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Ottawa UnLOCKed: Finding the key to conquering Canada’s Capital City

Ottawa parliament sunset

Canada’s capital city is clean, green, and home to some of the world’s friendliest citizens, so it is easy to feel immediately at ease here. However, the key to truly conquering Ottawa is all about the locks…things to do in Ottawa

Keep Out: Constructing the Canal

While Ottawa is more than welcoming now, the city hasn’t always been that way.  Nearly 200 years ago, a British colonel, Colonel By, was sent over and put to the task of protecting Canada from its pesky American neighbors, rumored to be planning an invasion of Canadian territory by way of the St Lawrence Seaway. It turns out that while we made our way through the city this summer, I wouldn’t have been the first American attempting to conquer this area of Ontario.

It was Colonel By’s task to construct the Rideau Canal, which, in bypassing the St Lawrence River bordering New York, would secure the supply and communications route between Montreal and the British naval base in Kingston. Travel would proceed along the Ottawa River to Bytown (named for Colonel By, this was originally a makeshift town in the swampy wilderness. It’s known today as Ottawa) and then continuing southwest via the canal to Kingston before emptying into Lake Ontario.

ottawa rideau canal locksToday, these eight mighty locks are a perfect starting off point for exploring Ottawa. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Locks 1-8 lower the waters of the Rideau Canal to meet the Ottawa River 30 feet below. Both the majestic Parliament Hill and magnificent Fairmont Chateau Laurier castle hotel rise high above the Rideau to give this part of Ottawa an entirely old-world feel. Strolling along the path by the locks here is relaxing, and the Bytown Museum (can you guess its namesake?) is a great little spot to learn more about the building of this engineering marvel.

ottawa view over ottawa riverCycling in Ottawa

Looking to cover more ground, we headed to Rentabike, not 50m from the museum along the canal. After stocking up on heaps of great advice from the owner, we hopped on our fancy cruiser bikes and never looked back. First we shot up the canal away from the river, past the paddle boats on Dow’s Lake, and stopped at the sound of pounding water – the waterfalls of Hog’s Back.

ottawa hogsback fallsAlready feeling free of the city just 30 minutes after renting the bikes, a quick turn to the northwest led to a patch of rural farmland. We were now riding through the area known as the Central Experimental Farm, a true urban oasis filled with acres of crops, lush green grass, classic red barns and their barnyard animals. From here, signs for the cycle paths back to the city were easy to follow. Continuing westward, the path met up with the Ottawa River, and it was here we discovered the rock art by Jean-Félice Ceprano, a truly inspiring find we would have never come across without the bikes.

rock art in ottawaOttawa is a cycling city and thousands of Ottawans (very courteously, of course) commute back and forth from work as much as to enjoy the outdoors. In fact, Ottawa has over 200 kilometers of bike paths, we had been told, but in our six hours out on the bikes, we only managed 30 km.

jess cycling along lake dow ottawa

Beaver Tails and Boats

Before bringing the bikes back, it was time for a late lunch at the Byward Market. Established by Colonel By in 1826, this is Canada’s oldest public market, covering nearly four square blocks of restaurants, pubs and some incredible specialty food shops. After lunch we popped in to a cheese shop so specialized, it even carries our favorite brand of Norwegian cheese! In an amazing case of self-restraint, however, we walked out empty handed – but only because we knew where we were headed next: the Beaver Tail stand.

things to do in OttawaBeaver Tails are Ottawa’s classic deep-fried, doughy delights and are best enjoyed in Winter with a hot cup of coffee to warm up. You might be enjoying a break from ice-skating along one of the world’s longest ice rinks. Stretching seven kilometers from the Ottawa river, the frozen length of the Rideau Canal converts Ottawa into a winter wonderland and when it re-opens in mid-May, several boats pass through the locks each day, some heading down to the Ottawa River. While one hundred years ago, the river would have been packed with thousands of logs rushing down it as a part of the logging industry, today this aquatic hotspot is packed with speed boats, kayaks, yachts and even white water enthusiasts – although that takes place up the river about 90 minutes from downtown.

ottawa rideau canal boats in lockWe wanted to get out on the river, but also wanted to do a city tour – Lady Dive amphibus tour met both those needs. In its bus form, we tooled through town on four wheels, marveling the architecture and learning about Ottawa’s complicated past. We then plunged into the water next to the Britannia Yacht Club and, as soon as we got our sea legs, we floated past the Museum of Civilization, a mega-museum which takes visitors through 1,000 years of Canadian history and also has a children’s museum and a 3D IMAX theater. Make sure to plan at least one day here, if not two.

ottawa parliament and chateau laurier hotel from riverAlso set on the river is the National Gallery, considered Canada’s premiere art museum. We really enjoyed the permanent exhibits, which are on par with top international galleries. True culture vultures might want to plan in at least half a day to visit, though any travelers on a budget should visit on Thursdays, when entrance to the National Gallery is free from 5-8pm.  Ottawa has plenty of public art as well, from the statue of Canadian blues legend Oscar Peterson (at the corner of Elgin and Albert) to the many statues located on top of Parliament Hill: The ‘Women are persons!’ sculpture and the Queen Elizabeth II statue accurately characterize the history of women in Canada.

Women are persons statueAfter the river cruise, we sprinted up to Parliament Hill for a look at these statues and to take part in the free guided tour of the Parliament building’s Centre Block (daily, more frequent in summer). This tour was the best to help us grasp the political history of the nation as a whole.

things to do in Ottawa

Just over the Ottawa River

While out on the Ottawa River, it was not immediately clear that we were floating along a heavily-contested, well-protected border. There are no border control guards and we didn’t need our passports. We didn’t even leave the city.

