Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

After a few days of readjusting to life back in the US, we met Amy’s mom in New York. The three of us were first time visitors, and, man, there sure is a lot to see and do in the Big Apple! After spending two weeks in the city, we were able to put together a pretty good list of our favorite sights and activities. Just so happens that after we made the list, we realized that most of these are either free or pretty economic ways of keeping yourself busy in New York; which is a good thing after 15 months traveling the world.

The Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is a New York City icon, and walking the bridge on a clear day from Brooklyn to Manhattan is awe-inspiring. It offers amazing views of Lower Manhattan, the Manhattan Bridge, Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty. Walking has been one of our favorite activities while traveling, and crossing the bridge on foot was no exception.

Brooklyn Bridge

View of Manhattan Bridge

Grand Central Terminal
Another free site, this transit center is one of the oldest in the country and has been a landmark in New York City for the last 100 years, but Grand Central is so much more than just a place where journeys end and begin. It is home to amazing architecture, art exhibits, shops and one of the coolest classic oyster bars we have ever visited. We are not huge oyster lovers, but with over 30 different types on the menu, you can’t really go wrong.

Amy & Mom at Grand Central Terminal, NYC

Grand Central Terminal, NYC

Oyster Bar, Grand Central Terminal, NYC


Out of all of the countries that we visited during our RTW trip, China was one of our favorites. The food, the smells, the language, the people – all were so foreign and intriguing. Going to NYC’s Chinatown felt quite a bit like stepping back into the real deal. If you are looking for a taste of China, but can’t make the flight across the Pacific, look no further than this little slice of heaven in Downtown Manhattan.

Chinatown, NYC

Corner of Mott and Canal, Chinatown NYC

Highline Park

One of the coolest things about visiting large cities is learning about how they have morphed over the years. Highline Park is just one of New York’s many revitalization projects. The elevated rail system that now makes up the park was built as a solution to the rapidly growing number of rail accidents in the 1930s. Towards the end of the century, the rail line was abandoned, in disrepair and on the verge of being demolished before community members came together to develop the idea of turning the Highline into a park. The park now runs for one mile through the Chelsea neighborhood.

The Highline NYC

Old Tracks at Highline Park

The Subway

NYC’s subway is one of the oldest systems in the world with 34 different lines and almost 500 stations. As public transportation enthusiasts, riding around the boroughs of NYC was like a dream. We know it seems kind of dorky, getting stoked about a subway system, but it really is an amazing public service. Although some of the stations are a bit run down, and it isn’t the cleanest transit system we have come across during our travels, it is probably the most impressive when you consider its age, the cost of a ride, and the extensive routes which it offers. Our tip: if you are going to be in NYC for more than 4 days, buy a 7-day pass. For just $30, it will take you everywhere you want to go for a fraction of what taxis will cost you.

Lorimer Subway Station, NYC

5 Train NYC

R line NYC

Staten Island Ferry

Want great views of NYC from the water? Forget the tour boats; take the free ferry from the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Manhattan to Staten Island! The trip takes you along-side the Statue of Liberty and offers great views of the Downtown skyline, bridges, and Ellis Island. The Staten Island Ferry is definitely a MUST for any first time visitor to New York.

Statue of Liberty from Staten Island Ferry

Downtown view from Staten Island Ferry

Historic neighborhoods

While the NYC subway system is a sight to see in and of itself, to fully appreciate the city you have to do some serious walking as well. As one of the oldest cities in the US, New York has some wonderful historic neighborhoods which feature classic American architecture and were once home to the country’s founding fathers. Brooklyn Heights and Riverside Park were two of our favorites.

Historic Portland Avenue, Brooklyn

Brooklyn Heights

Easter Parade

Our visit to NYC happened to coincide with the annual Easter Parade, one of the only times when 5th Avenue is completely closed to traffic. We spent the morning wandering down the street checking out the creative hats and costumes people created to celebrate this 140 year old tradition.

NYC Easter Parade 2013

Hat at NYC Easter Parade 2013

Dogs at Easter Parade NYC

Brooklyn Museum

Sure, there are the big museums like MoMA, the Met, the Guggenheim, but we most enjoyed the lesser known Brooklyn Museum. The exhibits are diverse, the crowds less overwhelming and the price (simply a donation in the amount of your choosing) makes it accessible for everyone.

Brooklyn Museum

Mike at Brooklyn Museum

Central Park

Last but certainly not least, Central Park. What an amazing place to have at the heart of a city. We developed an appreciation of its vast size by walking the park from end to end one afternoon, which took us three hours!

Central Park

Amy and Michele at Central Park

View of Central Park from the Mandarin Oriental


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Poor Lima gets used, abused and taken out with the trash. Travelers stop through the city for one or two days on their way to and from Cusco, the entry point to Machu Picchu, and don’t give it the time of day. When we told others that we were visiting Lima for a week, the responses were along the lines of “A whole week, and you’re not going to Machu Picchu? You might want to re-think your itinerary. That is way too much time in Lima.” We are writing this blog post on our last of seven days in Lima, and can now say that we wish we had more time. Why do we love this city? It boils down to nothing more than the diversity of its neighborhoods, the fresh food and the stunning coastline.

Lima, Peru

Lima is a massive metropolitan area that is home to over 8 million Peruvians. The city itself is actually an amalgamation of 30 distinct barrios, or neighborhoods. Most tourists will only visit the Central Historic district, which includes the Plaza del Toros and many important government buildings and cathedrals, and Miraflores, the sea-front neighborhood that boasts pristine parks, high-rise condos and fancy restaurants. While these are indeed two must-see areas, it would be a shame to miss out on Lima’s other barrios. Granted, we were not able to see them all, which is why we wish we had more time here, but we were able to give Lima pretty good run.

After more than a year of traveling abroad, we can say with a pretty high level of confidence that the best way to see a city is not on an open-top, double-decker, tourist bus. The best way to really get a feel for the pulse of a city is to walk. The staff at our hostel thought we were crazy when we told them that we walked the entire coast from Miraflores to Chorrillos one day. What really threw them for a loop was when we finish the story, and they learned that we walked all the way back as well. As we made our way south along the coast, we witnessed the transformation from well-polished Miraflores to bohemian Barranco to Chorrillos, home to pescadores and the where locals go to have a day at the beach.

