It’s January, the time of year when we wistfully think back to our summer vacations! After I got back from Italy, Hugo and I spent a few days in Lisbon at the beginning of July. We had been planning to go for a year, but the summer before he had started a new job and couldn’t take time off (so I went to Spain instead).
Everyone kept raving about Lisbon – it was so beautiful, so cheap, so charming, so friendly, their favorite European city. We had a great time and the weather was beautiful, but I wouldn’t go back in high season. It was quite crowded, and many of the locals didn’t seem thrilled with all the tourists.
The language barrier was frustrating too – I memorized the essential travel phrases before we left, but Portuguese is not a language that comes easily to me despite its Latin roots. It wasn’t hard to navigate the city in the least, but I feel uncomfortable and apologetic when I can’t speak the local language. I do my best not to be an ugly American, but I just don’t speak all the languages. There were several instances where we were treated rudely, I suspect because we didn’t speak much Portuguese, and even though that wasn’t the overall trend, those few bad experiences stuck with me.
I would still like to go back to Portugal and visit more cities; Porto and Comporta (thanks, New York Times) are both on my list.
Today I’ll share a few highlights, some resources (scroll down to the bottom for those), and things I would do differently next time. And gratuitous photos, of course.
Did I ever tell you that Hugo lived in England for most of last year? He got offered a job in Oxford, and the French economy being what it is, we both agreed that he should take it. I’m so glad that he moved back to France this year, but it did give me an excuse to make a couple visits to Oxford and London.
I visited Oxford for the first time almost exactly a year ago. I know because it was the Toussaint vacation, which was right after my birthday. It was the same temperature as it was in Lyon, but it felt colder. Chillier.
We spent the weekend galavanting in the crisp fall air, visiting really old colleges covered in ivy and crunching golden leaves underfoot.
The colleges are beautiful and charming and imposing all at once… but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you which one is which. Tall stone walls, enchanting courtyards, impressive towers, smarty-pants students coming and going… they all started to look the same after awhile.
The town isn’t too big, but it isn’t too small either. Bikes are clearly the preferred method of transportation.
Hugo lived a bus ride away from the city center, a fifteen-minute bus ride down Cowley Road, if you know the place. The buses confused me horribly. They’re run by a few different companies, but seem to cost about the same, and you have to buy a ticket every time you get on (unless you’ve got a return ticket) and the price depends on where you’re going. It didn’t seem like you could buy a week pass or a monthly pass or anything like that. And really, it was quite expensive – all those £3 tickets add up fast. Everyone seemed to say “cheers” to the driver when they got off the bus, but it sounded weird in my American accent.
No one gave me a particularly hard time about being American, but my accent felt clumsy next to all those Brits, and broader, but in a warm way. England feels just as foreign to me as France. I marvel at some things (cocktails in a can? Pear cider at the supermarket? All the cookies! – I mean, biscuits) and puzzle over others (what is a bap? Why are there beans and mushrooms with my breakfast? How early is too early to have a drink at the pub?) I thought we would be able to have private conversations in French, but it turns out that French is not a secret language and there are tons of French people in Oxford.
Two of my favorite English things are both terribly cozy – pubs and cream tea. I freaking love cream tea. I thought it was just tea with cream in it, but NO, it’s tea with scones with jam and clotted cream. I do not know what clotted cream is exactly, but it’s better than butter and I piled it on my scones on a near-daily basis. It’s a good thing that it’s not readily available in France or I might not live to see 30.
During the week, Hugo had to go to work, so I divided my time between grading translation exams (yay vacation) and wandering the city. I even stopped getting lost after awhile.
Family friends told me again and again to eat at The Trout, which they held very fond in their Oxford memories, but I forgot to go. If you try it, let me know how it is!
Oxford has more than a few cool cafes, but instead of racking up £3 for the bus plus a cafe bill every day, I worked chez Hugo and wandered in my free time. I find that I like the idea of hipster coffee shops more than I actually enjoy cramping myself in a noisy wooden cafe and suffering from heart palpatations because I’m not hardcore enough to properly appreciate “good coffee.” If you’re cooler than me (and let’s be real, it’s not hard to be) hotspots seemed to be The Missing Bean, Quarter Horse Coffee,Zappi’s Bike Cafe,The Jericho Cafe, and The Jam Factory. (Did I get it right, Oxford-dwellers?)
I’ve thought a little about why I decided to write about Oxford, so long after visiting. (#slowblogging). It’s mostly because I love these autumn photos and I wanted an excuse to share them in season. I’m no Oxford expert, and there’s no crazy story here. Just us, wandering this historic English town, crunching the yellow leaves.
