Category

travel

Category

Crete, birthplace of the mythological Zeus, is Greece’s largest island. Gorgeous beaches, snow-capped mountains, velvety olive oil, and hyper local honey abound. Driving across this beautiful island only takes a few hours, but you’ll experience a whole range of ecosystems.

Crete is not as touristed as islands like Santorini and Mykonos, so you can find beautiful vistas and stunning white beaches without the hordes of people. That said, it’s still a famous island in Greece and you’ll still find tourists, so read on for lodging and travel tips that will take you out of the “package tourism,” zones. My wife and I just spent a week on Crete (out of a three week adventure in Greece) and I’ve got all sorts of tips.

Are you taking a vacation on Crete?

Here are my recommendations for the best things to do on Crete.

  1. Visit the best Crete beaches
  2. Visit Chania
  3. Soak up olive oil culture and eat local honey
  4. Tour the Palace of Knossos In Heraklion
  5. Visit this cool coffee shop in Heraklion
  6. Crete Travel Logistics

Visit the best Crete beaches

Want to visit the most beautiful beaches in Europe? All of Crete’s beaches boast clear water, dramatic coastlines, and mountainous backdrops…so you can’t really go wrong. During summer (especially July and August), the wild and strong Meltemi winds blow from the North. The mountain ranges running east to west on the island temper these winds, making the southern beaches less blustery. This means, if you’re looking for super chill, head south.

Personally, Balos Lagoon enraptured me. It’s on the northwestern tip of the island and holy mackerel it’s gorgeous. Visiting Balos Lagoon is a must. Please be really gentle and respectful when you go, as it’s such a glorious natural asset and it deserves love and care.

panorama of the turquoise waters and white sand of balos lagoon

Ways to visit Balos Lagoon:

  • Rental car: We had a rental car for all our adventures. This means we stopped at least 14 times to take pictures of road goats on the very bumpy, wildly steep, dirt road out to Balos Lagoon that was probably intended only for 4-wheel drive vehicles (not our wee economy car)
  • Boat: Ferry in from Chania or Kissamos. Here are one and two companies that provide the service, although I haven’t tried either
  • Hired taxi: Pretty much any hotel or lodging will find you a tour guide or hired taxi. Be sure to get a van if you go in a group, otherwise you may end up walking. We saw a four-pack of ladies walking down a particularly steep and rocky section of the dirt road. Turns out the Mercedes taxi they were in was bottoming out
  • Bus: From Chania or Kissamos, you can take public transit. It’s roughly two hours from Chania to the car park at the top of the site. Here’s the public transit site for Crete. I think

If arriving by land, you’ll have to hike down a steep, rocky path to reach the lagoon 3/4 mile below. The path is not wheelchair accessible or stroller-friendly at all. We saw two poor dudes schlepping a stroller full of baby stuff down the hill and it looked miserable. The climb back up is steep, but totally doable for most fitness levels, just be sure to wear sneakers. This is not a flip flop-friendly path!

Bonus Road Goats!

There are so many mountain goats. I stand by the extreme cuteness of these sweet, furry beasties. They just clamber up on stuff so dang much. I especially like the goat who took up residency in the honey booth, patiently waiting for customers on the drive to Balos Lagoon.

What to do in Chania

Crete is a mixed bouquet of cultural influences. Thanks to a strategic trade position in the Mediterranean Sea and luscious natural resources, pretty much every nearby power has fought to control Crete over the years. After the decline of the ancient Minoan civilization (the oldest known civilization in Europe) the island was ruled by the Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman Empires (and even pirates). Each of these groups left a distinctive architectural, religious, and social impact on the culture. In 1913 Crete became a part of independent Greece after centuries of outside rule. The small, historic city of Chania sums up these influences and is the perfect landing place for the start of your Crete adventure.

  • Explore the breakwater and maritime museum
  • Walk through the old city
  • Scope out the Yali Tzamisi mosque
  • People watch from the harbor cafes
  • Have dinner in the historic Jewish Quarter

Maritime Party

Explore the Maritime Museum if you’re so inclined. We ducked into their exhibit which recreated a Minoan sea vessel and I was boated out after that.

