Tag Archives: netherlands

Exploring Amsterdam’s ‘Nine Streets’

1 May

Homes along one of Amsterdam's famous canals. (Photograph by Nietnagel, Flickr)

I’m not a big souvenir person. My souvenirs have always been the pictures I take or the occasional piece of jewelry or cool scarf.

It’s harder than ever to find a product unique to its country these days — and I don’t want to end up with something I can find on junk-clogged Canal Street in Manhattan.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean I don’t like to shop. Since my last visit to “the Venice of the North,” many of the unique antique shops in the Spiegelkwartier, with soon-to-reopen Rijksmuseum as a backdrop, had closed. Still, the area is lovely, with cool art galleries, a cute toy shop, and cozy cafes. You can also walk to nearby Pieter Cornelisz Hooftstraat for that Fifth-Avenue feel, with high-end shops like Chanel and Louis Vuitton.

The Rijksmuseum will reopen on April 13 after a 10-year hiatus. (Photograph by Marco Tardiola, Flickr)

The Rijksmuseum will reopen on April 13 after a 10-year hiatus. (Photograph by Marco Tardiola, Flickr)

But for that true taste of A’dam, head to “De 9 Straatjes.” Three major canals (Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht) divide the Central Canal district into nine little streets that are big on personality. While the more casual shopper may breeze through in an hour or two, serious shoppers can spend an entire day (or more) exploring the quaint boutiques and eateries — all with signature Dutch style – down each lane. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, be sure to bring your camera because the views are phenomenal.

Here’s my guide to must-sees along Amsterdam’s “De 9 Straatjes”:

1. Reestraat: Noa Lifestyle carries a beautifully curated collection of clothes and jewelry from one of my favorite designers, gorjana. For a great hot or cold sandwich, pick from among five dozen choices at Hartenkaas. If you’re looking for something different, try Nooch for a great al fresco meal or stop by Tin Pan Alley for quality coffee and live music.

2. Hartenstraat: At Eddy’s Prints (Hartenstraat 30), you’ll find colorful lino prints at great prices, while Dutch designer Hester van Eeghen sells a different kind of art: bright, intriguing handbags and accessories (she also has a second boutique that sells shoes with her signature geometric flair right down the street). Browse books on graphic design, photography, and contemporary art at Joot, take an espresso break at Screaming Beans, and satisfy your craving for Indian cuisine in a sophisticated space at Purna.

3. Gasthuismolensteeg: You can pick up perfect baby booties as a gift at Antonia by Yvette, but don’t forget to nab a pair of colorful pumps or leather boots for yourself. The housemade pastrami at ‘t Kuyltje rivals what you’d find at the best New York delis, as does the smoked salmon and bacon. It’s a cabinet of curiosities at Nic Nic, with vintage clothing (think lace collars and flowery dresses) and a variety of pottery and art deco items.

“The Darling” on Runstraat has it all. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

4. Oude Spiegelstraat: On this very short street, you can pop into Simone to give your hair a boost or stop by Rika to pick up a chic studded handbag or a sexy leather jacket. But for a true taste of local living, book one of the two rooms above the shop.

5. Wolvenstraat: A great casual breakfast (and fantastic people-watching) can be had at Cafe Wheels. After that, dress up in sleek Scandinavian clothes at Filippa K and pay a visit to Scotch & Soda for a glimpse of the brand’s unique line for kids.

6. Berenstraat: If I had to pick a favorite street based on looks alone, Berenstraat would be it. Find fab books on fashion and architecture at Mendo, get wrapped up in noodle heaven at Thai Fusion, or try Mokka for an afternoon snack (it’s only open during the day).

7. Runstraat: While I will never lug a lamp home from Amsterdam, I was tempted at ‘t Runnertje. The street also boasts double-decker beauty emporium Skins Cosmetics (Runstraat 11), a shop dedicated to all things dental care, and De Kaaskamer, one of the greatest cheese shops in the world (they’ll shrink wrap for the plane ride home!). If you’re pressed for time, find coffee, cupcakes, and clothes in one-stop-shop The Darling.

8. Huidenstraat: Stop by Cafe de Pels to soak up some of their creative spirit and take in the walls full of funky art. Head to Pompadour Bakery just down the street to enjoy a mid-afternoon sweet treat in a dreamy space or create your own personalized jewelry at Beadies.

9. Wijde Heisteeg: On the shortest street of them all, you’ll find the goldsmith Wigmans, Lef, a tiny cafe that sells smoothies and sandwiches, and, last but not least, Emaille.nl, which has been making original signs for more than 40 years.

Exploring Amsterdam’s ‘Nine Streets’

Cheers to High Wine in Amsterdam

7 Apr

High Wine at The Dylan's Michelin-starred restaurant, Vinkeles. (Photograph courtesy The Dylan Amsterdam)

As I was preparing for a recent trip to Amsterdam, I did my usual pre-trip rounds of asking for restaurant recommendations from friends and mining relevant articles and blogs for ideas. Surprisingly, the pickings came back very slim.

Aside from one consistent exception, there didn’t seem to be any sort of food revolution going on in the city. Emails from well-traveled friends were returned with phrases like “awful service” and “generic food.” I made reservations, but prepared myself for a few days of lackluster dining.

After eating my way through Amsterdam, I found these characterizations to be mostly untrue.

I discovered pioneers of new dining concepts at The Dylan hotel, set back from the street in the historic Canal House. This is where I enjoyed a new trend worth celebrating: High Wine.

