Andalucia: Roadtrip through Southern Spain

Our road trip began in Madrid…

We loaded the Mini with our backpacks, cheese, an old paper map and set off on our adventure through the countryside of Southern Spain.

For more information click here to see the article on the Top Tourist Attractions in Madrid.

Day 1: Merida

We arrived at 3pm after taking our time to stop off at the little towns along the way, and to stock up our cheese and wine supply.

Merida is a historic little town bursting with Spanish colonial charm.

Main attractions include, The Aqueducts, the Roman Ruins in the old Amphitheatre, and the Puente Romano which crosses the guadiana river is the world’s oldest standing bridge from ancient times.

Near the town square and cathedral is a wonderful collection of tasty tapas bars—some of which date back to the early 1800s. It’s a lot of fun getting lost in the super narrow streets while trying to walk back and forth across the neighborhood.

First stop was Merida: stocking up on cheese for road trip snacks!

best things to see in spain

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Spain: Roman  Aqueducts

Day 2: Seville

After exploring Merida we continued onto Seville, a 2hr drive South to the region’s capital city and main ‘hub’ outside of Madrid.

We had heard really good things about Seville and even flirted with the idea of living there for a year, so we were really excited to spend a few days there getting to know the city.

For all its important monuments and fascinating history, Seville is universally famous for being a joyous town. While the people of Seville are known for their happy and friendly natures, the city itself is striking for its vitality and impressive architecture

The sunsets are always prettier seen from the rooftops of old Spanish castles

The main attractions bringing over 5 million visitors per year  to Seville is the Plaza de Espana, Alcazar, Maria Luisa Park and the cathedral.

Although if you ask me, the real treasures are found by walking the cobblestone streets and getting lost in cafes and tapas bars along the bustling streets.  

One thing Seville is particularly good at is food – there is a good selection along the Calle Mateos Gago and along the streets north of the Cathedral with a range of local cured meats and other dishes on the menu.

The charms of Seville lay right around each corner

top attractions in spain

The Plaza de Espana in Seville, Spain

Day 3: Ronda

We were chatting with some friendly locals in Seville and they insisted we add Ronda to our list of the best things to see in Andalucia.

What I love about road trips is that your plans change, so our loose itinerary wasn’t difficult to shuffle around. And so off we went on a detoured, in search of what sounded like the oldest bridge in all of Spain.

The drive through the Sierra Nevada national park is beautiful as you cross over mountain tops and green valleys and through small towns.

After steadily taking our time to stop for picnics and photos through the mountain range, we were in a bit of a panic to make it to Rhonda in time before the sunset!.

top tourist attractions in spain

Driving through the Sierra Nevada Mountain range and stopping to explore the little village towns along the way

Aaaaaand ….we missed it

The sun had disappeared well behind the beautiful mountains that had guided us along the way to Rhonda.

So we decided to splurge on a two story penthouse suite for the night where we sat and ate more cheese and french fries while looking out over the famous bridge.

We stayed at the Parador de Ronda hotel, it wasn’t cheap but we had great views of the bridge at night and the breakfast was excellent!

If you’re on a tighter budget I would recommend staying at the hotel across the street. The Hotel Ronda charges a modest euro rate for a night and has equally impressive views.

Marcello and the Mini, Rhonda

The next day we explored the bridge from the top, sides and underneath! We even hiked the surrounding hillside to get some great drone footage before continuing on our way.

The one day adventure was enough to see the main attractions of Ronda, the bridge was impressive and worth the detour.

visiting spain

The charming little town and the impressive Puente Nuevo bridge in Ronda, Spain

Day 4: Costa del Sol

We decided to travel to Southern Spain in the off season to avoid the tourist floods, the heat and the higher prices throughout Europe. So the coastline didn’t appeal to us too much as it was pretty cold.

We did spend a day driving through the coast and stopping off at little towns along the way….

Wine and more wine: when in Spain….

things to do in spain

Crossing the airport runway to drive around the Rock of Gibraltar in Southern Spain

We were surprised to stumble upon Gibraltar.

This British owned territory is dominated by the Rock of Gibraltar, a 426m-high limestone ridge.

First settled by the Moors in the Middle Ages and later ruled by Spain, the outpost was ceded to the British in 1713 and remains in their possession.

“We were fascinated!”

Literally driving over the International Runway and having our passports stamped by the very proper English men at the border were all unexpected, but we had no troubles getting in.

We drove around the Rock, main square and then headed back out into Spain whilst looking over the sea to Morocco.

If you’re visiting during the warmer months I would suggest you spend more time exploring the gorgeous coastline and hidden beaches of Costa del Sol.

Day 5: Granada

One of the top tourist attractions in Europe is found in Southern Spain’s Andalusia region is Granada, located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  

With close proximity to Morocco, there are strong arabian influences and a gypsy vibe in the marketplaces. We spent a day here checking out the top attractions that Granada has to offer. 

Enjoying breakfast at our hotel before spending the day exploring. We stayed at The Alhambra Palace Hotel that stands on the hill overlooking Granada City.

The Alhambra is the most visited monument in Spain and is of indescribable beauty. It is both a palace and a fortress surrounded by walls and was the residence of the Nasrid sultans between the 13th and 15th centuries.

You need to keep in mind that visiting times are divided into two periods: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

tourist attractions in spain

Alhambra Palace: A tourist attraction in Spain

From the outside the Alhambra is equally impressive, and you can see great views and a stunning sunset from the mirador San Nicolas. There are also stall vendors, drinks and local art performers at the mirador which makes for a fun afternoon as the sun sets.

To anyone visiting Granada the Hammam Al Andalus baths are a must see attraction!  I was so lucky to stumble upon a pamphlet about these beautiful ancient Arabian baths that I had no idea even existed.

Best attractions in spain

The architecture, lighting and environment were exceptional and I truly felt as if I had stepped back in time for a moment.  Highly recommended for a relaxing evening with your partner, or solo.

Upon walking into the reception I was greeted with a hot sweet tea and a relaxed atmosphere before making my way down to the baths.

There are three different pools, one freezing cold, another warm and the third is hot. There are also turkish steam rooms and sweet tea scattered on the poolside for you to drink.

The delicious Sushi at Pinot Noir, Granada

Salmon Tartare and Sourdough at Pinot Noir, Granada

The Food scene in Granada is excellent and a nice change from Tapas. There is a little corner bar called Pinot Noir just off the main street.

After eating nothing much else besides paella, cheese and ham for the last week; we were so happy to find delicious sushi and seafood!

This place is a must for your visit to Spain! In fact it’s so good that as a traveler and sushi lover, this place is one of my worldly favorites.

Day 6: Córdoba 

It was an important Roman city and a major Islamic center in the Middle Ages. It’s best known for La Mezquita, an immense mosque dating from 784 A.D.

What we loved about Cordoba were the valencia trees that line the roadside. They’re everywhere, and they bring a nice touch to the old buildings and walkways.

The streetside colours of Cordoba, Spain

The Roman bridge is beautiful in the afternoon as the sun is going down, however best time to see it without tourist is early morning before the crowds roll in.

The Puerta del Puente is an impressive gateway arch that stands at at one side of the bridge and at the other is the Calahorra Tower.

The historic centre is a great place to walk around and soak up the vibes of a Spanish town; drink coffee, eat and enjoy the views.

traveling to spain

Puerta del Puente: Exploring the history of Cordoba, Spain


A very old Roman bridge and the star of the show for attractions in Cordoba, Spain

Day 7: Jaén 

As genuinely Andalucían as it gets, and outside the tourist track. A land of mountains and olives, of Renaissance architecture and free tapas, the province of Jaén in eastern Andalucía will pleasantly surprise you if you, even if you are just passing through like we were.  

In fact, the province of Jaén accounts for half of Andalucía’s olive oil production, a third of Spain’s, and a tenth of the entire world!

Every square inch of land outside the cities and natural parks is covered in unending, pointillist rows of olive groves. This makes for a really pretty drive when you’re traveling through the countryside on a roadtrip. 

Getting to Jaen is within an hour’s drive north of Granada, 1.5hrs from Córdoba, and 3.5hrs from Madrid. After Jaén we returned to Madrid to spend a week seeing the sights and attractions of the city.

