Category Archives: Staff Picks

Top 10 Must-See Spots Along the California Coast

California is a dream for travelers. It’s a synonym for freedom, a state where everything seems possible. The coast, which is probably one of the most beautiful on earth, is not an exception. Renting a car and riding the mythic Highway 1 from San Francisco to San Diego, driving through Los Angeles, discovering lesser-known, picturesque cities, and exploring some incredible landscapes, that is California. As we want you to have the best experience possible in the Golden State, we listed the top 10 must-see spots that will make for a memorable journey along this spectacular coast.

10 // Santa Cruz

If you’re looking for a spot to sunbath and have some boardwalk fun, Santa Cruz will warmly welcome you only 75 miles south of San Francisco. The city is well-known for its iconic pier. No matter what age you are, you’ll find something here that will put a smile on your face. But Santa Cruz is much more than this strip of beach and plywood. After the pier, be sure to take in the beautiful Redwood Forest and impressive caves that make up the heart of the city.

9 // Monterey

A lot of history belongs to the city of Monterey, a Northern California town situated in the southern edge of the Monterey Bay. It was the property of Spain in the 17th century, prompting one of the only known naval battle on the West Coast in 1818 when Argentina attacked the city to loosen Spain’s hold on California. California pledged allegiance to Mexico when it won its independence a few years later, but of course, the US claimed it during the Mexican-American War in 1946. But this city doesn’t only enjoy a rich history; it boasts beautiful sandy beaches and a perfect balance of city life and sleepy suburbs. This is the place for tourists who want to discover what California really looks like.

8 // Morro Rock

Located in the south of Big Sur, Morro Rock is a volcanic plug that is proudly displayed just off the shore of Morro Bay. Almost like a tiny peninsula, it’s connected to the land by a small road that makes it accessible by foot though climbing on the rock is forbidden. Several types of birds nest on the rock including diverse cormorants and gulls species. The place also serves as a reserve for the endangered Peregrine Falcons.

7 // Carlsbad

Located in northern San Diego County, Carlsbad is somewhat of a seaside resort city that locals like to call “The Village by the Sea.” Not as touristy as Santa Barbara but equally as interesting, Carlsbad enjoys a semi-arid Mediterranean climate. Plenty of cafes and restaurants surround the streets, and as the 5th richest city in the state of California, it’s also full of luxury shopping. Seriously, when you enter Carlsbad you automatically smell the air of a very privileged city. Whether you live there, vacation there or simply pass through during a roadtrip, you’ll feel like royalty.

6 // Half Moon Bay State Beach

Four miles of protected and wild beaches — that’s what the Half Moon Bay State Beach is made of. People enjoy coming to this preserved nature beauty for fishing or just relaxing, enjoying the scenery and sunbathing. If you’re a golfer you will appreciate the world-famous course nestled on a cliff. Next to that, and if you want to stay a little longer, the splendid Ritz Carlton is waiting for you for an unforgettable experience where you are going to spend some magical nights with an incredible view over the ocean. If you prefer to get a real connection with the nature and the surroundings, you will also have the option to camp on the beach. In Half Moon Bay, you are guaranteed to live in a series of timeless moments.

5 // McWay Falls

A little further up than the Bixby Creek Bridge but still in the Big Sur area, you’ll discover another gorgeous landscape known as McWay Falls. Situated in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, it features a 24m waterfall surrounded by a wild and green nature. Get your cameras ready to take amazing pictures worthy of postcards. Fun fact: This place was also made popular Eminem, who featured it in his music video for “I Need a Doctor,” which has almost 300 millions views on Youtube.

4 // La Jolla

The hilly seaside community of La Jolla is a neighborhood in San Diego. Literally synonym of paradise, it showcases a great variety of boutiques, restaurants and lodging. La Jolla is a lovely place to end your Californian road trip if you’re traveling down the coast. It’s also the perfect spot for people who want to experiment in an incredible metropolitan area while also being short drives away from some calm, serene nature.

