Kuta: To Visit or Not To Visit

Kuta is one of the most controversial cities in Bali when it comes to travelers, and there is a huge question as to whether or not it is worth the visit. Kuta definitely has a different vibe from many of the other towns in Bali. It has its good and its bad, but when most people have a limited amount of time in Bali, it’s important to consider both sides to make a decision for yourself.

The Good

The first positive thing about Kuta is its reputation for being a party city. It definitely does have more of a spring-break feel to it, and it's popular with the younger crowd. If you’re looking to spend a few days bar hopping, Kuta is the perfect spot to be. There are bars and drink specials everywhere!

Kuta is also known for their good surfing conditions. There are two groupings of waves at this beach: small waves roll in closer to the shore, and bigger waves roll out further. More experienced surfers can ride the bigger waves, while the closer waves are perfect for learners. There are official surfing schools as well as private surfing instructors all over the beach. The beaches in Bali vary quite a bit, so while you can surf at other beaches, Kuta is known for its good surfing conditions.

Another thing unique to Kuta are their turtles. The Kuta Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center sits right on the beach offering visitors a chance to see sea turtles at various ages. If you happen to find yourself in Kuta at the right time, you could even get the chance to release a baby sea turtle onto the beach!

Baby sea turtles being released on Kuta Beach

Baby sea turtles being released on Kuta Beach

The Bad

Perhaps the biggest drawback to visiting Kuta are the local men who would cat call and make inappropriate comments while we were walking down the streets lined with shops. While relaxing on the beach, we were approached by several men asking to take pictures with us. Why? I have no idea. Many of them were polite enough to ask us and walk away when we declined, but we did catch a few men taking our pictures without our consent. It was creepy, to say the least.

Now, the first positive mentioned was Kuta’s reputation for being a party city. Depending on who you are, this can be either a good or a bad thing, so it deserves a spot on both lists. If you’re looking for a quiet or less-populated town, then Kuta is not for you. It is among the least authentic spots in Bali, as it is catering towards a different type of tourist.

Yolo Bar in Kuta Bali. Photo from: www.afar.com

Yolo Bar in Kuta Bali. Photo from: www.afar.com

With that being said, the food also suffers. Much of the food is subpar, and it is harder to find authentic Indonesian food. The worst food I had in Bali was in Kuta. That’s not to say that all the food is bad, but you should take a little bit more time researching where to eat instead of just walking into any place.

I also found that Kuta was the most expensive place I visited in Bali. Everything from the hotels to the restaurants charged more for lower quality. This is a negative, especially if Kuta is your last city, and you’re used to paying a lot less. However, expensive in Bali is still incredibly cheap by American standards.

Now it's time to answer the much-debated question: should I go to Kuta? Well, it really depends how long your vacation is and what kind of traveler you are. Kuta boasts some good beaches for surfing, as well as a fun atmosphere and the chance to see sea turtles. However, it is also a bit pricier than its neighboring towns and is a lot less authentic. Personally, I visited Bali to experience their culture. However, I don’t regret visiting Kuta at all. I got the opportunity to release a baby sea turtle, take a surfing lesson, and spend a couple days relaxing on the beach with a good drink. It’s not the best place to learn about Balinese culture or try authentic food, however it does offer some things that you can’t find anywhere else in Bali.

The Disapointment that is Bali's Turtle Island

My toes squished in the warm yellow sand of Kuta beach as rolling waves offered the perfect conditions for surf lessons. A few turtle centers within close vicinity excite us with the promise of seeing baby sea turtles. During our pre-travel research, we briefly came across a small island off the coast of Bali called “Turtle Island” but didn’t do much research on it. Instead, we decided we’d visit the Kuta Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center.

When the time came to visit the conservation center, we left our hotel hopeful that we could find it. With no reliable Wi-Fi at our disposal, we had to depend on our own sense of direction and a little help from the locals to find our way. Well that turned out to be easier said than done as we spend almost two hours wandering around Kuta, always being pointed in the same direction when we asked for help, but somehow never quite finding it. Eventually, after being beaten on by the sun for too long, we gave up and decided to enact plan B: hitting the beach  

Our excitement to see sea turtles quickly turned into disappointment as our trip was nearing an end, and it seemed unlikely that we would get to see any at all. As we were walking toward the beach, we passed by one of the seemingly infinite tourist stands offering different tours. The little white stands plastered with posters and stacked with bunches of brochures fighting their way to be in front stick out like a sore thumb amongst all the other stores. We were fully prepared to walk by without giving it a second look until something caught my eye. Among the stacks and stacks of pamphlets, I noticed a small picture of a turtle printed on a poster on the stand.

For the first time our entire trip, we stopped to talk to the worker behind the stand. He told us about Turtle Island, explaining that we could see turtle eggs, baby turtles, and adult turtles. We’d learn about turtles and their different life stages, and we could even hold one. Now, maybe this was me just being a little naïve, but I was expecting a conservation center full of information. The name “Turtle Island” also lead me to believe that perhaps this was an island with a larger than average sea turtle population and that we might catch a glimpse of a turtle hanging by the beach or in the shallow waves.

I was very wrong.

