The Best of Utah

In Europe we always say something about the Japanese way of traveling: 10 Countries in 10 days is insane. Just taking a snapshot and moving on again, off to the next country. While I can be very critical towards other people’s way of traveling, I realized something…  wasn’t I driving around like a madwoman recently myself, cruising around the US and doing 4 national parks in 4 days? Crazy all the same!


During my 4 week roadtrip, I visited 7 different states. The one I was most surprised by was definitely Utah. When I look at the places I normally enjoy traveling to most, it’s the mountains, forests and crystal clear lakes. Glaciers and wildlife, that sort of stuff. Not the red rocks and a desert kind of landscape.

I was afraid that I’d get bored after the second park. That I’d seen enough red rocks and that I made a big mistake by spending about a week in Utah, while I could have been out hiking in the Rockies and meeting grizzlies in Yellowstone. I shouldn’t have been afraid though, because Utah was even more amazing that I would have ever imagined. With good planning and a bit of luck, you can see a lot, just by spending one day (or less) in each national park. I’ll be sharing my favorite sights and activities with you:

Best place for hiking: Zion National Park
For most travelers, Zion is the place to go. It’s one of the most visited parks in the US and it’s easy to see why. Located within reasonable driving distance of Las Vegas (approx. 2.5 hours only), it’s an easy trip. Access into Zion Canyon is by organized buses which is a bit of a shame. However, if you wake up early, you should have no trouble escaping the crowds.
Zion is the place to be for hiking. There are two magnificent hikes that are mentioned in every hiker’s wishlist and with a bit of planning, you can do them both in one day. The one I picked as most important was Angel’s Landing. It’s a strenuous 4 hour hike to a plateau high up on a rock, with stunning panoramas all over Zion Canyon. It’s not for the faint hearted; you have to hold on to chains various times with nothing but very steep drop offs on both sides of you. But once you reach the top, the view is just phenomenal and you won’t regret the effort you had to make coming up.


The other hike I can definitely recommend is The Narrows. Basically, the Virgin River is the hike, you mostly just wade through the water. Sometimes it’s quite easy, sometimes quite a challenge, depending on the water level. For shorter hikes I can recommend the Weeping Rock, which makes an easy evening stroll, or the Emerald Pools & Kayenta Trails. For the best views of Zion without doing Angel’s Landing, make sure to do the Canyon Overlook Trail, an easy 45 minute trip.

( For a detailed hiking guide to Angel’s Landing, go here: )

Best place for sunrise: Bryce National Park

overlook bryce2
Even though Zion and Bryce are often mentioned in one sentence, they are completely different from each other. The most amazing sight within Bryce is the natural amphitheater and its hoodoos. Never before I have seen such a stunning geological feature. You just can’t help but wonder “how?!?” If you are visiting Bryce, make sure to start all the way at the far end of the park and work your way back to the entrance. If you really want to see something special, then make sure you are at Sunrise Point to see … the sun rise! It’s pretty amazing to catch the first rays of sunshine lighting up the massive hoodoos one by one. Just make sure you are there early since you won’t be the only one…
sunrise bryce

Best place for sightseeing: Arches National Park

Arches National Park is relatively small and that makes it a perfect day trip from the nearby town of Moab. If you make it a long day, you can easily see all the important sights in one day. I spent around 12 hours in the park and started off with breakfast near Balanced Rock. Then I drove up to Devil’s Garden where you can find the fragile Landscape Arch. A piece of this arch collapsed a couple of years and nobody knows how long the rest of the arch is going to last. Most arches are easy to reach, no need to walk a lot. The best place to be for sunset is Delicate Arch, however once again you won’t be alone. The sun lighting up the arch with its final rays of the day is just stunning, as are the snow covered La Sal Mountains in the distance.  Other sights within the park worth visiting are Tower of Babel, Fiery Furnace (book your entry ahead, I was too late!) and Park Avenue. You will definitely be amazed by the beauty of Arches National Park!

Best place for viewpoints: Canyonlands National Park
When you are looking for 360 degree panorama’s, Canyonlands National Park is the place to go to. The park is divided into three sections by the Colorado and Green Rivers and the best accessible part of the park is Island in the Sky. I spent just one morning here, my aim was to witness the sun rise on Mesa Arch. Just Google Mesa Arch and you will get the image I wanted to get. Even though the gentleman at the Moab Visitors Centre told me I would be disappointed that the orange glow wouldn’t be there, I was not disappointed. Waking up at 3.00 am was definitely worth it.  Further down the road, the views into the distance at Grand View Point overlook are just amazing. Just sit down and imagine how this was all formed centuries ago… On the way back out, also make a quick stop  at Upheaval Dome. Very impressive.

mesa arch 5

( For a blog about how to capture sunrise at Mesa Arch, go here: )

Unfortunately, I had no time to visit Utah’s fifth national park: Capitol Reef. Instead of being sad about it, I’m happy to still have something to come back to, which makes a great excuse to also head back to the other parks one more time.

