four days in lisbon

Day 1

Fly in from London at 6:00 a.m.  Once in your seat, learn your flight has been delayed an hour.  Sleep on your husband’s shoulder.  Your neck hurts, but it’s 6:00 a.m. and the coffee service is a long way off.

Land in Lisbon much later than you would have liked.  Find the taxi line, to learn they nearly all take cash.  Try to take out cash from three ATM machines in the airport lobby.  Denied.  Denied.  Denied.  Ask the lady at the newsstand in French — the only language you both understand — where you can find a working ATM.  Go up three floors and emerge in a room containing nothing but an ATM.  Check your six.  Rush back downstairs, fists full of euros.

Take the thankfully quick ride down wide avenues and steep curves into Baixa.  The driver drops you off two blocks from your hotel, explaining in swishy syllables that it would take 5 more minutes to drive there on these narrow, one-way streets.  Walk.  Admire the black and white cobblestones beneath your already-weary feet.

Check in.  The receptionist walks you through a map of Lisbon.  Memorize the names of two tram lines, a couple of sights, and the neighborhood with the bars.  Wash up, change clothes, and beeline for the nearest tipple.

But the sun will set soon — the winter solstice was mere days ago — so take a detour in the waning light to snap some photos of at the Arco da Rua Augusta on Praca do Comercio.  Walk along the water and squint to admire the 25th April Bridge and Christ the Redeemer.  (You didn’t realize Lisbon had one, too.)  Wonder if this is what San Francisco would look like if it had been settled by Catholics.

Cut left and have a drink and some appetizers at Populi, because your hotel gave you coupons and it’s happy hour.  Go in with healthy skepticism, but leave full (codfish cakes) and buzzed (caipirinhas).

Head back to the hotel to scope out dinner options.  When it comes to the nightlife, you’ve heard that Bairro Alto is the neighborhood to beat.  And it’s just a stone’s throw from your hotel.  You worry for a moment, because you’ve also read the streets are very steep.  Then  you remember that you are from San Francisco (settled by drunken sailors), and you walk.

It’s steep.  But nothing comes close to Taylor Street.

Bask in buttery prawns, tangy sardines, and beautiful service at Petisco’s.  Order a bottle of vinho verde for a stunning 14 euros.  Realize this may be heaven in a glass, and panic that you may never find it again when you get back home.  (You will.)

Wander down the narrow, cobblestoned street, only to be pulled in just a few doors down by a thumping Brazilian band.  Drink 6-euro caipirinhas out of plastic cups that could be classified as buckets.  Breathe in cubic pounds of secondhand smoke, and consider your dry cleaning bill, but not the hospital one.  Dance with a middle-aged woman and her niece and nephew.  Grin, stumble downhill, and pass out.

Day 2

Wake up late.  This is a vacation, after all.  You deserve this.  (You couldn’t move if you wanted to, anyway.)

Decide to use your half-day to explore Belém.  It only has a couple sights, anyway, and it’s just a few miles down the road.  The receptionist had mentioned a tram, but you’re lazy and cabs are cheap.

Eleven euros later, wander up to the Torre de Belém.  You can say with confidence that you have never seen anything like this before.  That doesn’t mean you want to stand in the unmoving line to go inside, but it really is something of beauty.  Snap some photos, and dash off in search of coffee and anything but codfish.

Struggle to find any eatery along the waterfront that isn’t a cash-only café, an Italian diner, or a high-end restaurant.  Give up and settle on something that looks unassuming, but ends up being slow, expensive, and flavorless.  Kick yourself for not eating in Baixa before you left.

Barely sated, dash over to the Jerónimos Monastery before it closes.  Pop in and admire the ornamental stonework.  Check out Vasco de Gama’s tomb.  Try to remember exactly which one Vasco da Gama was.

Exit left and notice a charming street lined with shops and restaurants.  Kick yourself for not eating here.

Spot a very long line outside a restaurant.  The awning says Pastéis de Belém.  You remember your Portuguese friend saying you simply must try a traditional pastry – the Pastel de Nata – at Pastéis de Belém.  You eye the line with fear in your heart, but decide you have nothing better to do, and you’re still hungry, anyway.  Walk out ten minutes later and a few euros poorer holding two tiny, hot, melt-in-your-mouth pastries.  They are like creme brûlée cradled in a cup of filo.  Hail a cab, and savor them all the way back to Baixa.  (Yes, you’re eating in a car in Europe.  They’ll survive.)

