Nomad by Trade

A travel blog for the kid at heart.

Tag: Museum

The Best Time to Visit the Louvre and Orsay

Everyone says that to go to the Louvre, you need to get there first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds. That was our plan all along until we realized that it’s open in the evening on Wednesdays. We decided to give that a shot because we only had two full days in Paris and wanted to fit in as much as possible. Going in the evening allowed us to use our days for places that closed at 5. Plus, the famous pyramid was even prettier lit up at night. It turns out that we inadvertently found the best time to visit the Louvre and Orsay museums.

Visiting the Louvre

The Louvre pyramid at night in Paris, France

This is my favorite shot of the Louvre.

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Your Perfect Six-Day Southern Iceland Itinerary

Driving the full Ring Road may be the ultimate Iceland vacation itinerary, but if you’re short on time, you can still experience plenty of spectacular scenery in the southern part of the country.

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland

Hallgrímskirkja and the Leifer Eriksson statue

Day One: Reykjavik

Start your trip in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city. It’s pretty small compared to other capitals, but that makes it very walkable. Most of the main tourist sites are within 10-15 minutes on foot, and it’s an incredibly safe city to walk around in. I didn’t fall in love with the architecture like I have in other European cities – most of the buildings are pretty plain – but a couple do stand out. The Harpa conference hall is pretty by day and night. Try to catch it on a sunny day for the best lighting and views of the harbor, but it’s also worth checking out at night when the glass panels are lit up. I found that the lighting looked better from a little bit of a distance, as the closer I got, the more I could pick out the individual light bars inside instead of seeing the full picture.

Hallgrímskirkja is another must-see building in Reykjavik, and it’s hard to miss. I loved the iconic church atop the hill with it’s striking exterior modeled after the basalt columns present throughout the country. It’s very plain inside, so if you don’t get a chance to enter the church, don’t feel like you’re missing out. You can also take an elevator to the top for 900 ISK, but the line was very long the morning we visited. We stood in line for a few minutes to see how it was moving, and at the rate it was going it would’ve taken us close to an hour to get to the top.

Learn about the country’s Viking history at the Settlement Exhibition, which houses the remnants of an old longhouse dating back over 1000 years. For more Icelandic history, you can head over to the Saga Museum in the Old Harbor area which uses very lifelike wax figures to tell the stories of several heroes and villains. Bonus at the end of the audio tour: a chance to dress up in Viking costumes and weapons to take pictures. (If you’ve never worn full chainmail, you’ll be astounded at the fact that anyone was able to run and fight while weighted down by it.)

This will also be your best chance to sample Icelandic cuisine. Once you’re out in the small towns, restaurant options are limited, and we found that a lot of them had pretty standard American fare. Torfan Lobsterhouse is a great place to sample langoustine (or puffin salad if you’re brave), and right next door is Lækjarbrekka, which offer a variety of food options, including traditional fish stew (mashed potatoes with haddock and onions mixed in). Food in Iceland is incredibly expensive, but if you’re looking for a cheap eat, check out one of the many stands serving Icelandic lamb hot dogs. I don’t eat plain hot dogs very often (and I’m not a huge fan of lamb), but I really liked mine. It had a very satisfying snap to it and tasted pretty much like the ones I’m used to getting at home.

Sunset in Borgarnes, Iceland

Dusk in Borgarnes

Day Two: Fjords

Depart for the western fjords region. Depending on how early you get on the road, you can make it pretty far into the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and admire the beauty in a part of Iceland that’s much less touristy than some of the other stops on this route. Along the way, marvel at the 6 km-long tunnel under one of the fjords (and make sure you have enough money for the 1000 ISK toll). On a clear day, you’ll be able to see the massive Snæfellsjökull volcano looming at the western end of the peninsula.

This area is sparsely populated, but Borgarnes is a cute little seaside town that has a few hotels, as well as a highly-rated Settlement museum. We opted not to visit the museum since it was 2500 ISK per person, but had a delicious meal in their restaurant.

While you’re in Borgarnes, make time to walk or drive across the bridge out to the dock/breakwater area for great views of the town and surrounding mountains. If you’re lucky enough to have a clear day, the end of the dock is a perfect place to sit and watch the sunset at night.

Strokkur and Geysir

Strokkur and the Geysir field

Day Three: Geysir

Backtrack a little from Borgarnes to pick up the route for the Golden Circle. Coming in from the west, your first stop will be Þingvellir National Park, which contains a spectacular rift valley where the continental plates are spreading apart. It was also home to the Viking parliaments of old. Admission to the park is free, but there is a fee for parking. Stop into the small gift shop for a look at maps of the area and a little bit of the history and then head out to soak up the scenery and history.