As you can see, each of Utah’s national parks has its own unique features. I won’t decide which was my favorite because basically, I loved them all. Sure, the first park you go to is always the most impressive because it’s all “brand new” but still, looking back at this great adventure, I can definitely say that Utah has been given a lot of mother nature’s best…
About the author:
Antonette is the female half of we12travel, an outdoor adventure blog. She loves to go on treks all over the world and enjoys camping in nature. When home, she’s an office worker and travel writer for her own blog and various Dutch travel websites. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Google+.

A Tuk Tuk Ride Through Phnom Penh

The humidity slapped us in the face as soon as we stepped off the plane in Cambodia.  It had been hot in Thailand but after the plane ride and air conditioned customs the humidity was a wake up call.  We were in Cambodia! Cambodia, a place I had dreamed about going for as long as I could remember.  The country that held the mystical Angkor Wat, ruins that the archaeologist in me had been racing towards this entire trip.  But first we had to make it to our hostel in Phnom Penh.

Serene Cambodia

As soon as we recovered from that first wave of humidity the onslaught of tuk tuk drivers began calling our name.  As we negotiated through the throng with our bags we finally found one who would take us to the Mad Monkey Hostel at a reasonable rate.  Now we had been in a tuk tuk in Bangkok but that did not prepare us for the next twenty minutes of weaving in and out of traffic, vying with bicycles and scooters where school girls rode side saddle without a care in the world.  We had been in Asia for 2 weeks and for the first time I felt that we had truly arrived in the Far East.  The traffic, the chaos, the noise and even the pollution was invigorating.

Rural Cambodia

The ride into the city was timed with school being let out and the streets were chaos.  There were street vendors crossing at any opportunity with their carts full of steaming exotic food which filled the air, swirling with the smell of diesel.  The students, on bikes, scooters and on foot, weaved their way through the traffic in their blue and white uniforms pausing as they passed us to give us huge smiles, looking at the three tall, white and gangly Americans crammed into a tiny tuk tuk with our luggage.

Tuk Tuk in Cambodia
The buildings that lined the street into the city were in various states of disrepair, some crumbling while others showed signs of reconstruction.  As we neared the city center the building began to reflect a more modern city with cell phone stores a plenty and mini marts.  Then we reached the Independence Monument and the grand boulevard of Preah Sihanouk Blvd and we were treated to stunning architecture surrounded by a lush lawn.

The grand architecture of the palace in Phnom Penh
The grand architecture of the palace in Phnom Penh

As soon as the tuk tuk passed round the roundabout we were back into the maze of streets.  As we were nearing our hostel we suddenly came to a halt.  The streets were jammed packed and we could barely see the intersection that was causing all the chaos.  The chaos was caused because everyone simply decided to ignore the light that was working.  Our tuk tuk driver came to the rescue just as I was feeling car sick (between the lurching of the tuk tuk and the diesel fumes and the vodka we drank back in Bangkok, who wouldn’t?) and instead of crossing through the intersection we just went over the curbs instead.  The man was my hero as our hostel was just on the other side of the intersection.  We had finally arrived at the Mad Monkey and I was so excited to explore….right after a beer and a nap :)

A Glimpse of Puerto Vallarta

Hello All!

You may have noticed we have been a bit quiet this week and it is because we are working on a big announcement!  We are so excited to share it with you but things are not quite ready yet.  So instead we thought we would share some photos of our most recent trip to Puerto Vallarta.


We did not think we were resort people at all but we absolutely loved relaxing by the pool all day and drinking sugary fruity drinks!  We also did explore a little of downtown Puerto Vallarta as well.  The Malecon Boardwalk is a lovely stroll down the center of Puerto Vallarta with the ocean on one side and a slew of restaurants and bars on the other.  These restaurants and bars are touristy for sure but you cannot beat the view.  We would love to go back one day and explore the Mexican coast more as it is absolutely lush and gorgeous.

