Destination Review

Destination: Greenville, South Carolina

I've just recently moved from Philadelphia to Greenville, SC. Now that I've been here for a solid month and a half, it's about time I did a review of my new home.

Greenville, located in the northwest corner of South Carolina seems to be a fairly unique city in the South. Greenville is quickly growing, managing to add 1,000 new residents a month in a city of 60,000. Much of that growth is due to the area quickly becoming a huge manufacturing center. BMW, Michelin Tires, Electrolux, GE Power, GE Renewable Energy, and the list goes on and on. Major manufacturing sites surround this city, making a bit of a stand out among the south.

The city has a melting pot feel. BMW brings in many native Germans to work at their extremely large manufacturing facility in nearby Spartanburg. Walking the streets of Greenville, it is not uncommon to here German being spoken in the streets. Go to events outside the city and the southern feel is ever present, but in Greenville, it is an amalgamation of the many different people from around the country moving to this little city.

Downtown Greenville is the place to be on the weekends. The city has been revitalized and boasts one of the best river views of any town I've ever visited. A large downtown park has been placed around the river flowing through the center of the city. The park has an awesome curved pedestrian cable stay bridge that highlights the beauty of the surrounding park.

Walk main street to find any number of amazing restaurants and little shops. One of our favorites is Pomegranate on Main, a Persian restaurant on main street that features some insanely good Persian vegetarian dishes among other non-vegetarian dishes. The mushroom pomegranate vegetarian stew is a draw ever time.

Caviar and Banana just opened recently in the downtown plaza, here you can get a whole range of items, much like a self contained market/restaurant. Salads to sandwiches and even a small cheese counter, this gem has a lot to offer. Next door, Thai Basil a new restaurant out of Charleston is now opening their first restaurant outside of their home city, set to open it's doors later this year as it promises some amazing Thai food.

Beyond food there are many little shops, a large general store, a chocolate and ice cream parlor and so much more. I spend many a day hanging out at the coffee shops writing for this very website in downtown Greenville.

A food market is available every Saturday during the summer when main street is closed down for the morning and vendors set up a beautiful selection of local goods that anyone can purchase.

Parking is a reasonable price during the week at any of the many city parking garages that are available. If you are only in the city for a few hours, find a street side parking place and you owe the city nothing, street parking is free and ranges from 1-2 hours. Come on the weekend though and the city opens multiple parking garages for free, that right, pay nothing to park downtown on a weekend! I honestly do not think I've ever paid to park in downtown Greenville. If you want to grab public transit in Greenville, we've got that too. Grab the downtown trolley and that too will be free of charge.

This is a bit of a glowing review, it is my new home, but I do like this city a whole hell of a lot. Greenville continues to develop the downtown area as the city flourishes. I can only say that this city is certainly worth a visit if you find yourself in the area. Expect some upcoming restaurant reviews in Greenville, some good, some bad, but all in this beautiful little city. 

Destination: Sydney, Australia

Sydney is one of those cities I will always suggest people use as they first start out with international travel. It would probably be a close second to London, only because for US citizens, the flights to Australia is quite a long one. If you do brave the 15+ hour flight, then the rewards are well worth it. Australia quickly became a favorite of mine.

Sydney in particular is a stand out for the great food, easy transportation, and lots to do. My trip and likely most first time visitors, will start around Sydney Harbor and Circular Quay. Circular Quay is the major stop for each ferry, a large subway stop, and a big waterfront dining area. I ate at least 1 meal a day at Sydney Harbor and maybe repeated 1 place. Lots and lots of options available.

From Circular Quay, you can grab a ferry over to the Sydney Zoo on the other side of the harbor. There you will grab a bus to the top of the hill and descend through the zoo all the way back to the ferry stop. I've been to quite a few zoos and this was definitely up there in the top ones I've ever visited. The entire walk is full of fun creatures, some very native and some not as much. The entire time, your walk is backdropped by the city across the harbor and the Sydney Opera house which can be seen for almost everywhere in the zoo. 

