City Guide to Rome

Adventureswithsarah.net Guide to RomeThis guide to Rome is essential to truly understand the city. The Eternal City is one of the most magical places I know. I’ve lived there. I’d have never left if I could have stayed. It can be intimidating, though, and it can be hard to decide where to begin planning a visit, especially a short one. There are massive guidebooks and millions of websites dedicated to this city. How can a person figure out what’s important and what’s hype? Here, in this Quick City Guide to Rome, I will condense all of it for you into basic tips, top sights, my favorite places, shopping spots and food. Be warned, these are MY opinions.

How do I know all of this? I write and guide for Rick Steves. Rick is a master of making a selection of the best things to see and do, and I’ll boil it down further. Grab a copy of his Rome book for the best in-depth information.

Guide to Rome Quick Facts

Population: 2.8 million, fourth largest in Europe, similar to Chicago

Size by Foot: It takes about 45 minutes to walk across the main heart of the city, Vatican city to Termini station

Colors & Symbols: Gold and Burgundy, the She-Wolf, SPQR

Rioni: Rome is divided into 22 districts, each with a different character. Look for the number on street signs and the district symbol on trash cans and other city property.

Transport

Bus and Metro: Tickets are 1.50 each for 1 metro ride or 90 minutes of bus. Tickets (biglietti- beel-YEH-tee) for sale at tobacco shops, newsstands and metro stations, not on board. Bus #64 famously winds its way from Termini station to the Vatican, through the heart of Rome.

Taxi: Most short, in-city rides cost 8-12 Euro for up to four people. To FCO airport costs 48 Euro for up to four people. Taxis are the easiest and most efficient way to get around the city.

Tour Guides are Awesome (I am Biased)

Looking to maximize your time? Hiring a great guide is the best way to get the most out of your visit. The mesmerizing Francesca Caruso ([email protected]) is a dear friend and the mother of all tour guides. You’d be lucky to get her, but you can try. She can suggest an excellent colleague if she’s busy.

If you’re an enthusiastic Catholic, you may be interested in Mountain Butorac, The Catholic Traveler, who is as sincere as he is enthusiastic. While not an official tour guide, he organizes one day pilgrimages, an interesting concept that nobody else is offering.

I would suggest avoiding big tour companies like City Wonders, Dark Rome, The Roman Guy and Viator. Spend the money for your own guide, it’s worth it. Support your local independent tour guide!

Quick Tips for Top Sights

Guide to Rome, ColosseumColosseum, Forum and Palatine

The ancient heart of the city is the top sight to see in Rome. For those with little time or interest in ancient history, a simple walk from Piazza Venezia, down the Via dei Fori Imperiali, around the Colosseum and to the Circus Maximus will visually cover the heart. That stroll, taking in all of the great buildings from a distance, could be enough to satisfy some visitors while skipping the crowds. Do you need to go in? That depends on your interest level, the weather and the crowds you find when you arrive. If you do go, a good guidebook or a tour will help you get the most out of the visit. Rick Steves Audio Tours offers free downloads for these sights.

Tips

  • There are several ticket offices around the Forum, one near the Colosseum and one near Via Cavour. They are usually not as crowded as the one inside the Colosseum and offer the same services, so pick up your tickets ahead.
  • The Colosseum is currently offering spooky night visits that can be reserved in advance.
  • The Imperial Forums have two different evening light shows that tell the story of Rome. This is a cool, and I mean temperature, way to see the Forum come back to life (15 Euro, http://www.viaggioneifori.it/en/)

Vatican Museum

Vatican Museum crowdDo you really have to go to the Vatican Museum? It isn’t pleasant, I’ll be honest. The crowds are noisy, sweaty and getting to be unsafe in size, in my opinion. But I get it, nobody would understand if you went all the way to Rome and didn’t see the Sistine Chapel. Sadly, there is no magic bullet here, unless you want to pay hundreds of dollars for an “After-Hours Tour”.

Tips

  • Go mid-week and make reservations in advance. Lunchtime can be decent.
  • If you’re not interested in the Papal Audience on Wednesday morning, the museum can often be pretty quiet then.
  • If you don’t mind getting up early, the museum offers a buffet breakfast that gets you in before the waiting hoards. This is a system similar to the breakfast inside Disneyland- you buy the breakfast for the privilege of being the first in the door, and run as soon as they will let you go in the galleries to get a jump on everyone else. It’s a little expensive, but the setting is lovely.
  • Skip the guided tour. Audioguides or guidebooks are better here because you can go at your own pace and select your visit based on the conditions of the day. Trying to stay with a big tour group can also be stressful in a crowd.

Saint Peter’s Basilica

This one is easy. Go early. The basilica opens at 7am most days, and tour groups are not allowed until much later. Get there as close to 7 as you can. Between 7 and 8 it is just you, priests, nuns and a few sleepy faithful.

The Pope

You can see the Pope on Sunday at noon when he reads a message from a window high above Piazza San Pietro. No tickets are necessary, just show up and bring binoculars. He gives his regular audience on Wednesdays at 10.

Tips

  • Tickets for the Wednesday papal audience can be scored through your home parish (if you’re Catholic) or through the Pontifical North American College in Rome, located near the Trevi Fountain. No tickets? Go anyway, someone usually has extras.
  • Although the tickets say the audience begins at 10, the Pope starts his lap around the crowd in the Popemobile earlier, especially in warmer weather. Arrive by 8:30 at the latest.
  • The best place to get up close to the Pope is often from the worst seat. The Popemobile makes a loop around the crowd before the audience begins, grab a spot at the barriers on the side or back for maximum photo opportunities.

Galleria Borghese

Borghese Gallery adventureswithsarah.netThis art gallery is a blockbuster sight that many haven’t heard of. Located at the edge of the Villa Borghese public park, this villa houses perhaps the single greatest collection of Baroque art anywhere. Every inch is crammed with masterpieces by Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael and more. If I were to pick for you, I’d choose this over the Vatican Museum in a heartbeat. If it ain’t Baroque…

Tips

  • Reserve tickets ahead. You won’t get in otherwise.
  • You only have two hours, use them wisely. Everyone starts their visit at the entrance. Skip the ground floor and go upstairs to start. When the crowds have dissipated, go back down to enjoy the masterpieces.
  • Don’t just look at the sculptures, walk around them. They were made to be seen from different angles to reveal their stories.

Sarah’s Favorite Offbeat Sights

Palazzo Valentini

This newer sight is one of my favorites for understanding the layers of Rome. Under a Baroque city office building, the ruins of a Roman noble home were found. An audio-visual light show recreates the rooms as they may have been, and then takes you on to a WWII bunker with a display on Trajan’s Column. At 90 minutes, it’s a little long and drawn out, but a good experience overall. Tickets can be reserved in advance, but I find that reservations are fairly easy to get the day before. If nothing else, take the Italian language tour–they are always available.

My other favorite underground sites can be found HERE.

Palazzo Doria Pamphilij

The history of the city of Rome is not limited to Popes and Emperors, it’s also found in the homes of the Roman nobility that controlled the city for centuries. Many of the famous families–Barberini, Farnese, Borghese–fell on hard times and lost their family homes and art collections. The Doria Pamphilij family still exists and still owns a palace on Via del Corso filled with family treasures. The audioguide tells family stories as you wander through halls of masterpieces randomly hung, their gilded frames marked with the artist’s name written in Sharpie. I get a kick out of how weirdly homey it feels.

National Museum of Rome Palazzo Massimo

I bet you thought I’d suggest the Capitoline Museums for sculpture, no? That is a beautiful museum, but too obvious. Instead, I’d send you to poor Palazzo Massimo, near the train station. Nobody thinks to go to this museum, even if the collection is priceless and would attract huge crowds elsewhere. It’s got ancient sculpture, fresco, coins, jewelry, you name it. Go pay this museum some attention. It’s lonely.

Santa Maria in Trastevere

There are as many churches in Roma as there are banks in Milano, or so the saying goes. There is no end to the many churches you could choose to visit. My top pick is Santa Maria in Trastevere. It is considered to be possibly the oldest church in Rome, built beginning in the 300’s. It’s a neighborhood church, with an active parish. The interior is lovely, with golden Byzantine mosaics, but the thing I like best is the soulful feeling it gives me. It has an intimate, time worn, well loved feeling. Head to the left aisle, where locals stop to write prayers on scraps of paper, leaving them in front of a saint.

Best Catacomb

The catacombs are the ancient tombs of early Christians on the outskirts of Rome, and there are multiple sites. To see them, you’ll need to take a cab or bus from the city center. This is not a thing for everyone. Don’t like graveyards? It’s not for you. If you don’t like to be underground without doors and windows, don’t go. If you’re not into tight spaces, forget it. For everyone else, the Catacombs of San Sebastiano offers the best visit. Just off the romantic Appian Way, this particular site combines a typical catacomb experience with an underground Roman cemetery and a lovely church on top. The groups are smaller here and the tour guides are usually good. (Bus 118  from the Colosseum)

Random Wandering

If I could truly design a perfect day for you, it would be a wander. Start at one end of town, perhaps Piazza del Popolo, and just walk. Stop in to any church with a door open. Light candles for family members, even if you’re not religious. Find a local bar and order a coffee, try and talk with the elderly regulars. Sit on a bench and watch kids play soccer. Poke into shops. Check out ruins and do your best time traveling. Watch the sunrise or the sunset. Get a gelato, ideally at the great classic Giolitti. Remember, you can have as much gelato as you like as long as you don’t have the same flavor twice. That’s an order. That’s a real Roman day.

Get Out

Rome is a city for enjoying outdoors. Stroll the streets, enjoy the sights and sounds. The Villa Borghese park rents rickshaw style bikes with an electric assist motor. Whiz through the park at terrifying speed for a great thrill.

Best Viewpoints

Rome from Gianicolo

There are many options for finding a cityscape perch, depending on your energy level.

Pincio

The Villa Borghese park has a view terrace, just above Piazza del Popolo. This view faces west over St. Peter’s and is therefore a great bet for sunset.

Gianicolo Hill

Perched over the Trastevere neighborhood, this is one of my favorites, with a stellar view of the Pantheon dome. Arrive at the park just before noon and you’ll get to hear the cannons mark midday with a boom. Bus 870 runs from Largo Fiorentini in the center of Rome to the hill.

Vittoriano

All Romans deride the huge white monument at the center of their city, calling it the “dentures” or “wedding cake”. An elevator was put on the back of it some years ago and the top has become a great spot for a 360 degree view from the heart of the city- a view that does not include the monument you’re standing on. (Piazza Venezia, 9:30-19:30, 7 Euro)

Dome of St. Peter’s

Rome

For those who must to climb to the top of the tallest thing (and you know who you are), the view from the cupola at St. Peter’s can’t be beat. Choose from taking 551 steps all the way up, or pay slightly more for the elevator to the base of the dome and skip 200 steps. The stair to the tippy top winds up between the inner and outer shell of the dome, making it a little tight for tall or wide climbers. The truly lazy can skip climbing all the way to the top and enjoy the terrace views and coffee shop at the top of the elevator. (San Pietro, line forms to the right as you face the facade, 8:00-18:00, 6 Euro, 8 with elevator)

Shopping Hot Spots

Via Del Corso to Piazza di Spagna

While full of predictable chain department stores and top-end boutiques, this is the place for the biggest evening passagiata in the city. Anyone want to buy me a Valentino dress? No? I’d settle for a Fendi handbag.

