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Friday, September 22, 2017

The Vegas Strip is NOT Overrated (Budget Tips + Photos)

I’m one of those people. The kind of person who loves touristy things. The more touristy the better. I know the “in” thing in travel today is to do what the locals do. But that isn’t the case in Las Vegas, is it? Do you want to busk in the streets, or gallivant on the streets in character (or skimpy) costumes? Probably not. You want to soak up the atmosphere. The glamour, the glitz, the extravagance.

I had the pleasure of visiting not just once – but twice – a few years ago, and still retain fond memories of the pizazz!

This is my personal take of Vegas.

I’m an introvert/geek/nerd who DOESN’T drink/gamble/visit strip clubs. But guess what? I STILL LOVE Vegas!

Don’t write it off because it seems like party central. If you also love photography, sight-seeing, FOOD, or rubbing shoulders with tourists, this is THE place to visit and play.

You see, Vegas is a FOODIE HEAVEN. It is also a photographer’s dream, with the sleek, modern architecture and million-dollar hotels. And they each have free attractions, like the Bellagio’s fountain shows and conversatory, Mirage’s volcano, and the Venetian’s Canal.

Mmm. I am always dreaming about going back to Vegas just to try more buffets.

Budget Tips

I’m no expert on Vegas – I’ve only been twice – but here are my personal tips.

Accommodation

  • Book last minute: On my first trip to Vegas, we booked our hotel room last minute. Literally, our room was booked on the 4-hour drive there from Orange County, California. We got a room in the Luxor for $30/night. Win!
  • Book a room in the Luxor or Excalibur: These hotels are located at one end of the Strip, but they’re on the Strip nonetheless! With rooms running between $30-50/night, they always have a killer deal.
  • I wouldn’t book a hotel that’s not the Strip. Nothing beats the convenience of living on the Strip. I loved walking from one end of the Strip to the other. Though I never made it to the Stratosphere. My feet weren’t having it.

Food

  • The Buffet at Bellagio offers high-end cuisine ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT! And for only $30-40/person! If you can only visit one buffet in Vegas, come to this one. Seafood, made-for-you dishes, desserts GALORE! All the crab legs you can eat! Do not skimp and go to the cheaper buffets instead – the food is usually mediocre and your money is better spent at better buffets.

Free Things to Do

SO MANY FREE THINGS TO DO! Travel and Leisure has an amazing post with 31 free things in Vegas.

Photos!

The New York, New York hotel boasts a Hershey store, complete with fun Nerds plushies and candy-themed paraphernalia. My sister got me a bright orange Nerd plush that I hold dear.

New York, New York boasts an iconic Statue of Liberty.

You’ll find cool art pieces, statues and street performers while walking the street. Here’s a cool vintage Pepsi-Cola ad!

If you’re a modern architecture junkie, the Strip is heaven on earth. It’s like walking through a city 50 years into the future. I love it.

Inside one of the classier hotels – I can’t remember which?

Catch a FREE water fountain show outside the Bellagio, then pop in for a mouth-watering buffet! 

Twice I’ve been there, and both times I walked the entire strip, visiting the Venetian, Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace, Mirage, the Venetian, and New York New York. I’ve been to all of them except the Stratosphere and Circus, Circus. My feet just wouldn’t have it.

There is also something about rubbing shoulders with tourists that makes me giggle with glee. The cultures! The accents! The different languages! The confused gawking!

Next time I visit, I’d love to stay at the Golden Nugget, swim by their shark tank, and glimpse the world’s largest golden nugget. That’s Vegas for ya.

Have you visited Vegas? What do you love about Vegas?

A Sci-fi/Space Lover’s Dream: Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

There is only one dream that I recall vividly. It never fails to conjure a deep longing inside of me. Like I was meant to be there, or that I’ve been there in another life, but I haven’t. 

I know it sounds weird.

I dream of being alone in a dark hall with black marble floors and a large glass dome for a ceiling. It is night time. The moon casts a soft glow on the floors, and the black quartz floors glitter, mirroring the stars above.

It is my peaceful place. My happy place.

And Griffith Observatory is the closest I have come to this place.

This is why I cannot get enough of it. I’ll never get enough. I wish it wasn’t a 2.5 hour drive away, or I’d be here every week. 

Anyway, enough pining! Here are some photos!

Photos!

Feast upon amazing sunset view from the Griffith Observatory. Perched on top of a hill, Griffith Observatory offers unparalleled views of LA, matched only by the views from the Getty Center.

My mom and the Hollywood sign! TOURIST ALERT! Yes, you can see the Hollywood sign from here!

I reeeeally wanted to have my engagement photos taken here. Alas, it was too far away, so we opted for Laguna Beach instead. I fully plan on carting my DSLR and tripod here and taking selfies in the near future. 

My sister (red plaid sweater) and my dad in line to look through a ginormous telescope. The staff frequently wheel out large, high-quality telescopes and offer FREE telescope viewing sessions of planets and/or constellations.

Anyone who’s seen my photos knows that I’m obsessed with glass, metal and straight lines. I’m sure there’s a fancy architecture term for this. I do not know this term.

 

Amazing view of LA by night. It’s MUCH better in person.

GORGEOUS star-studded corridor leading to the cafe/gift store.

They have a killer planetarium – the Samuel Oschin Planetarium – with various shows available. I highly recommend you see at least one. My favorite is the Centered in the Universe because you get to see stars and constellations! 

Of all the planetariums I’ve been to (three), this one was the best.

You can buy tickets at the box office – they run at $7/adult, or $5 for students/seniors. Visit the website  for show times so you don’t miss them.

Have you seen the movie Gattaca? If yes, you’re awesome, and remember the planetarium scene? I’ve dreamt of visiting a planetarium since I watched the movie in high school. Griffith Observatory made me realize my dreams. If you haven’t seen the movie and you’re a science geek, go watch it. 

I love you Griffith Observatory. Good night.

Visitor Information

Admission is free and parking is $4/hour. Parking used to be free, but near impossible. There was no parking available on the weekends, unless you circled a gazillion times. Now you can park at the bottom of the hill and take a complimentary shuttle up. Personally, I would just pay the parking fee. But that’s just because I’m lazy.

Hours of Operation

Griffith Observatory is open six days a week.

Weekdays (Tuesday – Friday) Open 12:00 noon – 10:00 p.m.
Weekends (Saturday – Sunday) Open 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Mondays Closed

Observatory grounds and parking are usually open whenever Griffith Park is Open (sunrise to 10:00 p.m. daily).

Seriously, if you’re visiting L.A., you MUST go visit the Griffith Observatory.

Have you been to Griffith Observatory? Are you just as obsessed with it as I am? 

World-Class Getty Center, Los Angeles: Photos!

Where can you get panoramic views of Los Angeles, Greek and Roman sculpture, and modern architecture all at the same place?

You already knew the answer. It’s in the post title.

So we all know L.A. boasts a number of world-class tourist attractions, including Hollywood, the famous sign, and celebrities.

But listen up, fellow introverts/geeks/nerds: you’ll want to visit The Getty Center.

In this photo tour I will show you the best of what the Getty Center has to offer. Prepare to be amazed.

Getting There

Entrance Hall

The Getty Center is right off the freeway, so it’s easy to get to. Follow signs to the huge parking lot. I’m not kidding you. It’s several levels deep. Underground. Yeah.

Admission is free, but parking is $15 per vehicle, $10 after 3pm (only worth it if you arrive on Saturday, when it closes at 9pm). Don’t worry about bringing cash. There are automated machines so you can use credit cards.

You can choose to take a really fun tram up to the Getty Center, or hike up. I took the tram because trams are fun, and to save time. And because I’m lazy. 

Be sure to grab a free audio tour at the entrance hall. They come in little iPod touches that are really helpful with learning more about several art pieces. In true Singaporean kiasu (it means “afraid-to-lose”) fashion, I rushed to the lobby to grab one upon arrival. Joke’s on me – I don’t think those iPod touches run out. So don’t feel like you have to run.

Photos!!

I proceed to run around the place like a camera-trigger-happy monkey. I had more exercise than I had in the past week. SO! MANY! PHOTO! OPPORTUNITIES!

Metal, glass and straight lines – yes please.

Geeks/nerds – take the extra step and go on one of their free tours. Or be a perfectionist and go on all of them. There are garden tours, architecture tours, and art tours. I didn’t go on any because I was too busy taking photos, though I did stop to listen in a few times.

The views are just phenomenal.

Central Gardens: 134,000 sq ft of pure awesome. 

Left: sprawling food court with arguably the best views in LA. Right: More fascinating architecture. Lines + stone = love.

I’ll be here at least once a month if I lived in LA.

I’ll never get sick of this view. I miss it already.

From 18th Century British portraits to Greek and Roman sculptures, the Getty Center’s collection is truly world-class.

I came here on a weekday, so it wasn’t super crowded. There were many tourists, but I loved rubbing shoulders with international peeps.

And because I can never resist gorgeous gift shops…

The Getty Center boasts rotating exhibits on top of their permanent exhibits. There was an alchemy exhibit up when I visited, and I know for a fact there was once a medieval tapestry exhibit.

Bye for now, Getty. You were amazing.

I didn’t get to catch the sunset this time because it closes at 5.30pm on weekdays. Later I realized the Getty closes at 9pm on Saturdays, so catching the sunset one day is now on my list.

Have you visited the Getty Center? Is it amazing or what?

A Magical Day in London

London was my favorite city in the entire 2-week Europe trip. Where do I start? How can I do my beloved London justice? I will try my best.

Arrival

We arrived late at night and made our way to our Airbnb, then headed out early next morning. Let’s start with the first thing we see in the London tube:

My sister and I chuckled quite awhile at this ad. Ads in London are highly entertaining. Must be part of the British charm.

British Library

I made the last-minute decision to visit the British Library on our way to the Tower of London. This ultimately led to sacrificing visiting the Camden Town Market, or Hampstead Heath, but it was so worth it. I’ll leave the others for next time.

Click here for my feature of the British Library. I highly recommend stopping by if you have time, are a culture buff, or a bookworm. Many impressive, awe-inspiring historical works are on display here, like original handwritten notes of Leonardo da Vinci, Darwin, and Beethoven.

Tower of London

This famous tourist attraction is famous for a reason. The site of many executions, imprisonments, and torture, the Tower of London carries fascinating stories from London’s past.

We bought tickets from the Trader’s Gate gift shop located down the steps from the Tower Hill tube stop (I used Google Maps) as Rick Steves had said it would be cheaper. He was right – you can skip a mandatory donation by purchasing tickets here. After that we entered the Tower of London and waited in a little grassy courtyard for the Beefeater’s Tour (departs every 30 minutes, included with admission.)

Beefeater Tour

This was the most flattering picture I had; sorry, Beefeater!

The Beefeater Tour is organized by the Beefeaters, aka. guards of the tower. Traditionally, Beefeaters guard the Tower and get free lodging and a job in exchange. Today they guard the tower, organize tours, and get roomy 3 bed 2 bath homes – a luxury in London! Our tour guide explained these positions are quite in demand, and you must have been in the military, won an award, and met a few other requirements before you can apply for a position.

The Beefeater Tours are extremely entertaining – a wonderful mix of gory stories and humor. You also get a ton of insight, and the guide takes you inside the chapel at the end of the tour.

A more detailed post about the Tower of London is to come.

British Museum

Then it was off to the British Museum we went. There we marvelled over the Rosetta Stone – the key to the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, other Egyptian antiquities, Japanese art, and as much of the museum’s amazing collection that we could cram in before closing time.

Famous Rosetta Stone!!
I LOVE Usborne books. I was practically raised by them. They’re so hard to come by in the USA. Oh Usborne I have missed you so!