Coast of Lima

We normally don’t plan to set off on these epic treks; we just end up in a sort of Forrest Gump type mindset. We walk around one neighborhood, sit on a bench, then walk some more, grab a snack or drink, and we just keep on walking until we feel tired and turn around. That is exactly what happened when we ended up exploring more of Lima’s coastal neighborhoods on another day. We journey all the way from San Miguel to San Isidro on another day. This section of the coastline was a different experience altogether; it has some rougher areas and has yet to become a tourist hotspot, which may change once the ongoing land reclamation and greening project is complete.

Lima Coast from San Miguel to San Isidro

By the end of our week in Lima, we had seen the barrios of Pueblo Libre, San Miguel, Jesús María, Magdelena, San Isidro, Lima, Miraflores, Barranco and Chorrillos all on foot. If there is one item that we both wish we would have brought on this trip, it’s a pedometer. Fortunately, there is MapMyRun. While it is not an exact measurement, our best guess is that we walked about 44km in total while exploring Lima.


By far, the biggest tourism sector in Peru revolves around its ancient Incan ruins, but what many people don’t realize is that the country was home to various different civilizations which pre-date the Incan empire and lasted for greater periods of time. The Inca were great consolidators. They took many smaller civilizations and united them into one society; however, their reign that lasted for less than 70 years. A couple of our days in Lima were dedicated to learning more about ancient Peru and its pre-Incan inhabitants.

As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, most tourists fly into Lima and head to Cusco as soon as possible; little do they know that the ruins of Pachacamac are at their fingertips, and can be reached by bus in less than an hour from the city center of Lima. We will admit that to fully enjoy this enormous temple complex, it takes a bit of imagination because nearly all of the buildings, roads, temples and shrines were covered by hundreds of years’ worth of desert sand are still being excavated and restored, but the sheer size of the site and its location next to the ocean make for a fun few hours of exploring.  The first buildings in the area were constructed around 200 CE, (about 1,200 years before the Incan Empire) and beginning in 800 CE the great Wari civilization that controlled much of Peru for almost 500 years expanded the temple complex into a major pilgrimage site for worship of Pacha Kamaq, the god who they revered as the creator Earth.

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Within the city of Lima, visiting the Archeological Museum in Pueblo Libre is another great way to learn about the country’s ancient people. The museum walks you chronologically through the various civilizations that inhabited the area, from the first humans to reach the Americas, all the way to the nation’s independence from Spain. It took us a few hours to see all of the exhibits, and we found the museum to be well worthwhile. Tickets run about 10 Soles ($4 USD), but entrance is free on Thursdays.

While we would have loved to spend more time visiting other parts of Peru, we were thrilled to spend an entire week in Lima. The city is such a great place to visit. The people are friendly, the food is fantastic (especially the ceviche!), the architecture and history are there, and with all the improvements being made along the coast, we can see it becoming one of South America’s top tourist destinations in the coming years. Our suggestion: if you’re passing through Lima, ignore the naysayers and stay for a few extra days.

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We arrived in Chile on November 12th and spent the first few days hanging out and recharging our batteries while we waited for Amy’s dad, Dave (a.k.a. Big Dave; named not for his physical stature, but because of his magnanimous personality), to arrive from the U.S. Those first few days in Chile before Big Dave landed, we honestly didn’t do a whole lot; we mostly just walked around town and visited with friends who Mike studied abroad with in 2005. And then Dave arrived!

While we’re sure he would have been perfectly capable of finding his way from the airport in Santiago to Viña del Mar (a two hour bus journey), we worried like parents and promised to go pick him up. But alas, we were late. When we found Dave, he was wandering around looking a bit lost and wondering where we were. In our defense, his flight did land an hour early.

Once back in Viña, we settled into our apartment and made a rough plan for how we wanted to spend the next week. One of the nice things about visiting this region of Chile is that you get three very different cities all in one place. Steeped in history and art, the bustling port of Valparaíso is often described as the cultural heart of Chile. Its neighbor, Viña del Mar is a more suburban coastal city filled with numerous parks, plazas, and gardens. And just a bit further up the coast lie the smaller resort towns of Reñaca & Concón, with their sandy beaches, high-rise hotels, and seafood restaurants.

Being that the apartment we rented was centrally located in Viña, we decided to begin our exploration there. First up was a local market known as a “feria.” Most cities in Chile have some sort of mercado central that operates daily, but they also have rotating markets that take place several days a week in various locations around town. We visited the Sunday Gomez Careño feria in the hills above Viña del Mar. Big Dave loves to cook and is damn good at it too, so we went all out stocking up on produce for our kitchen and fixings for a Thanksgiving feast. The place was absolutely packed with locals buying veggies and fruit. This isn’t the type of market where you buy individual pieces of produce; you buy things by the kilo! Fortunately, Chile’s diverse climate makes it an ideal place for growing many different crops, so the prices can be unbelievably cheap. A whole kilo of kiwis, for instance, will run you less than $1 USD.

We devoted the next two days to seeing as much of Viña as we could. Covering most of the city on foot or by micro (small bus), we definitely hit the main tourist attractions like the Museo Fonck & Flower Clock, but also visited the house where Mike lived during his study abroad and some of the places where he hung out. We walked the coast along Cerro Castillo and Avenida Peru, and we even stopped for completos along the way (a completo is the Chilean style of a hotdog). Dave was particularly excited about trying one at that the restaurant we visited, because it was featured on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Eating a completo is a major undertaking: a foot-long hotdog, topped with copious amounts of diced tomatoes, a hearty smearing of mashed avocado, and at least a half cup of mayonnaise. Amy tried them twice, and said that was enough.

After a couple of days of walking around and sightseeing, we were ready to relax and enjoy Thanksgiving. This year it fell on Amy’s birthday, which was part of the reason why Dave came to visit when he did. There was no way that the three of us could stomach a whole turkey, but we did cook up a pretty good feast including roasted chicken, artichokes, garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus and a surprise birthday cake from Mike. We can now confirm that Thanksgiving tiredness is not because of the tryptophan in turkey, it is from eating way too much.

