Eurotrip Part 4: Rome

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Rome is simply put – beautiful. It stands proudly, overflowing with magnificence, and is yet, welcoming. It is grand, statuesque, yet approachable. The piazzas are numerous and expansive, the fountains and its statues elegant, yet practical, with churches dotting each street corner. The streets are filled with laughter and families, sweet nothings and couples, from the early morning markets, late into the night. Every corner is filled with activity and oh! so perfect for the romantic stroll and people watching. I fell in love with this city (it was my favorite) and hope to come back someday…

PIazza Navona

PIazza Navona

Rome is also known as the city of water, with fresh, clean water available from the majority of its fountains! This stems from the Roman empire, and their famous aqueduct system that started in 300 BC. Each faucet has a hole at the top, so that when the end is blocked, the visitor can have an easily accessible spout of water to drink from. IMG_2819

When in Rome, do as Romans do.

Thus, aside from exploring, my days were happily filled with daily doses of gelato, pasta, and pizza. IMG_3074IMG_3484IMG_3487 We arrived in Rome after a flight from Santorini, with an overnight layover in Athens, and were exhausted by the time we arrived. (Airport sleeping, not recommended.) Luckily, Legends hostel, where we stayed, was located right next to Termini Station (and conveniently close to a supermarket!) and was easy to get to. We stayed in the co-ed 6 bed dorm room with our own bathroom.  IMG_3488

Itinerary

Day 1

  • We first walked down Nationale and Via Del Corso (one of the main shopping streets), to reach Piazza Del Popolo. There was plenty of unique brands and great quality, street level, store front shopping at affordable prices.
  • We then walked down Del Babuino to the Spanish steps for a free walking tour, which was completely free (no tipping needed) and very informative! The sites we visited included: the Fountain de Trevi, the Pantheon (stunning!), Piazza Colonna/Parlimento, and the Galleria (which was the first non-Catholic shopping center). We then continued to walk around to eat at the oldest gelato place, and ended the evening with a stroll through Via Del Tritone and the Quattro Fontane, past Piazza Barberini.

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Spanish steps

Spanish steps

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Inside the Pantheon

Piazza IMG_3541 Day 2

  • Today was dedicated to visiting “Old Rome,” and seeing the Colosseum. We first explored the Palatine Hill (some fence jumping may or may not have occurred), through the Farnese gardens, into the Roman Forum, and past the Arch de Constantine, before entering the Colosseum. We skipped all the lines! (Please see the tip section on how to do so).  
  • It was interesting to contrast how this city integrated its ruins into its city, compared to Athens.
Entering Old Rome

Entering Old Rome

Arch de Constantine

Arch de Constantine

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Palatine Hill

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  • I also visited a few famous piazzas including: the Piazza Campo do Fiori, famous for its early morning market and food stands, Piazza Navona, famous for its art vendors and artists, and Piazza Cavour, which was so beautiful, I couldn’t help but tear up!

IMG_3096 Day 3

  • This was probably THE most memorable day of my trip. I had planned to go to Vatican city and visit St. Peters Basilica early in the morning – but little did I know that because it was a Wednesday, the Pope was present and was going to give a message! There was a huge line at the entrance, but luckily because I was among the wave of very early arrivals I was able to sit in the front section without being checked for a ticket! Later on, they began to check tickets for entering and/or going to the restroom which led to some agony on my end because I was not going to let go of my seat no matter how much I needed to go, haha. 
  • It was an amazing, unparalleled experience… I can’t even estimate how many thousands of people were present, and how excited the onlookers were! People traveled from all over the world for this pilgrimage, after all, this was the center of Catholicism, and yet – I was there! The Vatican itself is stunning… I was in awe the whole time.

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  • There were interpreters in every major language, including French, English, German (but no Chinese!). His Holiness focused on one of the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, on the importance of wisdom. We also received His Holiness’ blessing upon ourselves, children, family, especially with the upcoming Holy Week. 
  • I went to Vatican museum using a pre-booked ticket at 12 pm, and took two hours (this is without any guides) to the Sistine chapel. I then took the “secret” exit on the right to enter the Basilica, and climb its dome. (See tips section how to do so!) 
  • I then met up with L, and we winded down the evening in the residential Travastere.
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Vatican Gardens

IMG_3333 IMG_3418 IMG_3366IMG_3426 Day 4

  • I think 3 full days in Rome are enough to see all the sites. We were originally going to go to Tivoli, an idyllic city nearby, on our fourth day, but were unfortunately unable to make the trip due to unforeseen circumstances. Instead, we hung out with our newfound friends/hostel-mates and revisited my favorite piazzas.
  • The most touching scene was when I came across was a sweet old man carrying bags of cat food, and tenderly feeding all the city cats.

