King Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco

Set against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, is the famous King Hassan II Mosque- one of Casablanca’s most visited sites, and a place of worship for millions. The busiest time of year is during Ramadan. At it’s capacity the mosque can hold as many as 25,000 visitors inside, and 80,000 on its grounds for prayer. The planning and construction of this magnificent structure was funded entirely by the public, and it was built in a short span of seven years from 1986 to 1993. The Hassan II Mosque was commissioned by King Hassan II and designed by a French architect Michel Pinseau. It is the third largest of its kind internationally, falling behind only the Haramain Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

Hassan II Mosque Casablanca

The mosque is decorated with intricately carved stucco and unique mosaics in various shades of blue. The mosque’s minaret, from which the call to prayer is proclaimed, stands 650 feet high. Inside, the mosque’s 200 foot high ceiling is retractable to allow air in during the hot summer months. The building is actually partially constructed over water, and this portion has a glass floor through which the ocean can be seen. Elegant chandeliers serve as both decoration and light sources during the evening. The chandeliers’ glass comes from Spain, making them the only portion of the mosque not composed entirely of Moroccan resources.

Most Visited Site Casablanca Morocco

Interior detail of the mosque
Interior detail of the mosque

HOW TO GET TO MOROCCO:

Direct flights to Morocco from NYC are available on Royal Air Maroc into Casablanca’s Mohammed V Airport (airport code: CMN). Non-stop flights to Morocco are also available from several European cities, including Marrakech, Brussels, Lisbon, Paris, Frankfurt and Madrid. From the airport, a taxi ride directly to the mosque will take approximately an hour. There are also many hotels conveniently located in the vicinity of the mosque.

BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT MOROCCO:

Morocco can be very hot from May to September, so best to plan a trip in the fall, winter or spring. Fortunately, the mosque’s unique architecture limits the humidity felt inside. This is one of the few mosques which is open to non-Muslims, and even here access is restricted to four scheduled tours in English days of the week. The tours are scheduled at 9am, 10am, 11am and 2pm from Saturday to Thursday. Friday is a holy day, hence the lack of scheduled tours. During Ramadan, the mosque becomes very busy and may be more difficult to visit, however the rest of the year the building is easily accessible to tourism.

WHAT TO WEAR IN MOROCCO:

Visitors to Morocco, and specifically the mosque, should dress in moderately conservative clothing. Long, looser pants or skirts for women and shirts reaching the elbow are most commonly seen. Although it is not required, it is recommended for women to cover their heads with scarves out of respect when visiting religious sites. Upon entering the mosque, visitors will be given a plastic bag to put their shoes in. Outside of religious sites, Casablanca is the most cosmopolitan of Morocco’s cities and clothing styles mirror trends seen in both Europe and the United States.

WHAT NOT TO MISS IN MOROCCO:

The Hassan II Mosque is by far the most visited site by tourists traveling to Casablanca. For those short on time, this should be the main tourist site to see in Casablanca before traveling to the cities of Marrakech, Fez, or Agadir. Travelers with more time should visit the Habous area of Casablanca, which was an area created by the French in the 1930s to solve the housing crisis. Here travelers will find European influences juxtaposed against Moroccan riads, traditional Moroccan markets and souks. Spend a few hours wandering through this area before leaving Casablanca. Being a more cosmopolitan city, Casablanca does offer nightlife and a variety of restaurants for international travelers.

AUTHOR: Sarita Hira

The Berlin Wall, Germany

Constructed by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany or GDR), the Berlin Wall was a barrier that cut off West Berlin from East Germany and East Berlin. After World War II, East Berlin, became the capital of East Germany (formally the German Democratic Republic). The Berlin Wall divided the city from 1961 to 1989, and its demolition lasted from 1990-1992.  Traces of the Berlin Wall, which was actually two walls at certain points, can still be seen today. The East Side Gallery is an expansive outdoor art gallery, where the art is painted directly on remaining portions of the Berlin Wall. This part of the wall has famous images from several artists including, Dmitri Vrubel, Jürgen Grosse, and Kim Prisu.

