A brief trip to Chicago

“The Bean” Chicago, IL

I just went to Chicago for the first time, which means I’m getting closer to my goal of visiting every major city in the United States. The great thing about a new place is that you don’t need to spend a lot of time there to get the general feel for it. For instance, I was only there for the weekend and left with a great appreciation for both the city and people. At first I felt kind of panicked; how am I supposed to do everything there is in only one weekend?

The task is pretty daunting considering they have the Sears Tower, Hancock Observatory, Lincoln Park Zoo, Art Institute of Chicago, Shedd Aquarium and so much more. I could turn blue in the face listing everything you could do in this great city. So here is my advice: If you only have a couple of days in a new place skip the attractions. I know it sounds like crazy talk, but hear me out.

In my opinion, there is no better way to learn about a city than to just explore and talk to the residents. The only touristy thing I did was ride the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier which gave me a great view of the city and only cost nine dollars.  The rest of the time I just walked around and took in my surroundings.  I admired the massive American Gothic Statue on Michigan Avenue located in front of the Chicago-Tribune.  Afterwards, I window-shopped down the Magnificent Mile, deemed the Rodeo Drive of Chicago, and enjoyed a decadent hot chocolate at the Ghirardelli chocolate shop. You can also see the famous John Hancock building here.

Along the way I found that Chicagoans were not only willing to give you directions, but loved to talk.  From a grandmother telling me about her grandchildren’s antics to women enjoying shopping sprees with friends, everyone was warm and friendly.

Perhaps the most enjoyable experience I had was Cloud Gate in Millennium Park.  Nicknamed “the bean” because of its legume-like shape, it’s a huge stainless steel structure that perfectly reflects the city off of its contoured shape.  It’s a great place to people-watch as tourists and locals alike come to gaze at the cityscape that bounces back at them.  If I had to squeeze this experience in with a dozen other things that day I doubt I would have appreciated it as much as I did.

The lesson here is to stop and smell the roses. I know it’s tempting to fill your itinerary with tours and exhibits, it’s what every travel guide and visitors center encourages, but when your visit is only a couple of days, perhaps the best thing to do is explore at a leisurely pace and skip the ticket lines.  I approach every place I visit with the optimistic belief that I’ll be back and when I do I’ll have plenty of time to do it all, but for my first whirlwind trip I simply savor the atmosphere around me.

Become A Tourist in Your Own City

I wrote to following using my current city of Atlanta but the ideas apply to wherever you may live. Enjoy!

There are so many interesting places to see in the world and sometimes we get so caught up in wanting to “get away” we forget that we live in a major metropolitan city. Atlanta is melting pot of diversity and culture and we’re lucky enough to live right in the middle of all the action. According to the Atlanta convention and visitors bureau we have over 30 major cultural, educational, and sports attractions as well as over 348 public parks. With all Atlanta has to offer I bet that most of us don’t experience much more than school, home, and the grocery store. Well, I’m here to challenge you to get out and become a tourist in your own town. Come on, it’ll be fun!

Whether you have a week, weekend, or just one day you can take a mini vacation right in your own backyard. An Atlanta CityPass is only $69 and gives you admission to eight of Atlanta’s most popular attractions including the Georgia Aquarium, which is the largest aquarium in the world, the new world of Coca-Cola, and ZooAtlanta. You’ll also find coupons, special offers and a secret to skipping those pesky lines. With the CityPass you’ll be saving 49% on attractions and have up to nine days to see Atlanta’s top destinations.
Now let’s say you’ve seen these attractions the last time your grandparents were in town and you’re not up for a repeat. No worries, the good thing about a big city is that the possibilities are endless. When’s the last time you packed a picnic and strolled down to piedmont or hopped in and out of the shops at Virginia Highlands? If it’s been awhile then I’d recommend getting out and enjoying what your city has to offer. The Atlanta convention and visitors bureau has an awesome website with tons of information on what to do. Just go to http://www.atlanta.net and you’ll find an events calendar, suggested itineraries and an extensive dining guide.
Perhaps the best thing about the website is the list of 50 Fun Things To Do where you can search by activity or neighborhood. Whether you want to explore the history of Atlanta or just want to shop, this list will give you some great ideas on where to go based on your interests.
Lauren Jarrell, director of communications at the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that the tourism industry produces an $11.4 billion impact for our city each year and is the second largest employer after government jobs. She also points out that Atlanta is a strong competitor to other big cities such as New York and Chicago. Much of our growth can be attributed to developmental projects such as the renewal of downtown. When asked what she would do as a tourist in her city she replies, “I’d look at what other Atlantans are doing.”

