Exploring Chicago’s Old Town with the Second City

“You know you’ve really made it when Lorne takes you out to dinner,” Margaret quipped, stopping short for effect while the 25 or so of us leaned in. “I’ve slept with him before, but have yet to get an invitation to dinner.”

She was, of course, talking about Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live Fame. And I laughed. I was at Chicago’s famed Second City, and the satirical, oft raunchy humor was to be expected.

chicao's second city tour

When I was a teenager, I never once complained that my weekend curfew was 10:30 p.m. during the school year – I‘d arrive home, switch on NBC just as the band was finishing up the opening theme and grab a bowl of ice cream. Saturday Night Live was always my Saturday date, and I grew up watching comics like Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan and Molly Shannon personify the immortal Spartans, Mango and Mary Katherine Gallagher.

My friends surprised me for my 18th birthday with a pack of Marlboro Lights and tickets to see a show at the e.t.c. stage of Chicago’s Second City. The show, Pants on Fire, was politically fueled and so hilarious, I had hiccups that my virgin strawberry daiquiri couldn’t cure.

Touring Old Town

Back home this summer, amidst wedding prep, the city of Chicago has become my escape (and my sister just moved back!). When searching for fun things to do with the Spaniards pre-bodorrio, I came across tours of the Old Town Neighborhood with improv artists from the Second City Theatre.

A gorgeous Chicago afternoon, a tour guide that actually had personality and one of the city’s most emblematic cultural pockets? And for $15 a head, it was a Chicago experience I could actually afford.

Tour Writer and Guide Margaret started by asked where we’d come from, adding insult to injury when she found out that my sister and I are from Bibletown and cracked a few jokes (well deserved, I might add). Shockingly enough, there were 10 of us from the hometown crowd and, much like those in attendance on show nights, we were the most vocal during the 90-minute tour.

Improv tours at the Second City Chicago

Margaret herself is a 20-year Second City student who took an improv class. Having a sound knowledge of the theater and its philosophy, the tour started at iconic 1616 N. Wells just like any tour – with the company’s history and its philosophy.

The Second City came to life at the University of Chicago thanks to a few beatniks who used techniques designed by Viola Spolin, a woman who dedicated her life to helping immigrants integrate into mainstream society. The games Viola played, eventually called Theatre Games, sought to relax participants and teach them how to react to different situations, soon became the foundation of improvisational techniques (and the club’s improv school). The Second City opened in the Old Town neighborhood in 1959 under the supervision of Paul Sills, Viola’s son.

Twin Anchors bar Chicago

The tour wound around a few residential blocks, past balloon house frames, old brick churches and local bars. Margaret pointed out favorite haunts of troupe members past, like Bill Murray, who recently stayed behnd to clean up after a Grateful Dead show in town. Like many Chicagoans or people who truly love the city, you keep coming back. She spun tails of some of the more famous alum like Gail Radner and Chris Farley before asking the audience for their favorite members – and then told stories about them.

We got a bit more hisotrical than I expected as we stood under Saint Michael’s bells, but the history lesson intertwined with humor and anecdotes was a winning combination.

scenes from Old Town, Chicago

Old Town is about as Chicago as it gets (and the same can be said about Second City). Being a stone’s throw from the skyscrapers of the Loop and in the shadow of the Sears (the skyscraper is a Chi Town original), the neighborhood was burned down during the Great Fire, becoming a vibrant part of the Northside.

“LIKE A PHOENIX!” were Margaret’s words. 

The tour ends back at Piper’s Alley, a mecca to comedy lovers, where you can read hate mail all the way up the stairs to the main stage. But as Margaret mentioned, it’s ok to fail in Chicago. It’s ok to rebuild (or build bleachers outside of the Trump and invite people to watch). It’s ok to keep doing what you’re doing and trust that someone believes in you.

balloon houses in Old Town

And it’s totally fine by us that New York thinks they’re better at everything – it was journalist A.J. Liebling who gave us our famous nickname as a nod to the Big Apple’s superiority anyway. Pizza and hot dogs? Fine, we’ll give those to you so long as you let us keep the lake, our sports and the best damn improv theatre in North America.

The Second City Neighborhood Tours are held rain or shine every Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. Expected to walk about two miles, and bring your sense of humor. Tickets are $15 and reservations are recommended.

