Day 3: Our Last Day – Eating and Relaxing in Amsterdam

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After our very full and delightful day in Brussels, our late train, and perhaps even the jet lag finally hitting us, we slept-in quite soundly on the morning of our last day.

Surprised and blessed with another day of good weather (cool, but less rainy than forecasted), we wanted to enjoy being out in the city as much as possible- soaking in the beautiful buildings, toying with the idea of renting bikes, catching a few of the sights we had left on our list… and eating.

 

Our first stop for the day was the Van Gogh museum.  Having purchased our tickets in advance (I would definitely recommend doing this! We saved a tremendous amount of time, and it made our visit much more enjoyable!), we were able to arrive at the museum during our designated timeframe, and essentially walk right in.  As Rabbit stood in line to check our coats, I was able to quickly obtain our audio tour devices.  The audio tour was a definite highlight of the museum.  The paintings were beautiful and at times very moving, but the ability to hear the story of both Van Gogh, and his artwork while moving through the open, chronologically arranged galleries was really wonderful and enriching.  The opportunity to watch his style evolve and take in the beautiful details of his works- from The Potato Eaters to Almond Blossoms to Sunflowers to Roots, and everything in between.. was truly remarkable.  The audioguides also allowed you to dial in to specific exhibits to learn more- meaning that when we were not particularly interested in a particular room, or wished to avoid a crowd, we skipped over those exhibit numbers, and took the tour at our own pace.  The morning at the museum was one of my highlights of the trip- enabling me to get my fix of local history, and enjoy some beautiful art.  (Pssst… friendly spoiler alert: A bit to Rabbit’s disappointment, Starry Night is displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC – though that just means we have more to enjoy closer to home!)

After our museum stroll, we had surprisingly worked up an appetite.  During our previous sightseeing day, we had noticed that Amsterdammers seem to have a love of burgers… as fate would have it, so do we.  So, we set out to find the best burger in the city…  after a bit of a struggle with Google maps, and some on-the-fly research through google, trip advisor, and some other random travel blogs… we set our course for “Burger Bar”.  The location we found looked very intriguing… and smelled delicious.  A glass storefront opened to a simple space filled with a large natural wood community table, flanked by interesting side high-top seating, all leading up to an immense billboard-like menu at the back, with an open kitchen/grill as the focal point.  The possibilities were seemingly endless- able to choose your bun style, protein type (varieties of premium beef, wagyu, Angus, vegetarian, or chicken), cheese, and mouthwatering toppings… I knew that we were in the right place.

This burger (above, right) was one of the best things I have ever eaten.  Delicious. I’d go back in a heartbeat, just for the architecture, and this burger. It. was. that. good.

Next, we strolled the city a bit more… deciding that although we were unable to secure tickets for a tour, we wanted to visit the Anne Frank House museum.  Even if it was only for the opportunity to get a glimpse of the exterior, soak in the feeling of her neighborhood and the incredible history of the area and it’s people, the trip to the area around her home and the Prinsengracht was something I am so glad that we did. For me, the experience of being at her former home, and acknowledging the weight and importance of the history of the neighborhood was very sobering.  The neighborhood felt unlike the other parts of the city that we had explored, and had many new beautiful buildings and row homes to enjoy.

Our final stop for the day was to Pancakes Amsterdam, located just near the Anne Frank museum.  We had learned about the small chain during a travel video we watched at home during planning, and I had been very anxious to taste what made their pancakes special.  Pancakes being a go-to favorite weekend breakfast at home, I wanted to see how these differed from what I am accustomed to mixing up.  They certainly did not disappoint! The menu offered 30 different pancakes- from poffertjes (I had the raspberry!), American pancakes (we skipped these), and crepe-like Dutch pancakes (Rabbit had the apple and cheese).  Yum!! It was the perfect light-dinner that we had been hoping for, comforting, familiar, and new at the same time- it was a great way to end our day out, and send us back to the hotel to pack.

