Popping over to say "hello."
Did you know that a herd of giraffes is called a tower? Did you know that giraffe leg bones contain no marrow and are so dense that a single blow can send an adult lion flying? Did you know that giraffes sleep with their heads aloft because, like cows, they need to send their food up and down that enormous esophagus multiple times to digest? Did you know that there are actually three subspecies of giraffes in Kenya, that they can avoid drinking for days, that they when they give birth, the infant plummets more than two meters to the ground?
Prior to my visit to the Giraffe Centre in Karen, Nairobi I knew next to nothing about these unwieldy giants, other than the fact that they looked like the mammalian answer to sauropods. I thought they resembled a cruel trick of evolution, an awkward, Bambi-eyed creature lumbering across the savannah on stilts.
I also learned that, as far as locals are concerned, they’re about as interesting as squirrels or coyotes might be to a North American. On safaris, people seek out nimble cheetahs, sleek leopards or increasingly rare rhinos for bragging rights. Spotting a giraffe is hardly worth noting. Yet when I spied them in Masai Mara last year, I was smitten.
An adult male can weigh up to 1,600 kilograms and needs to eat almost constantly to meet its nutritional needs.
So even though a safari wasn’t in the cards during my return trip to Kenya this year, I wanted to squeeze in another look. My hosts gamely drove with me down dusty back roads, stopping to ask nuns and motorbike taxi drivers for directions, until we arrived at the rather poorly marked entrance to this unique conservation center. It was established in 1979 by Jock and Betty Leslie Melvile as a breeding ground for Rothschild’s Giraffes, a subspecies on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss. Unlike more common Masai and Reticulated giraffes, Rothschild’s giraffes have no markings on their long, powerful legs. While most zoos pack as many animals into an enclosure as possible, the Giraffe Centre hosts only around 10 occupants at a time in order to give them plenty of space and food. As they age, many are carefully introduced into the wild in order to bolster existing breeding populations.
Those enormous purple tongues.
Aside from an entertaining presentation, the highlight of the visit for small children (okay, and me) is feeding these cumbersome creatures. Daring visitors are encouraged to put a food pellet on their lips and receive a “kiss” from the giraffe’s long, purple tongue. Although giraffe saliva is antiseptic (in order to prevent infection while munching on thorny acacia trees), I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.
The warthogs are technically uninvited guests, but nobody seems to mind.
If hanging around these gangly giants and the warthogs that burrow into the sanctuary in search of free food isn’t enough, you could always book a stay at the adjacent Giraffe Manor. At this unusual boutique hotel, the boundary between the human guests and wilder inhabitants is all but nonexistent. The more brazen giraffes have even been known to poke their noses through the windows during breakfast.
Okay, last one, I swear.
Worth it for these views alone,
Don’t skip the small stuff
Culture capitals like Copenhagen and Stockholm (which I’m looking forward to exploring in May) tend to get all the love, but many of the smaller surrounding towns are worth exploring.
It's a pretty scenic ride, but one that costs as much as a plane ticket.
Crossing the ocean will leave a dent in your wallet
Denmark sports some of the longest bridges in Europe and efficient, comfortable ferries, but you’ll pay for the privilege of using them. The Øresund Bridge, for instance, comes with a hefty toll of DEK 335 (roughly €46). Similarly, Scandlines ferries will get you where you need to go, but cost around €110 for a one-way ticket.
And this is just the hallway.
Denmark’s Louisiana Museum is a must-see
“Eye Attack,” a tribute to optical illusions of the 1960s and 70s, is easily one of the coolest exhibitions I’ve seen in awhile. The museum’s sculpture garden overlooking the sea is also worth a look.
Processed food in all its glory.
IKEA meatballs will always be IKEA meatballs
I know, I know, who actually eats IKEA’s famous/infamous Swedish meatballs in Sweden? But when stopping in Älmhult, home to the first IKEA store and the brand’s current headquarters, it seemed like the thing to do. If noshing on homogenous, gravy-blanketed nuggets and recreating that scene from 500 Days of Summer isn’t enough, you can always stop by later in 2016 when the official IKEA museum opens.
You could take the highway up to Sweden, but the scenic route along the coast is more than worth it.
Coastal Sweden is spectacular
The water might be frigid at the moment, but that doesn’t make Sweden’s shorelines any less stunning. Malmö is a cosmopolitan coastal town that most people pass through coming from or going to Denmark. We spent a night Halmstad, which has a lovely walking downtown, sea views and this library. If you go, be sure to stop at Pio Matsal & Bar, a surf & turf spot with a bit of an old-school gentlemen’s club vibe. Their signature “planks” come with baroque swirls of buttery Dauphinoise potatoes garnished with steak (or fish)—think of it as an inversion of the traditional meat-to-potatoes ratio.
Kolding Hotel Apartments, where everything is multifunctional, minimalistic and brightly colored.
These people take their design seriously.
Scandi-style has been so widely exported to the rest of the world that easy to forget how novel much of it once was. Expect impeccably functional, minimalist furniture all over the place. Our suite in the mod Kolding Hotel Apartments was vaguely reminiscent of an IKEA showroom, while the charming Hotel Alexandra in Copenhagen sports vintage Danish design pieces from the 1960s. It doesn’t hurt that the staff, who wear either bow ties and suspenders or retro dresses, are equally stylish and unfailingly friendly. Rooms are on the small side, but with a dead central location and free wine in the evenings, we didn’t mind a bit.
The open-faced sandwich is your new friend.
