Urban Camping: Pitch A Tent In Central Park

urban camping in Manhattan
Flickr, Sarah Ackerman

High Manhattan hotel prices ruining your summer travel plans? If you’d like to try urban camping — sleeping under the skyscrapers of New York City — you can try your luck for a spot at one of the city’s summer Family Camping sessions. The Urban Park Rangers lead programs in more than a dozen city parks in all five boroughs, including Manhattan’s Central Park (August 24) and Prospect Park (September 21) in Brooklyn. The campouts are all free, starting with an early evening hike, cookout with food provided (don’t expect anything fancy, but you might be surprised with s’mores) and even a tent — you need only bring sleeping bags. The catch? There’s a lot of competition to join, with only 30 tents available for each night. Each event is open to online registration for 24 hours, with the “winners” chosen by lottery and notified about two weeks in advance. Find all the details and get lucky here.

Where else can you pitch a tent without leaving the city? Here are a few other urban areas with camping options.Austin: Emma Long Park offers campsites for $10-25 per night, depending on utilities, in addition to the $5-10 park entrance fee charged to all visitors. Set beside Lake Austin, the Texas city park is less than a half-hour from downtown. Check out the our adventure guide to Austin for more ideas.

Berlin: An innovative use of “fallow” urban space, the Tentstation project is unfortunately not open this season, but you’ll find other options in and around Berlin to pitch a tent or park an RV, even with a group. In typical German efficiency, some are within a few minutes’ walk to public transportation.

Honolulu: The Hawaiian capital has over a dozen campsites, many on the beach with fishing and surfing opportunities and views to rival expensive Waikiki resorts. Camping permits are issued for 3 or 5 days, and cost $32 and $52, respectively. Interesting note: several of the campsites warn that “houseless encounters are likely,” so look out for beach bums.

Japan: One of the most notoriously pricey countries also has a strong tradition of urban camping. While not officially sanctioned, it’s tolerated and generally quite safe in public parks. It might be hard to actually pitch a tent in downtown Tokyo, but you’ll find many guides online to finding a place to sleep al fresco.

Would you want to camp in a city? Have you done any urban camping?

Photo Of The Day: Manhattan Skyline

Photo of the Day - Manhattan skyline
Flickr, James Adamson

Tomorrow evening in New York City, you can witness a twice-a-year phenomenon known as Manhattanhenge, when the sunset perfectly aligns with the city’s grid and makes the streets glow. Manhattan already has one of the most photogenic skylines in the world, as demonstrated by this postcard-perfect shot by Flickr user James Adamson. His shot of the Empire State Building (still lit in holiday colors) in early January, when the winter evening light shows a different kind of beauty than the summer sunset, a little colder but just as magical.

Share your city shots in the Gadling Flickr pool for a future Photo of the Day. If you’d like to check out this year’s Manhattanhenge, see here for tips.

48 Hours In Lisbon: In Search Of Coffee, Tiles And Sun


All truth be told, Lisbon was never a city I had given any thought to. In fact, I couldn’t even come up with anything linked to it. Give me a list of other European cities and there was at least one or two things that came to mind.

Stockholm: Old Town and the archipelago.

Paris: croissants, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

London: pubs, fish and chips and Big Ben.

Venice: canals, gelato and carnival.

But Lisbon? My inability to come up with anything symbolic of the Portuguese capital was embarrassing.

Come to think of it, it wasn’t just embarrassing; it was a little odd. For centuries, Portugal was a powerhouse, conquering remote parts of the world from Brazil to Timor (even today, seven of Portugal’s former colonies still have Portuguese as their official language), bringing back exotic luxuries that would later become European staples – chocolate and coffee come to mind. And yet here I was unable to come up with a connection to Portugal whatsoever. It was obviously time to improve my cultural understanding.

Enter the 48-hour trip – like a quick dip into the sea, the kind of thing that sort of gets you acquainted, but really just leaves you wanting more.Although it’s the capital of Portugal, it only has around 550,000 habitants. This makes it the kind of city that feels like a city, but still small enough, with plenty of animated neighborhoods, that it’s manageable enough to explore.

