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amsterdam harpsichordAmsterdam has a lot going for it — like the Anne Frank House, boat rides along its storied canals, the Van Gogh Museum and cycling amongst the tulips (or green fields in less glamorous seasons than spring).

Visiting these places via a guide or a pre-arranged tour can certainly offer insights you might not otherwise get, but as an independent-minded traveler, I find usually them slow-moving, frustrating and — okay, I’ll say it — sometimes quite dry. So it was a big surprise to me that on my last visit to Amsterdam, a guided tour led to the best day I’ve ever had in that city.

Our Favorite Spots to Stay in Amsterdam

I’ve always been fascinated by the houseboats on Amsterdam’s canals, but the closest I’d ever gotten to visiting one was the city’s Houseboat Museum. And while I appreciated the history I learned there, the experience didn’t give me a true feel for life in Holland today. I found that instead on a walking tour offered by Van Aemstel Productions, which enabled me and other visitors not only to go inside local homes but also to meet their residents.

The locals were as interesting as their houses. One was a children’s book writer, another a television producer, a third a retired tour guide. One revealed the unique challenges of living in a houseboat — like the limited space; the patio that, while adorable, is visible to every tourist walking by; and the need to move out completely every few years so the boat can be brought into dry dock for hull inspection.

Another local welcomed us into his narrow 17th-century canal house, gamely maneuvering his broken leg up a set of ladder-steep steps to his top-floor apartment. Once there, he gave us impromptu concert on a harpsichord (on which he’d painted a gorgeous seafaring vista). Like the houseboat resident, he was willing to put up with a more challenging lifestyle in order to live in an atmosphere that was special, unique and central to the character of his city.

Van Aemstel Productions, it turns out, specializes in the kind of guided tours meant to give travelers insights into contemporary life, not just history. Perhaps on my next trip there I’ll check out its tour of the Red Light District, led by a former cop who walked that beat.

8 Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

That tours could offer more than just history lessons was a revelation to me, and since then my antenna has been attuned to experiences in other cities that offer a sense of what’s real there. In San Francisco, for instance, Vayable.com offers a chance to learn about the city’s homeless issues via a tour with a gent who, indeed, is homeless; you can also forage for your own seafood with a local fisherman. Visitors to Buenos Aires might initially put a tango lesson or a visit to Eva Peron’s mausoleum on the top of their sightseeing lists, but personally, I love the sound of Vayable’s “In the footsteps of dictators” experience, which traces the city’s dark history. (Learn more about Vayable in Tourist No More: Three Secrets for Traveling Like a Local.)

I’ve become a guided tour convert — how about you? Share your favorite guided tours below!

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

Stuttgart Library You’re in a new city and you have the near-unavoidable checklist of sights to see and things to do. Let’s review here: Museums, national parks, historic sites, art installations, so-and-so says this is the home of the world’s best wiener schnitzel — the list could seemingly go on forever.

And while many attractions are simply a case of beholding them (it’s free to stare at the Eiffel Tower but not to climb), entrance fees and related costs add up over the course of a vacation.

So what destination is available in just about every city you’ll visit, is a great porthole into local culture, offers spectacular people-watching as well as potentially free Internet access (handy in a foreign land) and is always free to visit? Libraries! I’m not just talking about Washington D.C.‘s Library of Congress (on many actual to-do lists), but any community building for book loan. You probably grew up visiting your own, from time to time, and never even considered it as a tourist attraction. Admittedly, that’s because some libraries are a tad more impressive than others — not in what they stand for, but perhaps how they stand (picture a repurposed industrial complex in Germany shaped like a Tetris block and filled with books).

Flavorwire recently put together a slideshow of 15 standout libraries from around the world — including one in Denmark featuring a giant mouth that recites poetry aloud, as well as reading nooks resembling birdcages in an eco-retreat at a Thai resort.

Editor’s Note: Slides one and nine represent private, home libraries and while awe-inspiring, are not recommended for your next sightseeing list!

What Not to Do in a New City

While attending college in Poughkeepsie, NY, I was drawn to study in the library of my friend’s alma mater, Vassar College — not for the millions of pages at hand, lying dormant in their many tomes, but for the Gothic architecture: the marble touches, hidden staircases and stained glass windows. This didn’t improve my grades as much as fuel my wandering imagination, and solidify my appreciation of libraries that appear as grand and mysterious as the knowledge within.