Unlike most sandwiches, in smørrebrød the bread is a supporting player, a token accessory often buried under elaborate toppings. The most traditional, of course, is dark rye bread spread with lard (don’t argue. It’s delicious) and pickled herring. I tried to get into Restaurant Schønnemann, supposedly a favorite of René Redzepi’s, only to discover that it was booked for days. Fortunately, Den Gamle Kro in Odense offers hand-carved gravlax and other good stuff in a building dating back to 1683.
The finished, house-cured gravlax.
Few places on this planet sport longer summer days or more bitter winter nights than the Nordic countries. Unsurprisingly, quite a few things shut down or are quieter in winter. This does have occasional advantages though. When we stayed at MejeriGaarden, a cozy countryside B&B run by a very friendly Danish couple, we had the place to ourselves. In the summer, this retreat is often booked out for months.
Ramen To Bíiru's spicy miso number. Easily some of the best noodles I've eaten out of Asia.
So you didn’t manage to snag a spot at the world’s most talked about restaurant. Maybe René Redzepi was in Tokyo, dazzling everyone with twitching prawns and live ants, or hosting a pop-up with a 27,000-person waiting list, which happens to be the case right now. Or maybe the restaurant was booked out for months, as is the case the rest of the time. Noma may no longer be San Pellegrino's No. 1 in the world (whatever that means), but that certainly hasn’t stopped people from lining up to try avant-garde dishes starring Nordic ingredients like sea buckthorn, musk-ox meat and Icelandic puffin eggs.
It’s cool. I didn’t get in either.
Noma may well be fantastic, but I will probably never know. The place isn’t long for this earth, which makes those few coveted tables even harder to come by. Fortunately, as I discovered on my recent visit, there are tons of other delicious things to eat in Copenhagen—including ones without a US$375 (plus wine pairing) price tag.
A rare sunny winter afternoon.
A mix of slick eateries and bars in the west including Istedgade, the city’s small, but sleazy red light district. The Meatpacking District comes to life when the sun goes down and is your best bet for Saturday night. Try Jolene, a funky LGBTQ-friendly spot run by Icelandic DJs.
Terrific seafood in a noisy, stylishly industrial space. Tasting menus are pricey, but a heaping order of cream-braised mussels with celiaric is tasty and affordable by Danish standards. Throw in a few oysters and the accompanying loaf of crusty bread with whipped butter and you’re set.
This rowdy craft beer hall is the perfect place to fuel up before heading to the surrounding clubs and bars in the Meatpacking District. No reservations are required (a rarity here)—just queue up for ribs, smoked brisket and pork shoulder. Our dry-rubbed ribs were slow-smoked and pretty perfect, the buffalo wings much less so.
A more recently gentrified district to the north, Nørrebro has stayed comparatively multicultural.
Torvehallerne, a place full of wonderful things.
Copenhagen’s buzzy food hall is a terrific place for chi-chi smørrebrød, Spanish tapas, sushi, or whatever else you’re craving. Sadly, the team behind Hija de Sanchez, the popular taco joint launched by Noma’s former pastry chef, was off foraging for ingredients and inspiration in Mexico when I visited.
Christian Pugliesi, Noma’s former sous-chef, has something of a culinary empire going. Restaurant Relæ, a Michelin-starred number also on the San Pellegrino list, is all about high-wire New Nordic tricks. This pizzeria keeps it casual, but still sticks to organic ingredients and makes its own bread, mozzarella, ricotta and charcuterie. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sold on the crust, but the spicy, house-made ‘njuda was fantastic stuff.
Looks like Tokyo, feels like Tokyo, tastes like Tokyo... but we're still in Copenhagen.
Ramen To Bíiru
A ramen shop run by a craft brewery sounded dangerously trendy, but the execution here is solid. The menu keeps it simple—choose between shio, shoyu and miso—and the broth is a fatty, collagen-rich wonder. Dishes are available in four different spice levels, with "3" being enough to make me break into a sweat. My chile-laced miso bowl came with a molten onsen egg and bits of tender pork belly bobbing on the surface. Like WarPigs, Mikkeller’s other offering on this list, there are no reservations. Just squeeze into the tiny space, press a button to order, and wait until someone shouts out your number in Japanese.
Another hit by Christian Pugliese, this unpretentious bistro lets the vegetables take center stage without completely omitting the meat. The seven-course tasting menu of rustic, seasonal dishes like kohlrabi with cod roe, kale with walnuts and tangerines, shaved celery root with pistachios and rose, is one of the best deals in town. Not every dish is to everyone’s taste; my dining companion was less than thrilled by beetroot “fettuccine” in a black olive and two-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano sauce or the slow-poached egg in Jerusalem artichoke cream with elderflower capers (elderflower buds pickled for a year, then fried), though I happened to like both. A couple dining nearby told us afterwards that the beer and rye bread porridge with ice cream was “literally one of the worst desserts I have eaten in my entire life.” I wimped out and went with the safe bet: chocolate mousse with a tart apple compote and salted chocolate crunch—hardly groundbreaking, but far more enjoyable. What I loved most about this place (aside from the bread, which is the same fantastic stuff served at BÆST) was how fun and unfussy everything was, despite the very high quality of the food. When we were leaving around 11pm, a birthday party was just kicking off with around 10 Danes laughing and shouting skål.
A hippie community to the south decorated with funky graffiti and sculptures.
Note: it’s all peace and love here… until someone pulls out a camera. Many of the wares sold here are illegal and residents don’t take too kindly to selfie-snapping tourists.
An institution in this little bohemian oasis, Morgenstedet has been serving homey vegetarian fare on mismatched plates for decades. Visitors can also purchase organic fruit and veggies by the kilo to take home. Stop for a chai tea latte and soak in the feel-good vibes.
