Riverfronts, Savannah, GA & San Antonio, TX

At some point when I was compiling my travelogue list, I noticed how many of my favourite things to see and do relate to water. If there is a riverfront to walk along, for instance, you can be sure I will find it. Two of my favourites are miles apart, in Savannah and San Antonio.

Savannah River Street, GA

If you’re driving in to Savannah from the north, you will likely pass through the streets between the beautiful Savannah squares, and find parking right up next to the river. You’ll be greeted by tall ships and riverboats docked at harbor, and have a fantastic view of ships from all over, coming and going from the busy port.

If you want to head out on the river itself, there are riverboat cruises for Savannah sightseeing, as well as themed and seasonal cruises. Smaller boats can take you out to watch dolphins in the bay, and provide a narrated tour of the riverfront.

Be sure to visit the River Street Market Place, an open-air market offering goods from around the world, which are brought in with the ships from overseas. Most of the stalls are filled with the sort of tourist trinkets you’ll find at many working ports, but it’s a fun place to wander and see what’s on display. Local artists also join the market to show their jewelry and crafts, so you can get a small taste of Savannah at the same time. The ‘sheds’ where the vendors set up are meant to re-create the environment of the market in the mid-19th century.

Walking along the riverfront, you’ll see even more historic buildings, many of them former cotton warehouses, now converted to boutiques, art galleries, and brew pubs. There are some beautiful inns, hotels, and restaurants that have taken up residence along the waterfront, making River Street a scenic walk even if you’re not actively out to shop.

Check the calendar when you visit—in addition to a harvest festival, Christmas holiday celebration, Saint Patrick’s Day party, and 4th of July fireworks, River Street hosts some more unusual festivities, such as the Tall Ships Challenge, where a fleet of historic ships from around the world dock in the harbor for tours and demonstrations. Other offerings include a seafood festival, blues & jazz festival, and ‘Party Like A Pirate’ rum tasting and concert.

San Antonio River Walk (Paseo del Río), TX

Ignorant north-easterner that I am, I didn’t expect to find the lush green landscape that lines the river in San Antonio in the middle of Texas. It’s an absolutely beautiful stretch of greenery and water surrounded by the urban life of the city. Restaurants, hotels, and shops line the river on both sides, and staircases and pedestrian bridges offer access to the banks of the river, where a sidewalk winds along beside the water. The River Walk claims to be the largest urban ecosystem in the U.S., with trees, flowers, and aquatic life sharing the space with buildings and man-made floodgates.

Architect Robert Hugman designed the River Walk in 1929, following a flood in 1921 that resulted in a significant loss of life. Flood gates and dams sculpt the river now as it passes through the city of San Antonio, creating a slow-moving channel that was home first to gondolas, and now to motorboats that take visitors on sightseeing tours down the river.

We took one of these tours when I visited, with Rio San Antonio Cruises. In addition to some gorgeous views, we were treated to a wealth of information about the history of the city and the river, with helpful notes on most of the buildings and artwork we passed along the way. The tour was relaxing and fun, and very decently-priced; if you have the time, I would highly recommend it. It’s a great way to learn about everything you’re seeing along the River Walk, even if you choose to walk it as well as take the boat tour.

Museum-goers will find a lot to explore along the river: The San Antonio Museum of Art is located along the river, as is the Witte Museum of natural history and science, and the brand-new Briscoe Western Art Museum. Further along, the river winds directly by the four historic Spanish missions – Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada – which make up San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. Pearl Brewery is a culinary district featuring historic buildings, restaurants, farmer’s markets, and shops for the resident foodies. For something of an unusual experience, try one of the dinner cruises; they’ll take you around the river for a guided tour aboard a boat, and then dock for a meal at one of the fantastic local restaurants.

South Beach, Miami, FL

The first time I visited Miami, a friend took me down to South Beach. You may have noticed that most of my leisure travels involve being away from people and tourist crowds, but there’s more to South Beach than social life.

First developed during the 1910s, and rebuilt again after a hurricane in 1926, South Beach now claims to feature the most Streamline Moderne Art Deco architecture of anywhere in the world. The Miami Beach Architectural District has been added to the National Register of Historic Places in order to preserve many of these buildings. Miami Beach offers not only an Art Deco tour, but also an official Art Deco Welcome Center to sign you up for one.

