Italy ranks as one of my favorite developed-world countries and it really comes down to the eating experiences. In fact, if you ask me, each person reading this should do their stomach a favor and put Italy on the bucket list because the country was made for foodies of all sorts (not just ice-cream-loving-fiends).
See, the meal is just the beginning though, it gets you to the dessert! Because once you’ve eaten your fill of bread and wine you have full permission to indulge in gelato, which is Italian-style ice cream.
As a vegetarian traveling to a new country, I face a few extra challenges and considerations. While I wouldn’t out-right skip a destination because of food, the pecking order does change if I know I can eat well once I’m there. So when I read the invitation from the Jordan Tourism Board about a sponsored trip to the country, my initial thoughts circled like vultures around every tidbit of Middle Eastern foodie information stored in my brain.
A few quick keyword searches online and bam! I had my answer—all systems were a go on the foodie front, Jordan offers dozens of dishes consistently cooked vegetarian and the country is touristy enough to easily communicate the concept of vegetarianism.
I hated mushrooms as a child…and calling them fungi didn’t help much, the texture was odd, they come in funny colors, and they’re relatively tasteless. The mushrooms were just the beginning though, add to those a long litany of other fresh fruits and vegetables that found a home on my “does-not-pass-my-lips” list.
Fast forward to my college years, and suddenly the “veggie option” when dinning with friends was a huge seasoned mushroom plopped onto my plate like the limp slab of fungus it was. And I ate it, especially if someone else had just cooked it for me. And at some point, it just wasn’t that bad anymore.
As an American I get the best of many worlds in terms of food – we have a diverse immigrant culture in the United States and nearly every small town has its token ethnic restaurants: Thai/Indian/Mexian/Middle Eastern/Italian/Cuban. But flip side to those restaurants are the huge national chains perched alongside the mom-and-pop shops and often serving up run-of-the-mill generic dishes only barely seasoned to appeal to the masses.
For years I considered food a mere accessory to my day, a pretty little add-on, often just a mere necessity and rarely the focus. Then I left the US and tasted food.
We all but shoved these moist mounds of joy into our mouths. I couldn’t help but think, “Where have these fat round dumplings been all of my life? How have I not had this concoction of vegetable greens, onions, and seasoning exploding over my taste buds until this very moment?”
That was a good day. My best foodie day in China, actually. Sadly, it didn’t go well from there.
There’s only one other country in the world where I was as hungry and frustrated as China, and that was Bosnia back in 2009 when I lived off of spinach and cheese bureks and my twice-daily shiny green apple from the supermarket.
Is it wrong to admit that I’ve developed a strange fascination with McDonald’s restaurants around the world? This one is in India and, as you’d expect, there was no beef on the menu. Stateside, I eat McDonald’s maybe once a decade … and I even find myself apologizing to other travelers on the road about America’s stellar contribution to the global food industry because this chain is pervasive, unhealthy, and so brightly and gaudily American that it can stand out so painfully next to temples and ancient ruins in other countries. But the interest me because they’re there. A slice of Americana in a strange and foreign land.
Through all this judgment though, I didn’t really think about the different menus in each place until I started traveling. So color me surprised when the Indian McDonald’s boasted an intriguingly diverse menu. My cousin ordered a paneer tika wrap … and it was actually decent (I took a bite).
Echoing the diversities of each country, the menu at Mickey D’s reflects the local cultural norms and food habits, as weird as that may seem considering the golden arches so blatantly scream “American” to me. Oh, and there are actually locals inside these restaurants, I was surprised for a second time.
I’m not going to claim that you have to try a Mickey D’s abroad, but, well … if you’re there, and it’s there … why not at least take a peak, the menus are always different and it’s neat to see how much the food chain had to diverge from the traditional American menu in order to appeal to the locals.
It’s fun and the foodie gods of travel won’t strike you down for entering one, I promise! :-)
My 15 hour long layover in Taipei may not have been enough time to settle in and truly explore all that Taipei, Taiwan has to offer but it’s plenty enough time to eat!
There were moments where the Asian culture shock was creeping up but the familiar pace of a city extinguished a lot of the potential angst. Instead of focusing on being lost throughout the day I followed my nose along the streets of Taipei, allowing the locals on their lunch breaks to dodge around me as I poked my nose into all kinds of treats.
Some were suspiciously meaty and avoided. But a busy street food cart perched right on the corner of a busy sidewalk caught my eye. The muffin pan-like cart top took about one minute to produce a whole steaming hot treats filled with mysterious fillings.
The man pours what looks like pancake dough into the holes. The woman scoops in your chosen filling. More dough. As the lunch snacks briefly cooked the well honed dance of movements between the duo working the street cart never faltered.
The long queue of locals flowed with swift ease and stood as a testament to these tasty and simple treats.
When my turn came I put the first glitch in their process and both of them smiled indulgent if harried smiles as I indicated through pantomime my choice of two pancakey-things filled with a thick red bean paste and a third with sweet creamy custard.
These eats got me through my hike to Taipei 101 and before my street eats had fully digested dusk painted itself across the sky and the Shilin Night Market beckoned.
To be truthful the entire point of the Shilin Night Market trip was to spend as long as possible wandering food stalls sampling foreign treats with name’s I knew not then and know not now.
I found that Taipei was like so much of Asia, even to many of the locals the street eats are incredibly affordable and families converge on the street stalls for their nightly dinner as well.
