Thursday, June 15, 2017

5 Must-Have Experiences in Stockholm

I recently came across a super cheap flight to Stockholm, and although I had never really considered visiting, I couldn't resist! With its fairytale-like architecture, charming cobblestone streets perfect for roaming, and picturesque waterfront views, it was easy for me to fall in love with Stockholm.

There is so much that this city offers, that I there was never a dull moment! Here are some must-have experiences in this beautiful city:

1. Explore Gamla Stan
Gamla Stan was the first viking settlement and where Stockholm was founded in 1252. It is one of the largest and best preserved medieval city centers in Europe. Today, it is one of the most popular districts in the city, and full of lively cobblestone streets, restaurants, cafes, bars, and museums. It is the perfect spot for wandering and people watching.

Some of the most popular attractions there are Stortorget, which used to be one of the largest town squares in northern Europe and known for the iconic colorful gingerbread-like buildings; and the Royal Palace, which is still one of the largest palaces in the world, and home of the offices of the royal family.

2. Spend some time on a boat
Stockholm is a city built on 14 island and has more than 50 bridges, so in my opinion, the best way to see it is from the water. There are many boat tours that allow you to get a unique perspective of the city, while letting you relax and rest your feet. You can also sign up for an excursion that takes you outside of the city while you enjoy the views from the water. A perfect way to see the city, especially in those warm summer months, but there is also a winter boat tour available.

3. Enjoy fika!
Fika is essentially a Swedish coffee break, often accompanied by a sweet treat, and enjoyed with friends. It is a reminder to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life - something we can all strive to do more in life. And in my book, any excuse to enjoy coffee and a sweet treat is a good thing! There are lots of excellent bakeries in the city, but I especially enjoyed the cakes from Vete-katten, and the cardamom buns from Fabrique.

4. Check out the subway art
At 110km, Stockholm's subway system is said to be the longest art exhibit in the world. Over 90 of the 100 stations have been decorated in some way, featuring the works of more than 150 artists. Most of these are done on a smaller scale, but some of the stations are truly breathtaking and unique works of art.

Some of the most notable stations include: Solna Centrum, Kungstragarden, T-Centralen, and Stadion.

5. Explore the archipelago
Did you know that Stockholm is also home to the second largest archipelago on the Baltic Sea, which consists of over 30,000 islands, rocks, and skerries? These islands range from uninhibited wilderness to charming little seaside towns any of the locals escape to them in the summer. Many are easily accessible by ferry, and are perfect for a little day trip.

I trekked out to Fjaderholmarna, which is closest to the city and only a 25 minute boat ride away. But other options include Vaxholm, which features a 16th century fortress; Varmdo, which is home to the international art center Artipelag; or a 3-hour archipelago tour. These are all included in the price of a Stockholm pass (more on that in a future post).

Have you ever been to Stockholm? What do you think are some must-have experiences there?

Thursday, April 06, 2017

2 Days in Florence: What to Do, See and Eat

Oh, Florence. What a beautiful, charming city. I had heard so many amazing things about Florence and was so excited to make a stop there on my Europe trip - and it definitely lived up to the hype!

From the moment I stepped off the train from Pisa and started walking on those charming cobblestone streets, I immediately fell in love. Walking through the streets and being surrounded by so much art and beauty, you could almost imagine what life was like during the Renaissance.

I spent 2 days there, and definitely wish I had more time to spend here - but I definitely made the most out of the time I had. Here's a guide to what to do, see, and eat in this amazing city.

You can fly into Florence, but I found it easier (and cheaper) to fly into Pisa and take a train - it only takes an hour (plus, it's a good excuse for a day trip to Pisa). It is easily accessible via train from other Italian cities.

I stayed at the Grand Hotel Minerva which is a family-owned boutique hotel, right near the train station. It was very centrally located and within walking distance to all the places on my list. They have just renovated the property, and it is gorgeous. The rooms were stylish and comfortable. There is also a rooftop bar - it wasn't open while I was there, but I did go up and check out the view and it was pretty amazing. The staff was also very helpful with directions and with arranging dinner and museum reservations. Highly recommend!


The Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore)
The most iconic landmark in the city. This grand Brunelleschi-designed building, with its terra-cotta dome and pastel marble-tiled facade will leave you in awe. I passed by this on the way elsewhere at least 5 times, and each time, I had to stop and marvel and take it all in.

