I have had the opportunity to explore quite a few different cities in the world so far, and with the year 2020 coming up, I thought I could share my 20 favorite cities so far. Here is my Top 20 for 2020 Countdown-
20. Cadaques and Portlligat, Catalonia, Spain:
19. Prague, Czech Republic:
18. Bristol, England, UK:
17. Malaga, Andalusia, Spain:
16. Valencia, Spain:
15. Valletta, Malta:
14. Plakias, Crete, Greece
13. Montreal, Quebec, Canada:
12. Brussels, Belgium:
11. London, England, UK:
10. New Orleans, LA, USA:
9. Austin, TX, USA:
8. Jerusalem, Israel:
7. Miami, FL, USA:
6. Jaco, Costa Rica:
5. Boston, MA, USA:
4. St. Petersburg, FL, USA:
3. Rome, Lazio, Italy:
2. Lisbon, Portugal:
1. Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain:
Barcelona is an absolutely beautiful city. With the influence of architects like Gaudi, the city has a unique feel to it. His works such as Casa Batllo and La Pedrera make Passeig de Gracia one of the most beautiful streets in the world, and the Sagrada Familia is the most impressive building I have ever been in. Barcelona also has a great food scene and is influenced by famous chefs like the Adria brothers. The city also has an emerging craft beer and coffee scene, lending to a nice mix of traditional and innovative. There are also a number of quality food markets throughout the city. Barcelona is extremely walkable (as long as you don't get pickpocketed) and has a relatively good public transportation system. You can walk from medieval buildings to a beach in a matter of minutes, and while the beaches in the city aren't the nicest, there are beautiful beaches to be found on the outskirts of the city. While there are distinct seasons and the temperature can touch freezing for a day or two in the winter, the Mediterranean coast keeps the climate relatively moderate.
In many cities in Europe there are some great Christmas markets during the Christmas season. They usually offer mulled wine, various foods, and sell a variety of different things. Many of them will have bands playing Christmas music and other events going on. Here are a few of the Christmas markets I have had the chance to explore:
Stuttgarter Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market)-
Germany is famous for its Christmas Markets. They sell a variety of trinkets as well as food and drink. It was fun to walk through the market and see the Christmas decorations and different stands. Also, when buying "Glühwein" you are served in a nice mug. If you return the mug you will get your downpayment back (of a couple euros) or you can just keep it as a souvenir! I was also to try the currywurst at the market.
Prague Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square-
I was able to explore Christmas markets in Prague's Old Town Square and in Wenceslas Square. The Old Town Square is the most prominent square in Prague. It has a large historical significance and dates back to the 1100’s. Some of the major sites in and around the square are the Church of Saint Nicholas and the Astronomical clock. During the winter the Old Town Square plays host to a Christmas market. The namesake of Wenceslas Square, Saint Wenceslas is the patron saint of Bohemia and the inspiration for the “Good King Wenceslas” Christmas carol. It is also the site of many demonstrations. Some of the most famous demonstrations took place during the Velvet Revolution, also known as the Gentle Revolution, when power was transferred from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia to the Czech Republic through non-violent means.
Brussels Christmas Market-
The Brussels Christmas Market was outstanding. It is very large and is full of stands with delicious food and drink. They have delicious treats such as shaved beef and mulled wine. It is even great just to walk through even if you aren't buying anything.
Ghent Christmas Market-
During the Christmas season Ghent puts on a wonderful Christmas Market in their city center. It contains a number of different food stalls as well as places to buy gifts for others. While at the Christmas market I was also able to see both the Korenmarkt and the Saint Nicholas Church. It is a beautiful and festive place to walk through, and they even had things like a goose parade.
Bruges Christmas Market-
The Christmas Market in Bruges is a beautiful and interesting place to walk through. They had an ice skating rink and numerous stands with tasty food and drink, along with various other items.
Berlin Christmas Markets-
Berlin, like many other German cities, has some great Christmas Markets. While some of them had closed for the season before I got there, some were still open, and they were great to visit.
Cologne Christmas Market (Heunarkt)-
I was in Cologne after Christmas Day, so the main Christmas market in Cologne in front of its famous cathedral was closed when I was there. However there were still other Christmas markets open in the city. One of the open markets was in the Heunarkt area, and it was a great Christmas market in its own right, complete with some great food, drink, and even an ice skating rink.
