriptive language that surrounded me as I wandered the streets.

I love Quebec City and plan to be back. I hope this post helps those considering it as a solo travel destination to feel comfortable with the idea and get a head-start on finding some great places.