Tag Archives: tourism

Tallinn, Estonia

Why Estonia? Helsinki or Oslo would have been a more typical end to my Nordic tour. But when I chatted with some Fulbrighters based in Finland, they recommended Tallinn as a cheaper and prettier destination. And I think it was a good choice.

Tallinn is an impressive city. Estonia has only been independent for 24 years, but it feels more like a Nordic country than an Eastern bloc country. The infrastructure is fabulous. There is free Wi-Fi almost everywhere, a secure and high-tech system that lets citizens do everything from voting to taxes to starting businesses online, and extensive public transit (which is free for city residents, though not for tourists). It’s not quite as inexpensive as, say, Budapest, but the prices still come as a relief after Stockholm and Copenhagen. Also, amusingly, Estonia’s president is rather infamous for starting Twitter wars with other countries. Just a fun fact.

Old Town

Tallinn has one of the best-preserved medieval old towns in the world. It’s very small and cute, with lots of churches in various styles, a still-operating pharmacy dating back to at least 1422, and a mostly-intact wall. (Apparently, Estonia entered the wall in some sort of “additional wonders of the word” competition. It lost to the Great Wall of China. But that’s pretty stiff competition.) I took a free walking tour with a hilariously wry guide who told us lots of silly stories. For instance: one of the oldest churches was partially destroyed by Soviet bombs. When Estonia joined the USSR, they asked for money and permission to rebuild the church. Their proposal was repeatedly rejected, until they offered to make the space a museum of atheism. (What goes inside a museum of atheism? Who knows? The museum never actually happened.)

Continue reading Tallinn, Estonia

Sightseeing in Stockholm

Any city was going to be a let-down after Copenhagen. Stockholm isn’t quite as perfect: food costs more, the transit system is worse, and even the weather didn’t hold up as well for my visit. Also, no Kierkegaard. All of that notwithstanding, it was a really fun place to be a tourist for a day! Everything I did—touring the City Hall, visiting the Vasa Museum, touring Old Town, and attending the opera—was absolutely worth my time and money.

City Hall

Lots of cities have impressive city halls, but Stockholm really stands out for the variety of architecural styles and decorative techniques used. It’s also fun to tour because of the Nobel Prize tie-in. Although the prizes themselves are given out in Stockholm’s concert hall, the banquet, ball, and reception are held here. Did you know that university students in Stockholm can enter a lottery to purchase a ticket to the banquet!? I knew I picked the wrong place to study.

Continue reading Sightseeing in Stockholm

Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen!

(First things first: If you don’t know what the title is referring to, go watch the excellent Danny Kaye movie musical Hans Christian Andersen. This post will still be here when you finish.)

I’m in love. I’ve never felt as strong an urge to stay and live in a city as I did in Copenhagen. I can’t quite explain why. The beautiful green spaces? The good infrastructure? The fish-based cuisine? The lingering traces of Kierkegaard’s presence? I know it gets awfully cold in the winter, and I probably wouldn’t like that, but on this trip it seemed like the perfect city.

Authors, philosophers, and other famous people

Have I mentioned on this blog how much I love Kierkegaard? I know it’s one of those totally unoriginal teenage obsessions, but I can’t help it! So of course tracking down Kierkegaard-related sites was a priority during my time in Copenhagen. I didn’t go quite as far as this author, but I made sure to see his grave, his statue, and the exhibit about him in the Museum of Copenhagen. The latter was small but really cool—it organized paraphernalia from his life into different categories of love. These were paired with relevant quotes from his works (of course, Works of Love and his notes played a large part) and with objects and stories submitted by current Copenhageners. The Regine Olsen episode of Kierkegaard’s life is fascinating, so I loved how much emphasis it got. The city’s other famous author, Hans Christian Andersen, is in the same cemetery. One of his stories is also commemorated in the city’s most famous attraction (supposedly the most disappointing attraction in Europe), the harbor statue of the Little Mermaid.

Continue reading Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen!

Happy birthday, Hamburg harbor!

My train to Hamburg was packed. Not just in the sense of “it sucks that you can’t find a seat for this six-hour, early-morning journey,” but in the sense of “no one can get to the bathrooms and also we’re not sure we can take on any more passengers, because the standing room is all taken.” We can partially blame this on the Deutsche Bahn strikes (fewer trains than usual were running), but apparently it’s mostly because I was heading to Hamburg just in time for one of their biggest events of the year: the Hafengeburtstag. That’s literally the “harbor birthday,” and ships from all over the world come to parade, race, and mingle. Of course, there’s also lots of fireworks and street food. (I ate plenty of herring—both raw and pickled—and Schmalzkuchen—fried balls of dough with powdered sugar.) So I threw most of my other plans for the weekend away and helped Hamburg celebrate its harbor’s birthday in style!