Strolling through the city center.
Notice how there's no one there? The day before we arrived, there were 20 people on the entire slope. The fact that it remains so blissfully uncrowded is a minor miracle.
When I was a teenager, I joined a group of friends on a skiing expedition to Maine. While I’m convinced that my companions were born on an inclined plane with large pieces of plastic strapped to their feet, my own ski legs were of the more wobbly sort. After much goading, I boarded a cablecar to the top of a mountain that looked more and more forbidding the farther up we got. I stayed upright for a whopping total of 30 seconds before plunging into a ditch and being hauled down to the base by an irate instructor on one of those emergency sleds.
No, I wasn’t hurt—just terrified and a bit sheepish.
As someone who lacks coordination on non-slippery surfaces, I’ve always approached winter sports with what I consider to be a healthy fear of mortality. While others nimbly swish down triple-black diamonds, you’re more likely to see seven-year-olds whizzing past me on moderate trails.
Even the drive in is stunning.
Which is why I was more than a little on edge three years ago when I flew from Bangkok to Austria for my first attempt at downhill skiing in years. Living in a tropical climate, I had assumed I was safe from such madness. The chance for adventure though—one that would ultimately lead me to move to Europe for good a year later—outweighed any semblance of common sense. So I boarded a plane, arrived bleary-eyed and Bambi-legged at 7am in Munich, and drove straight for the Tyrolean Alps.
A funny thing happened on that extended weekend: I loved it. Unlike the U.S.’s perpetually crowded slopes, Kaunertal rarely has more than a few hundred visitors spread over long, luxuriously broad runs. The snow is pure powder, the scenery is ruthlessly gorgeous, and the lines are nonexistent. From the highest point, you can straddle the Italian-Austrian with endless views of mountains in all directions. Best of all, at the end of the day, there’s nothing quite like a steaming mug of Glühwein—that magical alchemy of cheap wine, spices and sugar that’s so much more than the sum of its parts—to make you feel giddy and slightly delirious.
A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to return to this very special place. I still cruise down the slopes a notch above granny-speed, but I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.
Staring into the Italian Dolomites.
Where to Eat and Stay
A note of warning: if you’re looking for mounds of sugar-snow and cozy alpine villages, Kaunertal is perfect for you. If you’re hoping for a booming après-ski scene, celebrity spotting and fine dining, this might not be your jam. The nearby town of Feichten has some of the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet, but it’s pretty quiet after 6pm. During the high season (February-April), there is a modest après-ski tent with the requisite German Schlager and Zappa Dello, a local dive bar in the town of Feichten, gets a bit rowdy. The rest of the time, both the town and the slope offer a quieter sort of charm.
For dinner, I’m particularly fond of the quirky restaurant at the Hotel Gletscherblick, where the owner cheerfully informs patrons that he shot their dinner with his own hands. The taxidermied goats and other animals only add to the deeply weird ambiance. Less eccentric is the restaurant at the Hotel Kirchenwirt, which offers both international and Austrian staples. Kaiserschmarrn (chopped-up pancake with fruit preserves that tastes much better than it sounds) isn’t on the menu, but the staff will happily whip it up upon request.
As for where to stay, there are a number of lodges in town, but your best bet is to rent a Ferienwohnung (vacation home). Modern, spacious apartments with cedar and traditional alpine furnishings can be found for only €40-60 per night, versus more than €150 for a hotel.
Nuts and Bolts
Going up in the morning.
Day passes run from €31 in low-season to €37 in high. Depending on the weather conditions, the lifts run daily from 9am-4pm. The Kaunertal Glacier Road, the fifth highest paved road in the Alps, is scenic, but treacherous. If you’re planning on driving yourself, winter tires and four-wheel-drive are essential. For the less brave of heart, there’s a free shuttle service that makes the 45-minute ascent and descent.
First run of the day.
Cape Elizabeth in Twin Lights State Park.
Thrilling as it may be discover a new destination, to stumble across unexpected corners of a foreign city, there’s something equally rewarding about returning to the same spot year after year. You build up a relationship with the place, internally noting how it changes with the passing of time. Favorite finds become familiar haunts and neither map nor smartphone is required to navigate them. Eventually, you develop an irrational sense of ownership, as if this town or seashore or patch of woods somehow belongs more to you than to other travelers who know it less intimately.
I do not have many places like this. Part of me is anxious about all the things I haven’t seen and feels guilty about returning to one in particular. It’s the moral equivalent of rereading a beloved book when I could/should be tackling that new nonfiction paperback on my desk.
The exception to the rule is Maine. My family's annual road trip through the state has been repeated so often as to verge on ritual. And while I’m excited to try the new restaurant in town or to see how certain areas have blossomed, I’m also content to stop at the same stretches of coastline that haven’t changed in eons. It feels like a homecoming of sorts, even if it’s to a place I have never lived.
For this past Christmas, at a time when no one in their right mind goes to the beach, my family took a drive up to the shimmering sand flats and bramble-blanketed dunes. We stayed in Portland, which retains a small-town vibe, despite being the largest city in Maine. It’s one of the more delicious places on this planet, with a restaurant-to-population ratio that would shame Paris. And while bare Edison bulbs, exposed brick, ironic tattoos and beards may be in abundance, it’s hard to scream about Brooklynification when the results are this good. Unlike a many places with these trappings, Portland never feels self-conscious about its coolness. There’s a lingering warmth, a refreshing lack of pretension, and a sense of community that makes it all feel genuine rather than trendy.
Even in December, Maine's coast is shamelessly photogenic.