The Dylan hotel's comfy lounge area.  (Photograph courtesy The Dylan Amsterdam)

The Dylan hotel’s comfy lounge area. (Photograph courtesy The Dylan Amsterdam)

As a long-time afternoon tea devotee, I was intrigued by the concept. This isn’t your average happy hour. High Wine is classy and delicious, with eats created by an award-winning chef rather than chicken wings and nachos. “We didn’t feel like high tea was a priority for our guests,” a staff member explained. “Our guests are less formal, but still extremely food-focused.”

Whereas afternoon tea doesn’t match the food to the tea, High Wine does. Snuggled up next to the fireplace in The Dylan’s cozy lounge, I sipped a creamy chardonnay and summery, light pinot noir, paired with smoked albacore tuna with asparagus and poached egg, and codfish in a roasted garlic sauce with lentils.

The hotel typically presents a selection of four different wines is paired with four amuse-bouche-style bites at 4:00 p.m. Executive Chef Dennis Kuipers serves up seasonal French flavors with a lighter, modern touch. The concept of High Wine has since spread, but it was born here in this enduring space.

The hotel sits on the site of the Netherlands’ first theater, built in 1613. In line with Amsterdam’s liberal ethos, women were allowed to perform throughout the 1700s until the curtains caught fire and the theater burned. It then became a Catholic alms house and, later, a bakery.

Today, the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Vinkeles, fills the space, and has retained the original 18th-century bricks and the ovens from the long-shuttered bakery.

The light and airy De Kas. (Photograph by Msiew, Flickr)

The light and airy De Kas. (Photograph by Msiew, Flickr)

While the building’s history stands in stark contrast to the restaurant’s contemporary persona, I found it fascinating that the wood floors remain from 1773, and that the lounge is where orphans played. Much of the furniture was handmade in Italy and the guest rooms are dark gray, black, and white with rich jewel-toned accents, antique mirrors and custom drinks cabinets with mother-of-pearl finishes.

Besides Vinkeles, the one restaurant everyone told me I had to visit was De Kas, which has shown Amsterdam the importance of starting with proper produce. It’s outside the city center, but an easy tram ride or 15-Euro cab ride.

Upon arrival, guests must cross a wooden bridge over a marsh, providing a hint of the enchanting evening to come.

De Kas is set in a circa 1926 greenhouse, which allows the room to fill with natural light at lunch and provides guests with a sense of dining under the stars in the evenings.

As you check your coat, you can admire rows of salad greens, vegetables, and herbs growing in the greenhouse, some of which will end up on your plate. The scent of just-picked lemon verbena is particularly intoxicating. As Chef Bas Wiegel, a young, charming, passionate food enthusiast tells me: “Respect starts in the ground and ends on the plate.”

There are smaller areas off the main dining room including a chef’s table in the kitchen, a business table, and cocktail space, lending the restaurant a communal air. This idea that there is a place for everyone extends to the staff, who eat dinner together every night in the restaurant. To be sure, De Kas is one of the don’t-you-dare-miss restaurants in Amsterdam.

Michelin-starred or not, Amsterdam’s restaurant scene is improving and moving beyond its cafe culture of bread and cheese. On a beautiful day, though, this is precisely the Amsterdam I want: an outdoor table, simple sandwich, and coffee at Cafe ‘t Smalle gazing at the canals and life going by.

Cheers to High Wine in Amsterdam 24 Kitchen , amsterdam , Annie Fitzsimmons , Cafe ‘t Smalle , De Kas , High Wine , holland , Marqt , netherlands , The Dylan hotel , Urban Insider , Vinkeles , wine

The 10 Best Wine and Food Festivals in the World

6 Apr

Wine connoisseurs and foodies have plenty to get excited about this year, with a packed roster of gastronomic events taking place around the globe. From celebrity studded culinary masterclasses to grape-stomping competitions, here are 10 Wine and Food festivals that you don’t want to miss.

Food and Wine Classic, Aspen

Food and Wine Classic, Aspen. Photo courtesy of Aspen/Snowmass via Flickr.

Food and Wine Classic, Aspen. Photo courtesy of Aspen/Snowmass via Flickr.

One of the most prestigious epicurean events in the States, Aspen’s annual Food and Wine Classic festival is organized by the team of gastronomes behind the monthly Food & Wine Magazine and celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2012. Each June, a world-renowned team of wine experts and celebrity chefs descend on the Rocky Mountains resort, bringing with them thousands of ravenous foodies to participate in a series of workshops, cooking competitions, parties and dinners. Most notable is the famous Grand Tasting Pavilion, showcasing a mouthwatering display of foods and wines from around the globe.

Festival Gourmet International

Mexico's Festival Gourmet International

Mexico’s Festival Gourmet International

Mexico’s most popular food and wine extravaganza has been running for almost 20 years, with local restaurants inviting a roster of celebrity chefs to collaborate on a range of creative regional cuisine. Held annually in Puerto Vallarta, the Festival Gourmet International spans 10 days, during which each restaurant produces a special nightly menu, and activities include cooking workshops, talks and the famous Chef’s Hell-Raising Party.

Taste of Amsterdam

Taste of Amsterdam

Taste of Amsterdam

The Netherlands might be better know for its coffee culture than as an epicenter of global cuisine, but the Taste of Amsterdam festival looks set to change that. The three-day festival is held in the capital each June, drawing around 15,000 food lovers to the city for a series of wine tastings, culinary demonstrations and food exhibits, culminating in a giant alfresco feast produced by a team of the city’s finest restaurants.

New Zealand’s Wildfoods Festival

Wildfoods Festival. Photo courtesy of eliduke via Flickr.

