I love reading negative reviews on Yelp, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes, etc., especially restaurant reviews for places I've enjoyed eating at. A feeling of self-righteousness fills me: well, I had a good experience there. You must have done something wrong, ordered incorrectly, or just plain don't have good taste if you didn't enjoy it. My favorites are things like, "I went to a super popular brunch place on Sunday at 11 am and we had to wait forty-five minutes even though the hostess told us it would be forty minutes!!!! One star!!!" or "There were no healthy options at [restaurant known for its decadent menu options and has all menus available online for preview]. I couldn't eat. One star."
Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe I was hoping for something that doesn't exist. Growing up, Budapest seemed like an exotic bridge between the east and west. In reality, Budapest is decaying, gray grandeur, an ode to a lost empire overlayed by years of communist oppression and the current right-wing fascist government. There was an air of unease and overwhelming tobacco smoke, anti-government graffiti poking its head around the corner. And in between the mildewed and dirty wedding cake of Austro-Hungarian buildings were tour busses and backpackers choking the alleys.
Have a 24 or 48-hour layover in Iceland? Completely jet-lagged from your seven-hour flight and 4 am arrival time, then spend your day wandering around the small, quaint capital of Iceland: Reykjavik. For a city of only 120,000 Reykjavik has plenty to offer tourists even when the weather is crappy. The city is walkable from any neighborhood you would likely be staying in and we found it pleasant even in pouring rain and 30 mph winds. Here are seven things to do, and one place to skip, during your time in Reykjavik. Think of this as not an exhaustive list, but a jumping off point for your own adventures.
Þúfa by Ólöf Nordal
This outdoor art piece was something that we noticed on our first bleary-eyed morning in Reykjavik. A large grass dome at the edge of the harbor, this art piece provides spectacular views of the city and the mountains across the bay. At the top of the dome structure is a small shed for drying fish, and, in our case, a sheep's head.
The Harpa (opera house) and the rest of the Harbor from the Þúfa .By the way, that letter at the beginning is pronounced as a "th."
Reykjavik from the Þúfa.
Drying animal parts aren't creepy at all. Seriously, they would make a lovely addition to more public art pieces. :)
Once the only construction project in Iceland, the Harpa or opera house was completed in 2011 and not without controversy. The building is the most expensive in Iceland which sticks out when you think about how it was built during the economic crisis. Icelanders are still divided about the building, both as a symbol and the actual aesthetics. Personally, I think the genius and beauty of the building is best appreciated from the inside. Maybe that was because the outside was obstructed by an Icelandic conference on emergency and rescue vehicles while I was there.
Beautiful geometric windows and a mirrored ceiling make this building a stunning retreat from the cold outside.
Mult-colored panes make for the world's most modern and pretty glass beehive.
Possibly the most famous building in Reykjavik, the Hallgrímskirkja is the sixth tallest structure in Iceland. It stands out in the skyline and you can see it from almost anywhere in the city. The outside of the church resembles the prow of a Viking ship and appropriately, a statue of Leif Eriksson stands in front of the church. The inside of the church houses an enormous organ, but is otherwise rather spartan especially compared to the grand cathedrals of Europe (it is a Lutheran church, so this makes sense). You should absolutely pay the seven dollars to go to the top of the church; you will get some of the best views in Reykjavik.
The view from Hallgrimskirkja. We went on a day with 50 km/h winds and got blown back from the windows. I'm sure on a nice clear day the views are even better.
The Sun Voyager
Designed by sculptor Jon Gunnar Arnason, the sculpture commemorates the 200th anniversary of Reykjavik. Located down the street from the Harpa, the sculpture depicts a Viking ship and was conceived as a symbol of hope, progress, and freedom. From the pictures I had seen, I thought it was going to be much larger than it was, but is worth checking out on a walk from the Harpa to downtown along the waterfront.
