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City Overview: Tokyo, Japan

We just returned from our week-long adventure in Japan!  We had a wonderful time in Tokyo and Kyoto (despite the sometimes rainy weather), and we can’t wait to write more about the trip!

Shinjuku, TokyoCity.  Tokyo, Japan

When?  3 nights – September 5-8, 2015.  After we booked our plane tickets we found out that it’s the rainy season, and that there may even be a typhoon while we were there.  It worked out fine and our plans weren’t ruined, but it was less ideal to have to deal with rain.  For our 7-night trip, 3 nights was perfect.  That meant two full days in Tokyo, which gave us the opportunity to see our top priorities, while still allowing time for 4 nights in Kyoto.

Where?  We stayed at the Granbell Shinjuku Hotel, which we loved.   I was worried that the Shinjuku area would be too crowded for me, but we weren’t on any of the main streets – just close enough to be able to walk to shops and restaurants.  We aren’t big on the nightlife (and really, we had a horrible time getting adjusted to the time zone), but Shinjuku (particularly east of Shinjuku station), seemed to be lively well into the night.

Transportation.  We flew direct from LAX to Narita International.  We took the Narita Express (a train) from the airport into Tokyo, which took about 90 minutes.  From there, we took the Tokyo metro to a station closer to our hotel, and walked from there.  We relied on the metro a lot (which was very smooth and easy to use), and only used a taxi on our last day, since it was raining. Ryan will go into more detail about the transportation logistics.

Food.  Amazing.  We had some of the best food in Tokyo – an unforgettable sushi dinner at sushi houston Iwa and ramen in the Golden Gai area were the highlights.  Everywhere we turned there was a sushi place – serving fresh fish that was caught locally and purchased at the fish market.  Even the department stores and train stations had restaurants.  It really was amazing, and I wish we had more time in Tokyo just so we could experience more of the food.Food

A food court (and grocery store!) in the basement of a department store. 

Day Trips. None, although we had toyed with the idea of a trip to Hakone, an area known for hot springs and views of Mt. Fuji.

Senso-JiAttractions.  This city has a lot to offer, and we didn’t even come close to scratching the surface.  Some of our favorite activities include a visit to Meiji Shrine, Gyoen Shinjuku park, a Kabuki play, and Asakusa (and Senso-Ji, shown to the right).  If that doesn’t interest you, there are museums (historical museums like the Edo museum and art museums), several other parks, Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo Universal Studios, Odaiba (an “island” with attractions to last at least a full day), and so many others.  It really is diverse and anyone could find something fun to do during a visit.  And there are so many people – visiting, living, wandering – that it can be fun tojust sit and people-watch!


Language Barrier.  We do not speak any Japanese.  The only word either of us used the entire time was “arigato” (thank you).  It worried me, but overall it worked out just fine.  Some of the people we met spoke English, and some not so much.  But everyone was very willing to help, so we never felt frustrated.  It’s amazing how much can be communicated through gestures!

Cost.  I hate to call a city expensive, but Tokyo did feel a bit more expensive than some other cities we’ve visited, at least for hotels.  Food can be VERY expensive, but you can also spend $10 and get a bowl of ramen and a beer!  It really does vary, and we did not spend too much money on transportation or visiting attractions, but did decide to splurge (a bit) on our hotel and on our one very nice sushi dinner.  

Advice. If you want to eat at a specific restaurant (and one that’s popular), plan to make reservations ahead.  We used the Visa Signature Concierge service for Sushi Iwa, but working with your hotel would be another good option.  Some restaurants may take reservations directly, but keep in mind that many restaurants will charge a hefty fee for a missed reservation (this can include being late).  So take the reservations seriously, and plan accordingly!

Closing comments. Tokyo was a great introduction to East Asia.  The city is modern and transportation is easy, everyone we encountered was very friendly, and there’s a lot of different types of attractions to enjoy.  And the food is amazing!  I think our 3 nights was enough to do what we really wanted, but you can easily spend more time exploring and enjoying this huge city!

City Overview: Ollantaytambo, Peru, South America

City.  Ollantaytambo, Peru, South America (located in the Sacred Valley)

Ollantaytambo, Peru, South America

When?  Four nights at the end of September (September 27 – October 1).