What’s your favorite thing to do in your hometown?

How to NOT Get Lost on Your Trips: Five Tips for Navigating a New City

We’ve all been there: you’ve arrived at a new place for a holiday and for those first few days you have no idea where anything is or what you can do every day. Even with smartphones and apps, many of the world’s most touristed cities have long histories, and their historic centers are laid out in a haphazard fashion. I’ve got very little common sense, but my sense of direction is about as keen as my nose trained to sniff out azahar in the spring. Even ‘ditching the guide book and wandering’ is difficult for me because of my ability to always have my bearings!

Tips for Navigating a New City

When my mom came to visit on her own in 2013, I handed her a map and my keys and lent her my bike. She called a few hours later, trapped on a small street and no idea where she was. I didn’t even need to google – she was only a few blocks away – but I clearly didn’t inherit my sense of direction from her. To ensure that you make the most of your trip I’ve compiled a couple of handy tips about navigating a new place:

1.  Research the Area

Perhaps the most important part of any trip, planning ahead and researching the area that you’re going to can help you map out a destination. See what there is to do, where sites are located and how easy things like museums, shopping districts or other holiday hotspots are to get to by walking or public transportation.

More often than not, the majority of attractions tend to be within walking destinations of a lot of town centers. Occasionally you may need to get a bus or train, so be sure you’re up to date on times and where you need to get off. After all, the last thing you want is to board the wrong bus or train and end up somewhere you can’t get back from. This happened to me on my first trip to Granada, and my friend and I ended up in a seedy area of town, thankfully finding a cab in a time before Uber and making on the last train back to Seville just before the doors closed.

2.  Bring a Map

My first stop in any new place is a tourism office to pick up a map. I sometimes don’t even unfold them, but prefer to keep them as a souvenir.

bring a map on a trip

If you’ve got a smartphone, it’s even easier to download maps and save locations on apps, so investing in a map or something that contains a real-time display of your location like a portable Sat-Nav or even a smartphone with a Google maps app is a great idea. That way you can make sure that you find what you’re looking for relatively easily without wandering around for hours to hunt down that museum or restaurant that you want to visit. If you’re worried about wi-fi, save screenshots of places you’ll be visiting.

3.  Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help

Never be afraid to ask the locals for help, more often than not most people will happily point you to where you want to go.

asking for directions on the Camino de Santiago

In the event that you’re visiting somewhere that doesn’t have English as the native language, just make sure that you either know enough of the language to get by or you have a phrasebook handy, or head to a hotel or tourism office. In a more memorable episode, some friends and I were turned around in rural Romania and had gone nearly an hour without seeing another human being. We pulled into someone’s farm, knocked at the door and used a map and some wild hand gestures to find our way to Botiza!

4.  Open a PayPal Account

The worst thing that can happen to you when you’re visiting somewhere is to either run out of money or have it stolen from you. So a good tip is to always have some way to finance yourself in the event of this happening, or if you need to catch a cab or train. There are a number of different ways you can keep on top of your cash when you’re abroad but by far the easiest one is to open a PayPal account.

Having a PayPal account means you can have someone transfer cash to your bank account that you can then either withdraw from a local machine or use to make a credit or debit card payment. Or if you prefer to travel light, you can use PayPal to make contactless payments using their app on your mobile.

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 11.06.22 AM

But you don’t have to use it for just getting your hands on some emergency cash; you can also use PayPal to play on an online casino site like paypal-casinos.co when you’re traveling on your trip. This can be quite handy to use to kill time and stave off boredom, especially if the places you’re visiting require long periods of time on coaches or trains.

5.  Be a Proper Tourist

Don’t be afraid to do look like a proper tourist, try boarding one of those buses or trams that take you on a guided tour of the area. Doing this will allow you to learn about the area you’re in quickly as they tend to circle around the main tourist attractions and areas that visitors will enjoy seeing. Also, it lets you figure out how easy various places are to get to.

You can also try picking up pamphlets from hotels or public information areas as these tend to have a small selection of places you can take a look at or options for getting around, like taxi numbers or a list of bus and train stops. Tourism is alive and well in Spain, so you won’t look too out of place!

