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5 of the Most Popular Things to do in Orlando

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Orlando is a treasure trove of entertainment destinations for visitors of all ages. Whether you’re a big fan of Florida theme parks, looking for a few rounds of golf in paradise, or just want to grab a bite at a delicious local restaurant, Orlando has the best of everything.

1. Universal Studios

The magic of the movies comes alive at Universal Studios. There are great rides with cinematic subjects, like Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Transformers: The Ride 3-D, and The Simpsons Ride. Avid fantasy readers must visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to get up close and personal with the sights, sounds, and flavors of the Harry Potter universe. Grown-ups even get their own special area, the Universal Studios CityWalk, full of restaurants, bars, clubs, and other entertainment venues.

Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal Orlando
Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal Orlando by Ricky Brigante on Flickr.com

2. Orlando Magic Basketball

At home in the fantastic Amway Center arena, the Orlando Magic NBA team brings the thrills and drama of top-notch basketball to central Florida. Grab a standard seat to see the action at bargain prices, splurge for a courtside seat to be just feet from the stars, or host a group in one of over 100 suites for a luxurious experience. There are a lot of great restaurants close to Amway Center, including some of Orlando’s best sports bars, plus the official Orlando Magic Team Shop is right inside the arena.

3. Disney

Nothing beats the entertainment, accommodations, and attractions of the Walt Disney World Resort. It’s several theme parks in one, including Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, two water parks, and endless shopping, dining, and hotel options. Check online for a great hotel deal before your park tour, Disney cruise, or any House of Mouse adventure. For a day away from the parks, check out the city of Celebration, just a short drive from Orlando.

The Magic of Disney | Orlando, FL
Disney Castle in Orlando by Jason Machrina on Flickr.com

4. Golf Galore

Florida is golf heaven. There are 19 unique courses in the Orlando area alone, from the natural wetland beauty of Reunion Resort, to the high-end experience of the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Grand Lakes, to the simple, timeless links of Orange County National Golf Center. Orlando offers quick pick-up games so you can enjoy other activities later in the day, full-day experiences for dedicated golfers, and everything in between. There are also some excellent pro shops so you can outfit yourself for your next round.

5. Zoo Adventures

The Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens aren’t your run-of-the-mill zoo. In addition to animal exhibits featuring hundreds of species from around the world, the zoo also features an aerial adventure course for active travelers, daily education events, and an interactive water park called the Tropical Splash Ground. Another big plus of the Central Florida Zoo is its dedication to fresh and local food. Whenever possible, the zoo’s food vendors use fresh, local ingredients to create healthy, tasty meals. The zoo is fun for the whole family, and good for a full day of excitement.

Orlando has so much to recommend it as a travel destination. It’s a great place to relax, have an adventure, or do a little bit of both.

Bleck... morning breath
Central Florida Zoo by ucumari / Valerie on Flickr.com
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Vivid colors: Leaf peeping hotspots in the US

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Somehow, despite our mission to skip winters, we end up spending at least part of October in Chicago each year. This year, we watched the weather change bit by bit as we made our way from New Mexico across the midwest into Chicago, but the true Autumn beauty didn’t hit until the middle of the month. Now the ground is covered in blankets of bright red and orange leaves and Dani and I spend time strolling through leafy parks, sipping hot coffee and huddling together to keep warm. What a romantic time of year!

Nature paints the landscape with all kinds of beautiful colors, but taking a last minute holiday with your partner or family can be such a great way to explore fall. Here are my top three spots for a US leaf peeping getaway this fall.

Colorful framed view of Lake Placid
Colorful framed view of Lake Placid by Lake Placid Region on Flickr.com

Adirondacks, New York

What could be more romantic than skipping along a forest trail in fall with a backdrop of lakes and mountains? If you’re an outdoorsy girl like me then the answer is not much. Add in a picnic and you’ve got the ultimate loveliness (especially if there’s cake). There are tons of hiking trails in the Adirondack region whether you’re more about picnics and skipping or a serious physical challenge. The park is 6-million acres meaning 6-million acres of gold, auburn, ochre, crimson and bronze treetops during fall. Cabins, cottages and camp sites are plentiful so you’ll be able to find lodgings whatever your budget.

Church and Autumn Leaves - Stowe, VT
Church and Autumn Leaves – Stowe, VT by pdbreen on Flickr.com

New England 

Ah, New England, land of white clapboard and quaint fishing towns. The six states are also land of the downright magical during the fall season. It’s too hard to pick the best town or even state to visit so we suggest taking a tour through several. The whole New England countryside is ablaze with fiery foliage during fall and wherever you go outside the major cities you’re in for a treat. A scenic road-trip is the best way to explore the region at this time of year. Buying apples and pumpkins from roadside farm shops and taking in the spectacular scenery is bound to leave you feeling positively wholesome.

2013 Colorado Leaves
2013 Colorado Leaves by snowpeak on Flickr.com

Aspen, Colorado

The town of Aspen is named after the trees that blanket the mountains and valleys around it. It’s these trees that produce a spectacular show every fall that is utterly unique in its colour pallet. The purple hew of the Maroon Bells mountains act as a stunning backdrop to the aspen tree’s displays which ignite the surrounding countryside with copper and gold. There are campsites in this area for low-budget stays but it’s best to book well in advance as fall vacations to this area are extremely popular.

If you can’t spare the time or money to enjoy one of these adventures then do not despair- it’s likely that a park or forest near you is looking pretty spectacular at the moment too. Do you have a favourite spot for appreciating fall foliage in your home town? Is there a travel destination you’ve visited that you are convinced is the world’s best leaf-peeping destination?

rosehill cemetery chicago

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Five things to discover in New York that most tourists (and locals) never do

8 august new york city concrete jungle

During my summer in New York City, I finally got around to seeing parts of the city that I never had time for on previous, shorter visits. With all the tourist attractions checked off the list, this time I wanted to uncover spots that tourists, and even some locals, usually don’t visit.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t – and here’s why: each one of these stops offers a completely authentic view of New York City, whether it’s insight into the way the city really runs and what makes it tick or actually providing unique views of the Manhattan skyline.

