5 Things to Do in Budapest

As I made my way into Budapest, Hungary, I was astounded by everything around me. From the architecture, to the people, to the shops and the statues lining the streets, there is so much to take in that you almost don’t know where to start. Budapest is a city full of modern pleasures which have been integrated alongside historical markers, and this combination makes it the special place that it is today.  Budapest was just one of many stops on my backpacking route through Central and Eastern Europe, but this city sticks out in my memory for many reasons.

If you only have a few days to spend exploring the wondrous Hungarian capital city, make sure the following 5 items are on your “must do” list…

1. Take a Free Walking Tour 

Like many big cities, Budapest offers a variety of Free Walking Tours. Take advantage of them!! They are an excellent way to learn about the city’s history, familiarize yourself with the lay of the land, and meet new people who you can explore with. The “Free Walking Tours” company in Budapest has more specialized tours than any city I have ever visited in Europe- they offer a general tour of Budapest, a tour on Communism, a tour on Judaism, and a special bar crawl tour in the evenings. As the tours are offered in the morning and in the afternoon, it is possible to enjoy several of these tours in one day. If you only have time for one, make it the general walking tour, and do it on your first day in the city!

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2. Soak in the Thermal Baths

Budapest has been influenced by many surrounding cultures, and thanks to this they have adopted the Turkish baths. Your visit to Budapest will not be complete without a soak in a thermal bath, so carve a few hours out of your day and pick a bath house to enjoy. My personal favorite is the exquisite Gellert Baths found near the Liberty Bridge. While you soak in the mosaic-encrusted pools, you can enjoy water temperatures ranging from frigidly cold to nearly boiling hot, and they even have steam rooms and a must-see wave pool on the top floor!

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3. Eat Traditional Goulash

Budapest is known for Goulash, and the absolute best place to eat it is a place called For Sale, also near the Liberty Bridge. This restaurant has such a unique ambiance, that you will likely end up passing a few hours here without even trying. The walls and ceilings are lined with notes, business cards, and drawings from previous patrons, and the floors are littered with peanut shells. The portions are MASSIVE, so either come with a friend, or come ready to eat like a king.

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4. Explore a Ruin Bar

The Ruin Bars of Budapest are such a unique experience that even if you don’t drink, you have to stop by and see what they’re all about. These ultra hip bars are located in old abandoned and somewhat decrepit buildings, and are filled with eclectic furniture, antique decorations, and graffiti art. From the outside, you typically can’t even tell the place is a bar, as most Ruin Bars are mixed right into the existing neighborhood, but once you walk in, there are large open courtyards and hoards of people, hanging out and enjoying the laid-back atmosphere. A great way to see a variety of Ruin Bars is through the Free Walking Tours pub crawl, however if you can only pick one to see, go to the Ruin Bar Mecca, Szimpla Kert.

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5. Hike up to Mattias Church and Enjoy the View

This suggestion actually combines a few of Budapest’s wonders together. Not only is the Mattias Church architecturally stunning, but from here you can also see the cool Fisherman Bastion statue, and enjoy a great view of the city below. It’s a three-for-one suggestion, which is totally worth the walk.

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Now I’m curious… Have you ever been to Budapest? If so, what were some of your favorite things to do and see?  Leave a comment and let me know!

 

8 Reasons Why You Should Give Couchsurfing a Try

I remember the first time I heard about Couchsurfing… I was traveling in Costa Rica, sitting in the sunshine alongside the thundering Nauyaca waterfall when out of the mist walked two college students who were exploring the country on their summer break. As we got to know one another, I learned some of the ways they were able to make long-term travel affordable, and one of the things they mentioned was Couchsurfing. Like many people, I was intrigued yet skeptical about a service where complete strangers open up their houses to you and let you stay with them for free. In the months that followed, I set up an account personally, and from that point on my world expanded as I tapped into an incredible source of travel enthusiasts who are located all around the world. As I began to utilize Couchsurfing, it taught me many things, several of which I will share with you now.

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1. Couchsurfing isn’t about a “free place to crash”. 

 When you participate in Couchsurfing, the expectation is to share things with your host or surfer. Whether it be a meal, a walk around town, a trinket from your hometown or simply a few life stories, the idea is that Couchsurfing can help people make connections and feel at home in a place away from home, and keep it affordable along the way.

2. Couchsurfing helps make the world smaller by facilitating connections. 

As I travel around the world, I am able to use Couchsurfing to help make local friends along the way. The cool thing about these Couchsurfing friendships is that sometimes you make such a great connection with someone that you may surf with them, then host them a few months later. I have had several multi-continent meet-ups with friends I have met through Couchsurfing and it is so much fun to reconnect with a familiar face after having shared a previous surfing experience together.

