24 Hours in DTLA

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Olive trees outside the Broad Museum.

When people think of Los Angeles, they typically think one of two things: beach or Hollywood. But downtown Los Angeles would like to challenge that dichotomy.

Downtown Los Angeles has always been a bit of a ghost-town. As far as major metropolitan areas go, the downtown area is surprisingly small. Greater Los Angeles is a city of sprawl like no other, and downtown has mostly been a place people went for work and then left to go home. But new efforts are underway to revitalize and rehabilitate the downtown area, or DTLA as they call it.

I’ve never spent much time in DTLA, even when I lived in Los Angeles. I lived in Westwood, where UCLA is situated, just a few miles inland from the Santa Monica beaches. To get from Westwood to downtown, you had to go south a few miles on the 405 and then take the 10 east into downtown. It was a distance of only 13 miles that could easily take 45 minutes to an hour, so we went downtown only a handful of times in the three years we lived there: to go to the Staples Center, Chinatown, or the Japanese-American History Museum for the Los Angeles Tea Festival.

So when my friends Dave and Liz invited us to their wedding, being held at the Los Angeles Athletic Club downtown, it sounded like the perfect opportunity to get to know the new DTLA.

Let me be upfront about this: DTLA is mid-renaissance, a work very much still in progress. Los Angeles still has a prominent homelessness problem, and downtown is not nearly as safe as it could or should be. There’s also a great deal of construction going on, making it noisy and dirty. But there is cool stuff to do there, if you know where to look.

We stayed at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which is quite well-situated at 7th and Olive Streets. As the name implies, it’s a private fitness club that has rooms on the top two floors. You don’t have to be a member of the club to stay at the hotel, and you get full access to the fitness amenities when you book an overnight room, so that’s a nice perk. The room rate also includes a complimentary breakfast buffet, but it was not that good.

IMG_0511The rooms are amazingly large. We had a king-size bed with two nightstands, two wing-back chairs with a side table, an armoire, a full-size desk and chair, and an exercise bicycle (!) with plenty of floor space for walking about. The bathroom was equally spacious, if somewhat less well-appointed. The bed was fluffy and comfortable, and very inviting for rejuvenating naps.

The view is nothing to speak of. Even on the 12th floor (the top floor of the building), there’s really not much to see. It’s no New York or Chicago, that’s for sure. Equally unimpressive was the level of service we experienced.

IMG_0512Checking in took longer than it should have, and then after we got up to our room, the front desk called to say that they had forgotten to make a photo copy of my credit card and could I please come back down. First, we watched him make a copy of my card when we checked in, and second, why do they need a photo copy to begin with? And people wonder why there’s so much credit card fraud in this country.

The in-room toiletries were decent: shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lotion, and bar soap; but there was only one bar of soap for the sink and none for the shower. Further, when housekeeping came by the next day, they didn’t replenish the toiletries at all, let alone bring us a second bar of soap. Epic fail.

But the thing that annoyed me the most was that their hyped-up cocktail bar is closed on the weekends! What? Do the people running this hotel seriously not understand how bars work? We had planned to stop by for a pre-wedding drink, but were thwarted at every turn. Even our second choice, the on-site sports bar, was closed on Saturday afternoon. Not doing it right, guys. Not even close.

Thankfully, the rest of our stay in DTLA was more satisfying.

Twenty Jackies at the Broad Museum.

Andy Warhol’s Twenty Jackies at the Broad Museum.

After checking into the hotel Friday evening, we went to dinner at Preux & Proper. Recommended by our friends, it was just the sort of hipster establishment you would expect to find in a newly revitalized urban environment. Their menu is organized oddly, and almost all items are small plates intended to be shared at the table. The prices are high—again, as you would expect from a hipster establishment—but at least the quality is high as well. Everything we ordered was delicious: sea scallop ceviche, Dungeness crab hushpuppies (Amazing! I wish I had some right now…), burrata, and house Andouille sausage. We shared Key Lime pie for dessert, and even though I’m not generally a fan of Key Lime pie, this one was phenomenal. I intended to have one bite. I definitely had more than that.

Their cocktail list is full of classics, but I went with the Lemon Smash: Xicaru mezcal, lemon, and mint. It was perfect. The smokiness of the mezcal was prominent, while the mint and lemon provided a counter-balance. The amount of ice in the glass, however, was absurd—I wish I had taken a photo. The tiny ice cubes were piled in a pyramid, the top of which was easily twice as tall as the glass. The point of this escapes me, other than just being absurd for absurdity’s sake. But hey, it was memorable!

Part of Golden Road Brewing Co's lineup.

Part of Golden Road Brewing Co’s lineup.

The other most interesting cocktail-related tidbit about the restaurant is their frozen drinks, which my friend Cassius kept referring to as slushies. After dining, they give you a small glass (like a squat Mason jar) to take to the bar for a complimentary serving of any flavor of their frozen drinks on tap that night. My husband went for mango (he loves mango significantly more than I do), while I chose the Old Fashioned. I was skeptical of an Old Fashioned-flavored slushie, but it was surprisingly delicious. And it actually did taste like Bourbon. Highly recommend!

If you’re a beer fan, they have a good selection of West Coast craft beers. Their wine list is small and California-heavy, but they do offer a handful of non-California producers. It’s noteworthy that all of their wines (whites and reds) are available either by the glass for $13 or the bottle for $52. That’s an unusual pricing structure, and it would behoove you to research their list online and compare retail pricing. While Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc is a delightful New Zealand wine, under no circumstances should anyone ever pay $52 for a bottle. Considering that I can buy a bottle of it for under $20 here in DC, I wouldn’t even pay $13 for a glass. Restaurant wine pricing schemes are always highway robbery, but $52 for a bottle of Kim Crawford is downright unconscionable.

IMG_0515Saturday morning we headed over to Grand Central Market to meet up with Cassius. It’s an easy 15-minute walk from the LA Athletic Club. We began at G&B Coffee, where I had the best Chai Latte of my life. You can get it hot or iced. I went with the latter option, but I would love to try the hot version next time. They make their own Chai tea, and you can tell. The flavors were magnificent—so many spices! As soon as I finished it, I wanted another one.

After scoping out the many food options at Grand Central, we decided on Wexler’s Deli for smoked salmon (aka, lox) on bagels. They smoke their own fish (and meat) daily and it was phenomenal! (Their slogan is “Hey Heeeyyyyyy, Smoke Fish Every Day.” I love it.) The salmon was so thinly sliced, so flavorful, so tender. I also like that they serve their bagel sandwiches open-faced. Since I am not a reptile and my jaw does not unhinge, it is sometimes rather difficult to eat a bagel sandwich when the bagel halves are stacked on top of one another. Another plus: they didn’t overload the sandwich with cream cheese. In a sign that they take their fish seriously, they want you to taste salmon, not cream cheese, in every bite. It was far and away the best smoked salmon bagel I’ve had since being in New York last year. They also sell smoked fish by the pound. If we still lived in LA, I would definitely be downtown on the regular to buy lox from Wexler’s.

IMG_0525On our way out of Grand Central Market, we happened upon Golden Road Brewing Co., which was just opening up, despite the early hour (it was only 10:30 a.m.). After perusing their menu board and convincing ourselves that 10:30 a.m. was not, in fact, too early to start drinking because we were still on East Coast time, we had a seat at the bar. I ordered their brown ale because I am not an adventurous beer-drinker, I dislike very hoppy beers (no IPAs for me!), and Newcastle is my favorite beer of all time.

The Golden Road Get Up Offa That Brown did not disappoint (plus I enjoyed the punny name). Dark brown in color, it had the rich nuttiness that I expect in a brown ale, with a smooth, mellow finish. MixMasterRhead went with the Gingerbread Stout, and Cassius chose the Hefeweizen. We were all excellently pleased. Golden Road is brewed in Los Angeles, and at this time, it’s only distributed in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Hawaii. One more reason to move back to the West Coast!

IMG_0524Bellies full of salmon and beer, we headed off to the relatively new Broad Museum. (For those not familiar, it’s pronounced like road.) It’s a contemporary art museum founded in 2015 by Eli and Edythe Broad to house their extensive art collection. The museum has over 2000 pieces in its collection, but only about 200 are on display at any given time. The building itself has an interesting architectural style. Read more here if you’re interested.

Unlike most of LA’s museums, the Broad is free. But it’s a hot ticket, so plan ahead. You can reserve tickets ahead of time (at least a month in advance) or you can just show up and stand in line. On the day we were there, the wait was about two hours to get in. Fortunately, the groom’s parents had arranged a timed private entry for our group, so we didn’t have to wait in that long line!

