Cologne, Germany

Known as the city that started the “eau de cologne,” Cologne is a beautiful city in north-eastern Germany with a population of roughly 1 million people.

It is very easy to fly directly into Cologne from most countries, or you can take the regional/long distance trains/planes/buses from other cities in Germany itself.

One of the great things about Germany is its interconnected rail system, and the new bus lines that are popping up. Try Flixbus for cheap tickets in between European cities, or in and around Germany. There are others, but Flixbus is the one I have tried so far, and it was a pleasant experience. You will be a little cramped, however, because it is a standard bus seat, but my journey was clean and pleasant. Bring your passport, however, because it is required.

Things to do in Cologne: if you like techno music, there is a club scene that lasts until the wee hours of the morning. Also, you can drink open containers in Germany, which is different from the United States where opened alcohol bottles in public is mainly forbidden. High-end shopping is also good here, as there are plenty of stores with nice clothes.

There is also the Cologne Dom, which is a beautiful cathedral. You can climb the stairs to the top for a good view of the surrounding city beneath you.

Walking around Cologne was mainly what I did for hours, absorbing the sights.

I stayed at a few different hostels in Cologne the four nights I was there, but all were comfortable, if slightly smaller than normal rooms in the U.S.A.

A & O Hostel was particularly nice, because I liked the location and the friendliness of the staff at the time. The rooms were also decorated in a nice, modern way, with simple amenities.

As always, all opinions are my own.

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago is a global city with picturesque skylines of its high rise buildings and a beach alongside Lake Michigan. It can be somewhat chilly due to the harsh lake winds, even in the warmer months, so dress accordingly.

I recommend going to the popular touristy areas, like seeing the Chicago Bean, strolling down the Magnificent Mile for a look at clothes and other shops, and taking a visit to the beach/boardwalk on Lakeshore Drive along the edge of Lake Michigan, if you’re just in Chicago for a day or two.

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Chicago bean. Image by Paul Veglos.

Chicago is also host to many world-known musical acts and theatre showings, which you can catch playing at many of its venues. One thing about Chicago is that while you can take the El trains around the city, they are often somewhat crowded and often smell bad due to the number of homeless that ride the trains daily. Unlike Europe, the trains are not as popular a transit option for the majority and are less taken care of by its passengers. This can depend on the poverty of the areas the trains go to, however.

Another thing I recommend doing in Chicago is taking an Uber/taxi instead of trying to rent a car for yourself, if you’re only visiting a few days. Parking is expensive, ranging from roughly $15-30 an hour unless you have a discounted voucher from a business you’re visiting, and there are plenty of taxis/Ubers/Lyfts around for hire at a low fare.

It is well worth visiting the museums in Chicago, as well. The Children’s Museum, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art are some of my personal favorites.

Hotels in Chicago range from modern hostel rooms to expensive luxury suites. There is a wide range which you can choose from, or you can pick from Airbnb.

Enjoy Chicago.

As always, opinions are my own.

Miami & Tampa, Florida

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A view of Miami’s high rises and white sandy beaches.

This photo pretty much sums up everything you might imagine Miami and Tampa to be.

Visit Miami or Tampa to find stretches of white sandy beaches, lively nightclubs, sprawling urban and commercial areas, and plenty of hot sunshine. You might be amazed at how much Spanish is spoken if you are not from the region.

Miami and Tampa are both known for their beaches, which are sometimes crowded in popular areas. They are fairly close to one another by car or plane (only a few hours drive and a shorter flight). I went from one to the other on Spring Break of 2009 with girl friend, and it was quite a popular destination for college aged students. I wouldn’t go again, however, during that time as it was not my scene.

If you want to avoid crowds, don’t go during the busy season which typically lasts from March through August. A car is definitely needed to get around.

All opinions are my own.

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo is famous for its deserts, the Nile, and pyramids in Egypt. It is also a huge metropolis with over 16 million people. I visited Cairo in 2008, before the Arab Spring, and found it quite safe and pleasant with friendly and welcoming people. The atmosphere may have changed towards American travelers, so as always, be cautious and do a little research when you plan your travel destinations.

I visited the famous pyramids at Giza, with the nearby Sphinx. You can go inside the pyramids through a low-hanging passage (you have to bend over if you’re tall) until you reach a tomb inside. Prepare for the place to be filled with tourists taking photographs and peddlers selling souvenirs and snacks.

Another highlight was horseback riding by the pyramids in the evening, courtesy of my host. It was a special excursion that made my Egypt experience memorable.