Walk through the old city

Stroll Chania’s old town and around the historic Venetian harbor which was built between 1320-1356. Look for the domed mosque, Yali Tzamisi, built during the 17th century when the city was under Turkish rule. The historic site now houses intermittent art exhibits. Next, walk out along the breakwater to reach the Lighthouse of Chania built in 1570 and also get fab photos of the harbor and old city.

People watching in Chania

The cafes lining the harbor make for an excellent afternoon resting spot to enjoy a cappuccino freddo (the local summer fave of espresso over ice served in a rocks glass. Cold frothed super creamy whole fat milk floats on top. Dreamy.) Cafe Remezzo has a sweet view over the street scene and is perfect for sipping and people watching.

Darling boutiques line the cobblestone streets behind the harbor. You’ll find locally made goods (olive oils, honey, handicrafts) and typical tourist trinkets. It’s a lovely stroll through the pedestrian streets. You can’t really get lost in Chania, so just turn away from the water and wander. An evening meander through the cobblestone alleys is also a great way to find cute cafes to have a progressive meal.

For dinner pop into Enetikon Restaurant right next to the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter. It’s just off the main tourist drag, feels cozy and inviting, and we loved the live Greek folk music playing during dinner.

We stayed at Notus Hotel in Chania for one night. Our room was modern, clean, and lovely. Our work requires reliable high speed internet, so whether we’re hoteling, Airbnb-ing, or doing a home exchange that’s the first priority. Notus was great WiFi speeds. The remaining week on the island we stayed in a home exchange up in foothills outside of Stalos. Here is a view from our porch:

All in all, the city’s charm makes it a perfect place for exploring the Northwestern region of the island—including its magnificent beaches and olive oil tasting.

Soak up Crete’s Olive Oil

Oh my gosh I love Cretan olive oil. It’s buttery and smooth and everyone drinks it like water.

Olive trees grow everywhere on Crete, covering over a quarter of the island. They line the winding, mountainous roads, they’re carved into artifacts from the ancient archaeological sites, and their fruit is the foundation for every Cretan restaurant. Olives are central to all parts of Cretan society from ancient religion to culture to diet to present day economy. In fact as far back as 3,000 BC the Minoan civilization cultivated olives commercially. Needless to say, Cretan olive oil tastes fabulous. The small but mighty Koroneiki olive reigns supreme on the island.

Ancient Olive Tree

Start with a visit to the world’s oldest olive tree—purported to be approximately 3,000 years old. It’s a lovely drive up into the mountains (everything is a drive up into the mountains as Crete is essentially beaches and crazy gorges and hilltops that turn into mountains). The small, but sweet, Olive Tree Museum of Vouves provides historical and cultural context for the beautiful old beast of a tree. Go say hello.

Modern Olive Oil Production

Next, schedule a tour (7 euros) of Terra Creta. Holy moly we adored this behind-the-scenes look at modern olive oil production. Old and new ways truly mix in this most Cretan of experiences. The facilities feature modern technology customized to work with small-scale, family farming production. The individual farmers drive their individual harvests in their personal trucks (olive branches and all) for processing each season.

Olive oil really is the heartbeat of the Cretan society. It was beautiful to learn that generational olive farming families can survive and thrive in a global economy so dominated by large agricultural companies. After the (truly fascinating) tour we tasted olive oil. Warm, swirl, sniff, sip, aerate, swallow. Repeat. Cretan olive oil has a mellow, less spicy flavor than many of the Italian olive oils we tasted last year. If you want to visit Terra Creta, there are three tours a day, but you have to book ahead (even if only the day before) to participate.

Palace of Knossos

The Palace of Knossos is at the heart of Greek mythology. It’s where Icarus flew too close to the sun while escaping the labyrinth and the dreaded minotaur who guarded the entrance. The palace was also said to be the home of King Minos.

History of Knossos

The Palace of Knossos built by the ancient Minoans, and that civilization thrived between 2000-1350 BC. The area, however, had been occupied since 7,000 BC. I love visiting historic sites where great civilizations once ruled. Seeing my sweet, minute part in the grand scheme of time is humbling. It’s also fun for the imagination to envision what life at (now crumbled) ornate palaces once looked like.

