Exploring the Riviera Maya: Andaz Mayakoba, Mexico

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The Cenote-inspired lobby of the Andaz Mayakoba

I recently spent a few days at the brand new Andaz Mayakoba just north of Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The chic beach resort, located within the Mayakoba Eco-Resort, opened in December 2016.

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Birds of Paradise in the Andaz Mayakoba Lobby

Located about 45 minutes from the Cancun International Airport (CUN), It’s the just the sort of spot on Mexico’s Riviera Maya that appeals to luxury travelers who want the golden sand of Caribbean beaches without the spring break vibe of a mega resort.

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One of the three pools at the Andaz Mayakoba

I was suprised to find that Cancun was only 4 1/2 hours from Los Angeles by plane, and my flight had tail winds and landed thirty minutes early. The user-friendly nature of Mayakoba makes the resort geographically desirable from both US coasts, since Miami is only 90 minutes away by plane.

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Colorful octopus mural by Senkoeat the Andaz Mayakoba

I was amazed by how well-oiled the resort Andaz Mayakoba ran after being open less than a month. The service was surprisingly seemless. We were the first guests to occupy our suite. The only “tell” I could find of the property’s newness was trying to find out how to adjust the fan in my suite’s bedroom. Matainance showed up and we figured it out together in less than a minute.

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Fun floaty toys at the Andaz Mayakoba

All the construction on the property was finished and there are a few murals that were not yet complete, but that also allowed guests to have a chance to spot Playa del Carmen-based street artist Senkoe on the property.

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Left: Pool side at the Andaz Mayakoba Right: Colorful patio furniture on the suite’s patio

Keeping with the clean, contemporary, and cool vibe of the Andaz brand, the Andaz Mayakoba also has some cool Mexican touches. There are some local snacks in the complementary mini-bar.

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The Mayakoba Resort is technically located in Playa del Carmen, but it’s a destination unto itself. Mayakoba features luxury hotels from Fairmont, Banyan Tree, and Rosewood and now the Andaz. It’s less than 15 minutes to the main drag of Playa del Carmen, but you won’t want for anything if you never leave the resort.

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Rainbow in paradise at Mayakoba 

Mayakoba also has a Greg Norman-designed golf course, El Camaleón, a tennis center, and a nature trail and bike path that connects all the individual hotel properties. This helps the resort feel big but not overwhelming. It’s not a mega-resort and it’s low profile makes it feel more connected to lush mangrove jungles and Mexican landscape.

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Ferry service at the Andaz Mayakoba Resort

There is even a ferry service connecting all the properties, making it easy for guests to stay at one property and dine at another. Complimentary bikes are available for guests to cruise from the Andaz to the any of the other Mayakoba properties. There is even a cenote, or water-filled sink hole, right on the Mayakoba property.

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Guest rooms at the Andaz Mayakoba

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In-room tequila set up at the Andaz Mayakoba

The rooms at the Andaz are contemporary Mexican chic with lots of light and colorful accents. Each building of the resort boast colorful bird murals painted by Senkoe.

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Interior of a bedroom at the Andaz Mayakoba

Our suite was spacious with a huge bedroom, walk in closet, bathroom, living room, two balconies and plunge pool.

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Mayan whimsical touches in the interior of the Andaz Mayakoba

I really like the laid back luxury of the Andaz brand. Service is top notch but not intrusive. The staff at the Andaz Mayakoba is very friendly. Jorge, who was in charge of taking care of us at the property, introduced himself to me as “your new best friend.”

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Another view of the Andaz suite living room

The Andaz has 214 guest rooms, 41 of which are suites. It is a family-friendly resort and has a kids club called Kimbo that hosts a killer movie night under the stars that adults are known to crash.

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Set up for movie night at Kimbo, the Andaz Mayakoba’s kids club

With three pools and generous stretch of white-sand beach, the resort doesn’t feel cramped. Of course there is also bright and airy spa with outdoor rooms that I did not have time to visit during my brief stay at the property.

