Walk Down Memory Lane in Delft

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With the promise of gorgeous canals, ‘coffee shops’ and the crazy party scene, one steps into Netherlands and heads straight to Amsterdam. But what if I were to make you fall in love with a more charming and romantic version of Amsterdam: a smaller town, one with cuter canals, lesser tourists, jazz music and just an hour away from the main city?

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Dreaming of being back in Delft

During my recent trip to Amsterdam, my local cousin insisted I go to Delft and you know what they say about local recommendations – they are always the best! It was a rainy day spent walking along the Schie (Water stream in Netherlands) flowing through canals, flower-laden entrances, and admiring the famous Dutch painter Vermeer’s hometown.

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Strolling down Delft Lanes

If you are looking for a leisurely stroll down memory lane with Instagrammable corners, friendly locals, little treasures then hop on that train and enjoy the ride.

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Our first stop was the Royal Delft Factory & Museum where one can tour the iconic Delft Blue ceramic and porcelain earthenware, tiles and pottery. What makes it exciting? The initial coat of paint is black, which we learnt is cobalt exide, but when you put the second coat (also called ‘firing’) the chemical reaction triggers the appearance of the beautiful Delft blue!  

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In different areas you may also encounter artists hand painting some pieces, where you can see them painting and firing some of their work.

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Working Factory at Delft Museum

Some other sections are the tile installations, the working factory where you can witness the process of molding, drying and painting the earthenware. Be sure to stop at the Delft shop as you will be spoilt for choice. We spent as much time in the museum shop than in the museum itself!

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One word of caution: Their royal blue collection is expensive so if you want to buy gifts without getting broke, look for other areas that are spread with the cutest home décor vases, coasters, and food platters – they were equally mesmerizing.

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The Market Square

Our next stop was the Markt at Delft, the square filled with local markets, cafes and great energy. We were transported back in time, with the streets lined with Dutch delicacies, surrounded by architectural buildings, and picturesque narrow lanes.

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If you have the time, stop at a café overlooking the canal with unforgettable views! A little secret: The town holds flea markets on Thursdays and Saturdays, and if you know how to appreciate antiques plan this little trip around those days.  

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Around the square, you could further step into the two churches: New Church that stands 108m tall and has impressive views of the city; Old Church, built in 1246, with gothic architecture is also the burial place of Vermeer.

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How to get there: There are direct trains from Amsterdam to Delft that take approximately an hour and cost about 14-15 Euros. Some other small cities to visit are The Hague and Rotterdam which are 15 minutes away from Delft.

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Have a drink, buy some cheese, peek into a shop or two and have a good time!

If you have an additional day or two, I would also recommend staying in Delft for a Mini-Amsterdam adventure. There are many bed and breakfasts and AirBnb’s you will find easily. Don’t forget to say ‘Hi’ to Vermeer for me!

 

 

 

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The perfect boutique hotel across US and Europe for the solo traveler

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After a 20+ hour flight, there is nothing more inviting in a hotel than a 5 minute check-in process, a cozy bar and an ultra-comfortable mattress: and this is just the start! My experience with CitizenM (Times Square) started in the summer of 2014, my first solo travel experience internationally to New York.

You are greeted by a generous dose of quirk, popping colors and curiosity as you face the huge wall shelves at CitizenM coupled with an open space of comfortable couches, and community tables.

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This hotel is a technology enabled, self-service hotel with most of it automated starting from the elevator that leads up to your room. Don’t fail to notice the ‘Rooftop Bar’ sign that is exclusively for CitizenM travelers. Needless to say, as a solo traveler it was a great space to meet people and spend time with the chatty bartenders who are almost trained on over-the-counter conversations!

Given this background, here’s the anti-climax: I had only heard about the infamous real estate and box sized apartments in New York but my first encounter was still a jolt. The room was the tiniest size ever with the most efficient and compact design imaginable. As I settled in, there was an iPad propped at the bedside that controlled 90% of the things within that small space – starting from the blinds, to the lights (which by the way had mood lighting like party, office, ambient etc.).

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Some other perks that sets CitizenM apart is their Wi-Fi inclusion in the room rates, skype calling rates, including international, from their room phone and the option to upgrade to a breakfast plan with a lower cost. If staying for a few nights these can be a real cost-saver compared to other NY hotels in the area.

