1000 meters of street food, Muslim Street, Xi’an, China
In the three years since I quit drinking, I’ve traveled to dozens of places without relying on alcohol. No margaritas to celebrate a tropical arrival. And no desperate glasses of wine to numb my travel frustrations. In fact, I’m getting pretty good at sober travel and, for the most part, I rarely struggle while abroad. That is until I escorted my mother to China on a two-week bucket list trip for her 70th birthday.
One night, towards the end of our trip, I staggered to my hotel room in Beijing; the stress and exhaustion taking me completely off-guard. Thoughts I hadn’t had in years bubbled up.
“What if I went down to the bar for a drink?”
“I wonder if could have just one glass of wine.”
For a few minutes, I stewed on the unfairness of not being able to smoke or drink. Then I pulled the covers over my head, bunkering down until the self-pity storm passed. (That’s the trick to staying sober, I’ve found—keeping the faith that the storm will always pass.)
Traveling in Asia for two weeks with a parent is about as advanced sober travel can get—negotiating 15-hour flights, engrained family dynamics, unfamiliar customs, and oh my goodness, the crowds. It was also a pivotal experience—a first trip to the Far East for both of us, and one that both my mom and I will look back on fondly for the rest of our lives.
But I was humbled by how easily, with this specific combination of stressors, I found myself debating if I should drink.
Aberdeen Fishing Village, Hong Kong
I’m grateful that I had the practice of less intense sober travel, so I was able to fall back on habits that had kept me on track up to this point.
A sober beach holiday. What the actual f*ck, is what the drinking version of myself would have thought, as if remaining conscious and beach-time were mutually exclusive. But she was silly, so let’s forget about her opinion. I mean, why can’t a person voluntarily get on a plane, land in paradise, unpack, stroll by the pool, inhale the island breezes, eat some mango, and then somehow not destroy her plans/self-esteem/life by getting hammered on shitty beach wine the entire time? The answer is, there’s no good reason why not, but I was 39 before I thought I’d give it a try. Passing out in the sand doesn’t look cute past 34…35–max, so I was on borrowed time to pull myself together.
Fear not my sober robins, not only did I pull myself together–I believe that a sultry beach vacation is actually the ideal alcohol-free holiday. To prove it, I went to Jamaica in August. Somebody has to do this research, after all.
Why a sober beach vacation is an excellent idea:
Endless activities (that don’t involve drinking).
Jamaica will wear you out. Zoom through the mangroves on a speedboat. Craft your own artisan tile by the pool. Browse handmade art from local shops. Relax with a massage and a facial. Swim laps in the salt water pool and dive off the dock into the ocean. Hike to a waterfall. Research which jerk restaurant has the best jerk chicken. You get the idea, it’s paradise.
Fruity mocktails are everywhere.
On my ride to the airport, we paused at an intersection and I locked eyes with a man running a fresh pineapple and mango smoothie shack on the side of the road, thus confirming my suspicions that non-alcoholic drink can be found literally anywhere in Jamaica. I also drank a virgin coladas by the gallon (obviously).
You’ll actually relax.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever returned home from a vacation more strung out than before you left? Sunburned and dehydrated, I’d wonder why I squandered another perfectly good trip by drinking too much. Without drinking to trick you into thinking that more beers equals more fun, you’ll get to have actual experience! Just imagine–a hangover-free vacation in the Caribbean.
There are dozens of all-inclusive party-type hotels and resorts in Jamaica. Obviously, don’t stay there. I read an article on Treasure Beach before my trip and decided that it sounded like the laid back, bohemian retreat I was looking for. And it was perfect.
I had zero expectations of what an alcohol-free Sweden trip would look like. I’d been to Scandinavia before but was a hearty consumer of beer at the time. When I visited this fine country, I’d been off the sauce for 10 months. So what does the land of long winters, Vikings, and DIY furniture assembly have to offer the non-drinking minority?
