Sunday, March 16, 2014

Strolling Through London

"London is made for walking. It is a city of small streets and sudden vistas, of unexpected alleys and hidden courtyards. It cannot be seen from a bus or car..." -Peter Ackroyd-

Prior to visiting London, we discovered London Walks, an exceptional tour company that has been perfecting its craft since the 1960's. Smothered with awards, they offer an array of routes and tours designed to illustrate the highlights of a city meant to be seen on foot. Local guides lead the way through some of London's picturesque, hidden, tumultuous, and sometimes spooky history.

What puts this company over the top is how they cater to their customer. All day everyday they offer a variety of tours, easily accessible outside a tube stop. There is no need to book in advance and if you want to go on a tour, you just show up and pay on the spot. Oh, and at 9 pounds, it was a bargain for at least two hours of expert guidance. We created an itinerary in advance and could play things by ear, just the way we like it. Overwhelmed with options to explore the city for a reasonable cost and with no need to commit, it was perfect! We ultimately took three guided walks featuring The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and Jack the Ripper.

Millenium Bridge
A city made for walking
Tower of London - This was our first walk and possibly my favorite. The tour started on the hill outside the tower where public executions took place. Only the most special individuals were executed inside the Tower walls. I guess that is one way to know how famous you were!

The moat outside defending the palace
London has been a vital element in world history for so long, and the Tower of London was at its center. A royal residence for some who lived there, it was also a living nightmare for others who were imprisoned, tortured, or even beheaded. Some pretty famous headless ghosts are likely haunting these grounds, including Anne Boleyn, the second wife of notorious King Henry VIII.

Traitor's Gate
Traitor's Gate - You did not want to be hauled in through here!
Active Beefeater guarding the Queen's residence
Current times there are still Beefeaters stationed on sight to protect the Queen's house (though she now lives in much more upscale palaces) and the crown jewels, a lavish assortment of jewels locked up in a massive vault and vigilantly protected. I can't even fathom the value of the collection.

White Tower
White Tower - The great stone keep within the fortification
Tower Bridge
View of Tower Bridge from Bloody Tower
Westminster Abbey - A church almost 1,000 years old, Westminster Abbey contains a massive amount of history. Coronations and royal weddings are the norm, and the tombs and burials represent a who's who of English and world history. The centerpiece attraction is Edward the Confessor. Once he was deemed a Saint, real estate near his tomb became highly prized. I was in a bit of awe of the power and prestige whose remains we discussed while dodging thousands of people shuffling for a peek.

Main entrance to the church - Unfortunately pictures were not allowed inside
There was so much to see that without a guided tour we would have missed out on all kinds of fun details, including how the Tudor sisters Elizabeth and Mary are buried together or how we could see how the architectural styles shifted and were rebuilt over time. We learned about the idiosyncrasies of Gothic, Tudor, and Romanesque designs. London Walks describes it eloquently: "the Abbey is England in microcosm. It's also a building of splendour, intricacy, and consummate virtuosity." I don't have anything that poetic, other than this is a must see! 

From inside the Abbey across the courtyard - The detail in every inch is phenomenal
Another cool story was about the Stone of Destiny, a stone originating in Scotland on which kings sat for their coronation. Edward I pillaged the stone after fighting with Scotland in the 13th century. It was fitted into the bottom of a wooden throne and is the seat in which all English sovereigns have been crowned. It was symbolic to represent England's rule over Scotland. The stone wasn't returned to Scotland until 1996 in a transaction at the border, but will still be returned to England for future coronation ceremonies. I love learning about these historic customs that really put into perspective how young the US is in its current state.

