An Instagram Day Trip from Berlin: Szczecin, Poland

We were so close to Poland… it was right across the border! I couldn’t resist the urge to try to get in. My first thought was Warsaw or Krakow, the two big Polish hubs most people are familiar with. But taking a train into these cities needed advanced booking in the summer, so we weren’t about to take our chances as we were on a tight schedule. Luckily, there was one train that would take us into Poland, just not exactly the town we were expecting. Early in the morning, we boarded a packed German train heading towards our final destination; Szczecin. Little did we know how entertaining this whole experience was going to be.

First Impressions:

You’ll get a good sense of the cultural difference between the Germans and the Polish just by hopping on one of the trains heading to Szczecin (pronounced “Schechin” by the way). The trains are packed with kids running around and parents trying to keep everyone together. There is a harsher, but almost warmer community aspect to the people of eastern Europe, and Poland kinda falls in the center.

We were under the assumption this train was going to take us all the way to the train station in Szczecin, but we knew we were going to have to stop at the border and probably have our passports checked…. ya, no. The train did stop at the border, but to our surprise, everyone, I’m talking 150+ people with kids, rushed out of the train car, ran full tilt towards this small train parked in front of us blowing its horn and we had no idea what was going on. So when you don’t know what to do, and everyone is running…. best to just follow the crowd! It was a good thing we did because we jumped onto the train car right as it was pulling away. About 30 min later on this small little polish train, we arrived in Szczecin.

The train station is small, but it has a few little bakeries where you can pick up some snacks! The best part of this whole little day excursion was being greeted by two smiling faces handing out free beers to anyone who walked by. They weren’t trying to sell you anything, not trying to promote, just handing out free ice cold Heineken’s. And that folks, is when we fell in love with Poland! We found out later that it wasn’t their regular Heineken. It was their non-alcoholic beer and it sure tricked us! We thought it was alcoholic beer the whole time which is a great sign! Heineken did well.

The best way to explore this town is by meandering with a loose goal in mind. Below are a few spots in the city that I found really pretty and might give you an idea of where you want to set off. I will say, half the fun is finding your own little gems, so wander as long and as far as Szczecin will take you.

The Harbor Front

We started by following the river upstream. The town is fairly small, so we were able to walk most of it. In the summer you’ll notice that Europe is busy with festivals and this remains true while in Poland.

When we visited Szczecin there was a fair along the river bank, and there were stalls along the streets offering delectable polish treats! If you’re interested in some cool photography shots, you’ll notice the industrial look of some parts of the river bank.

Walking the streets

If you head further inland, there are a myriad of authentic polish streets with old architecture, orthodox churches and graffiti all on one block.

This city has quaint little parks where you can just take a break from walking, but there are trams if your feet get tired. Although we personally didn’t take the trams, to learn more you should check out this blog from TraveLux. They have a great explanation on how to use the Szczecin tram system.

Szczecin Old Town

While you’re walking upriver from the train station, you’ve got to check out Old Town! The architecture of the buildings with all the bright colors are spectacular, and a great area for shopping and food. This isn’t the largest old town I’ve seen in Europe — it’s actually quite small — but it’s perfect for Instagram pics! While you’re in this neck of the woods, you should definitely check out the Szczecin history museum. Even if you’re not a big museum buff, going inside will give you some appreciation of the city. Understanding more about the location, the culture and the history gives travelers more insight and increased admiration for the area they’re visiting. Taking pictures is awesome, but not having context to those pictures can make the whole experience very shallow (trust me, I’m guilty of this)!

Walk by the Passport Office

Once you’ve visited Old Town and you’re still tracking the river northward, you’ll come to The National Museum in Szczecin and the Passport Office. These two buildings are stunning, and there are two great ways to take pictures of these places. Two places I, unfortunately, realized after the fact! But in my defense, these locations were also covered with fair equipment). The first step is to make it down onto the lawns in front of these buildings, and the other is to actually cross the river via the Labuda Bridge. On the other side of the river, there are beaches and a marina. Here you can take some great landscape shots. If you’re lucky there will be an event going on and they’ll have the old ships docked at the harbor!

