I’ve spent six days in the Japanese capital and have already experienced sensory overload, a lunar eclipse and an earthquake.
But none of these things stop Tokyoites, who are intensely punctual, clean and orderly.
No one jaywalks, and everyone wears a face mask while looking sharp (no sweats, leggings or any of that “business casual” nonsense).
The city has thirteen metro lines: nine Tokyo Metro and four Toei Subway ones, along with the JR East and Yamanote lines—each with multiple interconnected, numbered, Romanized and color-coded stations.
It is rush hour all day long, even on the weekends. Everything blinks and beeps everywhere: perennial PA announcements, ubiquitous video screens of all sizes, arcade game-type music and even artificially-generated bird-chirping.
This city is intense. And this is coming from a New Yorker.
Thank god for urban oases like Gotokuji Temple, the birthplace of the famous “Lucky Cat.”
Legend has it daimyo li Naotaka was hunting on the temple grounds when the abbot’s pet cat beckoned him inside, saving him from getting struck by lightning.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is another peaceful retreat for stressed office workers and overwhelmed tourists in the middle of the busy Shibuya and Shinjuku districts.
The shogun bequeathed it to Lord Naitō in the Edo period. The latter used it as a family residence until the Meiji Restoration, when it underwent various phases, including as a botanical and an imperial garden.
The current layout dates from the turn of the 20th century. As one sits on the tranquil and beautifully-manicured lawns, it’s hard to imagine the obliteration the site sustained due to Allied air raid bombings during WW2.
Yasukuni Jinja, a Shinto shrine founded in 1879 by Emperor Meiji in Chiyoda City, memorializes many WW2 victims and those from previous conflicts.
The grand First and Second gates, Tearooms and Divine Pond Garden lead to the Main Hall, which features the Japanese Imperial Chrysanthemum, honoring the over 2 million men, women and children who died for the country.
The Memorial Fountain “Statue of a Mother Offering Water” was the most moving. The Kiwanis Club of Tokyo, a volunteer organization founded in Detroit, MI, dedicated it to many of the war dead who “longed for their mothers and pure water at the last moment.”
Every corner of this city is historical, including open-air markets like Ameyoko. The shopping street next to Ueno Station in Taito City is a haven for fresh and prepared food, clothing and technology.
In the aftermath of WW2, it was the site of a black market that sold surplus US army goods, including candy, at a time when sugar was scarce. Among the current businesses, a store that sells military gear stands out.
The shopping district is bustling the week after Christmas when locals flock to take advantage of New Year’s sales, which offer many staples used in traditional Japanese end-of-year gatherings.
Kappabashi Street—or Kitchen Town—between Ueno and Asakusa is another famous urban market that caters to the restaurant business.
Stores selling sushi knives, ramen bowls and ultra-realistic versions of plastic dishes restaurants use for displays line the street.
A couple of shops specialize in chopsticks alone. They have multiple designs, which, upon sale, they wrap up beautifully. It’s hard to imagine such establishments in the US, where Amazon has substituted even the more general brick-and-mortar stores.
No Tokyo visit would be complete without riding the Leigi Matsumoto-designed Himiko boat.
The anime legend, who collaborated with Daft Punk in several music videos for their 2001 album “Discovery,” created a real-life vessel out of his mythical space operas, like “Space Battleship Yamato” and “Captain Harlock: Dimensional Voyage.”
It’s a water bus fit to cruise Tokyo Bay and admire its futuristic landmarks, including the Tokyo Skytree and the Rainbow Bridge.
Japanese culture is rooted in politeness, loyalty, justice, modesty, refined manners and respect for the elderly.
Do yourself a favor and research before visiting.
If not, asking the hotel staff or your tourist guide about basic etiquette is useful.
When everything else fails: read the room.
For example, when entering Meiji Shrine, walk along the sidelines, never through the middle, which is the gods’ path.
