We finished our RTW, so What Were Our Favorite… Museums?!

We’ve finished our RTW trip. We get a lot of questions about our favorite things on the trip. We’ve decided to start a new series called “So, What Was Our Favorite…” We visited 29 countries on our RTW: Egypt (just 1 day), South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe (just 1 day), Namibia, Germany (just 1 day), Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia (just Bali), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Nepal.

This third edition will cover our top 10 favorite museums around the world. These are not in order of preference, instead they are in the order in which we visited them.

Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg, South Africa

The museum started with the beginnings of Joburg as a mining town, and then went through the first attempts at segregation to the implementation of the full-fledged apartheid system in the 1940s. Then, there were displays about the realities of living under apartheid, and the first wave of resistance that led to Mandela being sentenced to life imprisonment. Then, as we went chronologically. We got into the student uprisings of the 70s. For the 1980s, there was a gripping video detailing the horrific violence that brought the apartheid movement to its breaking point. We then moved on to the 90s, which detailed Mandela’s release, then end of apartheid and the founding of the new government (and also showed how close the country came to total anarchy at the time). The museum is particularly gripping as it starts right out with you being randomly assigned to be white or non-white, and then having to enter through the respective door and then garnering a different experience for the first room based on what you picked. While we visited, there was also a large exhibition on the life of Nelson Mandela.IMG_9186

Cradle of Humankind Museum, Outside Johannesburg, South Africa

This nice (and relatively new) museum is set up to explain the history of life on Earth and the history of human life as well. Once you enter the main building, you are taken down into the basement and you do this cheesy but fun boat ride that takes you though the different elements necessary for life. We then went through the different exhibits in the large space. There ranged from discussions about DNA,to extinct animals, to the different types of hominids that paleoanthropologists have identified (many of which have been found in the Cradle) to what it means to be human. We particularly enjoyed some of the interactive exhibits, for example, there was a long hallway with illustrations which helped to show the length of different eras in time.

Posing with an austrolopithicus

Posing with an austrolopithicus

Shindler Factory Museum, Krakow, Poland

This was the only museum we visited in Krakow, and it was excellent! The permanent exhibits walk you through what happened in Krakow during the years 1939 – 45, during the Nazi occupation. The museum does fascinating things in each room, designed to make you understand the subject with all of your senses. The room for before the war has nice, warm lighting and happy music playing. It feels like sitting in a comfortable room, watching old family movies about Jewish life in Krakow. Then you enter a hall which describes when Germany attacked. It is black and gloomy with red lighting streaking across the walls, representing the fire, and the sounds of shooting and bombs is everywhere. Even the floor of each room played a big role: in the room describing the initial attack, the floor was uneven; in a room describing life for the Nazis, the floor was fancy swastika tiles; in a room for a concentration camp the floor was actual white gravel. The last room was quite interesting as well. To get into it, you walk through a dark room with a spongy floor (we aren’t quite sure of the interpretation). Then, you enter the “room of regrets”, which is stark white and covered with snippets of writing. Upon closer inspection, the snippets are quotes from people who did something (or didn’t do something) during the war period. The building was actually Schindler’s Factory (from Schindler’s List), so his office is preserved and there are a few rooms dedicated to him.

Room of regrets

Room of regrets

Gallery 11/07/95, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

We paid a visit to this moving and disturbing exhibit in Sarajevo – a series of exhibits that attempt to explain some of the tragedies of the war, mainly the genocide at Srebrenica. Our guide gave us a brief overview of what happened there. It’s hard to give a concise explanation in this space, but the gist of it is that over 8000 Bosniak people in the town, mostly males, were killed and dumped into mass graves by the approaching Army of Republika Srpska, even though the town was supposedly under UN protection. We walked through the photo gallery, watched a documentary, and also listened to the stories of some individuals who were affected. The gallery also included a small display and a documentary on the siege of Sarajevo. We vaguely remembered that Sarajevo was in the news when we were kids, but I don’t think we realized the scope of what the town went through. It was under siege for almost four years, which is the longest siege in modern history. The residents had to live in constant fear of being attacked by snipers in the hills surrounding the valley that the city sits in. The documentary, called Miss Sarajevo, was shot during the siege and showed the resilience of the residents in the face of this (and was later turned into a U2 song). It is extremely moving and worth a watch. (If you do watch the documentary, and you should… it’s linked in the previous sentences… and you find yourself as taken with the young girl in the beginning and the end as we were, here is a video of what she was doing in 2009!)

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National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

The museum went in chronological order and was quite extensive. The first major area was the Cycladic figurines and other art, from the 3rd century BC. Then, they covered the findings from Mycenae. We were pretty excited to see the artifacts from Mycenae that we had heard about when at the site and from reading Greek Treasure. The next stop was the Archaic era, where we again learned more about the kore and kourous statues. The next major era was the Severe Style. The sculptures started to get more realistic, but the expressions were stern. For the classical era, many of the finds were split into different rooms. There was a large collection of rooms focused on the art found on tombstones in the ancient cemeteries. There were many elaborate marble carvings to be found. The next period is the Hellenistic era, which was characterized by sculptures which more realistic faces (instead of idealized) and more active movements. The final period covered was the Roman era. Here they tried to copy the Greek styles and were somewhat successful, although the art was less impressive. All of this chronological history was enhanced by enjoying the museum while listening to Rick Steves’ audio tour. There is much more to the museum so it could be worth multiple trips.

The Jockey of Arteision

The Jockey of Arteision

Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil, Sparta, Greece

It may not sound interesting, but we found it fascinating. The top floor of this little museum gives the history of the olive and discusses how it and its oil can be used for a wide variety of purposes: food, light, rituals, etc. The lower floor discussed all about how to make olive oil, and had examples of the different machinery that has been used to make the oil from ancient times until the present.

Della about to perform the pressing stage

Della about to perform the pressing stage

Antalya Museum, Antalya, Turkey

This is a large archaeological museum, and we enjoyed seeing the different exhibits that included the Stone Age in the Antalya area, ceramics, Roman-era sculptures and sarcophogi, and finally a small exhibit on life during the Ottoman era. Our favorite exhibit was a room with different sculptures of Greek/Roman gods found at the nearby site of Perge, mainly because each statue included a sign with extensive text describing the myths around the god.

One of the goddesses

One of the goddesses

The National Museum, Singapore

When we visited, we were disappointed to discover that the main exhibits at this museum were under renovation, but ultimately it turned out that the temporary exhibit on the history of Singapore was very good! It walked us through the history as described above in a nice chronological fashion, with good displays. It also worked hard to set the mood and tone of each period in history through the size, color, and feel of the rooms.

The exterior of the museum

The exterior of the museum

COPE Visitor Center, Vientiane, Laos

COPE is an organization that helps provide prosthetic limbs to those who can’t afford them all across Laos. The visitor center describes their work in making the prosthetics, but also talks in detail about one of the main reasons so many are needed: the tons of unexploded ordinance (UXO) that remain in the country as a result of the many bombs the US dropped during the “secret war” as part of the Vietnam war. We also watched a couple of short documentaries about the efforts to go in the countryside and defuse the found items before someone is hurt by them. The problem is especially tough because scrap metal can bring in a significant amount of money, so people will risk harm and handle items that they shouldn’t. The visitor center was small, but we found that it contained a lot of interesting information and was quite moving.

Where the US dropped bombs on Laos during the war

Where the US dropped bombs on Laos during the war

Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Bangkok, Thailand

This museum is actually within the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok and is free with admission with a palace ticket. Our first intention was just to take advantage of the AC and uncrowded bathrooms, but we also checked out the exhibit on the Queen’s fashion and were fascinated. Apparently, before a world tour in the 1960, she helped revive some classic Thai styles and designed nine different outfit styles that are still used by the Thai women today. There was also an activity room that described silk fashions, and Della got a chance to try on a traditional outfit.

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We visited a lot of museums on our RTW the world tour, and came up with a few observations about the ones we liked the best. It was important to us that the museum have good signage and/or a good audio tour. We also enjoyed when the exhibits were interactive or really created a good atmosphere. In addition, the museums that taught us the most about things we didn’t know about or if we were moved by their content.

Krakow, Poland

Krakow was initially on our list to visit because of Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Auschwitz is of course an infamous site, and we knew about the salt mine from a book we have at home that always helped inspire our travel (one of those 100 places you must see kind of books). The salt mine was in it, so we knew we had to see it! 😉 Krakow is much more than those things though. We found that we loved the old town. We spend 5 days there, and we could have spent many more!

Where We Stayed

Tramp Aparthostel – We found this hostel on hostelworld. It was spread out over many floors of an old building very close to the old town square. We were in an 6 person dorm. The benefits were that all of the beds were on the floor, a nice change from bunk beds and the room was very spacious. The hostel also provided a filling free breakfast! The other nice thing was that we ended up being the only 2 in our dorm for 2 nights which is always good. There was a pleasant common room upstairs where breakfast was served. Our main complaint was that they kept trying little ways to overcharge us. It was confusing because they kept trying and would back down very fast when we resisted. We weren’t sure whether they were just enforcing the “customer is always right” policy or whether they were trying to get us if we weren’t paying attention. Examples: we paid through hostelworld which says right there that all taxes and fees are included, but they tried to charge us extra taxes when we arrived. Then, when we decided to stay an extra night (a Thurs night) they asked us for a more money than the previous nights. They claimed it was the weekend rate… which started on Friday. We had to reiterate that we LEAVING on Fri, not staying on Friday. Both times they backed down immediately and we got our way, but it was weird. Also, unfortunately, there was not a communal vibe here due to the rooms being spread across multiple floors, so we didn’t make any connections.

