boats on canal
Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Amsterdam 101

Iconic Amsterdam sits smartly at the convergence of the Zuiderzee and the Rhine River. Its storied history, amazingly vibrant attitude, and progressive stance on social issues make it a top tourist draw for many. And for very good reason! It seems that Amsterdam has cracked the secret code of balancing the honor of the past with the energy of the future. So, what makes this city a traveler’s paradise? Read on, dear traveler.

via GIPHY

Amsterdam Central Train Station

Whether you arrive by plane or train, your first glimpse of Amsterdam might happen as you pull into one of Europe’s great train stations. The scene that’s set seems to be a choreographed dance. Backpackers searching to stow their bags for the day at the left luggage counter. Commuters of every age hopping off the north side ferries. Travelers, like you, figuring out how to roll big bags over the bumpy tiles. Plenty of languages for all over the world seems to hang in the air as people dash in and out of the cafes, pharmacy, and market. Then, it seems, that 95% of the people that just whizzed by hop on a bike. You have arrived at the heart of Amsterdam.

amsterdam central station under color stained glass roof
Photo by Bastiaan de Hart on Pexels.com

Bikes and Canals

Those bikes, just like the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, have become the default symbol for this town as the number of wheels far out paces the number of residents that power them. Thousands of bikes use the designated lanes knitting the city together from the main stretch, Damrak, over each of the five canals that ring the half a dozen neighborhoods.

via GIPHY

Renting a bike

By far, the cheapest transportation in town is also the easiest to find. More than twenty storefronts offer hourly, daily, and long term rentals that come with locks. Plenty of these bikes can also be fitted with simple baskets that make carting your bags easy peasy. Using a bike to ride around the Jordaan District and then down to the big museums is a breeze in this super flat city. Pedal power is, by far, the way to go. check out Black Bikes in the 9 Little Streets Area for great service and easy pick up and return. Expect to pay about $10.00 for 3 hours. If you don’t feel confident to ride with the locals, get out there early in the morning when the streets are not as busy.

bicycles parked on a bridge above a canal in amsterdam netherlands
Photo by Alexey Komissarov on Pexels.com

Canals and Boat Rides

If bikes rank as the number one mode of transport, then boats certainly try hard to oust them. The biggest part of Amsterdam’s charm comes from its tree lined canals that helped put the city on the map. A canal ride, though, can seem a little cheesy if not thought through well enough. And, there are so very many to choose from! From rentals that allow you to control the power to barges that herd a couple of hundred visitors around town, there seems to be no lack of choice. Two faves include a dinner cruise which keeps the ride moving along in the evening or a self propelled option that allows you to hop on and hop off as you cruise round and round. A great place to start figuring out what kind of cruise works for you is the Amsterdam Boat Center. For private charters, Those Dam Boat Guys do a great job for the adults in your party.

Look Around

Amsterdam’s unique architecture stems from the days of the Hanseatic League. Societies were just figuring out how to keep governing without a royal figurehead while adjusting to new religious views and plenty of new trade opportunities. All of this, believe it or not, is evident in the architecture that is all around. Narrow houses that tend to be three stories high were historically a shop, a home, and attic storage that took up as little taxable street width as possible. Today, the city is full of such buildings: the oldest, narrowest, widest, fanciest, crookedest, and even the secretest all make Amsterdam the perfect place to wander and wonder.

brown and white concrete building near body of water Amsterdam
Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

The most distinct feature in all of this architecture has to be the gables: Simple flat rooflines sit next to step gables, point gables, and the fancier neck and bell examples. Put together, the mix and match rooflines create their own kind of urban artwork. Use those bikes and boats to take it all in.

