Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula

A Little Beauty… Driving the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland’s Most Picturesque Drive

It’s no secret that I love Ireland—I have waxed poetic about everything from the toe-tappingly good Irish music in pubs to the beauty of Connemara to those special days getting lost and that unnameable something special that just exists in Ireland. Of all the places in the world that I have traveled, and the list is long, Ireland stands out as a place that consistently delivered the coziest of memories, the most intriguing of local interactions, and the prettiest of natural scenery. And that’s where Dingle’s Slea Head Drive comes into play.

Discovering the Dingle Peninsula

Dingle is a small town on the southwest tip of Ireland, it’s a port town on the Dingle Peninsula, which sticks out of the mainland like a finger reaching into the Atlantic Ocean. And although Dingle town is cute as can be and filled with the sort of deep culture that can be overlooked in busier cities like Dublin or Galway, no trip to the area is complete until you just take in the prettiness and history Slea Head Drive, which is a clockwise, circular driving itinerary that often hugs the gorgeous coastline for 30 miles (47 km).

This is one of Ireland’s most scenic drives (it’s also a part of the stunning Wild Atlantic Way route) and contains several of the oldest sites in Ireland, all contained in one small area. This driving route is for the most popular places to stop along Slea Head Drive—if you’re on Dingle Peninsula for longer you will want to spend at least an extra day so you can angle for a Fungie the Dolphin sighting, or undertake the gorgeous Mount Brandon hike.

Views of the ocean and sheep along Slea Head Drive.
Views of the ocean and sheep along Slea Head Drive.

Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula
Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula

Best Spots on Slea Head Drive

The drive should be undertaken clockwise from Dingle Town as this avoids oncoming busses (which is a terrifying prospect on narrow Irish roads). It’s really not possible skip any part of the drive, since it’s a circular route, but you could surely go faster if you didn’t slow down, hike around, and make an afternoon of it. But why would you do that?! This is an area worth exploring, getting out of the car, and really wandering through the history, and taking in the sights. It can be done in less than two hours, but if you pack a picnic lunch and enjoy yourself, plan for at least three hours (and if you’re a cyclist, have fun, no idea, but we definitely saw some tourists enjoying it that way!). Also, before you set out, know that the route is called Slí Cheann Sléibhe in Irish—remember these words! Some signs toward the end of the drive are only in Irish and you’ll want to continue navigating the correct route! These were my five favorite stops along Slea Head Drive.

Stop 1: Dunbeg Fort

Dunbeg Fort sign
Dunbeg Fort sign

Perched on the very edge of the cliffs is the promontory fort of Dunbeg, ruins date from the Iron Age, with a piece of ancient wood under one fort wall dated to about 580 BC, meaning the fort was built after that time period. Dunbeg Fort is small and mostly grass-covered for protection, and until it can be further excavated. This places actively changes ever single year as the sea reclaims the land and the fort actually tumbles from the cliffs regularly.

The sweeping views of the ocean and straight drop down to the jagged rocks are gorgeous, and no visit to Ireland is complete without scrambling around some ruins, and this is a good spot for it!

Dingle's Dunbeg Fort!
Conquering Dingle’s Dunbeg Fort!

Stop 2: Beehive Huts

Called clochán in Irish, these family dwellings and small community of huts could go as far back as the Bronze Age (think 2000 BC). Today, there is no archaeological evidence dating them earlier than AD 700, but archaeologists believe they were introduced earlier than that. These type of dwellings were continually built for thousands of years throughout Scotland and Ireland.

The first thing you’ll notice is that people must have been significantly shorter back then, because these beehive huts are tiny! They are not for the tall, and I had to continually watch my head through the doorways.

ancient beehive huts
Views of the ancient beehive huts on Slea Head Drive.

tiny beehive hut opening
These are small structures! This is one of the tiny beehive hut openings.

Inch Beach along Slea Head Drive
Most Dingle driving itineraries include stopping at Inch Beach.

Stop 3: Blasket Islands

Views of the Blasket Islands
Views of the Blasket Islands from Slea Head Drive.

The Blasket Islands were inhabited until until 1953 by an Irish-speaking population, until the locals were forced to evacuate. If you’re enjoying Slea Head Drive on a traditional Irish day—wet and windy—then you’ll look out to sea and wonder that any human being could live on such remote and rugged islands. Although the islands are only slightly offshore from the coast of the Dingle Peninsula, it was incredibly windy out on the peak and you’d have to be a very hearty person to survive the icy-cold and wet winds.

Although there are daily boat trips during high season out the islands (and some people even camp!), my backpacker budget instead sent me to the very tip of the mainland, where I could gaze out at the gorgeous seascape. Just past the sandy beach is a fairly large carpark with a worn and grassy path leading up a steep, sheep-poo filled hillside. In true Irish style, the path is only meant for the adventurous—I laced my fingers together to give Laura a boost over the rock wall (she’s pretty short!) hopped it myself, and we threaded amongst the grazing, sleepy sheep to look out over the Blasket Islands and gaze across the Atlantic toward the US.

The view is stunning and because we went a bit “off the path,” we were the only ones up there for about 30 minutes (which was perfect because each of us were forced to brave the heavy wind and pop a squat!). Although the boat tour is supposedly spectacular, I can’t imagine having missed this short hike either.

Windy day on the knoll looking out over the Blasket Islands
Ours was a windy day on the knoll looking out over the Blasket Islands.

chilly day in dingle

Slea Head Drive

Stop 4: Gallarus Oratory

The Gallarus Oratory along the drive in Dingle.
The Gallarus Oratory along the drive in Dingle.

There is no consensus on how old this church is as archaeologists can’t find a way to date it, and some claim it was built as late as the 12th century, while others contend it was an early Christian church built between the 6th and 9th centuries. So, now called the Gallarus Oratory, it was built in a similar style to Dunbeg Fort and the Beehive Huts, which means constructed without mortar. The stones are gradually stacked to reach the top, a form of construction that made it surprisingly airtight inside!

A torrential downpour caught up with us when we reached the Oratory so we huddled inside for some time, giving a good test to this ancient church. We were all amazed that it completely protected us from the strong winds and rains even after all these centuries since it was first constructed.

Stop 5: Three Sisters & The Sleeping Giant

Near the village of Ballyferriter, the Three Sisters are a set of three peaks associated with a number of Irish legends and stories. The Irish do love their myths and legends, so it’s perhaps no wonder that the natural landscape inspired many. One local legend even goes so far as to claim that Lindbergh’s first sight of land after crossing the Atlantic was the three jagged peaks of land known as the Three Sisters.

Meanwhile, the Sleeping Giant is fun to witness on the horizon, he’s easy to spot as the land makes it look as though he is lynching on his back, resting on the top of the ocean.

The Three Sisters Islands
The Three Sisters Islands in the distance.

Sleeping Giant Island
This is the famous Sleeping Giant Island—you can see that it really does look like that when viewed from afar!


Perhaps the best tip I can offer for driving Slea Head Drive around the Dingle Peninsula is to memorize the Irish name for Dingle town, An Daingean. Although it’s controversial that there’s no English name on the sign, that’s the way it is here and it’s one of the most charming parts of traveling through this region of Ireland. The Dingle Peninsula is an Irish speaking region, and though it can get confusing to only see road signs in Irish, it’s still lovely. But with that in mind we had to be prepared for the Irish when making our way back to our Dingle hostel for the night when all of the road signs only pointed toward An Daingean!

Plan Your Trip to Dingle Town

Discover Ireland's prettiest drive: Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula. Spend a day driving the scenic and ancient sights, stop in charming Irish towns, and take a pilgrimage hike.

#Ireland #Europe #Dingle #TravelGuide #TravelTips #Bucketlist #Wanderlust

Where to Sleep

I stayed at the Hideout Hostel, which has small room dorms and was just completely lovely. Highly recommend it. It also offers private doubles, which would make a fantastic option for couples who want the social aspect of a hostel without the lack of privacy from shared dorm. If the Hideout is booked, then Rainbow Hostel is a great alternative. The Hillgrove Guesthouse is ideal on a midrange budget, and or splurge on the An Capall Dubh B&B.

Where to Eat

While you’re driving Slea Head, you can stop in Ballyferriter if you haven’t packed anything, this small town has a lot of options. In Dingle Town, you must eat at Murphy’s Ice Cream. Vegetarians will find two options at Marina Inn, a full menu at Adh Danlann Gallery Cafe, my dorm mates loved the chowder at John Benny’s Pub, and seafood lovers will drool over the recommendations in this piece from Saveur on Dingle’s best cuisine.