This is easy to do at atlanta.net because you can check out the ATLInsider, which has blogs where people talk about their favorite places along with what’s going on around the city. While you’re there you should also take a look at This Week in Atlanta located on the bottom right of the homepage. It features brief descriptions of events that are happening across Atlanta and can give you some great ideas on how to fill your time.

I like to practice what I preach so I’ll give you an idea of my perfect day as a tourist in Atlanta. First, I’d grab a couple of friends and head to the Flying Biscuit on Piedmont Avenue for some fried green tomatoes. Then I’d stroll over to Piedmont Park, spread out a blanket and people watch. Later I’d stroll through Little Five Points, grab some coffee and window shop. Finally, I’d end the day with some laughs at Whole World Improv Theatre on Spring Street.
Whatever you choose to do I encourage you all to look at Atlanta through the eyes of a tourist and really learn to appreciate the abundance of options that are available. I think we all deserve a little break from our routines and what better way to mix things up than to explore our great city.

Scotland on a dime and other budget travel tips


One of the biggest excuses I hear from people about not traveling is that it’s “too expensive.” Well, I’m here to share with you some tips and ideas about traveling on a budget. On my recent trip to Edinburgh, Scotland I kept my eye out for fun and free things to keep me occupied and I was not disappointed. As I use my latest trip as an example of the many opportunities available for little or no cost keep in mind that these deals are available across the globe.

First of all, wherever you go keep an eye out for a city pass. This gives you access to many attractions for one flat rate. In Edinburgh, a 3-day city pass is 48 pounds and includes admission to over 30 top attractions. You also get discounts at certain restaurants, pubs, and retail outlets along with unlimited bus service in the city. Most major cities offer these types of passes and can add up to big savings.

While a city pass may put some extra cash in your pocket keep an eye out for places that will keep it there. Who says you can’t get anything for free? There are tons of fun activities that cost absolutely nothing. From New York to Hong Kong, there are an abundance of things that will keep your wallet full and your senses sharp.

For example, the National Museum of Scotland, located on Chambers street, consists of two buildings and holds a massive collection of Scottish heritage. From an actual Viking grave, to the guillotine used for the city’s executions, the museum chronicles Scottish life from the earliest settlers, through the industrial period, and into present day life. It would easily take a day to absorb everything there is to see there. Volunteers even give guided 45-minute tours and every bit of it is free! You’d be surprised how many museums all over the world offer free admission. Countries are proud of their heritage and are eager to share it with visitors; all you have to do is take advantage.

The National Museum of Scotland is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to free entertainment. Parliament Hall costs zip to explore and is an amazing 17th century building where the original Scottish Parliament met before it was dissolved in 1707.

St. Giles Cathedral is a stone’s throw away and is where revolutionist John Knox used to preach. Founded in the 1120’s it has some of the most beautiful stained glass windows and if you’re lucky you may even walk in on organ practice. They ask for two pounds if you’d like to take photos, but other than that it’s absolutely free to explore.

Begin walking down the royal mile and on your right the Museum of Childhood is just as nostalgic as it sounds. Founded in 1955, this museum houses a vast collection of toys, dolls and games from Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian times as well as the present. As you continue toward the palace you’ll come to The Peoples Story.

This museum tells the story of the people of Edinburgh throughout the years. With unique displays including a servant at work, a prison cell, and what a 1940’s kitchen looked like, you’ll learn about how the people of the city worked and played. Just past The Peoples Museum is a church and a centuries old graveyard that you may stroll through. It should be noted that there were so many free opportunities that I did not get a chance to see them all.

One is the Writer’s Museum dedicated to Scotland’s famous author’s Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Everywhere you turned there was an opportunity to learn about the Country while holding on to your cash

Even when you’re away you want to keep in touch and Internet access can get expensive when you’re traveling. While most cafes offer wireless Internet it can really add up. Needless to say, I was excited when I found out that the National Library of Scotland, located right off the royal mile, offers free Internet access.

All you have to do is make a purchase at the cafe and show your receipt to the receptionist. That means for less than two pounds you can get a latte and two hours of web surfing. Believe me, this adds up to huge savings. Keep an eye out for these kinds of deals wherever you go. Public libraries are in every major city and can be a peaceful and cheap place to stay connected while you’re away.