We had an absolutely stunning view of Puerto Vallarta from our hotel room.  Or rather our second hotel room as we had a bit of an issue with the first one (for which I entirely blame Expedia) and ending up switching to the Westin Marina Vallarta. I am so happy with where we ended up staying!  How could I not with this view?
We had an absolutely stunning view of Puerto Vallarta from our hotel room. Or rather our second hotel room as we had a bit of an issue with the first one (for which I entirely blame Expedia) and ending up switching to the Westin Marina Vallarta. I am so happy with where we ended up staying! How could I not with this view?
The water was so warm in Puerto Vallarta; it was almost like bath water.  When it rained it was so lovely to be in the ocean until the thunderstorms that is :)
The water was so warm in Puerto Vallarta; it was almost like bath water. When it rained it was so lovely to be in the ocean until the thunderstorms that is :)
It is worth taking a stroll down the Malecon just to see all the interesting bronze statues that line it.  I loved that everyone was taking pictures and taking time to look and enjoy the art
It is worth taking a stroll down the Malecon just to see all the interesting bronze statues that line it. I loved that everyone was taking pictures and taking time to look and enjoy the art
This statue is one of my favorites, possibly because I have fond memories of climbing the ladder when I first went to PV with friends my sophomore year of college.  I also love the way the little guy is beholding the ladder.
This statue is one of my favorites, possibly because I have fond memories of climbing the ladder when I first went to PV with friends my sophomore year of college. I also love the way the little guy is beholding the ladder.
The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the main church in downtown Puerto Vallarta and is most famous for its crown that adorns the top of it.
The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the main church in downtown Puerto Vallarta and is most famous for its crown that adorns the top of it.


So there you have just a little sneak peak into our trip to Puerto Vallarta.  The only other things we did were to lay by the pool, eat obscene amounts of fish tacos, and drink margaritas (and daquiris and mai tais and more…. Have you seen our instagram?)


Hope your Saturday is just as margarita filled as our trip to Mexico!  And keep an eye out for our next post which will be all about our exciting news!!

A Journey into the Young and Old Dubai(s)

*We asked our friend Chelsea the other day if she would be interested in writing a guest post for us.  She is an amazing photographer and we are so happy that she chose to share her experiences and photos of her recent trip to Dubai.  Head on over to Chelsea’s blog after this to read on about her life as an expat in Rome*


I’m not sure how to gauge distance from the air, but I feel certain I first saw Dubai from some several hundred miles away. The hosts had begun circulating, waking me up from my comfy slumber stretched out across an entire row of seats. While they ensured that seat backs and folding trays were in their full upright position, I fastened my seatbelt and pressed my drowsy face against the window. An asymmetrical string of lights seemed suspended above the city. I tilted my head back and forth, wondering if it was a trick of the light.


I’d first heard of Dubai when I was still living in the US. People would whisper about the construction of the Burj Khalifa as if it were the end of the world. “Is this the start of a new cold war?!” “Didn’t someone once compare it to the Tower of Babel?” Something in the American consciousness fears the day in which we can no longer lay claim to the biggest and best.

Suz and I being awkwardly adorable at the Museum of Dubai.
Suz and I being awkwardly adorable at the Museum of Dubai.


I landed in Dubai with all the joy that comes from an airport embrace with a good friend you haven’t seen in a long time. In this case, my friend Suz, who I met working in our university‘s media lab, a fellow photographer and spectacular video-maker. Though seeing her was the highlight of my trip, she’d also promised me the best kind of fun you can only have with someone else who appreciates the glory of a good shot – she’d already been planning locations that she knew I’d like to photograph.


Downtown Dubai

Downtown Dubai looks like a mirage, mirrored teal buildings grasping at the sky. There were moments that I felt I’d stumbled across the world’s first settlement on Mars, a utopian vision still under construction. In Dubai there are none of the signs of decay, discontent, that mar the visage of older cities, no homelessness, graffiti, or even garbage – nothing to smudge the city’s shiny image.


Downtown Dubai as seen by my phone from a moving car on the highway.
Downtown Dubai as seen by my phone from a moving car on the highway.


In almost every building, the air conditioning hits you like a wall when you enter. It felt like the walk-in freezer where we kept towers of burger patties at the McDonalds where I worked at age 16. Inside the shopping malls, Suz and I floated over lethargic sharks in a glass-bottomed boat at the Dubai Aquarium, and peeked into the mind-blowing weird that is Ski Dubai. Even though I knew it was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (and sandy) outside, it still felt like I was inside a ski lodge peering out at a winter wonderland. We also explored the area surrounding the towering Burj Khalifa beside the world’s largest choreographed fountains.


The tallest building in the world as seen from the Souk al Bahar.
The tallest building in the world as seen from the Souk al Bahar.


Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

We arrived at the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi as the last rays of sunshine bathed its 80 enormous domes, which squat in the sky like symmetrical clouds. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is large enough to hold 40,000 people for worship, has four minarets, and a 180,000 square foot courtyard. The structure takes inspiration from the wide range of Islamic art and architecture worldwide. As we wandered, we were sweating excessively in the thick polyester abayas loaned us by the mosque. The sound of birds fillED the air, though there wasn’t a single feathered creature to be seen. Flowers seemed to creep everywhere inside, etched onto the surface with carvings and paintings.




