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bangkok skytrainWe all know that many of the world’s largest metropolitan areas — New York, London, Tokyo — have such comprehensive public transportation systems that you wouldn’t even think about renting your own car.

Luckily for the expense-averse, this list includes much of Europe. Not only do cities such as Berlin and Barcelona have comprehensive subway and bus systems in town, you can easily connect to nearby attractions in the countryside, making day trips more accessible.

But what about those smaller cities, the places that — at first glance — might seem to require a rental vehicle to make your vacation worthwhile? While I’m not averse to getting a car when it’s a necessity (in, say, Los Angeles), I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past few years by being able to go car-free in some locations you might not expect.

Miami, Florida
To me, South Beach always personified Miami — and to get the full feel, there’s nothing like tooling past its art deco architecture in an equally retro rental (preferably a convertible). But hip neighborhoods such as Wynwood, Brickell Village and the Design District have made staying downtown more appealing — and public transportation options such as the Metromover and Miami Trolley mean you won’t miss much. Best of all? Both are free.

Where You Can Go: Bayside Market Place, Mary Brickell Village, Bicentennial Park, Museum Park (home to the new Perez Art Museum), and American Airlines Arena are all on the Metromover route (you can reach Wynwood and the Design District easily by bus from the Adrienne Arsht Center). Trolleys can take you to Marlins Park, Coral Gables and, yes, Miami Beach.

Where You Can’t: You’ll still need a car to spot alligators in the Everglades or catch a Key West sunset.

Train Travel Deals Around the World

Bangkok, Thailand
This busy Asian city has traffic jams so notorious that a separate class of vehicle has emerged to weave in and out of them (tuk tuks). Its elevated Skytrain has signs in English as well as air-conditioning, a must if you’re not used to the humidity. Also consider the Chao Phraya river, which winds through Bangkok; it’s often the quickest route between two places. Water taxis and traditional khlong (canal) boats are available.

Where You Can Go: Wat Arun, Grand Palace and Wat Prakeaw, Jim Thompson’s House, Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Khao San Road (if you want to mix with other tourists).

Where You Can’t: The famous World War II site, the bridge over the River Kwai, is in Kanchanaburi, about 90 minutes from Bangkok. While buses do run there, you’re better off hiring a driver or guide. Whatever you do, don’t take the train; it’s a local, meaning the conditions are basic (you’re likely to share a wooden seat with chickens), and it can take up to five hours.

San Antonio, Texas
If you’re deep in the heart of Texas, you expect cities with suburbs that sprawl for miles (we’re talking to you, Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth) — which is what makes San Antonio such a pleasant surprise. The Riverwalk, originally a WPA project, has been extended so it hooks up with the 10-mile Mission Reach trail. Rent bikes in trendy King William and make a day of it. The central hub of the Riverwalk is an attraction unto itself, with restaurants and bars aplenty (boat rides are fun too).

Where You Can Go: All five of San Antonio’s missions, including the Alamo; Pearl Brewery, San Antonio Art Museum, restaurants and bars.

Where You Can’t: The vineyards of nearby Hill Country require external transportation (preferably a private driver so you can taste at will).

St. Petersburg, Russia
The subway system in St. Petersburg is a major tourist sight for a reason. Conceived during Stalin’s tenure, the stations were considered “the people’s palaces” and given the design to match. You don’t even have to have a destination in mind to enjoy the elaborate chandeliers, marble floors and columns, and Soviet-era symbols found along the lines (fun fact: this is also the world’s deepest subway system).

Where You Can Go: Nevsky Prospekt, Church of the Spilled Blood, Hermitage, major theaters (for operas and ballet), and Peter and Paul Fortress. Peter the Great’s grand palace, Peterhof, is reachable by hydrofoil.

Where You Can’t: Catherine’s Palace, with the famous Amber Room, is in Pushkin (about 15 miles away) and is only open limited hours for people not in groups. It’s best to go with a guide.