The Alcohol-Free Promised Land
Upon arrival, I was delighted to find that every menu, in every restaurant, in every Swedish city visited, had an extensive non-alcoholic drink section. Say whaaat? Non-alcoholic ciders. Booze-free sparkling wines. Fun tonics and herbal spritzers. And they were good, no sickly sweet $9 grape juice here. It was glorious.
I copied this (below) from an upscale wine menu at a restaurant in the Gamla Stan part of Stockholm, but similar choices (and more!) were available everywhere, including the hotel bar.
Kivik Svart Vinbär/citronmeliss (Kivik Black Currant/ Lemon Balm)
Kivik Päron Ingefära (Kivik Pear Ginger)
Kivik Årets skörd Äpple (Kivik Harvest of the Year Apple)
Rött, Vitt vineller Rosé Natureo Glas (Red, Wine, or Rose Wine)
I’m not the only non-drinking traveler to have noticed how Sweden is rocking the alcohol-free scene. London blogger DryChick observes the following:
Much to my surprise it seemed that every restaurant I went to that weekend in Stockholm had alcohol-free wine or beer on the menu. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I was able to order alcohol-free red with my steak at Zink Grill and a sparkling white with my sole at Stockholm Fisk. At the Fasching jazz bar, I discovered the 0% San Miguel cerveza that I had read about but hadn’t yet tried, and it was sweet and refreshing [link to full article at DryScene].
Hell yes! I’ve been trying to do some digging as to why Sweden has normalized offering non-alcoholic wines and beers in their restaurants, but haven’t found a satisfactory answer yet. Sweden, like the rest of Scandinavia, tax alcohol very heavily as part of several initiatives to curb alcohol abuse and addiction. However, Sweden seems unique in the sheer availability and choice of non-alcoholic drink options. If anyone knows more, send me a note in the comments.
Can’t get enough of this non-alcoholic European travel advice? Who could blame you? Read about Amsterdam here!
What is Fika?
One of the best parts of Swedish culture is fika—basically an excuse to have cake and coffee mid-morning.
Amsterdam might be my favorite city in Europe and not just because I stumbled across this naked troll flower pot. (Isn’t it amazing?) Don’t let the Red Light District’s reputation put you off; this cultural capital shouldn’t be missed, even if you don’t partake in the city’s infamous recreational activities.
Amsterdam is so much more than its permissive stance on intoxicants. Quirky, diverse, fashion-forward, and oh, so many things to eat! On my recent trip, I actually had to seek out the Red Light District for a nostalgic stroll. I’d traversed the city on foot multiple times over three days, yet I hadn’t come across even one sketchy street corner.
Walking is the best way to explore Amsterdam. Heaving with historic buildings, cozy cafes, museum heavyweights, leafy parks, and more charming canal scenes than you could ever photograph, to explore Amsterdam is to slow down and get acquainted with the Dutch exceptional quality of life.
I’m currently trying to convince the husband that we need to retire on a barge tucked in a quiet canal in Amsterdam somewhere. But until I make that happen…let’s discuss what to do when you find yourself sober in Amsterdam (since you won’t be indulging in the typical offerings of a brown “coffee” shop or biercafé).
I present to you 12 alcohol-free cultural indulgences that won’t cost you your soul. Hooray!
(There are, of course, many free things to do, but since you are traveling sober in Amsterdam, you deserve a little luxury, no? I think you do.)
1) Fun Accommodation
Be warned, accommodation in Amsterdam is pricey and the rooms are European-sized (really f-ing small). There are dozens of budget-friendly hostels in the city center, but you don’t want to make that mistake. To ensure a pleasant stay away from the party scene, the Volkshotel (People’s Hotel) in the Weesperzijde neighborhood is an excellent choice.
The first floor of the Volkshotel is a hip open-concept cafe/hotel reception/co-working space, giving the space a creative energy. A rooftop terrace and restaurant serves food and is a spectacular perch to watch the sunset. Wellness activities such as yoga classes and a sauna room are also available. Rooms start at around 109 Euros per night. (photo courtesy of Volkshotel.com).
P.S. The Volkshotel breakfast buffet (like everywhere in the Netherlands) is spectacular.