South Beach, which is a stretch of shoreline within Miami Beach, is known for nightlife and shopping, but it is an actual beach—you can also spread out in the sun or hit the waves. The lifeguard stands in Miami Beach are fairly new, having been designed by architect William Lane after the damage caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They are extremely colourful and creative, and are one of the many photogenic features of the area. The beauty of Miami’s location on the Gulf is that even in the colder months at night, the water is warm enough to wade or swim in comfortably.

If you’re there for a meal – which I do recommend, as South Beach offers a wide range of excellent restaurants – don’t miss the chance to enjoy Cuban cuisine. Miami offers some of the best in the U.S., and while it’s not the most vegetarian-friendly diet, herbivores can still enjoy the delights of fried plantains, black beans and rice, and freshly-made flan. For those visiting from abroad, the News Café is a fun place to visit; right next door to the restaurant is a shop stocked with newspapers and magazines from around the world.

Among the Miami Beach neighborhood highlights is Lincoln Road, an open-air pedestrian mall lined with shops and restaurants. Many of the restaurants offer outdoor seating, and it’s a fascinating place to people-watch. Ocean Drive is my favourite South Beach spot; right next to the water, it’s where you can find great Art Deco architecture and gorgeous white sandy beach. For something a little different, Española Way was designed as a “Historic Spanish Village”, with Spanish Colonial architecture and a European flavor in contrast to the bright lights and high fashion that characterize much of South Beach.

While the nightclubs and boutiques are a huge draw, there’s plenty to do for those not interested in shopping or clubbing. If nothing else, if you get a chance to visit the southernmost tip of Miami, you should take a moment to look out at the ocean and enjoy the truly glorious view.

Photos: Miami and Beaches

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO

Mention the Nelson-Atkins Museum to anyone in Kansas City, and the first thing they’ll likely mention is the shuttlecocks. Inspired by the enormous lawn stretching out in front of the Beaux-Arts architecture of the museum, artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen decided to give the Nelson-Atkins its own distinctive outdoor installation—four huge shuttlecocks that decorate the front lawn, as though a team of giants has just been playing badminton. They are an instantly-recognizable feature to anyone who knows the museum or the city.

Combining bequests from William Rockhill Nelson and Mary Atkins, the museum houses an impressive collection of art from around the world. It opened in 1933, and the Great Depression enabled the museum’s curators to buy a large and diverse permanent collection that might otherwise have been above their budget.

The Kansas City Art Institute, a fine arts and college founded in 1885, moved next door to the Nelson-Atkins around the time of its opening, providing young artists with a wealth of material to study. As a tie-in to a previous entry, it’s interesting to note that the Kansas City Renaissance Festival was originally founded as a benefit for the Art Institute. The Nelson-Atkins has its own major benefit, shared with the Kansas City Symphony: the Jewel Ball for local debutantes, held annually at the museum.

In 1993, after 60 years of expansion within the original museum building, the Bloch Building was added to the grounds through a connecting passage, to house several of the museum’s collections and temporary exhibitions. The Bloch Building has a very different feel than the original museum, opening up from the stately classical architecture to a more modern building, one that makes use of natural light and provides a more fitting setting for the contemporary art exhibited there.

The most surprising thing I found when I visited was that the museum is completely free and open to the public. Major special exhibits may be ticketed for a fee, but the permanent collection and majority of the traveling exhibitions are always free. It’s very much an art museum for the community, and has a lot to offer in that respect. It took two full days for me to make my way through the entire museum, and even then I glossed over one or two of the rooms.

The other thing that really struck me about the Nelson-Atkins was the interactive way it challenged visitors. Rather than dry plaques that list names and dates, the Nelson-Atkins asks visitors questions about art. Parallels between pieces or artists draw attention to artistic periods and influences, and queries about how visitors see certain pieces of art or exhibits really forces you to stop and think, rather than breezing by with glazed-over eyes. It’s a museum for the layman as well as the art collector, and that style of engaging with patrons kept me interested throughout my visits. It makes art accessible to the curious and the less-knowledgeable, asking questions as well as providing information.