The Berlin Wall's East Side Gallery
The Berlin Wall’s East Side Gallery
The Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall

Aside from the Berlin Wall, there is a great deal to be discovered here. Many other historical sites, such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Jewish Museum, have been erected to honor the lives of those lost during WWII. Located in northern Germany, on the banks of the rivers Spree and Havel, Berlin is a city with fascinating history, countless museums, various cultural events, and a large variety of restaurants. Due to its size (3.5 million people over 12 boroughs) and central location, Berlin is a hub for foreign immigration. Because of this, the city offers cuisines, venues, and cultural events for a broad range of nationalities.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin
The Jewish Museum in Berlin

How to Get to Berlin

Berlin has two main airports: Tegel International Airport (TXL) and Schönenfeld Airport (SXF). Tegel International Aiport (TXL) is located in the northwest area of the city and is the central airport for international carriers such as British Airways and United Airlines. When traveling to Berlin from the United States, you are most likely to arrive in Tegel International Airport. Cheap flights to Berlin can be found by flying into Schönenfeld Airport, located in the southeast area of Berlin. Schönenfeld is the base for budget airline carriers like easyJet, RyanAir, and Germanwings. When flying with budget carriers, be sure to read their baggage weight and size regulations at time of booking. Direct flights to Berlin from NYC can be found on United, Lufthansa, and AirBerlin.

What to Wear in Berlin

What to wear depends on the season. If you choose to visit during the summer, pack clothes that will keep you cool due to the lack of air conditioning in many buildings and restaurants. Fall and spring require a light jacket. Winter is cold and windy, so pack layers and bring an umbrella. If you visit the clubs or bars in Berlin, you will notice that locals usually dress in darker colors during the day.

When to visit Berlin

Berlin is best visited in the fall or spring. The city is more crowded during the summer, as that’s when the weather is warmest and students are on break. Summer months have temperatures in the mid 60s (17-18 Celsius) and January averages temperatures in the 30s (0-1 Celsius).

What Not to Miss in Berlin

When visiting Berlin, one should not miss the Brandenburg Gate (referred to as Brandenburger Tor in Germany) erected between 1778 and 1791. The famous monument is located in the western part of the city center of Berlin, within the district of Mitte. The gate can be found at the junction of the streets Unter den Linden and Eberstraße. This icon of Berlin is only a block north of the Reichstag, which houses the German parliament and is centrally located to many of the other historic buildings within Berlin’s city center. It is also a gathering area for stage shows, major sporting event broadcasting and fireworks during holidays like New Years.

Bradenburg Gate in Berlin
Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

If you find yourself in Berlin during October, make sure to check out the Festival of Lights. This 10-day event transforms many famous landmarks and monuments in Berlin into artwork through light projections and video art. The festival was first held in 2004, and continues annually each October. Check out the Berlin, Germany website (www.berlin.de/en/) before you visit in October to see when the specific dates will be.

The Festival of Lights in Berlin
The Festival of Lights in Berlin
Thanks to our travel expert, Isabella, for sharing her travel tips on Berlin!
Thanks to our travel expert, Isabella, for sharing her travel tips on Berlin!

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Originally built as a Hindu Temple by the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. The complex measures a massive 401 acres (1,626,000,000 square meters) and was built to honor the Hindu deity Vishnu. Construction of some of the monuments here is thought to have begun as early as 900 AD and majority of the temple complex was built by Khmer King Suryavarman II between 1113–1150 AD. It was designed to resemble Mount Meru, which, in Hindu mythology, is the home to the Hindu deities.

Aerial view of the massive Angkor Wat temple complex
Aerial view of the massive Angkor Wat temple complex

Later in the 12th century, the temple gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple and Buddhist monks still visit Angkor Wat today. The Angkorian period lasted from 802 AD until the 14th century. The population in the city of Angkor was significant- it accounted for 0.1% of the world’s population in the 12th century. The massive abandonment of Angkor city which housed Angkor Wat, occurred when the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya took Angkor in 1431. This led to a massive migration south and marked the end of the Khmer empire.