Have you been to Oxford? Are you having a golden autumn this year?
Let me start by disclaiming that I am by no means an expert on Vienna. But have you ever noticed that it can be hard to think like a tourist in your own city? A Viennese local I am definitely not, but I feel like for five days, I rocked at being a tourist in Vienna.
You absolutely must take the metro down to Schönbrunn and frolic in the gardens. They are huge and magnificent and [drumroll] free! There’s a restaurant at the top of the hill (the Gloriette) but it was just okay, so I would pack a picnic instead.
You can also visit a zoo and other attractions on the ground for a small fee. My mom and I wandered around the labyrinths and played on the weird garden toys for the low low price of three euros.
Go if: the weather is nice and you have at least an hour or two to stroll around.
The Albertina wasn’t even on the list of things to visit, but we squeezed it in on the last day and it was one of my favorite things in Vienna. It’s a gorgeous estate that now houses many famous works of art. You can tour the rooms and, if you’re me, lie down on the floor in each room to get a shot of the chandeliers from below (they are like snowflakes! Each one is different.)
Then, you can view works by artists like Monet, Picasso, Rodin, Munch, Chagall, Miro, Magritte, and many more in their Batliner collection, and then say hi to Warhol, Lichtenstein, and their contemporaries across the hall.
I was most surprised by the photography exhibit dedicated to Lee Miller. She began as a surrealist while dating Man Ray, and later went on to document stuff like Hitler’s living quarters, and Germany and Austria after World War II. She worked as a photographer for Vogue and was the only authorized female photographer from the press during the war. Then she spent four years in Egypt photographing deserts and the like. Badass lady, am I right?
They have a nice restaurant on location, although the cover charge is something like 3 euros per person.
Go if: you love art and beautiful historical homes with chairs you can’t sit on.
The Hofburg Treasury is a collection of jewels and crowns and capes in illuminated cases within a dimly lit maze of exhibition rooms. You can see things like swords bejeweled with diamonds, an emerald the size of my fist (which is small for a fist but big for an emerald), a narwal tusk, and dazzling crowns that look like they would be uncomfortable to wear. This kind of museum isn’t my favorite, but it does have a large collection of shiny artifacts, if that’s your thing.
Go if: you loooove jewels and seeing pieces of royal history up close
Chateaux are cool, but after awhile they all start to look the same (gold doors, velvet chairs, blah blah blah. Wow, I’m such a snob) so I love that Belevedere is also a museum! Like the Albertina, it’s a chateau and an art museum in one. Efficient. Nice.
The Belevedere is most famous for The Kiss by Klimt, but it has a large collection of works in a variety of styles. I liked these funny heads:
It also has a garden, which is free to visit. The gardens are nowhere as spectacular as Schönbrunn’s, but they do have this selfie mirror which lets you take your photo in front of the chateau!
If you like quirky, this colorful, shiny building is for you. Hundertwasser was an architect who believed in recycling objects and wasting nothing, and he was an interesting multitalented dude. He even designed the public toilets across the street, and I heard a tour guide saying, “You can’t pee on a Rembrandt, but you can pee on a Hundertwasser!”
It’s free to visit, but you can’t go inside because people actually live here.
Go if: You like weird, free stuff and don’t mind going a bit out of the city center (it’s a 20 minute walk, or you can take public transport.)
Skip it if: The idea of looking at the outside of a building with bits of mirror glued on doesn’t sound like fun to you.
Mariahilfe neighborhood / Neubaugasse
When I go to a new city, I like to spend time wandering around cool neighborhoods where people actually live. The Mariahilfe neighborhood is centered around Mariahilfestrase, a long shopping street, and although most of the shops on the main drag are chains you could find anywhere, I discovered cute cafes and boutiques on side streets like Neubaugasse.
Go if: You want to escape the tourist center
Skip it if: You hate shopping and hipster cafes, or don’t have a lot of time to spend in Vienna.
The Vienna opera house is grand. The chandeliers are crystal and the ceilings are gold. Bust out your pearls and your cufflinks. You can choose between seeing an opera or a ballet. It’s right in the city center, so there’s no excuse not to go!
Even if you don’t normally go to the opera, Vienna is the place to try it out. It’s hard for me not to sound biased when I say that because I like, majored in opera (sounds like a joke, but it’s the truth, so the joke’s on me) but really, the opera is worldclass. We saw Placido Domingo in one of the last performances of his career (Nabucco) and a lovely ballet, La Sylphide (gorgeous dancing, idiotic storyline.)