One thing I learned quickly was that you won’t get an in-depth look at anything at the Nelson-Atkins. It doesn’t specialize in a particular period, style, or culture—instead, it offers visitors a little taste of everything. From the ancient world to the modern, the art in the collections spans continents, cultures, and disciplines to really offer an overview of the art world. There’s one piece by nearly every household-name artist you can think of, although probably not more than one or two of each. There are works from each major artistic period of a civilization, but only a handful, so that you can see the similarities and differences before moving on to the next. It left me wanting more, but it never left me wanting; anything I could think of to look at was present somewhere, and opened up a world of further possibilities for me to research and explore elsewhere.

Collections are divided as follows: African, American, American Indian, Ancient, Chinese, Decorative Arts, European, Japanese, Modern & Contemporary, Photography, Prints, South & Southeast Asian, and an outdoor Sculpture Park which stretches around the building and shouldn’t be missed. I particularly loved the Asian collections, which offer a diverse display of art and architecture – including the temporary exhibition of a Jain shrine from India, transported and restored in its entirety – and the Glass Labyrinth in the Sculpture Park, which I first dismissed as modern art not to my taste, but soon found to be one of the most moving pieces on display. The Egyptian collection also offered an interesting perspective on the ancient civilization through its artworks.

There is a restaurant and a café on the museum’s premises, but I would recommend a short walk over to the Country Club Plaza, which has a fantastic collection of dining, lodging, and shopping options for all price ranges. You should still poke your head into the restaurant just to see A Mind Soothed, an Italian marble basin fountain which dates to 200 CE.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, CO

Now a Natural Historic Landmark, Garden of the Gods has shown evidence of human visitation and habitation since approximately 1330 BCE. Created by an earthquake millions of years ago, the rock formations that create this ‘garden’ are as distinctive as they are breathtaking. Native peoples such as the Ute, Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, Shoshone, Cheyenne, Pawnee, and Lakota have a connection in their history and folklore to this unusual area, which didn’t acquire its current name until 1859 with the arrival of Western surveyors.

Limestone and sandstones form the massive pillars and balanced rock formations found in the park, and the geological shift over time – the same shift that affects the Rocky Mountains and Pike’s Peak – has raised the formations from their original horizontal positions to create vertical, standing stones. The unusual climate of the park, located where the mountain habitat meets the plains, makes it an interesting place to visit for wildlife as well as geology. It also has an interesting history with fossils—dinosaur species Theiophytalia kerri was first discovered at Garden of the Gods in 1878.

Possibly the best thing about the park is that nearly anyone can visit. While it remains a draw for rock climbers, cyclists, and experienced hikers, it’s just as easy to visit the garden with children, or in a wheelchair. The main trail is fully paved and handicap-accessible, and not at all strenuous to traverse. Those looking to get off the beaten path can explore more than 15 miles of trails that extend through the garden.

You can begin your visit with a trip to the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center, which offers educational exhibits, a short film, and a scenic introduction to the park before you hit the trails. There’s a café available here with a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu that includes one or two vegetarian options, and an incredible view of the park’s scenery. You can sign up for bus tours, horseback trail rides, or ranger-led hikes and talks if you want to learn more about the park, or simply head out to see the sights. Admission to the park, as well as inclusion in several of the guided walks and talks, is free throughout the year.

Garden of the Gods has some of the most memorable and striking scenery I’ve encountered outside of Utah, and is certainly one of the few parks where you can experience that level of natural geological wonder without paying for admission. It’s also a great place to go with a group, because the main trail, which will take you directly past the bases of the most interesting formations, is so easy to walk. The park has over 1,300 acres of gorgeous scenery, with hours of trails to explore and rock formations to take in from every angle. If you find yourself near Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods is definitely one place you won’t want to miss.

Photos:  Wikimedia Commons

Renaissance Faires – KS, MD, PA

There is a reasonably good chance that every year or two, I will spend a day at a Renaissance Faire. These are not places for historical sticklers; the Society for Creative Anachronism is much more accurate when it comes to research and reconstruction, and Ren Faires in general give a bare nod to the cultures, societies, and history of the time period they celebrate. The setting is that of the English Renaissance, and each festival often focuses on a specific monarch’s reign for the pageantry that occurs throughout the faire.

Renaissance Faires frequently take the form of a seasonal weekend theme park; filled with shops, food stalls, games, and performance stages, they’re a great place to try your hand at new skills, or just to stroll and take in the atmosphere. There’s often a story that plays out through each day, and those interested can arrange to be in the right places at the right times to follow the action and intrigue. Performers play the roles of courtiers, common folk, and historical figures, and often some scandal is revealed or mystery solved by the end of the day at the final joust.

