Lisbon, Portugal

I almost couldn’t contain my excitement as I got my first glimpse of Lisbon through the plane windows- I was soantsy to get out and explore the eclectic, vibrant, beachy, and urban capital of Portugal. I spent the next 5 days looking over red terracotta roofs from gorgeous viewpoints, indulging on the freshest meals and the sweetest pastries, photographing intricately designed, colorful buildings, checking out unique castles, and enjoying the sunshine while sauntering along sandy beaches. Lisbon is a bustling, eclectic mix of buildings and architectural styles, with many activities to do, sights to see, and history to learn about.

In order to fall in love with Lisbon…

Amble around Alfama:

When the majority Lisbon was destroyed by a large earthquake a few hundred years ago, Alfama was left standing, preserving Lisbon’s old-style town for you to explore. Today it is a maze of uphill quaint, cobblestone streets, filled with restaurants, souvenir shops, churches, and castles (including St. Jorge Castle).

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Experience Barrio Alto:

This is the vibrant, fun, central area of Lisbon that you can’t miss. Take a walk during the day time, making sure you get your classic postcard photo of the yellow trams, and consider taking tram line 28 to be taken on an interesting loop past the most touristic places in Lisbon. After dark, definitely think about joining the Pub Crawl by LisbonDestinationTours, and if the bars in Barrio Alto close too early for you, next go to the lively Pink Street (Rua Nova do Carvalho) at the base of the neighborhood.

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Head to Belém:

Go just outside the center of Lisbon to check out the sights in the area of Belém. Absolutely stop by the (touristic but) amazing Pastéis de Belém to try the traditional and famous custard tarts.

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Next, saunter over to the Torre de Belém. Although I think the tower is more interesting to look at from the outside, it was enjoyable to explore the inside (for just a few euros.) If you enter, get excited for the pretty view of Lisbon’s version of the Golden Gate Bridge from the top level! DCIM113GOPRO

Look at Lisbon from Above:

Speaking of pretty views, hilly Lisbon has many spots to climb up and look out upon the terracotta-colored view below. My favorite spots were Nossa Sra Do Monte and St Catarina Adamstori.

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Nossa Sra Do Monte

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St Catarina Adamstori

Take a Day Trip to Sintra:

The train ride takes about an hour, and once you get to the town you can easily take a bus in an uphill loop to check out any combination of the 4 major touristic sites. Although Lisbon in general is a very inexpensive city, these sites weren’t that cheap. I decided to spend my money on the vibrant, unique Pena National Palace. 

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Eat a Meal (or More!) at the Time Out Mercado da Ribeira:

After finding this market, I returned for almost all of my meals for my remaining time in Portugal. There were so many delectable (and affordable) things to try!  If you’re looking for a snack or lunch, I highly recommend going to Caco and getting the Caco-Original, a sandwich with a super tasty type of Portuguese bread. For dinner, there are almost too many awesome options to choose from, including a variety of types of food- Portuguese, sushi, Italian, or burgers. Save room for dessert- Santini’s ice cream is to die for (try the egg cream flavor!) Also make sure to try Ginjinha with chocolate during your time in Portugal, a cherry flavored alcoholic drink often served in a chocolate shot glass.

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Mercado da Ribiera, with Caco in the foreground (try this type of Portuguese bread!)

Stay in Quality Accomodations:

There are many highly rated hostels to choose from for the budget-minded backpackers in Lisbon. I chose the Sunset Destination Hostel, which turned out to be one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in! The rooftop pool and terrace provided a perfect setting to sip wine and watch the sunset from, and there was a great atmosphere throughout the hostel with many opportunities to meet others (like cheap family dinners, a free walking tour, or a fun pub crawl).

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Ghent, Belgium

Ghent is a walkable city with Medieval roots that’s full of charm, friendly people, delicious food, and perhaps most importantly, Belgian beer. It’s a perfect destination for young travelers as the city has a huge student population, meaning there are deals for young people everywhere! Seek these out while exploring the many bars, museums, castles, and churches in this lovely city. Ghent isn’t quite a touristic city (yet), and its proximity to other major cities, reasonable prices, and cultural and historical richness made Ghent one of my favorite European cities I’ve visited so far.

What to Do:

Go On a Free Walking Tour- Walking tours are always my favorite thing to do when I first get to a city. This one did not disappoint, with a lively guide who shared an interesting intro to Ghent and its history!

Eat Lots of Waffles– I suggest heading to ‘Koffie, 3.14, Thee’ in the Groetenmarkt, grabbing a warm take-away waffle, and eating it along the river. Side note: The Belgians prefer plain waffles, and think tourists ruin them with toppings! However, I can’t resist whipped cream or melted drizzled Nutella…

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While you’re in the Groetenmarkt, also Try Cuberdons (‘Purple Nose’ candy) from the two competing vending carts. Expect a hard gummy outside with a syrupy inside. Expect to feel a sugar high after eating just one.