Go if: You like music and/or dance and/or golden ceilings.
The place to see operetta, musical theater, and select operas. If you’re an opera beginner, you might find the Volksoper more accessible than the Staatsoper, but you’ll miss out on the golden ceiling. It’s not in the city center, but there is a tram stop across the street, and a cab is about 10 euros.
We saw Die Fledermaus – the quintessential Vienna operetta by Johann Strauss. Subtitles were in English, but most of the German dialogue was untranslated. Judging by the reaction of the German speaking audience, it was hilarious. But it would have been nice to be in on the joke!
I loooove food, and I loooove to go to local markets. I had a good time walking through Naschmarkt. It was filled with trendy cafes and little shops, and I got a kebab as big as my head for three euros. The pushy falafel dudes annoyed me (can’t a girl stroll the market in peace?!) but their falafel did look damn good.
Go if: You like food.
Skip it if: Outdoor markets make you claustrophobic.
Demel is a Vienna institution. It has so much cake. Cake so famous, it was even featured on Buzzfeed (which we all know is the height of fame). It is to Vienna what Ladurée is to Paris, only with tortes instead of macarons. Buzzfeed called it “one of the 25 bakeries you have to see before you die” and while I don’t know if I would go that far, it’s worth checking out if you’re in Vienna. It’s right next to the Hofburg Palace in the city center.
It has a little shop where you can get gifts and souvenirs, a cake museum (check for opening times), and of course, lots of cake. The enormous kitchen is separated from the cafe by a glass wall, so you can watch cake-makers like fish in an aquarium.
I am most definitely a dessert person, but I honestly didn’t care for their chocolate-liqueur Annatorte. There were so many options that I just went with their specialty, but it was too sweet and cloying alcoholic. Their rhubarb apple strudel was the best dessert I had in Vienna, though. (Thanks for sharing with me, Mom!)
I can’t see myself ever coming here if I lived in Vienna, but it was fun to see it once.
Go if: You love dessert.
Skip it if: You’re “not a dessert person” or you’re on a tight budget.
What? Sofitel? Why is this a Vienna attraction? It’s not, exactly, but it has an amazing view over the city from the restaurant on the top floor. You can pop up and check out the view even if you’re not dining, as long as it’s not peak meal time and you don’t disrupt people who are actually buying something.
Go if: You’re in the area and you like a good view.
Skip it if: You get frustrated trying to take photos behind glass because of the reflections (DAMN YOU REFLECTIONS!)
You may have heard of the Sacher-torte. It’s a chocolate torte with apricot jam filling and it’s a big deal in Vienna. There was a whole lawsuit war over who invented the original Sacher-torte, and the Sachers won. They are very, very proud of their torte. And hey, it is good. My gourmet-cook dad said it was very good. So if you like famous cake, sure, come wait in line and give it a try.
But if I can offer my opinion, don’t bother getting a meal. The food is so overpriced and it’s nothing special.
Go if: You enjoy eating famous food in an elegant setting.
Skip it if: You are willing to eat equally good but less famous cake elsewhere.
I would love to see the modern art museum mumok, go up to the Danube and the Vienna Prater, and try more local food. Maybe brunch with cocktails at one of the Naschmarkt cafes! What do you recommend?
Vienna is an epicenter of culture. World class opera, ballet, symphonies, art, museums, castles, gardens – it’s got them all. Its history – both artistic and regular – is rich. Mozart was here. Johann Strauss (dude who wrote all those waltzes and Die Fledermaus) was here, Freud was here, Klimt was here – the list goes on and on. If they had all graffiteid their names on a who’s who wall of Vienna… that would have been cool. (But they have stars of fame on the sidewalk instead.)
At first, I had only planned to come for a couple days, but I’m glad I decided to stay longer. Five days still wasn’t enough time. I was blown away by everything there is to see in Vienna.
Notice I said see. The food… it wasn’t bad. Goulash and boiled beef reminded us that Vienna is geographically in Eastern Europe, but the prices were closer to Western Europe (and I mean France, not Portugal). Many nicer restaurants had a cover charge of 2-3 euros per person – not the end of the world, but a little annoying.
Tapelspitz, goulash, and Wiener schnitzel are traditional meat dishes typical of Vienna. I had always vaguely imagined that Wiener schnitzel was a kind of sausage for some reason, but it’s actually breaded and fried veal garnished with lemon wedges. Surprise!