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Margarita with lemon at OllaTaco

There are four restaurants on the Andaz property, with my favorites being the seafood-centric OllaCeviche. I was also delighted to lear that OllaTaco serves tacos for breakfast on extremely cute Mexican wrestler plates.

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Patron tequila at OllaCeviche

OllaCeviche also has a nice cocktail menu featuring Mezcal and tequila-based cocktails. It’s patio boasts a nice view of the beach.

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Chilaquiles + Mexican wrestler plates = win

Two days was not enough time to stress test all three pools and the beach. I did make a point of taking the nature hike and cenote tour, which is offered daily. It’s a cool way to check out one of the natural limestone sink holes and learn about their lore without too much effort.

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Left: a spicy Mezcal cocktail at OllaCeviche Right: broiled lobster tail for lunch

After spending a few days at the property my husband told me that he could “stay here a week.” This is high praise coming from a notoriously fical guest who usually gets sick of every property’s food after three days.

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Portrait of Jorge, my new best friend at the Andaz Mayakoba

One thing I especially liked about the Andaz Mayakoba experience was that while it had all the bells and whistles one needs in a Mexican luxury beach resort, it wasn’t isolated. You can easily head to a different hotel for lunch or dinner without requiring a taxi.

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The chapel interior in El Pueblito

The resort has El Pueblito, a small traditionally inspired Mexican village, complete with a cooking school, a church, art gallery, and a coffee shop that Jorge told me had the best coffee in the area. He was right!
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Left: exterior of the Chapel Right: a statue in the Chapel

The chapel hosts a Catholic mass on Sundays that is attended by guests as well as employees.

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Dappled light in the Mayakoba cenote

Two days wasn’t enough to fully explore all the Andaz has to offer and I’m certain I’ll be back soon to check out that spa. Room rates start at about $450.

ANDAZ MAYAKOBA RESORT RIVIERA MAYA

Carretera Federal Cancun-Playa Del Carmen Km. 298

Playa del Carmen-Solidaridad, Quintana Roo, Mexico, 77710

Tel: +52 984 1491234

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Exploring the Riviera Maya: Tulum, Mexico

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Bohemian chic vibes at Be Tulum

Tulum, a small resort town on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, has been a much buzzed about destination for a while. It’s developed enough to have great food and some chic eco-resorts, but still intentionally off the grid and understated to keep the vibe low key.

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Gorgeous pool at Be Tulum

For those who want a dose of Mayan culture with their vacation, it’s even got the Tulum Ruins, right on the beach.

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Sandy white beach of Tulum

My husband and I recently visited Tulum for a  couple of days, and two nights wasn’t really enough to explore the area and chill out. Confession– I did not even get to explore the ruins on this trip. But I loved the area so much I’m planning a return visit as soon as possible.

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Bicycles are the preferred form of transport in Tulum

For luxury travelers like me, wifi access is a necessity and not a privilege and many of the resorts in Tulum are intentionally devoid of it. We chose to stay at Be Tulum, a luxury eco-resort that had strong wifi and great reviews.

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Interior of a suite at Be Tulum

While not a true business hotel, I was impressed that the wifi signal worked all the way to the white sand beach.

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Interior of a suite at Be tulum

Be Tulum also has next level margaritas, chic rooms, and a lovely beach with multiple daybeds. It’s not a business hotel so you won’t find a proper desk in your room, but if you can handle the distracting ocean views while checking email, it’s a lovely place to spend a few days.

Greetings from #Tulum is today's virtualvacay #Mexico

Sunhat in Tulum

Friends of mine have also spoken highly of the rustic chic Azulik and all-inclusive luxury resort Kore Resort Tulum, although I did not get a chance to check them out for myself.

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Morning walk on the beach in Tulum

My favorite places to visit are those with a vibe or spirit. Tulum definitely has a vibe. There is a effortlessly chic thing going on that is sort of hard to describe but easy to spot.

Cloudy morning time lapse from Tulum

Watching the sun rise one morning, I saw a lot of toned legs and dogs get walked on the beach. You can’t help but notice that there are a lot of beautiful people in Tulum. It’s a gorgeous spot where pretty people gather. I enjoyed people watching here and would like to spend a few more days doing that.

