Posts Tagged ‘sightseeing’

Frank Lloyd Wright Houses of Western Pennsylvania


One of the best days of my trip to Pittsburgh was spending a Saturday out in the countryside visiting Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, two Frank Lloyd Wright houses.

We got to Fallingwater first and were set to take a guided tour with a small group of about 10. We all gathered at the visistor’s center, and when they called our group, we walked down the long gravel driveway to the house. On approach, you don’t really see the waterfall, but you do get to a small bridge that leads to the entrance of the house where you can look down on the stream that runs at the top of the platform, and you can see a floating platform with steps leading down from the house where the owners could sit and dangle their feet into the running water.

fallingwater floating platform

It was a beautiful late spring day and everything was very green. And though I had seen many photos of the house over the years, visiting it really felt like something new and different. One thing I was surprised about what how small most of the interior rooms were. The bedrooms and bathrooms were quite small, as were the hallways, but we learned that Wright designed that way — to compress you through the hallways to the rooms, and to bring the outside in by making each room’s patio similar in size to the room.


There were fireplaces throughout the house and beautiful views from all the windows and balconies. It was also nice to see so much original furniture, as a lot of it is custom and built in to the house. The tour guide also loved to point out which designs weren’t Wright’s — some were the owner’s own designs that Wright disapproved of. We also got to see the guest house and walk around to the far side of the stream to get the classic view of the house, where we took most of our photos.

When we were done with our tour and walk around the grounds, we started to head over to see another one of Wright’s homes, Kentuck Knob. We had some time for our drive, though, so on the way we stopped in Ohiopyle to have a picnic lunch by the river, and we also checked out Cucumber Falls, where a large, drunken bridal party was clambering down the muddy path and over slippery roots and rocks to take a photo in their formalwear. It was quite a scene.

Kentuck Knob

Kentuck Knob

Kentuck Knob was very different from Fallingwater. First, it’s a good deal smaller. It’s also tucked into the knob of  hill, so it has quite a modest exterior profile. Inside, it has large windows that look out on the trees, and it doesn’t have quite as much of the original furnishings as Fallingwater does, but it’s still privately owned and shows off the owner’s extensive sculpture collection both inside and outside the house. Again the hallways were very narrow and the rooms were even smaller, but it felt nice and cozy and if we weren’t the last tour of the day we would have had more time to go to the sculpture meadow and check out more of the modern art collection.

On our way back to Pittsburgh we stopped for dinner at Chez Girard, a quirky but lovely and nice French restaurant. We weren’t dressed as nicely as we should have been, but we sat out on the patio, enjoying the nice weather, listening to French music and eating a delicious meal.

Check out more photos on Flickr and Facbeook

A Beautiful Walk Through Phipps Botanical Garden and Oakland

The elegant Phipps Conservatory Glass House

The elegant Phipps Conservatory Glass House

Friday was a beautiful, sunny day, so I decided to go check out Phipps botanical garden and conservatory, Schenley Park and some of Oakland’s other sights.

Frabel Longfellows at the Phipps Conservatory

Frabel Longfellows at the Phipps Conservatory

The botanical gardens, almost entirely housed inside a giant glass house, were lovely. To add to the already impressive array of trees and flowers, there were also Frabel glass pieces dispersed throughout the gardens — lizards and frogs in the amazon room, floating, lacy bowls on top of a fish pond, fairies in the butterfly room and my favorites, the “Longfellows,” near and in many of the water elements.

A Brachiosaurus at the Carnegie Museums

A Brachiosaurus at the Carnegie Museums

After spening time in the gardens, I did a quick walkthrough of the Carnegie Library and also poked my head into the Carnegie art museum. It was near closing time so I didn’t buy a ticket, but I did go to the Pitt campus to check out the Heinz Chapel and the Cathedral of Learning (both closed for weddings) and took a look at the military museum from a distance, too (also closed for a wedding).

Heinz Chapel

Heinz Chapel

Oakland was such a pleasant place to wander and relax that Evan and I returned the next day to explore a bit more of Schenley Park and have a late breakfast at Pamela’s, a rather famous Pittsburgh diner chain. The pancakes were delicious.

