Le Havre, France

Just when I think everything is running smoothly, it all explodes! But that’s life, right? Nothing ever stays predictable – and if it did, how boring would that be?

On the day I was supposed to be traveling from Brussels to France, I realized I didn’t have my host’s address. I had booked a BlaBlaCar and asked for the address, but my host only told me the neighborhood, not the actual street or number.

I had 4 hours before I had to leave Brussels, but once I did, I wouldn’t have WiFi or cell service. I needed to know the address ASAP to tell my driver where to go. I messaged my host, assuming she would reply quickly, but she never did. I explained the situation and sent an additional message asking for the address. Nothing. Thirty minutes before leaving Brussels, I had no choice but to book a last minute hotel. Well, my other choice was to arrive in Le Havre and find WiFi and hope she would reply, but I was already stressed and exhausted so I chose to spend the money for a guaranteed private room.

I met my BlaBlaCar and it was so much different than the first one! This one was a brand new car and had ample room in the backseat. I was riding with a middle aged French woman and her sister. There was one other traveler – a student from Le Havre. When he found out I was just traveling for fun, he asked why I picked Le Havre.

Why DID I pick it? When I was planning, I knew I didn’t want to see Paris again. Anything south or west of Paris was too far to do in my limited time. I always regretted not seeing the D-Day beaches the last time I was in France, so I decided to head to the coast to do that.

When researching cities in northern France, I came across Le Havre. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its architecture. The city was heavily bombed during WWII and had to be rebuilt. Timber was scarce and stone was impossible to transport due to the damaged infrastructure. The only option was concrete. Auguste Perret gained fame from designing the concrete buildings of Le Havre. He was a tutor to the father of contemporary architecture, Le Corbusier.

Plus, the BlaBlaCar options from Brussels to northern France were few and far between. Taking the train would have been more expensive and quicker, but the French rail system has a series of scheduled strikes throughout summer and one of them fell on the exact date I needed to leave Brussels. Driving to Le Havre was the only way out of Belgium! The drive was long. We hit traffic and were delayed an hour. Neither of the sisters spoke English, so it was a quiet ride. I ended up watching two documentaries I had downloaded on my Netflix app. Each time I looked up from my screen, I was greeted by the gorgeous French countryside.

I was surprised how much open space there was. Farmland stretched on as far as the eye could see. I felt the same way about the Netherlands and Belgium. For being fairly populous, Europe certainly doesn’t have the same sub/urban sprawl issues America does.

I arrived at my hotel and was pleasantly surprised. It was one of the cheapest options at $50 per night. It was located downtown but wasn’t a traditional hotel with a lobby and numerous rooms. It was more of a guesthouse with an open terrace. My room had its own kitchenette but I had to rent plates, pans, utensils, and a kettle from the front desk (which closed at 10pm, right after I checked in) so I ended up eating cold salad out of my own Tupperware instead.

I got a very good night’s sleep! I slept in and checked out around noon. Since there wasn’t a kettle or even a mug, I couldn’t make my morning coffee. The hotel held my bag while I ventured out for the day.

It was Monday, which meant many shops and cafes were closed. I’m not sure why, but I guess it is part of their weekend. Every country has different non-working days, so it’s hard to keep up! I spotted a cafe with several people sitting outside.

Le Havre is the second largest port in France and several cruise ships dock there. I assumed since this cafe was in the main square, they frequently dealt with tourists and spoke some English. Nope. Not at all. Ordering a coffee at this cafe was one of the most difficult behind Italy where it was always a mystery if I was allowed to sit down to drink my coffee without getting charged extra.

I walked into the cafe and took at seat. There wasn’t a bar or anywhere to order, so I assumed it was table service. Other people were eating food, so it seemed like a good guess. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally another couple walked in and sat down. I was waiting to see how they ordered so I could follow along. Imagine my surprise when they yelled their order at the barista from their table! I waited to see if this was really how to order. Surely enough, an old man walked in and barked “CAPPUCCINO!” in the direction of the kitchen and soon one appeared for him. Before I had to do it myself, the busboy saw my confusion and asked (in French) what I wanted. I replied with a simple “Americano?” and he didn’t understand. He had to get someone else who asked me the same question. I feel like I’ve said this about many countries, but France really doesn’t speak a lot of English! Luckily I learned this the hard way when I visited Paris, so I was prepared, but it’s still tough when all I wanted was an Americano and had to endure the entire cafe giggling at the language barrier.

After coffee, I explored Le Havre. It was a chilly, overcast day and that added to the ominous ghost town feel. There were plenty of people walking the streets, but almost all of the businesses were closed. Where were they going?!

I walked to the harbor where there was a large art installation. New Zealand is famous for using shipping containers to build malls and restaurants, but Le Havre built art with them!

I continued along the harbor, but it was bleak and windy. I spotted the famous landmark cathedral of the Saint Joseph Church in the distance. It was also built out of concrete and looks like a NYC skyscraper from the outside, but inside it is a spectacular stained glass masterpiece.

I continued my walk back toward my hotel. I was getting hungry and wanted to find a grocery store. I wasn’t about to endure another English-French showdown. As I walked, I found a beautiful park in the middle of the city. Europe really appreciates having green spaces. It’s unfortunate that most of America’s parks are hard to enjoy due to the homeless population who have been forced to live there.

As I walked, I realized I was disappointed by Le Havre. I can appreciate the history of the city and see how the architecture was new and unique at the time it was built, but in the present day, it’s nothing special. If anything, it’s drab and depressing.

Thankfully I only scheduled myself one day in Le Havre before heading west to Caen! Why Caen? Again, it all came down to transportation! I wanted a direct ride from a city in the north to CDG airport in Paris. I didn’t want to stay in Paris since it’s so expensive and I likely wouldn’t find a host. Caen was the only city that was near the beaches and had a BlaBlaCar going directly to the airport.

