Travel hacks Ethiopia – things you should know before starting your trip

Ethiopia is the only African country that has never been colonised and maintains its own distinct culture. Here are the Do’s and Don’ts of Ethiopia. These travel hacks will help you navigate Ethiopia like a local.


Why you are China

Despite my blonde hair and blue eyes, the people of Ethiopia regularly pointed at me and shouted «CHINA!». It isn’t that Ethiopians can’t tell the difference between Europeans and Asians rather that most of the foreigners that Ethiopians typically see are Chinese construction workers doing road work. Sometimes, you will also be called ‘ferenji’ which comes from the word ‘french.’ This is because the French were the first Europeans to drive in Ethiopia.

Travel hack: If someone calls you Ferenji or China, point at them too and say «Habesha!», which means Ethiopians. Laughter and surprised faces are guaranteed. 

A picture of me with my blond hair next to an Ethiopian

Habesha & Ferenji 😉

Hidden juice bars

One of the most amazing things about Ethiopia are the juice bars. At most of the fruits stands, you will find an entrance to a back room. There, you can order fresh salads with avocado and bananas, or get freshly pressed juice. 

Depending on the size of the fruit stand, you can get orange, mango, banana, guava, papaya, strawberry, or, my favourite, avocado juice. It is served with a spoon next to it because it is more of a thick smoothie than a liquid juice. Because of the thick texture and the fresh fruits and vegetables used the juices tasted amazing. The juices are often served with syrup as a sweetener and a lime on the side which is dripped into the juice.

Travel hack: If you can’t decide which juice to take, then order a «spris». It means «mix» and is not simply a multifruit juice but is presented in nice layers for each fruit. 

Fruit stand in Ethiopia

Fruit stand in Ethiopia – Picture: Eva Hirschi

Eating with the right hand

I could probably write a book about the gastronomic culture of this country, but let’s just get the basics. Ethiopians eat with their hand, therefore before you start eating you must go to the «hand wash», an outside sink where you can clean your paws with some soap. In fancy restaurants, they will bring you the water and a small bowl to wash your hands.

During the meal, you will only use the right hand. This is accomplished by taking some injera, or flatbread, and wrapping it around some of the toppings which include fish, meat, lentils, vegetables and salad. If you’re a pro, you can manage to make something that looks like a little package even though I’m still far from this.

Travel hack: Licking the fingers is not well seen during the whole meal since it’s not very hygienic when you stick your licked fingers back in the common plate. Makes sense, right?

Travel hack II: It can happen that someone at the table wants to put a handful of the food directly in your mouth. This feeding is called «gursha» and is a sign of hospitality and respect. Usually, a gursha is always given three times during a meal. You can also give a gursha back to your host, but you don’t have to.

Typical Ethiopian dish

Typical Ethiopian dish – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Intimate bus rides

There is a surprisingly big amount of people that fit into an Ethiopian bus. In the city of Addis, you will often find mini-busses. Designed for 12 people, they can easily fit twice as many passengers in there. If you need a comfortable seat and privacy, then just don’t take the bus at all. It is absolutely normal to squeeze three people into two seats or let them sit on boxes on the floor.

You pay the (very small) price directly in the bus, a guy called assistant collects the money from all the passengers and shouts the direction or final destination of the bus when there is a stop. There are no bus stations indicated, so you just tell the assistant where you want to get off.

Travel hack: Try to get one of the two front seats next to the driver, they are way more comfortable and less bumpy.

Like a local: Public bus rides in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

Like a local: Public bus rides in Addis Abeba – Photo: Eva Hirschi

How to greet

In Ethiopia, you shake hands to greet each other, often followed by a short touching of the shoulders, as you would bump into each other. This is followed by a series of questions about how the person is doing, how the family is doing, how work is doing etc. By the way, not to look into the other’s eyes can be a sign of respect, contrary to what we are used to.

Travel hack: Support your right forearm with your left hand while shaking someone’s hand, it strengthens the gesture.

This handshake shows how Ethiopians greet each other

A typical Ethiopian handshake – Photo: Marwan Abdalla

Telling time

If you travel by bus, you might think the clock is wrong, showing a completely different hour than it actually is. But even though it’s true that Ethiopians don’t take being on time very strictly, the clock in the bus is correct – Ethiopia just uses a different system to count the hours than the rest of the world. The day starts with the sunrise, so when it’s six o’clock for us, for them it’s 0 o’clock. Ten o’clock in the morning would, therefore, be four o’clock for Ethiopians.

Travel hack: If you fix an appointment with an Ethiopian friend, don’t forget to ask whether the indicated time refers to the Ethiopian time system or the western one.

How to tell Ethiopian time

Is this Swiss or Ethiopian time? – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Move your body

In Ethiopia, everybody can dance. Women, men, babies and grannies. And they do it all the time. If you are in Ethiopia, sooner or later someone will teach you how to dance. This doesn’t need to be in a club or in a bar – sometimes when there is nice music in a restaurant, people would spontaneously stand up and start dancing, so don’t be surprised.

