It was a wedding that brought me to the small, costal beach town, Agia Pelagia, located 20 KM west of Heraklion. It was in Agia Pelagia where I experienced the hospitality Crete is known for. It was here that I met raki (More on that later).
On my first evening here, I was invited to the groom's family home for a rehearsal dinner. Immediately upon my arrival, I was offered food, good conversation, homemade wine and raki. In case you are not familiar with raki, it is "a sweetened, often anise-flavoured, alcoholic drink" popular in Greece with an alcohol volume of 40-50%. It was a good party.
It seemed as though everyone in the groom's village attended the dinner and were helping the family host. As I looked around, all of the neighbours were either serving, clearing and cleaning dishes; pouring raki; or playing an instrument. I was blown away by their sense of community.
After dinner, the bride and groom rented out Almyra, a restaurant for a party back on the beach. Almyra was an excellent venue for a large event with delicious food, drinks, good music and the sand and sea as a backdrop. As the night carried on, one guest learned she had left her cell phone in the cab down to Almyra (Raki was blamed). Hospitality was shown once again when the cab driver was called: He located the phone and then returned 2 hours later to personally deliver it to its owner.
In between the wedding ceremony, reception and events, guest enjoyed a few days on the beach and in the shops, restaurants and cafes of beautiful Agia Pelagia.
The view from Iridia Hotel Apartments
Agia Pelagia Beach
Shops, beaches, tavernas and basically a hotel for cats, Plaka is a great village to visit (Plaka is also located across from Spinalonga, so it makes for a great place to catch a boat ride over to the island). I loved walking around the village and checking out the beautiful views, beaches, shops and the notes left by cats.
Now, let's talk about what's actually important: the food. My favourite restaurant in Plaka was Taverna Giorgos (Jiovanni's) and I ordered the sea bass (So delicious!). If you call ahead, they will reserve a seat right on the cliff (Not sure if sitting this close to the edge of a cliff is a good idea, but it sure looked nice). As you can tell from the angle of my photo, I did not receive special treatment, but I dreamed about sitting at this empty table all night....really wish I called ahead. One of the great things about this restaurant is that their menu shamelessly brags about how Lady Gaga and Rhiana had both visited the restaurant- and they had pictures to prove it! I unfortunately only have a picture of this 'reserved' sign. Maybe the cats left it.
Another restaurant I enjoyed was Captain Nicolas (Right next door to Giorgos). Dinner began with our waiter taking us into the kitchen to inspect their catches of the day. I was not exactly sure of what I should have been looking for, or what questions I should have been asking, but I did enjoy the experience. Their menu (and fridge) had a wide variety of food, but we ordered whatever it is that is pictured below....and it was also delicious!
Thanks for the hospitality, Plaka!
I began my time in Elounda with a Greek salad and french fries. I know the two items don't normally go together, but in the moment, it just felt right. Now, I regret it because Greek salad and fries will never be the same: I had golden, salted french fries on my plate and feta, juicy tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers flavoured with oregano and olive oil on my fork as I looked out at this incredible view.
The Blue Palace is a resort and spa located in Elounda with stunning views, amenities and cuisine. Each beach umbrella was equipped with a button- when you press it, someone comes to take your order! Rumour has it that there is even a helicopter landing pad on the roof of this resort. Treat yo' self!
I thoroughly enjoyed everything I ate at the resort. Guests can also walk to Elounda or Plaka for a new beach view or delicious and affordable meals. The Blue Palace was, hands down, the best resort I've ever stayed at. Like the Greek salad and fries, hotel stays will never be the same.
As I spent time along the coast of Elounda and Plaka, this island (pictured below) continued to intrigue me. After doing a little research (asking a local), I learned that the island is called Spinalonga and lepers in Crete and the rest of Greece were quarantined here until 1957. When I arrived to the island, I learned even more: the island was once a military fortress during Roman rule. When I got home, I also found this sensational article written by Elizabeth Warkentin: "The abandoned Greek island shrouded in mystery." No wonder I was so intrigued by this mysterious little piece of land.
How to Get to Spinalonga?
