Paris: An Incomplete Guide to an Amazing City

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
– Ernest Hemingway

Paris feeds the soul. It’s as simple as that, Belles. So while I’ll do my best to give you my top 5 places in the city, you can bet that there will be more blog posts about my trip to explore the amazing experience that is Paris. Before I start though, I have to say, I loved my hotel. Le Glam Hotel was a steal! At $79 a night, I got an amazing, clean, modern, and stylish hotel room with amazing hotel staff. It was a truly wonderful experience.

My amazing steal of a hotel ❤

Here’s a list of hidden gems and totally touristy things I enjoyed the most while in Paris:

Boulangerie Dominique Saibron

I cannot stress how much I loved the macarons and choquettes here. And the eclairs, and the baguettes, and oh my God, the TARTS!–yeah, this could go on for a while. Everything is baked to perfection. I’ve had a lot of macarons, Laduree (made in France) included, but nothing has compared to these macarons. Light, flavorful puffs of perfection, never too heavy-handed with the citrus or floral tones! And the espresso flavor was to die for. Pure bliss.

Just rows and rows of goodies!

House of Dior

I’ve been obsessed with Dior for as long as I can remember. I even did a project highlighting the historical significance of the A-line dress, made by Christian Dior in the 1950s. When I found out that I’d be going to Paris in the Spring, I knew I had to see the place where it all began–the original Dior storefront. What I wasn’t expecting was an entire neighborhood of Dior!

Original Dior Store

Where it all began–Christian Dior’s first storefront

You know I had to buy something there, right? A memorable token of the trip. 😉

Versailles

Versailles is a whole day affair, and it is so so worth it. I’ve been to quite a few palaces at this point, in Turkey, in Italy, and England, but this was another level of opulence. Jaw-droppingly stunning. But more than anything, it was intentionally built like that. Every room you enter in the palace has layers and layers of meaning and intentionality behind it. Power play after power play. Just, wow. If you have never taken an Architecture tour, I recommend the ones in Chicago, but once you’ve taken one, you start to understand why buildings are built the way they are and it opens a whole world of expression you probably never considered.

A tip: If you can, go early, see the gardens first and then enter the palace. And one more thing: gifts are sold sporadically throughout the palace and in the gift shop. Make sure to buy things when you see them! I made the mistake of thinking I would find lots of similar things outside the palace gates and I was so wrong! I still regret missing out on the opportunity to purchase a beautiful horse and carriage piece I saw there.

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L’Orangerie

While the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay are wonderful museums and should definitely be visited if you have time, they’re both enormous and take a lot of energy to navigate. If you’re a fan of the more manageable, “bite-sized” museum experience, where you get a little bit of all the greats, then the Orangerie is for you. Plus, it’s got 3 rooms of wall-to-wall installations of Claude Monet’s Water Lillies. And it is gorgeous.

Monet’s Water Lilies

Alongside this wonderful series, I also encountered my first Jackson Pollock piece and discovered a few more artists that I have grown fond of. I didn’t come out of the museum exhausted and weary like I did with the other 2–I felt like I could actually appreciate the art. It was well organized and palatable.

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Running through the streets of Paris from the Eiffel Tower to the River Seine ❤

This one is really more or less about giving yourself the freedom to be silly. Traveling can be tough and it takes its toll on your mood. I’ve found myself tensing up in unknown environments and being super cautious. After a long day of museums, walking, and not enough bathroom breaks (why is it so hard to find a clean bathroom in Paris???), we took a moment to re-energize with some gelato near the Eiffel Tower. We were on our way to the docks for a lovely sunset cruise of the Seine, but the waiter at the restaurant took forever with the check and we had to hurry to catch it. We started with a tense speed walk. Which transformed into a speedy shuffle. And after glancing at our watches, we all burst out into a flat run. The glee on our faces, the laughing and hooting as we dodged bumpy cobblestones, poles, and people, was the thrill we’d been seeking all day. The feeling of being completely and totally silly. We missed the boat by thiiiis much but it didn’t matter. We were feeling adventurous again. Bold. So we talked and laughed loudly, openly, completely immersed in the thrill of a newly revitalized city, watching the sun set on the Seine. Watching as the sky around the Eiffel Tower transformed from pretty blues and whites against the structure’s steel railings to a deep purple, clashing brilliantly with the golden yellow of the Tower as it’s lights turned on. I attempted to flirt with a cute crepe maker in French as we waited for the next boat and got whip cream on my nose as I delve into the brilliant waffle I’d purchased.

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My point is, see the touristy things, cross places off your bucket list, but don’t forget to explore yourself. Explore the you that you are when nothing and no one is inhibiting you. Be free and be you. That’s half the fun.


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Rome in a Day

Cruising Europe was a dream come true, and it all started with 5 days in Italy. Me and my family intended to spend 2 days in Rome, taking in the city with all its decaying grandeur, and then spend the remaining time visiting the gilded halls of Florence’s top family–the Medici–and the time capsule that is Pompeii, a city sealed in all its volcanic ash and forgotten by time and men for thousands of years. From there, we would make our way to Venice to catch our cruise ship to the Adriatic Sea and Jerusalem. The trains tickets were purchased, the journey carefully mapped. It was going to be riveting. At least that was the plan until a tornado ripped through Atlanta.