Check out this slideshow of photos from the conservatory:

Check out more Pittsburgh photos on Flickr and Facebook

A Whirlwind Tour of Niagara Falls

The view from our hotel room

The view from our hotel room

For the weekend, Evan and I went to Niagara Falls. I’d never been there before, so I was really excited to see the falls — and to return to my homeland, Canada. We had a great room on the top floor of the Sheraton Fallsview that had an incredible view of both the Canadian and American falls. We were just glued to the window every time we were up there.

A very misty morning at the falls

A very misty morning at the falls

We of course did the requisite wander by the falls, and we rode the Maid of the Mist — a boat that takes you so close to the falls you are completely enveloped in its mist and can’t really see anything. It felt like being hit by a giant storm at sea. Everything got soaked and it was so windy it was hard to keep my eyes open. And I only realized after I was drenched that my mascara wasn’t waterproof. Oops. The ponchos they gave us helped, but our pants, shoes and sleeves still got pretty wet.

Emerging from the waterfall's "mist" completely drenched

Emerging from the waterfall's "mist" completely drenched

Once we were done with the touristy falls sights, though we ventured toward the very quaint and charming Niagara on the Lake. We stopped at the botical gardens and butterfly conservatory, which was fantastic. The gardens weren’t in bloom yet, but there were tons of butterflies flying around in the indoor garden, which just created a magical experience. I tried to capture it on video.

Evan also took some great photos of the butterflies.

ButterflyIn Niagara on the Lake, we had tea and scones at the Irish Tea Room, and the night before, we had a wonderful dinner at the Stone Road Grille. We wandered around the cute shops on the main strip, bought some cookies, and checked out Lake ontario. We could JUST make out Toronto in the background.

The view of Lake Ontario

The view of Lake Ontario

We also found out that Niagara has a wonderful wine country, so we went to the Peller and Hillebrand vineyards for some wine tasting. They both had excellent chardonnays, geverztraminers and ice wines and we bought a couple of bottles to take home — apparently you can’t get much Canadian wine in the U.S. at all.

It was a marvelous weekend, filled with new sights, good food and of course, excellent company. I really miss traveling. You can check out more photos in my Niagara galleries on Facebook (more of the photos of me and Evan) and on Flickr (more of the landscapes and butterfly photos)

Top London Travel Tips

I lived in London for six months and I now miss it dearly. The city is filled with wonderful people, fantastic sites and some of the best museums I’ve ever been to. It can be an expensive trip, but by using public transport, taking advantage of all the free tourist attractions and eating at some of the great and healthy quick-service restaurants, can keep costs low so you can splurge on a few nice dinners and trips to some of the pricier sights like the Tower of London. Now let me be your tour guide…


If you plan on using the tube or buses — and your should — buy an Oyster Card. It’ll save you a ton of money by reducing the standard £4 tube fare to about £1.50 within the center of the city; the bus fare is reduced from £3 to 90 pence. You can pick up the blue-on-blue RFID-embedded cards from most train stations and even some convenience stores. To plan your trips, use the fantastic TfL website, which will give you detailed bus, tube and walking routes anywhere you’d like to go.

From the airport, you can take the Piccadilly Line right into town in about 45 minutes’ time for £4 and if you’re staying somewhere near tourist attractions, like Mayfair, Soho or Holborn, chances are it’ll take you nearly to your doorstep. Compare that to a cab at £65 and up, or to the Heathrow Express at about £15 — and that only takes you to Paddington station, so you’ll likely need to hop on at least one more train or bus to get where you’re going. Just beware that a lot of stations have a good deal of stairs to negotiate, so make sure you can lug your own luggage.

What to See

London boasts a huge list of attractions, but these are some of my favorites in no particular order…

  • National Portrait Gallery interesting and well-organized collection that’ll give you a great overview of British history. It sounds like it could be boring, but if you have a choice between this and the National Gallery (both in Trafalgar square) definitely do the portraits. Also, except for special exhibits, the museum is free, as are all national museums.