IMG_0540I’ve never been the biggest fan of contemporary art (I much prefer Medieval and Renaissance art), but I enjoyed the Broad. There are galleries devoted to Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jeff Koons—all of whom I’ve actually heard of—and then a number of other artists I wasn’t familiar with. One of my favorite pieces was a giant dining room table and chairs. I don’t get it, but it was kind of hilarious. My other favorite was a large “balloon” animal by Jeff Koons. It was made of painted stainless steel, but it really did look like a balloon animal.

The advantage of the Broad’s small collection is that it doesn’t take long to get through it. We spent about an hour and comfortably saw everything in the main galleries. (There was a special exhibit of Cindy Sherman photos, but it’s a paid exhibit and wasn’t included with our free entry.)

Our last stop before heading back to the hotel to rest up before the wedding that brought us all to DTLA in the first place was the Van Leeuwen ice cream truck parked across the street from the museum. Van Leeuwen is based in Brooklyn, and our three friends from New York found it mildly ironic that they came all the way to Los Angeles to eat ice cream from home, but hey, it was the only ice cream truck in sight.

IMG_0569Van Leeuwen’s specialty seems to be vegan ice cream, which I had never had and was skeptical of. Their “single” cone consists of two scoops, so I went with traditional chocolate and vegan cookie dough. The vegan ice cream was surprisingly good. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that it’s made with coconut milk instead of cow’s milk. It seemed sweet in a different way than traditional ice cream. The vegan cookie dough chunks had a sort of squishy texture, almost sponge-like, but they were good. I still prefer traditional ice cream, but for vegans and the lactose-intolerant, I would say that the vegan ice cream is a totally acceptable alternative.

Based on Van Leeuwen’s Twitter feed, they station their truck across from the Broad with some regularity. It looks like you can also catch them in Little Tokyo.

My final DTLA recommendation isn’t a place to stay or eat, but a salon. If you’re looking for a mani/pedi or a blow-out, check out Neihule on West 7th Street. Or if you need full-service hair care, their flagship location is just around the corner on South Olive Street. They offer complimentary wine with your service, and they’re basically across the street from the LA Athletic Club. If you schedule a blow-out, ask for Virginia—she did a great job with my hair!

Until next time, Los Angeles…

Being fancy.

Being fancy.

At Golden Road Brewing Co. in Grand Central Market.

At Golden Road Brewing Co. in Grand Central Market.

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Nope. That’s not creepy at all, Jeff Koons.

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Cassius with a giant woman.

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One of the galleries at the Broad Museum.

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Jeff Koons’s balloon dog.

Homemade Exfoliating Facial Mask

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After visiting Arizona over Memorial Day weekend, my skin was drier than the Sahara. Even a few days back in humid DC wasn’t helping. No matter how much water I drank or moisturizer I used, I couldn’t get my face back to its usual dewy state.

But as I was browsing through Every Day with Rachael Ray, I came across a feature called “Spa day at the supermarket,” with beauty product recipes made from groceries. The yogurt and turmeric exfoliating face mask caught my eye, so I decided to give it a whirl.

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Everything you need to make this mask.

There are only three ingredients: turmeric (an exfoliating anti-inflammatory), plain Greek yogurt (for smoothness), and honey (anti-bacterial). You probably have all of these on hand right now. Here are the directions as listed in the magazine:

Put 1 tablespoon Greek yogurt in a bowl.
Add 1 tablespoon honey.
Add 1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric.
Apply evenly to a clean face, leave on 5 minutes.
Wipe off with a damp towel.

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Mid-mixing.

Now for some caveats. This recipe makes A LOT of product. I’ve already used it four times, and I still have some left. (Obviously you have to keep it covered and refrigerated, because it’s primarily yogurt.) The next time I make this, I will reduce everything to one-third of what’s called for, i.e., 1 teaspoon yogurt, 1 teaspoon honey, and 1/2 teaspoon turmeric.

If you’ve ever used turmeric, you know that it is bright orange in color, and it stains. You must be careful with this facial mask. The consistency is thinner than I would like, which makes it difficult to apply. (But once on your face, it doesn’t run.) I applied it over the bathroom sink, holding the bowl under my face as I slathered on the mask. Any drips into the sink had to be wiped up immediately, unless you want orange blotches in your white porcelain sink. (Probably not.)

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Finished product.

Along those same lines, do not leave the mask on for more than 5 minutes or it will temporarily turn your skin orange. Unless you really want that Donald Trump look, this is to be avoided. Further, unless you want to ruin your towel, do not wipe off the mask with a damp towel as instructed by the recipe. I find that applying it before a shower and rinsing it in the shower is the easiest, least messy way to remove it.

With all those caveats, I did find the mask to be highly effective. I could feel the exfoliating graininess as I applied it, and my skin was much smoother and less dry afterward. I used it two days in a row, and my dry skin was totally fixed! I will definitely make this mask again, just not according to the recipe.

Amadei: The World’s Best Chocolate

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I’m still alive! After not posting in almost two months, some of you might have started to wonder what happened to me. My unintentional hiatus was caused by a combination of being busy with travel, work, and my wedding planning business. But I’m back now, with a new post about chocolate!

IMG_0239I previously mentioned Amadei chocolates and The Chocolate House here in DC when I wrote about the 1st Annual DC Chocolate Festival. As a result of attending the festival, I ended up on the mailing list for Amadei—not a bad list to be on, for sure. They emailed to let me know that they would be hosting a special Amadei-only chocolate-tasting event at the Chocolate House and offered me 50% off the usual price. That was an offer too good to refuse, so off we trundled on a very rainy Friday night to learn about and taste chocolate.

The Chocolate House has a classroom behind their chocolate showroom, where they regularly hold classes and tastings. It was my first visit to the shop, and I recognized most of the brands from the festival. We were a small group of seven for the tasting, plus our instructor, Marisol (one of the owners of The Chocolate House), and the U.S. sales rep for Amadei, Aaron (their only U.S. employee, and one of the few male employees).

We started with an interesting presentation on the history of chocolate cultivation, how consumption evolved from a beverage to a solid form, the stages of production, and the guidelines for tasting. When Marisol first started talking about visiting a chocolate plantation, I thought that might be something I wanted to add to my list of potential travel destinations. But then she mentioned the ultra-high humidity and the fact that cacao trees are pollinated by midges, and I changed my mind pretty quickly. Two of my least favorite things ever are humidity and bugs. So, no thanks!

Taken at Finca el Cisne near Copán Ruinas, Honduras in April, 2015.

Cacao pods on a tree. Photo by Flickr user jclor. Used under CC license BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Cacao trees can only grow within about 20 degrees of latitude from the equator, making Mexico, Central America, and South America prime cacao-growing regions. The tree is native to South America, but cacao is also widely grown in West Africa, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The vast majority of African cacao beans is bought by candy conglomerates like Nestlé and Hershey’s, in bulk, through middlemen, with little to no attention paid to quality. (That’s why their chocolate isn’t very good. Sorry, not sorry.)

Inside a cacao pod. Photo by Flickr user J HC. Used under CC license BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Inside a cacao pod.
Photo by Flickr user J HC. Used under CC license BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Artisanal chocolate makers (or chocolatiers), like Amadei, on the other hand, buy their cacao beans directly from cacao farmers, and they inspect every pod and bean carefully to ensure that they are using only the highest quality. Some of Amadei’s bars are single-origin, meaning all the beans came from a particular country. It really gives you a sense of place to eat a single-origin chocolate bar, much like drinking good French wine gives you a feeling for the terroir.

Tasting chocolate has a lot in common with tasting wine or whisky. Aroma is important, as is mouthfeel, texture, and taste. Chocolate can also taste different on the finish than it did at first, much like wine and spirits.

Cacao beans. Photo by Flickr user Bex Walton. Used under CC license BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Cacao beans.
Photo by Flickr user Bex Walton. Used under CC license BY-NC-ND 2.0.

When tasting chocolate, as opposed to eating chocolate, it’s important to not chew. Instead, you break off a small piece, place it in your mouth, and let it melt on your tongue. Only this way can you attempt to tease out the different flavors of the chocolate. We tasted eight different Amadei bars in all. My individual tasting notes are below, but keep in mind that everyone’s palate is different, and what one person tastes, another may not necessarily find. Also, keep in mind that when I mention bitterness, I mean it as a compliment. Dark chocolate should have a bit of bitterness.