Where?  We selected Hotel Sol as our home base for the four nights, and I’m glad we did!  The other two places we were looking at were El Albergue, which is located right next to the train station, therefore it’s about a 10 minutes walk up to town, and Casa de Wow!  El Abergue didn’t have the type of room we wanted available (and I wasn’t completely sold on staying away from the main town center) and Casa de Wow was sold out.  Ryan will provide more detail about Hotel Sol, but as a summary: we paid $85/night, which allowed us a spacious room on the first floor with a terrace.  This also included breakfast (and even a boxed breakfast for the morning we left for Machu Picchu at 4:30 a.m.).

Transportation.  We flew from Lima to Cusco and then took taxis (arranged by the hotel) to and from the airport (almost a two hour drive).  We took the train to Machu Picchu and hired a driver for our day trip to the Pisac ruins.

Food.  The typical Andean cuisine can be found here.  The three biggies are trout, alpaca (pictured below), and guinea pig, and between the two of us, we tried them all!

Grilled Alpaca, Ollantaytambo, Peru

Day Trips. We took two – one to Machu Picchu, which was planned in advance, and one to the ruins at Pisac which was planned the day before (but discussed prior to the trip).  There are some other great options nearby – Moray and the salt mines at Maras.  We had originally planned to visit both of those and Pisac on the same day, but I’m so glad we stuck with a half day instead, which was already very exhausting.

Attractions.  The major attraction in the town of Ollantaytambo is the Fortress (a picture of us at the Fortress is below).  There is no information inside, so either a guidebook or a guide is highly recommended (we went with a guide, since neither of the guidebooks had any real information on it).  The town also has other hikes nearby and we did one of them – Pinkullyuna.

Fortress, Ollantaytambo, Peru

Language Barrier.  We did not brush up on our Spanish before leaving, but we know the (very) basics.  Our guide spoke English, and we were maybe able to understand about 60-70% of what he said.  We had no issues at the hotel or restaurants.

Cost.  Very cost effective, especially compared to our other vacations.  We were pleasantly surprised by the low cost of food (most of our meals were around $15 or less per person)

Advice.  Ollantaytambo was very much a “cash town” (some of the restaurants did accept credit cards, though, as did our hotel).  There are two ATMs in town (only one worked), but the big issue was keeping enough of the smaller (less than 50 soles) bills and coins.  If you get them, hold on to them!  They will be needed for tips and small purchases (water, souvenirs, etc.), and we were even hounded for a 10 sol bill for the purchase of our 260-soles activity boletos.

Closing Comments.  If you have the time, plan to stay in one of the smaller towns in the Sacred Valley, instead of spending all of your time in Cusco.  We were very happy with our choice of Ollantaytambo, which was small and welcoming, but also offered plenty of restaurants, shops, and nearby attractions to keep us busy.

City Overview: New York City, New York, United States

We just returned from a long weekend in New York City!  I don’t feel qualified to write a city overview on New York since we barely scratched the surface, but this will be have to work as a suitable overview until we have another chance to explore the great city!

New York City Skyline

City.  New York City, New York, United States

When?  Friday, August 31, 2013 – Tuesday, September 3, 2013 (4 nights and 4 full days + half of a day, over Labor Day Weekend).  We took a red-eye from LAX and landed at Newark just before 8am.

Where? The W Union Square served as our wonderful base for the long weekend.  After originally booking the Sheraton in Times Square, we jumped at the chance to book the W during a sale (a non-refundable reservation, but it was close enough to the trip that we felt comfortable booking).  With all taxes and fees, we paid just under $300 a night, which isn’t much more than other hotels we had looked at during our trip planning.  We’ll post a more detailed post about the hotel, but overall we really enjoyed our stay and would recommend this hotel (and this area!) to anyone visiting New York.

Transportation.  As mentioned above, we flew into (and out of) the Newark airport.  We took the train into and out of Penn Station and a taxi to/from the hotel (we were originally planning to take the subway, but we were talked out of it by a stranger on the train – thank goodness).  Other than getting into and out of New York, we stuck with the subway (mostly) and a few cab rides here and there.  Very easy and not too expensive – we bought a 7-day subway pass and the cab fares were surprisingly inexpensive.

