Houston: Letting Life In

Ah, Houston. The city where zoning is a myth and flash flooding is a regular occurrence. I think that adds to the charm of the city, though. The greatest thing about Houston is you never know what fabulous hole-in-the-wall restaurant you might find just around the corner. Being 45 minutes from the Gulf and always booked with great concerts, it’s a fantastic place to spend Spring Break too! But most importantly, Houston doesn’t shy away from nature– it welcomes it into the city. 

1. Cockrell Butterfly Center

Houston is hot in the summer, but nothing beats the heat and humidity of a rainforest in the middle of the city! Get up close and personal with hundreds of bright, beautiful butterflies at the Butterfly Conservatory. Stay really still and you may get lucky and have one land on you. This is one magical experience you don’t want to miss. Snapchat filters have nothing on the real deal.

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Butterflies flutter around every plant inside the Houston center, tickling passersby with their feathery wings

2. Phoenicia

A mouth-watering bite of gyro sets me off to high places and no place makes it better than Phoenicia. Dare I say it: Better than Halal Guys 🙊

Everything is made right in front of you and it comes to you hot, fresh and juicy.  So if you’re taking in the sights downtown and feel a little rumble in the stomach, get yourself some. You’re welcome.

3. Downtown Aquarium

Talk about bringing nature to your doorstep! This aquarium is amazing. That’s all I’m going to say. You have to see it to believe it. )

The restaurant next door. Make sure to get the Fish n Chips 😜

3. Rice Village

Looking for something a pittle more high street while on your vacay? Take a stroll down the streets of Rice village. With tons of great shopping to be done and the cutest cupcake place youve ever seen, there’s plenty you can do, including an impromptu picnic on Rice University’s campus lawns. But if you’re not in the mood to get your knees dirty,  there are several other delicious restaurants within walking distance, including my favorite Turkish place, Pastas.

A delicious yogurt and eggplant dish at Pasha’s in Rice Village

4. Kemah Boardwall

Lastly, what’s better than a never ending carnival? Take in the cool boardwalk breeze and catch an amusement park ride or two with your sweetheart. You csn see this place off the highway and its always open. Enjoy the lights, the skyline, and Texas’s specialty– deep-fried ANYTHING.

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Cleveland: Full of History, Full of Hope

I’ve visited Cleveland several times over the years, but I never really saw Cleveland until my last visit. Cleveland has often been viewed as a pock-marked with “bad spots”, especially after the recession of 2008. But the city seems to be coming out of a metaphoric chrysalis as of late. You can really feel the city coming alive around you. To truly capture the essence of Cleveland, you’ve got to visit these places.

1. Algebra Tea House

This is a place where people come to interact and discuss religion and politics and art and poetry and love. Bookshelves line the wall amidst pops of color and hand crafted mugs. This little tea shop was the first non-italian owned shop in Cleveland’s Little Italy district and it has given and received warmth to the community with its tea and friendship.

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Everything has a touch of the owner’s hand– chairs, tables, and even the front door is crafted by him and his paintings hang on the walls in bright bursts of color.

2. Superman wasn’t born in Kansas or Iowa… He’s from Cleveland

That’s right! The original superhero, Superman, was conceptualized in a house near Case Western University by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Like any iconic superhero, Superman is like a beacon of hope for mankind, shining bright and believing the best in us. It is fitting that a Man of Steel was born from the Cleveland community as Cleveland is finding its way again.

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The first volume of the Superman series is displayed in comic strip form on the fence surrounding Jerry Siegel’s house

3. Lucky’s Cafe

Craving a little Farm-to-Table action? Lucky’s is the place to be. Tradition and diversity lead the way in their most interesting of flavors. You can have fun with some of their more experimental dishes like the Canoewreck, or you can go with their Forever-Delicious Baked Mac-N-Cheese. Whatever you choose, I guarantee you’ll love it.

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Enjoy their outdoor seating in the warmer months!

4. Any one of the many Polish Catholic churches in the area

Poles came to Cleveland long ago and they brought their unique art form and food with them. Besides their delicious pierogis, some of the most stunning art is depicted in their churches–if you can find someone who works there to tell you the stories behind the different stained glass panels and gold leafed statues, it can be better than a trip to the museum. I personally went to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Parma, OH where the minister walked me through his favorite panels and displays.

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A polish catholic church

5. Rockefeller Park aka Cleveland Cultural Gardens

Last but certainly not least, there’s Cleveland’s little slice of paradise. Cozied up against Lake Erie, I found this little gem on my way to the airport, right at the end of the trip. A string of 26 nationality gardens, the site is unique to Cleveland, with each garden sharing the flavor of its nation in the architecture and landscaping. It holds busts and full statues of notable individuals like Gandhi, Tesla, Curie, Schiller, and Shakespeare.

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Gandhi Statue at Cleveland Cultural Gardens

The theme of the Gardens “Peace through mutual understanding”, and the cultural diversity seen in the gardens stands at the very foundation of Cleveland and is a real joy to explore.


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Chicago: Experience Things Differently

There are two things about the Windy City you need to know: the wind keeps blowing and the people keep smiling. Seriously, the people are so nice! And Chicago is all about YOU. In every facet of its being, the city reaches out to interact with you, so dive in and experience city life differently with these 5 ways to spend a week in the Windy City.

