Quick Guide to Paris - Off The Beaten Path

No 5 letters have ever come together to shape a name more full of meaning than Paris. Historically, culturally, and artistically, Paris has been at the center of it all for centuries. “Paris is always a good idea,” were the famous words of Audrey Hepburn, and it really is.

Today the city is still at the top of virtually everyone's travel list. But, while the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre tend to be the first spots to visit, there’s a lot more to see and experience often left off the guide books. Here are my top 5 off-the-beaten-path attractions in Paris.

1 - Musée de L’Orangerie

You know the Musée D’Orsay and the Louvre, but this small gallery located at the opposite end of the Jardins de Tuileries holds an even more impressive collection. The first floor counts with two oval rooms where Monet’s Water Lilies are in permanent display. The idea is that you can see the scene just as Monet did while he painted it. Downstairs, an impressive collection includes works by Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir, and countless others.

Tip: You can buy a special ticket that guarantees dual entry into Musée de L’Orangerie and Musée D’Orsay to save some $$ and time.

2 - Merci

Merci

Shopping in Paris is great, especially during the summer and winter sales (“Les Soldes” which take place at specific times during the year determined by the government). La Bonne Marché and Galeries Lafayette are two of the largest shopping centers in Paris, carrying all the major brands. But if what you’re looking for is more of a highly curated collection, the unique and super cool items at Merci is what you need. This shop is located on the 3rd Arrondissement and holds a literary café on the first floor. It’s the perfect place to relax after some sightseeing.

3 - Hôtel Amour

Let’s say you’ve spend the afternoon exploring Sacré-Coeur and now it’s time for dinner. The courtyard restaurant at the Hôtel Amour is your spot. There’s a nice tropical vibe with lush trees scattered all around the restaurant and it’s a very authentic spot where real Parisians dine.

Tip: If you’re not too tired, do the 15-min walk from Sacré-Coeur to the Hôtel Amour to get a nice look at the neighborhood of Montmartre.

4 - Picnic at Versailles

Bike tour of Versailles

Technically this is more of a day trip from Paris, but the train ride is so easy there’s no reason not to do it. You can hop on the Métro and it takes about an hour to get to Versailles. Stop by a local market to get the famous Versailles orange juice, a baguette, cheese and some wine. Then you’re ready for a picnic along the magnificent Grand Canal in the Jardins de Versaille. Make sure to eat all your food or throw it out before heading into the Palace, as food is not allowed inside.

Tip: You can also book a bike tour in advance, and they’ll make all the arrangements. You often get to meet your tour guide in Paris and take the Métro as a group.

5 - Coutume Café

Finding good breakfast in Paris is not an issue, but this little spot in the École Militaire neighborhood has probably the best coffee I had in Paris. The shop is owned by a Parisian and an Australian (both great coffee nations!), so you can tell they know what they’re doing. The raw decor and white tiles may feel a little bit like Brooklyn, but the food is as authentic as it comes.

Do you have any off-the-beaten-path sites in Paris? Add them in the comments!

 

 

 

Quick Guide to Shanghai

Visiting China was one of the most thrilling experiences in my life. The culture, the food and architecture revealed a whole new side of the world that lived only in my dreams. While I think it’s impossible to list just a few of the many, many things to do in Shanghai, I tried to compile the five places you just cannot miss the next time you’re there. Here they are:

 Shanghai Museum

Shanghai Museum

1 - Shanghai Museum
Art lovers, history buffs, and general tourists alike, this is the spot. The building itself is already an inspiring site with a wheel-shaped structure that surrounds the top floor. Inside you’ll find some of the very first coins used during the famous empires, there are also uniquely designed furnitures, as well as countless pieces of art and buddha statues. It’s easy to spend half a day exploring the different wings, and the museum shop is a great place to buy interesting books.

 Daytime view from The Bund 

Daytime view from The Bund 

2 - The Bund
A walk on The Bund is a must, day or night. The waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River gives you the perfect view of the city skyline. The modern skyscrapers sit across the river, while a lineup of classic European buildings stand behind you. It’s an interesting contrast that marks just how much of a melting pot the city has become . At night, the modern buildings light up to form that classic postcard portrait of Shanghai. You can also take a nighttime cruise on the Huangpu River to catch a different angle.

 French Concession

French Concession

3 - Nanjing Road
This shopping district counts with all the famous brands, like Uniqlo and Gap, as well as local brands like Meters/Bonwe. It’s the perfect spot to have that authentic modern day Shanghai shopping experience with around 600 stores between international brands and Chinese boutiques that sell traditional goods like Jade, silk and pearls.