To avoid the crowds, I would stop by early in the morning - I passed through on the way to the Galleria Academia on my last day, and it was amazing to be able to take it all in without a swarm of people in front of me (and the street vendors trying to hound me into buying a selfie stick).

Your combined admission ticket will get you into the crypt, bell tower, and up the Cupola. The climb up the 463 steps to the top of the Cupola is a must-do - the views of the city are pretty phenomenal (you will need to reserve a time slot for this). Did not get to to do the bell tower, but I hear it's well worth going up as well - because then you get to see a unique vantage point of the Cupola.

Piazza della Signoria
This lively piazza was also historically the center of the Florentine Republic, and is also the gateway to the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall) and the Uffizi Gallery. It also houses a number of statues, and a replica of the David (the original was moved to the Galleria Academia).

Uffizi Gallery
The second largest museum in Italy, the Uffizi houses a large and prominent collection of Italian Renaissance art, including works by Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, and Raffaello. (Tip: make a reservation to skip the lines! It costs a few extra Euros, but well worth it.)

Galleria Academia
You are basically going here to see one piece: The David. What a work of art. I liked to walk around the perimeter, admiring how the light hit it from different angles. Truly amazing. (Pro tip: The Academia opens at 8:30. Go as early as you can - there will be hardly anyone there).

Ponte Vecchio
AKA: The bridge with the houses. The actual bridge is filled with jewelry shops, but it is said that some people still live in the apartment above the shops. Still a cool bridge, and I took a million photos of it. (Pro tip: the best view of this is actually from the second floor of the Uffizi Gallery).

Piazza Michelangelo
It is a bit of a climb up, but you will be rewarded with that classic view of the Florence skyline. Just breath-taking. I happened to go up there around sunset time, and it was such an amazing place to take in the sunset over the Tuscan hills.

- Osteria Santo Spirito: This is a popular dinner spot, with delicious yet affordable dishes and wine list. They do half portions of pasta for ~6 Euro and that was basically a full portion! I had a simple tomato & basil pasta and it was phenomenal.

- Trattoria Za Za: Another popular restaurant specializing in Florentine classics, but it has an extensive menu with lots of other Italian specialties. The concierge at our hotel said this was his wife's favorite restaurant, and it did not disappoint. I had the walnut pasta here - it is a Tuscan specialty, very creamy and delicious.

- Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina: This is a popular, well-reviewed wine bar, with an amazing selection of Tuscan wines. The bartender was super helpful and suggested some amazing (yet affordable), hard-to-find Tuscan wines.

- Trattoria Mario: You go here for meat - but I got pasta (because I wanted to EAT ALL THE PASTA). Which was equally amazing. This is a tiny, popular place - be prepared to be cramped and packed like sardines in communal tables. But the food is delicious, and well worth it.

- Gelateria dei Neri: Being that it is in Italy, Florence is filled with an abundance of gelato shops - I sampled several of them, and this was hands-down the best.

- I Due Fratinelli: This is a tiny, literally hole-in-the-wall wine bar. It is a walk-up counter, with amazing wines by the glass - and delicious panino!

- Trattoria Sostanza: Arguably Florence's most famous, popular restaurant. Admittedly, this was at the top of my list, but I did not get to go - because I didn't realize that they are only open Monday-Friday! This came highly recommended by a variety of sources. They have been open for 150 years, and their specialty is the Florentine steak. Please go an have some for me! :)

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Lands End & Coastal Trail: Urban Hiking in San Francisco

One of the things I love about San Francisco is the fact that it's a big, urban city, but there are pockets within it that feel like a whole different world. An example of this is Lands End and the Presidio, where the beauty of nature shines through and you forget that you are in a major metropolis.

I first stumbled upon Lands End on one of my SF trips years ago, when I was still living in LA and visiting my friend Elaine. I had to find ways to amuse myself while she was at work, and I decided that I would explore and head out to Ocean Beach. From there, I climbed up the hill to the Cliff House, to the Camera Obscura, and just kept going until I stumbled upon an amazing view of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. It has been one of my favorite places in the city ever since.

June organized a group hike for her dog's birthday, and I was super excited to go back to Lands End. Even better was the fact that the weather was gorgeous - which is rare in this part of the city (but Lands End is also pretty magical in the fog).

The actual trail head starts a bit past Cliff House. There is a visitors center right near the start, and a turnoff to go down the stairs to Sutro Baths, which was a glamorous bath house in the early 20th century.

The structure was burned down by a fire in the 1960s, and these ruins are all that remain. This is also another one of my favorite things in the city - it's one of my favorite spots to take photos! The textures, the reflections, and the view of the ocean makes for some great images.

