Coffee Break: Roots

It’s a testament to how busy life has been that I’m writing this blog post at zero hour, hurrying up to get it out on time! You have all been so faithful over the transition and while I really haven’t gotten any feedback I hope that I will over the next weeks as we transition along with my life in Texas. This week I want to share a great coffee find in the Dallas- Fort Worth area with you: Roots. With two locations in the DFW area, I’m fonder of the North Richland Hills coffee shop, inconvenient as the location might be for someone like me. Still, the great atmosphere, good baked goods and fabulous coffee are a big draw, and the great service doesn’t hurt either. From the unique blends of coffee constantly being rotated in the shop (think Bolivian, Peruvian, Ethiopian and many more) to the sausage rolls and cranberry muffins, this place is definitely worth a stop. While no longer truly off the beaten track, you can still always find a table. Hottest tip– don’t miss the lemon cake!

IMG_2721

Life Lately

Hello friends! It’s been two weeks, but since I’ve left Florence, and my travels are completed (for the moment!), I wanted to give you guys an idea of what’s going on and what to expect going forward.

I was very lucky to have not just six months in Italy on study abroad, but another year afterwards. Some people fall in love with Italy and stay for a lifetime. It’s extremely difficult to do so, and I have friends struggling with “stay or go” decisions all the time. I, however, always knew Italy was not my destiny and returned to the place I currently call home, Dallas, at the end of August after traveling for a few weeks (see previous featured posts). It is an experience that I will treasure, and I’m not sure if I will stay in Texas forever, but being closer to family (I have cousins in high school and grandparents in the area) was a big priority for me right now.

So what should you expect going forward? I’m still figuring that out myself, and I would love any input you have in the comments! I’ll be moving to a biweekly posting for now, while I sort things through. I’ll be sharing bits of my life here in Texas with you, and my travels will continue, though for the moment they will be staying closer to home. I’ll be hitting local events like the State Fair (note the photo, though Big Tex has been updated since due to a fire). I’ll be back in two weeks, and in the meantime, please share any ideas or preferences in the comments below. All the best!

The Next Chapter: En Italia

For the few faithful and the newly discovering, welcome! I’ve spent the last few months working first in Washington, D.C. where I studied during college and then in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania, and I’m thrilled to be announcing my next chapter of life: I’m moving back to Italy! I studied abroad in Florence during the spring semester of my junior year and loved living in Europe and having a more relaxed pace of life. This spring I went to a symposium on Spanish art at the Meadows Museum in Dallas and met a professor there who recommended an arts school in Florence to me that she described as “affordable.”

For those of you who are also recent grads, you will understand that my definition of affordable pretty much runs along the lines of dirt cheap or free, so I was skeptical, but decided to check out the school anyway. On their homepage was a tiny box advertising “Studio Monitor Art Residencies,” which I learned is basically an opportunity to work at the school in exchange for use of the facilities and one class per semester. I applied, and found out in June that I was accepted! One whirlwind (I had to wait until I returned to Texas) visa application later, I’M IN FLORENCE!!!!

I am so excited to share this amazing new adventure with you. In the meantime, if you know anywhere in the area that I definitely should not miss, let me know– I’m always up to try something new, even though I am looking forward to hitting old favorites. Grazie!

DC On a Dime: Part IV

Welcome back for the final week! For those who might just catch this one update, I’ve been sharing some of my handiest tips for traveling the nation’s capitol on a budget. DC can be pricey, but it doesn’t have to be! With just a little bit of planning you can do DC on almost any budget. This week I will be sharing some of my best tips on what to do in the city, and how you can make even the pricier activities affordable.

Washington has a wide variety of activities and events and an overwhelming amount of them are free to the public. Trust me– you’ll never be bored! And you don’t need to spend money on activities unless you absolutely want to. There are also a ton of great day trips near DC that are also free (aside from gas to get there) like the historical Harpers Ferry, WV. But for now, let’s stick within the city limits and check out some of DC’s best.

Free

The Kennedy Center offers great free shows every day at 6 PM on their Millennium Stage. The website offers a performance lineup so you can see what will be playing while you are in town. It’s a great way to see a show without paying a dime! Remember to grab the shuttle from Foggy Bottom metro to save even more.

