Craving for Old Europe? Here are Top 7 Cities to Visit !!!

It’s not just the European food or people or cultures that attracts millions of people to visit the continent each year. Yes, those are appealing, but for the most part, it’s the unique medieval charms of Europe that people can’t get enough of when they are getting lost in the narrow alleys of small towns in Europe, looking at centuries old cathedrals or  ruins of ancient fortresses,  or walking on cobbled stoned squares from the middle ages.

Every time I’ve visited the big or tiny towns in Europe, I was taken back in time. I could feel and see the life that existed hundreds of years ago. It was like an open museum that has surprises in every corner of it. From big cities like Rome to one of the smallest ones, like Cyprus have medieval elements scattered though the cities.

After visiting more than 130 cities in Europe (it’s not enough for any continent, let alone for Europe), I had hard time hand-picking cities that will give the tourists most medieval experience of Europe. Oh yes, there are plenty of these towns where you can go and feel like you traveled to the past thru a time machine in this continent. But here are 7 not-so-common places that you should visit to experience some enticing old European charms. They are not in any particular order…enjoy

  1. Toledo (Spain): Once the capital of Spain, Toledo, is a must-see city when you are in Madrid. The history of this town dates back to 192 B.C. which became a UNESCO World Heritage site for its rich cultural and historical monuments. Some spots to hit in Toledo are Cathedral of Toledo, Monuments of Greco, Old city wall, the synagogue, San Martin Bridge, and finally the magnificent Alcazar.
An overview of Toledo with River Tagus and Puente de St. Martin

An overview of Toledo with River Tagus and Puente de St. Martin

2. Volterra (Italy): This is a perfect day-trip if you are in Florence or Sienna in Italy. Volterra is one of many walled cities of Toscana and it attracts thousands of tourists every month. Other than its sweeping beauty of its countryside and other small hill-towns, it has those cozy piazzas, like Piazza dei Priori, a roman theater, couple good museums like Alabaster Museum and Pinacoteca Museum, and finally an old baptistery…Santa Maria Assunta Church. To finish off the day, have some gelato from a local store.

Old Town of Volterra, Italy

Old Town of Volterra, Italy

3. Plovdiv (Bulgaria): Dating back to more than 4000 B.C, Plovdiv is one of the oldest towns in whole Europe. The town is very well-preserved and many old buildings, paved streets, fortifications, walls, water-supply, and sewerage survived from its early period. Visit the Virgin Mary Church, St. Dimitar Church, Roman Theater, ancient Stadium of Philippopolis, and Djoumaya Mosque from the 14th century. Plovdiv would make a perfect trip if you are in Sophia and have an extra day to taste the old Bulgaria.

Roman amphitheater from the 1st century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Roman amphitheater from the 1st century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

4. San Marino (San Marino): This is one of the littlest countries in Europe yet it claims to be the world’s oldest republic. San Marino not only  offers impressive views of the surrounding hills, countryside, Adriatic Sea, and Italy, but it also has spectacular historic landmarks for its visitors. If you are in the Tuscany region in Italy, San Marino would be a perfect day-trip from there. Visit the Old Town, 1st Tower – Guaita, Basilica di San Marino, Piazza Publica, and enjoy its great Italian cuisine in any restaurants.

Walking thru the old cobble-stoned alleys of San Marino

Walking thru the old cobble-stoned alleys of San Marino

5. Luxembourg City (Luxembourg): This is probably one of my most favorite capitals to visit in Europe. The history and the beauty of Luxembourg City will truly make your trip a memorable one. Here are some places to see here: Gella Fra Monument, Notre Dame Cathedral, Grand Ducal Palace, Bock Casamates, and finally the whole town. This should be on your top list if you are visiting Belgium…too good to miss.

Walking around the old ruins of Luxemburg (Casamates)

Walking around the old ruins of Luxemburg (Casamates)

6. Valletta (Malta): This is a unique place where rich history, good Mediterranean food, scenic beauty, and colorful atmosphere come together in harmony. Malta’s capital, Valletta, was one of the earliest sites that got listed in UNESCO World Heritage Site for its old world splendor and magnificent Baroque architectures. While in Valletta, make sure to take a boat ride to the unforgettable Islands of Gozo and Comino. But in the city, roam around its old part and enjoy places like, St. John’s Cathedral (and many other old churches), Upper Barracca Garden, National Library of Malta, St. Fort Elmo, and Great Siege Square.