Best Place for Irish Music

You absolutely want at least one night in Dingle Town so that you can enjoy the live music at most local pubs and restaurants. Head out by 9pm to find a spot and have a chance to really enjoy the music. Everyone at our hostel went out together several nights and truly loved the vibe. We had an amazing time at Dick Mack’s, which was recommended by the hostel owner, and O’Sullivan’s Courthouse Pub had an awesome mix of locals and tourists alike. O’Flaherty’s Pub is the go-to recommendation from many, but it was one that people either loved or hated—we didn’t visit.

What to Read

Although I carried the Ireland Lonely Planet, Laura was carrying the Rick Steves Ireland and, in the dual of “which one is better,” her’s won. Although I liked the LP for accommodation and transportation recs, her guide had a detailed accounting of this drive. It had us start our trip-meter when we left Dingle, and then it offered tidbits we could read as we drove along, each fact corresponded to the mile markers and what we were seeing on the drive. It was a lot of fun and provided heaps of history and facts we would have otherwise missed.

Bagan temples burma myanmar

A Little Photoessay… The Ancient Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

When I left nearly four years ago to travel, I wasn’t sure what pieces of the travel experience would most pique my interest . . . would it be the varied landscapes, the new foods and flavors, or perhaps new friends? In the intervening years, I learned that I am most engaged in my travel experience when I look for stories from friendly people willing to share a meal. In some places, however, the fascination truly lies deep within the history—often the living history—of a place.

The living legacy left in Bagan, Myanmar (formerly Burma) was visible for miles when I entered the Bagan Archeological Zone, a region of the country with more than 2,200 temples and stupas remaining; the earliest of these structures date back to beginning of the 11th century. As my niece Ana and I traveled through Myanmar, luck was with us that our visit aligned with our friends’ family travels in Myanmar as well. The mother is Burmese-American and has family still living in the country; when our visits coincided, she and her family offered us the chance to travel with them on their pilgrimage to Bagan’s holy temples.

Views of many temples in Bagan, Myanmar
Starting in about 1044, Bagan’s wealthy rulers spent 250 years building up this ancient city. At the height of Bagan’s place in history as a seat of power in Southeast Asia, the city had more than 10,000 temples and 1,000 stupas. Building temples is a way for wealthy citizens to build merit, and for this reason temples both large and small were built and donated over the past century.

We spent a whirlwind two days from sunup to sundown visiting the holiest temples, and learning about why these temples are still today used in modern worship.Though renting bicycles is the most popular way for tourists to see navigate the dusty roads and fields of temples, we all drove around in the cushioned bed of a truck so that we could visit many of the temples spread over the 40-square miles of land within the ancient city.

The thing I found fascinating about the temples in Bagan, in contrast to other temple complexes in Southeast Asia (namely Angkor Wat, which I took Ana to see two months after Bagan), is the fact that many of the temples were reconstructed for modern use. There were plenty of crumbling, pumpkin-colored stupas contrasting the fields of dull grass burnt dry from the strong sun, but a great many of the holiest temples were modern places of worship with re-gilded exteriors, Buddha statues, and Nats.

Below I’d like to share a photo journey and the story of our days visiting the monasteries and stupas of ancient Bagan that form the country’s living history. Bagan is incredibly photogenic, so I’ve shared the highlights (21 photos and mini-stories!)  from two full days below (sunrise to sunset), but there are more Bagan travel photos if you’re keen.

Photos and Stories from the Temples of Bagan

Monks line up for alms in Bagan, Myanmar
Our small group prepared for our first day at the ruins as dawn settled over the region; these monks passed our guesthouse in the early morning hours on their almsgiving walk through town. Giving alms is a daily ritual throughout most of Southeast Asia and the act of giving builds merit for the giver. Locals give rice and food into the bowls of the monks as they pass by homes and shops; in this way, they pay respect to the monks and connect to their spirituality.

Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar Burma
The beautiful, gilded complex of temples and stupas at Shwezigon Pagoda attracted a handful of tourists in the dawn hours. The quiet energy humming through the temple captivated us. Sunrise hot-air balloons would have no doubt been a magical way to experience the first hours of lift shining over the 40 miles of temples, stupas and monasteries dotting the plains around Bagan, but we opted to stay on the ground this time.

These twin images side-by-side are an uncommon representation of Buddha. I have seen the Buddha depicted in hundreds of positions and facial expressions over the years, but these beatific smiles at Dhammayangyi Pahto temple shine with peace and happiness.

Dhammayangyi Pahto temple in Burma Myanmar
 The stunning, cavernous hallways at Dhammayangyi Pahto temple. This is a highlight and a a beautiful temple.

Ananda Paya temple in Bagan
The quiet sunrise hours have given way to the tour buses by mid-morning, and locals and tourist alike mix and merge on the paths leading to Ananda Paya temple.  Of note, and particularly interesting to the children in the group, was that this temple’s gilded top looks like a corn cob. :)

free water at the temples for pilgrims
The Burmese are generous with water and basic necessities. There were many instances where they could have charged for water, but instead the active temples and monasteries offered up jugs, canisters, and containers filled and free so that no one should go thirsty on their pilgrimage–some temples had very steep hikes!

Thatbyinnyu Temple temple in Myanmar
Ana and I posed for a shot together with the photogenic Thatbyinnyu Temple temple in the background.

Thatbyinnyu Temple in Bagan, Myanmar
Two doorways from two beautiful temples. The left is looking out at Thatbyinnyu Temple. The second one is the ornate entrance to the Hgnet Pyit Taung temple.

Burmese zodiac animal
Different animals represent different days of the week in the Burmese zodiac. The week day of your birth dictates which station and animal you should visit at the temples. There are eight stations because Wednesday is split into two different animals. This creature is the tiger and represents Monday; it’s worth researching your day of birth before you travel through Myanmar so you can pay respect through their cultural beliefs to your zodiac animal.

Mt Popa to the Popa Taungkalat monastery
A vendor sells bouquets of flowers to pilgrims making their way up Mt Popa to the Popa Taungkalat monastery.

Sign about walking up Mt. Popa barefoot
You must have bare feet when entering any Buddhist temple. In this case, the sign is a reminder to the pilgrims hiking the stairs to the very top of the mountain that they must do so barefoot … while dodging monkeys!

777 steps that are carved into the side of  Mt. Popa filled with monkeys
The temple monkeys are aggressive and hungry; they pester the pilgrims slowly making their way up the 777 steps that are carved into the side of  Mt. Popa, all leading to the Popa Taungkalat monastery.

Htilominlo Temple details in Bagan
Intricate paintings inside of Htilominlo Temple have survived the centuries. This was just one of the many frescoes lining the walls. The most delicate and intricate of the paintings in some of the other temples are only lit by flashlights and prohibit photography as a way to ensure future generations can witness the beautiful artwork.

thanaka powder grinding block
The thanaka powder that the Burmese use on their faces actually comes from these sticks. They grind the thanaka on the stone, add water (or other creams in modern instances) and then apply to their skin for beauty, tradition, and skin protection.

sour plum candies in Bagan, Myanmar
On the side of the road a candy maker sells hand-rolled sour plum candies; although sweet candies from jaggery are popular all over the country, the sour plum flavor is unique to this region and it’s worth sampling some from many vendors as they come in varying levels of sour and sweet!

temples of bagan
This young and eager boy was our impromptu tour guide through one of the temple complexes.

Manuha temple buddha and Buddha in the Taung Kalat monastery on Mount Popa
Buddha on the left is from the Manuha temple, and the right one is unique. This Buddha sits in the Taung Kalat monastery on Mount Popa—the Buddha statue is adorned with hundreds of tiny Buddha images.

The Irrawaddy River runs along Bupaya pagoda and provided a welcome and cool breeze in the hot, late afternoon sun. Ana and I learned a lot before we left for Myanmar about the effect that major rivers have on trade and development within the countries in Southeast Asia, so it was interesting for us to watch the slow pace of life on this section of the river.

car full of people in Bagan, Burma
As the day started to wind down, the pickup trucks began to ferry all the locals back to their homes just as we (Ana, Aye, Em and I) rented a horse cart to take us to a sunset spot. Though tourists are common in Bagan, friendliness is an inherent part of Burmese culture and we got waves and smiles from every single passing truck.

Sunset at the Burmese temples in Bagan, Myanmar
Our second night in Bagan we picked a sunset spot that only had a handful of tourists sitting on the ledges. Because the trip back is in near darkness, tourists take the horse-drawn carts to and from the sunset spots.

Horse carts and sunset temples in Bagan, Myanmar
The horse-carts give a bit of perspective on the size of these temples. Though some of the ruins are small stupas, others are massive temples that date back to the kings and rulers in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Sunset temples in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
The hundreds of temples shift and change in the setting sun and allow for a different and beautiful sunset spot each night.

sunset bagan temples
We perched on the ledge of the temple and watched the sun sink across the sky.

The last fragments of daylight left the sky and silhouetted the iconic temples.

Bagan was such a special stop on our travels through Myanmar and an real highlight of our time traveling the region. The temples are incredible, and though they are not yet registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site (politics), this counts as a unique place in our cultural heritage.

Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia

A download of everything I learned from years backpacking Southeast Asia, and a beginners guide of sorts for anyone traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia!  

Three Days in Prague

A Little Visit… How to Spend 3 Days in Prague (Plus 5 Things You’ll Love)

Lauded as one of the top cultural centers of Europe, and a city almost unparalleled for architecture and beauty, I have always wanted to see Prague for myself. I have long held a romantic nostalgia for Prague thanks to Hollywood using the city’s medieval streets as the backdrop for intrigue and romance.

As an American, much of the city’s architecture is older than my entire country.Prague—or Praha to the locals—suffered far less damage and destruction than most European cities during World War II, making it a showcase of the best preserved European architecture from the past centuries. And the downtown city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a designation of cultural significance for the world. So it was a shoe-in that I would head to the Czech Republic on my round the world trip. I had already planned to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia, so Prague would require just a short train ride.

sunset from up high in prague of charles bridge
Dusk in Prague on a three-day visit to the “City of a Hundred Spires.”

But as my travels moved into Eastern Europe, other travelers warned me that the city doesn’t live up to the hype. It’s not the first time travelers have said this—sometimes others claim a town has lost its authenticity: it’s too busy, too slow, or just too something that they don’t like. But each person is unique, so I decided I would continue on toward Prague, I would find all the interesting things to do, dive into the food scene, and wander the maze of streets. I would discover for myself if Prague was, in fact, the destination of a lifetime and a must on any round the world itinerary, or an overrated touristy city glamorized by Hollywood.

Arriving in Prague

spires at sunset in prague
Sunset over the pretty castles and churches in Prague!

My train from Slovenia arrived in the late evening, which was not an ideal introduction to Prague. I prefer to enter a new city late during daylight—this is one of the ways I stay safe as a solo female traveler, plus, darkness is just not ideal for locating transportation and then plodding through the streets of a strange city with my 45 pound backpack strapped to my back since the hostel is almost never precisely where I think it should be.

When you exit the main train station, there is little information available about getting around. Although I cautiously used a taxi (again, nighttime and all, but there are some taxi con-artists to be aware of), it’s a short walk downhill into Old Town, or it’s easy to take the metro, too. If you have a smartphone (I didn’t on our first visit!), load the maps onto your phone and use that to walk. Like most transport hubs, I faced a few predatory cabbies stalking me as I searched for the official taxi stand, but they left me alone once I found a low-key driver, handed over the address, and dumped my bags into the trunk. My hostel was a bit outside of Old Town, so the private transport was pricier than I anticipated, but still worth it. Since Uber is in Prague now, I wouldn’t hesitate to summon one as soon as my train arrived and avoid the entire mess. (It is a great option from the airport, too).

Best Places to Visit in Prague’s Old Town

What a gorgeous city. I mean, it’s huge—the city itself is massive, but the bulk of tourism centers on Old Town. Staré Město is small and easily navigated as a tourist. It’s a section of Prague filled with delightfully narrow cobbled paths. Lanes wind through towering buildings, each one ornately decorated with spired Gothic and baroque architecture.

One fellow traveler recommended that I always remember to look up. What good advice!

Old Towns buildings all have some sort of ornate decoration along the top edges. Eroding carvings of a beautiful woman emerge from a stone wall of one building, while a wandering minstrel is juxtaposed on the very next. (There is even a seven-foot tall statue of Sigmund Freud hanging from one building!) The city is a fascinating hodgepodge of architectural styles: art nouveau, neoclassical, cubist, renaissance, gothic, baroque. And although I can’t readily identify the differences between each one, the varied styles make for a never-ending parade of impressive buildings.

The beauty of the buildings is a feast for the eyes for even the least art-inclined. History has carved itself into every corner of Prague. Life and humanity spanning hundreds of years is visible in the worn stone steps that lead to Prague’s castles and churches.

old town prague
Vibrant and old, it’s this contrast that makes Prague so interesting.

Even busy touristy areas shine above the chaos. The Charles Bridge teemed with tourists just as expected, but the bridge still oozed charm. This current crush of tourists is simply the latest incarnation of this bridge’s journey through history. It’s the latest incarnation of a bridge, stones, and carvings that existed before me and will continue after me as well. So when I passed the busking musicians and artists offering cheesy caricatures of young preening couples engaging in some incredibly showy PDA—I simply smiled and continued my stroll.

Three days in Prague is enough to eat all the things and see a whole lot, too. I recommend budgeting time into your days to simply relax, shop, and wander in Old Town, as it was a real highlight.

petrin park
Views over the city on my walk uphill through Petrin Park in Prague.


Planning Your 3-Day Prague Itinerary

Above covers the five real highlights you should slot into your trip no matter the length, but if you have three days in town, here is an itinerary that takes in all the highlights while leaving plenty of time to explore your own interests, too.

Day One

Take a free walking tour of the city (there are many). Most end near Prague Castle, so buy a ticket and explore. Be sure to visit the castle and St. Vitus Cathedral, too. Once done, wander the picturesque streets of Mala Strana, the “lesser quarter” and find lunch, coffee, etc. Then continue your meandering through Mala Strana, finding the Lennon Wall (tourists can add to it!). As late afternoon hits, wander into Petřín Park for sunset—hike to the top through the shady paths, or take the funicular. Enjoy the sweeping views of sunset before taking the funicular down to the bottom. Dine in Kampa, it’s not a far walk from the base of the park and there are many options.

Day Two

Head to Old Town and plan to spend hours here. Wander past the Astronomical Clock (seriously impressive), and perhaps have your morning coffee and croissant in the busy town square. The Mucha Museum was my favorite, but there are others in town, too. After the museum, head to the Jewish quarter nearby and continue your wanders, museum visits, and history lessons. Buy lunch and make a picnic of it at Letna Park nearby (just across the river) and enjoy gorgeous views. Then either head back to change, or go straight to your meeting spot for a beer and tapas tour that offers local insight from your guide alongside the chance to sip the best drinks in the city. This will start your evening off, and you can head to additional beer spots (recommendations below), or home for the night.

Day Three

Venture a bit further in the city today. Head south to Vyšehrad Castle, then walk along the river back to town. If food is your thing, consider scheduling a food neighborhood tour for the afternoon, which will take you to  hidden spots and provides a lot more backstory and tasty eats. Otherwise, visit any of the other museums you find interesting (there’s everything from a KGB museum to a Kafka one on offer). And if you need some shopping time, head back to the antique places in Mala Strana, or the souvenir shops in Old Town.

Where to Eat in Prague

Lehka Hlava offers fantastic vegetarian fare near the Charles Bridge; Maitrea is a sister restaurant with a large menu and convenient for Old Town wanders. Country Life offers a veggie buffet and it’s one of the best values for budget food in the city, even if you’re not vegetarian. Vegetarian food is tricky at general restaurants and markets, but the Czech sweets are phenomenal and I collected several memorable favorites.

Where to Drink

For a large beer selection and a hip vibe, head to Lokál Dlouhááá (it has local Czech food too, but the beer menu stands out). The Prague Beer Museum (multiple locations) also has an enormous selection of beers on tap. For wine lovers, Vinograf can be pricier than some places but is a good bet.

Where to Stay

There are a lot of options on neighborhoods, each one with a different vibe and convenience factor. The city center/Old Town is Prague 1, while Letna (Prague 7) is adjacent and walkable. Both of these have mid-range prices to astronomical. If you are on a tight budget, most of the affordable guesthouses, Airbnbs, and hostels are in the other neighborhoods. Consider that Vinohrady (Prague 2) has a good vibe while Žižkov (Prague 3) is funky and fun. I consistently find good guesthouses and hostels through Booking.com, but for longer visits always use Airbnb.

vltava river, prague

My Five Favorite Prague Experiences:

  1. The Mucha Museum: I recently discovered Alfons Mucha and I thought the works were simply stunning. It’s well laid out and a great stop if you like his art—I enjoyed it more than I expected.
  2. The Charles Bridge: Artists and kitschy knickknacks converge on this bridge with an unbelievably gorgeous backdrop of the river and castles all set off with the tinkling music of roving buskers. It’s charming and a must for any visit.
  3. Prague Castle: You just have to visit this, even on a tight budget. The views over the city and the river are worth the price alone.
  4. Wandering the neighborhoods: Put away your map and just wander through the streets of Old Town and Mala Strana. Get very, very lost and explore until you find a little nook and cranny pub. Sit down, have a Czech beer. Then, pull out the map and navigate back to the next item on your to-see list.
  5. Beer!: Czechs drink a whole lot of beer, and taking either a formal tour or a self-guided tour of pubs and brews is a highlight for any beer-lover.