But, as we learned on the Parliament tour, the Ottawa River is where English and French-speaking Canada converge, and this border, a socio-cultural one, is fervently protected on either side. This fact is not obvious to casual visitors except for strict language difference on either side of the river. We had overheard snippets of French throughout our time in Ottawa, but our day trip over the bridge to the Gatineau Park on the Quebec side saw us struggling to order lunch in some pretty rusty French. Luckily most of our day hike through the gorgeously green Gatineau required very few words at all.

gatineau park viewpoint dani

Ride along the Rideau Canal

Both sides of Ottawa boast such fresh, green space, as do the 202km along the Rideau Canal. These calm waters can be explored by boat, which takes up to seven days to make it through all 49 locks along the Rideau Canal to Kingston on the St Lawrence River. During our time in Ottawa, we chose to cycle and drive most of the way, meandering along country back roads and through picture perfect towns like Merrickville and Perth. There is also a trail for hikers, bikers and cross-country skiers.

No matter how you choose to explore Ottawa, whether by boat, bike, car or kayak, the key to discovering the city’s heart begins along the city’s locks.

things to do in Ottawa

For more information on the Rideau Canal, check out the Rideau Heritage Route.

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Perth: Why you should visit one of the most isolated cities in the world

Perth Australia

Looking at a map of Australia, you can easily see why many people do not have Perth on their itinerary when visiting Oz. Located just under 4,000 kilometers across the country from Sydney, and stuck way down in the southwestern part of the continent, Perth is famously known as one of the most isolated capital cities of over 1,000,000 people in the entire world. And because the capital of Western Australia is so remote, a lot of people are wondering if there are any reasons to visit Perth.

reasons to visit Perth
Perth, capital of Western Australia

1,600,000 happily call Perth home – and yes, there are plenty of reasons to visit Perth and to live in Perth! And those who make the trip there are rewarded with some of Australia’s finest beaches, coffee culture, kangaroos and coastal hiking treks.

The five best reasons to visit Perth

1 The epic journey to Perth

If you are traveling through Australia by train, the journey between Sydney and Perth is one of the most spectacular routes in the country. The trans-continental trip takes four days and three nights and is regularly named as one of the world’s greatest train journeys. Considering that fares start at AUD759 for this trip, you might consider buying an Australian Rail Pass for your visit, which allows you to take any train in the country, including the famous Ghan, for just AUD990 for a total of six months – the easiest and most comfortable way to see as much of Oz as possible. The 65-hour train journey from Sydney to Perth offers some of the country’s most stunning scenery, kangaroos, the Blue Mountains and the smallest town on the continent – Cook, with a population of four. The journey is the destination, they say, and when you visit Perth arriving on the Ghan, that holds definitely true.

The Indian Pacific at Broken Hill
The Indian Pacific by Simon Yeo on Flickr.com

2 The laid-back vibe of the city

Sprawling along the Indian Ocean and centered around the Swan River, Perth is one of the most scenic cities of Australia. With a population of 1.6 million, it is still the fourth largest city in the country, however, the vibe of Perth is much more laid-back than in Sydney or Melbourne. Perth is famous for its appreciation of good coffee and is home to hundreds of coffee shops that celebrate the art of making excellent coffee creations. The city has a number of great markets and shopping areas such as Kings Street, London Court and Northbridge. Plus, thanks to its perfect climate it’s the ideal place to check out some of the many nearby beaches.

Reasons to visit Perth
Perth by Adrian Nurman on Flickr.com

3 Perth has incredible beaches

Perth has undoubtedly some of Australia’s most beautiful beaches, and thanks to its West Coast location, the sunsets here are always magnificent. In fact, if you love sunsets and beaches, you’ve already got two reasons to visit Perth and Western Australia, because the East Coast may have both, but the West Coast is doing them so much better.reasons to visit PerthCottesloe Beach is the easiest to get to via public transport (take the Fremantle Line to Cottlesloe Station), as is Scarborough Beach (take the Clarkson Line to Glendalough Station and change to the 400 bus there). Swanbourne Beach is the right beach for you if you’re looking to swim naked, being the Perth’s only nude beach.

Shoalwater Marine Park, just one hour south of Perth, is the best place for snorkeling, and in addition to shipwrecks and cavernous reefs, you’ll get to see dolphins, sea lions and penguins here.

 

If you are looking for a truly unspoiled beach experience, head over to Rottnest Island, 18 kilometers off the coast of Perth and easily accessible by ferry. The tiny island (11 kilometers long, and 4.5 kilometers at its widest point) has some of the most remote and untouched beaches of the continent with crystal clear turquoise water.

The further you go from the ferry terminal, the more deserted the beaches – we recommend you hire a bike for the day (a full loop around the island is 25km) when you get off the ferry. If you want to spend the night here, make sure to book in advance, as accommodation on the island is limited. The adorable quokkas, small animals that live on Rottnest Island, were my main reason to head over to Western Australia on my trip to Oz.Reasons to visit Perth

4 Kangaroos and koalas

In Pinnaroo Valley Memorial Park you can see kangaroos in a more natural environment. It’s the perfect place to head to for a picnic in the company of some kangaroos. It’s the cheapest way to see them up, close and personal.