Food.  We ate well, thanks to our hosts for the weekend (Ryan’s brother, Kevin, and his girlfriend, Meagan).  New York has so much to offer – I wish we had done more research beforehand, but we still tried a variety of cuisines – pizza, Italian (non-pizza Italian), several brunches, bagels, Peruvian (I can’t wait to share more about that meal), and even a late-night bar dinner.

New York Pizza

Day Trips.  None, in less Brooklyn or the Bronx count!

Attractions.  We did a lot – Yankees game, spent time in Brooklyn, the 9/11 Memorial, the Met, Central Park (pictured below), a little bit of shopping, a boat ride on the river, and more.  Some of the best experiences were just wandering around (especially with Kevin and Meagan – they were troopers and played tourist with us for the weekend while making sure we tried some of their favorite spots for food).

Central Park, New York City

Language Barrier.  None, unless you have issues understanding the New York accent (I honestly barely noticed it).

Cost.  We had issues finding a reasonably-priced hotel (really nothing in Manhattan south of Central Park for under the low $200s – okay, maybe a few options, but not much), but I was pleasantly surprised with the cost of food.  It is very possible to eat cheaply – we did a few times – and I’m sure it’s very easy to be extravagant.

Advice.  The only downside was the weather – hot (mid 80s) and very humid (so it felt like 100+).  I was miserable at times.  If possible, go during the spring or summer, when it will be more manageable!

Closing comments.  We are sitting here wishing we were back in New York.  We had a great time and plan to visit again next year.  It’s definitely a place to continue to visit because there will always be more to explore.  We plan to go again and again!  (Also, our 4 night trip definitely felt like a long enough mini vacation, so a long weekend will be great for a quick trip!)

City Overview: London, England, United Kingdom

City.  London, England, United Kingdom

When?  Sunday, November 18 – Sunday, November 25, 2012 (7 nights) – during the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday.  Staying 7 nights in one city was great, but if you have less time than that, it is definitely still worth it.  We actually took two day trips during our stay and we were still able to see many of the must-see London sites, as well as relax a bit (shop, afternoon tea, etc.).

Where? The Park Lane Hotel on Piccadilly.  We booked using Starpoints, so we paid 12k per night for this category 5 hotel.  We actually only paid for 6 nights, since Starwood has a  stay (and pay) for 4 nights, get the 5th night free.  Our points gave us the lowest level room but, as gold members, we were upgraded to an Executive Room, which is nicer than the older, non-renovated rooms.

Transportation.  The London tube was fantastic for getting around the central area. We even used it from the airport.  Ryan will do a more in-depth post about the tube ride from the airport, but for day-to-day use, we found it to be very simple to ride and cheap with our 7-day travel pass.  London also has the famous double-decker red buses (also included in our pass), but we didn’t end up taking a ride in one while we were there. However, we were cautious about London driving accidents and made sure to stay aware of the traffic conditions.

Food.  We tried a number of different cuisines: Pub Grub, Indian, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, German, and Belgium (okay, that was when we were in Brussels, not London).  The Indian food stole the show, but we also had delicious Italian and Chinese dinners (these were pricey though, costing over $150 per meal, with wine).

Day Trips.  As I mentioned above, we took two day trips.  We went to Brussels, Belgium, taking the high-speed train and traveling underneath the Channel.  The trip time was about 2 hours each way, and if we did our trip over again, I would not include a day trip to Brussels – we didn’t stay long enough to make it worth our while.  We also took a day trip to Bath, taking a normal in-country train.  The ride was 1.5 hours each way and completely worth it.  We shopped, enjoyed the Christmas market, visited the Medieval Baths, and had our favorite pub meal of the trip.

Attractions.  There are so many things to do in London.  Not only did we visit the more popular sites such as The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Eye, and the British Museum, but we also went to the Churchill War Rooms, Parliament, Borough and Portobello Markets, Christmas markets, and enjoyed afternoon tea!

Language Barrier.  None in London, although I didn’t always catch what everyone was saying on the first pass.  There wasn’t an issue in Brussels either, since everyone spoke English, but the majority of people in Brussels do speak French as a first language.