The palace architecture was influenced by the Minoan’s trade with Egypt and beyond. Clean lines and open design made it a far different look than the castles that would come in later years in Europe. The Minoans had plumbing (they piped in fresh water from a nearby mountain), they dealt with sewage and sanitation, and had bathing chambers. There was art and culture and celebrations. They maintained foreign relations and they loved and revered olive oil.

Tips for Visiting Palace of Knossos

If you’re visiting the Palace of Knossos (or any archaeological site, really) here are suggestions to make your experience more fun:

  • Hire a guide! Whenever people approach me outside of a cultural site, I usually feel a little on guard. In this case, it’s totally legit. Licensed guides hang in front of the palace entrance and organize groups of up to 8 people who speak the same language to take part in their tour. The tour cost is separate from the palace entrance ticket (which is 15 euros). As of May 2019, a tour cost 80 euros, so they’d organize groups of 8 with each person paying 10 euros. If you dislike the GP (general public) you can pony up the 80 euros for a private guide. Without the guide, this would have been a lovely pile of rocks. With the guide, history, art, and architecture came to life.
  • Go in the afternoon. Yes it will be hotter, but almost all the tour buses leave by noon so you’ll have way more breathing room. If you can’t bear the heat, go very first thing when it opens
  • Bring a sunbrella. Don’t worry about looking like a nerd. Sunbrella makes being outdoors in the summer sun bearable. And you’re protecting yourself from sun damage, so, win-win
  • Bring water. Keep hydrated, sweetheart
  • Wear comfy shoes and sunscreen

Crop Coffee in Heraklion

After you immerse yourself in Cretan history, stop for a cappuccino freddo (iced cappuccino) or a cold microbrew at Crop in the port city of Heraklion. It’s walking distance from the center of town but feels tucked away like a little city oasis. Inside you can scope the coffee roasting and their microbrewery doo-dads. The outdoor patio made us feel like we were definitely hanging with the cool locals.

Crete Travel Logistics

From airports to rental cars to driving on Crete, here are a few tips for getting to and around the island.

Driving a rental car

Don’t be scared to drive in Greece. There is a fair amount of lane straddling, but in general having wheels allows so much more freedom to visit sites around this mountainous island that you will really be able to maximize your time and have more freedom to visit sites that are off the beaten path. My wife and I lovingly termed the Italian/Greece manner of hugging the middle or side lane as lane straddling. Also, most roads on Crete being one lane, slower cars are expected to lane straddle into (what we in California consider) the emergency shoulder. It’s normal for cars to cozy up to your backside if you’re going too slow and they can’t zip past you in the one lane. You’ll get the hang of it! Most of all, don’t let the idea of it deter you from driving.

We booked through Enterprise and it was easy as pie. We have a credit card that covers rental car insurance in (most) foreign countries so we save money on paying for coverage through the rental car company. A compact (automatic) rental in late May, with two drivers, for 8 days cost $224 usd. This was relatively steep, but so worth it for the freedom it provided.

Flying to Crete

There are 3 international airports on Crete (which is wild considering the island is roughly 160 miles across its longest point). We flew in and out of Chania from Athens on Aegean Airlines. Tickets were ~ 80 euros. Prices can increase during July and August, and will of course be lower in low season. Tickets were ~20 more to use Aegean airlines, but we were able to earn miles with our go-to airline, and safety ratings for Aegean were far better than for some of the cheaper flights such as Ryanair.

Flights are 30 minutes (ish) and will likely have turbulence so hang tight. But despite being hopper flights you can check baggage so if you, like me, adore outfit options you don’t have to worry about fitting it all in a carry-on. Heraklion and Sitia are the two other airports. Heraklion is on the Eastern side of the island so choose your airport based on your lodging and plans.

Ferries

Ferries between Athens and Crete take 6-8 hours, depending on winds, currents, etc.

Elafonisi, the famous pink beach sand of Crete


Like every Italian town, Lecce loves coffee. Caffe, caffe macchiato, caffe latte, you know the drill. But the real specialty in Lecce is the caffe in ghiacco or the caffe in ghiacco with latte di mandorla. These sweet, cold drinks are particular to the Salento region of Puglia and are said to have originated in this charming, baroque city.