Hands down the best options DC has are the Smithsonians. There are tons of them, and they are all completely free! The easiest Smithsonians to access are on the National Mall, but in fact the Smithsonian Institution has museums all over the country. If you have a choice, go on a weekday morning… Wednesday mornings were my favorite, and I had the place to myself. Be aware that a TON of tour groups drop off busloads on Sunday afternoons… it’s the absolute worst time to visit. And I recommend eating elsewhere… there are not a lot of dining options unless you are willing to walk a bit outside and all the Smithsonian dining is pricey.

Also, DC hosts many different festivals year round that are free to attend, including the famous Cherry Blossom Festival. The picture below was taken at the National Kite Festival, which is a day-long kite-flying extravaganza on the National Mall.  You can also see the scaffolding on the Washington Monument where they were building it up to repair earthquake damage.

DSC06793

The Laogai Museum is another great museum in DC that you should definitely check out. It’s in Dupont Circle and really offers a unique look at Chinese labor camps. See my previous post for more information.

Not Free

Okay, I know. Your kids or friends or you yourself are dying to get to one of the paid museums in the DC area. Here’s where knowing your stuff comes in. Depending on the museum, sometimes there are discount hours, or even discount tickets. Are you a teacher or a student? Always, always check for discounts. Sometimes it’s beneficial to check for partners if you have a museum membership back home; for example, many zoos and aquariums have partner memberships.

The Spy Museum and the Newseum each cost around $20 for admission; it seems that DC either is free or really expensive! $20 is a lot for me to spend on one museum admission, so I ended up waiting until the Newseum made tickets available on Groupon. Both of these museums as well as others offer deals from time-to-time, so it’s definitely worth checking out, especially if you are planning in advance. Typically admission costs $10 when you get the Groupon. While the Newseum is pricey, there is a hidden benefit: your admission is good for two days, so if you don’t have a ton of time one day you can come back to finish up.

The Philips Collection, a prominent art museum that houses Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, offers discounted admission on Tuesday afternoon/ evenings. Other museums may offer something similar but I’m not sure.

For discount tickets, definitely use your standard discount sites but also check out specific programs. The Kennedy Center offers “Generation O”  for the opera for youth under 26 and another discount ticket program for other tickets. It’s a great way to get AMAZING seats for cheap if you qualify, but remember that for the general shows the discounts are not available every time.

I hope that you have enjoyed learning a little bit more about visiting DC on a budget over the last month. Definitely let me know if you have any questions, or any recommendations that I should check out the next time I make it back! I’ve just relocated for the summer to the Poconos in Pennsylvania, about an hour outside Scranton for my summer job, so new updates will be coming soon!

DC on a Dime: Part III

Welcome back for week three! For those of you who are just joining us, we’re on a little tour to the cheaper side of visiting the U.S. capitol. This week we will be talking about another way to save money on a trip, and that’s cheap eats.

Just because you are on a budget doesn’t mean you have to eat McDonald’s every night, though you certainly could if you wanted to. There are a few good tips that I have in general, and specific to DC for how to save money on one of the few things you can’t ignore while on a trip–your stomach. In DC, it’s easy to spend lots of money, and I freely admit there are a few restaurants where I love to splurge (La Tasca and Matchbox being two of those). However, there are tons of cheaper options out there for the budget-conscious. I’d recommend budgeting to spend around $10-15 on a meal, but you could definitely do it for less. If I’m really feeling tight on cash, I stick to soup: cheap and filling. There are lots of medium-priced options out there, but here are a few faves:

Amsterdam Falafel

More well known for its bar district location and after-drinks food, Amsterdam Falafel is just as good in the daylight. Super cheap and in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, it’s a great stop.

Zorba’s Greek Cafe

Conveniently located in Dupont, Zorba’s is a great cheap Greek restaurant. Offering all the traditional Greek standards, be sure to make time to wait for a table during the rush hour, or grab food to go and take it to a nearby park.

Cava

A chain restaurant similar to Chipotle, it’s Mediterranean style with offerings of hummus, cucumber salad and red pepper sauce as toppings. So long as you don’t spring for the pricier meats, it’s a great bargain. Beware though… load on too many ingredients and the pita is really hard to eat!

Ben’s Chili Bowl

A DC classic, Ben’s is always packed out with locals and tourists alike. It’s worth the buzz, and bring cash to pay. Hot tip: if there’s no seating (a real possibility) head to a nearby neighborhood to grab a seat on a stoop.

