Wildflowers are a vibrant treat in Washington’s spring and summer seasons. Their breezy color palettes light up our hiking landscapes, immerse us in the present moment, and send a signal—after what can feel like a long, wet, winter season—that sunny, summery weather is on its way.
In general, wildflower season in Washington stretches from early spring to early fall. While tiny, bell-like Indian plum springs up in March in the Western Washington lowlands, technicolor fields of wildflowers in the cooler, higher elevation meadows of Mount Rainier National Park will typically wait until July to wake up.
Finding colorful wildflowers can feel like throwing a dart at a moving target—distinct peak times vary from year to year based on weather and precipitation patterns. To narrow down the best timeframe for a wildflower trek, call a local ranger station, check online trip reports from Washington Trails Association, visit Mount Rainier National Park’s wildflower webpage, and explore hiker forums and social media sites like Instagram. Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, by Turner and Gustafson, and the University of Washington’s Herbarium website are helpful tools for learning about and identifying wildflowers. If you’re stuck, call the Plant Answer Line at the University of Washington’s Elisabeth C. Miller Library (206-UW-PLANT, email@example.com).
These hikes combine wildflowers with striking scenery:
- Denny Creek-Melakwa Lake, located near Snoqualmie Pass, is best known for the natural waterslide 1.2 miles into the hike. Further afield, however, thistle, red columbine, bluebell, and crinkly white thimbleberry flowers sprinkle the valley below Hemlock Pass, with pretty Pink Mountain Heather framing Melakwa Lake (8.8 miles roundtrip, 2,625 feet elevation gain, Snoqualmie Ranger District-North Bend)
- Iron Bear-Teanaway Ridge, located east of the Cascade crest, is a great option for spring wildflower viewing and an escape from rainy weather in Western Washington. Enjoy spotting balsamroot, scarlet gilia, snowbrush, and bitterroot in mid-late May, along with views of Mount Rainier and the Stuart Range. (6.5 miles roundtrip, 1750 feet elevation gain, Cle Elum Ranger District)
- Mount Townsend, located west of Quilcene, is a treat in late spring when delicate pink rhododendron cocoon the first 1.2 miles of the trail. Paired with fantastic views of the Olympics and Puget Sound, this is a stunning two-for-one trail. (8.8 miles roundtrip, 3000 feet elevation gain, Hood Canal Ranger District-Quilcene)
- Tipsoo Lake-Naches Peak Loop is a family-friendly hike at Chinook Pass featuring wildflowers, picturesque tarns, and Mount Rainier views. Purple lupine is the star of the show in peak season—blanketing the hillsides near Tipsoo Lake and Naches Peak. Arrive early or late in the day to avoid summer crowds. (3.6-4.1 miles roundtrip, 700 feet elevation gain, Mount Rainier National Park-White River Ranger Station)
- Tolmie Peak Lookout, located in the northwestern corner of Mount Rainier National Park, boasts fanciful beargrass, pockets of penstemon and paintbrush, and white rhododendron. A commanding view of Mount Rainier from the lookout and lupine-bordered Eunice Lake round out the views. (6.0 miles roundtrip, 1500 feet elevation gain, Mount Rainier National Park-Carbon River Ranger Station)
- Upper Big Quilcene-Marmot Pass is a wonderful hike on the Olympic Peninsula for viewing plant life, wildflowers, and the Olympics. Moss-lined paths and huckleberries spring from the wet, dense forest, while fireweed, Scotch bluebell, and stonecrop color the higher-elevation slopes. (11 miles roundtrip, 3400 feet elevation gain, Hood Canal Ranger District-Quilcene)
While you’re out enjoying your hike, help protect wildflowers by sticking to trails and durable surfaces, like rocks and packed-down dirt. Take plenty of photos, but leave the wildflowers as you find them—please don’t pick them.
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The phrase “family-friendly hike” is up for wide interpretation. Parents lugging full-to-the-brim diaper bags and strollers around on a Rocky Mountain National Park hike might be game for a half-hour jaunt on level ground (Coyote Valley Trail fits the bill). On the flipside, I’m personally aware of a family that climbed Longs Peak with a 6-year-old in tow. Like I said—family friendly: it means different things for different people.
For the purpose of this list, the phrase is defined as holding broad interest and appeal for multi-generational groups—from toddlers to teens, midlifers to active seniors. The following five hikes in Rocky have been proven, time and again, to capture imaginations of all ages.
Nymph Lake and Beyond
Nymph Lake’s appeal lies largely in its decorative pond lilies. In the warm months, scores of verdant leaves float weightlessly alongside brilliant yellow flowers. Any spot along the lake’s edge is great for views, but I recommend parking yourself at the north side of Nymph for the most remarkable vantage point. To arrive at Nymph, drive or catch a shuttle to Bear Lake, and hike approximately half a mile (one-way) along the Emerald Lake Trail. If everyone in your party is pumped to keep going, continue on to Dream Lake (an additional 0.6 miles) and finally Emerald (an additional 0.7 miles) before heading back.
