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Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

senior center in cuba


In this month’s winning review, a traveler joins 19 other volunteers to make a difference in Cuba: “Every afternoon we had a few hours of free time before working with students practicing English for about two hours,” Lynn writes. “Later we all met for dinner with our excellent team leader, Stephanie, at various locations. The trip was a combination of helping our host community and a wonderful cultural learning experience for a group of Americans, most of whom had never been to Cuba.”

Read the rest of Lynn’s review here: My Visit to Cuba as a Volunteer. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com sweatshirt.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

In 2008, Sean P. Finelli left behind his Wall Street career to move to Rome, where he soon became a popular tour guide with the nickname “the Roman guy.” Finelli decided to direct his passion for Rome into a new tour company that would emphasize unique and immersive experiences across Italy. And thus The Roman Guy was born.

brandon shaw and sean finelli


The company is run by Finelli and co-owner Brandon Shaw, who work with their team to offer a variety of city tours and trip planning services. We reached out to Finelli and Shaw to discover what advice they’d give first-time Italy travelers, which regions of the country don’t get enough love and which Italian foods visitors must try on their next trip.

IndependentTraveler.com: What are some of the most unique tours The Roman Guy offers in Italy?
Sean:
The most unique tour must be our Colosseum Underground tour, which we’ve titled Colosseum Dungeons Tour. You get access to areas that nobody else has access to. Think about the 30,000 visitors that enter the building in the summer. Only about 300 get to visit the dungeons. That’s pretty unique, and people love it.

Brandon: Our E-bike Rome Tour is a strong second. Imagine beating the heat and covering three times as much of the city as a walking tour and not even breaking a sweat. We are super-passionate about green travel and have now created a way to not only see the whole city in three hours but also add zero carbon emission in doing it.

IT: Which region in Italy deserves a little more love? Why?
Sean:
Most people would pick areas like Puglia or Sicily, but I’ll go with Lazio. Yes, Lazio. Everyone goes to Rome, the capital of the region, but after that people are gone. There are amazing nearby towns like Frascati, Marino, Castel Gandolfo and Tivoli, plus beaches like Sperlonga. You can enjoy sunset beach parties in Fregene or a relaxing and luxurious holiday in Ponza. Outside of Rome, Lazio is a locals’ paradise that outside visitors could really give a little bit more love.

Brandon: My pick would be Umbria, a region in central Italy. People rarely visit Umbria on their first trip to Italy. Umbria is usually discovered when people come back on their second or third trip and are looking for something new. I say come to Umbria during your first trip to Italy — you will not regret it. Within Umbria, you have some beautiful historic cities to explore like Orvieto, “dying cities” like Civita di Bagnoregio (which only has 17 official residents) and an amazing waterfall that makes you feel like you are in a South American rain forest. And all of this is within a two-hour drive of Rome!

5 Less Visited Churches in Rome

IT: What advice would you give someone planning his or her first trip to Italy?
Sean:
Be clear about what you want to get out of the trip. Remember that the more you “see” the less you’ll actually “see.” What I mean is that you need to stop and smell the Italian sunflowers. Don’t cram so much in just to cross it off the bucket list. Make time for sitting down, relaxing and chatting with the locals. Make time for three-hour lunches. I went to Puglia for 10 days with no itinerary and it was amazing. We stopped to jump off cliffs into the water, had amazing lunches and stopped in cool-looking towns. Italy has so much that you will alway find something else to do.

Brandon: Doing a good amount of research before your trip will go a long way in making your trip more memorable. Nobody wants to waste precious time waiting in lines, so purchase your tickets ahead of time and skip the lines. Buy your train tickets in advance so you don’t have the stress of trying to find a spot on a train last minute. Look into some restaurants that you might want to visit, so you don’t end up in the typical tourist traps. Or just use The Roman Guy and we’ll do all the heavy lifting for you!

dolomites italy


IT: Are there places in Italy that you haven’t visited yet but would like to explore?
Sean:
The Dolomites. Like most travelers, I am always intrigued by photography and the Dolomites appear to offer some great adventure tourism: this massive jagged mountain range popping up from the rolling hills. What’s not to love?

