First time cruiser

Last week I went on my first cruise. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I ended up having a ton of fun! Three friends and I sailed with Royal Caribbean from Tampa to Key West and Cozumel. It happened to be Spring Break and we quickly showed the 21-year-olds that life doesn’t end in your 30s.

   

 

 

 

 

Brilliance of the Seas
Some notes about the ship:

  • It was definitely big but it’s amazing how quickly it became small. There are only so many places to go, of course. We made a routine of bar hopping but ended in the dance club most nights, where we made fast friends with the bartenders.
  • I never knew what time it was. That was partly because of our pitch black interior rooms. But also because we had to deal with the Daylight Savings Time switch and a time zone difference in Cozumel.
  • I can see how easy it would be to overeat. Most days we ate a slighter bigger breakfast, skipped lunch, then enjoyed dinner in the main dining hall. The food was on par with what I expected given how much food they are churning out around the clock.
  • Our dinner table was a little awkward the first night but we got over that. Our two servers were outstanding and we genuinely looked forward to seeing them each night. By the end of the week, we were giving them big hugs and didn’t want to say goodbye.
  • I ran three miles the second morning to add Gulf of Mexico to the list of places I’ve ran. The rest of my calories were burned on the dance floor.

Key West
As many times as I’ve been to Florida, this was my first trip to Key West. We only had about five hours but we made the most of it. We beelined it to the buoy to get the obligatory Southernmost Point photo but there was a long line. So instead, we got some quick #sidebuoy action, walked past the Hemingway House, and bar crawled our way back to port.

We stopped at Green Parrot, Sloppy Joe’s (my favorite beer of the day – Sloppy Joe’s Island Ale by Funky Buddha Brewery), Hog’s Breath, Garden of Eden (nude rooftop bar!) and Two Friends.

Cozumel
We didn’t actually spend any time in Cozumel since our excursion took us immediately on the ferry to the mainland. There were several Mayan ruin excursions but we chose one that included climbing 126 feet up a very steep/slick Mayan pyramid in Coba then climbing down 80 feet underground to swim in a cenote. It was such a cool experience and after hearing how the other ruins excursion was from our tablemates, I was so happy with our choice.

So, would I cruise again?
Yes, but here are some thoughts if I do:

  • I think it’s great for a group trip. I’ve been on some trips where groups try to do everything together but that’s not super realistic and usually means someone isn’t doing what they want to do. On the boat, everyone can easily do their own thing but still come together for the main dinners, excursions, etc.
  • Five nights was a good length. I don’t think I could have done another night unless I made a point to sleep more.
  • We had two days at sea where we were on the boat the whole time. I don’t think I would want to do a trip that had more than that based on my preferred vacation style. I can only lay out by the pool so much.
  • The all inclusive booze package was 100% worth it but there were some limitations. It only included drinks that were $12 or less, which unfortunately didn’t include prosecco. We powered through, but the last night I splurged for two bottles for our dinner table because it’s not a real vacation without bubbly.
  • I should have boarded the ship wearing my swim suit and cover up. I knew they would take my suitcase so I packed a tote bag and changed when we got on board. But I could have started enjoying the sun and pool deck that much quicker.
  • I would stick with the cruise line for booking excursions. We debated this a lot for Cozumel but once we got off the boat I was so glad we went through Royal Caribbean. They took care of the ferry ride and getting us everywhere on time.
  • I would pack more layers. Our last day at sea was relatively cold, almost too cold to lay out. I wasn’t really prepared for that.
  • I never ended up taking Dramamine but I was glad I had it just in case.
  • I would bring more cash. We had a base level of gratuity included in our package but there was a chance at the end of the week to tip individual staff members who went above and beyond. I had to get some more cash out on the boat to properly thank our two dinner servers and our favorite bartenders.

Have you been on a cruise? What do you love about it? Share in the comments below!

 

NOLA

New Orleans has been near the top of my travel wish list for a long time and I was so excited to check it out with two of my favorite people for a college roomie reunion. Leading up to the trip, we were a little overwhelmed by the long list of recommendations from friends who had gone and loved it. In the end, our trip was a combination of some of those tips and some things we stumbled upon. At the risk of adding to said long list, here are some of the highlights.