Travel hack: Don’t be shy and try to dance as well as possible – it will make the Ethiopians happy.

Example of some random dancing in a restaurant, performed by a cute little boy

Get coffee addicted

Ethiopia is the origin of the green gold. So it is no surprise that in Ethiopia, people don’t just drink coffee – they have a traditional coffee ceremony which is an integral part of the daily life (check my blog post about how to perform the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony).

The coffee is served in small cups, but since it is a stronger coffee than the one we are used to in Europe, it’s perfectly fine. And traditionally, you get three «rounds» of coffee; the first one being the strongest coffee, the last the least strong one.

Travel hack: Tell them in the beginning that you don’t want any sugar in your coffee, since Ethiopians put the sugar directly into the cups before pouring the coffee.

Ethiopian coffee

Ethiopian coffee – Photo: Livia Röthlisberger

Chewing plants

Even though I never tried it, «chat» (khat) is very important to some Ethiopians, so I am briefly going to explain why you might often see chewing Ethiopians. It’s not chewing gums they have in their mouth, but a plant called «chat» which grows in the South. It has a mildly stimulating effect and is totally legal.

Some Ethiopians swear that it increases concentration, so it happens that students eventually chew this plant while studying. The leaves taste bitter so often the Ethiopians take sweet soft drinks and small snacks with them to get a better taste.

Travel hack: You can find «chat» all over the country, but make sure an Ethiopian friend helps you with finding some good one. Prices do reflect quality, and the youngest leaves are supposed to be the best.

Erta Ale, Ethiopia – the most dangerous (and amazing!) trip of my life

More than just a volcano: The trip to Erta Alea and the Danakil Depression is a constant mind-blowing adventure and a once in a lifetime experience.

«You should go to the volcano Erta Alea – it’s on a list of top 10 things to see before you die», my friend told me. Erta Ale means «smoking mountain» in Amharic and is locally known as the gateway to hell. Since my friend sounded deeply fascinated by this place he had googled, and I happened to stay in Ethiopia for a whole month, I booked a tour without hesitation.

In order to be able to go to Erta Ale and the Danakil Depression, it is mandatory to book a tour with a guided group – you even need to be accompanied by military security guards. The Afar region in the north of Ethiopia near the Eritrean border is sometimes turbulent, the inhabitants known to be rather violent and hostile to outsiders coming into their territory.
Little did I know that this would not be the only thing that’s dangerous on this trip.

Trip to volcano Erta Ale in Ethiopia with ETT

Trip to Erta Ale with ETT – Photo: Eva Hirschi

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How to perform the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony

Coffee originates from Ethiopia. However, one does not just brew coffee here, no, there is a special ceremony for it. I got the honour to make coffee for Ethiopia’s New Year, so here is an introduction on how to do it the Ethiopian way.

In Ethiopia, a small sign reveals the presence of a place where traditional coffee is prepared: fresh green grass on the floor. This is said to keep away bad spirits. Also, Ethiopians put some incense on the fire on which the coffee is cooked, which envelops the room with a very nice smelling smoke. This is believed to stimulate the men when they see the wife preparing the coffee. However, once you smell this odour, you will quickly recognise it from a time when you were in close proximity to a coffee place.

Traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony

Traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony

The traditional coffee is served like an espresso, with two spoons of sugar, and is called «buna». Usually, it’s the women who prepare the coffee. For special occasions, they wear the traditional white dress with coloured woven borders. My Swiss friend, currently living in Ethiopia, put me in contact with two friends. With them by my side, I learned how to do the traditional coffee ceremony.  These are the steps:

1: Washing underneath the skin

Ethiopian coffee is made with fresh coffee beans. First, you have to wash them. Not because they are dirty, but because you want to scrub off the skin of the beans. Therefore, you put a little bit of water on the flat pan and scrub the beans together until the skin comes off.

Washing the coffee beans for traditional Ethiopian coffee

Washing the coffee beans

2: Roast it over (incense) fire

So far, the beans are still green so you need to roast them over a tiny charcoal stove. Move them constantly on the flat pan so they are roasted equally and regularly. They will become black and shiny because the heat coaxes the aromatic oil out of them. Once they have all reached the same colour, you’re done.

Roasting coffee beans for traditional Ethiopian coffee

Can’t forget the intensive smell…

3: Small workout for the arms

Now comes the tricky part: you need to make a powder out of the coffee beans. Therefore, you need to grind them with a pestle and a mortar. It takes a lot of effort, so prepare yourself for this task. Note: modern families nowadays use electric coffee mills, but we want to do it the traditional way, right? Keep on!

Workout for the arms: grinding the coffee beans for traditional Ethiopian coffee

Making everyone laugh because of my soft technique…

4: Boil and wait

Before you boil the coffee, you first have to boil the water in the «jebena», the traditional Ethiopian coffee boiling pot. Once it boils you add the coffee powder. Usually, it’s one spoon for two people. Let it boil for a couple of minutes. Soon you’ll get to smell the awesome fresh coffee!