The entrance to the temple complex and the surrounding moat
The entrance to the temple complex and the surrounding moat
The main temple and reflecting pool at Angkor Wat
The main temple and reflecting pool at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat at sunrise
The reflection of Angkor Wat’s main temple in the pool in front at sunrise
The detailed carvings inside Angkor Wat
The detailed carvings inside Angkor Wat

“DISCOVERY” OF ANGKOR WAT

Angkor Wat was not discovered because it was never lost. The location and temples of Angkor have been described in history on several accounts following the fall of Angkor in the 1400s. However it was Henri Mouhot who popularized this world wonder. In 1858, Mouhot arrived in southeast Asia and spent the next three years exploring, until his death in Laos at the age of 35 from malaria. Little did he know that two years after his death, in 1863, the publication of his travel journal would immortalize him. In his journal, he described the massive lost city complex of Angkor and all its grand temples that had been consumed by the jungle. It is thought that Angkor Wat was largely preserved from this due to the large moat that surrounds the temple complex. The nearby Ta Prohm temple (the site of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie filming) has trees that have grown into and out of the temple structures.

HOW TO GET TO ANGKOR WAT

Direct flights to Siem Reap (Siem Reap airport code: REP) can be found on local asian carries from several cities including Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shangai, and Guangzhou. From Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is a short drive away. Much of Siem Reap’s hotels cater towards travelers planning to visit the temples, so once you book a hotel in Siem Reap, you can arrange a tour through them as well. Flights are also available from Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh and the beach town of Sihanoukville, if you plan to visit Otres Beach after temple touring. Buses are also available to take in Cambodia, but flights are the fastest and most reliable option.

WHAT TO BRING / WEAR TO ANGKOR WAT

Although Cambodia’s weather can be very hot and humid, remember to cover knees and shoulders when visiting the temples. Given the thousands of visitors each day, you are unlikely to be stopped, but out of respect to the local monks, cover up appropriately. Make sure to bring a camera, bottled water, and buy your ticket ahead of time. If hiring a tour guide (highly recommended), they should be able to handle this for you. Bring cash to pay for food and souvenirs near the temple. Don’t forget to use insect repellant with deet while visiting Cambodia.

A young group of Buddhists at sunrise at Angkor Wat
A young group of Buddhists at sunrise at Angkor Wat

BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT ANGKOR WAT

Cambodia’s monsoon season runs from late May to November. To avoid rain, plan travel around those months. For budget travelers, room rates (which are already low in Siem Reap) can be a real bargain during the rainy season. The most expensive time to travel to Cambodia is around the Christmas and New  Year holiday when hotel prices can be double and sometimes triple the normal rate. Plan in advance if traveling during the holiday as hotel rooms tend to fill up quickly. Leave early in the morning (at least one hour before sunrise) to get a good spot to view the sunrise.  Crowds around the holiday season are massive.

WHAT NOT TO MISS IN CAMBODIA

Both sunrise and sunset are beautiful at Angkor Wat. In the mornings, the sun will rise behind the temple causing a stunning reflection of the temple and clouds in the pool in front of Angkor Wat. For sunset, tethered hot air balloon rides cost only 20 USD and can give you an aerial view of the massive temple complex. In addition to Angkor Wat, be sure to visit the nearby Ta Prohm and Bayon temples. Ta Prohm is famous for massive tree roots that have grown into and around the temple structures. For a break from temple touring, take a direct flight from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville (airport code: KOS) to visit the peaceful Otres beach on Cambodia’s southwest shore.

angkor wat pillars

I couldn't resist this photo op...
I couldn’t resist this photo op…
Me on the hot air ballon before sunset. You can never have too many cameras!
Me on the hot air ballon before sunset. You can never have too many cameras!

