Category Archives: European Adventures

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!

 

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