One thing that’s changed during my travels is my tolerance of transportation. I used to think it was fun to figure out a bus schedule and get somewhere only using public transit. But now, I have realized that hauling my backpack on a bus or train is NOT fun. There’s no where to put it and people get upset since it takes up so much space. I’m thankful I discovered BlaBlaCar because it’s taken the stress out of traveling between cities. Plus if I’m lucky, they drop me off exactly at my hotel or host’s house!


Brussels & Bruges, Belgium

I arrived in Brussels in a bad mood. I was stressed from trying and failing to find a new host. I was irritated by having to spend money on a hostel. And I was exhausted from hauling my 40lb backpack around in the 85 degree heat. I had to walk a mile to the Antwerp station and then walk 2 miles from the Brussels station to my hostel. The walk in Brussels wasn’t great. It was through a fairly sketchy neighborhood that even had its own res light district. The entire time, I was preparing myself for the typical hostel experience: a stinky room, a messy kitchen, and dirty everything.

But I was pleasantly surprised. I was staying at the Train Hostel in the Schaerbeek neighborhood. Despite it being the cheapest option, it had high reviews and I was shocked when I checked in. The dorm room was spacious and I even got the coveted bottom bunk! Each room had its own bathroom with clean slate tile and modern stainless steel fixtures. It felt brand new!

I chalked the day up to a “de-stressing day” and sat in the quiet courtyard and caught up on reading. I enjoyed the free coffee and even made dinner in the spotless, non-crowded kitchen. It felt like I had a private guest house since no one was around!

In the evening, I was relaxing in my bunk when a new girl named Esther checked into the room. She introduced herself and we got to chatting. We hit it off and ended up leaving the hostel to explore the area together. She explained she was from England but living in Paris. Her friend Valerie was living in Luxembourg but they planned to meet in Brussels for the weekend.

Esther asked me what I had planned for the next day and I explained Ascension Day in Bruges. The Christian holiday is a big deal in the Belgian town of Bruges and a massive parade carrying the holy blood travels around the city. In addition to Bruges being a UNESCO Heritage City, the parade is considered a UNESCO Heritage Event!

Esther expressed interest and asked if they could join me and of course I said yes! Valerie arrived late in the night, so I met her the next morning and she was great.

Sleeping in the dorm was surprisingly good, too. Even though it was an all female room, there was one light snorer. But the bed was comfortable and it wasn’t too hot or cold. Overall, this was the best hostel I’d ever stayed at!

In the morning, the three of us headed to the train station to take the hour train to Bruges. We arrived to a massive crowd walking toward the city center. I guess we weren’t the only ones who wanted to see the parade!

I was also eager to see Bruges after the recommendation from the pilot in Amsterdam. If you remember my trip there in 2017, I met a pilot at dinner who highly recommended I see Bruges. I couldn’t go during that trip, but I made it a priority to see it during this one.

Bruges definitely didn’t disappoint. It’s known as the “Forgotten City” because the rest of Belgium progressed and modernized while Bruges stayed historically preserved. It has gorgeous canals like Amsterdam feels even more quaint.

We wandered the streets and felt the excitement in the air. Holidays always feel different than normal days. It’s like everything is buzzing with anticipation and energy.

We made our way to the town square and waited along the parade route. We didn’t know when it was set to start, but everyone else was waiting, too. We stood there like sheep for 45 minutes before it started to rain. We could hear drums in the distance and decided to go investigate. It turned out we were waiting at the very end of the parade route and wouldn’t have seen the parade for another hour or two! Luckily we intercepted it on a different street near the beginning of the route.

It was a bit hard to see, but it was definitely interesting. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind it, but it seemed like different groups of people were represented by costumes. First the religious clergymen, then the wealthy men on horses, then the jesters and paupers, then a large singing chorus and band, and finally the holy blood. There were even some parade floats depicting rocks and castles!

It would have been interesting to have explanation behind each section, but I just enjoyed watching it. To have such a massive parade in a small town really is a cultural sight to behold!

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Bruges. Luckily the weather cleared so we window shopped. I was amazed by the number of chocolate shops! There were at least 5 on every street! Waffles were also a popular option. Every cafe sold them and they were even available from vending machines. I saw so many people walking around eating plain waffles.

We found a quaint park and sat in the sunshine talking about Portland and laughing about yoga. Then we explored a bit more and took some photos. Even though I had just met them, it felt like we had known each other for ages. After spending so much of my trip solo or having awkward conversations with hosts, it’s ironic I find an easy connection in one of the last cities I visit. Funny how life works, huh?

The next morning we woke up and made breakfast together. They asked if I wanted to come with them to explore downtown Brussels and I happily agreed.

Even though I’ve been Couchsurfing and meeting hosts during this entire trip, I’ve secretly dreaded it. I’m an introverted person by nature, so meeting new people isn’t a fun task for me. I thought about what changed and why I suddenly enjoyed the company of these strangers. Even though Luigina in Antwerp was nice, I secretly preferred the hours she was away at work.

I think it is just a matter of finding the right personality match. Finding a romantic relationship takes several dates and having compatible traits, so why wouldn’t a platonic friendship be the same? You wouldn’t date any random person off of the street, so how could I be expected to be sudden friends with all of my hosts I met randomly? Especially when my hosts have typically been a bit older than me and with different interests. But with Esther and Valerie, we were all the same age and had a common interest in laid back travel.

I often clashed with my hosts because they wanted to go out and party, but Valerie and Esther shared my interest in casual coffee shop hangouts and relaxing in the park during the afternoon. I had finally found my people! I never realized how rare that was until now. It definitely makes me appreciate my friends in Portland.

I also forgot how nice it felt to laugh with friends. I enjoy my own company and often laugh at myself when I do something stupid, but sharing a silly moment with friends just feels good. I’m grateful I found that in Brussels.

We took the train downtown to the Comic Book Museum. I didn’t want to pay the 10€ to look at a bunch of comics, so I went to a cafe to work on my blogs while they went through the museum.

Afterward, we went to the Grand Place – the most famous square in Belgium. It was stunning! Each side of the square had buildings with golden facades. It felt like being in an outdoor palace.

We also saw the famous statue of a baby peeing! Legend has it that there was a fire in Brussels and it was extinguished by someone peeing on it. It’s incredible this silly, tiny statue garners so much attention. As always, I try to capture all of the tourists surrounding the point of interest!

We were eager to get out of the center of the city, so we took a bus south to the Bois de la Cambre Park. It was so big! There is a tiny island in the middle of the lake that is only accessible by boat. There’s even a bar on the island! We spent the afternoon drinking outside and laughing while they tried to name all 50 states.

We headed back to downtown Brussels to go to the most popular bar – Delirium. They’re famous for having over 2000 beers! I asked the bartender for one that tasted like caramel and he recommended a 10% beer for 4 euro. Such a steal.

Valerie and Esther had to leave early in the morning but I slept in. I was getting surprisingly good sleep in the hostel. No one was being rude or loud in the dorm room.

I spent my final day in Brussels on a trek to see the Atomium. It is a giant sculpture of an atom and you can go inside! I chose to admire it from afar and then enjoy the sunshine by walking around the nearby park and admiring the statues.

Unfortunately my hostel-luck ran out as I was kept awake for hours by loud people in the hostel. Our room faced the outdoor terrace so all of the noise came in through the window – but if we shut the window, it got extremely hot because there was no central air. A lose/lose situation!

In the morning, I packed my bags and headed to the train station to catch my carpool BlaBlaCar. It was going to be a 4-hour ride from Brussels to Le Havre, France, on the north coast. Luckily I downloaded movies!

Brussels was similar to Antwerp, but larger. I know I keep saying each city is diverse, but Brussels really takes the cake. It’s known as one of the main European capitals and it lives up to that reputation. Most cities I’ve been able to walk across, but Brussels is massive and, honestly, not that pretty! The parks and historical buildings are the only scenic gems. If you visit Belgium, definitely see Bruges, but spend minimal time in Brussels!

Antwerp, Belgium

I am a very analytical person. I love when data is clear cut and black-and-white. I don’t work well with grey area. Maybe that’s why I ended up majoring in geography. I love the definitive borders of countries and being able to point at a map and say “This side is the Netherlands and that side is Belgium.” But what does that mean? How can an imaginary line in the dirt separate two communities that are so similar?

I started to think of it in terms of Cincinnati, Ohio, vs Kentucky. Technically, I grew up in Kentucky because our house was physically on that side of the border. But what about culturally? Did I have more in common with the rural, agricultural, and conservative Kentuckians or the urban, hipster Cincinnatians? Definitely the Cincinnatians. That’s why my Dad always told me to specify I was from NORTHERN Kentucky – because our lifestyle was so much different from the rest of the state.

Antwerp was in the same situation. It was only 30 minutes away from the Netherlands border. The landscape was virtually identical and they even speak Flemish, which is actually just Dutch. Travelers are quick to assign differences to the two countries (eating stroopwaffels vs Belgian waffles) but they really are more similar than different. I was expecting a new experience crossing the border into Belgium, but actually it was more of the same – which is great because I love this region!

I arrived in Antwerp and met my host, Luigina. She is originally from Curacao which used to be another Dutch colony. Her flat was in the center of the city (and I later discovered it’s government housing!) and she was so warm and welcoming. You know the stereotype of the southern housewife in America? She was exactly that. Always offering me food and asking me about my day. We stayed up late watching our favorite channel – TLC – and laughing at all of the wedding shows.

In the morning, I signed up for a free Antwerp walking tour. There was an elderly couple also on the tour who were from Portland, Oregon! We talked about the city and my world journey. They were sweet and made several recommendations.

The tour was one of the more boring ones. It focused mostly on history which is interesting, but felt like being back in school. Tours in other cities usually blend history with modern stories and legends.

I did learn the reasoning behind the construction that seemed to plague the city – it’s an election year! So all major streets, plazas, and buildings are undergoing renovations. It’s frustrating that I can’t see it in all its glory, but I can’t help but be happy that cities are continually working to preserve things for future generations.

The biggest takeaway from the tour was that Antwerp used to be a giant merchant hub with a port more important than Rotterdam. Our tour guide also told us the unfortunate history of Belgium colonizing the Congo and using that venture to fund most of the development of Antwerp. He said that during his education, the Congo was glossed over and no one talked about the exploitation. Only recently are schools starting to openly address and value how the Congo allowed Antwerp to become what it is today.

After the tour, I wandered around on my own and realized the city is in three main areas: the old city, the fashion streets, and the diamond district.

Antwerp is a prime city for diamond shopping. I didn’t delve into the history behind the trade, but there were countless stores around the station. I also saw a large orthodox jewish population in the neighborhood around the station. The Antwerp train station is often noted as being one of the most beautiful in the world!

The fashion streets look identical to the Miracle Mile in Chicago. Store after store of expensive fashion lining the streets. It was fun to walk down, but not actually shop at.

The old city is where I was staying. It had gorgeous old cobblestone streets lined with quaint homes. The stunning cathedral acts as the centerpiece of the city and can be seen from virtually anywhere as its one of the few tall buildings in the city. I got to go to a rooftop and get a panorama view of the city. You easily see the low lying old city!

My two days in Antwerp were mostly spent wandering and relaxing. The city doesn’t have many tourist attractions so there wasn’t much to see. I hung out at several cafes and spent the evenings at home talking to my host. She works at a school and always had amusing stories to tell about the children.

On my final day, I spent the morning taking a long walk to the Port Authority building. It was designed by Zaha Hadid, the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, which is the equivalent of the Novel Prize for architecture. She also designed the stadium in Qatar that will be used for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

In the evening, another Couchsurfing guest arrived. My host was at work so I had to greet and entertain him. He was visiting from Poland. I’ve always wondered what it was like to be a host and it’s very strange! It’s hard to make someone feel at home. Unfortunately I was quite distracted as I had just found out my host in Brussels cancelled my stay. I had less than 12 hours to find a new host as I planned to leave Antwerp the following morning to head to Brussels. I spent the entire evening sending messages to hosts in Brussels asking if I could stay.