Waiting until it's done: Traditional Ethiopian coffee

Enjoying this Ethiopian coffee tradition.

5: Rest (in peace)

Once you have boiled the coffee, you can’t drink it right away. Be patient. Put the jebena away from the fire and let it rest. This makes the coffee powder go down to the bottom so you’re not going to swallow small pieces. This is similar to how Turkish coffee is made. Some families strain the coffee through a fine sieve several times instead of waiting.

6: Don’t forget the extra cup

After a few minutes, it’s finally time to taste the coffee. Put sugar in the small, handleless cups (Ethiopians usually drink it with two or three spoons of sugar and can’t believe I prefer mine black…) and carefully pour the hot coffee from as high as possible into the cups. On the countryside, they add salt or traditional butter instead of sugar sometimes. Don’t forget to put an extra cup on your plate – this is for spontaneous guests or for God – but don’t pour any coffee in it. After all, it is meant to be symbolic, right?

Ethiopian coffee

There is always time for a coffee break in Ethiopia.

The first cup goes to the oldest person in the room. Don’t forget to serve popcorn or peanuts with the coffee, this is how it is done in Ethiopia (and you won’t drink your coffee without popcorn anymore afterwards, I promise!) This is rather new, however. In the past, they used to serve a homemade pastry called him bash, but the coffee ceremony also goes with the pace of the modern times so popcorn is prepared instead because it is easier and quicker.

7: Three heavens

If you think that was it, then you’re wrong. Coffee is always served in three rounds in Ethiopia, yay! The first is the strongest one, the second is less strong and the third is the weakest. The third round is considered a blessing. After all this hard work, it would be a pity just to have one small cup of the precious green gold, right?

 

Meskel – Ethiopians most holy holiday

The most important Ethiopian holiday – Meskel – took place last week and we went to Dorze in Southern Ethiopia in order to celebrate this special day. A glimpse of one of the craziest days in my life.

One good way to learn more about a culture is to celebrate a holiday. In Ethiopia, the national holiday, Meskel, was the perfect occasion to do so. The region of Dorze is known for its traditional celebration of Meskel, so we decided to go there with our friend who is originally from a town there.

Dorze, Ethiopia

Beautiful Dorze

From Addis Abeba we took a public bus to Arba Minch, where a friend of his picked us up and drove us all the way up to Dorze. This region is composed of 12 villages at a altitude of 2600 meters above sea level, which is 600 meters higher than where I usually go skiing in the Swiss mountains…

Orthodox celebration

The main part of the population belongs to the Ethiopian orthodox church. On Meskel, the discovery of the holy cross is celebrated. According to a legend, in the year 326 Queen Helena discovered the cross upon which Christ was crucified. The celebration takes place over several days and starts on September 26th.

Women dress in white when they go to church

Women dress in white when they go to church

During these days, you even have to greet each other in a special way in Dorze. When you meet friends, you have to jump and shout «Yo, yo, yo!» and then all the people reply with a long «Yooooooo!», hugging each other. We tried to apply it on this day and it worked perfectly – whether young or old, female or male, everybody greets like this and was highly amused by us doing so too.

Bloody field

The most important event of the celebration is the slaughtering of the bulls. On a big field where the market usually takes place, about 700 to 1000 bulls get killed on this one day! When men bring a new bull to the field, people will assemble around and watch them slaughter the animal. To do so, they tie its legs together and make it fall to the side. Then, a guy cuts the neck of the bull with a big knife and it dies within several minutes from bloodloss.

The slaughtering of the bulls

The slaughtering of the bulls

If you walk over the field – as we couragesely did – you’ll find a dead bull lying on the ground every three meters. Or sometimes just parts of it, like a leg, the head or the tail. You need to be careful not to slip on the small lakes of fresh blood, and if you here people shouting «suts suts», watch out, because it means they are carrying a big piece of meat through the crowd, so make sure to get out of the way.

Singing, dancing and drinking

Admittedly, the slaughtering was not my favorite part of the celebration, even though it was very interesting. After this experience, we felt like we needed a beer or two and so we went to a bar close to the field with seating outside on the grass, in the shade. Quickly, people started talking to us, interested about the white foreigners. After a few beers, people started singing, usually with one guy shouting some headlines, and the crowd replying in a choire. They also started showing us some traditional dances.

Meskel celebration in Dorze, Ethiopia

Meskel celebration in Dorze

A group of four people sat there too, with a big piece of fresh meat. They had brought injera (the sour dough flat bred) and some spices, and started eating the raw meat. I got the honour to try some too, and to be honest, it was delicious! People drink a very strong liquor called Araki with it, to «calm down the concert in the stomach» after the raw meat.

My two cents

I’m not a big fan of slaughtering – not at all, actually – but since its part of the culture and I do eat meat, I felt like I should see it. And to be honest, it was a really interesting experience. Even if on first sight it might seem brutal, it’s actually more natural than the methods employed in Europe. Also, the animals lived their whole life in the nature on the fields, and not in metal cages as in Europe. So even if we are not used to it, we should learn about the slaughtering instead of just buying nicely cut pieces of meat in the supermarket without questioning ourselfs on where it comes from.

