Location, location, location. Especially when I am travelling by myself, I like to be central. I also have been trying to be better and better about money these days and not spending an arm and a leg on hotels, even if they do offer slippers, fluffy pillows, and nice sheets. I’ve been trying to stick with a sub-$250 USD per night budget. #FirstWorldProblems, I know. But $250 a night doesn’t go very far in a lot of cities these days. In Venice, it got me Hotel dell’Opera, a centrally located sweet but slightly worn hotel, with no restaurant, no bar, and no communal areas. Although there was a tiny rooftop terrace with a honesty bar — 4 euros for prosecco — so that was nice.
The bed was firm, the pillows were thin, and I couldn’t figure out how to take a shower in the low-ceiling bathroom without sitting down or hitting my head while standing up. The wifi was the type that forces you to login each time you want to use it, which is my least favorite kind of wifi.
But the view from the front door of the hotel was pretty enchanting…right on a canal…and all day long, singing gondoliers and accordion-playing gondoliers would go floating by. I don’t care how touristy you may think that is…it’s pretty amazing. Also, there was a serviceable breakfast with friendly service (when you could find the gal) all included in the price. And,well, the hotel was about a 4 minute walk from Piazza San Marco, so there was that…
I think I mentioned in a previous post that next time I’m in Venice — because there will be a next time — I think I will stay on the mainland, where I’m sure my dollar will go further and where there will be fewer tourists and better, more local food. So until next time, Venice…
My cousin — who will forever be eight in my mind — got married in New York in June. It was a great excuse to spend some time in Manhattan — this would be a real New York wedding, attended by all New Yorkers, smack dab in the middle of the city.
Because I wasn’t quite sure what would all be involved in the wedding, I wanted to stay close to the venue, a catering hall and steakhouse across the street from the Waldorf Astoria. I also knew that because I would be in New York for over a week, I didn’t want to break the bank. New York has a way of adding up — especially after all the eating and drinking — so I was already planning on staying with my brother in Astoria for a few nights. After a bunch of comparison shopping, I settled on The Benjamin on 50th and Lexington, just a two block walk from where the wedding would take place.
Thanks to all those years in financial services, when I give myself a budget, I stick with it! I used some Expedia points that I’ve had hanging around for a while and got my two night-stay down from $584.60 to $506.94 or $253.47 a night. If you don’t know about Expedia points, you can essentially earn up to 2 Expedia Rewards Point per $1 spent on flights, hotels, activities, and packages that include a hotel. Then you can redeem those points for flights and hotels on Expedia. The great thing is that you can still totally “double dip” and still earn frequent flyer miles and hotel points on your stays too. (Note that I use my points through my US Expedia account. I believe the UK program is different and involves Nectar points but don’t quote me.)
My brother dropped me off at the hotel and the staff couldn’t have been lovelier. Check-in was efficient and friendly. The hotel lobby is super small and not a place to linger so I quickly headed up to my room.
The room had a microwave, which I thought was a great touch, and one of the most fully-stocked minibars I’ve ever seen. Later in the day, I popped out to Duane Reade — who doesn’t love an American pharmacy — for microwave popcorn (pun fully intended) so I could have a little snack after the wedding festivities. For some reason, I spend a lot of time in Duane Reades when I am in New York. Standard shopping list: Secret deodorant; Gillette razor blades (they are much cheaper in the US); People and US magazines, maybe InStyle too; Twizzlers; big fat tubes of Colgate toothpaste; Ziploc bags in all sizes (!!!); Pond’s Cold Cream (Super cheap and I love it); Noxema (again, super cheap but I love it); Tylenol PM (jet lag cure); tortillas (I’m serious); and maybe, just maybe if I feel like risking glass jars in my suitcase, a few jars of Pace Picante Sauce — yum.
The Verdict: The hotel restaurant at The Benjamin as nothing to write home about — my ceasar salad was distinctly unmemorable — and the hotel’s elevators were tiled like showers, which was a little odd. But the bell staff were some of the friendliest I’ve ever met and the wifi was free and plentiful. All in all, The Benjamin is a sweet little hotel in a convenient location. I recommend it.