Picturesque from all sides
Jack the Ripper - I don't really have any pictures from this, as the walk took us through the once seedy, less glamorous parts of London after dark, recalling the foggy, menacing nights of Jack the Ripper. The fixation on this case is fascinating, with the last murder taking place in the 1888. Maybe it is the pure mystery behind brutal murders never solved, maybe it was the fact that the murders exposed poor living conditions that lead to massive public reform, or maybe it is because that if you talk to ten people you might hear ten different theories of who was behind the rampage through Eastern London. Either way, it has taken on a life of its own and we passed at least three other tours discussing the same topic and visiting the locations of the crimes and terror one man (or woman?) imposed on a city.

Eerily standing near a murder site - Notice the narrow alleyways that are prevalent throughout London
London has so much to see that 365 days per year London Walks offers ten plus tours a day, rain or shine! Think: Harry Potter, kings & queens, World War I & II, The Beatles, Shakespeare, Dickens, castles, modern theater, royal palaces, and pubs! Our travels have barely scratched the surface, but I am not sure if any place yet has as much to offer as London.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Mind the Gap - A London Pub Crawl

One of our best trips yet, we recently spent 10 days in London. Theater, architecture, food, history, museums, royalty, etc, there was way too much to handle. If someone asked me the highlight of the trip it would simply be that there is so much to do no matter what mood you are in. What makes London so sensational is the combination of numerous, smaller areas that flow together to create one fascinating city. 

Our first stop after checking into the hotel - No better way to get rid of jet lag!

But lets be honest here, the most time was spent at the heart of English tradition, in the pub! We booked a pub crawl with Mind the Gap and were rewarded with an amazing liquid history tour lead by John. Meant to quench our thirst with traditional cask ales, it also opened up our eyes to a historical culture that has gone on for hundreds of years. Each pub in some way reflected the history of the city. We not only discovered some of the most delightful watering holes in the city, but as an added bonus developed a critical eye for finding other traditional pubs later on. And even though beer was heavily involved, this will be my first shout out to the awesome people of England. We were the only foreigners on the tour, and at each bar we had lively, engaging conversations with others. Cheers!

The George Inn was our first stop and exactly the type of place I was hoping for. This was originally built as an inn in the 1600's. It is divided into a number of unique rooms fashioned more like fancy sitting rooms than traditional bars. Shows would take place in the courtyard outside and be viewed by patrons from the gallery on the second floor. It was these shows that may have influenced modern theater and how it is viewed by the audience. Particularly famous individuals Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, and Winston Churchill drank here or stayed at the original inn.

Mind the Gap Pub Crawl
Built as an inn, the courtyard is to the left and viewed nicely from the gallery
This may be where people gathered to watch some of Shakespeare's works
After a stroll past the entrance to Diagon Alley (for my fellow Harry Potter fans), along the Thames, over Millennium Bridge, and near St. Paul's Cathedral, we stopped at The Black Friar, an ornately designed pub. Architecturally similar to New York's Flat Iron building, this pub's decoration should be reserved for a museum. Inside the cozy pub, every detail is intricately designed. The pub is built on the site of a 13th century monastery and the interior is full of bronze castings of monks. Maybe the best description came from our tour guide who described this as an "art nouveau classic."

Mind the Gap Pub Crawl
The outside of The Black Friar
The interior is lavishly decorated with only high quality materials
The group is feeling pretty good at this point, just in time to get to my favorite pub of the entire trip, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. This pub was divided into some incredible nooks and crannies. Heading down the steps lead to a labyrinth like basement area where we ordered our drinks before exploring. While I was still reveling in the cask ales, Anna made the switch to wine at this point! Another level was almost like a wine cellar, with little nooks in the wall you could get lost in to enjoy a private conversation or a pint in peace. Finally, the main level oozed character, and the wood fire was blaring. The cozy heat and smell of a fire burning was perfect. I could almost envision Charles Dickens famously sitting next to the fire in this historic establishment.