You can find more information about what to do and see in Madrid here >  Best things to do in Madrid


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Best things to see in London: Top 15 Tourist Attractions

best things to see in london

Finding the time to fit in all the best things to see in London is the hardest part of a trip to England, but hopefully this guide will give you somewhere to start.

From all the famous sights that you’ve heard about for years (Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, etc) to the must-do activities like high tea and shopping at Oxford Street, there’s just an overabundance of things to see and do.

If you are planning to visit London, make sure to include these ones and let me know of any other favourites you have in the comments below.

1. Westminster Abbey

Westminster is considered the political hub of London and is home to the Houses of Parliament and the world-famous Big Ben and the Tower Bridge. Big Ben is the name of the bell housed within the iconic clock tower, and it still chimes every hour.

Parliament Square which features statues of important political individuals including Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill.

2. London Eye

Originally constructed for the Millennium year, the london eye has since become a must see tourist attraction.  The Eye is a giant ferris wheel offering gorgeous views across the city.

best things to see in london tourist attractions

Popular Tourist Attractions: The London Eye

3. Camden Town

The cultural neighborhood in North London. Known for its alternative culture, the crowds here are filled with goths, punks, rockabillies and tourists alike. Check out the Camden markets for vintage classics, trinkets and collectables as well as the international street food. Afterwards, walk along the regent’s canal all the way to Kings Cross.

4. Shoreditch

Shoreditch is one of the trendiest areas of London having recently undergone extensive regeneration. It is now one of the hottest nightlife spots in the city and one of the coolest places to stay in London. Packed full of bars and eateries, it’s the perfect place to spend a day and an evening walking around or shopping at local markets.

top tourist attractions in london

The colourful shop fronts of Shoreditch

5. Hyde Park

The park is home to several memorial features, as well as two bodies of water, the most famous being the Serpentine. Here you can go paddle-boating, see a number of swans, and take in a breath of fresh air in the center of the city. A must-visit.

6. Thames river cruise

Cruises run as regularly as every 30 minutes from several key locations. The cruises pass several key sightseeing locations, including Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, and the London Eye. Some cruises run at night so you can see the sights all lit up, whilst others are served with a meal or afternoon tea. This is a lovely and unique way to view the city, traveling along the historic Thames.

popular things to do in london

The Thames river cruise is one of the popular things to do in London

7. The Madame Tussauds wax museum and visit Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street

Afterwards you can escape the crowds of Baker Street by wandering down to the nearby Regent’s Park, or  climb to the top of Primrose Hill for the most spectacular view of the city for your visit to London.

8. Electric Avenue

You will find electric avenue In Brixton. In fact, it was actually the first street in London to be lit by electricity in 1981. Electric Avenue is now home to Brixton Market, a diverse and eclectic food market. Afterwards, check out the rest of the neighborhood. Brixton features a multitude of small businesses selling unique, quirky and handmade items. This is one of the most diverse areas of London and an excellent spot to do some shopping or catch some live music.

tourist attractions london

A local band playing at the Brixton Markets on a Sunday afternoon

9. Picadilly Circuit

The Times Sq of London. Filled with bright lights and big electronic screens. Piccadilly Circus has been a busy London spot since the 17th century when it was a commercial hub. For the world’s weirdest things pay a visit to Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum here in the Circuit.

10. Oxford St

London’s top spot for shopping but is Europe’s busiest shopping street. It has 300 shops and receives over 500,000 visitors every day. Bond street connects with Oxford however Bond is exclusively for high end boutique and designer stores. Doormen stand outside and guide you through most entrances where diamonds shine in the windows of jewelry, clothing and expensive stores.

tourist attractions and sites in london

Oxford street is one of the biggest tourist attractions for visitors coming to London

11. Leicester Square

With Trafalgar Square to the south, Piccadilly Circus to the west, China Town to the north and Covent Garden to the east, Leicester Square is right in the thick of The West End. It is the beating heart of British cinema, with all the major European premieres happening there.

12. Buckingham Palace

During a visit to Buckingham Palace, you can see the 19 magnificent State Rooms which provide the setting for ceremonial occasions and official entertaining. All rooms are furnished with many of the greatest treasures from the Royal Collection. Well worth a visit just to see the guards too, they are great fun!

popular attractions in london

The Royal Buckingham Palace gates: A London Icon

13. Museums

You will find most museums in the South Kensington area, however they are scattered all around the city suburbs. There are many museums and galleries to visit in London however my top 3 favorites are the Natural History Museum (Brompton), British Museum (Bloomsbury) and the Science Museum it in London however my top 3 favorites are the Natural History Museum (Brompton).

14. Art Galleries

The Tate Modern is a contemporary art gallery located in the Southbank area of  London. It is Britain’s national gallery of international modern art and a must see attraction if you like art galleries.

15. Columbia Road Flower markets 

Every Sunday a flower market springs up on Columbia Road in East London. In recent years, as the nearby Brick Lane has gained increasing Sunday flea market stalls, Columbia Road market’s flowers have become a hot tourist attraction.

the most popular attractions in london

Spending a lazy Sunday at the Columbia Flower Markets

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Tikal in Guatemala: One Of The Most Powerful Kingdoms Of The Ancient Maya

Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Colombian Mayan civilization. It is our 8th stop in the series Journeys to Discovery.

Located in the archaeological region of the Peten Basin in northern Guatemala, this thriving cosmopolitan city, would be rediscovered in the mid 19th century. It had been completely covered by the jungle for centuries.

Tikal is situated in the department of El Peten. Today, the site is part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park and as of 1979, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The site core seen from the south, with Temple I at center, the North Acropolis to the left and Central Acropolis to the right.

Tikal was the capital city of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Mayan civilization.

Although there is impressive architectural structures that can be dated as far back as the 4th century BCE, Tikal would reach the height of its power and influence, during the centuries stretching from 200 to 900 CE.

During this era known as the Classical Period, Tikal would come to dominate the region of the Maya. Economically, politically and militarily, Tikal had become the head of a conquest state.

The number of inhabitants would swell to as high as 90,000 by some estimates. If one includes the surrounding hinterland, the population reached well into the hundreds of thousands.

Map of the Maya area within the Mesoamerican region. Both Tikal and Calakmul lie near the center of the area.

The rise in population is quite impressive, considering the area surrounding the city is covered in swamp lands.

Interactions between Tikal and the rest of Mesoamerica became more commonplace, as the power of the Mayan reached its zenith.

Regular contacts were maintained with the valley of Mexico as far north as Teotihuacan. In fact, there is evidence, the latter would actually conquer Tikal in the 4th century CE.

Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico appears to have decisively intervened in Tikal politics

After the late Classical Period, no new major monuments would be constructed at Tikal.

Around this epoch, it is likely that a number of the aristocratic palaces and temples would be desecrated and later burned. By this time, the population was already gradually diminishing, with final abandonment taking place by the end of the 10th century.

In the modern era, the city has been completely mapped and it has been determined that it once covered an area of 6.2 square miles (16 square kilometers). Within the main city about 3,000 buildings were constructed, over hundreds of years.

Tikal Temple I rises 47 meters (154 ft) high.

The structures were built on a series of limestone ridges rising above numerous swampy lowlands. These built up areas remained connected, by a series of causeways that spanned over the wetlands.

Major construction at Tikal was already underway, in the Late Pre-classic period during 400-300 BCE. The first leading pyramids and platforms would be built at this time. Although Tikal was still far smaller, than El Mirador and Nakbe. These northern neighbors, would decline in the 1st century CE.

It is interesting to note, that Tikal had no real water supply, other than what was collected from rainwater and then stored in a total of 10 reservoirs.

In the 20th century, archaeologists working in the area, were forced to restore one of the reservoirs for this very reason.

The dynastic line of Tikal, that may have been founded as early as the 1st century CE, lasted for a total of 800 years and included at least 33 different rulers. According to legend, it was founded by Yax Ehb Xook.

Stela 31, with the sculpted image of Siyaj Chan K’awiil II.

There were even a couple of occasions, when the male line was broken and women became queens of the city.

At the beginning of the Early Classical Period, power in the Mayan culture was centered in Tikal and Calakmul. The area was plagued with war, as competition between the city states would be ongoing matter.

Tikal remained often at war with neighboring Mayan states including Calakmul, Caracol, Naranjo and Uaxactun. In fact, by the end of the Early Classical period, Caracol would replace Tikal and take its place, as the leading center in the southern Mayan lowlands.