The fact that a great many Bostonians will drive to this restaurant for dinner tells you a lot. That virtually all of the staff have stuck around since the joint launched more than a decade ago says even more. Seasonal, local and mostly cooked in a roaring, open hearth, meals here are the kind that guests end up gushing over months or even years later. On this latest visit, duckling cooked two ways—rare seared breast and confit leg—and a deceptively simple-sounding bluefish with potato gratin were standouts. The roasted mussels swimming in lemon-almond butter never leave the menu and they never should.
Savory loaves like these at Standard Baking Co. also feature at Fore Street.
These people work miracles with butter, sugar and gluten. Artisanal breads with crackling crusts, ethereal morning glory buns, crumbly scones studded with tart blueberries—I dare anyone to walk in the door and not leave cradling bags of carb-laden goodness.
All interior shots were too much of a blurry, grainy, whiskey-soaked mess.
Though this list is mostly dedicated to old favorites, I liked this newcomer so much that I decided to add it. The inventive small plates earned it a recent James Beard nomination and the drinks are pretty perfect. What won me over though was the staff, who were as friendly as could be despite the line out the door.
I want everything.
I’m more likely to splurge on a Le Creuset or a Japanese rice cooker than shoes, and this store is my kryptonite. They have every kitchen gadget a cooking geek could ever want and I’ve never, ever managed to leave empty handed.
Creative genre titles include this and and "not nonfiction."
Independent, well-run English-language bookstores are one of the things I miss most about my country. Sherman’s, both here and in Bar Harbor up the coast, is the kind of place where the staff have extensive recommendations on just about any genre.
Absurd as its premise might sound, this shop dedicated exclusively to salt is fun to browse. Aside from every sort of flavored salt imaginable, there are salt-centric cookbooks, salt slabs for cooking, sculptures, knick-knacks and an entire room full of glowing salt lamps. Should you need a gift for the amateur chef, yoga teacher or weird aunt (or yourself. Some of this stuff is pretty cool) in your life, but aren't planning a trip to Portland, you can always check out their online store.
I should preface this by saying the last time I ate doughnuts for breakfast was over a decade ago. These tender potato fritters are a far cry from your standard Krispy Kremes though. We ordered sweet potato-ginger, toasted coconut, cranberry-glazed and maple-bacon (my personal favorite)... which lasted less than 15 minutes. The doughnuts themselves are barely sweet, which helps balance out the sugary glaze. Though the place was absolutely mobbed when we visited, the staff couldn't have been friendlier. I wrote more about this here.
I’m going to come right out and say it: 2015 was a hell of a year. I traveled farther and experienced more than I ever have in such a short span of time. Here’s hoping 2016 has this many adventures in store.
Nairobi and Masai Mara, Kenya
On the savannah in Masai Mara.
The year started off with my first of what I hope will be many trips to this beautiful country. Eating bites of salty, blistering-hot grilled goat and sailing over herds of elephants in a hot air balloon was definitely a new way to kick off the year.
Thailand (through the end of April)
For three months, I went back to a very familiar office in one of Asia’s fastest-paced and occasionally absurd cities. During this time, I traveled, I worked, I helped out, I played, but mostly I ate. I went everywhere from vegetarian hot spots to the fanciest table in town to old-school street food icons.
Ngapali Bay, Myanmar
Although the chant of “see Myanmar before it’s spoiled!” is starting to wear thin after several years, there are still patches of the country where food trucks and espresso bars have yet to invade. Though the boutique resort I stayed at was plenty plush, the surrounding fishing villages and beach-shack restaurants remain unmarred by tourism. Let’s hope they stay that way.
The Bukit Peninsula takes the trappings of ultra-luxe travel to their logical extremes. The results are sometimes bizarre, usually over-the-top, and almost always enjoyable. What surprised me most though weren’t the futuristic spas and sky pool villas, but the surviving patches of local culture stubbornly hanging on in the spaces between.
Boston, Massachusetts and Connecticut, USA
Boston’s a beautiful, old city and I appreciate it more each time I visit. In between everything, I managed to stop for what is, without any exaggeration, some of the best pizza in the universe.
Ibiza, Spain (twice)
This little island tends to evoke passionately positive or negative reactions in people. For all its quirks and less-than-savory aspects, it’s still a jewel of a Mediterranean isle with stunning landscapes, an incredible food scene, and a tenacious, bohemian spirit that has nothing to do with all the mega clubs. I spent the better part of the month here over the course of two trips and was discovering new sides to the place up until my final flight.
Technically more of a long layover than a full-blown trip, but I managed to pack a lot into my day in Zurich. I had a chance to thoroughly explore Geneva, Interlaken and Bern last year and it was nice to wander the streets of one of the major Swiss cities I had missed.
This culturally rich city is more or less my second home in Germany and I never tire of visiting it. From waterskiing on Ammersee to visiting the stellar art museums to fueling up on hearty Bavarian staples, this trip was particularly packed.
I can think of few better places to do unwind than Sarti. For about a week, we were part of big, boisterous Greek family at this sleepy, seaside town.
Much as I like Ibiza, it seemed a shame to have it be my only Spanish sojourn for the year. I teared up at Guernica, ate all of the tapas, and instantly regretted not being able to stay for another couple months.
Having never been to Oktoberfest, I snobbishly assumed I would hate it. I was wrong.
Amsterdam just keeps getting cooler, but it’s hardly known for being cheap. On my first of two trips to the country in 2015, I tried to tackle the capital on a shoestring.
Even the oppressive November weather couldn’t render this place boring. Ai Weiwei’s exhibition stole the show, but eating Thai-style grilled goat, grabbing a very posh drink at the Shard, and losing a few hours in a beautifully curated English-language bookstore (the things you miss) came close.