Okay, calling it Tjörnin Lake is redundant since "tjörnin" translates to "pond." This small lake in central Reykjavik is perfect for an anytime of day stroll. Frequented by 40-50 different species of birds, including enormous evil swans, it is an excellent spot for bird watching. At the south part of the lake is Tjarnagarthur, a statue garden. The city developed around the lake and you can spot prominent buildings such as the supreme court, the Reykjavik Art Museum, the National Museum, and the Parliament building. A late afternoon stroll provides excellent lighting on the water.
The Settlement Exhibition 871+/-
Discover the history of Reykjavik at this small exhibit. Home to the oldest human relics in Reykjavik, the exhibit is built around the archaeological site of a longhouse built around 871. The museum features technologically enhanced interactive exhibits such as a touch screen table that provides specific information on each part of the longhouse. Personally, it was not my favorite museum in Iceland (that goes to Viking World) and, like many things in Iceland, it was overpriced (1500 ISK which is around 13.07) for a one room exhibit.
Normally, shopping is not an activity that I look forward to, and I still didn't do much of it in Iceland since the prices are so expensive. However, I did enjoy wandering around Laugavegur and its surrounding streets. Laugavegar is the major shopping street in downtown Reykjavik with many shops for tourists (i.e. at least fifty puffin related stores). If you're looking for famous Icelandic knitwear or puffin related merchandise, then this is the place to go. There's also a number of smaller art galleries and non-puffin related stores. There were several bookstores in the area, which is something that is becoming a novelty in the United States. This is where most of the restaurants in town are located and where you can spot the Wall Poetry from my other post on Reykjavik street art.
These seven tourist spots are just some of the places and attractions you can find in small, but mighty Reykjavik. There are numerous museums, the Grotta lighthouse in Seltjarnes, and the Pearl, but we didn't have a chance to check those out. Well, we went to Grotta but only at night so there were no pictures. Now, onto one place to skip.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum
I have to admit that the Icelandic Phallalogical Museum was on my list of must-dos in Iceland along with the northern lights, hiking on a glacier, and eating an Icelandic hot dog. I was pretty damn excited by the quirky museum dedicated to all things to dick, but like a lot of my early relationships, I was disappointed.
At first, I thought oh cool, enormous whale penis in a jar. That's kind of neat. But after the fourth or fifth hacked-off cock in formaldehyde and the cod-piece made of whale penis skin, I was done. It honestly made me a little queasy and this is coming from the person who looked at every single agent orange aborted fetus at the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam.
I wanted the museum to be cheeky fun but it just felt like someone's creepy basement collection.
With around 120,000 people, Reykjavik would not register as a city in California, but this capital of the North Atlantic nation of Iceland is the country's largest city and cultural hub. At first glance, Reykjavik comes across as a quaint Scandinavian mid-sized town, but looking past the clean Nordic lines and colorful houses, Reykjavik's art scene makes its mark around the city center and outer neighborhoods.
Around almost every corner a mural popped out at me and took me by surprise. Mostly completed in 2015, much of the artwork was for the Wall Poetry for the Iceland Airwaves Festival. You can learn more about the specific artists and artwork at this post from I Heart Reykjavik
Right down the street from our AirBnB in Old Town. Erotic street art on a large scale.
Bender laser beam eyes and a volcano. Found on Laugavegur in downtown Reykjavik.
Intergalactic rainbow unicorn not far from the Reykjavik City Hall in the Old Town area.
I think this one was on the side of the Bergsson RE building in the Harbor.
This was one of my favorites. A girl riding a moth and tearing it apart at the same time. In the Harbor.
The side of a sushi restaurant in the Harbor. The roof had an octopus birthday cake statue.
Side of a house in the Old Town area near our AirBnB.
This is certainly not a lie.
Beer can street art. This was located in the main shopping area of Reykjavik.
Vomit or spitball? In the downtown shopping area of Reykjavik.
Angry chimpanzee holding a streetlight pitchfork. Possibly. In downtown Reykjavik.
Puritan meets gangster.
Stairway to FISH.
I think it says Glacier RWS. Yeah, don't know what that means.
C is for Pineapple. No, that doesn't work.