Old Dubai

In search of the lesser-known Dubai, what Suz termed “old stuff”, the taxi dropped us off in front of a row of rickety-looking boats on the edge of the river. While Suz negotiated with the boatmen I wiped steam off of my sunglasses. After deciding that the costly and precarious boat trip wasn’t for us, we explored the old covered Souq, where man after man tried to entice us with placations that their identical camel statues, sheikh bobble-heads, and woman-wearing-abaya lighters were somehow better than those in other shops. Suz led in the negotiations, demanding “cheap stuff” from the men, one of whom misunderstood her demand to be “chips” and arranged for us to be brought french fries from some unknown nearby shop.




After the Souq was the Dubai Museum, located in the Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in Dubai, built in 1787. The small museum provides a glimpse into life when Dubai was a village, before the discovery of oil in the sixties, when most money came from the difficult and dangerous work of pearl diving. In the museum you can see pearling boats, traditional homes (complete with a sort of early A/C – a tower made with burlap sacks to funnel wind inside), musical instruments and weaponry. The highlight, though, was the video which showed the evolution (and scale of construction) of Dubai up until the modern day.


Jazirat al-Hamra Ghost Town

We spent my last day in Dubai exploring the Jazirat al-Hamra Ghost Town near Ras al-Khamah, once a bustling epicenter of seaside trade. Under the blazing heat of the sun, we scrambled over collapsed adobe walls filled with coral and seashells. The white rock crumbled on our black clothes, leaving white streaks.




All abandoned places seem to have two stories – one, the believable, practical, and two, the far more interesting. Some say the locals left in search of better economic opportunities, others after a disagreement with the rulers in Ras al-Khaimah. However, the more interesting claim is that the city is haunted by Jinni. The “genies” of the western world originate from stories of these supernatural creatures in Islamic mythology, though they don’t have much in common. Though Jazirat al-Hamra is best known as a ghost town, it’s also one of the best examples of an untouched, un-reconstructed traditional city in the area, its squat brown walls a far cry from Downtown Dubai’s azure skyscrapers and the snow white domes of the Grand Mosque.


The old and the new

Dubai is a fascinating city, a blend of young and old cultures. Emiratis wearing traditional clothing wander western-style shopping malls, where women wearing abayas carry the hot pink bags of Victoria’s Secret. The city’s many inhabitants, coming from cities across the world, speak mainly English in shops and out with friends. One of my favorite parts of my trip was the Punch Poetry Night at Book Munch, where people delivered poems about their love lives and wars ravaging their home countries.




Like any, this city has its dark side. Restrictions on free press and speech, and the human rights violations of immigrant workers are well documented.  Dubai has a tendency towards building shiny new buildings, or covering up cracks with restoration, which gives it an air of the artificial, the “inauthentic”. But Dubai is not only the blend of old and young cultures, a mixture of history and modernity, it’s the start of something new. What that will be remains to be seen in the years to come.



Chelsea Graham works in communications and advocacy by day, and runs her blog, the Unofficial Guide to Rome by night. She has a degree in sociology from the London School of Economics and likes metal music, lifting heavy weights, cult TV, and photography.

Do You Like Rabbit?

God I love The South!

The station was packed with people moving, passing each other with grace and speed. Mario stood next to me giving me some tips on how to navigate through this crowd without getting my pocket picked.  Mario was my guide to Naples, and this city is notorious for  thieves, a city where the Mafia still thrives. Naples is a city with attitude and this was my first visit; the visit that made me fall in love with this beautiful city.

We got on the bus and bought a couple of tickets. We sat down and he handed me a pen and told me to write the date where the machine would  leave a stamp. It was a trick that the locals used to scam a couple extra rides.. Mario, was taking me to a small town right outside of the city along the coast called Cappella. It is a cute little Italian town with not much to it. It has a local market, a school, and a bit of a downtown area by the water. Cappella though is not built for tourist but local residents.

Cappella, Napoli
Just Beautiful

I was lucky enough to have a friend like Mario to invite me into his family’s home for the weekend. Now I don’t know how many of you have spent time with Italians but if you ever get a chance take them up on their hospitality. Italians know how to take care of their guests and you will leave with a full stomach of amazing homemade food and wine.

We were picked up at the bus stop by Mario’s uncle. I hoped in the back of his tiny car and we were off. Mario and his Uncle  went straight to catching up in Neapolitan which is a dialect of Italian. If you have never heard someone from Naples speak Italian then there is one thing you need to know. I don’t care how much Italian you took in school, you would not understand one thing they say. It is hard to explain on paper but trust me it is a whole different language. Now I was too busy staring out the window to care what they were saying and before I knew it we were in front of the house.