Temples of Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai’s best temples

Set amidst mountains, Chiang Mai is a city in Northern Thailand that is well known for its rich history dating back to the 1200s.  There are so many facets of Thai culture to experience here, and the magnificent temples in and around this city are amongst the most visited sites in Thailand.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep:

Built in 1383 as a Buddhist Monastery on the holy hill Doi Suthep, this temple is still a working monastery. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, often called Doi Suthep, is home to a replica of the famous Emerald Buddha of Bangkok as well as one of the world’s largest gongs. The large gong, along with many of the bells hanging around the temple, are constantly rung by devotees as a mark of worship and wishing. The impressive golden pagoda stands at the center of the temple and is surrounded by a variety of shrines. Travelers can ascend 300 steps on the Naga Serpent staircase up to the temple or use a paid service lift to access the temple complex. It also has a large terrace with an expansive view of the entire city of Chiang Mai and the surrounding mountain villages.

How to get to Doi suthep:

Located 15 km outside of Chiang Mai city limits, Doi Suthep can be accessed by tuk-tuks or songathaews for about 4 USD each way. One can also rent a scooter for about 6 USD (24 hour rental) and stop at viewpoints along the way to take in the stunning hillside landscape.

The Golden Pagoda at Doi Suthep
The Golden Pagoda at Doi Suthep
The Emerald Buddha replica at Doi Suthep
The Emerald Buddha replica at Doi Suthep
Buddhist monks at Doi Suthep
Buddhist monks at Doi Suthep
The temple bells at Doi Suthep
The temple bells at Doi Suthep

Wat Chedi Luang:

Originally planned for construction by a 14th century king in the honor of his deceased father, this temple took unusually long (up to the mid-15th century) to be completed. At the time of completion, it was the largest temple in all of Lanna or the Indianized State of Thailand. Chedi Luang was once one of original homes to the famous Emerald Buddha of Bangkok. Now, it houses a replica of it, made of black jade stone. The city pillar of Chiang Mai, named Sao Inthakin is located on the temple grounds. An elaborate 8 day Inthakin festival is held yearly in June to honor it.

How to get to Wat Chedi Luang:

This temple is located in the heart of the old walled Chiang Mai city. Once in Chiang Mai, travelers will be able to walk or take a short tuk tuk ride to the temple.
The main shrine at Wat Chedi Luang
The main shrine at Wat Chedi Luang

How to Get to Chiang Mai:

From New York, travelers will need to make a connection in Asia.  Cheap flights to Chiang Mai can be found from several cities in Asia on local carriers.  Direct flights to Chiang Mai can be found from the following cities: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

What to wear to the temples:

It is mandatory to cover up appropriately before entering the temples. Make sure to cover your shoulders (at least short sleeves) and opt for long pants or a long skirt. Trousers, shirts and sarongs are usually offered for rent or purchase outside the temple if need be, but I wouldn’t suggest relying on them as they can be quite hideous (think pictures). You can also carry a thin scarf to cover up before entering.

Best time of the year to visit: 

Fall and winter are the best times to visit South East Asia in general, as summers and monsoons can get pretty hot and unpleasant. That said, these temples are open all year around. They typically close at around 5pm every day and each may take at most an hour or so to explore. It is quite easy to visit both of these temples in half a day.

What not to miss while in Chiang Mai:

Chiang Mai Cabaret:

An entry fee of 250 THB (includes one drink) or around 7 USD gets you into this dark pub, located in the middle of the Anusarn Night Bazaar of Chiang Mai. As you walk in, find yourself a seat closer to the center of the brightly lit stage as you are about to witness one of the most colorful performances in all of Thailand. The lady boys walk onto the stage with exquisite costumes and start performing to upbeat radio hits. This is a very entertaining activity after an evening of shopping.
Cabaret show in Chiang Mai
Cabaret show in Chiang Mai

Sunday Night Market:

As the name suggests, if you find yourself in Chiang Mai on a Sunday evening, this market is a great showmanship of arts and crafts exclusive of the Northern Thai communities. It begins at the Tha Pae or the East gate and continues down to more than 1Km along the main streets which are converted into walking streets as they are closed for traffic during this weekly event. There is also a food market in the center of it all, where you can walk around sampling tasty Northern Thai street foods.
The bustling Chiang Mai Night Market
The bustling Chiang Mai Night Market
A street performer at the Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market
A street performer at the Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market