St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge

  • Tate Modern fantastic collection of modern art in a very cool riverside setting. From here, you can also walk across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral

Parliament and the London Eye

  • Westminster and around — spend a day doing the classic London sights by checking out Buckingham Palace and St. James Park, then the Horse Guard’s Parade, Parliament and Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, which is sort of like a mini parade and rather hard to see happens at 11 am. They also do a ceremony at the Horse Guards Parade at that time, where you’ll probably get a better view — and the Horse Guards where much more interesting uniforms. Parliament and Westminster Abbey are best seen on weekdays — they both have very limited or no weekend hours (I never actually made it inside either one, though my parents did). Also don’t miss a trip on the London Eye — the giant observation wheel.
  • Soho/Covent Garden shows — the theater in London is fantastic and quite inexpensive if you call same-day (you can get prime seats for £30-£60 on weekdays). Avenue Q was my favorite show I saw when I was there — it was absolutely hilarious, though it may be a bit inappropriate if you’re traveling with kids or thinking of going with your parents.

Springtime in Hyde Park

  • Hyde Park or Regent’s Park these two parks are the biggest in central London. They’re great places to take a rowboat or paddle boat out on their little lakes, have a picnic or just take a stroll. Parks to Brits are like beaches to Californians — everyone hangs out in them on sunny days. If you’re looking for an even bigger park excursion and don’t mind heading out of central London and paying an admission fee, head over to Kew Gardens to see its Victorian glass houses, themed gardens and new treetop walkway.
  • Highgate Cemetery and Hampstead Heath take the tour of the old part of the cemetery to learn about some of London’s quirky Victorian-age history that doesn’t involve the kings and queens, then take a stroll to the heath and climb up the rather small Parliament Hill, where you’ll see lots of people flying kites.

A Tower of London Beefeater

  • Tower of London go on the most hilariously campy tour in London by letting a Beefeater guide you around this historic castle. You’ll get to marvel at the crown jewels, hear about beheadings and see a great view of Tower Bridge.
  • Borough Market — go on a Friday to beat the weekend crowds to check out this foodie extravaganza south of the river. It’s also right near Southwark Cathedral and Sir Francis Drake’s pirate ship, and not too far a walk or bus ride from the Tate Modern and the Globe Theater.

Greenwich Park and the Royal Observatory

  • Greenwichif you’re into science, make a trip out to Greenwich to go straddle the prime meridian. There’s a small museum right at the prime meridian and there’s also a maritime museum, which is interesting, but a bit kid-focused. There’s also a pretty park and a footbridge under the Thames. It’s a bit out of the way, but a pretty good half-day excursion.
  • Shopping — walking around places like Carnaby Street, Oxford Street and Bond Street can keep you very busy, and there are some ridiculously big department stores like Harrods, Fortnum and Mason, and Selfridges (among others) are great for food, shopping and even sightseeing. Try the fancy afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason, or mavel at the Egyptian-themed ridiculousness of Harrods.

What to Eat

London is an amazing place to eat. Some of my top recommendations…

  • Make sure to go to a pub, of course! Actually, go to several. They’re everywhere and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and range from gorgeous, old-fashioned wood-and-crystal establishments to dingy, bare-bones watering holes. If you want some pub grub, go for lunch, not dinner, as they get very crowded and rowdy and are filled with more post-work drinkers than diners.

The papaya salad at Amaya

  • Try some gourmet Indian. My favorites were Red Fort in Soho on Dean St. and Amaya in Belgravia. Both serve incredibly creative, beautiful and delicious dishes. You’ll get better deals if you go at lunch. Tamarind in Mayfair is also good, though the fare isn’t as fancy and the setting isn’t as nice, and Imli on Wardour St. in Soho offers tasty tapas-style Indian food at pretty reasonable costs.
  • Try the innovative fast food. For lunch and snacks, there are a ton of quick-service places that offer lots of healthy and often organic options like Pret a Manger, Eat, Benugo and Leon.
  • If you want great burgers, try out Gourmet Burger Kitchen. It’s a chain, so there are quite a few. There’s one on Frith Street in Soho.
  • For the city’s best coffee, go to Bar Italia on Frith Street in Soho or Monmouth Coffee near Borough Market. There are tons of chain coffee places around, including many Starbucks, though if I was going for a chain, I’d usually choose Nero or Costa.
  • For good pizza, try Delfino’s in Mayfair

Chocolates at a Melt tasting class

  • Indulge your sweet tooth. London has incredible chocolate shops. Two of my favorites were Melt in Notting Hill and William Curley in Mayfair.

