6 Cities I Can’t Wait to Revisit

We are so deep into 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic that being able to travel feels like something from an alternate reality. Some borders may be open, but I could never in good conscience catch a flight given the current state of the world. My Pinterest boards are growing with ideas, and my desire to explore more of this beautiful world is growing exponentially each day. For now, I have to try to satisfy my travel craving by reminiscing on past trips. I find myself trying to relive my 2019 trip to Europe by scrolling through my photos, watching old Instagram stories, and digging through my bag of souvenirs.

While I have a list a mile long of places I want to visit for the first time, there are some cities I find myself longing to return to. So, without further ado, here are the six cities I just can’t get off my mind.

1. Florence, Italy

When I close my eyes, I can still see the sun set over the city of Florence. Memories of this glorious city are etched into my mind: eating gelato by the Duomo after dark, feeling the warm sun on my skin as I navigate busy streets, my first bite of truly exceptional pasta — each of these moments are little pieces that help create this profound longing to return. But, perhaps no memory do I hold more dear than seeing the sun set from Piazzalle Michelangelo. After wandering the city, visiting the galleries and gardens, there is no better way to end the day than with a bottle of wine and a million dollar view.

2. Dubrovnik, Croatia

Oh Dubrovnik, how I look forward to the day I’ll be back among the salty air, climbing hundreds of stairs, and finding dozens of beautiful buildings tucked away in every corner. No place has ever made me feel so far away from the rest of the world. After passing through the gates to this 16th century, walled city I was immediately taken with its charm and inviting character. The warm glow of lights illuminate the old streets at night, creating a romantic, contented atmosphere. With the sunrise comes the Mediterranean heat, and that easy-going tropical feeling, aided by the salty air emanating from the Adriatic Sea.

3. Bucharest, Romania

Despite knowing very little about the city, Bucharest was on my travel bucket list for quite some time. I have no clue when this fascination with the Romanian capital started or what caused it, all I knew was that I had to go. When my plane landed, I exited with no expectations and no real plan. What greeted me was a vibrant, eclectic city. I didn’t know what I would find endearing about Bucharest, but I soon realized that list would be longer than expected. The trendy coffee shops, artsy communities, and neoclassical architecture are just a few reasons why my time in Bucharest was so enjoyable.

4. Stockholm, Sweden

Before arriving in Sweden’s largest city, I heard that there were nicer places to go in the country. I was told Stockholm is nice, but Gothenburg was really nice. Since my trip to Scandinavia was already booked and carefully organized, I couldn’t exactly squeeze another city into the itinerary. If my sources can be trusted, and based off of how thoroughly I enjoyed Stockholm, Gothenburg must be amazing. Stockholm was the perfect mix of new and old, Gamla Stan had all the charm of historic Europe, while the newer city centre had the excitement of a modern, progressive metropolis. This city oozes arts and culture. While sipping coffee in a sweet cafe, I could envision myself founding a design firm and making Stockholm my trendy home base. I can’t wait to return to explore more of the islands that make up Stockholm, and to visit their galleries and independent shops.

5. Utrecht, the Netherlands

To say I miss being in Utrecht is an understatement. I long to return to the days of cycling the streets, shopping beside the canal, and lounging in the parks. Utrecht is often described as a less-busy, smaller Amsterdam, and while both cities have winding canals and charming facades, Utrecht deserves recognition in its own right. The city is alive with friendly people, exciting nightlife and lovely markets. Utrecht feels like a real city, one that is thoroughly lived in, and willing to welcome you warmly.

6. Tallinn, Estonia

  • Tallinn church and tree in afternoon light

Tallinn was another fun surprise. I often read everything I can about a city I’m visiting, I love to be prepared. This time, however, I only did some light research before catching the ferry in Helsinki, and travelling across the Gulf of Finland. Having scrolled some photos of the old town, I expected it to be beautiful. What I didn’t expect, was the immediate ease and comfort I felt wandering the cobblestone streets. I can really envision myself spending my days walking the town, popping in to new restaurants, climbing up to see viewpoints and relaxing in public squares. As much as I loved the long days of sunshine I experienced when I visited in June, I think my next trip will have to be during the Christmas season. This city is the storybook-perfect location for Christmas markets, and I can only imagine it looks even more magical covered in snow.

A Kitschy Legacy for a Historic Fortress: The Real Story of Bran Castle

Surrounded by dramatic rolling hills and lush green forests stands a fortress, perched strategically to act as a guard over the commune of Bran. Its red-tiled roof and steep staircase create a gothic appearance, and its rich history since the 13thcentury create the fantastical idea that it may have been a place where people met their gruesome end. 