The dock-less entry at Turtle Island, left us no choice but to land in the shallow water before climbing up into the sand. I know, I know it doesn’t sound that bad, but with nowhere to rinse our feet off at and no warning (I was not wearing the right shoes for this) we were stuck walking around with wet, sandy feet our entire time here. The second we walked into the area where the turtles were housed, a man came and rather aggressively tried to be our “guide.” His welcoming grin was overshadowed by his booming voice and hasty disposition as he explained that he was a volunteer, being sure to mention several times that he accepts tips.

The pitiful tour began at a shallow, tile tank which housed younger turtles. After providing us with no information, except a rushed explanation of their ages through broken English (I believe they were around 1-5 years old), he stuck his hands into the tank and pulled out a dripping, and obviously annoyed, turtle, urging us to hold him. He then rushed us towards the next tank housing adult turtles, before pointing us to a larger pool that had all the elderly turtles. He directed us to step down and feed them a few strands of sandy plants (my best guess is seaweed, but he never told us exactly what we were feeding them). Within 15 minutes our experience seeing turtles was over. We were rushed through every tank and the only piece of information we received was that turtles live to be 150 years old. When asked why the adult turtles were still held in small tanks, he responded by telling us that they were used for breeding.

Young turtles in their tank at Turtle Island

Young turtles in their tank at Turtle Island

After being led to believe that this would have been an informative trip focusing on the lifecycle of sea turtles, we were extremely disappointed to see turtles being kept in small tile pools, not even close to imitating their natural habitats.

After our short and upsetting visit with the turtles, we were rushed off to the even more depressing mini zoo. All the animals were kept in wire cages, none of which made any attempt to imitate a natural environment either. The first cage housed bats, which our guide pushed us to hold. When I protested, he responded by pointing at the bad and telling me to hold it louder. Sheepishly, I folded and grabbed the scared bat by the feet. He proceeded to rush us to the next cage to take a picture with the cockatoos. However, upon closer inspection I noticed that each bird was chained to their little metal perch standing in the middle of the cage. A few seconds later we were being rushed out of that cage and into another. At the very end there was a tank of snakes all piled on top of each other. Again, our guide asked if we would like to hold one.  It was then that I noticed that the snake’s mouth was taped shut with layers upon layers of clear tape. Once the snake was back in its tank, we reached the end of the tour. The sinks linked up on the wall were accompanied with cheap soap that did nothing to remove the sticky feeling from my hands.

Cockatoo chained to the post at Turtle Island (look closely at it's left [our right] ankle)

Cockatoo chained to the post at Turtle Island (look closely at it's left [our right] ankle)

In what can only be explained as the universe trying to screw us one more time, a rain storm hit as soon as we tried to leave. We were left with no choice but to wait it out at one of the café’s benches which were protected under a flimsy roof. Unfortunately for us, our guide refused to leave our side even though we were already done viewing the animals. We waited a few minutes before deciding to get some food at the café. The second we got up to order, our guide jumped up and insisted that he be would order our food and bring it to us. Finally, when our less than subpar food arrived, the guide allowed us to pay him for our food (and a small tip) and left us alone.

When the rain finally let up, we took the first boat we could out of there. Turtle Island was the single biggest disappointment during my entire trip to Bali. I’m a huge animal lover and was excited to see sea turtles in an environment that keeps them healthy and happy. However, what we found was a breeding center that keeps its turtles in small and shallow pools. They didn’t seem to care about the turtle’s happiness and were only concerned about drawing in tourists through deceitful images and marketing. Furthermore, the mini zoo served no purpose other than exploiting animals in a pathetic ploy to increase tourism. If you are visiting Bali, I strongly urge you to skip Turtle Island, and research other options instead.

What to Do in Ubud, Bali

If you’re planning a trip to Bali, Indonesia and want to ensure that you are surrounded by the Balinese culture while still having the safety net of staying in a city that caters to tourists, Ubud is your best bet. While the city of Ubud is big with tourists, it still offers an authentic experience and fair prices. There are ample things to do in this city, but here are five things you’ll want to make sure you add to your itinerary.

Visit the Sacred Monkey Forest

Sacred Monkey Forest

Sacred Monkey Forest

This temple is home to hundreds of wild Balinese long-tailed monkeys, and I use the word “wild” loosely. The monkeys are allowed to roam freely and are not kept in captivity, so by definition, yes, they are wild. However, there are thousands of tourists that visit the Monkey Forest every month, so they have gotten used to human contact. They won’t be afraid to approach you, especially if you purchased a bunch of bananas at one of the stands. However, this does come with its downfalls. The monkeys aren’t afraid to jump on you if they think they smell food, so make sure you aren’t harboring any snacks on you!

Explore the Tegallalang Rice Terrace

Tegallalang Rice Terrace

Tegallalang Rice Terrace

If you have a specific image of rice paddies that you’re picturing in your head, it’s probably the Tegallalang Rice Terrace. This terrace is among the most photographed in Bali due to its atheistic appeal. The rice paddies are stacked diagonally with picturesque stones and flowers weaving through the terrace. For a few small donations, visitors can walk throughout the terrace to get the best views. There is even a restaurant that offers delicious food with an amazing view of the rice terrace.