Do you have any tips about how to navigate new places, or any good stories about getting lost? Share them in the comments!

Packing for a Trip to Spain: What to Bring and What to Leave at Home

The moment I’d announced I’d bought a house in Spain, the requests for the proverbial ‘roof-over-my-head’ while traveling through came pouring in.

Come on! It’s not like I lived in a box under the Triana bridge for seven years!

I hosted my first international visitor not six weeks after moving house, and even as a heavy traveler who works for a travel planning company, the frantic whatsapps came in about last -minute packing (never mind the time difference between us!).

packing light

As someone who can pack for a week in Eastern Europe in the same pack as an overnight trip to Granada in the middle of a cold spell, I find getting together a suitcase for a Spain trip to be a bit of a challenge. I think back to my move to Spain in 2007: I loaded my bag with extra American goodies in lieu of a winter jacket and – surprise! – it gets chilly in Southern Spain. And then there was the 7 kilo pack job for the Camino de Santiago, a feat I’m still proud of!

It you’re packing for a short trip to Spain, consider how you’re traveling (trains with virtually no baggage weight limits? Budget airline with strict rules about dimensions?) as well as where and when. Then, think about where you’ll be staying, as Spain offers a dozen different types of accommodation options.  

What to Pack for Spain

But no matter what, consider taking out that extra pair of sandals to make room for these essentials:

Tissue Packets

I am still puzzled as to why ladies bathrooms in Spain see no need to stock up on toilet paper. Throw a couple of extras in your purse for when the need arises (most likely in the airport or train station upon arrival).

Sun Protection

I once proclaimed to be thankful for sunglasses because, man, is it bright in Spain! And as someone with fair skin, I even put on sun cream to hang my laundry out to dry on the terrace, and once tried using tears to convince an Italian airport security agent to let me through with “prescription” sunblock. No matter what, sun care should trump a party dress or box of candy while you’re on the road, be it an extra hat, SPF lip balm and make up, or bottles of SPF 45 (plus, sunscreen is crazy expensive in Spain!).

A Light Jacket or Sweater

Don’t let the hot sun fool you – Spain has a Mediterranean climate, which means winters can be damp and chilly. A light sweater or jacket is an absolute must for any time of year, and canvas or nylon are good choices for durability. Cotton cardigans work nicely in warmer months and can be dressed up or down.

A voltage converter

While most electronics nowadays come with adapors, older models may burn out if you bring them on your trip. The reason is simple: American voltage works at 110 volts, and European at 220. This means that your appliance will work twice as hard, so invest in a quality converter (or, hey!, you can toss the fried straightener and lighten your load!). Remember that European plugs have two round prongs.

Extra copies of your passport and travel plans

passport U.S.

Any traveler swears by this – you should have at least one extra copy of your passport picture page and your travel plans in case of theft or destruction, and these things should be kept in a separate place than the actual documents. While you’re at it, send scans to yourself and a trusted friend back home just in case. It’s also wise to write down nearby consulates in case you do need replacements.

Small packets of laundry detergent

Laundromats are hard to come by in Spain, and they’re often expensive. If you can manage it, wash your clothes in the sink and hang them to dry using small packets of powdered detergent. They’ll not only pass through airport security, but also won’t weigh you down. Plus, they’re easy to replace at perfumerias.

Your credit card and some extra euros on hand

The Euro is falling, so maximize your tourist dollars by using your credit card (but call your bank before leaving home!). You can get extra points if you have a rewards card or earn towards goodies. Coming with 20-40 will also cut down on ATM or currency exchange fees when you need to hail a cab upon arrival, so pre-order from your bank at home for better rates.

Leave it at home:

Uncomfortable shoes (especially high heels)

Streets in Spain are often uneven and you’ll do a lot of walking, so bring sturdy, comfortable shoes. Even after seven years here, I can barely walk in Chucks without tripping, so save space (and face) by skipping the heels.

Your favorite outfit

Thankfully, all of my lost bags have been returned to me, but I’m usually careful to pack half of my favorite outfits in one bag, and the other half in the other. So what if you’re wearing the same outfit in pictures by wearing neutrals? You’re not Kim Kardashian, so the only person who probably cares is you.

cat on dubrovnik city walls

Instead, pack one bright or bold piece. I packed for a week in Dubrovnik and Montenegro in one carry on, and having a bright pink blazer served to dress up jeans and a T-shirt and helped me stand out in photos while traveling in two beautiful destinations (um, and so did that black eye…).