Arnhem and Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Though I’d visited the city a couple times before, Arnhem wasn’t really on my radar (or anyone else’s) before this trip. A quick stop lead to a fascinating conversation about the power of urban design and a newfound respect for this place. I also had a chance to peruse one of the world's coolest gift shops before catching a plane.
I’ve waxed poetic about Bologna quite recently on this blog, so I’ll keep it short. Suffice it to say, it’s an incredible place to return to again and again. Keep an eye out for my upcoming guide.
Portland, Maine, USA
Portland, Oregon tends to hog all the attention, but I’d argue that the East Coast city of same name is equally worthy of a trip. I’ve been visiting for years and each time for years and each time the restaurant scene just gets better and better. Plus, the drive up along the Atlantic couldn’t be more photogenic.
Mortadella takes many forms at this famed specialty foods store.
Bologna is a multifaceted city with all sorts of cultural attractions. It’s a UNESCO City of Music with a prestigious jazz festival and a frescoed, thoughtfully designed museum on the subject. The modern art museum boasts a formidable collections and the Cineteca has one of the most important collections of cinematic records in the country. Visitors can climb the famous Garisenda and Asinelli towers in the center or scale steps through 666 porticos to the Basilica Santuario della Madonna di San Luca for a panoramic view of the red rooftops.
Yet, worthwhile as all of these things are, Bologna’s mighty gastronomic heritage tends to
overshadow them. This is a city famously nicknamed “la grassa” (“the fat one”) and the birthplace of some of Italy’s most iconic pastas—where would we be without slow-simmered ragù draped over sunshine-yellow tagliatelle or sandwiched between whisper-thin sheets of spinach pasta with béchamel? So while you should go for Bologna for the art, the ambiance and everything else, you may still find yourself, as I recently did, planning your days in the city around meals.
On my latest trip, one of the hotels I stayed at was Albergo delle Drapperie, a cozy boutique situated in the Quadrilatero, a network of ancient alleyways crammed with some of the best food shops and bars in the city. During the evening, the narrow streets fill with locals stopping for aperitivi or picking up a gourmet spread to take home.
Four generations of master bakers have worked at this legendary pasticceria, producing delicacies like saffron-hued panettone and certosino, a bolognese Christmas cake dense with glacéed fruits. They also carry a few unusual specialties, including a small tart filled with pasta. I wasn’t sure how I felt about a dessert tagliatelle, but one bite of the buttery, crumbling pastry shell and the crisp noodles changed my mind. On my visit, I was lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes look at the kitchen, where the staff were hard at work preparing seasonal sweets and some of the tiniest tortellini I’ve ever seen.
More than just cheese at La Baita Formaggi.
When you stop by this unusual cheese shop, be sure to pick up a slab of black mountain cheese. It’s actually a unique variety of Parmigiano-Reggiano—though it cannot legally be called such due to the strict regulations—covered in a fine layer of vegetable ash that is only sold by this store. All sorts of other cured meats and cheeses are available; in the evenings, the table outside are an excellent spot for people-watching and nibbling.
These two neighboring stores on Via Drapperie and Via Pescherie Vecchie are run by the same family. The father, Nino, still runs the former, and his son Davide is in charge of the latter, a relatively recent addition to the street. Both offer an excellent selection of artisanal, quality cured meats, many from their own family label. If you stop by Focacceria Laboratorio Simoni, be sure to stay for a glass of something and try their clever reinvention of the tortelloni: a pasta-shaped bread stuffed with silky mortadella.
Like kids in a candy store.
A second-generation purveyor of the finest of foods, this well-curated emporium has everything you want. Bottles of Krug Champagne, huge wheels of cheese, and legs of prosciutto line the shelves. The tortellini and other prepared foods are exceptional, even in this city of sky-high culinary standards.
Colossal wheels of the good stuff at Tamburini.
Not so much a bar as an institution, Osteria del Sole might be one of the best places to grab a drink anywhere in the city. The no-frills venue has been serving dirt cheap wine to high and low society since 1465. Dinner is on a BYO basis, meaning you can load up an impromptu picnic basket at any of the neighboring shops and have a feast. Later in the evening, the osteria gets so packed that the crowds spill into the street.
Mercato di Mezzo
Reopened in 2014 as an upscale food hall, Mercato di Mezzo is one of the trendier places in town at the moment. Offerings range from craft beer and bubbles to smoothies and traditional aperitivi snacks. An Eataly pizzeria is located on the top floor, meaning fans of the Slow Food behemoth can get their fix until the massive food emporium arrives in the next couple months. As food halls go though, my current favorite is still one of the most traditional. Situated on Ugo Bassi, Mercato delle Erbe serves as a produce, fish, meat and bread market during the day and offers drinks during the evening.
All I wanted for Christmas...
Rome is the most romantic city I know. Sardenia is vast and hauntingly beautiful. Puglia is magic. Yet, as someone who has traveled through and been charmed by much of Italy, the place I always want to go back to is Bologna. It’s less glamorous than Milan and less photogenic than Venice, but Europe’s oldest university town boasts a culture that is ancient and young, posh and gritty, dignified and funky. Unlike many Italian culture-capitals, which appear frozen in the past and choked with tourists in high season, Bologna’s historic streets and rust-colored porticoes feel very much alive. On weekends, traffic shuts down and pedestrians invade the major roads. This is a city as famous for its progressive ideals and acceptance of diversity—it hosts one of the continent’s largest transgender film festivals—as it is for its tortellini, lasagne and ragù.