Amadei 9: 75% cacao, blended from nine different sources. Early notes of bitterness, almost smoky in flavor. Middle notes of pure cocoa. Very smooth and creamy texture. My favorite of the tasting, and the darkest (highest cacao percentage) bar made by Amadei.

Chuao: 70% cacao single-origin bar from Chuao (chew-wow), Venezuela. Opens with dark fruit flavors, but transitions into roasted coffee on the finish. Very rich and thick texture and taste. My second favorite of the tasting. (For more on the highly sought-after beans of Chuao, see this article from The Guardian.)

Blanco de Criollo: 70% cacao; Criollo is the rarest and highest-quality of the three types of cacao bean. This tastes like hot chocolate at first, with a hint of blueberries on the finish. Rich and creamy, but less creamy than the 9 and less rich than the Chuao.

Porcelana: 70% cacao from Porcelana, Venezuela. Texture similar to Blanco de Criollo. Starts with a sweet, sugary taste that mellows into fudgey bitterness.

Toscano Black: 66% cacao blend. Mild taste with a warm, but not spicy, finish. Reminiscent of caramel flavors. Very creamy texture. Amadei also produces the Toscano Black in 70% and 63% versions.

Toscano Red: 70% cacao blend with freeze-dried raspberries, cherries, and strawberries. Freeze-drying the fruits gives the bar a crispy/crunchy texture. The first flavor is raspberries, followed by a more general fruitiness, and finally finishing with a hint of bitterness.

Gianduja: also called the Nut Brown bar. Milk chocolate with hazelnuts. Super soft and creamy—almost too creamy for me. Tastes like really high-end Nutella. Pure hazelnut flavor.

Al Latte Bianco con Pistacchi: translates to “white chocolate with pistachios.” Tastes very much like pistachios, and leaves an aftertaste of pistachios. The chocolate is very creamy, but the overall texture is crunchy due to the nuts.

You might be wondering why the title of this post is “Amadei: The World’s Best Chocolate.” Well, it’s because Amadei has, in fact, been proclaimed the world’s best chocolate on more than one occasion (also the world’s most expensive chocolate, but you get what you pay for, and Amadei is worth the high price). They’ve won numerous Golden Bean Awards from the Academy of Chocolate (you didn’t know that was a thing, did you?), including six in 2016.

Chuao bar from Amadei's website.

Chuao bar from Amadei’s website.

Founded in 1990 by Celilia Tessieri, one of the world’s few women chocolatiers, Amadei is based in Florence, Italy and employs mostly women. It’s a small operation, with fewer than 35 employees in total. They produce both bars and confections (the term used for molded and filled chocolates), a rarity in the artisanal chocolate business—usually producers focus on one or the other. With a limited production capacity, Amadei is not available just anywhere. If you live in DC, The Chocolate House is your best bet. If you live in NYC, you’re lucky enough to have access to one of Amadei’s rare stores at 15 East 18th Street. For everyone else, there’s always the Internet!

Amadei is, without a doubt, special occasion chocolate. Prices range from about $8 a bar for the blends to more than $16 for the Porcelana. This is not chocolate to snack on while you’re out running errands. A small square is your reward at the end of a long day, preferably with a glass of red wine.

My first taste of Amadei was about four years ago when my husband read about it, tracked it down on the Internet, and bought me some for my birthday. It was a revelatory experience. Truly the greatest chocolate I had ever tasted. If you want to treat the chocolate-lover in your life (or yourself!), you cannot go wrong with Amadei.

Get Your Homemade Bitters Here!

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IMG_8073If you’ve ever purchased cocktail bitters, you know they’re pretty pricey. They can cost as much as $20 for a few fluid ounces. When I came across a book on Amazon that was all about the history of bitters, along with cocktail recipes and recipes for making your own bitters, I was intrigued. One impulse purchase later, I was on my way to turning my kitchen into a bitters lab.

The book in question is Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas by Brad Thomas Parsons. I loved this book. As a history-loving, booze-hound/bibliophile, I was pretty much predisposed to love this book. I highly recommend it, even if you don’t plan to make your own bitters. (Note: don’t buy the Kindle version—the photos in this book are amazing; you want the hard copy.)

IMG_9898If you do want to make your own bitters, this book has everything you need. Tips and tricks, recommendations for the proper tools, recipes, and where to find ingredients and supplies. There are 13 bitters recipes in the book. I chose five that looked both interesting and useful: Celery, Meyer Lemon, Charred Cedar, Apple, and Grapefruit.

The first step in any endeavor is to gather your supplies. I already owned items like proper knives, zesters, peelers, funnels, strainers, and a mortar and pestle. I needed to buy Mason jars, cheesecloth, and small bottles and labels for the finished product. Mr. Thomas recommends wide-mouth 1-quart Mason jars, which I found at my local ACE Hardware for $2 apiece. (Note: Amazon totally failed me in this department. It was going to cost a fortune to buy the jars from them.)

IMG_8533Thomas also recommended Specialty Bottle (clever name) in Seattle for bottling supplies. Again, their prices ended up being far more competitive than Amazon’s. I decided on 4-ounce brown glass bottles with dropper lids. The other best option is a dasher cap (like what’s on a soy sauce bottle), but I like the apothecary-feel to dropper bottles. I bought 30 bottles, assuming each of my five recipes would fill about six 4-ounce bottles. (Yield on each recipe is just short of three cups, or about 20-24 ounces.) Knowing that I would have lots of bitters on hand at the end of this experiment, I decided to give a bottle to each of my parents, siblings, and in-laws as Christmas gifts.

IMG_8621Next up was the actual ingredients. Some of the items were easily found at the grocery store: lemongrass, fruits and vegetables, honey, sugar. The base alcohols (Everclear and high-proof whiskey) were available at my local liquor store. And a few random things we had on hand because MixMasterRhead makes homemade tonic, which also uses cassia chips, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, and cinchona bark.

But many of the herbs and botanicals needed to be ordered online. The book recommended a shop called Tenzing Momo in Seattle. I was able to find cardamom pods, celery seeds, coriander seeds, gentian root, hops, and wild cherry bark for much less than anywhere else on the Internet. I bought the remaining items from Amazon: cheesecloth, cedar grilling planks, and white peppercorns.

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Check out that label!

I bought labels from an online shop called Bottle Your Brand. I had used them before to make labels for my homemade vanilla extract. They have a nice design tool that lets you play around with fonts and layout and see a proof before placing your order. I recommend them.

Total costs: approximately $270 (see estimated breakdown below)

$10.00 ACE Hardware
$23.25 Tenzing Momo
$47.00 Specialty Bottle
$80.00 liquor
$30.00 grocery
$33.00 Amazon
$47.29 Bottle Your Brand

This works out to be about $9 per four-ounce bottle. By way of comparison, a four-pack of Scrappy’s Exotic Bitters is $25-$35 (depending on where you buy them), and each of those bottles is only 1/2 an ounce. So you’re paying 2-3 times more for the same amount. On the other hand, a pack of Fee Brothers bitters is around $65 for six four-ounce bottles, so those cost nearly the same per bottle as making them yourself. The upshot is that you should make your own bitters because you want to, not because you want to save yourself money. (You also have to factor in the cost of your time and labor.)

IMG_8781Bitters are essentially a concentrated flavoring agent made by steeping botanicals, herbs, fruits, and a bittering agent in high-proof alcohol. When making clear bitters, use high-proof vodka, such as Everclear. When making dark bitters, use high-proof whiskey, like Wild Turkey 101. And use the finished product in cocktails with matching spirits: clear bitters with vodka and gin; dark bitters with whiskey and rum. Once the initial prep work is done, the process is fairly easy, if long. One batch of bitters takes about a month to prepare—but most of that time is passive, with the bitters resting in a Mason jar.

IMG_8624Below are two recipes from the book that I liked best out of the five I tried. The Charred Cedar bitters are great in Manhattans (or hot chocolate!) but they were by far the most difficult to make. Charring the cedar plank was tedious and time-consuming, and then breaking it up into small pieces was almost impossible. I don’t think I’ll ever make those again. But the other four were all relatively easy (once Meyer lemons FINALLY came in stock at Whole Foods).