With a little bit of research it’s not too difficult to find cheap eats to save some money in DC. Definitely splurge a night or two, but these tried-and-trues can save you some cash while you are out and about! Be sure to check back next week for week 4, the final week of our series on cheap activities in the DC area.

DC on a Dime: Part II

Welcome to week two! For those of you just joining in, over the next couple of weeks I am sharing some of my top tips for visiting DC on a budget. Last week I shared some tips for where you should stay depending on your budget. This week is all about transportation.

Coming

Let’s start at the beginning: how are you going to get into the city? If you live relatively close by you might opt to drive, and depending on where you are staying that might be the cheapest option. Be sure to factor in gas costs and parking costs- I would budget $20/ day, and that’s if you are just going to leave it at your hotel for the duration of your trip.

Most people, however, will be coming from a little further away and as a result probably will not want to drive. That leaves two options: taking the train (for East Coasters) and flying. In my experience, the train has not ever been significantly cheaper than flying, and often it is the same price. You don’t have to deal with security or baggage fees, but it often takes longer, so it’s a personal preference thing. When flying, there are many airlines to choose from, and I’m sure you have your favorite. Personally I prefer to fly the cheapest possible, but when I can I fly Southwest. The number one tip I have for flying is to consider your arrival airport. Southwest started flying into Reagan (DCA) within the last two years and so now all the major airlines fly into the three DC hubs: Reagan, Dulles (IAD) and Baltimore (BWI).

From a cost-alone perspective, it is usually the same or nominally more to fly into Reagan, and here’s why. Even if you save a little money on airfare into a suburban airport, you will pay more to get into the city. Now if you are renting a car or staying in the ‘burbs that’s fine, but for those of you headed into the city center they money you will spend on a cab, or public transport (Amtrak or connecting bus lines), or Super Shuttle will cancel out any savings flying into a different airport the vast majority of the time. If you fly into Reagan, the Metro stops directly at the airport and you can save some cash getting to your lodgings.

Getting around once you’re here

So you’ve managed to make it into the city and dropped your things off at your hotel. That’s definitely my recommendation of what to do first because there are few places you can haul them to and leave them, and you don’t want to drag them around all day. Incidentally I believe Union Station has some lockers, although I have never used them; Reagan does not, more’s the pity. Next up is whatever you have decided you are going to do for the day, and to do that you need transportation.

Now if you have a car, that might or might not be your preferred way of getting around; you will quickly find out that parking in the city center is not only expensive, it’s dang hard to find. But kudos if you have what I once heard someone refer to as “park fu.” If you opt to not drive, the best way of getting around is, hands down, public transport. DC has a variety of options and I’ll go over those with you.

First things first, and my number one money-saving tip in regard to getting around: BUY A SMARTRIP CARD. Yes, it’s a hassle. Yes, you might never use it again. But do you realize that if you don’t you will be allowing WMATA to seriously rip you off? Seriously. For those who don’t know what I am talking about, when taking the Metro/ underground/ whatever your city calls it, you can use either a paper fare card or a reusable, reloadable card. You used to have to go to Metro Center stop to buy one, but now there are automated machines in most stations with varying reliability. BUY ONE, even if you have to check a few stops before you find a functioning machine (and welcome to WMATA’s incompetence). If you do not buy one, you will pay $1 extra every time you take the Metro, and that’s IN ADDITION TO the fact that the fares are already a premium from the fares paid on a plastic card.

You can also use the SmarTrip card on buses and the Circulator, which I highly recommend, because here’s another tip: Bus drivers WILL NOT give you change, nor do they care if you have to pay an extra dollar or three because you only had a 5. If you plan on paying cash, take small bills (I believe it’s $1.80 for the bus and $1 for the Circulator). And another tip: take the bus and the Circulator! Spend that little bit of extra time to figure out what goes where. I made the mistake of thinking it was too complicated and definitely could have taken them a lot more when I was in school and saved myself some money. The buses go everywhere and the Circulator hits all the main stops, including Dupont, Georgetown, etc. Since I don’t mind walking, I also pay attention when I’m on the Metro and avoid transferring if possible, since that incurs an extra fee. For example, if you’re headed from Dupont Circle (red line) to a museum at Farragut West (orange and blue), you can actually exit at Farragut North (red line) and avoid that change fee and still be in the same square, just a different corner. Sometimes this takes a little more work, but if you’re really pinching pennies, it helps.