There is a path that takes you down between two ridges into the rift valley, and you can see spectacular views of the rivers and small buildings in the distance. If you continue walking, you’ll come across a small waterfall leading to a pool that was used to drown women convicted of various crimes. There are several walking paths to explore, but don’t linger too long because more great scenery awaits you.

Your next stop on the Golden Circle will be the Geysir area. Though Geysir (the English word “geyser” comes from this one) rarely erupts anymore, you should be able to see several smaller eruptions from neighboring geyser Strokkur during your visit. It erupts every few minutes and can reach heights of up to 40 meters high. There are several smaller geysirs and hot spring pools along the walking paths, but make sure to stay on the marked trails. Once you’ve had enough geothermal activity, you can grab a delicious meal in the visitor center across the street.

The last stop on the Golden Circle is Gulfoss, a double-tiered waterfall that sends water tumbling down into a canyon. Start with the views from high atop the gorge, but don’t miss the chance to get up close by climbing down the stairs to the brink of the falls.

Backtrack a little to stay at the hotel Litli Geysir, located right across the street from the Geysir area. It’s less famous than the Hotel Geysir, but offers a better view of the geyser field. We were able to see Strokkur erupting from our room’s window.

For dinner, try the Litli Geysir’s restaurant, or venture a couple minutes down the road to Skjól, a campground/hostel with a restaurant that serves up some pretty good pizza in a fun, quirky atmosphere. Musical instruments line the walls, and rumor has it that if you play a  few songs well enough to earn applause, you’ll get a free beer. It’s worth a shot.

Skógafoss in southern Iceland

Skógafoss

Day Four: Road to Vik

Day Four of your journey will be filled with waterfalls. Take the road toward Selfoss to pick up the Ring Road again, and then head east toward Vik. A significant portion of your drive today will be lined with small waterfalls, but the first major one you’ll encounter is Seljalandsfoss, famous for its rainbow and the cave behind it that enables visitors to see the cascade from all sides. Seljalandsfoss is visible right from the Ring Road, and it’ll be hard to miss as you pass by. There’s a large parking area and bathrooms on site, as well.

Once you’ve had your fill of Seljalandsfoss, keep walking across the little bridge and up the path that parallels the cliff side. You’ll pass a few smaller waterfalls, and it will be tempting to turn back, but there’s one more hidden surprise – the “secret” waterfall Gljúfrabúi. It’s easy to miss because you can only see the top portion from in front. In order to view the whole thing, you need to wade through the stream or climb up the rocky outcrop blocking it from view. Both options are a lot of fun, though you will get very wet in the cavern even if you manage to keep your feet dry in the stream.

When you get back to your car, keep heading east toward Vik. The next notable sight you’ll see is Eyjafjallajökull (you may remember this volcano as the one that interrupted European air travel in 2010). There’s a small visitor center and a pull-off area where you can take pictures of it with a small farm in the foreground.

Next up is Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls. This one is also visible from the Ring Road, and it’s beautiful 200 foot drop is hard to miss. You can’t walk behind this one, but you can get close enough to get soaked again. There is also a staircase winding up to the top of the cliff, but we didn’t think the view from the top was worth the effort of climbing the 429 stairs.

The last stop on today’s route is the famous DC 3 plane crash site. It’s the abandoned wreckage of a US Navy plane that was forced to crash land there in 1973. Don’t feel too macabre about posing with plane wreckage – all of the passengers survived. It takes about 45 minutes to walk out to the wreckage, and it felt even longer than that. When you finally make it to the wreckage, it offers great photo opportunities. The overcast sky on the day we visited, combined with the black sand made my pictures look like black and whites even though my camera was set to color.

If you have time today, you can stop by Reynisfjara, the famous black sand beach nearby, but you’ll want to take your time there and it will be better to visit on the way back to Reykjavik.

Spend the next two nights in Vik, the biggest town in the area. There are a few hotels and restaurants there, which is quite a bit in comparison to the rest of this area. We stayed at a fantastic AirBnB, but the IcelandAir hotel looked very nice when we wandered in in search of breakfast.