1. Dine with Death

What’s Chicago’s take on the classic “dinner-and -a-show”? They make dinner part of  the show! After all, nothing adds flavor to a delicious 4-course meal like murder. My brother and I went to The Dinner Detective Murder Mystery Show at the Knickerbocker Hotel (how fantastic is that name?!) a few months back and had a blast. The actors in this whodunnit were exceptionally interactive and had us all looking like the cry-laugh emoji by the end.

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That’s not an actor… 🙂

Shows can be a bit pricey so make sure to check Groupon for discounts!

2. Play some Volleyball on Lake Shore Drive

When the sun’s out and the temperature’s over 60, you can bet your bottom dollar there’ll be someone playing beach volleyball on Lake Shore. Swing by for a pick-up game or bring a picnic basket and enjoy the gorgeous view. With Lake Michigan on one side and the beautiful Chicago skyline on the other, who could ask for anything more?

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3. Go undercover at SafeHouse Chicago

The name’s Bond. James Bond. Transform into a secret agent and dine the way they do. Brand new to the city’s restaurant scene, it opened this January, SafeHouse Chicago brings you into a world of espionage and danger so beware of double agents! From the moment you walk in (it’s the red door), to the time you make your getaway, you’ll be in the world of Bond, Agent 99, and Agent K.

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An authentic piece of history:  A piece of the Berlin wall that came crashing down on Nov 7, 1989

So put on a swanky suit, take on a secret agent name and make your way to the SafeHouse for a terrific night. And don’t forget to get your cocktails shaken, not stirred. 😉

4. Laugh your butt off at Second City or grab a seat at a local play

This is the city that brought us some of the best SNL talent and of course, the fabulous musical Chicago! Comedy and drama are kind of their thing. Seats are hard to come by as shows are bought out months in advance, so if you can’t get in, don’t fret. Chicago’s got plenty to entertain you. Every one is different but there’s lots of experimentation going on with user experience in smaller, local productions. I sat in on a one-woman play once where we, the audience, were bystanders trapped in a room with the character in one instant, and in another instant, we were accused of being part of the angry mob outside, the cause of the woman’s conflict.

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5. Pizza, Dogs, and Chocolate Cake Shake: The Trifecta

New York has Halal Guys, Chicago has Portillo’s. Portillo’s brings you the best of Chicago–hot dogs and the Masterful Chocolate Cake Shake. It’s literally a giant slice of chocolate cake blended into a gigantic chocolate shake. Bring a few friends to split the sweet. You can thank me later.

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For some delicious Chicago-style deep dish try Lou Malnati’s or Giovanni’s or venture into the side streets for something a little less touristy.

There’s always more to do in Chicago and the outer cities so go out and explore one of my favorite cities in the world.  ♥


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Istanbul: Hidden Turkish delights

I went to Istanbul in the first week of April, at the start of Istanbul’s annual Tulip Festival. The mornings and evenings still clung to the remains of winter’s chill but the days were warm and full of sunshine. To prepare for my maiden voyage to Europe, I scoured the internet for the best travel recommendations for Istanbul and the best, by far, was Audrey Bergner’s 50 Ways to experience Istanbul.
Here are a few hidden gems I stumbled upon alongside sights that really shouldn’t be missing from your to-see list.

1. Privato Cafe by The Galata Tower

Order the continental breakfast– Europeans have perfect portions and use the best ingredients. Turkish yogurt and honey are downright sinful. Many thanks to my friends @thesamaras for the recommendation

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Privato Cafe– a little hole in the wall restaurant in the Italian-influenced streets of Beyoglu

2. Smell the flowers at the Topkapi Palace

The smell is absolutely heavenly. Fit for a king or queen. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been so fully immersed in the smell of flowers before–Bath Body Works so doesn’t do the trick anymore.

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A sea of beautiful, colorful tulips color the lawns of this amazing palace

3. Discover Glowing quartz pottery at Firca Quarts and Ceramic by the Aya Sophia.

Ask them to take you to the basement and prepare to see something remarkable.

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The entire Blue Mosque is designed in the same quartz that makes this vase glow in the dark

4. Feed your dreams at Alemdar Restaurant & Cafe

Ask for the Saç Kavurma. I kid you not, I am still dreaming about it! Bonus: get a free Whirling Dervish show.

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The best dervish show is in Sirkeci train station!

5. Turkish Ice cream

Such a unique texture, unlike traditional ice cream we get in America. I loved the Blackberry flavor the most!

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They love to have a bit of fun with you for your ice cream

6. Stop in Hafiz Mustafa 1864 in Taksim Square for the most unique and delicious baklava and Turkish delights.

They have some delicious combinations and flavors that I couldn’t find anywhere else in all of Istanbul. I finished a whole box, y’all… I hit the gym real hard when I came back. lol.

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The men are as lovely to look at as the desserts are to taste 😉

But overall, have FUN and talk to strangers. The lives of those we meet, their stories are what make travelling to far off places both foreign and familiar. Have a good trip! Or as the Turks say, İyi yolculuklar! Güle, güle!


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