Experience Authentic Indonesian Food

Lunch of prawns, rice, and vegetables on the Tegallalang Rice Terraces

Lunch of prawns, rice, and vegetables on the Tegallalang Rice Terraces

While Indonesian food can be found throughout Bali, I found that the most authentic and reasonably priced food was in Ubud. Some of the other cities that are overrun with tourists can get away with charging more for subpar food. While Ubud has plenty of tourists, their food hasn’t suffered. Every meal I had in Ubud was delicious, and, while I’m no expert on Indonesian food, I felt like I was experiencing authentic meals.

Hike Mount Batur at Sunrise

View from the top of Mount Batur

View from the top of Mount Batur

This one might not be for the faint of heart. Mount Batur is an active volcano located about an hour drive outside Ubud. Several tour companies offer sunrise hikes up the mountain that include breakfast, transportation to and from the mountain, flashlights, and a tour guide. While this is a popular option among tourists, it is a rather difficult hike. It usually takes about one to two hours to get to the top, but the inclines get steep and the hike up is in the dark. The view from the top is amazing, but the hike to get there is no walk in the park.

See the Temples

Saraswati Temple

Saraswati Temple

Bali’s Hindu temples are located throughout the island. While you can find temples in other towns, there are a lot of nice temples located right in Ubud. If you want to learn about Balinese culture, it is highly recommended that you visit at least one temple as the Balinese are very spiritual people. Make sure you show respect before entering the temples by dressing modestly, and watch your feet as people lay offerings on the ground around temples (and everywhere else for that matter).

Ubud is a great place to visit if you’re looking to learn about Balinese culture. There is so much to see and do, not to mention the amazing food. If you’re planning a trip to Bali, be sure to include Ubud in your itinerary, and spend a few days immersed in Balinese culture.

Atlantic Station Sweet Shops: Rated

Candy, cookies, ice cream, and fudge galore! If you find yourself in Atlanta with a nagging sweet tooth, look no further than the Atlantic Station to curb your cravings. The Atlantic Station is a large, outdoor shopping center, located in midtown Atlanta, Georgia. Shops vary from clothing stores, to restaurants, to specialty stores, so there is a little something for everyone. But, the best part of visiting Atlantic Station are the specialty sweet shops. Each sweet shop specializes in something different, allowing each to give their customers a unique experience.

3. IT’SUGAR

www.browardpalmbeach.com

www.browardpalmbeach.com

If you’re craving any kind of specific candy, IT’SUGAR is the place to go. This candy shop is stocked wall-to-wall with all different forms of manufactured candy. Want a jawbreaker the size of your head? They have that. Want to leave with your arms full of candy? Here’s the place to go. If you’re afraid you’ll never make it to Atlanta to visit IT’SUGAR, no problem! They have 90 locations around the country, as well as an online store where you can order a number of giant and novelty candies.

2. Great American Cookies

Like its name suggests, Great American Cookies is the place to go if you are in the mood for some warm and gooey cookies just like mom used to make. Their website boasts that they are the home of the original cookie cake, and their menu consists of different flavors of cookies, cookie sandwiches, and brownies. They also offer customizable chocolate chip cookies cakes than can either be ordered online or at your closest location.

1. Kilwins

At the top of the list is Kilwins, who has been offering the finest sweets since 1947. What does Kilwins sell? Well a little of everything. They have homemade candies, chocolate covered marshmallows and Rice Krispy treats, fudge, candy apples, caramels, and ice cream. Kilwins crowning feature is the waffle cones made fresh to-order on a thin waffle maker right next to the entrance of the store.

If you find yourself at Atlantic Station, be sure to stop in at one of the famous sweet shops. While I highly encourage that everyone indulges in all three shops, if you can only choose one, Kilwins can’t be missed. Their impressive selection of homemade treats and fresh waffle cones makes this the perfect place to satisfy your sweet tooth.

What Nobody Tells You About Returning Home from a Long Trip Abroad

Watching the glistening lights of the Eiffel Tower at night, bar hopping in Ireland, being serenaded by a gondolier in Venice, and eating your weight in authentic international food: these are the experiences many people dream of when booking a European vacation. After a full year of saving money and researching travel companies, I found myself ready to leave my small town in Pennsylvania for a six-week tour through Western Europe. 

The trip was everything I’d ever imagined (excuse the cliché). I traveled through eight European countries, starting in Ireland, and making my way down to Italy. I climbed the Swiss Alps, drank wine under the Eiffel Tower, saw the mysterious rocks of Stonehenge, walked the stone streets of ancient Pompeii, and so much more. Everyone who’s been abroad will be itching to tell you how amazing it is, the things you must see, and what to avoid, but nobody prepares you for the bittersweet reunion with your hometown. Here are three things to prepare for when you’re returning home.

French lunch crêpe filled with fresh vegetables

French lunch crêpe filled with fresh vegetables

American food might make you sick

Upon my arrival in Ireland, I stumbled into a small café called the Queen of Tarts. It was early afternoon, and in an attempt to shake off my jet lag, I decided to grab some lunch. I took one bite into my sandwich, and *gasp* what’s that!? Is that what a vegetable is supposed to taste like?! I felt like I’d be missing out my whole life…these vegetables tasted far superior to their American counterparts: fresher, crunchier, and tastier. Throughout my trip, I indulged in amazing foods from every country, and even the mediocre food tasted healthier than my “healthy” meals at home. But, unfortunately for me, adjusting back to American food isn’t quite as easy. After just six weeks in Europe, I noticed that our bread seemed sweeter, our pizza greasier, and our vegetables limper. Not only was I disappointed in the food I was eating, but some of it even made me sick. One of my favorite meals of hot wings and cheesy bacon fries that I used to enjoy entirely, now made me nauseous. It took me about a week to readjust to my old diet, so plan to eat very healthy for at least your first few days back in America.

