I started writing this blog post shortly after we returned from Europe in January, but I put it aside to focus on school. 5-6 months later, I resumed telling the story of our latest trip; which now feels as if its writing and sharing holds a grander purpose.
I am forever planning my next itinerary in this vast world of unseen territory. It has never mattered if I was a student, if I was making minimum wage or if I was allotted only two weeks of PTO per year, I’ve always made traveling my top priority. Clothing, electronics, salon appointments, and materialistic items are not important to me. Eating something I’ve never heard of is important to me. Getting lost in an area of a town I can’t pronounce is important to me. Wandering down a street that looks like a pre-set cell phone background is important to me. Immersing myself in local cultures, hearing accents and the slang, and paying with colorful, plastic money is important to me. And thankfully, when I met Natalie, she had the same desires to explore the world- she just needed the push. The list of places we still want to see is endless.
If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that nothing is more important than taking every moment you have, to do the things you find joy in.
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We arrived in London, on December 23rd, hungry for both food and adventure. It was midday, and exhaustion was expected. It gets more difficult to sleep on red eyes the older we get. I had mapped out a tentative half-day itinerary- to eat our way through the Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Shore Ditch. Brick Lane, also called “curry lane” is known for its markets and Indian food- a Gastronaut Girls’ dream. We found Uptown Market by accident, and we were so happy we did. This skeleton of an old brewery is now a congested market with food and art booths. Our senses were overwhelmed. The first thing that had to be eaten was Indian Turkish cuisine. There were woks filled with brightly colored dishes and we told them we’d take one paratha packed with everything. We didn’t necessarily know what we were putting in our mouths, but we thoroughly enjoyed every bite.
At a nearby stand, we tried something that resembled a cone of General Tsos chicken.
From another vendor, we got several mixed dumplings. This was lunch.
We popped into Dark Sugars, supposedly London’s best chocolate shop. The candies were presented to look like pearls on big wooden oysters. We didn’t buy any because the line was too long.
Next we walked over to a speakeasy that was high on my list of must-dos. We had to enter through a breakfast joint and present a password to the server in order to enter the bar. “We’re here to see the mayor” was spoken, almost in an awkward chant, and we were granted entry through a refrigerator door, and led down a dark hallway. A glow-in-the-dark sign that read “Thrills” let us know that we’d reached the hidden establishment. Down there, we each had a pretty cocktail.
It was late afternoon at this point (nearing midnight at home) and we had a reservation at the Sky Garden to see the city skyline, suggested by a friend who is a local. Unfortunately, the outside deck had closed right before our arrival, once it got dark. Fortunately, I didn’t have to overcome my fear of heights that night. I promise that wasn’t planned!
For dinner, we had a table reserved at a British restaurant, The Marquis Cornwallis. In an effort to feast on an authentic Sunday Roast, we shared a beef plate with pigs in blanks and Yorkshire pudding. Although it’s not a meal I’ve yearned for ever since, we were happy to have tried it.
Day two was another busy one. Our initial breakfast idea was to go to St. Amyes Cafe, a very instagramable, all-pink, floral joint. Who knows how the food would have tasted, but the photos would have been cute. Since it was Monday and it was closed, we ended up at our plan B- Farm Girl Cafe, recommended by my cousins. The cafe was in elegant Notting Hill and each of our breakfasts were just as sophisticated. They were so unique that it’s worth listing every ingredient. I had the “Salmon Party” which was smoked salon, beet cream cheese, turmeric pickled egg and pickled kohlrabi served on whole meal sourdough. Nat had the “Island Eggs”, which was roasted torn sweet potato, avo feta whip, steamed greens, soy picked shiitake and a poached egg with sprinkled toasted hazelnuts and whole meal sourdough. Steph had the “Picchu Plate”, jerk portobello mushrooms with a fried egg and fresh green peppers topped with feta, coriander and spring onion on toasted arepa bread. Although we weren’t sure if we were full when we left, we were very satisfied with the cafe, its flavor profiles and its hipster-ness.
Then, it was time for a Fat Tire Bike Tour. This was our third tour. We first discovered the company in Paris and then squeezed it in in Berlin. Now, we make it a point to take a ride in every city that they exist in. Nat even has all of the t-shirts to prove it. It’s not too expensive and a great way to see the city at a swifter pace, off your feet.
Halfway into the tour, we went to a Christmas market for a snack, where we shared a bratwurst and churros. The holiday markets make traveling in December such a treat. There’s just such a feeling of warmth that overcomes you as you browse the food stalls and souvenir shops. You can’t help but feel the holiday cheer (and this is coming from a Jewish girl).