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Tips

  • Overnight layover in Athens airport: very common. We saw quite a few other travelers sleeping in the airport. There is a chapel area/prayer room that is good for sleeping outside the gates, as well as a few arm-rest-less benches inside the gate area. (A few latecomers slept on the floor.) You are only allowed to enter the gates for an early morning flight after 11 pm.
  • There are several transportation options from the FCO airport (in Rome) to the city’s central station (Termini Station). The cheapest option, and one I highly recommend, is the Terravision bus that costs 8 euros round trip. This can be bought in the airport, and has a variety of early morning buses departing from Termini as well. The alternate is the high speed rail, or Leonardo Express, which costs 15 euros ONE way, or 30 euros round trip (equiv to 40 usd.)
  • Take a free guided tour.
  • If you happen to come on a Sunday or Wednesday, you can also hear the pope speak by checking his schedule online and pre-ordering tickets.

Do not fall for any “skip-the-line” guided tours, when it is entirely possible to SKIP the line without paying extra!

  • To get to Colosseum without the wait, buy the ticket at the entrance to Palatine Hill/Roman Forum, which is nearby. The ticket will include access to all three sites! 
  • To get to St. Peters Basilica (and climb the steps) by bypassing the lines, enter through the Sistine Chapel which is the last stop in the Vatican Museums. Take the exit on the RIGHT when exiting the Sistine Chapel (it is supposed to be for tour groups but they rarely check) to enter Basilica! (The left is the individual exit and will lead you to the front entrance in which you came in from.) From there, you can immediately go up on the roof, before going inside. If you want to do the Vatican Museum and the Basilica separately, note that the entrances are on completely opposite sides of the Vatican and will take a 10-15 minute walk. Also, if you get an audio guide for the museum, note that you will have to return to the entrance to return the headset.
  • The only site I recommend online pre-booking for is the Vatican Museums, if you are planning to go on a weekend day or a Wednesday. (Most tourists will flock there after seeing the pope.) There is an online 4 euro surcharge. If not, a Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday afternoon visit should have a minimum wait time.

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Eurotrip Part 3: Santorini

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Ahhh, Santorini… the place the true vacation part of our journey began – a place we couldn’t help but slow down and catch the smell of roadside flowers, indulge in the taste of freshly caught seafood, take in the sights of gorgeous whitewashed villas and blue domed churches, and explore our way through the mountaintops.

IMG_2582We arrived here via ferry from Athens, Greece and stayed a total of 3 days. Despite the small island and town size, there was always something for us to do. This is the ultimate honeymoon destination spot, with its laid back atmosphere, beautiful views, and above all – world famous sunsets. (Mykonos, on the other hand, is another popular Greek land that is smaller – and more famous for its party atmosphere.) IMG_2347

I also have nothing but the best things to say about where we stayed in Santorini as well. It was seriously the bomb; people go out of their way to help and are incredibly nice.

For our first night, we stayed at San Gorgio Villas in our own room(!) with 2(!) beds (yep, slowly upgrading), located in Fira. Fira is where I would recommend most visitors to stay, especially if coming during low tourist season like us. (The other popular location, Oia, was almost empty during this time because most areas were still undergoing preparation/renovation.)

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Like most villas, San Gorgio Villas offered an airport and/or ferry drop off service; the owner, George, actually picked us up a little after midnight and let us first sleep until morning! Unfortunately, due to the ferry strike, we lost our reservation for the rest of the nights – however, George was an absolute lifesaver! 

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Pool at San Gorgio Villas

Even though we had cancelled our room on our end, George:

  1. helped us find an affordable villa right behind his place for the next two nights (with free breakfast!)
  2. invited us to come every morning to his hostel for free coffee & cake (how could I say no!)
  3. lowered our room price because of the inconvenience (even though we didn’t even ask him to)
  4. still drove us to the airport for free because our other villa didn’t provide that service. We even forgot our souvenir donkey photographs in his office, and after he dropped us off – he went back, noticed, came back INTO the airport, and handed us our pictures. Can you believe that? I was so moved.

So if you need a place to stay in Santorini that is very affordable, close to the main road, and clean – I highly recommend George with San Gorgio Villas! He made our visit.

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Itinerary

Day 1

  • We went on a half day excursion that included: climbing an “active” volcano and going into a hot spring. It was really fun, and I would recommend this tour. However, looks are deceiving and we found out the hard way that the water is still freezing in early April, and picks up during the summer.
  • To get to the boat departure area, you have to climb down a long set of stairs to the old port and watch out for donkey dung. (Alternatively there are cable cars and donkeys for 5 euros each.)

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  • We treated ourselves to an amazing mixed seafood meal right off the port! The usual cost is ~37-40 euros, but because they didn’t have all the fish as advertised, we got a steal at 25 euros! (And bread was free! Take that, Athens, haha.)

