Everything they say about Santorini is True!

Everything they say about Santorini is True!

I have been dreaming of Santorini for over a decade. Villages of white and blue perched atop rocky cliffs. Aegean sea waves meeting caldera backdrops. Donkey traffic jams and Greek salad dinners. Nightly sunset photo shoots. Needless to say… I was expecting a magical place and was mildly concerned that reality could not possibly live up to the hype. Fortunately, my fears could not have been more misplaced. Santorini was everything they said it would be and MORE!

I had heard rave reviews from friends, family, and travel bloggers. Everyone told me that it was amazing! Touristy? Yes. Overcrowded? At times. Worth it? Most definitely.

Santorini was so intoxicatingly gorgeous that I started to hate myself just a little bit. As I wandered the streets of Oia, you could hear me exclaiming “Look at this view! This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” Only to hear me say, just minutes later, “I take it back… THIS it the most beautiful view!” And then again around the next corner, “Here we go. Money shot! Is this real life?!!!” You get the idea.

The pictures do not come remotely close to doing it justice but here’s a little teaser of what I saw in Santorini.

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I’m not quite done with Santorini yet because I had one of my favourite travel days of all time when we rented ATVs to explore the island. Stay tuned for the full post to come.

Santorini was a dream destination for me. But I want to know… Have you ever been to one of your dream destinations and did it live up to the hype? Leave a comment below.

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Second Time is the Charm in Ancient Athens!

Second Time is the Charm in Ancient Athens!

I had incredibly low expectations for my two nights in Athens.

I first visited this Grecian capital back in March 2003 as part of a 10-day Art & History tour with my high school. I did not love it. Far from it. In fact, I have spent the last decade telling people that it is my least favourite city in Europe. Ouch!

So when I decided to return to Greece my heart was set on the islands. But, since Athens still made the most logical starting point, I relented to the wishes of my travel companions and spent a full day touring many of the same famous sites that failed to wow me the first time. And… what do you know. Athens was NOTHING like I remembered it.

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This is not the first time that a city has improved upon its initial impressions. Barcelona, Rome, and Portland are just a few names that won me over on the SECOND visit and now are some of my favourite cities ever! This is why I absolutely NEVER SAY NEVER. I am so glad I was willing to go back to all of these places because the memories I made the second time around are worth every bit of letdown on the first run through.

So, what changed my mind about Athens? Better weather. Better company. Low Expectations. More Freedom. Open Mind.

But enough preamble… here’s what we got into!

The Acropolis

The most important site in Athens is without-a-doubt The Acropolis – an ancient citadel perched high on a rocky outcrop above the city. It contains the remains of several ancient buildings, most famously the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena (patron and namesake of Athens).

Knowing this was a must-see and with only a short stay in the city, we opted to stay in a very well-located apartment just minutes away. This made our early start time much more manageable. We were waiting at the ticket entrance before it opened at 8:00am to beat the crowds and I’m so glad that we did. It wasn’t difficult to get photos and we had plenty of time to soak of the panoramic city views. We even had time to climb neighbouring Mars Hill sans spectators.

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Parliament Buildings – Changing of the Guard

Every Sunday at 11:00am there is an elaborate changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the Presidential Mansion in Syntagma Square. And what do you know… our one day in Athens just so happened to be on a Sunday. I didn’t even plan that! So we made sure to get there early to nab a spot on the street and gleefully watched the impressive procession of synchronized guardsmen in all their skirted, pom pom tossing glory. I think I enjoyed it even more than the UK variety at Buckingham Palace.

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The Temple of Olympian Zeus

Not too far down the road we came across yet another ancient ruin. This time the Temple of Zeus! The entrance fee was included in our Acropolis ticket and we only stayed long enough to marvel at the sheer size of it. How did people build these monstrosities 2500 years ago?

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Panathenaic Stadium

Okay – this one I did remember and was definitely excited to revisit. It probably has to do with my Olympic obsession but seriously, how could you not be impressed by a 50,000 seat stadium built entirely out of MARBLE! The site of the very first modern Olympic games in 1896 even dates back to ancient times. Mindy and I couldn’t help getting cheesy with a sporty photo shoot.