After the tour, we went to the well known Borough Market. Steph had been there before on her previous trip to the UK, and she knew what to expect. However, Nat and I didn’t know how incredible it would be! From fruit to cheese to prepared meals, we wanted it all! We settled for salted beef chips and truffle mushroom pasta. Steph also got a tea.
We headed back to our Generator Hostel chain by foot and Tube, London’s underground metro system. We had a little issue with the door staying locked and needing to change rooms, and also didn’t appreciate that the shared toilets were about a quarter of a mile away from our private room, but Generator ended up being safe, clean and reliable enough.
Later that evening, we walked in the direction of Kings Cross. We stopped in the train station to take a peek at the famous Platform 9 3/4 spectacle. We aren’t really Harry Potter fans but we appreciate the dedication.
Then, we made our way to the most referred restaurant in London: Dishoom. Dishoom aims to bring people together the way the Irani cafes did in Bombay. Their restaurants, mostly located in London, merge Iranian and Indian flavors and bring the most notable experience to those who are patient enough to wait on a queue every time. And you will. The whole experience was just exceptional- from the black daal, to the murgh malai to the gunpowder potatoes, we literally had to get almost one of everything. We were warned that one meal at Dishoom would not be enough, and regrettably, we couldn’t make a second meal work. Next time we will be trying their unorthodox breakfast selection.
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The next afternoon, we traveled to Amsterdam by train. The ride was about five hours and as tranquil as always. We got there just in time to purchase our Holland passes, check into our new hotel (Generator Amsterdam) and make it to our first activity. We may have had to run through the streets with our suitcase wheels smacking on the cobblestones, but what is a Eurotrip without a little chaos, right? We decided to get these Holland Passes, after much debate, to try to save some money on museums and attractions; since Amsterdam has many.
The Ice Bar came highly recommended for tourists, and this is why we probably shouldn’t have gone. We love an exciting Instagram photo as much as the next millennial, but the theatrics were a little much for us. After freezing our limbs off and enjoying two beers in 11 degrees Celsius, we went to scope out the nightlife in the Red Light District.
When I was in Amsterdam back in 2012, I was a little embarrassed of the red lights, as much as I was interested. I remember briskly walking passed the windows and didn’t want to stare for the sake of either being lured in or being reprimanded. As time has gone on, I really grew fascinated by the market and the career that is prostitution. This time, I enjoyed wandering around the streets and felt a little bit more comfortable. There aren’t many cities with legal prostitution these days, and Amsterdam may be the biggest one of all of them left.
A highlight of this night was buying hot chicken fingers from a wall of vending doors, inside of a fast food restaurant. Apparently this is all the rage in Europe. I’m sure we’ll have these hybrid type restaurants soon too.
Aside from the puffs of marijuana smoke filling the air and the wild party scenes, Amsterdam holds a lot of memorable WWII history and is the home to many famous artists. On our second and third day in Amsterdam, we hit all of the museums and tours.
Our Anne Frank House reservation was at 9 am (must be booked well in advance). The renovations and expansion that was done was almost unrecognizable from 7 years ago. Although a little different experience, it was still so extremely touching and devastating.
Then, we took a Sandeman free walking tour. Once again, we’ve been using this company for a few years. Despite the tours being free, tips are expected, and the quality of the tours seem to always be decent enough.
Next on our list (well mostly my list) was the De Poezenboot cat shelter, which was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. Stray cats live on a boat until they are adopted and it’s open to the public to visit and support. We were able to hang out on the boat, petting and admiring the cats. There was a famous National Geographic animal photographer capturing the cats at the same time we were there.
There was a specific herring fish stand in the same harbor area that I wanted to go to, but it was closed that day. I really wanted to eat the entire fish, holding it by the tail like the locals. My apologies to the vegans reading this.
Also along our walk, we stopped for double fried frittes at a sought after hole in the wall referred by a friend, Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckxa. I think they were pretty remarkable, but I’m not the fry lover, I’m the weird fish connoisseur.
We also got a stroopwafel at van Wonderen. It was made to order and dipped in chocolate. Scrumptious.
We booked a Red Light walking tour with our Holland Pass and learned a little more about the profession with a knowledgeable guide. I think Nat and Steph were red lighted out at that point.
For dinner, we had a reservation at Restaurant Jun, Indonesian fare. We all participated in the rice table, which came with two chicken dishes, one beef entree and two sides of vegetables. I was a little disappointed in the lack of food for such an exorbitant price, and none of the specific flavors come back to me as I write this.
This Generator Hotel/Hostel that we stayed in used to be a university. Now it makes for a very eclectic place to stay. The tram stop wasn’t very far and offered a couple of lines that took us into the center.