Wildfoods Festival. Photo courtesy of eliduke via Flickr.

From the gourmet to the grotesque, even the most adventurous gastronomes will be amazed with the foods on offer at New Zealand’s annual Wildfoods Festival. Held each spring in Hokitika on the South Island’s West Coast, the wacky food festival is one of the most unique culinary events in the world, with a banquet of daring delicacies on offer. This isn’t one for the weak of stomach, but where else can you dine on sautéed Lambs’ testicles, snack on fried huhu grubs and wash it down with a side of Sheep brain? Even the drinks come with a twist – pressed flower wine or worm milkshakes, anyone?

Wurstmarkt Festival, Germany

German Sausages

Homemade German Sausages.

Renowned as the world’s largest wine festival, Germany’s Wurstmarkt, or ‘Sausage Market’, is the ultimate event for European wine lovers, with a long history dating back to 1417. Held on the second and third weekend of September in the town of Bad Durkheim in Germany’s Pfalz region, the Wurstmarkt pulls in crowds of over 600,000 visitors and features over 150 different wines from locations all over the country. Wine tasting is the main event, with a dedicated Wine Village and Winegrower’s garden set up to showcase local wines, two giant wine and beer halls, and dozens of Schubkärkchler – traditional tasting stalls where wine is served up with the region’s other specialty, homemade sausages.

World Gourmet Summit, Singapore

World Gourmet Summit. Photo courtesy of Camemberu via Flickr.

World Gourmet Summit. Photo courtesy of Camemberu via Flickr.

Singapore’s biggest food and wine festival has been bringing the gastronomic glamour to Asian shores for 16 years now, with 10 days of food themed events focusing on ethnic cuisines from around the world. Cooking workshops taught by master chefs, celebrity-studded charity dinners and tastings with world renowned winemakers are all on the schedule, but most impressive is the giant alfresco Gourmet Village and 5,000 square meter Gourmet market, where mere mortals can pick up the skills and ingredients to indulge their culinary creativity.

Good Food and Wine Show, South Africa

Capetown Vineyard

Capetown Vineyard

With annual events held in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, there’s no excuse for missing South Africa’s largest and most popular food and wine show. The giant culinary industry exposition brings together internationally acclaimed chefs from all over the globe, for a weekend of gourmet events. Expect cooking demos and culinary art displays held in the four state-of-the-art Kitchen Theaters, wine tasting, hands-on cooking workshops and a gourmet restaurant area. Those with a sweet tooth will likely enjoy the annual gelato competition, whereas coffee drinkers can head to the dedicated coffee theater, host to the National Barista Championships.

Melbourne Food & Wine Festival

Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. Photo courtesy of  Trupp Photography via Flickr.

Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. Photo courtesy of Trupp Photography via Flickr.

Roving gastronomes have long had the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival on their agenda and the huge 20-day event is the biggest of its kind in the Pacific. Australia’s cultural capital has been hosting the event each March for over 20 years now, featuring the country’s most prestigious sommeliers and culinary masterminds in an array of food and wine centered events. Whether you’re interested in watching celebrity chef demonstrations, sampling artisan food products, attending gourmet gala dinners and Australian wine seminars, or taking a cooking master class, there’s something for all tastes and experience levels. Even if you don’t get tickets for one of the main events, the city will be going food-crazy throughout the festival, with farmers markets taking over the streets, fun family-friendly activities being held around town and special menus and promotions running at many of the city’s top restaurants.

Food & Wine Festival, Austin

Grapefest. Photo courtesy of apbutterfield via Flickr.

Grapefest. Photo courtesy of apbutterfield via Flickr.

With so many Food and Wine Festivals taking place around the US, it’s hard to choose the best, but for a super size festival with bags of character, head to the Austin Food & Wine Festival. The Lone Star State casts away its Tex-Mex staples and barbecue grills for an annual weekend of gourmet cuisine and fine wine. Events include live cooking demonstrations from top culinary experts, wine seminars, live music and the legendary Grand Tasting Pavilion where over 80 wine, spirit and artisan food producers will be showcasing their products. Alternatively, wine lovers might prefer the annual autumn Grapefest – a riotous celebration of America’s 5th largest wine-producing state complete with endless wine tastings, an International Wine Garden, wine-themed culinary demonstrations and an hilarious grape-stomping contest.

Real Food Festival, London

Fresh knishes. Photo courtesy of citymaus via Flickr.

Fresh knishes. Photo courtesy of citymaus via Flickr.

The UK hosts a plethora of food festivals but the most patriotic has to be the Real Food Festival, specializing in homegrown, sustainably and ethically produced food and wine from around the British Isles. Held each spring in London’s Southbank center, the 3-day festival celebrates the country’s most delicious food products with a series of events and tasters run by top chefs, farmers markets and live demonstrations. Visitors will get the chance to sample and purchase artisan cheeses, chutneys, meats, hand-made chocolates and a range of regional delicacies from around the UK. Even if you can’t make it for the annual mega-event, you can get a taste of London’s finest at the weekly Real Food Markets held along the Southbank waterfront.

The 10 Best Wine and Food Festivals in the World amsterdam , Aspen , Austin , Australia , Cape Town , Durban , festivals , Food and Drink , germany , Johannesburg , London , Melbourne , Mexico , netherlands , New Zealand , Singapore , South Africa , South Island

The 10 Best Cities for a European Layover

4 Apr

Long flights with even longer layovers may seem less than ideal when you are eager to kick-start your vacation but your stopover doesn’t have to be boring. Whether your layover is a quick break or an entire 24 hours, venturing outside the airport in one of these ten European multi-faceted cities will make your layover just as memorable as your final destination.

