Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: Finding Inspiration at the National Gallery in London

When I’m standing in front of the bright yellow painting of Sunflowers at the National Gallery, among a herd of other tourists jockeying for position in front of me with their obnoxious selfie-sticks swinging over my head and their camera flashes shooting off without any consideration, I’m honestly not even concerned about the frenzy. Instead, I can’t help but ponder the thoughts of optimism that went into the thousands of brush strokes that lay behind the protective glass barrier of this painting. Exactly 100 years before I was born, one of the greatest artists of all time was in a happy and hopeful state of mind as he was creating a bright masterpiece, and little did he know it would come just before a chain of events that would take him to his darkest, albeit most creative place, and ultimately bring about his own tragic demise.

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I’d been waiting for months to visit the National Gallery in London but it seemed like every time I tried to put it in my itinerary things happened that just kept me away. However, I finally made it to the Gallery last week and got to admire some of the best work from two of my favorite artists: Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Van Gogh was really the focus of my visit, however, and in particular the painting Sunflowers.

Sunflowers was the major painting I not only wanted to check out but had to. I’ve always found Van Gogh to be one of the most talented and inspiring artists of all time. To me, he’s that cliche creative mastermind who while artistically brilliant, struggles with dealing with his own depressive thoughts and destructive emotions. Why it’s always the most talented creative minds who seem to have to deal with these things the most, I’m not sure. I guess it just comes with the genius territory some times.

But within this somewhat cliched story is the story that starts with Sunflowers and later reveals the demise of one of the greatest artists of all time. The story is not only fascinating but also relatable and a bit inspiring to me.

Back in 1888 (exactly 100 years before I was born), Van Gogh moved to Arles, France, where he wanted to set up a community of artists with one famous artist, Paul Gauguin, as his mentor. It was a time of optimism and excitement for Van Gogh as he looked forward to breaking away from his loneliness, sharing his beautiful artwork, engaging with other artists, and learning a great deal from his anticipated mentor. I think of Van Gogh’s vision of this community sort of like those utopian-like thoughts we have sometimes about our futures working out in some ideal way that holds true happiness for us and where everything just works out perfectly. Of course those ideas virtually never work out the way we envision, but I think pretty much everyone can relate to having thoughts like that at some point in their lives.

Van Goghs Yellow House 1888
Van Gogh’s Yellow House, 1888

The sunflowers had special significance for Van Gogh and overall he painted seven different versions of them. In Dutch culture, sunflowers symbolized devotion and loyalty. The various stages of decay of the sunflower also represented the cycles of life and death. In addition to these symbolic meanings, the color yellow also stood as an emblem for happiness and optimism to Van Gogh and thus he desired to produce sunflowers as a gift to his new mentor, Gauguin.

Paul Gauguin 1891
Paul Gauguin, 1891

After Van Gogh moved to Arles, France things didn’t quite work out as planned. The community he hoped to put together never came into fruition and he instead found himself isolated and lonely, eventually falling into a depression. In May 1888, Van Gogh had rented his famous “yellow house” and though he was struggling mentally, he seemed to have channeled any negativity into positive energy that allowed him to produce artwork at a freakish pace. In fact during the late summer of 1888, Van Gogh reached a peak. During which time he wrote to his brother, “I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse [Provençal fish stew], which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large Sunflowers.”

He also painted some amazing works depicting the wheatfields at the time but during this furious surge of creativity, it was all about the sunflowers for Van Gogh. In August, in just the span of about a week, Van Gogh completed four different variations of Sunflowers. The different versions utilized different colors like blue-greens and different quantities of sunflowers in the composition.

The third version of Sunflowers found in Munich Germany
The third version of Sunflowers found in Munich, Germany

However, it was the final one that he painted, the one seen at the National Gallery, that is the most renown. It’s known for its bold yellow-on yellow-on yellow, which was highly criticized by many artists of the time for being, well… too yellow.

Van Goghs Sunflowers found at the National Gallery in London
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers found at the National Gallery in London

By the late summer of 1888, Van Gogh had maybe given up on the idea of hosting an entire artist community, but he still desperately wanted the company of Gauguin, and the sunflower paintings were largely motivated by the desire to get Gauguin to follow through with his highly anticipated visit. Finally, after producing these paintings at a ferocious rate his desired soon-to-be mentor, Gauguin finally arrived to this little house in the south of France, where the last two versions of Sunflowers were proudly displayed on his guest bedroom walls. While the genesis for the sunflower paintings was born from Gaugin, they eventually took a life of their own and became a symbol and signature of Van Gogh as he even at one time claimed “the sunflower is mine.”

Unfortunately, the relationship with Gaugin didn’t take off like Sunflowers  ultimately would. Accounts are a bit mixed as to how these two came together artistically and personally. It’s clear that they worked together for a couple of months and Ganguin even painted a portrait of Van Gogh painting Sunflowers. However, their personal relationships with each other (which some speculate may have involved more than mere mentoring) seemed to conflict.

Ganguins The Painter of Sunflowers
Ganguin’s The Painter of Sunflowers

Whether it was a product of Gaugin not finding Van Gogh’s overall artistic vision very inspiring (as the National Gallery states) or other personality clashes and disagreements, the two artists had a vehement fall-out. The conflict drove Van Gogh into an even more unstable mental state and ultimately caused him to leave Arles, only a couple of months after the arrival of Gaugin. This departure made Gaugin think even less of Van Gogh and caused an irreparable rift between the two.

The rift culminated on 23 December of 1888 when Van Gogh confronted Gaugin with a razor-blade (some state it was the other way around) but eventually backed off. Instead of hurting Gaugin, Van Gogh famously mutilated himself by cutting his own ear off (though some think otherwise). Even more astonishing, he may have attempted to give his ear to a prostitute that night. The prostitute allegedly declined to accept the ear and reported Van Gogh to the police who later found Van Gogh and luckily were able to keep him from bleeding to death and tend to his emotional breakdown. Unfortunately, the demise of Van Gogh had already begun and it would only be a matter of time until he simply couldn’t hold on any longer.

Two months later in February of 1889 the people of Arles, France had Van Gogh locked up in an insane asylum for being a public menace. For months he was locked up without any books or any way of painting during which time he suffered great hallucinations. One could only imagine what an artist, which many argue is possibly the greatest of all time, felt without being allowed such a creative outlet for so long. Not only that, but who could imagine the type of hallucinations that would materialize in the mind of such a creative genius? Luckily, in May of 1889 he would eventually enter another mental asylum (voluntarily) where he would be allowed access to paints and a canvas and he finally was able to deal better with the hallucinations and manic depressive behavior.

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Not only did Van Gogh deal with these episodes but he also painted his most famous works ever during this period, including Starry Night and one of his most famous self-portraits (seen below). In fact, if you didn’t know, Starry Night was actually the view from his window in his room while staying in the asylum. According to the National Gallery in London, Van Gogh actually only sold one painting during this time and in fact during his entire life time [Fact also disputed.] The lack of success may have played a role in the depressive bouts that Van Gogh suffered but the more likely root of his symptoms was that he suffered from bipolar disorder (which obviously was not clinically recognized during his era). The down periods became too much for Van Gogh to overcome and despite being at the peak of his creative mind, he was often at his lowest point mentally. After only about a year after painting Starry Night, at age 37, Van Gogh shot himself and committed suicide.

Van Goghs likely last self portrait
Van Gogh’s likely last self portrait.

