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Five Surprisingly Romantic Cities

Some cities you expect to be romantic; Paris has made billions of dollars on that premise alone. Other cities surprise you though with their ability to charm and to help create those special romantic moments between you and your loved one. Here are some of my favorite cities that may not sound romantic, but really are.

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

1. Istanbul – I admit it, I was dubious when I first visited Istanbul. In fact, I doubt we would have gone had it not been a stop on a Mediterranean cruise we took a few years ago. Thank God for that cruise though, otherwise we would have missed out on one of the great, and most romantic, cities of the world. It’s cliche, but it’s true, that Istanbul straddles two cultures, the East and the West. It’s position on the Bosphorus has made it a cultural crossroads attracting traders and wanderers from around the world for millennia. That globalism has made Istanbul an exciting and visually stunning city. One of my favorite romantic activities is to stroll around the Sultanahmet neighborhood, window shop a little before deciding on a cafe to spend the evening enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of this ancient town.

Prague Views - Vltava River

2. Prague – After decades of Communist rule one may incorrectly assume that Prague is littered with drab buildings, dour people and general unpleasantness. The last thing that came to mind before I visited was a lovely city with lots of opportunities for romantic moments, but that’s what I found. Since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Prague has blossomed into not just a nice place to visit, but a hugely popular tourist destination. Sure, there are remnants of its Communist past and yes, I saw a few drab buildings, but the medieval art and architecture more than make up for the design errors of the 1970s. While you won’t be alone, be sure to take a stroll along the Vltava river with Prague Castle looming nearby. I can’t think of a more romantic moment anywhere else in the world.

St Michaels MD

3. St. Michaels – If you’re a local than this won’t surprise you, but strangers to the DC metro area may not be familiar with the sleepy towns nestled along the Chesapeake Bay. One of the oldest areas of the state, the Eastern Shore has become a popular area to spend a quick weekend, or a longer retreat. I don’t like the term, but the only one that fits the many, small villages in this part of the state is cute. There, I said it, they’re cute – damn cute. One of my favorite towns is St. Michaels, also home to the critically acclaimed hotel the Inn at Perry Cabin. The perfect romantic weekend here starts with one of the Inn’s generously appointed rooms overlooking the water, followed by aimless wandering past the quirky shops lining the main street. Spas are available for those who want to relax and be pampered, and there are plenty of things to do outdoors for the more active traveler. No matter what you do during the day, in the evening head to restaurant 208 Talbot for a great meal prepared in what I call upscale American southern contemporary.

Amman, Jordan

4. Amman – The fact that 1) I knew nothing about Amman before visiting and 2) that I thought it’d be anything but romantic is a conceit of living in the U.S. Our media outlets, all of them, traditionally have not done a great job portraying the Middle East except in terms of war and aggression. At first Amman looks like a lot of other cities in the Middle East. It’s large, somewhat sprawling, and the buildings mostly blend in a blur of brown stone. I think it’s the people that transform this city, their warmth and hospitality make it hard not to love Amman almost immediately. My favorite moment is atop the Citadel, the mountain in the middle of the city and the site of ruins from civilizations long gone. Standing there, the breeze gently blowing, smells of vendors wafting up and the call to prayer rebounding around the hills simultaneously; it may seem unlikely, but that moment is one of the most amazing and romantic you could ever have.


5. Franz Josef – More a village than a city, and a tourist one at that, Franz Josef, at the foot of its eponymous glacier, is the classic definition of mountain romance. The town revolves around the glacier and tourists to the massive Mount Cook, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun place to visit. For the perfect romantic evening, start off with a stroll through the tiny town as the sun sets behind the glacier capped mountains. Wander over to the Glacier Hot Pools for a dip in a private, glacier spa and finish the evening with an intimate dinner at one of the several restaurants in town. No matter what you decide to do, it’s hard not to be in awe of the natural surroundings and to feel more connected with your loved one.

These are some cities around the world that surprised me with their ability to inspire romance. What are some of yours?