Caga Tió, Caganers, and Los Reyes Magos-
Although it has become popular in recent years, traditionally Christmas (or at least the version with Santa Claus) has not really been celebrated in Catalonia. They do, however, celebrate Three Kings Day on January 6th, and they celebrate something called “Caga Tió” on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Caga Tió, which roughly translates to “Pooping Dude,” is a magical cut tree stump with a face and a Catalan hat traditionally worn by farmers or people living on the countryside. Often parents will take their children to a forest to “find” Caga Tió , then they bring him home and place a blanket behind him. The children then feed Caga Tió in the days leading up to Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, depending on the family. When the day arrives, children beat Caga Tió with sticks and sing a song saying things like “Poop hazelnuts, don’t poop fish, they are too salty, poop turrons, they are tastier.” At the end of the song, the kids will command the tree stump to poop and the blanket will be pulled away revealing the presents that have been “pooped.” Also, in the month of December “caganers” will be on sale throughout Catalonia. They are a good luck symbol because it is believed that Catalan farmers had a big harvest after using their own feces as manure. They are now commonly featured in Catalan nativity scenes, and many celebrities are “honored” by being made into caganers. A wide variety of celebrity caganers can be found, but some of my favorites are R2-D2 and C3P0, who poop nuts and bolts.
Día de Sant Jordi-
As Valentine’s Day is historically not celebrated in Catalonia, the biggest romantic holiday in Catalonia is Dia de Sant Jordi. The legend of Saint George (Jordi in Catalan) goes like this: A dragon was pestering a town, and a person had to be chosen to be sacrificed to the dragon. When the name of the princess was drawn, Saint George killed the dragon— saving the princess— and a rose grew out of the dragon’s blood. The Day of Sant Jordi (April 23) is also a prominent day in the world of books. It is known as World Book Day by UNESCO, and it is the anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. Miguel Cervantes, whose Don Quixote has been translated into more languages than any book other than the Bible, died one day before on April 22. Traditionally on the Day of Sant Jordi, males would receive a book and females would receive a rose. However, now females will usually receive a book and a rose (males will still typically only receive a book without a rose). Also on this day, Casa Batllo in Barcelona is usually decorated with massive amounts of roses.
Las Comparsas, La Merengada, Carnaval, and La Mona-
Also most of those celebrating it do not know why they are celebrating, the beginning of Lent and the Easter season are one of the biggest celebrations in Catalonia. For Las Comparsas, couples will link arms and dance throughout the city. While I was in Vilanova i la Geltru, Las Comparsas culminated in a fun, massive candy battle in one of the main city squares that left anyone who walked through La Plaça de la Vila with sticky shoes for days. In the same week in Vilanova i la Geltru, children from the town will take merengue and have a massive food fight in the
Plaça del Mercat. These will lead up to Carnaval, which many people spend the whole year preparing for by building floats, choreographing dances, and designing costumes. Usually they will go from town to town participating in parades on different days, one of the biggest taking place in Sitges. About six weeks later on the day after Easter, Catalonians celebrate by giving elaborate cakes— known as “La Mona”— to children. The cakes are usually chocolate with chocolate figures on top, and are usually given from godparents to their godchildren. On this “Dia de La Mona,” extended families will usually get together and share a big meal.
Festa Mayor and La Mercè-
Most small towns throughout Catalonia will each have a town festival, usually in the summer, known as Festa Mayor. The biggest of these is La Mercè, which is a multi-day festival with a firework finale on September 24. One of the highlights are the parades and dances of the “Gegants i capgrossos,” which are giant paper mache figures that are worn similar to the way someone wears a mascot costume. There will also be “Castells,” which are human towers that can go so high that sometimes there are double-digit people stacked on top of each other. Another main feature is the “correfoc,” or fire-run, where festival goers will run under the sparks and fireworks shot by dragon mascots and other costumed people with spinning, spark-shooting contraptions.