Tuang Thong Canyon:

More commonly known as the Grand Canyon of Chiang Mai, this dug out piece of earth is an old quarry that has now been filled with blue waters. It is a 40 minute drive outside of Chiang Mai on the way to the Hong Dong. Travelers can relax for an afternoon at the clifftop restaurant, go swimming or sunbathe on wooden rafts in the water. However, caution is advised if attempting to dive off of the cliffs, as the water depth varies at points.
Thanks to Archana, our fabulous globe trotter, writer, photographer, and travel expert for sharing her experience in Chiang Mai!
Thanks to Archana, our fabulous globe trotter, writer, photographer, and travel expert for sharing her experience in Chiang Mai!

The Great Synagogue and Jewish History in Budapest

The Dohany Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, is the largest synagogue in Europe and one of the largest in the world. It was constructed between 1854 and 1859 and was strongly influenced by Moorish architecture. The synagogue was bombed by the Nazis on February 3, 1939, following which Nazi occupation of this area ensued. The synagogue became part of the Jewish ghetto in Budapest, where Jewish people were forced to live during World War II.  When the ghetto was liberated by the Soviets in 1945, a decision was made to bury the 2,281 victims  in 24 mass graves in the garden outside the synagogue. This garden truly touched me as I stood here with a moment to reflect on the lives lost during that time. Behind the synagogue is a weeping willow memorial, which if you look at closely has names and tattoo numbers of those who died.

budapest synagogue garden
Garden outside the Great Synagogue which holds the mass graves of the victims of the Holocaust
The weeping willow memorial at the Great Synagogue in Budapest
The weeping willow memorial at the Great Synagogue in Budapest

Grave suffering and damage occurred to this place of worship during the Nazi Occupation and also later during the Siege of Budapest. Following World War II, the Soviets occupied Budapest for a lengthy 45 years, until 1991 when the last of the troops finally left. The restoration of the synagogue began in 1991 when Budapest gained back it’s independence.

Outside detail of the Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe
Outside detail of the Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe
Inside detail of the Great Synagogue
Inside detail of the Great Synagogue

The Great Synagogue should not be missed while visiting Budapest. It is easy to spend hours here as the underlying significance of this building is amazing.

When to Visit Budapest:

I visited in the middle of November right when it opened at 10:00am, and I encountered no line. Budapest’s tourist season is generally during the summer, so to avoid crowds, but still have temperate weather, visiting slightly off season in May or September is a good choice. Average high temperatures between June and August are between 70 and 79 degrees Farhenheit (24 – 26 degrees Celsius). For a guided tour, arrive between 10:00 and 10:30 in the the morning. The synagogue is closed on Saturdays, and on the Jewish High Holidays. Check the website before going, as these dates change annually.

Inside the Great Synagogue in Budapest
Inside the Great Synagogue in Budapest

What to Wear/Bring to Budapest:

Although there are no specific restrictions online, it is standard for men and women to have their knees and shoulders covered when entering a synagogue. Men must also wear a kippah, which they provide directly before entering the synagogue if you need one. Photos are allowed inside so bring a camera. When buying your ticket, you can ask if you need to buy a photo permit from them, which is the equivalent of about $1.75. When I visited, photos were allowed without a permit but this is subject to change.

How to Get Here:

The synagogue is in downtown Budapest and easily accessible from downtown hotels and hostels. If you’re downtown, I would suggest walking. Everything is pretty close. If you’d feel more comfortable taking a subway, you can take subway M1, M2 or M3 to Deák tér station, and walk on Károly körút towards Astoria.  Budapest is well connected to the rest of Europe by rail and by air.