The best part is that almost all of them are free! Read on for my top five off-the-beaten-path spots in New York City:governors island view

1. Take the ferry to Governors Island

Governors Island is a small 172-acre (70 ha) island, about half a mile from the southern tip of Manhattan. The island used to be a fort and military outpost for centuries, and has only been open to the public since 2006. Now, visitors can take the short ferry ride from Brooklyn or Manhattan during the summer months and enjoy an artificial beach, giant green spaces and a cycle path around the island when they feel they need to get away from Big City life. You can still see historic buildings there, like Castle Williams and Fort Jay, both built in the 18th century, or just enjoy the gorgeous views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. You can rent bikes there (or bring your bike on the ferry), bring a picnic or enjoy a meal from the food trucks on the island, or explore the island on foot. Currently, only the northeastern half of the island is open to the public, but the southwestern half is being redeveloped and will be opened as a park and picnic area soon. Noteworthy events include Figment, an annual participatory art festival, photography exhibitions, the skate truck and several art fairs.

Governors Island New YorkHow to get there: Free ferries run on weekends from Brooklyn’s Pier 6 and Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building (about every thirty minutes, see the full ferry schedule here). East River Ferries also docks at Governors Island, connecting it with Williamsburg and offering further stops (Wall Street in Manhattan, DUMBO and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and 34th Street in Manhattan) – here, East River Ferry ticket prices apply ($4 one-way, an additional $1 for bikes).

2. Get out to Red Hook

Red Hook in Brooklyn is one of the ‘up-and-coming’ neighborhoods in the city, expected to grow in a way similar to trendy Williamsburg, which has become the area with the highest hipster population in New York. Red Hook is not quite there, but well on its way with independent stores, restaurants and art galleries arriving over the last few years and rejuvenating the formerly decaying waterfront community. Red Hook’s biggest challenge is its location – way out on a peninsula southwest of Carroll Gardens, bordering on the Hudson River. Strangely enough, IKEA is helping them overcome that hurdle, having opened there recently and bringing in an upswing of visitors with their free water taxi available from Manhattan each weekend.

red hook watertaxi viewsWhile it was formerly a mainly industrial area, you’ll now find cute restaurants that take pride in using local ingredients, creative shops and galleries, a large community garden, seafood pubs and bars with views over the water, and more businesses opening on a monthly basis. There is even an artisan chocolate factory and a distillery where you can take free tours. The 20-minute ferry ride from Manhattan’s Pier 11 alone is worth the trip, offering the same spectacular views that the ferry to Governors Island has, but going way beyond that. There are several walkways along the waterfront, piers that are featuring art projects now, and at the Louis Valentino Jr park right at the Hudson River you can rent kayaks during the summer months or just enjoy the views of the Statue of Liberty across the bay. Most of the restaurants and shops are located on Van Brunt Street and the surrounding roads.

Red Hook Brooklyn New YorkHow to get there: The cheapest way to get here is via the free IKEA ferry that runs for free on weekends (every 20 minutes from 11am). There is an additional stop at Van Brunt Street so you can get out there instead of going all the way to IKEA and then walk back. The ferry also runs on weekdays, but charges $5 one way. The closest subway stops are Carroll Street or Smith-Ninth Street on the F and G train. The B61 bus goes all the way to Downtown Brooklyn and stops at the Smith-Ninth Street Subway Station. The B57 bus also goes to Downtown Brooklyn.

new york city hotels

3. Discover the Elevated Acre

The Elevated Acre is, as the name indicates, an acre of green space on an elevated level between Lower Manhattan’s massive skyscrapers. We were surprised to find out how few New Yorkers actually knew about this space, even though it is just around the corner from Pier 11 and from Wall Street. Tourists haven’t found out about this lovely spot either, even though hotel booking websites offer many hotels within in walking distance from this rooftop park.

While it is packed with office workers during the weekday lunch hours, this is a great little hidden spot with superb views over the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge and Governors Island. Get here early, bring a book and a coffee and while away for an hour or so. The Elevated Acre also has a seven-tiered amphitheater and movies are shown here at night during the summer.

Elevated Acre ManhattanHow to get there: The Elevated Acre is located on 55 Water Street. The closest subway stations are South Ferry (1), Whitehall St (N, R), Wall Street (2, 3), Broad Street (J) and Bowling Green (4, 5).

4. Take the aerial tramway to Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island is another little island in the East River that is worth a visit. Tucked in between Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Queens, this long, but narrow island stretches over two miles (3 km) from Manhattan’s East 46th to East 85th Streets, but only has a maximum width of 800 feet (240 m). Even though the island itself doesn’t have much on it other than residential apartment blocks, there is a lovely waterfront park on the island’s south side, Southpoint Park, that makes for a great spot to take your date on and watch the sunset from. You can also walk up to the Northpoint Lighthouse, which dates back to 1872. The views over Manhattan’s East Side are lovely, and the best way to see them is actually from the areal Roosevelt Island Tramway (which you might recognize from the last Spiderman movie), the best way to arrive on the island. Plan an hour or two to walk around the park or bring a picnic for a relaxed afternoon.

Roosevelt Island New York CityHow to get here: The most scenic way to arrive is via the Roosevelt Island Tramway which leaves from 2nd Avenue between 59th and 60th Street and takes you high up above the roofs of Manhattan. You can use the tramway with your MTA metro pass. Make sure to get a spot near the front window and don’t worry about all the locals on there rolling their eyes as you vie for the best spot to take pictures. They could have easily taken the F Train, which also stops on Roosevelt Island, so they’re doing this for the views, too!

manhattan view from roosevelt island tramway

5. MoMa PS1 (and 5 Pointz)

5 Pointz and MoMa PS1 are not to be missed by art and street art fans alike. Located on Long Island City just across the street from each other, both locations can be visited in a couple of hours. MoMa PS1 belong’s to the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art), but focuses on cooler, edgier exhibitions. It’s located in a former school and the exhibits you find here are more cutting-edge and thought-provoking than the pieces that you find at its famous sister in Manhattan. There is also an ever-changing architectural garden. If you want to party like a New Yorker, check out the free weekly dance parties during the summer months.