You’re getting up early the next day, so skip the nightlife for a relaxed bottle of vinho verde with a view on the rooftop of the Bairro Alto Hotel.  Ponder your good fortune, and note that the secondhand smoke isn’t so bad in the open air.

Day 3

Wake up bright and early — yes, you, truly — and walk to Rossio train station.  Head up the escalators to the train platform.  Try to work the ticket machine.  Give up and go to the ticket agent.  Ask nicely for two round-trip tickets (~9 euros) to Sintra.

Tuck back downstairs for a coffee and a croissant.  (God forbid you make the same hunger-induced mistakes as yesterday.)  Board your train relatively full and relatively awake, and settle in for the 45 minute ride.

Disembark at Sintra station.  You know you need to catch the 434 tourist bus, which will take you up the winding hills to Sintra’s bevy of whimsical castles.  But you aren’t sure whether you catch it at the station or in the town.  You decide to walk into the town.

You should have caught it at the train station.  But the walk is nice, anyway.

Admire the perfectly quaint “historic town” and the whitewashed walls of the Royal Palace.  Get in line for the 434 at the foot of the palace. Within five minutes you’re paying the driver your 5 euros (cash) for the round-the-horn bus ride to the Moorish Castle, the Pena Palace, and back to the train station.

Hold on very tightly to your husband as the bus takes impossibly tight corners up extremely steep hills, and thank all the Catholic saints that you did not walk to the castles of Sintra.

Exit the bus at the first stop, the Moorish Castle.  It’s drizzly, but you don’t mind — there couldn’t be a better backdrop for a castle that looks drawn straight from a medieval fairy tale.  Think to yourself (actually, out loud, to your very understanding husband) that you feel like you’re Robin Hood.  Wait to feel embarrassed.  He enthusiastically agrees with you.  Renew your wedding vows (in your head this time).

Buy your ticket.  You get a discount for buying them in bundles, so get one for the Pena Palace, too.  Hike the half-mile up the hill and pop into the ancient church.  Trek further up the path until you reach the ramparts, jutting up from the earth against a blinding grey sky.  Scramble up the stone steps.  Look out at the ocean.  Walk along the edge of the world.

(Try not to get blown off.)

Take a thousand photos you wish had turned out better.  Wonder to yourself (actually, out loud) if you should have come yesterday, when it was sunny.

But decide that, no, you’d rather be Robin Hood.

Catch the 434 again toward Pena Palace.  Hop off when you spot a castle that looks like it’s been colored in by an entire kindergarten class.

Tour the outside.  Pretend you are a princess.  Tour the inside.  Take in the Sweet Life of Portugal, 1908.  (Sweet except for the assassination bit.)  Decide eventually that you are quite windblown and very tired.  Hop back on the bus, and exit at the historic town in search of warm sustenance.  Enjoy a hot meal and a large beer, with a heaping side of admiration from the waiter at the size of beer you ordered.  Tell him, “Thank you, I went to college.”  (Actually, you said that part in your head.)

When you get back to the hotel, take a hot shower and a quick nap.  You wake up famished, and your husband reminds you that he wants to eat piri-piri chicken while in Lisbon.  Follow your Yelp to Restaurante Bonjardim.  It looks empty, and the atmosphere is lacking.  For a moment, you question your decision.  But you are hungry!  And you’ve made a commitment.

The chicken is quite possibly the best you have ever tasted.

On your way back, tuck into a ginjinha to try ginja, a Portuguese cherry liqueur.  Have one shot.  It is delightful, and it is enough.

Buttressed by chicken, ginja, and your afternoon nap, hike back to Bairro Alto.  You have heard about fado, a traditional type of Portuguese music.  You’ve read that Tasca do Chico is the best spot for fado in Bairro Alto.  When you arrive, it is packed.  Flattened against the back door, you stay for one lovely song, and then promptly duck out.