If the library you find doesn’t resemble a cathedral or a giraffe, don’t fret. The volumes you find abroad may not always be in your native tongue, but the communal library experience is guaranteed to be shared. Libraries are often used as a space for community announcements and events, so take advantage of tapping right into the source — find a bulletin board or events calendar (if you can read it) to get a pulse on the area.

12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of

What’s the best library you ever visited at home or abroad? Share your experiences in the comments below!

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Did you know that the first Wednesday in April has been declared National Walking Day by the American Heart Association? Well, now you do.

While the AHA aims to encourage more physical activity among those of us who spend hours upon hours sitting at a desk, we couldn’t resist putting a travel spin on the day — because let’s face it, most of us walk much more when we’re off exploring a new place than we do when we’re at home.

We recently asked our followers on Facebook to name their favorite city or neighborhood for strolling — and the list of places we got in response would inspire just about anyone to hit the pavement. Following are a few of our favorites:

“Assisi, Italy … peaceful, quaint & beautiful!” — Tracey Pino

assisi italy church



New York City — especially Broadway from Columbus Circle to the 80’s” — Beth Glass

central park new york city dog walking



“Old City in Jerusalem” — Rose Kemps

old city jerusalem souq souk market



“Definitely Sydney — from the Rocks all the way around to the Botanical Gardens” — Gill Harvey

botanical gardens sydney



What Not to Do in a New City

Which city tops your list of favorite places to walk?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

kiribati beachThe deserted beach. The pristine nature trail. The hushed art gallery. The view of a spectacular landmark unspoiled by crowds. It’s something many travelers dream of having: a magnificent travel experience all to oneself.

Considering that more than one billion tourists traveled internationally last year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), it’s a lot more likely that you’ll find yourself standing in long lines, sitting shoulder to shoulder on the beach and jostling fellow travelers at overcrowded museums — unless you travel to one of these 25 countries.

Gunnar Garfors, globetrotter and CEO of Norwegian Mobile TV Co., used UNWTO data to compile a list of the 25 least visited countries in the world. While the most popular destination for tourism, France, sees some 79.5 million visitors a year, the countries on Garfors’ list see numbers in the thousands, or even hundreds. Taking home the honors as the least traveled spot is the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, which was visited by a measly 200 people in 2011.

Sweet Spots to Stay in Paris

Like Nauru, many of the countries on the list are there because they’re small and difficult to get to (Tuvalu, Kiribati). Others have faced recent violence and are generally considered unsafe for tourists (Somalia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone). Still others aren’t so much difficult to get to as difficult to get into (Bhutan and North Korea, where visas are required and travelers must arrange for a guide rather than touring independently). Yet Garfors has visited 21 of the 25, and returned with fascinating tips and stories to share.

Personally, I’m only one for 25. I’ve been to No. 25, Dominica, the sleepy Caribbean island that’s better known for its lush rain forest trails and waterfalls than for its beaches. It was worth the trip — my partner and I took several hikes without seeing another soul. As for the other 24 countries … well, I’d better get traveling.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

How many of the least visited countries have you been to?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

seattleIf I can offer you only one piece of advice for traveling to Seattle it would be this — dress in layers.

While never too cold or too warm, and, of course, famous for an almost daily drizzle, the weather in Seattle is nevertheless hard to predict, especially in late winter/early spring. And weather forecasts aren’t always helpful.

Prior to jetting off to Seattle for a recent four-night visit, I checked Weather.com to see what I should expect. Heavy rain storms and cool weather were predicted, so into the suitcase went several cold-weather items. But then my overpacking gene took over and, despite the ugly forecast, I threw a few warm-weather options in as well. Thank goodness I did.

As it turned out, three out of four days started out foggy and cold, but then turned warm and sunny, before ending crisp and cold again. Because I had thrown in some tees, a light sweater and a zip-up sweatshirt, I was able to put on and take off layers as needed.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

Care for a second piece of Seattle travel advice? Rent a house or apartment.

I was in Seattle for a cousin’s bat mitzvah; with me and my husband were my parents, and my sister and her family, including my 3-year-old niece. We looked at hotels at first, but the cheapest rates we could find (in a decent hotel) started at about $140. That wasn’t bad, but the necessity of eating out would add to the cost. Then my dad looked on VRBO.com for short-term rentals. Prices, when split three ways, were slightly less than the per-night hotel rates, plus we would all be together and could cook meals in the house and share grocery expenses.

Not only did renting a house bring down the overall trip price, but we got a great location right on Green Lake, within a 20-minute drive of everywhere we wanted to go.

