HONG KONG 2017

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HONG KONG 2017
The last time I was in HK, it was a British Colony and home to one of the (then) most dangerous airport landing strips in the world. I have fond childhood memories of flying into this crazy ass airport on numerous occasions to visit family in Kowloon. Such a euphoric feeling to be thisclose to skyscrapers in the air! As if you could reach out the airplane window and touch one!

That was 25 years ago.

The old Kai Tak Airport was one of my favorite reasons to come to HK back then. If not the only really vivid memory I have of Hong Kong. Everything else is a bit fuzzy and hard to recall, unfortunately.

Fast forward to 2017. The husband expressed high interest in checking out HK. Me, not so much. I mean, if the old airport isn't there anymore - what's the point?? =P But alas, HK is kinda en route to Vietnam from The Philippines. Chinese New Year was fast approaching. We put the two together. Besides, it would be interesting to experience such a holiday, well, in China, for once!

Speaking of Chinese New Year, the city did go dead and quiet like we were told it would. Most locals go on vacation for CNY. The only souls left in the city were foreigners. Like, us. As awesome as that sounds, having the whole city to ourselves, we found out the hard way that almost everything is closed! So not much happened for us on the first official day of CNY, aside from the big parade at night.

The days before and after CNY were filled with insane foodie hunts. As well as hunting down many noteworthy Instagram hot spots. Yes! You've read that right! In fact, most of our sightseeing itinerary was just that - popular Instagram locations.

Digressing a little here, I have to storytell about one of the aformentioned Insta-spots: Sai Wan Swimming Shed. In my opinion, it's the most understated of all the HK Insta-places. Can't get more unassuming than a simple wooden pier jutting out into the waters. The picture of serenity. Quite a number of ships can be seen in the distance. At first, I didn't get the hype. Why were so many photographers going nuts over this place? It's so ordinary. But then a massive wave came and crashed violently around the pier. OH. Ordinary just turned poetic.

ANYWAYS, the hubs and I woke up quite early to make the journey out to this particular pier. Just when we thought we were the first ones there, the faint sounds of drones could be heard in the area. 2 drones. We quickly ran down the steps to the pier and found 2 guys (one dressed in outdoorsy gear, the other in a business suit) already enjoying the sights and scenes of the waterfront. Via their drones. Lucky ducks! No time to be sheepish, I threw on my flowy skirt and ran out on the pier to do what any Travel Instagrammer would do. Full on UNABASHED MODE for the cam. Twirling around and around, running back and forth, standing still like a statue for a hot second. ALL FOR THE 'GRAM! Just when I thought I had overstayed my welcome on the pier, 2 drones buzzed overhead, flanked both sides of me and nonchalantly filmed away as I twirled and hopped and skipped along. The drones followed my every move! I couldn't help but laughed into the drones' faces - this has never happened to me in the past 10 months of our world travels! Eventually, I switched places with the hubs, becoming the person behind the camera. At that point, the 2 guys walked past me with drone cases in hand, "You are very beautiful! Your dress is very beautiful! Thank you!"

Well, glad to add interesting footage to what they had initially thought, I'm sure, would be a normal drone flyover!

All in all, our quick week in HK was a nice leisurely pit stop in between Philippines and Vietnam. A week was all we could afford, as HK is not a cheap place to hang out. This doesn't mean it's the last we will see of Hong Kong. Oh no! We'll def be back for the food, the (other) Instagram worthy spots, the colorful architecture at every turn, and most definitely, the stunning harbour urban views!


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When: January 2017
Temp: 65-70F
Stay: Inn Spirit
Recommend (aka Instagram Worthy Places): Sai Wan Swimming Shed, Victoria Peak, Mong Kok Flower Market, Victoria Harbour, Nathan Road neon signs, Choi Hung Estate, Yick Cheong Building, Montane Mansion, Innovation Tower, Temple Street, Lai Tak Tsuen, China Hong Kong City buildings, Ping Shek Estate, Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, Instagram Pier, 1881 Heritage, Garden Hill.



-jin-

PHILIPPINES 2017

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As many times as I've been to the motherland (8? 9 times? I've lost count!) - this is really my first time coming as a tourist.

Growing up, my family visited Philippines quite often. Every few years or so. I would spend my entire summer vacations here. Can't say I was terribly too thrilled in visiting, due to the fact that it was always summer when we came. Insane humidity. Tons of mosquitoes. Baking in the sun - bleh. Why would I want to come to a place that's not much different from Houston? Though, all my complaints are superficial. I really do have many, many fond memories of The Philippines that easily overshadows the cons. The cultural traditions and family social interactions and street scene vibes. The village life, the food, the cousins - I loved it all!

This time around in The Philippines, it was all about that hostel life in Makati. To be fair, we did spend the beginning of our trip with V's family for Christmas and New Year's in the outskirts of Manila. That, in itself, was a whole 'nother new experience in the motherland. Considering most of my previous visits to The Philippines were just for my family!

But, yes, the majority of our one month stay mostly involved life in and around Junction Hostel. In 2 weeks time, we soon became very familiar with our little bubble of Metro Manila. When we're not out and about scavenging for food or hitting up one of Makati's many malls, we were spending an obscene amount of time at the hostel's lounge area. Trying to catch up on work and talking endlessly with the many fellow travelers passing through. The conversations with these travelers were, at the very least, highly interesting. Hearing their version of The Philippines. Totally opposite from The Philippines that I'm familiar with!

Anyways, if you're wondering why we'd stayed in Makati for so long ... rain. Unseasonable monsoons everywhere we wanted to go: Kawasan Falls, Caramoan, El Nido, Banaue Rice Terraces. Everywhere, rain! But we did eventually find a place with less chances of showers. Coron. 30% with mostly clouds. I can live with that! So we caught a flight from Manila and found ourselves in Coron an hour later.

Coron got moved up high on our list after extensive research. Less tourist crowds, not overdeveloped with luxury hotels (yet), still has a small village vibe. After hearing how overcrowded El Nido and Borocay are from other travelers - something off the beaten path sounded very attractive. And Coron did not disappoint. The visit felt more like a leisure adventure, with the streets full of tricycles and cute stray dogs and typical street vendor bustle. It felt very familiar, like being back at my parent's villages in Cebu. The fact that the dock itself (and certain parts of town leading to other popular sights) is still covered in dirt, and not pavemented, shows just how off the beaten path Coron is. (For now.)

We opted to do a boat tour for our island hopping between Bulog Dos, Banana Island, and Malcapuya Island. Nothing too terribly out of the ordinary except the good beach life - snorkeling, swimming, napping - with insanely clear water and white sands. It's nice being one of the firsts to arrive at these islands (even if it's just for a little bit!) before all the other tourists get in the way.

A side story on Malcapuya Island, while V was snorkeling, I was snapping photos of these baby chickens trying to eat a bunch of coconuts next to a hut - the guy in that particular hut popped his head out and said, "Only in The Philippines, huh?" And thus, started small talk between me and him. He also used to live in Houston, but wait!, in League City of all places - where I'm from! Then he mentioned an unusual name, and I'm like, hold up I actually do know someone with that name. It's his half sister. No way! I grew up with her! More excited talk followed. SMALL WORLD. Anyways, nice guy. He hooked us up with his private tour guide so we could do more island hopping to other notable places, like Kayangan Lake and Twin Lagoon. Awesome.