Top Tips for Fighting Jet Lag

Seattle, Washington
Known for its eco ethic, Seattle should have a better public transportation system than it does (while a light rail connects SEA-TAC airport with downtown, it regularly draws complaints for its geographical limitations). Luckily, the bus routes make up for it.

Where You Can Go: Pike Place Market and original Starbucks, Pioneer Square, Space Needle and Seattle Center (home to EMP Museum, the Pacific Science Center and Chilhuly Garden and Glass), both stadiums, Capitol Hill, Alki Beach (by water taxi), Bainbridge Island (by Washington State Ferry).

Where You Can’t: To go hiking in any of the mountain range parks that surround Seattle — Mt. Rainier, the Cascades or the Olympics — you’ll need a car.

– written by Chris Gray Faust

upside down house polandYes, we’re seasoned world travelers, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t occasionally enamored with kitschy roadside attractions. Be they weird landmarks, supernatural places, wonky museums or crazy theme parks, there are lots of curiosities that appeal to our roving sense of wonder.

Take, for instance, this sampling of some of the oddest homes we’ve found, both in the United States and abroad. Perhaps you’ll feel like making a pit stop on your next journey.

Beer Can House: Houston, TX
Former owner John Milkovisch began inlaying rocks, marbles and aluminum on his front and back yards in 1968 after claiming he was tired of taking care of the lawn. Aluminum roofing and siding followed over an 18-year period. The strangest part? The aluminum is all made of beer cans — including the beer-can-lid garland that hangs from the roof. It gets a bit noisy when the wind blows, but the material evidently cuts down on energy costs. After Milkovisch’s death in 1988, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art took it on as a restoration project, and it’s open to visitors on weekend afternoons.

Nautilus House: Mexico City, Mexico
A couple in Mexico City hired an architect to aid them in building themselves a home — a home that just happens to look like a giant seashell. Complete with a giant stained-glass window and several other porthole-like openings, the home is bit reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, boasting tiny vegetation-lined paths that wend between rooms, all of which are furnished with cartoonish furniture that’s fit for a hobbit.

12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of

Whimzeyland: Safety Harbor, FL
This home, purchased in 1985 as a plain-looking dwelling by current occupants (and artists) Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda, is cheerfully decorated with bright colors and knickknacks galore. Among bottle trees and other whimsical found objects are the dozens of bowling balls that can be seen throughout the grounds’ landscaping. Years ago, the pair obtained bowling balls for free at a local flea market and used them to liven up the place, painting more dismally colored ones for an even more happy effect.

Upside-Down House: Szymbark, Poland
At this dizzying property, visitors can walk around inside the structure’s upside-down rooms, which allegedly mess with the equilibria of many. Designed by Daniel Czapiewski to represent the fall of communism, it was reportedly cumbersome for builders to complete, due to the topsy-turvy nature of, well, just about everything. Bonus: If you turn your camera upside down before snapping a selfie, it’ll look like you’re hanging from the ceiling.

Winchester Mystery House: San Jose, CA
Built by Sarah Winchester, the wife of William Wirt Winchester (as in Winchester rifles), the mansion cost $5.5 million to build and contains 160 rooms. Construction went on for years as Sarah claimed she needed to accommodate the spirits of those who died at the hands of the guns her husband helped to produce. It’s now a major tourist attraction that features a museum, a restaurant and expensive tours. Hours vary seasonally.

Photos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

Which of these crazy houses would you most want to visit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

sea turtle babyI love animals, and I love travel. Combine the two, and I’m all smiles. Whether it’s volunteer work, taking a tour or finding a new pet, there are lots of ways to involve yourself with different species while you travel close to home. Below is a list of five examples. Feel free to add your own in the comments, too.

Sea Turtle Release

This annual occurrence — generally late-June through mid-August — at Padre Island National Seashore in Corpus Christi, Texas, allows spectators to watch as groups of newly hatched baby sea turtles are gently nudged toward the sea by park officials. Anywhere from 15 to 25 releases per year are open to the public.

Manatee Observation

Florida is a great place to catch a glimpse of manatees in the wild. A perfect spot to see them is at Lee County Manatee Park in Fort Myers, Florida. Just remember: they’re wild animals, so don’t touch them as you enjoy the views of them swimming around in front of you.