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The Acropolis Museum

This new museum opened to the public back in 2009 to house the artifacts found on the Acropolis. It was even built overtop of an archaeological site with glass walkways allowing you to view the ruins below – how cool! I loved the juxtaposition of this modern building amidst the surrounding ancient architecture. I’m only a casual fan of museums but it was a nice air-conditioned break from the summer heat and an interesting walk through. Plus it has miniatures! I’m such a sucker for those.

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The Ancient Agora

The Agora was the heart of ancient Athens, the focus of political, commercial, administrative and social activity, the religious and cultural centre, and the seat of justice. This one also happens to be the best-known example of an ancient Greek agora. Honestly, by the time we got here I was a bit tuckered out from our full day of sightseeing. Even though it was approaching golden hour (my favourite time of day for photos!) I couldn’t muster up a lot of energy. But the grounds are extensive and beautifully nestled in below the Acropolis. It’s definitely worth a visit!

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So by the end of my two nights in Athens, I was actually wishing I had a couple more. I could have happily dined and strolled in the Plaka neighbourhood for another evening, soaking up the European café culture that I have become so insanely fond of. But, alas, the Greek Islands were calling and I didn’t want to miss one second of my time in the Cyclades… not even Zeus could stop me.

Next up: Santorini at last!!!

In My Bag: Packing for Summer in Europe

In My Bag: Packing for Summer in Europe

While I’m currently gallivanting around Europe, I thought it might be apropos to provide another dose of packing advice.

It is my travel mission to pack as light as possible (hello carry-on!) while still managing to look stylish. I look back at the photos from my 8-month back packing trip to Europe in 2005/2006 and I cringe at the outfits I put together. I wore a ski jacket in 80% of my photos and couldn’t have looked more like a tourist if I tried. Since then, I’ve learned that comfort and efficiency does not have to sacrifice style. With some strategic choices and some handy tools (read: packing cubes!) I am travelling in Europe for 2 weeks with less than 20 lbs on my back!

Here is the breakdown of what I packed in my bag:

CLOTHING AND SHOES

  • 1 pair of walking shoes (BOBS with memory foam)
  • 1 pair of dressier sandals (Clarks)
  • 1 pair of flip flops (Flojos with arch support)
Three is the perfect number for travel shoes.

Three is the perfect number for travel shoes.

  • 1 pair of jeans (for the plane and chilly evenings)
  • 1 pair of loose fitting hippie pants
  • 2 pairs of shorts
  • 3 dresses
  • 1 skirt/dress (convertible)

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  • 8 tops (3 t-shirts, 5 sleeveless)
  • 2-3 cardigans (for the plane, chilling evenings, hot air balloon)

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  • 1 bikini
  • 1 set of sleepwear
  • 12 pairs of underwear + 3 bras (excessive maybe)
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 pair of bandelettes
  • 1 belt
  • 1-2 scarves (for the plane or to use as a shawl)

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Note: Packing Cubes!

All of my clothing easily fits inside three small packing cubes. The larger blue one is for all of my bottoms and dresses, the medium red is for tops, and the small red is for underwear. These packing cubes make it insanely easy to pack and repack quickly when living out of a backpack. Read more about my packing cube obsession here.

TOILETRIES & ACCESSORIES

  • Stella & Dot Hang On Travel Case (toiletries/make-up/jewelry/sunscreen)
  • Norwex Cloth
  • Small Medicine Bag (Kleenex, band-aids, medication, hand sanitizer, wet wipes)
  • Travel Flat Iron
  • 1 Pair of Sunglasses
  • Tote Bag (for beach use/extra stuff for airplane)
  • Cross-body Bag (Lug – Moped Day Pack) – The best travel day bag that I’ve found!

ELECTRONICS

  • iPhone 5C
  • Headphones
  • iPhone Charger
  • Camera + Charger (Canon Powershot SX700)
  • Spare Memory Card
  • Portable Charger
  • E-reader (Kobo Aura)
  • Voltage Converter
  • Adapters

DOCUMENTS & MISCELLANEOUS

  • Passport & Visa
  • Wallet
  • Travel Documents & Insurance
  • Sleep Sheet
  • Pillow Case
  • Ear Plugs
  • Travel Journal / Pen
  • Travel Umbrella
  • Luggage Locks

This was my first time bringing only a carry-on to Europe. Do you find it difficult to travel light?