We didn't expect to stay in The Philippines this long. 2 weeks stretched into a month. And I really was looking forward to visting more places on my Bucket List! Stupid, stupid rain. Although things didn't work out, Coron ended up quite an enjoyable experience. Highly recommend to visit now before it gets super touristy!


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When: Late December to Late January
Temp: Mid-High 80s
Cities: San Pedro, Makati, Coron

MAKATI Stay: Junction Hostel
MAKATI Shopping: Greenbelt Mall, Power Plant Mall, Century City Mall
MAKATI Food: Nightly Filipino street food market next to A.venue Mall. Gourmet food court called Hole In The Wall (located on top floor of Century City Mall). Many food options at Greenbelt Mall.

CORON Stay: Haven 1916
CORON Sights: Mount Tapyas, Maquinit Hot Springs, Kayangan Lake, Twin Lagoon, Bulog Dos, Banana Island, Malcapuya Island. ** For island hopping, consult hotel/hostel for boat tours. If you prefer private tours, the hotel/hostel will help.**



-jin-

TAIWAN 2016

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It's true what they say about Taipei. You'd be doing A LOT of eating. 90% of the time - that's exactly what we've done. Eating to our heart's content as the food here is insanely cheap! We had this food routine thing down everyday for a week, grabbing our daily boba drinks and visiting one of the many street night markets. Even when visiting family - we've spent most of our time food hunting for local delicacies!

When we're not eating, we're busy meeting up fellow Travel Instagrammers. Now turn real life friends. =) Yas! And both meet ups turned out to be all kinds of fun! So how was it? Meeting strangers from the internet?? Honestly, not much different from meeting and hanging out with people at hostels. The only difference is that we know all these things about that certain person before even meeting in person. The pros of the Travel Instagram community. Is that. A community. It's very easy to keep in touch with like-minded travelers for an extended period of time - without even meeting in real life!

But seriously, fellow travelers are one of the most carefree and open-minded people I know! So I knew we'd had plenty to talk about on these insta-meets, exchanging travel stories and photography pro tips. And it seems I always get into random fun and laughs with fellow wanderlusters! Without fail! It's like adventure naturally follows us everywhere. Must be in the stars!

So these insta-meets. Who'd we meet? What we do?

We met Wendy (@nomadicfare) over typical Taiwanese soybean breakfast. Weirdly enough, it felt as if we've been friends for years as we chatted the morning away! Then things got crazy good at Banqiao Stadium where we had a mini photoshoot sesh. Lots of laughs. Lots of dancing. Lots of weird looks. Ya know. All for the 'Gram! Afterwards, we had a ridonkulous Dim Sum dinner spread with Wendy's relatives (Yup. More food!) and that in itself was a whole 'nother level of fun! (And funny!)

Unlike the meetup with Wendy, meeting with Karen (@kckicksit) was an uber last minute thing. But the best last minute thing ever! I haven't known Karen as long as Wendy, in terms of IG years, but again - it felt like we've known each other for a long time! Had the pleasure of chatting with Karen over late night shaved ice. Chatted so much that we missed last call for the metro! Thus began a very LONG night of adventures by foot through Taipei ... and eventually ended up at one of the best beef noodle soup restaurants in town at 3am!

Gah, the Travel Instagram community never ceases to amaze me. Y'all are beyond awesome! But ok, back to TAIPEI itself. There's really not much to do in this city! Aside from all the eating, me and Vince did everything related to Taipei 101. We went inside it. We viewed it from a few nearby streets. We hiked up Elephant Mountain to get a panoramic view of the city, with Taipei 101 commanding the sprawling cityscape scene. I wish we had more time than a week here! We would love to rent a car and explore other parts of Taiwan!


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When: December 2016
Temp: 75-80F
City: Taipei
Stay: Houze Hostel, Eight Elephants & Dreaming Dragon Hostel.

Recommend for Sightseeing: Taipei 101, Elephant Mountain, Rainbow Bridge, Banqiao Stadium, Four Four South Village.
Recommend for Food: Shilin Night Market, Raohe Night Market, Ice Monster, Modern Toilet Restaurant, Lin Dong Fang.
Recommend for Must-Try Taiwanese food: Stinky Tofu, Lu Rou Fan (Pork Rice), Beef Noodle Soup, Oyster Omelette, Gua Bao (Pork Belly Bun), Flaky Scallion Pancake, Ribs Stew in Medicinal Herbs, Fried Chicken, Shaved Ice, Pineapple Cake, Boba Drinks.



-jin-

JAPAN 2016

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Hang on to your hats, ya'll. This is gonna be a long one! As if the loads of Japan photos didn't already tip you off! (And that's whittled down from 2,000+ images!)

One blissful month in Japan. Per Vince's wishes. He's never been to Japan, and being the Anime/Manga fan that he is, as well as all things Japanese, he made it clear that we have to - have to - extensively travel through Japan.

Fine by me! I felt that my last visit to Japan was way too brief. I've only spent 5 short days in Tokyo back in 2009 and even then, that was still not enough to do anything and everything in such a massive city! So I was eager to revisit Tokyo and get to know her better. As well as explore other parts of lovely Japan that I've been dreaming of seeing with my own eyes.

But yah, a whole month in Japan! Yet still not enough time to get around! Next time I'm staying here for a year, lol!


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// TOKYO //
When people ask me if a few days is enough in Tokyo ... NO! Aim for at least 5 if it's your first time in the city. A week would be better. Tokyo is a HUGE city with TONS of things to do and eat. We stayed 2 weeks and took our sweet time. But all that time was only devoted to a small fraction of Tokyo. Mainly Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Asakusa, Akihabara, Ebisu, Roppongi and Ginza. By all means, do all the touristy stuff! Get it out of your system. And fill the in between times with unusual Japanese experiences, like themed cafes and restaurants. Or take day trips to nearby cities: Miyagi, Kamakura, Odawara, Takasaki, etc. Although the only day trip we had time for was Miyagi to see Fox Village. We also had the pleasure of hanging out with some friends while in Tokyo, both locals and expats, which added an appreciative depth to our trip. Always eye-opening to get the insider's scoop of Japanese culture! All in all, Tokyo is not just another big city. It's a metropolis filled with hidden gems.

>> SHINJUKU : Walk around KABUKICHO. (Pseudo Red light district with a bumpin' night life). While there, see a show at ROBOT RESTAURANT (Pricey show. Weird stuff! Ditch the mediocre food and stick with your free drink ticket!) and grab some craft cocktails at world reknown BEN FIDDICH. Check out the free panoramic views of Tokyo at night from the TOKYO METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT BUILDING. (The actual buildings closes early, but the towers should still be open til ~11:30pm. Find stairs off to the side of the buildings to access the observatory elevators. The stairs heads down below the street level. Do either tower. Or do both!)

>> SHIBUYA : HACHIKO! And while your visiting the dog statue, walk the famous SHIBUYA STREET CROSSING at least a few times. Head over to Starbucks' 2nd floor to get an 'aerial' view of the street crossing. Explore the streets of Shibuya - especially down DOGENZAKA! There is no shortage of good eats and urban eye candy here! On a side note: we stumbled upon one of the ALICE IN WONDERLAND themed restaurants here. (If you visit, ditch the over-priced food and just get a drink or two!)

>> HARAJUKU : Explore TAKESHITA DORI for all things kawaii. Grab a 3D cafe latte art at REISSUE. (It's a little hidden. Not located on the main street and you have to go up a set of stairs to the 2nd floor.)

>> ASAKUSA : Walk down NAKAMISE DORI for souvenirs and street food. It leads to the SENSOJI TEMPLE. While in the area - explore the many nearby streets! The nooks and crannies are full of little shops and quaint eateries!

