Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Dublin 101: Irish Charm!

Ah, the Emerald Isle! Americans stamp their passports here more than any other country. Why? Because there is simply nothing like the charm and friendliness of Ireland. The Irish are famous for their hospitality and “come join us” attitude. It’s this amazing spirit that allows for so many opportunities to learn and enjoy. The nation’s capital, Dublin, is full of amazing sites and experiences. But, what is actually worth it? We’re here to tell you what to get to fast, what to pass on, and what to see instead. So, pull up a chair, pour yourself a drink, and let’s get to the craic!

Listen in to our newest podcast to keep traveling in Ireland!

Guiness and Jameson’s

The storehouse experience is literally the most visited tourist attraction in the country. Spoiler alert: they do not make beer here. They also do not make whiskey on Bow St. when you visit Jameson’s Distillery. I know!!!!! I’m sure the beer and whiskey enthusiasts would love it but if that is not your cup of tea, consider whether your time is worth it.

guinness glass filled with beer
Photo by Engin Akyurt on
  • Verdict: Pass on Ireland’s, number one tourist draw. Instead hit up the Smithwick’s tour in Kilkenny and the Jameson’s distillery in Cork.

Book of Kells at Trinity College

The story of this illuminated manuscript is one of legends. From the age of Saints and Scholars, monks toiled over the pages to create this work of art which is now beautifully enshrined in the grand library at Trinity College. The setting is gorgeous the exhibit is first class. But if you don’t know why monks coloring pages in a bible is important, is this for you?

brown book page
Photo by Wendy van Zyl on
  • Verdict: Pass if it’s not your thing. Go if you are enamored by art that was created with love under such dire circumstances. Above all, know the story.

St. Patrick’s and Christ Church

Religion can be a touchy topic in Ireland. While troubles were certainly centered in Belfast for years, make no mistake, Dublin was the original epicenter of uprising. What’s this got to do with churches? Many Irish Americans go to pay their respects to their Catholic ancestors who left Erin’s green shores on coffin ships during the famine. These are not their churches. In fact, they are not Catholic churches at all! Don’t get me wrong, they are stunning. However, their architecture is easily found and centered in places like London. Is it worth your precious time?

low angle photo of blue concrete building
Photo by Mark Dalton on
  • Verdict: Pass, unless churches and their architecture are your thing. For those of you looking honor your Catholic roots, check in at Our Lady of Knock Basilica or Croagh Patrick in the west.


Speaking of your Irish roots, so many visitors strive to understand the journey of there to here. In fact, the umber one reason people visit Ireland is to trace their roots! Dublin has heard you all and EPIC is certainly the place for you. This modern immigration museum traces the history of the Irish population throughout the world and strives to connect you to your heritage and culture.

brown brick road
Photo by Pixabay on
  • Verdict: A must! If you are looking for a place to start understanding your roots, this is stop number one. Leave with the name of a town in a county and set out to find your people.


What 1776 is to Americans is what 1916 is to the Irish. It was here at the main general post office that 16 brave men started taking action towards British independence. In short, the story of a free Ireland starts here with the Easter Rising.

The Irish Declaration of Independence
  • Verdict: A must! To go here is to understand Ireland. There are no substitutes for this impactful piece of history.

Kilmainham Gaol

Once you finish at the GPO, head towards Kilmainham. The jail that housed those 16 men until they were all executed by the British authorities. The story is powerful and the building is an interesting mix of tragedy and splendor. you may even recognize some of the areas from famous movies.

hallway with window
Photo by Jimmy Chan on
  • Verdict: Top of my list! If you see nothing else in Dublin, see this! History buffs, proud patriots, architecture hounds, and movie maniacs will all connect.

Temple Bar Pub Crawls

If there is one word that should be central to your travels in Ireland, it should be storytelling. And while pub crawls in the US tend to be full of uncontrollable debauchery, this is not the case in Ireland. Yes, you’ll have a drink, yes, you’ll go from pub to pub, but that’s where the similarities end. Pub crawls showcase, music, storytelling, dance, literature, history and more. They are a super fun way to get your bearings on the town and enjoy all aspects of culture.

assorted liquor bottles
Photo by Lucian Petronel Potlog on
  • Verdict: Certainly! Isn’t this why you came to Ireland anyway? Find a pub crawl to match your interests. If you can think it up, it probably exists!
Looking to keep this list at your fingertips? Listen in to our podcast right here!