Caffe in ghiaccio—a short espresso over ice with a healthy amount of sugar—is perfect for a hot afternoon. Caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla features that same iced espresso with a frothy sweet almond cream poured over top. Both will get you fired up real quick. In addition to beautiful coffee drinks, Lecce itself is magical.

This sweet angel of suffering had thee most enchanting light up halo.

Lecce is the perfect landing spot for exploring the northern region of Salento. For the visually-minded, Salento is best known as the heel of Italy’s boot. From Lecce’s vantage point you can quickly reach gorgeous beaches on the Adriatic and Ionian coasts, plus explore the interior of this stunning olive- and wine-producing region. Beyond strategic positioning, Lecce the city shines. The centro storico has ruins dating back to the 3rd century B.C. and the city reflects the range of cultures that have held power since then. Narrow cobblestone streets, medieval and baroque architecture, painfully cute piazzas and squares and a whole boatload of beautiful churches to rival Florence and Rome. The walled-in original old town was constructed from pietra leccese, a local soft, yellow limestone that causes the entire old town to glow as the sun sets. All in all, Lecce is the perfect place to stay awhile.

Perhaps most importantly is the really, really yummy coffee. (I never cared too much for coffee, but my very clever wife changed that when we met, thank god. Now I cannot imagine wanting to start my day without it.) Lecce’s local pastries—my newly acquired passion—will make you weep. The pasticciotto, reported to have been born here, is a small bun-shaped morning dessert (let’s call them what they are, people) filled with a creamy, oh so subtly lemon custard. Sometimes there’s a variation on the filling (nutella or pistachio cream) but lemony vanilla is the norm. The texture of the pastry is closer to a cookie than a cake. It almost reminds me of the texture of cornbread. Did I mention it’s delicious? It’s not too sweet, it’s smaller than the palm of my hand, tastes great with une caffe, and is totally legit to eat before 10am.


Pasticciotto with some nutella for good measure

Where you drink coffee in Lecce (in all of Italy, really) depends on how you want to drink your coffee. If you prefer a leisurely beverage and newspaper moment, you’ll pay for ‘servizio.’ This means that in addition to the cost of your order, you’re paying the waiter to take your order and bring it to you. Sitting at a table can take a long time so if you are in a hurry don’t opt for this. Seated service is fun only if you’re not in a rush. If you want caffeine inside you, quick, or if you are in a hurry, you must order at the counter. Personally, there is nothing more satisfying than an espresso knocked back while standing at the bar and then chased with wee glass of bubbly water. Perhaps this is a holdover from my booze drinking days, but I adore the experience. It provides all the perks of taking a shot on the go (like a bar crawl!) without any of the booze-y impairment—just wonderful coffee superpowers. The counters are for standing only, so don’t get any airs about asking for a barstool. You order directly from the barista, then pay after you drink. Oh how I imagine that my limited Italian sings when I say, “une caffe macchiato, per favore!”

Here are my favorite places for drinking coffee, and the ways in which to drink them, and some hot tips on the best pastries in Lecce:

Cappuccino and pasticciotto on a lazy Sunday: Caffe Alvino:

Word on the street is Caffe Alvino prescribes to the traditional pasticciotto recipe, which contains shortening. So beware if you’re a veggie. The shortening does make the dessert damn fine and super moist. The Caffe Alvino cappuccino is creamy and smooth and the patio seating in front of the cafe provides an ideal spot to overlook the ruins of the Roman amphitheater built (NBD) in the second century, B.C. Enjoy your morning respite while tourists and locals come and go on the Piazza Sant’Oronzo. Inside are miles of marble and chandeliers and mountains of cakes and ornately pastel pastries that will boggle your eyes. Their rustica (a mozzarella and tomato filled phyllo dough savory pastry) is a good alternative to sweet. Cost for two cappuccino, two pasticciotto and a table: 5 euros.

Coffee at the counter: Bar Rosso e Nero Internet Cafe:

Despite their headline as an internet cafe, these guys don’t have a website. Searching ‘Rosso e Nero’ won’t do the trick easily, either, as Rosso e Nero is as ubiquitous as Caffe Valentina or Quattro Cafe…it’s a shout out to the type of coffee they use. In any case, follow this google maps link to this local spot. It’s only open until ~6pm. The baristas were so darling when we were there (which was almost each morning for a week) and the macchiato just right, at approximately 80 cents. Their pasticciotto had a healthy amount of cream and came in two sizes. I also loved their cornetto cioccolato (aka chocolate croissant). A few guys also ordered caffe correctos, which is morning drinking in the way that only Italians can make elegant: espresso with a shot of grappa slipped in to correct things.