French Quarter
We stayed a block off Bourbon Street in a great apartment. I had some people tell me to avoid this area completely, which I think is a bullshit recommendation. It’s the thing to do in the place to do it. We drank hurricanes. We did a tarot reading. We had absinthe. We danced in the street to Beyonce. We had no regrets.

Beyond the booze, we had some delicious noms. I don’t eat seafood but I kind of get into crab in certain formats. I really enjoyed the crab cake alfredo at Oceana and the super unique crab meat cheesecake at the Palace Cafe. And of course we had to get beignets, though we opted for Cafe Beignet over du Monde since it was close by. It had the most adorable courtyard where I could have sat forever.  

Garden District
Our second night, we ventured over to the Garden District and had one of the best fried chicken meals of my life. No, it wasn’t at Willie Mae’s, where pretty much everyone told us to go. We got a tip from a local to eat at Joey K’s and it was in the area where we wanted to bar hop so that’s where we went. I’ll never be able to compare it to Willie Mae’s but I kind of don’t care. It was my death row meal come to life, it was unreal, and once again, I had no regrets.

Our server there was awesome and wrote out a list of places for us to go, which we followed almost to a tee and it made for a great night. Balcony Bar gave us call backs to house parties at UD. The Bulldog had a great courtyard with a cool tap fountain. I had trouble finding anything local on tap up to that point so it was nice to order a flight of local brews. And we wrapped things up at The Delachaise wine bar before heading back for some more Bourbon Street debauchery.

Frenchmen Street
For our last night, we checked out Frenchmen Street. It was very crowded but a different vibe than Bourbon Street. There was live music at each bar we went to: A super fun band at Bamboula’s; a band I don’t really remember because we were so focused on the absolutely stunning bartender at Maison; and the Jason Neville band at Vaso who had us dancing and loving life and never wanting to leave NOLA. It was seriously the best night.

The daytime stuff
We did two tours: Mardi Gras World and Save Our Cemeteries. It was super interesting to learn about the history of Mardi Gras and everything that goes into it. I had no idea there were so many parades, for example. Seeing the elaborate artwork of the floats up close was really cool, too. And our guided walk through St. Louis Cemetary #1 provided some history on the city and fun facts – like seeing Nicolas Cage’s future burial tomb. Oh and I added Louisiana to the list of states I’ve ran in (number 19) with a nice route down to the riverwalk.

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Normally this is the part in my trip recaps where I would ask what I missed out on and what you think others should check out. But we’re at maximum information overload as it is. To summarize: NOLA was everything I hoped it would be. The people were so nice. The food was ridiculous. The music was so good. And I was so happy to be with my two college roomies!

Traveling in Toronto

“Why Toronto?”

I got that question a lot when talking about the bachelorette party I planned for my best friend of over 20 years. When thinking about a trip that would properly celebrate Kim, I wanted a destination that was as unique as her – someone who lived a year in Argentina (read about our adventures in Buenos Aires and Mendoza) and spent six weeks in India, among many other worldly travels.

Toronto was a short flight from Chicago, where the bride-to-be lives, and the more I researched it, the more sure I was that it would make for a great trip. The city definitely delivered!

The digs
We stayed in an Airbnb apartment that was in a great location just a few blocks from the waterfront and a short walk to the CN Tower (balcony view below). Like my previous Airbnb stays, it was nice to have a home base with more space to relax. I have a tendency to fall in love with everywhere I visit and it’s that much easier to imagine living somewhere when you’re staying in an apartment versus a hotel.

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The eats
Many of my favorite memories with Kim surround meals we’ve shared. This trip would prove to be no different as everything we ate was pretty much delicious, starting with a Nutella pastry from the Tim Horton’s across from our Airbnb. Other highlights included:

  • WVRST – Multiple friends recommended this restaurant, self-described as “sausage hall and other wonders.” I tried the kangaroo, which felt weird to order but tasted great. Realistically, though, we could have just had the duck fat fries with our various dipping sauces and been perfectly satisfied.
  • The Elm Tree – This was a super cute spot with a great wait staff and modern Mediterranean menu. My steak frites were delicious (are you picking up on my fry addiction yet?!) as was the burrata appetizer we split.
  • Afternoon tea at the Ritz Carlton – I don’t drink tea but after enjoying my high tea experience in London, I was interested to see how this would compare. The treats were perfectly dainty and delicious and I ended up picking a tea I didn’t hate (read: I actually drank an entire cup).
  • Toula – Located 38 floors up in the Westin right on the waterfront, Toula offers a 360-degree view of Toronto. I made our reservation so that we would be there during sunset. While the tall buildings blocked our view of the sun, it was beautiful watching the sky morph from bright blue to shades of red, pink and purple. We also had a great view of the CN Tower lit up for Pride, which was that day. The food was also great but the service was a little slow.