As I write about all of these activities I must remind you that the atmosphere costs absolutely nothing. Any city you go to has its own flare and uniqueness filled with interesting people, sights and sounds. In Edinburgh you can sit at Princes Street Gardens, an old lake that was drained in the early 19th century and is now a beautiful city park.

Take a book and just enjoy the sound of bagpipes in the distance or look up and see Edinburgh Castle towering over the city. The chances are endless wherever you go. Walk through a town market and take in the many foods, textiles, jewelry and other goods available. There’s nothing wrong with looking, right?

Attend a festival and see how the locals celebrate or take in a street performance. There are endless ways for you to fill your days wherever you may be. One of my favorite things to do is to simply talk to the people. You’d be surprised at how eager people are to talk about their hometown as well as learn about where you’re from.

Another money draining activity while traveling is buying gifts for others. I know firsthand how tempting it is to give into souvenir shopping but does Aunt Joyce really need that Eiffel Tower pencil sharpener? Not only does this drain your bank account but also your time and luggage space.

Keep it personal and let your family and friends know you’re thinking about them by mailing them a post card. Buy them in bulk and write a few lines as you sip your latte at a sidewalk cafe. Another idea is to have some of your personal photos printed and framed once you get home.

Just remember that seeing the world can become a reality. All it takes is discipline and research. Before you depart for your destination study the history and culture. Also, read what others have to say about where you’re going. Above all enjoy the experience of being in a new and different place.

One thing I’ve noticed is that people love to share their money-saving tips when it comes to travel. I’d love to hear what you guys do to save money while on the road. Please share your ideas and advice in the comments section. I wish everyone safe and interesting travels in the years to come.

Traveling through Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh, Scotland

The following is a column I wrote for my university’s paper, The Signal:

I had never been to the United Kingdom before, but when I had an opportunity to take a four day to to Edinburgh, Scotland I jumped at that chance.

I started doing my research immediately. I feel it’s always a good idea to look into a place’s culture and customs before getting there. You find out some very useful information, such as whether it’s customary to tip cab drivers, servers, etc. or if there is a city pass available for sightseeing that may save you some money.

I arrived in Scotland at 7:30 a.m. and couldn’t wait to start exploring. My hotel was gorgeous, but pretty far from the city center. So after dropping off my luggage and showering I headed to the reception area for some advice on getting around. They had a bus stop at the end of the road, and after getting exact change for fare, I started walking. At the bus station, I met the nicest couple from London who were on holiday and more than happy to direct me on where to go once I got into the city. I must say that I was pretty intimidated at the idea of exploring a new city by myself, but the adventurous side in me won out. When I stepped off the bus and into Edinburgh my journey began.

The food in Scotland varies from traditional to modern and the choices are endless. I felt the responsibility to keep it authentic for my first meal. I stepped into a pub called Deacon Brodie’s Tavern for some fish and chips with a half pint of Guinness. The pub was named after Deacon William Brodie, the man who inspired the novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is believed that he used the building as his place of business in the 1800’s. He lived a double life where he was a respected businessman by day and shady crook by night. He was eventually caught and hung right across the street on October 1, 1788. While eating, I looked through my guidebook and made a mental plan for the day as I fought off fatigue. With a full belly and pure adrenaline I headed out to explore the famous Royal Mile.

The Royal Mile is actually one mile and 107 yards long. It is named such because of its location from the castle to the palace. During a visit in 1723, Daniel Defoe the writer of Robinson Crusoe, described the Royal Mile as, “the largest, longest, and finest street for buildings and number of inhabitants, not only in Britain, but in the world.” I would recommend starting your journey at the top of the Royal mile by visiting Edinburgh Castle. This castle is everything you’d imagine one to be. Perched atop a hill and overlooking the city the castle dates back as early as 1093 A.D. In addition to touring the outside of the castle and taking in panoramic views of the city you can also look inside at the military prison, national war museum, and even take a gander at the nation’s royal crown jewels- which are the oldest royal regalia in the United Kingdom and include the crown, sceptre and sword of state. Because there is so much to see here it would be a good idea to give yourself about three hours to explore the entire castle. Admission is 13 pounds for adults and includes access to all the sights and exhibits inside the castle.