4 - The French Concession
In the late 1800’s, this area was conceded to the French Consulate and was the home to many foreigners, today the historic location has grown into the hub for foodies and high-end shoppers. The winding alleys and European buildings make this a very unique and different from the rest of the city. It’s also where you’ll want to grab a sit at an outdoor café and stay a little while.

 Yuyuan Garden

Yuyuan Garden

5 - Yuyuan Garden
Its name translates to ‘happy, pleasing, satisfying’ and it’s easy to see why. The garden feels like it’s build over various ponds, so the sound of streaming water fills every corner. The ponds are crowded with huge koi fish that love being fed. The traditional Chinese architecture automatically transports you to a different time and it’s easy to forget you’re in modern Shanghai. The garden is the perfect place to quiet down after bargaining over prices at the market next door.

Know a place that should be included in this list? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

View from The Bund

Nanjing Road

French Concession

First Impressions: China!

China. A small word with huge meaning. The flavors. The culture. The architecture. The history. From the moment we landed at the Shanghai airport it was clear to me that this was going to be a completely different and unique experience. The modern architecture of the airport was unlike anything I’d seen before, with white poles holding onto the blue tent-like ceiling.

In this trip I got to explore Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, Wuxi, and Suzhou. Each city offered a distinct perspective into Chinese culture, deeply rooted in old traditions yet also embracing modernity and looking forward to the future.

First, let’s talk population. I used to think that being one of the 8.4 million people living in New York City made me a part of a huge city. Little did I know that’s just a “medium-sized” town by Chinese standards. Shanghai has a population of over 24 million people. Beijing has 21.5 million people. Hangzhou, Wuxi and Suzhou are considered medium-sized towns and each count with a population of around 8 to 10 million.

That’s a lot of people. But the size of the population is only comparable to the size of the land itself. We took a flight between Beijing and Shanghai and it took us about three hours of driving on average to get from Wuxi to Hangzhou, and then from Hangzhou to Shanghai. The country is huge (about the same size as the USA) and the fact that the culture and old traditions are so alive and strong throughout makes it even more amazing.

This is a place where the notions of old and new are constantly in balance, almost like a ying-yang dance everywhere we went. And it is the most clear through architecture. A walk on the Bund, Shanghai’s waterfront promenade, is the perfect example. Here you’ll spot some of the world’s most exuberant buildings. The Oriental Pearl TV Tower, probably the most recognizable one, features two giant round structures, one at the base and another at the top, with pinkish-red stripes across them. The Jin Mao Tower, a huge building that houses the luxurious Grand Hyatt Hotel, with it’s diamond-shaped top. Then there’s the Shanghai World Financial Center, a huge skyscraper with a glass-walled observation deck.

A quick 7-minute drive from the Bund lands you in Yuyuan Garden. The garden was finished around 1577, during the Ming Dynasty and still holds its traditional architecture. The rounded gates, the ponds full of huge koi fish and the traditional decorative rockeries. Just outside the garden there’s a bazaar where you can buy traditional Chinese items like silk pieces, tea, pearls, jade and handcrafted jewelry boxes. This is also where the Lantern Festival is held every year.

The Lantern Festival is one of the most interesting cultural events I was able to witness. It takes place 15 days after the Lunar New Year and gathers people from all over the city admiring the intricate paper lanterns in Yuyuan Garden. The tradition was already one of great significance by the Han Dynasty (between 206 BC - 25 AD), marking the final day of the New Year celebrations. Today, it still holds the same importance with red paper lanterns spread throughout the city. The lanterns have evolved from the traditional round shape to handmade lanterns that mimic life-sized animals, sceneries and cartoons. At night, they light up leaving children, as well as adults, in awe. Each one a symbol of good luck for the year ahead.

The Chinese New Year traditions are still very important to the people, most of whom leave the city to be with their families for the weeks leading up to and after the day. For many this is the one long vacation they can spend with their parents and relatives in their hometown.

Another huge part of the culture is the food. From outdoor markets to food halls to restaurants well-equipped with lazy Susans, delicious food is everywhere. One of my favorite street-snacks was a round pastry filled with cooked radishes and another one filled with pork slices. They are serve in folded parchment paper, to make them easy to carry.

Family-style meals are also a big tradition in China. We grew accustomed to using the lazy-susans at pretty much every restaurant. It was a great conversation starter! We ended up getting to know new people much better because of the family-style lunches. It’s a must try, at least once!

This trip to China was a life-changing experience. I learned so much about the culture, the people, the history. I loved every minute of it and will be posting more detailed guides about each one of the cities in the next few weeks. There was so much to take it. One trip to China is simply not enough.

Have you been to China? Tell me about your experience in the comments!