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The things to do
The CN Tower dominates the skyline and is seemingly always in sight. We decided against going up though, partly to avoid wasting time in line and partly because we knew our dinner Sunday night would have a (somewhat) comparable view.

Instead, we ventured to the St. Lawrence Market and wandered our way through more than 100 booths. We settled on some meats and cheeses to take with us on our beach trip as well as some ice wine from Peller Estates for the apartment. The wine was pretty unique and had a syrupy texture that made me want to pour it over ice cream or a piece of cheesecake.

Sunday morning, we took the ferry to Hanlan’s Pointe on Toronto Island. And because it was a bachelorette party, it’s only appropriate that we ended up at a clothing optional beach (naked men – check!). It was much less crowded than what I imagine Centre Island would have been, at least based on the size of the ferry going that direction versus ours. The couple hours we spent out there were super relaxing and we got an awesome view of the cityscape on the ferry ride.

I also snuck in a three-mile run Saturday morning on the Waterfront Trail — my second time logging international miles!

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The nightlife
We arrived on Canada Day and posted up on the patio of Macho, just a block down from our place, to watch the fireworks. After that, we walked to King Street West where there are a ton of bars. The first spot we tried was only offering a $1,000 bottle service minimum. No thanks! Luckily our waiter earlier in the night recommended Early Mercy, which had a reasonable $10 cover and a decent enough DJ. A quick stop in Locals Only across the street rounded out our first night in the city.

The second night was devoted to Kim’s love of Latin dancing. My extensive research turned up El Rancho, a salsa club on College Street that ended up being the perfect spot. We danced for a solid four hours, spinning and sweating our way through salsa, bachata, merengue and reggaeton. It was seriously the best time ever and I loved watching my BFF in her happy place.

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After such a fun weekend, my response to the question is now “Why not Toronto?”

Experiencing Austin

I haven’t fallen in love with a lot of someones but I have fallen in love with a lot of somewheres. My latest fling: Austin.

Okay, so maybe I didn’t fall in love with the heat. No place is perfect! While I did my best to glisten a la Ashley Judd in A Time to Kill, I’m convinced it’s impossible to feel sexy when you’re constantly sweating. But the river, the bridges, the cityscape, the rooftop views, the breakfast tacos and the whole “Keep Austin Weird” undertone definitely wooed me.

I was there last weekend for a friend’s birthday. We stayed 15-deep at an Airbnb house that was about a mile from the east end of Sixth Street. The location worked out pretty well and I got to experience so much more of Austin compared to the first time I went for work several years ago.

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The nightlife
Austin is known for its live music scene and the notorious Sixth Street certainly delivered. Similar to Broadway in Nashville, both sides of the street are lined with bars showcasing a wide variety of musicians. We spent a lot of time on the Dirty Sixth end, with some highlights including Easy Tiger (stopped in for a beer but they also bake bread!), Maggie Maes (awesome rooftop deck), Chupacabra Catina ($2 happy hour beer) and The Gatsby (posted up on the balcony overlooking a big back deck and watched a couple bands play).

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The Driskill Hotel is an old timey oasis in the middle of the Dirty Sixth bar hopping scene. The architecture and décor ooze opulence and indulgence. We cozied up in leather barstools and enjoyed some very well-made cocktails.

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On our last night in town, we went to Rainey Street and this is where Austin truly stole my heart. It wasn’t necessarily any less crowded than Dirty Sixth but it had a completely different vibe. Every spot had great outdoor spaces with string lights (I might be slightly obsessed with them…) and good music that you didn’t have to scream over.

