It's that time of year - time for end of year lists! I can't be as thorough as Time or Entertainment Weekly, but I will give it a shot. I'll try two posts, this one and a more general one on stuff that I liked this year.
For me, 2015 was all about travel. Thanks to work, I spent three months in Germany. And every weekend was spent exploring a new city.
Before we get to Europe, the domestic travel! The year started on a trip - I rang in 2015 in New Orleans, on Bourbon Street. I have to say, I highly recommend Bourbon Street as a new year's destination. It was busy and there was a lot going on but you could still get around. It wasn't Times Square. We were in the city for about a week, mostly hanging out in the French Quarter with occasional trips to other touristy regions. A few days into 2015, we got on a boat for a family cruise, stopping at Jamaica and Grand Cayman. Overall, it was a typical family cruise. Drinking and on boat entertainment (art auctions! comedians!) mixed with a few days on the beach. It was nice and relaxing and too short. Also, it's always nice to go somewhere tropical when there's snow on the ground at home.
In September, I spent a week in San Francisco, also for work. I have a bad habit of wanting to live wherever I visit. Last year, I was all about DC or Boston. This year, San Fran. I loved it. For me, the best part was the different neighborhoods. China Town and Castro and North Beach and Mission District and Union Square. Plus all the gorgeous parks and beautiful coast. The food! Had the best butternut squash soup in my life. And I am a butternut squash soup fan.
There was also had a girls' weekend in Wisconsin. We did wine tasting, shopping, and cheese eating, but not much else, though it was just what a group of friends who don't see each other much needed. We rented a cabin and spent a lot of time catching up. Also, I was surprised by how much the region offered by way of wineries and water parks and theme restaurants. I recommend it for the next family vacation. It was also a nice respite from Chicago, which is what we usually do for girls' weekends - shopping on Michigan Ave and dinner at Morton's Steakhouse.
Speaking of Chicago! My family and I went to Chicago for my mom's fiftieth birthday. She wanted city lights and it doesn't get any better than Willis Tower in Chicago. We did the Chicago-est of things - lunch at Portillo's, shopping on Michigan Avenue, two trips up to the top of Willis Tower, a Second City Show, and a round at Shedd Aquarium. We also spent some time in Millennium Park and went to Wildberry for brunch. Also, it was serious Chicago weather. Cold and wet and windy. Thanks Eddie Bauer for making really kickass parkas and keeping me warm. And Clarks for waterproof shoes! I am a whore for well-made products, especially those that keep me warm and dry.
That's it for my US-travels. Now on to Europe!
Here is a rundown of the places I was able to visit:
- Amsterdam. I might have to revisit this one, just because it was my first weekend in Europe and I had no idea what the hell I was doing. There was a lot of frustrated, desperate walking. The Anne Frank house was incredible and something I will always remember. Pro tip - get there about an hour before it opens for minimal waiting. I ended up waiting only an hour and a half, while some of the tourists I stayed with waited upwards of four hours. I also went to the Rijksmuseum, which was lovely but overwhelming. So many things! Next, I went across the street to the Van Gogh museum. Best museum ever. I waited in line for two hours and it was so worth it. I really loved it - the layout, the art. Van Vogh instantly became my favorite artist, though I don't really think I had one before that. Overall though, Amsterdam was just lovely. Canals and cafes everywhere. Every time I turned a corner, there was another lovely view. And cats! Amsterdam is very cat-friendly.
- Versailles. I promised my aunt I wouldn't see Paris until her visit halfway into my trip. I cheated a little. The Paris subway system thoroughly confused me (It was only my second weekend - I promise I got better!) and I ended up taking a taxi across the southern part of Paris to get to my Versailles hotel. The cab driver was a lovely local who went out of his way to point out the Eiffel Tower to me. I saw it on a bridge, on my way to Versailles. It took my breath away and was everything I wanted it to be. Back to Versailles - I spent all of Saturday and a good chunk of Sunday at the palace. It was lovely. The palace itself was somewhat anti-climatic. Just not much to it. But the grounds and the gardens and Marie Antoinette's little English village in the back were incredible. I could have spent a week there, just wandering the gardens. My favorite part of the weekend was Sunday afternoon, when it seemed like every Parisian and visiting tourist migrated to the grounds for picnics and games. It made me want to move there, just to be able to take my Sunday afternoon run around the grounds of Versailles. Wanting to move to there is a common theme of travelling with me, be warned.
- Brussels. It was fine. Really. It was not my favorite but I'm glad I went. I had a lovely tour and got to see Antonium and the headquarters for the EU. My favorite part of the weekend was just hanging out in the Grand Place (a gorgeous square in the middle of the city), eating Belgian waffles and drinking mimosas and people watching. And of course I spotted Menneken Pis and bought some Belgian chocolate.
- Switzerland. My boss visited the fourth weekend and we went to Lucerne and stayed with a friend of hers. After three weekends of hotels, this was the best part. She had an incredible apartment with a great view from her balcony of the mountains and the lake. We hung out Friday night, drinking wine and eating cheese. It was a nice, relaxing evening after being a busy tourist the past few weekends. The next day, we went up Mount Pilatus and walked around the city. Another great night at the apartment, with a lovely home-cooked dinner. The next day, my boss and I slipped out early and took the train to Zurich, spending the afternoon walking around the lake. Switzerland is fucking gorgeous, guys. One of my friends back home has a picture I took in Zurich as her desktop background and I suck at taking pictures. It was just the most picturesque place I've ever been. Bad pictures of Switzerland might be impossible to create.