3 // Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara’s reputation is well-establish. As one of the most authentic and charming cities in California, Santa Barbara is a key venue of your journey through the Golden State. With its white houses and colorful shopping streets we have the impression of being transported directly in the south of Spain. But the high palms and the never-ending beach remind us well that we are in California. Whether you enjoy enjoy hiking, nightlight, water sports or fine dining, Santa Barbara is perfect for the whole family.

2 // Brixby Bridge

Located in northern Big Sur, The Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed and mythical bridges in California. The only way to go there is by riding the Highway 1. 120 miles south of San Francisco and 13 miles south of Carmel, the bridge suddenly appears on the twisting road as a beautiful surprise. It is surrounded by luxurious vegetation and faces the west coast with it’s expansive blue ocean and picturesque sandy beach. This scenery is truly unique to California.

1 // Carmel

Carmel is probably the most picturesque and bucolic village along the coast. With its iconic brick houses and thatched rooftops that will recall the English countryside, it’s hard not to fall in love with this little jewel of a town that seems living out of time. The famous actor Clint Eastwood used to be Carmel’s mayor and he still owns a ranch with a hotel and restaurant. In the center of the village, art lovers will find several galleries and little boutiques. Carmel’s beach is also one of the most charming in California. In fact, this small city represents the perfect definition for beauty, pleasure and luxury.

Lavaux and Its Surroundings: A little taste of paradise

My name is Loris and I’m originally from Switzerland. You know, this little country which is in central Europe and where we have more than one language, yes we do…
French, German, Italian and Romansh are the four languages that we speak. (Mostly German and French). I used to learn Italian and German at school as I am a French native speaker and now I have an insatiable desire to travel all around the world. That is exactly the reason why 6 months ago, I crossed the Atlantic Ocean, to San Francisco, to discover a new country, a new culture and a new way of life. After having taken English Class for half a year, I’m now working at Wcities as an intern for 3 months. A company where I can share my passion for travel.
Even if I really want to discover the whole world, I have to admit that I feel grateful to live in Switzerland which is a beautiful and peaceful country. And particularly the area of Lavaux where I grew up, and that is exactly where I am going to take you today.

First of all, Lavaux is well-known for it’s wine of great personality which is one of the best in the country. Indeed, with more than 850 hectares of terraced vineyards stretching for almost 19 miles this wine area is one of the largests in Switzerland. So if you are a wine lover this is definitely the place to visit!

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A Taste of Wine

Pinot Noir from the little village of Villette, Sauvignon from Montreux or Chardonne, are some that you must try while you are visiting the vineyards. Swiss wine is not really famous outside the country but it should be! I don’t say that because I am a wine lover who is from this part of the country but rather because it is the truth and any oenologists would tell you so.

Lavaux can be compared to the Mosel, a German wine region because of its similar scenery. We can find every sort of wine in the different wineries along Lavaux. Red, white or rosé are appreciated by everyone. The most famous variety is probably the Chasselas grape which is used to produce white wine. I like it a lot because it’s fruity and dry. Can you imagine yourself drinking one or two glasses with some Swiss cheese (the perfect match) on a terrace, enjoying the view at the beginning of spring or the warm weather of summer? I am sure you can and I can as well because of having done that more than once.

A Taste of Serenity

Either enjoying a good wine with an amazing view over Lake Léman (otherwise known as Lake Geneva but as I am from Lutry I cannot use this name), or just having a walk on a sunny afternoon, Lavaux will satisfy every one of you. Nothing but the view clearly worth it. While you are walking across the little paths, why don’t you stop by one of the many little villages surrounding Lavaux? You will probably find some wine-growers who will be very happy to inform you about the vineyard or answer some of your questions. Lavaux starts from Lutry, my hometown, directly to Montreux a touristy city at around 15 miles away. If you are brave enough you can walk throughout (or just a bit is enough) and spend some time there because there is not only Lavaux to visit but also those villages full of surprise and history.
Montreux is a popular nearby city, made famous by the annual Montreux Jazz Festival, the second largest Jazz Festival in the world(!) at which, for example, Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams and Lady Gaga have performed. Not only that, but some celebrities used to live in Montreaux like Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. After you have tried a variety of wine, go down to the lake and visit the famous Chillon Castle from the XII century which is one of the most visited attractions in the country.

