Archive for June, 2011

Editor’s Note: City Escape

Local food stands, street performances, ancient architecture, sidewalk cafes, tucked-away green spaces ? these are just a few of the enumerable features you can find in a city. People, particularly those not from urban areas, tend to think of city travel as the downtown business district, but this is just one small sector, and not generally the one where travelers flock to. In fact, in many cities you?ll never step foot in the central business district as a tourist unless you?re seeking it out. Cities can be just as adventurous, inspiring, cultural and downright fun as any other type of destination. This issue is devoted to city travel and all that it has to offer.

Must See Cities

From a person that loves a city atmosphere, the list of cities around the world that fall into the category of ?must see? is so extensive that it could never fit into a single article. To narrow it down, I?ve chosen some of my absolute favorite cities, as well as those that I think might get overlooked and deserve more attention.

1. Vienna, Austria: While Vienna is certainly popular enough, I think it tends to get overlooked as a ?must see?. Why? Name ten major attractions in Vienna (no internet searching allowed). Have you thought of them yet? How about five? Three? Exactly. Maybe you?ve come up with the Opera House, and a palace or two. Beer gardens and cafes don?t count as major attractions, sorry. They are, however, shining examples of the character of the city. Vienna is a living, breathing, working city. It has some magnificent palaces including Schoenbrunn and Belvedere, and the Opera House is certainly beautiful. The real ?attractions? in Vienna, though, are walking up the vibrant pedestrian street where people sit at beer gardens and coffee houses, sitting in the park enjoying one of it?s many festivals (film, art, theater), wandering in and out of the numerous shops that line the streets. There are plenty of cathedrals and museums, and they are worth a visit. They just aren?t the ?soul? of the city.

2. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Buenos Aires? charm lies in its neighborhoods. Like Vienna, it doesn?t have numerous sites that call out to tourists (though do visit the La Recoleta cemetery where Eva Peron and several other famous Argentineans are buried). Instead, dine along the waterfront of Puerto Madero, wander through the markets in Palermo and take in a tango show in San Telmo (the non-tourist version). It?s not the cleanest city, so be prepared for some graffiti and litter. Also be prepared to stay up late ? virtually no one goes out to dinner until at least 10 PM, and it?s not uncommon to be eating dinner until close to midnight. Most of all, let go of your expectations and enjoy the city like a local.

3. Cape Town, South Africa: Dine on the promenade overlooking the water, take a private tour of the lush vineyards, hike (or drive) up Table Mountain for an unobstructed birds eye view of the harbor and the city, walk in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela. This is the Cape Town experience. If you?re willing to travel a couple of hours outside of the city, you can even explore a game park. Cape Town truly has a little bit of everything, in a picturesque setting with friendly people and pleasant weather. What more could you ask for?

4. Amsterdam, Netherlands: No, not for the reasons you might suspect – though if that?s your thing, there?s plenty of opportunity. The images portrayed of Amsterdam on TV with canals running through the cities, bicyclists riding along the streets, lively restaurants, shops and bars ? this really is Amsterdam. If you have the opportunity, visit in the spring when the tulips are in bloom, though it?s an attractive and fun-loving city any time of year.

5. Venice, Italy: People seem to have a love/hate relationship with Venice ? they either love it or hate it. Both sides have to admit, though, that it?s like no other city in the world. There are no cars allowed on Venice so you?ll travel by foot or water taxi (I strongly suggest the former). Its winding streets are easy to get lost in, especially at night, but also alluring. The locals live right in the city center, so its not unusual to watch them hanging their laundry, smell their sauces and spices cooking or see them wave at you as you pass by. The canals throughout the city, the local produce and fish stands, the shops and restaurants tucked into every corner and of course the famous St. Mark?s square and the bell tower come together to create a city that?s one-of-a-kind, and for that reason alone is a must see.

6. Barcelona, Spain: It?s difficult to find a city in Spain that I would not recommend, but Barcelona tops the must see list. The city?s distinct ?Spanish? feel but with an international flair differentiates it from the rest of Spain. The bustling Las Ramblas pedestrian street, the plazas surrounded by restaurants and cafes, the sparkling harbor, the cathedrals with their intricate architecture and Olympic Village overlooking the rest of the city are some of the highlights (ignore guide books, the village is worth seeing). As in Buenos Aires, be prepared for late evenings ? dinner generally starts around 10 PM at the earliest.

