Schloss Heidelberg

Nestled into the hills of Western Germany sits the medieval town of Heidelberg. The town is home to Germany’s oldest university, Heidelberg University, which was founded in 1386, and is a popular tourist destination as well. Tourist flock to the Altstadt (aka the Old town) to admire the baroque architecture, wander through the cobble-stoned streets, and see the imposing Heidelberg Castle.

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Me delighting in what I called a ‘Hobbit door’ in the Altstadt, 2013. c. Leah Putz

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View of Schloss Heidlelberg from the Altstadt, 2013. c. Leah Putz

For me, the castle was the main attraction. Heidelberg Castle is situation high on a bluff, overlooking the town, and has stood there since the 1200s. Throughout the hundreds of years it has existed, it’s been damaged and rebuilt many times by fire, weather, and war, but has ultimately stood the test of time.

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Powder Tower, destroyed in 1689 by the French, 2013. c. Leah Putz

The castle ruins are actually comprised of two different castles, the latter being an expansion built nearly a hundred years after the construction of the first castle. The joint castles were turned into a proper fortress in 1401, when King Ruprecht became king of Germany.

The view of Heidelberg Altstadt from the castle, 2013. c. Leah Putz

Due to the length of time the castle has stood and how often sections had to be rebuilt, there are varying forms of architecture that meld together beautiful. The castle maintains a cohesive look due to the various sections are all built using the same color stone, which gives it a unique red-toned look. Germany’s history is also displayed in the castle, as some of the main buildings in the interior have countless statues depicting many of Germany’s past kings and rulers.

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Wall of Schloss Heidelberg and statues of kings, 2013. c. Leah Putz

To this day, I think Heidelberg Castle is the most majestic structure I’ve had the pleasure of exploring. There is an overwhelming sense of beauty and history in this ancient structure, and if you find yourself in West Germany, I highly recommend making a stop in the captivating city of Heidelberg.

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My Cardiff Top 5

Cardiff, the capital of Wales, was a only a small town until the 1800s, though its origins date back to Neolithic times. In the 19th century, the Cardiff port began to bustle and the city grew until it became the largest in Wales. Today, it’s known for it’s bustling metropolitan area, and it’s capacity to preserve Welsh culture. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Cardiff, and have compiled a list of my top five places to go if you find yourself in this beautiful Welsh capital.

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Cardiff Central Square, 2014. c. Leah Putz

 

Cardiff Bay

Cardiff Bay the area surrounding the water fed by the two rivers in Cardiff. The area around the bay is beautiful, with many shops and restaurants nearby, and is a focal point for many events in Cardiff.

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Cardiff Bay, 2014. c. Leah Putz

 

Cardiff Story Museum

The best way to get to know a city is to explore its history, especially a city with as long and rich a history as Cardiff. Thankfully, you can visit the Cardiff Story Museum to learn all about Cardiff through the ages, complete with numerous artifacts and objects to view.

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Wales Millennium Centre, 2014. c. Leah Putz

Wales Millennium Centre

Fans of BBC show Torchwood will recognize the Wales Millennium Centre. Comprised of multiple shops, restaurants, and arts centers, it’s the perfect place to stop and shop in the Cardiff Bay area as it also features the Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre.

 

Bute Park

Once a part of the Cardiff Castle grounds, Bute Park is a whopping 130 acres of park and gardens. It was originally landscaped in the 17-1800s and sits near Cardiff Castle and along the River Taff. The park is dotted with sculptures, bridges, and immense natural beauty that is rare to find in the heart of a city.

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Sculpture on the street in Cardiff, 2014. c. Leah Putz

 

Cardiff Castle

If you’re going just about anywhere in the UK your trip isn’t complete without a visit to  a castle, and Cardiff is no exception. The castle, which was built by the Normans in the 11th century, can be found in the city centre, along with a Victorian mansion. It’s not only a main attraction of the city of Cardiff, but of Wales as a country as well.  

15 Things to do in London for Free

London can be expensive. In fact, I’ve heard it called the most expensive city in the world. However, there are countless things to do/see in London without spending huge amounts of money and still managing to make the most of the city. One couldn’t possibly put together a list of everything  to do in this vast and magnificent city, but you have to start somewhere. So, without further ado, here are 15 things you can do for free in London!