Dublin Castle

The castle on Dame St. is a conference center, an administrative government building and a tourist attraction. With ornate English state rooms, there is a bit to see with the required tour guides. At 700 years old, there’s no doubt the castle has tons of stories and I’m all for that!

administration architecture building castle
Photo by Skitterphoto on
  • Verdict: Pass, Ireland is full of lots of castles, is this really the one you want to see? Wait for Kilkenny Castle and Blarney Castle. Then stay the night at a private castle found in many places including Air B and B. Better yet, try out fancy schmancy Ashford Castle from the Guinness Family.

O’Connell and Grafton Streets

The two major streets of Dublin, each has quite a distinct purpose. Look towards O’Connell Street to give you a sense of history and Grafton Street to get your shop on. You are bound to wind up here for a bevy of reasons, just enjoy!

The charming streets of Dublin
  • Verdict: Sure! You’ll enjoy both in equal measure.

Croke Park and Aviva Stadium

It’s time to get your sport on! Choose a stripy scarf and join in the team spirit. It really doesn’t matter what side you root for, just enjoy the fun like a temporary local. If there is no game scheduled, take advantage of the stadium tours which wind up being far more interesting than first meets the eye.

man in blue and white striped soccer jersey playing rugby
Photo by Patrick Case on
  • Verdict: Have some fun! Cheer along with modern Ireland.

Arlington Hotel’s Celtic Nights

Kitchy? Yup. Full of tourists? Uh-huh. So-so dinner? True. Go anyway! This is a great, old school first night stop. Get a table close to the stage so your mashed potatoes clatter in time to the dancer’s feet.

Irish musicians
  • Verdict: Yes, only if you have a sense of humor and you’re looking to unwind a little. It’s a great stop to help get rid of your jet lag. Otherwise pass for one of the more serious options above.

St. Michan’s Church

I love Irish humor. And this might have been one of the funniest stops I’ve ever made. St. Michan’s is an active church with a little bit of a skeleton in the closet. Each day, visitors can take a look down in the crypt at the amazingly preserved residents. What makes it so much fun? The guy taking you on the tour has a great Scooby-doo quality that just can’t be ignored.

low angle grayscale photo of empty brick stairs
Photo by Ravi Kant on
  • Verdict: Enjoy the storytelling with no crowds then hit the pub afterwards to reflect on the surreal experience! It’s a quick stop to fit in.

Viking Boat Tour

Dublin, above all else, is a working city. With the River Liffey running through it to create north and south banks, getting out on the water may seem like a fun time. but make no mistake, the banks are not filled with charming sites or historical buildings. Instead, you get a great look at the back side of the studio space U2 use to record some music.

bridge under the blue sky
Photo by Lucian Petronel Potlog on
  • Verdict: Pass. The WWII duck boats are unique but it’s not worth the time to make the splash.

Leprechaun Museum

There’s no doubt that Ireland is connected to the grumpy little fellows along with fairies and banshees. This lo tech stop will have the kids finding that ever important storytelling aspect of Irish culture. Make no mistake though, Americans link leprechauns to the Irish far more than the Irish do! (The same goes for green beer and 4 leaf clovers.)

green and brown floral ceramic vase
Photo by Lucian Petronel Potlog on
  • Verdict: Take the kids, pass with the teens, get a pint with the adults.

When all is said and done…

Dublin is a dynamic springboard to a country full of unbelievable things! Northern Ireland, The Wild Atlantic Way, and Southern Counties await you. Be sure to balance your time and not put all of your eggs in one Dublin basket. Enjoy with balance. Dublin can be enjoyed in about 3 to 4 days.

Use these apps to hear stories about all of the different public art throughout town. Try, also, the 1916 historical walking tour.

Art Trax


Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Intro to World Travel

Japan 101: 20 Tips For First Time Travelers

So, you’ve made the big commitment! You are committed to your first trip to Japan. Hooray! You are going to LOVE it! I mean you! Because it really doesn’t matter who you are, Japan is for every kind of traveler there is. There is more than just something for everyone. Japan is an amusement park of sites and sounds that will entertain, educate, elevate, mystify, and baffle you all at once. The land of the rising sun is modern and streamlined, trendy and a world player. And yet, around every corner is a respect for the ancient and traditional. These are best tips to help you experience the best of Japan on your first visit!

First Time traveling to Japan
Sit back and listen to the whole conversation with our podcast all about Japan! Just click here!

