Where To Go: 16 in '16

Last January, I posted my first annual "Where to Go" list. Of the 6 places that made it to the 2015 edition, I managed to visit just 2 of them. I clearly wasn't ambitious enough last year, so I've decided to more than double the number of destinations for 2016. All of them were selected for a variety of reasons, from new art installations to presidential elections.

Just going through the process of compiling this list has reaffirmed my love for travel. While It's highly unlikely I'll visit all 16 destinations this year, there's no harm in trying!  


Asia & Australia

1. Homestay in Krygyzstan

One of my favorite pastimes is virtually exploring Central Asia in Google Maps. I love zooming in as close as possible on tiny, obscure towns. I'm not sure what I'm looking for, but I've always been fascinated by the 'Stans. Their strategic position along the ancient Silk Road have made these countries a melting pot of religious, political and even culinary influences. Sadly, their most recognized cultural ambassador is the fictitious Kazakshstani reporter, Borat.

Of all the 'Stans, Krygyzstan is perhaps the most accessible (and ruggedly beautiful). Unlike its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan does not require tourists from most countries to apply for a visa. The country also has a great community-based tourism network, so visitors can easily connect with local guides and homestays. 

2. China's Great Silk Road

Some of China's most breathtaking terrain and fascinating ruins are further inland, far away from the country's eastern megacities. Not surprisingly, travelers will discover many of these landmarks (like Jiayuguan's Great Wall Fort pictured above) along the aforementioned Silk Road. I've been eager to join an overland tour that traverses China's Gansu and Xinjiang provinces. 

3. Chengdu, China

I've been a bit reluctant to visit urban China again given the country's notorious pollution, traffic and overpopulation. However, as far as Chinese megacities go, Chengdu has a "modest" population of just 14 million residences. The provincial capital is known for its relatively relaxed vibe, delicious Sichuan cuisine and abundance of pandas. Like many burgeoning Chinese cities, Chengdu is rapidly evolving, so who knows how long many of the region's greatest traditions will be preserved. 

4. Melbourne, Australia

It's no surprise that many of London's earliest and finest specialty coffee shops (Flat White, Kaffeine and Allpress to name a few) were started by Antipodean expats. Aussies (and Kiwis) know their coffee. Despite some heavy competition, Melbourne is regarded as the top coffee destination in Australia. With more and more direct flights launching from London Heathrow, DFW and LAX, traveling Down Under has become considerably faster. Now all I have to do is schedule a trip during the Australian Open. 

5. Hokkaido, Japan

Although I've visited Sapporo before, I don't think my 2 day stop in Hokkaido's capital did the province justice. This northernmost island is considered Japan's "final frontier". From unspoiled nature and powdery white slopes to indigenous Ainu culture and fresh seafood, Hokkaido has so much more to offer. 


Europe

6. Lake Iseo, Italy

For 2 weeks this June, Lake Iseo will be home to The Floating Piers. This temporary installation is the work of Christo, best known for previous large-scale environmental works of art (The Gates in 2005) he created with his wife, Jeanne-Claude. 

7. Ring Road, Iceland

This April, I will be taking 10 days to drive around Iceland (literally) along the circular Route 1, or "Ring Road". With so many cheap flight options courtesy of Icelandair and WOW, this Nordic country is more accessible than ever before. Now the only question is if I should traverse the island clockwise or counterclockwise. Decisions, decisions...

8. Faroe Islands

Prior to my Iceland road trip, I'm planning on making a stop in Faroe Islands. This lesser known Atlantic archipelago is arguably just as dramatic (and rocky) as its neighbor to the west. Surprisingly, this diminutive country has quickly become one of the top destinations for Nordic cuisine

9. Rotterdam, Netherlands

In need of some creative inspiration, Michael and I are planning a short trip to Rotterdam for our next weekend city break. While Amsterdam may get most of the attention, Rotterdam is arguably Netherland's foremost hub of design and creativity. 


South America

10. Medellín, Colombia

Binge watching Narcos set Michael and I down a dangerous rabbit hole of Google searches. What is the crime rate in ColombiaWhat is Medellín like today? We were surprised to find that this once crime-ridden drug capital of Colombia has become one of the country's most innovative and revitalized cities. 

11. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

The Galápagos Islands are another destination we long considered too far and too difficult to reach. Thankfully, American Airlines just launched daily direct flights between Dallas and Quito, making these tiny, biodiverse islands off the coast of Ecuador that much easier to get to. Now we're one step closer to rubbing shoulders with giant tortoises, blue footed boobies and seals! 


Central America & The Caribbean

12. Havana, Cuba

This one is a bit of a no-brainer. With the recent travel embargo lift, there will soon be a rush in US commercial flights to Havana. As tourism skyrockets and commercialization takes hold, it's best to visit Cuba ASAP before it "changes". 

13. San Pedro, Belize

Ever since we met our friends Courtney and Peter, we've been eager to visit San Pedro. Not only is Belize a short flight away from multiple US cities, it also offers agreeable weather year-round and clear, blue water perfect for scuba diving and snorkeling. All this makes for a perfect short break destination. 


United States

14. Washington, DC

Why am I so keen on visiting a city I lived in for 7 years? Because it's an election year! Every 4 years, a certain sense of excitement (and anxiety) descends upon our nation's capital. DC also happens to have an innovative food scene that continues to grow and evolve. There are so many new spots like Rose's Luxury, Compass Coffee and Maketto that I'm eager to try as well as some old favorites like Rasika and The Tombs that I'm excited to revisit.

15. New Orleans, Louisiana

Here's another old stomping ground I'm hoping to revisit soon. I spent a year in New Orleans while working on a project with Deloitte. Since then, I've been craving the city's unrivaled Cajun cuisine. Adding to an already vibrant food scene, the revamped St. Roch Market opened last year, complete with a dozen plus local food and coffee vendors. New Orleans also gets its very own Ace Hotel this spring. 

16. San Juan Islands, Washington

This archipelago just north of Seattle is home to beautiful vistas, endless outdoor adventures and laid-back towns. With mild weather year-round, it offers the perfect escape from the daily grind. 

L.A. Reconsidered

I'll be honest. I haven't always been the biggest fan of Los Angeles. Despite dozens of trips to LA, I hardly spent any time in the city itself. To me, LA was a sprawling network of congested highways connecting hundreds of Chinese supermarkets. You land at LAX, grind through rush hour traffic and ultimately make your way out to Monterey Park, Arcadia or Covina. While I enjoy visiting family and devouring authentic Chinese food, my past experiences have obviously given me a skewed perspective of LA. 

Thankfully, I got a chance to experience a very different side of Los Angeles when I visited this past September for my cousin's wedding. Our hotel and the wedding itself were both in downtown LA -- a neighborhood I once only associated with post-apocalyptic scenes from the Terminator. From the revitalized Arts District to the undeniably trendy Silver Lake, today's Los Angeles brings together the best of both worlds. It combines that "east coast cool" (once only associated with New York) with the laid-back vibe and perfect weather you can only get on the west coast.

I had 2 short days to spend in Los Angeles, so I barely scratched the surface of what the city has to offer. Below are just a few of my favorite places I hit up during the visit!

*All photos taken from my iPhone 6 Plus. Didn't bring my Sony a6000 for this trip, unfortunately


Downtown Arts District

What was once little more than some abandoned warehouses in downtown LA has become one of city's coolest new neighborhoods. We started our first morning in town with a coffee at Blacktop Coffee followed by a bit of retail therapy at the adjacent Alchemy Works and nearby design shop, Poketo. The neighborhood is compact and surprisingly walkable. Don't be surprised to run into a few ice cream trucks while walking around.

For the duration of the weekend, we stayed at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown. The hotel itself isn't particularly fancy, but the building is apparently an architectural landmark. Its postmodern design and wacky layout has been the subject of multiple academic analyses and documentaries. 

 

Silver Lake & Echo Park

We spent Saturday afternoon in the eclectic Silver Lake neighborhood. The main strip running through the area is Sunset Boulevard, which is chock full of awesome cafes, restaurants and boutiques. My favorite shop was Mohawk General Store, which includes separates mens and womens boutiques down the street from one another.  Make sure to also stop for a break and escape the heat at Intelligentsia Coffee

On Sunday, I met up with goods friends and fellow ex-New Yorkers, Allison and CJ, for brunch at Sqirl. Thanks to the awesome team behind Dallas favorite Set & Co. for the recommendation! This buzzy spot in East Hollywood serves up some delicious, fresh fare. I ordered the crispy rice salad with fried egg and sausage. Healthy but filling! 