I adored the Museum Store and dropped a few pounds on the little pocket Encyclopedia of British History book you see on the second shelf on the left!

There’s SO much to cover here, so I’ll leave the other pictures for a separate post!

Teased by the Harry Potter play

I got my hopes up when I saw this building.

I thought: “OMG maybe they’re not sold out!” I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Obviously they were. Naturally. I was well aware that the Harry Potter plays sold out in minutes and you had to buy tickets way beforehand. Thought I’d try. Oh well, next time!!

Chinatown

We wandered into Chinatown completely by accident. While the first half of our Europe trip was meticulously planned by my sister, I chose to take the wing-it, spontaneity-is-more-enjoyable approach when planning the UK portion. After dropping by a three store to buy a SIM card for my sister, we came upon this Chinatown gate:

And then this sign caught our eye:

Us: “Woah! Chilli crab in London!!”

It’s a quintessential Singaporean delicacy, so we were surprised to find it in the UK. I hadn’t been back to Singapore in 4 years, so naturally I was very tempted to sink a pretty sum for this dish. But we didn’t.

Instead, we settled for dinner at one of the many buffet places in Chinatown. So! Many! Buffets! And they were cheap compared to London prices. We chose to do takeaway as it was cheaper, and more than enough food.

Yes, it was super Asian of us to eat at a chinese buffet in London. Asians gotta Asian. After our stint in Italy/Switzerland/Paris we kind of missed Asian food. 😀

Queen’s Street? Les Miserables!

Yup, stumbled upon this one as well.

We got lucky and happened upon the Les Miserables theater on our way to the Westminister Bridge.

Me: Hey, want to watch a musical??

Sister: (Surprised) Sure if you buy the tickets.

Me: We’re watching a musical!!

There were no more low-cost tickets that night, so we bought tickets for the following night instead. Excited!! It turned out to be amazing, of course. The acting, singing, music, and sets were impeccable. Truly a world-class performance.

Our Day Tours London guide, Rosie, explained that every musical gets an annual budget, and since the famous musicals like Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and CATS were already so established, they used their budgets to further _ their sets, props, costumes, etc, hence making it even better!

Next on my list: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child***, Phantom of the Opera and CATS.

Leicester Square/ Quaint London Pubs

We passed quaint London buildings and pubs and shops and this one really caught my eye:

And that name! Waxy’s Little Sister! What does that mean? Is there another pub named Waxy somewhere in London, and this is his little sister? I don’t know, but I love it!

Trafalgar Square

We had no idea our route was going to take us through the famous Trafalgar Square. On hindsight, I probably could’ve planned this day better, but everything worked out.

We lingered for a bit and enjoyed a street musicians/rock band, which was really quite good!

Westminster Bridge/ Big Ben/ River Thames

We arrived at our destination! We’d been hoping to catch the sunset but no matter. Big Ben looked glorious lit in colorful lighting.

There was also a memorial.

End of Day

By now it was late late late, so we made our way home, where our darling Airbnb host has done our laundry for us (she literally washed them with like colors and hung them up to dry), and we got some much-needed rest before another big day in London.

I’ve truly never felt so much at ease in a European city. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Singapore, and Singapore is pretty much an Asian London. Singapore students flock to the UK to further their studies (lucky ducks), and British influence is everywhere. Also, I’m an English Literature graduate. I think that automatically qualifies me as an Anglophile.

I felt quite at home in London, and I can’t wait to go back.

Next, I will review Day Tours London and its amazing Stonehenge and Bath tour!

British Library: A Bookworm’s Dream

The British Library wasn’t on our itinerary until we arrived in London. Let’s just say I’m really glad we made the last-minute decision to make a quick visit to the British Library on our way to the Tower of London, because the library turned out to be a bookworm’s dream.

The highlight of the British Library is no-doubt the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library.

Unfortunately, photos are strictly prohibited inside the gallery, so you will find no photos of the treasures inside. What you will find:

  • Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
  • Gutenberg’s Bible
  • Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook – handwritten
  • Darwin’s handwritten notebook
  • Handwritten lyrics by the Beatles
  • Beowulf
  • Shakespeare sonnets and plays
  • Handwritten music by Handel
  • Original sheet music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel etc.
  • Original drafts of works by Dickens, HG Wells and Jane Austen
  • Letters from Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots
  • Magna Carta
  • Thomas More’s Utopia
  • Rotating exhibitions
  • Religious manuscripts

There was a school group in the gallery while we were there, so students were running around gathering answers. Otherwise it was very quiet, and very inspirational. The exhibits are housed in glass cases, and although the gallery is kept darker and cooler to preserve the artifacts, the exhibits are easy to see.

I was very impressed by their collection and presentation; so impressed, in fact, that I was moved to tears. I was humbled and in awe that such important documents lay close enough to touch. Perhaps it’s the English Literature graduate in me talking, but I believe anyone would feel at least impressed by how important these documents are!

Other Tips

Be sure to grab a map so you have a guide, and also bring home a nice souvenir of the place.

The library is FREE to visit, so if your time in London allows, definitely pay the British Library a quick visit. It’s super easy to get to via metro – a short walk from the metro station is all it takes.

There are additional exhibits outside of the Treasures room, and they change every so often, so you might find something else to wow you.

The reading rooms are accessible only with a special reader’s card, which you can obtain, but only if you know the exact work you want to refer to, and if you have a good reason to.

There is a great gift shop, and if you’re a bookworm or history geek this will be your haven. I spent a few pounds on a cute “READERS GONNA READ” book pin.

Tables and chairs (pictured in the panorama below) are strewn about the upper floors, where you can study/rest/work/do whatever you like in this glorious library.

The cafe outside serves great food, and my sister and I plonked another few pounds on a chicken sandwich that we had for a quick lunch.

I highly recommend visiting the British Library if you’re a bookworm, history geek, culture buff or have some time to spare in London.

A Complete Tour of Versailles

Aaaahhhhh, the Palace of Versailles.

A place of splendour, extravagance, and romance.

Easily the highlight of our short trip to Paris, we would happily return to explore the grounds again. This time with a better camera!

Meanwhile, enjoy this comprehensive tour of the Palace of Versailles, the Gardens, the Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon, and Marie-Antoinette’s Hamlet. (Yeah we made sure we covered everything!) Click here for the official complete map. A lot of walking was involved!

Getting There

Getting there is easy. Take the RER-C metro line to Versailles Chateau Rive Gauche (last station). The trip takes under an hour, depending on where you’re originating from. Our train was decorated in Versailles fashion, so we knew we were on the right one. 😉

Then follow the crowd. The streets here are wide and open, and you’ll spot the Chateau in no time.

I planned the route with Google Maps and the free (and wonderful) Next Stop Paris app. I highly recommend this app – it’s the official transit app of Paris, is completely free, and works offline! Just make sure you download the offline data before going off the grid.

Golden gates!

The Palace

Built by the Sun King Louis XIV, the beloved French monarch who could do no wrong, the Palace of Versailles boasts beautiful architecture and gardens fit for Gods. He viewed himself as a God, and his people didn’t argue. There are several instances in the Palace of Versailles where this is evident.

Equipped with our pre-purchased passports (18-25 Euros each), we entered the magical palace.

Be sure to grab a complimentary Audio Guide, which is super nifty in understanding what you’re looking at. The narration was clear, concise, and very interesting. You can find them beyond the main gates, on the way into the Palace. There is really only one path to follow, so don’t worry about getting lost.

We entered an exhibition area displaying portraits of Versailles’ progress, a few royal portraits, and a video of Versailles projected on the walls. Here is a large portrait of what the Palace of Versailles looked like in its heyday. Oh, what it’s like to be King!

The Royal Chapel, probably the only semblance of Christianity at the Palace. Versailles celebrates Man (i.e. Louis XIV), and this is also where others worshipped Louis XIV while he worshipped God. This is also where young Louis XVI married Marie-Antoinette.

Enter the Hercules Drawing Room, where the balls, suppers and receptions were held. On the ceiling you will find Hercules (club in hand) rushing to heaven on his chariot, late for his wedding to the king of the gods’ daughter. This mirrors real life, as Louis XIV built this room for his daughter’s wedding reception (hence implying he is a god).

Pictured on the right: Hercules rushing up to heaven.

The Mercury Room is where the Sun King held his “bedtime rituals”. Louis XIV was viewed as the perfect human, and so his wake-up, bedtime and meals were all public events. Here, the nobles would watch the King rise and shine, and at bedtime they would scramble for the privilege of holding the candle. This isn’t his actual bedroom, though.

Enter the Hall of Mirrors, the first of its kind when it was opened. Mirrors were a great luxury, so of course the Sun King needed a room full of them! The hall is 250 feet long, with 17 arched mirrors matched with 17 windows that open into a phenomenal view of the Gardens. There used to be two large carpets mirroring the ceiling artwork.

At the end of the Hall of Mirrors was an strikingly modern art piece. Can you spot my sister and myself in the middle ring?

At the end of the tour you’ll find this room, along with a small exhibition space with beautiful paintings. Then it’s onward to the Gardens!!

The Gardens

The Gardens are usually free, but the Musical Gardens show was going on when we visited that Tuesday, so they weren’t free. Good thing we’d bought a Passport, which gave us access to every part of the Palace of Versailles for 25 Euros, so while other tourists debated whether they should pay for Gardens access or not, we traipsed on through. I highly recommend visiting the Gardens either way – they’re a large part of the Versailles experience!

My favorite part of the Gardens was definitely the Orangerie, a gorgeous space the King built to flaunt his wealth and power. Orange trees don’t usually grow in France, so he had them shipped over in tubs, and they decorated the gardens during warm season. In winter, the orange trees were wheeled inside. I loved the spiral design. Everything about Versailles reminded me of my favorite scene in Disney’s Hercules, where Meg sings I Won’t Say (I’m in Love) in a gorgeous garden. 

Palace of Versailles - Orangerie
Palace of Versailles – Orangerie

Pictured above is the Royal Drive, or “The Green Carpet.” Beyond that is the Grand Canal, in which you can row a boat if you can spare the change.

Apollo and his sister Diana stand on the top of the Latona fountain with their unwed mother, Latona. Latona was insulted by the locals, so she called on Zeus – the children’s father – to avenge her. Zeus did exactly that by turning all the peasants into the frogs and lizards that ring the fountain. Love this story!

And the large green space? Those are the Groves – trees from all around the world, laid out in a grid and dotted with statues and fountains. They’re HUGE. If you’re interested in exploring all of the Gardens + Palace + Grand and Petit Trianon, make sure you arrive just when the Palace opens, because we arrived at about 9.30am and had just enough time to see everything before the Palace closed at 6pm.

As part of the Musical Fountains show, there was a really tall tower in the middle of the lake. Water spewed from the top and cascaded down in a waterfall at intervals, as tourists rowed on the tranquil lake. You can also see the Apollo Fountain here.

Petit Trianon and Domaine de Marie-Antoinette

It was a 30-minute walk from the main palace to the Petit Trianon/Grand Trianon. We visited the Petit Trianon first. The Petit Trianon has a more idyllic, countryside feel than the rest of the palace.

The Petit Trianon was built so Louis XV could spend more time near the Gardens, and also as a private residence for himself and his then-mistress Madame de Pompadour. It later became home to his next mistress Madame du Barry. In 1774, Louis XVI gave it to Marie-Antoinette. The main house is free to visit, and the attic and entresol are viewable by guided tour.

Beautiful palace in the “countryside”
Ducks enjoying a summer swim in the French “countryside”

Pictured below is the Temple of Love – 12 marble Corinthian columns supporting a dome, with a statue of Cupid making a bow. This was significant in a society where only the rich could afford the luxury of romantic love.

