Category Archives: Travel

New York City

I remember watching an interview with Sarah Jessica Parker years ago, at the height of her Sex and the City fame. She was discussing the show, and she said something to the effect of “Manhattan is the fifth cast member.” Her point was that the city itself has so much life and energy, that it was more than just a backdrop for the show – it acted as another lead character with its own spirit and personality.

There’s just something about this city. I, like so many others around the world, always dreamed of living in New York City. As I wrote in my blog post “Kid-Friendly NYC in the Winter,” I grew up a theater kid who hoped to be on Broadway one day, until I headed off to college and chose a much more “practical” (and less exciting) career. But my chosen career path eventually brought me to NYC for graduate school in my early twenties, and I am forever grateful for the time I got to spend in The City That Never Sleeps.

My husband Jack loves New York just as much as I do, and he surprised me with a four-day jaunt to Manhattan a few weeks ago for my belated birthday (I’m squeezing all the celebrations I can out of my big 3-5!) We flew out on a red-eye on a Wednesday night and came back the following Monday in the early evening. I definitely could have stayed longer, but this was just the right amount of time to see and taste all of the top items on our list.

Me and Jack, happy as clams at dinner on the Lower East Side with old friends
Me and Jack, happy as clams at dinner with friends on the Lower East Side

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Packing 101

Last year I had the good fortune of spending over a month in Europe. This trip consisted of ten days of solo travel through Madrid and Salamanca, a week with a girlfriend in Barcelona, and two weeks in Italy with my husband Jack. As this epic journey drew closer, one of my coworkers (who is originally from Austria) asked me what type of travel bag I planned to bring. I told her that I assumed I would have to bring a large suitcase since I was going to be gone for so long, visiting a variety of locations and climates. However, as an experienced solo traveler, she strongly advised me to pack light: “The last thing you want is to be struggling alone with a heavy bag on a crowded European train.” This terrifying image stayed with me and I was determined to find a way to pack for a month in a carry-on.

I did a ton of research and decided to purchase the Farpoint 55 Travel Backpack from Osprey, offered for $150 on Amazon. I ordered it in S/M (it also comes in M/L) – this was the perfect size for me (I’m 5’4″). Its volume is 55L (3,400 cubic inches), which complies with carry-on standards. The straps are adjustable, so it was easy to get a perfect fit on my body. It also comes with a removable day pack, which was great for hiking and various day trips. I easily fastened a small combination luggage lock to the main compartment zipper so that I could wear it on my back and not stress about getting robbed. I was incredibly pleased with this bag and will continue to use it on my travels.

Me wearing the Osprey backpack – large backpack on my back, day pack in front.

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When Jack and I were planning our trip to Italy last year, we knew we wanted to go somewhere relaxing to rest up before sightseeing in Florence and Rome. We struggled deciding between Lake Como, Piedmont, the Tuscan countryside, Cinque Terre, and the Amalfi Coast. After much debate, we ultimately decided on the Amalfi Coast, and we couldn’t have been happier with our decision. We still hope to visit the other spots on our list some day, but Amalfi ended up being the perfect place to start our Italian holiday.

Once we agreed on Amalfi, we then had to choose which city or town to stay in. We considered staying in Naples, as there is a Starwood hotel there that caught our eye. But we hadn’t heard great things about Naples (lots of crime, apparently zero parks – though the infamous pizza is supposed to be incredible), and we didn’t want to spend our time there taking day trips to the towns we’d rather be staying in. Praiano was recommended to us by several friends; Praiano is a quiet town on the Amalfi Coast which boasts incredible views of Positano. We also looked into Sorrento, Capri, and the town of Amalfi, but we ultimately decided on Positano.

Magical Positano
Magical Positano

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During Jack and my trip to Italy last summer, we stopped in Florence for three nights. We had originally planned on staying there for five nights, but we shaved two nights off our stay to allow for dinner at Osteria Francescana in Modena (hope to write about that incredible dining experience soon…) Three nights was just enough time to get a great taste of Florence (or “Firenze,” as the Italians call it) – the amazing food, history, art, and fashion – and we are already dreaming about returning in the near future.

We arrived in Florence after spending five nights on the Amalfi Coast, and the first thing we noticed was how HOT it was along the Arno (side note: I swear the name of this Florentine river comes up in the “easy” Monday New York Times crossword more than almost any other word…) We were there in early June, but we were told the weather was “August weather” (it was in the 90’s Fahrenheit). As you can imagine, this fair-skinned San Francisco lady doesn’t fare too well in hot weather. The days were long and it really didn’t start to cool down until 8 or 9pm, so this definitely affected my time in Florence. But we survived the heat by eating lots of gelato and taking midday naps at our air-conditioned hotel to recharge for the cooler evenings.