Amsterdam was a beautiful, tasty, and remarkable city! Though considered a major metropolis, the pace was slower than what we are accustomed to at home, and we were able to relax and enjoy the sights, sounds, and experiences that the city had to offer.  Extensive, yet easy to utilize mass transportation throughout the city made it easy for us to navigate the area, and the friendly locals made us feel right at home. I can definitely see why so many people love coming to the “Venice of the North” – and I would be very open to coming back… and maybe even braving the bike lane!

 

Day 2: Side Trip to Brussels

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Amsterdam Centraal Station

On our second full day away, we made an amazing day trip to Brussels. In keeping with our goal to visit as many destinations as possible, it was important for us to make a side trip.  Just a two-hour train ride away, Brussels was a perfect spot!

Having scoped out the train station, and picked up our tickets the day before, we were able to relax a bit in the morning, and grab some breakfast before our early morning train.  We took the extra time to explore the train station a bit while waiting for our train- Amsterdam Centraal Station is beautiful.  High ceilings of glass and open air made it far more enjoyable than the train stations I am used to in the Northeast, and it was a gorgeous place in its own right.

The train was immaculate, comfortable, and very relaxing. (So much so that I was lulled to sleep, and admittedly missed most of the ride).

Two hours later, we arrived in a station that felt quite different.  Still open and simple, it felt more city-like and more utilitarian.  After finding our way to the bathroom for a quick pit stop (remember to have change or small bills to pay for the toilet!!) We were on our way to explore the city.

Unsure about how easy it would be to find our way, and how long it would take to see and taste all that was on our list, we scheduled ourselves for a pretty late train back to Amsterdam, leaving us a whole 9 hours in Brussels.  Admittedly, we did not see an extensive portion of the city, but thoroughly enjoyed our experience.

On our list of sights were the Grand Place and the Manneken de Pis – both within walking distance of each other and the train station, allowing us to set off in one general direction to see what we could see.  I had not done any advance planning for the day, and left the agenda to Rabbit, who had wanted to visit Brussels during a prior trip but was unable to get a train ticket! (Tip: reserve Thalys or other train tickets in advance, as soon as you can because they do sell out!)  The goal was not to pack the day, but more to experience it, take in what we could, and enjoy.  Given that we were visiting in March, we were unable to see the beautiful flowers and related warm-weather sights, but knew that we would still find the beauty of the city.

Not really knowing what to expect (other than the statue of the little boy peeing…), it was a really beautiful surprise.  On our way to the area surrounding the Grand Place, you could feel the history, life, and age of the city- it really filled me with awe to take it in and realize that the city had been around in some form for over 1400 years, (settled in 580) and there we were. I felt connected to the city somehow, and very comfortable as we strolled along.  Given that Brussels is the capital city of Belgium, it is somewhat what you would expect from a major city, similar in tempo to Philadelphia, I think…

Faithfully following Google maps, we made our way towards the Grand Place, and after turning the corner from a rather unsuspecting side street, we were welcomed into the most incredibly stunning and beautiful square I have ever set foot in.

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Destroyed by fire in 1695, and rebuilt during the following four years, the square is absolutely captivating… gold-leafed buildings, imposing facades, ornate details, and a sense of mystery surrounded us, and I was left speechless.

After taking our picture from as many angles as we could think of, and staring at the buildings for a solid 10 minutes – which seemed to be about the average amongst the other tourists as well – we explored the Town Hall (which is the one remaining medieval building in the square.. and my favorite).

Next, we found ourselves a spot at one of the outdoor cafes, and enjoyed some lunch – the mussels were delicious!! Here, we found the most intimate shared mens/women’s room in all of what we have seen of Europe, and attempted to stay warm while dodging the raindrops.

After lunch, we strolled to some of the other buildings in the square, finding several chocolate shops (Neuhaus and Mary’s being our favorites), and an indoor mall area (Galleries Royal Saint-Hubert) with some interesting shops – including a great bookstore! – before making our way to see the Manneken de Pis and grab our first Belgian waffle! I could have happily eaten waffles all day! The yeast dough, and bits of caramelized sugar baked right in… perfection.  I am determined to find some appropriate sugar so that I can attempt to recreate them here at home. (Though I have found a restaurant who serves authentic waffles nearby!).