Boats to Spinalonga depart from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda or Plakos. Explore Crete explains:
"Boats depart from Agios Nikolaos in the morning. Apart from the trip to Spinalonga, they also offer lunch and the opportunity for a swim off the beaches behind the Kolokytha Peninsula, before returning to Agios Nikolaos in the afternoon. From Elounda harbour, there is a boat to Spinalonga every 30 minutes throughout the summer. It takes about 20 minutes to reach the island, while the sea voyage sometimes includes a sail around the Kolokytha Peninsula."
Plaka is directly across from Spinalonga; boats leave from here and the trip is much shorter. I picked up a water taxi from this village- this awesome guy pictured below dropped me off, picked me up and gave me a little boar ride around the Peninsula for €20. I'd say this is the way to go.
Once there, tickets to enter the site cost €8. You can walk around on your own or pay to take a guided tour. Historical information is also posted throughout the site for visitors to read.
Pictured above is a hot view from the top of Spinalonga. The trip to this island made for an incredibly informative and interesting day.
Knowing I would be in Amsterdam for 3 months with a 4 month old baby, I made sure to go bike dodging each day (in your city, I believe you would call this activity "walking") and find things to do. One day, our bike dodge took us to The Yoga Garden where I signed up for a weekly Baby + Mom Yoga class. The class takes place in 2 parts: In the first half hour, the babies get a massage and the last hour goes towards yoga practice.
As I was getting my mat set up for my first class, the yoga instructor told me to get my son completely naked for the half hour massage. I had to confirm: "You want this baby out of a diaper for an entire half hour?" To me, this had "bad news" written all over it, but I thought to myself, "When in Rome..." and had him buck naked for the longest 30 minutes of my life. Somehow, there were no Lululemon casualties that day, but as I planned to come each week, I wondered when I would be paying for new studio hardwood floors.
Once my son began rolling and could move from one side of the room to the other faster than I can say "namaste", my luck at the yoga class ran out. He began throwing a wrench in the studio's zen vibe as he started rolling into other babies, the instructor, various mats and downward dogs. He also broke his "no peeing while naked" streak, and with all of his rolling, I wasn't quite able to contain it. He pretty much marked his territory across the entire room, and didn't stop to avoid anyone's personal belongings, yoga mats, blankets, or those damn hardwood floors. I was never asked to replace them, but we were asked not to come back.
Luckily for us there were a lot of other fantastic things to do in this city. Part 1 (This post) covers things to do in Amsterdam by foot (and stroller); Part 2 covers Holland by bike, boat or car; and Part 3 talks food and drinks..
So, here are my favourite things to in 2-wheeled city by foot:
1. Take the Free Walking Tour of Amsterdam This tour runs daily at 10, 11:15 and 14:15. It runs for approximately 2.5 hours and if you're interested in taking it, you just show up at The National Monument in Dam Square 10-15 minutes before the tour is scheduled to start. Once there, they will pair you up with a group and an amazing guide. This tour is a great way to see a lot of the city; some points of interest include the Anne Frank House, The Red Light District, Dutch art, hidden churches, and The Royal Palace.
2. Visit Museums Most museums in Amsterdam have super long line ups; but they also allow guests to order tickets ahead of time online. If you are organized enough to choose a date and time to go to the museums you are interested in, it will save you a lot of time out of lineups.
The Anne Frank Huis If you only have time for 1, I recommend this one. The line up to get in is the biggest of them all, so save yourself the 3 hours and purchase an online ticket here. I ordered mine ahead of time and was able to ring a doorbell and walk right in. If you can't get tickets ahead of time, plan to arrive as soon as the museum opens to the public as the wait is usually the shortest at this time.
The museum is located in the middle of Amsterdam at Prinsengracht 263-267. The museum contains steep staircases, Anne's actual diary and The Secret Annex, the place where Anne and 7 others hid from 1942-1944.
The Van Gogh Museum This museum is located at Paulus Potterstraat 7 and is open daily from 9AM-6PM. Tickets cost €17 and f an extra €5, you can purchase the audio tour (Totally worth it). The museum's floors showcase Van Gogh's self-portraits, influences and many masterpieces while telling his story as an artist.