Prague has one of the most charming skylines I have ever seen; it’s for this reason that so many guides like mine include recommendations to get higher views and visit during the sunset magic hour. There is no chance that you won’t find beauty in Prague. Even though it’s a big city (and I don’t love big cities, as a rule), it’s fun, historic, and interesting. There is never a shortage of activities, which makes it an ideal spot to spend at least three days. Although I don’t want to live in Prague, the city has earned a place on the itinerary for any trip. Whether you’re on a weekend break or an epic trio through Eastern Europe, Prague only enhanced my trip with its beauty and European charm.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/yDbC8JiDr6Y

Quick Prague Travel Tips

Guidebook: If you’re just visiting Prague, the DK Eyewitness guide is best, but if you’re exploring other areas, go with the Rick Steves Prague & Czech Republic.

Backpacking the region? I have free travel guides covering Ljubljana, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and stories of my time in Cesky Krumlov.

A David Statue in Florence

A Little Art… An Insider Guide to the David Statue in Florence, Italy

A replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Piazza della Signoria—there is a second replica on the hillside at Piazzale Michelangelo.

Florence is truly a city of magic. Traveling with my cousin and best friend, we stayed at an affordable hostel in the city center and used that as a base to explore. Although the one- and two-star hotels are often affordable, with the private room in the hostel we saved money on breakfast and had a base of knowledge from other travelers. Pulling from those sources, we started our time in Florence with a visit to the beautiful Boboli Gardens.

Then, we scheduled appointments for two signature attractions in the city. The Galleria dell’ Accademia houses Michelangelo’s David, the famous and gorgeous statue. We also visited the Galleria degli Uffizi, which is stocked with the most recognizable Botticelli masterpieces in the world.

Insider Tip: Although it’s possible to wait in line to visit the statue of David at the Accademia in Florence, it’s much better to make an appointment since they are offered for mere Euros more. Our hotel recommended it, and they were right—what an easy way to see it all! The hotel called and booked the appointments the day before, then we showed up at our requested time and we walked by the huge queue of visitors spending several hours in line during the sweltering in the heat of the day. We bypassed that and instead had an express pass directly into the galleries, using our energy to stand in awe of the artistic masterpieces of the Italian renaissance.

Visiting Galleria Dell’Accademia

We started out at the Accademia, and the statue of David is everything you have heard, and more. It’s subtle, but beautiful. I’m not an art-history buff, and I don’t know the intricacies of that period in renaissance art, but I do know that this statue is beautiful in person. The Academia also houses a small collection of paintings that I found less interesting. We glanced at these before heading directly to the hall with the David statue.

Shiny black floors gleam throughout the long hall, which is dim except for the prominent spotlights on each pristine white sculpture. The total effect is gorgeous. The hall was special built for the statue of David, and the corridor dead ends into the magnificent statue at the very end.

A depiction of Perseus killing Medusa.

The sculptures leading up to the David set the tone for viewing the masterpiece. The displays house nearly a dozen half-finished other sculptures from of Michelangelo’s from that time period. The unfinished figures appear to emerge, some seemingly climbing out from the constraining marble. It was wild to see the meticulous detail and expressions on each face—sometimes half-finished and still hidden under stone. It’s as if the figures are trapped inside and Michelangelo freed them. But instead of freeing them like he did David, he died before completing each of the pieces on display. The figures are forever stuck with a fleeting glimpse of the outside world—half-finished expressions of serene joy and contemplation frozen for eternity.

David is undeniably the masterpiece once you reach the section corded off for the 17 foot tall statue. The statue was created from 1501 to 1504 and is carved from a single piece of Carrara marble. Over the centuries, David has become foremost work of art showcasing the beauty of the male form.

You can’t help but agree when viewing in person.

This sculpture of David is markedly different than those that came before it. Michelangelo’s sculpture takes a rare look at David before he slew Goliath. It’s a man contemplating the weight of the task he must accomplish, and understanding he may fail. It’s impossible to describe the nuance and curves when viewing them in the 3D. It’s just perfect. Jenn believes that the perfection comes from the sculpture’s ability to look supple and flowing—you can easily imagine David turning his head to drop into conversation. There is fluidity within the unyielding white marble, grace and movement in a still statue. It’s these contrasts that make it magnificent. David’s veins pop from the marble. His well-proportioned muscles ripple to the point that you might believe they would be warm and fleshy if you gave them a squeeze.

We spent more than an hour gazing at the statue. We walked full circles around it, making laps around the room from other angles. We even eavesdropped in on several tour-guides to learn of tidbits of knowledge. Once guide noted that statue of David is actually perfectly proportioned, although it appears otherwise—only his right hand is slightly larger—likely in a nod to David being strong of hand in slaying Goliath. Given the angle from which we view him, it creates an optical illusion that his proportions are off. Instead, Michelangelo intended for the statue to sit higher off of the ground.

Fortifying with Lunch and Gelato

After leaving the David, we found a small Mexican restaurant for lunch to have a chance of place in the flavors, and then we spent an hour hunting for one of the oldest gelato shops in the city. Jenn’s guidebook recommended a Vivoli as having the best ice-cream in the city, with a recipe that dates back nearly a century. We are inclined to agree! Although the shop was difficult to find with our map, it was well worth the effort. The lampone was the hit of of our two weeks in Italy—it had “little frozen puffs of happiness,” according to Jenn. Vivoli is easily visited on your day spent between the Galleria and the Uffizi.

Wandering the Galleria degli Uffizi

That gelato fortified us for the three hours we spent wandering around the Uffizi. Because we had an appointment here as well, we walked right in the door without any wait.

Like the statue of David, the level of beauty and art on display is unbelievable. The Uffizi has many works from Botticelli—most notably “Birth of Venus” and Primavera”—among other lovely ones that are definitely under-appreciated with the “Birth of Venus” in the same room!

Poseidon Statue in the piazza near the Uffizi
Poseidon Statue in the piazza near the Uffizi

The Rape of the Sabine, a fascinating sculpture.

visiting museums in florence

Once done with the paintings, we wandered through the statues, finding the ones in the most interesting poses—not a particularly high-brow game, but it proved entertaining nonetheless.

We couldn’t take pictures in either of the two Galleries, so these pictures of the statues are pictures of the replicas from the piazza outside of the Uffizi. The “Rape of the Sabine” was particularly moving—the woman in the statue is being kidnapped. They have a replica of the David, too, which is the ideal spot to take a photo and such since photography inside is forbidden. A massive Poseidon fountain dominates the piazza, and there are a dozen or so additional key replicas of those actually displayed in one of the two Galleries.

These two museums are must-visits on any trip to Florence; they showcase incredible artistic prowess and contain the history and legacy from Italy’s most famous renaissance artists.

Quick Tips: How to See the Statue of David

When to Visit

The Galleria dell’Accademia is closed on Mondays! So plan accordingly. Beyond that, the Galleria is open from 8:15 a.m to 6:15 p.m. For real budget travelers, you can also join the hordes visiting the Galleria or the Uffizi for free on the first Sunday of every month.

Once you’re inside, most people will spend at least an hour inside the Galleria dell’Accademia. This gives you time to admire the statue of David and view some of the other works of art. If you don’t have skip-the-line tickets then you will need at least another hour in high season.

Plan a minimum of two hours for the Uffizi, and up to four hours if you’re into art and plan to see all on offer. Three hours is a good estimation for most travelers.

Buying Tickets to the David Statue

As noted, you should book online! For a mere 4 euros more you enter through a special entrance and skip the line—you can easily book your ticket through the museum website. You don’t need to book a tour, my friends and I used our Rick Steves Italy guidebook for history. While I usually use the Lonely Planet guidebooks all over the world, Rick Steves guides are particularly great in Europe and provide a lot of walking tour suggestions and cultural history that other guides lack. You can use the Florence section for more history on the museum and tidbits. If you do book a tour, don’t buy your tickets ahead of time as these will be included in your tour price.

What to Pack

In addition to packing something stylish for nights out on the town, don’t forget to pack a European plug adapter so you can charge all of your electronics! Italy is a stylish country, and if you also plan to sightsee for the day you should pack clothes that cover your shoulders so you can enter churches.

A Little Delight… Stories of Responsible Travel in Hoi An, Vietnam

responsible travel guide Hoi An, VietnamDrizzling rain pattered on my umbrella as I wove through throngs of tourists, their rainbow-hued ponchos forming sudden pops of contrast against the canary-colored walls. I dodged locals pedaling rickety bicycles on the rain-drenched streets, and darted into the calm oasis of a local teahouse-cum-social enterprise in Hoi An, Vietnam. The rain hadn’t let up for a week and the teahouse was my daily respite from the chaos—a respite from the tedium of days spent peering from windows at waterlogged rice paddies and dark, pregnant skies.