House in Napoli
The Ceiling Was Low

The house was nothing special but had a quaint seaside feel to it. The first room you enter into is  more like a large walk in pantry/garage. The ceiling was low and I, being the tallest had to keep my head bent low just so I would not hit it. I grazed it a few times though despite my efforts. I was then introduced to all of Mario’s family: his uncle, aunt, cousins, and grandparents.

House in Napoli
Where The Magic Happened

His Grandmother was less interested in greetings, choosing instead to make sure that we were fed. She dragged us in to the kitchen and sat us down. She asked me a few questions. I looked at Mario in confusion and he just told me to say yes. So I promptly said Si and she looked pleased with my answer. I was given a plate of pasta, a  cup and two large carafes of white and red wine to choose from. Nobody else was eating and it was a little awkward but Mario explained to me that it was customary that the guest should be fed upon arrival.

Italian Cuisine
Simple but Delicious
Italian Cuisine
Italian Cuisne
Never Say No!

Mario’s grandmother was Southern Italian and I could tell she wore it with a badge of pride. When she asked me a question like, “ Would you like some more?” I knew that it was a rhetorical question; your answer was always yes and never no. She was the boss of this house and she had final say. Now I fell in love with Mario’s Grandmother. She was hilarious and loved to mess with people. She knew when to be stern and when to joke. She is unbelievably giving and kind. Even though I stood above her by a foot I knew that I would do whatever she said. After being fatten up like Hansel and Gretel she put us to work.

Mario's Grandmother
Mario’s Grandmother

We headed up to the second house up the street to gather what we needed for what I thought was dinner on Grandma’s orders. At the back of the house we were greeted with a large wooden shed, the shed was filled with large jugs and barrels of homemade wine. Mario’s cousins siphoned the wine through a plastic tube and into plastic bottles. This was what I had been drinking earlier and we were gathering more for dinner. His Grandmother grabbed me and pulled me off to the side.

Italian Wine
Homemade Wine
Italian Cusine
Sorry Thumper!
Italian Cuisine
Good Eats

She motioned me to follow; I quickly obeyed and followed her into another section surrounded by a fence. The area was filled with large cages  with rabbits, a table and a large space in the middle. In the middle suspended in the air was a rabbit attached to a chain hanging from its hind legs. She walks up to it and grabs it by its ears and asked what I assume was the question, “Do you like rabbit?” I shook my head yes and without flinching she sliced the throat of the rabbit and then striped it of its fur in a couple more motions with a knife.  She pointed at me with her knife and asked if I still like rabbit.  I shook my head yes. She something I did not catch but she laughed as she made a motion with knife of crossing her neck. I took what I missed as “You better still like rabbit because if you don’t you will end up like this rabbit”.  I laughed and followed her outside back to the shed. They had finished up with the wine and we headed back down to the other house.

Italian Cuisine
Italian Cuisine
Finished Product

Back at Mario’s house we played the Italian card game of skopa with his cousins and uncles as we drank beer and talked. Then after a quick nap were went back down to the main house. Mario’s grandmother was in the kitchen making us  home gnocchi; her hands were quick as she formed the little balls of dough. I was told that this was just one of the dishes for tomorrow. Everything that we had done that day was not for dinner but actually for tomorrow’s lunch. I could not wait till the next day as we spent the rest of the night eating pizza and playing skopa while watching calcio(football/soccer).

The next day came soon enough and now it was time for lunch. It was a feast, just one course after another of food: pasta, rabbit, cake, mozzarella. When I say mozzarella I mean giant fresh balls of Buffalo Mozzarella that we bit into like apples. We had giant meatballs that were the best I have ever had. We ate until we were stuffed and then finished the rest of the food so not to offend Mario’s grandmother. The wine flowed just as freely as we went through bottle after bottle of wine.

Italian Cuisine
Baked Pasta!!!
Italian Cuisine
Rabbit Was Fantastic
Italian Cuisine

The table was filled with constant conversation. Now if you are not use to it and you just came into the scene you might think they were in a fight but in reality that is just how they conversed. Italians are loud and have attitude and that is part their charm. I was in heaven and was wishing that I was Italian. I could live like this for the rest of my life. It was this lunch that I fully understood the southern Italian way of life. I was in love.

Italian Cuisine
I Was Stuffed
Italian Cuisine
Don’t Forget The Desert

I was fortunate to go back one more time and it was the same as the first and I just fell in love all over again. It has been a few years since I have seen Mario and his family but I hope that sometime soon in the future I will be back at that table with all his family enjoying each others company. Mario’s family and this experience is the reason why I root for Napoli in Serie A and when I think of Italy, I think of the south. I may have lived in Rome but I will always love Southern Italy.  They know the secret of life and it is to enjoy it all. It has been awhile since I have said it but I want to thank Mario and his family again for being such wonderful hosts.