Yes, there is jousting. All of the traditional hallmarks of Medieval and Renaissance European culture make appearances, from sword-fighting demonstrations and archery to court dances and feasts. On my last visit, I learned how to shoot a crossbow. Novelties such as pirates, belly dancers, camel and elephant rides, and fantastical elements such as mermaids and dragons are mixed in with the historic features, so that a typical Ren Faire has something, somewhere, for just about everyone. Abbreviated plays by Shakespeare, harp and lute performances, jugglers, and magicians occupy every stage and many open clearings. Visitors as well as staff members often dress up in costumes, contributing to the festive atmosphere. Scheduled events such as jousts, concerts, plays, human chess matches, and pub sing-alongs can add some structure to the day, guiding visitors through the grounds to take in a variety of events.

Foreign visitors looking to experience American culture may enjoy Ren Faires, which, while not unique in the world, definitely have a distinct flavor all their own. They walk a line between historical reenactment and entertainment, mixing authentic period touches with the fanciful and fun, and there is a commercial aspect to it as well: shops selling art, carpentry crafts, herbs, jewelry, costumes, instruments, leather goods, chain mail, pottery, perfumes, and more cluster along the lanes and around the edges of clearings. Some artisans, such as potters or woodworkers, may offer demonstrations of their craft to onlookers.

Theme weekends are also a huge draw, giving visitors a taste of something specific along with the general Renaissance atmosphere. Oktoberfests, Scottish and Irish fests, pirate weekends, brew, wine, and ale festivals, and harvest celebrations add a little something special to the faires on certain weekends. Each faire and season might be slightly different; last year I attended my first steampunk weekend, which added a new twist to the experience. Here are some additional highlights from my favourite faires:

Kansas City Renaissance Festival, Bonner Springs, KS

Kansas’ faire has a lot of space, but a very short run, so you have to catch it while you can. My favourite stage act was the stage combat team Bawdily Harm, who were delightful entertainers as well as skilled stage combatants. Visit the Royal Sanctuary to see a falconry demonstration; there aren’t many places you can still get an up-close look at that art! For the fantasy-loving faire-goers, there’s also a Mermaid Cove maze where you can see costumed ladies swimming in their tanks or sunbathing. Finally, if you really want to geek out, a replica of the Iron Throne from A Song of Ice and Fire is tucked away in a pavilion for photo opportunities.

Maryland Renaissance Festival, Crownsville, MD

The House of Musical Traditions is one of my favourite stops in Maryland, for the variety of world instruments they have available for sale and display. Again: there are only so many places you can try out a hurdy-gurdy. The Bee Folks have a marvelous array of beeswax artisan products, including ornaments, lip balms, and scented candles. If you’re a jewelry addict, as I certainly am, Argenti Silverworks has some gorgeous pieces; intricate, unique, and well worth the prices. I want to give a special shout-out to The Wayt Gallery, which exhibits the artwork of R. Wayt Smith, awesome person and extraordinary artist. One of the first paintings I bought was his work.

Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, Manheim, PA

I developed my taste for traditional Ren Faire food here, so this is where I’ll mention an important truth: there is nothing quite like eating chocolate-dipped cheesecake on a stick on a hot, dusty summer day at the faire. A lot of faire food can be found on sticks, all the better for portability—pickles, chocolate-dipped bananas, macaroni & cheese, even steaks. Non-vegetarians will want to try the holy grail of faire cuisine: the giant turkey leg. On the art side, the Rook and the Rose has some fantastic metalwork flowers in copper and brass. Historical Glassworks offers wonderful glassblowing demonstrations, and LaForge features blacksmithing demonstrations. Imaginarium Gallery & Museum is a cool place to check out—and I say this as a former employee. They have some magnificent and fun puppets, and the shop staff can usually put on quite a show for little ones.