I had landed in southern Vietnam weeks earlier with a vague plan to meander north for three months. Now into my tenth year on the road, my travel style has changed significantly. I no longer make meticulous travel plans and so I entered Vietnam with two vague goals: see beautiful things and find beautiful stories capable of inspiring others to use travel as a force for good.

Hoi An Ancient Town was a natural stop in my quest for beauty—a more charming town may not exist anywhere in the world. I have a deep love for towns many consider inauthentic. I passed through Antigua, Guatemala in the second year of my round the world trip and stayed for weeks. I loved Luang Prabang, Laos enough that I returned with my niece so she could soak in the laid-back Laotian culture and beautiful French colonial architecture. And Hoi An’s narrow streets and 18th century wooden houses enchanted me. Each of these towns share status as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and that is surely part of the charm—they are towns steeped in history and seemingly frozen in time.

aerial view of sustainable hoi an

responsible travel guide Hoi An, Vietnam

The Japanese Bridge in Hoi An.

sustainable traveling Hoi An, Vietnam

Quan Cong Temple ancient town temples

Hoi An at night with lanterns

Time moves forward, however, and touristy towns offer unique opportunities for responsible travelers that are impossible to find in more off-the-beaten-path locations. Tourism dollars facilitate innovations. Peeling back the layer of novelty from a travel experience uncovers fascinating ways for economic exchanges that support local economies and communities. And that’s my passion, finding ways to help travelers connect to causes and communities.

Before arriving in Hoi An, I puttered around the Mekong Delta for nearly a month. Few travelers venture into Vietnam’s Mekong for more than a day-trip, so I was a lone tourist biking through rice paddies and sipping coconuts bought from street-side vendors. In this situation, I knew my tourism dollars directly benefited the local economy because I placed each dong (Vietnam’s currency) into the hands of a local. Beyond this cash exchange for guesthouses and food, however, the lack of a tourism industry meant that I had no way to offer tourism dollars in support of local social issues lacking funding.

Supporting local businesses is enough in these situations, it’s a concrete and sustainable way to approach responsible tourism. But sustainable travel in more touristic places offers alternatives—fascinating alternatives, too! I loved my time in Hoi An not just because it’s a beautiful town, but also because locals are using tourism as a force for positive change in their community. Armed with information and curiosity, I delighted in discovering the many ways Hoi An’s doing sustainable, responsible tourism right.

responsible travel vietnam

Reaching Out: Providing Opportunities for People with Disabilities

reaching out teahouse vietnam
Fellow travelers Carmela and Raymund (on the right) passed through town on my last day, so we sipped coffee and swapped travel stories away from the bustle.

Reaching Out was the first of several Hoi An social enterprises I visited during my time in Hoi An, and it’s the one I frequented the most. The organization runs two businesses, an arts and crafts boutique and a traditional Vietnamese teahouse—both businesses employ people with disabilities.

Although I am not one for buying many souvenirs, I found a beautifully crafted silver ring in the shop and bought it as a Christmas/birthday present to myself. Employees craft the gifts by hand in the workroom at the back of the shop, so you can watch artisans weave placemats and blacksmith jewelry.

The teahouse, however, stands apart and houses my best memories. Hoi An’s Ancient Town is most famous for gorgeous teak houses filled with carved pillars and furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Just a block from the town’s iconic Japanese Bridge, the teahouse occupies a preserved building dating from the late 1800s. Hordes of passing foot traffic belies the serene interior. The teahouse staff are all deaf and hearing-impaired and the teahouse runs through written notes, small wooden blocks with messages for the servers, and when all else fails, the women are adept are sussing out any charades you throw their way.

Both businesses provide opportunities for people of disability to learn skills and gain meaningful employment so that they are able to integrate fully with their communities and lead independent and fulfilling lives. It’s not only a beautiful mission to support, but the entire experience is well crafted. Even though I had been in Vietnam for many weeks before arriving in Hoi An, I hadn’t yet sat down for a traditional Vietnamese tea service. The teahouse remedied that and provided me with a memorable experience.

In areas with a strong language barrier, participating in tourist experiences lifts the shade on the cultural window—it gives tourists a culturally appropriate way to interact and learn. Rather than seeming inauthentic, the teahouse experience gave me, a traveler, a clear understanding of how to access aspects of the culture that seemed distant or hard to penetrate. By finding these types of responsible tourism experiences, I can fumble my way through the etiquette, satiate my curiosity with questions, and ultimately support a worthy cause, too. For those, and for so many other reasons, Reaching Out added nuance and beauty to my weeks in Hoi An.

reaching out teahouse review

reaching out arts and crafts 

traditional vietnamese tea sampler

teahouse cookies  

shannon o'donnell a little bit adrift

try traditional vietnamese coffee

STREETS International: Training Disadvantaged Youth in the Hospitality Sector

My lunch at STREETS Restaurant Café in Hoi An was unequivocally my best meal in the city (and probably among my favorite dishes in Vietnam). Vietnam isn’t the easiest country for vegetarians and many local specialities are impossible to replicate without meat. Although I had read about cao lầu (a signature Hoi An dish served with pork), STREETS was on my radar wholly because of its social mission, not the food. So I was delighted to see vegetarian cao lầu on the menu during my first visit, and doubly delighted that it tasted as good as it looked!

STREETS International runs the cafe as a social enterprise supporting its hospitality and culinary training program for street kids and disadvantaged youth in Southeast Asia. Restaurant revenue sustains the training program while also providing practicum for the students—they run nearly every aspect of it, from cooking to serving.

STREETS became my regular haunt and I spent many afternoons people-watching from the wide, sunny windows and asking my servers candid questions about their long-term goals. They shared with me their hopes that this training would change the course of their life. By learning hard skills they could now contribute to their communities. Living in such a touristy town, hospitality training was their ticket to a better life and a future with real opportunities. Although our backgrounds couldn’t be more different, hoping to change the course of your life deeply resonates with me. Supporting this cafe offered a glimpse behind Hoi An’s beautiful veneer—no town or community is exempted from its share of hardship, and the servers at STREETS offer an uplifting story of how the aggregate of tourist dollars from responsible travelers creates sustainable change for local communities.

streets international social enterprise hoi an

The Wider Hoi An Region: Spreading Money into Local Communities

Hoi An suffers a fate facing many cities around the world: over tourism. The reasons I loved Ancient Town—the historic, well-preserved streets infused with centuries of history—were the same reasons I braved the rain and biked through the outskirts of Hoi An. Over tourism also affects my new home base in Barcelona—the city’s popularity has eclipsed sustainability. There is no single solution to over tourism and governments across the world are finding new ways to preserve historic cities. Tourists staying home is one easy solution. But then, that’s not ideal either! Mostly because they won’t stay home; tourists visit places regardless of their impact on sustainability. So one solution is to divert some of each traveler’s time into surrounding areas—to spread out the impact of those warm bodies treading through ancient wooden houses.

The perfect weather never materialized, so I donned a poncho and spent many days pedaling my rented bike on circuitous routes that delved deep into lesser touristed communities in the region. And it was lovely in every way. Misty rain coated the rice paddies. Heavy skies sat low on the horizon. School children vogued for my camera. Each day that I ventured out, I found delightful cafes and restaurants and fascinating slices of daily life in Vietnam.

biking around hoi an through the rice paddies

farmer in rural Vietnam

palms reflection on a rice paddy

school student Vietnam travel

bike riding around outskirts of Hoi An.

fisherman on a bay during my biking route

Smiles from an local Vietnamese man in a boat

geometric floor tiles in the temple

dragon reflections in the small pond

geometric floor tiles in the temple in Hoi An 

mahogany and mother-of-pearl inlay furniture

floor tiles 

Weeks of unabating rain eventually maxed out the capacity of the local reservoirs, which overflowed the river and flooded Hoi An’s Ancient Town.

The ancient houses contain pulley systems to raise historic furniture to the second floor and locals scurried to protect it all. And just as suddenly as the floodwaters appeared, the sun returned. Brilliant sunshine illuminated rivers of brackish water now flowing through the streets. These were among my last days in Hoi An, and the sunshine highlighted many of the serious sustainability challenges facing this pretty little city with history dating to the 15th century. Visiting social enterprises and spreading my money around the region doesn’t solve all of these deeper issues, but my time in Hoi An provided me with just enough insight to realize it was a credible start.

Flooding in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Dad on motorbike sustainable issues hoi an 

responsible travel Hoi An, Vietnam.

biking around hoi an

local street vendor in Hoi An

Historic Flooding in Hoi An 


Hoi An charmed me. It charmed me with its beauty, but also with its innovations—the local community facing down challenging social issues and bringing forward solutions.

Both businesses profiled here are beautiful ways for responsible travelers in Hoi An to leave behind money in a meaningful way. Over the years, I have shifted much of my time away from direct volunteering. When I left on my travels a decade ago, volunteering made sense—I had volunteered extensively in the U.S. and continued that form of contribution on the road. But the international volunteering industry is fraught with issues. In time, I found alternative ways to channel my goals to give back and serve communities.