Plan Ahead

If there is one drawback to this city, it’s that you are not the only one who wants to be there. In fact, Amsterdam often finds itself ranked among the most visited in all of Europe. As a result, a few sites on your list may need a little pre-planning. At the front of the pack is the Anne Frank House. Be ready the month before your trip to get online and work through the ticket process as this museum sells out quickly and does not have any “day of” sales. In short, you snooze, you lose! Be sure to also arrange for the Van Gogh Museum as well as the famed Rijksmuseum which are both very busy as well.

via GIPHY

Anne Frank House

Anne’s story is a sad one. And visiting the place where it all happened allows you to better understand how the events of WWII and how Amsterdam was affected by the actions of the Third Reich. Anne’s father, Otto, unselfishly shares his daughter’s thoughts with visitors and the entire one way experience tells what happened before, during, and after the stairs behind the bookshelf hid a group of eight brave souls. In addition to this museum, check out the Dutch Resistance Museum on the south east side of the city.

The Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum

The Netherlands lays claim to quite a few major artists. Among them, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Eyck, and, of course, Van Gogh. All of these artists brought something spectacular and unique to the evolution of art and all of them can be seen here.

Van Gogh tumultuous life is on full display thanks to his brother, Theo. This modern museum profiles not only the timeline of Van Gogh’s life as well as SOME of his greatest works. Look to see such greats as The Potato Eaters, Almond Blossoms, and more self portraits than you can count. Beware that there are certain famous works like Starry Night and Irises are at other museums.

via GIPHY

Meanwhile, over at the Rijksmuseum, everyone else is waiting. Art for the middle classes was the mantra for many of these heavy hitters. Check in to see Vermeer (sans Girl With The Pearl Earring, that’s down at The Hague), Rembrandt and his Night Watch, as well as Jan Steen’s merrymaking. This national treasure has room after room of iconic “I’ve seen this before” art that makes strolling the galleries anything but boring. From Ice skaters on the canals to Napoleon and all his glory, the Rijks is a can’t miss.

Look for these fantastic museums to be connected by a pedestrian friendly plaza known as Museumplein. Here, you will find plenty of shops and restaurants to enjoy and people watch.

city water street building Amsterdam
Photo by Patrik Felker on Pexels.com

Amstelkring or Our Lord In The Attic

During the Dutch Golden Age, there were a lot of factors at play. The Protestant Reformation was in full swing but Amsterdam was a tolerant city. While the official party line was christianity without a pope, leaders understood that allowing people to worship as they choose was just fine as long as it was not advertised. Enter Jan Hartman. He was a prominent businessman during the 15th century who decided that his quiet catholic community needed a proper place to worship. He reworked three floors in his grand home to create a church where all who chose could privately worship. From the outside, the home looked like any other but inside, this amazing space provided comfort and prayer. There were several such churches throughout the city but this one located ironically in the Red Light District is the most famous.

person crossing the bridge Amsterdam
Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

Speaking of which…

The Red Light District is infamous for its trade and adult themes. Amsterdam’s progressive policies have allowed this for centuries and, for them, it works. It’s time to move on from thinking that the Red Light District is for tourists. Sex workers in Amsterdam are taxed and unionized. They treat their choices as a business and they expect to be treated with respect in return. The time has passed for touristy gawking. There is simply no shock and awe to be had. Let people live their lives and move on to other interests. Besides, there is so much more to Amsterdam than this story.

Jordaan District

The other side of the pendulum is the leafy Jordaan Neighborhood. Here, you will find plenty of locally owned shops, cafes, sleepy canal bridges and the best dose of atmosphere that this bustling city has on offer. It’s here that you will find the Anne Frank House and the local flower market close to Spui Square. Jordaan’s laid back feel (especially compared to the RLD’s hype) makes for a great home base. For a splurge, reserve a room at the fabulous Hotel Estherea on the Singel Canal. A room at this locally owned, well curated, hotel makes this entire town accessible by foot or bike.

bicycles parked on the street near the apartment buildings Amsterdam
Photo by Helena Jankovičová Kováčová on Pexels.com

