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Savannah, GA – To tour or not to tour?

african beers at savannah craft brew fest

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?!best tours in Savannah

Pick a Savannah tour – just not any tour

So how to find the best tours in Savannah? 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

best tours in Savannah

The best tours 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 Savannah food tours. 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.

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!

best tours in Savannah

For comprehensive listings about the best 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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Chicago Segway Tours: A wild ride in the Windy City

segway tour chicago

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 chicagoI 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 Chicago 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 Chicago 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?
chicago segway toursIn 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 tourThe 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 segway tours
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 segway tourWith 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 tower

Tips for your Chicago Segway Tour:

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

 

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Vegetarian Dixie: The Best of Southern Food

savannah breakfast at clary’s

We. Love. Food. One of the best things about traveling is the new food we try in each new place we visit, and our NYC2NOLA road trip was no different. We were super excited to try all the local specialties and from New York until we hit the South, this was a piece of cake. However, it turns out that finding vegetarian dishes in the Land of Dixie is a challenge when plates are normally piled high with pork, chicken and shrimp. We did manage to belly up to some fabulous southern restaurants for some traditional soul food. If you’re planning to visit the Southern USA and are looking for some great vegetarian food, these are some places we loved:charleston mac n cheese sandwich

Vegetarian food in the Southern USA

Vegetarian food in Atlanta, Georgia

Mary Mac’s Tea Room
While visiting a college friend and Atlanta local on our road trip this summer, she insisted we dine at Mary Mac’s, an Atlanta institution which has been serving up classic Southern cuisine since Mary MacKenzie opened it in 1945. 60 years later, this old school southern restaurant serves up southern staples like country-fried steak, chicken pan pie with gravy and sweet potato soufflé, and always with the utmost, genuine southern hospitality. To start, all diners (most of whom are locals – this ain’t no tourist trap) are served ‘potlikker’ (broth of cooking up greens) with bread – and though this usually have chicken in it, the waitress organized us two vegetarian bowls of the stuff. Mary Mac’s is meat-heavy Dixie food, so we both opted for the vegetable plate of four sides, which was a great way to sample several small plates of Southern food. We were already familiar with the Southern Vegetable Plate concept from our road trip stops at Cracker Barrel along the way.

vegetarian food southern USABetween the two of us we had broccoli soufflé, cheese & vegetable soufflé, fried green tomatoes, mac’n’cheese, coleslaw, a vegetable medley, fried okra, and of course, a side of fresh home-made corn bread on the side. For dessert the three of us split the banana pudding, bread pudding and Georgia peach cobbler, which were all seriously good, before waddling out to the car.

Vegetarian food in Savannah, Georgia

This open-minded everyone’s-welcome city may not have many purely vegetarian restaurants, but plenty of places in town have veggie-friendly options on the menu.

Breakfast at Clary’s
You might know Clary’s already from the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which hosted many of the scenes of the film. This traditional diner opened over 100 years ago, so they know a thing or two about pleasing local customers to keep ’em coming back for more. Veggie options here include mouth-watering Stuffed French Toast, Eggs Benedict or the ‘Elvis’ – thick-sliced sourdough toast stuffed with peanut butter and bananas, the sandwich the King made famous. You can also try classic Southern items such as griddle cakes (pancakes), Caramel Pecan Sticky Buns, grits or Biscuits & Gravy.

savannah breakfast at clary's

The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa
We have a special place in our hearts for our home-base in town, the Westin Savannah Harbor– where we not only had the most comfortable beds we have ever slept in, but a staff that went above and beyond the call of duty for us. We happened to be in town for the Savannah Craft Brew Fest, which was held between the Westin and the neighboring convention center. We got to talking food to Westin’s General Manager Mark Spadoni, and once Mark discovered that we did not believe an intersection of classically Southern and vegetarian food to be possible, he put a challenge out to the head chef to create just that: a classically Southern vegetarian dish. Less than twenty minutes later we were each served a soft, succulent grit cake topped with fresh cherry tomatoes and green asparagus, lightly covered in a subtle, yet tangy sauce. Until that night we hadn’t touched grits (they just seem so slimy), but this grit cake blew us away with its flavor and consistency. Mark made sure to follow this up with two pots of blueberry crumble cake – which literally melted in our mouths.