The Japanese people dedicated the shrine to their 122nd emperor, Meiji, a progressive leader who modernized the country through a “Japanese Spirit and Western Knowledge” philosophy.
Leading by example, he encouraged the Japanese to wear Western clothes and haircuts and to broaden their food and drink consumption. French wine lovers, especially those who favor Burgundy, will marvel at the display of barrels after the Harajuku entrance.
Across the vast and lush gravel gods’ path, another display signifies the intersection between Estas and West through spirits. Barrels of sake, the only drink the Japanese enjoyed before introducing wines, whiskeys and beers, provide another Instagrammable photo op.
Nowhere is Emperor Meiji’s legacy more evident than from the Tokyo Skytree. The 2+ thousand-feet broadcasting structure’s observation deck affords a dizzying 360-degree view of the 40 million people megalopolis (think New York City’s One Vanderbilt times five).
Nearby, Sensō-ji stands as the city’s oldest Buddhist temple. A gigantic complex with halls, gates, a five-storied pagoda and a shopping street, the site holds religious festivals attracting as many as 30 million local and foreign visitors a year.
Tokyo feeds both body and soul. The Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the best places for the former. Opened in the 1930s, it encompasses wholesale and retail shops, restaurant supply stores and street-style eateries, like the one where I had the freshest (and most giant!) oyster of my life.
After sampling the delicatessen of Japanese cuisine, a stroll to Ueno Park, established in 1873, is in order. Tokyo’s oldest public park exemplifies the Westernization of the early Meiji period. Think London’s Hyde Park with museums, temples and shrines.
The park is home to the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, among other cultural institutions. It also houses the magnificent Ueno Tōshō-gūShrine, established in 1627, next to the Sacred Tree that predates it by 200 years.
Ueno Daibutsu is another religious gem on the park grounds. The remaining head of an ancient Buddha statue, salvaged after earthquakes, fires, and wars, is a symbol of Japanese resilience and a popular spot for students to pray before exams.
North of Ueno Park, in Taitō City, you’ll find the upscale and bohemian neighborhood of Yanaka, which would give Venice Beach, CA vibes if Venice had ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
The WW2 Allied bombing spared Yanaka, which shows in the well-preserved quaint homes. Wandering among its lovely neighborhoods, enjoying coffee and shopping for traditional Japanese souvenirs and stationery is a real treat.
The tomb of The Last Shogun in the Yanaka Cemetery is the cherry on top of this historic area. The last warrior to rule Japan surrendered Edo Castle helping to restore imperial power. In 1902, Emperor Meiji granted him the title of duke, which he bore until he died in 1913. The mausoleum is a nostalgic reminder of the end of an era in Japan.
Like St Dunstan-in-the-East, the church between London Bridge and the Tower of London was mostly destroyed on WW2 and then turned into a beautiful public garden where open-air services are occasionally performed. Commercials and video clips are routinely shot.
The brand-new Elizabeth line was a delight to ride. Not only because it’s fully air-conditioned, but also because the trains are so quiet that you wouldn’t spill a martini even when they’re breaking.
The frequent, hybrid and rapid rail service between central London (Paddington) and its suburbs (Heathrow to the west and Shenfield to the east) features accessible stations and trains, including cushioned seats and platform edge doors.
I rode it to Canary Wharf, where I transferred to the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to reach the historic southeastern town of Greenwich, where many London gems are.
Including The Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College. Also known as The British Sixtine Chapel, the grand room’s walls and ceilings covered with dramatic images depict the United Kingdom’s ascension as a dominant maritime global empire.
Nearby, the Tulip Stairs are the crown jewel at the Queen’s House. One of the most Instagrammable places in Britain is also the location of the infamous 1966 “ghost” photograph.
Greenwich’s wealth of treasures makes it impossible to cover it all in one day, so more on that later. Meanwhile, back in central London, I headed to the financial district to experience a couple of sights that—while not “hidden”—had been out of my radar up until then.