The last tidbit I picked up during my short stay in Seattle involves parking near Pike Place Market. If you’re planning to drive to the Market, try and wait until Sunday. Parking on 1st and 2nd Avenues is free that day, though you’ve got to get there pretty early to snag a spot. Otherwise, don’t park in a lot within three or four blocks. The first lot we pulled into on 2nd Avenue would have cost about $40. A lot just two blocks farther away, on the corner of 3rd Avenue, cost $12.

Our 6 Favorite Seattle Hotels

– written by Dori Saltzman

stonerito elizabeths new orleansNew Orleans. Bourbon Street. The two pretty much go hand in hand even outside of Mardi Gras season. However, despite a single walk-through for the “experience” during my recent first trip to NOLA, I found the dodgy vibe wasn’t for me.

Thankfully, a few local friends gave me every traveler’s sought-after inside scoop. They took me to a few touristy spots like Cafe du Monde, which my taste buds found to be worth its salt (well, sugar) — but they knew to visit in the wee hours (early morning or late night) in order to avoid the lines. My idea of drinking in the street was fulfilled by ordering their cafe au lait in a keepsake mug and taking the rest to go. If you too prefer the slightly offbeat, consider the following haunts I was introduced to, by the people who live there.

Bywater: As Local as It Gets
If you lived here, you’d be home by now. At least that’s the wisdom of the hand-painted wooden sign that greets you along the waterway into this charming Crescent City neighborhood, one of very few in the Ninth Ward affected little by Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Bob, a local folk artist known for his signs including “Be Nice or Leave” (a favorite displayed in many local bars and establishments), has set up his art gallery and studio headquarters along Chartres in Bywater, and the location is hard to miss. Serving as the neighborhood’s unofficial mascot, the colorful yet gritty aesthetic of Dr. Bob’s art is indicative of the entire area.

As I wandered from brunch spot to brunch spot (brunch is a way of life in New Orleans), I became acquainted with the rainbow of houses and eclectic storefronts featuring vintage, antique and found objects. For every one I would pass or step into, there were two more I didn’t have time to discover. I suggest taking a day, or at least a whole afternoon, to wander this area and see what you discover for yourself.

For foodies, I recommend eating at Elizabeth’s. Its motto is “Real food, done real good,” and after eating there, I would overwhelmingly agree. This local establishment boasts no frills with plastic, cherry-dappled tablecloths and painted signs promoting their praline bacon (yes, you read that correctly … and that’s just an appetizer!). I went with the daily special — a stonerito — composed of eggs, sausage and bacon (yes, more bacon) in a French toast-battered wrap doused with powdered sugar, plus a side of fried green tomatoes with remoulade.

Our 5 Favorite New Orleans Hotels

Frenchmen Street
Known by residents as the “locals’ Bourbon Street,” Frenchmen offers shopping, bars, restaurants, music and culture — without the beads and rows of daiquiri machines. If you get to talking with any local shop owners, at some point they’ll ask you if you “know about Frenchmen.” A relative secret to most tourists, some of the best jazz venues run along this rue, from the Spotted Cat and Snug Harbor to Maison and Apple Barrel; they’re even happening on a Monday night. Sip your hurricane from a cup, not a plastic monstrosity, and immerse yourself in the music. For late-night, post-drink snacking, I suggest getting the tachos (nachos made with tater tots) at 13, a restaurant/bar.

Antiquing and Supermarkets
A bit daunted by the high-end Shops at Canal Place, unimpressed with River Walk and fizzled out after the same booths row after row in the French Market, I found that my favorite places to shop in New Orleans were the ever-present antique emporiums, artists’ collectives and the local supermarket. Rare Finds, near the market in the French Quarter, had a distinctive selection of antiques and memorabilia from absinthe spoons to vintage coins that served as old call girl coupons. I found a beautifully aged fleur de lis hook from the 1960’s for around $20.

On Royal Street there’s plenty of art at a variety of price points, mostly by local artists. For a glass of wine, a chat and a look around, try the Great Artists’ Collective. Finally, for those souvenirs to bring home to the family, from sauces, spices and snacks to beads and masks, try a suburban supermarket such as Rouse’s. Though food specialties and decorations change seasonally, it’s a definite bet for reasonably priced condiments and local seasonings if you have a foodie at home. Pick up some groceries for yourself too, like a case of seasonal Abita beer or a bag of Voodoo chips to enjoy back at the hotel.

