The Best Castles in Scotland

One of the main reasons I was drawn to Scotland is the abundance of castles dotted around the country. I visited so many castles I lost count, and can tell you which are the best based on my criteria which include: 1) well preserved history (in the case of intact castles, as opposed to castle ruins, whose charm is drawn from the lack of preservation), 2) unique features that set it apart from other castles and 3) minimal “museum” feel, as I want to see as many original features as possible, rather than bits and bobs behind a glass case. In all, I like to be able to imagine living in the castle hundreds of years ago just meandering up the secret stairs from the kitchen to my bedroom, looking out of a turret over the misty woodlands…if you know what I mean.

As a bonus, I’ll also tell you which castles you can skip, and they may surprise you as they are the most popular and commonly visited. But first, the gems!

Craigevar Castle

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If you’re looking for the ultimate fairytale castle, Craigevar is it. The castle was the Forbes family home for 350 years before it passed onto the National Trust for Scotland, which has maintained the property in as close to the original condition as possible. This continuity of ownership and care makes it one of the best preserved castles in Scotland. The interior of the castle can be viewed by guided tour, where they take you into nearly every square foot of the castle (quite a rarity). The tour guide was excellent, and each piece of furniture seemed to have an interesting story.

 

Caerlaverock Castle

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If the word “castle” conjures up images of a medieval fortress surrounded by a moat, and of course a drawbridge, Caerlaverock Castle will not disappoint. The structure has been around since the 13th century, and since then has survived many battles and sieges due to its location near the English border. The castle has not been reconstructed since the 1600s after its final battle where it lost a tower and major wall. Since then, it has continued to deteriorate into its current, charming state of ruin. You can walk across the drawbridge, explore the castle ruins and walk the surrounding nature trails.

 

Culzean Castle

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This is probably the most impressive looking castle in Scotland due to its imposing size and location at the edge of a dramatic cliff overlooking the sea. The castle was built in the 1300s and owned by the Kennedys from the 1700s until 1945, when it was given to the National Trust for Scotland. In addition to touring the castle, you can enjoy the landscaped gardens and surrounding woodlands.

 

Dunnottar Castle

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More of an castle village than just a castle, the ruined medieval fortress of Dunnottar Castle is located on a clifftop along the northeast coast of Scotland. The geography’s natural defense, consisting of the headland surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs with connection to the mainland by a narrow strip of land, made it an ideal fortress (and hiding place for the Scottish crown jewels at one point in history). The castle “village” includes ruins of a gatehouse, palace, barracks, stable, storehouses and chapel.

 

Cawdor Castle

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The two words “walled garden” make me tingle with excitement as I imagine myself transported into a dreamy secret garden all to myself. Cawdor Castle’s gardens, including a Walled Garden dating back to the 17th Century and Flower Garden from the 18th Century, are the best I saw in Scotland.

 

Castle Fraser

_DSC5725I’ll be honest – these castles, though stunning, all start looking the same at some point. What is memorable about Castle Fraser is the walk from the parking lot when you first spy the castle and it takes your breath away. See the people at the top of the tower? If the weather is decent, you can climb up there for lovely views. I could have breathed in that lush air all day.

 

Crathes Castle

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Located outside of Aberdeen, Crathes Castle has a little of everything with that fairy tale pink-hued exterior, well-preserved interiors, and famous walled gardens. The painted ceilings, impressive furniture and architectural details inside the castle are all memorable. The castle is solid, but the gardens are outstanding with ancient topiaries that date from the early 1700s.

 

Drumlanrig Castle

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This beautiful hunting estate had some of the most opulent interiors, and definitely the most impressive art collection (including a Rembrandt painting), of all of the castles in Scotland. You could spend an afternoon meandering around the expansive gardens. What sets it apart from other castles is that it is still privately owned, which means it’s still remotely possible to get an invitation to a dinner party or weekend stay…right?

 

Elgin Cathedral

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Though it is not a castle, I had to mention Elgin Cathedral, which is the most beautiful medieval ruin I have ever seen. The towers of the West Front and the Chapter House are still intact and you can climb to the top for aerial views of the entire cathedral site, as well as the town of Elgin. In the cathedral you can admire the miraculously preserved decorative moldings and clerestory, with a ceiling of sky and a floor of grass, how all churches should be designed, in my opinion!