A few last thoughts…

  • Take care of laundry at Eland Laundry in Jordaan (Hazenstraat 65, 1016 SN). It’s a quick bike ride there and if you chat with them, they might just deliver it back to your hotel for a small fee.
  • The flower market on the Singel Canal is very close to Spui Square. Be sure to get there sometime in the morning for the best blooms.
  • Another interesting stop just off of Spui Square is the Begijnhof. This quiet community is accessible through a gate. Inside, you will find the church that claims to be the one used by the pilgrims on the Mayflower as well as another hidden Catholic church.
  • Dig into The South Seas connection and try to put away all 27 dishes on a Rijkstaffel. These Indonesian classics with a Dutch twist are quintessentially Amsterdam. Eater beware! It can get a little spicy!
  • While no windmills are in Amsterdam itself, there are plenty of opportunities to see these wind warriors. The best places to see windmills include Edam to the north and Kinderdijk to the south.
  • Take advantage of The Netherlands’ small size and get over to Delft to see a small sized town close up. Pair this with a quick stop at the Hague to see Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery: a worthwhile stop.

via GIPHY

Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Terri: USA 101

North Carolina 101: Amazing Asheville!

It’s time to head off to the mountains and enjoy one of our country’s most unique small cities. Asheville, North Carolina is most famous for the largest private residence in the country: Biltmore. And while the estate should definitely be toward the top of you list, there are two or three other gems that make Asheville a well rounded getaway for anyone. We’ll get to our take on the Biltmore Estate later on but, let us tell you about the rest of the area. Look for Asheville to be a great drive from big destinations like Washington, DC and St. Augustine, Florida with times clocking at about 6 hours each.

The River Arts District

Winding through all of Asheville is the French Broad River. It seems to be a lifeline for making Asheville hum. These days, most of the energy centers on a few neighborhoods including the River Arts District. Full of plenty of art galleries and hipster happy coffee houses, this district is all about the slow down pace of browsing and perusing while you learn what all the local artists have been up to. There are plenty of riverside pathways that let you enjoy this little slice of the city and some of the best eateries call RAD home. Expect to spend a couple of hours along Lyman Avenue to fully enjoy. Other areas include Biltmore Village (for that Disney feel) and West Asheville (for the great eats).

The River Arts District is full of urban startups like this great coffee shop.
Street art adds to the balance of RAD.

Connecting with the mountains out your window

While the main draw to the Asheville area might be the big house up on the hill, the surrounding area has much to offer. And the river is certainly where most people start. Enter French Broad Adventures. With great trips like rafting and ziplining, French Broad has something for every age and stage. Our choice? Canyoneering in the Pisgah National Forest. This hybrid mix of repelling waterfalls, rock slides, hiking and more immerses you into nature and gives you a fresh look at an area that can start to feel a little over-urban.

We know! We know! You don’t think it’s for you! But it totally is! If we can do it, so can you! Listen in to our Asheville podcast to hear the ins and outs of canyoneering and why you should totally take up offers from great guides like Alerie and Aldon to enjoy a new adventure. We promise to help you feel brave!

Crown Plaza on Resorts Drive

If we have a pan among our picks, it’s this throwback hotel that has so much potential. Located minutes from everything and on lovely grounds, this throwback hotel is now best known for it’s convention business. The rooms are clean and well maintained but the outside is dated and just a little sad. Additionally, the facility offers no lunch service. While there are plenty more places to stay, many come at quite a cost or are not as centrally located. This may be a reasonable compromise to make an Asheville stay more reasonable when you argue with you wallet.

Foodies Beware!

Listen, we are the first to tell you that we are not food experts or that our focus is on the culinary arts. But, we know good eats when we taste them. Asheville had so many hits for us that we couldn’t pass up the chance to tell you about some of our favorites. It was definitely part of the amazing experience that Asheville offers any visitor. Before we walk you through an epic day of amazing dishes, we do want to tell you about one big pass that we recommend. Tupelo Honey seems to be a reservations only institution around here but we’ve got to say, we weren’t impressed at all. The menu wasn’t too inspiring and much of the food was bland or not prepared well (read microwaved!). There are so many good choices instead.