Hermit Crab Adoption

If you’re in the market for a low-maintenance pet, stop by Jenkinson’s Pier in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, and purchase some hermit crabs. Be sure to buy at least two, as they’re social animals who thrive in groups. Keep in mind, though, that they aren’t throw-away pets, and they do require a small level of care.

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Miniature Horse Rehabilitation

Volunteer at the Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue in Mandan, North Dakota, where abused and unwanted miniature horses are brought to live or be rehabilitated for adoption.

Cow-Milking on a Working Dairy Farm

Try your hand at milking a cow, and interact with goats at Hinchley’s Dairy Farm in Cambridge, Wisconsin, which offers tours three times a day from April through October.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

willie t's restaurant bar key westWhen I first set foot on Key West’s Duval Street, I was greeted by eccentric shops, themed restaurants, pink taxicabs and warm, inviting sunlight. I immediately knew that I was in for a unique experience. I spent a weekend there for a bachelor party, so the itinerary wasn’t really focused on visiting the cultural parts of the town, but simply on finding some great places to get lost in the revelry.

One such place is a small, friendly bar known as Flying Monkeys Saloon. The outdoor atmosphere makes for great people watching, and the small, yet roomy space makes it easy to mingle and make new friends. And don’t forget the frozen drinks, which are some of the absolute best. These cleverly named drinks include: Grape Ape (bourbon, 151 rum and grape punch), Howler (grain alcohol, vodka and lemonade), Ruby Roo (fresh raspberries and 151 rum) and, of course, the titular Flying Monkey (a mix of the Howler and the Ruby Roo). If you find yourself in Key West, be sure to make Flying Monkeys your first stop to get the party started. However, be advised that their drinks, while exceptionally good, are also quite strong. It probably wasn’t the best idea for me to have two Flying Monkeys in a row on an empty stomach while jet lagged. But hey … it was a bachelor party.

8 Warm Weather Winter Escapes

If you’d like to get some food in your system after your arrival, Willie T’s Restaurant & Bar is an excellent spot to do so. The menu consists of American and Caribbean cuisine with an emphasis on seafood. Our time at Willie T’s was both delicious and educational, as one of my fellow travelers and I learned how to say “thank you” in Russian. (Of course, this was done solely in an effort to garner the attention of the attractive Russian waitress tending to us.) One especially fun thing about Willie T’s is the seemingly infinite amount of one-dollar bills stapled to the walls, the ceiling, the bar and even the trees. It’s customary for first-time visitors to write their names on dollar bills so they can be immortalized within the restaurant. If you decide to visit Willie T’s, make sure you find the time (and space) to leave your mark. After you’ve done that, look for a dollar bill marked “Deech” on the wall leading to the outdoor patio to bask in my glory.

While Willie T’s has a full bar with great drink selections, Irish Kevin’s is a much more appropriate place for those looking for a traditional bar scene. It usually attracts plenty a crowd with its live music, great service and all around excellent dive bar feel. There’s no food menu, so it’s best to come here for after-dinner drinks and not-for-kids entertainment.

While we enjoyed the classic bar atmosphere of Irish Kevin’s, we found ourselves yearning for something with a bit more space. This led us to a lively, laid-back spot known as El Alamo. Like many other Key West joints, El Alamo is an outdoor bar with live music and a friendly crowd. However, what sets it apart is its bevy of outdoor games, which include cornhole, beer pong and flip cup. It also serves $1 PBRs and features a pool table in its small indoor shack.

Since our time spent on Duval Street was for a bachelor party, we decided to use the next morning to end it in the manliest way possible: with a breakfast consisting of crepes and mimosas from an adorable French cafe known as Le Creperie. Here you’ll find both savory and sweet crepes, both of which are highly satisfying. I chose to go with a crepe topped with bananas, strawberries and Nutella for a sweet end to an even sweeter weekend.

What’s your favorite spot in Key West?

