Catherine Sweeney is a travel enthusiast with a lifelong passion for going places. A weekend getaway, an international journey, a cross-country road trip, or a local jaunt -- they’re all on her radar. On her blog, Traveling with Sweeney, Catherine shares photos and stories highlighting the best of destinations, food, wine, history, culture, and the arts. She especially loves featuring under-the-radar attractions in North America and Europe.
Catherine approaches new destinations as well as familiar favorites with anticipation and enthusiasm. On Traveling with Sweeney, she and her husband collaborate to entertain and inspire through compelling photos and personal stories. They offer insights, tips, and perspectives for both new and experienced travelers.
Catherine is also the founder and editor of Traveling with Sweeney’s sister blog, Boomer Women Travelers, a website for the vibrant community of international female travelers of the baby boomer generation. She has contributed articles to many popular travel websites.
TA: Where are you from?
Catherine: I currently live in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’ve been here a little over two years, and I’m loving my life in the Sonoran Desert. Previously, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 25 years. I also lived in Milwaukee for a few years. That’s where I fatefully met my husband (affectionately known as Mr. TWS). But my roots are in Chicago, where I’m originally from and where I spent my childhood and a good part of my young adulthood.
TA: How many years have you been traveling? What got you hooked?
Catherine: I’ve basically been hooked on travel as far back as I can remember, since I was a young child with my parents on frequent road trips. They took my sister and me just about everywhere that could be reached by car in the U.S. as well as many places in Canada and Mexico. I was hooked by the excitement of going to new places and dreamed of more distant and exotic travel to places around the world. As early as seven years of age, I was collecting travel brochures for worldwide locations, and I would excitedly go through those guides over and over again.
TA: Do you specialize in a particular type of travel?
Catherine: My travel interests are quite varied. . . . When traveling, I typically seek out the best in the arts, food and drink, historic landmarks, natural beauty, and great places to stay. You’ll also find me going out of my comfort zone once in a while to zip-line or do some horseback riding. I try to take advantage of every minute to maximize the time I have in the places we are visiting. I enjoy exploring by walking a lot and using public transportation to get the vibe of a place. I really enjoy experiences where we become immersed in local culture and traditions by meeting with locals and joining in activities of their daily lives.
TA: What is the best vacation you've ever taken?
Catherine: This question is a little bit like the question “Who is your favorite child?” I’ve been lucky to visit Hawaii on a number of occasions, and each time it felt like a true vacation in Paradise where we really kicked back and enjoyed the sun, balmy evenings, flora, and aloha. Probably the best time was on our honeymoon in Kauai -- it was also my very first time in Hawaii and exceeded my expectations of what the islands were all about.
TA: What is the most romantic place you've ever visited with a partner?
Catherine: Paris! This may seem cliché, but Paris is as romantic as you allow it to be for you. It has all of the elements: scenic locations, tree-lined boulevards, the Seine, cozy cafés, beautiful architecture, and sounds of the romantic French language all around. You and your partner just have to embrace it. A few of my favorite spots are the Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Canal Saint-Martin, the views of the city over the rooftops of Montmartre, and (of course) the Eiffel Tower when it sparkles at night. Special mentions go to Hawaii, Budapest, Barcelona, Vienna, Geneva, and Prague!
TA: What is the most beautiful and affordable city you've ever visited?
Catherine: Budapest. Although it has shown up on more tourist radars in recent years, it’s still a great value, and it is truly one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. It’s breathtaking to view the Hungarian Parliament Building on the Pest side of the city from the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side or to glimpse the Chain Bridge at night with the tower of Matthias Church in the background. The sights don’t even seem real sometimes. Take a walking tour through District 8, the Palace District where the wealthy once lived and where there are still many cultural highlights. I’d also recommend the Széchenyi Baths for the quintessential Budapest spa experience.
TA: Which underrated destination deserves to be more famous?
Catherine: Matera in the Basilicata region of Italy is my current top recommendation for a less famous destination. The city's ancient cave dwellings on the hillsides are amazing to see. There's also much history and culture to discover here. Once called "the shame of Italy," Matera has been experiencing a cultural rebirth and has been designated a European Capital of Culture.
TA: What is one place you've always wanted to visit?
Catherine: Mr. TWS and I have been talking about a romantic holiday in the Greek islands since we first met almost 30 years ago. Do you suppose it’s time to make that trip happen?
TA: Which country has surprisingly good food?