Sweet treats weren’t far either and with a small crowd around these fried milk balls I was intrigued enough to try a stick of the burn-your-tongue-hot sweet cream coated in batter.
It makes me chuckle to think that for all that the rest of the world laughs at the US for deep fried ice cream and snickers bars, we’re not the only ones take odd concoctions, coat them in batter and drop ’em a vat of grease!
For the record, they were tasty as expected and I munched them rapidly as I ran from the beginning rain and back to the metro terminal.
My fifteen hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan was long…fifteen hours in a city is that in-between length of time. Perhaps not long enough to really justify renting a hotel room but an exhausting marathon of site-seeing without a resting spot.
And though my Taipei layover was way longer than I would normally choose, I had little choice in the matter so I embraced the craziness of filling that much time without a home-base and explored the city on the three recommendations from my Taiwanese friend Ben (met him in Belize actually!).
Three top spots for the widest range of experiences:
The National Palace Museum for some history and context
Taipei 101 for the view and national pride
Shilin Night Market for culture and fantastic street eats.
Once I got over the culture shock of Taipei my game plan shaped up nicely. Getting around Taipei is quite easy—the metro system is fantastic and each of these classic tourist destinations is easily accessible from the metro system –transportation and travel tips included in case you find yourself on a long layover in Taipei too!
The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese artifacts in the world and sits perched on a green hillside above the nearby mid-level gray city-grid. The museum is vast and it is truly one of those “choose your own adventure” type museums…there was no way I could (or wanted to) wander through every room so instead I picked out those artifacts I most find intriguing.
For me, that’s intricate carved trinkets rather than pottery, and ornate ancient scripts written by the hand of people who have died hundreds of years ago. The museum has an entire room dedicated to delicately carved curio boxes (much like a women’s jewelry box of today). The drawers and doors on these were puzzles and this is where the emperors and royalty stored the valuable trinkets bestowed upon them through the centuries: ivory carved elephants, jade tigers, wooden figurines and precious stones.
This is the “hardest” of the three layover spots to visit and that’s only because you have to transfer from the metro to the bus. But the National Palace Museum is very touristy so once I was on that side of town there was a fair amount of English spoken.
Quick Travel Tips: Taipei National Palace Museum Where: Take the red metro line to the Jiantan stop, walk directly out of the building and straight ahead to the curb. Find the bus signs for the Red 30 or 304 – take either of these two buses to the National Palace Museum stop (less than 10 minutes), it stops right out in front of the museum but sit near the bus driver and he’ll tell you when to exit. When: 8:30a to 6:30p and some Saturdays offer free extended evening hours. How Much: Adults: NT 160, Concession: NTD 80 More details: Official site for the National Palace Museum
Taipei 101: Taiwan’s Skyline Masterpiece
Nations around the world compete for the status of owning the tallest building in the world and Taiwan couldn’t stay out of the competition. Taipei 101 is Taiwan’s contribution to the tallest buildings in the world and I think it may be one of the prettiest.
The building is layered in pagoda-like tiers from top to bottom almost like a very Asian wedding cake – complete with a single candle-like point thrusting from the top and bringing the total height to a staggering 1,671 feet. The building dwarfs all of the nearby city buildings and when I exited the metro stop I craned my neck upwards and wove my way through the streets to the slim and elegant building.
Observation floors ring the very top of Taipei 101 and free audio guides describe every the surrounding city buildings, hills and tunnels sharing the evolving history of Taipei and its suburbs.
Quick Travel Tips: Taipei 101 Where: Taipei 101 is on the blue line at the “Taipei City Hall” MRT stop. There are free shuttle buses from this metro stop, but it’s actually a short walk from the metro stop (10 minutes or less). When: Open from 10am to 10pm (last visitors allowed up at 9:15pm). How much: NT$400 (US $10+) – student discounts available More details: Official site for Taipei 101
Shilin Night Market
I love markets anywhere in the world and the Shinlin Night Market doesn’t disappoint. This nightly market takes over several city blocks with mazes of food stalls, clothes booths, kitschy plastic knickknacks and people.
An ice cold bubble tea is ideal for wandering the market while you scope out where to start on street foods – the selection of meat, tofu dishes, sweets and fruit are overwhelming and the mingling scents of street eats permeate the market.
The market gets into full swing around dusk so out of the three layover activities, the night market has the shortest time frame of operation.
Quick Travel Tips: Shinlin Night Market Where: The Shilin Night Market is on red metro line, get off at the Jiantan stop and the walk the market (just across the street from the Jiantan exit). The market runs all the way to the next stop on the red line, Shilin so you can take that stop back! When: Head there at dusk or later, once the sun has firmly set the market really begins to bustle. Tips: Go hungry because there is a truly huge selection of foods to sample and make sure your camera’s battery has lasted this long for fun market shots.
Layover’s Over, Get Back to the Airport for Your Flight !
Wherever you are in Taipei it’s now time to catch the metro line back to the Taipei Main Station – this is the same basic place where the airport bus dropped you off and the central point for the metro lines.
Give yourself at least 30 minutes to get lost finding the return bus terminal for international airport-bound buses, Taipei West Bus Station (bus ticket: roughly NT$150). The station is tricky to find – get a map from the information kiosk in the metro before you even head out for the day and keep in mind that it’s near the underground mall K12 and Z3 exits and MRT exit M5.
Then tell the driver your airline and he drops you off right precisely where you need to be to catch your flight to some other exotic location!
How do you spend a long-layover in a city? Sleep through it or sightsee?