Thanks Mario!


The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s History Expressed in One Building

Visiting the Hagia Sophia was so incredibly high on my list of things to see of things to see in Istanbul that as soon as I arrived it was the first thing we went to see and has obviously made it on to my top reasons to visit Istanbul.  The building was something that had always fascinated me because of its rich history and the buildings survival throughout different periods of history, rulers and religions.  It is a building that, while cliche, completely encompasses the mix of east and west you expect to find in Istanbul.  The Hagia Sophia is a building that is Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Turkish and has so much history and architecture.

Hagia Sophia from the Outside

The first Hagia Sophia was built in 360AD and was named after Holy Wisdom.  The church took on true importance during the reign of Justinian I when he decided to redesign the church to be larger and more awe inspiring than the previous incarnations of the church.  The church was built out of materials from all over the Byzantine Empire including purple porphyry marble from Egypt, hellenistic columns from Ephesus and black stone from the Bosphorus and it was completed in under six years.  The church is considered to have changed the history of architecture and it was the largest cathedral until the Seville Cathedral was built in 1520.

The Hagia Sophia has a somewhat understated entrance but then it opens up into the opulent central nave
The Hagia Sophia has a somewhat understated entrance but then it opens up into the opulent central nave
The domes of Hagia Sophia are one of the architectural achievements of the Byzantine age
The domes of Hagia Sophia are one of the architectural achievements of the Byzantine age

The Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia was the gem of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the mosaics are considered some of the best examples we have from that period.
The Hagia Sophia was the gem of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the mosaics are considered some of the best examples we have from that period.  This mosaic is found as you exit the Hagia Sophia, you have to make sure you look back to see them and they depict the Virgin Mary and Child flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I
This mosaic shows Emperor Constantine IX and his wife Empress Zoe with Jesus in the center
This mosaic shows Emperor Constantine IX and his wife Empress Zoe with Jesus in the center

The Hagia Sophia was the focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church until the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II.  Sultan Mehmed then, instead of razing it to the ground (which was kind of him), converted the church into a mosque.  The christian elements of the church were removed or plastered over, in terms of the mosaics, and replaced with Islamic features.  While it was quite nice of him to leave the building standing he was not so kind to the citizens who had taken refuge in the church with them either being enslaved, raped or murdered.

Islamic Medallions


The Mosque was known as the Aya Sofya and the chandeliers and medallions are features of the Islamic architecture
The Mosque was known as the Aya Sofya and the chandeliers and medallions are features of the Islamic architecture

Side View of the Hagia Sophia

In 1935 the Republic of Turkey converted the mosque into the museum that it is today.  The carpets were removed and the mosaics and frescoes were uncovered.  Today there is a small area for Christian and Muslim worship but the building itself is no longer a religious building.  Today the Hagia Sophia is considered the best example of Byzantine architecture and honestly it is one of the most inspiring buildings I have ever seen.  The mix of Christian and Muslim elements and the history behind this building is what makes the Hagia Sophia such a unique site to visit.  There are so few buildings in this world that capture the way certain places have changed throughout time and the Hagia Sophia is one of them.  You can literally trace the history of Istanbul in this building, from its humble Roman beginnings, to the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim faith, and then to modern day Turkey.

Hagia Sophia Detail

The Hagia Sophia has been an integral part of Istanbul's history and still dominates the skyline today
The Hagia Sophia has been an integral part of Istanbul’s history and still dominates the skyline today

48 Hours Eating Our Way Through Portland

Portland is such an amazing city and when we visited back in May during our Pacific Northwest road trip we knew we would only have a short time here. We really did not have plans at all but we knew we wanted to take advantage of the city’s great food and cafe scene and that is basically all we did. It was AMAZING! The diversity of the food available in Portland runs the gamut from fine dining to their awesome food trucks and we tried to sample as much as we could.

Here is what we ate in 48 hours in Portland:

48 Hour Food Guide to Portland

May 6th:

We rolled into Northeast Portland around 7pm and were greeted by our AirBnB hosts. Upon arriving we had absolutely no idea where we were and our hosts were more than happy to direct us towards some local restaurants because per usual we were starving. They mentioned this tapas place and we were sold.