The Heineken Experience: You can find this brewery at Stadhouderskade 78 and tickets cost €16 each (Last ticket is sold at 5PM on weekdays and 7PM on weekends). The tour is interactive, but self guided and takes about 1.5 hours to complete. You can also download an audio and video app to help guide you as you move through the building. The tour gives you 3 free beers and after visiting, you will see that the rumours are true: Heineken does taste better in Amsterdam.
The Rijks Museum This museum and it's architecture is stunning, inside and out. It is open from 9AM-5PM and tickets cost €17.50. There are over 8000 articles (And lots of Rembrandt) and they "tell the story of 800 years of Dutch history, from the year 1200 right up to the present." I only had a morning to explore it and it definitely wasn't enough time.
The Houseboat Museum: Located at Prinsengracht 296 K, you can pay €2 to tour a houseboat called the Hendrika Maria. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to live on a houseboat in Amsterdam or just happen to be in the area with some time to spare, you should check it out.
3. Shop at De 9 Straatjes The 9 Streets (Which are Actually 3 vertical streets separated horizontally 3 times) are located behind the dam and in between the Singel and Prinsengracht. They are charming, packed with amazing scenery, landmarks, great food, shops and fashion. And I mean, who wouldn't want this kind of selection when shopping for socks? Not my husband, that's for sure.
4. The Flower Market: With the flowers on houseboats along 630-600 Singel, this is the only floating flower market in the world.
5. Stroll through Jordaan: This was my favourite district in Amsterdam. It is full of narrow streets with boutiques, shops, pubs, markets. "The Jordaan begins at Brouwersgracht, just west of Centraal Station, and arches around the Canal Ring between Prinsengracht and Lijnbaansgracht before ending at the Leidsegracht. The area north of Rozengracht is the more touristy and commercial section though the quieter area south is no less scenic. Traditionally, the Jordaan was defined by the area in which you could hear the bells of Westerkerk– as described by Anne Frank in her diaries." (iamsterdam)
6. Rembrantplein Square: This is one of the busiest squares in Amsterdam and it is named after Rembrandt (He owned a house near by). It was "originally known as the Botermarkt (Butter Market). It was established in 1668 and built from the remnants of the old city port. As the name suggests, the first use for this central square was as a dairy market." (A View on Cities) It is now home to many shops, cafes, restaurants and clubs.
7. Check out art at the Spui Market: Every Sunday at the Spui, local artists set up their work for sale. Surrounding these artists is a square of cafes and bookshops. Also in the Spui is The American Bookstore, which hosts author events and sells books...in English!
8. Vondel Park is the largest park in Amsterdam and is a fantastic place to visit. While I had some good picnics, jogs, walks, and reads in this park, I particularly enjoyed 2 restaurants:
De Groot Melkhuis (The Great Milk House) Right in the middle of the park, this restaurant is set up cafeteria style and you can have sandwiches made for you. It is right by the water, so it is a relaxing spot in the park.
‘t Blauwe Teehuise (The Blue Tea House) is a pub with snack food that runs from an old windmill. After you order inside, you can enjoy your drink and snack on patio tables with strung lights and a great view of the park. If you're unsure what to order, try a mint tea with a Stroopwaffle!
uh oh, it looks like I'm beginning to dabble into my Amsterdam food and drink post. The next one will cover bikes, my boat renting addiction and driving cars on this side of the pond. In the meantime, please add your Amsterdam suggestions in the comment section below!
,Because this city is ruled by bikers and boaters, I knew I needed to explore via bike lane and canal. Problem #1: I was a little scared to walk among the bikers, let alone ride with them. Problem #2: I don't know how to drive a boat. Luckily, Amsterdam is full of amazing bike guides and teachers. As for the boating, no one there really seemed to mind, care about or question my level (or lack thereof) of boat knowledge. Here is the week's list:
1. Take a guided bike tour I decided to rent a bike through MacBike and take a guided tour of the city. My afternoon's fellow biking comrades and companions consisted of a bachelor party, a mother-daughter pair and one gentlemen (I'll call him Ralph) who did not quite comprehend Amsterdam's rules of the road. By the end of the afternoon, Ralph still did not understand which side of the road he should be biking on, he hit 2 pedestrians, interfered with an ambulance's path, photo bombed the bachelor party's picture and finally, got really, really lost.
