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Paradise naught: the privilege of being a tourist

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Paradise naught: the privilege of being a tourist

Vacationer privilege couldn’t be clearer, but it’s one thing we vacationers usually overlook. Time to alter that.

“The kid could be very malnourished,” the previous physician mentioned matter-of-factly, inspecting a limp boy with a stethoscope for an apathetic half second. He surveyed him by means of dim gentle from a single bulb, flickering in his workplace inside a crumbling rural hospital in Bangladesh.

The affected person’s mom, swathed in a black abaya and yellow floral hijab, clutched the boy to her. A sq. of black fabric hid her face. Solely her eyes have been seen, glinting attentively as she watched the physician scratch names on a prescription pad. After a brief change of their native dialect, she stood and carried the boy out of the workplace, prescription in hand.

“What did you prescribe him, then?” I requested the physician as soon as she left. Dialog coated my awkward discomfort. Introduced there by my native host to satisfy the English-speaking physician—conversational English is uncommon in rural Bangladesh—I’d watched the scene play out from throughout his desk.

“A couple of issues.” His eyes, shielded by glasses, pointed ever so barely in two completely different instructions. “I say the boy must eat extra nutritious meals. He solely eats biscuits and sweets. However she simply needs medication, so I prescribe medication to make her comfortable.”

“Nutritious meals? Like what… fish or greens? There are various on this isla-”

“No, like extra oily meals,” he cuts me off impatiently, as if it’s the obvious factor on the planet.

Cycle rickshaw driver on Monpura island, Bangladesh

Welcome to Monpura, Bangladesh

Why are you right here?

Our change happened on Monpura, one in all many islands on the intersection of the Meghna River and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh.

One week earlier than, I had no inkling of the island’s existence. An article offhandedly mentioning Monpura’s lush pure magnificence and lack of vacationers was sufficient to attract me to its shores. As a lover of “off the overwhelmed monitor” locations, visiting Monpura was an apparent selection… however the locals I met as soon as there have been doubtful about my resolution.

“Why have you ever come to Monpura?” the physician requested me from behind his desk. As I gave a pageant-worthy spiel about pure magnificence and type individuals, he nodded slowly, leaning again.

“Sure. I suppose for you, a vacationer, it’s a very lovely place. However for the individuals of Monpura, life could be very exhausting.  There are not any services.

I need to depart, however I can not discover anybody to exchange me. Nobody needs to reside right here.”

Comprehensible. A devastating cyclone killed tens of hundreds of individuals and destroyed most of Monpura in 1970; the island remains to be recovering. Overwhelmingly poor and farmers and fishermen make up many of the island’s inhabitants. The literacy charge is around 35%.  Many reside in corrugated tin homes; even center class concrete homes I visited had grime flooring kitchens with holes within the floor for stoves.

But there I used to be, an ignorant overseas woman chirping fortunately in regards to the richness of fairly roads lined with banana bushes and pleasant locals.

Late that night time, after visiting the hospital, I lied unsleeping in mattress, staring up at mosquitoes whining and circling the netting over my mattress.

What was I doing there?

Men and boys riding a van in Monpura island, Bangladesh

For the file, Monpura is rattling lovely.

Voyeur voyage

The interplay haunted my ideas for weeks. Years later, I can nonetheless hear the physician asking his easy query.

Was I actually an harmless vacationer? Or was I some form of freakish voyeur, subconsciously feeding on the struggling of others? A dark tourist utilizing these much less lucky to stroke my journey ego and fulfill morbid curiosities?

I started to doubt my travels. My pursuits. My intentions. The life I’ve created for myself.

I started scrutinizing the whole lot I did, from the way in which I spoke to chai distributors to how I selected my subsequent locations. Vital ears dissected traveler conversations about international locations visited, paradises discovered, journeys undertaken. Questioning why was part of each course of, whether or not I used to be choosing comfort retailer ice cream or diving by means of seas of taxi hawkers.

Why am I pushed to journey as removed from dwelling as doable?

What attracts us privileged vacationers to creating international locations?

Is it fallacious for me to need to be right here?

I discovered no concrete solutions, solely extra questions.

Flower market in Kolkata, India

What’s it that pulls vacationers from developed international locations to all the time search out scenes like this flower market in Kolkata, India?

Twin views

A 12 months and a half later, I got here full-circle with a lady on the facet of a dusty street in Khorog, capital of Tajikistan’s Pamir area.

“Now you understand what it’s wish to reside in Tajikistan,” the younger girl mentioned. Lengthy auburn hair pulled right into a bun accentuated the pressure in her face as she surveyed the primary street, quiet on a Sunday morning. She wanted to go west, I wanted to go east, however we each stood ready for automobiles which may by no means come.

“I need to spend time with my mom in Bartang earlier than I have to return to my examine in Germany,” she mentioned, her voice trembling anxiously, “however I wouldn’t have a lot time. Just a few days. I must go at present.” She glanced up hopefully at a white van slowing to cease close to us. False alarm—only a passing native minibus.

Main bazaar street in Khorog, Tajikistan

Khorog’s major avenue on a busier weekday

“It is rather troublesome to reside in Tajikistan,” she continued. “There are not any schedules, not sufficient transport, not sufficient meals or work. It is rather lovely place to go to for individuals such as you, however for us it’s a very exhausting life.”