See Our Complete New Orleans Travel Guide

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

paris catacombs skullsToday is Valentine’s Day, and travel sites will be filling your inbox with lists of romantic hotels and destinations. All will feature wonderful things for couples to do together, and dreamy suites with large bathtubs — including some shaped like hearts and filled with Champagne and chocolates.

But isn’t all of that a little … cliche? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to get an e-mail for Valentine’s Day recommending that you and your loved one visit the Parisian catacombs or tour a historic prison? We think so. We’ve put together a list of four destinations to visit that wouldn’t normally be associated with Valentine’s Day.

Feel free to add your own to the list!

The Parisian Catacombs: A romantic hangout for the “Twilight”-loving crowd it might be, but for most of us the 18th-century catacombs located beneath the streets of Paris are a bit creepy. Still, what better place to be if you want an excuse to cuddle really close to your loved one?

Best Places to Stay in Paris

Alcatraz: Also referred to as “The Rock” (hmm, that seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day, actually), Alcatraz is a small island in San Francisco that housed an infamous federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Couples looking for an illicit thrill can give each other a peck on the lips in the (reportedly haunted) cell in which Al Capone once lived.

Verona, Italy: Actually not an unromantic destination at all, Verona is a city located in northeast Italy with an artistic heritage and Roman ruins. Alas, Verona also is known as the place Romeo and Juliet met their doomed end.

Intercourse, Pennsylvania: A rather appropriately named town for Valentine’s Day, don’t you think? This quaint tourist town in Amish Country was used during the filming of the Harrison Ford movie “Witness.” Visitors can check out the local crafts, take a buggy ride or visit the Quilt Museum.

12 Places Every Chocolate Lover Should Visit

– written by Dori Saltzman

mount rushmoreQuick quiz: Can you name all 44 U.S. presidents? Er … neither can we. But that won’t stop us from using their special day as an excuse for a mid-winter long weekend getaway!

In honor of George and those who came after him, here are five presidential-themed U.S. destinations to consider.

Washington D.C.
It might seem like an obvious first pick, but if you love all things presidential then you can’t beat Washington D.C. Beyond the White House, the Capitol and the world-class network of the Smithsonian museums are plenty of other ways to fill a long weekend. To learn more about the city’s fascinating history, take a walking tour with Free Tours by Foot (the company offers an interesting option focused on Lincoln’s assassination) or Walk of the Town.

If you’d prefer to eat your way around the city, try DC Metro Food Tours, or browse the ethnic offerings in the trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Our Favorite Washington D.C. Hotels

Mount Vernon Estate
George Washington and his wife Martha called this estate home for more than 40 years. Learn about George and Martha’s life and enjoy their legacy at their home along the Potomac River. In honor of Washington’s 281st birthday, admission is free on February 18, and the estate will open one hour early. There are several events scheduled over the weekend including book signings, discussions, musical salutes and a wreath-laying ceremony at Washington’s tomb.

Mount Vernon is located in Northern Virginia, just 16 miles from Washington D.C. The estate is accessible by car and public transportation.

Mount Rushmore
The Black Hills of South Dakota are home to an incredible granite sculpture of four past presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. There’s more to do here than just ogling the big heads; guided tour options include a Ranger Walk, Sculptor’s Studio Talk and a Heritage Village tour that highlights the customs of local Native American communities.

Other activities in the area include the Black Hills National Forest, which boasts the highest point east of the Rockies, and Badlands National Park, with its amazing landscapes. Crazy Horse Memorial, the largest sculptural undertaking in the world, is also nearby.

The 10 Best U.S. National Parks

Gettysburg National Military Park
The year 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the military park’s calendar is filled with events to commemorate the Civil War’s bloodiest battle. President Lincoln delivered one of the most famous speeches in American History, the Gettysburg Address, on the property.

Events scheduled over Presidents’ Day weekend include educational talks, an art exhibit, tastings at a nearby winery and the chance to “meet” President Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents.

Washington Crossing Historic Park
On Christmas night in 1776, George Washington and his men crossed the Delaware River and marched to Trenton, New Jersey, in a surprise attack against the Hessians during the Revolutionary War. The area is now a historic park, which will hold a birthday party for Washington on February 17 — complete with a cake cutting at 1:30 p.m. (Admission is a measly $1.)

Washington Crossing is a bucolic village located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just down the road from the artsy riverfront community of New Hope.

– written by Lori Sussle

nassau bahamas jamaican food jerk chickenNod your head if you think there’s nothing more to Nassau than its proximity to the Atlantis Resort and Casino and a plethora of straw markets and high-end shops. I’d be willing to bet just about everyone reading this is nodding their head right now. I know that until recently, that’s what I thought. And because of that, Nassau was fairly low on my list of must-visit destinations.