IMG_2482Day 2

  • In the morning, we hiked from Fira (in the middle of the island) to Oia (at the tip) in the morning. The hike is extremely scenic and usually takes the average hiker 3 hrs, but we took a whopping 4.5 hours because of our many detours on climbing everything, and of course, roof hopping, all in the name of pictures!
  • We ate a late lunch at Thalami in Oia, and I finally got to try moussaka (a famous Greek dish) and stuffed tomato peppers.
  • At night time, we went to check out the bar scene, which was their opening weekend (props to the planner right here, haha.) The way they get attendees is quite clever – they have really good looking guys and gals stand by the doorways and essentially flirt with the passerby, enticing them to come in. (Body shots may or may not have been suggested.) Don’t say you weren’t warned! The drinks are pricey even with the happy hour deals that run from 9PM-12AM (they are “buy one get one free” drinks at 8/9 euros apiece.)

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  • We attempted a hike up to the Monastery of Profitis Ilias, but got lost along the way. I would recommend bundling up for this hike because it goes to the highest point of Santorini and is very windy.
  • We decided to make one last run through of the town and down old port, and rode the donkeys up! I highly recommend this donkey ride… well worth the 5 euros. (Pictures are an additional 4 euros.)
  • Free healthcare is amazing. Throughout the day my piercing (from Athens) had begun getting more painful, swollen, and red, and we started getting worried about potential cellulitis. With thirty minutes to spare before we had to head to the airport, we ran to the pharmacy who told us to go to local clinic. They saw me in 5 minutes, and I had a prescription filled in 10! I couldn’t be more thankful, and can’t imagine what a different scenario it would have been had it happened in the US.

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Tips:

  • When selecting a hostel, look for one that provides free transportation from the port/airport.
  • The villas and restaurants facing the sea will be a lot more expensive than those facing the town because you are essentially “paying for the view.”
  • To get around Santorini, take the local buses. The schedules are posted at the bus stations and are easily accessible. They also only cost 1.6 euros per trip.

If you decide to go in early April like we did, note that it is still considered “winter” in Santorini and is off season:

  • There will be a lot of construction in Oia with closed restaurants/stores, with most of the action in Fira.
  • The sunset will be aligned above the volcano when seen in Fira and has not yet moved to Oia.
  • The buses have a shorter, more infrequent running schedules.
  • Most of the beaches are closed due to the cold, except for Kamari. We didn’t expect this one, which is why most of our stay involved hiking, which we still enjoyed!

Eurotrip Part 2: Athens

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Athens – what a world’s away from Istanbul! Where Istanbul was large, loud, and bustling, Athens was clean, quiet, and condensed. While we spent a total of 2 leisurely days here, one can also squeeze in all the major sites in one very full day.

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Temple of Zeus

That being said, Athens is magnificent. After all – it was the cradle of western civilization and birthplace of democracy, the legend origin of the Greek gods and goddesses, and the creator of sculptures so beautiful that the Romans sought to emulate them. And don’t even get me started on the architecture (and the stone pedestrian roads!)… I felt like every step we took, we would come across more ruins and ancient columns that were already so breath taking, I could only imagine what it had looked like in the time of creation.

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The Acropolis is of course, the one of the most stunning places in Athens and cannot be missed. I can’t even imagine how they created those temples on top of the mountain, how many people and years it must have taken…

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Temple of Athena NikeIMG_2170Odeon of Herodes AtticusIMG_2165The Parthenon

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We stayed in the Student and Traveler’s Inn, in the Plaka neighborhood, that was just a few blocks from the central Syntagma Square (easily accessible via metro, but also located approx. 40 minutes away from the airport). This hostel was an upgrade to a mixed 6 bed room! There was a very tight bathroom situation though; only 1 toliet/bath for 4 rooms of 6. Otherwise, the location was ideal because it was right next door to all the historical sites. Plaka definitely felt very touristic. We did not notice much of a nightlife in Athens.

IMG_2100We also arrived in the midst of a ferry strike, which meant that none of the ferries were operating to go to the Greek islands. (Strikes occur not infrequently in Greece.) We ended cancelling our Santorini hostel, and were worried we had to stay indefinitely in Athens. Luckily on our last day, the strike subsided and we were able to make it!

IMG_2070Funny story… while in the airport in Istanbul, we noticed two very good looking Greek guys (pictured above), who ended up sitting across the aisle from us! Instead of talking to them, we saw that they got special treatment from the flight attendants who sneaked them extra sandwiches, that we demanded double ourselves. Once we got off the flight – we find out that we sat next to two famous athletes from the Greek rowing team who had a large crowd waiting to greet them, including a reporter!! Whoops, our priorities obviously show that sandwiches > boys, lol.

