Whenever I travel to a new city, I explore the sights and take in the sounds with a lingering question in the back of my mind: could I live here?
When I was younger, cities like New York and Shanghai appealed to me for their sheer number of job opportunities, excitement, and cultural amenities. As I start to get older and think about what I truly want in a city, I tend to choose easy-going over exhilarating. In other words, I ask myself: Could I raise a family here?
Ranked below are my top five most favorite cities that I would easily relocate to if given the chance. I selected and ranked these cities according to six criteria: safety, convenience, culture, stability, comfort, and cost. read more
Discovering My Irish Roots in County Galway, Ireland
Countless Americans make the journey across the Atlantic for one reason alone: discovering their Irish roots in the homeland of Ireland.
I’m no different. When my father first told me that I was Irish (around six years old), I went to the library and checked out every book on Ireland I could find. Each page was filled with green pastures that stretched out to the ocean, castles dotting the rolling green countryside, and cobblestone streets in cute seaside villages. As a young girl growing up in the deserts of coal-mining Utah, Ireland looked like the setting of a faraway fairy tale from a Disney movie.
My Irish Grandma
My Grandma Winnie left Ireland when she was in her early twenties. Her father was a strict, Irish farmer who fit the stereotype: when he wasn’t drinking at the pub, he was beating his kids. My grandmother loved to dance and sing so, despite my grandfather’s strict household rule, she would sneak out of the second floor window and run to the dance halls. Usually she was able to sneak in and out undetected, but one evening her father caught her climbing back in the window. She was beaten bloody.
“Winnie,” my great-grandmother told my grandma the next day. “Your brothers are going to inherit the farmland here and you’ll get nothing. If you stay here they’ll make you labor on the farm and work you to the bone for nothing. If you marry another Irishman around here it will just be the same. Take this ticket to America and find your own future.”
I loved my grandma Winnie and was proud of my Irish heritage. If I was going to Ireland, then I just had to go to her hometown in…
Carna in Connemara, County Galway (aka, the Irish boonies)
Connemara used to be its own county, but it was so small and unpopulated that it was eventually merged with neighboring County Galway for efficiency’s sake. Connemara is a vast swath of bog and plateaus that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Connemara is rugged, untouched by man, expansive and stunning in its purity.
When husband and I were driving to Carna, we were surprised to see… well, absolutely nothing. Much of Ireland is rural, but the area around Carna is so rural, you have to wonder if there are more sheep than men wandering around the hills.
The town was tiny–basically, there’s only one supermarket, one church, and two pubs. The ocean is so close you can hear the waves from the main road. The church is the central point of the town, and next to it is a pub (go figure). It was surreal to be in my grandmother’s hometown and think that she wandered these streets and went to this very same church. Since there are only two pubs in the town, we go to the one that’s open and walk in to get some lunch.
As soon as we walked in three elderly men at the bar craned their heads at the door. They gave us a long, hard stare until they went back to nursing their pint of beer. The peppy woman at the bar sat us at a table and took our order.
“Mary,” husband whispered to me. “I think I’m the first Asian person to ever be in this bar. Or even set foot in Carna.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I laughed.
Everyone in the bar spoke Irish gaelic. The waitress told us that everyone in Carna actually does speak Irish with English as a second language. In fact, Carna is known for being the last remaining town where Irish is spoken daily; thus, people in Ireland homestay in Carna for the sole purpose of attaining fluency in Irish. Hearing the Irish-Celtic going around the pub had me feeling like I stepped back in time to a pub from Ireland in the 1800s. I’m quite sure little had changed.
We didn’t spend long in Carna and, much to my disappointment, I didn’t learn more about my grandmother or any surviving relatives. Being there felt surreal to me and it was hard for me to approach the locals to ask about her family. Emotionally I didn’t have the strength, and I hope that someday I can go back to Carna better prepared to find some long lost relatives.