Brandon: Val d’Aosta. It’s the area on the border with France. I haven’t been there but have heard that the views are amazing, as you are so close to the French Alps. I am also an avid wine enthusiast, and Val d’Aosta is renowned for their excellent, crisp white wines that suit the northern climate perfectly.

IT: Beyond pizza, pasta and gelato, which dish should every Italy traveler try?
Sean:
Isn’t that all Italy produces? I personally recommend fish. Italy is a peninsula with plenty of seafood. It’s hard to recommend a particular dish, but if you are within a short drive of the sea, eat seafood. People going to Rome often want carbonara and Amatriciana, but Rome is a seafood city. We’re 20 mins from saltwater accessible via the Tiber River. Rome’s speciality is salt-crusted sea bass. They say it dates back to Roman times.

Brandon: This is a tough question since the array of food in Italy is so diverse depending on the region. We’ve actually just recently created an interactive Italy food map to inspire foodies coming to Italy. Instead of eating something other than pasta, travelers should do some research, and they will discover that there are many kinds of pasta dishes that they have never heard of. A great example is my favorite Roman pasta dish: fettuccine in a tomato sauce used to make a delicacy with oxtail. It is so good it will bring tears to your eyes!

IT: Besides Italy, what are your favorite travel destinations?
Sean:
It’s hard to say this out loud since I sell Italy, but Greece is my vacation spot. The problem with Italy for me is my mind is always at work. Italy is my office. Greece offers decent food and great views. I love the shabby roads and how Greece has maintained some authentic charm. I also love how much elevation you’ll find on the small islands. There is so much to do in Greece and so much to see. The Greeks are also extremely proud and eager to share their history.

Brandon: When not discovering new hidden gems in Italy, you will usually find me in the French Alps. The mountain air is invigorating and allows you to reset. We stay in little mountain villages where you get fresh milk from the cows that morning that is still warm, and fresh cheese that was just made as well. Staying in places like these allow you to change the tempo and just savor life more. I also love snowboarding so it’s perfect in the wintertime, because you can access the slopes directly from your log cabin.

Check out more travel interviews!

11 Best Italy Experiences
25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

Imagine Costa Rica, and you probably picture lush rain forests, smoking volcanos and exotic birds flitting through the trees. But while this image isn’t inaccurate, a local expert named Maricruz Pereira knows that there’s much more to this friendly Central American country.

maricruz pereira


Pereira is the general manager and co-owner of Unique Adventures, which specializes in customized experiences and tailor-made itineraries for visitors to Costa Rica. The company can arrange activities such as bird watching, kayaking, visiting a coffee plantation or learning to make tortillas.

We asked Pereira to reveal her favorite less-discovered spots in Costa Rica, offer advice for first-time visitors and more.

IndependentTraveler.com: Most people considering a trip to Costa Rica probably picture wildlife and natural beauty, but what interesting cultural experiences can travelers have there?
Maricruz Pereira:
Even though Costa Rica is mostly known for its beautiful nature, I think our best asset is our people. Tourists will find that Costa Ricans are very proud of our country and love to share it with our visitors. The best cultural experience would be to hang out with the locals whenever possible. You can do this by going on a pub/beer crawl in San Jose, going to the local fiestas in any village, stopping in a farmers’ market and even joining a mejenga (impromptu soccer game) in the local plaza! Talk to the locals; ask questions; don’t be afraid to approach them. You will go back home with a nice tan and a bunch of new friends!

IT: What are your favorite places in Costa Rica, and why?
MP:
There are so many places to love in Costa Rica! I enjoy the majesty of our several active volcanoes. Some of them, like the Poas and the Irazu, are safe and relatively easy to explore; you can walk right up to the rim of the crater and gaze inside. The beaches in the south Caribbean are wild and beautiful, with the lush forest coming all the way down to the beach, and the laid-back, colorful Caribbean culture that makes you slow down and enjoy the moment. They are perfect for relaxing and getting away from the crowds.