Throughout my three months in Vietnam, I found countless Vietnamese social enterprises with similar stories of hope, similar goals to create change within their community. By the time I arrived in Vietnam, I was already tired from years on the road. My best friend had deeply loved her time in Vietnam so it was one place I was committed to exploring before finally creating a home base. Three months and more than a thousand miles later, the people, landscapes, and stories of Vietnam left me enchanted.

Quick Travel Tips: Hoi An Social Enterprises

Reaching Out Teahouse: 131 Trần Phú Street. Mon – Fri from 8:30 to 21:00, and Sat – Sun from 10:00 to 20:30.
Reaching Out Arts & Crafts: 103 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. Same hours as the teahouse.
STREETS Restaurant: 17 Le Loi Street. Everyday from noon to 10:00pm.
9Grains by STREETS: 441A Hai Ba Trung. Daily from 7:00am to 6:00pm.
Jack’s Cat Cafe: Cuddle rescued strays at 12 Le Hong Phong. 11am – 3pm, everyday except Mon & Thur.

View my Vietnam Travel Guide for advice on every place I stayed and ate, as well as an interactive map of all the social enterprises in Vietnam.

Architecture in Tbilisi, Georgia

A Little Charm… 6 Reasons to Fall in Love with Tbilisi, Georgia

Maybe it was the wine. Or perhaps it was the latticed balconies? The unfettered hospitality played a part. And the idyllic scenery was persuasive. For the life of me, I can’t pin down precisely what made Tbilisi, Georgia so charming.

Since I left the country in late October, I took on the mantle of fangirl for the Republic of Georgia after uncovering a bevy of memorable things to do, experiences to embrace, and sceneries to spark wonder. I gush about it to any willing ear. I returned home late last year to holiday dinners and nights spent playing cards with friends. Between these engagements, I edited photos from my fall travels. Each night, with a swipe of the keyboard, a new image flashed on the screen. Like a slide projector warming up, memories flickered into my consciousness. Each cropped and straightened photo rekindled my crush on this beautiful little city in the far east of Europe.

Map of Georgia and Caucasus Region
Most international governments recognize that Georgia includes the two areas in blue and purple, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These are Russian occupied areas of the country and travelers should research current political issues if traveling around those areas.

Like any good crushee, I immediately wanted to know my crush’s backstory and history. Before I left for Georgia and Turkey, I showed my dad my route. His eyebrows shot to the sky and he released a single, skeptical “hmm.” Now into my eighth year of travel, my parents have long accepted my decision. They don’t always love the places I visit solo, but they trust my judgement. From his face, however, I could tell my dad was wavering. In the absence of context, it’s hard to imagine what Georgia’s like, what sort of things could possibly entertain a traveler. On the edge of the Caucasus Mountains, the country is neighbored by cultures as varied as its topography. Once a stop on the Silk Road, the city became a confluence of the civilizations over the millennia. This peculiar positioning means Georgia is considered a part of Europe or Asia, depending on who you ask. And you would be forgiven for wondering if it’s a part of the Middle East. But the actual vibe: It’s European.

Today’s Georgia is Eastern Orthodox—to the tune of 84%. Monasteries and churches stand proud on mountain peaks around the country. This religious history is important to modern Georgia. That said, despite the overwhelming presence of Christianity, other cultures and religions also found perch in Georgia over the centuries. My wanders through Tbilisi uncovered mosques, synagogues, and even a Zoroastrian temple.

And while a country’s ancient history plays a part in any trip, so too does recent history. Georgia was a part of the former Soviet Union. The country also dealt with political and social unrest throughout the 90s and early aughts. I’ll confess to forgetting the bulk of my World History course in 9th grade. Before I landed, I took to the internets and online readings to flesh out my understanding. I read up on not only the Soviet Union, but the also country’s complex present-day relationship with Russia. Important to understand is the history of the two Russian occupied areas of Georgia that are depicted on the map—South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

For countries with recently attained peace, understanding a foundational history is paramount. It shapes the experience with compassion and empathy. It invites the visitor deeper into the psyche of the culture and people. Only by understanding the past could I so enjoy what makes traveling the Republic of Georgia unique. It’s the resilience of the Georgian that spirit shapes my favorite aspects of traveling there, that shaped the best things to do and see. My memories float to the surface, begging to be shared. Like the delicate smile of a new courtship, the city flirts with visitors. Tbilisi won me over with subtle charms and gentle nudges. Let’s look at the aspects of Tbilisi, Georgia that stand out most prominently in my memories.

The Gorgeous Patchwork Architecture

Beautiful doors and balconies The patchwork architecture in Old Tbilisi is reason enough to visit this pretty capital city. Intricate balconies sigh from tired buildings. Cobbled streets ramble through historic neighborhoods. Sweet, shady trees along Rustaveli Avenue belong as much in Paris as in this tiny Eastern European city. Each day I leapt from bed, energized by the idea of wandering adrift on the streets of Tbilisi, camera in hand.

Quiet courtyards and ephemeral smiles form the bedrock of my memories. Centuries of Persian, German, and Russian architectural influence is visible. But it’s not just the historic aspects that fascinates. Tbilisi’s more recent stability has it screaming into a disorienting modernity. Controversial space-age architecture takes up residence alongside the historic buildings. A gamut of architectural possibilities sit in the shadow of the 4th century Narikala Fortress. Time passes, that’s what the fortress seems to say. Tbilisi has a complicated history that has continued into the present. The aesthetic of the city bears testament.

And yet, the gorgeous laced balconies point to a concerning lack of infrastructure. It’s a similar problem facing places like Havana, Cuba. Decades of little money spent on redevelopment left gorgeous historic buildings in disrepair. There’s conflict in recognizing it needs to change while still loving the beauty it creates. But perhaps there’s a middle ground. Something between shimmering glass bridges and the city’s enchanting old-world charm. Either way, the city has an eclectic mix of styles that keeps things interesting.

 

Mowing Down on Delicious Food & Wine

Real talk: The food culture is wonderful. There’s a reason I started with an overview of Georgian history. History plays a pivotal role in Georgia’s current designation as an upcoming food destination. Cultures brushing against each other over the centuries resulted in a range of delicious dishes. In addition to meat in large supply, the country offers Mediterranean fares like salads, bean soups, cheese, and Georgian pizza. Let’s just say that as a vegetarian, I didn’t starve.

Then there’s the wine. It’s divine. Georgia’s clay vessel wine-making process, Qvevri, made UNESCO’s list for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. During my stay in Tbilisi, I took part in the city’s beautiful café culture, which is reminiscent of so much of Europe. Sprinkled throughout the boutiques and sidewalk cafés are dozens of wine shops and tasting rooms. Wine is the icebreaker with new Georgian friends. Each time I befriended a local, they shared their favorite variety. Even more often, they boasted of their tasty homemade wines. The country has hundreds of indigenous varieties of grapes. Locals maintained their winemaking traditions throughout disparate governments and in the face of deep economic hardships. Georgians love nothing more than to spend a night (or many) sipping wine with friends. Evening shadows grow deep as friends toast to all manner of health, life, happiness, and family.

The Country’s Deeply Entrenched Culture of Hospitality

Kartlis Deda watches over Tbilisi from Sololaki Hill. Her looming aluminum figure is a touch point visible from nearly anywhere in the city. Better known as Mother Georgia, her figure so perfectly typifies the spirit and welcome I encountered in the country. For Georgians, this statue represents the dual priorities of hospitality and freedom. Erected in the 50s, Mother Georgia carries a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. The wine is for friends, the sword for enemies.

In practice, hospitality infuses every aspect of traveling Georgia. As I left, it was the feeling of complete welcome that stuck with me. Conversations with new friends swim to the forefront of my memories. Welcoming visitors is entrenched in the culture. After I posted a photo of Tbilisi on my Instagram, a local woman found the photo and welcomed me to her city. Teo and I clicked immediately. She’s a Georgian woman with a serious case of wanderlust. Now that’s something that I understand. When I admitted to her that I hadn’t yet sampled Georgian wine (I prefer drinking with friends), in quick order we arranged to meet. Across many hours—and many glasses of wine—we swapped travel stories. She shared what it’s like to live, work, and travel as a Georgian. Though I often meet kind travel friends in each new city, there is a palpable quality of joy to Georgian hospitality. If you visit Georgia as a friend, like their statue bids, you leave warm with wine and hospitality.

 

The Landscape is Beautiful & Endlessly Explorable

Tbilisi is a pocket-sized city. Even more, Georgia is small too. Combined, it’s all endlessly explorable. Situated smack between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains, there’s a varied landscape packed into this small country. Lowland lakeside towns on the Black Sea vie for attention alongside snow-capped ski slopes. I didn’t bring clothes suitable for visiting the mountains in near-winter. Instead, I spent my trip based from the capital, exploring on day-trips from Tbilisi.

