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My Favorite U.S. City: Austin, TX

I first came to Austin for a job. I’d only been here once before, briefly, but really enjoyed the town’s quirky feel. The words “Keep Austin Weird,” a city tagline of sorts, somehow resonated in my head for weeks after my visit. It felt like a call to duty to do my part.

When a six-month photography internship became available at a large commercial studio in June 2004, I applied and got the job. During my six months living and interning at the studio, I made some new friends and Austin quickly started feeling like home. The people here are mostly warm and friendly. When a random stranger on the street or a store clerk asks how you’re doing, it actually feels like they care about your reply. Having lived most of my life in the northeast, this was a strange phenomenon to me, but one that I’ve certainly come to appreciate.

[pullquote align=”right”]In recent years, Austin has seen an influx of people moving to the city from other parts of Texas and California, prompting some to take measures to try and prevent people from moving here.[/pullquote]When my internship ended, I started looking for reasons to stay. I felt like I’d just touched the surface of all that Austin has to offer. Since then I’ve come to appreciate the many joys of living in this ‘weird’ little city. First, there’s the live music scene. On any given night you can wander downtown and have your pick of live music being played at any one of dozens of venues. Weekends are particularly exciting. And then there are the music festivals, the most important of which are South by Southwest (SXSW) in the spring, and Austin City Limits in the fall. The city’s streets fill up with music enthusiasts and people just looking to have a good time. The atmosphere becomes circus-like.

The weather here was a huge selling point. I always disliked the cold winters up north—and the mild Austin winters suit me just fine. Sure, the summers can get hot, with highs typically in the 100s, but it’s a dry kind of heat and you somehow get used to it. Businesses and offices tend to be over-air conditioned, so you find it not at all unbearable. Austin also has some wonderful swimming holes, including the chilly waters of Barton Springs pool, and the rocky shores of Lake Travis. There are also plenty of parks in and around town, along with numerous hike and bike trails.

Add to this a fairly educated populace (many are employed by the computer tech industry), affordable housing prices, a fairly healthy local economy, and a decent cultural scene, and you have the makings of a great place to live.

In recent years, Austin has seen an influx of people moving to the city from other parts of Texas and California, prompting some to take measures to try and prevent people from moving here. I’ve recently seen shirts around town that read, “Austin sucks, don’t move here.” It’s all in good fun, of course, and all part of keeping Austin weird.

Sex & Food in Buenos Aires

Just before I left California on July 2, I received a phone call from a national magazine asking me to write a piece on “Authentic Buenos Aires.” While there, I did some of the groundwork and have since flown home, but will return in mid-September to research the article, which involves seeing “Baires” in the company of local experts on its sights, hotels, restaurants, nightlife and shopping.

What constitutes “authenticity,” of course, is a debatable subject, and one truly “authentic” institution that the article is unlikely to cover are the city’s albergues transitorios, the “love hotels” that rent rooms by the hour (or a bit longer). Colloquially known as telos (an inversion of the word “hotel”), these can range from truly squalid to surprisingly sophisticated, but are not just for clandestine affairs (though South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his Argentine girlfriend would probably not have used one). Young couples in search of privacy may be their main market, but sometimes even married couples, who may want to get away from the kids in their small apartment, will use them.

Telos are usually inconspicuous and discreet (though the Barrio Norte telo shown in the photograph here at least wants to suggest something forbidden). Often they have no sign, or simply a plaque that says “hotel” (with no specific name) or “albergue transitorio” (which can confuse foreigners, as the word albergue can also mean a hostel). If you show up alone, with luggage, you’re likely to get bewildered stares from the check-in personnel.

Other Southern Cone countries use different euphemisms. In Chile the most common terms are hotel parejero (couples’ hotel) and motel (especially outside the cities, but a motel can also be what North Americans would normally expect; usually the décor suggests which sort it is). My favorite euphemism is Uruguay’s hotel de alta rotatividad (“high turnover hotel”).