Reykjavík, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland

Heading into Iceland’s capital in the dead of winter might seem counterintuitive (though the average temperatures aren’t much colder than New York) but the city has much to offer travelers in terms of history, culture and leisure excursions any time of year. And if you fly IcelandAir between the US and Europe, you can stopover in Iceland for up to a week at no extra cost.

From Kjavík International Airport, board the FlyBus for a 45 minute ride, hopping off at the very first stop in the city, called BSÍ, which is an easy walk to the city center. Those pressed for time can take a city tour highlighting the major landmarks and touristic attractions or you can explore on your own on foot. Use Tjörnin, a centrally located lake as your reference point, as many of the city’s museums and landmarks are within walking distance from here. For travelers with a bit more flexibility in their schedule, highlights include Perlan, the National Museum and Church of Hallgrímur not to mention the colorful nightlife scene. If you have an early flight the next morning and want to party, don’t plan on sleeping. Most locals arrive to the clubs after midnight on weekends.

Zurich, Switzerland

Zurich, Switzerland

Zurich, Switzerland

Switzerland has a reputation for being on the expensive side, and compared to how the U.S. Dollar and the European Euro fare against the Swiss Franc, that’s a fair statement. Zurich is Switzerland’s largest city in terms of both geographic size and population so while there is no way to do everything in a few hours, it also means that you have endless possibilities based on your interests. Getting into the city center won’t be difficult. While trams and buses are available, trains from the airport to the central train station only takes 10-15 minutes and purchasing a ZurichCARD will save you money.

For a picturesque and affordable view of the city, climb to the top of Grossmünste that once served as a Roman cathedral. Head to Bahnhofstrasse for some serious shopping or visit Kunsthaus to view Swiss art.

The small size of Switzerland and efficient train system also means that if you have more time and want to venture farther away from the city, you can. Interlaken and Lucerne are each about an hour away from the city by train; you can even get to Geneva on the other side of the country in less than three hours.

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic

One of the perks of having a layover in Prague is that the airport has a facility in Terminal 1 where you can leave your luggage for up to 24 hours. There’s a fee of 120 CZK per item but it beats lugging your bags around with you all day. On the flips side, a thirty-minute taxi ride into the city is the only realistic means of transportation and can be costly, but once you are in the city, costs are generally low compared to most destinations in Western Europe.

For a scenic tour, take either a one-hour cruise tide on the Vlatva River or opt for a bike tour if the weather is nice. If walking by foot, make sure to watch the Astronomical Clock chime every hour by Old Town Square and visit Prague Castle for a crash course in Czech history.

London, England

Westminster, London

Westminster, London

There’s hardly anything that can put a damper on a layover in London except maybe the frequent rain clouds. The city has a few different airports and all are accessible from the airport (via the Underground for Heathrow or via express trains and busses for both Gatwick and Stansted). The Underground (the Tube) is the cheapest method at £5 but takes more than an hour to reach the city so plan accordingly. If your next connection leaves a few hours, it’s best to stick around in the airport but if you have more time, as London airports are notoriously crowded.

If time permits, take the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow to the Green Park stop. Exit here and proceed through the park until you reach Buckingham Palace. From here, head north to Mayfair for shopping or west to South Kensington for museums.

Brussels, Belgium

Belgian Waffels

Belgian Waffels

A jaunt through Brussels may feel strangely reminiscent to another romantic European capital. The Belgium city was actually modeled after Paris and the similarities and differences are apparent. Conveniently located a mere seven miles from the airport, a quick trip to Brussels can and should be done. For an interactive and speedy tour of the city, join a bike or Segway tour or just explore on foot.

Start at Grand-Place, considered the heart of Brussels and featuring impressive architecture from the Baroque era. Make your way to the EU Headquarters for an audio tour of Parliament or simply stuff your face with sweets in one of the many local chocolate shops after a tour at the Belgium Chocolate Museum.

Lisbon, Portugal

Belem Tower, Lisbon

Belem Tower, Lisbon

There are certainly worse places to spend your layover than Lisbon. The city is known for its fascinating architecture and pleasant climate and is only five miles from the airport. If arriving during the day, opt for public transportation to get into the city.

A trip to Lisbon would not be complete without visiting The World Heritage Belem Tower, a landmark that is said to compare to Paris’ Eiffel Tower or London’s Big Ben. Grab a coffee in Baixa along Rua Agusta or view vibrant flowers in Jardim da Estrela. Laid-back by day and lively by night, Bairro Alto is a charming neighborhood lined with local restaurants, cafes and bars.

Madrid, Spain

La Cibeles, Madrid

La Cibeles, Madrid

Spain’s capital city has a population of more than three million, so it’s no surprise that Madrid Barajas Airport is the county’s busiest. Similar to Prague, the Madrid airport offers luggage storage space to travelers in terminals 1, 2 and 4 for €3.85 for the first day. If on a time crunch, take a taxi to reach the city in thirty minutes but if time allows, hop of the metro, which stops in terminals 2 and 4. Consider buying the Madrid Tourist Travel Pass if spending the entire day in the city.

Start your exploration in Plaza Mayor, a plaza located in the heart of Madrid. Browse through the Prado Museum for European art dating back to the 12th Century, see Picasso’s famous Guernica painting at the Reina Sofia or visit the Royal Palace. For a snack, stop into the Mercado de San Miguel, a covered market where you can sample tapas, wine, oysters, pastries and much more.