Photos: Maryland Renaissance Festival

Market Square, Knoxville, TN

When I was in Knoxville, I visited Market Square nearly every day. Originally a market for local farmers set up in 1854, it is now a pedestrian mall lined with shops which plays host to a variety of community events. Market Square’s history recalls farmers selling produce out of wagons brought from nearby family farms, a stint as a Union Army barracks and ammunition magazine during the U.S. Civil War, the home of Knoxville’s City Hall from 1868-1924, and a long tradition of political rallies, activist speeches, and public concerts.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, Market Square was claimed by The Knoxville Journal in the year 1900 to be “the most democratic place on Earth […] the rich and the poor, the white and the black, jostle each other in perfect equality.” A wide swath of open space in the heart of the downtown business district, Market Square was – and still is – a gathering place for people regardless of class or ethnicity. Civil rights activists such as Booker T. Washington and suffragist Lizzie Crozier French, political candidates such as Ronald Reagan during his 1980 presidential campaign, and musicians such as the Tennessee Ramblers have all held audience in Market Square.

The Market Square Commercial Historic District is the official collective name for the 19th- and early 20th-century buildings that still surround the square. The Italianate Oliver Hotel built in 1875, the Neoclassical Ziegler Building from the 1880s, 26 & 36 Market Square—former dry goods stores from the early 1880s, the Victorian J.F. Home Building dating to 1870, and the 1906 Neoclassically-detailed Arnstein Building are all architectural highlights that are easy to spot during a stroll around the square.

If you are traveling through Knoxville, definitely check the calendar to see what’s happening in the square. Just as it did 160 years ago, a seasonal farmer’s market still operates in Market Square; during chillier months, produce and local wares give way to a public ice rink. The Sundown in the City concert series drew more than 10,000 patrons each year to hear free public performances, and other community music events are still produced there, such as the Rhythm ‘n’Blooms bluegrass and jazz festival.

Other festivals include the Dogwood Arts Festival, which promotes regional art, culture, and nature; and the HoLa Hora Latina festival, which celebrates Latin art and culture. For thespians, Shakespeare on the Square brings the Bard’s works to life, free and open to the public, each summer. The Knoxville Library produces an outdoor film series in the square where locals can gather to watch movies together under the stars. First Friday events regularly transform the streets into a gallery walk filled with art, food, music, and culture. For true southerners, the annual Biscuit Festival, Southern Food Writing Conference, and ‘Best of the South’ Southern Food & Beverage Event introduce visitors to the wonders of American Southern cuisine.

Even without all of the history and culture, Market Square is a great place to go to just soak up the Knoxville atmosphere. You can grab a meal, visit a few shops, play in the fountains, stretch out in the park, people-watch, and stroll around as part of the crowd. As a final note, I highly recommend a visit to one of my favourite local hangouts, Coffee & Chocolate, where they make one of the most divine iced mochas I’ve ever tasted.

Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, Montreal, QC

The ‘Golden Square Mile’ in Montreal is an upscale neighborhood which at one time, during the late 19th century, is said to have held 70% of the wealth in Canada. Settled by businessmen who worked in railroads, banking, mining, fur-trapping, timber, and other lucrative professions, the Golden Square Mile – also known as Uptown or New Town, for its distance from the original downtown Montreal – was a center of prosperity largely developed between 1850 and 1930.

Many of the elegant mansions once found there have now been demolished, but a few remain, and the area has since become a hub of art and culture. Following Sherbrooke Street, you can find the Château Dufresne architectural museum, Parc Lafontaine urban park, which contains an open-air theatre and cultural center, McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal Botanical Garden, Montreal Biodôme, and the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, or Museum of Fine Arts.

One of the largest and most prestigious art museums in Canada, the Musée des beaux-arts is enormous, spanning more than 485,000 square feet and still expanding. With a permanent collection of more than 40,000 pieces, it’s an art museum you won’t easily take in with a single trip. Divided into four ‘pavilions’, the museum showcases fine arts from a variety of periods, styles, and cultures. The Desmarais Pavilion features art from around the world, the Bourgie Pavilion focuses on art from Quebec and Canada, the Stewart Pavilion exhibits decorative arts and design, and the Hornstein Pavilion showcases archaeology and international culture. The collections in these pavilions are divided into six categories: Archaeology and World Cultures, Early to Modern International Art, Quebec and Canadian Art, International Contemporary Art, Decorative Arts and Design, and Graphic Arts and Photography.

Among the exhibits worth seeing is the vast array of Inuit and Amerindian art, something rarely focused on in detail by fine arts museums. Decorative arts might not be my usual thing, but I loved the Tiffany art noveau glass collection, and the furniture styles were fascinating. The ever-changing outdoor Sculpture Garden was another one of my favourites, filled with larger-than-life works placed out in the sunshine. There is also an Empire Gallery devoted entirely to Napoleon, which is definitely on my list to revisit when I get the chance. Take some time to appreciate the pavilions themselves—the Bourgie Pavilion, formerly the Erskine and American United Church, has a Romanesque Revival design and dates to 1893, the Hornstein Pavilion has a beaux-arts design, and the incredible Desmarais Pavilion is modernist architecture.