Chillon Castel

Montreux

This part of Switzerland is probably one of the most prestigious. Lavaux of course plays a main role, but not only. If you prefer to hang around the lake you are free to do so. You can easily walk from Montreux to Cully, another village, directly in the vineyard or by the lake. If you choose the second option you can also rent a pedal boat and try to go to France on the opposite side of the lake which is half Swiss and half French. Maybe it is to ambitious… If it’s your goal, you should better rent a motor boat and reach Evian and Ivoire which are especially beautiful.

A few miles from Montreux and still near Lavaux, you can go to Vevey. This little city is one of my favourites because less touristy than Montreux. There is also more to do than in my hometown. If you are a movie fan you probably know Charlie Chaplin who used to live there with his wife and his 4 children. From last year a museum about his life has been created. Called Chaplin’s World, this amazing foundation take you across the time and through the fantastic world of cinema. But as we are starting spring and the good weather is coming, let stay outside and continue our walk through Lavaux.

A Taste of history

Since 2007, Lavaux has the luck to be part to the UNESCO which is a specialized agency reunited the most beautiful places around the world for their preservation. As I said earlier, Lavaux is surrounded by a lot of small villages. Grandvaux, Epesses or Aran are few of them.

Grandvaux

Some of the winegrowers houses around the vineyard date back to the 16th century. It’s a constant battle for people who live there from decades to ask for their renovation in a way that doesn’t adulterate the landscape. However, all the villages around Lavaux are not so small. Indeed, Lausanne (3 miles from Lutry) is the 4th most populated city of Switzerland. Starting to feel sick of the calm and looking for more life? It is not a big deal, I suggest you to visit this city. If you are keen on history you will certainly be happy. Therefore, there are also a lot of shops or restaurants where you can buy clothes or eat one of the specialities such as a fondue.. Miam. Lausanne often reminds me San Francisco because it is also really steep. Always going upstairs and downstairs, it’s good for the calfs! Particularly if you want to visit the gorgeous cathedral which is the biggest in the country, you will have to walk a lot to deserve it!

Old Lausanne

A Taste of Luxury

To conclude, I want to share with you my favourite bar, in the center of Lavaux, which is considered to have one of the best views in the world and I am sure you will see why.

Le Deck overlooks all of Lavaux. I have to admit that the prices are maybe a little expensive but it’s worth a visit. When you arrive by car, you are not sure what to expect. You enter to the bar, have a seat one of the comfortable chairs and suddenly the landscape appears totally out of the blue. This view is so breathtaking, that you feel hypnotized and cannot take your eyes off this beautiful scenery.

The view from Le Deck located in Chexbres

The outside of the bar

Please, don’t be in a rush if you decide to have a drink there, because when you order your cocktail or glass of wine, which go well with some appetizers, the waiter is certainly going to take forever. But don’t panic, just enjoy the moment. You can expect to pay $14 for a cocktail and $10 for a glass of cabernet sauvignon. After enjoying your drink, if you like, you can continue the evening by having dinner just next door at Le Baron Tavernier, (same owner). Unfortunately, I’ve never been there–too expensive for a student.

I guess that when, in a relatively short time or not, I go back to Switzerland, walking around Lavaux will be one of the first things that I am going to do. These are my roots and even if I am curious about the world I don’t think I can deny it one day. As I said I grew up in this area and I was used to spend a lot of time there. Hanging around with friends or winding down after a tiring day. To live near Lavaux makes me feel joyful and it’s for me like a way out. So see you there!