savannah grit cake at the westinThe ‘Vegetarian Food Challenge’ was a one-off, but we also had the Sunday brunch held in the hotel’s Aqua Star restaurant – which might just be the best brunch in town! Brunch staples such as made-to-order omelets and waffles, blintzes, hash browns and all the meat you could want (bacon, sausages, beef medallions, lamb, etc), an entire table of sea food and sushi, fresh made-to-order penne pasta dishes, garlic bread, salads, and a dessert buffet that would alone be worth the price: fresh macaroons, éclairs, pies and cakes of all varieties, ice cream, homemade chocolate truffles and pralines, chocolate covered strawberries, bread puddings, crème brulee and mousse, and the Westin Savannah’s signature dish – bananas foster.

sunday brunch at the westin savannah

The Distillery
The Distillery is first and foremost a beer lover’s bar, with hundreds of craft brews to choose from, and though not really a veggie-hangout, we left the place absolutely stuffed. Along with the Black Bean Burger (which we went back for it again the next night) we sampled the grilled cheese, deep fried pickles (surprisingly good) and soft pretzels with a variety of dips. We could also have ordered  a hummus plate with veggies and pita bread, sweet potato or stout fries served with home-made Creole remoulade or chili & ale cheese. We could have ordered a salad without the meat, as well, but somehow the deep-fried pickles seemed to go so much better with craft brews. To top it all off, the owner Michael decided that us two out-of-towners needed to try his ultimate southern dessert creation – a deep-fried moon pie a la mode. Whether this sounds delicious, disgusting or just plain dangerous to your health – order it. Just once. It’s so good!

savannah deepfried pickles at the distillery

Vegetarian food in New Orleans, Louisiana

In the land of gumbo, jambalaya and po-boys, it was not easy finding vegetarian food in the Big Easy – but we managed to find a few top spots for vegetarians in town.

Jazz Brunch at the Court of Two Sisters
One place where we found plenty of options was at the Court of Two Sisters Jazz Brunch, which we would recommend to anyone visiting New Orleans.  The tables are set in a shady, breezy courtyard  surrounded by flowers under a canopy of trees. A jazz trio entertains guests with live music at the perfect volume to still hold a conversation. The sprawling brunch buffet has a generous selection of breakfast and lunch items and if you are not a vegetarian, you can eat your way through dishes like creole seafood omelets, ceviche, spinach and crawfish pasta, seafood mousse, roast beef and chicken breast and shrimps. We enjoyed brunch staples like eggs and potatoes, creative waffles and delicious salads, and with the bottomless coffee we enjoyed classic Southern desserts like Pecan Pie, Bananas Foster or Mardi Gras King Cake. Do not waste your time like we did at the disappointing Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues – which serves up a limited brunch (eggs and hash browns, the only veggie options), put on a forced show to tourists and they kick you out when the show ends after an hour. The Court of Two Sisters brunch is an authentic, relaxing experience any day of the week.

jazz brunch at the court of two sisters new orleans

The French Market
This foodie market is a collection of some of the freshest, healthiest options in New Orleans. We loved Meals from the Heart, where we gobbled up a Black Bean soup with fresh avocado. Then we ordered an amazing salad with cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, pistachios and apples from Albertos Cheese & Wine, right next door. More than just simple stands, these two market eateries have completely different, yet equally veggie-friendly dishes. Meals from the Heart is run by a friendly New Orleans native, while Albertos is run by Spanish Alberto and his Mexican wife. We even went back to Albertos for a second salad we just could not forget about – the mixed vegetable salad with walnuts and gruyere cheese. Yum!!