Calçotada and Food and Wine Festivals-
There are numerous food and wine festivals throughout the year in Catalonia that I have had the opportunity to attend, such as the Temp de Vi in Vilanova i la Geltru, the Cava Festival in Vilafranca, and the Tast a La Rambla, All Those Food Market, and Time to Eat Fest in Barcelona. One of the biggest food festivals I was able to enjoy is known as a “Calcotada.” Calcots are a Catalonian vegetable similar to a scallionor spring/green onion that are in season in the spring when the Calcotadas take place. The calcots are usually grilled and wrapped in newspaper (and sometimes roof tiles) to keep them warm, then peeled and dipped into a romesco sauce. They are usually accompanied by grilled meats like butifarra (a Catalan sausage), cava or “vino tinto,” and family and friends.
What I did and saw:
Towers of Bologna-
Pisa is not the only city with a leaning tower. Bologna has a pair of leaning towers in its city center, the Asinelli Tower and the Garisenda Tower. Known as “Le due torri,” they were built in 12th century. They have seen a variety of uses such as a prison, a watchtower, a lighting rod, and scientific testing. They are believed to be the inspiration for the construction of the twin towers in New York City, and they have been written about by authors such as Dante and Charles Dickens. We were able to go up the 498 steps of the Asinelli Tower, which is the taller of the two and offers some unique views of the city.
Museo Della Specola-
Bologna is home to the oldest university in the world, the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1088. The influence of the school is prevalent throughout the city, and there are opportunities for learning all around the city. For just 5 euros we were able to get a tour of the Museo Della Specola and see the original instruments used by past astronomers. It was very interesting to see the old maps, and to learn about the construction of telescopes. Also, the tour concluded on the rooftop terrace, offering nice views of the surrounding city.
Luigi Cattaneo Collection of Anatomical Waxes-
Another example of an interesting learning opportunity is found at the Anatomical Wax Collection. Past students used the models to study anatomy and pathology in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a small museum, but it is free, unique, and interesting.
Botanical Garden and Herbarium-
Located next to the Luigi Cattaneo Collection of Anatomical Waxes is the Botanical Garden and Herbarium. Like the Anatomical Wax collection, it is also free to enter (tours cost €5). They have a nice space to walk through and a wide variety of plants to check out.
The largest plaza in Bologna is Piazza Maggiore, and it is surrounded by impressive architecture. The Basilica di San Petronio and the Fontana del Nettuno are both located next to the plaza in the city center.
Where I ate and drank:
BrewDog Bologna, Il Punto, and Beer for Bunnies-
Bologna has some nice offerings for craft beer at BrewDog Bologna, Il Punto, and Beer for Bunnies, all located in the same area of town on the western side. The area also features a some cool graffiti.
Tigelle are small, round breads local to the Bologna/Modena/Emilia-Romagna region. They are sliced and filled with you choice of sweet or savory items. Zerocinquantino (which means 050), serves tasty tigelle and quality wine for a wallet friendly price.
Salumeria Simoni and Tamburini-
If you are looking for deli meats or cheeses, Salumeria Simoni and Tamburini are both good places to go. They have a nice selection of Italian food to get to go. Tamburini also has a few tables and offers meat and cheese plates and wine if you want to try something there.
Cafe Cocoa is a cool cafe with good cocktails and espresso based drinks. They also serve wine and beer. I had one of the best Negronis of my life while I was there.
Although Italy is an espresso country, it is possible to find good filter coffee in some places. I had a good Chemex at Pappare, close to the Two Towers of Bologna. However, the service was extremely slow, it took over 20 minutes just to get my coffee. I was unimpressed by the food I had off the lunch menu, but the breakfast menu looked like it had some good options.
Trattoria dal Biassanot-
Bologna is home to many foods many people think of when they think of Italian food, such as lasagna, ragu, and tortellini in brodo (tortellini in broth). I was able to try all three of these tasty foods at Trattoria dal Biassanot. Also, right next to the restaurant is the “Finestrella,” which is a window to one of Bologna’s canals.
Stefino Organic Gelato, Cremeria Mascarella, Cremeria Santo Stefano, and Gelateria Galliera 49-
I am a big fan of Roman food and Roman gelato, but I think Bolognese gelato gives Roman gelato a run for its money. They offer some tasty and unique flavors like a turmeric cinnamon black pepper gelato at Stefino Organic Gelato, egg custard pine nut and chocolate pear grappa flavors at Cremeria Mascarella, and theobroma, a chocolate and orange flavor I had with speculoos gelato at Cremeria Santo Stefano.