8 things to bring on a long-haul flight

In a few hours I’ll be hopping on a flight from NYC to Shanghai. It’s a 15 plus hour flight, the longest one I’ve ever been on. I feel like there should be a special name for these super long flights. Like sports have “extreme” versions, these long trips should be called “extreme flying” or something.

I’m really excited to be going to the other side of the world, but I’m also bracing for all those hours stuck in a plane. Here’s my list of what you should always bring on any flight longer than 8 hours:

1. Sleep gear
Sleeping is important, especially when you’re 30,000 feet above the ground. Neck pillows and eye masks may not be stylish, but they get the job done. I recommend a neck pillow with a button at the bottom to keep it in place no matter how much you move around. Some airlines are now offering free eye masks, but bring yours just in case.

2. Antibacterial Stuff
I’m not usually a germaphobe, but lock me in a flying machine and I get a little bit more concerned about those pesky little critters. I carry antibacterial wipes (Clorox are best) to clean up the tray tables. If you can’t find antibacterial wipes, alcohol pads (you can find them at any drugstore) work just fine. Also, use hand sanitizer or wash your hands before meals, you don’t want to get sick while on vacation.

3. Vitamin boost
Vitamins make a huge difference. I like Emergen-C because you can dissolve it in a bottle of water and it's super easy to drink. It will give your immune system a boost and you’ll feel more energized when you finally land.

4. Lip balm
Airplanes are dry, so I try to carry lip balm and hand lotion to keep my skin from getting rough and cracked while on the air.

5. Tech
Bring your own fancy headphones. I’m not particularly fond of the noise-cancelling ones, since I feel that my regular chunky ones work just as well. And if you’ll be watching a movie on your iPad, I love headphone jack splitters. They let you share the screen with your travel buddy and split the sound into two or more headsets.

6. Toiletries
Toothbrush, toothpaste, face wash, moisturizer. I also like to carry a Korean hydrating facial mask. Some of the other passengers may look at you funny, but your skin will super soft afterwards.  

7. Pen
Pens are useful, since you’ll probably have to fill out customs forms before landing. You can also doodle a few hours away.

8. Snacks
Like any other extreme sport, extreme flying (yeah, it’s a thing now!) requires hydration and nutrition. Buy a bottle of water right before you hop on the plane and bring a snack. While most airlines supply food, you can never be sure that you’ll like it. So, carrying a granola bar or some nuts is always a good idea. I also like to bring my own tea bags. They’ll definitely have hot water onboard, so you can skip the coffee and brew your favorite flavor.

Have any other tips for surviving a long flight? Share them in the comments!

Quick Guide to Copenhagen

Copenhagen is one of my favorite cities in the world. The Danish capital is known for sharp design, modern interiors and a growing foodie scene. There’s tons to do and see at every corner. Here’s my quick list of things you should not miss while you’re there.

Tivoli Gardens

1.   Tivoli Gardens
It’s said that Walt Disney was inspired by this majestic amusement park when he decided to build his own, and it’s easy to see why. The Tivoli features a collection of rides, theater performances and themed restaurants that are certain to bring out your inner child. While the park is open only from mid-April to September, it re-opens for a few weeks during Halloween and Christmas. It’s a fun place for everyone, no matter your age.

2.   Statens Museum for Kunst.
Also known as the National Gallery of Denmark, this museum holds a wide collection of Danish and Nordic art. Their French and European collections are also pretty impressive. Even the building itself is a must see. The museum is comprised of two contrasting buildings. The main building dates back to 1896 and depicts classic architecture. The extension completed in 1998 shows the modern and clean design of Danish architecture. The best part is that you can gain entrance to the permanent exhibitions for free.


3.   Freetown Christiania
This neighborhood is home to a very unique community. While most people know it as the place where cannabis is sold and consumed openly, the community is also a haven for artists, musicians and intellectuals with beautiful murals covering practically every available wall. It’s a fun place to walk around a discover a different side of Copenhagen, but don’t take any pictures in the main street where the vendors are located (Pusher Street).

The Little Mermaid

4.   The Little Mermaid (Den Lille Havfrue)
Perhaps another one of Disney’s inspirations? This statue is the symbol of the city and a huge tourist attraction. Completed in 1913, the statue based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, sits on a rock on the shoreline of Langelinie park. I recommend getting here early in the morning to avoid the huge crowds and tour buses.

5.   The Round Tower (Rundetaarn)
This 17th Century tower is a great place from which to see the Copenhagen skyline. The building itself is known for the equestrian staircase that leads you to the top. Basically a cobblestone road that loops around all the way to the top. I tried running all the way to the top, but couldn’t really make it! Instead I recommend taking it slow and getting good pictures for your Instagram.

