My Top 5 Favorite Places Outside the United States and Why I Love Them

Similar to my list of top 10 favorite places in the United States and Why I Love Them, I decided to write up a list of my favorite places outside the United States. Since I’ve traveled more extensively inside the US than outside, I limited it to my top 5 international places, only I felt the need for an honorable mention since I couldn’t limit it to just 5 places. I wanted to choose one city for each pick, but was unable to in most cases, so I limited the choices to a region or small area. I hope you enjoy my list! It was a lot of fun to make the list and reminisce about places I’ve been to over the years.

Honorable Mention:  Rethymno, Crete, Greece. As I’ve said many times on my blog, when my family and I travel, we often veer off the beaten path a bit. We don’t always go where the crowds go. So when we went to Greece, while we did go to the popular destination of Athens, we skipped the tourist-flooded islands of Santorini and Mykonos and opted for Crete instead. We may eventually go to some of the aforementioned islands, but we’re in no rush. Crete was absolutely everything we love in a vacation spot- there were beautiful hiking areas and some of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever seen. I especially enjoyed the Venetian harbor and fortress in Rethymno. Within driving distance are ruins (such as Knossos), caves, gorges, and many quaint small villages to keep you busy and in awe. My favorite beach on Crete is Elafonisi, with its pink sand and clear water, but there are many other beautiful beaches in Crete as well.

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Number 5:  St. Kitts and Nevis. These tiny islands in the Caribbean are only about 65 and 36 square miles each, respectively. My husband and I got married on the island of St. Kitts and took a ferry to Nevis for our honeymoon. We stayed at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club on Nevis and it is still to this day one of the nicest places I have ever stayed. It is the Caribbean’s only historic plantation on the beach. The service at Nisbet Plantation is unparalleled, the food top-notch, and the accommodations amazing. While there isn’t a ton to do on the island, it’s the perfect place to get away from it all and just relax and be pampered. St. Kitts has a bit more to do on the island than Nevis, and there are many options for outdoor enthusiasts. The day before our wedding, my fiancé and I climbed up to the top of one of the volcanic peaks on St. Kitts, even though our tour guide thought we were crazy given the timing. Other than our wedding, it was the highlight of our trip to St. Kitts so I was very glad we did it. St. Kitts and Nevis are both the perfect places to go if you enjoy outdoor activities and water sports.

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I loved the black volcanic rocks in St. Kitts
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One of many beautiful views in St. Kitts

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Number 4:  St. Johann im Pongau district, Austria. Two places are of mention here: Bad Gastein and Werfen. When I read an article about Austria and saw a photo of Bad Gasteiner Wasserfall (waterfall) I immediately wanted to go. You could say the whole reason I went to Austria at all was because of that photo of a waterfall and the travel article written about the area.

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I finally got to take my own photo of Gasteiner Wasserfall!

We went to Austria in the spring and there were more waterfalls here than anywhere else I have ever been. Bad Gastein is a spa town in the district of St. Johann im Pongau, in the Hohe Tauern mountain range, in the state of Salzburg. Other than the city of Salzburg, this area is full of tiny towns great for hiking and exploring. I found the people here very friendly, the food good, and the scenery outstanding. Werfen is famous for the Eisriesenwelt Ice Cave, one of the highlights of our vacation in Austria. Cameras aren’t allowed inside the cave, but here are a couple of photos from their website.

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Also in Werfen is the Burg Hohenwerfen, a castle that’s over 900 years old. There are extensive weaponry displays and an impressive falconry flight display. The castle is surrounded by the Salzachtal Valley so it’s beautiful just to walk the grounds.

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Number 3:  Banff, Canada. A few years ago we went to Missoula, Montana where I ran a half marathon and we followed up the race with a visit to Glacier National Park, which I thought was pretty amazing, but then we went to Banff, Canada and the scenery just kept getting better the further north we went. As majestic as the Rocky Mountains are in the United States, I think the Canadian Rocky Mountains are even more so. The glacier-fed waters in the area are such a beautiful hue of greenish-blue and the mountains are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Banff National Park, about 70 miles west of Calgary, is the oldest national park in Canada. I found the town of Banff to be pretty touristy but it is full of restaurants, shops, museums, and art galleries so you can find plenty to do here when you’re not hiking. There are many, many tours including glacier tours, boat tours, and general sightseeing tours if that interests you. We took a boat tour on Lake Minnewanka, the only lake in Banff National Park open to public motorized boating, and it was definitely a highlight of our time there.

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Number 2:  Florence, Italy. Since I wanted to limit my choices to one city whenever possible, this one was tough to choose just one city we went to in Italy. I loved Rome almost as much as Florence, but in the end I’d have to say Florence may have the edge, but just slightly. I was surprised I loved Florence as much as I did, honestly. Before I went to Italy, I expected Venice or Rome to be my favorites (we also went to Naples and Pompeii), but Florence won my heart. I think it must have been the art that did it. While I was in Florence, I felt like I was immersed in art. You could go to just an ordinary little shop and there would be the most beautiful mosaic, or at a small cafe and find gorgeous statues or paintings just kind of tucked away, obviously not for ostentatious display but just part of the cafe. There are of course the famous museums such as Uffizi Gallery, Accademia Gallery, and the small but still stunning Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Then there are the many beautiful piazzas, cathedrals, and other archeological sites. All of these places are so out of this world beautiful just one place alone would make for an incredible visit to the city, but the fact that there are so many stunningly beautiful places in one city make it almost surreal. With some of the best food and wine in the world on top of the artwork everywhere, what more could you ask for?