Our itinerary

First day

  • In the afternoon, we walked up the mountain to see the Acropolis (this includes the Odeon of Pericles, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the temple of Athena Nike, and the Erechtheum). As we went back down, we stopped by the Ancient Agora as well as the accompanying free Agora museum.
  • If you are a student (supposedly under 26, but they didn’t check), make sure to bring your student ID! You get a 50% discount on the combination ticket that allows you to see 6 famous historical sites. You can get this at any of the sites.
  • In the evening, we walked through city to find a supermarket and had a mile walk back (got lost AND were carrying groceries). It was very quiet at night and  all shops were closed.

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Second day

  • We walked to the Temple of Zeus, walked all throughout Philopappos hill to the Philopappos monument, to the Pynx hill, the keirkanos burial site, Hadrians library, and the Roman Agora. (Essentially went to the rest of the tourist sites included on my ticket.)
  • Then we decided to visit the famous local shopping streets, including Emnou st and the Athens flea market. It was here I made a very silly decision to get a dirt-cheap piercing (kids, don’t do it!) which would lead to complications down the road at my next destination…
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Athens Flea Market

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Third day

  • On our last morning, we climbed up Mount Lycabettus (approx. 1.5 hours) which is actually the highest point of Athens, and provides a great view of the Acropolis. Then we went to Acropolis museum (small additional charge and can be competed in approx. 2 hours), and headed to the Piraeus port in the afternoon for our ferry to Santorini.
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View of Mount Lycabettus from the Acropolis

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During our climb up Mount Lycabettus

Tips:

  • Greece is extremely student friendly. Bring your student ID to not only get a 50% discount on the tourist sites (as mentioned above), but also on your metro ticket. 
  • When boarding the metro, make sure to validate your metro ticket at the yellow machine BEFORE boarding. While our tickets were never checked when we had to take the metro, it is still better to be safe than sorry. (The fine is 60 times the price of the ticket.) 
  • Food is expensive here. If you plan to eat in, there will be an additional 1 euro charge. Bread will also be charged. “Eat away” gyros are the cheapest item, at 2 euros apiece. Average Greek salad is 4+ Euros, sandwiches, 5. 
  • When boarding the Blue Star ferry from Pireus from Santorini, which is a 6.5 hour ride (this ferry is the cheapest option; there are more expensive options such as taking a cruise), it is important to go 2 hours in advance, in order to pickup ticket from the blue star ferries office at the port. Then you have to ride a public bus to the correct gate = and boarding closes 30 minutes before departure.
  • When booking ferry tickets: the cheapest, “economy” seating does not have assigned seats so you can arrive early and snag a lounge/cafe area seating, or sit in the upstairs “atrium” where you can see the view. However, the atrium is also the designated smoking area. Go early to snag a great side table (or else stuck with a lawn chair you can place where ever). However, we were able to snag “airplane” style (usually a higher price) that were empty to sleep in!
  • Last but not least, check the news before you arrive in Greece to stay updated on strikes!

Eurotrip Part 1: Istanbul

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Blue Mosque

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When I think of Istanbul, I think of a city that is alive. It is a city learning how to balance the ancient and powerful, with the new and modern… So much is changing, yet so much remains the same.

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It is a city with understated beauty and rare pockets of peace and quiet. A city teeming with streets of people, activity, and delicious street carts, teasing with their smells… and oh, the street side shopping! The Bazaars! The fish market! Amazing desserts, classic teas, grilled meats… So much to eat and try, so little time.

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Egyptian Obelisk on the Hippodrome

We stayed in the Orient Hostel (on the outside, a restaurant) in Sultanahmet, or Old City, right next to Hagia Sophia, which was a beautiful, center location. Since this was our first stop, we decided to save by staying in the 30 bed mixed dorm room (and would slowly upgrade our housing throughout our trip.) Luckily, aside from a couple elder gentlemen who would walk around with minimal clothing, the rest of the travelers were very pleasant. Earplugs, I soon learned, were a must!

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Breakfast was included daily: turkish tea (çay) and coffee, with yogurt, olives, eggs, museli and milk, and bread with rose jam and cheese. With all our walking, I would soon eat 2-3x this much.

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Our view while eating every morning

Our Itinerary 

First night

  • We walked along the tram to get a feel of the city nightlife, eating anything and everything delicious (ok, just me) along the way. All the stores selling Turkish baklava and delights have free samples, so don’t forget to get your hands on some, hehe.
  • Below is simit topped with nutella, my favorite daily post-meal snack.

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Second day

  • (AM) Visited the old city sights: Hagia Sofia, Topaki palace, Basilica cistern, Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar. All the above are absolutely worth seeing!! The Hagia Sophia was magnificent, the Topaki palace grand and rich (especially the treasury rooms), the cistern mysterious and eerie (with Medusa columns), the Mosque quiet and prayerful (make sure to have your head covered and shoes off!), and the covered Bazaar was bustling (it was unbelievable how many people could fit and were there!)  
  • (PM) Had dinner at Sultanahmet Köftecisi for their famous meatballs per friend recommendation. We then went to the Egyptian spice market, crossed the Galata bridge and explored the other side. The Grand bazaar sold more goods (jewelry, scarves, handbags) whereas the spice market sold more of the spices and desserts commonly found in Turkey. I highly recommend using the nighttime to explore – Istanbul is beautiful by night!