Taste Belgian Beer- I recommend finding a beer tasting tour or event to join, although any bar will do. 

Hop on a Boat Tour- The boat tours can board at many locations along the river in the city center at almost any time of day for a quick, enjoyable tour. Student discount!

’t Dreupelkot Jenever Bar- Jenever is the traditional liquor of Belgium, and it’s what gin evolved from. This bar has literally HUNDREDS of flavors of jenever to try, and you can enjoy them on the outdoor patio if its warm out. Small shots are about 2-3 euros, 3-4 euros for a large. Good deal, good alcohol.

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Climb the Belfry Tower- Provides an amazing view of Ghent from above, and is very cheap with a student discount.

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Go to St. Bavo’s Cathedral- and learn about the Stolen ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ painting- an art history mystery. Notice that you can choose to either see a copy of the painting in the church (for free), or pay to see the real painting.

Where to Stay:

Hostel Uppelink Through the hostel’s stained glass windows, you can look out on the best view of Ghent’s city center: a winding, cobblestone street with impressive cathedrals, the busy Sint-Michielsplein Bridge, and a river-side platform that serves as a perfect location to pack a picnic and chill out on a sunny day. The hostel is clean, the WIFI and hot water works well, and there are tons of activities offered by the hostel, such as a free walking city tour, kayak rentals, and a weekly beer tasting. This trip to Ghent was actually one of my first times traveling alone, but I easily made friends from all over the world in the cozy common room, which holds a bar stocked with plenty of Belgian beer (and a discount for hostel guests).

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View from Hostel Uppelink- although all of the business in the foreground is actually part of a temporary movie set!

What Next?

Most travelers in Ghent are also traveling to the romantic city of Brugges, as it is only a cheap, 30 minute train ride away. Others are taking trains or busses to the bigger Belgian metropolises of Antwerp or Brussels, and some are traveling internationally to Holland. If you are taking a train, use the Gent-Sint-Pieters Train station, and expect to take a tram to connect you to the city center.

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Paris, France

I strongly believe that everyone who goes on a trip through Europe should be required to make a stop in Paris. It’s really hard not to fall in love with the City of Love: the charming architecture with wrought iron balconies and storybook-style shutters, grand churches, impressive museums, and pleasant outdoor cafés all come together to create one of the most iconic cities in the world, and one of the most enjoyable cities for tourists to visit. Go wander, eat amazing food, sip on wine, and enjoy!

There are more than enough to keep a tourist busy in Paris but these are my favorite activities and sights to see:

Sandeman Walking Tour

This 3 hour tour is a great way to familiarize yourself early on in your trip with the geographical and historical contexts of beautiful Paris. The tour guides point out the main tourist attractions with tips about how to best visit them, and she also helped me appreciate details of the city that I would have otherwise skimmed over. Tours start at Place St. Michel, line 4.

Stroll Through Montmartre

Hop off the metro at Anvers, line 2, and follow the foot traffic uphill. Soon, La Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre will come into view. Continue uphill until you can both visit the basilica and see the panoramic view of Paris below you. After visiting the church, make sure you wander through the enchanting winding streets of Montmartre on your way down the backside of the hill. I actually did another Sandeman tour through Montmartre and had another fabulous tour guide and pleasant walk.

Sainte-Chapelle

I think this church actually amazed me more than Notre Dame, but luckily they are near to each other so you can easily visit both! (Cité, line 4). Prepared to be blown away by the most colorful, detailed stained glass you’ve ever seen in your life. After visiting the churches, make sure you walk across the Seine on the Pont des Arts locks of love bridge before all the locks are taken away!

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Eiffel Tower

(Trocadero, line 9) I’ve heard that going up to the top of the tower can be a crowded, chaotic experience, and I felt that walking around and under it was enough to take the grandeur of this Parisian icon. Make sure to catch the light show on the hour!

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Château de Versailles

If you’re tight on money or the weather is too nice to spend a day inside, skip the line for the palace and just explore the famous palace gardens of Versailles instead. If you are going inside the palace, though, buy a ticket beforehand and still arrive as early as possible! (RER C train, Versailles)

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Musée d’Orsay

I think even ‘not-museum-people’ would enjoy an hour or two checking out the art in this museum. There is a wonderful collection of impressionist and post-impressionist arts, including work by Van Gough, Monet, and Gaugin.

Stroll up the Champs-Élysées towards L’Arc de Triomphe

Lots of shopping, people watching, and in the winter, huge Christmas markets! (Champs-Élysées – Clemenceau, line 1 or 13)

Musee de Louvre

(Palais-Royal, line 1) The most visited museum in Paris, and one of the largest museums in the world. Mostly only an enjoyable experience if you buy your ticket beforehand and have energy or caffeine to spend a few hours walking around, i.e. don’t go after at the end of a long day of sight seeing.