Sitting on Portugal’s west coast, Lisbon is Europe’s westernmost capital city, and with the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the Tagus River, water is a central part of the city’s history and identity. The smell of saltwater and a cool ocean breeze is never far.

“Ah, the San Francisco of Europe,” said a friend when I told her I was going. She was right, the mix of bridges (one looks almost exactly like the Golden Gate), colorful buildings, streetcars, an artsy vibe and proximity to the ocean makes the two cities feel very similar.

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Lisbon has an organic feel. It certainly isn’t rural, but it’s one of those amazing places that manages to seamlessly combine the natural world with the urban one. Maybe it’s the lack of overly tall buildings in the center of town, or the fact that it has a more Mediterranean climate than other cities, but this is a place where there are trees and foliage everywhere. Restaurants have gardens with trees growing in the middle, and if you leave your window open, you’ll be woken up by birds chirping.

We were staying near Bairro Alto, a neighborhood known for its nightlife. Right on the outskirts we were close enough to be within walking distance of the city center, but far enough that it felt like we were living like locals – for 48 hours at least.

That’s the key when traveling: immersing yourself, even for just a hot minute.

That meant ordering a morning cafe and pastel del nata at the corner kiosk in the park one block away, picnicking at the waterfront and not taking the yellow streetcar (although you can be sure I snapped a picture of myself in front of it).

Forget public transportation cards and days inside of museums. With only 48 hours, sunny Lisbon was beckoning me to explore it on foot for as long as my body put up with.

We kicked things off the first evening with the season’s first OutJazz concert – a summer-long series that features outdoor concerts in Lisbon’s public parks and gardens. When you’ve lived in Portland for over five years, you think you know what hipsters look like. But then again, you’ve never hung with the European hipster crowd. Twenty-somethings and 30-somethings scattered all over the park on blankets, drinking wine out of bottles and smoking the obligatory cigarette. The combination of outdoor music, percentage of Ray-Ban wearers and skinny jeans were proof that we were in a city that likes to be hip, and a budget-friendly evening picnic with free bands was a place that we could certainly fit in. It was the beginning of the summer season. There was a noticeable buzz in the air.

That’s what I found in Lisbon: a city that feels very much alive and vibrant. A city that despite its old roots is moving. It’s a hub of Portuguese design. A city that mixes together old and new – classic yet cutting edge all at the same time.

Walking down narrow alleyways, plenty of laundry hanging out to dry in the warm air, it’s hard to not notice the colors that make Lisbon unique. Almost every building, new and old, is covered in bright tiles. The older and non-restored ones are dingier, yet still colorful, the glory of their bygone days showing through. There are so many patterns and colors you can almost believe that you could traverse the city without finding two of the same kind. They are buildings with stories to tell, something I was reminded of while at a flea market in Belem, just outside of Lisbon. There a man sold tiles, chipped and clean ones alike, with a sign atop the table stating, “before you buy a tile, know its history.” Noted.

Beyond exploring the city streets I was on a mission for good coffee. Coming from Paris where the coffee is less than desirable, and the price always way more than any decent human being wants to pay, it doesn’t take much to impress me. Our Airbnb host Joana insisted on us stopping by A Carioca to pick up some infused beans. Open since 1924, you get the feeling that not much has changed since its first days, old French presses and grinders covering the walls, and the smell of coffee so strong that if you’re a coffee addict, you’re in love within one step of entering. We grab a 100-gram of hazelnut coffee for good measure.


The other “must” was a pastel de nata, the typical Portuguese pastry made with custard. “You can get the classic ones in Belem, but I think the place down the street is better,” said Joana as she handed over one of the specialties as a welcome present on our first night. It was still warm from the oven.

She was right. Check out any Lisbon list and it will tell you to stop off at Pasteis de Belem a little further out of town to get the really classic ones, but if you don’t go snag a half dozen of the ones at Nata, right at the edge of Bairro Alto and near the center of town, you’ll be missing out. They’re 1€ a pop, there’s certainly no point in restraining yourself.