As a hopeless romantic, I couldn’t help but linger around the temple for a bit.

The Hamlet

The Hamlet was constructed because Marie-Antoinette longed for a fairytale countryside life, without the hard farm labor of course! So she constructed a real, working farm, and hired farmers to work on the land. This farm still exists today, and you will find vegetable farms and farm animals here!

I can definitely see the why Marie-Antoinette built this place. If you don’t have to deal with the hard labor/starvation that comes with typical farm life, the countryside is really quite beautiful.

We got a little lost in the Hamlets, but eventually found our way to Marie-Antoinette’s estate with the help of the official map.

Marie-Antoinette’s Estate

This is where Marie Antoinette lived. You didn’t think she was going to live in a thatched cottage, did you? 🙂

Her place came with a billiard room and was decorated by her portrait and bust. The royals can be a little… narcissistic. It also has a library, dining hall, and two living rooms. No thatched roof here.

We then made our way to the Grand Trianon, but on the way we stumbled upon the French Pavilion, a small building where Marie-Antoinette spent leisurely summer evenings with family and friends.

Grand Trianon

My favorite gardens were those of the Grand Trianon. A menagerie of flowers added gorgeous bursts of color, and it was more peaceful than the main palace. This is where Louis XIV found escape from the politics, etiquette and scrutiny of court officials.

As you can see, it was an extremely cloudy day. Consider yourself blessed if you arrive on a clear day!

The Grand Trianon is open to tour, and you’ll find drawing rooms, galleries, and various small exhibits.

The Groves

With aching feet, we made the 30-minute walk back to the main palace. That is not to say we didn’t appreciate the Gardens on the way back. In fact, we popped into one of the Groves to see what the Musical fountains event was all about. I guess they open the gates to the numerous fountains during this event, and at certain times of day these fountains come to life.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the sun finally peeked through the clouds and blessed our photos with more color.

Admission: 1825 Euros for a Versailles Passport that grants access to the entire estate (recommended) and includes an audioguide for the main Palace (it’s more expensive on Spectacle days).

Alternatively, if you’ll be visiting other museums in Paris, consider the Paris Museum Pass (48E for 2 days, 62 for 4 days, 74 for 6 days). Admission is free for visitors under 18, or EU residents under 26 (lucky ducks!), or disabled persons and people accompanying them.

Peak Season: Avoid Sundays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays if you can, as these days are when the Palace is most packed. (We were forced to visit on Tuesday due to our short itinerary in Paris.)

Guides: I relied heavily on Rick Steves’ Paris guidebook to familarize myself with the palace prior to arrival. I highly recommend reading it before your trip! It includes a thorough walking tour of the entire estate (and the rest of Paris!). Pick up a physical map of the estate upon entry so you know where you’re going. Click here for the virtual version of the official map.

Also download the free Versailles official apps before arrival. We had no 3G access and so weren’t able to use these tremendous resources.

Food: We popped into a small cafe at the main Palace and chowed down on sandwiches in the dining halls prior to exploring the Gardens. The prices are reasonable (4-8 Euros each) and you’ll definitely need the energy!

Versailles is a culture-buff and photographer’s haven. Even if you’re neither of those, this royal palace and extravagant gardens will wow anyone. It was definitely one of the highlights of our 2-week Europe trip and I look forward to coming back with a higher quality camera! The above photos were taken with my iPhone 6 Plus and my sister’s iPhone 6S.

This concluded our short 2-day trip in Paris. At night we caught the last Eurostar train to London and said hello at long last to the United Kingdom!

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A complete tour of the Estate of Versailles. Includes the Palace of Versailles, Grand and Petit Trianons, and Domaine de Marie-Antoinette. LittleWanderess.com.

This post is part of a whirlwind 14-day trip in Western Europe with my sister prior to her exchange programme in Glasgow, Scotland. Thank you for a trip of a lifetime! (And here’s to many more!)

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Photos!: Walking in Paris

A scenic train ride from Lucerne, Switzerland took me and my sister to Paris, the City of Love, at 1.30pm.

When my sister and I were planning our Europe adventures via expert navigation of Google Docs, Whatsapp, and Facetime, my sister wasn’t keen on adding Paris to the itinerary. I know. A girl not in love with Paris? Unheard of!

I’m proud to say I might’ve made her a Paris-convert.

Anyhow, I cited the Louvre and Estate of Versailles as great reasons to visit. Because they are! And they were. In fact, I can’t wait to return to Paris so I can explore them again.

After we dumped our things at our Airbnb (sign up using link to get $35 credit!), we rushed to the Louvre via Metro, hoping to squeeze as much time in as we could. We stayed in La Plaine – Stade de France, a residential city that is only a 15 minute metro ride from Paris via RER-C.

Disclaimer: Paris metro can seem daunting at first. I should know – I spent an entire day figuring out the metro system. Why so many colors? What is RER-C and RER-B? How are they different from the Metro?

Relax. Go to the app store and download the official Paris Metro app. Watch your confusion fade away.

Or simply use Google Maps and save yourself a ton of headache.

Itinerary

On Day 1, we had a crash course of the Louvre before walking to the Arc de Triomphe via Champs-Elysees, and then to the Eiffel Tower. Day 2 was dedicated to the Palace of Versailles, easily a full-day affair. LOVED IT. Click here for my complete guide to Versailles.

Louvre

Please ignore my distorted face

Since we arrived late (2-3pm), it didn’t take hours to enter the Louvre via the Pyramid entrance. In fact, it took minutes. But I don’t recommend arriving so late! There’s too much to see! Don’t do it! Come at the crack of dawn if you must. Just kidding. It doesn’t open that early.

It was easy finding our way to the Mona Lisa, the Louvre’s most famous artwork. Idiot-proof really. There were signs everywhere. Expect crowds – even in the afternoon, the Mona Lisa room was rows deep with people.

We squeezed to the front to take selfies, of course. Because it’s fun to play tourist.

Museum Goers walked around toting Nintendo 3DS XLs. Wait a second – I knew those game consoles are popular, but they can’t be that popular. That’s when I realized they were actually Audio GuidesAvailable in multiple languages, it consists of a map on the top screen and extra info of each art piece on the bottom screen. Rent one for only 5 Euros. I wish we knew they existed, and that we had time to utilize them and enrich our Louvre experience. You can also download the My Visit to the Louvre app and customize your visit.

If you want to be extra geeky, the Louvre website also has a ton of content and videos about their exhibits, including a 1.5 hour video about Da Vinci code: Between Fiction and Fact. This way you don’t even have to visit the Louvre to learn about the exhibits.

One of the most impressive (and my favorite) statues was the Winged Victory of Samothrace, displayed prominently at the top of a staircase. This Hellenistic statue, made of Parian marble, is thought to celebrate a naval victory.

Most of the information is available only in French, which is why the audio guide or app will come in handy in understanding the exhibits.

Seeing that we had some time before the Louvre closed, we wandered into the Egyptian Antiquities section. The exhibits were housed in modern glass casings that provide a nice contrast with the ancient pieces of art.

Near closing, the staff started ushering people out of the museum. It was a sad farewell indeed. Though we did manage to catch glimpses of other exhibits on our way out:

I wish we had more time at the Louvre. There was so much we didn’t see. This is why I suggest you arrive early at the Louvre. The Louvre is so large that it would take 100 days to look at every piece of art for 30 seconds.

Under the pyramid!

Louvre Mall

Exit into the Louvre Mall and you will find an upside down pyramid. This is also where the alternative (less crowded) entrance is located. There is a souvenir store, several luxury stores, and a food court.

The food court is located at the end of the Mall and consists of several food stalls and a McDonalds that sells macarons. Ooooh, fancy.

City Walk

Next on the Itinerary was the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower. Since we wanted to see more of the city (and we were on a budget!) we decided to walk to the two landmarks.

It was a cloudy day in Paris, but it didn’t bring us down! In fact, it added to the enchantment of the city. (Trying to be optimistic.)

The Gardens outside the Louvre were quite beautiful and peppered with gorgeous statues.

The walk to the Arc de Triomphe gave us plenty to see. We walked down Champs-Elysees and saw this gorgeous Disney store:

Most. Elegant. Disney. Store. Ever. In fact, it looks like a Disney Villain’s store. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore, but we’re definitely coming back next time.

The Champs-Elysees, a wide, luxurious shopping district leading up to the Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe

When we got to the Arc de Triomphe, we risked our lives took selfies in the middle of the traffic intersection. There is a small area between the two busy roads where tourists flock to take pictures like these. It was quite unnerving but worth it.

We weren’t the craziest tourists. In fact, we watched, slack-jawed, as a group of young girls hopped off a cab and, encouraged by their cab driver, ran across the road to have their picture taken with the famous landmark. D:

The Arc de Triomphe honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars. You can climb up to the top for a nice view of Paris if you don’t mind paying a small fee.

Eiffel Tower

The walk to Eiffel Tower wasn’t as scenic as the walk to Arc de Triomphe, but as the Eiffel Tower loomed into view, we started getting really excited.

There it is!

We passed a small souvenir store with all sorts of Eiffel Tower-related paraphernalia:

The plushies are pretty cute

And then finally we arrived at Paris’ famous landmark. The one, the only – the Eiffel Tower!!

And then, surprise surprise, the Tower started sparkling!

Turns out the Eiffel Tower sparkles during the first 5 minutes after nightfall every hour until 2AM (1AM in the winter.) It takes 20,000 lights flashing on and off to produce this effect! Wait for it – it’s really cool!

After passing security, we walked around the Eiffel Tower park for a bit. Through sheer dumb luck, we entered through the back entrance. It was a breeze. Au contraire, the entrance by the park was packed. So now you know: do not use the park entrance.

If you have the budget, take a trip up the Tower, and maybe even feast at the restaurant in the air. Lucky you.

It was a long day of walking in Paris, and we finally headed back to our Airbnb for much-needed Zzzs to prepare ourselves for the long day of walking at Versailles tomorrow.

I have decided to split this into 2 posts, so you’ll find the dedicated Palace of Versailles post here! Because it’s worth it’s own post.

Wishlist

With only 1 day to spend in the city of Paris, there were so many things we didn’t get to see or do. My top to-dos for my next trip to Paris are:

  • Explore Louvre with interactive guide
  • Go up the Eiffel Tower
  • Visit the Catacombs
  • Notre Dame Cathedral

Onwards to the Estate of Versailles!

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Photo Log: Wandering in Lucerne, Switzerland

Switzerland is known for its crystal-clear lakes, fresh water, and beautiful mountains. My sister added the lake town of Lucerne to our itinerary so she could try Raclette, a melted cheese dish, and to take a boat/tram up Mount Pilatus and down via cable car. Though we got to do neither of those, we still had fun strolling through the beautiful Historic Town, snapping way too many photos of Chapel Bridge, and just relaxing in this beautiful city. Here’s a brief run-down of our short 1D1N stay in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Arrival

A large, gorgeous lake flanked by mountains greeted us the moment we exited the train station. I was super happy to see signs in German, a language I was familiar with. Coming from Italy and knowing no Italian, this was a welcome change.

We rushed to the ticketing counter where they sold tickets for the boat-tram-cablecar ride up and down Mount Pilatus, and were both secretly relieved when they said we were too late. I was relieved because I wouldn’t have to brave the cold and heights; my sister because it would’ve cost an arm and leg.

So instead we wandered around Old Town, a picturesque little town that looks like it popped out of a fairytale. It comes complete with a stone tower in the middle of lake, and Chapel Bridge – a medieval, flowery bridge that leads to aforementioned fairytale land. Did you know it’s one of the oldest, covered wooden bridges in Europe?