The other week, I had to go to Austin, Texas for work. Because it was my birthday and a friend of mine was in town from Chicago for the weekend, I booked two hotels: a fun hotel to kick things off, and then the work hotel because I had to.
It’s hard not to have expectations when you check into a hotel. Let’s play a game. If I I say “brand new Kimpton hotel,” what do you think? It’s not hard. You think “brand new” and “Kimpton” (they of the free cocktail parties every evening at 5 pm as well as the leopard print robes). You probably get a teeny bit excited.
Now if I say “AT&T Executive Education Center on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin,” don’t you just want to yawn and change the channel? Who wants to stay at an Executive Education Center? BORING.
But as your parents probably told you growing up, never ever ever judge a book by its cover. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t stay at the Hotel Van Zandt, the brand new Kimpton in Austin, Texas. While the place was Instagram-worthy, the staff were poorly trained and a bit all over the place — from the bellboy to room service to the front desk. My stay was hard work, which is the last thing you want when you are traveling. Compare that to the AT&T Executive Education Center and, well, there is no comparison.
Things started off well at the Hotel Van Zandt. I arrived just when the happy hour was in full swing, and was quickly offered a glass of wine to take up to my room. Great! But then the bell boy did that thing that hotels are not supposed to do. He asked me for my room number. I know the drill in hotels…staff are never supposed to say your room number out loud. So I showed him my hotel room key, and then he proceed to loudly announce my room number for anyone in the vicinity of the hotel lifts to hear. As a female traveling alone, this just didn’t jive with me. Training, people. Training.
Contrast this with my check-in at the AT&T Executive Education Center. Bellhop Larry asked to see my room key folder. I showed it to him, he nodded. That was all. I said something like “Larry, thank you for not announcing my room number for any and all to hear” and Larry quickly responded, “Oh no, we’re never supposed to do that. That’s the first law of working as a bellhop.”
Some of you might be shaking your heads and asking me why I am making such a big deal about this. It comes down to price. I paid a lot more for the Hotel Van Zandt than the AT&T Center, and at that Kimpton-level, I expect certain behaviors. I’ve also staying in quite a few Kimptons over the years. And well, it wasn’t just this one incident in Austin. It was a string of incidents.
Moving on…the hotel restaurant. At Hotel Van Zandt, I had to wave my arms around to get my server’s attention and then my food took forever to arrive and be removed afterwards. At The AT&T Executive Education Center, it was like I was the restaurant’s only patron. I was graciously tended to and treated like an old friend.
Lastly…check-out. At the AT&T Executive Education Center, they seemed genuinely sad to see me go, they helped me with my luggage, and patiently waited for me as I changed for my flight. At the Hotel Van Zandt, I kinda got in a fight with the check-out desk! My room service bill the night before had been incorrect, and room service promised me “Don’t worry, it will all be taken care of when you check out.” I’m always wary of these sorts of promises, and of course it wasn’t taken care of when I checked out. The check-out person had a little attitude about my request that the item be removed — we’re talking like $18 here people — and told me they would need to “investigate” and that the finance team was all “in a meeting.” I totally understand that they needed to confirm it, but it was all in the delivery. Then, I had to keep spelling my surname and the check-out person totally wasn’t listening and kept getting it wrong, to which I would say politely, “No please, slow down. Let me spell it again.” And we ended up in a vicious cycle of me spelling, the check-out person misspelling, me asking them to slow down, them insisting they “had it,” grrrrr.
So in this case, service broke my experience with the Hotel Van Zandt. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth and no desire to return. But the AT&T Executive Education Center? I will gladly return anytime!
Has a hotel service experience ever ruined your stay at an otherwise wonderful property? Please tell me I’m not alone!