 
   15. St. Dunstan-in-the-East

St. Dunstan-in-the-East, a cathedral built in approximately 1100 A.D., has seen its fair share of turmoil. Throughout numerous repairs and rebuilds, the church survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 A.D. only to be nearly destroyed in the WWII Blitz of 1941. Only the north and south walls remained in addition to Christopher Wren’s tower and steeple. Rather than rebuilding yet again, the City of London made the brilliant decision to turn the cathedral ruins into a garden with a fountain in the center of the Nave. This site is one of the most striking and peaceful areas in the city and serves as a reminder that beauty can endure even after such destruction.

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Cathedral Window at St. Dunstan-in-the-East, 2016. c. Leah Putz

 

  1. Sample Global Foods at the Camden Market

Exploring the numerous shops, restaurants, and markets of Camden Town is an adventure in and of itself. The market is open every day, and there are countless food stands featuring food and drinks from all over the world. A lot of the small stalls offer samples as you stroll along, and it easy to end up feeling like you’ve eaten a full meal for free after meandering through the markets.

 

  1. Explore Greenwich

The borough of Greenwich is renowned for its maritime history and its location on the Meridian line at 0 longitude. This area in the eastern half of London south of the Thames has a lot to offer. The National Maritime museum, established in 1934 offers free entrance and sits on the edge of the beautiful Greenwich park. At the top of the hill in the park is the Royal Observatory and marks the Meridian line. From this vantage point, you can see a wonderful view of Greenwich Park and the skyline of London.

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View from the top of the hill at Greenwich Park, 2016. c. Leah Putz

 

  1. Chinatown

Located near Soho, London’s Chinatown is jampacked with authentic shops, restaurants, and culture. Grabbing a bubble tea and strolling through this area is a wonderful way to see a historical and rich part of the city, complete with a Chinese gates and a pavilion.

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Chinatown, 2014. c. Leah Putz

 

  1. Piccadilly Circus

A good way to describe Piccadilly Circus is to say that it’s like the Times Square of London- complete with giant advertisements and an insane amount of tourists. Near this area is a plethora of tourist shops where you are sure you find the perfect souvenir to commemorate your time in London.

 

  1. Visit the many parks

London is full of green space. No matter where you are in the city, you’re probably within walking distance of a public park or garden, which can’t be said for many large cities in the world. Some of the most popular of these parks are Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, St. James Park, and Green Park. All of these parks, and many more, provide natural beauty and scenery to contrast the city landscape.

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Hyde Park, 2014. c. Leah Putz

 

  1. Buckingham Palace

While it costs money to go inside Buckingham palace, it is free to admire the face of the Queen’s home, complete with a magnificent fountain and palace guards. I would recommend planning your visit to coincide with the changing of the guard, which takes place daily at 11:30 am during the summer months and on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday between 10:15 and 11:45 am during the winter.  This is spectacular to witness.

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Buckingham Palace fountain, 2014. c. Leah Putz

 

  1. Southbank

Southbank is one of my favorite parts of London. Complete with music, pubs and history, a lot of what is amazing about London can be found in this area beside the river. One of the most well-known staples of Southbank is Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. The theater is unmistakable as it is the only thatched-roof building in the city after the Great fire of London. The theater is still active and you can see shows performed there in the traditional Renaissance style if you’re willing to pay the ticket prices!

 

  1. Delight in one of the many museums

One of the things London does best is its museums. There are too many to count, and almost all offer free admission. My favorite is the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is full of fantastic art and historical artifacts. The British Museum is also incredible and houses the Rosetta Stone and statues from the Parthenon in Greece among others. Some other honorable mentions are the National Gallery, the National History Museum, and the Museum of London.

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Natural History Museum, 2015. c. Leah Putz

 

  1. Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square sits in the City of Westminster and is a tourist must-see. No matter which direction you face when in the center of this square you’ll be looking towards a major monument. In the center of the square stands Nelson’s Column complete with four guarding lion statues and a large nearby fountain. There are also four pillars that mark the corners of Trafalgar, each with a statue of a figure from British history, with the exception of the fourth pillar which is reserved for commissioned pieces.

