Leaving Oslo is always a painful affair for me – and I’ve been finding myself in Norway once a year now, because I love it so much.
This time, I needed one more long trip to hit Star Alliance Gold, and Norway flights happened to be the most reasonable option for an extended Labor Day weekend trip. So naturally, I booked flights with a friend and hopped across the pond to the happiest country on earth (literally).
I hadn’t actually explored Oslo in at least three years – last summer, we spent about 12 hours there on our way out, and the year before, I came for a winter wonderland new years. But the last time I had a few days of decent weather in Oslo was 2013, so I was ready to see it all! After all, moving to Norway is a serious goal of mine, so I treat every trip as a research event.
We found the cutest two-bedroom apartment in the Grünerløkka neighborhood, and walked almost everywhere (unless we were crunched for time). When you arrive at the airport, take the local train to Oslo Sentralstasjon – seriously, it’s half the price of the Flytoget and only takes a few minutes longer – and stop by a Narvesson to pick up a bus pass. A 7-day pass costs 240 NOK, and you just have to tap it on a screen the first time you hop onto a bus.
If you ever head towards Oslo (or anywhere else in Norway – I’ve probably seen it), let me know! I’m madly in love with that country.
Villa Paradiso – bustling little pizza shop in Grünerløkka. Put your name in, and have a cocktail at the adjoined bar, Bar Bellini.
Egget Kafe – A cute little bistro overlooking a fountain with an egg in the middle. Catch a midmorning breakfast, and watch all the locals walking their pups!
Riwaj of India – great casual Indian spot with a warm, sultry atmosphere. Save room for dessert.
Hitchhiker – Asian tapas, located on the second floor of Mathallen Oslo (which you should also wander). Get 2-3 courses per person, and then get dessert.
Stockfleth’s – this really ended up being our favorite coffee chain on the trip. We spent half a day working remotely, and I ended up taking a couple of bags of coffee home!
Tim Wendelboe – recommended by the New York Times, and a fabulous little roaster shop. No space for working, so just grab your espresso to go.
Kulturhuset – recently relocated to a large space on Carl Youngs Gate, this bar has several rooms on several floors. Check out the local beer selection, and cozy up in the library room.
Postkontoret – formerly an actual post office – this place is now a pizzeria, coffee shop, and bar. Grab an iced coffee and chat up some locals on the patio.
Oslo Mekaniske Verksted – once a mechanic garage (circa 1850), now a hipster cocktail bar with plenty of nooks and crannies and midcentury modern furniture to cozy up to – and a fireplace! They don’t have a kitchen, but you can bring outside food with you.
Oslo Opera House – this is usually everyone’s first stop as a visitor. How can you not? Snøhetta’s killer opera house is a stunner, and you can climb all over it.
Mellomkollen – taking the bus to a trailhead is the norm in Norway, and you can even take your dog. Based on the maps my hosts had, a ton of trailheads branch off from this area, and we even did some swimming in a lake. Pack a sandwich and live your best Norwegian life. Blue markers are for summer trails, and red ones are for winter trails.
Øya (Norwegian for “Islands”) – with your bus pass, you also get access to the ferries that cross the bay all day. You could pay $40 or more for a fjord tour, but taking the free ferries to the islands was a fun tip from our Norwegian friends. Bring a swimsuit on a warm day, and jump in to the water off Hovedøye – there’s nothing quite like it.
Ekebergparken – One thing I love about Oslo is that it can feel like you’re in the middle of an old world city one minute, and the next, you could be on the edge of a mountainside forest. Ekebergparken is one of those places. Wander the park, enjoy the views, and check out the weird sculptures all over the place.
Kleivstua – if you have access to a car and want to have a really, really good meal, head over to Kleivstua for a city escape, or just a fantastic fine dining meal for not a ridiculous price. We had 4 courses and several glasses of wine for about $160 USD per person. Get there early and take the 20 minute hike to Kongens Utsikt (The King’s View) – work up that appetite just enough to hike back down and relax in front of a fireplace.
“When I got to my gate at JFK, it was chaos — it was like we were already in Morocco.”
This was the response we got when we greeted my friend Lauren and asked how her flight was. To be completely honest, I had a similar experience on my flight from Brussels to Marrakesh.
I had a middle seat, which I don’t usually mind — short legs! There was an older, very glamorous Moroccan woman in the window seat, and she repeatedly tried to speak Moroccan Arabic and French to me. My modern standard Arabic was rusty at best, and French words just sound like Arabic words I simply do not know… so we quickly gave up on communicating.
But when my aisle seat companion arrived, she was a tiny young woman with a toddler — and before I knew it, she just handed me her baby while she got situated. And right before landing, the woman in the window seat made a phone call in Spanish (yes, mid-flight), and we realized we had a common language after all. She invited me and my two girlfriends to stay at her oceanfront home in Tangier.
