If you’re heading to Chiang Mai, Thailand and want a handful of the best things to do in town – well, you’ve come to the right place! I offer up a selection of my favorite vegetarian eats around town. The sights you shouldn’t miss, places to stay and even some of the more popular (and ethical) of the day-trips around Chiang Mai.
I’m going to miss my home-away-from-home and this wonderful city is well-worth of a visit when you’re traveling through Thailand.
It’s the peat. Ireland just has this certain something that makes the country feel incredibly unique; a somethingthat I couldn’t quite identify for the first three weeks I spent in the country.
I’ve concluded that if Leprechauns, fairies and the such exist, then surely they all congregate in Ireland’s “Wild West.” From Galway City I drove through hours of brown-speckled hills weakly lit with the few and tiny bits of sunshine able to wrestle from behind gray rain clouds and drove into the heart Connemara.
And just for the record, what I just described, that’s everything that I actually kind of hate. I’m a Florida girl, the Sunshine state people! My entire RTW trip was structured to chase warm weather around the world…which means I run screaming from any signs of gloomy weather and the cold makes me cry just a little inside.
And yet. Here’s Ireland. The polar opposite “bright and sunshiny.” A rainy, overcast, cold and wet country with thousands of pubs and a charming yet occasionally incomprehensible (to me) brogue. The country inspires me and makes me just want to smile inside.
So back to the peat, a central part of my love-affair with Ireland. A quick tangent, in case you’re baffled right now, please, take a moment to educate yourself on peat – in short, it’s simply decayed vegetation matter then compressed and used in fires because it burns incredibly slow. But really, it’s a lot more than that. The smell of the peat stung the inside of my nose the first time I inhaled a big whiff of a freshly lit peat fire. The foreign smell made my eyes instantly water and I sat pondering the sanity of the Irish for even using peat. But then I mellowed back out, watched the peat begin to internally glow a warm orange, relaxed back into my conversation and sank into the evening.
And that’s when it hit me. It’s this warmth and relaxed enjoyablity that I so love about Ireland. At one of my last hostels (and I stayed there for a week I enjoyed it so much) all the travelers enjoyed the warm peat fire, the varied accents, and dynamic conversations….all set off with that unique smell of a warm, peaty fire.
So when I’m asked the baffling question of why I love Ireland so much and keep going back there when there’s so much of the world to see…you know, perhaps it’s the peat.
Photo credit and big warm hugs to Eva, a friend from the hostel who took these amazing photos and has the cutest baby ever :-)
After arriving in Doolin, a charming town on the western coast of Ireland, I learned an important travel lesson from my host. He put it to me straight, noting that there are two ways to set out on any great travel adventure:
the way the guidebook recommends
the secret map hand-drawn for you by a local
I mean really, is there even a choice?!
My new friend Laura and I were ready to tackle the famed Cliffs of Moher and Carl—the owner of the truly lovely Aille River Hostel in Doolin, Ireland—let us in on a little secret. As long as you don’t park your car on the main road leading to the Cliffs, they won’t ticket you and you don’t have to pay the €8 fee or use of the parking lot and facilities.
That sounded pretty great to us budget backpackers, but to further sweeten the deal, in addition to this parking tidbit he recommended a two-hour hiking path from the tiny little town of Doolin. The path hugs the cliffs and drop-offs leading up the main site of the Cliffs of Moher.
Many travelers visit the Cliffs of Moher as a day-trip from Galway, but there are two reasons to dedicate an overnight here: the town of Doolin has phenomenal Irish music at the local pubs each evening, and the dangerous and cow-filled hike to the Cliffs is a worthy memory for those up for the adventure.
Carl instructed us to park on a small road a couple of kilometers before the car park for the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Center. I marooned my tiny European rental car (that wouldn’t even be road-worthy and legal in the U.S.) on a grassy bank off the side of the road. Then Laura and I set off to follow Carl’s lightly detailed map—just enough details to get us there, but not enough that it was a cake-walk!
Now, there is a newer Coastal Walk that leaves from Doolin and includes the route to the Cliffs. But for the 2009 version, this is what it looks like to take an off-the-path hike to the Cliffs of Moher.
How to Hike to the Cliffs of Moher from Doolin
Step 1: Jump a Gate to Leave the Road Far Behind
Both Scotland and Ireland are tolerant to tourists (and locals for that matter) wandering through sheep and cow pastures. At first, Laura and I felt a little weird jumping the first fence since the owner was right there. He was just finishing up with his bull and gave us an encouraging smile when he saw our plan.
