Friday, July 28, 2017

4 Days in Stockholm: What to Do, See and Eat

Confession: I had never really considered going to Stockholm, and it had never really been on my radar until recently. However, after consistently hearing great things about the city, and after consistently seeing amazing airfare deals, I just couldn't resist - I booked a flight to Stockholm.

Best decision ever - Stockholm exceeded my expectations in every single way, from the charming fairytale buildings, the gorgeous waterfront views, the delicious food scene (hellooooo meatballs and cardamom buns), the beautiful, minimalistic Scandinavian design, the friendly people - even the weather exceeded my expectations.

With plenty of cheap flights from the United States, I highly recommend it as your next destination! I spent 4 days there, and felt that it was the perfect amount of time to explore and get a feel for the city. Here are my picks of what you should do, see, and eat in the city:

When to go
Sweden is famous for its cold winters with its short daylight hours, and its long summer days. The Swedes love their summer, and Stockholm comes alive with many events and festivals in the summer months. I went in late May and it was the perfect time to go - I got lucky and got sunny 80 degree days, although I was the weather can be schizo sometimes. Summer is the best time to go, with sunny days and mild days. You also can't go wrong with those extra hours of daylight - even in late May, sunrise was at 3:45 am and sunset was at 9:40 pm!

Being from California, I have no idea what a real winter is and don't think I would be able to handle a winter in Stockholm. Some attractions are closed in the winter. However, the city transforms into a magical winter wonderland under the snow and there are many holiday events and markets throughout the city - a unique way to see Stockholm!

Buy a Stockholm Pass!
I highly recommend getting a Stockholm pass, as this included almost any activity you can think of! All the activities and attractions I recommend below under "Do & See" are included in this pass. It is a great value, especially if you plan to see a lot and do a lot of activities on your trip (as I did). You can also get a transit pass add-on - this costs the same as you were to buy it as-is directly from SL, the Stockholm transit agency, but I did for the convenience of not having to worry about it.

Getting Around
Stockholm is fairly small, and many of the main tourist attractions in the city center are easy to get around to on foot. Stockholm also has an extensive and efficient subway system, as well as buses, and water taxis. You can buy a transit card, or purchase one with a Stockholm pass, and these options are all included with it. You can also take taxis or Uber, but these are pricey and not recommended.

Cash vs. Credit
I did not take out any cash in Stockholm. Credit cards are accepted everywhere in Stockholm - in fact, some businesses don't accept cash. The only exception to this is using a public restroom, for which you will need kroner coins. You can always use the restroom at a cafe or restaurant that you are a customer of, or a museum that you go to. However, there were a few times when I really had to go while I was wandering around aimlessly, and had a couple of close calls!

There is no shortage of accommodation options in Stockholm, from fancy luxury hotels, unique boutique hotels, designer hostels, Airbnbs, and everything in between. Wanting to try something new and to meet new people, I opted to stay in the Generator Hostel, especially as I had heard amazing things about this popular chain of boutique hostels. It really made me rethink what comes to mind when you hear "hostel," with its award-winning decor and hipster-cool vibe. They also curate fun social events. I enjoyed my stay there, even though I was always out and about and never really spent much time in the hostel and totally failed at the "meet new people" part.

I had coffee and breakfast at Gretas, which is the restaurant at the Haymarket by Scandic hotel and absolutely fell in love with the super chic, colorful decor of the place. Their bar is also a fest for the eyes, and I would have loved to come back there for a cocktail (but could never find enough time!). Would definitely love to stay there on a future trip!


Gamla Stan
Gamla Stan is the old town of Stockholm, and home of the first Viking settlement where Stockholm was founded in 1252. It is one of the best preserved medieval city centers in Europe, and is also a popular tourist spot in Stockholm, with an array of restaurants, cafes, bars, and museums.

Wander through its lively cobblestone streets and admire the charming fairytale-like architecture, grab a coffee or a bite to eat here. Sit in the Stortorget, which used to be one of the largest city squares in Europe, admire the colorful gingerbread-like buildings, and people watch.

Royal Palace
At over 600 rooms, the Royal Palace of Stockholm is one of the largest such palaces in Europe. It also contains 5 museums. After the original Royal Palace burned down in a fire, the current structure was built in the 18th century in an Italian Baroque style. Although the royal family of Sweden does not live in the Royal Palace, their offices are still here.

There is a changing of guards parade that happens daily - I had not been planning to see this, but happened to be walking nearby when it happened and it was quite the production and definitely worth watching! You can read more about the changing of the guards here.

Skansen is the world's oldest open-air museum, and will give you a unique insight into daily Swedish life and culture throughout the years. It is designed to be "Sweden in miniature," and features villages, nature, commerce, and industry from all over the country. Over 150 farms and houses from all over Sweden were deconstructed and transported here in order to provide an insight into how Swedes once lived and worked.

