When you need to walk off all the delicious food, it's best to stay local and look at the capital of the city's illustrious street art. One of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, it maintains its character while embracing the city's graffiti takeover.Read More
For a place that is renowned for its architecture and also its religious fervor, it's only fitting that there would be numerous cathedrals and basilicas that are the quintessential destinations when visiting certain Spanish cities. After taking a breathtaking trip a few weeks ago, I decided to list the most majestic, immense, and important ones in the country.
- Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See (Seville)
It's the 3rd largest church, but the biggest cathedral, in the world; The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See is the gem of the beautiful medieval city of Seville. The burial site of Christopher Columbus, it was completed in the 1500's where it surpassed the Hagia Sofia as the worlds largest cathedral. A title held for over 1,000 years.
- Almudena Cathedral (Madrid)
Here for its historical significance as well as its interior beauty. It's certainly not because of the exterior, which is intentionally dull so as not to outshine the Royal Palace across the street. Inside is a different story with modern renderings juxtaposed against Baroque and Gothic exteriors. Probably because even though the Spanish broke ground in the late 1800's, they didn't finish until 1993. It's the place where King Felipe VI married, making it a significant landmark for Spain regardless of religious status.
- Santiago de Compostela Cathedral (Galicia)
The alleged burial site of one of Jesus's twelve apostles - St. James. It is also the final stop on the legendary Camino de Santiago, or in English the St. James Way. The famous pilgrimage trail concludes at the Shrine of St. James in this legendary church.
- The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia (Barcelona)
Also known as Barcelona Cathedral, the heart of Barri Gotic houses one of Spain's most important churches. The church is famous for its jagged spires at its top and the gargoyles jutting out from the side. Personally, I think the most beautiful aspects are within the walls. The atrium fountain and elaborate tombs of Eulalia and Olegarius.
- Primate Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo (Toledo)
The old seat of the Spanish Empire - this cathedral, like Seville, is the exclamation point on a romantic medieval city. Only an hour drive from Madrid this is maybe the most important and beautiful Gothic cathedral in Spain. And it's about as old as Columbus's "discovery" of America. The whole old town and river bank are worth the walk.
- La Sagrada Familia (Barcelona)
Probably the most famous landmark in a city full of them. This basilica is Gaudi's magnum opus and is a stark contrast from the cold, uninviting churches you find elsewhere. Draped in warm rose windows on the inside and amorphous figures ooze up from the outer walls. With long and one-of-a-kind towers bolting up it is supposed to represent the Earth's attempt at connecting to Heaven. The craziest part is it's not even done yet. But apparently, it'll be even grander by its completion date in 2026.
- The Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona (Girona)
Since I've talked so much about beautiful medieval city centers in Spain, I'd be remiss not to mention Catalonia's greatest one in Girona. The old town is a major locale for King's Landing and Braavos for the upcoming Game of Thrones season. The Cathedral is the location for the legendary "Shame" scene from season 5. It's also the exterior of the home of the Sparrows.
Its history goes way beyond television, though. A church existed before at least 717 AD, but the earliest remnants are from the 11th century with the Charlemagne Bell Tower. With redesigns and renovations carrying on in the 15th, 16th, and 20th centuries; you can see different styles from the dominant periods of the time as well as artifacts crossing these periods. Even more impressive, it has the second largest nave in the world and the largest Gothic one.
- Basilica Nuestra Senora de Pilar (Zaragoza)
Not as famous as its counterparts, this is my favorite church that I've ever encountered. It's massive and beautifully lit on the outside, rests on a perfect spot on the Ebro river, has beautiful masonry and paintings, and a fascinating history. Home to some of Goya's most impressive work, it's probably best known for being the spot where Saint James saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary shortly before her assumption. Many churches stood here at different periods of time. With the first coming in the 1st century AD, the current version sprung up between the 17th and 19th centuries. A baroque style church that luckily survived the dropping of three bombs during the Spanish Civil War that thankfully never exploded. Divine intervention? You have to see it to decide for yourself.
Approximately one year ago I visited one of my favorite cities of all time. You may have seen me mention it here. Budapest is a gem of history, architecture, and leisure thriving on either side of the Danube River. There I learned it was actually two cities that have morphed into one in 1873, kind of like Minneapolis-St. Paul. It's full of history, nightlife, good food, and hot springs. So, now the question is where to spend most of your time once you've decided to come here. Because you obviously should see both sides, I've broken it up into categories: culture, nightlife, outdoors, food, accommodation, and thermal baths. From there you can decide where you want to put up your home base and better explore.
