9 Times I Embraced Being a Tourist

I try my best to be a traveler rather than a tourist (if that distinction is important to you). I eat what the locals eat, I get away from the busy places as much as possible, and make sure to see the lesser-known galleries and museums. I enjoy asking about local politics or the issues on everyone’s mind. But sometimes, you have to take a moment to see the big sights. The blockbusters on the keychains. The Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the White House, the Hollywood walk of fame, Big Ben, and oh so many more. You have to see it just to say you saw it.

And sometimes, you just fail at being a conscientious, insightful traveler and you go full tourist. I’m not particularly proud of these moments, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Here are a few examples of the times I lapsed into full tourist-mode.

1) Oogling the crown jewels from the moving walkway

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Crown Jewels

The crown jewels are one of the well-known sights in London. I saw them a few years ago, and really didn’t need to go the second time (but did anyway because I was with family). Yes, the giant gemstones are worth millions but the lines are very long to get there and you only see them briefly from the moving walkway. Also, I worked way too hard to sneak this prohibited photo.

Also, embarrassingly, especially for someone who enjoys history, I completely misunderstood the concept of how the crown acquired the jewels. I thought they purchased them somehow and asked the guy on duty how the crown could even afford to buy those. Where does the money come from? He seemed confused by the question until I realized how foolish I had been. CONQUEST. All of these jewels were taken at sword/knife/gun-point during the British Empire. I felt pretty dumb and also kind of gross for marveling at the plunder of many bloody wars and colonization.

Bad tourist moment.

2) Waited for the money shot

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There are a few iconic places you want to get that perfect picture of. Unfortunately, so does everyone else so there are always people in the way. You can see many people posing in this picture and hint: none of them are me. The tragic part is, I probably stood around for quite a while to get this clear of a picture. It happened at the Trevi Fountain, it happened in front of the Eiffel tower, and it will definitely happen again in the future.

3) Just a face in a hoard of tourists

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Lincoln Memorial

I felt like such a tourist going from one monument to the next when I visited Washington, D.C. (before I moved here). The crowds were unbearable, and set off a minor claustrophobia panic attack more than once. The crowds are so distracting, you barely get to enjoy the sight. But this is the thing you do in D.C., so I trudged on through the rest, just a face in the crowd. Nowadays, when people visit me, I wait patiently outside.

4) Made fun of art instead of trying to understand it

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We all hit that point, after we’ve been walking through museum after museum, church after church, when our brain just turns off. Eventually, my brain just decides it can’t absorb or contemplate anymore. So maybe I get loopy or callous or even inappropriate. Like the above snapchat that is offensive but also pretty funny. When I was in Cordoba recently, I went into this small, art room off of the Mezquita (Mosque/Cathedral). It had some of the most dramatic, ludicrous art. At the end, was a (wax) severed head on a platter. The eyes were rolled, the tongue was lolled out, and the facial expression was the most cartoonish depiction of death you could imagine. I couldn’t control my laughter. I was in a mosque/church, everyone was solemnly quiet, and this was a depiction of a bible story. But I was shaking with stifled laughter. Oops.

5) Going into every shop

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You know those stores- the knickknack shops that all have the same supplier and carry identical things. Sometimes, you decide, “Heck, I’m going to get a little souvenir for myself or loved ones.” And somehow, you go into every shop even though they’re all the same. And sometimes, you feel like just walking through and all you come away with are pictures. I went into every little store on Murano in Venice, known for its glass-blowing, and went home with one pair of five-euro earrings. But I did take some artsy pictures of all of the things I didn’t buy!

6) Going against advice and seeing the classic anyway

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Before I went and saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa, my mother warned me it is underwhelming. “There is nothing in the town! You show up, take your picture, and then you’re done.” I went anyway, of course.  It was only a short train from Siena, which I was already visiting. How long was I in Pisa? Less than an hour. Most of that hour was spent with a cappuccino and a nutella muffin. Do I regret going? Nope. I got my tacky picture pushing the tower over.

7) Taking pictures of all of my food

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Man, could I go for a Belgian waffle right about now. I take a picture of all of my meals, or at least the new or delicious looking ones. Which ends up being a lot when I travel. Embrace the stereotype. I’ve been to Belgium twice and I’ve seen Brussels, Brugge, and Ghent pretty thoroughly. But you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be back again for those waffles.

8) Jumped through a million hoops to see something

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The David in the Accademia

The drama that goes into seeing the Ufizi Gallery, the Accademia, the Vatican, the Last Supper painting, and the Alhambra are exhausting. You may have to buy tickets in advance and may also have a time slot. Sometimes you have to pick them up beforehand, and sometimes that pickup even has a time window! Yet, some hoops just need to be jumped through if you want to see the big-ticket items. Such is being a tourist.

