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Travelblog Gone with the Wine Blog

Travelblog and lifestyleblog. Life under the Californian sun - Gone with the Wine. Trips, food and wine from all over the world. Solo and family adventures.

Vacation in a City - My Top 10 Cities in the World

Paula Gaston

The Internet has made booking trips so much easier that most people book their trips by themselves rather than use tour operators. More and more trips are also made to metropolitan cities. Here are my favorite cities to visit. It was impossible to put them into any specific order since they all are so different from each other. 

1. SAN FRANCISCO

Well, it is almost a must for me to start with the city that I love, and which is very close to my home. San Francisco is colorful, trendy and a little bit crazy too, and it offers something for everyone. When visiting, you definitely need more than just a one day, since there is so much to see and do in the city, and not to mention all the areas surrounding it. You must of course see the Golden Gate Bridge, ride the Cable Cars and visit Pier 39. And don't forget the world's biggest Chinatown outside of China. This is a city where you can walk in a business district one minute and hike on the beach the next. Or you can do a cruise to famous Alcatraz Island. There is nothing that people here haven't seen, so no matter what you look like, they wont be staring at you. No wonder they call it the most European city of the United States. 

Pros: Open minded and colorful city which you will never get bored with!
Cons: Expensive to stay in. Often chilly winds blow from the ocean. Increasing problem with drugs and homeless people can be seen almost everywhere today.

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2. TOKYO

Tokyo is definitely different than any place you have ever been to. Even different sections of the city can be totally different from each others. Tokyo is very hectic and crazy, but they also have beautiful parks where you can go enjoy the silence. The first days were quite confusing to us since the train and metro network is huge and most signs are in Japanese. But at the end we managed to learn how to get around, and even our 4 year old fell in love with Japan. There is tons to do with kids, and for young at heart adults. And we have never felt this safe on any of our travels before. 

Pros: The safest and most different city we have ever been to.
Cons: Hotels are quite expensive and people don’t often speak English.

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3. PARIS

Paris is Paris, what can you say? It has its own atmosphere and you really feel like you are in Europe. Paris feels compact since you can easily see all the sights in one day by using the metro. Beautiful buildings and history is everywhere, not to mention the River Seine. Paris is great for those who love good food and shopping. 

Pros: A mecca for those who love good food. A lot to see and lots of history.
Cons: Hotels are expensive. In many place they don’t speak English. To break the ice it would be good to know a couple words of French. 

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4. LONDON

At the same time modern and old fashioned London needs no introduction. So much to see there, and if you don’t want to tour in a double decker bus around the city, you can always take the Underground (metro). London was my hometown for one summer and there was never a boring day while I was there. You can see and feel the long history of the country all around London. 

Pros: Amazing amount of culture and lots of history. Everyone speaks English. 
Cons: The weather can change quickly so don't go anywhere without an umbrella. 

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5. ST. PETERSBURG

We went to St. Petersburg and I felt like I didn't see quite everything yet. I would like to go back and explore more. There are so many beautiful buildings and museums, good food and many things to see in this city. It would be even better if there was a local guide to show you around. Even though everything on our trip went well, occasionally we felt like people didn't like us. This might not be the best destination with kids since most sights are museums and churches. 

Pros: So much culture, museums and architecture.
Cons: Safety can be a concern. Requires a visa if you want to stay more than 72 hours. 

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6. TALLINN

Tallinn has fast become a very trendy city. People don't go there anymore just because of the cheap shopping, they go there to eat in fine dining restaurants and see the night life. And of course, there is a lot to see in Tallinn, like the best preserved medieval walled old town.

Pros: Still relatively cheap. Lot of historical places.  
Cons: Far away from rest of the Europe. 

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7. STOCKHOLM

Visit the rustic Old Town in Stockholm. I will never get bored of the awesome cafes there. Stockholm is great for shopping, but there is also a lot to do there. It is great with kids and you don't have to leave far from the city center to find cool stuff.  

Pros: A lot to do for both single people and families with kids
Cons:
Staying downtown is quite expensive. Cold and dark during the winter months. 