The other main tourist attraction I managed to get to was Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest model railway. It’s impressive for its sheer size, and it also does a good job of conveying the overall differences in terrain and architecture between the represented regions (Switzerland, Austria, Hamburg, the fictional German town of Knuffingen, Bavaria, Middle Germany, America, and Scandanavia). It has an airport, concert halls, soccer stadiums, a space shuttle, UFOs, ships, and lots and lots of trains. There are also some fun Easter eggs in the tiny figures—everything from an elephant pulling a steamroller to a man bungee jumping from construction equipment.

Continue reading Happy birthday, Hamburg harbor!

Holland: The Hague and Amsterdam

The last leg of my journey: Holland. This is a refrain I keep repeating, but I wish I’d had more time! Two days each in two cities was not nearly enough. I didn’t get to explore the Dutch countryside, or even see all the museums I wanted to see in the cities. I guess I’ll just have to return someday…

The Hague

The Hague seems to be a hugely popular destination for Dutch tourists and a relatively ignored one for international tourists. On one hand, this is a shame, because it means tours of most attractions are only offered in Dutch (with significantly shorter written or audio-guided English summaries). But it means the locals don’t roll their eyes at foreign tourists, so that’s nice! There are a lot of museums in The Hague, and I drove myself a bit crazy trying to get to all the major ones. I failed—in fact, I missed the city’s two biggest sights: the Mauritshuis Museum (home of “Girl with a pearl earring”) and the Peace Palace. But I saw a lot anyway. I arrived in the afternoon on Saturday in time to take a tour of the Hall of Knights, the ceremonial hall where the King delivers his speech from the throne on budget day. The room is impressive without being flashy. Its ceiling is made as an inverted boat, and the walls are lined with handwoven tapestries celebrating The Netherlands’ provinces. Little imps sit on the wooden rafters—a relic of the days when it was a courtroom, and the imps carried defendents’ and witnesses’ words to St. Peter, who would recall their truthfulness (or lack thereof) when he judged them for admission to heaven. In the center of the room is the still-used gold-and-velvet throne.

I started Sunday with Escher in the Palace, a museum I found doubly attractive because it’s the only palace open to the public (and it contains some of the original furnishings and details about the royal family’s life) and because it hosts a permanent exhibition of artwork by Escher. I’ve seen Escher exhibits before, but this one had more of an emphasis on his earlier landscapes and nature drawings, which I found interesting. (You could already see how he was playing with repetition and perspective, but it was subtle.) There was also a kitschy top floor with optical illusions and photo opportunities inspired by Escher prints. Continue reading Holland: The Hague and Amsterdam

Medieval Belgium

Brussels was all shiny and wide-boulevard-ed like the European capital it was built to be, but small-town Belgium is very different. Much more like small-town Germany, in fact: very medieval. I spent a day each in Gent and Bruges, looking at pretty old buildings (though most of them in Gent are reconstructions), climbing far too many stairs to reach the top of belfries, and watching lace be made.


Gent is not exactly a tourist destination, except during its annual music festival. The town history explanations in the belfry, for instance, are only in Flemish. (Yes, German speakers can decipher Flemish with sufficient effort. But I didn’t want to give myself a headache in the morning.) So I took a tour, which mostly focused on old buildings, plus the occasional off-beat sight (check out a grafitti lane and the Design Museum toilets in the photo gallery below). I learned that Gent was once the second-largest city in Europe (in the 13th century, that is) because of its textile industry. I also made a friend from Mexico. (Credit for any photos with me in them goes to Nora!) At our guide’s suggestion, we went to the House of Alijn museum, which offers glimpses of life in past centuries and decades. It was kitschy but cute, though I thought there was too little about past centuries and too much about the different decades of the 20th century.

Gent had two highlights for me other than the views. One was Quetzal, a chocolate bar near the university that is decidedly not for tourists. (Sign of this: no English menu.) They don’t do fancy pralines, just chocolate. Pure melted chocolate at the darkness level of your choice, mixed with milk and spices. (I had super-dark chocolate with chili.) Fondue with bread or fruit. Brownies. Pieces of chocolate. I had all of the above. It was amazing. The other highlight was my lovely Couchsurfing host, Nadia. She took me to a salsa club and ensured that some of the leads she knew there danced with me! It’s been a long time since I danced salsa, and she showed me up because she was amazing. But I had fun anyway, even though my legs were tired from all that stair-climbing. Continue reading Medieval Belgium

Beautiful Brussels, Belgium

I had two complaints about Cologne: that the city wasn’t very pretty, and that all the museums were closed. Fortunately, I headed to Brussels next. Mostly just because it was there—I didn’t really know what to expect. As it turns out, Brussels is gorgeous, with wide avenues, tons of public green spaces, and lots of old buildings. It’s reminiscent of Paris (not coincidentally). Most of the beautification of the city was done in the nineteenth century with money gathered from exploiting the Congo, so it can be a little jarring to think about history and take in the views at the same time. Nonetheless, for the combination of architecture, sights to visit, and food to eat, it’s one of my favorite cities I’ve visited.