 

   

Coming home will be bittersweet

Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque Terre, Italy

When it’s time to pack your bags, and make the journey to the airport for your flight back home, it will be bittersweet. You’re saying goodbye to the trip you’ve spend so much time planning, and saying goodbye to all the friends you made abroad. You’ll probably be excited to see your friends and family back home, and you’ll definitely be excited to sleep in your own bed, but it’s sad to end the trip you so desperately wanted. You might even get nostalgic on the flight back home…I never thought I could be nostalgic about something that happened two and a half weeks ago, but I was.

   

  

Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain

Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain

You’ll immediately start planning for your next trip

Once you catch the travel bug, you’ll never get rid of it. My six week tour through Europe was my first time abroad-hell it was my first time out of the east coast! Before I left, I thought that I would only ever be interested in going to the big-name countries…I mean what is there to do in Indonesia anyway? Boy was I wrong. I have gained a greater appreciation for visiting other countries and learning about their cultures. Not only do I still want to see the big named countries like Australia and Greece, but I’m also excited to visit the less popular countries, like Chile, Iceland, Morocco, and (you guessed it) Indonesia. I’ve been planning for dozens of future trips ever since I got home. I just can’t stop.

It’s now about a year and a half after my trip to Europe, and I still miss being abroad. I’m addicted to keeping up with new travel destinations, and I’m constantly adding to my travel boards on Pinterest (yes, that’s right-boards…. I have seven). Most importantly, I can’t wait to get back on a plane and continue to see the world.

Carl, The Dollar Van Driver

So moms called me at work asking if I could go to Eastern Parkway and Utica to run an errand so I'm like no problem.
I'll walk to Utica.
Catch the 45.
I just plumped up the metro so I'm good.
I get to the bus stop and the bus pulls up right behind me.
Step in and see the metro slot is covered with tape so I'm like oh shit free ride.
Let's get it!
This arrogant mofo's banging on his protective glass.
You'd think bullets were going at it.
I'm like, "What's the problem?" 
He says, "You need to get a ticket."
So I back my ass on out.
I bust a pivot and see a dollar van pull up just in time.
I got change at the bodega so I'm good.
I hop in like I've done this before.
Now see, I've never taken a dollar cab in my adult life.
I've only ever taken it as a kid.
Bout five, six, seven years old.
See when you're an adult reliving things you did as a kid it's much different.
All I remember about dollar vans is that they were hood rides that cost a dollar and could get as tight as a sardine can with enough people.
I notice the guy beside me has a cane and he's getting off at a stop before me.
Soon as we pull up to his stop I start yanking on the lever trying to get the door open for him.
The goddamn door won't open.
I'm like what the fuck!
This man is waiting on me and I'm yanking at it with everything I got.
So the driver leans over and opens it with a fucked up attitude and some slick shit to say out the side of his face
"You never took a dollar van before?!"
I say, "Does that matter?"
"Well common sense would tell you..."
My ears start steaming.
The sound of his voice begins to fade.
I'm getting angry.
I'm hoping he'll stop talking but he keeps going so I tell him to shut the fuck up and take me where I'm going.
But it's too late.
I'm so fucking mad and I got between now and my stop which is half a block away to figure out if I'm even gonna pay this fool.
I decide to pay him but I don't hand him the dollar.
I throw it at him.
"Don't throw no fucking money at me bitch!"
Last man that called me a bitch was a gay dude and I think he thought it was okay since we both like guys but I didn't like it then either.
"I just did" is all I say and I start walking-
not fast but not slow.
I make it nearly two blocks away from my stop when I hear a voice behind me saying, "He's not playing with you. He's gonna stop."
I look to my left and I see his un-kept dreads poking through the doorway first.
I love locks but his were poorly taken care of and looked like they deserved to be on a man that makes frequent stops in a run down van for a dollar-
Or two dollars rather.
"You only gave me a dollar you dumb bitch! You dumb stupid bitch!"
I could feel all kinds of bitches and n words getting ready to come out like word vomit but I didn't say anything but,"Yep!I sure did."
I didn't wanna go there with him.
He finally drove off and I immediately called my mom.
There was so much heat coming off my body I was no longer cold in this 20 degree air. 
I told her about my unpleasant experience. I started to cry a little-
not because he made my first dollar van ride in years an unpleasant experience,
not because he called me out of my name,
not because the dude behind me laughed at me as I was being berated in front of all of Eastern Parkway instead of coming to my defense,
but because I know that if I was a cute light skinned girl with great hair and a fat ass it wouldn't even have gone this far. 
I hope that girl was waiting on you when you got home Carl the dollar van driver.

3 Things to Know Before Visiting Pompeii

The sweltering sun beat down on us unforgivably as we got off the bus and walked through the threshold of the once thriving city of Pompeii. As I lowered my red sunglasses over my squinting eyes in an attempt to get a good look at the city, a small mob of fellow tourists brushed by me, already starting to sweat. A light breeze relieved the heat for a few seconds as I admired the size of this city. Perhaps a popular misconception, or perhaps just a personal misconception I have about ancient cities is that they will always be small….but not Pompeii.

