san francisco – my first REAL solo trip

In an effort to get my blog and readers (okay, probably just my mom) up to speed on my travel journey and to where I am now for the most part, I’m going to outline some of the trips I’ve taken over the past five years and how it’s given me enough courage and experience to quit my job and travel full time.

I’ve been to other states with family and have always been one to take day trips by myself — usually within southern California — but San Francisco was my first overnight solo trip. I’d been to the City once before as a child, but all I remember is the poorly lit hotel room and my sister and I being horribly sick the entire trip. I’d been working at my first professional job for a year and finally had enough money and vacation time to go on a ‘big’ vacation instead of blowing money on clothes, Vegas, and beach days. San Francisco seemed like the perfect choice for my first two week trip: no snow (really important for a SoCal girl who wears flip flops 300 days a year); lots of stuff to see; far enough from home but close enough incase I’m hospitalized/jailed and my parents need to pick me up; and most importantly, cute guys and good beer — obviously big decision factors for a 21-year-old on her first trip. My bestin (best friend + cousin) Melissa was meeting me a few days later to take the train up to Bend, Oregon for the holidays but I had 4 days all by myself.

I took the Greyhound bus up to SF, which was a whoooole adventure on its own. If you’re familiar with California…the bus I took starts in South Central LA, comes to Bakersfield where it picks up a few recently released inmates at the prison north of town, stops at every teeny town throughout the Valley, and then goes deep into Oakland and Emeryville. Craziest.bus ride.ever.

That trip was also my first time staying at a hostel that I found browsing newly-released Airbnb, (Yes, I usually always stay at hostels. And no, I’ve never seen the movie nor will I ever; I’m the prime candidate for a lead in the horror movie.) I stayed at the Pacific Tradewinds Hostel in the Financial District/Chinatown — you have to walk through the random first-level Hunan Chinese restaurant and up three flights of stairs to get to the front desk. It was like going to college for the first time but better. 

San Francisco is different from Southern California in so many ways and it prepared me for all of the international travel to come. Traveling solo to unfamiliar places, even small ones, puts you in situations that you wouldn’t be in if you were visiting a local or with others. I had to learn how to use the bus system right away when I realized a measly 7 square miles is a lot bigger than anticipated. I found I needed to talk and open up to complete strangers I met at the pub (which doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a lot for an introvert sometimes. Plus, how often do you walk up to random people and start a conversation when you’re with a friend?). I embraced spontaneity and unexpected adventures even more so. And I learned that I really loved solo traveling and most of the others surrounding me in the hostel we’re into it, too.

It was the first time I’ve ever really felt like I was on to something big and passionate about outside of my hobbies and career. It’s not like I was some naive small town, small minded gal; I’ve had lots of friends, including a ton of online ones all over the place that I’ve met over the years. But it was sort of a paradigm shift when it turned from hanging out with friends who had the same interests that happened to live in different places to friends with completely different interests that happened to be in the same place. Whoa.

I’ve been back many times but my first trip San Francisco will always be the adventure that sparked all the other ones going forward.

three weeks in italia – first trip abroad + going where the wind would take me

So here we are again, now on my third post of the series that I really should figure out a name for; My Solo Travel Experience sounds so uncreative and boring. You can find part one here and part two here.

San Francisco was a great first trip on my lonesome but by summer of the following year, I needed something big. (Also, I highly recommend San Francisco as a first solo travel experience. California is definitely a melting pot, but SF is even more so. Lots of different cultures all at once.) I’ve always loved Italian food, culture, language and passion, so why not Italy? I’m sure everyone can agree that pasta is absolutely delicious…but I love the simplicity of Mediterranean food. The splurging of parmigiano reggiano to make each dish flavorful, the tastes of various olive oil from old trees in different regions, the freshly the crispness of bruschetta. I’m sure I’m romanticizing food, but the country’s passion and intention pulled me in even closer. So that summer, I booked a ticket to Rome in November over the Thanksgiving holiday and immediately started planning my trip.

arno river through florence

I was never one to enjoy social studies lessons in school, but soon I found myself researching the regions of Italy and why the Coliseum is important and what the Black Plague actually was. I wanted to know everything (a common theme in my life…sorry for everyone who has to deal with all of my fun facts) before heading to this foreign land instead of missing out on key cultural locations and only realizing it afterward. After all, I had no tour guide to make sure I spotted the big building on the left or tell me that the Spanish Steps are around the corner from the Trevi fountain, let alone educate me on why they’re a big deal.

Another huge factor that fueled the fire of learning the ins and outs of Italy is that I didn’t want to look like a tourist. And not just a tourist, but a solo young gal in a foreign country. The biggest piece of advice I learned in my trip to SF the prior year is to confidently look like I knew where I was going. Accidentally walk into the Tenderloin wearing a bright green jacket near dusk in a city I’ve never been to? Definitely not accidental, I MEANT to go this way. I wanted to make sure I was confident both on the inside as I portrayed myself on the outside in cities where most people don’t speak English fluently. Besides the whole safety factor, who actually wants to look like the nerdy American tourist who doesn’t know the native language and only sticks to the main areas? Not I. Plus, all this research kept me at home to save cheddar instead of spending it on nights out at the bar. (Win, win)

courtyard in the vatican // vatican city, rome

I’ll go into more detail about planning and where I went later, but this trip to Italy turned out to be as magical as I hoped it to be despite with some minor set-backs. I wanted to see it all; a real Tour of Italy (and not that expensive dish you order at Olive Garden). I knew that late November-early December was the low season for travel so I could be as flexible as possible with my accommodations and plans. I researched, researched, and researched some more and came down to a general plan of Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice throughout three-ish weeks. And let me tell you: it was awesome.

Obviously it was full of many firsts, but it was really the first time being a vagabond and going where the wind (and my whim) would take me. I had three full weeks to do whatever the hell I wanted without feeling guilty of going too fast or too slow or staying in bed until noon. I walked for 15 hours throughout Rome with my new hostel friends; I spent a few extra days in Florence sitting under a tree in the piazzas; I climbed to the top of the duomo in Milan and spent hours nerding out at the Leonardo da Vinci museum; I was the +1 at a university party in Venice with the B&B manager. I’m in no way knocking traveling with others at all — I LOVE all of my friends and would go on a trip instantly with them — but solo travel guides you into spontaneity and allows you to be yourself when no one is watching.

I managed to hit 22 towns and cities overall, which is very fast paced but just what I needed. Plus, I got to try gelato in all the different regions. 😉 (Spoiler alert: Siena, my favorite city on the trip, has the best gelato. Second place goes to a little shop outside of the Vatican in Rome.) Italy was fun and exhilarating and lived up to all of my expectations. It was definitely full of neat surprises, but it was the kind of feeling when you finally watchthe movie based on your favorite book and it wasn’t a huge flop; everything you imagined has come to life in front of your eyes.

If I thought I was hooked on travel in San Francisco, I was totally hooked now. Being American, and even more so as a Californian, you hear about ancestry and heritage but you don’t necessarily see it. Modern day California was built a hundred or so years ago — buildings are created to look old and worn in but are built as quickly as possible to keep up with the population. People are focused on new technology and the next ‘big’ thing. Being in Europe (and Italy), you soon realize that everything there IS old and authentic. It’s like a breath of fresh air in cities that have been breathed in for thousands of years.