Surprising Cities – Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Ok, I’ll admit it, I cheated a bit on this one as well. It was really the whole area that amazed me. The town itself wasn’t spectacular, but the whole experience was. Victoria Falls is the final (at least for now) in my surprising cities series.

Why I went: As part of a trip to Southern Africa. We wanted to see Victoria Falls and decided to go from the Zimbabwe side. It wasn’t in the orignal itinerary, but we added it in before we went.

What I expected: To be amazed by the falls and to enjoy the elephant back safari, but pretty much nothing else. I’ll admit some apprehension. There were travel warnings, and the week before I went the former Prime Minister’s wife was killed in a car accident, in which he was also injured. This was a bit of a scandal at the time, and didn’t help with the warnings to stay clear of the country.

What I found: A people who were so friendly and welcoming that it was hard to believe anyone could be that nice in the face of so much poverty that they can no longer accept their own currency; a country filled with landscape, adventure, wildlife, and a culture they manage to maintain despite such hardship; a sadness that underlies this culture when they tell you that it?s ok if you tip them in old shoes instead of money, because they?d be so thrilled to be able to put shoes on their family?s feet; the framework for a country that could be even more incredible given the opportunity, and that already offers an amazing experience for those tourists who are willing to give it a chance.

How long to spend there: You can easily spend three nights here. Depending on where you’re heading in from, it can be a bit of a journey so take the rest of the first day/evening to relax. I can’t recommend enough that you stay at the historic Victoria Falls hotel. You can actually see and hear the falls from the back dining patio. You could spend part of a day just exploring the hotel and its grounds. In addition to the falls, activities available in the area an elephant back safaris (highly recommended), Lion walks, game drives – both day and night options, river safaris, white water rafting – considered some of the best rapids in the world, and more . Given all of these options, anyone looking a decent amount of adventure could really spend numerous days here. If you want to get in the falls and an additional activity or two, I suggest three nights. I spent two nights and it was not enough time.

*Note: two cameras, luckily not expensive ones, got sacrificed due to the spray from the falls. (It was like a downpour – take the rain coats when the guides offer them to you.) Therefore, some photos are blurry. I used the best ones I could find.

Surprising Cities – Urubamba, Peru

It’s day four of Surprising Cities. I’m cheating on this one slightly. It wasn’t just this city that surprised me, but the whole area. The town of Urubamba was quite interesting, and the Sacred Valley as a whole was even more intriguing.

Why I went: As a jumping off point to visit Machu Picchu.

What I expected: Nothing of the town/valley itself. Truly, at least when it was first included in the itinerary, it was a means to an end.

What I found: In addition to discovering one of the best hotels I?ve ever stayed at (Tambo del Inka), Urubamba and the surrounding area have more culture and history in a few miles than some countries have between their borders. Without the hotel, you?d never know that a tourist has ever visited. I could have sat and watched people going about their daily life for hours ? farmers walking cattle down the street; local diners going in and out of eateries that have probably been run by the same family for generations; three wheeled taxis (think tuk-tuk style) traveling down the main road just as impatiently as they would in any North American city; mothers carrying their babies, wrapped in traditional Peruvian blankets, on their back. Colors abounded everywhere – the houses, the clothing, the cars, the signs were all in bold color. Scenery wise, the valley is tough to beat. The mountains rise to one side, while the Urubamba river runs, and sometimes races, along the other. It truly looks like something you’d see in a movie about authentic life in Peru.

How much time to spend: You must give yourself at least two nights. While it’s not particularly difficult to access, you do fly into Cusco and then get a transfer into the valley (the transfer takes just over an hour). Take this first day to get adjusted to the altitude – even though it’s a Valley, it’s still at about 8,000 feet. If you’re heading to Machu Picchu, which is why most people visit, you’ll need a full day for that. Getting there involves a train to the equally fascinating town of Aguas Calientes, and then a van transfer for approximately 30 minutes, so the day trip to Machu Picchu is a busy one. You can also add another day to spend time seeing the rest of the Valley. Though not as famous as Machu Picchu, the region is known for its salt flats, which travelers that have some extra time like to visit.

Surprising Cities – Brussels

It’s part three of my surprising cities series. Today’s city is Brussels. Brussels wasn’t surprising in the “I thought it would be crappy but I really liked it” kind of way, but more so in the way that it appealed to me. It’s tough not to like a city known for it’s beer, frittes, chocolates, and waffles, but other than expanding my waistline, I wasn’t sure what type of impact the city would have on me.

Why I went: I had a conference in Lyon (another surprising city, discussed in my last blog), and since I rarely travel internationally without making a decent length trip out of it, I added in several other destinations in Europe. I?d heard decent things about Brussels and thought I?d give it a go. Confession: I have an MS in International Marketing and am a big international business geek, so that fact that it’s considered the “capital” of the EU made did influence my decision to go there.

What I expected: I expected to like it well enough. I didn?t expect to be as enamored with it as I was.

What I found: I fell in love with the city?s squares and cobblestone walkways. It?s really that simple. Maybe I expected it to be more business-centric. Brussels just felt very authentic. There?s plenty of tourism, of course, but I never felt particularly touristy, minus the fact of course that I don?t speak French or Flemish. Brussels somehow felt homey and alive at the same time. The frites, beer, waffles and chocolate didn?t hurt, either. You know what else is great about Brussels – it’s so easily accessible. One of my closest friends is from England and her and her now husband flew in (or trained in, but I think they flew) to visit for a couple of nights while I was there. They said it was super easy and affordable. I flew into Paris and then caught the train right from Charles de Gaul airport up to Brussels. Took less than two hours. Again, very simple.

