Ruin Bars, a Chain Bridge, and Chimney Cakes- Budapest, Hungary

We took the train from Prague to Budapest, out of a bit of a romantic notion of getting to travel across the countryside and while the ride was decidedly long it was still much more enjoyable than stuffing ourselves into tiny budget airline seats (especially when sometimes it feels like the crew might just push the plane off the runway in an attempt to save some fuel).

It was well into the evening when we arrived and after doing a quick currency exchange (from Czech koruna to Hungarian forint) we caught a taxi to the Airbnb we would be staying at on the Buda side of town, just across the river from the beautiful parliament building.  We could see it shimmered a brilliant gold above the dark waters of the Danube and even though it was freezing we huddled out on the apartment balcony taking in the view. Finally though, it was time for rest as we had an early morning planned the next day, a one on one tour of the city with a local.

The next day Brian and I bundled up and got ourselves ready for 4 hours of walking around and exploring the multifaceted history of Budapest. We met up with our WithLocals guide Andras the next morning at Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square), which was honestly a pretty perfect place to start a tour. Andras was an incredible guide, both for his knowledge of the city’s history and his insight into more modern topics- as a local journalist it was fascinating to get his opinions on local politics and some of the governments most recent controversial laws that had been passed (less than a week after we had visited, massive protests brought much of the Pest side of the city to a standstill).

Andras took us to countless places, starting on the busy metropolitan side of Pest and then over to the more quiet Buda side where we parted ways near Matthias Church.

Hősök tere  (Heroes’ Square)

Interior Details of the Széchenyi Thermal Baths

 Interior Detail of the Hungarian State Opera

Ruin Bar (near Dohány Street Synagogue)

View from across the river of Buda Castle

Várnegyed (Castle Quarter)

Mátyás-templom (Matthias Church)

The Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion)

The sun was setting by the time we parted ways with Andras, with him wishing us the best of luck on the rest of our trip and us thanking him for a lovely time. I can honestly say we wouldn’t have seen half of all the places he took us to and it was invaluable to get the opportunity to explore the city with a knowledgable local, so thank you Andras! After saying good bye, Brian and I stayed in the area a little longer just enjoying the amazing view over the city and wishing we had more time to spend here.

After heading back to our Airbnb apartment to drop off the bag of souvenirs I had picked up and also some groceries, we took a breather and then decided to head back out into the city again, crossing the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge for the second time that day, back over to the Pest side of the city to do some utterly touristy things like ride the Budapest Eye, check out the Christmas market by the incredible St. Stephen’s Basilica and share a yummy kürtőskalács (chimney cake).

Eventually even the temporary sugar high wore off though, and our sore feet reminded us we’d basically spent the whole day walking. We had plans to wake up early the next day to head to Vienna for a day trip so it was definetly prudent to head back and get some rest but we did get some lovely views of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge as we walked across it one last time and in the near distance, the positively glowing Parliament building.

An almost completely perfect day in Budapest even if our feet were pretty much killing us by the time we made it back to our apartment. There is a mysteriousness and almost dark elegance to Budapest that’s hard to describe but, I can honestly say I don’t think any city has enthralled me more. All it’s hidden areas, the deep history steeped into it’s buildings, the unexpected Art Nouveau touches in the architecture amid the more gothic of structures, the modern clash of political turmoil atop the ancient history of this city by the Danube… even just the intensely different vibe from one side of the city to the other, it would be hard for anyone not to fall in love with Budapest, even just a little.

~m

If you’re interested in having your own local guide when you visit Budapest, this is the WithLocals link you can use to get $15 off any private tour you book through them. And nope i’m not sponsored by them, I just honestly loved being able to use them and legit can’t praise the guides I had enough.

Old Town Square Christmas Market- Prague, Czech Republic

My time in Prague began with a 6 hour stay at the airport while I waited for Brian’s flight to get in but as there’s not anything very interesting about that (apart from a VERY large and tasty cup of coffee from Costa ) I’ll start with our visit to the old town Christmas market instead. Neither one of us had been to one before so this was a new experience for both of us and it was the perfect start to our 3 day stay in the city.

To say it was a magical experience would almost be an understatement and even now Brian still talks about visiting other Christmas markets in Europe since he enjoyed this one so much.

The Old Town Square Christmas market (Staroměstské náměstí) runs from late November to early January, open from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. with the food stands open 10 a.m. – midnight. There’s plenty of other Christmas markets around town but since we were staying at an Airbnb just a few blocks away from the old town we figured we would see this one first. Though there’s plenty to buy here, from delicate glass ornaments to puppets and embroidered lace we mainly focused on the food stalls while we took in the lovely experience of being surrounded by the gorgeous old town buildings and twinkling lights everywhere.