Very Picasso meets spray can.
Inside look into a downtown Reykjavik building.
I think many American tourists have this misconception that Reykjavik and Iceland are this pristine Nordic fairyland. I was certainly under the impression, from watching such shows as No Reservations, that everything was clean, straight lines and perfectly painted buildings. The empty lots and tagging relieved me in a way.
A piece by the Ugly Brothers from a parking lot. It reminds me of Marvin the Martian, but on acid. A lot of acid.
One of my favorites. It reminds me, most likely mistakenly, of Freyja. It completely wraps around to the front of the building.
Frankenstein vampire. A mash up of 19th century Gothic novels.
A depiction of Fenrir, the son of Loki and Angerboda. What is more metal than street art meets Norse mythology? Love it.
My boyfriend dubbed this one "sad pigeon."
Some pretty birdies.
Creepy child mural in a park.
This is an exhaustive collection of the Wall Poetry of Reykjavik or its street art. I loved walking around the city and finding these around almost every corner. I felt like I was on the hippest treasure hunt.
Awe-struck, staring out the window, Ho Chi Minh City grabbed my attention the way a Saturday night drunken cat fight might: you shouldn't be enamored with it, but god is it mighty fun to watch from the sidelines. Reading travel blogs and guide books, HCMC is a polarizing city: you either love the frenetic, do-what-you-want regardless of safety, beep-beep of motorbikes or you want to run away from the sun beats down heat to the mountain coolness of DaLat. Typically, I don't like cities. They're dirty, crowded, and I can never see the sky. Ho Chi Minh City is all of those things. On paper, I shouldn't like it. But for some reason, this place charmed me. I think it can be summed up in one phrase: the randomness of shit.
You should go to Ho Chi Minh City. You might love it or you might hate it. It is hot. The noise is relentless. And the backpacker district is full of women offering to jerk your boyfriend off. But how different from San Francisco is that? At least, there wasn't someone covered in blood and pus reeking of urine in the bus terminal.
Hands down the best item of food that I ate was in Ho Chi Minh: side of the road dumplings introduced to us by my cousin Jeff, who lives and teaches in Ho Chi Minh City. Food is abundant and cheap everywhere in Viet Nam. Mark Wiens at Migrationology has an excellent guide to the 25 foods to try in Ho Chi Minh City. Bookmark it before you leave or download the free e-book version.
With its lack of people dressed up in colorful costumes decorated with pink stuffed animals, you might come to the conclusion that HCMC lacks good people watching, but one of my favorite things to do was grab an iced coffee (more about that later) and watch people. I watched people exercising at night, processing chicken transactions, making out in parks, playing hackysack with a shuttlecock. It was fantastic. HCMC never lacked for a scene of people doing things that I found absolutely fascinating in its simultaneous mundanity and otherness.
Architecture and Green Spaces
With a blend of French colonial villas, modern steel towers, and manicured green spaces, Ho Chi Minh City's architecture displays the mixed heritage of the largest city in Viet Nam. While Ho Chi Minh City might lack in specific architectural wonders, it's the overall appeal of the 68 floor Bitexco tower next to a decrepit colonial villa and three blocks away a green oasis replete with benches, neon water fixtures, and pagodas.
Specific buildings to check out: Bitexco Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, and Ho Chi Minh City Hall.
I have no pictures to represent one of the best reasons to go to Viet Nam: coffee. There's either a cafe or a woman in a matching floral patterned pant suit selling coffee. My drink of choice Cà phê sữa đá, high octane, coarsely ground coffee iced with a large portion of condensed milk. Oh, and a straw. Always with the straw. If you're not a coffee drinker, Viet Nam is full of delicious juices: watermelon, passion fruit, sugarcane. But really, relax in an air conditioned cafe with wifi and a cup of what might be the best damn coffee of your life.
The motorbike. A vehicle which blazes a exhaust filled line in the sand for travelers and travel bloggers alike. Read any travel guide or blog and you will hear about the horrendous traffic in HCMC. Understandable. Rush hour, crossing a roundabout for the first time and you make it across without an accident, you feel like you should get a gold medal. The trick my cousin taught me: put your hand up, walk slowly and diagonally, don't speed up and only stop if there's a car not a motorbike.