Karłowicz Philharmonic Szczecin

This is another awesome spot to take pictures. In fact, it seems like this place was designed perfectly for an Instagram gallery. The modern architecture and the plain white background make for great shots. But I will tell you, it’s a little difficult to get just the right angle. You have to be on the other side of the street to truly capture the size of it. We only had a few hours so I never went inside, but the Karłowicz Philharmonic Szczecin is actually an Orchestra house.

City Park

If you wander far enough, you’ll also find a nifty city park near the Karłowicz Philharmonic. The park is actually concrete, but again, there’s some pretty cool architecture where you might be able to pick up some unique Instagram shots. There’s also a bronze angel standing as a reminder of the riots that took place in December of 1970. There were increases in food prices by 20-40% and the people began to protest. The protests were met with aggression and 1000’s were injured, 40 or so were killed. I’ve never been a big fan of taking Instagram selfies with memorials as I find it tends to be disrespectful, but I definitely recommend capturing the ominous beauty the angel omits looking over the square, remembering the impact that food deserts and poorly managed governments can have on communities.

For being a little polish town, there are a ton of treasured locations to photograph, fun summer events to participate in and free beer the second you step foot onto Polish soil…. I mean who can complain?

If you’re interested in exact locations of any of these pictures, shoot us a message! Also please comment, like and share with your friends if you enjoyed the post!


Cologne in 48 Hours

Cologne is usually on everyone’s bucket list when they plan their trip to Germany. I would say it’s one of the top 3 cities people think of when they’re planning their itinerary; Berlin, Munich, Cologne. I’ve flown through Germany many times, stopped for a few days on business and kept moving, so this time I made sure I was going to visit Cologne.

Cologne is famous for its Christmas markets, but unfortunately, I wasn’t there over Christmas. Instead, I was there over the summer (during a heat wave), so my experience of this city wasn’t all twinkling lights in the snow.

Before you visit Cologne, here are some things you should know:

First Impressions:

I arrived in the city via train… probably should have rented a car for my Germany excursion… but that’s another post. If you don’t know anything about German trains, they’re usually fantastic! I’ve never been on a bad German train (except for one leaving Berlin into Poland). But trains allow you to get into a city and not have to worry about parking a car. So as long as you’re traveling light and you found accommodations close to the train station, you should be fine.

Cologne Train Station:

The Cologne train station is actually pretty awesome, especially if you’re only in the city for a few hours or a few days. If you’re in the city for a few hours, Cologne’s train station is very convenient. There’s a Starbucks where you can go and grab some free Wi-Fi so you can situate yourself on google maps, as well as a luggage locker for all your stuff if you don’t want to carry it around the city (I wouldn’t’ recommend it, there’s a lot of walking). There are also a ton of shops inside the station where you can either grab a quick bite, purchase some additional traveling gear or even shop for a nice new outfit. You’ll also find there are great information kiosks – so if you’re interested in those Euro rail passes or other package type deals, these kiosks are the places where you’d pick them up. The train station is conveniently located right in the city center, so it’s not a terrible walk to most hotels.

Cologne in the summer:

Keep in mind that Cologne can get very hot, and a lot of European hotels don’t have air conditioning. I can’t speak to the hostels or the 5-star hotels, but your average 3-4 star might be lacking that precious cool air. Also, note that summer in big German cities tends to mean lots of bees! As much as my husband and I love sitting outside drinking a cocktail in the warm summer breeze, in Cologne this meant being swarmed. In fact, I saw a poor young woman trying to just eat her meal outside and her hijab was covered in bees! So if you can eat inside, it might be better than trying to fight off these pests.

Must Sees:

If you ask a young German (a German who isn’t from Berlin), most of them will tell you that the city you need to visit is Cologne. That’s because it seems to be the party central of Germany. If you’re into drinking, staying out late and clubbing… Cologne has a lot of options for you. If you’re more the sightseeing and cultural traveler, then the following list has great options for you to check out:

The Cologne Cathedral

There are a few main highlights to a Cologne trip, and this is definitely the most famous. Luckily, if you take the train, the cathedral is directly outside the station… you can’t miss it! You’ll see a lot of people eating outside on the cathedral’s steps, or you’ll see hoards of tourists taking selfies in front of the masterfully built church, but inside there are some pretty cool finds as well. Inside there is the Dreikönigenschrein, it’s a golden shrine that apparently holds the remains of the biblical Magi.

