Viva Mexico

This post is long overdue, but it’s never too late to share travel adventures, right? 🙂

This time last year, my parents were secretly planning a family vacation, much to the delight of my younger siblings and me. We’d be spending Christmas with family friends in Houston, Texas, and then together with them we’d fly to Mexico for 5 nights to ring in the New Year.

Mexico was something else, it definitely exceeded my expectations. I’m not sure what I was expecting exactly, I try not to have high expectations when I travel, but let’s just say that the media doesn’t do a very good job of portraying this country and its people (in my opinion).

We arrived in the capital, Mexico City, around noon and immediately went to check in to the Holiday Inn. [Note: We had rented a mini-van and driver for our stay in Mexico, so that’s how we got around]. After checking in, we were pretty hungry so we headed to a local restaurant called Arroyo for lunch. This was my first culture shock in Mexico; their local food is nothing like Tex Mex! What I liked about this restaurant besides the authentic Mexican cuisine was that they provide entertainment to guests while dining. Mexican singers and dancers pranced around the stage and everyone clapped and cheered on which was really nice. After lunch we headed to Constitution Square which was wonderfully decked out in Christmas decorations. This is where I saw traces of the Spanish settlers that had come to Mexico so many years ago. The architecture of the buildings and Cathedral surrounding the square mirrored those of Europe, and for a second I could have sworn I was in Italy.  We decided to go inside the Cathedral (which was breathtaking) and afterwards spent several hours roaming the streets. We came across several street vendors selling local arts and crafts, as well as groups of street performers dressed in traditional clothing. Having seen enough for one day, we decided to return to the hotel. Some of us went to the Plaza Universidad shopping center located right across the street from the hotel and did a little shopping while others stayed to take a nap. For dinner, we went to Puerto Madero, a fancy Argentinean restaurant where I had one of the best meals I’ve ever had. It certainly didn’t disappoint.

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We began our second day in Mexico at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an important Mexican icon and major Catholic pilgrimage site. After visiting the Basilica, we trekked up Tepeyac Hill after hearing that at the summit you can find one of the most gorgeous views of Mexico City. There were many booths adorned in sombreros for tourists to have their photos taken, and we gladly obliged. Afterwards, the plan was to go to the Teotihuacan Pyramids which were a 1 hour drive from Mexico City. These pyramids were constructed around 300 AD and are among the most important ruins in the world. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see them because some people in our group weren’t interested in going. That’s the downside about travelling in groups; everyone has their own travel preferences. We instead made our way to Santa Fe, the business district of Mexico City where we spent the remainder of the day. Although this area was very nice and modern, I was so glad our hotel was located on the other older side of the city to get a more authentic experience.

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On our third day in Mexico, we got up early and made the 4 hour drive to Acapulco, a Mexican beach town south of Mexico City where we’d be celebrating New Year’s Eve. The reason we decided to go there instead of Cancun or Cabo is because there aren’t as many tourists so we thought it’d be more enjoyable. The drive was wonderful; Mexico has a beautiful landscape filled with big mountains and green plains. We got to Acapulco in the afternoon and checked into The Fairmont Acapulco Princess Hotel. The hotel is situated on the other side of the Acapulco bay known as the Diamond zone which is a much calmer and relatively new area. It’s a very large Aztec-inspired hotel, equipped with several pools, a beach, tennis courts and golf course, as well as many restaurants and a health-spa. It’s so easy to get lost in this place, and we spent the rest of the day lounging by the pool and beach.

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The next day, we wanted to check out the other side of Acapulco bay so we made the 10 minute drive to the main plaza where I did a little shopping and bought some cute hand-made beach bags and dresses. In the late afternoon, we went to La Quebrada to witness the famous La Quebrada cliff divers that put on daily shows for the public. The divers range from 5 to 60 years old and jump from a cliff as high as 35 meters (115 ft). They climb the cliff themselves with no support whatsoever (real-life Spider men) which creates suspense for the audience, then proceed to plunge into the sea below usually accompanied with tricks. It was truly spectacular. We returned to the main plaza afterwards for dinner before returning to the hotel.

Our last day in Mexico happened to be New Year’s Eve. The hotel was setting up tables and a stage on the beach so we reserved a table for the party and spent the rest of the day by the pool/beach where I got a full body massage done for only $4! I still dream of that moment till now. When the sun set, we went up to the hotel room and got dressed for dinner, then made our way down to the beach. There was a buffet set up with live music and a dance floor. All tables were equipped with party supplies, a bag of grapes (Spanish tradition, see below), and lanterns which we would light up and let loose (something I’ve always wanted to do) just before midnight. By 1 am the adults were tired so they went up to sleep while us teenagers took to the dance floor and danced the night away because we knew that when the morning would came, we’d be flying back to reality.

