Throughout my travels, I’ve learned that the best way for globetrotters to immerse themselves in a destination and its culture is to stay for as long as possible and mingle with locals daily. That can be difficult for average folks like me who hold jobs and can’t exactly afford to scamper off for weeks at a time. But there are ways to do it inexpensively — like teaching, for example.
English teachers are in high demand in countries like Chile, China, Thailand, Spain, Poland, Italy and France, and programs exist to send willing native speakers abroad for free (or at least to cover their costs while they’re in town) in an effort to bolster student learning.
Take, for example, the Teaching English in Poland program, run by the Kosciuszko Foundation. I applied and spent one month of my first post-college summer at an English immersion camp, instructing teens in the tiny town of Limanowa. The program paid for everything but my flights: housing, food, and trips to places like Krakow, Warsaw and Zakopane on weekends. It even provided a small stipend, which was a welcome surprise at the end of my time there.
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I made tons of amazing friends with my fellow American teachers, as well as the Polish staff. I’m still in touch with several of them and with many of the students I taught. I quickly adapted to a life with no air-conditioning, no baseball (although we did try to teach the students how to play), crosses on the walls of every classroom, and surpluses of churches and vodka. I took a semester of Polish in college before embarking on the adventure, but my ability to actually speak it improved markedly with each day.
Other “programs” aren’t really programs at all, however. In fact, English-speaking travelers are often approached to teach while they’re already abroad — no experience needed. In China, for instance, teachers providing private English lessons aren’t required to have an education background or even a work visa.
If diving into a new place and imparting knowledge while doing it sound appealing, be sure you’re signing up for something reputable. Sites such as InterExchange.org, TransitionsAbroad.com and TeachAway.com are good places to start your research. If you’re being compensated for your time (or if the program is paying for your expenses), keep in mind that your goal should be to serve as an educator first and a tourist second. Even if you never venture beyond the town in which you’re staying, you’ll be surprised by how much you gain just from spending time with your students; you’ll learn as much from them as they will from you.
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– written by Ashley Kosciolek
There is something serious we need to address with the youth of America. Drink milk, play outside, brush your teeth and, when the time comes, study abroad.
According to a survey from NAFSA: Association for International Educators, only 1 percent of all students enrolled at an institution of higher education study abroad. One percent! The world is the greatest education out there, and 99 percent of our students aren’t taking advantage of it.
Some say you can’t know another person until you’ve walked in their shoes. Walking their streets in their city, and sharing the same living space with their students, is pretty darn close. It really is a different experience to read about the plight of child labor in India, and to meet the children struggling to educate themselves at a rural development center (where I once stayed overnight on an excursion sponsored by Semester at Sea). Turning a page, flipping a channel and trying to look away from what’s right in front of you are three different concepts. Would you compare wandering the halls of the Louvre to reading or watching “The Da Vinci Code”?
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Right after I returned from my semester abroad, my dad decided that we should all go to Greece as a family for summer vacation. I never felt more isolated from my parents than I did when I realized my traveling style had morphed completely from passive to engaged. I bought a pocket guide before I left, read it cover to cover on the plane, and was determined to practice the key words and phrases included in the back (even if they were just parakalo and efcharisto — “please” and “thank you”). I begged to take public transit rather than overpay for taxis and made every effort to skip tourist traps. My parents were both amused and slightly annoyed by my quest to avoid the tourist stereotype at all costs. In the end, I survived with my newfound travel dignity intact by taking several side trips on my own, which I never would have had the courage to do without my independent experiences abroad.
Granted, the world isn’t free. For those needing financial assistance, a number of study abroad grants are available. The general rule is that if you can afford a semester of college, you should be able to afford that semester in another currency. Many schools offer in-house study abroad programs, so to speak, that make the transition from campus to Cadiz fairly seamless.
Other institutions, such as my alma mater, Semester at Sea, offer unique opportunities like studying abroad in multiple countries while completing your coursework at sea. You can even study in the frozen plains of Antarctica (through Antarctic University Expedition and other universities), or the forbidden lands of Cuba (see Academic Programs International) and North Korea (check out the Pyongyang Project).
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Way past your college years and want to see the world through new eyes? Many institutions offer adult programs so you too can engage in an academic adventure. Lifelong Learning is Semester at Sea’s onboard program for adult learners who wish to take courses, mentor and even present seminars on their areas of expertise.
