!Viva Mexico!

I’m trying to make traveling on my birthday something of a tradition, following last year’s adventure to Bali. This year, I convinced a dear friend of mine who was also turning 26 this September to turn an occasion we were both lightly dreading into something celebratory. She’s based in New York, so I figured a perfect halfway point for us would be Mexico City (don’t question the geography too much.)

Mexico City has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years as a destination for world-class art, food and culture. I’d heard nothing but rave reviews from friends and coworkers who had been, and a short flight and an abundance of cheap, chic accommodations made it a no-brainer.

Upon telling anyone we were visiting Mexico City, we were completely inundated with recommendations for museums, restaurants, taco stands, markets and more. People have strong opinions about Mexico City, believe me. With a tight five days to pack everything in, we had to prioritize. That meant first thing first on our list was the Frida Kahlo Museum.

Before my visit, I’ll admit my knowledge of Frida Kahlo was confined to the top-line notes I was taught in art class, the bits and pieces I’ve learned as she’s been adopted as a feminist folk hero in recent years. The museum’s bright blue exterior has made it Instagram famous, too, drawing long of tourists, so you’ll want to buy your tickets online in advance. Once you arrive, you’ll also want to opt for the audio guide and the sticker that allows you to take photos inside the exhibits (I skipped this the first time through but was so enamored with the art that I went back through again after buying the pass.)

I’d heard complaints that the museum was overpriced, or overhyped, so my expectations were tempered at first – and then completely and utterly blown away. The museum is located in Coyoacán in south Mexico City, and the property is where Frida Kahlo was born, grew up, lived with her husband Diego Rivera, and, later, where she died. The grounds are eye poppingly lush, with emerald and orange birds of paradise, brightly colored pieces of Frida’s folk art, and, of course, the signature cobalt blue walls, which are so incredibly vivid that my iPhone had trouble capturing it.

The museum itself traces Frida’s life and career as an artist, from her training by her photographer father and bout of polio as a child that left her with one leg short than the other, to her tumultuous marriage(s) with Diego Rivera and the bus accident that left her unable to have the children she desperately wanted. In addition to photographs and portraits of Frida by the artist and her lovers, the museum showcases her most intimate journals and sketches, dioramas, furniture, iconic clothing and jewelry.

I found myself leaving in awe of Frida Kahlo’s innate talent, her strength in the fact of heartache and unimaginable physical pain, and her sheer will to survive.

Next up were the famed Teotihuacan pyramids, located about an hour outside of Mexico City in what was once a thriving Mesoamerican civilization. We Ubered (a whole 40 minute drive for about $4) to the Terminal Autobuses del Norte, and from there paid $6 or so for roundtrip fare to and from the pyramids – definitely the easiest and cheapest way to go. The bus ride takes about an hour, give or take traffic and pit stops to pick up food vendors and musicians (we got multiple mobile concerts for just a few pesos.)

Once you arrive, skip past the people hawking guided tours and strap on your walking shoes – seriously, there is a LOT of walking involved here – and head for The Ciudadela, which leads to the Temple of the Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoatl. Allow yourself plenty of time for Teotihuacan: the Avenue of the Dead, which runs the length of the Ciudadela, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, is about four kilometers long. The Pyramid of the Sun is a staggering 248 steps tall, and one of the largest pyramids in the western hemisphere. It also gets hot out on the Avenue of the Dead – there’s almost no shade – so bring plenty of water and cash to buy more.

I’ll be honest, we opted not to climb either of the taller pyramids, and I have zero regrets about it. I’m normally a pretty physically active traveler, but heat fatigue/dehydration is something I try not to tempt when I’m far from home. Instead, we made a reservation at La Gruta, a touristy but still jaw-dropping restaurant nestled inside a cave older than Christ (you don’t get to say that about most dining establishments!)

It’s super cute and colorful and I’ll be honest, the atmosphere is what you’re paying for. The food was decent, but pricey, and a healthier spin on traditional Mexican food. My friend and I, in a spurt of bravado, also decided to try tostadas with chapulines – yup, those would be grasshoppers! Since they’re a delicacy in Mexico, we expected them to be treated like a garnish, a light sprinkling on our guacamole-smothered tostadas. This was, however, absolutely not the case. Our tostadas were completely covered with chapulines – I’d estimated about a hundred in total – and it was quite the experience. I truly didn’t mind the taste, they’re most salty and tangy and crunchy, but the visual (I’ll spare you the details of what happens when you try to cut a grasshopper with a fork and knife) was definitely off-putting to the point that we eventually asked the waiter to take the dish away. But hey, we tried!

