Five Tips for the Solo Traveler

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Coffee: The solo traveler’s best friend.

I was sitting in a restaurant one evening in Paris—the dining room was snug, with tables packed in to fit as many people as possible. I was alone, jotting down details of my day in my journal and slowly sipping a glass of red wine. In the time it took me to go through my meal, I conversed briefly with three couples who came and went from the tables to either side of me. And with each conversation, there was one comment that all three made about my travels.

“You are traveling by yourself? How brave!”

Traveling by yourself isn’t that scary though, especially when in a big city. To me, solo travel offers me a chance to unwind and catch up on thing I love, all on my own time. Paris was a place that was high on my list, and to be able to experience it in a way that was perfectly catered to me, it made my experience that much more memorable.

Of course, there are times that traveling alone gets tough—eating on your own can get lonely, but you can also push yourself to be more outgoing (something I often struggle to do in my day to day routine) and make friends with other travelers. Solo travel gives you a chance to make an experience that is all your own, but it helps to have a few tips before you head out there.

1. Take Some Extra Time to Plan

When traveling alone, especially as a woman, I find it gives my family some peace of mind if I put together an itinerary so they know where I will be on my travels. This means including any hotel addresses and phone numbers, tour company information (if you plan to do a tour), and any train/plane information as you move from one place to another. Beyond that, when traveling solo you have a chance to see and do exactly what you want so researching your destination ahead of time and making plans makes the anticipation that much more fun.

2. Learn to Read a Map

I still travel like it’s 2008 (pre-iPhone, reliant on paper maps and the occasional Internet café). Technology has definitely made traveling easier, especially since now you can buy temporary international plans to use maps, text, post to Instagram, etc., and WiFi access in most hotels makes it easier to keep in touch with friends and family at home, but I still find it so appealing to switch my phone to airplane mode and use a paper map and guidebook to travel around a new city. This does require a moment of letting go—once you switch that phone over to ‘might as well be dead’ mode, you have to rely on your skills to navigate the old-fashioned way. Same goes if your phone dies while out for the day—it’s important to always know where you are, so learn the basics.

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Solo trips take you places you never expected. I fell in love with Bayeux on my last trip to France. 

3. Make New Friends

You’re traveling solo, but you don’t have to be alone. For younger travelers, hostels are a great way to make new friends and meet fellow solo travelers. Taking a day tour is another great way to interact with people. For me, in my day to day life I tend to be more introverted, but when traveling alone I have to force myself to be more social. Surprisingly, that little push has led to some lifelong friendships, and it makes my travel experiences so rewarding.

4. Reach Out to Old Friends

Even if you haven’t spoken in years, when traveling to a city where you know someone, take the moment to reach out. I guarantee 95 percent of the time they will be thrilled to meet up. Whether they live there, or in some cases, happen to be traveling there at the same time as you, it gives you a chance to catch up and get some good advice for when you are exploring the city later on.

5. Enjoy Your Time Alone

Solo travel isn’t for everyone, but if you decide to take a trip on your own, you will learn more about yourself than you ever thought possible. Take advantage of the time alone to see and do what you love—this trip is just for you, so make the most of it.

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A rare photo of the author, jet lagged but excited to be here 😀

Bergen Weekend: Winter Edition

As someone who thrives on the healing powers that hiking and nature can provide, it was no surprise to me that Norway was high on my list. Did I plan to make my first visit in the dead of winter? No, but then again life loves to throw unpredictable curve balls (and very cheap flights!) my way, so my first taste of Norway was a chilly one.

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Our hike up to Fløyen quickly became snowy and icy–could have used some microspikes for this trek!

I stayed in Bergen, which is a hiker’s dream paradise. With the peaks of Ulriken and Fløyen towering over the homes built into the cliffsides overlooking the harbor, residents and visitors can be on a hiking trail in a short amount of time. (NOTE: For those travelers who don’t enjoy long and steep walks in new cities, Bergen can be pretty rough. But then again, you are reading a blog about urban hiking, so you have to expect that our featured destinations will involve some uphill climbs.). It’s also important to mention that for residents, the work-life balance was based more on the weather versus the hours of the day. If, for example, the weather on a Tuesday provides perfect ski conditions, it is acceptable to slip out early, especially if the rest of the week looks dreary (my kind of lifestyle!). And on the weekends? Forget seeing people in the town, everyone will be out in the mountains.

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View of Bergen from the top of Fløyen.