From its world famous opera's inception in 1884 in Pest to the Sziget Fetival that draws in 440,000 people to Obuda Island for a week every summer. The city has been a hotbed of culture since the 15th Century with the creation of the 2nd largest library in the world and continued with impressive Art and History museums. Pest has an impressive Parliament building housing the royal jewels and St. Stephens Basilica housing some Saint's mummified hand, to coincide with a world class opera house. But Buda has Buda Castle, Fisherman's Bastion, and Matthias Church all centered around each other on the top of the hill. Across from there the Citadella gives you views of the whole city and all the Danube's bridges, along with a history from the Hapsburgs to the Nazis and Soviets. There's a cave church below it and when you finally make your way back down you can go to the classical Gellert Baths.The museums that are peppered throughout the city kind of cancel each other out in the argument of which side is superior.
The Buda side gives you some of the city's most famous riverboat clubs. However Pest has some of their own and gives you a bigger variety. The urban sprawl provides a range of classic bars & cafes, British & Irish pubs, and romkocsmas (pictured left), which are abandoned houses that have been converted into bars and are difficult to spot without help. If you want to make it a social event and need a little help finding the spots, contact these guys. It's the longest running bar crawl in the city and they take you to a mix of the original ruin pubs and new ones as well. And if that sounds like too much for you or you're looking for something different, they've got a variety of tours and tastings that are a great deal.
Because you gotta eat and Hungarian food is full of delectable blends of meat and spices. Aszu Etterem located next to St. Stephen's Basilica is one of the best restaurants I've eaten at regardless of cuisine, country, etc. With entrees starting at $13 and finishing up with the most tender venison you'll ever eat for $20. Please, please go here.
Pest is pretty flat, but bigger than Buda and that gives it some open green spaces and allows it to house the city's zoo and main city park. Buda however mixes their cultural landmarks with some up and down urban trekking and even houses two caves. Elizabeth Lookout is the highest point in the city, resting in Buda's hills. Kalandpalya is a massive reserve that has a lot of activities geared for kids. If you can't decide and want to split the distance in the summer, go to Margaret Island on the Danube and lie out on the beach or walk through its gardens.
Pest dominates when it comes to hostels, which they have a massive amount of for the size of their city. Buda wins out when it comes to luxury accommodation, and the Danubius is maybe the fanciest in the city. Pest has an advantage when it comes to available area and they have their own collection of luxury hotels and a large some supply of economy and mid-range ones.
Probably the biggest tourist attraction in Hungary. Going is not only a therapeutic experience, but a historical and cultural one as well. The two most famous Gellert (Buda) and Szechenyi (Pest) are can't lose. There are smaller baths all over the city and for this reason you really can't go wrong.
Obviously, there was never going to be a clear winner. They both have their respective strengths and you would be doing a disservice to yourself if you stuck to just one side the whole time. When I was there I stayed in Pest and went out there during the night. You have to take a boat up and down the Danube and spend at least a day walking the hills from the Citadella to the Buda Castle area. In Pest you have to visit Parliament and St. Stephen's Basilica. But honestly, you can't go wrong with whatever you decide to do here because Budapest is awesome any time of the year and has an area of reprieve for all passions.
I will admit that I'm one of those people who sometimes fulfill those stereotypes of Americans that we all try to avoid. You know, the ones that travel to foreign places, get a little boisterous (thanks, alcohol), and then manage to show their complete ignorance of contemporary international issues and culture (#Murica). When I arrived in Ljubljana (pron. Loob-lee-ya-na), Slovenia not only could I not even pronounce where I was going, but I also did minimal research on the city itself with the intent of getting local suggestions and eschewing the guidebooks. Thankfully, the people are incredibly hospitable and willing to tell you all about their town and country. But as a visitor, most importantly, there are many things to do in Ljubljana. Here are the top seven.
Take in iconic Ljubljana Neighborhoods
The city is small, for a capital, but still got a lot of diverse movements within. From the hipster artists to the upscale bankers. There's a little bit of everything, no matter your preference in characteristics of a city unless you like constant crowds. For me, and most other travelers, there are two neighborhoods to focus on: Metelkova and Old Town.
Like most European cities there's a large, old part of the city near downtown where a castle sits on top of a hill and gothic style statues adorn bridges, crossing peaceful rivers.
Tour Ljubljana's Markets
This river's also lined with bars and restaurants (like most of the other European old cities). The central market also has an array of events from your traditional farmer's markets to the art market that happens every Friday. There's Austro-Hungarian architecture lining the cobblestone streets. What makes the place more unique is its proximity to everything not only within the city but also the rest of the country. Also, the fact that cars are banned from the city center makes it a relaxing place to saunter around.