Valletta, Malta -the whole city is A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Valletta, Malta -the whole city is A UNESCO World Heritage Site

7. Dinant (Belgium): Situated by River Meuse, Dinant is a French-speaking (Wallonia) part of Belgium. This is the hometown of Adolphe Sax…the inventor of saxophone that dates back to 800 B.C. Visit the Dinant Citadel (and enjoy stunning view from there), Collegiate Cathedral of Dinant, Saxophone Bridge and River Meuse, and get lost in the old alleys that are packed with local goods and cafes. Another sweet trip if you are ever in Brussels.

Breathtaking view of the city and river from Dinant Citadel in Belgium

Breathtaking view of the city and river from Dinant Citadel in Belgium

 

 

Christmas in Peacock Lane

After living in Portland, OR, for many years, I finally got to visit this place that becomes magical during the holiday season. It’s in a neighborhood in the SE Portland which becomes pedestrian only area for the last two weeks of every December.

This is an old Portland tradition since 1920. Every house here are fully decorated with extravagant Christmas lightnings and ornaments. My girls had a blast walking in front of every house and checking out all the different themes and dazzling scenes.

The event is absolutely free, but we had to park couple blocks away from Peacock Lane. It does get crowded pretty quickly as soon as it gets dark.

Check out the pictures of Peacock Lane in Portland, Oregon…hope you like them.

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Painted Hills in Central Oregon

PAINTED HILLS STATE PARK (CENTRAL OREGON):  The yellow, gold, black, red, and orange colors of Painted Hills are some of the stunning works of mother nature and is one of the most unique geological attractions in Central Oregon. It reveals millions of years of history in the layers of mountains. Through the rugged landscapes of Central Oregon, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument near Mitchell, Oregon is nature’s one of the miracle. And Painted Hills in John Day is one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon. The geographical beauty and colorful layers of these eroded hills are educational for kids and fun for adults to hike the small trails. All the trails are short and easy for anyone and offer spectacular view of the hills.

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Driving to Painted Hills in John Day National Monument…one of the most unique geographical attractions in Central Oregon

We were there with few family friends during the kids’ spring break, in end of the March, 2016. We stayed in Bend for two full days. 1st day was spent by driving around in our car (make sure to have sufficient engine oil) and going to Old Bend and The High Desert Museum and 2nd day was for Painted Hills State Park and Smith Rock State Park. The weather was nice, without any rain. But summer would probably be the best time to explore this place. We wanted to go to Newbury Volcanic Monument and Lava River Cave too, but both were closed and don’t usually open until April.

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Colors and layers of Painted Hills in Central Oregon

Painted Hills is not that big area and just took us couple hours to stroll and enjoy the colors of the small hills. If you are a passionate photographer, I would recommend to go there during sunrise or sunset for gorgeous colors combinations. It is out in the middle of nowhere…there is a toilette facility near the entrance but no restaurants or vending machines. There is no park entrance fee.

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Painted Hills near Bend…one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon

Vancouver, British Columbia and Its Surroundings

VANCOUVER, B.C.: Vancouver is considered as one of the top destinations in Canada for its variations of activities for its guests, climate, food, shopping, culture, and thriving city life. While Vancouver Downtown has a vibrant and energetic vibe, its green spaces and big parks within the city are place to enjoy quiet city view from afar. Only couple hours from downtown, you can enjoy snow-capped mountains, ocean sides, and some outdoor adventurous destinations. This is where local Canadians go to play and enjoy during the winter months.

TIME of TRAVEL: It was our second time in Vancouver. This time we were there with another family during the Memorial Day weekend in May, 2015. Though it was closer to summer, we had sweaters and jackets for our trips to mountains. It gets very cold and windy up there, therefore, always wise to be prepare with coats and boots, especially for the kids.

EATING and SHOPPING: Vancouver is known to be very diverse when it comes to food. Downtown Vancouver and its surroundings are packed with tons of international and local cuisines. We had Middle Eastern, Indian, Bangladeshi, and fast food (Nandos) during our visit. You may find one whole street is known for one type of food and the next block has another type of restaurants. For shopping, downtown Vancouver is an ultimate paradise with lots of brand name stores and local boutique shops.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We had 2 full days to enjoy Vancouver. We started early and stayed out late. Especially, if you are planning to go to the mountains, plan ahead and start driving before the traffic starts or wait until late morning.

1) GROUSE MOUNTAIN: We visited Grouse Mountain and Stanley Park on our first day in Vancouver. Also known as the Peak of Vancouver, Grouse Mountain is a perfect getaway from the chaos of city life. Grouse Mountain gives a beautiful view of whole Vancouver, Stanley Park, and English Bay.