Holzwarth Historic Site
One of the most interesting remnants of early settlement on Rocky’s west side is Holzwarth Historic Site, a well-preserved guest ranch built in the early 20th century. History buffs in particular will enjoy poking around this cluster of guest cabins and outbuildings. Volunteers lead informal tours around the property in summertime, and some of the log structures display historical items of significance. A ranger-led campfire program with songs and stories takes place one night a week in the peak season (bring your own marshmallows to roast). The hike out to Holzwarth is approximately 0.5 miles from the trailhead.
Lily Lake is a people-pleaser for so many reasons: among them, its birds and colorful wildflowers. A 0.8-mile, wheelchair-accessible path winds its way around the lake and is delightful for strolling. Several picnic tables with nature-iffic views dot the shore; snag one of these highly coveted lunch spots if you can. There’s no admission fee to hike around Lily Lake—simply arrive via Highway 7, on the east side of Rocky, and park in one of two lots. They fill quickly, so plan to get there early in the morning or late in the day.
When journeying to a waterfall, I am of the opinion that the build-up on the hike out is almost as good as the gusher itself. I just love listening for those first glorious sounds of rushing water. The easy trek to Alberta Falls—a tumbling, frothy spectacle—delivers on both fronts: the path there, and the main attraction. The tree-lined trail is especially gorgeous in the fall, when the aspen leaves’ pigment changes from green to yellow. Large rocks alongside Alberta are great for sunning or snacking. Your starting point for this 1.6-mile round-trip hike is Glacier Gorge Trailhead. In the summer, the parking lot fills up by 6am, so plan on either rallying your crew at the crack of dawn, or taking the park shuttle.
Tundra Communities Trail
Walking around above treeline is a fascinating experience, no matter your age. On the Tundra Communities Trail (0.6 miles round-trip), pikas and marmots scurry about. The wind often screeches and howls, and plants grip tightly to the earth in order to survive. This partially paved trail features a number of interpretive signs along the way, making for both an educational and scenic outing. To get there, take Trail Ridge Road to the Rock Cut parking area; the path to follow will be obvious. Pack sweaters and jackets for all.
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Washington intrigue, global espionage – no wonder four US presidents count themselves David Baldacci superfans. But, the thriller writer tells Event, even he never expected to bump into Obama in a bookshop… Read more here.
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USA TODAY’s Jocelyn McClurg scopes out the hottest books on sale each week.
Though the city is best known for its very adult technology industry and cloudy weather, Seattle with kids is also a lot of fun–as long as you all like to explore, play, and get dirty.
Stay at the Hotel Monaco or Hotel Ballard, which have adult style but less bustle, or the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, which has a glassed-in swimming pool that kids will love.
The entire Seattle Center complex is perfect for children, starting with—of course—the Seattle Children’s Museum. The other attractions are ideal for kids, like the IMAX theater and hands-on exhibits at Pacific Science Center, which teach everything from global climate to parts of the human body. Be sure to toss a coin into the pools that sit between the buildings—it’s good luck.
The Space Needle will thrill all the way from the elevator ride to the 360-degree revolving restaurant on top, and even Chihuly Garden and Glass, where the outdoor glass sculptures look like a scene from Alice in Wonderland, is surprisingly family friendly. Every kind of dining preference can be catered to at the Armory, with its food court of local favorites, and the International Fountain outside was made to be played in.
Down on the waterfront, the Seattle Aquarium has giant tanks of fish, a wily octopus, and feeding shows with harbor seals. Check up front for details on the day’s events. Next door, the Seattle Great Wheel thrills the child in all of us, especially when it dips over the dark Elliott Bay water.
Most restaurants in Seattle are somewhat family friendly, save the most formal. Get the whole family to try oysters at Elliott’s Oyster House, or rely on tried-and-true fried treats at Ivar’s Acres of Clams on the waterfront.
As stuffy as the name sounds, the Museum of History and Industry was made for young explorers. Just venture upstairs to the working periscope, or try the interactive history exhibits that explain how nature, calamity, and ingenuity built the city. Plus, the Center for Wooden Boats next door rents toy sailboats for use on the pond next to the museum, and the grass outside is perfect for watching seaplanes take off from Lake Union.
Over in Ballard, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks combines a botanical garden with a working nautical operation. It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon watching the engineering feat that moves boats up and down, passing them into the Ship Canal that links the city’s lakes to Puget Sound. Across the locks, an underground fish ladder allows salmon to make their annual move to fresh water.
For dinner, make your way toward Fremont, to the Frelard Pizza Company. Located on the border of Ballard and Fremont, this thin-crust pizza joint has a play area for kids.
Get breakfast at Macrina Bakery in SoDo. A block south, the Living Computers: Museum + Labs has working computers on display, some hundreds of times bigger than the cell phones kids are used to using. Ask about which ones have working computer games from the past. Meanwhile, the Seattle Pinball Museum is much more low-tech. The playable machines, which are included in the cost of admission, range from decades old to brand new, but the goal is the same—keep hitting buttons and prevent the little ball from disappearing.