What I love most about Europe

What I love most about Europe

Guys, I have a confession. This may not come as a surprise to you but I’m completely smitten by Europe.

I am a total Europhile: A person who is fond of, admires, or even loves European culture, society, history, food, etc. I know that it’s ridiculously expensive compared to popular backpacker trails in Southeast Asia and South America, but I don’t care. It’s like something magnetic keeps pulling me back to the cobblestone streets and fairy-tale castles that first intrigued me as a child. I just can’t get enough.

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Carcassone, France

Next week I’ll be traveling back to one of the first European countries I ever visited, Greece! Since my inaugural visit back in 2003 I have traveled in 16 European countries on 6 separate trips and spent nearly one year of my life on European soil. I’m no Rick Steves but I’ve certainly seen my fair share.

And while I’m off collecting beautiful photographs, hilarious stories, and moments that I’ll cherish for a lifetime… I thought it fitting to reflect on just a few of the reasons why I love this part of the world so much.

Train Travel

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Excited for our train at Roma Termini

There is something so romantic about train travel. And even though I’ve had some less than glamourous overnight journeys on sleeper trains… I still get giddy at the thought of it. Maybe it’s the click clack of the station flip boards or the way the gentle rocking always lulls me to sleep. Maybe it’s all the famous film farewell scenes with lovers blowing kisses from the caboose. Something about train travel (and especially in Europe) feels magical and always transports me to days gone by. It’s efficient. It’s affordable. And the scenery doesn’t suck either.

Walk-able Cities

Visiting Edinburgh Castle

Visiting Edinburgh Castle

I love that so many of the great European cities have a completely walkable city centre, often anchored by a beautiful river. I rarely have to use public transit during my European travels. Perusing major tourist sites on foot and casually wandering through nearby neighbourhoods is without-a-doubt my favourite way to see a city. Often as a broke backpacker, transit and even entrance fees were too much for my meager pocket book – but fortunately walking around is completely FREE! I love that! Some personal favourites – Amsterdam, Bruges, Edinburgh, Florence, Munich, Paris, Salzburg, and Venice.

Accessible Alcohol

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Enjoying a glass of wine with my gnocchi

Cheap. Plentiful. Unrestricted. I don’t think Europeans know how good they have it. We here in North America pay a not-so-pretty premium for alcohol in all its forms and face steep fines if we’re caught drinking in public spaces. In Canada, we are very behind the ball and can only buy liquor in designated stores although apparently select wine and spirits are coming to grocery stores in the never near enough future. Europe just does it better. I cannot tell you how lovely it is to sip a glass of wine with dinner without stressing about blowing my budget. They say the beer is cheaper than water… and they are usually right!

Street Food

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I had no idea that guy was going to do that…

North America has definitely caught on to the street food appeal with its plethora of trendy (and pricey) food trucks in most urban cities. However, once again, Europe does this way better! Not only is their street food delicious and iconic but it’s also super cheap. I cannot even fathom visiting Turkey and NOT eating a doner kebab from a street vendor or going to Paris and not ordering a Nutella-Banana crepe from the side window of a café. I’m already salivating.

History

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The Roman Forum

I live in a young city that is really still a baby at 129 years old, especially when compared with ancient greats like Rome and Athens. When I travel in Europe I get to walk where 2000 years of former generations have stood. I get to see the ruins of ancient civilizations and visit the most famous monuments of all time. These cities are steeped in a rich history with fascinating stories just waiting to be uncovered. I don’t know about you… but I think that is pretty cool.

Do you love Europe as much as I do? What do you enjoy most?

Departure Lounge: Greece & Turkey

Departure Lounge: Greece & Turkey

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!!!! Summer is swiftly approaching and with it… my next big travel adventure!

In many ways, this trip has been 5 years in the making. It all started in a crowded pub after the first day of an economic conference. My university friends, married couple Rachel & Caleb, were hilariously sharing the story of their disastrous honeymoon in Paris. It was a 3-week comedy of errors and the retelling had our table in stiches. But this story was more of a tragedy in truth because poor Rachel virtually swore off international travel ever since. Being the travel evangelist that I am, I promised that someday I would take her back to Europe and show her how awesome it can be. Well, that someday has finally arrived.