3. Couchsurfing is more than just hosting or surfing, it’s about people helping people. 

When I find myself alone in a new location, I turn to Couchsurfing to try and make a friendly connection, and it hasn’t failed me yet. If you’re traveling through an unfamiliar place, and you’re looking for travel tips, recommendations or even a friendly partner to hang out with, you can reach out to the local Couchsurfing community and you will nearly always get a response. Also, if you’re ever in a bind, there are typically people who can help you out. I’ll never forget the time I needed a ride from the airport, and my actual friend in the area had to bail, so I reached out to the Couchsurfing community. I met a newfound friend who picked me up and spent the afternoon showing me a few of his favorite places in the area. We ended up maintaining contact the whole time I was in the area, and by the time I left, I felt like I had met someone who really had my back if I needed them.

4. Couchsurfing reminds you that the world is full of good hearted people.

As I am welcomed into the houses of Couchsurfing hosts, I am constantly reminded of the kindness of strangers. These people share their lives with me, and treat me as their friend and I am forever grateful for their help and the connection we share while I am on my journey.

5. If you really want to get to know a place, visit someone who lives there.

When you know someone living in another city or country, they can help you see the place through the eyes of a local, and not only as a a tourist. Before I knew about Couchsurfing, I often chose my travel destinations based on where I may have had friends living or studying. Now that I know about Couchsurfing, it’s as though I have friends all over the world who can show me the wonders of where they live.

6. People live in all sorts of ways. Embrace the differences. 

As I stay or “surf” with more and more people around the world, I experience many different ways of life. Sometimes I have my own private bedroom, with wifi and hot water, other times I wake up on the floor surrounded by a deflated air mattress, and there have even been times where I have bathed “Indian style” with a bucket and pail. There is beauty in the differences, and with each new Couchsurfing experience I am able to get a taste of what it might be like to live in the that city, state or country. It opens my mind and expands upon what I may know as “normal”.

7. Couchsurfing is not only for “hosts” or for “surfers” but for anyone with a love of travel and cultural exchange. 

As I came back to my hometown, I found myself wondering if Couchsurfing existed there as well. I did a quick search and was happy to find an event group who got together to explore different restaurants around town. The great thing about Couchsurfing is that it provides a sense of community, centered around people who love to travel and get to know other people. With this community, you can always expand your world by getting to know new people and places, and by learning from the connections you make along the way.

8. Pay it forward. 

As people take me under their wing in my travels to all corners of the world, it makes me want to help others in any way I can. Whether it is hosting when I am not traveling, or simply sharing travel tips or advice with a weary traveler I meet on the road, I want to treat people well and make their travel experience the best it can be.

As I continue on with my travels, I know Couchsurfing will remain a part of my journey. I am in love with the worldwide sense of community that is shared, and there is no friendlier way to get involved with a new culture while on the road.
Now I’m curious…Have you ever tried Couchsurfing?? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section!

Getting to Know My Home Sweet Home: Grand Rapids, Michigan

There’s no place like home. Yes, that’s what they say. Even though the world is full of incredible places to explore, sometimes it is just as cool to reacquaint yourself with the wonders of your own hometown. Lucky for me, my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan has only been getting better and better. The city has been growing and developing, and has really put itself on the map, in more ways than one.  In the past few years it has set world records, launched an amazing annual international art competition called “Art Prize“, and has earned itself the title of “Beer City USA“. In 2014, The Lonely Planet even named Grand Rapids as the No.1 US Travel Destination!

Art Prize sculptures in the Grand River near the Blue Bridge, downtown, Grand Rapids.

For the first time in more than 4 years, I will have the opportunity to spend a solid six weeks here, and I can’t wait to reacquaint myself with my home sweet home. Sometimes when you are a from a place, you get used to doing what you always do. You can become comfortable with what you know, and in that comfort you can lose the drive to find what is new. In the past few years, I typically came home, caught up with my friends and family, hit up some of my favorite restaurants, hiked some of my favorite trails, and then I set back off to whatever location I came from. This time, I am going to explore my hometown the way I normally dig into other places I visit… I am going to become a local who is “in the know”.

The interesting thing about getting to know my hometown is that I already know quite a bit about this place. I know there is an awesome art scene, a plethora of delicious and different restaurants, and tons of places to get outside and get active. I am not as completely in the dark as I sometimes am when I am moving around and traveling. Here, I have a network of friends and I have years of history with the city. What I am looking to do is to simply brush up on what I know, and enhance my circles.

Typically when I arrive someplace new, I have a way I go about making connections… First: find local events. Second: meet new people. Third: follow up and have fun!

As I begin to reacquaint myself with my hometown,  I am embracing some of the tools I have learned in my times of travels. For example, I decided to see if anyone in the area is connected with my new favorite form of meeting people: Couchsurfing. It turns out Grand Rapids has a group of Couchsurfers who like to get together for dinner every other week or so. It just so happened that the day I discovered this was the day they were getting together for dinner. I met them right away at some hole in the wall Vietnamese restaurant in a part of town I never visit and poof! Newfound friends with great tips on the area, as well as a passion for travel. Perfect. Check, check and check.