Many of the staff are dressed in traditional Swedish period costumes, and you can see them showcasing handicrafts, music, and foods. Various festivals are held here to celebrate Swedish traditions. There is also a Nordic zoo, housing many of the animals that can be found in the country.

Boat Tours
Stockholm is a city built on 14 islands that are connected by more than 50 bridges, and seeing it from water gives you a unique perspective of the city. There are numerous boat tours available from Stromma, and several of these are included with the Stockholm pass.  It is a great way to see the city while relaxing and resting your feet.

I did the Royal Canal Tour, which takes you through the most famous waterside spots and through Djugarden, as well as the Under the Bridges Tour, which takes you under the bridges and through the locks that connect the freshwater Lake Malaren with the Baltic Sea. There is also an Archipelago Tour that takes you through Stockholm's unique archipelago, which is the second largest in the Baltic Sea. If you are in Stockholm in the winter, there is even a Winter Tour that allows you to see the city on ice!

City Hall
The Stockholm City Hall is one of the city's most well-known buildings. It is famous for its art and grand ceremonial halls, and is the venue of the annual Nobel Prize banquet. You will need to sign up for a tour to see the inside of the building, however, even seeing the exterior of the building (built with more than 8 million bricks) is worth a visit. There are also amazing views of Gamla Stan from here.

Fotografiska calls itself an international meeting center for contemporary photography. There are 4 large exhibitions and about 20 smaller exhibitions held here each year. They are thought-provoking, sometimes controversial, and ambitious. The works of both world-renowned photographers (such as Annie Leibovitz) and new, up-and-coming photographers are showcased here. Definitely a unique museum and worth a visit! The best part of Fotografiska is that it is open until 1am, so you can make a visit when most other attractions have closed for the day.

Subway Art Tour
At over 100km long, Stockholm's subway system is said to be the longest art exhibit in the world. Ninety of the 100 stations in the system have been adorned in some way, with some of the stations being truly spectacular installations. I broke up my station visits to a few a day, but you can set aside an afternoon to tour all the notable stations in one trip.

Some of my favorites are T-Centralen, Stadion, Kungstragarden, and Solna Centrum.

Stockholm's archipelago is the second largest in the Baltic Sea and consists of some 30,000 islands, rocks, and skerries. Only 20 minutes outside of Stockholm, Fjaderholma is the closest island to the city and is considered to be the gateway of the archipelago. It is perfect for a quick half day trip for escaping the busy city. Ferry service is offered through Stromma (included in Stockholm Pass)or from Waxholmsbolaget.

You can take a walk around the island, sit on the rocks and gaze out at the sea and passing boats, stop into one of the local artisan shops, sit down for a nice lunch, and have a beer at the brewery. Some recommended restaurants are Rokoriet and Fjaderholmarnas Krog. The latter serves a Christmas smorgasbord during the holiday season, which would be a festive reason to make a stop onto the island in the winter.

Drottningholm Palace
Sitting just outside Stockholm, Drottningholm Palace is the official residence of the king and queen of Sweden. It is inspired by 16th and 17th century French architecture (like that of Versailles), and is one of 3 UNESCO world heritage sites in Sweden. The gorgeous grounds also feature a park, a Baroque garden, a theater, and a Chinese Pavilion.

The best way to get there is to take a boat tour there, which takes you on a leisurely cruise down Lake Malaren (this is also included in the Stockholm Pass). However, you can also drive and there are a number of public transportation options to get you there.

Vasa Museum
Disclaimer: I missed the ferry back from Fjaderholmarna, and ran out of time to go here - I have heard that it is a really interesting museum, and I definitely want to go on a future trip! The Vasa warship sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, and was salvaged out of the ocean over 300 years later. The preserved and restored warship is displayed in all its glory here, which is the most visited museum in Scandinavia.

Stockholm has an acclaimed international food scene, with delicious restaurants serving any kind of cuisine you can think of. However, I was most excited about two things: Swedish meatballs and fika, which accounted for most of what I ate during my stay. Here are my picks for meatball restaurants and fika spots!

The one thing that I knew I wanted to eat a lot of was Swedish Meatballs. These are smaller than traditional meatballs, come coated a gravy, and are usually accompanied with mashed potatoes, ligonberries, and pickled cucumbers. I did a bit of research and sought out the best Swedish Meatalls in Stockholm, and these 3 spots below all came highly recommended. You can't go wrong with any of these 3, but I ranked them below:

Located in the opera house, Bakfickan is the more casual restaurant of the upscale Operakällaren, and serves a lot of classic Scandinavian dishes. This was narrowly my favorite. What made it my favorite? The meatballs were delicious, but OH MY GOD - the mashed potatoes were heavenly. Perfectly creamy and buttery, and I wanted to fall asleep on a cloud of them. I ended up going back for lunch later in the week, except this time I ordered the Gravlax (smoked salmon) - also amazing as well.