In just a few weeks I am travelling to Greece and Turkey with both Rachel & Caleb (wish me luck!) as well as my frequent travel partner Mindy. If summer in the Mediterranean can’t win them over, then nothing will. We only have 2 weeks but I am confident that our itinerary has something for everyone: Beaches, History, Culture, Adventure, and Food!

Itinerary

June 20-21: Athens, Greece

June 22-25: Santorini, Greece

June 26: Bodrum, Turkey

June 27: Ephesus, Turkey

June 28: Pamukkale, Turkey

June 29-30: Goreme, Turkey

July 1-4: Istanbul, Turkey

These are the activities I am most looking forward to:

  • Renting ATVs and driving around the island of Santorini.
  • Drinking wine while watching the famed Oia Sunset
  • Exploring Ephesus, one of the best preserved ancient sites in the world
  • Riding a hot air balloon in Cappadocia!
  • Sinking my teeth into Turkish cuisine (rumored to be A-MAZING!)

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I am SOOO excited for this trip and I can’t wait to start posting about it. Stay tuned this summer for all the details!

Where are your summer plans taking you? Have you been to Greece or Turkey? Any tips? Leave a comment below.

Photo Essay: 5 Hours in Amsterdam

Photo Essay: 5 Hours in Amsterdam

On my way home from Spain last month, I ended up with a five hour daytime layover in Amsterdam. It was a beautiful, sunny, Sunday morning and my bag was checked through to my final destination so I decided to be adventurous and leave the airport. I bought myself a train ticket from Schiphol to Amsterdam Centraal station and in less than 15 minutes I was wandering around the quiet streets of the city centre. I ate delicious pastry. I marvelled at the impressive bike lanes. I photographed the lovely canals.

In all my travels abroad, I have never left the airport during a layover before but I’m so glad I did. It was the perfect way to stretch my legs and pass the time. And it was easier than I could have imagined. Can’t wait to go back to Holland for a longer stay!

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Have you ever done something fun on an airport layover?

I left my heart in Barcelona

I left my heart in Barcelona

I’ve experienced love at first sight before. It just took one glance at Dubrovnik‘s old town to knock me off my feet.

But sometimes you meet a city at the wrong time. Maybe the weather is bad or you’re feeling under the weather. First impressions are important and can really affect how you feel about a particular place.

Over the past couple of years, I have given out some second chances and revisited past cities that didn’t thrill me the first time. Each of these second impressions gave me a new outlook and a remarkably better experience.

So nine years after my first ambivalent visit to Barcelona, I returned for a do-over. The result: LOVE! In fact, I could see myself happily living there someday. It was just that good.

Here are five reasons why I’m crazy about Barcelona:

1. Mediterranean Climate IMG_0365 It’s no secret that I hate cold weather so any city that boasts palm trees and year-round sunshine gets my vote. I love that winter in Spain feels like spring anywhere else. Some people like having four distinct seasons but I could easily do without the rain and snow.

2. Delicious Food IMG_3025 One word. Tapas. Spanish cuisine is based around these bite sized delicacies that essentially turn every dining experience into Happy Hour. Not to mention the cheap alcohol and relaxed drinking laws in Europe. What’s not to love?

3. Coastal CityIMG_3067I’ve grown up living within 45 minutes of the Pacific Ocean and now live a whole 1 minute walk from the beach. I don’t think I could ever be happy living away from the coast. Fortunately, Barcelona has a gorgeous pier and great beaches.

4. Cosmopolitan CataloniaIMG_0486Let’s be clear about one thing. Barcelona is not Spain. Although it’s technically located in Spain, it’s actually the capital of a region called Catalonia. They have their own language, customs, and culture – giving it a distinctly modern and classic European flavour. Whereas the rest of Spain is a bit rough around the edges, Barcelona is clean, organized, and reminds me a lot more of Paris than Madrid.

5. Drop Dead Gorgeous IMG_0518Unique architecture. Palm Trees. Plazas. Beaches. I could go on and on but I think the pictures say it better than I ever could. Barcelona is beautiful.IMG_2961 IMG_0479 IMG_3076 IMG_3080 IMG_0500I’m not sure why Barcelona didn’t wow me at first but it definitely stole my heart the second time around. I don’t know when I’ll be back but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being sooner than later.

