Crossing the border | Train vs. Bus
This was the last the of my trip and I took the train from Montréal to New York City. I booked ahead and therefore the 10h train ride only cost me $65, but the quality was not comparable to the one from Toronto to Montréal.
Concerning the border crossing: I entered Canada at Niagara Falls via the Rainbow Bridge on a Greyhound bus, and we had to wait about 2 hours to get through. Everybody had to leave the bus & all baggage was checked (and the Chinese tourist buses in front of ours, were not helpful either).
Everybody says that coming back to the US is more painful, but it was surprisingly smooth, the border control officials came into the train and people without a visa stamp in their passport had to come to the dining car to finish the procedure. For me it was showing the passport and explaining what I would do during the remaining days in the US. Nothing compared to the border control at Niagara Falls, it worked really smooth.
I also heard that taking the train is usually easier.
1 September 2013
Hostel Central Montréal
I stayed at Hostel Central Montréal, which is well located, close to the area where all the nightlife happens. It is a nice and clean hostel, with a bar and Karaoke nights on Mondays. It has a 'sister-hostel' in Montréal, the M Hostel (you can find and book both via hostelworld.com), which is slightly more expensive, but you can attend events at both places!
Something very nice and not too common at hostels around North America - you can pay the cost of your stay with credit card.
It's homepage advertises with all the awards it has won, but the next time I would try and stay at the M Hostel, although the experience was nice and the breakfast plenty and really really good for a hostel (toast, croissants, juices, etc.).
Picture from the 8-bed dorm room is taken from hostelmontrealcentral.com.
This dish, originally from Quebec, as i common around Canada, but most-beloved at night as a snack on the way home. Poutine is a delicious calorie bomb, consisting of fries with brown gravy, topped with cheese curds. Depending on the place they usually offer varieties (pizza, smoked meat, 3 cheeses, etc.).
Fries in sauce with cheese... I guess that's the result when combining French and American cuisine like in the Canadian-French region. ;)
I was lucky to taste my very first (and most likely last) Poutine at La Banquise, THE place to have Poutine in Montréal, as the place is not only open 24h a day (and people queue at 3am, because it's so 'good'), but also because of the many types of Poutine to choose from.
I forgot to take a picture of my after-midnight-snack, so the picture (one featuring sausage apparently) is taken from labanquise.com.
31 August 2013
This is a nice pub, serving their own brewed beer with the coolest beer garden ever. You walk through the pub and a patio within high walls covered in ivy with trees dotted around the space opens up. Especially cool at night, when the ivy is lit up by well-placed spots on the walls.
This is THE bar & club to be in Montréal! The have happy hours with local beers for $2.50 and the place is packed even during the week as it is loved by students. The bathroom walls are a sight for themselves as they are fully covered in graffiti, like most of the walls of the building.
There is a little hill right in the middle of the city and it only takes you about 30-45min to reach the top from where you have an awesome view over Montréal. It's a space often used by joggers and families like to spend their Sundays there, so you can imagine the relaxed atmosphere. There is a little artificial pond too if you want to discover the whole park :) Fun fact: The park's designer also planned the Central Park in New York City.
30 August 2013
Traveling by train
After consulting various Canadians about booking online a few days before traveling between cities, I decided on taking the train from Toronto to Montréal, which was the same price as Megabus at that point, but took only 6 hours, compared to 8 hours in the bus.
I was happy with my decision in the end, the quality of the Viarail trains varies, but if you pay $80 (like me in that case) you get a reserved seat and board service in the wagon (like on the train) with drinks and snacks for comparably low prices.
Traveling by train is also more comfortable than by bus, as it allows you to work on your laptop and use the complementary and pretty smooth working WiFi (at least on the Toronto-Montréal route).
29 August 2013
I treated myself with delicious and fresh maki rolls again in Toronto. Near Chinatown around Queen and King Street you find awesome places. Aji Sai seemed the most welcoming and the prices (about $4-$6 per maki roll) were very cheap for the quality of the food. I took my food back to the hostel, but the atmosphere in the restaurant also seemed perfect for a quiet dinner.
Royal Ontario Museum
The Royal Ontario Museum is definitely a cool photo spot with its awesome architecture. I can not comment on the exhibits, as I haven't been there, but make sure you walk by, it's impressive!
Queen Street West
Again the nice 'hipster' part of the town! You can wander along the Queen Street West until the Trinity Bellwods Park and then up through Little Italy to Yorkville, the more mainstream shopping district.
Again, lots of awesome graffiti and fun stuff to discover :) A place to just stroll around!
Only $7 will bring you the the Toronto Islands, the three islands on lake Ontario about 15min by ferry from the main terminal. It's the main picnic, barbecue and day trip destination of Toronto's inhabitants and is massively packed on a nice summer day. Still, there are ways to avoid the crowds with for example renting a bike and getting a bit further away from the pic nic tables and the main beach. It's also a really cool spot to take a picture from the Toronto skyline aaaand there are squirrels everywhere!