Back in downtown Sydney, there is no end to activities and sights to see. From Sydney Harbor Bridge, to the iconic Opera House, the waterfront is the logical place to start. Moving inland from there, museums abound and a bustling city emerges. Museum of Natural History to the Science and Technology museum, I found the educational scenes to be good, but not great. As for the art museum, this was quite well done with many famous painters and lots of great art to check out. The art museum is situated in the large downtown park, and is fairly easy to get to.

Looking for an evening dinner location? At the top of the Sydney Tower is a rotating observation deck and a very nice, though slightly expensive, restaurant. Over a meal, you'll get the chance to see the entire city as you slowly rotate around the tower. I found the food to be a little underwhelming for the very high price, but the drinks on offer were very good. It is certainly worth a visit for the amazing view.

While I barely scratched the surface of Sydney, it is a place that certainly warrants a return flight at some point. Award flights tend to be pretty sparse to Australia, but even on a paid ticket the destination is well worth it. Think about making it a top destination on your future travel list.

Destination: Independence Park, Philadelphia

Now we are starting to move toward summer and in center city Philadelphia, tourism is starting to pick back up. I live in Philadelphia, and see the crowds starting to build downtown, especially around the tourist sites. Independence Park is a major stop for anyone coming into the city, and with good reason, this is the site where the US was born as we know it.

Independence Park is a National Park sitting in and on the edge of the Old City district of center city Philadelphia. I’ve always seen it as a fairly unique National Park since it is in the middle of a city. Spanning 6 city blocks or more, the whole area is a beautiful green oasis in the middle of a bustling concrete jungle. The whole area runs about 4 blocks North to South and 3 blocks West to East. The three northernmost segments are wide open areas, a convention area at the North, in the middle blocks are two buildings dedicated to historical information and the housing of the original Liberty Bell, crack and all.

During the summer, with more tourists, the Liberty Bell building can form a long line. Don’t be discouraged by this, the line forms due to a security checkpoint and things tend to move quite quickly. Entering the building give a historic run through. Walking the length of the building through many displays will culminate in a up close visit with the Liberty Bell. If you aren’t interesting in getting close, the bell can be viewed from a distance away outside the building where a large wall of glass shows the bell to the outside world. Don’t expect to see the crack though, unless you venture inside.

Across the street from the Liberty Bell is the original building where it once hung. This is where the US Declaration of Independence was signed almost 250 years ago. The building is open to guided tours only, no unattended walkthroughs are allowed. Wait your turn on the northeast corner of the block where groups are let in on a first come first serve basis.

The grounds continue on to the East from there another 2 blocks. Beyond that a new museum is under construction that will display information and articles from and about the American Revolution. On 2nd street is City Tavern, admittedly a bit expensive, but a fun place to experience a restaurant housed in an old building. Waiters come through in period appropriate clothing.

To the East of the Park is the Old City area. All of the buildings here tend to follow a historic building technique and many other historic landmarks can be found dotting the area. Philadelphia is well known for the great restaurants and food, so be sure to take advantage of all that is to offer in Old City. Market is the main street running through the city and there are great restaurants all up and down the road in Old City. If you are looking for a cheese steak as many visitors to Philly are, check out Sonny’s. Many people in the city will argue that going way down south to some of the well known places will result in better cheese steaks, but I’ve found the big names to be more tourist trappy and less good food. While I no longer partake in the steak, Sonny’s was a favorite of mine when i did.

Philadelphia has been my home for the last 2-3 years and that is coming to an end soon, so I’d like to show everyone here a bit of Philly before I go. Philly has won me over as a great city to live and visit, now if I could just avoid rush hour traffic, it’d make life virtually perfect.

