Belém Tower, Portugal

Built between 1514 and 1520, the Belém Tower, commissioned by King John II, was part of Portugal’s defense system and a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a 100 foot 4 storey tower.  This tower is one of the main attractions in Belém, which is an area in the southwestern most part of Lisbon.  The historical area of Belém, which highlights Portugal’s Age of Discovery, is located where the Tagus River meets the sea.  The Belém Tower was thus used as a military outpost to protect against enemy and pirate attacks.  During the Peninsular War in the 1700s, where Napolean’s forces invaded Lisbon, French prisoners were kept in the dungeons of Belém Tower.  For several years, these dungeons served as a military prison.

The Manueline style architecture of the tower
The Manueline style architecture of the Belem Tower


May and September for pleasant weather that’s not too hot and to avoid the more crowded summer months.  Arrive at 10 am when it opens to avoid crowds.  The last admission is between 5 pm and 6 pm depending on the time of year, so if you plan to arrive late, check the timings for that time of year.  The monument is closed on Mondays, January 1st, Easter Sunday, May 1st, June 13th, and December 25th.


Comfortable shoes / flip flops to walk between the sites of Belém.


The easiest and fastest way is by taking a taxi or an Uber to Belém from the center of Lisbon.  The central part of Lisbon is well connected with trams and buses, but Belém is 6.5 miles from central Lisbon.  Once you reach Belém by car, the main sites here are walkable to one another.  After a long day of sightseeing here, it was nice to get back to the center of Lisbon quickly for dinner.  It’s a few well spent Euros, especially if traveling with another person to split the cost.

The cheapest way to get to Belém Tower, especially if you are traveling alone, is by public transport.  The number 15 tram connects the center of Lisbon to Belém.  The journey takes between 30 and 40 minutes each way depending on where in Lisbon you pick up the tram.  The best way to avoid crowds is to arrive Belém early in the morning and complete your touring by the early afternoon.   Board tram 15 at either at Figueira Square, Comercio Square, or Praça da Figueira in Baixa district of Lisbon (where the tram originates).  Get off at the Jeronimos Monastery in Belém and explore the main sites here on foot.  The best deal overall is to purchase a 24 hour public transport card that allows you to use all buses, trams, and the metro.


Belém Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery are the two most famous sites in Belém.  The monastery, which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is walking distance from Belém Tower and houses the tomb of Portugese explorer Vasco de Gama.

View of the Monastery from the gardens
The Jeronimos Monastery and gardens in Belem, Portugal

One street behind the monastery, on Rua de Belém, is the famous Pastéis de Belém pastry shop.  Pastéis de Belém is famous for its Portuguese egg tart – called Pastéis de Nata. They apparently have the best egg tart in all of Portugal, so when in Belém, be sure to stop here for a sweet pastry.

Look for the blue awning of the pastry shop
Look for the blue awning of the pastry shop

pasteis de belem

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

The stunning Cliffs of Moher, on Ireland’s west coast, reach a maximum height of 702 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.  This is not the place to be a careless idiot-unless you want to plunge quickly to your death (vacayfail).  Even in the summer, it can be windy, and there is no one stopping you from getting right up to the edge of the cliff (at your own risk, of course).

Cliffs of Moher Saya
I’m smiling, but I was actually terrified while taking this photo. It was a pretty stupid idea and I wouldn’t do it again.  To get up, I slithered my way backwards until I was far enough away to stand up safely.

We arrived here by car from Galway (just under 2 hours) and spent about 2.5 hours here.  Even on a cloudy day (plenty of those in Ireland) the scenery here is remarkable.  The history of the Cliffs of Moher dates back at least two thousand years.  The name comes from a 1st Century BC fort that use to be where the Moher Tower stands now.  The Cliffs of Moher are named after the old Irish word “Mothar” which means ruined fort.  Admission to the paths to walk along the cliffs (at the time of this post) is 6 Euros, which includes parking.  You can visit between 9 am and 5 pm year round, with extended evening hours in the summer.  There is also a visitors center with bathrooms and some limited food options.  You may find cheap flights to Ireland by flying into Shannon airport, rather than Dublin.  Shannon airport is on the west coast of Ireland and is a convenient gateway to Ireland’s west coast.