Pelikan is consistently regarded as one of the best restaurants in Stockholm, and is known for its classic Swedish cuisine and has been a local favorite for more than a century. I would say that the meatballs were as good or even just a tad better than Bakfickan, but the potatoes won out. They also serve a variety of other cuisines, and I wanted to go back to try one of them, but never made it back. Another plus is that they are open until 1am.

Meatballs for the People
This is a super popular spot for meatballs, and well,  the word "meatballs" is in its name. The cool part about Meatballs for the People is that you can choose what kind of meatballs you want - traditional beef, boar, reindeer, even veggie and vegan options - so you can taste a unique spin on this classic!

What is fika? It is essentially a Swedish coffee break, often shared with friends and a sweet treat of some sort. The idea is to slow down and to enjoy the simple things in life. It was a concept that I had read about before departing, and I knew that I would have to fika during my trip - heck, multiple times a day (because I'm on vacation and why not?!). Stockholm has tons of great bakeries and cafes that are perfect for your fika stop, but these two were amazing and won't disappoint (and also have multiple locations in the city):

Vete-Katten serves a variety of cakes, pastries, buns, and coffee, as well as lunch and an afternoon tea service. I loved the little cakes here - my favorite was the marzipan Princess cake.

You are coming here for the buns! Cinnamon buns are traditional favorites, and kardemummabullar, or cardamom roll, is a twist on that. I fell in love with the cardamom buns here, and I had to have multiples in a day. They are something I've dreamt about every day since getting back to the states.

Have you been to Stockholm? What are your favorite spots there?

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Best Walls in San Francisco

San Francisco is a city with an abundance of amazing street art - walking down its streets is like wandering through an art gallery. Over 1000 murals can be seen in all over the city - in some parts of the city, like the Mission, there are murals everywhere you look, and this is where you can find many of the best walls in San Francisco.

I am a sucker for a good wall and I love cruising the city to find them! Here, I've rounded up my favorites for the ultimate collection of the best walls in San Francisco, and where to find them.

1. Flamingo Wall by fnnch
outside Media Noche restaurant
3465 19th St.

2. Blue Houses and Poppies by Ursula Young
Ames Alley and 21st St.

3. Rainbow Geometric Wall
Clarion Alley - between Valencia St. and Mission St.
(this alley is full of amazing walls - definitely home to some of the best walls in San Francisco!)

4. Floral Wall by Jet Martinez
Valencia St. & 15th St.

5. Tribal Chevron Wall
Balmy Alley - between 24th St. and 25th St.
(another spot with some of the best walls in San Francisco)

6. Ombre Triangle Wall by Val Santillo and Yuka Ezoe
outside Edo Salon
601 Haight St.

7. Pink wall
outside Miette
449 Octavia St.

8. Neon Feather Wall  by Apexer
18th St.& Guerrero St.

9. Pink Block Wall
Balmy Alley

10. Lip Wall by fnnch
outside Bodega
700 Columbus Ave.
*note: a blue and white version of this is also on Haight St. & Central Ave.

11. Citrus Argyle Wall 
outside Boba Guys
3491 19th St.

12. Evolutionary Rainbow Wall by Yana Zegri
Cole St. & Haight St.

13. Abstract Bird Wall
Buena Vista Horace Mann School
Valencia St. & 23rd St.

14. Tropical Leaf Wall by Elle
Sparrow Street & Caledonia St.

Where have you found amazing street art? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

12 Things to Do in Seattle

Seattle is one of my all-time favorite cities. You can't go wrong with all the green (all that rain really does make the city beautiful), and the amazing views of the surrounding water and mountains. And because it is only a 2 hour flight away from San Francisco, I find myself coming back over and over again - 7 times in 6 years, in fact.

Seattle often gets overlooked because of its reputation as a grey, rainy, and muted city, but I think there is something for everyone to love there. Here are the top 12 things to do in the Emerald City:

1. Eat your way through Pike Place Market
Pike Place Market is one of the oldest continuously operating Farmers' Markets in the United States and is an absolute foodie haven. You can find hundreds of produce stands, butchers, bakeries, seafood markets, flower vendors, craftspeople, and specialty food stores in this 9 acre historical district.

It is also home to the original Starbucks location, as well as 80 restaurants. Bring your stomach - there is so much to feast upon here.

