Explore. Experience. Engage.

Home Travel Tips Travel Deals Destinations Trip Reviews Blog
The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

dubai aerial viewLast month, we challenged our readers to review a recent trip for a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card. The submissions we received were fascinating, detailing journeys to the temples of Cambodia, the lakes of Slovenia and the remote reaches of the Grand Canyon.

Choosing the best review was difficult, but in the end we went with Adrienne Lee’s Dazzling Dubai. Here’s an excerpt:

“Since we arrived at night, the city was all lit up with mile after mile of sparkling skyscrapers that could only be described as dazzling. We used that word daily as we discovered the wonders that Dubai has to offer.” Read the rest!

While we only had one prize to give, we want to highlight a few runners-up that we also loved reading:

Angkor Wat: Incredibly Spiritual and Moving by Amelia Hesson: “We visited [Ta Prohm] early in the morning before any other tourists visited, making it the most serene of all temples for us. It is called the King of Trees because it is in pristine untouched condition, covered with crumbling stones and over powering trees. This was a very large temple, almost as large as Angkor Wat, and has not been repaired at all. The only thing done to this magnificent temple has been to build wooden stairs around the temple, as well as stairs climbing up to the top and down to the depths of this most sacred place. We were blown away by its majesty and loved seeing it in its natural state of crumbling and dis-repair.”

The Grand Canyon’s Most Remote Village by vagabondginger: “While millions visit the Grand Canyon each year, only a few thousand make the trek to this smallest Indian nation in America. The only way to get there is on foot, by horse or by helicopter. These people have lived here over 800 years and at one time the tribe was forced by the US government to give up most of their land, but almost 100 years later much of it was regained even though it is now a National Park. Of the 650 member tribe 450 live here and are self governing and they do not receive any US government stipends. They now rely heavily on tourism although they seem to resent it. This is their home we are trekking into and they consider their land to be sacred.”

Walks of Lake Bled & Lake Bohinj, Slovenia by Susan Burger: “Lake Bohinj, with steep mountains projecting straight up from the edges, is located in the Triglav National Park, and is even more serene and natural than Lake Bled. We rode the cable car to the top of Mount Vogel for a panoramic view of the surrounding Julian Alps and Mount Triglav (9,400 ft), the highest peak in Slovenia. It is also a good starting point for hiking trails, including the Bohinj cheese trail which offers samples of the traditionally made cheese to hikers starting late June.”

Feeling inspired? Read more trip reviews or share advice from your latest trip!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

As a couple of street cats look on, we ascend a narrow staircase until we reach a ledge overlooking the whole of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. There, at the somewhat precarious top, our guide has placed pillows for our small group to sit; we’ll be picnicking in the open air, with the spectacular Yeni Cami (New Mosque) behind us and the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar in front.

“Welcome to the best view in Istanbul,” said Benoit Hanquet, his longish gray hair blowing in the breeze. Our group of eight murmured appreciatively as Hanquet passed around slices of pide, a pizza-like flatbread created right before us a few minutes earlier.

istanbul view

If you’re tired of tours that bring you to the same old places, it’s time you gave culinary tourism a try. Food tours are about more than stuffing your face with local specialties. Rather, the good ones give you an insight into a city’s culture, allowing you to see how local people eat, drink and spend their free time.

Food tours have taught me more than a typical city stroll. For example, on a walking tour with Frying Pan Adventures in Dubai, I learned how diverse the emirate really is by eating Palestinian falafel, Egyptian pastries and Syrian ice cream as we walked through the Deira district. Many of these foods are cherished by foreign workers, who aren’t allowed citizenship, we were told — which made what we were eating seem far more compelling.

12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

In Istanbul, I took on the Grand Bazaar with Culinary Backstreets, a food tour company that has now expanded to 16 cities. Founded in Turkey, the company originated as Istanbul Eats, a food guide that first came out in book form, Benoit told us. The authors received so many requests from tourists to help them find the small mom-and-pop stalls and stands in the book that they decided to start offering tours.

doner kebab istanbul food

In Istanbul alone, Culinary Backstreets runs six tours a day. Topics range from a cooking class held in Kurtulus, a neighborhood well off the beaten path, to an authentic meyhane, or night out on the town, complete with raki (Turkish liquor) and live music. While the company keeps the skeleton of the tours the same, the guides do some of their own improvising; Benoit tells us that our picturesque ledge is one that only he visits.

Taking a food tour can require some fortitude, both on your feet and in your stomach. Both my tours in Dubai and Istanbul stretched out over six hours; in Istanbul, we left Benoit after being together 7.5 hours (the Belgian expat was still going strong; he informed us that our “early” departure would keep us from coffee at a restaurant with another great view). Come hungry and pace yourself!

Food tours are not for the squeamish. Although Benoit told us that customers with food allergies or preferences are given options, many of the world’s cities aren’t well suited to picky eaters, particularly when you’re visiting places that specialize in just one thing. In Istanbul, we were coaxed into having kokoretsi, lamb sweetbreads that have been roasted for hours. Served on a toasted piece of French bread, the pieces of offal were melt-in-your-mouth delicious — and even those people on our tour who questioned the stop ended up liking them.

istanbul breakfast

Culinary tours also tend to be bonding experiences. Our Istanbul tour included three lively Australians, three Americans (my husband and I included) and a couple from Pakistan. We listened, enthralled over our bulgur and lentil soup, as Shireen from Islamabad shared the hardships of being an art critic in Islamabad. I still follow the Frying Pan Instagram feed, posted by Farida, a University of Pennsylvania grad who returned to the U.A.E. to start her business. Turns out breaking bread together is an intimate act around the world.

Learn More About Food and Travel

At the end of our Istanbul tour, we exchanged email addresses with our new friends and headed back to our hotel. We were tired and full, but also upbeat; suddenly the streets seemed friendlier and more familiar, now that we had drunk the same sweet tea as the Turks. At the hotel I called up the website for Culinary Backstreets and immediately booked another food tour for next week, when I’m in Athens. I’ve visited there before, but I know that by exploring the city through its bakeries and markets, I’ll come away satiated.

— written by Chris Gray Faust

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two cities with over-the-top architecture.

Would you rather…

… check out Gaudi’s fantastical visions in Barcelona, or …

parc guell gaudi barcelona

… experience the decadence of Dubai?

dubai skyline uae

Visitors to Barcelona can’t miss the influence of architect Antoni Gaudi, whose whimsically designed buildings include the eternally-under-construction Sagrada Familia church, the colorful Casa Batllo and the flowing lines of Parc Guell, pictured above. Dubai is home to Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper; Burj Al Arab, the first hotel to proclaim itself a “seven-star” property; and numerous other lavish buildings.

Best Cities for Architecture Buffs
Photos: 10 Best Spain Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot shows the dramatic architecture of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

sheikh zayed grand mosque abu dhabi night

Post Your Questions About Middle East Travel

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

— written by Sarah Schlichter