On top of all of the extra entertainment Ralph provided us, the tour also took us all over the city: we began at Centraal Station and biked to the south end of the city. We saw Brouwerij t' IJ (A brewery in a windmill) and the zoo before moving up to The Amstel, the skinny bridge and over to museumplein. We also biked through Vondelpark, Jordaan and the downtown core. What was especially great about our bike tour, is that we did it in true Dutch style: in the absolutely relentless, pouring rain.
2. Take a canal tour There are many to choose from: Blue Boat, Canal and Amsterdam Canal Tours to name a few. Depending on what you are looking for, you can purchase tickets for many different types of cruises at varying costs (City tour, an evening cruise, or a ride with wine and cheese, lunch, dinner or a buffet).
I chose the 75 minute city cruise; it cost €14 and came with an audio tour. The boat floated along the Prinsengracht, out to the IJ and up the Amstel River. Some sites included Leidse Square, Wester Church and The Anne Frank Huis, Central Station, De Dam, Amstel Hotel some museums and Vondel Park. I also also saw lots of french fries with mayonnaise and some crazy boat parties that made me want to jump ship, swim on over and join in on the fun.
When I boarded my boat, I realized the captain had not gone over any safety policies or procedures. In order to get good pictures, people were standing, walking, running and pretty much hanging off of the boat. Instead of enjoying the great sights and views, I spent the first 15 minutes of the ride imagining where the life jackets might be kept and planning my own personal evacuation strategy. Luckily, we were only in two minor accidents: The captain overshot a canal wall and later, hit another boat. All in a day’s work, I guess.
3. Rent Your Own Boat I think I kept boaty in business during my stay in Amsterdam. Every time I tried to decide the best way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon, absolutely nothing other than, "Get on a boat and cruise the canals" would come to mind. Weekly, I would grab some good food, music and head to boaty, endure the 15 second boat training course and head off in a canal cruiser (Her name was Nina).
Boaty gives renters a laminated sheet which outlines a couple of boating instructions and also contains a map with different routes you can take (The downtown route, The out of town route, the South East route). My favourite route to take started with the downtown route; I liked to cruise through Jordaan and (obviously) stop in the area for those aforementioned french fries with mayonnaise.
One time however, my cruising companions and I decided to live on the edge and go a little off the map. We took some other canals to check out the flower market, Waterloopein Market and a hotel Alicia Keys was staying at. We enjoyed our own makeshift cruise so much, we kept at it and ventured through some other turning, winding canals. Their names? No idea. I just know they were not the Prinsengracht or Herengracht, which were the canals we were supposed to stay on. Anyway, all was going well until a sudden gust of wind picked up our laminated map and tossed it overboard. We tried to reverse the boat to grab it, but that map sunk faster than my waitressing career. It was a very tense couple of minutes but luckily, we were eventually able to get ourselves back to the Amstel River.
4. Rent a Car and explore Holland I rented a car and followed Road Trip: The Flower Route, Netherlands as mapped out in National Geographic's Ultimate Road Trips. I started in Harlem (If you also plan to stop here, check out this Top 10 Things to do in Haarlem list) and moved on to Lisse, Den Haag and Leiden.
In Lisse, I visited the Keukenhof Gardens (Only open from March-May) which, “Bills itself as nothing less than the most beautiful spring garden in the world, designed to showcase the art of Dutch bulb growers.” Admission to this amusement park of flowers cost 15 euros each and I somewhat reluctantly decided to go in. As I walked through the front gates, I immediately regretted it: Busy. Screaming children. Weird accordion music. Restroom and sausage lineups. Just as I was about to head back to the car, I was passed a waffle and a Heineken. These two items quickly turned it into the best amusement park ever. I spent the afternoon taking in views of beautiful flowers, climbing windmills and racing friends through a giant garden maze.
Afterwards, I checked out Den Haag and Leiden, a small university town. In Leiden, I ate in a little cafe in Van der Werf Park. As I looked at the menu, I couldn’t decide between the chicken club or a hamburger, so I asked the waitress which she would recommend. She responded with, “Definitely the hamburger.” I was sold by her enthusiasm and it was everything I imagined it would be (not!): a deep fried curry burger in between 2 slices of white Wonder Bread. I don’t think I’ve eaten like that since I was a university student myself (I have to admit, It was pretty delicious; but I doubt it will be included in my upcoming Amsterdam Part 3 post, which covers Food + Drinks).