My planned host had a conflict arise at the last minute, so Ashley, a fellow Fulbrighter I met in Berlin, agreed to put me up at the last minute. She also took me to an outdoor concert (at the university) on Tuesday night. It was not at all my scene (dubstep music and lots of alcohol, smoking, and weed), but it was interesting to people-watch. The students were surprisingly casually dressed (silly hats and pajamas, in some cases), but this was the French university. Ashley assured me that the Flemish university students dress up. Which brings me to another point: languages. I was ignorant going into Belgium, but it turns out there are three official languages: Flemish, French, and German. Most people in Brussels defaulted to French. Surprisingly, no one switched to English when they heard my execrable French, so I got more practice in my two days there than in my week in Paris! Bonus points for persistence (but also negative points for creepiness) go to the man who tried to pick me up on the street and who listened to me answer his questions in broken French for twenty minutes. (I’m at least perfectly clear on how to say, ‘Je suis désolée, mais non. Je ne te connais pas’ in response to repeated requests for a date, my number, etc.) Continue reading Beautiful Brussels, Belgium

Cologne in a day

Germany is wonderfully centrally located in Europe. One of my travel strategies this year is visiting the major Germany city closest to the border of the country I’m on my way to. For my current Belgium and Holland trip, that’s Cologne (or Köln, in German). I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s not a pretty city. 90% of it was destroyed by bombs in WWII, so the Altstadt is essentially non-existent. But there are a lot of interesting things in the city, and I could easily have filled several more days with sightseeing. I was unfortunately there on a Monday, so most museums were closed. If I go back, I’d love to visit the National Socialism Documentation Center, the Ludwig Museum, and of course the Chocolate Museum. I’d also like to see the botanical gardens and the Melaten Cemetery.

That said, I don’t have any regrets about how I spent what little time I had in the city. I got in Sunday evening, so I quickly dropped off my luggage and queued for student tickets to a play. This wasn’t just any play; it was the first-ever stage version of the famous 1920s German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (No, I haven’t seen it either.) The theatre company employed a lip-reader to transcribe what dialogue s/he could, then built a script around that. The result was extraordinarily strange. Its monochrome sets recalled its black-and-white origins. It seemed uncertain what balance to strike between talking and silence—the main character (Cesare) often told stories as expressive dances. It was decidedly non-naturalistic, with exaggerated movements and extreme make-up. It was intentionally alienating, with video close-ups of actors’ faces offering alternative reactions to onstage events. A heavy metal band provided sound effects and filled in the transitions. I’m glad I saw it, because I felt like it taught me a lot about German expressionism, a movement I previously knew nothing about. It lacked the emotional punch of the best psychological horror, but it definitely had suspense. The actors executed the strange style well. I don’t feel qualified to review it more than that, because I suspect much of the interest of the production lies in its imitation versus innovation of the original source material. I’ll need to watch the film before I can form an opinion on that score. Continue reading Cologne in a day

Fulbright Berlin Seminar, part three: tourism

This is part of my trilogy of posts about the Fulbright Berlin Seminar. See the first post for an introduction. This post is about being a tourist.

Let me get this out of the way: I found Berlin to be a very ugly city. It felt sprawling, dirty, and architecturally unappealing. That said, it has some beautiful monuments and churches and tons of interesting museums, so it wasn’t a bad place to be for a conference. I used every spare moment to visit things in the city. While I certainly didn’t see it all (I most notably omitted the Reichstag, but I really could have used a few more days for museums, too), I think I did a pretty good job of sightseeing given the time I had!


Berlin is full of historical monuments and memorials, some dating back to the Prussian years and others commemorating the Cold War and the city’s divisions.

Continue reading Fulbright Berlin Seminar, part three: tourism

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces

I’ve had a few visitors in the past couple weeks, which gave me an excuse to be tourist-y in Bavaria. This, of course, meant visiting castles—both the one very close to my house (Schloss Nymphenburg) and the more famous one a train ride away (Neuschwanstein). This also meant that I have photo evidence of these trips! (I may be terrible at taking pictures, but my visitors weren’t.)

Let’s start with Schloss Nymphenburg. It was originally built as the Bavarian royal family’s country hunting lodge. Of course, it’s now in the city, but that’s what happens when cities expand.

Continue reading The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces