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Restaurants in Stockholm
We had a definite advantage in our Stockholm restaurant search. Our friend, Johan, whom I mentioned in an earlier post, spends a ton of time in Sweden. His family has a home in Stockholm. He knows the food there. Additionally, another friend, Elizabeth, spent a month there for work and fell in love with the city. She also knows the food there. Most of our meals were based on their recommendations.
Because we were all so tired, we decided to keep the first meal easy. We made a reservation at the Veranda restaurant at the Grand Hotel, which was well known for serving a traditional smorgasbord dinner. Yes, that is a real thing, a classy take on a Golden Corral experience in many ways (if Golden Corral served eight varieties of pickled herring).
I’m mentioning the smorgasbord because I think you just have to do it once if you’re in Sweden. It’s traditional. It’s elaborate. It’s enormous. And, apparently, Veranda is really the best place in town to do it.
As for the food, there were highs and lows. I think herring is an acquired taste, and I simply haven’t acquired it. But there were all types of salads and cured meats, including some of the most spectacular smoked salmon I’ve ever tried. There were warm dishes of lamb, chicken, beef, fish — you name it. We got our first introduction to Swedish potatoes (tiny, peeled new potatoes, laced with butter and sprinkled with dill). Josephine fell madly in love with those potatoes; she literally ate them all over Sweden and Denmark and is still talking about them.
So, while I’m pretty sure we’re not the best buffet candidates around, we had a wonderful time.
Pelikan is a bastion of classic Swedish cuisine. It’s the go-to for incredible meatballs, steamed cod, potato dumplings, and so forth. Eating there, you sort of feel like you’ve stepped back in time. It’s a super old restaurant. Although the current structure has stood for just 110 years or so, which isn’t crazy, Pelikan as an eatery dates back to 1664, when it was a pub and wine cellar. Even today, you can feel the vintage quality of the establishment.
The menu is so hearty and traditional that you’re transported to a time when people didn’t know what carbs were, and the waitstaff is so adept at juggling the heavy, cast-iron pans that bear most of the meaty entrees that you can imagine they’ve been working there for centuries. The cocktail menu is also notably traditional, offering such aperitifs as a Sidecar, a Vesper martini, and a Negroni. No fancy G&Ts or cosmos in this joint. And the martinis were excellent.
The food was also great, if maybe a bit like lead in the stomach later in the evening. Johan told us to order the toast Skagen, a very typical Swedish dish, comprised of teeny-tiny shrimp, mayonnaise, and bleakfish roe. What’s a bleakfish? I didn’t know, either — had to look it up. It’s just a little silver swimmer, nothing to write home about, but the Swedes love it on toast. Anyway, I’m not a fan of mayo, but I thought the toast was very good; Jamil loved it. We also ordered the meatballs because, as it turns out, Swedish meatballs are even more popular in Sweden than they were at 1970s potlucks. Pelikan has clearly perfected the recipe because they were fabulous. Who knew that a few gooseberries could pack such a punch?! We ordered a few other things, as well, like the pork knuckle, the venison, and the potato dumplings. Everything was delicious. It’s not stuff you can eat every day, but it’s a must-visit when you come to Stockholm if you want to understand Swedish comfort food.
This was the best dinner we had in Stockholm. Riche is super hip, so hip that we couldn’t get a reservation on our own. Thankfully, the concierge at the Grand has a little pull, and we got a primetime spot and a great table. Everything about Riche is cool, from the art to the cocktails to the appetizer and entree selections, but it wasn’t so hip that Josephine didn’t feel welcome. And don’t let its hipness fool you! Riche is over 100 years old. It’s a true institution of Stockholm’s culinary culture, serving celebrities, politicians, hipsters, and wayward tourists.
We ordered a whole host of things because the menu was so alluring. We started with the white asparagus appetizer, which blew our minds. We didn’t know it was white asparagus season, and let me tell you, this white asparagus bears no resemblance to anything you’ve had in the past. We’ve had white asparagus all over Spain. It’s always canned or jarred. I always wish that it would taste wonderful, but it never does. Well, it’s canned or jarred in Spain because it’s a long way from Sweden and Denmark to Spain, and I don’t think white asparagus travels well. In Sweden and Denmark, the white asparagus is crisp and delectable. It’s got the mildest of asparagus flavors. It marries well with practically any sauce. At Riche, it was served in a buttery sauce, topped with toasted, slivered almonds and chervil, among other microgreens. We all loved it so much that we continued to order it every time it was on a menu — always with great results.
We also got a steak tartare that’s a staple at Riche, and Josephine tried her first escargots. Laden with finely shredded Parmigiano Reggiano and dollops of creme fraiche, the meat was fresh and flavorful. I think I’ve always sold Sweden short on beef, but I have no idea why. They’ve got more claim to the cow than Americans do, considering the cow only arrived in America in the 15th century, while it’s been grazing in European pastures for millennia. As for the escargots, I can’t say it topped many I’ve had in the States or France, and I wish I could have given Josephine a more decadent intro to snails. She didn’t hate it, but she didn’t ask for another.
