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Destination Venice: A Guide to Italy’s Floating City, by Luna Bloom

This article is courtesy of my best friend and Italian soul sister Luna Bloom. If anyone knows Italy, she does!

Venice is one of those unique places in the world—there really is nothing like it, and while it’s not necessarily for everyone, for many it has a certain melancholy beauty that captivates.  I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Venice many times over the years, and every time I go back I’m reminded of its special-something that makes it a great destination, even if just for a couple of days.  Summer is the busiest, and it can be very hot and humid in this part of Italy in July and August.  In the winter you run the risk of some flooding (aqua alta).  It’s actually interesting to see how people live through it but makes things more challenging.  It can also be quite cold in the dead of winter, especially when the humidity is high, which it often is.  Nonetheless, you will find the city can be almost empty outside of the peak summer season or around Carnival, and there is something really special about seeing it without masses of visitors—consider visiting in mid-or-late fall or even early spring to find great prices, few people, and Venice at its best.

There’s so much to see in Venice, but the best part is really just wandering around and getting a little lost (away from St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge, both of which are almost always mobbed with tourists).  While you’re wandering, here are a few recommendations:

Bar Rialto da Lollo: This is the best sandwich joint in….well, maybe the whole world.  It’s right off the Rialto Bridge, and you can get a quick coffee, beverage, aperitif, or panino made to order—it is very reasonably priced, especially considering the location.  The tramezzini (little triangle white bread sandwiches with no crust that will typically be pre-made) are easy to grab-and-go and are super yummy.  The bigger panini (which is Italian for sandwich…and doesn’t necessarily involve a press or toasting) cannot be missed.  There’s one with fig and gorgonzola that I had this summer and am still dreaming about.  The sandwich menu is on the side of the soda cooler, and you can take a quick seat to eat it or take it with you.

Going back to the aperitif, be sure to try a “spritz”—it’s a prosecco-based aperitif.  Super refreshing, it is a Veneto original that is now a staple of Italian bar culture; you’ll notice everyone drinking bright orange drinks in big wine glasses—that’s a spritz.  Usually, if you get one before dinner time (Italians eat late, so aperitif hour is at about 6pm), there will be snack foods at the bar they’ll serve with it—sometimes simple things like chips, but sometimes olives or little pizza slices.   (If you find you don’t like the taste of the orange Aperol that’s added to the spritz, you can give a “spritz bianco” a try.)

On coffee drinks in bars (the “bar” in Italy is really a coffee shop where you can get any refreshment you’d like):  “caffé” really means espresso.  Italians drink it really concentrated so if you want it a little more watered you can order a “caffé lungo”—if you want a touch of milk you can order a “caffé macchiato” and if you want a little cold cream for your espresso, you can order a “caffé macchiato freddo.” If you want more American style coffee, you might find a place that has a “café Americano” or “café tedesco” (German-style coffee).  In the mornings you will often see Italians drinking their morning cappuccino with a croissant—those are usually called “briosche” and my favorite is the “briosche alla marmelata,” which has apricot jam filling.

Keeping on the topic of food, be sure to try the Cantina Do Spade—it’s one of the oldest cantinas in Venice (if not the oldest) and is tucked away down a little alley behind the fish market (also not far from the Rialto Bridge).  Here you can have some of the best “cichetti,” which is like Venitian tapas (but don’t call them tapas to a Venetian).  The fried stuffed olives are soooo delicious, and are probably my favorite.  You can sit and have a “piatto misto” of the various snack foods they have there.  To save on the cover charge for sitting at a table, you can also get the finger foods to go—usually they’ll come in a paper cone for easy snacking while you walk around.  Once you’ve seen the place, you’ll soon spot similar ones (often called a “rosticceria” or “cantina”) all over the city and usually it’s a safe bet for a quick bite of food.  (A note about Italian pronunciation:  c with a vowel makes a “ch” sound; ch makes a “k” sound; and gn is like the Spanish ñ.  So “cicchetti” is pronounced “chickehti”.  Bruschetta is “bruskehttah.”)