Meskel in Dorze

Typical scenary of Meskel

Highlights of Morocco

Morocco is the perfect introduction to the African continent: a bit slower, a bit less organised and a bit more colorful than Europe, but yet not as chaotic and crazy as the rest of Africa.

Morocco is a very diverse country: from mountains to beaches, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, from forests to deserts, from Arabs to Berbers – you’ll find a lot of variety in this country. That’s the reason we decided to do a road trip and see as many different things as possible within our two and a half weeks here. We visited nine different places (Casablanca, Meknes, Azrou, Ouzrou, Marrakesh, Essaouira, Oualidia, El-Jadida, Rabat) so here are the highlights from our trip.

Calm Meknes

Meknes is the sixth biggest city in Morocco. Since the city of Fes is a bit bigger and in the same area, most tourists tend to visit Fes, so if you want a less touristy experience, you should go to Meknes – and it’s no less beautiful!

Meknes, Morocco

Meknes

The medina – the old town – is like a small labyrinth: it’s not easy to find your way through the countless small roads and paths, but it makes the exploration of the city even more stunning and exciting. Also, in literally each corner you’ll find a cat taking a nap or chasing some flies… Make sure to drink the traditional peppermint tea or go for some fresh juices like mango or avocado – delicious!

Wild Ouzoud

This was probably my biggest highlight of this trip: the waterfalls of Ouzoud. At first sight, and especially if you walk down the main road with the stairs, you might be disappointed by this place. There is this very nice waterfall, yes, but many many tourists around and not that much nature. But don’t stop here, walk all the way down and continue your way along the river that comes from the waterfall. You will find many different camp sites, the one I recommend is called «Le panard». The owner was one of the first ones to open a campsite next to the waterfall and he has a lot of stories to tell about how the area has changed the past 30 years.

Waterfalls of Ouzoud

Waterfalls of Ouzoud

This place is especially nice since you can also sleep outside without a tent. Actually, there is a kind of a terras with thin mattresses, roofed by plants. For only 30 dirhams you can grab one those mattresses and sleep outside – in summer this is perfect, just take a sleeping bag or a thin blanket since the temperatures might fall a bit in the middle of the night. Even with the ceiling, you’re able to see a bit of the surrounding mountains and the sky with its stars, which is truly beautiful. The next day you can get a delicious breakfast.

Sleeping under the stars

Sleeping under the stars

Instead of going for a swim next to the waterfall, like most of the tourists, you should walk down the river even further and you’ll find different places where you can take a perfect bath, sometimes next to mini waterfalls. The owner recommends the place where this river joins another one, which is about a one to two hour walk away from his camp site, but we never managed to get there because we were already struggling enough with the 40+ degrees during the day. You can also get dinner at his place, I definitely recommend the Berbers omelette (which doesn’t taste like a European omelette, but is served in a tagine).

Crazy Marrakesh

Marrakesh

Marrakesh

Marrakesh is the most famous destination in Morocco – and even if I usually don’t like touristy places, I definitely recommend Marrakesh. Very distinguished from the other cities of Morocco, it feels like entering a different world: more colorful, louder, crazier than everything else. Especially on the souk – the big market – the ambience is vibrating and energizing. Still, Marrakesh is more than just the souk. We did Couchsurfing and stayed with a lovely Moroccan family. They showed us the local life in Marrakesh – for example, we had a night picnic in the park and walked through the very animated streets of a suburb of Marrakesh without seeing any other Europeans.

Another authentic experience was the hammam – not the touristy one for 400 dirhams, but the small local one for 10 dirhams. It was a crazy experience to find yourself topless and only with the bikini sitting on the wet floor of a very simple hallway, pouring hot water on your skin and rubbing it with a special exfoliating glove (kessa) and black soap. And – as our host had predicted – an elderly woman approached us and asked «Madame ou Mademoiselle?» – We were wise enough to answer Madame, not wanting to get her marriage recommendations in Arab.

Beautiful Essaouira

From Marrakesh, we went to Essaouira, a very nice – and in Europe not yet that known – harbour city on the Atlantic coast. Moroccans call Essaouira the windy city, and we can confirm this. Better bring a small jacket or sweater with you, even in summer. Also, the Atlantic is very cold at this place so we decided not to go for a swim. Still, the city has a lot of other things to offer. There are many nice restaurants and bars (check out the Pirate’s Zion, they have a café in the city center and a hostel a little bit outside the center if you are looking for an alternative, artsy place to be) or go to one of the cafés next to the busy main street and sip your tea while watching the people pass by.

Essaouira, Morocco

Essaouira

Also, make sure to be at the harbour from 3pm on. This is the time when the first fishermen come back from the Sea and sell their catch on the quai. I discovered sea creatures I’ve never seen in my life before. They even sell shark, if they happen to catch one by accident. Our favorite spot was on top of the wall that surrounds the harbor; from there you can overlook the whole place and take nice discrete pictures.