I had seen TikTok videos of the beautiful Royal Exchange, the 16th-century-designed former stock market now a luxury shopping center and eatery, but seeing it in person was short of breathtaking.
I also stopped at the nearby Sky Garden. The observation deck/food plaza on the 36th floor of 20 Fenchurch Street (“the Walkie-Talkie building”) was perhaps the most touristy of them all, despite the stunning views of the London skyline on such a bright and clear summer day.
My favorite in the neighborhood, Leadenhall Market, was established in 1321. Its elaborate roof structure, painted in pastel colors, makes you feel like you just stepped into a Wes Anderson movie.
A 10-minute walk away, the Museum of London brings to life the city’s history, from pre-Roman through Edwardian, Victorian to modern times—including vivid representations of the Great Plague, the Great Fire and other calamities suffered by Londoners throughout their long history.
The most impressive part is the juxtaposition of the London Wall (erected c. AD 200) and the glass high-rises outside the museum and close to the Barbican Centre.
And speaking of the future, The Vaults, London’s underground home for urban, alternative and immersive art, lives in Waterloo station‘s unused tunnels. Also known as Leake Street graffiti tunnels, the one and only Banksy founded it.
Highgate Cemetery in the borough of Camden opened in 1839 to solve overflowing and unsanitary church graveyards. The Victorian funerary ground is best known for being the final resting place of Karl Marx.
Come for Marx and stay for Queer icon Radclyffe Hall. The author of the controversial Victorian lesbian novel “The Well of Loneliness” is buried in the Batten family’s vault in the Circle of Lebanon on the western side of the cemetery. Singer Mabel Batten was Radclyffe’s first lover.
I live for London’s niche museums, and the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill didn’t disappoint. It documents the history of consumer culture through items from the Robert Opie Collection (The most extensive collection of British nostalgia).
Curated and installed as a “Time Tunnel,” the museum takes you on a 200-year journey of the history of labeled packaged goods, from Victorian times to the present, describing how brands, shopping habits and human behavior have evolved and their influence on pop culture and movements like the emancipation of women.
For my second visit to Greenwich, I hopped on a Thames River Sightseeing boat, which took my fellow tourists and me through the historic waterway on a bright, beautiful day to admire London’s landmarks—including a brief stop at Tower Bridge/Tower of London.
After a 40-minute ride, we disembarked at Greenwich Pier, from which I climbed the 15-minute steep Greenwich Park hill to the Royal Observatoryto witness the legendary Prime meridian.
At the bottom of the hill, the National Maritime Museum documents Greenwich’s maritime history from the landing of the Romans through the times of Henry VII, Charles II and beyond.
A temporary exhibition, “Canaletto’s Venice Revisited,” shows paintings from the 1700s by artist Giovani Antonio Canal representing Venetian life and how it inspired British and other global citizens to visit the beautiful Italian city.
It also examines how over-tourism and rising sea levels threaten the Venetian way of life, as evidenced by the sale of colorful plastic boots to keep tourists’ feet dry during acqua alta.
Not an “off-the-beaten-path” destination, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum stands out for its outstanding permanent collection of the history of fashion, which could give the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute a run for its money.
A couple of temporary exhibitions are prime examples. The first, “Africa Fashion,” displays legendary couture, photographs, textiles, music and visuals from the mid-20th century to the present, exploring the artists and movements parallel to decolonization and its impact on a global scale.
The second one, the Gucci-sponsored “Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear,” highlights male fashion through the history of men’s clothing and the way designers, tailors, artists and their clients have molded masculine gender identities.
The British’s eagerness to question themselves is at the core of these exhibitions. Often dubbed a “dying empire,” the bruised United Kingdom seems determined to keep treasuring its glorious past while looking toward the future.
Don’t get fooled by its quaintness. At its height, Lusitania’s imperial influence stretched across 50 countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
As soon as you land in Portugal, you’re welcomed by a country of melancholic red roof houses against the tranquil backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean.