It was so great to hop in a car and have access to such different and beautiful towns so close by. Suggestions for other places to stop? Leave your tips in the comment section below for others to add to their driving lists!
Amsterdam made me an expert picnicker; I always give credit where credit is due. Not only does this city provide free picnic blankets in parks, its grocery stores are full of ready-to-go, delicious picnic snacks. Every time I arrived to an Albert Heijn grocery store with the intention of picking up ingredients for a meal I planned to make, I would leave with pre-packaged picnic salads, sausages, cheese, baguettes, crackers and stroopwaffles. I lived my life always ready and prepared to eat in the open air.
When I first arrived in Amsterdam, a group of expats invited me to a picnic. As a picnicking amateur at the time, I wasn't sure if I was to pack my own picnic dinner, or bring something that everyone would share. I ended up going with sausages and cheese (An obvious success). I thought I had the hang of Amsterdam picnicking etiquette and said "I got this" to myself when I was invited to another shortly after. This 2nd picnic was put on by an organization, not a group of friends. Here, I was surprised to learn that coffee and tea cost 1 euro, but beer and wine were free. I don't know who paid for the tea and coffee, but I can tell you it wasn't me...Not that I remember much.
When I wasn't picnicking or choosing free beer over stale and expensive coffee, I was enjoying incredible food and drinks in the city. Here is a list of my favourites:
1. Moeders ("Mothers"): This restaurant offers its customers an affordable and traditional home-cooked Dutch meal. My favourite dish was "the Hotchpotch" as I got to try a little bit of everything. Guests are also invited to bring a picture of their own mothers, or a picture of themselves and their own child(ren) and post it anywhere in the restaurant. Gotta love moms!
2. 'T Blauwe Theehuis: This blue tea house runs out of an old windmil and is located in Vondel Park. They offer delicious drinks and snacks in a great atmosphere on their fantastic patio.
3. Groot Melkhuis: Like the Blue Teahouse, The Great Milkhouse is also located in Vondel Park and offers a variety of delicious snacks and drinks in a great atmosphere. This place steps it up a notch with their amazing children's playground.
4. Cafe De Dokter: This pub (The Doctor) is hidden in a little alley right by Dam Square and is so proud to be the smallest pub in Amsterdam. One time I visited this bar and missed Rod Stewart in it by one hour. Have I told you lately that this was especially disappointing? Since the bar was so small, I definitely would have been sitting right beside him! The first cut is the deepest.
5. Brouwerij 't IJ: In case you wanted to check this place out for any other reason than their beer, The IJ Brewery is located beside the oldest wooden windmill (De Gooyer) in the Netherlands. After you check out the impressive 16th century windmill (which was rebuilt in the 18th century), you will likely want to tour it. It is unfortunately not open to the public, but the pub next door is! You can either take that tour you wanted and check out the brewery or you can just taste test their beer on flutes and admire the windmill from next door.
6. Reypenaer Cheese Tasting Room: If you like wine and cheese, this is the place for you! Located on Singel 182, you can learn about wine and Dutch cheese while taste testing ridiculous deliciousness and quantities of both! It is best to book ahead online. You also receive a certificate once you become a wine and cheese expert. I'm obviously a wine and cheese expert as you can see by my notes below...
7. Lokaal Edel: This restaurant is located right on a canal. The outdoor space is decorated with mismatched tables and chairs, beautiful carpets and strung lights. The food is delicious and it is here that I tried my first raw herring.
8. Cafe Thuys: I honestly can't say if it is because of the fresh flowers on their outdoor picnic tables, the strong drinks, the hot bartenders, their trivia night, or their tendency to play Justin Timberlake, but I just love this place. You should go.
9. Mint Tea: When in doubt, wherever you are and whatever you do, just order a peppermint tea and a stroopwaffle! Enjoy!
My name is Sara and I love finding new things to do in a new city. This website is an attempt to share the things that excite me in a new place through stories, photos, lists, travel tips and tricks.