vegetarian food southern USA

Mahony’s Po-Boys on Magazine Street
Po-boys are traditional Louisiana sub sandwiches, the most classic option is stuffed with shrimp so not a dish we thought to try. One day while strolling along Magazine Street, we discovered Mahony’s Po Boys, a laid-back po-boy shop with several veggie options. We couldn’t resist being able to sample this NOLA staple, and tore in to the eggplant parmesan po-boy. We rate it as only okay, but that is because we compare it to what might be the best sandwich in the world – the New York-style Eggplant Parmigiana sub sandwich. However, the other options – like the grilled cheese po-boy or fried green tomato po-boy – we would probably have really enjoyed. We had the the fried green tomatoes on the side and loved them.

vegetarian food southern USA

Café du Monde
Dani’s favorite thing about being vegetarian on the road is that any and all local sweets are not only an option, but an exercise in intercultural understanding. Translation: it is our duty to try the sweets. We could not leave New Orleans without stopping in at the city’s most famous institution: Café Du Monde. This French-influenced, Chinese staffed New Orleans cafe on the Mississippi River has one of the simplest menus in town. Eat the famous beignets (deep-fried dough pastries covered in a thick layer of powdered sugar) and drink the Café au Lait (coffee with milk) made with chicory. The beignets were so good,  we ordered a second plate right away.

beignets & cafe au lait new orleans cafe du monde
This is not a comprehensive list of veggie-friendly Southern restaurants, so please add your suggestions on where to get great vegetarian food and also any tips on other typical southern dishes we need to try on our next trip through the south.

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Ooh la la – Cycling in Montreal is a dream

montreal marie reine du monde cathedral

Slouched down on a Montreal curb just after 1pm, Dani and I were starving, fatigued and wondering how, after over 5 miles of pounding pavement, these aching feet were going to carry us through the remaining must-see neighborhoods on our list. We fell in love with Montreal instantly upon arriving the evening before, and knew that we had to pack in as much as possible into the 48 hours we had to spend in the city. From 8am the next morning we were out sauntering along wide thoroughfares, cutting through Montreal’s many green spaces, schlepping it up hundreds of steps in Mont Royal park to the incredible view point below followed by a forest hike, a stroll through a university campus and down to the Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, which now loomed behind us as we considered napping out in front.cycling in MontrealBeginning to feel defeated, we saw a glimmering light of hope in the distance in the form of a sleek steel bike rack loaded with shiny silver bicycles. We had discovered Montreal’s public bike rental system and, knowing we could easily pedal our way through town, it took only five minutes before we were whizzing away from the bike station.montreal street artMontreal’s Bixi bike rental system is similar to city cycling schemes in Paris, London, Mexico City, Munich, Seville and several North American cities. As of 2009, the publicly-funded Montreal system became the largest in North America, with over 5,000 bikes (worth $2,000 each!) available at 400 depots around the city. Even though we were faint and weary, jumping on a set of wheels couldn’t have been easier to use.jess on bike in montrealStart at the payment machine by swiping your credit card to pay $5.25 for the 24 hour bike rental, or $15 for 3 days. The machine gives a code which you enter in to any of the stations that hold a bicycle. Once the bike is released, you are free to ride around the city for the next thirty minutes at no additional cost. After 30 minutes, bring the bike to any of the nearby stations, dock it, and wait two minutes. Swipe your card again for a new code, unlock the new (or same) bike, and you’re off again on your way. The system is best used by locals who just need to get from point A to point B, but we easily used the bikes to tour the city. Montreal is loaded with these stations, conveniently located on corners throughout the city, so finding a drop off point was no problem, and it was almost always near something we had wanted to stop to see anyway.montreal by bikeShould you accidentally run past the 30 minute mark without realizing it, your card will be charged $1.50 for every extra half hour. The system is also surprisingly fair. If you arrive to your drop-off destination to discover all docks are taken, just swipe your card, and the machine  recognizes no availability, gives you a 15 minute grace period and tells you all available nearby station and how many docks are available at each.biking in MontrealThe system is a breeze to get the hang of, and within 10 minutes we had pedaled all way down to the old historic down town, riding past the Notre Dame, before riding along the riverfront all the way up to the town hall. Cycling in Montreal is a beautiful way to see a lot of the city in a short time.notre dameA looming thunderstorm sent us home earlier than we would have liked, but with the bikes, this was no problem at all. We just exchanged the bikes to get us a full half hour and pedaled back to the many stations in the Mont Royal Plateau neighborhood where we were staying.street artNot a drop of rain fell that late afternoon, and after dinner and a quick rest, our hosts drove us to see a  live outdoor concert in La Fontaine Park. They were ready to make a night of it, but we were exhausted. Luckily, instead of them having to drive the sleepyheads home, we still had nearly plenty of  hours left on our bike rental, so were able to just hop on two nearby bikes and make it home in no time at all.breakfast egg benedictAfter a deep sleep and a power breakfast we were back up on our bikes and squeezed in a full morning of sightseeing before heading  to Quebec that afternoon. Covering several miles, we were able to make it to the Fairmont and St Viateur bagel shops, where the best of Montreal’s famous bagels are made and weave in and out of countless alleys and side streets to spot so many samples of Montreal’s incredible street art. And this was all for the $5 we paid to rent the bikes the day before. Exploring Montreal by bike couldn’t be easier.
Cycling in MontrealThe Bixi system in Montreal couldn’t be easier to use and is the cheapest, yet most exhilarating form of transportation in town. Drivers in the city appear to really respect cyclists, so the nerves you might feel cycling in New York City, for example, are not an issue here. The cycleways are clearly marked on the street and while many of Montreal’s roads are one-way for cars, cyclists can often ride in both directions, making getting around by bike a breeze.montreal gay streetFor more information on cycling in Montreal, read:

 

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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.

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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Why we didn’t like Niagara Falls (but still recommend you go!)

niagara falls bridal veil falls

This is Niagara Falls? On our way to visit Niagara Falls, Dani and I had both been picturing rustic log-cabin restaurants, maybe a few lumberjacks, a small town feel and definitely something a bit more romantic. After all this is supposed to be the Honeymoon Capital of the World. We never expected this…mega tourist trap.

Pulling into town, however, we found ourselves suddenly driving downhill on a wide street with cheesy tourist attractions stacked up tightly on either side. A wax museum, a haunted house, Ripley’s Believe it or Not…

“Wait, is that another wax museum?” I asked.  “I think so,” Dani remarked. “And I just saw two more haunted houses on my side.”

niagara falls townAs we reached the bottom of this long, strange road, I turned right – away from the Hershey’s Chocolate store and toward the intense sound of rushing water.

Niagara Falls are magnificent

Just a split second later, there it was! The awe-inspiring view of Niagara Falls. There are actually three sets of falls pounding into the Niagara river below – the American Falls and smaller Bridal Veil Falls on the American side and the massive Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. Immediately humbled, we cruised slowly along the four-lane thoroughfare which hugs the pedestrian viewing along the cliffs, gawking at the sheer size of this sight.

Also read: The Niagara Falls Smackdown: The American Falls vs. the Canadian Falls

We managed to find $5 parking (instead of the lots with New York City level prices) and walked down to gaze at the Falls. Seeing Niagara Falls on postcards and in pictures does not compare to the sight of this incredible natural wonder in person. Two things really stood out. First, the water seems to speed up as it reaches the falls, as if it can not wait to plunge over the cliff. By the time it goes over, the water is moving so quickly and just looking at this makes you comprehend your own delicate mortality.

visit Niagara FallsSecond, the sheer force with which the 4 million cubic feet of water per minute hits the river below causes much of it to shoot back up into the air, with the spray reaching at least twice as high as the 180 feet it dropped in the first place. This ‘cloud’ of mist can be seen even when the Falls themselves are out of view. This part of the walkway, and all onlookers standing here, is soaking wet.

visit Niagara Falls

The Maid of the Mist is a MUST!