One morning we set off to explore Valparaíso, and it turned into an all-day endeavor. The metro, which coincidentally opened on the last day of Mike’s study abroad program, is now fully operational, making it easy to commute between the two cities. Valpo’s most noticeable and beloved feature are the hills of jumbled, colorful, tin houses. You can easily get lost wandering through the winding streets and admiring the buildings and unique graffiti. We made our way into the hills to visit the home of Pablo Neruda, a renowned Chilean poet and national icon. He named his house in Valparaíso “La Sebastiana.” The funky architecture and décor made us long for a home of our own that reflects our personalities in the same way that La Sebastiana does Neruda. After that, we walked through the Open Air Museum which is a “typical neighborhood” of Valparaíso. The path led us down to the base of the hills where we ate at the Casino Social J. Cruz. This famous restaurant serves only one dish called chorrillana; another classic Chilean specialty that is just about as healthy as a completo. Chorrillana starts with a heap of French fries, topped with sauteed onions, fried egg, and beef.  While it is impossible to prove, local legend has it that J. Cruz was the birthplace of this tasty treat. After such a gut bomb of a meal, hiking back up another hill would have been too hard, so we took the ascensor up to Cerro Concepción. Before heading back to Viña, we stopped at the brightly colored Café Brighton for an afternoon coffee and incredible views of Valparaíso and its port.

On the morning of our visit to Valpo, we stopped for a brief look at the central market. As we mentioned before, Dave loves to cook. So missing the market was simply not an option. Located just two blocks from the shore, one would expect the market to be filled with fish and seafood, but it wasn’t. In Valpo, there is a separate market for that, so we assured Dave that the next day we would go see “El Tunel.” As promised, the next morning we set-off down la Avenida de España to the fish market that sits right on the border between Viña and Valpo, near the Diego Portales Metro station. Before going into the market itself, we ate an early lunch of fried fish. The market is named El Tunel because it is exactly that, seafood stalls lined up one after another in a narrow, tunnel-like, corridor. When we visited Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan, we thought we had seen every kind of seafood imaginable, but El Tunel still had a surprise in store: the larges barnacles we have ever seen! These things were about the size of a Coca-Cola can and you could see the crabs living inside. After checking out the day’s catch, we headed out back to watch the fishermen feed scraps to hoards of sea lions, pelicans, and a menagerie of other sea birds. It was hilarious watching them swim/fly in mass back and forth between the two piers as fishermen dumped huge buckets of fish guts into the sea.

By this point in Big Dave’s trip to Chile, we had tackled Valparaíso, Viña del Mar and Thanksgiving, but what still remained was the beach town of Concón. We hopped a micro and headed out one day, not knowing exactly where we were going, except with the goal of finding seafood empanadas. If there is one thing that Concón is known for its food, and more specifically, empanadas and seafood. The bus ride was beautiful with amazing views of the ocean and sand dunes. After nearly a week in Chile, Amy’s dad was a pro at riding the local buses and dealing with the masses of people and confusing tariff system. When we arrived in Concón, we tracked down a delicious empanada restaurant and stuffed our bellies. The beach is much more low key than those in Viña and Reñaca, which was a nice change of pace.

Well, that nearly wraps up our time in the Viña-Valpo area. You may not think that the name of this blog is very accurate – did they really chill at all during Big Dave’s visit? In between the sightseeing, we actually did. Our apartment was an oasis of calm, and it was such a treat to unpack and relax together for a week and a half. We had a blast hanging out with Amy’s dad and were sad to say goodbye when he flew out yesterday.

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Despite the many posts that we have made about our RTW trip thus far, there is always so much more to share. Deciding what to write about and what to skip is a constant debate for us, and we are sure that many other travel bloggers encounter the same dilemma. Sometimes we leave stories out because you simply had to be there to get it; other times we choose not to write about a destination because we can’t find the right approach; and then there are the instances where we choose not to write because we’ve been posting so much that we don’t want to overwhelm our readers (or ourselves). The story of our week in Beijing falls into all three of these categories and will be the first in a new series of posts called “Travel Throwbacks” that will include tales of destinations, strange encounters, and of course many photos from past adventures that we have not yet shared on our blog.


We arrived in Beijing in May via high-speed train from Shanghai.Riding a long distance train in China (or any form of public transit for that matter) is always quite an experience, and this journey was no exception. The landscape between Shanghai and Beijing is barren and dry, almost reminiscent of Nevada in places. As we sped along the tracks, cities began to appear in the distance. Generally the term “ghost town” is used to describe cities that once were, but these ghost towns are cities yet to be. Huge boulevards, sky scrapers, and massive housing complexes sat complete but empty, still waiting for inhabitants. No doubt these cities are meant to help handle China’s enormous population and rapidly growing middle class, as well as to keep unemployment at bay, but it was a strange and eerie sight none the less.

Image Credits: http://financialpostbusiness.files.wordpress.com (top right), Michael Christopher Brown/TIME Magazine (bottom center)

Once inside the city, it became apparent that Beijing is China’s tourism hot spot for a reason – there are soooooooo many things to see. The city attracts not only foreigners, but an immeasurable number  domestic tourists each year. The main attractions are The Forbidden City and The Great Wall of China, but the list also includes the 2008 Olympic Green, Tiananmen Square, the Imperial Summer & Winter Palaces, Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, the list goes on and on. Certainly we did not see everything in Beijing, but we think we made a pretty good run at it. So prepare yourself for a very long read…

The Forbidden City

This is probably Beijing’s most well-known and sought-after historical sight. Based on advice from fellow travelers, we showed up an hour before the ticket office opened in an attempt to beat the crowds, but lines had already formed. While we were thankful to be amongst the first to enter the city’s walls, we were still amazed by the sheer number of people flooding through the gates. Although The Forbidden City has been open to tourists for some time, some parts still are forbidden. We were frustrated by the red tape and barriers, but happy to find an amazing view of the entire complex from the hill of Jingshan Park. The walled city is so expansive that you need a panoramic lens to fit it all in one picture.

Tiananmen Square

Situated across the street from The Forbidden City is the famous Tiananmen Square, as well as Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. It felt surreal to walk through Tiananmen Square. We grew up knowing the story of the deadly protest that took place there in 1989, and were moved to experience the surroundings ourselves. Perhaps not surprisingly, the square is heavily guarded by Chinese military. Unlike most public squares in the world, gathering and loitering here are not encouraged. You have to go through metal detectors and security just to enter the square. There are no benches where you can sit. If you stand in one place for too long, you’ll be told to move along. Yet, there is also a massive electronic display that continually plays propaganda films of a prosperous China with happy people and unspoiled nature. Interesting to say the least.