 

Most Disappointing Castles

And now for the castles you can skip, which I only mention because they are so popular I want to set the record straight that there are much better ways to spend your time with just a bit more effort (and distance from the main cities).

Stirling Castle

I suppose its proximity to Glasgow and Edinburgh may be a draw for some people, but there are so many more incredible castles just a bit further outside of the cities that I would skip Stirling Castle altogether. Though impressively large, everything else was a disappointment, with anything of interest gutted to create museum exhibits and bland, faux-historic interiors. To end on a positive note, I will say that Stirling Castle was much less crowded than most of the other castles I visited, so if you do visit, you can take your time and enjoy the grounds, in particular the views over the surrounding countryside. However, if you are looking for a castle excursion from Glasgow, drive an hour the opposite direction from Stirling and see the magnificent Culzean Castle instead.

 

Edinburgh Castle

I know this is one of the most commonly visited castles in Scotland due to its convenient location in the heart of the Royal Mile of Edinburgh, but it’s overly museum-y quality and the insane crowds make it a less pleasant experience than most of the other castles I visited. If you’re in the area, by all means visit it, if only for the views of the city from its vantage point, but skip the long line to view the crown jewels!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

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On my first ever trip to Canada, I welcomed the beginning of autumn in Banff National Park. Banff and the other nearby national parks (Yoho, Kootenay, etc.) have so much beauty packed into a relatively small area. You can experience the most beautiful lakes, waterfalls, and mountains, and even spot some elk, mountain goats and deer if you are lucky (I was not so lucky).

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The best known of the Banff National Park sights is Lake Louise. Crowds flock to see the famous milky deep blue waters, making is one reason it was not my favorite. It was crowded even on that rainy day, so the best way to enjoy the lake is over lunch or coffee with a view at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise!

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Emerald Lake (in Yoho National Park)  is the kind of place that makes you want to go back and stay a while. The lodge had a cozy, laid back feel, and the lake was a nice size – not too big, and not too small. Of all the beautiful lakes I saw, this one was unique with its namesake green color.

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In case you were wondering, the unique blue-green color of the lakes is caused by fine-grained rock particles (rock flour) carried into the lake from glaciers melting. Now for my favorite of all the glacial lakes – Moraine Lake. I would never tire of looking at this stunning natural sanctuary.

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Lake Minnewanka is so picturesque, especially with the autumn yellow of the Aspen trees against the blue waters. On a sunny day, the water is so glassy that the reflection is as bright and clear as the real deal.

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Once you’re lake-d out, you can head into the town of Banff for a meal, souvenir shopping, or buying up some of the great outdoor gear Canada has to offer. I had never seen such a variety of stylish, high quality outdoor clothing, and coming from the U.S., the prices were pretty good with a favorable exchange rate.

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Someday, I’d love to do a week long road trip from Calgary to Vancouver, stopping at all of the national parks on the way. Have you ever done a road trip through Canada?

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Los Olivos, California – Sun, Wine & Relaxation

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Whether you’re into wine, relaxing, or both, there’s a lot to enjoy in Los Olivos, California, located about 45 minutes outside of Santa Barbara.

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With a climate similar to that of Tuscany, it’s no surprise that this region is known for its production of wine and olives. Wineries and horse ranches dot the surrounding valley, while the charming town of Los Olivos is full of modern wine tasting shops, farm to table restaurants and shops.

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From the town’s main intersection there are really only three blocks of town to explore so you quickly get the feeling you can see it all, making it easy to downshift into the cozy town’s slow pace. I’m not into wine, which is the main focus of the town with its 25+ wine tasting rooms, but I enjoyed sitting at the cafe watching people and dogs and popping into the charming home and clothing boutiques.

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Along the road from Los Olivos to nearby Solvang are several homes and ranches with miniature horses decorating their front yards. You can pull over to the side of the road to see them grazing, and if you’re lucky, one may come up to you for a snuggle.

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Also nearby is the famous Ostrichland USA, where you have the unique opportunity to feed ostriches and emus.