*UPDATE MAY 2014*

I just returned from a visit to 5Pointz, where I wanted to check out the latest pieces on the warehouse. I was shocked to find the warehouse painted over with white paint, with all the graffiti gone. Apparently, the warehouse will be torn down and be replaced with a condo building later this year. With the horrible paint job they did, I think it would have been better to leave the graffiti on there until the building is torn down. A shame that this street art mecca is gone now.

5 Pointz, right across the street from MoMa PS1, has traditionally been considered New York’s street art mecca, a former warehouse transformed into a huge canvas that attracts street artists from around the world. Have a look around and inside the building to see some fantastic graffiti pieces.5 pointz long island city new york

MoMa PS1 is of course still well worth a visit!

How to get there: MoMA PS1 is located on 22-25 Jackson Ave; 5 Pointz sits between Davis and Crane Streets. MoMa PS1 is open Thursday through Monday from 12pm to 6pm, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Suggested admission is $10, or $5 for students. The closest subway stations are Long Island City – Court Square (G) or 21st St (G), 45 Rd – Court House Square (7), 23rd St – Ely Ave (E, M). Court Square Diner, a classic American diner across the street, is also worth a visit, as is Ms Wells Dinette, which belongs to the MoMa PS1 and pays homage to the building’s former identity as a schoolhouse with communal tables and a perpetually changing menu.Moma PS1 Long Island City

For five more awesome things to do in New York off the beaten tourist trails, check out Five things to discover in New York that most tourists (and locals) never do – Part II

Still looking for a hotel in New York City but not sure where to stay? Check out Booking.com for the best priced hotels in New York City – I’ve been using Booking.com since 2009 and it’s still my favorite hotel booking website.

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Globetrottergirls quick guide to Tucson, Arizona

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We have been to Tucson twice now and spent a month there during each visit. Even though both times we visited it was during one of the hottest months, June, with temperatures regularly reaching around 110F, we managed to sightsee quite a bit, took day trips to nearby destination, found restaurants and coffee shops we liked and fell in love with the Sonoran Desert which surrounds Tucson.

If you visit Tucson without a car, we recommend renting a car at least for a day or two, since many of our favorite places can only be reached by car. The center is rather small, and the city is very spread out, and some of the best things we’ve done were actually outside of the city center.

Tucson Arizona and Sonoran DesertOverview

Tucson is the second largest city in Arizona and sits at an elevation of 2,400. The Sonoran Desert makes for a favorable climate during the winter months, while it can get unbearably hot in the summer. The city itself has a moderate population of 486,700 people, but the entire metropolitan area counts over 1 million people.

Tucson is also known as ‘The Old Pueblo’, built upon a foundation of Native American, Mexican, Spanish and Old West roots. Especially the city’s Spanish and Mexican influences are still visible everywhere on a stroll through town, especially the historic center.

downtown TucsonHere are our suggestions for a visit to Tucson:

What to do

Stroll through the historic downtown

Tucson’s historic downtown is known for its colorful adobe houses which have all been restored and are well maintained by its owners. The Spanish Colonial Revival courthouse with its mosaic dome is one of downtown’s most recognizable buildings. Make sure to also visit the beautiful courtyard. Just a few blocks south you find the Cathedral of Saint Augustine, a beautiful church built in Mexican-baroque form.

Tucson Arizona

Old Tucson Studios

The Old Tucson Studios, just outside of town, are a must visit for all fans of old Wild West movies. They were the backdrop for the gun-slinging Old Western heros such as John Wayne, Clint East Wood and Paul Newman. A visit to the studios is like a journey back in time, with many of the film sets still intact. There are also daily stunt shows and shootouts.

Old Tucson Movie StudiosDesert Museum

The Desert Museum is just around the corner from the Old Tucson Studios and is more like a biosphere than a museum. Part zoo, part botanical garden and part natural history museum, you can learn everything about life in the Sonoran Desert,  see many of its inhabitants such as coyotes, scorpions, snakes and tarantulas, and the incredibly diverse flora and fauna.

Desert Museum TucsonSaguaro National Park

While you are at the Desert Museum, you might consider combining the trip with a visit to the Saguaro National Park, just a few miles down the road. There are hiking paths or a road through the park with several lookouts. It is the most dense forest of Saguaro cacti in the U.S., with over one million Saguaros.

Saguaro national parkThe park is actually separated in two parts, the Tucson Mountain District (West) and the Rincon Mountain District (East), which can be both visited with the $10 vehicle permit which is good for 7 days.

4th Avenue

4th Avenue is a popular road with a large number of restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs. At the time of our last visit, the historic 4th Avenue tram line was in the process of being restored, and a stroll along this road, which is popular with university students, can be combined with lunch or a coffee in one of the many independent restaurants.

4th Avenue Tucson ArizonaPima Air & Space Museum

The Pima Air & Space Museum features almost 300 historic air planes and helicopters, some of which are stored in a hanger, and some of which are lined up in a large outside area. It is one of the biggest aircraft museums in the world. Even though we are not huge plane geeks, we thoroughly enjoyed looking at all the historic military planes, drones and helicopters.

Tucson Air & Space MuseumDay trips from Tucson

Mount Lemmon

Mount Lemmon is a short drive northeast of the city, and was a welcome cool off from the summer heat for us. On the way up the mountain, you will pass through some of the Sonoran Desert with stunning views over Tucson, and when you finally reach the top, you will find yourself surrounded by pine forests. At 9,157 feet (2,791 m), it is the highest point of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and you can enjoy a hike along one of the many paths or just enjoy the several scenic lookouts along the winding mountain road.

Mount Lemmon ArizonaSabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon is a desert canyon that is cut into the Santa Catalina Mountains, just north of Tucson. There is a tram with 9 stops which will take visitors into the Canyon, and you can choose on which trailhead to exit. The most popular hike is the Seven Falls Trail. Sabino Canyon can be visited with a National Park Pass ($5 per day.)

Mission San Xavier Del Bac

This gorgeous mission, nicknamed ‘White Dove of the desert’, is a white little mission, set in the middle of the desert, which is one of the best preserved missions in the area. Founded in 1692 when Arizona was still New Spain, the mission is the oldest Catholic church in the United States. The mission combines elements of Spanish, Moorish and baroque styles, and inside you can see a selection of statues and frescoes. Only a short 20-minute drive south of downtown Tucson, it is well worth a visit.

