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Arts & Culture Cities Entertainment Family Travel

The 19 Best Things to Do in Houston

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Houston has such a diverse range of attractions that you’d need a week to make a dent in the supply. From NASA’s astronaut training center to funky visionary art installations and sprawling urban green spaces, you’ll have your choice of fun things to do in Houston.

Want a whirlwind tour of the major Houston attractions? It’s a snap with the Houston CityPASS, which covers five key sights at a savings of nearly 50 percent compared to the total cost of individual admission. Attractions include Space Center Houston, the Downtown Aquarium, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, as well as either the Houston Zoo or the Museum of Fine Arts, and either the Kemah Boardwalk or the Children’s Museum. Here’s what to expect from each one.

Space Center Houston

kids at space center houston.

At Space Center Houston, take a behind-the-scenes tram tour through NASA’s Johnson Space Center, checking out the historic Apollo Mission Control Center and the heaviest rocket ever flown. You can also see spacesuits from past missions, explore a replica of the shuttle Independence, and touch a rock taken from the planet Mars.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

purple tunnel museum of fine arts houston.

Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts is one of the country’s largest, with numerous visiting exhibitions complementing a strong permanent collection of works by Picasso, Gainsborough, O’Keeffe, Rembrandt, Chagall, Pollock, and many more. Don’t miss a quick stroll through the small sculpture garden across the street, which is free to explore.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science

dinosaur skeletons at houston museum of natural science.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science has something for just about everyone, from dinosaur fossils and colorful gems to Egyptian artifacts and seashells from around the world. Between the exhibits, the planetarium, and the butterfly center, there’s enough to keep you busy for a whole day.

Houston Zoo

cheetah at houston zoo.

If you’ve got kids in tow, the Houston Zoo is a must-see stop. Bears, elephants, monkeys, giraffes, and sea lions are among the creatures that roam the habitats here. Animal encounters and behind-the-scenes tours are available for visitors who want a closer look.

Downtown Aquarium

downtown aquarium houston.

Houston’s Downtown Aquarium is smaller than you’d expect—you can see the fish and other animals in less than an hour—but the on-site rides include a carousel and a Ferris wheel as added bonus fun for kids. And the whole family will love the beautiful white tigers.

Children’s Museum Houston

kids at children's museum houston.

Yet another family-friendly Houston attraction is the Children’s Museum, designed for kids up to age 12. Little ones can learn about everything from math to modern-day Korean culture in the museum’s hands-on exhibits.

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Kemah Boardwalk

kemah boardwalk at night.

About 20 minutes outside Houston are the rides, games, and restaurants of Kemah Boardwalk, all perched right on the waterfront. You can also explore a zip-line, rainforest exhibit, and stingray reef.

Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens

bayou bend collection and gardens houston.

Part of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens displays furniture, ceramics, and other decorative arts in the former home of Houston art collector and “First lady of Texas” Irma Hogg. The stately house is surrounded by some 14 acres of manicured gardens.

The Health Museum

houston health museum exterior.

Walk through a huge model of the human body, including a 22-foot backbone, at the Health Museum. In addition to the permanent exhibits, the museum hosts a number of temporary installations and screens films in its McGovern Theater.

The Menil Collection

menil collection sculptures houston.

Looking for free things to do in Houston? Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Menil Collection, housed in the first American building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The museum is home to the eclectic collections of John and Dominique de Menil, who amassed a wide variety of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and decorative objects from ancient times to the contemporary period, with an emphasis on more modern works. Artists on display include Matisse, Picasso, Ernst, and Johns.

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Discovery Green

discovery green houston.

Visitors can enjoy the great outdoors right in downtown Houston thanks to a 12-acre park, Discovery Green, located across the street from the George R. Brown Convention Center. A perimeter of century-old oak trees provides a natural framework within which designers built the Great Lawn, grand-scale pieces of art, a boating pond, a giant fountain (fun for kids to splash in on hot days), dog fountains and runs, picnic grounds, a playground, an amphitheater, and jogging trails. Check out the events calendar to find out what’s going on during your visit, from yoga classes to concerts.

Sam Houston Park

historic home in sam houston park.

Another lovely green space surrounded by the high-rise towers of downtown is Sam Houston Park, where you can tour a number of historic homes maintained by the city’s Heritage Society.

National Museum of Funeral History

day of the dead display at national museum funeral history.

It may seem like a grim place to visit on vacation, but the National Museum of Funeral History is surprisingly interesting. The 15 permanent exhibits include the history of cremation and embalming, artifacts from presidential and papal funerals, and hearses dating back to the 19th century. The museum also examines how other cultures deal with funerals and death.

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Buffalo Bayou Park

biking in buffalo bayou park houston.

Need some exercise? Hit the walking, jogging, and biking trails that run along the bayou through central Houston in Buffalo Bayou Park. You can enjoy great views of the downtown skyline and even tour an eerie underground cistern that once housed the city’s water supply and now makes for a fascinating tour.

The Orange Show and Smither Park

smither park houston.

Lovers of visionary art should check out two Houston attractions located right next to each other: The Orange Show and Smither Park. The former is a funky, folksy ode to the orange, created over several decades by a retired postal worker using reclaimed materials such as iron, bricks, and tiles. Smither Park is a community project, showcasing the work of hundreds of local artists, including colorful mosaics, found objects, and even a large grotto plastered with pieces of road signs.

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Holocaust Museum Houston

dutch rescue boat at holocaust museum houston.

Fresh off a major renovation and expansion, the Holocaust Museum features a permanent exhibition on Anne Frank and other young diarists, a human rights gallery, a collection of paintings by Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak, and a Dutch rescue boat from World War II, among other moving exhibits.

Sports Venues

minute maid park houston.

Sports lovers can catch a game at numerous venues in Houston, from baseball’s Minute Maid Park (home of the Astros) to the nearby Toyota Center, where the NBA’s Rockets play. Texans football games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo are held at NRG Stadium.

Buffalo Soldiers National Museum

buffalo soldiers museum houston.

One of the lesser-known things to do in Houston is a visit to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, which celebrates the military contributions of the African Americans who served in the U.S. Army after the Civil War.

Houston Center for Contemporary Craft

artist at houston center for contemporary craft.

Another unique Houston attraction is the Center for Contemporary Craft, where you can see rotating displays of ceramics, metalwork, jewelry, fiber art, and more. You can also meet the center’s artists in residence and get a look inside their studios.

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Sarah Schlichter was hosted by Marriott and Visit Houston. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration. June Naylor contributed to this story.

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Arts & Culture Budget Travel Cities Entertainment Family Travel Food & Drink

13 Free Things to Do in Las Vegas

I know, I know—what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But if you’re not careful, it could be the contents of your wallet, savings account, and retirement fund that stay in Vegas, too.

The Top 13 Free Things to Do in Las Vegas

While hotels come cheap in Las Vegas, the attractions and shows do not. That’s why you should supplement your trips to the Las Vegas casinos, roller coasters, Cirque du Soleil shows, and other expensive endeavors with these free attractions. Here are 13 fun, free things to do in Las Vegas on your next trip.

Bellagio Fountains and Conservatory & Botanical Garden

bellagio fountains las vegas.

The Bellagio fountains pop up in just about every Las Vegas movie ever made, including the iconic ending to Ocean’s Eleven. Create your own crime caper or rom-com ending and catch the Fountains of Bellagio in action; the free show plays every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the time of day, and watching it is one of the best free things to do in Las Vegas.

Thrillingly synced to pop and classical music, hundreds of separate fountains and water features shoot up into the air with the Italianate hotel facade as their stunning backdrop. When you’ve had your fountain fill, take a leisurely stroll through Bellagio’s Conservatory & Botanical Garden, where horticulturalists maintain an ever-changing array of florals, gazebos, bridges, and ponds.

The gardens are also free for visitors and provide a nice respite from the relentless desert sun.

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Fremont Street Experience

fremont street experience las vegas.

Equal parts mall, concert venue, and light show, the Fremont Street Experience takes everything that Las Vegas is known for (glitter, lights, and gambling) and rolls it into one five-block area. The main attraction here is a barrel vault canopy aglow with 12.5 million LED lights that lead pedestrians to vintage casinos such as the Golden Nugget and the Four Queens. Guests can also enjoy free concerts from hard-rocking headliners all summer long.

Art at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

cosmopolitan las vegas lobby.

And you thought Las Vegas had no culture. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas has amassed one of the most exclusive art collections in the country, providing a highbrow break from the Strip’s bare skin and penny slots.

You’ll find fascinating installations throughout The Cosmopolitan’s public spaces, including the lobby, the stairwells, and even the parking garage.

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CBS Television City Research Center at MGM Grand

cbs television city research center.

You might not be a network exec, but you can still have your voice heard. At the CBS Television City Research Center at MGM Grand, you can sample brand-new TV shows and opine on potential pilots during the hour-long screenings. It’s one of the best free things to do in Las Vegas.

Head into one of the studios to sample program offerings by CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon, and other Viacom-owned channels. Register your opinion on a test monitor and consider yourself part of television history before returning to your regularly scheduled vacation.

Circus Acts at Circus Circus Las Vegas

circus circus act las vegas.

Looking for free shows in Las Vegas? The whole family will approve of the circus acts at Circus Circus. This special spot on the Strip has long entertained guests with its Carnival Midway and countless circus acts. In fact, the resort contains the largest permanent circus in the world.

A rotating cast of jugglers, acrobats, aerialists, and roller-skating stuntmen delights kids of every age (and the cash-strapped parents toting their new carnival prizes). Cap off the entertainment with a rousing show from Circus Circus’ resident clowns on the Midway’s main stage. Let the fact that all this entertainment is free assuage any lingering clown phobia.

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Downtown Container Park

praying mantis downtown container park las vegas.

A giant mechanical praying mantis welcomes visitors into this open-air park made from repurposed shipping containers. Here you’ll find shops, restaurants, bars, and a stage for free live music performances. Kids can enjoy The Treehouse, a play area with a slide and building blocks, up until 9:00 p.m. each day (when the park becomes adults only).

Wildlife Habitat at Flamingo Las Vegas

flamingos in las vegas.

You’ll likely encounter a variety of colorful creatures on the Las Vegas Strip, from partying bachelorettes with anatomically correct lollipops to celebrities on their baddest behavior. Catch a glimpse of a different kind of flamboyance at Flamingo Las Vegas, with its habitat chock-full of the pink-hued birds.

A flock (actually called a flamboyance) of Chilean flamingos is on view at the free exhibit, which also features an array of swans, ducks, koi fish, and turtles who live among the foliage and waterfalls. The habitat is located next to the pool area and is one of the great free things to do in Las Vegas for hotel guests and non-guests alike.

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Volcano at The Mirage

mirage volcano las vegas.

Well, this spot has really blown up. With a soundtrack by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian table drummer Zakir Hussain, the heart-pounding audio/visual attraction at the Polynesian-themed Mirage spews fire into the air beginning at 8:00 p.m. every night, making it one of the most memorable free shows in Las Vegas.

The smoke that the volcano spouts more than 100 feet above the water is actually perfumed with a pleasant pina colada scent (to cover up the odor of natural gas). The spectacle rivals the well-known fountains at Bellagio, another free Las Vegas attraction, just a half-mile up the Strip.

Pinball Hall of Fame

pinball hall of fame.

This nonprofit please-touch museum is actually the world’s largest pinball-machine collection. In 10,000 square feet of space, you’ll find an assortment of more than 200 pinball machines and arcade games from a half-century of gaming history. And every game is playable, from a 1992 Super Mario Bros. machine to the wooden 1947 Heavy Hitter.

Admission is free, although the games are coin-operated (25 or 50 cents per play). Just arm yourself with the knowledge that all excess revenue goes to charity. Who knew doing good could feel like such good old-fashioned fun?

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Aquarium at Silverton Hotel and Casino

aquarium at silverton hotel and casino.

The only sting here is from jellyfish. Consistently ranked one of the top free things to do in Las Vegas, the massive saltwater aquarium at the Silverton Hotel and Casino will transport you from the parched desert to a vast tropical oasis. Around 117,000 gallons of saltwater house thousands of fish, sharks, stingrays, and reef plants. Interactive feeding demonstrations and a mermaid show round out the offerings.

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign

welcome to fabulous las vegas sign.

A selfie with this famous sign is a must-have for your Instagram feed, and it won’t cost you a dime. Located at 5100 S. Las Vegas Boulevard, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign has marked the beginning of the Strip since 1959.