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Interactive Travel Guide – What to do in Istanbul

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

A regular feature on LandLopers is the Interactive Travel Guide. The idea is to highlight one city or country every week and then get the best recommendations from you all. By the end of the week, we hopefully will have created the best tips not from guide books, but from real people.

To continue this social media experiment, this week I want to highlight Istanbul.

Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s importance has never been in question, signs of which can be seen throughout the city. One of the best areas to experience the history of Istanbul, as well as enjoy a rare moment of bucolic peace, is found at the Topkapi Palace.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire and home to its Sultans for more than four centuries. Vestiges of this Imperial past can be seen throughout the complex from ornate doors to relics in the museum belonging to the Prophet Mohammad.

Since it was nearly closing time, we rushed about the Palace, glancing through Treasuries and small Museums, more interested in the intricate design and architecture than anything else. My moment of Zen was standing in a patio overlooking the Bosporus. It was gorgeous, gazing out across the intersection of continents and cultures and imagining the people who stood there before me. Throughout Istanbul, but especially at Topkapi, the city’s rich history is palpable.

Prompted by the crowds strolling to the gates like lemmings, we left with hesitation, not wanting to leave the calm, peaceful world of the palace complex behind. It may have been at that moment when I fell in love with this great quirky city.

NOW it’s your turn. Please comment and tell us your favorite thing to do, see or eat in Istanbul. If you haven’t been yet, please let us know what you would most like to do.

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Footsteps of Sultans – Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Topkapi Palace  Istanbul

Our time in the iconic city of Istanbul was limited to two days. We were on a cruise of the Mediterranean and the adventure was like speed dating with the great capitals of classicism. At the end of the first day, just before its gates closed shut for the day, we scurried into the massive Topkapi Palace complex.

We would have had more time, but we first had to fend off dozens of rug merchants along the way, each attempting to lure us in with mint tea and the promise of a great deal. Finally we paid the admission fees and slinked away into the gardens and courtyards of Topkapi. All at once the frenzy of the city was forgotten, we had stepped into paradise.

Topkapi flowers

Topkapi served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire and home to its Sultans for more than four centuries. Vestiges of this Imperial past can be seen throughout the complex from ornate doors to relics in the museum belonging to the Prophet Mohammad.

Since it was nearly closing time, we rushed about the Palace, glancing through Treasuries and small Museums, more interested in the intricate design and architecture than anything else. My moment of Zen was standing in a patio overlooking the Bosporus. It was gorgeous, gazing out across the intersection of continents and cultures and imagining the people who stood there before me. Throughout Istanbul, but especially at Topkapi, the city’s rich history is palpable.

Topkapi View

Prompted by the crowds strolling to the gates like lemmings, we left with hesitation, not wanting to leave the calm, peaceful world of the palace complex behind. It may have been at that moment when I fell in love with this great quirky city.

Topkapi Palace Istanbul

Topkapi Palace Istanbul

Topkapi Palace Istanbul

Topkapi Palace Istanbul

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Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and Creating Unique Travel Moments

Blue Mosque Istanbul Turkey

We were in Istanbul for a brief two-day visit, one of many stops on a cruise of the Mediterranean. We frankly didn’t have high expectations for the city before arriving in the Bosporus, but we quickly learned that Istanbul is one of the most amazing cities in the world.

One of the moments that transformed our visit into a favorite travel experience was our time spent at the Blue Mosque.

Istanbul’s skyline is dominated by two important buildings, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. While the Hagia Sophia is no longer used for religious purposes, the Blue Mosque is very much an active place of worship.

Approaching the Mosque with the throngs of tourists, I had no intention of staying for the impending afternoon prayer. Rather, I was just curious to tour the building and take note of the rich and vibrant interior design. Our traveling companions though insisted we stay and curious about the experience, we acquiesced.