Pop into a lively bar, full of singing patrons, for the night’s obligatory caipirinha.  You sing and dance along, but soon crave something more.  Scramble up the cobblestones until you hear a live guitar.  Find a stool at the bar — your sweet husband stands behind you — and grin at the guitarist as he works through all the greatest hits since 1975.  Sing alongside him, at the top of your lungs, until closing time.

The guitarist is Angolan.  Befriend him as the bar is closing.  He asks you to wait for him outside.  Wait.  Follow him and his friends all the way down the hill.  Speak Spanish — the only language you all understand — with his groupies.  End up at an 80s club near the water.  Sometime around 4:00 a.m., resign yourself to sleep.

Day 4

Sleep in.  This is a vacation, after all.

There is only one major sight left in Lisbon that you want to see.  You’ve been looking at it out your hotel window for days now, and you’d better finally go up there before it’s too late.  But grab a quick hamburger first, to be safe.  (You never want to see a codfish again.)

You’ve heard you should take the tram, because it’s a very steep walk.  But the line at the tram stop is more than a block long, and the tram is tiny.  Think perhaps you could take a cab.  Decide that you are from San Francisco, and you’ll walk.  It’s a beautiful day, anyway.  (Maybe you should have gone to Sintra.)

Shed coats, scarves, and sweaters as you ascend the bluff toward São Jorge Castle.  (It could give Taylor Street a run for its money.)

At the top of the hill, eye the line — many people wide and half a city block long — with fear in your heart.  Decide that you and your husband can take turns between standing in line and touring the nearby souvenir shops.  The line moves so fast, you’re the only one who gets a turn shopping.

Enter the grounds and beeline to the outer wall to see the view.  You have around an hour before the sun starts to set, so you dash into the castle.

Walk along the edge of the world.  The sun is hot, and the views are endless.  You don’t almost blow off this time.

As the light begins to wane, it’s time to get moving.  You have a plan — you always have a plan — to sip vinho verde on the walls of a moorish castle and watch the sun set behind Lisbon.

Find a table at the museum restaurant.  It’s not exactly on the edge of the wall.  Feel unsure about it.  Then eye a wine cart a stone’s throw away.  Tell your husband, “I’ll be right back!” and run — yes, really, run, in Europe — across the giant cobblestones to the cart.  You have exactly enough euros left to buy a bottle of vinho verde.  And you spot seats carved into the outer stone walls — seats on the edge! — from which you can watch the sunset.

Dash back to your very patient husband.  He takes the cash, and you claim an alcove.

Twist open the cap on the squat, clear bottle, and watch the bubbles begin to rise.  Through the liquid, cast amber by the setting sun, you see Lisbon.  It is a time capsule, a city of ancient kings and explorers, beautifully preserved in centuries of history. And yet it is also unashamedly alive, refusing to cower in the face of present-day adversity.

Pour the dry, refreshing grape into the plastic champagne glasses.  As the last rays of the sun disappear behind a red bridge, a thousand red-tile roofs, a giant Jesus, and the razor edge of the Atlantic, raise a toast to Lisbon.

Descend through the darkness back to Baixa, and back up again to Bairro Alto.  Duck into the charming Lisboa Cheia de Graça for one last sumptuous meal.  Smile at your husband across the tiny table crafted from wooden wine boxes.  Sign yet another 45-euro bill in disbelief, having just gorged yourself on a fabulous meal, plus a bottle of wine.

Stumble back down the black-and-white cobblestones.  Pass a live band in a twinkle-lit square.  Take your husband’s hand — it really is quite steep.  And ponder your good fortune.

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must-read: stop asking me how i afford to travel | gloria atanmo

Gloria Atanmo

I am very fortunate.  I’ve spent years of my life in countries that are not the United States.  I’ve gone abroad for work, for education, for leisure, and for love.

Of course, especially when I was younger, I had financial help for many of my adventures.  (Thank you family, godparents, and friends!)  But when people ask me questions like, “You’re going to Europe again?  How can you afford this?” — especially equally privileged people — I want to smack my forehead.

My friend gets the same question a lot (#besties), and when she read this great piece from Gloria Atanmo, she sent it to me immediately.  (My friends just get me.)

Gloria gets me, too.  She gets that travel doesn’t have to break the bank.  She gets that if you are flexible, and you do your research, and you make travel a priority (financially and otherwise), and especially if you can find a way to study or work abroad, you’d be surprised how very far you can go.