Although Carna is not a tourist destination, it really is stunning. It’s rare to find a patch of Earth that has changed so little over the centuries. The scenery around Carna is burned into my brain–it’s literally unlike anywhere on Earth (and is very different from other parts of Ireland). If you want to hear people speak Irish, eat the best damn meal of mussels you’ll ever have, and discover a patch of Ireland untouched by time–maybe Carna is worth a stop.
But for me, it was definitely worth it. To see where my grandma came from. To see where I came from.
And If You’re Going to Ireland, for God’s Sake go to Galway City: It’s a Must
When people ask me where they should go when planning a trip to Ireland, I immediately say:
“Skip Dublin and go straight to Galway. Trust me.”
I’m not just saying that because I’m from Galway–I’m saying it because Galway City is the shit. It’s like stepping into a modern, medieval city. It’s a stunning city on the seaside that has cobblestone streets, charming medieval homes, and pubs that feel like they came right out of a fantasy film. When you walk down the main street in Galway, you’ll find Irish performers dancing in the streets. Smell freshly baked bred or a pot of Irish stew brewing nearby. Hear the music of Irish guitars and tin whistles from the lively pubs flood onto the street.
It’s a nerdy reference, but I kept telling my husband that walking around Galway City felt like I was in a fantasy village in a video game. The music would change depending on which pub or restaurant we happened to walk by, the medieval buildings and music felt like it was straight out of a renaissance fair, and approaching a random local to ask about the city was not only easy, but encouraged.
Proof I’m a Galway Girl
My Irish last name is not very common. I’m not an O’Malley or an O’Hara. In fact, husband teased me throughout the entire trip saying: “your clan must have died out, because I don’t see your Irish name anywhere.”
When we visited the National Irish Museum in Galway and we looked through the local history, I not only saw my last name right smack in the main exhibition–I saw that my clansmen were the original settlers and leaders of Galway. I took a photo and beamed with pride.
Maybe my clan is dying out. Maybe after the British ran the original Celt settlers out of Galway and killed many of them, a good chunk of my ancestors died too.
But I’m very proud of my last name and my heritage–it’s one reason I didn’t, and won’t, change my last name (even after marriage). Luckily, I got a good husband who not only lets me, but encourages me to keep my last name.
I’m proud to be Irish. I’m proud to be from Galway.
Traveling Off The Beaten Path in Ireland’s Rugged Northwest
Northwest Ireland is sadly passed over for its southern cousin. Most people skip County Donegal, Mayo and Sligo and take a bee-line from Dublin to the Cliffs of Moher in Southern Ireland, bypassing this part of the country entirely.
I’m here to tell you that Northwest Ireland is a must-see. Thanks to the expert vacation planning of my husband, I was able to discover a charming and grossly underappreciated corner of Ireland. The rugged northwest may be known as Ireland’s no-man’s-land, but after setting foot in the region I soon realized this is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets.
And the best part?
No hordes of tourists.
So where is Northwest Ireland exactly?
Northwest Ireland is literally off-the-beaten path. It’s the farthest destination from Dublin and, unless you pass through Northern Ireland and do other sightseeing like we did, is quite a long drive from the capital.
Still, it was worth the journey and–believe it or not–I want to visit the north again, it was that great. Plus, if you plan on doing Ireland’s famous ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ road-trip along the western coast, County Donegal is your starting point.
So if you find yourself in Northwest Ireland, just where should you go exactly?
Glenveagh National Park (County Donegal)
Glenveagh is like walking into a fairy tale. I could just imagine a prince dashing across the misty moors on his trusty white steed, whizzing by pristine lakes and evergreen forests, his eyes set on his final destination:
The castle at the end of the trail, of course.
Glenveagh Castle is not only beautiful inside and out, but also has a fantastic (and free!) garden for visitors. Also, don’t miss the cute, cottage coffee shop inside the garden–the cake is to die for.
All in all, Glenveagh is a stunning half-day hike that is enjoyable in rain or shine (and it’s free!). We visited with light showers and it was anything but a downer–actually, it made the trip even more mystical and magical. We ate a packed lunch near the castle lake in blissful silence. The soundtrack to our lunch was the gentle lap of the waves on the lakeshore.