9) Visited a foreign country and absorbed zero culture

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I’m looking at you Mexico. Cabo San Lucas and Cancun have made it so that millions of Americans can go to Mexico without encountering any Mexican art, culture, history, or even food. You don’t need to speak a word of Spanish. It’s unlikely someone would even try to speak Spanish to you. I have been to both aforementioned cities, but nowhere else in Mexico. I was once bunking in a hostel with a Mexican woman and two French women and we were talking about our past travels. The Mexican woman asked me, “Have you ever been to Mexico?” And I replied shamefully, “Kind of but not really.” The French girls were confused, “How can you ‘kind of’ visit Mexico?” When I said I had only visited Cabo San Lucas and Cancun, the Mexican woman rolled her eyes (in good humor) and agreed I hadn’t really visited Mexico. I had to explain it to the French girls.

I want to see the rest of Mexico, and will someday. But if I’m being truly honest with myself, I’ll probably go back to Cancun or Cabo as well. A cousin will get married there or I’ll have a reunion with my college roommates or something else will come up.

No lessons learned

There seems to be this constant debate about traveler vs. tourist. But do the two have to be mutually exclusive? I do my best to engage in every place I visit. I used to step on ants as I walked down the sidewalk but after visiting Costa Rica and learning about conservation up close, I do my best to avoid hurting any insect I come across. I carried a bee (with a gloved hand) from my house to set it free outside. Immersive travel experiences profoundly change who you are and how you see the world. But sometimes, you’re just going to skate across the surface. Big Ben has never taught me anything or impressed anything meaningful upon me, but do I have ten pictures of it? Yes, I do.

Tourism happens. What can you do?

My Top Ten Favorite Cities

We’ve all felt it, that feeling when you visit somewhere and think: why am I not living here?! Maybe you’ll move there someday. Or maybe you and your dream city are just star-crossed lovers, always returning to each other, but never staying.

Certain cities just fit our personality. Is it big and bustling with towering skyscrapers, or is it peaceful  where you can rock on the front porch without a single car horn puncturing the silence? Maybe multiple cities as starkly different as night and day call out to you. Sometimes I think, “I need to live here in my 20’s” and other times I think, “I could definitely spend my final days here.”

I have a lot of opinions about a lot of cities, good and bad. It’s okay to not like a city. But this post isn’t about disappointments, it’s about the cities that have taken my breath away. The one’s I knew I would love and the one’s that took my by surprise. Here are my top ten cities and what I like to do in them, ranked in descending order.

10) Kilkenny

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Kilkenny Castle

Kilkenny really fulfilled what I was looking for in Ireland. A country is more than a busy city or magnificent cliffs. It’s about everyday people. When I visited, I stopped in Kilkenny for a night between Dublin and Cork- both of which I also loved. Kilkenny offered an interesting history, it was beautiful to walk through, and the night scene was lively in a jovial way. I think my feelings are best described from my journal entry that day, May 16th, 2014.

“I of course was lost immediately off of the train. Just part of my process. Once I knew where I was, it hit me: I love this place. I have no idea why. The charm is intoxicating. Kilkenny is a medieval city and you can tell. It’s also a very family-friendly place; tons of adorable kids, (very) old couples, and teens in school uniforms messing about.”

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Kyteler’s Inn

The top sights include the Kilkenny Castle which has a huge grass lawn where people lay out, Black Abbey from the 13th century, and Saint Canice’s Cathedral, which has a sitting Bishop. I recommend knocking about St. Kieran’s street at night to hear live music. Kyteler’s Inn is a great bar built around the legend of Alice Kyteler, considered to be Europe’s first “witch.” Also, try Kilkenny’s locally brewed red cream ale- it’s very good.

9) Chicago

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Booze cruise down the Chicago River

I’m almost definitely biased towards Chicago because I grew up in the suburban outskirts. I remember taking the train in with my friends to pose in front of the bean, skate in Millennium park, and shop on Michigan avenue. I remember going downtown with my family during Christmas time to look at the Marshall Fields (now Macy’s) Christmas windows, see a show, and get deepdish pizza.

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View from the John Hancock Signature Lounge

Chicago has a lot to offer: hearty food, good sports, a great night-life, and all the art and culture you could ask for. If you visit, I would recommend everything I nostalgically mentioned above. My favorite bar is the Signature Lounge at the top of the John Hancock building, where you can enjoy a spectacular view of the city. If you go late enough (11pm or later) you won’t have to wait or make a reservation. The Shed aquarium, the Science and Industry Museum, and the Natural History museum are great places for families. For a bit of art, I would go to the Art Institute of Chicago or see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Sky Box in the Willis Tower

Sky Box in the Willis Tower

And, as I mentioned before, deepdish pizza. Always. Deep. Dish. Pizza.