Mission San Xavier Del BacTombstone and Bisbee

A little further away, Tombstone and Bisbee can still be visited in a day trip, and you can easily fit in both towns. The 70 miles from Tucson to Tombstone will take you around 1 hour and 20 minutes, and it takes another 30 minutes to get from Tombstone to Bisbee. Tombstone is known for its old Western image, having been the home of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and many other Wild West heroes. The little Western town still looks like in its heyday 130 years ago, with several saloons, cowboys roaming the town and of course the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral which is re-enacted daily.

Tombstone ArizonaBisbee, a former mining town, has now transformed in a creative community of artists and is a pleasant little town to spend an afternoon in. There are plenty of art galleries, restaurants and cafes, specialty shops and the Copper Mine which can be toured. The charming little town of only 6,200 people is perched on the hillsides of the surrounding mountains and features some beautiful Victorian-style houses and an art-deco courthouse.

Bisbee ArizonaWhere to eat

Café Poca Cosa

Café Poca Cosa is famous for its Southwestern and Mexican cuisine. The Plato Poca Cosa comes with three entrees to sample for $20.

Cup Café

The Cup Café belongs to the historic Hotel Congress in the center of Tucson, just opposite the train station. It is a great spot to have breakfast at.

Cup Cafe Breakfast SkilletMaynards Market & Kitchen

Maynards is basically right inside the train station and offers great views over the trains that pass through Tucson while you have lunch. It is a great place for cocktails or drinks, and also has delicious brunch options.

Rosa’s Mexican Food

Rosa’s is a small family-owned restaurant, with classic Mexican dishes for little money. All the dishes are made using Rosa’s family recipes and entrees are $7 -$10.

Beyond Bread

Not only for bread lovers, this bakery and restaurant offers a full lunch menu as well, but you will love the selection of baked goods as well. They have a wide selection of international breakfasts, lunch includes salads, soups and mac’n’cheese in several forms.

Epic Café

The Epic Café on 4th Avenue is a little coffee house that serves organic food and is popular with the independent crowd. You can get inexpensive breakfasts, sandwiches and pastries.

tucson epic cafeMi Nidito

This Mexican restaurant, located in Tucson’s historic Old Pueblo, was made famous by celebrity visits such as Bill Clinton’s or Julio Iglesias. They offer classic Mexican dishes and you can even the President’s Plate, the dish Bill Clinton ate on his visit in 1999.

Govinda’s

Govinda’s is an unpretentious Indian restaurant that serves a vegetarian natural foods buffet. The restaurant has a large outdoor area and we enjoyed the selection of Indian dishes, salads and home-made bread. The lunch buffet (Wed – Sat) is $7.95, and dinner is (Tues – Sat) is $9.95, including drinks.

Cartel Coffee Lab

This spacious independent coffee shop has three locations in Tucson and is one of the best coffee shops, offering a selection of specialty coffees. The knowledgeable baristas serve coffee in a brewing technique of your choice and was recently named one of America’s best coffee bars by Food & Wine.

Tucson Cartel Coffee LabWhere to stay

Budget:

Roadrunner Hostel & Inn

The Roadrunner Hostel & Inn offers small 6-bed dorm rooms ($20) as well as private rooms ($40). There is a nice communal sitting area outside and a spacious kitchen that can be used by guests.

Medium:

Desert Dove Bed & Breakfast

Located just outside of Tucson, it is a secluded B&B with scenic mountain views, close to the Saguaro National Park, with trails starting right on the property. The owners Harvey and Betty Ross take pride in maintaining the historic feeling of the house and serve a delightful gourmet breakfast every morning. Price: $125 – $145.

Hotel Congress

If you would like to stay right downtown, the historic Hotel Congress is the perfect place for you. The hotel was the site of John Dillinger’s arrest and still has the old time feel of the Wild West. The rooms have all been renovated and updated, but there is a still a story in every detail, like the colorful murals on the wall or the classic Tap Room Bar. Price: $89-149

Tucson Hotel CongressEl Presidio Inn

This historic B&B is set in a fantastic location right in the Old Pueblo in downtown Tucson and has four guest suites. All rooms are filled with antique furnishings and artwork, come with a kitchenette, TV, wifi, fluffy bathrobes and a hot country breakfast. Price: $129 – $160.

The Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa

Tucson’s Westin sits in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains and is a spacious resort with several swimming pools, 10 tennis courts, five swimming pools, an Elizabeth Arden® day spa, a Jack Nicklaus golf course, and various restaurants. All rooms have either balconies or courtyards from which guests can enjoy the superb mountain vistas. Price: Starting at $149.

Loews Ventana Canyon Resort

Set right by Sabino Canyon, also in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Loews Ventana Canyon Resort is another large resort, complete with two 18-hole golf courses, a health spa, two swimming pools, tennis courts and various waterfall-dotted nature trails. The spacious guest rooms all feature views over Tucson and the Sonoran Desert or the Catalina Mountains and have private patios or balconies. Price: Starting at $151.

Tucson Sunset ViewHave you been to Tucson? What would you say nobody should miss on a visit to Tucson?

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A white lie and a wild ride in the Windy City

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Every single day we are asked where we are from: fellow travelers, bus drivers, restaurant servers. Without hesitation, Dani replies simply, “Germany.”  When I say the United States, however, people want me to be more specific. And so, I answer that I am from Chicago.

But the truth is, I am not from Chicago.

the bean chicago

I am from just outside of the city in one of the many northwest suburbs – from Chicagoland, as we call it. I am from just far enough away to be constantly enamored by this city. In the last two years, we have seen dozens of global cities, hundreds of dusty villages, and everything in between. While I have been home to visit Chicago many times since leaving the U.S. in 2001, on this past visit we were looking at Chicago through the eyes of experienced nomads. From the tops of Chicago’s towers and the tables of some of the city’s trendy and comfort-food-focused restaurants, we had a blast for the four weeks we spent in the city.

However, it was, quite surprisingly, our awesome Segway tour that truly allowed us to see Chicago from its most glamorous angles.

segway tour chicago millennium park
So how did we end up on a Segway tour?