If you aren’t planning on coughing up 80+ euro for a gondola ride (or even if you are), do like the locals and take the gondola ferry (traghetto) across the canale grande—it costs a couple of euro, and the main one will take you right near the fish market.  The ferry has  been around for a long time.  It’s an easy way to cross the canal when you’re not wanting to deal with the Rialto (which is always packed) and the other two bridges aren’t close (Ponte degli Scalzi (bridge of the barefoot), which is near the train station, and Ponte del Academia (named after the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia), which is the wooden one at the other end of the canal, closer to St. Marks).

A note about the Rialto Bridge–it has been undergoing restoration since this spring, so unfortunately, there isn’t much to see of it currently.  I’m not sure when it’s supposed to be completed, but Italians are not known for their efficiency.  Regardless, it’s typical for some site or another to be under restoration in the city—it’s been in continuous use since the 7th century AD so it takes some effort to maintain its treasures!

Going back to the fish market, there’s a fruit and veggie market right next to it, and is a great spot to get some fresh fruit in the morning for breakfast or to snack on throughout the day—there’s a water fountain along the side that’s furthest from the fish market, and you can wash all your fruit there.

Speaking of fountains, bring a reusable water bottle—there are fountains all over the place throughout Venice and the water is excellent!

Take a free walking tour—these are just as good at the ones you will pay 40-50 euro for, and are by donation to the guide.  There’s a couple of groups that run these free tours, and I think they’re all pretty similar so it’s more about which times you’d prefer.  Google will help you find one, but here are two: http://freetourvenice.com/ and http://venicefreewalkingtour.com/

It will cost you 8 euro to go up the clock tower in St. Mark’s.  It’s worth the view of the lagoon, and though the line will probably be long, it moves fast.

If you like rooftop views, you could also take a pop over to Giudecca (the skinny island right across from Venice) for a drink at the Skyline Bar.  I haven’t been, but I’ve heard it’s pretty nice:

On the topic of jetting around the lagoon–don’t miss out on some of the surrounding islands.  You can do three in one day: head to Murano first in the morning, and then from there to Burano and Torcello—if you’re lucky, you’ll catch the sunset on the way back to Venice, which is beautiful from the water…it will take at least 40 min to get back to Venice from Burano or Torcello):

  • Murano: This is where the Venetian glassblowers live, and it’s just a quick 15 min ferry ride from Venice.  The island itself isn’t very beautiful, but it’s worth a little wander to see some of the glass sculptures that are around.  The can’t-miss part is watching the master glassblowers at work.  Many of the workshops give public demonstrations.  You’ll see signs that say “fornace” and these are usually open to visitors if they are open (they are ALL closed on Sunday, and they are more active/likely to be open and working in the morning).  If you can find it, near the Colonna ferry stop is the V.I.A. fornace where Maestro Imperio Rossi works; it’s a good one to check out.  Regardless of where you go, beware that there may be a pitch after the demonstration, and they will drive a hard sell.  (Also, avoid the guys in Venice that will try to sell you on a “free trip to Murano/free glass demonstration”—they’re looking to make commission on a sale and won’t really offer anything special that you can’t find on your own.)  There’s a museum on the island that you may find interesting as well as a church.
  • Burano: known for the colorful houses, handmade lace and the buranei cookies, this island is so quaint and cute you’ll want to make sure you give yourself plenty of time to wander around.  It’s a small island but it’s huge on character—I would make a trip to Burano over Murano if you are short on time.
  • Torcello: Right next to Burano, and home of the original Cipriani, there’s not a ton to see here but it’s a quick hop from Burano, has a beautiful little church, and Attila’s throne.  Save Torcello for last: if you’re really tired by the time you’re done in Burano, you can skip it.  If you’re looking for a splugy dinner, you may want to see about making a reservation at Cipriani before you leave.

I think it’s worth it to get the 7-day vaporetto (ferry) pass.  You can ride it as much as you want, which is handy getting around the island when you’re tired of being on your feet, or you want to pop over to another island, or go down the grand canal by water.  It should be about 60 euro, but a one way is 7.50, so if you use it more than 10 times  then it’s worth it (just to do the day trip to the outside islands you’ll use 4).  You also have the option of the water taxis, but they are a little pricey. You can get the pass at the train station when you get in, and can find information on it here.

Finally, be sure to check whether you’ll be going during a Biennale year!!  This is a bi-annual modern art exhibition with lots of events that’s worth a trip!