“Schnitzel” is more fun to say (I ❤ funny words) than it is to actually eat. I was underwhelmed by the food I tried in Vienna, on the whole.
Even the desserts. Vienna is known for its cakes and pastries. The French word for pastries is “viennoiserie” for crying out loud. But in my opinion, France effortlessly surpasses the city that inspired their croissants and pain au chocolat in terms of dessert.
Anyway, disappointing desserts couldn’t ruin Vienna. I loved the Schönbrunn palace gardens, the art collection at the Albertina, the quirky and colorful Hundertwasserhaus, and above all, the opera.
Even so, I couldn’t quite fall in love with Vienna. It was like an eligible bachelor/ette who’s sweet and smart and successful and suave and your head tells you that they’re perfect and you should marry them, but the crazy love drug that makes you want to be with them all the time is missing, so you leave them for your friend that everyone else knew was right for you all along. (That’s how it seems to go down on sitcoms, anyway.)
But friend-zoning aside, I really did have a nice time in Vienna.
There was really no reason not to go to Turin. I didn’t have to teach for another two weeks because winter vacation is super long, bus tickets were cheap, and since when do I turn down a chance to go to Italy?
We convened way too early to get the 6:30 a.m. bus at Perrache in Lyon. Shannon was pretty like a flower as usual, and I looked the way I imagine bears look when someone interrupts their hibernation before spring.
At first I was wary of the five hour bus ride, but the bus was actually really comfortable, and one of those five hours was spent at a rest stop in the middle of the alps (bus drivers have to pee too). Now I’m an IDbus fan. It’s not the speediest but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than the train.
I can’t say I fell in love with Turin, but it was fun to get out of France for the weekend and visit the land of aperitivo.
I feel like aperitivo was 32% of the reason we went to Italy. Many restaurants and bars offer a complimentary buffet with the purchase of a drink in the evening. Maybe it was love of food, maybe love of free stuff, but we were super excited about the prospect of aperitivo.
Most places seemed to charge between seven and ten euros for aperitivo. The buffet we tried wasn’t out of this world, but hey, dinner and a drink for ten euros isn’t bad. (Any local tips for aperitivoing like a boss, Italy-dwellers? We may have done it wrong.)
I had imagined myself sipping Aperol spritzes, but then I realized I hate Aperol. It looks red and juicy, but it’s bitter! So I let Shannon get her Aperol on, and I stuck to prosecco.
Zuccherini at Clorophilla
After aperitivo and before late night Belgian fries was Clorophilla. It’s a trendy bar that looks like a jungle cave and serves fresh fruit cocktails and shots. Its signature drinks are made with an herb-infused alcohol called Genepy.
The tables on the sidewalk outside were great for a) resting our tired feet after all the city strolling we did, and b) people watching! We saw very few people in their 20s and 30s, but it was fun to see 40 and 50 somethings and teenagers at the same bar. We decided that all the Italian teenage boys seemed to dress the same (jeans, sneakers, jacket) and put too much gel in their hair. Black thick-soled boots and heels were clearly a trend among the girls. Just a couple hours over the border, but so different from France!
So, the zuccherini. It made me think of zucchini, but then I realized that “zucchero” is sugar. Zuccherini are really, really strong fruit alcohols served in a tiny cup with a sugar cube. We tried violet and lavender, not sure what to expect. We tossed them back. They were tasty. Then the 90 proof alcohol hit, our eyes watered, and the bartenders urged us to “chew! chew the sugar!” which we did, frantically. Then we took selfies to remember the moment. I won’t be sharing those here. Here’s a weirdly-lit photo of alcoholic fruit instead.
Sunday was mostly spent at Eataly. It is a giant emporium of food. I bought a mini cheese grater, which may seem odd for someone who doesn’t eat cheese, but it was an inch and a half tall and I thought it was delightful. Also, I had prosecco with lunch.
Because you can eat lunch in Eataly! And then get gelato for dessert.
But do you know what Eataly didn’t have? Mozzarella. At all. Come back on Monday, they said. Let me just reiterate that the enormous Italian food store that has all the Italian food items you could imagine was entirely out of mozzarella cheese. How did that happen? Pizza party bandits?
It was quite easy to get to Eataly on the metro (which is pristine). We walked through a mall to get there, and we saw children and parents riding what looked like giant furry wind-up animals. Didn’t know quite what to make of that!
Um, anything else?
We were in Turin for less than 48 hours, and it was January. Most of our time was spent eating, strolling, and attempting to communicate in Italian.
Have you written about Turin? Please share a link! I had a tough time finding local tips in English.
