You’re in a new city and you have the near-unavoidable checklist of sights to see and things to do. Let’s review here: Museums, national parks, historic sites, art installations, so-and-so says this is the home of the world’s best wiener schnitzel — the list could seemingly go on forever.
And while many attractions are simply a case of beholding them (it’s free to stare at the Eiffel Tower but not to climb), entrance fees and related costs add up over the course of a vacation.
So what destination is available in just about every city you’ll visit, is a great porthole into local culture, offers spectacular people-watching as well as potentially free Internet access (handy in a foreign land) and is always free to visit? Libraries! I’m not just talking about Washington D.C.‘s Library of Congress (on many actual to-do lists), but any community building for book loan. You probably grew up visiting your own, from time to time, and never even considered it as a tourist attraction. Admittedly, that’s because some libraries are a tad more impressive than others — not in what they stand for, but perhaps how they stand (picture a repurposed industrial complex in Germany shaped like a Tetris block and filled with books).
Flavorwire recently put together a slideshow of 15 standout libraries from around the world — including one in Denmark featuring a giant mouth that recites poetry aloud, as well as reading nooks resembling birdcages in an eco-retreat at a Thai resort.
Editor’s Note: Slides one and nine represent private, home libraries and while awe-inspiring, are not recommended for your next sightseeing list!
What Not to Do in a New City
While attending college in Poughkeepsie, NY, I was drawn to study in the library of my friend’s alma mater, Vassar College — not for the millions of pages at hand, lying dormant in their many tomes, but for the Gothic architecture: the marble touches, hidden staircases and stained glass windows. This didn’t improve my grades as much as fuel my wandering imagination, and solidify my appreciation of libraries that appear as grand and mysterious as the knowledge within.
If the library you find doesn’t resemble a cathedral or a giraffe, don’t fret. The volumes you find abroad may not always be in your native tongue, but the communal library experience is guaranteed to be shared. Libraries are often used as a space for community announcements and events, so take advantage of tapping right into the source — find a bulletin board or events calendar (if you can read it) to get a pulse on the area.
12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of
What’s the best library you ever visited at home or abroad? Share your experiences in the comments below!
– written by Brittany Chrusciel
If art, like music, is widely considered a universal language, then is street art universal slang?
Similar to the temporary nature of catchphrase fads, graffiti is a form of street art that speaks to the underground culture of the moment, is relevant to time and place, and may last just days or fade slowly over the years.
What I’ve found interesting in my travels is the persistence of this art form. From scribbles to symbols, tags to full-on murals, finding graffiti around the world is a personal reassurance that modern voices are thriving beneath a bridge in Budapest, at a bus stop on the remote island of Mauritius, and on every wall, bench and transformable crevice in between. Here’s a sampling:
One of many pieces I found in a parking lot behind a main shopping street in Brisbane, Australia. Note how the environment (grass, electric wires, sign) seems to play into the art.
An example of stencil graffiti. I saw this spray can-wielding penguin many times around Penang, Malaysia.
A mural depicting capoeira (Brazilian martial arts dance) and other cultural images along a cobblestone street in Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia.
Another stencil placed slyly on a wall in the Monastiraki-Psirri section of Athens, Greece.
Scratchitti is a term used for graffiti etched into a wall or surface. I came across this haunting scratchitti while on a tour of the Killing Fields in the village of Choeung Ek, Cambodia.
This image was part of an entire abandoned building alcove of wheatpaste graffiti (named for the paste used to adhere the image) on the Lower East Side of New York City. I use the term “was” because upon second visit, this piece and all of its counterparts had disappeared into temporality.
Have you snapped any shots of street art around the world? If so, send them our way: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Best 9 Cities to See Cool Public Art
– written by Brittany Chrusciel
It was a hot day, and people walked for hours along a narrow, rocky path because there were no roads to where they were going. Everyone was walking together by the sea, which was very still and calm. They all seemed happy — because they were on their way to a seaweed festival!