Fast forward to 2018, and I stayed in CitizenM’s Schipol Airport Hotel in Amsterdam, my fourth time staying with this hotel chain. Although a short stay, it brought back all the reasons that makes it so unique including the fresh smelling coffee at breakfast!  

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CitizenM currently has 8 locations across US and Europe and are extending their chain to Asia as well. As a boutique hotel, their prices are similar to other hotels within the area of operation. Their Times Square location averages at approximately 200 USD a night, and the Schipol Airport averages at 120 euros a night.

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This hotel is for those: who seek adventure, want quirk & cool over lavish & grandeur, and don’t crave unlimited options.

This hotel is not for those: seeking a budget stay option, traveling in large groups and prefer 24-hour concierge services.

What could be better: Their 24 -hour cafeteria hardly had any vegetarian options, as I don’t eat egg. So stock up if you have a similar dietary preference.

Additional Tip: Sign up on their website as a CitizenM member to get a discount on the room rate.

(Note: All the pictures in this article are from the Schipol Airport Hotel property)

Berlin: The city full of surprises

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I haven’t traveled to Germany nor did I know much about the country. As I was making plans to travel, the only things I was told was that Germans are not very friendly, beware of pickpockets, and as a vegetarian I will have a tough time. None of that was true from the moment I stepped into Berlin, rather at the end I only hoped that next time I come I will stay back for awhile.

So here are 9 things you should know about Berlin:

1. Berlin is home to 170 museums, perhaps more, so it is strongly recommended that you pick and choose your battles! Read about the museum and visit based on your interest as each museum on an average can take 3-5 hours. Some of my favorites included Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Checkpoint Charlie Museum, Jewish Museum, Topography of Terror.

2. At Checkpoint Charlie, one of the crossing points between West and East Berlin, the posing officers offer to put a fake stamp on your passport for a couple of Euros. Let me also warn you that sometimes this can be an issue in some countries – so be wise or do your homework before taking that risk – as sometimes 1,000 instagram likes may really not be worth it.

3. Home distillation for small batch alcohol is legal in Germany – and thus I discovered scented Botanical Infused Gin at flea markets and local stores. In 2016, there was a New York Times Article on how Germany has gone gin mad. So be sure to pick up a bottle of Gin as a lingering memory of the city.

4. Berlin’s mascot is the bear – it’s hilarious to see the bear pop up in street art, at signals and even stores. Merchandise with different bears can be a cute souvenir for your loved ones.

5. 80% of households own atleast one bicycle (aka bike) in Berlin. There are plans to build 12 new bike superhighways as part of a recent Bike Revolution plan. As a tourist, you can do city biking tours and cruise like a local. If not, make sure you are not run down by bikers – I had some really close encounters!

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6. This city is home to a huge Vegan movement – you will find large number of Berliners who are not only vegan in their food habits but also in their lifestyle like clothing, environment, everyday products and even sex stores! Did I just detect a spike in reader interest? 😀

7. Berlin is popular for street art and many famous artists have emerged through this creative expression. One such artist is known to paint 6 at random places including city walls and pavements. If you are a fan of treasure hunts, keep an eye out for that magic number!

8. Calling all chocolate lovers – don’t miss the largest chocolate store in Europe – Rausch Schokoladenhaus. If you like dark chocolate, their single origin chocolate bars from regions like Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador are a slice of heaven. Their adjoining store, the Chocolate Café, claims to have the best Hot Chocolate in Berlin – you can be the judge.

9. Berlin has a large Turkish settlement which means Turkish neighborhoods and more importantly Turkish food. Head to Kreuzberg to experience a little Turkish where we tasted Kunefe – an intensely sweet pastry with stringy cheese stuffed in the dough, soaking in sweet syrup and nuts. Thankfully there are enough savory Turkish dishes to balance those taste buds.

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Moral of the story: Make your travel plans and stick to it – the journey is sure to be full of surprises!

5 reasons you should be planning your Berlin trip

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1. You don’t have to sell a limb: For a big European city Berlin is value for money for a tourist across accommodation, food and commute. Further the Berlin City Center pass helps reduce museum entrances and gives discounts for tourist attractions. A decent double-occupancy accommodation will cost between 100 – 150 euros a night, apart from which you may end up spending an average of 100 euros a day including meals.