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Sitting on the fountain in Trafalgar Square, 2014. c. Leah Putz

 

  1. Westminster Abbey

Like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey also costs money to enter. However, the exterior is a romantic mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and, quite honestly, breathtaking. The architecture of the Abbey is incredible and worth visiting even if you decide not to pay the ticket price to go inside.

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Westminster Abbey, 2014. c. Leah Putz

 

  1. Stroll along one of the city walks

London has countless paths that make for fantastic city walks. My favorite is the walk along the Mall stretching from Buckingham Palace through to Trafalgar Square. Another great walk is along Fleet Street, which is one of the oldest streets in London and makes its way to St. Paul’s Cathedral. As I said, there is a plethora of these walks to choose from, and they all offer a great way to see and explore the city.

 

  1. The Gardens of Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace is most well known for being the London home of Prince William, Duchess Kate Middleton, and their two adorable tots. The palace is also known for its beautiful front gardens. The Sunken Garden was inspired by a similar garden at Hampton Court Palace and is complete with numerous flower beds and a pond. Surrounding the Sunken Garden is what’s called the Cradle Walk, which is a shaded arched walkway with window-like cutouts that allow you to admire the beauty of the colorful Sunken Garden.

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Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace, 2016. c. Leah Putz

 

  1. Parliament and ‘Big Ben’

The Houses of Parliament and the Elizabeth Tower (known incorrectly as Big Ben, which is actually just the name of the bell inside the tower) are possibly the most recognizable landmarks of London. If you’ve ever seen a movie taking place in London, or a poster of the city, or a photograph, the majority of the time you’ll see these picturesque buildings. Visiting this area is a good way to pinch yourself and allow it to really sink in that you’re in London!

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‘Big Ben’ and the Houses of Parliament, 2016. c. Leah Putz

 

  1. Admire the city

Stop a minute and really take in the sites, sounds, and culture of the capital of the United Kingdom. London is one of the oldest and richest cities in the world, and it’s a privilege to be able to meander its ancient streets, see the sites, and discover what makes this spectacular city so amazing.

‘Over the Sea to Skye’

The Isle of Skye isn’t exactly easy to get to. The best way, in my opinion, is by car. If you’re reliant on public transport, you have to get a bus or coach from Inverness or Fort William. There is also the option of a ferry. It’s a long journey to Scotland’s largest and most northern of the Inner Hebrides (or Inner Isles), but it’s definitely worth making the trek, no matter how you choose to get there.

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Scottish Highlands, 2016. c. Leah Putz

If you’re traveling by car or bus, you’ll most likely cross over the Skye bridge connecting the island to Eileen Ban. The bridge, thin and high over the sea, provides incredible views of the Highlands as you roll into the village of Kyleakin on Skye.

After arriving in Skye, my friend and I decided to hop into the car and drive with no particular destination, but just pulling over whenever we saw something interesting. Even just driving around aimlessly in Skye is breathtaking. The narrow, winding roads prevent you from going too fast, so it’s easy to admire the Highland views of the island. Our first stop was Kilt Rock.

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Mealt Falls and Kilt Rock, 2016. c. Joe Forberg

Kilt Rock is a rock formation on a cliff edge that is said to resemble a pleated kilt (hence the name). The long section of coastal cliffs offer impeccable views, especially with the added nearby Mealt Falls tumbling from the cliff edge into the sea. The view from this vantage point presents one of the most breathtaking instances of natural beauty that I’ve seen as of yet in the world. Photos can’t do it justice, you’ll just have to journey to Skye to see what I mean!

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Coast of Skye, 2016. c. Joe Forberg

Our next stop was the famed Old Man of Storr. This site is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. It’s not visible from the road, there is just a sign signalling that it’s nearby and that if you stop and park, you can begin the hike to find it. It’s a vigorous hike- though there is a clear path it’s super steep at times and covers a distance of almost 4k. Without the proper shoes it could be very difficult. It’s well worth the extra effort, though. The unique rock formation comprised of stony pinnacles is one of the most sought after destinations on the Isle of Skye, and understandably so. The congregation of stones and their thin, tall towers seem almost other-worldly- like something from Middle-Earth or some other fantasy land.