Campo dei Fiori

The market food stalls of my youth have given way to touristy junk, but it’s still fun. Streets radiating off the Campo have inexpensive shops for funky finds. Stop at the Forno for a slice of pizza bianca while you shop.

Trastevere

Hippy, arty, occasionally stinky but always cool. A great place to find handmade jewelry, artsy objects and rip-off Prada bags.

Porta Portese Market

Porta Portese Market Rome

The full spectrum of humanity makes a show on Sundays at the Porta Portese Flea Market. Antique books, stolen car stereos, heaps of used clothing line the street for as far as the eye can see. This was my favorite Sunday tradition in college, and it hasn’t changed. Again, this is not a tourist market, it can feel gritty, but maybe that’s why I love it.

Eataly

This isn’t really special anymore since they have opened them in many cities as well as the US…but still, it’s cool. The Eataly in Rome is huge. A paradise for foodies, this grocery store/food mecca fills an old train station near the Pyramide metro stop. The restaurant is good, but if you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, the groceries are impeccable. Warning: window shopping is impossible here. You will eat.

Eat This

Trattoria der Pallaro

If I were to send you to one place for dinner in Rome, this is it. It’s not cool or trendy. Der Pallaro is something from another time, another Rome that I am sad to see disappear– I want you to see it before it’s gone. Paola Fazi has been feeding Rome for more than 50 years, and she’s been feeding me since 1995. The dining room looks like your elderly aunt’s basement, with knotty pine paneled walls and framed prints so old that the paper has yellowed. There’s no menu here, and the meal is pretty much the same, although she changes it up depending on time of year, time of day, or how much she likes you. She’s a real character, giving kisses and hugs to regulars in her usual towel turban. At 25 Euro per person, it’s also the best value in the city. You’ll leave stuffed. (Largo Pallaro, next to San Andrea della Valle)

Insalata Ricca

Insalata RiccaFor a country literally awash in fabulous produce, Italy makes terrible salads. It’s always the same boring pile of lettuce topped with shredded carrots, radicchio and tomatoes, occasionally corn, dressed with boring olive oil. Snore. This salad restaurant lives up to its name “The Rich Salad”, offering more than 50 variations. Their locations are in perfect sightseeing areas, near Piazza Navona and another near Saint Peter’s. Inexpensive, fresh, great outdoor seating. Winner. (Just off Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle next to San Andrea della Valle, or on Piazza Risorgimento)

Otello della Concordia

I found this on the advice of a friend, I needed a place for an affordable meal near the Spanish Steps. No easy task. Tucked into a quiet courtyard covered in wisteria, this restaurant feels like an oasis apart from the madness. It’s allegedly the oldest restaurant in Rome, or one of them. Not too touristy, not too expensive, good, solid Roman food. (Via della Croce 81)

Dino and Tony

This place is not on the tourist map, it’s just off of it, a few blocks away from the Vatican Museum. Similar to Der Pallaro, Dino and Tony are loudmouth brothers who like to bicker and tease their diners. They serve a parade of different bites. I like their pizza. Mostly they make me laugh. (Via Leone IV, 60)

Tre Scalini

Tartufo at Tre Scalini Rome

This is no special secret, Tre Scalini is famous and woefully touristy. You must go, though, because it’s TRADITION. They serve Tartufo- a big scoop of dark chocolate gelato rolled in chocolate chunks, topped with whipped cream and a cherry. It’s ridiculously overpriced, DO NOT sit down at the cafe to eat it unless you’ve got big bucks to burn. Take it away and sit in Piazza Navona. This is classic Rome.

Sleep Here

Best Neighborhoods to Stay In

Monti- Chic and artsy as well as superbly located between the train station and the Colosseum. Bonus: great restaurants all around, super convenient.

Campo dei Fiori, Rome

Campo dei Fiori- If you can find a place here, it’s the bees knees. Very centrally located and full of Roman charm. Bummer: noisy bars abound, can get a little out of control.

Trastevere- A little funky village within Rome, you won’t believe you are in the center of a metropolis. Loads of character. Bummer/Bonus: not very central and lacking in good bus lines.

Sarah’s Favorite Hotels

Hotel Aberdeen– Close to Piazza della Repubblica, this simple hotel is run by the lovely Annamaria and her relatives. I’ve been staying here for almost two decades, it’s like a home away from home.

Hotel San Carlo- Another simple choice, the location is almost unbeatable, right at the Spanish Steps. It’s a small, affordable haven in an otherwise pricey zone with a roof terrace. The owners are extremely kind and helpful.

Need more info or advice? Comment here or on my Facebook page. Buon Viaggio!

Women’s Travel Toiletries

Traveling light with a well packed bag can make a good trip better. What you bring and what you leave behind depends on your personal tastes. Nothing is more personal than women’s travel toiletries. It’s a tricky topic, and I am not speaking for every woman, but I’ll give you my spin.

Every woman has her own beauty routine, depending on age, style and upbringing. I don’t actually remember my mom ever training me on how to use cosmetics, so I don’t use many and don’t think much about it. Other people devote a large space in their brains to it. I know that it is virtually impossible to make a list of women’s travel toiletries for every single woman, but perhaps my minimalism is a way to start.

Let’s review the basics. Keep in mind that no matter what your beauty routine, I suggest keeping it all in a TSA approved 3-1-1 container, which amounts to a quart sized ziplock bag. I know this sounds insane or impossible, but I promise you that I actually do it this way. Toiletries can weigh a ton, and minimizing here can save weight. I am on the road far longer than most people and I still keep it to that small size. You can too.

Sarah’s Most Basic Women’s Travel Toiletries Kit

Shampoo- I prefer something that smells nice, preferably like a Hawaiian beach. Concentrate your favorite yourself by leaving it in a dish on a counter.

Conditioner- I’ll pay more for a good conditioner, because higher end ones can be used sparingly and last longer. They also make my hair softer!

Toothbrush– Manual, electric or battery operated, it’s up to you.

Toothpaste– Baking soda toothpaste is good for better breath, but even better, it can be used for bug bites and acne as well.

Moisturizer– I stay away from Retinol formulas since I’m often in the sun. I always pick a light moisturizer with at least 30 SPF. An inexpensive one can double as sunblock at the beach.

Deodorant– Paste deodorants are more compact and last longer. I choose a natural formula for better health, and it is shockingly effective even for stinky people. If you choose to try this, use it for a week or two before departure to get used to it.

Makeup Essentials

No two women will ever agree on what makeup is essential. I have skin with blemishes, so I need some sort of base. Other than that, I keep it simple with mascara and lipstick. I have so little time in the mornings when I travel and little time to check my makeup later in the day. For this reason, I suggest long-lasting products.

Face powder– BareMinerals is all I will use. I don’t like the look or feel of base makeup, I think it makes me look older than necessary. This is a light, mineral based powder that you brush on. It looks natural and feels like nothing. Great for concealing bad skin. It has sunscreen properties too.

Lipstick– Revlon Colorstay is the only way to go. Accept no substitutes, they just don’t work as well. This stuff will last a full 24 hours or swigging beer and munching pasta and pizza. I prefer the natural colors this line offers. If you’re flashy, it may not be your thing. The lip gloss on the end of it is nice to use on chapped lips.

Mascara– I have yet to find a particular mascara that I just love. Manufacturers seem to be inconsistent on this. It must be waterproof and go on without clumps. My current pick has served me well this season.


Eyeshadow- This is not a necessary item, but sometimes it’s nice to have a little flash when I need to be girlie or fancy. You know what i’m saying. A few lines offer small eyeshadow pods with a single color, I’ll take something that is cheap and I can toss if I need to.

Haircare

I have long, straight hair. You may not. The hair products you choose depend on your style. This is where a lot of women will waste weight and space, so try and simplify your hair style if you can. Nobody cares what your hair looks like, other than you. It’s ok to leave behind the gel and styling irons. Really. And if you’re still not convinced, ask your hair stylist to give you an easier style before leaving.

Hair elastics- Even if you have short hair, these can come in handy to hold things together, like cords.

Hair clips– Small grip clips are good for all lengths of hair on days you just can’t even. Great on hikes to keep hair out of your face. Perfect for long hair styles. I’ll use these to hold cords together or to clips things together in my bag. Multipurpose.

Hairspray- This isn’t really a necessity in my view, but I’m a minimalist. Try to live without it, you can always buy it at your destination.

Comb or brush– I prefer a comb, and I tend to splash out a little here. Cheap combs can tangle or get caught in my hair, so I’ve bought a couple of nicer, handmade ones. Even my super sensitive kiddos will let me comb their hair with them!

Razor- I found this nifty razor that comes with its own little case. Goodbye to broken razor handles and slashed fingertips!

Additional Items


Makeup Remover– I don’t actually bring anything here, I just use soap and water. My readers, however, have strongly suggested makeup removing wipes. And when I say strongly, I mean really insistent. I can see the value, the wipes can be used for other kinds of clean up in a pinch.

Floss- Rolls or picks? Both types of floss have their uses. A roll of floss can double as string or twine to tie things together. It’s great for cutting soft cheese. I prefer the picks as they are easier to use. Gross but helpful tip, wash the picks and reuse them.

Tweezers– I cannot live without my tweezers. Not just for grooming, although that is important, especially in Italy. I also find them useful for first aid, as an impromptu screwdriver, and as a grabber if I drop something down a drain. Millions of uses.


Sunblock- Solid sunblock is the way to go. The liquid stuff always ends up all over everything, but maybe that is because I’m a little messy. I’ve tried a few solid sticks, and I still prefer the Neutrogena stick. It’s meant for kids, but I refuse to grow up, so I think I can still use it.

Eyeliner– Very subjective item. I don’t typically use it unless I’m trying to impress someone, occasionally to impress myself when I’m feeling shabby. I do love that Colorstay line, it really lasts.

Pills and Medications- I keep my pills in a tiny Altoids tin within my toiletries kit, and then have the overflow in a pouch in my bag.

Contact Lenses- Liquids weight a lot, so I have switched to daily contacts. No solution needed and no case. No worries about cleaning well.

 

That’s about all I would use in a women’s travel toiletries kit. I’ll bet you have some favorites and hacks that I haven’t thought of, so share them here or on my Facebook page. Get out there and travel, beautiful, you look FAHH-bulous!

 

Adventures with Nico: Road Trip Edition

Adventures with Nico, Road Trip

It’s August again, so it’s time for another adventure with my young son, Nico. If you recall, last year Nico and I took an epic wander around Italy, which I wrote about in episodes. This year we chose to do a short road trip from our home in Seattle, which grew from an overnight in Portland to a 6 day drive with my mother, Rita, along for the ride.

Backstory

The real reason for this particular adventure is that I recently bought a new car. My beloved VW Passat TDI died after a solid 12 years of service. I would have replaced it, but they don’t make that car anymore.