Our tour guide rounded the stragglers up to begin the tour. Almost 2,000 years ago, in the year 79 A.D., the hot, fiery ash exploding from Mount Vesuvius ran down the mountain and covered an entire city of people in its destructive wake. Because of the amazing archaeological discoveries and their ability to preserve so much of this city, Pompeii has become a popular tourist spot when visiting Italy. If you decide to visit Pompeii, here are three things to know before you go.

1. Get a Tour Guide

Sure, you can save some money by taking a self-guided tour through Pompeii. You can see the plaster-cast bodies, find the oh so famous brothel (just follow the stone penises pointing the way!) and admire the preserved paintings adorning walls of various buildings. However, experts have learned a lot about Pompeii and about the people who lived in it. The tour guides know a lot of interesting information that will make your trip to Pompeii so much more enjoyable. Did you know that one of the oldest known fast food restaurants is in Pompeii? How about that fact that the wealthy would dig pits in their dining rooms so they could vomit after dinner in order to eat more? Neither did I…but your tour guide will.

One of the first fast food restaurants 

One of the first fast food restaurants 

2. The Truth Behind the Bodies of Pompeii

Pompeii’s most famous attraction within an attraction are the bodies. Contrary to what you may have heard, these are not real bodies that were mummified and preserved by lava. Instead, the hot lava covered people alive, but the extreme heat disintegrated their bodies and what remained were human-shaped holes in the nine-foot tall cooled lava. Archaeologists then went through and poured plaster into these holes to create the famous bodies of Pompeii. Upon entering the city, I was expecting to see these lying everywhere, perhaps keeping many of them in the place they were originally found. However, there were only three on display, and they were restricted to one roped-off area with the rest of the priceless artifacts rescued from the site.

A plaster-cast body

A plaster-cast body

3. Do the Mt. Vesuvius Hike and Take Your Time

Mount Vesuvius is actually pretty far away from ancient Pompeii. However, there are tours that offer a combo: a guided tour through Pompeii and transportation to and up the base of Mount Vesuvius. Our guide told us that the hike itself takes roughly 30 minutes to get to the first stop and another 20 minutes to get to the top. However, the incline can be tiring if you aren’t already very fit so look for a tour that gives more time to hike. The tour I took only gave us a little over an hour to climb up the mountain and come back down, so we didn’t get a chance to make it all the way to the top (it took us about 45 minutes just to get to the first stop).

The view from Mt. Vesuvious

The view from Mt. Vesuvious

Pompeii is an incredible stop to make during your trip to Italy. There is so much history packed into the exposed-brick walls of this ancient city, and there isn’t anything else quite like it in Italy. To make the most of your trip to Pompeii, make sure to book a guided tour, take the time to hike Mt. Vesuvius, and don’t be disappointed by the few plaster-cast bodies on display. 

5 Things to Do in Amsterdam

This quaint city nestled in the Netherlands has more to do than meets the eye. Flowing canals and the ringing of bicycle bells give this capital a small town feel. However, there is no shortage of things to do, and you’ll find that Amsterdam has a little bit for everyone. Here are five things to do while in Amsterdam.

Photo from getyourguide.nl

Photo from getyourguide.nl

Visit the Anne Frank House

The line to get into the Anne Frank House can be daunting, but it’s worth it. It moves at a snail’s pace to ensure that not too many people are in the museum at once. While this makes the line awful (almost unbearable if you’re impatient like me), it’s worth it to be able to enjoy the museum without having elbows shoved in your ribs by a swarm of tourists packed like sardines into a small space. After soaking up all the history in the museum, you can make your way up to the annex and see where Anne Frank and her family sought refuge.

Rent a bike

Rent one of the over 800,000 bikes in this city (fun fact: there are actually more bikes in Amsterdam than residents) and ride through the streets, over the canals, and right out of the city. Beware: bikers in Amsterdam don’t stop for tourists, so if you hear the light *cling cling* of a bike bell, it’s best to move out of the way to avoid getting run over. For a more leisurely ride, go out of the city and ride through the meadows and tulip fields.

Photo from hottraveldestination.com

Photo from hottraveldestination.com

Visit the Red Light District

Take in a piece of local culture by visiting the Red Light District. While this may not be for everyone, it is certainly a unique experience. There are two ways to do this: a self-guided tour may be less awkward (for you and the girls) as you can blend in with the locals instead of looking like a gawking tourist. However, you can learn a lot more about the district and laws surrounding it on a guided tour. Whichever way you decide to visit the Red Light District, please do not take pictures of the girls. Most of them are not proud to be doing this as a living and do not appreciate having their pictures taken.

Photo from venere.com

Photo from venere.com

Go to a “Coffee Shop”

Ahh…coffee shops-another unique culture experience that may not be for everyone. The marijuana laws in Amsterdam can be confusing. However, the majority of people visiting coffee shops are foreigners. Whether you decide to smoke (or try edibles) or not, just walking into a coffee shop is interesting. These cozy, smoke filled hang-out spots have special marijuana menus, and they are worth the visit.