 

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On top of Grouse Mountain on a foggy day near Vancouver, Canada

It was very foggy the day we were there which made it even more exciting. We saw the Lumberjack Show, Birds in Motion, and electric chair ride that took us 1100 meter high to Peak Chalet. Some other activities visitors can do up in the Grouse Mountain are Skyride, Mountain Disc Golf, Mountain Ziplines, Helicopter Tours, Theater in the Sky, Grizzly Bear Cave, and lots more. Usually the shows go on for the whole day with multiple show times but check the time table for each show to manage your time wisely here.

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“Birds in Motion” show on top of Grouse Mountain near Vancouver, Canada

We took a family package called, “Peak Experience” for 2 adults and 2 kids for $122 but there were other bundles to choose from depending on which mood you are in. “Peak Experience” included Alpine Experience and Peak Chair ride. You can find snack bars and restaurants up in the Grouse Mountain.

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Skyride on top of Grouse Mountain near Vancouver, Canada

2) STANLEY PARK: By the time we came back to city and drove to Stanley Park, it was already dark. Stanley Park is another getaway within the city. Lush gardens, beautiful English Bay, strolling paths, and green meadows are here to welcome anyone year round. We stopped at a place where we could get a view of the famous Lion Gate Bridge, beautifully lit at night. Lastly, stopped by one side English Bay from where you can see the dazzling lights of the Vancouver on the other side of the water.

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View of Lion Gate Bridge from Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada

Stanley Bay has an aquarium, few restaurants, old totem poles here and there. You can easily spend half a day or more in this park.

 

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Vancouver skyline on the other side of English Bay as seen from Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada

3) WHISTLER VILLAGE CENTER: Our second day started by another mountain area of Vancouver. Whistler Village Center reminded me of Chamonix in Mont Blanc, France. This is a very European style pedestrian only village center with shops, live music, pubs, galleries, gelato bars, and outdoor/indoor restaurants surrounded by mountains. Many tourists come here for winter sports or summer hiking in nearby mountains.

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Whistler Village Center near Vancouver, Canada…loved this place for its European touch and look

Village Square and the Mountain Square are some of the pretty places to stop by. Mountain Square is where you can get cable car to go to top. Again, beautiful and artistic buildings here gave me the feeling of Europe. Town Plaza is another fantastic place to shop for winter gears or just to chill.

4) RAINBOW PARK: From the Whistler Village Center, we drove about 45 minutes or an hour to come to this park. There is a beautiful big lake and small mountain/hill on the other side of the lake. With some public facilities, this is a pretty family-oriented park for strolling, jogging, picnic, or just chilling.

 

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Rainbow Park near Whistler Village Center in Vancouver, Canada

5) QUEEN ELIZABETH PARK: This was our last spot in Vancouver during this trip and we made it to this park on the 3rd day, before our drive towards Portland. This looked more like a beautifully decorated garden to me. Many different species of trees and flowers adorn this place. Visit the Japanese Garden and Rose Garden while here. It is a big park and very nicely maintained. We spent couple hours here but you would probably need half a day to explore every corner of this garden.

 

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Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver, Canada

It is free to enter the park and has a parking lot near the entrance. Bloede Conservatory inside the park requires a ticket to enter. The conservatory houses a typical rainforest, tropical birds, and plants inside a big white dome.

Masaya and Granada in Nicaragua

MASAYA and GRANADA, NICARAGUA: While Masaya is a natural beauty with volcanic rocks, crater, and mountains, Granada is a historic town with beautiful churches, colonial style architecture, and good food. Both are famous destinations and must-sees of Nicaragua.

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The historic city of Granada in Nicaragua…this is the oldest colonial town in the western hemisphere of the Americas or the first European city in the mainland America

How about some facts now? Nicaragua is the 3rd largest country in Central America. The country got its independence in 1821. By the time Civil War ended here in 1990, the country lost about 25,000 of its people. It had its first democratic election in 1990. Currently, Nicaragua is working on their own canal, Nicaragua Lock, to compete with its neighboring Panama Canal. It’s a $50 billion project by a Chinese company which should be finished in 5 years. Ruben Dario is the most famous poet of Nicaragua and you will see his statues and monuments in many places. 80% tourists of this country come from the U.S.A. … no surprise there.

Nicaraguan volcanoes form part of what is called the “Pacific Ring (or Belt) of Fire”. “Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve” is a natural preserve in Granada, 41km from Managua, where we didn’t make a visit but highly recommended. Mombacho invites visitors to enjoy its beauty, rich history, and wonderful views. The preserve contains the only cloud forest on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua. Hikers will find a great variety of birds and spectacular overlooks of Lake Nicaragua. The volcano is not currently active, but its fumaroles indicates that this giant’s heart of fire is still alive. One of the biggest earthquakes in Nicaragua was in 1972 that took 22,000 lives.