He really didn’t mind! He even pointed out the easiest spot for us to jump the fence to avoid mud, cow dung, and wires.
Step 2: Walk Parallel the Fence Until You Reach the Cliff’s Edge
Once inside of the cow pasture, it’s pretty messy. We hiked along the fence, occasionally venturing away from the fence if it looked like the grass was less of a muddy, gooshy, sopping mess of churned earth and sludge. It never was.
At one point, we spotted salvation on the other side of a pass-fence—it looked so dry and firm on that side. Well, let me tell you: The grass isn’t always greener on the side. After sinking ankle deep into thick mud, we decided to make a messy break for it and we sprinted to the Cliff’s edge.
Step 3: Avoid the Cows
One key problem with tromping through active cow pastures is the cows. Seems logical, but we didn’t consider that facet of our hike until we were already en route to the Cliffs of Moher!
One friendly farmer was a bit snippy with us as we carefully picked our way across his field because he was herding his cattle through the fence and we were messing up his rhythm. He wasn’t mad, just firm that we needed to get on with ourselves and get out of his way.
Step 4: Tread Lightly and DON’T SLIP
The cow pasture portion of our hike to the Cliffs of Moher was all about mud. That was short-lived though, and we eventually made it into the county-owned land that led to sloped upward a bit toward the Visitor Center and the lookout points.
Once at that point though, it’s a grassy, overgrown path that sits about three feet from a 500 foot drop. At that point, you need to slow down and all I thought about was keeping perfect balance as we made our way through the field.
The caution sign might deter less adventurous hikers, but Carl’s adamant insistence that this route offered the best views of the Cliffs encouraged us to walk right past the sign and continue hiking up the steep path.
Step 5: Enjoy the Spoils of Your Off-the Path Hike
By the time we reached the grassy pasture at the top, Laura and I took a few minutes to merely sit in the near-silence, listen to the waves crash, and look into the distance at the rugged Cliffs of Moher. This was why we had taken the more adventurous route.
The soft tread of our feet on the grass disturbed birds resting under the cliff face and every few minutes, a startled flock of gleaming white birds flew out from below us and fanned out across the blue ocean. Their frantic wings beat a rhythm that competed with the rushing waves slowly wearing at cliffs, together creating a beautiful soundtrack for our hike.
Step 6: Jump the Fence & Gloat
About two hours after leaving on our adventure hike to the Cliffs of Moher, our small path abruptly ended at a wire fence intended to keep the paying tourists from heading off on the very hiking path we had just used. We ignored the few curious looks from others as we dodged a glance around before catapulting over the fence. Then we were just one of the many tourists enjoying the gorgeous vistas.
On a sunny day, it’s a striking site to behold as the sheer size of the Cliffs contrasts beautifully with the vibrant green Irish countryside and deep blue ocean. There is no denying that the Cliffs are one of Ireland’s most prominent attractions and I’d go back all over again given the opportunity. Of course, if I did it again, I’d still take the adventurous path all over again!
Quick Tips: Hiking to the Cliffs of Moher
Where to Stay
Budget travelers should look no further than Aille River Hostel in Doolin. Doolin is the best town from which to organize a trip to the cliffs since it’s close, it has a range of accommodation options, and the local pubs jam out with traditional Irish music in the evenings. Mid-range travelers couldn’t go wrong with a night or two at Fairwinds B&B, which is walkable to the pubs.
Best Doolin Pubs for Irish Music
McGann’s Pub Doolin and Gus O’Connor’s Pub should both be on your list and although I recommend checking out both pubs. Doolin was once a quaint fishing village and it still holds onto its traditional roots. Music sessions start around 9 pm every evening at Gus’.
And while both locations serve food, McGann’s gets top marks for a selection of vegetarian and gluten-free options for travelers with dietary restrictions. Once you arrive, to truly be sure you find the best music in town, ask your guesthouse for recommendations as some pubs might offer alternating music nights if you’re visiting in shoulder or off-season.
Other Things to Do in Doolin
There’s more to Doolin than just a launching point to the Cliffs of Moher. If you’re in the area, you should explore more.
Visit the Doolin Cave. Measuring 23 feet (7.3 m), this cave offers the longest free-hanging stalactite in the northern hemisphere. It’s a mere 4 km outside of town and is easily the second most popular local activity after the cliffs visit.