Our entrees were all fabulous — Jamil got a halibut, and I shared a vegetarian risotto with Josephine. Everything was cooked and seasoned perfectly. Then, we enjoyed the after-dinner aquavit, served in a bowl of crushed ice — the perfect digestif.
Don’t miss Riche!
Astoria was another one of Johan’s recommendations because his very discerning mother loves it. I could see why. It’s super cool.
We sat in the bar area of the restaurant because I stupidly canceled our reservation and then had second thoughts. By the time I got back on the website to rebook, the table was gone. Note to you: don’t let a reservation at Brasserie Astoria go. So we sat in the uber chic bar area. There was a pretty skillful DJ who played a mix of yacht rock and pop. There was lush greenery dripping from the ceiling. There were beautiful people everywhere.
The drinks and food were quite good, especially the truffle pizza we ordered for Josephine. That’s always her pick if it’s on the menu. I also got mussels because I cannot resist seafood when I’m near the water in a cold climate. It’s always so fresh. The rest of the meal wasn’t terribly memorable, but I’d still recommend it. The service was solid, and it’s an easy walk from the Grand Hotel, right in the shopping district of Ostermalm. Overall, a winner.
This is another classic spot in Stockholm. Lisa Elmqvist is located inside the pristine Saluhall of Ostermalm. It’s essentially one of those quintessential European markets with various vendors of seafood, meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruits — you name it — only the Ostermalm Saluhall is kind of obscenely clean. Yes, that’s a thing. There aren’t any peculiar odors; there are no flies. There are no seeds, wrappers, or napkins on the floor. If anything can serve as a symbol of the difference between Scandinavia and Southern Europe, it’s the Ostermalm Saluhall. This place is literally gorgeous and spotless and amazing.
Lisa Elmqvist is kind of a crowning gem for the Saluhall. Like Pelikan and Riche, Lisa Elmqvist is a deeply entrenched Stockholm establishment, serving the highest quality seafood in the city for over 100 years. It even provides seafood to the Royal Palace. That’s about as great a compliment as a fish shop can get!
Per usual, we tried an array of things. We ordered the petite shrimp that we’d soon learn were practically culinary mascots of Denmark and Sweden. They were a bit challenging to peel, given their tininess, but we got the job done, and they were excellent. Sadly, even shrimp that delicious and sweet couldn’t sway Josephine from her staunch, anti-shrimp position. She turned up her nose at them. We also had to try the salty cold-water oysters, which were clean and delicious, but I can’t help but miss Gulf oysters, which are rarely fishy.
For main courses, Jamil got the smoked eel with scrambled eggs and rye toast, which he adored, and I got the poached salmon plate to share with Josephine, as well as a bowl of Josephine’s prized new potatoes with dill. Again, the food was fabulous, if more than we could really consume.
As I type this now, I wish I could just have one more bite of that salmon. Why did I leave it on my plate? Surely, my stomach could have stretched a centimeter more!
This was such an unexpected lunch win. I really couldn’t believe it. It’s right by the bridge as you walk off the island where all the museums are, on the banks of the canal. It looked like a pretty crappy sandwich shop, but Josephine was starving and irritated, so we had to stop. She couldn’t wait another minute. The menu here is tiny. Just a few sandwiches, including what the restaurant claims is the best grilled cheese in the world. It really might be! We got that and a prosciutto sandwich and prayed for the best. It was such a happy surprise. And the atmosphere was beyond lovely. Everyone was out and about, reveling in the beautiful, sunny warmth of summer. There was so much vibrance and activity that it’s hard to imagine that it’s shrouded in cold and dark for most of the year. If you’re at the ABBA Museum or the Vasa Museum, definitely check this place out for lunch. It’s all good here!
We also stumbled upon Mahalo, a bustling, hole-in-the-wall vegan eatery. As it turns out, Sundays are pretty slow in Stockholm. A lot of restaurants are closed. Almost all the shops are closed. It’s like another world.
Since everything was closed, we set out to explore Sodermalm, the hipster island in Stockholm, where Lisbeth Salander lives in the Stiegg Larssen books. I’d read about a flea market there that looked cool, and a big park where Josephine could run around. Along the way, we started looking for restaurants for lunch, and this was one of the few places that were open.
I’m so glad we found it! Josephine craves Asian noodles and adores tofu. I knew she would jump at the chance to eat the Mahalo “Knivsoder,” described as “glass noodles with fresh herbs, red cabbage and carrot served with fried tofu, peanut sauce, avocado, mango, cilantro and peanut sprinkle.” And she did. Jamil was psyched about the Peas and Love dish, which included falafel, hummus, eggplant, and a bunch of salad-type goodies. I went for the baked oatmeal with oatmilk and puffed quinoa. We felt great about ourselves as we walked out of there — nothing heavy or grimy about that meal.
I believe the restaurant has two locations. It’s an excellent stop for a healthy lunch, and with all the butter, cream, potatoes, and so forth that you may eat in Sweden, your heart will thank you for the opportunity to reset.
Author: Jessica Givens
Stockholm’s Many Museums
Stockholm has so many museums! And on top of that, the city itself is practically a museum, considering the well preserved old town (The Gamla Stan) and the impressive, fifteenth-century Royal Palace. Stockholm has never been bombed in war, unlike so many of its European neighbors, and seeing its picturesque, timeless buildings made me wonder yet again what London or Frankfurt would look like if world wars hadn’t ravaged their historical centers.