We wrapped up the weekend with a trip to Belém – certainly worth a visit given its historical importance. Here is where you’ll find the UNESCO World Heritage site Torre de Belém as well as the Jerónimos Monastery. Go on a Sunday and you’ll score the flea market, full of tourists and locals alike.

When it was time to head back, there was a quick dash to the clean and efficient metro (after coffee at the corner kiosk of course) and soon enough we were on a plane out of Lisbon. That’s how 48-hour trips go after all; they offer mere doses of cities that get you immediately planning your next trip back. As we pulled away from the city I couldn’t help but think about how it’s the places that you don’t know anything about that are often the best to discover.

Here’s to the beauty of the unknown, and always wanting to learn more.

A few budget friendly Lisbon recommendations for when you go:

Terra – In need of vegetarian food? Terra does an incredible vegetarian buffet (they also have a menu of good organic teas and wines) and serves it up in their beautiful garden space behind the restaurant. The lunch menu at 12.50€ is an excellent deal for stocking up midday and eating a lighter meal in the evening.

Lost N – Inspired by India, List In is both a store and a restaurant/bar. Head to the terrace in the early evening for a comfortable spot to grab a drink.

Torre de Belem – at only 5€ to get into the UNESCO World Heritage Site, you get to explore a beautiful monument, and if you make it all the way up to the top, a fantastic view of the city. It’s definitely worth your while.

International Adventure Guide 2013: Singapore

Contrary to popular belief, Singapore offers more than just skyscrapers and street food. In the last few years, the Asian city-state has transformed itself into a premiere destination for adventure and nature lovers. Singapore doesn’t just have gardens; it is a city within a garden. Plus, its tropical climate makes it the perfect place to indulge in outdoor pursuits year round.

What does this mean for adventure travelers? The unique opportunity to indulge in world-class adventures from the comfort of one of the world’s most well ordered cities. Care to go under the sea? Reef diving is available just 30 minutes off the coast. Looking to be airborne? Try zip-lining on Sentosa Island.

For Singaporeans, active pursuits aren’t just a luxury; they are seen as crucial for a higher quality of life. As a result, the city has invested heavily in outdoor attractions in recent years. Last year saw the opening of Gardens By The Bay, a horticultural theme park with futuristic “supertrees” and conservatories. And this year, the team behind the popular Singapore Zoo and Night Safari will unveil River Safari, Asia’s first river-themed wildlife park featuring recreated habitats from the Yangtze to the Congo to the Mighty Mississippi. Also in 2013, Singapore will host the World Street Food Congress, with celebrity chefs and foodies from around the globe – an adventure of a different variety, but an adventure nonetheless.

Adventure Activities

Hiking: Westerners tend to view Singapore as more of a concrete jungle than an actual one. But the truth is, Singapore contains miles upon miles of lush greenery, some of which is primary old-growth rainforest. One of the largest patches is in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, a .6-square-mile national park that contains 40 percent of Singapore’s flora and fauna. Trails range from easy to moderately difficult, and most can be completed in less than two hours. Or, get a bird’s-eye view of the rainforest from the TreeTop Walk, a 820-foot freestanding suspension bridge connecting the two highest points in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Hiking there and back is a moderate to difficult 3.7-mile trek that can be completed in two to three hours. For a less intense hiking experience, try the Rainforest Walking Trail at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which features 314 species of flora and fauna, 80% of which are rare or endangered. The 0.37-mile walk can easily be completed in 30 to 40 minutes. Admission to all parks is free.

Water Sports: It’s easy to forget that Singapore is an island, with miles of beaches and dozens of water sports up for grabs. The People’s Association Water-Venture is a good place to start, with reasonably priced courses and rentals in water sports like sailing, kayaking, power boating, sea rafting, windsurfing and dragon boating. There are nine outlets throughout the island. For diving enthusiasts, Pulau Hantu boasts bright corals and colorful wildlife, despite being just a 30-minute boat ride from the coast. The Dive Company offers one-day dive trips to Pulau Hantu starting at S$95 (US$76). Or, try something completely different at SKI360, Singapore’s first cable-ski park. This relatively new water sport uses a cable system to pull water skiers and wakeboarders around a man-made lagoon. Ski passes from S$32 (US$25).