We grabbed cups of hot cider and mulled wine, tried a taste of almost everything the stalls had to offer and managed to snag one of the coveted standing tables posted around to pause for a moment and eat. Be prepared for random strangers to come by to share the table with you as there are many more stalls selling food than there are available places to enjoy said food, but everyone keeps it friendly so its just an added part of the experience. After we’d had our fill of snacks and treats (roasted chestnuts!) we wandered down the streets and headed towards the Vltava river. We stopped by Mánes Bridge first, looking out towards Prague Castle before heading to the famous Charles Bridge.

The beautiful stone gothic bridge has been on my list of most highly anticipated places to visit since I first began dreaming of visiting Europe and though it was certainly crowded, it was a highlight of the visit for us. We couldn’t stay too long as it started sprinkling rain and neither one of us had brought umbrellas but as we had an early start planned for the next day we didn’t mind heading back to our apartment, crossing back through the Christmas market one more time.

Altogether, a pretty perfect December night in Prague.

~m

Miradouros, Elevadors, Ascensors and Azulejos- Lisbon, Portugal

After staying in Sintra for 4 full days, I woke up late in the morning of my 5th day in Portugal, packed up my luggage, made sure I hadn’t left my rooms a mess and checked out of the villa I had been staying at to head into Lisbon for the next 3 days.

(If you ask me if you really need a full week to experience all that Sintra and Lisbon has to offer I would just say it honestly depends both on what you want to see and your pace. I usually only devote 2-3 days to any one place/region I visit but there was so much I wanted to see here AND I also wanted to give myself plenty of time to relax as I had been overly stressed at work so this worked out the best for my budget and timeframe) 

After dropping off my bags at Brown’s Central Hotel (centrally located just a coupled of blocks away from the famous Santa Justa Lift) I took an uber to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo. The uber driver was a guy around my age and we talked a bit about my travel plans, Real Madrid and the museum I was headed to visit. His exact words were “Ha yeah i’ve never been to it, we have a ton of those at home, never thought about visiting a museum for them.”  He had a point, as pretty much almost anywhere you go in Lisbon, there are azulejos everywhere, but as this was all new to me and I like going to museums, I figured even if I could see azulejos for free all around me, getting a deeper dive into their history couldn’t hurt.

As seemed to be the case almost everywhere I went on this trip, from the Moors Castle to Queluz Palace to the Mafra Palace, it was pretty empty inside the museum and I got to take my time going through the exhibits, reading all the placards and walking down the beautiful quiet halls. The museum is housed in the former Madre de Deus convent which adds to the interesting history you get to walk through- the sacristy specifically was an unexpected delight to get to visit. One of the first things I learned when I visted was that though I had assumed the name “azulejos” had something to do with the color of the tiles (blue), in reality the name comes from the Arabic word الزليج “Al Zellige” meaning polished stone. Finding their history linked back to Byzantine mosaics was also really interesting to me given my mild obsession with that part of history. Though the museum is a little out of the way from other points of interest there’s plenty of transportation that will get you there and I do think it’s a fascinating place to visit before you start exploring Lisbon if only for the way it opens your eyes to the details that surround you.

After about 2 hours at the museum, I headed back to the hotel, getting dropped off a couple of streets away so I could take my time walking back as well as check out the Santa Justa lift (also known as the Elevador de Santa Justa), the massively popular urban lift in Lisbon that is also the only remaining vertical one since all the rest like the Elevador da Glória and the Elevador da Bica are actually funiculars. I got to see the first of these other elevadors the next day when I went to meet up with my guide for the day at the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara and coming up the street was the Elevador da Glória (first photo below).

Praça do Comércio

Traveling solo (and being a sometimes anxious person), I had decided to book two tours through WithLocals in Lisbon, the first one specifically one that would take me to the hidden gems and provide me with insights to this city I’d never been to before. I had so much fun with Silvia on the tour she had taken me on earlier in the week so I was feeling optimistic about the guide I would have for this one and coincidentally enough Silvia ended up joining up her morning tour with ours- it had worked out in such a way that the couple Silvia was taking a tour with that morning was also the same couple my new guide had an afternoon tour with and Silvia persuaded her to join up with.