The next morning we did self guided tours through the MOCO museum and the Van Gogh museum. MOCO was small, featuring contemporary modern exhibits by Banksy and Warhol.
Van Gogh, on the other hand, was large, crowded and overwhelming for the non graphic artist. The museum took us through countless paintings he created during the years of his life leading up to the peak of his psychosis. Steph, the art teacher, was in awe while I enjoyed splitting my time in the cafeteria, where I chowed down on rotisserie chicken.
Next, we took another boat tour, that Nat reminds me was “awful”. We rode down the Amstel river, jam packed into table benches with strangers. I didn’t necessarily enjoy cuddling with the man next to me or the fact that he narrated and videoed his entire experience (in Mandarin) in an ongoing text message, preventing me from actually hearing my English device, however, I tend to appreciate seeing cities in a different view.
In the afternoon we did a cheese tasting at Henri Willig. In an old Dutch costume, the cheesemonger provided wine and cheese samples, while sharing the background of the family’s business. All of the cheeses were various selections of Gouda, which is pronounced “How-da” in Holland. We ate about 100 samples and purchased some souvenirs.
Our next activity was House of Bols, a vibrant, creative genever distillery experience. Genever is juniper-flavored traditional Dutch gin. As we advanced through the rooms, we were told to taste, smell, see, hear and touch all of the aspects that the genever is comprised of. At the end of the journey, we swiped our Holland passes twice and drank two cocktails each.
We had dinner plans to get Surinamese food but the original place we chose was closed. We found a back up restaurant in the city center. It was like Chinese food with a hint of Indian and Ethiopian. Not bad.
It was the night before Steph’s birthday and when we stopped for dessert, they sang to her with a churro cake that they created on a whim.
Our last walk and subway ride in the city were nice. We admired the cleanliness of the underground tunnels and trains. We also noticed the mass amounts of bicycles parked at Amsterdam Central Station. I wonder if these active locals even party the way the tourists do.
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Ghent is the city you read about in every fairytale. Cobblestone streets, medieval architecture and serene canals make this one of the most beautiful cities to visit. Lucky for us, it was reasonably priced to stay right in the center of town. Hostel Uppelink, a 13th century built, private room accommodation, was located on Saint Michael’s bridge and overlooked the Leie River. In the dark, it looked like a gingerbread house; the lights resembling candy pieces. Staying so close allowed us easy access to all of the historical sites, bars and restaurants by foot. Our only complaint was the bunk bed situation, in which there were THREE beds on top of one another. It took all of the muscles in our upper bodies to climb to the summit and needless to say, no one felt safe enough sleeping at a 60 feet elevation. Our problem was solved, however, when we put one mattress on the floor.
After we had checked in, we walked down Werregarenstraat, a street known for its graffiti, and Serpenstrast, a street known to be pretty. We drank lattes with our photos on them at a cafe in the Vrijdagmarkt square while looking out into the square.
Seeing the Temmerman vintage candy shop was one of the highlights. It is Ghent’s oldest sweets shop, around for eight generations. The shop was located in one of two colored, symmetrical buildings. Old fashioned treats were kept in glass jars and there were plenty of antique collections. One original candy that we bought to try was the cuberdon. It is a cone shaped (or looks like a scary face), raspberry flavored candy with a hard shell and gooey inside. It wasn’t a favorite of any of ours because it tasted like medicine.
We decided to get a feel of the nightlife before our dinner reservation. There was one brewery, Gentse Gruut Brewer. It had a modern feel and the beer was typical Belgium style. Next, we checked out the popular Pub de Dulle Griet. At this bar, it is customary to order the liter, in which you exchange for the shoe off your foot. They hold this as collateral so their glasses don’t get stolen. It was a crowded spot, filled with locals and tourists.
We had Steph’s birthday dinner at Osteria Delicati, an Italian restaurant known for its high quality Roman dishes. Although we only had two nights in Belgium, all food tends to beWe shared an arugula salad and a charcuterie board, we had some fine wine and we all got a pasta dish. Steph got “fungi”, I had squid ink with seafood and Nat took a more basic approach with a cacio e Pepe (pecorino, salt and pepper). We celebrated with tiramisu. Overall, we were impressed with this place and would recommend it.
On day 2 in Ghent, we started our morning with a walking tour. We discovered the significance of the buildings along the river, the mystery that lies within the Gravensteen castle, and the history and culture of Ghent.