Any other places you’d like to add to this list? Share them in the comments!

Statens Museum for Kunst

The Round Tower

Freetown Christiania

How to Survive the Tourist Visa Application Process

Visas are hard. Loads of paperwork and hours of waiting may leave you with a bitter taste about your destination. So, what can you do to survive the process? Prepare. A lot. And when you think you’re done preparing, prepare a little more.

Even if you’re traveling with an American passport, which allows you to visit many countries without a tourist visa, there are still many others that require it. Brazil, China, India, Vietnam, and Australia to name a few.

The process itself varies greatly from one country to another, but there are a few steps that have helped me get through it in one piece.

1 - Download the application from the web.
My first instinct is usually to wait until arriving at the Consulate or Embassy to find and fill out the forms. Instead, the thing to do is go online. Most Consulates have the applications on their websites. Download, fill it out and print. It will save you tons of time. And help you with step #2.

2 - Read the instructions. Then read them again.
This may seem straightforward, but visa forms can be very specific as to how you should fill them out. One time I was turned away from a Consulate after hours of waiting in line outside because the application had to be typed and I filled it out by hand. I had to come back the next day. There is no arguing when the instructions specifically dictate it on the top of the page. So read them.

3 - Make copies of everything.
Keeping a copy of all the paperwork is always a good idea. It’s also good to leave a copy at home or with a friend while you’re away, in case your passport gets lost or stolen.

4 - Verify the accepted forms of payment.
Visas are not cheap and the fees may vary depending on your nationality. Check on the Consulate/Embassy’s website how much and how to pay. You may be allowed to pay with your card or you may need to bring a check.

5 - Meditate. Bring a book. Breath.
There’s always a lot of waiting involved and there’s no way around it. So be ready. Bring a good book. Better yet, bring a travel guide and start daydreaming about your awesome vacation. You’re halfway there.

Do you have any useful tips? Share them in the comment section.

Following the Force to Skellig Michael

 Skellig Michael & Little Skellig

Skellig Michael & Little Skellig

Did you watch the new Star Wars film? (If not, please stop reading. Spoilers ahead.)

You know that last scene, when Rue finally finds what she’s been searching for. We see Luke Skywalker wearing his signature Jedi cloak on an island so beautiful it can only be described as otherworldly. The green pastures between rocky hills that stretch directly into the ocean. The dome-shaped structures that served as homes to the monks who lived there hundreds of years ago. The majestic view of a smaller sister island located only a 2 kilometers away that is populated only by birds. It was a beautiful look into a breathtaking location.

The good news is this place wasn’t brought to you by CGI. It’s a real place and it’s not in a galaxy far, far away. It’s in Ireland.

Skellig Michael, also known as the Great Skellig, is one of those places so majestic and historic that you really don't think you will ever be able to see again. A once in a lifetime sort of thing. So when I saw it for a second time on the big screen, I got really excited. I was probably happier to see it than Luke.

I visited Skellig Michael in the summer of 2013. My cousin, a friend of ours and myself were on an all-girls road trip through the Emerald Isle. We drove to the little town of Portmagee and dared to face the rugged Irish Sea in a tiny vessel with fewer life jackets than I would like. All to see Skellig Michael from just a few feet away.

You're probably wondering, what's the big deal with this little island? For me there are three things that make the Skelligs so especial.

Their History - Skellig Michael served as a monastery during the Middle Ages. A place where monks found themselves getting closer to God. For many monks this was a one way trip. Not only because of how tough it was to get there, but also because of how rough it was to stay there. The monks lived in beehive shaped huts that would have to stand through incredibly challenging weather. Even today to visit the remains of the monastery you’ll have to climb 618 steps (over 180 meters).

Their wilderness - These islands are home to a wide variety of seabirds, including the puffin, a chubby black and white bird with a bright orange beak. There is also a colony of over 30,000 gannets living in Little Skellig (the largest colony in all of Ireland.) It is said that the birds don’t allow people to disembark in Little Skellig, keeping the island all to themselves.

Their location - While Skellig Michael is only 12km off the mainland, the Irish sea is extremely volatile and makes for a gruelling boat ride. There are a limited amount of boats licensed to make the trip and all go out very early in the morning, weather permitting. Many days the sea is just too rough to venture out. So, you’ll definitely need a little luck of the Irish to make it there without sticking your head off the side of the boat once or twice.

Skellig Michael is a Unesco World Heritage site for a reason. If you're ever in Ireland I highly recommend the trip. Make sure you're there early and maybe the forces of nature be with you, so the boats can depart.