Grapefruit Bitters

IMG_8529Zest of 2 grapefruit, cut into strips with a paring knife
1/4 cup chopped dried grapefruit peel
1/2 teaspoon gentian root
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
6 green cardamom pods
1 teaspoon dried hops
2 cups high-proof vodka, or more as needed
1 cup water
2 tablespoons honey

Make the dried grapefruit peel ahead of time. Preheat oven to 200°F. Wash and dry the fruit. Peel off the zest in long strips using a zester or paring knife. Finely chop the zest strips. Spread the chopped zest on a baking sheet and put it in the oven until dried, at least 30 minutes. Store in an airtight container. To yield 1/2 cup of dried fruit, use 3 grapefruit, 8 lemons, 8 limes, or 6 oranges.

To make the bitters, place all of the ingredients except for the vodka, honey, and water in a quart-sized Mason jar or other large glass container with a lid. Pour in the 2 cups of vodka, adding more if necessary so that all the ingredients are covered. Seal the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 2 weeks, shaking the jar once a day.

After 2 weeks, strain the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into a clean quart-sized jar to remove the solids. Repeat until all of the sediment has been filtered out. Squeeze the cheesecloth over the jar to release any excess liquid and transfer the solids to a small saucepan. Cover the jar and set aside.

Cover the solids in the saucepan with the 1 cup of water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover the saucepan, lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool completely. Once cooled, add the contents of the saucepan (both liquid and solids) to another quart-sized Mason jar. Cover the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 1 week, shaking the jar daily.

After 1 week, strain the jar with the liquid and solids through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into a clean quart-sized Mason jar. Repeat until all of the sediment has been filtered out. Discard the solids. Add this liquid to the jar containing the original vodka solution.

Allow the mixture to stand at room temperature for 3 days. At the end of 3 days, skim off any debris that floats to the surface and pour the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined funnel one last time to remove any solids.

IMG_8767Using a small funnel, decant the bitters into smaller jars or bottles and label. If there’s any sediment left in the bottles, or if the liquid is cloudy, give the bottle a shake before using. The bitters will last indefinitely, but for optimum flavor, use within a year.

Apple Bitters

Peels from 6 medium to large apples, preferably organic
Zest of 1/2 lemon, cut into strips with a paring knife
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon allspice berries
1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cassia chips
1/2 teaspoon cinchona bark
4 cloves
2 cups high-proof bourbon or rye, or more as needed
1 cup water
2 tablespoons rich syrup

To make the rich syrup, bring 2 cups Demerara or turbinado sugar and 1 cup water to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Stir occasionally to dissolve the sugar. At the first crack of a boil, remove from the heat. Let cool completely, then store the syrup in a glass jar with a lid. The syrup will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month.

To make the bitters, place all of the ingredients except for the whiskey, rich syrup, and water in a quart-sized Mason jar or other large glass container with a lid. Pour in the 2 cups of whiskey, adding more if necessary so that all the ingredients are covered. Seal the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 2 weeks, shaking the jar once a day.

IMG_8622After 2 weeks, strain the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into a clean quart-sized jar to remove the solids. Repeat until all of the sediment has been filtered out. Squeeze the cheesecloth over the jar to release any excess liquid and transfer the solids to a small saucepan. Cover the jar and set aside.

Cover the solids in the saucepan with the 1 cup of water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover the saucepan, lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool completely. Once cooled, add the contents of the saucepan (both liquid and solids) to another quart-sized Mason jar. Cover the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 1 week, shaking the jar daily.

After 1 week, strain the jar with the liquid and solids through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into a clean quart-sized Mason jar. Repeat until all of the sediment has been filtered out. Discard the solids. Add this liquid to the jar containing the original whiskey solution.

Add the rich syrup to the jar and stir to incorporate, then cover and shake to fully dissolve the syrup.

Allow the mixture to stand at room temperature for 3 days. At the end of 3 days, skim off any debris that floats to the surface and pour the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined funnel one last time to remove any solids.

Using a small funnel, decant the bitters into smaller jars or bottles and label. If there’s any sediment left in the bottles, or if the liquid is cloudy, give the bottle a shake before using. The bitters will last indefinitely, but for optimum flavor, use within a year.

I really enjoyed making my own bitters and will definitely do it again—but we have many bottles of bitters to get through first before I start making more. Now that I have the basic approach down, I may go off-book next time and create something new. I’m thinking Rosemary bitters would liven up a martini quite nicely!

Cheers!

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Celery bitters in the making.

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Meyer lemon bitters, phase 1.

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The DC Chocolate Festival

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IMG_0032Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural DC Chocolate Festival, which is exactly what it sounds like. Given the crowds and the fact that the event sold out, I think it’s safe to say that this will become an annual event. Lucky us!

Touted as “the first East Coast chocolate festival focusing on bean-to-bar chocolate and chocolatiers,” the event was organized by The Chocolate House (previously Cocova), a chocolate shop in Dupont Circle, and held at the Westin in downtown DC. No offense to the Westin, but I hope they move the event to a larger space in the future.

Yummy caramels from John & Kira's.

Yummy caramels from John & Kira’s.

In addition to chocolate vendors sampling and selling their products, the event featured workshops where you could learn about the different aspects of making chocolate and being in the chocolate business. We attempted to attend one of the workshops, but after standing in line for about 15 minutes, the seats had all been filled by people in front of us in line, and it was standing-room-only. I wasn’t about to stand up listening to a 45-minute lecture, so we bailed. It appeared that there were only about 30 seats in the room to begin with. Being their first year, I’m sure the organizers were uncertain how much demand there would be for both the workshops and the event as a whole. Now that they know, I suspect they will adjust for next year.

The main attraction was the ballroom with the chocolate vendors—chocolatiers, as they are known. (But please, if you’re going to call them chocolatiers, use the correct French pronunciation: shaw-koh-la-tee-eh. Don’t call them “chock-la-teers,” as one booth staffer was doing. They’re not Musketeers. If the French is too much for you, just call them chocolate-makers.)

Brasstown, from North Carolina.

Brasstown, from North Carolina.

There were 26 chocolate vendors on-site, including the four primary sponsors: The Chocolate House, Valrhona, Michel Cluizel, and Amedei. I was super excited to see Amedei there because I love, love, love their chocolate. Based in Italy, it’s been deemed the “best in the world,” and I have to agree. I get Amedei every year on my birthday because I have an awesome husband. Even the guys at the Amedei booth were impressed that he buys it for me every year (it’s pricey, but worth it for a special occasion).

Until last weekend, I didn’t think it was possible for me to have “too much” chocolate. But after visiting about 20 vendor booths, I was definitely done for. Each booth had a variety of samples, and I didn’t even try them all! Some booths had chocolate-caramel samples, and those are my absolute fav. I think that’s what did me in.

From the Chouquette website.

From the Chouquette website.

I was happy to see that my favorite local caramel purveyor, Chouquette, was part of the festival. They’re based in Bethesda, Maryland, and I discovered them about two years ago when I was researching wedding favors for a client. They have a specialty pack that features DC monuments. The owner, Sarah Dwyer, is super nice (and I met her at the event!), and their caramels are to die for—very soft, creamy caramel surrounded by delicious chocolate. I love their original vanilla/sea salt, but I bought the special Guinness-flavored caramels for MixMasterRhead last year for Valentine’s Day. They even have an Old Bay-spiced version, as any good Marylander should!

IMG_0024Some of my other favorites are below. Bars ranged in price from $7 to $12, and caramel assortments ranged from $5 to $50, depending on how many pieces and how elaborate they were. All in all, pricing was in line with what you would expect from high-end chocolate purveyors.

Charm School Chocolate (based in Baltimore) – 70% Dark Belize with Jalapeño, Nibs and Sea Salt

Undone Chocolate (made in DC)- Himalayan Pink Salt, 72% Cacao

Potomac Chocolate (from Woodbridge, Virginia) – 70% San Martín Peru Single Origin

Chocotenango (another DC company)- 72% Dark Chocolate with Cardamom

Pacari (from Ecuador)- Lemongrass and Goldenberry (both dark chocolate)

Cacao Prieto (based in Brooklyn)- Mandarin & Bergamot and Vanilla & Cassia (and their packaging was Best in Show as far as I’m concerned!)

Upchurch Chocolate – The Party Bar, 72% Tanzania Single Origin

John & Kira’s (made in Philadelphia, but I won’t hold that against them) – their chocolates and caramels are notable for the whimsical and elaborate shapes, like butterflies and mushrooms

Shameless Chef (made in DC) – they make these delicious little nuggets called Dream Bites. I don’t know exactly what’s in them, but they’re kind of like a cakey brownie chocolate concoction. Yum!