2) BREAKFAST Dutch-style
Dutch breakfast buffets are an underrated experience. I discovered (to my astonishment) that a standard Dutch offering was chocolate sprinkles for my toast. Say what? Instant chocolate croissant? Weird slices of meat on the side? I’m so in. Anyways, the Volkshotel has a solid breakfast spread. However, to mix it up, a few minutes walk from the Volkshotel, the Breakfast Club is serving interesting options like a Breakfast Burger and Chicken Waffles served with sriracha and honey. Menu items are featured and named after capital cities like Mexico City, London, and New York. There are several locations for The Breakfast Club in Amsterdam; I went to the Wibautstraat 56 location.
3) Modern home & fashion
I think Dutch modern design is underrated. Scandinavia might have cornered calming minimalism and France may be understated glamor, but if you like quirky and a little weird, then Amsterdam has you covered. For home goods and vintage clothes, try the De 9 Straatjes (9 Streets) area of Amsterdam, where cafes and unusual shops line cobbled alleyways and four main canals. Concrete Matter, the Man’s Gift Company located at Gasthuismolensteeg 12, is rich with both vintage and new treasures. I particularly love their section devoted to Mantiques, which include must-haves such as an authentic wooden Spitfire propeller and a 1930’s solid steel French butcher’s knife. For unique women’s apparel, check out Shan’s Shawls and Stuff at Raadhuisstraat 39hs. I limped in desperate for walking shoes and strutted out rocking embroidered high top sneakers.
Don’t worry, when strolling through Amsterdam, it won’t take long to encounter a charming street market scene. Craft markets, flower markets, food markets, second-hand goods and antiques: They are everywhere! To my delight, when I stopped to admire a quirky kitchen accessory or a child’s dress printed in an Amsterdam canal design, I was often approached by the vendor who had also created the original design! I scored unique gifts for all my nieces and nephews in one swoop. For fabrics, clothes, fresh food, and plants in a bustling outdoor atmosphere check out the Albert Cuyp Market on Albert Cuyp Straat. And it doesn’t get any more Dutch than a floating flower market, so make sure to stop by the Bloemenmarkt on the Singel canal.
5) EXPERIENCE ART: DUTCH MASTERS TO THE MASTERS OF QUIRK
The Netherlands have a deep history of visual arts from the Dutch Golden Age to quirky graphic prints you can pick up at street markets. From the Van Gogh Museum to a Banksy Exhibition at the Moco Museum, Amsterdam is stuffed with fine and contemporary masterpieces. Also, picking up original art from local artists is one of my favorite things to do while traveling. It packs pretty well, creates a lasting and meaningful memento of the trip, and supports local artisans as well! A gallery I stumbled upon with original and non-cheesy Amsterdam-themed art and clothes is Mark Raven, with locations at Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 174 and Leidsestraat 42.
6) DUTCH TULIPS, REAL & CARVED
Holland’s ubiquitous flower—the tulip. If you have some outside space at home that needs a little color, there are bulbs for sale literally everywhere in Amsterdam in all possible colors. Yes, you can buy them at the airport, and no, I had no trouble with customs. I was also drawn to the carved wooden versions which only cost a few Euros each. You can find them at any of the street markets in the tourist areas. Of course the Bloemenmarkt, mentioned above, will definitely have both live and wooden tulips for purchase.
7) LUNCH AT THE INDOOR FOOD MARKET
The only thing more fun than a Dutch street market is a Dutch indoor food market. The colors! The smells! The weird sausages! Do yourself a favor and make your way over to Foodhallen atSchellingwouderdijk 339. Sort of a gathering of indoor food-trucks, there’s an option for a bit of everything. I personally had a Bahn Mi from Viet View that changed my life. You’re welcome.
8) ALL OF THE CHEESE
Does this picture even need a caption? Maybe just 😂😂😂😂😂😂.
It seems every neighborhood in Amsterdam had a cheese shop. Full disclosure—I took the above picture in Rotterdam, but I assure you the situation is just as cheese-friendly in Amsterdam. Several amazing shops are located on Singel street in Centrum, including the popular Reypenaer at Singel 182. Don’t be shy about asking for a taste! Also, if you’re flying internationally, it’s totally fine to bring back cheese if it’s vacuum-sealed.