Istanbul, Turkey

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Truly a unique city, Istanbul is split between two continents. After a short boat ride from the European side, travelers can reach Asia to experience a different side of Istanbul. The airport is about fifteen miles from the city and various transportation options are available including taxis, an express bus and the underground metro. Also worth noting is that most tourists from the U.S. (among other countries) are required to buy a $20 visa before leaving the airport in Istanbul, regardless of how long they are in town.

Once downtown, the famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are within close proximity of each other near Sultanahmet Square. The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, Basilica Cistern and the Topkapi Palace are also nearby. For a more leisurely stop, shop at the Grand Bazaar for souvenirs or relax at The Turkish Baths.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Red Light District, Amsterdam

Red Light District, Amsterdam

Consider yourself lucky if your layover happens to be in Amsterdam. There is hardly a tourist that won’t find this city effortlessly enchanting. Schiphol Airport is less than six miles away from the city and the commute is relatively stress-free. In twenty minutes and for under €4, you can reach Amsterdam Central Station via train (storage lockers are available at the airport for €5-10 per day so there’s no need to lug your bags). Known for its scenic canal system, many tourists sign up for a canal tour to better orient themselves with the city. If navigating by foot, make sure to pick up a map, as many of the street names look similar to the English eye.

The Anne Frank Museum and the Van Gogh Museum are two popular attractions as is the infamous notorious Red Light District just a few steps from the train station and outdoor markets.

Frankfurt, Germany



While Berlin and Munich would most likely be stops on a trip to Germany, Frankfurt sometimes gets overlooked for no good reason. Eight miles from the airport, the city is reachable via the fast and cheap S-Bahn train. Before leaving the airport, make sure you know which train station you want to get off at, as there are three main stations. Most likely, Hauptbahnhof will be the best starting point.

Ride the elevator to the top of the Main Tower for a ski-high view of the city or grab a traditional “Apfelwein” in Old Town. If the weather is bad or if you are in the mood for museums, Frankfurt makes it easy because most of them are lined next to each other along the river. Römerberg is another central square and is where the Christmas markets take place each winter.

The 10 Best Cities for a European Layover amsterdam , belgium , brussels , Czech Republic , England , Europe , Frankfurt , germany , Iceland , Istanbul , Lisbon , London , Madrid , netherlands , Portugal , prague , Reykjavík , Spain , Switzerland , turkey , Zurich

I Heart My City (in the Spring)

29 Mar

Hanami cherry blossoms outside the Tokyo National Museum. (Photograph by Rob Towell, Flickr)

There’s still a chill in the air here in Washington, D.C., but the days are getting longer, the cherry blossoms are starting to pop, and residents are beginning to shed those cumbersome winter coats. Spring is upon us (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), and we’re embracing it with open arms by highlighting seasonal must-dos from our amazing I Heart My City community.

From ice cream to air shows, palaces to train rides, here are 20 ways to make the most of the next few months in 20 cities around the globe:

Shelly’s Oxford (United Kingdom): Head to nearby Wytham Woods to see the bluebells at their finest.

The Hyangwonjeong Pavilion, on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace. (Photograph by Ncburton, Flickr)

The Hyangwonjeong Pavilion, on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace. (Photograph by Ncburton, Flickr)

Megan Natalie’s Seoul (South Korea): Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace’s gardens to experience a piece of paradise you’d swear couldn’t exist in Seoul (make sure to watch the changing of the guards).

Ewelina’s Krakow (Poland): Take a walk to Krakus Mound at Podgórze; a nice, green hill where you can take a blanket and relax.

Annie Fitzsimmon’s NYC (United States): Celebrate the bounty of post-winter produce and eat anything with ramps on it because they’re only in season for a few weeks! Motorino has a great ramp pizza, and ABC Kitchen never fails with its in-season menu.

Keith Bellow’s Montreal (Canada): Hang around near McGill and Prince Arthur, soaking up the sun and the street life.

Anya’s Istanbul (Turkey): Visit Topkapi Palace. The flowers are in bloom and it’s positively stunning.

Katherine’s Athens (Greece): Take a bus to Cape Sounion, the ancient ruins of Poseidon’s temple. On the short bus ride from Athens, you’ll wind along the coast and enjoy some of my favorite views.

The Boxi-Platz flea market in Berlin. (Photograph by La Citta Vita, Flickr)

Berlin’s Boxhagener Platz flea market is open on Sundays. (Photograph by La Citta Vita, Flickr)

Madeleine’s Annapolis (U.S.): Check out the Blue Angels air show at the United States Naval Academy commencement.

Maja’s Belgrade (Serbia): Go to Zemun in Old Town and have lunch at one of the fish restaurants on the Danube.

Colleen’s Beijing (China): Fly kites by Houhai Lake.

Zain’s Amman (Jordan): Pack a picnic and visit the Hellenistic site known as Iraq Al Amir.

Shannon Switzer’s San Diego (U.S.): Check out the wildflowers in Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

Yvonne’s Berlin (Germany): Explore Berlin’s many flea markets to find great vintage clothes, furniture, books, and local art.

Sylvia’s Tokyo (Japan): Go for hanami (cherry-blossom-viewing parties) in a park with a big group of Japanese friends, some beer, and some sushi.

Jessica’s Barcelona (Spain): Experience a traditional Catalan calçotada which consists of getting together and eating large quantities of local green onions known as calçots along with romenesco sauce, regional wine, and good company.