Moreover, as you drive southward from its historical capital Lisbon into the charming Algarve region, you realize the entire country is probably not larger than the state of Indiana.
That’s why it’s hard to reconcile the fact that the Portuguese Colonial Empire was one of the more extensive in the history of humankind: it stretched from the Americas through Africa, Asia and Oceania.
The legacy is immortalized by Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries), located on Lisbon’s Tagus River (the point where ships departed from in the Age of Discovery).
Aside from the structure itself, which depicts Henry the Navigator leading his crew on a sailing ship, the Praça do Império (Imperial Square) includes red limestone Mappa Mundi representing the global Portuguese colonies.
Also, a symbol of the Age of Discovery, the nearby Belém Tower, stands at 98.4 feet since the 16th century, when used as a point of embarkation. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.
Another major landmark, Praça do Comércio, stands on the site where Paço da Ribeira, Portugal’s most important palace, lived until 1755—when an earthquake and tsunami of biblical proportions destroyed it.
Here, captains and merchants planned voyages to Brazil, India, and other territories and would trade their goods upon returning.
In 1908, King Carlos I and his son were assassinated on the square, which ultimately led to the fall of the Portuguese monarchy.
The Algarve is the southernmost region of continental Portugal, with its administrative center in the city of Faro.
It is a magnet for visitors and retirees because of its natural beauty, climate, safety, cuisine, and affordability.
It’s also popular amongst global golfers, kayakers, jet skiers and surfers.
With its stunning rock formations and cliff views, Praia do Camilo was delightful.
It’s accessible through a long wooden stair that offers the most Instagrammable views.
Make sure you arrive early, as the beach is not huge and decreases in size as the tide rises.
If Praia do Camilo felt crowded, in Praia Grande de Pêra, you feel like you have the entire beach to yourself.
Its dune field extends for over a mile, and what it lacks in cliffs makes up for golden sands and clear waters.
As the sunset hits, it treats visitors with quite a beautiful spectacle.
But the Algarve is not only beach life. It also has beautiful countryside with lots of crops and fantastic farm-to-table restaurants that serve delicious meals.
Dubbed “The Portuguese Hamptons” by some (after the New York summer town), Comporta is ideal for taking a lovely stroll through, followed by a glass of wine by a rice field flanked by an infinity pool.
We enjoyed our last couple of days in Lisbon, strolling about the hilly town.
We hit its miraudores (lookouts), such as Santo Antonio, Largo Portas do Sol and Santa Maria Maior.
These are charming places to enjoy a cold beer while watching the iconic cable cars pass.
We also checked out the Palácio dos Marqueses de Fronteira. Built in 1671, for Dom João de Mascarenhas, 1st Marquis of Fronteira. King Afonso VI bestowed the title for his loyalty to the House of Braganza in the Portuguese Restoration War.
Aside from exquisite interiors with plenty of art and antiques, the palace boasts a stunning terrace garden adorned with beautiful tiles and sculptures representing various mythological figures.
We admired Lisbon’s traditional black and white cobblestone pavements on one of our last strolls. If they look familiar, they have inspired the ones in Ipanema and Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Like many other cultural expressions from the Old World, they might be a dying art. Despite creating a paver’s school in 1986 and partnerships with job centers to preserve the tradition, it’s failing to attract young people who keep flocking to more modern and lucrative occupations.
“Londinium,” as the Romans called it, it’s basically a giant, open-air museum.
From the monumental cathedral destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 to the street where epidemiologist John Snow fought a vicious cholera outbreak to the square where WW2 American soldiers mingled with “Piccadilly Commandos,” walk through 21 of the most iconic sites of the fascinating open-air museum called London.
1. Buckingham Palace:
Many of us think of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s former residence as the administrative headquarters where she welcomed prime ministers since Churchill. It’s also in our collective memories as the British people’s gathering place during celebration or mourning. It became the official residence of the British monarch in 1837 when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.