– written by Brittany Chrusciel
Yes, 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.
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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.
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Which of these crazy houses would you most want to visit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
What do Cape Town, Christchurch and Calgary have in common … besides all starting with the letter “C”?
They’re all on the New York Times’ annual Places to Go list. This year the much-anticipated list numbers 52 places, up from last year’s 46 recommended destinations. And they’re all pretty phenomenal.
Examples include the Albanian Coast, which the Times says combines the rugged beauty of the Dalmatian Coast with Greece’s ancient ruins and the easygoing nature of rural Italy (No. 4 on the list); Fernando de Noronha, a 21-island archipelago 330 miles off the coast of Recife, Brazil, that boasts 250-foot black cliffs and peach-sand beaches and to which only 246 visitors are allowed per day (No. 14 on the list); and Chennai, one of India’s cultural capitals, home to several dance and music schools that offer regular performances around the city (No. 26 on the list).
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Several of the places on the list matched up with IndependentTraveler.com’s Top 9 Destinations for 2014, including two exactly: Nepal (No. 45) and Iceland (No. 30). Others fell within broader destinations we picked for 2014. The New York Times, for instance, includes the Arctic Circle (No. 38), while IndependentTraveler.com chose the Far North (defined by us as anywhere you can see the Northern Lights).
The Places to Go list is a great resource for discovering new must-visit destinations — I added five items to my bucket list including the Albanian Coast; Krabi, Thailand (No. 28); the North Coast of California (No. 3); Varazdin, Croatia (No. 48); and Xishuangbanna, China (No. 32) — and reaffirming that several places already on my bucket list really are worth visiting, like Namibia, the Seychelles and the Arctic Circle.
Another thing I love about the Places to Go list is ticking off places I’ve already been. Of the 52 places suggested for 2014, I’ve already visited seven, though I’m dying to go back to Cape Town (No. 1), Perth (No. 9) and Scotland (No. 16).
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How many of the 52 places have you been to? How many are already on your bucket list? And how many — and which — new places did you add to your list?
– written by Dori Saltzman
Two things have been holding me back from signing up for a trip to space: a susceptibility to motion sickness and a decided lack of millions of dollars. Now a new company has emerged with a possible solution to both of my issues.
World View Enterprises recently revealed plans to use a helium balloon to lift eight customers in a pressurized capsule to the brink of space, nearly 100,000 feet (just under 19 miles) above the earth. According to the Washington Post, the trip would last about four hours, with a 1.5-hour ascent and two hours spent hovering at the edge of outer space. From that height, participants would be surrounded by the intense darkness of the sky and able to see Earth curving beneath them.
The company hopes to launch its first customer outing by 2016.
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Because the capsule, which would protect occupants from the harsh dangers of the upper atmosphere, would never actually get into space, require G-force speeds or reach zero gravity, the risk of motion sickness would be minimal as compared to other space travel options.
The price tag is also significantly reduced from other forms of space travel … but in the way that a Vera Wang dress on sale at 50 percent off still costs a mint. Half off sounds great, but 50 percent of $50,000 is still a whopping $25,000.
In this case, the difference in price between Virgin Galactic’s $250,000 proposed space jaunt and World View’s edge-of-space offering is a massive 70 percent. And compared to the $50 million price tag for Space Adventures’ trip to the International Space Station — the only currently available option for space tourists — the World View offering is an absolute steal.
But it’s still $75,000 for a four-hour trip, which puts it solidly outside of my travel budget.
Are you tempted by the new company’s offering? Is $75,000 closer to what you’d pay to get near to space, or would you rather use the same amount of money to explore more of the planet you’re already on?
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– written by Dori Saltzman
Imagine how many insights travelers to the United States would glean about the American character if they visited during our Independence Day celebrations on July 4.
They’d pick up some of our essential values, such as patriotism (flying of flags), love for family and community (reunions, BBQs, hometown parades), distrust for institutional authority (setting off fireworks, both legal and illegal) and occasional stupidity (ER visits because of the aforementioned fireworks). Not to mention all of those sales (pursuit of happiness?).
Of course, we’re not the only country that celebrates an Independence Day. So when I found out that I’d be traveling in Mexico over its holiday (held on September 16 — not Cinco de Mayo as many people think), I saw it as a chance to dive a bit deeper into our southern neighbor’s national psyche.
My trip to Merida, a colonial city in Yucatan that’s popular with expats, also reminded me that visiting countries during their holidays can require a few schedule (and attitude) adjustments. Here are some tips I picked up.
Read up. Before you go, it helps to learn about the country’s history. A bit of research taught me that Mexico’s struggle for freedom from Spain was just as arduous — if not more so — as our break with Britain. For one thing, the war lasted 11 years, from 1810 to 1821, compared to our eight. And Spain had been in control of the colony since 1521, establishing dominance for nearly 300 years (talk about fighting the power).
The centerpiece of Mexican Independence Day is called the Grito de Dolores, a symbolic re-creation of the beginning of the revolution. It’s broadcast nationwide from Dolores, the small town in central Mexico where it all began. On the night of September 15, crowds gather in city public squares throughout Mexico to ring bells and watch fireworks. Having a little knowledge about the first Grito, issued as a call to arms by a Roman Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, made the event more special for me.
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Expect crowds — and closures. I arrived in Cancun on September 14, the Saturday before the holiday. The airport was even more packed than usual, with Mexicans arriving from overseas to celebrate the holiday at home or taking advantage of the three-day weekend to go on short trips outside the country.
Once I arrived in Merida, I learned that some attractions I’d planned on visiting, such as the Noche Mexicana, a folk festival usually held on Saturday evenings, would not be taking place. Some roads were also closed to through traffic, which meant taking a cab to the Plaza Grande was out of the question (luckily, it was a short walk from my hotel).
Tip generously. Not everyone has Independence Day off, of course. Because of the increased crowds, the day was business as usual — and then some — for people who work in the hospitality industry. If you know that you are keeping your driver, tour operator or server from being with their families on their national holiday, it’s a nice gesture to make your tip a little more special. After all, wouldn’t you want visitors to the States to do the same?
Take part. After checking with my concierge to make sure it was safe, I headed out to the Independence Day festivities around 10 p.m. Sunday night. The streets were packed with revelers, mostly families, and the restaurants on the Plaza Grande were full. After grabbing a mango sherbet at Sorbeteria Colon, which has been serving sweet treats since 1907, I positioned myself on a bench to people watch (the giggling teenagers with the fake moustaches — a tribute to the bushy revolutionaries — were particularly entertaining).
I didn’t have long to wait. After the Grito at 11 p.m., the crowd erupted into cheers. “Vivan los heroes que nos dieron patria!” the chant started, before naming some of the country’s founding fathers. “Viva nuestra independencia! Viva Mexico! Viva!“
At the end of the third “Viva Mexico,” fireworks shot into the sky. The national anthem started to play, and the people around me started singing. I found myself moved by their obvious love for their country, and realized that patriotism — as opposed to its more sinister cousin, nationalism — is a beautiful thing to watch, regardless of your passport.
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– written by Chris Gray Faust
The over-the-top Huffington Post headline immediately caught my eye: “30 Epic Places You Absolutely Must Visit Before You’re 30.” As it happens, I just turned 30 earlier this year, so I clicked on the link with interest. I’d consider myself reasonably well traveled — so how many of these amazing, “must-visit” places did I manage to knock off before hitting this milestone age?
Alas, just one: the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain. (And while it was a perfectly pleasant square, I’m not sure I’d call it “epic.”)
To be fair, I’ve also been to Paris and Las Vegas, but not to the specific cafe and nightclub the author recommends. And I’ve walked around the Washington Monument in D.C. — I just haven’t gone up to the observation deck (which has been closed to the public since the city was rocked by an earthquake in 2011). You can read the full list here.
At first, reading through the list and seeing so many places I hadn’t been made me feel like a bit of an underachiever. But frankly, this list is absurd. Few travelers make it to Antarctica in their lifetime, let alone by the time they hit 30. (Dedicated Antarctica cruises typically go for $10,000 or more per person.) Bhutan is also too rich for the blood of many 20-somethings, with its “minimum daily package” requiring that all tourists spend $200 – $250 a night per person. And how many of us are going to make it to tiny, remote Palau, where the airfare alone will set you back $1,800 or more?