Trip-Planning Resources

  • Check out restaurants and attractions at review sites like Qype, Tipped, and Trusted Places.
  • Check out pubs at Fancyapint?
  • Know how to get where you’re going via tube and bus at the TfL website.
  • Get the heads-up on news and events on Londonist.
  • Get train schedules for heading beyond London at the National Rail site (note: it doesn’t accept foreign credit cards).

Beyond London

If you can’t find enough sights to occupy yourself in London or you just want a break from the city, you can easily take some day trips by train or bus to Brighton, Cambridge, Oxford, Leeds Castle in Kent, Eltham Palace, the Chiselhurst Caves or Bath. All are well worth visiting.

Do you have anything you’d add to this guide? What are your favorite london sights? Let me know in the comments below!

6 Days in Kyoto

Getting to Kyoto from Bangkok involved a very long day of traveling, which seems to be a recurring theme on this trip. First we took a 5-hour flight to Tokyo, then had to hop on an hour-long train to get to the 3-hour-long Shinkansen — where we had to stand in the unreserved smoking car for about 45 minutes before getting seats. We also had a bit of a failure in planning here — we had no baht left to exchange for yen, so we didn’t get any in Bangkok. Then we missed the exchange counter at the Tokyo airport, leaving us with 0 yen, and thus no food or drink possibilities. We thought we’d be able to find an ATM at one of the train stations, but that didn’t happen, and when we finally got to Yamashina, where we just needed to take a Kyoto subway 4 stops to Daigo, we got stuck. Our Japan Rail passes wouldn’t cover the trip, the ATMs we found wouldn’t take foreign cards and at 10:30 p.m., we didn’t have any exchange options we could see. We were also caught in a thunderstorm. Thankfully, we were able to call the person we were staying with, Ted, to come pick us up. He even had dinner ready for us when we got to his house.

The front gate at Kiyomizudera

We spent our first few days in Kyoto exploring the city — going shopping, eating at vegetarian restaurants and checking out the temples. Kiyomizudera was my favorite, with its pretty trails, beautiful views and quaint wooden shrines. The complex also has a waterfall that people drink from to gain luck and knowledge — we made sure to drink up! We also spent some time in Gion, where we saw a Geisha in her full get-up, with white face makeup and all. Tons of people were snapping photos of her just crossing the road. There were many other women in traditional kimonos, but not many were fully made up.

We visited some other temples in the hills that form the city’s border, like Nanzen-Ji, where we walked through an enormous gateway and under a red-brick aqueducts and up into the woods to visit a small shrine by a waterfall. And we walked down the Philosopher’s Path, a quiet walkway by a canal, until we found Honsen-In, another temple, which was closed for the day.

A temple garden in Kyoto

We were able to scramble over to the Ginkaku-Ji, the Silver Pavilion, shortly before closing time, but were disappointed to find the structure undergoing a complete restoration — it was basically a shell of a building covered in tarps. The gardens, however, were well worth the visit, with clear ponds, stone steps leading up to a view point, sunny and shady areas, plenty of moss groundcover, and a sand garden shaped to represent Mount Fuji and the sea. We took a second loop around the grounds because we liked it so much.

The rest of the time we were based in Kyoto, we took day trips to nearby cities. Also, we were surprised by how hot Kyoto, and Japan in general, was — the heat and humidity made Thailand feel temperate, and we had to buy little towels to wipe the sweat from our faces. Who knew?

August 11, 2008

First, we took the Shinkansen to Hiroshima, where we visited the peace park. We saw the A-Bomb Dome, the ruins of a neoclassical building that was very close to the hypocenter of the blast, which was eerie — parts are still standing, other parts are totally mangled, and there are Japanese families taking photos giving the peace sign in front of it. From there, we walked on to the island where most of the park is, and saw all the paper cranes that comprise the children’s memorial, then went by the eternal flame and the cenotaph, which looks back on the A-Bomb Dome.