I nodded. “It’s true. We vacationers can go to and benefit from the mountains, however when issues get too troublesome or tiring for us, we are able to depart.” I used to be all too aware of the duality by then. “I perceive not everybody has that privilege.” I thought of including an apology, however it appeared condescending; I bit my tongue.

The Tajik girl sighed in defeat, searching on the sparsely populated street.

“Germany could be very completely different. From residing and learning there, I now perceive how exhausting life is right here in Tajikistan.”

Our dialog continued down this downhill path for a time, till it was interrupted by alternative: a driver on the lookout for passengers to my vacation spot.

Saying goodbye and wishing her luck, I went my method; the final I noticed of the girl was her floral black kurta, fluttering as she dashed towards a automotive which may have been heading in her course.

Shared taxi breaking down on Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

The shared taxi having a little bit of a breakdown—the primary of many—en route

Privilege within the Pamir

The shared taxi crawled alongside the dusty Pamir Freeway as I sifted by means of ideas. They transported me again to my Monpura mattress: pondering privilege as I sought journey in a distant area of the world. This time, the whine of hungry mosquitoes was changed with the drained taxi’s groan because it climbed mountain passes.

My mind conjured a picture of the Tajik woman sitting with the physician behind his desk, eyes boring into me as I gazed unseeingly at desolate excessive altitude landscapes. Why are you right here? Why did you come to this troublesome land?

My ideas flitted, reflecting on all of the “troublesome” locations I had visited and glamorized in my earlier three years of travels. All of the occasions my privilege as a overseas vacationer was painfully apparent, but unnoticed by me:

Sipping tea in Afghanistan as individuals shared tales of associates misplaced to bombings and monetary hardships from warfare, figuring out I’d fly away mere days later.

Haggling over prices of a bicycle so I might cycle round one other distant Bangladeshi island alone—one thing most native women wouldn’t be allowed to do.

Assuring villagers in Pakistan’s mountains they reside in paradise one sunny summer time afternoon, although I’d by no means lived by means of a harsh winter with restricted provides, restricted street entry, and scarce heating.

Hmm.

It’s simple to don rose-colored glasses and declare a spot paradise while you’re on vacation, unburdened by any of the realities of life there. However as I took my psychological step again and tried to take away my glasses, I discovered it disturbing that this had not actually occurred to me earlier.

Pretentious individuals spend numerous time attempting to distinguish between vacationers and vacationers. Usually I attempt to keep away from the semantic dialogue, however in that second, the controversy appeared extra absurd than ever earlier than. Traveler, vacationer, it doesn’t matter—what does matter is that each “vacationers” and “vacationers” alike have the liberty and means to maneuver just because we need to.

Foreign female traveler in Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan

Having fun with the placing Band-e Amir lakes in Afghanistan as a result of I selected to, not as a result of that’s all I can entry.

Apocalypse astounds me

Possibly it’s a stretch, however in Apocalypse 2020, I discover the dialogue extra related now than ever earlier than.

Within the span of some weeks, coronavirus utterly modified the world as we knew it. As international locations closed, and studies started to roll in in regards to the dangers of the virus and its potential risks to our societies, one other dialogue emerged: the ethics of touring in a pandemic period.

I watched as (usually) Western influencers continued travels in creating international locations, regardless of overwhelming quantities of data illustrating how irresponsible journey was on the time. Choices like this are simple when you understand if something actually unhealthy occurred to you, you could be whisked away to safer pastures and higher infrastructure, or afford in-country remedy… probably on the expense of a less-privileged native in want.

Different Western vacationers purposefully carried on with their deliberate holidays, getting aggressively defensive when others questioned their selections. They paid the cash, they made their plans—that they had a proper to their trip, regardless that they have been placing others in danger by touring and probably spreading the virus.

The entitlement was appalling. The ignorance or disregard for locals’ security, disturbing.

Lockdown has given me the house to sit down and suppose with out distractions… and eventually, greater than two years after my dialogue with the physician, I’ve discovered order for my ideas.

Vacationer privilege: the liberty to be curious

In my view, it’s not fallacious to journey to “far-flung” locations. To hunt a nuanced perspective in a rustic you solely know from information headlines. To search out magnificence in a slower tempo of life, even one burdened with hardships. To immerse your self in environments utterly overseas to you.

For (hopefully) many people vacationers, these needs stem from one thing harmless: curiosity. A need to expertise locations that problem our understanding of the way in which life works. An opportunity to broaden our perspective about our species, its myriad cultures, and the planet that hosts us.

The difficulty with this curiosity is that we frequently really feel entitled to train it. The liberty to satiate it’s taken as a right. These days, many vacationers view journey without any consideration, not a privilege.

In case you’re studying this, you’re privileged sufficient to be extremely educated and communicate English. You possibly can afford good units, information, and/or a WiFi connection. Your life is secure sufficient that you’ve time to sit down and browse some random woman’s weblog posts on-line. Even when your passport, funds, or circumstances limit your travels, chances are high you continue to have the privilege of selecting the place you reside or go to some extent.