Expensive jewelry

Petty theft is an unfortunate reality in Spain, so you can leave expensive accessories at home. If you can’t bear it, consider taking out insurance just in case, and know how to fill out a police report just in case.

A simple, lightweight scarf will do the trick, and you won’t be bummed if you leave it in a hostel or quirky café.

The true test: Can you cart around your suitcase and personal items without the help of others? Imagine, if you will, doing it up stairs and down cobblestone roads. If you can’t do it, it’s time to repack!

Packing 101


Need some packing inspiration? My friend and Seville expat Karen McCann is a suitcase superhero – she did months of rail travel in Eastern Europe with just one carry-on! – has just written a fun and quick read of an ebook on her packing trips, honed after years of traipsing around the world and visiting 50 countries. Pack Light is all you need to read to prepare for your trip (or at least the monumental task of deciding what to take).

When she sent me a copy, I could almost imagine every compartment in her rolling suitcase – which measures 21 x 13 x 7.5! – and I found myself laughing just as I did when reading Enjoy Living Abroad, a chronicle of expat life in Seville and one of her three published books. It’s easily digested and practical, and because it’s digital, it won’t take up space or weight. A woman who heeds her own advice!

PackLightCoverArt  low res

Karen is giving away two of her ebooks to Sunshine and Siestas readers. All you have to do it leave a comment about your biggest packing faux pas, or leave a word of advice for other travelers. Contest ends on February 28th, upon which winner will be notified via email with a download link.

If you’re looking for packing tips for long-term travel to Spain or a stint abroad, pick up a copy of COMO Consulting’s eBook “Moving to Spain” for individual packing lists and suggestions.

A Peek at Life in India: the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

From where we stood, halfway up the hill to the Monkey Temple, the waning light was turning ‘The Pink City’ a pearly, golden hue. The jagged skyline’s stack of buildings and telephone poles, a thousand candles, was like a fanciful birthday cake.

I scanned the horizon across Jaipur, noting the immense desert city that sat sprawled between mountains. We’d come because the city that had been painted the color of hospitality was rumored to be beautiful but gritty, busy but manageable. The Amer palace was the draw, but I had my eyes locked on the cake topper in the center of the cake – the Hawa Mahal.

Our tuk-tuk driver, Ali, warned us that the Hawa Palace was not really worth seeing. “It’s a house. A pink house. Better at Mughal market for the shopping.”

I’m sure you say that to all the ladies, Ali. Tu t’aime las filles, after all.

On our only full day in Jaipur, we did a whirlwind tour of the Fort, skipping the elephant ride as we climbed the hill on which the intricate palace sits before seeing the Janta Mantur observatory. While Ali tried to persuade us that it was better to skip the pink palace for a lassi drink and browsing the spice market, I couldn’t get over the pink lattice windows that peeked out above the city palace.

Like in many countries I’ve visited, the Hawa Mahal is essentially a fancy brothel, beautifully constructed living quarters that once included gilded doors and extravagant fountains against a facade that resembles a honeycomb. The five-story building is riddled with staircases, rooms, windows and lattice-work, allowing its inhabitants to see life on the streets below without actually being seen themselves.

Hayley and I saw a great deal of India from a tuk tuk, not quite on in a hit-the-pavement sort of way I had craved when we booked tickets. Even through the kindness of hotel owners, who helped us when we were scammed, through driving tuk tuk down deserted roads, to posing in pictures with sari-clad Indians in front of the Taj Mahal, I feel as though we barely scratched India’s expansive surface.

Like the women who once lived in the small bedrooms of the Palace of the Winds and could witness the trading and chaos, the wandering animals and the comforting hum of daily life in Jaipur, our India experience felt like theirs – someone not quite on the inside. I suddenly had the urge to skip Mumbai and stay in the Pink City, to consider India in the future. After five days, two train rides and countless interactions with strangers, I knew one trip to India would never be enough for me.

Ali was waiting for us at the Tripolia Bazaar, feet up on the narrow dashboard of his motorized tricycle. “So, very boring, yes?” he questioned as we climbed into the back and he sped off towards the spice market.