Jet set life on a backpacker budget?  Heck yes, it’s possible.  Happy trails!

Read Gloria’s Huffington Post article here, and find her blog here: TheBlogAbroad.

se habla español

Sagrada Familia

I love foreign languages.  The new sounds, the different expressions of the hands and face, the values and experiences that lie behind each word and phrase and idiom…languages are endlessly interesting.

They can also be endlessly frustrating.  They are so hard to learn, especially the way we learn them in school.  I studied French for nearly ten years, grew up with it here and there in the home, and have spent a significant amount of time in France.  But, sadly, I can’t say I am fluent.

Despite all that, the beauty and mystery of foreign languages are undeniable.  They’re part of why I went to France in the first place, where I met my cute husband.  And they’re part of why I fell in love with him.  Because while I can “speak French,” he can really speak Spanish.  (Ay, amor.)

For years, I’ve been slowly trying to improve my Spanish.  I want to be able to be closer to my husband’s family, near and far.  I want to be able to speak Spanish in our home, with our future children.  And, selfishly, I want to finally master a foreign language.

So far I’ve taken a semester of Spanish in college; I’ve played around with fun apps like DuoLingo; I’ve been lucky enough to travel to places like Spain, Panama, and the Dominican Republic; and of course I’ve practiced with my husband and his family.  And I’ve learned a lot.  But deep down, I’ve always known that the only way this is going to work is through full, long term immersion.

I’ve often bugged my husband to speak Spanish with me more at home, but we’ve never committed.  But last week, I watched this excellent TED Talk, and I knew it was time to finally pull the trigger.

And so, friends, the hubs and I have commenced full, intense, frustrating Spanish immersion!  In our home, out shopping, in our texts…it’s been hard, hilarious, and too much fun.  It’s only been a couple of days but I can already feel myself picking up on the little things you usually don’t learn until later years of study, such as the different tenses, and things you may never really learn, like slang, intonation, and delivery.  I’m having a fabulous time, and my husband is being wonderfully patient.  (I think he secretly gets a kick out of seeing me struggle with words!)  We both know that in the end, it will be worth it.

Deséame suerte!  Besos!

layover in istanbul, anyone?

If you’ve ever flown Turkish Airlines (or even looked at flights on Turkish Airlines), you’ll know that every.single.flight. seems to stop through Istanbul.  Which is great if you’re traveling to Istanbul, or from Europe to the Middle East.  But New York to London?  Get ready for a layover about 2,000 miles out of your way, and often about 8 hours long.

That doesn’t seem very convenient (and it isn’t), but Turkish Airlines offers some of the cheapest international flights out there.  So for those who’ve never been to Istanbul (or even for those of us who have), the idea’s always been a bit tempting.

Well, friends, the business geniuses at TourIstanbul have made that endless, faraway layover, just perhaps, worth our while.  TourIstanbul is now offering free tours of Istanbul for anyone who flies through Ataturk Airport on Turkish Airlines and has a layover of more than 6 hours.

TourIstanbul

They pick you up at the airport, take you to top sites and restaurants, and drop you back off in time for your next flight.

Istanbul Map

GENUISES, I TELL YOU.

I can’t vouch for the quality of the tours, and I’m certainly not being paid to talk about any of this. (I’m not that cool.) But this seems like a pretty fantastic idea for any traveler who’s looking to check a new international destination off their list, or who longs to return to this enchanting, ancient city.

Istanbul Blue Mosque

Bon voyage!

a perfect paris evening in 8 easy steps

Montmartre
  1. An hour before sunset, exit the Métro at Pigalle station.
  2. Find the Monop‘ (Monoprix supermarket’s mini-me) on Place Pigalle.
  3. Load up:
    • one+ twist-off bottle of red wine (if you came prepared with a corkscrew…we should be friends)
    • une baguette
    • prosciutto
    • the stinkiest cheese
    • plastic cups, because this is Paris and you aren’t an animal
  4. Climb the steps toward Sacré Coeur, but don’t look behind you until you get to the very top.
  5. Okay…now…look behind you.
  6. qui ne pleure pas, ne voit pas.
  7. Pop into Sacré-Cœur.   It’s free.  They say ‘no photographs,’ but life is short and everyone is doing it.
  8. Walk back out and sit on the steps with your picnic.  Enjoy some of the best free music in Paris, with the entire city as your scenic backdrop. Sip your wine, eat your stinky cheese, enjoy (and join in!) the locals’ conversations, and savor la belle vie as the sun sets over the City of Light.