Slieve League (County Donegal)
We heard the Cliffs of Moher were overrated and crowded and that Slieve League was a good substitute. Since it was only a short ride away from Glenveagh, we made the drive to the edge of County Donegal to take a peek.
Slieve League is famous for being the ‘tallest cliffs in Europe.’ Although it’s hard to tell from the photos, these cliffs were actually pretty damn tall (and epic!). We parked at the entrance parking lot, took a really photogenic 30 minute hike up to the cliffs (you can bypass the hike and drive up to the second parking lot if you’re tired), and viola, we were greeted by this.
You can actually hike all the way to the farthest point to the ocean by following the trail along the top, but we opted to only go halfway and enjoy some summit views instead. The views were gorgeous, the scenery stunning and most of all—cute sheep!
Slieve League is also a half-day activity that combines gentle hikes and epic elevation. Definitely worth visiting.
Downpatrick Head (County Mayo)
County Mayo’s slogan is “a secret no longer.”
In other words: HOLY CRAP THIS PLACE IS WAY OUT THERE.
Due to time constraints, husband and I were hesitant about visiting Downpatrick Head (yet another must-see on the Wild Atlantic Way). It was not only a 3 hour drive from Donegal, but it’s literally in one of the most remote parts of Ireland.
But oh man, I’m so glad we went because… Downpatrick Head is SUPER EPIC!!
This is another ‘photos don’t do the place justice’ kind of destination. The sheer drop of these cliffs is dizzying (one wrong step and it’s over) and the geological foundations are dazzling. Legend has it that Saint Patrick chased the all the snakes out of Ireland onto that small ledge and then severed the cliff with his staff.
My guess is it probably had more to do with tectonic plates and other geological formations rather than a British guy with saintly powers–but hey, that’s just my hunch!
Gleniff Horseshoe (County Sligo)
This place is insanely remote and hardly mentioned in any guidebooks. In fact, we were the only car driving around this area.
There’s no back story or history here. It’s just a magical, green hideaway of peace and quiet. We were the only people there. Period. Our only companions were the sheep grazing nearby. The vastness of it all was extremely humbling. I felt as if fairies were going to pop out at any moment.
Gleniff Horseshoe also winds around the famous Yeats’ Country road. The writer Yeats loved County Sligo so much, he lived out his final years here .
Lough Eske Castle (County Donegal)
Finally, if you’re going to Ireland then you have to stay in a castle. Period. I don’t want to hear any excuses. Just do it.
I am not being paid to write this, but Lough Eske Castle was such a phenomenal place I just have to give it a shout out. Lough Eske Castle was our favorite castle stay in Ireland. Staff are unbelievably friendly and welcoming, the room amenities went above and beyond a typical brand-name five-star hotel, and the renovations to the castle were unbelievable. I truly felt like a princess in a fairy tale.
Plus, Lough Eske is one of the more affordable castles in Ireland. We won’t name names, but it was a way better stay than a more expensive castle we stayed at down south. This castle alone is worth the drive up north.
In the end, Northwest Ireland charmed me more than anywhere else.
Northwest Ireland is cozy, rustic, calm, quiet, peaceful. My husband called it the “Montana of Ireland” and, oddly, the description fits in the best way possible. Originally I had no desire to see Northern Ireland because my ancestors are from the South, but I’m so grateful my husband introduced me to the beauty that is Donegal, Mayo and Sligo.
It’s the perfect place to go to just get away from it all–and really, isn’t that why we travel in the first place?
Have you ever gone off the beaten path and been pleasantly surprised? read more
As someone who has roots from the deep-Celtic-south of the REPUBLIC of Ireland, my jaw hit the floor when my husband told me our first stop of the Ireland trip was Northern Ireland….aka, Great Britain.
The few times my grandmother talked about the old country, she always managed to slip in an insult about the British with a spit and went on a tirade about how they ravaged her homeland. To say that I grew up with prejudice against “the north” is a vast understatement. I was aghast. I grew up telling myself I would never, god help my soul, go to the North.