I somehow knew India had gotten under my skin in that very moment.

Have you ever wanted to learn more about a destination after you’d visited? Or do you see things and then mentally cross it off a bucket list?

Elephant Riding in Rajasthan: Good Idea, Bad Idea?

“Ok, you have one minute to decide: ride elephant, walk.”

Ali swung around, eyebrows raised. His heavily-decorated tuk tuk’s engine shivered as it halted to a stop and he used his leg to steady it. I looked at Hayley and took a deep breath. “I can’t do it, I’m sorry.”

The city I most looked forward to visiting in India was Jaipur, a metropolis dubbed “The Pink City” that is famous for its salmon painted buildings and the Amer Fort. Once we’d gotten our bearings in Delhi and Agra, Hayley and I were set to enjoy endless lassi yogurt drinks and climbs to some of India’s most jaw-dropping forts and palaces.

Other travelers told me that Jaipur rises out of the desert like a mirage, but we rolled in on a sleeper train that was delayed several hours through a seedy part of town. The porter knocked on the door and motioned for us to get off. Jaipur, after Delhi’s chaos and the scam-laden town of Agra, was already a dream.

Ali stood, arms crossed, waiting to take us to Hotel Kaylan. Though illiterate, he pulled out a journal that was full of recommendations and reviews from other traveler. He stood up and opened the compartment under his seat, taking out a photo album so we could settle on an itinerary.

Apart from the city’s main sights, like the various forts and palaces, the Janta Mantar and the Hawa Mahal, he pushed the Elefantastic park, allowing us the opportunity to paint, feed and swim with the pachyderms. After all, the Rajasthani state is famous for its Indian Elephant festivals and breeding grounds, and elephants have been used for centuries in trade and commerce. What’s more, one of Hinduism’s most beloved gods, Ganesh, the god of good fortune, is depicted as an elephant.

Ali drove us to the Monkey Temple at sunset. Animals are quite commonplace in the streets in India – not only are sacred cows able to freely roam cities and eat all the trash they can find, but we saw goats in rickshaws, pigs and warthogs complacently lying on patches of cracked cement, and now monkeys swinging about temples as the faithful prayed.

India is different when it comes to animal treatment. As an American, I’ve always had a pet and have been taught to respect animals. My parents contribute to the National Parks System and sent me to summer camp as a kid, and I’ve been riding horses since I could walk. That said, I eat meat and would probably defend a human over any other four-legged creature.

I found India to be a strange paradox: Gandhi once said that you can measure a nation on how they treat their animals, but there were scores of abandoned creatures. In fact, I didn’t see an animal on a leash until our last morning in India.

We spoke softly to a man who carried around a bag of mangoes and spoke good English. Despite leaning on a cane for support, he’d been climbing up the slippery slope that wound up a steep mountain a few times a day to feed the massive flock of Rheus Langur monkeys that lived in the vicinity of three small temples.

We’d given the Amer Fort a full morning before hiring Ali to take us to the Mughal markets for shopping. But I was still faced with the decision of whether or not I’d want to ride an elephant up to the magnificent, sprawling residence. We spent the breezy night up on Hotel Kaylan’s terrace restaurant, sipping fizzy soda water flavored with lime and salt. While Hayley settled something with her bank, I dove into researching elephant treatment in Rajasthan. 

Part of the hesitation about the ride came from participating in the Travel Blogging Calendar to raise money for Thai elephants. After being clued in to exactly what happens to elephants when they are tamed there, I would have been horrified to support a rehabilitating practice.

I was encouraged to learn that the Indian Government opened and has sponsored an elephant compound since 2010, meant to be a refuge for the pachyderms and a tourism center for Indian elephants. There’s also an Elephant Wellness Office to which abuse and mistreatment can be reported.

The 100+ elephants working at Amber Fort have specific rules about how many trips they can make per day and are limited to two passengers, plus their Mahout, or handler. In fact, most are able to stop working for the day by 11am, before it gets too hot. No downhill trips are permitted.

But get past the first few pages of Google, and the horror stories crop up – elephants dying of heat stroke, of mahouts being trampled to death, of lack of funding for sick and suffering animals. I didn’t even bother investigating how the animals were trained.