Now, to continue enhancing my circles, I am beginning to look up places of interest like local museums, art galleries, yoga studios, theaters and concert venues to see when they have different events or community gatherings. The Experience Grand Rapids website has been incredibly helpful for all this. Through local events, I typically meet new people with different ideas of places to go and things to see, and voila! Soon I will have a whole list of “Must See” places, as well as an expanded network of interesting people to do things with.

Right now, it is only the beginning. I have only been home a week, and as always, it has been a whirlwind of a week… but I can’t wait to see what I find out about good ol’ Grand Rapids. I have no doubt that in the coming weeks I will be able to write several posts of praise to this city, and to my home state of Michigan. I look forward to getting to know my home sweet home of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I welcome any and all comments and suggestions below… Let me know what you think I should see or do while I’m home in the mitten!

5 Reasons Why You Should Try Traveling on Your Own

Many people tell me they wish they could travel the world, but oftentimes they cite fear of loneliness as a reason high on the list as to why they don’t go for it. I’m here to tell you, yes, of course you will have moments where you feel alone, but these moments will force you to become stronger, more adaptable, and more independent than you have ever been, and these moments will pass, just as all moments in our lives tend to do. Everyone should give solo travel a try at some point, whether it is a weekend away in a neighboring city, or a trip half way around the world. As I prepare to embark on another round of solo travel, I find myself thinking of a few of the best reasons to travel alone. 

1. You will develop your accountability and your decision making skills. 

When you travel alone, there’s no one to turn to who can take a difficult decision for you. There’s also no one there to remind you when you need to be somewhere or get something done. You realize you are responsible for yourself and you are in charge of your course, and this puts just the right amount of weight on your shoulders to get you moving in the right directions. 

2. You will actually meet more people when you’re traveling alone. 

People always ask me, “Holly, don’t you get lonely??” Well yes, sometimes I do, but you can feel lonely even when you’re at home. When I’m on the road, I find that I am constantly meeting new and interesting people who open my world to different ways of thinking and different ways of doing things. When you travel with someone else, you have a built in safety blanket, someone who will always be around for conversation. In contrast, when you’re on your own, you’re more likely to strike up conversation with the stranger next to you on the bus bench. And then, who knows where that conversation will lead. I can only tell you that by traveling solo, it has opened my eyes even more to how many genuinely good people live all over the world. I now have connections I never imagined would form, and I am able to maintain them through Internet communication. How cool is that?

3. You learn that you are responsible for your own happiness. 

As you’re out there traveling by yourself, you might be in unfamiliar places, struggling to understand what is being said and what is going on, but as soon as you learn to look within and understand that you are the one who can bring yourself joy, your world will shift. You learn to take charge of your feelings and to find the bright side of whatever situation you may be experiencing. Remember, a cloudy day is no match for a sunny disposition, so find your inner sunshine…then share it with the world!  

4. You learn more about yourself.

As you’re embracing the world on your own, you will not only learn about other people and other cultures- you will learn more about yourself. You will see the types of places and situations that attract you, and you will be surprised. You will tap into interests you never knew existed. You will let go of characteristics that no longer serve you, and you will find new traditions that you may carry with you forever. It is eye-opening to find out who you are without the influence of others, and it is even more interesting to find out who you may become when you remove yourself from the “norms” of your homeland.

5. You can enjoy your own company, and do what you want to do. 

When you travel with another person, you constantly have to take that person’s needs into consideration. However, when you’re on your own, you can go with the flow and do whatever strikes your fancy. You want to hang out in the park all day, people watching and soaking up the sun? Okay, go for it. You want to read every sign in the museum over and over and over? No problem, you’re not holding anyone else up. You want to spend a week volunteering with local kids instead of checking out every “must see stop” in the Backpacker’s Bible? Go for it! Because it is your trip, and you can do what you want! You can change your course of direction on a whim, and you don’t need to answer to anyone but yourself. It’s a beautiful thing.

Whatever the length of your solo travel expedition happens to be, you will learn and grow immensely in that period of time. You will find out that just because you’re traveling alone doesn’t mean you will always be alone. You will meet people along the way, and you will discover things about yourself that you didn’t know before. You will emerge more confident, because you will see that you’re capable of overcoming obstacles and doing whatever you put your mind to. Yes indeed, solo travel is a good thing. 

If you haven’t given it a try yet, go for it! And if you have traveled on your own and lived to tell the tale, let me know about it! Where did you go? What did you do? 