3 roos
Kangaroos in Pinnaroo Valley Memorial Park by Paul Wright on Flickr.com

You could also head to Caversham Wildlife Park where you can cuddle koalas and feed kangaroos. The park is easily reachable from downtown Perth, admission is AUD24.

Perth’s zoo has a designated Australian Bushwalk Tour where you can wander the paths inside their natural habitat. You can wander on visitors’ paths and get close to native Australian animals such as the dingoes, emus, koala, numbats, quokkas, red kangaroos, short-beaked echidnas, southern hairy-nosed wombats, Tasmanian Devils, and Western grey kangaroos.

If you are road tripping around Western Australia, for which Perth is a great jumping-off point, you will definitely see kangaroos in the wild since the roads are often deserted in this vast and empty part of Oz.

5 The natural attractions around Perth

Perth is surrounded by so many natural attractions that you can spend weeks here hiking, boarding down sand dunes, cycling, or exploring national parks. In fact, the diverse landscapes of Western Australia even made my ultimate Australia bucket list! Some of the places that shouldn’t be missed include the Lancelin sand dunes (about 90 minutes north of Perth), where you can race up and down giant sand dunes in 4WDs, sand boards or motorbikes; and the Pinnacle Desert in Nambung National Park (two hours north of Perth) is one of the most otherworldly places on the planet: a desert filled with eerie limestone bricks sporadically scattered over vast yellow sand dunes. Both places can be combined in a day trip, if you have limited time.

reasons to visit Perth
Pinnacle Desert by Ian Sanderson on Flickr.com

The Bibbulmun Track is one of the most beautiful long distance walks in the world, spanning 1000 km from Perth to Albany. If you don’t want to walk the whole trek, you can opt for a day hike or an overnight hike. People who love multi-day hikes don’t need many other reasons to visit Perth.

If you are into cycling, you shouldn’t miss the Munda Biddi Bike Trail which follows the coast for 332 kilometers from Mundaring (north east of Perth) to Collie in the south.

If you are planning to explore Perth’s foothills, you could also consider staying in Armadale, close to the parks, gardens and local wildlife of the area, yet at the same time still offering enough bars, restaurants and shopping facilities. My top choice for a place to stay here would be the Heritage Country.

 
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Globetrottergirls quick guide to Tucson, Arizona

Tucson Arizona

We have been to Tucson several times now and spent a month there during each visit. Even though every time we visited, it was during one of the hottest months, June, with temperatures regularly reaching around 110F, we managed to sightsee quite a bit, we took day trips to nearby destination, found restaurants and coffee shops we liked and fell in love with the Sonoran Desert which surrounds Tucson. And we want to share some of our best finds in this Tucson travel guide with you – just know that this guide is by no means complete, because one thing we have discovered is that Tucson is an ever changing city. Every time we visit, there’s a new cool cafe, a new trendy restaurant, a new mural to check out.

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.

If you are planning to visit from Phoenix, you may want to consider taking the bus from Tucson to Phoenix – the bus ride is only 2 hours and tickets start at only $11.99 if you book them in advance.Tucson Travel Guide

Overview: A quick guide to Tucson, Arizona

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.

Tucson Travel Guide

The Globetrottergirls Tucson travel guide:

In my Tucson travel guide, you’ll find the best things to do in Tucson, the best places to eat and drink in Tucson, the best day trips from Tucson and where to stay in Tucson.

What to do in Tucson, Arizona

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 Travel Guide

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 heroes 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 Studios

Desert 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 Tucson

Saguaro 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. Saguaro National Park should be included in every Tucson travel guide, because the scenery is stunning and so unique. 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.

Shop on 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 Arizona

Pima 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 Museum

Go on an urban scavenger hunt

This is a truly unique way to explore Tucson: a 3-hour Tucson scavenger hunt! The hunt is played via smartphone, which means you can do it on your own schedule. If you are traveling in a group or as a family, you can play against each other, Amazing Race style. Every team has to solve clues and challenges while learning about the history of downtown Tucson.

 

The Best Day 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 Arizona

Sabino 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. If you don’t have time for any other day trips listed in our Tucson travel guide, you should head to Mission San Xavier Del Bac. It’s only a short 20-minute drive south of downtown Tucson, doesn’t require a whole lot of time, and is well worth a visit.

Mission San Xavier Del Bac

Tombstone 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 Arizona

Where to eat in Tucson, Arizona

  • 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 Skillet

  • Maynards Market & KitchenMaynards 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 BreadNot 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 cafe

  • Mi NiditoThis 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, 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 Lab

Where to stay in Tucson, Arizona

You can find every major hotel and motel chain in Tucson, as well as RV parks and camp sites, but in my Tucson travel guide I wanted to highlight some hotels that aren’t chains or if they are, they’re worth a splurge.

Budget:

  • 3 Palms Tucson North Foothills – modern hotel near Sabino Canyon in the northwest of Tucson. Every studio is equipped with a microwave, tea and coffee maker and a fridge. Outdoor pool and sundeck. King studio including breakfast from $66 per night
  • Hotel McCoy – Art, Coffee, Beer, Wine – Artsy 3-star hotel with a funky vibe. Outdoor pool, sauna, fitness center and table tennis. Free bicycle hire. Double room including breakfast from $99 per night.
  • 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. Double rooms range from $89 to 149
  • Adobe Rose Inn – The Inn was built in 1933 and is located in the historic Sam Hughes neighborhood near the UoA. The Inn has an outdoor swimming pool and a sun terrace in a beautiful garden. Many rooms have fireplaces. Fabulous 3-course breakfast included in the room rate. Double rooms start at $122.