At the far end of the Square, opposite the Forbidden City, sits Mao’s Mausoleum. If you do not know who Chairman Mao Zedong is, please stop for a moment to find out here. Mao’s body is open to the public for viewing most mornings, and we were interested to take a look. It was quite the experience! We stood in the long, winding line for nearly an hour and, after going through metal detectors, we entered the building. The Chinese people treat this as a religious experience. There are no photographs allowed, no talking, and one must not stop walking. The body itself looks fake, like a perfect wax replica. Perhaps it is, we will never know.

Olympic Green

We took a day off from exploring Beijing’s ancient sites and rode the subway to the Olympic Green. It was fun to see the buildings in person that created such a world-wide frenzy during the 2008 Summer Olympics. It was also exciting to be there just months before the 2012 Games began. The first thing that we noticed was the fact that acres of land must have been flattened in order to open up room for this massive pavilion; we could only imagine the masses of people that roamed the land four years ago. The Water Cube is a true architectural wonder. Its luminescent bubble-like structure make you feel as if you’re swimming in a bath. As we walked away from the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest, we noticed that the Olympic Green sits on a straight axis with the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, which you can see on a clear day (we were lucky as this is rare in the often dusty city). Overall, visiting Beijing’s Olympic Green made us want to attend the Olympics someday. It has officially been added to our bucket list.

Temple of Heaven

Yet another example of Beijing’s very ancient cultural heritage is the Temple of Heaven.  Located in the southeastern part of the city, this temple complex dates back to the early 1400s and was used for religious ceremonies.  Its primary purpose was to serve as the site for an annual sacrificial offering to heaven asking for a plenty harvest. Rightfully so, the main attraction is an enormous, three-tiered, circular structure known as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. An interesting and somewhat comical bit of history that we came across was a small wooden called the Seventy Year Old Door. The story goes that at the age of 70, Emperor Qianlong was in poor health and had a small doorway cut into a temple wall to shorten his walk to the offering sight. He feared that the new door would cause his decedents to become lazy, so he made a royal decree that only those who had reached the age of 70 should be permitted to pass through the doorway.

Surrounding the temple are a series of gardens which are a popular weekend getaway for locals seeking a bit of refuge from the chaos of Beijing’s streets. Families pack picnics and spend all day lounging in the shade, listening to music, playing games and dancing in the squares.

Summer & Winter Palaces

While The Forbidden City is the most iconic Imperial Palace, it is not the only royal residence to be found in Beijing. Trust us when we say that the Summer and Winter Palaces are not too shabby either.  They may not have the labyrinths of rooms, courtyards and corridors that The Forbidden City does, but boy oh boy are they stunning!  The Summer Palace is situated outside of the city center and the grounds contain two substantially sized lakes. There are numerous temples, galleries and reception halls speckled amongst rocky hills, small rivers, cool woods and green lawns. It isn’t hard to imagine why the emperors and their families enjoyed spending the hot summer days in this little slice of paradise.  The grounds of the Winter Palace, on the other hand, are quite a bit smaller (probably because not too many people enjoy leisurely strolls in the freezing cold) and are located right in the heart of Beijing.

The Night Market

Aside from its many tourist attractions, Beijing is also know for a unique characteristic that has been dubbed “hutong culture.” Branching off of the main streets are a maze of small alleys and walkways. Some of the best food and hang out spots can be found in the most conspicuous locations. If you are seeking a taste of the wild side, but aren’t a fan of wandering around in places that aren’t on any tourist maps, then we suggest checking out the night market instead. As is the case with many international cities, Beijing has a happening night market with an entire section dedicated to quick eats. Beijing’s market in particular definitely offers some things that you won’t find anywhere else.  Case in point: skewered scorpions! It took us a few minutes to work up the nerve to give it a go, but eventually we did manage to stomach four scorpions each. Scorpions may be dangerous, but they had better remember who is really on top of the food chain.

Lastly, no trip to Beijing is complete with a day spent on The Great Wall. Just after our visit, we dedicated an entire post to our day of hiking there, which you can read here. We think you’ve probably read enough for the day, so we’ll leave it at that. Thanks for reading.

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After nearly a month of traveling Vietnam from north to south, we were eager to depart Saigon and make the journey across the border into Cambodia. Land crossings in this area of the world are notorious for being unorganized and prone to inflated fees, and our crossing fit the bill exactly. We managed to pay less than others on our bus, but were still forced to fork over an “express visa fee” that went straight into immigration officials’ pockets. Gotta love land borders!

After forking over some extra cash, we had  Cambodian visas in our passports

Once across the border, however, all the tension faded away. Cambodia is home to large, flat expanses of sparsely populated countryside, which can really make you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. Even as we approached the capital city of Phnom Penh, it became clear that Cambodians take life a little bit slower than their Vietnamese neighbors. Buddhist monks stroll through the streets, the sound of car horns is much less prevalent and the locals seem to have smiles permanently glued to their faces.

A monk catching a ride down a Phnom Penh street

For many travelers, Phnom Penh is merely a stop-over on the way to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. For us, spending a few days in the capital allowed us to learn more about the country’s unstable and tragic political history in the last century. We decided to make an early start one morning and set off for an all-day power tour of the city. Our first stop was the Royal Palace.  There are no official bus routes in Phnom Penh; we hopped aboard a tuk-tuk to get there. These motor carriages serve as the city’s public transit system.

Cruising in a tuk-tuk

We took our time exploring the Royal Palace and admiring the colorful layered roofs and traditional Khmer architecture. The well-manicured grounds and stunning buildings offer a glimpse back into the early 20th century, before Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Throne Hall in the Royal Palace

Courtyard of the Silver Pagoda

Following the palace we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back along the river to see where the city of Phnom Penh gets its name. The city existed for centuries before becoming the capital and the story goes that an old lady named Penh found four Buddha statues floating on a log during a massive flood. She had a temple built upon the tallest hill in the area to house the Buddhas. “Phnom” means hill in Khmer, and since the temple was constructed under the orders of Penh, the city became known as Phnom Penh, or Penh’s hill.