I’ve always thought it fascinating and of course tragic that some of the most creative minds of all time struggle with such deep mental issues at times. Even the ones we would least expect, like Robin Williams and plenty of other successful individuals, fall victim to mental illness and aren’t able to escape the darkness that comes along with battling depression and all of the manic episodes. One can only imagine what Van Gogh would’ve created if he had lived to old age.

Starry Night
Starry Night

It’s a bit morbid thinking about the tragic end to Van Gogh’s life but it’s also very real. Just about every time I see a Van Gogh’s work, especially any of the Sunflowers, I think about the human life cycle and the different stages that we go through. The ups and the inevitable downs. The victories and the losses. And how this painting, while likely not representative of Van Gogh’s last moment of optimism, represents someone looking ahead and working to a bright future, despite the dark circumstances surrounding.

I also think about those I know affected by mental illness and how important it is to go out of my way to do whatever little or big actions possible to show them that there’s always hope in any situation. To me, Sunflowers does what art is supposed to do to you: move you. And even as I’m writing this today it’s reminding me that I’m not doing enough to move others and play my part to contribute just a little more to other members of society who may need a little bit of help. The person next to you may not be wielding a blade and cutting off their ear right in front of you, but you never know what they might be thinking, and what kinds of extraordinary things they may be capable of accomplishing so long as they don’t lose hope.

Photographing London

London is one of the funnest cities to photograph for me. It reminds me of New York City in that it seems like at every corner you come across there’s another amazing photo opportunity that allows you to capture some iconic piece of the the London landscape. Here’s just a few of the shots I’ve taken around the city while exploring some of famous icons in London.

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Obviously when you first arrive you’ll want to photograph Big Ben, one of the most photographed places on earth. In case you weren’t aware, Big Ben is actually the name of the bell inside the tower, while the tower housing the massive clock faces in known as the Elizabeth Tower. One thing a lot of people don’t know is that you can actually go inside the clock tower and see the unique view of the inside the clock faces. You’ve got to have some political pull, but if you’re going to be in the UK long enough (6 months to a year) you can arrange this kind of tour.

To get to Big Ben head to the Westminster Tube Station and once you walk out it will be right in front of you. I recommend you walking across the River Thames for some of the best views of the palace and the tower. If you arrive there early enough in the morning you might be able to catch a perfect sunrise shot and even capture the reflection of Big Ben in the River Thames before the herds of boats make their way up the river and break up the occasional still waters.

Big Ben and Westminster Palace London
Big Ben and Westminster Palace

Don’t forget there’s Westminster Abbey right there as well. Try to capture it about an hour before sunset to capture the golden reflections of the sun like below.

London Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

A bit further east you have Tower Bridge, which is always photogenic day or night. I like the views of it from just about anywhere along the River Thames.

Tower Bridge London
Tower Bridge
View of Tower Bridge from the Tower of London
View of Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

If you go inside the Tower Bridge glass walkway you’re given some pretty great views of downtown London and the Tower of London.

Skyline of London
Downtown London
The funky skyline of London

London is also great place to photograph at night — my favorite time to photograph cities because of the endless creative potential for playing around with light. You’ve got endless frames to work with while shooting the iconic spots of Big Ben and Westminster Palace along with the River Thames as well as the London Eye.

London eye at night
The London Eye at night

Perhaps what’s funnest to shoot are the double-decker busses that move continuously through the city. If you’ve never been to London these famous red busses are literally everywhere and it’s not hard to spot them. Simply wait at any street corner in central London and within seconds you’ll probably see one coming into view. They’re fun to photograph at night with slow-shutter effects because they’ll leave  all kinds of different colors and streaks behind as they move across your viewfinder.

Big Ben at night London busses
Big Ben at night

One shot I really liked was getting close to Big Ben and setting up my tripod in the middle of one of the protected curb islands in the middle of a busy intersection. A few of them have gating around them and actually have nice alcoves for you to set up your tripod so you’re not right in the middle of the busy pedestrian walkways or on the verge of getting hit by a bus.

Big Ben at night London busses

Another thing you’re going to want to capture are the phone booths, which like the busses, are scattered pretty much everywhere throughout central London.

Big Ben London at night

These are just a few of the many different shots you can get around London and I intend on updating this post as I get to photograph more of this amazing city so be sure to check back in the future for more shots!

The Best Sea Cave Tour in the Algarve: Benagil Sea Cave

Benagil Sea Cave in the Algarve is a true natural wonder. It’s a sea cave with a natural occurring oculus that towers over its own secluded beach. At the right time of day the Sun casts light through this dome, illuminating a stunning scene that anyone visiting Portugal should try to see. You may not come across a lot of articles on the tours offered to this site so here’s a look at what you can expect if you end up visiting the Benagil Sea Cave in the Algarve.

(If you want to get more details on visiting the Algarve then check out Lonely Planet’s pocket book for the Algarve.) 

Finding the beach

The first step is just getting to the beach. After loading “Benagil Beach” into your GPS try to select the route that appears to follow along the main roads as much as possible. We ended up venturing through some really tight back roadways and actually had to reverse out a few times because there wasn’t enough room for two cars to get through. So just be prepared for some very narrow roads as you approach the beach.

Once you arrive in the beach area there’s not really much room to park. It seems that everyone just parks along the street on an incline and we did just that.

Parking near Benagil Sea Cave
Parking near Benagil Sea Cave.

There are a couple of restaurants at the beach (we didn’t try) and there’s a snack bar right on the beach. We had a couple of sweets from there and the sangria that comes on tap just to hold us over for our tour (what’s a grotto tour without a little sangria?). There are also public restrooms at the beach so if you’re in need of a light snack and a bathroom break, you’ll be covered when you arrive.

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Booking a tour

To book your tour you have two options.

First, you can simply walk up to the little stand right in the middle of the beach area (you won’t be able to miss it). We showed up about 15 minutes before 1pm, which was perfect. The next tour was heading out at 1pm and there were still a couple of open slots for us to jump on board. However, that was in the off-season.

If you are visiting in the summer then I recommend booking online. Thankfully, you can now book online! Click here to make a booking on!

The boat is a little small and only carries about 8 passengers at a time but you won’t be squished which is great. The tours usually last 30 minutes to one hour and cost about €17.50 per person. (This might be different in peak season when they may offer more tours and have more boats on hand so keep that in mind.)

As soon as you strap your life jacket on  and step into the boat you’re off! We went on a perfect day. The tide was pretty low, the sea was calm, and the sky was about as clear as could be. It was probably about 70°F/20°C and after living in the cold UK for the past few months, it was such a relief to be back in the sun and this warm nostalgia took me back to my days living in California.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

The boat ride

We sped in and out of countless caves and alcoves all along the coast. Many of these caves were much larger than I thought they’d be. Watching the ocean’s green waters glimmer along the ceilings of these caves was stunning and not really easily captured with photographs. Other things not captured are the sounds and smells of the sea caves. As you enter into these dim chambers, the scent of salt water intensifies and the sounds of waves crashing into the rocks echo. The boat’s motor goes silent as do all of its passengers as they admire the scenery. It’s really an enchanting experience, especially the first few times you enter into the caves.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

With the ocean as calm as it was on the day we visited it was hard to imagine how these placid waters had carved out these alcoves so deeply, but our guide assured us that during winter storms the waves often hit the ceilings in these caves! In one of the grottos a massive chunk of rock had obviously fell from the ceiling and was sitting right in the middle of the cave like its own little island. I certainly wouldn’t want to be around these caves in those kind of conditions.