Toro Bravo has been open since 2007 and is basically credited (from the magazine article I read) with revitalizing Portland’s Spanish tapas scene. It is honestly one of the best Spanish tapas restaurants I have been to. It does not specialize in any one regional Spanish cuisine, unlike Bar Barlata in Oakland (my other favorite tapas restaurant which specializes in Catalan tapas), but instead focuses on cuisine throughout Spain. We browsed the menu for a bit before settling on perhaps waaaayyy too much food. We have a tendency to do that.

Scallop Obsession at Toro Bravo

To accompany our insane amount of food we decided to get a bottle of a Spanish rioja and then we tasted our way through Spain. We tried the seared scallops with romesco (I cannot turn down scallops), house cured chorizo with manchego cheese, tortilla espanola and of course the ubiquitous patatas bravas. All the food was absolutely delicious (although Alex and I both agree that we probably do not need to order patatas bravas again as there are so many other things we like more) and the atmosphere was lively and fun. We sat at the low bar right in front of the open kitchen and thoroughly enjoyed watching the movement of the chefs in such a small kitchen. Also the evening was perfectly capped by molten chocolate cake and some sherry.

Molten Chocolate Cake!
*Note: We got insanely lucky by just walking in without a reservation. If you really want to go here make reservations.

May 7th:

The next morning was a slow morning, as most are for me, but we finally got up and moving to explore downtown Portland. My parents had suggested we explore the Pearl District and while I was browsing the internet for breakfast places we stumbled upon Tilt.

Tilt is located in the Pearl and is famous for their Blue Collar Biscuit Sandwiches. This was the perfect place for us to hit up as we got to indulge in a little brunch action, it being around 1pm after all. Tilt is located in a large industrial building and is huge with seating both inside and out. When you enter you order at the counter and then you can head around to find your seating. We found ourselves seats at the bar, shocking I know, and promptly ordered two bloody marys. They were pretty damn delicious, although my favorite bloody marys are still from The Abbey.

Bloody Marys at Tilt

As we waited for our food we partook in some casual people watching. Even though we were indoors they had the huge garage doors open to connect with their outdoor patio and it was a gorgeous day. Then our food arrived and it was HUGE. Alex got one of their famous Blue Collar Biscuits and his had bacon, eggs and cheese on it and I order the BBQ Chicken Ranchers Salad. They were both awesome although I almost wish I had ordered a burger here because they looked so good. Overall Tilt was great and had an awesome vibe. It would have been great to come back for a drink later but we had many more places to visit.

Blue Collar Biscuits

BBQ Chicken Salad at Tilt in Portland
It may be a salad but look at all that BACON!

After we brunched at Tilt we then proceeded to wander the streets of Portland and compare it to Portlandia until it was time for a coffee break. We were in Portland it was basically a requirement that we stop for coffee. So we headed towards the Ace Hotel, perhaps the most delightfully hipster place I have ever been, and grabbed a coffee at Stumptown. Now I like good coffee; you cannot live in Italy for years without becoming a slight snob about espresso but I have to say while Stumptown makes a good cappuccino I do not like the flavor of their espresso. The blasphemy, I know, but there it is. The cappuccino was good but the espresso flavor completely overpowered the rest of the drink but regardless I was glad we stopped at this iconic coffee shop and of course drank it in the hipster lobby of the hipster Ace Hotel. I almost broke out my flannel :)

Stumptown Coffee

The Ace Hotel is delightfully hipster.
The Ace Hotel is delightfully hipster.

Once we were properly caffeinated we set out to meet my friend Matt at his work and he just so happens to work for the Portland Timbers. Being a soccer fan I was disappointed there was not a game while we were in town but Matt was able to show us around the field. Did you know that they saw off a piece of a giant log (the word seems a little inadequate for how large the “log” is) every time they win a game? It was nice being back in a town where people appreciate soccer :)

Portland Timbers

We had some time to kill before meeting up with Matt’s girlfriend so we took a walk down to Pioneer Square and then moseyed over to Bailey’s Taproom. I feel like this is a Portland staple but that could be only because multiple people told me to go there; maybe they just know me. Bailey’s Taproom is a great spot where they focus on Oregon beers and are constantly switching them up. They also have this fancy system where they mark how much is in each keg that way if you have a favorite you know how quickly you need to drink it to make sure you get the last of it or at least that is how I took it.

After a brief detour to drop our bags off at Matt’s house we headed back to the Pearl to eat at Andina,a novoperuvian restaurant. If there is one cuisine I love eating and miss that we do not have in Healdsburg it is Peruvian food so naturally I was INCREDIBLY excited to eat at this restaurant. The restaurant is huge and has a great vibe; it almost feels like you have entered Peru (or so I am baselessly assuming) as you can dine on three different levels feeling very much like a peruvian home. Once again we ordered wwwaaayyyy too much food per usual. Perhaps one of my favorite dishes was the Palta Rellena de Cangrejo, which was an avocado stuffed with crab and topped with a prawn; yum!