Mind the Gap Pub Crawl
Nice view from the front
Roaring fire - The bar was five feet to the left, to the right was Dickens' favorite seat
Just a little history 
At this point my details of the stops are more hazy as the pints continued to flow and conversation didn't stop. The 4th stop was at the Seven Stars, a gem hole in the wall pub. Tiny and narrow, we had to fight our way through to the bar, which contained little containers of cat food for the owner's pets. Story goes that without fail, some drunk individual most days ends up digging in and munching on cat food thinking it is a bar snack. Even if there weren't cats, my guess is they keep the food in place just for that amusement. Finally, we ended up at The Princess Louise, a fancy Victorian bar where no expense was spared developing the extravagant interior.

The tour was a highlight of the trip and since we did this right away, we left with a list of additional pubs that we tried our best to frequent. A couple of highlights include Southwark Tavern, where we drank in what was originally a jail cell, and The Cittie of Yorke, a historic medieval hall that looked like an old church. One defining aspect of a traditional pub is the lack of music and any electronic screens, TVs or games. The pub was intended to be a place where people drank and socialized, and the best ones retain this aura by not allowing modern electronics, I loved it! 

Drinking in jail!
Cittie of Yorke
Cittie of Yorke 
Combining two of my favorite things, beer and history, we couldn't have received a better introduction to London. We even had dinner that night with Simon and Claire, a fantastic couple from the tour. They gave us all kinds of ideas for the rest of our trip. We discussed food, politics, theater, and even though it was my first time in the city, I felt immediately at home.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 - A Year on the East Coast

I have never been much for using the New Year to reflect on the year gone by, but as the calendar changes to 2014, this year has been extraordinarily eventful. Since it will be a while before I can get through the backlog of blog posts I need to write, I thought it fitting to list some of the year's best, knowing it is beyond words to describe the adventure this move has been for Anna and me.

I guess one word gets close!

Family in Philly - Philadelphia is a haven for culture and history, and in my opinion vastly underrated in the cluster of big cities on the East Coast. We have grown to love the dynamic center city and surrounding area. Two of the best weekends of the year took place when our parents were able to travel out and visit our new home. Both have been blogged by us (here and here). Our appreciation continues to increase as we have transitioned from visitors, to tour guides, to truly calling it home. Here are additional posts illustrating historic and artistic elements of the city.

Maine - The highlight of the summer. Our packed Maine itinerary pushed my research skills to the limits. During peak season in August, we made the long drive up to Portland, Maine to begin our trip, and from there went to Bar Harbor, Camden, and Portsmouth, NH. Our time in Acadia National Park was magical and full of scenic (sometimes scary) hikes.

The incredible state of Pennsylvania - The state of PA is full of travel splendors. Amish country, Poconos Mountains, historic Valley Forge and Gettysburg, quaint cities such as Manayunk and Lititz, chocolate paradise at Hershey, craft beer abound, and countless other options for adventure. We filled up our 4th of July holiday with a wealth of fun.

Baseball Stadiums!

Life in the Big City - The element of the East Coast that has made travel so amazing is how close everything is. Long weekends took on a whole new meaning as we could drive, train, or take short flights to numerous big cities, including Boston, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and New York City. For most of these we didn't even need to take days off work!

Happy Belly - Luckily we walk everywhere so my health has not been impacted by the overwhelming supply of amazing food and beer. We are spoiled locally at the phenomenal Conshohocken restaurant scene, we sampled Philly classics on a Manayunk food tour, tasted sensational beer at Troegs, Victory, and Dogfish Head breweries, and feasted on my favorite food of all time - the Maine Lobster!

Off the beaten Path - Well, not really an apt description, but we did have two trips planned prior to the move that got us to venture outside of the North East. New Orleans for Quarter Jazz Festival and Sanibel Island for a much needed winter warm up.

New York - After two very fast weekends in NYC, including this whirlwind site seeing extravaganza, we realized a more intimate trip was needed with this spectacular city. Blog post still to come, but we spent 4 nights here in December and lived out what felt like a childhood fantasy of Christmas in NYC. The lights, people, energy, shows, food, unique neighborhoods.... It is an experience like none other and in my opinion, on a very select list of the finest travel destinations.