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If you are staying in the area and looking for some night life, The Maverick is about the only option, but it is unexpectedly lively with pre- and post-wedding events from all the people attending weddings at the nearby wineries. You’ll fit in best if you wear a cowboy hat and boots, but don’t expect to hear much country music – it’s club / dancing music all night long. Be prepared to stand on the bar and stick a dollar bill to the ceiling!

Insider Tip: None of the wine tasting rooms or boutiques seem to have public restrooms, so they send you to port-a-potties down the street. Instead of braving the port-a-potties, stop in at the cafe or have a bite to eat at Sides restaurant, which both have lovely real restrooms!

A Walk Through Huntington Gardens – Pasadena, California

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Living in Southern California, I feel as though I have an endless list of places to visit nearby, or with a day or weekend trip away from my home in San Diego. I keep my travel wish list organized by continent, country, and region (does anyone else do this?). Despite countless trips to the LA area, The Huntington in Pasadena, CA had been on my wish list for so long and I finally had the opportunity to visit!

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It has a library with rare books and lovely museums, but the main draw is the 120 acres of botanical gardens. Walk with me first through the rose garden…and try not to smell each variety of rose like I did!

20140906-IMG_5304All of that rose sniffing had me a little woozy and in need of a rest. This spot will do nicely.

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The Japanese Garden has a bit of everything – moon bridge, tea house, koi pond, and even a bonsai courtyard! It seems to have been designed with inspiration and reflection in mind, with many nooks to sit and absorb the surroundings.

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This is the only zen rock garden I have seen outside of Japan. Walking through it took me right back to the famous Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. Especially during this epic drought we are experiencing in California at the moment, I have great appreciation for a garden that requires no water!

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In contrast to the Japanese Garden that invites reflection and intimacy, the Chinese Garden promotes community with its tea house overlooking the lake, and large, intricately decorated gazebos.

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There are so many other gardens to explore at The Huntington, including an Australian Garden, a Cactus Garden, and one of the largest Camellia gardens in North America. If you have been before, what was your favorite garden? I loved the Japanese garden the most, but felt I could have sat at the Chinese tea pavilion for hours!

Breathtaking Snoqualmie Falls – A Jaunt from Seattle

Just 30 minutes outside of Seattle are the impressive Snoqualmie Falls. You might recognize the waterfall and lodge from the opening credits of the TV show Twin Peaks! If you were a fan of the show, as I was, I challenge you to visit without hearing the theme song in your head. The view from the upper observation decks, close to the main parking lot, is the same view as the one in the TV show.

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The upper observation deck is easily accessible from the parking area, and most people only see the falls from this platform. If you are up for a bit of a hike, you can walk the 1.2 miles round trip to the lower observation deck, seeing many shades of green, moss-covered trees and giant fallen tree trunks on the way down. The entrance to the trail is not well marked, but on the way back to the parking lot, if you keep to the left past a playground area, you will find the trail.

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Or, you could skip the hike and drive down to the lower parking lot, and from there, take the short walk to the lower observation deck. This part of the walk is the prettiest anyway, with the wooden walkway passing directly alongside the river before the view opens up to the falls.

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This is the view from the lower observation deck – definitely worth the drive or hike!

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A little tip – if you are planning to walk the distance between the upper and lower observation decks, skip the main parking lot that gets very crowded and drive straight down to the lower parking lot, then walk and back from there. The lower parking lot was nearly empty when I visited, while the upper main lot was full to the brim, with people circling looking for spots. I wish I had known there was a parking lot at the lower observation deck! Now you know, and can make the most of your visit to Snoqualmie Falls.

Hall of Mosses Trail – Hoh Rain Forest – Olympic National Park, Washington

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You can see nearly every shade of green on the  Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington’s Olympic National Park. The green mosses are so vibrant you can practically taste them.

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Every surface is covered with moss except the trail that winds through the forest. Even the streams have stringy mosses flowing through. All sorts of interesting things grow in this humid rain forest climate.

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Because of the nutrient-dense soil in this area, the trees do not need to grow long roots, but because of that, they are prone to falling over in a strong wind. Then, the fallen tree becomes part of the landscape and inevitably, covered in moss from tip to toe.

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Nothing escapes the clingy green moss-nster. Even the moss is covered in moss!

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The trails are well marked and easy to walk – you can circle the entire trail in about 20 minutes unless you are stopping for photos every few feet like I did, in which case you may need well over an hour.