>> AKIHABARA : Get your inner gaming geek on and head straight to SUPER POTATO! It has 3 floors of all nostalgic video games from the 80s and 90s. Super Potato is conveniently located in the main part of ELECTRIC CITY, so you can easily explore the area before/after Super Potato. The OWL CAFE is a 10-15 minutes walk from this area.

>> ROPPONGI : Stunning panoramic city views from TOKYO CITY VIEW SKY DECK in ROPPONGI HILLS. Admission is 1800 yen.

>> GINZA : This is a nice part of Tokyo! Full of high-end stores and stunning artsy architectural buildings so keep LOOKING UP. You might miss something photo-worthy! Grab a night cap at world reknown cocktail bars BAR HIGH FIVE and STAR BAR. But really, the main reason why we stayed in Ginza is because of the TSUKIJI FISH MARKET. (But it will change locations in the near future and no longer be in Ginza!) Come super early (3-4am) and prepare to stand for hours if you want to grab uber fresh sushi at DAIWA SUSHI or SUSHI DAI. The line can be utterly long and they do cut off the line after a certain time.



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// MIYAGI //
Loves me some cute chubby foxes! And there are hundreds of them at the Miyagi Fox Village! This was a quick day trip from Tokyo. Used our JR Pass, rode the bullet train straight to Miyagi (~1 hour), and grabbed a taxi directly to Fox Village (~40 minutes and ~$40 ride EACH way). Literally spent the entire day stalking the little guys until the closing time of 4pm. Damn, they're so photogenic! As nocturnal creatures, they are quite sleepy by day and thus look very dopey. Except if you have food, then all hell breaks loose! The chaos that ensues looks a bit comical. Even when they're fighting and screaming at each other, they still look utterly cute. On a side note, foxes do bite and are quite skittish so only feed and pet them at designated spots. Other than that caveat, we walked freely amongst the foxes. Def one of my favorite experiences in Japan!
>> FROM TOKYO TO MIYAGI : Bullet train via JR Pass. ~1 hour trip.
>> RECOMMEND : MIYAGI ZAO FOX VILLAGE. Admission fee of 1,000 yen.

// HAKONE //
Some people come here for day trips from Tokyo. Not us! We stayed a few days mainly for convenience sake. We wanted to do it all! On Day 1 we toured the Hakone countryside by Hakone Ropeway Tour. It was an exhausting all day tour only because of the insane weekend crowds that we had to fight through. Other than that minor detail, we saw spectacular country views covered in snow. (It had snowed on Thanksgiving Day.) Highlight views include Mt. Fuji, pockets of rising volcano smoke, and the famous floating Hakone torii gate. Try the famous Hakone Black Egg, steamed to perfection by the volcano heat. Day 2 had us acting all kinds of silly at the Yunessun Onsen Spa. We've spent the whole day hopping from the wine onsen to the coffee onsen to the sake onsen to the green tea onsen. Yes! Actual beverages! Insanely fun stuff! I'd do it again if I ever come back to Hakone! On Day 3 we relaxed in a traditional, slightly romantic, private onsen. Traditional as in go all out naked. A little pricey, but something to experience at least once in Hakone. Was it worth it? Yes. Yes it was.
>> FROM TOKYO TO HAKONE : Take 'Romancecar' using the JR Pass. 2 hour trip.
>> STAY : K's House Hakone.
>> RECOMMEND : Hakone Ropeway Tour, Hakone Shrine, Hakone Kowakien Yunessun, Hakone Yuryo.


// HIROSHIMA //
2 words: Miyajima and Bunnies. Hiroshima is a good base for those 2 reasons. Although there's not much to do in the city itself, all the touristy sites (Hiroshima Castle, A-Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Museum, etc.) in Hiroshima can be accessed by the Hiroshima Sightseeing Loop Bus within an entire day. Maybe a day and a half. Probably a good thing to do as a 'break' when traveling to and fro Miyajima Island or Rabbit Island. Speaking of Miyajima Island, set aside an entire day for this trip! There's so much to see here! From the inquisitive deer to THE famous floating torii gate in all of Japan to the massive Daisho-in temple complex. If you're lucky enough to catch low tide, you can even walk out to the torii gate! It's utterly touristy here, but worth checking out the hype. In contrast, it's a totally sleepy vibe on Rabbit Island, but your entire day will whiz by in a jiffy because you'll be spending hours upon hours feeding the bunnies. (And you'll be wishing you had more food, so buy an extra bag of rabbit food at the ticket counter! They're super cheap anyways!)
>> FROM TOKYO TO HIROSHIMA : Bullet train via JR Pass. ~4 hour trip.
>> STAY : AirBnb
>> RECOMMEND : Miyajima Island, Rabbit Island in Okunoshima, Hiroshima Sightseeing Loop Bus, Hiroshima Castle, The A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.


// KYOTO //
By the time we made it to Kyoto, towards the end of our trip, we were utterly templed out. And just plain tired. Yet we reserved a ridiculous amount of energy solely for the impressionable Fushimi Inari torii gates. Like, waking up early two mornings in a row to beat the crowds and get that epic torii gate shot. And scaling this massive place is no easy task, either! When you think you're at the top ... you're not. You're only half way. But you do get a good morning workout out of it all. We also set aside some energy for day trips to Naga (for the deer!) and to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, as well as explore nearby notable temples. Other than that, we didn't really do much in actual Kyoto. Just took nightly strolls down Shijo Dori in search of local Kyoto cuisine, taste all of the Matcha Green Tea delicacies, and watch the many random street performances.
>> FROM HIROSHIMA TO KYOTO : JR Pass. 1 hour.
>> STAY : AirBnb and K's House Kyoto Hostel
>> RECOMMEND : Fushimi Inari Taisha, Gion (for geisha sighting), Shijo Dori, Nishiki Market, Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcade, Higashiyama District, Pontocho, Naga, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kinkaku-ji Temple.



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When: Mid November to Mid December 2016
Temp: 40-60F
Places: Tokyo, Miyagi, Hakone, Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Okunoshima, Kyoto, Naga, Arashiyama.
Stay: Mostly AirBnbs. But recommend hostels if you can find one that is not full. K's House hostels are all over Japan. Try a capsule hotel if you really want to splurge!
Transportation: Metro and walking is the best method to get around a city. Highly recommend a JR PASS to travel throughout Japan. Buy it BEFORE you get to Japan, as you won't be able to get it once you're in the country. It's pricey, but uber convenient.

Things to keep in mind when in Japan:
- No tipping!
- Accept/Give money or things with both hands.
- Learn some very basic Japanese words.
- Most places only accept cash!
- Japan is not a cheap country. If you're on a budget, try 7-11 or other convenient stores for cheap, decent quality food.
- Trash bins are scarce. Be mindful of what you bring along!
- Speak quietly on public transportations. It's rude to be loud or even talk on cellphones in trains/buses.
- A bulk of the Japanese cuisine does not include veggies.



-jin-

COLLABORATION // PARABO PRESS PRINTS

Parabo Press Collab
Hi Frands and Framily!

I've teamed up with Parabo Press to give y'all a little something fun and free for the holiday season! 25 Free Square Prints - of your own photos - are waiting for you to play around with!