Aside from the ABBA Museum, the museums that were at the top of our list for Stockholm were the Vasa, the Nobel, and Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities. We hit all of them the third day we were in Stockholm, and they were all awesome. I’ll share what we learned and felt about each one.
Before we went to Sweden, we reached out to our old student/good friend Johan, whose father is Swedish to the core, and asked what we should do and eat in Stockholm. (More on the eating later…) The Vasa Museum was at the top of his list of must-see attractions, but he warned us that the Vasa itself was something of an embarrassment for the Swedes. We soon learned why.
The Vasa was a ship that set sail in March of 1628. Phenomenally elaborate, intricately carved, and gigantic, the Vasa was intended to be a symbol of the Swedish navy’s glory. When constructed, the ship glowed with vibrant paint, showing depictions of the Swedish royal family. It carried a record-breaking 64 bronze cannons, enough to instill terror in the heart of every Dane who dared approach it (Sweden and Denmark are eternal enemies, FYI). Truly, the Vasa would have been a crowning achievement for any monarch, and certainly for any shipbuilder. Except that it wasn’t seaworthy…It was only designed for 32 cannons, but hubris got the better of men, who went with the “more is more” approach.
The Vasa sank within minutes of its maiden launch, killing about thirty passengers and shocking the crowd that stood on the shore. However, because of the peculiar, oxygen-poor chemistry of the Baltic, there were few worms and pests to consume the wreckage, so the Vasa avoided the fate of most wooden ships that rest on the bottom of the sea.
Today, you can visit the Vasa, which was hauled from the sea about fifty years ago, in a museum built especially to house its corpse. In addition to the massive structure of the boat itself, there are skeletons on view, which enjoyed the same preservation as the Vasa. Archaeologists have done an excellent/horrific job of reconstructing what they imagine the skeletons would have looked like during their heyday, and wax mock-ups of those unfortunate souls line the bottom floor of the museum.
Josephine wasn’t as into the Vasa as I expected. She mainly liked the skeletons. Maybe that’s because it was just a colossal boat, while the skeletons were real, ghoulish bones. But I think it was because we had the crappiest guide ever.
While I normally line up a guide in each locale based on extensive research, I don’t always have time to expend that effort. I have had success all over the world with companies that match area guides with tourists looking for expert insight. I’ve used Tours by Locals; I’ve used Get Your Guide; I’ve used Viator. They’ve all produced decent guides; some better than others. Well, this time, Get Your Guide did me wrong. We got the biggest dingbat tour guide on record. She didn’t tell us one thing of interest. She didn’t know any details about the Vasa or about its origins. She took us to the museum and had us watch the museum’s film about the ship! That was a first for me.
Thankfully, Josephine fell and skinned her knee shortly after the visit to the Vasa, so we cut the tour short. Yes, I’m thankful for an injury…
So the lesson here is, do your research. Find a good guide. Otherwise, you’ll want to gouge out your own eyes.
Wow. Alfred Nobel. What a dude. Made an incalculable fortune in dynamite. Had no children. Left pretty much all he’d ever made to create the Nobel Prize. It’s hard to imagine how much good has been prompted by the quest for that accolade and how much has been celebrated by its award.
The Nobel Prize Museum was a bit less grand than the name might first insinuate, but it’s still eminently charming. It’s in a stately old building, formerly the stock exchange, located on a beautiful square in the Gamla Stan (the Old Town). Inside, you’ll find all manner of artifacts from past Nobel laureates. I didn’t take pictures of anything, and now I’m regretful of that because there are cool tidbits about such towering figures as Marie Curie, Watson & Crick, Malala, etc. There are also movies about lesser known laureates and interactive stations to learn more about their accomplishments.
Josephine wasn’t super jazzed about the exhibits. She likes the idea of science, but she still thinks it’s just mixing liquids together and making explosions. She likes literature, but we’re not to Nobel Prize winning stories just yet. She likes peace… Anyway, it wasn’t her jam until we found the kids’ sections of the museum. They have a little theater, where she created a puppet show, and they had a science section where she got to smell different chemicals and rank them in order of preference. Overall, it was a really fun stop. She could have spent more time than we allowed her. I’m not sure it’s an A+ experience for every child, but it was perfect for our girl, who needs just a pinprick of stimulation to let her imagination run wild.
Anyone who really knows me knows of my deep, abiding love of all things ancient. It turns out, King Gustav III of Sweden shared that love! He was King in the latter half of the eighteenth century, not long after Italian would-be archaeologists started digging in earnest at Pompeii (that began in 1748).
On a tour of Rome in 1784, Gustav III became enamored of the marbles in the Vatican, and he set out to accumulate his own collection of ancient sculptures. By the time of his assassination in 1792, Gustav had acquired all manner of sculptures, including busts of Roman emperors, like Tiberius and Nero, and other important figures, like Brutus and Lepidus. I’m sure the busts have been compared with other representations of those historical luminaries, so they’re likely accurate, but I also imagine Gustav would have been an easy guy to fool. He was pretty obsessed, so much so that he traveled around Europe in disguise, seeking out sculptures as the Count of Haga, rather than as the King of Sweden. Crazy.
