Why You Should Visit Brussels in December

Winter has finally arrived in Brussels. It’s cold, sometimes rainy, and the sun sets at 5pm. While most people visit this beautiful city in the summer, there are a few special things that make a winter in Brussels something to look forward to. Here are a few reasons why you should think about visiting Brussels in December.

  1. The holiday decorations – Almost overnight, the city comes alive with lights and decorations on every corner. There is nothing like walking through cobblestone streets with Christmas lights overhead.
  2. Waffles! – Who wouldn’t want a warm waffle to eat while walking along those decorated cobble-stone streets?
  3. Beer! – If you’re cold, pop into a bar and grab a Belgian beer. They won’t disappoint, I promise.
  4. Fries – Okay, I promise this is the last food item. But seriously, all of Belgium’s snacks are made for winter.
  5. The Christmas Market – You’ve never seen a Christmas celebration until you’ve been to a European Christmas market. Ferris wheels, food tents, vin chaud, ice skating, and more. It’s a dream.
  6. It’s less crowded  – In the summer, many European cities are packed with tourists. But if you choose to travel in the off-season, you’ll have a lot more space and better prices!
  7. Hot Chocolate – Okay I lied about the food thing. Belgian hot chocolate is special for two reasons. 1. Belgian chocolate 2. The hot chocolate is made with actual pieces of chocolate. If you’re not into beer, this will definitely warm you up.
  8. Mussels – I already broke my promise once, so I might as well do it again. Belgium is known for its mussels and fries, a hot meal that is perfect for winter.

 

These winter specialties are a perfect addition to everything else Brussels has to offer like Grand Place, Mannekin Pis, the Atomium, museums, parks, the EU institutions, and more. While the winter may prevent you from sitting outside at an outdoor café, Brussels can still be a great travel destination for the winter! In fact, my best friend is visiting next week and I am going to make sure she experiences everything this city has to offer. If you’ve been to Brussels in the winter, let me know what I missed!

 

Visiting Tenerife – the island that has it all

It’s hard to pass up the opportunity to visit friends AND explore one of the most beautiful places on earth. So when my friend Nicolette told me she would be teaching English in the Canary Islands for 10 months, I knew I had to visit. This past week my friend, Annmarie, and I traveled to Tenerife to see Nicolette. With its beaches and mountains, this island ended up being the dream location for our reunion.

Tenerife is one of the seven Canary Islands that rest off the coast of Morocco but belong to Spain. While the flights aren’t as cheap as they are to the rest of Europe, I still found a round-trip flight for less than 200 euros. Compared to most international travel, that’s a steal. My friends and I found an affordable Air Bnb on the edge of Puerto de la Cruz that overlooked the ocean. Since it’s an island, I was expecting things to be expensive here but the prices were half of what they are in Brussels, which was a pleasant surprise. Before I go into the details of my trip, here are a few quick facts if you’re looking to travel to Tenerife:

Transportation

The island has a great transportation system with busses and an above-ground tram they call the Tramvia. However, if you rent a car, the entire island is accessible – my friends and I decided this was the best option for us since we would only be there for a few days and wanted to see as much as possible.

Language

Spanish is spoken throughout the Canary Islands but the accent is very different from mainland Spain. If you’re a non-native Spanish speaker, you might have some difficulties at first. Otherwise, most people speak some English, especially in the tourist areas.

Nature

Tenerife is a volcano. So in addition to its black sand beaches, it has beautiful mountains throughout its center. Teide (the mountain) is actually the highest point in Spain. As you drive to the top, you will pass through several different landscapes including pine forests and something that looks like a desert. The contrast is mind-blowing.

Food

The food in Tenerife is nothing short of incredible. While traditional Spanish food can be found, las Canarias have their own famous foods. A few of my favorites were papas arrugadas (which literally translates to wrinkly potatoes), arepas, and mojo (a sauce from heaven)

The five days I spent in Tenerife were so full of peace and joy that time stood still. So without further ado, let’s talk about the trip.