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Number 1:  Whitianga, New Zealand. This one was also a tough one. I knew somewhere in New Zealand would be my top choice, but to limit it to just one place was really difficult. The North Island of New Zealand is so diverse with its Redwood Forests, sandy beaches, geysers, wine country, and rolling hills. I loved touring Hobbiton and found the countryside there beautiful. Seeing the glow worms of Waitomo Caves was incredible. Walking around the geysers and thermal mud pools at Wai-O-Tapu in Rotorua was like being on another planet. Walking through the redwoods forest was so quiet and serene. But our boat ride through the sea caves in Whitianga was something impossible to ever top. The water was such a gorgeous color of blue-green and being able to go inside some of the caves was so much fun. I felt like I had a smile plastered across my face from beginning to end of the tour. This is a place that has seriously ruined other boat tours for me because nothing will ever be able to compare. Besides the boat tour here, the beaches are also some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Whitianga also has wineries, a fun museum, and hiking trails, all things I love. I almost didn’t include this area as part of our North Island tour because I didn’t think we’d have time. I’m so glad that didn’t happen because we would have missed the best part!

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Being in this small boat made it easy to go in the caves and explore

Has anyone else been to these places? Does anyone want to go now?

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Montreal, a City Unlike Any Other

When I started writing this post, I almost put “Montreal, a little slice of France,” as the title, but then I stopped myself for a few reasons.  1) I have never been to France before so I can’t really say that.  2) I might seriously make some Canadians upset by saying this (or French people). 3) Montreal really is a unique city unlike any other.  However, there is definitely a strong French influence in the food and culture. French is the city’s official language and is the language spoken at home by the majority of people living there.  If you’re into food, architecture, and/or history, this is a city for you!

Some of my favorite sites in Montreal include Old Port, Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, Biodome, Jardin Botanique, just to name a few.  Old Port, or Vieux Port de Montreal, has a lot going on.  During warmer months, there are pedal boats and jet skis for rent, Voiles en Voiles where you can climb about a life-size replica of a pirate ship, you can cruise on a schooner, take the Decalade challenge at the Conveyor Quay Tower or if that’s not thrilling enough you can sky jump.  There are numerous special events in Old Port throughout the year as well.  Last but not least, there is the Montreal Science Centre full of fun exhibits and an IMAX theatre.

The Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal is like visiting a museum as well as a massive, ornate church.  There are many tours offered including a 60 minute guided tour that will take you in very private areas of the Basilica as the galleries and the baptistery.  You can also sit in the balcony of the organ to listen to classical organ music and meet organist Pierre Grandmaison.  The original chapel was much smaller and was operated by the Jesuits.  In 1657, the Sulpician Fathers took over operation and started construction of a larger church.  Construction of this Baroque style church was completed in 1683.  However, by 1800, this church was also deemed too small and construction of a larger Gothic Revival style church began and was completed in 1829.  In 1889, the architects Perreault and Mansard were commissioned to build a chapel that would accommodate ceremonies for smaller ceremonies. Named the Chapel of Notre-Dame du Sacré-Cœur (Our Lady of the Sacred Heart) it was built in Gothic Revival style and consecrated on December 8, 1891, only to be seriously damaged by a fire in 1978.  The new chapel was opened in 1982.

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The Biodome, Botanical Garden, Insectarium and the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium are all part of Space for Life, which has the purpose to raise individual and collective awareness about the need to get involved in protecting the Canadian heritage.  This mission is carried out through educational, conservation, research and outreach efforts.  The Biodome recreates ecosystems of the Americas including a Tropical Rainforest, the Laurentian Maple Forest, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Labrador Coast, and the Sub-Antarctic Islands. When the Biodome opened in 1992, its ecosystem concept was a world first.  With over 4,500 animals from 250 different species and 500 plant species, the Biodome is bound to have something for everyone.  The Insectarium has both permanent and traveling exhibitions and includes one of the most comprehensive collections of insects in North America.  The Botanical Garden is full of themed gardens such as the Japanese Garden and Chinese Garden as well as 10 greenhouses open to the public.  The Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium has one of the largest collections of meteorites in Quebec, the permanent exhibit called EXO:  Our Search for Life in the Universe, as well as rotating shows in the immersive theater.  There are several options for tickets for these four places.  You can combine two or more places to get a better deal on pricing and tailor your tickets depending on your interests and income.

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Montreal has some stunning architecture, with some buildings going back to the 16th century.  In 2006 Montreal was named a UNESCO City of Design, only one of three design capitals of the world (the others being Berlin and Buenos Aires).  There are 50 National Historic Sites of Canada in Montreal, more than any other city according to Wikipedia. Many of these historic sites are churches and battle sites but there are others as well.  I enjoyed just walking around the city and admiring the beautiful buildings around me.

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Finally, to the food of Montreal!  Some foods in Montreal are unique to the city itself or to Canada in general and are definitely worth trying.  One example is Montreal smoked meat and one of the best places to get it is Schwartz’s Deli.  Believe me, it’s worth the wait. Another famous example is poutine.  These are french fries smothered in gravy, cheese, and curds but you can get all kind of different toppings on them.  One place to try them is Poutini’s House of Poutine but you’ll find them at restaurants scattered throughout the city.  There are so many different phenomenal restaurants in Montreal, you should have no problem finding good food.  The only problem may be in deciding which place to go to since there are so many to choose from!  Some of the current top restaurants include Bouillon Bilk and Le Robin Square.  While the restaurants in Montreal tend to be a bit expensive, they’re an experience you won’t forget and that is priceless.  Come to think of it, your whole vacation in Montreal will be a priceless experience that you won’t forget.