IMG_0029Much like attending a wine tasting, it’s best to pace yourself, have some food in the middle of the day, and don’t make any purchases until you’ve tasted a fair number of offerings. Rhead encouraged me to take notes as we went so I could remember which were my favorites. He was really just trying to prevent me from buying ALL THE CHOCOLATE. (Funny story: when he made the suggestion, my response was, “Oh, but I don’t have a pen!” He said, “You have a phone, don’t you?” Duh. Ain’t technology grand?)

If you’re a fan of chocolate and you get a chance to attend a chocolate festival, I highly recommend it. It was great fun and introduced me to a lot of chocolate purveyors I had never heard of. Much like Marilyn Monroe discovering new places to wear diamonds, I just love discovering new chocolate!

IMG_0026IMG_0027(All photos are mine unless otherwise indicated.)

International Gin & Tonic Day!

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The Classic.

The Classic.

My Secret Booze-hound Calendar tells me that Saturday is International Gin & Tonic Day! Not that I need a reason for a good old G&T…

IMG_6566The gin & tonic was invented in the 1800s when officers of the British East India Tea Company stationed in India added gin, water, sugar, and lime to their doses of quinine, which was given to them as an anti-malarial drug. All tonic water contains quinine, which is what gives it the distinctive bitterness. (You would have to drink an obscene amount of tonic water to get enough quinine to actually fight off malaria, so don’t count on a G&T to save you.) Quinine comes from the bark of the cinchona tree, and if you’ve ever made your own bitters, you may remember cinchona bark as an ingredient.

You can make a gin & tonic with any old gin and any old tonic, but there are so many options to make it interesting. By varying either component (and even the ice!) you can get a very different result.

If you want low-budget tonic, there’s always Schweppes or Canada Dry which you can find at just about any corner convenience store or grocery store. I refuse to use either, for two reasons: 1) because they’re owned by Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper, respectively, and 2) because they contain high-fructose corn syrup. That stuff is the worst thing you can put in your body, and I avoid it like the plague. There’s a reason why they’re cheap, and it’s because they use a bunch of artificial ingredients.

fever-treeArtisanal tonics give you a huge step up in quality, but a corresponding increase in price. Fever-Tree, Q Tonic, and Fentimans are all recommended options. Fever-Tree sources ingredients from small suppliers around the world and doesn’t put crap like high-fructose corn syrup in their products. They use no artificial sweeteners, preservatives, or flavorings. Fever-Tree also has the distinction of having been named the best tonic by a number of bartenders and critics.

fentimansQ Tonic also uses all natural ingredients, no high-fructose corn syrup, and small-supplier sourced quinine. It has the added benefit of having fewer calories than other tonic waters by virtue of the fact that it uses agave as a sweetener instead of cane sugar. If you want your G&T to be uber-British, use Fentimans tonic. It’s made in England and has been around for over a century. Fentimans has the distinction of being a botanically brewed tonic, as opposed to the traditional tonic-making process, which merely cooks the ingredients over heat.

You could also go super artisanal and make your own tonic, which is what MixMasterRhead often does for us. When you make your own, you’re basically making tonic syrup. When you construct your G&T, you need to add soda water to the gin and tonic syrup in order to get the fizz. Here’s the recipe we use for tonic, from Jeffrey Morganthaler’s blog. You can get the more exotic ingredients online.

4 cups water
1 cup chopped lemongrass (roughly one large stalk)
1/4 cup powdered cinchona bark
Zest and juice of 1 orange
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon whole allspice berries
1/4 cup citric acid
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
Agave syrup

Combine all ingredients except agave syrup in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Once mixture starts to boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and strain out solids using a cheesecloth-lined strainer. You’ll need to fine-strain the mixture, as it still contains quite a bit of the cinchona bark. If you don’t want to wait for the cheesecloth method, run the whole mixture through a French coffee press. Once you’re satisfied with the clarity of your mix, heat it again on the stove, then add 3/4 cup agave syrup for each cup of your hot mix. Stir until combined, and store in the refrigerator in the glass bottle of your choice. Note: homemade tonic will be brownish in color, which will also lend a brownish tint to all cocktails made it with it.

BombayOnce you decide how fancy you want your tonic, you have to choose a gin. It’s harder than it sounds, because all gins are not alike. A traditional London dry gin (think Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire, or Tanqueray) is made with a traditional blend of botanical ingredients, most notably juniper.

Beefeater’s full roster of botanicals includes juniper, lemon peel, coriander seed, almond, Seville orange peel, orris root, licorice root, Angelica root, and Angelica seed. Bombay Sapphire contains juniper, lemon peel, grains of paradise, coriander seed, cubeb berries, orris root, almonds, cassia bark, licorice root, and Angelica root.

TanquerayNon-traditional gins include Tanqueray Rangpur (which adds Rangpur lime to the mix; fun fact: a Rangpur lime isn’t even a lime; it’s a hybrid of a lemon and a mandarin, and it’s orange in color, not green), Hendrick’s (which is distilled with roses and cucumbers, in addition to the usual botanicals), and barrel-rested gin (which takes on flavors and color from the oak used to make the barrel or from the spirit that previously occupied the barrel).

Outside of the major brands, there’s a world of gin producers. Small-batch distilleries have multiplied exponentially in the past decade. A trip to your local liquor store will reveal a number of brands you may or may not have heard of. Some of my favorites include Edinburgh, Leopold Bros., Bluecoat, Ransom, St. George, and Damrak. (I drink a lot of gin.)

A word about ice: It matters. (Okay, that was two words. And I’m about to write a lot more.) If you really want your cocktails to be delicious, the first rule of ice is to use something other than tap water. At the very least, use filtered tap water after it’s been run through a Brita or Pur or similar device. The second rule is to keep your ice cubes covered. Exposed ice can pick up aromas from other items in the freezer. I like to use these Tovolo ice molds that create large spheres of ice. If you really want to go all-out, get your hands on some specialty mixing water. Yes, it’s a thing, and after reading this article from The Washington Post, you might be inclined to try it!

Once you’ve assembled the perfect trio of ice, tonic, and gin, grab some limes (use organic, and rinse first!) and concoct your cocktail. You can use a ratio of 1 part gin to 2 parts tonic over a large ice sphere, or you can fill the glass with ice cubes, add 1.75 ounces of gin, then top with tonic. If you’ve made your own tonic syrup, use 3/4 ounce of tonic syrup, 1 1/2 ounces gin, and 2 ounces of soda water over ice. Garnish with a lime wedge, and you’re good to go! Cheers!

 

Things To Do In: Vienna, Part 2

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As promised, this week I’ll cover some non-museum, non-palace Vienna attractions, of which there are many. If you missed last week’s coverage of museums and palaces, you can find it here.

Courtyard dome at the Spanish Riding School.

Courtyard dome at the Spanish Riding School.

One of Vienna’s most famous institutions is the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule), home of the Lipizzaner horses. You may know them as “those white horses who dance.” To see the Lipizzaners, you have two options: attend an evening show or attend morning practice. Like most evening theater events, ticket prices range from mid-two figures to low-three figures. We didn’t really have time to fit in an evening performance, so we decided to attend morning practice instead, which has the additional benefit of costing only €15 per person. But if I had it to do over again, I would definitely do the performance instead of practice.

Morning practice was, in a word, boring. But let me start at the beginning. Tickets are not sold in advance. The morning on which you want to attend practice, which begins at 10:00, you go to the Box Office at the Riding School and buy tickets. We showed up just after 9:00, expecting to buy our tickets, then go grab a quick pastry and tea before the practice started. WRONG. We had no trouble buying our tickets—there was only a short line when we showed up. But there were already people lining up in anticipation of the arena doors opening shortly before 10:00. So we decided we better just wait in line there in order to get good seats. At that point, we were about the 10th and 11th people waiting.

Within a few minutes, the line to buy tickets was wrapped throughout the gift shop and out the door. So first lesson: don’t show up later than 9:15 am to buy tickets. Seeing those of us already waiting in line for the arena, all the new ticket-buyers began lining up as well. And I don’t mean “lining up” as we use the term in the U.S. I mean “milling about with no sense of order or propriety whatsoever” as they use the term in Europe. I swear, one of my biggest pet peeves about Europe is their inability to form a simple line. The mass of people was completely out of control. By the time they actually opened the doors to the arena, so many people had pushed their way in front of us, that we were easily the 100th and 101st people through the doors. Second lesson: be an asshole.