Catch a View (or Exhibit) at Ljubljana Castle
In the day, the best thing to do is take the trolley up to Ljubljana Castle and check out some of their museum exhibits (Torture, clock tower, and history of the castle's usage).
Have a Picnic Outside Ljubljana Castle
Grab a few beers and view the whole city in the park surrounding the castle confines.
Hit the Clubs or Grab a Beer Along the Ljubljanica River
At night, you have two options depending on your preferences for a drinking scene. There's hitting up the bars that line the Ljubljanica River. They're probably the trendiest places in town and range from your pubs with large terraces like Cutty Sark to dance clubs like the famous Klub Cirkus. There's a full range to choose from, and you can go all night if you want.
Party in the Cyberpunk Playground - Metelkova
The other option is the rougher around the edges Metelkova. The former military prison lives up to its original image; if you replaced guns with graffiti and soldiers with punks and metalheads. When you enter this part of this city, it's like moving from this little Central European utopia to a scene from a Philip K. Dick and Hunter S. Thompson lovechild novel.
Metelkova has got a lot more metal, piercings, and tattoos; but the locale has still got a beguiling atmosphere to people from all walks of life. The bars and clubs therein mainly consist of sticky plywood bars with tallboy cans stacked in mini fridges below. The people are friendly, and it was never packed to the brim.
Outside is the middle school playground for adults you dream of in your cubicle.
There are sizeable freestanding metal structures that you can climb and relax with a view over the old barracks. There's a three-story shell of a house held together by plywood, metal rods, and seemingly spray paint - not to mention a see-saw and other random equipment. It's a great place to hang out for a night in a less judgmental environment. Not to mention the art on the outside of these bars and music venues vary from psychedelic - to surreal - to absurd.
The music on the inside can include jazz duos all the way to noise rock spliced with some EDM/trance/trip hop.
Take a Class or See an Art Gallery in Metelkova
During the day in Metelkova, there are art galleries, studios with lessons on things like dance, painting or video editing, and even some non profit organizations. After one of these classes (most are for children, but there are some drop-in ones for adults) you can go to one of the many cafes and sit around drinking coffee until the night comes and you do it all over again. Also, you can just use Ljubljana as your home base to visit the other wonders of Slovenia. Like its alpine lakes, views, and hikes in the Julian Alps, or massive caves. Don't just limit yourself to the city, but if you're forced to, then you still have at least a few days you can keep packed.
Mostar, Bosnia's 6th largest city and the center of Herzegovina has a rich history that's carried over from the Roman, Medieval, and Ottoman eras. The brutal siege and bombings of the city in the early 90's did their best to try and destroy the remnants of the past but construction over the past ten years has tried to undo these actions. Currently, views of the city exemplify a country in the process of mending its wounds, while also juxtaposing the two dominant cultures that still divide the city to this day.
Every year the government decides which buildings to renovate. The pro-Croatian party dominates the government, who has almost uniformly chosen to fix their side of town. These decisions effectively give the Bosniak side the appearance that it is still a war zone.
Stari Most (Old Bridge) is the defining feature of the city and one of the largest tourist destinations in the country. Built in the 16th century, airstrikes tragically destroyed the bridge in 1994 during the Croatian-Bosnian War. In 2004, they rebuilt the bridge by digging the rubble out of the bottom of the Nevreta River.It boasts a stunning view and displays arguably one of the most beautiful examples of Ottoman architecture in the world. Today it stands about 25-28 meters high (depending on who you ask) and this year even hosted the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships. You can jump too, for a fee, after you pay insurance and do some practice jumps.
Nowadays, if you visit the city, you can walk through the old town and get a feel for what it was like during Ottoman rule. Vendors sell traditional foods, coffee, and trinkets. Hookah bars line the spaces where you can find shade and even though it's a Muslim country beer and other alcohol is still readily available everywhere, which is nice to fight off the 100-degree Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) heat that I faced every day there.
On that note the week before I got to Mostar it apparently got up to 50 Celsius or about 122 Fahrenheit, which is insane to me and also unlivable. So, if you are careless enough to go here during August, like me, I suggest you go off the path and at least visit Kravice Falls.
A great way to beat the heat, but can be a pain to get there. You can hitchhike (pretty common in the former Yugoslavia), or if you feel above that or unsafe doing that, you can just rent a car. There's also a lot of hiking in the area surrounding, but you need to make sure that you stay on trails as there is a lot of landmines still unfound.