8) Jerusalem

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I went to Jerusalem during a short study abroad in college. It was an extremely enriching experience. Of course, it’s known for it’s tumultuous past and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it’s also a modern city with modern ups and downs. The mix between ancient and temporary is fascinating. Make sure to get a balanced view of your trip: don’t spend all of your time in West Jerusalem and the Old City. East Jerusalem has a lot to offer as well. Make sure to witness the separation wall with the poignant graffiti, pleading for peace.

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You can also venture out to Jericho, considered the oldest city on earth where you can see the oldest known human-made structure: a 10,000 year old wall. The wall is basic but the gravity of its age will surely send anyone into a spiraling existential crisis. Empires have been born, risen, and fell. A thousand generations came and went. Entire civilizations crumbled to dust and were forever forgotten. Yet, there sits that tiny rock wall, oblivious as it all passes by. And who are we but a mere blink in the history of man? Yep. It’ll get to you.

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Said earth-shattering pile of rocks

And of course, the Dead Sea is a marvel. It is the lowest point on earth and its salt content is so high that you float. It’s very fun to swim in.

7) Venice

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View from the bell tower

Venice is a very unique city. There is something incredible about its winding, unnamed alleyways and canals with too few bridges that make the city a maze. The first night I was there, I went looking for the Rialto Bridge on the Grande Canal. I got lost and walked around for hours, unable to find the biggest bridge on the biggest canal! Of course, half of the fun was looking in all of the little shops and stopping for some delicious spaghetti bolognese.

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I had some great pizza at that restaurant

Some of the top things to do are to visit the Doge’s Palace, the San Marco Basilica, and walk through San Marco square. I would also recommend going out to the smaller islands of Murano and Burano, which easily can be accessed by vapparetto. If you are looking for an awesome sight that is far less occupied by tourists, I suggest the Frari Church. There are huge, elaborate marble tombs seamlessly worked into the church.

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Island of Murano

My fondest memories of Venice were the simplest. Sitting in a sunny square with a cappuccino, writing in my journal. Enjoying some gelato, hanging my feet over the water. Eating dinner by the canal, lit up by hanging lights.

6) Cinque Terre

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Manarola

Cinque Terre may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I could live there for any extended period of time, the living is far too slow. But, if I needed to recover from some major life event or write a book, I would definitely consider Cinque Terre.

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View from the trail

It is composed of five towns which you can travel between by tram. You can also hike between them for some of the most stunning views you can imagine. Truly breathtaking (the views and some of the steep hills). Cinque Terre is best experienced by living in the moment. There are no museums to wait in line for, no Basilicas named after saints. It is good food, nice people, and the beautiful coastline.

5) Washington, D.C.

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Washington, D.C. is a take it or leave it kind of town. I love it but a lot of people don’t. I’m into politics and foreign policy so it’s a playground for people like me. But some find the aggressive Washington lifestyle off-putting. I don’t blame them. Living here is about committing to a lifestyle. Everyone here from the President to the night-shift office cleaners read the newspaper every morning and have an opinion on current events. Everyone I meet is sharp. And I love that.

There are two levels to Washington. The surface level is the well-beaten path of the tourists. Monuments. Museums around the mall. White House. Capitol Building. That’s not a bad thing, everyone needs to see those things in their lifetime. If you happen to be in D.C. for longer, get a second go around, or want to get off of the beaten path, there is a lot more to the city.

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Georgetown canal

The deeper level has a lot to offer. If you are looking for a fun place to go out at night, you should consider Adam’s Morgan. This neighborhood offers a lively bar scene with plenty of live music. Also, no one does brunch like Washingtonians. Local 16 is a great option: $27 for an entree and bottomless mimosas. Plus, they have a rooftop garden. Capitol Steps is a very funny political sketch comedy group. All of the comedians have worked on Capitol Hill- so they know how to hit hardest. Maybe take the opportunity to get involved in politics. There is always a demonstration, a speech, or a fundraiser going on.

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Hearing the President speak

Embassies regularly put on events. They have scavenger hunts, dinners, and fun activities that actually allow you to enter the embassies. Most require you to RSVP prior and have varying costs.

4) Prague

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Old Town Square

Prague is a city I’d really love to know more. The cost of living is decent (but rising), the people are lively, and the city is beautiful.

The Old Square looks like it is straight out of a fairy tale. The Old Church looms in the background and storybook houses line the square. In the center is the famous astronomical clock. It is notoriously one of the most underwhelming tourist sights in the world. To get between Prague Castle and the square, you must cross Charles Bridge, easily my favorite bridge.

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View from Charles Bridge

Prague Castle was cool but nothing beats the view from the gardens.

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View from Prague Castle gardens

For an interesting experience, head out to Kutna Hora where there is a church decorated with human bones. Everyone reacts differently. One of my travel companions found it offensive and disrespectful. Another said it was freaky. Personally, I found it humbling and strangely comforting. We’re organic material, and eventually we’ll only be bones until we aren’t even that. Whether we rot in a coffin, are burnt to ashes, or decorate a tourist trap: who cares? We’re dead! There is no majesty in death, only life. So make this short time magnificent with as much love, laughter, and adventure as possible!