Today in Tikal, there are many different buildings to visit, with many more still waiting for a full excavation before they can be opened to the public. To date, only about 30% have been fully rehabilitated.

The North Acropolis at Tikal

At the center of Tikal lies the Great Plaza that is bordered by two massive temple pyramids, the North Acropolis and the Central Acropolis.

There are 6 Temples, that most in the tourist industry will agree are the most important constructions at Tikal.

Temple I located in the middle of the Park is known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar. It was built during 682 and 734 CE. It rises some 154 feet (47 meters). It was excavated between the years 1955 and 1964.

Temple II on the main plaza

Ah Cacao (Lord Chocolate) also known as Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, known as one of the greatest rulers of Tikal is associated with this temple. He is buried here.

Temple II known as the Temple of the Masks is one of the best restored in the park. It was also built by Jasaw, in honor of his wife Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’. It stands at just over 124 feet (38 meters).

Temple III known as the Temple of the Jaguar Priest was built around 810 CE. It stands about 180 feet or 55 meters. It is most likely the burial place of King Dark Sun.

Temple IV is thought to be the tallest structure erected by the ancient Maya. At over 213 feet (65 meters), a traveler is rewarded with an incredible view of the complex.

The Plaza of the Seven Temples

One used to have to make the ascent, by holding onto various roots and branches on the pyramid’s slippery slopes. Today, new wooden stairs make the ascent more amenable.

Temple V stands at 187 feet (57 meters) and is the second highest edifice in Tikal and in pre-Colombian America. From the top of this pyramid, one can see the other temples over the top of the tree canopy.

The Lost World Pyramid in the Mundo Perdido complex at Tikal.

Temple VI known as the Temple of Inscriptions was discovered as late as 1951.

The top of the structure is visible for just over 39 feet or 12 meters. Further excavation will be needed, for this temple to be fully accessible.

How To Get There

Most tourists to Tikal come from three different starting points. The closet airport is the Guatemalan town of Flores, which is just 90 minutes away by bus.

A similar ride from the capital of Guatemala City, will take at least 8 hours. Tikal is located 333 miles or 536 kilometers north of the city.

The other entry point is Belize City, located 3 hours by bus from Tikal.

Upon arrival in Flores, you can then contact a tour company. The cost will average 100 GTQ, the equivalent of $13.63 USD (United States Dollar). The cost without a guided tour, will be around 70 GTQ ($9.54 USD).

Tour buses arrive late in the morning and leave by mid afternoon. This leaves the most reminiscent time of the day which is early morning and late afternoon/early evening to those tourists who remain.

Hours of Operation

The park is open every day of the week from 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM local time.

It is advised not to go on Sundays. The day permits free admission for Guatemalan citizens and will likely be crowded.

Admission And Entrance Fees

Adult tickets for foreigners cost 150 GTQ ($20.46 USD).

There is no entry fee for children under 12.

If you decide on a sunrise tour and enter the park before 6:00 AM, the price of the ticket will be 250 GTQ ($34.10 USD). The extra cost is well worth it for the marvelous views that you will see, the lower air temperatures and the far fewer visitors, you will encounter throughout the park.

All tickets purchased after 3:00 PM, are valid for the following day.

If a traveler wishes to visit Uaxactun located 12 miles (20 kilometers) to the north, it will cost an additional 50 GTQ ($6.82 USD).

Unfortunately to date, tickets are not available for purchase on line.

Helpful Hints For All Travelers

There are no Automatic Teller Machines (ATM) at Tikal so you will need to bring extra hard currency (cash) with you.

Most tourists from northern climates visit during the dry season. This runs from October to May. The reduced humidity at this time of the year, makes the trip far more pleasant.

Tikal has a tropical climate, similar to that a traveler would experience in Yucatan Mexico. This reality will necessitate an ample supply of sunscreen, that will need to be reapplied throughout the day.

A visitor will also need to bring a generous supply of bottled water. It is important to stay hydrated during your visit of Tikal.

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Airport Tips to Help You Get Through Security Quicker

This article is brought to you by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to help you avoid delays during the summer travel season.


It’s summer, you’ve been planning your big vacation for a while, and all you can think about is getting to the lake/beach/mountain – it’s understandable! But with your mind’s eye fixed on your destination, it’s easy to forget about the journey, particularly security screening at the airport. The good news is that being prepared can help you breeze through the screening checkpoint, leaving you more time to shop, eat or just relax before your flight.

The first step is doing your homework so you know what goes in your carry-on and what goes in your checked baggage. The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) has some handy tools on its website, including a searchable “What can I bring” list that lets you know where to pack your items and what can and can’t fly. It also has a travel checklist generator and tips for all sorts of challenges –  from what to do with large sports equipment and medical supplies to travelling with pets.

According to CATSA, one of the biggest hold-ups at security is having too many liquids, aerosols and gels. Containers over 100 ml and 1-litre bags that are overstuffed with smaller containers (no seal; no deal) will need to be checked. As for that cup of java or water bottle in your hand – if it’s over 100 ml, be prepared to chug.

There are some exceptions, like liquids for kids under two years old and medication. You can check out more here. In all cases, the containers should be taken out of your carry-on bag and ready to present to the screening officer for inspection.

Once you hit the front of the line, it helps to have your boarding pass ready to show to the screening officer. You can also speed things up if you put any loose change, keys and small electronics (smartphones, cameras, tablets) in your carry-on bag so you can just drop it in the bin. If you’re travelling with a laptop or other large electronics (gaming console, DVD player) you’ll need to put them in a separate bin. For more information on what you can put in the bins at the checkpoint, you can find it here.

If you’re still wondering what to do with an item or want more information about security screening, you can always send questions to CATSA on Twitter or Facebook.

Lastly, travel is all about being mobile, so you should definitely download CATSA’s free mobile app. It’s available on Android, iOS and Blackberry, and can help you with all this and more, including wait times for security at most major airports.


Wishing you a great summer of travel!


Traveling to Santorini: Top Tourist Attractions

traveling to sanorini best things to do

When traveling to Santorini, the top tourist attraction is just simply being there! Considered as one of the most romantic and serene places in the world, there is no shortage of fun for when you get bored with gazing out at the beautiful surroundings and views of the Caldera.

Listed here you will find the top tourist attractions for when you are visiting Santorini.

Helicopter Tours of Santorini

Unlike the boat tours these do get fully booked, so reserve early. Tours last 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or 1 hour and you get incredible views of the caldera, cliffs, volcano, vineyards, and towns.

traveling to santorini

Explore the island from a different view, great for aerial photos!

Outdoor Cinema in Kamari

Who doesn’t like watching movies outside?! This outdoor cinema in Kamari is awesome and considered as one of the best in all of Europe! Its well worth a visit if you are visiting Santorini through the high seasons of April – August.

Take a break from the beautiful views of the Caldera and get cozy under the stars with some wine, beer, and snacks that are available at the kiosk. Movies are on daily and they usually start around 9:30pm.

best things to do in santorini attractions

Traveling to Santorini: Top Attractions

Take a sunset cruise out to Swim in the Hot Springs

The santorini sunsets are magnificent. What better way to see the sunset hit the white washed houses from out on the ocean with a glass of champagne.

Before the sun sets, you will be taken out to the natural hot springs where you will jump from the boat into the cold water of the caldera then swim towards the warm water of the volcanic springs. It never gets hot but it’s warm enough to never feel the need to get out.

The different options for boat tours include: hike the volcano, swim in the hot springs, visit the area of Thirassia and explore its villages, stop at Red Beach and White Beach to swim and snorkel, eat lunch or dinner on board, and watch the sunset below Oia.

Atlantis is believed to be buried under these waters around Santorini… so take a snorkel with you if you feel like diving for treasures!

traveling to santorini popular attractions

Santorini sunsets are famous all over the world, enjoy the view from a cruise out on the water for a different perspective

The Seafood Restaurants Of Amoudi Bay

Ammoudi Bay is a small picturesque bay just below Oia. This is where you will probably see some of the most crystal clear sea waters in your life!

You can go to Ammoudi by going down the stairs from Oia or by driving through the road and park a few meters before the bay.

It’s surprisingly quiet down here and you can usually get away without a reservation.

top tourist attractions in santorini

If you love seafood this is a great place to stop for lunch and is only a short walk down the the bay from Oia

Spend an afternoon visiting the wineries

Wine production in Santorini dates back to Roman times and it is still one of the main local products of the island. Artisanal wines, lovely terraces, incredible views and amazing Greek Food.