The Fete du Goemon, or Seaweed Festival, takes place each year in the western Brittany region of France on the last Sunday in July (mark your calendar for the 29th). Drawn by a small poster in a shop window, I stopped by the festival to watch people drying seaweed in stone troughs, demonstrating how to extract iodine from it and how to use the rest in recipes or as fuel. There was also a band, long trestle tables laden with food and drink, and a stall selling such dubiously useful items as a seaweed comb and seaweed sandals.
Seaweed was once a tremendously important factor in this part of Northern France’s economy, but the money isn’t what it was and the demand for fuels has gone elsewhere. Now the old seaweed stations are mainly grassed over and draw only a yearly crop of curious people like me.
Sound strange? There are even weirder festivals out there! Below are some of the odder ones I found while planning this year’s activities. Hopefully they’ll inspire the more inquisitive among you to go and find your own unusual customs and bizarre gatherings.
Air Guitar World Championships: Oulu, Finland
Forget standing around watching a holographic Tupac flickering onstage. On the 22nd of August, you can watch some of the world’s most extroverted proponents of air guitar plugging in their imaginary instruments and taking to the stage at the 2012 Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland. The city, home to mobile phone giant Nokia, has been troubling the air waves this way since 1996, with the festival becoming a huge forum for ax men and women around the world to prove their mimesmanship (actual term). Current Finnish champion Puccini Vibre will be looking to continue his current form with a win at the festival, though many eyes are on the 2011 U.S. Air Guitar Champion Nordic Thunder (real name Justin Howard), who is expected to take the crown.
One Summer Festival That’s Not Worth the Trip
Naki Sumo: Tokyo, Japan
A crying baby ought to be bad luck. Not so in Japan, where a yearly festival seeks to oust evil spirits through babies’ tears. Every year, more than 100 babies are brought by their parents to the steps of the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, where they are made to cry by huge sumo wrestlers, who hold the babies up in the air above their heads. Weirdly, the babies usually seem unperturbed by this and, to avoid the bad luck that would be brought by the babies not crying, the sumo wrestlers end up pulling hideous faces and gently shaking them, with the temple priests even doing their bit to frighten the children with masks. This festival takes place every year at the end of April. Entrance is free.
The Best Places to Stay in Tokyo
Spam Jam: Waikiki, Hawaii
Waikiki draws big crowds to take part in surfing festivals, but those in the know come to check out Spam Jam, one of the biggest street festivals dedicated to Spam in the world! According to the Spam Jam Web site, Hawaiians eat more Spam than anyone else on Earth, and the springtime event aims to celebrate this with great food, dancing and family entertainment on two stages. There are Spam plays and Spam dancers and opportunities to pick up Spam t-shirts. The whole thing is in aid of the Hawaii Food Bank, a non-profit organisation that provides food for people in need. Start thinking about your plane tickets if you’d like to get involved with Spam Jam 2013, which will begin on the 27th of April.
Our Favorite Honolulu Hotels
– written by Josh Thomas
As the capital of the U.S., Washington D.C. is full of amazing things to see, fascinating history to explore and delicious restaurants to draw your dollar from your purse. But your budget holiday in Washington D.C. doesn’t have to break the bank. There are lots of free activities to enjoy, some perfectly priced restaurants and great-value accommodations in the District of Columbia.
The District Hotel in the Logan Circle Historic District is less than six blocks from the White House, the National Mall and Chinatown, and it’s just a five-minute walk to restaurants, bars and Embassy Row. All rooms have cable TV, air-conditioning and en-suite bathrooms. There’s also free daily continental breakfast and space for parking (for a fee). Private rooms start from $119 per night. There are also plenty of other cheap hotels and hostels in Washington D.C. for travelers on a budget.
As a university town, Washington D.C. has plenty of budget eateries to satisfy hungry students, of which thrifty travelers can take full advantage. There are many great value restaurants around the campuses, such as Ben’s Chili Bowl, famous for its chili dogs and chili half-smokes (Bill Cosby cites it as his favorite restaurant in Washington).