What We Did

Free Walking Tours – There are several different kinds of free walking tours offered in Krakow. We ended up doing two different tours in one day. They were both excellent, though we are not sure we recommend doing two in one day. Our legs and feet were exhausted by the end! The first was a tour of the Old Town Area. We looked at the many beautiful buildings on the large town square including 2 different churches and the cloth hall where merchants have been plying their wares for 1000 years! We then headed up to Florian’s Gate, part of the last remnant of the city walls, and the Barbican fortress. We also found time to head back to the square to listen to the bugle call which happens every hour and to wave at the bugler. The story says that in the old days the bugler warned of approaching enemies. When the Tatars attacked in the 1200s the bugler was shot through the throat in the middle of the melody and they still play that aborted melody 4 times (1 in each direction) on the hour (every hour- even at night) to commemorate! We also visited the Jagiellonian University which was attended by Copernicus (who was an economist as well as a scientist!) We saw the window where Pope John Paul II spoke to his Polish subjects and finally headed to the Wawel Castle complex where we learned a bit more about the history of kings in Poland. It was quite interesting actually, they would elect their king and it was most often a foreigner. The powerful magnates (nobility) never wanted a king who could become too powerful so they could retain control of Poland.

We actually did a second walking tour with our same guide later that afternoon. This one was of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of Krakow. The tour started in the main square of the district, on Szeroka Street. We looked at the outside of three different synagogues and also heard about one of the famous residents who was a makeup mogul. Next we walked into an actual synagogue and heard a little about its history. Then, we stopped at the JCC and learned about how there really weren’t that many Jews (officially only 120) left in all of Krakow, since most were killed in WW2 or moved away afterwards. We then went to the square at Plac Nowy, where we took a break to look at the various stalls. Next stop was a walk through an alley that has been used to film many scenes of old town Polish life, most notably Schindler’s List. We then walked through a Christian church in the district – pretty gaudy inside, done in the Baroque style. From there we left Kazimierz and crossed over the Wisla River on a pedestrian bridge with some love locks into the area that was the Jewish ghetto during the war: Podgorze. Not much remains, except for a memorial with chairs in a main square and a fragment of the wall used to keep them in. The last stop was at Schindler’s Factory. Here our guide, Damien, explained that Schindler maybe was not as great of a person as the movie made him out to be. He said we should look into Irina Sendlerowa, who saved over 2000 children. After some research, we found that she is becoming more famous for her work in WWII and there are now several books written about her.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration/Extermination Camp – This powerful day trip from Krakow is described here.

Wieliczka Salt Mine – Read about our excursion to the salt mine here!

Schindler Factory Museum – This was the only museum we visited in Krakow, and it was excellent! The permanent exhibits walk you through what happened in Krakow during the years 1939 – 45, during the Nazi occupation. The museum does fascinating things in each room, designed to make you understand the subject with all of your senses. The room for before the war has nice, warm lighting and happy music playing. It feels like sitting in a comfortable room, watching old family movies about Jewish life in Krakow. Then you enter a hall which describes when Germany attacked. It is black and gloomy with red lighting streaking across the walls, representing the fire, and the sounds of shooting and bombs is everywhere. Even the floor of each room played a big role: in the room describing the initial attack, the floor was uneven; in a room describing life for the Nazis, the floor was fancy swastika tiles; in a room for a concentration camp the floor was actual white gravel. The last room was quite interesting as well. To get into it, you walk through a dark room with a spongy floor (we aren’t quite sure of the interpretation). Then, you enter the “room of regrets”, which is stark white and covered with snippets of writing. Upon closer inspection, the snippets are quotes from people who did something (or didn’t do something) during the war period. The building was actually Schindler’s Factory (from Schindler’s List), so his office is preserved and there are a few rooms dedicated to him.

Wawel Castle Complex – Krakow boasts a beautiful castle complex. We unfortunately did not have time to explore it all. We did visit the Dragon’s Den which is a cave under the castle walls. We were a bit disappointed because we thought there would be “dragon’s” bones there, but there was not. The bones they talk about must be the ones hanging in front of the Cathedral. We did enjoy taking some pics in front of the gorgeous cathedral with the many chapels, different architecture for different kings.