Red Beach & Akrotiri

Santorini’s beautiful beaches are legendary but the unique Red Beach is even more amazing and unique with each famous red and black volcanic pebbles. It’s only a short walk from the ancient site of Akrotiri.

Visiting Akrotiri is like traveling back in time. Walk around the streets and squares of a prehistoric city, admire the elegant mansions and high finesse of the 17th century B.C. If you have time, visit some of the Castles and Fortresses that are around this part of the island too.

santorini tourist attractions

Red Beach, Santorini

Hike the trail between Oia and Fira

This one can easily be the highlight of your trip to Santorini. It’s roughly a 2-3hr hiking trail which can be a bit steep at some points but it’s definitely worth doing as it will reward you with some of the best views of the island.

Make sure you do the hiking early morning or late in the afternoon as in the summer the sun gets very hot so take plenty of water with you, and sun cream.

best things to do in sanorini

Hiking the trail from Thira to Oia, Santorini

Eat Baklava and Gyros

You have to try a baklava and ice cream if you’re in Greece. Lucky’s is a small Gyros stand on the main street of Fira and a 3 minute walk from the bus station. (Ask anyone and they’ll point you in the right direction).

This is the real thing and just as good as anything you’ll find in Athens or mainland Greece.

traveling to santorini attractions

Baklava is a traditional Greek desert of nuts, filo pastry and honey

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Ancient Spanish Monastery Of Florida: The St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church

How a monastery built during the 12th century in Spain, would end up being one of the oldest buildings not only in Florida, but in the Western Hemisphere is an unusual tale.

It provides the Church of St. Bernard de Clairvaux an unusual history, in the path to become the tourist attraction known as the Ancient Spanish Monastery. It provides the story to our 9th stop, in the series Off The Beaten Path.

City of Segovia, Spain

The monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux was begun in 1133 CE in Sacramenia. The area is located in the northern part of Spain, near Segovia.

After eight years of construction, the monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in 1141 CE. The original name was The Monastery of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels.

The monastery was founded by Alfonso VII of Castile and Leon. It was built in the traditional Spanish style, of Cistercian Romanesque architecture. After its completion, he would have it occupied by Cistercian monks who had come from France.

Bernard of Clairvaux
Abbot lifespan 1090-1153 CE

When Bernard of Clairvaux was canonized in 1174 CE, the monastery would be renamed in his honor.

St. Bernard was a Cistercian monk and mystic. He was the founder and later abbot of the Abbey of Clairvaux, Bernard. Over time, he became one of the most influential Roman Catholic church leaders of the early to mid 12th century.

Some parts of the monastery were rebuilt, after being destroyed by fire in 1641.

Cistercian monks would occupy the monastery, for nearly the next 700 years.

The abbey would remain an active monastic community until 1835.

Queen Isabella II of Spain reigned from 1833 – 1868

Due to the social revolution of the 1830’s, the Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux along with other cloisters, would be confiscated and sold. It would happen during the reign of Queen Isabella II of Spain.

The historic monastery building, would be converted into a stable and a granary. The Romanesque abbey church, remains one of the monuments of Sacramenia.

In 1925, newspaper magnate and publisher William Randolph Hearst, purchased the Cloisters and the monastery’s outbuildings.

The structures would then be dismantled stone by stone and packed with protective hay. It would take more than 11,000 wooden crates, that were numbered for identification purposes. The entire lot was then shipped to the United States. Some of the crates weighed over 3,000 pounds each.

William Randolph Hearst 1863 – 1951

An outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in Segovia around this time, resulted in the entire shipment being forced into quarantine, upon its arrival in the United States. Some of the information contained in the labeling process, was thus lost.

During the process of quarantine, the crates were opened and the hay filing was burned, as a measure to prevent the possible spread of disease. During the repacking, the items in the crates were not replaced correctly.

By this time William Randolph Hearst was unable to proceed with his plan, to reassemble the monastery, at his San Simeon estate along the California coast. Financial difficulties now made the venture no longer viable.

As a result, most of the collection would be sold at auction. The thousands of crates would then remain in a Brooklyn, New York City warehouse for the next 26 years.

Central courtyard surrounded by the cloisters.

In 1952, the year after the death of Mr. Hearst, the crates would be purchased by Raymond Moss and William Edgemon. Their plan was to reassemble the monastery and create a tourist attraction, on the site of a small plant nursery in northern Miami, Florida.

The crates would be shipped to the Port of Everglades in 1953.

It took 23 men, 90 days just to open all the crates.

It would then take 19 months and would cost $1.5 million USD (United States Dollar), to assemble the pieces for reconstruction. This is the equivalent of nearly $20 million USD in modern day cost, to put the monastery back together again.

Entrance to the cloisters.

Interestingly, some of the original stones would remain unused, in the process of rebuilding.

A 1953 Time Magazine article, would call it the biggest jigsaw puzzle in history.

Edgemon and Moss would take charge of the reconstruction in 1964. They together decided to add other decorative pieces, from different Spanish buildings to the original complex.

One of the most prominent additions, was the large round carved-stone coat of arms, seen in the cloister. This artifact had originally belonged to the House of Albuquerque and came from the monastery of San Francisco de Cuellar, also in the province of Segovia.

Another acquisition for the monastery, was the chapel that had been erected in the 15th century, by Beltran de la Cueva, the 1st Duke of Albuquerque. He has been a favorite of Henry IV of Castile. This also had been sold in the 20th century, after the secularization of the monastery.

Gardens surrounding the building.

Also later in 1964, the property would be purchased by Bishop Henry I. Louttit, for the Episcopal Diocese of South Florida. The geographic area encompassing the one Diocese, would soon be divided into the Central, Southeast and Southwest Florida.

Eventually financial difficulties, would force the three dioceses to sell the monastery.

Colonel Robert Pentland, Jr., who was a multimillionaire banker, philanthropist and a benefactor of many Episcopal churches, purchased the Cloisters. He would then present them to the Bishop of Florida, for the Episcopal parish of St. Bernard de Clairvaux.

Three doors from the monastery would be removed and are now in a private home located in Atlanta, Georgia.

The monastery is listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the parish Church of St. Bernard de Clairvaux is an active and growing congregation. It is located in the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.

Church services are held regularly on Sundays and weekdays, in both English and Spanish.


The Ancient Spanish Monastery is located at 16711 West Dixie Highway, North Miami Beach, Florida. The Zip-code is 33160. The phone number is (305) 945-1461

The e-mail address is


Adults $10.00 USD

Students $5.00 USD

Seniors $5.00 USD

How To Get There

  • Take Interstate 1-95 to Exit 14 (State Road 860) marked Miami Gardens Drive.
  • Go East on Miami Gardens Drive. (It is a four lane street)
  • Drive for 1.2 miles.
  • Turn Right (South) onto West Dixie Highway (also marked NE 26th Avenue).
  • Drive 1.2 miles south on Dixie Highway.
  • Monastery will be on your Left (East) side of the street.

Days and Hours of Operations

Monday – Saturday 10:00 am to 4:30 pm

Sunday 11:00 am to 4:30 pm

Visitors should note, the church and gardens do close for special events. Weekends are the most popular time for such occasions.

Check this website for details:


Is available in nearby communities, surrounding the monastery and other nearby attractions.

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The Famous Temples Of Madurai India: The Athens Of The East

In southeast India, travelers can find the famous Temples of Madurai. Known as the Athens of the East, these wondrous structures, can be found in the state of Tamil Nadu. They were built over hundreds of year ago during ancient times, the Middle Ages, Renaissance and early modern period. It is the 7th stop in our series Journeys to Discovery.

The city of Madurai has an incredible history, that can be traced back some 2,500 years. The place was mentioned since antiquity in Tamil literature. The cultural richness and historical significance of the city, led it to become a major center of religious worship in Hinduism.

Vaigai river in Madurai

The city of Madurai is filled with both large and small temples, with some of them gaining international fame for their sheer size and exquisite beauty.

The city became known as the Athens of the East, when a Greek ambassador arrived in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, who reigned from 321 to 298 BCE. The diplomat was so awestruck by what he saw, he immediately compared it to the most beautiful city in ancient Greece, the city of Athens.