Sofia was a surprise. The wifi is AMAZING. It’s everywhere, and it’s fast. I mean, really fast. Bulgaria ranks at the 20th position in the global Net Index Explorer for broadband internet accessibility and speed. The average download speed in Bulgaria is 33.5 Mbps and the average upload speed is 22.8 Mbps. Apparently, the main reason for the good internet speed in Bulgaria is the fragmentation and competitiveness of the ISP sector in the country.
Also surprising? Besides for all the copious amounts of wine — did you know that Winston Churchill’s favorite wine was Bulgarian? — it was the way Bulgarians nod their heads yes. I had heard about this but never seen it live in the flesh. It’s a unique side-to-side-low-swinging movement that cracked me up each and every time. (Sorry, Bulgarians.)
I had a delightful time in Sofia and the surrounding areas. So will you! Here are my recommendations on where to sleep, eat and explore.
Stay at Arena di Serdica. Located about a 10 minute walk from Serdica metro station, this hotel had great wifi connectivity, a fantastically magical mattress — The Magniflex — and tasty if basic food in the two restaurants. Ah, and Roman ruins in the basement. The only thing I didn’t like about this place was the chaos at breakfast. Uncleared tables, staff arguing with customers…all a little crazy. But the price was right, the bathrooms were huge, and the location — just down a flight of stairs from the National Art Gallery — was great. Visit the Arena di Serdica website. Note the hotel calls itself 5 stars but I’d say more 4-ish.
Wine and Dine at Grape Central. One of my tour guides sent me here when I asked where I could try Bulgarian wines. I ended up visiting during lunch so I only had a glass of Bulgarian Chardonnay, but I liked the vibe and the food. My potato pancakes with olives and green salad were just what I needed after a long morning of slogging around Sofia. Carbs, people. Carbs. Also good? The decent wifi connection. Visit the Grape Central website.
Visit the Central Market. This is one of the neatest, tidiest food markets I have ever visited. All very chill. I wish I had had a tour guide to show me around and tell me what to try. Instead, I just ogled the display cases. Next time around, I’ll come here for snacks for a picnic. There are a number of small bakeries and a few wine shops, along with fruit, veg and butcher stands.
Take the Sofia Food & Culture Tour: Truth: I booked this tour because it contained the word “food.” And it did have some food — a shopska salad (the national salad of Bulgaria — tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh cheese) and some charcuterie — but it wasn’t the tasting that I expected. During our 3.5 hour meander, I think my tour guide got a little annoyed with me asking, “So is there food at the next stop?” Because I was STARVING. I had purposefully had a very light breakfast and skipped lunch in preparation of this tour. While our guide was amazingly informative about all things Sofia in an amazingly detailed, detailed way, the tour didn’t live up to my food expectations. If you’re in it for the history, you’ll get a lot of that for sure. But don’t go hungry! Check out this tour on Viator.
Hang out on Vitosha Boulevard: Downtown Sofia is refreshingly pedestrian. It’s kind of amazing actually. There’s this huge pedestrian street — Vitosha Boulevard — with a fab view of the mountains, and it’s lined on both sides with cafes and shoe shops. (People in Sofia seem to like shoes. There were many shoe shops.) I spent a meandering hour or two here, wandering from one shop to the next as all of Sofia strolled by.
Visit Villa Yustina Winery: I really wanted to see some Bulgarian vineyards so I found Ivaylo online and he drove me out to the lovely Villa Yustina, where we stood on the hillside and admired their young vines. Later, back at the winery, I got to taste a number of their wines. The 4 Seasons range is a good value with a wine — guess what — for every season. I particularly liked Winter — a cheery Cab Franc. I loved my visit to Villa Yustina and gladly would have stayed longer had they had a restaurant or informal cafe. But I was hungry! (Yes, a consistent theme.) Visit Villa Yustina. Also, contact Ivaylo and ask for a tour!