End your day with dinner in the International District. Shanghai Garden is a good choice for families.
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Crafting an itinerary to see the best of Italy is both very easy and very hard. To start, the three cities of Rome, Florence, and Venice are an obvious choice. But seeing everything in these cities is impossible, and visiting one museum after another will leave you exhausted and unable to absorb what you have seen. You’re better offer taking it slow and balancing days with a mix of sights and everyday activities, like lingering in piazze, tasting gelato, and enjoying aperitivo (happy hour). Using local travel cards like RomaPass, Firenzecard, and Venezia Unica will help you get the most out of your journey without wasting time in lines.
Rome is a convenient starting point for a three-city tour of Italy. Most transatlantic flights land directly in the Italian capital and tickets are less expensive than to Florence or Venice, which often require connecting flights. The 327 miles that separate the cities are covered by high-speed trains, which are the quickest and easiest way of getting between destinations. A Rome-to-Florence-to-Venice itinerary also allows you to travel from the most populated to the least populated city and from oldest to newest, which can facilitate appreciation and understanding of each.
Walking is the best cure for jet lag, so after you settle into your room, head out for lunch and a stroll. The pizza al taglio parlors in the center provide a good introduction to Roman pizza. Point to the variety you like and have it wrapped up for takeaway. Grab a seat on the stone bench at the base of Palazzo Farnese and observe the comings and goings in the busy square. At the first sign of a yawn enter a bar and order an espresso. Although most Romans drink at the counter, outdoor seating is common.
Afterwards ride the number 23, 44, or 280 bus or 8 tram to Aventino and Testaccio. If it’s close to aperitivo (happy hour) order a cocktail at Porto Fluviale and enjoy the buffet that can double as dinner. The longer you resist sleep the easier it will be to adapt to Italian time.
The Colosseum is a sight that cannot be missed. Walk to the ancient stadium, or ride Metro B to Circo Massimo and approach from the south. Skip the lines with your preordered tickets or RomaPass and spend an hour exploring the interior with the audio guide. Then head next door to the Roman Forum, where you can wander through ruins and get a feel for ancient Rome. To see more artifacts, climb nearby Capitoline Hill and visit the Musei Capitolino. Michelangelo designed the square outside the museum and there’s a great view of the city from the adjacent Vittoriano monument.
Walk down to the Jewish Ghetto for a taste of artichokes prepared in the Jewish style at Nonna Betta or the other kosher restaurants on Via del Portico D’Ottavia. Alternatively, ride the number 8 tram to the Piramide station and swap ancient for 19th-century history. Pay your respects to Keats in the Protestant Cemetery before heading to the covered Testaccio Market. Pick a stand and create an improvised picnic of a beef sandwich, cheese, and bread, all washed down with local wine served in plastic cups.
On the way back, explore the residential streets of Aventino and the shaded Giardini degli Aranci (Orange Garden) with a view of the Vatican. Return at night to Monte Testaccio via the Metro B to Piramide for dancing and Roman nightlife, or dine al fresco at one of the informal kiosks along the Tiber and let your feet have the night off.
Zigzag along the pedestrian streets towards Campo De’ Fiori. Browse the market for household souvenirs and order pizza bianca from Il Forno on the northwestern corner of the square. There’s a flow of tourists on their way to Piazza Navona, but plenty of scenic side streets offer less crowded opportunities to reach the square. Choose one and admire the former athletic track with the help of a gelato from Frigidarium. Street musicians play near the fountains and there’s a lot of art on display. Avoid cafes with waitstaff out front recruiting tourists, and order an espresso at Antico Caffè della Pace.
The Pantheon is less than ten minutes away and free to enter. After visiting it, browse the boutiques along Via del Corso as you head towards the newly refurbished Spanish Steps, which you can climb to reach Villa Borghese. Escape the summer heat by cycling in the city’s biggest park or visiting the Borghese Gallery (advance reservations required).
Walk or ride the Metro A to the Ottaviano station and follow the pilgrims to Vatican City. Remember to dress properly, and arrive early to the Vatican Museums where you can choose from several itineraries taking in the immense collection. Most visitors beeline to the Sistine Chapel, but there are less crowded parts of the museum.
Once you’ve gotten your fill of art, take the guided bus tour of the gardens before entering St. Peter’s Basilica. Light a candle and descend into the crypt to pay tribute to past popes, then make your way to the top of the cupola. The elevator only goes so far and you’ll need stamina to climb the highest structure in the city. If you arrive on Sunday morning you can join the faithful in the square below and receive the pope’s blessing.
The nearby streets of Borgo Pio and Borgo Vittorio have catered to pilgrims since the Middle Ages and are lined with eateries and souvenir shops. Follow one of these parallel streets to Castel Sant’Angelo. You can climb the castle and enjoy the view from the rooftop bar. Then walk or catch a bus to Trastevere and mingle with the crowds in Piazza Trilussa. Order cacao pepe pasta at Da Giovanni and explore the streets of this lively neighborhood packed with bars and clubs.