I read about Container and it lived up to my expectations and then some. It’s a really cool space that’s built with shipping containers. Bungalow was another solid spot that looks like a regular house from the outside but is gutted and open inside. And we ended the night dancing our asses off at Javelina until last call.

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To experience Austin is to experience Dirty Sixth, yes. But I would highly recommend checking out Rainey Street. And we heard from a few locals that the west end of Sixth Street is developing more and cultivating a somewhat upscale culture.

The eats
To experience Austin is also to eat breakfast tacos and BBQ. Our house was only a few blocks away from Juan in a Million. I tried a migas taco, which has crispy tortilla chips in it, and it was delish! Our group also hit up Salt Lick Bar-B-Que. I don’t get all crazy over BBQ like some people so it was good but not amazing to me.

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My favorite meal though was our first one in town at Stella San Jac. They had the most amazing biscuits and salted butter and my burger with onion straws hit the spot. I have to give a shout out to our waitress Clarissa for handling our huge group. She was a rockstar!

The things to do
One of the coolest – literally – things we did was take a dip in Barton Springs. I’ve been in natural hot springs before but this water runs around 68 degrees. It was heavenly compared to the 100-degree weather we’d been walking around in. It is a bit of a shock to your system when you first get in but so worth it.

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We also went to a Round Rock Express ballgame. The birthday honoree and a lot of the guys on the trip are big baseball fans. I am not. However, I do enjoy the ballpark atmosphere. We sat in a section of rocking chairs and it was really relaxing and a unique experience. I probably could have sat rocking sipping my cold cider shooting the shit with the group forever.

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And if you like all things quirky and eclectic, South Congress is a great place to stroll through. There are boutiques, art galleries, bookstores, restaurants and of course live musicians playing on the street.

The place to run
My training schedule called for nine miles while I was down there and luckily our house was less than a mile from the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail. It wraps around the river so you can run almost entirely uninterrupted with spectacular views of the city. I managed to get out the door by 7:30 a.m. but it was already almost 90 degrees by the time I finished. Props to the Austin running community for dealing with that on a daily basis!

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I had a feeling I would love Austin going into the trip but I wasn’t sure what to expect with the group dynamics since I only knew the birthday honoree and his girlfriend. The group was awesome though and I had so much fun. And luckily they’ve traveled together quite a bit so they’ve mastered the balance between group activities and letting people do their own thing.

So, Austin, you’ve got a hold on my heart. Until the next trip at least…

The perfect southern solo getaway

Before I travel, I usually do pretty extensive research on sites to see and places to eat so I can hit the ground running when I arrive. I creep on Google Maps (satellite and street view!) to the point where I often have a city’s general layout memorized before I even get there. Given all that, I usually have a good idea of what my trip will be like going into it.

Last week, however, Charleston, SC, took me by surprise. I was truly blown away by how beautiful and relaxing it was. I present into evidence Exhibit A: My Instagram account, which I unashamedly BLEW UP for three days solid.

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Charleston was exactly what I needed after getting through our biggest work event of the year the weekend prior. I love to travel and have never been one of those “It’ll be good to get home” people but this trip was particularly tough to see come to an end. I spent my last night under the moonlight, toes in the sand, just listening to the waves hit the rocks. It was perfection (Exhibit B).

To be fair, it would have been hard for Charleston to fail as a destination, what with warm weather, water, southern cooking and historic homes. It did end up being an expensive town but I was in full on treatyoself mode and had budgeted appropriately. I didn’t do as much as I typically fit into my trips (event planner hangover, perhaps) but I did get a taste of everything Charleston has to offer and loved it.

I stayed at the Charleston Harbor Resort which overlooked downtown from across the bay. The hotel had a free trolley to/from downtown and there was also a water taxi that was a cheap way to get out on the water (and see dolphins!). I took advantage of the free hotel bikes one day and also got in a five-mile run to the bridge and back. It was a convenient location to both take advantage of all the excitement of downtown and escape from it to relax by the pool or on the marina dock.