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Cloudy sunrise in Tulum

Located about an hour and forty five minutes by car from the Cancun airport, Tulum is fabulous destination on it’s own or combined with another spot on the Mayan Riviera. I split by time in Mexico between Mayakoba and Tulum.

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 Day beds on the beach

NOTE: I’ll cover my stay at the new Andaz Mayakoba in a future post.

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 Vacation vibes at Be Tulum

As relaxed as Tulum is, you still need reservations if you want to get dinner at some of the interesting restaurants. We got to Hartwood before 6 pm and did not manage to get a table.

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The chilled out bar at Be Tulum

According to the concierge at Be Tulum, Hartwood only take reservations by email and it usually takes a few days to get a response so if you wan to eat there be sure to book ahead.

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Shrimp tacos at Be Tulum

But there are plenty of good dining options in the area. Be Tulum’s restaurant had a great menu for breakfast and lunch, with the shrimp tacos being a standout item.

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Mezcal cocktail at Gitano

Foodie friends suggested Gitano. It’s a gorgeous space and has the prettiest cocktails in town.

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Basil guacamole with jicama at Gitano

Gitano’s menu of modern Mexican food, includes small plates with nice touches. Like the basil guacamole with jicama served with roasted corn tortillas. Their Sopa de Lima and ceviche were also delicious. 4v1c5961

Laid back romantic atmosphere at Gitano

Be sure to have cash on hand when going out to eat in Tulum. Many of the small restaurants only take cash. Both pesos and US dollars were accepted.

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Gitano exterior in Tulum

The food scene is getting more exciting in Mexico’s Mayan Riviera and I’m sure there are more small spots to check out in Tulum.

 

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Come with cash!

For those who can only spend an afternoon in Tulum, local institution Ziggy’s Beach Club  allows diners to use their sun loungers and amenities for $25 USD per person per day. Ziggy’s also has wifi.

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Magic hour in Tulum

Tulum is a place I look forward to getting to know better. I think I’m going to be coming back here soon.

Be Tulum

Address: Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila Km.10, Zona Hotelera, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico

Ziggy’s Beach Bar

Address: Carretera Tulum – Boca Paila Km 7,5, Zona Hotelera, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico

Gitano Tulum

Address: Beach Road Km. 7, Boca Paila, QRO, Mexico

reservations@gitanotulum.com

Hartwood

Address: Carretera Tulum Boca Paila 7.6Km, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico

open for dinner only, 6-11pm closed Monday and Tuesday

 

Exploring the Pacific Northwest: Portland and Seattle with High School Students

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UHS Faculty member Maggie Beckman hiking Portland’s Forest Park

I’ve long held the belief that travel is the best kind of education. So when my friend Wes Priest, an English teacher at University High School in Indiana, told me that he was bringing a group of students to the Pacific Northwest with his colleague, art teacher Tasha Barger, I agreed to join them and give a few photography tips.

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Wes and the JTerm students at the Witches Castle in Forest Park (photo credit: Maggie Beckman)

These 23 teenagers spent the first part of January studying the art, photography and literature of the Pacific Northwest with Wes, Tasha, and faculty member Maggie Beckman during their school’s January Term (J-Term). During J-Term, the students take a break from their normal studies to immerse themselves in a single subject that interests them. This interdisciplinary class culminated in a trip to Portland and Seattle.

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PDX snowpocalypse in Forest Park

I met up with the group in Portland, Oregon while the city was still pretty much shut down after experiencing the biggest snowstorm in 20 years. As a seasoned traveler, I know plans how often plans go awry and you need to embrace that. But I had no idea how a group of teenagers would handle it. Their upbeat attitudes and lack of complaints caught me off guard. It was refreshing. There really is nothing you can do about the weather and the students got to see Portland in a really unique way.

Time lapse of the students working on zines in Portland. What a cool class.

Spending time with this group taught me a lot of great things to do with teenagers in Portland. We hiked through snowy Forest Park to the Pittock Mansion to get a view of the city. We hit legendary Portland institutions including Powell’s City of Books and Voodoo Donuts.