– written by Mike DiChiara

In honor of the upcoming Independence Day holiday, let’s take a peek at some of the places where the guys who run the country kick back and, um, clear some brush (I’m still not exactly sure what that means).

Regardless of how they choose to spend their vacation time, the leaders of the free world, it seems, have a knack for finding the most gorgeous corners of the country in which to retreat from life in the White House. With a sky’s-the-limit budget and a team of assistants, finding the perfect place to get away probably isn’t too challenging for a commander in chief. But for those of us who do our own trip planning, the presidents’ array of amazing vacation spots can provide some excellent summer travel ideas. Here are four of our favorite presidential destinations, with suggestions for planning your own stately retreat:

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

This summer, the Obamas are once again jetting to Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island freckled with sheep, apple orchards and seafood shacks (the Obamas have spent previous summer stays here). The island’s pastoral, timeworn character belies its status as a travel destination for the most stalwart power circles. The Obamas are in solid Democratic company: Previous presidential Martha’s Vineyard vacationers include the Clintons and the Kennedys.

The Obamas are returning to Blue Heron Farm, a 28-acre estate that overlooks the water. According to ABC News, “Tom Wallace, of Wallace and Company Sotheby’s International Realty, said the property, which is home to a five-bedroom main house, also features a Cape Cod guest house, a swimming pool and a half-court basketball court. The Obamas will have their pick of activities on the property, ranging from kayaking on the West Tisbury Great Pond to a simple game of horseshoes.”

A Vacation for the Rest of Us: Martha’s Vineyard has a handful of Victorian B&B’s that ooze New England charm and, most importantly, offer reasonable rates for those of us without security details and private planes. We like the Oak Bluffs Inn, a 19th-century home with wicker rocking chairs on the porch and a cool polygonal tower. Rates start at $225 per night for the summer season.

martha's vineyard



Kennebunkport, Maine

In the quiet seaside town of Kennebunkport sits the famed Bush Compound, the vacation spot to which George and George W.’s family members have been returning for generations. I guess it’s called a “compound” due to the prevalence of suited security guys in dark shades — there’s a checkpoint on the road leading to the entrance — but I think “estate” or “mansion” sounds like a less frightening place to take one’s summer break. The compound was originally known as Walker’s Point Estate when it was constructed at the turn of the century. The expansive property features a four-car garage, a pool, a boathouse, tennis courts and a nine-bedroom main house.

A Vacation for the Rest of Us: Like Martha’s Vineyard, Kennebunkport offers plenty of Victorian B&B’s (it’s a New England thing). The Captain Lord Mansion, a popular B&B, has, without a doubt, the best name for a New England inn that I’ve heard yet. Built in 1812, the inn features lavishly appointed rooms with canopy beds and fireplaces, with summer rates starting at $239 per night.

bush compound



Santa Barbara, California
During his term as president, Ronald Reagan would often retreat to Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara, where he spent his time clearing brush, chopping wood and heroically riding around on horses. There’s something, well, sort of paradoxical about traveling to a multi-million-dollar ranch to partake in brush clearing. But hey — that’s what the Gipper liked to do.

The ranch spans 688 acres and provides views of the Santa Ynez Valley and the Pacific Ocean. Amenities include a quirky mix of the rustic and stately: There’s a helipad, a Secret Service command post (the only federal building remaining on the property), a hay barn, and pastures with cows and horses.

Rancho del Cielo



A Vacation for the Rest of Us:
Students who participate in Reagan Ranch programs and members of the Young America’s Foundation’s President’s Club are eligible to visit the ranch by appointment. Is this you? No? Then we recommend a stay at the Santa Ynez Inn, a convenient hub for exploring the region’s vineyards, art galleries and horse ranches. Rates start at $218.33 per night during summer, but the inn also offers various cycling tour and golf packages for bargain prices.