 

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“Hidden” New York

Visiting New York City and living in New York City are two completely different things. I had visited many times before I moved there, but once living there, I realized I’d barely scratched the surface of the best city in the world. Once you move beyond the tourist attractions (which are wonderful in their own right, and shouldn’t be missed), you see an entirely different side of New York that only makes it more charming.  Here are some of my favorite spots that you might miss as a visitor, but you should really make a point to see next time you go.

Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden:

It’s not as popular as the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, but therein lies the charm of this hidden gem on Staten Island. It’s a truly beautiful, sprawling green space with ponds, a variety of trees and flowers, zen gardens, and cultural artifacts amid the mini-museums scattered throughout the grounds. When you’re there, it’s easy to forget you’re on Staten Island or even in New York City. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a concert at the amphitheater. Bonus: you get to enjoy one of the best views in NYC from the Staten Island Ferry.

The Cloisters: The Cloisters 

the cloistersThe Cloisters museum and gardens, located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan, is a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to art and architecture of medieval Europe. Situated on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, with a its nearby gorgeous park and spectacular views of the George Washington Bridge, the various buildings within The Cloisters – beautiful medieval looking fortresses and chapels disassembled in Europe and brought to the United States – house over 4,000 works of art. Hop on the train and explore this little piece of European history in NYC.

Asian Food in Flushing, Queens:

Dumplings in FlushingMaybe one of NYC’s best kept secrets from tourists, Flushing boasts the best Chinatown in all of NYC – far superior to its Manhattan counterpart.  You can find any Asian food your heart and stomach desires here. So hop on the 7 train, get off at Flushing/Main Street, and prepare yourself for the deliciousness you’re about to consume. To sample a lot of different foods, hit up the Food Court at the New World Mall, which has a variety of authentic Chinese food, from noodles to hot pots. It gets crowded with locals and you have to stalk tables like you’re a Hawk looking for a mouse, but it’s worth it. Then try the Golden Shopping Mall – specifically the dumplings from corner stall Tianjin Dumpling House. This place alone is worth the trip to Flushing.

The High Line:

The HighlineNot really a “secret” from New Yorkers,  but a lot of tourists don’t bother with this spot because they’re busy checking out Central and Riverside Parks. Abandoned train tracks were turned into a winding city park with beautiful green spaces and a backdrop of street art, sculptures, and of course the enchanting NYC skyline. Hop on anywhere along its many entrances off 10th Avenue and take a stroll, have a seat, eat a snack, and enjoy the scenery. It truly embodies the idea of the concrete jungle.

 

The Frying Pan:

Again, not a secret to most the frying panNew Yorkers, but this old lighthouse/sailboat-turned-restaurant and bar next to the West Side Highway is a unique place to grab food or a beer while getting stunning views of Jersey City, Hoboken, and Manhattan, and most visitors don’t even know it’s there.  Grab your beers and climb up to the top for the best seats in the house.

 

 

Vinegar Hill: 

Brooklyn

This small (as in, only a few square blocks) area in Brooklyn is like stepping back in time. Nestled between landmarks of urbanization – a Con Edison plant, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, cobblestone streets and old-fashioned looking storefronts give you a sense of the magic of the New York of Old. John Jackson, a ship builder, had a shipyard at the foot of Hudson Avenue and built houses nearby for his workers, and these historic districts – between Plymouth and Front Streets – are some of Brooklyn’s oldest residential neighborhoods. People refer to Vinegar Hill as a “jewel” of Brooklyn, and I tend to agree.

 

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“Two Sides of Memphis” by D.C. Cutler

Another great guest post by friend and fellow traveler D.C. Cutler!

Several years ago, when I was driving back from Oxford, Mississippi to Fayetteville, Arkansas, I got the sudden urge to stop in Memphis. It was a gorgeous, October afternoon in the “Home of the Blues” and I had a roll of money I hadn’t spent while attending an Ole Miss Football game that morning.

I was heading west on Interstate 40, around the St. Jude Children’s Hospital, when I turned my Explorer off at the exit that takes you to downtown Memphis.

When you visit a city that you’re unfamiliar with, parking is vital. I parked my car on the lower level of an empty parking garage near Poplar Avenue. I didn’t know downtown Memphis, so I had no idea that I had parked blocks away from Beale Street. I had always heard stories about how fun Beale Street was with its live music and barbecue restaurants. I had two hours before the sun would start setting over the Mississippi River and Arkansas horizon, so I rushed down 14th Street to save time.