Or try the award-winning Hank’s Oyster Bar. The restaurant’s fresh New England beach-style seafood dishes include such delights as crab cake eggs Benedict, smoked salmon platter and seafood omelet — all for fantastic prices. And of course, a variety of oyster dishes are on the menu, as well as a flavorsome selection of wine, microbrews and seasonal beer.
Free Things to Do
- Most of the museums and historic sites at the National Mall are free, including the Smithsonian museums. The tree-lined Mall extends from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol Building and has plenty of green space for you to set up a picnic and enjoy the architecture from the comfort of your blanket.
- Admission to the National Zoo is free. Travelers of all ages will love the pandas, gorillas and monkeys that call the beautiful Rock Creek National Park (where the Smithsonian National Zoological Park is set) home. Apart from the zoo, there are spaces to picnic, hike, play tennis, ride horses, join animal talks and enjoy the crafts at the nature center in Rock Creek National Park.
- Every evening at 6 p.m., the Kennedy Center, Washington’s premier concert hall, puts on free performances. Regular stars include the National Symphony Orchestra, jazz musicians and dance troupes, so keep an eye on the listings.
- Go for one of the daily free tours around the U.S. Capitol building — but get there early, as they’re first come, first served. Otherwise, just browse the galleries at the Capital Visitor Center, where you can watch a live video feed of House and Senate floor proceedings. Visit the U.S. Botanic Garden next door; it houses roughly 4,000 seasonal, tropical and subtropical plants.
- Check out the National Gallery of Art, which has a vast free sculpture garden. Enjoy a guided tour around the center for — you guessed it — free!
- Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for thousands of American servicemen and women. You can walk the grounds for free (but to find the most interesting graves, take a guided tour bus for just $7.50).
- The Bureau of Engraving and Printing runs free tours around the factory where money is printed, cut and examined.
- No visit to Washington D.C. is complete without a tour of the White House. You must make a request through your Congressperson at least 21 days in advance. (Visitors from outside the U.S. should contact their embassy in Washington to submit a tour request.) Otherwise, you can visit the White House Visitor Center for free.
– written by Shing Mon Chung, SEO Executive of HostelBookers.com
Food, wine, parades, live music and finally getting outdoors after a long winter … what’s not to love about the spring festival season? If you’re seeking inspiration for a last-minute spring trip, don’t miss the festivities going on around the U.S. in celebration of everything from strawberries to Cinco de Mayo. Read on for info on our five favorite upcoming spring festivals.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: New Orleans, LA
Despite its name, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival showcases much more than just jazz music; headliners this year include Jimmy Buffett, Robert Plant & the Band of Joy, Cyndi Lauper, Wilco, Wyclef Jean and dozens of other artists in every musical genre you can imagine. In addition to live concerts every day, the festival — which runs for 10 days from April 29 through May 8 — also offers a Louisiana Folklife Village and a Native American Village where visitors can watch crafts demonstrations and enjoy traditional local music. And don’t forget the food! This is your chance to sample N’awlins favorites like muffuletta, red beans and rice, po’boys, and crawfish pie.
California Strawberry Festival: Oxnard, CA
Whether you like ‘em baked into a shortcake, dipped in chocolate, slathered with whipped cream or even tossed on top of a pizza, strawberries are the center of the action at Oxnard, California’s annual Strawberry Festival on May 21 and 22. Check out the Strawberry Promenade to watch cooking demonstrations and take in an informative exhibit on the “Life of a Strawberry.” Live music, a kids’ area, and locally made arts and crafts round out the offerings.
Cinco in the Park: Denver, CO
Denver celebrates Mexican culture and heritage with its annual Cinco in the Park festival, scheduled this year for May 7 and 8. The holiday of Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle in which the Mexican town of Puebla overcame the French back in 1862; in modern-day Denver, the fiesta includes music, dancing, a parade and a Green Chili Bowl Cook-Off, in which local restaurants duke it out over who has the best spicy recipe.