Nicolette picked me up from the airport on Thursday night and we checked into the Air Bnb on the outskirts of Puerto de la Cruz. Then we went to a restaurant where I tried papas arrugadas with mojo sauce which was so good that it brought tears to my eyes. After trying these potatoes, I knew this trip would be incredible. We walked around Puerto a bit but it was late so we decided to go home and get a good night of sleep.

The next morning, Nicolette and I went to the beach. It was my first time seeing black sand and my jaw hit the floor. It’s been on my bucket list forever so it was a really special moment. We spent a few hours on the beach (yes, I wore sunscreen), then Nicolette left for a teacher meeting. I decided to walk the coast and explore Puerto and the town is beautiful. I even accidentally stumbled upon an area full of stone piles (I’m not sure how to describe this in a way that sounds appealing. See picture). Afterward, Nicolette and I picked Annmarie up from the airport and we rented a car. Although we took several wrong turns on the way back, we finally ventured into Los Realejos for the best arepas we will probably ever have. In fact, we returned to this little hole-in-the-wall place (called Millenium) for arepas twice more throughout the trip. After the arepas that changed our lives, we spent the night drinking champagne and catching up in our Air Bnb. There’s nothing like seeing old friends.

 

 

On Saturday morning, we took a drive up the coast to a restaurant overlooking the ocean. Here we ordered Arroz Caldoso de Mariscos (a soupier version of paella) and gazpacho. This was yet another life-changing meal. We spent the afternoon laying on the beach and at night, went to a Christmas festival in La Laguna, the university town. It was like a Christmas wonderland. We ate more arepas and got vegan hot chocolate. Oh, and a couple of beers, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday was the day we decided to tackle Teide, the mountain. Our little Fiat, who we lovingly nicknamed Fifi, had a hard time making it up some of the steep inclines but we eventually made our way up. Like I mentioned previously, the contrast between the landscapes on the mountain was like nothing I had ever seen before. From pine trees to desert-like canyons with lava rocks, I had a hard time believing it was real. Teidi is a must-do if you visit Tenerife.

 

 

On my last day, Annmarie and I revisited the beach while Nicolette went to work. I’ve never seen such big waves before and the lifeguards wouldn’t let people near the water due to the riptides. But we had a pleasant time just sleeping on the sand. We ate lunch at a nearby restaurant and then drove up to Monje winery for a wine tour. The view and the wine were spectacular. Once again, it was hard to believe I was living in reality. Nicolette met us at Monje and we returned to La Laguna for dinner and more vegan hot chocolate. It was a sweet end to a sweet trip.

 

 

Thanks for inviting us to visit, Nicolette. It was an incredible adventure.

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Spending Thanksgiving Away From Home

A year ago today, I woke up on Thanksgiving morning excited to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with my dad. We made New Orleans-style beignets for breakfast (our tradition) and got ready for lunch at my grandparents’ house. A year ago today, I was wondering what next year’s Thanksgiving would be like. Where will I be living? Will I be able to come home for the holidays? Is this my last Thanksgiving in Cincinnati? I didn’t know the answers so I made sure to cherish every second of that day.

A year later, it’s Thanksgiving morning and I’m living in Brussels, Belgium. Instead of watching the parade with my dad, I am on my second cup of coffee, desperately trying to finish my Dissertation Proposal which is due tomorrow. I’m making myself pasta because I’m too lazy to make actual food and I can’t figure out how to live stream the parade. Please excuse me while I throw myself a pity-party.

Sometimes missing the holidays is just something that happens when you become an adult. It’s hard and sad but it’s just reality. If I were in Cincinnati to celebrate with my family, that would mean I wasn’t pursuing my dreams in Belgium. Since Thanksgiving is about being grateful for what we have, I’ve decided to focus on the good. While the list is endless, here are 10 things I’m grateful for in this moment:

  1. My incredible friends and family
  2. Technology that allows me to stay in contact with the people I love
  3. Having the opportunity to pursue an education
  4. Getting to live in Europe
  5. Hazelnut coffee
  6. An internship at a great organization
  7. The two cats that I’m currently cat-sitting
  8. Christmas music
  9. The pasta that is on the stove (I am lucky to have food to eat!)
  10. I get to come home for Christmas!