We sat in each cave for only about 20 seconds before zipping out of the grotto at full speed and riding out into the sunny ocean in search of the next cave (often located right next door).  The most thrilling part of the tour was when our boat headed directly for a little opening at the base of the cliff that looked no bigger than a few feet high from the water’s surface. Not only did we go straight for it but our guide gunned it so we shot through this tight opening and into the darkness without a clue of what was in front of us. Luckily, a large cave opened up and we were all safe but not before experiencing a good thrill. Check out the video of that here.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

Beautiful sea stacks and golden cliffs

Apart from going in and out of the caves, it’s a really cool experience to get up close to these massive sea stacks and to get such great views of the beautiful golden cliffs of the Algarve. Sea birds swoop down from the high cliffs and fisherman stand perched on the edge of these sheer cliffs overlooking the clear green waters as you make turn after turn of beautiful coastline. I didn’t see any fish but the water was very clear and you could often see the bottom a few feet down if you looked.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour
Algarve Sea Cave Tour
Algarve Sea Cave Tour

Once you enter through these dark portals the dim interior of the cave feels almost like a cathedral and they’re beautiful as well. The walls and ceilings are washed with different tones of green, gold, grey, and purple and some of them even have holes poking through their ceilings where the sun shoots through like laser beams. A lot of them had their own little sandy beaches inside that resembled little hidden coves that made me just want to get out, lie down on the beach, and forget that we were going to be heading back to the cloudy UK in 24 hours.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

Color changing water

Another amazing sight inside was watching the water change color. As you approach the mouth of the caves from the inside the sun hits the water just right and illuminates it in a deep emerald green like a light glowing under a bubbling a hot-tub. It only lasts for a few seconds and once you pull out of the cave it’s back to its bright bluish-green color. This was one of the coolest effects to me and I kept trying to photograph that look as much as possible.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

The famous Benagil Sea Cave

After exploring numerous sea caves on the western side of the beach we then made our way back over to towards Benagil Beach to check out the most famous of all the sea caves of the Algarve. I’m not sure if the cave has its own name and I’ve only seen it referred to as “Benagil Sea Cave” so if you’re looking for it that’s probably the best name to use to search for it.

Benagil sea cave

The most intriguing shot of this cave is actually taken from inside the sea cave on the sand. However, we we didn’t dock or anything inside the cave and I had to settle for the outside perspective, which was still quite stunning. I’d tried to contact a few people known for dropping off photographers in this cave for about an hour at a time and letting them photograph away but I didn’t have any luck. If I wasn’t lugging around my expensive DSLR and would’ve been content with just getting GoPro footage I definitely would’ve considered just swimming to this cave because it’s just next door to the beach. If you’re a strong swimmer and conditions are calm, you can definitely think about making the swim (though it’d probably be best to have some kind of floating device with you just in case).

Anyway, we stopped here for about a minute and the guide let us shoot away. I was on the outside of the boat and towards the back when we arrived at the cave, which gave me a pretty obstructed view of the cave. This made me worried because this was the cave I was most excited about photographing and it seemed like I wasn’t going to be able to get any decent shots. So I just starting shooting like crazy and hoping that one of my shots would come out. Thankfully, a few of them did!

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

Photographing the sea caves

Photographing the sea caves on these tours is not easy. If you’re like me and shoot manual with a DSLR you’re going to have to be on your “A” game. The first concern is the lighting that changes abruptly and dramatically, forcing you to change your settings within seconds before your boat departs. In addition to the lighting challenges, you have the boat rocking away to the rhythm of the waves. This makes any kind of slow shutter attempt basically impossible to handle without significant motion blur to your images. My strategy was to take every photo with multiple exposures and to just keep firing away! It worked some of the time and failed most of the time, but I took so many photos that at least a few of them came out okay.

Oh yeah — be sure to protect your camera. Our guide liked to spice things up by making some sharp turns and sending sea spray showering over us. Luckily, I’d remembered to bring my hat and was able to shield my camera from the salt water by placing it like a baby in my lap.

A sea cave tour in the Algarve is a must-see attraction! While I’d probably prefer a kayak tour over something like this, it was still a fantastic way to spend an hour exploring the Algarve coast!

If you’re still looking for a great place to stay in the Algarve, check out my review of the Grande Real Santa Eulalia Resort!

Where to Eat in the Algarve, Portugal

While planning for our upcoming trip I constantly read reviews about how touristy the Aglarve was and how we wouldn’t be able to find authentic Portuguese cuisine. However, after eating at a few places this past weekend I think that the food scene at the Algarve is fantastic and appeared to have plenty of places for some fairly authentic selections. Here’s a review of four places we ate  and drank at over the past weekend and what you can expect from those restaurants.

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1. Gran Via Tapas Bar (Albufeira)

After learning that our #1 restaurant was going to be closed for the entire weekend, we had to get out and find an alternative for our first night in the Algarve. So we dropped into the Gran Via Tapas Bar for a couple of beers (€3.50 for a large beer) and to get some good dining recommendations. The owner of the bar was quite the character.

He was extremely friendly with a love for 80s music and didn’t hesitate to show off some of his interesting dance moves. After offering us a couple of complimentary shots and chatting it up a bit, he recommended that we try out the restaurant below. I suggest dropping into this bar just for a couple of drinks  and maybe enjoy a little bit of 80s music. If you do want to grab a bite I did see them serving up some pretty delicious-looking and smelling trays so it might be a good idea to stick around for some tapas.

2. O Zuca (Albufeira)

We were referred to O Zuca and I couldn’t have been happier to try out this restaurant. It was cheap and the food was of very high quality. Brad had the grilled seabass for €11 and I went with the piri piri chicken €7.50. Both were exceptional! The seabass was perfectly seasoned and the piri piri chicken was great as well. (If you’re new to this region and coming from the United States, be prepared to deal with fish and chicken bones at pretty much any restaurant you go to.)

For two beers and the two and our meals it was only €21.70 and was one of the cheapest options we came across in the Algarve.

Grilled seabass with potatoes
Grilled seabass
Piri Piri chicken with french fries
Piri piri chicken

3. Bahia Beach Bar (Lagos)

This “beach bar” is also a restaurant with great food and beautiful open surroundings located right on the sandy beach. You walk across a boardwalk to access the bar (don’t get it confused with the bar right next door) and once you walk in you’re greeted by very friendly staff and servers.

Table and chairs on beach

For drinks we went with the white sangria for €13 a pitcher. It was my first time with white sangria so I didn’t have much to compare it to but I loved it! It was very fruity but still stronger than some of the other sangria we’d had and was full of different flavors and apple and orange slices along with berries.

White sangria Portugal
White sangria
White sangria Portugal
White sangria

As for food, we actually had our best meal of our entire trip here. It was a tapas platter for two for only €19.90. The tapas platter comes with seven different types of tapas and they differ day-to-day depending on the day’s fishing haul and the chef’s choice so you don’t always know what you’re going to get but I don’t see how you couldn’t love the tapas here.

Tapas at Algarve Portugal

Our platter had chorizo, steak, zucchini, squid, octopus, homemade hummus, mushrooms, peppers, olives, prawns, crab, and some kind of amazing cheese. With or without bread, these items were cooked perfectly and packed with flavor, especially the crab and the octopus. We’d just been blown away by tapas in Madrid about a moth ago but these were even better than the ones we’d tried in Spain!

Tapas at Algarve Portugal

4. Prazeres Restaurante (Albuferia)

I’ve decided to start including the places we weren’t completely fond of in addition to the great restaurants. Because we had so much success with out first recommendation we decided to take the word of some more locals to find another great restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant didn’t live up to the hype.