I woke up in the morning to discover I had no luck. Everyone was traveling out of town for the long weekend. Luigina even offered for me to stay another night, but I didn’t think I’d be able to find a host even if I waited a day. Locals simply weren’t in town. Plus I had nothing else to do in Antwerp and the thought of wasting a day sitting around sounded torturous. I booked the cheapest hostel I could find and headed to the train station.

Antwerp was interesting, but not somewhere I’d recommend people to visit. Unless you want to spend all your time at museums for the Red Star Line or the printing press, there isn’t much to do except drink Belgian beer!

Rotterdam & Utrecht, Netherlands

After falling in love with Amsterdam and northern Holland, I knew I had to see the South of the country. Rotterdam is known as being the modern port city of the Netherlands. After it was bombed and leveled during WWII, the entire city had to be rebuilt, giving it a very different appearance from historic cities like Amsterdam.

I arrived in Rotterdam and was in awe. The train station was gorgeous and the view from the plaza was stunning!

I had arranged to stay with Jan. He had a flat in the center of the city, within walking distance from the station. I began my trek to his apartment (around 1.5 miles) and was shocked by how the city felt so… normal. It didn’t feel like I was traveling in a foreign country at all. I walked on flat sidewalks instead of the usual uneven cobblestone. I passed modern strip malls and AstroTurf sports fields. It felt like I was back in America!

I arrived at Jan’s apartment and was surprised how cluttered it was. It was nowhere near hoarder level, but it was getting there! He showed me to my room which was actually a storage closet with a cot. At the beginning of my trip, this would have horrified me, but now I was just happy to have a private room!

It was dinner time, so Jan offered me food which I declined. It might be rude, but I had already eaten! We chatted about life in Rotterdam and I asked about the diversity of the city since I noticed there was much more than in Amsterdam. He said the city has a very large population of Surinamese immigrants, likely because Suriname was once a Dutch colony.

The next day, I followed the walking route given to me by Jan. I walked along the water and saw the famous Erasmus bridge which is now the symbol of the city.

I continued to the center of downtown where the true star of Rotterdam lives: The Cube Houses.

In all of my urban planning classes in college, we discussed the cube houses. They are a unique experiment in urban housing. The geometric cubes are intended to resemble trees and the series of apartments is considered an urban forest. Each tree has a narrow “trunk” with the front door and stairwell that leads up to the living space above. It looks confusing from a distance, but there is a nice plaza surrounding the base of the trees that acts as a courtyard for the apartments.

Next to the cube houses is the famous Markthal market. It is a giant modern building that’s home to countless vendors. I spent an entire hour wandering from stall to stall. Most sell food and offer samples. I ate enough samples to qualify as a meal!

The day had gotten very hot. When I was in Greece, I looked at the weather in Europe and it was in the 60s each day, so I sent all of my shorts and dresses home with my mom to lighten my load. When I arrived in Amsterdam, it was so cold I even had to buy a new winter coat!

But now, the temperature was soaring to the 80s! It was extremely sunny and I was even getting a bit burnt from walking all day. Packing for the weather has not been my forte during this trip!

Jan’s kitchen was a mess. There was clutter everywhere and a swarm of fruit flies. It wasn’t somewhere I wanted to cook, but I also didn’t want to eat take out. I stopped by a grocery store and got a pack of lettuce, a pack of chopped leeks, peppers, and onions, and a package of smoked mackerel. I managed to make three meals out of these ingredients and the smoked mackerel was absolutely delicious. I’ll miss the fresh fish in Europe, for sure!

The next day, I decided to take a day trip to Utrecht. It is one of the Netherlands’ four largest cities and its known as being the youngest and hippest due to the large university. My Portland friend Tess had studied there and has been begging me to go.

It also happened to be Liberation Day, a national holiday honoring the day that the Nazi occupation ended. Large festivals occur in each of the Big 4 cities and I planned on attending the one in Utrecht.

When I arrived, I was shocked how busy it was. Walking around the city center felt like being back in Amsterdam, but with crowds of locals instead of tourists. Utrecht has mostly stayed off of the tourist map, but slowly the numbers are increasing.

I later found out that Utrecht is known for its “terrace culture.” Every restaurant and cafe has a massive section of outdoor seating that is in high demand on sunny days.

Utrecht is also known for its unique canals. Unlike Amsterdam, Utrecht has canals that have wharfs. They used to be used to unload cargo without blocking the streets, but now shops and and cafes use the space. I saw many people using them for sunbathing, too!

The biggest landmark in Utrecht is the Dom Tower. Of course it was under construction when I was there. Why does this keep happening? All of my photos seem to feature scaffolding instead of the actual landmark!

In that photo you can also see my favorite store, Stach, to the left. It is like a local convenience store but very modern and carries super healthy, paleo food!

After exploring, I headed to the festival grounds. It was a 2 mile walk outside of the city, but it was a nice day, so I decided to do it. The walk wasn’t nice at all! It was along a highway with factory views.

I arrived at the festival and the line to get in was massive. It wasn’t even a line. It was a giant crowd of people pushing to get in. There also seemed to be an entrance fee, but all of the signs were in Dutch. I could see inside the festival and it looked just as crowded and chaotic. I decided to save my money and avoid the mess. I chalked it up to a 4 mile round trip walk!

I headed back to Rotterdam and had another evening chatting with Jan. I never found out exactly what he does for a living, but he has traveled quite a bit. I always love getting advice from fellow travelers, but his was a bit bizarre.

I told him how I was considering renting a car in France to see the countryside and avoid all of the train strikes. However, the plan didn’t seem to be working out since all the rental cars are manual and automatics are nearly $100 per day instead of $10 like the manuals. Jan’s advice? Rent a manual anyway and teach myself to drive it in France. What?! I’m not about to rent a car in a foreign country and potentially ruin it or get in an accident while teaching myself a new skill on an unfamiliar road. Worst advice ever!