We strolled the city a bit more before making our way (gravitating back) to the Grand Place to spend some time in Rabbit’s favorite building – the King’s House, which is now the Museum of the City of Brussels.  I would highly recommend including the museum as part of your visit to the city- beautiful paintings, artifacts, the city’s story, and an exhibit dedicated to the Manneken and his many costumes – added to the incredible sight and experience of the building itself.

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King’s House (Museum of the City of Brussels)

Next, we made our way to another cafe in the square for some dinner and to experience the Grand Place through sunset, soaking in the beauty of the buildings in the evening glow, and watching it transform as the nighttime lights came on… the Grand Place is one of the most beautiful places I have been – and certainly the most romantic. It was such a great trip, and a welcoming city! I hope to make it back to see more of Belgium someday.

After more pictures (its hard to say goodbye to a perfect view!), and gaining our energy for the walk back to the train, we made it back to the station in time to grab a light second dinner, and climb aboard our train back to Amsterdam, and another full day just around the corner!

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Day 1: Sightseeing in Amsterdam

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After a solid night’s sleep, and some strong coffee to fight the jet lag (I made friends with the hotel’s cappuccino machine!), we started off on a full day of exploring the city!

We had an idea of what we wanted to see, but mostly set out with our bus passes, good appetites, the curiosity and desire to see everything we could, and plans to take in an evening canal boat ride.  We walked about 9 miles during the day, and really enjoyed every step.

A few words of wisdom for those who set off to explore Amsterdam:

  • As per our research, the weather really does change throughout the day… we started with a drizzly rainy, cloudy day, had some great periods of blue skies and perfect breeze, and ended with a cool and drizzly night. Definitely dress in layers, prepared to take it all on!
  • Be aware of the bicycles! No kidding, there really are over 100,000 bikes in the city, and they definitely have the right of way. Both Rabbit and I had our near-misses, and we heard a few tourists yelp as they had theirs. The bike lanes are much more intimidating than the car lanes, with motorbikes and bicycles sharing the lanes and moving in many directions. Look in every direction before attempting to cross!
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Parking garage for bicycles! There were bikes throughout the city.

We knew that we wanted to at least see the Rembrandt and Van Gogh museums while we were in town, but the weather changed from rain to bright and sunny, so we snagged advance tickets for Van Gogh, and took advantage of the sunshine by walking the city.

Amsterdam is a very clean and beautiful city (other than the red-light district, perhaps), filled with friendly locals and tourists – most, if not all, of whom speak English- making it very enjoyable and easy to navigate and enjoy everything Amsterdam has to offer.

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We passed through a canal-side street of market stalls selling tulips, souvenirs, and local wares, and a row of old shops, including the Amsterdam Cheese Store (a must stop!! try the coconut cheese – it is amazing!).  It was at one market stand that we got to taste our first stroopwaffel… WOW! Freshly made thin, tender, cinnamon infused waffles brought together with a wonderfully gooey layer of caramel… one of my new favorite foods!

We strolled through an open market in a beautiful town square, and perused through a local bookstore – and a few other local shops, letting us get a real taste of the city.  The buildings of the city are so beautiful and inviting- it was difficult to resist the temptation to walk into every building, take photos of every archway and facade, and explore every corner. It helped that there was an unexpected power outage in the city, which closed about half of the city’s shops and restaurants.

After our adventures we found a perfect spot for lunch, enjoying the outdoor deck of a cafe, overlooking a gorgeous view of a canals and an amazing row of crooked canal homes.  The menu was full of delicious things to try, including the long-awaited bitterballen!

Bitterballen are deliciously bad-for-you, fried balls of diced meat (beef and/or veal), swimming in a rich, comfort-food worthy, delicious mac-and-cheese like roux. Served with coarse mustard, and REALLY hot inside, they are an incredibly decadent must-try Amsterdam bite. (…now my mouth is watering and I’m wondering how I can make them at home).

After enjoying the sights and tastes of our lunch, and attempting to warm up under the cozy fleece blankets on the patio, we set off to explore again, this time headed towards the Rembrandt museum.  The museum, which is housed within Rembrandt’s actual home, includes rooms of artifacts the artist and his students, pieces of his original furniture and belongings, and a chance to interact with his studio.  Moving through the space alongside the audio tour provided a great chance to learn some history, enjoy the surroundings and be immersed into the artists’ home.