2. Elizabeth Tower:
“Let’s go to London to see the Elizabeth Tower,” said no one ever. However, that’s the official name since 2012, when what was initially known as Clock Tower (Big Ben was always the Great Bell) was renamed to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the late Queen Elizabeth II.
3. St Paul’s Cathedral:
Its dome has dominated the city’s skyline for over three centuries. Its original site was dedicated to Paul the Apostle in AD 604, and it became the Gothic Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral during Medieval London. Destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, the structure was restored, and it has since held the funerals of Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, peace services to mark the end of WW1 and WW2, and the wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles.
4. The Albert Memorial:
Walk anywhere in London, and you’ll have a good idea of the Victorian influence and the fairytale love story between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who died in 1861 at just 42. Immortalized by places like the Victoria and Albert Museum, this legacy is more vivid in The Albert Memorial, located north of the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington Gardens—near where another famous royal couple, Prince William and Princess Kate, live.
5. Green Park:
Formerly the exclusive playground of the Royal Family, the Royal Parks, which include Hyde, Regent’s, St. James’s, and Green Park, became public with the introduction of the Crown Lands Act of 1851. Green Park stands out for having no lakes or buildings and fewer flowers. Historic gossip claims it’s because Queen Consort Catherine of Braganza caught Charles II picking flowers in the park for someone else.
6. British Museum:
Famous for holding the Elgin Parthenon Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, which have been the subject of repatriation claims, the British Museum was established in 1753 based on the collections of Anglo-Irish physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. He transferred his collection to King George II, who 1753 established the museum freely open to the public.
7. Carnaby Street:
Close to Oxford and Regent Streets, Carnaby Street dates from the 1600s. It became famous in the 1850s for being where physician John Snow first applied epidemiological principles after a vicious cholera outbreak. In the 1930s, it became a multicultural jazz hub. In the 1960s, it resurfaced as a hippy music and fashion district. The Marquee Club, where The Who and The Rolling Stones performed, is one of its most iconic establishments.
8. Primrose Hill:
It is located north of Regent’s Park and has one of the best views of the Central London skyline. Its name dates from the 15th century, attributed to Archibald Primrose, who oversaw the expansion of The London Underground. In 1678, it was the scene of the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey which caused an anti-Catholic uproar that led to the hanging of three Catholic laborers at the top of the hill.
From farmland and aristocratic playground to sex district and gentrified entertainment mecca, this popular area is now the headquarters of leading film companies and London’s LGBTQ+ neighborhood. Unlike New York City—whose SoHo is an acronym for “South of Houston (Street)”—the name “Soho” was first referenced in the 17th century and possibly derived from a hunting or war rallying call.
10. Somerset House:
You may recognize it from “James Bond” and “Sherlock Holmes” films. Somerset House oversees the River Thames from the south side of the Strand thoroughfare. Its site originally belonged to the Duke of Somerset, who was overthrown and executed before he even had the chance to inaugurate the building. The Crown then possessed the structure and used it as a residence for Queen Elizabeth I. In 1604, the site hosted negotiations for the Treaty of London, which concluded the Anglo-Spanish War.
11. Museum of Natural History:
The Museum of Natural History houses life and earth science specimens, including some collected by Charles Darwin. “The Cathedral of Nature” is a spinoff of the British Museum. The building itself is as spectacular as the collections it holds. The permanent exhibition includes dinosaur skeletons, such as the blue whale hanging from the ceiling.
12. St. James’ Park:
In 1532, Henry VIII purchased from Eton College what was then a swamp. In 1603, James I drained and landscaped it. Later, Charles II redesigned it in the classic French style. Subsequent monarchs kept transforming it, including adding Marble Arch and the Mall to its perimeter. It’s a dwelling place for joggers and tourists taking a break before or after visiting the adjacent Buckingham Palace.