Live Each Day to the Fullest, Toastmasters Edition

For as long as I can remember, I have always strived to make each day count. I am not a sit-on-the-couch kind of girl, I’m a get-up-and-get-out-there kind of girl. I love to see the world. I love to explore new places, or even go to familiar places but with a fresh set of eyes. When I travel, I apply this same mantra of “live each day to the fullest” as I make my way around the world.

The first time I lived outside of Michigan, it was for one summer working as an intern in Dallas, Texas. There, I embraced another one of my mantras, which is to “be a traveler, not a tourist“. While in Texas,  I got to know a lot about Dallas and the surrounding areas, and when I wasn’t working, I was immersing myself in the Texas culture.

A while back, I was going through boxes of old things, and I came across a speech I had written for a Toastmasters group I participated in while living in Dallas. Toastmasters is a group which helps people improve their public speaking skills in a fun and safe environment, and the group is always looking to reach potential new members. At the end of the summer, the interns in Toastmasters decided to put on an event for other co-workers to come and see if they may potentially want to join the group…Below is my speech for the event, and although some parts are kind of silly out of context, it still reminds us all to live life to the fullest, and embrace life as travelers, not a tourists.

“Be a Traveler, Not a Tourist”

Holly Haveman, Summer 2009

When I first found out I was going to be interning in Texas, I didn’t know what to expect. A scorching summer and a whole bunch of cowboys were the first things that came to mind. Whatever it was, I knew I was going to make the most of it.

I knew I wanted to positively impact my work environment, to meet new people, explore new places, and learn as much as I could about everything in the process. In a nutshell, I knew I wanted to live each day to the fullest.

I got a letter from my friend in the mail the other day, and in it was a bottle cap. Now, it wasn’t a Snapple cap, but I know you still would have liked it, Mr. Christopher Rose.

On the inside of the cap were words of wisdom, and they said, “Be a Traveler, not a Tourist.” I immediately knew I liked what this cap was telling me.

I started thinking about my time here in Texas, and I realized that quote perfectly described how I lived my summer, as a traveler, not a tourist.

Travelers must immerse themselves in their surroundings, get out of their traditional comfort zone, and see what the world has to offer. 

I have learned to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, and to seek out things that don’t necessarily find you on their own.

As a traveler I was able to do so many amazing things this summer. Throughout the summer, I actively sought to find local events that were happening, and jumped on any opportunity to experience something new. I have been told many times that I have seen and done more in Texas than some people who have lived here their whole lives.

This summer I have done things I never would have imagined doing… I watched an Indy race, shot a gun…in fact, I shot more than one gun! I rode a bull…just kidding! but I did watch bull riding, and I did ride a dirt bike through the desert all on my own!

I helped build a house, and I’ve eaten down-home cookin’ like fried okra and chicken fried steak- which I didn’t even know existed until I came here… I also learned how to country western dance, as well as dance like a flapper in the ’20s.

I fed a donkey, and a zebra, and a cow…I killed a cockroach outside of my hotel…I mean, I am really impressing myself with this list!

Now, before this summer, I had never worked in a “corporate” setting, so coming here was a huge step outside of my “comfort zone”. Through my first project, I met many people in different departments and positions. Every worker has something to contribute, and I tried to take away what I could from each person I came across.

Toastmasters was a big help in easing me into the corporate workplace because it helped break up my day and it introduced me to all you fine people! I am sitting in a room full of intelligent and creative minds, and I am extremely glad I was able to be part of this group.

When we first started Toastmasters, many of us were unaware of our Um’s, Er’s, Ya Know’s and so on. We didn’t know that a “broken arm” didn’t necessarily need a sling or cast, that the “fig leaf” wasn’t only found on trees or Greek statues, and that badges could serve as distracting play tools.

We quickly learned from the rattle of the posturologist, and eventually even started making up our own names for distracting things like, “playing the bongos”, “the hugger”, and “scoliosis”.

Toastmasters has been a wonderful opportunity to grow and learn from each other, while at the same time learning about each other. I’ve absolutely seem improvements in all of our public speaking skills, and I know we consciously take what we learn from Toastmasters and apply it to our everyday lives.

This whole summer has been a learning experience, and that was what I was hoping for. I met new people, made new friends, explored my surroundings, and I found out there is more to Texas than cowboys and extreme heat.

I want to end this speech by reminding you all to live each day to the fullest! Go into everything with an open mind and a fresh set of eyes, and strive to do your best. Tasks may seem daunting and some jobs may seem unconquerable, but give everything a fair shot and I know you will surprise yourself.

I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to speak to you today, and to meet and learn from you this summer. I can now add this summer spent in Texas to the list of things I’ve done as a traveler, not a tourist.