Next, we headed back towards the Centraal Station, and the ticket counters for the canal boat tours.  Due to the research I did in advance, and their prime location, we decided to go with Stromma tours.  As luck would have it, the rain started to drizzle as the sun was setting, and our (dry, warm, enclosed) boat pulled away from the dock! The tour guide provided a great narrative of the city’s history and descriptions of the buildings, as we coasted through the waters, taking in the beautiful city illuminated by the white lights on the canal’s bridges, and streetlights.  It was a perfect, romantic, relaxing way to finish our day’s tour of Amsterdam.

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After grabbing some dinner at one of the Argentinian steakhouses in town, we headed back to the hotel to relax and prepare for our day-trip to Brussels – coming on day 2!

 

Day 3 : Athens and Best.Sunset.Ever.

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One of the views on the way up Mount Lycabettus

Our second full day in Athens began at a leisurely pace.  Having had a very busy day of sightseeing, and a late night (thanks to some delayed sleep phase and odd jet lag finally catching up with us), we didn’t really start our day until about noon.

Our only two real goals for the day were to visit the Olympic stadium, and complete the widely recommended sunset hike up Mount Lycabettus. Thankfully, the two aren’t very far apart, and we were able to navigate somewhat easily from one to the other by foot… we initially had planned on grabbing an Uber to take us through town, but after an unexpected road closure, some kind of police activity, and being dumped by our Uber driver, we decided to just go for it.

Deciding to wing it despite our tired feet from the previous day, was one of the best things we did. The neighborhood around Mount Lycabettus was very different from where we had been spending our time, and we had the opportunity to duck into a mini-mart for some much needed snacks (and “souvenir” Greek chocolate bars for later).

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Panathenaic Stadium (“The” Olympic Stadium)

I am a bit ashamed to admit that when planning the trip, the Panathenaic Stadium hadn’t even been on my radar… it wasn’t until the end of our first full day in Athens when Rabbit suggested it as a must-do, that I had an “a-ha” moment and added it to the list.

I am so glad that we made it!! Especially in an Olympic year (though this year is the winter games), it was incredible to be where it all began.  Rabbit took to the stairs of the stadium as a personal challenge- which are far bigger than what I think we would normally think of for stadium seats- but you could see that there was something invigorating about doing it there.  We also took turns running short sprints on the track in the middle – we didn’t win any medals, but it was a very memorable experience!!

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View looking up Mount Lycabettus, from about halfway up!

After a few bumps in transportation, and our little side-trip for snacks, we made it to Mount Lycabettus!! Unlike my planning for the stadium, this hike was one of my must-do’s from the minute I began planning.  All of the blogs and stories I read in preparation, along with the guidebook I purchased, simply stated the sunset hike as something that had to be done, and I was in.

The entrance to the trail doesn’t have much marking, but thankfully, Google Maps had saved the day and brought us right to one of the paths. Faced with the choice of dirt/rock trail vs. stairs, we opted for the trail initially… don’t be fooled! This isn’t the leisurely, romantic stroll you may have been thinking- though it truly was one of the best things we did during our trip!! (There is a lift on the opposite side of the hill for those who aren’t able to hike, or if you’re not on the kind of date that it’s ok to break a sweat).

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Stairs on the way up!

Several times along the way, we had to stop and look around… the views from the trail seemed somewhat even more remarkable than those from the Acropolis, and just got more and more beautiful as the sun got lower in the sky.

At the top of the mountain, there is a small bell tower, a chapel, and a restaurant (near the lift entrance). After catching the beginning of the sunset, we grabbed a table at the restaurant for a late-lunch/early dinner (the Greek salad was delicious!!) and continued enjoyment of one of the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever seen.

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As the sun was going down, we started our descent, and ended up finding a different side-trail than the one we came up on, which took us through some different streets in Kolonaki. The neighborhood was very pretty, had a younger crowd, and had some very good-looking restaurants… however, we both agreed that it seemed too much like a neighborhood we could stumble upon in New York or Philadelphia (near home), and found our way back to the area around Parliament and Monastiraki.

