Seven Places to Eat in Antigua, Guatemala

For a small town, Antigua packs quite a punch when it comes to places to eat—but as a tourist town, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that every other door seems to lead to either a restaurant or some kind of shop.  This helps to keep things fresh, though; even though there is plenty to do in Antigua, you wouldn’t want to keep eating at the same place over and over.  Or maybe you would, if it was good enough—there were certainly plenty of places that made me want to go back for the following meal.  We resisted, however, so we could bring you a quality list.  Hopefully when you go to Antigua (and you should go to Antigua), you’ll have as good a variety of meals as we did.

Quick tip: don’t be put off by the service. The restaurant culture is basically to take your order, bring your order, and then ignore you until you flag them down for another drink or the bill.  Even making eye contact isn’t enough to bring someone to your table like in the states.  Some places will add on a 10% tip, but if not, that seemed to be the standard for gratuity, if anything at all.

1. Iglesia de la Merced

Yes, this is a baroque church in town that is well worth a visit when you’re not hungry, but if you’re in town on a Sunday, there is always a small farmer’s market set up with a bunch of street food vendors.  Whatever you’re looking for, they’ve got it here: Guatemalan enchiladas, tortillas with delicious grilled meat, grilled corn, warm cups of atol or cool cups of juice—if you want to experience Guatemalan food, this is a great introduction.  And it’s all cheap, so you can get a little bit of everything. 1a Calle Poniente & 6a Avenida Norte

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2. Rincon Tipico

Our friends at These Foreign Roads recommended this stop, and it didn’t disappoint.  Well, it did a little, but only because it’s mostly a lunch joint and we went for dinner, when they’re only serving half the menu.  But the half we got was great, with some smoky grilled pork and some local slaw and potato salad.  They were the one place I couldn’t get a Gallo (the popular local shitty lager), but I was still able to load up some delicious tortillas and did not go back to our hotel hungry. # 3, 3a Avenida Sur

3. Guate Java

Now, we didn’t get any food here, but we did get some of the best coffee of our entire trip, and it was one of the only places we stopped by twice.  It’s a little out of the way if you’re hanging around the city center (meaning it’s about a five-minute walk from anywhere), but you’ll be glad you went.  It’s small, but the rich smell of roasting coffee fills the place and it’s an excellent spot to hang out for a bit and enjoy some down time.  They also offer a coffee roasting class, and it’s a great place to pick up some beans for a souvenir. 7a Avenida Sur & 6a Calle Poniente

4. La Tortilla Cooking School

I always take a cooking class when I go somewhere, and this one was excellent.  There were seven of us total, and everyone got to participate in some way in the preparation of each aspect of the meal, which turned out to be a large one: a standard local stew called pepian was the main attraction, along with a beet salad on the side, a rice mixture, and a warm cup of atoll (prepared however you’d like: sweet or savory).  We made rellenitos for dessert, which are a mixture of beans and chocolate stuffed inside mashed plantains and fried, as well as the ever-present tortillas. A very informative and filling experience. #25, 3a Calle Poniente

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5. Saberico

After traveling all day to get to Antigua and not eating much, this was our first stop, and we wanted to pile on the food.  We tried their famous sky-high Guatemalan enchiladas, which were worth the price (55Q, or $7, for two), as well as a trio of guacamoles, some portabella rellenos (four portabella caps topped with vegetables and parmesan), and gallina en chicha, a chicken stew made with tomato sauce, herbs, nuts, and fresco de suchiles, a local fruit drink that is slightly fermented.  This turned out to be one of the best things we ate the entire time we were there.  Saberico is also worth going for its expansive back outdoor patio, though if you’re in the right spot you get a lot of noise pollution from the hostel next door. #7, 6a Avenida Sur

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6. La Cuevalita de los Urquizu

La Cuevalita was at the top of my list for places to eat in Antigua, and I’m glad we made it—it turned out to be one of the best meals we had our whole trip (thanks, Andrew Zimmern!). There’s a large selection of meat stews out front, and you start by selecting one.  The workers will explain them to you, but unless you know Spanish, you’re on your own.  We picked based on some keywords—Kaitie got the one they described as “picante” and I chose the one where the guy pointed to his face and stomach, as if to say “this is all the face and guts.” Next, you get to pick from two side dishes that are lined up behind the stews, which helps with pointing.  Finally, they throw in a tamale for good measure, you pick your drink, and you sit in the back and enjoy with the omnipresent warm tortillas. The stews were delicious (though Kaitie’s was decidedly not picante), and while mine had a nice underlying flavor of offal, it was never overpowering or off-putting.  And there were so many textures. Definitely a must-try when you visit.  #9D, 2a Calle Oriente

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7. McDonald’s

I’m serious—kinda.  Even if you don’t want to eat here, be sure to swing in to check it out.  Having the money they do, McDonald’s was able to but what seems like the nicest place in Antigua, with a massive and beautifully manicured courtyard, complete with fountain and a stunning volcano view.  The Taco Bell across the street is pretty nice, too, if you get sick of real Latin-American food and need a quick crunchwrap. #21 4a Calle Oriente

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BONUS: Ta’cool

After a volcano hike, we got back to town late and needed a quick meal.  Ta’cool, right off the main square, took care of that.  What clearly seems like a chain, or at the very least a slick spot aimed at tourists who need recognizable food names, the tacos were actually pretty solid, and their sauces were very tasty.  They also, of course, had Gallo, which was a selling point for anywhere.  While I would never drink them at home, there is always something about vacation—especially in warmer climes—that makes me crave whatever local, shitty, mass-produced lager is available.  4a Calle Oriente, between 3a & 4a Avenida Norte

Before our trip, I hadn’t heard much in the way of praise for Guatemalan food, but after watching Andrew Zimmern’s Delicious Destinations in Antigua, I was pumped to get there and eat.  I was not disappointed.  While a lot of the food was simple, we didn’t have anything that stood out as not tasting good, and their extensive use of avocado is in-line with our interests.  My only complaint is there wasn’t a lot of spice to be found, but we can save that for another trip.