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My Love Affair With Byblos

There are certain places that, no matter how many times you visit, never seize to amaze you. Byblos is one of those places for me. It was certainly love at first sight for me and Byblos and every time I go there I fall in love all over again. I call it my happy place, my sanctuary. There’s something about it, a sort of magical aura that’s sure to leave a mark on you, which isn’t surprising considering it’s the second oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (Telegraph).

Located 40km north of the Lebanese capital, this picturesque Mediterranean port town is the perfect combination of history and modernity. Whether you’re looking for a getaway from the city or a simple break from reality, Byblos is for you. Go for a ride on one of the fisherman boats nestled along the harbor. Take a stroll throught the ancient cobblestone souks adorned with beautiful souvenir shops. Discover the Roman ruins and Crusador citadel. Have a meal at one of the charming restaurants. And if at the end of the day you’re still buzzing, stick around till it gets dark and watch the pubs come to life.

Old Souk

Old souk – Image via Lebanon Guide

The port

The port – Image via Friends Choices

eCafe

eCafe – Image via Edde Yard

Crusader Citadel

Crusader Citadel – Image via Wiki GOGO

Young or old, Byblos has something for everyone. I’m so lucky to have this gem in my country and be able to go whenever I want. It’s definitely a must-see for anyone visiting Lebanon.

Do you have a happy place? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it.

Journey Across Northern Italy

Out of all the countries I’ve visited, Italy holds a special place in my heart. It was the first country I traveled to outside of my own, and the first time I experienced falling in love with a place rather than a person. The architecture, the people, the language, the food, everything about it fueled my wanderlust and left me wanting to come back for more.

The first time I got a taste of Italy was back in 2010 on a family holiday to Rome. Three years later, I jumped at the opportunity to go again, this time to the North of the country. One of my best friends got accepted in a fashion program in Florence last summer, and the minute she got the acceptance we were already planning my visit. The program would last a month, after which I’d join her in Florence and we’d travel the North of Italy together over the course of 10 days. Another friend of ours expressed interest in coming and we were more than happy to have an additional travel partner. Hence the 3 of us began to plan a journey that would cover 6 cities in 10 days during the month of August, 2013.

Creating a travel itinerary is one of my favorite things to do and I spent hours researching for good deals and things to see. We initially planned to rent a car and drive across the country but we were 20 years old at the time and you had to be 21 for car rental so we opted to use trains instead. We booked all of our train tickets in advance in addition to 3-person hotel rooms. Although our itinerary was planned for the summertime, I’m sure it can be applied to other seasons throughout the year. So to anyone who’s planning a trip to Italy, this is for you.

Day 1 – Florence

How to get there: Fly to Milano Malpensa Airport and take the Malpensa express bus to Milano Centrale station. From there, take a train to Firenze S.M Novella station (1 hr 40 mins).

Where to stay: I was lucky enough to be able to stay at my friend’s apartment but you can browse www.booking.com for great hotel deals.

Things to see:

  • Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore located in Piazza del Duomo (Make sure to climb to the top of the Duomo for some breathtaking views of the city).
  • The Ponte Vechio Bridge
  • The statue of David located in the Galleria dell’Accademia (a replica can be found in the piazza)
  • Gucci Museo (Gucci Museum)
  • Museo Salvator Ferragamo (Salavatore Ferragamo museum) – my favorite!

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Day 2: Pisa + Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

How to get there: Train from Firenze S.M Novella station to Pisa station (1 hour). After spending 2 or 3 hours in Pisa, take a train from Pisa station to Sarzana station and then from there to Riomaggiore (1.5 hours). At the end of the day, take a train from Riomaggiore to Spezia station and then back to Florence (1.5 hours).

Where to stay: Back in Florence.

Things to see:

  • Piazza dei Miracoli where you’ll find the Pisa Cathedral, Leaning Tower, Bapistry and Cemetary
  • Riomaggiore village (if you have time you can hike or take a boat to the other villages of the Cinque Terre)

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Day 3 – Day 5: Riccione

How to get there: Train from Firenze S.M Novella station to Bologna Centrale station (30 minutes). From there, take a train to Riccione (1 hr 20 mins).

Where to stay: Riccione Hotel Polo (3 stars). I have nothing but good things to stay about this place. It’s located within walking distance from the Riccione train station and beach. The service was excellent – super friendly and helpful, and the room was really cozy. The only remark I have is that the breakfast could have had more variety.