28 August 2013
St. Lawrence Market
Huge indoor market in the old town district. You can find food from all over the world here, but also many stands selling kitchen equipment and if you come here for souvenir shopping you have quite an assortment to choose from. On weekends there is also a farmer market outside, which I missed unfortunately, but during the week there are a few stands outside selling clothing and jewelry :)
Sweet Escape Pastry
Little café with home-made cookies and pastries in one of the red brick buildings, I found by coincidence and would like to recommend because it's a really cute place next to nice design stores. You can find it on the map at the entrance of the distillery district.
Red brick buildings everywhere! I loved it, this is part of the old town district, with several distilleries, micro breweries, vintage stores, design museums and cool cafés & bars located in the scenic houses. I would definitely come back on my next visit to Toronto!
As I'm a big fan of trams and cable cars I was delighted to read that Toronto's street cars are almost a tourist sight on their own, as one of the lines apparently is the longest in the world. The street cars drive through different districts, connecting the city over the surface, which means you actually SEE where you are driving, compared to the subway.
They also work with the same transit cards you can buy at any metro station.
Breakfast at the Lakeshore
As toasted sesame bagels with cream cheese evolved to my favorite breakfast item while traveling, I spent two mornings enjoying the not yet too warm sun at the lakeshore with coffee, bagel and donut (or similar) from any of the places in the Queen's Quay Terminal Mall. I preferred Tim Hortons, a Canadian chain - they have awesome bagels :D
Very relaxing, and along the Harbor Parks you always find a quiet and nice place to sit and watch the birds and boats flying (or cruising) by.
The Clarence Park Hostel
The Clarence Park is perfectly located in walking distance from the train station and right at Spadina Avenue. Furthermore it's a very fancy hostel (also amazingly clean!), featuring a very modern kitchen, very friendly and funny staff and beautiful rooms with comfortable beds. There is no breakfast included but you get a discount on food in the French Café next door. There are a lot of long-term guests because it has everything you need if you stay there for a few weeks. There is a nice rooftop terrace too, which is not mentioned, but when they kick you out of the kitchen at 11pm, you can continue drinking there!
27 August 2013
Getting to Toronto
There are different ways to get to Toronto. I heard about a very cheap casino shuttle bus, but nobody knew if it really existed, so I opted for an actual transportation service. The bigger bus services such as Megabus, Greyhound etc. bring you to Toronto for about +$20 and you have to buy your ticket ahead, but you can also use the non-touristy normal commuter service GoTransit. Buy a ticket for about $17 directly in the bus (must have cash!) or at the train station all the way to Toronto. You only have to transfer from but to train in Hamilton, but otherwise it's comfortable and the buses are double-decker buses, so you can see a bit from the surroundings when sitting on the upper level :)
Whirlpool Golf Course Restaurant
So, me and an Australian girl from my hostel set out to hike this one day, equipped with the map drawn by the hostel owner...and got lost. Well, at least we underestimated the distances of the walk before coming to the real starting point of the hike and ended up at the Whirlpool Golf Course at Niagara Falls. Hungry as we were after walking around aimlessly we decided to have lunch and were surprised by the awesome restaurant at the golf course! They have a terrace overlooking the greens and serve delicious burgers and salads! Prices were awesome compared to Niagara Falls' center and because it's a bit outside and in the middle of nowhere (but easily reachable by shuttle bus on purpose too!). Picture taken from tripadvisor.com
Hiking along Niagara River
Best thing to do after looking at the gorgeous Falls in my opinion. You can take a bus until the Niagara State Park Center and then decend a steel staircase down to beautiful, lush nature!
Hike along little paths next to the river back to the white water rapids called the 'whirlpool' and then back up next to the helicopter landing pad through the woods. It's a nice little 2-3 hour hike (including getting there and back from the Niagara Falls town).
26 August 2013
While walking around in Niagara-on-the-Lake you will notice pretty soon that there are about 2 streets to choose from if you want to shop or eat & drink! I chose the Queen Street and walked into a self-serve bistro that had awesome daily salads, creations of the chef and all kinds of pies. The wine choices are limited for Niagara-on-the-Lake, but they do their best to help you to a cheap-but-fancy-meal.
There is also a patio on the side you don't see from the entrance - looked cosy, but I only saw it when I left :)
Called 'Gilmore Girls Town' by the owner of the ACBB Hostel I wrote about, Niagara-on-the-Lake in my eyes does somehow resemble Rory's hometown. It's a cool little place, far off the tourist madness in Niagara Falls and also located at the water mouth of Niagara River into Lake Ontario, offering beautiful views. On clear days you are even able to see Toronto from there (apparently).