Optional: Add an Extra Day in Rome
Ride the train from Piramide station to Ostia Antica and walk along the well-preserved streets of an ancient city. Explore the baths, theater, shops, and villas to understand how the Romans once lived. Afterward, have lunch in the small medieval enclave near the entrance to the archeological site or take the train back and get off at the Magliana station to explore EUR. There are dozens of eateries along Viale Europa and Viale America, along with Fascist-era architecture and a man-made lake where Japanese cherry blossoms bloom in spring.
Via Appia Antica is closer to the center and can be reached on the 118 bus from Circus Maximus in 15 minutes or on foot in a little over twice that time. Rent a bike from the park office and then saddle up and set off on a leisurely trot down the first road that led to Rome.
The journey from Rome to Florence on board Italo or Trenitalia trains takes less than two hours. Both operators run frequent departures from Termini station in the center of the city and Tiburtina slightly to the east. Depart midmorning so you can have lunch in Florence. There are taxis and buses waiting outside Santa Maria Novella station, but the historic center is small and flat enough to navigate on foot, with no two monuments more than 20 minutes apart.
If you’re driving, consider stopping in Assisi, burial site of St. Francis, or Siena. Florence’s historic rival is famous for its shell-shaped piazza, annual horse race, and enormous unfinished cathedral.
Once you’ve deposited your bags, find a small trattoria like Trattoria Sostanza and discover the difference between Florentine and Roman gastronomy. Order papa al pomodoro or the steak from Chianina cattle raised along the Tuscan coast. The two covered markets in the center are also good places to learn about local culinary traditions. The 2nd floor of Mercato Centrale is a food emporium, while downstairs you can sample tripe sandwiches, a Florentine specialty.
Work off your meal by hiking to Basilica San Miniato al Monte via the less traveled footpath, which has a panoramic payoff. Just cross the Pont alle Grazie bridge and follow the signs through the old city gate before turning right and up the grassy path. On the way back walk along the medieval walls to Forte Belvedere, where free outdoor exhibitions are organized, and enter the Pitti Palace gardens from the side entrance.
If there’s time catch the sunset over Ponte Vecchio from nearby Ponte Santa Trinità. Otherwise order an aperitivo at Volume or any of the bars with outdoor seating lining Piazza Santo Spirito. During the summer, head to the riverside beach where DJs spin lounge music until late.
Start the day with an espresso at Café Rivoire and purchase a Duomo card for a tour of the cathedral. There are a lot of steps to climb up the Duomo, but the inside is nearly as impressive as the outside. (Note: It’s not for the claustrophobic.) Once you’ve reached the top, circle the terrace for a 360-degree view of the city. The card includes entry to the Campanile bell tower and newly renovated Museo dell’Opera, where you can learn how the Duomo was built. Just a few blocks away is the Piazza della Signoria in the center of the city and another steep climb to the top of Palazzo Vecchio.
Sample Florentine pizza at Cucina Torcicoda or a thick local steak at Mario’s before visiting the Museum of San Marco, which contains colorful frescoed cells where monks lived. Nearby and a couple of blocks north is the Accademia that houses the statue of David and only lets in 300 visitors at a time. That explains the line, which will require patience if you haven’t booked your tickets in advance.
Next pay homage to Michelangelo, who grew up in Florence and is buried inside Basilica di Santa Croce. Arrive a couple of hours before closing (5:30pm) if you want to get in. Then stop into nearby Vivoli for gelato. Try their crema de’ Medici (cream-flavored gelato). At night, wineries offer cellars full of local Tuscan vintages, and the happy hour cocktail of choice is Negroni served with cured meats and cheese. The Soul Kitchen and Winter Garden by Caino are both good options with happy hour appetizers that can easily substitute for a sit-down dinner.
Mornings are the only time to see the city’s Last Supper frescoes, which were painted inside Florence’s smaller churches like Cenacolo di Ognissanti and Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia and are often overlooked by tourists. This is your opportunity to be alone with a masterpiece. Afterwards enjoy an enormous takeaway sandwich stuffed with Tuscan ham from All’Antico Vinaio.
Brace yourself for crowds and join the line at the Uffizi, home to works by Botticelli and other greats. After visiting the galleries, take a break in the museum bar overlooking Piazza della Signoria. The museum is considerably smaller than the Vatican Museums and you can see it all in a couple of hours. If the line is too long or you want to discover the city’s most underrated museum, head to the Bargello nearby and prepare to be blown away by another David with far fewer admirers.
For a caffeine pick-me-up stop into Ditta Artigianale, or pull up a lounge chair at Amble and start the evening with a cocktail. For dinner, the rustic Angiolino is a good choice for handmade pasta dishes, but if you want to sample Michelin-rated flavors and dine in a romantic interior reserve a table at La Bottega del Buon Caffè overlooking the Arno.