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The forest has soft, eerie, other-worldly quality that I have not experienced anywhere else. I assume there are a few fairies living here – maybe you’ll be lucky enough to spot one!

Texas Road Trip – Austin to Houston

I think the best way between here and there isn’t always the fastest. Instead of flying, I often choose a train or car so I can watch the geography change and more easily see the sights on the way. You can fly from Austin to Houston in under an hour, or drive directly in two and a half, but if you have a couple hours to spare, you can make some stops on the way that are worth the extra time.

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First stop, about 45 minutes south of Austin on US-183 is Lockhart, nicknamed the BBQ Capital of Texas. If you aren’t into BBQ or waiting in long lines (I’m not a fan of either), just appreciate the historic architecture and keep on going.

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Drive about 20 minutes further to Luling, which is also known for its BBQ, but even more for watermelon! Every summer, they have a famous “Watermelon Thump” festival to celebrate my favorite melon with music, games and contests.

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All that watermelon eating must bring out the playful side of Luling’s residents, because the town is also known for its decorated oil well pump jacks. Many of the wells are still working, and the little duckies shown above bob forward and backward with the motion of the well. Pretty clever!

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At Luling, you make the turn toward Houston on I-10 and drive about 45 minutes until you reach the Schulenburg area. There are several beautifully painted churches here in the towns of High Hill, Dubina, Ammannsville and Praha. They were built by Czech and German settlers in the 1800s who made the effort to establish communities similar to the hometowns they left behind. The Praha, High Hill, and Dubina churches are the closest from the highway (each one about 10 minutes off the highway), so if you only have a little bit of time, choose one or two of these.

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You can take a tour of the painted churches with the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce (reservation required) or just visit them on your own using this helpful map – each church is clickable and shows address information.

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From the Schulenburg area, you have just under a two hour drive remaining to Houston without much to see aside from the skies, which really do seem bigger in Texas so enjoy the ride!

Day Trip from Venice – Murano and Burano

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When Venice starts to fee a little congested, which is likely with the number of visitors the small island hosts every day, it might be time for a day trip to the nearby islands of Murano and Burano. The vaporetto (water bus) heads to Murano from the Fondamente Nove stop in Venice, making just one stop on the way at the cemetery island of San Michele. Since the vaporetto comes by every 20 minutes or so, you can hop off the boat to walk around the scenic cemetery island (Igor Stravinsky is buried here), then catch the next boat to Murano.

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Get off at the first stop in Murano (Colonna) and walk up the main street, Rio dei Vetral, along the canal. The street is lined with shops selling mainly glass souvenirs and charming restaurants. The slower pace here is Murano is such a nice break from the crowds of Venice.

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The opposite side of the canal from where the vaporetto drops people off is much less crowded, and one of the cafes or restaurants there would make a great spot for a lunch break or just to watch people and boats pass by. You can watch glass blowing demonstrations, visit the glass museum, or buy souvenirs to take home – there’s a little something for everyone here.

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Once you’ve followed the main canal to the other side of the island, take the 30-ish minute boat ride on to Burano. Many people visit only Murano since it’s closer to Venice, skipping the farther Burano island, but I think they are missing out on the best of the outer islands.

 

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Burano, also known for its lacework, is mainly known for its photogenic, brightly colored houses. As you can imagine, the house colors are carefully planned, and must be approved by the government because you wouldn’t want to see two blue houses next to each other, now would you?

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You could walk the entire island of Burano in about 20 minutes, but I spent hours here wandering off the main streets into residential areas that were deserted aside from me, a few locals, and their laundry hanging overhead. I live for these moments of solitude while traveling that allow me to really “feel” a place without any distractions.

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The 45 minute boat ride back to Venice is especially peaceful at sunset. You can easily explore both Murano and Burano in the greater part of a day, and get back to Venice for dinner and a late night walk through the crowded streets, while thinking of all the colorful sights you saw and wondering if your friends in Burano took their laundry down.