My favorite moments in the city were riding on the back of my cousin's motorbike. I loved threading through traffic, the musical horn notes blasting over the unbiquitous electronic store EDM, and taking in the sight of a guy with his entire family on his bike plus several dogs and possibly a mattress. There is no end to what you can fit on a motorbike.
My Cousin Jeff
Okay. Not everyone is going to want to visit my cousin Jeff, but he's a really awesome guy! After almost five years of not seeing him, this trip was a great time to reconnect. Plus, he was able to show us around a bit. It helps to have someone a bit in the know. Get your own cousin Jeff!
The Randomness of Shit
Asking my boyfriend what I should I include in this post, he said, "experiencing the randomness of shit you see between points a and b." I could not put this more eloquently. Choose a direction, go and see what you find. This really brought some of our best moments in Ho Chi Minh City. Sit down at a random bar or cafe and watch events unfold.
Random moments: coming across this food photo shoot near Ben Thanh Market, people exiting Catholic mass en masse on motorbike, massages at bars, people exercising in parks at 9 pm. It was wonderful to watch it unfold.
As you may have read from previous posts on this blog, I am continually trying to find things in San Jose that make the extravagant cost of rent worth it. Yes, there is the relative proximity to the city an hour's train ride away, and there is also the closeness to the already arrived awesomeness of Oakland, the sunny beaches and cool redwood forests of Santa Cruz, and the quaint coastal beach towns of the San Mateo coast, but what is in San Jose itself? I regularly lament the lack of cool spots in this flat farm sprawl of single family homes turned tech hub. Is it important for a city to be hip and cool? Am I just not looking in the right places, or is the biggest city in the San Francisco Bay dull compared to the hip, shiny products that come out of it? Okay, maybe I'm just feeling a little bitter about my rent. *end rant*
One bright light in this sea of mediocrity and tech mono-culture is San Pedro Square. A great group spot for parties, coffee meet ups, and first dates. Need a place to take your out of town business associate? San Pedro Square is the perfect place in San Jose. With almost twenty different options for food ranging from pizza to pho, there are affordable options for almost everyone. My favorites? Phonomenal Noodle House, Konjoe Burger Bar, and B2 Coffee.
While car-less me can just walk the two miles from my house, those burdened with vehicles can find parking in the multi-level garage across street and validation from a number of businesses inside. I love the long communal wood tables, the outdoor space, and the number of choices available for food. One positive for San Jose: a wide variety of cuisines are available in its innumerable strip malls.
In a rather failed attempt to convince myself that San Jose is not a complete and utter crap hole, I try to find places of interest or beauty. One of these places is the Japanese Friendship Garden. Located in the Kelley Park complex near my favorite disc golf course, this garden features koi ponds, a building for Japanese tea ceremonies, and a public park free of homeless people sleeping in bushes. Overall, it's peaceful and beautiful, except the cost of parking which is $6.
Not far from the Planned Parenthood picketers and the gentrified Rose Garden neighborhood sits the delightfully whacky Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. Started by the Rosicrucian Society, a secret society that makes me think of a mash up of Knights of Columbus lenten fish fries, Free Masons, and John Rhys Davies' character from Indiana Jones, the museum holds the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts west of the Mississippi.
The alabaster white exterior designed to look like a tomb is located across the street from the fanciest middle school I've ever set eyes on. The interior, split into two levels, hosts several major exhibits: life, death, alchemy (of course!), and gods and pharaohs.
While I had seen a number of the reproductions at the British Museum, there were several items that truly caught my nerd fancy: a fake mummified baboon, the reproduction of a tomb with underground passageway and a musical instrument using the Pythagorean scale. Why would I like a "fake" baboon? Well, back in the day the priests realized people would pay good money for mummified animals so they started a trade much like the shifty entrepreneurial monks of the middle ages with Jesus' nail clippings and started selling fake mummified animals. So this "fake" was thousands of years old and reminded me that people have always been duplicitous.