Telos are coming up in the world, though. A recent Buenos Aires phenomenon is the telo that offers gourmet food to enhance the couple’s experience. Those who just want to sample salacious food, without paying for a room, can try Palermo Soho’s self-described “aphrodisiac restaurant” Te Mataré Ramírez, which also offers sophisticated erotic (but not pornographic) entertainment.

Color map of Argentina

Brazil Bound with Michael Sommers

1. Brazil is a huge country. If you only have a week, what are the must-see attractions?

Brazil is actually more like a continent! Although roughly the same size as the continental U.S., due to transportation options and vast expanses of relatively undeveloped areas, getting around much of Brazil takes time. If I only had a week, I’d really focus on one area—or at the maximum, two.

Iconic tourist sites aside, Rio de Janeiro provides a wonderful introduction since it reunites much of its history as well as spectacular natural features and a unique and intense cultural life. If you add the surrounding attractions of Rio de Janeiro state (Petrópolis, Ilha Grande, Paraty), your week will be up in no time.

If you’re ambitious, add a three-day trip to the states of either Minas Gerais or Bahia, both of which have richly distinctive cultures and histories. In Minas, I’d head to the charming colonial gold mining towns of Ouro Preto, Mariana or São João del Rei. Bahia is equally enticing. Its colonial capital of Salvador is a heady experience that combines exposure to Afro-Brazilian music, culture, and cuisine with access to some of Brazil’s finest beaches. Serious beach aficionados might skip Salvador altogether in favor of a destination such as Trancoso or Caraíva (accessible from Porto Seguro, only an hour flight from Rio).

2. What is the difference between Brazil’s high season vs. off season? What are the benefits to each?

Brazil’s high season coincides with the Southern Hemisphere’s summer and extends roughly from Christmas to the beginning of March. This is when most Brazilians take their vacations and you can expect crowded beaches, high airfares and hotel rates, and hot weather. Brazilians take summer seriously and tend to let down their collective hair more than usual. This ensures an atmosphere that is both more relaxed and festive than other times of the year (it’s no coincidence that Carnaval marks the summer’s climax). Mid-July to mid-August is also considered high season since it coincides with Brazilian students’ winter break and the summer holidays of visitors from the Northern Hemisphere.

With the exception of long holiday weekends, the rest of the year is off season. Depending on when you travel and to what region, the weather might be rainy or even cold. However, you’ll encounter a pace that is less frenetic and destinations (particularly beaches) that are less tourist-infested (and even, for better or for worse, quite isolated). Aside from the tranquility factor, off season is also the best time to travel if you’re on a budget.

3. What is the best way to get around the country?

In recent years, airfare has gotten a lot cheaper as more Brazilian charters have cropped up (newcomers include Trip and Avianca). For long or medium distances, flying is definitely the way to go. Bus service in Brazil is very extensive and quite good. The only problem is the time involved—long-distance hauls last for days while on seemingly short local routes, the number of stops really pile up. For this reason, if you want to hit secluded beaches or out-of-the-way rural spots, renting a car can be a very appealing alternative.

4. If you’re staying in Rio de Janeiro, which are the best beaches to visit?

Aside from their physical allure, Rio’s beaches are small microcosms unto themselves. Despite over development and certain tacky elements, Copacabana’s sweeping crescent of white sand is iconic, and a leisurely walk along its boardwalk around sunset is enchanting. Narrower than Copa, eternally hip Ipanema is imperative for those who want to soak up the quintessential Carioca beach scene. Aside from dreamy looking people, you’re surrounded by great restaurants, bars, and boutiques. Two current hot spots for young Carioca beach-lovers are Urca’s Praia Vermelha, a tiny but picturesque beach that lies in the shadow of Sugar Loaf, and the secluded Praia da Joá (that can be reached only by car or taxi). For an idyllic getaway, head to the far-flung Prainha and Grumari; favored by surfers, both are set against jungle covered mountains. While they fill up on weekends, during the week they’re quite secluded.

5. What is your favorite Brazilian cuisine and where do you find it?

Due to its strong African roots, Bahia boasts one of Brazil’s most unique and recognized regional cuisines. Key ingredients include palm oil (dendê), coconut milk, dried shrimp, cilantro and pimenta (hot pepper). You’ll find all of the above (minus the dried shrimp) in moqueca, a stew made with crab, shrimp and/or fish along with tomatoes, onions, and green peppers. If prepared well, this fragrant dish is delicious, and is comparatively lighter than other typical Brazilian recipes. As an adopted baiano, I admit to occasional cravings for acarajé; deep fried fritters made of a fluffy bean puree that are traditionally stuffed with dried shrimp. Acarajés are made and sold by Afro-Bahian women on the streets of Salvador and go down nicely with an icy Coca Cola.

6. What’s the best way to explore the Amazon?

People tend to have a lot of misconceptions about the Amazon. The biggest one is that you’ll show up and instantly be surrounded by virgin rainforest and exotic creatures. These days, virgin forest and larger beasts are hard to come by. Your best and most sustainable bet is to fly into Manaus and get as far away from the city as possible by heading (usually by boat) to a jungle lodge. Jungle lodges are strategically located on rivers such as the Rio Negro or Rio Solimões and make ideal bases for venturing along narrow tributaries—usually in a canoe, accompanied by a guide—and through flooded forests where you’ll view creatures such as pink dolphins, piranhas, and sloths. If you’re very lucky you may even spot a jaguar or the rare, red-faced uakari monkey. The most radically “eco” of them all, the Pousada Uacari, involves a 2-day boat trip (or 1-hour flight) from Manaus, but is ideally situated in the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, the largest protected patch of flooded rainforest in Brazil.

7. Brazil is host to many festas (festivals), including Carnaval. Describe your three favorite lesser known festas.

Salvador, where I live, is famed throughout Brazil for its many festas. My personal favorite is the one that kicks off the season–the Festa de Santa Barbara (held on December 4). Like many Bahian festas, it honors both a Catholic saint (Santa Barbara), patron saint of firemen and a Candomblé orixá (Iansã), a feisty female divinity associated with thunder and fire. The proceedings take place in Salvador’s colonial center. The best part is the number of devotees who show up dressed in the orixá’s colors of red and white, transforming the narrow streets into a sea of crimson.

For a combination of music and pageantry, it’s hard to surpass Bumba-Meu-Boi. Variations of this popular festa take place throughout the Northeast, but the most fabulous of all is held in Maranhão’s beautiful colonial capital of São Luís. Drawing on indigenous, African, and Portuguese folk elements, Bumba-Meu-Boi consists of a series of theatrical dances performed over several nights in late June. The performers create spectacularly embroidered costumes—including that of an enormous boi (bull)—that would put a Parisian couturier to shame, and the music, anchored by deep, pulsing bumba drums is so hypnotic that it’s impossible not to join in the dancing in the streets.

Meanwhile, a truly unusual festa is the Festa do Divino Espírito Santo, held in Pirenópolis, a historic gold mining town not far from Brasília. The Festa do Divino is held in many places throughout Brazil, but this one features As Cavalhadas, an event in which horsemen, dressed to represent medieval Moors and Christians, recreate a battle fought by Charlemagne during the Crusades (the Moors, of course, are defeated). The overall effect is very surreal and strangely anachronistic, but, once again, the costumes are sumptuous, and the small town gets terrifically festive.

8. Where is the best place to stay for a budget-conscious traveler?

Aside from hotels, Brazil has thousands of pousadas (pousar means to stop or rest), which are generally small, family-run inns or guesthouses. Most boast a home-like atmosphere and friendly service that is a welcome departure from more impersonal hotels. If you plan to stay for a few days or more, you can always negotiate a special price (particularly if you pay in cash). Most often, you’ll find pousadas in small and medium-sized towns, but more and more have been cropping up in large cities.