Of course, Corcovado National Park, which is my favorite rain forest, is so remote and secluded; it is a real adventure just getting there. And then you find yourself immersed in the rain forest, with the ocean at your feet, and the howler monkeys and scarlet macaws “singing” just a few meters away.

IT: What advice would you give first-time visitors before they come to Costa Rica?
MP:
Different latitude, different attitude. Don’t plan on being locked up in an all-inclusive for several days in a row. As much as I like our beaches, Costa Rica has a different vibe to it. It’s not all about sun and sea (although that’s a nice part too), but about traveling around, going on our roads, seeing the sights, exploring. And if you are renting a car, ask for a GPS!

rio celeste tenorio volcano national park waterfall


IT: Which part of Costa Rica is most overlooked, and why should travelers check it out?
MP:
The area of Rio Celeste in the northern area is a jewel that is yet to be discovered. Inside Tenorio Volcano National Park there is this magnificent river and waterfall that are bright blue (hence the name Rio Celeste). It’s a moderately difficult hike within the forest with quite a few steep steps to get there, but the view and the energy of the area are worth it!

IT: What’s one food every traveler should try in Costa Rica?
MP:
Chifrijo! It’s a delicious concoction of rice, beans, avocado, pico de gallo and small pieces of fried pork, served with toasted tortillas in a medium-sized bowl. Don’t be fooled by the small size. It’s a full meal!

IT: Outside of Costa Rica, what are your favorite travel destinations?
MP:
I enjoy England very much. I have always loved everything related to its history and tradition. I especially like visiting the old, magical places like Stonehenge, Glastonbury, Avebury… I find all the tales and stories around these sites fascinating, and the scenery is just breathtaking!

Check out more travel interviews!

12 Best Costa Rica Experiences
Where to Stay in Costa Rica

–interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

Every year, the European Union selects two cities to be designated European Capitals of Culture. Activities all year long show off the cities’ charms. Destinations large and small are selected; some are well known, while others may be new to travelers.

The latter is likely the case with the 2017 selections: Aarhus, Denmark, and Pafos, Cyprus. Here’s a primer on both cities.

aarhus denmark


Aarhus, Denmark
Where: In the geographic center of Denmark, northwest of Copenhagen.

Why It’s Noteworthy: The second largest city in Denmark (after Copenhagen), Aarhus was founded as a fortified Viking settlement. Today it’s best known as music epicenter, especially for jazz and rock aficionados. Cruise ships stop there, and its port is one of the most important in Northern Europe.

Top Sights: Many of the city’s 1.4 million annual visitors tour its art and historical museums, the Old Town Open Air Museum and nearby Botanical Gardens, and the Tivoli Friheden amusement park. Wandering the city, you’ll see architecture representing a number of eras, from Romanesque and Gothic to Nordic classicism and Functionalism.

Don’t Miss: Nibbling on a typical Danish smorrebrod (buttered bread) at one of the city’s oldest taverns, Peter Gift, which dates back to 1906.

Special Events: Festivals, exhibits, author talks, concerts and other activities are planned. The city will be decked out with special garden installations between April and September. The Royal Danish Theatre will perform a Viking saga called “Rode Orm” from May 24 through July 1.

More Info: Aarhus2017.dk

agios georgios pafos cyprus


Pafos, Cyprus
Where: On the southwest coast of the Mediterranean island.

Why It’s Noteworthy: Pafos (also spelled Paphos) is home to Aphrodite’s Rock, a beach outcrop that’s considered to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess of love and beauty.

Top Sights: The whole city is on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List, and picturesque scenes are at every turn. The Temple of Aphrodite attracts many pilgrims. Pafos also has a Byzantine castle, catacombs and a museum displaying archaeological artifacts.


Don’t Miss: An afternoon exploring the cliffs and beach near Aphrodite’s Rock. If you take a swim around the rock, it’s said that you will be blessed with eternal beauty.

Special Events: Because Pafos boasts spectacular weather year-round, organizers are planning many activities outdoors. Expect monthly exhibits, walking tours, performances, food events and nature outings.