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To put this in perspective, IndependentTraveler.com’s staff ranges in age from 23 to 50+, and in our collective decades of travel we’ve still not covered everything on the list. I guess if you’re a 20-something with an open schedule and a bottomless wallet, you just might manage it. As for me — well, at least I’ve got plenty of inspiration for my 30′s and beyond.
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How many of the places on the Huffington Post’s list have you visited? Share your thoughts in the comments below! (Don’t worry. We won’t make you reveal your age.)
– written by Sarah Schlichter
Next year I’m going to Liverpool, England, for a friend’s wedding. My husband and I plan on staying five or six days with my friend and then venturing out for three to six days. Though I’ve been to London, I’ve never ventured outside the British capital.
Inspiration for trip ideas has been easy to come by. While looking for a few really cool experiences in the Liverpool area, I checked out IndependentTraveler.com’s 13 Best England Experiences and have already added the Magical Mystery Tour to our list of things to do.
But I need more than just ideas for things to do and places to see. I need to figure out how to plan my trip as inexpensively as possible.
So how am I preparing?
I plan to consult a long list of resources, ranging from the official Liverpool and England tourism websites to asking various British friends. And, of course, I’m checking out the advice we’ve compiled here at IndependentTraveler.com. Between the various articles on money, packing, international travel and more, I’ve already started putting together a list of must-dos.
For instance, one of the best ways to save money on a trip to England, where their currency is stronger than ours, is to get the best exchange rate that I can. In Buying Foreign Currency: Get More Bang for Your Buck, Mark Rowlands, sales director at currency provider Covent Garden FX, advises shopping around before leaving home. Additionally, he says to prepare ahead of time by checking the money market. I shouldn’t trust suppliers to tell me what the current rates are; instead, I should pre-check them myself with a website like XE.com.
“You can’t buy from a wholesaler, but knowledge is power. If your supplier is adding 5 percent — which is not unusual — walk away.”
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Furthermore, once I’m in England and need more currency I know to stick as much as possible with credit cards and ATM withdrawals, thanks to Get the Best Exchange Rate.
Another area we might be able to save money is transportation. Do we rent a car or do we stick to mass transit?
If we rent a car, Traveler’s Ed author Ed Hewitt recommends looking at smaller rental car players, like Europcar, and not just sticking to the big names. In Car Rental Secrets We Bet You Don’t Know, he also advises using an aggregator like Priceline to find the best price:
“As I have written numerous times in different contexts over the past 15 years, the best place to get a great rental car price is Priceline. It posts prices for the majority of rental car companies.”
On the other hand, if we stick with mass transit, we’ll have to hit the rails, at the very least to get from wherever we land (Manchester, hopefully) to Liverpool and back again. According to Getting Around England: Flights, Trains and More, we’ll need to check out Virgin Trains, which offers a range of inter-city routes, like London or Manchester to Liverpool.
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If you’ve got any suggestions for me, please stop by my Liverpool and Surrounding Areas thread on the IndependentTraveler.com’s members’ forum.
– written by Dori Saltzman
Along with our slideshow of the 11 Best Italy Experiences, this post is part of an ongoing effort to help independent travelers make unique memories in both popular and undiscovered destinations around the world.
For Italian politicians, Naples sometimes seems like a problem that’s best left alone. It’s a tangled ball of social inequalities — a wriggling can of economic worms that, once opened, threatens to squirm out, all over one’s pristine Armani chinos.
For travelers, as well, Naples can seem like a place that’s better avoided than engaged with. Even we’re guilty of it. On IndependentTraveler.com’s recent roundup of 11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences, Naples lost out to neighbouring Sorrento, which offers a small slice of southern Italy without the bad attitude that Naples has (perhaps unfairly) become associated with.
But sometimes the most rewarding relationships are the ones that require the most work — and with this in mind, my travel companion and I set off for the south.
We boarded the high-speed train from Rome to Naples and sat down across from a surly-looking rail worker in mucky orange overalls who pretended to be asleep for most of the journey. We had plenty of time, while watching little terra cotta villages and impossible-to-reach green mountains fly past the window, to think about everything we knew about Naples.
Our guidebook was hysterical. Everyone we met in Naples, we were advised, was out to rob or shoot us. We should treat anyone approaching us as either a “hood” or a “swindler.” I think our guidebook had been written by a 1950′s cardsharp. I pictured him sweating in his zoot suit at the very thought of the mean Neapolitan streets, battering away at a typewriter in a dimly lit tenement building, waiting for the call from Bugsy.