Meenakshi Amman Temple

Over the centuries, Madurai was ruled by a number of different dynasties and numerous rulers. The city would be taken over by invaders and for awhile was even an autonomous state, with its own Sultan.

The city of Madurai is built around the massive temple complex of Meenakshi Amman Temple. Upon arrival to the city a visitor will observe the 14 gateway towers to this enormous and sprawling temple. The towers are beautifully designed and are decorated with vibrant colors.

Taj Mahal, Mausoleum in Agra, India

Over the centuries the temple complex has been a center of culture, literature, art, music and dance. It is considered to be most impressive religious building in south India. It is to south India, what the Taj Mahal is to northern India. The temple remains the best example of South Indian Vijayanagar temple architecture.

The entire complex encompasses near 15 acres or 6 hectares.

Indra King of the Gods
God of Lightning, Thunder, Rains and River flows, King of Heaven

Legend reports that this huge temple was founded by Indra the king of Deva, while he was on a pilgrimage to redress a number of misdeeds.

He found solace and peace on the site that would become Madurai. Indra worshiped Shiva, who caused golden lotuses to appear in the nearby pool. This initiated the construction, as a place of worship according to the story.

The original temple was purportedly built during the 6th century BCE by survivors of the Kumari Kandam. In the 14th century, the Sultanate Muslim Commander Malik Kafur looted the temple.

Meenakshi Amman Temple

The rebuilding would begin under the first Nayak ruler Vishwanatha Nayakar late in the 16th century. It would be reconstructed in accordance to the shilpa shastra ( the design rules, principles and standards of Hindu architecture).

The temple has 14 gateway towers known as gopurams ranging from 148 feet to 164 feet (45-50 meters) in height. The tallest is the southern tower at 170 feet.

One can also see two golden sculpted vimanas, architectural features on top of the towers. These are located over the shrines of the main deities and are identified as garbhagrihas.

Goddess Meenakshi also known as Parvati

The main building was built to honor Parvati, known as Meenakshi locally, and her consort Shiva, that locals identify as Sundareswarar. The central enclosure has two beautiful golden shrines to Meenakshi.

The Meenakshi Temple contains around 33,000 different sculptures. There is a staggering array of gods, goddesses, heroes and demons. There are about 4,000 different granite sculptures on the lower levels. The sculptures placed further up the edifices, are repainted every 12 years. The last such touch up was in 2009.

The temple complex is the most prominent landmark in the city. It was listed as one of the top 30 contenders to be added to the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The annual 10-day Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival, celebrate during April and May, attracts 1 million visitors alone. Throughout the rest of the year, there are usually 15,000 visitors a day with 25,000 on Friday.

Tirupparankunram Murugan Temple

The Tirupparankunram Murugan Temple can be found about 5 miles (8 kilometers) outside of Madurai.

What is unique about this temple is that it is carved in a rock face and is enormous in size. The building is ancient and has stood on this site, since the 7th century according to some records.

The Tirupparankunram is one of the six homes of lord Muruga on Earth. He is known to be the Hindu God of War. Also known as Kartikeya, he is a son of the powerful god Shiva. The main shrine was built in his honor. There are smaller shrines dedicated on the site for the Goddess Durga, Shiva, Vinayaka, and Vishnu.

The ancient Alagar Kovil Temple, lies a couple of miles from Madurai. Historical text have the area a place of pilgrimage for many centuries.

Azhagar Koyil Temple

The golden canopy on the dome of the temple however, was commissioned by King Sundara during the 13th century.

Writings from centuries before identify Alagar Kovil Temple as a refuge for Jainism monks. There is a holy spring nearby, that has provided water for both residents and pilgrims alike.

There is a legend about a holy cow collapsing right where the temple was later built.

The temple is built in the Dravidian style and possesses beautiful carvings on the outside facade.

Koodal Azhagar Temple

The Koodal Azhagar Temple dates back to the 5th and 6th centuries CE. The edifice is dedicated to the God Vishnu. It is one of the most important temples to followers of Vishnu. There are additional shrines to the Krishna, Lakshmi Narasimha, Lakshmi, and Rama.

The Koodal Azhagar has a five-tiered gateway tower. The main idol with the temple is fastidiously carved out of granite. It is said that the shadow of the main shrine does not fall on the ground. There is also a five metals (panchloha) idol of Vyuga, the temple’s festival deity.

In addition, there are a number of splendid paintings in the temple, that add to the magnificence of the place.

Pazhamudircholai Murugan Temple

The Pazhamudircholai Murugan Temple is just over 15 miles (25 kilometers) from Madurai. It is another home of Lord Muruga. The Temple is far smaller than the aforementioned ones, but there is a rich history associated with the place.

Legend has it that the saint and great poet Avvaiyar, was subjected to a test from Lord Muruga.

The poet found a boy sitting under a tree at the site. The child asked if she wanted ripe or unripe fruits. Not wishing to argue with the boy, she asked for unripe ones. While the boy went up the tree to collect the requested fruits, a number of them fell with sand on them. After blowing away the sand, the boy insisted that Avvaiyar was blowing the ripe fruits as they were too hot.

Sculptures inside the Meenaakshi Amman Temple

The boy of course, was Lord Muruga himself.

Information for the Meenakshi Temple

Hours of Operation

4:00 am to 12:30 pm and then 4:00 pm to 9:30 pm daily

Best time to visit is from late October to early March

It will take about 2 hours to visit the main temple complex. The best time to visit is in the early morning and late evening to avoid the larger crowds.

Close up of gopurum figures at Meenakshi Amman Temple

Admission And Entrance Fees

The official general entrance fee for the Temple Art Museum is for Indians just 5 rupees for foreigners it is 50 rupees ($0.77 USD) United States Dollar. If one want to use a camera, there is an additional charge of 50 rupees. Be advised the use of your camera, is restricted in many parts of the complex.

So called Temple Guides will try to charge an additional fee rarely below 200 rupees ($3.10 USD). They are usually just fronts for the various shops, especially those involved with clothing.

Cultural Norms

Parts of the temple are off limits to non-Hindus. Dress codes have been recently tightened. No legs should be exposed for either men or women. Shoulders on women need to be covered. If you find yourself improperly dressed, there is always someone willing to sell you articles of clothing, to alleviate the problem.

Personal items like cameras, mobile phones, bottles, food items and such, can attract attention and are restricted in many areas of the complex. It is best to minimize their use or better yet, leave them in your hotel room.

An aerial view of Madurai city from atop the Meenakshi Amman temple

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Crazy Horse Monument To Become The World’s Largest Sculpture

Within the Black Hills of South Dakota in the United States, the world’s largest sculpture is slowly being carved out of Thunderhead Mountain. The Crazy Horse Monument has been under construction since 1948.

When completed it will depict the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, riding a horse while pointing into the distance. The Crazy Horse Memorial is the eighth stop, in the series Off The Beaten Path.

The final dimensions of the Crazy Horse sculpture is to be 563 feet (172 meters) high and 641 feet (195 meters) wide. The face of Crazy Horse alone, is 87.6 feet (26.70 meters) high. The nose itself is 27 feet long. The eyes are 17 feet wide.

Some of the other dimensions of the sculpture include, the outstretched arm which will be 263 feet, the horse’s head at 219 feet high (22 stories) and the horse’s mane at 62 feet high. The opening under the warrior’s arm will be 70 feet wide and 100 feet high.

The closest comparison in size that can be made is to Mount Rushmore, which is just 17 miles away. The heads of the four sculpted American Presidents, are each 60 feet or (18 meters) high.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore was completed in 14 years and the total cost was less than $1 million USD (United States Dollar).

Construction on the Crazy Horse Monument consumes near $1.75 million annually, which is about one quarter of the yearly budget of the foundation established, for the decades long project. The final date of completion remains unknown.

The site is privately owned, despite being one of the major tourist attractions since the late 1990s, when the face was finished. It is located on land considered sacred, by some of the Oglala Lakota people.

Korczak Ziolkowski and Henry Standing Bear.

The memorial was originally commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, and elder of the Lakota nation in late 1939. He engaged the services of the famous Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who had previously worked on Mount Rushmore under Gutzon Borglum.

In his original letter to Mr. Ziolkowski, he informed the sculptor My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes too.