Amidst a light drizzle, we strolled the riverside, passing charming (albeit overpriced) shops, including an ivy-lined Starbucks, burger joints, and a clever Irish pub whose sign cracked us up:

HUSBAND DAY CARE CENTER. Is he getting under your feet? Need time to yourself? Want to go shopping? LEAVE HIM WITH US! You only pay for his beer.” – Ingenious bar 

And yes, if you balked over Fish ‘n’ Chips costing 24.50 franc (which is 23.90 usd at time of writing), this is what Lucerne is: expensive. Lucerne is not for the budget traveler. It was lucky we only had 1 day here, or we wouldn’t have money for the rest of our trip!

Lunch

We must’ve spent an hour deciding what to eat that wouldn’t break the bank. My sister really wanted Raclette, and we found the restaurant she’d read about. We took one look at the menu and she decided she didn’t want it that bad, because it cost 30 franc. (See bottom-right corner of menu.)

What is this insanity?

Personally, I would’ve felt out of place eating there anyway, because I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, and with prices like that, I felt it was more appropriate to be in an evening gown with diamonds hanging around my neck. Neither of which I own.

We settled for a nice fruit-mousse cake slice at a cafe. We sat in the cafe area to eat, and a waitress walked up asking what we wanted to drink. We said we didn’t want anything. She gave us a weird look and walked away. Were we supposed to order a drink? Well, at least they didn’t kick us out like in Venice.

Our rumbling bellies finally got the better of our cheapskate-hearts, and we settled for 15 franc burgers at Jill’s Burger. We snagged a seat by the lake, because we were paying 15 francs per burger, dammit, so we were going to sit by the lake!

To our left we had a snazzy-looking Starbucks and a pretty shop fronted with vines. This was the first Starbucks we’d seen since starting out Europe tour – there is no Starbucks in Italy.

Lake Luzern

After our much-needed nourishment, we took a nice stroll along the lake, where we saw docked yachts, seagulls, ducks, and gorgeous mountains.

We enjoyed watching ducks skittle over the water in flocks, dipping into the water for the occasional treat with their feathery bums wagging in the air. Also, the lake water was so clear you could see right to the bottom.

Ducks ducks ducks!

It was cold and rainy, but my sister wanted to explore anyway because she’s the tough one in the family and she really loves lakes and mountains!

Also she was warm in her hoodie

After strolling to the end of the path (plus the rain got way too heavy), we headed back to the train station, where we were glad to find a supermarket selling food that didn’t break the bank.

We were spoilt for choice at the supermarket. Pizzas, cheeses, chocolate – oh the CHOCOLATE. I couldn’t help filling a pick-and-mix bag of various chocolates, and a strawberry-infused white chocolate slab. Yeah, I’m one of those weirdos who prefer white chocolate over real chocolate.

That marked the end of our day in Lucerne. We walked back to our Airbnb to enjoy our spoils from the supermarket, and then readied ourselves for our train ride to Paris the next day.

A Cheapskate’s Guide to Lucerne

  1. Pick another place. Lucerne is not for those with slim wallets.
  2. Visit the supermarket before hunger strikes, so you don’t have to splurge at one of their overpriced restaurants.
  3. Airbnbs are probably your best bet for accommodation, but a tiny room can still end up costing 92 USD, like ours did.
  4. Pick another place. For fairytale experiences, I highly recommend Florence, Italy.

Overview

We enjoyed Lucerne. It was a nice, relaxing day in nature spent with my sister. Historic Town was definitely a highlight, with the beautiful Chapel Bridge extending over the lake.

However if it’s anything Lucerne has taught me, it’s that Switzerland is not for me. The exorbitant prices were hard to swallow, and it lacked culture-vulture experiences that I crave.

It is, however, wonderful if you enjoy mountains and lakes, or if your wallet is fat and happy.

Chocolate store at the train station!

What was your experience like in Lucerne? Any tips for a fellow cheapskate?

Update: My sister got to try Raclette at a Christmas Market in England, hooray! Also, we found Raclette in the supermarket for less than 10 francs. So you don’t exactly have to pay 30 francs to try it.

Update 2: I met a client at work who was born and raised in Lucerne! What are the chances of that? She recommended going up Mount Pilatus and also visiting the old bell towers. Maybe next time!

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Day 5/14. This post is part of a whirlwind 14-day trip in Western Europe with my sister prior to her exchange programme in Glasgow, Scotland. Thank you for a trip of a lifetime!! (And here’s to many more!!)

Photo Log: 1 Day in Milan

Milan, financial capital of Italy, was no-doubt the richest Italian city we visited. Feeling like an Italian version of London, it was clean, pretty, and very modern.

Since we only had 1 day in Milan, we had to choose our sights wisely. We didn’t buy tickets to see The Last Supper, so we had to skip that, but if we ever return to Milan we’ll be sure to book tickets ahead of time.

Castello Sforzesco / Castle Sforza

Our first stop was Castello Sforzesco, a 15th-century castle built by the Duke of Milan. It was very scenic, with a beautiful, large park behind it.

In true castle fashion, there used to be a moat that ran around the castle, but it’s now dried up and home to many cats. We saw a woman ride up to them on a bike and feed them in a little nook. It was adorable!

There was a museum and several exhibitions, but we were on a tight schedule, so we had to give it a pass. We strolled in the park behind it instead, where Italians were gathered for picnics and games. It was a nice glimpse of regular Italian life.

Then, prompted by our grumbling bellies, we found a cheap sandwich place using Yelp, conveniently located right outside the Castle.

After lunch, we stumbled upon a gorgeous fountain on the way to the metro. It was hot, and several people sat around it with their feet in the water. It looked like a great idea. We not only sat with our feet in the water, but also waded into the middle for photo ops:

And because everyone started doing it, the guards came around and chased everyone out of the water. Even our feet weren’t allowed in there anymore 🙁

On hindsight, it probably wasn’t very hygienic to be walking in water that others have stuck their feet in, so we made sure we dried out feet out really well after…

Duomo

Onwards to the highlight of Milan: the Duomo.

When I first saw pictures of Milan’s Duomo, my first thought was, “Why is it so spiky?”

It was only upon closer study that I realized the “spikes” were actually statues.

3200 statues, to be precise, atop 135 spires. Crazy! But amazing. Crazy amazing.

The Duomo is located in a large square, with a gigantic shopping mall right next to it. I loved how open everything was, unlike in Rome, where historic sites were situated smack-dab in the middle of busy, narrow streets.

Entrance Dilemma

Buy the correct ticket. There are different tickets: tickets to enter the Duomo, and tickets just to get to the roof. We first bought the wrong ticket to the roof, when we needed a ticket to go inside the Duomo. This led to a scuffle with the entrance guards not worth remembering. I repeat, get the correct ticket!

Inside the Duomo

The interior made it easy to shrug off the frustrations of entering. It was pure gothic gold. With some modern touches, of course, because it’s Milan.

The high ceilings, marble columns, and statues were so intricate and so profound, that I almost didn’t want to leave.

While we were there, a service started, and they started reciting names of worshippers. At least I think that’s what it was – everything was in Italian.

The Duomo was HUGE, and there were so many angles to photograph from.

Duomo Roof

After we took a million photos of the inside, we took an elevator to the roof to soak in birds-eye views of Milan. You can choose to buy a cheaper ticket and take the stairs, but after climbing 463 steps up the Duomo in Florence, I was quite done with stairs. This time there was an elevator available, so I jumped on it. Worth it!!

The elevator was a good call, because the roof closed at sunset, and we didn’t get much time on it.

Like the interior, the roof was Gothic gold. We got a closer look at the statues topping the spires.

One of these statues is gilded copper – the statue of Madonnina (Little Madonna), Milan’s traditional protector. She is pictured here with my sister:

It’s too bad the roof closes at sunset, because Milan would have been beautiful at night. Not that it wasn’t beautiful in the day!

Milan’s skyline is quite astounding.

I love climbing onto roofs and getting great views!! This was just like climbing to the top of Florence’s Duomo. Breathtaking!

La Rinascente

For kicks, we explored the luxury shopping mall next to Duomo. It was too beautiful to give a miss. I’m glad we visited, because it made for beautiful photos.

Believe it or not, we actually bought something at this high-end mall. Yelp informed us of this famous Panzerotti shop called Luini, so we had to get one of these deep-fried cheese-filled donut things.

There are also buskers in the area, and we watched acts by a pretty Italian lady dancing with a crystal ball, and a break-dancing troupe. It felt a lot like Orchard Road in Singapore (a high-end shopping district).

Basilica di San Lorenzo

Seeing that we had time to spare until nightfall, we decided to explore a little more. My sister recalled studying a certain church in Archi class that was nearby, so we keyed it into Google Maps.

It was only about a 20 minute walk to Basilica di San Lorenzo, and we got to window shop along the way.

This Catholic church was built in Roman times and rebuilt over the centuries. I was born and raised in Singapore, which is only 50+ years old, so seeing places that have hundreds of years of history still astounds me.

Then we walked around the back, and were pleasantly surprised to find the back of the church even more beautiful.

On the way back to the Duomo, we chanced upon this rather impressive street art piece:

Italians are very talented.

Duomo at Night

Duomo at nighttime is equally impressive, and La Rinascente was beautifully lit.

We sat staring at the Duomo for a very long time. It’s hard to believe this amazing building is real.

To end our day in Milan, my sister took a photo with the statue and finally headed back to our cosy Airbnb. Tonight is our last night in Italy, then we are headed to Switzerland!

I hope you enjoyed our photos! Milan was a nice change from chaotic Rome and touristy Venice, but Florence still tops my list of Roman cities. I did like that there was a lot less graffiti in Milan. 1 day probably wasn’t enough to do Milan justice.

What was your visit to Milan like?

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This post is part of a whirlwind 14-day trip in Western Europe with my sister prior to her exchange programme in Glasgow, Scotland. Thank you for a trip of a lifetime!! (And here’s to many more!!)

Photo Log: 12 Hours in Venice

A trip to Venice is like a trip back in time, with the addition of throngs of tourists. 

My sister and I were short of time, so we only planned 12 hours in Venice. We arrived in the morning and left at evening. Will I come back? Probably when I have more money, and to see what it’s like at night time. But this historic site was too expensive and touristy for me to spend more than a few days.

Ride down the Grand Canal

The moment we stepped out of the train station, we felt like we were in a fantasy. Really we were at a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is much unchanged.

Rialto BridgeWe hopped on a Vaporetto (boat) taking route 1. Route 1 makes the most stops and is the best for sightseeing. We saw the famous Rialto Bridge, and marvelled over the quaint, charming houses, hotels, and shops.

We snagged a spot in the back of the boat, so we got great views as we rode down the Grand Canal. Try to avoid the middle as it is stuffy and you don’t get the joy of ocean breeze on your face.

Venice

Brunch at Dal Moro’s

We hopped off at the final stop, then walked to our lunch stop at Dal Moro’s – a cheap and great pasta place where they serve fresh pasta. We found it on Yelp, and were convinced by the stellar reviews. Yelp did not fail us! Dal Moro’s was cheap and great.

Lunch in Venice

As you can see, the prices were extremely reasonable, especially for Venice. The shop staff were so friendly and spoke great English. Be sure you go to the actual Dal Moro’s, because there are copy-cats nearby. I guess this fresh-pasta-for-cheap concept was so popular, others felt they had to copy it. Try to come before or after peak lunch hour (around noon), as the line can get really long.

Venice lunch
It’s a popular place!

My sister got the Calamari pasta with extra cheese, and I got the Alfredo with mushrooms and added hot dog. And because I felt this was such a good deal, I got back in line and tried the Pomodoro as well.