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Old Man of Storr, 2016. c. Joe Forberg

Last but certainly not least, we swung by the Fairy Pools in Glen Brittle. Regrettably we don’t have any pictures of this last stop, but it’s was pouring buckets (in typical Scottish fashion) and we didn’t want to get our cameras/phones wet. The fairy pools are a collection of small waterfalls in the Glen that empty into a clear pool. On a nicer day, it’s popular with swimmers who dare to brave the freezing water.

We only had a day to explore, so didn’t get the chance to see more of the numerous sites. Some of the things that we missed that will make certain to check out next time are the Quiraing, Neist Point Lighthouse, and Boreraig, among others. Full of natural wonders and breathtaking beauty, the Isle of Skye is not to be missed.

Top 5 Must-Dos in Chicago

Chicago is a hot spot this winter, especially after the Cubs won the World Series, and many people are scrambling to spend a few days there. I myself spent the weekend there recently visiting a friend and, though it was absolutely freezing cold, I had a wonderful time exploring and seeing bits of Chicago I hadn’t seen on my previous trips there.

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My friend Joe and I trying to stay warm in front of Willis Tower, 2016. c. Leah Putz

Now, after having visited the city three times, I’ve compiled a top 5 must do’s if you’re spending the weekend in Chicago!

  1. Stroll along the Magnificent Mile

The Magnificent Mile is a stretch of Michigan Avenue that runs through the heart of downtown Chicago. Running along the mile are numerous historic landmarks (the Chicago water tower, Wrigley Building, and Tribune Tower to name a few) and high-end shops that make the area Chicago’s largest shopping district. Even if you aren’t a big shopper, strolling along the mile simply to take in the scale of the buildings and the architecture is quite an experience.

  1. Visit the Bean

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The Bean and I, 2013. c. Leah Putz

Okay, I know that technically this large sculpture is called Cloud Gate, but who actually says that? Everyone, tourists and natives, refer to it lovingly as ‘the bean’ because that’s what it looks like. A giant, reflecting bean. The bean is the focal point of Millennium Park and it has become a signature part of Chicago in the past 10 years that it has existed. It’s incredibly interesting and a bit surreal to experience, especially if you stand directly underneath it and look up to see your reflection warped by the irregular shape of the sculpture. The bean is definitely a must-see, especially if it’s your first time in the city.

  1. Willis Tower

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Willis Tower, 2016. c. Leah Putz

With 110 floors, Willis Tower, formerly (and more commonly) known as Sears Tower, is America’s tallest building and the staple of Chicago’s skyline. The building has an observation deck with a clear floor that allows you to feel like you’re standing on top of the city with nothing beneath you, but this comes with a price tag. I haven’t journeyed to the top of the tower in any of my trips to Chicago because the $23.00 admission fee seems a bit too steep to me, but I’ve been told it is an incredibly surreal experience!

  1. The River Walk

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View of Chicago from the River walk, 2016. c. Leah Putz

One of my favorite things about Chicago is how beautiful the Chicago River is. In every other major city I’ve been to, the river is brown and looks really dirty. In Chicago, however, the river is alluringly blue. There are paths leading along both sides of the river, littered with cafes and restaurants, that allow an easy stroll taking in the sites of the city.  

  1. Navy Pier

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Navy Pier, 2016. c. Leah Putz

Navy Pier is my favorite part of Chicago for a few reasons. One, it offers an extraordinary view of the Chicago skyline and of Lake Michigan. Two, it takes you out of the concrete jungle atmosphere of the downtown Loop area of the city and surrounds you with beautiful azul waters and a seaside-like atmosphere. There’s a lighthouse in the distance, an anchor sculpture, a ferris wheel, and a beer garden. What more could you want in an area?

 

Honorable mention: Don’t forget to try Chicago-style deep dish pizza and/or a Chicago-style hot dog. If there’s anything Chicago is known for- it’s food!

