Thursday, October 31, 2013

New / When in / Mini Travel Guides

Inspired by a dear friend (who lovingly prepared a great list of where to eat, stay, and go in Sicily for me) I have compiled all of my most basic travel recommendations into one simple format.

Organized by country, my new "When In" mini travel guides include a one phrase description of the city, what/who it's good for, where to sleep and eat, what to see, and the best souvenirs to take home. No information overload here.


I hope you find these new mini travel guides useful in planning your next adventure!

Crab vs. Wiener dog showdown

The crab won.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The most surprising things about Sicily

When we took my in-laws on a road trip through Sicily last month they were just as pleasantly surprised as we had been during our first visit to Sicily that it was nothing like they expected it to be. Which got me thinking about our (North American) perceptions of Sicily, and what the island is like from a (North American) traveller's perspective today.

What it comes down to is that Sicily is not The Godfather. It's not dust and doom and gloom. It's not (all) crime and grime. Especially outside of Palermo, it's fairly safe.

Sicily will surprise you, if you let it.

Sicilians are a warm and welcoming people. If you take the time to give a buongiorno! and a smile, you'll be rewarded with kindness and hospitality. Even if it seems everyone's default setting is a frown (you'll find many nonnas there who look like they haven't smiled in years) this little exchange seems to do the trick. They are quick to help you when you are lost, are happy to recommend a good osteria for lunch, have a great sense of humour, and will obligingly answer your never-ending questions about Sicilian food and wines. In Sicily especially, using any Italian words you know (and acknowledging that Sicilian and Italian are, indeed, different languages!) will get you a long way.

Sicily's geography is also unexpected. The rocky, dusty south - where it seems nothing could ever grow -  is covered with olive and lemon groves that abruptly tumble into sandy beaches and sleepy towns. Moving north towards Agrigento vineyards fight for space alongside the fertile fields that yield - I contend - some of the most delicious produce in the world. Around the agricultural areas of Modica, Noto, Menfi, and Avola the hills here are green and gently roll along, as you might expect them to in England, not here in the heart of the Med. Moving ever further north the hills become rougher and gradually climb into dramatic mountains that are blanketed in lush tree cover. They nearly put Greece to shame. It's a striking landscape, dominated by the famous symbol of its seismic activity, Mount Etna (which never seems to stop spewing a fine plume of smoke).

More than anywhere else I have ever visited - Greece, mainland Italy, Spain - it is in Sicily that I find myself continuously blurting out "this is so pretty". It is in Sicily that I am content to spend my days simply drinking it all in. It is in Sicily that I am constantly surprised by how far my expectations are exceeded.

Sicily is not The Godfather (thank God).

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

When in Greece


In a phrase: A shadow of its former self, but worth visiting for a day or two.
Good for: Tourist sites / History


In a phrase: The closest thing to the landscapes in Avatar you'll ever see in real life. Monasteries perched on the tip top of the most otherworldly mountains.
Good for: Views
Sleep at: Hotel Doupiani


In a phrase: Great place to honeymoon or luxuriate. Not an ideal location to visit on a budget, and other islands are better suited for partiers.
Good for: Views / Food / Relaxation
Sleep at: Loizos Apartments
See: The sunset at the Caldera / The black sand beaches

+ Read more in these blog posts

When in the Netherlands


In a phrase: An eclectic, liberal, fascinating city with great food, parks, and museums. Quickly becoming one of my favourite cities, ever.
Good for: Shopping / Food / Tourist sites / Wandering / Families / Dogs
Sleep at: The Dylan (luxury!) / NH City Center / Hampshire Hotel
Eat at: OCCO Brasserie / Caffe Esprit / Cafe de Kroon / De Herengracht Bar & Grill
See: Rijksmuseum / Vondelpark / The canals by boat / Heineken brewery
Pack: An umbrella / Shoes for cycling and walking (these Yosi Samra shoes are my favourite) / Little pocket book guide (this is my favourite)

+ Read more in these blog posts

When in England


In a phrase: A vibrant, energetic capital city full of history, great food, and endless entertainment.
Good for: History / Tourist sites / Food / Wandering / Shopping / Families
Sleep at: Grand Royal London Hyde Park
Eat at: Nayyab / The Bird in The HandTate Modern Rooftop Cafe
See: National Portrait Gallery / Museum of Natural History (free) / Victoria & Albert Museum (free) / Tate Modern & surrounding area / Thames River Tour / Leadenhall Market (aka Diagon Alley!) / A West End show / Hyde Park / Piccadilly Circus & Trafalgar Square / Buckingham Palace and Green Park