Tucson Hotel Congress

Mid-range:

  • El Amador Downtown Luxury Inn: Beautiful boutique hotel with a lovely backyard and garden right in downtown Tucson. Studio from $115, studio with hot tub $130.
  • 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: $130 – $145 including breakfast.
  • El Presidio InnThis 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: $142 – $149 including breakfast
  • The Downtown Clifton Hotel: Unique 3-star hotel in the center of Tucson, where retro chic meets contemporary design. Beautiful outdoor pool, rooms all have a patio. Double room $149

Splurge:

  • Arizona Inn: Historic boutique hotel in downtown Tucson, with an outdoor pool, fitness center, tennis courts, badminton and three on-site restaurants. Free valet and free bicycle rentals. Double rooms from $219
  • 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. Double rooms from $365.
  • 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. Double rooms start at $429

Tucson Travel GuideHave you been to Tucson? What would you say belongs in a Tucson travel guide?

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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

Settling into New York City life, I’ve finally gotten 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, I wanted to get off the beaten path in New York City and uncover spots that tourists, and even most 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. Of course there are tourist attractions that are well worth paying for, like the fantastic new observatory on top of the One World Tower, but I’d like to give you some ideas for things to do that aren’t in the guide books and introduce you to some hidden gems in New York City.

The best part is that almost all of these places are free to visit! 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 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. The island used to be open only during the summer months, but since 2021, it’s been open year-round.

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. Noteworthy events include Figment, an annual participatory art festival, photography exhibitions, the skate truck and several art fairs.

While Governors Island is popular with locals – especially on summer weekends – if you go on a weekday, you’re likely to have the island almost to yourself – one of the best hidden gems in New York City.
Roosevelt Island

How to get there: Ferries run on weekends from Brooklyn’s Pier 6 and Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building (about every thirty minutes, see here for the full Governors Island ferry schedule). A round trip is $3 for adults, children under 12 ride for free. Get to Governors Island for free: Passengers ride free on Saturdays and Sundays before noon!

2. Explore Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood

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. But for now, Red Hook is not quite there, and going there definitely means venturing off the beaten path in New York City.

Red Hook is well on its way to become the next hot neighborhood in Brooklyn 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.

off the beaten path New York

While 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 (Cacao Prieto, 218 Conover Street) and a whiskey distillery (Van Brunt Distillery, 6 Bay Street) where you can take free tours. Ice cream lovers should head straight to the Red Hook Factory of Brooklyn-based ice cream maker Ample Hills (421 Van Brunt Street). Especially kids will love the interactive ice cream museum, but adults will also enjoy watching the ice cream making process. Don’t leave without sampling some ice cream – as in every Ample Hills branch, there is one flavor that you can get only at this location: The Hook (burnt sugar ice cream mixed with salty fudge bites and Dutch stroopwafels).

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 York

How 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). The ferry also runs on weekdays, but charges $5 one way. NYC Ferry’s South Brooklyn ferry also stops in Red Hook. You can take the ferry from the Wall Street Terminal – here is the NYC ferry schedule to Red Hook.

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, which makes it one of the best hidden gems in New York City.

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.

How 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).

new york city off the beaten path

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. Even though you’re just across the river from Midtown’s hustle & bustle, you’ll feel like you’re very much off the beaten path in New York City.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!off the beaten path New York

5. Discover Brooklyn

If you want to experience an authentic part of New York, then make sure to leave Manhattan. No matter if you’re heading to the Bronx, to Queens or to Staten Island (you have to get off the ferry to make it count though 😉 ), you’ll experience much more diverse and authentic neighborhoods.

My favorite out of the five boroughs? Brooklyn! Over the past few years, Brooklyn has become increasingly popular, but while many people want to visit Brooklyn they still don’t know where to start. It is after all New York’s most populous borough, and there are around 70 neighborhoods to explore. You can eat in authentic Russian eatery in Brighton Beach, stroll through the charming streets of historic Brooklyn Heights, marvel at street art in Bushwick or get a glimpse of life in a Jewish Orthodox community in Williamsburg or Crown Heights. I wrote a whole article about why everyone should visit Brooklyn on a trip to New York.

off the beaten path NYCYou can easily spend a week in Brooklyn alone and would still not run out of things to do! The further away you’re getting from Manhattan, the farther you’ll get off the beaten path in New York City. But most people don’t have that much time, which is why I decided to pack as much of Brooklyn as possible in a half-day walking tour.

On my Brooklyn Walking Tour I show four completely different sides of Brooklyn, while introducing you to five neighborhoods, none of which is like the other. You will see how diverse Brooklyn truly is when I show you classic Brooklyn brownstone architecture as well as the ‘hipster’ side of Brooklyn, with street art and vintage shops and flea markets. I will show you amazing Manhattan views, take you through an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and tell you everything you need to know about Brooklyn.

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

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The D-Day Beaches of Normandy: Combining History and Natural Beauty in Western France

France

The D-Day beaches are one of the most popular day trips from Paris, especially for Americans, Brits and Canadians whose parents or grandparents fought the Germans in World War II.

