Top 5 Destinations from 2015

Every year, around New Year's, it seems the feeling of declinism is strong. But thankfully my year didn't ring out that way. In honor of all the beautiful places, I saw this year I wanted to countdown the five best travel destinations. From coffee shops and clubs in the Balkans to parks in Amsterdam, I wanted to share how experiencing different cultures, history, and environments made 2015 a year I'll never forget.

5. ZLATNA RIBICA - SARAJEVO, BiH

Zlatna Ribica in Sarajevo

This little coffee shop off Tito Avenue in Sarajevo says a lot about the current city. First off, it's a coffee shop which is essential to Bosnian culture. It's also a pretty modern set up and crowd, with a lot of trinkets from the past. The only things this cafe/bar doesn't encapsulate are the rolling hills and Ottoman feel of the old town. Bosnia was one of the coolest places I've ever been and didn't know much about outside the war. It's also relatively untouched as far European tourist destinations go. To me, the cafe exemplifies the feelings of Sarajevo, a modernizing city with images of its past punctuating every bit of its surrounding.

4. VONDELPARK - AMSTERDAM, NL

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A city that's so much more than hookers and drugs, Amsterdam is a culturally vibrant and beautiful city. Vondelpark is a pretty famous locale that sits on the edge of Leidesplein and the Museum District. It's probably the best place in the city to ride your bike to and relax after seeing Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. There's a lot of beauty with the various ponds and the rose garden. From there you can hit up the bars or cafes that line the outside or play a game of giant chess in Leidesplein.

3. SUNSET POINTCAPPADOCIA, TR

Aktepe from Sunset Point

Rose Valley from Sunset Point

Cappadocia is probably the most unique place I've been in the world, and the Fairy Chimneys definitely are the major contributor. However, the most magnificent beauty that I experienced was hiking through the Rose and Red Valleys to end up at Sunset Point. It has a little bit of everything, a few fairy chimneys, frescoed churches, kangal dogs. Thanks to Fevzi at Fresco Cave Suites for showing us old Churches and the best vistas. He knows the trails like the back of his hand and is always looking to practice his English. Finishing an afternoon of hiking with a bottle of wine and watch the sunset from the above view is something that I'll never forget and was the perfect way to end my trip. Go in the fall when it's not too hot but still has all the colors.

2. RIVER BOAT CLUBS - BELGRADE, SRB

I'll be the first to admit I'm not a dancer and usually not one to stay at them till closing, but in Belgrade, I didn't leave till the sun was coming up for three straight nights. And sometimes my group was some of the first people back to the hostel (except for the people who couldn't even make it out). The views are beautiful, drinks inexpensive (if you're a tourist), and people are friendly. There was no elitist vibe at any of the places, and everyone was just trying to have a good time. As you can see below some people had too good of a time.

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HONORABLE MENTION

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The Blue Cruise is the coolest thing I've ever done, but I did it in 2014. It's all-inclusive, except for booze - which my brother managed to drink more of than anyone else even drank water. The sea is at around bathtub temperature and crystal clear, the food is fresh, and the crew is always laid back and capable. There's not a single spot on this four day - 3-night trip that isn't worth it.

Berlinale - Berlin is an awesome city in its own right. With a vibrant nightlife that

Potzdamer Platz during Berlinale

contrasts with a macabre history interwoven with a mighty imperial past. But during the winter, the Berlin Film Festival brings in some of the most significant stars and best films to be received in any given year. From Hollywood fare to independents, it's one of the best film festivals in Europe, if not the world.

Walking around Budapest - One of my favorite cities in the world. Budapest is on either side of the Danube and gives you the best of both worlds. The Pest side is flat with tons of great food (seriously Hungarian food is incredible) and tons of bars. You get some history with St. Stephen's Basilica and Parliament. While Buda is much more hilly, it's home to Buda Castle, a hill that has been a significant point of defense for European empires for centuries, and a more traditional town feel compared to the urbanity of Pest. I wanted to put this in my top 5 but felt like choosing an entire city was cheating. It's a pretty walkable city, though you'll want some kind shoes, and the town really glows at night.

View of Buda Castle at night

  1. LAKE BLED - SLOVENIA

One of the most beautiful, peaceful, serene, (insert positive adjective here) places I've ever seen. The lake and village surrounding it have a little something for everyone. There are hostels and upscale hotels and villas. On the lake, you can go boating, fishing, and swimming. There's even a warm spring which keeps this alpine lake's turquoise water relatively warm. You can hike and bike through the ridges of the Julian Alps. There's an iconic old church and castle, and a small modern waterpark, restaurants, and bars. The area is starting to get a little touristy, so, if you start to feel cramped, you can head about half an hour away to the pristine Lake Bohinj. Or you can hike up and catch closer views of the mountains and vistas of the lake. Either way, you can't go wrong and to just stroll along the lake and listen to the birds and church bells ring through the valley was almost meditative.