Okay, now onto much more palatable things. Mexico City is known for its tacos, mezcal, and churros, among other things. On any given day you can enjoy the best fish taco of your life for next to nothing from a street vendor, to a 5-star meal that takes three hours, several hundred dollars, and reservations months in advance at the famed Pujol. I loved the cocktails and food (though did have a strangely hard time finding pescatarian and vegetarian options, despite an extensive list of culinary recommendations,) but easily my favorite part of Mexico City’s food scene are the cafes. Each one is unique and idiosyncratic, usually a hole-in-the-wall establishment with bar seating only, the cafes offer strong coffee and to-die-for pastries (my friend made us revisit the same cafe, Panaderia Rosetta, multiple times for the pan dulce.) They’re also usually open until 8 or 10 pm, which really enabled my penchant for drinking coffee at all times of the day or night.

A few absolute favorites: Panadería Rosetta in Roma Norte, Café Nin in Juarez, and Café Avellaneda in Coyoacán. Oh, and you must try breakfast at Lalo and the churros at El Moro. La Nacional is also a stylish and cozy little spot for dinner and some of the best mezcal cocktails in town.

Mexico City is an absolute book-lovers’ paradise. There are quirky little bookstores on virtually every street corner, and Cafebrería El Péndulo, which is part-bookstore, part-cafe with multiple locations through the city, will make your jaw drop. Most of the books are in Spanish, but each location has an English section as well – and you could always pick up a kids book to start learning Spanish, too!

After visiting the La Ciudadela market in Centro to load up on souvenirs, walk over to the Biblioteca de México José Vasconcelos to experience the most stunning public library you’ve almost certainly ever seen. It’s a massive, completely free space that I would work and write from in a heartbeat, and it’s houses five luscious rooms filled with the private libraries of great Mexican writers and thinkers. We unfortunately visited near closing time, and I’m dying to go back and spend a day reading, writing and wandering here.

If museums are your thing, Mexico City has got that covered, too. The Museum of Anthropology is the largest museum in Mexico, spanning virtually the entirety of human existence in the country and documenting the history of Mexico’s seemingly infinite civilizations and ethnic groups, from the Aztecs to the Maya and the people of Oaxaca. The museum is overwhelmingly comprehensive, but easily my favorite part was all the incredible craftsmanship on display: pottery, paintings, intricate beading, woven rugs and baskets and blankets, intricate headdresses, jewelry made from gold and turquoise, seashells and coral, and so much more. It’s also home to the massive Aztec “Sun stone” – which, contrary to popular belief is not the Aztec calendar, but likely a platform once used for ritual sacrifice.

Also within the Bosque de Chapultepec, a massive forest that is twice the size of Central Park, is the Chapultepec Castle. Tucked away at the very top of the park, the castle has incredible, panoramic views of Mexico City, and costs less than $10 to enter. Construction began on the castle around 1785 as a summer home for a Spanish military leader, and was completed nearly a century later as a residence for Emperor Maximilan I and Empress Carlota. Since then, it’s housed most Mexican presidents, and was turned into a museum in 1939.

The style is neo-gothic, with winding staircases, checkerboard floors, opulent chandeliers, turrets, a gold-filigreed carriage and stunning stained glass windows. The grounds are massive and immaculate, and, fun fact, the castle was a filming location for the Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes version of Romeo + Juliet! I definitely felt like a princess here.

Even though I know I could spend months in Mexico City and still not see everything, it captured my heart in such a short amount of time. The food, coffee, literature, art, museums … there’s never a dull moment, eye-popping color around every corner, folklorico dancing and music floating out down every street. And the people, the people, were so friendly, welcoming and warm. I didn’t feel like a tourist or a stranger, I felt like a newcomer in one of the world’s most fascinating cities, and I can’t wait to return.

Springing Into The South

Some time around March of this year, I grew exceedingly tired of Los Angeles’ grueling winter weather (only partly joking here) and decided I needed to usher in spring as soon as possible. Having spent months reading travel books and blogs daydreaming about which far-off country I might visit next, my mind drifted to the bubblegum-pink cherry blossoms that bloom each April in Japan, drawing tens of thousands of tourists from around the globe to take in their splendor. I immediately logged on to frantically search last-minute flights (the only way I know how to travel, really,) but, predictably, they were prohibitively expensive just a month or so before the predicted peak bloom. Still, my mind was made up; I was going to see cherry blossoms, and while Japan would have to wait until another year, I took it as a sign to finally return to one of my favorite cities: Washington, DC.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetThe first — and last — time I’d visited DC, I was a freshman in college (already five years ago now!) I had visited a friend I met at a summer camp in South Carolina years before, who was from Richmond, Virginia (more on that city later,) and it was this same friend that I visited again. When I’d toured the city before, it had been in the middle of a predictably hot, muggy DC summer. This time, the weather was bitingly cold, verging on potential snow on certain days, and surprisingly windy, offering a very different experience of the city. The frigid temperatures and threat of snow made me fear for the fate of the cherry blossoms (the main attraction, after all!) but I arrived to find that we were very much in luck: the city was positively blooming. From the Capitol steps to the National Mall to the Tidal Basin and virtually as far as the eye could see there were cherry blossom trees puffed up like cotton candy, petals littering the ground like confetti, illuminated pink and gold by the setting sun. It was every bit as beautiful as I imagined Japan’s blooms to be, and DC’s trees were, after all, a gift from the Mayor of Tokyo a century ago. How fitting!