I’m dying to go back to Italy – I’m considering Florence, Bologna, Rome, Naples, the Adriatic coast, or maybe the Ionian… help! Where are you favorite places in Italy?
The last time I was in Germany was in 2006. Berlin’s bushes were sculpted into soccer balls, the World Cup was playing on big screens outdoors, and Italy’s win didn’t go over well. (It didn’t go over well at all.)
I thought it might be nice to return to Berlin now that I’m not 19 anymore, or to visit Munich because people are always raving about it. But I don’t speak German, I can’t drink beer, and I run to Mediterranean every chance I get, so no plans to return to Germany were in the works.
But in May I found myself cruising down the Rhine and Duolingoing in German (“Die Frau isst ein apfel. Der Hund trinkt Wasser”) and it was pretty great! Here’s a look at six German towns we visited along the way.
We started and ended in Cologne, and I was pleasantly surprised. This city has its own personality – cool, down to earth, a little grungy, with a good measure of hipster thrown in. The highlights were dinner at Ludwig im Museum, visiting the artsy hipster neighborhood around Brüssler Platz, and the gargantuan gothic cathedral.
At first I thought it was weird that we only had a few hours to explore Boppard, but then I saw it and I understood. It’s adorable and tiny. The path along the Rhine is lovely!
Kehl (sounds like the trendy leafy green) is probably not somewhere you’d go on purpose. But it’s right across the Rhine from Strasbourg, so it’s a prime docking point. I walked across the bridge just to go to a French pharmacy (because I need Actifed!) and I was so excited to be able to communicate again.
Breisach seems like an ordinary charming little fairytale German town. I might have found it boring, but I got to stroll around and peek into little gardens with my mom. Then we bought a red cow and sorbet, which I successfully ordered in German (that kind of makes it sound like I have German skills, which is mostly a lie, but hey, we got the sorbet didn’t we?)
My favorite thing in Mainz was hands down the market that spilled out of the main square. Produce, gorgeous fresh flowers, wine, liquor, jam, coffee, gifts, cheese, fish, fresh prepared foods, and it wasn’t even Sunday. I also took a stroll through the cathedral, and my mom adored the Gutenburg museum. (Gutenberg Bibles omg.)
By the time we got to Koblenz, I was tired, it was chilly, and all these little towns were starting to blend together. But Koblenz still stands out in my mind (even though I sometimes forget its name) because of the Deutsches Eck, the corner (Eck) where the Rhine and the Moselle meet. It has a big statue with a horse and oh so many flags. We also visited Schlossgarten and Schlossvorplatz, which Wikipedia tells me are the grounds of the electoral palace. All I noticed at the time was pretty flowers and crunchy gravel. No, but seriously, Koblenz was nice. If I ever go back, which I probably won’t, I would take the gondola up the hill and watch the sunset.
Vielen Dank to my parents for some classy bonding time on the Rhine!
Ashley Fleckenstein of Ashley Abroad has lived in Paris and traveled the world, and is now based in Denver, Colorado. She has written many helpful posts about being an au pair in Europe and has also shared a few guest posts from other au pairs and expats.
So as a departure from my often-whimsical posts about weird French stuff, I wrote a guest post on packing with style for a move to Europe, in which I express my love of scarves and ankle boots.
Take particular note of the photo collage I made thanks to this tutorial from A Beautiful Mess because I was supremely impressed with my own artistic cutting and pasting abilities. I don’t have photoshop, so I just arranged the images in PowerPoint and took a screenshot. Bam!
Not too bad, right?
You can read all my advice about looking stylish in Europe and packing for a long séjour abroad here. At the bottom I include links to my favorite posts on minimalist style and packing.
What are your best packing tips? What do always pack when you travel?
I’ve mentioned it before – I haven’t traveled all that much since moving to Europe. I like to travel, I like to explore, I love travel blogs, but I don’t count stamps in my passport and rack up countries so that I can brag about my travel “number.” I guess what I mean is that I don’t travel for the sake of travel. Sometimes I feel restless (and then I go to Barcelona), but I also like to stay home and cuddle with the comfort of routine. I need both – otherwise, I would be too exhausted and unsettled to enjoy my travels at all.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that you’ve crossed the border from France into Switzerland because everyone is still speaking French, but then you realize that everything is cleaner and more expensive.
When Americans describe Switzerland, it’s usually with words like “breathtaking,” “pristine,” and “chocolate.” When the French talk about Switzerland, it usually goes something like “Putain c’est cher la Suisse.” (“#$%& Switzerland is expensive.”)