On this particular visit, I managed to knock a few big wanderings off the list. Day one we climbed to the top of Fløyen and rode the cable car down. This was my first adventure after landing in the morning, so it not only gave me a chance to explore the city, but it also got my blood pumping as I fought jet lag fatigue. The hike took a few hours, with minimal stops except to veer off the trail to certain lookout points for a bird’s eye view of the city below. One difficulty we faced was as we got higher above the city, the trails became quite icy. In January, weather can be unpredictable—while I was visiting, Bergen temperatures remained just above freezing, so it made for wet and icy hiking. A few days after I left, the city was hit with a few strong snow storms, making any hikes up the mountain into a snow shoe excursion. So be prepared for all types of weather if you plan to still hike in the winter.

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Bryggen is a great starting point for any walk through Bergen, and you can easily spot it once you get into the mountains.

For a little less stress on our knees, we took advantage of some free time to wander the streets of Bergen, which is a great afternoon trek for urban hikers. Start at Bryggen, an UNESCO World Heritage site dating as far back as the 14th century. You’ve probably seen photos of these pointed, colorful houses that during the week offer tourists pricey shopping and plenty of Instagram opportunities. From here, head southwest, circling the harbor and popping into the Fjellskål fish market to get a glimpse of the local catches of the day. From there, head northeast up to the aquarium, stopping finally at the Nordnesparken to take in the spectacular views of the fjords.

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Bergen has so many cute little side streets that take you back in time. Be sure to pause for moment like this. 

If you’re into creepy, abandoned old towns (like me), then visiting the Old Bergen Museum in the winter is perfect for you. Located in the northern coastal hills of Bergen, this area is designed to look like the city’s original fishing homes centuries ago. In peak tourism season, these little homes provide tourists with shops, restaurants and historical exhibits they can explore, but in the winter, it is nothing more than closed doors and empty streets.

While visiting Bergen in the winter does mean that some of the main city attractions will be closed, it’s important to take that opportunity to ‘do as the locals do’ and get out of the city. Even without a car, you can easily take a bus to skiing out in Kvamskogen or horse riding in the mountains, making the most of your snowy visit.

Basilica Hopping in Florence

As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence has become a destination for art lovers, foodies, and the religious alike. With so much history around every corner, it’s easy to miss something when wandering the city’s cobble stone streets. But you don’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate the wonders of Florence’s many basilicas—with so many grandiose structures in a small footprint of the city, it’s easy to dedicate a day to see them all (with stops for gelato of course!). For this tour, we start at the Santa Maria Novella, located right by Florence’s main train station.

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Florence renovated the courtyard in front of Santa Maria Novella, creating the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

Santa Maria Novella: ‘Novella’ translates literally to ‘New,’ identifying this church as the first true great basilica of Florence. Commissioned by the wealthy textile merchant Rucellai family, this basilica was designed by architect Leon Battista Alberti and constructed between 1448 and 1470. It’s most prominent feature is of course the elaborate facade design that overlooks the courtyard, but be sure to visit inside to spectate Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, an early Renaissance fresco that brought perspective back in vogue.

Basilica di San Lorenzo: Our next stop takes us down Via Sant’Antonio and then turning towards Via de’ Gori, right to the façade of the Basilica de San Lorenzo, a final resting place for some of Florence’s most powerful patrons. What detail the outside of this church lacks is made up for inside, with its iconic white and gold ceiling. While much of the church’s design is credited Filippo Brunelleschi, it is not entirely of his doing. However, the true gem of this church and must-see for all visitors is the Cappelle Medicee (Medici Chapel), with Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florence’s golden child, designing the marble statues adorning the tombs of Guiliano di Lorenzo de’Medici and Lorenzo di Piero de’Medici.

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PIT STOP: For true Michelangelo fans, be sure to visit the Laurentian Library, an extension of San Lorenzo and a perfect example of Michelangelo’s renaissance architecture design with its oversized staircase and reading room.

LUNCH BREAK: Hungry and looking for something authentically Italian? Visit the Mercato Centrale, located on Via dell’Ariento, right around the corner from the Basilica de San Lorenzo. Here, you can eat at the take-out counters, or buy a variety of fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, and more to create a picnic. Staying at a place with a kitchen? Buy your ingredients here and cook at home!