It was a bit of a whirlwind tour that combined history with foodie stops that went a little something like this: a history lesson on Lisbon as we overlooked one of the high viewpoints in the city, cheese and chorizo paired up with a glass of red wine followed by exploring the streets of the Bairro Alto and looking at examples of azulejos on buildings, delving into the history of Carmo convent and the Santa Justa lift before heading to a local shop for a Ginjinha (a sweet liqueur made by infusing ginja berries in alcohol) break, walking into a bustling bakery to taste some pastels de nata and then finally ending at Praça do Comércio.

It was an unexpected way to spend the day but definetly a unique way to explore Lisbon with not one but two locals and a Korean-American couple from Chicago who were nice enough to ask if I wanted to tag along for their afternoon tour to Belém. I had already decided I wanted to save Belém for another visit though, so instead I bid them goodbye, thanked my guide for the day for her historical insights and hugged Silvia tightly as I was sure this time it really would be the last time we would see each other (unless she’s still working as a guide the next time I visit!).

My last tour started bright and early the next day at Praça do Comércio, where I was to meet Luis to go on his specialized “Nostalgic Tram 28 & City Walk”. An affable guy he lamented the fact that the day looked like it was gearing up to rain down on us soon but was determined to make the most of the day and show me the sights. We started out beneath the Arco da Rua Augusta, built to commemorate the cities reconstruction after the devastating 1755 earthquake and then walked down Rua Augusta towards the stop for the tram. The streets were still quiet and calm in the morning, few people getting on the tram with us making for pretty chill ride up to our first stop, the Miradouro das Portas do Sol. Miradouro means viewpoint and while there are many in Lisbon, this one was one of my favorites that I visited, overlooking the colorful Alfama neighborhood and the waterfront.

Miradouro da Senhora do Monte

The next stop was the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, a viewpoint located up a gently winding hill in the Graça neighborhood and one that most people seem to miss as it’s near to another viewpoint, the Miradouro da Graça. Senhora do Monte provides gorgeous views of the Tagus River and the Castelo de S. Jorge as well as fantastic views of the city itself (you can see the burnt gothic ruins of the Carmo convent just next to the Santa Justa lift there in in the above last photo). We enjoyed the view for a bit up here before starting the walk back down the hill to the tram to take us back to our previous stop so that Luis could take me through the winding colorful streets of Alfama.

I had read that Alfama was one of the more interesting and unique neighborhoods of Lisbon but nothing compares to walking down it’s maze like streets with a local. Luis talked to me about the history of the neighborhood as well as some more recent topics (Airbnb featured prominently in our conversations about local real estate especially given how he used to work in the hospitality industry). As we walked, the rain finally started to come down a bit and the already quiet streets turned even quieter and suddenly it felt like it was just me and Luis, exploring Alfama all by ourselves.  Leisurely we made our way towards our last stop in the area, Lisbon Cathedral, at times stopping right in the middle of the empty streets just to look up at street art painted on the side of buildings or especially eye catching azulejos.

I didn’t take any good photos of Lisbon Cathedral as it was very crowded (probably where everyone went when it started raining?) but it was an interesting way to cap that section of our tour and then we were getting on the tram one last time, headed towards the Barrio Alton and the Elevador da Bica.

The rain had well and truly begun to come down by this point and while Luis and I each had our own umbrellas we choose to huddle under one as to be able to navigate the slippery streets better (and so I could actually hear him as he told me about the area and its history). Making it to the Timeout Market-Lisbon just a little soaked, we concluded our tour with a hug and well wishes and then we each split off, him to head home and me to check out the food and interesting shops (I can’t recommend Toranja enough btw). I grabbed a burger, a tasty desert and then headed out in the downpour to catch a ride back to my hotel to relax for a bit and then begin the tedious process of repacking my luggage to leave Lisbon the next day and head to Prague.

I don’t know that I could name a favorite European city, but if pressed I could tell you my top 3 and Lisbon is neatly nestled between Florence and Salzburg as the ones I would dearly love to visit again and soon. With Lisbon, even having spent a week in and around it, I still have a dozen places I’d like to visit and revisit and if that doesn’t tell you how wonderful the city is, i’m not sure what could. The culture, the history, the architecture and especially the people who allowed me to see deeper than the touristy gloss, it all made for an incredible part of a trip I’ll never forget.

~m

The Rococo Splendor of Queluz National Palace- Queluz, Portugal

Coastline view of Cabo Da Roca

(Lets gloss right over the fact that I haven’t posted anything on this blog in like half a year and also that i’ve since gone on yet another trip which will probably take me a couple more months to get to and… dive back into the adventure that was Portugal)

“You haven’t been to Cabo da Roca yet? But why not!”

My Uber driver Nuno seems very displeased with my answer, but thankfully not in an angry way, more like this is unacceptable and he needs to fix it soon, if his next sentence is anything to go by.