Traditionally, Brazilian hostels tended towards barracks-style lodgings for college-age backpackers. However, a new generation of hostels has recently emerged featuring simple, but stylish decorative schemes, lots of amenities, and hang-out spaces such as gardens and rooftop lounges. Many also have private double or triple rooms—ideal for couples or families—that are much cheaper than comparable hotel accommodations. Like pousadas, you’ll find quite a few are located in renovated old homes.

My Favorite U.S. City: South Lake Tahoe, CA

Clear, deep, and cold, Lake Tahoe has long been one of California’s most-visited tourist destinations and a crown jewel of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The 22-mile-long alpine lake is a wonder of nature, revered for its azure-blue color, crystalline water clarity, and remarkable depth. Bottoming out 1,645 feet below its surface, Lake Tahoe is the 10th deepest lake in the world and third deepest in North America.

[pullquote align=”right”]South Lake is where the long-time locals live, work, and go about their business despite the swirl of tourist activity happening all around them.[/pullquote]The biggest city around the lakeshore is my hometown, South Lake Tahoe, which many think of as the poor cousin to the lake’s more glamorous towns. True, South Lake Tahoe is not exactly a quaint mountain village; it’s more the kind of place where you get your engine oil changed or grab a burger at the drive-in. But that’s exactly what I like about it. South Lake is where the long-time locals live, work, and go about their business despite the swirl of tourist activity happening all around them. And it is where budget-minded visitors come when they want a cheap motel room—say a Motel 6 or Holiday Inn instead of the Ritz-Carlton—and inexpensive meals (try Sprouts for healthy fare, Freshie’s for fish tacos, or Blue Water Bistro for a lakefront dinner). Sure, the town has its share of Starbucks and kitschy T-shirt shops, but it also has locally-owned businesses like the Tahoe Keys Café, where the homemade breakfasts will fill you up for a full day of mountain fun, and Sports Ltd., where you can always find a good deal on skis, hiking boots, or flyfishing gear.

From your car window, you might only notice South Lake’s preponderance of strip malls and a near-constant parade of traffic on Highway 50, the main drag. But pull on your hiking boots, or pump up your mountain bike tires, and you’ll discover a wealth of scenic beauty. Less than a 15-minute drive from downtown lies the eastern stretch of Desolation Wilderness, one of the most stunning glacier-sculpted landscapes in the Sierra Nevada. You can spend weeks exploring its miles of trails, visiting dozens of alpine lakes, and climbing a banquet of peaks and precipices. I’ve been hiking and skiing through this area for 20 years, and yet I am always finding new spots. Mountain bikers can choose from a host of single-track trails, from the mellow, shaded glen of Cold Creek to the rocky challenges of Saxon Creek (a.k.a. “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”).

If you aren’t the active type, pack up a lawn chair and a picnic and head to one of South Lake Tahoe’s beautiful beaches—Pope, Baldwin, Kiva, Regan, or Eldorado. If you want to know my favorite spot, just ask my golden retriever and he’ll grab his leash and take you there. Almost every summer evening you can find the two of us at Kiva Beach, watching the sun set over Mount Tallac as we take an end-of-the-day dip in Lake Tahoe.

Map of Lake Tahoe, California
Lake Tahoe

My Favorite U.S. City: Boston, MA

Every summer, my Boston cousins laughed at me. “Park the car in Harvard Yard,” they’d demand that I say. Then they’d howl at my “Rs.” It seems like a cliché now, but my cousins insisted that the proper pronunciation was “pahk the caah.” In “Hahvud Yahd,” of course.

They giggled when I pronounced “aunt” – like “ant,” instead of “awnt.” And I had no idea what they meant when they declared something to be “wicked pissa.” But I didn’t care, since every summer, we got to go out for lobster. Egg rolls and chow mein were as exotic as it got in the small midwestern town where I grew up. No one ate “pasta,” unless you’d count macaroni with ketchup. And lobster? There weren’t many lobsters back home in Indiana.