The tornado delayed every flight in and out of Atlanta International Airport, including ours (we had a stopover in ATL). The logistics were a mess, and we ended up airport hopping for 3 days in our attempt to get there. We finally made it to Rome in the evening of what would have been Day 3. Our chances to see Pompeii and Florence were shot. So we decided to make the best of what we had. Believe it, Belles. We saw Rome in a day.

Fresh off the plane and exhausted, I somehow convinced my parents to grab some halal gyro pizza from a street vendor (there’s TONS of Bangladeshis in Italy! Who knew?) and come out for a quick walk. Little did they know I had a surprise in store. I led them through the cobblestone streets full of music and laughter, turned a corner, and bellisimo! We were at the Fountain of Trevi. It was magical; the perfect way to lift our spirits. We made our wishes and tossed our coins. Did I take the moment to sing the first few lines of “Call Me, Maybe”? You bet. On blast. 😀

In the morning, our first stop was the Vatican. This city/museum is so vast, you need to get a tour guide. Ours was wonderfully interactive and could answer all the questions I had planned to save for our trip to Florence about the Medici and their influence on art, politics, and religion. Two birds, meet my one stone. 😀 I had never been in a museum where the artwork was close enough to touch–not encased in glass. We walked through centuries of sculptures and art as we moved towards the Sistine Chapel with its most famous of ceilings–The Creation of Adam. No photos were allowed inside the chapel but Michelangelo’s fresco was awesome. The details, the history, the underpants (yes, I said underpants). All the controversy between artistic vision and religious propriety was right before our eyes. And it was MASSIVE.

After a quick lunch and a refreshing gelato to give us a boost, we left the Vatican and began our race to see Rome. It felt like the tornado had followed us all the way from Atlanta–we found ourselves running from place to place, trying to see as many of our must-see sights as we could. Here were our top picks:

The Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verita): First made famous in Roman Holiday, we had to try our hand (get it? pun very much intended) at surviving its jaws. On our way out, we happened upon a lovely operatic performance taking place in the adjacent church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

Daring to tell a lie at the Mouth of Truth

The Colosseum (Le Colosseo): To the movie-classic question, “Are you not entertained?!”, we gleefully reply, “Yes!” We were literally running to the gates of the Colosseum before the guards could call ‘last entry’ and couldn’t have been happier with what we saw. I still get goosebumps when I see the cells where the beasts prowled, impatient for that cocktail of clean air and blood. We soaked it all in–the scale, the sensation. Thanks to my handy Fodor travel guidebook, we all took turns giving the structure our own melancholy salutation like the hundreds of gladiators who had come before us. Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant. Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you.

The Spanish Steps and Piazza Di Spagna: Believe it or not, this was one of my favorite places. We got here right around sunset, after a long day of walking. We’d seen the Pantheon, the Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus, the Roman Forum, and the wonderfully busy Piazza Venezia. We’d seen street performers seemingly floating in thin air and busts of old emperors by the Arch of Titus, with its towering trees of peculiar, almost Truffula-like form. We were ready for a rest. As we walked down the Piazza di Spagna, lined with designer stores, we met the most charming Italian violinist who, noticing our interest, serenaded us with his beautiful rendition of Por una Cabeza, which happens to come from my mother’s favorite movie, Scent of a Woman.

We grabbed some gelato from nearby and plopped down on the steps in true Audrey Hepburn-style. We were soon being shooed off (apparently food is no longer allowed on the steps–too many tourists making a mess!) but we had a grand old time with it. About ready to call it a night, we started making our way off the plaza when a barrage of heart-shaped balloons came bobbing down our way. A surprise proposal! We were thrilled. We joined in the festivities, observing and even singing along to the couples’ friends’ rendition of the Bruno Mars song, Marry You. Yes, my Belles, Rome was magical.

Proposal on the Spanish Steps <3

So, Gelato? Check. Pizza? Check. The perfect Roman Holiday reenactment on the Spanish Steps? Check!

Sure, we didn’t see the Borghese Gardens, the Duomo in Florence, the Barberini Palace with its exquisite interiors seen in Roman Holiday, or the many museums in the area but that’s what a second round is for. After all, this is what dreams are made of, right? 😉

Pope Francis Graffiti


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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.

Cockrell Butterfly Center-- Houston TX

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.

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.

algebra coffe shop

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?

chicago volleyball

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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Around the world, around the world…

Hey readers,

You may have noticed I flew around a lot this past year. That’s because I’ve been diagnosed with chronic travel bug. Since our trip to Pakistan last year, the FamJam has been itching for more and this year the symptoms are showing.

Since January, I’ve been to Chicago twice, Cleveland once, and to the great country of Turkey for the first time ever! The fun hasn’t stopped there either. My cousin got married this year too so we jetted off to Karachi again this summer (the heat. Oh God.) for 2 weeks (!!) to take part in the festivities. And this winter, I did a fun little road trip from Chicago to Toronto with the broski cuz bonding 💯. There was lots of color and to-die-for food that are just absolute must-have experiences. So, I’ve decided to add a few travel posts to the site. Expect one for Karachi, Chicago, and Istanbul in the next few months. I’ve got a hunch that I’m going to be adding a few cities to the list this year. 😉

Stay tunes, Belles!