3) London

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Classic

I love big cities. There are a million things to do. Restaurants and bars. Art shows and political demonstrations. Book signings and street performances. I lived in London for six months and barely scratched the surface. You could go to a different London restaurant every night of your entire life and you  wouldn’t get through them all.

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Brick Lane

When you come up from the tube, every stop feels like an entirely different city! London is massive, diverse, and international. You could get lost in a place like that forever. I had an amazing time trying to sort through and understand what I could in my short period there.

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Camden Lock Market

You can find the obvious places to go in a guidebook, or you could probably think of them off of the top of your head. For a fun bar, I recommend Waxy O’Connors near Piccadilly Circus. It’s a multilevel maze inside with a great atmosphere and usually has good live music. I recommend doing the Sandeman’s free walking tour of London, I learned a lot about each area of London. Brick Lane is a super hipster neighborhood that’s fun to walk through. I got an organic brunch in the back of a second-hand silver store (how random!). They also have a flea market that is about as flea as you can get. For a quality market, Camden Lock Market is a massive, permanent market.

2) Edinburgh

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Inside Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh definitely took me by surprise. I never thought I wouldn’t like it but I never expected to love it so much. It’s simultaneously modest and proud. There is a quiet dignity and permanence about it. It is mostly cobblestone streets and old stone buildings. It is remarkable how buildings that are hundreds of years old are used for such average purposes (office space?!). Yet the city is also lively and fun.

Scotland is a gorgeous country. Wild, windswept moors. Even the Romans couldn’t tame it.

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View of Edinburgh from the Salisbury Crags

Everyone I met was extraordinarily kind and warm. The food was hearty and I just had to buy a cozy wool scarf. One of the rather unorthodox (in my American eyes at least) foods native to Scotland is haggis. You should try it and then look up what it is after. I got haggis deep fried the first time I had it- it was pretty good! It’s usually in a Scottish meal “haggis, tatties, and neeps” which is haggis, potatoes, and turnips. You also should take the time to do a whiskey tasting. Not a fan of whiskey, myself, but it was fun to learn about how it is made and where it comes from.

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For a hostel, I strongly recommend the Castle Rock hostel. It is right next to Edinburgh castle (also a sight worth seeing) and it is cute, the staff is great, and there are activity nights. When I was there, I played in a beer pong tournament!

1) Amsterdam

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Amsterdam is my favorite city in the world. The kind people, the easy going life style, the beautiful canals, and the liberal politics make it so perfect to me. You shouldn’t (and mostly can’t) bring your car, which I love. It is a great beer scene, which is my drink of choice. There is something so “come as you are” about Amsterdam that creates a feeling of acceptance. I dislike exclusivity. What’s the point?  I’m certainly not trying to impress anyone. If you want to be part of it, congratulations, you can be.

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Vondel Park tulips

Amsterdam is best experienced by walking through it, dining by the canal, and biking the paths around the city. It has the Van Gogh museum, my favorite artist (like a million other people), the Rembrandt museum, Stedelijk Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Experience the tulips in Vondel Park.

Final thoughts

Well, that’s my list. Loving or hating a city is so much about gut instinct. Maybe it’s your goal to live on the road, but for most, planting roots brings contentment. Just make sure you don’t let old roots keep you from moving to your soul-city.

Which city is your star-crossed love?

 

The Eco Diversity of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a very cool country. It is pretty unique in a number of ways. For one, it doesn’t have a military- the peacenik in me thinks “that’s awesome” but the part of me with an International Relations degree is sweating in panicked confusion.

It also has undergone extreme measures for plant and animal wildlife conservation. Some of the most extensive in the world. A total of 25% of Costa Rica is protected territory! There are countless education programs that teach about protecting and conserving the many natural wonders of Costa Rica. It ranks among the top 20 countries in biodiversity. And, Costa Rica has a goal to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021- that’s amazing!

The country is lined by both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It has volcanoes, rain forests, rugged mountains, hot springs, and gorgeous beaches. So much to offer! Below is a list of the many amazing things I did during my journey through Costa Rica.

Explored the cloud forest

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The Monteverde Cloud Forrest Reserve provides bridges so you can experience every level of the rain forest. From the steamy forest floor, you can spot the frogs, snakes, and unique insects that live there. Be careful not to step on the many lines of marching ants! Towards the middle you can examine the leaves and growing fruit up close. Interesting birds and small mammals weave through the trees. From the highest layer, you will witness the expanse of the forest, seemingly going on forever. You may even see some monkeys!

Getting active in the rain forest

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Not exactly graceful…

The rain forests also provide the perfect setting for two fun activities: zip-lining and waterfall rappelling. It may seem intimidating, but you don’t have to be skilled to do either. Trust me, if I can repel down a waterfall, you can too.