At the top of the photo you can see how small the people are walking along the cliffs, giving you a sense of how high you really are above the ground.
At the top of the photo you can see how small the people are walking along the cliffs, giving you a sense of how high you really are above the ground.



June, July, and August for the best weather and most frequent bus service (if you do not plan to rent a car). May and September for less crowds and mild weather.


Comfortable walking shoes to walk along the paths, and multiple layers in case it turns chilly. This area is always windy and it may rain so bring a raincoat!


The easiest way is by renting a car from either Galway or Limerick. Several tour companies will also offer tours from Galway, and Limerick if you do not want to rent your own car. Some companies will even offer one day trips from Dublin. However, keep in mind that Dublin is 3 hour drive from the Cliffs of Moher, so a tour company offering to take you to the Cliffs and back to Dublin in one day means you will be leaving very early, spending little time on Ireland’s west coast and returning very late at night to Dublin. It is really best to spend a few nights on Ireland’s west coast to explore other areas. If you are traveling in a group and can split the cost of car rental, renting a car, and spending a few nights on the west coast, is the most efficient and painless way to visit the Cliffs.

The cheapest way to get to the Cliffs of Moher, especially if you are traveling alone, is by public transport. All major cities in Ireland are connected by rail, but to get to the Cliffs you will need to take a bus from the rail station. The train journey from Dublin to Galway is 3.5 hours. From Galway you can take a bus operated by the Bus Eireann Company. They offer more frequent service in the summer months so be sure to check the schedule before planning.


The Cliffs are amazing, but you also should explore the Ring of Kerry as well as the Gap of Dunloe which are also on Ireland’s west coast. Dunguaire castle, which sits beside a small lake, is a great place to take some photos of a real Irish castle. It is about an hour from the Cliffs, but it is en route to Galway, so is a nice way to break up the journey. Head north after leaving the Cliffs on N67 and take the road north for approximately 50 Km and the castle sits right off the side of the road as you approach Kinvarra (just past the intersection of N67 with R347).

Dunguaire Castle
Built in the 16th center, Dunguaire Castle sits on Galway Bay, and it is open to visitors April to mid October from 10 am to 4 pm.


The Matterhorn, Switzerland

The Matterhorn in Switzerland is one of the world’s most recognizable mountains.  To view the summit, you must travel to the town of Zermatt.  After reaching Zermatt, a separate ticket needs to be purchased for the red train (in the photo below you can see the train behind me) that will take you to a higher summit where you can enjoy unobstructed views of the mountain.  Remember to stay hydrated at high altitudes!  Zermatt is easily accessible by train from Interlaken (about a 2 hour train ride) or Geneva (about 4 hours each way).  Zermatt itself is really touristy and not charming but viewing the Matterhorn is well worth the journey.

Saya Matterhorn

WHEN TO VISIT Switzerland:

The best months are the summer months for clear weather.  However, these are also the busiest months for tourism.  You can save a good chunk of money and avoid the bulk of the crowds by visiting slightly off season in May or September.

WHAT TO WEAR IN Switzerland:

Zermatt is at an elevation of 5,276 feet, and the viewing point of the Matterhorn is even higher.  Remember to bring layers as the temperature may change quickly.

HOW TO GET TO Zermatt:

The town of Zermatt does not allow cars, so the best way to arrive here is by train.  The Swiss rail system connects Zermatt to Interlaken and Zermatt to Bern in just over 2 hours by rail.  Hotel prices in Bern tend to be slightly cheaper than those in Interlaken.