Understanding the basics…

  • Etiquette: Japan is famous for its social rules. But how do you know what to do?! It can be hard to know what is expected when you are Gaijin (foreign). So bow when someone bows toward you. Say thank you and please often.
  • Pleasantries: Raised voices and angry confrontations are not part of Japanese culture. Instead, citizens are pretty consistent in settling matters by following the rules. And follow them they do! Sometimes to a fault. Exceptions and work arounds are just not a factor in this culture. So, don’t expect extra service with a tip rather, expect to be told no very nicely! As my husband says, “Courtesy is king but don’t expect to get your way!”
First Time traveling to Japan
Peaceful and serene, Japan offers a zen that is like no other.
  • Umbrellas: Everybody, and I mean everybody, has a collection of umbrellas in Japan. The rainy season (June and July) can do that. That doesn’t mean you need to use valuable packing space to bring your own. Instead, if you really do need one, check in with your accommodations or swing in to the local 100 yen store. They’ll have one for very little money.
First Time traveling to Japan
Temples and Shrines gracefully co-exsist with modern sensibilities
  • Masks: Like many other Asian countries, Japanese people will wear masks to be considerate of others. So, if you see a mask or two, no worries! It just means that you won’t get that cold from the person next to you.
  • Romanji and Kanji: The language barrier can be overwhelming in Japan (or Nippon) but there is help. While native speakers rely on the Kanji system of writing, all those symbols mean very little to the typical traveler. Look for Romanji to sound out names and common words on signs to make getting around a little easier.
First Time traveling to Japan
Each little corner, alleyway, and tiny enclosure offer new experiences
  • Tokyo Bound: If you are nervous about language, culture mishaps, or too much adventure, keep yourself close to Tokyo. Almost everyone you will come in contact with speaks English. The basic rule of thumb is to know the further you get from Tokyo, the more you will need to rely on your language skills.

Getting ready for a little culture shock!

  • Squatty Potty: Coming in at the top of my culture shock list is the squatty potty! Don’t get this confused with the As Seen On TV stool, squatty potties are modern toilets that sit into the floor and you simply squat over them to use. This may not be comfy for everyone so if you come across one, simply look in another stall to find the classic potty you are used to!
First Time traveling to Japan
A modern rest stop offers a clear map to which toilets are open and what kind they are.
First Time traveling to Japan

My daughter’s very first reaction to a squatty potty was.. “ummm, no”.

  • Don’t alarmed at the random music: Communities all over Japan work together. They get kids to school safely, they garden public parks beautifully, and they keep their communities running with timely little chimes and songs broadcasted over loudspeakers throughout the day. Hum along…
  • You will need Yen more than you think: Most modern travel allows you to get by on just credit cards if you choose and Japan is no exception. However, there are plenty of moments in this country that benefit from a few yen in your pocket. The process of exchanging money has a charm all its own. With little trays and catchy change machines, paying with cash is part of the fun!
  • All the cute: Japan has unbelievable fascination with all things cute! We all know Hello Kitty and Harajuku but there is so much more! There is a pervasive sweetness that envelops everything from bakery sweets to stoplights. It’s all, well, cute!
First Time traveling to Japan
Hello Kitty leads the cute parade!
  • Capsule hotels: Speaking of cute, check out the amazing capsule hotel experience! For just a few bucks, you get a tidy, efficient capsule with plenty of modern amenities. This is a great choice for solo travelers as the floors are usually single sex and perfect for an overnight stay if you are just breezing through.
  • Be prepared for the absurd: You know those “I can’t believe I’m doing this” moments? I once was in Japan, in Chinatown, eating at a Brazilian restaurant. Absurd. It happens everywhere and all the time.