- The next weekend was a three day one and I spent it in Berlin. The first full day was all about World War II and the Cold War - visiting an incredible history of Berlin in World War II at Topography of Terror and seeing the wall remnants and Checkpoint Charlie. I went to the German History Museum and the DDR Museum. Pro-Tip - go to the DDR Museum when it opens. It's highly interactive and I mistakenly went in the middle of the afternoon and spent a lot of time staring at people's backs. Outside of museums, I also visited the Tiergarten Park, one of my favorite city parks of the trips. Then back to Berliner Dome, where I had made reservations that morning. I got an incredible view of the city. I ended the day at my hostel, enjoying a nice meal and a good book. While my hostel in Amsterdam was not the best, the one in Berlin was awesome. Would definitely stay there again. The next day was all about what I missed - art museums and a beautiful cathedral and East Side Gallery, ending the day at one of my favorite bars of the trip, Strandbar Mitte. It's a great bar, across the water from the German History Museum. I bought a bottle of wine and curled up along the water, watching boats with one eye and couples salsa dancing with the other, sort of reading my book. I took a rickshaw back to the hostel. It was a great night. For my final day in Berlin, I did the most touristy thing ever - Berlin Zoo! It was so well put together and I saw animals I had never seen before plus the perennial favorites - lions, tigers, giraffes. I even caught a glimpse of Knut the Polar Bear!
- Prague. My aunt and mom joined me for this one. It was a very lovely city. We spent a lot of time at the castle and also in the city square. I went to a book-themed bar, which is always great. We ate good food and saw cool things. On our way back to my apartment Sunday afternoon, we stopped in Heidleberg for views of the castle and a good dinner.
- Paris. We had four days in Paris. It was the best weekend. We got to go up in the Eiffel Tower. We went to the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa. We went to Pere Lachaise Cemetery and saw the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. We went through the catacombs, which I recommend - it's a very unique Parisian experience. At Notre Dame, we added our lock to the bridge, though apparently they were taken down not long after. Bought lots of art, ate lots of food. After hearing from many friends that Paris was dirty and a disappointment, I was ready to be let down. Nope, loved it.
- Munich. Mom and Aunt left, leaving me on my own again. I had another long weekend, three days in Munich. I did the usual tourist stuff: Hofbrauhaus, Residence, English Garden, the Science and Industry Museum. The best parts by far were the various beer gardens. The food! I ended up at the beer garden in the Chinesischer turm twice...
- Paris. Yes, I went back just two weeks later. I hit up all the stuff we hadn't had time for before - Luxembourg Gardens, the Pantheon, Museum d'Orsay (This and Van Gogh were probably my favorite museums of the whole trip), the Arc de Triomphe, Ste Chapelle and the Museum Picasso. It was a crazy, busy weekend, running around trying to see everything, but worth it. I finished up with drinks at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Honestly, will probably go back again next year... Typical American.
- Rome. I took a four day weekend and flew to Rome. It was hot and crowded and busy but amazing. I saw the Colosseum!! The Vatican and the Vatican museum, including the Sistine Chapel! It was a very surreal trip. The ruins at the forum were just so overwhelming. If not for the pictures I have on Facebook, I might not believe I really went there. Definitely recommend a tour for the Colosseum and the forum, for information and also line-avoiding. For the Vatican, get there early and remember to cover knees and shoulders. The church itself was breath-taking, putting all the other incredible European chapels I had seen to shame. Of course, the food was also awesome. I spent way more than I should have on meals but you're only in Italy so often... Lots of gelato. I've had it a few times since I came back and it is just not the same.
- For my last solo weekend, I went to Hamburg. I wasn't sure if I wanted to do Hamburg or Dresden but every person I asked highly recommended Hamburg. And I'm so glad! It was a fun city. I stayed in an airbnb near their red light district, which was an exciting district full of music and bars and occasional sex stuff, of course. My first night there, I went to Reeperbahn and had a glass of wine at an outdoor bar and people watched. In Hamburg, I explored HafenCity, this incredible part of town where old warehouses have been converted into offices, restaurants, apartments, and stores. I want to live here. I also saw Miniatur Wunderland, this odd little tourist attraction that I can't recommend enough. Also, I had no idea that Hamburg was so heavily bombed during World War II and the ruins of St. Nicholas's church and its museums are must-sees. Like Amsterdam, Hamburg is full of canals and picturesque cafes and photo opportunities. Another must - a boat tour of Hamburg's massive port. One more must before we move on - Fischmarkt. It's this huge marketplace on the coast, not far from Reeperbahn, that takes place on Sunday mornings. It starts at 5 am, complete with booze and a rock band and people yelling out their wares. The attendants were a mix of Saturday-night partiers from Reeperbahn and tourist families. I arrived at 8 and it was already in full swing. The booths were never ending.
- For my last weekend in Europe, my boss and work colleague were in town. We went back to Munich. On Saturday, we took a day trip to the Neuschwanstein Castle (aka Disney castle), about an hour from Munich. It was incredible. The trip itself was gorgeous, going through Bavaria and seeing the country side. Our day trip included a really good tour guide who loved King Ludwig II and told us several interesting stories. Definitely recommend going with a tour group from Munich to visit it. We were also able to avoid the lines to get into the castle. Pictures aren't allowed but the castle is extremely opulent on the inside. My only complaint about the experience was just that we didn't get enough time to explore outside the castle. There is a cute village at its base and another lovely castle across the way - Ludwig's father's Hohenschwangau castle. We definitely could have used another couple of hours before heading back to Munich. On Sunday, we walked around Munich and took a bus tour before heading back. The end of my European travel adventure!
So there's 2015, in terms of travel. It was in incredible year and I saw so many places I never thought I would get to visit. I'm looking forward immensely to next year in Europe and living in Germany, but I don't know if anything will compare with my first brush with globe-trotting - the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower, the first time I experience a German beer garden.