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Hiking the Upper Macleay Trail in Forest Park

I learned donuts are very popular with high school students. Top Pot Donuts in Seattle was also on the week’s agenda. The students documented their trip with cameras and used photos and found items to create hand bound zines. It was fun to watch so many young creative minds get busy making art.

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Snoqualmie Falls

Spending the week with this group of students was both exhausting and inspiring. They appreciated both cities as well as the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest and they reminded me of what it is like to have a youthful perspective.

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Eating Ramen at Pine Market in Portland (photo credit: Wes Priest)

Eating Ramen at Pine Street Market was a big hit with this crew on a cold night in Portland.

Watching the students document their trip made me want to include some of their photos and impressions on this blog. Featured below are some images the UHS students shot on their trip to the PNW and their own captions.

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I took this photograph of my friends’ and my feet right before our hike at Twin Falls.”- Kathryn Papp

These students came prepared and learned the best way to handle the Pacific Northwest’s moody weather is by dressing correctly. Every one of these students was wearing appropriate footwear. It made for a cute photo opportunity and I was excited that one of the students captured it.

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Lily in Capitol Hill in front of graffiti- Erin Webb

The students wandered through Portland, checking out local record stores, thrift shops, and the Portland Art Museum.

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I took it because its kind of a perfect depiction of the Seattle vibe. Everyone and everything is accepted, except for lack of acceptance- Lily Hunter

The students broke up into groups and explored different neighborhoods in Seattle, which prides itself on being progressive and a Sanctuary City. I wasn’t surprised the teenagers loved Pike Place Market and my personal favorite, MoPop  (formerly known as the EMP).

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 Gorgeous water fall at Snoqualmie falls in Washington” – Kenzie Binford

Seattle’s weather cooperated with us and the group got to visit Snoqualmie Falls and went for a great hike in Twin Falls.

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 “A different perspective of a piece of wood art at Portland Art Museum”- Drej Cosby

It was my first visit to the Portland Art Museum and I thought it was both user friendly and a nice size. There was lots to see without it being too overwhelming.

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 “Meowtropolitan cat taking some time to chill”- Drej Cosby

Some of the students visited Seattle’s Meowtropolitan, a Japanese-style cat cafe. I’m allergic to cats but was interested in their take. They really enjoyed it, and seemed to think it was quite a bit of fun for the price point!

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 Red and Boji”- Maddie Compton

I was impressed by the student’s genuine appreciation for the post-modern architecture of the the Seattle Central Library. They made me remember just how cool the Rem Koolhas and Joshua Ramus-designed building is.

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 “The Seattle Room at the Seattle Public Library”- Elise Zaniker

Seattle’s Central Library is also a great location to take photographs and the kids got some eye catching shots.

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 The modern built Seattle Public Library is home to many of writers and artists that open a portal of literary bliss to anyone. I felt that this was a good representation of the modern architecture that houses the classic tales of our time.”- Serena Patel

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  “This was on the bus ride from Portland to Seattle. It was just a nice, quiet moment I wanted to capture.”-Kathryn Papp

The students impressed me with their keen interest in the Pacific Northwest, their manners and the general lack of drama. Travelers have always been de facto ambassadors, and this group certainly made University High School look good.

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This bridge that served as our entry point into Forest Park felt like a gateway or portal into another world. Once I crossed under this bridge, I felt like I was in an entirely different universe of snowy bliss. Almost like Narnia.”- Livi Nichols

Spending a week with these kids strengthened my belief that travel is great education. It forces you out of your comfort zone, makes you to think on your feet and switches up your perspective. It was fun being able to share the experience of exploring the Pacific Northwest with these students. Their enthusiasm and curiosity was contagious.

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  Michaela laughed as she hoisted herself up to get a better view of Elliott Bay. It was our first day in Seattle and the rain and fog only added to our ‘authentic’ Seattle experience.“- Livi Nichols

I did not just learn from the students. Wes, Tasha, and Maggie are passionate educators who are dedicated to helping young minds develop. They worked hard to plan this trip and make it a positive experience for all involved. I hope these students know how lucky they are to have such fantastic and accessible teachers.