I love looking at ancient busts, whether they are assigned the proper identities or not. I just like seeing a millennia-old visage and staring into its eyes. So that hall of busts was pretty great for me.
Josephine was more interested in the Gallery of Muses, which has statutes of all nine muses. Forget the fact that they’re likely not statues of muses, but rather a hodgepodge of muse-y looking statues. The hall itself is quite impressive in its black-and-white starkness. It’s quiet and relaxing. I’m sure Gustav harbored great plans of kicking back with a glass of wine and musing over his muses. Sadly, he died of a gunshot wound inflicted at a masquerade ball. Shortly after his death, Gustav’s glorious gallery was opened to the public, becoming Sweden’s first public art museum. Would Gustav have approved? We’ll never know.
Author: Jessica Givens
Before visiting Stockholm, my only real interaction with the city was through Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I had no idea the city was an archipelago, a series of islands connected by ferries. It’s sort of like Venice (and I had like five people tell me Stockholm is the Venice of the North), but the Venetian vaporettos are tourist attractions — anything but cheap — while the ferries in Stockholm are basically buses. They’re not romantic; they’re practical. And there’s something charming about the humdrummery of rapid mass transportation on the water. We took quite a few ferries while we were there because they were so convenient.
Despite the ease of jumping on a ferry, we also felt compelled to do an actual boat tour. After doing quite a bit of research, I decided to do the Under the Bridges boat tour. In hindsight, I can’t believe I selected that one. The reviews were super sketchy. I just didn’t see any others that were of an agreeable length. I didn’t want to spend an entire day on a boat. What if Josephine got restless? What if I got bored? I knew from the get-go that I wasn’t going to like a group tour boat. It’s absolutely not my jam. But I also didn’t want the pressure of having to look entertained when I thought I might not be. And so we did the Under the Bridges tour, which departed from the dock in front of our hotel.
As we took our seats at a little booth in the boat, I knew it was bound to be an iffy experience. We had little headphones at our seats to listen to a pre-recorded lecture about the city, which we could tune to pretty much any language on Earth. I wasn’t keen on putting community headphones in my ears under any circumstances, and when I gave it a shot, the static nearly blew my eardrums. I decided just to watch the scenery and guess what I was seeing. Besides, I wasn’t just there for myself. I was there because I knew Josephine would love the polished wooden boat, and she’d love gliding under the 12 bridges through the various locks.
In the end, while it wasn’t the boat tour of my dreams, it introduced me to my favorite part of Stockholm: the allotment gardens. All over the city are what appear to be little versions of Tolkien’s Shire. The hillsides are dotted with picturesque cottages, surrounded by tiny fruit and vegetable gardens. The allotment gardens are over 100 years old, and they were created to give city dwellers a piece of the countryside. Apparently, today, there’s an extremely long waitlist to even be considered to purchase one, and from the ones we passed on boat and on foot, we could tell they were beautifully cared for. People had set out little tables and chairs for dining al fresco; they had little places to cook and wash dishes. I’m sure some people even sleep out there in good weather. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy for those bucolic getaways.
When we later hiked through some of the allotment gardens on the hipster island of Sodermalm, Josephine pretended we were in a world of Hansel and Gretel. That’s how far away from civilization it seems. And I wouldn’t have known to look for them if it hadn’t been for that boat tour. So, if you go to Stockholm, do a boat tour. But do a private one!
Author: Jessica Givens
Our most recent trip to Europe was more haphazardly thrown together than any I can conjure in recent memory. I didn’t arrange any elaborate tours. I barely read about any restaurants. I knew practically none of the history of any place we visited. Essentially, I just used the advice of my friend Rae, who said, “Go to Denmark!” as a launchpad to assemble cursory travel plans and haul our tiny family across the proverbial pond.
At first, I planned for Sweden and Denmark, with a night in Helsinki tossed in, just so we could cross Finland off the list. However, when we got to Stockholm, I found an unusual quaintness — a small big city-ness (or was it a large small town-iness?) — that welcomed us with open arms, and I simply didn’t want to leave.
In Stockholm, we stayed at the Grand Hotel, a classic, where Nobel laureates and their families have stayed for over a century when in Stockholm to receive their prizes. It’s very stately, with a beautiful lobby and excellent service. It’s also perfectly located on a little harbor, just across from the Royal Palace and the House of Parliament, right where boats launch to take tourists on cruises through the city’s many canals or to ferry visitors and residents to various sites on the city’s different islands.
When we arrived at the hotel, our room wasn’t quite ready, so we had to wait on the pier out front for a while. As we cashed in the free hot chocolate/coffee vouchers the hotel had so thoughtfully given us, a cool, but not cold, breeze ruffled our hair, even as a summery sun beat down on our heads and shoulders. I realized in that moment that we’d picked the right place to visit, a city whose summer was Houston’s winter.