One advantage of being a tourist in your own town is the chance to get personal recommendations from people you actually know and trust, and we didn’t think twice about trying out the frozen yogurt place, the secluded beach, the coffee shop around the corner. My step-dad, a Chi-town local and avid adventure traveler, kept recommending a Segway tour.  It was hard to see ourselves on we considered a clunky machine that put sightseeing in reach for people who are too lazy/overweight/old to walk? Look, it’s not like we are entirely adverse to jumping on tourist bandwagons. After all, we went on a Mediterranean cruise and did a GoCar tour in Lisbon. But us? On Segways?
segway dani &jessIn the end, his soft but persuasive methods won and we were looking up tour companies, choosing City Segway Tours. Although we were initially nervous about our ability to block out judgmental stares about how silly we looked, after our fifteen minute confidence-building training session, we were pumped and ready to ride! Our guide, a native Chicagoan and all of 22 years old, shared loads of interesting Chicago history along the way, as well as keeping us at the right speeds throughout the ride.
chicago lakeshoreAs we quickly learned, the tour is as much about the Segway as it is the city. The machine, a scientific marvel, is a self-balancing, personal transportation device controlled entirely through minuscule motions of the feet; slight leans forward and backward affect the speed, while minimal usage of the ‘handlebars’ allowed us to float along, whiz around, turn on a dime in perfect 360 degree circles.

chicago segway daniThe Segway is not all fun and games, however. Riders have to keep their attention on the machine at all times, as just one momentary attention lapse can mean losing balance and falling off. The injuries could be pretty severe, but that is why our speed is limited to 5mph for the first half of the tour. After an hour, we feel like pros, and our guide bumps up our available speed to 8-9mph – and trust me, that is just as fast as we needed.
chicago wrigley buildingUsing the machine was a blast, but it is the tour aspect of the trip that won us over (and only afterwards, when reviewing the experience on TripAdvisor, we saw that 97% of hundreds of TripAdvisor reviewers all agree that the Chicago City Segway tour is the absolute best way to see the city!)

The tour started started at the City Segway Office, just north of the famous Millennium Park, where we watched an intense safety video that scared the pants off of us (in the name of safety), and outside where we learned to ride. We continued through Grant Park to Buckingham Fountain (which you may recognize from this little TV show) and then over to the Lake Shore, which hugs the coast of Lake Michigan for miles and miles in either direction.
chicago skyline from buckingham fountain
Next it was on to Soldier Field (home of Da Bears) and over to Museum Campus – home Chicago’s impressive Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. I’ve always said that if someone blindfolded you and set you down facing the waters of Lake Michigan, you would have no way of knowing that this massive body of water was not an ocean. With the impressive lake on one side and the city’s breathtaking skyline on the other, this leg of the tour was one of total enjoyment, pure awe, utter respect, and for this (kind of) Chicago native – swelling pride. It was here, in the back of the Planetarium, where we discovered the most picturesque views of the Chicago skyline I have ever seen. Now ain’t that somethin’?
chicago skyline & lake michiganWith a bit of a buzz, we returned our sleek self-balancing ships back to the office, and noticed all the tours the company runs around the world. We could have already ‘Segwayed’ in Paris, Munich, New Orleans, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Atlanta, Berlin…but we have already been to those places. There is still Vienna and Budapest! Not all cities might work as great as Chicago did for these kinds of tours, but we would definitely do this again.
chicago skyline with willis towerTips for your City Segway Tour in Chicago:
1. Wear good shoes – you are essentially standing in one place for two-three hours (there are a few breaks, of course) so you will want supportive shoes, like gym shoes/trainers.
2. Dress appropriately – riding along the lake front means a strong breeze, but if you do the 10am tour, like we did, the sun will be beating down as well. Night tours will get chilly even in summer, thanks to that good ol’ Chicago ‘lake effect’.  Bring a jacket, wear shades and don’t forget sunscreen. Even in the winter, your nose will burn a bit on a sunny day without it.
3. The Segway has a pouch for 1-2 bottles of water, an iPad and a small camcorder, so it’s tech ready. The office has water bottles for $1.

chicago view from river
We’d like to thank ExploreChicago for providing us with two city passes to enjoy the best views of the city, and City Segway Tours for the great day out. As always, all opinions are our own.

 

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New Orleans: Get outta town! Swamps, alligators and plantations

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Although we could spend months immersed in that particularly sweet blend of  New Orleans urban life, there came a point during our visit where we just had to get out of town…what we discovered were the rural roots that throughout history have melted together to make the Crescent City so unique.

new orleans louisiana get outta townOut on the Bayou

The picture of Louisiana I had in my head had been formed by the movie ‘No Mercy’. A very 80s Richard Gere plays a Chicago cop gone to N’Awlins to settle the score with some gangsters. He ends up having to escape them with a seductive Cajun woman, played by an equally 80s Kim Basinger, by trudging on foot through the swamps of Louisiana.

louisiana swampsI wasn’t interested in the danger but wanted to experience what life out in the Louisiana Bayou was like. In New Orleans we had seen plenty of tour options to explore the swamps, most of which take place in Honey Island Swamp, the closest swamp to the city. We opted for a tour with Cajun Encounters, who pick you up at the hotel and use smaller, slower passenger boats instead of fast airboats, as they are quieter and made for getting up close and personal with much more wildlife.

louisiana turtle & swamplandThe hour drive out to the swamps meant passing by camps, or houses built on seven to ten foot high stilts. We’ve done a lot of road-tripping through the States, but I’ve never seen anything like these houses, completely off the grid and built to withstand massive floods and hurricanes.

louisiana house on stiltsWhen we arrived, 16 of us were loaded into our boat and greeted by Captain Mike, who was Louisiana bayou through and through. Between rolling his cigarettes and drinking his coffee, Mike entertained us with stories about growing up in the swamps and we sat, mesmerized at the deep southern drawl escaping through his tar-stained teeth.

swamp boat tour louisianaI couldn’t have felt safer with anyone else for our day of alligator-spotting along the Pearl River, a wide river bordered by huge cypress trees covered in Spanish moss on both banks. The river led us into narrow channels where the still water was covered by a thick layer of green algae and looked like a bright green carpet undisturbed on the top of the water.

louisiana swampsIt didn’t even take ten minutes until we spotted our first alligator, and we all jumped to our feet for photo ops as our captain beckoned them to approach the boat with pieces of meat.