The most fascinating part of the city and what sets it apart from other touristy towns has to be the recent war history. It's in a unique location because it was on the front-lines of the Bosnian-Serbian War and the Croatian-Bosnian War. Sarajevo, the capital, has mostly been rebuilt and renovated, but Mostar seems to be in the middle stages of this process. You have expensive resorts that line the Nevreta River next to high rise condos, and in between, you'll have the shell of a building with an abandoned snipers nest. All of them have beautiful views of the historical architecture and immaculate nature behind it.
There are a ton of war tours led by men that didn't leave Mostar during the conflict and now walk you around significant sights (be prepared to hear stories that will make the hair on your arms stand on edge and almost violently ill). The best evidence of this is an abandoned bank that sits as the tallest building in the city.
It was a former sniper's nest that was abandoned after the war. Now, teenagers and the homeless morphed it into a not-so-hidden hangout. Then it turned into a drug den, and so the town blocked off access. People still go to hang out and get views of the city. Be careful because the place is riddled with needles and broken bottles laying on the ground. Also, there is no wall alongside the stairs to the top, so it becomes a deadly fall to the ground. The Croats used the bank to fire upon Bosniaks.
Inside the bank, there's an eery feeling that someone could be around any corner. But, you'll rarely see anyone, except other curious travelers. Occasionally, locals use the location as a place to escape the pain from their pasts. Graffiti lines the walls and pops with bright colors. The content is usually sardonic comments or images about the politics and brutality of the conflict.
On the surface, Mostar is a city that is still under construction, but ostensibly everyone is happy and friendly. When you go to Stari Most, you'll find locals jumping off for tips. The locals are quick to strike up a conversation and tell you jokes. Seriously, Bosnians have great senses of humor albeit a little dark (go figure). Beneath this are ethnic and personal tensions that are bursting from the seams of the city.
Mostar is a beautiful and captivating city and worth the trip. Travel around the area to get an idea about Herzegovina and see the natural beauty abound. But to ignore the war ruins, I think, gives you an incomplete notion of everything that's gone on. As cliché as it is, actions speak louder than words. Below are some pictures from inside the bank to illustrate the emotions I experienced within this fascinating place.
If you've never been to Slovenia, then you're missing out. Most people I've talked to have never even heard of the place and that was a blessing. It's got a little bit of everything, except for crowds.
Why You Should Go
A coastline along the Adriatic (for all those that like Croatia), mountains in the Alps that'll remind you a little bit of Northern Italy or Bavaria, a capital that has bars and history but bans cars from the center, and caves like nowhere else in Europe. Though, any trip to Slovenia would be remiss not to include Slovenia's most famous locale, Lake Bled.
What To Do
Situated about an hour and half east of Trieste in Italy and about the same time from Ljubljana it's not too difficult to get to (I recommend the bus instead of the train from Ljubljana, though renting a car is a great way to get about so you can see the surrounding area). Here, you can swim, kayak, paddle, or sail on the lake. You can hike up into the forest nearby or visit the castle. Along the shoreline, there are a fair amount of bars and restaurants, though they're somewhat touristy and gimmicky. Accommodations range from villas on the waterfront to hostels and campsites. So, there are places for families to backpackers.
I recommend staying there for at least a night, maybe even two. I'd start by renting a boat and paddling across the lake to Bled Island. There you can check out the baroque church that was finished in the 16th century and has a lot of well-preserved frescos and architecture from that period. You can climb the 52-meter high tower and get a view of the surrounding area. Or if churches aren't your thing, you can just hang out and fish all day on the water.
Nevermind the duck, that water is crystal clear and about 27 degrees Celsius (80 Fahrenheit). Then spend the night eating and drinking. Everyone will make you choose between Union or Lasko, so pick wisely.
Get Out of Lake Bled
The second day, you can spend hiking around the area. Bled Castle is a popular destination and only about a 15-minute hike, but if you want the best views go up Velika Osojnica. It's about an hour and a half but definitely worth it.
If you're up here, have got more time, and want to stay away from the peak season crowds then check out The Vintgar Gorge which is more impressive than the lake, but less accessible and limited to hiking.
If you're still not feeling secluded enough or want to get away from any development than you want to go to Lake Bohinj. It's got a lot of the same activities as Bled with more action sports thrown into the mix. It's definitely worth a day trip.
Lake Bled is a fairy tale locale, and there's really no reason not to go. Like I wrote above, there are tons of varied activities all over the country, but I think this is the real gem. You can spend anywhere from a few hours to a few days and still feel content, but slightly dissatisfied because you know there's probably something breathtaking that you missed. Really the only option is to explore it for yourself.