Adrenaline Activities: Singapore has no shortage of ways to get your heart racing and adrenaline pumping. Thrill seekers flock to the Gmax Reverse Bungy, an attraction on Clarke Quay that propels riders into the sky at speeds of up to 200 km/hr (124 mph). If that’s too tame for you, try the recently opened GX-5 Xtreme Swing, which catapults riders 100 meters across the Singapore River. Each ride costs S$49 (US$39), or you can do both for S$60 (US$48). If you prefer diving downward, try iFly Singapore, a large indoor wind tunnel that simulates the skydiving experience. First-timers can give it a try from S$69 (US$55) for two dives. There’s also the MegaZip Adventure Park, with an aerial rope course, free-fall simulator and some of the most extreme zip lines in Asia. Admission from S$35 (US$28) per person.

Hotspots

Sentosa Island: This hedonistic resort is a veritable playground for adventure travelers. Whether your poison is extreme segwayingzorbing” or more traditional pursuits like swimming and lying on the beach, you’ll find it on Sentosa. Visitors can get to the island by foot over the recently opened Sentosa Boardwalk, by cable car or by public transportation. http://www.sentosa.com.sg/en

Gardens By The Bay: Opened last year, this expansive attraction is more a theme park for plant lovers than a simple botanical garden. Indeed, the more futuristic elements of Gardens By The Bay warrant comparisons to the movie “Avatar”: towering 16-story “supertrees,” gravity-defying suspended walkways, a Flower Dome conservatory simulating the Mediterranean and a Cloud Forest conservatory with a 35-meter “mountain” covered in rare vegetation. The outside gardens are open to the public, while entrance to the two conservatories will cost foreign visitors S$28 (US$22). http://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg

Pulau Ubin: Singapore’s man-made adventure attractions are certainly impressive, but sometimes they can feel a bit too … “Singapore.” In less-developed Pulau Ubin island, a quick 15-minute bumboat ride from Changi Point Ferry Terminal, the pace is slower and the vegetation more unruly. Once there, you can hike the island’s extensive system of nature trails, rent mountain bikes or just sit on the beach and take a breather from the frenetic energy of the mainland. There’s just enough activity to make for the perfect low-key day trip. http://www.pulauubin.com.sg

Hotels

Wanderlust: The Wanderlust hotel in Little India is intended for the “madcap voyager.” Designed by Singapore’s top design agencies, Wanderlust’s 29 themed rooms are bright, clean and funky. Adventurers will love sleeping under the faux branches of the whimsical “Tree” suite; as a writer, I’m personally obsessed with the industrial-themed “Typewriter” suite. From S$161 (US$129). http://wanderlusthotel.com 2 Dickson Road, Little India

Siloso Beach Resort: One of the more budget-friendly options on Sentosa Island, Siloso Beach Resort is a beachfront eco-resort surrounded by vegetation, wildlife and the longest spring water landscape pool in Singapore. Splurge on the Glass Loft “Tree House,” with floor-to-ceiling windows that make you feel like you’re in the middle of the jungle – despite the fact that you’re minutes from the madness of Sentosa. From S$180 (US$144). http://www.silosobeachresort.com 51 Imbiah Walk, Sentosa

Celestial Ubin Beach Resort: The only hotel on Pulau Ubin, the newly reopened Celestial Ubin Beach Resort is euphemistically described as “rustic.” In reality, standard rooms are small, dingy and not quite worth the price tag. The real treasures are the villas, which are situated right on the almost-private beach and can sleep up to five people. Standards from S$168 (US$134); villas from S$299 (US$240). http://ubinbeach.celestialresort.com 8V Pulau Ubin

Logistics

Seasonality: Peak tourist season is from December to June, and budget travelers can find less crowds and lower prices in the off-peak months of July and August. Temperatures are pretty consistent throughout the year, with a daily average of 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Expect cooler temperatures during the Northeast Monsoon season from November to mid-March, with the heaviest rains falling between November and January.