Two more quick tips, and then I’m off for the week. Number one: if you are going to a performance at the Kennedy Center, they have a shuttle that picks you up directly in front of Foggy Bottom station and drops you off at the front doors— save yourself the horrible parking garage feet and/ or your sore feet. And two— when it comes to escalators, real DC people stand on the right and walk on the left, and no, I’m not kidding. At just about any Metro station the fastest way to really make a DC person angry is to delay them on the way to work by standing on the wrong side of the stairs.

Walk fast and you’ll blend right in! Stay tuned for next week’s update on cheap eats in the city.

DC On a Dime: Part I

Washington, D.C. is one of my very favorite places in the world and having lived there, I know first-hand how pricey it can be to explore. But never fear! DC is actually much more affordable than you might at first think. For the next four weeks I’ll take you through how to make DC really affordable, whether you are headed there on business or for pleasure. So let’s begin!

Week 1: Stay cheap.

Hands down the fastest way to spend your money in the nation’s capitol is on hotels. Like any major city, a place to sleep doesn’t come cheap in DC. Obviously if you are on business you likely don’t have to pay for your travel but for the rest of us finding a good place to crash is key. The number of people in your party will greatly impact where you choose to stay, as well as your plans for your time in the city. Here are my recommendations for where to stay (generally speaking):

If you have…

1 person (just you!):

Hostel it, all the way! Hostels in DC are price comparable to any major city, which means that unfortunately they aren’t going to be cheap. They don’t have to break the bank, either, though, so as long as you are willing to put in a little legwork you can find somewhere reasonable. The last time I was in DC I stayed in a hostel for around $23/ night which given DC prices is not too shabby. However, I had to put in some work to get the rates: because the 8-bunk room was not available both nights, I had to book two separate reservations, one night in a 6-bunk and one night in an 8-bunk, where the price was slightly less. Every penny counts! Keep in mind that hostels in DC levy a “hotel tax” which will usually be in addition to your quoted nightly price.

2 people:

It depends. What do you want to do while you are in DC? Where do you want to go? Will you take public transportation or have a car? All these factors will help you determine whether a hostel in the city center is right for you, or a budget hotel in the ‘burbs. Typically I would recommend hosteling, because it is so much more convenient, but if you have a car parking will be much easier in a hotel or outside the city. Hotels are really not price-friendly for just two people, but if you are looking for a more upscale place to stay some sort of hotel might be a better option. When you combine your hosteling costs ($23 each or $46 total) that doesn’t give you much money to find a hotel room if you want to stay in that budget, and remember that hotels in the city don’t come cheap.

3+ people:

Again, it depends. The more people you are traveling with the higher your combined price to stay at a hostel will be, so it might make more sense for you to stay in a hotel. Be sure to factor in hotel tax and parking costs ($20 night minimum) when you plan. Hotel costs vary widely in DC depending on the company, quality and location, but generally speaking go from a minimum of $100/ night… and quickly go up from there. You could very easily spend $400/ night on a hotel room. It really depends on your preferences, and is also greatly impacted by the season. During the Inauguration, for example, rooms went for about four times their usual rate. During Cherry Blossom Festival, rooms again soar in price, so plan accordingly. If you have them, DC is also a great place to use hotel points.

Just a little bit of planning can save you a lot of money when traveling to the city. I love the Cherry Blossoms and highly recommend visiting to see them, but there are so many amazing things to see in DC that you can really come any time of year. Just know that your entire visit will be impacted, both financially and just everyday in how many people are around and about. By carefully choosing your time to visit, considering how much you want to spend on housing and booking in advance you can start off your DC trip with money in the bank.

Check back next Friday for part 2: getting around for cheap.

A Window Into the Past

DSC06739

Who doesn’t have time for a quickie day trip? If you’re near the East Coast area, particularly DMV area, then West Virginia is a completely feasible day trip, and one definitely worth making. I know what you’re thinking– West Virginia? What on earth is there to see? And I freely admit my own ignorance prior to my trip out there for business. All I knew about West Virginia was that it was where one of my college friends grew up. I soon discovered so much more about it as with my job we took our scholars to visit Harpers Ferry, WV, site of John Brown’s raid.