There is a large window with a paint marker hanging from the top at the storefront. Visitors are encouraged to leave their mark. It was a very nice touch. Here’s our multilingual love note for this lovely shop:

A note about Venetian restaurants

Sometimes Venice gives off the rich-tourists-only vibe. Stay clear of snobby restaurants if you’re on a budget. My sister was bullied by a waiter here on her second trip, where she was almost coerced into getting an appetizer, overpriced wine, and an additional entree. Thank goodness she had the courage to stand up and walk away.

We got a healthy amount of gelato in Rome and Florence, so we thought we’d try the gelato in Venice as well, and also maybe find a place to sit. Bad idea. The gelato wasn’t the best, and the snooty staff chased us out of their restaurant because the gelato was take-away only.

It’s no wonder the only people you see seated at Venice’s numerous restaurants are affluent middle-aged tourists. If you’re on a budget, Dal Moro’s is the way to go.

Piazza San Marco / St Mark’s Square

St Mark’s Square houses Venice’s main sights, namely St Mark’s Basilica, Doge Palace, St Mark’s clock tower, and Campanile (a bell tower that used to guard the entry of the Grand Canal).

St Mark’s Basilica + Campanile + of my sister taking a selfie.

St mark’s Clock Tower, emblazoned with beautiful horoscope etchings, was my favorite building in Venice. I love Astrology, and the colors white and blue, so it was perfect.

St Mark's clock tower

St Mark’s Square is right next to the Grand Canal, so if you ever get lost, just ask where St Mark’s Square is. Once there you can hop on a vaporetto and get to wherever you need to go. I recommend boating if you have the budget for it. Walking from one place to another can be a pain because the streets are winding, narrow and cobbled. It took us over 1.5 hours to walk back to the train station as opposed to 10 minutes via boat. Along the way we passed several souvenir shops, but they were mostly tourist traps selling the same things over and over.

Doge Palace, Venice
Doge Palace, Grand Canyon and beyond

That’s not to say we didn’t stumble upon interesting sites on our way back to the train station. We made an impromptu visit into a music museum, an art gallery, a stationery store, and numerous Murano glass shops.

Venetian Museums and Art Galleries

Venice has museums galore, but we only had time for a handful. One of those museums we visited was a small music museum, which displayed elegant instruments that looked like they might be worth a million dollars. Soothing violin music played in the background. It was a nice break from the tourist bustle outside.

Venice music museum

We passed numerous art galleries, one of which had cool 3D paintings on display that changed as you walked by, as well as modern art pieces and classic paintings of gorgeous libraries.

venice art

Venetian Shopping

Murano glass
Murano glass goldfish!

Venetian shops offer a wide variety, including eclectic wares, Murano glass, and branded goods. I salivated over Murano goldfish, but ultimately decided against getting one, because it was over 10Euro for a small glass decoration, and my cats would probably swat it under the refrigerator. (Update: My sister got one for me on her second trip – she’s the best!! It’s now perched safely on a tall shelf.)

Italy will be Italy, and the Italian sense of humor is evident in their selection of pastas…

sexy pasta

I would’ve bought a pack to bring home if I had extra luggage space. So make sure you have room when you visit Venice to bring one of those bad boys home!

Emotive… flatbread?

“Goofi” owls make good (but expensive) souvenirs!

If you buy me this blue handbag, I will love you forever.

venice stationery

I’m a stationery nut. Loved the stationery!

Overview

Venice is a gorgeous city, and very culturally rich. But it can be a tourist trap, so watch out for restaurants out to empty your pockets.

venice panorama

We didn’t get to spend much time in Venice, or see it at night time, so I would definitely come back. This time with a more padded wallet so I can boat everywhere, and maybe even ride a gondola.

  • Food: Dal Moro’s fresh pasta to-go
  • Transport: Foot, boat
  • Accomodation: None; we were off for Milan by night

Wishlist

  • Stay in Venice at night and soak in the nighttime atmosphere
  • See a classical music concert
  • Climb the Basilica di San Marco for skyline views of Venice

What do you suggest for visitors to Venice?

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Whirlwind Europe Day 4/14. This post is part of a whirlwind 14-day trip in Western Europe with my sister prior to her exchange programme in Glasgow, Scotland. Thank you for a trip of a lifetime!! (And here’s to many more!!)

Singaporean in the USA

In 2013, I moved from my garden city home of Singapore to the bustling suburbs of Orange County, California. Although I have been hit by several bouts of homesickness, I have adapted to the different way of life here.

Here are a few things I noticed about the USA, and what being a Singaporean in the USA is like:

1. Cars won’t bankrupt you.

Yes, Vin Diesel, the moral of the story is do not buy cars in Singapore.

I got my first car here for 2700USD. It was my sister-in-law’s old car, and it was 10 years old, but it still drove, and the seats were comfy. I liked the way it felt, so I bought it.

It served me faithfully for 1-2 years before the engine went caput, and I spent 2600USD on a new one. Mainly because I couldn’t afford car payments, but also because Ruby had a place in my heart. Yeah, I named my car Ruby.

The point of the story is, cars are dirt cheap here. You can get a decent used car for 10,000USD, and a new car for 20,000-30,000USD. Peanuts compared to Singapore, where a standard car costs well over 70,000USD (so even more converted into SGD!).

So although I miss Singapore, I do enjoy driving. It gives you freedom, and since parking is mostly free in Orange County, I don’t have to worry about paying parking fees! (It’s a different story in the metropolitan cities. L.A. is notorious for bad parking.)

2. You’ll miss Asian food. A LOT.

I am constantly scouring Yelp for Asian supermarkets, restaurants and shops. I am fortunate to live 20 minutes away from Irvine, which is an amazing predominantly-Asian suburb.

There I can find 99 Ranch Market, Mitsuwa Marketplace, Hot Pot/Shabu Shabu, Korean BBQ… you name it, they’ve got it. And then there’s Mitsuwa in Costa Mesa, which hosts Kinokuniya Bookstores, the best Japanese bookstore ever.

If you live in a major city, even better – there’s bound to be Asian stores near you. I know Los Angeles is chock-full of Asian businesses.

Posts about these businesses will be up soon!

3. ESPECIALLY Southeast Asian food.

There’s no shortage of Asian food here. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian… you name it, you got it. But Southeast Asian? Meh…not really. There are several businesses in L.A., but not many in Orange County.

So I was overjoyed to meet a fellow Singaporean at work. She introduced me to Belacan Grill, a southeast Asian food restaurant. Even though the prices are astounding (12 for a plate of Hainanese chicken rice that would’ve been 2.50 in Singapore), they are wonderful for homesick Southeast Asians.

I was also ecstatic to learn about Kaya Street Kitchen, which is somewhat like a Southeast Asian Chipotle. They moved into my neighborhood for a bit and I devoured as much coconut rice and satay chicken as I could before they moved away and focused their efforts on their L.A. branch. I was very sad to see them go.

Southeast Asian food is out there if you care enough to search for it. If you live in a metropolitan city, you’re in luck. Chances are there are several SEA offerings available. If you live in the suburbs, or the country, it’s time to put on an apron and get cookin’!

If all else fails, you can always fly home and cart sauces/pre-mixes home, or have a family member ship it to you. I joke about having my mom freeze Pastamania’s creamy chicken pasta and send it to me via overnight post. Actually I’m half-joking. Sometimes I really do feel like spending $20 on shipping pasta over.

4. Believe it or not, you’ll miss public transport.

It’s nice not having to drive from time to time. I like getting from point A to point B without having to worry about road safety, watching out for reckless drivers, or thinking about how that large truck next to me could crush my tiny Kia Rio.

When I first moved here and couldn’t drive yet, I missed public transport dearly. Especially since Singapore has an amazingly efficient public transportation system and I was raised on a steady diet of trains and buses.

When my sister and I were in Europe, we enjoyed hopping on and off the Metro without worrying about driving on the other side of the road.

Get a car ASAP to prevent going stir-crazy from not being able to go anywhere.

5. You’ll go crazy adopting pets.

Singapore has strict pet rules, including an outdated rule that states no cats are allowed in HDB flats, so once I got here I went crazy and adopted 3 rescue cats over a span of 2 years. Now I’m waiting to buy a house so I can get a dog, too.

6. Hardly anyone knows what or where Singapore is.

I’ve started saying, “It’s like an Asian London.” Which is totally true.

People active in the business world will likely know what/where Singapore is, but that is rare, and you’ll find yourself having to explain that yes, English is our first language, and yes, I did learn English growing up. (No, I did not marry for a green card. I know you’re thinking it! I know you are!) Yes, I would move back if my husband (and cats) would follow.

7. You will become a flight guru.

When tickets usually go for 1500-2000USD a piece, you’ll become a flight guru and be on the lookout for crazy-good deals. Google Flights informed me of SIA tickets going for 670USD. Yaaaas!

8. Say Hello to Amazon Prime

For a (completely reasonable) annual fee, you get free 2-day shipping for virtually any product you could think of on Amazon. Most of my shopping is done online on Amazon. Prices can be 50-70% off retail and they have a generous return policy.

In fact, most shops here have amazing return policies. I’ve heard of well-worn shoes, tents, and sleeping bags being accepted for full refunds. Considering Singapore return policies usually are “14-day return, store credit only”, or none at all, I was appalled by how generous shops here were.

9. You will miss fellow Singaporeans.

Singaporean blood flows in your veins, and you’ll miss the jokes, camaraderie, and shared love of food. I joined an FB group for Singaporeans in the USA and could not be happier that I can talk to fellow Singaporeans again. They are a very active group and share Singaporean recipes and other tips on the group. Someone posted a recipe for black carrot cake the other day! *Salivates* Search facebook for Singaporean groups in your area – there is likely one if you live in a populated area.

If you’re a Singaporean living in the USA, hit me up! Would love to chat with a fellow Singaporean.

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Singaporean in the USA - LittleWanderess.com

Many thanks to David Russo for the gorgeous photo.

Do you have other tips for Singaporeans in the USA? Comment below! 🙂

1 way to stay healthy while traveling

Traveling can be hard on your body. Between hopping from city to city, lugging heavy backpacks/luggage over cobblestone roads, being constantly exposed to the elements and new environments (not to forget new germs), or not sleeping enough for several nights on end – it can be wearing on your body.

Me and my sister’s 14-day trip to Europe was not lacking of stress. Throughout the trip we:

  • Made 3 mad dashes to avoid missing any trains (it was close)
  • Survived a mini hurricane in Edinburgh
  • Survived a thunderstorm in Rome
  • Dragged our butts out of bed sleep-deprived

My Secret Weapon

Naturally we started feeling off the weather. But no fear – I brought my secret medicine!

Over-the-counter medications are yucky. I find they only suppress my symptoms. Sometimes they don’t even do a good job! For example, NyQuil makes me drowsy and dries up my nasal passages. Then it ceases to work, and I feel crappy as ever.

Karl (my sweet ginger kitty) helps me stay healthy by giving oodles of love and happiness, but the secret weapon I’m talking about is the large mason jar of Elderberry Syrup

Ever since I discovered this secret medicine, I haven’t had a bad illness for years. This means something coming from someone who’d catch a flu if anyone so much as sneezed in the same room. I used to have a weak disposition and fell sick 3-4 times a year.

Not anymore. I swear by my secret remedy.

Ok, it’s not so secret because I sing its praises to anyone who would listen.

That secret is: Elderberry Syrup.

Over a year ago I googled “Natural flu remedies” and Wellness Mama popped up. I love her site; it’s full of helpful information for natural living sans drugs.

Elderberry Syrup is comprised of dried berries from the Sambucis Nigra plant, aka. Elderberries. It’s super simple and cost-effective to make your own.