It was a bit of a drama finding a new car that could easily fit a pack of tall people. I’d been without a car for three months and was frustrated, so one day when I couldn’t take it anymore, I hopped on my Vespa and rode down to the Mazda dealership. I told them exactly what I wanted and that I wanted to drive it away that day. By some strange magic, they said “Yes, Ma’am” and I left in a shiny new CX-9.

Sarah's New Car, Mazda CX-9

Now, I’m not a fancy person, and I’ve never wanted or needed a fancy car. I can’t afford one anyhow. But I’m just at that point in life when I cannot tolerate a crappy car. I’ve driven a ’68 Beetle, ’79 Pinto, ’70 Fastback and a ’77 Checker Marathon. Every one of those cars has had funky character and a great story behind them, but not one was reliable. AAA and I are very good friends, unfortunately.

So, to make a long story short, I’d had it. My valiant Passat died a sorry death after carting around messy kids from infancy to middle school. It was falling apart. It lurched into the Mazda lot with a trail of ominous white smoke behind it and I closed that chapter.

I have never in my life owned a new car. I cannot believe that someone gave me a loan for such an expensive piece of machinery, and I have to wonder why I happen to be in the small percentage of people on earth lucky enough to do that. I spent the first few days of owning it standing by the window, staring at it, with a mixture of guilt and terror.

Let’s See What it can DO

Now I’ve got a new car and a week in August to kill. Nico didn’t really care about where we were going, he just wanted to stay places that had pools. Easy enough.
Nico on a road trip

I asked my parents if they’d like to come, this monster of a new car can fit 7 if it needs to. Dad wanted to go to Vegas, but Mom said no, too hot (and Dad likes keno too much). Mom didn’t care about destination, she’s always up for an adventure. Dad couldn’t come in the end, unfortunately, he drives for Wingz and had a few client pick-ups reserved.

I cast the idea out on Facebook to see if anyone would invite us to visit, to give us a plan, and I got a few good offers. San Francisco seemed like a good destination. I hadn’t been in years, since my 21st birthday. I also hoped to get to Napa, one of my favorite places on earth. Without thinking much about it, I decided to get in the car and go.

Day One

Nico and I hopped in the car with our backpacks and a pile of stuffed animals. I had only planned this road trip THE DAY BEFORE. Seriously. I called mom and Saturday and we left Sunday morning. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I do stuff like that.

Spontaneous travel may seem crazy, but we were in a new car, I had a credit card, and there are Target stores all along the route. No worries. No planning needed.

Mom, of course, turned up with more than her weight in stuff. She brought a suitcase that weighed at least 25 pounds. She brought two coolers, a couple of towels, two fluffy blankets, a sack full of paper plates and picnic supplies and a BEACH CHAIR, among other things. She doesn’t read my blog.

Adventures with Sarah, Mom fills up the trunk on a road trip

While I looked at her in disbelief as she loaded everything into the car, she promised that we would use all of the things she was bringing.

We hit the road and drove. I wished we had started earlier. A colleague of mine at Rick Steves had invited us to a show in Ashland, at the Oregon Shakespeare festival, then dinner after. I wasn’t sure we’d make it by 6, or to Ashland at all.

The car drove like a dream, it has all the crazy modern stuff that new cars have these days. Navigation. Excellent climate control. Alarms that buzz to keep you safe. Best of all, it actually starts when you want it to!

We made good time, but didn’t get there for the play. We had to take a pit stop for lunch at an A&W because we like rootbeer floats. I also needed to book a hotel for the night, so I browsed Priceline while I ate. I found a great deal, reserved it from my phone and input the address in the GPS.

I had never been to Ashland, and we were greeted with hugs from my friend and colleague, Caterina Moore. She guides for Rick Steves along with me, and we’d traveled together. She’s a fantastic guide and a delight to spend time with.

Visiting friends in Ashland, OR

Our time was short, but we took a stroll around Ashland to see the festival theaters, then dinner and another stroll. Ashland is super cute.

Lithe Spring water in Ashland, OR

Our last stop before dinner was to try their special “Lithia Water”, spring water that is special to the city and flows in the fountains. Our hosts looked excited for us to try it, so I went first. Oh, um, yeah. GROSS. It is a fizzy spring water that tastes like baking soda and sulfur. Apparently it has health benefits. Anything that tastes that bad must be good for you.

Day Two

We woke at a lazy hour and went down to the hotel breakfast. I kind of despise hotel breakfasts since I eat them all the time, but at least they had waffles. Nico wanted to go for a swim before we left and I obliged after breakfast. Bad form, I know.

After our swim, I loaded up the car and we headed out for the California border. I had not gone over the Siskyou Pass in 13 years. The last time was over New Year’s and it was a terrible disaster. We got stuck in a driving snow storm that piled up to the middle of the car doors, in the Checker, which had no defrost and bad windshield wipers. Bad, bad memories.
Adventures with Sarah Road Trip, Mount Shasta

This time, snow was not an issue as it was about 115 degrees. I worried a little as we sped down the freeway, I wondered if my car would be able to take that heat. Every other car I’d ever owned would have overheated and broken down. That little concern rattled around my head all day, but it was silly. I have a new car. Normal people who drive normal cars don’t worry about overheating, as it turns out.

We passed through the Shasta area, which is so pretty, and took a quick break at a rest stop for a picnic lunch. My mom’s preparations paid off. She had all the supplies to make sandwiches, including matching paper plates and napkins. I’ll never be the kind of mom she is.

Picnic time, road trip with Nico and Mom

We ate quick to avoid melting and I again looked for a place to stay. I was making reservations on the fly because I wanted us to have the flexibility to change our plans as we went. I figured that we could easily make it to Napa before the wineries closed, so that was the goal.

Geez, hotels in San Francisco are expensive. All of my friends that live there were out of town on vacations, so no free place to stay. A friend had suggested staying in Marin county and taking the ferry in, so I booked a place near the ferry dock. Nothing special, but convenient.

I got back in the car and drove like the wind to try and make it to a winery before closing. I cannot believe how Napa and Sonoma close up at 5. That’s nuts. They should stay open later. I found one place that seemed family-friendly and was open until 6.

Cline Cellars, Adventures with Sarah Road Trip

We arrived at Cline Cellars just in time. After driving for many hours, I was ready for a drink or several. The man at the counter was really sweet and helped me choose some wines to try.

I get a little annoyed in Napa by the snobbery level since I visit wineries often in Europe. European wineries are not pretentious in general, wine is for everyone, not just the rich. This particular winery was just perfect, friendly and inviting without attitude.

Sarah Murdoch and Rita Murdoch, Cline Cellars

My mother doesn’t tend to drink at all. If she does, she likes the screw-top raspberry Merlot, and she usually drinks it with an ice cube. I’d never taken her to a winery before and she didn’t want to do a whole flight of wines, it was too much. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The gentleman at the counter was kind enough to let us share a wine tasting, I was driving anyway and could only have tiny sips. My mother tried everything…I was shocked. She loved it. Mom and Dad are both very chatty and friendly, so she enjoyed talking to the people at the bar and eventually found a couple of wines that she really liked. I was floored. Who’s mom are you?

Grapes at Cline Cellars

We didn’t stay too long, Nico was pretty bored, even if they let him feed the giant carp in their pond. We walked around the vineyard for a few minutes in the sunset. It was lovely.

Sonoma, Adventures with Nico

As a native Californian, I am always missing decent Mexican food, so we went looking for dinner. We drove up to Sonoma and wandered the town center. I was glad it was closing up. My mom is a shopper and I’m not. Sonoma is a cute town, and we enjoyed a decent Mexican dinner. I browsed the real estate listings….someday….

Day 3

My Priceline gamble landed us at an Extended Stay America. It was a little weird feeling, set in an industrial area and inhabited, it seemed, by only men. The sheets were wrinkled, but it was otherwise clean and a bargain. Nico was sad to find that the pool was lame and it was shockingly cold in that part of the Bay area.

Golden Gate Bridge

The point, though, was to stay outside of San Francisco and ferry in. It was a brilliant strategy. The ferry zipped us across the bay in 30 minutes, dropping us in the center of town. The crossing itself was beautiful, with views over the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay. I took lots of pictures of San Quentin and Alcatraz for my dad, he likes those jailbreak movies.

We had no agenda, but I knew that a mix of adult and kid stuff would be the goal. My memory of San Francisco was sketchy at best. We decided to walk. My mom’s goal was to eat sourdough bread. Nico’s was to see the Ghirardelli chocolate factory. My goal was to keep everyone happy.

Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco

We walked, and walked, and walked. I didn’t remember Fisherman’s Wharf being so far. We stopped at a cool science museum, but the entry fees were unbelievable. I am so spoiled by European ticket prices. The Louvre is just $15.

Eventually we got to the Wharf and Mom got her bread. Nico got a loaf shaped like a turtle. Each time he took a bite I made screaming noises. He didn’t think that was funny.

The best part of the day was the Musee Mechanique, an arcade full of antique games, fortune tellers and movie machines. Everything was a quarter to play. Nico had never seen anything like it. He tried everything, and we crammed ourselves into the Photo Booth for old-fashioned pictures.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXs6OpArHfU[/embedyt]

The thing Nico was most impressed by was the hand crank movie machine. I don’t know what fascinated him about those, but he could have stayed all day watching cowboys and indians, the San Francisco Fire and other reels. It was cool to watch an internet-age kid enjoy simpler pleasures.

Musee Machanique, San Francisco

I had my fortune told (hope it comes true) and was terrified by the automatons and marionettes. I was also freezing my buns off. How is it that all of the west coast, including Seattle, could be over 100 degrees but it’s 60 in San Francisco??

Sarah Murdoch and family, San FranciscoAfter lunch at In-n-Out Burger, as good former Californians do, we went to have sundaes at Ghirardelli.  $15. That’s what it costs for a sundae. Seriously. But it made Nico so happy to pick. I was trying to talk to him while he perused the menu and he said “Mom, stop. This is serious business.” Okey dokey. 9 year-olds have their priorities straight.

Serious business, Adventures with Nico

After that, I dragged Mom and Nico up to Lombard Street. I wanted to watch the cars zigzag down the hill.


I was being kind of silly and touristy, but I wasn’t the only one. There were more tourists there taking pictures than any other place in SF.

What I didn’t know was that the entire neighborhood beneath it is Italian paradise. Everyone else on earth seems to know about it, but I didn’t. What fun to walk the streets and stop to chat with people in Italian. And what a shock for the people I spoke to. Nobody ever expects a 6’2 blonde to speak Italian.

Molinari's Delicatessen, North Beach San Francisco

The man at a deli we stopped in was from Catania, in Sicily. I could tell from his dialect so I struck up a conversation. We had a nice chat about Sicily, a place I know very well. I later heard that he is famous for his salami and has even fed the Pope!

Chinatown, San Francisco

Chinatown is cheek-by-jowl to the Italian district. I was looking forward to going there because I recall having fun there years ago and trying lots of street food. It was pretty, but also pretty dirty and my mom was having none of that. Nico was about to meltdown as well. I think that hike up Lombard street did them both in.

We decided it was time to go back on the ferry. Nico got a stuffed animal to remember his trip, Mom got a shopping bag. I was looking for a good book but never found anything to read that was just right. Back at our hotel, we made a feast from Trader Joe’s appetizers and Nico declared it to be the best dinner ever.