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Hagia Sophia

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Basilica Cistern… once stored water and is completely underground

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Endless Grand Bazaar

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Turkish meatballs

Third day

  • Walked back across the Galata bridge to see it during the day and had the famous fish and bread sandwich. Delicious!!
  • We then walked to the Galata tower and explored the neighboring very VERY hilly residential areas (with TONS of stairs.)
  • We then walked to the Bosphorus River at Kabatas station, up to Taksim square, and down Istikal caddesi, the famous shopping alley. (It was very modernized, with countless Starbucks and Mango, H&M, Topshop stores, mixed with local lines.) 
  • Today was supposed to be daylight savings day, but the whole nation pushed it back due to it coinciding with Election Day! Explains why after our walk through of Istikal caddesi, we began seeing armed police tanks and policemen everywhere – and jutted out of Taksim!

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Balik Ekmek

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Handstanding in Taksim Square

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Taksim Square

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Delicious dish that we later found out had raw meat…

Fourth day

  • We took the 20 min ferry on the Bosphorus River to Kadikoy, on the Asia side of turkey. This was the cheapest and quickest route, rather than taking a 20-30 euro Bosphorus “cruise” or the long state sponsored cruise line. This side definitely felt more authentic.
  • We concluded our stay with one last walk through of Old city… and were treated to two free apple teas (a MUST try, btw) at a really nice hotel. :)
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Beautiful shoreline on the Asia side

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A random art gallery we walked into that paid homage to the retina! Woohoo! =)

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We watched them make bread

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My favorite “doner” sandwiches! Ayran yogurt drinks… not so much.

Travel tips:

  • Be sure to get a visa online for $20 prior to arrival. The line to passport control was absolutely crazy… took us 2 hours of pushing and shoving to make it through.
  • From the airport, you can get to the city by taking the train and transferring ibto the tram. When taking public transport, get the Istanbulkart, a pre-loaded and reloadable metro card that can be used for multiple people, for transfers, and even on ferries, that is absolutely worth its value. (This is versus the traditional “token” system that requires 3L for every segment of the trip, including transfers.)
  • If you need a bathroom – American chain stores (McDonald’s, Burger King) are your best bet. Second choice are mosques, but you usually have to pay a lira.
  • Turkish people have profited from rich Japanese tourists, and will automatically raise prices for you. Additionally, if you are Asian – you will stand out and will be asked constantly: Japonase? Korean? Chinese? 
  • Be sure to go to both the European and Asian sides of Turkey if time allows! Old city is the most touristy part, but also the most active and fun. 
  • For my next visit, I would: try Hooka, eat at Ciya Sofrasi (a top rated restaurant on the Asia side I didn’t have enough lira for *tears*), drink pomegranate juice (I ate every other street cart food – chicken & chickpea rice, honey cake, honeyed churros, breads, corn, you name it… but forgot this last one!!) and buy a handbag.

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For Europe backpacking tips, please see my previous post here.

Travel Tips for Budget Backpacking through Europe

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In front of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens, Greece

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We did it!! For three weeks, my roommate and I backpacked through Europe for the very first time… we had lots of fun, survived some harrowing adventures, and have come back to tell the tales. :)

As a quick recap:

  • Armed with a backpack and map, we found our way to 5 cities in 4 countries, staying 2-5 days in each: Istanbul, Turkey to Athens, Greece, to Santorini, Greece, to Rome, Italy, and Barcelona, Spain. (For our full schedule, check my previous blog post.)
  • We took a total of 8 flights and 1 ferry, stayed in 4 hostels and 1 apartment, and were homeless for 1 night.
  • We met fellow travelers, had an friend join in on our travels, ate raw meat (on accident in a dish… but it was delicious), rode donkeys, lost our way down on a windy mountain top, experienced a medical emergency right before a flight, climbed a volcano, jumped into the freezing Aegean sea, and visited UNESCO world heritage sites and ruins beyond my wildest imagination.
  • Last but not least, with 20 out of 21 days of nice weather, we rarely took public transportation and walked/wandered an average of 8-10 hours a day, really learning the in’s and out’s of each city. On top of eating a lot (and I mean A LOT) of bread to stay within budget (Carrefour would soon become our first stop in any city), I also ended up losing 8 pounds.

Travel Tips

Book your flights using Google flights and Skyscanner to find the best deals. The former helps you map out the cheapest destination to fly to, while the latter figures out the cheapest dates to travel, so the combination is unbeatable.