Standing Bear later decided to write a letter to the then Undersecretary Oscar Chapman of the Department of the Interior. He proposed offering all his own 900 fertile acres of land in exchange for the barren mountain, in the purpose of paying honor to the legendary warrior Crazy Horse.

The United States government responded with a permit through the National Forest Service, agreeing to the project.

There was also a commission set up to oversea the project, but Standing Bear chose not to seek government funds. He instead wanted to rely upon influential and wealthy Americans interested in the culture of Native Americans. These individuals would hopefully, privately pay for the project.

Korczak Ziolkowski

In the first half of 1940, Ziolkowski would spend three weeks with Standing Bear, at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

During this time he learned about the legend of Crazy Horse and the Lakota way of living. It was at this time that he began the new journey, that would consume the rest of his life.

At the commencement ceremony in 1948, with the first blast of rock on the mountain, five survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn attended.

From the beginning the entire project was a non-profit undertaking. Sculptor Ziolkowski was reportedly offered $10 million USD from the federal government, on two different occasions. He would turn down these public funds.

Model of the Crazy Horse memorial

Ziolkowski felt the project was more than just a mountain carving, and feared his plans for the more extensive cultural and educational goals of the memorial, would be overturned by intrusive federal involvement.

The Memorial Foundation charges fees for its visitor centers and earns a constant stream of revenue from its gift shops. Over a million tourists arrive every year from both the United States and abroad.

The master plan includes the monument, an Indian University of North America, an Indian Museum of North America, and a Native American Cultural Center.

Black Hills of South Dakota

After Mr. Ziolkowski died in 1982, his widow Ruth took over the project and leadership of the foundation. She made the wise decision to focus on the completion of the face of Crazy Horse first, rather than the horse, as her husband had originally planned.

The judgment was made by Mrs. Ziolkowski, because she believed the face once completed, would increase tourism, which would then provide increased funding for the project. After completion of the face in 1998, Ruth and seven out of her 10 children, would carry on with work on the memorial.

Daughter, Monique Ziolkowski herself a sculptor, began a slight modification of her father’s original design. She wanted to be sure the outstretched arm when completed, would have sufficient support.

Mr and Mrs. Ziolkowski

The foundation would also commission reports from two engineering firms in 2009, to help guide completion of the project.

Ruth Ziolkowski would die in 2014 at the age of 87, but the work will continue with family members still in charge. Monique has been CEO, since the death of her mother.

Crazy Horse was a Native American war leader of the Oglala Lakota. He fought against the federal government of the United States, to preserve the territory of his people and their way of life.

He is known for his action against the United States military in the Fetterman Fight in 1866 and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in June 1876.

Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his U.S. Army troops are defeated in battle with Native American Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, June 25, 1876 at Little Bighorn River, Montana.

Crazy Horse would later surrender to American troops under General Crook in May of 1877. He was fatally wounded by a military guard, while allegedly resisting imprisonment at Camp Robinson, in what is today the state of Nebraska.

There is no known likeness of Crazy Horse known to exist, so the sculpture on the mountain is that of a generic Native American warrior.

Today, the Crazy Foundation sponsors a number of Native American cultural events and educational programs. Every year in June and in October, the Memorial hosts a Volksmarch, when the public is permitted on the mountain. As many as 15,000 have attended these annual events.

On the second Monday in October, there is also a celebration of Native American’s Day, a state holiday since 1990.

The gift shop has many unique items related to the monument and Native American culture.


Crazy Horse Memorial is located at 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs Crazy Horse, South Dakota. The Zip-code is 57730-8900. The phone number is (605) 673-4681

The e-mail address is


Tickets are $28.00 USD (United States Dollar) per car with more than 2 people.

The cost is $22.00 USD for 2 visiting adults.

Single visitors will be charged $11.00 USD.

Visitors arriving by bikes and motorcycles will pay $5.00 USD per person.

Children 6 and under are admitted free.

Free admission is provided for Native Americans, Active Military, Custer County residents and Boy or Girl Scouts in Class A or B uniforms.

Admission includes the Indian Museum of North America, the Mountain Carving Room, the Native American Educational and Cultural Center, Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski’s Studio-Home and Workshops, Sculptures, Artwork, Antiques, and the Laser Light Show at dark (when in season).

Visitors are able to witness the colossal carving in progress from the Viewing Deck, juxtaposed with Ziolkowski’s model.

From Memorial Day through September, visitors can interact with Native artists, lecturers, and performers representing numerous indigenous Nations.

Additional Optional Tours include a rustic bus ride to the bottom of the mountain for a close up view (weather permitting) for $4.00 USD per person. A trip to the top of the mountain is possible with a gift of $125.00 USD per person. Children 12 and under are free with a paying adult.

There are a number of special events throughout the normal tourist season, so visitors may wish to contact the foundation for additional information or use the provided website:

Amenities include free parking

How To Get There The entrance would be along US Highway 16/385 (the Crazy Horse Memorial Highway) 9 miles south of Hill City, South Dakota and 4 miles north of Custer, South Dakota.

Days and Hours of Operations

The Crazy Horse Memorial is open daily:

From January 2 through March 14 from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.

March 15 – May 16 from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm.

May 17 – October 09 from 7:00 am to 30 minutes after laser light show.

October 11 – November 11 from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm.

November 2 – November 15 from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.

November 16 – November 29 from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm.

November 30 – December 13 from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm.

Holiday Hours for December from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm.

Christmas Day from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm.

For Bus Tours call (605) 673-4681.


Is available in nearby communities surrounding the monument and other nearby attractions.

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Imperial Summer Palace Of China: Masterpiece Of Historical Landscape Garden Design

The Summer Palace in China is an extensive ensemble of hills, gardens, lakes and palaces, that was originally built outside the city of Beijing. Today it serves as a recreational park and has become a popular tourist destination, for both the Chinese and foreign travelers.

It is our 6th stop in the series Journeys to Discovery.

The total area of the Summer Palace encompasses a total of 1.1 square miles or 2.9 square kilometers. Three-quarters of the complex, is compromised of water from the lakes.

Kunming Lake with Nanhu Island and the 17-Arch Bridge

The Summer Palace is located 13.17 miles or 21.2 kilometers from the heart of the Chinese capital. This equates to a travel time of 39 minutes from the Forbidden City.

The attractions of the Summer Palace can be divided into six different scenic areas. They are the Halls, Longevity Hill, Kunming Lake, the Farming and Weaving Picture Scenic Area, the Long Corridor, and the Central Axis area.

In 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List. It identified the site as a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.

Longevity Hill

The Summer Palace is mainly dominated by Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake. The central Kunming Lake, covers some 540 acres (2.2 square kilometers) and is entirely man made. The soil excavated by hand, was used in the creation of Longevity Hill.

The latter is about 200 feet (60 meters) high and has numerous buildings built in a sequence. The front part of Longevity Hill was endowed with magnificent halls and pavilions that number over 3,000 rooms. The back hill as a contrast, is a simple display of natural beauty.

The origins of the Summer Palace can be traced back to the Jurchen-led Jin Dynasty in 1153. The fourth ruler, Wanyan Liang who reigned from 1150 to 1161, moved his capital to Yanjing. This city would later evolve into the present day Beijing.

Standing atop the Longevity Hill, the Tower of Buddhist Incense is the highest building in the Summer Palace.

It was this ruler that would order the construction of the first palace in the Fragrant Hills and Jade Spring Hill, located in the northwest part of his new capital.

Around the year 1271, after the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty also established its capital at what was known as Khanbaliq (Beijing), a waterworks project was designed and built in the area. This would later become Kunming Lake. The aim was to provide a reliable supply of water for the capital.

Later in 1494, the Hongzhi Emperor of the Ming Dynasty has a temple built in front of Jar Hill, which was later renamed Longevity Hill. This structure would eventually be abandoned and fell into disrepair.

Garden of Harmonious Pleasures

The Zhengde Emperor who succeeded to the throne, built a palace on the banks of the Western Lake and turned the area into an imperial garden. Both he and the Wanli Emperor who reigned from 1572 to 1620, relished taking boast rides on the lake.

During the reign of the Tianqi Emperor from 1620 to 1627, a court eunuch would take the imperial garden and make it his personal property

The construction of the Summer Palace itself started around 1750 by the Qianlong Emperor. He decided to build a palace there, to celebrate the 60th birthday of his mother, the Empress Dowager Chongqing. He had the Western Lake expanded to create two more lakes known as Gaoshui and Yangshui. He would name the three lakes collectively as Kunming Lake.