Vienna's MuseumsQuartier. (Photograph by Photongatherer, Flickr)

Hang out outside Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier. (Photograph by Photongatherer, Flickr)

Jennifer’s Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates): See Abu Dhabi from the water. Hire a dhow (traditional wooden boat) for a tour, charter a speedboat to take you to one of the 200 islands off the main island, or kayak amongst the mangroves.

Karen’s St. John’s, Newfoundland (Canada): Watch the last ice depart from the Atlantic from atop Signal Hill National Historic Site. Check out the on-site gift shop where local music, books, and culinary delights make excellent gifts.

Isabel Eva’s Madrid (Spain): Take a trip on the Tren de la Fresa to Aranjuez. During the 50-minute ride, you will be served fresh strawberries. Once in Aranjuez, you can take a tour of the Museo del Ferrocarril (the railway museum) and the Palacio Real (the royal palace).

Lea’s Vienna (Austria): Do as the locals do and head to the MuseumsQuartier to hang out on one of the over-sized flexible furniture elements called Enzis.

Nat Geo’s Washington, D.C. (U.S.): Check out the National Arboretum and Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, two of D.C.’s hidden gems.

Wherever you are, what’s your favorite thing about your city in the springtime? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

I Heart My City (in the Spring) Abu Dhabi , annapolis , athens , austria , belgium , Belgrade , California , canada , d.c. , England , France , Ghent , Gouda , Greece , Iceland , Istanbul , japan , krakow , Madrid , maryland , Montreal , netherlands , New York , new york city , oxford , Paris , Poland , Reykjavík , san diego , Seoul , Serbia , South Korea , Spain , St. John’s Newfoundland , tokyo , turkey , United Arab Emirates , United Kingdom , United States , vienna , washington

Event-o-Rama: 12 Must-Dos in April

29 Mar

On Queen's Day, Amsterdam residents are allowed to sell wares on the street without a permit, transforming the city into a vrijmarkt (free market). (Photograph by Ferry Peys, My Shot)

There are some amazing events on tap all over the world, all the time. Here’s a taste of what you can see and do in April:

  • If you still haven’t been to the Big Easy, spring is the time to go. Come for the French Quarter Festival (April 11-14), the “largest free music festival in the South,” but stay for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (April 26-May 5), a bucket-list worthy celebration of Louisiana music and culture that’s been going strong since 1970.
  • Calling all foodies! Report to Singapore for the World Gourmet Summit (April 16-26). Described as a “gastronomic extravaganza,” the upscale event promises 10 days of eating, drinking, chef demonstrations, and classes. The experience will require some dough though, and we don’t mean the edible kind.
  • With a name like Queen’s Day (April 30), you might expect something regal and refined. Instead the Dutch holiday transforms Amsterdam into a citywide party and a sea of orange, with revelers sporting the national color flooding the streets and forming flotillas in the canals.  This year’s spectacle is also the official day of Queen Beatrix’s abdication (next year the holiday will be called Koningsdag – King’s Day — and held in honor of soon-to-be-King Willem-Alexander).
    The Golden Comanche Mardi Gras Indians take center stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  (Photograph by Derek Bridges, Flickr)

    The Golden Comanche Mardi Gras Indians take center stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (Photograph by Derek Bridges, Flickr)

  • Woombye, Australia’s Big Pineapple Music Festival may celebrate homegrown artists from Oz and neighboring New Zealand, but the concert, which takes place on a plantation that practices fair trade and organic growing, is an occasion worthy of an international crowd. Join the fun on April 20.
  • Best known for its aquarium, Monterey, California will soon turn its attention to terra firma for the Sea Otter Classic (April 18-21). What has been billed as the world’s biggest bike festival boasts races, expositions, beer, barbecue, and excursions – enough to satisfy the most fanatical cyclers.
  • Preeminent tea makes a brief bow to its caffeinated counterpart during The London Coffee Festival (April 25-28). Hosted by the hip Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, the four-day fete celebrates all that is coffee and more, with tastings, barista demonstrations, gourmet food stalls, and live music.
    Tea makes way for its caffeinated counterpart at the London Coffee Festival. (Photograph by David Clare, Flickr)

    Tea makes way for its caffeinated counterpart at the London Coffee Festival. (Photograph by David Clare, Flickr)

  • Bangkok may be Thailand’s superstar city, but Chiang Mai still has it beat when it comes to celebrating the traditional Thai New Year. In addition to a massive parade, street performers and street food pervade the nation’s northernmost city during its Songkran festival (April 12-15). But the festival’s final day makes a real splash, with locals and tourists taking to the streets for a massive water fight. Though the tradition stems from a cleansing ritual, it has a practical purpose: April is Thailand’s hottest time of year.
  • Grenada may have been marred by political conflict in the past, but the island nation is moving forward fast. See for yourself at the Carriacou Maroon and String Band Music Festival (April 26-28), a triumphant display of authentic Caribbean food, music, and dance.
  • No wicked witches here, just modern-day Hansels and Gretels looking to celebrate. Two centuries after the Brothers Grimm published their first volume, Kassel, Germany honors the hometown heroes at Expedition Grimm (starting April 27). In addition to seeing the storytellers’ manuscripts and personal effects on display, visitors can take in walking tours, festivals, and special performances.
    Celebrants splash water on each other to mark the traditional Thai new year.  (Photograph by Charlie Tray, My Shot)

    Celebrants splash water on each other to mark the traditional Thai new year. (Photograph by Charlie Tray, My Shot)

  • It’s that time again in Hampyeong, South Korea when the canola flowers start to bloom and boatloads of butterflies flock to the meadows in a glorious display. Celebrate the arrival of spring and an ecological spectacle at the Hampyeong Butterfly Festival (April 26-May 8) with countless exhibits and experiences dedicated to these delicate insects.
  • Get a head start on your summer reading…in good company. The 39th annual Buenos Aires International Book Fair (April 25-May 13) expects to draw more than a million attendees from all over the world this year, and features 400 exhibitors, a comprehensive series of conferences, readings, and workshops.
  • If you’re looking to put some pep in your step, head to Memphis, Tennessee (one of Traveler‘s Best Trips for 2013). Today, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music occupies the space where the “Soulsville U.S.A.” recording studio once sat, but the beat goes on at Stax to the Max (April 27), a free and family-friendly festival that celebrates soul legends like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes — as well as the modern-day musicians that are keeping their legacies alive.