Upon setting foot in Northern Ireland, I realized just how racist and discriminatory my narrow-minded thinking was. A visit to Northern Ireland is not only a scenic wonderland, but it’s also an up-close and personal experience of the (still) ongoing Catholic-Protestant conflicts. Going to the North made me appreciate the courage and bravery of the South all the more.
That, and the scenery will blow you away. The natural beauty of the north is worth a visit alone.
Here’s five reasons I recommend that everyone (even the hardcore southern Irish) check out Northern Ireland:
This aint a UNESCO heritage site for nothin’. It’s like Stonehenge because it’s just so… unbelievable.
Basically, these stones are shaped like that NATURALLY. Yeah. No one can really explain it. Irish folklore says that a Giant stepped all over the shore and made that mark with his shoes, but the real ‘scientific’ reason is a lot more boring (something about a volcano and cooling rock).
Giant’s Causeway is like going to a national park in the United States. The National Trust (UK’s version of the National Park Service) up-keeps it well. Free parking, an audio guide, a free mini-museum and maps are included with the entrance fee. It’s clean. It’s orderly. It’s goddamn gorgeous.
The whole time I was there I had to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe something this awe-inspiring actually existed. We not only got to take some epic photos on the beach, but we got to climb to the top of the cliff where a majestic Atlantic coast was on our left and rolling hills of Irish countryside were on our right.
Honestly, one of the best things I’ve seen in all of my travels. I can’t recommend this place enough.
Down the road from Giant’s Causeway is another national trust treasure: Carrick-a-rede.
It’s honestly just more of the jaw-dropping scenery of Giant’s Causeway, but with an added opportunity to traverse a rickety wooden bridge to a tiny island called Carrick-a-rede. Fisherman originally made this bridge almost 400 years ago in order to catch some mighty fine salmon on the smaller island closer to the open sea. Now, sadly, there are no more salmon–but tourists still flock here for the views.
Luckily we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine (a truly rare occurrence in Ireland, trust me) and the sea sparkled like a sheet of turquoise gems. It was fantastic.
Sitting on the island and looking at the rocky, Northern coast was peaceful, serene and… healing. Really wonderful place and worth the seven pound toll.
Glens of Antrim
Dude. The Glens of Antrim. Doesn’t that sound like the name of the best fantasy book ever? Well, the name lives up to the expectation, my friends.
So just how many glens are there in Antrim? There are nine, and while I would have loved to visit all nine of them, we only got to visit one: Glenariff.
I know this photo looks amazing, and it’s everything you imagine Ireland to be–but trust me, it’s even more mind-blowing in person. I think I stood and stared at this view for a good ten minutes because it was that moving.
Each glen is HUGE. Glenariff alone had an 8 mile trail that weaved inland and passed by multiple waterfalls, lush-green forests and even some mountains.
And get this: IRELAND HAS NO ANNOYING BUGS. I’m sure there are some, but I wasn’t bitten once in Ireland (there are almost no mosquitoes on the Emerald Isle!). Forget seeing lizards or snakes, either (that tale about St. Patrick driving the snakes off the island?? The snake part is true). It may be cloudy, but at least you don’t have bugs or reptiles eating at your flesh. Big win in my book.
Oh, and did I mention that almost every glen (or national/state park) in Ireland has a convenient and cute cafe attached to its entrance? So after your long hike you can have some Irish breakfast tea (or a latte) and take in the views. Score.
As you drive across the northern coast of Ireland (or the Causeway Coastal Route, its official name), you’d be blind to miss Dunluce Castle. Although it wasn’t originally on our itinerary, it looked too cool to pass up.
And yes, it is too cool to pass up. While Ireland is chock full of castles, this castle is different. For one, it’s RUINED (as real as it gets); plus, it sits right on the cliff side. It’s so close to the ocean that, in a few decades (or even years) the castle will eventually crumble into the sea.