“Would you like to go? We can go right now if you like, it’s good weather!”

It’s not good weather, not really- I had to bust out my umbrella while I waited for him to pick me up on the side of the road just down from Quinta da Regaleira because I’m a dummy who got a bit lost and went the wrong way and then was too tired to just turn around and go back and instead called an Uber while waiting outside some random person’s home. I’m actually starting to feel like I could very easily become a cautionary tale for women who travel alone, and that feeling deepens a couple minutes later when I tell Nuno, yeah why not, lets head to Cabo Da Roca and also take a sweet mint candy from him to enjoy on the drive there.

* Spoiler alert, I don’t get murdered and Nuno was honestly one of the kindest people I met on the whole trip but, also, don’t ever do any of the stuff I do because I genuinely am a thrice damned idiot sometimes …

As I suck on the candy, which is actually really good and helps with the vague nausea you can get while taking the twisty turns down the mountains here in Sintra, I send a quick text to a friend who lives in the Netherlands (anyone who would care in the USA is still asleep) with a photo of Nuno from the Uber app and a msg saying something like,
“Yo, if I don’t text you in like an hour, this guy’s probably responsible”.

They takes it in stride because at this point most people just accept the situations I seem to get myself in. Nuno talks to me about the local drivers, how he dislikes tourist who try and drive around Sintra (you couldn’t pay me do it myself, hence the over-reliance on friendly Uber drivers) and asks questions about my trip. He looks to be in his 50’s, is very charming and while his English isn’t perfect, my own Portuguese is non existent so we try and supplement it with some Spanish here and there. We get into a spirited conversation regarding my last name, which he insists is Portuguese (I will have this conversation about 4 different times while i’m in Lisbon/Sintra) and then we’re out of the windy roads and heading towards the coast, a Black Eye’d Peas song playing in the background on his radio and the rain actually lessening to the point of some glimpses of blue sky.

We make it to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Portugal and continental Europe, about 20 min after Nuno picked me up and pull into the parking lot next to a gigantic tour bus. For a second I wonder if i’m supposed to get out of the car and go wander about because that feels a bit weird but, then Nuno is turning off the car and getting out himself, gesturing for us to walk down together over to the tall stone monument and peer over the cliffs edge. The air is crisp and clean and the water is varying shades of lovely blue. I haven’t seen a coastline like this in what feels like forever and there’s something about knowing i’m as far west as I can be while still being in Europe that makes the unexpected detour worth it.

We only spend about 10-15 min here because I don’t want to take up too much of Nuno’s time plus the rain has started to make a comeback, and soon we’re back on the road headed towards my original destination, The Palace of Queluz. The drive is calm, following the coastline for a while, and Nuno and I chat a bit again about what I have planned for the next few days, with him giving me recommendations for restaurants and advice for parts of Lisbon to visit. He gives me his number while we’re on the highway, insisting that I please give him a call if I need anything or if I get lost or even just for more recommendations and I program it into my phone because even though I know I probably won’t use it, it’s a lovely gesture and lowers the loneliness of traveling alone in a foreign country by about 25%.

After saying our goodbyes outside the rain soaked entrance to Queluz, I step inside to buy a ticket and realized exactly why Nuno expressed mild confusion over my wanting to visit this place. He had been kind when he said people didn’t really visit it much, not when compared to all the other places, but there had been something about it when I looked it up online that made me want to make the time (you know I love me some Rococo) ,and given I had a full day tour the next day to visit everywhere else in Sintra, it just made sense. But stepping into the deserted lobby and then into the empty ticket/help desk area and seeing the genuine surprise on the girl behind the counter when I asked to buy a ticket…yeah. I saw maybe 4 people who weren’t workers over the next two and a half hours I spent leisurely wandering around the gorgeous halls and elaborate rooms, but since I quite like when places aren’t packed to the rafters with people, it worked out pretty well for me.

I can’t recommend for you to visit or not visit, mostly because it would depend on how much time you have in the greater Lisbon area. If you happen to have a couple of extra hours and enjoy late baroque splendor mixed with some interesting Portuguese history, then yes, stop on by…just be prepared for how your Uber driver or literally any local will tilt their head at you if you say you’re visiting (the next day my tour guide for the day was like “Ah..ok, well thats nice then, it’s an interesting place!” and then politely changed the subject to other points of interest). It was interesting to read the Trip Advisor reviews before and after the fact as well, because they’re all filled with pretty much the same kind of experience so, I guess I will say if you like getting a chance to explore places people wouldn’t normally visit, this would be it.

More info about the palace and gardens here.