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8. CHICAGO

Chicago has always been one of my favorites in the U.S. From the downtown with high-rises you can easily get to the beach of Lake Michigan. Also the Chicago River that runs through the city makes it a very unique place. Chicago has some kind of old movie feel, and I even got a closer look at that while I stayed in the Tokyo Hotel which used to be popular among gangsters. During the winter Chicago is cold and it might snow, so summer months are better for vacationing. In recent years the crime rate has increased in Chicago so make sure to stay in safer areas. 

Pros: There is both a lake and a river right by downtown. 
Cons: During the winter it can be cold. Chicago is not called the Windy City for nothing; the flights are often delayed or cancelled due to weather and storms. Some parts of the city are not safe. 

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9. DUBAI

There are many kinds of opinions of Dubai, but I added it to my list since they have most everything there that you could want. They have sun, beach, food and some culture. The local culture is mixed up with this new and fast built city where everything must be bigger and better. It might not feel real but at least it makes Dubai different. Beaches are close by to the city.

Pros: Both beach and city life combined with arab culture. For sure a different sort of place unlike any other.
Cons: Dubai has been questioned for its respect of human rights and for destroying the ocean by building artificial islands. 

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10. REYKJAVIK

Yes I know, it is not exactly a metropolitan city, but at least it is a capital! I really liked Reykjavik. It is known for it's colorful nightlife and many cafes. It is small enough that you can just walk or bike from one place to another while admiring beautiful wall murals. And you can't feel any more safe than you will here!

Pros: Small but full of life. Very safe. People speak English almost everywhere.
Con: The service culture in Iceland is often very stiff and serious. 

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What are your favorite cities?

The Silliest Pictures on My Instagram

Paula Gaston

All these pictures are from my Instagram account. You can follow me @paulagaston

It has been a little bit quiet here on the blog since we have been traveling for a week. Traveling with a baby (or kids) just doesn't leave a lot of time to write during the trips. When you finally get the kids to bed in the evening, the parents pretty much crash quickly. Before I tell you about our Spring Break trip, I thought I would share some Instagram pictures with you again.

Lately there has been so much talk about Instagram and how hard it is to get more followers. This is due to algorithms that don't show pictures on peoples feeds in chronological order. Many people also complain that travel blogger feeds often look identical and they are bored with that. Some stage their pictures and travel to famous destinations like all the other instagrammers do. That made me think about what kind of pictures I like on Instagram. I like colorful and happy pictures. I like pictures from destinations that I have already been to or hope to travel someday. I like feeds where I can sometimes see the blogger as well since it makes it more personal. Overall, I like positive photos. 

If you have looked at my instagram account, you have probably noticed that my feed is a happy mess with no logic at all. I have tried all kinds of photos and filters but it just didn't feel like me. Maybe someday I will find my own style for Instagram, but right now I just post pictures I like, and some of them are not the most stylish... like these:

THIS IS HOW IT ALL STARTED

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When I was just starting my blog, we were about to travel to Finland for Christmas and before that we went to get a Christmas tree from a farm. This picture looks like I'm done and leaving the place even though that was not the case. It just happened to make a funny photo. That same year I took a photo of the halloween decorations here in the U.S. at the wine section of the grocery store. The unintended thought I got from this picture was that there are consequences for drinking some wine. 

HAIR ON FIRE AND CAMELS ON SNOW

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I took this photo of the Finnish singer Paula Koivuniemi at a Venetian party which at the end of the summer house season. Traditionally it is also a celebration of fire, so this worked well on my photo. Of course her hair was not really burning, it was just the pyrotechnic display in front of her at the right time. The other picture is from Finnish Lapland. Have you ever seen a camel in the snow?

BON VOYAGE

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Pretty often we fly with Norwegian Airlines and they have pretty funny barf bags onboard.  The "In a while you feel fine" -bag can be helpful if you feel yourself sick but we have mostly used it for trash. The other picture is a map from the lobby my old work office. Long Island has changed to Wrong Island, and if you look closely, you can see that the cities are in the wrong order. 