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“It was really spiritual and one of the best moments of my life because everybody was helping everybody else. People were cold and tired, but everybody stayed positive and struggled together to get the best feeling once we hit the very top.”- Eli DeBrota

The whole J-Term concept is a really cool idea. Where were classes like this when I was in high school?

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The JTerm Crew on the waterfront in Seattle

I have to confess I missed this group once they left Seattle. Hopefully some of them with return to visit. I promise Portland is an entirely different experience without all the snow.

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Wes and Tasha at Snoqualmie Falls

Exploring the Baltics: Weekend in Vilnius, Lithuania

Editor’s Note: Anastasia Chernykh, the social media manager for this blog, recently returned from a weekend getaway to Vilnius, Lithuania. Her photographs made me curious to know more about this Baltic capital. I asked her to write this guest post about this gorgeous European city.- Jen 

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The Cathedral Square in Vilnius

Normally when people hear the words “winter getaway” they imagine some place warm, sunny, with white sand under your feet and calm ocean breeze touching your cheek in the morning. But for some of us travelers, winter is the best time to go North. You see, most of the countries here in Europe show their true character only in winter. This time I went to Vilnius, to see, to eat and to freeze 🙂

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Pilies Street

Lithuania is a young country with an old history. It regained independence in 1990, but the history of Lithuanian kings go back to the 13th century, and once was one of the largest countries in Europe. It included present-day Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia. The best way to see and touch that history is to explore the Old Town of Vilnius, one of the largest medieval sites in Europe. Let’s start the walk!

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A view from the steps of Town Hall

Cathedral square is the heart of the city, and also a good point to start a walk through the Old City. It looked completely white on a cold winter day, and I loved minimalistic neoclassical architecture of  Cathedral. Don’t miss checking it out inside – the place looks  like a museum with more than forty frescoes and paintings from the 16th through 19th centuries on it’s walls. Here’s an interesting factoid-  it is believed the pagan temple was located at the same place long before the white walls and liturgies.

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Statue of St. Mark on Vilnius Cathedral

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Facade of the Vilnius Cathedral

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Inside the cathedral

Gediminas’ Hill and the Tower located right near the cathedral. The way on top looks harder that it is (tip, you can use a funicular!), and the tower itself despite looking very old was actually rebuilt in 1930. The origin legend of the tower (and the city) is rather fascinating.

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Gediminas’ Tower

The story goes that Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas was hunting in the woods, and spent the night on the hill. He dreamt about a large iron wolf howling loudly. He went to magician for explanation of his dream, and was told that this was an omen telling the Duke to build a city in this place, which would become the capital of Lithuania. So Gediminas built the city named Vilnius after the nearby river Vilnia, and a castle in the center of it.

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A walk through the Old City

The second you get to an old city you also notice another thing – Vilnius is a city of churches. There are 28 churches in Vilnius Old Town (21 are Roman Catholic and 4 are Russian Orthodox) with their spikes and crosses popping up all around.

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Facades of the St Ann and the St Francis of Assisi churches

Aside from Cathedral, one of the most exquisite and elegant catholic churches is a red-brick St Anne’s Church (paired with the larger St Bernardine’s Church) to the east of Pilies gatvė.

To get up close with Orthodox Christianity, you can visit St. Nicolas church (one of the oldest Eastern Orthodox churches in Vilnius) built in Neo-Byzantine style.

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Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church

South of the Pilies street is the quirky Užupis neighbourhood, also called Republic. The name Užupis means “the other side of the river”, it is separated from the Old Town by the Vilnia River, and on the second side there are steep hills. The place was a home to an artistic crowd for quite a long time (as the rent was much cheaper) and on April Fool’s Day in 1997, the city’s bohemian quarter declared itself an independent Republic. Užupis holds feasts, fireworks shows and open-air art exhibitions.

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Funky inhabitant of The Republic of Užupis

It even has it’s own constitution, which includes such rights as:

Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat.

Everyone has the right to cry.