The issue, of course, is not black and white. As animals have traditionally been domesticated by man for millennia, and this sort of tourism is crucial to many communities in India, I began to weigh those points as well. The Novio has trained horses and dogs, and his family relies on animal to earn their living, so would I be hypocritical by refusing to take the ride when I’ve ridden horses and camels?

By the time we went to sleep, I was still uneasy about the decision I’d have to make. I’d imagined elephants would be a part of my India experience, just as dosas and a guru reading my chakras and learning to drive a tuk tuk were.

Ali showed up early the following day to pick us up and take us for a lassi before driving to the palace. He pulled off the road adjacent to the Maota Lake and asked: to the elephants, or are you walking up?

I had asked his opinion on the ride, and he admitted that he wouldn’t think about doing it. Ever. Full stop. Ali is a spiritual and respectful man, so I trusted his judgement.

We set off walking, having to dodge hawkers and other tourists on the ramp and stairs that lead to the Suraj Pol, or Sun Gate.

When I saw my first elephant, trunk decorated with paint, I gasped. Having only seen elephants in zoos, I couldn’t believe I was just a few paces away from one – so surprised, in fact, that I narrowly missed a pile of fresh poop.

The climb itself was incredible, and we passed by the elephants through narrow gates. I didn’t, for one second, regret my decision to forgo the ride – it looked shaky, so I wouldn’t have gotten any good photos anyway.

Watching the passengers dismount in the lower courtyard, called the Jaleb Chowk, the elephants turned around and went back the way they came. I couldn’t deny that it was beautiful to watch them sway as they left the sun gate and went back for the next batch of passengers. 

Elephants, in Hindu culture, represent strength, prowess in war, majesty and royalty, and a vehicle to the divine world. But in no way does a vehicle to the divine world mean sitting on top as the elephant trudges up a slope.


This article was written as part of Contiki Storytellers’s campaign for Costa Rican sea turtles (please watch the video above!). Animals are an important part of ecosystems, after all. I cannot tell you it’s right or wrong to ride an elephant in India or Thailand or elsewhere, merely that you investigate and make the decision based on your personal feelings. I am not a conservationist or an animal rights activist – I’m just a traveler who didn’t feel right taking an elephant ride. I was not paid for this article.

What’s your take on animal tourism? I’d love to hear from other bloggers like Green Global Travel, Wanderlusters and Hole in the Donut, who are into responsible tourism.

The Amer Fort is located 11 kilometers from Jaipur in the village of Amer and is open daily from 7:30am until 5:30pm. Foreigners pay a 200 rupee entrance fee (about 3€). The cost of riding an elephant is 1000 rupee for two people, plus a tip for the driver.

Is Neuschwanstein Castle Worth It?

Sometimes, as a traveler, I struggle with taking the road less traveled and getting off the beaten path. I also struggle with not using idioms because I not-so-secretly love them.

Anyway, I am the first to admit that I love what everyone else does. Duh, that’s how they get popular in the first place.

Munich has always been a city in the back of my mind to see, just as Spain was since I first learned to say, “Me llamo Cat.” After attending Oktoberfest, I was hooked. Taking advantage of having my family’s arrival to the Munich Airport for our Viking cruise, I planned three nights in Bavaria.

I knew I could see Munich in a day, exploring its Christmas markets and beer halls with my cousin, which left me a full day for going elsewhere. Top contenders were Dachau, Nuremburg and Neuschwanstein Castle.

By the time I boarded my flight, I was still undecided and started considering whatever was cheaper. 

I arrived to my hostel after midnight, falling asleep with the internal wrestle of to do what was popular and what was probably better for the history nerd in me. The following morning, as I set off to meet Christyn, a group of Brazilians introduced themselves and revealed they’d be renting a car to drive to Neuschwanstein the following morning, in case I felt like joining. I politely turned the invitation down, imagining I’d choose to go to Dachau.

An hour later, as we sipped our first glühwein in front of the Rathaus, I announced my plight: visit a castle, pay respects at Dachau, or nerd out in Nuremburg. Christyn revealed Neuschwanstein was one of her favorite sites in all of Germany (this, from the girl with just as much adventure and curiosity as me, just types “schloss” into her GPS and follows the highway to a different castle on free weekends). Without so much as a second thought, I resolved to follow her advice.