Niagara-on-the-Lake is also known for its wineries which is why you'll find a lot of winery tours to choose from, if you have more time, biking from the Falls to Niagara-on-the-Lake might also be a nice idea (you can stop at wineries on the way, they usually welcome walk-ins). Otherwise it's a dreamy little town with more bed & breakfasts than I have ever seen!
What to do in Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls in Canada. It's like an amusement park with casinos - oh yeah... and the Niagara Falls! BUT, I repeatedly heard that the Canadian side is less touristy and less tacky than the American side, so I guess I was lucky! I would also recommend to stay on the Canadian side, because you always have a nice view of the Falls, on the American side you have to walk onto a lookout platform, which I think you have to pay for.
So, you can go play dinosaur themed miniature golf, visit wax museums or one of the many other fun places - all the Americans seemed to like it!
OR you focus on the Falls (that's why you came here, right?) and do the 'Maid of the Mist' boat tour, which is one of the few activities at the Falls I decided to pay for. And it was a success! The boat brings right you into the 'mist' of the Falls and you get a shower for free (if you stand in the front of the boat like me)!
On the American side you can also walk behind the Falls, which is fun from what I've heard.
This was truly the coolest hostel I stayed in during my short trip in North America! The atmosphere in there was great and the staff super-relaxed. The owner draws his own maps of Niagara Falls and your hike (if you intend to go hiking along the Niagara River). The employees are from all over the world and all stay there for about 2 months on a Work & Travel Visa, which makes sure that already the people working at the hostel have awesome stories to tell!
The WiFi Password and the common theme they try to implement, because according to the owners Niagara Falls is a 3-day-destination, is #nexttime3days ;)
They also organize evenings out in non-touristy bars a bit further away from the center, which is awesome!
25 August 2013
Greyhound luggage storage
Something we all know from backpacking countries has come to the US via Greyhound! As I couldn't find a luggage storage place in either the transit center, nor the train station, I walked to the Greyhound Bus Terminal from where I had my connection onwards to Niagara Falls later that day to leave my backpack while exploring Cleveland (I arrived in the morning from Chicago and had my connection in the afternoon). Greyhound charges you for storing your luggage and it is supposedly only for Greyhound customers, but they never checked my ticket, so I'm sure you could also use Greyhound terminals all over the country for storing your luggage even if you don't use them! Picture taken from commons.wikimedia.org (I really really really did not take pictures of the Greyhound Terminal :D)
If you really stop in Cleveland, I'm recommending walking around the city and grabbing a drink at the small pedestrian zone on East 4th Street. Cleveland has nice old arcade malls to discover and the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame right next to the lake shore! And the have free street cars in summer, connecting the most important points in the city center.
West Side Market
Well, it's a huge market and beloved by Cleveland's people. It is huge, and the café inside serves delicious heavy American style breakfast/brunch. I enjoyed walking around a bit, listening to people yelling to order meat or bakeries (quite a high noise level in there ;)) IF you stop in Cleveland, which I only did to break my bus journey to Niagara Falls, you should definitely come here!
24 August 2013
Museum of Contemporary Photography
The museum is housed in a building of the Columbia University and the entrance is free of charge! There were only few people but I was really impressed by the 3 different exhibitions that were on display during my visit. You have the chance to read A LOT about the background stories of the photographers which makes the visit a quiet and peaceful experience :)
When you come to a new country you usually have no idea how the grocery stores are, where you can get what and so on. I whole-heartedly enjoyed shopping at Trader Joe's to be honest. The have an awesome array of everyday groceries and great super-healthy food and snacks, which is handy, especially while traveling. And I'm not sure if the dress-code for the cashiers is 'hipster', or if it was a funny coincidence of employees there liking the same style ;) Anyway, awesome!
Epic book shop
The title of the insider tip actually says it all. It has 3 floors full of books, some are used, some new and the staff is amazingly knowledgeable! Enjoy! :)
Everything your inner hipster desires ;) Walk along Milwaukee and dive into one of the many stores. I found myself an awesome stamp and an ink pad to go with it, old vintage buttons to pimp clothes and some random stuff nobody really needs. Oh and amazing clothing stores, make sure you have a big shopping budget for your trip to load up on alternative stuff in the great little stores.
One of the fancier finds was 'Free people', a high-end hipster clothing line (my words), you can check out at www.freepeople.com. :)
Wicker Park Market
A really nice outdoor market with produces from local farmers around the greater Chicago region! I only stopped for a lemonade but would have loved to grab a freshly prepared meal if I would have had time. Totally recommend browsing through the stands if you like outdoor markets like me :)
THE alternative/hipster/supercool part of Chicago. Walls full of Graffiti and amazing vintage stores, huge book stores, hip cafés and vegan restaurants everywhere. You should definitely plan half a day for exploring this part of the city! You can easily get there by taking the El train into the direction of O'Hare Airport and hopping off at Damen-Chicago. Milwaukee Avenue would be the main street I guess, and from there just start exploring!