After taking in the interior rooms and then walking around outside in the gardens a bit, I stopped in at the ground floor cafe for the fanciest glass of freshly squeezed orange juice i’ve ever had (the glass was a delicate sparkling crystal and I kept an internal monologue of “don’t break it don’t break it” as I sipped the juice), I headed back to the main building area to stop in at the gift shop and then back outside to wait for my last Uber driver of the day. This one didn’t offer his number to me but, we did have a lot of fun getting lost on the way back to the my hotel- we ended up passing the same street sign about 5 times to the point where when we finally got to the destination we both let out a very relieved cheer and I thanked him profusely for not just kicking me out of his car and rage quitting. He in turn thanked me for promising to give him a good review- it’s not his fault streets in Sintra weren’t made with cars in mind after all- and wished me luck on the rest of my trip. I finished out the day listening to the calming sound of the rain gently falling outside on the patio and wondering what the next day would bring.

~m

Sainte-Chapelle, Jardins du Trocadéro and A Goodbye- Paris, France

A paradise of color, an ecstasy of diffused light all encased in a gothic masterpiece over 750 years old- that is the marvel of Sainte-Chapelle.

I’m getting ahead of myself though, because the day actually started at another church, Notre-Dame. The plan had been to wake up early enough to make it there before the crowds descended but we woke up rather late and by the time we had taken the metro line down, there was a line that snaked from the entrance over a bridge and then possibly even further beyond. It was honestly the longest line for an attraction/point of interest I had ever seen and though we weren’t exactly pressed for time, neither the bf or I really felt that it would be worth the wait when there were so many other places to see. We also really doubted this would be our last visit to Paris so, we trundled off a bit chagrined sure, but not with too heavy a heart.

The next destination on that days list was Sainte-Chapelle, a church the bf had picked out and I knew absolutely nothing about( this would be key later) and luckily it was situated only a short walk away from Notre-Dame. We were a bit smarter here and the bf managed to buy us skip the line tickets and we were inside and through security in less than 10 minutes.

We stayed on the first floor of the chapel for a while, because again I hadn’t researched ahead and didn’t know what there was to see here. But then I noticed off to the side, people going up a very narrow dimly lit staircase almost hidden into the wall. We figured why not go check it out?

It’s unspeakable hard to put into words what it was like stepping into that room and having absolutely no idea what you were going to find. Think of it almost like getting a crowbar upside the head- I think my heart actually paused it’s rhythm for a few seconds while my eyes tried to take it all in.

A stained glass gothic marvel is a good one sentence descriptor probably.

I think overall, from start to finish, we probably spent an hour here and we might have stayed just a little bit longer but then a tour group came up the stairs and we knew it was time to head back out into the busy streets of Paris and onto our next stop.

And where was our next stop? Why the Eiffel Tower of course. Well, lunch at a nice little bistro tucked into the street just near by first though.

A picture perfect way to say goodbye to Paris wouldn’t you say?

After spending about 2 hours in the area- sitting on the lawn directly in front of the Eiffel Tower and then leisurely making our way across the street to the overlook provided by the Trocadero square gardens, we took one last metro ride to catch sight of the famous Arc de Triomphe – it’s up to you personally if you would like to go up to the overlook it provides but we really weren’t enthused by the idea of waiting in the underground line when we’d already gotten some pretty amazing views already. Plenty of other people had the same idea we had too, and we even helped a couple take a nice photograph of themselves with it in the background from across the street.

After this, with the weather turning a bit gloomy and potentially rainy, we headed back to our hotel and the promise of ice cream and relaxation before we had to begin repacking everything for the next day’s journey back home. It was an easy and relaxed day to end our whirlwind European adventure and later as we lay in bed eating French chocolates and thumbing through all the postcards and souvenirs we’d picked up, it was incredibly hard to believe we’d actually been to all these incredible places. (It was also very hard to accept we had to go back home to Dallas- which for all its charms can’t honestly compare, at least to us.)

We know we’ll back though- actually we’ve already bought tickets for our next trip in December! There is a lot that’s happened since I began posting about this trip- both because I began back in April and also because of my severe wanderlust that’s only been fueled more these past few months. I usually do an outtakes post at the end of a long series like this one but I think I may skip it this once in favor of a short updates post in the coming week.

Either way a sincere and happy thanks to everyone who’s been reading from the start, popping in here and there and those that just recently joined. This is my very small and personal way to share my love of photography and exploration with people (and hopefully inspire them to explore themselves) and it’s genuinely nice to have a place to come to and recount my stories.

Not drowning in my coffee cups yet,

~ m