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Follow the path into the unknown!

And of course, there is hiking galore.

Saw the active volcanoes

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Arenal Volacano

Arenal National Park features a large, active volcano. We found a hike that led to a great view point!

Learned about the wildlife

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We took a guided tour with a knowledgeable guide who taught us about the animal and plant life of Costa Rica. She explained the conservation efforts and the best ways to spot certain species. I definitely learned a lot. For instance, did you know the rings on the trees come from changing seasons that start and pause growth? Costa Rica has a tropical climate all year round so the trees never stop growing- and therefore have no rings!

Swam in the hot springs

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We visited the ethereal Tabacon Hot Springs. The many springs have varying temperatures from cold to scalding. There is diverse tropical wildlife to create a very natural-looking experience. The Tabacon also has a luxury resort but you can pay to only use the hot springs.

If you’re on a tight budget, there are also many free hot springs in Costa Rica.

lounged in a resort by the beach

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We stayed at Dreams Las Mareas in El Jobo. The all inclusive resort was amazing. The beaches were yellow-flagged, however, for potentially harmful wildlife. We tried to do some snorkeling but it was pretty foggy from the kicked up sand and my sister got stung by a jellyfish. We didn’t go in the ocean again. Honestly, the resort was nice enough and there was so much to do that the ocean wasn’t required to have a good time.

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Relaxing with my millionth Chunky Monkey

Plus, there are lots of monkeys that swing through the trees lining the resort. Through the week, we searched in vain, scouring the trees for monkeys while we hiked through the rain forests. Then, low and behold, we saw dozens while floating in the pool of a resort!

Final thoughts

My trip to Costa Rica was amazing. The various aspects of traveling there are so diverse, it really felt like the complete package. Plus, visiting Costa Rica changed the way I look at and behave around nature. For one, I always make sure to step out of the way of marching ants!

Have you ever been to Costa Rica? How was your experience?

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6 Ways to Get Your Nerd On in the UK

1) King’s Cross Station

While King’s Cross is a working train station, you can find platform 9 and 3/4. It isn’t actually between 9 and 10 (people could get in the way of the trains), but they have a spot off to the side where a luggage cart is halfway through the wall. There is a small queue and some house scarves you can use. They have a professional photographer to buy photos from but they have no problems with you taking a picture with your own camera.

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Pottermore put me in Slytherin and wearing this scarf was my grim acceptance of my house assignment

2) Harry Potter Studios

You can drive or take a bus out of London to the Harry Potter Studios. It’s huge. They have almost every set, every costume, every prop, every everything. There is a flow to the museum so you can take it all in. You will learn how to use a wand and get your picture riding a broomstick in front of a green screen. Also, they have butterbeer!

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Gryffindor Common Room

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Hogwarts! Many overhead shots of Hogwarts were actually shots of this model.

3) Sherlock Holmes Museum

At 221b Baker Street in London, you can visit the Sherlock Holmes museum. It’s small and the shop is very crowded but the experience is mildly entertaining. It’s focused on the original stories of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, not the BBC series. They have facts and figures, as well as a layout of the apartment as the stories describe. Oh, and some unsettling wax figures.

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Try on Sherlock’s hat and play detective!

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Not creepy at all…

4) Doctor Who Experience

In Cardiff, Wales, you can go to the Doctor Who experience. Similar to the Harry Potter Studios, you can pose with costumes, props, and sets from the show. They also give you a good look into how Doctor Who is made. The tour starts with this interactive bit where a film of the doctor leads you through some dramatized mechanical sets. Warning, if you go on a weekday morning in February, you may find yourself the only  childless grown adult in a sea of 6 year-olds with their parents. You can also visit Mermaid Quay and take a picture on the Time Rift by the Water Tower. I was not able to access Torchwood, unfortunately.

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Which Doctor is your favorite?

5) Harry Potter Tour in London or Edinburgh

Both London and Edinburgh have Harry Potter tours. The London tour will take you to many of the places where things took place in the books or movies. The tour in Edinburgh will take you to the place where J.K. Rowling started writing the series.

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Walking the streets of Edinburgh

6) Game of ThroneS Filming Locations in Northern Ireland

This last one, I’ve never done. But it is on my bucket list. All of the gorgeous filming locations can be found on this interactive map.

That’s what I have. Fellow nerds, is there anything you believe should be added to this list?

Sevilla In a Word: Lackadaisical

When I travel, I overplan. It’s genetic. It comes from a genuine place- I want to see every sight and make the most of my time in any location. But when I went to Sevilla to visit my sister, I knew this time would be a little different. She warned me of the slow service and the molasses-like pace of the city. Where else do they have the siesta- where people literally leave work in the middle of the day to go home and take a nap?! It blew me away. Yet, it forced me to reevaluate and take it all in, which ended up being a gift.