Wat Phnom

After a brief stop at the Central Market, we hoped on a tuk-tuk toward Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Formerly S-21 prison, and a primary school before that, the Khmer Rouge used this complex to detain, torture and execute Cambodians during their horrific reign in the 1970s.

One of the four buildings that make up S-21 Prison, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Sadly, one of Phnom Penh’s major tourist draws is an area outside the city known as “The Killing Fields.”  This area contains the largest mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era. Despite frequent offers from tuk-tuk drivers to take us there, we made a conscious choice not to visit.

By the end of the day, we felt that we had received a pretty good crash course in recent Cambodian history. We had come to Phnom Penh with a brief background after reading First They Killed my Father, but touring the city made what we had learned that much more impactful. As though in line with our somber afternoon, a wall of rain poured down from the skies that evening.

The next day we awoke to a sunny morning and prepared to explore a brighter time in Cambodia’s history, the age of the Angkor people. Despite the seven hour ride ahead of us, we happily boarded our bus and took off for Siem Reap.

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Before diving into Shanghai itself, we must talk about how we got there. There are many ways to get from place to place in China; for the budget backpacker, overnight trains are the best option. We opted for “hard-sleeper” beds, which, as the name would suggest, are quite firm and stacked three-high in a car without doors or curtains; basically a moving bunk room with 70+ beds. While it’s not the most private way to travel, it is actually quite fun! Small tables and folding chairs line the corridor, making for a very communal feel. All of the train cars are equipped with steaming hot water taps, and we learned early on that dried noodle bowls are the meal of choice for long train rides. Add a deck of cards, a good book and a flask of whiskey to the mix, and you’re set with all you need to make the most of the 23 hour, 950 mile journey.

I’m on the night train!

Our bunk mates eating the standard Chinese night train fare of cup-o-noodles.

We spent our first day in Shanghai visiting the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Museum. It has to be one of the most oddly located museums in the world. With the address and Chinese name in hand, we arrived at what we thought was the entrance. At first, we weren’t certain we had found the right place as it was just a big apartment complex. The security guard handed us a business card that pointed us around the corner and down a floor to the basement of building #3.

Who would have thought this was home to Shanghai’s Propaganda Poster Museum?

The museum houses a very extensive collection of original Chinese Communist Party propaganda posters. Almost all of these posters were destroyed following Mao’s death, so a collection this size is quite remarkable. The dates of the posters range form 1930-1979; the imagery and verbiage used on the posters are both powerful and thought-provoking. We highly recommend visiting this museum on your next stop in Shanghai.

Viva la revolucion!

“Grandpa Mao” as they refer to him in China.

Possibly Shanghai’s most well know attraction, The Bund, is a historic part of city with predominantly European architecture. It was home to many important residents, businesses, and government offices during the British rule of the city. Today the area is a meeting ground of old and new. Sitting just across the Huangpu River from The Bund are countless ultra-modern skyscrapers that fill Shanghai with neon lights each evening. For us, the view was somewhat reminiscent of Hong Kong, but let there be no mistake about it, Shanghai is mainland China through and through, not an SAR.

The Bund after nightfall

View of the Pudong skyline (East bank of the Huangpu River) from The Bund.

Another remnant of Shanghai’s colonial past is the neighborhood known as The French Concession. Its wide, tree-lined boulevards, well-kept mansions and designer fashion stores transport you far from the chaos of the city center, and can almost convince you that you are in Europe not Asia. We strolled through the area one afternoon and stumbled upon something we had been missing since we left home, a micro-brewery. Yes! Any cold beer goes down easily on a hot, humid day, but the beer in China leaves a lot to be desired. Being from Portland and Denver (the micro-brew hubs of America) we require a good craft beer from time to time; Boxing Cat Brewery in the French Concession fit the bill.

These red and pale ales tasted incredible to our taste buds after months of watery, light beer.

Each region in China boasts its own local flavor. In Shanghai, the regional specialty is dumplings. Every restaurant and street cart sells their own version. We came to love the dumpling vendor on the corner next to our hostel, and stopped by every morning for breakfast. We never quite figured it out, but each day we paid a different price for the same dumplings. It seems that China is one of those places where you can decide what you’re going to pay for a product; hand the person your money with confidence and they will likely accept it with a smile.

Rice dumplings – the real breakfast of champions

Beyond dumplings, we enjoyed many other delicious treats from vendors on the street in Shanghai. Some of our favorites were two well know dishes in the western world, fried noodles (chow mein) and fried rice (chow fahn) prepared on a makeshift, propane-powered stove top that was attached to a bicycle.  Ready in less than two minutes, these dishes were phenomenal late-night snacks.

Tasty chow mein, MSG and all.

Last but not least, KTV. We had heard a lot about it since arriving in China, and were excited to partake in this beloved Chinese pastime. One Friday night in Shanghai we met up with a friend of a friend to see what KTV was all about. Essentially, it is karaoke, but is much different than the karaoke bars found in the US. Forget the dive bar with a large screen where you sing in front of a crowd of strangers. Now, picture walking into the lobby of a high-rise, heading up the elevator, exiting into a fancy corridor of numbered rooms. Behind each door: couches, a flat-screen TV, song selection computer, microphones, bottles of liquor, snacks, dice games and, most importantly, a good group of friends. We stayed at KTV with our new Chinese friends until 4am, and it was truly a night to remember.

The KTV crew

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Hello China! Stepping off the plane in Guangzhou felt like landing in any other country. Although the immigration lines were long, the process was simple. No questions asked; they just looked at our passports, checked a few things in the computer and sent us on our way without even scanning our bags. This was a relief because we were a bit concerned that the several bottles of prescription meds (malaria pills, antibiotics, etc.) that we carry with us might raise some eyebrows, and China has very severe drug policies.

Officially stamped into China!

Upon exiting the airport, we quickly learned that very, very little English is spoken in Guangzhou. Based on the directions provided by our hotel, we were able to find the correct bus (win!); however, once on board, we wondered if we would make it alive, and if we did, where we should get off. It was monsooning outside, which did not seem to faze the driver in the least. He was weaving in and out of other buses and tiny motorbikes, not to mention the horn was blaring for more than half of our 40 minute commute. Keep in mind, both of us have experienced the South and Central American chicken buses, and the fact that this driver freaked us out is a really bad sign. Based on a suggestion from a friend, we found the most hip looking young person on the bus and asked if he knew where we should get off. He spoke a little bit of English, and pointed us in the right direction.

