Alternative London – Street Art Tour and Graffiti Workshop

Both my daughter and I have been to London before.  We’ve seen Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral, have visited the Tate Modern, and have walked the Portobello Road market.  We had a number of nights in London this trip, just her and I, and were looking for something different – something we could do together, and couldn’t do at home.

We were happy to find out about Alternative London and get off the beaten track into one of my favorite neighborhoods,  Shoreditch.  We decided on this particular tour and workshop because we liked the idea of doing and not just seeing.  We wanted to be exposed to something cultural, but also to create something.  Extra points went to the fact that it was one of the most affordable things we did on our trip (£25 per person for a 4/5 hour tour and workshop).

Organized by Alternative London, a local artist’s cooperative who do a variety of artistic tours and workshops – art walks on the streets and in local galleries, as well as bike tours and food/pub crawls.  We booked on-line through their website for an 11am Saturday tour with a meeting point by the Old Street tube station on the Northern Line – easy to get to from anywhere in London (took us about 20 minutes from Soho).

Our guide, Rae, an artist/skater who is clearly passionate and deeply involved in the local art scene, told us all about the history of graffiti and street art, and the differences between the two, in an intelligent, animated, and entertaining way.  She touched on the political and the economic messages without any hint of preachiness.  She was thought provoking and light hearted at these same time.  She was great with her subject, but also great at connecting to all of us on the walk, something that not all guides do well.

After the walk, we took a short break to get something eat, and then after a brief lesson on stencil making, retired to their double decker art bus to get started making our own.

She then gave us a demo of different techniques for spray painting and we took turns on a few boards outside before working on own stencils.

Those of us who wanted, had the option of buying a canvas bag or t-shirt for a few extra pounds, to paint our stencil on.

London  has a lot to offer and the choice of museums alone can be overwhelming.  If you want to do something that supports the local art scene, gives you a street-eye view of what’s going on, and makes you really feel the pulse of the East Side, this is a great, affordable thing to do.

Plus, you get to take home your own handmade, one-of-a-kind souvenir.

Alternative London
The Alternative London Bus
1-3 Rivington St

Ottoman Mosque Architecture

by Steven Brenner

Were I to choose my religion based solely on the places of worship, there’s no doubt it would be Islam.

Coming from Rome, with over 400 churches, it’s amazing to see the contrast in Istanbul -  the largest city in the middle east, with the greatest number of active mosques (almost 3,000).

When we think of typical mosque architecture, with the dome and minarets, we’re really thinking of Ottoman mosque architecture, developed in the 14th and 15th century.

Normally when I travel, I don’t do much sightseeing unless I can do it with a knowledgeable guide who can help me understand and appreciate it properly.  I prefer taking one guided tour on a specific subject that’s really in depth rather than spending a week on my own roaming around sites that I don’t fully connect with.  So in Istanbul, to better understand the history of the mosques (which in turn reveals a great deal about the relationship between people and their religion) I went on 3 hour walk by Context Travel (which lasted 5 hours!), focusing on just 2 of the most important mosques designed by Sinan, the great Ottoman architect. We visited Sehzade Camii, dedicated to Suleyman’s son, Prince Mehmet and the complex of Sultan Suleyman “the Magnificent”.

After taking off our shoes, careful to not touch any sacred ground, we would sit and discuss the various elements of each building, using photocopied images from our guide to help put things in context.

The Catholic churches of Italy that I’m so used to – those overwhelming, overly ornate places with so much iconography -  don’t always succeed in making me feel closer to God.  In Sehzade Camii, my first impression is how nice it is to not have every inch of space covered with images and stories.  Instead, there’s beautiful Arabic script flowing along the walls and ceiling.

My second impression is how much what seems to be decoration is really so much more.  The Islamic scholars were very advanced mathematically.  This geometry is symbolic of the universe – a  place of elegance, of sense, of structure, and this sacred mathematics seemingly brings us closer to God.

Visiting the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are of course on everyone’s list of sites to see in Istanbul.  I highly recommend visiting Sehzade Camii and Suleyman’s, especially with a knowledgeable guide.

Here’s a little video interview I did of our guide and expert, Yavuz Sezer.



Barcelona – City of Chocolate

by Amy Knauff

This is probably going to sound crazy (or obnoxious), but I’m currently living in a Central American country with a tropical climate and… I miss autumn! I can just picture readers out there glaring mental daggers at me, or getting ready to submit this post to Don’t get me wrong, having beach weather almost year-round is pretty awesome. But autumn has been my favorite season my whole life, so when I see friends posting pictures on Facebook of gorgeous red-gold-orange-yellow trees, sidewalks filled with satisfyingly crunchy leaves, and trips with their kids to pumpkin patches or apple orchards, I can’t help getting a little nostalgic for my old East Coast autumns.