13. London Eye:
Also known as Millennium Wheel, The Eye is the UK’s most popular paid tourist attraction, with over 3 million visitors annually and 30 million riders as of 2008. Often compared to Paris’ Eiffel Tower, both were temporary attractions that became permanent and transformed the cities’ landscape by becoming synonymous with it.
14. 10 Downing Street:
It’s the official residence and executive office of the Prime Minister and the First Lord of the Treasury and—along with the adjoining Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall—the headquarters of the Government of the United Kingdom. Over three centuries old, it contains over 100 rooms, including the prime minister’s private residence on the third floor, a kitchen in the basement, and numerous offices, conference, sitting, and dining rooms. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dubbed it in 1985 “one of the most precious jewels in the national heritage.”
15. Covent Garden:
The famous district associated with the former fruit-and-vegetable market and the Covent Garden Opera House has a rich history: fields until the 9th century when the Abbot of Westminster Abbey appropriated it as arable land. By the 1550s, King Edward VI granted it to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, who started its urbanization. In the 1650s, a small open-air fruit-and-vegetable market had developed—followed by a period when numerous taverns and brothels proliferated.
16. Kensington Palace:
Aside from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Kensington Palace is also the official residence of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Its extensive history goes from joint monarchs William and Mary, who used it for health reasons, to Queen Anne, to The Blitz of 1940—when the palace was severely damaged. The late Price Phillip used it as a residence leading up to his wedding to Queen Elizabeth II.
17. Leicester Square:
Historically known as an entertainment district—theaters sprung in the 19th century, which then became cinemas in the 20th—Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) Square started, like many other iconic sites in London, as fields and then the property of the Abbot and Convent of Westminster Abbey, and subsequently the Crown. In more recent times, it served as a venue for punk rock bands like the Sex Pistols.
18. Regent’s Street:
A major shopping street named after George the Prince Regent (later George IV) runs north to Piccadilly Circus. Then it turns left to head north again to meet Oxford Street at Oxford Circus. It was one of the first planned developments in London after the Great Fire. It is also a location on the British version of Monopoly, as a group of three green squares with Oxford Street and Bond Street.
19. Trafalgar Square:
The public square was established in the 19th century to commemorate Admiral Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, the British naval victory in the Napoleonic Wars over France and Spain in 1805. The site of political demonstrations, including Bloody Sunday, the square is also a popular place of celebration for the holidays (since 1947, Norway has donated an iconic Christmas tree).
20. Piccadilly Circus:
“London’s Times Square,” because of its neon signs and the fact that it is a central tourist hub and traffic intersection, was established in 1819—almost a century before the Crossroads of the World. During WW2, it became a playground for American soldiers stationed in England and the many sex workers who frequented the area (dubbed “Piccadilly Commandos” by the intelligence agencies).
21. Tower Bridge:
Another relatively newer London icon, Tower Bridge (not to be confused with London Bridge), was built between 1886 and 1894 across the River Thames close to the Tower of London to give better access to the city’s East End. Inaugurated by Edward and Alexandra, Princesses of Wales, it became a strategic target during WW2, eventually hit, damaged, and temporarily put out of commission.
Plaza de España, the famous set of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones,” is a magnificent square built in 1928 in Maria Luisa Park.
Seeking to boost morale after the loss of its colonies in the late 19th century, Spain commissioned the square for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929.
Located to the south of the city center, Maria Luisa Park is a half-mile oasis of exotic Mediterranean trees and flowers beautifully designed by French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier.
The park’s shaded promenade, ideal for a horse-drawn carriage paseo, leads to the Art Deco plaza by Spanish architect Aníbal Gonzalez (with idyllic canals for romantic boat rides and pavilions used as museums and government offices).
Tiled booths representing each of the provinces of Spain surround the square. These “Instagrammable” backdrops are popular with visitors looking to pose beside beloved Spanish regions. My favorite was Barcelona.