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Our stay in Berlin – Hotel Jurine

Any shopping or luxury dining would exceed the average budget although I would encourage you to indulge in some shopping especially at stores that promote local artists. I found one such store near Check point Charlie called Vielfach Das Kreativkaufhaus. I bought everything from beer mugs, to bookmarks, to souvenirs and I wanted more!

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Visiting the Reichstag dome is free – and I would add it to a traveler’s must-do list. This is a large glass dome built on top of the Reichstag building symbolizing that people are above the government. However, one is required to register and get a time slot physically in a booth close to the Reichstag building.

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The dome provides a spectacular 360-degree view of the city along with an informative audio guide. We timed our slot during sunset and that was the best decision ever!

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2. Such a Hippy Vibe: My mental map of a hippy vibe translates to friendly, chill, conscious, and fun. Berlin has all these elements and more. One of the most easy-going cities where locals are happy to share information, will communicate in English and where you can find people walking around with bottles of beer on the street. In the summers, streets are filled with music, summer festivals and food fiestas.

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To get a slice of the pie, visit the Mauerpark flea market where you will see rows of vintage and up-cycled products, apart from homemade botanical gins, handmade bags and clothes, quirky souvenirs, interesting jewelry and crazy karaoke. You will come back with empty pockets, music filled hearts and a beautiful day.

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3. Travel like a Local: Getting around Berlin for a first-timer or a solo traveler is quite easy – through local transport, maps and local help. Once or twice of hopping on to the Berlin subway, you will be riding the U Bahn like a pro! If you plan to get a Berlin City Center pass they include subway passes as well. Like many Europeans cities, Uber is not an option and local cabs are much more expensive to get around.

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Berlin is very cosmopolitan and this is reflected in the cuisines you get. Some popular cuisines are Turkish, Vietnamese, Italian, and Spanish. For good Turkish food, head to Kreuzberg, Burgermeister outlets for delicious burgers and stop by Van Anh for some Viatnamese. It may be hard to find typical German food though! 

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4. Crazy Street Art: You absolutely cannot walk away from the city without exploring the street art scene. The colors, techniques, tools and creativity will blow your mind. Keep your eyes open as you will be staring at graffiti at random corners and walls. Mitte, Kreuzberg and East side gallery neighborhoods will show off some of the cool art.

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I would highly recommend taking up a guided tour to understand the depth of the art work – Alternative Berlin Tours has a popular walk. Before you dismiss this, did you know that murals, graffiti, stencils, paste ups are different kinds of wall art at the least!

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In your art adventure, you will meet Mr. 6, Little Lucy, Bear Mascot, Elephant Playing with a Balloon, Cosmonaut and encounter the controversial Fraternal Kiss among others.

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

5. History lessons revisited: They say no one admits their mistakes (in history) like the Germans do and you will see this reflected in the museums across Berlin. A large part of our trip was spent in museums because each museum has in-depth information, interestingly presented information with a perspective that was intended to be honest. History is often infamous due to the bias and viewpoints presented in ways that may be false or deliberately colored but the museums here seemed different.

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Topography of Terror

Some of the highlights were Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Checkpoint Charlie Museum, Jewish Museum, Topography of Terror.

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The Berlin Wall was once here!

Given there is so much information to digest, we did a free 3 hour guided tour with Brewer’s Berlin Tours for setting context to our upcoming museum venture and visiting the popular historical sights and sites. One of the coolest highlights was standing where the Wall once existed, so that one could be standing in East and West Berlin at the same time.

As I was leaving Berlin, the only thing on my mind was that I will be back. There are so many more reasons I would revisit Berlin but I will leave you with a sixth reason for now!

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6. Green and Lean but not mean: I did not imagine big cities were capable of having such large green spaces. Berlin is one of the greenest cities of Europe with large spaces covered by parks, garden and forested areas. Tiergarten, the ‘Central Park’ of Berlin, is considered the most popular and is spread across 210 hectares.

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I would further recommend visiting Volskpark Friedrichshain, the first park opened to the public in 1848. The fairytale fountain in this park, with its beautiful stone sculptures based on German traditional folk tales, will take you straight into your dreams and their pond area with beautiful ducks and landscape will make your day.

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Spend some time walking or biking around the city to come across some hidden gems, cool cafes, and quaint neighborhoods.