It’s also arguably one of the best cities in which to be a student. I would know, because I spent one glorious semester abroad there. Officially, I studied art history. In reality, I spent most of my days riding on the backs of busted bicycles, eating everything, and practicing my broken Italian to anyone who would listen.
Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing and each time I return to Bologna, I worry that it won’t quite live up to my glowing memories. On a recent research trip, I was happy to find that it actually surpassed them, that the city has retained its alternative edge while adding slick new attractions like the Museum of the History of Bologna.
Thankfully, one thing hasn’t changed: the gelato is still some of the best anywhere. Although Berlin’s Eis is terrific, I’d gladly book a flight just to visit some of the following.
Before the world careened towards pumpkin-spice saturation, this beautiful shop was selling pastel-hued Zucca e Cannelle. Unlike a syrupy latte, this barely sweet scoop tastes like an especially smooth, rich bite of pumpkin pie. It was and still is perfect in every way. Other unconventional flavors, including goat’s milk with blueberries and Il Regno delle Due Sicilie, with almonds and pistachios (for those of us who can’t make up our minds), are equally lovely. This was my favorite place as a student.
There's more than gelato to Il Gelatauro.
There are so many reasons to love this spot near Bologna’s ritziest shopping district. Not only do they do a brilliant, boozy hot cocoa, but they’ll also coat the inside of your cone with melted chocolate. Also, I cannot imagine a social occasion that wouldn’t be improved by one of their gelato cakes. Their selection errs on the traditional side, but they throw in a few creative extras like New York New York, with maple syrup and pecans, and Contessa, with an almond base sprinkled with amaretti cookies and almonds brittle.
Twenty-one years old and still going strong.
A classic for more than two decades, La Sorbetteria sets itself apart by offering “healthier” options made with fructose and natural ingredients. Many of their flavors are egg- and gluten-free. While I’m always skeptical of such claims when it comes to desserts, the gelato here is quite tasty. They offer all the usual flavors, but really shine with specialties like Dolce Emma, with ricotta and caramelized figs, or Cremino Guglielmo, with espresso, mascarpone and cacao nibs.
Nearby Piazza Santo Stefano is one of the most atmospheric in the city.
The New York Times recently pronounced this the best in Bologna. It’s a tall claim, but one that’s difficult to dispute. Opened in 2013, the shop’s new location is just off of one of my favorite piazzas in the city and crammed with all kinds of confections. I tried my usual (pistachio) and one of their seasonal flavors (speculoos!) and both were flawless.
All sorts of other delicious things at Cremeria Santo Stefano.
Sadly, this place is located outside the historic center of Bologna and I didn’t have a chance to visit on my last trip. Years ago, I took a class with the owner here, a self-professed gelato geek who has production down to an exact science. Flavors range from conventional to wildly eccentric—think Parmigiano-Reggiano with figs, gorgonzola with nuts, curry, or even ricotta with mortadella.
Gelateria Gianni may not be as fancy as some of the competition, but it sure is pretty.
The aforementioned may be my favorites, but there are dozens of other worthy gelaterias in town. Grom may be a chain, but the quality is still excellent and you won’t have to shell out US$5.25 for a small scoop like in New York. Il Gelato di San Crispino is a delicious import from Rome. The original near the Trevi Fountain is terrific, but I’ve left it off this list as it’s not native to Bologna. Finally, Gelateria Gianni under the city’s iconic towers remains a popular student hangout. The ice cream here is candy-colored and on the commercial side, but still pretty great..
Confession: I am a slightly obnoxious food snob, as a number of friends and family members would readily attest. While I mostly keep my opinions to myself in order to avoid being insufferable (or, as the very wise John Lancaster once advised, Shut Up and Eat), I am shamelessly, ruthlessly judgemental when it comes to what restaurants put on my plate. I didn’t mean to turn out this way, but writing about places like this for a living pretty much ruins you.
All this probably explains why I found myself initially frustrated in Berlin. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the fact that I had swapped Bangkok’s tremendous, affordable street food for currywurst and döner kebabs. It wasn’t that the restaurants were terrible, but all too often the concept seemed to exceed the execution. There were too many faddish “ethnic” places peddling insipid versions of Asian fusion or Mexican dishes, too many food trucks selling soggy, €6 avocado toast. Plenty of plates seemed like they were cooked for Instagrammers rather than diners; a stone-cold croque madame with congealed béchamel, tempura-stuffed sushi with pointless garnishes. One heavily hyped brunch place (which shall remain nameless) even pre-cooks all of its dishes (even the pancakes) before reheating them and artfully arranging them on wooden boards.
Thankfully, after almost two years (!) in the city, I know my way around the restaurant scene a bit better and I’ve found a lot to love. While the variety of cuisines available here is perhaps not on the level of, say, London (where else could you find mind-blowing Thai-style wood-fire barbecue, sushi/yakitori and Michelin-starred Indian?), there are terrific things being done, often by very young chefs.
Christoph Hauser and Michael Köhle. Photo courtesy of Florian Bolk and Herz & Niere.
A couple months ago, I was lucky enough to chat with Michael Köhle of Herz & Niere, one of the most ambitious, earnest places I’ve visited in ages. Labels like “locavore” or “nose-to-tail” are tossed around so often that they don’t really do it justice, though you could certainly apply them here. This is a restaurant that fastidiously sources every piece of meat, fish or produce that lands on the table. They also make everything from scratch, from quince and rhubarb juices to dozens of varieties of pickles, preserves, charcuterie and bread. Whether growing their own produce or stuffing their own sausages, everything is done with the kind of obsessive attention to detail that only comes from genuine enthusiasm.