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View from the top of Montjuic in Barcelona

Book your housing at least one month in advance.

  • If you are looking for places other than hostels, Airbnb is a great tool. It is similar to couchsurfing, and safer – except that you are renting someone’s place (from couch to an entire house) for a price cheaper than a hotel stay. If you travel with enough people, this may be an even cheaper option than a hostel, and will also give privacy. We used it for Barcelona when we had 3 people travelling together. To save $25 on your first rental, register using my link here: www.airbnb.com/c/jmao3.

Do not exchange money (if you can help it).

  • Instead, bring an ATM card and withdraw the local currency from the ATM of your destination. Your bank will charge a standard fee (usually a couple dollars), and the local bank will charge a commission fee (from 0-5%) on top of the exchange rate. However, this will be infinitely times cheaper than exchanging USD to the local currency at a counter or bank. (For example, my local bank would have charged me 10% extra for the exchange, on top of the exchange rate.)
  • Also, be sure to tell your bank and credit card companies that you will be travelling abroad, or they will block your transactions. It may be smart to bring multiple debit cards in case one gets lost/eaten by a machine. Credit cards may also be used in Europe, but be careful of extra transaction fees.

Packing Tips

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One on the left is mine, Right is L’s.

Pack LIGHT. It is possible to pack everything you need for 3 weeks into a standard sized book bag! (And this is coming from the girl who used to haul a gigantic suitcase with at least 5 pairs of shoes for a weekend trip.) I recommend bringing only carry-on bags so that you always have your belongings with you and nothing will get lost in transit. 

  • Pay attention to luggage limitations for budget airlines, such as Ryanair; while they rarely check closely, if your luggage goes over by weight and/or size, it costs an additional 50 euros (which is more than the flight itself!) 
  • Roll, instead of fold, all your clothing into separate packing bags for easy removal and separation. 

Bring your fancy camera. There are definitely a lot of pick-pocketers abroad, but the key is to be constantly aware of your surroundings and of your belongings. Do not let it hold you back from bringing your DSLR! Trust me, it is 100% worth it for the photos. I would recommend keeping it hidden in a handbag, and brought out only when needed. 

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Our first hostel in Istanbul – now multiply the beds by 30 in one room. Yep.

My packing list: You can definitely downsize the clothing on my list! I just valued having a variety of tops to wear, and had no need to shop for additional clothing during the trip. L, on the other hand, did the opposite, and bought new tops and replaced her old belongings (i.e. with new shoes, new book bag) as we traveled. We also did laundry halfway through our trip. There is NO need to purchase laundry soaps or lines to hang clothing; most hostels will provide laundry service at an additional cost. 

        • Tops: 3 tunics, 3 tanks, 2 t-shirts, 1 long sleeve shirt. All my tops could be layered, in case it got cold. Tunics are also my favorite versatile piece! They can be worn with leggings and accessorized to dress up the look, or casually with jeans. 
        • Bottoms: 2 pairs of jeans, 1 pair of leggings, 1 pair of shorts, 1 skirt, 1 summer dress. Remember to bring pieces you can wear when going out. 
        • Undergarments – bring as much as you need; after all, they take up minimal space. I brought 6 pairs of socks, 10 pairs of panties, 2 bras, 1 sports bra, 1 swim suit. I would bring more socks next time. 
        • Outerwear – does not take up bag space because it can be carried or worn: 1 fleece jacket, 1 pea coat, 1 thick furry coat (tossed as I approached warmer cities).
        • Shoes: 1 pair sneakers, 1 pair of dressy sandals, and 1 pair of flip flops for hostel showers (never go barefoot!)
        • Towel: no need to get those fancy “insta-dry” microfiber towels that are the size of your palm and cost a fortune! Just bring a standard hand towel; they are soft and dry quickly too.
        • Neck pillow: this was my life saver! I highly recommend bringing one on your trip for the long plane rides.
        • iPhone: This was my only other electronic other than my camera, which I brought for internet and iMessaging, eliminating the need for calling cards or pocket wifi.
        • +/- Money belt: I highly recommend it. I bought one for my passport/credit cards/back up money and wore it throughout my trip around my waist. It was barely noticeable and very comfortable. L didn’t bring one and kept her passports/credit cards in her pockets at all times, so it is up to your personal comfort level.
        • Detox teas: Sometimes with travelling, your digestive system may become altered. It’s great to bring either fiber tablets or detox teas that help you maintain your regular schedule!
        • Earplugs (+/- sleep mask): Life saver especially if you are staying in a hostel.

Budget Tips

Travelling does not have to be expensive!