Once Upon a Time in Sintra

Once Upon a Time in Sintra

Ever since I was a young girl I’ve had a fascination with fairy tales, princesses, and castles. I blame it on Disney’s expert brainwashing. But, for all of my European travels, I’ve actually visited relatively few actual castles. And the ones I did see turned out to be more like military fortresses than the elegant palaces of my dreams. So imagine my delight when I googled “day trips from Lisbon” and discovered Sintra, a town near the coast dotted with royal retreats, estates, and castles. Needless to say I was sold.

All it took was a 1 hour train ride (don’t get me started on the ticket purchasing process… you need to up your game Rossio station) and an accidental hike up a mountain. #worthit

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Introducing beautiful Sintra and the Pena National Palace!

We arrived in Sintra on a picture perfect winter day (that honestly felt more like Spring) and instantly got swept away by the magic of this town. We could barely take a few steps before we HAD to stop for another photo. Progress was slow.

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Sintra National Palace

We had done our research in advance and knew that of all the castles and palaces in the region, the Pena National Palace was the one we wanted to see most. According to google maps, the pink and yellow palace was approximately a 30 minute walk from the main part of town. Easy.

We started walking up the hilly roads along with many other tourists. But, as we continued up the cobblestone road, our fellow travellers started to dwindle until it was just Megan and I left. We initially didn’t think much of it until it became clear that google maps was a BIG FAT LIAR. This was no 30 minute hike. But we soldered on… (a) because we kept hoping we were almost there (b) because we were too cheap to pony up for a bus pass, but mostly (c) because there really wasn’t another choice. We were alone out there.

At least we had pretty castles to motivate us.

Castelo dos Mouros

Castelo dos Mouros

Pena National Palace!

Pena National Palace!

We did eventually make it to the ticket office where we purchased a park pass for €8 which gave us access to everything except the inside of the palace. Cue epic fairytale photo shoot.

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Sintra was such a worthwhile day trip. My feet may have been throbbing but my camera was full and I definitely got my castle fix for the next year or so.

Do you love castles as much as I do? Any recommendations?

Highlights from Lisbon, Portugal

Highlights from Lisbon, Portugal

From the very first evening wandering the streets of old Alfama, I knew that I was going to fall hard for Lisbon. This city has everything I love about Europe. Narrow winding streets. Grand Squares. Beautiful vistas. Awe-inspiring monuments. I had high expectations for my inaugural trip to Portugal and it did not disappoint. Lisbon is quintessential Europe and a city that deserves a spot on every traveller’s bucket list.

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We jam-packed so much activity into two days that it’s hard to choose just one highlight… so here are a couple of my favourite spots in the city.

Praca do Comercio

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One thing that Europe does better than anywhere else is expansive plazas. In Lisbon, the Praça do Comércio is not only surrounded by gorgeous and brightly coloured buildings but it’s also situated on the Tagus River. A square that is also a waterfront? Yes please.

Belém

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This region of the city is home to not one, not two, but three UNESCO World Heritage sites. So obviously it was a must see.

(1) The Tower of Belém

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(2) Jerónimos Monastery

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(3) Monument to the Discoveries

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Jardim Botânico da Ajuda

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Every once in a while you stumble across a place that isn’t on any must-see tourist list and then ends up being one of your favourite spots. That’s what happened to my park loving travel buddy Megan and I when we stumbled across this completely empty garden with beautiful river vistas. It looked like it fell straight out of a Jane Austen novel and was such a lovely reprieve from the crowded tourist sights. We may or may not have staged an hour long photo shoot…

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Castelo de São Jorge

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What would a trip to a European capital be without a hilltop castle visit? The Castle of St George is an 11th century, Moorish castle & royal residence strategically positioned high on a hill with stunning city views. Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in during our visit which inhibited the view but definitely added a level of mystery quite fitting to playing in such a fortress.

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I could have spent weeks exploring this city that clearly has so much more to offer than the conventional sites, but I know that a return trip to Portugal is in my future. This trip was just a teaser for what’s to come.

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My Top 10 Favourite Cities

According to my Trip Advisor travel map, I’ve been to 265 cities and counting! I believe that this stat gives me a bit of credibility in listing some of my favourites thus far. I wholeheartedly recommend all of these cities and have visited half of them more than once. As always, I reserve the right to update this list whenever I like because I’m constantly visiting fabulous new destinations. But, for now at least, here are my top 10 favourite cities.