Nantucket Daffodil Festival: Nantucket, MA
After a long and snowy winter, the island of Nantucket celebrates the spring thaw each year with its colorful Nantucket Daffodil Festival. This year’s festivities, which run from April 29 through May 1, will feature annual events such as the antique car parade (the vehicles are, of course, bedecked with daffodil blooms), the daffy hat pageant (how many flowers can you fit onto your baseball cap?) and the daffy dog parade (a daffodil-decorated Fido might lack a little dignity, but he’ll sure look pretty).
Vidalia Onion Festival: Vidalia, GA
Did you know that the Vidalia sweet onion is Georgia’s official state vegetable? Help celebrate all things onion at the 34th annual Vidalia Onion Festival, which runs from April 28 through May 1. The town goes all out for the festivities, which include an air show, a concert (with “American Idol” alum Kellie Pickler as the headliner), a Miss Vidalia Onion pageant, a rodeo, a motorcycle rally and, of course, plenty of opportunities to sample those yummy onions! Try the sweet onion rings, available downtown all day during the festival, or attend the Vidalia Onion Culinary Extravaganza with a local chef and cookbook author. Those with iron stomachs can join the onion eating contest.
For more ideas, see our Top 10 Stunning Spring Destinations.
– written by Sarah Schlichter
London is full of free things to do. A bunch of world-class museums, such as the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, offer free admission. There’s no charge to watch cheeky orators embarrass themselves and others in front of large crowds at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. And it’s free to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
Travelers to London can also enjoy complimentary comedy shows in the heart of the city, which I accidentally discovered on a trip earlier this week.
Searching the Web for something budget-friendly and fun to do on a weekday night, I came across an online listing for “The Ideas Factory,” a free comedy show at a bar in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. On a whim, I showed up at the bar (Old Crown on 33 New Oxford Street), and was directed to a small room upstairs. It was a tiny, dimly lit space with two beat-up couches and some folding chairs. There were just three or four people standing about drinking beer. The place looked like a sad and poorly attended party hosted by college students in a studio apartment — no stage, no audience and no microphone; this didn’t seem promising.
Despite my unease, I stayed, expecting a mediocre show at best, and an embarrassing flop ending in violence at worst. Yet the show was brilliant. The comedians, who hammed it up just inches from a tiny group of roughly 10 people, were polished, professional and delightfully clever. Performers included Matthew Highton, Paul Duncan McGarrity and Jay Cowle, established British comedians who also do standup at the “real” comedy clubs — you know, the ones that charge admission.
During a break in the show, I asked one of the performers why he bothered to appear at a free show in such a dark and diminutive room above a bar. He explained that this kind of intimate performance is common in London, where comedians arrange small events for the purpose of testing new material in front of an audience.
Spending the evening as a comic guinea pig in London was an unforgettable experience. To find free comedy shows in London, check out Time Out London (www.TimeOut.com/London).
– written by Caroline Costello
Mark your calendars. The National Cherry Blossom Festival has unveiled the most hotly discussed seasonal bellwether since that groundhog popped his head out of his home in early February.
That would be, of course, when the peak blooming days are for the cherry blossoms along D.C.’s Tidal Basin: March 29 – April 3. Check the National Cherry Blossom Festival Web site for details and the full schedule for the March 26 – April 10 event (think everything from parades and parties to road races and street fairs).
No matter when the peak is (and it can swing wildly from mid-March to mid-April depending on how harsh the winter was), there are a few things you should know if you’re planning on going. I lived just outside of Washington D.C. for nearly 20 years and found that even though it’s Tourist Central (and why not?), those flowering trees were just as much of a local magnet. A few tips:
Avoid the crowds.
Easier said than done. While cherry trees are scattered around the city, the iconic forest of pink is sequestered around the Tidal Basin just off the National Mall — and the body of water itself is ringed by a relatively narrow sidewalk. So you can expect a tightly packed mass of humanity on weekends. I’d suggest going in the early morning (watch the sunrise over the blossoms — it’s magical) or in the late evening. During dusk it’s a beautiful scene, and you won’t have to push your way through a crowd. Even better, go during a workday because most everyone is, uh, working.
Watch your step — and your head.