Whether you’re taking a panoramic cliff shot of the castle, or you’re inside taking photos of what used to be the dining room and kitchen, this castle is worth the stop.
Plus, it only takes 1-2 hours to see–it’s a quick stop!
Belfast can be kind of a downer. It’s one of those cities that’s just been through a lot of shit… and it shows. Undergoing such hardship, however, has given the city an indescribable grit and toughness that just isn’t in the other Irish cities. It’s a city of industry and laborers and it shows in its architecture and the faces of its populace. It’s a rough, tough, bitch of a place.
Belfast was the hotbed of Catholic-Protestant conflicts in the 80s and 90s (a mini-civil war, if you will) and, while a negotiated settlement was reached in the late 90s, the city is still very divided. The contrast between a loyalist and nationalist neighborhood is unmistakable.
I went to the Irish-Catholic memorial to remember those lost in the conflicts and… I legitimately cried. Young men–on both sides–fighting for what they believed was independence and freedom.
Although Richard and I did our own walking tour, I recommend booking a black taxi tour. On the black taxi tour, the driver (usually a veteran of the conflict) will take you to different murals in the city and explain their significance.
If that doesn’t stir some emotions (whether you’re British or Irish), then I don’t know what will.
We were there during the last week of June when most of Ulster county was prepping for the July 11 celebration. Honestly, as someone from the Irish-Catholic side, it was a bit hard for me to stomach. When July 11 nears, almost every community in Ulster county hangs up British flags and displays gaudy photos of the queen. This is the day that Northern Irish protestants celebrate the Glorious Revolution when King William III (Protestant) dethroned King James II (Catholic) and took over England.
Basically, it’s the celebration of how Protestants trump Catholics. The nationalism was… eerie. It reminded me of some southern states and their support of the confederacy.
Belfast is a window into Ireland’s dark and tragic history…. but one that any visitor (Irish or not) should learn well.
So I traveled to three European countries in ten days.
And I highly recommend you don’t do it.
I’m a firm believer in traveling slow and enjoying the sights, but since I’m American and I only get a whopping 12 days of paid holiday per year, I had my limitations–so I made do.
My plan was to head to Paris (for a bachelorette party), then Berlin (to see my good German friend) and, finally, Brussels for the wedding.
I only scratched the surface of each city/country, but here are the highlights:
Paris – Totally Worth it
Paris is romanticized to death. I heard mixed reviews about the city that ranged from ‘epic’ to ‘dirty’ and even ‘disappointing.’
Let me clear up everything now: Paris is everything you imagined it to be.
It’s a white city that lights up at night. It’s full of couples kissing in parks, creperies around every corner waiting to sell you a delicious, nutella filled pancake; and dotted with al-fresco cafes perfect for people watching and sipping coffee.
As I walked around Paris, the only words I could muster to describe my surroundings were:
“This place is too, too beautiful.”
The architecture. The history. The river flowing through the city.
It’s also easy to see that the French have a totally different way of life from us Americans. People take their time to eat meals (lunch or dinner is usually 2 hours long, with coffee or wine included), they take life slow (thus they sit in cafes people watching and reading newspapers) and they don’t sweat the small stuff. They revel in the good things in life, such as fine cheese, wines, and bread (I’m convinced I was French in a past life).
Oh god, bread. Croissants. Baguettes. Pastries. If you need reason to go to France, just do it for the bread.
My top recommendation for Paris? Go to the city center near sunset (preferably near Notre Dame or the Louvre). Find a bridge, stand there, and watch the sun melt into the river and paint the city in orange pastels.
After night descends on Paris, all of the buildings light up (it’s not called the City of Lights for nothing) for some great night strolling. Much to my surprise, the city is empty and quiet at night. Walking around a silent Paris, gazing at the old houses, Notre Dame, and the small bars open for late visitors-it was peaceful, serene and magical all at once.
I didn’t want to leave Paris. I thought of ways I could return; perhaps maybe take a French course (or two). I was entranced by Paris, and France as a whole. I want to go back.