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Ethel M. Chocolates

factory workers at ethel m chocolates

Located in nearby Henderson is one of the Vegas area’s most delicious attractions: Ethel M. Chocolates, where you can enjoy free samples, stroll through a botanical garden filled with cacti, and take a complimentary self-guided tour through the factory to see how the staff prepares pecan brittle, caramels, and other tasty treats.

First Friday in the Arts District

first friday las vegas.

On the first Friday evening of every month, from 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., the Arts District of downtown Las Vegas opens its streets for wallet- and family-friendly fun. Find a variety of artists and vendors hawking their wares, plus live music, activities for kids, and a fleet of food trucks for peckish revelers. Each month’s event features a different theme.

What to Wear in Vegas

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Sarah Schlichter contributed to this story.

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Cities Family Travel Theme Park

Tampa Bay CityPASS: The Ultimate Pass to Amazing Animals

Tampa Bay CityPASS is the ultimate sightseeing tool for animal-obsessed families looking for things to do in Tampa. Four of the five attractions bundled into the CityPASS are animal-centered attractions focused on education, conservation, and animal welfare.

The Tampa Bay CityPASS ticket book (or the mobile version) gets you discounted entry (and in many cases, skip-the-line entry) at four of Tampa Bay’s best animal-focused attractions: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, the Florida Aquarium, ZooTampa at Lowry Park, and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Tampa Bay CityPASS also includes access to either the Museum of Science & Industry or the Chihuly Collection.

Here’s the scoop on the animal-centered attractions that are a part of the CityPASS bundle.

ZooTampa at Lowry Park

Kids watching a manatee at zootampa

Paths shaded by tropical foliage make navigating the 63-acre ZooTampa comfortable, even on hot days. This award-winning, non-profit zoo promotes and supports wildlife conservation in Florida and beyond. Spend time watching manatees at the zoo’s critical care center, which treats and rehabilitates injured wild animals. Or sign up for reasonably priced up-close signature encounters, including the chance to feed a rhinoceros and go behind-the-scenes at the African penguin exhibit.

Kid Take: “I liked the different sections of the zoo. My favorite part was the macaw flyover; it felt exciting to see them fly really fast. Going into the manatee area was peaceful and it was relaxing to see the manatees swim slowly around. It was cool that they rescue manatees and help put them back in the wild once they’re healthy.”

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The Florida Aquarium

child looking into tank at florida aquarium in tampa

With an easy-to-reach location in downtown Tampa, the Florida Aquarium offers close-up animal encounters with an eye toward local Florida ecosystems. Exhibits featuring more than 14,000 animals educate and inspire families to connect with the natural environment. Visit the Florida Wetlands Trail to discover alligators, otters, birds, and fish. Head to the Coral Reef to glimpse sea turtles, sand tiger sharks, barracudas, stingrays, and moray eels. And for a globetrotting treat, explore the Journey to Madagascar exhibit, where you can watch lemurs frolic, snack, and socialize. Outside, a splash pad offers a way for kids to burn off energy and cool off.

Kid Take: “It was fun to see the otters playing around and the lemurs swinging from branch to branch. The gift shop was pretty cool, too. I also liked the splash pad right outside but I didn’t really get to play on it because it was raining like crazy when I was there.”

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Dolphin at the clearwater marine aquarium in clearwater, florida

Arrive curious and leave inspired at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The aquarium’s mission to rescue, rehabilitate, and when possible, release marine life is on display at this modest (but soon to be expanded) facility in Clearwater. Known widely as home to Winter the dolphin, who inspired and starred in the Dolphin Tale movies; the center has dolphins, sea turtles, rays, and more.

Kid Take: “I really liked it because we saw an animal movie star. I watched Winter the dolphin move through the water like she was an underwater race car. I also liked that I learned a lot about how to protect marine animals and make the sea healthier for them.”

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Busch Gardens

hippo peeking above water at busch gardens in tampa

Busch Gardens appeals to thrill seekers and animal lovers alike with its combination of roller coasters and animal experiences. On the Serengeti Safari Tour, visitors five and up board an open-air truck and spend 30 minutes exploring the 65-acre habitat where zebras, antelope, giraffe, and other animals roam. The tour highlight for kids and adults alike is the chance to feed curious giraffes a lettuce snack.

Kid Take: “On the safari I got to stand up in the back of a truck for the first time. We saw zebras, giraffes, a rhino, and other animals. Some of the giraffes came up to our truck and we got to feed them. I really liked being so close to giraffes. It was also fun to watch the roller coasters zooming around. I went on Cobra’s Curse; it was scary but also fun. My favorite part was when it spun slowly around.”

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Christine Sarkis visited Tampa as a guest of CityPASS. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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Arts & Culture Cities Family Travel Historical Travel

11 Fun Things to Do in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is justifiably famous for its colonial history. The city, founded in 1682, can be credited as the site of America’s birth—the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were created here. So was the first American flag. The most popular things to do in Philadelphia include exploring Independence Mall, gawking at the Liberty Bell, and wandering along streets lined with old colonial homes.

But to think Philadelphia’s only attraction is its historic sites is to miss out on a huge part of the city’s appeal. Don’t overlook its vibrant art scene, from major museums to contemporary galleries and colorful murals, or the thriving—but not over-commercialized—waterfront, Penn’s Landing, which hosts festivals and attractions. There are also a number of fun day trips within easy driving distance. Start planning your itinerary with this list of fun things to do in Philadelphia.

Discover the Constitution

national constitution center philadelphia.

The National Constitution Center chronicles all things related to the U.S. Constitution, and its interactive exhibits make that era of U.S. history come alive. These days, the center is the diamond in the center of Philadelphia’s most important “birth of America” sites.

Visit Independence National Historical Park

independence hall in the spring.

Nearby, Independence National Historical Park is home to Independence Hall, considered the birthplace of America. Tours are free, but for most of the year you’ll need a timed ticket to enter. You can reserve in advance online or by phone (for a small fee), or show up the morning you want to visit. Arrive early during the busy summer months.

The historical park is also home to the Liberty Bell Center, which houses another symbolic Philadelphia classic, full of legends relating to America’s early days (in fact, the bell was hidden away in nearby Allentown to keep it from falling into British hands during the Revolutionary War). Entry is free, though you may find yourself waiting in a lengthy line.

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Wander Through Old City

elfreths alley philadelphia.

Beyond the usual Independence Mall attractions, the Old City neighborhood features a number of other sights to see, including the Betsy Ross House, where the first American flag was sewn; Christ Church, where George Washington and Benjamin Franklin once worshipped; and Elfreth’s Alley, a narrow cobblestone lane lined with brick homes that date back to 1702.

The neighborhood is also home to one of the newest Philadelphia attractions, the Museum of the American Revolution, which opened in 2017 and offers fascinating interactive exhibits about America’s war for independence.

Take in an Art Museum

pennsylvania academy of fine arts.

Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which houses the city’s most impressive collections, plus visiting exhibits. Be sure to stop in the lovely medieval cloister and the tranquil Japanese teahouse. It’s also got the famous set of steps featured in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky.

Just down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the Rodin Museum, which showcases the largest collection of the French sculptor’s work outside of Paris. Also nearby is the Barnes Foundation, an incredible collection featuring Post-Impressionist and early modern paintings from artists such as Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir, and Matisse. Finally, don’t miss the oft-overlooked Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the artwork is rivaled only by the stunning architecture.

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Learn About Science

giant heart at the franklin institute in philadelphia.

Alongside the popular art museums on Benjamin Franklin Parkway are two family-friendly scientific institutions. One of the most fun things to do in Philadelphia with kids is to walk through the bigger-than-life human heart at The Franklin Institute, which also offers a wealth of other creative and informative science exhibits. The nearby Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is beloved by families for its collections of dinosaur bones and other wonders of natural science.

Meanwhile, the Mutter Museum may be Philadelphia’s most unique scientific attraction, exhibiting medical oddities such as a human skull collection, the livers of conjoined twins, and pieces of Albert Einstein’s brain.

Spend Some Time in Prison

eastern state penitentiary.

A trip to a prison may not top your must-do list on vacation, but Eastern State Penitentiary is a surprisingly fascinating stop. You can wander the haunting, crumbling corridors that once housed Al Capone and numerous other criminals, and learn how revolutionary the “penitentiary” concept was at the time of the prison’s founding in 1829.

Hit the Zoo

giraffes at philadelphia zoo.

A fun option for kids is the Philadelphia Zoo, America’s first, which recently added an innovative system of see-through mesh trails that run around and above the zoo, allowing animals to roam freely between exhibits. Creatures who live here include gorillas, tigers, lions, hippos, giraffes, lemurs, and many more.

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Hit the Waterfront

penn's landing philadelphia.

Adjacent to the picturesque streets and houses of historic Society Hill (home to Philadelphia’s wealthy in the 18th century) is Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia’s waterfront on the Delaware River. Aside from panoramic views and summer events, the highlight here is the Independence Seaport Museum, displaying numerous maritime artifacts.

Marvel Over Murals and Mosaics

mosaics at philadelphia's magic gardens.

Aside from its excellent museums, Philadelphia is home to plenty of outdoor art as well. Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens are a beloved indoor and outdoor art installation stretching along a once run-down section of South Street. Created by local resident Isaiah Zagar, the colorful installation is made of mosaic tiles, bicycle wheels, glass bottles, and other found objects.

Philadelphia also has thousands of murals—many of which you can discover on a Mural Arts tour. Travel on foot or by bike, trolley, or train to see these unexpected splashes of colorful art on walls across the city.

Cross the River to Camden

battleship new jersey.

Just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia is the city of Camden, New Jersey. Major attractions include the Adventure Aquarium—the most popular exhibit there is a 40-foot shark tunnel, where viewers are surrounded on all sides by a variety of circling sharks—and the Battleship New Jersey, which served in three wars. Families can also wander through the Camden Children’s Garden. The most fun way to get to Camden from Philadelphia is to board the RiverLink Ferry at Penn’s Landing.

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Take a Day Trip

longwood gardens in spring.

Though there are plenty of Philadelphia attractions to keep you busy within the city limits, it’s worth considering a day trip outside of town if you’ve got a little extra time. About an hour west of the city are the spectacular blooms of Longwood Gardens, where you can easily spend a full day—or combine a garden visit with a few hours exploring the American collection at the nearby Brandywine River Museum of Art.

Over the summer months, Philadelphia can get hot and muggy, so a day trip to the Jersey Shore can offer a welcome respite. The city is within easy driving distance of the elegant seaside resort of Cape May, the glitzy casinos of Atlantic City, and the family-friendly beaches and boardwalk of Ocean City. For more advice, see The 8 Best New Jersey Beaches to Visit This Summer.

Other Philadelphia day trip options include a shopping excursion to King of Prussia Mall, the largest mall on the East Coast, or a drive up to the arts community of New Hope, where a bevy of galleries, boutiques, and riverside views make for pleasant strolling.

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Sarah Schlichter visited the city as a guest of Visit Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration. Carolyn Spencer Brown contributed to this story.

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Active Travel Arts & Culture Beach Cities Family Travel Historical Travel Outdoors

7 Fun Things to Do in Wilmington, NC

Wilmington, North Carolina made headlines last year when Hurricane Florence hit the region, flooding the city with nearly two feet of rain and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. But the area is bouncing back. While some local residents are still waiting on housing assistance and repairs, most hotels, restaurants, and attractions in the Wilmington region have reopened and are eager to welcome back visitors.

On a recent trip to Wilmington, I discovered not a disaster zone but a friendly Southern city with a growing riverfront district, a burgeoning food scene, and streets full of gracious historic homes with rocking chairs on their front porches. The city is within a quick drive of several beach towns, making it easy to combine an urban getaway with a day or two of sun and sand. Below is a sampling of the many fun things to do in Wilmington, NC.

Explore Downtown and the Riverfront

historic downtown wilmington nc

The heart of Wilmington is its historic downtown, which runs inland from the Cape Fear River. Shops, galleries, eateries, and a 1.75-mile-long wooden Riverwalk make this area an excellent spot for a stroll. While it’s fun to wander on your own, a good guide can offer context and local color to bring the area to life. Consider a spooky ghost walk, a literary tour with Old Books on Front Street, or even a horse-drawn carriage ride. You can also get out on the river with Wilmington Water Tours.

One of the best downtown shopping spots is the Cotton Exchange, a collection of boutiques and restaurants housed in a 19th-century building that was once home to the largest flour mill in the South. Recommended stops here include Down to Earth for aromatherapy oils, Heart of Carolina for local gifts, and Two Sisters Bookery for books (while you’re there, say hi to Katie, the bookstore cat).