Venture along the 18 km Coastal Walk from Doolin to Liscannor. If you want something a bit more adventurous than the mere two hour hike to the Cliffs, this is a quiet route that includes the Cliffs portion, and then continues further along the coastline. It’s long though, so be sure to pick a day with good weather and start early!
Sip microbrews at The Burren Brewery. I can’t resist the microbrewery trend and you can’t go wrong with stopping for a pint or two in Lisdoonvarna village, which is a mere 10 minutes from Doolin.
Drive the Burren. Burren National Park is worthy of a day trip all of its own. This rugged, rocky limestone landscape is unlike anywhere else in the country and is an easy drive from Doolin.
Day trip to the Aran Islands. I actually stayed in the Aran Islands for a couple of nights, but many travelers leave from Doolin just for the day and explore.
Dingle is a true travel gem, and I usually hate using that phrase. This quiet, unassuming peninsula lies just north of the well-touristed Ring of Kerry, but is a world apart in terms of pace and welcome. And although nearly all the Irish you meet anywhere in Ireland are ready with a warm “hello” and a bit of friendly chat, the genuine welcome on Dingle Peninsula is particularly evident.
Most of the Dingle peninsula is a Gaeltacht area, which means that Irish is the first spoken language. That’s what makes it so fantastic. Everyone still also speaks English, but in this tiny pocket of Ireland, Irish is a first language and spoken in the homes, at the pubs, and around town.
Now on the flip side, to be honest, Dingle drowns with tourists during the high season, and that has made it all a bit more showy in Dingle town itself.
But even so, Dingle charms are many. The town is best known for two things: Fungie the Dolphin, and the numerous number of pubs. And when I say pubs, I mean pubs-cum-shops-cum-hardware stores.
That’s right, all the pubs in Dingle started out multi-purpose and a few even remain that way. Fancy some hardware? The pub has you covered. Looking for outdoors clothes? Still covered! Locals head to the shops to buy screws and nails, and then head back in the evening for a pint or two, crackin’ local music, and a lot of friendly chatter.
I camped out in Dingle for several days at an amazing hostel, the Hideout (hostel details at the bottom—and by camped-out I mean I slept in a very cozy bunk bed inside!). With a cozy place to sleep each night, I focused on exploring the many things to do in Dingle.
Who is Fungie? Playful Interactions with Dingle’s Famed Dolphin
Fungie, a gray bottlenose dolphin, is a huge tourist attraction in town. He’s been living in Dingle Harbor of his own free will since the early eighties—the locals love him and he is Dingle town’s icon. The animal is arguably wild but friendly and playful—Dingle offers boat tours and even swimming opportunities with their beloved Fungie.
Rather than pay for the tour boats though, since several boats sometimes circle him and it seems a tad invasive, you have some options. I instantly bonded with A new friend, Laura, who I met in the hostel. We both agreed to make an adventure of seeing Fungie by skipping the tour boats and independently going to the water’s edge and seeing if we could entice him to come visit with us!
We easily hiked to the lighthouse at the tip of Dingle Bay—this is where the hostel owner mentioned that could potentially spot Fungie for free.
The walk to the tip was incredibly muddy. And the chilly wind biting through our jackets was fierce at times, but we sat down on the rocks under the petite white lighthouse at the very mouth of the bay and relaxed for some time, wondering if Fungie gift us with his lovely appearance.
Just when we were about to give up, Fungie leaped out of the water in a full arc just meters from where we were sitting!
We had tapped the water for a while before setting up our vigil and just when we thought to give up hope, he appeared. He hung around for about twenty minutes to interact with a tourist boat that came puttering over several minutes later. But for those first precious minutes, Laura and I had Fungie and the bay all to ourselves. The entire moment was so uplifting—we had this huge blue sky above us, a crisp, clean breeze, and a playful dolphin ready to frolic for our viewing pleasure.
Best Pubs in Dingle for a Friendly Pint & Live Music
Pubing and music is pretty much the supreme nighttime activity in all of Ireland and Dingle is certainly no exception.
After the independent hike to see Fungie, we were very ready to warm ourselves with a rich, steaming cup of hot chocolate from Murphy’s Pub. Laura and I connected with some other fun companions from our hostel and that evening we headed to the pubs for some more Irish adventures.