Cafés

Make sure you enjoy a cheese platter and a good glass of wine while people watching from an outdoor patio of a typical Parisian café.

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Crepes

I don’t think you can go wrong with any crepes in Paris, from either restaurants or street stands, but you will absolutely not regret going to the restaurant ‘Mamie Tevennec‘ (Charonne, line 9).

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How to Hostel 101

HOW TO HOSTEL 101

“Ew, ew, ew, ew,” a stranger in my hostel room squealed, “Wake up! There’s something moving on your bed!” I sat straight up right away, freaked out by my roommate’s tone of panic and disgust. After both a headlamp and a Google search, we had confirmed that there were actual bedbugs in both of our beds. These little guys are a nightmare- they suck your blood, are easily spread by travelers, and are extremely difficult to get rid of.

We were grossed out and grumpy, with our skins crawling and annoyed to be missing out on a night of sleep with a full day of exploring Venice on the horizon. However, we migrated to the hostel common room and surprisingly ended up having a hilarious time staying up all night, chatting and swapping travel stories, and forming a group of instant new friends from all over the world, the self proclaimed bed bug buddies. Our night concluded as we watched a gorgeous sunrise over the Venice canals, a magical memory for all of us.

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After a successful trip to the laundromat the next morning, I actually left this infestation scare and hostel laughing, and a few months later, I’m happy to have another adventure under my belt. Even in the rare worst case hostel scenario like this bed bug story, hostels are the best. They’re affordable, fun, and I always leave a hostel with a few more friends than when I got there- they provide a unique environment for you to easily meet and mingle other travelers. Staying in hostels has become arguably my favorite part of traveling.  

However, definitely best to stay away from hostels with bed bug or other problems….  Read on for a guide on how to survive the process of finding and staying in a hostel.

    1. Go to HostelWorld: This is definitely the best place to start when choosing a hostel. This website only shows reviews from the past year, and I have found that their reviews are much more accurate and updated than those from other similar websites.
    2. Once you find the reviews, READ THE REVIEWS! So, so, important, and I learned the hard way! For this bed bug instance, I only focused on the cheap price and the awesome view from the bedroom windows without reading what fellow travelers had to say. Bad idea! On HostelWorld, you can sort the reviews by how recently they were created or by the age, nationality, or gender of the reviewer so that you’re reading thoughts from like-minded travelers.
    3. When choosing between a few, make sure to Research the Location: It’s almost always worth the extra money to be in the heart of the city that you are traveling to. Sometimes it’s tempting to save a few extra bucks a night on a hostel that is farther from the main touristic attractions, but you can end up either spending more money, time, and effort trying to get to the center, or just being in a sketchier location.
    4. Next, read about the hostel vibes. Especially if you are traveling alone or want to make friends, it’s very important that your hostel has high ‘atmosphere’ ratings! Hostels that have bars in the common area tend to be really fun, and it’s also smart to check out the photos of the hostel common room to see if it looks like somewhere you’d want to hang out. In my experience, too, it is easier to make friends at smaller, cozier hostels, especially when the hostels host nightly events. 
    5. Perks? AC? Discount at the hostel bar for guests? Outlet by your bed? Breakfast included? Towels available? Usually these details don’t make or break your hostel experience, but are all really nice to have. As for hostel breakfast, don’t expect a giant buffet; It typically is just some sort of bread product and coffee, but it still can hold you over until lunch which is great for travelers on a budget.
    6. Wifi: All hostels should have WiFi, but there are a few that don’t offer it in the bedrooms, or the connection is really spotty or difficult to access. It’s always pretty necessary to have good internet at your home base to be able to research activities, catch up with people back home or plan your next travel step, so make sure people in the reviews were pleased with the Wifi.
    7. When booking, it’s a good idea to choose flexible booking and look at their cancellation policy. When traveling for an extended period of time, often times I wish I had more freedom to reroute my trip, as so many of your new friends will tell you about their adventures and give you awesome travel suggestions that you never considered. For a long backpacking trip, it’s usually worth it to pay the few extra dollars for ‘flexible booking’ if you have any doubt about the solidity of your plans.
    8. Get a Good Night’s Rest: Just know that the more beds in your hostel room, the less likely you are to get a good night’s sleep, especially if you’re in a party hostel. If I’m on a long backpacking trip, I’ll make sure to book a room with fewer beds every once in awhile to allow myself to catch up on sleep.
    9. Pack a headlamp, a mobile USB charger, shower shoes, earplugs, and a lock for a hostel-heavy vacation!
    10. During your planning, do an independent search for directions to get to your hostel. Even though directions are supplied with your confirmation email, often times they are badly translated or unclear, so I always find it helpful to look it up on GoogleMaps as well and have both printed for my journey to a hostel.
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The actual view from Hostel Brikette in Positano, Italy

What has been your make or break hostel story?

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