Poor Stevie

high five: my favourite cities

This is a lot like picking a puppy at the pound. You feel guilty for picking just one, because you know all the others will be put down. It’s just a blog, Steve, it’s just a blog. Here’s a brown paper bag and some Panadol, now calm down.

I’m going to list five cities you must visit, in no particular order. I loved them all the same, for different reasons.

PARIS

paris

I have always wanted to go to Paris for all the obvious reasons: the romance, the art, the stripy t-shirts, the berets and the food. But I loved it so much more than I could have anticipated. Yes, we did all the things you’re supposed to do in Paris – we saw the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower and we said “oui” a lot. But it really was the little things that ended up being the most memorable, because the city is just so beautiful. We walked along The Seine almost everyday, we explored the nooks of the Montmartre district, we watched the light show on the Eiffel Tower huddled under umbrellas and we had a picnic in the Jardin des Tuileries. Le Sigh.

My Paris must-dos:

  • Have breakfast at Café des Deux Moulins, which is the cafe featured in Amelie. We ended up there by accident, having wandered into the first open cafe we spotted after a 16-hour bus ride from Milan. The staff were a little grumpy, but the place was really beautiful, lively and full of French people. Also, it didn’t really play up the Amelie angle to a vom-inducing level.
  • Explore Montmartre. After having your strong espresso at Amelie’s, wander up the hill, stopping in at all the amazing boutiques, gift shops and thrift stores, for a lovely view of the city.
  • Pack a picnic and head to the Palace of Versailles. We ate our picnic of baguette, hummus, fruit and Maltesers in the incredibly manicured gardens and it was one of the happiest moments of the trip. Walk around in the gardens and visit Marie Antoinette’s estate first, because they are just glorious (glorious? I can’t believe travel has turned me into such a wanker), and touring the palace first will wear you out.
  • I know this is probably sacrilegious, but if you’re not that into Renaissance art just skip the Louvre. It’s kind of huge and overwhelming and, after months of looking at religious art, I was kind of a bit “meh” about it. “Meh” about the Louvre, look at me all fancy. Yes, the Mona Lisa is pretty, but there are so many idiots shoving you and taking pictures that you don’t really get to experience what the Ninja Turtles actually intended. I preferred the Musée d’Orsay, a converted railway station on the banks of the Seine, which houses Van Goghs, Manets, Monets and Renoirs. It was awesome and less packed.
  • Eat some Parisian pastries. You might remember I had an exploding bro-fist macaron that blew my mind grapes. But we also bought a lot of baguettes from Le Grenier à Pain in Montmartre. The baguettes have been named many times as the best baguette in France, thus the world, and you get them for just over one euro. We bought one in the early morning and it was still warm, crispy and heavenly. Apparently Nicolas Sarkozy buys his bread from there. Let’s not imagine what he does when he gets it home to Carla Bruni.

NEW YORK

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NYC was the first stop after four months in Europe and it almost felt like home. For me, it was like going to a wonderland filled with all my favourite things – fresh food, music, culture, art, fashion and a Burger King on every corner. I always woke up feeling excited to be there and we made the most of every single day. It has a vibe like no other city I’ve been to that just makes you feel invigorated and grateful to be alive.

My New York City must-dos:

  • Spend an entire day in Central Park. We were there in the autumn and the colours were just incredible. We packed a picnic and lay on the grass, watching joggers, dog walkers, rollerbladers and New Yorkers talking loudly into their phones. There were buskers, musicians and crazy dudes on every corner, so it made for some amazing people-watching. We were lucky enough to catch the Afrobats in action. Even though it’s in the middle of the city, it feels like an isolated sanctuary.
  • Walk the High Line, an elevated train track that has been turned into a garden. It has great views of the water, the Chelsea Piers and the meatpacking district. Plus, it really is a beautiful and innovative garden.
  • Go to the Rockefeller Centre. You can go up the top for a view of the city, but we went there mostly because we love television. And boy did it pay off. Just as we were perusing the 30 Rock merchandise in the NBC shop, an intern came up to us and offered us free tickets to see Jimmy Fallon practice his monologue for Late Night. It was a lot of fun going into the famous studios, seeing the man himself and getting a tiny glimpse of what life is like in The Showbidness.
  • Explore Brooklyn and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. We stayed in Brooklyn, so we got to see quite a lot of it in a week. It really is a great place if you like music, shopping, art, flea markets and food. And who doesn’t love those things? I strongly recommend the popular Bedford Avenue area, which is jam packed with record stores, second-hand bookstores, thrift shops, delis, cafes and independent designer stores. So, so awesome.
  • Go to a sports bar. Yep, you can get beer everywhere in the world. But you can’t always get it with a side of enormous nachos, hot wings, feisty New York sports fans and flirtatious bar gals. We had a great night at Professor Thoms. You must not go there without ordering the nachos. Best ever.

LONDON

london

London actually felt a lot like home, too. I guess it’s all those years of watching The Bill, gov. It really is a wonderful city for so many reasons. The parks are beautiful, the good museums are free, there’s wacky art installations everywhere, the tube takes you everywhere, old English traditions live on and the beers are sold as pints. Woo! Also, everyone always goes on and on about how expensive London is. Yes, the pound kills the dollar, but there’s plenty of things to do on a budget.