Icebergs in Jökulsárlón in southern Iceland

Icebergs in Jökulsárlón

Day Five: Jökulsárlón

The drive to Jökulsárlón takes a little less than 2.5 hours without stops, but you’ll want to give yourselves at least an extra hour. You’ll be passing by some cute little waterfalls, and desolate landscape shaped by glacial floods. During the 1990s, floods caused by a volcanic eruption washed away a couple of the Ring Road bridges in this area, and there is a pull-off spot where you can see some of the wreckage left behind.

When you make it to the Jökulsárlón area, stop at Diamond Beach first. The parking lot is located just before the bridge you’ll see. This black sand beach offers stunning photo ops with ice boulders that have been pushed ashore by the surf. It’s a great way to witness the power of the ocean as waves continue to slam into larger ice bergs that haven’t made it all the way to the beach yet.

From here, continue across the bridge to the Jökulsárlón parking area. The beautiful blue glaciers striped by black volcanic ash from long-ago eruptions are mesmerizing as they float in the calm water of the lagoon. There are great paths to walk along close to the water, as well as a hilltop vantage point. There is a small building with snacks, bathrooms, and a gift shop at the back of the parking lot. This is also where the glacier tours meet.

We took an ice cave and snowmobiling tour that was phenomenal. The ride out on the road through the national park is rough, but it’s so worth it. If snowmobiling is too intense for you, you can take tours just to the ice cave or go hiking on the glacier. We went with Glacier Journeys and absolutely loved our guide. Read all about our tour – and stranded snowmobiles – here.

It’ll be late by the time you get back, and there aren’t a lot of places for dinner in the area. If you start heading back toward Vik, Hotel Skaftafell is one of the first places you’ll come across. They have a bustling restaurant that has Vatnajokull beer – brewed with water from icebergs in Jökulsárlón – on the menu. It’s a great way to get a taste of ice from the glacier you’ve spent the day touring.

Keep your eyes on the sky as you head back toward Vik. There is very little ambient light in this area, so if the skies are clear, you’ll have a good chance at spotting the Northern Lights on your way back.

Reynisfjara beach in southern Iceland

Rock formations at Reynisfjara beach

Day Six: Reynisjara and Blue Lagoon

Start the day with an early morning ride along Vik’s black sand beach with an early morning horseback ride with Vik Horse Adventure. This was a spur of the moment choice for us, and was one of the highlights of the trip. If you’ve fallen in love with the Icelandic horses that graze seemingly everywhere, this will be your best chance to get up close to them. It was also the most scenic horseback ride I’ve ever taken.

When you hit the road to head back toward Reykjavik, your first stop will be Reynisfjara. The rock formations and basalt columns are spectacular to look at, but stay well back from the water. Dangerous rogue waves are known to come ashore there and tourists have lost their lives after being swept out to sea. There is a small café there with good food and great desserts so you can fill up before hitting the road.

The drive to the Blue Lagoon will take you 2:45 minutes without stops, but like all drives through Iceland, the scenery will make it pleasant. You’ll spend a while backtracking, so you can revisit some of the waterfalls from day four if you have time.

The last major stop on your itinerary is the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also fun. There’s no better way to wrap up your stay in Iceland than by relaxing in the powdery blue water. Be sure to book your tickets in advance to ensure that you get in.

If you have time before an evening flight, you can stop at the Bridge Between Continents, a symbolic bridge that spans a rift canyon between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. If your flight isn’t until the next day, you can stay at a hotel right at the Blue Lagoon, or head back up to Reykjavik for one last evening.

Did I miss anything that’s a must-see in south Iceland? Let me know in the comments.

Pin - Iceland Itinerary4

From Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon, here is the essential 6-day Iceland roadtrip itinerary.

Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland

Strokkur geyser in Iceland

Jokulsarlon lagoon and black sand beach in Vik, Iceland

Should You Buy A Paris Museum Pass?

Opinions on the value of city passes vary widely, with some people viewing them as tourist scams and others seeing them as huge savings. When I was planning my visit to Paris, I did a lot of research into the options available and decided against the city passes I saw offered and instead bought just the two-day museum passes. The transportation, cruise, and Eiffel Tower add-ons that come with the city passes didn’t provide nearly the same value as the museum passes alone did based on our travel plans.

Paris, France from the top of Notre Dame

View from the top of Notre Dame

Are they right for you?

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Sunrise over Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains

Why Any History Buff Needs to Visit Arromanches-les-Bains

Our first stop along the coast was a beach town called Arromanches-les-Bains, near what was code named Gold Beach.