I ordered the shrimp and squid kebab (€13.50) just to try something a little different and Brad went with the tuna steak (€12.50). The tuna steak was cooked a bit too much in my opinion and soaked in the juices so much that it seemed to have lost its tuna taste. It just wasn’t very good. My shrimp and squid was okay but nothing very special.

Tuna steak at Algarve Portugal
Tuna steak
Shrimp and squid kebab at Algarve Portugal
Shrimp and squid kebab

We also decided to try the “green wine” that’s a Portugal speciality. (The wine’s not actually green but made from “green” grapes that aren’t fully ripe, hence the name.) I probably should’ve tried the red wine version but nonetheless we went with the white wine. It was okay and interesting to try but again didn’t really blow me away.

Vinho verde at Algarve Portugal
Vinho verde

We walked away from this restaurant with a €43 tab and not really too impressed with our meals. I don’t want to bash this place because the food wasn’t terrible, just not very good. Also, the service was great and the place does have plenty of good reviews on Trip Advisor and from locals so we could’ve just caught it at the wrong time.

I don’t profess to be an expert on authentic Portuguese cuisine but from my traveling experience you can often get a sense of how local the foods are by the atmosphere in the restaurants and by talking to your servers about the foods offered. To me, all of these places felt pretty authentic and at the very least the first three places were some of the best eating and drinking experiences we’ve had in Europe so I give them a ringing endorsement.

Skydiving over the Great Barrier Reef at Mission Beach, Australia

I remember the first day I arrived at my hostel in Bondi Beach, Australia. I was eager to set out and explore the amazing country known for its exotic wildlife and landscapes but had no idea what kind of adventures I’d ultimately experience. With my bags still not even unpacked and not knowing where to begin, I asked the girl working the front desk about things to do and she handed me what seemed like 20 brochures of all kinds of crazy adrenaline-packed things to do and places to see.

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I hadn’t met any of the other people in my program that I’d eventually become good friends with so I was still in that weird phase of “semi-shock” that can hit you when it first dawns on you that you’re in a foreign country, thousands of miles away from anyone who could recognize your face. At that point, an adventure to me was just getting to know new people and getting situated with my surroundings.

Anyway, I opened up one of the brochures, a little red one,  turned a few pages and saw this photo of someone jumping from an airplane. Their face was lit up almost as bright as the sparkling turquoise ocean they were free falling over. I couldn’t help but admire this person. “Good for them,” I thought. I’ve always been inspired by seeing people live their lives to the fullest, regardless of how reckless their acts may sometime appear to be.

As I looked at more photos of others gliding through the clouds on their way down to a safe landing on the beach, I wondered what it would be like to experience such a rush — not to mention to do it while free falling over such spectacular scenery like the Great Barrier Reef. I imagined how accomplished they probably felt and how proud. But at the same time I almost felt a kind of guilt. Like I knew that deep down inside I wanted to do stuff like that but I was reasoning myself out of attempting such a crazy, radical adventure because of fear. I closed the brochure, stuffed it into one of my bags and never really thought about it again. At least not for a while.

Fast forward two months.

My knees are a little weak as I’m entering into a small, crowded plane getting ready to be taken 14,000 feet up into the air to be dropped over the same stretch of ocean I’d seen once upon a time in that little red pamphlet.

During those two months I’d gotten close to a handful of great people I’d met through the program. While most of us lacked any kind of extensive adventurist past, we’d developed a pattern of, for better or for worse, talking each other into risky activities like shark diving, surfing in a strong swell at Bondi Beach, and somehow all talked each other into skydiving a couple of weeks before. Since the day we’d booked the skydiving trip, I hadn’t really thought about it much. In fact, the only time I really thought much about it was as we took off from Sydney to Cairns and the fact crossed my mind that the next time I was going to be in  a plane, I would be jumping out of it….

But now, once again, as I was being taken up in this shaky little plane, the free fall that was ahead of me was all that was on my mind.

Skydivers in plane waiting to jump

The original plan for this skydiving day was for all five of us to be in solidarity with each other and board the plane together. It’s such a weird thing how the mind works but knowing other people personally and seeing them getting ready to go through the same logic-defying leap seemed like it would help ease my nerves versus preparing to jump with a bunch of strangers. Unfortunately, the people behind the logistic ends of things got my name swapped with another Daniel and I was plucked out of the group.

Of course I was.

Thus, not only would I have to go by myself but I’d be going before everyone else and  to top it all off they put me at the top of the line up so I’d be the guinea pig jumping first!

Men getting off bus

As the plane gained more elevation, the instructors kept telling us “4,000!”…… “5,000!”……”6,000!” With each thousand feet gained I looked out of the see-thorough door that was the only thing  between me and the blue ocean below and just admired the little rocky islands rising out of the sea. Everything from the wide open blue atmosphere to the ocean looked so calm and peaceful, yet I knew what awaited.

Arial view ocean Australia

At 6,000 feet I couldn’t believe that  we weren’t even half way there yet! Still, even though the flight felt like it was going on forever, I honestly wasn’t even really nervous anymore.

Skydivers in plane waiting to jump

The whole scenario felt too unreal to be a situation where I could feel real emotions. As my instructor buckled me into his harness and tightened up the constraints, it dawned on me that these little clasps were what my life depended on for the next five minutes. Thoughts of them snapping under the pressure or coming undone shot through my mind. But it was way too late to back out. At this point, if anything were to go wrong that’s just what was meant to be and I knew I just had to put the fear aside and just go with everything if I were ever going to exit this plane as I’d hoped.

It seemed like it took us 3 hours to get to 10,000 feet but only 3 seconds to get from 10,000 to 14,000 feet. Once the green light came on  in the plane, all of the camera guys and instructors started to shuffle around as a sense of urgency seemed to fill the plane. And that’s when my nerves came back… in a flurry.

Now it was go time! I turned my body from facing the back of the plane to facing out this plastic see-through door. It was the first time I could really see the other skydivers packed like sardines towards the front of the plane. As soon as I scanned their faces and could sense their weariness, the  butterflies shot through my stomach and I could feel the intense pounding of my chest within the tight constraints of the harness.

After I finally turned in position they opened up the gate. Suddenly, I couldn’t hear anything but wind, its freezing cold currents blasting me in the face as I looked out to the sky. I scooted to the edge of the doorway at which time he told me to extend my legs outside the plane and bend them underneath the plane.

This was it.

With my legs dangling 14,000 feet up in the air, exposed in the blistering cold winds, the instructor tilted my head back and began the countdown.

Skydivers jumping out of plane




The next thing I knew we were cartwheeling out of this plane. Ocean, sky, and ocean came and left out of my field of vision as we flipped and tumbled in the sky.

Skydivers jumping out of plane

Wind battered my face as if I were sticking my head out of a car window going 90 mph on the freeway. We were flying.

Tandem skydiving over ocean

As the camera man whirled around us I didn’t even want to look anywhere else but down. This was the most amazing view I’d ever seen. I was looking down at one of the natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef,  while free falling from 14,000 feet out of the sky…. This was a view — an experience — that for thousands of years was not humanly possible, never mind the fact that I’d never thought in a million years I’d be jumping out of a plane. This was the stuff I saw in pamphlets that haunted my conscience with temptation to let go of my fears — not stuff that I experienced.  Yet, here I was.

Tandem skydiving Australia

The parachute cord was pulled and after a sharp jolt it felt like I was being sucked back up into the air.

Tandem skydiving deployed parachute over ocean

But soon, the tumultuous winds were gone and it was just a quiet soar from this point. I looked out at the turquoise waters  stretching out over the horizon under clear blue skies and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was actually floating in the sky above some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet.