I use Wellness Mama’s recipe and buy organic dried Elderberries from Amazon. They cost $16-20, come in a 1-pound pack, and last forever. I can make 4-5 batches with every pack I buy, which is a great deal because good store-bought syrups cost $20 for a tiny bottle – and the store-bought stuff doesn’t even work as well. (Also, it tastes too sickly sweet.)

This recipe only requires 5 simple ingredients (plus water) and less than 30 minutes to make. Plus it tastes delicious.

Ingredients

  • ⅔ cup dried black elderberries (about 3 ounces)
  • 3½ cups of water
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh or dried ginger root
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
  • ½ teaspoon cloves or clove powder
  • 1 cup raw honey (we get from our farmer’s market)

Instructions

  1. Pour water into medium saucepan and add elderberries, ginger, cinnamon and cloves (do not add honey!)
  2. Bring to a boil and then cover and reduce to a simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour until the liquid has reduced by almost half. At that point, remove from heat and let cool enough to be handled. Mash the berries carefully using a spoon or other flat utensil. Pour through a strainer into a glass jar or bowl.
  3. Discard the elderberries (or compost them!) and let the liquid cool to lukewarm. When it is no longer hot, add 1 cup of honey and stir well.
  4. When honey is well mixed into the elderberry mixture, pour the syrup into a pint sized mason jar or 16 ounce glass bottle of some kind.
  5. Ta Da! You just made homemade elderberry syrup! Store in the fridge and take daily for its immune boosting properties. Some sources recommend taking only during the week and not on the weekends to boost immunity.
  6. Standard dose is ½ tsp to 1 tsp for kids and ½ Tbsp to 1 Tbsp for adults. If the flu does strike, take the normal dose every 2-3 hours instead of once a day until symptoms disappear.

Recipe from Wellness Mama.

So our secret weapon during our 14-day trip was 2 small bottles of Elderberry Syrup. I was worried it wouldn’t keep well while we were on the road, but the raw honey in the recipe did a great job of preserving the syrup. We made sure to pop the bottles into a refrigerator whenever we were able.

When we felt off the weather (and that happened 4-5 times during that 2 weeks – we’d get sore throats) we’d take generous gulps of the syrup. You cannot overdose on this stuff. If you want to prevent illness you can take 1/2-1 Tbsp per day. If flu does strike you can take 1 Tbsp every 2-3 hours until symptoms disappear. We just gulped the stuff.

So that’s it! Simple, huh?

Other Tips for Staying Healthy

  • Stay hydrated. Always have a bottle of water with you.
  • Try to eat healthy – add vegetables/fruits to your meals, limit sugar intake, avoid sweet drinks and fatty foods
  • Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep every night (but I know that’s hard when traveling)
  • Travel light so you don’t tax yourself lugging luggage

Have you tried Elderberry Syrup? Do you have a secret weapon for warding off illness while traveling? Isn’t Karl the cutest kitty ever?

Why Florence, Italy is a Must-Visit (Europe 3/14)

View of the Arno River from the Ponte Vecchio bridge.

If I had to choose only one Italian city to go back to in my lifetime, I have my answer in 0.0001 seconds flat: Florence.

Firenze, Italia, home of Renaissance art and architecture, the best views (from the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio), best gelato (I think so) and easiest transportation system (your feet.)

It’s funny. I’d never heard of Florence until my sister plonked it to into travel itinerary. I’ve always been more of an Anglophile, but my sister, who studies Architecture, studied the Brunelleschi’s dome and wanted to see it.

In one day, Florence stole my heart.

Arrival

Our Airbnb was delightfully close to the train station – a whopping 5 minute walk! Our host was lovely –  a Florence musician who didn’t balk at helping two struggling girls with their overweight luggage.

Duomo

florence duomoA Renaissance masterpiece. The marble, contrasting black lines, and geometric features seem awfully futuristic to me. Maybe it’s just me.

Now I have a very important piece of advice.

Ready?

Climb the Duomo.

I said it. Climb the 463 steps for 2 hours and get to the top.

However, ignore this if you’re claustrophobic or afraid of heights. The walkways/staircases are narrow, and it’s really high up.

I am by no means in shape. I start panting walking in the parking lot if there is so much of a 5 degree slope. Stairs are the bane of my life. So my conversation with my sister went a little like this:

Me: “463 steps?! Ha-ha. Pass!”

My sister: “You have to climb the Duomo when you come to Florence!!”

Since she was in charge of the Italy itinerary, I had no choice but get ready for the workout of my life.

Handy markers along the snaking line informed us the wait was going to be 1.5 hours. In preparation, I dashed back to our Airbnb, unloaded my backpack, bought tickets, and rushed back just in time.

Then we started the climb!!

Starting the climb felt something like being pushed onto a Six Flags rollercoaster ride. My heart rate quickened, my palms sweated, and I felt like I was climbing towards my doom.

I was overreacting, as usual. Turns out the climb was separated into several stops, so despite my dreadful stamina, so I survived. And you will too!

Halfway up the Duomo we were rewarded with a view of the dome’s interior ceiling:

To give you an idea of what the stairways look like, here is a photo of me climbing, and the final stairway up to the surface:

climbing-duomo

After 20-30 minutes of climbing, we finally reached the top, huffing and puffing, to claim the ultimate prize:

florence duomo viewflorence-4

It was so beautiful, we spent a good half hour at the top despite the sun’s merciless beating. We had a great time taking way too many pictures and admiring the view. We were lucky to be in Florence on such a beautiful day. Early September is a good time to come!

If you have more energy to burn, your Duomo ticket also allows access to the adjacent clock tower. I also recommend this, because then you can take this iconic photo of the Duomo that graces almost every guidebook:

florence

See that white tip at the top of the dome? That’s where you will be at the top of the Duomo. Photo credits to my sister, because I was wiped out and couldn’t get past the first long flight of stairs up the clock tower. I wish I did; my sister said it wasn’t much of a climb past the first flight.

Gosh those mountains.

At the top you will find this graffitied bell:

Climb the clock tower! It’s worth it.

Graffiti is an issue in Italy, though it seemed less so in Florence. An iPad sits in the middle of the clock tower with an app that you can doodle on and “leave your mark” with. Be responsible tourists. Don’t vandalize!

Accademia – Statue of David

After 2-week’s worth of exercise, we trekked over to the Accademia to admire the famous statue of David.

David, aka Renaissance Man, was carved from a single block of marble by Michelangelo. No one knew what to do with the block of marble, but they wanted to make something from it. Thank goodness for Michelangelo, or David might still be hidden in a block of marble.

His back is just as beautiful as his front.

I never thought I’d have my breath taken away by a statue. We rounded the corner and were greeted by the a soaring ceiling, intricate columns and of course, David.

I couldn’t believe how perfect he was.

Stand in awe for a bit. Soak in in. You are staring at the world’s most beautiful statue.

The Accademia itself is impeccably beautiful; the perfect housing for such a perfect statue. In the corner, you will find a small exhibition area with casts of other sculptures.

Fun fact about Florence: expect to see parts of David’s anatomy all over the city.

statue of david

David is everywhere, and people love it!

Uffizi Gallery

Another delightful thing about Florence: talented street artists converge around tourist hotspots such as the Duomo and Uffizi Gallery. Each artist has their own style, and they’re usually painting live. I splurged and sank €25 on a hand-painted watercolor piece. No regrets!

Next on the itinerary was world-famous Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s top art museums.

uffizi galleryThe world-renowned Uffizi Gallery spans art history from ancient Greek sculpture to Renaissance art to 18th-century Venetian paintings. There is plenty here to impress even if you’re not artsy-fartsy.

The Uffizi Gallery houses many famous paintings like the Birth of Venus or Spring, but because I like to go against the grain, my favorite painting was neither of those. Instead, it was this one:

BOTTICELLI, Alessandro Filipepi detto (Firenze, 1445-1510)

Calumny of Apelles, 1494-1495 c.
This work is inspired by the famous painting of Apelles described by greek writer Lucian. The scene illustrates King Midas on the right, being badly advised by Suspicion and Ignorance, Anger portrayed as a hooded man with beard, Calumny with a torch that fascinates the slandered, Fraud with Peril behind her, Penitence as an old woman in ragged clothing who observes nude Truth with her eyes raised to heaven. Restored in 2003.

I love how it tells a story.

After a few hours of art appreciation, you may find the cafe on the roof enticing. If you need to use the bathroom, you’re in luck – the gallery has by far the cleanest, most beautiful bathrooms in Italy:

It was so wonderful that I had to photograph it.

Tickets: We got lucky and there was no line to enter. It was late August, a Thursday, and we arrived at around 3-4pm. However lines can get crazy (according to Lonely Planet it can be up to 4 hours), so it would be wise to reserve tickets beforehand.

Arno River/Ponte Vecchio

Time for a stroll along the Arno River towards the Ponte Vecchio. From this point it was free-and-easy and we simply soaked in the lovely, relaxed Florence atmosphere.

Prepare to be greeted by phenomenal views of the Arno River, the mountains beyond, and the gorgeous houses along it:

The Ponte Vecchio - the world's oldest bridge
The Ponte Vecchio – the world’s oldest bridge

Behold: the Ponte Vecchio. Built in 1345, it was the only bridge in Florence saved from destruction in World War II. Thank goodness, because it’s beautiful and offers phenomenal views!

Fun fact: only jewelers are allowed to set up shop on the Ponte Vecchio. It’s not because the people owning the bridge are snooty. You see, in the 16th Century, town butchers were tossing yucky leftovers into the river. Ferdinando I de’ Medici got sick of it, and so ordered jewelers onto the bridge to replace them. Since then, only jewelers have graced the bridge.

I  envy the shop staff. They get to see this every day:

I don’t know if anyone can get sick of this view. Does that not take your breath away?

It was so beautiful we hung out on the bridge for a good hour. Yup. We parked ourselves by the wall taking too many pictures again and watched the sunset. As the sun went night-night, street musician came out to play. And they were glorious. My sister and I stood perfectly content as the cool summer breeze caressed our faces and soothing Italian music wafted around us.

Florence is thriving with excellent street musicians

It was completely dark when we finally left. Summer is the perfect time to visit Florence because you can stay out late without freezing your butt off. And you want to stay out late in Florence. Ponte Vecchio is breathtaking at sunset.

Florence by night (and my sister)

We wandered aimlessly again and came to this cute piazza, complete with more street musicians, a shopping complex, and a classic merry-go-round. Right out of a dream!

florence

Overview
florence-food

  • Main Mode of Transport: Foot (the best!)
  • Highlight of the Day: Ponte Vecchio at sunset
  • Food: Cannoli, the BEST Gelato in Italy, sandwich from All’antico Vinaio, Boba (yup, Boba in Florence)
  • Accommodation: Airbnb

Future To-do List: Visit the Boboli Gardens, as well as the Galileo Science Museum.

We enjoyed Florence so much, and we both agreed Florence was one of our top destinations of our 2-week Europe trip. If you’re visiting Italy, take care not to miss Florence.

I will be back, Florence. Till we meet again.

What was your experience in Florence like? 

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This post is part of a whirlwind 14-day trip in Western Europe with my sister prior to her exchange programme in Glasgow, Scotland. Thank you for a trip of a lifetime!! (And here’s to many more!!)

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links; at no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you make a purchase. If you would like to support this blog, please consider using these links!

3 Instances of Italian Humor

The Italians have a healthy sense of humor.

Although my sister and I didn’t interact with the locals much since we knew minimal Italian, but the graffiti we saw in the city was proof enough. We enjoyed pointing out funny art pieces and chuckling to ourselves.

  1. Uniconno!!

We saw this graffiti series at the the Ostia Antica train station. I don’t know if it was all done by the same person, but I like this story.