Freebie Code: JCFSQ

That's my initials, with SQ for Square Prints. Easy to remember! It is good for First-Time Customers to get a Free set of 25 Square Prints. You'll just have to:

1. Upload the app.
2. Choose your personal photos from your phone.
3. Pay for shipping.

I wouldn't promote anything that I don't like. I actually have used their products a couple of times in the past and I can attest, quality is top notch. Photos are printed on extra thick matte paper. Details are not lost and colors are unbelievably wonderful. I've used these square prints for various creative purposes, from personalized Christmas Gift Tags to simple wall decor taped down with washi tape. If you love curating your life - if you love to have your photos beautifully printed - then you'll love Parabo Press!

Check out more sample prints of my travel photos below. And, please! Let me know what you think of your prints, if you do decide to order a set!


-jin-
Parabo Press Collab
Parabo Press Collab
Parabo Press Collab

SLOVENIA 2016

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We felt that Croatia should not be the last stop of our epic Eastern European tour. We weren't quite ready to come back to The States! I mean, how did 6 months just whiz by out of the blue? Surely it's not time to head back home already!

With that said, Slovenia seemed like the perfect place to end our Balkan Tour. The weather was getting colder, but not terribly cold. And we still had 7-9 days left in the Schengen region. We asked ourselves, 'When's the next time we'll ever be in Slovenia? In this part of Europe?' The likelihood - very slim. Definitely not in the near future. So ... we went for it.

It only took 2 hours from Zagreb to Ljubljana via bus. Not knowing what to expect from Ljubljana, we wondered around the city for a few days. Our first impressions - very surprised at how modernly quaint and wonderfully walkable this city was, with pockets of delightfully weird hipster spots and cute little European Old World nooks. We absolutely loved checking out the huge variety of food stalls at the daily Farmer's Market!

Ljubljana isn't a very big city, and we often find ourselves back at the hostel by 2pm. Maybe 3pm. The rest of the day was spent catching up on work and photo editing. And because the hostel isn't very big, it was super easy to chat it up with fellow travelers over tea. Honestly, the best part of our stay in Ljubljana! Spent hours upon hours just sharing personal stories and I loved it!

After leisurely wondering Ljubljana for days, we decided to day trip it out to Lake Bled. Now Lake Bled, itself, is a delight. Simply put. The mini island in the middle of the lake, complete with a church on top, is certainly a picturesque scene. Like a page out of a fairytale book. The walking route around the lake takes about 2 hours, with a little detour up a nearby mountain for those into a little adventure. We opted to take this upward path to get a top-down view of the lake. Unfortunately, the Fall colors have not settled in yet, but nevertheless, the views from atop were stunning. Def worth the mini hike! Other than that, there's not much to do in the town of Bled. However, there are these typical cakes of the Bled region to try out, nothing really special, but certainly a must if you're there.

Although we didn't do terribly too much in Slovenia, I felt that we've done enough to make our stay worthwhile. We may not have toured the country's caves, but it's okay, because Texas' Hill country is home to some of the most amazing cavern systems in The States. So I didn't fell like we've missed out on too much. But if you're looking for more activites in Slovenia - then this is def something to consider!

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When: October 2016
Temp: 50-65F
Cities: Ljubljana, Bled
Stay: Hostel Tivoli. $12/night for 8 bed dorm. Free breakfast. Free Tea/Coffee. 10 minute walk to Old Town.
Recommend: Walking Tour, Old Town Ljubljana, Metelkova, Lake Bled

-jin-

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I knew before we started our 6 month travels through Middle East and Eastern Europe that I wanted to spend a lot of time in Croatia. There's something about this country. Something magical. All these travel shows and Instagram photos - they totally did Croatia justice, painting a surreal beauty of one-of-a-kind waterfalls and well-kept seaside landscapes. I was instantly smitten! I had to go and see these gorgeous wonderments with my own eyes! So I psyched myself up. Waited and waited and waited. Finally, it was the last leg of our Balkan tour. Let's do this.

Fast forward to 3 blissful weeks in Croatia.

And it didn't disappoint! All that waiting - did not go to vain! Croatia really is the stunning Pearl of The Balkans that every traveler we've talked to has hailed it to be. A bit of a pricey country, but utterly beautiful.

Yah, I'mma say it: Croatia is my absolutely favorite Balkan country. For now. (But honestly, this might be hard to beat. Greece, you have competition!)


--


// DUBROVNIK //
Our first stop in Croatia! And instantly blown away before we even set foot in the city! The bus ride along the rocky seaside offered stunning views of the Adriatic sea. A perfect set up for the Wow moment that is Old Town Dubrovnik - the iconic giant cluster of orange roofs jutting out into the sea. King's Landing of Game of Thrones!! The entire bus abuzzed with delight. It was a gorgeous sight to behold! Nevermind that we were stuck in traffic to get to Old Town. And that it was stupid crowded once we walked into Old Town. And that Old Town itself is mostly covered with a network of steep stairs. It was all worth it. Even the annoying travel setbacks that we've encountered during our 5 day stay in Dubrovnik. Experienced bed bugs for the first time and caught an unknown respiratory virus that has been spreading around like wildfire. All at the same hostel. Overall, Old Town really is quite pretty and a joy to explore!
>> Hostel Stay: Will remain anonymous, only because the owners were really nice and hospitable.
>> Recommend: Rampart Walk, Cable Car Ride for panoramic views, Ferry Ride to nearby beautiful Lokrum Island for leisure mini hikes and THE IRON THRONE.

// SPLIT //
Another gorgeous seaside city with an equally gorgeous Old Town. Split is easily covered in just a couple of days, with panoramic views from Saint Domnius Bell Tower as one of the city's main highlights. But the real 'jewels' are actually off the Dalmatian coast. Daytrips via catamaran tours to Hvar, Blue Cave, Green Cave, etc., are totally worth it. Also highly recommend checking out the famed Krka waterfalls, only a couple of hours away via bus.
>> Hostel Stay: Tchaikovsky Hostel. $13/night for a 4 bed dorm.
>> Recommend: Day excursions to Hvar island and/or Blue Cave via Catamaran tour packages. Daytrip to Krka Waterfall via bus. Consult hostel to RSVP.

// KORENICA + PLITVICE LAKES //
No trip to Croatia is complete without seeing the grandiose Plitvice Lakes! Easily accessible from Split or Zagreb as daytrips. We, on the other hand, opted to stay in Korenica for conveniency. Korenica is a very small town, but as a base, it's only a 15 minute drive to the lakes. Go early to avoid the crowds! And be prepared to be blown away by the stunning scenery. The surprisingly awesome walking trails through the lakes makes the experience quite enjoyable. But beware, these same trails will be uber crowded if you mis-timed your walk!
>> Hostel Stay: Falling Lakes Hostel. $28/night for a private room.

// ZAGREB //
Ended our Croatian tour in none other than the Capital! I ain't gonna lie, we vegged out hardcore here! Mostly walked around City Centre for a few days until we met up yet another friend of mine from the good ol' Spain days. It was super fun catching up with Bernarda and her boyfriend over late night drinks and finger food. For 5 hours! =D Bernarda happens to be a certified tour guide, so she kindly gave us a tour of her hometown on our next meet up and, wow, I totally see Zagreb in a whole different light now! Hearing personal stories from the Communist era, sharing tidbits of life in Croatia vs USA, receiving good foodie recs - this is why I love getting the local's POV! Thank you, Bernarda, for everything!!
>> Hostel Stay: Hostel Bureau. $14/night for 6 bed dorm.
>> Recommend: Walking tour with Bernarda, City Centre, Funicular, Upper Town, Lenuci Horseshoe, Museum of Broken Relationships, Museum of Illusions, Etien Street Art, Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary


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When: Late September / Early October
Temp: 70-75F in the South, 50-65F in the North
Cities: Dubrovnik, Split, Korenica, Zagreb
Stay: Refer to individual cities above.


