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ballard seattleOn a recent trip to Seattle, I found myself wishing I hadn’t stayed in Lower Queen Anne. Sure, it’s a nice, centrally located neighborhood near the Space Needle, but I could have easily spent an entire vacation in the quirkier neighborhoods of Fremont and Ballard. I was even more disappointed with my choice in Portland, where I ended up between financial institutions and chain coffee shops instead of breweries and wacky food carts.

I vowed to stay at a hotel in a “cool neighborhood” on my next urban getaway, but quickly discovered how rare of a concept that actually is. The majority of traditional hotels tend to be in or near the center of town; however, there are still options for accommodations in neighborhoods off the beaten path. Here’s how to find them.

1. Research City Neighborhoods
When planning a city vacation, do your research to find out which neighborhoods are the most unique. Reddit is a decent resource for this — many cities have their own page on which you can ask locals for suggestions. Convention and visitors bureaus are another valuable resource, especially if you can email or call someone directly to chat about options.

“I always look for good restaurants,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of our sister site, Cruise Critic. “There’s usually a good scene around good food.” She also suggests researching interesting shops, art galleries and local markets.

2. Search for Rentals
If you’re traveling internationally in particular, look to stay in an apartment or flat that’s far enough from the tourist traps, yet close enough that you can catch a bus or subway to the center of town. Apartments and flats provide a great means to feel like a resident while you’re in town — why not visit that local market for ingredients to cook a regional delicacy in your own rental kitchen?

“Serviced flats are another good option,” says Brown. She suggests Adina Apartment Hotels, which are located in Hungary, Denmark, Germany and Australia. Farnum and Christ is also reliable for accommodations in London, she says.

Airbnb and HomeAway are good choices as well, and both offer map views that let you easily pick out properties in the neighborhood you’re after.

Vacation Rentals: A Traveler’s Guide

3. Consider a Bed and Breakfast
If you want the convenience of a hotel without the impersonal downtown location, search for a bed and breakfast. You won’t likely find many (if any) in the central areas of cities.

For example, a quick search of B&Bs in Chicago reveals Ray’s Bucktown B&B and Wicker Park Inn Bed and Breakfast. Bucktown/Wicker Park is a trendy, historic neighborhood in Chicago, and is a short, direct subway ride from the center of town. Another search for B&Bs in Venice shows B&B Ca’Bella in the area of Cannaregio, where many locals live. This area is off the beaten path and away from most of the crowds, yet within reasonable walking distance of the Rialto Bridge.

Big-City B&Bs

4. Consider a Travel Agent
Don’t underestimate the power of a good travel agent, especially if you don’t have time to research unique accommodations. A travel agent can help you find what you want, along with other points of interest so you feel prepared. “Look at magazine hot lists for travel agents,” Brown suggests. “These type of accommodations can be intimidating.”

– written by Amanda Geronikos

mottarone italyI’ve made plenty of mistakes while traveling. I’ve forgotten everything from a computer charger to a camera, and I’ve scheduled flights so close together that more than once I’ve pulled what I call “the ‘Home Alone’ run,” in which I scurry through the airport like the McCallisters, just barely making it to the gate before it closes.

On a recent trip to Italy, I made one of my biggest mistakes yet — but it led to one of my fondest travel memories to date.

During a trip to Lake Maggiore, a newfound friend and I decided to take a cable car to the top of Mottarone, a mountain that overlooks the lake and the town of Stresa. The experience had been recommended to us by a few locals, though one woman warned us not to miss the last ride down the mountain.

11 Best Italy Experiences

Once there, we were rewarded with hiking trails and spectacular views (we could see seven different lakes and even a bit of Switzerland in the distance). We enjoyed ourselves so much that time flew quickly, and guess what? We missed the last ride down.

After we got past the initial “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” we found our way to the nearest business — actually, the only business; the restaurant was the only sign of civilization nearby. The owner, who barely spoke English, made a quick call, then told us it would be an hour before we could even get a taxi; after that, it would be at least a 45-minute drive and 60 euros back to our hotel. We were supposed to meet a group of friends for our last dinner together in Italy in an hour. We’d never make it.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”

My friend ordered a beer and started chatting with the owner. Still in a state of panic, I grabbed a beer too, and, at her order, sat down to “try to relax.”