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Hidden outdoor shopping gem found in Rome, Italy

  • I set an initial budget of $2000 for the entire trip (you can read more here on my previous post, here.)
  • Minus flights, this left approximately $1000 for room and board, sightseeing, and local transportation… and *drum roll* I spent $1017.10! Right on target. :)
  • Save on the small things so you can splurge on the big. This was my mantra throughout the trip. Because I saved money from housing/transportation/shopping, I was able to spend it on going to all the tourist sites and nice meals, which were more important to me.

Be wary of scammers. These were the ones I experienced:

  • Always count your change. Scenario 1: Sellers know how coins are foreign to travelers. After purchasing from a street cart, instead of getting 3 dollar coins back, I was handed 3 “coins,” 2 of which were 50 cent coins.
  • Scenario 2: After handing a guy a 20 for a 5 dollar snack in a large store, he begins to chat, asking me questions, writing his name on a business card, etc, while slowly closing the cashier drawer. He finishes talking and looks at me expectantly as if expecting me to leave. When I ask for my change – he pretends to look confused and asks me how much I paid.
  • Always, always haggle. The first price (even if it is written) is never the lowest price. Know what your limit is, and state a price even lower, with the aim to bargain to that price. Try to buy multiple items for an even lower price.
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A turkish street at night

Do research on how much things cost in each city, and plan accordingly. I wish I had done this!

  • Turkey ended up being by far our most affordable destination, with the dollar worth more than twice as much as the lira. However, not knowing any better, we saved the most in this city, spending only 25 lira our last two days! Had I known, I would have done a lot more shopping and eating here. They also had the most counterfeit items for sale.
  • Santorini was second cheapest, Rome-Barcelona were fairly equivalent, and Athens was by far the most expensive. Barcelona had very few street peddlers and almost no counterfeit items; housing was also the most expensive in Barcelona.

Walk whenever possible, and when traveling from the airport - always take public transportation!

  • You don’t see the locals taking taxis, yet they still make it to the city center. The key is figuring out which way they take – which usually is the convenient and inexpensive.
  • Often times, it is with the metro, but in Rome it was through a bus. (For example, taking the rapid train would have been 28 euros rt, whereas the bus was 8 euros… that’s 20 euros, or almost $40, saved!)

Shop at supermarkets and eat “take away”

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Our homemade Paella during cooking class

  • While there is no “tip,” be careful of the mysterious “service charge,” “water charge,” and “bread charge,” as well as special “traveler menus” that are different and more expensive than the menu for the locals at restaurants.
  • For example: in Athens, a typical “take away” pita would cost 2 euros. If you were to eat in a restaurant and order that same pita and get some bread and water to go with it – it will cost up to 7 euros (oh, and you didn’t say pita and they gave you shawarma? Make that 11 euros.)
  • For authentic food – you have to get lost in the city. Our favorites were tapas, way into the midst of the windy streets of Barcelona. The touristy spots will always have the most expensive, not-so-great tasting food.
  • Find a hostel that will provide breakfast! Most European places do, but some breakfasts may mean only a coffee and a croissant. My favorite was our hostel in Turkey which provided a full spread; little did I know it would be the last time I would have eggs again the entire trip…

Okay, so those are all the most important tips I could think of from the top of my head. I hope they were helpful! Please look forward to upcoming posts about each city I visited (where to stay, what to eat, see, and do)… Here is Part 1: Istanbul, Part 2: Athens, Part 3: Santorini, Part 4: Rome, and Part 5: Barcelona. =)

Engagement Shoot: H & J

IMG_1288What a dream couple! It was obvious from the moment they stood in front of the camera, just how much they adored each other.   aYou see, H & J’s love story is one of dedication and perseverance… proving that true love does overcome both distance and time.

IMG_1248H & J initially met in high school, dated despite going to different colleges, lasting through H’s move across country for medical school, before J finally landed in the same city… at last.

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I’ve known H ever since our first year of medical school. And to think how we once braved exams, rotations, and even interviews together, to find ourselves now matched into the same specialty!

IMG_1258Unlike me though, H knew from the beginning what she wanted and pursued it wholeheartedly, and it has been an absolute pleasure to see how she is accomplishing her dreams. :)IMG_1320

While I briefly met J first time, four years ago, I heard of him often. So imagine my joy when I found out that they had decided to get married!

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 They are giving themselves a little over two months for the wedding planning, which is going to be private and completely do-it-yourself.
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It may sound daunting to some, but, if anything, this couple proves to me that you don’t need the fancy proposal, the expensive ring, the silly dress – all you need is that commitment to be together, to love and to hold.

IMG_1343Thank you for allowing me to capture this piece of your story.
cIMG_1424May the coming years be just as beautiful.
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How to Score >250 on USMLE Step 2

I’ve written a previous advice post for how to survive third year of medical school, or the first clinical year, that has been well received. Please check it out here.

Please use this as a guide for your studying, and cater it to your own style!