Berlin – An Up And Coming City
As soon as I landed in Berlin, I knew I wasn’t in France anymore. The area surrounding the airport felt like I traveled back in time to communist, East Germany. Compared to France with its stylized balconies and gothic architecture, Germany looked like an industrial wasteland.
That is, until I reached the city center.
The buildings in Berlin are tall and colorful (not white like France) and still retain a sense of history from decades long before the war. It’s a blend of old and new, in the best way possible.
Berlin is hipster haven. New, hip coffee shops are popping up on every street corner. There’s musicians and artists everywhere. Quirky bookstores and mom-and-pop craft stores selling the latest fashion and home decorations were in every neighborhood. Swanky restaurants that serve the best of Asian fusion, authentic Italian, and even modern takes on American burgers (fig burger, anyone?) were a dime a dozen.
Walking around Berlin is a treat in itself. So many shops to explore, so many places to eat, and so many events to participate in–like Shanghai, it’s a city that will never bore you.
My friend also took me to all the historical, tourists sights. We saw the city symbol, Brandenburg Gate, built in the 1700s to signify peace after the 30 years war, but later became a sort of barrier that separated east and west Germany. Nearby, there is a memorial in honor of the Jews. It’s beautiful and eerie.
Our last stop in Berlin was the Berlin Wall; or at least, what’s left of it. It’s now a crumbling wall of Graffiti, a kind of mini art museum out in the open for all to see.
It’s easy to see that Berlin is a city that has risen up from the ashes of its communist days and still continues to thrive, grow and become one of the most innovative cities in Germany. While Berlin is looking forward, it’s still easy to see much of its past speckled throughout the city.
“My parents lived in East Germany before the wall came down,” my friend said. “People didn’t have refrigerators, stoves, cars… it was a terrible place. My parents were going to risk their lives and cross the wall, but luckily it came down before they could execute their plan.”
He smiled, “they never imagined that only a few years later they would have a son travel to America.”
My personal tip for Berlin: Visit the neighborhood Prenzlberg. It’s the neighborhood I stayed in and it’s quiet, quaint and full of great restaurants and shops. Walking around the neighborhood alone is entertainment in itself, and the sheer variety of local shops selling books, vintage clothing, stamps, stationary, pottery and more will keep you entertained for hours.
And Finally, Brussels
Beer. Chocolate. Fries. And a wedding.
This was my time in Brussels.
The french fries are divine (crispy with just enough salt, but still warm and soft on the inside), while the chocolate is simply the world’s best (Godiva isn’t a Belgian brand for nothin’), and the beer…oh, the beer….
I love my Belgian beer. Going there and drinking it in person was like a childhood dream come true.
Belgium is a trilingual country with three national languages: French, Flemish and German (and just about everyone speaks English). The country is very inconsistent with its languages, with some trains running in French, some advertisements in Flemish, and a few restaurant menus written in German. It’s a city that feels like a mix of France and Germany combined.
My favorite part of Brussels was the size and the atmosphere. Although Brussels is the fortress city for the European Union, it has a very small-town feel. It’s cozy, comfortable, and easy to get around (you could probably walk from one end of the city to the other in less than 2 hours).
I never imagined in a million years I would go to Belgium (hell, I just discovered Belgian beer 4 years ago). Yet one of my very close friends, a former classmate from my Tsinghua days in Beijing, moved there recently with her fiancee and decided to have their wedding ceremony there–and I just had to go.
At the wedding there was out-of-this-world food, free-flowing champagne, the best damn vintage of red wine I’ve ever sampled, and most importantly–my friend, her (now) husband, and their happiness. It was one of the most enjoyable weddings I’ve ever attended, and I met friends both old and (mostly) new.
My tip for Brussels: Eat, eat, eat. The food here is fantastic. The best fries to be had are not in restaurants, but little shacks outside that sell them in cones. Try the shack at Flagey station (it always has a line) for some real, authentic Belgian fries (and don’t forget to find a bar and wash it down with some Belgian beer).