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Chicago style hot dog, 2013. c. Leah Putz

Enjoying a Day in Nice and Monaco

Let me start off this post by saying I would have loved to spend more than just a day exploring Monaco and Nice, which from my short experiences there both seemed like wonderful places. One of my favorite things about them was the cleanliness, especially in Monaco. To this day it is Monaco is the cleanest place I’ve ever been- not just in Europe, but anywhere. I thoroughly appreciate a clean environment, so my impression was favorable from the get-go.

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Renee and I in Nice ready to start our day exploring, 2011. c. Renee Brown

We started our day off in Monaco, which was just a short bus ride from the hotel in Nice. Thankfully Monaco is a small principality and what I wanted to see was all in the same sort of area, so I managed to fit everything into the few hours I was there.

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Gardens in Monaco 2011. c. Renee Brown

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Gardens in Monaco, 2011. c. Renee Brown

Strolling through the gardens was by far my favorite part of my time there. They cover a large area overlooking the harbor and are quite breathtaking. Scattered throughout with sculptures and fountains in addition to the variety of flowers and plants, it makes for a very peaceful and beautiful stroll. It was incredible to look out over the harbor into the startlingly blue water whilst surrounded by flowers and trees. The view from the vantage point the gardens offers is astounding.

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View of the Harbor from the gardens in Monaco, 2011. c. Renee Brown

Not far from the gardens lies the Prince’s Palace of Monaco. Quite by accident I managed to arrive at the palace in time to see the changing of the guards, which was really cool to see. Because of my time restriction, I didn’t go inside to see the Museum and the State Apartments which are open to the public during the majority of the summer season. From what I’ve seen of photographs online it’s not something to miss, so I’d suggest trying to plan a try around a time they would be open to tour.

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Prince’s Palace of Monaco 2011. c. Renee Brown

Upon heading back to Nice, I promptly went to the beach. The beach in Nice is aesthetically very pretty, which small stones sloping into the Mediterranean Sea rather than sand. However, I found it almost painful to walk on and it was difficult to sit down and rest comfortably. Regardless, it was exciting to take off my shoes and step into the Mediterranean Sea for the first time, even if my toes almost froze off.

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Beach in Nice 2011. c. Renee Brown

After spending some time admiring the view of the sea from the beach, I wandered around Nice. I didn’t have a particular goal in mind, so I did some shopping, had some gelato, and admired the art and architecture of the city. I really enjoyed strolling through the streets of Nice. There were numerous pieces of public art and fountains which housed beautiful sculptures. In a lot of ways architecturally, Nice reminded me of Paris. Nice however lacks the ancient hum of Paris and the overwhelming amount of tourists.

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Fountain sculpture in Nice 2011. c. Renee Brown

Nice and Monaco are two incredibly beautiful places and left a lasting impression on me regarding the French Riviera. I can’t wait for the day I get to explore the area more.

A Few Days in Paris

The first time I stepped foot in Paris, I remember being struck by how similar the world was there to here. It was my very first time in Europe, and I had built it up so much in my mind that I had imagined the colors being brighter, the air smelling sweeter, everything looking like it came straight from the Renaissance. But the sky is still the sky, air is still air, the sun is the same sun no matter where you are. I was so prepared for this major culture shock that I was surprised by the similarities more than the differences.

One of my favorite things about Paris is the architecture. I have a degree in Art History, so a city like Paris is a dream. The majority of the buildings were built using limestone quarried from beneath the city, creating a vast network of underground tunnels which now make up the catacombs. The 18th century architectural style is maintained throughout the old part of the city, and there are no skyscrapers or metal buildings to disrupt the authenticity of the area, which makes it unique and wonderful. There is absolutely no mistaking that you are in Paris.

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Notre Dame 2016. c. Leah Putz

Notre Dame was the first place I went in Paris on my first trip there five years ago, and when I took my mom for Mother’s Day this year it was the first place I took her as well. Even after all these years and the many cathedrals I have seen since, Notre Dame remains one of my favorite. The Gothic architecture and symmetry never fails to take my breath away. It’s astounding to me that people could create something so massive and beautiful without the use of any sort of modern tools. The interior of the cathedral is just as beautiful as the exterior- I felt overwhelmed and emotional gazing at the massive rose windows, the sculptures, and just the sheer scale of the building.