This is Morocco.
Marrakesh is a loud, bustling cultural capital awash with pink clay — meant to keep the buildings cool and the light unblinding. The streets are really just alleys with names, and it’s a city of juxtapositions that feel comfortable and unnatural at the same time: Porsche SUVs and donkey carts loaded with oranges share the roads, and in Djemma al-Fna, a cobra handler will put a snake on your neck no matter how hard you protest (in Arabic, French, and English, because that’s how we roll).
The Lonely Planet describes Fes as an assault on the senses, but Marrakesh has its own aggressive personality, too. Wherever you go, the fumes from motorbikes will invade your lungs — but then you’ll pass by a French bakery, or a fresh orange juice cart, and you forget about the fumes for a few minutes.
In the souks, the shopkeepers will pull you in and pour argan oil into your hands, and then open up tall glass jars of blocks that look like soap, inviting you to smell every apothecary glass in their shop. Tagines bubble over open flames, and butchers shoo kittens away from their windows. Someone almost always yells “NO PHOTOS” at me as I capture moments in the souk — the lantern shops are the most mesmerizing.
I turned 30 in Marrakesh, with two of my closest friends, who not surprisingly, have more in common with each other than either of them has with me. We arrived in Marrakesh to a torrential downpour, and ran through the streets of the old medina in search of our riad.
Riad, in Arabic, refers to a large building with no exterior windows, but an interior courtyard — something that keeps the noise of the city out of the home. Some riads are restaurants, some are mini hotels, and most are both. All of them are simply beautiful.
Marrakesh is the perfect introduction to Morocco: aggressive peddling to tourists, souks that connect reality to what Disney portrayed in Aladdin, and plenty of rooftop restaurants and cafes to pique your interest with Moroccan food. But beware visiting only Marrakesh — because there is so much more to Morocco, and Marrakesh is simply the epicenter of all Moroccan tourism. It claims to be the center of all culture in Morocco, but if there’s anything we learned on our two week road trip throughout central and northern Maroc, it’s that Marrakesh was merely an introduction to what was a deluge of Moroccan history, scents, politics, and culture.
In all, go to Marrakesh — but don’t let it be your only stop.
Have multiple meals at: I Limoni. We did.
Sleep and relax at: Riad Lena. I would stay there a million times again.
Buy a pool pass for: Palais Namaskar, or go with the classic, La Mamounia. Pro tip: reserve your day pass in advance, because they were sold out the whole time we were in Marrakesh.
Escape the city life for: Essouiara. Take a luxury bus from the Marrakesh train station, and spend the day wandering the seaside souks.
Tulum’s been on the hot list for several years now, and there’s a good reason why. It’s the ultimate place to relax on the beach, dine at incredible restaurants, and admire a minimalist beach chic design aesthetic. And there are many, many ways you can do up Tulum – it can easily add up to a pricey trip, but at the same time, you can explore Tulum and the Mayan Riviera on the cheap. And that’s really how I prefer to do Tulum!
To be completely honest, I’ve never been able to convince myself to fork over the cash for a room in one of Tulum’s boutique beachfront hotels… because even when you don’t do Tulum to the nines, it’s a pristine beach with great food and plenty to do. Here are my pro tips to getting the best value out of every dollar you spend on a trip to Tulum.
Where to Stay — Tulum Pueblo vs. Tulum Beach
I was an early adopter to the Airbnb scene – and the first time I used the website was actually to visit Puerto Morelos, a town about an hour north of Tulum. We visited Tulum for a day trip, on a recommendation from our host, back in 2011.
Then, there’s Tulum Pueblo, which is less luxurious, a little rough, and much cheaper. I prefer traveling on the more adventurous side, so when I visit Tulum, I like to book an Airbnb in Tulum Pueblo – there are so, so many great options for luxe apartments and villas when you expand your search from the beach areas. Tulum Pueblo is about a 10-minute drive away from the beach areas (check the map above!)
Staying in Tulum Pueblo
Pros: better value for per dollar, and the ability to get a glimpse of what Tulum is like for people who live there – cheaper, less touristy, and easier to use as a jumping off point for other adventures on the Mayan Riviera.
Cons: not walking distance to the beach, dirt roads, and the need to rent a car. Related to that — dealing with parking when you go to Tulum Beach.
Staying in Tulum Beach
Pros: walking distance to restaurants, bars, and ruins. Posh hotels and wellness retreats, no need to rent a car
Cons: Expensive, boujie, touristy.