Destination: Aix En Provence, France

Three to four times a year, I make a work pilgrimage to Southern France. Located in the hills south of the alps is where we are building a new plant. Almost every time that we make this trip, the preferred place to stay during our time in France is the town of Aix-En-Provence, well known for the landscapes and focal point for many impressionist painters.

Today Aix En Provence is the known as the judiciary city of this area of Southern France, as well as a major arts town for college bound students. Aix forms an interesting mix of a fairly young population, old architecture, and a travel destination for many foreign travelers. Since I do spend a lot of time in Aix, I've gotten to know it fairly well over the past few years.

If you goal is to purely visit Aix, then you'll want to get there by one of two methods. France's high speed train system, the TGV, stops about 10-15 minutes outside of the city at the Aix TGV Station. Your other option is to make use of the Marseille Airport, which is my preferred option. Both the airport and the TGV station are serviced by the same bus. Extra buses run to the TGV station, but you can easily grab a bus from the airport every 30 minutes. If you plan to visit more than just Aix, you may want to rent a car. In this case, I suggest going to the airport where rental cars are available.

Once arriving in Aix by bus or other means, you'll want to get settled in. The city boasts many options for lodging. Personally my preferred place to stay is the Renaissance Hotel, this is pretty much the only major hotel chain located in the center of the city. Other options exist outside the city for major chains, but are rarely have easy access to downtown where most people would like to explore. If you don't mind giving up your hotel points, there are some small boutique hotels to try.

I often stay at the Hotel Rotonde when my first option is too expensive. Hotel Rotonde is small, and wouldn't be a good option normally in my opinion. The problems start with cleaning staff who rarely are consistent on the way rooms are cleaned, or even if you get soap refilled. Secondly, and my most major grip, is that you are required to leave your room key with the front desk... though they ask for no identification when you return and ask for the key... this doesn't make me exactly feel safe about my belongings in the room. One the positive side, there is a breakfast setup every morning in the lobby.

If any of this doesn't sound appealing, there is another option in the Hotel des Augustines, which is a converted chapel. Personally I have not stayed here, but I will consider it on my next visit since the Rotonde has not been a good experience lately. Hotel des Augustines is a place many of my co-workers stay at and with the old stonework throughout the building, it is supposed to be a beautiful place to stay inside and out. 

Downtown Aix is beautiful, starting at the main roundabout at the center of the city. A huge fountain graces the center of the roundabout, while busy this fountain looks amazing during the winter when water is replaced by Christmas lights mimicking the flow of water.

Surrounding the fountain is a plethora of restaurants. The French are well known for their food, and with good reason, it is incredible. Almost any option is offered in this area. Explore the side streets and alleys here as they continue on like a labyrinth, continuing off in all directions, but still full of shops and restaurants. From hamburgers in crepes, to tapas, to pizza, just walk in any direction to find amazing food.

On the east side of the foutain is a street called Cours Mirabeau. During the evening hours, be sure to get there before 7pm though, the streets are lined with wooden booths where vendors sell anything from incredibly detailed chocolate, to Russian nesting dolls. This is where you can buy from local vendors, and some very unique items. Really this is the place to go at least one night to see all of the wares.

The 7pm thing has held very true over the many times I've visited. Now I tend to go around the winter, so I'm not sure if the longer days bring later hours, but almost every store is closed by 7pm. Grocery stores stay open a little later, but make sure you check the hours since these hours are nothing like what you would see in the United States. Restaurants are also open late as French dining is filled with conversation and often stretches more than 2 hours.

Aix promises an experience for any visitng southern France. Alps to the north, museums in the city, old arcitechture and amazing back street alleys. If you are thinking about southern France, make Aix a stop on the trip, or even the place you come back to every night. 

Destination: Forbidden City, China

Getting to the Forbidden City is fairly straight forward if you use the public transit system. Tian'anmen square is right as you exit at either the east or west stop on Line 1 of the Beijing subway system. One thing you have to keep in mind is that China is big, population wise. Many people come to visit not only Tian'anmen, but also the Forbidden City and surrounding areas. Most of them are not tourists from other countries.