+ Read more in these blog posts

When in Poland


In a phrase: The capital city of Poland, brimming with history (and awesome pierogis). Even in its rebuilt state, Old Town will charm your socks off.
Good for: Wandering / Shopping / Food / History / Tourist Sites
Sleep at: Hilton Warsaw
Eat at: La Vinotheque
See: Old Town
Transport: Travelling in a group? Take taxis around the city. It's cheaper - or as cheap as - taking public transportation.
Great souvenir: Paper cut folk art and/or anything from Mr. Gugu & Miss Go

+ Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: The 'artistic' sister city of Warsaw, Krakow is supposed to be prettier and more bohemian than Warsaw. (I liked Warsaw better, but to each her own.)
Good for: Wandering / Food / History / Tourist sites / Shopping
Sleep at: Spatz Aparthotels
Eat at: Alchemia / Le Scandale / Manzana Mexicana (best Mexican ever)
See: The Jewish Quarter's (Kazimeirz) Plac Nowy / Wieliczka Salt Mine & Auschwitz II-Birkenau (you can do both in day trip - if you're travelling in a group book a private driver rather than taking a tour bus - it's cheaper) / Rynek Glowny (main square)

+ Read more in these blog posts

When in Germany


In a phrase: An industrial German city, home to a major airport hub (where I most frequently fly through on international flights)
Good for: Wandering / History / Food
Eat: Sausage, beer, and potato salad. Can't go wrong.
See: Romerberg Plaza / Main River

+ Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: A beautiful German town you can easily visit on a stopover through Frankfurt (rent a car).
Good for: Views / History / Wandering / Food / Dogs

+ Read more in this blog post

When in Ireland


In a phrase: A friendly city jam packed with things to do, and some of the coziest pubs in the world.
Good for: Wandering / History / Food / Tourist Sites / Families / Dogs
Sleep at: Kelly's Hotel
Eat at: Gogarty's (Temple Bar)
See: Kilmainham Gaol (watch Michael Collins and In the name of the Father first/ Guinness Storehouse Museum / Dublin Castle / Leprechaun Museum / Trinity College & The Book of Kells / Bus tour (great on a rainy day) / Pheonix Park

+ Read more in these blog posts

When in Morocco


In a phrase: A wonderful assault on the senses, a city with some of the best food in the world.
Good for: Wandering / Shopping / Food
Sleep at: Riad et Palais des Princesses
Eat at: Stall #1 in Jemma El-Fnaa
See: The souks (of course) / Bahai Palace
Pack: Conservative clothing
Great souvenir: Spices / Rugs / Tagines

+ Read more in these blog posts

When in Austria


In a phrase: The prettiest musical capital city.
Good for: Shopping / Food / Wandering / History / Tourist sites
Eat at: Le Loft / Cafe de l'Europe / DO & CO Albertina Museum cafe
See: Audio tour at Schonbrunn Palace / Ice skate at city hall (in the winter, obviously) / Albertina art museum / Ballet at the State Opera / Stephansdom

+ Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: A jewel of a city, beautiful even in the dead of winter.
Good for: Tourist sites / Music / Wandering / History / Views
Eat at: Cafe at the Salzburg Museum
See: Salzburg Museum / Hohensalzburg Castle

+ Read more in this blog post


In a phrase: Austrian ski town
Good for: Sports / Family
Sleep at: Mair Apartments

+ Read more in this blog post


In a phrase: Near Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp

+ Read more in this blog post

When in France


In a phrase: It's Paris.
Good for: Everything.
Sleep at: Artist's studio apartment from Go With Oh / Bridgestreet serviced apartment
Eat at: 404 Moroccan Restaurant / Cafe des Arts et Metiers /
See: Pere Lachaise cemetery / Cycle at Versailles /

+ Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: The Venice of the alps.
Good for: Sports / Wandering / Lakes / Dogs / Families / Views
Sleep at: Privilodges Aparthotel
Eat at: Le Freti (stinky fondue!)

+ Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: It inspired Walt Disney's castle for Beauty and the Beast. 
Good for: Castles / History / Views
Sleep at: Hotel St. Michel (not the best, but not many options)

Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: A French city on the Mediterranean. The surrounding villages take the cake for beauty, you only need a few days here.
Good for: Wandering / Parks / Food / Beach
Sleep at: Kyriad Port Nice
Eat at: Chez Rene Socca (but it's popular, so expect to queue)

Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: Popes used to live here, and they built big stone walls around it.
Good for: History
Sleep at: Cube Hotel (just across the river from Avignon)
See: Palais des Papes

+ Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: France's best kept secret.
Good for: Wandering / Food / History

Read more in this blog post


In a phrase: The perfect ski town. A fabulous place to spend Christmas!
Good for: Sports / Views / Food / Shopping
Stay at: Club Med

When in Belgium

When in Iceland


In a phrase: Quirky and cool (literally and figuratively) capital city.
Good for: Shopping / Food / Sports
Sleep at: Centerhotel Thingholt
Eat at: Fiskmarkadurinn (amazing tasting menu!) / Laundromat Cafe / Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (world famous hot dogs) / LAVA
See: Geysir and Gulfoss falls / Blue Lagoon (both driving distance from Reykjavik)
Pack: Good waterproof-ish shoes for walking on uneven terrain, at a minimum (these Yosi Samra smoking slippers worked wonders for me) / An umbrella / A small guide book (I used and loved this) / A coat and layers, even in the summer
Great souvenir: Wool sweater.

Read more in these blog posts

When in Spain


In a phrase: The most picturesque seaside town that is skyrocketing to the top of every "top destinations" list out there.
Good for: Food / Views / Beach / Wandering
Eat at: Cafe de la Concha

+ Read more in this blog post


In a phrase: Jam packed with things to do for every taste, a great city for outdoorsy types and paella fans.
Good for: Wandering / History / Tourist sites / Food / Families / Dogs / Sports
Eat: Paella (anywhere) / Sangria at the Aquarium cafe
See: La Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias + all its museums & aquarium / Turia Gardens / Cathedral & Bell Tower at Plaza de la Reina / Fine Arts Museum / IVAM Modern Art Museum / Silk Market (must see!) / Serranos Towers / Bioparc / Fallas Festival in March

+ Read more in this blog post


In a phrase: The capital of Basque Country, a vibrant Spanish city that blends new and traditional architecture and culinary styles.
Good for: Food / Museums / Wandering
Sleep at: Petit Palace Aruna
Eat at: Cafe Iruna
See: The Guggenheim

+ Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: Zaragoza is quite literally an oasis in the dessert, made famous by its incredible cathedrals and tapas scene.
Good for: Food / Wandering / History / Tourist sites / Dogs / Families
Sleep at: Hotel Las Torres (best hotel room view I've ever had)
Eat at: La Republicana Cafe (best tapas I've ever had)
See: The city's Roman sites / Central market / The Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar & La Seo Cathedral

+ Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: A wonderful, traditional Basque town by the Atlantic ocean with a huge golden sandy beach.
Good for: Beach / Wandering / Food / History
See: The Dia de los Gansos Festival in September

+ Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: A Spanish sister city to Paris, with its grand architecture and museums.
Good for: Museums / Tourist sites / History / Food / Wandering
See: The Prado / The Royal Palace


In a phrase: Spain's hippest city
Good for: Sports / Beach / Museums / Food / Wandering / Partying / Dogs
Sleep at: Kabul Hostel
See: La Boqueria / National Museum of Catalan Art / Port Funicular / The port & beach / Park Guell
Tip: Mind your pockets; my husband had his passport stolen here.

When in Italy


In a phrase: A stylish, luxurious, and strangely peaceful city.
Good for: Window shopping / Fine dining
Sleep at: Starhotels Ritz
Eat at: Osteria Mamma Rosa (superb, a bit of a splurge)
Great souvenir: Anything from COS

Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: A stylish, historical city full to the brim with tourists.
Good for: Window shopping / Tourist sites
Sleep at: B&B Firenze Novoli (outside of the historic centre)
Eat atDante & Beatrice Caffe / Giubbe Rosse Caffe

Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: Disneyland for adults.
Good for: Museums / Wandering / Food
Sleep at: Casa Martini
Eat at: Ristorante Carpaccio
See: The Venice Biennale (annual arts festival held every odd-numbered year in July)

+ Read more in these blog posts


Good for: Tourist sites / Food
Eat at: All of the hole in the wall pizza joints that sell square shaped pizza slices by the pound. Try the rosemary and potato, I still crave it.

Read more in this blog post


In a phrase: 
Good for: Wandering / Food / Lakes / Dogs / Families
Sleep at: Hotel Serenella
Eat at: Scaligeri (great pizza)
See: The Grotto of Cattalus / Scaliger Castle / The peninsula's shores

Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: 
Good for: History / Food / Quiet weekends / Shopping
Sleep at: Residence Ca Delle Erbe (sublime)
Eat at: Osteria Pizzeria delle Erbe
SeeDucal Palace / Palazzo Te Museum / All of the piazzas

Read more in these blog posts

When in Sicily


In a phrase: A magical, ancient mountain-top town. Legend has it, you can see Tunisia on a clear day from the top.
Good for: Views / History / Food
Sleep at: La Pineta
Eat at: Monte San Giuliano (hard to find, worth the search)
Great souvenir: Busiate pasta
Pack: A sweater, even in the summer - it gets chilly at the top.

Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: Unexpected perfection.
Good for: Shopping / Food / Wandering / Relaxation
Slept at: Hotel Gutowski (our favourite) / Royal Maniace Hotel / Des Etrangers Hotel & Spa
Ate at: Osteria da Mariano (great, home style meals)

Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: A gritty, but cool, Sicilian city.
Sleep at: Ucciardhome Hotel
Eat at: Bellotero (amazing)
See: Cappella Palatina
Good for: Tourist sites / History

Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: The best preserved Greek temple in the world, in the most achingly beautiful locale. Easy to get to.
Good for: Views / History

+ Read more in these blog posts


In a phrase: A dreamy ancient Greek city and temple complex perched over the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, surrounded by wildflowers and bumbling bees. Requires half an afternoon, at least.
Good for: Views / History / Walking / Picnics


In a phrase: Extensive, amazing Roman mosaics and villa site. A bit tricky to find.
Good for: History

Read more in this blog post


In a phrase: Picture-perfect, luxurious countryside vineyard estate.
Good for: Views / Fine dining / Relaxation / Dogs / Families
Sleep at: La Foresteria Planeta Estate agriturismo
Eat at: On site restaurant (incredible!)
Great souvenir: La Planeta wines and olive oils

+ Read more in this blog post


Eat atOsteria dei Sapori Perduti (great, home style meal)
Great souvenir: Modican chocolate from Bonajuto

+ Read more in this blog post


In a phrase: The perfect seaside Italian town.
Good for: Views / Beach / Families / Dogs
Eat at: Cafe del Molo / Osteria del Duomo (our favourite)

+ Read more in this blog post


In a phrase: Beach town dominated by a dramatic mountain. A (mini) doppelgänger for Rio de Janeiro.
Good for: Beach / Food / Families
Eat at: Sapori di Sicilia (have the busiate with swordfish - you won't regret it)

Read more in this blog post


In a phrase: Sicily's industrial capital.
Good for: Shopping, but you'll need a car.


In a phrase: Pretty Italian villages clinging to dramatic green mountains and cliffs overlooking the turquoise sea and the volcano of Mt. Etna (need I say more?)
Good for: Views / History


In a phrase: Home of the luxury brand outlet mall (yes, I'm talkin' Gucci). You'll need a car to access it, or you can book a free bus in advance (see Sicilia Outlet Village).
Good for: Shopping


In a phrase: This volcano spews superlatives (see what I did there?): Highest mountain in Italy south of the Alps; largest active volcano in Italy; one of the most active volcanoes in the world. 
Good for: Views / Wandering
Pack: It's windy and cold at the top (there's snow!) so pack accordingly.

When in Malta


Malta is a little island in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. I fell in love with Malta in 2008 when my husband participated in a university exchange program with the University of Malta. It is everything I wanted in a place to call my home and in the autumn of 2010 my future-husband and I packed up one apartment and two dogs and began a new adventure on the other side of the ocean.


That's right, it's not all sun and sand here.  Since Neolithic times, for over 8,000 years, Malta has been populated. In fact, archaeologists believe that some of the Neolithic temples on Malta were erected around one thousand years before the construction of the famous pyramids of Giza in Egypt, and are believed to be the oldest freestanding monuments in the world (neat!)

Malta has been occupied by just about everyone in the Mediterranean: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Muslims, Sicilians, Normans (French), Angevins (French), Hoenstaufens (Germanic), and Aragonese (Spanish-Catalan). I know, right? And you thought American history was complicated.

We can credit the Order of the Knights of St John (also known as the Knights of Malta) with "Europeanizing" Malta, as they ruled the island from 1530 until 1798, when Napoleon's army drove them out. In 1814 the British took over Malta and this little island remained a British colony until 1964. Since May 2004 Malta has been a member of the European Union.


Population: 408,000 (2011) / Capital: Valletta / Area: 316 square kilometers (122 square miles) / Languages: Maltese, English / Religion: Roman Catholic (98%) / Currency: Euro / One of the smallest and most densely populated countries in the world / Maltesers did not originate here; Maltese dogs, however, may have.