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Visit Battleship North Carolina

battleship north carolina

This WWII-era battleship is one of Wilmington’s most famous landmarks, docked on the opposite shore of the Cape Fear River from downtown. The ship earned 15 battle stars during action in Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and other encounters in the Pacific.

The battleship is bigger than it looks from across the river: It stretches the length of two city blocks and has nine different levels for visitors to discover. Wear comfortable shoes for climbing from one deck to another as you explore the engine room, bridge, mess, and berthing areas. Keep an eye out for Charlie, an alligator who lives in the swamp surrounding the battleship.

Tour Historic Homes

bellamy mansion

There are three historic homes-turned-museums within easy walking distance of each other in downtown Wilmington. Bellamy Mansion was built on the eve of the Civil War, and the family who owned it had to flee to escape the war. Today it’s notable not only for its grand architecture and attractive gardens, but also for its well-preserved urban slave quarters—a rarity in the U.S.

Just a few blocks away is Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens, which dates back to 1770 and is the only colonial home in Wilmington that’s open to the public. The house is furnished with elegant antiques, while the gardens include colonial-era culinary herbs as well as flowering trees and plants.

Also worth a stop is the Zebulon Latimer House, built in 1852 and now the headquarters for the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. Tours are available to guide you through the house’s 14 rooms and tell you about the lives of the people who once lived here.

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Check Out Local Museums

wilmington railroad museum

Want to learn something new? Visit the museums of Wilmington, NC. The Wilmington Railroad Museum details the history of what was once one of the city’s key economic drivers: the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Exhibits include a 100-year-old steam locomotive, more than 20 scale-model trains, and even a Thomas the Tank Engine play area for kids.

The Cape Fear Museum is another must-visit, with wide-ranging collections of all things regional, from Native American artifacts to 20th-century photographs and toys.

Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Cameron Art Museum, which hosts a rotating slate of exhibitions as well as select objects from its own collection of regional, national, and international artwork. Leave time to stroll the museum’s sculpture garden and nature trails.

If you’ve got kids in tow, you won’t want to miss the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, where little ones can enjoy hands-on activities like playing on a pirate ship and going “shopping” in a market exhibit.

Stroll Through Airlie Gardens

airlie gardens

The lush wooded grounds of Airlie Gardens are just a short drive from downtown Wilmington. Scattered across the garden’s 67 waterfront acres are sculptures, ponds, historical buildings, a chapel made entirely of bottles, and the Airlie Oak, the state’s largest oak tree, which dates back to 1545.

Come in early spring to see camellias, azaleas, and flowering trees, or in the warmer months (mid-May through mid-October) to explore the seasonal Butterfly House.

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Get a Taste of Wilmington

oysters at surf house carolina beach

For a small city, Wilmington has a wide variety of great food. Sample it for yourself with Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours. The company runs afternoon and evening food tours to restaurants around Wilmington. Another option is Tasting History, which offers food tours in nearby Carolina Beach and Kure Beach.

Beyond the tours, you’ll want to make time for full meals at some of these popular local spots: Savorez (for vibrant Latin American flavors), Manna Ave. 123 (the city’s only AAA Four-Diamond restaurant), Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria (for pasta, wood-fired pizza, and other Italian delights), and Indochine (for authentic Thai/Vietnamese cuisine).

Hit the Beach

boardwalk onto kure beach

There are three beach towns within a half-hour drive of Wilmington, each with its own unique vibe. The closest is Wrightsville Beach, known for watersports, spas, and chic boutiques. Here you can go stand-up paddleboarding, take an eco-cruise with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, or simply relax on the sand.

A few miles south is fun-loving Carolina Beach with its family-friendly boardwalk and a state park where you can see Venus flytraps growing in the wild. There’s also a lake in the center of town where you can rent paddleboats or watch outdoor movies in the summer. Don’t miss a meal at Surf House, one of the region’s best restaurants.

With just one stoplight and no full-service hotels, Kure Beach is the quietest and most laid-back of the Wilmington, NC-area beaches. You can see the remains of a Civil War-era fort at Fort Fisher State Historic Site or learn about local marine life at the North Carolina Aquarium. Fort Fisher State Recreation Area features nearly six miles of pristine, undeveloped beach.

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Sarah Schlichter traveled to Wilmington, NC, as a guest of the Wilmington and Beaches CVB. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

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Cities Entertainment Family Travel

The Ultimate Super Bowl LIII Atlanta Visitor Guide 2019

The Super Bowl is football’s biggest showdown and a huge event that’s watched not just across America, but across the world. People tune in to see some of the world’s best athletes battle for the championship. They also tune in to see the dazzling halftime show, as well as the irreverent commercials. And each year, a lucky few get to see the game in person.

Below is a handy travel guide with everything you need to know about Super Bowl 2019,  which will be held in Atlanta, Georgia.

When Is Super Bowl LIII 2019?

The day NFL fans look forward to this year is February 3, 2019. It’s the 53rd Super Bowl, taking place at Mercedes-Benz Stadium—the first time the game has been played in Atlanta since the year 2000. The game will be played between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams.

Where Is the Super Bowl?

This year’s Super Bowl takes place at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium (1 AMB Drive NW, Atlanta, GA 30313) in downtown Atlanta, near Vine City.

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Amenities at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Mercedes-Benz Stadium is relatively new—it opened in fall 2017—but it’s already much loved. The home of the Atlanta Falcons features a retractable roof and the world’s largest 360-degree halo-screen scoreboard, as well as self-serve fountain drinks with free refills, strong Wi-Fi, and reasonable food prices. The stadium is designed so that most seats offer an excellent view. Those who are interested can book a guided tour of the entire stadium.

Who Is Performing at the Super Bowl 2019?

The Super Bowl halftime show, formally known as the Pepsi Halftime Show, is always epic. Previous years have spotlighted the world’s biggest stars, including Beyonce, Prince, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, and Justin Timberlake.

This year the headliner will be Maroon 5, with lead singer Adam Levine taking center stage. At press time, there was still speculation as to whether special guests will appear with him, with Big Boi and rapper Travis Scott rumored to be among the potential cameos.

Leading up to the big game is the Bud Light Super Bowl LIII Music Fest, a three-night extravaganza happening January 31 through February 2 at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. Headliners will include Bruno Mars, Cardi B, Post Malone, Aerosmith, Ludacris, and Migos.

Tips for Travelers: How Safe Is Atlanta?

The vast majority of visitors to Atlanta travel safely within the city. Gangs are active in certain Atlanta neighborhoods; if you avoid those areas, which include U-Rescue Villa, Old Fourth Ward, Kirkwood, and the general area southwest of the I-20 and I-85 interchange, you should remain safe (especially if you stay in Midtown, the suburbs, and Atlanta’s east side). That said, it’s always a good idea to stay alert for pickpockets, especially near crowded events like the Super Bowl.

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Things to Do in Atlanta: Top Tours and Attractions

Atlanta offers plenty of fun things to do, with excellent tours that let you take it all in. One particularly worthwhile private tour of Atlanta is called From Civil War to Civil Rights, which takes you to important battlefields as well as the memorable Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Fans of CNN can take its studio tour, or if The Walking Dead is more your speed, you can try out a Walking Dead Big Zombie Tour—if you dare.

For more ideas, see 10 Must-See Atlanta Attractions.

Traveling to Super Bowl 53 with Kids?

If you’re planning on taking your kids to the Super Bowl, first of all: lucky kids. Second of all: How are you planning to entertain your children before and after the big game?

I’ve got a few ideas for you on what to do in Atlanta with kids. Consider the LEGOLAND Discovery Center, Zoo Atlanta, Centennial Olympic Park, the excellent Georgia Aquarium—and, of course, the iconic World of Coca-Cola. For more ideas, check out SmarterTravel’s sister site, Family Vacation Critic.

Where to Eat in Atlanta

No matter what you’re looking to eat in Atlanta, you’ll find something satisfying for your taste and budget.

Atlanta’s best restaurants include Staplehouse, 1Kept, and Marcel, though if you’re more interested in saving a few bucks while still getting some great grub, head instead to one of Atlanta’s best places for cheap eats, including Aviva by Kameel, Victory Sandwich Bar, and Kwan’s Deli.

If you’re really looking to get a taste of the South while you’re in Atlanta, try Mary Mac’s Tea Room, Wisteria, or The Colonnade for some of the most authentic Southern cuisine anywhere.

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Where to Stay in Atlanta

Most Atlanta hotels near the Mercedes-Benz Stadium are fully booked during the dates surrounding the Super Bowl, though at the time of publication there was still some (pricey) availability at the Motel 6 Atlanta Downtown, as well as the Budgetel Savannah.

If you’re looking to offset the cost of your Super Bowl tickets, however, you’ll probably want to zoom out a distance from the stadium, where you might still find decent hotel deals in Atlanta.

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Atlanta Weather: What’s It Like in Late Winter?

Winter in Atlanta tends to be cool, windy, and sometimes wet. Daytime highs usually hover in the mid-50s Fahrenheit, with nighttime lows dipping down into the mid-30s. In Atlanta, it tends to rain for about seven days out of each winter month.

Fashion in Atlanta: What to Pack for Atlanta in February

Packing for Atlanta can be tricky in early February, when rain and wind are quite possible—but semi-comfortable daytime weather is quite possible, too. The solution is to dress in layers, plus comfortable shoes and sunglasses—and for the Super Bowl (held after dark), pack for weather that approaches freezing, including a beanie, a solid coat, gloves, and wool socks.

In general, when you’re figuring out what to wear in Atlanta, keep in mind that the fashion sensibility here is modern and casual, with sneakers, vintage pieces, designer tees, and hats reigning supreme. Women can look current in a hip pair of booties, and men won’t look out of place in plaid.

And, of course, don’t forget to wear the colors of the Super Bowl team that you’ll be cheering for.

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Find Flights Now to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)

The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport sits nine miles from Mercedes-Benz stadium, making for about a 15-minute drive, though that timing can depend a lot on traffic.

Head over to Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site, to find affordably priced flights to Atlanta.

Atlanta Transit: How to Get Around Atlanta

Atlanta is a car-heavy city, which means that highway systems are extensive and well maintained—but often clogged with endless traffic. Atlanta officials are bracing for intense Super Bowl traffic, since the city is expecting more than 150,000 additional people during the time of the big game, and some roads will be closed. The heavier traffic is expected to start about a week before the Super Bowl and last until February 4.

In fact, the Atlanta police department is advising people not to drive during the hours surrounding Super Bowl, asking people to take public transit, hire a car, or walk instead.

If you do choose to rent a car or drive your own into Atlanta, make sure to park it somewhere safe and well-lit, since vehicular larceny—a.k.a. car break-ins—is one of Atlanta’s most common crimes. Make sure, too, to hide any items that might invite smash-and-grab thieves in the glove compartment or trunk.

If you choose to use public transit, you can take comfort in the fact that MARTA—Atlanta’s rail and bus system—is actively preparing for crowd control and has made many preparations, including hiring dozens more police officers, to prevent delays and security issues for the time surrounding the February 3 game. There will also be more rail cars, buses arriving more frequently, and extra MARTA workers standing on the platforms to load trains quickly.

MARTA’s website offers additional reassurance: “During major events such as Super Bowl LIII, MARTA can easily transport you to key venues around the city like the Mercedes-Benz Stadium … without the hassle of traffic or parking.” Use the service’s trip planner to make sure yours goes smoothly, and check the site for game day reroutes. Always stay alert and vigilant on MARTA, especially after dark.

MARTA is also selling commemorative Super Bowl Breeze cards (one-day, three-day, or four-day pass) at Breezecard.com.

Hired-car services are also an option in Atlanta, though Super Bowl traffic might make it expensive to travel even just a short distance in an Uber or Lyft. As always, be cautious when using phone-based car services. Check to make sure that the driver and car match what comes up on your phone app. Don’t sit in the front seat if you can avoid it, and use the app’s “share” feature so that a loved one can track your location.

If you’re planning on walking, go in pairs or groups, especially at night, and keep your wits about you. Stick to well-lit, populated streets.

The Super Bowl website offers additional information for getting around Atlanta during the big game and surrounding events.

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Where to Buy Tickets to Super Bowl LIII

You can buy tickets straight from the Super Bowl website, where packages start at more than $3,000 per person and include an all-inclusive pregame party.

If you’re lucky, you could also win the lottery as a season ticket holder, or get them gifted via your work, as a client perk or some such.

But the main way to get Super Bowl tickets is by buying them on the resale market, known as the “secondary ticket industry.” Resellers typically sell them starting at $3,500 each, going up to $10,000 or more, depending on the seats you purchase and when you buy the tickets.