Walk along the water

After checking out the cathedral, we grabbed a bite to eat at the Funkhaus Cafe-Bar-Restaurant and checked into our hotel. After dropping off our bags, we started to explore the city and do some shopping. PS. if you want some cheap shopping, go to The first place we headed to was the water’s edge. If you walk along the river and up and over the Hohenzollern Bridge, you’ll see thousands upon thousands of locks with lover’s names scratched into them. I would definitely recommend getting a few city shots from this location as well.

The Ludwig Museum

After crossing back over the bridge, you may run across the Ludwig Art Museum. It’s a showcase for art after the 1900’s. We never actually went in, only took a look from the outside and into their main lobby area, but I’ve heard great things. Inside you’ll find Picasso’s and Andy Warhol’s.

Old Town

If you head further south along the river, towards the chocolate factory, you’ll stumble across Old Town. This is a gorgeous little area with tons of hidden streets and courtyards. You’ll also notice the stunning medieval looking homes colored up in pastels. If you’re looking for a great Instagram shot, head towards the back of the Great St. Martin Church, along the water’s edge and you’ll find 5 beautifully colored homes. I would definitely recommend checking this spot out!

Chocolate Museum

There are a ton of museums in this city, so if that’s your thing, go check out this list! But if you like chocolate, you’ve got to see this place! It’s right along the water called Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum. Inside you’ll see a gift shop, how to make chocolate and a 3-meter tall chocolate fountain. This museum closely works with Lindt… you know those amazing chocolate balls with mousse inside!? Ya those guys, so if you want to pay $20 or so to get in, it’s defiantly a fun place to be!

If you’re really wanting to go to Cologne, I would recommend doing it in early December so you truly get to experience what Cologne is known for… it’s Christmas markets! Again, I went in the summer, but I had a few coworkers when I lived in England, who would always head here for some classic German Christmas ornaments. Going to be honest, Cologne isn’t my favourite city in Germany, but you’ve got to knock it off the list right?

Comment below and let me know what you think of the list. Should there be more added to it?

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The Smithsonian Zoo — Tips & Tricks

The Smithsonian Zoo is a really cool part of DC to check out. If you’ve got time to make it up to Adam’s Morgan, you’ll really enjoy what this place has to offer. That being said, there are a few things you’ll want to know before going so you can make your experience as painless as possible!

When to go

You’ll want to check to see how long it is going to take you to get from your place to the zoo. There are two entrances to the zoo so one might be closer to the other. The first entrance is on Connecticut Drive, this is the major entrance that most people enter through (it can be very crowded in the summer). The next entrance (or exit) is near Beach Drive. You should check google maps and decide which entries will be easier for you. To give you an idea, it takes about 1 hour to get from Alexandria, Virginia to the Zoo entrance on Connecticut Drive if you’re taking the metro.

You should make sure to leave in the morning, earlier the better. We went around 1pm, and most of the animals were nowhere to be found. A lot of them will go to sleep in the mid-afternoon, so early morning, right after their breakfast is the best time to see them moving around (or so we’ve been told).

In terms of the time of year when you should visit the zoo… summer is always great because the walk around the park is much more enjoyable and more of the animals are out, but in the winter the panda’s come out to play in the snow so… that’s pretty adorable!

Getting There

I would recommend the metro, but I always recommend taking the metro! It’s just so much easier to hop on, hop off and not have to worry about driving amongst some pretty aggressive drivers. Plus, if you survive the drive, you then have to find parking in DC… and if you know anything about DC, good luck and $$$$$.

There is one metro stop that will get you close to the zoo — Woodley Park, it’s off of the red line and will get you close to both entrances. Head up Connecticut Avenue to go to the main entrance or head south along Connecticut, take a left down Calvert, then take another left on Beach. Keep taking Beach all the way to National Zoo Drive. This is a bit longer of a route, but you avoid the crowds at the front entrance. I love avoiding crowds — who doesn’t?!