Safety: Singapore is one of the safest cities in Asia, thanks to strict punishment for minor offenses like chewing gum, jaywalking, forgetting to flush a public toilet, walking around your own house naked and even connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot. While some of the laws may seem pretty absurd by Western standards, their result is a country that is incredibly safe and orderly.

Get Around: Singapore’s Changi International Airport is one of the best in the region, if not the world. Transportation options to downtown are plentiful, with a range of public transport, shuttle and taxi services. The best way to get around Singapore is by its extensive public transportation system. Choose between the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), which connects the busiest parts of the island, and the bus system, which covers everywhere else. The fare depends on the distance traveled; be sure to pick up an EZ-Link tap-and-go stored value pass, which works on all forms of public transport. Singapore Public Transport also offers a handy PDF guide for tourists. Metered taxis are a relatively affordable option too; fares start at S$3 (US$2.40) with S$0.22 (US$0.18) charged for every 400 meters thereafter.

[Flickr Photo via digitalpimp]

A Personal Lament To The Death Of Guidebooks

Death of guidebooks - Frommer's bookshelfIt was with a heavy heart that I read the news last week that Frommer’s guidebooks will cease to be printed. The guidebooks were purchased by Google last summer, and as of this year, the entire future list of titles will not be released. With the takeover of digital apps, social media, and user-generated content, we knew this was coming, but it still feels like the end of an era. It’s become fashionable for any traveler (especially for writers, including our own bloggers) to be dismissive of the printed guidebook, claiming they get all their tips “from locals on the road” or via social networks, possibly demurring to an occasional read of Lonely Planet. Let’s dispense with the tired traveler vs. tourist argument; we can all benefit from practical info for navigating a new place, and no matter how “local” you go, there’s nothing wrong with visiting the museums and attractions for which a destination is known. Even as an active member of the “new media,” I mourn the death of guidebooks like that of a friend.

The greatest gift of the digital age to the traveler is online trip planning. I’d never want to go back to the days of travel agents and phone reservations. I’ve spent hours on the Internet booking flights, reading hotel reviews and soliciting advice and recommendations from friends, but guidebooks have always been the heart of my pre-travel ritual. Each year, after we had narrowed down the destinations to a few (often places where American Airlines and Marriott coincided, back in the days where work travel generated a fair amount of status, miles and points for free vacations), my husband and I would spend a few hours at a bookstore, poring over the guidebooks for points of interest, relative costs of travel and local events that might happen during our travel dates. Back when I worked at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, my desk was next to the research department, making me feel like a kid in a candy store. Shelf after shelf of guidebooks, atlases and travelogues gave me a keen eye for what features are the most useful in a printed travel companion.In addition to having the most current information, I look for an efficient presentation (while I love travel photography, I don’t care for it in my guidebooks, taking up valuable real estate and showing me things I hope to see myself) with detailed maps, a short phrasebook and menu guide, as well as a point of view in a guidebook. I had always made fun of Rick Steves and his fanny-packed followers, but in Portugal, I discovered his “back door style” is really quite helpful for navigating crowded tourist attractions and distilling fun facts about a museum’s history (look elsewhere for nightlife advice, though). My respect for Mr. Steves solidified with his book “Travel As A Political Act,” particularly due to his advocacy for travel to Muslim countries and the importance of getting a passport. Time Out city guides offer a surprising depth of cultural sidebars in addition to nightlife listings. Occasionally, you might be lucky to stumble upon an indie series like the gorgeously-designed Love Guides to India or Herb Lester‘s guides to the “usual and unusual” in Europe and the U.S., but these were often only discovered once you reached your destination. Lonely Planet was usually a given, having the widest range of places and most annual updates, but my heart belonged to Arthur Frommer.