9) A Surinamese feast
What is Surinamese food, you ask? Happy to answer. It’s savory deliciousness. What else do you need to know??? While I was in Rotterdam, I met a girl from L.A. whose family was from Suriname. She said I had to check out the Surinamese food scene in Amsterdam. And I did exactly that. I’d describe it as a mashup of Indian, Chinese, and Caribbean flavors and foods. To add to the fun, you must try the traditional pink drink called dawet. Made from coconut milk, lemongrass syrup, and rose paste (or red food coloring), the result is a thick tropical drink to enjoy with your noodles and curry.
I ate at Warung Sprang Makanda, and with three locations in Centrum Amsterdam, you should easily be able to add one to your itinerary!
10) Take a lovers cruise
On my first trip to Amsterdam, I found myself on a Lovers Canal Cruise with my 19-year-old sister and 16-year-old brother. There are many outlet’s offering canal trips, so I’m not sure how we ended up on the Lovers version, but it ended up being a rather amusing, yet thankfully platonic event. Nearly 20 years later, I was delighted to find the same company still in business! It’s a little touristy, sure, but it’s a relaxing way to glide through the city from a different perspective. Just make sure to avoid the booze-cruise variety. Tickets on the Lovers Canal Cruise start at 15 Euros.
P.S. If you visit in the winter, you can experience the Amsterdam Light Festival from the water!
11) Day trip to Rotterdam
The Netherlands is a compact county. Paired with highly efficient train travel, well my friends, you have the perfect mocktail for a day trip! Traveling to nearby Rotterdam, The Hague, or even Belgium by train is a breeze. On my most recent trip, I spent several days in Rotterdam exploring the modern architecture and killer foodhall scene. Another option—take a day trip to one of the cheese markets, such as in the town of Gouda.
12) SOMETHING SWEET TO TAKE HOME.
Apparently I ate every stroopwafel within 11 seconds of my purchase, as I have zero pictures despite sampling quite a few. I had to borrow this picture from Wikimedia. Not surprising, because they are divine. Wafer-thin waffles sandwich a caramel center to make a delicate little cookie. Then my friend taught me to warm it up by balancing the cookie on the rim of coffee I’m drinking so it gets all melty inside. Bring them home with you by the cases, that’s all I can say. You can find them wrapped for sale at the grocery and fine foods stores all over town, but I don’t think you’ll have any trouble, I even found them at Starbucks!
Final Notes: If you’re headed to Amsterdam soon, I hope you find these tips helpful. But of course, they’re just a starting point—once you’re there, adventure will unfold naturally. Can’t wait to hear what you discover; leave me a note in comments!
Hungry for more? Read this post on why Sweden is a non-alcoholic paradise.
Sure, Las Vegas is synonymous with over-indulgence in all of the things. How can you possibly have fun in Las Vegas without drinking and gambling? Years ago, I would’ve been horrified at the mere suggestion.
Yet, as they tend to do, things change, and I found myself traveling to Las Vegas for eight nights, as a non-drinking, non-smoking, non-gambling shadow of my irresponsible former self. Adding to the pressure to have a great time, I was celebrating my birthday in Sin City.
I mean, what can you do in Las Vegas without drinking or gambling?
Turns out, quite a lot. If you are pregnant, sober, not into partying, traveling with children, or travelings for work, worry not, as Sin City has oodles of activities that won’t involve a pile of regret in the morning.
My 16 favorite things to do in Las Vegas (minus the booze and gambling):
1) Visit Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay:
Finding a peaceful corner of Las Vegas is already miraculous, but combined with the silent grace of gliding apex predators, this experience is very special.
Highlights include the nearly 360-degree view inside the aquarium tunnel, a touch tank, and a piranha display. We visited Shark Reef on a Sunday evening and had the place to ourselves.
Skip the Polar Journey exhibition next door, as sadly there are no adorable penguins inside, although the entrance fee is included with the Shark Reef ticket (price is $25).