Here, we checked another to-do list item off our lists, and grabbed a souvlaki from one of the small cafes that opened into the street. We were able to sit outside and share our second dinner and enjoy more people watching! The souvlaki was delicious, and it was a great way to wind down the evening.

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…my mouth is actually watering a little just thinking about these bites!

We called it a night pretty early in preparation for our early morning flight, and busy day planned the next day in Istanbul!

– Gabby

 

Day 2: First Day in Athens

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Day’s Agenda: See all of the historical ruins and sites that we can.

What we saw: Temple of Olympian Zeus; Hadrian’s Arch; Acropolis – including the Theater of Dionysus, Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Temple of Athena Nike, and Parthenon; Ancient Agora … and all of the streets along the way!

Inspired by one of the “Best of” walks outlined in the guide book I had picked up, we set out on a mission to see as much of ancient Athens as we could see. Though the walk outlined in the book was logged as being 2.4km in total- we logged over 11 miles in walking for the day (including our walks to and from the hotel, etc.).  Walkers be aware: the winding streets can be a bit disorienting sometimes! We found that Google maps worked well to help us navigate …. even with the occasional re-calibration!

Our first stop (after the Bread Factory) was the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It was an amazing sight to see, and very humbling to imagine that it was made by human hands long before cranes and power tools. With the Acropolis in the background (see photo above), it was a very inspiring way to start the day.

Next, we snuck a quick peek at Hadrian’s arch as we found our way to the Acropolis.

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The Propylaea, serving as a gateway to the top of the Acropolis

The view of the Acropolis throughout the city is breathtaking, and awe-inspiring… the view from the top is completely unforgettable and one of the best moments of our visit. The climb to the top can be a bit intense at times- please note that there are no handrails, fences, or other security-blankets for use on the way up. (Which was a little intimidating at moments, but really helped to ensure that the view and the experience of the site was as pure and un-touched as possible). On our way up we got to enjoy the Theater and Odeon before getting to the top. Again, it was incredible to remember that all of it was built by man.  We chose to skip the Acropolis museum in favor of spending more time in the sunshine, and more sightseeing.

After our descent from the Acropolis, we found our way to a small site which housed the Fethiye Mosque- which is now restored and repurposed as a museum.

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Poised and ready for lunch!!

Next, we had lunch at a great sidewalk cafe overlooking the ruins, with the Acropolis as a backdrop.  It was the most picturesque place I’ve ever eaten- the food was delicious also! One of my favorite things to eat during the trip was tzatziki with bread or pita- unlike the tzatziki I have had at home, the authentic versions are creamier and are served as a delicious and fresh dip – there were slight variations between the restaurants we sampled, but each one was delicious!!

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Temple within the Ancient Agora

Our last Ancient site for the day was the Ancient Agora, which we found a bit by accident during a walk through some neighborhoods, and around Monastiraki. (We saw some great street vendors in the area around the Agora which are definitely worth seeing also!)  The Agora had a relaxing park-like atmosphere with a temple, some various ruins, and an interesting museum about the area, and all of the people and purposes the area has served.  During our leisurely walk through the Agora, we chatted about our day, and agreed that we both enjoyed the Ancient sites much more than anticipated!

After our full day of walking, we grabbed a snack and headed back to our hotel to relax for a bit.  After dinner, some evening sight-seeing and sampling of some different entertainment, we headed back to Monastiraki where we found a great place for dessert and live music… It was here that we did (what I consider) the most daring thing we did on our trip: we danced! There was such a relaxed and family-like atmosphere at every restaurant we visited… and the bouzouki was too hard for Rabbit to resist- very reluctantly, I followed… and though we had no idea what we were doing, we danced arm in arm just long enough for me to feel completely out of my element, but thrilled and happy at the same time!

I’ve shared more photos from our day below… even as I look back at them now, I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I saw them in person!! It was a really incredible and amazing experience …and that was just the first day!

It was on this day that we learned that Uber is not as reliable in Athens as it is in other cities – though the taxis may be a little more pricey, they might be worth it to rest your tired feet.

We headed back to the hotel around 1am (leaving many Athenians behind, still dancing!), in need of some sleep.