Where I stayed:
The staff at We Bologna was super helpful when I had to adjust my reservation to teach an English camp. The facility itself seems to be a mix of college dorms and a hostel, but in a non-obnoxious way. It was a very nice place to stay, with nice common areas and a nice shared kitchen.
How I got around:
I arrived in Bologna on a train from Florence, and left on a train to Turin. While in Bologna I walked to get around and see the sights (and make more room for Italian food).
My favorite thing:
The food in Bologna was very good, but my favorites were the gelato from various places and the tigelle I had at Zerocinquantino.
My least favorite thing:
In August in Bologna much of the cities shuts down, so many of the places I wanted to visit were closed. Also, I had a few eye problems (due to something that happened prior to Bologna) that hampered my time there a bit.
For next time:
As mentioned above, many of the places I wanted to explore in Bologna were closed while I was there, so I would like to get a chance to check them out and to try more of the Bolognese food. I would also like to see the Santuario Madonna di San Luca on the outskirts of the city. Additionally I would like to visit Modena, another foodie city in the Emilia-Romagna region.
As I have mentioned previously, hostels can be a great option to use when traveling. However, some can be better than others. Here are a few of my favorites:
M Montreal had great, well kept facilities while I was there. Each bed is equipped with privacy curtains, outlets, shelves, and large lockers. They also have two kitchen, and have added a rooftop sauna in the time since I’ve stayed there. It is well located and a good starting off point to get around Montreal.
The best part of Room2Board is its amazing beachfront location in the Costa Rican beach town of Jaco. They also have a pool that even has a small slide, and they offer cheap surfboard rentals to help take advantage of the awesome location.
Although it is slightly outside any major city, Hostel Paradiso is situated beautifully on the shores of Laguna de Apoyo in Nicaragua, and it is a great place to get away and relax. I swam in the crater lake, paddle boarded, kayaked, and took in the amazing views. The food is not included, but the options were good and well priced. And the dorm rooms were only $9 a night!
Youth Hostel Plakias-
One of the best and worst things of Youth Hostel Plakias is its location as one of the southernmost hostels in Europe. Getting there can be a slight challenge, because it will likely require getting a plane or boat to the north side of Crete, then taking two bus rides totaling over a couple hours. However, this also seems to help this paradise from getting overrun by too many tourists. The hostel itself is just a short walk from the cool little laid back beach town of Plakias on the south side of Crete. There are lots of beaches and places to hike, and it wasn’t overcrowded even in the high summer season. There were lots of cool people at the hostel when I was there and it had a great environment. They have big, clean showers, clean bathrooms, and good WiFi. Drinks from the fridge can be taken on the honor system, marked down, then paid for at the end of the stay.
Home Lisbon Hostel-
In my opinion, the best hostel I have stayed at is Home Lisbon Hostel. They beds are some of the most comfortable dorm beds I’ve ever slept on, and they are equipped with privacy curtains, outlets, a shelf, a reading light, and larger than average lockers underneath. Also, for €10 I enjoyed “Mama’s dinner,” which was a tasty three course meal cooked by the hostel owner, and came with plenty of food and drink. The hostel had a good social environment, making it easy to meet people while I was there. The staff were also very friendly and helpful.
The Freehand hostels I’ve stayed at in Miami and Chicago had the best bars of any hostel I have stayed at. Sungate One in Madrid had an amazing atmosphere and great hostel dinners, and Mermaid Hostel in Cancun had a great atmosphere and staff that went over and above what was expected. Auberge NOLA hostel also had a great environment and felt more like living in a house/mansion than a hostel. Another hostel with a great atmosphere was Planet Traveller in Toronto, and they also had free dance classes. City Circus had the most convenient laundry service of any hostel I’ve stayed in- just fill up a laundry box with whatever you want and they wash and dry it for you for one price while you are out exploring the city. Jacques Brel Youth Hostel in Brussels offered great craft Belgian beers at their hostel bar and had an absolutely amazing breakfast included.
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