Once we finally got into the arena and found seats, we discovered that we had to lean out over the balustrade in order to really see anything happening down below. It’s an oval-shaped dirt arena surrounded by theater chairs in a stadium-style configuration. Behind the seats are platforms where spectators can stand, and every one of those spots filled up. They even sell standing-room-only tickets for the evening performances. Third lesson: you do NOT want to stand. I don’t know how you could possibly see anything at all.

When the horses finally showed up, they came out in a group of six. They were lovely to look at, but unless you are totally obsessed with horses (which I am not), it gets old really fast. The riders mostly just cantered the horses around the field. At one point, one rider encouraged his horse up onto his hind quarters and did a little hop. But that was it. In the 90 minutes we were there, we saw that little hop about three times. All the rest was just walking and cantering. BO-RING! Morning exercise lasts for two hours, with different riders bringing out different horses. Fourth lesson: don’t plan to stay for the entire two hours. You will not miss anything if you leave after 30 or 60 minutes. Also, no photos are allowed inside the arena, so that’s lame.

Now that I’ve spent upwards of 600 words bitching about how lame the Lipizzaner practice was, allow me to share some things I *did* like. Cathedrals! I never met a cathedral I didn’t like, and I can’t visit a European city without touring a cathedral or five. We visited two in Vienna: Karlskirche and Stephansdom.

Karlskirche at night.

Karlskirche at night.

Karlskirche (Charles’s Church) is a Baroque church built between 1716 and 1737. It was commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in honor of his patron saint, Charles Borromeo. Karlskirche is located in Karlsplatz, where there was a Christmas market, conveniently enough. The church itself is somewhat small, and under renovation in some places. They have an alarmingly rickety elevator that you can take up into the dome to get a closer look at the frescoes (photos below). The elevator only gets you part of the way there. You have to climb quite a few steps to the top. If you’re afraid of heights, like I am, it’s a little nerve-wracking to be up in the dome. But it’s pretty cool to see the artwork up close. Admission to the church is €8 per person.

Stephansdom.

Stephansdom.

Stephansdom (Steven’s Dome) is much larger and grander than Karlskirche. They offer guided tours (including in English) or an audio-guide option. In addition to the church itself there’s a museum of sorts on the upper level—they call it The Treasure (which just makes me think, my preciousssss). There are also catacombs, which have limited access and are very popular. At the start of your visit, check the board near the entrance to the catacombs for details as to when the next group will be allowed in so you don’t miss your window. You can buy tickets individually for the cathedral, the catacombs and the Treasure, or you can buy an all-inclusive ticket for €17.90 per person. The audio-guide is included, and I found it to be a good value.

Another one of my favorite things to do when visiting a new city is to ride their Ferris Wheel. It’s a great way to get the lay of the land. We ride the Ferris Wheel in the Tuileries Garden every time we go to Paris; we rode the London Eye in London; so it made sense to ride the Giant Ferris Wheel in Vienna (Wiener Riesenrad). The Giant Ferris Wheel is more like the London Eye than the type of Ferris Wheel you would ride at a town carnival. It has enclosed pods (cabins, really) that hold about a dozen people at a time, unlike a regular Ferris Wheel car that is open-air and holds only two people seated side-by-side.

One noteworthy fact about Vienna’s wheel is that you can reserve an entire pod for a romantic dinner. We saw two different couples in private pods. Each time the pod comes back around to the ground level, waitstaff bring in your next course or serve the wine or what-have-you. It causes some delay for the other passengers, because the private pods have to stay at ground level longer than it typically would take to unload and reload a multi-passenger pod. All things considered though, it’s a pretty neat idea.

We rode the Giant Ferris Wheel at night, because I like to look at the city lights. Vienna is not quite as impressive as Paris or London. The London Eye is on the south bank of the River Thames, so you can see all of London stretched out, from Parliament just across the river all the way to the Tower of London. And in Paris, you can of course see the Eiffel Tower, which is my favorite Paris landmark, I don’t care if it’s cliché. But there just isn’t as much to see in Vienna. The Ferris Wheel is located in a sort of amusement park (the Prater), so there were a few other rides to look at, but the park wasn’t that crowded because it was a Monday night in December. (Be aware: there were actually two Ferris Wheels in the vicinity. The Giant Ferris Wheel is closer to the Ubahn station. It’s there year-round. I’m not sure what the other Ferris Wheel is all about, but it looked kind of sketchy.)

Next to the box office there’s an interesting museum about the history of the Giant Ferris Wheel and Vienna more generally. I definitely recommend taking a walk through that before riding the wheel. The €9.50 ticket price includes the museum and the wheel. The Giant Ferris Wheel was originally built in 1897 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef I; it burned down in 1944 but was rebuilt and put back into operation in 1947. It’s one of the oldest operating Ferris Wheels in the world and has been featured in numerous films, including the James Bond movie The Living Daylights.

Inside the Opera House.

Inside the Opera House.

Speaking of movies, if you saw the most recent Mission: Impossible, you might remember Tom Cruise wreaking havoc inside and on the roof of the Vienna Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper). It’s distinctive green roof stands out among the rooftops of Vienna. We had tickets to see an opera, so we didn’t do the official Opera House tour, but the €7.50 tour admission price is certainly a lot cheaper than opera tickets, so I recommend that if opera’s not your thing. The inside of the Opera House is quite opulent, as you would expect, with many chandeliers and impressive artwork. The opera we saw, La Cenerentola, was a little weird. It’s a version of Cinderella, composed in the early 1800s. I had never been to an opera before, so I have no frame of reference. I didn’t feel that the performances were spectacular, and the characters seemed more like caricatures than people. But maybe all opera is like that.

Vienna Opera House at night.

Vienna Opera House at night.

A note about the Vienna Card. All of the Austrian cities we visited provided the opportunity to buy a branded card that gives you discounted ticket prices to a number of attractions, discounts in certain shops and restaurants, and allows for free rides on the local public transit system. The cards can be purchased for 48-hour or 72-hour time periods. The clock starts ticking the first time you punch the card to get into the Ubahn system. The 48-hour Vienna card option was €18.90, and the 72-hour version was €21.90. I calculated that it would save us each about €10 on admission to the various attractions we wanted to see. I wasn’t sure how much use we would make of the Ubahn because I knew we were planning to walk most places, so I decided not to get Vienna Cards. As it turns out, we spent around €12 per person on the Ubahn over three days, so it would have made sense to get the Vienna Card, but juuuuust barely.

That’s it for my Austria coverage. Now that I’ve written about where to eat, where to stay, and what to do in Vienna, Salzburg, and Innsbruck, I’m finally out of information to share! I’ll leave you with a few more photos from the attractions covered in this post.

Frescoes inside Karlskirche.

Frescoes inside Karlskirche.

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Inside Stephansdom.

Inside Stephansdom.

One of the treasures in The Treasure.

One of the treasures in The Treasure.

They even have the staff of Ra in there! (I'm kidding, of course.)

They even have the staff of Ra in there! (I’m kidding, of course.)

The organ (one of three) inside Stephansdom.

The organ (one of three) inside Stephansdom.

Amazing carved staircase inside Stephansdom.

Amazing carved staircase inside Stephansdom.

View from the top of Stephansdom.

View from the top of Stephansdom.

Stephansdom at night.

Stephansdom at night.

Inside the auditorium at the Opera House.

Inside the auditorium at the Opera House.

Things To Do In: Vienna, Part 1

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“Snow”man outside the Upper Belvedere.

Let’s be honest, as one of the great capitals of Europe, there are tons of things to do in Vienna. Clearly I can’t cover them all in a blog post, so I’ll just hit the highlights, and there are so many highlights, I can’t even fit them all into one post. So stay tuned for Part 2 next week! While researching our trip, I purchased Top Ten Vienna to help me decide which sites to focus on. I really like the Top Ten series—I used it for our London trip in 2014 as well.

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Giant emerald at the Imperial Treasury.

Because we visited Vienna in December, we focused more on indoor activities. Vienna has a number of palaces and museums, and that’s right up my alley. Also right up my alley, meticulously planning the details of our itinerary. Before we left the States, I knew which attractions we wanted to visit on which days, and in which order. I spent a lot of time with the map of Vienna, determining the most efficient approach to site-seeing. (Pro tip: choose a centrally located hotel. We stayed at the Intercontinental Vienna, and it was perfectly situated. We were within walking distance of almost everything we wanted to see, and across the street from a Ubahn station.)