Located on Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas, check out this quirky eating and shopping area made entirely out of shipping containers. Its modern, family friendly, hipster vibe (complete with a music-blasting, flame-throwing, 55-foot steel praying mantis) has live music, movies in the 4-D experience dome, and an AstroTurf grass area for lounging.
Favorites included the gourmet hot dogs (with kimchi and seaweed options) at Cheffini’s and the montaditos (mini sandwiches)at Bin 702 (get the 6 sandwiches for $13.50 and share!).
Prime rib and crab legs at 5 am? We’ve all done it (right?). Buffets aside, there are some epic food experiences to be had in Las Vegas. Celebrity chef restaurants exist by the dozen (I tried in vain to get into Gordon Ramsay’s new Hell’s Kitchen). Feeling adventurous? Try dining blind in a pitch-black restaurant.
For my birthday dinner we chose the 6-course tasting menu at Michael Mina, which is a solid option. However, my favorite meal of the trip, was at the generically named Border Grill (Mandalay Bay). Expect delicious and creative Mexican food, with many vegan and vegetarian options, which you can enjoy (with a virgin margarita, of course) on the patio overlooking the Lazy River.
If you aren’t drinking, but don’t want to miss the opportunity to make really bad decisions, there’s always the Heart Attack Grill on Fremont St. Pay for the privilege of “nurses” that will paddle you for failing to finish your order of Double Bypass Burger and Flatliner Fries.
6) Sun worship on the pool deck
Despite visiting Las Vegas several times, I had never taken advantage of the most pleasant (and cheapest!) of thrills, and that is worshiping the desert sun on a rooftop pool deck.
OK, it’s only cheap if you’ve booked a room, but you need to stay somewhere! May as well stay at a resort that has a beach (like the 11-acres of beach and pools the Mandalay Bay). The seminar I attended was located near Fremont St., therefore I checked into the Downtown Grand Hotel and Casino to take advantage of their rooftop pool.
7) Race exotic cars
A few weeks before we traveled to Las Vegas, the husband turned 40. I surprised him with the Supercar Driving Experience at Exotics Racing located at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
A bit pricey, maybe, but he got to drive a Ferrari. In fact, despite having zero interest in cars, I had race car envy and signed myself up for the Drifting Ride-Along experience in a Dodge Hellcat. I left $99 lighter but exactly ZERO regrets. So. Fun.
Fremont Street is the pedestrianized “action” area of Downtown Las Vegas. Here you can eat at the Heart Attack Grill, watch live music, take your photo with “street performers”, and ride Slotzilla, the zipline thrill ride suspended above Fremont Street.
The atmosphere reminds me of NYC’s Times Square mixed with a few scenes in Mad Max Fury Road. It’s an amusing way to spend a few hours, especially if you are heading down to the Downtown Container Park.
Outside Binion’s Casino on Fremont St., Downtown Las Vegas Riders on Slotzilla, Fremont St, Downtown Las Vegas
9) Take in a show
Magicians, Cher, Cirque du Soleil…how can you possibly choose? Every show I’ve ever seen in Las Vegas has been excellent though my top two are Blue Man Group, which blew away my expectations, and the mesmerizing “O” by Cirque du Soleil.
Several women participating in my business seminar cut loose one night to see Magic Mike Live and breathlessly raved the next day. However, the husband would not be convinced.
10) Shopping experience
Peering out a window at Bally’s Hotel and Casino, I was mesmerized by the line of people waiting to get inside the M&M’s World store. Why people, why?
Regardless of your shopping taste, Las Vegas has whatever you are into (like personalized m&ms!). My favorite place to escape the casino floor is the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. This oasis of relative calm features reasonably priced, normal stores in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip. Complete with gondoliers!
Need a break from all the neon? Hoover Dam is an easy 45-minute drive from the Las Vegas Strip on the Nevada-Arizona border. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering, especially considering it was built with 1930’s technology.