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Long Weekend in Iceland: Day 3

Check out the beginning of our weekend here: Day 1, Day 2

We got up early on our final full day in Iceland, as there was still much to see.  After more instant coffee and granola bars, as well as taking advantage of the bathroom facilities at our campground, we headed off on yet another dreary day to see as much as we could.

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The smoking grounds around Geysir

The first of those stops was the Geysir Hot Spring Area to see the spot of the world’s most famous geyser (and, indeed, where all geysers got their name).  The original Geysir is currently dormant, but also in the park is Stokkur, a geyser that erupts every few minutes and can reach 30 meters in the air.  We saw this go off a few times and walked around the area, carefully noting the signs that warned not to touch the boiling geothermal water bubbling up from the ground.  Due to the overcast morning, as well as the early hour, we almost had the entire park to ourselves.

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Arch Rock: Gatklettur

After plenty more driving around with a few quick stops to see various interesting things along the road, we arrived at the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  A first stop to lunch up at Arnarstapi Guesthouse Restaurant (an overcooked and overpriced burger) gave us the perfect start to a quick walk to Gatklettur, or Arch Rock.  Gatklettur is a natural arch eroded into a cliff. The arch itself is impressive, and the area as a whole was beautiful, even in the overcast day.  Tons of green leading to a rocky shore, with small outcrops of yet-to-be-eroded rock dotting the ocean and steep cliffs leading to them.

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More of Arnastapi.  Photo by Beth Blinebury

A quick drive over to the small fishing village of Hellnar to see more sites—more rocky beaches and cliffs that could have been right out of Middle Earth.  If it weren’t for all the people milling around, one could easily imagine being in a different time, or a different place altogether.  And outside of Reykjavik, Iceland as a whole gave off that impression.

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The coastline near Hellnar
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The tide comes in at Hellnar

One of our last stops of the day was one of the most packed, due to the limited parking area and popularity: Kirkjufell, or Church Mountain, and the accompanying waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss. Despite clouds hiding the tip of the mountain, both it and the waterfall were extremely picturesque, especially when captured together, when they become one of the most photographed areas in Iceland.  It’s not hard to see why.

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Kirkjufell towers over Kirkjufellsfoss

For the night, we hit a camping area outside of Borgarnes, a small town about an hour from Reykjavik.  We parked and walked into town, looking for a nicer place for our final dinner.  A local suggested the Borgarnes Settlement Center, and even drove us down the road to get there.  We shared some thick-cut bread with incredibly creamy butter topped with black volcanic salt, and then shared an appetizer of smoked lamb atop rye bread “from Geiri, the local baker” with horseradish, pickled red onion, and arugula. We also shared a traditional Icelandic lamb soup loaded with vegetables.  For my main course I had a burger—I was craving one at this point and the one for lunch hadn’t really done me any favors.  This one was much better, but I keep learning more and more not to order a burger outside of America.

By now it was dark and we made our way back to the camp, stopping briefly at a market in town to see if we could get a few extra beers, but all they had was non-alcoholic.  Back at the van, we set up for bed, getting into our pajamas and letting the evening wind down.  Right before bed, I decided I didn’t feel like walking all the way to the campground bathroom, so I went behind the van to pee.  As LeeAnne admonished me, I looked up—probably rolling my eyes—to find the Northern Lights dancing faintly above us.  It wasn’t the best time of year to see them, and it certainly wasn’t something any of us expected, but it was such a magical way to end our trip.  Even as the lights moved away and grew more and more faint, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

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Yes, it’s blurry, but we were excited as hell.  Who cares, we saw it in real life.  Photo by Beth Blinebury.

In our few short days in Iceland, I saw and did just about everything I had come to do.  Other than a few places that were out of reach for us (I’d love to check out Dimmuborgir) and some things I really didn’t want to do (go to any kind of geothermal spa or eat hákarl), I really couldn’t have asked for much more.  Well, I would have liked to run into Bjork.  But I’ll save that for next time.

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The view from the campground in Borgarnes. Not a bad place to fall asleep or wake up.

Cover image is courtesy of Beth Blinebury.  If you need a website, check her out.

Long Weekend in Iceland: Day 2

How did we get on a glacier? Check out the recap of day one here.

On Sunday morning, we awoke in the van to a much better day than it had been a night: the rain had moved out and, while it was a bit chilly at the campground, the overcast clouds were not threatening any more rain. We had some granola bars for breakfast and some G7 instant coffees (which we had discovered in Vietnam and are the best instant coffee I’ve ever had) and walked across the campground to the Mountain Guides HQ.

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Climbing on a glacier. Photo courtesy of Beth Blinebury.

After being fitted for harnesses and helmets and crampons, we drove a few minutes away to the base of Skaftafellsjökull, a glacier tongue coming off of Iceland’s largest icecap, Vatnajökull. It’s also the filming location of the ice planet in Interstellar, which isn’t hard to imagine: once you’ve walked a small ways into the glacier, it’s easy to think you’re on another planet.

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Atop a ridge.

The hike we chose was four hours, and was luckily the best weather we had our entire trip.  The sun was out (somewhat) and there wasn’t even the threat of rain.  I think at one point I even got warm enough to unzip my jacket.  We had an intermediate hike, which included being tied off to ropes on the side of the mountain and walking next to some pretty intense-looking cravasses, and even walking down into one.  Being obsessed with Everest, it was a fun experience to be tied to ropes, all geared up and walking around in crampons.

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Walking next to a large cravasse. Fear of heights: activated.

The glacier hike was definitely the highlight of our trip, and I would suggest it—even this particular one—to anyone visiting Iceland.  Our guide was excellent, the hike was more than just a meandering, easy-going sightseeing jaunt, and we got to walk around on top of (and inside) a fucking glacier.  Incredible.

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Exploring an ice cave in the glacier. We assumed it was one of Bjork’s homes.

Afterwards, we stopped by the incredibly conveniently-placed Glacier Goodies food truck right between the campgrounds and the Mountain Guides offices.  Starving from our expedition, I got a cup of lobster bisque (delicious) and an order of fish and chips (pretty good).  I did, however, miscalculate the exchange rate and what I thought was $5 US was actually closer to $50.  Oops.