Dick Mac’s Pub is perhaps the best known of Dingle’s pubs, mostly because of the many celebrities who have also enjoyed a pint at the counter of this former leather shop. (Julia Roberts is apparently one of the several who have passed through the pub).
Truthfully, although the old leather scraps and dusty, half-soled shoes in cubby-holes on the wall make for an incredibly quaint and atmospherically intimate setting, we were a little disappointed—no music that night and only one other person in the bar!
We made some of our own entertainment at the ancient upright piano before heading to a nearby pub that was jam-packed with locals perched on or near the bar while the tourists wedged in the adjacent room with live traditional music.
You absolutely must go out for music when in Dingle Town—despite our bad luck at first, most local pubs and restaurants have live music and you are sure to find one any day of the week. It gets crowded though, even in shoulder season (I was there mid-September), so leave by 9pm so you can find a spot and really enjoy the music. Everyone at our hostel went out together several nights and truly loved the vibe. O’ Sullivans Court House Pub had an awesome mix of locals and tourists alike and 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.
Evenings exploring Dingle town are a lot of fun—locals are open and friendly and the music is catered to what you’d expect to a big degree: pub songs slid between a many traditional sets of foot-stomping Irish tunes. Between Fungie the oh-so friendly dolphin, the amazing hot-chocolate, and some fun pub action, Dingle town itself is warrants a two day enjoy all the various things to do!
Slea Head Drive
Since you’re likely going to want to spend the whole day doing the spectacular Slea Head Drive, you’ll definitely want to book a place to stay, and potential plan for two nights. That way you can arrive and enjoy the town, start early the next morning on Slea Head Drive, jam out to great Irish music that night, and then in the morning you can visit Fungie the Dolphin, wander the town, etc.
And with a third night, you can hike Mount Brandon, which offered stunning views of the Dingle Peninsula!
Quick Tips: Where to Stay in Dingle, Ireland
Budget accommodation: The Hideout hostel in Dingle, Ireland is one of the best hostels from my trip. The hostel offers wifi, small four-bed dorms, singles, and doubles with comfy beds. The people running the hostel are so welcoming and full of tips. The kitchen is fully stocked and I just loved camping out in the cozy, firelit sitting room listening to a local Irish storyteller share Dingle legends. The hostel’s on Airbnb, and ALA readers receive a discount on their first booking! If the Hideout is booked, then Rainbow Hostel is a great alternative—we met happy backpackers staying there while out pubbing!
Slovenia is the mid-point of my year of round the world travels. Actually, it’s just past the mid-point, but it’s exactly the spot my mind, body, and adventurous spirit demanded a break from the rapid pace of my past eight months on the road. My friend Jenn visited in Italy last month, and that was a firm date for my travels to head into Europe. But now that I’m on the continent, I have no fixed dates until the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next month. Indulgent as it seems now, I slammed on my emergency break, booked an extra week in Ljubljana, and decided to spend an entire ten days exploring things to do in what must be Europe’s cutest (and definitely the hardest to pronounce!) capital city.
Although I spent a good deal of time doing non-touristy things (why, hello there movie theatre with English-language selections! My couch-surfing hosts took me to see Terminator one day, and returned a week later to binge on a triple feature of Star Trek, I Love You Man, and Harry Potter), one of the reasons I stayed in Ljubljana, Slovenia was the sheer number of things to do, beautiful parks, and tasty restaurants. It’s clean city painted with a pastel palette and a charming vibe. Oh, and with massive number of summer events and festivals that take place nearly every week of summer. With the Ana Desetnica Street Theatre Festival starting just a few days after I had planned to leave, it seemed silly to seek greener pastures when Ljubljana offers so many cool things to do.
Quick Facts About Ljubljana, Slovenia
First up, let’s cover a run down of quick questions most travelers have about Slovenia but are too shy to outright ask:
How do you pronounce Ljubljana? For non-slavic language speakers the jumble of consonants makes the word Ljubljana appear harder to pronounce than it is. It’s pronounced lube-lee-AH-nah, with the “lj” parts rolling a bit like the middle of the English word “million.” This video will get you sorted out.
Where is Slovenia located? Located southern Central Europe, many travelers are surprised that major European countries border it—Italy, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and the Adriatic Sea. This position makes it very easy to slip Slovenia into any conventional European backpacking trip.