Take a canal cruise

While Venice may be the city most famous for its canals, Amsterdam has 165 canals within its city limits. Various canal cruises are available, and are a good way to learn the history of Amsterdam. Taking this tour in the beginning of your vacation has the added bonus of possibly filling up gaps in your itinerary. You never know what will peak your interest on these tours and what sites you’ll want to revisit later.

Amsterdam is a unique city with plenty of unique things to do. If you’re not into visiting coffee shops and the red light district, don’t be fooled, there is so much more to this city than these risqué stops. From historical sites like the Anne Frank House to artsy spots like the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam has something for everyone.

A Potterhead's Guide to 3 days in London

Harry Potter has captivated the minds of so many people over the past two decades. That’s right, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published 20 years ago in 1997, followed by the American version, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1998. Many locations in the book take place in the very real world of London, making this city a must-see for Potterheads from all over the world. If you only have three days to experience this city, here is good itinerary highlighting the best Harry Potter attractions while still incorporating the classic “must-dos” in London.

Day 1

Start your first day with a city tour that will take you past the major icons like Big Ben, the London Bridge, and Buckingham Palace. Listen to the tour guide for some inside information, and learn what monuments you’re okay just driving by and which ones you want to revisit later. One of the biggest things you probably won’t want to miss is the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which happens outside of the Buckingham Palace every hour, on the hour. Once the Palace has changed guards for the hour, head over to two different train stations (which happen to be right next to each other), King’s Cross and St. Pancras. King’s Cross, the famous train station mentioned in Harry Potter, has a special set up for platform 9 ¾ where visitors can take a picture entering the platform adorned by a house scarf of their choosing.

Entering Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station

Entering Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station

After visiting King’s Cross, go next door to St. Pancras. Some believe that this lesser known train station is the real inspiration behind Harry Potter’s King’s Cross Station since the aesthetics of St. Pancras mirror some of the descriptions in the books. If you have some extra time, a Harry Potter London Tour is also available which will take you past the locations used as inspiration for several Harry Potter locations, such as Gringotts Bank, Diagon Alley, and the Leaky Cauldron.

Day 2

Spend your second day by traveling a little outside of London to Oxford University. This world famous University has been home to Nobel Prize winners, actors, poets, Olympic medal winners, and world leaders. Oxford is worth a visit for this impressive merit alone, but Harry Potter fans will enjoy the locations around campus that were used during filming. The Oxford dining hall, divinity room, ballroom, and one of the courtyards are all places Potterhead’s will recognize. While you’re already outside of London, try taking a trip to Stonehenge. There’s no Harry Potter connections here, but this amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site is a can't miss if you're in the area.

UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stonehenge

UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stonehenge

Upon your return into the city, get some tickets to enjoy one of London’s greatest gems-the theater. Don’t fret if Harry Potter and the Cursed Child tickets are sold out, there are always some amazing plays being performed.

Day 3

Head over to the “pièce de résistance” on your last day in London-the Harry Potter Studio Tour. Plan to spend the majority of the day here because once you get in, you won’t want to leave. They have almost every prop you can think of that was used in the movies including Hagrid’s flying motorcycle, the cupboard under the stairs, Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, the Hogwarts Express, and a whole set-up of Diagon Alley. Take your time to marvel in all the different aspects that went into making the movie, grab some butterbeer, and try not to go completely broke in the souvenir shop.

Buckbeak the Hippogriff at the Harry Potter Studio Tour

Buckbeak the Hippogriff at the Harry Potter Studio Tour

If you find yourself with some downtime during these three days, some other things to do include taking your picture crossing the famous Abbey Road like the Beatles, visiting the Leadenhall Market (which was the location for Diagon Alley in the first movie), making a call one of the classic red phone booths, walking around Piccadilly Circus (which is where Harry, Ron, and Hermione apparate to while escaping death eaters during Bill and Fleur’s wedding), or taking a ride on the London Eye.

The London Eye

The London Eye

London is full of things to do for travelers, foodies, and Potterheads alike. If you only have three days to see as much as you can in this wonderful city, this itinerary will give you the best of both worlds; allowing you to bask in the magical world of Harry Potter while not missing out on the classic London attractions.

The 5 Best Places to Spend the Holidays

The day after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season. People wake up at the crack of dawn (or even abandon the end of Thanksgiving dinner) to rummage through sales in an attempt to find the perfect Christmas gift for their loved ones. Christmas trees start being chopped down and wreaths are being hung from doors. Lights get strung across rooftops and the smell of freshly baked cookies fill entire homes as we prepare for the greatest time of the year.

Most of us have already decided on spending the holidays at home with our friends and families. However, if you have a family that likes to travel or are looking for a change of pace this Christmas, here are the top five places to visit over the holidays.
 

1. New York City

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Image from dfw.cbslocal.com

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
Image from dfw.cbslocal.com

New York is filled with things to do over the holidays. From the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, to the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree there is no shortage of Christmas spirit in this city. Take an afternoon to go ice skating in Rockefeller Center, visit one of the many, many Santa Claus’, and just enjoy the winter wonderland that New York turns into during this time of the year. If you can manage to stay a little longer, you’ll even get the bonus of being able to watch the ball drop on New Year’s.