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Jack and I spent five nights in Rome last June and we absolutely fell in love with the Eternal City. We enjoyed walking along the cobblestone streets, taking in the history and architecture, feeling the energy of the city, and eating the amazing food. However, we had heard mixed reviews before our trip; most of our friends are fans, but others complained that Rome was too crowded and touristy. After experiencing the city first hand at the peak of travel season, I can see where one could come to either conclusion. My theory about the tourists in Rome is as follows: every major city is going to have sites that are crowded with tourists (think Times Square in NYC), but in Rome, these sites are spread throughout the city because they are ancient sites, rather than built around a city center. So, you’ll find yourself having a romantic stroll in a quaint Roman neighborhood such as Monti, with great restaurants, cafés, and shops, then – wham! – you turn a corner and you’re staring at the Colosseum, and there are tourists everywhere,  locals selling cheap souvenirs, and restaurants that post pictures of their food on the menu. Once Jack and I figured this out, we were much less overwhelmed by the city, and we learned to just duck back down a quiet street when we didn’t feel like battling the tourists at the popular sites.

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Whenever Jack and I travel to L.A. to visit his family, we always share a large family-style meal at Carousel Restaurant in Glendale. Jack’s family is of Armenian descent, spending much of their life in Beirut before they moved to Southern California when Jack was a child. They tell me that Carousel is the best, most-authentic Lebanese restaurant in the L.A. area. I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but I will say that it serves incredible food.

Carousel has two locations, one in Hollywood and one in Glendale. I’ve only been to the Glendale location, and it is a large airy space with indoor and outdoor seating. It is perfect for large groups, especially since the food is designed to be shared. The walls are decorated with ancient swords and trinkets from the Middle East, as well as photos of Lebanon.

Lebanese Meza: sarma, hammos, pickled beets, carrots, cheese, cucumber, olives, tabbuleh, muhammara, cabbage salad.

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Kid-Friendly NYC in the Winter

Central Park. This photo was taken by my dad when he and my mom visited me in NYC for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates exhibit (February, 2004).

I have always had a special place in my heart for New York City. Most people who met me after 1998 are not aware that I once seriously wanted to become a Broadway actress when I “grew up.” However, once that dream faded away, I still longed to one day move to NYC. This wish came true in my early 20’s when I was accepted to graduate school in Manhattan. I stayed in NYC for 2 1/2 fabulous years, which to this day remain some of the most special years of my life.

But, like Los Angeles, it has been many years since I lived in NYC and I am very much out of the loop when it comes to food, entertainment, and activities. Furthermore, I have zero experience with kids in the Big Apple. Which is why, when my friend Holly mentioned that she was spending a week in NYC with her husband and two small children over the holidays, I reached out to my New York friends for some recommendations on kid-friendly activities during the winter months. Here are their recommendations:

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L.A.’s Best Restaurants

Jack and I recently traveled to Los Angeles to spend the holidays with his family. Jack grew up in L.A. and I went to college there, but these days we are very out of the loop when it comes to restaurants in the area. So, as I’ve been known to do, I reached out to my friends and family via Facebook to get their recommendations for restaurants in the area. We received a lengthy list of dining spots, from casual to fancy, which I thought I’d share with you here.

Lebanese Meza at Carousel in Glendale

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Odys + Penelope

Whenever I plan a trip, I like to reach out to my friends and family to get their thoughts on restaurants, hotels, and activities in the area. I don’t really have the patience for weeding through guide books or the internet to find the best spots, and I find it so much more efficient (and fun!) to rely on my network of well-traveled friends and loved ones. This is why, when Jack and I recently spent the holidays with his family in Los Angeles, I immediately turned to Facebook for advice on where to eat. We received a plethora of recommendations, all of which looked incredibly delicious. We ultimately decided to go with Odys + Penelope, but I will file away the other restaurants for future visits, as they all sounded fantastic.

Odys + Penelope was recommended by our friend Lauren, who has lived in the LA area for several years now with her husband and two boys. She definitely knows and appreciates food, and she owns the sinfully decadent gluten-free baked goods company BossyCakes. So, when she described Odys + Penelope as her “number one” restaurant in LA, we were intrigued. We did a little research and discovered that O+P sounded right up our alley, as the space is rustic and urban, with an approachable menu using local/seasonal ingredients and good quality meats, poultry, and seafood.

Well organized bar over exposed brick wall at Odys + Penelope

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When Jack and I were planning our trip to Italy earlier this year, I reached out to my friends on Facebook and asked for recommendations. My friend Marc forwarded my post to his friend Donna, who had just returned from a trip to Italy. Donna (whom I have never met) generously emailed me a two-paged document full of tips for Rome and the Amalfi Coast; this list included Roscioli, a restaurant just south of Campo de’ Fiori in central Rome.

In her description, Donna wrote: “Wine and Food Pairing at Roscioli’s – you have to do this if you love wine! I found out about this from Anthony Bourdain and we ended up shipping a few cases of food and wine back. One of the best food and wine pairings I’ve ever had. But be forewarned: he doesn’t like American wines. Haha! But it doesn’t matter. The wines he pours are phenomenal, better than most American wines I’ve had.”

Roscioli actually has several different locations and functions: Salumeria Roscioli (the main restaurant and salumeria), Rimessa Roscioli (wine and food tasting space that Donna recommended), and Antico Forno Roscioli (the Italian bakery). We were not aware of these distinct spots, so when we asked our hotel concierge to book us a table at Roscioli, he assumed we meant the restaurant, rather than the wine tasting. But, as often happens in life, the mix-up was pure serendipity, and our meal at Salumeria Roscioli ended up being one of the best meals we had in Italy.

Entrance to Roscioli. Specialty foods and wine on display for purchase.

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