Optional: Add an Extra Day in Florence
Fiesole is a half-day excursion just outside the city with stunning views overlooking Florence. You can get there on the number 7 bus from the train station in around 20 minutes. During the summer there’s a musical festival and evening concerts are held in the ancient Roman amphitheater.
The hills around Florence are dotted with medieval villas where influential families retreated during hot Renaissance summers. There are finely furnished interiors and manicured gardens to explore with fountains, sculptures, and occasional views of the Duomo in the distance. Beyond these elegant homes is Tuscany and some of Italy’s most iconic landscapes. Use Enjoy or Car2Go, Florence’s car-sharing program, or rent a scooter from Walkabout or Tuscany Vespa Tours and motor down the SP 222 into Chianti country to sample the latest vintages from roadside vineyards.
If you prefer not to drive, board a regional train from SMN station to Lucca. An hour later you’ll be inside one of Italy’s best-preserved fortified towns and can cycle along the ramparts and climb medieval towers in the center. Soccer fans in town from September to June can walk or catch a bus to Artemio Franchi stadium. Home games are usually played on Sunday afternoons at 1pm and tickets are available at the gates. Make sure to wear purple.
If you’re driving from Florence to Venice, consider a stop for lunch in Ferrara or Bologna, two cities that are famous for food. The latter is also on the same high-speed train line that connects Rome, Florence, and Venice, which makes it a convenient stop. Journey time by train to Venice is around two hours with several stops. Venice is the end of the line, and Santa Lucia station drops passengers off on the city’s doorstep. You can reach your accommodations on foot or via water taxi on the Grand Canal, which is more expensive but also more fun.
After you’ve settled in to your hotel, follow the yellow signs to St. Mark’s Square and take the secret tour of the Doge’s Palace to discover why they call it the Bridge of Sighs. Enter St. Mark’s Basilica next door and listen to the audio guide explain the mosaics.
Restaurants are expensive in Venice, but snacking at local bars is affordable and a chance to sample lagoon fish transformed into tapas-like appetizers called cicchetti. Try All’Arco across the Rialto Bridge and near the animated fish market. From there you can hitch a ride over the Grand Canal in a gondola and spend the evening in Campo Santo Stefano listening to Vivaldi.
Purchase a ferry pass and go island hopping on the 4.1 or 4.2 vaporetto from Fondamente Nuove. Get a window seat or stand on deck for the best views. Get off at the first stop on Murano. From here, you can visit workshops and watch a glassblowing demonstration. Some require a small fee while others are free.
Continue on the 12 vaporetto from the Faro station to Burano. It’s a 45-minute ride past lagoon wildlife, and you can order fried calamari and cold beer at Fritto Misto near the main dock once you get there. Afterwards, circumnavigate the island on foot and put your camera to good use. Along the way are colorful houses and galleries where locals make and sell textiles and glassware.
Just north of Burano is the nearly uninhabited island of Torcello. There’s only one path to follow unless you decide to cross the Ponte del Diavolo (Devil’s Bridge) and follow the dirt trail to Santa Maria Assunta cathedral. On the way back stop at Locanda Cipriani, where Hemingway wrote and drank, before returning to Venice by vaporetto as the sun sets over the lagoon.
If it’s a weekday morning, watch the fishmongers and greengrocers under the colorful Rialto market and shop for masks along the adjacent streets. Atelier Pietro Longhi is a good place for dressing up and getting into the Carnevale spirit. Head to any of the traditional bacari bars nearby and accompany every meal with prosecco from the Veneto region. If you don’t want to wander unknowingly past Marco Polo’s house or the oldest ghetto in Europe, spend a couple of hours with a certified guide who can provide an insider’s perspective on the city. Take a break inside the first pastry shop you see and sample as many delicacies as your appetite can handle. There’s a different sweet for every season, but burranei are baked all year long.
Hop a vaporetto to the Galleria dell’Accademia for a glimpse of Venetian Renaissance art. Alternatively, if you prefer contemporary canvases, keep going to the Guggenheim Foundation and Punta della Dogana at the very tip of Dorsoduro. Escape the narrow streets of the center and take a walk along the sun-drenched Fondamenta Zaterre promenade and stop for a gelato at Da Nico. Enjoy a cup or cone on the dock overlooking Giudecca and the southern lagoon. At night the squares near the university fill up. Campo Santa Margherita is the most animated in town, where you can listen to street musicians and join improvised parties spilling out into the square on weekends. If you haven’t tried risotto with fish, make your way to Osteria da Codroma.
Optional: Add an Extra Day in Venice
It’s difficult to tire of Venice, but if you long for a different landscape spend a morning cruising up the Brenta Canal on a boat tour with Il Burchiello and then take the train back to Venice. Ride a vaporetto out to the Lido and lie on the beach or rent a bike near the main landing and cycle along this narrow strip of an island to the wild reserve where Goethe was inspired and Mussolini played golf.
Back in Venice, do your own sailing with a boat from Brussa Is Boat. A license isn’t required but you will need to learn the rules of the lagoon. If that sounds too risky, try paddling through the city by kayak or riding a wakeboard.