A note about getting around in Vienna. It’s an extremely walkable city. Most things are not more than a mile from each other. We only used the Ubahn (the underground subway system) a couple of times: to get to Schönbrunn Palace, which is on the outskirts of the city, to get to the Ferris Wheel, and to get to the Westbahnhof train station for our train to Innsbruck. I recommend downloading a Ubahn app before you go. It makes trip-planning much easier.

KHM with the Maria-Theresian-Platz Christmas market in front.

KHM with the Maria-Theresian-Platz Christmas market in front.

I like to hit the ground running when we travel to Europe, and I knew we would only have a few hours available between checking into our hotel and sunset/closing time for most museums. (Pro tip: All good itineraries list the opening and closing times of the places you want to go.) We decided to start with the Kunsthistoriches Museum (KHM for short, thankfully) because it was reasonably close to our hotel and there was also a Christmas market there. Two birds, one stone.

We managed to see most of KHM in about 2 1/2 hours, but we did not get the audio-guide, which costs extra.

Inside KHM.

Inside KHM.

Audio-guides do tend to slow you down because it takes them longer to talk about a painting than it takes you to look at one. KHM has an excellent collection of Dutch Masters, a small French/Spanish/Italian collection, and very nice Egyptian/Greek/Roman collections. One of its claims to fame is that it has an outstanding Caravaggio collection. When we were there, they had a special exhibition of gold, bronzes, clocks, and elaborate cabinets that had been collected by the Habsburgs. The one major section we skipped was the coin collection. Admission is €14, plus €4 for the audio-guide. For €20 you can buy a combined ticket for admission to KHM and the Imperial Treasury, which is what we did.

IMG_9693The Imperial Treasury (or Kaiserliche Schatzkammer) is in a completely different part of Vienna, near Hofburg Palace, but you don’t have to visit both KHM and the Treasury on the same day. We didn’t make it to the Treasury until our very last day in Vienna, after we had already been to Innsbruck and Salzburg and then back to Vienna. The Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Empire are housed at the Imperial Treasury, along with a lot of ecclesiastical (religious) and secular (not religious) objects. Once again, there’s an audio-guide available for €4, but we skipped it and just read the informational plaques that are posted by every item. Almost everything is in English in addition to German. If you like sparkly things, the Imperial Treasury is definitely worth a visit!

Approaching the Upper Belvedere through the gardens.

Approaching the Upper Belvedere through the gardens.

One of Vienna’s more famous museums is the Belvedere, which is actually multiple museums separated by elaborate gardens. The Lower Belvedere/Orangery/Stables are the smaller portion, while the Upper Belvedere is quite large. The Belvedere buildings were originally palaces of Prince Eugene of Savoy. The most famous painting in the Upper Belvedere is Gustav Klimt‘s The Kiss. You’re not allowed to take photos of (or with) the painting, but weirdly, they have a replica of the painting set up in an adjacent room for selfie-taking. (What the hell is the world coming to?)

We started at the Lower Belvedere, then walked up the hill through the gardens to the Upper Belvedere. (Pro tip: if you visit during cold weather, do not check your coat at the Lower Belvedere unless you either want to pay for a second coat check at the Upper Belvedere or walk through the gardens without your coat.) The gardens are obviously much prettier during the summer. The Lower Belvedere has only a few exhibits; the Orangery had a nice collection of medieval art; and the Stables contained Modern Art. (Sadly, no horses.) The Upper Belvedere is much larger, but the Klimt is really the highlight. Unless you’re a huge Klimt fan, I would say that Belvedere is skippable if you’re short on time (or funds). Admission to the Upper Belvedere alone is €14; just the Lower Belvedere/Orangery/Stables is €11. Or you can buy a combo ticket for all of them for €20. (There are also combo tickets available that include the Winter Palace, which is in the City Center. We skipped it in the interest of time.)

Hofburg Palace.

Hofburg Palace.

Also in the City Center is Hofburg Palace. This is where the Vienna Boys’ Choir sings and the famous Lipizzaner horses perform, at the Spanish Riding School (more on that next week). The Hofburg itself is very extensive. The admission price of €12.50 includes the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the Silver Collection. That last one is exactly what it sounds like: hundreds and hundreds of pieces crafted in silver. You’ve never seen so many serving plates, candelabras, ewers, flatware, dinner dishes, mirrors, serving bowls. My eyes started to glaze over after a while.

The Sisi Museum is dedicated to Empress Elisabeth, wife of Emperor Franz Josef, who was nicknamed Sisi and was one of the Holy Roman Empire’s most beloved Empresses. The Hofburg admission price includes the audio-guide, and it was full of interesting facts and anecdotes about Sisi. She was a little eccentric, and very devoted to health and fitness (which was highly unusual in that time) as well as her personal beauty.

The Imperial Apartments are what you think they are, namely, rooms arranged with furniture and accessories as they appeared during the time of the Emperor and Empress’s residence there. The entire Hofburg Palace tour, including all three components, is about two hours long, which in my opinion was about an hour longer than it needed to be. The Silver Collection drags on and could be considerably shorter. Also, the anecdotes about Sisi, while certainly interesting, do tend to be a bit long-winded.

Schonbrunn is so large I couldn't fit it all into my camera frame.

Schonbrunn is so large I couldn’t fit it all into my camera frame.

If you’re not going to Schönbrunn Palace, I would definitely recommend Hofburg. However, among the Belvedere, Hofburg, and Schönbrunn, my favorite was Schönbrunn. It’s not in the City Center, so it’s not walkable, but it’s only a handful of stops on the Ubahn. Schönbrunn is majestic, much like Buckingham Palace in London. You can choose the Imperial Tour for €13.30 or the Grand Tour for €16.40, both of which include the audio-guide. The Imperial Tour includes 22 rooms and takes 30-40 minutes; the Grand Tour includes 40 rooms and takes about an hour. We did the Grand Tour, and it was fascinating. Having not studied much Eastern European history, I was unfamiliar with most of the royal personnages who inhabited the palace, which made the audio-guide that much more useful. If you’re a fan of history, monarchy, elegant furniture, or decadence, I highly recommend Schönbrunn Palace.

Next week I’ll write about the cathedrals and non-palace attractions of Vienna!

 

Things To Do In: Salzburg

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IMG_9466We spent two days in Salzburg toward the end of our Austrian tour, which wasn’t enough, but when you’re trying to visit three cities in 10 days, you do what you can. It seemed ridiculous to go all the way to Austria and not visit Salzburg—home of the Von Trapps!

IMG_9574If you are at all a fan of The Sound of Music, you must take one of the tours! I’m always a bit skeptical of blatantly touristy things like group tours, but I looooove The Sound of Music, and in this case, it was well worth it. We reserved ahead of time through Panorama Tours for €42 per person for the 4-hour tour. They have an 8-hour tour option as well, which includes lunch, but I thought 4 hours would be sufficient.

IMG_9612Some of that time is spent traveling on the bus up to the Lake District outside of Salzburg. While you could reasonably easily see some of the locations from the movie in and around Salzburg proper, the only way to get up to the Lake District is to rent a car or take a tour. And the Lake District is BEAUTIFUL! Austria has thousands of lakes surrounded by mountains, which make for particularly picturesque scenery. The town of Mondsee is also home to the cathedral where Maria and the Captain were married.

IMG_9567The tour takes you to visit highlights of the exterior locations from the movie: the lake that served as the Von Trapp’s “backyard,” the gazebo where Liesl and Franz danced and kissed in the rain, the grove of trees from which the Von Trapp children were hanging as the Captain drove by with the Baronness. Funny story about the gazebo: you used to be able to go in and take photos inside, but it’s now permanently locked because some dumb woman fell and hurt herself while attempting to re-create Liesl’s jumps from one bench to another. The tour guide didn’t tell us her nationality, but I would be willing to bet she was American. It sounds like something an American would do.

Speaking of tour guides, ours was excellent. He was quite funny and obviously really knows a lot about The Sound of Music and Salzburg generally. He gave us a lot of history about the city during the tour.

IMG_9460Another great way to learn some history is to tour the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which towers over the city and is the largest fully preserved fortress in Central Europe. You can walk up to the Fortress, but unless you are prepared for quite the workout, I recommend taking the funicular instead. For €12 per person, you get admission to the Fortress, the audio-guide, and a round-trip funicular ticket. The audio-guide is very informative and puts everything in context.