People are not very used to westerners in many cases, I was approached no less than 4 times, and I've heard many stories of getting swarmed by those wanted to take photos. In my case there were no requests for photos, but lots of people trying to practice their English with me. I even sat down for tea with an English teacher, and it was facinating to get to talk to a local person, even if it was a little odd and uncomfortable for an introvert like myself at times.


Tian'anmen Square

Tian'anmen Square

Tian'anmen square and the Forbidden City are connected through an underground tunnel. Getting into either area requires passing through security. This is where I warn you that almost every place you go requires passing through security in China. Even getting into the subway requires an x-ray scan of your belongings, and a quick trip through a metal detector. My last minute decision to carry a small shoulder bag with me was a great choice. This made clearing security quick and painless as my stuff was in the bag and through the scanner while I had removed all metal from myself in advance of entering.  

Tian'anmen and Forbidden City complex requires not only security screening, but also an ID. Beijing is a city you visit with your passport on you. I'm very used to placing my passport in a safe in the hotel as soon as I arrive and not taking it out until I'm ready to fly out. Personally, carrying around my passport is not the most safe thing I think I could do. I even like to minimize the credit cards I carry on me at any time. If I know a place fairly well, I'll break from the habit and bring my wallet with me, but the passport always stays in the safe. This was a mistake in China, while I was allowed through the security checkpoint with my drivers license, I would advise against this, and I would not do it again. Many attractions require ID and it is prudent to carry your passport in Beijing. 

Entering into the side gardens of the Forbidden City actually launch you from the busy lines around Chairman Mao and those continuing into the main area of the city, into the peaceful surrounding areas. I highly suggest entering through the side gardens if you can figure out where to go, it isn't straight forward. A Chinese art student showed me the way and gave me a quick tour of their art exibit prior to entering. I was able to purchase an art piece from him for a reasonible price that was one of a kind and I knew my fiance would love.

Entering the side gardens of the city shows the amazing architecture of the period in which everything was built. Cypress gardens are the first thing you walk through and many attractions have seperate english versions of the informational signs around the area. There is even a special cypress tree which was the first one planted on the temple grounds, by the emperor at the time

Continuing on to the next area, your first introduction to the city buildings comes up and you are launched back in time. A small waterway shows up and it's very striking how many trees and plants show up not only in the city grounds, but throughout the city of Beijing.

Buildings in Forbidden City

Buildings in Forbidden City

Walking through to the next area shows a large building with a huge courtyard of stone pavers. Outlying buildings surround the courtyard and make a beautiful scene. Due to the low foot traffic in this section of the grounds, it is almost peaceful and a perfect opportunity for wedding photos. During my walkthrough, I saw at least 5 different wedding photographers with brides and grooms taking their photos.

Open square in the Forbidden City

Open square in the Forbidden City

Amazing Chinese Stonework

Amazing Chinese Stonework

On to the next area bring you out at the top of the South East gardens. Greeted by a paved walkway, more cypress trees and a huge moat of sorts. Boarding the other side of the moat, is a huge wall guarding the main part of the city. From here you can exit the gardens and secure area before walking into the main area. I actually chose to walk along the water front and come in from the east side. Interestingly this didn't happen, I made it almost to the east entrance when I was approached by the aforementioned english teacher from Xi'an. She wanted to practice her english on me, and we ended up sitting down to some tea and making new friends.  It was an unexpected encounter, but experiences are what I was in China for, so getting to know someone from the country was a fun experience... though the private karaoke session was a little much for me and I went on my way. 

Walls of the central part of the Forbidden City

Walls of the central part of the Forbidden City

While I didn't finish the central part of the Forbidden City, I will return at some point and continue my tour. Sometimes travel takes you in unexpected directions, but an adventure is always worth a detour or two.