As we left behind the magic square and re-entered Maria Luisa Park, flamenco street performers hypnotized us as we continued to the General Archive of the Indies.
A little bit of history: Back in the late 1500s, merchants of Seville would use parts of the Cathedral as an office. That’s when Phillip II commissioned the ancient merchants’ exchange, which would house the General Archive of the Indies a couple of centuries later by decree of Charles III.
For the extreme value of the documents it holds, recording the history of the Spanish empire in Asia and Latin America, the building itself seems modest. But don’t get fooled by the discreet two-story structure.
Among the precious papers is the journal of Christopher Columbus, along with other essential letters and documents signed by the Conquistadores. The archives also hold “Don Quixote” author Miguel de Cervantes’ request for a job in the New World. He would send King Phillip II the message after being infamously injured at the Battle of Lepanto.
Pope Alexander VI’s Bull of Demarcation is the most consequential document, which effectively divided the Latin American continent between the Portuguese and the Spanish crowns.
I stood in front of this ancient contract for a long time in a trance. I thought about the profound implications that the stroke of ink inflicted on millions of people across a vast geographical region, spanning more than five centuries.
I thought about the 21st-century indigenous women and children begging for money outside of fancy restaurants in Medellin.
I needed a beer.
I didn’t mind chugging one right before visiting the Gothic-style Seville Cathedral.
The world’s fourth-largest church has witnessed significant events in its five centuries of existence: supplanting Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia as the largest cathedral in the world and serving as the site of the baptism of Juan of Aragon, son of the Ferdinand II and Isabella I. It is also the final resting place of Christopher Columbus. But my favorite part is the majestic view from its bell tower.
A visit to “Al-Andalus” would be incomplete without seeing the Alcázar, the royal palace product of caliph Abd al-Rahman III’s revolt against Córdoba.
Unlike Granada’s Alhambra, the Christian conquest destroyed the original Alcázar in the mid-1200s.
In its place, King Peter of Castile built today’s palace. Despite the conflicts, the Alcázar remains a prime example of the Mudéjar style in the region, combining Renaissance and Gothic elements.
One of the most groundbreaking learnings of this trip is that in the roughly 700 years in which the Moors occupied Iberia, there were periods of peace among Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
The little-publicized fact may explain the aesthetically-diverse aspect of this region and serve as a testament to the coexisting of different cultures as vital to leaving a rich legacy.
Just about anywhere in Charleston you will get an outstanding meal.
From Market Street Deli’s killer Classic Club Sandwich to the more upscale Charleston Grill (best wine list in town) and everything in between.
But, if you had to go to just one place, make sure it’s Raw Oyster Bar, and be ready to get blown away by the freshest oysters, spectacular ceviche, and a lobster roll that makes the Maine ones run for their money.
Located on King Street, 167 Raw doesn’t take reservations, though.
Your best bet is to put your name down on the list and go on a stroll.
Or, as we did, have a glass of wine at Bin 152 down the street, which has a pretty decent program.
Rest assured that in an hour or so, depending on how busy they are, the maître d’ will text you via Resy.
City Carriage Tours or pedicabs are an excellent way to get around.
But you can walk or even bike if you feel like burning the extra calories from all those delicious meals.
Head to The Battery, the iconic seawall and promenade along the Charleston peninsula, to admire the gorgeous homes surrounding White Point Garden.
It collects historical artifacts, natural history, and decorative arts.
It also contains a replica of the CSS Hunley, the submarine of the Confederate States of America used in the Civil War.
So much history opened up our appetite again. And, this time, Butcher & Bee was the answer.
Located in Morrison Drive, a 25-minute drive from the town’s historical center, the popular spot resembles a Los Angeles brunch joint, and it’s known for its burgers and artisanal beers.
We also had to throw in some nightlife for good measure
Luckily, Dudley’s at Ann Street was happy to oblige with a good old Southern drag show, Saint Patrick’s Weekend Edition.