Royal Rabat

After having checked out some beaches on the Atlantic coast, we drove north all the way to Rabat. You’ll realize very quickly that this is the capital city, the city of the king. The streets are cleaner, the buildings taller, the people more chique. The mausoleum of Mohammed V and the Hassan tour were nice, but I found the Kasbah of the Udayas (Kasbah des Oudaïa) even more impressive. This ancient fortress is part of the UNESCO world heritage sites. On top of a hill, you have a nice view on the beach, the neighbouring city Salé and a bit of Rabat. You can walk through narrow paths between blue and white houses, seeing cats and kids playing. Behind the houses, you’ll find a small paradise: the Andalusian garden. Take a coffee and enjoy the smell of the different plants and the sun on your skin.

Morocco's cats

How to behave like a Canadian

This is a non exhaustive (and non serious) list about typical Canadian behaviors, applying mostly to Eastern Canadians.

  • You grab coffee at Tim Horton’s, and nowhere else. Several times a day.
  • You don’t like to be compared to Americans because you feel superior.
  • You have relatives in Europe.
  • If you were born in Quebec and your mothertongue is French, people from France will still not understand you when you talk.
  • You call the Canadian one dollar coin a Loonie.
  • You’re very tolerant and openminded, and in favor of LGBT rights, even if you’re not part of the scene.
  • If you’ve travelled once to Paris, London or Greece, you say you’ve been to «Europe».
  • Flying from Eastern Canada to Europe is actually cheaper than flying from Eastern Canada to Western Canada.
  • You’re used to see mooses on highways. And to eat them in a burger or in a soup.
  • You most likely own your own kayak.
  • You call people from Newfoundland «newfies».
  • You call winter days with minus 15 degrees mild.
  • You eat “Poutine”. Not the Russian president, but fries with a brown sauce on it. And you like it (see picture below).

 

Poutine Canadian dish

“Poutine”

 

Highlights of Eastern Canada

From Quebec to Newfoundland: These were my highlights from our road trip through Eastern Canada.

This was a trip I had on my bucket list for a while: A road trip through Canada. After having visited Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec with my brother, a friend from Toronto joined us and we rented a car from Quebec on. Final destination: Newfoundland. We visited many different places in three weeks, so here are my highlights of the trip.

Hiking on rocks

One of the most stunning places on our trip was the Fundy Bay National Park where we visited the Hopewell Rocks. This spot is famous because there are the highest tides in the world. At low tide, you can walk on the ocean floor and have a look at the fantastic stone formations from close. At high tide, everything is covered by water up to 15 meters. On the official website or at the entrance of the park, you can check out at which time is high tide, as it changes each day.

Hopewell Rocks

Hopewell Rocks – Photo: Jonas Hirschi

We went there at low tide which to me was more fascinating as we were able to walk around and even climbed over the rocks to the other side. A very funny – and muddy! – experience. After this small hike, we realised why there was brushes and water at the entrance of the park; our shoes really needed them. But for me, it was totally worth it!

Lobster rolls fresh from the Sea

On our way through New Brunswick, we stopped in Alma to eat delightful lobster at Alma’s lobster shop. This place is a family business and if you’re going to the bathrooms, you can even get a glimpse of the production. Here, you can either buy lobster to cook yourself – or do it the easy way as we did : get some lobster rolls – a kind of a sandwich with pieces of lobster, celery and mayonnaise – delicious !

Delicious lobster rolls at Alma's Lobster Shop.

Delicious lobster rolls at Alma’s Lobster Shop – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Generally, New Brunswick is a great place for seafood. Even in pubs, you get delicious food, for example, fish cakes or fish and chips at James Joyce Pub in Fredericton or fresh and local mussels at Saint John Ale House in Saint John. Then you should continue to Picaroon’s to have a couple of awesome craft beers.

Kayaking on the Sea

img_20160618_165902Enough about food, let’s get into the action: we found the perfect place for kayaking! On the southern coast of Nova Scotia, at Blue Rocks. In the middle of a hand full of islands you’re protected from the waves from the Sea and you get to discover the beautiful landscape and islands which accommodate a lot of birds – and if you’re lucky (as I was!) you even get to see a bald headed eagle!

We rented the kayaks at the company Pleasant Paddling. The guys are really nice and give good recommendations for the itinerary considering the current weather conditions. For 35 dollars you get two hours in a single kayak (50 dollars for a double) with a map, life suits and even a waterproofed pouch for your mobile phone included. I would definitely recommend this experience!

From Blue Rocks we passed by Peggy’s Cove while driving the coast northwards. Here stands the probably most photographed lighthouse in Canada, or even in the world.

Peggy's Cove

Peggy’s Cove – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Admittedly, the scenery is truly beautiful: The lighthouse is situated on some smooth rocks and if you get there by sunset, the sun dips everything in a beautiful warm light. It’s easy to take a perfect picture there.