The historic significance of these beaches hasn’t lessened, even nearly 80 years after Operation Overload, which was the invasion of Western Europe by the Allied Nations on 6 June 1944. On that day, over 135,000 troops landed in Normandy, unifying against the Germans. The Allied Nations (Britain, Canada and the U.S.) were each allocated a number of beaches to invade, which were codenamed:

  • Utah Beach (U.S.)
  • Omaha Beach (U.S.)
  • Juno Beach (Canada)
  • Gold Beach (Britain)
  • Sword Beach (Britain)

visit the D-Day beachesWhen visiting the Normandy coast these days, it’s almost inconceivable that one of the most important and magnificent operations against the Germans happened here, an accomplishment that would later lead to the successful victory against Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Today, you’ll pass by rolling hills, quaint little seaside towns, surrounded by lush green farmland and cattle fields. The beaches themselves are beautiful and tranquil, and it is hard to imagine that thousands of soldiers lost their lives here.

However, you cannot escape the memories of D-Day when visiting this part of France – war memorials and monuments mark where the Allies landed, there are remains of bunkers and gun emplacements left by the Germans, and most importantly, there is the Normandy American Cemetery, where 9,387 American soldiers are buried.

If you are visiting to honor family members who fought or lost their lives there, you may want to try to visit on 6 June, when a number of D-Day anniversary memorials are held.

The easiest way to visit the area is with a tour, which usually includes all the beaches plus the Memorial Church in Caen (see below for details). Here is an overview of the main sights you shouldn’t miss when visiting the D-Day beaches, including all five beaches, which still carry the names given by the Allies in preparation of the operation.

The Caen Memorial

The Caen Memorial is the best place to start your tour of the D-Day beaches. The museum was recently renovated, and in addition to detailed information on D-Day and World War II, it has plenty of material on The Battle Of Normandy, The Cold War and the search for peace.

Utah Beach

The museum at this beach, the Utah Beach Landing Museum, is housed in the remains of a German bunker. Many say that this is the best D-Day museum in the area. In the nearby village of Sainte-Mère-Eglise is the Airborne Museum, which details the aerial operations.

Arromanches Mulberry

Pointe du Hoc

Pointe Du Hoc is the highest point between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, with a 100 feet (30 meter) cliff overlooking the English Channel. The German army had fortified this area with gun pits, bunkers, artillery and concrete casemates. Pointe du Hoc was captured by 225 U.S. rangers on D-Day after scaling the cliffs, and has become a symbol of courage of the American troops. It is one of the most significant memorials along the D-Day coast.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach was the stretch of beach with the most intense battles. Memorials and statues line the beach.

This is probably where you will be spending the most time of all beaches. The American Cemetery is located right above the beach, and there are two museums: the Omaha Beach Memorial Museum, which showcases personal items of soldiers, weapons and uniforms, and the Omaha D-Day Museum which details the landing on Omaha Beach.

The Gun Battery in Longues-sur-Mer between Omaha Beach and Gold Beach has a number of bunkers which were Hitler’s most important points of defense.

Gold Beach

The Gold Beach invasion was led by the British, and the most important museum here is the America Gold Beach Museum and exhibits details of the landing here as well as the three-engine Fokker America’s first airmail flight from the United States to France.

d-day beaches

Juno Beach

Juno Beach, where the invasion was under Canada’s lead, has the Juno Beach Centre, which outlines the significant role Canada played in the D-Day invasion. Nearby Bény-sur-Mer is home to the Canadian cemetery.

Sword Beach

Sword Beach is the easternmost of the five D-Day beaches. The operation here happened under British leadership, and there is a museum, the Merville Gun Battery, which details the British Airborne Operations.

The nearby Ranville War cemetery is home to 2,235 graves, most of which belong to the 6th Airborne Division.

The American Cemetery

The American Cemetery is one of the largest American war cemeteries and was the first one on European soil established during World War II. With 9,387 lives lost on D-Day and the consequent ensuing operations, it makes visitors realize the magnitude and true scale of this operation and the lives lost during it.

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

How to visit the D Day beaches from Paris

Paris City Vision offers a guided tour of the D-Day beaches from Paris. The trip includes, in addition to the beaches, the Caen Memorial Church, the memorial service, and a delicious lunch. You’ll leave Paris at 7am and will return around 9pm. The advantage of taking a tour is not only that it’ll bring you to all places of interest, but it also includes a knowledgeable guide who will provide background information and historical details.

 

You can also visit the beaches via public transportation – take the train from Paris to Caen and then hop on the local bus that connects the beaches, but be aware that buses aren’t running very often and trying to fit in all beaches, the Memorial and the American cemetery in one day would be quite a challenge.

Tip: If you book your train tickets in advance through the Omio app or website, they’ll be cheaper than buying them on your travel day at the train station. Omio offers discount train tickets for all of Europe – it helps me to travel around Europe on the cheap.

The trains to Caen leave from Paris’ St Lazare station and the journey takes around 2 hours.

If you want to rent a car and drive from Paris, the trip takes around 2 hours and 45 minutes. Having a car gives you more flexibility when you’re at the coast, making visiting all of the beaches easier than taking trains and buses. It really helps to have a guide though – this is a trip for which an organized tour makes sense, even for people who are usually independent travelers.

visit the D-Day beaches

Photo credit: All photos used via Flickr’s Creative Commons Licensing. (1) Arromanches Mulberry by Archangel12; (2) Arromanches 14 by Barry Skeates; (3) Normandy American Cemtery by Larry Uren

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visit the D-Day beaches

 

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

alligator swamp louisiana

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. Here are our favorite day trips from New Orleans:

New Orleans day trips

The best day trips from New Orleans

Out 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.