A coffee chain with great coffee places all over the world - but well, I found it in Chicago and totally loved it! The interior is really cosy and looks resembles (a bit) a wooden cottage on a mountain, which is probably connected to the fact that Caribou Coffee's founders came up with the idea for the chain after hiking up a mountain in Alaska - why do I know this? Because you can read the story while sipping your Pumpkin White Chocolate Moccha ;) The place is also full of motivational quotes - even the coffee cups and the napkins! I'm definitely looking up if there is a Caribou Coffee in the next country I'm going to visit!
23 August 2013
I have been to some planetariums in my life but I really loved the Adler Planetarium in Chicago! It's very new and features real exhibits and helps understanding the current point of view in research. There is a huge section about Mars and 3 different theaters for dome shows and 3D movies. Get a ticket with one show including, this is good value for about $20.
Oh, and from the steps next to the lake shore you get a nice view of the Chicago skyline again!
The fifth Avenue of Chicago, you find all the big shops there and if you follow it all the way to the north, you'll stand right in front of the John Hancock Center. It's very hectic with all the locals and tourists intertwining, but it has a nice Chicago-charm. :)
Often a bit forgotten is the Chicago River, although you get awesome views of the city's skycrapers from walking along it for a bit.
One late afternoon - very hungry - I stopped at a very touristy place, the O'Briens Riverwalk Café & Restaurant for something to eat, but was surprised by the amazing service and the cool location right next to the river where you can watch the boats cruising by while enjoying your meal! And even though you get everything served on paper plates and in plastic cups, my salad was delicious and my cocktail perfect!
Lincoln Park Zoo
You want something a bit different? There is the Lincoln Park Zoo in the north of Chicago, which is FREE and from where you have awesome views of the city, although you are in the middle of 'nature'.
It's easy to get there by either bus or metro (Transit cards also work for buses of course).
22 August 2013
I know this is a very specific tip, but I figure if you bought my travel box, we are somehow interested in the same topics :)
So, I did hot yoga for the first time in my life in Chicago, because of a friend who took me to her yoga studio. And even though I do normal yoga, I have never been at such a nice studio.
If you haven't heard about hot yoga - it's yoga, but at 40°C, so basically you feel like you're in a sauna, but working out! It's totally exhausting, but very rewarding and a perfect detox after eating out and walking around the city all day!
What I took from this coincidence - I'm gonna try and find a yoga studio in cities I'm at for some days and try to drop in for a yoga class. Definitely enhances the whole travel experience! Picture of studio courtesy of 105f.com.
I loved roaming around the Navy Pier to be honest. It's amazingly "American" deriving from what you learn in movies as a European and there is a ferris wheel! As I traveled on my own, I treated myself with a $5 ferris wheel ride, it's actually a nice view from the city you get from there!
You can walk around the pier, dive into the many (candy) stores and buy a hotdog every two steps. It's not too crowded and a nice, calm activity for a sunny afternoon.
It's a place for tourists, but you have to have seen it. Right at the beginning of the Millennium Park, you'll find a huge reflecting ... object. And a huge mass of people taking pictures of the distorted mirror image. It's awesome and great fun! Just stop by for a little and watch tourist groups go crazy :)
John Hancock Center
After reading about the best views over Chicago, I chose visiting the John Hancock Center instead of the Willis Tower as it is conveniently located in the city center and closer to the lake. The location offers you nice views of the skyline, but also the shore and pier! I decided to buy the Sun&Stars ticket, which allows you to come back within 48 hours to enjoy the view again at a different time of the day. And what's nice than treating yourself with a glass of wine while watching the sunset from about 300m above the crowded Magnificent Mile?
Sushi (of course!)
An awesome Japanese restaurant I went to have dinner with friends from Chicago, I would have not walked into because of its fancy architecture and its location right at Michigan Avenue, the main street next to Grant Park. But - surprise - totally normal prices and delicious maki, sushi & sashimi! I can totally recommend the Sake Kawa roll - delicious and beautiful to look at.
They also serve a nice array of Sake (go for a small bottle of cold Sake on hot days)!
Getting around in Chicago
Think of The Dark Night, Ocean's Eleven, any weird Marvel Comic movie - they all love the elevated "L" train of Chicago's transit system! Chicago's trains bring you everywhere and are the easiest way to get around. There are full day passes available, but with a day pass for $10, I would recommend opting for a transit card that you can top up at machines in every station. Exploring a new city walking is more fun anyway, right? Though a ride around the "Loop", the circle around Chicago's Downtown in an elevated train is a must-do.
Also, the trains conveniently connect to both O'Hare and Midway airports!