And the food! Don’t get me started on the food I’m missing… those hearty comfort foods that can only be truly enjoyed and appreciated when it’s chilly outside. The ham stews and pumpkin pies of my childhood. And from my years living in Italy, roasted chestnuts, pasta with funghi porcini, truffles. And one of my favorite cool-weather, warm-you-up treats? Hot chocolate!

Actually, I find chocolate in general much more satisfying when in cool weather. As I sit here in the tropics sweating and being bitten by mosquitos, I don’t really crave melty, messy, super-sweet chocolate (try a refreshing fresh-squeezed lemonade instead). But oh, when it’s gray and bitter outside, nothing gets those endorphins moving like a gorgeous dark chocolate truffle.

My European friends tell me that the cool weather has finally hit there. It’s nearly November, summer is well and done by now, and it’s time to really embrace the fall and everything that comes with it. If you’re visiting Barcelona around this time, I cannot emphasize enough that you should not miss all the delicious chocolatey treats you’ll find around the city.

I always knew that chocolate con churros was famous in Barcelona — and on my first visit I made sure to try the thick, gooey hot chocolate accompanied by fried churros sprinkled in sugar. It was the perfect rainy December afternoon merinda. (It’s also a favorite post-discoteca snack in the wee hours of the morning among young Spaniards, much like a trip to a 24-hour diner in the US, or a cappuccino and freshly baked cornetto in Italy.)

But it wasn’t until I took Context Travel’s “City of Chocolate” tour last time I was there (oh god! a whole tour about CHOCOLATE!) that I realized the importance of chocolate to Barcelona. When thinking about chocolate in Europe, Switzerland or Belgium probably pops into your mind: but it turns out that Spain was actually the first place that chocolate arrived in the Old World, when Columbus brought back unprocessed cacao beans with him into the port of Barcelona. In fact, after taking the chocolate tour, I suddenly started seeing chocolate shops and granjas (cafés that specialize in chocolate and sweets) all over the place when I hadn’t even noticed them before.

The “City of Chocolate” tour is led by Esther, a native Catalana with perfect English, who met us near the port and led us around the city for about 3 hours, ending in the Eixample neighborhood just north of the Old City. Context keeps their tours small (my group only had 5 people), which means you can get to know each other and the guide during the tour, easily ask questions, and the guide can personalize the tour a bit based on what the group seems to be interested in.

During the 3 hours Esther mixed a good amount of chocolate history and culture in Barcelona with interesting tidbits about the city, commenting on things as we walked, both chocolate-related and non-. I learned odds and ends that I wouldn’t have from a guidebook, like:

-the Columbus statue in the port is meant to be pointing to the New World, but it’s actually pointing in the wrong direction

-the bronze plaques you see on the ground in front of some stores signify that it’s an historic food shop

-thick, bitter hot chocolate drinks were used to keep sailors energetic, full, and warm during long trips (without weighing the ships down with too much food)

-the street performers on Las Ramblas actually have to audition and get permits to perform there

But of course the most fun part of the tour is the tasting. Esther brought us to Granja Dulcinea, one of the oldest granjas in the city, where we sat down and tried hot chocolate with melindros (a ladyfinger-like cookie) as well as a bottled cold chocolate drink called Cacaolat (which kind of looks like a Yoo-Hoo… remember those?).

We stopped in three chocolate shops later on in the tour — first at one of the oldest ones of the city (with one of those historic plaques in front), Fargas, where we saw a piece of old-fashioned chocolate-processing machinery and lots of different kinds of classic chocolate bonbons. Esther picked out several different flavors for each of us to taste-test as we walked along to our next tour stop. The second tasting stop was at a sweets store/café on Las Ramblas, filled with interesting, trendier chocolate designs and combinations, where we tried chocolate-covered mint leaves and bright red chocolate lips. Our final stop at the end of the tour was a modern, elegant shop filled with gorgeous, perfectly arranged chocolate bonbons of all different types, both classic flavors and unusual ones (ginger, Caribbean lime, strawberry-champagne, etc). Everybody on my tour was so chocolated-out by then that we all opted to take our chocolates away to have later, once we’d come down from the sugar high.

The “City of Chocolate” tour is a must-do for chocolate lovers like me. (By the way, there’s also a chocolate museum in Barcelona — not included on the tour — that looks like it’d be worth a visit: If you’re not a chocolate fanatic, Context Travel offers plenty of other tours you can choose from — on food, art, architecture, history, and even tours geared towards kids — in Barcelona and in 15 other European cities, 4 US cities, and 2 Asian cities. Visit their website for details.