Day 4

On this lightning road trip, time was running out. We had to head north. I wasn’t about to leave without hitting at least one more winery, but we didn’t have time to go back to Sonoma. I thought 101 would be fun to drive, hitting the Redwoods on the way, so we slowly made our way along.

Trattore Cellars, HealdsburgMom had decided that she wanted olive oil, but it’s surprisingly hard to find good places to stop that sell it. Must be more in central California. We eventually stopped near Healdsburg and discovered a delightful wine road, littered with adorable wineries. Mom and I agreed that we could spend days going winery to winery. Nico was not amused.

Rita at Trattore Cellars

We found a spot that did olive oil tasting along with wine tasting, and they were nice enough to let Nico participate a bit. It was scorching hot and he was bored, so it was a quick visit, but I’d have stayed longer if I could have. The scenery was so beautiful, so like Italy.

Sarah Murdoch, Adventures with Sarah

Continuing on, we made it to the Redwoods by dusk. I’d never been to the Avenue of Giants, and we drove slowly through, stopping to wander and explore.

Redwoods, Adventures with SarahRedwoods are so very impressive, I’m not used to feeling small. Nico was hoping to see the one you can drive through, but he had plenty of fun just climbing around and playing in the cool, lush forest.

Before finishing our day, we made a quick stop in Ferndale. My mother had always dreamed of owning a Victorian house, and she apparently brought us there when we were kids. It was a little late and everything was closed, but the town itself was charming. Like a movie set. Like Mainstream USA escaped from Disneyland.

Eureka was the only logical stop for the night. “Eureka” means “I’ve found it!” but I’m not sure what they had found that was worth getting excited about. We found a Red Lion, one of the many overpriced and mediocre hotels in town. Oh well, not every stop is a gem. Nico was pretty excited to find a Sizzler in the parking lot, because he loves salad and salad bars. Or so he says. It could be the free ice cream.

Going Home

Our next two days were about going back to Seattle. We had breakfast in Arcata, a place I recall going with my patchouli scented friends in college. We drove through more redwoods and stopped to play on the beach. I took a crazy, windy road and got to really test out my new car’s abilities. It wasn’t on purpose, but hey, it’s an adventure!

Mama and Nico at the beach

We stopped for the night in Salem and stayed with the partner of one of my colleagues. I love how the Rick Steves family really is a family. She’d never met me before but opened her home to me and my family, treating us like relatives. She made us dinner and breakfast, then showed us around her town, sending us off with a packed lunch. It’s nice to be mothered occasionally.

Road trip with mom and Nico

Slogging through Portland traffic, we got back home in the evening after a couple of pitstops for ice cream. Nico was hoping to stop at VooDoo Donuts, but I couldn’t bear waiting in line for hours in the heat for bacon donuts.

You may notice that I never mentioned how Nico behaved in the car. Nico has always been a spark plug, a little fiery and occasionally temperamental. Much like our Italian adventure, he was a gem. He made a little nest in the back, with blankets, stuffies, books, snacks and my iPad. He read, watched movies, looked at the scenery. That kid is a better traveler than almost anyone I’ve ever met.

My mom was a great travel companion, ready for anything and flexible as we changed plans. She’s very chatty, even if I’m not, and talked to me and just about anyone we met along the way. She had a ball, she has called me a couple of times asking when we can go again. Which made me think about road trips.

Many people need to plan or wait or have an excuse to put off taking a trip. We just went. No plan, minimal budget. I can bet that this is something that my mom will always remember. It’s important to do, to make time for making memories with family, even if it’s just a short jaunt.

And we did use most of the 1000 things she brought. Except the beach chair.

 

 

 

 

Travel Toiletries: The Most Basic Basics

Travel Toiletries, Sarah Murdoch, Adventureswithsarah.net

Every time I leave for the airport, I have that sudden panic–what did I forget? There must be something. It always used to be my watch, so I’ve solved that problem by not owning a watch. These days, it is occasionally something small in my travel toiletries kit. Travel toiletries are a key component of any bag, and often a point of packing stress. But no worries, I’ve got you covered.

Travel toiletries can be basic or extensive, depending on who you are and where you’re going. Vagabonds need only a toothbrush and princesses need a steamer trunk of lotions and potions. I’m not very good at being a girl, so I will err on the side of less-is-more.

Of all of the things you will pack, the most concentrated weight will come from travel toiletries and you know how I feel about weight! Cutting down in this category will keep you light on your feet, making some sacrifices will pay off.

I don’t think any two people will ever agree on what the perfect travel toiletries kit contains, so I’m going to split this into several posts. I’ll write today about the most basic of travel toiletries kits, with suggestions for some of my favorite products. I’ll follow that up with more specific suggestions for men and women, and some cool travel toiletries hacks.

Sarah’s Absolutely Most Basic Travel Toiletries Kit

Case and Bottles

In my previous article on toiletries, I talked about my Tom Bihn toiletries bag which I have used for years, and I still find ideal. I limit myself to a quart sized 3-1-1 size bag, the maximum liquid carry on the airlines require. I know that’s pretty small, but I am talking minimalism here.

I am always on the lookout for better bottles for shampoo and conditioner. In my search, I have looked for flat bottles that can fit more efficiently in the tiny bag. I struck gold recently with the Lewis N Clark Flat Bottle set.

The bottles are a little like toothpaste tubes with wide necks for easy filling. They are super light and allow you to squeeze every last drop out. So far they have survived about 2 months on the road and are still doing well. Sadly, I left one in a shower so I’ll be buying more. I’m calling it, these are my favorite travel toiletries tubes yet.

Big bonus, the tube set comes with a big plastic toiletries bag that is clear and apparently meets the airline rules for a 3-1-1, although I can’t see how. It is so much bigger than my other case! It has a zippered top and a carabiner clip for hanging, which is ok, but not ideal. I prefer the hook in the center of the bag. It’s not a well made as the Tom Bihn bag, but it survived the normal beating I give my travel gear for a couple of trips, so I give it a thumbs up. And, hey, it came free with the awesome bottles. Score!

Toothbrush

This may seem basic but there are multiple options depending on your dental situation. The most basic travel toothbrush should fold up to be compact and to stay sanitary. I like GUM Travel Toothbrushes because the handle snaps shut and makes a sealed case. A super light and clever design for basic needs.

Unfortunately, my teeth are like swiss cheese. I get cavities just from looking at sweets, so I really need to bring an electric toothbrush. I have a Sonicare that I use at home, which works beautifully. I tested it last trip, one charge kept it running for two weeks, so the charger could be left at home on a short trip. While this newer version is lighter than previous ones, it’s still heavy.

Sonicare also makes a travel version that runs on batteries, but it weighs a ton. The vibration motion was so rough, like a jackhammer, I thought my fillings would fall out of my teeth. I was reminded of those Bugs Bunny cartoons where he masquerades as a dentist…my head was about to vibrate off my shoulders.

My favorite travel toothbrush is not the best sonic toothbrush, but it’s small, light, well designed and better than a standard brush. Violife Sonic Toothbrush has been in my bag for more than a year, still using the same tiny battery. I like that they sell replacement brush heads. There are lots of cute patterns too. This is my top choice for weight and functionality.

Toothpaste

We all have our favorite toothpaste. Trouble is, toothpaste often comes in tiny tubes for travel, not enough to last. Filling up your own tubes with your favorite toothpaste is cheaper and reduces wasteful packaging. The tubes I mentioned above work very well for toothpaste…just remember which is which. Toothpaste doesn’t make good conditioner, as I’ve learned.

As for brands of toothpaste, I like Arm n Hammer baking soda/peroxide toothpaste or Marvis. Baking soda toothpaste is multi-use, for putting on bug bites or pimples, it will dry them right up. Marvis is fancy-schmacy toothpaste, but I like it because it has Xylitol, an ingredient that fights cavities well, and it comes in neat-o flavors like spicy cinnamon!

Deodorant

Travel deodorant, travel toiletries, Adventureswithsarah.net, I have struggled for years with finding the right deodorant. I’m not particularly stinky, but I do sweat. I hate when deodorant yellows the armpits of my shirts. I’m also irritated that deodorant bottles are so heavy and bulky, or that the travel size ones have too little in them.

I tried the clinical strength deodorants and found them effective. Over time, however, I got weird rashes and huge, painful pimples under my arms. Sorry for the TMI, but it’s a lesson learned. That stuff is toxic.

I am happy to report that, after much trial and error, I have found the perfect solution. I bought a bunch of paste deodorants with small containers. The most effective was also a product without chemicals.

Milk & Honey deodorant comes in a small jar and costs a small fortune, but it lasts forever. If you’ve never used a paste before, you take a pea sized amount and warm it between your fingers, then rub it in your armpits. One jar will last a couple of months. It keeps me from being stinky, although it’s not an antiperspirant. Compact, effective and natural. No more welts under my arms! Yay!

Shampoo and Conditioner

I have very long, thin hair. You probably don’t, so I doubt we would use the same shampoo or conditioner, but I’ll tell you what I do. I will usually bring some mainstream shampoo like Pantene, but typically I’ll use the hotel shampoo.

I’ve recently found a great conditioner at the hair salon. Biolage Hydrasource is a thick, concentrated conditioner that works really well. I just use it on the ends. I can use just a tiny amount and it smooths and detangles my hair. One 3 oz tube of this, used very sparingly, lasted for seven weeks.

Moisturizer

To keep my kit really minimal, I use a moisturizer with an SPF 30, to double as sunscreen. I like one that isn’t so expensive so I’m not afraid to slather it on my shoulders and legs in a pinch.

I like Neutrogena in general, and it can easily be found abroad. The Healthy Defense moisturizer is a good all-in-one with a nice consistency. It comes in a nicely sized bottle as well, which can be surprisingly hard to find.

Soap

I don’t bring soap. I use the hotel bars or shampoo, even if they aren’t the best. I just don’t like toting around a mushy bar. Minimalism!

Razor

Geez, are razors expensive. I usually break or lose them when I travel, so my advice here is to buy the cheapest ones you can find and bring a few to toss along the way. I’ll have more specific advice on razors in my next articles, for men and women.

Hair Comb

All hair is different, but I prefer a comb to a brush. They are far more compact and light weight. Have you ever bought a really good comb? I mean, a REALLY good comb? I bought an insanely expensive one in the Amsterdam airport once, I had no other options, and it changed my opinions on this topic forever. Nice combs are worth it. You can try this one or ask at your hair salon.

Is That ALL?

If you are trying to go super basic, then yes, this is all you need, personal meds aside. Seriously, you could. I know this doesn’t include any beauty products, but this is my most basic list. You could get by and be hygienic with just these travel toiletries.

Lewis N Clark Toiletries, adventureswithsarah.net
Stay tuned, coming up next: suggestions for travel toiletries for men vs women, luxuries and toiletry hacks.

Gluten Free Travel

Entrecote, Paris, France
Gluten Free and Delicious! Steak, Paris, France

Travel can present dietary challenges for everyone, but can be very intimidating for people with serious allergies or dietary restrictions. One of the most common challenges that I see on the road is a gluten free diet. Gluten free travel is not impossible, it’s actually become very common and pretty easy to do with a little preparation.