What language do they speak in Slovenia? Slovenian! And a fair bit of English for the tourists. :)
What currency do they use? Slovenia is part of the European Union and that means you’ll use the Euro during your time in the country.
Cool Things to Do in Ljubljana’s Old Town
With cobbled streets and dragon-guarded bridges, Slovenia’s capital city is one of the loveliest places I’ve yet visited on my trip. Here’s a rundown of the things you should do in town whether you have just one day, or if you’re there for several days. Some of these take just a moment to admire while others involve hours of relaxing and are best enjoyed with no set agenda:
Marvel at the huge dragons, undoubtedly the most iconic image of Ljubljana, and geek out on Greek mythology since these are the dragons from Jason and The Argonauts.
Spend “golden hour” photographing the photogenic streets of Old Town.
Rent a bike from the tourist center and enjoy the cycling paths in Tivoli Park.
Sip a cold craft beer at dusk on a cobbled street in Old Town.
Head to the Metelkova for a range of beautiful street art at the abandoned military barracks, and more formal work at the Galerija Alkatraz art gallery. It’s the most hipster area of town and a must-visit.
Ljubljana is a fast-growing city and the tourism vibe has changed significantly since 2009, when I first visited. Although the summer festivals are the ones most noted and attended by international travelers, the city offers year-round events and shows. It’s worth checking the city’s official event calendar to see what might be happening while you’re in town, or this is a long list of annual events. Here are a few that are on my radar as worth visiting:
One of Ljubljana’s most compelling features is that it’s the capital of a tiny, beautiful country that has a ton of adventurous activities in every direction. Thanks to my couch-surfing hosts, I took a road-trip into Eastern Slovenia on my first weekend. In the following three weeks, my cousin and I visited beautiful Lake Bled and even took a day-trip to into the Triglav National Park, which included rafting on the Soča River. Here are a few other ideas and links to research day trips in the area:
After the dearth of vegetarian food in Bosnia, I was hopeful that Slovenia would offer a different fare. And it delivered! In fact, Slovenia is down-right vegetarian friendly. A number of restaurants easily offered vegetarian dishes, and Ljubljana sports a number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants.
There are a number of vegetarian snacks and dishes that you can find most anywhere, this includes the ever-present burek (which is what I ate nearly every day in Bosnia), ravioli and pasta dishes from nearby Italy, štruklji rolled dough dishes, pizzas, and a plethora of fresh fruit and vegetables from the market. Friends who visited in the years after I left share that there’s an entire gourmet vegetarian food scene now, and even a vegetarian food walk that would make a fantastic first-day activity for any vegetarian traveling through the country.
With just a few weeks in all of Slovenia, it’s amazing how quickly I came to love this tiny country. Like Bosnia & Herzegovina, I consider Slovenia a sleeper-hit from my year of exploring. I hadn’t expected it would be such a lovely, lovely country.
Quick Tips: Plan Your Trip to Ljubljana, Slovenia
When: Ljubljana is beautiful year-round, but the city has a particularly vibrant summer scene. During the warm summer months you can relax in the parks or along the riverfront right alongside locals.
Accommodation: The city has an excellent selection of hostels, or sign up for Airbnb, which offers a better cost to comfort ratio than most hotels. I also use Booking.com whenever I’m in Europe as they have the best selection of well-reviewed hotels, so you can know what you’re booking before you arrive! If you use either of these links, you can also receive a discount on your first booking!
Summer in Croatia is beautiful. It’s exactly the weather you wish for when planning a vacation. We had a rough travel day getting from to Skradin from our tiny town on an island off the coast of Split. It involved confusion with the train, a packed bus ride, and we missed the final bus into town and paid for a taxi to take us to our hotel, the very lovely Villa Marija.
After a good sleep, I was the first up and ran. I’m a “morning person,” as they say. My internal clock sets to sunrise. Here in Croatia, that’s 7:00 am on the dot. In Nepal, I woke with the sun at 5:30am. It makes for a nice start to the day. I enjoy waking early while everyone dozes, I make tea, enjoy bread and cheese, and I don’t have to talk to a single soul. On a round the world trip, sometimes it’s these quiet, alone hours that are cherished and lovely.
Plus, I had extra hours to plan and plot for our hike through Krka National Park. Puffy cotton-ball clouds filled the sky and the sun baked the landscape warm. In short, my Florida-girl self considered it the perfect hiking day.