[pullquote align=”right”]It was in Boston, where I first sampled Salvadoran pupusas, tasted Taiwanese-style duck tongues, and discovered Portuguese egg tarts.[/pullquote]When I graduated from college, I moved to Boston, installing myself in a weary studio apartment out in Cleveland Circle. I had a long commute on the Green Line trolley to my first “real” job downtown. I couldn’t afford lobster, even a lobster roll, but for me, Boston was still all about the food.

Wandering around Boston introduced me not only to old New England and new high-tech, to the Freedom Trail and the Top of the Hub, to the Boston Symphony and the dark jazz clubs. I also met up with Brazilian barbecue, Haitian cornmeal porridge, and the buttery mashed plantains Dominicans call mangu.

I spent part of each paycheck on fried clams and Indian pudding. On dim sum in Chinatown and cannoli in the North End. It was in Boston, where I first sampled Salvadoran pupusas, tasted Taiwanese-style duck tongues, and discovered Portuguese egg tarts. Pad thai, pappardelle, and poori were no longer foreign words. They were lunch.

Years later, after I got married (in a restaurant) and our twins were born (fortunately, not in a restaurant), Boston still meant food.

After our family went ice skating on the Frog Pond or bicycling along the Charles, we’d wander over to Chinatown for some coconut buns. The kids would climb on the “Make Way for Duckling” statues in the Public Garden, then slurp down some Japanese udon.

We’d follow the Freedom Trail, too. From the gold-domed State House, we’d head to Faneuil Hall – and the snack stalls of Quincy Market. Then, on to the North End, where we’d treat ourselves to nutty-sweet marzipan shaped like watermelon slices or ripe strawberries.

After more than two decades, I never did pick up a Boston accent. But I’d happily “pahk my caah in Hahvud Yahd” – if I could stop for lobster and cannoli along the way.

My Favorite U.S. City: New Orleans, LA

Though I’ve traveled to many of America’s most well-known places—from San Francisco to Key West—I’ve never found a town like New Orleans. True, I was born and raised there, so even though I spent many years away, perhaps it’s simply in my blood.

Who, after all, could forget the cuisine? Though restaurants in other cities have tried to duplicate New Orleans’ signature dishes—from shrimp po-boys to gumbo—there’s no place I’d rather savor a muffuletta than Café Maspero on Decatur. And no one should leave the French Quarter without slurping a raw oyster at Oceana or sampling a messy beignet at Café Du Monde.

[pullquote align=”right”]Pirates, voodoo priestesses, and plantation owners have all called New Orleans home, and sometimes their legacy is palpable.[/pullquote]Then, there’s the music. This is the city that spawned Dr. John, Harry Connick, Jr., and the Neville Brothers. On any night, you might hear jazz at Preservation Hall, zydeco at Mulate’s, or a blues guitarist beside the Mississippi River. Plus, springtime boasts two incredible events: French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest.

The city’s history is also unique. Pirates, voodoo priestesses, and plantation owners have all called New Orleans home, and sometimes their legacy is palpable. Whether you’re strolling amid the gas lamps of the French Quarter, riding on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, touring creepy cemeteries or moss-covered swamps, or snapping photographs of the St. Louis Cathedral (the city’s most recognizable landmark), you’ll surely sense this one-of-a-kind atmosphere.

Unless you’ve simply come for the debauchery of Bourbon Street, you’re certain to fall under the city’s spell. Just consider how many writers and filmmakers have used it for inspiration. Without New Orleans, we wouldn’t have A Streetcar Named Desireor Interview with the Vampire.