What would you add to the list? Let us know what we’re missing by leaving a comment.

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12 of the Most Beautiful Castles and Palaces in Europe

20 Mar

With its tumultuous history of feuding Royals and battling troops, its no surprise that Europe harbors an impressive array of castles and palaces, many of which boast spectacular locations. From the official residence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to the real-life Sleeping Beauty Castle, here are 12 of the most beautiful Castles and Palaces in Europe.

1. Chambord Castle, France

Chambord Castle; most beautiful castles in Europe

Chambord Castle

Standing proud in the picturesque Loire Valley, the royal Château de Chambord is a striking example of a French renaissance castle with its elaborate frontage sheltering equally exquisite interiors. Guests can tour the castle and its grounds, as well as taking a peek into the royal apartments of François I and Louis XIV.

2. Neuschwanstein, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle; the most beautiful castles in Europe

Neuschwanstein Castle

A 19th century fairytale castle built as a refuge for King Ludwig and opened to the public after his death in 1886, Neuschwanstein famously inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle with its dreamy spires and snow-capped mountain backdrop. A popular day trip from Munich, visiting the castle is possible by guided tour.

3. Pena National Palace, Portugal

Pena Castle; most beautiful castles in Europe

Pena Castle. Photo credit: Angel Torres via Flickr.

Perched on a hilltop in the central Portuguese municipality of Sintra, the eye-catching Pena National Palace (often nicknamed Sintra Castle) dates back to the 8th century and was an important strategic stronghold during the Reconquista. An easy train ride from the capital, the UNESCO World Heritage site makes a popular day trip for those visiting Lisbon.

4. De Haar Castle, Netherlands

Casting a dazzling reflection in its surrounding canal ways, the Netherlands’ De Haar Castle is an unmissable feat of neo-gothic architecture. The current structure dates back to the 18th century and makes a popular excursion from nearby Amsterdam, with guided tours offering a thorough exploration of the draw-bridged fortress.

5. Windsor Castle, England

Windsor Castle; most beautiful castles in Europe

Windsor Castle

The world’s oldest and largest occupied castle, Windsor Castle is not only one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions but it’s the Official Residence of Her Majesty The Queen and used for a number of British Royal functions. As well as exploring the 13-acre stately grounds, visitors can tour the resplendent State Apartments, the much-celebrated St George’s Chapel and the famous Queen Mary’s Doll House.

6. Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Claiming the title of the world’s largest castle, Prague Castle was first erected in the 9th century, although its imposing Gothic façade dates back to the 14th century. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the castle is not only an iconic landmark of the Czech capital, but houses the Czech Crown Jewels.

7. Peles Castle, Sinaia, Romania

Dominating the skyline of Sinaia, the mountaintop Peles Castle makes an impressive detour from Bucharest, tucked away in the remote Carpathian Mountains. A mishmash of German Renaissance, Gothic and French Rococo architectural styles, the castle grounds and a number of its 160 rooms, including the armory, are open to the public.

8. Dunrobin Castle, Scotland

Dunrobin Castle, Scotland. Photo courtesy of Jack_spellingbacon via Flickr

Dunrobin Castle, Scotland. Photo courtesy of Jack_spellingbacon via Flickr

Scotland’s most fairytale-esque castle, with its wistful spires and romantic flower gardens, Dunrobin Castle is one of the country’s most exquisite stately homes, dating back to the 13th century. Visitors to the castle, nestled in the Scottish Highlands around an hour’s drive from Inverness, can explore the castle museum, formal gardens, falconry and lavishly decorated interiors.

9. Coca Castle, Spain

One of the continent’s most unique castles with its distinctive crenellated frontage, the 15th-century Coca Castle is fashioned entirely from sand-colored brick. Lying on the site of ancient Cauca, the birthplace of the Roman emperor Theodosius, the acclaimed Mudéjar castle is one of the most prominent landmarks of the central Segovia province.

10. Oberhofen Castle, Switzerland

Oberhofen Castle. Photo courtesy of Carthesian via Flickr

Oberhofen Castle. Photo courtesy of Carthesian via Flickr

In its tranquil setting on the banks of Lake Thun, Oberhofen Castle is one of Europe’s most romantic castles, dating back to the 13th century. A popular day trip for visitors to central Switzerland, guests can marvel at the medieval keep, explore the castle museum and take in the views from the Lake Tower.

11. Ksiaz Castle, Poland

Ksiaz Castle. Photo courtesy of Tripsoverpoland via Flickr

Ksiaz Castle. Photo courtesy of Tripsoverpoland via Flickr

The landmark Ksiaz Castle turns heads with its attractive color palette and medley of architectural styles, poised on a cliff top overlooking the Pelcznica River. Dating back to the 13th century, the magnificent fortress lies on the periphery of Walbrzych and makes a popular pilgrimage for walkers in the surrounding nature reserve.

12. Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania

Marooned on an island on Lake Galve, just 20km from the Lithuanian capital, Trakai is one of Eastern Europe’s most unique castles, a beautifully restored redbrick Gothic structure. The island castle now houses an impressive archeological museum, as well as hosting summer music concerts and events in its atmospheric courtyard.

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I Heart My City: Martijn’s Rotterdam

10 Mar

The Rotterdam skyline at night. (Photograph  by Robert Hertel, Flickr)

Martijn Hordijk has lived in Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands, for more than three years. In addition to working a job that regularly takes him to Aberdeen, Antwerp, and Paris, Martijn shares insider insight about his home base as a blogger for Spotted by Locals. “Rotterdam is constantly evolving so everyday I experience something new,” he says. Here are a few of Martijn’s favorite things about the port city that’s been called “the Gateway to Europe.”

Rotterdam is My City

When I have visitors, the first place I take them is for a walk to the brand new Meent via the Pannekoekstraat. With trendy shops and restaurants like Depot Rotterdam and Coffee Company, we usually get stuck there the first day.

Have a dip in the SS Rotterdam's pool -- and don't forget your souvenir! (Photograph by FaceMePLS, Flickr)

Have a dip in the SS Rotterdam’s pool — and don’t forget your souvenir! (Photograph by FaceMePLS, Flickr)

My city’s best museum is the Wereldmuseum at the Willemskade because of the exclusive and exciting exhibitions. Don’t forget its brilliant restaurant as well.  You’ll have a perfect view of the city.

The famous cruise ship SS Rotterdam is the place to buy authentic, local souvenirs.

You can see my city best from the Willemsbrug. You’ll have a perfect view of the Erasmusbrug, the eyecatching Maastoren, and the distinguished Red Apple.

Locals know to skip the city center and check out more lively and colorful streets like Pannekoekstraat and de Witte de Withstraat instead.

In the past, notable people like the great Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus, boxer “Bep” van Klaveren, and architect Rem Koolhaas have called my city home.

July and August are the best times to visit my city because there are many wonderful festivals like North Sea Jazz, Metropolis, and Pleinbioscoop.

The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is the Kralingse Plas. Enjoy life in our own big garden by walking, sitting on a bench, or even running like a lot of people do.

My city really knows how to celebrate big events like F1 racing, North Sea Jazz, and World Port Days. 

Erasmusbrug links the northern and southern regions of Rotterdam. (Photograph by Elisa Dudnikova, Flickr)

Erasmusbrug links the northern and southern regions of Rotterdam. (Photograph by Elisa Dudnikova, Flickr)

You can tell if someone is from my city if they ride a bicycle and have a distinct Rotterdam accent.

For a fancy night out, I usually go to Wijnbar Jansen & van Dijk, then head across the city to visit Het Eigendom. Or, I start at Café Pol and Sijf, then end the night at Café Boudewijn.

Just outside my city, you can visit The Hague, where you can see the Dutch government, the International Court of Justice, and Queen Beatrix’s home. (As of April 30, 2013, her son, Willem Alexander, will be king!)

My city is known for being busy and introverted, but it’s really passionate, friendly, and cozy.

The best outdoor market in my city is at the Meent every Tuesday and Saturday. As with all markets, the best time to go is at sunrise.

Pierre, a delicious French bistro, is my favorite place to grab breakfast, and Café Van Zanten is the spot for late-night eats.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read the local newspaper De Ster or go to a café located at the Meent to check out the news flyers.

My city’s biggest sports event is the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament. Watch it at Ahoy Rotterdam in February!

When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I still want to be part of all the excitement in the city, so I just go for a walk.

To escape the crowds, I go running on the city border.

If my city were a celebrity it’d be film director Steven Spielberg because like his movies, my city inspires people and is adventurous.

Visit the nearby Hague while you're in town. (Photograph by PhareannaH[berhabuk], Flickr)

Visit the nearby Hague while you’re in town. (Photograph by PhareannaH[berhabuk], Flickr)

The dish that represents my city best is an Argentine steak at El Gaucho and a Paulaner beer at Café Pol is my city’s signature drink.

Het Witte Huis is my favorite building in town because it was Europe’s first skyscraper and it represents the old and new part of Rotterdam very well. It’s still is an eye catcher today, even though it’s surrounded by the Red Apple skyscraper and local cafes.

The most random thing about my city is that Erasmus University is the fastest rising European institution in the Times Higher Education rankings.

Bird at the Mini Mall is the best place to see live music, but if you’re in the mood to dance, check out late nights at Blender.

In the spring you should have a drink on a terrace around Oude Binnenweg or the Meent.

Stroll or bike along the paths in this scenic riverside city. (Photograph by Hollabackpackers, Flickr)

Stroll or bike along the paths in this scenic riverside city. (Photograph by Hollabackpackers, Flickr)

In the summer you should cool down at a park or, if there’s bad weather, relax at Café de Tuin.

In the fall you should get a bike and ride out to the Maasvlakte.

In the winter you should go ice skating on the river or lakes and warm up in a café or club.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the Diergaarde Blijdorp zoo. Your kids will love the elephants and the polar bears. So will you.

If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s to get a public transport chip card (ov-chipkaart) to gain entry to the subway and trams. It makes visiting Rotterdam much easier.

The best book about my city is Brandgrens by Koos Hage, which takes readers on a tour through Rotterdam in the 1930s and in the new millennium, highlighting the variety of people and architecture that makes the city so unique.

In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my city because Rotterdam embraces you. A poem from Dutch writer Jules Deelder says it all: “The surroundings of the man is his fellow man.”

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