By 8:30 am, my cousin and friend Jenn had started moving, so it was go-time to eat and leave for the hike. Jenn and I had hiked together for years while we lived in Los Angeles, and my cousin and I hiked together in Nepal’s Himalayas. Having talked to other travelers in Italy, we had heard the hiking in Croatia is gorgeous. And in anticipation of our full day of hiking, we prepared packable snacks: bread, cheese, and tomato sandwiches, with an apple each.
The ferry from Skradin to the National Park entrance was included in our ticket price and was a lovely 20 minute ride upstream and across the Krka river. The nature and wildlife started right when we left port; we passed a happy family of swans. Birds soared over head. Everyone was happy for the lovely weather.
As we entered the park and grabbed a map, we were all surprised to learn that it the entire circuit takes just two hours, and the park has installed wooden boardwalks along the route. This is great for accessibility, but it’s not what we had anticipated after having chatted with others. We even asked at the information booth and thoroughly stumped the woman, who reiterated what the map indicated—the park has a lower boardwalk route around the falls and an upper track near the monastery. Visitors are not allowed to take off from the boardwalks and actually hike.
That wasn’t the plan, and we were all disappointed to discover we had to stay on a set tourist course around the park that took in all sides of Skradinski Buk, the largest and famous falls. That said, as we started out, we all lost ourselves in the sheer beauty. The boardwalk laces around seven stunning falls. The Krka River is powerful that starts in Slovenia and runs through Croatia, making falls at this part of Central Croatia.
Intriguingly, the waterfalls never look the same on any given day. The falls flow over calcium-carbonate rocks, which shift and change in color. Some days the water turns stunning shades of brilliant blue and turquoise. Other days, like the day we were there, the waterfalls appear through patches of brilliant greens—every shade of green imaginable!
Because we had our launch and extra snacks packed, the three of us took our time walking around the park. The tour groups plodded past. The gaggles of teenagers on field-trips skipped by quickly. And the three of us fanned out to snap pictures of the metallic blue dragonflies. We found a riot of colors in the bugs, insects, and wildlife around the boardwalks. Anything interesting, we were game for photographing it.
As the day progressed, we lost the sunshine. It rained a bit, and many people left the National Park. But we are not easily deterred. We stripped off our hiking boots—they were completely unnecessary, we could have walked the park in flip-flops—and waded through the swimming area for more photos, this time of us in with the pretty waterfall.
And there is just nothing like a nice fellow traveler willing to commit to the shot. We met a fellow American who had stripped down to his trunks so he could capture great shots of his daughters near the falls. He took this awesomely-framed shot of the three of us, which is one of the few that we have from our time traveling together! Both Jenn and my cousin were leaving my round the world trip, so I am happy to have this fun and beautiful reminder.
The rain was light and passed quickly. We enjoyed snacks at the picnic tables and then ran to the entrance to catch the hourly ferry back to Skradin. The day turned out differently than we had hoped, but visiting the gorgeous waterfalls at Krka National Park was a clear highlight no matter. And later, we would find a similar situation at the beautiful Plitvice Lakes.
Free Croatia Travel Guide
If you’re planning a trip to Croatia, use this free collection of tips and resources from my time traveling through the region, as well as advice compiled from ALA readers!
Florence is a gorgeous city, one of my new favorites in the world. With the Tuscan countryside begging for bike rides and wine tours, art history breathing in every corner, and delicious food, I thoroughly loved the week we spent exploring the city. But it’s time to move onward and continue this trip. No round the world trip can happen if you stay in one spot, and so we chose one other area of Italy to explore. Since my cousin and I had visited the classic iconic spots on past trips, we all decided to head deep into the center of Italy, to the heart.
Jenn’s uncle had raved about Assisi, he told stories of gorgeous countryside and a warm welcome from locals, and that was enough of an incentive for us to head straight for this small Italian city.
The Italian train system works well and it’s convenient to rely almost entirely on trains to navigate Italy. Unlike buses, trains forgo highways and instead dissect the remote and untouched areas of the country, affording spectacular views. Just a few hours after leaving Florence, the train coasted to a stop at a tiny train station surrounded by wheat fields. In the distance, we spotted the glittering walls of Assisi, a city perched on the hillside and presiding over the rolling wheat fields. Then, it was time to walk to our hostel.