As I mentioned in my previous article on dietary challenges, I’ve had clients with all kinds of limitations. Everything is possible to accommodate. Really, it is! You can really eat well, just think of it! Salads! Steak! All the cheese!

Tea, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Enjoying gluten free tea with Stefanie

I recently had an assistant who has a particularly tricky situation. Stefanie Bielikova (www.postcardsfromstef.com) is a vegetarian by choice but gluten free by necessity. She can’t really eat any gluten, as it makes her have a bad reaction. She is always on the hunt in her travels to find good local dishes or restaurants that offer gluten free options.

We talked often on our tour together about the challenges she faces in travel. Having worked on cruise ships, she’s been all over the world. She’s a naturally positive person, and seemed to delight in tackling gluten free travel issues. On the days that she found new gluten free restaurants or bakeries, she would light up with excitement. That’s turning lemons into limoncello!

Rosti, Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland
Rosti in Switzerland! Gluten free and yummy. Yes!

Her main message to share is that traveling the world is absolutely possible. Having a gluten free diet doesn’t mean that you should stay home and miss out on all that the world has to offer. You can make it work.

Stefanie and I sat down and brainstormed ideas on how we both handle gluten free travel. I am coming from a tour guide angle, and she from a gluten free traveler angle. These strategies are a good start, but remember that you must always be vigilant and double check food before you eat it.

Tips for Gluten Free Travel

  • Prepare translations in advance. A good general tip for any allergy, print out a card in the local language that describes your allergy and the severity of it.
  • Don’t assume that people will know what gluten is! Find out the how to communicate the word and concept ahead of time. Also, know the local words for wheat, barley and rye.
  • Do some internet research for each city, looking for local food bloggers that cover dietary restrictions. Local food blogs will tell you where to eat and what’s on the menu.
  • Don’t be shy about asking restaurants if they serve gluten free items. It may not be on the menu, but is often available. Italian restaurants, for example, almost all stock gluten free pasta these days, even if it isn’t on the menu.
  • It’s a fact that bigger cities are better equipped to deal with gluten free travel. Pick up supplies to bring to the smaller cities.
  • Health food stores will almost always carry gluten free products, even beer in Germany. Most larger grocery stores in Europe will have a small section of products.
  • Staying in apartments rather than hotels is smart. Having your own kitchen will allow you to cook for yourself, so you can eat without concern. You also usually get a washing machine as a bonus!
  • Bring snacks to avoid Hanger. If you have a favorite protein bar at home, bring a bunch. You can always pick up fruit at your destination.
  • Notify the airline ahead of time that you need a special meal, reconfirm it at least 48 hours ahead of time. Telling them at the counter doesn’t work, they have to arrange gluten free meals ahead of time.
  • Contact hotels ahead to request special gluten free items for breakfast. Most places will have yogurt and fruit. Large hotels will usually have gluten free items in stock, but smaller places will need to know in advance to buy it for you.
  • Picnics are great because you can control whats in your food. Shopping at local markets is a fun adventure anyhow.
  • Try to find out which local specialties that are typically gluten free, but also confirm when you order it.
  • BYOB- Brong your own bread! OK, that sounds kind of dorky, but it’s a good strategy. Keep some in your bag for a quick substitution if needed.

Where to Travel

Cambodian food, Angkor, Cambodia
Cambodian cuisine, delicious and gluten free

Most countries are doable, but a few are easier than others for gluten free travel. Some ideas from Stefanie’s travels about where is easiest…

Paradise: Most of Asia, particularly SE Asia. Rice and veggie diets abound in Japan, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. China and India are trickier as they bread meats and add wheat flour to thicken sauces.

Great: Italy, France, England, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia. Even if these are places that are rife with pasta, bread, cakes and wheat-filled delights of all sorts, they are aware of the gluten issue. It is easy to get substitutions.

Tricky: Greece, Turkey, South America. These countries are not as aware of the issue and can’t cater to it easily outside of the big cities.

Even with preparations and precautions, it’s smart to have some meds on hand to deal with it if you happen to eat something that you’re allergic to.

Stefanie has traveled all over the place on a gluten free diet. Her advice is simple. “Don’t be afraid, travel anyway. Communication is the key, and bring snacks just in case.”

Have some strategies to add to the list? Found great gluten free restaurants in your travels? Leave a comment and we can compile a list!

Stefanie Bielikova is a travel advisor for Rick Steves Europe. She writes about her travels at www.postcardsfromstef.com.



Go! Eat! Dietary Restrictions in Travel

French food platter

Of all the great travel experiences, there is one constant–eating well wherever you are will make your trip richer and more fun. But what if you have allergies or dietary restrictions in travel that will keep you from eating whatever you like? Not to worry, you can eat local and eat well wherever you go, as long as you’re flexible and open to finding solutions.

After many years tour guiding, I think I’ve dealt with just about every issue imaginable. I’ve got some stories. Diet fads are common, they come and go, I’ve seen it all. The Atkins Diet was particularly frustrating for a guide working in Italy…the land of carbs.

I’ve had clients that, by necessity and not choice, could pretty much just eat only lettuce. I met someone once that would only eat peanut M&Ms and Coke. Another only ate French Fries, but that’s another story…

Eat Local! Visit the Museum of Food

I like to look at food while traveling as a can’t-miss sight. I call it a visit to the Museum of Food. If you don’t eat the local food, you haven’t really been to a place. It’s like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. Eating a real crepe is equal to (or more important than) seeing the Mona Lisa. And has no calories. Didn’t you know that food has no calories while you travel? True story.

I’ve eaten fondue in Switzerland, haggis in Scotland, spleen in Palermo, crickets in Thailand and some potato-like root vegetable in Paraguay. Those experiences are some of the most memorable to me.

My policy on tour is the policy in my house–a no-thank-you bite is required. It’s not required to like it, but it is required to try it. Yes, even the crunchy dung beetles in Cambodia. But have a local peel them for you first.

Not everyone can dive in whole hog, though, I know that. Broadening definitions and boundaries is the starting point.

Is it an Allergy or a Preference?

Since a visit to the Museum of Food is an important part of travel, the first question as far as dietary restrictions goes is– is it an allergy or a preference? All allergies can be accommodated, but preferences are something else.

I define a food preference as choosing not to eat something. The reasons could be simple: just not liking something. The reasons can be complex as well: religious observation, lifestyle choices, beauty regime oriented, personal objections for who-knows-what-happened-in-your-childhood. Some of those are totally legit. Others…less so.

The thing is, if you unnecessarily restrict what you choose to eat while you travel, you may be missing out on a cool experience. I don’t particularly like fish, but I will eat it in Sicily because that’s what you do there.

I feel sorry for people who refuse to eat tomatoes in Italy because they just don’t like tomatoes. Generally, I feel sad for people who don’t eat the beautiful food the world has to offer due to having a closed mind.

Rick Steves has famously said “If it’s not to your liking, change your liking.” I agree with this wholeheartedly. If you have food preferences, leave them that the airplane door if you can. Leave the diet or lifestyle choice behind for a few days.

Try everything, even stuff you normally hate. You may find a whole new universe of food waiting for you.

Allergies are NOT a Reason to Stay Home

There are serious allergies out there, and they seem to be getting more common. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the world has become much more aware of the issue. You don’t need to stay home or hide under the sheets due to a food allergy.

Dietary restrictions in travel are not unusual anymore. I can’t think of a single time when I haven’t been able to work out something to get a traveler through a trip, no matter what the issue. Seriously, have I mentioned that I’ve seen some strange things? It always works out.

If you don’t believe me, I always fall back on lettuce. I have never met a person who couldn’t eat lettuce. Also rice. Pretty much everyone can eat those. They are available in just about every country, fixed in a thousand different ways. Can you drink water? Everyone has water.

See? You’ll be fine. It’s not exciting, but even they most troubled tummy can find something to get by on.

Strategies for Dietary Restrictions in Travel

I have a pretty simple approach to travelers with serious dietary restrictions-plan ahead. Maybe these strategies will help others sort through how to get out and travel without fear.

  • Write a list of what you can’t eat. Use Google Translate to print that list out in the local language, with “I can’t eat…” at the top. Laminate it and keep it in your money belt.
  • Write a list of what you CAN eat and research common local dishes that will work. I find it much easier for people to list what they absolutely can eat, and then coming up with dishes of those ingredients.
  • Bring emergency food. Just in case, stock up on protein bars that work for you in case something goes awry.
  • Contact airlines, hotels and restaurants ahead of time to warn them. Many hotels and restaurants are willing to go out and get what you need with an advance reservation.
  • Be your own policeman. Even if you are assured that what you are served is edible for you, beware. I’ve had that problem with pine nuts, I said NO nuts and they didn’t think pine nuts counted. Thank goodness for Benadryl.
  • Speaking of Benadryl, bring your meds and tell others where they are. If you’re alone, pin a card with that info to your daybag.
  • Don’t tell people you’re allergic to something if you simply don’t like it. People know when you do that. Really. They do. It’s like crying wolf, it is a disservice to people who really have serious allergies.
  • Above all, be cool about it. Don’t demand, don’t expect. It’s that whole honey vs vinegar thing. If you need people to help you, they need to feel appreciated for their efforts. I’ll walk to the ends of the earth for someone who is kind and gentle about their needs.

The bottom line on dietary restrictions in travel: is it a real allergy or a preference? If it’s a preference, can you set that aside for a few weeks? If it’s an allergy, don’t worry, just plan ahead and ask for help. No need to stay home, the world is waiting for you. So is the lettuce.

Traveling Alone: Taking the Leap

I’m just back from another round of tours and a rip-roaring good time in Europe. I’ve been going through my email and wanted to share a message about fear and traveling alone from a reader.

I’ve written occasionally about debunking travel myths and countering travel fear. The world is never perfectly safe, but my personal feeling is that it’s not nearly as scary as the media makes you think. Letting fear keep you away from realizing your travel dreams breaks my heart. This beautiful world is full of surprise and delight, I want you to see it too, to feel the things I’ve felt.

It’s easy for a professional traveler–a tall, scary, street-smart woman–to tell you that you should not worry. It might be easy to blow off my advice because I’m just not you, and I understand that. Because of that, I want to share the experience of a reader, possibly like yourself, who did take the leap.

This message left me crying in my cappuccino. I often think I write just to entertain my cat, and it was so moving to know that my ramblings have made an impact on someone. I hope she will inspire you as she did me.

Hi Sarah, hope you’re well! I just wanted to thank you for your article about travelling to Europe during this time of terrorism. It helped me so much!

I had a trip scheduled to The Netherlands and Belgium. As a big consumer of news, I was getting more afraid to go, especially since I was traveling alone. I travel alone quite often, but the thought of being affected by terrorism and being alone, really frightened me.

I almost cancelled my trip, but then saw your post. It reminded me that Europe is a big place and the chances of something happening were quite small. Your words also confirmed for me that my love and “need” for exploration needed to be prioritized over my fear of the “what if”.

Next Friday I will have a surgical biopsy for possible endometrial cancer. This trip was important to me as a reminder that living life is important because you never know what the future holds.