What Not to Miss in Budapest:

The Hungarian Jewish Museum (in the same building as the Great Synagogue), the graveyard, and a memorial garden area are also included in a general ticket. The Hungarian Jewish museum was constructed between 1930-1931, and it contains ritual objects of the Sabbath and High Holidays, religious relics, and a Holocaust room. To further explore the Jewish history sites in Budapest, include a trip to the House of Terror museum.  This site contains information about the fascist and communist dictatorial regimes in Hungary. The top 2 floors include history, videos and pictures from the time, but the basement includes physical replicas of torture items, prison and isolation rooms. Freedom Square contains a controversial World War II monument-there is an eagle (which represents Nazi Germany) attacking the Archangel Gabriel (which represents the Hungarian victims). Several people, not pleased by the implications of the statue decided to take action. On the sidewalk, in front of the statue, is a makeshift memorial.  Constructed by  dedicated activists, this memorial contains photographs of victims, personal items, and candles to provide a stark contrast to the grand memorials built by the government. In fact, this community uses social network to continue its mission, and any person can add to this memorial. Thus, this improvised memorial changes daily with a row of personal items honoring the Hungarian Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Personal items belonging to Holocaust victims outside Freedom Square
Personal items belonging to Holocaust victims outside Freedom Square

Another moving Holocaust memorial is situated on the Danube River. Here, visitors will find 60 pairs of cast iron shoes sitting inches from the river symbolizing those who were shot by the Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian Nazis) during the Holocaust.

The cast iron shoes in remembrance of the Holocaust victims shot along the Danube during World War II
The cast iron shoes in remembrance of the Holocaust victims shot along the Danube during World War II
Thanks to Katherine, a student at Rhodes College, for sharing her powerful experience in Budapest.
Thanks to Katherine, a student at Rhodes College, for sharing her powerful experience in Budapest.

Belém Tower, Portugal

Built between 1514 and 1520, the Belém Tower, commissioned by King John II, was part of Portugal’s defense system and a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a 100 foot 4 storey tower.  This tower is one of the main attractions in Belém, which is an area in the southwestern most part of Lisbon.  The historical area of Belém, which highlights Portugal’s Age of Discovery, is located where the Tagus River meets the sea.  The Belém Tower was thus used as a military outpost to protect against enemy and pirate attacks.  During the Peninsular War in the 1700s, where Napolean’s forces invaded Lisbon, French prisoners were kept in the dungeons of Belém Tower.  For several years, these dungeons served as a military prison.

The Manueline style architecture of the tower
The Manueline style architecture of the Belem Tower

BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT:

May and September for pleasant weather that’s not too hot and to avoid the more crowded summer months.  Arrive at 10 am when it opens to avoid crowds.  The last admission is between 5 pm and 6 pm depending on the time of year, so if you plan to arrive late, check the timings for that time of year.  The monument is closed on Mondays, January 1st, Easter Sunday, May 1st, June 13th, and December 25th.

WHAT TO WEAR:

Comfortable shoes / flip flops to walk between the sites of Belém.

HOW TO GET TO Belém:

The easiest and fastest way is by taking a taxi or an Uber to Belém from the center of Lisbon.  The central part of Lisbon is well connected with trams and buses, but Belém is 6.5 miles from central Lisbon.  Once you reach Belém by car, the main sites here are walkable to one another.  After a long day of sightseeing here, it was nice to get back to the center of Lisbon quickly for dinner.  It’s a few well spent Euros, especially if traveling with another person to split the cost.

The cheapest way to get to Belém Tower, especially if you are traveling alone, is by public transport.  The number 15 tram connects the center of Lisbon to Belém.  The journey takes between 30 and 40 minutes each way depending on where in Lisbon you pick up the tram.  The best way to avoid crowds is to arrive Belém early in the morning and complete your touring by the early afternoon.   Board tram 15 at either at Figueira Square, Comercio Square, or Praça da Figueira in Baixa district of Lisbon (where the tram originates).  Get off at the Jeronimos Monastery in Belém and explore the main sites here on foot.  The best deal overall is to purchase a 24 hour public transport card that allows you to use all buses, trams, and the metro.