Visit Plovdiv: For lunch, we drove over to Plovdiv and strolled around the picturesque streets and admired the many Roman ruins. (Man, that Roman Empire was huge.) I say stroll jokingly as the tiny roads are made of rough hewn bits of stone and”strolling” is an exercise in balance. After admiring the architecture, we dropped into the picturesque Philippopolis, where we sat out in the garden and enjoyed a lovely salad, mushroom risotto and chocolate ganache cake before heading back to the car for the 1 hr and 45 minute ride back to Sofia. I liked Plovdiv and hope to one day have more time to go back and explore. Check out this tour of Plovdiv on Viator.
I really enjoyed my time in Sofia. I was pleasantly surprised by what a good value it was, how easy it was to get around — the metro is fab — and how friendly the people are. If you’re looking for a quick weekend getaway, this is it!
Ah, points runs. Last year, I hit Athens and Helsinki in order to secure my BA Silver Status. This year, I decided on Bucharest to push me over the points barrier. I’d never been to Romania before and besides for my points run, I was also aiming to hit a new country so I could bring my total number of countries visited thus far in my life to 49. 49! (Thank you, TripAdvisor, for helping me keep track of this milestone.)
I knew very little about Romania and Bucharest going in. I mean, I knew about gypsies but if there’s anything I learned during my time in Bucharest it’s…DON’T MENTION THE GYPSIES. Depending on who you ask, the Roma make up just 2 to 10% of the Romanian population. (Since returning from Bucharest, I’ve done some online research and 3% seems to be about the right number.) Your average Romanian is not gypsy, and there’s a bit of a perception issue here s so best to just steer clear of the topic altogether.
I had the misfortune of visiting during a few very hot days — 90+ degrees Fahrenheit in the city — and I had packed for weather forecasts that predicted more like 70. Please someone find me a weather app with correct 10 day forecasts? The heat meant I took lots of breaks and generally just sat around rehydrating in cafes, watching Bucharest go by. I’m okay with sloth.
Here are my tips for Bucharest…
Stay at the Intercontinental
If you want to be in central Bucharest, the Intercontinental is where it’s at. I got a great flight/hotel deal on British Airways, which basically meant that my hotel cost £40 quid a night, which was pretty amazing. The hotel has great views over the city, and the pool at the top of the hotel is perfect for HOT DAYS when you need to cool off. I was very glad to have this pool. Sure, it’s a little bit like 1986 called and wants its hotel back, but it’s still nice.
Take a food tour with Step by Step
I LOVED my food tour with Step by Step. My guide, Alex, was super enthusiastic about her city and showed me some great eats, intertwining the food with culture as the day went on. Later in the day, as I was still walking around town with my eclair box from French Revolution, people actually stopped me and said how jealous they were of my eclair. (Romanians are very chatty, hospitable people and don’t seem to mind talking to strangers.) If I had any regrets, it’s that I didn’t do this tour sooner because it was so enjoyable. Visit the Step by Step website.
Hire a private guide
I hired a guide off of Viator who gave me a very thorough introduction to Bucharest on my first morning. I saw parts of the city that I didn’t see with other guides. We covered a lot of ground and it was a bit exhausting given the heat, but I would still recommend the private guide angle for this very unique and interesting city. It’s pretty affordable, actually. Visit this tour on Viator.
Take a street art tour
I enjoyed my introduction to Bucharest street art with Open Doors. Street art in Bucharest is a bit more political than London street art, but I kinda like that. The first two hours of this tour were really great, but the last hour wasn’t as informative and we just sort of strolled along the streets. Once I saw my hotel off in the distance, I bailed. An interesting tour but it was probably a bad idea to do this on the same day as my private tour guide because there was a bit of overlap and I was just so tired and hot after six hours of walking. Visit this tour on Open Doors.
Visit Peles Castle
I was not really keen on doing this because it meant a two hour drive from Bucharest, but it turned out to be a really cool and unique experience. The castle is absolutely stunningly gorgeous, if a bit over-the-top. The town itself is bit touristy, but still fun.