The Musée des beaux-arts is large enough that you’ll be able to catch several special exhibitions whenever you visit, and tours of specific galleries are regularly available. In Bourgie Hall, classical, world music, and jazz concerts bring the musical arts into harmony with the visual, and the hall hosts around 160 concerts each year. An upcoming presentation entitled ‘From Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Expressionism in Germany and France, 1900-1914’, paired with a special art exhibition of the same name, gives you an idea of the creative themes for some of these concerts, tying the musical movement of a period to the artistic for a deeper immersion into that era.

If you’re visiting on a budget, the museum offers an evening rate, and also offers a significant discount to those under 30 or over 65—kids visit entirely free, and anyone between 13 and 30 can see the collections and certain exhibitions for free as well. There is a bistro restaurant and café if you’re looking for fine cuisine to go with your fine art, but outside the museum, there are also plenty of less expensive and diverse dining options.

Photos:  Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal

Old Town, San Diego, CA

One of the most-visited state parks in California is dedicated to the history of European settlement on the west coast. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is located on the site of the original town of San Diego, which grew around the base of a bluff on which the first European settlement, the Spanish Californian military outpost of San Diego Presidia, was founded. This outpost and the Spanish Mission San Diego de Alcalá were both built in 1769, but the town that grew around them dates to the 1820s. It’s these buildings, built between the 1820s and 1870s, that form Old Town San Diego Historic District.

San Diego briefly held the status of a Mexican pueblo, but the town’s population remained low, and after only a few years it lost this status. Located several miles from the ocean and shipping ports, the original San Diego didn’t thrive until the 1860s, when ‘New Town’ San Diego was built up directly on the shore, and the heart of the town moved from Old Town to New. Modern downtown San Diego now marks New Town, and Old Town has remained preserved, a time capsule from another era.

The span of time preserved and recreated by the Old Town park is 1821-1872, and the variety of buildings represent everything an early 19th century town needed: five original adobes, a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, a cigar and pipe store, a carriage stable, and even the first San Diego newspaper office. Part of the fascination of Old Town is its location so close to the Mexican border, which puts Old Town within both the Mexican and Early American periods for Californian history, and shows a diversity and duality of culture not found in other areas.

Many of the original buildings have now been turned into museums, which offer tours and living history demonstrations to give visitors a real feel for the time period and culture. The Casa de Estudillo was built in 1827, and is both one of the finest houses from Mexican California and one of the best surviving examples of Spanish architecture in California. Other surviving adobe houses in Old Town include the restored Casa de Machado y Stewart, Casa de Bandini, and Casa de Altamirno Pedrorena

The Black Hawk Smithy & Stable offers blacksmithing demonstrations, and the Seeley Stables contains a collection of carriages, wagons, and horse-drawn buggies. In the Sheriff’s Museum, a jail cell, courtroom, and other memorabilia paint a portrait of western law enforcement, and the First San Diego Courthouse has also been restored and turned into a museum. The Mason Street Schoolhouse is the first San Diego public school house, and other restored buildings include Racine and Láramie, a 19th century tobacconist, and the San Diego Union Museum, a 19th century newspaper and print shop. Depending on when you visit, you can also see historic soap making, listen to a concert, attend a town dance, practice carding wool, weaving, and quilt-making, or learn historic printing and photography techniques. Special events during the year include a Latin American festival, Stagecoach Days pioneer days, Mexican and American Independence Day celebrations, Dia de los Muertos festivities, and many more cultural and arts festivals.

All museums and the state park itself are free to visit, and if you’re making a day of it, Old Town is full of restaurants and shops as well as the historic sites. Right next door to Old Town is Heritage Park, a Victorian historic area featuring buildings from the 1880s and 1890s; the Mormon Battalion historic site, where visitors can learn brickmaking and gold panning; and Whaley House, built in the 1850s and considered by some to be the most haunted house in the United States.