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Zero Mark Point, the Center of Paris, in front of Notre Dame cathedral, 2011. c. Renee Brown

One great thing about Paris is that the major sites are fairly close together. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can walk from Mont-martre to Notre Dame, to the Louvre, to the Arc de Triomphe, to the Eiffel Tower. It’s safe to say you’d have to be really ambitious, but there is also a very easy to use Metro system if you aren’t up to the long walks. What I did was purchase a 2 day pass for a hop-on hop-off bus tour of the city which took us to many of the landmarks so we didn’t have to walk or take the metro. We sat on the upper deck and was able to enjoy wonderful views of the city whilst resting our legs for our next adventure. I had bronchitis and couldn’t handle too much walking without wanting to hack my lungs up and go to sleep on the sidewalk, so this bus tour pass was a godsend. My mom could admire the city and take pictures of the sites and laugh at me when I inevitably passed out.

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Incredibly flattering photo of me passed out on the bus as we passed the Eiffel Tower, 2016. c. Holly Williams

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Sacre Ceour, 2016. c. Leah Putz

While my favorite part of Paris is Notre Dame and the Latin quarter, my mom’s is Montmartre. It’s a bit of a hike up the hill to the basilica Sacre Coeur, but it’s well worth it. Not only do you get a fantastic view of the city, but there are many wonderful little shops and cafes in this small area of the city. Montmartre was the home of many famous Parisian artists, and their essence still lingers in the area. It’s buzzing with a creative vibe and many of the shops are full of art. It’s here that the cafe in Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night painting still exists! I recommend heading up there in the evening. A little path off to the left of Sacre Coeur provides a panorama of Paris, and it’s quite stunning at sunset or even after, when the Eiffel Tower lights up.

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Mom and I, Louvre Courtyard, 2016. c. Leah Putz

Another must see for art lovers is, of course, the Louvre. One could spend months coming to this museum every day and still not see everything it has to offer. Housed in what was once a royal palace, the number of rooms and halls now chock full of art are endless. It’s overwhelming, especially if you are on a time crunch, so I recommend trying not to limit the amount of time you spend here. This is one of the most famous museums in the world, for good reason. Some of the most world-renowned works of art are housed here, including da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Nike of Samothrace, and many, many more. The building itself is a work of art, with gilded ceilings and marble staircases. The only thing I don’t like about the Louvre is how difficult it is to get out. Both times I’ve been here I’ve gotten lost trying to find the exit. This last most recent time when I was so sick, I almost had a mental breakdown going in circles just trying to escape to get some fresh air. Protip: grab a map of the place.

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Entrance to the Parisian Catacombs, 2016. c. Leah Putz

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Parisian Catacombs, 2016. c. Leah Putz

If the phrase, ‘Stop! Here is the empire of the dead,’ doesn’t scare you away (or just the idea of being hundreds of feet underground with millions of skeletons), then you definitely have to check out the catacombs. During the 18th century, Paris’ cemeteries were grossly over-crowded and the city began searching for a solution. Someone had the brilliant idea of placing the corpses under the city in the mines carved out during the hunt for limestone. Near the end of the 8th century, someone else decided to organize the bones of the deceased. Now its an underground museum full of skulls, leg bones, and arm bones arranged in a morbid sense of decoration. The bodies are organized based on what cemetery they came from, or which battle in the Revolution they died during. The remains of millions of people are here, and it’s mind-boggling gazing upon the bones of so many unnamed souls. There’s no way to possibly know about any of these people’s lives, and yet here you are, staring into their skulls.

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Renee and I before the Arc de Triomphe, 2011. c. Renee Brown

There’s far too many interesting and incredible things to see in Paris than I could possibly mention in a blog post (a few examples include the Musée de l’Orangerie which house Monet’s water lilies, and the Palais Garnier opera house- the setting of the Phantom of the Opera). While it isn’t my favorite European city I’ve been too (it’s a bit dirty and has an underlying scent of urine), it holds a special place in my heart as the first one I’ve visited. There’s just nowhere like Paris.