Downtown Querétaro is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the area is made for slow strolling. There are many pedestrian-only streets and multiple squares that are a wealth of activity. Many small-time vendors pack these streets selling a variety of items, most commonly clothing or jewelry during the day and food at night. Old colonial buildings with large courtyards are everywhere and churches are common. Querétaro is one of the most popular tourist destinations in colonial Mexico.
Guanajuato is a colorful city sandwiched into a narrow valley in the mountains. Most of the houses are painted with bright hues, making it a photographer’s paradise. There are countless winding lanes, city viewpoints, and fun places to climb above the downtown. Despite being a popular tourist destination, Guanajuato still retains its friendliness and charm.
León is a city of 1,700,000 and the fourth largest in Mexico. But it doesn’t feel that big. There are few high rises and no areas with concentrated population density. Instead, the houses sprawl out along the arid plateau, filling up the space toward the nearby mountains. Situated at 6000 ft above sea level, the elevation helps keep the weather more temperate compared to the coastal areas. León is not a big international tourist destination, but it gets its share of local tourism. Specifically, shoppers in search leather goods, which are the specialty here.
Athens is a classic city with some dirt under its fingernails. It’s filled with breathtaking marble antiquities and parks with awesome viewpoints. But despite the elegance of the ancient ruins, there’s an overall grittiness that we hadn’t found elsewhere. Excessive traffic noise and ample graffiti create a rougher and more chaotic vibe than found in similar-sized cities. Luckily, the many museums and pedestrian only spaces help to keep it from getting too overwhelming. Athens is also Europe’s hottest city, so avoiding the scorching summer heat is highly recommended.
Tirana embraces urban chaos with a smile. Many of the buildings in the Albanian capital are colorful or eccentric. The local markets have an abundance of fresh produce and local cheese. Vehicle traffic is insane, but there are also many pedestrian friendly areas. The language is all but impossible, yet almost everyone we met was extremely welcoming and accommodating. Tirana is nothing if not interesting.
2022 was our third full year of early retirement and we spent it exploring Europe. We managed to visit 8 different countries and 13 cities without setting foot in an airport. Our cheese consumption increased astronomically and we frequented numerous delicious bakeries. We saw a ton of great art and pet so many cats. Katie broke her wrist and we had a couple of transit adventures, but otherwise it was a great success. We didn’t even gain weight.
Mostar is a beautiful town nestled in a river valley surrounded by striking mountains. Despite the metro area having a little over 100,000 people, the Herzegovinian capital feels much smaller and more intimate. The stunning Neretva River splits the middle of the city and is one of the main draws for visitors like us. The river is simply gorgeous and has an incredible turquoise color. The shades of blue and green brilliantly combine to something that could pass for glacial runoff. The pictures can’t do it justice. Even on a cloudy day the hues are incredible. It’s impossible to not stop and stare whenever crossing a bridge.
Split is Croatia’s second largest city and a top tourist destination on the Adriatic coast. Everything in the old town area is set up to cater to visitors. Filled with gelato shops and cafes with outdoor seating, you’re never far from a snack or drink. Much of the downtown is attractive and charming, but it can also be swarming with throngs of tourists. Crowds are the worst when the cruise ships are in port, which is basically everyday during the peak season. Our visit took place over the shoulder season, so while many days were still congested, we were able to take advantage of a few that were not. And exploring the old town without the masses is a real treat.
“Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world.” That quote has been attributed to both Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Hemingway according to various Croatian tourist sites and blogs. My search for a source came up empty, but no matter who is heaping the praise, Zadar takes their sunsets seriously. The setting sun is a must see event here. Each evening hundreds of people show up along the western edge of the old town for the spectacle.
Pula is home to one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters on the planet. The Pula Arena is around 2000 years old, but it barely shows its age. It really is a marvel of engineering and longevity on the Croatian coast. Old structures like these are normally referred to as ancient ruins, but there’s not much about it that’s ruined. While the Pula Arena is absolutely incredible, we also found a lot of natural beauty nearby. Our two week stay was a lot of fun.