Don’t really feel responsible about it. Foundations of privilege are out of our management, laid over centuries of discrimination and biased methods. The issue is after we don’t acknowledge its existence, or deny we profit from our personal. We are able to’t work towards equality if we’re embarrassed to confess inequality exists within the first place.

Female traveler at Lulusar Lake in Pakistan

Pondering place at Pakistan’s Lulusar Lake

Goals of paradise

I’m not attempting to wreck your bucket checklist or undermine your travels. By all means, proceed to dream of touring the Silk Street, or sequestering your self on distant islands, or discovering peace in village life. I’m proper there dreaming with you.

All I’m sayin’ is: examine yo’ self.

As (once more hopefully) aspiring accountable vacationers, all of us must look and suppose extra deeply in regards to the locations we go to. Why we need to go to? How ought to we act after we arrive? What can we do to make sure our influence is constructive?

A part of touring responsibly is recognizing that we’re privileged to have the ability to journey in any respect, and never abusing our privilege. As a substitute, we must always discover methods to make use of our privilege to empower those that are much less so. (No, giving handouts does not depend.)

Go forth and journey. Simply don’t overlook that you simply, the vacationer, have the privilege to go to a vacation spot, skim its floor, understand it as paradise… then depart when paradise will get previous or occasions get powerful. Locals usually can not.

Even in purported paradise, there’s all the time extra occurring below the floor than meets the attention. Particularly in desires.

Being a tourist is a privilege, not a right, but that's something many of us don't realize... or even think about. Click through to read about my process of coming to terms with my own tourist privilege. #ResponsibleTravel #Privilege #Tourism

Paradise naught: the privilege of being a vacationer

#Paradise #naught #privilege #vacationer

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Legit tasty vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Leuven

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Legit tasty vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Leuven

A list of actually tasty vegetarian restaurants in Leuven (and vegetarian-friendly restaurants), because nobody wants to eat vegetarian lasagna every time they go out to eat. Head to the end for a map of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Leuven.

 

When I went vegetarian in Belgium half a year ago, I didn’t expect it to be so… disappointing.

Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy being a vegetarian and don’t find it particularly difficult. That is, until I go out into the wide world of Vlaamse Brabantse restaurants. I’ve found vegetarian options in Flemish restaurants to typically include a variety of tantalizing options such as:

  1. Vegetarian pasta
  2. Vegetarian lasagna
  3. Vegetarian salad
  4. Fries

(In case English isn’t your first language: this is sarcasm.)

Meat and potatoes are staples of most Flemish food… which means vegetarians are stuck with just potatoes. Which, last time I checked, aren’t the most balanced meal.

Luckily, Leuven has more to offer than straight up Flemish foodstuffs. Though most restaurants disappoint when it comes to vegetarian food, not all is lost. Here are some of the best vegetarian restaurants and restaurants for vegetarians in Leuven, based on my personal experience.

Are you a vegan or vegetarian looking for actually tasty vegetarian restaurants in Leuven, Belgium? I got you! Here's a list of interesting and unique vegetarian-friendly restaurants in and around Leuven for people of all budgets and food preferences. Includes opening hours, cuisines, recommendations, and more.

My favorite vegetarian restaurants in Leuven for actually tasty food

Samosa chaat at Nirvana Kitchen vegetarian-friendly restaurant in Leuven, Belgium

Samosa chaat is one of my absolute favorite dishes from South Asia, but can be hard to find elsewhere—Nirvana Kitchen, y’all are my heroes.

Nirvana Kitchen (€€) – Indian

  • Opening hours: Wed-Sun 17:00 – 21:00
  • Vegetarian only: No
  • Reservations: No
  • Good for: Actual Indian food

Leuven has a variety of Indian restaurants with a common problem: all of their dishes taste the same. (No, I’m not generalizing—I freaking love Indian food, but after spending a year feeding traveling all over India most Indian restaurants overseas are disappointing AF.)

Nirvana Kitchen, a Bengali-run restaurant in the Hal 5 warehouse, isn’t afraid to make food with flavor. They serve up their own takes on standard dishes people expect from Indian restaurants—tikka masala, aloo gobi, channa masala—as well as harder-to-find items such as samosa chaat (crushed samosas with toppings), gajjar ka halwa (sweet carrot desert), and paneer jalfrezi (Bengali dish with green chilies).

Nirvana Kitchen website | Nirvana Kitchen on Facebook | 0471 88 66 32

Hal 5 warehouse on the outskirts of Leuven

The Hal 5 warehouse area on the outskirts of Leuven

Palmyra (€) – Syrian

  • Opening hours: Mon-Sat 12:00 – 14:30 | Mon-Sun 17:30 – 22:00
  • Vegetarian only: No
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Good for: A rich escape from bland Belgian food

Just because it isn’t strictly vegetarian doesn’t mean you should give it a pass! Palmyra is one of my favorite restaurants in Leuven, period.

Run by a welcoming Syrian man happy to explain anything and everything, their extensive menu of hot and cold mezze plates (small tapas-like plates that are good for sharing) is almost entirely vegetarian- and vegan-friendly. Expect rich foods like foul (beans), hummus, and a personal favorite of mine: zahra (fried cauliflower). Their main dishes mostly feature grilled meats, but you can easily fill up for a reasonable price on mezze alone.

If you’re tired of basic Belgian/vegetarian food, this is the place to go.

