15 June 2018

Alternative things to do in Vienna

If you haven't ever visited Vienna, I strongly encourage you to spend your time on the Ringstrasse and Museum Quarter, soaking up all the history and grandeur you can. I was completely mesmerized on my first trip to Vienna. I recommend purchasing the Vienna Card if you do. But it's an expensive place, and you don't really need to do it again if you have a memory of it that first time. There are some kooky corners to this seemingly stuffy city, as well as a whole lot of places to eat and drink off the beaten path. Here's a quick guide to what I liked:

Hotel Novum Prinz Eugen, Prinz Eugen-Straße 27,1030 Vienna  (across the street from from Hauptbanhoff (Central Station))
Located in neighborhood Wieden, just south of Vienna’s center. It's the home of the Vienna University of Technology. Restaurants sling fusion cuisine, second-hand shops sell everything from minimalist furniture to vintage suits, and the DJs spin hip-hop and Euro-disco. Night owls should check out Goodmann, a lively after-hours spot. The Belvedere is a few short blocks away (lots of Nazi-looted Klimts, free to walk the gardens).

Public transportation is super easy to use, efficient, and all-encompassing. But did you know there are also a ton of bike paths, and biks only cost 1 Euro per hour to rent at all train stations? In fact, if you turn in your bike just before the hour, then wait 15 minutes before renting another one, you'll never even have to pay! 

Take a walk or bike ride around the Ringstrasse, the ring road that runs around the centre of Vienna, past some of the city’s most famous buildings. Along the route you can see the Vienna State Opera, Imperial Palace, Parliament and City Hall. You can also take a free guided tour around the City Hall, or Rathaus, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1pm (except on public holidays).

It’s also free to visit the city’s parks, like the Burggarten and Stadtpark. Entrance to the Schönbrunn Palacegardens is also free (though you have to pay a couple of euros to go into the maze or Gloriette viewing terrace). If you’re in the city during summer, you can escape the heat by heading down to the banks of the Danube. Danube Island has miles and miles of beaches as well as boat and bike hire, playgrounds and cafés.

Visit The Flederhaus, a giant house-shaped structure  filled with hammocks overlooking the city, in the Museum Quarter.

Hundertwasserhaus Kegelgasse 36-38, 1030 Wien, Austria
The Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna is a building designed by the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser and located in the 3rd Viennese district. The extraordinary building was constructed between 1983 and 1985. It was architecturally realized with the collaboration of architect Josef Krawina as co-creator and the implementing architect Peter Pelikan. The result is known about around the world.
  • Tip: In the "Kunst und Café" coffee house on the ground floor of the Hundertwasserhaus , a free film can be watched in which Friedensreich Hundertwasser leads viewers in person through "his" house.
Resistance Museum in the Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes recounts what little of an attempt Austria made to foil the Nazis, and it's free to get in.
Wipplingerstraße 6, 1010 Wien, Austria, 9-5
Take U1 to Stephensplatz

The 400-year-old Naschmarkt is Vienna’s largest—a 2ish mile-long stretch filled with street-food vendors, and a great place to grab brunch. If you wander the market, make sure to take in the Otto Wagner-designed houses at 38 and 40 Linke Wienzeile. The market is open Monday through Saturday. The best subway station to stop is Kettenbrückengasse , on Line U4.

7 Stars Brewery Great beer and well-executed traditional Austrian/Bavarian food
SIEBENSTERNGASSE 19 | 1070 VIENNA | +43 1 523 86 97

Café Nil: a kind of Marrakesh decor coupled with a 1950s green tile design. Adorable retro stands next to the tables carry the sugar, salt & pepper. Nice servers. Lots of natural light. Free wifi. Siebensterngasse 39, 1070 Wien, Austria

Pakistani Buffet: 
10 Liechtensteinstraße, 1090, Vienna, Austria
This is a total student hang-out with crowded, communal tables and a soup kitchen feel.  It's wonderful and fun, and you pay what you want (but there are suggested prices, which are super cheap).