History and nature collide outside the city. I hired my Airbnb host, Bacho, to show me around. He took to the task with ease and helped me pick which sites I’d like best. One day, we hiked around the David Gareja monastery to the painted caves. The monastery is a few hours outside of the city and our car hummed along lonely, winding roads, through a muted, lunar-like landscape. The monastery is beautiful. One of my favorite moments occurred as we crested the mountain behind David Gareja. Bristling in the cold air, I jerked to a stop as we faced Azerbaijan—a huge flatland plain spanned below, awash in dull greens and browns far into the horizon. As I took in the look of this new land, two eagles soared into the sky, emerging from the mountainside, their massive wingspan casting shadows on the land below. They glided on the breeze, free of the borders holding me to my perch. It was a beautiful moment. Over the following hour, we climbed among the caves carved into the rock mountain.

Other days we visited 4th-century churches—many still in use. These ancient buildings watch in silence as this beautiful nation shifts and changes. The country is making quick strides toward peace and development. In tandem, it also grips the pieces of its unique history and preserves them for future generations.

David Gareja Monastery

David Gareja Monastery

Absorbing Centuries of Music & Dance

Never before have I experienced a culture so taken with song. Rich harmonies drifted from family compounds. Sometimes for mere moments I caught a deep melody floating on the breeze. And they sing not for a coin, but instead for a love of the music. Polyphonic singing is another UNESCO recognized piece of intangible heritage, and is stunning to hear.

I visited Georgia during Tbilisoba, their annual cultural festival. I was taken with the country’s incredible history of song and dance. The festival allowed me to watch, mesmerized, a sampling of regional dances. The men leapt impossibly high, the women twirled and swayed. Each dance told stories of courtship, stories from history, and stories of joy. I was lucky to watch one long performance next to a local woman. She passed me chunks of churchkhela—a local sweet—and translated the introduction for each dance. Her kindness afforded me my sole opportunity for questions during Tbilisoba. With her explanations, I better understood how each region used the arts to preserve its history and maintain a legacy for future generations.

 

***

There’s no way to encapsulate why I am so taken with the Republic of Georgia. The sum total of Georgia won me over. Georgians have formed a deep resilience over the years. Even more, their complex history hasn’t curdled their love of life.

In addition to the many things I loved about the aesthetics, food, and culture, it goes beyond that. The same government and police presence that brought stability to Georgia in the wake of the Rose Revolution has kept the city safe today. The president overhauled the police force in 2005. This ushered in an era of safety for Georgians, according to my Airbnb host. As a new arrival, poor street lighting and rundown sidewalks gave the city an eerie feel. At first, I was uncertain about the assertions of safety. Familiarity with the pace of the city, however, assuaged my concerns. Women teetered home at all hours of the night on skyscraper heels. New friends echoed my host’s sentiments about safety. While caution goes far in any place, the city is at peace. As a solo traveler, I felt comfortable in my skin as I wandered. The relative safety of the city added a welcomed layer to the travel experience since I was weary from recent travels through Turkey.

And my gushing aside, there are a couple of downsides. Every place has them. I’d be remiss to overlook it. The Georgians have a high rate of smoking. As a non-smoker, the clouds wafting into my face during dinner was tough. I picked restaurants based on the availability of a corner where I could wedge myself away from the currents of smoke. I found the smoking even worse, however, in Istanbul. As with all things, it’s relative. The city’s air quality is declining, but again, didn’t even come close to huffing through the streets of Kathmandu.

When you aggregate the kindness, food, and history from my weeks in Georgia, it won me over. I am a lifelong fan. And it’s this same feeling that friends and A Little Adrift readers expressed when I announced my travel plans. Everyone gushed about the Georgian-ness of it all. Never able to quite pin down what they love about it, readers and friends echoed one sentiment: Just go.

I’d have to agree. Sometimes a city just sticks with you. It wins you over with a spirit and subtlety unmatched by previous experiences. For Tbilisi, I found the city as charming as the people who live there. Two weeks is too little time to claim I understand the culture, city, or people, but it’s long enough to admit I’ll be back to try.

Heading to the Republic of Georgia?

Check out my Georgia Travel Guide: I aggregated my experiences in Georgia, plus all the tips from A Little Adrift readers. This is a free, comprehensive guide of history, sights, things to do, responsible tourism, and recommended readings. 

A Little Photoessay… Snapshots & Stories from Colorful, Colonial Mexico

The streets of colonial Mexico pulse with color and life. Before traveling, I glimpsed this pocket of culture and history only through small photographs of sun-drenched cobblestone streets making an appearance in my school text-books. And on a good year, my family visited a museum and I peered at the traditional clothes and colors in the works of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and the other greats to come out of Mexico.

The small town of San Pancho, Mexico is one charmed me — it was cute, tiny, and exactly what I wanted earlier this year. At the end of my time in Mexico however, I realized I had seen very little outside of a small pocket of the country. Three weeks before meeting my dad in Panama, I scoured the scribbled notes and hand-drawn maps in my notebook, each entry scrawled in haste as a new friend gave a passing recommendation. Together this advice formed a rough tapestry across the country, dotting small towns and big cities and showing the phone numbers of new friends in each place keen to share a coffee.

Guanajuato, Mexico
Friends first put Guanajuato on my radar when I was looking for a small town to travel to with my niece Ana. Those travel plans fell through and I forgot about Guanajuato until I looked at my notebook and saw the city was directly on my upcoming travel path. This town has a perfect mix of tourists/locals—local sites are in Spanish because the majority of tourists visiting Guanajuato are local within Mexico. My Spanish got better quickly! :)

With a route mapped, I shouldered my backpack and traveled overland from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City with stops in Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende. My bus left the coast and cut inland to small, low-slung towns and a few capital cities. Guadalajara’s size and traffic overwhelmed me (I’m not a big-city person), but the history won me over before I left town. Guanajuato and San Miguel charmed me with unique visual identities and intriguing cultural shifts that come with traveling through colonial Mexico. Gone was the relaxed mix of expats and coastal Mexicans I had lived with for months, nor did I find the trendy, cosmopolitan inhabitants of Guadalajara. Instead, indigenous Mexicans filled the parks and street-side stands selling tamales and fresh tortillas, tacos and fried dough, quesadillas and elotes.

Below are 20+ photos and stories from the tiny, colorful towns of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende; next month I’ll tackle the big cities and sights in Guadalajara and Mexico City.

Guanajuato, Mexico
Mountains and hills surround Guanajuato, which makes for great hiking but variable weather too. The weather alternated between warm and sunny to cool and overcast, but that didn’t stop the town squares from filling with vendors and locals in late afternoon to snack and chat.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The steep hillsides throughout Guanajuato make deliveries quite tough. My hostel had a vertical 10 minute walk up a hillside — these pack animals (are they donkey or mules, no clue) wandered along the main boulevard behind their owner for a spate of deliveries each day.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Charmed by the cobblestone streets throughout San Miguel de Allende, I spent both days on photo walks through town talking to the vendors and exploring the tiny hole-in-the-wall spots for coffee and tacos. Though expats and language schools fill San Miguel, the locals were friendly and keen for conversation as I wandered.
Guanajuato, Mexico
Following the common street-food wisdom of “find the longest line and eat there” I found this woman whipping out tacos, quesadillas, and a number of things I could not name. I ventured for a corn gordita stuffed with cheese and nopal (shredded cactus) — the conventional wisdom served me well because it was delicious!
Guanajuato, Mexico
Translation: “In Mexico, a day without chili is like a day without sun.” They take this sentiment to heart because there were days the tears streamed down my cheeks as I ate. :)
Guanajuato, Mexico
These guys worked on the corner I had to walk past to leave my hostel and head into town and they were hilarious. I often had my camera slung across my shoulder and one night they were quick to call me over and insist I take a photo of the guy on the left. More specifically, they told me I just couldn’t leave Guanajuato without a photograph of his bigote … which means mustache. I obliged (photo here . . . it is an impressive ‘stache) and they collapsed into laughter; afterwards, each time I passed by the street stand they erupted into rousing cheers.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
School children play kickball in San Miguel de Allende’s main courtyard and as the sun slipped lower, more children must have finished their homework because they all burst into the central plaza to join the game.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The Catedral de Guanajuato, the main church in the city dominates the downtown skyline and created a buzzing square of activity joining the various areas of town. In the evenings street-food stalls set up in the cathedral’s shadow to pedal tacos, churros, and treats to the nighttime crowds.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
More like a castle at Disney World than a parish church in the heart of colonial Mexico, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel is a gorgeous pink sandstone gothic church right in the city center.