WHAT NOT TO MISS in Belém :

Belém Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery are the two most famous sites in Belém.  The monastery, which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is walking distance from Belém Tower and houses the tomb of Portugese explorer Vasco de Gama.

View of the Monastery from the gardens
The Jeronimos Monastery and gardens in Belem, Portugal

One street behind the monastery, on Rua de Belém, is the famous Pastéis de Belém pastry shop.  Pastéis de Belém is famous for its Portuguese egg tart – called Pastéis de Nata. They apparently have the best egg tart in all of Portugal, so when in Belém, be sure to stop here for a sweet pastry.

Look for the blue awning of the pastry shop
Look for the blue awning of the pastry shop

pasteis de belem

Pena Palace, Portugal

The Pena National Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits on a hill above the town of Sintra.  In fact, on a clear day, it can be seen from the city of Lisbon, about 18 miles away.  Not sure what drugs King Ferdinand II and architect Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege were on, but the palace is known for its wild colors (purple, pink, red, yellow) and gothic/moorish / baroque architecture – basically all over the place. It was completed between 1847 and 1854 as a summer house for Portugal’s royal family.  It is thought that the architect for the Pena Palace was inspired by the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany, however, construction for  Neuschwanstein did not begin until 1869, years after the Pena was completed.

saya pena palace
Perched atop the whimsical Pena Palace

The town of Sintra is about a 30 minute train ride from Lisbon and can be easily done as a day trip (leave early if you want to also visit the Moorish Castle and the National Palace in Sintra).  After arriving by train in Sintra, the Pena Palace can be reached by bus, which is a good idea on the way up as it is a steep climb.  On the way down, stroll through the Pena Park which is a forested area surrounding the palace.

pena palace
Colorful Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Click here for information on all three sites.

The walled city in Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia (named after Cartagena, Spain) is a quick 4.5 hour flight from New York City.   The best part of Cartagena is the colorful colonial

walled portion which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.  You can either walk or ride a bike on top of the walls around the city.  Stop by at Cafe Del Mar to watch the sunset.  Stay in one of the many 6 to 10 room boutique hotels where the architecture has been preserved on the outside but all the comforts of the modern world (wifi!!!) have been added on the inside.  Although it is on the Caribbean Coast of South America, the beaches near the city are a waste of time.  For beautiful beaches, take a day trip out to Rosario Islands (https://vacayhack.com/2015/09/05/pablo-escobar-was-here/).

The Cloisters, New York City

A visit to the Cloisters in Fort Tyron Park in Upper Manhattan will transport you to Medieval Europe.  It has architecture from five different European abbeys that were disassembled, shipped to NYC and then reconstructed in the 1930s.  The gardens and abbeys here will make you feel like you have traveled in time and half way around the world.  But, the A train to 190 street gets you here in under an hour from midtown.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

King Ludwig II built the jaw-dropping Neuschwanstein Castle as a retreat for himself in Germany but died before it was completed.  It was opened to the public for viewing shortly after his death in 1886.  In fact, much of the interior of the castle is not complete because the King never lived here.  This castle was the inspiration for the animated Sleeping Beauty Castle and Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom Castle.  It is located in Bavaria, a state in southeast Germany, and is best accessed by car.  If you are not able to rent a car, head to Munich and take a day tour from there.  Tickets for viewing the inside of the castle should be purchased ahead of time on the internet as you will get a specific time of day for your tour.

 

Mirror Mirror on the Wall…

The jaw dropping Hall of Mirrors is the central gallery of the equally jaw dropping Palace of Versailles.  The Palace of Versailles is located an hour outside of Paris and should not be missed by travelers.  The Hall of Mirrors has seventeen mirrored arches to reflect the seventeen windows that overlook the gardens.  During its heyday the Hall was actually dimly lit so that smoke would not damage the architecture.  The clever arrangement of mirrors allowed enhancement of a small amount of candlelight.  The Treaty of Versailles, which marked the end of World War I, was signed in the Hall of Mirrors.  A visit to the Palace should not be done without a visit to the gardens, which are equally magnificent.