Our hostel was nothing to write home about. The reviews online were highly polarized and although we were a bit nervous about what to expect, frankly, Ostello della Pace is the only budget place in Assisi. Had a budget place like Bed and Breakfast A Casa delle Fate existed on this trip, we would have stayed there—it looks just a bit toward mid-range budget, but is clean and convenient. If you’re traveling solo, or on a mega budget, however, the hostel suffices, but that’s the most I will say about it. An older woman owns the place and she runs it in the mornings—she doesn’t seem to enjoy the hospitality industry and was downright rude in a few interactions. That said, the young woman running the reception in the evenings is sweet and the place is exceedingly clean.
Anyhow, refusing to let the hostel dampen our spirits, we took a short walk into the city center. The walk is beautiful. The path snakes through golden wheat fields that gently sway in the breeze far into the horizon. As a city, Assisi is significant in the Catholic faith, and the crowning jewel is the Basilica of Saint Francis. Saint Francis is the patron saint of animals and founder of the Franciscan friars. While I am not Catholic, my grandmother ensured that I have a good foundational knowledge. This served me well as I learned more about Saint Francis of Assisi, his life and actions.
Rocca Maggiore is a massive fortress more than 800 years old. Constructed in 1316, the fortress presides over the city. Sitting on the highest hill in the region, the walls are still in good condition and it’s a focal point from anywhere lower in the valley.
And while the fortress is a must-visit, Saint Francis’ Basilica is the highlight of an visit to Assisi. The detail and architecture in this UNESCO World Heritage Site is gorgeous inside and out. Inside, the spectacular ceilings have a dark, intricate design offset with diamond-shaped ceiling beams. Pope Gregory IX laid the first stone in 1228, and the entire church is built directly into the hillside. For this reason, there is both an Upper and Lower portion of the church, and both contain gorgeous frescoes and intricate artwork from many eras of Italian art. Photos are forbidden inside, so these two are WikiCommons photos.
Jenn, my cousin, and I wandered the cobbled streets for the entire day. At one point, we were royally lost. We had somehow left the city and walked for 45 minutes around the lower city walls. Eventually, we found a small unmarked trail that lead to the Fortress. We had all assumed that this path — filled with underbrush and no signposts — would lead us back into the city.
Somehow, we had truly trapped ourselves outside of the city’s tall walls. The only way we found back into Assisi was to follow the highway to a small, quaint arched entrance that had clearly served as a primary entrance for hundreds of years. We hunted down sweets as a snack once we reached the city center once agian.
On the whole, Assisi is a charming city on every level. The unique religious history is just one reason to visit, it’s also simply lovely. Tiny streets wind along the hillside, passing houses with windowsill flower boxed bursting with bright red, brilliant pink, a riot of spring colors.
The calm and relaxed vibe means that Assisi seems to draw older tourists and those on bus tours across Italy. For that reason, it’s not on the backpacker circuit. That is both refreshing as a change of pace, but also a bit pricier than cities with ample budget accommodation and food options. It was the perfect stop between Florence and our next misadventure in transportation, taking the ferry from Ancona to Split, Croatia — but that’s a story for another day.
Colorful houses drip from cliffs and hang over the sea. Sunlight sparkles in the ocean and across the gentle curve of sandy white beaches. The five towns comprising Cinque Terre are among the most photogenic of Italy’s coastal cities. Even more, Cinque Terre is one of the most popular and iconic of Italy’s towns. While Rome and Venice are known the world over for ancient history and modern culture, Cinque Terre is among the next most popular destinations travelers consider when planning a trip to Italy. And for good reason — the region is stunning. It’s worthy of the acclaim. Years ago, I intended to visit while living and studying in Italy. Life got in the way during that last visit, so I was determined to see this region for myself.
The signature activity in Cinque Terre is a five-hour hike that hugs the coastline. It starts at the water’s edge, scales the side of mountains to reach cliffs hanging over the sea, and then drops back to sea level. Throughout the hike, you pass through five small towns — hence the name, which translates to five lands. Cinque Terre is unapologetically spectacular. I met a backpacker at one of the hostels who scoffed at our plans because it’s so touristy. And yet, they are the one that deserves scorn because there is just no reason to skip something that beautiful just because others also recognize the beauty and want to visit, too.
There are many ways to do the hike, we found budget accommodation in Riomaggiore, so we started there. No matter which section you choose, there just isn’t a poor choice — the entire hike is stunning. The path snakes along the edge of the cliffs. Each time you round a bend, a new vista awaits, with views that leave your mouth agape for a love of the beauty.