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—original reporting by Avital Andrews

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Active Travel Arts & Culture Booking Strategy Experiential Travel Health & Wellness Miscellany Outdoors Pet Travel Sustainable Travel Travel Etiquette Travel Trends

How to Spot Animal Cruelty While Traveling

When you love animals, it’s hard to imagine participating in an act of animal cruelty. Of course you would never attend a dog fight or purchase a rhino horn, but when you’re traveling and looking to interact with wildlife, animal cruelty is not always obvious. Many animal attractions market themselves as animal sanctuaries, but too often these so-called “sanctuaries” are just trying to capitalize on a rising public interest in conservation.

Animal Cruelty in Disguise

[st_content_ad]The people who run these animal attractions know that travelers are no longer interested in gawking at trained circus animals. Many travelers are now more aware of the animal cruelty that occurs when elephants are trained to be ridden or tigers are sedated in order to sell a photo op. However, as tourism has evolved, animal abusers have adapted, lying to tourists and disguising their facilities as animal sanctuaries.

For many years, Thailand’s Tiger Temple seemed like a harmonious alternative to the local tiger shows common in Thailand. Instead of watching tigers perform dangerous tasks like jumping through flaming hoops, visitors could observe the animals living “peacefully” among Buddhist monks. However, in 2016 the temple was shut down for wildlife crimes, and the facility’s cruel practices were exposed, including the drugging, breeding, and selling of baby tigers.

So how can you tell if an animal attraction is cruel or not? According to Leigh Barnes, the chief purpose officer of Intrepid Travel, the first tour operator to eliminate elephant rides from all its itineraries, “Genuine sanctuaries don’t buy or sell wild animals, don’t use the animals for interactions with travelers, and  don’t breed wild animals.” To put it simply, true animal sanctuaries are always operating within the best interest of the animal.

Though there are many fake sanctuaries out there, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any good ones. Here are a few questions to guide travelers when searching for an ethical wildlife experience or animal sanctuary visit either abroad or in the U.S.

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Is the Animal Sanctuary Accredited?

Before visiting any animal sanctuary, you can check to see if it’s been accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). This organization requires animal sanctuaries to keep a strict code of ethics and welfare standards before issuing accreditation. The process requires sanctuaries, rescue centers, and rehabilitation centers to apply and undergo an inspection of their facilities. Because these organizations have been vetted, the GFAS website is a great source for finding an ethical animal sanctuary in the area you’re visiting. Here you can also find out about organizations that accept volunteers like the Centre for Rescue and Conservation of Orangutans in Indonesia or the Three Ring Ranch in Hawaii.

This list is a great place to start, but just because a sanctuary isn’t accredited doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t legitimate.  If you can’t find an GFAS-accredited sanctuary in your destination, there are still many ways you can determine if an animal sanctuary is for real.

How Do the Animals Look?

It may seem like common sense, but there are actually a lot of different things to look for when visually checking for animal cruelty. If an animal appears excessively dirty, this is an obvious sign of neglect, but you should also look for signs of disease or starvation. If you are passing by in person, you might not be able to see the animals before being asked to pay the entrance fee, so your best bet is to check online and see if you can find photos or additional information. TripAdvisor, SmarterTravel’s parent company, is a good place to look for photos and see what other visitors have had to say. If you can’t find a lot of information online about the sanctuary, play it safe and stay away.

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How Much Space Do They Have?

Just because the animals look OK doesn’t mean they’re being taken care of humanely. Check to see what the conditions of the sanctuary are actually like. Animals need a lot of room to roam and explore, so enclosures that are cramped or overcrowded are definite signs of animal cruelty and often lead to disease.

For example, a hotel in Bali was exposed for animal cruelty in 2015 when it was discovered that it kept four full-size dolphins in a small chlorinated pool. Not only were the dolphins overcrowded and trained to perform for guests, but the chlorine in the water also caused them to go blind.

When inspecting a sanctuary, another thing to look for is enrichment activities for the animals. What is there for them to do? Artificial habitats should offer ways to keep the animals physically and mentally active, such as climbing structures for primates or water for an animal to splash around in.

Where Do They Come From?

If an organization is breeding animals for tourism purposes, it does not have their best interest in mind. Reputable sanctuaries never breed animals, because to do so would be to take away valuable resources from the animals they are already taking care of. Most sanctuaries rescue their animals from circuses, zoos, or neglectful owners and intend to take care of the animal for the rest of its life. While some sanctuaries have rescued baby animals, the animals in sanctuaries tend to be older. So if a so-called sanctuary is advertising baby animal experiences, this is a huge red flag that they are breeding the animals or separating them from their mothers at birth.

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What’s the Visitation Policy?

Many animal sanctuaries sell tours in order to raise funds that support the animals, but reputable sanctuaries usually have strict rules that limit visiting hours so the animals are not overwhelmed. In some places, such as Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, you may even need to book your tour in advance.

If you’re looking for the roots of animal cruelty, follow the money. Around the world, many people abuse animals to make a profit and take advantage of tourists looking to have an unforgettable wildlife encounter. The best way to decide if an animal attraction is ethical or not is to figure out who benefits the most. Trying to maximize profit by opening the facility up to as many visitors as possible suggests a lack of concern for the animals’ wellbeing—and could mean that the owners are scrimping on care in other ways as well. Wildlife interactions can be incredibly educational and impactful experiences for travelers, but these experiences should always occur in the best interest of the animal.

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Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who is always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto. 

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Arts & Culture Beach Cities Family Travel Theme Park

Tampa with Kids: The 10 Best Family Activities

Filled to the brim with beaches, amusement parks, and long sunny days, Florida is one of America’s most fabulous playgrounds—and the Tampa Bay area is no exception. Headed to Tampa with kids? There’s no shortage of places for the little ones to learn and play, from the Florida Aquarium to the inviting beaches of the Gulf Coast.

Tampa with Kids: The Best Family Activities

Below are 10 fun activities to try in Tampa with kids.

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Florida Aquarium

Start in downtown Tampa at the Florida Aquarium, located next to the cruise terminal. Kids will be entranced by sea creatures of all kinds, from baby alligators and playful otters to scary sharks. There are several touch tanks for children who love to get up close and personal—but if anyone really wants to get their feet wet, check out the “Swim with the Fishes” program. Kids 6 and older can go snorkeling in the aquarium’s coral reef exhibit, getting a fish’s-eye view of hundreds of angelfish, parrotfish, moray eels, and other sea life.

Busch Gardens

Busch Gardens is the biggest Tampa attraction for families, brimming with adventure and activity for all ages. The African-themed park boasts a Serengeti Safari, a Congo River Rapids ride, and a Tiger Insider tour that lets you meet the animals and their keepers. There are plenty of roller coasters, too, such as SheiKra, which features two stomach-churning, 90-degree drops of over 100 feet. But the rides are only part of the story; the park’s large collection of African animals includes hippos, lions, zebras, elephants, and giraffes, among others. If anyone needs a break, take in a show at one of the park’s several theaters.

Museum of Science and Industry

A visit to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) is one of the most educational family activities in Tampa, but don’t tell the kids—they’ll be too busy testing their bravery in a roller coaster simulator, gazing up at the sky in the planetarium, and discovering what it feels like to be buffeted by hurricane-force winds. You can also take in a show in the IMAX theater.

[st_content_ad]Dinosaur World

It’s worth the drive to check out Dinosaur World in Plant City, Florida. At this outdoor museum kids can go on a fossil dig, test their knowledge of dinosaur trivia at a game show, and check out life-size dinosaur skeletons.

Clearwater Beach

Don’t feel like you’ve “done” Florida without seeing some sun and sand? If so, head for Clearwater Beach, about a 40-minute drive from Tampa on the Gulf Coast. This wide, white beach boasts some of the softest sand in the country, but there’s way more to do than just build sandcastles (though that’s fun, too!). During the day, set sail from Clearwater Marina with a rowdy crew of buccaneers and wenches aboard Captain Memo’s pirate ship. Kids can practice their “aarrrrr!” and “ahoy matey!” to their hearts’ content as they keep an eye out for dolphins. In the evening, don’t miss Sunsets at Pier 60, a festival that celebrates the Gulf Coast’s gorgeous sunsets every night with live music, street performers, and other family fun.

Other Tampa Beaches

Beyond Clearwater, the Tampa area has numerous other white sand beaches where kids can play. Indian Rocks Beach, along Gulf Boulevard, is conveniently accessible from the city (and there are plenty of restaurants nearby). At St. Pete Beach you can rent a Jet Ski, or go SCUBA diving, parasailing, or fishing. If you’re seeking solitude, head to the quiet sands of Caladesi Island State Park, on one of Florida’s last undeveloped barrier islands (it’s accessible by ferry from Honeymoon Island).

Animal Attractions

If you’re visiting Tampa with kids who love animals, you have a number of fun options, including the Lowry Park Zoo, the Manatee Viewing Center at Tampa Electric (open part of the year only), and the Big Cat Rescue Center, which saves lions, tigers, bobcats, and more from situations such as performing acts or misguided pet owners. You’ll melt when you see some of the rescued marine animals, such as Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles, and otters, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The most popular critter is Winter the dolphin, who starred in the movie “Dolphin Tale.”

Spring Training

See who’s up at bat during spring training—since several Major League teams call this part of the world home in February and March. The Phillies are based in Clearwater, the Blue Jays play in Dunedin, and the Yankees have set up shop in Tampa. It’s a fun outing for travelers visiting Tampa with kids who love sports.

Sunken Gardens

Stroll through St. Petersburg’s bloom-filled Sunken Gardens to see an exotic collection of more than 50,000 tropical flowers and plants. Don’t miss the butterfly garden.

Canoe Escape

For all things nature just 25 minutes from Tampa and close to Busch Gardens, take the two-hour or full-day Canoe Escape down the Hillsborough River through a 16,000-acre wildlife preserve. You’ll paddle down “alligator alley,” where dozens of gators, including some 11-footers, sunbathe on logs and dive into the river from the river’s banks. Tour guides also point out snakes, turtles, river otters, fish, and birds of prey as they relax in their natural habitat. Hourly rentals also are available.

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Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

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Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Cities Theme Park Travel Trends Weekend Getaways

9 Must-See Chicago Attractions

Fortunately for visitors, many of the most popular Chicago attractions are concentrated downtown and within a scenic walk from one another. That means it’s easy to put together a Chicago sightseeing itinerary that will keep you entertained without wearing you out.

Must-See Chicago Attractions

Ask a Chicagoan what it’s like to live here and love it, and he or she will probably point you to the following unforgettable Chicago attractions.

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Chicago Architectural River Cruise Tour

things to do in chicago river cruise

[st_content_ad]A Chicago sightseeing experience wouldn’t be complete without immersing yourself in the city’s architectural history aboard a Chicago River cruise. The 90-minute Chicago’s First Lady cruises, run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, incorporate city history into tours focused on explaining architectural styles represented by more than 50 buildings flanking the Chicago River. Chicago Line Cruises‘ 90-minute tours, associated with the Chicago History Museum, discuss architecture in historical context, including the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that gave rise to the legendary skyscrapers and soaring glass towers visitors marvel at today.

Grant Park

chicago travel

Chicagoans call 319-acre Grant Park their “front yard” because it’s their favorite place to promenade, picnic, party, and play. Grant Park encompasses several smaller green spaces, including Millennium Park, where must-see Chicago attractions include the giant bean-shaped “Cloud Gate” sculpture, the digitally animated Crown Fountain, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. At Maggie Daley Park, families clamber up a climbing wall and, in winter, skate the ice ribbon. On Grant Park’s south end are historic Buckingham Fountain and the Field Museum of Natural History, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium. Sprawling green lawns along the lakefront stage Chicago’s blockbuster festivals including Taste of Chicago, Lollapalooza, and Chicago Blues Festival.

Art Institute of Chicago

what to pack for chicago

The venerable Art Institute of Chicago showcases one of the world’s largest permanent collections of Impressionist paintings in addition an extensive assortment of Chinese bronzes, medieval arms, American art, and contemporary masterpieces. Take in vibrant Marc Chagall’s vibrant stained-glass “American Windows” installation, or wander through the charming Thorne Miniature Rooms displaying dollhouse-sized rooms decorated in every historical interior design style. Short on timme? Select one or more of the free themed mini-tours.