The A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

We also visited the museum, which gave a detailed history of Hiroshima and a good amount of insight as to why it was bombed. It also had a lot of information on nuclear weapons and really showcased the devastation of the city through photos, models and artifacts from the day it was bombed, like warped metal girders, burned clothed, melted roof tiles and some gruesome victim portraits. The museum isn’t only a memorial of what happened there, though — it is truly a call for peace and an end to nuclear proliferation. It was very powerful to see such a tragedy turned into a positive mission.

After taking in the museum, we also checked out the memorial hall, a large, echoing sunken space with a fountain at its center and the names of Hiroshima’s neighborhoods set around it. Also, we noticed that water played an important role at the peace park — many visitors were leaving water bottles at the memorials — and we learned that it’s because many of the bomb’s victims died begging for water.

The floating gate in Miyajima

Once we’d toured the park, we were ready for some lighter fare and headed to Miyajima to see the tori gate in the sea. We took a ferry over to the island and were surprised to find lots of deer to greet us. We walked down the coast to the shrine, which was closed because it was a bit late in the day, then watched the sun set pink behind the bright orange floating gate.

August 12, 2008

Our second day trip was to Himeji to see the castle. From the train station, we walked right up the main road until it stopped at the big, scenic moat. We walked across the bridge and onto the castle grounds and went to the main tower — a big, white, multistoried building on a tall stone foundation. There were lots of small spaces for people to throw rocks or boiling water down on invaders, and these came in square, circle, triangle and rectangle shapes. It was also a no-shoes building, so we climbed the stairs to the top barefoot, carrying our shoes in bags. I don’t know why they insist in putting metal caps on the ends of the stairs for people going barefoot — it’s quite an uncomfortable climb.

Himeji Castle

The view from the top wasn’t all that great — Himeji looks pretty industrial — but it was nice to see the castle.

When we returned to Kyoto station in the evening and took the escalators up to the roof garden on top top of the cool modern bulding to take in the nighttime view, then walked across its glass walkways.

August 13, 2008

Our day trips started feeling like doing suicide sprints backwards — we started with the longest, Hiroshima, and just kept on the same train lines, going shorter and shorter distances each day. We definitely made the most out of our JR passes. The bullet train was basically our daily transport, which really helped us get back and forth quickly, though we wish we could have ridden the super-speedy Nozomi trains, which had better, longer routes.

Osaka is only a short ride away from Tokyo, yet it feels quite different. It’s much more modern, and much more crowded. We first went to the aquarium, since it was highly recommended. Apparently it was highly recommended to all of Japan, though, since there were some really incredible crowds. There were people blocking every tank and sign and women on bullhorns yelling announcements every few feet. It made for a pretty stressful visit, though we did manage to at least get a glimpse of the dolphins, otters, penguins, rays and whale sharks. The best part was a smallish exhibit with baby otters, which was set apart from the main path and nowhere near as packed.

Looking up at the Osaka Sky Building

Next on our sightseeing tour was the Osaka Sky Building, a transformers-looking structure, with two tall buildings attached at the top, with long escalators running to the roof garden observation point and a thin bridge at the 22nd floor. We made it to the top just in time for sunset, when the clouds and sky turned a beautiful pink over the sprawling city. And riding up to the top in the glass elevator and then taking the glass escalator the last five stories was quite a thrill.

Check out more photos in Evan’s Facebook gallery.

3 Days in Bangkok

Golden Buddha at Wat Pho

Sorry again for the long delay between posts — it’s tough to get a good deal of time to blog while on the road. I did keep up my journal, though, so let’s take a look at the rest of my around-the-world adventure, starting with 3 days in Bangkok, Thailand.