Happy New Year!

Happy Belly - Conshohocken

Conshohocken has been an amazing new home for us, living right on the river and within walking distance of the train station to Philly. We have been enamored with the close knit, small town community. Our favorite feature of the city is easily the wealth of tasty food options we are able to walk to at any time! I have not tried them all and part two will come later as I can only list about half of the places in this first post. All of the restaurants in town have unique dining atmospheres with delicious eats, and best of all, are not chains!

Ponti's Steaks and Spuds is my favorite stop in town and our most common. We absolutely adore their cheese steaks, and the menu full of creative fries and sandwich options make it a perfect weekend lunch stop. We have had nothing but wonderful service from the owners. The intimate feeling we get here is what has kept us so enthralled and reminds us of the community aspect we have loved about Conshy!

Stone Rose
All stops here have been accompanied with a wow factor. First time was for our anniversary dinner, so I went all out and ordered the special Gorgonzola steak, pure bliss in every bite. Our next trips were for specific events. One, a fascinating gourmet grill cheese and Victory beer tasting dinner where each new sandwich and beer offering drove my taste buds mad. An example course was a Grilled Short Ribs and Mac and Cheese Sandwich, coupled with Victory's Golden Monkey Tripel. Each sandwich had a different gourmet cheese, meat, bread, a side order of fries, and a full beer pairing! The next time we came was for burger week where I tried a mouth watering wild boar burger.

Our favorite Italian place about 3 blocks from our apartment. Their pizzas, especially the egg pizza, are unreal. A fun bar atmosphere with a nice formal dining area, we always receive exceptional service and feel at home while eating.

El Limon
This was our first experience with BYOB (bring your own booze). It is easy to bring in some tequila to spike the already free margaritas or your favorite beer and enjoy the most satisfying tacos around. Casual and authentic food have this place constantly packed. Full dinner with drinks for less than $20 is a pretty nice benefit too!

I did not try much Thai food until moving out East and this is now my standard. The range of flavors and spices in each dish is extraordinary, especially the Evil Jungle Princess. A great cozy atmosphere that is BYOB when dining in.

Baggataway Tavern is an excellent stop for a craft beer and if hungry, I never fail to devour their wings, with a sweet and spicy sauce blend.

Viggiano's has the most incredible cheese cake of all time. Normally not one for big desserts, I slowly ate every bite of that cheese cake after an already filling 2 courses. Not sure how I wasn't rolled home that night.

Scoops is a wonderful ice cream spot served from a little walk up window. All tastes are catered to here with a huge option of flavors.

It has been such a pleasure to walk from our home to so many high quality, locally owned establishments. My belly has been gleefully happy!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Washington DC Monument Walk

Repeat trips are rare for us because of our desire to explore new places. Looking back on our travels, two places have popped up more than anywhere else. One is Florida because it is a phenomenal warm weather destination for the harsh Minnesota winters. The other is Washington DC, where I recently returned from my fourth visit to the capital city. Even with jam packed agendas, the city continues to marvel with its incredible options of things to do, be that historical, architectural, or cultural. 

Hands down my favorite activity for each visit is the monument walk. Starting near the White House,  arguably the most famous address in the world, the walk begins at the iconic Washington Monument. Along with commemorating the country's first president, it is also the world's tallest stone structure and obelisk!

From there, the newly created World War II monument is an exemplary dedication to the soldiers and citizens of this war.

A walk along the reflecting pool leads directly to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the massive sitting statue of the president who lead this country during the Civil War. Thousands swarm the steps each day, waiting to take pictures in front of the replication of this vastly popular leader.

A few more war memorials eerily come next. The Vietnam Memorial is a simple, yet emotional dedication, and the soldiers depicted in the Korean Memorial hold a ghostly presence.