Key Biscayne, Florida
Ah, the beautiful Florida Keys. Nixon may have had a penchant for political sabotage, but he certainly had fine taste in vacation homes. Known as the “Florida White House,” Nixon’s Key Biscayne retreat provided a tropical waterfront escape for the 37th president of the U.S. The compound (there’s that word again) featured six bedrooms, eight bathrooms and oodles of ocean views — but it was razed in 2004 and replaced with a new home. Today, Key Biscayne’s claim to fame is that Nixon once relaxed by the ocean (and occasionally consorted with certain Florida businessmen) on its shores.

A Vacation for the Rest of Us: Key Biscayne is a tiny island close to Miami, where lovely beaches and the occasional Cuban restaurant are the main attractions. There’s a Ritz-Carlton on the key, where rates range from $300 to $1,000-plus per night. For the budget minded among us, Silver Sands Resort offers a cool blue pool and beachfront digs with off-season summer rates starting at $129.

Key Biscayne



– written by Caroline Costello

“‘Tradition’ is a synonym for ‘rut,’” tweeted @wandering_j in response to a call out for unique summer travel traditions. We beg to differ — especially if your tradition is to visit a different island park each summer, or to charter a boat and explore places unknown. Not that there’s anything wrong with the yearly beach pilgrimage to Wildwood for family fun, arcades and deep-fried Oreos, but we’re going unique here. Check out our five, then share your own inspired ideas for summer travel traditions.

1. Trace the Beer and Food Festivals
For the connoisseur or boozehound, Beerfestivals.org’s July calendar lists dozens of fests throughout the U.S. and beyond. I think this year, I’ll start on July 23 at the Philly Zoo’s Summer Ale Festival. Attendees can drink River Horse’s Hop Hazard (or brews from a list of other outfits) and eat local cuisine while supporting the zoo’s mission to “bring about the x-tink-shun of extinction.” Or brave the summer heat for New Orleans’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, which offers cooking demos and cocktail tastings at the end of July. Finally, we had to mention @TravelSpinner’s suggestion: Head to Suffolk, England for “Dwile Flonking,” which Wikipedia says “involves two teams, each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team.” Now how could you miss that?

beer festival



2. Escape to an Island State Park
Florida‘s Bahia Honda Key comprises a state park with a natural beach (you’ll quickly get used to the strong seaweed smell), fishing and snorkeling, kayaking, rare plant spotting, and hiking. Head up to the old Bahia Honda Bridge, part of the iconic Overseas Highway, for a view of the island and its surroundings. You can rent cabins or rough it at a campsite (a store and shower facilities are available on the island). Across the country, trekkers can camp at California‘s Channel Islands, a chain of uninhabited islands with a unique ecosystem. The islands are said to resemble California as it was B.S. (before smog). Activities for campers (back country and official campsites) include surfing, hiking, and seal and sea lion viewing.

bahia honda state park florida keys



3. Explore a Destination by Chartered Boat
Visiting a place by boat is often the best — and sometimes only — way to go. If you can pull together 3 – 20 like-minded friends (the more you gather, the more you can divide the costs), you can charter a boat for a cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage, which is made up of islands unlinked by road. There are various choices, from two- or three-nighters to a week or more; all come with cook and captain. Meals and snacks are included in the costs, and often feature “catch of the day”-type fare, as well as crab and shrimp bakes. Excursions may include beach and rain forest hiking, fishing, kayaking (most charters are equipped with kayaks and smaller skiffs), wetsuit diving, whale watching, and visits to hot springs and waterfalls — all there to be enjoyed whenever the opportunity presents itself. For more tips, see Planning a Trip to Alaska.

alaska inside passage boat sunset



4. Relive History
Some of the most important (and bloodiest) battles of Civil War occurred during the summer months. @PolPrairieMama mentioned that she heads to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Antietam (in Sharpsburg, Maryland), where 23,000 soldiers were killed in 12 hours, for summer reenactments. The big annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactment runs from July 1 to 3 and features live mortar fire demos and battles — but there are enough battlefields and reenactments to fill a lifetime of summers. And don’t forget: This year is the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

gettysburg battlefield cannon civil war



5. Become a Home Team Groupie
Leap-frogging on an annual manly bonding trip taken by IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter’s father and brother, we’re hitting the road with an arbitrarily chosen sports squadron. A quick glance at the Philadelphia Phillies’ schedule reveals a West Coast swing from August 1 – 10, during which the team plays the Colorado Rockies for three, the San Francisco Giants for four and the Los Angeles Dodgers for three. Three vastly different cities, climates, ballparks, landscapes. Next year we’ll pick a different team on a different swing. Anything but a rut.

san francisco giants baseball ballpark



Get more summer vacation ideas!