Long story short, I left San Diego for that trip to Amsterdam and fell in love! As I explored Rotterdam, took a cycling trip through the polderlands and windmills of Kinderdijk, visited small van Gogh villages, I took every kind of public transportation known to the Dutch and did just fine. Going to Bruges, as a precaution, I made four train changes to avoid Brussels, which I felt was a smart and prudent thing to do, to ease my anxiety. The changes were a lot, but I knew I was making the wisest choices to still continue on my journey.

I enjoyed my short stay in Belgium, in and out, no problems. Now, with some jet lag, I am up early ready to head back to work.

I am so grateful that I had this two-week experience, especially not knowing what my future health will look like. Thank you for the support, the nudge to have faith and take the chance. I was as safe as I could be, and I had a beautiful and fulfilling life experience.

I thought about your words a lot, and I really wanted to thank you, personally. Safe travels to you! Enjoy, enjoy!

The moral of the story….go. Go now. Traveling alone is just fine. Non si sa mai. We never know. Go see, feel, taste, touch and be a part of this world before it’s too late.

Many thanks to this reader and all the other readers who write and inspire me to keep up this crazy project. It’s an honor, and the feelings are mutual.

Thoughts on Travel Safety

In these past years of unrest in the world, terrorism has changed the tone of travel. Air travel has mounting restrictions, there is a military presence on the streets of some cities…the general feeling of unease can dampen a high spirited adventure. I’m going to London today, Paris next week. Any time I mention that to people, they instantly ask, “Are you afraid?” No, I’m not.  I’m not being gallant, just logical. Understanding what’s going on in the world and practicing smart travel safety is how I roll.

But…the FEAR!

I’m not afraid of travel in Europe, and I’m often alone. Cities in Europe are highly populated and busy, with lots of people out and about and a generally safe atmosphere. There is a big military/police presence in cities right now that I find comforting. In general, violent crime is far less frequent here than in the US. There are few places in Europe that have made me feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
There are very complicated reasons that London and Paris are often targets, and although I’m no expert, I understand that many of those reasons are related to internal politics and socio-economic injustice. The news dumps everything into a basket of religious terrorism, but the motivations of attackers are far more complex. The root causes need to be addressed but, probably because of how difficult they are, solutions remain elusive. Because of that, this situation may not end any time soon. We have to live with it. Rather than change our travel dreams, though, perhaps it’s better to change our expectations and behaviors.

How I Look at It

Stuff happens. It happens everywhere. It’s probably more likely that I’ll be mugged or hit by a car on my way to my mailbox in central Seattle than to be in an international incident. The statistics say that I’ll probably die of heart disease, which is why I have a vague unease about eating fried foods and Twinkies.

When an incident happens in a city that I visit often, it can be scary. It may make me want to stay away. But there are two reasons I won’t. First of all, that is the intention of terrorism, to make people afraid to go somewhere. Giving in to that feeling only rewards the behavior, which reinforces it–that’s something that parents know well.

Secondly, I think of my friends who live in those cities. Can they move away? Even if they could, would they? Cities of millions of residents don’t empty out suddenly because of an attack. They carry on, just like we would in our own cities. They carry on, my friends in Istanbul, London, Brussels and Paris, and so shall I.

This all isn’t to say that international terrorism should be ignored by travelers. I’ve adjusted some of my behaviors to keep myself out of trouble. Well, actually, I still enjoy certain kinds of trouble. But not of the international incident variety.

Be Sensible, Stay Safe

Nobody can control the random actions of others, the only person you can control is yourself. If you’re worried about travel safety, there are some simple things that you can do to keep yourself safe.

See Something, Say Something– If something or someone looks odd, tell anyone who will listen, preferably someone in a uniform. It’s so easy to ignore things, but you never know when your observations will be important.Go Away From Danger– Human nature is to be curious. Think of all the times you’ve seen traffic on the freeway due to an accident on the opposite side. We can’t help but slow down and look. If there is smoke, loud noises or sirens, fight the urge to check it out. You’re better off to walk away.Try to Avoid Large Crowds–Big things happen in big, tightly packed crowds. More than once, I’ve been a wee bit too bold and put myself right in the middle of crowded events that began to feel unsafe, like rowdy concerts or observing protests. Learn from my stupidity, steer clear. Some crowds are hard to avoid at popular attractions, but timing visits for quieter days or times can help.London, Travel SafetyCarry a Cell Phone and Know Emergency Numbers–Everyone should carry a cell phone while traveling these days. Phone booths have virtually disappeared, and a phone can be critical if you have problems of any sort. You can buy a cheap-o dumb phone off the internet and buy a local phone chip (a topic I’ll cover soon) if you don’t have international coverage. You dial 112 in most European countries for help. And this note is for people like my mom who don’t love mobile phones- charge the phone, keep it in your bag, and TURN IT ON. If something happens, people may want to reach you.Know Your Local Authorities–Familliarize yourself with who you should contact if you need something. The police, paramedics, Embassy and other agencies all play different roles depending on what’s happening, read up on that ahead of time.Be Sensible–Every city has an element of danger, but it doesn’t take much to stay safe. Stay away from dangerous neighborhoods. If you don’t know where those are, ask a local. Don’t look like an obvious tourist, blending in with modest dress and following local customs is always a good idea. Wear a moneybelt, carry an ID, some local cash and keep a printed list of emergency contacts. These are boilerplate travel tips, but are important for travel safety too.Follow Your Gut–We usually know when things aren’t right, even if there’s nothing obvious going on. Most people shrug off their intuition and ignore the warning bells. Don’t do that. If something isn’t right, get out of the situation and let someone–anyone–know what you’re thinking.I’m traveling around Europe with a sense of adventure mixed with a dash of travel safety. I’m excited about going to London and Paris, they are two of my favorite places. I won’t let anyone steal them from me.

Why Pack Light?


If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I focus on how to pack light for travel. My techniques are a little bit radical, but so is the concept–that you can live well on the road with virtually no possessions. 

We love our Stuff, it brings us comfort to have everything that we could possibly need. What is the advantage of working to pack light? There are more advantages than you may know.

I was recently having dinner with a colleague in Rome. She told me that she had a number of women on her tour who had watched my YouTube videos on how to pack light. They had followed my advice and trimmed down their bags, bringing very little. They felt very proud of themselves, she had told me, not just because they we able to carry on their bags but because doing so had made them feel empowered and capable.

I started this project for random reasons, not really thinking anyone would be interested. Packing a bag is a pretty normal task for me, nobody could possibly find that interesting. It’s been mind-blowing to me that anyone would want to read my writing, on that topic or any other. Hearing, though, that another woman had felt empowered and emboldened to travel through this project, well, it makes me a little misty to think about.

I’ve been turning this idea in my head like a smooth stone. How can it be that something as simple as learning to pack light can change someone’s point of view?

More Stuff Doesn’t Equal More Good

American culture spends a lot of its time focused on the pleasure of obtaining stuff. House, car, entertainment equipment and on and on and on. We’ve been convinced that more is better. We’ve been convinced that newer is better too, no need to repair what you have.

I have the sense that the sheer amount of things I own is a quiet stress in the back of my mind. There is the cleaning and maintenance of the Stuff. There is the Stuff i need for the organization of the Stuff. There is the constant project of thinning and rethinking the Stuff. Maybe I need new Stuff!

In my years of travel, I’ve come to the conclusion that this just isn’t so. For one thing, my European friends live in houses just a fraction of the size of mine and are perfectly happy to have fewer floors to mop.

My walk-in closet is packed to the gills with a million pieces of clothing, but I can’t escape the feeling that I have nothing to wear. My friends in Europe own far fewer, but far nicer things that they care for and keep a long time.

Letting go of the need to have so much Stuff is a big leap, I think. Learning to pack light is step in that direction in the broader scope of one’s life.

Lighten Your Bag and Your Mind

There are the obvious reasons to pack light: easier to maneuver, no checked bags for the airline to lose, easier on your arms and back. I’d argue that another benefit is the mental lightness of having less to keep track of.

Keeping track of bags is a bummer and distracts from a trip. I hate that sinking feeling you get when you leave a city on a train and remember that you’ve left something in the room, even if it’s a tiny thing. By definition, bringing fewer things give you less to think about and more mental space to enjoy your surroundings. 

For example, bringing fewer beauty products makes my morning routine fast. I don’t have much with me, so I can’t make it complicated. 

Pack Light–Organization is Power

Staying organized while on a trip can feel like managing a three-ring circus. Learning to pack light and bring less keeps the organization simple. If you have less to organize, it is a snap.

Our lives can be chaotic and out of our control. There is often nothing to be done to fix bigger issues. I’d argue that there is a certain power that comes from learning to control the Stuff. It isn’t solving bigger problems, but the sense of accomplishment from doing it can provide the confidence to tackle larger problems. 

It’s All About Confidence

Wrangling our belongings and making a goal to pack light can build confidence. If you arrive at the airport, certain that you have everything you need, and only what you need, it’s like sprouting wings for take off. No worries, you’ve got this.

That confidence can power a whole new set of views. If it’s possible to pack a 16 pound bag, it’s possible to go anywhere. It’s possible to do anything. Maybe you don’t believe me, but that is an actual feeling, a charge you get when you meet a personal goal that seems impossible. It’s not world peace, but you have to start somewhere.

Trim Your Bag, Trim Your Life

Travel gives us a small window of time in which to live life differently. Travel to another place, adopt the customs, eat the food, experience the scenery. It opens the mind to possibilities. That concept extends to the physical things brought along.

You may be the kind of person that drives a car full of things you “might need” or a purse that overflows with the Stuff. If you’re going away for a couple of weeks, it’s a good opportunity to try out a new version of yourself. Leave the Stuff. If you find you need something, you can always buy it at your destination.

When you get back, evaluate how it felt to live with few things. Do you really need all you have? Maybe you’ll find yourself to be a new person when you come home, one that needs to have a garage sale, getting rid of the Stuff to fund more travel.

My gratitude to Anna Pipperato, PhD, for inspiring this post over a spritz.

Venice Biennale, the Playground of Modern Art

Venice is home to gondolas, masks and Carnevale, but did you know it is also a major center for modern art? The heiress Peggy Guggenheim once lived there and left her lovely, art-filled palazzo as a modern art museum. Current artists live and work in the city today. Because of this, one of the biggest events in Venice is undoubtedly the bi-annual international art exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia or the Venice Biennale. If Venice is in your travel plans in an odd year (like 2017), this art show should be on your list.

What is the Biennale?

The Venice Biennale started over 100 years ago, with the first edition in 1893. It was set up as a sort of rival to the famous Paris Salon art scene, and intended to showcase Italian modern artists. The city decided to use the neighborhood of the Arsenale, or the old shipyards, to organize the exhibit.

In the nearby public gardens or Giardini, a building was built to house the event, eventually becoming the Italian pavilion. As countries in Europe became interested in participating in the show, new pavilions were commissioned in the garden, designed by the hot architects of the time, making each country’s pavilion a work of art.

Over time, many countries have added pavilions to the gardens. The show has overflowed and now fills both the gardens and the Arsenale warehouses, as well as individual buildings all over the city. Any country that wishes (and can afford it) can rent a structure in the city.