I crossed over to Front Street that runs slightly along the Riverfront. Suddenly, as I walked past an abandoned building with “For Lease” signs in its unbroken windows, I see a homeless man looking out one of the windows at me. He was African-American and he had the kindest eyes. The window he was peering out of was two stories up and there were shards of glass still outlining the windowpane. I didn’t know what to do; I thought about waving to him, but I dithered. I nodded, put my head down and kept my rushed pace.

The abandoned building was to my left; to my right, on a platform in Memphis Park, a fashion shoot was taking place. With Mud Island and the Hernando de Soto Bridge in the background, a brown haired, tall model was posing in a flowy, ruffled dress. There was a noisy wind machine helping her show off the length of the yellow dress. The photographer and his crew had four studio boom lights and an enormous shade screens; it looked as professional as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot. I could hear the photographer yelling instructions at his crew and the stunning model.

My eyes darted from the surreal photo shoot back to the abandoned building. He was gone. The two things were so drastically dissimilar. I wanted to watch the shoot longer, but the sunlight was fading fast.

When I arrived on Beale Street, almost every restaurant, particularly the barbecue places, had lines out their front doors. There was one barbecue joint that I found down a narrow alleyway. The sound of blues and the appetizing smell coming from the place made me immediately get in line.

The line was really long. I kept looking at my watch and fondling the hundred dollar bill in my pocket that I just wanting to spend on a memorial meal on one of the most famous streets in the world to try barbecue.

Kansas City barbecue fans…I wrote “one of.” Simmer down.

I eventually left the line after twenty minutes. I hadn’t moved an inch and people were cutting in line by the entrance. Apparently, when it comes to barbecue in Memphis, there’s no democracy when it comes to a restaurant line. One of the guys with the group that cut in line looked an awful lot like Rob Zombie. It may’ve been the rocker and filmmaker; I didn’t get a long look. It’s probably likely Zombie’s crew had a reservation.

I walked to Dyer’s, the legendary hamburger restaurant on Beale Street, a place that is often featured on travel and American diner shows. It felt like I stepped back in time when I walked in. The restaurant has a 1950’s diner look with its checkered tiled walls, wooden booths, and steel counter tops.

Oddly, Dyer’s wasn’t crowded for a late-afternoon on Saturday. Dyer’s has been serving burgers in Memphis since 1912. I like any burger place that’ll proudly advertise that they’ve been serving burgers out of the same deep fried grease since the year the Titanic sunk.

I ordered two Dyer’s singles and a mountain of fries. My waiter was really pushing the house chili; so I broke down and I had a bowl. He also told me that they can pour chili on a burger as well; I thought about it for a moment, and politely said, “No thanks.” I had the best pink lemonade I’ve ever tasted in my life there. I ordered another the moment I finished my first glass.

When I was devouring my delicious bowl of chili, I remembered the man back at the abandoned building. I put my spoon down and asked my waiter for a to-go box. I noticed how dark it was getting outside as my waiter boxed up my one remaining burger and a handful of fries.

While walking back to the parking garage, the dimming sun was streaming between the skyscrapers. The photo shoot was over. There was nothing left; not any of the crew or equipment. I peered up at the second floor window of the abandoned building. I didn’t see him. I set my untouched leftovers down on the sidewalk and scanned all of the other shattered windows. I waited for a moment and I picked up the food. I walked a few yards. Then, out of the blue, I had the feeling that someone was staring at me. Without glancing around, I stopped, put the Styrofoam box back down on the payment and walked off. A box of fries and a Dyer’s burger wasn’t much, but I had the sympathetic urge to leave him something.

Driving west, across the de Soto Bridge, I wondered who the man in the window and the model on the Riverwalk were. How did those two people get to where they were that fall afternoon in Memphis?

They represented two very different sides of a city I plan on visiting again.

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Guest Post: Not Enough Time In Toronto, by D.C. Cutler

Thanks for this great write-up of Toronto by my friend D.C. Cutler! You can follow him on Twitter @DCCutlersports! 

From the moment I arrived at the airport, Toronto seemed like a city where nobody was in a hurry. It’s a much laid back city, which is strange, because Toronto is a financial hub with thousands of professionals walking around. No one seems rushed and I never once found myself standing next to someone on public transit unloading on their cell phone about work.