This year, we saw for the first time the incredible dedication to Martin Luther King Jr. The split rock design seems precisely crafted to depict the barriers he helped smash through.

By now the feet are barking a bit, but continuing along yields rewarding stops at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson memorials, two more presidential legends. The FDR monument depicts a story of his presidency, with imagery changing themes as the years pass on in his successful, tumultuous, and historic presidency.

The Jefferson Memorial is beautifully rounded with pillars and topped with an impressive dome seen from all angles as the walk leads around the tidal basin.

I could write for days about any number of museums, including the well known options like the Natural History Museum, National Art Gallery, and Air and Space Museum. The city has opportunities aplenty to learn and how I love to learn new things! I feel guilty leaving this city if I haven't experienced at least a few new museums. My new favorite is the insightful Newseum, filled with a wonderland of history focused on events from the media's perspective. It is an astounding walk through of some of the world's most influential moments, with a memorable 9/11 dedication wall covered with front page newspapers from the day after.

Washington DC, while not the source of a lot of the history it represents, continues to preserve the aspects necessary to remember.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Take me out to the Ballgame - East Coast Edition

One of my favorite and most popular posts (special thanks to the great Twins blogger Aaron Gleeman for the surplus of hits) was my first entry here on MLB ballpark experiences. With the move out East, it was the first year in a long time I failed to see a Twins home game, but we more than made up for it! I have been spoiled by the plethora of stadiums within a short proximity. Here is my best effort to rank the new parks on the list. It is a bit bittersweet for me to say that I can't put Target Field at the top of my list any longer. 

Fenway Park – Boston
My new favorite stadium. Honestly, it was cramped at times, the amenities were not great, food options were basic, and the beer was more overpriced than usual  – But none of that could take away from the storied history and passionate fandom exuding from these hallowed baseball grounds. A flood of enthusiastic supporters and great sports bars encircled Fenway and made for a lively two hours prior to first pitch (and after the game ended).

Bleacher Bar
Bleacher Bar in the background - From inside the park, you can see a screen near center field, that is a bar under the seats!

Once inside, taking in the pillars and green monster made me giddy as a fan of the game. The crowd energy was magnetic, cheering loudly for each pitch and singing boisterously during songs. Our seats were OK, but I found myself caring very little, instead just soaking in the incredible atmosphere of Fenway.

PNC Park - Pittsburgh
Even with high expectations coming here, I was more than impressed. This should be the standard for modern ballpark design, in my opinion. It was spacious and had a phenomenal food selection featuring some of the region’s signature specialties. Walking and sitting was amazingly comfortable with a high percentage of seats close to the field and within the infield. For a Friday night game, we paid $35 for lower level tickets about 30 rows behind home plate - amazing prices! 


Visually, the park is beautiful. The lack of upper deck outfield seats makes it feel like a smaller park and there are perfect views of the famous Roberto Clemente bridge and city skyline. It also has my favorite entrance yet located right on the river, and you traverse one of multiple bridges upon arrival. Overall, the Pittsburgh sports scene is exceptional and we noticed the city's pride in its teams all throughout our visit.


Camden Yards - Baltimore
Camden has the modern design that makes the game watching experience comfortable, but feels like a more classic, older stadium. Views from all seats seem top notch, and the warehouse design is awesome. The park celebrates the history of the team and sport flawlessly. A garden of statues replicating team legends calmly sits in the outfield area, and at one entrance is a series of statues celebrating retired numbers of Oriole's players. 


My favorite feature is Eutaw Street. The right field area is a street lined with vendors and warehouses. Plaques are embedded in the ground and warehouse walls commemorating the location of where home run balls have landed throughout the years. My only gripe is when getting up to walk around or get food, it was hard to follow the game due to lack of TVs or speakers. However, it did lead to an engaged, energetic crowd. Less of a standing room option like a lot of the new ballpark designs. 