Real talk: If you’re someone who really values exploring and adventuring in your travels, then finding a nice Airbnb in Tulum Pueblo is probably going to be a great option for you. But if you’re someone who likes the luxuries of boutique hotels and the convenience of walking to dinner, then Tulum Beach is probably a better value!
Alas, I have never been much of a luxury traveler – I swear by Airbnb, and when I travel alone, you’ll probably find me in a hostel, taking swigs from a bottle of rum, with 5 new traveler friends. So this is my guide to Tulum on the cheap: what’s good, what’s expensive, and what’s worth it. If you haven’t done Airbnb before, and think I’ve sold you on it, please do use my link for referrals!
Where to Eat
Hartwood: You’re likely to read and hear a lot about Hartwood. I’ve had two fantastic experiences there — but my advice would be to focus on the ceviche and sides, and just order an entree if it really speaks to you.
ARCA: One of the best meals of my life. Go here.
Taqueria La Eufemia: cheap, awesome beach tacos. Great spot to escape the upscale Tulum visitors that tend to hail from NYC.
Kitchen Table: Treehouse-like atmosphere, great service, and where I learned to love Mexican wine.
Casa Jaguar: went here for a first meal on a trip with five friends, and they did not disappoint. Great food and cocktails, and the best service.
Gitano: cocktails were fantastic, and dinner was alright. Go for the drinks, the people watching, and the open air disco ball atmosphere.
MurMur: underappreciated, but solid. The short ribs are what stand out to me the most.
Tabano: Mexican grandma-style cooking. If you’re somehow sick of ceviche…
Literally any beachfront spot with a bar — it’s all good. Live your life.
Antojitos la chiapneca – only open at night. Line out the door, but it’s worth it. Known for tacos al pastor.
El Camello – ceviche institution for the locals. Get the small… grande is extreme
El Milagrito – cute spot for a beer or three during the day. Fun bar at night! Good escape from the usual Tulúm beach crowd hailing from UES.
Ki bok – cute little coffee shop if you find yourself in Tulúm town and in need of a cheap brunch.
What to Do
Tulum’s known for it’s cliffside Mayan ruins, which are really cool to explore. It costs about $6 USD to enter the park, and you can walk around all the building structures. On the ocean side, there’s a view point with stairs down to the ocean, where the waves crash against a little beach cove. Make sure you bring your swimsuit and some drinking water — this place gets hot.
The Yucatan Peninsula is known for its incredible sinkholes — in this part of the world, they’re called cenotes. Though there are several pretty close to Tulum itself, my personal favorite is hidden in the jungle near Puerto Morelos, about an hour or so north of Tulum. Drive yourself in a rental, or hire a taxi to find Siete Bocas — all the locals will all know where it is. Entrance fee is about USD $20, and it’s well worth the price. The cenote has six openings (there used to be 7, but they collapsed 2 holes into one giant one). Some have stairs for accessing, and others require a leap of faith! Say hi to Maria, and practice your Spanish. Bring a lunch and relax a bit.
Snorkeling off Playa Paraíso
Just south of las ruinas, you’ll find a beach that’s mostly used by the locals — a couple of beach bars with cheap cervezas and some bachata music set the scene. If you’re as lucky as I was, a local will offer to take you snorkeling in one of the boats on the beach. Pick up a six pack of Sóls at the bar, and hop on the boat to check out the reefs.
Siam Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Also further south of the ruins is a huge wildlife reserve — to get there, you can either continue driving down the Tulum Beach road (and be prepared for a dusty, long, dirt road). Or, you can Enter through the town of Muyil, from the main Cancun highway. If you enter through Muyil, you can take a boat tour for about USD $45 and hopefully see birds, dolphins, and sea turtles! We explored a bit through the Tulum Beach road, and unfortunately didn’t see anything — but I’ve heard great things from people who have made a day trip out of it.
“Have so much fun — Cuba is a dream.”
That’s what a girlfriend texted me in the 48 hours before I left for Cienfuegos, as I was frantically tying up loose ends on some work projects. I was less worried about abandoning my team for a couple of days than I was about going to this place I knew almost nothing about.
I hopped onto a flight deal from American Airlines months ago, and notified a few girlfriends who had expressed interest in going to Cuba about my plans. Within two days, they miraculously committed, bought tickets, and were pumped for the trip – which, as many of you know, rarely happens when you’re trying to rally commitment out of friends for travel.
So, somewhere within that crazy work schedule of mine, I planned a three-day trip to Cuba for four women. It wasn’t ideal, but you know how I feel about flight deals… and, to be completely honest, it was absolutely incredible nevertheless. Like most of my trips, I wanted to see more than just one city – so we road tripped it from Cienfuegos, to Havana, to Varadero, and back to Cienfuegos. And this is what I learned.