Multiple tour agencies offer round-trip transportation to the dam with pickup from your Las Vegas hotel. I rented a car to visit the Valley of Fire (see # 12 below) and chasing the setting sun, we managed to arrive at twilight, which made for a spectacular sunset.
Tip #1: The visitor’s center closes at 5 pm, however, it is possible to park and walk along the dam until 7 pm. It’s not necessary to book a tour or visit the visitor center if you just want to take a few pictures.
Tip #2: If you want your pictures to be in color, make sure you aren’t using the black and white, artsy camera app on your phone. You’re welcome.
Have a full day to spend in the desert? Do not miss the opportunity to explore the outstanding beauty of the Valley of Fire State Park located about 60 miles from the Las Vegas Strip. Named for it’s astonishing red rock formations, here you can hike among boulders and cacti, witness ancient petroglyphs, and try to spot a desert tortoise. Take advantage of the desert light and her shadows for some truly spectacular photographs. I recommend entering the Valley of Fire through the Lake Mead Recreation Area (Route 167) to maximize the desert scenery. (This means you’ll pay two park fees, but I think it’s worth it.)
13) Day trip to Red Rock Canyon
For slightly different desert scenery, head over to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, less than 20 miles from the Las Vegas Strip. Red Rock Canyon has a 13-mile scenic drive loop, where you can stop at many trail heads and hike among the boulders and Joshua Trees. The loop itself was fairly crowded, so to avoid “Sunday driver” fatigue, check it out mid-week, or early morning to avoid peak times.
14) Day trip to Mount Charleston
Less than an hour from the desert floor and neon lights, climb mountain roads and find yourself among the conifers, and even snow.
Mount Charleston towers over Las Vegas at nearly 12,000 feet and offers visitors hiking trails, and even a small ski resort. The Mt. Charleston Lodge looked like a great place to grab a bite and enjoy the view.
(Unfortunately, I managed to injure myself that day, and lunch plans were aborted. If you go, let me know about the food!
15) Experience the Old West
Bonnie Springs Ranch, a replica 1880s mining town, saloon, and motel, is a perfect lunch spot on the way to Red Rock Canyon. Dozens of peacocks, ducks, and turtles roaming the grounds add to the fun, as well as a small zoo (of rescued animals) and horseback riding tours. Adults will appreciate the Ranch’s Old West kitschy vibe, and kids will absolutely love the scenic train ride around the property. Located 20 miles from the Strip off NV-159.
16) Get on the water
Is there a more appealing way to escape the Las Vegas grime and heat other than slipping into some crystal clear water? Surprisingly, despite being landlocked—and in the middle of the desert!—the Las Vegas area offers many opportunities to get near the water. Dozens of tour operators take visitors white water rafting, kayaking, wakeboarding, and paddle boarding, in the nearby Colorado River, Lake Mead, or Lake Las Vegas.
Next time: Despite all the activities, one that I regret missing was a helicopter tour. Tour companies offer flights of the Las Vegas skyline at night or even trips to the Grand Canyon. (Starting at around $100 for a short flight of the Las Vegas skyline.)
Sure, Las Vegas gets a bit much.
Seemingly every whim or desire that anyone has ever had, in the history of the world, has been capitalized in. Then, everyone is trying to sell it to you, at the same time, in the same place. It also means, no matter what you are into, chances are Las Vegas has you covered. Want to spend the weekend partying, gorging on buffets, and never leaving the casino? Sure! Or wake up early, go for a swim, meditate in the desert, and then a vegan food crawl? You can do that, too. And that is the beauty of Las Vegas.
While Las Vegas certainly aims to entertain, it’s also a city where thousands of people push their boundaries a little bit every day. Step out of their comfort zones and try something they’ve never done before. That week I turned 39, hiked new national parks, zoomed around a race track at 100-mph, ate gourmet hot dogs, and altogether had a fantastic week in Las Vegas without drinking or gambling. I’m already planning my next trip.
I’m Claire. Why are traveling and drinking so often intertwined? When I quit drinking in 2016, I wondered, could travel be the same? Good news—it’s even better. I promise. Go to the About page to learn more about me or start getting your travel inspiration on here.