We booked Masaya and Granada day trip thru viator.com. It was a private tour with a professional guide. We were picked up from our hotel in the morning and were dropped off in the evening.

TIME of TRAVEL: After visiting El Salvador, Panama, and Costa Rica, Nicaragua concluded our Central America tour which we took back in March, 2015. We had two days to spare before returning to our home in Oregon. First day was well spent in Managua and last day was for Masaya and Granada. It was pretty hot and humid, but I guess not as bad as El Salvador. Still it’s always better to be prepared with lots of sunscreens, hats, comfortable shoes, and plenty of water bottle when you come to this region around this time of the year.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Holiday Inn Managua – Convention in Managua. This was a beautiful hotel with fancy restaurant, big swimming pool, nice rooms, and friendly service. First day, our hotel concierge arranged a cab-ride around the capital for few hours. The cost was $50 or 1350 NIC for this private tour in a cab. The hotel location was nice but not too close to the city center.

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Breakfast in our hotel in Managua, Nicaragua

EATING and SHOPPING: After visiting Masaya, we had lunch in the center of Granada. “El Zguan” is a traditional Nicaraguan restaurant that serves typical local dishes in a very cozy sitting arrangements. They have great service and menu. I had tortilla soup for lunch with some fresh fruit juice. Try ceviche when you are in this region and other seafood and pasta. Overall, cuisine in Granada is very Moorish style, especially when it comes to kebabs.

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A hearty lunch in Granada, Nicaragua

Nicaragua offers variety of souvenirs to its guests. Hand-made clay pots, hammocks, wood-carvings are just to name some. Masaya and its surrounding artisan villages are known for their local traditions. They are very reasonably priced. You can bargain but every dollar you spend here, know that you are helping a family and to keep their culture and heritage alive.

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Pottery collections in San Juan de Oriente near Granada, Nicaragua

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: Nicaragua has total of 50 volcanos and out of that, 7 are active. So, it will be unthinkable to leave the country without seeing a volcanic sight. Our tour started with a visit to Masaya.

1)     MASAYA: Also known as “City of Flower”, the town of Masaya is about 30km from the capitol Managua. Tourists mainly come here to visit the volcano, Parque Nacionale Volcan Masaya or Masaya Volcano National Park, from which the city got its name from. This is Nicaragua’s first national park, established in 1979. The park also serves as a memoir for the revolutionists who were thrown in the crater from helicopters/planes while they were still alive.

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The first holy-cross of Nicaragua near Crater Santiago from 1529 A.D. built by the Spaniards

Masaya Volcano National Park, is a popular tourist site and one of the excellent parks of Nicaragua, featuring a smoking volcano. It is the most active volcano in the region. Masaya visitor center displays some of it historical and geological information and artifacts. The most famous and historical eruption (which was a pyroclastic lava) of the Masaya Volcano happened on March 16, 1772. It emitted an extensive flow of lava during several days, into the lagoon.

We drove by old lava flows while approaching the volcanic site. The guide took us to the visitor center and gave us bit of information on the park and Nicaragua’s other volcanic mountains before arriving to the craters. Visitors can take mule or horse ride or even hike Masaya Volcano to see the craters…just be careful.

 

There are total 5 craters in this area and out of these five craters, 250 meters deep Crater Santiago is still active. The last eruption from this crater was in 2009 with ash and water. Crater Nandiri is still covered with ash. Few vultures were roaming around over our heads for hunt. We saw the first holy-cross near Crater Santiago from 1529 A.D. built by the Spaniards. The national park is situated by Laguna de Masaya. Local villagers refine the lake water for different usages by using volcanic rocks.

 

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Crater Santiago in Masaya Volcano National Park in Nicaragua

From the volcanic park, we made a short stop at Masaya’s handcraft market, Mercado Artisano. This is a good place to get some gift items and souvenirs from Nicaragua. Make sure to bargain with the vendors. I even saw some artists working right outside their stores. Masaya’s handicraft market is well known for its variety of product at reasonable price.