 

2. Zurich, Switzerland

Christmas market at the Main Train Station Image from zuerich.com

Christmas market at the Main Train Station
Image from zuerich.com

The wintery town of Zurich, Switzerland is an excellent place to spend the holidays. Several Christmas markets take place throughout December, as well as Christmas and Nativity Scenes in the Swiss National Museum, the Circus Conelli, and a Santa Claus Parade (usually taking place at the end of November). In addition to these special Christmas activities, there is also no shortage of winter fun, such as climbing the Swiss Alps, enjoying some hot fondue, going ice skating, or relaxing at a spa.

 

3. Nevada City, California

Horse-drawn sleigh rides at Nevada City's Victorian Christmas Image from nevadacitychamber.com

Horse-drawn sleigh rides at Nevada City's Victorian Christmas
Image from nevadacitychamber.com

Looking for a more unique Christmas experience? Then try spending some time in Nevada City. Every year this California town celebrates Christmas the Victorian way with horse-drawn carriage rides, authentic gas lamps, live entertainment, and delicious treats! Entertainment varies from a live nativity scene, to Victorian singers and bagpipers. Everyone who visits is encouraged to dress in Victorian attire to add to the atmosphere. While this tradition only takes place a total of five days in December, the city also offers some good skiing and snowboarding only 45 minutes away, and a historic downtown that is still reminiscent of the city's Gold Rush and Victorian past.

 

4. Santa Claus Village, Finland

Santa feeding a reindeer at Santa Claus Village Image from santaclausvillage.info

Santa feeding a reindeer at Santa Claus Village
Image from santaclausvillage.info

Right on the Arctic Circle, in the small town of Lapland, Finland is a holiday attraction called Santa Claus Village. You can meet Santa Claus, write a letter with elves in the post office, and learn a little bit about Finnish Christmas traditions, as well as Christmas traditions around the world. There’s even a husky and reindeer farm nearby where visitors can take a sleigh ride through the forest or mush a team of huskies on a two-hour safari.

 

5. Santa Claus, Indiana

Santa Claus, Indiana welcome sign Image from picschristmas.com

Santa Claus, Indiana welcome sign
Image from picschristmas.com

Dubbed “America’s Christmas Hometown”, the town of Santa Claus has many Christmas-themed things to do. There’s a Santa Claus post office, where children can sit down in antique desks and write letters to Santa, as well as a museum where visitors can learn about the town of Santa Claus’ history. For those of us with a sweet tooth, there is a Candy Castle filled with a variety of sweet treats, including handmade fudge, retro candy (that’s right wax lips, candy buttons, and wax bottles can all be found here), the newest novelty candy, and 33 different flavors of hot cocoa.

Towns all across the world put on special events to celebrate Christmas. From lighting a 94-foot tall Christmas tree in New York, to reindeer-drawn sleigh rides in Finland, each town finds a unique way to celebrate the holidays. There are so many places that burst with holiday spirit, so go grab a cup of hot cocoa and find your perfect holiday location.

5 Differences Between Touristy and Small Town Italy

The smell of garlic in the air, gelato conveniently located around every corner, and bus tours galore! Mainland Italy is full of big-name tourist cities, such as Rome, Florence, Naples, and Venice. But these cities break from the norm. They cater to tourists, especially during the peak travel season. Travel to one of Italy’s many local towns or to the island of Sicily and you’ll experience a whole different side of Italy: the real side-where life moves slower, and tourists don’t have the rule of the city.

I arrived in Sicily in early June, not fully knowing what to expect. By this time, I had only traveled to big-name tourist cities in Europe and had no idea what vacationing in a Sicilian town would be like. I stayed in Alcamo, a small town about an hour outside of Palermo. While there weren’t any giant monuments, like the Colosseum or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, that would be a guaranteed “must see” in this town, I had a great time witnessing everyday life for the locals. Here are the five main differences I found between staying in a small town and a tourist town.

The town shuts down in the afternoon

A common custom in Italy is to close everything down in mid-afternoon (anywhere from around 1:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m.) to go home for an afternoon nap, or “riposo,” as they call it. During peak season in tourist cities, you won’t have to worry about this. As the towns caters to tourists, all of the restaurants, attractions, and shops stay open throughout the day. As for the rest of Italy, don’t expect anything to be open during their riposo hours. They take it very seriously; the town will literally look deserted. I didn’t see one shop open or even another person on the street during riposo in the small towns of Sicily. You’ll need to prepare for this, so you don’t plan on going out for lunch at 2:00 p.m. and end up going hungry for an extra couple of hours.

Riposo in Sicily

Riposo in Sicily

The roads are awful

This one doesn’t apply to all small towns around Italy, but it's so true in Sicily. Sicily is made up of a bunch of small towns separated by farm land and open fields. During my 2015 visit, they were just in the process of building a centralized highway system that would make travel from one town to the next bearable. However, they were a long way away from finishing, so for the time being, we had to drive on awful roads…and I mean awful. There were giant potholes and cracks spotting the roads. Orange traffic cones were placed around them as a caution which inevitably just took up more space on the already narrow roads. Many times there wasn’t enough room for more than one car, so if I came across a car driving the opposite direction, I’d have to pull over off of the road to allow them to pass. Also, be prepared for the GPS to not recognize all the roads and for it to take an extra two or three hours than you expected to get somewhere.