Frommer’s guides were never the hippest or most inventive, but I liked their no-nonsense and concise layout, stable of local writers and the personality that shown through the pages with “Overrated” tags and honest advice. I loved the history behind the Frommer’s brand, imagining how Arthur’s original “Europe on $5 a Day” changed the way Americans travel and opened up a world of travel daydreaming and practical trip planning. Writer Doug Mack recently published his own book, “Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day” using Frommer’s 1963 book as his only guide. Vintage guidebooks are priceless slices of the past, whether it’s a reissued Victorian guide, or a handbook for your trip to the USSR (the later is now one of my prized possessions). In 50 years, what will people learn about how we traveled to Asia from Facebook photo albums and TripAdvisor reviews?

Destination and books chosen, I relished my New York commute armed with guidebooks before the trip. While I hated to ever brandish a guidebook while traveling, I didn’t mind being seen with it on the subway, where people might see me and think, “There’s a girl who’s going places! Literally, to Chile!” I imagined a stranger might strike up a conversation, offering their tips for their aunt’s restaurant in Santiago or their best friend’s guesthouse in Valparaiso (I was evidently envisioning a live version of Twitter). Even now that I do float travel questions over social media, I first try to research via a custom Google search that limits results to my trusted sources, ranging from travel writer friends’ blogs to big media like New York Times’ travel section and, of course, Frommers.com.

During a trip, I’d carry a book in my purse during the day, but I only removed it for surreptitious glimpses of a map if seriously lost. While in a museum, I might allow myself the luxury of reading the book in full public view. In the evenings, I might peruse the book before dinner, not for restaurant recommendations, but for hints on what neighborhoods and streets might yield the most options. My husband has always loathed making reservations, even in our own city, preferring to rely on instinct, menu/curb appeal and highest density of locals. At the end of the night, I liked going back to read more about the places we’d seen, learning about the backstories of a city, and understanding the cultural importance of the names we saw on statues.

Once I moved abroad to Istanbul in 2010 and constantly clutched a smartphone, my guidebook usage slowed, but I never fully gave it up. English books were expensive and travel plans were made much more freely (weekend in Budapest on Friday? Why not, when it’s a two-hour flight?), but I still tried to cobble together some basic info before going to a new country – stuff like: how much to tip, the best way to get to the airport and the going cost of a bottle of local wine. Basically, stuff that could be found in a guidebook. In many eastern European countries, I found the excellent (and free) In Your Pocket guides, produced by expats and natives, with tips on everything from happy hours to hidden Soviet murals. The guides are available in various digital forms, but I always preferred to find a paper copy, easy to roll up in a purse and read cover-to-cover like a magazine. I experimented with various Kindle books and documents and apps to collect the many links and tips I found before a trip, but found a lot of limitations: poor maps, advice from inexperienced travelers, lack of context and real “meaty” content. Especially when I was stuck with a lack of Wi-Fi, a dead battery or a setting where it would be unwise to flash any form of technology, I’d yearn for an old-fashioned book.

After I return home, I can’t say exactly what happens to my guidebooks. I don’t revisit places often, so I tend to pass on books to other travelers, leave them in airplane seat pockets, or recycle them when I have to purge books. I always liked the idea of keeping them on my bookshelf, a visual reminder of where we’d been, like passport stamps in your living room, but my shelf space can’t keep up with my wanderlust. Many travelers like a printed book so they can make notes and annotations in the margins, but I consider a book a sacred space to be left pristine, though my books are accessorized with receipts, ticket stubs and bar napkins. I keep these artifacts in duty-free bags and hotel envelopes, possibly for a scrapbook I will never make, or for future generations to marvel at the fact that we once paid for hotel Wi-Fi.

Now that we’ve reached the end of an era, what’s to come in the next? Now that anyone with an Internet connection can tap into a local network, or crowdsource restaurant recommendations, is Mr. Frommer and his ilk destined to become a relic of travel, like steamer trunks and airplane ashtrays? I’d say that until apps and social media can overcome the limitations of user-generated content, there’s a niche for printed guidebooks, but the choice of print over digital is more visceral. We need guidebooks as long as there are people who love browsing in bookstores, who appreciate a beautiful map, and who don’t give a damn about being a traveler or a tourist, as long as they are going somewhere.

[Photo credit: Gluten Free Mrs. D via Twitter]