Travel, romance, & kebabs: A tale of 9 countries
January 16, 2018
This past Spring, I traveled to Europe, backpacks in hand, visiting 9 countries and 16 cities. I slept in 14 hostels, 3 apartments, 1 winery, and 1 bench. It wasn't always glamorous, but it's made for an unforgettable experience. Each destination mentioned holds a special place in my heart, and all for different reasons. These trips and places have left me with memories I'll never forget, so I wanted to share that with you.
Let's rewind for a second.
By the beginning of January, I was halfway through my design program, drunk off caffeine, hyper-focused on finishing projects, and applying for jobs and fellowship programs. However, I had this itch, this aching desire, to explore the world. After 18 years of schooling, it seemed only appropriate. I needed a soul-cation. So, once my design program commenced in March, I packed my 40L bag, and feeling that same bubble of nervous excitement in my chest that I always get, I hopped on a plane to Germany.
The plan was to visit for two weeks, eat some really good food, admire the history and architecture, then return home and start work. But oooh boy, there must have been something in the water 'cause I extended my trip three times. Yup! Three times. I ended up staying until my 90-day tourist visa ran out. How or why did this happen? Due to a lot of "why not" planning and love of course.
I fell in love with the places, cultures, history, people, and the thrill of finding myself jamming to Alt-J at 2 AM with a group of Swedish girls while waiting for the bus to Brussels. Each day was a new adventure. Cliche, but I truly mean it! You never know who you'd bump into whether it be at your hostel, during walking tours, or while simply strolling down the street--this includes my boyfriend Sam, but I'll save that story for another time :)
I'll be honest. Most of this trip was improvised.
I didn't have an itinerary. I lost my refillable water bottle the first week, and I missed my bus to Kraków by going to the wrong bus terminal. There were plenty of mishaps along the way, but I chose to view them as opportunities for an adventure. I could grab a cool new water bottle to keep as a souvenir or visit somewhere different like Amsterdam and head to Kraków another time. Besides having one of my close friends join me during the first week, I was doing it solo. I was nervous and had no idea what to expect, but it was a blessing because it forced me to get out of my comfort zone and meet new people. There are perks to traveling with others, but solo travel really allowed me to be independent, have ownership over my mistakes, and take things slower and deeper. It gave me unlimited amounts of freedom, flexibility with money and spending, and the option to stay as long as I wanted in one place.
In total, I traveled to 9 countries: Germany, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Vatican City, and Greece. My advice to anyone who plans to travel is to take your time in each place. Yeah, it sounds impressive collecting and checking off countries, but if it merges into one hazy cloud where you can't remember what you did or who you were with, was it worth it? The point of travel is to relax and have fun, and the last thing I should do is burn myself out. Slowing down allowed me to really connect with the places I visited, return to areas I liked, and build meaningful friendships along the way.
Tons of cities in Europe are walkable! Every city I visited, I committed to exploring by foot. A few of my favorite walkable places were Florence, Prague, Amsterdam, Vatican City, Budapest, and Rome. They're perfect places to ditch your maps and get lost. It's easy to find yourself wandering down peaceful side streets that are unheard of, but just as beautiful as the main tourist attractions.
For fun, I downloaded an app called "Step". It's a great tool to keep track of how many steps and miles you walk per day. I love numbers and walking so this little tool married the two perfectly.
Berlin, Germany -- Berlin was another favorite. It's a relatively large city--9 times the size of Paris! Because of its size, I relied on the Metro to take me where I wanted, then explored by foot. I really loved the Kreuzberg borough because of its quirky array of cafes, thrift shops, fashion boutiques, design shops, and art covered streets. It's known for having incredible Turkish food and Mustafa's Gemüse Kebap is a Berlin culinary experience that should not be missed! I'd fly back to Berlin just to have one more bite! But if you're in the mood to do some of your own cooking, then the Turkish Market, off Kottbusser Tor, is a must visit for buying fresh veggies, plants, spices, amazing cheeses, sweets, and household items. Another must visit is Bergmannstraße. It's a gateway street to some of Kreuzberg's finest dining experience, filled with all kinds of great things to eat and drink. If you're getting sick of Turkish or German food, I'd highly recommend Pagoda Thai Kitchen. It holds a special place in my heart because it's where Sam and I first met. They have insanely delicious food, generous portions, and a warm and sweet atmosphere.