San Miguel de Allende, MexicoGuanajuato, Mexico

Guanajuato, Mexico
A wander through the back-alleys of Guanajuato twist and turn up the hillsides. I loved the cactus plants and colors accenting this house . . . bright and charming in the warm Mexican sun.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
One of my favorite dishes (and one that is hard to find vegetarian), this tortilla soup was perfect on the cool overcast days (honestly, I ate it almost every day).
Guanajuato, Mexico
Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage town center, is often voted one of the 10 prettiest colonial cities in Mexico and it’s easy to see why. I took this shot from the Alhóndiga de Granaditas — the museum is wonderful, only in Spanish, and filled with school children if you go too late in the day.
Guanajuato, Mexico
A colorful town square in downtown Guanajuato with a delicious veggie restaurant run by the Hare Krishnas just to the right — tasty and affordable if you’re needed a specifically vegetarian fix (and that can happen in Mexico a lot given how much cheese I ate day in and day out).
mexico
The twins on the right raced me to the top of the hillside in San Miguel while their mother laughed at our antics. Naturally, they beat me to the top, but I was rewarded with some chatter with their mom as I caught my breath before continuing up the hill. The mariachi player on the right was a sweet older gentleman who serenaded me as I journaled one afternoon in a courtyard in Guanajuato.
Guanajuato, Mexico
Journaling in a shady courtyard with my afternoon coffee at hand — my best blog posts and introspection are written in longhand, so this is how you usually find me on a random afternoon on the road.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
The pretty, gothic church in San Miguel is lit up on the city’s skyline.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The view from my hostel in Guanajuato, which I loved. This was the reward for hiking uphill every day to La Casa de Dante.

Mexico’s interior was friendly, open, and a wonderful place to travel. I haven’t yet blogged about the assumptions and fears many people have in traveling to Mexico, but these two pretty towns were  a reminder to me that each new place I travel offers unexpected places, people, and friendships.

Quick Tips: Visiting Guanajuato, Mexico

Where to Stay: La Casa De Dante is the best budget accommodation in the Guanajuato, bar none. It’s easy to book on Agoda or Hostelworld, and it’s a gorgeous spot with sweeping views of the city.

What to Do: Wandering the small back-streets and alleys is a highlight of both Guanajuato City and San Miguel de Valle. These cities having charming squares and tiny cafes in shady plazas that are delightful. More formally, you shouldn’t miss Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a museum in the town city. Go early as school children fill the place in the afternoons. You can’t miss the Catedral de Guanajuato, and you shouldn’t. Be sure to wander at different times during the day, as it’s particularly stunning when washed in the yellow late-afternoon sun. Same with Museo Casa Diego Rivera, the exhibits are well done and provide an important background on one of Mexico’s favorite artists. The city has a lot of street food and interesting markets, too. Mercado Hidalgo is the biggest market. You could take a street food tour, or just wander and sample and enjoy. The Mummy Museum is popular, but it’s not my thing so I skipped it, but not visiting horrified many Mexicans that I talked to, who consider it a must-visit. And lastly, you’ll want to get some height and pretty views over the city. If you’re staying at the hostel, then you already have some gorgeous views. Consider taking the funicular to the statue of Pipila, or you could take a hike on foot with water and half a day to explore.

What to ReadThe People’s Guide to Mexico is the best alternative guidebook to Mexico and comes highly recommended for the culture and history. You still might want a Mexico Lonely Planet for the logistics if you are backpacking the area ‚ I nearly always have a proper guidebook on me — but the People’s Guide is the hands-down best option for history and better understanding all aspects of the culture. If you prefer story with your history, then Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico is a memoir that will explain the culture while wrapped in interesting narrative.

A Little Photoessay… Slice of Life Snapshots of Mexico

Mexico surprised me with the hospitality and friends I found when I arrived at the beginning of the year with no real plans and no certain direction for my life. I flew into Puerto Vallarta sure that I would visit with friends who were living near there for a month, and then move onto another region filled with colonial towns. I loved the little town of San Pancho so much that I decided to stay put for four months and live in this small Mexican beach town. Well, at least until it was time to seek out those colonial pueblas at a breakneck pace and make my way to my overland to Mexico City so I could catch a flight to Costa Rica.

I wasn’t sure the pretty colonial towns could get prettier, but Ana was right on when she told me this pink, turreted church in San Miguel de Allende looks like a castle at Disney World.

I arrived in Costa Rica a few days ago, and my dad and Ana arrived last night. Our plan is to explore a bit here and then travel together to Panama, where my dad grew up living in the Canal Zone. As I end the Mexico portion of my travels for the next while, I wanted to share highlights from my Instagram feed and camera roll over the past four months. One of the things I love about Instagram is that photos often capture moments, angles, or snapshots in a way I don’t usually share on the blog. The entire medium is intended more as a slice of life type sharing and it appeals to me a lot, even as I go in the exact opposite with my own photography (my new goal is to fully understanding manual mode and everything my nice travel camera can do by the end of the year!).

I’ll be offline for a couple of days now as my family and I cross into Panama and go exploring, but I’ll share those adventures via Facebook in the coming days and weeks . . . and likely in the coming months on the stories since I am a few months (years?) behind on the blog.  :)

Photos of Colonial Towns in Mexico

Breakfast in Mexico: scrambled egg burrito topped with salsa picante, mashed avocado, and crema. (That offensive olive was an oversight, I picked the others off).

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Sunshine, blue skies, and palm trees—my constant companion from day one. I don’t think it rained more than five times the entire time I was there . . . which is likely why it’s considered high season!

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Beach umbrellas lined the beaches during Easter week as the city-dwellers fled to the coast; the town swelled with people and the main upside was the new street food vendors who descended on our town!

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Kiddos play in a pool at the water’s edge because the surf on our beach is too strong for them (and me, if I’m being honest). I just love their little sun hats.

A day of fun with friends who also lived in San Pancho—we coated ourselves in therapeutic blue mud at a hidden beach about a an hour or two from our town. :)

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Lunch at my favorite taco spot, Baja Takeria, for the tastiest taco in town. Their chipotle sauce: so, so good.

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Is there ever a reason to say no to churros? (No, there isn’t, especially when they’re served from a truck in Sayulita, Mexico!)

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What is more Mexican than a roaming Mariachi band making their way through the market?

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I mean yes, this puppy *is* the cutest thing ever; I found him on the beach and wanted to puppy-nap him.

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Fresh coconuts anytime, only alarming part was the number of machetes laying around town. This was a perk to living in my tiny town; tiny specialized shops serviced every small niche you’d need, and it was all close together and walkable.

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Living in a beach town was a new one for me—every day included a trip to the sand and waves!

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Sunset and stormy weather; the beautiful ones stacked on themselves and some nights I was just beside myself with how pretty they were. The sunset became a nightly ritual and many people in the town also gather for conversation, drinks, and nightly views like this.

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Guacamole, a long-standing favorite snack, and my lunch several times a week since I found the perfect guac recipe through a friend here in town.

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My friend Nick saw this guy fall from the ceiling of the community center, he’s on the window sill here recovering (and he did recover).

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The delicious vegan café inside San Pancho’s community center.

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A vegan paella, steamed artichoke, and lemongrass agua fresca was the surprise lunch on the cafe’s daily changing menu.

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Speaking of agua fresca, this shot is from Guadalajara and shows just how many flavors they make on a hot day!

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The town of Guanajuato is one of the prettiest places in colonial Mexico, and I loved that hardly a single soul spoke English to me in the five days I visited.

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Unlike the beach town I lived in, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Guanajuato was buried in the mountains with dry, cool air.

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Although I never drink soda, I’m always intrigued to see which big corporations won the race . . . it seems Mexico is a Coke country.

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A beautiful mural inside Darjeeling, my favorite bar (and pizza joint). Those eyes get me every time.

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Mexico was partly work for me, so here I have a working breakfast with some wifi time along with my chilaquiles, OJ, and coffee.

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Tequila tasting with friends in San Pancho, tequila comes from that region so they make an art out of the tasting, sipping, clearing the palate, etc.

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When friends came into town I was thrilled to go to the fancy hotel for breakfast and try prettily arranged dishes like this vegan chorizo.

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The Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady in Guadalajara is beautiful and a high point of walking the city’s downtown area.

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One night I found a lovely altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe on my solo walk home. The streets were completely silent, all lights out in the houses . . . and these two votives flickering through the night.

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Late afternoon in Sayulita, a small beach town about 20 minutes from San Pancho.

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San Pancho had just the prettiest sunsets in the world. I loved living in this gorgeous little beach town. :)

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Thanks so much for following the Mexican leg of my journey, I started traveling too quickly over the past couple weeks to share more about the tiny towns I visited on my overland travels after San Pancho, so those will come later this summer. I’d love to connect with you on Instagram if you’re there, I think it’s such a fun way to share more “in the moment” pieces of life on the road. What’s your favorite shot?

Cheers,

~S