We had some trouble finding our hotel – Hotel de la Marine – because it turned out to be off of a pedestrian only zone which greatly confused our GPS. We ended up dropping my brother off nearby and he went in search of the hotel. Their website says they don’t offer parking, but they actually have a few hidden spots that you have to drive through the pedestrian zone and along the sea wall to get to. We were lucky that it was an off-season, and I wouldn’t count on getting one during the busier summers. The parking area was tiny and pulling in and out of the spaces required quite a few back and forth passes. Getting to drive along the sea wall was kind of neat though, even if it was only for a couple hundred feet.

We were absolutely thrilled with the location of the hotel. It would be the perfect spot for a summer visit with its location right along the sea wall. We almost didn’t find it because we were doing all of our bookings through Expedia and it’s not listed on there. It wasn’t until I tried a search on Booking.com that I located it. I would strongly recommend doing searches on multiple websites to make sure you find everything available because no search engine is comprehensive. We had to have two separate rooms because they could only accommodate two people in each room, but the staff made sure we were right next to each other. We even lucked out with a killer view of the beach.

The hotel had a nice restaurant that we chose for dinner, largely because there didn’t appear to be much else open in town. It seemed expensive, but that was because we hadn’t had any other meals in France yet. (I’m not counting lunch at McDonald’s.) In hindsight, it was pretty much on par with the prices we paid elsewhere in France, and I’ve come to the conclusion that food just costs a fortune there. I ordered a creamy pasta dish that I didn’t particularly care for, but everyone else seemed quite pleased with their food. We split a bottle of wine and toasted to the start of another grand adventure.

Hotel de la Marine in Arromanches-les-Bains

Cheers!

The rooms themselves were decent – tiny by American standards, but on par with most places I’ve stayed at in Europe. There was some trouble with the glass around the shower in the room I stayed in that resulted in water leaking all over the bathroom floor, but my brother and sister in the room next door reported no issues with theirs. My only real complaint was the fact that the long curtains covered the radiator so we had to choose between having the room warm, having it dark, or having it both warm and dark until the curtains caught fire. We chose warmth sans fire.

The next morning was when the excitement really kicked in. I got to watch the sky light up over the beach with the remnants of the mulberry harbor while the rest of the family got ready. It was fascinating thinking about the fact that men were storming the beaches at dawn in almost this exact spot on the morning of D-Day. Our room was located directly in front of one of the largest remaining pieces and it was very cool to get to see the breakwaters further out appear along the horizon as day broke.

Sunrise over Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains

Daybreak from our hotel room

We wanted to hit the ruins at low tide so we could really explore them, so we headed straight out to the beach without eating breakfast. I was very glad we did because within a few hours, a lot of the ruins were submerged and the rest had enough water around them that we wouldn’t have been able to see them up close had we waited.

Even though I was in AP History and have read extensively about WWII, I had somehow never heard of the Mulberries until I began planning this trip. Now I’m thoroughly fascinated with the ingenuity that sparked them. The D-Day landing sites were chosen for surprise – the Allies wanted locations that the Germans wouldn’t expect them. Since ports and harbors were the most valuable, the Germans had those heavily fortified with mines and men.

The Allied leaders knew that they would have to find a way to supply the troops that landed on the beaches until they could capture one of the harbors on the French coast. In order to do this, they devised the ingenious mulberry harbors – artificial ports that could be used to offload reinforcements and supplies. Giant concrete breakwaters were towed across the English Channel and sunk along with some decommissioned ships to protect the harbor, and floating docks and bridges that were designed to rise and fall with the tide were installed and used to offload thousands of men and supplies for the growing Allied landing force. They were supposed to be built at Omaha and Gold beaches, but a bad storm blew through before they could be finished, and the one at Omaha was so thoroughly destroyed that the Allies abandoned it only the Gold Beach mulberry was used. The idea of “hey, we need a harbor here, so let’s just build one and tow it across the Channel” is mind-blowing to me.

Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains, France

Looking east toward Gold Beach

We think these were pieces of one of the floating bridges that were used to offload cargo and people. They’ve been sort of stacked on top of each other like fallen dominoes over the last 72 years. As we wandered around them, some half-buried in sand, I was struck by the idea that visitors another 72 years from now might not even see any traces left behind.
Mulberry harbor pieces on Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains
A little further west on the beach was the enormous piece that we had seen from our hotel window. We think this was a piece of one of the floating docks. The sand nearby was dotted with seashells and I am in love with this picture of nature’s beauty contrasted with the hulking remains of a war that destroyed so much. 72 years earlier, artillery shells were exploding over this beach and here we were picking up seashells on a cold, wintery morning.
 