2. Fridge Magnets

Just one of the lovely fridge magnets found at every Italian souvenir store. David’s body parts were everywhere. Everyone loves it.

3. Stop Signs

“Oh the horror! I’m being towed!!” – A creative road sign found outside Ostia Antica.

I will be adding more to this list as I edit our 16GB of Europe photos. 😉

Do you have your own examples of Italian humor? Please share your photos; I’d love to see them! 🙂

Photo Log: Ancient Rome – Ostia Antica

Ostia AnticaWelcome to Rome Day 2 – Ostia Antica! I’m super excited because I will be writing about my favorite place in Rome. (If you haven’t read about Day 1, where we visit Vatican City and Trevi Fountain, you can find it here, or Part 1 of Day Two here, where we visit Colosseum, Roman Forum and the Pantheon.)

Are you a history geek? Do you love ancient sites? What about a tranquil park with minimal crowds? If your answer is yes to any of those questions, you’ll love Ostia.

To be honest, I would not have heard about Ostia if our packed itinerary didn’t allow time to visit Pompeii. My sister heard about an alternative to Pompeii that was close to Rome, so we did some research, and there you went! Ostia was perfect.

Getting There

Getting there is easy – a simple 45-min metro/train ride from central Rome to Ostia. Take Metro line B to Piramide (15 mins), exit the Metro, and follow signs to Lido – continue to the Roma-Lido train station. All trains depart every 15 minutes and stop at Ostia Antica (30 mins). Leave the station and walk over the skybridge; after that just head straight and you’ll find the parking lot and entrance. Better still, use Google Maps to guide you,which I did.

The Roman countryside is a far cry from central Rome. It was tranquil, serene, and the pace of life slowed down quite a few notiches. Listen closely and you can hear bird song. A much-welcomed break from the constant hustle of Rome.

The moment we arrived at the train station, we knew we were in the Roman countryside. The air was fresher, there wasn’t the constant whirr of car engines, and there was a lot of open, green space. Also, some funky-looking flowers that look like they might chomp my finger off.

Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica was a thriving ancient Roman port town. It offered the complete Roman experience: baths, shopping arcades, apartments, and public bathrooms with plumbing.

Armed with my Rick Steves Rome guidebook (there is a dedicated section for Ostia Antica), we entered the ancient ruins…

Ostia Antica

You start your journey at the Necropolis. Yeah, it’s what it sounds. Cool, huh? An ancient cemetery!

Ostia Antica

Then you’ll pass the Warehouses, where they stored wares, horses etc. Walk further and you’ll reach the Baths of Neptune, Theater, Guilds, Shopping Arcades, an actual ancient cafe, and a Museum.

Ostia Antica

You can also find ancient public bathrooms. Water flowed through and flushed waste away. Such was the genius of ancient Romans. The seats are made from real marble!

Ostia Antica

Look for an actual ancient cafe, complete with a small patio for al fresco dining!

Ostia Antica

Photography at Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica is a mecca for photography enthusiasts. The ancient history of the site lends itself to some dramatic photos.

Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica was a dream for the photography geek in me. So much ambience! So much mystic!!

It was amazing how well the ruins were preserved. The Roman government did a great job. I can’t wait to return with my DSLR.

Cats at Ostia Antica

There was a little cafe at the far end of Ostia Antica, where several stray cats hung out. The cafe was closed when we got there, but being crazy cat ladies, of course we had to check the kitties out…

The museum was closed when we got to it, which gives us extra reason to come back soon. I will be back, Ostia.

Ostia Antica

On our way back to central Rome, we got a glimpse of Roman traffic. Let’s just say I’m never hopping behind the wheel in Rome.

I hope you enjoyed the photos. I didn’t bring my clunky DSLR – we used our iPhones – but I definitely will next time.

Next up: Florence, Italy. Home to the Renaissance and SO MUCH BEAUTY. Another one of my favorites.

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This post is part of a whirlwind 14-day trip in Western Europe with my sister prior to her exchange programme in Glasgow, Scotland. Thank you for a trip of a lifetime!! (And here’s to many more!!)

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links; at no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you make a purchase. If you would like to support this blog, please consider using these links!

Photo Log: 4 Ancient Roman Sites in 1 Day

Welcome to Rome Day 2! On our second day in the Eternal City we visited the Ancient Core, which includes the Colosseum, Palatine Gardens, Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and then took a day trip to my personal favorite, Ostia Antica. Yup, it’s Ancient Rome day! I’m splitting Day 2 into two posts because it would be too long otherwise. To read about Ostia Antica, go here.

Colosseum

Rome ColosseumWe used our Roma Pass to skip the ticket lines and enter. The Roma Pass includes unlimited public transport and 1 attraction. Since the Colosseum + Palatine Hill + Roman Forum are bundled to count as 1, it’s really a 3-in-1 deal! The Roma Pass can be purchased at the Tourist Information at Fumicino International Airport – it’s on the way out and easy to find.

Watch out for people dressed as gladiators offering a photo-op. They will demand a tip. My sister’s boyfriend was scammed (on a separate trip) and paid dearly for it. Also watch out for pickpockets.

colosseum

Here you can see the underground passages where they kept slaves and animals.

It’s fascinating to think that the Colosseum is 2,000 years old, and where the bloodiest, goriest gladiator games played out. It’s really something to stand on a structure that was built thousands of years ago. It’s even better to think it was home to a brutal, violent, ancient sport.

As a bonus, there is an informative exhibition area leading up the Colosseum that tells about the history of the ancient ruins, including what ancient Romans ate while watching the sport (they must’ve had really strong stomachs), ancient tools, and excavated bones.

Palatine Hill

Palatine HillThe Colosseum is only a short walk away from the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forums, all included under the same entry ticket as the Colosseum. Frightfully convenient. Just scan your Roma pass at the start of the entrance line. Simple! Be careful not to leave without visiting both the Palatine Hill and Roman Forums – the combo ticket does not cover re-entry.

Once a Roman palace, the Palatine Hill was beautiful. You’ll find remains of the ancient palace, an ancient stadium, and a charming little Museum.

Palatine HillThe stadium was impressive. I think it was being used as an actual stadium, because there was sports equipment at the borders, and a random word.

Colorful flags were set up, helping to add a pop of color to the ancient palace.

Palatine Hill

It started pouring while we were exploring (bring an umbrella and/or a poncho!), so we sought shelter in the museum for a little bit along with a bunch of other tourists.

Yeah, turned out it also got pretty cold. Dressed only in T-shirts and shorts, we ran to the Roman Forum and sought shelter under this large structure, along with many others. There was a metal fence going around it, but people gotta stay dry.

Funny, embarrassing story time!

When leaving the shelter, coordinated as I am, I tripped on the metal fence surrounding it, sprawled face-first for the soaked gravel ground and went SPLASH! in a puddle.

My right hand broke my fall, and it bruised terribly and ached for days afterwards. It didn’t bruise as badly as my dignity, though.

My sister took pity on me and bought a bright orange poncho for 5 Euros from a brilliant entrepreneur. It was raining and people were stranded at the grounds, so he ran to and fro armed with ponchos to sell. (Who knows where he got them from? It was genius!)

Heed my warning: come to Rome armed with an umbrella and a good windbreaker. And don’t try to hop through fences. It doesn’t work.

Roman Forum

Roman ForumWarm and snuggly in my bright orange poncho, we ventured into the drizzle and cold winds and explored the Roman Forum. Rick Steves offers an awesome guided tour of Roman Forum, with histories of the Arch of Titus, House of the Vestal Virgins, and the Temple of Julius Caesar, to name a few.

The white arch on the right is the Arch of Septimus Severus, a triumphal arch dedicated in AD 203 to commemorate the Parthian victories of Emperor Septimius Severus.

The Roman Forum was once Ancient Rome’s birthplace and center. Someone needs to develop an app that juxtapositions images of what the ruins used to look like in its glory days. I want to hold up my iPhones and see the Roman Forum in its full splendor. Pretty please?

My sister and Temple of Antoninus Pius, a Roman emperor

The rain eased up and thankfully it got warmer as we made our way to the Pantheon (~ 20 minute walk). Along the way we shared a quick lunch – a panini with ham, cheese, mushrooms and marinara. Cheap and good eats are abundant in Rome!

Rome food
Yummm.

Pantheon

Pantheon RomeIt’s hard to believe this was built two millenia ago because it looks brand new. A Roman temple dedicated to all (pan) of the gods (theos), it was originally built in 27 B.C. by Marcus Agrippa, and then rebuilt by emperor Hadrian around A.D 120. It was converted into a Christian church, which preserved it through the Dark Ages.

The dome served as the model for Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence, and then Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s, both prominent Renaissance features. Roman engineers knew their stuff.

This is a must-see. Free entry to all!

Pantheon Rome

Like the Trevi Fountain, it lies smack in the middle of the city. Google Maps comes in handy for those who cannot read maps (like me.)

That marks the end of this post, but that is not the end for my post on Ancient Rome, nor is it the end of Rome Day 2! Go here to continue onto my feature post of Ostia Antica! (I liked the ancient park so much, I gave it a post all to itself.)

Liked this post? Pin it!

This post is part of a whirlwind 14-day trip in Western Europe with my sister prior to her exchange programme in Glasgow, Scotland. Thank you for a trip of a lifetime!! (And here’s to many more!!)

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links; at no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you make a purchase. If you would like to support this blog, please consider using these links!

11 Tips for Surviving Rome

I enjoyed Rome. But for a first-timer, Rome can be quite daunting. It’s oozing with history and culture, but it’s also a city of graffiti, pickpockets, and dark alleyways.

I was not kidding about the graffiti.
I was not kidding about the graffiti.

Being two little Asian girls, my sister and I kept our guard up at all times. Our BnB was located in Cipro. It was 5 minutes away from the metro but the streets were dimly lit and the walls graffitied; a stark contrast from Singapore and Orange County. We might have been paranoid. But it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Here are some tips to have the easiest trip to Rome.

Tip #1: Buy the Roma Pass.

If you’re staying more than 2 nights in Rome, consider getting a Roma Pass.

They have 48-hour and 72-hour options. Both provide unlimited rides on metro, tram and buses within Rome, as well as 1 or 2 museum/archaeological site admission. The Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Gardens all count as 1 attraction, so that’s a great deal.

The convenience of not having to worry about buying a metro ticket whenever you hop on public transit is well worth it.

Tip #2: Buy a TIM SIM card with 3G.

As someone hopeless with maps, I relied heavily on 3G to navigate with Google Maps. Google Maps told me which metro station to walk to, which metro station to disembark, and how to walk to the site from the metro station. It was a godsend.

One of Italy’s top Telco providers, TIM provided great 3G connection. TIM stores are everywhere. There is one at the International Airport, one at the Roma Termini (central train station), and several others scattered all over. To save money, we bought only one and used a hot spot to share the data.

Tip #3: Have the Telco store staff switch out SIM cards for you, activate it, and then ask for a switching tool (or bring one).

If the shop doesn’t have a tool they can give you, ask if they have a paper clip. The TIM store staff made one out of a paper clip for us. Ingenious! (If you have to make one yourself, bend the paper clip and cut off any wrapping material. Tada! iPhone pokey thing.) You’ll need it for when you go home/ visit another country.

Tip #4: Bring a portable phone charger.

Between taking photos, navigating, and researching the web for information, you’re going to need it. My sister brought a portable charger that held multiple charges, so we were never afraid of running out. I recommend this charger from Amazon.

Tip #5: Learn basic Italian phrases.