 

Insider Tip: There could be a long wait for the boat from Burano to Venice, so be prepared to wait up to an hour if you plan to head back to Venice toward the end of the day. You might consider a tour with a tour company that would take you to the islands – downsides are that these can be sales pitches for glass factories and you will be on a tight schedule with no wiggle room, but if you aren’t comfortable figuring out the vaporetto schedule or need to be back in Venice by a specific time, a tour could be a good option. If traveling in a group of 4+, a private water taxi might even be worth the cost to avoid potentially long waits.

I found Rick Steves’ Venice travel guide to be so useful, in particular about how to get to Murano and Burano. I would have been pretty lost without it, since most of the information I found online was so fragmented or confusing. I’m not normally a guide book carrying tourista, but as a testament to how useful this particular book was, I carried it everywhere in Venice!

 

5 Things To Do in Downtown LA

I have to admit, in my many visits to Los Angeles over the years, I consciously avoided the downtown area. I was too busy with beaches and Beverly Hills to detour into unknown territories. What a mistake! I’ve been missing out on all the deliciousness – in food, architecture, and overall vibe – that DTLA has to offer.

Here are 5 things to check out the next time you’re in LA – and don’t skip downtown like I did!

 

1. Eat (lunch and) dessert at Bottega Louie

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Bottega Louie has possibly best macaroons this side of the Atlantic. Laduree still has my heart, but I know I am easily swayed by the packaging, and macaroons just taste better in Paris, don’t they? If you aren’t a macaroon fan, not to worry – there are about 50 other masterfully crafted desserts for you to indulge in. Ask someone working there for their recommendation because apparently, they’ve been lucky enough to try them all. Best job ever?

Try to forget the macaroons for a second and let me describe to you The Scene that is Bottega Louie – it buzzes from every inch of its whitewashed interior. I enjoyed the fashion show of hip-ly dressed girls over my delicious salad with fresh fava beans and summer peas. The beautiful food and people deserve every one of the 10,500 photos it inspired people to post on its yelp page. It is noisy, though. With no attempt to reduce sound with materials or architecture, you get this din of voices and forks on plates. Shouting over it is tiring, so might as well just eat and absorb the scene.

 

2. Admire Art Deco buildings

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Thanks to a financial and building boom in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s, the era of Art Deco style, the downtown area has some stunning examples of Art Deco architecture. You can take a guided walking tour with the LA Conservancy or just explore on your own on 5th and 6th between South Flower and South Broadway.

 

3. Wander down St. Vincent’s Court

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This odd little alley in the middle of the Jewelry District has a long, confusing history you can try to make sense of somewhere else, but today you can at least appreciate its kitchy Euro-mishmash of cafes and restaurants. If it feels a bit like a studio back lot, that’s because the city decided its charming tables spilling out over the alley were illegal which put an end to outdoor dining. It seems like it’s missing something, but the food looked good, and I couldn’t help but snap a bunch of pictures to try to capture its strange allure.

 

4. Spend some money at one of a kind boutiques

Los Angeles knows how to make you want to spend your money, even when you aren’t trying to. A couple stores worth checking out:

angelo:HOME has vintage and vintage-inspired home goods, furniture and gifts, as well as pieces from local designers. It’s one of those stores that makes you want to buy everything in it. One look at their Instagram feed an you’ll know what I mean.

I was drawn into KuKuly because of its packed-from-floor-to-ceiling colorful, South American fabrics. I couldn’t leave without a few bracelets and a pair of shorts made of fabric from Peru, designed and sewn in LA. Some of the items sell at high end LA boutiques like Planet Blue for much, much higher prices.

 

5. Happy Hour at The Perch

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Seemingly named for the way it perches above all of downtown LA for the best views, especially at sunset when the buildings glow with California sun, Perch is where all the cool kids hang out. The downstairs restaurant/patio serves lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, and happy hour, or you can take the stairs up to the rooftop bar. The decor is like your dignified but quirky Parisian grandmere’s living room.

After you admire the scenery and have some fancy drinks, can someone explain to me how having to take 2 elevators to get to the top makes you feel all special, instead of annoyed you had to take 2 elevators?

 

How to Drive on the Wrong Side of the Road

Driving on the “wrong” side of the road is disorienting and anxiety-provoking for anyone, no matter how confident of a driver they are. On a recent trip to Scotland, I wanted to experience parts of the country only accessible by car (or bus), and since I prefer more freedom than a group tour allows, I didn’t have much choice but to rent a car and drive myself around. Depending on where you are from, the “wrong” side of the road may be the left side or the right side, but either way, there are some things you can do to maximize the pleasure of driving in another country.