Unfortunately, this seems to be where many people’s perceptions of Naples are stuck. But what else did I know about Naples?
It’s the third largest city in Italy — after Rome and Milan. It is also one of the poorest places in Europe, with an unemployment rate of almost 11 percent. Its Italian name, Napoli, is derived from the Latin Neapolis, meaning “New City.” Its historic city center, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, has long been renowned for its beauty, with generations of poets and artists coming from all over the world for inspiration. It also has an enduring and unfortunate association with organized crime.
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One of my brother’s friends claims that upon visiting Naples for the first time, he witnessed a fatal shooting before he’d even left the train station.
This kind of thing has shaped Naples’ reputation — a reputation that gives visitors a kind of thrill. Naples has a sheen of danger that reassures travelers that here they are experiencing something real, something that hasn’t been laid on for them by the tourist board.
So what was Naples actually like?
The first thing we noticed was not the danger but the heat. Naples is definitely hotter than other major Italian cities like Rome. The streets seemed more humid, and despite the sun, there were fewer people wearing sunglasses. Everything, even the escalators, seemed to move at a slightly different pace.
We enjoyed the ramshackle mix of architecture and the blue sea in the bay. It is often said that Rome is Italy’s heart and that Naples is its soul. I can’t say whether you should be frightened of Naples or not, but I do know that you should visit it if you can. Keep an eye out, of course — as you would anywhere — but don’t go expecting trouble.
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The guy in the orange overalls that had been sharing our table got his things together in a rucksack and made his way off the train into the crowded streets. He looked as though he was on his way home, along with the hundreds of other people who had made the hourlong commute from Rome. The city is eminently accessible — there really is no reason to be put off visiting.
Naples has a charm of its own, completely separate from that of bustling Rome and cosmopolitan Milan. Despite its distinct character, and despite what our guidebook may have had us believe, Naples is not so alien as to be impossible to negotiate. It is not, as it may sometimes feel when reading about it, a whole world apart.
For more trip ideas, see our 11 Best Italy Experiences.
– written by Josh Thomas
Hi, my name is Ashley, and I’m a crazy cat lady.
Okay, I like to think I’m not too crazy, but I did adopt a fifth cat last weekend. Of course, I still love to travel, so I got to wondering where my fellow crazy cat ladies and I might go on vacation if we wanted to indulge our passion. Assuming we’re not seeking a fur-free escape, here’s a small list of possibilities.
De Poezenboot (The Cat Boat), Amsterdam, Netherlands
Located along the Singel Canal, this floating cat sanctuary is home to up to 50 cats at any given time. Started by Henriette van Weelde in 1966 when she took a family of stray cats into her residence, De Poezenboot quickly expanded to a barge and then a house boat as the number of cats in need of homes continued to grow. You can stop in to see the kitties, make donations and buy souvenir T-shirts from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. daily, except Sundays and Wednesdays, at Singel 38 G.
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Tashirojima Island (Cat Island), Ishinomaki, Miyagi, Japan
Years ago, when silk production was at its peak there, the island’s inhabitants used cats to keep the mouse population to a minimum. (Mice are a threat to silkworms.) Stray cats now outnumber the island’s 100 residents. You can access the island via ferry from Ishinomaki City.
Hemingway Home, Key West, Florida, United States
This one will appeal to crazy cat ladies and literature buffs alike. Home to the late author Ernest Hemingway, this historic building — also a museum — has between 40 and 50 cats in residence. All of the felines are polydactyls (or carry the polydactyl gene), which means many have paws with what appear to be tiny, furry thumbs. It’s said that many of these cats are descendents of Hemingway’s original pet cat, Snowball, who was also a polydactyl. Tours of the house are available every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 907 Whitehead Street.
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The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas, United States
A landmark that housed missionaries in the 1700′s, the Alamo is most famous for its role in the Texas Revolution. Resident cats have roamed the area before, but perhaps the most famous is the Alamo’s current feline, Clara Carmack or C.C. (named after Clara Driscoll and Mary Carmack, who played important roles in the building’s preservation). Visit for a dose of history and a possible C.C. sighting every day, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at 300 Alamo Plaza. (Read about one IndependentTraveler.com reader’s quest to see C.C. the Alamo Cat!)
– written by Ashley Kosciolek