Breakfast at Biscuit Head

Look for the line out the door. Now stand in it. You won’t regret it!!! Biscuit Head has mastered the cathead biscuit and everything that they put on top. This small cafe with counter order only knows how to dish out amazing dishes like fried green tomatoes and biscuits as well as classic full breakfast with biscuit featuring the very best bacon we’ve ever had! We are all about starting our day on the right foot and Biscuit Head certainly did their part!

Fried green tomato biscuits
Chicken and waffles for the win!

Lunch @ Sunny Point Cafe in West Asheville

This easy, breezy laid back garden patio makes sure that you leave miserable from all the great food! From Peach Pound Cake Bites to seriously good Chicken and Waffles, there’s not one thing on the menu that will disappoint. The yellow and blue vibes ensure that you enjoy the laid back patio with plenty of urban charm. Look for plenty of signature cocktails and great service. Ask for Tessa for some of the best service around!

Dinner at Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village

Walk up onto the porch of this old school Victorian Cottage and get ready for a fresh take on some old favorites. The little house once originally belonged to the parents of one of the estate workers and now has plenty of nooks and corners to enjoy the great food that’s coming out of the kitchen. Look for seasonal southern twists on staples like the amazing charred peach and tomato caprese. The chef also ensures there’s something for everyone like huge heritage porkchops with cherry bourbon glaze and classic shrimp and grits. The best part? The lovely staff leading foodies through the whole dining experience. To finish off the whole evening was the over the top, don’t miss out, maple blondie sundae that our favorite server, Allie, recommended. By the way, Allie was totally the best server ever! This was a great choice!

Charred peach and tomato caprese
Cherry bourbon glazed pork chops

Now, onto Biltmore and it’s 8,000 acre playground!

So, there’s this house. Or should we say that there’s this mega mansion that started to take shape in 1889? George Washington Vanderbilt worked with Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame to create the largest private residence in the United States. So, why should you go see a big, huge, old house? There are many many reasons and none of them disappoint. Basic tickets to the house allow you to go through the main gate house and wind your way through the property and park to either take a shuttle or a walk up to the main house. And what a house it is! 250 rooms including 43 bathrooms! Unlike many of its European counterparts, however, Biltmore touts an extensive amount of turn of the century technology while maintaining that old world feel.

The Great Dining Hall is 7 stories tall!

The House Tour

Walk in the front door and be welcomed into the foyer of the Vanderbilt home. Take in the open conservatory and the grand staircase. Guests can walk around with a self paced audio guide and learn all about the formal, family parts of the house from the seven story great dining hall to the two lane bowling alley in the basement. Be sure to pause on the back veranda to take in the view that convinced George that this was the perfect spot to break ground.

Take in the “modern” art from masters like Renoir and Monet; both artists that Vanderbilt thought highly of. Then, continue understanding how this massive house worked by touring some of the service areas like the kitchen and pantries. It is here that you will see most of the state of the art technology that made this place hum. Look to spend about 90 minutes exploring the major rooms that the family spent most of their time in.

A Halloween Room? Yes!
The stone foundation hallway
The Great Dining Hall

But, wait, what else?!

Now that you’ve had a chance to immerse yourself in the guilded age, it’s time to explore beyond the splendor of the big house and see how the rest of the over 80,000 acres worked and how the present 8,700 acres is now a modern day playground. The closest thing to the house are the gardens. But… maybe don’t start there. The thing that makes Biltmore well worth the visit is menu of activities that bring the entire estate to life. Look for three major categories to keep you entertained: outdoors and wellness, food, and cultural experiences. Here is a short list:

  • Lazy river rafting and kayaking on the French Broad River. The gentle current makes this perfect for all ages.
  • Horseback riding on the estate trails in the Deerpark area.
  • Archery and falconry lessons that turn back time and not only let you participate in the sport but also inform you about how these sports played a role on the estate.
  • Yoga and immersive nature experiences that get you out into the grounds and allow you to connect with this picturesque corner of Carolina.
  • Landrover trail expeditions that let you try your hand at navigating through the backfields and woods while learning how to use the dynamics of the car to become a better handler.
  • Mountain biking on the pristine trails that crisscross the property (which is a great way to explore those gardens!)