The must: Newfoundland

Most tourists end their East Canadian trip in Saint John in Nova Scotia, but you should continue to St John’s (don’t confuse them!) in Newfoundland. From Sydney, you can take the ferry to the island Newfoundland including decks for your car. Small tip: Bring some beers to drink in your cabin, at the boat’s bar they are ridiculously expensive. Also: go to the top deck in the morning to see the ferry approaching the coast. Sometimes you can even spot a whale from the ferry.

From Port aux Basques, we drove directly to Gros Morne national park. The drive through the park alone was incredibly beautiful. You can do many different hikes from there and we got some nice ideas from the information centre.

On a trip with the iceberg man

The Iceberg Man

The Iceberg Man

Arriving at the east coast, you should pass by Twilingate. The village itself is not necessarily worth a trip (even though they have a place where they sell moose burgers!) but there is another attraction: Icebergs! It’s not rare that parts of icebergs from Greenland find their way down to Newfoundland. Sometimes they even get stuck in the harbour but mostly they are outside in the ocean close to the shore. It’s definitely worth it to book a guided boat tour. The «Iceberg man» was the first person to offer those types of tours and I highly recommend his tour. I’ve never seen a person talk with so much passion and emotion about ice… You will definitely learn a lot about icebergs but also about the ocean, Twilingate, and Canada.

Secret tip for whale watching

How we learned about the whale watching tours of «Sea of Whales» is a long story, but it’s the best trip I’ve ever taken in my life. I’ve been on two whale watching tours before but this one was way different. Instead of taking a boat, we took a zodiac. And our guide, Chris Prince, truly knows how to find whales.

He drove the zodiac expertly with ease and with remarkable speed! Chris is said to be the best whale expert of all Canada. Already before we left he talked to some fisherman to know if they’ve spotted some whales. We went to one bay and saw a minkey whale just a few meters away from us. Amazing!

Whale watching tour on a zodiac

Whale watching tour on a zodiac – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Then, Chris turned to us and asked what we wanted to see – more minkey whales, icebergs, or big whales. We definitely wanted to see some big ones. Quickly we changed directions and on the way to the other side, Chris showed us a nice stone cave where we were able to pass with the zodiac (by the way, it’s just underneath the place they turned the movie The Grand Seduction) and he spotted two bald headed eagles. We even saw a caribou next to the trees on top of the shore.

Then Chris spotted the blow of a big whale. He shifted into max speed and we rushed in the direction of the whale. The regular blow (every seven minutes to be precise) became visible to us too and at one point, Chris stopped the boat and we waited. And a few minutes later there it was! Just a few meters away from our boat, a fin whale (second largest animal on earth!) turned up – it was simply breathtaking! This was my favourite highlight of the trip.

My (literally...) biggest highlight of this trip: a fin whale.

My (literally…) biggest highlight of this trip – Photo: Chris from “Sea of Whales”

Trip to Montreal

Heading from Toronto to the East coast, a stop in the beautiful city of Montreal is necessary – and the best introduction to the French Canadian culture.

By arriving in Montreal, we also arrived in the province of Quebec: the French-speaking part of Canada. But be aware: If you studied French in Europe or even if you were born in France, you’ll need to get used to the dialect spoken here.

Frenchiness

Even if in the whole of Canada, French is a small minority (20%), the francophones are concentrated in this area (and also in New Brunswick, the only officially bilingual province of Canada).

French Canada

Festival de la francofolie – Photo: Eva Hirschi

The French culture is very important, and you can feel it. I got the impression that they try to avoid including English words in their language even more than in France. Québecois won’t say «weekend» but «fin de la semaine» for example.

Stop sign in bilingual Canada

Even stop signs are bilingual – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Also, I was told that there was protest when the coffee chain «Second cup» refused to change its brand’s name to «Deuxième tasse» – apparently the protesters even put a bomb inside one of the cafés – which ended up in being free publicity for the company, without them changing their name…

Student city

Even though Montreal is smaller than Toronto, it definitely has its own charm. In Canada, Montreal is known for its university: McGill University. A walk on the campus is definitely worth it, the old buildings are beautiful and there is even a small natural historic museum in one of them – with free entry. There you’ll find – among other things – very impressive dinosaur bones.

Very animated city

A walk along the harbour and the streets next to it is really nice too. Even if the streets parallel to the harbour are somewhat touristic, it’s still very charming with many people sitting on the patios of the restaurants and bars and enjoying life.

Harbour in Montreal

Harbour in Montreal

What surprised me most about Montreal are the numerous events that happen here. I first thought we just arrived on a special weekend : The formula 1 race on Notre-Dame Island (one of the few urban races), the beer festival, the science festival, and the festival de la francofolie with free concerts in the city centre took place at the same time…

But people from Montreal confirmed that this is a normal weekend, there are events going on all the time in summer. Since the summer is not that long in this part of the world, the inhabitants try to enjoy their time the most possible apparently.

The small mountain (or big hill)

To get a nice view over the city, you should get on top of Mont Royal. People from here say you should hike on this mountain, but since I’m Swiss I’d rather say you should walk on this hill, but anyhow: the view is beautiful and the park slash forest is very pretty.