Palmyra on Facebook | 016 90 38 84

Lukemieke (€€) – Seasonal Belgian

  • Opening hours: Mon-Fri 12:00 – 14:00, 18:00 – 20:30
  • Vegetarian only: Yes
  • Reservations: No
  • Good for: A fresh take on seasonal produce in a cozy setting

This cramped-but-cozy café feels more like eating in someone’s living room or garden than a restaurant… and it made me eat my words about boring Flemish food. Mostly.

Every week the team of women running the restaurant design a new, seasonal menu with two options: a dagschotel, plate of the day, and an ovenschotel, a dish baked in the oven. Though they are usually not vegan-friendly, both options are always hearty and paired with other vegetables or sides made from vegetables sourced from a local farm.

Make sure to save some room—they always have several (delicious) homemade desserts on offer.

Lukemieke website | Lukemieke on Facebook | 016  22 97 05

Day plate at Lukemieke, a vegetarian restaurant in Leuven, Belgium

A dagschotel at Lukemieke

House of Lalibela (€€) – Ethiopian

  • Opening hours: Tue-Fri 19:00 – 22:00 | Sat-Sun 18:00– 23:00
  • Vegetarian only: No
  • Reservations: Recommended (Opening hours can be approximate)
  • Good for: Cozy vibes and foreign flavors from a friendly host

Be patient in this House: not only is the restaurant a one-woman show, she also cooks almost all her food fresh daily! What the owner lacks in speedy service, she makes up for with warm hospitality.

Though you can order individual dishes, if you’re eating with two or more people, it’s best to order a beyayenetu, a massive platter of mixed dishes served on an injera, a kind of spongy Ethiopian pancake. They’re a bit expensive—€40 for two people—but they’re not lacking in quantity. Prepare to be stuffed.

Meat options are available, but she also has a vegan/vegetarian version. Wash your hands first—you’ll be eating with your hands. (If that sounds stressful to you, no worries. The owner can get you a fork.)

House of Lalibela on Facebook | 016 23 38 80

Pepper burgers at Greenway Vegan restaurant in Leuven, Belgium

Greenway’s red pepper vegan burgers

Greenway (€) – Vegan burgers and wraps

  • Opening hours: Mon-Sun 11:00 – 21:00
  • Vegetarian only: Yes, vegan
  • Reservations: No
  • Good for: Vegetarian for meat lovers

This small Belgian chain dishes up burgers and wraps that will satisfy both you and your whiny friends who don’t like plant-based food.

Burgers are their main draw—fair, as they’re hearty and bursting with flavor—but they also offer a variety of salads, wraps, and bowls, too. Their staff are also friendly; I had to peel my jaw off the floor when one of the waitresses apologized for switching to English when I ordered in Dutch. (Something I never once experienced despite 3 years of garbling Dutch in the Netherlands.)

Greenway website | +32 (0)16 30 97 35

Loving Hut (€€) – Vegan fast food

  • Opening hours: Mon-Fri 12:00 – 14:30, 17:00 – 20:00 | Sat 12:00 – 20:00
  • Vegetarian only: Yes (Vegan)
  • Reservations: No
  • Good for: Vegan fast food/takeaway in Leuven’s city center

Loving Hut is one of the few vegan restaurants in Leuven. This international chain café is right in the city center near the Rector De Somerplein bus stop. Beware, it’s small and easy to miss—look for the sign board outside the door.

If you’re looking for a quick vegan bite, you can’t go wrong here. They offer several Asian-inspired dishes—think Thai-ish coconut curries, Singaporean noodles, etc.—as well as Western options like wraps and burgers, all of which might even satisfy your non-vegetarian friends. There’s also a small shop where you can buy vegan cheeses, meat substitutes, and more.

Loving Hut website | Loving Hut on Facebook | 016 84 47 02

Life Bar (€€) – Health food

  • Opening hours: Wed-Sat 9:00 – 17:00 | Sun 10:00 – 16:00
  • Vegetarian only: Yes, vegan
  • Reservations: No
  • Good for: Hipster plant-based breakfast and lunch

I admit I’m not particularly moved by healthy hipster cafes—I’m too broke for expensive Instagrammable breakfasts—but I know not everyone is as cynical as me.

If you’re in the mood for spelt pancakes, hummus toasts, buddha bowls, raw chocolates, or other hip and healthy vegan staples, Life Bar is an airy café in the city center that has everything you might be craving to get your day started.

Lifebar website | Lifebar on Facebook

ViaVia in Heverlee (€) – International

  • Opening hours: Mon-Fri 11:30 – 1:00 | Sat-Sun 15:00 – 00:00
  • Vegetarian only: No
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Good for: Wide variety of options that’s open late

Normally I’m a bit skeptical of restaurants with a really wide variety of cuisines and dishes, but ViaVia out in nearby Heverlee does a decent job of serving up dishes from all over the world. As they should, considering they’re an international chain.

The restaurant isn’t strictly vegetarian, but their menu has more than enough vegetarian tapas and main dish options. My biggest concern with the spot is that it often gets quite busy with people out for a cheap meal with their kids (look for endless tables of people eating spaghetti, of all things), which sometimes leads to slow service and a lot of noise. On the bright side, they have a backyard eating area you can escape to when the weather is nice.