7. Paris, France: Like Venice, people seem to either love or hate Paris. I love it. It has nearly everything I could possibly want in a city. The most enthralling feature of Paris is its neighborhoods. Each section of the city has it?s own distinct feel. Many could be their own little town worth visiting independent of the rest of the neighborhoods. The literary and artistic district of St. Germain, lively Latin Quarter, Montemarte?s famous Sacre Couer, the history of Bastille and of course the popular center of shopping, attractions, museums and more with which most visitors are quite familiar all converge to form Paris. Add in fantastic wines, cheeses and baked goods, people watching and gorgeous green spaces and you have a city that it?s almost impossible not to love.

8. Seoul, South Korea: Bright, busy, and booming, Seoul surprises visitors with its combination of cutting edge technology, modern style and historic influence. As with Paris and Buenos Aires, Seoul is divided into sectors, which range from the local artists district to the bustling shopping center with a wide variety in between. Seoul?s character is further sculpted by its friendly residents and distinct cuisine. To read more on Seoul, check out this recent post which describes in further detail the features that make this city a must visit.

9. Brussels, Belgium: It?s tough to turn down a city that?s known for it?s chocolate, frittes (fries), beer and waffles, isn?t it? All kidding ? and food ? aside, Brussels tends to be passed over for cities like Paris and Amsterdam. Brussels is a walk-able city, and in fact a large part of the downtown area is a pedestrian zone. Shops, restaurants and cafes line the stone streets, which are filled with locals and visitors after work and on weekends. At the center lies the Grand Market, a large pedestrian square surrounded by eateries and exquisite cathedrals, which have now been transformed into museums. At night, the square is beautifully lit and becomes quite lively, the local hang out for the young and young at heart. Brussels is filled with museums, ranging from the more tradition such as art and history to the Museum of Musical Instruments, Museum of Belgian Brewers and the Toy Museum.

How to Travel a City

City travel, especially for those who do not come from big cities, can be both exciting and slightly daunting. Where do you stay? How do you get around? Is it safe? While it?s tough to guarantee a perfect location or a seamless vacation, there are certain steps that you can take in planning your city travel to feel more comfortable.

1. Think about hotel location ? do you want to be in the center or near a particular attraction? It may be more convenient but it might also be noisy, especially in the evening, and will almost certainly be more expensive. Which of these factors is more important? What type of neighborhood do you want to stay in ? downtown, something more artsy, the neighborhood with lots of bars and restaurants? These are all important aspects to consider.

2. Check out the transportation system before you go. It?s important when packing to know how much walking you?ll be doing. While walking is a great way to see a city (see tip #9), learning the transportation system let?s you see sections that may be too far to visit on foot. This can also help with tip #1 ? if you?re further out from the center of town, you may want a hotel near local transportation.

3. All cities are not created equal. Just because it?s a city doesn?t mean it?s fast-paced or that there are a lot of ?attractions?. Make sure you?re choosing a city that?s right for you, not just because it?s popular or someone else told you to go. Examine what features, activities, atmosphere, whether, cultural preferences you?re looking for and then carefully select a city to match.

4. Keeping tip #3 in mind, it is ok to get out of your comfort zone or try something different. Often it helps to take into consideration the surrounding area as well as the city itself. If you?re curious about a city but not ready to spend a full vacation there, place it in an itinerary with other locations that you feel more comfortable with. Destinations will often surprise you.

5. Lose the map. Once you have the lay of the land, don?t consult your map or guidebook for everything. Often the most memorable experiences, especially in a city, are ones that you stumble upon when traveling like a local. Feel free to carry the map in your purse/pocket (discreetly, not sticking way out of you back pocket, which screams ?I?m a tourist?) in case you do truly get lost in an area you don?t want to be in, but don?t consult it every five minutes. Explore a new city like you would if you were showing someone your own. Would you send them to all of the cheesy tourist traps or would you give them the inside scoop?

6. Don?t? carry much on you. Leave your passport, some credit cards, anything of extreme value in the hotel safe. The safest cities in the world still have some crime, and why invite it when you can do your best to avoid it? Better safe (no pun intended) than sorry. Besides, walking around with half of your possessions in a purse or bag will only slow you down.

7. Explore the city at night. I?ll admit, there might be some cities that you?d rather not walk around by yourself at night, so use your head. Generally, though, cities have two sides ? their ?day side? and their ?night side?. A laid back coastal city could become a bustling hotspot when the sun goes down, and a hectic city by day might look magical when the nights go on at night.