The Venice Biennale displays contemporary art, meaning that it displays the most important artists in that year as chosen by a panel from each participating country. Past artists on display have included Gustave Klimt, Modigliani and Picasso.

These days, the Biennale is a curated show that focuses on a theme. This year it is being curated by the director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the theme is “Viva Art Viva”, whatever that means. Each country picks an artist to fill their pavilion wth art on that theme, which can be painting, sculpture, video, performance art or whatever else an imagination can muster.

The artists chosen may not be recognizable for the average person on the street but are usually big names in the art community. Sometimes there are very famous names– I remember the great Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei filled a pavilion with flying stools a few years ago. Magical.

Modern Art is too Weird. Why Should I Go?

Modern art is weird, that is true. After Michelangelo, what is there left to do? We have mastered representation with cameras, what is the point of this crazy modern stuff?

For me, the Biennale is one of the most delightful events I’ve been to, I am filled with excitement every (other) year. Yes, the exhibits are strange and don’t always make any sense. Some exhibits are boring. Some are so esoteric and pretentious that they are off-putting. Some are gross, stupid or offensive. But on the whole, I find them to be intriguing, sometimes delightful and thought-provoking. That’s the point of art, to make you think and look at the world a different way.

It’s kind of hard to explain exactly what the Biennale is with words. It’s sort of like a Disneyland for modern art. Some displays are interactive, like a ride. Some are visual theater, with sound and light shows. Some are weird, experiential sculptures. And some are just paintings on the walls…those ones are boring in comparison.

The best way to explain the Venice Biennale is to show it to you. Here are a few highlights from this year and my impressions. I may not totally “get” what the artist intended, but I don’t actually mind. In my opinion, art is something personal, the thoughts and opinions of the viewer are just as important as the artist’s intentions. Ready? Andiamo!

The Russian Pavilion

Say what you will about the Russians, they are consistently one of the best at the Biennale. Maybe it’s all the tragedy and angst. Maybe it’s the Vodka. Either way, their pavilion is usually one of my favorites. This year was no different. The top level had rooms filled with intriguing white sculptures, overlaid by a sound and light show. It was like a fairy landscape with a dark undertone.

In the lower level, an artistic group created large blocks that had people struggling to emerge, reminding me of Michelangelo’s Slaves. Yawn. Seems kind of cliche. But then I noticed people looking at the sculptures through their iPads and smartphones. When the camera was pointed at a sculpture using the artist’s app, the figures extended into a virtual space filling the room. It was stunning, and an interesting statement on seeing the world filtered through social media. Smart, interesting and interactive.

The American Pavilion

This one sucked. I was disappointed. The American exhibit is usually sort of hit-or-miss, unfortunately, and this year was a big miss for me. On entering the pavilion, you have to skirt around a big, heaving mass of multicolor yuck. The rooms after have blotchy paintings that a docent explained are representations of cells, viruses and contagion. A statement on the AIDS epidemic perhaps. Meh.

The Israel Pavilion

I’d heard about this one from a friend and local guide, she said she couldn’t even go near the building because the smell bothered her too much. The theme of the art is decay, or I have to assume that is the intention as the entire building is filled with mold.

The walls and floors are intentionally growing mold. A giant poof of cotton or some such fills the center of the gallery, slowly turning orange, green and black. It looks exactly like the mold on top of the cottage cheese that gets forgotten at the back of my fridge. I always intend to eat it but forget and find it months later, covered in orange hair.

There is a warning sign on the door warning about the mold. The smell didn’t bother me, it smelled like coffee, actually, but I guess I tend to think that everything in Italy smells like coffee. I will go back in October and see this pavilion again, I am curious to see how it progresses.

The Great Britain Pavilion

I am usually fascinated by the Brits, as British contemporary art can be great. A few years back, the pavilion had a mandatory tea service half-way thought the exhibit. Loved it! Last time it was all plaster casts of people’s butts with cigarette butts stuck you-know-where….OOOOOH! Now I get it! A butt with a butt in it! Only took me two years to figure it out.

This year was large scale sculptures called “Folly”. Made with paper and wood, there were columns, globs and something that looked like a huge box spilling spaghetti. Huh. Um. Ok. It was a fanciful folly, as the name implied, but i didn’t find it much deeper than that.

The Korean Pavilion

Korea, or I should say South Korea, does good work consistently. Last time it was an experiential piece with a room full of mirrors on floors and walls.

This time is a play on pop culture and pole dancing. The exterior is all decked out in movie marquee neon, and inside is a wall of screens with an interesting video installation. There is a pole for pole dancing, but I didn’t give it a go since I wasn’t sure it was allowed.

The highlight (or possibly lowlight) is a version of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, but this time he appeared to be sitting on the toilet and was made of Pepto Bismol and toilet paper. Maybe that’s what “The Thinker” was up to all along! I will never see Rodin the same way again.

The Japanese Pavilion

I’m still stuck on the work from Japan in 2015, it was a boat draped in red yarn and so etherial. This year was a participatory piece. Outside of the building, people line up to stick their heads through a hole in the underside of the building. Of course I did it. Once you pop up through the floor, there is a miniature cityscape surrounding your head…and a pavilion of people watching you. I felt like Godzilla about to crush the town, while being the art myself.

Up above, it was pretty funny to watch other people’s expressions when they popped up, but the display wasn’t as cool from that perspective. 

I did like the upside-down city models surrounding that performance piece, they reminded me of when I used to make architectural models in college.

The French Pavilion

France almost always does something amazing, whether it is real trees hooked up to motors, and audio assault or huge running tracks of printing presses. Music or audio art is the theme for them again.

The pavillion is set up like a recording studio, but the most beautiful and sculptural one you’ve ever seen. There are instruments everywhere, visitors are invited to play, and the music is mixed and recorded. I was there on a day when people didn’t get it, and sadly, I don’t play any instrument well enough to not humiliate myself, so there was only recorded music. It was still neat, but not the actual intention of the piece. Even so, I’d say it was one of the better pieces of the show.

The German Pavilion

I totally did not get this one, but I learned later that it was a performance art piece. The interior of the pavilion was gutted and open, with glass floors. Side rooms had hoses and suspicious objects scattered on the ground, along with bars of soap that made it all the more suspicious.

It turns out that a group of artists show up occasionally and roll around the under the glass floor, as some sort of statement on social media. I was glad they weren’t there…I was wearing a dress wth a wide skirt. Apparently there were supposed to be German Shepherds guarding the entrances but they became too spooked by the crowds. Better for me, I’m afraid of dogs. All of it fell flat without the performance.

The Danish Pavilion

The last pavilion I hit was Denmark, which was by design because it required timed tickets. Their display was called “Influenza” and was an audio-visual piece, using the pavilion as a theater. The lights turned off completely and only small pins of light moved around to a story narrated by Emma Thompson and what had to be Tilda Swinton. It was interesting, exploring the connection between growth and light, but at 30 minutes, it was too long. After being in the heat and sunshine, a cool and dark theater was a bad ide…a….zzzz….zzzzz…zz.

I visited other pavilions, but the ones I’ve described were the biggies. I liked Switzerland’s movie about Giacometti’s lover. Spain’s audiovisual thing was boring, as was the Netherlands. Belgium’s pavilion was too hot to even look at. Finland was flat-out bizarre and vaguely offensive. The Czech exhibit looked like the artist got a great deal on cheap Christmas lights and called it art.

More at the Venice Biennale

There is far more to the Venice Biennale that these few exhibits. In fact, I haven’t even made it to half yet. The Arsenale buildings are included in the ticket price and display another slug of projects.

Throughout the city, beautiful Venetian palazzi are open to the public for free to see the overflow exhibits that don’t have pavilion space. Sometimes, the exhibit isn’t nearly as interesting as being able to go into palazzi that are typically closed to the public. It’s my favorite activity in Venice during Biennale years, just popping in to the free exhibits wherever I see one.

Strategy

If you are a big art lover and want to dedicate your time to the Venice Biennale, you’ll need at least a full day. Start at the opening and do the Giardini (gardens) first to see all of the biggies while you’re fresh and it isn’t too crowded. Have lunch at the Biennale, there are lovely spots with good food in the gardens. Then head to the Arsenale if you have energy and drop by any associated free exhibits on your way back to your hotel.

Does this sound vaguely interesting to you but not worth the $25 admission? No problem. Look for the free pavilions all over town to get a taste of it and see if it’s your thing. Pavilions are marked by the red square with a red lion on top, you’ll see the logo everywhere. Ask for a Biennale map, which has the locations of all the palazzi displaying art right now. Check out my report on YouTube to see more.

Even if you don’t have an interest or intention to see the Biennale, you’ll see it anyways. The art is everywhere. The big, splashy piece this year has a set of arms coming out of the Grand Canal, holding up (or dragging down) a palace.

I absolutely adore this event. It will challenge you, bore you, make you laugh, cry, vomit and scream. That a single event can elicit so many emotions, that’s what art is really all about. If you happen to be in Venice in an odd year, GO.

For information on hours, prices and an event schedules, visit www.labiennale.org.

 

 

 

 

 

Packing: Shorts in Europe?

Temperatures are climbing here in Italy, it’s getting close to 90 at mid day. For most people in the US, summertime heat means shorts weather…unless you’re from Seattle where kids wear shorts in the snow. If your travel plans are taking you to Europe in the summer, you’re probably planning on tossing in a couple pairs. However, before you do, you should be aware that shorts in Europe aren’t as common as in the US.

I get why we love shorts in the US. I grew up near LA and lived in shorts year-round. But when I moved to Italy as a student, I learned the hard way that shorts aren’t as common.

As a traveler, shorts in Europe are problematic for a few reasons. They are not allowed in most churches unless they cover the knee. They are not allowed in upscale restaurants. Even if they aren’t forbidden on the street, you will be stating that you’re a tourist by wearing them, and they may make you feel out of place in more conservative areas. So what’s a traveler to do in a heat wave? Is there any way to bring shorts and wear them the right way?

It’s Cultural

Many travelers ask me if shorts in Europe are ok to wear at all. In the past I would have said no, no, NO. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in Italy, beginning more than 20 years ago. The customs I picked up back then still ring in my thoughts, and shorts were strictly a no-go, considered crass and too casual even for the grocery store. I don’t think you could have even bought them here when I was a student living in Rome.

Things are changing and Europeans do wear shorts these days. But still, on the whole, Europeans tend to dress more formally than we do. Shorts are something you mostly see in a beach resort. If you see them in the city, it’s rarely on locals. Shorts are considered to be too casual and too revealing, which, I realize, is rich coming from cultures that accept and endorse Speedos on men of all ages.

Shorts on Women

Most European women choose skirts and dresses in a heat wave. That’s smart because dresses tend to be comfortable and have the natural advantage of, um, let’s call it “air-conditioning.” For women visiting Europe I would tend to encourage adopting the skirt and dress custom over shorts. You’ll be more comfy, plus dresses have versatility–add leggings and a sweater if the weather gets cool.

The other option is Capri pants, or pants that go just below the knee. That is usually my go-to choice. My bag right now has two pairs. Capris usually look best if they are slim fitting, think Audrey Hepburn, and worn with sandals or flats. A nice pair of black Capris with a crisp white shirt and a scarf or necklace…that is a classy, no-fuss look.