If you’re looking for an affordable lunch or dinner spot with non-standard vegetarian options, ViaVia shouldn’t disappoint.

ViaVia website

Have any more recommendations for tasty vegetarian restaurants in Leuven? Leave them in the comments! I’m always happy to eat more try new things.

Legit tasty vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Leuven

#Legit #tasty #vegetarian #vegan #restaurants #Leuven

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10 iconic things to do in Iran

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A guest post from the couple behind Dusty Backpacks: 10 things to do in Iran. Once one of the greatest empires in the world, Iran is home to stunning landscapes, breathtaking culture, and some of the warmest people you will ever meet.

 

We heard so many good things about Iran during our three months of travel in Central Asia. Our fellow travelers gushed with fond memories of Iran, so our expectations were high.

Iran didn’t disappoint.

Iran is a big country with endless things to do, so we put together a short list of the 10 experiences we enjoyed the most. Without further ado, here are 10 things to do in Iran to get you started planning your own Iran adventure.

Planning travel to Iran? Here's a list of top things to do in Iran, including all kinds of iconic day trips like visiting the Kalut, seeing a rainbow mosque, Persepolis visits, and more! Click through for a list of some of the best things to do in Iran. #Iran #Travel

10 of our favorite things to do in Iran

Red beach at Hormuz island, Iran

Red beaches on Hormuz Island

1. Chill on Hormuz Island

You might have heard of Hormuz Island, but did you know it’s made of nothing but salt? Its colorful landscape gives this island its nickname: Rainbow Island.

The vibe on Hormuz Island is completely different from the rest of Iran. Life is relaxed, slow, and most tourists come to camp and party. All of Iran’s strict rules seem far away on the beautiful island.

Located in the Persian Gulf, the weather is always warm. Instead of using one of the many tuk-tuk tours, we spent two days driving around the island on a beat-up motorcycle. Highly recommended if you want to explore the island by yourself!

Our two days on the island felt like an eternity, in a good way. We saw incredible scenery: salt rocks, red beaches, caves, and even a few gazelles. We met a bunch of fellow travelers en-route, and spent evenings watching the sunset together. Both nights ended with freshly-caught fish.

If we didn’t have a ferry to Dubai to catch, we probably would’ve spent an entire week on Hormuz.

Know before you go: The ferries from Bandar Abbas are often canceled due to rough seas. Keep that in mind if you’re on a tight schedule.

Planning your first trip to Iran? Get started with Elisa and Marc’s 3-week itinerary.

Sunset over sand dunes in Maranjab Desert, Iran

Sunset over the Maranjab Desert

2. Circle the Maranjab Desert

After entering Iran from Turkmenistan, we spent our first night in Mashhad with a lovely family we met through Couchsurfing. They kept talking about how beautiful the Maranjab Desert is, and made us promise to go there if we visited Kashan.

We kept our promise! Upon arriving in Kashan, we ran into a friendly taxi driver willing to take us to the Maranjab Desert.

The Maranjab Desert is part of a standard tour most taxi drivers and hostels in Kashan offer. Most tours include the underground city of Nushabad, the stunning Mohammed Helal Shrine, a stop at a salt lake, and a grand sunset finale atop dunes in the Maranjab Desert.

We arranged everything last minute and had no idea what to expect. To our delight, it was extremely beautiful, isolated, and quiet. Not many tourists or locals, just a few curious camels making their way into the Maranjab Desert.

Know before you go: We saw prices ranging from €30-70 for a half-day trip. We ended up paying €30. Don’t accept the first offer you get; talk to different taxi drivers and hostels, then pick the one you feel most comfortable with.

Sunset over Kalut Desert, Iran

Sunset over the Kalut

3. Roast in the hottest place on earth: Kalut Desert

Who wouldn’t want to visit the hottest place on earth?

NASA once recorded a whopping 73°C in the Kalut desert, officially establishing it as the hottest place on earth.

The Kalut desert is easily visited from the desert town of Kerman. Visitors have many options: day trip, multi-day trips, or independent trips. We opted for a day trip, and were stunned by the surreal shapes of the desert sands. Make sure to watch the sunset, since desert sunsets are some of the best in the world.

Our day ended with a campfire and a cup of tea, before we turned our gaze upwards to the sky, enjoying the evening’s show of stars.

Know before you go: Tours are extremely expensive, but worth it in our opinion. If you have a car, you can reach the desert yourself. The road leading to the sand formations is paved. Note from Alex: Be careful if driving deeper into the desert; Balochistan sees periodic violence from separatists and people smuggling contraband across borders. 

Read: A guide to crossing the Iran-Pakistan border by land

View over Nagsh-e-Jahan square in Isfahan, Iran

Epic views over Nagsh-e-Jahan square from Ali Qapu Palace

4. Shop at the Nagsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan

In 1598, Shah Abbas the Great, ruler of Persia’s Safavid dynasty, made Isfahan his capital. It’s said Isfahan nesfe jahan, Isfahan is half the world. His decision marked the start of Isfahan’s golden age; Shah Abbas turned Isfahan into one of the most beautiful cities in the world at that time.

