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.

Budget: South Africa

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This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at South Africa. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In South Africa we used South African Rand. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 10 rand to one dollar.

Total Spent (16 days): $1380.23

This does not include the days spent on our self-drive safari.

We normally break down into the following categories:

Accommodation: $550.11

We stayed only at hostels in South Africa.

Activities: $344.75

This included the various tours as well as entrance fees to sights that we took in Joburg and Cape Town.

Alcohol: $34.29

Food: $299.49

We ate out only a little in South Africa. We mostly bought food from the supermarket and cooked our own meals at hostels.

Miscellaneous: $23.24

This included laundry, stamps, and souvenirs.

This divides out to $86.26/day which, thankfully, is under our $100/day budget. Yay!

Cape Town

After our self-drive safari, we traveled via train to Cape Town. We thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful city. We had a week there, but we wished that we could have spent more time!

Where We Stayed

Scalabrini Centre – The first four nights we stayed in the Scalabrini Centre which was right in the City Bowl of Cape Town. We chose it initially because it was quite close to the train station and we knew it was within walking distance to many of the sites. We enjoyed the hostel so much that we booked past our initial two nights. It was very clean and cute. The other great thing is that the Scalabrini Centre serves as a refugee service center in Cape Town and also has English classes. We felt good knowing that some of our money was going to support a good cause. We were trying to save money after our expensive self-drive safari, so we chose to stay in the dorm. This turned out to be a good choice. We shared the 6-bed dorm with 1 other person the first night and then had it to ourselves after that. The one downside was that not a lot of other people were there, so we weren’t able to make many connections

Amber Tree Lodge – For the rest of our week, we decided to move to a little bit more touristy area, closer to Long Street and to Table Mountain. We loved the Amber Tree. We stayed in the dorm and were slightly disappointed just because there was ALWAYS someone sleeping in the dorm which made every day living slightly difficult. However, there was a fabulous common area and we really enjoyed meeting and making friends with many of the other travelers. 

What We Did

District 6 Museum

District 6 was a neighborhood in Cape Town that was made up of mostly colored (an official designation of race during apartheid) people. During apartheid, the government decided that this area, because it was quite close to the city center should instead be designated a white area. Tens of thousands of people were forcibly removed from District 6 and much of the area was razed. There is now a museum to commemorate the neighborhood. We found it interesting – almost a scrapbook dedicated to what was- lots of local stories and remembrances.

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Castle of Good Hope

The Castle of Good Hope was the first permanent European settlement in South Africa. It was built by the Dutch East India Company in the 1660s. It is quite beautiful, yellow walls and a star shape. Entrance includes a free tour which we quite enjoyed. We also were fortunate to see the “Key Ceremony” at noon.

Robben Island

Take a trip out to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela (and many others) were incarcerated.

Traveling down the Cape Peninsula

We choose to take a tour with the Baz Bus one day to get us all the way down the Cape Peninsula. While a bit expensive, we thoroughly enjoyed the tour and it hit many places we were interested in seeing. The first stop was Hout Bay which was quite beautiful. We then continued over Chapman’s Peak Drive which was a marvel of engineering and gorgeous. We stopped at Simon’s Town to visit the African Penguins at Boulders Beach. We rode bikes in the Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park. The unique flora and fauna here have helped to label it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then we visited both Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope (the most southwestern point in Africa). We had a fantastic tour guide who made sure we were never bored and we learned a lot.

Bo-Kaap

Bo-Kaap is neighborhood in Cape Town that was essentially a township know as the Cape Malay Quarter. It was populated by slaves initially. Today it is a beautiful neighborhood where you can find Cape Malay food and amazing colorful buildings. It is also the heart of Islam in Cape Town. We enjoyed lunch here and then visited the Bo-Kaap Museum. It was a small museum but we quite enjoyed meeting and chatting with the man who worked there about Cape Town, as well as American history.