We followed up brunch with a stroll down to Echo Park. This charming neighborhood park is perfect for sunbathing and people watching. It also boasts an awesome view of the LA skyline towering behind the lake and water fountain. 

 

Urban Escape

Traffic in LA can be suffocating. Thankfully, there are plenty of places where you can temporarily escape the urban sprawl. Just north of Hollywood is Griffith Park (including the famous Griffith Observatory) and Runyon Canyon Park. Both are great places to go on a hike and catch unobstructed views of Los Angeles. However, they can also be pretty sceney (particularly Runyon Canyon). Stay away if you're afraid of celebrities with dogs, sweaty models and perfect six pack abs. After your challenging hike, head down to Go Get Em Tiger on Larchmont Boulevard for some coffee and sandwiches. 

 

Venice

We capped off the weekend with an afternoon in Venice. When you arrive, you start to really understand why so many people love living in Los Angeles. I found out that Google's LA offices are actually in Venice. The thought of living next to the beach, hopelessly attempting to surf, and biking to the office is pretty alluring. If surfing isn't your thing, there's plenty to see and do along Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Grab some coffee at Blue Bottle and slowly make your way down the seemingly endless row of hip boutiques. If you can't tell, I'm a big fan of the coffee + shopping combination. 

Layover in Copenhagen

Our Norwegian fjord cruise in May ended back in Copenhagen, Denmark. The cruise arrived arrived at the port in the morning, and my flight back to London wasn't until late afternoon. Therefore, I had a few hours to spend in the city. I previously visited Copenhagen in 2008 and immediately fell in love with the city. Needless to say, I was extremely excited to spend some more time in the Danish capital, even if it was only for a few hours. 

There's plenty of famous attractions to see in Copenhagen, including Nyhavn, Tivoli Gardens, the Little Mermaid and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art further afield. With such limited time, we didn't even try tackling all these tourist stops. Other than one coffee shop and a department store I had on my "to-do" list, we went without much of a plan.

To fill up the rest of our time, I turned to Instagram. That's right, a bit of hashtag hunting yielded some amazing finds. Before I visit a new city, I've gotten in the habit of doing a little "instaresearch". With the recent app update, this has become an even more fruitful practice. The rebooted search functionality will yield the top hastags, people and places for any search. If you start following one local Instagram "influencer", you'll quickly uncover myriad options. Just don't get TOO carried away as it can quickly take you down an endless rabbit hole.  

So what places did I uncover on Instagram and how did I spend our few precious hours in Copenhagen? 

 

Immediately after arriving at the port, we headed over to Torvehallerne for some morning coffee and congee. Sounds like a strange combination, right? It's not that farfetched when you consider that both are staple breakfast items in different countries. We grabbed some coffee at The Coffee Collective stall and some delicious congee from Grød. Credit goes to Jonas and Jen for discovering the later. If congee isn't your thing, there are dozens of other delicious vendors in this bustling food hall. 

Our next destination was a bit off the beaten track and removed from the action in the city center. I came across some absolutely beautiful photos of Grundtvigskirke (Grundtvig's Church) on Instagram and decided we had to visit. Completed in 1940, the church is recognized for its striking, modern architecture. While the exterior is notable for its display of brick expressionism, it's the interiors of the church that really shine...literally. Light floods in from every angle, and the effect is exaggerated by a complete lack of ornamentation. 

After our church visit, we headed back east and stopped for lunch at Smagsløget, a tiny sandwich shop recommended by friends. While the place looks like any other unremarkable deli, the sandwiches they churn out are anything but unremarkable. Come hungry, because the deli meats, vegetables and finishings are piled on liberally. 

We proceeded to walk off the carbs with some retail therapy. This is where Copenhagen really stands out. The Danish are renowned for their cutting edge and innovative design. There are a plethora of awesome stores, ranging from tiny boutiques to sprawling department stores. No trip to Copenhagen is complete without a stop (or two) at Illum Bolighus. This multi-floor department store brings together the best of Danish design. Before you know it, you'll easily have spent hours (and way too much money) here. A few other shops I found on Instagram include Stilleben, a small design shop just around the corner from Illum Bollighus, the Tortus Copenhagen showroom and the new Han Kjøbehavn flagship store. All the stores are fairly concentrated in the city center, so you easily walk to all of them. 