My London must-dos:

  • Make the most of the free museums. The British Museum, the Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert Museum are all amazing and the permanent exhibitions are free.  The Tate was probably my favourite. We saw Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera (not a permanent exhibition), which I loved. Plus, on the recommendation of a lovely Londoner, we had a drink at the bar on the top floor, which has stunning views of the Thames.
  • Go to the markets. The famous Portobello Road market is totally great for antiques, souvenirs and a bit of fresh food. It gets very packed, which is kind of fun, but if you don’t like crowds get there early. My absolute favourite was the Borough Market, which buzzes with hungry foodies and has delicious fresh food, chocolate, wine, fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and everything nice. Plus you can sample things – oh boy.
  • Hang out in Hyde Park. Again, an amazing stretch of nature smack bang in the middle of a bustling city. I went with my friend T on a warm day and we sat with our toes in the Princess Diana fountain (didn’t everyone?). It’s a great way to mix with Londoners – there’s lots of families, chavvy teens, rich old ducks and dog walkers with a million pedigree dogs on leaches.
  • Eat, drink and be merry at an English pub. We were staying near Notting Hill and liked a lot of the pubs on Portobello Road, including Portobello Gold, which served strawberry beer. Woah. English pub culture really is something – the food and beer is great, they are always packed and most still have their wood-panelling-ye-olde-England appeal.
  • Take a day trip to Brighton. There’s nothing like this weird seaside town anywhere else in the world. There are streets and streets of lovely, arty shops and good cafes juxtaposed against the world’s most tacky little amusement park on the pier. My friend T and I stayed the night in a B&B called Snooze, which has themed rooms and lots of quirky little details housed in a lovely terrace.

BUDAPEST

budapest

We were warned that Budapest was big, dirty, dusty and generally awful. Budapest was actually grand, clean, beautiful and generally incredible. It actually reminded us a lot of Vienna, without the rip-off factor. I would say skip Vienna, go to Budapest. It is definitely a young city, with lots of cool bars, live music and art, surrounded by the old and grand.

My Budapest must-dos:

  • Go to the House of Terror. Hands down, my favourite museum in the world. We went there on a whim one rainy, faintly hungover day and, not really knowing much about Hungary’s history, I kind of expected to be politely bored. But I was blown away. Part art installation, the exhibits cover the country’s communist and fascist past in a completely compelling way. There are TVs playing videos of survivors telling their stories, rooms decorated with disturbing propaganda and – probably the most chilling part – a darkened elevator that descends slowly into the basement as you hear a man describing the execution of a prisoner. A definite must.
  • Visit Buda Castle and then walk across the chain bridge, which links Buda and Pest. A beautiful cobble-stoned path leads down towards the bridge, with a breathtaking view of the city and the Danube.
  • Try Kürtőskalács, a traditional Hungarian sweet bread. The cinnamony aroma can be smelt all over the city and I indulged several times. What with goulash, potato stew and Kürtőskalács, it’s no wonder everybody I ever met thought I was up the duff.
  • Go to the famous thermal baths. With my well-documented hatred of the entire human race, it was actually kind of hellish to spend a couple of hours in warm water with a bunch of hairy strangers. But, most normal, well-adjusted people really seem to like it and I just wanted to make my tormented husband happy. I actually really did appreciate the architectural beauty of the Szechenyi Baths, but not so much the dude swimming around in his stained underpants.

SARAJEVO

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The story of how we ended up in Sarajevo is pretty funny. We met an Australian guy at a hostel in Split, Croatia, who was telling J-man all about how much he loved Sarajevo and the Bosnian people. The real drawcard, though, was his description of a hostel that gave amazing bike tours of the city and greeted guests with slippers, fluffy robes and a shot of the local alcohol. We booked our trip to Sarajevo and later found out the hostel was in Belgrade. Oopsies! Turns out to be the best semi-mistake we ever made. You can still see the scars of the war everywhere – bulletholes on buildings, shrapnel scars on footpaths – but Sarajevo is a buzzing, happy city that has made an incredible effort to get back on its feet.

My Sarajevo must-dos:

  • Stay at Haris Youth Hostel.  A young dude, named Haris, set it up as a teenager on the top floor of his parents’ house after it was bombed. Haris himself takes guests around the city in his bright orange van and gives the most amazing tour and personal accounts of his experience of the war. The hostel itself seems to attract less dickheads than most other destinations and it’s incredibly comfy and homely. It’s definitely a privilege to have stayed there.
  • Try Ćevapi, a traditional Bosnian dish of fried meat served in warm bread with onions and cream cheese. When served, it kind of looks like a gift the family cat might give you, but it’s incredibly delicious.
  • Drink Bosnian coffee and eat baklava. Bosnian coffee is much the same as Turkish and Greek coffee – bleeping strong. It’s served in traditional silver and copper coffee sets and people sit on little stools on the footpath sipping it all day long.
  • Go to the Bosnian Historical Museum  (I can’t find a link, unfortunately). It has an exhibition put together by survivors of the siege, which is beyond moving. The exhibit, made up of photos, news reports and personal accounts, succeeded in its goal of being balanced and simple. In most cities I felt it was important to get an understanding of the local history, but I think it’s mandatory in Sarajevo.
  • Walk from the old town into the city. It’s amazing how the city transforms from old to new.  Look out for the shrapnel scars on buildings and the very beautiful Sarajevo Roses, but also take in and appreciate the city as it is now.

Honourable mentions: Athens for its ancient ruins and gyros. Florence for its romance, art and aperitivo bars. Rome for its ancient ruins and gelato. Berlin for its history. Krakow for its history and vodka. Of course, San Francisco is definitely a favourite city, but I plan on doing a separate post dedicated entriely to SF. Wee!

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