-jin-

TRAVELS AND CHILL FEATURE

Travels and Chill feature.
Dear Frands and Framily,

Instahusband and I recently got featured on an up and coming relationship-based travel blog called Travels and Chill. So honored to be part of their blog launch! Totally lovin' their motto:

"Redefining relationship goals and inspiring couples to travel the world."

Yasssssss!

Read our interview here --> The Story Behind Us: Jin & Vince.

This article wouldn't have been possible without the love and support and enthusiasm of all our friends and family who've followed our 6 month journey through The Middle East and Eastern Europe. It's a relief knowing that so many understands and respects our life choices, even though it doesn't fit the mold of societal norms. THANK YOU, again, fellow daydreamers and wanderlusters for accepting us for us. =)

Love,
Jincent <3

BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA 2016

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On our way back into Croatia from Montenegro, we hit up a cute little town in Bosnia called Mostar. It was a blind decision, as we had never heard of Mostar, and honestly it's conveniently placed between Kotor and Split. So, why not?

We didn't know what to expect in Mostar, but we were pleasantly surprised. And a little shocked. Mostar is not just another quaint Balkan town. Instead, it turned out to be a bit unusual for us as we had never expected Mostar to be heavily influenced by the Ottoman Empire. It seriously felt like we were back in Turkey! Most of Old Town looked like a mini Istanbul! Albeit, a more quiet and cleaner version. The welcome coffee that was offered to us at the hostel, which they affectionately called Bosnian coffee, is essentially Turkish coffee! More or Less!

Anyways, the great Mostar bridge, Stari Most, is really the city's main attraction. A beautifully constructed hump-back bridge of Ottoman design, connecting both sides of Old Town. At 24 meters, it's quite a popular diving spot. In fact, Red Bull was hosting a diving competition the weekend after we left! Unfortunately, it's not the original Stari Most, which hung around for over 400 years until the Croat-Bosniak War destroyed it.

Speaking of the Bosnian War, remnants of the aftermath could be seen outside Old Town. Random buildings bombed to disrepair, peppered all over the city. Kinda weird to see them wedged between occupied buildings, all eerily calm in Modern Day Bosnia.

Like Montenegro, we've stayed in Mostar longer than most people would. 4-5 days? As opposed to the recommended 2. Stupid common cold and/or flu. Being sick WHILE traveling - ain't no joke! Thus, the very reason why we extended our stay in Mostar. Had the very nice hostel workers worried sick about me, wondering why I'm holed up in our private room, coughing and wheezing away. Ugh. Not my finest moment! But I really did like that hostel, like, really really really liked it. It's clean, intimate, easy to meet travelers. Had a chance to conversate with quite a handful of people from around the world, during one of the few times I would escape my room to make myself tea. Felt bad for the guests who had to stay in the room after us, though!

Overall, Mostar is a great place to relax and chill for a bit. Also another popular town for day trips. Such a shame that we weren't able to do some day excursions! Would have loved to make our way to Sarajevo!


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When: September 2016
Temp: 70F
Cities: Mostar
Stay: Guesthouse Taso. $11/person for 2 bed private dorm.
Recommend: Old Town, Mostar Bridge


-jin-

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Towards the end of our stay in Dubrovnik, we started wondering what course we should take. Hop over to Montenegro? Continue our way north through Croatia? At the very last second, we went for it: We hopped on a bus and found ourselves in Kotor hours later. Why not? Heard from fellow travelers in our Dubrovnik hostel how much they prefer Kotor over Dubrovnik. I mean, Dubrovnik's Old Town is pretty nice, but something nicer? Such testimonials had us intrigued. We just had to see for ourselves!

Upon arrival to Kotor's Old Town, it's clear why most travelers rave about this place. It has more personality. More quaint nooks and crannies with many hidden little shops. A LOT more cats here. Most of Old town is thankfully flat - not covered with long, steep uphill stairs like Dubrovnik.

But the one important thing that separates Kotor from Dubrovnik: Less tourist crowds. Don't get me wrong. Kotor Old Town is nothing but touristy, but there's a stark contrast with the amount of foot traffic between the 2 cities. Dubrovnik is stupid crowded. So crowded that the city officials have thought about capping the number of guests entering it's Old Town walls by way of purchasable tickets. Oof. Kotor does get crowded, but it comes and goes in waves. When the cruise ships dock - the city is suddenly alive. By nightfall, the cruise ships are gone and Kotor is back to a sleepy town.

Overall, there isn't much to do in Kotor. It's a great base to do day trips to other parts of Montenegro and Albania. Which we probably would have considered if I hadn't gotten sick. So Kotor, for us, was more of a place to chill out and recover asap. I did, however, muster enough energy to hike the rather steep fortress walls to the top of the mountain. Had to wake up quite early to avoid paying the 3 Euro fortress entrance fee, but so worth it as we beat the tourist crowds AND caught a glimpse of the beautiful early morning light bathing the city of Kotor. Avoided the heat, too! But let me tell ya, the views were insanely spectacular from the top! Only takes an hour to get to the top. (2 in our case if you're anything like us, stopping every 5 minutes for photo ops!) Honestly, probably the only thing worth doing in Kotor if the Old Town scene bores you!

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When: September 2016
Temp: 75F
Cities: Kotor
Stay: Old Town Hostel Kotor. $13/night for 10 bed dorm.
Recommend: Old Town, Kotor Fortress Hike (Go super early in the morning, around 6-7am, to avoid paying 3 Euro entrance fee).


-jin-

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Hostel Greeter: "First time in Paris?"
Me: "No. 1st time was 8 years ago. But yah, I guess it's kinda like the first time."
Hostel Greeter: "Ah, it's been so long that it's like the 1st time?"

Exactly!

Not just Paris, but all of France. Has it really been 8 years since the last we were in France? Oof. Def a way overdue trip. And a much needed break from the Eastern European and Scandinavian adventures! Something about familiar grounds that puts comfort in the heart. I mean, I really really really love it here in Western Europe. At one point (okay, several) I seriously thought about moving out here. Visiting family in these parts since 1992 can do that to ya. Western European gal stuck in an American body! That's me!


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// PARIS //
Ah, Paris. The City of Light and The City of Love - all for good reason. If you've visited this city, then you know what I'm talking about when I say this city is absolutely the loveliest and beyond vibrant and insanely Old World inspiring. We came as tourists so, so many years ago. This time around we came as old friends. We overstayed our welcome, ya know, to really get to know Paris. We took our time. Explored less touristy parts. And revisited the touristy ones for old times' sake. Paris is one of those cities I can't get enough of! Always photo ops at every turn!
>> Hostel Stay #1: Le Village Hostel. 26Euro/night for 4 bed dorm.
>> Hostel Stay #2: Generator Hostel. $27/night for 10 bed dorm.
>> AirBnb Stay: Saint Lazare Terrace. $166/night.
>> Recommend: Le Marais, Montmartre, Rue Cremieux, Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Champs Elysees, Merci, Canal Saint-Martin, Laduree, Pierre Herme, Catacombs, La Grande Roue.