Michigan Avenue

best hotels in chicago

A stroll down Michigan Avenue is simply required of all Chicago visitors. (A romantic horse-drawn carriage ride counts, too!) The famous boulevard known for its luxury hotels, historic landmarks, and entertainment venues traces the original shoreline of Lake Michigan. The blocks from Oak Street south to the Chicago River are called the “Magnificent Mile,” a swank shopping and dining district. Hidden gem Chicago attractions tucked into Michigan Avenue skyscrapers include the American Writers Museum, Chicago Sports Museum, Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership, and Pritzker Military Museum and Library. Duck into the Chicago Cultural Center to see the world’s largest Louis Comfort Tiffany glass dome.

Museum Campus

Museum campus

It’s easy to spend a day or two in these three top-notch museums on the lakefront Museum Campus, one of the most popular places to visit in Chicago. Dolphins, beluga whales, penguins, and an 80-year old lungfish are just a few of the 32,000 animals living at Shedd Aquarium. Don’t miss the Caribbean Reef exhibit, where divers hand-feed sharks and exotic fish. Adler Planetarium wows visitors with ever-changing, high-tech celestial sky shows and space exploration exhibits, including the Gemini 12 spacecraft. The Field Museum of Natural History ranks high on visitors’ Chicago sightseeing lists to meet Sue, the largest complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever unearthed. Another crowd pleaser is the “Inside Egypt” exhibit, displaying real mummies.

Chicago Riverwalk

Chicago riverwalk

There’s no better way to experience the city’s architecture, dining, and nightlife than strolling the Chicago Riverwalk stretching from Lake Michigan west to Franklin Street. The continuous waterfront walkway passes iconic skyscrapers, tiered gardens, public art, and spouting fountains. Chicago Riverwalk activities include boat cruises, kayak rentals and tours, pier fishing, and Audubon-guided bird walks. Learn about the waterway’s history and its moving bridges at the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum.

The Ledge at Willis Tower

Willis tower

Chicago sightseeing reaches new heights at the Willis Tower’s Skydeck on the 103rd floor. Visitors can survey city and lake views as far as the eye can see—and that’s into three neighboring states on a clear day. For an extra adrenaline rush, step onto The Ledge to gaze down from one of four cantilevered glass boxes suspended 1,353 feet above the busy Loop streets. 

Museum of Science & Industry

Museum of science & industry

As one of the world’s largest science museums, the Museum of Science & Industry in Hyde Park is one of the most popular places to visit in Chicago—especially for families. Headliner exhibits include the only German World War II U-505 submarine ever captured and the “Science of Storms” simulation of tsunamis, tornadoes, and avalanches. Kids love the underground coal mine and “The Great Train Story,” an exhibit of 20 model trains traveling through miniature U.S. landscapes between Seattle and Chicago.

Wrigley Field

chicago attractions

Even before the Cubs became the 2016 World Series champions, their home field ranked as a top Chicago attraction. Built in 1914, the nation’s second-oldest baseball park sports a classic grass field, hand-turned scoreboard, old-school bleacher seats, and ivy-strewn walls. Behind-the-scenes ballpark tours are offered seasonally, and concerts held in this historic sports venue knock it out of the park.

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—Original reporting by Kit Bernardi

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Arts & Culture Cities Travel Trends Weekend Getaways

10 Must-See Atlanta Attractions

When considering Atlanta attractions, visitors often find that there’s a perfect blend of past and present, of history both gone and in the making. Yet while this combination can be entrancing, it can also be overwhelming.

The Top Must-See Atlanta Attractions

To make things easier, here are the top 10 Atlanta tourist attractions you should consider when you visit.

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Piedmont Park

[st_content_ad]One of locals’ favorite spots in the city, Piedmont Park is a green respite from modern life. If you catch Atlanta on a sunny day, head here to walk or bike along scenic paths, play sports, and lay on the grass. In the warmer months, you can also have a picnic, bask in the sun, and plunge into the pool.

Fox Theatre

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With architecture inspired by the Middle East and the characteristic opulence of the grand theaters of the 1920s, Fox Theatre is one of Atlanta’s most beloved landmarks. The architecture and intricate gilded decorations are enough to get people to pay just to tour around the place, but most visitors come to enjoy one of the numerous movies, concerts, and shows the theatre offers.

In its lifetime, Fox Theatre has seen performances by the likes of Elvis Presley and Madonna. It also premiered the now-famous Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse cartoon, and hosted the world premiere of the Phantom of the Opera touring production.

Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site

One of the most symbolic Atlanta points of interest, this group of landmarks commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Landmarks include places that were important to Dr. King’s life, such as his childhood home and the church where he preached.

There are also several sites dedicated to the fight for human rights. Visit the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, and the touching “I Have a Dream” International World Peace Rose Garden.

Georgia Aquarium

georgia aquarium

Holding the title of largest aquarium in the world, the Georgia Aquarium is a must-see Atlanta attraction. It houses more than 100,000 animals in its six galleries, which include different ecosystems. The most popular place in the aquarium is the magnificent Ocean Voyager exhibit. Here, visitors walk through an acrylic tunnel, as they see sharks, whales, and other species swimming around and above. Other highlights include shows and a shark tank diving.

Atlanta History Center

Atlanta history center

If you enjoy museums and history, the highly interactive Atlanta History Center will thrill you. The enormous property includes various houses where visitors can see what life was like for different social classes in several time periods. Go along with the costumed actors to see the harsh realities of plantation life in the 19th century, as well as the luxury enjoyed by the southern upper class in the 1920s.

History buffs will also love the numerous galleries, the Margaret Mitchell House, and the Civil War artifact collection, which is amongst the biggest in the country.

Stone Mountain

Stone mountain

This quartz monzonite boasts the largest bas-relief in the entire world, and, as such, is well-worth a visit. Its history is shrouded in controversy due to an attempt to make it the “Mount Rushmore of the South” by carving the figures of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis —three key figures for the Confederacy— on it. The figures are still there, despite heavy criticism, but visitors also come to the mountain to enjoy its beautiful surroundings. The view from the top is astonishing, and the mountain includes a wildlife preserve, a beach, restaurants, and even two golf courses.

Fernbank Museum of Natural HistoryFernbank museum of natural history

This natural history museum is highly immersive, quite impressive, and packs lots of fun. Visitors can now enjoy the recently opened seven acres of trails for interactive exhibits and hands-on activities. Families can also enjoy the IMAX theatre, which presents a series of educational movies covering various topics. However, the crowning jewel of the museum is its dinosaur collection, which includes the first fully assembled Argentinosaurus, the largest dinosaur discovered to date.

CNN Center

CNN center

Step into the world of broadcasting at the CNN world headquarters. Anyone can enter the network’s building and enjoy shopping and eating, but those who want to get a behind-the-scenes look can join a 50-minute studio tour. These tours take visitors on an in-depth journey that allows a detailed insight into each step of the broadcasting process. If you’re lucky, you might even get a chance to sit in on a live broadcast.

Oakland Cemetery

Oakland cemetery

Originally built as a six-acre garden cemetery, Oakland Cemetery now hides the history of Atlanta in its soil. Civil war soldiers, mayors, and even Georgia icons like Bobby Jones and Margaret Mitchell are buried here. The mausoleums and sculptures are surrounded by winding paths, ancient oaks, and magnolias.

The cemetery is divided between class and race, a reflection of the painful history of racism and segregation in the city. But the cemetery also reflects progress, most notably with Maynard Jackson, the first African-American Mayor of Atlanta, being buried in the historically white part of the cemetery. Here, history still lives and breathes through the memorials of the dead.

High Museum of Art

High museum of art

Originally designed by Richard Meier, this museum is the leading art museum in the entire Southeast. With collections ranging from Renaissance to Contemporary art, this is one of the most intellectually stimulating Atlanta attractions.

The highlight of the museum is its 19th and 20th century American art collection, though it also counts with an impressive number of works by 19th century French masters, a sub-Saharan African art collection, and photography exhibitions. The museum is praised for its busy event calendar, which includes an annual film series with foreign and independent art.

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– Original reporting by Mariana Zapata

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Arts & Culture Cities Family Travel Food & Drink Historical Travel Theme Park Weekend Getaways

10 Must-See Dallas Attractions

So much to do, so much to see. The best places to visit in Dallas and its surrounding cities deliver everything from high-brow culture to Old West heritage. Soak up the wonder of the natural world at area parks, lakes, gardens, zoos, and aquariums, or treat the family to a few thrills at an amusement park.

Dallas Attractions You Must Visit

Boredom isn’t an option at these Dallas attractions.

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Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden

Dallas arboretum and botanical garden

[st_content_ad]There’s no better way to spend a sunny day than amongst the greenery and vibrant floral beds of this 66-acre horticultural haven. This popular wedding destination and favorite among Dallas tourist attractions features 19 enchanting gardens celebrating every sort of flora and fauna conceivable: roses, tulips, crepe myrtles, magnolias, azaleas, perennials, ferns, Japanese maples, and more, according to the season. Cherry blossom season is a perennial favorite; year-round, the beautifully manicured lawns give way to fountains, sculptures, and waterfalls. To complete the experience, plan a picnic on the grounds or book a three-course afternoon tea.

Dallas World Aquarium

Dallas world aquarium

All manner of aquatic life—including coral, seahorses, anemones, and Indo-Pacific fish in every color of the rainbow—is on display at this family-friendly Dallas attraction. Visitors will also see tropical birds, penguins, otters, sloths, and even the odd monkey at the Dallas World Aquarium. The Orinoco rainforest section is a particular highlight, but if you’re in a more daring mood, head to the Mundo Maya exhibit. Here you’ll discover boa constrictors, rattlesnakes, and crocodiles, not to mention a massive, 400,000 glass tunnel that only the most fearless visitors walk through while sharks and rays swim overhead.

Dallas Zoo

Dallas zoo

Animal enthusiasts are in luck: Both Dallas and neighboring Fort Worth have sizeable zoos with interactive exhibits, special seasonal events, and attractions tailor-made for small children. Dating back to 1888, the Dallas Zoo is the older and larger of the two. Highlights include an African-inspired savanna exhibit housing elephants, lions, and giraffes; for a small fee, visitors can feed the giraffes by hand. Little ones can be ferried across the 106-acre grounds by the T-Rex Express Mini Train, while a monorail provides a safari-style experience at this Dallas attraction as it glides past hippos, chimpanzees, crocodiles, and African birds.

Fair Park

Fair park

If you want a real slice of Texas life, visit during late September through late October, when the State Fair of Texas descends upon Fair Park for 24 days of Cotton Bowl football rivalries, car shows, rodeo and livestock events, concerts, petting zoos, a 55-foot-tall animatronic cowboy named Big Tex, amusements and arcades, and mind-boggling culinary creations like deep-fried bubblegum and funnel cake bacon queso burgers. The rest of the year, Fair Park hosts festivals, concerts, and musicals. It’s also home to the largest Ferris wheel in North America, scenic gardens and swan boats, a children’s aquarium, and museums.

Fort Worth Water Gardens

Fort worth water gardens

Architect Philip Johnson, designer of the Amon Carter Museum as well as the John F. Kennedy Memorial near Dealey Plaza, created this urban oasis in downtown Fort Worth. Large slabs of stone lead visitors down to three water pools, including a quiet pool for meditative moments. Cascading waterfalls, fountain jets, and Indiana Jones-esque steps contribute to the sense of adventure.

Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District

Fort worth stockyards national historic district

The FW in DFW stands for Fort Worth, located about 30 miles west of Dallas. Known locally as “Cowtown,” the former Chisholm Trail trading post retains much of its Old West roots. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Stockyards, where cattle drives happen twice daily and the streets are lined with steakhouses and Western wear shops. Mosey on down to Billy Bob’s Texas for the full honky-tonk experience featuring live country music performances, line dancing, and bull riding. Traveling with kids? Rodeo events, a petting zoo, Old West reenactments, and the labyrinthine 5,400-square-foot Cowtown Cattle Pen Maze will keep the little buckaroos busy.

Moody Performance Hall

Moody performance hall

Opera, dance, orchestras, theater—you name it, Dallas has it. The Dallas Arts District is a hub for performing arts, and Moody offers a nice cross-section of the disciplines. The 750-seat theater hosts musicals, classical music concerts, ballet, cultural events, and other performances from Dallas’ most artistic minds.

Reunion Tower

Reunion tower

If you’ve ever seen the Dallas skyline, you’ll recognize Reunion Tower right away. Resembling a 561-foot-tall microphone, the tower is notable for its observation deck offering 360-degree panoramic views of the metropolis below. Higher up this iconic Dallas attraction are two revolving restaurants for diners who don’t mind heights: the casual Cloud Nine Cafe and Wolfgang Puck’s elegant Five Sixty. The latter is one of the city’s premier date night destinations, because nothing says romance like a rotating view.