Skydivers arial view of Mission Beach

After gliding over the ocean for a couple of minutes we descended toward the shore and the little dots of people and palm trees became larger and larger. Soon, we swooped down onto the sand for a perfect slide landing on our feet.

Skydiver landing on Mission Beach Australia
Skydiver landing on Mission Beach Australia

I’d just touched down back to earth. I’d fallen out of the sky, over the ocean, and now I was standing on a beach. I couldn’t wrap my head around those thoughts — it was simply unbelievable.

Skydivers standing on Mission Beach Australia

After I landed, my friends were all up in the air going through the same roller coaster of emotions, awaiting their momentous leaps while I was by myself on the beach, walking up and down the shore just trying to pass the time waiting for them to land.

Mission Beach Australia

Excitement was still running through me — my adrenaline was still kicking, my heart was still racing a bit but something felt oddly ordinary about the entire experience. It was almost like I realized that this was all “supposed to happen.” Sure, it was all extraordinary  but it was as if I’d just had an epiphany that these amazing experiences — which require taking risks, putting fear to the side, and just gunning for something — weren’t so far out of my reach as I’d thought. And even more than that, they were made for me.

Suddenly, almost everything seemed obtainable and I couldn’t help but wander what else might be out there for me to experience.

I thought to myself, “I guess it’s time to check out another pamphlet.”

Visiting the Magical City of Toledo, Spain

From Mirador del Valle, you watch as the sunset casts its orange glow on the Alcázar towering above a maze of cobblestone roads that wind through a hillside covered in tiers of colorful Spanish buildings. The still waters of the Tagus River wrap around this picturesque hill and slowly flow under the medieval bridges that welcome the modern day visitor. As the sky darkens, yellow lights twinkle among the hundreds of buildings creating a brilliant, yet silent setting where you can’t help but to reflect on the beauty and history of this surreal landscape.

Toledo Spain at night
Alley in Toledo Spain

Centuries of human history are felt from the moment you step through the decorative arches of the Puente de San Martín, a stone-brick bridge dating back to the late 14th century. As you make your way uphill towards the city center, cars zip around narrow alleys where sidewalks unexpectedly dwindle into thin curbs until completely disappearing into the cobblestoned roads. Churches and cathedral spires emerge into view as you zig-zag further towards the clamoring of other tourists strolling through the many shops with walls covered in intricately designed ceramic plates and windows lined with endless rows of shiny swords made from some of the finest sword-makers in the world.

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The rich history of the city goes back to the 5th century BC, when Jewish inhabitants first settled there and named the city, Ṭulayṭulah. It later served as an important colony for the Romans, Visigoths, and Moors as each civilization rose and fell with power. Eventually, it was the Christians who took lasting control over the city in the 11th century, led by Alfonso VI. For centuries to follow, Toledo remained a major cultural hub and even served as the capital of Spain until it peaked in both its population growth and political importance and the capital eventually relocated to Spain. Toledo’s political decline is likely what saved the city, however — for it allowed for the preservation of the city as it was largely forgotten about by the outside world.

Vegetation Toledo Spain

The cultural history is reflected throughout the city’s architecture. Medieval works are found in the roads, walls, and castles, such as the Castillo de San Servando. Morrish roots are revealed in several mosques and the Toledo Cathedral, dating back to the 13th century, displays the city’s Roman Catholic history and is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in all of Spain.  Museums are found throughout the city, with the Museo de Santa Cruz and El Greco Museum showcasing some of the finest works of the famous artist, El Greco, a brilliant mind years ahead of his Spanish Renaissance counterparts who is regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. El Greco discarded the traditional artistic norms of form and replaced them with dramatic and colorful scenes that largely went unappreciated for centuries until the late 18th century.

Toledo Spain

Between the churches, museums, restaurants, and shops offered in Toledo you might expect to feel overwhelmed with options that couldn’t possibly be fit into a day-trip’s itinerary.  But you don’t have to see every museum and cathedral here to get the most of this place.  Just popping in and out of shops, walking through the tight pebbly alleyways, and marveling at the gold and brown bricked buildings — their potted plants hanging from elegantly designed Juliet balconies below their ceramic tiled roofs — will keep you captivated for hours.

Balcony in Toledo Spain
Toledo Spain
Toledo Spain
Toledo Spain

As soon as your feet begin to tire from trekking up and down these hilly paths, it’s time to slip into one of the many cafes or restaurants found amid the labyrinth of roads.  Toledo’s long been heralded for the variety of game meat and it’s easy to find the likes of quail, deer, or lamb in a number of different forms from fried, roasted, to baked.  And of course pork and plenty of seafood paella dish options abound at just about every corner. Just try to save some room for dessert.

Mazapan de Toledo

Bakeries are found throughout the city with boxes and rows of different sweets and treats presented in bright displays behind their windows, but without a doubt the most coveted of the sweets here — that every visitor to Toledo must try — is the marzipan. It’s a rich treat, made mostly of sugar, honey, and almond meal. It’s not uncommon to see marzipan in a number of different designs taking the shape of pigs or combined with fruit flavors and coming in the shape of small watermelons or bananas. It tastes extremely rich and filling, even in small doses, so taking it to go right after a big lunch may be your best bet.

Buildings in Toledo Spain

After a few meals and exploring the many shops and cathedrals, at some point you’ll surely make your way to the highest point in the city where the Alcázar rises above the city. The Romans used it as a palace back in the third century, though it underwent several changes through the centuries including a restoration in the 16th century.  In the 1930s, this is where the Siege of the Alcázar took place, which was an important victory for the Nationalist forces in the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalists saw the Alcázar as a structure that symbolized the strength of Spain and thus their victory helped propel morale and further confidence in their forces as they ultimately went on to defeat the Spanish Republicans in the war.

Toledo Spain

Today, Toledo is the capital of the autonomous region of Castilla-La Mancha. Since being designated a world heritage site and being home to several national monuments, Toledo has become relevant once again and thrives on the many tourists it welcomes each year. You likely you won’t be able to escape the tourist herds when you visit Toledo but this city is one of those unique places where the rich history that’s felt as you wander about the magnificent buildings displaces any annoyances that typically come with tourist territory. It’s a special place, no doubt, and one that will leave a lasting impression on you after even only one long afternoon visit.

Click here to book a day trip to Toledo from Madrid.

8 Things to Do in Sydney, Australia

Sydney has a ton of things to offer tourists and travelers. I actually lived in Bondi Beach for a summer (really a winter) and got to work and go to school in Sydney a couple of years ago, so I’m pretty familiar with some of the attractions offered in the city. Here are 8 things to do in Sydney if it’s going to be your first time in the city.

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1. Take a ferry ride through the harbor

One of the first things I did when I arrived in Sydney was board a ferry for a ride through the harbor.  It’s a perfect way to get acquainted with the layout of the harbor areas and capture some fantastic views of the Sydney Opera House,  Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the skyline of the city.

Sail boat harbor Sydney Australia

2. Pet some kangaroos and koalas 

This is obviously a pretty touristy thing to do but how can you go to Australia and not pet a koala or kangaroo? A good place to do both of these is the Wildlife Sydney Zoo.  It’s an interesting wildlife center where you can see a lot of the famous Australian creatures known for their deadly bites and stings, including some of the most deadly snakes, spiders, and jellyfish. The kangaroos there are known as “red kangaroos” and are the largest species in Australia. My first time seeing them walk in real life was a bit trippy. It’s hard to explain, but their so large and their body movements are so different from anything that you’ve seen that they kind of resemble aliens at first glance.

Closeup of kangaroo in Sydney Australia

Nowadays they only let you gently pet the koalas due to some tourists getting too rough with the koalas and fracturing their fragile ribs. So just be a little careful with these furry little animals and you’ll get some great photos.  If you’re lucky, one might actually come out of its slumber and open its eyes for your photo op. There’s a pass you can get to access to the zoo and some of the other attractions like the aquarium and the Sydney Tower so that you can save a little bit of money.

Koalas in tree

It’s a bit pricey bit if you have the extra cash and the sense of adventure you can take the ferry over to Manly, Australia and actually enter their shark tank. It’s a really cool experience and one that I’ll never forget about.

Scuba diver with nurse shark

3. Day trip to the Blue Mountains

My only regret is not planning for a full day trip or possibly staying overnight in the Blue Mountains.  Still, even if you only can book a tour to go through the area for a few hours you’ll still enjoy the experience. There are multiple waterfalls pouring off sheer cliffs topped with lush vegetation, rainforests, and towering sandstone spires that can be admired from a suspended cable car (the steepest and largest aerial cable car in the Southern Hemisphere).  If you go with the right tour group, they’ll also take you past some ancient petroglyphs and even allow you to encounter some kangaroos in the wild.

Man jumping in air over blue mountains
Blue Mountains waterfall

4. Check out Bondi Beach

When I lived in Australia, I actually stayed at Bondi Beach so it will always be a special place to me. The beach scenery is absolutely beautiful with its clear blue waters and constant breaking surf.  There’s a number of different restaurants lining the main street of the beach so you can grab some grub. I had plenty of great Thai food while living there so be sure to try some out while you’re there.

Bondi Beach Sydney Australia

Bondi Beach is a hotspot for surfers year-round but you’ll want to be careful if you’re trying surfing here for your first time because the swells and the rip currents can be something serious.  We’d been warned about venturing out into the waters during a severe swell but we decided to “test-the-waters” anyway. To say that we were manhandled by the ocean that day would be putting it lightly. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun and a hell of a way to get an into to surfing.

Surfer in water Bondi Beach Australia
Surfer riding wave Bondi Beach Australia

Apart from the surfing, there are often other activities going on in the area. In the middle of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, they set up an ice skating rink on the beach for Christmas in July and it’s a pretty cool little set up. Don’t forget to look into exploring the rocky tide pools and discovering all different kinds of wildlife that can be found between the rock cracks.  At low tide, you’ll be amazed with what you uncover.

Starfish on rock in Sydney Australia

The nearby Icebergs bar is a great way to relax while not missing the views through their see-through walls and the pathways winding along the coast are an amazing sight to experience the rugged headlands. If you have a couple of hours to spare then consider the extremely scenic walk to Coogee.

Beer at Icebergs bar with view of ocean

5. Visit the Sydney Opera House

You’ve seen it in countless movies and brochures and it’s one of the most famous buildings in the world. While you can always catch a show inside, just walking around the area and exploring the nearby grounds of the Opera House is a worthy attraction and can be very romantic at night if that’s something you’re interested in.  Also, the botanic gardens are right next door and are a beautiful area to check out on your way to or from the Opera House.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House in black and white
Sydney Opera House at night

6. Walk across the Harbor Bridge

I have a slight fascination with walking across some of the iconic bridges around the world (Golden Gate, Tower Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, etc.) so I would recommend walking across the Harbour Bridge to anyone. It offers great views of the Opera House and the surrounding buildings and you can often catch spectacular sunsets on the bridge.  If you’ve got the extra cash, aren’t afraid of heights, and looking for a little adventure you can book a tour walking across the top of the bridge. This looked like it would’ve been a lot of fun but I personally got turned-off by the price tag of this adventure. At $150 AUD for the cheapest, middle of the week time-slot it just seemed to be a bit much.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

7. Check out a rugby or Australian football game

It seemed that some of the rugby fans looked down on Australian football a little bit, supposedly because Australian football doesn’t require the same toughness and ruggedness of rugby. That’s probably true but it didn’t stop us from catching a game there. I must admit that I knew zilch about Oz football so I was pretty clueless about what was going on.  Still, it was pretty fun to have a couple of pints and try to mesh with some of the locals and experience how they do sports down under.

8. Whale Watching

Sydney was actually my first place to ever go whale watching out on a boat. We weren’t too lucky in that we didn’t have the best showing of whales that day; however, we didn’t completely strike out and we did come across a few of them. I quickly realized how difficult it is to photograph whales (at least when they’re being shy).

Whale breaching in Sydney Australia
Whale breaching in Sydney Australia

I managed to get a few decent shots but the experience of seeing humpback whales for the first time was still a lot of fun. Just don’t forget your motion-sickness pills — roughly half of the boat seemed to get sea sick while we were out and I quickly realized what all the little baggy things were for that I set around the seats.

These are only 8 of the many things to do in Sydney. While most of these are pretty touristy things to do, I still recommend you giving them a go on your first trip to Sydney.

Top 10 Completely Touristy Things to Do in NYC

It’s your first time to NYC and you’re looking for some advice on what to see and do… my recommendation: just bite the bullet on this first trip and be “okay” with being a tourist for a week (or at least a couple days). NYC simply offers too many good tourist attractions to not partake in them at least for some of your time there.  With that in mind, here are 10 top tourist attractions to consider on your first trip out to New York City.

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1. Catch an amazing view of Manhattan from up high

Nowadays you have three great options for obtaining the perfect view of the New York City Skyline: top of the Rock, top of the Empire State Building, or the new viewing platform at WTC One.  I haven’t checked out the WTC One view but I have checked out the views from the ESB and top of the Rock. I recommend the the Rock as I found it more photogenic for the simple reason that you can photograph the ESB.  However, if you’re more into bragging rights or bucket-list type attractions, going to the top of the Empire State Building is a pretty cool experience as well.  It costs an extra $15 to go from the 86th floor to the 102nd floor to get inside the spire of the ESB but the crowds are usually thinner up top and it’s really cool to see photos of the ESB and think back to a time when you were hanging out inside its massive spire.

View from the Top of the Rock New York
View from the Top of the Rock
View from the top of the Empire State Building
View from the top of the Empire State Building

Tickets for these experiences range from about $30-$70 depending on things like express packages. Skipping the line may be worth it as sometimes the crowds can get pretty ridiculous. We actually visited the Empire State Building on a rainy late afternoon and because of the weather, the crowds were non-existent. By the time we got up to the top, the rain had cleared out but low-lying clouds were still hovering through the city and it made for some great photographs.  If you’re wanting to see the city during the day but also catch the amazing night skyline, the Top of the Rock offers an option for you to visit the observation deck during both the day and later on during the night. I highly recommend night time visit because the view of the city lights is stunning.

Top of the Empire State Building
Top of the Empire State Building
View from the top of the Empire State Building
View from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building

2. Bike through Central Park

Central Park is pretty massive and while it’s a great place to go for a stroll, it’s also a perfect place to go for a bike ride.  Look for vendors near the main entrances of the park. Prices for bike rentals start at about $15 an hour and go up a few bucks for each additional 30 min or hour.  It was a lot of fun riding around the park but we definitely had to bob and weave through a lot of people so just keep an eye out for other tourists and locals. Also, another great option in addition to cycling is to rent a boat and go for a paddle through Central Park. Boats also start out at about $15 per hour with usually an extra $3 charge for each additional 30 minutes.

Central Park as seen from the Top of the Rock
Central Park as seen from the Top of the Rock
Lake in Central Park
Lake in Central Park

3. Broadway

The tickets can be a little pricey, depending on the show and your desired seats but this one is pretty much a given for most tourists that come to NYC, especially for the first time. I’ve only seen a few Broadway shows to date, but I highly recommend The Lion King to anyone that’s not seen it or ever been to a Broadway show. Tickets can be bought on sites like but some recommend purchasing tickets the day-of so to save up to 50% or more off the price.  While you’ll usually save money buying last minute tickets, keep in mind that seat availability will often be limited and you might get stuck with some less desirable seats for your show. Expect to spend anywhere from $100-200 if going through a site like Ticketmaster.

As a interesting side note, my room mate from law school (in California) just happened to be in the same exact showing of the Lion King when we saw it… pretty crazy considering we no so much as mentioned to each other that we’d be in NYC that week.

View of Times Square from the Lion King Theater
View of Times Square from the Lion King Theater

4. Museums

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (known as the Met) and the Museum of Modern Art (known as MoMA), are two of top museums you’ve got to check out on your first visit to NYC.  The Met is the largest art museum in the US and one of the top 10 in the world. MOMA is of course home to Vincent van Gogh’s, The Starry Night, among many other famous and inspirational works.

5. Statue of Liberty

Take a ferry to the Statue of Liberty and check out the most iconic statue in the world up close and personal. Gifted to the US by the French in the late 1800s, the statue represents Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, and is the ultimate symbol of freedom if you ask me. It costs $18-21 to get over to the statue depending on whether or not you want to inside of it up to the crown. Also, the tours usually stop by Ellis Island, where you can see where tens of thousands of immigrants first arrived in New York after being greeted by the Statue of Liberty.

Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty

6. Food Carts and Trucks

So these may not exactly be touristy, but you shouldn’t pass them up! The food carts are what kept me out of many restaurants in NYC. We found these all over the city and had amazing food of all different ethnicities. Whether you want Mexican, Mediterranean, hot dogs, burgers, sweets, whatever… if you look hard enough, you’ll find them. I wish I had thought more about it before my trip and I would’ve researched more places to check out but I can honestly say that all of the places that we stopped by on a whim were excellent. So my suggestion: research the top food stands and trucks nearby where you’re staying so you’ll have a couple of go-to places in case you can’t decide on where to eat.

Food Stand with the Chrysler Building in the background
Food Stand with the Chrysler Building in the background

7. World Trade Center Memorial

This was one of my favorite things to see in NYC.  It gave me goosebumps to see those two empty square holes in the ground where the Twin Towers once stood. It was definitely moving and now there’s a museum to check out on site where you can learn more about the victims, their families, and the heroic efforts of first-responders on that day. They also have massive beams and parts to the Towers on display that are warped from the extreme pressure and heat they endured and they are very moving to see. Regardless of what state or country you’re coming from, I highly recommend a stop to the memorial site for everyone.

Tickets to the museum and memorial are $24.

World Trade Center Memorial
World Trade Center Memorial

8. Walking through the city

There are plenty of places and neighborhoods  to see on foot around Manhattan.  I enjoyed checking out the Flatiron building, strolling through the Greenwich Village and popping in and out of a few pubs, exploring Little Italy and Wall Street, and even enjoyed experiencing the madness of Times Square.  There are great photo opportunities at just about every corner so have your camera ready at all times.

New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street
New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street
Little Italy in New York
Little Italy in New York
Washington Square Park in the Greenwich Village New York
Washington Square Park in the Greenwich Village

One walk I recommend is the walk across the historic Brooklyn Bridge.   It’s easy to overlook the Brooklyn Bridge with all of the other things to see but don’t forget this was once the longest suspension bridge in the world and was also considered to be the 8th wonder of the world for a while.  It was pretty packed when we made the walk and there were plenty of cyclists on the path so it was a bit crowded but I still enjoyed the walk and the views of the city are great, too.

Brooklyn Bridge
The Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge
View from the Brooklyn Bridge
View from the Brooklyn Bridge
Times Square
Times Square

Of course, you never know who you might run into in NYC. Here’s a photo of people going into a frenzy when Ricky Martin showed up around Times Square.

Ricky Martin spotted at Times Square
Ricky Martin spotted at Times Square

9. Taking a ferry tour around the city

Taking a ferry boat tour around Manhattan gave me a better appreciation for the massiveness of the New York skyline and all of it’s great bridges that I wouldn’t have gotten by just walking around. Not only will you get amazing photo opportunities but it’s also just a great way to relax, maybe have a couple of beers, and catch the sights of this amazing city.  I think the only view that probably beats this would be booking a helicopter tour, which is something I would have definitely looked into had it came across my mind.

Manhattan Bridge New York
Manhattan Bridge
The Financial District New York
The Financial District
New Yorker Hotel
The famous New Yorker Hotel
Stacks with Empire State Building
Empire State Building looming in the background

10. Yankees game

You either hate them or love them, but you can’t deny the legacy behind the New York Yankees.  While the old Yankee Stadium is long gone the new state-of-the-art stadium costed $2.3 billion to construct! It’s a great stadium and even for non-MLB fans it’s a bucket-list type experience, especially if you can catch them when the Red Sox are in town.

Yankee Stadium field
Yankee Stadium
Yankee Stadium sign
Yankees vs Red Sox!
Inside Yankee Stadium

One last thing, if you’re going to be visiting a lot of these places then you may want to look into the City Pass which will save you some change on your admission to many of these places and also allow you to skip the lines at some of the attractions.

Obviously, New York City is a special place that offers visitors endless attractions beyond these major tourists attractions.  However, if it’s your first time in the Big Apple, you owe it to yourself to at least check out about half of the things on this list.

How to get from Madrid Airport to Atocha Train Station

If you’re heading from Madrid Barajas Airport (MAD) to Atocha Station and you’re wondering how to get from the airport to the the train station you are in luck because it’s one of the easiest methods of transportation I’ve come across yet.

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Before I go into my recommendation, there are other options. You can take a taxi, which will run you about €30 or you can look into booking private transfers (helpful if you’ve got a lot of luggage). 

The cheapest option is to take the metro which costs about €2, but comes with the hassle of having to transfer to at at least one station to get to Atocha.  I don’t want to completely discount the Metro as we didn’t use it to get to Atocha; however, I had a great experience with the route we took so I’m going to pump that option up here.

Inside Terminal 4 at Barajas Airport in Madrid
Inside Terminal 4 at Barajas Airport in Madrid (MAD).

I believe the Línea Exprés Aeropuerto, which runs 24 hours and during peak times come around every 15 minutes, is the easiest option.  This bus will only take a couple of stops on your way to Atocha Station but it’s a great option at only €5 per person. Just make sure that you have the cash on hand because the bus driver will only take cash (and I don’t think you can purchase tickets ahead of time online).

We landed at T4 and took the bus from there but I’m pretty positive it also stops at T1 and T2 but don’t remember it going to T3 so check ahead if you think you’ll be arriving at that terminal.  A few sites reported that it would take about 40-45 minutes to get to Atocha Train Station but I recall it taking us about an hour to get there so plan accordingly.  The ticker and routes maps inside the bus were a little confusing so when we made a couple of stops I wasn’t exactly sure where we were stopping at.  However, when you finally do arrive at Atocha you will know you are there as the station is so large it’d be impossible to not know you were at Atocha.

The bus stop for the  Exprés Aeropuerto will be on your right as you exit from T4. Just head to where the busses are and look for the yellow post pictured below. You really can’t miss the bus once it shows up.  Also, the bus never got really packed when we boarded it going into the city or even coming back so hopefully that’s the norm and you won’t have to worry about any major crowds.

Pick-up Point at Terminal 4 Madrid Airport
The Pick-up Point at Terminal 4, Madrid Airport

One last tip: don’t get confused when you are ready to head back to MAD airport.  On the post at Atocha Station, the sign will say that Terminal 4 is only for arrivals. I’m not sure why that signs says that but you can definitely depart from Terminal 4 like we did. If for some reason you don’t have your ticket with you and you’re not 100% sure which terminal you will be departing from there is a list of all of the airlines and their corresponding terminals on the bus driver’s window, inside the bus. So just check that list out and you should be fine.

Finally, if you’re looking for an easy and convenient way to get around Madrid, then consider booking a hop-on-hop-off tour bus. Although it might seem too “touristy” to some people, it’s one of the easiest and cost-effective ways to get around Madrid, so I’d look into it.

Things to do in Madrid

I recently spent three nights in Madrid and felt like it was a prefect amount of time to hit some of the top attractions.  If you’re going there for only a few days, here are some things to consider while you visit Madrid.

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1. Eat Tapas

If there’s one thing you can’t leave Spain or Madrid without indulging in, it’s definitely Tapas. What are tapas? Tapas are a wide variety of appetizers and snacks that take many forms. Often served with some kind of bread, you’ll get everything from jamon, salmon, fried octopus, olives, and sardines sometimes combined with different types cheeses, sauces, and random toppings.

Tapas Madrid
Tapas in Madrid!

In Spanish culture, they eat lunch and dinner hours after we do in the United States and UK, so tapas are often eaten during social periods before dinner and lunch. In Madrid, you’ll find restaurants that serve tapas or simply tapas bars everywhere and hopping from bar to bar snacking on tapas is highly encouraged and a lot of fun. At some bars these trays are delivered to you free of charge so long as you’re there having a few drinks.

Just watch out because whether you’re full or not, the tapas won’t stop coming in and before you know it you will be completely stuffed. It happened to me pretty much every night we went out for tapas so be warned!

2. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

A lot of people might’ve put the Prado ahead of the Sofia but I really enjoyed the Sofia. One of the major reasons was that we showed up right when the museum opened and so we got to enjoy Pablo Picasso’s Guernica all to ourselves for a few minutes. They don’t allow photos in that room so I wan’t able to snag a photo of the painting but it was still an experience to see it.

Un mundo A World Spain
Un mundo (A World)

For those who don’t know, Guernica is Picasso’s most renown work and easily one of the top 5 paintings in the entire world. It depicts the horror of the bombing of the small town of Guernica back in 1937 when the Spanish nationalists essentially directed the Germans and Italians to decimate the town. The painting is the most famous of all anti-war paintings and portrays the suffering of war in a number of symbolic ways and there’s even a few hidden images in the painting.

In addition to Guernica, there’s plenty of other great exhibits and collections in the museum including a number of works from another one of the most famous painters of all time: Salvador Dalí, the painter of the Persistence of Time (which unfortunately is located in New York).

The Enigma of Hitler by Dali
“The Enigma of Hitler” by Dali

3. Day trip to Toledo or Segovia

It may seem odd to list going to another city as something to do in Madrid but you’ll thank me later for the suggestion. My day trip to Toledo, Spain was actually the highlight of my trip to Madrid and I know a lot of other travelers who felt the same way. Madrid is great, but spending a day wandering through the cobblestone alleys of Toledo will have you feeling like you’ve stepped into the world of Aladdin for a day — truly unforgettable and a must for anyone with enough time to take the trip. A round trip on a high speed train to Toledo will only run you €20 (roundtrip).

Toledo Spain
The beautiful city of Toledo, Spain

4. Visit the Museo Nacional Del Prado

This is Madrid’s most renown museum with the finest collection of Spanish art and it’s easy to see why when you visit its vast collections and exhibits. One interesting work is the Mona Lisa. Of course, the actual Mona Lisa is at the Lourve in Paris but the Prado is home to its own copy. Unlike many of the other copies that were created after the Mona Lisa came into existence, this one was actually painted simultaneously, likely by one of DaVinci’s pupils.

Prado Museum Mona Lisa
La Gioconda in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

You can visit this museum and many others for free during certain hours in the evening and on certain days so don’t forget to look into those options.  Just know that if you venture to these museums during these free times your experience is going to resemble the frenzies you find at other major museums like the Louvre in Paris and you can all but forget about any kind of intimate museum experience.

5. Take a stroll through the city

Madrid is a beautiful place to just walk around and admire the beautiful architecture. Since Madrid is a fairly young city (by European standards) you’re not going to see a bunch of medieval castles and fortifications around the city, but there are plenty of colorful buildings that tower over the roads throughout the city. If you’re into the shopping scene or looking for good nightlife,  one of the streets to take a stroll on is Gran Vía.

Calle de Atocha
Streets of Madrid

6. Rooftop terraces

There are a lot of different rooftop bars around Madrid that offer sweeping views of the city so be sure to check one of these out. Simply google “Rooftop terraces in Madrid” and plenty will show up. One of the best according to many is Círculo de Bellas Artes but I think that plenty of others also offer great views. Just try to make reservations if you’re planning on eating dinner at some of these because I know some of them can fill up rather quickly.

Seating at restaurant Madrid Spain
Photo by Jason Paris (Creative Commons).

7. Chocolat con churros

Just like tapas, no trip to Madrid would be complete without a good portion of chocolat con churros.  You can eat these with breakfast or as an afternoon or late night snack or you can even have them as a meal — nobody’s going to judge you. 😉 The holy grail of places to find these treats is San Ginés but don’t be afraid to try out other places. If you’re in the Atocha area then take a look at this article and give the place I recommend a try and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Chocolat Con Churros Madrid Spain

8. Buen Retiro Park

This is recommended by almost everyone. We strolled through a small portion of it pretty quickly mostly because it was hitting in the 20s°F/-°C, so we weren’t exactly trying to hang out for extended periods of time outside. However, had the temperatures been more mild, I could see how it is such a draw. If you make it there, be sure to check out the glass palace before you leave.

9. Templo de Debod

This Egyptian temple was dismantled in Egypt and rebuilt in Madrid. The Egyptians dedicated it to Spain as a thanks for helping them save the temples of Abu Simbel. It’s a good spot to fit in your itinerary if you’re going to visit the Royal Palace of Madrid since it’s just a short walk from there. Crowds build up at this site so if you want some decent photographs try to get there early or late.

Spain Templo de Debod
Templo de Debod (with frozen waters surrounding it)

10. Drinking delicious sangrias and mojitos

Living in the Texas and being in close proximity to so many Tex-Mex restaurants I’ve had my fair share of mojitos and sangrias.  And though I’ve never been to Cuba, I’ve got to say that I was thoroughly impressed with the mojitos I came across in Spain. The sangrias were right up there, too. Even if you don’t consider yourself much of a sangria or mojito drinker you owe it to yourself to give them a try in Madrid.

And of course, the cerveza is just as good and it’s not uncommon to find it for cheap. Specials can get you a large glass sometimes for as cheap at €1.50 or less.

Mojitos Madrid
Dos Mojitos, por favor!
Sangria and fried red mullet tapas in Madrid
Sangria and fried red mullet tapas.

Obviously there’s a lot more to see and do in Madrid like checking out the markets, flamenco dancing, the amazing night life, and so forth so don’t take this list to be a comprehensive list. However, from my recent time in Madrid, these seemed to be 10 of the top things to do that you didn’t want to miss.

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