During lunchtime, we did some sampling. The best thing that we ate on this trip was the Leige waffle from Koffie 3,14. These waffles were out of this world and we’ve dreamt of them many times since. The outside was crispy and caramelized and the inside was soft and subtly sweet, with pockets of pearl sugar. The contrasting sweet and savory combination in every bite required absolutely no additional butter, syrup, ice cream or fruit. We keep talking about making these at home, but haven’t committed yet.
We also popped into two different chocolate shops- Van Hoorebeke Chocolatier and Leonidas and purchased some souvenirs.
Next on the list was the famous unmarked frites stand behind the butcher shop. We got two orders of fries specifically so we could try the unique sauces- the region’s mayo and curry.
In the butcher shop, I picked up some local jamon and olives and we discovered that they sold locally made mustard; which was a nice hidden gem to bring back home. We sat at our picnic location long enough that Steph got a second waffle. They were staring right at us the entire time, it was hard to resist.
Next on our agenda was another canal cruise which gave us insight on some more landmarks; which to me, and only me, was a peaceful boat ride. My companions nearly fell asleep.
We took an audio tour of the Medieval Graveensteen Castle, which seemed like the something we should do. This castle dates back to the 12th century and has had many uses since; including a residence for the Counts and a torture chamber. Today, tourists climb at their own risk.
Strolling through the outskirts of the city, we came across a wine bar with comfortable couches and tasty dry red.
For dinner, we decided on Turkish cuisine at a place called Ankara. We each got a platter with a variety of food. The chicken was juicy and seasoned nicely, but I wasn’t that satisfied with the other meats (well done beef, random hot dog, etc.).
Although Ghent was absolutely breathtaking, we didn’t need another day there. Two days was perfect.
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Back in London, we had so much more to do. We wanted to spend some time in Covent garden, capturing pictures of vibrant alleyways in Neal’s Yard, sampling British cheese and witnessing the hustle and bustle of this entertainment and shopping district. I was really interested in trying a local cheese called The Stinking Bishop, after viewing an extensive review of it by a self proclaimed cheesemonger on YouTube. I wasn’t able to track it down, which was disappointing.
We browsed food stalls in Seven Dials Market, including a cheese and accompaniment conveyer belt, but we ended up settling on a Thai lunch. Although this was in a busy area and looked fast-casual, we did enjoy all of the dishes we got.
Next, we strolled along the water’s edge to see the London Eye upclose. Even if I wasn’t afraid of heights and any of us wanted to spend €30 to take a ride, it seemed almost impossible in that moment due to the swarm of tourists.
At some point we were near the Piccadilly Circus and had a vanilla sourdough doughnut from Crosstown Doughnuts. It made it into my top 5 favorite doughnuts! Omg.
We had reservations for the Florence Nightingale Museum and the Churchill War Room Museum. At the first one, we dove into Florence’s history as the founder of modern nursing during the Crimean war. It was fascinating for me to hear a little bit more about her accomplishments since I was nearly finished with nursing school. It was most astonishing to visualize the supplies that she had to work with back then.
Natalie felt similar enjoyment at Churchill’s War Room. The self guided tour took us underground in the once hidden world that Churchill created under the streets of Westminster, in order to conduct business during WWII. As mesmerizing as it was, the length of the tour was a little bit long for the non historians. Pictured is Steph squeezing in a nap. Not pictured was me taking a break at the cafe to subtly eat my warm stinky cheese.
We stayed in Victoria, a charming area home to Westminster. This enabled us to walk to the Abbey, which was an interesting experience. Bodies of important people were buried all over the place and we learned about the tombs.
We enjoyed seeing the double decker busses and the old phone booths, which are obviously characteristic of London. We saw a lot of these while in this part of town.
For dinner, we ate at Nando’s, an Afro-Portuguese chicken chain that came recommended.
If you haven’t been keeping track, here is the list of all of the cuisines we indulged in in just over one week: British, Indian Turkish, Indian Iranian, Thai, Indonesian, Surinamese, Italian, Turkish, Afro-Portuguese, Indian and Chinese.
The Indian meal was the worst we’d ever had. It was as if they didn’t use any garam masala in the dishes.
The Chinese food was enjoyed in Chinatown on one of our last nights. What we also enjoyed was the dance off in the middle of the street.
We were pleasantly surprised when we realized that there was a Dominique Ansel location in the Victoria district of the city. This is one of our favorite bakeries in NYC with unbelievable innovative, monthly changing cronut flavors- and much more! We got some pastries and breakfast on our last morning and everything was outstanding, as usual.
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Heading to the airport was bittersweet, like it always is, but nothing is more bittersweet than being in a perpetual state of uncertainty.
I’m so grateful for all of the opportunities we’ve had to travel, to date, and I look forward to the next time we can pack our suitcases.