The trees swoop fairly low in some spots, and you could conk your noggin if you’re not paying attention. There’s also a sea of dogs underfoot for some reason (really, why can’t people just leave Mugsy at home?), so it’s easy to get tangled up in someone’s leash or stumble over a wayward Chihuahua. Sidewalks can be a bit uneven in spots as well, so consider going off the trail and walking among the trees themselves.
Pack a meal.
I can’t think of a better place to eat than on a blanket tucked under the cherry trees, and there’s ample greenswards that allow you to do so. But because the Tidal Basin is fairly far afield from delis and the like, it’s best to arrive onsite with food in hand.
Wear comfortable shoes — and do the entire circuit.
You can’t get a really get a good sense of the breadth of the display without actually walking the entire route, so give yourself a few hours (at least). You can visit the F.D.R. and Jefferson memorials along the way (both are top-notch photo ops as well), and you’ll be surprised at how different the vantage points are as you progress.
Ok, you can drive if you arrive early enough and opt to park closer to the Mall, which is 15 to 45 minutes away by foot depending on where you settle. Just about every distance in Washington looks closer than it actually is, so be aware that you may have a schlep before the schlep. It’s best to take mass transit, but even the Metro will involve a bit of a hike. Or grab a cab and get out a few traffic-free blocks from the main event.
Stay off the trees.
That’s Rule No. 1 actually — there are warnings everywhere to that effect. But it doesn’t matter: There’s always someone clambering on a branch. If you witness this affront on nature, feel free to lash out at the culprit, and everyone will think you’re a D.C. native (they’re very protective of this amazing asset).
– written by John Deiner
For anyone planning a holiday trip to New York City, a fully packed schedule awaits. New York’s holiday celebrations number in the hundreds, and include everything from world-famous events, like the Times Square ball drop or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, to Christmas shows and community concerts. The following 10 events are some of our favorites, but to see a more complete list of seasonal activities in the Big Apple, check out the NYC.gov Event Calendar.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade marks the start of New York’s holiday celebrations. The parade, which marches in on November 24, features bunches of fantastical balloons, dozens of mega-floats and performers strutting down the streets of Manhattan. To get the best views of the parade, book a hotel room facing the street on Central Park West or Broadway (these rooms fill up well in advance, so make reservations early). If it’s too late to snag a room with a view, you can always wake up early and stake out a spot on the street where the parade comes through.
Grand Central Terminal Holiday Fair
For the 12th consecutive year, Grand Central’s beautiful Vanderbilt Hall will convert into a bustling holiday fair this season. This urbane market isn’t exactly your local holiday bazaar selling pine cone wreaths in the elementary school gym. The fair, presented by the New York Times, features 76 unique vendors offering tasteful, eclectic gifts, from hand-crafted jewelry to fine art and photography. Shops are open daily from November 15 through December 24 (with the exception of Thanksgiving Day).
Radio City Christmas Spectacular
The Rockettes kick-start the season with a colorful, eye-popping musical extravaganza featuring dancing armies of Santas, festive holiday tunes and a living nativity scene with real animals. The G-rated performance is popular with families with young children, but the show works for anyone who isn’t too old to enjoy Christmas songs and sky-high leg kicks. Performances are going on now and run through the end of December.
On December 12, the second night of Hanukkah, Town and Village Synagogue at 334 East 14th Street will host a sing-along Hanukkah concert with a reception to follow. The concert includes a Hanukkah candle lighting, and everyone is invited to sing along to traditional Jewish folk songs.
New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show
From November 20 through January 9, the New York Botanical Garden exhibits a charming half-mile train track with G-scale model trains and more than 100 hand-constructed mini-New York City landmarks, which are all crafted of plant materials. Grab some hot chocolate and ginger snaps in the Botanical Garden Cafe and spend an afternoon exploring the festive 250-acre display.
George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”
The New York City Ballet’s world-famous “The Nutcracker” performance has been a New York holiday tradition since the 1950′s. Stunning costumes, an iconic score and even a massive one-ton Christmas tree transport viewers to a dreamy fairy-tale world in which toys dance and reindeer fly. There are roughly 45 “The Nutcracker” performances each year between November 26 and January 2, and it’s best to book your tickets early to snag prime seating.