The revue included one of the divas performing to Cranberries “Zombie,” which the whole bar sang along. It was refreshing.
We couldn’t leave Charleston without visiting Fort Sumter.
The tour, via ferry, departs from either Downtown Charleston or Mount Pleasant. It costs $32 for adults, and it lasts 2+ hours.
Highlights include the original canons, brick fortifications, and Union and Confederate flags.
On the ride back, we had the following exchange:
Fort Sumter Ferry Boy: “How did y’all like the tour?”
Us: “Very interesting. Tons of history!”
Him: “They changed some things a little.” (shows us what he says is a 2013 iPhone photo of flags, including the Confederate one, flying on the fort)
Us: “How come?”
Him: (shrugs) “Things change, I guess. I don’t necessarily agree with it if you ask me.”
Us: (Google “Fort Sumter flags”)
USA Today, June 2015: “South Carolina lawmakers have been asked to decide the future of the Confederate flag flying at the Statehouse after nine people attending Bible study were shot and killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17. Alleged shooter Dylann Roof posted Confederate-inspired messages on social media.”
The following day on our way to the airport, we stopped at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to pay our respects and think about the future of our country.
The Ruso-Ukrainian War hits you differently in the spectacular German capital.
I visited Berlin for the first time in 2007. It was a different world back then.
I remember experiencing the Berlin Wall Memorial with solemnity because of its historical significance but also optimism for the tremendous change we’ve all witnessed in our lifetimes.
Scorpions’ song “Wind of Change,” from my MTV days, remained stuck in my head for the whole trip.
Fast-forward 15 years, the advent of social media, a global pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and my second trip to the German capital had a decidedly different mood.
Of course, I was looking forward to seeing the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag Building, Alexanderplatz, Berlin Cathedral, Holocaust and Berlin Wall Memorials.
And on the cultural side, checking out Berghain / Panorama Bar (“The World Capital of Techno”), Museum Island and experiencing a couple of restaurants with impressive wine lists that my partner had researched (more on that later).
We stayed at the Linder Am Ku’damm, a convenient and comfortable hotel located a couple of blocks from the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (“The Hollow Tooth”), one of the most important sights of the city.
The hotel lobby’s “care corner” with complimentary water, juice and snack food for Ukrainian refugees was the first reminder of our geographical and symbolic proximity to the conflict.
That feeling made the Berlin Wall Memorial and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe more relevant than ever.
“This town knows,” I thought.
Berlin has an outstanding infrastructure, public transportation and one of the fastest Uber services, which made traveling from sight to sight a “brise.”
First, we took the S-Bahn from Zoologischer Garten to Hackerscher Markt to check out Museum Island where the main museums, Altes, Neues, Nationalgalerie, Bode and Pergamonmuseum are located.
There are no words to describe the wine and the food.
So, I will show you the literal cherry on top that were Claudia Schoemig’s porcelain dessert trays at einsunternull resembling tiles of the Berlin Wall.
And on that other Wall, If during my first trip I couldn’t get out of my head Scorpions song, on this one, I couldn’t stop thinking about one of my favorite quotes.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime
It’s one thing to read history books and another different one being “in the room where it happened.”
Past tragedies have a way of coming alive when one steps on the same soil where they occurred. It’s the closest thing we have to a time machine.
And The Berlin Wall Memorial encapsulates time through an open-air exhibition: a 70-meter stretch of the checkpoint strip directly on Bernauer Straße, showing how the border was in the late 1980s.
From there, one can peak through narrow sections of the wall and get the oppressive feeling of what it was like for East Germans trapped on the wrong side of the city, dreaming about escaping one day.
Or, as some Slovenian college kids did when visiting the memorial, carrying on each other shoulders and trying to look over, horsing around and laughing about their peers’ half-joking warnings: “be careful. They’ll shoot you.”