Do a wine tasting at Casa Vlasia
This was a total surprise. I asked my hotel to organize a wine tasting for me — I’m a big fan of taking advantage of the concierge — and they sent me to Casa Vlasia, about 45 minutes outside of Bucharest. My tasting was led by the charming Resvan, who talked me through the estate’s wines and history. Note that this is a VERY small operation — Two barrells!! Four acres! — but as someone who has done so many large-scale winery tours, this was refreshingly small and intimate. I only wish I had been hungrier as the cheese and meats that Resvan offered — all made on site — were fab. Visit Casa Vlasia.
Stuff your face at Caru Cu Bere
OK, it’s a bit touristy but seriously, Caru cu bere is lovely inside — the woodwork and tilework is gorgeous. Also, the staff is very friendly and wants to make sure you are having a nice time. The set lunch for 20 lei is a TREMENDOUSLY good value — that’s about £3.50 or $5 bucks. Enough food for two very hungry people — a huge plate of polenta with cheese, a salad, Romanian sausages, roasted potatoes, and apple cake. I enjoyed my meal here, even if there were a lot of people taking photographs of the interior while I was eating. (Maybe ask for a table in a corner or something.) The food is good, not great, but the menu is huge and there will be something for everyone. Visit Caru Cu Bere.
Visit Carturesti Carusel
Words cannot describe how gorgeous this bookstore is. It’s a lovely surprise in the touristy old city. I felt instantly calm walking in here. Bucharest is big on bookstores, which I love. Although I also love reading books on my iPad. Let’s hope they survive. Visit Carturesti Carusel.
Drink all the Romanian wine at Dionysos
I found this wine bar my first night in Bucharest — I had planned to check out a few — but I liked it so much here, I scrapped my plans to find others and instead came back again a few nights later. The staff are friendly and informative once you get to chatting with them. They will offer a plate of cheese and meat if you ask. Free wifi and great tunes! Visit Dionysos.
I had a great time in Bucharest. Even though it felt like I was there for a long time, I really only scratched the surface. I hardly got to any museums, barely went out to eat (what’s wrong with me?) and didn’t do any shopping. This means, of course, I am plotting my return.
After some time out in the suburbs with my cousin and her husband, I headed back into the city for the final few nights of my stay. Do you know what I noticed about the New York City subway system? There are barely any escalators and the stairs are very steep. Now of course, London’s underground is much further underground, so escalators are necessary. But the steepness of the stairs? As I schlepped my fairly large suitcase around New York City, I nearly broke both legs a number of times. We are talking stairs that are seriously on a 45 degree angle. London does a better job at planning for volume.
The Viceroy is on W 57th street, just two blocks south of Central Park. There’s a Duane Reade right on the corner in case you need to stock up on essentials. (I always do.) And most importantly, The Viceroy has an awesome rooftop bar with a great view northwards across Central Park.
I liked my room here A LOT. The cabinetry alone was gorgeous. The tilework in the bathroom was also gorgeous. In short, this is a gorgeous, gorgeous hotel, and it smells gorgeous too. (Although there are many people online who complain about the signature scent, I kinda liked it.) Here’s what else I liked and disliked:
What I liked…
I liked the doormen and the chilly blast of AC that greeted you when you stepped within 10 feet of the hotel entrance.
I liked the gym a lot. It is a great, fully equipped hotel gym.
I loved the rooftop bar.
I loved the room decor.
I really loved the location and the proximity to the subway.
What I didn’t like…
I did not get the warm fuzzies from the hotel staff at all, unlike The Thompson where they seemed like hip, interesting people that I’d like to hang out with.
I didn’t like the hotel restaurant. I had a late lunch there one afternoon and my pasta dish was distinctly unmemorable.
I didn’t like the nightclub atmosphere with the separate entrance for the rooftop bar.
All in all though, this was a high quality hotel and I would be delighted to stay here again. I would just make sure I ate elsewhere!
I booked my stay at The Viceroy New York on Booking.com, which is rapidly becoming my new favorite place to book hotels. (The information seems better organized than what you find on Expedia.) This was an all-in price of $285 USD, which again is a great value for Manhattan. Note that this was one of those non-refundable rates.