Affordable ($-$$) Viennese food:
Kleeblattgasse 5, Vienna 1010, Austria

Leberkas- Pepi
Operngasse 12, Vienna 1010, Austria

I was surprised to find that several cafes/restaurants had employees who really didn't speak English.  But you can get by with this and some pantomime:
Hallo: Hello (informal)
Bitte: Please
Bitteschön: You’re welcome
Dankeschön: Thank you
Danke: Thanks
Auf Wiedersehen: Goodbye (formal)
Tschüss: Bye (informal)
Ja: Yes
Nein: No
Entschuldigung: Excuse me / sorry
Kein problem: No problem
Guten Morgen: Good morning
Guten Abend: Good evening
Prost: Cheers
Ich heiße…: My name is….
Ich komme aus…: I come from…
Sprechen Sie Englisch? Do you speak English?
Wie viel Kostet das? How much does that cost?
Wo ist die Toilette? Where is the toilet?
Ich verstehe nicht: I don’t understand.
Ich möchte bezahlen: I would like the check, please.
Können Sie mir helfen? Can you help me?
Mein Deutsch ist schlect: My German is bad.

And some coffee drinks, so you have some clue of what to order:

Melange: The king of coffee, a mix of frothed milk and steamed coffee similar to the Italian cappuccino, but consumed at any time of the day.

Kleiner Brauner and Großer Brauner:
Means "little brown one" or "large brown one" and comes close to what people consider to be ordinary coffee: black with a bit of milk, yet typically not filtered, but steamed like espresso.

Milchkaffee or Café latte: A large coffee with frothed milk, has been around for a long time, but recently gained popularity probably due to its fancy Italian name that sounds much cooler than "Milchkaffee".

Einspänner: Strong, black coffee typically served in a high glass with a dash of whipped cream.

Fiaker: Named after horse-and-carriages, the Fiaker is a rather not-so-common drink of coffee with a shot of Austrian rum and whipped cream.

Mazagran: A cold Fiaker-variation, coffee, ice, a shot of rum - and possibly a bit of sugar.

Schwarzer or Mokka:
Strong, black coffee, normally consumed with a lot of sugar, but served without.

Kurzer or Espresso: The same coffee, in recent years the Austrian term "Kurzer" (meaning "short one") has almost gone extinct and these days, the international "Espresso" is to be found on the menus much more commonly.

Eiskaffee: Cold coffee with vanilla ice cream, chocolate and whipped cream - served typically in the summer months, but ideal for the hot season. Only ice tea is more refreshing.

08 June 2018

36 hours in Prague

Prague was shockingly tourist-filled when I visited in May, but the beer was still dirt cheap, and the Medieval streets were still amazing.  It's a must-visit, for sure. Here's what I managed to do in my short time there:

Hotel ibis Praha Mala Strana
Plzeňská 14, Anděl, 150 00 Praha 5-Anděl-Smíchov, Czechia
 +420 221 701 700
Metro station: Anděl, serviced by busses, trams, and the Metro
It's just south of Malá Strana, also known as Lesser Town, is a hillside area with views across the Vltava river to the old town. Hotels, casual eateries and traditional pubs line its narrow streets, and visitors scribble messages to the late Beatle on the John Lennon Wall. The riverside Kampa area offers fine dining, and exhibits of photos and letters at the Franz Kafka Museum. Peacocks roam freely at Wallenstein Garden.Mala Strana developed at the foot of Prague's Castle Hill, a cluster of noble homes and palaces that formed one of the city's administrative units.

As usual, Prague has public transportation figured out.  Read about it here. Bonus: the cute trams provide terrific views of the various neighborhoods in the city. 

The two obvious landmarks of Wenceslas Square are at the southeast, uphill end: the 1885–1891 National Museum Building, designed by Czech architect Josef Schulz, and the statue of Wenceslas (currently closed for rennovations). The Square also hosts the Melantrich Building, No. 36, 1914, where Alexander Dubček and Václav Havel appeared together on its balcony in November 1989, a major event of the Velvet Revolution

Czech Museum of Music
Karmelitská 2/4,
118 00 Praha 1
Friday: 10.00-18.00
Saturday: 10.00-18.00

The exhibition titled "Crossroads of Czech and Czechoslovak Statehood" captures significant breaks in our history of the 20th century, when the statehood and ideological concept of the state changed significantly:
National Memorial at Vítkov
U Památníku 1900
130 00, Prague 3

Prague Castle
Prague 11908, Czech Republic (Hradcany & Letna)
+420 224 373 368

Petřínské skalky is an enormous park with a museum of ethnology, planetarium, art galleries, a national monument to the victims of communism, and so much more.  It puts Central Park in NYC to shame. Budget a couple hours to just get lost, and enjoy beautiful views from the top of Petrin Hill. 