What to do before you get there

When you come out of the metro at Woodley, you’ll see a Starbucks and a few restaurants… I would recommend getting something to eat outside the park … lines are less crazy and it’s cheaper to buy food and drinks. But, if you like food trucks, there are some great food trucks at the park!

Let’s say you decided to drive. It is probably easier to park outside of the park and walk in, rather than try to find parking at the Smithsonian. But there are parking lots at the Smithsonian if needed. If you’re looking for parking outside of the park, type “parking” into google maps around that area and it should show you a bunch of options around the Woodley metro stop and just north of the zoo.

What to see

Going on their site will show you a bunch of options, and it really depends on what animals you’re interested in. The Asia exhibit is really cool… cause Pandas! Unfortunately, when we were there this summer, we didn’t get to see any of the different Panda species, but that’s why I said to go in the morning when it’s a bit cooler.

The elephant exhibit is pretty awesome too. When they’re inside or at the watering holes, you can see them up close! Otherwise, they wander around their section and you can see them eating, sunbathing or trying to get a sneak peek at you!

The Ape exhibit was at the top of my list! Again, a lot of the primates weren’t visible when I went, but I did get to see an Orangutang, which was amazing!!

The reptile section was very crowded, but if lizards are your thing, you’d love the selection of species they have. They also have a pretty cool Amazonian exhibit. I didn’t fully check it out, but next time I try to go see the panda’s I’m going to discover how many exotic fish I can find!

My favorite section was the “Big Cats.” They had 2 Tigers and 2 lions, and they were absolutely beautiful! A lot of the times these creatures are sleeping or basking in the sun, but I’ve never been so excited for a cat to get up and walk around than I was when the tiger rolled over, stood up and majestically found a shaded patch of grass.

What to do afterward?

Once you’re done walking around the zoo, I would recommend checking out Adams Morgan. Leave the park via the South entrance (the one I mentioned was a little quieter). You’ll be walking towards it once you pass by the “Big Cats”, the “farm”, and the “Amazonian exhibit.” Wander your way through the neighborhood and walk down the bustling 18th street to find some great restaurants! Check out my the blog post “Places to Eat in Adam’s Morgan” to find some great restaurants!

To be honest, I prefer to see animals in the wild, but the Smithsonian takes very good care of their animals… animals which normally wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild on their own anyway. But if you really want to see Lions and Elephants… ethical safaris in Africa seem like a better, more natural, option.

Have you guys ever been to the Smithsonian Zoo? How many animals did you get to see? Did anyone get the opportunity to see the Panda’s playing in the snow?


Visiting Petra, Jordan – Tips & Tricks

Driving through the Jordanian desert with my father, I was horribly ill after eating something I probably shouldn’t have, but on this day, this was one of the better days. As the majority of this trip was spent focusing on providing assistance to Syrian refugees in the north of Jordan, a little tourist excursion was a pleasant getaway. As we approached Petra, the excitement overtook the queasy stomach. When we arrived, we weren’t entirely prepared for the excursion, so we asked a few locals for tips, and were we glad we listened! Here are seven ways to make the most of your trip to Petra in the beautiful Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan!

Get there early!

My father and I arrived in Petra around 6:00am, which is right when the ticket booths open. You’ll want to arrive early in order to avoid the eventual crowds that arrive a couple hours later. As we were the first people to arrive (literally), acquiring tickets was painless, and we had Petra all to ourselves. As a tourist who is not a Jordanian citizen, you must pay more, but the fee for entry depends on how long you’ve been in the country. We were definitely there for more than three days, so our tickets cost us 60 Dinar (JOD) or roughly 84 dollars (USD). If you’ve only been in the country for two days it costs less, around 55 dinar, and if you’ve only been in the country for one day it costs only 50 dinar. When you arrived at the first monastery, there will be about six camels waiting for you — another reason to show up early — you don’t have to wait for one!

Don’t take the carriage ride!