As an aside, I was further convinced we’d made the right choice when I split my newly shellacked middle fingernail and saw there was no way I’d make it two weeks without a visit to a nail salon. In Spain, I’ve struggled time and time again to get a decent manicure. I mean, STRUGGLED. I mean, the shellac peeled off all ten of my nails in a matter of hours. In Florida, I’ve had my nails turn into a comedy show. Think lumps and bumps where smooth polish should be. I feared Sweden might be the same, but I had to risk it. My hangnail was too unbearable to ignore and too gigantic to handle on my own. So, I googled nail salons near my hotel, and I landed on what turned out to be the most fabulous salon I’ve seen in ages — Nail Democracy. The sweet ladies there ushered me right in, sans appointment. They did their best to match my quirky green polish, so I could just fix that wrecked middle finger, rather than squander valuable time on a full manicure. And within minutes, I was back out on the road in Ostermalm, pounding the pavement back to Josephine and Jamil. If you’re ever in a nail bind on vacation in Europe, I hope it’ll be in Sweden.
But back to our first day in Stockholm!
I wanted to make each moment last in Sweden because we only had a few nights there. Fortunately, Stockholm is loaded with museums, many of which are a short walk from the Grand Hotel. One of those museums happens to be dedicated to ABBA, whose music flows through so many of my memories. I knew the lyrics to the Super Trouper album before I could read; I can still sing the entire Chess soundtrack by heart. And since Josephine was a tiny baby, my mom has sung Dancing Queen to her, Josephine the Dancing Queen. So that seemed like the perfect place to spend our first afternoon in Stockholm, a place that could hold our interest despite our zombified state after the long flight over.
The ABBA museum was really the perfect stop. I learned more about Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha, and Frida than I ever wanted to know, from their humble beginnings to their post-ABBA careers. We saw their original costumes. We belted Take a Chance on Me in a mock sound booth. We touched their actual mixer. We took pictures with their eerily good wax figures. While a weird tribute in some ways, the museum was really fun, and Josephine absolutely loved it. By the time we made the trek back to the hotel, we all felt like we’d made maximum use of our first day, and I felt confident Josephine would sleep like a baby.
Author: Jessica Givens
There are some activities that I’m sure make aliens scratch their heads and marvel at the stupidity of humans. Chicken races, gambling, skydiving… Skiing also probably makes its way onto that list, too. We wrap ourselves in clothes that ALMOST keep out the cold, ride on glorified swing sets up beyond the clouds, and strap unwieldy sticks to our feet and hands. Then, we stare directly down a cliffside, swallow hard, and turn those awkward sticks towards the village below.
Every time I take that plunge, I oscillate wildly between ecstasy and terror. But as soon as I reach the bottom, I shimmy back over to the nearest lift and ride back up to the very tippy-top – because it’s just SO fun. I presume many of you know the feeling. And then there’s the après ski…And the camaraderie, especially when you go with a group of friends, musing late into the night about aches and pains, powder and ice.
One of my earliest memories of traveling with my parents is of clambering into a giant rental car in Denver (not sure how giant it really was since that was way before SUVs). Rays of morning sunlight were just beginning to poke through dark winter clouds. Just before we entered I-20, we saw an orange sign, advertising fresh donuts. We pulled over, and our family friend, Pete, went in. He came out with a pile of bear claws and cinnamon twists. My memories of laughing and joking on the way to Aspen are forever permeated by the smell of fresh pastries.
I want Josephine to have similar memories. I want her to experience those same thrills. But I also want her to do it safely, and I think that it’s so much easier to learn to ski as a child than as an adult. So, three times in the past two winters, we’ve loaded up the ski gear and gone to Colorado.
Our first trip was to Aspen with my lifelong best friend, Jennifer, and her family. She has a son who’s just a few months older than Josephine, and I thought we could teach them to ski by dropping them off at ski school. After all, that’s how I learned to ski, right? Or maybe it wasn’t…Imprinted in my mind is a vivid nightmare of failed attempts at pizza and french fries and of certain death as I drifted towards the edge of the trail, too unskilled to change my trajectory. Would the ski instructors have noticed my absence? We’ll never know, but Josephine had roughly the same outcome. She did five days of Snowmass ski school and learned basically nothing.
This year, we decided to do things differently. Our friends told us what we’d erred in the past; we needed to bite the cost bullet and put Josephine in private lessons, and that we’d see marked changes in a matter of hours. So we headed to Beaver Creek, which has a family-friendly reputation, where I skied when it first opened in like 1982 on another family trip with friends.
From the moment we met up with her ski instructor, Jay, I had a good feeling. And by the end of the day, she was taking lifts to the top of the mountain and coming down on trails through the trees. By the end of the long weekend, she was skiing greens with no worries and blues with only minor trepidation.
For spring break, we were able to link up with some of our closest friends from Houston and go back to Beaver Creek, where we spent another week and put Josephine in even more lessons. It was absolutely phenomenal to see Josephine cruise down the mountain with her pals and even better to cook, laugh, and play cards with their parents.
I feel certain that it will become an annual pilgrimage for us, taking Josephine to ski with a group of families and enjoying the trip on so many levels. I also feel confident that Josephine is building skills that will last a lifetime. She will be comfortable going on ski trips with friends in college and beyond, and I won’t have to fret nonstop that she’s going to get hurt. (Josephine is no risk-taker; she’s scared of your basic playground slide.) And the shared enjoyment of a sport will give us another way to connect with our child as she gets older. Maybe even in the gloomy times, when she thinks we’re the downright worst, she’ll still have fun strapping on skis, navigating moguls, and gliding through powder with us.