Classic caffe in ghiacco with almond syrup: Bar Alvino  

A short trek from the main city center but worth the experience, Caffe Alvino is famous for this sweet almond drink. It’s counter service inside the cafe, so belly up and don’t be shy. The bartender specially froths the almond cream to order and puts on a whole show of layering the ingredients, which of course makes the experience fun and playful.

Wherever you go in Lecce you’re bound to find tasty coffee and tasty pastiocciotto. We tried a pistachio one so you don’t have to. It wasn’t bad, but hot damn those vanilla ones are good. Beyond just caffeinated beverages Lecce has delightful regional cuisine (like orecchiette with parsnip green pesto), fascinating museums and a wonderful contemporary art museum called MUST. I learned the hard way while using the ladies room at MUST that what I thought was a pull for flushing the toilet was actually a 911 bathroom alarm that reverberated through the entire museum complex, so we certainly made some friends that day. I’ll write more on our September 2018 Puglia trip soon. Until then, here are some more Lecce photos.

Roasted chicken for 5 euros good enough to make us weep
Immediately prior to accidentally pulling the museum bathroom alarm
like the class act that I am
Orecchiette with parsnip greens. Crisp flavor and chewy pasta and holy mackerel so good
Pistachio pastiocciotto. Pretty good, but vanilla is way better.

If you go to Chiang Mai please visit the Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum on the outskirts of town. Even if you’re visiting Chiang Mai for the ancient temples, the rich cultural history, or to start off on a trek, this modern art museum is a big deal. Here’s why.

Sometimes I don’t know what I don’t know until I am presented with more information. The Maiiam opened my eyes about the incredible talent of contemporary Thai artists and the relative lack of visibility that Thai artists receive on the international art scene. The artwork housed in the Maiiam is amazing, plus, the museum is architecturally gorgeous and their cafe and bookshop are fabulous. Just grab a Grab (Thailand’s Lyft-like app) and hop over there.

I love contemporary art. I like how I feel when I stand next to big colors and big courage and the ability of different artists to transmute big emotions into something tangible. A light turns on inside me.

When we travel, we museum. And while we’re museum-ing, we notice that certain artists are everywhere. Beyond the Warhols adorning the major modern art museums, there are (rightfully talented) artists who are ubiquitous. For example, in the span of a few years, we’ve seen Anselm Kiefer in Copenhagen, Paris, San Francisco, L.A., and New York. His pieces are massive—scorched landscape murals and torched airplane hull installation art—the muted destruction of post-WWII Germany as experienced by a child. Everyone who is anyone has their hands on his stuff. It’s fascinating, and it’s everywhere.

My wife and I remark that surely he is the art world’s most recent darling, but I didn’t grasp the bigger picture of who wasn’t hanging on the walls. Where is there space for the rest of the world when the same people are showing up time and again?

At the Maiiam a light went on. (Side note: their current exhibition (running through March 3, 2019) titled Diaspora: Exit, Exile, and Exodus in Southeast Asia was phenomenal. More on that in a minute. First, I always have to use the bathroom.)

Inside the Maiiam’s bathroom was a photographic reproduction of a guerrilla art installation by artist Thitibodee Rungteerawattanon. In 2010, the artist smuggled contemporary Thai artworks into the men’s bathroom of the Tate Modern in London. He installed the works in the bathroom covertly and then photographed the exhibit, titling it ‘Thai Message.’ His commentary was clear—was this the only space for these Southeast Asian artists in the international art world?

Letter outlining the project in English and Thai. Photo: thitibodee.tumblr.com

Sometimes I get so used to looking at what is given to me to see that I forget to question what isn’t being shown. There is underrepresentation by non-Western artists. We are shown a sliver of works by a disproportionately small group of artists. How can this cultural hegemony be shifted? Some of that shift can start with me and looking deeper than just what is presented to me. Thanks Maiiam for sparking me.