alligator in the river louisianaWe saw plenty more of these giant native lizards sun bathing on the shores and wading discretely just under the water’s surface, along with turtles and birds like herons and eagles. Then, as we were taking in the beautiful scenery around us, Captain Mike announced he had a surprise for us: He introduced us to baby alligator Brian, only six months old and barely as big as my hand. We all got to hold him and feel his smooth white skin.

baby alligator louisianaLater, we drifted past a few very basic houses up river. Old boats tied to rickety wooden piers and porches, some ravaged by weather and storms, others with families sitting outside waving as we go by. “Cajuns,” explains Captain Mike. “Couldn’t be happier out here, these families, but plenty of ‘em moved into the city a long while back.” We only notice that these houses look like people are having a great time, even boasting water slides that drop right from the porch into the river. Yes, the same river that we just went alligator spotting in. When we asked, Mike answered only, “Tough guys, Cajuns are,” with a glint in his eye.

houses in the swamps of louisianaThe Laura Plantation

We had learned so much from our visit to the Boone Hall plantation in South Carolina and couldn’t wait to visit a Creole plantation in Louisiana, though we weren’t entirely sure what ‘creole’ really meant.

While Cajuns descended from French settlers in the Canadian provinces who relocated to Louisiana, Creole people were originally the first generation of French and Spanish settlers born in the Louisiana colony. Two very distinct cultures at the time, people often mistakenly combine the two today. Creole plantation owners were some of Louisiana’s most successful businessmen, and although having a New Orleans ped a terre in the French Quarter was common, most of the hard work and daily lives were primarily based out on the farm. It was a two to three day boat-trip to the city back then, but now, at just an hours’ drive away, we squeezed in a visit to two different properties.

laura plantation porchThe first stop was the Laura Plantation, and we arrived just in time for a tour of the house, grounds and gardens. Originally named l’habitation Duparc after the Duparc Family who owned the plantation in the late 1700s, today the property (named after the great granddaughter who sold it) is one of the best preserved examples of a creole plantation. The tour guides are extremely knowledgeable. In fact our guide was a direct descendant of some of the landowners in the area, a true Creole with a working knowledge of French, English and the French Creole dialect.

Laura plantation pantry louisianaWhen asked to clarify questions on Creole culture, we learned how Creole business practices were reflected in the architecture of the main house of the Laura Plantation, and, as we made our way to the slave cabins in the back, he explains another significant aspect of the creole plantation. Pre-Louisiana Purchase, the mainly West African slave population could purchase their freedom from their earnings on the plantation. Thousands actually did, until the practice was made illegal when Louisiana joined the United States in 1803. They joined a free mixed-race class that had developed over time when (white) Creole men took black mistresses in addition to their wives, creating second families. The children’s education was paid for, and the family of the mistress, if slaves, were set free.

laura plantation gardens louisianaAlthough a co-existence of free blacks and slaves is hard to understand now, the role these racial attitudes played in the culture of New Orleans certainly played a major role in making the New Orleans of today so distinct from the rest of the country.

Oak Alley Plantation

After touring Laura Plantation, we continued our until suddenly a row of impressive oak trees came into sight. We had arrived at Oak Alley Plantation, named after the 800ft long alley of 300-year-old oaks on either side.

oak alley plantation louisianaAffectionately referred to as the “Grande Dame of the Great River Road”, this Greek-style antebellum mansion continues to impress today with its towering oaks and the 28 massive white columns that surround all four sides of the house. In fact, Oak Alley Plantation has hosted some of the world’s biggest celebrities. Brad Pitt’s character Louis in Interview with a Vampire called the mansion home, and more recently, Beyonce and Jay Z star alongside Oak Alley in Beyonce’s Déjà vu video, filmed here in 2004.

oak alley plantation louisianaOn the day of our visit, we were the last guests of the day and had the place to ourselves. Amazed at what a grand entrance the trees make, I sprinted the 800 feet and back and then we explored the grounds, including the modest cemetery where the most recent owners and their pets are buried. We had essentially a private tour of the house by a beautiful young Southern belle, dressed in traditional costume. She told us stories of the owners throughout the years and that, like the Laura Plantation, Oak Alley had been a sugar plantation and how, after releasing the slaves post Civil War, the plantation could not sustain operations and was auctioned off for only $32,800 in 1866.

old oak at oak alley plantationAs we drove back into the city that evening, we felt like we had a much more profound understanding of the city: the people who created the French Quarter and those free blacks and slaves who would have gathered together on Congo Square, and how the music grew to reflect the struggle and the celebration of the people of New Orleans.

road with oaks in louisiana

We’d like to thank the New Orleans Visitors Bureau who helped make our trip to the plantation possible. All ideas and opinions, as always, are our own.

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Savannah, GA – To tour or not to tour?

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If you had asked the two of us about city tours a few years ago, we would have rolled our eyes at you. Tours are for package tourists, we would have told you, followed by: Travel is about soaking up local culture, not going on tours. Fast-forward to the present day, to a couple that now lives and breathes travel, and our opinion has changed a bit with experience.

Do not misunderstand – we would never advocate organized tours as the principal way to see a city (that is just lazy!). There are, however, definite advantages, especially for time-starved visitors. Certain tours make finding out more details/facts about the city, seeing more neighborhoods and getting your bearings in a city much easier.

When we arrived in Savannah for our five-day stay, we were shocked at just how many tours this small Southern city of just 137,000 has on offer – a number easily on par with New York, Paris or London. Alarm bells sounded, red flags were raised…Savannah’s breezy city center is compact and can be explored on foot in a day or two.

Do you really need to take a tour in Savannah at all?

savannah carriage tourWe say yes…Savannah has one of the most unique, interesting stories of all U.S. cities, most of which would go overlooked on a series of leisurely strolls across the famous squares and Forsyth Park without a guide. Taking one of the hop-on, hop-off tours (we liked the Savannah Trolley Tours) can be a good way to dip into a quick history lesson and get a sense of the size of the city center.

The two of us are absolute movie geeks and Savannah, known as the Hollywood of the South, has starred next to Kevin Spacey and Tom Hanks as a key film location in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Forrest Gump – among many, many other films. And so it was that, with limited time to see city between our stints both judging and partaking in the Savannah Craft Brew Festival over Labor Day Weekend, we chose to take a movie tour over the Black History Tour, which ran at the same time.