Mulberry harbor pieces on Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains

From artillery shells to sea shells

We strolled back along the sea wall, enjoying the view and posing for pictures. We were pretty cold by that point thanks to the wind and were in need of some hot beverages and a breakfast that ideally involved a lot of pastries.

Seawall in Arromanches-les-Bains, France
After grabbing breakfast at a nearby hotel’s restaurant, we checked out and visited the Musee du Debarquement, which is almost entirely devoted to the mulberry harbor here. Looking at dioramas really gave a sense of the scale of the operation. My favorite part was the moving model that showed how the bridges and piers were designed to move up and down with the waves and tide. The museum was fairly small, but very crowded even though it was early morning in the off-season. Several busloads of people arrived close together and swarmed the whole place making it hard to walk through the exhibits.

Around the back of the museum, we found a piece of one of the mulberry bridges that had been moved to replace a damaged bridge over a nearby river for over 50 years. After that bridge was decommissioned in 2004, the span was returned to Arromanches-les-Bains to be displayed.

Mulberry harbor bridge segment in Arromanches-les-Bains, France

After a few minutes of souvenir shopping and some more sea wall pictures, we hit the road to continue our tour of Normandy.

Mulberry harbor pieces at Gold Beach

By the time we left, the ruins were almost submerged.

One Afternoon in Caen and Bayeux, France

We landed in Paris early in the morning – I am a huge fan of overnight flights when heading east – and grabbed a rental car and hit the road to drive up to Normandy. I’m a big history buff and I’m particularly interested in World War II because my grandpa fought in the European Theater. We sort of inadvertently ended up following in some of his footsteps on this trip, which made it even more interesting than it would’ve been otherwise.

Our first stop was, embarrassingly, a McDonald’s we found along the highway. I’m normally very opposed to eating at places like that when overseas, but we were starving and needed something fast if we were going to get to do anything in Normandy that afternoon. We did enjoy the novelty of getting to order a “McBeer” with our combo meals though. American readers will be happy to know that Mickey D’s chicken nuggets taste the same in France as they do back home.

Caen

We once again hit the road and made it to Caen, a city whose pronunciation we debated until finally looking it up on Youtube. None of us had been right. Though our stated purpose for visiting Normandy was to see WWII attractions, our first stop on vacation was a step much, much further back in history. We were going to see the Abbey where William the Conqueror’s tomb is located.

Admission to the abbey was free, and there was also a small art exhibition going on in one of the wings. We wandered through the cloister for a few minutes before setting out to actually enter the main building. In order to get inside, we had to walk back out the front entrance we had come in through and go all the way around the outside of the church until we found a tiny, unmarked door. We would’ve missed it if another group of people hadn’t exited as we were walking by.

The cloister at l'Abbaye des Hommes in Caen, France

The cloister

The abbey was founded in 1063 and was luckily spared from the heavy fighting around Caen during WWII. I found it to be appropriately gloomy inside, but the scale of the architecture was truly astounding. I’m consistently blown away when I see such old buildings that were constructed without modern machinery with such high vaulted ceilings and intricate details.
William the Conqueror's Tomb in Caen, France

William the Conqueror’s Tomb

William the Conqueror’s tomb was right in the center of the altar, though I found out later that his body isn’t actually there anymore. It was evidently removed during religious wars in the 1500s and all but one thigh bone was lost.

After we finished wandering inside the abbey, we walked over to another church we had spotted on the way in. It was called Eglise Saint Etienne-le-vieux and had been heavily damaged by bombs during WWII and you could see the striking remains from quite a distance away. The main tower still stands, but much of the rest of the building lies in ruins. The proximity to the main abbey that survived the war really drove home the randomness of the destruction that the war brought as the opposing armies battled across the continent.

Saint Etienne-le-Vieux in Caen, France

Saint Etienne-le-Vieux

Bayeux

A little further down the road, we stopped at the Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie in Bayeux. It was starting to get late, so we only had about an hour and a half to see everything. The museum had a lot of army vehicles and uniforms that were used in the battle, but I wouldn’t consider it a must-do. One of the cooler things was an old mobile radio truck that could be used to monitor communications from anywhere on the battlefield. I also liked seeing a tank crew uniform because my grandpa was part of a tank crew and I’ve seen pictures of him dressed the same way.

American tank crew uniform at the Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie

An American tank crew uniform

We stayed until close and then once again hopped in the rental car to continue our journey to our hotel for the night.

Read more about our trip to France, Belgium, and Luxembourg:

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