Being such a popular tourist attraction, there are several tours to choose from which will get you up close and almost within reach of the Falls. We steered away from the package deals and chose only the 30-minute Maid of the Mist boat tour. With all passengers covered in plastic ponchos, the boat set off onto the Niagara river, which drains Lake Eerie into Lake Ontario and forms the border between the U.S. and Canada. The steady ship reached the Horseshoe Falls within minutes and we were immediately drenched by the mist. Actually feeling how much water soaked us at the edge of the mist helped to visualize just how much water is contained within the waterfalls themselves. We can highly recommend doing this tour as it is quick, painless and gets right to the point. While it feels adventurous, boats leave every half hour from the dock to the falls, making this a common and safe experience for everyone. We say: The Maid of the Mist is a MUST when you visit Niagara Falls!

visit Niagara Falls

Indeed, these imposing waterfalls are one of nature’s incredible wonders, and everyone should visit Niagara Falls if they get the chance. Most agree that the views are better from the Canadian side, but cross the Rainbow Bridge to the American side and check it out for yourself. From what we could see, there are far less tourist eyesores and it could well be a more natural experience. Back on the Canadian side, we just couldn’t help but be disappointed by the fact that Niagara Falls might just be the most unnatural wonder we’ll ever visit. Luckily, we found a solution, a way out of the tourist trap – and it involves a lot of wine.

Winding our way through the wineries

No, there was no drowning of sorrows in copious amounts of wine. Instead, after beating the crowds to some breathtaking early morning views at Niagara Falls, we set off into the Canadian wine country. Sleepy narrow two-lane roads weave through historic villages which open up into vast fields filled with countless rows of wine as far as the eye can see. We glided along the road, stopping in for samples at a few charming wineries and picking up fresh organic peaches, pears and veggies from farmers stands along the way.

niagara wine country ontario

Tip: Try the sweet dessert ‘ice wine’, a local Ontario wine which uses grapes picked only after the first frost of the year.

Suddenly, 15km from Niagara Falls, a spot of slow traffic began when there had previously been only a few cars on the road. Where were we all of a sudden, we wondered?

Love at first sight: Niagara-on-the-Lake

This charming, historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is everything Niagara Falls is not. Independent shops and restaurants fill the bottom floors of historic buildings, which are set back on streets lined with breezy trees, exotic flowers and lovely sidewalks meant for strolling. Everything in town seems to center around good food and good wine.

Whereas the town of Niagara Falls seems like Las Vegas without the flash and fun, Niagara-on-the-Lake is more like the Canadian version of Tuscany, with its Dolce Vita attitude. Surrounded by 26 wineries, it seems easy to focus on the ‘sweet life’ here.

niagara on the lakeIt was love at first sight, and as we rambled along peeking into shops and checking out restaurant menus, we made an even more exciting discovery. Food and drink here is more fairly priced for infinitely higher quality than the fast food tourist fare down the road. To add to our delight, we spotted plenty of affordable classic hotels and boutique bed and breakfasts throughout town.

As we left Niagara-on-the-Lake, the car was filled with delicious wine, fresh blueberry scones and our homegrown fruit and veg to enjoy once we got back home.

niagara wine country fruit stand

Niagara Falls Tip:

If you visit Niagara Falls, which you really should, skip the cheapie budget digs on ‘motel row’ out of town, and don’t waste serious cash on the 42-story hotel/casino monstrosities all vying for the best views of the falls. We say make Niagara-on-the-Lake your base, take a couple of day trips to the falls and spend the evenings relaxing in this adorable haven just down the road.