I noticed that when I began to study for the USMLE Step 2, there was an absolute paucity of resources to be found online, especially when compared to Step 1. Everyone’s advice echoed with the same “just do what you did for Step 1, you’re guaranteed at least 10 points higher,” or worse, “it’s an easier exam, don’t worry about it and you’ll do fine.”

Then I realized: I was talking to the people who had done amazingly well on Step 1 and didn’t need to worry about their Step 2. You see, I was on the opposite end. I wasn’t aiming for a score similar to my step 1, I wanted a score at least 20 points higher. I wanted to be a competitive applicant, and while my step 1 may have opened the door, I needed my step 2 to lock it into place.

Thus, if you fall into a similar boat where you are trying to raise your step 2 score, within the allotted two weeks study time, then this post is for you.

I know, I hate numbers’ speak too! But I have to say this post would be especially helpful to those with sub 240 scores on their Step 1, especially in the 220-230+ range. If you are worried about your shelf scores – I also didn’t do too well on them, and may have had a star or two mixed in – so don’t let that stop you from aiming HIGH! For those of you who scored above 240 on Step 1, let me reassure you – you probably don’t need this post and will be fine. Your score reflects the fact that you know how to study, and if you apply those again – you will hit above 250. 

You do NOT need to take an extra vacation month to increase your score! 

My study plan focuses on first, relearning the necessary knowledge before the 2 weeks study period, and then using the 2 weeks to focus, memorize, and hammer in the details, rather than cramming both into 2 weeks.

I also focused primarily on studying medicine because it was important for me to perform one part (which is the majority of Step 2) extremely well, rather than all just mediocre.

Thus, if not already, purchase the Step 2 Q Bank (this will be your #1 resource) and start NOW with questions. I recommend tutor mode as well as beginning a notebook where you write down ALL incorrect question and answers.

Secondly, I recommend scheduling a lighter rotation (i.e. not surgery or ob-gyn if you can help it) during your last six week rotation. This is when you will hanker down on those Q bank questions as well as read your review books (listed below). Divide how many questions you have left by the days in your rotation (5-6 days/week), and that will determine how many questions  you have to complete every night.

QBank is your best friend. Complete it before the 2 weeks of “study-cation.”

My biggest mistake when studying for Step 1 was spreading myself too thin. I owned and read every review book, front to back, but in doing so, I missed the most important part: application. Thus, our goal for step 2 is to complete the q bank before the “actual” study time – that way during your two weeks: 1) you will re-do ALL your incorrect questions (it is imperative you do this… I had around 500 to go through, so you are not alone!), and 2) you will have a chance to repeat the Q bank on random.

Less is more: Read Step up to Medicine and USMLE Step 2: Secrets.

If I had to select one book to recommend, it would be Step up to Medicine. I had taken medicine as my first rotation in third year, and forgotten mostly everything by the end, and used this to refresh my knowledge. Attempt to read and understand 0.5-1 chapter(s) a night during your last block with goal of completion before your two weeks study period.

I also really liked Step 2: Secrets. It’s written in an easy to read question and answer format and can be alternated with Step up to Medicine reading.

Additional books: First aid for Psych is hands down, the best review book for psych. Very quick and easy read, probably in less than a day if you focus on key sections, and will help a lot with the q bank questions.

Books I didn’t like: Master the boards for Step 2 – I heard high recommendations for this book, and have to say I was disappointed because it was more basic than I had expected. I could see one using this as a way to ease back into studying. However, on the plus side – it is also very quick read! I was able to read a few sections a couple nights before my exam to brush up on my ob & surgery knowledge. I am also selling mine for $15 – contact me if you want it! (sold!)

Purchase and take the sample exam 1-2 weeks before your exam date (no closer).

Use this as motivation. I took mine perhaps 10 days before my exam, and scored more than 10 points lower than my desired score. So while your score may be discouraging, try to think: every week is worth a 10 point increase, and work towards it!

Take a break the day before your exam.

Honestly, you deserve it. Enjoy your last day off before your exam, and go rock it! You’re almost done!

Last but not least, schedule for Step 2 CS as early as you can get it. You will not regret it because it feels AMAZING to not have to study for anything at all during fourth year! The CS section will only require brief reading of First aid to Step 2 CS that can be done a day or two before. (The testing center will also provide lunch which was probably the only added bonus. If you are the AM section, you will also finish around 3-4pm which is another plus.)

TL;DR:

1) Before the 2 weeks: Finish questions on Qbank and reading Step up to Medicine (and Secrets).

2) During the 2 weeks: Take a practice exam. Re-do all incorrect questions on Qbank. Re-read Step up to Medicine/Secrets. Brush up on the other specialties by at least re-reading Pestana for surgery, etc.

3) Enjoy 4th year! It will be tough initially with applications and interviews, but you can do it! Celebrate by planning an away rotation, or even a Euro-trip. ;)