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After lunch, we took some surprisingly warm showers at the campground (which were added to our camping fee for just a few dollars) and moved on to make our way through more of Iceland.  We stopped at Drangshlíð, a massive rock in the middle of a field with small houses erected around and, it seems, inside part of the rock.  The houses were worn down and covered in moss, and have elven folklore attached to them.  Once again, walking around in the area, with no one else around, seeing this quiet landscape during an overcast day, it was easy to imagine being part of some other world.  Much of Iceland can give you that impression.

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We made a few more random stops to get out, stretch our legs, and take in the endless landscape of overcast green—Andy had become particularly enamored with the local moss—and then found the Skjol Campgrounds.  As we were setting up our van for the night, it began to rain pretty heavily, but the inside of the van stayed dry.  We ended up eating dinner in the small bar/restaurant at the campgrounds, having some overpriced pizza and Gull beers, but they both hit the spot.  We all fell asleep to the sound of rain on the van.

Can we top a glacier? Possibly, since day 3 has a surprise ending…

Long Weekend in Iceland: Day 1

We arrived at Keflavik early on Saturday morning, tired from a shitty, overly warm flight from Boston that had no air.  After we made our way through the maze that was the airport—mistakenly ending up in a departure area where we couldn’t even buy a coffee—we found our way out and stopped for “breakfast” in what amounted to an airport 7-11, and then we waited around until it was time to pick up our van.

We had decided to rent a van to camp around Iceland for the long Labor Day weekend, taking advantage of some flight deals and also going during a bit of an off-season.  This was also the first time LeeAnne and I had traveled with others, as our friends Beth and Andy were able to join us for the long weekend—somewhat of a feat, as convincing Beth to spend three nights in a camper van wasn’t the easiest thing to do.

When it was finally time, we hauled our stuff across the Keflavik parking lot to Go Iceland, the van rental company.  This included not only our bags, but also the case of beer and bottle of Laphroaig we’d picked up in Duty Free.  Since alcohol is so heavily taxed, it makes sense to stock up in the airport rather than buy it along the route (although we ended up doing both, because beer).

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Lunch of champions

Our first stop was a local grocery store Bonus to pick up food for the trip (everything is expensive in Iceland), and also to stop at an adjoining restaurant for sandwiches, pastries, and more coffee. After loading up, we headed out, admiring the constant countryside despite every minute being overcast and threatening rain (and often delivering).

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The group at Saljandsfoss

Other than needing to camp at Skaftafell campground, we had no plans for the day.  After some driving, we happened upon Seljandsfoss waterfall, which looked nice, so we hopped out to stretch our legs and take some pictures.  The weather was cool and cloudy—but still bright—which is ideal for me.  After a quick trip to the waterfall, we hopped back on the road until we came to the next one: Skogafoss.

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Climbing to the top of Skogafoss

As far as famous waterfalls in Iceland go, Skogafoss is right up there near the top of the list, thought the waterfall itself isn’t nearly as impressive as what’s behind it.  Even though it started to rain, we climbed the metal staircase next to the falls to get to the top.  What I expected to only be a view from the top turned out to be so much more: behind the falls, winding for what seemed like forever, was a beautiful path next to cliffs surrounding the river that lead to the falls.  Even with the rain, the area was magical: it felt like you could walk all day and around every bend would be a different view of something incredible to look at.  Being in the rain, not liking heights; none of it seemed to matter back there.

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Behind Skogafoss

We eventually made our way down, soaked, as the rain let up.  We decided to stop into the adjacent restaurant at Hotel Skogafoss for some drinks and snacks as we waited to dry out.  I started with an Icelandic beer I loved, Lava, a smoked imperial stout from Olvisholt brewery.  Despite being able to get it in Philly (and for less money than in Iceland), I had to drink it in its home.  I also tried a Snorri No. 10 from Borg Brewery based solely on the fact that a friend has a cat named Snorri.

We continued on and happened upon Laufskálavarða, which was incredibly creepy at first glance.  Hundreds of small rock stacks line the field, looking a bit like something out of the Blair Witch Project.  A sign nearby says the area used to be a farm, but was wiped out in the first recorded eruption of the volcano Katla in 849. Now, travelers add a rock to a pile for good luck—and from the looks of things, there had been plenty of people with good luck.  The rock stacks went on in all directions.

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Laufskálavarða – silent, cloudy, a little creepy
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Amongst the rock piles

We finally pulled into Skaftafell campground as it was getting dark, converting the middle of the van to a small kitchen area with a table to have our dinner: bread with peanut butter, grapes, Gull beer, and Laphroaig.  The back end of the van then converted to a bed, with the top popping out to make a top bunk as well, so all four of us could sleep.  We tucked in for the night, exhausted from a full day, with more to come tomorrow.

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Cheers to a first day and a hearty van dinner

Note: The van from Go Iceland was really incredible, and included everything you could imagine.  Pillows, sleeping bags, a small electric stovetop, a refrigerator, cups and silverware and other camping gear, and 5 GB of wifi (which the four of us weren’t able to use up on our trip).  It made the trip so much more comfortable and enjoyable than I would have expected.

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Our two-bedroom home away from home (in the rain)

The featured image is courtesy of Beth Blinebury.

See how we fare on day two.

7 Places to Eat in Budapest

In between trying out as many Easter markets as we could, we fit in a surprising number of restaurants on our recent trip to Budapest.  And I could have eaten at many more—at the time my great-grandfather was born in Slovakia, it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so the food very closely mimics much of what I have been eating my entire life.  Especially the stuffed cabbage, which is a family favorite and something I tried at every opportunity in Budapest.  Among many, many other things.