As Different as Night and Day – A Tale of Using Zimride to Get from SoCal to NorCal and Back

Travel can be heavily influenced by the people you meet along the way. Depending on who you come into contact with, your experience can be as different as night and day. As a traveler, I am always trying new and different things to meet people and save money while traveling. Please note that as I am adventurous, I am also cautious, and I take safety precautions to the best of my ability when I try out these various services. This past weekend I used a service called Zimride to make my way from Anaheim, SoCal to San Francisco, NorCal, and back. In a mere 48 hours I experienced both the best and the worst of what this site can offer.

I first learned about Zimride from a well-traveled friend who has made his way up and down the coast of California countless times. This site allows people to post their travel routes with the hope of getting either a passenger or a driver who is heading the same direction. It is not a free service, there is a price tag attached to each ride, but it is much cheaper than renting a car or taking a flight, and it is much faster than taking a train or a bus. When I decided I wanted to spend the weekend in San Francisco, I signed up for the site, got in touch with a few drivers, and eventually found a guy who would pick me up at Point A and drop me off at Point B. The guy, Caldwell, seemed like a decent person, but I still made sure we had another passenger as a sort of “safety precaution” so I wouldn’t be alone. As the story unfolds, it would turn out that the passenger would be both a blessing and a curse…

Caldwell picked me up from my floral design course on Friday, and from the get-go he was tense. He had agreed to pick up another girl in LA, but she was anxious about what time he was picking her up, and this was stressing him out. I suggested that maybe we shouldn’t pick her up if he was already getting a bad vibe from her, but he said he needed the money, so I didn’t argue. I wasn’t overjoyed about heading into the heart of LA on Friday at 5pm, but I wasn’t going to start questioning the driver.

It took us nearly 2 hours to pick up the other passenger, Lisa, and by the time we got to her Caldwell had worked himself up to the point of anger. As soon as Lisa got in the car he rudely demanded his money for the ride, which put her on the offensive because the site clearly says that you pay your driver upon arrival to your destination. I worked to diffuse the situation between the two, and Lisa ended up paying him so we could get on our way. Over the course of the next 3 hours I thoroughly enjoyed conversation with Lisa. She had traveled extensively in SouthEast Asia, and as she told tales of her travels I took notes on the many tips she was dispensing with every story. Caldwell did not join in the conversation at any point and I tried to have a few conversations with him, but in all honesty I hated how he would quickly go off on ranting tyrants, and I much preferred conversation with Lisa.

When it came time to fill up the gas tank, Caldwell asked if I would take over driving. I agreed, and when he got in the passenger seat he slammed the seat back into Lisa’s knees, causing her to exclaim, “Hey Man!” At that point, he turned around and went absolutely ballistic. He started screaming in her face and was saying that ever since she got in the car he hadn’t liked her, that she was the type of person who manipulated and disrespected people, and that he didn’t like how she was befriending me to make him look like the bad guy. I tried to diffuse the situation again, but failed this time, and when I suggested he calm down and take a rest, he instead demanded that he was going to drive, so I slid over to the passenger seat, unsure of what was worse: being left at a gas station 2.5 hours from San Francisco, or continuing with a ranting lunatic and most likely making it to my final destination. I chose the latter, but was silently preparing for the worst. I had come from my floral design class, and had packed my florist knife. I slowly reached for the knife to have it ready in case I needed to use it, and I made sure my bags were ready at my feet in case I needed to spring from the car. I sent my location to a few of my friends in San Francisco who were expecting me, and then I settled in to endure the worst drive of my life.

 The next two hours were horrible. Caldwell screamed like a psychopath, and Lisa proceeded to debate back and forth with him. There was no winning. If she would agree he would call her a liar. If she would disagree he would call he a spoiled bitch. He went on and on about the state of America, and his addictive personality, and his emotional instability. But the whole time he was yelling. I stayed out of it as much as possible, only piping in to confirm positive things, like when he would say, “I’m am ADDICT! I just want a fucking drink right now!” and I would reaffirm to him that losing his sobriety over this was not worth it… He seemed to listen to me, but I was still uncomfortable as hell.

When we finally got in to the city he had calmed. Lisa got out at my stop, even though it was not her destination. We hugged and she thanked me for “being an angel” during the situation. It’s kind of ironic, because during one of his rants, Caldwell was yelling, “And now you two will probably be friends and say things like, ‘Remember that crazy guy who gave us the ride to San Francisco?!'” And he’s probably right. When you survive a situation like that with someone, there is a bond. I honestly think if she had not been in the car, I would not have had a problem with him. Sure, I would have been bored to death with his conversation, but I would not have been scared for my life.

I had originally signed up for a ride there and back with Caldwell, but when he dropped me off, both he and I knew that there was no way in hell I was riding back with him. This meant that on Saturday I had to begin searching for a ride home on Sunday. I figured I wouldn’t have a “rotten egg” twice in a row, so I used Zimride again. Eventually I connected with someone and saw that he too had a passenger for the ride down to LA, so I confirmed.  I am happy to say that my ride back was fantastic.