Speaking of internationally unsung artists, Diaspora: Exit, Exile, and Exodus in Southeast Asia is phenomenal. The exhibition features artists depicting the experiences of the many groups of people whose lives and cultures have been shifted and/or harmed by movement. My wife and I were crying. One particularly moving collection was a series of portraits by Hmong artist Pao Houa Her. Born in Laos, her family escaped the violence of the Laotian ‘Secret War,’ fought in tandem with the Vietnam War. They eventually settled in Minneapolis and she began documenting the idea of identity for Hmong Americans. Her ‘Attention,’ series showcases Hmong Veterans who fought alongside U.S. troops, but didn’t receive military recognition or honors until 2018—over 30 years after the Vietnam war ended. The men are photographed wearing self-sourced medals and uniforms. The photos are beautiful, dignified, and honestly so heartbreaking. I wish I could tell you about each artist and each collection.



Hmong Veterans, Attention series
Pao Houa Her

While I had narrowly thought of Thai art in terms of the kingdom’s Buddhist history and its glorious, golden statues, the opportunity to visit Thailand gave me a chance to see how much I’m missing when it comes to contemporary Thai (and Southeast Asian) art. Clearly, there are internationally renowned Thai artists, like Navin Rawanchaikul and Rirkrit Tiravanija. And Bangkok itself is modernizing so rapidly that contemporary art is a natural response to the shifts. To that end, the Bangkok Biennial—a response to the exclusivity of events such as the Venice Biennial—was launched in 2018, and showcases Thai and international artists in a range of venues throughout the city. So modern Thai art is claiming its rightful space on the international scene, but this exhibit opened my eyes to how complacent I am in accepting what is offered to me. (Side note: I’m fascinated by the work of the Guerrilla Girls to bring more visibility to women and minority artists.)

What I’m trying to say is, when you’re visiting Chiang Mai—a visit to Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum is a must. Get a ride using the Grab app and don’t go on Tuesday when it’s closed.

Beautiful Bangkok, a city run by tuk tuk power, street vendors, and centuries old golden buddhas.

Sky high commerce and crumbling poverty jostle for street space while long tail boats cruise up and down the Chao Phraya river.

Little kids are canal swimming and tourists are Instagram posing and food vendors slinging moo ping pork skewers, all under resplendent portraits of King Rama X of Thailand.

Our first day in Bangkok, sparkling fresh with jet lag, we  explored the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew—The Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Bangkok was our first leg on a three week tour of the country.

The Grand Palace is tourist central (us included) due to its religious, historical, and political importance to Thailand since its construction in 1782. Also, it’s really beautiful. Glittering mosaics, gilded gold, and opulent murals adorn every building. The Emerald Buddha (actually made of jade) is only 26 inches tall and has seasonal outfits of gold for summer, rain, and cool.

How tourists dress is important to Thai people, especially when visiting revered religious sites. It’s hot in Thailand, but we took care to wear modest clothing at all times: think pants or skirts to knees and no tank tops.

The November was muggy and in the mid-to-high 90s. The action of the city streets is enervating, no matter how much iced tea + condensed milk you drink. My wife is an expert lodging-finder. Usually when we travel for long periods we arrange home exchanges, but this trip we stayed in hotels. Our Bangkok hotel was a dream.

Chann Bangkok Noi, was accessible only by foot or boat. A taxi carried us as far as it could into a dense, riverside neighborhood where hotel staff met us at a foot bridge to guide us in. We walked several blocks down a raised pathway that peered into backyards and jungly terrain. We hooked a sharp left through a break in the corrugated metal fencing and down a sidewalk (marshy swampland and homes on stilts on either side) until suddenly coming upon the Chann Bangkok Noi sign.

Chann Bangkok Noi provided true respite from the chaos of Bangkok’s streets. After our Grand Palace adventure, we slept the merciful sleep of the jet lagged to prepare us for our walking cultural tour the next day led by Bangkok Vanguards.

My wife and I love walking tours to experience the heartbeat of a city and learn more from locals about local life. I’ll tell you all about the cultural tour here…it was really fabulous and I took lots of pretty pictures, so check it out.

Nashville, land of honky tonk dreams.