The tomb was unexpected and neat, but my favorite item by far, which I did not take a photo of, was the bells using the Pythagorean scale. The notes were just slightly off as to be unnerving, quite appropriate for the alchemy exhibit.
The museum also houses a planetarium and a research library. The research library holds a collection of rare alchemy and religious texts. Outside they've planted papyrus to surround the obelisks and fountain. People were even doing a photo shoot in one of the gardens.
I've known for years that the museum existed, but I'm still surprised such a place exists in the midst of bail bonds businesses and gilded age mansions turned dental offices.
San Jose has a bad rap for being the hum drum suburban back waste of the bay. It's an out of place central valley farm town catapulted into the twenty first century by the tech industry. Every where I look new Archstone style apartment complexes are being built by overseas real estate investors and rents for run down 60s apartments skyrocket. Yes, San Jose is those things and it's not vibrant, hip or young or artsy, edgy, and diverse. Nor is it stately and rich. It's your suburban mom wearing high waisted jeans buying gossip mags in line at Safeway. But that's only part of it.
While strip malls and generic everything appear to us on the surface, what is also there are the numerous east African markets, Vietnamese noodle shops, and the always bound to be delicious taqueria inside or next to a laundry mat.
One of my favorite San Jose spots is located approximately two miles east of my apartment. On the western boundary of East San Jose is Kelley Park. Home to the well preserved and free San Jose Historic Park, Happy Hollow Zoo, and Japanese Friendship Garden, Kelley Park is bustling in the summer months and the 18 hole disc golf course is at its finest in winter. Want to feed koi and relax in the shade of Japanese maple? You can do that. Want to visit a museum displaying the history of the Vietnamese community in San Jose? That's there too.
But really I just go for the disc golf.
One of my favorite sights in the city are the Sutro Baths. The first time I came across the Sutro Baths my friend and I were exploring the city at night and had driven to the Cliff House. From the Cliff House we were able to see crumbled walls through the fog. Not being familiar with the area, I had no idea what I was looking on. We explored for a few minutes, but didn't get far because it was quite dark, foggy, and there were a few people who looked like they were shooting up. This was my third visit to Sutro Baths and it was an incredibly beautiful day in San Francisco. It was one of those rare days where the entire bay is clear and you can see for miles. We started with the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japantown, watched a taiko performance, and ate takoyaki. After exploring around Fort Mason for a bit, we got an Uber to the Cliff House to see the Camera Obscura.
The Camera Obscura is a free standing room shaped like a giant camera behind the Cliff House restaurant. It costs three dollars per person to go in. It's a cute little tourist attraction that allows you to watch the action on the beach as it happens in real-time. It's pretty trippy to watch seagulls get really close, but after a few minutes I got nauseous.
The Sutro Baths were a large privately owned swimming pool complex near Seal Rock, built in the late 19th century. It is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The pools struggled to stay open for years before burning down in 1966 due to arson. While the facilities were operational, they included: 6 saltwater swimming pools, one freshwater pool, a museum, a large amphitheater, over 500 private dressing rooms, and an ice skating rink.
We explored the ruins, met a 10-month-old German Shepherd puppy, and enjoyed the breezy sunshine.
The Cliff House
The Cliff House is a restaurant perched on a cliff north of Ocean Beach.The building went through five iterations, the most current a 2003 renovation to look like the 1909 building. It houses both a bistro upstairs and a more formal restaurant with a bar downstairs.
You can't beat the views from the downstairs bar and I'm sure the upstairs is just as spectacular. We sat at the corner of the bar where we received excellent service. We treated ourselves to the crab cake appetizer and an order of truffle french fries. The crab cake came with a lightly dressed citrus arugula salad which cut through the fried richness of the crab. The truffle french fries were some of the best fries I've ever had. Though the Cliff House is a pricey establishment, the food is good, service excellent, and the views unbeatable.