Catherine: If I named a place like France or Italy, it wouldn’t be such a surprise, so let me give a shout-out to dishes I crave when in a couple of places not known for their food. I’ll start with England. There’s nothing more comforting than a hot cottage pie on a cold, rainy London day. I also love goulash as it is prepared in the Czech Republic -- with scrumptious chunks of beef and sliced dumplings. A bonus beverage tip: many would be surprised by the excellent wines produced in Hungary. I especially like the pinot noir.
TA: What is the strangest thing you've ever eaten overseas?
Catherine: I have to admit that I don’t get adventurous when it comes to food -- unlike Mr. TWS. The most daring I’ve gotten has been having a bite of raw scallop in Nova Scotia. Squid ink pasta was also a stretch for me in Venice, Italy.
TA: Where was the most unusual place you've ever stayed?
Catherine: A unique experience was staying in a suite on the top floor of a 12th-century medieval palace tower, the largest in Mantua, Italy. It was fully upgraded with the comforts of an upscale hotel suite, but it retained the grand ambiance of a noble residence of the 18th century, when the Castiglioni family bought the palace. The architecture and décor were highlighted by a 13th-century eight-meter-high fresco on the walls representing the tree of life. It was discovered during a renovation and is one of the oldest nonreligious frescoes in Europe. It was amazing to have this treasure right in our room! We also had our own rooftop garden with spectacular 360-degree views of the city.
TA: Have you ever met someone while traveling who changed your life?
Catherine: I’ve met wonderful people who have enhanced my life and even become part of my life afterward. I’ve stayed in touch with very special and like-minded people I’ve met along the way, especially people we’ve met when we were able to immerse ourselves in the local culture. The people who come to mind are the people at Al Vecchio Convento in Portico di Romagna, Italy, who treated us like family and who along with our guide, Alessandra Catania, showed us the unique aspects of life in this small village in Emilia-Romagna. This was the beginning of my love affair with Italy.
TA: What is one thing you ALWAYS pack when you travel?
Catherine: Must-haves for me are scarves. I pack lightly, so scarves are an important element to enhance a look and help keep warm on walks and those long, cold international flights. I always carry Band-Aid friction block with me on trips to protect against blisters from walking so much, but I’ve heard that this product isn’t available anymore (or is at least very hard to find and expensive). I’m glad I stocked up.
TA: What is one travel scam travelers should be wary of?
Catherine: A recent example that I encountered was at the Eiffel Tower, where we were approached by a woman who asked if we spoke English and proceeded to solicit our support for a cause for which she had a petition to sign. I believe it was supposedly to help a particular deaf person. We were aware from others that this was a common scam to get donations at tourist sites in Paris, so we kept moving without engaging the scammer in conversation at all or making eye contact.
Also, beware of taxis at some European train stations. Always check resources online, with friends, your hotel, and other experts about recommendations on how to get around, especially from the train stations. The cars with taxi signs right outside the station might not be the fair, legitimate transportation services available. Although we should have known better, we impulsively got in a taxi at the station in Bratislava, Slovakia. It cost us about three to four times as much as it should have to get to our hotel. And there’s no use arguing with them about it afterward.
TA: What is one way people can get the most out of their cruise experience?
Catherine: Take every included tour and consider one or two optional excursions to enhance your experience. The guides are consistently good, and you’ll come away with new information and inspiration to visit again. Be sure to also take advantage of the free time usually offered after the tours to explore a bit on your own.
TA: Is there something you think most travelers worry too much about?
Catherine: Having a wide selection of clothes to wear while traveling, trying to dress to impress, and thus overpacking with items that will never be worn or are really not necessary -- like too many shoes and accessories. Of course, I’m not a fashion expert, so others may disagree.
TA: If you could only give a traveler one piece of advice, what would it be?
Catherine: Follow your heart and dreams. Don’t let anyone tell you what kind of traveler you should be or what counts as a real travel experience. Just get out there and go. Cruise, RV, take a road trip across the U.S., backpack in Southeast Asia, stay in luxurious European hotels -- whatever your thing, do it. Visit tourist attractions, amusement parks, historic locations, or relax on a beach. Just go. And don’t wait until a time when you think you’ll have more time. Use whatever time you can right now. You might not be able to see everything, but see what you can.
TA: What is one piece of advice you'd give to travelers your age?
Catherine: Don’t let age (or others' definition of age-appropriate travel) determine your travel style. Let your specific dreams and abilities do that. Go where you want to go, and have the experiences that will enrich your life.