Due to the Muslim sect of Egypt, you will hear the call to prayer 5 times a day. Called “The City of a Thousand Citadels,” this is a beautiful chorus of voices across the desert from amidst the different towers.

The Coptic area of Egypt is fun to explore, and the nightlife is also fun if you like jazz bars and hookah. Beers are available at nearly every restaurant, a relief from the sweltering hot weather and harsh sunshine, if you drink.

Getting around Cairo is fairly easy because taxis are so easy to find and the fares are very inexpensive for most foreigners. The city is sprawling, however, so be prepared for lots of traffic and the sounds of car horns. It’s simply a normal part of day-to-day life.

Most of the population in Cairo is poor, so expect the streets to be crowded and lots of hawkers to try to sell you things.

If you have the time, Luxor and Aswan are old historical sites to visit, away from the hustle and bustle of Cairo, places that I also explored while I was in Egypt.

Alexandria, on the north coast, was another one of my excursions, with sparkling blue water and pristine beaches. I recommend swimming here if you like sand and sun.

If you have a few weeks, try to learn a little Arabic if you can. There is a language school for English speakers, called El-Kalimat, which offers affordable conversational Arabic language practice with other English speakers. I took a three-week course and found I could understand simple, basic Arabic conversations at a high level.

Enjoy Egypt. Be safe.

As always, all opinions are my own.

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia is a small island province off the coast of the western Malaysian peninsula. It is also known as Georgetown. Penang is connected to Malaysia by a bridge, although you can also fly directly into Penang.

There are beautiful beaches in Penang, as well botanical gardens with rainforest flora and fauna. The food is often eaten in open-air seating areas, but there are indoor restaurants as well. Because of the diversity, you can eat Thai food, Malaysian food, Indian food, Chinese food, and most well-known international big-chain fast food dishes.

One thing to note about Penang, is the heat. Malaysia is located very near the Equator, so the temperature is in the 80s – 100s Farenheit year-round. Be prepared for muggy, sweltering days and bring something for mosquito bites. Malaysians sleep with mosquito nets around their beds for this reason.

Because Malaysia is a Muslim country, most women wear traditional head coverings and/or traditional dress. Prepare to see squatters along the roads. And, if you are a female, dress conservatively. It is always a good idea to be cautious when in a foreign country, especially if you are traveling alone. I wore shorts one time, and got plenty of unwanted attention. Breezy pants or long dresses will help you blend in.

From Malaysia, Indonesia is very close by (and connected to the eastern Malaysian peninsula), or head upwards to Thailand. You can take the train from Malaysia to Thailand, or rent a car.

Enjoy Penang.

As always, all opinions are my own.

California Redwoods

Located in the northern area of California, the California Redwoods are truly majestic and a sight to see. If you have the time, spend a few days in this area, because while a day trip will allow you to see the old-growth forests, the surrounding towns are good spots for booking a pleasant retreat.

When I stayed in the Redwoods (way back in 2007), I had a room in a rustic wooden house in the mountains about an hour or two away from the Redwood forest itself, with a vegetable garden on the premises and an open-air hot tub on the wooden deck. It made for a beautiful few nights spent underneath the stars, which were plentiful and highly visible.

These ancient trees are not to be missed, if you are planning a trip to Northern California. Alternatively, it is worth the few hours drive up from Los Angeles, although you would need to rent a car for the quickest travel.

Ojai, California

Ojai, California is a beautiful small town located in between Ventura and Santa Barbara in Southern California. The population is about 8,000-10,000 with a few main streets. It is mostly surrounded by mountains. One cool thing about Ojai is that the mountains are situated in a different orientation than most other mountain ranges, which the locals say gives the town special energies for art and healing.

The location for the US blockbuster film, Easy A, Ojai is mostly a spa-resort town for those wanting to escape the traffic and bustle of the Los Angeles metropolis and surrounding areas.

Some fun things to do in Ojai:

You can take a short 2 mile hike amongst the mountains, lined with orange orchards, and look over the valley in some areas.

Visit the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa for some rest and relaxation.

Watch the annual Ojai Tennis Tournament, held in the end of April.

Walk around the quaint streets (Ojai is easy to get around on foot, but renting a car will make getting around elsewhere much easier, for example, if you want to reach the beach from Ojai).

If you visit Ojai, prepare for sunshine and a small-town luxury resort atmosphere. A great day-trip from Los Angeles or surrounding areas, or perfect for a weekend or a few nights before moving onwards.