Neighborhoods really matter in Madrid. Tourists often opt to stay in the center of the old town, where the major sights are located, like the Palacio Real, the Plaza Mayor, and the phenomenal Prado and Reina Sofía Museums. I can see the allure of the area at first blush. I felt it myself when I stayed in Madrid the first time, intrigued by the narrow, brick-lined streets, the hodgepodge styles of yesteryear (think Art Nouveau storefronts on neoclassical buildings), the innumerable bars and restaurants, all hawking paella. I still love walking around that area, but over time, I’ve noticed that the tourists outnumber the locals on those romantic alleys, and I’ve learned that paella, while delicious, is about as Madrileno as apple pie — and pretty terrible outside of the eastern coast of Spain.
As we’ve visited and spent protracted periods of time in Madrid, I’ve gotten to stay in other parts of the city, as well. We’ve stayed across the Gran Via in Malasana and Chueca, known for world-class partying, a thriving LGBTQ community, and great bars. We’ve also stayed in Chamberi, a gorgeous neighborhood with one of the best restaurant strips in the city, Calle Ponzano, and the stunning Sorolla Museum, as well as Princesa, which is a little farther north and has abundant tapas. However, our hearts have settled in Barrio Salamanca.
Salamanca is admittedly a more uppity part of Madrid. It’s home to Chanel, Gucci, and the like, and it’s where Russian oligarchs have purchased penthouses. That might make it sound like the neighborhood lacks character, but somehow Salamanca has retained local flavor in the midst of its cosmopolitanism. And it’s SUPER kid-friendly, especially the Castellano part. The verdant Parque del Buen Retiro is just a skip away, so Josephine can run wild, watch performances, gawk at giant koi, and beat the heat at one of the many helado shops. There’s also a covered playground right on Calle Serrano, the main shopping street in the district, where Josephine has met tons of adorable kids and played safely for hours on end. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The only issue in Salamanca has been where to stay. While the tourist center has the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental, the Westin Palace, among others, Salamanca really just has the Rosewood, the Hotel Wellington, and the Unico. I love the Rosewood, but it’s super expensive over the holidays, and I didn’t feel good about asking anyone to hemorrhage like that. I also love the Unico, but the rooms are teensy weensy. On this trip, we found ourselves for the first time at the Hotel Wellington, which has a sort of dated vibe but which wound up offering exactly what we needed. We stayed in one of the newest rooms, located in the spa area. It was gigantic with a massive relaxation shower and a huge closet — really cool. And we had access to Club Wellington, which was really great. They had wonderful breakfasts, as well as snacks and drinks throughout the day. The service at the Club was so old-school and on-point; we just loved it.
So, I would recommend that families stay in Salamanca. Singles and young couples might prefer something more central. Wherever you stay, though, the subway is phenomenal, and you’ll easily be able to get to other parts of the city quickly and seamlessly. And now that Google Maps gives subway routes, there’s just no excuse not to use the metro. Whatever you do, get out and explore Madrid; see the variety in the city’s haunts. Find the place that makes your heart happy.
Author: Jessica Givens.
We only children often look longingly at larger families, particularly on vacations, when we see brothers and sisters laughing and joking, making shared memories that just don’t happen for us. Josephine is really such a good sport. She colors and draws when we go out to eat; she takes pretend notes on little notepads when we go on tours; she poses for fun solo pictures at monuments. But I know she wishes she had a partner in crime – at least sometimes! So, when our good friends, Lindsey and Andy, asked if we could take an adventure with them and their daughter, Lochlyn (also an only child), over the Christmas break, we leapt at the chance.
We pondered a few different destinations, but we landed on Spain because Jamil and I know it so well and because neither Lindsey nor Andy had ever spent much time in Madrid, one of my favorite cities on Earth. I wanted to show them around. Additionally, it was Lochlyn’s birthday on December 28, and I wanted to make it amazing, since she’d never been able to celebrate with friends before.
Because Lindsey and Andy weren’t familiar with Madrid, I set out to plan Lochlyn’s birthday activities. I wanted to do something historical, something just plain fun, and I wanted to introduce Lochlyn and her family to phenomenal Spanish food.
We started the day by walking to the Palacio Real, where we had hired a guide to give us a private tour. The Palacio Real in Madrid is really special. With 3,418 rooms, it’s absolutely gigantic, the largest in Western Europe, and they rotate which rooms are available to visit, so you can see something different each time you go. It’s also fully furnished (at least, it is in the parts open to the public), which is very unusual. Normally, when you visit a castle or a palace, it’s empty; you have to use your imagination about what kinds of fineries might have filled those cavernous spaces. At the Palacio Real, you can see the original furniture, the art, the workmanship. You can also marvel at the Royal Quartet, a collection of decorated Stradivarius instruments, 4 of only 11 such pieces in existence. In addition, you can enter the throne room and see where the King and Queen of Spain still receive guests today. None of that is on view at Versailles. Oh, and because it was Christmastime when we went, the palace was displaying its full nativity scene, which dates back to the 1700s. It stretches all around a massive room and has elaborate scenes of daily life in the Enlightenment Era. You should make this a must-see on a winter trip to Madrid.