Lokál: One of the newer additions to the Ambiante Restaurant empire. This place serves up quality Czech food at reasonable prices. Address: Lokál, Dlouhá 33, Prague 1. (Good place for traditional dumplings)

Bredovsky Dvur: Just a block away from popular Wenceslas Square, but with a different feel from the high-traffic tourist areas. Try to go during lunch as there are inexpensive lunch menus and you’ll be enjoying your meal with locals on their lunch break. Address: Bredovsky Dvur, Politických vězňů 13 (parallel street to Wenceslas Square), Prague 1

Na Verandach: This restaurant is right at the Staropramen brewery, so you know the beer is fresh. Hearty food, too. Address: Na Verandach, Nadrazni 84, Prague 5 (Smichov)

Olympia: Nice Czech pub serving both Czech and continental specialties. Address: Olympia Kolkovna, Vítězná 7, Praha 1 (Ujezd)Suggested beer gardens: Letna Park Beer Garden(Prague 7) with views of the city or Riegrovy Sady(Prague 2) for a more grungy, local flavor.

Wine + cheese at Grebovka Vineyards: Grebovka park is in Prague 10. Closest tram stop is Krymska on 22, 16, or 4 tram lines. Finding your way here through the windy residential streets is part of the fun; this is not a touristy area at all. Go past the Grobovka Pavillion to get to Altan.

Upstair Cafes:
There’s the Grand Café Orient above the Cubist Museum, decorated in such detailed sympathy even the cakes come garnished with an oddly angled wafer. The fin de siècle Café Louvre, perched over an entirely forgettable modern rival, was a favourite with Kafka and Einstein, and serves a fabled hot chocolate you can stand a spoon up in.

Mluvíš anglicky? / mloo-vish ang-gli-skee : "Do you speak English?" (Don't worry, they all do.)

01 June 2018

36 hours in Budapest

...I think there's a NYTimes article of the same title from a few years ago, but here's the guide for those of you whose last names are not Rockefeller (and for those of you interested in mixing up the touristy stuff with a little local flavor). Bottom line: GO NOW, before it gets completely overrun with tourists (except for you, who are super awesome tourists who tread lightly, of course). Here's what I did/where I stayed:

City Hotel Matyas
Budapest, Március 15. tér 8, 1056 Hungary
+36 1 338 4711

The rooms are charmingly dated but clean and all come with private bathrooms (formerly a luxury in Central Europe). The breakfast spread is fantastic, and the location, just across the Danube from Gellért Hill and near a major Metro line, is scenic, lively, and incredibly convenient.

When you get in from the airport, there's an easy bus to catch that takes you into the heart of the city: Bus100EDeák Ferenc tér M (purchase tickets at BKK Customer Service at the Airport or vending). Cost was 900 HUF in May 2018.

As with all European cities, public transportation is cheap, efficient, and comprehensive. Here's an introductory guide to purchasing tickets and learning the system.

Tram 2 skirts the banks of the Danube on the Pest side and even passes the magnificent Parliament, while Bus 16, affectionately known as the “Castle Bus”, winds a route up to and through the charming neighborhood that surrounds Buda Castle.

But wait! You were getting the Hop On ticket so you could take the Danube boat as well? Don’t bother – there are public boats that ply the river during the summer and they cost just 1 Euro each way. And there’s a bar on board!