// MONT SAINT MICHEL //
A place where I wanted to have a destination wedding, oh, 5 years ago. None of it came into fruition. Until now. I may not be here for my dream wedding, but I gots to admit, not a bad way to spend my birthday and bid adieu to the last day of August! This magical place surrounded by high tides and low tides - this island commune with an abbey in the sky - is so freakin' surreal. Even more surreal (and stunning!) in person. I think we've stayed here longer than most people would. But honestly, every morning for the 4 days we've stayed here, I awoke giddy and eager to see this dreamy motif off the coast.
>> Hotel Stay: Hotel Gabriel. $98/night.


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When: Late August to Early September 2016
Temp: 75-80F
Cities: Mont Saint Michel, Paris
Stay: Refer to individual cities above.


-jin-

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Copenhagen was a welcomed break from the 2 weeks of adventure in Norway. A much needed breather before we head into another 2 weeks of photography fun in France. So dare I say, we didn't do much in Copenhagen.

Ooo, I can feel the judgement emanating from the other side of this screen. Lol.

Honestly, Norway took all our money. People weren't kidding when they say it's one expensive country. Scandinavia as a whole is pretty pricey, but Norway takes the cake. The whole freaking cake. So by the time we made it to Denmark, we were done with the Scandinavian region in general. Don't get me wrong, we're coming back. Next time with a better game plan.

So what the heck did we do in Copenhagen? In an attempt to save $$$ on public transportation, we opted to walk to most of the tourist sights and scenes. Tons and tons of walking. All while constantly revisiting Nyhavn. It's a GREAT place to chill and people watch: the vibrant colors, the canal action, the large lively cafe crowd. Nyhavn also happens to have over-priced eateries, but there is ONE hotdog stand that's fairly cheap. Needless to say we were regulars. We took our hotdogs, found a spot to sit along the canals, and watched the view pass us by.

We also 'splurged' a little bit on a boat tour, ya know, just to get a different view of the city from the canals. Aaaand we cracked one night and splurged on a decent cocktail bar. At this point in our world travels, about 4 months in, the constant moving around ain't no joke. Another reason to leave Scandinavia asap into cheaper territory where we could just veg out ... for at least a week.

Oh! And a cool thing happened while we were in Copenhagen. The Gay Parade. Oddly enough, there was one in every Scandinavian capital that we've been to WHILE we were in those cities, but somehow the parade times eluded us. Thus, weren't able to catch any of them. Until now. In Copenhagen. Always love Gay Parades - they exude unity and love than any other parade I've been to. Glad we caught it!

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When: August 2016
Temp: 70F
Cities: Copenhagen
Stay: Generator Hostel. $49/night for 8 bed dorm.
Recommend: Canal Tour, Nyhavn, The Little Mermaid.


-jin-

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Norway is one of those countries that one needs time for proper exploring and gandering. So we gave it 2 very short weeks. BUT we have to choose well and wise. With only limited gear on us, all tucked away in little luggages, our big dreams of hiking Kjeragbolten, Preikestolen, Trolltunga - or even hardcore hiking in general - weren't quite realistic. So we decided to do other parts of Norway and hit up the rest at a later time (hopefully in the near future!) when we're more prepared.

I know! I was really looking forward to those big picturesque nature scenes that everybody keeps taking pics of! But from what I've heard, it's super crowded and touristy at the moment, peak season and all, so maybe it's good things didn't quite work out?

On top of all the hiking woes, Norway is one expensive AF country! Probably one of the more expensive countries we've ever been to! If not the entire Scandinavian region! Grocery shopping. Def a must.

Alright! Enough of that. Here we go!


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// LOFOTEN ISLANDS //
Picturesque island living at it's finest! Dotted with quaint fishing villages and iconic red rorbuer cabins and commanding mountainous backdrops. No less, in the ARCTIC CIRCLE! (I still can't get over that fact!) And at this time of year, ALL basking in 24 hours of sunlight goodness! (Another fact that I also can't get over!) It made night hiking the Svolvaergeita a memorable and surreal experience. A challenging hike, but totally worth the views that the Lofoten Islands are famed for. And afterwards? Driving back to our place in 2am twilight quietness and glowing Lofoten beauty. With jazz music in the air. Felt like we were the only 2 people in the world. Again, just reiterating this magical place. I really can't believe people actually live here.
>> Stay #1: Rorbu. ~$280/night.
>> Stay #2: Lofoten Summer Hotel. $50/night.
>> Stay #3: Finnholmen Brygge. $142/night.
>> Car Rental: Avis/Budget from Bodo Airport.
>> Ferry Ride from Bodo to Moskenes: $60.
>> Ferry Ride from Svolvaer to Skutnik: $33.

// BERGEN //
Ah. The gateway to fjord country. It's a surprisingly bustling city with it's own Nordic touch, but a nice place to hang out and enjoy the best of both worlds, modern civilization and seaside traditions, before hopping onto a boat to explore the fjords. A couple of days here is enough to get your fill, after all, the fjords are calling!
>> Stay: Marken Guesthouse. $37/night.
>> Flight from Bodo to Bergen: Norweigan Air. $300.
>> Shuttle from Airport to Bus Station: Flybussen. $11.
>> Fjord Boat Ride from Bergen to Alesund: Hurtigruten. $140.

// ALESUND //
I really can't get over the mix of Nordic and Art Nouveau architecture in this quaint town, making it a joy to walk around and enjoy the views. Not much to do here, but Alesund is a great base for day trips to Trollstigen and the kinda-out-of-the-way Hjorundfjord swing that's now gaining popularity through the travel Instagram community.
>> Stay: Alesund Youth Hostel. $30/night.
>> Car Rental: Europcar from Alesund Airport.
>> Train Ride from Andalnes to Dombas: $31.
>> Train Ride from Dombas to Oslo: $50.

// TROLLSTIGEN //
Probably one of the more scenic serpentine mountain roads I have ever seen! Also one of the most crowded and touristy, but it's blatantly clear why it's so popular. Dramatic waterfalls, both small and large, at almost every turn. The bird's eye view is just as dramatic. We actually visited Trollstigen twice. The fist time, it was so foggy that we couldn't see anything! The next day hailed better weather in the forecast. And this time around, we were simply blown away at what was hiding underneath all that fog from the previous day! What. A. Sight!

// HJORUNDFJORD //
An hour drive from Alesund, followed by 2 ferry rides with very limited ferry schedules - and we found ourselves at the somewhat remote Hjorundfjord. All that effort just to get to a famed swing. And it was worth it. This particular swing has been gaining popularity recently, but still under the radar, perhaps due to the fact that getting to it is slightly inconvenient. But we did enjoy 5 uninteruppted hours of swing time. No tourists. No crowds. No one! Just a gang of goats that visited us a few times to see what we were up to.
>> Ferry Ride from Solavagen to Festoya: $14.
>> Ferry Ride from Strandal to Trandal: $14.

// OSLO //
We honestly didn't do much in Oslo after 2 whirlwind weeks of roadtrips and boat rides through fjord country. A much needed chill time was in order and we did just that in the heart of Oslo, everything wonderfully close to our needs. Walking distance to the train and touristy streets and restaurants. Although I'm not sure why everybody says Oslo isn't as pretty as the other Scandinavian capitals. Must be a European thing, because from this American's stand point - it's still pretty nice to me!
>> Stay: My City Home. $90/night.
>> Airport Transfer from Train Station: $20.


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When: August 2016
Temp: 55-75F.
Places: Lofoten Islands, Bergen, Alesund, Trollstigen, Hjorundfjord, Oslo.
Stay: Refer to individual cities above.