The truth is, Savannah Movie Tours was actually the most disappointing tour we have ever taken.

Tricked by the shiny wrapping, this was an utter disappointment – what we would have given for a ‘Do Over’. The 90-minute outing, which costs $25 per person, stops at various movie locations and flat screen TVs inside the bus show clips of the movie set in the location. Much of the information given was the same as the hop-on, hop-off tours, plus the clips were too short and paying attention to the clip and the boring guide (we kept track of his ums and uhs until we lost count) at the same time was too hard. Maybe we couldn’t keep up because the air-conditioning was cranked up so high in the bus that it actually froze our brains. Everyone on board was shivering (outside, a 100 degree southern summer heat), and Jess nearly lost it when, at the end, the guide had the nerve to ask if we wanted to stop at the famous Leopold’s ice cream. Were the 12 of us freezey-pops not enough?!savannah movie tourPick a tour – just not any tour

So how to know which Savannah tours to book? Check reviews and recommendations on sites like TripAdvisor before you book, plain and simple. Below is a listing of the types of tours available in Savannah. Each type often has 2-5 tour companies offering the same thing:

  • Savannah trolley tours
  • Savannah hop 0n, hop off tours
  • Savannah walking tours
  • Savannah haunted walking tours
  • Savannah foodie tours
  • Savannah movie tours
  • Savannah horse carriage tours
  • Savannah ghost tours
  • Savannah riverboat tours
  • Savannah historic homes & gardens tours
  • Savannah black history tours
  • Savannah pub crawls and martini tours

savannah mercer williams houseTours we chose in Savannah

For history buffs, several historic homes offer tours of the house and gardens. These shine a personal light on history as you catch a frozen moment of a bygone era – how the bedrooms looked, the history of the house, what the customs were. We especially loved the tour of the Mercer Wiliams House, the home of the flamboyant Savannah playboy Jim Williams, familiar to some as the main character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Having never heard of Savannah icon and Food Network cooking star Paula Deen, we couldn’t miss learning about her in Savannah. Fans line up to eat at her Lady and Sons restaurant (get there early, the lines are looooong) and there are also Paula Deen foodie tour around town. True foodies might best enjoy the Savannah food tour – a great introduction to Southern cuisine with strong reviews on Trip Advisor and this USA Today article.

For people who are interested in African American history in the South, the Black History Tour includes remnants of the Underground Railroad, Old Black Communities and slave burial grounds. We are still kicking ourselves about choosing the movie tour over this highly rated tour.

savannah wright square at night

Savannah is also known as one of the most haunted cities in America. The city’s history is filled with plagues, wars, duels, and murders and every cemetery and Gothic mansion has a ghost story of some type to tell. Not surprisingly there are 31 ghost tours: A Savannah sixth sense tour, a Ghosts & Gravestones tour, a creepy pub crawl, a Savannah Hearse tour (check out Amanda’s coverage of the Savannah hearse tour over at A Dangerous Business), to name only a few.

With a late evening free, we opted for a simple walking ghost tour. It was not electrifying and more like a non-ghost walking tour, until we toured the Juliette Gordon Low birth house (founder of the Girl Scouts), whose ghost stories were creepy enough to get the hair on the back of our necks standing on end.

Whether you are immune to tours or addicted to them, Savannah confronts you with a seemingly infinite amount of shiny packaging… just make sure to do your own research before choosing a tour. Most importantly, sit down on a bench like Forrest Gump in each of Savannah’s 24 breezy squares and take in the mingling of the city’s eccentrics, its visitors and the daily life of the Savannah locals. It is free and the best entertainment of all!

savannah Oglethorpe sculpture in Chippewa Square

Comprehensive listings about tours in Savannah, check out  VisitSavannah.com and TripAdvisor Savannah, two great resources on what to do in Savannah.

Have you been to Savannah? Would recommend any Savannah tours? In general, how do you feel about taking tours while visiting a city?

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33 things we love about New York City

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On the east coast of the United States there is place called New York City…oh, you’ve heard of it, have you?

If you’ve never been, you need to go at least once. If you have been, you know you need to go back. We have been to New York twice now and every time we fall ever more in love! Your list might look entirely different than ours, but that is the beauty of New York. The city can be something different for everyone.

Read on for our list of the thirty-three things we love about New York City, then check out our all-time favorite NYC tribute song, and then please add your own favorites in the comments below

1. The romance of couples in horse-drawn carriages in Central Park.

2. The innovative parking spaces.

nyc parking3. And the ways NYC tells you where not to park.

parking sign new york city
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Watching the neighborhoods change as we walk all the way down 5th Ave from Harlem to Washington Square.

5. Laying in the sun chairs on the rails of Highline Park – New York’s most exciting urban renewal project.

Highline Park New York City6. Running straight into a mid-morning model photo-shoot in the Meatpacking district.

7. Union Square
Especially the buzz and bustle here from right after the sun goes down until way late into the night.

8. The genius eggplant Parmesan pizza slices at Underground Pizza around the corner from Wall St.

eggplant pizza nyc 9. Reading the paper in Bryant Park

10. Ordering coffee off a Russian menu at Starbucks in Brighton Beach, near Coney Island.

russian starbucks in brighton beach new york11. Standing in Grand Central station and imagining where everyone is going to and coming from in such a hurry.

12. The anonymity
On any given day, celebrities and world leaders join millions of locals and tourists, rich and poor, going about daily life on the streets of New York. Unlike in any other U.S. city, in New York City you, or the person next to you, could be just about anybody in the world.

13. The walk over the Brooklyn Bridge

brooklyn bridge14. Harlem Pride
Black, white, old, young, American or ex-pat, residents of Harlem are proud in a way unlike any other New Yorker.

15. The Library Hotel in Midtown Manhattan

16. Watching tourists watch other tourists in Times Square.

times square at night with people17. The creative urban and contemporary art in the MoMA.

18. The changing cultures in Central Park throughout the day
The pet-owners and joggers in the morning, before the nannies and professional dog-walkers invade in the afternoon.