It was actually designed by the same landscape architects as the Central Park in New York. You’ll find many runners and people walking their dogs and kids. On top, there is a very artificial looking small lake, which is a pity.

Mont Royal in Montreal, Canada

Mont Royal

Bagels you shouldn’t miss

When you walk down the mountain (Swiss: read hill) you should make sure to end up on the east side of the hill, in the area called Mile End. It’s a beautiful area with pretty buildings (pay attention to buildings with stairs at the outside, a really nice architecture you won’t find in Europe) and many green spots with trees and flowers.

Also, make sure to get a bagel at Fairmount Bagels Bakery – the best place for bagels in Montreal (for me even in the world, as far as my bagel experience goes…). From the counter, you can actually see how they bake the bagels, including the old stone oven. Just get the classic: a regular sesame bagel with cream cheese and cold smoked salmon – delicious! Unsurprisingly, sometimes the waiting line even starts on the street.

Fairmount bagels bakery

Fairmount bagels bakery

Another very nice place is the café of Pâtisserie au kouign amann. It’s very small, there are only three tables with a couple of chairs in it, but if you’re able to get one of these, you feel like in a cozy old living room, with the permanent smell of fresh croissants! Even some French people say their croissants are the best in the world…

If you’re not so much into croissants, you should try their maple tarte – a small cake with maple syrup in it, really tasty! And from my whole Canada trip it was here that I had the best coffee. Enough reasons not to skip this city, right?

Pâtisserie au kouign amann

Pâtisserie au kouign amann – Photo: Eva Hirschi

 

 

Trip to Toronto

Toronto is probably the most laid back city I’ve ever been to – not in the sense of boredom, banality, and passiveness – on the contrary – but in a sense of tolerance, multiculturalism, and peacefulness.

Toronto looks a little bit like New York – but clean and organized. My Canadian friend confirmed that people say Toronto is how New York would look like if it was run by the Swiss. So you can imagine that I liked the biggest city in Canada right away.

Toronto skyline

Skyline of Toronto – Photo: Eva Hirschi

On (not so) thin ice

The most known attraction in Toronto is – even if it wasn’t built for this purpose – the CN Tower. Now a symbol of the city and open for tourists to go up, the CN Tower was first constructed as a communications tower for the transport company CN Rail. For 35 Canadian Dollars, a lift with windows takes you up to the main floor. For a few extra dollars, you can go even higher, but apparently, it’s not a huge gain in view.

CN Tower

Anyhow, the main attraction is not even the view of the city – even though it’s really nice, too! – but the window floor. And take it literally : There is one part of the floor which is covered by glass. You’re even allowed to step on it. It can hold four killer whales, they say.

Still, you will see adults walking carefully and fearfully over the glass, while children are jumping on it and laughing. If it doesn’t scare you too much to walk on this floor, try to sit down – it’s a totally different feeling.

Statue with its own hashtag

Another typical photogenic place is Nathan Philipps Square in front of the City Hall. TORONTO is spelt with two-meter-high capital letters – and it even has it’s own hashtag (#xoTO). At night, those letters are illuminated with different colours.

Toronto

Photogenic Toronto 😉 – Photo: Eva Hirschi

This place isn’t just nice for photos, there is also a small water fountain with some benches and a nice view of the new and the old City Hall. The new one is a deception from behind, looking like nothing. But in return, from the front side it’s incredibly beautiful!

Hipster place to be

One area that is quite in right now is the Distillery District – a former industrial area focused on alcohol production that turned into a hip urban place to be. It’s a few kilometres outside the main centre of the city, but still worth the trip. Small (really nice but expensive!) boutiques, cafés, and bars are situated in the old brick buildings.

Mill Street Brewery

Tasting craft beer at Mill Street Brewery – Photo: Eva Hirschi

You should definitely go to the Mill Street Brew Pub, one of the largest craft beer producers in Canada. On the lovely patio you can enjoy a beer sampler with eight different craft beers. There is some hype about the Original Organic Lager but I would instead recommend their IPAs…

A small different world

A place you should definitely not miss while in Toronto is Kensington Market. Actually, it’s not a market at all but an alternative area with some colourful houses, which host small shops, bars, cafés, and restaurants. Do you know the «independent» town of Christiana in Copenhagen? Well, it’s like Christiana, just cooler and nicer!

Kensington Market

Colourful Kensington Market – Photo: Eva Hirschi

So here too it’s not unusual to smell some weed in the streets, but it is part of the special atmosphere of Kensington Market. You’ll also find an organic coffee shop or a guy selling sugar cane juice. Interesting anecdote: I was told that Starbucks had planned to open one of their cafés in Kensington Market, but their inhabitants fought against it – with success. The alternative spirit is still alive!

Inuit art

For a more traditional cultural experience, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is one of the most well-known museums in Eastern Canada. The building itself is already worth a visit, and next door there is also the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) which is worth a trip to photograph the pencils and paintbrushes which form the structural pillars of the building.

College of Art

The College of Art – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Inside the AGO, you will find art from all over the world. The most fascinating works though are the Inuit art – sculptures and paintings from the aboriginal population of Northern Canada. We enjoyed it as a nice introduction to our Canada trip!