A dog has the right to be a dog.

The constitution is written in 23 languages and can be found on a wall on Paupio street in the area.

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Street bookshelf in Uzupis

Vilnius is small, so the best way to explore it is on your foot. Unfortunately, winter wasn’t the best time for walking,  so I didn’t get to see it all. But I promise to go back in summer, everybody says the city is completely green and the weather is very lovely.

Sightseeing is a good thing, but may require some additional calories, so here is the list of some useful places to stop by and fuel up:

To kick-start the long day of walking, go for a coffee and quick bite to Taste Map Coffee Roasters or Kavos Era. The coffee is simply great!

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Very straightforward sugar sachet at Taste Map Coffee Roasters

For a nice modern European lunch stop by Comfort Hotel LT, and check out the best hotel restaurant in Lithuania – Time Restaurant. It was started by Egidijus Lapinskas, rated as one of the best chefs in Lithuania, and sommelier Arminas Darasevcicius. They serve new seasonal lunch and dinner menus every day and the food is delicious. Make sure to score reservation ahead, the place is always busy.

Seafood and Salmon Salad at Time restaurant

To check out the local specialty visit Forto Dvaras, located in the heart of an Old City(zeppelins are weird and interesting, but don’t try to order more than one per person, too fulfilling!), and for late night dinner Bukowski Baras is the place to be. Hip interior, mixed crowd of locals and tourist plus tastiest hot-dogs in town and craft beer!

How to get there:

The most convenient way to get to Vilnius is by plane. Vilnius International Airport is only 4 miles away from the city center, and has flights from New York, London, and major European cities including Paris, Rome, Moscow, Vienna, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Oslo, Stockholm, Barcelona, Riga, Tallinn, Minsk, and Brussels.

Exploring Venice, Italy: Lunch on the Island of Burano at Trattoria da Romano

 

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Charming interior of Trattoria da Romano

If you’re looking for things to do in Venice, Italy taking a day trip to one of the nearby islands is a must. The colorful island of Burano, known for it’s brightly painted houses and fine lace is an excellent choice.

Burano has a few well regarded restaurants, making it a great destination for lunch time excursion.

The only way to reach Burano is by boat. I traveled with friends on a private water taxi arranged by the concierge at Bauer il Palazzo which got us to Burano in about 35 minutes. Water taxi is very fun way to travel!

Time lapse of water taxi ride from Venice to Burano

We had a fabulous lunch at Trattoria da Romano, which came highly recommended to us by an American who is an Italian scholar and part-time resident. Booking reservations ahead of time is a must.

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Canals and colorful buildings of Burano

Trattoria da Romano makes a world famous risotto which won raves from Anthony Bourdain, who featured the restaurant on an episode of No Reservations.

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Smiling water at Trattoria da Romano

Burano has only 2,800 full time residents, most of whom work in the fishing industry. When you come here, you’re coming for seafood! We ate our meal family style, with sardines and branzino for the table.

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My friends contemplating the menu at Trattoria da Romano

The highlight of the meal was the seafood risotto, which will please any foodie. I am not normally a fan of dishes that include squid ink, but the seafood risotto won me over. I’ve been dreaming about it since tasting it for myself.

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Seafood Risotto at Trattoria da Ramano

We ordered both the Bourdain-approved seafood risotto, as well as the traditional risotto. While not much to look at, both were seriously next level. The seafood risotto was black but not overly so. It was so good, we contemplated ordering another round for the table.

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Sardines for lunch at Trattoria da Romano

The spaghetti with clams was also quite flavorful and perfectly al dente.

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Spaghetti with clams

We also heard great things about Gatto Nero Restaurant, but we did not dine there ourselves.

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Picture of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards on the wall at Trattoria da Romano

Be sure to check out the photographs on the wall near the bathrooms at Trattoria da Romano. They are a fascinating look at the history of this family owned restaurant and it’s guests.

Via San Martino Destra 221, Burano – Venezia
Phone 041 730030
Via Giudecca, 88 – 30142 Burano (Venice Italy)
Tel. +39.041.730120

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