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The New Year’s Post: My Top 5 Favorite Travel Experiences of 2023

Flying Over Japan For One Of My 2023 Travel Experiences

It’s that time of year again to introduce my top 5 travel experiences of the past year. It doesn’t feel like too long ago I was writing my 2022 list, and yet, here we are!

2023 had our most varied travel experiences to date. Whereas past years saw us focusing on Western Europe, this year we only went there once when we visited Iceland in April. Other international trips took us all the way to Japan and south to Mexico City, a much closer capital but still very culturally different from what we’re used to.

In addition to international travel experiences, we also visited some historically significant American cities with trips to Philadelphia and Boston.

It’s been a unique year to say the least. Throughout these trips, we’ve experienced many great things, but as always, there are a few travel experiences that stand out above the rest. This post celebrates those five things that made 2023 extra special for me.

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Travel Experience #1 – Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

When we booked our trip to Iceland for late April, we were cautiously optimistic about seeing the Northern Lights. The best months for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland are from September to April. We’d be there right at the tail end of that time.

Considering how rare it is to see this natural spectacle, it wasn’t unreasonable to think this could be our best chance ever.

Towards the end of our seven-day trip, we still hadn’t seen anything. Our optimism was starting to wane. To make matters worse (or more frustrating, anyways), a rare solar event was allowing people all along America’s east coast to see the Northen Lights. Just our luck! We were running out of chances to see the lights in a place known for them while everyone back home was experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime event.

On our fifth night, we arrived at Lýsuhóll in Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Our lodging had a large window overlooking the valley with wide open skies and almost no lights. It was perfect for admiring the scenery from the warmth of our beds. If we were going to see the Northern Lights, this seemed like our best chance.

After an incredible homemade dinner at Lýsuhóll, we went back to our cabin to hunker down by the window for as long as we could stay awake.

Around 11:30, Michelle exclaimed, “Do you see that? What is that?!” I looked out the window to see what looked like hazy green waves in the middle of the night sky. The Northern Lights were finally here for us to see!

I threw on warm clothes and ran outside. We were treated to about five minutes of this amazing phenomenon. Looking back at my photos, we only saw a small-scale Aurora Borealis event, but in the moment, it was the one of the most incredible things I had ever seen. It was so beautiful and otherworldly. My pictures don’t come anywhere close to conveying how magical it was!

The Northern Lights
Even just this small display of the Northern Lights was incredibly impressive.

Travel Experience #2 – Bringing in 2023 with the Waltz in Vienna at Midnight

To end 2022, we spent the holiday season in Germany and Austria. We spent Christmas visiting traditional Bavarian markets, which itself was a highlight of 2022. After Christmas was over, we headed into Austria, where we spent time in Hallstatt and Salzburg before going to Vienna for New Year’s.

We couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas. Once Christmas was over, we eagerly awaited what Vienna had to offer with its New Year’s Eve festivities.

Once New Year’s Eve arrived, we headed to Vienna’s Silvesterpfad to celebrate the end of the year and the arrival of 2024. Silvesterpfad is Vienna’s annual New Year’s Eve party. It’s a crawl throughout Vienna’s old city with several major stops featuring different styles of music. You can find food, revelers and, most importantly, drinks to keep the party going along the entire trail.

Shortly before midnight, we found ourselves on the Graben almost on accident. It turned out to be a wonderful mistake, though. With huge lit-up chandeliers hanging overhead, the countdown to midnight began, and then, the Blue Danube Waltz came on the sound system. Without hesitation, every single person on the Graben began waltzing in sync to the music without a single care in the world. It was such an amazing moment that I still get warm fuzzies when I think about it.

Michelle And Me At Vienna's Graben For New Year's Eve
The experience of bringing in 2023 in Vienna was a great way to start the year!

Travel Experience #3 – Seeing Mount Fuji

In a bit of a repeat of what happened with the Northern Lights, our experience with Mount Fuji almost seemed like it wasn’t going to happen.

During our first 10 days in Japan, we had gorgeous weather. However, none of those days were in the Fuji Five Lakes area where we’d need clear skies to see Japan’s most iconic sight: Mount Fuji. Unfortunately, despite all our good weather to that point, forecasts for when we’d be in Fujikawaguchiko were getting bleak.

On the day we headed into the Fuji area, the skies turned gray and then the rain came in deluges. By the time we arrived in Fujikawaguchiko, we couldn’t see anything except dark clouds and fog. To say I was disappointed is an understatement, especially since the next day’s forecast wasn’t much better.

But forecasts are only predictions. Predictions based on science and observations, but they’re still only best guesses.