Looking for a stress-relieving trip? Sevilla may just be the remedy to your hectic mind. So sit back and picture a sunny day as I provide some tips and tricks on how to live like a true native when in Sevilla.

Meander through the Alcazar Gardens

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Alcazar Gardens

These gorgeous gardens lay at the back of the Alcazar. They seem to stretch on forever. Follow the maze or sit on the benches and soak up the sun. Take a whiff of that orange tree smell. Keep an eye out for the peacock roaming about.

Let your imagination run wild and imagine planning military strategies or plotting royal intrigue.

Take a boat cruise down the Guadalquivir River

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Let the wind blow through your hair as you lay back on a boat cruise down the river. Admire the riverside restaurants and maybe pick one out for later. Listen to (or ignore) the voice over the intercom point out buildings as you pass. This is the perfect activity for a sunny afternoon with friends.

Take an evening paseo through the Plaza de Espana

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The Plaza de Espana is a great place to be at sunset. The last golden rays play off of the yellow and blue tiles in a way that makes the plaza glow. Read about each region of Spain on the specially decorated benches that line the bend. Maybe jump in a boat and lazily row under the grand bridges. Watch as the day turns to night and the lights around the plaza turn on.

Hang around Las Setas

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Metropol Parasol, locally know as Las Setas, or the mushrooms, has a market in the mornings and restaurants for the evening. Enjoy a sangria as you watch the shoppers and pedestrians flow by. You can even go up onto las setas for a view of the city from above.

Wander through roman ruins at Italica

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Just outside of Seville (easily accessible by bus), you will find the Roman ruins of Italica. Founded about 200 B.C., this was the hometown of two of Rome’s most famous emperors: Trajan and Hadrian. It also holds the best-preserved amphitheater- also one of the empire’s largest. Unfortunately, there is little historical information available to describe the ruins as you walk through, and absolutely none in English. Also, if you go in the heat of summer, remember to bring water as there is very little cover. But if you enjoy walking through ruins and imagining what the longest lasting empire looked like 2,200 years ago, Italica is the attraction for you.

Tapas

Tapas offer the perfect way to make a meal last for hours. A group of friends laughing around a table can order one small dish at a time. Foods favored in Sevilla are paella, jamon serrano, salmorejo, and of course, anything with jamon (ham). Also enjoy some sangria or wine. They have beer but a restaurant usually only keeps one on tap, a light lager.

Cafe Con Leche

No need to wait until you’re hungry to stop at a cafe. Cafe con leche (or coffee with milk) is served everywhere, all day, every day. Enjoy one at breakfast, recharge in the afternoon, or take one after dinner.

La Giralda

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If you can manage the effort, climb the bell tower, or La Giralda, for a spectacular view of the city. Reward yourself after all of those stairs with some gellato or a nutella crepe and more people watching.

Of course, you could fill your day running from church to museum and back to another church. You can always find a way to be busy no matter where you are in the world but in order to truly experience Sevilla, you’ve got to sit back and relax.

City Spotlight: Amsterdam

Amsterdam is by far my favorite city in the world. People always ask me why and I can’t help but think, where do I start? It won’t be everyone’s favorite but I know Amsterdam fits me like a glove. So here’s the need to know information on this canal town in my first City Spotlight.

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Location: The heart of the Netherlands, Amsterdam sits off the North Sea in Western Europe. Centrally located, it has been a hub of commerce for hundreds of years.

Recommended length of stay: If you are pressed for time, I would say minimum 2-3 nights. However, this is a great city to get an apartment for a couple weeks and really soak in the laid back culture.

Travel Speed/Style: Slower is better. It is a very young city, but it draws in people of all ages. Solo travelers, families, and couples will all find it perfect for their style. Also, it is one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in the world, especially during the annual Gay Pride Festival.

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Currency: Euro

Language: Dutch, English- if you are concerned about language barriers, this is a great starter city to get your feet wet, nearly everyone speaks English.

Culture: I would say mellow but it is also known for its young party scene. Famous for its relaxed stance on weed and prostitution, it is one of the most notoriously liberal cultures.

Seasons: Peak Season is June-September, Shoulder Season is March-May, and Off-Season is October-March. If you go in peak season expect long lines for Amsterdam’s many popular museums.

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Festivals and Holidays: National Tulip Day- January 17th. Kings’s Day (previously Queen’s Day)- April 27th every year. Gay Pride- July 25th-August 2nd for 2015. Liberation Day May- 5th for 2015 (only occurs every 5 years).

Cost of Living: high. Average .5 liter beer: €5, converse I had to buy: €60, average inexpensive restaurant meal:  €15

Average Accommodation types/prices: Hostels: $20-30/night, Low Budget Hotel: $75-150/night, Nice Hotel: $300+/night

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Modes of Transportation: walking, bicycles for rent, and tram are best for the central area. This is a terrible city for a car.