Pavilion of Precious Clouds

Some 150,000 peasants would dig a lake by hand that would end up being 6 miles long. They would also shape an incredible landscape, that surrounded this new body of water.

The excavated earth was used to enlarge Jar Hill, which was now renamed Longevity Hill. The peasants would now build up the hill some 200 feet high and then create buildings, built out of teak, enhanced with bronze and gold.

The Summer Palace would be completed in the year 1764 at a cost of 4.8 million silver taels. It was at first named Qingyiyuan, which translates into Garden of Clear Ripples.

Suzhou Street

The grounds around the buildings were a luxuriant garden, for the imperial families to relax and entertain guests.

A number of the buildings and temples were taken from other sites around China, to complete the almost magical scenery of the extensive gardens.

The arrangement of the Summer Palace was attributed to a legend in Chinese mythology. The story is about three divine mountains in the East Sea. The three islands in Kunming Lake were built to represent these mythological places.

Kunming Lake itself, was modeled after the West Lake in Hangzhou.

Tower of Buddhist Incense (northern side)

Many of the architectural features in the palace were also built, to resemble various famous places around imperial China. A model of the whole of China, created on just 12 square miles.

The centerpiece of the Summer Palace was the Great Temple of Gratitude and Longevity.

There was also the Long Corridor a 2,297 (700 meters) which was decorated with intricate artistic decorations.

The Qing (Manchu) Dynasty began to decline following the thirty year rule of Daoguang Emperor. His reign from 1820 to 1850, were the years when China was falling ever further behind the West, in technological advances.

Kunming Lake viewed from Longevity Hill

After his death, the Summer Palace began to be neglected and the architectural features on the three islands, were ordered to be dismantled. They had become too expensive to maintain.

The turning point arrived in 1860. At the end of the Second Opium War, the British would burn down the nearby Old Summer Palace, known as Yuanmingyuan. Over 200 halls of teak and gold leaf would be burned. A soldier wrote at the time that you can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burned. It made ones heart ache to burn them.

The destruction of the palace was ordered by Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China. The reason given for the command, was the torture and killing of two English envoys, a journalist and their escorts.


The Summer Palace itself, was seriously damaged and looted at the same time, by both the British and the French.

The wanton destruction of large sections of the Summer Palace, is still remembered among many Chinese and is considered by them, to be a crime against their culture and history.

The next evolution of the Summer Palace would result from an unusual chain of events within the royal family.

The reign of the Guangxu Emperor from 1875 to 1908 comprised the 11th ruler from the Qing dynasty and the 9th one to rule over China. He was strongly under the influence of his aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi from 1889 to 1898.

Effective Rule 11 November 1861 – November 1908

Empress Cixi had been the mother of the previous Emperor and was his regent. She would never really relinquish power from this point. When her son died at 19, she would appoint a nephew to rule, but would maintain the real political power in her own hands.

For the first time in a thousand years, China was being ruled by a woman. She would become known as the Dragon Empress.

Empress Dowager Cixi wanted to restore the Summer Palace to what it was like during her youth. To accomplish this task, a great deal of money would be needed.

In 1884, she would embezzle the equivalent of 50 million USD (United States Dollar) intended for the Chinese navy, to be used instead in the restoration of the Summer Palace.

From the years 1884 through 1895, the Empress would use 22 million silver taels, an incredible fortune in the ongoing building project.

The enormous expense, forced most of the construction to take place on the buildings in front of Longevity Hill and the dams around Kunming Lake.

17-Arch Bridge

The Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha was by far, the most expensive building. At a time when a comfortable Chinese peasant earned just $0.15 USD a day, the Empress spent more than a million dollars on the gold roof finial alone.

A great deal of the national wealth of China was used in reconstructing and enlarging the Summer Palace, in time for the 60th birthday of Empress Cixi in 1895. It would consume a seventh of the Chinese budget during these years.

It is noteworthy to remember, that during this period some 20 million peasants would starve in the outlying provinces, as the Empress lived a lavish and extravagant lifestyle.

Long Corridor

She concealed the fact that court expenses, were costing the Chinese Treasury some $20 million USD, a year. The royal staff at the Summer Palace alone, numbered a thousand.

The cost of just one of her elaborate meals, would feed 50 peasants for a month. The Empress would insist on 128 separate dishes, for both lunch and dinner. However, she would mostly dine on only a few favorites.

The Empress Dowager would also accumulate some 20,000 gowns over the years.

The Summer Palace had taken its present name (Yiheyuan) during its reconstruction in 1888. The same year, that the Empress moved her imperial court there for good.

Great Opera Hall and Theater

The Empress Cixi would have constructed at the heart of the complex, China’s largest theater. Its magnificent stage alone, would comprise three stories. Personal performances for the Empress would be presented in a continuous manner.

In 1894, China and Japan would go to war over Korea. Without a modern navy, the Chinese forces were destroyed, by the rapidly modernizing Japanese. The Empress on hearing the news, simply complained the whole episode, ruined her 60th birthday celebration.

At the Summer Palace, the Empress Cixi restores an ornamental marble boat, to honor the Chinese patriots,who had collected money for the navy.

Guangxu Emperor (nominal reign) February 1875 – November 1908

When her nephew the Emperor Guangxu initiated the Hundred Days’ Reform to modernize China, he was stopped by the Empress Cixi. She instead launched a military coup and seized the throne for herself. He would be imprisoned until his death in 1908, likely by poisoning.

Her victory over the reformers inspires a group of Chinese ultra nationalists, who become known as the Boxers. They would soon stage an uprising. In 1898, they begin to kill Chinese Christians. In 1900, against the counsel of her advisers, she orders all foreigners in China to be killed.

The Boxers subsequently kill, thousands of foreign nationals. This would lead to Western military intervention, once again. Countless thousands more Chinese citizens would be killed, due to the allied assault on the Chinese capital.

Representative U.S., Indian, French, Italian, British, German, Austrian and Japanese military and naval personnel forming part of the Allied forces during the Boxer Rebellion.

In 1900, towards the end of the Boxer Rebellion, the Summer Palace would suffer a great deal of damage. Parts of the complex would suffer being consumed by fire, once again. The forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance would destroy the imperial gardens. They would also steal countless historical artifacts and works of art.

The Empress Cixi had fled ahead of the invasion. When she returned, the Empress orders the Summer Palace to be restored,with most of the work completed between 1902 and 1905, in time for her 70th birthday.

The Empress had been placed back on the throne by the Western powers, as a stabilizing force in China. Her political power over the nation however, was greatly reduced. She had largely become a figurehead, over an increasingly restive nation.

A three-year-old Puyi (right), standing next to his father (Zaifeng, Prince Chun) and his younger brother Pujie

She would die six years later while in residence. The throne would be left to another nephew. Empress Cixi would expire only a day, after choosing him as her successor. The three year old Puyi, would be China’s last emperor.

Soon the tradition of monarchy, which had lasted some 2,000 years would come to an end.

Following his abdication in 1912, the Summer Palace became the private property of the former imperial family. Two years later, the Summer Palace would become open to the public, with the sale of entry tickets.

After Puyi was expelled from the Forbidden City by a warlord in 1924, the Beijing municipal government, would see to the administration of the Summer Palace. It was soon turned into a public park.

After the Communist victory in 1949, the Summer Palace would briefly house the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China.

Marble Boat at the Summer Palace

Many of Mao Zedong’s friends and other noteworthy members of the Communist Party, would also take up residence.

Since 1953, there have been numerous renovations and restorations projects at the Summer Palace.

Today, it is open to the public as a park and a major tourist attraction for the Chinese and for numerous foreign tourists.

How To Get There

From the downtown Beijing area, the Summer Palace it just 9 miles (15 kilometers) away.

Tourists can enter the Summer Palace from the North Palace Gate, the East Palace Gate, the West Palace Gate or the New Palace Gate.

One can either take Subway Line 4 or Subway Line 16. If a visitor would prefer to travel by bus, there are a number of them one can take, depending on the Palace Gate they wish to enter.

Hours of Operation

There are two seasons of operation. The summer schedule runs from April 01, to October 31. The Summer Palace will be open from 6:30 am to 6:00 pm (18:00). The scenic areas are open from 8:30 to 5:00 pm (17:00).