To cap of the afternoon, we made one final stop at another Instagram find: Atelier September. The airy cafe has a small selection of pastries, savory dishes and of course, coffee. The most photo-worthy item on the menu is their latte served in a small bowl Japanese-style. 

Ålesund & Bergen

Following Rae & Kurt's wedding, I briefly stopped in Amsterdam for work before flying to Copenhagen and reconnecting with the newlyweds. It just so happened that the week after their wedding was our long-scheduled family cruise through the Norwegian fjords. What better way to celebrate your nuptials than vacationing with your parents, brother and 15 close family friends? :) Perhaps it wasn't the most romantic "honeymoon", but it was a memorable trip nonetheless. 

Our 7 day vacation aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line took us along the western coast of Norway. The region is most famous for it's larger-than-life fjords, where glaciers have carved out jawdropping landscapes over thousands of years. Amongst the breathtaking cliffs, tiny inlets and chains of islands are some of the world's most picturesque cities. Our cruise was perfectly bookended with stops in Ålesund and Bergen. Despite having only a few hours on shore and braving some unpredictable, chilly weather, we got to explore some of the top highlights of each city. 


Ålesund

 

Ålesund was the 1st stop and northernmost city on our cruise trip. With a population of just 45,000 residents, this traditional shipping town is spread across a cluster of islands connected by a complex network of roads, bridges and tunnels. The town is perhaps most notable for its interesting art nouveau architecture that resulted from a fire and subsequent rebuilding in 1904.

Our cruise ship arrived very early Friday morning, so the town was still fairly quiet. As with most cruises, we had less than a full day to explore the city before returning to the ship. Rather than opt into a guided tour, we decided to wing it and explore the town on our own. We kept the itinerary fairly light. From previous experiences, I've learned that when traveling in a large group (particularly when that group includes your parents), everything seems to take twice as long.

Best View: For panoramic views of Ålesund and the surrounding islands, hike up to the top of Aksla Mountain. A short walk up 400 steps will get you to Fjellstua Viewpoint where you can grab a quick coffee and soak in the sights. Multiple tourist and public buses also stop at the viewpoint if you're not feeling the steep incline. 

Best Coffee: Norway has one of the most innovative and thriving coffee cultures in the world. In fact, the country has the 2nd highest coffee consumption per capita right behind Finland. Not surprisingly, cities like Oslo and Bergen (more on that later), are home to many of the country's best coffee shops. What is surprising is that one of Norway's best roasters, Jacu Coffee Roastery, is in Ålesund. We happened to be in the city the one day of the week when the roaster briefly opens to the public. When in Norway, don't expect intense, dark flavors or milk-laden drinks. Nordic coffee is light, smooth and almost too easy to drink. Perhaps that's why coffee consumption is so high here.

Best Family Fun: Of all the activities and attractions we could have visited, we decided to go to Atlantic Sea Park. It was perhaps the best decision of the trip. Unlike many top aquariums in the world, this one seems surprisingly natural. The park itself is built right along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, and its animal inhabitants are native to the surrounding region. Make sure to stay for the penguin and seal feedings. 


Bergen

 

Bergen was the final stop on our cruise before we returned to port in Copenhagen. Don't worry, there was much more to our cruise than these 2 cities. Look out for more on the actual fjords in my next post. With a population just shy of 300,000, Bergen is the 2nd largest city in Norway. Apparently, it also has the mildest weather (and warmest winters) in the country. Surrounded by thick forests and water, the city closely strikes a very close resemblance to Seattle and other cities of the Pacific Northwest. Yet again, our time in Bergen was very limited. We could have spent another day or so exploring the city, but below are a few highlights. 

Classic Bergen: Google image search "Bergen" and you will almost certainly be served dozens of pictures of it's famous harbor district, Bryggen. The row of colorful, symmetric buildings are quintessentially Norwegian. I only wish we had more time to explore the area. Behind the quirky buildings are narrow alleyways housing dozens of funky boutiques, restaurants and cafes.

Best View: Not to be outdone by Ålesund, Bergen offers even more spectacular views from above. At the edge of Bryggen, take the Fløibanen funicular to the top of Mount Fløiyen. From here, you are treated to sweeping views of the city, the coast and the surrounding forested mountains. Before rushing back down, stop for a break at Fløien Folkerestaurant. I highly recommend making this the first item on your daily itinerary. Try to get to the funicular as early as possible. If you wait until late morning, the lines get extremely long. You might find yourself waiting over an hour before you get on the tram. 