Lake Bled and Bled Church

Hopefully, this helps inspire you to see more of the world and maybe go to a place you never thought of before. I think 2016 will satiate my wanderlust a bit more, but sites like these make that a little more impossible every trip.

Eskişehir: Turkey's Amsterdam without the Vice and Art Museums

I recently went to Eskisehir, which is a city in Western Anatolia about two hundred miles southeast of Istanbul. Despite Anatolia being known more like a dry grassland plateau, the western section is rugged and green. It's covered in forests and green ridges that contrast starkly with the heavily industrialized Sea of Marmara coastline to the west and the flat urban sprawl of the capital, Ankara, to the east. When I first arrived, I didn't know what to expect, and I was just told it was a fun city and only about a three-hour train ride from my home in Istanbul. It was hyped up by friends as a kind of college town, but I was just looking forward to a weekend away. As soon as we left the train station and made our way down the main street, there was a giant mall. In front of the mall was an, "I 'heart' Eskisehir" sign, much like the famous, eponymous ones in Amsterdam. IMG_1057

At first, I found the structure a cheap imitation. An attempt to make the city seem like a more prominent destination by mimicking a sort of banal tourist stop. I still think about the structures in both towns that way. However, the longer I stayed, the more it accentuated the parallels between the two cities in my mind over the weekend I spent there. Amsterdam's cultural history may be more famous, but Eskisehir's is even more significant. The title means "old city" in Turkish and the founding dates back to 1000 BC. While Eskisehir wasn't home to Van Gogh and Rembrandt or any famous Turkish artists, it does house a Museum dedicated to the artistic glassware that Ottoman art is known for. Amsterdam is probably most well known for its tourist drawing Red Light District, but don't expect anything like that. So, if you want to smoke a joint and buy a hooker, Eskisehir isn't the place for you. For a predominately Muslim country though, you can find a nightlife here that is more open than any other I've seen outside of the typical expat havens and Istanbul. It has a somewhat liberal population, as well as a high number of young people that leads to a pretty big bar scene with quality foreign beers, if like me; you get tired of drinking Bomonti and Efes (The Miller and Miller High Life of Turkey). You can also find pool and ping pong tables at most places, which aren't easy to find in bars in the rest of the country.

Most of these bars run near the Porsuk River. Unlike the iconic Amstel, it doesn't cross every nook and cranny, but still bisects the city. Cafes, restaurants, and various other shops line the river. You can regularly find people sipping on tea or drinking beer or raki with the rattle of dice from a game of backgammon going on. It's an excellent alternative to the packed and expensive tourist trap that is Amsterdam (don't expect to hear people speaking English in Eskisehir as they do in Amsterdam, though). Walking along the river, I couldn't help but feel the same relaxed vibe that I had felt this summer in Amsterdam but with fewer crowds and drunk 18-year-olds.

However, if you've ever been to Amsterdam outside of the Red Light District, you know that much more defines the city than drugs and prostitution. There is an artistic feeling that permeates the air there, and maybe that's what I breathed in while in Eskisehir. Its architecture exemplifies this. When I walked along the river banks, and in the Odunpazari neighborhood I couldn't help but notice the unique houses, similar to the ones that struck me so much when I was in Amsterdam. Amsterdam's homes are noted for their long and narrow style with white trim (seen below).DSC_0960

Odunpazari has a style that is a little different but felt reminiscent of the one in Amsterdam. They looked like inverse images of the typical apartments above. What with them being shorter and broader with inverse color schemes. Nevertheless, I felt like I had stumbled on an older Dutch colony as I walked through.DSC_1378

The structural differences are probably more due to the period they were built, with Odunpazari's neighborhood dating back to about 1000 AD, while the city of Amsterdam was founded approximately 400 years later. There is also more necessity for Amsterdam's tall, thin style because of the need to conserve space, which Eskisehir doesn't have to deal with. Similarly, the Odunpazari neighborhood has numerous mosques dating back to the 1400's and 1500's much like the era most of Amsterdam's classic churches are from.

Westerkerk...tallest church in the Netherlands

Alaadin Mosque. The oldest mosque in Eskisehir

Overall, the cities provide a lot of similarities and contrasts between Turkish and Dutch culture. There's unique architecture surrounding river banks with elaborate bridges connecting the sides. Religious buildings accentuate otherwise unimpressive skylines. There are apparent differences between the Muslim culture that shaped modern Eskisehir and the social democratic doctrine of Amsterdam, but they share common traits. They are two of the most beautiful places to relax, and they embody a friendly and welcoming nature that makes me wish I could go back.