Sketching Rome with Kelly Medford

by Steven Brenner

I don’t draw.  Or paint.  The only people who have ever seen my attempts at art are my kids when we draw together and although they think I’m pretty awesome, it’s still not something I’d want to pass around or have on display.  But I wanted to try Kelly Medford’s Sketch Rome Tour because she said it was open to all, and I thought it sounded a like a good, unique idea.

We met at the Pincio at the Villa Borghese overlooking Piazza del Popolo.  We were two people on the tour so she had a lot of time for us.  First, she gives you a sketch kit that you get to keep.  It includes a sketch book that she hand-makes with a variety of papers – not too big as to be intimidating, and with paper that’s designed for different mediums.  There is a pencil with sharpener, a pen, and a watercolor kit with a brush that contains its own water tube.

Kelly goes over a few techniques, which we then experiment with – line drawing, shading, drawing just the mass without lines.  We moved through the park, choosing statues and trees and benches as our subjects, progressing from pencil to ink to watercolors (with a stop for coffee along the way).

When you’re clearly stuck, Kelly can show you what you’re doing wrong.  For example, I tried to do some clouds and they looked horrible.  Kelly showed me how clouds actually fit into the perspective and how to reproduce them – easy to do once she points out why things look the way they do.  These little hints help bring you closer to putting what you see on paper, but they aren’t so technically oriented that you lose your intuition and your freedom to draw however you want.

My tour-mate’s awesome watercolor.

And that’s part of Kelly’s point – not to make you a good artist or a better artist (although that’s part of it) but more to share this activity that she really loves with people who might have never considered it.  Since I had my camera with me I shot a little interview where Kelly gives you the scoop herself:

Tours are 3 hours and well worth it for the sketch kit alone.  Kelly can be found on the web at:

Kelly Medford’s Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Instagram


Lisbon tour guides you love to hate

by Steven Brenner

I was working through my list of stuff to see and do – the neighborhoods I wanted to visit, the Moorish castle in Sintra, Belém, a few beaches along the Cascais train line… – but I wanted to know what I might be missing.  So I googled something to the effect of “different things to do in Lisbon” and the first thing that popped up was We Hate Tourism Tours (WHTT).

I’m a sucker for their punk rock attitude and surf style designs, but I also could tell they were on to something different and unique.

I wanted to know about things that were overlooked in Lisbon.  I wanted to know the unusual stuff that could easily slip under a tourist’s radar.  It was clear that’s what these guys were about – they’re more than guides, they make the magic that happens when you visit friends who know and love their city.

For 25 to 45 euro, depending on the tour, they’ll take you around Lisbon, or to Sintra and Cascais or into the Bairro Alto for dinner.  They also have a “pirates” tour and are in the midst of creating a “crooks of Lisbon” tour as well.

Are they just for the young and hip?  Well, reading their many positive reviews on Tripadvisor, I get the impression that their clients represent a pretty wide mix of ages and backgrounds.  Clearly these guys aren’t set out to only capture the ex-skater dads like myself – they offer something way beyond the scripted history lesson or flag carrying guide with a microphone.  They want you to truly know the city and to help you understand the Portuguese mentality and culture, why things are the way they are, combining history and facts with a hand’s on experience of Lisbon life.  They want you to be a temporary local.

The founder, Bruno, told me this story that puts who they are and what they do into perspective:

It’s the early days of the company and Bruno has decided that when he schedules a tour, it’s going to go even if there’s only one person.  So he pulls up to the meeting point in his black, open top vintage jeep and meets his client – a single, American guy, who jumps in and asks Bruno if he’s the only person on the tour.  Bruno says, “yeah” and the American guy responds, “well, you’re not going to make much money today!”

“Thats ok – maybe I’ll make a friend instead!” Bruno says.

I met three of their guides – Jose, who was doing his first day in training as a driver, and who manages this apartment just above the old Bairro Alto quarter that’s famous for its nightlife.  I met Marcos, a smiling surfer guy who is clearly into what he does and never tires of infecting people with his love of Lisbon, and Bruno, the founder (and now friend).  They’re about 7 people strong and run a few tours a day, rain or shine, despite how many people sign up.  However, I think the days of having just 1 person on a tour are long gone!

For great local info from the WHTT crew, follow these links:

Only with Locals map of Lisbon

Lisboa Lovers (photo blog)

Lisbon google map for travelers and “temporary locals”

Check them out, or as they say on their site, “stay home and cry!”