Once upon a time, in a land called Marseille

I am going to tell you a story about a city in France. Everybody all over the world knows Paris, but my story is about a town in the South of the France. Maybe some of you had heard about it, maybe in a positive way or maybe in the negative way. This city, snuggled up at the heart of Provence and on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, is also commonly known as la Cité Phocéenne (The Phocaean City). Marseille, town of a thousand facets, fascinating and bewilderingly complex, is my city.

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Marseille, Land of Immigrants

I was born in Marseille in 1984, to Italian immigrants parents. Why Marseille? Because  for many people who make the choice to leave their country, the city has a big port open on the Mediterranean sea. Near Spain, Italy and North Africa, the town has welcomed many different culture over the years. When you are in Marseille, you just need to drive 3 hours to cross the Italian border. Easy! The new inhabitants arrive also by boat, trying to built a better life. Marseille has never closed its arms in front of any wave of immigrants. This made it strong, a multicultural city. Everything isn’t perfect, because some differences can create conflicts. Indeed, language, religious, or cultural differences can cause real integration problems. Despite that, Marseille stays the most welcoming city in France, a town where my siblings and I have grown up and where we proudly carry our Italian heritage and our dual citizenship.

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Marseille, Land of  Authenticity

If you like beautiful and authentic attractions, Marseille is made for you. When I think about my city, I can’t forget the smell of the sun on my skin, its daylight beauty, and its mysterious side at sunset. Rich in history, Marseille is where ancient architecture combines with the new face of the city. The first thing to do, even if you aren’t catholic, is to visit la Basilique Notre Dame de Garde, commonly refer by the Marseillais to “La Bonne-Mère.” Built on the hill overlooking the town at 490 ft, the view on the top is wonderful. The best moment is early in the morning when everything is still quiet. With a 360 degree view of the city, it was consecrated on June, 5th, 1864, and each year, the pilgrimage for the Assumption Day, on August 15th is really popular event. This Neo-Byzantine church supports a monumental statue of the Madonna and her child, which is 27 feet tall and made of copper gilded with gold leaf. La Bonne- Mère, is the guardian and the protector of Marseille. The other religious site is La Cathédrale de la Major, built from 1829-1874, in a Byzantine-Roman style. With a capacity of 3,000 seats, it’s one of the largest cathedrals in France. It’s 469 ft long, with a main cupola of 231 ft high.

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But in Marseille, there is another strong religion: football. Not in general, but the football team of the city, l’Olympique de Marseille (OM). Taking place in the famous Stade Vélodrome, the night of home matches are events not to be missed. The ambiance and the fans are considered  as the best all over the world.  Built in 1937, the stadium welcomes 67,394 spectators and is also used for shows. Indeed, le Vélodrome is a wonderful stage for several artists, such as The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Police and AC/DC. The other site associated to the team is La Commanderie, it’s the training center of l’OM. Many fans from all over the world come to see their idols and dedicate jerseys.

The town is also known for its different authentic districts, such as le Panier, which is located in the oldest part of the city and surrounded by famous places such as l’Hôtel de Ville, les Grands Carmes and La Joliette. With narrow streets, shops and its own old architecture, the district is considered the most picturesque place in Marseille. It’s defined as a popular area because it was the first place of the immigrants in the city.  It soon became a tourism venue and many artists opened studios because Le Panier served as a place of inspiration as for the famous local TV show, Plus Belle la vie, shot in Marseille. You can also visit La Vieille Charité, a a museum and a cultural center and former almshouse for the poor. This Baroque structure was constructed between 1671 and 1749 by the architect Pierre Puget. It is filled with beautiful architecture such as structure with pink and yellow tinted stones. In the center of the courtyard a round church was built. If you continue to walk, you will arrive on the MuCEM, (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations), inaugurated on June 7th, 2013, the year Marseille was designated as the European Capital of Culture. The museum is near the wonderful site of the 17th century le Fort Saint-Jean, built by Louis XIV at the entrance to the port. The two places are linked by a high footbridge.