8. Ask the locals where to eat, find the best activities and enjoy nature. Guidebooks might help and concierges can be of use, but who knows a city better than the people that breathe, eat and live it day in and day out? Ask a variety of locals to see what suggestions come up most frequently.

9. Explore on foot. With a few exceptions, you see places when walking a city that you never would if you took a taxi from point A to point B. Be sensible about distances and neighborhoods, but don?t be afraid to wander. Keep a business card from your hotel on you so that if you do really drift off track and don?t know how to get back, you can easily communicate to a taxi driver where you need to go without knowing the language.

10. Travel with an open mind. If I had to choose one tip to share when traveling, not just in cities, this would be it. Just because the food isn?t what you?re used to, the toilets look different, a city isn?t as pristine as you want it to be and the people don?t act as you?d expect doesn?t mean you can?t enjoy and learn from a travel experience. Travel a city as if you?re starting from a clean slate ? no expectations either of the city or the culture. Those aspects that you may be so leery of at first may be the same things that you miss most when you return home.

Adventure: Within City Limits

People often seem to think that to do something truly ?different? you have to get away from the city. It?s true that there are numerous adventurous and cultural experiences to be found far from the city and that getting ?off the beaten path? is one way to achieve this. That doesn?t mean, though, that you can?t find one-of-a-kind (or close to it) opportunities within the city limits. Check out these experiences within some of our most well-loved cities around the world.

1. Catacombs in Rome: Rome?s wonders seem to never cease, and all of the ?popular? attractions are absolutely worth a visit. The catacombs, or underground burial tunnels, have a mysterious lure that draws visitors interested in seeing a slightly darker side of the city and its history. Visit the catacombs with a guide. If you?re not a group tour type of person, hire a reputable private guide. These tunnels are dark, winding and easy to get lost in.

2. Robben Island, Cape Town: Behind the beauty of the V&A Waterfront and Table Mountain, the city of Cape Town holds a sordid past. Visitors can now be educated about this history with tours to the prison where Nelson Mandela and countless other political prisoners were held on Robben Island. Not only do you get to tour the jail and see Mandela?s cell, the tours are led by former inmates who were wrongfully imprisoned on the island. These guides give first hand accounts of their experiences as well as historical information about the prison and its inmates that no ?outsider? would be able to provide. (Note: the only prisoners giving tours are those who were political prisoners, wrongfully jailed for their efforts to end apartheid.)

3. Haunted Edinburgh/Edinburgh underground tours: Edinburgh is just one of a long list of haunted cities, so the idea of a ghost tour isn?t overly unique in and of itself. What distinguishes these tours is two-fold: first, they are given only later at night ? many start around 10 PM (in the summer, it?s light in Edinburgh until at least 9:30 PM so this is a necessity for the ambiance). Secondly, they are conducted primarily underground, in the tunnels where body snatchers used to run stolen bodies. Once in the tunnels, the guides extinguish all forms of light, letting you stand underground in the pitch black for the best chance of hearing or seeing a ghost. It?s beyond spooky, even for those who are avid ghost tour enthusiasts.

4. Dubrovnik?s city walls: Is it touristy? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutley. In recent years, the city of Dubrovnik has become a hot spot. The city itself is interesting enough ? it certainly has plenty of history and its location on the water adds to its appeal. But without a doubt, the ?must do? here is to walk along top the old walls of the city. It can be done individually or as part of a tour ? I imagine a tour might be a bit of a tight squeeze but you may also learn more than you do by walking the walls on your own. The experience is certainly distinct and the views of the town, countryside and the waters below are incredible. (Yes, there are other cities where you may walk the walls, the Beijing?s Great Wall being the obvious other. So this isn?t ?one of a kind? but it?s certainly not an experience you can have everywhere, and one that has excited people about travel to this part of Europe.)

5. In-home cooking classes, Florence. While this isn?t, strictly speaking, unique solely to Florence, this is quite arguably the best place to do so. Take a walk to the market; choose your fresh fruits, vegetables and cheeses. Go back to the home of your guide for a private cooking class, and then enjoy the final products with a glass of local Tuscan wine. These classes can include creating everything from homemade pastas to authentic Italian desserts, delicately flavored meat dishes and vegetables harvested fresh that morning. It?s difficult to get more culturally immersed in Italy than this.