            A setting fit for a vampire? Some may believe so. But, the truth to Bran Castle is steeped more in bureaucratic property trading and strategic positioning than fantastical creatures featuring fangs and a hatred for garlic. A contrast that makes current day vampire-tourism seem even more kitschy and out of place.

            So, how did this mostly-false narrative become so ingrained in the legacy of Bran Castle? I suppose it began with the publishing of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.The 1897 gothic horror novel has spawned quite a legacy in its own right. Many tropes of vampire fiction have origins in the story of Dracula and Van Helsing that Stoker penned. 

            Before writing the book, Stoker spent years researching the folklore of Europe, including the 1885 essay Transylvania Superstitions by Emily Gerard. It is said that this essay is what Bran’s imagination was most influenced by –not the castle reaping the rewards of vampire-tourism today. For some fans of literary-tourism, stories of bloody battles and imposing castles are more interesting of an origin story than an essay. 

Nor, was Stoker much influenced by the gruesome acts of Vlad the Impaler, who is often attributed to being the inspiration for Dracula. However, nothing is truly certain about the connection between the falsified Dracula and the real-life Vlad, except for the shared name. Vlad the Impaler was also known as Vlad Dracul, a clear predecessor to the name Dracula.

            Despite this, a tendency to attribute the origins of the blood-sucking creature to the real-life ruler who had a tendency to stick his enemies’ heads on spikes, is still pervasive in tourism today.

            Given the immense success of the novel, and its continued legacy well into the 20thcentury and beyond, its roots in the stunning Transylvania landscape have been exaggerated. A very precise, and conscious adjustment of facts has made Bran Castle the popular tourist destination it is today. Although not all tourists show up in capes and fangs (the management maintains that some do!), it is an undisputed fact that the legacy of Dracula brings in a lot of foreign tourism—and therefore a lot of money to Romania’s economy. 

Princess Ileana wanted the castle to feel “light and airy”, hence the many windows.

            Located just 25km from Brasov, it has become a national monument that registered revenues of nearly 5 million euros in 2017. Over 60% of that income is estimated to have been generated from foreign tourists.

            This growing tourism industry began in the 1970s. In this decade, the communist party of Romania was developing more of a connection the West. Attributed to this closer relationship, is the nation’s renewed focus on marketing for tourism. Bran Castle’s dramatic influence, its perhaps erroneous relationship to Vlad the Impaler, and Vlad’s ties to the Bram Stoker novel, influenced the Romanian government’s decision to market Bran as the “real Dracula’s Castle.”

            That marketing move has made Dracula’s castle a quintessential stopping point on one’s tour through Transylvania. Leading to an industry of vampire-tourism, and spawning the dozens of souvenir shops that surround the castle. In these small spaces, you can find Dracula on magnets, postcards and bottle openers—you know, if you need to indulge in a drink after being exposed to the falsified spooky history of Bran Castle. 

Local vendors have turned the castle into a mini-market place.

            In 2006, the castle was awarded to the royal heir Dominic Habsburg, and converted into the nation’s first private museum. Habsburg, the grandson of Princess Ileana who grew up in the fortress after it was traded to the Kingdom of Romania in 1920, doesn’t relate the residence to anything fantastical or spooky. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he said he sees it as the light and airy residence his grandmother turned it into. 

            “Why would anyone want to focus on an invention, when it had its own rich history?” Habsburg asks. 

            The answer to that question is quite evident in the legacy Bran Castle can’t seem to shake. An industry of “vampire hunters in Romania, and tourists dazzled by the fantastical history will continue to arrive by the busload. 

Located between Transylvania and Wallachia, the castle has a strategic vantage point.

            The old idiom “truth is stranger than fiction”, may not apply to this particular legacy. Though the history of the grounds is indeed fascinating and complex, there’s something about the possibility of the impossible that is captivating. Stirring one’s imagination with stories of blood-thirsty vampires, and the possibility it has truthful foundations in the story of Vlad the Impaler, will undoubtedly continue to draw crowds. 

            Fans of Stoker’s Dracula will still see Transylvania first as the setting for a novel that has captivated readers for centuries. Although historians agree there is no evidence Stoker had ever even heard of Bran Castle, the same academic community has to contest that there was no way to know that he definitely didn’t know of the castle. And so, in that small possibility lies the imaginations of the visitors that tour the grounds. 

Perhaps they hope that they’ll see a bat dart away from the crowds, or that they’ll stumble upon a coffin precariously left ajar—spoiler: there’s no coffins in Bran Castle, just collections of furniture collected by Queen Marie. 

Regardless of what the tourists hope to get out of their visit to the castle, many locals applaud the sensationalized account of the castle, for its ability to give Romania more exposure, and to shed light on the legend of Vlad the Impaler.