DSC06751

Above, a scenic view of where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. Below, a view of lower town.

DSC06738

For those of you who know about how much I did before going (hint: nil), John Brown was an abolitionist who finally got fed up and led a raid against Harpers Ferry. Harpers Ferry was significant because it was the site of a federal armory. John Brown thought that the slaves in the area would rise up and join him, and he would provide them with arms to secure their freedom. However, that’s not exactly how it turned out, unfortunately for the main character of our story. No one came to aid John Brown and the few followers that entered Harpers Ferry with him, and their raid was a colossal failure. He was executed shortly thereafter. It was one of the significant events leading up to the Civil War, so I was pretty surprised that I didn’t remember learning anything about it in school (though, I admit, it’s been a while since I’ve studied American History).

Going as a part of an educational group was so fascinating. I gave my students a brief overview of John Brown and the raid, and we played some Civil War true-false (fun fact: West Virginia wasn’t a separate state until Virginia seceded from the Union) and then from there the park rangers, who in all three instances I visited were AMAZING and FABULOUS, I can’t say enough nice things about them, pretty much took over and ran the day. In the morning the kids got to go around to the different areas of the park and learn more about the raid, participate in a debate about joining John Brown, etc, and then in the afternoon they got to do a Civil War reenactment run by the rangers (I think they do this for many different educational groups).

DSC06757

The history is fascinating and the scenery is stunning. Harpers Ferry is located in the middle of the Appalachian Trail, and many hikers use it as a drop point for supplies. I definitely recommend checking it out– and see about hearing from the park rangers if you get a chance, because their knowledge is really priceless!

DSC06745

All-American Pastime

DSC06833

Steee-rike one! Looking for something fun to do? How about grabbing tickets to a Nats game? They are away at the moment, but they will be back in town Tuesday to face off against the Tigers. The weather hasn’t been the greatest for spring in D.C. this year, but don’t let that stop you from checking out a cheap way to spend the evening! Hopefully the spring weather will creep in, but tip #1– if it’s supposed to be cold, pick up some hand warmer packets to take to the game. They were life savers when I was at the game a few weeks ago!

Tip #2: if you’re strapped for cash, don’t waste your money on the “good” seats. Any seat in Nats park is a good seat! Baseball consists of more games than other sports, so the ballpark is smaller than, for example, a football stadium, so even if you’re sitting in the absolute cheapest seats, it really doesn’t seem like you are that far away from the action. Nats stadium in and of itself is great; it has a fantastic location right off the green line, which makes it so affordable since you don’t have to pay for parking, which is pretty expensive. I bought $10 tickets, which ended up costing about $15 apiece once you totaled in the fees. Also, as a heads up (tip #3), know in advance that you must print your own tickets OR use your smartphone. I personally have a paranoia that my phone will sporadically stop working, so I went with the print at home option.

Tip #4: Don’t be too late to the game in case the Nats are playing really quickly and the fourth inning pops around faster than you might think it would. You don’t want to miss the Presidents’ Race! A well-known tradition for the Nationals, the Presidents Race is not to be missed. After they race they stay out on the field to pump up the fans:

DSC06832

You can see the Capitol building from the ballpark, reminding you that even though you are at the game, you’re still in the nation’s capitol. Baseball is infinitely more fun when watched live (at least to me) and when you take a friend along, even in the dull moments you have someone to talk to. As the weather starts to warm up, grab a ticket and head to see the Nats– they’re supposed to do pretty well this season!

Your Dinner Tonight: La Tasca

The debate over the best tapas in D.C. isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon, but next dinner out try La Tasca, one of the city’s best. Tapas aren’t cheap, but when splitting with friends the price never seems too overwhelming. La Tasca has several locations, including an extremely Metro-accessible location in Chinatown. The menu is extensive, offering both standard Spanish tapas such as tortilla española and patatas bravas as well as their own creations, including literally the best eggplant you will ever put in your mouth. It’s fried in this light batter and served with a delicate cheesy sauce that is not to be missed. A side bonus? La Tasca has amazing opportunities for vegetarians, including the previously mentioned eggplant. With options for everyone and a lively crowd, get here early on weekends or come during the week to avoid the inevitable wait.

DSC06766