The Italians appreciate it. We should’ve known better. Except we didn’t. We arrived in Rome without the teeniest knowledge of Italian. (Sorry.) Learn some basic phrases, such as:

  • Grazie – Thank you
  • Prego – You’re welcome (Italians say this a lot. I’ve found it is sometimes used interchangably as “Good” or “Please” or “Welcome…”)
  • Per favore – Please
  • Si – Yes
  • No – No
  • Mi Scusi – Excuse me
  • Any food items so you’re not completely stumped by menus

Italians in the tourist industry do speak some English though, so if you’re only in Italy for a few days the basic phrases should serve you well.

Tip #6: Wear comfy shoes!

This might be a no-brainer, but you will be doing a lot of walking in Rome. Have you tried walking on cobblestones in heels? I haven’t, but since my feet ache after hours of walking in tennis shoes, I can’t imagine heels would be better!

Tip #7: Pick a hotel or BnB in a central area.

This way you avoid having to walk through dark alleyways. I loved our room in the BnB, but I did not love the neighborhood. I’ll pick a place more central in the future.

Tip #8: Buy all admission tickets before departure if possible.

The lines to the most popular attractions are loooong. We followed the advice of Rick Steves and bought our tickets to Vatican Museum way before we boarded the plane. There were many people who didn’t and ended up having to wait in line under the blistering sun. You have too little time to be standing in line. So if an attraction offers online ticket booking, book it!

Tip #9: If visiting in summer, do not wear jeans.

It is hot as heck, humid like a sauna, and your legs will not be happy. However, certain religious sites do enforce a dress code that prohibits shorts, skirts over the knees, or bare shoulders. Wear loose-fitting pants, a long airy skirt, or bring a scarf that you can wrap around your legs or shoulders. Anything is better than skinny jeans that chafe your skin.

Tip #10: Be careful of street vendors.

There will always be several street vendors touting flowers and trinkets at major tourist spots. Most are nice. There are pushier ones, though, who will shove roses into your hands, tell you it’s for good luck, then hold out a hand and say, “Tip?” One vendor tried that with us, and when we denied his “tip”, he rolled his eyes and snatched the flower back, leaving my hand cold and empty. How quickly his attitude turned! (This happened to us at Trevi Fountain.)

I have also read of cases where street vendors distract you while their partner-in-crime pickpockets you. Alternatively, someone may ask you to sign a petition, distract you, and pickpocket you. Steer clear of them.

Tip #11: Pack light.

I cannot stress this enough. Rome is: cobblestone streets, metro stations with stairs only, and a whole ton of walking. And if you’re taking a train to multiple cities, you’ll need to hoist your luggage up narrow stairs.

Lugging 2 large backpacks and 2 large suitcases (each weighing 25kg = 50lbs) with skinny Asian arms was not fun. Whenever a futile search for an elevator reaped no results, I would groan in defeat and wait for my sister to lug her own luggage up/down the stairs and then come up to help me with mine. Towards the end of the trip we caught on and started carrying the luggages together – I would grab the top handle and she would grab the side handle.

Seriously. Don’t do this to yourself. Pack light.

Conclusion

Our London tour guide said people either love or hate Rome. While I was there I couldn’t help but think, “I wish I was in the U.K.” But thinking back, Rome was beautiful amidst the chaos, and if I’d been better prepared, I would’ve had a better time.

Needless to say I intend on returning. There are so many things I haven’t seen or done! And, y’know, Ostia Antica beckons.

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Photo Log: Rome, Vatican Museums and Trevi Fountain

Roma, Italia. The ancient, magical city of  history and architecture. If you are an ancient history geek (like me) Rome will fascinate. It is well-worth the insanity, sticky summer heat and lurking pickpockets.

My favorite place in Rome – the Trevi Fountain!

Itinerary:

DAY 1: Vatican City Museums, St Peter’s Basilica, Trevi Fountain 

DAY 2:  Colosseum, Palatine Gardens, Roman Forum, Ostia Antica

Time Spent in Rome: 3 days, 2 nights

Arriving in Rome

Summer = humidity. It’s like walking in a mild sauna. Being born and raised in a tropical country, I loved it. What I didn’t love was my jeans. So wear shorts (and bring a thin scarf to wrap around your legs for buildings with dress codes). You have been warned!

Our B&B was comfortable, had an adorable tiny elevator with two doors, and most importantly, was air-conditioned. Located in the Roman suburb of Cipro, it was a short metro ride to the center.

Vatican Museums

Behold, the Musei Vaticani. The history was so rich you could practically feel it radiating from those walls.

Armed with our pre-bought tickets, we entered the Museums in a jiffy. I highly recommend pre-booking tickets. There was a long line of tourists waiting to buy tickets, standing in the hot sun! Don’t waste your precious time in Rome waiting in line.

We saw the best Greek and Roman statues, the School of Athens, and the Sistine Chapel, which is the pope’s personal chapel, and where new popes are elected. No photography was allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Some tourists pretended not to see the signs, so the low murmurs in the Sistine Chapel were punctuated by the official’s insistence of “No photos!!”

Vatican City

Personal anecdote: I was a walking zombie the first half of our exploration because I barely got any sleep on the plane. I held onto my sister’s shoulder because my knees were buckling! Then I got espresso. Thank goodness for the magic of caffeine.

St Peters Basilica

We took a shortcut from the Sistine Chapel to St Peters Basilica. (Psst… it’s in the far right end corner of the chapel. Kudos to Rick Steves, who writes awesome travel guides. The entrance is technically for tour groups, but try to blend in and act like you’re part of a tour group. It saves 30 minutes of walking.)

No shorts, above-the-knee skirts, or bare shoulders are allowed at St Peters Basilica, and other religious sites in Italy. Girls wear a top that covers your shoulders (like a tee-shirt), and airy pants or a long skirt. I wore jeans, and in the heat and humidity they almost killed me. You can also wear shorts and bring a scarf that you can wrap around yourself to pass dress code. Guys – pants that go below the knee work just fine.

Inside St. Peter’s Basilica there are plaques on the floor showing you where other churches end up if placed inside. Entry is free, but there is additional cost if you want to climb to the top of the dome or visit St. Peter’s original grave with the Scavi (excavations) tour. We skipped it because we were short on time; maybe next time!

Please don't let my weird expression distract from the beauty that is St Peter's Basilica.
Please don’t let my weird expression distract from St Peter’s Basilica.

St Peter's Basilica Square
St Peter’s Basilica Square

Trevi Fountain

Next, good ol’ Google Maps led the way to Trevi Fountain. (If you cannot read maps to save your life, like me, then I highly recommend getting a 4G SIM card so you can use Google Maps.)

It was only while processing this photo that I noticed one of the diners giving us a thumbs-up. Gotta love the Italians!

Roman diner giving us a thumbs-up

Rome at evening time is very enjoyable. The heat is dissipating and a cool breeze wafts through the streets. We had a great time meandering along the cobblestone streets (don’t wear heels) as Romans stroll by dressed to the nines, chattering away in Italian, their well-behaved little dogs in tow.

We passed a ton of touristy shops selling the same souvenirs over and over, including brilliant magnets like these:

Trevi Fountain is tucked away in the middle of a bustling city. I’ve always had the impression from the Lizzie McGuire Movie that it was in a space of its own. But before you know it, you’ll spill out from the narrow streets into a wide courtyard and find yourself gaping at the grandeur that is the Trevi Fountain. In fashion of good ‘ol Loki in Thor: TA-DAAAH!

Baroque architecture smack in the middle of a modern city.
Baroque architecture smack in the middle of a modern city.

The larger-than-life Trevi Fountain will take your breath away. This Baroque work of art celebrates water, first brought into Rome via ancient aqueducts. Read this site for a detailed description of the statues and history behind it. Did you know it features 30 species of plants?

We followed the age-old tradition of tossing a coin into the fountain. This means we’re definitely returning to Rome! Yay!!

Don’t let the crowds daunt you. It took us ages to squeeze through and get to the fountain so we could toss in a Euro, but it was well worth it. Worth it!!

Vendors were tossing light-up helicopter toys into the air and the toys would copter down to the ground. Be careful of pushier vendors, who will shove roses into your hands, tell you it’s for good luck, then hold out a hand and say, “Tip?” One vendor tried that with us, and when I denied his “tip”, he rolled his eyes and snatched the flower back, leaving my poor hand cold and empty. How quickly his attitude turned!

Don’t miss the Spanish Steps, only a 5 minute walk from Trevi Fountain. The Piazza di Spagna has been the hangout of Romantics over the years. We didn’t get to climb the 138 steps though; they were blocked off when we got there.

I wish we had the budget to sit down at one of the al fresco restaurants and order something off the menu. We settled for fresh-made pasta at Pastaficio instead, something my sister found in a Lonely Planet guidebook. It was empty when we got there (8-9pm?), but according to Yelp there’re usually lines far out the door. The pasta was chewy and a little cold; probably because they were closing soon. It was still good though, and lasted us at least 2 meals each!

4 Euros for 3-4 servings - great deal!
Pastaficio Marinara – 4 Euros for 3-4 servings – great deal!

We ended the long day with a little bit of grocery shopping at a supermarket by our B&B in Cipro. Oh and btw, Italians love sweet stuff. (This was confirmed by our Airbnb host in Milan. She admits all Italian breakfasts are sweet.) When in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? So we stocked up on yogurt drinks and fruits. I’m still hunting for the delicious Italian pear juice in US grocery stores. No luck so far.

That concludes Day 1 in Rome, Italy. We returned to our B&B exhausted, sticky, but happy.

Things We’ll Do Differently Next Time

  1. I will not wear jeans in the middle of summer in Italy.
  2. I will not accept roses from a stranger.
  3. Get a hotel/airbnb in central Rome because 2 little Asian girls walking through dark alleyways in Cipro gave me the heebie-jeebies.

I also wrote a post on Surviving Rome. Rome has so much to offer, but things can easily go wrong – make the best of it by preparing well! I talk about why you should get the Roma Pass, a TIM SIM card, and more!

Guidebooks

My go-to guidebooks were:

  • Rick Steves Italy – Full of insider information, tips on planning and avoiding lines. Good guided tours you can follow. Rick Steves prides himself as “the tour guide in your pocket.” I carried around his Rome guidebook because the Italy version so was big.
  • Lonely Planet Italy – Very helpful for first-time visitors as they show you the highlights of each destination. Helpful tips on keeping costs down,  beautiful pictures and layout. They also publish a Rome version.

If you’re on a budget, you can borrow guidebooks from the library. I borrowed mine – libraries are the best resource ever! My libraries allow us to borrow dozens of books for months (we can renew 5 times.) Love it!

Use the guidebooks to plan your trip. However, if you are hopping from city to city, I do not recommend bringing guidebooks. It is very important to pack light. Halfway through the trip, as I was getting short on luggage space, I whole-heartedly wished I could leave the guidebooks at our Airbnbs. But I couldn’t abandon them, because, y’know, they were library books.

Overview

  • Main Mode of Transport: Metro (with Roma Pass), Foot
  • Highlight of the Day: Trevi Fountain
  • Food: Pastaficio, Melon and Chocolate Gelato (omg I love Melon Gelato), groceries, Espresso from cafe in Vatican Museums
  • Accommodation: Bed & Breakfast in Cipro.

Next: the Colosseum, Palatine Gardens, Roman Forums, and my Roman favorite: Ostia Antica! Onward, march!

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This post is part of a whirlwind 14-day trip in Western Europe with my sister prior to her exchange programme in Glasgow, Scotland. Thank you for a trip of a lifetime!! (And here’s to many more!!)

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Welcome my personal blog! I'm an INFP Singaporean girl living in sunny California! I am mother of 3 furkids, unapologetic nerd/geek, and a city girl married to a country boy. Read more about me here. I love writing . cats . FOOD . photography . travelling . stationery . japanese merchandise! I love lots of things... this isn't a complete list!

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