Pena Palace, Portugal

The Pena National Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits on a hill above the town of Sintra.  In fact, on a clear day, it can be seen from the city of Lisbon, about 18 miles away.  Not sure what drugs King Ferdinand II and architect Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege were on, but the palace is known for its wild colors (purple, pink, red, yellow) and gothic/moorish / baroque architecture – basically all over the place. It was completed between 1847 and 1854 as a summer house for Portugal’s royal family.  It is thought that the architect for the Pena Palace was inspired by the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany, however, construction for  Neuschwanstein did not begin until 1869, years after the Pena was completed.

saya pena palace
Perched atop the whimsical Pena Palace

The town of Sintra is about a 30 minute train ride from Lisbon and can be easily done as a day trip (leave early if you want to also visit the Moorish Castle and the National Palace in Sintra).  After arriving by train in Sintra, the Pena Palace can be reached by bus, which is a good idea on the way up as it is a steep climb.  On the way down, stroll through the Pena Park which is a forested area surrounding the palace.

pena palace
Colorful Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Click here for information on all three sites.

The Gap of Dunloe, Ireland

The Gap of Dunloe is a narrow mountain pass that was created by glacial ice millions of years ago.  Located on Ireland’s west coast, it is best accessed by staying overnight in the neighboring towns of either Killarney or Kenmare.  The Gap of Dunloe can be crossed by foot (a full day hike), horse and carriage, or car.  Cars are technically not allowed, but if you are already traveling through the mountain pass, you are unlikely to be stopped.  We drove through with a 4 door car with no issues.  Taking a pony trap is another option for those that do not have enough time to hike.

The valley, about 6 miles in length, is between the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and the Purple Mountains. There are five lakes, or loughs, that you will pass as you traverse the Gap- Coosaun Lough, Black Lake, Cushnavally Lake, Auger Lake, and Black Lough. The River Loe connects the lakes to one another.

Gap of Dunloe

While visiting this area, you also should save at least half a day to drive the Ring of Kerry.  The west coast of Ireland is best reached from Shannon Airport (United has nonstop flights from Newark/NYC to Shannon).


Switzerland’s Wine Country

Most people don’t realize that Switzerland has beautiful vineyards.  Travelers can take a mild to moderately challenging hike passing (or stumbling, depending on how often you stop for a tasting) through several vineyards located on the shores of Lake Geneva.  The entire Lavaux wine region is a UNESCO world heritage site and stretches 30 kilometers from Lausanne to Montreux.  One of the most scenic hiking trails starts in the small town of Cully (about a 20 minute train ride from Lausanne).  Take the train to the town of Cully and begin your hike here.   Between here and the town of Rivaz (about 5 km from Cully) you will have great views of immaculate terraced vineyards, Lake Geneva, and the French Alps.  If you have more time in this region, stay overnight in Montreux or Lausanne and catch a music festival in the summer (Paléo Festival de Nyon, Montreux Jazz Festival).

Headed to Rivaz

Swiss Vineyard

Vineyards Sign


Iceland’s Best Waterfall

A two hour drive from Reykjavik along Iceland’s southern coast will take you to Skogafoss-one of country’s most famous waterfalls, and, in my opinion, it’s best.  Because the coastline has receded seaward in this area, the highlands meet the lowlands, allowing visitors to walk right up to the falls.  It is also easily accessible, as there is car park a short walk from the base of the falls.   The waterfall’s enormous drop creates a consistent spray, so it is very common to see a single or double rainbow on a sunny day.

Me, Skogafoss, and a double rainbow
Me, Skogafoss, and a double rainbow

Skogafoss was also the backdrop for scenes in the movie Thor: The Dark World.