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Cape Town City Sightseeing Tour

This is one of those bright red double decker bus tours that we also did in Joburg. We really enjoyed our tour there so we decided to try it in Cape Town as well. Cape Town has many more options and different lines to choose from. We chose the Blue Line which we knew would take us into wine country south of Cape Town.

Our first top was the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. This garden was huge and amazingly beautiful. Della really enjoyed the section where they asked to you to touch and smell different plants. We also liked the garden which highlighted endangered and extinct plants, the protea garden, and the new tree canopy walkway. The curse of the city sightseeing tours is that you have to stick to a schedule if you want to visit more than one place in  day. We could have spent MUCH more time in the gardens than we did. It is definitely worth a whole day.

The second stop for us was the Groot Constantia Wine Estate. This is the oldest wine estate in South Africa. It was started in the late 1600s by members of the Dutch East India Company. It took awhile but it then began to compete with all the fine wines in Europe and has continued to make excellent wine since then. We took the cellar tour and participated in a delicious wine tasting. We then wandered the vineyard and explored the historical buildings.

Climb Table Mountain 

No trip to Cape Town is complete without a trip to the top of Table Mountain. There are two ways to get up- the cable car or hiking. We knew we wanted to take on the challenge and hike it! There are several routes up, but we decided on the most popular called Platteklip Gorge. We were very disappointed when we woke up on our last full day in Cape Town… The weather forecast had been for beautiful sunny weather, but instead a layer of mist was everywhere. This was the view of Table Mountain at first.

Table Mountain should be there.

Table Mountain should be there.

We were angry with ourselves with leaving it for the last day, but we decided to do it anyway. We were thrilled when we arrived at the base of the Gorge (via taxi) to see that we had risen above the mist. The hike was long and difficult- many stairs which felt like we were going straight up (though this is the least strenuous way route up the mountain). There were times where we felt like the clouds were following us. But we made it up and then decided to take a side hike on the top to Maclear’s Beacon which is the tallest point on the mountain. We took a slightly different route back and were amazed by how close the path came to the edge of the cliff. There had been signs warning that this route could be dangerous in wet or windy weather and we could definitely see why. With our beautiful day though, it was a good choice. We then made our way to the other side end of the mountain to the cable car station. We decided to take the cable car down and enjoyed the descent back into the clouds.

 

Where We Ate

We ate in many different places, but we narrowed it down to only two to recommend.

Biesmiellah – This restaurant is located in Bo-Kaap and has been serving Cape Malay food for many years. It is an institution of Bo-Kaap, even mentioned in the museum. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal of Bobotie and Tomato Breedie.

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Eastern Food Bazaar – There were many restaurants similar to this in Cape Town. But we really thought it was fun. It is a long string of counters with different kinds of food, similar to a food court. You would pick what you want and go to a central counter to pay and then go back to the counter with your food. We had huge portions of delicious food for very reasonable prices.

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All this for only $8!

Robben Island

One thing we knew we wanted to do with our time in Cape Town was to visit Robben Island. It is an island off the coast of the city which served as a prison during the Apartheid era, and was where Nelson Mandela was held for the majority of his time behind bars.

If you would like to visit the island, you need to book your trip in advance as it is a very popular tourist attraction. We were lucky in this regard as we were able to only book one day in advance. We heard this was rare. The reason for our luck in booking was due to our unlucky weather. We knew the day would be rainy and cold, and it was possible that tours can be cancelled if the weather is too bad.

The day was, indeed, miserable weather-wise. But we were fortunate that our tour was not cancelled. You travel to the V & A Waterfront and find the Nelson Mandela museum to start the trip. It was very busy and quite crowded as they herded us into the basement, through a metal detector, and then back outside for a walk to the other side of the water where we boarded one of two boats.

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The ride out to the island was approximately 35 min. Because of our poor weather, the sea swells were quite high. It was a bit unfortunate as there were a few people who ended up getting sea sick – not us thankfully!