One piece of advice I got from my Amsterdam host was to use BlaBlaCar to get around. It is an app where locals can post their roadtrip route and travelers can pay to join them for a portion. It is much cheaper than the train, but often more difficult to get to specific pick-up and drop-off points.

I decided to use BlaBlaCar to get from Rotterdam to Antwerp. I paid $9 instead of $15 as I would have for the train. My driver was a woman from France!

The experience started off rocky and only got worse. First, she wouldn’t give me an exact pick up location. She only said “the main train station,” but the station has multiple carpool locations! When I asked for specification, she replied “I don’t know, I’ve never been to Rotterdam.” Helpful.

Then, she was 15 minutes late. Her car was very messy and she had booked 4 passengers, meaning 3 of us had to squish into the back. There wasn’t enough trunk space for everyone’s luggage, so we had to pile it on top of our laps for the entire ride.

The final straw was that the AC didn’t work on an 85 degree day and she planned on keeping the windows rolled up. We were all sweating and dying. Finally the French passenger in the front seat insisted on rolling down the windows and saved us all. When the driver left to make a call, everyone told me this BlaBlaCar was the worst they’ve been in and usually rides are much better. I have one booked from Brussels to France, so hopefully it is!

I managed to get delivered safely (sort of – she almost hit a cyclist) to Antwerp and set off to find my new host!

Amsterdam & Haarlem, Netherlands

Before I decided to commit to a half- year solo trip around the world, I wanted to do a test run to see what traveling alone would be like. In December of 2017, I found a cheap flight to Amsterdam and decided to burn my vacation days before giving notice at my job. You can read all about that adventure on a different post.

During that trip, I absolutely fell in love with Amsterdam. I didn’t expect to like it. I thought it was where lazy Europeans went to escape responsibility and enjoy partying and semi-legal weed. I was so wrong! The city feels so refined and charming with the cobblestone streets and canals. I loved every minute of my trip in December and knew I wanted to come back. So when I saw a cheap flight from Greece to Amsterdam, I booked it!

Even though I published my Copenhagen blog first, I actually spent my layover exploring the Amsterdam suburb of Haarlem. It is around 30 minutes outside of Amsterdam, past Schipol airport. I figured my layover between my flight from Greece and my bus to Copenhagen was the best time to see it!

I arrived in Haarlem on a sunny day and instantly fell in love. It had the romantic canals of Amsterdam without the boards of tourists. I spent hours wandering around. You know when you return home from vacation and feel a sense of comfort and relief? I felt that way once I was back in the Netherlands.

Haarlem doesn’t have much to see other than museums and the famous giant windmill. (I later learned that the NYC Harlem was named after this city by the Dutch who settled in NY!) When I was at the windmill, there was an art class sitting along the canal and painting it! It only added to the charm.

I didn’t expect it to be so cold! I came from Greece where it was in the 80s, so I only had a few light layers. I stopped by a store and found a sale on winter jackets. I picked up a very warm one for only 20 euros! As I exited the store, I stumbled upon a giant carnival in the center of the old city. It was pretty magical to find something so exciting in such a sleepy town. The contrast of the bright lights and colors against the old buildings was pretty funny.

I got lunch at my favorite salad restaurant, SLA. I’ve been dreaming about returning for 4 months! Luckily they have locations all over the Netherlands so I can keep eating there to get my fill.

Unlike in Italy where baristas and cashiers were rude and curt, the barista at SLA took a keen interest in me. She asked where I was from and about my travels. It was a nice change and reminded me why I love the Dutch! After my meal, I headed back to the airport and off to Copenhagen.

Let’s fast forward to my flight from Copenhagen to Amsterdam! I was somehow upgraded to the very first row on my Norwegian Air flight. Unfortunately there wasn’t a first class on the plane, so I was still in economy, but I had plenty of leg room!

I took the train from Schipol airport to Amsterdam Centraal. I had arranged through Couchsurfing to stay with Sitesh. Finding a host in Amsterdam was definitely the hardest! Just ask my mom and she will tell you how much time I spent in Greece sending requests to hosts in Amsterdam! There are so many tourists so there’s a high demand. I got lucky and found a host with an incredible apartment in the heart of the city. The apartment even had a canal view!

Sitesh moved to Amsterdam a year ago and mostly explores the city via bike (like most people!) He welcomed me and we instantly hit it off and had a long conversation about travel. Usually the first day is a little awkward since it’s hard to live with a complete stranger, but Sitesh was the most welcoming of all. The only downside was the he only had one set of keys, so when he was away from the apartment, I also had to leave. Not a big deal, but it was very hard to coordinate being let back in! Often we would agree upon a time and then he would be late, leaving me standing outside for awhile.

On my first day in Amsterdam, I took another walking tour. I learned so much I didn’t know before! Especially about the VOC or the Dutch East India Trading Company. Apparently it was the single most valuable company throughout all of history!

We continued the tour to the famous Waterlooplein bridge where stolen bikes are pedaled. Our guide said he goes through one bike per year because they keep getting stolen. Instead of buying a brand new one, he simply goes to the bridge and buys a stolen one for 10 euro. Everyone expects to have theirs stolen and to have to buy a different stolen one. It’s the bike cycle of life!

In the evening, I went with Sitesh to the ADAM Lookout. (ADAM is the nickname for Amsterdam!) This building has a big observatory deck on top. I wanted to go during my first time in Amsterdam but didn’t get around to it. It was a great view! There is also a mechanical swing you can ride that swings you over the ledge, but we didn’t do that.

Afterward we walked to Pllek. It is a restaurant made of shipping containers. The entire north side of Amsterdam is a relatively new area that is still up and coming. The ferry companies give people rides for free to encourage them to go to the north. The restaurant was pretty cool! It was weird walking through a shipping container to get inside.