We then climbed back up towards the main part of the trail, and were treated to this  view of the Golden Gate Bridge peeking out.

I love the cypress forest here, and they make a great backdrops during photo shoots. And, when you win with the weather and come here during golden hour, the light streaming through the trees is absolutely magical (I actually did do a shoot here recently and will share those photos in a post shortly).

There are stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the rugged coastline all throughout the trail, and the bridge becomes closer and closer as you go on.

The bridge is one of those things that still blows me away even after all these year. That pop of color always catches my eye and captures my heart every time I see it.

You can see remains from 3 shipwrecks from the trail, and there is also a turnoff for another trail that leads to the Legion of Honor. There is also another detour to a labrynth (I really want to do this next time, but I always forgets that it exists!) The trail ends when it hits El Camino del Mar (near 33rd Ave). From there, you can turn back, walk to the Legion, or continue along to the Golden Gate Bridge.

To get to the second part of the trail, you will walk through the Seacliff neighborhood - home to the McMansions of San Francisco. From there, you will encounter an entrance to Baker Beach, and from there you will connect to the second part of the trail (Batteries to Bluffs).

The trail will lead into Marshall Beach, which has stunning rugged coastline and super epic views of the bridge. It is a bit hilly and there are many stairs in this part of the trail, but it is also the most beautiful part.

I really want to come back here and walk down to the actual beach part and hang out. It really looks spectacular.

From there, there is a view point as you get closer to the bridge.

Soon enough, you will get to the Golden Gate Bridge vista! Again, I am still totally and completely blown away by the bridge  (is that cheesy?).

We opted to walk down the trail that leads to Crissy Field, which is also another one of my favorite spots in the city for the grassy knolls, the wide open space, and the view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

All in all, it was about 5 miles from start to finish. Seeing all this beauty in this part of the city made me really, really thankful to be able to call San Francisco home.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

An Afternoon in Pisa

Pisa is a cute little university city located on the Arno river, and is known for one thing - you know, that leaning tower.

It makes the perfect little day trip (especially if you're on your way to Florence), and while there is not much more to do than what can be done in a day, Here are some reasons you should make a quick little trip in this charming little city -

It is easily accessible (and a cheap entry point into Tuscany)
Pisa is easily accessible by air or train. Trenitalia offers frequent service to nearby Florence, but you can also travel easily to and from other cities in Italy. The Pisa airport is a hub for Ryanair, and there are very affordable flights (which was the reason I ended up making the stop there, on the way into Florence). Once you fly into the Pisa Airport, it is a short bus/taxi ride away into the Pisa Centrale Station, where you can drop off your bags.

It is a city easily explored on foot
From the train station to the Leaning Tower (which, let's face it, THAT'S WHY YOU CAME TO PISA), it is about a 20-minute walk. This makes for a lovely stroll, where you pass through the Walking Street (Corso Italia), and the lively piazzas.

It has pretty river views...
Pisa is along the Arno river, and it has some beautiful views. There are all the colorful little buildings, and even a little church along the river. And, it's hard to beat that view with the late afternoon light!

It is a charming, rustic Tuscan city.
The streets have so much charm and it's got that rustic Tuscan vibe. I strolled up Via Santa Maria, which leads you to the Leaning Tower. It was the perfect little street to stroll through, and the perfect intro to the Italy part of my trip.

There is delicious food!
There are a bunch of restaurants on Via Santa Maria. I had lunch at Il Pepperoncino, and it was delicious! It was a cute spot, and the pasta was cooked to perfection. Also stop by Filter if you're in the mood for a cup of coffee (which, after waking up at 4am that morning, I definitely was).

To see the Leaning Tower
Because, let's be real here - that's why everyone comes to Pisa. And take ridiculous, touristy photos with the tower.

It is worth a climb up the tower (because, you may as well since you're there). The climb up is a bit strange - you feel like you're going to fall over because the tower is leaning. But once I got to the top, I enjoyed the view of the river, the green Tuscan hills, and the red-roofed houses.

Go see the Bapistry and Cathedral
Right across the piazza from the tower is the Bapistry and Cathedral. I did not do the Bapistry because I was in a time crunch, but I hear it is worth the climb up for the unique view of the tower. The Cathedral is gorgeous inside, and definitely worth a visit!

And there you have it - a perfect afternoon in Pisa! Have you ever been? Anything else to see/do?