(The guide made all the difference, by the way. We found him through Babylon Tours, and his name was David. You should definitely request him if you want a tour of Madrid, any tour at all.)
From the Palacio Real, we made our way to lunch at Cervecería Cervantes, our all-time favorite, very traditional tapas bar in Madrid. Cervantes always has an intimidating line stretching out the front door, but it’s usually not as bad of a wait as you might think, and it’s totally worth the effort. Cervantes bustles with energy, Spaniards of all ages congregate around tiny tables on rickety wooden chairs, devouring the finest tortilla espanola and pimientos de Padron in the city. We adore the boquerones (pickled anchovies), the setas (oyster mushrooms) with jamón Serrano, the Ensalada de la Casa, the pulpo a la Gallega (steamed octopus with potatoes and paprika)… Really, it’s all fabulous. Drink the house Rioja wine or have a cana of Mahou beer. Prepare to stay a while and order a ton.
Clearly, I love it there, so it was a no-brainer for Lochlyn’s birthday lunch. Josephine tried with all her might to convince Lochlyn to fall in love with the fried pimientos (but failed). Lochlyn enjoyed piles of jamón and loads of tortillas. We were all totally satisfied, and it was exciting to see Josephine share her passion for Spanish tapas with a friend.
If you have that kind of elaborate lunch in Madrid, you’ll be thrilled that it’s such a walking city, because you’ll need a ton of steps to burn off those calories, and winter is ideal in Madrid to do that walking. The temperature ranges from the high 30s in the wee hours to the high 50s when the sun is at its zenith. The major sites are scorching-hot in the summers: in July, you might literally melt in the Puerta del Sol or spontaneously combust in the Plaza Mayor. So winter is really the time to explore. With Lindsey and Andy that day, I walked over 23,000 steps. We might have done even more, except that their stroller got lost in London, so Lochlyn and Josephine had to alternate using ours. A six year old takes a lot of breaks!
Jamil took full advantage of that tendency by planning an interlude at Ikono, a house of illusions in the same plaza as the Reina Sofía museum. While Lindsey, Andy, and I popped into the Reina Sofía for a quick viewing of Picasso’s Guernica, Jamil took Lochlyn and Josephine to Ikono, where they jumped in a ball pit, stood on “the ceiling”, and generally goofed around. By the time we finished, we barely had enough time to scurry down the Paseo del Prado, past the festive light installations, to our hotel to get ready for dinner at a restaurant that never, ever disappoints (although vegetarians might disagree).
As soon as we knew we were heading to Madrid, I called El Landó to make a reservation for her birthday. El Landó doesn’t do online reservations. I always call, but I’m pretty sure they now also do WhatsApp because I’ve gotten WhatsApp messages from them to confirm my reservations. That might be easier for travelers who don’t speak Spanish. El Landó itself might even seem a little intimidating to some travelers because it’s pretty old school. Think dark wood paneling, white tablecloths, waiters in suits. But it isn’t really stuffy at all; everyone speaks English, the menu is very easy to understand. It’s just old school.
You go to El Landó for a few things: the tomato appetizer with garlic, the huevos estrellados con jamón (french fries topped with scrambled fried eggs and ham), and the steak. We usually get the churrasco cut, which I think is related to the ribeye, but I’m not sure. Lindsey also ordered the solomillo, which is the closest thing to our filet mignon. They come piping hot and crusty, surrounded by mounds of chunky salt. It’s astonishingly delicious. Always order the house red. It’s great and so reasonable — maybe 30 euros! If you have room for dessert, the flan is wonderful, and they certainly served it with style for Lochlyn’s birthday, adding a giant flare to the top. I watched the spectacle while sipping incredible brandy, warmed over a snifter. As we left, I reflected on the many meals we’ve had at El Landó, from New Year’s Eve dinner to welcome 2016, not knowing I was pregnant, to our anniversary dinner in 2018, to a celebratory welcome of Chris and Carlos to Spain in 2019. It’s always consistent, always posh, always memorable. You should go.
And THAT was Lochlyn’s birthday!
Author: Jessica Givens.
Despite our past trips to the Middle East, Israel never appeared on our itineraries for a few reasons. First, Jamil is half-Palestinian. His entire family immigrated to the US in the 70s because, well, things got pretty uncomfortable for them in Israel. Clearly, he’s not thrilled with the political situation. Second, his family members and some Palestinian friends traveling back to Israel described long hours in the airport with grueling security interviews — not the welcome wagon we want greeting us. Third, we’ve got Lebanese, Egyptian, and Jordanian stamps on our passports. Sounds like red flags to me. Why risk it?
But my mom has mentioned a desire to go to the Holy Land many times recently, so this year, she and my dad trekked off to biblical territory while Jamil and I planned a week with friends in Spain to give Josephine a chance to travel with someone her age. My mom is writing her own set of blog posts to give you insight into how people with physical and age-related limitations travel, but I wanted to provide a little background on the legwork I did to set them up with the trip of a lifetime.