All of these activities are yours to book as long as you have a ticket to the house. And, it’s okay if the outdoor activities don’t exactly work for you. Biltmore has plenty of cultural experiences to round out your visit. They include:

The charming Christmas shop in the stable yard.
  • Shop at the stable shops just next to the house with plenty of charming items that reflect the house and its history. The stable yard is also a great place to grab a snack in between tours and activities.
  • Rooftop architecture tour lets you climb and explore the different balconies and rooftop areas and take in the exceptional views over the house and gardens area.
  • Backstairs tour will give you a proper dose of Downton Abbey fun as you learn about the upstairs maids and the butler’s domain. If you are truly interested in the inner workings of the house and how Mrs. Vanderbilt’s maid assisted her throughout the day (it was A LOT!) Everything on this tour is not available on the extensive main house tour.
  • Winery tours and tastings are available in Antler Hill Village where there are some lovely shops and eateries that include Cedric’s Tavern which is named in honor of the family’s huge, sweet, good boy!
Roasted Brussel Sprouts in Antler Hill Village…mmmm!
  • Painting workshops that match the current exhibit theme are available seasonally and well worth it to enjoy the experience and walk away with a little keepsake!
  • Immersive art exhibits featuring artists like DaVinci or Monet are installed for limited runs at the Ashcroft building and are a lovely way to connect to fine art. The Monet exhibit relates to the house particularly well as Mr. Vanderbilt truly enjoyed these modern masters.
Massive canvases project the most famous impressionist works of the turn of the century.
Timed to music, the exhibit offers you a chance to sit back and relax while you take in famous works.

Asheville has so very much to offer every sort of traveler. From the great food to the amazing experiences and even that big house up on the hill all contribute to an amazing getaway!

castle on hill over village near body of water
Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Europe 101: Plan Perfect!

Europe is an icon of the travel world. With so many places to choose from and so many details to consider, any traveler can become overwhelmed! Fear not Euro-traveler! We are here to answer the most important questions! Let’s make your trip to Europe plan perfect. If you are just getting started, we highly recommend checking out our first Europe 101 post and podcast to get your basic plans started.

What can I do to make my trip to Europe better?

Hundreds of destinations and thousands of experiences await anyone traveling to Europe and the best advice we have is to go with your gut and create a balance of activities that you know you will truly enjoy. We love to share our ideas to help you decide if an icon or smaller experience is just right for you. With so many details to consider, here’s our list of starting line tips to make your plans work for you!

via GIPHY

  • When considering booking an Airbnb, be sure to check out if the owner is local instead of a corporation that has a resident manager. It puts money back into the local economy. Ask your Airbnb if they have bikes or other equipment to use. Airbnb is also taking donations to help out Ukrainian refugees so, if you can, consider donating a night or two.
  • Driving a standard can be one of the biggest cost savers in Europe (or anywhere for that matter). The reality of rental car pricing means that more efficient cars like standards are cheaper to rent. Learn to drive the standard!!
  • Be mindful of Spring events surrounding Holy week. Many festivities and closures could put a damper on your best laid plans and create quite a hiccup. Conversely, seek them out! They are fun!
  • Be a responsible shopper and always buy local especially when you are looking for travel souvenirs. Check out where things have been manufactured and only reinvest money into the local economy. There’s no reason to make someone on the other side of the world money.
  • Look up and go down! Europe is full of so much! As you make your way through your trip, be sure to check out Europe’s fascination with ceilings. Then again, plan a few excursions to see what’s under your feet. Here are a few examples: in Rome, look up at all the church ceilings, in Edinburgh, check out the cool closes, in Paris explore the sewer museum, in Nuremberg learn the history of the WWII art bunkers, and in London, take a ride on the mail rail.

Are hop on hop off busses worth it?