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

We visited about a week before the formal National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrations, but DC was still in full-on cherry blossom mode, from cherry blossoms on the Metro cards and t-shirts in gift shops to small cherry blossom stickers hidden on doors and lamp posts and various places throughout the city. We even happened to stumble upon a cherry blossom pop-up bar, which operates only while the trees are in bloom, and is actually adorned with cherry blossoms hanging from the ceiling, creating a completely magical secret garden atmosphere as you sip your Japanese (think matcha and gin) inspired cocktail beneath the warm glow of lanterns. While the temperatures were cold to frigid at virtually all times (I was bundled up in a long winter coat, scarf, beanie, etc.) visiting DC to see the cherry blossoms was an incredible experience, and somehow enamored me of the city even more than I had when I’d visited in the summer.

Though I’d already visited many of the monuments and museums most people flock to on visits to DC, there were a few things on my list still — namely, the Newseum. As a journalist, its appeal was initially more academic; I’ll take any opportunity I can to learn about the history of my career field. But the Newseum definitely offers an experience that can be enjoyed even by those who don’t consider themselves news junkies. The 9/11 exhibit, featuring a multi-story wall plastered with newspaper front pages from around the world the day after the attack, is harrowing, and the lower floor of the museum houses an actual portion of the Berlin Wall. As a true crime buff, I was particularly intrigued by the FBI exhibit, which featured the Unabomber’s cabin and other paraphernalia from other high-profile killings and terror attacks. Also not to be missed is the Pictures of the Year exhibit, featuring photos from 75 years of history, from WWII to Charlottesville and everything in between, an all-absorbing and a viscerally visual representation of history. Also worth a visit in the area is the US Botanic Garden, which offered a beautiful (and free!) respite from the cold and wind and felt like stepping into a lush tropical garden.

One of the reasons I’d initially fallen so hard for Washington, DC, in addition to the cleanliness, the parks and waterways, and the great food, was Georgetown. Not the university (though it’s also lovely,) but the neighborhood for which it’s named. Georgetown almost feels like a Disney-fied version of a college town: its main street is positively packed with every shop and restaurant you could ever possibly want — including numerous cupcake bakeries — and the neighborhoods are lined with rainbow-hued row homes and cobblestone streets. Its modern amenities (okay, namely designer stores) are drool-worthy, and its historic elements are delightfully charming (fancy a stroll across a wooden footbridge?) I was grateful to find that Georgetown was every bit as delightful as I remembered.

Untitled collage (2)Georgetown was our last stop in DC before making the two-hour drive south to Richmond, where the weather was thankfully much more pleasant. Like DC, I’d visited Richmond once, five years before, with my friend, and had fond memories of Virginia’s capitol. But I definitely underestimated just how much I’d enjoy the city upon my return. There are a lot of preconceived notions about the south, and many of them are based in facts, especially in Virginia, but Richmond is a far cry from what most people have in mind. I’d liken it more to cities like Portland or Austin: it’s decidedly young and aggressively hip, sprinkled with more vintage stores, tattoo shops, craft breweries and organic coffee roasters than one could possibly see in a single visit. There are also more traditional attractions like museums, a botanical garden, a zoo, and numerous historic markers designating outposts of the Revolutionary War and just about every other turning point in American history. One can’t-miss attraction for lovers of literature, horror or history (I happen to be all of the above) is the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. Though Poe did not live on the property where the museum is located, it is the oldest structure in the city, and Poe spent more of his life in Richmond than in any other city. The exhibits include letters to his lovers, first editions of his works, and speculation about his mysterious death, while the grounds are inhabited by two black cats and the gift shop is stocked with rather adorable plush Poes and other souvenirs.