Sacre Coeur

 

Repeat, early and often.

travel guide: edinburgh, scotland

Royal Mile

When the hubs and I were studying in London, we were lucky enough to take advantage of the long school breaks to travel the UK, Europe, and further afield — destinations we may not have been able to visit for a very long time if they hadn’t been so cheap and convenient from Heathrow or King’s Cross.  Edinburgh was one such place.

Edinburgh

So, a few days before Christmas, as the sun set (around 2 p.m.), we climbed aboard our train on Platform 9 3/4 (only joking) and set off from London to spend a few lovely days in Edinburgh, Scotland.  And we can’t wait to go back.

when to go
Late summer is the “warmest” time to visit Scotland (bonus — you’re so far north, the sun stays “out” forever.  Notice my liberal use of quotation marks.).  However, if you’re willing to brave the cold, Hogamanay (New Years) in Edinburgh is a party not to be missed.

where to stay
Find a hotel within walking distance of The Royal Mile.  This is “main drag” of historic Edinburgh, a steep street lined with shops, pubs, churches, closes, and wynds that starts at Holyrood Palace and ends at its peak in the imposing Edinburgh Castle.  We were able to stay about a ten minute walk from the thick of it for pretty cheap.Edinburgh castle

what to eat … and drink
If this isn’t what you came to Edinburgh for, it may be why you stay.  Here are the three things that matter most:

bangers, black pudding, haggis, and neeps & tatties at The Albanach
  1. Scotch
    • Scotch is God’s gift to very cold people, aka the Scots.  Basically, scotch is smoky whisky.  It’s like that because the malt is cooked using peat, a very smoky fuel.  If you’re like me, you love the “peaty” stuff — the really smoky scotch, a lot of which comes from Islay, off Scotland’s west coast.  Even if you aren’t the biggest whisky fan, you must try a wee dram on any visit to Edinburgh.  See “what to do” below for more tips on exploring Edinburgh’s scotch scene.
  2. Haggis
    • When you hear “haggis,” you probably assume it’s something gross.  On paper, you aren’t wrong.  But in reality, haggis — if it’s done right — is flavorful, comforting, and (like scotch) absolutely necessary to survive the damp cold of Scotland.  It’s usually served with neeps and tatties, but don’t be scared — that just means mashed turnips and potatoes.  The best haggis we ate was at The Albanach, a lovely pub on the Royal Mile.
  3. Black Pudding
    • Like haggis, you might not want to try black pudding if you Google what’s inside it — but that would be a terrible mistake.  Black pudding is salty, crunchy, creamy, and carb-y all at once, and I could eat it every day.  We had delicious black pudding at The Albanach as well, but most pubs do it pretty well.  You can also find white pudding here and there, sometimes served in a traditional full breakfast.

what to do

  • Walk the Royal Mile.  Get lost (but don’t slip!) in its closes and wynds.  Pop into its pubs for a dram or a pint.  Stop into a shop for a wooly sweater — you’ll need it.  Pretend you’re living in medieval times, or in Outlander, or in Hogsmeade!