More Info: Pafos2017.eu

Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide
Top 25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

It’s hard to believe there are at least 55,000 museums in the world, according to the International Council of Museums, with more than a dozen more opening in 2017. Here are the six we’re most excited about.

louvre abu dhabi


(Note that all scheduled opening dates are subject to change.)

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town, South Africa: Perhaps the most anticipated opening in the world is this first-ever museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary art. It’s being touted as Africa’s most significant museum in more than a century. It opens September 23.

Museum of the Bible, Washington D.C., United States: A space dedicated to the history and narrative of the Bible will open near the National Mall this fall. Noteworthy displays at the museum include one of the world’s largest private collections of rare biblical texts, a walk-through replica of first-century Nazareth and fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Louvre Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Ten years ago, officials from France and Abu Dhabi signed an agreement to open an offshoot of the famed Parisian art museum. After many delays, it appears the museum will open this year, though officials aren’t confirming exactly when. In a stunning building by the sea, the museum will feature permanent collections and masterpieces on loan from the Louvre in Paris.

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara, Jakarta, Indonesia: Another museum first: Indonesia’s first-ever museum of modern art. Opening in November, the private museum known as the MACAN will include 800 pieces from the 19th century through today.

Yves Saint Laurent Museums, Paris, France, and Marrakech, Morocco: Two museums dedicated to the legendary fashion designer will open in two cities of importance to him. Saint Laurent’s Parisian 30-year office and atelier will house one, and the other will be in the designer’s adopted city, not far from where his ashes were scattered after he died. Vogue reports that the museums will open in September.

Museum Barberini, Potsdam, Germany: Europe’s newest museum is a fine collection of Old Masters, Impressionism and modern art housed in a restored palace dating back to 1771. The museum is based around the private collection of businessman Hasso Plattner, its founder and patron. The museum opens January 23.

12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of
The Best 9 Cities to See Cool Public Art

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

A January tradition among travel experts and publications is to present their lists of the best destinations for the new year.

moraine lake canada


We love knowing what’s hot and what’s not, but there’s often no rhyme or reason to the selections in many of these lists. And some are so long that they don’t help you decide where to go. AFAR Magazine, for example, picked an overwhelming 100 places.

To help you decide which lists are the most useful, we read every “best of 2017” travel article we could find and selected the following as the best among them.

Lonely Planet – Best in Travel 2017: Canada tops the travel guide’s Top 10 Countries list, thanks to a favorable exchange rate for Americans and planned celebrations for the nation’s 150th anniversary (including free admission to all national parks). Its “best of” site also includes a list of the best value destinations (Nepal comes out on top) and best U.S. destinations (Asheville, North Carolina).

Forbes – 10 Coolest Places to Go in 2017: Forbes’ offering stands out because it’s different than every other “best of” list out there. Destinations were selected for their coolness quotient and include spots you may never have heard of before. For instance, there’s a spot within the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park in Washington state that’s considered the quietest place in all of North America.

Travel + Leisure – 50 Best Places to Travel in 2017: Fifty places is a lot, but we like the research that went into the list from the monthly travel magazine. Editors spend several months surveying writers and travel specialists around the world. The alphabetical list includes Cape Town, South Africa, which debuts a new museum of contemporary African art this year; Helsinki, Finland, which is celebrating 100 years of independence in December; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as the spot to view a total solar eclipse in August.

National Geographic Travel – Best Trips: While it’s not evident why certain spots were selected, we nonetheless like this feature because the page is so beautifully designed and interactive. Places are bundled into categories such as nature, cities and culture.

New York Times – 52 Places to Go in 2017: We always savor this annual list, which is long enough (and includes enough multimedia extras) to linger over throughout the month.

And don’t miss our own 9 Best Places to Travel in 2017, which recommends countries, cities and regions around the globe.

The Best Travel Destinations for Every Month
9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

Where are you planning to travel in 2017?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

temple bar dublin


In this month’s winning review, a traveler drives across Ireland and discovers the meaning of craic. “Sean’s Bar, in Athlone (just about halfway between Dublin and Galway) is the oldest pub in Europe. Dating back to 900 A.D., the pub is still thriving and we had to check it out,” writes Alyssa Johnson. “It was worth the stop. The old bar was practically breathing antiquity. … The bartender was friendly and the sunny beer garden was the perfect place for our first pint of Guinness.”