New Orleans day tripsI wasn’t interested in the danger but wanted to experience what life out in the Louisiana Bayou was like – this was a day trip from New Orleans that definitely needed to happen.

 

 

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.

New Orleans day tripsIt 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.

New Orleans day trips

The 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.

New Orleans day tripsAffectionately 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.

New Orleans day tripsOn 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.

New Orleans day trips

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Tips For Visiting Paris with kids

paris sacre coeur

I have taken several romantic weekend breaks to the City of Love with my partner – but exploring Paris with kids is very different. While adults enjoy sitting in a street café sipping a café au lait while people watching, kids won’t let you indulge in too many relaxing “Paris moments” like that. Museums and galleries are also more difficult to navigate – unless you keep your children entertained the entire time.

If you’ve already visited Paris and are now planning to return with your kids, it’s time to re-evaluate and to look at ways to have fun with the kids as well.

But a few days in Paris will be the perfect introduction to a country that is not too different to what they’re used to and to hopefully plant a seed of wanderlust in them.

paris chez marie cafe

How to enjoy Paris with kids

How to prepare for your trip

There are several great travel guides especially for kids, for example:

Kids’ Travel Guide – Paris: The fun way to discover Paris

There is also a Scavenger Hunt designed for kids:

Mission Paris: A Scavenger Hunt Adventure (Travel Guide For Kids)

The scavenger hunts in particular are a great way to keep children engage for several hours while exploring the city in a playful way. Pick up a couple of Paris guidebooks aimed at kids before your trip to get them excited before you even board the plane (but they’re also great for the long plane ride).

Watching Paris movies are also a fantastic way to get your kids excited for the trip.

Kid-friendly Paris movies include: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ratatouille, Madeline, Ballerina, A Cat in Paris, A Monster In Paris.

Disneyland Paris

The most obvious destination for Paris holidays with kids is of course Disneyland, where they will meet Mickey and Minnie and experience their first roller coasters! Many Disney Park lovers claim that it’s the second best Disney Resort in the world! It’s only 30 minutes from Paris, and the TGV train stops right in front of the gate of the resort, so there is no excuse not to take the kids there on a trip to Paris.

Our tips for visiting Disneyland Paris: Take at least two days to explore Disneyland – you could obviously spend much more time there, but trying to cram everything into one day will cause unnecessary stress. We are planning to go just before the girls go to school, so that we can take advantage of non-vacation times. The park can get pretty packed in the summer months, but May or September are ideal times to visit. And if you have limited time, skip the Disneyland Studios and head only to the Theme Park.

Disney castle Paris by topalaska on Flickr
Disney castle Paris by topalaska on Flickr

While Paris itself – one of the most visited cities in the world, known for its crowds and long waiting times at tourist attractions – might not seem like a good idea with two little girls, it is actually a very kid-friendly destination with plenty of attractions to keep children entertained, and will show us grown-ups a completely different side of the city.

The sacrifice you will have to make is to bypass the main sights – at least this time. If you are planning to go up on the Eiffel tower or visit the Louvre, you will have to be aware that the kids will already be tired and grumpy before you even reach the end of the line.

Instead, be open to explore some lesser known neighborhoods and places around the city and plan a cultural trip when the kids are actually old enough to relate to the sights, i.e. when they learn about the Mona Lisa and about French history in school, they will appreciate the Louvre and the palace of Versailles much more.

paris louvreYounger kids will enjoy La Ménagerie, a zoo dating back to the 18th century with reptile rooms, monkeys and big cats such as panthers.

The National Museum of Natural history is also extremely kid-friendly, with a merry-go-round and 17th century gardens which are perfect for a picnic lunch. The museum itself has a fascinating collection of animal skeletons on the ground floor, and plenty of other natural wonders to keep kids in awe.

Kid-friendly parks in Paris

Most of the parks in Paris are kid-friendly, but there are three that shouldn’t be missed. One is the Jardin de Luxembourg, where you’ll also find an enclosed play area, toy sailboats in the central basin and pony rides.

Another fantastic park is the Jardin Tuileries near the Louvre Museum, one of Paris’ prettiest parks. Grown-ups can enjoy comfortable lounge chairs while kids will love the merry-go-round, the big sculptural playground and the in-ground trampolines.

The third park is Parc des Buttes-Chaumont which features a grotto, several playgrounds, a merry-go-round and a temple on top of a peak in the middle of a lake, reached by suspension bridges, which are great fun for kids.

Jardin Tuileries Paris

Explore Montmartre

The best neighborhood to explore with kids is the Montmartre. They can enjoy a ride on the merry-go-round at the bottom of the park between Square Louise Michel and Sacre Coeur before heading up the stairs (or taking the funicular) to Sacre Coeur basilica. The church itself is fascinating enough for a quick look from the outside, but the winding cobble-stone streets always offer something interesting for kids – the artists who paint on the Place du Tertre, little shops selling interesting trinkets or crepes stands. Try to do this early in the day though, as this neighborhood tends to get packed mid-morning until late in the evening.

paris sacre coeur

Fascinating markets in Paris

Another highlight for kids is a tour of the local markets. On Sundays, the popular flower and bird market takes place at the Place Lois Lepine on the Ile de la Cite near Notre Dame cathedral, and children are usually in wonder seeing all the different birds. To show them more of an ethnic food market, take them to the Marché des Enfants Rouges, the city’s oldest market where you’ll find Lebanese, North African and even Japanese foods. If you come during the week (Tue-Fri), you’ll beat the weekend crowds – the later in the day you get there, the emptier it will be.