If you happen to be in town during the Venice Biennale (May-November, odd-numbered years) art festival, visit the pavilions in the public gardens and installations set up around the city. All the gambling houses in the city have closed except one—you can still place bets at the Venice Casino and play familiar American table games or harder-to-master European games until 2am.
Back to Rome
It takes a little over 3.5 hours to get back to Rome by train. Leave Venice early enough to enjoy a final meal in the capital. Take the subway, tram, or bus to Trastevere for a tasty farewell, and if you haven’t ordered amatriciana or carciofi alla romana this is the time to do so. Before heading off to the airport, climb the nearby Gianicolo Hill for one last look at the Eternal City and say your good-byes to Italy.
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Once upon a time, in the early 1970s, I worked for a duck. He was a nice duck and owned a flower business. What he did was he hired people like me, and other long-hairs and down and outs to stand on street corners in Austin, Texas and sell flowers. Ducks make nice employers.
People bought a lot more flowers than you might think. Austin was a pretty cool place back then. At the end of the day, the duck had a good return on his flowers, and I, and those doing the same kind of work I did on different street corners, got paid. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it wasn’t bad money for a part time job for someone not yet twenty, or maybe just turned twenty. I’m a little uncertain how old I was then, and it lacks importance.
The duck had a yellow van, and he drove us to our street corner in it and let us out, along with our cache of flowers. I would sometimes try and get people’s attention by doing a little dance on my street corner, and it worked. A lot of folks said they were buying flowers from me because I entertained them.
One time I was finishing up my dance and a beer bottle whizzed by my head, having been thrown from a car by a bunch of rednecks. I was mad and wanted a piece of them, but they raced away. They may have been rednecks that thought they were tough and were going to mess up a hippie, but I most likely looked crazy in that moment and that might have temporarily scared them out of their redneck credentials, or maybe they had some place to go and were short on time to be there.
Whatever, they went away fast. I didn’t dance anymore that day and kept an eye peeled in case they returned. I was at an intersection, and I hoped they’d catch the light. They didn’t come back though. And that’s good. I was young enough and hot-headed enough, I might be serving time in prison.
I got a little sick about it for a while, thinking I might have lost an eye or ended up with a brain injury, or at best a black eye. That bottle thrown from a car had some real speed on it.
I really had it in for rednecks after that, and part of the reason is that I had grown up with just their type. Couple of days, and I pretty much got over it, but thereafter I danced very little and continued to keep a sharp eye. No one threw anything else at me, and I never saw the rednecks again.
Okay. I’m not completely over it. Continue reading “I Worked for a Duck”
Modern-day Marrakech is made up of ancient bamboo-covered souks, an endless array of bazaars, lush palm groves, five-star restaurants, snake charmers, fortune tellers, and characters of all shapes and sizes. With the snowcapped peaks of the High Atlas serving as a backdrop, it often feels as though Marrakech has sprung out from the famous tales of Scheherazade. With its myriad activities, sights, foods, and accommodations to fit nearly every budget and interest, it should come as no surprise that Marrakech is one of the most popular destinations in the world.
Most travelers will find that Marrakech’s famed medina is more of a felt experience than a sightseeing stop. Somewhat surprisingly, there are only a few attractions and museums to tour in the area. Most sights can be visited between breakfast and lunch, leaving plenty of time to wander through the souks and bazaars, which is the real pastime in Marrakech. But be warned: if it’s your first experience in a Moroccan medina, the vast bustling streets of Marrakech can be stressful to navigate, and it’s easy to become disoriented. Streets are usually unnamed and there are plenty of confusing, often frustrating, dead ends. Thankfully, the lack of pressure to check off a list of sights makes it easier to stop in at a café or dawdle a bit longer over lunch (or perhaps reserve that much-needed massage), all in the name of relaxation—particularly after an adventure in getting lost. Don’t worry: it’s bound to happen, and is all part of the experience.
A stay in Marrakech wouldn’t be complete without a night out on the Jemaa el-Fnaa, the giant plaza that is the carnival heart of the city. Fortune tellers, jugglers, medicine men, musicians, henna artists, storytellers and snake charmers gather to entertain the crowds as they have for a millennium. Sip on fresh-squeezed orange juice from one of the twenty or so local sellers (prices run about 4 dirhams) and peer through the veil of smoke from lamb, chicken, and beef brochettes being grilled up at the numerous food stands, while the Gnawa drumbeat rhythmically draws you further into the festivities. This is a quintessential Marrakechi scene and truly something to behold.
The Ville Nouvelle offers some of the best restaurants in town, some of the best parks in Morocco, and some of the best nightclubs in Africa. Though lacking in major sightseeing attractions, a trip through the palm groves should be on your itinerary, as well as an early morning at the Majorelle Gardens.