On November 30, thousands will gather to witness the lighting of Rockefeller Center’s iconic Christmas tree. There will be special musical performances during the lighting ceremony (this year Susan Boyle, Mariah Carey and other celebrities will be putting on a good show), but if you can’t make it on that day, it’s always fun to rent some skates and take a spin on the Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center next to the sparkling tree.
The Pond at Bryant Park
Waiting for a ticket to get into the Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center can take an hour or longer, as only 150 people are allowed on the rink at a time. A nice, less touristy and free (that’s right — admission is free!) ice skating alternative is the Pond at Bryant Park. The outdoor rink stays open from the end of October through the end of February, and skate rentals are available on site.
The World’s Largest Menorah
The lighting of the biggest menorah in the world — the monument is 32 feet tall — happens at 4 p.m. on December 11 at the Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan (Fifth Avenue at 59th Street). The ceremony will include dancing, Jewish foods and performances by folk singers. Admission is free.
New Year’s Eve in Times Square
Okay, this one’s obvious. The Times Square New Year’s Eve ceremony pretty much marks the end of the city’s holiday festivities — and it’s the world’s most famous New Year’s Eve party — so we had to give it a mention. If you want to get in the action, you’ll have to arrive in the square pretty early on December 31 to stake out a good spot. No public restrooms are available, and there are no food or drink vendors, so make sure to do your business before you head to the square, and pack a snack.
For more information on the Big Apple, don’t miss our Top 25 Ways to Save on New York City Travel.
–written by Caroline Costello
In the same way that a great meal of sausage, sauerkraut and local altbier can be the focal point of a trip to Berlin, the talented guy with the sax and hat on the French Quarter sidewalk can create a powerful imprint from which the rest of a travel memory can build.
We’ve all seen the diminutive Incan flutists who, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, are sent to proselytize the reverb-filled sound of the Andes. But what about those artists who seem to have no twin, those street performers who take the man-and-guitar concept somewhere new and bizarre? Here are a few of my favorites:
London, England. My head was in a rag-y Metro paper during the busy red line Tube rush. A stubbly pair, one with a guitar, stepped onto the train. Without fanfare, they begin singing in a melodious staccato chant: “If you can’t shave in the public toilet, where can you shave?” After a second of confusion, the car’s commuters were a-grin. I was somewhat suspicious, as the duo wielded a clarity of voice and harmony you might not expect from people used to shearing in a public loo — but it was two minutes well spent either way.
Key West, Florida. Mallory Square is known for sunsets and street performers. I’ve seen your typical magicians, sword swallowers and fire-eaters — but I’ve also watched a man eating a shopping cart piece by piece (or displaying an uncanny knack for sleight of hand) and a talkative chap riding a painful-looking 30-foot-high unicycle while juggling. The most memorable performance was the Movin’ Melvin show.
Melvin appeared with a flat wooden mat for dancin’ on and one of those giant Utz pretzel drums full of dollars. Melvin started tap dancing. Then Melvin stopped, looked at the audience with a smile and said, “People say, ‘Melvin, can you move faster?!’” The crowd repeated the call. Then shouted Melvin, “Now watch me now!” And he moved faster than previously. The whole crowd got involved, and the line, delivered louder and louder in unison, became, “Melvin, can you move faster?!” The climax came when Melvin could no longer move faster.
New Orleans, Louisiana. In a town where it seems that every third resident has some sort of crazy talent, differentiation is key for street performers. Puppet master Valentino Georgievski, whose show features puppet versions of famous musicians singing and dancing, understands this well. I caught his show on a recent trip to the Big Easy. Sax-playing puppets got down on one knee while growling out that high note. A James Brown-looking puppet in a gray suit fell into a split during the break-down of “The Big Payback.” Another puppet stalked the mic in between the lines of “Low Rider,” a favorite move of more fleshy lead singers. It was all very soulful stuff, and it was just as much fun to watch the puppet master, who grooved along behind his marionettes.
Your turn: What street performer left an indelible mark on your brain?
–written by Dan Askin