Just like the movies, the streets of China are chaotic, filled with motorbikes and completely lacking rhyme and reason. We quickly learned that pedestrians do not have the right of way, traffic lights and cross-walks do not mean much, and people frequently drive against traffic to get where they need to go. Based on our experience with the wild traffic in Morocco, we now use the term “Marrakech-ing” to describe the process of crossing the street by weaving in-and-out of speeding cars and bikes. Yes, it sounds and is dangerous, but it is the only way to get from one side to the other. It is always a bit of a relief to make it across unscathed.

As usual, one thing we were really looking forward to was the Chinese food! We know, we know, we talk about food all the time, but it is a very central part of our lives. After all, everyone has to eat.  Since Guangzhou is not a destination for most non-Chinese tourists, it was easy to find a local restaurant. Surprise, surprise, there was zero English on the menu. But luckily, menus with pictures seem to be fairly common in China. We pointed at a few tasty looking dishes, and next thing we know we had devoured our first real Chinese meal. It was incredibly spicy, and incredibly delicious. We ended our first night in China feeling quite satisfied with the fact that we had managed to enter the country, get to our hotel and eat dinner without having our hands henna tattooed (didn’t get the inside joke? It’s OK, just read this post).

To start our next day, we went to the front desk and asked how to get to one of the city’s museums. The agent responded with a laugh “ooh, it very far.” The fastest way was a taxi, but we don’t do taxis unless absolutely necessary. A colleague of Mike’s gave us some advice about cab drivers when we were in Croatia. He said, “Don’t take cabs. The drivers are all crooks and thieves.” We know that most cab drivers are honest people who work long hours, but we agree with Denis that taking a cab in a foreign place is a pretty easy way to get fleeced. But, back to Guangzhou, we ended up taking a bus back to the airport; then, caught the metro. Guangzhou is a city of about 13 million people; the train system is modern, efficient and absolutely packed. Each train is about 12 cars long, and you can barely see the end of the loading platform. Just when you think no more people can possibly fit into the car, people will run, jump and launch themselves through the doors.

Just another day in a Guangzhou metro station. Image: http://www.echinacities.com

We ended up being quite impressed by the Guangzhou Museum. It is free as long as you agree to having your passport checked (apparently this is how China rolls). The exhibits are visually stimulating with many life-size dioramas to help convey the history, resources and traditional art of the Guangdong region.

Entry to the history exhibit at the Guangzhou Museum.

After the museum, we hopped back on the metro to the other side of the city. Although we eventually found the Temple of the Six Banyon Trees that was our intended destination, the street life caught our interest more. We found everything from teapot vendors to egg-on-a-stick food stalls. We even saw a few people that were charging money to let you electrocute a caged rat.  Along the way, we even ran into one of China’s oldest mosques. Legend has it that it was built by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, the uncle of the Prophet Muhamed in 650 A.D.

The smell of burning incense fills the area at the Temple of the Six Banyon Trees.

Fried eggs on a skewer, what an incredible invention!

Mike souping up the eggs with some HOT hot sauce.

Guangzhou doesn’t make guidebooks’ must-see lists in China, and many people will pass it off as just “another large Chinese city.” What we enjoyed about Guangzhou is that it seemed to be very authentic. Very little English and very few people trying to make a quick buck off of tourists. All in all, it was a fun and eventful introduction to China.

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For the second post of our Istanbul Photo Series, we are highlighting the mosques of the city. Although Turkey is secular by law, the presence of Islam is clear. The skyline is filled with domes and minarets of the numerous mosques, and the calls to prayer can be heard in all corners of the city. Yet, at the same time, locals are very much embracing Western culture, European fashion and a hopping nightlife. It is a city with many dualities. In some countries, mosques cannot be visited by non-Muslims; however, in Istanbul, mosques are a top tourist destination.   (NOTE: there are many photos in this post, therefore it may take some time to load)


We arrived in Istanbul just as a fair was being set up in front of the famous Blue Mosque. Turkey’s strong sense of national pride can be seen by the flags hanging from windows, poles and bridges all over the city.

The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art was one of our favorite stops in Istanbul. The exhibits were magnificent, and the view of the Blue Mosque was icing on the cake.

The inside of the Blue Mosque is jaw-dropping. The mosque gets its name from the haze of blue light that emanates from the painted blue tiles which touch nearly every surface in the building.

As one of the city’s main attractions, the Blue Mosque remains lit-up throughout the night, making it an awe-inspiring structure 24 hours a day.

The construction of the Blue Mosque was inspired by Istanbul’s main attraction, the Hagia Sophia. The Sultan Ahmed built the mosque just a few hundred meters away to try and trump the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia. The result was two unbelievable places of worship in the same block. This photo of the Blue Mosque was taken from the second floor of the Hagia Sophia.


The Hagia Sophia is one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World, and now we know why. It is hard to believe that this magnificent structure was constructed between 532-537 A.D.

As you enter the Hagia, symbols of the various religions that it has served can be seen. First constructed as a Cathedral, it was later converted to a mosque, and today is a museum.

The sheer size of the Hagia is impressive. The central dome is supported by 40 ribs, each of which has a window at its base allowing natural light to flood inside.

The juxtaposition of Christianity and Islam can be seen by the tile mosaic of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in the background of the Minbar.


We found visiting the Little Hagia Sophia much more enjoyable than its well-known counterpart simply due to the lack of crowds. It is named as such because it is thought to have served as a model for the Hagia Sophia.

Behind the Minbar, you can see the apse of the former church that this mosque used to be, the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

The restoration and maintenance in the Little Hagia can be seen in this ornate painting in the central dome.


Only in Istanbul would the “new” mosque refer to a mosque built over 400 years ago.


This is the ablution area where Muslims wash their hands, feet, face and forearms before entering the mosque to pray.

The sunny day on which we visited Süleymaniye made for a vibrant contrast between the blue sky and stone white minarets.