Plan a visit in late June, July or August when the weather is the warmest and the days are the longest.  Summer travel, while more expensive, allows you to make the most of your time there.  During the longest days in the summer, travelers will have nearly 24 hours of daylight.  If you want to get the best deals on hotels in Iceland, you may choose to travel in May or September.

skogafoss double rainbow


In the summer months you will need to wear layers.  The temperature can vary between the high 60s during the day to the mid 40’s at night.  Bring waterproof boots, so you can walk right up to the falls.  Off season travelers will need winter clothing to keep warm while sightseeing.

HOW TO GET TO Skogafoss:

The easiest way to arrive at Skogafoss is by car.  It is under a two hour drive from the capital city and can be easily done as a day trip.  The cheapest way would be to hitchhike or take the bus.  Strætó provides bus service in Reykjavik and to other parts of Iceland.  Bus route 51 travels from Reykjavik (the bus stop in the capital city is called “Mjodd”) to Vik as well as Jökulsárlón.


In addition to Skogafoss, Jökulsárlón is one of Iceland’s most famous sites.  It is 2.5 hours from Skogafoss.  Between, Skogafoss and the glacial lagoon lies the seaside village of Vik.  Stop here to enjoy the black sand beaches.  Closer to the capital city, is the famous Golden Circle route which covers geysirs, the Thingvellir National Park, and Gulfoss (another waterfall).

Europe’s Grand Canyon

The Verdon River runs through this striking canyon in southeastern France giving it the name Gorges du Verdon.  It’s a 2 to 3 hour drive from Nice – depending on how fast you want to drive along the edge of a cliff.  A little harrowing but definitely worth it.  There is a another approach to the canyon that is a bit longer but the road is far less dangerous.  Once you get there, park the car near the boat rental and explore the canyon by kayak or paddleboat.  Technically, swimming is not allowed but that didn’t seem to stop anyone.

From my visit in the Summer of 2014
From my visit in the Summer of 2014

Bruges, Belgium

A 90 minute train ride from Brussels airport will take you to the charming city of Bruges.  We spent the day walking along the canals, sampling Belgian beers, and eating too many Belgian waffles.  Wine is not the only beverage that ages well.  We stopped at a local store off Bruges main market to pick up Westvleteren’s dark ale, which can be aged.  The “best beer in the world” is made by monks in a Trappist monastery outside Brussels.  This post to be updated in 2018 when we try it.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

King Ludwig II built the jaw-dropping Neuschwanstein Castle as a retreat for himself in Germany but died before it was completed.  It was opened to the public for viewing shortly after his death in 1886.  In fact, much of the interior of the castle is not complete because the King never lived here.  This castle was the inspiration for the animated Sleeping Beauty Castle and Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom Castle.  It is located in Bavaria, a state in southeast Germany, and is best accessed by car.  If you are not able to rent a car, head to Munich and take a day tour from there.  Tickets for viewing the inside of the castle should be purchased ahead of time on the internet as you will get a specific time of day for your tour.


The Ring of Kerry, Ireland

The Ring of Kerry is known to be one of Ireland’s most scenic drives.  Travelers can begin in Killarney, head towards Kenmare and then circle around to Killorglin.  At the scenic point known as Ladies View, there’s a sign that says “Leprechaun Crossing” as the Irish folklore states that below Killarney´s Upper Lake is the last place in Ireland to find leprechauns.

ring of kerry
Clearly, I thought this was hilarious at the time.

The road along the Ring of Kerry can be narrow at times so you should consider driving it in a counter-clockwise direction.  This is because the tour buses also drive it this way, thus avoiding encountering them head on.  The downside to this is that, in high season (summer months), you may get stuck behind a slow moving tour bus.  However, it is probably better than getting into a head on collision with one (vacayfail).

ring of kerry

The Ring of Kerry is most easily reached from Shannon Airport on Ireland’s West Coast.  It is more common to find cheap flights to Ireland when choosing Shannon airport over Dublin.  While visiting the Ring of Kerry, be sure to also visit the Gap of Dunloe and the Cliffs of Moher, also all on the beautiful and scenic west coast of Ireland.