When I visited the restaurant unannounced as a customer, I was struck by how little of this is written on the menu. Unlike countless places that wax poetic about their farm-to-table philosophy and organic produce, Herz & Niere lets the quality of the food speak for itself. It’s a wise choice—nothing I ate was anything less than spectacular. It was enough to make my jaded inner food snob, finally, shut up and eat.
While there are doubtless dozens of other worthy restaurants in the city, I’d like to share a short selection of my favorites. This is by no means a definitive list, but these are places that I find myself going back to again and again.
Did I miss anything? I'm always looking for new spots to try and would love to hear your thoughts.
Everything at this popular Mitte spot is sourced from within a 100-kilometer radius. It’s not the first restaurant to do this, but with generous, beautifully plated portions, it certainly does it well.
Housed in a refurbished Kneipe, Gasthaus Figl has some of the best Schweinebraten and pizzas in the city. It seems like an odd combination, but somehow it works, especially when it comes to the Flammkuchen-inspired creations.
Another pizza place, this one decidedly Italian. The small, forever packed space has a bit of a punk vibe and the thin-crust pies are some of the best in town. Extra points for the location near a canal bridge and outdoor seating in summer. Grimmstraße 30; + 49 30 69 506 610
If you want to live it up, this is the place to do it. The prices border on obscene, but with huge hunks of red meat and a glitzy clientele, it certainly makes for a memorable meal.
A welcome newcomer to my neighborhood, this place offers a more upscale take on do-it-yourself Turkish barbecue. I've come here often enough that the staff actually ask if I want "the usual."
The surroundings are gritty, the lighting gruesome and the wine list nonexistent, but heaping portions of charred lamb, salads and mezze make this my one of my favorite Turkish spots in the city.
Sicilian to the core, this trattoria has an excellent, reasonably priced southern Italian wine list and seasonal menus.
I love Austrian food and this is the place to go for gut-busting Schnitzel and Kaiserschmarrn. The restaurant offers both traditional staples and contemporary, lighter reinterpretations.
While I’m wary of anything that comes out of a truck at this point, this Käsespätzle wagon is one of the best things ever. Florian Rohrmoser uses only Bergkäse made by his family and prepares all the dumplings to order. As a bonus, the portions are more manageable than traditional Bavarian ones, making it easier to enjoy all that gooey richness.
Cocolo Ramen (Kreuzberg)
It will never take the place of Bankara in my book, but Cocolo offers a very credible ramen in a lovely canalside setting. When I miss Asia (i.e. at least once a week), I make a beeline for the bar counter.
I’ve yet to find a satisfactory place for traditional brunch here, but with Knofi, a Turkish-style deli in Bergmannkiez, I may never need one. The Mediterranean pastes here come in flavors like beet-mascarpone, jalapeno-sheep’s milk cheese, and chili-walnut.
Al Contadino Sotto Le Stelle
Apparently Brangelina are fans of this Mitte trattoria and mozzarella bar, though the vibe here is resolutely unpretentious. Order a cheese tasting, a bottle of whatever your waiter recommends, and you’re in for a pretty great evening.
One of the oldest proper Italian restaurants in the city, this courtyard in Bergmannkiez is the perfect spot for aperitivi in summer. Wonderful, rustic dishes that I would happily eat on a daily basis.
Technically, this is more of a bar than a restaurant, but the menu has everything I ever want for a late, boozy night. Specials rotate, but you can never go wrong with the beef tartare with shoestring fries. It’s located on Weserstraße, making it a good place to fuel up before checking out some of the neighboring cocktail spots.
With so many burger places in Berlin, I would never presume to declare one "the best." Still, this classic in Schillerkiez is my current go-to (even if it can't match Burgermeister's atmosphere) for the sweet potato fries, homemade buns and respectable veggie options.
The Kitchen Store
A good salad is a rare commodity in these parts, which is why everyone was so excited with the arrival of Soho House’s casual eatery. Seasonal, inventive and never boring, these greens have me crossing town on a regular basis. The surrounding store is full of the kind of drool-worthy, pricey lifestyle items I wish I were cool enough to own.
Not particularly authentic, but fun and funky Korean option near Kottbusser Tor. The barbecue is a clear standout and a good option for a large group.
I interviewed Meo, the owner and head chef of Dao, for an article for Slow Travel Berlin a while ago, and the restaurant has remained my top pick for authentic Thai since. It's hard not to be impressed by a charismatic, savvy female entrepreneur who taught herself impeccable German, but even without knowing her backstory, I would gladly make the trek to Charlottenburg for her curries.
Cuore di Vetro
One thing Berlin excels at is ice cream (this coming from someone who lived in Bologna). I wrote a short piece about some of the best shops last year, and while I love each and every one, this charmer, run by the nicest Italian couple you’ll ever meet, is still my favorite.
Café Einstein Stammhaus
The best apple strudel in the city in a beautifully renovated building. It’s great all year round, but especially nice in summer when the garden is open.
Nur Gemüse Kebap
Okay, I know I took a dig at döner earlier, but these guys are great. Think Mustafa’s, minus the lines and with much friendlier owners. Turnover is high, which means the meat, veggies and homemade sauces are incredibly fresh. One of the rare specimens that is just as enjoyable sober as it is at the tail end of regrettable night out.
Seriously, how could you not like a restaurant team like this? Photo courtesy of Florian Bolk and Herz & Niere.
Prior to my year abroad in Wuhan, an industrialized city of 9 million in the center of the country, “China” was more or less an abstract concept to me. I had read about the censorship, environmental and human rights concerns; I had watched the bombastic spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics; I had spoken with friends from Hong Kong or Singapore who visited the mainland frequently; I had studied pieces of its tumultuous history. It was all much too big, too far and too foreign for it to resonate on an emotional level though. How can one connect with more than 1.3 billion strangers?