Scallops in CHEESE at Andina in PortlandWe also ordered the Conchas a la Parmesana, scallops baked with parmesan cheese and lime. It reminded me of the scallop mac and cheese at Willi’s, one of our favorite restaurants in Healdsburg. Also if you have never tried causas before you are missing out. The whipped purple potatoes with shredded chicken make up the Causa Morada and I needed to order that because well its a causa made out of purple potatoes. Accompanying all this food were fantastic cocktails including the traditional Pisco Sour and the spicy Sacsayhuaman with habanero pepper vodka and a passion fruit puree.


After the delicious Peruvian food was devoured we decided that we needed an after dinner drink and Matt and Carly wanted to take us to one of their favorite bars, The Rookery Bar. The Rookery Bar is somewhat of a hidden gem mainly because there is no sign for it and it is located above the Raven and Rose, a British style gastro pub located in the historic Ladd Carriage House. The bar has all the charm you would expect from a hidden bar in a historic building; dim lighting, the leather chairs, the band playing in the corner and of course the drinks. The drinks were superb at the Rookery. I had two fancy gin cocktails, I believe one was called Bonny Wee Lass, Alex and Matt had Manhattans and Carly had an Irish Coffee. I don’t know how I ended up leaving without an Irish Coffee, they are probably one of my favorite cocktails.

May 8th:
Our final morning in Portland and we just had to keep on eating. I swear we gained a gazillion pounds in this 48 hour period. Before heading to Portland and watching too much Food Network the main thing I knew about the city was it had crazy doughnuts so we had to search out Voodoo Doughnuts. Voodoo Doughnuts are famous for their crazy doughnut concoctions and they certainly lived up to the hype. The doughnut combinations are ridiculous and some would argue ridiculously good.

Just look at the Voodoo doll doughnuts, delicious!
Just look at the Voodoo doll doughnuts, delicious!

I am not really a doughnut person but we decided to had to order the Voodoo Dozen which is a random assortment of their doughnuts. We had the Marshall Mathers, Dirt Doughnut, The Loop and so many more. We also tried their famous maple bacon doughnut. That one was probably my favorite but the others were decidedly too sweet for me but I am glad we had a dozen and were able to bring them to my family. The doughnuts were fun to pose with as we ate them in our car as well. Yay we are normal….

Maple Bacon Doughnut posing
Maple Bacon Doughnut posing
Not totally sold on the whole doughnut thing....
Not totally sold on the whole doughnut thing….
Cereal on a doughnuts!  What is this world coming to?
Cereal on a doughnuts! What is this world coming to?

We knew the last thing we needed to do in Portland before we hit the road again was to explore some of their extensive food trucks food carts. We hit up one of the squares with a wide variety of cuisine on SW 9th Street and Adler and made a decision not to make a decision about what we wanted until we had seen all the carts. Holy mother of all things delicious there were a lot of options! I was absolutely floored by all the different options and types of food they had in just a small radius. We finally narrowed our decision down to three food carts: Kargi Gogo, EuroDish and A Little Bit of Smoke.

Lobani from Kogi Gogo
Lobani from Kargi Gogo

Kargi Gogo is Georgian cuisine and we chose it because we have never had Georgian food. We sampled a few different dishes including the Lobani, a stuffed bean and sauted onion bread, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I normally associate anything stuffed with beans to be Mexican but this was a revelation and now I cannot wait to go to Georgia and EAT! (Granted that is pretty much what we do when we travel). We then moved over to EuroDish for pierogis. I was first introduced to pierogis when Trader Joes started carrying them in the frozen aisle and they became my favorite after school snack so I had to order some. We ordered the sampler of three different types of pierogis; ground beef, cabbage and cheese. They were soft pillowly balls of dough smothered in sour cream and stuffed with deliciousness. Seriously, what is better?

Pierogi heaven
Pierogi heaven

Perhaps our third stop. By this time we couldn’t eat anymore though considering we were still digesting the doughnuts but we couldn’t resist ordering anyways. But we were smart; we got it to go! A Little Bit of Smoke is a Carolina BBQ food truck. I ordered the pulled chicken sandwich and Alex ordered the classic pulled pork. We ended up not eating these sandwiches until we pulled into Seattle hours later but even cold they were awesome.

A Little Bit of Smoke-Carolina BBQ

To be honest all the food we had in Portland was awesome and I would head back in heartbeat! There are so many food carts we did not get to try; lists all the options and I am getting hungry just looking at all of them. Portland is the best city for overindulging in fantastic food and drinks and if we could eat all this in just 48 hours just imagine what we could eat in a whole week there!