Like I said, the list is endless once you start writing. So if you can’t be home for the holidays and find yourself feeling down, try to focus on the good in your life and the things you would be missing out on if you weren’t living your current reality. Wherever you are right now, there is a reason for it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Falling in Love with Solo Travel – Prague

When I ask people which cities I absolutely have to visit while in Europe, Prague is always at the top of the list. I didn’t quite understand why until I visited the city last week. From the Prague Castle to the Charles Bridge, there is so much to do in Prague that I wish I could’ve stayed for much longer than three days.

I flew into the city on Wednesday night and took a bus, then the metro, to the city center. The public transportation is super easy to figure out and the system is very convenient for using multiple types of transport. Instead of tickets being valid for “one trip,” for example, they are valid for one hour or ninety minutes. Within that period of time, you can use any public transportation – tram, metro, or bus – for as many trips as you need.

I had booked a cheap room in an apartment on Air Bnb and was pleasantly surprised to find it was located right along the Vltava River. I took that night to walk around the city, eat a trdelnik (basically a giant cinnamon roll that is sometimes filled with ice cream), and listen to some live music on Charles Bridge. I hadn’t even seen the city in daylight and I was already in awe.

 

 

The next day, I went on a free walking tour with Sandeman’s – this is an awesome company that gives tours in cities throughout Europe, asking only that you tip the tour guide at the end. I’ve found that these tours give much more depth to the cities in which I’m traveling because without them, you miss so much history while you’re walking around. They’re also a great way to meet people! I usually do a free walking tour on my first day in a city in order to orient myself with my surroundings and get an idea of some things I want to do while I’m there. On this tour, we saw the famous Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square, which may seem a bit underwhelming without the historical context so read up before you go. We also explored the Jewish Quarter which houses beautiful synagogues and is home to the Golem of Prague.

 

After the tour, a new friend and I decided to try a cool vegetarian, Indian place that his hostel recommended. It was called Beas Vegetarian Dhaba; it was incredible and cheap. I spent the rest of the day exploring the city, walking through its parks and squares, soaking in the history and the beautiful nature. Prague in October is a must-see. I’ve never seen such a stunning autumn. That night, I met up with a few people from the tour for a pub crawl. We had a great night.

 

 

 

On Friday morning, I visited the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, where the soldiers of Operation Anthropoid hid while Nazis searched for them. They were ultimately killed in the crypt, which is open to visitors and includes a small museum.

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Afterwards, I met back up with some friends for a Prague Castle tour (also with Sandeman’s) and let me tell you, I am so happy I didn’t try to explore the castle by myself. The “castle” is more like a 70,000 square foot palace grounds with architecture from at least nine different centuries. Without a guide telling me the historical contexts of each part of the castle, I would’ve had no idea what I was seeing. It ended up being a really great experience and we even got to see the Changing of the Guards.

 

After the tour, two other solo travelers and I made our way up to a monastery that our tour guide told us about. Here we had dinner and were able to try some of their beer. I will admit, I’ve become a bit picky about beer after living in Belgium but this beer was really great. They even had a blueberry flavor that was surprisingly good. Strahov Monastery, with its stone walls, candlelit rooms, and live violin, was honestly one of my favorite parts of my time in Prague. It was too dark to get proper pictures but I would definitely recommend it.

Just when I thought the night couldn’t get any better, we found a rooftop bar called the Dancing House, overlooking the river. As we were sitting on the terrace, taking in the view of Prague, a fireworks show began on the river. It was one of those moments where time stood still and I felt incredibly overwhelmed by gratitude. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful trip.

Thank you, Prague. I hope to be back soon.

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Note: I was traveling alone and felt completely safe walking about the city center by myself. That being said, I always made sure to stay on busy, well-lit streets. As long as you’re using common sense, Prague is a great place for solo travel.