Still, it’s my past that connects me to New Orleans. Although Hurricane Katrina destroyed my childhood homes, forced some of my longtime haunts to close, and propelled my family to move north of the city, the memories are still there. I can recall visiting the alligators at Audubon Zoo, watching Mardi Gras parades with my friends, crabbing in Lake Pontchartrain with Dad, and bike-riding through City Park with Mom. Whenever I visit New Orleans, I’m overcome by the sights, sounds, and smells. Just the clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage, or a whiff of sweet olive, and I’m a little girl again.

Since college, I’ve lived in a variety of places, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and northern Michigan, but despite its prevalent poverty and crime, New Orleans has never been far from my heart. I felt the pull so strongly, in fact, that my husband and I decided to start a film festival there, which allows us to live in New Orleans for half the year. Together, we continue to explore this magical place, and I hope that we’ll always have a reason to return. Because no matter what it’s called—the Big Easy, the Crescent City, or the Queen of the Mississippi—New Orleans will always be synonymous with home.

My Favorite U.S. City: Pittsburgh, PA

If the city of Pittsburgh has anything at all in common with every other struggling Rust Belt town in America, it’s this: It’s a very fashionable place to poke fun at. In fact, perhaps only the good people of Detroit–and possibly those of Cleveland–can accurately claim that their town is the butt of a higher number of tasteless jokes than the Steel City.

[pullquote align=”right”]Don’t forget, Pittsburgh was an incredibly wealthy place in the early-20th century, thanks in large part to the U.S. Steel Corporation and the entrepreneurial acumen of Andrew Carnegie.[/pullquote]But do you want to know how I describe Pittsburgh to people who’ve never set foot inside the city limits, and yet still assume they know exactly what it’s like? I tell them this: “If you haven’t seen the city since the time of the steel mills, when the soot and smoke made the air so dark that streetlamps were kept illuminated around the clock, well… then you’ve really never been there.”

And you know what? It’s true. It’s also an overused cliché, I realize, but in Pittsburgh’s case, it really is true. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that Pittsburgh occupies a relatively ample space in the popular American imagination. Don’t forget, Pittsburgh was an incredibly wealthy place in the early-20th century, thanks in large part to the U.S. Steel Corporation and the entrepreneurial acumen of Andrew Carnegie. And so naturally, all of that begs the obvious question: What exactly is Pittsburgh like today?

Well, for starters, there’s much more creative energy and activity than almost anyone realizes–including many of the people who’ve lived in Pittsburgh all their lives. The area is home to more than a dozen colleges and universities, and as a result, has a fairly transient population. That’s why so many underground events and literary magazines and envelope-pushing artists seem to come and go with the wind here. You’ve got to keep your ears open and your eyes peeled if you want to find the good stuff, but it’s definitely out there. You’ve got your internationally-recognized performers and musicians, for instance. You’ve got contemporary museums and galleries with world-wide acclaim. You’ve got a cutting-edge literary scene, and always-active political organizations, and on and on…

But please don’t get me wrong: No matter what any über-enthusiastic Pittsburgh booster tries to tell you, Steel City is most certainly not New York, and it never will be. And to me, that’s a good thing. Because somehow, despite the fact that its population has annually suffered a steady decline for a half-century now, Pittsburgh has actually managed to hang on to its very individualistic identity. And because of that, a visit to Pittsburgh is completely unlike a visit to Buffalo, or Baltimore, or Boston.

The late journalist Brendan Gill once wrote in The New Yorker that, “If Pittsburgh were situated somewhere in the heart of Europe, tourists would eagerly journey hundreds of miles out of their way to visit it.”

Agreed! And I don’t believe I could have said it better myself.