19. Looking back at the skyscrapers of Battery Park from the Statue of Liberty.

Manhattan Skyscrapers from Ellis Island20. The availability of authentic cuisines from around the world.

21. Observing locals fishing in possibly polluted waters off the Coney Island pier.

coney island fishermen22. The gravity-defying break dancers in Times Square Subway Station.

23. Observing the Orthodox Hasidic Jewish families on Staten Island.

orthodox jews staten island nyc 24. Wandering through Chelsea Market

25. Continuing the wandering through the skyscrapers in Manhattan.

26. Exploring the unique architecture of the Cast Iron district

cast iron district nyc27. Grabbing $1-$2 slices of New York style pizza on the go.

28. The pictures plastered on the walls at the uber-kitsch restaurants in Little Italy.
So many restaurants here have pictures of either well-known celebrities who ate there, or loads of ‘regular joe’ diners from throughout the years. As cheesy, faded and curled up around the edges as some of the pics can be, it still gives that feeling of ‘When you’re here, you’re family’. What else would you expect in Little Italy!

29. The opportunities for perspective
The views from the Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building let you get such a good feeling for this dense city.

manhattan skyscrapers from top of the rock30. Spotting film crews and trailers on location filming the next great NYC movie.

31. Contemplating what constitutes a New Yorker
Contrasting people who live out near Coney Island to those on the Upper East Side, and marveling at the fact that no matter their differences, they are all still New Yorkers.

32. Mariachi bands on the subway

mariachi band subway new york city33. New York is within everyone’s budget
With the exception of accommodation, hanging out in New York City can be cheap as chips and exhilarating at the same time. It might be testing out a highly-recommended hole in the wall and people watching in the park rather than Michelin-starred dining and a Broadway show, but no matter your budget, you will have a distinctly authentic New York time.

And now, our all-time favorite tribute to New York City:

We would like to thank nycgo.com for providing us with two New York CityPASSes for our time in New York City. We were able to squeeze in six of NYC’s main attractions in three days without wasting any time lining up for tickets.

If you enjoyed this, you might like to check out things we loved about some other cities on our travels:

Thirty-three things we love about Lisbon
Thirty-three things we love about Mexico
Thirty-three things we love about Nicaragua


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Great American Road Trip: NYC2NOLA **Extended** (Is there ever really a final destination for nomads?)

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Loving the road trip feeling so much, we decided to extend our NYC2NOLA trip all the way back up north to Chicago via Memphis, TN.

Our last morning in New Orleans we wandered through Lafayette Cemetery, famous for being featured in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire – both the book and the film. Lafayette Cemetery is fascinating with its white above-ground tombs dating back to 1789 and although the popular tourist attraction is a part of pop culture, we had the soothing, shaded cemetery to ourselves on that last morning in NOLA.

lafayette cemetery new orleans

With a heavy hearts, we finally said goodbye to New Orleans  (made possible only because we know we will be back, one day) and headed north through the swamps of Louisiana and across the entire state of Mississippi to Memphis.  It was late afternoon as we pulled in to Memphis, and we headed straight to Beale Street – the official Home of the Blues.

memphis beale street bars

While countless blues singers officially cut their teeth here, we both felt the street had unofficially become an over-packaged, over-priced memory of what it used to be. While the same could be said for much of Memphis (we were less than impressed), one aspect of our 24 hours here didn’t disappoint – Graceland!

dani at graceland memphisDespite not knowing much about Elvis Presley at all, it would have felt silly to pass through town without visiting this iconic attraction, and it was worth it! Graceland is basically like a walking tour of as-yet unproduced episode of ‘Cribs: 70s style’ . Shag carpet on the floors and ceiling, 8 tracks and 45s stockpiled next to the stereo in the living room, long white leather couches in the family room, and mirrored ceilings in the bedroom really set the tone for the rock star lifestyle of the King. It was just as interesting, however, to see just how ‘normal’ the kitchen appeared, which was, as Lisa Marie explains on the low-tech headphone walking tour, the heart of the house.

graceland kitchen

We saw the $200,000 racquetball house, the stables, the auto museum and of course, the entire Presley family’s gravestones, adorned with the flower arrangements which still arrive  from around the world on a daily basis. If there is one thing we took away from this experience, is that the passion for the King is still very much alive and well around the globe.

elvis presley grave memphis graceland

After a quick peek into Elvis’ two private jets, we jetted off up Interstate 55 on our way to Chicago, where, 3,000 miles and 15 U.S. states later, we sure are happy to say we are ‘home’, even if just for a few weeks. We arrived just in time for my birthday, and it felt great to celebrate with life-long friends!

chicago river

We plan to do more catching up with friends and family and working our tails off before heading to Bangkok next month where we will begin the South East Asia leg of our trip.

Now that we have a stable place for the next few weeks, we will be putting out in-depth coverage on the experiences and destinations of our Great American Road Trip, so stay tuned for that, plus food highlights, post road trip observations on America and more.

Thanks for following along on our Great American Road Trip 2011 from New York City to New Orleans and Chicago, as well as providing such amazing travel tips and suggestions along the way! We couldn’t have had this great experience without all the help!

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Great American Road Trip 2011: Washington, DC

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Rain, rain go away…With the approach of Hurricane Irene, the weather in DC and everywhere on the East Coast has been wet and gray. What was a sunny morning turned into heavy rain by the time we were ready to go, but instead we stayed in an re-arranged plans for the road trip through the Carolinas. We won’t be able to visit Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks and some other coastal stops on the way down to Charleston. Stay tuned for where we are headed next!

Luckily, the rain stopped this afternoon, and we headed down to Obama’s house…

On our walk over, we discovered that DC has the same exact bike rental system as in Montreal, which we loved and used the whole time we were there. Dozens of Capital Bikeshare stations are spread throughout the city, and users have unlimited 30-minute bike rentals for $5 all day.

So we hopped on our bikes and rode through the neighborhoods of DC, finishing the evening with a visit to the National Mall and saw the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building and all the grand buildings along Pennsylvia Avenue regally lit under a clear night sky.

Tomorrow, rain or shine, we’ll be out again for our last day in DC. We’d love to hear your rainy day suggestions for DC just in case, or ideas for where to spend the day in the neighborhoods of the capital.

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