Looking back at the highlights – national and international – of a busy year of travel
2019 unexpectedly ended up being my biggest year ever in terms of travel. I’m not from a particularly privileged background, and wouldn’t consider myself to be very well-travelled. I remember being amazed by how much people at university had travelled – I’d managed a few school trips and a trip or two to France (paid for by weekend jobs). So it has been really exciting getting to discover some new places this year, both countries and cities, and maturing into life as a relatively-seasoned traveller.
But you don’t just have to travel internationally to have a good time. As we become more aware of the environmental impact of our travel, we should be acknowledging how fun it can be to travel locally. So I’m going to give you a full rundown, month-by-month of my travel and recommendations, including what I’ve got up to in the UK. Travel can be such an incredible experience – and you don’t even need to use your passport.
January – Prague
After a slightly disastrous first attempt at skiing the previous January (a story for another day), I decided to pass on it this year, and instead headed for a short break in the Czech Republic with my sister. We settled on Prague as an interesting winter destination, and it did not disappoint. Known for its historic Astronomical Clock, its chimney cakes, and its picturesque buildings, Prague was a very pretty city, with lots to keep us history nerds occupied. We climbed the Charles Bridge Tower, walked up to the castle and cathedral, and visited the fascinating Museum of Communism.
We also went on a brilliant food tour by Taste of Prague. Despite an avowed hatred of beer, I threw myself into the local culture and gave it a try, in a country where beer is literally cheaper than water. Taste of Prague took us to some great places, and were really good at catering to me as a non-meat eater, even though meat features pretty heavily in Czech cuisine. Aside from the food tour we also indulged in the local penchant for hot chocolate, which is literally just melted chocolate. Absolutely divine, and a nice change from the beer!
I knew the city from films like Amadeus, and it looked even prettier than I had imagined in the snow. If you’re visiting, definitely try a chimney cake, or Trdelnik, which you can get filled with all sorts of delicious offerings (and slightly more random ones like bacon). We were expecting the city to be full of English ‘stag does’, and while they do clearly cater to the tourist market, it was a bit quieter than we expected (with fewer drunk people!). If you’re looking for something slightly more cultured, check out the Mucha Museum, home to works by the famous Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (you will definitely recognise his work!). If you want to get more of a sense of the cuisine, and where the locals like to eat, definitely book a tour with Taste of Prague.
February – New York
My first adventure across the pond came courtesy of work, when I went on a trip to run a number of events in New York and Washington. New York is one of those cities you hear so much about and see so often in films and on TV that you feel it can’t possibly live up to your expectations. But to my surprise it really did. When I went it even snowed, so I was able to see Central Park under a coating of white which was lovely, and added to the sense of stories coming to life. As I was working I didn’t get to explore that much, but squeezed in some highlights. The sense of space, and surprisingly light, is incredible, and it really does have a special atmosphere. Despite their slightly fearsome reputation I found New Yorkers very friendly, and noted this as a pleasant contrast to the average day in London. As an enormous art history nerd I couldn’t possibly go to New York without visiting MOMA. A meeting happened to be round the corner from it, and after wrapping that up I stole in for a visit. This was a truly inspirational experience. To see so many works you’ve been reading about and studying for years was actually quite moving. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Matisse’s Dance and Music were particular favourites. If you’d like to read more, head to my art history blog, Personal Interpretations, where I’ll be adding some of my thoughts.
Of course, when in New York, you have to try the bagels, and a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel did not disappoint. This was the first time that I was struck by the difference in American portion sizes – they are very generous with the salmon! They put as much salmon in one bagel as you’d find in six in the UK, and I was very grateful! They call it ‘Nova’, short for Nova Scotia, where the salmon is supposedly from. My other main ‘foodie’ experience was dinner at Park Avenue Winter. Not somewhere I would have chosen on my own budget, but as I was invited with work I wasn’t going to decline. The main ethos of the restaurant is that everything, the menu, the decor, and so on, all change completely for each season. As I was there (and as I write) it was in its winter phase, shortly to change for spring. I can’t claim to have a particularly well-developed palate, but the food was delicious, and the setting surprisingly intimate given the size of the restaurant. The menu, divided into sea, land, and sides, is not very promising for vegetarians, so I was thankful that at that point I still ate fish. If you’re looking for somewhere special, with an ever-evolving menu, Park Avenue will serve you well.
I also managed to fit in a walk up to the Lincoln Center, which I’ve wanted to visit for a very long time. It somehow epitomises chic, modern New York for me, and it was such a delight to finally see it. There was a fantastic documentary on BBC Four recently about its creation (featuring the unbeatable Leontyne Price), which I would highly recommend. The other architectural pilgrimage of the trip was a visit to the Grand Central Station. As I had come to expect, the most striking aspect was the sheer sense of scale – but it evokes a sense of troubled bygone grandeur. Similar to when wandering around Paris, it is hard not to think of the inequalities and oppression behind much of the glamour of New York. Many of its successes were in the era of segregation, and its wealthy continue to succeed on the backs of the poor. Nonetheless, it is a sight worth seeing, and not to be missed.