It was my first time attending a Muslim prayer service and I was nervous. I don’t know why I was anxious, maybe it was my preconceived notions, the fact that I’m American, or what, but I was extremely hesitant. I also had no idea what to do. The front prayer area was roped off leaving a middle section in which visitors had congregated for the service. I noticed several other tourists taking a seat on the floor waiting for the service to begin and I followed suit.

The muezzin’s chants bellowed from atop the Mosque and you could hear the amplified voice reverberate throughout the nearby neighborhood. I’ve heard the call to prayer many times, but it was my first time experiencing it from within a Mosque. The muted chant acted as a siren’s cry, with dozens of men responding by dashing through the doors of the Mosque, removing their shoes and proceeding to the prayer area.

The imam led the service, but I have no idea what was said. I was more interested in watching the people and their responses. After just a few minutes the imam had finished, led the penitent throngs through a series of prayers and that was it. All in all it had lasted barely twenty minutes, a remarkably short time from someone who comes from a Christian background.

Blue Mosque Istanbul Turkey

We shuffled out of the Blue Mosque along with the hundreds of worshipers, looking back at the intricate beauty of the edifice itself. At first I wasn’t entirely sure what I had accomplished or learned by sitting through the service. I was uncomfortable, I couldn’t understand anything and no one volunteered to help clarify anything we witnessed. But in the days and weeks that followed, I found myself thinking back to that day more and more often.

Whether I realized it or not, that brief service helped me grow intellectually and emotionally. I was nervous about it because I had stereotypes in mind and was frankly worried about the unknown. Living in Washington, DC especially, the daily news is filled with the dangers of Muslim extremism found in mosques and madrasses around the world, and that was the image I allowed to color my traveling experience. By seeing how normal and even boring the service was, it humanized an entire city for me, making it more personal and instantly more relatable.

People ask me why I travel abroad so often and why I don’t just spend my time touring around the U.S. instead. It’s a valid question really, I haven’t spent as much time traveling around my own country as perhaps I should. But the foundation of my wanderlust isn’t just to go see cool new sights and eat delicious foods, it’s an intellectual exercise. Traveling, for me at least, opens a vast classroom giving me opportunities to learn about people around the world that no other resource can offer. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but visiting the Blue Mosque was a quintessential travel experience for me and defines the importance of creating unique travel moments.

What have been some of your keystone or important travel moments/revelations?

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House of the Virgin Mary – Ephesus, Turkey

Virgin Mary HouseI’m not a religious person in the traditional sense, although I would certainly say I have my spiritual moments. But for some reason when I travel I always find myself drawn to areas of religious importance. A visit to the Virgin Mary’s house, or Mother Mary as she is called in Turkey, was an unintended stop, but one I’m glad we made.

According to the story, in the early 19th century, a German nun had a variety of visions about the Holy Mother. Included in these visions was the revelation that her final resting place was on a hill in Turkey near the ancient city of Ephesus, which had not been discovered at the time. Although the nun had never traveled outside of Germany before, nor had she any knowledge of the Ephesus area, she accurately described the exact area where the house was found in the 1880s.

Today’s structure was completed in the 1950s, although it was built upon the foundations of the ruins found in the 19th century. A red line encircling the building designates the modern construction.

While the Catholic Church has never pronounced on the authenticity of the house, it remains a key pilgrimage site for Catholics. It also has significance for Muslim pilgrims given the emphasis placed on the Virgin Mary in the Qur’an.

Regardless of whether or not this is the actual house where Mother Mary spent her final years, it is an amazing historical find which millions visit each year in order to may homage.

What was most amazing to me was the wall of prayers, comprised of thousands of scraps of paper, each one a prayer left there by a visitor.

Regardless of one’s religious proclivities, it is hard not to be moved by a site that so many find sacred.

Virgin Mary House

Virgin Mary House Site

Prayer Wall Near Virgin Mary House

Prayer Wall Near Virgin Mary House

Virgin Mary House

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Basilica of St. John, Selçuk Turkey

Ephesus and Selçuk Turkey are well known for their importance throughout the history of Western civilization, from the days of the ancient Greeks through the 14th century Turkish invasion. A trip to modern day Kusadasi and Selçuk involve a variety of ancient sites including the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the historic city of Ephesus. What many visitors may miss is the Basilica of St. John, the final resting place of John the Apostle.

