By Jim Ferri
One of the most pleasant aspects of traveling is finding unique places that entertain, amaze or enhance our understanding of the world in which we live.
Some of those places are well known and publicized. Others, although lesser known, still provide a sense of excitement to those who come upon them.
Here is a mix of six of those places, each either sought out during my travels or just stumbled upon as I was passing through. The common element they share is that each is an intriguing place to spend a few hours, and worth a detour if you’re ever within striking distance.
Leonardo Museum, Vinci, Italy
If you’ve ever wanted to experience Leonardo in a unique way, head for Vinci, Italy, where the locals in this pretty little hilltop town pay homage to their famous native son. Located in Tuscany, approximately 30 miles west of Florence and about halfway to Pisa, it’s a bit off the beaten track but an extraordinarily interesting and well worth a half day’s visit.
The Museo Leonardiano is set in in a 13th-century castle and contains models of many of Leonardo di Vinci’s inventions, most based on drawings from his notebooks. You’ll be wowed by his conceptions of a bicycle, an armored tank and many other things. It’s a fascinating little place, made even more so by the knowledge that you’re seeing it all on the master’s home turf.
Palazzina Uzielli (biglietteria) e Castello dei Conti Guidi, Vinci http://www.museoleonardiano.it/eng
National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, PA
The National Constitution Center, located on Independence Mall in historic Philadelphia, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to the U.S. Constitution. But don’t fear that this place will bring back memories of boring high-school social-studies classes. The Center is a mesmerizing experience, a state-of-the-art museum experience that includes hundreds of interactive exhibits, films and rare artifacts, must-see feature exhibitions and much, much more.
Your visit begins with a live performance of the internationally acclaimed, 360-degree theatrical production Freedom Rising, followed by numerous presentations that are packed with short and powerful audio-visuals, some provided by the History Channel, others by American corporations. It shows the molding of the nation, airing both its glory and dirty linen. You are saddened by photos of the Civil War, of slavery, of different scenes of turmoil and destruction, but you feel pride as you watch the video of all the presidents since Roosevelt taking the oath in front of the crowd as “Hail to the Chief” is played and cannons boom in the distance. It’s one of the most unique exhibitions you’ll find anywhere in America.
525 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106 http://constitutioncenter.org/
Hemingway House, Key West, Florida
Whether you’re familiar with the works of Ernest Hemingway or not, you’ll find his famous home fascinating. Painted white with lime green shutters, with a wrought iron veranda wrapping about the entire second floor, Hemingway’s home sits in a beautiful garden smack in the middle of Key West. His little working studio-house, where he wrote A Farewell to Arms and To Have and Have Not, is out back. Inside, from the living room to the bedrooms up on the second floor, it contains numerous mementos of his life and that of his second wife Pauline.
One of its fascinations for many visitors are the 50 or so six-toed cats, all descendants of Hemmingway’s pets, which live there. You’ll find them sleeping everywhere – on the bed, on cabinets and out in the garden. Hemingway named them all after famous people and characters in his work (a practice that continues today) and out in the cat cemetery on the side of the house you’ll see the feline-graves of Kim Novak, Zsa-Zsa Gabor, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe.
907 Whitehead Street, Key West, FL http://www.hemingwayhome.com/
DDR Museum, Berlin, Germany
Berlin’s Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) Museum is exceptionally popular since just about everyone finds this peek into the lives of people in the former East Germany intriguing. It’s a hands-on museum, showing you everything about life in East Germany. One section, for example, describes each type of worker – from mine workers to bricklayers to sales assistance, etc. – and tells you a bit about the occupation, the education required to hold it and the salary provided. Below it a locker shows the clothes that they wore as well as many other things.
The numerous exhibits in this small, privately funded museum – which has now become one of the most visited museums in Berlin – displays the everyday existence of the people in the dictatorship. You’ll be fascinated by learning how children were indoctrinated by the state by being taught arithmetic by counting tanks in kindergarten. “Even children of kindergarten age was (sic) taught to count tanks and soldiers like a real NVA officer. 10 soldiers – 5 soldiers makes…,” the caption reads. Another sign explained that while playing in school, instead of throwing balls children were given wooden hand grenades to toss about with their friends. Don’t miss it if you’re in Berlin.
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1, Berlin (on the river Spree, opposite the Berlin Cathedral) http://www.ddr-museum.de/en/
Casa Batlló, Barcelona, Spain
No one person is more responsible for making Barcelona the tourist magnet it is today than Antoni Gaudí, the architect whose surreal style of art made him a leader in the Spanish Art Nouveau architectural movement, also known as Modernisme. One of his most famous works is Casa Batlló, which is actually a remodeling of a previous building by Gaudí, an apartment building to which he added two additional floors and a new façade.
Since Gaudí designed both the exterior and interior, this is a place that’s filled with surprises. The Art Nouveau facade mirrors the calm of the sea and its windows the shape of waves. Inside all of the colorful tiles mimic both the colors of the ocean and much of what’s in it. The great draw for many though, are the whimsical (some call them mythical) chimneys that jut up from the rooftop terrace. It’s a beautiful and beguiling place to visit (the reason why there’s usually a long line out front) and something you shouldn’t miss.
Passeig de Gràcia, 43 – 08007 Barcelona http://www.casabatllo.es/en/
California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento, California
You don’t have to be a train buff to enjoy the California State Railroad Museum, a complex of historic facilities and unique attractions in Old Sacramento. It is a fascinating place, a world-class tribute to the “iron horse,” both steam and diesel, that connected California to the rest of the country.
Come here and you can climb aboard meticulously restored engines, some of which date back to the years of the Civil War, and be astounded by the complexities of the old giants. Walk through a restaurant car and see how food was prepared and served on lengthy journeys. You’ll also find engaging exhibits – including a full-scale diorama of a 1860s construction site high in the Sierra Nevada – and have the opportunity to ride an old steam train on weekends during the summer. It’s the kind of place many travelers would not expect to visit, but are glad they did.
125 “I” Street, Sacramento, CA http://www.csrmf.org/