 

1. Learn the Basics

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were universal traffic signs and symbols? Unfortunately, there aren’t, so it is worth spending at least a few minutes learning the basic signs, symbols and markings in the country you will be driving in. You can’t assume symbols mean the same thing in another country as they do in your home country.

For example, a dashed white line in the U.S. divides two lanes of traffic going the same direction, while in the UK, it divides two lanes going in the OPPOSITE direction. Mistaking these could be disastrous.

Also, in the UK, you may see a flashing amber traffic light between a red light and a green light, which means that if there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk, you can go. It’s not dangerous to wait for the green, but it’s considerate to the drivers around you to know the rules and drive like a local as much as possible!

While driving in Scotland, I kept seeing a sign the read “Changed Priorities Ahead.” I couldn’t even fathom what this meant so I had to look it up – it turned out to be something about the right of way changing recently to alert drivers follow the new directions. This reminded me how different our signs can be from country to country. Just a little bit of online research before your trip can help you to know what to expect in terms of signs and symbols, so you have one fewer thing to worry about when driving in a new place.

Keep in mind different localities may have its own set of rules, as well. In New York City, you can’t turn right on red, while in California, you can.

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2. Let YouTube Be Your Driving Instructor

Whatever country you are traveling to, there are probably YouTube videos demonstrating basic driving scenarios that are unique to that country. I’m a visual learner, so I needed to see what driving on the left side of the road looked like before I felt comfortable trying it myself.

Watch lots of videos, especially if the country you are going to loves their roundabouts and you don’t have much experience with them. I watched so many videos about roundabouts before my trip to Scotland since I knew I’d be doing quite a bit of driving all over the country. Reading rules and instructions wouldn’t have helped – I needed to see real life examples of different types of roundabouts and realistic traffic scenarios. It is more confusing than you might thing, and in real life it happens very quickly because people are in a hurry, just like you are on your daily commute at home! I watched the videos (like this one) over and over until I felt comfortable that I understood the procedure, so I could be as safe and considerate of a driver as possible.

3. Splurge on the GPS in the Rental Car

Even if you have a smart phone with maps and the most powerful portable wifi, there are times when that rental car’s GPS system will save you. Like when I was driving in Scotland and the main route was shut down due to construction, and the GPS wouldn’t re-route us because it didn’t know that the road was closed, and the smart phone’s map wasn’t updating because we were in the middle of nowhere with no wifi service, but because the car’s GPS map was still visible, we were able to figure out an alternate route. Without the car’s GPS map, we probably would have backtracked about 30 miles to the last turn-off and hoped the GPS would re-route instead of saying “make a U-turn” to send us back toward the closed road, which would have been so frustrating.

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4. Book Your Rental Car Pick-Up and Drop-Off Points Strategically

First of all, don’t rent a car in a city that has ample public transportation or is walkable. You will save yourself (and all of the locals) a lot of headache, not to mention parking fees. When picking up a car to continue on your travels outside of the city, map out all of the rental car locations in the city and select the place that has easiest access to the highway with minimal driving in the city. Even if you have to take a longer bus/train/taxi ride to the rental location from your hotel, it is worth not having to drive through the center of town, especially if it’s your first time behind the wheel on the “wrong” side of the car!

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5. Ask the Rental Car Agent for Advice

Your rental car agent has probably heard every horror story about foreigners driving on their roads, so before I was handed the keys to my ride for the next week around the Scottish countryside, I asked the agent for any last minute tips for a first time driver on the left hand side of the road. In her sweet Scottish accent, she told me to just keep thinking “left” at any turn or roundabout, and also to try to follow the cars around me. Then, she told me I’d be just fine. With that final bit of encouragement, I set off through the green hills of Scotland chanting “left left left” (and my own addition of “watch out for sheep”).

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Driving can be the best way to experience parts of a country – to have the freedom to stop on a whim, explore without a schedule, and wander down side roads because something caught your eye. You will probably be surprised how driving on the wrong side of the road begins to feel natural within a few days, and when you return home, you may even have to stop to think about which side of the car to get into to drive!