My Top 10 Favourite Cities

San Diego, California

La Jolla

I first visited San Diego on a family vacation when I was 10 years old. We did the typical touristy activities like SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. I loved them both and even got called up on stage during two of the shows (my 15 minutes of fame). Flash forward a decade and my views have certainly changed. I may no longer support animal captivity but fortunately SD still has a plethora of amazing (cruelty free) things to do – try whale watching or surfing instead. When one of my best friends moved to the city in 2012 I was beyond excited about frequently visiting (and I have!). With blissful temperatures year-round, stunning cliffs and beaches, and amazing restaurants, San Diego is my favourite winter getaway. I could even see myself living here someday – Hello Vitamin D!

Paris, France

Paris

A wise woman once said, “Paris is always a good idea” and I couldn’t agree more. If you were to visit my apartment, one thing would quickly become apparent, and that is that J’adore Paris! I can’t possibly think of a city with more class and culture. Just imagine perusing the markets in Montmartre, strolling the grounds of les Jardins du Luxembourg, or savouring a crepe on the Champs-Élysées. An exemplary model of urban planning, this world-class city has so many unique neighbourhoods to explore. Not to mention being home to some of the world’s most famous sights; L’arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Le Louvre, and La Tour Eifel, to name a few. Now if only I could remember my 8 years of French lessons…

Rome, Italy

Rome

Ah Roma… a textbook example of why you sometimes need to revisit a city to truly appreciate it. Ten years after my first visit, I went back to the eternal city to discover what I had missed back in my teenage years. Yes, I remembered that the monuments were impressive and that the gelato was tasty but I couldn’t seem to understand what the fuss was all about. Well, let me tell you – Rome is simply magical. The entire city is like an open air museum with rich history spanning more than 2,500 years and amazing architecture around every corner. You could easily spend years in Rome and still not discover it all. I’ve thrown my coin in the Trevi Fountain twice and I’m sure I’ll be back again!

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik

My inaugural trip to the pearl of the Adriatic was almost ruined by a missed train and a spiral of lost connections. Fortunately, I pushed passed the roadblocks with the lovely premonition that I was about to fall in love. Most of the cities on this list are places that I’ve courted over several trips but Dubrovnik is my only one night stand. So, you can imagine how intoxicating a city it must be to have such power over me so quickly. Well let me tell you that one walk around the old city walls is all it took to have me spouting off grand declarations and adding Croatia to every list in my book. Dubrovnik is quite simply the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen and even though our time together was brief, it left a lasting impression on me. I hope I won’t have to call her The One that Got Away for long.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh

Edinburgh was one of the very last stops on my 8 month European backpacking adventure in 2005/2006. I arrived there feeling a bit of travel burnout and was definitely looking forward to heading home. Fortunately I arrived to perfect spring weather and a gorgeous city dripping with classic European charm. Edinburgh has a distinctly medieval feel with cobblestone streets, Gothic architecture, and a castle resting on an extinct volcano. But, it’s also a great city for young people and maybe even a place to find love… I mean if it worked for Will & Kate! I have yet to hear a negative review of this Scottish gem so if it isn’t on your bucket list yet… you know what to do.

Bogota, Colombia

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This is one that may raise some eyebrows. Bogota is a very unconventional choice and probably won’t make many top ten lists (unless you’re looking at the negative side). But, I don’t care what the critics say – I have my own opinions and my own experiences and Bogota won me over big time. It likely had a lot to do with my personal tour guide / travel agent friend who hosted and entertained me the entire 5 days, but that also proves that there is plenty to love about Colombia’s capital. The historic district La Candelaria (pictured above) has lovely Spanish Colonial and Baroque architecture with a wealth of churches and squares to fill your camera. The city has great shopping and dining options plus Monserrate, one of the most beautiful mountain top attractions I’ve ever seen – the funicular ride to the top is a must-do for all tourists. Transportation may not be super easy (although I was kind of taxi fairy) and English still isn’t widely spoken (if at all) but the effort was definitely worth it to discover the inner beauty of this very misunderstood city.

Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg

Visiting Salzburg was the realization of a childhood dream – to step into the world of Fräulein Maria and the Von Trapp children. After growing up with an obsessive passion for the Sound of Music I knew I had to do the official SOM tour when I finally made it to the famous city – and it did not disappoint. Even in the fall, the Mirabell Gardens (pictured above) with views of Hohensalzburg Castle were enchanting. The nearby palaces, abbey, and Lake District easily appeased the fan girl in me and proved that my adoration of Austria was well deserved. But, the city has even more to offer. As the birth place of Mozart, culture in the way of museums and music is at a premium and the lovely riverside hosts one of my favourite little Christmas markets in the winter. Although it is much smaller than Vienna and harder to avoid tourist groups (sorry – that was me), it is worth your time and will always hold a very special place in my heart.

Florence, Italy

Florence

Tuscany. That’s probably the only descriptive word that I need to use to explain why I love Florence so much, but this is a blog, so I will elaborate. Firenze is another city with a medieval feel. Often considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, it is so easy to get swept away with the impressive art (Michelangelo’s statue of David), gorgeous churches (Duomo and Santa Croce), and unique bridges (Ponte Vecchio). I loved exploring the winding streets and discovering epic views (see above) from the Piazzale Michelangelo. And to top it all off, Florence is where I first discovered gelato (Tiramisu flavoured nonetheless)! There’s something dreamlike about this part of the world and it’s orange roof tops – it easily makes my list.

New Orleans, Louisiana

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Welcome to Nawlins y’all! There is just something special about the South that makes me want to slow my speech and eat something fried… but maybe that’s just the Bourban talking. Joking aside, New Orleans is a truly amazing city that in many ways doesn’t even feel like part of America. With buildings dating back to the 1700s and a unique French influence, Louisiana is easily one of the most interesting of the 50 states. Known for its delicious Cajun food, amazing jazz music, beautiful colonial architecture, and the wild and crazy Mardi Gras – NOLA has something for everyone. You can party in the street all night long or step back in time on a beautiful antebellum or creole plantation. The city has faced a lot of adversity with its history of slavery and recent tragedies like the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But, what I saw here was beautiful resilience, hope, and a whole lot of fun! Do your part to help and make New Orleans your next vacation stop.

Vancouver, BC, Canada

Vancouver

My city. My home. My happy place! The past two years of living in Vancouver have been some of the very best of my life. I still pinch myself every time I cross the Burrard Street Bridge (which is usually twice per day) because I can’t believe that this is my real life. Vancouver is by far my favourite place on earth. Wherever you look you see water or mountains or both! You can ski, golf, bike, sail and kayak– all on the same day. Not only is this city breathtakingly beautiful but it is bursting with activity, diversity, and general awesomeness (that’s a technical term)! In Vancity we know all about living well – we are clean and green. We love yoga and craft beer and playing outside all year long. If you’re not planning a visit to the magnificent Pacific Northwest – then you should be!

Honourable Mention:

A Modern Twist in Ancient Split

Croatia’s second largest city may be best known as a transportation hub for buses, ferries, and flights but that’s not the full picture. We didn’t do much more than pass through Split on our way from the islands to the North, but we did find a little piece of paradise along the way. The main harbour was buzzing with activity with tourists flocking to the beautiful promenade lined with palm trees, cafes, shops, and the UNESCO world heritage site, Dicoletian’s Palace. At first it seemed out of place to stumble across the beautifully preserved Roman palace at the epicentre of the city’s transportation network, but soon the old and new blended together in a perfect split that didn’t seem divided at all. One minute we were shopping in an upscale boutique and next we were climbing on a pile of 4th century ruins. Around every corner was a new discovery and the unexpected time travel felt oddly perfect.

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Next up: Heading Northwest to the capital city, Zagreb.

Hvar: The sunniest spot in Europe

It was a cold, dark, and rainy January evening when I randomly met my first Croatian at a Pita Pit in Vancouver. We struck up a conversation that started with olives and ended with an email exchange of must-see places in Croatia. I had never heard of Hvar before and I certainly hadn’t planned to go there, but my new friend Davor assured me that it was not to be missed.

Fast forward 6 months and I spent two amazing days on the beautiful island that claims to be the sunniest spot in Europe! We stayed a short five minute walk from the harbour and spent our time strolling along the promenades lined with cafes where we enjoyed dinner, drinks, and dessert al fresco every night.