Many of the historic sites we visited had been restored using preservation techniques. In this mosque, however, the interior was scrapped away and completely redone. Controversy aside, it gave us a feel of what the mosque may have looked like when it was initially constructed.

The Süleymaniye Mosque sits atop a hill that provides beautiful views of the city, Golden Horn and Bosphorus River. This photo was taken from the Galata Bridge, where fishermen line up to catch fish each day.

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From the early days of planning our RTW trip, we knew that we wanted to visit Istanbul, however we didn’t know much about other destinations in Turkey. After reading an article in the New York Times, we became very interested in a region called Cappadocia.

Spring blooms in Cappadocia

While we were able to find tons of info on organized tours of Cappadocia, there was not much out there for the independent traveler. What we could find about exploring on your own suggested that the only feasible option was to rent a car. Tours are not our style, and renting a car was out of our budget; what were we to do? We caught a break when Amy’s mom sent us a link to a fantastic blog named Captivating Cappadocia. We contacted the author, and he kindly provided useful suggestions about a car-less approach to Cappadocia. Thanks Duke! Based on his advice, we decided to stay in Göreme, which proved the perfect home base for exploring the region.

Since we found it a bit difficult to plan our trip within a short time frame and on a budget, we have outlined our 4-day itinerary below so that other backpackers may use it as a reference. Keep in mind that this is one of a million different possibilities, and nearly everything can be planned after you arrive, so don’t worry!

Taking in the spectacular view from the Göreme Panorama

Before You Leave

Lodging: Do some research online before you leave and narrow it down to 2-3 places that fit your needs. Then negotiate via email for the best deal. We found that many hotels are willing to lower their rates in exchange for cash payment or multiple night stays. Also, we suggest staying in a “cave hotel” because it is fun and unique to Cappadocia; although more expensive than a hostel, it is still doable on a budget.

Our cave room!

Bus ticket: While a bus is not the fastest method of transportation, overnight buses are the most affordable way to get from Istanbul to Cappadocia. A ticket runs about 50-60TL and may be purchased from almost every travel agency in Istanbul. You should try to reserve a few days in advance as buses often fill up.

Day 1

Most overnight buses arrive in Göreme between 7:00-10:00am. Go drop off your stuff, grab a quick breakfast, and head straight to the Göreme Open Air Museum. It’s a short 1km walk from the town center and will quickly have you enchanted by the ancient cave dwellings and well-preserved rock churches.

The Göreme Open Air Museum is an ancient Christian city that consists of multiple churches, chapels and cave dwellings.

Amazingly well-preserved frescos in the Elmalı (Apple) Church

The Chapel of St. Barbara – a columned rock church

After exploring the museum, head back into town for lunch (there are tons of delicious and affordable places to choose from). Then, hike north to Çavusin. Here you will find dwellings that have been carved into the cliffs which are open to explore on your own for free.

We could have spent all afternoon exploring the caves of Çavusin.

On your way back to Göreme, detour off of the main road through Love Valley. The rock formations in this valley were some of our absolute favorites!

Pyramid-shaped fairy chimneys in Love Valley

“Fill-in-the-blank”-shaped fairy chimneys in Love Valley

As you come to the end of the Love Valley, you will arrive at the Göreme Panorama where you can catch great 360 views of the surrounding area.

Göreme Panorama – we cannot imagine what people back in the day thought when they first arrived to this incredible place.

Finish your day of hiking with a short trek back to Göreme through the fairy chimneys which sit just below the panorama.

Mike exploring one of the many fairy chimneys near Göreme

Based on this itinerary, we estimate that your legs will do about 13km of walking. So wear good shoes, and bring plenty of water. If that distance seems a bit too intense, there are plenty of bicycles, ATVs and motorbikes for rent in the area.

Day 2

Eat a big breakfast and pack some snacks before setting off on another day of hiking. This time in the Rose and Red valleys, which sit to the north-east of Göreme. Here you will find spectacularly colored rocks, high cliffs walls, and of course, more dwellings and churches carved into the tufta stone.

Pigeon coops carved into the rock cliffs of the Rose Valley

If the snacks you brought along aren’t enough, you will undoubtedly stumble upon some small outdoor cafes set up along the trail by entrepreneurial Turks.

Beautiful place for a cafe, huh?

After hiking, return to Göreme for a late lunch; then, rest with a nap in your cave hotel. When you feel rejuvenated, head to the mini-market and grab some beer or wine to enjoy while scoping the view from Sunset Hill. This viewpoint is located just a few minutes from the center of town and offers fantastic views of Göreme and the nearby valleys.

Day 3

Spend your morning exploring one of the many underground cities of Cappadocia. We suggest the town of Kaymaklı. To get there, take the bus to Nevşehir, which departs every half hour from the Göreme bus station. After arriving in Nevşehir, hop on a dolmus (mini-bus) direct to Kaymaklı. There are tour guides available, but we suggest just reading about the city before you visit and navigating the tunnels on your own. You’ll be able to explore at your own pace this way. Don’t worry, you won’t get lost and stuck inside like the Turkish guides may claim after you decline their services.

Mike ducking through a tiny passageway.

Bring a headlamp and/or flashlight with you – it will allow you to navigate through the ultra-secret parts of the underground city!

Those with claustrophobia or breathing conditions should be advised that the underground city contains many small passage ways and is quite dusty.

Visiting Kaymaklı should only take a half-day. After lunch you have more time for…you guessed it, more hiking! The Pigeon valley hike is about 4km and runs between Göreme and the nearby town of Uçhisar. It is a great way to spend the afternoon after being confined to the small spaces of the underground city.

The mushroom top cliffs of the Pigeon Valley

Day 4

After three days of hiking, we felt deserving of some relaxation. Sleep in and have a late breakfast. Most hotels will allow you to store your luggage while you enjoy your last day in Göreme. We suggest spending some time at a tea house and chatting with the owner or planning your next travel move, and then ending your visit with one final hike through the Zemi Valley.

More interestingly shaped fairy chimneys

Taking one last hike in Cappadocia through the Zemi Valley

If you are too beat to even think about hiking, there is a Hamam (Turkish bath) located right by the bus station where you can enjoy a spa day before taking another night bus out of Göreme.