While the natural beauty is one reason to do the hike, the towns are also beyond charming. Suddenly the hiking paths veer from the trees and coastline and weave into one of the five towns. We would emerge from the path, panting, and suddenly the trees cleared and we found a tightly-packed Italian town filled with colorful, stacked houses. Being on the coast, the towns also had tiny harbors and inlets for sunbathing and for docking the small boats that bobbed gently.
There is just something compelling about Italian architecture — it’s not so much the style of the houses, but rather the colors. It’s exactly what you imagine the Mediterranean looks like from the photos! And while cookie-cutter suburbs in the U.S. attempt to replicate the aesthetic, there is no contest to see the architecture and culture woven into the landscape. Without the sparkling blue sea, the rolling grape fields, and the lilt of the Italian language, it loses that je ne sais quoi.
And although I have a love/hate relationship with hiking in general, Cinque Terre is so beautiful and compelling throughout the hike that I easily forgot that some sections were a bit strenuous. Once we made it through to the fourth town, we had the last and hardest part of the hike ahead of us. It would take an hour and fifteen minutes to hike between Vernazza and Monterosso. To fortify ourselves for the hike — and even though it was only 10:30am — we stopped for gelato in Vernazza.
It was the best gelato of my life.
And what’s funny is that it wasn’t even one of my favorite flavors! The day already scorching hot, so my bestie, my cousin, and I opted for an icy gelato rather than a creamy one. The limone was so divine. In fact, let’s take a moment of silence in my memory of that exquisite flavor. If you’re planning your own hike through Cinque Terre, hunt down the gelato shop in Vernazza. It’s unmissable when you first step into town. It’s directly in front of you as you when you leave the the south trail and enter town.
Fortified by the gelato, the three of us tackled the vertical part of the hike that connects Vernazza to Monterosso. This section is by far the hardest part of the hike. Jenn is very fit and even she was huffing and puffing along the route. About 40 minutes into the steep climb, I nearly lost the will to continue (it was hot!). Then, a fellow hiker from the other direction noticed my delightfully attractive splotchy red face and gave me the best news of the day — it was all downhill from there!
We nearly skipped the rest of the rest of the way. And when walking into Monterosso Bay, with its white sandy beach, we sent up squeals of glee. We stripped down to our bathing suits and jumped into the icy cold waters of the Ligurian Sea. After a hike like, that we rewarded ourselves with another gelato (nocciola, hazelnut, this time!)
With the hike finished, and having relaxed and recuperated on the beach, we used the local train to return to Riomaggiore. Thinking back on the beauty, I can’t help but just smile at the happy memories. In the years since I visited, Cinque Terre has seen untenable tourism surges. For that reason, the government plans to cut tourist numbers by more than a million annually. Research the current restrictions ahead of time, and be prepared for serious crowds, especially if there is a group tour coming through. You can buy a ticket for the hiking trail, the Cinque Terre Card, from the National Parks Service.
Quick Tips: Visiting Cinque Terre, Italy
How to Visit: This is a fast-changing situation, so research ahead of time to see if the government has yet implemented the tourism restrictions — when that happens you will have to apply months in advance for entrance to the towns.
Getting Around: The five towns are made for walking — be prepared! There are buses and the Cinque Terre Express train to connect the towns as well. These towns are built into cliffs and seaside, so expect that you will be hauling your own luggage to your accommodation! Pack wisely.
What to Do: The hike is gorgeous and some sections are very gentle inclines, others are steep. Plan on hiking, but match the sections to your fitness level. The coastal trail requires the Cinque Terre Card, and it offers free WiFi too, which is good because data is not guaranteed and internet can be pricey! There is also snorkeling and other water activities on offer, I highly recommend the kayaking as it would be my choice when/if I return! And if you aren’t up for the walk physically, there is a minibus tour with pretty views too, and allows you to still see the magical five towns.
Plan Your Trip: Although I usually use the Lonely Planet guides all over the world (and the Lonely Planet Italy could work if you prefer it), in Europe I find that the Rick Steves guides have a great mix of suggested routes and detailed culture and history sections to accompany them. For that reason, consider using the Rick Steves Italy to plan your route around Italy. Besides that, I recommend using Booking.com or Airbnb to research for affordable accommodation (both of those links offer ALA readers $25 off your first booking!).