From there we headed towards Nicaragua’s deep crater lake named “Apoyo”. Apoyo Lagoon is another beautiful gem in the Town of Catarina and is a popular attraction in the area. Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve is located about 8km south of the Masaya. Measuring 4 miles wide and over 656 feet deep, this stunning turquoise and crystalline lagoon is the largest crater lagoon and deepest natural well in Nicaragua. It occupies the crater of a volcano that exploded thousands of years ago. Standing here, you can see Mombacho Volcano on the right and Lake Nicaragua on the other side. Sit on one of the benches and enjoy the attractive view. You will find couple rows of souvenir, hand-craft shops and restaurants by the lagoon.

 

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Stunning beauty of Apoyo Lagoon in Masaya, Nicaragua

From Apoyo Lagoon to Granada, we drove by a small artesian village, called San Juan de Orient and made a quick stop in one of its many shops to look/buy some clay potteries and hand-crafts. These are all locally crafted, mostly by women, in this village or nearby places. These are very cheap yet gorgeous gift items to bring back home as memories and you will be supporting many artists and their families in the process.

2)     GRANADA: Granada is a very touristic yet cozy town with colorful colonial-style buildings, mostly dating back to the 16th or 17th century. From Masaya to Granada, it was about 15km drive and from Granada to Managua, it was about 45 km drive. By the shores of Lake Nicaragua, Granada is the oldest colonial town in the western hemisphere of the Americas or the first European city in the mainland America. Founded in 1524, obviously the name comes from Spain’s ancient city Granada. Therefore, lots of Spanish influences are everywhere in this town. Economically and politically, Granada is one of the most important cities of this country. This was also Nicaragua’s first capital, later which moved to Leon, and finally to Managua in 1852. While you are there, visit its colorful and picturesque churches. Mombacho Volcano can be seen from different parts of the town.

Much of Granada’s ancient landmarks were destroyed by the American filibuster William Walker who tried to rule Central America in the mid-1800th. Tourists can still enjoy some of the finest colonial-era architecture and historic churches. Our first stop was to Lake Nicaragua. Entrance was free because of the Easter holiday. This is a nice place for strolling or enjoying a late afternoon.

 

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Lake Nicaragua in Granada, Nicaragua

From the lake, we drove straight to the city’s downtown. The Gunpowder Fortress, built in 1748, could have been our second stop, but it was closed. Another site we couldn’t go in, was Church of Xalteva. The church was burned down by William Walker and was later restored in 1856. It was closed to the publics during our visit. We then walked to Iglesia de la Merced, a Baroque and Neo-Classical designed church with a simple altar. Built in the 17th century, this church’s façade and tower were also destroyed by William Walker. After restoration, visitors now can climb the tower for 25 NIC.

Next stop was San Francisco Church and Convent. This was William Walker’s stable at one point. It is the first church in Granada from 1529 and was built by the Spaniards. Although it’s not an active church, its vast collection of indigenous artifacts and basalt stone statues from Onetepe Island and serene cloister attract many visitors every year. Some of those items in display here are 800 years old and many are from B.C. era. Majestic Mombacho Volcano can be seen from here while standing on the terrace. It’s $1 to enter the museum and the venue is also used for events and weddings.

 

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View of Mombacho Volcano from San Francisco Church and Convent in Granada, Nicaragua

We then walked thru some small streets of Granada to come to House of the 3 Worlds. This is an art and music workshop place. Unlike a gallery, this is where artists come and work, give workshops, and sell their arts directly. We saw artists at work, chilling and chatting with other like-minded people. “Radio Volcano” is also stationed here.  The location hosts weddings and we saw caterers getting ready for a wedding for that evening.

 

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A wedding preparation in House of the 3 World in Granada, Nicaragua

On the other side of House of the 3 Worlds is Granada’s most popular spot, Plaza de la Independencia. The square is lined with mesmerizing old and colorful Colonial style buildings, shops, cafes, and food vendors. This is a collision of different architectural era and style from Classical Spanish (Palace of Music), Neo-Classical Baroque, and New Orleans (House of Bishop).  An obelisk and a beautiful fountain from 1925 Funete de la Ninos are couple of structures that adorn this hustling and noisy (in a good way) place.

Granada Cathedral in Plaza de la Independencia is a beautiful Neo-Classic Baroque architecture with a dome and two towers. It is simple but big. Visit the small chapels and the statues while in this cathedral.

 

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Plaza de la Independencia and Granada Cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua

Last spot in Granada was Iglesia Maria Auxiliadora which was built in the beginning of the 17th century. It is the most beautiful church in this city or probably in whole Nicaragua. With its Gothic exterior and Moorish interior, this Catholic church is only its kind in this country. It is small in size but anyone would appreciate its gorgeous wood-curved alter, intriguing ceiling, and sophisticated arches.

 

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