Citizen’s Bank Park - Philadelphia
Many stadiums are designed as normal geometric shapes or follow the square or diamond shape. Citizen's Bank Park feels more like a demented octagon, and I mean that in only the most positive way. Walls intersecting at all angles with iron beams, the stadium looks different from each viewing angle.


Philly has all four major sporting venues in the same spot, with massive parking lots for what is supposedly some of the best sports tailgating in the country. Located out of the city but easily accessed via public transportation, the area also has the Xfinity Live center filled with bars, restaurants, and excited fans. Crowded all the way up until game time, the festive group rivaled any pre-game sports bars I have been to. It was a comfortable park to sit and wander, and the food and drink options were among the best yet. 

Nationals Park – Washington DC
Another very nicely designed stadium with modern amenities and excellent food and drink options. A highlight was the hilarious president race between innings. I explored here less than the others because we went for the Twins and were focused more on the game action. We had a phenomenal experience with the local DC fans. 

Washington DC

Location was excellent - we were able to walk along the water to the game from our sight seeing day at the monuments. There is a cool outdoor area right next to the ballpark with live music, food/drinks, and games that was packed before and during the game. Side note, the customer service shined. We went for a game that was cancelled due to rain, and they actually refunded our tickets in full so we could go the next night.

Citi Field - Queens
Another beautiful, newly designed stadium. Overall though, it just felt massive – I am partial to the more intimate setups. It had good food options, quality amenities, and unique seating sections, but it just didn’t match up to the character of some of the other parks on this list. The Jackie Robinson rotunda celebrating the icon was incredible, as was a center field open area with local food, drinks, and games for kids.

We were able to conveniently take the metro from Manhattan, but the train station outside the stadium was not nice. Having left early, it only had a few working ticket machines and leaving with the rest of the crowd would have been difficult.

With only one shot at each, it is hard to be too critical as we had phenomenal times at all. Please share any of your experiences!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Happy Belly - Maine

Maine might have been the best week long seafood feast of my life! Lobster was already one of my favorite foods (even the stuff frozen and shipped to MN), but my taste buds had zero clue what was in store with true fresh Maine lobster.

My first meal in Portland put me in a lobster dinner paradise! Once that beautiful crustacean came out, I didn't look up until it was over. It was probably the first time Anna finished her drink I had taken more than a a few sips.

It took Anna until night three for her first boiled lobster dinner and another rarity, she finished it even before I did! We had a few conversation-less dinners as we scarfed down our lobster!

Lobster rolls were the next meal of choice. On our way up the coast, we ate at the Lobster Shack in Rockland which had relaxing outdoor garden patio seating and sandwiches made with homemade bread and freshly caught lobster (from the owner's son that morning). We had these several more times with slightly different preparation, but the best by far was by Bite Into Maine

Served out of a food truck near the Portland Head Light, this was our picnic highlight of the trip. Perfectly buttered lobster on a toasted bread, we devoured our lunch while lounging on a picnic table with serene ocean and lighthouse views. That is as close to perfect as I can get!

My first four meals of the trip consisted of the delectable shellfish, and no more than one meal in a row (usually breakfast) went without. Lobster souffle and lobster mac and cheese were a few of the more creative dishes.

The other Maine specialty, blueberries, were prevalent and delicious in so many varieties. We bought tons of wild blueberries off of Highway 1 from the back of cars/vans for next to nothing.  And several of our breakfasts were blueberry pancakes made with fresh wild blueberries and often smothered with nothing other than fresh blueberry syrup. 

Buying blueberries on the side of the highway

Even drinks got in on the action. Anna’s new favorite beer is any of the blueberry styles made by pretty much every brewery up there. As a hoppy or dark beer fan, I will admit I also liked them quite a bit. Especially when a handful of blueberries was splashed into the drink!

Unrelated to these two foods, the restaurant scenes in Portland and Portsmouth were stellar. Options were prevalent for any style of food desired.

We ventured away from Maine cuisine a few times- Here for amazing Tapas