As we rushed to the airport on our final day (where a delayed flight left us stranded for several more hours than planned) I felt rather sad to be leaving so much of New York unexplored, but resolved to return as soon as possible to submerge myself in all it has to offer.
March – Washington DC
My trip to the US spanned across two months, so in March I found myself in Washington DC. Only a short shuttle flight from each other, it is hard to put into words how different the two cities are. While New York is frenetic and entertaining, Washington has a sombre, scurrying sort of feel to it. The spread out centre of Washington is on both a grander and smaller scale – more space but smaller buildings, with the giant monuments breaking through and declaring ownership over their surroundings. There is a metro, but I didn’t use it, keen to get a real sense of the place, which meant that I worked up quite a lot of miles of walking each day! Thought dominated by politics, it is also more of a university town that New York (despite that city also being full of universities). The museums are clustered together, and the suburbs are more of a presence, full of picturesque New England type buildings we Brits have come to love through the likes of Little Women. Overall there is a sense of mature power to Washington – New York has the money, but Washington decides where it goes. Washington is also a deeply unequal city, and has huge problems with poverty and homelessness, despite being the place one would assume is best placed to tackle such issues.
It was bitterly cold during my stay, with winds ripping through the wide open spaces. But refuge could be sought in all manner of places, my favourite being the National Gallery, another truly wonderful experience, with a collection to rival the MOMA. For the first few days I was working, and staying in the Cosmos Club, which has boasted three US Presidents, 36 Nobel Prize winners, and 61 Pulitzer Prize winners amongst its membership (not all of whom you’d want to chat to over dinner). That was quite an experience, in that it was somewhere I’d never normally have access to and yet was quite bland and samey, with little to mark it out from any other relatively upmarket hotel. I suppose that if you’re a member it is the other members that make it worthwhile. I added a few days of holiday onto the trip when work obligations were completed, and decamped to a much more down-to-earth AirBnB next to Meridian Hill Park for the rest of my stay. From there I could walk down almost straight to the White House, and onto the museums, although it must be said that this was a walk of about 40 minutes. But, broken up with a visit to B Too for Belgian breakfast, and stops in various vintage shops on the way, and the quintessentially American experience of shopping at Trader Joe’s on the way back, it was perfectly manageable.
The White House is bizarrely disappointing: smaller, and less imposing than one would image. From the front it is so close as to seem out of place, from behind so far that you need binoculars. The Capitol is, rightly, much more impressive, and on a scale hard to image anywhere else in the world (apart from perhaps in the giant palaces of the Soviet Union). The Lincoln Memorial is iconic, and the views across to the Washington Monument and on to the Capitol are spectacular. It is rare that a city is planned so carefully, and actually manages to pull it off, but Washington certainly has.
On top of all the expected attractions, a fun and slightly off-the-beaten-track thing to do is to take a walk up Massachusetts Avenue, where almost all of the embassies are. Each express something of their national culture (the UK one is a little dull…) and it is interesting to see so many styles so strongly juxtaposed.
I didn’t mange to visit all the museums, focusing on the National Gallery and the Smithsonian, but this provides me with a good excuse to go back. Having experienced Washington in the ice and cold, I think a trip in the spring, when the blossom is out, would be lovely. And perhaps when the resident of the White House has changed.
April – Amsterdam
Having barely had time to get used to being in the UK again, I headed off to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, this time accompanying my partner on a work trip. We were only there for five days, but I crammed a lot in. I visited the Rijksmuseum (of course!), the Van Gogh Museum (of course!), the Church of Our Lord in the Attic (another museum), Rembrandt’s House, and took day trips to Leiden and The Hague. All of which I would highly recommend. My only previous experience of Amsterdam was whistle-stop visit as part of RAG Jailbreak in my first year of university, so it was great to have more time to get to know it. Each of the places I visited is worthy of its own post, so I will add some more at some point. For now some recommendations. It feels like a very touristy thing to do, but a boat tour really is a good way to see the city and engage with its history. My top unexpected tip would be the roof garden on top of the Renzo Piano-designed Science Museum, where cool drinks and fresh breezes offered relief from the baking hot of the city. Top food tip would be to try the amazing Foodhallen, which has enough hipster food outlets to sate any and all appetites.
Our trip coincided not only with tulip season, but also with the Amsterdam Tulip Festival, so the city was full of beautiful colour. It’s definitely a cliché of the Netherlands – windmills and tulips – but it can’t be said that this is reputation is has not earned, and it does look very pretty. So if you’re trying to decide when to go, make it when the fields and cities are full of colour!
That’s of for Part 1, but look out for Parts 2 and 3, with visits to London, Belgium, Wales, Newcastle and Bath!
Where did you travel to in 2019? Do you agree with me that vacationing in your own country can be just as interesting, or do you feel you have to get your passport out for it to really tick the boxes? Sound off in the comments below!