The famous Naqsh-e Jahan Square, surrounded by shops, and merchants, has long been the central hub for trading in Isfahan. Many shops sell traditional Iranian goods: carpets, bronze ware, camel bone souvenirs, and then some. If you want to buy some souvenirs, this is the place to do it.

Imam Mosque is one of the most beautiful buildings on the square. Ali Qapu Palace offers a grand view of the square from its balcony. Don’t forget to try some saffron ice cream or faloodeh while roaming the main bazaar!

Some say the game of polo was invented in Isfahan, and was played in Naqsh-e Jahan Square before Indian merchants brought the game to India. Whether or not it’s true, it makes for a good story.

Know before you go: Don’t be scared of forward salesmen. They are genuinely friendly and want to show you their products. Even if you only go for a cup of tea, they will still be kind hosts.

Read: Lost With Purpose’s guide to female travel in Iran

Alamut Valley in northern Iran

The route up to the Castle of the Assassins in Alamut

5. Climb to the Castle of Assassins in the Alamut Valley

With a name like the Castle of Assassins, we had to visit this place.

Alamut, the official name of the castle, means Eagles Nest. A logical name given its location atop a peak overlooking the valley.

The first buildings of the castle were constructed in the 9th century. Two centuries later, an Ismaili Shia missionary named Hassan-i Sabbah took control of the castle, as part of a campaign to spread Ismailism in Northern Iran.

Hassan’s followers were named Hashshashin… or, as you might recognize, assassins. The Alamut Castle was his stronghold in the region; from there, Hassan and his assassins gained control over the region.

The Castle is located in the Alamut Valley, which is a beautiful region worth exploring in itself. Make sure to give yourself a full day to explore the castle and the surrounding valley.

Know before you go: See Alex’s post on visiting the Castle of the Assassins and the Alamut Valley for more information about planning your trip.

Old city ruins in Persepolis, Iran

Old city ruins in Persepolis

6. Go down in history at Persepolis

Persepolis is Iran’s most well-known historical site, though not everyone realizes it’s in Iran!

Built around 515 BC, it was the capital of the first and largest Persian empire: the Achaemenid Empire. One of the biggest empires Eurasia has ever seen, it stretched from modern-day Greece and Egypt in the west to India in the east.

Give yourself a full day at Persepolis to really grasp its size. We don’t usually take tours, but we’re glad we took a guided tour of the complex. The local tour guide took us back in time, helping us understand the significance of Persepolis and just how powerful the Persian empire was.

Know before you go: You can use Snapp, Iran’s Uber equivalent, to get to Persepolis and back! No need to book an expensive bus tour to get there; those “tours” are often just a bus ride there and back.

Domed ceiling in Kashan bazaar, Iran

The best view in Kashan’s bazaar

7. Get lost in the Kashan bazaar

Every Iranian city has a bazaar, but some are more beautiful than others. The Kashan bazaar was by far one of our favorites; we felt like we were the only foreigners there, and locals were particularly welcoming.

Kashan’s bazaar follows one long street, eventually leading toward stunningly decorated open with tiled dome roofs. The bazaar’s ways are filled with shops selling carpets, herbs, and other necessities in between. You can easily spend a full day browsing all the little shops and streets.

Know before you go: Be open to anything, talk to everyone, and taste everything!

Read:My favorite off the beaten track places in Iran

Sunset from the bath house hamam roof in Kashan, Iran

Sunset from the roof of the Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse, also known as Qaesmi Bathhouse

8. Enjoy a sunset from above in Kashan

After arriving in Kashan in the late afternoon, we headed towards the old center. We read about the Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse rooftop, and decided to make our way there for sunset. The domed bathhouse features against Kashan’s skyline made for one of the most beautiful sunsets we saw in Iran.

Even then, the highlight of our evening were the ruins of Jalali Castle. Only the castle walls remain intact; there, you’ll find examples of “natural refrigerators”. Once used to store ice and vegetables, they used evaporating water to cool down the structure, which was also insulated to trap cool air inside.

One of the biggest refrigerators is within the walls; you can climb to it as Elisa did. Arriving just after sunset was perfect: the scenery was beautiful, and the views over Kashan were stunning.

Know before you go: If you’re traveling Iran on a budget, head to the Jalali Castle right away. Jalali has no entrance fee and sees fewer people, unlike the bathhouse.

Interior of former US embassy in Iran

Street art at the former US embassy

9. Enter a den of espionage at the former US embassy

One of the most controversial places to visit in Iran, the embassy is loaded with historical conflict and differing perspectives. It played a vital role in the Iran-US conflict that still goes on today.

Street art portraying a critical view of the USA greets visitors. The interior is still in its original state, with anti-US posters and information about each room. You can explore many rooms, see old equipment such as document burners, and see some original documents. It’s worth a visit if you like history and want to better understand the tense relationship between Iran and the US.

Know there’s a lot of anti-US sentiment in the museum. Whether or not you agree, remember this is their view of what is/was going on, and respect it. Keep an open mind.

Know before you go: We recommend watching the movie Argo before visiting. Our guide said it offers a fairly accurate depiction of what went on at the embassy.

Light rays in the Pink Mosque in Shiraz, Iran

The famous rainbow windows of the Nasir-ol-Molk mosque

10. Gaze in wonder at the Pink Mosque

Visiting the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque in Shiraz is one of the most famous things to do in Iran.