It wasn’t until I touched down in Shanghai and later in my far less westernized adopted hometown that certain things started to sink in. The sheer scale of the cities is daunting—buildings in Beijing appear closer than they are due to their impossible, improbable size. The crush of a seemingly infinite number of bodies at every train station, on every public holiday, at every monument, makes the mind reel. “China has too many people,” I was often told, and there is a constant sense that there might not be enough resources for everyone.
As a teacher at a large university, my actions were monitored at all times. There were cameras in my classroom, cameras in the halls, cameras throughout the campus and cameras near my apartment. On each floor of each school building, a man or woman sat blankly staring at a moving black-and-white wall of security footage. And while the concept that all digital communications are subject to government scrutiny now, sadly, is no longer shocking, in 2010 it was unsettling to filter all email and Skype messages, even when using a VPN.
During this time, Ai Weiwei was very much a name on everyone’s lips. He had become increasingly vocal in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and, though his international prominence protected him, many whispered that his actions would not be tolerated for long. Liu Xiaobo had already been imprisoned and the government was cracking down on human rights activists previously thought to be immune.
I make no pretense of being an expert on this vast and vastly complex nation, but I have a deep respect for the courage it takes to speak out there. Even then in Wuhan, there were small signs of subversion—“1989” scrawled on walls, hushed political discussions, covert reading of uncensored foreign publications, students throwing their Communist party pins to the ground. Even the smallest actions were done carefully, with the knowledge that there might be consequences. And though ordinary citizens could never dare to do what famous artists did, Ai Weiwei's public provocations had a powerful impact.
All of this is my rather long-winded way of saying that I admire what the artist was willing to risk and what he has been able to accomplish. Purely by coincidence, I bumped into the man himself towards the tail end of summer in Berlin. He had recently arrived in the city and had stopped for a drink at Café am Neuen See. He’s a bear of a man and a number of other guests had taken note of his presence and already stopped by to say hello. Patiently, politely, he took the time to greet them as they came. I didn’t want to bother him for long and I certainly didn’t want to inflict my bastardized Mandarin on him, but it was an honor to shake his hand and listen to him, however briefly.
As much as I admire him on a personal level though, I had less of a fully developed opinion on his actual art. I had read about the concepts behind his major works, but seeing a little clipping in a newspaper is a poor substitute and I was eager to get a look at the real thing. So on a recent visit to London, I made sure to stop by the Royal Academy of Arts for his current exhibition (through December 13). Thoughtfull, ambitious and, for me at least, moving, it’s worth seeking out (be sure to book ahead) if you have the opportunity to see it. I won’t bother with a full blow-by-blow, as more knowledgeable individuals have already done that, but here were a few of the highlights.
Interestingly, many of the workers who were hammering away at these for years had no idea what the idea behind the project was or the significance/origin of the materials.
By far the most powerful piece for me, even if it’s not as aesthetically appealing as some of the others. The 90 metric tonnes of rusted rebar here were collected from the fallen schools in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, hammered over 200 times each until almost returned to their original state, then laid out in a kind of eerie landscape juxtaposed with the names of the dead children. There’s a palpable feeling of grief and rage upon entering the room, even before delving into the commentary.
This one was one of my favorites, primarily because at first glance it appears to be something else. The pile of thousands of brightly colored river crabs initially looks like a heap of cheap, mass-produced toys. In reality, each of these individually crafted porcelain crustaceans took a great deal of labor to produce. He xie, the word for river crabs, sounds like the Mandarin word for “harmony,” which is often used as slang for government propaganda. On the night before the demolition of his Shanghai studio, Ai Weiwei invited everyone to a studio party to feast on he xie. A good 800 turned up in support, even though the artist himself could not be present.
Immense and immersive. More "trees" can be found outside the museum.
A huge installation of twisting branches and trunks formed from old temple pillars. From above, it resembles a map of China (a recurring theme in other works such as Bed), with two conjoined stools standing in for Taiwan.
For me, his works in jade and marble, which include sex toys, handcuffs and this intricate stroller on a field of thousands of unique blades of grass, call into question the idea of an artist versus an artisan. One of the things I find most interesting about classical painting or sculpture is the actual technique that went into it. I like examining the brushstrokes on a Velasquez or the chisel marks on an unfinished Michelangelo. Most of the manual labor in Ai Weiwei’s work, however, is done by other highly skilled craftsmen. Outsourcing some of the more repetitive tasks isn’t that new though—the grunt work of painting backgrounds and details in works by Rubens and other old masters was often done by apprentices or lesser-known artists from their studios—and the technical skill of others here allows the artist to realize a more ambitious vision than he could produce alone. This particular item was inspired by the government's surveillance of his son.
One of the most literal of the collection, this series of six dioramas, each one half the size of the actual cell where the artist spent 81 harrowing days, S.A.C.R.E.D. is easily one of the most uncomfortable. Visitors peer through peepholes into scenes from his personal hell, including eating, sleeping, showering and interrogation, all while accompanied by two guards. There’s a voyeuristic feeling to it all and the meticulous attention to detail makes it all too real. I found the custom-made wallpaper work Golden Age, with the Twitter symbol and security cameras, to be a bit heavy-handed when paired with this particular piece, although it’s an interesting work in its own right.
Visually speaking, this one is a stunner and there’s a reason the curators saved it for last. The classic Chinese bicycle frames that make up the crystal chandelier nicely tie in thematically with his other repurposed works.