If you're worried about missing the major stuff (or just mesmerized by all those bendy streets that don't line up), consider one of the city's free walking tours:

“Original” Starts daily at 10:30 a.m. & 2:30 p.m.
Meeting point: Vörösmarty square (at the lion fountain)
Length: 2.5-3 hours – covers about two and a half miles (~ 3.5 kilometers)
Downloadable tour sheet

“Jewish Quarter” Starts daily at 10:00AM & 3:30PM
Meeting point: Vörösmarty square (at the lion fountain)
Length: 2 – 2.5 hours – covers about one and a half mile (~ 2.5 kilometers)
Downloadable tour sheet

The most popular of the Budapest mineral baths is definitely Széchenyi, and it's crowded af. Gellért is Buda is a bit more chill, but still on the beaten path. Király Bath still lives in its original Ottoman dome, as does Veli Bej Bath, which has been beautifully renovated and has more of a luxurious feel. And, if you like the outdoors feel, Dandár Bath has a stunning courtyard pool to enjoy. Pro tip: bring your own towel and some flip flops. 

Not to be a downer, but you really should go to the House of Terror, which details the successive occupations of Hungary through time, but focusing primarly on the Nazo and Soviet occupations.  It is really well done, and always fascinating to see how a country tells its own history. 
Terror Museum
1062 Budapest, Andrássy út 60.
+36 (1) 374 26 00
The House of Terror Museum is easily accessible by the Millennium underground (M1) or tram 4 / 6. It is a short walk from Vörösmarty utca underground station or Oktogon tram stop. Open every day except Monday: 10:00 am-6:00 pm.

Buda Castle & Fisherman’s Bastion: Explore pretty, quiet streets and catch the spectacular views of Pest from the top.

Szimpla, the famous ruin pub, truly is worth visiting. And it hosts a popular farmers’ market every Sunday, with delicious offerings and live music. Karavan Street Food is also located in a small ally near Szimpla Kert this place is perfect for a quick, easy and tasty lunch. With several food carts serving up hot fresh and local food, there is something for everyone, including local beer! The area is decorated with lights and has benches so you can take a break and relax while you enjoy your food. Be sure to order the local flatbread with goat cheese and arugula. Margitutcakilenc is a ruin pub on the Buda side and serves excellent, locally sourced food at a great price.

(PS--All the guides say that you have to go to Gerbeau Café. It is very touristy, over-priced, and not the most spectacular of Budapest Cafés. Visit the Alexandra Bookstore Café or the New York Café instead.)

The Hungarian language is absolutely bananas and unrelated to everything except Finnish (Latin was also officially spoken into the 19th Century there), but don't worry, everyone speaks English.  Just memorize this on the plane: 

Szia. (SEE-å). Beszél angolul? (BE-seyl ÅN-go-loul?)

"Hello! Do you speak English!


25 May 2018

Stuffed pasta shells for when you're feelin' fancy (and have some times on your hands)

Why is stuffed pasta so fun? Why is baked pasta always so amazing?  It's a pain in the posterior to make (only in time involved, not skill level), but sometimes you just have to pull on some sweatpants, cue up the Pandora Summer Hits of the 80s playlist, and throw together some

Nicole's Jumbo A-1 Stuffed Pasta Shells

Serves 6

12ounces jumbo pasta shells
1 1⁄4cups mozzarella cheese, shredded (Reserve 1/4 cup)
1cup parmesan cheese, grated
2 lbs ricotta cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten and 2 egg yolks
1 pinch nutmeg
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 8-oz. jar marinated artichoke hearts (reserve the liquid)
6 roma tomatoes, thinly sliced
olive oil
salt and crushed red pepper flakes
fresh basil, chopped, for garnish

In an 8 quart pot, bring water to a boil and cook shells for 8 minutes or until very al dente. Drain and cool immediately with cold water. Drain and place open side down on paper towels.
In a medium bowl, combine the rest of ingredients except the tomatoes and artichoke hearts. Season with salt. Reserve the 1/4 cup of mozzarella.

Place a thin layer of the liquid from the marinated artichoke hearts plus a generous drizzle of olive oil into the bottom of a 12 x 9 x 2 inch baking dish. Preheat oven to 375F.

Spoon the cheese mixture into each pasta shell and place open side up, in a single layer, in prepared pan.
Scatter the artichoke hearts in between the shells and cover everything with overlapping sliced of tomato.  Season with salt and red pepper flakes to taste. Loosely cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes.
During last 5 minutes of baking, remove foil and sprinkle remaining Mozzarella cheese on top.
Bake 5 more minutes. Garnish with fresh chopped basil.