1. Paprika Vendéglő

Being a short walk from Keleti, the main train station in Budapest, Paprika makes for a great first or last stop in the city. The corner restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside is fashioned to look like an old country home, with cozy traditional Hungarian food to match.  This was our final meal in Budapest, so I’d already tried most of the local food and, with a train ride to Bratislava on the horizon, didn’t want to overdo it, so I only tried to goulash over spaetzel, which was delicious.  The place was packed, so be prepared to either wait or go during off-hours.  Dozsa Gyoergy ut 72, Budapest 1071

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2. Belvárosi Disznótoros

This one was care of Anthony Bourdain, and with a name that translates to “Downtown Pig Slaughter,” it’s not hard to see why.  One half of the counter is food that is ready to go and be plated up right away, the other half is a selection of marinated meats that they will cook to order—though you have to order from each counter separately, which can be confusing.  We stuck with the ready-to-go food and ate upstairs (where it was hard to find a seat), feasting on a pile of red cabbage, mashed potatoes, sausage, pickles, and a healthy schmear of mustard.  I opted for blood sausage, which was delicious, though like all Eastern European food, the meal was extremely heavy.  Be ready to nap afterwards. Király ut 1d, Budapest 1075

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3. Szimpla Kert

Budapest is known for its “ruin bars”—cheap drink spots that pop up in old, rundown spaces—and Szimpla Kert is the original and most well-known of them.  Tucked into the Jewish Quarter, the spot offers plenty of options for cheap beer and a relaxed place to hang out for a night.  There are food options (as well as a weekly farmer’s market), but the real draw here is the drinking.  Swing by with some friends—or to make some friends—before or after your meal. Kazinczy ut 14, Budapest 1075

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4. Hungarikum Bisztró

Another restaurant offering traditional Hungarian food in a quaint checkered-tablecloth setting, Hungarikum Bisztró was still well worth stopping by.  It felt almost as if we were eating in someone’s home.  I, of course, had the stuffed cabbage (and immediately fell in love with the Hungarians’ propensity for topping everything with incredible amounts of fresh sour cream), which turned out to be the best stuffed cabbage I’ve ever had.  We also tried the Hungarian spaetzel and sausage, braided pork loin with spaetzel and paprika sauce, and our first sample of langós—fried bread with various toppings—that had me searching it out at every opportunity afterwards.  Whether it’s because we had just come from a long wine tasting or because it really was that good, this was one of the best meals we had our entire time in Budapest. Steindl Imre ut 13, Budapest 1051

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5. Faust Wine Cellar

Located below the Hilton in the Buda Castle District, the stairs to this small wine cave lead through the remnants of a 13 century Dominican Cloister.  The atmosphere could not be better or more relaxed as one of the proprietors, Gabor, pours you Hungarian wine and explains the varietal and where you can find the region on a map.  I would strongly recommend going for the full tasting of 9 wines (which comes with water and small snacks), which also has the final option of a “call back” so you can re-taste your favorite.  Needless to say, these were all new wines to me and I learned quite a bit (and reinforced my love for the Hungarian sweet wine Tokaji). There are very few tables, so I would strongly recommend booking in advance, which you can do for 2pm or 5pm.  The 5pm booking is especially nice when you leave and walk out into the castle district at dusk, slightly buzzed, and take in the lighted beauty of the area. Hess András tér 1, Budapest 1014

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6. Café Ruszwurm

Also in the Buda Castle District, this small pastry shop seems to always be packed, so be ready to hang around and vulture a seat when someone gets up.  The wait is worth it, though, for some solid coffee and amazing pastry—especially Ruszwurm‘s cream cake.  The cream cake is a cooked egg cream mixed with vanilla and then cooled and mixed with whipped cream, making it one of the fluffiest, most delicious cakes I’ve ever had.  Cake isn’t even an apt description—more like “clouds between phyllo.” This is easily one of my fondest food memories from our trip, and should be considered a must-have.  We also tried the caramel cake, which was layers of caramel custard cream between layers of salty, chocolate sponge cake.  While fantastic, this was overshadowed by the cream cake. Szentháromság ut 7, Budapest 1014

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7. Great Market Hall

If you’re not quite sure what you want, swing by the Great Market Hall, where you’ll be able to get anything that catches your eye.  There are a bunch of touristy stands with knick-knacks and Budapest shirts, but there are also tons of food stalls, selling anything you would imagine a market would sell (and now may be a good time to pick up some paprika).  Upstairs there are some quality food stands, and a lot that feature langós with a variety of toppings to add on.  A great way to get a quick meal and also do some quality browsing and shopping. Vámház krt. 1-3, Budapest 1093

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Decisions, decisions.

9 Places to Eat in Chicago

To get to be one of my favorite cities in the US, you’ve got to be one of my favorite places to eat.  Chicago certainly is that, which is the main reason I keep going back—as a Cleveland sports fan, it certainly isn’t for their wretched baseball teams.  I also go to visit some good friends, but this isn’t an article about my nine best friends in Chicago; I’m talking about food. So if you do go to Chicago—and I pray that you do—go hungry. There’s a lot to eat.

1. Portillo’s

While the huge building in the middle of downtown may scream “tourist trap,” Portillo’s is a great one-stop shop for most of the Chicago food you need to experience.  They have a solid Chicago-style hotdog, which includes mustard, relish, celery salt, onions, tomatoes, a pickle spear, and peppers (and no ketchup, just the way god intended).  Also not to be missed is their Italian beef sandwich, topped with giardiniera (basically a chunky Italian relish) and either drizzled with gravy or “dipped”—completely submerged in the gravy.  I suggest the latter. 100 W. Ontario, Chicago, IL 60610

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2. Pequod’s Pizza

You’ll never get a full consensus on where to go to get the best pizza in Chicago, or if you even should eat the pizza in Chicago.  A lot of east coasters balk at the pies, but I prefer pizza in Chicago—if you want a meal, that is. If you just want a little snack, stick with your thin New York pizza.  In any case, you can hit any of the big names: Pizzeria Uno, Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s East, Giordano’s, etc. But I’ve found, and have a few locals backing me on this, that Pequod’s is one of the best places to stop in the city.  It’s a little out of the way from downtown, but airier crust and caramelized cheese on the sides will make the trip worthwhile. 2207 N Clybourn Ave, Chicago, IL 60614