Cost.  London is known as being an expensive city, but you don’t have to spend an outrageous amount of money to enjoy it.  Of course it’s hard to miss the top sites, so plan to spend money on the big ones (many were around £15-20 per person) and save money in other ways – enjoy the free parks, eat lunch at the markets, get a tube pass to save on transportation, buy tickets at the “half-price” booth for shows, etc.

Advice.  Do not give up on the food and succumb to tourist trap restaurants!  Do some research and find out which restaurants have great reviews.  London is actually on Yelp, which we found to be helpful since a lot of locals use the site, and not just tourists (like Trip Advisor).  Also, do visit free sites to save money – there are several free attractions, markets, and parks that are well worth a visit.

Closing comments.  I cannot wait to visit London again. The planning seemed so effortless compared to other trips (I’m thinking it’s because they speak English and because we were only gone for one week, instead of two or three).  I absolutely loved visiting in November, although I do think we were very lucky with the weather and lack of rainy days. Additionally, tube advertising plays a key role in targeting audiences in London. I heard about the london tube advertising cost; it cost for £500-£15,000 per month.

City Overview: Madrid, Spain

City. Madrid, Spain

When? Friday, September 14 – Sunday, September 16 (2 nights).  The 2 nights were a little rushed.  We visited all of our top priority sites (Prado, Palace, etc.), but another night would have allowed us to consider a day trip to Toledo.

Where? We stayed at the Westin Palace Madrid in a Junior Suite.  The hotel has an excellent location, directly opposite the Prado and a short walk from Plaza de Santa Ana, which is one of Madrid’s liveliest nightlife scenes.  We only paid $90 + 4800 SPG points per night.  The same room usually costs €399.  Without our Starwood points, we likely would not have found the hotel to be a good value.

Transportation. Central Madrid is very walkable, although there are busses and an underground subway to get around.  The only time we hired a cab was for travelling from the train station to the hotel and from the hotel to the airport.

Food. Madrid had an excellent tapas scene, especially around Plaza de Santa Ana.  We had no problem finding a variety of options to piece together a tapas crawl.  In addition to ordering the patatas bravas that are available everywhere, we also tried orejas (pig ears – pictured below), visited a pintxos bar, and sampled champiñones (sauteed mushrooms).  We had one lunch on Plaza Mayor, which has a unique ambiance, but unremarkable food.  Unfortunately, Kristin wasn’t feeling well during our stay in Madrid, so we weren’t able to pursue the cuisine options as aggressively as we’d hoped.  Our impression was that Madrid had more to offer than any of the other Spanish cities we visited on our trip, perhaps only rivaled by Sevilla.

Day Trips. None.  We would have likely visited Toledo if we had more time though.

Attractions. The highlight for us was the Prado.  We aren’t art lovers, but we found our visit to the Prado very enjoyable.  The Prado is our new favorite art museum in Europe, far surpassing the Louvre and the Uffizi.  Also, it is nice that the Prado is free in the evenings, and we found the crowds to be very bearable.  We also enjoyed our visit to the Madrid Palace.  All of the important rooms are open to the public at the Madrid Palace, and visitors really gain an appreciation for the grandeur of Spanish royalty.  We also visited the Reina Sofia (modern art museum), Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, and Retiro Park.

Language Barrier. Almost everyone spoke English.  We had some minor communication difficulties at a pharmacy and one of the less busy tapas bars, but overall the language barrier was very manageable.

Cost. The cost of food seemed comprable to other places in Spain.  As could be expected, our meal on the Plaza Mayor was probably overpriced considering the quality of the food.

Advice.  Dedicate at least one night to a tapas crawl.  Wonder along some of the smaller streets around Plaza de Santa Ana, to avoid some of the more crowded and touristy options.  Although the Prado and the Madrid Palace are worth a visit, the cuisine scene is what really impressed us.

Closing comments.  Madrid is often a focus of many travel itineraries in Spain.  Appropriately so, considering its status as the nation’s capital.  However, it is a relatively young city and lacks some of the history and tradition found in other European cities.  We would prioritize a stop in Andalucía above Madrid if time is limited, but still believe Madrid is worth at least two nights if time permits.