On the night of August 4, we took the sleeper train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok because we’d heard it would be a fun way to travel. In retrospect, we probably should have just spent the money on booking a flight. We rode in a second-class car, and I had an upper bunk while Evan had a lower one. The food was inedible, and there were no veggie options, though we had the good sense to bring some snacks. The car seemed to be infested with what looked like baby cockroaches — I squished quite a few, and saw many more scurrying about under our seats and on the walls. And sleeping on a train is no real substitute for sleeping in a bed, especially when there’s some anxiety about vermin, so we arrived in Bangkok exhausted.

Ronald McDonald saying “Sawadee-ha”

We caught a cab to our hotel — the New Siam III in Banglamphu, the backpacker area, but the room wasn’t ready. To keep from falling asleep, we went for breakfast at a nearby cafe, then went downtown to buy our Japan Rail tickets. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the downtown malls, and went to visit the Ocean World Aquarium, which is conveniently located in the basement of a mall.

The underground aquarium was surprisingly expansive, and we even got to ride a glass-bottomed boat around the top of the biggest tank. We also saw the sharks and sting rays at feeding time from the tunnel that goes through their tank.

The Grand Palace

The rest of our time in Bangkok, we visited more classic sites, like the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. The palace was as extravagantly and elaborately decorated as I ever could have dreamed, though a good deal of it was off limits, and at Wat Pho, we put coins in the long row of bowls along the giant, temple-sized reclining Buddha for good luck and a long life.

The towering Wat Arun

We climbed up the pottery-encrusted Wat Arun, also known as the Temple of the Dawn, which is the oldest temple in the city. And we spent a lot of our time traveling between sites on the express river boats, which aren’t too fast, but have good views, though the river is a scarily murky brown color, and they don’t get stuck in traffic. Still, we did take a cab across town once, and we ended up paying only a little more than we would have had we taken the sky train-express boat combo that we would have needed to get back — and got a comfy, clean, air-con ride for about $3.

Check out more Bangkok photos in Evan’s Facebook album.

A Temple Tour of Chiang Mai

We left Ko Samui on July 31 from its adorable, superbly landscaped, hut-based airport. It’s really very charming. We flew through Bangkok to Chiang Mai, where we rode in the back of a pickup truck, also known as a songthaew here, to our hotel — Your House Guest House — where we got a nice, big room with a big bathroom, air conditioning and a balcony for about $21. The only drawback is that we’re right next to 2 bars, which play competing loud music until 1 or 2 a.m.

Our first order of business was getting lunch, and we went over to Aum vegetarian restaurant and used book shop for our best meal in Thailand so far — eggplant, mushroom and tofu stir fry, and khao Soi, a peanutty noodle dish that’s a northern Thai specialty. Yum!

A temple in Chiang Mai

Then, we wandered to the river, where we were hoping to catch a boat. The boat was broken, though, so we turned back and explored some of the temples that were on our way. They all had elaborate dragon banisters, lots of gold Buddhas and plenty of colorful and shiny decor.

Temple ruins, Chiang Mai

We continued our temple tour the next day, with some of the larger temples in the city center — an area surrounded by a square moat and some old and crumbling defensive walls. Once again, there were lots of big Buddhas, dragon ornaments and red and and gold decor. We even got to see some young monks chanting in the main temple, then go on a procession around the buildings carrying flowers.

Royal relic tombs, Chiang Mai

We also visited a temple out of the city center that had a royal graveyard (or at least tombs for royal relics), which consisted of a lawn full of white structures that looked like a play palace complex.

Since it looked like it’d start raining (and it did soon after), we headed to the mall to go see The Dark Night, which we’d been meaning to see for a while. The tickets? 180 Baht for the 2 of us (about $5). Thankfully, there was no intermission, though we did have to stand for the national anthem before the movie started.

It was still pouring when we got out of the movies, so we hired a tuk tuk, a three-wheeled motor cab, to take us to the night bazaar. We shopped, ate and marveled at the expansiveness of the nighttime-only stores that sell everything from toys to clothes to dried fruits and more.

While walking home, though we got the surprise of the day — we saw a baby elephant and some people (its owner?) just hanging around outside of a convenience store. We didn’t go over to gawk or ask to touch it.

See more Thailand photos in Evan’s Facebook album.