Read the rest of Alyssa’s review here: An Epic Road Trip Across Ireland. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com sweatshirt.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Today is the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and while many of us dread the season’s chilly days and long nights, here at IndependentTraveler.com we’re looking on the bright side. Pack your snowboots and mittens, and join us for a virtual trip around the world’s winter wonderlands.

northern lights norway


Norway is one of several countries where you can see the northern lights color the night sky.

yaksaam temple winter south korea


Yaksaam Temple is part of Geumosan Provincial Park in South Korea.

quebec city


Quebec City celebrates winter with numerous activities, including toboggan rides along Terrasse Dufferin.

japan snow monkeys


Outside of Nagano, Japan, visitors can get up close and personal with snow monkeys keeping warm in the area’s hot springs.

vatnajokull glacier iceland


In winter, you can hike through one of the ice caves near Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland.

bryce canyon in the snow utah


Utah’s spectacular Bryce Canyon, a national park, looks even more striking under a dusting of snow.

moscow in the snow


Moscow‘s famously chilly winters make for picturesque scenes like this one.

Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?
How to Pack for a Winter Vacation

— written by Sarah Schlichter

We recently published a slideshow of the 9 Most Boring Cities in the World, with picks including Frankfurt, Ottawa and Casablanca.

ottawa at night


Do you agree or disagree with our list? What are the most boring cities you’ve ever visited? Share your opinions in the comments below.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Last month, we gave our readers a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card by submitting a review of a recent trip. We loved reading their submissions, which inspired us with tales of hiking the Inca Trail in Peru and flying a historic plane in Santa Fe.

running of the bulls pamplona


Deciding on the winner was hard, but in the end we chose The Running of the Bulls by vagabondginger. Here’s an excerpt from her winning review:

“The best bulls from various ranches throughout Spain are brought to Pamplona to make for an exciting event. Certain ranches breed bulls with characteristics to make them brave and aggressive,” writes vagabondginger. “These Spanish Fighting Bulls get to a weight of at least 1,300 pounds and have longer horns than other breeds. Bullfights have a lot of pomp and pageantry, but also passion and drama with protesters. We do not condone or condemn but feel much like Hemingway did in his book ‘Death in the Afternoon’ that it’s part of Spain’s tradition. Someday it may be outlawed.” Read the rest!

While we only had one prize to give away, we also wanted to recognize a few runners-up whose reviews are also well worth a read:

On the Short Inca Trail to Machu Picchu by Carolyn Boyle: ” All the iconic photographs of Machu Picchu in the travel brochures are taken from the perspective of the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock, with Una Picchu and Huayna Picchu in the background. Near the Guardhouse is a large carved stone, the Ceremonial Rock; some human burials were found near here. This area was about an hour from the Gate of the Sun. At this point we had trekked almost exactly 7 miles, including short detours for ruins and waterfalls. We were fortunate to see Machu Picchu in glorious sunlight at the end of our day.”

MiG 15 Pilot by Stephen Goch: “Larry started the engine, and we taxied out for takeoff. We had to stay below 200 knots (230 mph) until we reached 10,000 feet. Our rate of climb was absolutely amazing! The light aircraft I fly has a rate of climb of between 500 and 700 feet per minute. The jet was climbing at 4,000 feet per minute! It was a fantastic experience.”

Costa Rican Trip by Danielle Toland: “The Costa Rican saying is ‘Pura Vida’ which means pure life. They embody this motto by being happy with their lives, being gracious for what they have, and living slowly and relaxed. I learned to be a little more gracious from them.”

Three Days of Outdoor Activity in San Francisco’s Microclimate by Jen Lucas: “The following day was one that I’ll remember for this lifetime. Everyone recognizes the Golden Gate Bridge as the major landmark of the city which I’ve seen previously but when my friend mentioned us riding bikes across, I visualized myself with a huge Sharpie checking off a large box on my bucket list.”

Feeling inspired? Write a review of your latest trip!

— written by Sarah Schlichter