Top Attractions: Anne Frank House, Rijks Museum, Van Gogh Museum, Vondelpark, the large I Amsterdam and walking/boating the Jordaan

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Things you can skip: Don’t drop any serious cash on a tour when there are tons of free walking tours! Sandeman’s Europe Tours is by far the best.

Tips and Tricks: Amsterdam is best experienced out and about. Walking tours, biking, boating the canal, and meandering are all perfect ways to experience the city.

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Peak Tulip Season is mid-April

Recommended hostels/bars: The Flying Pig is a famously awesome hostel. I’ve never stayed there (you need to reserve pretty far in advance) but I’ve heard great things. I’ve also heard the bar gets pretty rowdy.

Myths Dispelled: Weed is not legal! The police look the other way as long as the “cafes” are being discreet. So don’t light up right in front of a police station! Also, prostitution isn’t technically legal either.

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I absolutely love Amsterdam.  I hope to live there someday. What are your thoughts on Amsterdam? Overrated or is the hype warranted?

In Pictures: Beautiful Andalucia

Though I went in cloudy February, Andalucia is a beautiful region to visit. I spent time in Sevilla, Granada, and Cordoba. If you like beautiful architecture, a country-wide nap-time, and sangria served all day, Andalucia is the place for you.

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The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Take a stroll through the massive Alhambra complex in Granada. There are gardens, palaces, and amazing views to enjoy.

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Plaza de Espana, Sevilla, Spain

Take a paseo through the Plaza de Espana in Sevilla. Some scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed here. The plaza is also beautiful lit up at night.

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Plaza de Bib-Rambla, Granada, Spain

I finally got a bit of blue sky as I took a walk through Old Town Granada. Pro-tip: any time is a good time for a cafe con leche in Southern Spain.

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Andalucia, Spain

Orange trees are a dominant characteristic of Andalucia. Not to eat, though. Seriously, don’t try to eat them, they’re very bitter. If you happen to visit while the oranges are being harvested or falling off, like I did, the city pleasantly smells of citrus.

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Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain

Half of Andalucia’s grandeur stems from its Islamic influence. The Moors lived in the area for hundreds of years and Islamic scholars brought math, science, architecture, and different cultures to the region.

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Cordoba, Spain

The Romans always seem to leave a lasting mark. Above is an old Roman wall that runs through Cordoba.

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Granada, Spain

An overlook of Granada from the Alhambra. You can see the Cathedral standing tall above the rest.

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Sevilla, Spain

Any city you visit in Spain is bound to have a grande Cathedral looming above you. The Cathedral in Sevilla is the third-largest church in Europe and the largest Gothic church anywhere. Christopher Columbus is also entombed here.

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Sevilla, Spain

This gorgeous facade can be found in the gardens of the Alcazar in Sevilla. These gardens were also used as a filming location in Game of Thrones.

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Granada, Spain

Andalucia has a lot to offer: good food, beautiful architecture, and easy living. Bonus: it’s also pretty cheap. I’d recommend Andalucia to anyone… but maybe plan your trip for a sunnier time of year.

 

 

What’s Stopping People From Traveling Alone

Scraping plans together within a group is a challenge. I can barely plan a night out to dinner with my friends! Competing schedules, expectations, budgets, and basic interests can all be obstacles in coming to a consensus on travel plans. Unfortunately, sometimes this is what prevents the trip from ever happening. So… go alone! There are a million benefits of going alone but it can no doubt be intimidating.

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There are three basic fears that stop people from traveling solo: safety, loneliness, and what other people think. Before I left for my first solo backpacking trip, all three buzzed around in my mind constantly. The last one definitely buzzed the loudest. When I stepped foot out of my London dorm room, backpack strapped, for my month long solo trip through Italy, I decided I could handle whatever could come my way.

Within a couple of days into my trip, I knew none of them would be problems. I’m glad these reasons never stopped me and they shouldn’t stop you either!

Safety

Believe it or not, this was one of my smaller fears. I’ve always been very trusting of my intuition and can usually sense a “fishy” situation pretty quickly. That being said, of course there are precautions to take. I currently live in a biggish city, and the basic safety rules I follow here can be pretty much translated to anywhere else I’ve been in the world (with a few tweaks in specific places). Don’t walk alone in the dark. Don’t get drunk without someone responsible for you. Know the unsafe areas of any city you visit- your trusty gut feeling will usually let you know when you are headed the wrong way! You can also ask your hostel to point out areas to avoid if want to be proactive. While I found these suitable as a solo female traveller, these are pretty genderless guidelines.

The world isn’t the scary place we may have been led to believe. I felt ten times safer walking around Jerusalem at night than I do in Columbus, Ohio. If you use your brain, safety is only a consideration, not a reason to stop you.