The best hotels in Niagara-on-the-Lake:

Inexpensive hotels:

  • Hilton Garden Inn Niagara-On-The-Lake: Small hotel with an indoor swimming pool, free parking and an on-site restaurant. Double rooms start at US$90 per night
  • Holiday Inn Express: 3-star hotel with indoor pool, fitness center and spacious rooms. Double rooms start at US$89 per night.
  • Best Western Butler Colonel Inn: Small hotel with fitness center, comfortable rooms and a good location. Double rooms start at US$89 per night, including breakfast.

Mid-range hotels:

  • 124 on Queen Hotel & Spa: Charming small hotel in historic buildings right on Queen Street in the Old Town with large rooms and luxury villas. There is a spa, a cafe and a restaurant on site. Deluxe rooms start at US$154 per night.
  • Historic Wilson Guy House: B&B in a historic 1816 building near Queen Street. Rooms start at US$150 per night, including breakfast.
  • School House Bed & Breakfast: Small B&B with a shared lounge and a garden. Rooms start at US$181 per night, breakfast included.

Splurge:

  • Pillar & Post Inn & Spa: The small boutique hotel features an outdoor swimming pool, a spa and an onsite restaurant. Premium rooms start at US$268, which includes breakfast and dinner.
  • Prince Of Wales: An intimate luxury hotel in a historic Victorian building. Rooms are decorated with antiques. there is an art-lined indoor pool room and whirlpool. The spa offers a variety of massage and tea-based treatments; the restaurant offers daily afternoon tea. Room start at US$284, which includes breakfast and dinner.
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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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Polaroid of the week: Canada Day in Ottawa

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

.polaroid of the week canada day in ottawa

We spent Canada Day, the country’s 144th birthday on 1 July 2011, in Ottawa. Canada’s capital has the country’s most spectacular celebrations, a passionate patriotism that literally paints the entire town red – like this happy guy here!

The city’s Jazz Fest was on at the same time, with stages set up and street music played throughout the city center. Every patch of grass in the very green city was taken by picnicking families out celebrating the nation, almost everyone in red and white, maple leaf flags flying high.  It was fun for us to see hundreds of thousands Canadians celebrating their ‘big day’, and this year everyone was extra charged, as even Prince William and Catherine, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, attended the celebrations on Parliament Hill.

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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 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.

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!

***Note that Governors Island is only open from May 1 to October 31.***

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. 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 tourist trails, check out Five things to discover in New York that most tourists (and locals) never do – Part II

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Street Art in San Francisco

Banksy in San Fran 2

The Globetrottergirls are huge fans of street and urban art. We love its raw grit, city themes, fleeting nature and the sport of spotting new works by street art all-stars.

Living in London for the last three years, spotting a Banksy was often possible and very exciting, before some art-hostile council would paint over it. We caught Banksy’s CCTV piece the morning he painted it, and his trademark rat right on the Shepherds Bush round-a-bout also the day of.

So imagine our happiness when we saw three Banksy’s in San Francisco and all of them still new!
Street Art in San FranciscoApparently, Mr Banksy was in town around in late April and six new pieces were counted throughout town (coincidentally timed with the U.S. release of his film ‘Exit through the Gift Shop’).

Street Art in San Francisco

San Francisco street art stretches far beyond Banksy: The Mission District is not only known for its innumerable Mexican and Latin American restaurants but also for the murals that are spread all over the district.

Street Art in San FranciscoThe murals in the area were initiated in the 1970s by the Latin American community and inspired by the Mexican mural movement of the 1930s. To date, there are more than 600 murals and graffitis in the Mission District.

Make sure not only to stay on Mission Street but also to explore the streets and alleys right and left of it when looking for murals and graffitis.

San Francisco mural

Street Art in San Francisco

How to see street art in San Francisco

There are several ways to see street art in San Francisco –

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