Best Things to Do in Marrakech
Shopping the Souks
Chunky silver jewelry, hand-woven carpets, artisanal soaps, and hand-spun and painted ceramics are just a few of the goodies waiting for you in the labyrinthine souks of Marrakech. Of course, one of the charms (and one of the hassles) of Morocco is bartering. Prices are nearly always negotiable. The entire interaction is an intricate dance, with partners taking turns with the lead, spinning one another around until a final price is agreed upon. Moroccan dancing partners, at least when it comes to shopping, are notoriously aggressive and demanding, and you are expected to be equally aggressive and demanding. Don’t be rude, but be firm with a price you think is fair.
There are still a number of traditional hammams (Moroccan spas) running throughout the medina of Marrakech. These are simple affairs with a steam room and scrubbing available for 10-20Dh. Though intended for locals, many travelers find a visit to a genuine Moroccan hammam to be a memorable experience. You can ask your accommodations for directions to the closest one.
A considerably less traditional, though completely luxurious, spa experience can be had at almost any of the palatial hotels in Hivernage. The cream of the crop is the Es Saadi Palace Spa (Rue Ibrahim el Mazini, tel. 0524/337 400). The enormous spa grounds feature a thermal spa, high-tech swimming pool with multiple water pathways, thermal heat baths, massage rooms, open terraces for yoga, a complete gym, and a mirrored room for indoor yoga or dance. This is holistic body care at its finest.
Storytelling at Café Clock
Every Thursday night at 7pm, Café Clock (224 Derb Chtouka, tel. 0655/210 172, free) hosts one of the most culturally interesting events in town. Professional storytellers from the Jemaa el-Fnaa come and weave their tales for audiences in English and Moroccan Arabic. Other weekly events include traditional music on Sundays (6pm), jam sessions on Wednesdays—where you can bring your own instrument and play with a cast of characters from around the world—(7pm), and live local music on Saturdays (6pm).
Check in with the dada (a woman who manages the cooking and children of a house) at the chic La Maison Arabe (1 Derb Assehbé, near Bab Doukkala, tel. 0524/387 010, 600Dh). Geared toward both amateurs and professionals, classes work with translators and use modern equipment. Classes begin with an explanation of the seasonal menu, typically with a Moroccan salad as well as a tajine of your choice (you can also forgo the salad and make a dessert instead). Then you’ll take a tour of the local market to pick fresh ingredients, make a quick stop at the spice market, and then get to work. After class, enjoy the fruits of your labor poolside in in this elaborate, upmarket riad.
Things to See
The restored Dar Menebhi Palace houses the Marrakech Museum (Musée de Marrakech) (Pl. Ben Youssef, tel. 0524/441 893, daily 9am-6pm, 50Dh). Though there is plenty to see on display, half of the fun of this museum is walking around the restored palace and taking in the attention to detail, the zellij tile work, enormous carved wood doors, and fine stucco work.
If you are touring the Medersa Ben Youssef and the Marrakech Museum, buy the combined visit ticket for 60 dirhams.
Medersa Ben Yousseff
The Medersa Ben Yousseff (Kaat Benahid, tel. 0632/251 164, daily 8am-5pm, 50Dh) was a functioning Quranic school built during the Almoravid period in the 12th century, and was in continual use until the 19th century. It has recently been restored. Throughout the medersa, you’ll find photos of the recent restoration as well as beautiful woodwork carved from the cedar trees of the Atlas Mountains throughout the vestibules, cupolas and main prayer room. Marble imported from Italy, combined with the local stucco work, provide most of the decoration alongside complex zellij work of various shapes, techniques and arrangements.
Following the Zaouiate Lahdar from the Dar Bellarj west, toward Place du Maoukef, will bring you to the Photography Museum (46 Rue Bin Lafnadek, tel. 0524/385 721, daily 9:30am-7pm, 40Dh). Photographers and those interested in Moroccan history will enjoy the collection of black and white photos dating from 1870 to 1950. There is a short documentary from 1957 about the Amazigh, Chez les Berbères du Haut-Atlas, by Daniel Chicault that screens every hour. This is the first time that the Amazigh were ever filmed in color and the scenes, even if you don’t understand the French narration, are breathtaking. The rooftop terrace has gorgeous views of Marrakech and the distant peaks of the High Atlas.
Further west along the same road that led from the Place de la Kisseria, past the shops selling everything from bottled water to recycled metal sculptures, and all the way to the exit of the medina near Bab Debbaugh, you’ll find the tanneries of Marrakech. The tanners of Marrakech have been working leather hides traditionally for almost a thousand years with little change to the process. Hides are first left to soak in a vat of quicklime, salt, water and cow urine to make hair and fat easier to remove. Tanners then leave the hides out to dry. Once dry, they are transferred to a vat of pigeon excrement, which makes the leather softer, before being dipped into a final vat of colored dye. The hides are left to dry in the sun once more and then cut and sold to leatherworkers who make slippers, bags, purses, belts, wallets and other products with them. With all the bodily fluids, bloody animal hides, and hot sun, it’s no wonder that they tanneries smell as rank as they do—and obvious why they are so far away from the rest of the medina. You’ll likely be given a mint leaf cluster to shove up your nose, which will make the smell more bearable. It’s an impressive sight, all the same, and a truly medieval experience.