So, the highlights:

  • Magnolia’s: The fried chicken meal I had was the epitome of southern cooking and I was in carb heaven. Since I traveled alone, I sat at the bar right away but I would recommend reservations.
  • The rooftop at The Vendue: Pretty popular on a Saturday night and for good reason. I enjoyed a beautiful view of the sun setting over downtown.
  • 82 Queen: I wish I had been hungrier when I was here! I stopped in for lunch and the menu looked amazing but I kept it light with a super tasty local Kolsch and a crab cake. They have an adorable patio but I sat at the bar since the wait was so long.
  • Kaminsky’s: Did the cliché dessert of a warm slice of apple pie a la mode while killing time before taking the hotel trolley back. So good!
  • 39 Rue de Jean: Hands down one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Ever. I ate every bite of the steak frites and can still taste the deliciousness thinking about it now. So glad one of my friends recommended it!
  • Tavern and Table: I biked over for lunch and saw yet another gorgeous side of Charleston. I sat outside overlooking Shem Creek with a delicious charcuterie and cheese board.
  • The Griffon: For my last dinner, I took the water taxi over and asked the captain to recommend somewhere chill and unique with a tasty burger and local brews. His suggestion was so on point!
  • Nathaniel Russell House and Aiken Rhett House: With no car, I was limited in getting out to the larger plantations. However, Charleston has preserved several urban plantations and house museums right in the middle of the downtown neighborhoods. I visited the Nathaniel Russell House first and it had a cool staircase. But the Aiken Rhett House was far more impressive and the audio tour was really well done.

I realize it looks like all I did is eat but I’m okay with that. I enjoyed every single thing I ate, except for the crab cake which I tolerated in an effort to eat seafood. If I had a car, I could have ventured to Folly or Sullivan Beach, too. But I enjoyed keeping it low key and spending a lot of time just walking around and taking in the views of the water, the architecture and the flowers.

And if all that wasn’t enough to convince you how perfect this trip was, here’s a gallery of pics:

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Have you been to Charleston? What did I miss out on? Did you also eat all the food while there? Add your recommendations in the comments below!

Kentucky Derby Festival MiniMarathon

“Train hard, race hard” is a mantra I’ve adopted as I’ve gotten more into running. If it’s snowing, you run. If it’s raining, you run. If it’s 0 degrees, you run. If it’s 90 degrees, you run.

You do this because you never know what will happen on race day and training in all elements makes you more mentally prepared. If you only train in “perfect” weather, you will only be prepared for “perfect” race day weather, which is super rare and means something different to every runner.

This weekend I ran my fifth half marathon, the Kentucky Derby Festival MiniMarathon, and the race day conditions were far from perfect. The forecast called for 53 and rainy. I was excited for cooler temps since I tend to run hot but wasn’t sure how heavy the rain would be. I wore a hat and mesh tank top and brought a poncho for the start line corrals.

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It ended up being a light rain for the majority of the race, which I actually didn’t mind. But in the last few miles it turned into a downpour. It was honestly some of the toughest conditions I’ve ever ran in but I kept my head down and grinded out to the end for a 2:13:56 finish.

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It wasn’t a PR but it was my second fastest time, which I’m pretty proud of given the rain. The course was also hillier than I’m used to (aka super flat Indy) and the field was bigger than I’m used to, forcing me to weave in and out of runners almost the whole race. I also had a slow first two miles after realizing I had to pee pretty much as soon as I got in the corrals. I’ve never stopped in a race before but I knew it would weigh me down (literally and mentally) so I dipped in and out at the first water station. My gut reaction was to sprint out of there to make up for lost time but I had a lot of course left so I calmed down and settled into a steady pace.

Splits

My Garmin was a little off from my chip time because of my early pit stop but based on how my splits were the rest of the race, I think I might have had a shot at a PR had the first two miles gone differently. But you can’t think that way. I ran the race I ran and left it all on the road, which is all you can do!

One of my other slower miles was when we ran through Churchill Downs. The tunnels going in and out had a steeper incline than I expected and of course I had to get my phone out for a few pics. There were a couple horses on the track, which was cool but you could definitely smell them…

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While the water stations were a giant cluster (I had to stop and wait for them to fill up cups…), the City of Louisville came out and represented in some ridiculous spectator conditions. They were some of the best I’ve had in any race. My favorites were the church near mile two, the high school drumline not far down from there and a girl’s cross country club whose cheers could rival the Wellesley College section of the Boston Marathon.

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What’s next?

My goal is to maintain my base in May then in June start training for my first full, the Monumental Marathon. SHIT JUST GOT REAL.