-jin-

TRIPS TO ADD TO THE 2016 BUCKET LIST

Meant to post this awhile back. Seeing as we're only in the 8th month of 2016 - there's still time! You have 4 months to YOLO your heart out before the year ends! Better late than never, says every risk-taker and rule-breaker out there!
Refinery29 Travel IG Contest

So friends, I'm beyond honored to have 1 of the 5 winning virtual vacation images curated by Refinery29 and Tiny Atlas Quarterly. 2 major online publications! One for the forward female creative, the other for the travel adventurer.

If you need travel ideas for 2016, look no more. Check out this Refinery29 article of the chosen 5 must-see places to add to that ever growing bucket list of yours. You'll find my Wadi Rum image among that list, and honestly, it's a lifetime trip that will change you body and soul!
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The other cool thing from the win? An Instagram follower, inspired by my image, sketched me riding a camel! Lol. At least the high bun is on point with real-life me!

Keep on adventuring, fellow wanderlusters! Let me know where your heart takes you! Comment below or on my Travel Instagram!


-jin-

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Hej from Stockholm!

Yas! Yet another capital to bore you with! I hate how we're just hitting up capital cities in the meantime, but it must be done. (Schengen gripes. Ugh.)

We came into Sweden with every Swedish thing we could think of. Dreams of hitting up IKEA and shopping at H&M and hunting down delicacies such as meatballs and herring. Perhaps even buy a pair of Swedish Hasbeens. Oh yes, Ace of Base and ABBA totally made it in there, too.

With the 4 days spent in Stockholm, only H&M and delicious fresh herring were crossed off the list, with a very close encounter(s) with Swedish meatballs. We did, however, discover the country's love for cardamom cinnamon buns. Which, incidentally, is now our favorite cinnamon bun combo. Evar.

But we couldn't go all out gastronomic beast mode like Vince wanted. Only part of the time. Heard the culinary scene across Scandinavia is really something to take note of. Unfortunately, we were feeling the weight of the Scandinavian prices. Hence loading up on basic necessities (Hotdogs, sandwiches, yogurt, water. Cardamom cinnamon buns. Priorities, people!) at none other than - 7/11! Yas! That 7/11! Not the ones we're used to in The States. The Swedish version is super nice! Cafe-like! And everywhere in Stockholm!

The other surprise we came across in this city is the Generator hostel. Only opened a month ago. We had a great experience with the Generator hostel in Berlin that we booked right away in Stockholm, expecting the same trendy coziness. While we still prefer the one in Berlin, this new Generator ended up being more of an upscale hostel with very swank amenities. Coffee bar by day, with pricey breakfast menu. Cocktail bar by night, complete with a DJ. And paid luggage storage! I've never heard of such a thing in a hostel! Overall still a very nice place to stay. Albeit, a bit far from Old Town.

Speaking of Old Town, aka Gamla Stan - it's where we've spent most of our time. It's a good sizable, colorful, lively part of Stockholm, making walkability and exploring a joy. Close to other touristy spots like Drottninggatan, a very long pedestrian shopping street. (Where we've captured Mr. Mime. You know, PokemonGo. Rumored to be exremely rare in The States. Well, if you're ever in the area - heads up!) The hipstery Sodermalm area is also walking distance from Gamla Stan. A completely different vibe, and perhaps a very much welcome reprieve from the massive tourist crowds.

Hmmm. What else?

Oh! Dogs are still treated as royalty this far north! Which we've notice in most European countries we've been to - even in Sweden! All is right in the world.

--


When: July 2016
Temp: 75-80F
Cities: Stockholm
Stay: Generator hostel. ~$26/night for 6 bed dorm.
Recommend: Free Walking Tour, Gamla Stan, Drottninggatan, Sodermalm, Stockholm's Subway Art (T-Centralen).


-jin-

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Helsinki is an obvious choice when coming to Finland. Aside from being the capital and major Nordic city, it's also a major hub to get to and fro nearby countries. In our case: Estonia, Sweden and, particularly, Russia. Because of the Schengen rules, we had to be choosey as to which countries to spend more time in. Unfortunately, Finland is not one of them. =/ With that said, am I the only one who wishes we had more than the allotted Schengen time? Say, 6 months? A year?? There's no way to fit an extensive Eastern European and Scandinavian tour in just 3 months!

Major European travel gripes, people. I will forever complain about the Schengen rules!

We made the most we could in Helsinki, though. Did some touristy things and got some great PokemonGo play time in. Because of peak season, we weren't able to book a hostel the first few days in the city, but instead, an AirBnB. No regrets. I must admit, it's nice to splurge once in awhile! A much needed downtime from our very quick pass through The Baltics. We really just needed to relax. Take things slow. Our trendy Scandinavian 8th floor AirBnB overlooking the city is the perfect place to do so! Missed certain simple things like privacy, cooking whenever, free laundry, walking around in the undies!

There's not much more that I can say about Helsinki other than what you've probably already guessed or expect from a super modern city. Everything is just so nice and clean and nice here. How very Scandinavian. The design scene in Helsinki is amazeballs and it shows when walking about. Some things that we really enjoyed and find ourselves coming back to: Market Square, Esplanade Park, City Centre ... and the calming seaside!

As always, we're not doing any country justice by just visiting one city. Let alone, the capital. If it weren't for the wonky Schengen rules, I'd be exploring every inch of this country! Finland, I'm coming back for you!

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When: July 2016
Temp: 70-75F
Cities: Helsinki
AirBnb Stay: Jarno's. ~$83/night. Studio apartment. 8th floor. Comes with kitchen and washing machine. Beautiful patio with views overlooking the city. 10 minute walk from City Centre.
Hostel Stay: Eurohostel. ~31EUR/night for 2 bed private dorm. 15 minute walk from City Centre. 10 minute walk from Market Square. 5 minute walk from Kanava Terminal.

Recommend: Market Square, Esplanade Park, City Centre, Temppeliaukio Church, Kamppi Chapel of Silence, Helsinki Olympic Stadium, Magnum Helsinki.


-jin-

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Everyone says to go to St. Petersburg instead of Moscow. It's prettier. Hipper. Cooler.

So we did. =)

Hopped on a cruise ship from Helsinki around 6pm.
13 hours later, we're in St. Petersburg.

Gotta see what the hype is all about! Plus, it's a lot simpler to get a last minute '72 hour No Visa' to St. Petes than having to go through the whole process of obtaining an actual Russian visa. It's no secret that it's probably one of the more laborious visas to get as an American, and as I understand, for other Internationals as well. I know, I know. I can't say much as the same lengthy process goes for anyone applying for a visa to The States. But I'm a spoiled American. It's rare for us to go through actual paperwork! Especially one with many requirements!

Anyways, y'all know this already!

So, yah, Russia. Freaking Russia!! I can't believe we're actually here! This was one of those countries that deeply mystified me as a child, having grown up in the Cold War era. You learn things in Social Studies and seen stuff on TV. Then one day in 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed (which I also saw in real time on TV), igniting a domino of events that led to the eventual demise of the USSR. I was 9 then.

St. Petes surprisingly looks so European. I was expecting something more gray and drab. It's anything but that! This city is colorful and trendy and hipstery. Honestly, it didn't feel like we were in Russia. Aside from the ubiquitous Cyrillic signs and the Russian food finds and the historical sites dotting the city and the occasional older gen cashiers with limited English vocab, it's really quite modern here in every way. Still a joy to walk around and explore, nonetheless. I'm sure if we traveled outside the city, we would get more of an authentic Russian experience. Need more time. Need that Russian visa!