On the ride back, we were all basically first time Zimride users, and for me, it was a perfect ride: safe, full of conversation and full of cultural exchange. The driver, Anish, was from India and I have just decided that I am going to start my travels next year with a trip to India, so he shared many things about his culture and his country. The passenger, Alex, is from Temecula, where I actually spent 6 months living back in 2010. He had just spent the past two years teaching English in Korea, and had a ton to share about traveling in Asia, which is exactly where I plan to head after India. The three of us were really happy to meet one another, and we all exchanged information so we could keep in touch. They were both full of supportive ideas when I told them I am getting started with blogging, so I’ll give them both a little shoutout right now- hey guys! It was great to meet you!

 The world is full of many different people, and that’s what makes it such an interesting place. The people you meet along the way can add such a different dynamic to your travels and your experiences, and I am happy to have ended my weekend trip on a positive note. I will never forget my first experience with Zimride. The differences between the first and the second ride were like night and day. I had a taste of the good, the bad, and the ugly, but all in all I wouldn’t hesitate to use the service again.

Traveling is like being on a roller coaster – it can be a fun, yet scary, ride. Here at the top of the hills in San Francisco, you can feel as though you’re at the top of a roller coaster with hills and tracks like these.

Lost in a New City? A Walking Tour Can Help!

While you’re out there traveling the world, there is no better or quicker way to get yourself oriented in a new city than a walking tour. As luck would have it, these tours are gaining popularity, and many big cities are starting to offer free walking tours. These guided tours will provide you with a few hours of entertainment and information, as well as the opportunity to meet new people and learn the ropes in a new place. These tours are tip-based, so typically the guides are entertaining and full of information and stories of the city, ready to provide a laugh or answer your questions in order to earn a tip at the end. By the time the tour is over, you will know the lay of the land and will probably have a smile on your face and a new friend at your side.

My first experience with a free walking tour was in Sydney, Australia. I had never even heard of such a thing, but I was immediately intrigued when a friend of my local host suggested it. I utilized my trusty pal, Google, to find the details about a time and meeting place, and the next day I set off, unsure of what to expect. The tour met in the morning, and over the course of the next few hours I made my way all over the city, laughing and learning along the way. By the time the tour ended, I not only had a great overview of the large city, but I had also ended up meeting a new travel partner as well. To the delight of many, the local walking guide was branching out with his business and was starting a pub crawl tour too, so that night many people of the tour reconvened for a chance to be led from one cool bar to another to experience the city’s nightlife.

Sydney free walking “Peek Tours” guide explaining that people often touch the snout of the statue for luck, and his other area to “get lucky”.

After having such a fantastic experience with my first free walking tour I decided to keep this method of exploration in mind as I set out to travel the world. While traveling through Central and Eastern Europe I came across multiple free walking tours in Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Ljubljana. Budapest was heavily into the free walking tour scene, offering a General City walking tour, as well as more specific walking tours to cover the Jewish Quarter, and Communist times, and each night a local guide hosted the ever-popular walking tour of the Ruin Bars. In my short time there I participated in nearly every one of the tours and learned a lot of useful information along the way. Each day I made new acquaintances and oftentimes we would continue to explore the city together long after the tour ended.

When traveling alone and on a budget, there is no question that a free walking tour will be a useful tool to help you maximize the enjoyment of your time in a foreign city. My advice would be to research and see if the city you are going to offers a free walking tour, and if so, get started your first day there! Tours are typically held in the mid-morning and early-afternoon. By checking out a free walking tour you have nothing to lose, but the amount of information, entertainment, and friendships you may gain are priceless.

Kicking Off World Travels with Couchsurfing in Croatia

There is nothing better than coming to a completely foreign city or country and already having a local friend there waiting for you.  After quitting my job to travel the world, I decided I would embrace each and every one of my destinations by meeting the locals and getting to know the culture, the hidden gems, and the day-to-day life through their eyes. But how do you go and pick up a local friend without knowing anything about the area you are visiting? The answer is Couchsurfing.

Couchsurfing helps make a big world a smaller place. It allows you to travel, but with the comfort of coming home to a friend. Through couchsurfing you are exposed to many different people, all with something new and interesting to offer, and all with the commonality of a love for personal growth through new friendships and world travels.

When I kicked off my travels in Croatia, I wasn’t having much luck connecting with any hosts until a New Zealand Kiwi named Glen reached out to me. He had seen my couch request for the area and told me that he had been residing in Split for a month, and could offer me a room to myself and the opportunity to explore the historical seaside city with him. I was slightly skeptical at first, until I looked at his profile and saw dozens of glowing references, along with a personal description stating that he “lived for Couchsurfing”. I figured if nothing else I could learn from this Couchsurfing veteran and enjoy some sun at the same time.