There are so many places to see that the best way for you to take it all in will be to book a ticket and fly Marseille. But if you want more right now, I of course have to talk about le Vieux Port (the Old Port), which is located at the the end of the most historic street of Marseille, La Canebière. Since 2013, it’s mainly for pedestrians with few cars. Each morning it welcomes the fresh fish of fishermen. It is the historic and cultural center of the city since it dates back to sixth century BC. From the port you could take the ferry boat to visit the islands of the Phocaean City, such as, the archipelago of Frioul and le Château d’If, fortress and prison known for being one of the settings of Alexandre Dumas novel, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo.

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If you continue towards the Southern districts, you will follow the ledge called la Corniche du Président John Fitzgerald Kennedy, named after US President Kennedy. It extends from Les Catalans beach to Le Prado and its famous for its naked statue of David. It offers one of the most beautiful landscapes of Marseille, with the Mediterranean Sea and its islands on the horizon. On the way you could see the famous fishermen sheds, “cabanons”,  houses of the 19th century (Villa Valmer, Villa de Gaby Deslys), hotels and famous restaurants (Le Petit Nice, Peron, Chez FonFon), where you could stop to eat the inimitable, bouillabaisse (fish soup). Under La Corniche, hides the little but picturesque port of Vallon des Auffes, where the time seems to have stopped.

I can’t finish this part without talking about the amazing Calanques de Marseille. The massif is the best place to hike and climb with is wild and rugged landscape between Marseille and Cassis. The site is the one of France’s great natural beauties. The geology and ecosystems are protected — In 2012, the Calanques were declared National Parks due to their uniqueness. Even though nowadays we can’t visit it, the Cosquer cave is located underwater, in the Calanque de Morgiou. It’s a cave of the Paleolithic area, covered with paintings and engravings of animals dating between 27,000 and 19,000 BC. The Calanques can be see by boat and if the weather allows you should swim in this warm, blue water. But please be a responsible tourists! Protect this land of dreams.

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Marseille, Land of Pleasure

Oh my taste buds quiver with pleasure evoking the food in my city. Okay, I’m vegetarian but even though Marseille has the best fish restaurants, we are also known for the best pizza. Remember, Marseille is a city of immigrants with close proximity to Italy. We are the city with the most pizza in France. In each area, you can smell tomato sauce and wood fire. I could damn myself for one of these piece! If you want make your own pizza, the best venue is Sapori di Napoli. It’s a little Trattoria in Château-Gombert’s district, which combines a shop full of Italian products with a restaurant. The owner, Raffaele Paparone, imports products such as the mozzarella di Bufala, Panettone, wine and deli meat from Napoli.

If you like different kinds of food, I recommend la Baie du Dragon. It’s a Vietnamese restaurant on Notre Dame du Mont district. The place is perfect for vegetarians and the chocolate nems are just divine. It’s my king of headquarter, the go-to for when I have to celebrate something, such as my departure for the USA.

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In Marseille you can easily find all kind of restaurants — Indian, Italian, French, Moroccan, Japanese etc, and for all your events. Even though Marseille has some good restaurants, for me, the best place remains my family home, with the real meals made by la Mamma. But take your ticket and wait your turn, because I can’t invite you all in the same day.

It’s time to say goodbye to Marseille, with a little twinge in my heart, thinking about these venues, the food and my mother’s arms. But do you smell the perfume of the Mediterranean? Do you smell the garlic, tomatoes, basil and olive oil? Do you smell the flavor of freedom?

If yes, you are made for Marseille, the city of the Epicurean

Sorry, I have to leave you, it’s now time for l’apéro, (a kind of happy hour, after work where you drink and eat snacks), the most important moment in a day in Marseille, to drink the legendary Pastis.