The winter listing is from November 01, to March 31. It will be open from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm (17:00). Scenic areas are open from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm (16:00).

Your tour at the Summer Palace will last at least 3 hours, to adequately visit the most famous sites.

Admission And Entrance Fees

The general entrance fee is 30 (CYN) during the summer schedule and 20 (CYN) during the winter one. This is the equivalent of $4.35 USD and $2.90 USD respectively.

The combination ticket which includes the entrance fee and the most popular sites of Dehe Garden, Tower of Buddhism Incense, Wenchang Hall, Suzhou Street and Danning Hall, sells for 60 CYN, the equivalent of $8.70 USD in the summer and 50 CYN or $7.25 USD, in the winter.

Children under 3.9 feet or (1.2 meters) are admitted for free.

Seniors that are older than 70, are admitted for half price, by showing a valid identification or passport.

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Historic Shirley Plantation Along The James River In Virginia

The Great House at Shirley Plantation

The seventh stop in our series Off The Beaten Path, brings travelers to the James River in Virginia. Along this historic watercourse are a number of colonial mansions, that were built in the period before the United States became an independent nation. Among the oldest is Shirley Plantation, the senior active landed estate in Virginia, having started operations there in 1638.

Shirley Plantation also has the distinction of being the oldest family-owned business in North America, dating back to 1614. This is a mere seven years, after the first English settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607. The history of the estate, now spans over four centuries.

The plantation as a whole was added to the National Register in 1969 and was pronounced a National Historic Landmark, the following year. This is a result of the estate still possessing many of the authentic structures, from its colonial past.

The brick outbuildings built in 1723, form a unique Queen Anne style looking courtyard. As these other smaller structures seem to frame the mansion, it adds to the majesty of the main house.

Included in the collection of buildings are a large two-story kitchen, with living quarters for slaves, and a two-story laundry house, also with quarters for living.

The Shirley Plantation dovecote

In addition, there is a stable, a storehouse, a smokehouse and dovecote. One of the two barns has an ice cellar beneath it. The latter, is the only remaining example of this building method in the United States.

Construction on the present day Georgian mansion, was begun in 1723. It features the pineapple throughout the woodwork, which was the Colonial symbol for hospitality. Unfortunately, the architect of the main building remains unknown.

The house was built with red brick walls and white trim boards, on a square foundation. The mansion does not really possess a front door, as the riverside and courtyard side entrances, have a two-story portico, with Doric columns supporting a pediment.

The entrance is located in the center, framed by a pair of long rectangular windows on each side.

The hipped roof rests on an entablature. This is a superstructure of moldings and bands which lie horizontally above the columns,resting on their capitals. At the Shirley mansion it contains dentil moldings.

The Shirley Plantation, c. 1900-1906. Photo by William Henry Jackson.

The roof is broken up by dormer windows and two large brick chimneys. In the center of the roof, is the famous white pedestal, supporting a finial of an overturned pineapple.

Encompassing over 700 riverfront acres, the property is still managed by direct decedents of the original owners. These are the tenth and eleventh generations of the Hills and Carters.

The mansion is considered an architectural wonder due to its flying staircase and hand-carved woodwork. The steps rise for three stories, without visible means of support. It is the only one of its kind in the United States.

Sir Thomas West, 3rd Baron De la Warr

The superior paneling and elegant wood carving throughout the house, are among the finest examples of 18th-century artisans.

Shirley Plantation remains a family home that today is filled with portraits, historical furniture, crested silver and endless memorabilia, associated with past occupants.

The lands embracing Shirley Plantation were first settled in 1613 by Sir Thomas West, 3rd Baron De la Warr and were named West and Sherley Hundred.

In those days, the land was primarily cultivated for growing tobacco, to be used throughout British North America and to be shipped across the Atlantic, bound for England.

In 1638, a tract of land was granted to Edward Hill, which began the control by the Hill family.

Governor Berkeley baring his breast for Bacon to shoot after refusing him a commission

The original 450 acres (180 hectares) was expanded by both gradual acquisition and most importantly, through marriage.

The estate would eventually be inherited by Edward Hill II, who would be in charge during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The decision to back Governor William Berkeley, led to an attack on the plantation by rebels, who proceeded to ransack and plunder the place.

Shirley Plantation would pass on to Edward Hill III in 1700. His only son Edward IV, would die of consumption at 16, leaving no male heirs. His youngest daughter Elizabeth, would thus inherit the property in 1723. She was the wife of John Carter, eldest son of Robert King Carter.

Robert “King” Carter

The construction on the present day mansion known as the Great House, began that same year. It would be completed in 1738. The original nearby residence known Hill House, would remain until the late 1860s, when it would finally be demolished. The building materials would be used in the construction of another famous plantation house at Upper Shirley.

During the American Revolution, Shirley Plantation was a supply center for the Continental Army. Twice, it was a listening post for both opposing sides. It laid in the no-man’s land between Lafayette’s army at Malvern Hill and the British at City Point. The latter is today known as the town of Hopewell.

Henry Lee III, 9th Governor of Virginia

One of the most noteworthy family members born at Shirley Plantation, was Anne Hill Carter in 1773. She was the wife of the ninth governor of Virginia, Henry Lee III of the Stratford Plantation, known as Light-Horse Harry.

The couple were married in 1793, in the parlor of the mansion at Shirley. They were the parents of the famous Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. He has been recognized as one of the greatest American generals in history.

During the American Civil War, also known in the South as the War Between the States, the Shirley Plantation survived the Peninsular Campaign. In the later nearby struggle for Richmond, the Confederate capital, the mansion would again escape destruction.

General Robert E. Lee

The house remains largely in its original state. The upper floors are occupied by members of the eleventh generation of the Hill-Carter family. They are responsible for the running of the plantation, which is still in the private hands of the clan.

The bottom floor alone is open for touring, which allows visitors a glimpse of American life in the centuries before the modern era.

Many famous individuals have visited and even stayed at the Shirley Plantation. Over the generations, the members of the family have entertained the Byrds, the Harrisons, not to mention President Thomas Jefferson and even George Washington. The list of illustrious Virginians who have visited the plantation, is quite extensive.

Location Shirley Plantation is located at 501 Shirley Plantation Road in Charles City, Virginia. The Zip-code is 23030-2907. The phone number is (800) 232-1613

Admission Tickets are to be purchased in the gift shop, before you begin your tour of the grounds.

The gift shop has many unique items related to the plantation.

Adults will be charged $12.50 USD (United States Dollar). Seniors (age 60+) are admitted for $11.50.

AAA members with a valid card, are eligible to buy a ticket for $11.00. Active Duty and Veteran U.S. military and their spouses, are admitted for $10.00, with a valid identification.

For those aged 7-16 admittance is $8.50, with AAA/Military Youth charged $8.00. Ages 6 and under, are allowed in for free.

Special rates apply for groups of ten members or more, but reservations will be required. These must be made at least one week prior of arrival, to receive the group rate.

Shirley Plantation property can be made available for corporate functions, special events and weddings. Your contact e-mail for these type of requests, is Anne Hale at

Further information is accessible in the special events section of the Shirley Plantation Website.

Amenities include free parking, restrooms, with snacks and drinks being sold in the gift shop. 

Photography Visitors may take photographs or make illustrations of the buildings, gardens and grounds as they wish, but it must be for personal use only. No such accommodations are permitted inside the Great House.

How To Get There Shirley Plantation is located 29.4 miles (47.3 kilometers) southeast from Richmond via I-64 East and Virginia 5 East. It will take about 34 minutes in normal traffic, to reach the plantation from the state capital.

Days and Hours of Operations

The Shirley Plantation is open daily for 363 days a year, with a summer schedule (April 15 to November 15) from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm, with the last tour beginning at 4:00 pm. The grounds close at 5:00 pm. Tours take place at 10:00 am, 11:00 am, 12:00 pm, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm, 3:00 pm and 4:00 pm.

Hours of operation are shorter during colder months.

Tours of the Great House will take visitors about 35-40 minutes. The rest of the tour is self guided and will take about 30 additional minutes.

The attraction is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.


Is available in the nearby community of Charles City, which is located 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) east of the plantation, on Virginia Highway 5 East. It will take approximately 17 minutes to traverse the distance.

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