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Walking along the streets of Florence, you can always catch a glimpse of Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo): As you walk the streets of Florence, there is one landmark you can always pick out. Whether you are hiking in the hills above the city, or catching glimpses of the great dome from Florence’s narrow streets, you can’t miss the city’s main attraction. Towering above the city, the most prominent feature of this basilica is of course its dome—designed by Filippo Brunelleschi after winning a contest to design it. The story goes, that while the Gothic Revival base of the church was built in the 1200s, it was left uncovered because the opening was too large for a traditional dome. And because the Florentines would rather die than see its beloved church supported by flying buttresses a la French Gothic design, they commissioned any eligible architect to find a solution. Thus comes in Brunelleschi, who designed a dome inside a dome (a double dome!) to top the structure. Today, you can climb the 463 steps and actually walk between the two domes to reach the top for spectacular views of the city and the surrounding hills of Tuscany.

ALTERNATE CLIMB: If the dome seems daunting, you can also climb the bell tower, designed by Renaissance heavyweight Giotto. It’s still quite a climb though, but at only 414 steps you’ll save that bit of energy for more walking later.

PIT STOP: All that dome climbing will absolutely make you hungry, so as you make your way over to the Santa Croce basilica, stop at famous gelateria Grom at the corner of Via del Campanile and Via delle Oche. It’s a popular spot, and once you have your first bite you’ll know exactly why.

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Santa Croche at sunset.

Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze: You’ll have to pull your map out for this one—heading south towards the Arno River, take your time to explore the winding streets as you make our way to the smaller but dazzling Basilica di Santa Croce. Translated as “The Sacred Cross,” this church is a part of the Franciscan order and still has a functioning cloister. However, the true draw to this church is its collection of Renaissance history—here, you can view works by Giotto, Donatello, Cimabue, and Vasari, or pay respects at the tombs of famous Florentines including Michelangelo, Alberti, Galileo, Ghiberti, and Machiavelli.

San Minato Church: High above the city on a hill on the south bank of the Arno is the ever-popular Piazzale Michelangelo. For urban hikers, this is a true challenge as you climb the stairs up to the peak, but the view is worth it. From here, you get a full glimpse of the city, with the Santa Maria del Fiore watching over it. I love visiting this spot at sunset, but for the purpose of this walk, be sure to get there before 7 p.m. to visit the San Minato al Monte, a small Romanesque church near the Piazzale, and then venture over to the lookout point to watch the day end.

A Walk Along Paris’ Left Bank

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The Ponte Alexandre III is a popular photo spot for travelers in Paris. Shown here from the right bank, you can capture all the highlights in one shot.

Essential to any trip to Paris, the classically romantic stroll along the Seine River offers travelers picturesque views of the city’s top attractions. During my travels in France earlier this year, I heard time and again a conversation comparing Paris’ left and right banks. Both have certain qualities to offer, the right contains a more upscale experience of the city with highlights including the Champs d’Elysees and the Louvre, while the left offers top attractions including the Eiffel Tower and the Musee d’Orsay. It’s a city-wide opinion similar to New York’s uptown vs. downtown—some simply prefer one more than the other.

I found myself wandering the Seine’s left bank regularly during my stay. Part of it was scheduling, as for a foot traveler, I tend to use walks to explore and to kill a bit of time, but overall I found that walking this strip of the city was most relaxing. For this tour, we start at the entrance to the Eiffel Tower, heading west where we will end at the Musee d’Orsay. We will walk along the riverside promenade, which includes dockside cafes, small parks, river cruise pick up locations, and bike paths–perfect for walking without ever having to cross the street. This offers travelers brilliant views of the Seine’s right bank, with exit points to visit some of the highlights along the left.

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If it’s photos of the tower you want, take a short detour to the Champ de Mars, the public green space behind the tower. Here, you can relax and have a picnic, share a glass of wine, or snap a selfie with the tower before heading back over to the river.

Eiffel Tower: We start our walk at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Built from 1887 to 1889 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, this structure has become an iconic symbol of the city with over 6 million visitors annually. For those interested in going up into the structure, I recommend making reservations online, and early, unless you don’t mind waiting in lines (TIP: Waiting in line is part of the journey. There are ways to avoid lines, including purchasing the Paris Museum Pass, but still expect that in some places you will deal with large crowds). Also, unless it is a must, taking the elevator to the very top isn’t necessary—you can actually get better views of the city from the second tier for a cheaper price.