At the ticket booth, they’ll ask you if you want a carriage ride. A local told us to not bother paying the extra 20-40 dinar — and he was right! First of all, this allows you to stroll through the mesmerizing gulches full of ancient art decorating the canyon walls — something you wouldn’t be able to witness if you flew by on a carriage. Another reason to avoid the carriage is that they are terribly bumpy — just imagine a rickety carriage flying over cobblestones and uneven rock…not my cup of tea. The only true benefit to the carriage ride is not having to constantly tell the Bedouin children you are not interested in their jewelry…unless of course, you are interested in a souvenir, then go ahead and splurge!

Side note: The longer I spent in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the more I realized how much of a ripoff a lot of the touristy places were. The guides have no problem lying to you about historical facts and offering you “historical” items, later requesting you pay for what they handed you. Of course none of these “artifacts” they offer you are actually real and the prices skyrocket once you enter these areas. In all honesty, prices skyrocket once they realize you’re a foreigner, even in local rural markets, it’s just something you have to accept. You still do have the option of attempting to negotiate prices–it is your money after all. Local rural markets offer a lot of the best stuff!

Ride the Camel

Once you get to the treasury (the first spectacular work of ancient architecture), you’ll see camels lying down and Bedouin men offering you a ride — TAKE IT! Spend the money and saunter (or run) through the lower half of Petra via camel, they’re a ton of fun to ride and the experience will make you feel as though you’ve gone back in time. The Bedouin men tend to hold the rope as they walk beside you, but if they feel you’re a competent rider, they’ll let you take control of the camel…which ultimately decides where you’re going.

Take the Donkey

As you wander, you’ll come to a cliff face and will have to make your next big decision — walk the rest of the way, or take the donkey? If you’re scared of heights, or the possibility of dying in a crevasse in the middle of Jordan — do not take the donkey — just choose to walk. Walking takes about four hours for the average person, or if you’re fit, maybe two hours (the “Bedouin” kids can do it in about 20 minutes). My father and I decided to take the donkey as per the local’s recommendation, but we had no idea the absolute terror we were about to endure. I would be lying if didn’t tell you that the daredevil in me was utterly thrilled at the idea of a 1 1/2 hour near-death experience. My father on the other hand — a man who I had never seen afraid of anything in my entire life — was now debating this donkey-decision with every precariously placed step of the donkey’s hoof. The Bedouin men had control of the donkeys when they needed to, but mostly let the donkey follow it’s own instincts.

Going up wasn’t even the worse part of the adventure…it was going down. The specific problem with going down was that the donkeys wanted to go fast. So here you are at deathly angles with your feet at the donkey ears, finding yourself holding on for dear life as this animal careens down the side of what seems to be an almost vertical cliff. The cliffs seem to get steeper and steeper the farther down you go, leaning to my unprecedented willingness to try to get killed in the Middle East. But I would not have had it any other way.

Explore at the top!

Petra’s upper Monastery

After passing many little stalls selling jewelry and trinkets and crossing over dangerous precipices, you’ll arrive at the top. Around the bend, you’ll see the monastery, grandiose and lonely in the morning light. I honestly wish I would have stayed longer and got some better pictures, but at the time of this adventure I wasn’t thinking about photography or blogging, but rather experiencing. Regardless, make sure to climb the nearby rocks and get a far away shot of this beautiful structure!

Be willing to Say “No”

You’ll find that people are trying to sell you a ton of things when you get to Petra (or anywhere in Jordan for that matter), but be wise. A lot of what they are trying to sell you is not what they claim. Chances are they are not selling actual silver or gold. Chances are those are not actually historical items but replicas. Chances are you’re getting a really bad price. If you really do want something, by all means, indulge and just accept you’ll never get the “locals” price. It’s something you just have to get used to in crowded touristy areas or markets, the art of saying, “no.” Sometimes the art of saying “no” is gentle and calm, and other times it will take a firm and abrupt “no” to get the job done. It will all depend on the situation, but don’t feel like you’re being rude if you don’t want to buy something that’s being thrust into your path. Also do not accept anything they try to put in your hands (this should apply for any country), because once it’s in your hand, they’ll require you to buy it or claim that you were trying to steal the item — so just be wary.

Have any other suggestions for a trip to Petra? Let us know by commenting below!