– written by Dan Askin

Miami BeachEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Save 25 percent on your summer stay at dozens of hotels across the Sunshine State. Travel between May 15 and September 30, and receive up to a quarter off the cost of your booking at participating JW Marriott, Renaissance, and Marriott hotels and resorts in Florida.

You’ll find a full list of participating properties on the Marriott Web site, which includes a bevy of beachfront resorts in locations like Miami, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Orlando, Key Largo and Tampa that are eligible for the 25 percent discount. This is a fantastic offer for anyone seeking a pre-cruise stay for a sailing out of Florida, as a number of eligible hotels are located near cruise ports.

The Catch: Each hotel only has a limited number of rooms available for this promotion, which makes sense considering Marriott is advertising this deal under the title, “Get It While It’s Hot.” You’ll want to book early for best availability.

The Competition: Hotels.com is currently running a promotion on beach hotels, with discounts of up to 30 percent at select properties. The beach-themed bargain features a bunch of discounted properties in Florida (as well as other surf-and-sand destinations like the Caribbean, Hawaii and Mexico), but travel dates are limited. You must book a stay for travel through the end of May to take advantage of the 30 percent discount.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Hotel Deals.

– written by Caroline Costello

Flowers, chocolates, Champagne and … Mickey Mouse?

If Disney characters don’t exactly top your list of prerequisites for romance, you might be surprised by the findings of a recent Orbitz survey on Valentine’s Day travel. Based on bookings for the coming weekend, the site named its three most popular destinations for Valentine’s Day getaways: Las Vegas, Orlando and Cancun.

I’m not too shocked that Sin City made the list, considering that some 100,000 couples tie the knot there each year. But fighting the kiddie hordes at Disney World or getting trashed with a bunch of coeds in Cancun doesn’t really strike me as the epitome of romance.

If you’re dreaming of a getaway just for two, uncluttered by casinos and crowds, we have a few less-traveled alternatives to recommend:

1. For a truly serene desert getaway, forget about Las Vegas and head for Sedona, Arizona. Winter is one of the quietest times of year here, and the area’s trademark red rocks are often lightly dusted with snow. This is the perfect season for you and your partner to cozy up together in a romantic bed and breakfast, or indulge in a couples’ massage at one of the area’s many spas.

sedona red rocks snow winter arizona


2. Just a few hours southwest of Orlando, the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel Island feel a world away. By day, you can go kayaking, explore the secluded shores of Lovers Key and collect seashells as mementos of your trip (this part of Florida is one of the country’s best spots for shelling). By night, you can sit on the sand with your sweetheart and watch the sun sink down into the Gulf of Mexico. Learn more in Florida’s Many Faces and Places.

fort myers beach florida


3. Skip the mega-resorts and hard-partying atmosphere of Cancun and head instead to St. John, the least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two-thirds of the island is protected within Virgin Islands National Park, including the soft sands of Trunk Bay; its calm, clear waters and wide, white beach make this a perfect spot for snorkeling, swimming and relaxing in the sand. Couples can go hiking in the national park or take a scenic horseback ride through the mountains. Learn more in St. John Essentials.

trunk bay st john usvi


Don’t miss our Seven Secrets for a More Romantic Trip.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Key West, Florida! The building pictured is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, where the writer lived for more than 10 years. Located in the Old Town section of Key West, this Spanish Colonial-style house is now home to more than 60 cats — including a few descendants of Hemingway’s unique six-toed feline. Learn more about Key West and the Hemingway house in our guide to Key West Weekend Getaways.

Check back this Friday for another photo guessing game!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

street performer 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