Ahead in Day Two: Olympic Stadium, a hike up Lykavittos Hill, Kolonaki, and souvlaki!

– Gabby

 

Day 1: Away We Go!

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Wow.

Not sure how else to start!!

Rabbit and I were away exploring a new (very old) corner of the world! This was our first international trip together… and my first.

It was one of the most amazing weeks of my life, and definitely the best trip I have ever taken…. setting the bar pretty high for our next adventure.

Our itinerary was a bit ambitious, including three-ish days in Athens, and one day in Istanbul. Busy home and work schedules mean that four nights, five days is the perfect length of time for us to be away.  Thanks to Travelzoo, Rabbit’s amazing research, and some reasonable planning, we were able to see everything we had hoped to- and really get to enjoy Athens!

Our basic itinerary:

  • Day 1: Flight from Newark to Athens; depart midnight, arrive 4pm
  • Day 2: Full day in Athens
  • Day 3: Full day in Athens
  • Day 4: Flight from Athens to Istanbul, full day in Istanbul, flight back to Athens
  • Day 5: Half-day in Athens; flight from Athens to Newark, land 10pm

We spent all four nights at The Stanley Hotel in Athens.  Though the location of the hotel was a bit away from where we spent the majority of our time, we were both grateful that we had the chance to see more of the city by walking the neighborhoods, and getting away from the center of things. The staff was very friendly and welcoming, and the view of the Acropolis from the rooftop was breathtaking.

From the moment we hailed the cab to the hotel, we felt welcome. Our cab driver gave us the run-down during our half-hour drive from the airport to the hotel. Unfortunately, I was a bit too awestruck to remember to try to take photos of the drive… but it was wonderful to enjoy the scenery, see the city a bit, and take it all in!

Despite what we had thought about potentially needing a nap once we were checked in on our arrival day… we were able to drop our bags, freshen up, and head out in time to catch the city as it was starting up for the night! Having an overnight flight helped us to both catch a few hours of excited sleep on the way.

Having read about the restaurants in the Plaka district and Monastiraki, we asked the doorman at the hotel which way to go… stopped at the Bread Factory on the corner (YUM!) for a snack, and set out on our way.

Our walk introduced us to the rhythm of Athens traffic, and the hidden excitement of some of the neighborhoods…. Athens is an endearing and intriguing mix of old and new, beautiful and boarded. As the taxi driver had told us though, we were safe… and despite the kidding and the dark corners, we never really felt uneasy.

After stumbling upon some delightful little streets lined with patio lights, interesting windows, narrow walkways shared with motorcycles, and Athenians who were just beginning to start their evenings… we landed in Monastiraki.

We strolled down a long street of cafes and restaurants bordering the Ancient Agora, and found the most perfect, romantic spot for sharing the most delicious cheese plate we’ve ever had.

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It was here, in our new favorite place, that we first encountered the slower pace that life seems to offer in Athens. We were able to sit and enjoy each other’s company, the food, the beautiful atmosphere, the live music, and really savor every minute of it. It is definitely a meal that I will never forget.

After dinner, we meandered around a bit more to get a lay of the land and do some planning for the next couple of days before heading back on our walk to the hotel to try to get some rest for our first full day in the city.

I cannot think of a better way to start the trip!

I will share a run-down of each day’s activities, and outline a list of lessons learned/FYI’s that we think would be helpful for anyone setting out to explore Athens and/or Istanbul… but for now, I’m going to close my eyes and remember the taste of that cheese, and the sound of a bouzouki playing…

– Gabby

 

Cheers to the New Year!

cropped-stairs-lights-abstract-bubbles1.jpgAs I do every year, I’ve made some pretty ambitious New Years resolutions for 2018.

Though I haven’t dropped my holiday weight, finished graduate school, landed my dream job, or mastered the art of mindfulness just yet (it’s only January 1st!)… I’m feeling pretty optimistic that 2018 is going to be quite incredible.

Beginning this blog is part of my biggest resolution of all: to live and enjoy life with those I love, particularly my other half (Rabbit), and our families.

This blog will serve as a space to share our adventures in food, travel, home projects, and whatever else strikes our fancy!

I hope you’ll join us!

 – Gabby