Things to see: Riccione is a charming Italian beach town not known to many tourists hence we spent a great deal of time mingling with the locals, relaxing at the beach and discovering the buzzing nightlife.

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Day 6 – Day 7: Venice

How to get there: Train from Riccione station to Bologna Centrale station (1.5 hours). Then take a train from Bologna Centrale to Venezia S. Lucia (2 hours).

Where to stay: Best Western Montecarlo hotel (3-stars). The location was super convenient, not far from the Grand Canal and Piazza San Marco which was great for us since the only way to get around Venice is to walk or take a boat. For a 3-star hotel, the rooms were surprisingly big. The service and breakfast were great too.

Things to see:

  • Basilica di San Marco
  • Ponte dell’Accademia
  • Grand Canal
  • Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge)
  • Gallerie dell’Accademia (Accademia Gallery)
  • Murano island – famous for its glass making factories

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Day 8 – Day 10: Milan

How to get there: Train from Venezia S. Lucia to Bologna Centrale station (1 hr 20 mins). Then train from Bologna Centrale station to Milano Porta Garibaldi (1 hr 20 mins).

Where to stay: Atahotel Executive (4 stars). Located right across the street from the train station. Being a 4-star hotel, it was much more luxurious than the other 3-star hotels we stayed at. The only thing that bothered me was that we had to pay for Wi-Fi, something the 3-star hotels had offered for free.

Things to see:

  • Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral)
  • Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
  • Quadrilatero della Moda (Shopping district)

Note: During August, the city is quiet and many shops close as locals depart for their summer holiday.

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Have you been to Italy or plan to go? Let me know in the comments!

Let’s Talk Fashion

In every group of girl friends lies a fashionista. In other words, the person whose wardrobe everybody envies, the person who’d earn a gold medal if shopping were a sport, and the person who approves your first date outfits.

As I reflect on my own group of friends one person stands out in this aspect, and it’s not a coincidence that her name is Diva. She recently created an Instagram page (@looksbydiva) where she regularly posts outfits she’s assembled as well as fashion trends she loves, all for good fun. If you’re on Instagram and in need of some everyday outfit inspiration, or simply enjoy keeping up with the latest trends then give her a follow, I promise you won’t be disappointed 🙂

The page caters to all tastes and outfits range from classy to casual. Below are some of my favourite looks, what do you think?

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7 Days in Beirut

I recently had my cousins from Australia over in Beirut for a visit. Seeing as though it was their first trip to the “Paris of the Middle East”, I was more than happy to formulate an itinerary for their 1 week stay. Nothing like a local to show you around, eh? The following is a recommended 7-day itinerary for Beirut, Lebanon. Despite the tense security situation, this city has a lot to offer if you know where to go. With its rich history and culture that blends East & West, along with its buzzing nightlife and friendly citizens, Beirut is one city you won’t regret visiting.

How to get around: The public transportation system in Lebanon isn’t that great, so if you don’t have relatives or friends to drive you around I suggest you take company cabs which are more expensive but a lot more reliable than the random service taxi’s you’ll see on the streets. (Warning: the driving in Lebanon is a little crazy, the road rules are close to none so buckle up.)

Where to stay: There are so many accommodation options in Beirut if you don’t have family or friends to stay with. Depending on your preferences and budget you shouldn’t have trouble finding a place to stay if you do some research beforehand.

Day 1 [Monday]

Arrive in Beirut, go for a walk through the downtown area to see Parliament Square and the Roman ruins. Do some shopping at Beirut Souks followed by dinner at Classic Burger Joint (one of the best, if not the best, burger place in Beirut.)

Day 2 [Tuesday]

Go to PAUL restaurant in the suburb of Gemmayze for a nice French brunch, then head to Bonita Bay in Batroun for a relaxing day by the sea (Note: if you’re not a fan of pebbly beaches go to Jbeil aka Byblos instead where the coastline is sandy.) When you’ve had enough sun, go for a late afternoon stroll through the old port & old souk of Byblos where you’ll find plenty of Roman ruins. Have dinner at E café in Byblos, they offer a wide selection of steaks as well as Italian cuisine.