Paris Market

Need more recommendations? Check out these 14 ideas from Fodor’s for what to do in Paris with kids!

 

 

Have you been to Paris with kids? Do you have advice on kid-friendly activities in the City of Lights?

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Polaroid of the week: The long way down to Vernazza | Cinque Terre, Italy

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

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polaroid of the week italy cinque terre vernazza

Vernazza is one of the five famous villages of Cinque Terre in Italy. Laundry lines the narrow lanes of this fishing village, which show no immediate signs of  21st century life.

The five villages are all located in a rugged, mountainous area of the Italian Riviera and some of them, like Vernazza, are only reachable by train, boat or on foot – not by car. The best way to visit Cinque Terre is by hiking the path that connects all five villages. The path leads up and down through vineyards and olive orchards along the steep cliffs into which the villages have been built. Although the hike can be rigorous in parts, those who opt to hike rather than take the train from town to town, are rewarded with incomparable, stunning views of each town below.

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Hiking Italy’s Cinque Terre: A spectacular day trek

Riomaggiore village Cinque Terre Italy

Escaping the crowds in Cinque Terre

Undoubtedly one of Italy’s most scenic regions, the five villages of Cinque Terre – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso – are tucked into a steep mountainside, some built into the walls of towering cliffs, others open to tiny fisherman’s ports at sea level.

Word has long since gotten out about these five beautiful lands (in Italian, ‘cinque’ means five and ‘terre’ means lands), and during the early morning in Monterosso, the first of the five towns, tourists tend to come in waves… first the early birds, then a few tour groups arriving from their cruise ships and by 10am, the villages are temporarily populated with people from around the world.

Luckily we discovered one way to escape the masses and have Cinque Terre at least partially to ourselves by hiking between the villages: On the Cinque Terre Trail.

Cinque Terre TrailCinque Terre forms a ten kilometer stretch of land along the Lingurian coast in an isolated spot between steep cliffs and the Mediterranean Sea. For centuries, the location meant the villages remained secluded not only from the outside world, but also from each other. As agriculture in the area developed, trade between the five lands increased, with farmers traversing narrow dirt paths along the mountainside between the towns.

Cinque Terre TrailToday, there are still no roads, but an efficient train system transports passengers between the towns. The best way to escape the crowds, however, is by hiking the arduous dirt trail which connects the villages.

Through vertical vineyards

After squeezing through two particularly large tour groups in Monterosso (most likely fresh off their cruise ship landed in nearby La Spezia) we head up the set of stone stairs that would bring us to the trail head. The din of chatter from the crowds below quickly disappears during our 250 step ascent, and for the first twenty minutes along the path, we are left entirely alone to climb our way through nearly vertical vineyards and olive orchards.

Cinque Terre hikeSweaty and panting for breath, we reach the top of this part of the trail between Monterroso and Vernazza, rewarded with the sweeping views of the Mediterranean spread out below. A couple with a toddler and a small group pass by as we catch our breath and enjoy the views before continuing along the trail.

We wind through endless shades of green, stepping over vines and tree branches, followed by the flutter of birds. The sun had been burning down on us without remorse; we quickly forget this as the village of Vernazza comes into view, down at the bottom of the mountain.

Hiking the Cinque Terre Trail

Arrival in the village

The path is uneven and unforgiving and at times so close to the edge that we are thankful for our travel insurance. We attempt to descend slowly, but we are crispy from the sun and very thirsty, and the sights of the beach cove below make us go faster and faster down the hill. After an exhausting 90-minute hike, we enter Vernazza through slim alleyways which barely fit two people shoulder to shoulder, passing through cool stone buildings where local residents go about their daily business – washing clothes, making lunch, but remaining almost entirely indoors.

vernazza narrow alleysOnce through the maze of lanes we enter the main plaza by the harbor, and we are immediately surrounded by the sort of masses of people you might expect at a festival or an annual town fair, and this happens seven days a week. It is no surprise that, though not unfriendly, residents make themselves scarce during the day. We grab a slice of pizza, a big bottle of water and slump down onto a central set of stairs perfect for people-watching.

Vernazza portBatteries recharged and bellies full, we set off to the next village of Corniglia, knowing that the most difficult part of the trail (between Monterosso and Vernazza) is behind us.

Cinque Terre trail

Perched on the mountain top

This next stretch also takes about 90 minutes and while there are very few places in the shade and the path very uneven, the views more than make up for the heat and the steep passages. We pass through more vineyards and flower gardens before scaling the steps into the village.

Cinque Terre LemonsPerched on top of a cliff, Corniglia is smaller than the other villages and is less packed than either Monterosso or Vernazza. There are less people here, and we spend time cooling off inside the church before strolling through the alleys toward a marvelous viewpoint jutting out from the end of a cliff.

Corniglia stairsWe can’t stay here long, and have to dart quickly down the steps to the train station. The path between Corniglia and Manarola, the next town, is closed. At various times throughout the year, stretches of the paths are impassable due to heavy rains or construction. In our case, there had been a landslide which covered the next part of the trail. Trains run frequently tough, connecting all five villages to the nearby city of La Spezia.

hiking Cinque TerreWe hop aboard the packed overcrowded train and hop off in Manarola 3 minutes later, a feat that would have taken nearly 60 again by foot. Having arrived so quickly, our minds are still in the romantic fog of Corniglia, and stepping out into Manarola is a bit of a shock. We head down the main road, which is bursting with shops, cafes, and pizza joints jam-packed with people. We grab another small slice of pizza. We feel we’ve earned it, after over three hours of strenuous hiking.