Once you’re done at the castle you can begin your walk down the magnificent Royal Mile. The streets that make up the Mile are Castle Esplanade, Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate and Abbey Strand. Together, the Royal Mile is one of the busiest and most popular stretches in Scotland. Filled with shops, pubs, and historical attractions you couldn’t possibly see it all in one day. As you start your walk to the palace, which is at the end of the mile, you’ll come across the whiskey heritage center where you can take an hour-long tour and learn all about the making of whiskey. For 9 pounds and 50 pence you’ll even have the opportunity to taste the hair-raising concoction that Scotland has been brewing for over 300 years. Once you’re all hopped up on whiskey you can continue down the Mile for an exciting journey through Scottish history and tradition.

During your journey through the Royal Mile notice the statue of Hume, the Scottish enlightenment philosopher. Also, across the street is the old Scottish parliament and St. Giles cathedral where John Knox, the leader of the protestant reformation, was a minister. In front of the cathedral is where the city’s executions would take place and if you look down as you pass the cathedral you’ll notice the heart of Midlothian set into the street. The heart is a memorial to those who died there, and it’s considered good luck to spit on it as you pass by.

One thing you’ll notice as you’re walking along is small alleyways that branch off of the main street. Each alleyway is called a close and are narrow streets where people used to live and some still live today. Each close is named; some even have plaques with descriptions of people who lived there in the past along with their profession and status in the city at the time. Perhaps the most famous close on the street is Mary King’s Close and for a fee of 10 pounds and 50 pence you can tour the close with a guide. The close is interesting because it is still very much as it was nearly 250 years ago when the inhabitants of the city were struck with the plague. Victims were quarantined here and left to die, which is why the close is also nicknamed the “street of sorrows.” It is a very solemn experience with a dose of comedy sprinkled in by your guide.

After you tour the close then I suggest you head to the John Knox house. It is one of the oldest houses in Edinburgh, dating back to the 1400’s. This is not only where the leader of the Scottish reformation lived for a short time, but it’s also where he is believed to have died. While it is indeed fascinating to tour the actual house of such an historical figure, it’s also a great example of what houses of that period were like. As you climb the winding staircase to each floor you can peek into the rooms and learn what life was like hundreds of years ago. Make sure you read the quotes of Knox on the walls and admire the beautiful stained glass windows.

As you near Holyrood Palace you should take a stroll through the Conongate Graveyard. It is the final resting place to many Scots, including Adam Smith who wrote The Wealth of Nations and poet Robert Ferguson. It is quite surreal to stroll though the graves and read about the citizens of Edinburgh, many of whom have been gone since the 1700’s. As you leave the graveyard, walk a bit further and the new Scottish parliament will be on the opposite side of the street. The building opened in October 2004 and is by far the most modern architecture you will see along the mile.

At the end of your journey along the mile you will come across Holyrood Palace. Holyrood was home to Mary Queen of Scots and is now the official residence to the Queen of England. Admission is 9 pounds and 50 pence and is open to the public unless the Queen or any other royal family member is in town. Equipped with audio devices to guide you through each room you begin the exact procession that the Queen herself makes upon arrival. The tour includes the Queens sitting room, dining room and even the place where Sir Sean Connery was knighted in 2000. One of the highlights of the tour is the bedchamber of Mary Queen of Scots. This is where her lover, Rizzio, was beaten to death by her husband, Lord Darnley. The palace is as elaborate as you’d expect and filled with interesting facts about Scotland’s history. Once you are done touring the palace stroll outside and visit the ruins of Holyrood abbey, founded in 1128. It’s an old church built by King David I and has been the place for many royal ceremonies over the years. While just the ruins remain, it is still very beautiful and worth a look.

I was only in Scotland for a short time, but I saw and learned so much. It’s always a rewarding experience to walk away from a place that you knew nothing about with a newfound respect for the people and history. I’ll miss the sounds of bagpipes in the distance and lively pub conversations with strangers. With only four days I couldn’t possibly see all that Scotland had to offer, but I certainly made the most of my time. With the excitement of my latest trip fresh on my mind it makes me wonder what trips hold a special place in the hearts of my fellow classmen. Did anyone take an exciting summer vacation? Is there a trip that still makes you smile when you think about it? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below or email me at abrechtel1@student.gsu.edu. Also, I’ve created a website where you all can see pictures that I’ve talked about. Hope you enjoy: http://tinyurl.com/abrechtel1