Louisville Love

I stayed at the Galt House the night before the race, which was a little pricey but worth it for the convenience factor. This was my first out of town race and it was really nice not to have to worry about race day logistics (the start line was half a mile down the street).

After the race, I met up with my friends who also did the half (Efe’s first!) and stayed at their house in the Clifton area. I’ve driven through Louisville so many times but never really visited and I have to say I was really impressed. So much good food, beer and bourbon (of course).

This post is already super long so I’ll spare you the details and just give you the highlights with some pics in the gallery below.

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Have you raced in the rain before? What are your strategies for tough conditions? Where else should I visit in Louisville when I go back? Drop a note in the comments below!

An unforgettable London holiday

The idea that you can summarize London in a blog post is ridiculous. The notion that you can capture a city so big and vibrant and alive in any number of words is preposterous. A city that sits on top of seemingly infinite levels of underground trains constantly whirring back and forth. A city where you can go to a different pub for lunch and dinner every day for an entire year and not even come close to eating at them all. A city with so many unique neighborhoods and districts intertwined in such a way that you can experience a completely different scene by walking 10 minutes in any direction.

Sure, I could give you a laundry list of things I did and places I went while spending a week in London. And I may still do that by the time this post is done. But it won’t do it justice. It won’t even come close.

I suppose I should back up and explain how I ended up in London. My friend Amanda had planned the trip with someone else who unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute. On December 12, I booked my flight and less than two weeks later, on Christmas Day, we were off. It might seem crazy to book an international trip on such short notice. But when you make travel a priority in your life, saying yes to an opportunity like this is a no brainer. (Practical side note: I already had the time off work.)

Since being back, I’ve had a hard time articulating my favorite part. It wasn’t one thing or place, but rather a feeling. I immediately felt super comfortable in London. Of course no language barrier helped, along with my pre-trip Google Map stalking and natural sense of direction. But it was more than that and different than my previous trips abroad.

I felt like we were there, not just visiting. Walking around, taking the tube, drinking pints at a pub (all the pubs)…it all felt so natural and like something I could do every day forever. Our Airbnb flat contributed to that a lot I’m sure – a two-bedroom flat just east of the Tower of London past St. Katharine Docks. It was so nice to be able to spread out, cook a few meals and feel like we were locals. You just can’t get that same experience in a hotel.

It ended up being sort of a weird time to visit London. We arrived on Boxing Day, an official holiday and also Amanda’s birthday. A lot of places were closed, not just that day but at odd dates and times throughout the week. That didn’t decrease the number of tourists though. The lines at all of the major sites were crazy. We walked by each attraction but skipped the long lines and high admissions prices to keep walking and take in more of the city.

And take in the city we did! We walked through almost every major area on both sides of the river. I promised not to do a laundry list but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note some of the highlights and include a gallery of pictures (below). If you want more recommendations, I’m happy to provide the full list of restaurants/attractions/etc in the comments.

  • I keep a list of states I’ve ran in and was super (nerdy) excited to add a country! The Thames Path provided a great route and I witnessed a pretty incredible sunrise over the Tower Bridge.

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  • High tea at the Tower Hotel – I was apprehensive since I don’t drink tea but I quickly learned it’s about so much more than tea. It was a fancy, fun experience with delicious food and unlimited Prosecco.

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  • Harry Potter nerd moments – I made the pilgrimage to Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station. We also stumbled upon Leadenhall Market one morning before it opened. A little eerie but awesome and I later learned it’s where they filmed some of the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley scenes.

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  • British Library – this is one of my must see recommendations. They have original manuscripts from DaVinci and Shakespeare. Beethoven’s handwritten symphonies. The piece of paper the Beatles wrote “Yesterday” on. The first known use of italics in print. It was incredible and admission was free!
  • Train to Windsor – as much as we loved the city, this day trip was a nice change of pace. The castle was interesting but even better was venturing to Windsor & Eton Brewery. I loved learning about their brewing style versus the U.S. while sampling generous half pint pours. And the staff was so friendly!

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  • And of course counting down to 2015 in another country was pretty cool. We opted for an 80s theme party at The Minories and had a blast dancing in the New Year.

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The complete gallery:

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