The owner kindly offered us plates of meat, cheese and bread on the house, and began to tell us about himself. It turned out he was the former mayor of Stresa, and he planned to run for office again. The restaurant he owned dated back several generations, and his mother, who also spoke to us, still cooked up some of the area’s best dishes (“People like the meatballs,” she said). The family also owned a hotel (adjacent to the restaurant) that was popular during ski season.

Caught up in conversation, it was actually disappointing to leave when the taxi driver finally arrived. As he whisked the car down hairpin turns, my friend and I agreed: this unexpected conversation with the locals was travel at its best, and an experience neither of us would forget.

15 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling Solo

What’s the best travel mistake you ever made?

– written by Amanda Geronikos

venice gondola A few years ago, I considered my first solo trip (to Austria). Though I’d flown to Europe alone several times in the past, I’d always met familiar faces at the airport. This time around, I knew I’d want a similar kind of security — and that’s when I discovered Monograms through a travel agent.

Monograms — which operates in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia/New Zealand — helps travelers spend less time on trip planning by organizing hotels, airport and city transfers, and suggested itineraries. It also provides insight and help from trusted locals, should you want it. But as a traveler, you’re supposed to feel as though you’re on your own — not on a tour group vacation — the whole time.

I never took that trip to Austria, so when I recently received an opportunity to experience a Monograms vacation package — this time in Italy (the company’s most popular destination) — I happily accepted the offer. Read on to see what I loved about the trip, as well as didn’t work quite as well.

HITS
Convenience: Monograms packages include accommodations and complimentary breakfast at a centrally located hotel; a Local Host, who essentially acts as your personal concierge; organized sightseeing opportunities; and transfers between cities. Airport transfers are also included if you book your flight via Monograms. Shortly before the trip, visitors also receive an information packet with a (loose) itinerary and useful tips about the destination, such as electrical outlet guidelines, customary tipping procedures, emergency phone numbers and a weather forecast.

9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English

Independence: As mentioned, select sightseeing opportunities are included in Monograms packages (though they’re certainly not mandatory), and are typically offered in half-day sessions. This allows plenty of free time to go it alone; in fact, you’ll feel like you’re on your own most of the time. Other excursions (like a gondola ride in Venice, for example) are available for an additional fee.

Local Insight: The most valuable feature of Monograms is the Local Hosts. While they can handle trip logistics and answer questions, they’re also a great resource for recommendations and inside tips. For instance, our Local Host, Igor, directed us to the best place to beat the crowds and view Venice’s Rialto Bridge (Campiello del Remer). Upon request, he also gave us a few history lessons via a spooky tour of the city at night. Local Hosts are helpful from a safety perspective as well — if you get in a bind, they’re just a phone call away.

Special Privileges: By traveling with Monograms, you can skip lines at attractions included in sightseeing tours. For example, I was allowed immediate access to St. Mark’s Basilica, Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Museo del Vetro (Murano Glass Museum) in Venice. Since the lines for these landmarks can get excruciatingly long, especially during the summer months, this is a welcome perk.

MISSES
Group Sizes: Monograms doesn’t really limit the number of people who book vacation packages at one time, and some travel dates are just more popular than others. In this case, Monograms might split a group for sightseeing tours, but in the event it doesn’t, you’ll likely be walking around in a giant group like other tourists, headset in ear and all.

Tourist Trap-Heavy: To that effect, most of the sightseeing options included in Monograms itineraries are popular attractions, a k a tourist traps. While some are certainly worth the visit (I’m not sure who’d pass up a tour of the Eiffel Tower), many travelers might prefer to bypass the big names and spend their money on an entirely off-the-beaten-path getaway.

Tourist No More: 3 Secrets for Traveling like a Local

By the way, I still plan to visit Austria, and when I do, it’ll more than likely be with Monograms.

– written by Amanda Geronikos