2. Go up the Space Needle
Originally built for the 1962 World's Fair, the iconic Space Needle is considered a symbol of Seattle today. Enjoy sweeping views of the downtown Seattle, Puget Sound, Lake Union, the surrounding islands, and the Olympic and Cascade mountains. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Rainier, looking as majestic as ever.

Pro tip: You can buy a day/night ticket to see the views both in light and dark. I discovered (on accident) that the best time to go, is right before sunset - then you get both daytime and nighttime views, even with general admission.

3. Admire the glass art at Chihuly Garden and Glass
You may recognize Seattle area native Dale Chihuly's renowned glass sculptures - one of his most famous works is in the lobby of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. At Chihuly Garden and Glass, you can admire Chihuly's works in all its glory. The long-term exhibition at the Seattle Center features a gallery, a garden, and a glasshouse, featuring an incredible 100-foot ceiling sculpture that creates a unique view of the neighboring Space Needle.

4. Spend time on the water
Seattle is surrounded by water, and some of the best ways to see the city are from a boat. You can go about this in several ways. One option is to rent a boat or kayak. Another is to take a ferry to one of the surrounding islands. Bainbridge Island, Vashon, and Bremerton are great options for a day trip to get away from the city, and spend some time on the water. You can also take a water taxi to beachy West Seattle.

There are also several companies offering boat tours around Elliott Bay, for spectacular views of the Seattle waterfront, and skyline, and the bay. Another option for is a cruise around Lake Union and Portage Bay, also offering sweeping views of the skyline, and a look into Seattle's unique floating homes community.

5. Snap a photo of the view from Kerry Park
Ever wonder where to get that postcard shot of the Seattle skyline with the Space Needle in the foreground from? This is the spot. Grab your camera, admire the view, and snap a bunch of photos. On a clear day, you can also see Mt. Rainier peek through, making the view even more perfect.

6. Say hi to the Fremont Troll
Located under the Aurora Bridge in Fremont, the Fremont Troll is a public art piece that was built in 1990 as the winner of a competition to rehabilitate the area under the bridge. The piece has its roots in Scandinavian folklore. He's a bit strange, but he's also cool (and HUGE), and you should definitely go say hi to him!
7. Hang out at Gas Works Park
Gas Works Park is built on the site of an old coal gasification plant of the Seattle Gas Light company. It houses numerous remnants of the plant, which provided gas for energy to the city of Seattle for 50 years, and is the sole remaining coal gasification plant in the United States.

It also has lots of grass hills and incredible views of Lake Union and the Seattle skyline. It also hosts various events and festivals, and you can find lots of people picnicking and flying kites here on a sunny day. Definitely a cool, unique park to check out.

8. Spend some time at the library
The Central Library location of the Seattle Public Library is an architectural spectacle that is definitely worth a visit. The 11-story steel and glass buildings have won numerous awards. Take a self-guided tour around the facility, sit and read some books (there are several reading rooms), or just stop by to enjoy the view from the 10th floor viewpoint - whatever you do, you can't miss the unique architecture here.

9. Take a walk at Olympic Sculpture Park
The Olympic Sculpture Park is a 9-acre sculpture museum and park owned and operated Seattle Art Museum. It features both permanent and visiting installations, and offers gorgeous views of the surrounding water and mountains. Perfect for a leisurely walk, and for experiencing the unique art and natural landscape of the area.

10. Admire the views on the waterfront
Okay, so the Seattle waterfront may be overrun with tourists and full of kitschy souvenir shops and mediocre restaurants - but you can't beat those city and bay views from here. My personal favorite viewpoint is from Pier 69 (pictured above).

From there, keep walking south on Alaskan Way. You can also go for a ride around the Seattle Great Wheel, which is the tallest Ferris Wheel on the west coast and offers panoramic views of the city and Elliott Bay.

11. Take a photo in front of the gum wall
The gum wall is located in front of the theater in Post Alley in Pike Place. It is one of two such walls in the United States (the other one is in San Luis Obispo, CA), and considered to be the second germiest attraction in the world. It started when theater patrons started sticking their gum to the wall; no matter how many times it was cleaned off, the tradition seemed to stick (pun intended, haha). In 1999, it was declared a tourist attraction, and all efforts to clean off the gum stopped...that is until November 2015, when over 2000 pounds of gum were scraped off.

12. Check out the locks in Ballard
Also known as the Hiram M. Chittaden Locks, this series of locks lowers the water levels of the freshwater Lake Union and Lake Washington, and reverses the river flow, and levels it off with the water levels of the sea water of Elliott Bay. It handles the most boat traffic out of any lock in the United States, and is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Seattle. You can watch the boats pass through, watch the fish go up the fish ladder, or explore the surround park and gardens. Or, for a unique experience, you can take a boat tour that actually goes through the locks.

Have you been to Seattle? What are your favorite things to do there?