IMG_9461One of the most interesting things I learned is that for hundreds of years, Salzburg was an independent church-state (similar to Vatican City in Rome), ruled by a Prince Archbishop. Thanks to the favorable positioning of the Fortress on high ground, Salzburg was able to resist invasion for centuries. My favorite part of touring the Fortress was the view from the top. You can see all of Salzburg sprawled out below and get some great photo opportunities.

IMG_9456Salzburg is sometimes called the “city of music,” not only because of The Sound of Music, but also because Mozart was from Salzburg. There are actually two Mozart homes in Salzburg—his birthplace and his residence. We only had time for one, so we chose the residence. The €10 admission price includes the audio-guide, which again, is very useful. In addition to providing information and context, it also plays excerpts from Mozart pieces after telling you about certain instruments or artifacts. The tour includes a great deal of information about Mozart’s family, including his sister, who was also a musical prodigy.

The most ubiquitous sign of Salzburg as “Mozart’s city” is the Mozart chocolates. They. Are. Everywhere. I didn’t buy any because they’re milk chocolate. (Pffft. If it’s not dark chocolate, it’s not real chocolate.) And they’re ridiculously overpriced. Even the Salzburg Christmas market (which was still open post-Christmas) was in on the racket. Believe me, there are way more interesting sweets to buy at the Christmas markets.

IMG_9484One of the downsides to being in Salzburg around Christmas is that all the charming shops were closed when we were there. Small European towns take their Christmas holidays seriously. Christmas was a Friday in 2015; we arrived into Salzburg that night, and nothing was open until Monday morning. I showed up at a shoe store right at 9 a.m. while they were still vacuuming so I could get in before catching our train and try on a pair of boots I’d been drooling over all weekend. Alas, they didn’t fit, so no boots for me. We would have spent considerably more money had the shops been open—at least on Saturday!

If I ever get a chance to go back to Salzburg, I think I would like to go during the summer. The city is so picturesque and has a number of outdoor spaces and gardens, most notably, Mirabell Gardens, where parts of The Sound of Music were filmed. Gardens are always better in the summer, and it would be wonderful to wander around in pleasant weather.

Cathedral in Mondsee where Maria and Captain Von Trapp were married.

Cathedral in Mondsee where Maria and Captain Von Trapp were married.

Interior of cathedral

Interior of cathedral

Up in the Lake District

Up in the Lake District

The lake and building used for exteriors of the Von Trapp family home

The lake and building used for exteriors of the Von Trapp family home

Sunset in Salzburg

Sunset in Salzburg

Things To Do In: Innsbruck

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IMG_9256Although we were only in Innsbruck for two days, we still found plenty to do. Most of it involved being up on a mountain. Innsbruck is, after all, in the Alps.

IMG_9313Right in the heart of Innsbruck is the mountain called Nordkette. There’s a cable car that goes from two locations in the city up to the various levels along the mountain. The main city station is Congress Station. They have a full cash desk there where you can buy partial or full tickets. The second city station is Löwenhaus, which conveniently was across the street from our hotel. That station has only a pay kiosk. You can buy a ticket to the first stop, Hungerburg, which is a small village with viewing platforms to get a good view. At that level, you can purchase tickets to go the next level, Seegrube, or to go all the way to the top level, Hafelekar. If you purchase a ticket to Hafelekar, you can still get out at Seegrube before continuing up to the top. Rates vary by day and season, but it was about €35 round-trip per person to get from Innsbruck to Hafelekar when we were there at Christmas.

IMG_9411We didn’t spend a lot of time at Hungerburg level because unless you live there, there isn’t much to see. Seegrube is much more interesting. There’s a restaurant there, appropriately called the Restaurant Seegrube. The ground level is a casual café, but if you go upstairs, they have a fancier dining room, as well as patio seating. The day we were there, it was about 35 degrees outside, but it was sunny, so we ate lunch on the patio and appreciated the amazing view. Seegrube is approximately 6250 feet above sea level, so even if you don’t continue on to Hafelekar, you can still get some spectacular scenery. There are also deck chairs set up near the edge of the mountain, so you can relax and take in the view, while listening to the electronica being played by the DJ. It’s an interesting experience.

IMG_9335Hafelekar is approximately 7400 feet above sea level, and the views are even more spectacular than at Seegrube. You really feel like you’re on top of the world. You can see all of Innsbruck, as well as the Alps stretched out before you. There are no restaurants or DJs at Hafelekar—just cliffs and snow. Usually you can ski Nordkette, but when we were there, the ski runs were all closed due to lack of snow. Nordkette is for highly proficient skiers only, but there’s also a winter hiking trail that is open, weather permitting. During the summer, there are also hiking trails available.

If you have time, check out the Alpenzoo, which you can access from the cable car, between Hungerburg station and the city center. It features an unparalleled collection of European Alpine animals.

_DSC2462If Nordkette is closed for skiing and you still want to ski, there are several other mountains within easy reach of Innsbruck. There’s even a free ski bus that will pick you up at your hotel and transport you to the various resorts. We used this option to get to Stubaier Gletscher resort, which is on a glacier and is about 45 minutes outside of Innsbruck.

IMG_9313I must warn you, if you are at all sensitive to altitude changes and you expect to ski at Stubaier Gletscher, you are better off staying at the resort rather than in Innsbruck proper. Innsbruck itself is at an elevation of 1800 feet. The parking lot for Stubaier Gletscher is at 5700 feet. From there, it’s a 20-minute gondola ride up to Eisgrat station, which is at 9500 feet, and then another 10 minutes up to Schaufelspitze station at the very top—10,300 feet. It can be harrowing to change elevation that dramatically in such a short span of time. I wasn’t even skiing, but after a few hours at that altitude, I was feeling pretty queasy.

IMG_9416That said, the view from the top of Stubaier Gletscher is unreal. It seems like you can reach out and touch the sun. Once you ride the gondola to the top level, you can walk up another 232 steps to a completely insane viewing platform that extends OUT OVER THE MOUNTAIN. The platform is at 10,500 feet and was built in 2008 using 20 tons of steel. It’s a rather large platform that can accommodate a number of people at once. The “floor” is made from grated steel, so you can see through it, which is terrifying. I am deathly afraid of heights, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from taking in the view and getting some photos. Instagram > acrophobia.

_DSC2457There’s a large bench in the middle of the viewing platform where you can sit well away from the edge to enjoy the view. Unfortunately, when I was there, some idiot kids were jumping off of the bench onto the platform. All I could think of was the whole thing collapsing and all of us plummeting thousands of feet to our deaths. Note to parents: CONTROL YOUR CHILDREN!

_DSC2460Needless to say, that didn’t happen. We all survived, and I got some great photos and memories of a view that may never be topped. From the “Top of Tyrol” you can see all the way to the Dolomites, which are the Italian Alps on the border between Austria and Italy. (Tyrol is the name of the state within which Innsbruck is located. Innsbruck is actually the capital of Tyrol.)

IMG_9393The other most interesting non-skiing activity at Stubaier Gletscher is the actual glacier. They call it the Eisgrat, or Ice Cave/Ice Grotto. You can walk inside it and see the stratification of snow and sediment that have built up over hundreds of years. There are educational stations throughout the glacier to explain different phenomena. This is the best photo I have from inside because it’s hard to photograph walls of ice with an iPhone, but take my word for it, it’s pretty neat, and not something you’re likely to come across very often.

The Ice Grotto is located at Eisgrat Station, along with the large InterSport rental shop and several restaurants. Schaufelspitze Station at the top has a café-type restaurant, and more of those lounge chairs we saw at Nordkette. Apparently just hanging around on a mountain, lounging and drinking hot chocolate is the thing to do.

IMG_9268Because we were in Innsbruck for Christmas, we were also able to visit the Christmas markets. We found two—one down by the river (I’m pretty sure every town in Austria has a river) and one in the Old City. In some respects, once you’ve seen one Christmas market, you’ve seen them all. But there isn’t much else to do after dark when everything else is closed. It’s either go to a restaurant/bar or go to the Christmas market. The Old Town market had the advantage of having an actual roasted chestnut stand—the only one we saw in Austria. They weren’t roasting on an open fire, like in the song, but that’s probably a good thing, because that would be dangerous!

There also were so many great Christmas lights in Innsbruck. The Austrians take their Christmas decorations seriously.

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This was the Swarovski tree at the river-front Christmas market. It’s decorated with thousands of Swarovski crystals!

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That’s the famous Golden Roof in Old Town Innsbruck.

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Superman’s Fortress of Solitude done in Christmas lights.😉

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