    close Edinburgh
    one of Edinburgh’s steep closes off the Royal Mile
  • Visit Edinburgh Castle.  It’s a massive fortress of a place, and incredibly well preserved.  If you skip every other site in Edinburgh, at least walk the castle grounds, where you can get a full view the city.  Your ticket inside the castle includes access to multiple exhibits, including the Scottish crown jewels and the national war memorial.
  • Wet your whistle at The Scotch Whisky Experience, a fabulous tour and tasting destination near the tip-top of the Royal Mile.  Your ticket includes a Disney-like ride that shows you how scotch is made; a smell-and-taste testing lesson to help you choose your region of choice (each of Scotland’s five scotch-making regions turn out slightly different flavors); a tour of the world’s largest scotch collection; and a free dram at the end of your journey.  When you’re done and feeling like a scotch expert, head down the road to Royal Mile Whiskies to taste test some more and buy a bottle or two to bring home.  (Or drink in your hotel.)
    The Scotch Whisky Experience
  • Grab some fresh air on Calton Hill.  Clamber up the stairs off Princes Street to check out this sprawling park, littered with multiple monuments and surrounded on all sides by fabulous views of the city, the sea, and the Salisbury Crags.  Calton Hill
  • Go shopping!  For modern shops, take a stroll down Princes Street in the New Town, Edinburgh’s city center.  For souvenirs and traditional fare, the Royal Mile and surrounding streets in Old Town are lined with shops selling tartan, kilts, wool sweaters, scotch, shortbread, bagpipes, and everything else that screams “Scotland.”  Tartan scarves for the whole clan!
  • When you’re tired of sightseeing, grab a warming pint at the Halfway House, Edinburgh’s tiniest pub located down the treacherously steep Fleshmarket (yes, flesh market) Close.  If it’s late and quiet, the barkeep may even let you come behind the bar and pull your own pint.Halfway House

Edinburgh may be freezing, but its delightful people, hearty food, smoky drink, and timeless charm will keep you cozy and warm.

(But wear lots of wool. Just to be safe.)

Slàinte! (Cheers!)
scotch

outlander… & travel guide preview

I’m a few chapters into Voyager, the third book in Diana Gabaldon‘s fabulous “Big, Fat Historical Fiction” series, Outlander.

You may have read the books or seen the TV adaptation on Starz, or maybe you’ve never heard of any of it.  I hadn’t until about a year ago, when I finally took the advice of a good friend and world-class bookworm to start reading this series immediately.

when you finish the first book, you can watch these beautiful people on the show. win-win!
when you finish the book (because I know you read the book first, right?), you can watch these beautiful people on the show. win-win!

Thank goodness I listened.  I am a huge fan of historical fiction (I studied history in grad school, after all) and can’t get enough of adventurous, romantic books set in the past, from Atonement to my childhood favorite, Catherine, Called Birdy.  I instantly fell for Gabaldon’s fantastic writing and interesting characters, and devoured the (quite hefty) book in days.

So if you’re a sucker for Scotland, strong female leads, or (in Gabaldon’s words) “history, warfare, medicine, sex [author’s note: lots of really excellent sex], violence, spirituality, honor, betrayal, vengeance, hope and despair…voyages of daring, journeys of both body and soul,” you simply must pick up Outlander this instant.

All this swashbuckling Scottishness has had me 1) sipping a little too much scotch while feverishly flipping pages and 2) missing Scotland quite terribly.  So stay tuned for a travel guide on the timeless, romantic, and incredibly freezing capital of Scotland: Edinburgh.
Edinburgh castle

(Seriously, Outlander is only $1.99 on Kindle.  Get on with it, will ye?)

travel guide: laguna beach, ca

Laguna

Every summer since I can remember, I have spent a week with my family in scenic Laguna Beach, California.  Some of my most treasured family memories — diving under waves with my brother, buying (too many) teeny bikinis with my mom, making late-night runs for gelato with my dad, barbecuing on a deck overlooking the Pacific with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends — are from those sunny weeks in this cozy beach community.

Laguna volleyball

Laguna Beach was a popular, if low-key, destination in Orange County long before MTV rolled into town.  It’s a long-standing artistic community; you’ll find dozens of galleries squeezed in between Laguna’s chic restaurants, bars, and boutiques.  And lucky for all of us, the show didn’t change Laguna one bit.  It probably never could.

So next time you’re in between Los Angeles and San Diego, hop on PCH (that’s the Pacific Coast Highway, for my East Coast friends) and take a pit stop in this well-preserved enclave of California love.

where to stay
Admittedly, my family always stays in my grandparents’ timeshare, right on the beach.  (I know.)  However, Laguna has many options if you’re looking to spend the night (or six).
Laguna sunset