Best Coffee: I'll keep this one simple. Go to Kaffemisjonen and Kaffecompaniet. The former is often hailed as the country's best coffee shop, and the latter has an irresistibly inviting, cozy interior. 

 

Austin XXXV

Before you get the wrong idea, the hashtag #XXXV doesn't stand for something inappropriate. It's simply the roman numerals for the number 35. A group of us met up in Austin last month to celebrate Michael and Sean's 35th birthdays. What better place to rub shoulders with college kids and remind yourself you're getting way too old for this sh*t? All kidding aside, Austin provided the perfect urban backdrop for a fun, laid-back and gluttonous weekend with friends. 

As a Dallas-native, I've always been a bit skeptical of Austin and the non-stop love-fest our state capitol receives. What could possibly be so great about this college town? I quickly realized that Austin caters to all interests. There's something for everyone here. However, what really sets apart Austin from its bigger Texan counterparts is how compact and accessible the city is. Within a 2 mile radius, you'll find some of the best bars, coffee shops, music venues, outdoor recreation, food trucks, BBQ pits and fine dining in the country. 

Below are a few of the highlights from our trip. Just a heads up. We ran into a bit of bad luck with temperamental weather, so a few outdoor activities like Barton Springs were left out off the itinerary. Regardless, there was more than enough to keep us occupied (and dry) throughout the weekend. 


Keep Austin Weird

Austin has long been recognized as the country's most liberal capitol that just so happens to be in the country's most conservative state. It's a haven for artists, musicians, hipsters, hippies and rednecks alike. Nowhere is this more obviously on display than South Congress Avenue. The road runs south through the heart of central Austin and offers some of the city's best shopping and dining. We spent an afternoon exploring the various vintage shops and boutiques after a quick lunch at Snackbar.


Eat (And Drink) Your Heart Out

Food trucks. So many food trucks. Austin was one of the first city's where four-wheel dining, which has since spread across the world, really took off. There is obviously no shortage of delicious food trucks, but the city's food scene is much more diverse than that. I'm not even going to try and lay out all the great dining options in Austin (you can check out this awesome article in Travel + Leisure for that). Frankly, we barely scraped the surface with only 3 days in town. Instead, I'll sum up our experience in 4 words: breakfast tacos and sushi.

Every morning in Austin should start with breakfast tacos. The best we had were from Veracruz Tacos. Make sure to get the migas. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Uchiko. Michael had previously visited sister restaurant Uchi, and was quick to claim it as one of his favorite restaurants in the states. Uchiko did not disappoint. Come hungry and be prepared for a great mix of traditional and inventive Japanese dishes. 

If you're thirsty, head over to Rainey Street. The tiny street just west of I-35 has a plethora of funky restaurants, bars, pubs and outdoor patios. A few other fun options include Easy Tiger (bustling beer garden) , Firehouse Lounge (low-key speakeasy behind a hostel) and Cheer Up Charlies (hipster gay bar)


Coffee All Day

To say I drank a lot of coffee in Austin would be a complete understatement. I pretty much stayed caffeinated morning until night, partly because I was reeling from jet lag the entire weekend. However, it was primarily because there were so many amazing, innovative coffee shops and roasters to check out in Austin. Most of our favorite places were scattered around the East Austin neighborhood where our AirBnB house happened to be located. Thank god. Here were a few of my favorites: 

Cenote (LINK) - great neighborhood cafe with ample outdoor seating

Flat Track Coffee Roasters (LINK) - Tiny shop located in the back of Farewell Books

Cuvee Coffee (LINK) - Innovative Austin-based coffee roaster

Buzzmill Coffee (LINK) -  Lumberjack-inspired 24-hour shop south of river


A Bit of History

In the midst of all the face-stuffing and boozing, we managed to squeeze in some time to explore the historic side of Austin. We visited the State Capitol and University of Texas campas a few blocks to the north. As it was a Sunday, the entire area felt a bit deserted. The first thing that strikes you when visiting the State Capitol is how all the government buildings are constructed of pink granite. It gives everything a dusty almost nostalgic feel. As for the UT campus, opinions varied within the group. Some thought it was beautiful, while others (namely Catherine who went to OU) could care less.