Better known as the Pink Mosque, it was built in the late 19th century. It’s not old compared to most mosques in Iran, but it’s one of the most beautiful nevertheless. Its famous stained-glass windows and bright pink interior cast technicolored rays in the early morning.

We were conflicted about visiting the Pink Mosque, as these days its extremely busy, expensive, and overrun by Instagram tourists. But ultimately, we couldn’t deny the beauty of the glass stained windows in the morning light. It’s worth the visit, despite the crowds.

Know before you go: This is one of those experiences you get up early for. Go as early as possible to avoid the crowds.

So ends our list of 10 things to do in Iran. Hopefully you’ve got a good idea of some experiences to have in Iran! Don’t forget that this is just a guide, not an end-all list: there is much more to see, do, and eat in Iran!

Traveling to Iran? Here’s everything you need to know before visiting Iran.

Traveling to Iran? Here are some epic things to do in Iran perfect for backpackers and budget travelers, including the Kashan bazaar, Isfahan's famous central square, beautiful mosques, and more. Click through for a list of top things to do in Iran. #Iran #Travel #TravelIran

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9 offbeat things to do in Leuven, Belgium

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Bored of standard recommendations for things to do in Leuven? I feel ya. After months in the area, here’s what I recommend to people visiting Leuven, Belgium.

 

The first few times I visited Leuven I was a tourist. These days, I’m its prisoner.

Just kidding. Sort of.

“Prisoner” might be a hyperbole, but the situation is real. Thanks to everyone’s least-favorite pandemic, my life of full-time travel came to a screeching halt. What began as a brief visit to my parents’ house in a small Belgian village stretched into more than half a year in the area. End date to be determined.

Being here for so long has been a shock in more ways than one. On a positive note, it gave me a chance to get to know far more about Leuven and its surroundings than I ever would’ve expected.

Once I (mostly) got over my initial self-pitying lockdown blues, I began channeling my traveler’s curiosity into exploring the area. Though Leuven and Belgium as a whole are much less off the beaten track than the destinations I usually frequent (I was supposed to be co-leading a women’s tour in Pakistan when lockdown started), there are still plenty of offbeat things to do in Leuven and its surroundings besides getting drunk at the supposed longest bar in the world.

Even better, almost all of my suggestions are free! Because ya girl hasn’t had real income in months. RIP travel blogging.

Looking for a unique list of things to do in Leuven, Belgium? This university city in Flemish-Brabant has more things to do than just the central square and library! Click through for a list of offbeat things to do in Leuven from a sort-of local.

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9 of my favorite offbeat things to do in Leuven

    1. See the city from above
    2. Hunt down a little beguinage
    3. Grab a beer at a Metafoorical brown cafe
    4. Escape to an organic abbey
    5. Enjoy homely Belgian bites
    6. Chill on medieval castle grounds
    7. Grab a gelato in the sun
    8. Head out to a floating castle
    9. Discover Belgium’s dark past

1. See the city from above at Keizersberg Abbey

View of Leuven from Keizersberg Abbey

Not a bad view, I must say!

Most visitors to Leuven head up the library tower in search of views, but did you know you there’s another place to check out Leuven’s skyline?

Keizersberg Abbey (Abdij van Keizersberg or Park van de Abdij van Keizersberg on Google Maps) sits on top of a hill overlooking the city. The abbey can only be visited by appointment, but I go there for the views, not the building itself. The hill it’s on isn’t a mountain by any means, but it’s enough to see out over all the buildings, and the view from the abbey is better than the library view in my humblest of opinions.

Old brick fortifications surround the Benidictine monastery’s park. They’ve been fenced off during my recent visits, blocking the best views… but every visit, without fail, I find a new hole or way around the fence. But you didn’t hear that from me.

(For the record, the park maintenance people don’t get too upset when they catch people on the other side of the fence.)

2. Hunt down the Kleine Begijnhof

Evening light in the Kleine Begijnhof in Leuven, Belgium

Evening blues at the Kleine Begijnhof

Errbody knows about the UNESCO-listed Groot Begijnhof (Great beguinage) in Leuven, but did you know there’s a little beguinage in the city, too?

Head through the gatehouse and the hill from Keizersberg Abbey, and eventually you’ll end up near the Kleine Begijnhof. The easily-missed lane of historic buildings that once housed women seeking independent lives sans-marriage is now occupied primarily by students of KU Leuven (the city’s major university).

It’s not as sprawling as the Groot Begijnhof, but the scenic lane pairs nicely with a walk to the hilltop abbey.

3. Grab a metaphorical—but still literal—beer at Metafoor bar

Exterior of Metafoor bar in Leuven, Belgium

Outdoor drinks at Metafoor these days because #covidlife

Leuven isn’t wanting for places to get a beer—it is in Belgium, after all—but the terraces lining the popular Grote Markt and Oude Markt squares get old fast. They’re good for the views on sunny days, but that’s about it; I still can’t really tell any of them apart.

If you want a side of character with your drink, Metafoor is a warm Belgian-style bar: brown wood, small but cozy, friendly staff. Its beer selection is as choice as should be in Belgium, and it hops with both students and older clientele in the evenings. These days, it’s my go-to recommendation for people who want a beer with atmosphere in Leuven.