  • splurge: Montage Laguna Beach or the Surf & Sand resort would suit the tastes of any Orange County housewife.  The Inn at Laguna Beach is my favorite — luxurious but not extravagant, with a location that is simply unbeatable.
  • save: There are many budget hotels within steps of the beach, including the well-kept Holiday Inn and the highly rated Tides Inn. 
  • crash: Get together with a group and rent a beach bungalow for a week.  Or see what’s available on airbnb.  Laguna’s lush, hilly neighborhoods pose countless options for an adorable and affordable home stay — you might even land an ocean view.

where to eat
Laguna is bursting at the seams with delicious restaurants, from trendy lounges and bistros to long-standing family establishments.  I could never do justice to them all, so here are some of my old favorites:

fish tacos

  • Taco Loco: Two words: fish tacos. Okay, so Taco Loco serves more types of tacos than that, but that’s all you really need to know. (Unless you also want me to add that they serve shrimp tacos. Dear Lord, Shrimp Tacos!) This no-frills sidewalk taqueria serves up delicious, fresh-grilled, SoCal style tacos and ice cold beer. Consume these items in the hot sunshine and forget that you ever have to go back to work.
  • Madison Square Garden & Café: This charming restaurant, housed in an old craftsman bungalow, brings art and food together for a whimsical breakfast or lunchtime experience. Check out locally crafted garden décor while you munch on your juicy Great Burger, heavenly California Omelet, or sweet-tart German Apple Pancakes.
  • The Penguin Café: This hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon is a breakfast favorite of locals and tourists alike, and for good reason: their family recipes made with fresh ingredients don’t disappoint. They don’t take reservations, so I’d say “get there early”…but this place is so good, there’s always a line.  It’s worth the wait.
  • Zinc: This hip café and market is meat free, but its casual California fare will satisfy veggies and omnivores alike.  Live like a local and park on the patio with your mushroom asparagus frittata, matcha green tea latte, and latest find from the OC Public Library.
  • Salerno: Formally known as “Polina’s Salerno,” this delightful restaurant has been a Laguna institution for forty years. The inviting décor, including a ceiling dancing with strips of wood painted red, white, and green, tells Salerno’s guests exactly what they’re in for: a simple, homey, delicious Italian meal.
  • Gelato Paradiso: This tiny gelateria is nestled near the end of Peppertree Lane, a twinkle-lit arcade right off PCH.  Once you find it, I promise you’ll return again and again for their sumptuous flavors. (For me: one scoop nocciola, one scoop fragola!)

where to shop
When I shop in Laguna, I shop for three things, and three things only.
1. Bikinis.
2. Flimsy things to wear over bikinis.
3. Artsy jewelry. (Probably also to wear with aforementioned bikinis.)rings

The best shopping is along PCH and the narrow streets of downtown, especially Forest Avenue.  HobieQuicksilver, and  Diane’s Beachwear are beach bum staples, but don’t miss Laguna’s smaller boutiques for swimwear and street wear — Merrilee’s Swimwear is one of my favorites.  Jewelry can be found in countless boutiques and galleries around town.  Grab toe rings for your exposed piggies (and check out the ocean views!) at Shelby’s.

what to do
Other than the obvious — hint: it involves sun, sand, and surf — Laguna offers a couple of other cool activities, especially in summer.Laguna trolley

  • Galleries: Before MTV came to town, Laguna Beach was perhaps best known for its art.  You can’t miss the galleries when you visit — they’re everywhere!  Wyland is famous, but he is just one of many artists who’ve brought their talents to Laguna.
  • The Festival of Arts: This fantastic outdoor festival features many talented artists, but don’t miss the large (and breathtaking!) exhibit of local children’s art.
  • Pageant of the Masters: Every night during summer, the Festival of Arts presents “a ninety-minute stage show of ‘living pictures’ – incredibly faithful art re-creations of classical and contemporary works with real people posing to look exactly like their counterparts in the original pieces.”  This is a special, unique event — it’s even been parodied by Arrested Development — and should be on everyone’s Orange County bucket list.
  • Sawdust Festival: My family and I go to this arts and crafts festival every year.  We started going almost as a joke, but turns out we actually really love it.  This place is a safe bet for unique jewelry, great live music, and fun craft demos — absolutely do not miss the live glass blowing demonstration!  Skip the parking headache and get there on Laguna’s free trolley.

in conclusion
I love Laguna Beach.  I know you will, too.  Go pack your sunscreen!
Laguna waves