The food is more authentic

Of course there’s no better place to go for authentic Italian food than Italy, but eating right outside the Colosseum in Rome can be overpriced and lower quality than a small place in a local town. Traveling around to smaller towns, you’ll see more than just pizza and pasta. You’ll find foods that the locals eat that you may have never heard of. During my trip to Sicily, I found Arancini (fried rice balls filled with cheese and tomato sauce) everywhere. It was in almost every restaurant I went into, but I had never heard of it before, nor had I seen it anywhere in the touristy cities in mainland Italy.

Arancini

Arancini

Not everybody speaks English

No matter where you go in touristy Italy, you’ll find someone that can speak English. You’ll be able to order food in restaurants and ask for directions without a problem. Outside of the tourist cities, it may be more difficult. There were people in Sicily who learned English in school but haven’t used it in years, if at all. So, if you venture into a small town, be prepared for communication to be more difficult.

You’ll have to look for things to do

When visiting Rome, Florence, Venice, or any of the other big-name cities, you’ll find tour books and websites filled with things to do. You may even stress yourself out by packing your days full of all the things you want to see in a short amount of time. Traveling to a small town is a lot different. There are no huge “must dos” or tour books filled with suggestions. However, each town has its own unique charm. Try walking around the town and asking locals (or the hotel staff) what they would suggest doing. During my trip to Alcamo, Sicily, everyone met in the center of town and set up a giant projector screen to watch an international soccer game. While it wasn't as glamorous as riding a gondola in Venice or throwing a coin in the Trevi Fountain, it was a unique experience. I've never witnessed a town so close that they all came together to watch a soccer game.

Traveling to a small town is a whole different experience than traveling to one of the big cities. You’ll be greeted with a more authentic form of Italy: you’ll get to experience what the locals really eat and how they really live during their day-to-day life. None of this is to say that touristy Italy isn’t amazing-because it is. The food is still great, the views are still amazing, and it’s still nice to see the big monuments. But if you get a chance, take some time to travel to a small town to experience a different side of Italy, one that the tour books and articles can’t even begin to explain.

Sicilian sunset

Sicilian sunset

Nobody Partys Like They Do In Liverpool

The cool air of early May gently blew through the city of Liverpool as the sun was preparing to set for the day. Groggy from a long day of travel, I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to explore this new city at all. I had awoken that morning saying farewell to Dublin to start my journey to England. London was my final destination, but after a ferry into Wales for a quick afternoon trip, followed by another ferry ride into Liverpool, I was exhausted.

My hostel greeted me with open arms as I tucked my suitcase into one of the lockers and claimed my bunk. A thinning mattress and stiff, white sheets never felt so welcoming as I stretched out to relax. The clock on my phone read a little past 5:00 p.m., but the sounds wafting into my room from a window that had been intentionally nailed open told me this night would be anything but relaxing. People had already started drinking for the night.

Since Liverpool was just a place to spend the night on my way to London, I had not done any prior research on the city or the culture. I peered out the window and saw that I was surrounded by bars that were already popping out drunk people. Deciding to ditch my original plan for an early night, I went over to my suitcase to start getting ready.

The reflection of streetlights glistening off puddles on the smooth, brick roads illuminated the scene: hundreds of drunk people were swarming the streets popping in and out of bars. It was 8:00 p.m., and there were already several people stumbling out of bars drunk off their ass. I thought for sure that it must be a holiday, but when I asked a couple of different locals why so many people were out drinking tonight they all gave me the same answer: “it’s Saturday”…good enough for me!

By 11:00 p.m. people were struggling to prop their friends up in an attempt to get them to the next bar. As the night went on there was an increasing number of stag and hen parties (bachelor and bachelorette parties) where everyone in the entourage was dressed in themed costumes. Nothing is funnier when you’re drunk than watching a group of six men dressed as giant babies babbling incoherently while holding half empty beer bottles. Everyone is so open to converse with strangers, and I saw the same people at so many different bars that it felt like one giant party.

By 12:00 a.m. people were vomiting on the street while cops turned their heads in the other direction. Apparently there is no such thing as too drunk, and, unlike in America where the police would be having a field day, I didn't witness a single person getting arrested for public intoxication.

My party ended around 1:30 a.m. when I staggered back into my hostel bunk, fully understanding that just one more drink would be enough to push me over the delicate line between being functional in the morning to spending the morning vomiting and picking at dry toast for an hour. 2:00 a.m. came and went, but the noise refused to retreat. That nail keeping my window open was suddenly my worst enemy. By the time I finally dosed off into a drunken slumber a little after 3:00 a.m. the party outside was just beginning to quiet down. Upon later research, I learned there was an after-hours bar close by that was the hero of the night, serving alcohol to those who couldn’t be deterred after a mere six hours of drunkenness.

My makeup-smeared eyes shot open at the sound of my blaring alarm the next morning. My head was pounding, bobby pins falling out of my hair, as I mustered up the strength to get ready…needless to say it was a leggings and t-shirt kind of day. After a shower and light breakfast, I dragged my ass onto the bus, thanking God that I had a few hours to recuperate before arriving in London. In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea to try and keep up with the locals, who are clearly accustomed to drinking a lot more than I was…but hey, I’m only young once.