Still thirsty? If Metafoor is looking full, I’m also fond of Fiere Magriet (more expensive, but also atmospheric with even more beer on offer) and Café De Libertad (cheaper, small with live music, but less traditional Belgian feels).

4. Escape the city at Abdij van Park

Park Abbey through the trees in Heverlee, Flemish Brabant, Belgum

Park Abbey is an easy escape to nature if you need to get out of Leuven for a bit

Yep, another scenic abbey on the outskirts of Leuven. Technically it’s outside the city in a town called Heverlee… but everything is so close together, you’d never know.

A series of man-made ponds surround the 12th century abbey, as do a handful of wooded walking trails. You can roam through the abbey grounds for bit of historical context—if you reserve in advance you can go on a guided tour of the abbey for €5—then go for a walk around the ponds to the sounds of rustling leaves and duck calls. From Tuesday to Saturday, a small farm shop sells local organic produce, beer, and ice cream made from local milk.

If the abbey shop is closed when you visit, never fear! There’s also a small brasserie attached to the abbey with a scenic terrace overlooking the water, if you’re in the mood for a beer or a bite to eat during your wandering.

5. Sink your teeth into Belgian cooking at the family-run Julia en Elias bistro 

Hidden away in a small courtyard away from the road, this little bistro is run by an older couple. The kitchen is small and open, and there are only a handful of tables (in another outdoor courtyard now because, y’know, COVID). The owners’ aim was to create a restaurant that feels like eating at a Belgian grandmother’s house, and I gotta say: they succeeded!

If you’re looking for an offbeat Belgian dinner option in Leuven—or want to eat somewhere with a homely touch—I recommend making a dinner reservation at Julia and Elias.

6. Chill out on medieval castle grounds

Arenberg Castle reflections in Heverlee, Belgium

Moody mornings at Arenberg Castle

The grand Arenberg Castle to the west of the city is a popular spot for students to hang out in the evenings. A small collection of wooded walking paths lead from the city center to the castle grounds, where you can sprawl in the grass in the presence of one of Leuven’s grander structures.

Unfortunately, the castle is only open to students or groups on special occasions. Trust me, though: it’s pretty enough to be worth the walk.

7. Grab a gelato in the sun at Carambola Gelato

An ice cream in the sun is good literally any day of the week… and homemade gelato from a food truck is even better. In my opinion, anyway.

During warmer months, the Carambola Gelato truck is parked in the grassy square outside of the Hal 5 factory (home to a handful of restaurants, including one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants in Leuven).

They serve variations on crowd favorites like vanilla and chocolate, but also offer more unusual flavors like passionfruit, sesame, and then some. Choose your flavor of the day, pick a spot on the steps or in the grass, and enjoy the simple things in life.

8. Strike out to see a floating castle in Horst

Sunrise at Horst Castle in Flemish Brabant, Belgium

A surreal sunrise at Kasteel van Horst

If you have a bicycle, car, or don’t mind the idea of a 25-kilometer round trip, Horst Castle in Holsbeek is one of my favorite castles in the area.

“Connected” to land by a stone bridge, the castle appears to float atop the water surrounding it. You can visit the interior of the castle between 10:00 and 17:00, though many people come just to walk on the trails in the area or fish for carp in the castle ponds.

For the most surreal views, try to coordinate your visit to see sunrise or sunset. Golden light illuminates the castle, and on calm days the floating castle reflects perfectly in its still waters.

9. See a dark side of Belgium’s history (… or enjoy nature) in Tervuren

Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium

The palace of Tervuren, now home to the Africa Museum

If you’re willing to head out further afield on a day trip, grab your bike (or bus ticket) and head to Tervuren Park to the west of Leuven.

The clumsily-named Africa Museum (older official name: Royal Museum for Central Africa) sits in an old palace at the center of the park. Though pretty, the estate has hosted some ugly racist acts, including but not limited to a human zoo of Congolese people coordinated by the genocidal King Leopold II at the 1897 World Fair.

The popularity of the human zoo led to the palace’s conversion into a museum about the Congo, but in recent years, Belgium has attempted to acknowledge its horrifying colonial past. In 2019 the museum reopened after years of remodeling, and though there are still some concerning displays throughout, it’s a clear attempt to acknowledge the atrocities Belgium committed in Central Africa.

I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the history of Belgium… but also understand if you’re not in the mood for a dark dive into colonialism. If you’d rather enjoy the pleasant nature than unpleasant reminders of human nature, Tervuren Park is still worth your while. Walking and cycling paths stretch through lush forests for kilometers; you can easily get lost in its extensive path network. It’s been my go-to for long-distance runs during lockdown, and I’m 97% sure I owe what remains of my sanity to its wooded ways.

Rays of light through the trees in Tervuren Park, Belgium

Welcome to my lockdown happy place

Have more recommendations for things to do in Leuven? Feel free to share in the comments—I’m always happy to learn about new places.

 

Looking for a unique list of things to do in Leuven, Belgium? This university city in Flemish-Brabant has more things to do than just the central square and library! Click through for a list of offbeat things to do in Leuven from a sort-of local.

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9 offbeat things to do in Leuven, Belgium

#offbeat #Leuven #Belgium

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