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3. XOCO

While any of the Rick Bayless empire would be worth stopping into, XOCO is a little less upscale and a bit more traveler-friendly if you’re just breezing through.  The fully-dressed guacamole (with spicy roasted poblano, chicharrón, grilled onion, smoky bacon, tomato, queso fresco, and pumpkin seeds) is worth snacking on while you wait for your order, and their caldos (hearty soups) will revive you from the worst of drunken nights (I’ve seen it first-hand).  The real star, though, and frontrunner for my favorite sandwich of all time, is the torta ahogada. Pork carnitas, black beans, and pickled onions on crusty bread and sitting in a tomato-arbol chile sauce—I would walk to Chicago to eat this sandwich again (and have eaten it on three consecutive trips). It comes in mild, medium, or hot, but I would stick to mild. 449 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

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4. Avec

Another one of my long-time favorites, Avec is a must-visit for a casual spot with top-notch food.  While the menu will change, the chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates (baked in a delicious spicy tomato sauce) should always be there—and should always be ordered. Probably two or three times. The oven-roasted cauliflower is surprisingly good, and the braised lamb neck was excellent.  Be sure to go hungry, and be sure to plan some time to walk off your meal (this is very important). Our bartender asked us if we wanted a half order of the cauliflower and, taking it personally (he doesn’t think I can finish an entire cauliflower dish?) I of course opted for the whole.  I probably should’ve gone with the half order. 615 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661

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5. The Purple Pig

As the final meal of our last trip to Chicago, we couldn’t have asked for a much better note to go out on.  With a tagline of “cheese, swine, and wine,” it’s hard to imagine The Purple Pig being bad. In addition to the wine, they had a solid beer selection, and the Mediterranean-style shareable plates were all hits.  The biggest hit was probably the salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio butter, while the beef tendon chips (puffed out like huge pork rinds) with salt and vinegar made an excellent snack. We definitely left Chicago on a high note. 500 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

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6. Tanta

Ever since my trip to Peru in 2014, Peruvian food has been on my radar. When I learned Gaston Acurio had a restaurant in Chicago, I had to swing by—and was glad I did.  Tanta‘s pisco sour was delicious, the chicha was refreshing, and the lomo saltado brought me back to Cusco. I also loved being able to re-experience the huge corn that is so popular in Peru, which showed up in both their beef heart dish and the cebiche we ordered.  We went for lunch on a weekday, so the place was almost empty, but I would go anytime. The food and drinks are well worth a stop. 118 W Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60654

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7. Eataly

I know there’s nothing very “Chicago” about Eataly, but if you’re staying in the River North area, it is incredibly convenient.  There are a variety of restaurants and bars, as well as shops for everything you can imagine. Beer, wine, fresh pizza dough, high-end Italian food products—whatever you need, Eataly will have it.  What we used it for, however, was the coffee. Being a scant half block from our hotel, each day in Chicago began at the coffee counter at Eataly (and some ended there), sampling the various styles to either jumpstart our day or to wind down.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit, but if you’re in the area, definitely swing in. 43 E Ohio St, Chicago, IL 60611

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8. Alinea

I’ll be honest: Alinea is expensive. It is, however, worth the expense.  As the only Chicago restaurant with three Michelin stars, it is often ranked among the top restaurants in the world.  If you’ve seen the episode about Alinea on the Netflix series Chef’s Table, you’ll know what kind of treat you’re in for—food that looks like something else, food you didn’t know was at your table, dessert that could be classified as art—the experience is incredible, and ranks as one of the best meals I’ve ever had to boot.  If you need more information, I wrote an in-depth rundown of my experience at the kitchen table in January. 1723 N Halstead St, Chicago, IL 60614

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9. Taco Bell Cantina

Perhaps this is just due to the draconian liquor laws in Pennsylvania and the incredible expense of getting a liquor license in Philadelphia, but the novelty of being able to get a crunchwrap and a beer was not lost on me.  Maybe it’s because in addition to loving the highest of high-end food, I’m a garbage person who loves Taco Bell as well. The Baja Blast Freeze with a shot of rum was incredibly sweet, which I suppose should have been expected, but it was still a fun stop to make.  And I don’t mind admitting that I would do it again. 1439 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

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As you can tell, Chicago has something for everyone—and we didn’t even graze the surface. There is so much to see and do, the city requires multiple extended weeks of visiting, especially if you want to make the most of the incredible food scene.  But unless you love to be cold (which I do), I would suggest avoiding visiting in the middle of January.

36 Hours in Copenhagen

Ahead of our whirlwind tour of Stockholm, we spent the first part of our long weekend in Copenhagen—another 36 or so hours of trying to fit in as much as we could in a short amount of time.  We’d found an AirBNB in the Vesterbro district central to pretty much everything—about two blocks from the train station and, more importantly, even closer to Mikkeller’s flagship pub.  Once again, though, we were jam-packed with things to do, but not having much downtime doesn’t really matter when you’re in such a cool city.

Mikkeller

There was a slight mix-up with the key to the apartment, so after we had to duck into the sex shop on the corner to use their wifi, we parked ourselves at Mikkeller for an hour or so to wait it out—and it’s amazing how quickly an hour of waiting can go by when you’re drinking some world-class beer.  The place is small and can get pretty packed, but there is plenty of outdoor seating to supplement.  The bartenders were very nice and knowledgeable, and the beer, of course, was tops. This should be a must for any trip to Copenhagen.

Meatpacking District

Close by is a rehabbed former meatpacking district, which now houses a small pedestrian area and numerous bars and restaurants.  We took our chances of walking up to Kødbyens Fiskebar—a seafood restaurant with numerous accolades and owned by a protégé of Noma’s René Redzepi.  For anyone not familiar with Noma, regularly listed as the world’s best restaurant, this is a pretty impressive claim—which is why it was surprising that we were seated outside almost immediately.  And the food did not disappoint—fresh fish (with the location of where the fish was caught) with preparations that seemed simple but were incredibly detailed.  We had brown crab with smoked cheese, burnt herbs, and salted green strawberries; seared mullet with baby corn, chanterelles, and chicken skin; and bleak roe with baby carrots, buckthorn, and quail egg—among other things.