Seine River Cruises: As you walk along the promenade, you will notice multiple starting points for river cruises along the Seine. This option is part for those who prefer a more leisurely experience of the river, with another part for the romantics. While most services are about the same, leaving from its starting point near the Eiffel Tower and looping past the Notre Dame Cathedral and back to the starting point, these cruises give travelers a view of the major sites in one hour. I recommend skipping this during the day if you intend to walk—you can still see everything without paying the ticket price. However, if it’s the experience you are looking for, then I recommend waiting until after the sun sets to see the city lit up. Most services run until 10 or 11 p.m., so you can easily squeeze in a long dinner before ending your day with the river cruise.

Bridges: As we continue along the promenade, you’ll cross under nine beautiful bridges connecting the two banks of the river. Each has become its own symbol in the city, with some gaining more attention over others. One of my favorites on this stroll was the Ponte Alexandre III, an ornate white and gold bridge connecting the Avenue W. Churchill to Avenue du Marechal, and leading onto the Hotel des Invalids. Here, you experience the true glamour of the city with the bridge’s over-the-top décor.

DETOUR: If you have a museum pass, I highly recommend stopping by the Hotel des Invalids to visit Napoleon’s extravagant tomb and to walk the grounds of this former veteran’s hospital-turned military museum. You can easily access the museum from the Seine by walking above the promenade towards the grandiose structure (you can’t miss it!).

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Inside the Musee d’Orsay you get a glimpse of the former train station as you browse the extensive collection of impressionist art. It’s a must-see when in Paris!

Musee d’Orsay: The promenade roughly ends here at the entrance to a rail station-turned museum dedicated to the French art of the 1800s and 1900s, specifically housing the masterpieces of great impressionists including Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Degas and more. While viewing the exterior is part of the experience of this walk, I recommend dedicating at least a half day to exploring inside. (TIP: Keep an eye out for free museum days. If you don’t mind waiting in line and don’t already have a museum pass, this is an affordable way to see one of the city’s best museums. For the Orsay, the first Sunday of every month is free.).

A word of warning, this walk is not short. For me, strolling along the river from the Eiffel Tower to the Musee d’Orsay with minimal stops took about an hour. You may want to end your walk here, but if you are not pressed for time and looking for shopping or a café, then head down the Boulevard St. Germain and into the Latin Quarter.

D.C. Mornings

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I’m a morning person. Wait, maybe I’m not being specific enough—I’m an OBNOXIOUS morning person. It’s a personality trait that, after many failed attempts to convince myself in past relationships that dating a night owl wouldn’t cause arguments in our future, has proven to be the one identifier I’ll never be able to quit. It’s also the one identifier I refuse to quit.

See, the thing is, I love getting up early. There’s a magical energy that exists between those few hours between sunrise and when the rest of the world starts to stir—it’s when I feel most creative, most adventurous, and it’s the time when I can really let myself be. It’s when I am most productive, spitting out page after page of writing, compared to the abysmal content I’ve created during that 3 p.m. workday lull when it takes all of my energy just to answer an email.

When I travel, it seems almost insane for me to sleep in, even if the day’s agenda includes lying on a beach all afternoon. I blame this trait on my father—as kids, he would always be up with the sun, caffeinated and ready to go by the time my sisters and I were just opening our eyes. As an adult, I have taken on that role, stepping out to wander the new city I’m visiting while my travel partners sleep.

On a recent trip to Washington D.C., I purposely factored in my sleeping habits to take advantage of the short time I had there. The trip was work related, so the bulk of my time was spent in and out of meetings, but the restless voice inside my head was calling. How could I, someone who adores government and American history, travel to D.C. and not visit at least one monument?

For any traveler, it’s important to take advantage of every free moment you have. I should mention that in this case, there is a distinct difference between vacations, which are meant for relaxation, versus traveling, which is meant for absorbing the sights and sounds of your destination. Both are equally rejuvenating. So for me, like many past trips, I took a close look at my schedule and planned a block of time between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. to wander central D.C. before catching my plane (A Note: Travel light if you plan to follow my suggestions. Because of my timeline, I was stuck carrying a backpack and purse with laptop for the duration of my adventure).

Washington D.C., at 7 a.m., before rush hour really kicks in and the school field trips start to overload the National Mall, is a peaceful time to walk. You have the chance to enjoy the history of this city without kids trying to catch Pokemon off of Thomas Jefferson’s head (is Pokemon Go still relevant?). You can her your own thoughts. You can see the sculptures that line the capital as they were intended—unobstructed by the massive crowds of tourists that will take over later in the day. It’s the quiet that makes these mornings so rewarding.