Allez santé! Salute! (Cheers!)

Restaurant Review: Ryoko’s

A few blocks from Union Square, tucked away on Taylor Street (between Sutter and Post) you’ll find Ryoko’s. This late night, hole-in-the-wall sushi joint has been turning out quality sushi, sashimi, and other Japanese fare for the past 23 years.

With its nondescript entrance, Ryoko’s can be pretty easy to miss—that is, unless you go during peak hours and see the line of people out the door. The restaurant is actually located below street level, so once you step inside you descend a set of stairs to reach the dining area. The atmosphere inside is warm and inviting. Cave-like, even. It’s the type of place where you think “Cool, I had no idea this place was here.” Lighting is dim, ceilings are low, and the walls are painted a deep cobalt blue. The brightly-lit sushi bar takes up half the space, while small tables set close together take up the rest. There’s a baby grand piano squeezed in amidst everything too, though I have yet to see anyone play it.  Overall it’s cozy and lively.

Everyone that arrives is greeted by the staff with a boisterous “IRRASSHIMASE!” which means “welcome” in Japanese. It’s in all caps because they literally shout it at you. With Ryoko’s being the popular place that it is, people are always walking in so you hear a constant sing-song of “IRRASHIMASE!” throughout the night. It’s not too noticeable though, given the high decibel degree. If anything, it just adds to the friendly and jovial vibe of the place.

On to the food.  The food here is simple, not flashy.  It’s best to order from the daily specials board above the bar. That’s where you’ll find the freshest stuff. If they have it, I recommend the Hamachi Toro (toro being the fattiest part of the fish). It’s flown in from Japan so it’s not too cheap—usually $9 for two pieces—but my god, the flavor and buttery texture…perfection!

Hamachi Toro (and some other fish I can’t remember)

The sushi rolls are decent. They’re not fancy, but they’re executed nicely and the fish is always fresh. However, the portion sizes are a bit small in comparison to other places of the same caliber quality and price range. [SIDE NOTE: for fancy sushi at reasonable prices, check out Sushi Bistro in the Richmond.] Specialty rolls range from $7-$14.50 and usually only comprise of five pieces (sometimes six, if it’s a smaller roll). Continue reading

I Want to Go to There: A history nerd’s look at London museums

It’s no shock that history nerds love museums. And when said history nerd is also an Anglophile, a trip to London is not just a vacation, but a pilgrimage. Having been to London several times, there are some museums I never get tired of no matter how much time I spend there, or how little it changes from year to year. As any true history nerd can attest, some things are just too awesome to only see once.

British Museum

Of all the museums in Europe, the is usually in every sightseer’s Top Five. It’s a no-brainer, and for very good reason. It’s amazing. One of my former college professors once described it as “a staggering assemblage of pillaged artifacts from all over the world.” There are too many awe-inspiring relics to even mention. One of my favorite galleries features what’s known in Britain as the Elgin Marbles and known to the rest of the world as “Pieces of the Parthenon that Greece wants bluehost back.” It’s an incredible gallery that I never tire of, no matter how much time I spend there. Truly, you can’t go wrong in the British Museum, but if you need some suggestions on where to start, check out the BBC series which traces the development of human society through the museum’s collection. I will leave you with one tip though. The first time I went, I completely missed the Rosetta Stone because of the crowd of people surrounding it, so if you want a decent view and are short like me, use your elbows.

Pillaged statuary in the Enlightenment Gallery

Some of the famed Elgin Marbles

National Gallery

Admittedly, this wasn’t originally on my list of must-see museums, since my “interest in paintings” threshold is relatively low. However, it was a rainy day in and I really needed a restroom so I thought, “why not?” features art from 1250-1900 by everyone from Da Vinci to Van Gogh. Like most major London museums, the building is incredibly beautiful, with architecture from the Late Georgian and Victorian periods. All in all, even if classical art isn’t high on your priority list, the National Gallery is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. Continue reading