Six Flags Over Texas

Six flags over texas

Six Flags is now a global amusement park chain, but the very first one got its start in Arlington, roughly 15 miles west of Dallas. Named for the six flags that have laid claim to Texas, the theme park is best known for its Warner Bros.-branded thrill rides, including Harley Quinn’s Spinsanity and Superman: Tower of Power. For those too little—or too squeamish—for the big coasters, Looney Tunes characters and family-friendly amusements provide plenty of fun without the fright. Six Flags also owns nearby Hurricane Harbor, a water park packed with slides, wave pools, and lazy rivers.

Southfork Ranch

Southfork ranch

One of the biggest Dallas attractions isn’t actually in Dallas. Southfork Ranch, the fictional home of the Ewing family from the iconic TV show Dallas, is about an hour’s drive. The soap was indeed filmed at what is now billed as “the world’s most famous ranch,” and visitors are welcome to take guided tours of the Ewing Mansion, get an eyeful of the gun that famously shot J.R., and saddle up for a trail ride. The sprawling property also doubles as a convention center and event space.

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– Original reporting by Erin Donnelly

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Arts & Culture Budget Travel Cities Entertainment Family Travel Food & Drink Outdoors Romantic Travel Senior Travel Theme Park Weekend Getaways

6 Best Reasons to Go to Orlando, Florida

You may think you know all you need to about Orlando travel, but there’s more to this Central Florida city than Disney’s Epcot and Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. From treating yourself to an eclectic food scene to venturing over gator-infested waters via zip line, there are plenty of activities in Orlando that aren’t on your radar. Here are the six best reasons to go.

Reasons to Go to Orlando, Florida

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Cities

Soaking Up Sydney

Author: Rachel
Date of Trip: June 2009

My trip to Sydney started off with the longest flight that I have ever been on, as everyone’s trip to Sydney usually does. I flew United, in economy plus. Some lessons learned were that an economy plus middle seat, is not as conducive to sleeping as a regular coach seat by a window. I also heard through travelers that I met in Australia, that Qantas coach was far superior, offering individual televisions, and lots of amenities that weren’t offered to United flyers – live and learn!

During my 3 week trip to Sydney, I stayed at the Four Seasons, located in the Rocks District. The hotel has an excellent location, right by the water, with easy access to ferries, shopping, and downtown. I could also walk to the numerous bars and restaurants of the historic Rocks part of town, which I loved. The lobby was great, and the staff were what you would expect out of a Four Seasons. The rooms were recently re-done, but still a bit small, even for a city hotel. My view was great of the Harbour. I wasn’t thrilled with the food, but after three weeks anywhere, I might have gotten a bit bored, especially because I am vegetarian. The bar in the lobby was filled with business men, and served a good variety of appetizers which substituted for my dinners most nights. The fitness center was a bit small and crowded, but doable. I also visited the Shangri-la hotel, located a few blocks away on the Harbour. It had a newer, more modern feel, the rooms were larger, and the bar located on the top floor was amazing. I would definitely stay there over the Four Seasons, if I was traveling alone. The Four Seasons does have more conference space, and a large ball room that can be utilized for large events.

My host was nice enough to set up a harbour cruise for our first full day in the city. After a very good night’s sleep, I woke up early to walk to the docks near the Contemporary Art Museum and board the yacht. I was still adjusting to my 24 hours of flying from the states to Australia from the day before, and I wasn’t exactly happy about my early wake-up call. But once I got some fresh ocean air, I changed my mind. This truly was a great way to see Sydney, and get orientated. We cruised around the main Harbour, seeing the iconic Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge, the fish market (some great cooking schools there!), and viewing both the magnificent sky line, and quaint harbour homes. It was quite comfortable. Our group left from a port near the Contemporary Art Museum. We had a mini feast aboard of salmon and cream cheese canapés, bacon quiches and fresh fruit with mascarpone. Although the day was cloudy, it was a great way to really get a feel for the city. Sydney is truly beautiful; I loved all the harbor side houses, and our tour guide was great at pointing out the landmarks.

When the weather took a turn for the worse, I decided to go below deck and chat with my fellow travelers, but this proved to be a bad idea. Probably the fastest way to get yourself seasick is to go below deck, which I learned pretty quickly. I rushed to the top to take in some fresh air and clear my head, and the captain let me steer the vessel; we were in open water so it didn’t take much coordination, but it did make for a great photo-op.

The Sydney Wildlife World, located near darling Harbour, was a blast for our group of 20s-40s. Although it was aimed at children, Australia boasts some very unique animals. Some of the exhibits were quite creepy, and allowed for us to get up close and personal with snakes, bugs, and reptiles (not to mention the world’s “most dangerous” bird!) that were all native to Australia. The highlights of Wildlife world were being able to get up close to small Kangaroos,(I snuck a feel through the fence), and the Koalas of course. The Wildlife World will take a picture with you and a perched koala, for 15 AUD, which was worth it. The pictures came out great, and it was a good experience for all of us.

Next door to the Wildlife World is the Sydney Aquarium, but also not to be over looked, is a great restaurant, Hugo’s. Famous for its pizza, it did not disappoint. A perfect thin crust, and imaginative combinations with the best cheese. I also sampled the cheese platter, which was average except for the ricotta, which was amazing. The restaurant offered indoor and outdoor seating, and is a hot spot at night. If you are really into Zoos, Sydney has a great one, just a short ferry ride away.

On our cruise we also stopped at Q-Station, a great place for history buffs, a little boring, especially when it was chilly and rainy like the day I visited. The station was where all immigrants passed through, and were held until cleared of any disease. It features historic buildings, some refurbished, like the acid showers, holding cells, hospitals, and bunks. The grounds were nice, and offered a great view of the Harbour, especially from one of the grave yards. Our guide was friendly, a little funny, and a bit long winded. It was a good piece of Sydney’s history of being a place of immigrants.

One of my favorite, and more exhilarating activities in the Australian capital was biking through Sydney National Park, and down to Manly Beach. Our bike tour company took our belongings (purses and coats) down to the course finish, which was very helpful. They then took us on a leisurely ride of the park, stopping at look outs to whale watch. Although the city riding to Manly Beach seemed a bit treacherous with hills, and navigating through traffic, the ride was fun and relaxing. The beach was crowded, but not so much to disturb our ride of the city. A great photo opportunity, and a good way to get out and about around Sydney, I would highly recommended it.

Another favorite activity was pub crawl, I went on one with a guide, and created several of my own. The Rocks district is perfect for this, pubs are around every corner, and all of them welcoming. Some brew their own beer, and most have a great selection of local brews. The people are also featured, Australians are a welcoming, and funny bunch. I didn’t see a whole lot of reason to leave this quaint neighborhood, other then to venture downtown for some high end shopping. If you are a George St, the main thoroughfare, and head down to the water, there are many restaurants featuring mod-oz cuisine and fresh seafood that are worth checking out. Notable is the Waterfront Restaurant, with spectacular views, and great food.

Bondi Beach is another area of the city that is a must see. I visited on a bus tour, which I think is always a good idea to see a new destination. The beach itself is beautiful, and a great place to people (and surfer) watch. The best place to grab a good lunch is Nick’s, located right by the beach, you can’t miss it. The restaurant features an all glass dining room for a great view, and has delicious seafood.

An obvious must-do is the Sydney Opera House. It’s iconic, and worth the praise. A guided tour is a great idea, to really get a feel for the history. Do not forget your camera. Although no photos are allowed in the actual conference halls, the architecture is spectacular, and there are several balconies to get amazing photos of the Harbour. The Opera House has several over priced gift shops, and a place to grab a bite, but I would visit some of the neighboring restaurants. There are also several art galleries nearby with aboriginal art, again expensive, but I cherish the piece I bought.

For a little adventure travelers can kayak, sail, and jet-boat the Harbour, or go sand boarding at Port Stephens. The Blue Mountains, located a few hours outside the city, is great for environmental enthusiasts. My favorite was visiting wine country, Hunter Valley Wine Region. There are tons of local wineries to visit, all with great Australian wines, and local cheeses. The famous Lindeman’s winery is probably the most well known, and a good stop. On my way, it’s about a 4 hour bus ride, I saw wild Kangaroo, and stopped to take pictures in the fields. A very authentic Australian experience -which is exactly the to reason to travel.

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Road Trip

Boston, Art, Cape Ann and Connecticut Country Roads

Author: Bob W.
Date of Trip: October 2007

My dad recalled that my grandfather, after he purchased his first car, would pile the family into the car on weekends and set out to explore unmarked dirt roads in the quiet northwest corner of Connecticut. Although I was born too late to meet my grandfather, I seem to have inherited his love for exploring Connecticut’s beautiful country roads.

When my wife and I planned a trip from our home in New Jersey to Boston’s art museums and aquarium and Cape Ann, we decided to travel Connecticut’s most scenic roads to get there. We gladly accepted more miles and hours of travel to enjoy the beauty of country roads.

Our route on Tuesday took us east on I-84, then 12 miles north on New York’s lightly traveled Taconic Parkway and 15 miles northeast on NY route 44 past dairy and horse farms and through small, picturesque towns. Outside of Amelia, we picked up NY route 343 east, which becomes Connecticut route 4 and soon connects with route 7. In Sharon, CT, as route 4 takes a sharp turn, there is a most unique and attractive building of rounded granite stones. A block farther stands a tower of similar construction. Don’t know why I didn’t stop at both for photographs. Next time!

Our scenic routes in northwestern Connecticut — routes 7, 44 and 8 — form three sides of a square. Route 7 is one of New England’s prettiest roadways. We took route 7 a few miles south to visit Kent Falls State Park whose cascading waterfalls are always a delight. Then we reversed course and headed north to Cornwall Bridge where we stopped to take pictures of the long, narrow, covered bridge with its red-painted wooden walls and the gentle river that flows beneath it. After walking the streets along the river (and finding the area’s only cafe closed for the day), we returned across the bridge and drove 16 miles north to Canaan then 17 miles east on beautiful route 44 to Winsted where we turned south on route 8. Route 8, while also very scenic, is a high-speed, divided highway. After twenty-one miles southbound we picked up route 6 east to Bristol for our overnight stop at the Clarion Inn and an enjoyable dinner with my brother and his family.

Wednesday morning, we took I-84 east through Hartford, to CT route 2 — a divided, multi-lane highway that connects with northbound I-395 (the Connecticut Turnpike) near Norwich. Our objective was to travel route 169 (exit 83A from I-395) to Pomfret, CT. This two-lane road, which parallels the Rhode Island border, heads due north towards Massachusetts. If there is a quieter, prettier or more relaxing road in Connecticut, I have yet to find it. This road has always been lightly traveled but became even quieter once parallel I-395 was opened. Drivers of the few other vehicles we saw seemed as interested as we were in savoring the quiet beauty of this country road.

Now and then, we stopped to take pictures of properties with trees bedecked in fall colors, Pomfret’s Congregational and Catholic churches and the Pomfret School. After 23 miles on this road, we reached the intersection of route 44. On the northwest corner, we discovered an inviting and busy cafe where we chose from among a long list of tasty offerings. My wife had a bowl of curried soup and half of a turkey sandwich. I had the other half sandwich plus a delicious bowl of homemade chili. The chili alone would have been enough.

During lunch, we contemplated driving through Pomfret looking for the old house my aunt and uncle had owned, where our family had gathered for many a Thanksgiving dinner. As a kid, so much about that house had fascinated me. The historic three-story dwelling had been an inn in 1772. From its appearance, you could discern the many additions made to the main structure over the years, and to the barn. Most floors pitched at an angle because, over two centuries, the tree trunks supporting the cellar beams had sunk to varying depths in the dirt floor of the basement. Walls were blistered from moisture where fireplaces had been walled in to reduce drafts. There was an 8′ wide staircase, interrupted by a large landing halfway between floors. The landing received daylight through tall, colorful stained-glass windows. Somewhere, in the oak- paneled wall in the master bedroom, was a moveable panel behind which my uncle was said to keep a pistol. Hatches along the outside wall in every second floor room opened to a narrow crawlspace that circled the house within a roof overhang. Historians have reported that Revolutionary War General Putnam once hid in that space, escaping detection by a British patrol that searched the inn. I was fascinated, as well, with the wood-topped, copper sheet bathtub in the third floor bathroom.