When I met my friend from college, who worked in Toronto’s downtown business district, we had lunch at a small deli near City Hall. The place was crowded but it wasn’t noisy. Everyone there was courteous and mellow. I began noticing that about every public place I visited.

From eating at a few restaurants and walking around the business district, I felt like I could live there. It’s without a doubt the nicest city I’ve ever been to. I’ve been to a lot of cities throughout my life, but I’ve never been to one where I felt so comfortable that I could uproot everything and move there. Polite isn’t a strong enough word to describe how people are in the capital of Ontario.

As a tourist, expect to get asked, “Have you been to the CN Tower?” I was asked three times if I had seen it. I think the CN Tower is probably one of the least interesting things about Toronto. It’s not like you can miss it.

Toronto is Canada’s leading banking and financial center, and it is also a major transportation hub. When you ask someone what they do, 8 out of 10 times they’ll answer “banking” or “transportation.” There are University of Toronto students everywhere. It makes sense; the college has the largest enrollment of any Canadian university.

At the nightclubs, it seems like you either find yourself at a young professional’s club or a club with a college student lean. Both are fun, but you certainly know when you’re in a young professional’s club. The difference: Within five minutes of being in a young professional’s club someone will ask you “what do you do?” But they ask in such a courteous way, it makes it alright.

I’ve never been around so many people who like drinking scotch. I don’t know if I just happened to be around a bunch of scotch drinkers, though that seems like the drink of choice in Toronto. And if you drink scotch, especially as much as the group I was with; you’re probably an experienced drinker with particular tastes. I drank beer the whole time because I was drinking on the cheap and I wanted to remember what I had experienced.

You could visit Toronto for several weeks and still just scratch the surface of the nightclub and restaurant scene. The opportunity to discover a new club or bar around the city seemed endless.

My friend took me to a club called Forty2, an urban-chic supper club in the heart of Liberty Village that turns into a straight warehouse club. It changes over fast. The girls’ skirts get shorter and the men’s wardrobe get Gucci-correct real fast. The club went from a place where people were eating dinner, to a warehouse happening, within minutes. Most of the people there were a mix of young professionals and college students.

My friend was familiar with Forty2; it was one of her “go to” places on weekends, so she knew all the good bartenders. Sometimes when you travel to a strange, new city, you find a spot that you feel comfortable at, and that’s different than any club you’ve ever been to; Forty2 was that place for me. It didn’t hurt that the girl to guy ration was dramatically more girls over guys.

Throughout the four days I was there, every band that I saw performing in a club were just okay. Toronto isn’t Austin, or Nashville, it’s not known as a music hub, but I thought I would at least hear one good band while I was there. Perhaps I was just going to the wrong bars and clubs. When a cover band, with a drummer who thumped on a white bucket, was the best band I saw, I can’t say I was impressed by Toronto’s live music scene. And I purposely went to the entertainment district to listen to some live music.

I was in Toronto for mostly business, but The Art Gallery of Ontario was impressive. The paintings and sculptures, with the exception of the international exhibits, are mostly created by Canadian artists. I was impressed by the architecture of the actual museum. The artwork was exceptional. The visit was one of the standout moments of my trip. The Modern and Contemporary Art collection was the most memorable for me because there was work there I recognized and appreciated.

City Hall is breathtaking. Pictures do not do the architectural marvel justice; especially when you’re standing between the two curved buildings and the large man-made lake. Or, it could be a pond; it’s large. The day I was there, it was early in the morning, the sky was overcast and everyone was heading to work. You can sit along the lake on metal benches and write, or, like I did, just people watch. I didn’t see it at night. The city lights the fountain at night, which I’ve heard is gorgeous. My friend told me it’s where a lot of dates end when City Hall is lit up and the fountain is on. “You see couples strolling around everywhere at night, its romantic” she said.

I never visited the infamous zoo. Though, I’ve never been a big zoo fan when I visit a city. I’d rather try and attempt to discover a city’s soul, and spending valuably time looking at wild animals awkwardly staring back at you isn’t going to accomplish that goal.

I did finally see the CN Tower… through my tiny, airplane window as I was flying out of Toronto. It’s tall.