Taking on Japanese cuisine…

Japan’s flavors and combinations create an amazing experience for any foodie.
  • Tea and fish: First thing’s first, the number one drink on the menu is tea and the number one dish on the menu is fish. All the fish: tempura, sashimi, broiled, sushi. It’s probably a good idea if you are open to tea and fish.
First Time traveling to Japan
The best food advice? Eat everything! Including the fish!
  • Sushi Go Round: Speaking of fish, be sure to swing in to a sushi go round restaurant,. With conveyor belts and buttons, grab sushi (and other dishes) by the plate and have a little fun. There are so many other novelty restaurants like ones that have ninjas, ones where you catch your own dinner and others where you sip your tea with bunnies. The possibilities are endless.
First Time traveling to Japan
Push the button and grab right off the conveyor to enjoy this fun Japanese experience! But don’t expect to find hibachi on every corner- that’s VERY American!
  • Ramen House: Endless possibilities also await you at the local ramen shops. Those yummy noodles come with so many options and toppings that you’ll run out of time before you run out of new combos. Be careful! When ordering a setto or combo meal, expect a TON of food!
First Time traveling to Japan
Slurp up all the noodles you can! Ramen is king of the fast food set.
  • Eat anything on a stick: Festival food is a treasure for foodies visiting Japan. This tip comes directly from my kids. Eat anything on a stick, all of it is good! Typical items like chicken or corn come with great Japanese twists.
First Time traveling to Japan
Jackpot! These kids could find everything on a stick from ice cream to octopus and they loved it all!
  • Use vending machines: Quick! What makes pizza, hot coffee, cold beer, and so much more? Break out those yen and try the plethora of vending machines that can literally provide you with a five course meal!
First Time traveling to Japan
Don’t let the language barrier get in the way! The red labels are hot choices and the blue ones are cold. American Coffee in a can is a great place to start.
  • Convenience stores and SNACKS: Eat. Them. All. Under that umbrella of cuteness, comes more great convenience store treats than you could ever imagine. Try as many as you can as you hop from place to place. The most popular to travelers are the KitKats and Pringles with all of their different flavors. My kids recommend the green tea and wasabi flavors.

Exploring Neighborhoods…

Part of the charm of Japan are all of the individual neighborhoods that polka dot the landscape. Each little community has a little city center usually with a train station and plenty to keep you interested. Some neighborhoods also boast…

First Time traveling to Japan
Bon Odori in full swing in the town of Atsugi.
  • Festivals: The Japanese will throw a festival for pretty much any reason but the best Summer festival is Bon Odori by far! This is celebrated all over the place in August. If you stumble upon a little celebration, join the fun and eat anything they serve on a stick. Careful! you may wind up with a goldfish if you are good at the games!
First Time traveling to Japan
I wound up with far too many goldfish thanks to these two!
  • Parks: The Japanese really know how to have fun! Kids are delighted with neighborhood parks like the cloud park where you can bounce to your heart’s content, the pirate ship park where you can take on the pretend high seas, or the treehouse park where you can climb away the day. Other parks are full of tiny features like community gardens, waterfalls and Koi ponds. Check them all out!
First Time traveling to Japan
The park in Yamato during Sakura season
  • Flea markets: If you are a souvenir shopper, check out the local rummage sales which are usually set up close to the local train stations. We’ve found all kinds of fun finds like coin style baseball cards or an antique Buddha. My favorite? Yamato, held on the third Saturday of each month.
First Time traveling to Japan
A spice stall at the flea market in Enoshima
  • 100 yen stores: If you are looking for a truly unique Japanese experience, go to a 100 yen store. I once walked in with an empty box and filled it up with all kinds of stuff. I had no clue what it was but I sent it back to the States for family to open and discover. The most popular one is Daiso.
First Time traveling to Japan
My favorite store- ever! The Daiso was a standard stop for us.

Getting around town…

Okay, I know, this is the one you are worried about the most. Let me start by saying this: six year olds navigate the public transportation system on their own. You can too. With a few skills like map reading and romanji, you too can enjoy one of the best transit systems in the world.

  • Public Trains: By far, one of my favorite things in Japan was the train system. JR Railways and friends got me pretty much everywhere I wanted to go. I used a printed map to learn my route and stuck to it. Japan is a country where you can ask for help from pretty much anybody. While there can be some tricky things to navigate – I once had to walk through a department store to find my connecting train to Kamakura) nothing is impossible and it’s all part of the fun.
First Time traveling to Japan
Train boards in Japan are as easy to read as they are in Europe. Times and captions with phonetical spellings make it easier to navigate than you think.
  • Driving by Landmarks: I highly recommend leaving the driving to the locals but, if you must, understand that many streets have no name and you may be relying on landmarks for directions. This is not a joke, one time I followed these directions: turn right at the gorilla, cross the train tracks, turn left at the big blue elephant and it’s just past the black ramen shop. I got there.
  • The Number One Driving Rule in Japan: When turning any corner, keep saying to yourself “driver in the middle, driver in the middle”. The driver is ALWAYS in the seat closest to the middle of the road.