Upon leaving the cafe, I realized that I no longer remembered how to find the old house. In any case, we had to get on our way to Quincy, Massachusetts if we were to have time to visit Adams National Historical Park. We particularly wanted to see the beautiful home that had been occupied by President John Adams, his son, President John Quincy Adams and his grandson — all three of whom served a term as U.S. Secretary of State. We headed east on route 44, which became anything but picturesque as it approached Providence, Rhode Island and Interstates 295, 95 and 93 that would bring us to Quincy.

We arrived in Quincy and got lost twice, helped back on course by a kind customer in a local business. Because we had lost time, we decided to forgo the Adams presidential birthplaces (modest saltbox style homes). Instead, we went directly to Adams Street where we parked in front of the magnificent “Old House,” built in 1731 and occupied by four generations of the Adams family from 1788 through 1927. We paid for admission and wandered the grounds and formal garden, taking photographs and awaiting the day’s final house tour. Our visit to the “Old House” was well worth the trip. We were shown where John Adams (at Abigail’s insistence) had added two large wings to the old federal style home and converted the original detached kitchen into a library. In the library are the 14,000 books collected by John Adams and John Quincy Adams (a brilliant man who could speak and read 14 different languages). The home is furnished mostly with original Adams family furnishings. The wallpaper in the living room addition dates from 1840! The high-backed, overstuffed wing chair in the living room has been reupholstered in the original fabric pattern. It was John Adams’ favorite chair. He died while seated in that chair, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

After the very informative house tour, we checked in at the Best Western Adams Inn in Quincy. The Inn is attractive, clean, and comfortable and only about a 7-minute walk to the North Quincy stop of the famous Boston “T.” Our room, which looked out at the Neponset River, cost $150 per night, plus taxes. That is a very reasonable rate for a room in the Boston area, particularly given the quality of the hotel, the included breakfasts, and the property’s convenience to public transportation. The “T” can get you anywhere in Boston and vicinity at a modest cost. We stayed at the Adams Inn for three nights, using the “T” to connect with places of interest in Boston and Cambridge. The first night we dined in the hotel’s pub, which has a nice water view, tasty food and reasonable prices. After dinner, we walked to the “T” to familiarize ourselves with subway routes, determine connections and purchase fare cards. Two days of travel via the “T” cost only $20 for the two of us — the easiest way to travel in the Boston area.

After returning to the inn, we walked a gravel path located between the Inn and the river. The path extends the length of the Inn’s property, ending at a gazebo and dock that overhang the water. Although it was nighttime, there were lights along the pathway and on the gazebo and dock. Standing in the gazebo, we watched a blue heron sit quietly by the edge of the dock, ignoring us. The Neponset River is tidal and the tide was coming in. Swiftly, the otherwise motionless heron would thrust its beak into the water to grab small fish illuminated by the dock lights. Then we heard splashes in the water in front of the gazebo. Looking down, we spotted a group of fish, each about two feet long, waiting to pounce on smaller fish floating in with the tide. As the smaller fish approached, the larger fish would leap to acquire their dinner, helped by Mr. Edison’s invention of the light bulb.

Thursday morning, after enjoying an expanded continental breakfast in the Pub (which doubled as the breakfast area), we walked to the “T” and headed into Boston to visit the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, located within blocks of each other. Boston’s Fine Arts Museum has an extensive and impressive collection of paintings, photographs, sketches, sculptures, musical instruments (many hundreds of years old and from all parts of the world) and artifacts from Roman, Greek and other ancient civilizations, including an extensive Egyptian sarcophagus collection. I was thankful that non-flash photography is permitted.

After touring portions of the museum’s collections, we stopped for lunch in the Courtyard Cafe, a cafeteria with a view of the open-air atrium in the center of the museum. We were pleased with the food choices, quality and prices. After lunch, we stopped in the gift shop where I spotted a book of color prints entitled “Edward Hopper’s New England.” Not wanting to cart a book around all day, I decided to wait until just before leaving the museum before making the purchase. Too late I discovered that the gift shop closed earlier than the museum.

Around 3 p.m., we headed for the Gardener Museum, which had a scheduled 5 p.m. closing. We would later return to the Fine Arts Museum, which stayed open until 9 p.m. The Gardener Museum is modeled after a 15th century Venetian palazzo surrounding an attractive inner courtyard. Isabella Stewart Gardener, who donated the museum and its 2,500 art objects, left restrictions against moving any of her art objects, or labeling them. Although the museum’s collection includes works by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Degas and Sargent, extremely poor lighting, and the lack of identification of most of these works, made them difficult to appreciate. Photography is not permitted. Members of the museum staff told us of plans to install a much improved lighting system once they figure out how to do so without moving the furnishings and art objects — a formidable task!

Discouraged with conditions in the Gardener Museum, we returned to the Fine Arts Museum where we had supper in the Courtyard Cafe and continued to enjoy exhibits until closing time. We were more than a little foot-weary. En route from the North Quincy “T” stop, we made a stop at a Dunkin Donuts for a low-fat blueberry muffin and a toasted bagel. Having given up eating donuts (which I love), I was glad to find an expanded choice of treats!

Friday morning, after breakfast, we headed to the New England Aquarium on the Boston waterfront at Central Wharf. Outside the aquarium is a glass- enclosed area containing fur seals whose constant swimming, mostly in an upside down position, is a great source of entertainment. Inside (requiring a ticket for admission) are a variety of spectacular displays. Three types of small penguins were standing on rocks or showing off their superb swimming skills. Many of the aquarium’s 15,000 specimens and 600 species of fish and aquatic animals were displayed in a four-story glass tank containing a coral reef and more than 200,000 gallons of water. On display were a vast variety of reef fish, sea turtles, eels, sharks and skates. Each level contained separate, smaller exhibits of various habitats and their inhabitants. The New England Aquarium provides an excellent and broad exposure to sea life.

After leaving the aquarium, we wandered around looking at restaurants in the dockside area. We ended up eating two blocks away at the Dockside at 183 State Street — a somewhat worn looking sports bar and pub near a “T” stop. The one waitress/bartender on duty took our orders promptly. The chef was not so swift. No complaints about our sandwiches except that my cheeseburger was far larger than my appetite required. It was raining outside when we finished eating; but, we had only feet to go to the “T” entryway.

We headed to the Harvard Yard stop in Cambridge to visit Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum and the Busch-Reisinger Museum, which are located on two floors of the same building at 32 Quincy St. Both had exceptional art displays and both permitted (non-flash) photography after I signed an affidavit agreeing to restrictions on the use of my photos. The Fogg Art Museum contains sculptures, paintings and other art objects from Europe and North America, dating from the middle ages to the present. Among other displays, the Busch-Reisinger Museum contains impressionist masterpieces, Vienna secession art, and examples of abstract and contemporary art. Both museums have exceptional exhibits. At closing time, we wandered a block or two to the Grafton Street restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue where we had delightful meals (but more than we needed after our large luncheon sandwiches).

Saturday morning, we drove through Boston headed towards Rockport and Gloucester on Cape Ann. On a trip years earlier, we had stayed in water-view motels in both Gloucester and Rockport. This time we could visit only briefly before we headed to Lynn, MA, to see an old friend. Cape Ann was beautiful, particularly with trees and foliage bedecked in vibrant fall colors. We browsed through shops and galleries in Rockport, chatted with artists and proprietors and had lunch at The Greenery on Dock Square with a great view of the harbor. We felt we might still have time to drive into Salem. It turns out that October is a month-long Halloween-inspired festival in Salem. The streets were jammed and clogged. Parking areas were full. Despite the absence of available parking spaces, signs still offered parking for $20.

Since we had little time to spare, we continued on to routes 128, 95 and 1 to reach our night’s accommodations at the Days Inn in Saugus. Route 1 was densely packed with Saturday traffic. As for the Day’s Inn, it is much less attractive that the Adams Inn in Quincy and was priced higher but did provide a good expanded continental breakfast. Our purpose for stopping in Saugus was a visit with our friend “Frannie,” who had recently moved back to Lynn, MA, after living for seven years in New Jersey. After a bit of a search, we found her apartment, enjoyed a visit, then headed to dinner at Spuds Restaurant & Pub in Lynn. The food in this family restaurant was tasty and prices were reasonable.

Sunday morning, we headed to Norwalk, CT, for a very enjoyable overnight visit with my sister. Monday, we completed our trip home. In retrospect, our only regret was that most trees were not in peak fall color as we traveled through New Jersey, New York and most of Connecticut; but, we enjoyed flaming colors at home a week or two later. The trip certainly met or exceeded our expectations.

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Cities

A Family Sharing Good Times in Nashville

Author: sightseeingsue
Date of Trip: April 2006

Nashville, Tennessee was the destination for 13 of our family members to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday.

Nashville is one of my favorite cities to escape to, and I usually do when I get the opportunity. Living near Grand Rapids, Michigan, it’s only a 9-hour car trip to get there or a short 1-hour flight. Being appointed the families social/trip director, I didn’t have a difficult time convincing the family to make this our destination. Thirteen family members from three different states coming to town for a weekend celebrating our Matriarch’s 70th birthday.

I’m a Michigander, so going south (warmer temperatures) seemed appealing, 6 hours from northeast Georgia was an easy drive, and it offered a large airport for our flyers. Nashville was the ticket.

Being here many times before, I made a list of things to do that might appease everyone. For the music lovers, they need go no farther than downtown to Honky Tonky Highway to catch a live performance at the Stage, Second Fiddle, or the famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Scoring tickets for the Grand Ole’ Opry Show, attending one of the many dinner theaters, or a visit to the Wildhorse Salon for line-dancing lessons would make this a night to remember.

If some preferred more historical attractions, I included Belle Mead Plantation, The Hermitage, Belmont Mansion, or Travelers Rest Plantation to go explore. Museum lovers could tour the Ryman Auditorium, Parthenon, Country Music Hall of Fame, or one of the many Art Gallery’s in town. We would be staying near the Opryland Hotel so just planning a visit to his massive resort for a few hours would satisfy most. They could take a ride on a flatboat, scroll through the gorgeous atriums, view sparkling waterfalls, catch the laser-light show, shop, or dine at one of the many great restaurants they offer. Opry Mills Outlet Mall was within a mile, so this would make the list for the shoppers.

Eating would be a priority and with so many different places to choose from I wouldn’t have a problem here except finding a place everyone would agree on. We had to try the Aquarium, couldn’t pass up Findley’s Irish Pub, and agreed on Santa Fe Cattle Company for the group meal. Had more time been an option, B.B. Kings restaurant for their ribs, Loveless Café for some down-home cooking, or Stock-Yard would have been enjoyed. Next Time. Regardless of when, preference in music, or adventure level, don’t miss a visit to Nashville. A definite must!

Regardless of what month you travel to Nashville, you will find festivals, concerts, award shows, sporting events or tours that will be available during your stay. I suggest ordering Nashville’s free travel magazine for a detailed list of what’s going on and when. This free publication will provide dates and times, fees, locations and some additional information on what is going on. An example might be some of the numerous holiday shows offered in Nov. and Dec. or details about the Tennessee Renaissance Festival held every weekend in May. One of the biggest crowd pleasers found in June is the CMA’s Music Festival. I don’t go anywhere without first reading reviews, checking out websites (like this one) and doing a little research before I head out on a vacation. However, if you don’t have time, don’t worry as you will still stumble upon hours and hours of cool stuff to keep you interested in Nashville.

If music is your passion then just walking downtown is all you will need to do to enjoy jazz, bluegrass, country, or rock. There are countless bars, with live performances going on all day long. Seeing a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, visiting the Opryaland Hotel, getting line-dance lessons at the Wildhorse Saloon, or taking a tour of the Ryman Auditorium would be my top picks while in town. In the spring or summer months when the weather is warmer spend the day at one of the Plantations and take in some of the history of this town or take a ride on the General Jackson Riverboat for a relaxing adventure. But my best tip or suggestion would be to spend as much time as you can exploring all Nashville has to offer, if you can’t see it all in one visit (and you won’t for sure) then return again, and again and again. This truly is a fun, friendly place to visit.