BIG CHAIRS

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Over time I have been able to use all kinds of chairs. These must be the biggest of them. 

CAPTURED IN A GLASS AND A THIRSTY HIKER

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A few years ago we were in Yosemite National Park in California and were goofing around by taking silly pictures. I ended up drinking some water from a water fall. On the right is a picture from a Trick Art museum that we visited in Japan. In the museum you could create illusions with different backgrounds and this was one of the best ones I got. 

ROAD TRIPPIN

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One year we drove from California to Utah. While we were in Nevada we saw a "no shooting sign" on the road. And of course the sign was full of bullet holes. In Utah we had dinner in a restaurant that served some of the best ho-made pies. 

BLOGGING AND EATING

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Writing a blog is fun since you can do it almost anywhere, even in a giant tea cup. My blog also features some food which is an important part of my travels. This time I am trying some donuts.

What kind of Instagram pictures do you prefer?

The Beautiful National Parks of America

Paula Gaston

In my last post I referred to the fact that our family likes visiting national parks. At some point, I started collecting park stamps, and introduced this new hobby of mine to my family. We have always loved being outdoors and in nature, so one time we went hiking to Pinnacles National Park and I found a little blue stamp book at the Visitor Center. I bought the book and started collecting stamps (cancellations) in it. And in no time, this hobby had me hooked. 

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NATIONAL PARKS AND PARK UNITS

The very first national park in the USA and in the world was Yellowstone, which is located within the borders of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. It was established in 1872 when Congress signed a law to protect the area. The father of the national parks is said to be John Muir, who strongly pushed for starting a national parks program. He was an active speaker for the protection of wild lands like Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, and many other similar areas.

There are about 60 actual national parks in the US., but a total of 417 national park units. Some of these are national monuments, recreational areas, preserves and historical buildings. National parks are maintained and funded by the government, and the president decides which units will be added to the national parks system. They employ thousands of people around the country, but suffer from budget cuts and lack of funds. So when you visit national parks, it is good to remember, that the entrance fee is used to maintain the facilities and services in the parks. Also the sale of the passport books and stickers will help the parks. 

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CANCELLATION -PROGRAM

So I started this hobby innocently from a small, pocket size book with a blue cover, which is still sold in the visitor centers. In every park, you will stamp your book to cancel that park from your list. You can also buy a sticker for each park as well. Pretty soon I noticed that this blue book was too small for all the stamps I was getting. Many parks have multiple different stamps to represent its different sections. Also what bothered me, was that the stamps were kind of disorganised in that book, since there were no slots dedicated for each park. I have heard, that some of the stamp collectors have many of these books because they got full. So I decided to upgrade my book. 

At some point I found out that there was a folder called Explorer Edition, but eventually I moved forward even from that to a book called Collector's Edition. This is the only book that makes sense to me and is organised as I would like it to be. Next to every park introduction they have a slot for the stamp, and any extra stamps you can put on the empty pages at the end of each section. This book was originally made for the centennial stamps, but it works well also just for park cancellations. At the same time I decided that I will only go for one stamp per park, and wont be running around collecting them all.

I know this hobby is a little silly, but since I will go to the national parks anyway, why wouldn't I collect these mementos? I am not the only one doing this. There is a club with a few thousand members who all collect these stamps. The membership fee for the club is only a few dollars and you will get a great deal of information from them. So if you are into national parks, collecting stamps or need maps and information, this is a great club to join! And you will most likely always get a quick answer to your question about any park. Also the stamp books have some maps and information in them.  

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SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE - JUNIOR RANGER PROGRAM

Now that our family has gotten bigger, our kids go to the parks with us. When our first daughter was smaller, we sometimes hiked with a baby carrier and later with a baby backpack. Now this little girl is already able to participate in the parks kids program called the Junior Ranger Program. And she is always so excited to go to a new park.