Once you arrive on the island, you enter a bus and are given an approximately 45 min driving tour. It was interesting to learn about the history of the island which served as a prison for both the Dutch and the English in the very early years. They would just drop off the prisoners there and leave them. It also served as a leper colony and animal quarantine. It also played a role in the defence of Cape Town during WWII and had a large military presence during that time. It also, famously, served as a holding place for mainly political prisoners during the Apartheid era here in SA.

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We were fascinated that there is still a fairly thriving settlement on Robben Island today. Many people live there full time. These people are mainly employees of the Robben Island Museum. It was interesting to hear that both ex-prisoners and ex-guards still work there today… and end up living as neighbors.

After the driving tour, you reach probably the most interesting part of the day. You get off the bus and enter the prison building itself. You are also met by another tour guide – this one will be a former political prisoner of the island. Our guide had been working for the military wing of the ANC (African National Congress) during the early eighties, trying to help smuggle weapons into South Africa from Botswana. He was captured by police, tortured, and thrown in prison in 1983. He served his 7 year sentence and was released in 1990, shortly before the prison was closed. It was very interesting to hear his story and his memories of his time in prison. Near the end of the tour, we were taken to the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years.

Overall, despite the horrible weather, which prevented us from seeing what would have been excellent views of Cape Town and Table Mountain,  we really enjoyed the day. We found it a pretty moving experience.

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This picture is not actually from Robben Island. It is from the waterfront when we returned from the island to Cape Town, but it definitely gives you a feel for the weather of the day.

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Shosholoza Meyl Train

After returning our safari truck to Johannesburg, our next stop was Cape Town. To get to Cape Town, we had a few different options. We could have flown or taken a bus, but after reading some glowing reviews of the Shosholoza Meyl train on the Seat 61 train blog, we decided to take to overnight train.

We booked a 2-berth sleeper compartment for the train leaving on a Sunday at 12:30, with expected arrival in Cape Town the next day at 3:30 PM. So we knew it would be a long trip, but we were hoping to see some nice scenery along the way.

Our little compartment was nice and cozy. We had one bench seat that turned into a bed, and one top bunk. We had to pay a little bit extra for bedding, but it wasn’t too bad, especially since they made the beds for us. The compartment also had a small sink that could be covered by a table.

To pass the time, we mostly read books, although we did take a break and play a few hands of cards.

The train did have a dining car, but we didn’t eat any meals there because we couldn’t figure out how to lock our compartment (and we had our big bags in there with us). Luckily though, there was a waitress who came by and took our dinner order and then later brought it. We had a nice beef curry for a very reasonable price.

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The scenery for the first day wasn’t that interesting, but on the second day as we got closer to Cape Town we enjoyed glimpses of the green mountains and some vineyards.

Unfortunately, due to mechanical or other delays, the train didn’t end up getting to Cape Town until 7:30 PM, so it turned out to be more like a 30-hour trip! By the end we were a little ready to experience something besides the confines of our berth!

Overall though, we enjoyed the uniqueness of the train journey across the country!

Cradle of Humankind

Our last stop on our self-drive safari was the Cradle of Humankind. This region just outside of Johannesburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site where many important discoveries of ancient hominid fossils have been found. The Cradle-designated area is rather large, so we chose to visit the two main tourist attractions to be found there: the Maropeng Visitors Centre and the Sterkfontein Caves.

Maropeng

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.

Heading up to the main building

Heading up to the main building

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 enjoyed all of the interactive displays as well.

Sterkfontein Caves

The site where many of the most famous fossils have been found is the Sterkfontein Caves, a set of limestone caves in the region. Our ancestors did not live in the caves; instead, they may have fallen into the caves where there bones were very well-preserved. We took the 45 minute tour through the cave itself.

Most of the route through the cave has been developed for tourism, but there were a few tricky spots where we had to walk through while mostly ducking. That’s why we had to wear hard hats!

After our experiences with the cave in Belize, this cave did seem a little tame. Also, we wished that we could have seen the actual excavation areas – they didn’t point out any of these on the areas we walked through. But caves are always fun to explore, so we were glad to say that we saw this one as well.