Having a car is the best way to get around this city. It has a fairly easy expressway system to navigate, but due to its explosive growth in recent years you won’t have an easy time getting around town without avoiding major construction areas. But don’t let this stop you from visiting here — just plan on a little more time getting to where you are going. Nashville is no different than most large cities and experiences major rush hours during parts of the day, so be aware. Expressways are bumper to bumper for the early morning rush hour or for the evening’s drive home. If staying at one of the resorts (such as Opryland Hotel) for all means use their shuttle service. They have rides to many of the downtown attractions such as the Wildhorse Saloon, Country Music Hall of Fame, or Ryman Auditorium and are very practical, reasonable priced (some free) which is especially helpful for the unfamiliar drivers to this area. I do recommend taxi service for people coming to town without their vehicles, or rental cars. Now after having said that, I do want to report that I did have one of the worst rides ever by a taxi driver in this town once before. I sure hope he’s not driving in this town any longer. Aside from that one bad experience I would probably use a taxi service again if need be as I am sure most taxi drivers are safe curiosity drivers…(I said most, not all). And one more word of advice: If having to choose from your Mapquest directions or a local living in the areas advise (ex: hotel desk-clerk) take the locals advise. I thought my directions looked easier, while the hotel’s desk-clerk suggested avoiding the heavy construction by going another route. Man, I sure wished I’d listened, I did however take his advice on the way back.

Aquarium — for me, the food at a restaurant is only half of the dinning experience; the other half is its atmosphere. Being fascinated by aquatic life, I found watching 100 different species of colorful tropical fish swim freely in a 200,000 gallon aquarium very soothing. So that being said, I would recommend dining at the Aquarium for the ambiance rather than its food.

Aquarium is located in the Opry Mills Outlet Mall near the cinema. As you enter the restaurant, you will be greeted with a fairly good-size aquarium filled with multicolored coral and reef and brightly colored fish swimming amongst the tank, then directed to walk underneath a tunnel, which is yet another aquarium filled with vibrant colored fish, to wait till you can be seated.

Both times we came here (2pm), we found no line at the door. Our first time, we just wanted to take a peak inside, but once our eyes fixed on the floor-to-ceiling centerpiece aquarium, we were hooked. Table, please.

Once seated, our overly friendly waitress did her spiel to try and educate us on some of the species found in the tank, went over some features of the menu, and talked about how they know all this, which is due to the lengthy training required to work here. She took our drink orders and said she would return soon.

The menu’s full of seafood dishes, but also offers steaks, salads, chicken, pasta, and a menu for little pirates. We weren’t starving but wanted a light snack, and so decided on shrimp and crab dip ($10.99) and possibly one of their scrumptious dessert. We placed our order, sipped our drinks (apple martini $7.99), and got lost watching the sharks, rays, eels, and other various coral life for a moment. The food took forever to get, almost 40 minutes. How long could it take to make seafood dip?

The generously portion dip and bread finally were served. It came out warm, creamy and decent tasting. The drink-tini was expensive ($9) but hit the spot.

Our second visit was for lunch the next day, and we invited a few more people to join us after telling them about our previous days visit. The table for seven ended up being a table for 13 once the rest of our other family showed up in town. Our friendly waiter was more knowledgeable about the fish than the menu but handled the arriving guests efficiently. Drinks were kept flowing.

Several appetizers were ordered to start. Fried calamari ($8.99), chicken lettuce wraps $(14.99), and shrimp dip. All were large portions that were good. Some of our meals consisted of pasta-stuffed chicken, fried stuffed shrimp, fish-and-chips, Jamaican jerk chicken, and a burger. The entree price ranges were $17 to $28.

Everyone agreed that the food alone wasn’t worth coming in for, but with the aquarium’s spectacular backdrop, it was well worth the trip and every penny. If you aren’t hungry, sit at Dive’s bar for a beer or exotic cocktail and an awesome view.

Courtyard Marriott Opryland — Trying to please a group of people ranging in ages and finding that perfect spot to fill everyone’s needs wasn’t going to be an easy task. One wanted an indoor pool, another didn’t want to stay downtown, all wanted reasonable rates and located near attractions, it had to have internet access, offered reward points, and at least a three-star rating. But with a little research, and some luck with our stay at the Courtyard Marriott (Opryland), it was accomplished.

We stayed the first weekend in February 2006 and reserved a total of 6 rooms. Reservations were made on the 800-number the month previously and were made easily, by a friendly and helpful staff member. We ordered five rooms with two queen beds, and one room a king. Price for our stay was $93 per night given at the senior rate for all. Even though only half were seniors they allowed two rooms to be reserved by each senior. Regular rates for that weekend were quoted at $129. We requested adjoining rooms with refrigerators, all non-smoking.

We were all located up on the third floor in the same section. Not all directly next to each other but not far away. What was amazing to me was that all six rooms were all slightly different. I was pleasantly pleased by the size of our room. It being the largest amongst the group’s, offered a pull-out couch, coffee table and desk with chair. My brother-in-law’s room (with his elite status!) was slightly smaller, but had a balcony but not a couch. The king room also had a couch but the others just a reclining chair. The refrigerators that were requested were only available for two of our rooms. This wasn’t really that big of a deal as some rooms would have been rather crowded with them in it.

Overall, the rooms were well cleaned, had a large picture window, decent size bathrooms,comfortable beds, coffee pots and standard amenities. Rooms décor was typical, but with nicer furniture then most places. The bathrooms came with a blow-dryer, showers were hot, had good water pressure, and an adequate number of towels were provided.

The hotel provided a good size indoor pool and whirlpool that appeared to be kept clean which allowed the guests to relax. My family used this and had no complaints.

The staff was very helpful, friendly and made our stay perfect. They allowed us to have use of a conference room for the weekend, free. They even piped in some good music for us to enjoy. We spent hours here, playing cards, snacking, and telling stories with each other.

The only negative thing about this place was the breakfast buffet, served daily. They charge $8 whether you ate a piece of fruit or a full meal. The buffet had bacon, eggs, waffles, fresh fruit, and muffins, but didn’t look appetizing. Off to one of the chains near by.

Location’s great, very reasonably priced, nice friendly staff and no complaints by me.

Findley’s Irish Pub — I knew totally well I would end up in this place and even knew exactly what I planned to order that evening. Now, to direct my family to the Magnolia section of the Opryland Hotel to find this fine Irish establishment called Findley’s. This was not my first visit to Findley’s and definitely not my last. Last year I ate the best corned beef and cabbage ever here!

Findley’s has that authentic Victorian Irish Pub feel to it which gives you the true sense of walking into a Irish neighborhood pub. Its walls display plaques of Irish sayings and signs, the bar was deep brown in color and almost looked handcrafted out of some fine hardwood. With its friendly atmosphere it’s truly inviting as well as a perfect place to enjoy drinks, a delicious meal and some blarney at.

Findley’s features a reasonably priced menu, offered delicious Irish staples, a fine selection of drafts which includes Harp, Guinness, and Bass Pale Ale, and if that’s not enough a wonderful selections of specialty drinks to wet your whistle.

It’s always been busy when I’ve come, but never had to wait for a table. This time was no exception. We grabbed a small table in the patio area in front of the restaurant and quickly ordered drinks . Once the Guinness, Bass Pale Ale, and my Wild Irish Rose drink arrived we raised our glasses and said a Irish toast “Thirst is a shameless disease so here’s to a shameful cure.” The evening had begun.

The menu offers appetizers, soups, salads, and sandwiches along with the usually Irish cuisine. Appetizers of Potato Pockets, beer battered mushrooms, or salt and vinegar crisps are all priced around $5, with the sampler combo the highest priced at $11. We ordered the chips and the combo to munch on. Combo included potato skins, chicken tenders, more chips with specialty sauces.

The soups they suggest are hot potato, or ham and pea which cost $5. A house salad (salmon and potatoes) would set you back around $9. My sister-in-law offered the Shamrock salad ($9) which presented a little different twist (corned beef rather than ham or turkey) from a chef salad which she said was fresh and tasty.

Main menu consisted of fish-n-chips, Shepherds Pie, burgers, assorted sandwiches and my all time favorite corned beef and cabbage all priced around $9, and to complete the menu they even offer a few desserts to choose from.

My corned beef and cabbage wasn’t as good as my first visit, but was definitely excellent. They could have been more generous with the carrots and red-skinned potatoes though with only two on my plate. Meat and cabbage were tender and no problem finishing every bite. My husband’s fish-n-chips were also tasty, but a little on the ordinary side. We truly enjoyed the Irish folk singers which perform nightly, and everyone in our group had no complaints with their food or drinks. I would highly recommend this place when in Nashville.

Gaylord Opryland Hotel — My husband’s brother, his wife, and I agreed to arrive one day earlier then the rest and treat their mother to a night at the Opryland Hotel for a little surprise. This was my suggestion as I have stayed here several times before and always had pleasant experiences.

Arriving promptly at 3pm (CST) my husband dropped me off at the Cascade Entrance. I check-in, he parks the car. Parking rates are ridiculous. Self $10 per day, Valet $18.

Woo Hoo, no line at the check-in desk. Boo Hoo, the rooms aren’t ready yet and none of the remodeled rooms I had requested were available. This has happened to me here before. So the reservation host got my 2 cents worth. I politely expressed my dissatisfaction, enlightened him with my situation (ailing mother-in-law due to arrive momentarily, she had been traveling a long distance, and was in no physical shape to wait for her room) and low and behold after letting his finger do some magic, discovered two adjoining rooms, though in a different section, that were ready. The rooms would be upgraded from what we requested at no additional charge. A $199 rate to a $264 rate complete with a garden patio — we’ll take it. Things went smoothly from here on.

Our remodeled, two queen-size bedrooms, were located in the Garden Conservatory section on the first floor, and only a short walk from the atrium. Although the rooms were small, they were decorated very chic, and offered very large comfy beds. A beautiful armoire housed the television, as well as drawers for clothing. The bathrooms are small but the counter-top and bathroom fixtures were not your ordinary hotel models. My shower was hot, had great pressure, and plenty of room to bathe.

The resort itself is massive, has luxurious accommodations, and first-class entertainment. Under majestic, climate-controlled glass atrium, we enjoyed being surrounded by acres of lush indoor gardens, winding rivers and pathways, sparkling waterfalls, and a place to relax, dine, shop, and be entertained all without leaving. Some highlights for me were the 44 foot waterfall, laser-light show, and tour on the delta flatboat. There is an indoor pool, first class spa and exercise facility as well.

There are several restaurants to choose from satisfying everyone’s taste buds, and entertainment nightly in some of the lounges, but some don’t open until early evening. Cocktails were especially enjoyed at a few lounges with our favorite being the Cascade Terrace, as you sit the terrace rotates giving you a constantly changing view of the beautiful scenery.

I would recommend this place if you aren’t on a budget and appreciate beautiful scenery.

Santa Fe Cattle Company — I needed to find a place located near our hotel (Courtyard Marriott-Opryland), a family-friendly place that could accommodate 13 of us, one with a menu that offered a wide variety of items to satisfied everyone’s taste buds, served alcohol, and was reasonably priced.

I asked for a recommendation at the front desk of our hotel and Santa Fe Cattle Company was mentioned. The clerk said steak, ribs, and fajitas were its specialty items, but they also offered chicken, pastas, and burgers as well. He needed to go no further, as he had my husband at steaks! So, after a quick call, our reservations were made for the next evening at 6pm.

It was located less than a mile from our hotel, and when we arrived, it mirrored a lot of other Southwestern-style steakhouses we had been to before. My only hope was that it was going to please our entire group. Immediately upon walking through the doors, you are hit with an awesome-smelling whiff of the hickory scent coming from their grills, and then you spot a large wooden barrel loaded with peanuts and people waiting in line or at their tables just throwing the shells on the floor. Now, what’s more family-friendly than that? This is when I realized this place might actually fix the bill.

We were quickly seated in a back section of the restaurant and given large menus to explore. The menu offers steaks, ribs, seafood, fajitas, burgers, and chicken dishes. Prices were generally in the $10 and $25 dollar range, with a few entrees under $10. They offer a wide variety of beverages and alcoholic drinks as well. After a careful review of the menu, our orders were placed. Drinks came quickly, but the meals took awhile to come out, but hot buttered rolls, our salads, large dishes of peanuts, and family to visit with made the time fly by quickly.

Most of us ordered steaks ,with a few choosing to dine on fajitas or chicken. My rib-eye cut was superb. Done exactly how I requested, with just a hint of a hickory favor, made this a truly delightful meal. My husband’s porterhouse was huge, almost fork tender, and was finished in a matter of minutes. The side dish of smashed garlic potatoes were very yummy as well. Looking around this place, you see all the families and friends gathered together, sharing laughs and good food, and all with smiles on their faces. That’s always a good sign in my eyes.

I was impressed with the friendly, efficient staff that was on hand that evening to handle our large group. She made our meal very pleasant and enjoyable. Drinks were served quickly and steadily so we didn’t go thirsty. Everyone I spoke with from our clan left satisfied and extremely full.

By all means, if a casual atmosphere, great value meal, friendly staff, and fun place to eat at is what you are looking for, then I don’t think you will be disappointed.