So, when I woke up the next morning, I was greeted by some blue in the sky. It wasn’t much, but it was more than I expected. I kept watching out the window from our ryokan, Togawaso, to see if Mount Fuji would make an appearance. Then, all of a sudden, I could see a part of its western slopes!

Throughout the morning, we kept seeing portions of Mount Fuji peep out through the clouds. Sometimes it was the slopes, sometimes it was the peak, but it was always something, which was better than nothing.

At Lake Saiko, Fuji finally made a full appearance, and it was just breathtaking. It was as if the clouds parted just for us.

But the real treat came a little later while visiting the gardens at Oishi Park when the clouds almost completely disappeared. We went from not being able to see anything at all, to having some of the most stunning views of Mount Fuji I could have hoped for.

This ended up being one of our final and best moments in Japan!

Small Sliver Of Mount Fuji Through The Clouds
My first sight of Mount Fuji was the tiniest sliver of its western slope through these power lines and clouds.
Fuji Through The Clouds
A couple hours later, we started to see more of the peak while paddle boating around Lake Kawaguchiko.
Mount Fuji And Lake Saiko
But then we went to Lake Saiko for lunch where Mount Fuji really started to reveal itself from behind the clouds.
Mount Fuji At Oishi Park
The real highlight happened just a bit later at Oishi Park when the clouds almost completely parted to give us full views of Mount Fuji framed by this pretty garden.
Mount Fuji
While the buildup was exciting, the next morning greeted me with a total view of Mount Fuji from our hotel. Simply breathtaking! It even got a little bit of its iconic snow on the peak overnight.

Travel Experience #4 – Staying in a Traditional Japanese Ryokan

If seeing Mount Fuji was our best singular moment in Japan, then staying in Sumiyoshi Ryokan in Takayama, one of the country’s many traditional ryokans, was our favorite total experience there.

After four days in the hectic, urban confines of Tokyo, we were both looking forward to getting out into the country and staying in a Japanese ryokan. It did not disappoint. In fact, it exceeded my high expectations.

Everything about Sumiyoshi Ryokan was absolute perfection, from the Japanese-style decorations to the impossibly pleasant elderly owners. But Sumiyoshi Ryokan had three things that really set it apart from other places we’ve stayed at across the globe: our room, the on-site onsen, and the delicious dinner and breakfast we had here.

All three of those things were so excellent. The room was the best room we stayed in during our trip in Japan. Our meals were some of the best food we had in Japan. And – can you guess where this is going? – the onsen was the best onsen we experienced in Japan.

The only disappointing thing about Sumiyoshi Ryokan was we were only there for one night! We opted to stay somewhere else in Takayama to save some money, but after our one night there, we both said it would have been worth the money to stay for another night.

Our Room At Sumiyoshi Ryokan
If there weren’t so much else to see and do in Japan, I could have spent several days just lounging around Sumiyoshi Ryokan.
Onsen At Sumiyoshi Ryokan
This onsen was such perfection!
Dinner At Sumiyoshi Ryokan
And the dinner took things to a whole other level. Everything was perfectly made and so delicious.

Travel Experience #5 – Seeing America’s Foundations in Philadelphia and Boston

I’m cheating here a little and combining two different trips, but since the two are so closely related with regards to America’s history, I’m counting them as one experience. Also, since it’s my blog, I can do what I want!

Frequent readers may think this one is a little boring compared to the many fabulous places I saw in 2023, but if you know me, then its inclusion makes sense. I love history. Had I not studied what I did in college, I probably would have gone down some path that included history.

More specifically, I am fascinated by America’s founding, and nowhere in America showcases this era in our history more than Philadelphia and Boston. So, getting to see these two cities this past year were such exciting trips for me. There just aren’t too many other places where you can walk on the same grounds as people who quite literally changed the world.

I actually got chills walking through Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and some of Boston’s graveyards where so many American revolutionaries are buried. These are two cities where you can feel the history buzzing around you everywhere you walk. I was like a kid going to Disney World for the first time.

Both cities were remarkably easy trips, too. We were able to see all the highlights in just 36 hours in both Philadelphia and Boston. It’s nice to be able to do a trip that isn’t two weeks long like our international ones.

An added bonus of these two trips was the food. We had some great meals in each place. If you aren’t too keen on history, you should still visit just for the tasty bites!

Independence Hall In Philadelphia
Independence Hall, where the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were both debated and signed.
Boston's Old State House
Boston’s Old State House. The Boston Massacre, one of the main events that lead to the American Revolution, happened right in front of this building.

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