And of course no Mediterranean vacation is complete without a beach day. After a mere 30 minute water taxi ride we reached the tranquil and even more remote Palmižana island.  A part of the Pakleni chain of islands, this popular spot is the perfect place for yachts (both big and small), swimming, and sunbathing. We rented some luxurious beach chairs and spent a blissful day soaking up the sun, which played hide & seek, but fortunately, mostly seek.

Another highlight of our time on Hvar was our hike to visit the Fortica (Spanjola). After an easy 20 minute “hike” up the stone steps and winding pathway we reached the 16th century fortress that provides stunning panoramic views of Hvar town and the surrounding Pakleni islands. We were once again blown away by the beauty of Croatia (see Dubrovnik post) and took an embarrassing number of photos to document the stunning vistas. At this point, Croatia is a top contender for the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited… although it does have some stiff competition (I’m looking at you Italy, Ecuador, Spain, Costa Rica, and Switzerland).

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Dubrovnik: The Pearl of the Adriatic

Nearly 8 years ago, I received a book of the 100 most beautiful cities in the world. Croatia had never really crossed my mind until I opened the page to Dubrovnik – The Pearl of the Adriatic. One glance and I was sold. Someday, I told myself, I will go there! And now, after many missed connections, planes, trains, ferries, and buses, I’m finally there!

Dubrovnik is a tourism mecca. As a popular cruise port, throngs of visitors pour into the old town’s narrow streets in search of the quintessential European charm and coastal beauty that makes it a UNESCO World Heritage site and a top contender for the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

The city is steeped in stunning architecture and sculptural detail, boasting spectacular churches, monasteries, museums, and fountains. And despite past violence and destruction from earthquakes and war, the magnificent 13th-century walls that surround the Old Town still stand as the highlight of my trip so far.

This is where we found ourselves after a leisurely dinner in the main square observing three joyful wedding parties on their celebration marches. The 2km city walls that wrap around the Old Town provide the most beautiful panoramas of the city including Lokrum Island nestled near the harbour mouth and beyond… the Mediterranean Sea. We spent more time than we care to admit wandering around the walls on this warm summer evening, drinking in the picture perfect vistas and filling our cameras with complimentary souvenirs. Every turn led to more ooh’s and aah’s and I really never got sick of photographing those red-tiled roof tops. Trust me, I have evidence. And isn’t it curious how laundry hanging to dry somehow becomes magical in a foreign land? In the end, our one  night in Dubrovnik was all too short but worth every bit of effort.

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Unfinished Business: Neapolitan Pizza & the Blue Grotto

Okay… time to catch up on some serious blogging.

On our third day in Italy we decided to take a full day trip to nearby Naples to search for Pizzeria Da Michele’s made famous by Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. We took the high speed train in business class (fitting for two former business students) and found the place with little trouble. Since we were early we squeezed in some shopping and then got there for the opening in order to beat the crazy lineups. There are only two items on the menu: Pizza Margherita and Pizza Marinera. We got one of each. The pizza is cooked in a wooden oven and we were able to watch the whole thing. It was definitely worth the trip and only cost 4 euros for an entire pizza.

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Next up was a trip was a trip back to the island of Capri near the Amalfi coast: my second time. The first time I was unable to visit the famous Grotto Azzura (Blue Grotto) due to weather conditions so this time the perfect summer conditions made my dream come true. We started off with a 40 minute hydrofoil to the island and then quickly hopped onto a one hour boat trip to the famous cave. We loved being on the water and snapping as many photos of the island as physically possible. Mindy was totally in her happy place. We got to the cave and then hopped in to our own row boat with a very charismatic boat rower who led us into the narrow opening and showed us the amazing blue water in the cave while serenading us with classic Italian songs. It was kind of comical and overpriced but a great memory nevertheless.

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Once back on shore we once again had perfect timing and caught a bus from the port to the upper town called Anacapri. The town is draped along the cliffs with white pristine houses and flowers. Picture perfect at every turn. After shopping and visiting the Villa San Michele we decided to take the small funicular (chair lift) to the summit of the island where we could see the whole island and get photos of the stunning little islands called the Faraglioni. The chair lift took 13 minutes each way and was the perfect end to our day on the island. We love being on the water and are immensely looking forward to more time on the water in Croatia.

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