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After a very fulfilling meal peppered with plenty of local beers, we headed across the way for a nightcap at War Pigs, a collaboration brewery between Mikkeller and lauded American brewery Three Floyds.  The place is also an American barbecue restaurant, but unfortunately we were too full to do anything but enjoy the intense beers on offer, which included a lingonberry Berliner weisse, a double IPA, and a triple black IPA.

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After this, we figured it would be a good idea to keep drinking, so we stopped at Bollyfood, an Indian restaurant with large carpeted pallets out front.  We stretched out on the pallets and ordered a few cheap Kingfisher beers to close out the night before stumbling back to our AirBNB.

Walking Tour

The next morning, we got up early to grab some coffee and catch a free walking tour.  Once again, the tour was excellent, with probably the best tour guide we’ve ever had.  The guy was quick, witty, and incredibly funny.  We saw the major sights, learned about Copenhagen and Denmark, and got a crash course on what hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) means—a major part of living in Denmark involves being “hyggely.”  I can’t stress enough what a great way these tours are to see a city, especially if you do it early and then can pick and choose what you’d like more facetime with.  Even once you give your guide a tip (it’s really not a free tour, nor should it be), the tours are a great value. After the tour, on our way back to the apartment, we walked down the famous pedestrian street Strøget and stopped by the flagship LEGO store—something I’d been dreaming of since I was six.

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We also stopped by the touristically crowded Nyhavn, the small shipping port with brightly colored houses that is as photogenic as it gets.  Pictures always turn out well, but be warned that it is probably the most tourist-heavy spot in the city, so it will always be crowded.

Paper Island/Reffen

We stopped for lunch at Copenhagen Street Food on Paper Island, a small island across a pedestrian bridge from the city which housed a warehouse full of 50+ street food vendors.  The place was incredibly popular and packed, but we were still able to walk around and make the very difficult decision of what to eat, which turned out to be some local loaded hot dogs.  Unfortunately, the lease for this place was only temporary and had to be closed down.  The same concept opened on a similar island a little farther from the city under the name Reffen.  If it is anything like the original, it will be well worth visiting—especially if you make a day of it.  The new island, Refshaleøen, is full of places to eat and shop and things to do.

Tivoli Gardens

For our final night in Denmark, we stopped by Tivoli Gardens, as it was only a few blocks from our apartment.  It is the second-oldest operating amusement park in the world, having opened in 1843, but doesn’t feel antiquated in any way.  There are modern roller coasters and rides, though on a much smaller scale than most places, and lots of green space to hang out.  We wandered around the grounds—we weren’t really there for any thrill rides—and happened upon one of the oddest sights of all our travels: a version of Cinderella set to Danish techno music.  It was weirdly amusing, but we stayed til the end.

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Smørrebrød

While in Denmark, a must-try is the Danish smørrebrød, which is a native open-faced sandwich on dark rye bread.  We stopped at popular local café Mad & Kaffe for one of our meals to try a variety of the sandwiches, and they were all excellent.  We had one piled high with avocado, one with chicken salad, another with fish and pickles, and a fourth that was heavy on the bacon.  We split them all, and I would definitely eat it again—if I had to compare it to the perceived hipster lifeblood avocado toast, I would say smørrebrød comes out ahead every time.

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It’s not hard to see why Copenhagen and Denmark consistently make it to the top of “happiest people” lists and the like—the city was incredibly friendly, walkable, and just all-around pleasant to be in.  Any city that places more emphasis on pedestrians and cyclists than it does motorists will always get a thumbs-up from me, and if you throw in excellent food and some top-notch beer, I’d be happy to go back.  And while the city can be expensive, the day-and-a-half we spent there will never be long enough.  I can’t wait to go back.

Our Favorite Cleveland Eats

It should be obvious that, being one of my favorite places in the world, Cleveland would have some excellent food.  From cafeteria-style Polish food to haute cuisine, there’s a little something for everyone.  Hell, even if you like shitty fast food (and who doesn’t?) there is a wonderful local option.  Be sure to check out some of these spots when you head in to the Best Location in the Nation.

Jonathon Sawyer

While Michael Symon put Cleveland on the culinary map, while he’s off in Hollywood being a celebrity chef, Jonathon Sawyer is holding down the position of best chef in Cleveland.  He has the Greenhouse Tavern on the pedestrian-friendly East 4th Street downtown, where you can order a whole pig’s head (and Symon name-checked their gravy frites on The Best Thing I Ever Ate).  Among his other restaurants is personal favorite Noodlecat, a fast-casual ramen spot that originated in the West Side Market, moved downtown, and has finally (and unfortunately) ended up in the suburb of Westlake. This seems to be poised to be franchised, though, so there may be more in the near future.  The ramen is great, but awesome sides like their grilled ramen and cheese and fried kimchi balls are must-orders.

Michael Symon

Symon does still loom large in the city, with plenty of outposts around town.  Near Noodlecat is his B-Spot (burgers, brats, and beers), which features the Fat Doug—a burger with coleslaw, pastrami, stadium mustard (more on this later) and Swiss cheese, and is well worth the trip to any of the Cleveland suburb locations. There are also some awesome shakes; the vanilla bean apple pie and bacon shake with the added shot of bourbon is just what you need after a stomach-busting burger.  On the aforementioned East 4th Street, you’ll also find Lola Bistro and Mabel’s BBQ, Symon’s “Cleveland-style” barbecue joint.

West Side Market

While the market is packed with butchers, cheese sellers, pierogi makers, and other take away and make at home style places, there are a few great stops for food.  Steve’s Gyros is probably chief among them, and always has a line.  This is a line you’ll want to wait in, and it goes pretty quickly because you can either order a gyro, or a gyro with extra meat—though, after eating the regular one, I’m not sure how extra meat is physically possible.  Though, if you want, you can cut to the front of the line to just buy a bag of pita.  There is also Maha’s Falafil, which has a pretty extensive menu for a small falafel stand, though the falafel is still the best.  I take umbrage with their “Philly” sandwiches, but I can ignore that for their other delicious food.  Finally, don’t pass a stop at Czuchraj Meats, which has all manner of cured meats for you to snack on, chief among them their variety of house-made jerky.  It’s thick, chewy, and slathered with sauce—definitely a requirement if you stop by the market.