Glen turned out to be an incredible host. From the moment I arrived until the day I departed he made me feel comfortable and welcome. We shared home-cooked meals, long walks along the waterfront, hikes to breathtaking lookout points, and many hours of swimming in the salty Adriatic Sea. Having already spent several weeks in the city, Glen was able to navigate like a pro, bringing us to pick up free wifi in the public square and showing me where I could find the best-value chocolate dipped gelato cones around. We finished each day with an outing to one of his favorite local pubs, where we shared stories and laughs over a local drink. In our two days together we became fast friends, and by the end of my visit I knew Glen would be someone I would like to cross paths with again, whether in his homeland of New Zealand or elsewhere in the world.

Kicking off Couchsurfing with a hike up the hill in Split

After leaving Glen in Split, I was on my way to meet my next Couchsurfing host in Šibenik, another seaside town of Croatia. I was fairly clueless about my next host, Bobo, as his personal details were the bare-minimum required by Couchsurfing,  but I knew that he too had dozens of glowing references from his guests. He came to meet me at the bus station and immediately took me to his local coffeeshop hangout. It felt like an episode of “Friends” as I sat there sipping my espresso with Bobo and his buddies, laughing and learning about one another. In our first few moments of knowing each other, I witnessed Bobo pause and buy food for a hungry stray cat, and at that moment I knew I was in the presence of a truly genuine and caring guy.

Bobo’s generosity didn’t stop with the cats- he treated me as a guest of honor throughout my entire stay. He was able to secure a bike for me to borrow and we explored the city and its peninsulas, pausing along the way to take in the views, admire details, and say hello to his countless friends in the small city. Each night Bobo cooked us incredible dinners; one night we enjoyed a local octopus salad and another we indulged in dozens of lime-zested crepes. We talked late into the nights, listening to music and playing with his incredibly affectionate cat. When it was time to go, I knew I had met another wonderful individual who I would never forget.

Biking around the peninsulas of Šibenik

My third and final couchsurfing host in Croatia accepted my request very last minute, and with the conditions that we were going to be sleeping in his living room as he was also hosting his mother. Upon my late arrival, he made me feel right at home, offering me a shower, a cup of tea, and a delicious veggie dinner. He invited me to go out with him and his friends to an outdoor bar. After a walk around the city, a few drinks, hours of laughter, and an impromptu stop at a dance club, I felt I had seen the best of what Zagreb had to offer. The next morning I said my goodbyes to my host and his sweet dog Lola and made my way to the train station only to find a surprise there waiting for me- one of the friends from the night before! We shared a morning coffee and croissant before I took off for Budapest, but exchanged contact information to stay in touch. That is another pleasure of Couchsurfing- sometimes you not only meet your hosts, but their friends and family as well.

 Exploring with newfound friends from Zagreb

As I continue on with my travels I know I will continue on with Couchsurfing. This site is a perfect example of how the internet has helped to make a big world feel smaller by fostering connections and breaking down barriers. The people I have met through Couchsurfing in Croatia have added a whole different dimension to my travels and I can’t wait to see who else I will encounter as I continue to make my way around the world.

Traveling with the Squirtle Squad to the Bone Church, or when you put it more commonly, A Day-Trip from Prague to Kutná Hora

As I rushed to catch the train from Prague to Kutná Hora I felt a little bit like Harry Potter when he searches for Platform 9 and 3/4… Does it exist?? Am I going to make it?? The reason behind my confusion started with the fact that my platform had a weird “S” behind it’s listing. As I asked around, someone told me the S stood for south, so I should go to the “left side” of the station, but as I hurried up the steps to the platform I was confronted by just about all letters other than S…

It was around “D” where I found an attendant who confirmed for me that I was indeed in the correct location… and it was around “E” where I ran into a group of English-speaking travelers asking the same question: Is this the platform for the train to Kutná Hora?!

They called themselves the “Squirtle Squad” and immediately welcomed me.

“You’re lost too?? Come with us! Join our family!” said a guy I would later come to know as “Ohio”.

A minute later the train pulled up and all ten of us piled inside a single cabin. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew it would be interesting to say the least.

On the train I learned how these 9 travelers had come to be connected, and how they had partied their way through Europe, bumping into one another in various locations along the way. Now they had all come together to stay in the same hostel dorm of the cleverly named Czech Inn. The Squirtle Squad was a group of partiers, with the lead girl having had her “last beer of the night” only hours prior to our AM train to Kutná Hora, but they were all interesting and fun-loving folk. The group was made up of four Aussie girls, one Aussie guy, two guys from Uruguay, a guy called Ohio, a girl called Alaska, and myself, Michigan.