Day 3 [Wednesday]

Traditional Lebanese saj breakfast at a Zaatar w Zeit branch (Order the labneh sandwich, it is to die for) Make your way to Jounieh and catch a cable car up the mountain to the Our Lady of Lebanon Church for some breathtaking views of Jounieh Bay, then take the cable car back down and have lunch at Margherita Mare in the old souk of Jounieh, my favourite Italian restaurant. After lunch head to Jeita Grotto, a nominee for the 7 Natural Wonders of the World [Note: The place closes at 5pm but I always recommend doing this activity in the afternoon to skip the long queues and crowds of tourists] For dinner, grab a falafel to go from Arax in Bourj Hammoud before going clubbing at White Club (Note: This club is strictly 21+ and on Wednesday’s they only play R&B music, so if you’re not into that music you’re better off going there on a weekend.)

Day 4 [Thursday]

Go for a morning walk along the corniche in Raouche and catch a glimpse of the ginormous Pigeon Rock, one of Beirut’s icons. From there go to ABC Mall in Ashrafieh for some midday shopping [Note: if you’re a fan of sushi, OBI restaurant at the mall does all you can eat for 28 U.S dollars on Thursdays.] For a nice Lebanese dinner, head up to Mounir restaurant in the mountain town of Broummana, one of the most famous Lebanese restaurants. However, if you’d prefer to stay in Beirut you can go to Al Falamanki in Monot, a traditional Lebanese cafĂ© famous for its chill atmosphere.

Day 5 [Friday]

Take a roadtrip to the Bekaa Valley for some wine tasting at the Ksara vineyard in the town of Zahle. Have lunch at the Berdawni in Zahle followed by a visit to Baalbak, one of the most well-preserved Roman ruin site in the world. Head back to Beirut just in time for sunset dinner and drinks at Iris Rooftop bar in the city [Note: A live band plays here on Fridays.]

Day 6 [Saturday]

Have breakfast at Bar Tartine in the Mar Mikhael district then take another roadtrip, this time to the Chouf area to see the spectacular old Beiteddine Palace, the official summer residence of the Lebanese President. While you’re in the Chouf check out the Baakline waterfall where you can enjoy a nice picnic or lunch at one of the restaurants. Head back to Beirut and have dinner at Zeitounay Bay, followed by drinks at one of the pubs on Uruguay Street. If you’re still buzzing afterwards, head to the Train Station in Mar Mikhael (the name speaks for itself – a rundown train station turned outdoor bar, the latest addition to the Beirut nightlife scene.)

Day 7 [Sunday]

Head to Rikky’z restaurant located in the mountain town of Faraya for a massive barbecue party. For 66 U.S dollars you can eat & drink all you like while a DJ plays the latest hits all afternoon. (Note: Rikky’z only does barbecues on Sundays and reservations at least 1 week in advance are recommended.)

P.s: This itinerary is ideal during the summer months and for those aged 18+ who aren’t on a budget. I’ve only included 3 breakfast options because I’ve assumed you’ll be having breakfast at your hotel. Also, I haven’t included the North & South of Lebanon on this itinerary but if you’re interested you should definitely check them out.


Some useful tips:

– Two currencies are accepted in Lebanon, the Lebanese Lira and the U.S Dollar.

– The majority of the Lebanese population is trilingual. Most people can speak English, Arabic, and French so don’t stress about the language barrier.

– Everything opens late in Lebanon whether it be shopping malls, restaurants, or clubs so take advantage of it.

– Most beaches are actually private beach resorts since there are very few public beaches in Beirut or Lebanon in general. You can access any beach resort for a fee yet keep in mind that some are cleaner, nicer, and cheaper than others. I personally prefer going to the beaches in Batroun because the water is crystal clear, it’s less crowded and entrance is cheap but the resorts in Jbeil or Damour are great too. [Note: on weekdays the entrance fee to beach resorts is cheaper than on the weekend yet on weekends many resorts throw huge beach parties.]

– Not that I want to promote laziness, but you can get almost anything delivered in Lebanon whether it be fast food, groceries, even shisha!

– If you’re going clubbing or pubbing in a group, its best to reserve a table beforehand. But if you’re only 2 or 3 people head to the pub/club early and grab some seats on the bar.

– Tipping is a regular aspect of Lebanese life since the minimum wage here is pretty low. A 10% tip at restaurants is appreciated but not obligatory.

– During the Ramadan season the nightlife scene in Lebanon dies down a bit. If you are in Lebanon during Ramadan though, it’s best to go clubbing/pubbing on the weekend or on theme nights like R&B Wednesdays at White Club.

If you liked this post, you might also like: 7 Days in London

7 Days in London

I recently got back from the most wonderful week in London with my younger sister. Not only did I finally get to check this spectacular city off my bucket list but I was lucky enough to have family living there to show me around, and I was surprisingly blessed with good weather!