But on a recent cruise visit to this port city, I learned there’s so much more than meets the eye.

I learned, for instance, that within just a few years of Christopher Columbus “discovering” the Bahamas, all the indigenous people had been wiped out and that technically everyone who today hails from there comes from immigrant ancestors.

I also learned that the Bahamas are a unique blend of British and American culture and influences. Though “founded” by the British in the early 1700’s and still a part of the Commonwealth, the Bahamian islands also played a role in the American Revolution and the Civil War, and were a hotbed of rum-running activity during Prohibition. In fact, some of Nassau’s architecture is classic American colonial, a vestige of its days as a home-in-exile for American loyalists after their side lost the Revolutionary War.

Nassau Hotels

And for seafood lovers, I learned that conch (pronounced conk) isn’t just used for fritters and chowder. Because the conch shell is incredibly hard and durable, it’s often ground into dust and added to construction materials. A good many of the buildings in downtown Nassau are partly made of conch shell.

All of these facts and more were imparted to me by Alanna Rodgers, a young Bahamian entrepreneur whose Tru Bahamian Food Tours launched just two months ago. At least once a day Rodgers leads tourists on the three-hour Bites of Nassau Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour, giving participants the chance to try a variety of local foods and learn a great deal about the Bahamas from culture to history, architecture to government, and religion to pirates.

12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

The tour was the high point of my seven-day Bahamas cruise and offered a truly fascinating look at a country and port that is too often dismissed for its three S’s (sun, sand and shopping).

Among the culinary highlights of the tour were:

Baked macaroni and cheese at Bahamian Cookin’, the first stop on our tasting tour. While everyone else got conch fritters (I don’t eat shellfish), I had a yummy macaroni and cheese dish at this small restaurant, which is owned and operated by three generations of Nassau women.

Jamaican jerk chicken that didn’t burn going down. Turns out there are some 10,000 Jamaicans in the Bahamas, making up a significant subset of the population. At the hole-in-the-wall Pepper Pot Grill, the menu is pretty much whatever the chef decides to cook, but there are usually a couple of choices, and the jerk chicken was delicious without being overly spicy.

An invitation to the Governor General’s house for tea. Okay, so the Governor General didn’t actually invite me personally, but as part of the country’s People to People project all tourists are invited to a special one-hour tea party (4 – 5 p.m.) on the last Friday of every month (except December). During the event visitors can chat with the Governor General’s wife, sample local bush teas, watch a Bahamian fashion show and enjoy live music.

Chocolate. There’s nothing particularly Bahamian about the Graycliff Chocolatier, though the Italian family that owns it has lived in the Bahamas for many years. But for this chocoholic, stopping by for a freshly made caramel salted dark chocolate was divine. Many local ingredients are used in the chocolates, like coconut and pineapple, and the company is hoping to develop a local cocoa plantation.

Greek salad. The Greek salad itself was less of a highlight than learning that Greeks make up a significant part of the Bahamian merchant class, that they own most of the jewelry stores on Bay Street (downtown’s main street), and that the son’s owner is married to a former Miss Bahamas. Oh, and many Bahamian politicians stop by there for lunch – the Secretary of Foreign Affairs was there when we were.

How to Save Money on Food When You Travel


– written by Dori Saltzman

beachAlthough there’s still a few hours of December 21, 2012 left, we’re fairly certain the world isn’t coming to an end and thank goodness as there’s still so much more traveling to be done! In this week’s Friday Free-For-All, we want to get your travel-related fill-in answer to this sentence:

I’m grateful the world didn’t come to an end because now I’ll have the chance to _______.

To get you started here’s what a few people in the IndependentTraveler.com and CruiseCritic.com office had to say.

I’m grateful the world didn’t come to an end because now I’ll have the chance…

…to see the aurora borealis while dogsledding in the Arctic Circle. — Dori Saltzman, News Editor

…to chant “Eviiita” in front of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires. — Ashley Kosciolek, Copy Editor

…to reserve a table in Munich for Oktoberfest and catch an All Blacks game in New Zealand. — Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor, CruiseCritic.com

…to visit all the National Parks I’ve never been to with my son and hit my seventh continent on a cruise to Antarctica. — Erica Silverstein, Features Editor, CruiseCritic.com

So, why are you grateful the world didn’t come to an end?

12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place


–written by Dori Saltzman