How much time to spend: Brussels offers easy day trips to the Belgian cities of Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, and the college town of Leuven, which is definitely worth a stop. (I did not, unfortunately, make it to Ghent but I’ve heard good things from multiple people). You can spend several days in Brussels itself, just walking the streets, enjoying the shops, restaurants, and people watching. It’s also home to a large number of museums, some rather unique. This site can tell you much more about the 80+ museums in Brussels than I can. You could then spend a couple of days making day trips to the cities mentioned above. Bruges is probably worth the better part of a day, whereas you could probably combine Antwerp and Ghent into a day excursion – they’re stops along the same train route. Leuven is a good half day trip and not in the same direction as the others, so would be done on its own. There are also (long) day trips available to Luxembourg or Amsterdam, the latter being quite a long day, though do-able and worth it if you’ve never been to Amsterdam. As mentioned earlier, Brussels is also less than two hours from both Paris and London by train. Not that I suggest doing either in a day as there is entirely too much to see, but if you really wanted to you could, or you could do as I did and start in Brussels and head out on your European vacation from there.

Surprising Cities – Lyon

Lyon, France is city number two in my surprising cities series. It is the only city I included in my initial itinerary as a main stop on the trip. I had a conference here, and actually formed my trip around the conference (traveling to Brussels, Paris and Geneva as part of the trip). Still, I consider Lyon a surprising city because while I planned to go there, I didn’t plan to be so enthralled with it. It was the least anticipated stop, a “since we have to go to Lyon might as well make a bigger trip out of it” type of thing.

Why I went: Every year I have a major industry expo in a different part of the world. As I mentioned, that particular year it was in Lyon.

What I expected: To attend the conference and wander around Lyon a little bit in my free time. I definitely expected a smaller, more industrial type of city.

What I found: A large, vibrant city with Soane and Rhone rivers running through it, separating the two sides of the city into two distinct sections, each worth a visit. The energy in the city was almost palpable. Its numerous squares created gathering spots for locals, tourists, and street performers at every hour of the day and night. Overlooking this excitement was the city?s own Notre Dame Cathedral, accessible by funicular (tram-like system up the side of the hill) or a pretty active walk, and absolutely worth seeing for the view alone. Across from the convention center was a gigantic park where locals jogged, picnicked, played lawn games – it even had a petting zoo. Much to my surprise, Lyon is also considered the gastronomic center of France. You won’t leave hungry!

How much time to spend: You can easily spend three to four days in Lyon alone, not including it?s easy access to several of France?s most notable wine regions.

Surprising Cities – Ljubljana

I?ll be the first to admit that I travel to some amazing destinations. Often, they?re places that have been on the ?wish list? for quite a while. Other times, they?re locations that kind of sneak in to my itinerary ? like ?hey since we?re going to be all the way over in x, why don?t we stop in y too??. I find frequently that these are the places I wind up loving the most. Perhaps it?s because I don?t have too many expectations or it might be that I just like places that tend to slide even slightly under the radar. Whatever the reason, I wanted to share a few with you. Maybe you?ll decide to add them in to your next trip intentionally, or maybe you?ll ?be in the area? and decide to stop. Either way, I feel these are destinations are worth the visit. For the record, these places were all pre-planned in my travels, but they were added in after the initial itinerary was chosen, save one that I had to head to for a conference. I’ve decided to introduce them one by one in a series of blogs so that I have plenty of room for pictures of each. The first is Slovenia.

Why I went: We were driving from Italy to Croatia, and were intrigued by Slovenia. Plus, quite honestly, we found it the easiest way to drive from Italy, if we wanted to drive down the Croatian coast.

What I expected: Honestly, I really wasn?t sure. I wasn’t yet involved in travel planning as a career yet, so I didn’t have all of the resources I have now. It was also in my pre-social media days, further contributing to fewer resources. I definitely expected something more ?post Yugoslavia break up and still kind of getting it?s land legs?. Granted, this was about 15 years after the break up, but it still wasn?t particularly on the tourist map for American travelers. Croatia yes, Slovenia not as much.

What I found: A naturally beautiful country full of lakes, rivers and mountains, incredibly welcoming and friendly people, a capital city (Ljubljana) where people dined outside by heat lamps even in winter temperatures, underground caves and rivers formed in limestone, a coast yet to be spoiled with too much tourism, and an infrastructure that rivals some of the world?s most well-traveled countries.

How much time to spend: You can easily fill a couple of days exploring Ljubljana, the Karst limestone region, and surrounding towns when it?s not beach or lake weather (the coast is also pretty at this time, if you don?t mind it being a little chilly). In warmer weather, you could fill a week easily by adding in a couple of days at Lake Bled and few days on the coast. In Ljubljana itself, my best advice is to just wander around. They do offer sightseeing tours along the river if you enjoy those ? it?s a nice way to get an overall insight into the city. Definitely dine outside as much as possible. If it?s a weekend, there are plenty of markets to peruse. There?s an old castle that you can walk up and around. It?s not jaw dropping, but it?s a piece of history right there in the city.