And just when I thought our hostel experience couldn't get any better - in comes Soul Kitchen Hostel! Easily topping Jincent's Top 5 Hostel list! In St. Petersburg of all places! This hostel has unmatched personality that sets it apart from all the other Boho hostels we've stayed at. Beyond clean and spacious, well designed, unlimited tea and coffee, awesome balcony views of the Neva river, TONS of eclectic decor prettiness. Seriously. Quaint kooky art explosion for the eyes - everywhere you look! This is also where we unexpectantly ran into the same fellow Houstonian traveler again! We've met Omar in Lithuania a couple of weeks earlier, and as fate would have it, again at the best hostel ever. He described the place as 'boutique'. Yah, that's the perfect word for this place!

Now I'm more than ever determined to come back to Russia to do it justice. Would love to get to know the real Russia and ride the epic Trans-Siberian Railway!

Hello and Bye, for now, from Russia ... with love!

--


When: July 2016
Temp: 60-70F
Cities: St. Petersburg
Stay: Soul Kitchen Hostel. ~1312RUB/night for 4 bed dorm. Unlimited tea and coffee. They provide a map with great food recs.
Recommend: Hermitage, St. Isaac's Cathedral, The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines.


-jin-

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Ah, Tallinn. Quite possibly my favorite capital of the Baltic countries. And how fitting to save the best for last before we enter Scandinavian territory!

There's something about Tallinn's Old Town. Numerous cobblestone streets and great restaurant choices and random statues peppered all over. A stunning church here and there. With an unmistakable hint of medieval times. Must be the partial fortress wall. Even boasting one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe. But the highlight of Old Town is a few minutes walk up an incline, passing various non-descript buildings, to get to not one but two stunning viewpoints of Old Town's orange rooftops. As well as the rest of the very modern city, as far as the eye can see. You'll also find a seagull or two craving photo ops up there. All posing and conveniently looking straight into the camera. With that said, I've never seen so many people take selfies with the feather creature! These birds! They be loving the attention!

So, yes. It's been a joy exploring the nooks and crannies of Old Town!

Just outside Old Town is Kalamaja. The hipster part of Tallinn and quite honestly a refreshing break from everything Old Town. I freaking love Kalamaja! And I'll tell you why. I've seen some hipster parts of various cities around the world. Heck, I live in one! But this particular one, in little ol' Estonia, is like an explosion of organized creativity in a one block radius. Everywhere you turn is a nod towards the unconventional, the weird, the laidback. The imperfect, the alternative, the grit. Ease of walkability is awesome here and great affordable culinary finds to top things off. Can't get more accessible than that! Also not overrun by tourists, so that's nice.

While Riga is every traveler's favorite, it seems, that's not the case for this traveler. I'm utterly smittened by the big personality of Old Town - the equally big personality of hipster Kalamaja sealed the deal for me!

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When: July 2016
Temp: 68-70F
Cities: Tallinn
Stay: United Backpackers Hostel. 14.50EUR/night for a 6 bed dorm.
Recommend: Free Walking Tour, Old Town, City Center, Kalamaja.


-jin-

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Like Lithuania, we went straight to the capital of Latvia. And just like Vilnius, we went straight into the old part of Riga. I think at this point of our massive Eurotrip, we're 'Old Towned' out. We've been to A LOT of European cities already. They all have an Old Town. But, ya know, how can you not visit this part of any European city? It's instant history and culture all rolled into one! Convenience, ftw!

Riga's Old Town is nice and lively. But insanely touristy. There's quite an active night life here, too. Rightfully so, as we've heard from other travelers, Riga is the prettier of the three Baltic capitals. Not sure about prettier, in my opinion, but it's definitely more vibrant than Vilnius. Perhaps due to the fact that there are more hostels and bars here. Maybe slightly more things to do, like the huge Farmer's Market or the Daugava river. And there's practically a mini Narvesens at every street corner! That's genius. Talk about taking the convenient store meaning to a literal level. I love that.

Anyways, there's only so much you can do in any Old Town. Grab coffee, find a bite to eat, go on a walking tour, explore a church or museum, take a walk. A long walk. And get lost. The visuals have always been my favorite part of any Old Town. I could spend hours just walking around and taking pix, which is usually the case. There's something oddly mystifying about the resiliency of the old mixed in the sea of modernity.

Another must-see tourist destination, interestingly enough, is the super modern library that looks more like an architectural masterpiece. Unmistakably looking like a pretty, shiny beacon across the river. It's really not hard to miss. You have to cross a massive bridge to get there, but totally worth it, as the cityscape views from the middle of the river is a weirdly calming experience. Everything seems so far away.

Oh! The Tree House Hostel! I don't rave about many hostels. But this one is pretty exceptional. And in Latvia of all places! Clean, comfortable, intimate. Zen environment with a Boho feel. Plants everywhere and lots of natural light streaming in. Yoga is offered and bikes are easily rentable. The layout of the hostel is set up in such a way that it's easy to socialize with other travelers. Highly, highly recommend this hostel.

Latvia will always be an indelible memory for us. Not only has it been an impressionable stay in The Baltics, but we have started our PokemonGo journey here. That's right. The PokeGo craze! It's serious business. Let me tell ya, take a 2.5hr walking tour and you'll build up a nice repertoire of Pokemons!

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When: July 2016
Temp: 70F
Cities: Riga
Stay: Tree House Hostel. ~13EUR/night for 14 bed dorm. Breakfast included.
Recommend: Free Walking Tour, Riga Central Market, National Library of Latvia.


-jin-

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To get from East Europe to Scandinavia, we have to get through The Baltics first. So why not do a quick tour while we're passing through?

First up on our Baltic stop: Lithuania. And straight to Vilnius, it's capital.

Quite honestly, we really didn't know what to expect from The Baltics. I've heard of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia only a few times in my life, but never really care to delve further. I wasn't even sure where they were on the map! That is, until this trip.

Ok, right! So on to Vilnius and the very obvious spot to hit up in most European cities - The Old Town.

Exploring the old part of Vilnius is like finding a treasure chest full of gems. The historic. The communist. The modern. It's a pretty mix of the old and the new, granted it's quite a touristy spot, but nevertheless, makes for a pleasant visual walk when getting lost. What really sets this Old Town apart from other European Old Towns are the quaint alleyways in between the main streets. The pretty narrow paths sets the ambiance for intimate walks, and paired with cobblestones underneath your feet, it kinda feels like you're stepping back in time. There are a number of cute shops and hidden restaurants in these photogenic alleyways. All waiting to be stumbled upon. Like I said, a treasure chest.

Another interesting tidbit to check out is a small place in Vilnius that unofficially declared itself The Republic of Uzupis. It has it's own flag and anthem and 11-men military, but it's endeavors are purely artistic. Nothing is taken seriously here. Go here to take a peak at the quiet Bohemian lifestyle and to swing above the river. Yes, that's right! A swing suspended from a bridge over running water! Fun place to put a swing in my opinion!

All in all, we probably didn't do Lithuania any justice by visiting just one city. It's capital. But I think it was a nice introduction into the country and The Baltics. Now that we got a little taste of this region, my interest has been piqued. Can't wait to explore more of The Baltics!

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When: July 2016
Temp: 70-75F
Cities: Vilnius
Stay: Do Re Mi Hostel. 7.50EUR/night for a 6 bed dorm.
Recommend: Free Walking Tour and The Republic of Uzupis.


-jin-