I considered using the tour group that hosted us in Egypt and Jordan last year, but the astronomical prices gave me heartburn. And there aren’t as many nuances to an Israel trip. There are some highlights to hit, but it’s not like a trip to Egypt, where you need to coordinate a tour guide who flies with you all over the country and follows your cruise ship by land up the Nile. For this, I needed an excellent guide with a plush car and a well-appointed hotel. That was pretty much it. So I decided to do it myself.
I was highly concerned about my parents getting held up in the airport for hours on end. My dad’s back nags him constantly, and my mother’s health conditions can strike at any time, leaving her quite undone. I couldn’t fathom them languishing in hard, pleather airport chairs, so I arranged a VIP service and called Israel Welcome to accompany them. On the way in, I went with the super-duper fancy Gold Level, while on the way out, I went a tier down to Silver, skipping the private terminal and just having someone walk them through immigration and security. I figured the Israelis would scrutinize arrivals much more heavily than departures (and I was correct – not a big deal at all).
A man met my parents at their plane and escorted them to the Fattal Lounge in the private terminal. He collected their bags and took their passports to security while they drank champagne and enjoyed their first Israeli meal of the trip. I’m sure my mom will describe the opulence in greater detail, but what mattered to me was that they were sitting comfortably while the airport security people decided whether they needed to do a cavity search. Ultimately, they did not. In fact, they were in and out more quickly than they would have been in Houston, and the Israel Welcome team then dropped them safely at their hotels. They say it was worth every penny, and for me it really was, too.
With respect to their tours, I initially planned to use the tour guides associated with the Waldorf-Astoria Jerusalem, where they’d be spending five nights. However, the concierge had to serve as a middle man, which kind of drove me crazy. So I forged my own path, relying on TripAdvisor and Google Reviews to find Danny the Digger, who employs a host of historian tour guides. We arranged the tours with my parents’ guide, Moti, through WhatsApp, giving him a summary of what they wanted to see and letting him run with it. My parents said he knew every era of human history, beginning with the dawn of time, easily as knowledgeable as the guides we had in Egypt. It definitely took a little extra effort to plow through the many reviews on the internet, but we saved so much money and sacrificed neither luxury nor experience.
I feel like multigenerational travel sometimes has to go this way, splitting up for a bit here and there for everyone to explore the corners of the world that intrigue them. And I feel like my parents’ separate adventures teach Josephine that time doesn’t extinguish wanderlust. She can travel for her entire life, and if she’s willing to exert a little effort, she can do so in style, on her terms.
Author: Jessica Givens.
Our family highly recommends Rome in December/January. The weather is usually good (okay, it rained the entire time we were there last year), the crowds and prices are somewhat mitigated, and the city lights up its streets in festivity that the US doesn’t attempt to match.
Most years, we take educational tours around Rome. We always use the same company, going through Cristina Giannicchi, who has incredible guides. Cristina’s guides meet you at your hotel or at the site you’re touring, and you usually walk or take taxis during the tours. Their prices are so reasonable for the quality. We’ve done the uber pricey guides. My recommendation: skip them. They’re pompous and only mildly knowledgeable. With Cristina, you get historians. I always ask for Mauro because he’s taken us on at least 8 tours, and I love his somewhat jaded yet respectful take on the monuments and their builders. If you want to hire Cristina and her group, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This year was unlike other years, however. We arrived on December 23 after taking a 6AM flight, so our eyes were too glazed to take in much culture. As in other years, we stayed in a giant room at the petite Lord Byron Hotel, which is about to get a desperately needed facelift. The Lord Byron is located in Parioli, where all the embassies are; it’s not super convenient, but the bang for the buck is huge, and the food in Parioli towers over the food in the rest of Rome. That’s really what keeps drawing us back. It wouldn’t make sense to stay elsewhere and take taxis to Parioli for every dinner, which is what we’d do.
Anyway, here we were, back at the Lord Byron, arriving the day before my birthday, and I felt like formal tours wouldn’t inspire in Josephine the love of Rome that I feel. I wanted to walk her around and show her the beautiful sites she’s already seen multiple times to whittle lasting memories into her brain. So, what we did was buy regular tickets to the Colosseum — no access to the floor, nothing fancy, just wandering. My stories of gladiators, naval battles, and emperors mesmerized her. I told her about the corrupt Nero, whose Domus Aurea (Golden House) once stood where the Colosseum is today, and pointed out where his massive statue likely stood. We talked about Vespasian, who tore all signs of Nero’s self-glorification to bits to erect the most famous amphitheater in the world. We talked about how the walls would have been white with marble, lined with statues, and far taller than they are today. From the upper levels, we peered down at the labyrinthine chambers and passageways, where gladiators, lions, Christians, bears, ostriches, and so forth awaited their turn in the ring. It was such a wonderful little mommy-delivered tour, and the new museum-like displays upstairs were extremely helpful in providing a didactic experience. I really wanted to take her to the Forum the next day, but things were sold out, and I decided instead to show her the various obelisks and columns that stand in piazzas throughout the centro.
I’m no Mauro or Cristina, but I think she likes hearing the history from me. I sure love sharing my passion with her.
Author: Jessica Givens.