Although 1 week isn’t enough to see all that London has to offer, my sister and I had a pretty productive trip. I believe our itinerary provided us with an authentic British experience, hence here below is a suggested 7 day itinerary for all those looking to spend a week in London. I’ve also included a photo gallery at the end for you to browse 🙂

How to get around: London has an excellent public transport system. We mainly used the subway and our own two feet to get around, with an occasional bus here & there [Note: the subway closes around midnight, it’s best to take a taxi after that]

Where to stay: My sister & I stayed at our cousin’s apartment in Lancaster Gate. It was the perfect location, a quiet area not far from wherever we needed to go. It was adjacent to Hyde Park, a 5 minute walk from Oxford street and a 10 minute subway ride from the city. For those considering a hotel, The Lancaster hotel was located right across the road from the apartment.

Day 1 [Monday]

Arrive in London, go for a walk through Hyde Park.

Go shopping on Oxford Street/Regent Street.

Have dinner in Saint Christopher’s Place near Oxford Street.

Day 2 [Tuesday]

Do the Big Bus Hop on/Hop off tour to see all the main sites including Big Ben, London Bridge, Buckingham Palace, Saint Paul’s Cathedral (make sure to climb to the tip of the dome for a breath-taking 360-degree view of London), Trafalgar Square, Harrods  etc. [Note: You can purchase tickets for this tour at any bus stop, just look for a person wearing the uniform. Also, a free walking tour of Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard as well as a free Thames River cruise is included with every ticket purchased]

See a musical in the evening (my choice was The Lion King)

Day 3 [Wednesday]

Take a day trip outside of London with Evan Evans Tours (highly recommended!) to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, Oxford, or any other destination of your choice. Check their website for details.

Pack a picnic and have dinner at Saint James’ park.

Day 4 [Thursday]

Madame Tussauds wax museum in the morning, then do the Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter studio tour in the afternoon (Potterheads, you won’t be disappointed.)

Go out for drinks in the evening at Maddison rooftop bar in the city, followed by dinner at Burger&Lobster across the street [Note: a lobster meal here is only 20 pounds! Really good deal in my opinion considering how expensive lobster tends to be]

Day 5 [Friday]

Visit the Tower of London where the crown jewels are kept, then take a ride on the London eye.

Have lunch at Borough Markets, one of the largest and oldest food markets in London.

Visit the Victoria and Albert Museum where entry is completely free! [Note: on the last Friday of every month the museum has an evening reception complete with drinks and music]

Dinner at PING bar and restaurant.

Day 6 [Saturday]

Morning walk through Kensington Gardens & visit Kensington Palace.

Shopping at Portobello Road Market [Note: this market only opens on Saturday], then continue shopping at Westfield mall.

Dinner at Brasserie Zedel followed by an evening walk through the city.

Day 7 [Sunday]

Traditional High Tea at the Chesterfield Mayfair.

Walk through Regent’s Park by the canal then go to a pub afterwards and watch a sport match (tennis, football etc.)

Sunday Roast dinner at the Victoria Pub Paddington (Order the Shoulder of Lamb, one of the best I’ve ever had)


Please note that this itinerary is ideal for the summer months and for travelers aged 18+ who aren’t on a budget. I’ve only included dinner options on this itinerary because I assumed you will be having breakfast at the hotel. As for lunches, besides Friday at Borough market my sister & I tried a different pub each day.

Some useful tips:

– Purchase tickets online in advance to attractions such as Madame Tussauds, Lion King Musical, and Warner Bros. Tour to benefit from a discount and skip the long queues when you get there.

– Upon your arrival in London, purchase an Oyster card at the subway and fill it up for 30 pounds. This will last you a week and is very cost-efficient and convenient as it allows you to use the subway and busses at any time to get around the city.

– Download the ‘City Mapper’ app on your smartphone. This app provides you with different routes to anywhere in the city via subway, bus, taxi, or walk. It also includes the price and approximate travel time for each route.

– London is considered one of the greenest cities in the world so make the most of the parks around the city. Also, there are plenty of free things to do – for example, most of the city’s museums are free so try to do more than one.

– Always ask about family, senior, or student discounts before you purchase tickets to any attraction.

– VAT in London is 20% so if you’ll be doing a lot of shopping make sure to ask for tax-free receipts which can be exchanged for cash at the airport.

– During the summer months it doesn’t get dark in London till around 10pm so be efficient and make the most of the long days.

I hope this was helpful, any adjustments to this itinerary are welcome!