Art Gallery of Ontario

Inuit art in the Art Gallery of Ontario – Photo: Eva Hirschi

 

 

A little drinking guide: Best bars in New York

One of the best ways to experience the local life in a new city? Check out the bars – probably the place where locals will be the most honest.

Sure, the most impressive bars in New York – at least for me as a Swiss person – are the rooftop bars. Located on floors 10+, you can get a truly impressive view of the city. The best view I experienced was at the Standard; New Yorkers know this place too, so it’s usually very crowded for after-work drinks. Another great bar close by is the Gansevoort: come around sunset and you won’t be able to stop taking pictures…

The Standard Rooftop Bar

The Standard Rooftop Bar – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Speak easy

There is another trendy type of bar in New York: the so-called «speak easy bars». Dating back to the 1920s during prohibition – when the US government had the silly idea of trying to ban alcohol from the city – a new type of bar emerged: Secret bars, often in the back of a café or a restaurant, or simply in a cellar, where people could still get their booze. The barkeepers told their unlawful clientele to «speak easy» so nobody would notice their clandestine joy.

When the US government realised that one could not simply ban the liquid luck, those bars disappeared. But for a few years now, they are experiencing a renaissance. Usually, you don’t see the bars from the outside and you need to know where they are in order to find them; even more mysterious: usually you even need to know how to enter.

Gansevoort Rooftop Bar

Gansevoort Rooftop Bar – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Telephone cabins and bathtubes

At Crif Dog’s, there is a phone booth in the corner of the bar. You need to get inside and make a call in order to get the code which will let you get into the secret place. Another speak easy is placed behind Café Select. Ask the barkeeper whether you can get «to the very back» and if he’s okay, you walk through the door in the back of the room, which happens to be the door to the kitchen. No worries, just continue, and you will find yourself in the bar.

Cocktails in a bar in New York

Cheers

My favorite speak easy bar is called Bathtub Gin: It’s located in Chelsea, in the back of something that looks like a café. You’ll have to ask the doorman whether you can get some gin, and he will open a door which is hidden in the wall. The decoration and ambience in this place are incredible: it’s dark, without windows, but still very stylish. And there is a real bathtub in the middle of the bar (without Gin, though…). Because of this mysterious atmosphere, you can somehow imagine drinking your cocktail back in the days of prohibition.

Also, I had my favourite cocktail of my life so far: It’s called Midwood Garden, a fusion of Brooklyn Small batch Gin with basil, rosemary, cucumber, and prosecco. And the name doesn’t lie: you feel like drinking a – high percentage – garden! One more plus: In the restrooms, a servant will open the water-tap for you and hand you a towel to dry your hands. What a luxury for a globetrotter…!

Time for some jazz

Sure, a jazz bar should be a must on your visit to New York. Instead of going to some big, fancy clubs where you usually pay a cover of 20 to 30 dollars, I’d rather recommend The Fat Cat. It’s neither beautiful nor stylish, but the atmosphere is cool. And the good thing: you only pay three dollars entrance fee.

Up to three bands play live music each night and you can also play billiards or shuffleboard, or simply ask for board games such as Backgammon or Scrabble at the bar. A really good place to hang out. The only thing that is missing: Good drinks ! Since the bar doesn’t have a licence to sell hard liquor, you should order a beer over the watery wanna-be cocktails.

The Fat Cat Jazz Bar

The Fat Cat Jazz Bar – Photo: Eva Hirschi

If you happen to be in Williamsburg, you don’t even need to look for a specific bar to get some jazz. Just walk around and you will hear which bar you should go into – some have live bands and the entrance is for free. One nice place is the Honky Tonk.

Drinking with Lincoln

Due to the massive immigration of people from Ireland in the 1950s, you will find many Irish pubs in New York. The most impressive (but also most touristic one I must admit) is McSorley’s Pub. It is the oldest pub (even dating from the time before prohibition) in the whole New York.

McSorley's Pub in New York

McSorley’s Pub – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Also, it is said that Lincoln drank some beers here – his very own chair is still in the pub, you’ll find it tucked away behind the counter on a shelf hidden amongst many trinkets that have been placed on and around it. I think it’s actually a really nice way to commemorate him as a pub «regular».

On the wall, there are old photographs of other celebrity patrons. The bar does have another peculiarity: it serves just two types of beer, blond or dark, and you always get them in pairs (but don’t worry, you can also order a couple of blonds or a couple of darks, it doesn’t need to be both at once!).

Pure happiness

Finally, there is my absolute favourite bar in New York: Marie’s Crisis. While at first glance it seems to be a very ordinary bar, is truly a temple of happiness. There is a piano on the right side, and each night someone is playing songs from Broadway.

But that’s not all: the whole bar starts singing along with the songs and the atmosphere makes you shiver because of its incredible beauty. The clientele is very mixed: young and old, fashioned or not, gay or straight. It’s certainly the most amazing, peaceful place I’ve ever been to.