Beer

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There is a lot of great beer in Cleveland, and if you’re in Ohio City (where West Side Market is), you’re in a good stop. Directly across from the market are Cleveland’s craft beer kings, Great Lakes Brewing Co. Swing in and get some swag, have some beer, and taste some of their ice cream creations they’ve partnered with local Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream to create (like the Edmund Fitzgerald porter chocolate chunk). Right next to the market is Market Garden Brewery, another local favorite with an extensive taplist.  On our last visit, their Nano OG Lager became a quick favorite, and Kaitie fell for their Hella Mango.  Do pop in for some refreshments after a long day of wandering the market.  Also, if you’re downtown, head over to Noble Beast, the open, garage-like brewpub with excellent beer and good food.  It’s a few blocks from the middle of downtown, but a great way to get away from the traffic if the Browns are playing, and a nice stop if you enjoy drinking quality beer.

Mr. Hero

Yes, of all the places on the list, the shitty fast food joint gets its own heading.  This is because everywhere in Cleveland is optional when I visit except Mr. Hero.  And the crazy thing is, I’ve only ever had one item there.  My entire life has been spent either living in the city, the suburbs, or visiting regularly, and the one constant has always been the Mr. Hero Romanburger.  It doesn’t look like much—and my description won’t improve upon that—but I’ll be goddamned if it isn’t one of my favorite sandwiches in the world.  Greyish hamburger patties with fried salami, onions, mayo, cheese, tomato, and lettuce that is wilted and soggy from the sheer amount of grease in the sandwich, it is a fatty, salty overload of joy.  Since I don’t get there as often as I would like, I can usually justify the gut-busting 14” version, but it also comes in 10” and, for the faint of heart, 7”.  Throw on an order of waffle fries with warm cheese sauce, and my trip is complete.

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Greasy, fatty, salty, perfect Romanburger

Odds & Ends

Sokolowski’s University Inn is a Polish cafeteria-style mecca for all your pierogi and stuffed cabbage needs, among other things. Hot Sauce Williams, which has two locations, is the place for barbecue in Cleveland.  Big Al’s Diner is great for breakfast, and their corned beef hash is unrivaled.  If you want to get out of the city a bit Corky and Lenny’s is a great Jewish deli with massive sandwiches and pickles on the table. Finally, if you want to take home some souvenirs, swing by the local Malley’s Chocolates to grab some sweets, or any grocery store to get the famous Bertman’s Original Ballpark Mustard served at Indians games.

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Picking up some Ballpark Mustard…among other things

As you may have noticed, I can go on and on about Cleveland, whether it’s things to do, places to eat, or just dumb facts about the city.  I love it there with my entire being, and am already looking forward to going back—as I always do, just after I leave.

While you’re eating in Cleveland, you might as well check out some things to do.  Here are a few of our favorites.

Flee to the Cleve: Things to do in Cleveland

IMG_4579Of all the places I’ve been, there are few I love visiting more than Cleveland.  It could be the family I have there, or just the fact that it’s where I was born, but I look forward to every trip.  I am immensely proud of my home city, and boast of it whenever I can (which I’m sure people get tired of real quick).  I can rattle off “interesting” facts about Cleveland all day long.  Did you know Cleveland had the first black mayor of a major American city? Or that Superman was invented there? And Tom Hanks credits Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater Festival with jumpstarting his acting career?

But I digress.  If you’re going to Cleveland, you don’t need fun facts—you need things to do and places to go.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Ohio City

This neighborhood is one of the best in the city.  While traffic and parking can be a bit of a pain (especially on weekends), you’ve got the Great Lakes brewery (swing in for a flight of beer and some Edmund Fitzgerald chocolate chunk ice cream), along with Market Garden and Nano Brew breweries across the street. There are a ton of places to eat—Flying Fig is nice, and TownHall is a great place for brunch. However, if you’re heading down there for food, you’re going to want to stop at

West Side Market

Open since 1912, this is the oldest indoor/outdoor marketplace in Cleveland.  While it mostly specializes in various cuts of meat (you wouldn’t think so many meat purveyors could flourish in such a small space), if you’re not planning on cooking anything there are still plenty of prepared foods and other market items to check out.  Urban Herbs is a great place to pick up any spices you need.  Czuchraj Meats was namechecked by Michael Symon on The Best Thing I Ever Ate for their out of this world beef jerky.  Man vs Food alumn Steve’s Gyros always has a line, and it’s always worth standing in (but get the regular gyro—there’s one with more meat for $2 extra, but I’m not sure how it’s physically possible to fit any more than they already give you). Side note: get as many napkins from Steve’s as you can. Maha’s Falafil is excellent, too.  Be sure to take your food up to the balcony to eat and overlook the entire market.

Downtown

To the unexperienced, there aren’t a lot of phrases less exciting than “downtown Cleveland,” but the place has its charm—unless you’re trying to drive around down there when there’s a Browns game.  Right on the waterfront is the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center, as well as the Browns’ stadium.  Head over to East 4th Street for a small pedestrian-only road of shops and restaurants (where you’ll find Michael Symon’s Lola and Mabel’s BBQ, as well as Jonathon Sawyer’s Greenhouse Tavern)—including Cleveland Clothing Company.  Go there and get a shirt; you’ll probably notice it seems like a requirement for Clevelanders to wear some kind of clothing denoting this.  It’s also a few blocks away from Quicken Loans Arena, where you can see the Cavs or the Rockers play, and Progressive Field.  Go to an Indians game, and get the famous stadium mustard (also available in stores).  You’ll also be near the Arcade, America’s first indoor shopping center (est. 1890), partially funded by John D Rockefeller.