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The Junior Ranger Program is a very nice program run by most of the parks. Usually you get an activity book that you fill out by drawing and writing about the things you have learned at the park. When you have finished the needed activities, you will have to take it back to the ranger who will recite the junior ranger oath with your child. Kids will get a paper junior ranger hat and a Junior Ranger pin with the park's name in it. Some of the parks even have some extra giveaways. The activities that our daughter has been doing have been fun, and even I have learned so much while helping her. We have looked for plants, spotted animals and studied some of the park rules.


We still have "a few" parks that we haven't visited. I have been to 37 national park units out of 417, and you can see them all here. We are almost done with California though. The furthest parks we have been to are located in Hawaii, but there are also parks in Puerto Rico and Guam. So if you want to visit them all, it means plenty of traveling. Oh well, maybe someday...

Travel Plans for Spring Break (+Giveaway)

Paula Gaston

Now that we can mostly travel during the school holidays, we are all waiting for that famous spring break. Again we have had many different options that we have been looking into. We tried to find flights to both Hawaii and Mexico, some cruises and different routes for a road trip. And the winner is... TA-DAA.. the road trip! Mostly because all the flights during spring break are very expensive and the dates for the cruises weren't convenient for us. 

NATIONAL PARK-CRAZY

Some of you might remember that I am enthusiastic about visiting national parks. I even joined the National Parks Travelers Club, which gives an access to all the information they have about national parks. The members collect stamps from the parks, and in that way mark off the park they visited from their list. Each park can have multiple stamps if they have different sections. I am fine just getting one stamp from each park, but I might get others as mementos if I happen to see them. I started out with the small stamp book that they sell in the parks, but later upgraded to a bigger Collector's Edition. There are a total of 417 national park units which include parks, monuments, preserves etc. and I have now visited 35 national park units. That means I still have some work to do.

On this road trip we plan to visit a few national parks. 

FROM MANZANAR TO DEATH VALLEY

Our main destination is Death Valley National Park. It is known to be the hottest and lowest spot of North America since it is 86 metres lower than sea level. The best time to visit Death Valley is in the spring, because during the summer, it gets way too hot there. The hottest ever measured temperature on earth was in Death Valley in 1813, and it was 56,7C. Wow! The spring weather should be a little bit cooler and if we are lucky, we might even see some desert flowers. Last year Death Valley got some rare rains which fed the Superbloom in Death Valley. I hope that will be the case this year also. 

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Before going to Death Valley we will stop at Manzanar in California. Manzanar is an internment camp from World War II where Japanese people were transferred. Just like Death Valley, Manzanar is also part of the national parks program. 

NATIONAL PARKS CLOSE TO LAS VEGAS AND HOOVER DAM

After we conquer Death Valley, we might continue to Las Vegas, which is only two hours drive away. We have been in Las Vegas before, so we would mainly be interested in seeing other things this time than the Strip. There are two national parks very close. One is Tule Springs National Monument which is an archeological site with some findings from the Ice Age. 

One place that we have never seen is Hoover Dam. It dams the Colorado River at the border of Nevada and Arizona, and is the biggest dam in the USA. It provides electricity to Southern California. Very close to the Hoover Dam is Lake Mead which is also a national park unit. Since we would already be close by, we might also stop there. It would also be great to visit Red Rock Canyon.

Well, that was a lot to see and do already. Since we are driving around with a baby and another child, our plans are subject to change at any time. Hopefully we can at least see Manzanar and Death Valley. 

MARCH GIVEAWAY

Last year I had one of these California note books as a giveaway, and since I like them a lot, I do have another one now. It can help you when you plan road trips or your other travels. Leave a comment and tell me what is your best memory from a road trip, or where you would still like to go. Don't forget to either leave your email address in the comments or sign in with your email address (where only I can see them), so I can contact the winner. The winner will be drawn on April 15th. Good luck!

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How to Master Tipping in the USA

Paula Gaston

Tipping culture might be familiar to those of us who live in the U.S., but many people just visiting the country are not used to tipping. I am from a country where the tips are already included to the price, so you never have to wonder how much to leave your waiter. So I had to learn how to tip when I moved to California. It took me a long time to remember who to tip and how much. So here are some things to consider when you are traveling to the USA:

WHAT IS A TIP?