I visited near Christmas in late December, and what I remember most clearly is the artisans market, where local artists showcase jewelry, pottery, and other visual arts, frequently using traditional styles and techniques. Old Town maintains a flavor of the old-time West, the Gold Rush era, and early Mexican Independence, and the variety of art on display was as interesting to me as the historic buildings. The ‘Birthplace of California’ is a great place to visit to see the history and culture that contributed to the development of the state.

Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, IL

If I were to make a ‘must-see’ list for Chicago, Shedd Aquarium would definitely be on it. The largest indoor aquarium in the world when it opened in 1930, Shedd has topped lists like ‘most visited aquarium in the U.S.’ and ‘most popular cultural attraction in Chicago.’ With 5,000,000 gallons of water, it’s home to more than 25,000 fish, and 1,500 aquatic and amphibious species. It was the first inland aquarium in the world to house a saltwater fish collection, and has hosted some of the most fantastic aquatic exhibits in the world.

Shedd Aquarium is located on the Museum Campus in Chicago, along with the Field Museum of Natural History and Adler Planetarium. The building is now on the Register of Historic Places.

When you enter the aquarium, the first exhibit you might see is the Caribbean Reef. In 1971, the reef made its debut on the site of the aquarium’s first original exhibit, and has become one of its most popular attractions. A diver in the tank is responsible for feeding, observing, and otherwise maintaining the enormous reef habitat, and visitors to the aquarium can ask the diver questions from the other side of the glass, interacting with the animals via an intermediary.

Amazon Rising is home to the exotic plants and animals of the Amazon River and rain forest. Piranhas, anacondas, tarantulas, monkeys, and caimans guide you through the South American waterscape, where the exhibit focuses on how the dramatic flood cycle affects life in the Amazon. The 30-foot difference in the water level between the dry season and the flood season means massive changes for people, plants, and animals in the areas affected by the rising and falling water.

The oldest exhibit in the aquarium is Waters of the World, which expands on the South American habitat to explore the waters of Asia and Africa. Diverse habitats such as oceans, wetlands, lakes, and rivers are all explored in this comprehensive tour of the world’s waters. I remember especially being interested in At Home on the Great Lakes, the area of this exhibit devoted to the local waters around Chicago. Both native and introduced species are studied to show their effects on the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Wild Reef focuses on another specific ecosystem: that of a Philippine Coral Reef, based on the Apo Island Marine Reserve. Living coral, tropical fish, rays, and sharks all dwell in this exhibit, which has a focus on education and conservation. The exhibit is designed so that visitors feel as though they are seeing the reef as a diver would, moving among the plants and animals that surround them.

The Abbott Oceanarium is my favourite place in Shedd, and the one that I remember most. The Oceanarium houses marine mammals such as sea lions, sea otters (several of them survivors of the ExxonValdez oil spill), white-sided dolphins, and the happiest beluga whales I have ever seen in my life. I think it was the size of the tanks that made such an impact on me; often as aquarium visitors we see marine mammals swimming in circles in a shallow pool, their movements limited by available space. In the Shedd Oceanarium, I was fortunate enough to witness whales playing, leaping, and frolicking in general merriment, diving and surfacing to the delight of everyone around them. The Oceanarium is the largest indoor marine mammal facility in the world, and it shows in the attitudes of its inhabitants.

While you’re at the Oceanarium, check out the marine mammal Aquatic Show; and if you really want to get into the spirit, look into Shedd’s ‘Extraordinary Experiences’ tickets, which offer up-close-and-personal encounters with beluga whales, penguins, sharks, and more. Elsewhere in the aquarium, you should also say hello to Granddad, the Australian Lungfish who has lived at Shedd since 1933, and who might be the oldest fish living in an aquarium anywhere in the world; and to Nickel, a green sea turtle who will definitely make an impression. Injured by a speedboat, Nickel has buoyancy issues which render her incapable of surviving in the wild and have affected her ability to swim; she does just fine in a reef tank, however, and can be seen capably paddling her way around near the entrance to the aquarium.

This may be the first and last time I champion a gift shop: Shedd has a great one, with a wide variety of gifts and keepsakes. All proceeds go to support the aquarium, as a non-profit organization, which means the money helps with marine conservation, education, and research. If you spend the day at Shedd – which is easy to do – there are a few (vegetarian-friendly) café and restaurant choices inside the aquarium. You should also investigate ticket deals—Shedd does discount days for Illinois residents as well as the general public, and is included in several package deals with other Chicago tourist attractions.