Untitled collage (3)Richmond is very progressive, very diverse, and very cute. Carytown is its shopping and dining core: blocks upon blocks of gift shops, book stores, tattoo parlors, coffee shops, and restaurants boasting just about every type of cuisine imaginable. A few recommendations here include Chop Suey Books (home to the utterly adorable “blind date with a book” featured above,) and Mongrel, for any kind of souvenir or gift you could ever dream of. Food and drink was a huge component of my time in Richmond (as is the case with most of my travels,) so I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite recommendations: swing by Lamplighter Coffee Roasters for a strong latte to start your day, Mean Bird for a super satisfying vegetarian fried chicken sandwich, Proper Pie Co. for hearty sweet and savor pies, Sugar Shack for fluffy, fresh-baked donuts in eye-popping colors and mouth-watering flavors, Triple Crossing Beer for the Waxing Poetic Pink Guava sour beer (trust me on this one) and Charm School Social Club for unique ice cream flavors like Thai Iced Tea and lavender topped with a blow-torch roasted marshmallow.

Untitled collage (4)And one last tip for making the most of your Richmond visit: you can barely walk a block without spotting a gorgeous mural by a local artist, so you can be sure to find that perfect Instagram backdrop to commemorate your time in one of the most charming cities in the South.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetAll photos shot on iPhoneX and edited with VSCO Camera. All rights reserved.

 

LA Lately

September was a birthday and back-to-school month well-spent (with plenty of brunch) getting newly acquainted with undiscovered parts of LA. Or, at least, undiscovered by me. Before I had a car, most of my travels around Los Angeles involved specific destinations, always having an endpoint and game plan in mind. And before I was 21, it’s safe to say that most of what the City of Angels had to offer after-dark was off-limits, or at least not quite as fun.

Now that those dark days are behind me, and a new school year, and year of life, were just waiting to be celebrated, I was more than ready to finally see for myself some of the mythical LA landmarks and buzzed-about destinations I still hadn’t had the chance to get to, and to stumble upon a few hidden gems I’d never even heard of at all.

From brunch and books to high-art and my beloved LA street art, September was a cultured month to say the least. Here are a few of my favorite finds and sights from a city that is nothing if not interesting:

  • Between catching up with friends and loading up on carbs after a night of birthday festivities, brunch was a favorite September past time. The Larchmont Bungalow is a perennial favorite for both savory and sweet fare, as well as satisfyingly strong coffee and perfectly sour lemonade. Some new discoveries also included The Hart and the Hunter, an adorably, vintage-vibed restaurant hidden away in the Palihotel on Melrose, which I tracked down specifically for its fried green tomatoes (and where I spotted, and restrained myself from fan-girling over, Aziz Ansari out to brunch, as well.) I also paid a vist to BLD, where the smoked salmon eggs Benedict, homestyle potatoes and fresh coffee, delivered to the table with French Press and all, definitely hit the spot.
  • For my incessant sweet tooth, the decadent waffles, milkshakes and coffees at Syrup Desserts downtown (where USC students seem to hang out in droves but I’d somehow never been) were certainly a treat, though one which should definitely be indulged in sparingly. Other after-dinner detours included margaritas at the Yxta Cocina Mexicana (great food, too) and the rooftop bar at The Standard (pricey, but you may just make back the money you spend on a cover and drinks if some guy pays you $100 to give up your lounge chair.)
  • Another LA bucket list location that I’d had yet to visit was The Last Bookstore, a hipster-y, steampunk-y, book lover’s paradise, two entire floors chock full of books old and new, vintage vinyl records, and even art galleries. I didn’t buy anything because I, admittedly, don’t have much spare time to do recreational reading, and even more shamefully, when I do read, it’s typically an e-book. But the atmosphere was cozy and a bit quirky, and I’m sure if I’d had a little more time to poke around, I probably would’ve walked out with am armful of books, and probably from the Horror, Crime, Law & Weirdness section which especially caught my eye. Oh, and LACMA; that was a first this month, too: I’m more into street art than museum art, but I usually take in at least a museum or two in every city I visit, so I figured it was about time. And as an added bonus, LA residents (including students) get in for free!
  • I also had the chance to poke around a part of Downtown Los Angeles that is rapidly gentrifying, and in particular a tiny little street called Winston, tucked in between San Pedro and Main and spanning just two blocks, where a small little vintage shop with no signage out front, called More Thanne, is bringing a really cool new sense of style, and community, to the area. I wrote about it for Neon Tommy, and I had such a great time photographing the shop too; the shop has such a cool aesthetic!
  • Speaking of writing, I put together a few pieces for the inaugural issue of LA Downtowner, a new monthly circulation which aims to highlight the places, people and events which are revitalizing Downtown Los Angeles. The piece I wrote on the Historic LA Flower Market was featured in the September issue, and it was really cool to see my writing hanging around some of my favorite downtown spots like Urth Cafe, Bottega Louie and Ozero Tea and Desserts.

All in all, September was a memorable month full of good energy and new discoveries, and though autumn in Los Angeles doesn’t quite offer the same atmosphere as fall in the Pacific Northwest, even if the weather seems to stay the same, there’s always something new to discover in LA.

All photos taken with Samsung Galaxy Note 3.