This 4-day budget itinerary is definitely centered on hiking the valleys because we love hiking, hiking is free, and hiking is the best way to appreciate the natural beauty of Cappadocia. However, if your budget is a bit more flexible, the same basic plan could be modified to include an all-day tour (90-140TL) and/or hot-air balloon ride (300-450TL). Both activities come highly recommended by many people in the area. The good news is that pretty much whatever you do in Cappadocia, you are sure to have a good time.

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We believe that each place you visit leaves you with just a little more knowledge about the world in which we live. Last week we traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina where we expanded our understanding of the Bosnian War. This former Yugoslavian nation does not likely appear on many RTW itineraries, and, to be honest, we didn’t have very high expectations. Sarajevo simply appeared to be a good place to exit Eastern Europe, but we could not have been more wrong. The sights we saw and the stories we heard about the Bosnian War impacted us profoundly. We are going to share our impressions, but first want to clarify that it was a very complicated war. It would take years of research to fully understand what happened, if understanding war is even possible.

Our first stop in Bosnia and Herzegovina was Mostar. Situated in the Herzegovina region, this relatively small city of about 130,000 people is most well-known for its old bridge (Stari Most) which spans the Neretva river.

The stunning Stari Most.

Sadly, however, the first thing that caught our attention in Mostar was not the bridge nor beautiful nearby mountains; it was the many bombed out ruins of buildings. Despite the nearly 15 million dollars that have been put into the reconstruction of the city since the war ended in 1995, many buildings remain in shambles.

Scars from the war can be seen everywhere.

Over the years, we have both visited developing nations and have seen poor living conditions, but witnessing the destructive power of war is something completely different. It left us feeling quite somber as we wondered through the town.

View of Mostar from the Old Bridge Museum.

After an evening of pondering our first impressions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we decided to check out the brighter side of Mostar and see why it is a top tourist destination. Stari Most is indeed a magnificent bridge, and its white stone arch makes a beautiful contrast against the brightly colored, turquoise-blue water of the river. Our first walk across the bridge was met with an overwhelming cluster of camera-in-hand tourists peering over the edge. We quickly noticed that the crowd had formed to watch a group of locals jumping off the bridge into the quickly moving current below.

The things some people will do for a buck (or a Mark)…

At the Old Bridge Museum, which is housed in one of the bridge’s two towers, we learned that the original bridge was built in 1557 for the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Like many buildings in Mostar, Stari Most was greatly affected by the war. In fact, after standing for more than 400 years, the original bridge was destroyed during a shelling on November 9, 1993. Reconstruction of the current bridge was not completed until 2004.

The reconstruction of Stari Most attempted to match it as closely as possible to the original, even using some of the same stones which were recovered from the river.

Our visit to Mostar happened to coincide with Easter. It was thought-provoking to spend this holiday in a primarily Muslim area; most people seemed to be going about their day as normal. You wouldn’t have known it was Easter at all were it not for the sound of church bells intermingled with the Islamic call to prayer. Interestingly enough, we entered our first mosque on Easter and walked to the top of the minaret where it is possible to take in panoramic views of the town.

Interior of the Karadjoz-bey mosque, the largest mosque in the Herzegovina region.

The Bosnian War was one of several wars that begun as a result of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and occurred when ethnic and religious tensions between Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs (Orthodox Serbians) and Croats (Catholic Croatians) had reached a peak. While the wars have ended and the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is now at peace (at least on the surface), signs of conflict between these groups are still present. One example in Mostar is the cross on Hum Hill. This hill was a key military position during the war and was the base of many Croat sniper and mortar attacks against the Bosniak population. Today, the hill is crowned by an imposing cross which stands at 33 meters high. For many Bosniaks, it is viewed as an attempt by Catholic Croats to claim ownership over the city. The city’s Croat population, however, argues that Muslim monuments (i.e. numerous mosques and the Stari Most) dominate the city’s old town. For the Croats, the construction of the cross in 2000 simply meant having a monument to call their own. Regardless of which side you’re on, the cross on Hum Hill is just one example of how the war continues to impact society today.

After a few days in Mostar, we caught a morning train to Sarajevo. In a recent post we mentioned how much we love train travel, and this trip was no exception. The train ran along the Neretva river, through rolling hills, and eventually, into snow-capped, rocky mountains. The two and a half hour ride was simply spectacular. For only $6 per person, it may be the best money we have ever spent.

Our attempt at capturing the beautiful train ride from Mostar to Sarajevo.

As the train pulled into Sarajevo, it was back to reality. While the city appears to have recovered and rebuilt more than Mostar, many buildings are still riddled with bullet holes and crumbling from mortar blasts. Yet, at the same time, the city has the vibe of a thriving European capital.

Bascarsija Old Town Square in Sarajevo

Unfortunately we only allowed ourselves one day and night in Sarajevo, but we think we made the most of it. Wanting to learn more about the war, we signed up for a “Tunnel Tour” through our hostel which is run by a family from Sarajevo. We learned so much from Saed, the father, who shared his knowledge about the history of the war and also many personal stories. He and his family lived through four years of war in the same building where they now run their hostel. It was chilling to hear him explain their daily routine of waking up before the gunfire and bombing began at 5am and relocating to the basement where it was safer.

Soaking in Saed’s stories and knowledge.

During the tour, we were driven all over the city of Sarajevo as Saed explained the landscape. An important note is that almost all of the buildings from the 1984 Olympic Games were destroyed; some have been rebuilt with donations from the international community, while others have been lost forever. We discussed what the city may have been like today if the war had never happened. It was growing rapidly and prosperous enough to attract the Olympics in ’84, but by ’94 was the centerpiece in a savage war. The name “Tunnel Tour” stems from the most important site visited, the entry of a tunnel which runs below Sarajevo airport, connecting the former Olympic Village of Dobrinja to the base of the mountains. It allowed the people of Sarajevo to transport much needed supplies to and  from the outside world during the siege, and it was vital to their ability to hold off the Serbian forces.

Entrance to the tunnel

During our week stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we learned so much about the history of the country and the perseverance of the Bosnian people. We both recall hearing about the Bosnian War on the news when we were young; it was the first war that we remember happening during our lifetime. Perhaps because of this, it made our visit more impactful. While Bosnia and Herzegovina is not the most glamorous of destinations, it is certainly a thought-provoking and beautiful place to visit, worth adding to your next European trip.

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