The following morning, I boarded the first train out to Füssen, the end of the line. The train was chock-full of tourists, and I cursed the 44€ train ticket and the two-hour trip and the two girls seated opposite me who talked on their phones the entire time. I was moderately hung over from all of the wine and beer yesterday, and my stomach churned from overdoing it on the sausages, too. 

The landscape went from industrial to flat and without so much as a trace of a village for hours. By the time we got to Füssen, a small town near the foothills of the Alps, I’d gotten over myself. Like cattle, everyone emptied out of the carriages and directly onto the bus bound for Hohenschwangan. I kept my nose pressed to the glass to see the fairytale castle that inspired a hundred, um, fairytale castles, but the swarm of fellow tourists gasped as it came into sight. 

Built as a retreat for Ludwig II in the 1870s and 1880s, the castle is visited by more than 1.4 million people each year. On a crisp day just before Christmas, the whole place was alive with activity, and I felt like there were 1.4million people there with me. I chose to walk on foot to the nearby Hohenschwangau castle first.

I overheard two other tourists claim that the best, unconstructive view of Neuschwanstein could be seen from the chapel built right into the mountain. I eagerly climbed, Camarón ready, but it was hard to see the celebrated castle. 

Already feeling a bit disappointed with German Disneyland, I decided to forgo entering the castle, as I already felt overwhelmed by the number of tourists, the wait time (nearly two hours!) and the cost of the guided tour (12€ or 23€ to go into Hohenschwangau, too). The train ticket had already cleaned me out of cash, so I grabbed a grabbed a glühwein at a small cafe in town before starting the trek up the hill.

The thing about traveling alone is that you have no one to pull you one way or another and no one to take pictures of you. I grumbled as I looked for someone who spoke English or Spanish to take my picture (see above). In the two hours I’d spent at Neuschwanstein, I didn’t feel inspired or awed or even able to find a reason why it was worth making the trip.

In the end, I didn’t think visiting Neuschwanstein was worth the day or the money. The train trip was long, the cost to visit the castle itself was steep, and I worried I’d have to photoshop the hell out of my photos to remove the other baseball caps and elbows that surely snuck into my shots.

Don’t get me wrong – I will go to the Eiffel Tower every time I am in Paris, and I will enjoy it. I gleefully step into Plaza Mayor in Madrid and marvel at the fact that it was once a bull ring. Seeing the Taj Mahal was an intense experience between the heat, the people and the sheer beauty of the place.

But Neuschwanstein didn’t do it for me, even after I’d braced myself for the tourists, the prices and the cold.

Turning on my data to search GoEuro for busses back to the train station, I found I had enough time to walk down the hill, grab a few postcards and stand in line for the bus back to Füssen, where I would kill nearly two hours before the train back to Munich (and I ran into the Brazilians there, after an all night binge).

Füssen, as it turned out, was a lovely surprise to end the day. The Christmarket on the main shopping street was small but lively, and the morning bustled with shoppers and partygoers. I camped out on a bench with a beer and a bratwurst and listened to Tyrolean horns toot out Christmas carols.

Later that night, after wandering in the Christmas markets, I called the Novio in the hostel’s atrium before saddling up to the bar for another weisserbier. The bartender addressed me in Spanish, confessing to having overheard me on the phone. Inquiring about my time in Munich, I recounted my day and my disappointment with the castle.

My heart sunk when he told me that I could have bought a youth pass or even used my Carnet Joven to get a hefty discount on the train at 10am, something I would have known if I had actually done more research, as I intended to. I gulped down my beer and ordered another, sharing travel tales with the worldly bartender. Like many travel fiascos, a drink and a laugh do me wonders.

I’d consider going back for half the cost, and perhaps during the warmer months. I feel at home in the mountains, despite being from the Prairie State, and find Neuschwanstein more breathtaking in the summer. 

Love Germany? Been to the-Castle-with-the-Impossible-Name? Or have destinations that didn’t live up to your expectations? Check out my other posts that you’ll liebe:

A Guiri Guide to Oktoberfest // Passau, the City on Three Rivers // Karnevals of Cologne


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