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Dr. Martin Luter King Jr. monument in Washington D.C.

Prior to this particular trip, the capital had unveiled its newest monument, dedicated to civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I had made a point to visit the monument first because it was something new that I wanted to see, but even more so because I needed a reminder of the good in this world. In just a few short days, we will see the conclusion of one of America’s most vicious elections, which has created such a terrible divide across the country, and has encouraged such low brow comments that any hope of a unified outcome seems impossible. I needed a reminder of the fights our past leaders endured, and that through their lessons, we too can work to create a better tomorrow.

I think every American needs to take a trip to this monument. It’s a reminder of the equality of humankind, no matter your race, religion, gender, status, etc., and how important it is to choose love and acceptance over hate and divide. Our country is great because of the opportunities we offer—we’ve forgotten that melting pot analogy that welcomes people from all over the world to come and make a new life. It’s why so many people want to come here, to try his or her hand at creating a better future. America is not a story of haves and have nots, but a story of opportunity for all.

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D.C.’s memorial to MLK is lined with his most famous quotes about equality, love and kindness. It’s a reminder to today’s generation about what unity really means. 

It’s Quiet Uptown

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A rainy Sunday outing to the Hamilton Grange National Memorial left me a little too excited.

In the second act of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Revolutionary (ha ha ha) musical, ‘Hamilton,’ the title character and his wife, grieving from the loss of their son, move to uptown Manhattan to learn to deal with their pain. The song itself, “It’s Quiet Uptown,” gives us a snapshot of this grief, set to the backdrop of Manhattan in the early 1800s, when everything north of Canal Street was still farmland.

It’s strange to picture Manhattan being anything but skyscrapers and brownstones, yet beneath the concrete of the city’s present lies hints to its past—one most relevant in the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, the preserved home of our favorite founding father, Alexander Hamilton.

This house, located now on the northern edge of St. Nicolas Park at 141st Street in Hamilton Heights, is the only home Hamilton owned during his lifetime. It was designed by architect John McComb Jr. and completed in 1802, just two years before Hamilton died in a duel against then Vice President, Aaron Burr.

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A statue of Alexander Hamilton stands at the site of the second location for his home.

Over the last 200 plus years, the historic memorial has moved twice, once in 1889 when it was acquired by nearby St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who moved the house next to the church on Convent Ave. The house was moved a second time in 2008 to its current location, where historic preservationists and the U.S. National Parks Service restored the home based on original design blueprints. It now stands as a museum commemorating the life and legacy of Hamilton.

I’ve already written about my love (obsession?) for Manuel’s musical depiction of Hamilton’s story, so I won’t repeat myself. But what really brought me up to the Grange this past weekend was a craving for a little exploration. My timing was a little too perfect—Hamilton’s birthday is today (January 11), and because of the rain yesterday, the usual crowds that have flocked to the memorial since the show’s success all decided to stay indoors for the day, leaving me with a chance to have a private, intimate experience with the former home of my historic crush.

In terms of historic preservation and replication, the Hamilton Grange National Memorial transports you right back to the 1800s, when farmland would surround the home, and the commute to downtown took an hour and half by horse and carriage (today, you can get to the Financial District in roughly the same time, just by subway instead of carriage). Original pieces once owned by Hamilton mingle with replicas—Philip Hamilton’s original piano, where he and his younger sister, Angelica, would play duets together still rests in the sitting room, while Alexander’s office captures that energy you would expect from a man who played such a vital role in the creation of our country.

Still, the most interesting part of the tour is the story of moving this building. As it was handed over to the care of the National Parks Service, they carefully planned to raise the entire house in one piece over the church, and then onto the hill. That alone, is terrifying to execute—one slip and you could lose this historic landmark. And yet, with careful maneuvering, and very strong equipment, the move was successful and we now have the ability to experience a piece of history (and maybe drop a few song lyrics during the guided tour).

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Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11, 1789. To celebrate, the National Parks Service set out a card to sign at the Hamilton Grange National Memorial.

For my fellow urban hikers, this is a great way to spend a day—Hamilton Heights in itself is a gorgeous area, with plenty of sights to see. I’d suggest starting at the Grange and poking around there first, then moving on to some simple wandering around the neighborhood until you stumble upon a cute café for lunch.

And for my fellow Hamilton Heads—indulge yourself in an hour of historic obsessing over the fact that you are standing on the same foundation where that young, scrappy, and hungry man once lived.