Two of the girls had already been to the bone church of Kutná Hora, so upon arrival they served as our guides to navigate to the area. As we walked the streets, we had a “soundtrack to our lives”, thanks to portable spekers and Uruguay 1’s great taste in music. We were all smiling and walking with swag, when Ohio burst out and exclaimed, “You know those moments in life when it’s just like, ‘I’m exactly where I am supposed to be right now..’ Yeah, this is one of those moments…”.

We made it to the Ossuary of Kutná Hora and learned about the history of the place. A guy (Henry, the abbot of Sedlec) had gone over to the Holy Land of Jerusalem and brought back a handful of dirt from Golgotha. He sprinkled it on the cemetary’s ground outside the church, making it a desirable place to be buried. During the years of the plague in the 14th century and the Hussite wars of the 15th century more than 30,000 people died and were buried there. Years later, after running out of space, some monks removed the bones and started piling them around the church, and later eventually started making designs from the bones within the church. There are 4 pyramids of arm and leg bones, many arches of skulls, a chandelier made with every single bone of the human body, as well as many other designs. It is estimated that there are bones from over 40,000 people in the church, and it was incredibly impactful, and bizarre, to see these human remains stacked so artfully.

As the time came to move on, the Squirtle Squad raised their Squirtle hands and did a role-call to make sure no group member had been left behind. We made our way towards the main train station, but this is where my path split from my newfound friends. I wanted to explore the small town of Kutná Hora more, and the group was heading right back to Prague. With a Squirtle salute we fondly parted ways. As I walked through the town on my own I came to the city’s edge and walked along a river, then up a hill overlooking a vast expanse of trees starting to show the signs of autumn. I enjoyed my moments of solitude and nature, then made my way on to visit the beautiful St Barbara’s church before making my way back to catch an afternoon train to return to Prague. 

Can you see the face on the wall?

While waiting on the platform to head to Prague I made one more wonderful connection for the day. I met a sweet pre-teen girl on her way to the city for violin practice. We talked and talked, and slept, and talked some more. She loved the opportunity to practice her English, and I loved hearing what she had to say about the small cities outside of Prague. We now follow each other on Instagram and the way she describes herself is charming- “A little girl in a big world”. It is exactly these types of connections that make me smile and help quench my thirst for exploration. You never know who you will meet, but the important thing is that you are open to whatever the connections may bring.

When I arrived back to the bustling city streets of Prague I felt rejuvenated in my travels. The wonderful conversations with the people of the day left me buzzing with positivity, but the time spent in nature added a sense of purity. With less than an hour of sunlight left in the day, I made my way to listen to the music on the infamous Charles Bridge. There, surrounded by strangers, I settled into the crowd, admiring the bridge’s sculptures and watching the sun sink below the skyline, leaving a warm afterglow. The jazz of the musicians floated in the air around me as I reflected on the day and welcomed whatever the night would have in store…

A Postcard Synopsis of Backpacking Central and Eastern Europe

Well, the first stint of my nomadic life abroad has come to a close. Let’s call this The Central and Eastern Europe Edition. I chased busses, jumped bathroom stalls, slept in the houses of countless strangers, lived like a vagabond from country to country and made some of the best memories of my lifetime. I delighted in meeting dozens of new and wonderful people, and indulged in trying delicious (and sometimes not so delicious) local cuisines. I learned a lot about the cultures and the history of the countries I visited, and I explored cities and countrysides alike. As I often say, my eyes have had a beautiful life.

With this trial-run of backpacking travels I proved to myself and many others that when you are determined to make something happen, you can do it! There is no need to live in fear, simply seize the day!

When I was about halfway into my travels, I wrote a postcard to my beloved grandma, Oma, and in the limited 2inch space I tried to recap my highlights for her. There were dozens of amazing things that had happened in the first few weeks, but those that made the cut for the postcard went something like this:

– Stayed with a local fisherman in Croatia and cooked octopus salad

– Bathed for hours in the luxurious and relaxing baths of Budapest

– Cooked meals from garden ingredients and visited a baby blue church in Bratislava

– Experienced both Latin and Czech culture in Prague, and saw a church decorated with the bones of over 40,000 people in Kutna Hora

From there, I continued on with my travels to Austria, Slovenia, and Italy. If I had only two square inches for postcard highlights of my time in the countries that followed, they would be summed up as such:

-Tried on an astronomically expensive drindl and visited a cat cafe in Vienna

– Discovered roasted chestnuts in Ljubljana, Slovenia and put my crew/rowing skills to use with a rowboat on Lake Bled

and finally 

– Enjoyed a vespa ride around the Italian countryside and indulged in every gastronomical pleasure that Italy had to offer

Of course there was so much more that took place in these 7 countries and 6 weeks of travel, but to see more details, without the “postcard highlight” overview, take a look at the blog entries for:

Bratislava

Prague

Kutna Hora

Vienna

Ljubljana

Lake Bled

Veneto Region Italia