Women have plenty of good options for comfortable, classy, feminine summer wear, so from my perspective, there’s no reason to wear shorts.

Yes, I Know, Men Love Shorts

It’s tougher for men, I know, I know. Telling them not to wear shorts is dooming them to being sweaty. The reality is that these days, shorts are beginning to be worn by Italians on hot days, even stylish city folk. It’s more common to see them on young men outside of the big cities, but they can be anywhere.

The difference is keeping it classy. Sloppy cut-offs, overly baggy shorts, or shorts worn with tube socks up to the knees don’t look classy on anyone. Khaki shorts and socks with sandals? Mammamia! That’s cause for deportation in Italy.


My advice for men- bring shorts that are fitted, that won’t wrinkle, in a neutral color like black or gray. Collared polo shirts are a far better look than T-shirts here. Wear nice shoes: leather sandals or boat shoes are a good choice.

Some other solutions for men are long shorts, the kind we call “Board Shorts.” As long as they cover the knee, they will probably be fine most places, but still not the opera.

I have noticed a trend in Europe that you may not know about. I call them “Manpris”…Capri pants for men. If you see them, you know one thing immediately- the person wearing them is definitely not American. If you can convince your man to buy them, they make a fun and unique souvenir, plus, I think they look cool.


The reality is, even if we love our shorts, they don’t always look appropriate. If shorts are really your thing, keep in mind that swim trunks are not the same thing.

 If you have a young woman in your life, please spread this advice- if your buns are visible out the bottom, they are too short. This fashion is popular with young girls and isn’t appropriate. Anywhere. Sorry for sounding like a grumpy old lady, but I see the looks that these shorts attract, and that is the kind of attention that no woman really wants.

Should I or Shouldn’t I? I LOVE Shorts!

The best insight I have heard was from a local. One of my girlfriends, an American married to an Italian and living in Italy, gave this take: “You can wear shorts, everyone does, but most women will do that only if they dress it up. They will add layers and accessorize with cool jewelry or a scarf to make it look presentable.”

In the end, there is no right answer here. Bring shorts if you have a good reason, if they look good on you and make you feel comfortable. Make sure they are longer and fit you well.

I’m old fashioned I guess. You’ll never see me wearing shorts in Europe, not unless I’m at the beach laying in the sun. Preferably with a cocktail.

Addendum

From the variety and quantity of reactions, it seems that shorts are a very polarizing topic. Some people have shouted AMEN at me, others have been offended that I’m pointing this out in my frank way of speaking and others have said I am totally wrong about this. I am here only to give advice for a better trip based on years of observations.

I say this: there is a difference between what is possible and what is correct. Yes, you can eat a tuna sandwich with raw onions and garlic mayo in a stuffy train compartment full of other people. You can do jumping jacks in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is possible, maybe everyone else is doing it, but is it right?

There are tons of people wearing shorts everywhere in Europe, even in churches. It is possible, you probably won’t get struck by lightning, but I strive to elevate the experience of travel. This is not just for you, the traveler, but for the locals as well. They appreciate travelers that are sensitive enough to observe cultural norms.

I always err on the side of being too polite to locals, too formal, and too conservative in my dress. I’m old fashioned, I guess, but we have an important concept in Italy called “La Bella Figura”, or the beautiful figure, being your best self to the outside world. It means something to people here that you dress well, speak kindly and show more respect and formality than you need to. Observing these cultural quirks is not just kindness, but something you will be repaid for in mutual respect and kindness. It’s important.

Italian Trains and How to Use Them

Taking trains around Europe is the best way to connect cities in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Inter-European flights can be super cheap these days, but the hassle of getting to the airport and navigating security can make a flight more trouble than it’s worth. I travel often on European trains, particularly Italian trains, and have learned the system well. It may seem intimidating, but getting around on Italian trains can be a snap once you know how it works.

Rail Passes Past and Present

Many moons ago, a young and sweet Adventures with Sarah drove all the way up to Edmonds, WA to buy a rail pass for Europe from Europe Through the Back Door. Back in the dark ages, a rail pass was the easiest way for a foreigner to navigate the strange and distant world of European trains, giving total freedom on the rails and the ability to avoid dealing with train stations. Pick a destination, write the date on the ticket and hop the next train. Easy-peasy.

These days, rail passes exist but are on the wane, partially because they are increasingly expensive. The typical rail pass costs a bit under $100 per day. That’s not a bad price if you plan to do lots of long trips to multiple countries. It’s hard to make them pay off in a single country or with short hops.  As an example, I’m on one of the longest train rides you can take in Italy right now, Rome to Venice– a last-minute ticket cost me $80.

Another downside of rail passes is that most long haul rides are on high speed trains with pre-reserved seating. Rail passes are accepted, but you must present them at the station and pay to reserve a seat. That’s just as much hassle, if not more, than just buying a ticket.

Italian Trains

The main company for Italian trains is Trenitalia, also known as Ferrovia della Stato. It’s the national rail service of Italy. Their service covers practically every village in mainland Italy and usually offers a bus service to places without rails.

I think you’ve heard about Italian trains, no? That they are dirty, scary, rarely run on time. You’ve probably heard the urban legend of trains in the south being gassed and everyone losing their possessions to bandits. That was a whopper that went through the hostel crowd some years ago. It’s all rubbish.

Trenitalia is very different from the days when it needed Mussolini to make it run on time. Trains are usually clean-ish, somewhat on time and can be surprisingly comfy and modern. Imagine a train system that could whisk you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 3 hours that is cheap, comfortable and serves great coffee. Americans can only marvel at Trenitalia.

Buying Tickets

Gone are the days of waiting in line for ages at a train station to buy tickets. These days, tickets can be purchased in a variety of ways.

At the Station

You can buy tickets from the ticket window, as in the past. At the bigger stations you’ll have to take a number and wait your turn…which can be an investment in time. I’d suggest buying a ticket in person from a human only if you have a complicated situation, such as connecting Italian trains to French trains. Confirm your plans several times with the staff member and look over your ticket carefully. And certain that they give you all of your change if you’re paying cash.

The easier option at the station is to buy from the ticket machines. Most major stations will have computerized ticket machines in the station lobby or on the platform. The green or red ones are for standard tickets. If you see a blue ticket machine, that is usually for local rail services only.

Before you pick a machine to use, be sure it accepts your payment method. Not all machines take cash. The machines that take credit cards require you to have a chip in your card with a pin number. If you don’t have that, you will have to get in line to buy the ticket from a person.

Be careful to avoid the people at major train stations that want to “help” you with the ticket machines. These are often scam artists looking to make a buck. You don’t need help, but if you do, speak only to official Trenitalia staff in uniforms.

Travel Agnecies

It is still an option to buy rail tickets from a travel agency in Italy. Most towns will have an Agenzia di Viaggi that has English speaking staff. The ticket may have a small commission, but if you are buying a complicated ticket or are in a town with a congested train station, this is a no stress way to take care of business. For example, I’m a big fan of the travel agency in Levanto, near the Cinque Terre, because the train stations often have long lines.

Online

The absolutely best way to buy tickets is on the Trenitalia.com website. It is fast, easy and can be done on a smartphone. I buy my tickets with my phone and save the ticket PDF to iBooks, then show the conductor. If you are traveling with a tablet or laptop, you can do the same thing- I saw a conductor scan a guy’s laptop screen on a train yesterday! Whatever works. If you don’t carry electronics, it is possible to print out a ticket bought online as well.

A couple of small caveats for online tickets– you will not be able to register if you are not an Italian citizen, which means you have to enter all of your info every time you buy a ticket. Also, some train tickets need to be bought at least a half hour ahead of time. If the train you want departs imminently and it looks sold out, there may be tickets available at the station.

Rail Europe also offers tickets online, but considering how easy it is to buy directly, I wouldn’t bother.

Which Class?

I’ve tried all of the classes on Italian trains. If you’re on a regional train or an Intercity train, the class won’t make any difference at all, except that your seat may be slightly wider. A typical regional train has no class. 

On the fast trains, the Frecce or “arrows”, the first or business class seats will be wider, with three across rather than four. They include a coffee and snack service, which amounts to Nescafe and crackers. Seats are often clustered around tables with outlets, which is nice if you’re a writer (like me) but not necessary and occasionally cramping for long legs.

The only reason I see for splurging for first class is the noise factor. Second class cars are LOUD. Italians love to talk–to each other, to their cell phones, to the conductor, to their coffee. The second class cars are always full of Italian families and the cacophony can be exhausting. First class is usually all business travelers and silent as the grave.

Validating Your Ticket

Trenitalia tickets must be validated before getting on the train. If you have a paper ticket, you need to find the green or yellow boxes at the platform and slip them in the slot to be stamped. If you can’t get it to work, slide the ticket to the left in the slot.

Online tickets do not need validation, even if they are printed. Those tickets already have the date and time of travel and are pre-validated.

Be aware that Trenitalia recently changed its policy on tickets. No matter what ticket you buy, it is valid only 4 hours after it is validated and must be used on the day it is issued for. What that means is that you cannot stockpile tickets and use them when you like. I used to buy a stack of tickets for traveling in between Cinque Terre towns and use them as I needed them, but now I have to buy my tickets for the specific day I intend to use them.

What is Italo?

Ferrovia dello Stato was the only game in town for many years. About 5 years ago, a new train service was introduced as a competitor, Italotreno. It is privatized, owned in part by Ferrari, and runs on a model similar to Ryanair. The earlier you book a ticket, the cheaper it is. There are multiple classes and features that you can pay for, like wifi and movie access. They operate mainly online and attract a younger crowd because of it, although they have recently opened offices and put ticket kiosks at major stations.

Italo does not cover the whole of Italy, it only connects major cities. If you’re going from, say, Orvieto to Perugia, they don’t have any service at all. It occasionally goes to secondary train stations, like Rome’s Tiburtina station, which can be confusing.

The point of Italo is that the trains are super high speed with few stops, meaning that you can connect major cities faster and cheaper than with Trenitalia. The train cars are plush, with leather seats and power outlets. I took my son Rome to Naples on Italo, which took less than an hour (shaving 20 minutes off of Trenitalia) and costing $40 roundtrip. Not bad.

Specials and Deals

Because of the new competition on the rails, scoring cheap tickets can be a breeze, but only if you buy in advance.

Here are a few of the specials being offered as of June, 2017:

Trenitalia– Offers available until midnight, two days before departure.

Bimbi Gratis: Kids 15 and under travel free on Frecce and Intercity routes. Kids must show ID to confirm their age on board.

3 for 2: Three tickets bought together for the price of two.

A/R specials: Roundtrip tickets used on the same day (day trip) at about half price.

Italo- Similar offers as Trenitalia, but better deals if you’re on their mailing list. I recently received a 30% discount code, as an example.

Overall, the best advice on Italian trains is to buy online and buy at least two days in advance. Compare the two companies for the best price and schedule. Arrive at the station at least 30 minutes before departure and show your ticket to get access to the platform. The high speed trains will show on platform monitors where your car will be, so you can wait in the right area. Once on board, sit back, relax, and marvel at how easy good public transportation can be.