This small town big city is like Austin, Texas and Butte, Montana had a steel guitar baby. All the wee bricky homes of Butte, with the rolling green, mid-city river, rhythmic soul of Austin.

We’ve been eating, tour-nerding, and exploring neighborhoods. Neon signs, BBQ grills, deep fryers, and Southern greens are all around. Getting acquainted with the Ryman Auditorium had me reeling. Bluegrass was born on its stage and every single sequin-suited country singer worth their boots has rocked there, while the star-making Grand Ole Opry lived there from 1943 – 1974. Then, walking out the Ryman’s door and stepping onto the Broadway strip, hearing the honky tonk angels at iconic joints like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge just sealed the deal. Maybe everybody’s a star in Nashville.

It’s so damn charming here. The cozy boutiques and neighborhoody vibes, country music and street art had my heart singing. On top of that, we came to visit family, so that had a sweetness all its own. Nashville is completely new to me, and we did a lot in five days, most of it revolving around food. But—if for some reason—you’re teleported here and only have one day to explore, I’ll share this snapshot of East Nashville (plus a sprinkle of other fun) for your adventuresome soul.

East Nashville

We geared up for the afternoon at Pinewood Social with food, libations, and locally roasted Crema Coffee. My lady can be a cranky shopper so I like to give her a little booze before we mosey into uncharted waters. I don’t drink, so I loved their creamy latte with the special coconut and almond milk blend. Their low-key, upscale menu (shaved brussel salad with grilled salmon for me) fits the industrial chic vibe of the large warehouse. It’s been converted to house a cozy sitting zone, coffee shop, big central bar, tufted booths, and an indoor bowling alley, swimming pool out back, airstream bar, and bocce ball. Heaven? Yes.

Afterwards, we headed straight to 5 Points—at the intersection of Woodland, Clearview, and North 11th—and began the Country Christmas shopping experience at the badass collective called the Idea Hatchery.

A handful of local businesses incubate in the low rent, minimal overhead, community setting of the hatchery. I loved Walker Creek Confections‘ Sea Salt Carmels and am gifting a bag to my mama if I manage not to eat them on the plane. I also adored Haulin’ Oats and their mason jars full of oatmeal magic. I got so damn figgy with it this morning.

Next, we popped over to Art and Invention. We got a sweet Joan of Arc hot pink savior of wall art chain metal thing. You know the kind. Made by local artist Wynn Smith, the shop is full of Nashville artists’ paintings, jewelry, metalworks, and  more. It’s sweet.

We paused the shopping bonanza and took in some dancing bears and muraled ladies rising up by artist Leah Tumerman. Street art shines all over in this city.

When the buzz started to run low, we headed over to the converted garage turned coffee mecca that is Barista Parlor. Caffeine dreams really do come true. Shot of espresso, side of dark chocolate, soda water. So grown up.

Coffee not doing it? Nothing like sugar to save the day. We hit up local legend Five Daughters Bakery for a fix. My wife thinks gluten free donuts suck booty, but I feel real fancy free when I get to indulge. To that end, I loved their Paleo Crushers. I had both the orange chocolate and gingerbread. They were both dense and sweet and not reaaaalllly donuts but they tasted good. (P.S. The gingerbread dominated.) The 100 layer donut is their claim to fame. The vibe inside the bakery is hot pink neon and super fun. We also liked the charming 12 South neighborhood spot.

12 South

We clearly led this trip with our stomachs. The 12 South neighborhood was also really cute. I am in LOVE with Frothy Monkey coffee and their seasonal specialty, the Golden Monkey. Steamed milk, espresso, turmeric, ginger, and a lil sweet syrup. So dreamy and right.

12 South has its share of murals, too.

The ‘hood also has a slew of fancy/pricey boutiques and fabulous eateries like Edley’s BBQ. The 1/2 chicken was damn fine and the BBQ sauce just the right combo of heat and sweet. Local studio Liberation Yoga had a Christmas Eve class taught by Raquel Bueno that was so sweet and special and centering before diving into the tornado of wrapping paper and whirling dervish that is a four year old nephew opening gifts.

There’s so much more to do and see here. Next time I’m touring the new site of the Grand Ole Opry and will venture out into the Smokey Mountains. And maybe hang out with Dolly Parton.