Yes and no. Hop on, hop off busses are incredibly popular and there are a few cities where we think they are totally worth it. On the other hand, there are quite a few cities where they clog up the roads and make life miserable. We think that so many choices come down to whether or not there is a good reason to take the bus other than just ride around. Here are our picks and why:

via GIPHY

Yay!

  • Edinburgh: Use it to go out to see the Brittania
  • Rome: The bus links all of the major piazzas together in a efficient ring
  • Paris: but only at night to see the uplit magic of the city of lights

Nay!

  • Dublin: they clog up the streets with the Viking tours
  • Athens: traffic! traffic! traffic!
  • Amsterdam: the canals are far better to get around
  • Munich: bikes or a bike taxi are a better choice

What are the best city passes in Europe?

It’s a decision we go back and forth on often. Is it worth buying the big city museum pass or should we skip it? Our rule of thumb is if you are staying for more than three days and you are attending at least three venues that are included in the pass, then there is a good chance that a museum pass is for you. We do, however, have some favorites:

via GIPHY

  • Paris City Pass: It covers hundreds of places both big and small including The Louvre and Versailles. It does NOT cover the Eiffel Tower.
  • London Oyster Pass: Everything that’s not part of the Royal Household including transport.
  • The Vatican: If you want to see anything past St. Peter’s Basilica, you NEED this ticket!
  • Krakow City Pass: Art, archeology, WII sites and more are included.
  • Amsterdam City Pass: Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum are both included making it well worth the price.

What tickets do I need to get before going to Europe?

As much as we would all like to just hop on a plane and wing it, the truth is that some of the most popular venues sell out weeks and months in advance. Here are some of the most popular as well as some popular places that really don’t need pre-planning.

via GIPHY

Pre-plan it!

  • Nueshwanstien Castle, Bavaria
  • Anne Frank House, Amsterdam
  • Sagrada Familia, Barcelona  
  • The Vatican Necropolis (St. Peter’s Tomb) Please see our information on Rome by clicking here.                                

Wing it!

  • Blarney Castle
  • Auschwitz
  • Parthenon
  • Mont Saint Michele

What destinations in Europe need a car rental?

  • Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way awaits and the public transport in this area is not that great. It’s time to drive on the other side of the road.
  • Bavaria, don’t get us wrong, German trains are super great. But, driving these back roads lets you stay on your own time schedule and, quite frankly, they are super fun to drive!
  • Tuscany, a car is certainly needed to explore this countryside. Use the great trains to get you close then pick up a rental near the train station.
  • Normandy, you can also pick up a rental at the Bayeaux train station and then explore the coastline on your own time. This means that you are not depending on public transport to get you to the most important sites.
  • Scottish Highlands, yes there are trains but like Ireland, Normandy, and Bavaria, a car will allow you to coast through the countryside at your own speed.
old medieval ruins of dunluce castle on ocean coast in northern ireland famous place in uk
Photo by Iain on Pexels.com

6 last tips about very specific places:

Lots of little tips can help you feel more comfortable as you travel. For example, using “international” words like photo and toilet can be far more productive than saying picture or restroom (isn’t that a room where you rest?!). Here are some more little gems that might apply to your next European adventure:

  • Bullfights in the Azores do not kill the bulls! It’s an ethical way to experience this culture.
  • Worst traffic in Europe is in Istanbul!
  • Royal Ascot tickets may be available through your embassy in London. Google their site because you need to apply.
  • You can river raft on the lochs of Scotland! Just on certain days. Check out our coverage of Scotland here.
  • The Notre Dame is scheduled to open back up in 2024 just in time for the Olympics!
  • Your Louvre Ticket will allow you to leave and come back throughout the day whether you use a City Pass or not.
photo of santorini greece
Photo by jimmy teoh on Pexels.com

We can answer:

  • Where should I rent a car in Europe?
  • What tickets do I need to buy in advance in Europe?
  • How can I decide on what to preplan for my tip to Europe?
  • What are the best travel tips for Europe?
  • Should I use a hop on hop off bus in Europe?