What We Ate

Our favorite restaurant (we went back 3 times!) was just a block outside our hostel and it was called the Milk Bar. Traditionally, a milk bar in Poland is a kind of cafeteria. It was designed to offer cheap but nourishing food. They were especially common through the communist era after WWII. Our milk bar is a modern take on this. It offered a cheap price for a meal of soup and entree. You had your choice of three different of each, which changed most days. They also had excellent pierogies which we enjoyed both boiled and fried!

Final Thoughts

We really liked Krakow! There were quite a few things to do, and the vibe was not nearly as hectic as Prague. The people were friendly, and prices for a tourist were quite reasonable. We’d definitely recommend it as a destination!

Olomouc, Czech Republic

After our great visit to Prague with Eric’s parents, we planned to head to Krakow, Poland. We thought it would be fun to break up the trip and Eric knew that there was a unique UNESCO site in a small city called Olomouc so we decided to head there. Boy, are we glad we did! Upon arriving and exploring the old town of Olomouc, we decided to extend our stay to 2 nights instead of the original one!

Where We Stayed

Poet’s Corner Hostel –  This was the top-rated accommodation for Olomouc in the Lonely Planet so we were excited to try it out. It was a nice hostel, with the standard features. We decided to stay in a private room and didn’t end up being as social with the rest of the hostel as we could have been. The best part about the hostel was the good advice they gave us for exploring the town – they gave us a nice map with a lot of recommendations on it.

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What We Did

Olomouc was definitely a nice change of pace from Prague. There weren’t as many things to do, but there were still plenty of monuments and pretty sights to explore, without all of the people!

Climb St Moritz Bell Tower

Our first stop in town was to climb the bell tower of this church in the old town.The staircase was a neat double-helix spiral pattern, so you went up and down on different staircases with the same center. From the top of the tower you could spy a lot of the different sights we wanted to head to next.

Old Town Square

Like Prague, Olomouc’s main square has a few different sights. The most notable one in the UNESCO-listed Holy Trinity Column, This column is wide enough at the base that there is a small chapel in it.

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Olomouc has an astronomical clock as well. One interesting aspect of the clock is that the mosaic surrounding it was redone in the 1950s in the communist-area style emphasizing the socialist values. We also enjoyed trying to decipher all of the different dials on the clock faces.

St Michael’s Church

We thought the interior of this church was pretty impressive. Also, in one of its crypts there is a natural spring which they say the town was founded around.

Walk Around the City Walls

We found a path outside the old city walls and along a nice hike and bike trail.

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Spy on Weddings

When we started walking around on Saturday, we noticed one wedding party taking pictures in the square. Then, at St Michael’s, we actually climbed the bell tower during the end of another ceremony and the got to witness the bridesmaids handing out shots at the end of the receiving line. Then, at the Saint Wenceslas Cathedral one wedding was wrapping up… as another was getting lined up outside! In the end we saw six different weddings in various stages of the events.

SK Sigma Olomouc soccer game

We noticed that the soccer stadium was very close to Poet’s Corner, and the local team, SK Sigma Olomouc, was playing a game on Saturday afternoon, so we decided to check it out. Unfortunately, Sigma had been relegated to the second tier Czech league the previous season, so it seemed like maybe the attendance was a little low. Tickets were cheap though, and we got seats pretty close to the action. Sigma lost 2-0, so the local fans did not seem too happy.There was a small group of hardcore fans who chanted the whole time, but the overall atmosphere wasn’t much different from any US sporting event.

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Where We Ate

We hoped to try a few different places, but when we went around on Saturday, multiple places were closed! One was for a wedding but the others were just not open. We don’t know if this was a low-season thing (Olomouc is a college town and students were not back yet) or if the town always shuts down on Saturdays.

One place we did eat was the Saint Wenceslas microbrewery. The food and beer weren’t the best, but the price was pretty good. We debated but eventually decided against their “beer spa” experience: we would have bathed in beer!

Final Thoughts

Olomouc was a nice town to use as a break from hectic sightseeing. There are a lot of nice things to see and not nearly as many crowds to fight through as in other places. Anyone planning to go between Prague and Krakow should definitely consider a stop in Olomouc!

Fast Forward Friday: Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is near Krakow, Poland. It was built in the 13th century and was mined for salt until recently. Now it is mostly a tourist attraction. It boasts the beautiful natural wonder of a salt mine with caverns and beautiful crystals, but also interesting man-made sculptures, statues, churches, altars, and bas-reliefs in the rock salt.