A tip, officially called a gratuity, is money given to someone as a "bonus" for customer service. A traveller will mostly face this at restaurants or hotels. A tip is usually given to people in those professions that only pay minimum wage, for example waiters or house keepers. American minimum wage can be pretty low. It varies per state but as its lowest, it can can be $7.25. In some countries you will never have to worry about leaving a tip, so it can be a little confusing to figure out how to leave the right tip in the U.S. However, you should always remember, that for people the tips are a majority of their earnings.

When getting a check, you can either write the tip on the receipt, or leave some cash on the table. If you want to be safe, you should always write the zeroes on the sum or draw a line after it. This way no one can add any numbers on your tip. Many businesses such as beauty parlous or hair salons wish to get their tips in cash, so that the people serving you can take them home right away. But if you forgot to bring cash don't worry, you can still write your tip on the receipt.

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WHO SHOULD I TIP AND HOW MUCH?

You should leave a tip for people working in the service industry, and usually it is about 10-20% of the bill. In stores, gas stations and dry cleaners you typically don't tip, but at least the following people should be tipped:

Waiters: 10%-20% of the bill (20% for excellent service, 10% even for bad service)
Bartenders: $1 per drink
Hotel housekeeper: $2-5 per night
Hotel bellhop, rental car shuttle service, skycap at the airport: $1-2 per bag
Hotel doorman: for getting you a cab $1
Valet parking: $2 for bringing you the car
Wheelchair service at the airport: $5 per person
Hairdresser: 10-20% of the bill
Manicurist: 10-20% of the bill
Massasist: 10-20% of the bill
Taxi driver: 10-15% of the bill* 
Food delivery person: 10% of the bill
Tour guides: For short excurcion $5, multiple hours $10 and a whole day $20-30 (don't forget to tip the bus driver who you can tip little less). On a private tour you should tip more, for example 10-15% of the tour price.

Usually in fast food restaurants or restaurants where you order the food from the counter you don't need to tip. However, sometimes they do have a tip box on the counter, and if you feel like you got good service, you can leave a dollar or two. There is one exception when it comes to tipping tour guides; national park rangers. Even though the ranger are there to guide and help you, and often do tours, they are not allowed to accept tips since they are government workers.

For groups in the restaurants, the gratuity is often added automatically, so you might see the suggested sum on your bill. Usually this is done for groups with six people or more. You should always remember, that leaving without tipping is very rude. Even if you weren't totally satisfied, you should still leave something. And if you leave a penny on the table, that is a message for the manager, that the service was unacceptably bad. 

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*Unlike in the beginning, Uber now allows customers to tip the drivers. Uber says that tipping is not needed but highly appreciated. When using Uber, it is good to remember, that just like you give feedback of your driver, they give feedback of you to other drivers. Like Uber, Lyft also lets you tip the driver through their application. 
 

SPLITTING A BILL

Splitting a bill has nothing to do with tipping, but I thought I would mention it as well. In Finland where I'm from, we are often used to everyone paying their own bill and exactly what they owe. But over here you usually get only one bill per table. It is pretty common that among friends, one pays the bill this time, and someone else next time. Waiters are not thrilled if everyone on your party will ask for a separate bill. In some cases they will do that, for example if there are multiple families at the table, but you should already mention that when you order your food. Another common way to split a bill is to divide the sum equally between the party. You can even give the waiter multiple credit cards, and ask her to split it three way for example, if there are three of you. In that case, you all would leave your own tips. 

HELP FOR TIPPING

Usually when I travel, it takes me a few days to get used to tipping. A good way to remember things is to carry a little note in your wallet. You can write who you should tip and how much. I often even carry a little note about calculating the currency when I'm abroad. But there is of course some useful apps for this too. You can try: Tip, QuickTip or GlobeTipping. They are all free. 

If at some point you are not sure what to do, you can always ask advice from the locals. Usually they will have the answer for you right away. And don't be embarrassed, tipping causes some grey hairs for locals too sometimes.