I ordered a salad with eggplant and artichoke. It was tasty but very fancy! Over dinner, we talked about our hobbies and jobs. I started to get a little offended by how judgmental Sitesh was of my hobbies. He scoffed at my enjoyment of cooking and said that it was a waste of time. He eats every meal from a restaurant or grocery store because it is “still homemade because someone is making it.” He asked about my job history and I told him how I was a social media manager in 2014. He asked “Is that even a real job? It sounds unimpressive.” Well, yeah. Almost every successful company in the world has someone in charge of their social media, so it’s a real job.

The next day, I had booked a tulip tour! Holland (a region within the Netherlands) is known for its colorful tulip farms. I was lucky enough to be in the country during the blooming season.

I didn’t want to go to the famous botanical gardens where all tourists go to see tulips. I had heard that it was mass chaos. Instead, I booked a small group tour led by a local named Leander. He picked us up in the city and drove us through small, local tulip fields.

I learned that the blooms are actually an unwanted byproduct. Tulip farmers are actually focused on the underground bulb. When the flowers bloom, they use machinery to chop the flowers off of the stem. This allows the bulb to preserve energy and grow bigger. A few months later, they pull the bulbs from the ground and sell them. It’s sad to see such beautiful flowers chopped up!

After seeing the tulip fields, we went to the coast. There’s a large sand dune national park where locals go to cycle and picnic. It was pretty but not overly gorgeous.

I returned to Amsterdam in the afternoon and went shopping. I was determined to find a hot coffee tumbler, but failed. Most stores seem to be focused toward bikes or fancy clothing! In the evening, I was exhausted from a long day of walking, but Sitesh insisted on chatting. My bed was in the living room, so I couldn’t exactly escape. He was asking philosophical questions like “Do you think if someone else was you and had your experiences in life, they’d end up where you are now?” We had already been talking for an hour so I said “I am way too tired to think about those deep questions!” Still, he insisted on chatting, saying he used Couchsurfing as a way to have entertainment and socialization in the evenings. Finally I went to bed at 1am after giving short “yes” and “no” answers to his questions. He clearly didn’t have any respect for his guests’ feelings. We had just spent 6 hours together the day before, so I wouldn’t say I was irrational in wanting some quiet alone time!

The next day, I went to the famous street food market. Last time I was there, I couldn’t find fresh stroopwaffels or herring – the two Dutch local foods all tourists must try! This time, I got lucky.

I had tried stroopwaffels before, but never fresh. They are essentially two very thin cookies with a thin layer of caramel in the middle. They are sold in the grocery store but also from street vendors. The smell of them being made fresh is incredible! The idea of a stroopwaffel is the epitome of the Netherlands – cozy, comforting, and you can’t get enough!

Next, I tried raw herring. They serve it with onions and a pickle. I thought it would be fishy but it wasn’t at all. Quite savory and delicious!

After the market, I got another SLA salad (this time it was Thai tempeh flavored!) and sat in the park at the Rijksmuseum. Being in Amsterdam in the spring is much different than winter. The Dutch love being outside! I relaxed on the grass and listened to a jazz clarinet player perform nearby. It was a perfect afternoon.

Around 6pm, I went back to Sitesh’s to say goodbye and get my bag. I caught a train south to Rotterdam – the next stop on my adventure!

Copenhagen, Denmark

In 2013, I took a trip through Scandinavia and Russia with my friend to celebrate our graduation from college. We had planned to take the train from Sweden to Copenhagen for the weekend, but a terrible wind storm closed the only bridge connecting the countries and stranded us in Malmö, Sweden.

Since I was flying Mykonos to Amsterdam, I figured I had to give Copenhagen another shot since I was so close! I found a cheap bus ticket via FlixBus that would take me directly from the Amsterdam Schipol airport to the Copenhagen main train station. It cost $30 and would take 12 hours overnight, but I figured that was better than paying $200 for a flight!

I landed in Amsterdam and followed the instructions on where to meet the bus. I had seen them driving around Italy. They’re hard to miss since they’re painted neon green! I stood outside at Platform C at the departure time of 8pm. It was freezing cold in Amsterdam – a drastic change from the sunburn inducing weather in Greece!

The minutes passed and I kept waiting. Others had gathered, too. Eventually an hour passed and the bus still wasn’t there. We weren’t given any update on its status. I envisioned having to rent a hotel room for the night. Then, suddenly, it appeared. A frantic driver grabbed our luggage and told us to take any seat upstairs (it was a double decker bus!)

I climbed the stairs and was hit with the most disgusting stench of body odor. Almost every seat was filled with the dirtiest looking people who clearly hadn’t bathed. I found an empty seat next to a woman my age who looked clean and friendly.

I immediately popped a NyQuil as I hoped to sleep on the bus. The driver announced that the free WiFi was broken and there was nothing she could do. Luckily I began to doze off soon after we departed Amsterdam.

It wasn’t a a very pleasant sleep. We made stops in Hamburg, Koning, and Odense. Each time, all of the lights were turned on and loud announcements were made. We also had to stop at the German and Danish borders at midnight and 6am. A border control agent came on the bus and had to check everyone’s passport individually. At least we didn’t have to get off the bus!

We arrived in Copenhagen at 9am and I made my way to my host’s house. I was staying with Daniel, a Copenhagen native who had an apartment with his female roommate in a great location downtown. When he sent me the address, he told me it was “extremely important” that none of his neighbors see me enter the building with luggage. Apparently they’re upset he hosts travelers!

We sat and chatted for awhile. He had just returned from a trip through South America and was preparing to leave soon for Russia. The only bizarre thing is that the toilet was broken! To flush it, you had to stick your hand into the tank and pull on a pipe. Pretty gross and weird. The shower also didn’t drain properly, so you had to turn off the water every 3 minutes and wait so it didn’t overflow. Oh well, at least the rest was clean!

He told me a lot about the city and mentioned his father was a famous photographer who is now a guest lecturer at Harvard. He’s well known for photographing poverty and economical differences in America. I had never heard of him, but it sounded impressive! He said his father was always welcoming travelers into their home so Daniel grew up with living with guests.

Soon, two Polish travelers arrived. They had hitchhiked all the way from Poland! I was worried we would all be forced to sleep in the living room where there was only one couch, but luckily I got it to myself! Those three nights were some of the most comfortable of the trip – no snorers and a private room!