You’ll find the Bahia Palace (5 Rue Riad Zitoun el Jdid, tel. 0524/389 511, daily 9am-4:30pm, 10Dh) just off the Rue Riad Zitoun el Jdid that leads to the Jemaa el-Fnaa. This ornate palace was given to the concubine Bahia, a favorite of the wealthy vizier Si Moussa, a former slave who rose to become the grand vizier to Moulay Hassan. Be prepared to strain your neck looking up at the beautifully maintained woodcarving, geometric painting, and stucco work covering the ceilings of the palace.
The palace is still used by the government, with the current Minister of Culture Affairs residing in a small section of it. A few scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much were filmed on the palace grounds. Get here early to avoid the crowds and enjoy a more tranquil stroll through the palace and its gardens.
Originally walled in by Moulay Ismail in the late 17th century and then “rediscovered” by the French in 1917, the Saadian Tombs (Rue de la Kasbah, daily 8am-4pm, 10Dh) are some of the most ornate tombs in all of Morocco. It is the sheer beauty—or, some might argue, audacity—of their decoration that drives so many tourists here to gape at the gaudy mesh of stucco work, zellij tiles, inlaid gold and Italian marble. The mausoleum consists of three rooms and the elaborate gravestones spill out into the courtyard and its gardens. About 60 members of the Saadi dynasty (1554-1659) are buried inside the mausoleum. The most famous room is the Room of the Twelve Columns, which houses the grave of Ahmed al-Mansur, the best known of the Saadi rulers. He ruled from 1578 to1603 and built the nearby Badi Palace. It is rumored that French authorities found the tombs while conducting an aerial survey of Marrakech, though the locals say otherwise, maintaining that they have always known of their existence.
The Badi Palace (Ksibat Nhass, tel. 0661/350 878, daily 8:30am-12:30pm and 2:30pm-4:30pm, 10Dh) is the ruined palace of the Saadian Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur. Al-Mansur began construction of the palace in 1578 to celebrate his victory over the Portuguese at the famous “Battle of the Three Kings” in the town of Ksar el-Kbeer near Tangier. The empty grounds are a bit more interesting after a tour of the Bahia Palace, where you will catch a glimpse of the history that has been preserved and then, at the Badi Palace, see that which has been left to ruin. The ramparts are excellent spots to photograph Marrakech, and the general lack of crowds will grant you a little peace and quiet after the busy medina.
The palace has a long history of being looted and sacked. In the 17th century, after the fall of the Saadian Dynasty, it was stripped of materials and marble was taken, perhaps to Moulay Ismail’s palace in Meknes. Today, the coos of pigeons and clacking bills of mating storks enliven the grounds. There are projects under way now to renovate certain areas and develop gardens.
Admission price does not include access to the small museum (10Dh) and the excellent minbar (a type of pulpit sometimes used by imams to deliver their Friday sermons) housed there. The minbar is a great example of 12th century artistry and has been faithfully restored. The museum is the best-preserved indoor area of the expansive palace grounds, and the admission fee is well worth it.
The wonderfully art deco Majorelle Gardens (Rue Yves Saint Laurent, tel. 0524/313 047, Oct.-Apr. daily 8am-5:30pm, May-Sept. daily 8am-6pm, Ramadan 9am-5pm, 50Dh for gardens, additional 25Dh for Berber Museum) is the loving creation of French painter Jacques Majorelle, who began working on the gardens in the 1920s. Majorelle cultivated this garden over 40 years, first opening it to the public in 1947. However, because of health issues, he had to abandon the gardens. They suffered without a caretaker—the gardens were nearly destroyed and, at one point, almost mowed over to make room for a hotel. Luckily, in 1980, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé purchased the gardens and set about a restoration effort.
Today, the intense cobalt blue walls (incidentally, this particularly intense shade of blue is called “Majorelle blue” after the French painter), water lilies, lotus flowers, and numerous cacti tucked beneath the shade of the towering palm trees make this a heaven for people and birds alike. Due to its popularity, however, the garden isn’t quite as relaxing as one might imagine (particularly when a bus full of tourists descend onto the property). It’s best to go early in the morning, when the crowds are away, the air is fresh, and the blackbirds, house sparrows, warblers and turtledoves who call these gardens home are at their most active.
There is a small café with a terrace inside the gardens, but it’s expensive for what it is. There is also the small Berber Museum that provides an interesting look at the neighboring culture of the High Atlas mountains, including its textiles and jewelry. The gift shop has original period photographs for sale, some of them decades old and all of them fascinating, though not cheap.
Planning Your Time
Most people spend at least three days in Marrakech. Three days is just enough time to see the sights, absorb the life of the medina, make a trip or two into the Ville Nouvelle to see the Majorelle Gardens, Palmerie (Palm Groves) and a few of the other attractions, while also leaving enough time to lounge for an afternoon or two in your luxurious medina riad. The wide variety of restaurants on offer, as well as abundant entertainment, make longer stays easily feasible.
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