Amsterdam, Netherlands -- My trip to Amsterdam was serendipitous. I missed my bus to Kraków by going to the wrong bus terminal. Instead of fretting over that mistake, I bought a bus ticket to Amsterdam. Let me tell you, if you're on the fence to visit, do it. I absolutely loved the city. Luckily, I arrived during Amsterdam's Tulip Festival. Each spring, Keukenhof park hosts an eight-week tulip extravaganza showcasing seven million blooming bulbs on its grounds and countless other floral displays in its indoor pavilions. It's a visual feast of flowers! Running through a tulip field is a dream, but admiring it from afar is also pretty darn special.
Brussels, Belgium -- There are two great treasures in Brussels: chocolate and beer. While touring the winding streets of Old Town, I found myself indulging and experimenting between amazing hand-made chocolates and sampling great local beers. My favorites were milk chocolate truffles filled with buttercream and ganache and stuffed chocolate Belgian waffles topped with an assortment of fruits and drizzled with more chocolate...YUM. To quench your thirst, try out the "Trappist Beer". It's a high fermentation beverage, brewed by Trappist monks in Belgium. SAY WHAT. Yeah, I was pretty much sold when I heard that too, then sold again when I took a sip...glass :)
Budapest, Hungary -- Budapest, rightfully known as the "City of Baths", sits on a fault line where its thermal baths are naturally fed by 120 hot springs. After a day of cave diving, admiring St. Stephen's Basilica, strolls along the Danube River, and exploring ruin bars at night, a morning at the Szechenyi Thermal Baths was absolute perfection. It's the first hot spring bath palace on the Pest side of Budapest. It's stunning architecture and open-air bathing is honestly just the best thing ever.
Rome, Italy -- ITALIAAAA! Gosh, I could write a novel about you. However, I'll keep it short and blog-friendly. I was intoxicated by its culture, history, architecture, food, and people. I'll never forget the road trip I made to Pisa, Livorno, and Rome with my Florence buddy Nick, all the friends I made at the Yellow, and the way the lights lit up the Colosseum at night. One of my favorite memories was exploring the Foro Romano learning about ancient Rome and its bloody history. I felt like a small ant traveling in the world of giants.
Athens, Greece -- Greece was the last leg of my trip. By this time, I was pretty fatigued from traveling for two months. My first week was spent recovering from strep throat in my hostel room. Getting sick while traveling, or anytime for that matter, is an inconvenience, but it was my body's way of telling me to relax and rest up.
And since a lot of people use Athens as a hub to travel to the Greek islands, I was able to meet some really interesting people. In my 8 bunk bed room alone, there were travelers from Australia, Germany, The United States, Canada, and Switzerland. We all had very different backgrounds, but it was incredible how we all found ourselves in this one room sharing intimate details about our lives. Those type of genuine and meaningful connections are invaluable, and its those moments that make me miss traveling the most.
Thessaloniki, Greece -- Thessaloniki is a gem. It's the second largest city in Greece. It sits on the northern edge of the Thermaic Gulf and serves as an important metropolitan region for the country, with an active port, a respected university, and a robust tourist industry. For me, it was the perfect getaway. I met up with Sam, a friend that I had made a few months earlier in Berlin. We spent 5 lovely days perched on top of a cliff overlooking the city. We had a cozy one bedroom apartment to ourselves and it couldn't have been more perfect. It was stocked with candles, wine, a cute little kitchen, and an amazing view of the city from our living room balcony.
We walked through the city, admiring the beautiful ancient ruins, cafes, and restaurants, hunting down good bargains in thrift shops, eating fresh fruit sold at street stalls, and enjoying as much seafood as we could within our budget. Sam even got a cool retro haircut at the most old school, vintage-esque barbershop I've ever seen! The place is called "The Barber Shop" and it's owned by a charming, sweet man named Jordan. It was decked out with checkered floors, vintage barber chairs, a motor cycle, a pool table and the walls were filled with vintage collectables, postcards, vinyls, world stamps, and WWI and WWII wartime memorabilia. It was so cute! Afterwards, we strolled along the beach promenade and shared drinks on a ship while watching the sun set. It’s always great reconnecting with others that you’ve met traveling—and doing it all over again. Very happy I got to share such a special time with someone like Sam :)
First, I'd like to say how grateful I am for the privilege to travel because let's face it, not everyone is able to. Whether it's due to money, family obligations, or circumstance, traveling is out of reach for the majority of the world's population. It's important for me to acknowledge my privilege and never forget how fortunate I am to have these opportunities.
I'm so darn grateful to my parents and everyone who opened their home and hearts to me. Traveling the world is something I never wish to stop doing. It reminds me how little I need to be happy and how a simple smile, a kind word, and a listening ear can change your world.
See you later Europe and hello San Francisco…