Pizza - you gotta love Italy!

The Path of Love

Very excited, if not a bit weary, we set off on this last stretch of the Cinque Terre trail connecting Manarola to Riomaggiore. At just over a kilometer, this hike is by far the shortest. It is completely paved and flat with safe, firm railings, making it by far the safest, too. This stretch of the path is known as the Via dell’amore or the Path of Love, and is the one part of the path that almost all visitors to Cinque Terre choose to ‘hike’.

Via dell'amore & cliffsHere, couples walk hand in hand, and either scribble their names onto walls and benches or seal their love forever with a padlock, a long-standing tradition here. We make our own mark of love, too, before continuing on the last bit of the path.

Locks via dell'amore

Sunset in Cinque Terre

We have hiked up and down 10km of mountain paths and through the villages and are relieved at the relaxed arrival in Riomaggiore. It is nearly 7pm now. The tourists have left, the last hikers are making their way to their cars, and the locals have now come out to enjoy their time with the town. Italian grandmas chat on benches while their husbands gather in doorways and smoke and laugh.

Riomaggiore housesShopkeepers are sweeping the front steps, while the soccer ball bounces back and forth along the cobblestone between the kids playing as the sun sets behind them. On our way out of town, we stop along the side of the winding road and watch the sun sink into the sea, the perfect, quiet end to the day.

Riomaggiore from above at sunset

The Cinque Terre Trail: Practical Information

A day ticket to enter the hiking trails within the Cinque Terre National Park is 5 Euros (9 Euros for 2 days, 12 Euros for a weekend ticket) and includes free train transport between the five villages.

The complete 10k (6.5 mile) Cinque Terre hike takes around 5 hours, not including time spent in each village.

Cinque Terre hike

Hiking Cinque Terre: What to bring

Hiking shoes – Except for the Via dell’amore, the paths are dirt, steep, uneven and narrow. Hiking shoes are highly recommended.

Water – The hike is constant climbing and descent, the sun can be hot. Bring plenty of water on each part of the hike and drink water in each village, too, if you can.

Sunblock – Not only for the hike, but also for the beach if you plan to stop for a swim in Monterosso or Vernazza.

Camera – Cinque Terre has some of the most terrific scenery in all of Italy. The views and all the villages along the Cinque Terre trail offer countless photo ops.

Snacks – There is plenty of scrumptious Italian food in each of the villages, but fruit or other healthy snacks are more difficult to come by. If you are looking for healthy options, consider stocking up before hiking Cinque Terre.

Manarola houses & rocks

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La Via dell’amore: The Path of Love | Cinque Terre, Italy

Via dell’amore lovers sculpture

Love ain’t easy

Until the 20th century, there were no roads connecting the villages of Cinque Terre and most people spent their entire lives strolling through the same winding streets, trekking up and down the same steep staircases of their own village, few daring to cross the rugged mountain cliffs that separate them.

Only olive farmers or those who tended to the cliff side vineyards were less secluded, but most villagers were destined to experience all of life’s affairs in one small town – including affairs of the heart. Although the Mediterranean diet and physical exertion of living in such a mountainous regions most likely kept villagers fit, even then the selection of preferable partners was very slim.Manarola from via dell'amoreThen, in the early 1920’s, improved engineering made the construction of a stone path possible along the sheer cliffs between Riomaggiore and Manarola (a feat previously thought impossible) to trade fruits, vegetables and other goods.
Cinque Terre vineyard & Mediterranean sea
While this was beneficial to the farmers, the new passage quickly became a dream come true for the boys of Manarola to meet the girls of Riomaggiore and vice-versa. Inter-village relationships sprung up, and the path connecting the two hamlets quickly became a meeting spot for young lovers. At dusk, as the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea, couples met here to spend romantic time together along the picturesque cliffs.

via dell'amore dani & jess

La Via dell’amore: The Path of Love

Today, the path draws lovers at sunset, sunrise and all times of day, only now the love is shared by couples from around the world, many of whom seal their love with a lock.

Padlocks along the Via dell'amore

Thousands of padlocks line every inch of available space along the chain link fences, railings and posts on the Via, a tradition which has developed over time by couples who flock to the path and seal their love in order to stay together forever.
Lockpads along the via dell'amore
Locks with Manarola in the background
The passion extends beyond the padlock, with declarations of love written on walls, boulders, benches and even scratched in to the cactus plants which grow out of the cliffs.

Agave cactus via dell'amore
Locks & messages via dell'amore

Via dell’amore – not just for lovers

The Path of Love is set at the beginning of the chain of five towns of Cinque Terre National Park, which means that not only love-birds flock to this northern Italian destination.
Via dell'amore hearts
Hikers can trek the exhausting dirt paths which connect all five towns, foodies can hop between villages on the efficient, convenient train to test the many mouth-watering restaurants. There is swimming to be done on the beach, historical sites to be visited, beer to gulped, wine to be tasted.

Via dell'amore tunnel cinque Terre

Of course, if you happen to be there with the one you love, seal it forever by leaving your mark on the Via dell’amore… We did!Dani & Jess immortalized in rock

La Via Dell’amore – Practical Information

The trail is only around 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) long – it’s an easy stroll on a well maintained foot path. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola. We’d rate this hike as easy, however, we’d still recommend sturdy footwear. Don’t forget to wear sunscreen and carry water with you.

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