1. Cuba is a dream. And… it’s huge. Go for at least five days.
The hardest part about our trip to Cuba was how little time we had to wander. I can’t speak for everyone that was with me, but there was never a moment that I was ready to move on from. I initially allocated about 12 hours in Havana, with my focus being on the beaches and the views on our drives.
Boy, I was wrong.
Havana was teeming with excitement and an infectious energy that I could. not. get enough of. Within two hours of being in Havana, I knew I’d need to plan a trip back. A moment that stands out was our walk to dinner – from the Edificio Focsa, our casa particular, to our paladar for dinner, La Guarida. Over our shoulders, the sun began to set through the streets of Havana, and we got a glimpse of the city in the heat of the night: kids playing soccer in the street, teenage romance, and the overall atmosphere of Havana letting loose once the sun goes down. Salsa music played from open air windows, and a few puppies had a barking conversation from opposite balconies.
I tried to soak up every detail, from every stranger that yelled hello to us obvious tourists, to the visual of the steam that rose from the streets when it started to drizzle.
Side note, Cubans seem to have figured out how make cat calls genuine compliments, as opposed to creepy comments we scurry away from. Every time some guy yelled “HOLA GUAPAS,” Kristen and I would look at each other and say something to the effect of “Ugh! It’s so nice for someone in the world to finally appreciate all of this” — while motioning our hands towards our faces, of course.
2. Cubans are the friendliest people in the world. Befriend them.
Spanish is a must in Cuba – unless you’re going with a guided tour group – and even the feeblest attempts at broken Spanish will help you make some new friends.
Crime is also ridiculously low in Cuba, so the chance of you getting robbed is slim. Scams, however, are common – so don’t be gullible, or prepare to be flexible with your cash.
For the most part, we found it difficult to walk down the street without making new friends – strangers were incredibly helpful and genuine with helping us navigate, and taxi drivers would write down their full names, phone numbers, and addresses for us, inviting us to dinner in their homes for whenever we return to Cuba. One morning, I was on the hunt for about 10 cups of coffee, and we stopped in a makeshift café, located in an abandoned playground. Ernesto (above, left), who owned the café, didn’t have coffee there, but he had some at home, so he disappeared into his own kitchen, and reemerged with four Cuban coffees. This type of hospitality is the norm in Cuba. And… I’m obsessed with it.
3. Don’t stay in hotels. And maybe… skip Varadero.
I cannot begin to describe the contempt in people’s voices when they reacted to us saying we were going to Varadero – to the people we met in Havana, Varadero is not Cuba.
One of the realities of visiting a communist country is that the people don’t have much – so it’s best to not wave luxuries in their faces. While there’s no denying the pristine beauty of Varadero, it’s not exactly what I’d call an authentic Cuban experience. To be completely honest, our day at the Melia Las Americas — while absolutely lovely — didn’t feel any different than a day at a resort in Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
If you really, really want to get the whole resort experience, then by all means, go to Varadero — but if I could do anything from my trip differently, I’d either skip the beach experience entirely, or look into some less touristy options here.
4. Go dancing.
In college, I went salsa dancing once or twice a week – and to this day, salsa dancing is one of my favorite things to do. A life goal of mine since then has been to go salsa dancing in Havana… so there was absolutely no way I was going to skip that while we were there!
After dinner, we hopped in a taxi and asked for all of his recommendations on dancing on a Havana Friday night – and he said Miramar, a neighborhood on the western side of Havana, was the place to be. But since we were in central Havana, Fabrica de Arte came in for a close second. Fabrica de Arte was featured by Anthony Bourdain, and I didn’t expect it to be as awesome as it was. Half art gallery maze, half night club, half patio hot spot – Fabrica de Arte was filled with Cubans and tourists alike, dancing, chatting, and admiring some provocative artwork. Definitely spend a Friday or Saturday night here, and catch a live salsa band. Dance with the locals.
5. Plan the basics in advance – and don’t count on a schedule.
Like I’ve mentioned before, it was really hard to stick to even the most flexible of schedules. A few weeks ahead of your trip, schedule your Airbnbs and make reservations at the popular paladares, but outside of that, the only thing you should plan is to not have a plan.
One of the things I loved about our time in Havana was that whenever we had our sights set on one specific thing, we found three other things along the way that were worth stopping for. Whether that’s ducking into an artists’ gallery in an alley, or stopping for a late lunch on a breezy patio to listen to two guitarists sing Guantanamera – every spontaneous moment was an adventure worth savoring.
Also, budget how much cash you want to spend, and then double it. I ended up being short on cash, partially because of an unexpected hotel expense, and partially because I ended up covering more than I budgeted for our car rental deposit, but you’re better off with extra cash than none at all.