According to Christian tradition, in the second half of the first century St. John took The Mother Mary and came to Ephesus where he wrote his Gospel. The Apostle died in the region around Ephesus in 100 AD and was buried in the southern slope of Ayosolug Hill. A small chapel was constructed over the grave in the 4th century and was expanded into a basilica in the 6th century under the reign of Emperor Justinian.

The basilica was converted into a mosque in the 14th century and later destroyed by invading Mongol armies. A massive earthquake later in the same century was the final ending for the once massive structure.  Today the Turkish government has ongoing excavations at the site and allows access to tourists for a nominal fee.

Do you have a favorite place or attraction that people may not know about? Would love to hear about it.

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Five Unforgettable Travel Experiences

Travel Experience

There are thousands of unique sites and scenes around the world, each wonderful in their own way. However, I am constantly amazed at how many people travel without truly experiencing them. It is important to think outside the box when traveling; to find ways to really experience a new city or country. Here are some amazing travel experiences that will take your trip to the next level.

 

1. Snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos are well known for their amazing array of endemic species, a phenomenon that does not stop at waters edge. The animals that call the surrounding waters home are just as amazing and equally fearless. The best example of this is swimming with sea lions.  Within minutes of first entering the water, I was surrounded by three playful sea lion pups, all eager to include me in their play. We swam together for several minutes before they dove into deeper waters looking for food. This incredible game of tag continued  throughout the rest of my trip, finding new playmates at each dive location. Although visitors are not allowed to touch the animals, the sea lions don’t know that and sometimes come quite close to their new friends.

Travel Experience

2. Afternoon prayer at the Blue Mosque. Istanbul is a fabulous mélange of western and eastern traditions. No where is this more evident than at its storied Blue Mosque.  While millions of tourists visit the Mosque every year, only a fraction really experience the true mission of this beautiful site. The Islamic call to prayer occurs five times a day: at dawn, midday, about the middle of the afternoon, just after sunset, and at night fall about two hours after sunset.  As a guest, you may observe the prayer service, so head to the Blue Mosque once you hear the call of the muezzin. The service is not long, but it affords a glimpse into the soul of this dynamic country.

Travel Experience
Wat Arun

3. Breakfast at Wat Arun. There are many unique experiences in Bangkok, but one of my favorites is climbing to the top of Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, on the banks of the Chao Phraya. Wat Arun is made up of five towers, or prangs, each marvelously decorated with bits of shell and broken porcelain. True to its name, this is one of the best locations to watch the sun rise in Bangkok. While not for the acrophobic, visitors are allowed to climb to the top of the central tower which affords amazing views of the river and city beyond.

4. Opera Date Night. Vienna is a busting city known for its cultural and culinary brilliance. These traditions in turn give the visitor a bevy of unique experiences, all of which are guaranteed to take your trip up a notch.  My favorite activity in Vienna is to step back in time and attend a performance at the opera house, followed by coffee and cake at the Hotel Sacher.

The Wiener Staatsoper has a history dating back to the mid-19th century and is conveniently located in the center of Vienna. You can order tickets online before leaving home, or check for availability once you arrive. After the show, head next door to the world famous Hotel Sacher, home of the eponymous Sacher Torte, for a late-night snack.

This evening of 19th-century Austrian elegance will be one you and your significant other will always remember.

5. Sunset in Oia, Santorini. The Greek island of Santorini has cast a spell over millions of people worldwide.  It may be because of its stunning views or for the famous blue domed churches found here. Regardless of the reason, this ethereal town is even more magical at sunset. To best appreciate the stunning views of the sun setting over the Aegean sea, find a nice terraced restaurant, order some late afternoon mezze and a glass of Santorini wine and just enjoy the spectacular show.

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