Day tripping from Tokyo…

As you expand your horizons toward greater Tokyo, there are a couple of amazing spots to consider. Every popular guidebook will give you the 411 on the details for these particular places. These were among the family favorites in our house.

  • Get your mouse ears at Disney: Unlike the States, Disney in Japan is not so crowded that you can’t enjoy it. Go on an American holiday for a little extra fun and listen to the characters with their Australian accents and the Tower of Terror translated into Japanese. Too funny!
First Time traveling to Japan
Disney is a very different experience in Japan than in the States and well worth your time.
  • Enjoy the suburbs in Yokohama: Check out the tallest building in Japan and one of the fun roller coasters in the downtown area. Then enjoy the ramen museum.
First Time traveling to Japan
Roller coasters, malls, and more modern Japan waits for you in Yokohama which is less than an hour outside of Tokyo
  • Learn about Buddha in Kamakura: Down at the seaside, the spectacular Big Buddha awaits you just a five minute walk from the train. Just follow the crowd. This popular spot has great food, an incredible temple with a cave, an aquarium close by, and more. Well worth the trip.
First Time traveling to Japan
The Big Buddha is the centerpiece of Kamakura
  • Take on the Samurai in Odowara: Climb up the formidable steps of the castle for a walk through feudal Japan and the story of the Samurai. There are plenty of castles to visit, I just really liked this one!
First Time traveling to Japan
Odowara Castle
  • Hike Mt. Fuji July and August: Buy your stick, and get it branded at each check in station then reach the summit. Fuji is about 7 hours up and about 5 hours down. It’s a long day but so very worth it. Many plan their hike overnight and sleep at the top so they can watch the sun rise in the morning. The climbing season is short and you want all of your ducks in a row before you get there.
First Time traveling to Japan
The Fuji climbing season is limited and takes planning but it is one of the most climbed mountains in the world. Stick to the Yoshida trail if you are concerned about your abilities.
  • Ride the rides at Fuji Kyu Amusement Park: Stick close to the mountain and get your thrill on with some of the most advanced roller coasters in the world. Totally worth it.
  • Feed the animals at Fuji Safari Park: Lions, bears, really smelly camels. The whole place is super fun and very, very Japanese. I’m still a little miffed with the monkeys. They stole my son’s glasses!
  • The Five Lakes including Lake Yamanaka: Nature lovers will love the five lakes region and it is beautiful no matter what time of year you choose. Go for the hikes, the photography, the peace.
mt fuji japan
Photo by Liger Pham on
  • Become fascinated with traditional Japan in Kyoto: The old capitol is full of so very many sites and experiences. Check out the Geisha scene and the Golden Pavilion.
First Time traveling to Japan
The main gate at the old palace in Kyoto.
  • Meet the locals in Nara: One of the most unique cities in Japan has to be Nara. Famous for the deer who wander freely all over town, they congregate in the city park knowing that tourists will have snacks for them and are happy to get up close and personal if they see you as a potential food source. They are not above checking to see if you have backstock in your purse!
First Time traveling to Japan
Snacks are a big winner with these gentle guys.
  • Soak in the Hot Springs or Onsens: The best, in my opinion, are located in Hakone and feature soak after soak in all kinds of things from beer to coffee. Immerse yourself in the ritual and enjoy the experience as only the Japanese do.

The Ultimate Two Week Starter Kit:

Alrighty, you are ready to plan! The reality is that you will never get to see all that Japan has to offer. I lived there and still couldn’t fit everything in. First time visitors will get the most out of concentrating their time between Tokyo to the East and Kyoto in the West. Use this list as your jumping off point. It has all of the highlights that a two week trip can comfortably fit. You can add or subtract from here to customize your trip and make your time in Japan the best it can be!

  • Fly in to Narita
  • Explore Tokyo and get a handle on public transport
  • Experience Shibuya, Fish Market, Asakura, and other icons
  • Head south toward Yokohama and spend the day by the harbor, enjoy the ramen museum
  • Continue down to Kamakura
  • Swing over to Odowara
  • Take on Fuji
  • Jump in to the deep end at an onsen
  • Enjoy an amusement park or another Fuji inspired hike
  • Arrive in Kyoto
  • Enjoy the sights and Sounds of Kyoto
  • Day trip to Nara and see the deer
  • Take the bullet train back to Tokyo and finish checking off your big city bucket list
  • Tokyo Disney Sea
  • Tokyo Disney Land
  • Fly out of Narita