Berlin is a fantastic city. A Mecca of modern history, known for its nightlife and culture. It is one of the most artistic cities I've visited. The pinnacle of all this artistic expression for the city is Berlinale or, more commonly, the Berlin Film Festival. If you find yourself in Berlin for a few days look here for activities. However, if you want to immerse yourself in some lesser known, but quality, film titles, keep on reading. Germany has a distinguished film history. Starting, most notably with the Expressionist movement which reached its peak in the 1920's. Nosferatu and the films of Fritz Lang are usually the most famous. I recommend M and Metropolis if you have a thing for the classics. Goebbels was a big fan of films and used his stature as Propaganda Minister to produce many, many pro-regime films during the Nazi period. After their fall and the rise of the wall East Germany continued production (because most facilities lay on their side of the wall) but productions began to wain by the 1970's there. In West Germany, there were many notable names that began to rise out of the New German Cinema movement. Most notably: Werner Herzog, Michael Rainier Fassbinder, and Wim Wenders. While these along with other people revitalized the country's cinema, it too began to run into issues with funding by the 80's and a lot of the big names began to take their productions international by that period. Since the fall of the wall a reunited Germany has once again seen a resurgence with much international acclaim (Run, Lola, Run; The Lives of Others and The Counterfeiters, The White Ribbon, Funny Games). Wenders and Herzog both have new films at the festival this year. Wenders also lent some of his classics for screenings throughout the week.
This year's jury for the largest publicly attended film festival in the world was headed by Darren Aronofsky whose films have ranged from the mainstream (Noah) to the abstract (The Fountain) to somewhere in between (Requiem for a Dream). When compared to Cannes, Europe's most well known festival, the complaints are often that it is more about the stars than the films themselves these days, especially compared to Berlinale.
Films were taken from all over the world that were meant to illustrate societies from an authentic point of view. There were many spectacular films that screened, and others that were less so. Below are a few of the most notable films that premiered at the festival this year.
Al-Hob wa Al-Sariqa wa Mashakel Ukhra (Love, Theft, and Other Entanglements)
A Palestinian film that is supposed to be an homage to the French New Wave about a man, Mousa, who steals car parts on the Israeli side of Jerusalem and sells them to the Palestinian side until one day he discovers something in the trunk of one of these cars. This takes Mousa away from his detached existence in the divided city into the middle of the conflict.
A beautifully shot film with a unique perspective on the present day conflict in a commonly talked about region that is a callback to one of the biggest movements in film history.
Knight of Cups
The enigmatic Terrence Malick follow up to To the Wonder stars Christian Bale as a man coasting through a hedonistic existence in Hollywood with little meaning. An abstract film that seemed to be very polarizing at the festival. It leaves a lot of people satisfied with its lack of a cohesive narrative. Others enjoy the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity, Children of Men) that hovers smoothly. Will definitely get a wide release in the US and is a good one if you're a fan of Malick and his works like Tree of Life.
A Chilean film that was mentioned to be seeing a lot of awards this upcoming year walked away with the Silver Bear in Berlin. A reserved thriller about a group of Catholic Priests that welcome a newcomer and immediately begin to face accusations. An investigator comes in, but is he really there to investigate the truth? A telling film about hypocrisies within the Church and man himself.
Another film purporting to be a look into the culture of Nations not seen often (never been to Guatemala, so can't speak to the authenticity). When Maria, a Maya, living on a plantation at the base of a volcano is getting ready to marry the farm foreman she seduces another coffee harvester who plans on running away to the USA. Director Jayro Bustamante went to villages of current day Maya living in Guatemala and asked about their daily lives and stories to get an idea of their experience and routines to create a film that was not about Mayan life, but rather a film that actually springs from the Mayan existence.
Finally, winner of the Golden Bear (also the coolest award for a film festival) for best film. It was directed by Jafar Panahi of Iran. The director/star of this film (who is currently an outlaw for his refusal to abide by Iranian censorship policies) gives an inside look into everyday life through conversations with everyday people. An honest and funny portrait that uses Panahi's charisma to carry a one location film to the festival's highest honor.
There are tons of other notable titles including: Cobain: Montage of Heck and Bloodline. Also, there an array of classics from the 60's and 70's, not only from German cinema, but Hollywood as well. The lineup also included numerous selections from France, Italy, Senegal, Argentina, Thailand, Russia, and many others. All in all, it has a TON of films that are worth checking out if you're into festival films, but also like things that are a little mainstream as well.