Loneliness

You will be lonely at some point on your trip. It happens to everyone. But this also isn’t a good enough reason to stop you. I’m an introvert and genuinely enjoy my own company so I thought, “Being alone for a month? No problem!” But I was wrong: I wasn’t alone for a single day. I met so many amazing people; I probably spent hours every day talking to travelers from all over the world. Nearly everyone I met was just as excited to talk to me as I was to them.

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Dinner for one- ocean-side!

You’ll meet people you love: that amazing Swedish woman in here sixties who has traveled Italy for a month every year since she was 19. You’ll meet people you could live without: that obnoxious Florida State bro in Florence who would not stop talking about what tall models women in Stockholm were (him: “I mean, you get me, right?”). The people you meet will teach you so much about their countries and you will get to teach about yours. Staying in hostels grant you immediate roommates. Whether it is playing in an epic tournament of beer pong in Edinburgh or just silently watching Robocop with a few people in Cork, there will always be travelers to keep you company at the end of the day.

Hostels are the best examples, but I also met people on buses, on trains, in pubs, and in shops (backpacking stores in particular!). You will learn to strike up a conversation in no time! I could have hiked through the towns of Cinque Terre by myself but I was so glad I met some really nice girls on the train and asked if I could join them.

What People Will Think

This one evaporates quickly. There isn’t really anything you can do to guard against it; you just eventually decide you don’t care. Eating alone was weird maybe the first two times out but then the perks of being able to eat whatever and whenever I wanted won out. I found the spare minutes waiting for my food were the perfect time to write in my journal, read a book, or send a message to my friends and family- if there was wifi.

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Pubs are a great place to be alone with other people.

I was afraid people would think I was a loser who couldn’t find people to go with me. The truth is, I could have gone with other people. But they only wanted to go to Italy for a week and I wanted to go for longer. Others would go but they didn’t want to go to Rome because they’d already been there. If I wanted to do the trip I’d always fantasized about, it would have to be just me.

In the end, most of the people I’ve talked to think going it alone was admirable. I get the “I could never do that!” But they can! And so can you.

Letting any of these fears get to you isn’t worth it

None of these things are a reason to keep you from taking your dream trip. After traveling solo, I actually found I preferred it! So take a deep breath, stop waiting for that friend to finally agree to go with you, and book that flight!

Let’s Find a Great Place to Get Lost

“Let’s find a beautiful place to get lost”

This quote reads small and in cursive on the back of my worn, leather passport cover. I found these words so simple, yet so powerful. Considering I find myself utterly lost constantly while traveling, the appropriateness to my situation always makes me smile. You’d think the practice of navigating new cities would eventually yield some kind of skill. But alas, I still get hopelessly lost every time.

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The ruins of Tintern Abbey in Tintern, Wales

My name is Katie. I’m currently navigating the big scary world of a “real job” and a “grown-up life” but I always manage to make it back out there. I have a lot of goals and ambitions but somehow my mind always returns to golden ocean sunsets, windswept moors, scorching deserts, and ancient temples. I’ve been to England, Scotland, Wales, Mexico, Canada, Spain, France, Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Costa Rica, Italy, Czech Republic, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Japan, and a number of cities in the U.S..  I’ve traveled in many styles from sleeping in cabins, lounging in resorts, backpacking in hostels, and staying with foreign friends. I’ve traveled with my family, with my sister, with friends, studying abroad, and backpacking solo. Somehow, even with all of these experiences, I’d hardly call myself qualified to instruct anyone. But I’m going to do it anyway.

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Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

I have been ruminating over how to do this blog for a while. After much thought I came to an epiphany: ditch the template. That’s the best way to travel, maybe it is the best way to write about it, too. So just like when I travel, I know I will make countless missteps so feel free to comment with corrections and feedback.

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Chicago, IL, U.S.A.

What’s my image? It seems like every great travel blog has a “thing.” Serious budgeter, off the beaten path, extreme activities. So what do I have to offer? Well, I’m a bit of a nerd. I love history. I like art but currently enjoy amateur status. While I love nature and the organic beauty of the earth, I find myself mesmerized by the human footprint. From the ancient, crumbling temples to the steel, modern cities.

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Amsterdam, Netherlands

I follow a lot of female travel bloggers who are smart, witty, and talented writers and photographers. But they also tend to be a bit… magical. Most are gorgeous women posing flawlessly in front of awe-inspiring backgrounds. I’m not saying I don’t know my way around a tube of lipstick, and I have taken some pretty incredible selflies, but I can’t really relate to that image. For every moment of breath-taking beauty there have been moments that were uncomfortable, embarrassing, gross, and just downright awkward. I’ll try to keep my experiences and advice as honest as possible.

So what can you expect here? Advice on where to go, what to see, and how to avoid some of the mistakes everyone seems to make along the way.

Traveling is my passion and my purpose. It’s why I majored in International Relations! I hope some of my insights will help you and inspire you on your journey. Happy traveling!

“Though we travel the world to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not”