It was only 3pm, so I set out to explore a bit. I was extremely tired from lack of sleep, but I didn’t want to waste the day! Turns out, it was Kings Day in Denmark – a national holiday. Everyone was off work and most places were closed. I spent a few hours walking around the city and didn’t even make a dent. I only saw the gorgeous lakes and upscale shopping district.

It started to rain and I was hungry, so I stopped by Feel Good cafe and ordered a salad. It was expensive (like everything in Denmark!) at $13, but it was so tasty! Europe really knows how to make vegetables taste good.

After dinner, I wandered back to Daniel’s apartment. It was in the Nørrebro neighborhood. He had told me that it was the most diverse and interesting area in the city. On weekends, people would lay rugs in the street and play music and drink wine. I saw many street vendors selling coffee from an espresso machine in the back of their truck! It seemed a little sketchy, but also pretty convenient if you need a cup ASAP!

The next day, I indulged in my favorite activity: having a leisurely morning. I woke up, made my coffee, and sat down to journal. After writing, I do I bit of meditation and then plan my day. I highlighted a few landmarks I wanted to see and found a 3pm walking tour that would give me a bit of history.

I left the apartment and was glad I wore a sweater, scarf, and jacket since it was so cold! The first spot on my list was a cafe called Palæo. They serve entirely paleo food! I’ve been eating paleo for 3 years now and love it. If you aren’t familiar, paleo is a diet that excludes all grains, dairy, and processed foods. It is heavily plant based but also includes meat, healthy fats like avocado oil and ghee, and nuts. Usually it is hard to find good paleo food at restaurants. Many places have vegan options, but those typically include grains which aren’t paleo.

So I was beyond excited to find a place that has many paleo options like burgers, wraps, and salads! I ordered the breakfast sausage wrap. Instead of a tortilla, the outside shell was an omelette! Inside there was a sausage, cucumber, mushrooms, and sauce. It was tasty!

I continued walking toward Kastellet – a military fortification that also serves as a park! It has a unique star shaped moat and a windmill on top.

It is located next to the famous Little Mermaid statue. Hans Christian Anderson is one of the most famous Danes. He wrote several children’s stories like “The Ugly Duckling.” The National Bird of Denmark is the swan because of that story!

The mermaid statue is the most famous landmark in Copenhagen, so it was crowded. I took a photo that captured the chaotic experience of trying to get near it!

Nearby, I came across a Cherry Blossom Festival! I wanted to enjoy it, but it was so crowded.

Afterward, I walked along the waterfront to Nyhavn, the most photographed area of Copenhagen. The waterfront was unremarkable. There weren’t any great buildings or beautiful places to sit. It felt more functional than recreational.

As soon as I arrived at Nyhavn, I wanted to leave. It was PACKED with tourists. I didn’t find it that stunning. It looked like Amsterdam, but with way more boats jammed into the canal. I snapped a few photos and quickly ran away.

I found a much quieter and prettier attraction, Christiansborg Palace. I wandered around the grounds and found a quiet bench to sit and read. It had gotten very sunny and I regretted wearing my scarf and jacket!

It was soon 3pm and I went to meet the walking tour group. Usually the tours have 10-30 people, but this one had 100! They split us up into smaller groups of 15 people. Our guide was Magnus, a local who had been giving tours full time for 2 years. The tours are tip-based, so he must be doing pretty well!

First he showed us the Danish Stock Exchange building. It was built in an attempt to challenge Amsterdam as the financial capital of Europe. After awhile, it fell out of use and Denmark tried to sell it during the financial crisis. One of the top offers was from McDonalds who wanted to make it their headquarters! It was not accepted.

We then moved on to an area of town called Christianshavn. It is all reclaimed (aka manmade) land that was built as a fortification for the city against the Swedes. It looks extremely similar to the Amsterdam canals! That’s because Denmark hired the Dutch to come and build it for them.

Next to Christianshavn is Christiania. It is one of the most famous social experiments in the world. In the 1970s, the area was unused military barracks that were sitting empty. A group of hippies began living in them and soon the numbers grew. A commune formed that relied on a labor and barter system instead of capitalism. After two years of occupancy, the commune was granted squatters rights – making it impossible for the Danish government to make them leave the land.

To this day, the community still exists. They promote the legalization of marijuana but not harder drugs. The Main Street in Christiania is called Pusher Street where members openly sell weed on the street to anyone who wants some. Celebrities like Lenny Kravitz and Metallica love Christiania and have tried purchasing property, but the commune rejects their offers as they don’t believe in private property.

Our tour guide, Magnus, voiced his hatred for the commune. He despised that they promote themselves as anti-capitalist, but still have a gift shop and operate private tours for tourists and ban all other tour groups. He thinks they are capitalistic and hypocritical.

Since it was getting late and I was hungry, I didn’t get a chance to go inside Christiania (anyone can enter for free!) but I planned on returning the next day to explore.

After getting a dinner salad from the Palæo cafe, I wandered back to Daniel’s place and called it an early night. I was exhausted from walking 10 miles!

The next morning, I decided to go vegan for breakfast. The Palæo cafe was good, but it wasn’t great. I was in the mood for a really delicious breakfast. I went to Plant Power cafe and got a stunning potato salad! It had three colors of potato with pickled veggies, nuts, avocado, and black sesame crackers.

Then, I picked up where I left off and went back to Christiania! Photos aren’t allowed, but believe me when I say it felt like a different world. Instead of the skyscrapers or canal houses of Copenhagen, it had shanty farm houses and rickety barns. It looked like the middle of nowhere! Walking down Pusher Street was a laugh. There must have been 50 stalls with dozens of jars of different strains of weed. I never found out the details, but I can only assume it’s common for locals and tourists to simply buy some!

I continued walking to Noma. It is often cited as the best restaurant in the world. It recently switched locations due to “too many tourists” on the main drag at the old location. This new building is very secluded on the border of Christiania and Nyholm. They are still building it, but it is going to include several free houses where the restaurant can grow its own food!

I had exhausted everything on the “must see” list and my feet were tired from walking an additional 6 miles. I decided to take it easy and hang out at the Palæo cafe while eating a leisurely dinner. It’s usually not in my nature to eat at a restaurant more than once while on vacation, but Palæo was less expensive than other places and I knew they used clean ingredients instead of mystery additives and sugars.

In the evening, I hung out with my host and his roommate. Daniel told stories of how he used to go to Christiania and graffiti buildings with the commune members. It’s their main form of art!

The next day, I headed to the airport to catch my flight back to Amsterdam. Luckily the prices were reasonable so I wasn’t forced to take the misery bus! I was even upgraded to the front row of the plane on Norwegian Air! Unfortunately it was still economy class, but no complaints about the extra leg room.

While waiting for the flight, I got hungry and wanted lunch. I knew the 7-11 stores carry the Palæo brand, so I scoured to airport to find one. Unfortunately the only one was located in the international (meaning outside the Schegen countries) terminal which meant I had to go through passport control! I had to explain to the border control officers that I didn’t have an international ticket but I just wanted to go to the 7-11. They didn’t find it amusing, but they let me go and stamped my passport both coming and going!

Copenhagen was underwhelming. Having been to the rest of Scandinavia, it didn’t feel as unique as Norway and Sweden and Iceland. It’s a weird mix of Scandinavia and Europe but lacks a defining culture. Even though I was just in Amsterdam in December, but I am so excited to be going back. It is my favorite city!

Mykonos, Greece

We arrived in Greece exhausted from the rough ferry ride. By the time we got settled in our room at the Hotel Adonis, it was time for dinner.

I checked TripAdvisor and found a place nearby along the waterfront. On our walk there, we passed the famous windmills of Mykonos. They are non operational, but back in the day, they were used to grind barley and wheat!

We arrived at a restaurant called “Nice n Easy.” We were seated on their large outside covered patio. The atmosphere was overwhelming. There were loud tables of people surrounding us and waiters kept bumping into our table. I looked at the menu and it looked like a chain restaurant. Who comes to Greece to order a quesadilla? The restaurant was packed with foreign tourists. We ordered water and decided to leave.

We wandered the narrow streets until we found Paraportiani. It was a small restaurant that served Greek food. It was already 9pm so we decided to settle on it. I ordered the fish of the day and it was delicious! We later learned that there are no fishermen on Mykonos since all the locals are wealthy. That means most of the seafood is imported from other islands. Regardless, it was a good dinner!

The next morning, we woke up without a plan. Mykonos doesn’t have any free walking tours and the downtown is so small that we had already explored most of it the night before! Still, we headed down to see the streets in the daytime.

They were packed with tourists. Just like Santorini, Mykonos hosts cruise tourists each day. There were several groups being led around like sheep by a tour guide carrying a flag. After a couple hours of wandering, we stopped by Lotus for a midday cocktail. Mom ordered the “Pirates Punch” with kumquat, caramel, and mint. It was delicious!

The name pays homage to the history of Mykonos’ winding streets. They are the opposite of a grid system and were constructed that way to confuse pirates who were trying to loot the city.

We got hungry for dinner around 5pm, but everywhere was closed for their daily siesta! No where was scheduled to open until 7pm at the earliest. As we tried to find a place to go, we walked by Lotus again and they were open. I figured they served a good cocktail earlier in the day, so we could at least stop by for more drinks and an appetizer until dinner. We ended up ordering the grilled mushroom appetizer and it was so delicious that we stayed for dinner!

Eating and drinking at Lotus was the best of the entire trip. Every dish was tasty. We got the modern Greek salad with whipped feta, lobster ravioli, and truffle gnocchi. They offered us free dessert of chocolate mousse, too! I was shocked when I looked them up on TripAdvisor and saw that they had few reviews despite being open for several years. Goes to show that you can’t trust the internet!

The next day, we skipped the hotel breakfast and ate along the water. I ordered a Greek salad and it was served in a jar. This made it extremely hard to eat! I asked for a bowl and was told that it was against the rules and they couldn’t give me one. What kind of rule is that?! It was the most baffling restaurant experience I’ve had in awhile.

Later that day, we prepared for our cooking class. We had signed up for a lesson in Greek cruising through the company Myconian Spiti. The classes are led by a local Greek woman and her cousin in their beautiful home. The class was several hours long and we learned how to make spanakopita, tzatziki, and stuffed peppers. We also ate beef, rice, and dessert that she had prepared. It was a lot of food!

I enjoyed learning tips on cooking, but some of it was completely wrong! She told us that any rice cannot be eaten after 2 days, but yogurt sauce can stay fresh for up to a month. She also said that rubbing Greek liquor on your forehead will cure headaches. I had to bite my tongue when she kept talking about how food made with pastry dough and gallons of olive oil is “the healthiest.”

After our evening of cooking, we spent the entire following day at the beach. Mykonos is known as a party island and has one of the largest beach clubs in the world. We obviously didn’t participate in that activity, but we did walk to Ornos beach and spend the afternoon relaxing on the sand. I was shocked that they charge 10€ just to sit on their beach chairs! The view was worth it, though.

That evening, we were faced with the same dilemma of wanting to eat at 6pm but everywhere being closed. We ended up at Sale & Pepe because their menu looked like it had a lot of options. That was a big lie! We tried ordering 4 different dishes and being told they were “unavailable.” I ended up with the “fig stuffed baby rooster” but the dish looked nothing like I expected.

Most Greek food is under-seasoned, but this was bland beyond comparison! Not a great final meal!

The next morning, Mom left to catch her flight. Mine didn’t leave until the next day, so I spent the afternoon relaxing by the pool and catching up on reading. This trip is exhausting! I feel pressure to make the most of each day in a new place, but sometimes I am just too tired or there’s nothing left to see. The Greek Islands are definitely a place for relaxation and eating – not adventuring. I might return someday, but there are so many other countries I want to see first!