What an amazing journey so far. Since moving to Belgium at the end of June 2018, we have experienced so many new and exciting things that it’s worthwhile to take a moment to reflect. We’ve met countless wonderful people from all sorts of different backgrounds. We’ve seen things up close for ourselves that I had previously only read about in history books or seen in the movies. We’ve experienced new cultures, new traditions, and my favorite – new food and drinks that are customary to each location.
Kaitlan gave me the reins of her blog for one post. “Why?” you may ask. She’s done a great job documenting our journey thus far, so what can I add that she hasn’t already so eloquently conveyed? The answer is – rankings. I love ranking things. Kaitlan on the other hand would probably rank all of our visits number one if she could. The fact is, “What’s your favorite place that you’ve visited so far?” is one of the most common questions family and friends have for us expats living and traveling abroad. Well, I’m here to answer that question by counting down from number five to number one.
- Bilbao, Spain
Spain is a wonderful place. The food is incredible, along with the wine, the people are lively, and the culture is very much worth getting to know. Our trip to Bilbao gave us both our first experience in the Basque region of northern Spain. Let me tell you – this place is beautiful. The hills surrounding the city, the river flowing through the center, and the coming together of historic and contemporary architecture make for one of the more photogenic cities we’ve encountered.
A perfect example of that is the Guggenheim museum, which is exciting to see regardless of your usual level of interest in artwork. When you’re surrounded by a 30-foot spider, a 40-foot flower puppy, and a shiny building that looks like a spaceship, you are not bored. Combine that with lively street performances along the river, pintxos galore, and some of the best paella and wine you could ask for, and you can understand why Bilbao makes the list of favorite destinations visited in 2018.
- Krakow, Poland
I didn’t know what to expect when first visiting Poland, but I can say that it blew me away in a variety of ways. First, the people were incredibly nice and welcoming. For example, at a bar in the Kazimierz neighborhood of Krakow, an older man who appeared to be a regular at the place asked me, in his best English, where I was from. When I told him the US, then clarified “Milwaukee, just north of Chicago”, he gave a huge grin, put up his hand for a high five, and said “CHICAGO! BLUES MUSIC!” He then insisted on buying me a shot of vodka, which I could not refuse. I mean these people were welcoming. Add on to that the history on display in Krakow, including Wawel Castle and Rynek square, along with great food at very affordable prices, and Krakow makes for a very good destination.
The part of this visit that resonates most with me is the short journey we made from Krakow to Auschwitz. This is about as powerful of an experience as I’ve had. We toured the grounds of the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, and I can say that you don’t leave there with the same perspective that you came in with. To stand on the grounds, go into the buildings, see the ovens and gas chambers, see the mounds of belongings of the victims, and hear the stories from the tour guides is a profound experience that transforms the facts and information that all students learn in their history classes into cold, hard reality. I cannot recommend visiting this site enough.
- Istanbul, Turkey
We also didn’t know what to expect leading up to our visit to Turkey. We had to study up on our history before this visit, and I’m glad we did. While the name and culture have changed over the centuries, from the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium, to Constantinople as the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, to Istanbul as the Ottoman and modern Turkish city, the history is palpable when you are here. This massive city is sprawling and hilly, so when you find a good viewpoint atop a hill or rooftop, taking in the view is an experience in and of itself.
What stood out most for me on this trip was that it was an unquestionably new and unique experience. The culture is very different. Relations between the US and Turkish government were less than stellar at the time of our visit. There was a level of unfamiliarity and uncertainty heading in. All of that made the warm welcoming of the locals even more meaningful. People were incredibly friendly, and being in a new culture face-to-face provides a level of understanding and perspective that you can’t realize in your own bubble. Interacting with locals, hearing the call to prayer over the speaker systems, haggling at the Grand Bazaar, touring the massive mosques, trying traditional Turkish coffee and cuisine, running along the historic Bosphorus Strait – these are the things that made our visit to Istanbul so memorable.
- Lucerne, Switzerland
If there is a more scenic place in the world, I haven’t seen it yet. “Wow, look at that…” was almost certainly our most commonly uttered phrase during this trip. Second was probably “It costs how much?”, and not in a good way. Lucerne is the city listed here, but in reality this is a package deal for Switzerland – Lausanne and Zermatt were no less awe-inspiring. Whether running along the lake, embarking on a hike, or commuting by boat or train, you never stop feeling as if you’re surrounded by an enormous masterpiece painting. Lucerne is especially picturesque as it boasts the River Reuss running through the center, over which the historic Chapel Bridge extends, the beautiful Lake Lucerne, and a seemingly endless chain of snowcapped mountains towering over the town. The experience is made complete by an also seemingly endless supply of Swiss chocolate, and the wonderful local cuisine such as venison steak and fondue.
Our trek up to Mount Pilatus was the highlight of the trip. You think you have a great view on the cogwheel train ride up the mountain, and you do. However, when you arrive at the top and step out on the viewing platform, the view (and the wind) simply takes your breath away. You really do question whether the snow-capped mountains go on forever. As you look down at the lake and underlying towns from an extraordinary vantage point, it would be cliché to say you feel like you’re on top of the world. But you are in fact on top of a large mountain, and that’s pretty cool.
- Paris, France
I’m not going to win any awards for originality with this pick. Nevertheless, what Paris has to offer is undeniable. You know the names of the main attractions – Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Basilique du Sacre-Coeur, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, Napoleon’s tomb; the list goes on. The fact that these world-renowned attractions are all within such a relatively close proximity of one another is something special. Few, if any, places in the world can match that. Seeing the sites and monuments for yourself after a lifetime of seeing them in movies, media, and history books at first seems unreal.
Fine, so plenty of people have seen the Eiffel Tower. Further, plenty of cities have historic sites. So why does Paris top my list of favorite destinations for 2018? The monuments are great, but this city has more to offer when getting off the tourist path. Wandering the streets and grabbing a coffee, wine, or beer at a local café is part of the experience. Stopping at a local bakery or pâtisserie where so much pride is taken in the fresh bread, pastries, and of course macarons is also part of the experience. Getting a delicious, and very affordable, bottle of wine and enjoying it along the Seine River or out on your balcony is also very much part of the experience. Did I mention macarons? Of course to top it all off, you have one of the best and most extensive selections of dining options of any city in the world. The number of ways to enjoy your time in Paris seem to be endless. Before I leave you with the impression that my appreciation of Paris is all about the food and beverages, which I can’t deny does weigh heavily for me, I should also mention the one-of-a-kind experience of going for a morning run through the city along the Seine River. You almost forget that you’re exercising as you pass by one historic monument after another. If you’re early enough, you beat the tourist rush and have the monuments to yourself, almost feeling like this iconic city is yours. Now that’s a memorable experience.
To say that we are fortunate for the opportunity to visit these places and more is an understatement. We’re thankful for all that we’ve been able to experience so far while living, working, and traveling abroad and can’t wait to see what adventures lie ahead in the coming year. If there’s enough popular demand, Kaitlan may even consider bringing me back for another Top 5 post in 2019.