Metroparks

If you enjoy nature, the Cleveland Metroparks is the place for you.  Spanning over 23,000 acres in 18 separate reservations, you can do pretty much everything.  There are miles and miles of bike paths, over 100 hiking trails, water activities—you name it.  Often dubbed the Emerald Necklace because of the way it wraps around Cleveland, you’re never far from a trail or a wooded area, which is extremely refreshing for a big city.  You can also swing by the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo if you’re into that sort of thing.

Odds & Ends

There are endless things to do in Cleveland and the surrounding area, and I love it so much I could go on forever.  If you like Christmas, head to the Tremont neighborhood to see the actual house A Christmas Story was filmed in, which now functions as a museum for the movie.  You can head to Lake View Cemetery to see John D Rockefeller’s grave, or check out the spooky Weeping Angel.  If you want to get out of the city, the nation’s best amusement park, Cedar Point, is a little over an hour away (but we’ll talk about that later).

Don’t let the old jokes or stories about a burning river (though true) deter you.  Cleveland has made plenty of must-visit lists in recent years, and as the city moves past its steel mill history, it will only continue to get better.  Like any big city, it’s got something for everyone, but only in a slightly smaller package, with a more friendly Midwest wrapping.  There’s got to be a reason Randy Newman, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Scott Weiland all have songs about Cleveland.   Right?

Now that you’re in Cleveland, check out some of our favorite places to eat.

36 Hours in Stockholm

For only having about a day and a half in Stockholm, we wanted to make the most of it.  We’d decided to take a four-day weekend through Copenhagen and Stockholm, and it wasn’t going to be full of a lot of rest and relaxation: we wanted to see and do whatever we could in our short time in the city.  And, of course, eat as much as we could. We did not, however, see an Ikea in its natural habitat.

Vasa Museum

We arrived too early to check in to our hotel, so we headed straight to the Vasa Museum, packs and all.  While I was aware of only the huge and impeccably-preserved Swedish warship Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 and was later dredged up in 1961. The museum opened in 1990, and includes six floors to view the ship from, amongst other information like artifacts from the ship and the era, exhibits on the history of Sweden at the time, and information on the building, sinking location, and resurrection of the ship.  I didn’t expect to get much out of looking at an old ship, but the museum was informative and much more enjoyable than I had anticipated.  And at SEK 130 (about $15 US, give or take, depending on the exchange), it’s hard not to justify.

Hotel with Urban Deli

After the museum and some lunch, we checked into our hotel—literally just named Hotel with Urban Deli.  They weren’t lying, either—part of the hotel is a small boutique food shop.  The hotel itself is a boutique basement hotel, which means none of the rooms have windows, but they were comfortable and quiet, and the hotel itself was quirky.  It also had a great breakfast, which is the perfect way to start your day without having to make a lot of decisions about where to eat and then wandering the city before you’ve had a decent coffee.  Bonus, it was very close to a main hub of Stockholm and the walkway to the old town Gamla Stan.

Walking Tour

After taking some time in our hotel room to figure out what to do next, we found an English-speaking walking tour that was meeting shortly near our hotel.  The tour took us through Gamla Stan, over hilly cobbled streets, to all its notable spots: the royal palace, Ritterholm church, the Nobel museum, and others.  While the tour itself was great (and I always love the free walking tours), the most notable part was our guide’s girlfriend who was tagging along to learn the trade for herself, who reminded me of Tig Notaro, one of my favorite comedians.

Skansen

For our second day, after our very filling hotel breakfast, we hopped on the tram to get to Djurgarden Island to visit Skansen, the world’s oldest open-air museum.  The 75-acre site shows what life was like during before the industrial area, and includes a full-scale replica of a 19th-century Swedish town, including inhabitants who dress and work as they would have back then.  There is also a small zoo on the premises. Luckily for us, due to it being a Monday morning and a bit cool and overcast, there were hardly any people in the park.  For SEK 195 (about $20 US), I would go again—and hope to have more time to spend there.

Food

Ah, the most important part of any trip.  And while we didn’t get Tunnbrödsrulle—the mashed potato and shrimp salad covered hot dogs that Anthony Bourdain tracked down—nor had I done my due diligence and learn about Ekstedt until we had returned to America, but we did get some traditional local cuisine.  For lunch our first day, we sat in the small, cozy bar area at Operakallaren (I doubt, dressed as we were, we would’ve made it in the actual dining room) for some local favorites.  We split a sampler of pickled herring, which actually turned out to be surprisingly delicious, and then I got a sausage dish with a lingonberry sauce (Ikea is right!) and LeeAnne went with the Swedish meatballs (which were also excellent).  Dinner at this place could be incredibly stuffy and expensive, but sitting at the bar for some local specialties was the way to go.

For dinner that night, we’d heard about a beer bar called Akkurat.  I didn’t know much about it outside of “it has good beer,” so I was incredibly surprised to see the selection when we got there.  I don’t even remember what kind of food we had (which is rare), but I do remember the bottle of Cantillon Gueuze, and the 2013 bottle of Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek and Cantillon Fou Foune—and the incredible list of other bottles they had going back many years.  Even with these great bottles, our dinner only came out to SEK 1,229 (about $135) – which I know because I kept the receipt.  The place did get crowded later in the evening due to a live band, but our seats on the porch were mostly out of the way.

Finally, on our second day, we had time for one last meal before heading out.  After Skansen, we were walking around Gamla Stan, and happened into The Hairy Pig, a tiny place with a death-defying staircase to a basement bathroom (that could easily be a murder room), but a fantastic charcuterie board, which also came with bread and a dish of baked provolone with tomatoes, herbs, and plenty of oil.  We also ordered a sausage to top it off and left the restaurant—and Sweden—happy with the choices we’d made.

While more time in Stockholm—and Sweden in general—would have been preferable (I’m looking at you, Faviken!), I’ll take what I can get, and I got quite a bit out of Stockholm in our day and a half.  And while I did have to talk my way out of the ABBA museum, the things we accomplished and saw (and ate!) while we were there made the long weekend an incredible success.  Do spend more time there when you go, but do also make sure to check out these places (and yeah, maybe the ABBA museum) while you’re there.