My Favorite U.S. City: Madison, WI

The Mad City, or Madtown. A quirky capital amidst the cows, its unofficial motto is “77 square miles surrounded by reality.” Like many capital-university cities, Madison is a hodgepodge of university life, state government, and, well, normal folks. This one ensconced gorgeously among four lakes and endless green space. And we may be proud cheeseheads—but we ain’t hicks. Outlanders coming in expecting to see cowflop residue on their taxi driver’s boots will instead probably find themselves chatting about string theory or the role of animism in Vietnamese culture. Oh, and about how we have the best schools, the best hospitals, blah blah blah…

[pullquote align=”right”]Yours truly is a typical Madisonian: came for college and never wanted to leave.[/pullquote]To its everyone-has-a-master’s-or-Ph.D education obsession and verdant loveliness, add typical Midwestern friendliness (you will chat with strangers here, trust me). And perhaps what I find most endearing: smiley open-mindedness. Madisonians truly couldn’t care less what you are, or what you do. As long as you mind your manners, of course (it is the Midwest, after all).

So it’s no surprise that in 1997 Money magazine declared Madison to be the “Best Place to Live in America”. This was followed up by a parade of other media, and perhaps why the city has had an enormous growth rate since the turn of the millennium, kept from light-speed only by our, um, interesting winters.

Yours truly is a typical Madisonian: came for college and never wanted to leave. Famed for its edge-dwelling radical political brouhahas of the 1960s (now much tamer), the University of Wisconsin and its inevitable mish-mash of world-renowned research and college-age looniness was a major attraction for this impressionable student, as it is for those who refuse to grow up—which is a large share of the population here. And since half of the world seems to want to study here here, it’s kind of like being abroad at home.

Even a few years spent abroad post-graduation were spent thinking about the Mad City, or looking on streets of Asia for someone wearing a Bucky Badger T-shirt. Travel writing takes me overseas regularly, but the old truism that traveling allows one to better appreciate home certainly holds here. Madison ain’t heaven, but I certainly haven’t found a better place to live.

My Favorite U.S. City: Boulder, CO

As with love, absence can make the heart grow fonder. I had to leave my hometown of Boulder, Colorado and mature quite a bit before I returned and could finally begin to appreciate all of its natural charms.

[pullquote align=”right”]Boulder has a near-perfect mix of sophistication and a laid-back attitude, urban and rural elements, natural beauty and easy access to the best of it.[/pullquote]Today I only live a mere 30 miles to the east of Boulder in Colorado’s capital city of Denver, but I go to Boulder often to see family and friends and sometimes just for an errand or a hike. Not that I’m letting anyone in on a secret here—Boulder is often ranked as one of the country’s best cities in surveys by magazines such as Outside, Men’s Journal and others. The pollsters and I appreciate Boulder for the variety of pleasures found in this college town snuggled up to the base of the Rocky Mountains. In my opinion, Boulder has a near-perfect mix of sophistication and a laid-back attitude, urban and rural elements, natural beauty and easy access to the best of it.

If visiting was just limited to Boulder’s Chautauqua Park, one could enjoy hiking, rock climbing, cycling, historic lodgings, music and film festivals for adults and children, tennis, picnicking, fine restaurant dining and more. That same list could almost be repeated for a visit just limited to the University of Colorado at Boulder campus that has museums, a planetarium, the Shakespeare Festival and annual Conference on World Affairs. It’s an easy walk from the campus to the foothills for a hike into the mountains.

Such “walkability” (or bike-ability) is one of Boulder’s biggest appeals. When I was in junior high school (up until I got a driver’s license), I would walk or ride my bike to school in good weather–as did many of my friends. I just took for granted that this was an option but now I know how rare that is in other cities. And people here take advantage of it—I’ve noticed well-known chefs walking around the renowned Boulder Farmers’ Markets on Saturday mornings looking for a few fresh ingredients before heading back to excellent restaurants such as The Kitchen, Frasca and Black Cat Bistro near the pedestrian-friendly Pearl Street Mall.

Lately I am my daughter’s tour guide wherever we go, and when we drive into Boulder for a visit at Grandma’s house, I excitedly say, “Look at that view!” as we get a first glimpse of the famous flatiron rocks looming above the city. And that’s just the beginning of the story of Boulder.

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