You’ve seen them a thousand times before you even get there. Michelangelo’s ceiling and wall frescoes of the Sistine Chapel are perhaps the most recognizable pieces of art in the world, reproduced so much that they’ve become part of the visual furniture of our lives. Getting to this enormous work isn’t easy; indeed, it’s almost an act of penance in itself, waiting in endless queues and battling flag-following tour groups. But none of that, nor the simple entrance to the chapel, can prepare you for the magnificence of what lies beyond.

Despite the crowds, the noise and the periodic chiding of the guards, seeing these luminous paintings in the flesh for the first time is a moving experience. The ceiling frescoes get the most attention, although staring at them for long in the high, barrel-vaulted chapel isn’t great for the neck muscles. Commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508, they depict scenes from the Old Testament, from the Creation of Light at the altar end to the Drunkenness of Noah at the other, interspersed with pagan sybils and biblical prophets, who peer out spookily from between the vivid main scenes. Look out for the hag-like Cumean sybil, and the prophet Jeremiah, a self-portrait of an exhausted-looking Michelangelo. Or just gaze in wonder at the whole decorative scheme – not bad for someone who considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter.

Once you’ve feasted on the ceiling, turn your attention to the altar wall, which was decorated by an elderly Michelangelo over twenty years later, depicting in graphic and vivid detail the Last Judgement. The painting took him five years, a single-handed effort that is probably the most inspired large-scale work you’re ever likely to see. Its depiction of Christ, turning angrily as he condemns the damned to hell while the blessed levitate to heaven, might strike you as familiar. But standing in front of it, even surrounded by crocodiles of people, still feels like an enormous privilege.

 

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The steep cliffs rising out of the Judean Desert look like an unlikely place for a fortress, but there, 400m up, overlooking the Dead Sea, sits the legendary stronghold of Masada. Masada was first fortified by Herod the Great in the late first century BC, who was apparently so scared his people would revolt that he built this virtually impenetrable fortress. There’s a cable car for those who don’t fancy taking one of the various different paths that lead up the hill, but to get the feeling that you really conquered Masada, opt for the ancient snake path, which winds its unsheltered way up the eastern side – an exhausting forty-minute walk. Your reward is an archeological site that appears to dangle over the edge of the precipice, and tremendous views across the desert and the Dead Sea.

Buses run to Masada from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Eliat. Check out Tourist Israel for tours and transport info. 

 

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There are some places in the world that you may not immediately think of visiting. Among all the favourite churches, museums and galleries lurk some more disturbing locations with morbid histories, places that represent the darker side of humanity. They may not be top of your itineraries, but they’re equally – if not more – thought-provoking, and are well worth a detour. Here, with some from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, we present some key places to remember the past.

Auschwitz, Poland

One thing that will stick in your mind is the hair. Mousy, dark clumps of it and even a child’s pigtail still wound like a piece of rope, all piled together like the relics from an ancient crypt. But there are no bones here. The hair in this room was deliberately, carefully, shaved from the heads of men, women and children, ready for transportation to factories where it would be turned into haircloth and socks. This is Auschwitz, the most notorious complex of extermination camps operated by the Nazis.

No one knows how many people died here: estimates range from 1.1 million to 1.6 million, mostly Jews. They starved to death, died of dysentery, were shot or beaten. And then from 1941, the Final Solution, death by cyanide gas (“Zyklon-B”): twenty thousand people could be gassed and cremated each day. Auschwitz is a terrible place, full of terrible, haunting memories. But everyone should go – so that no one will forget.

Auschwitz is named after the Polish town of Oświęcim, around 50km west of Kraków. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum & Memorial is free; see en.auschwitz.org.

Brest fortress, Belarus

For the Belarusians, World War II was a catastrophe. In all, during the brutal three-year Nazi occupation of the then Soviet republic, almost a quarter of the population died – a tragedy that has left a profound imprint on succeeding generations. Nowhere does the nation’s sense of grief retain a greater rawness than at the colossal war memorial, constructed with typical Soviet bombast, at Brest Fortress, close to the Polish border.

It’s a sombre half-hour trudge along a broad, empty boulevard out to the fortress complex on the edge of town, the eye drawn towards the monumental concrete slab carved with a giant Communist star that serves as the entrance. As you pass through, radio broadcasts, Soviet songs and the deafening thunder of artillery ring through the tunnel. Once inside, remains of the original fortress – much if it shelled to oblivion – are sparse. Instead it’s a massive icon of Socialist Realist art that dominates the tableau: carved into another gigantic concrete block is the head of a huge, grim-faced soldier, jutting muscular jaw set in defiance. It’s a staggeringly powerful piece of work, lent added poignancy by the eternal flame that burns beneath, and the neat tiers of memorials that lead up to it, many garlanded in beautiful wreaths.

Brest is 4hr by train from either Minsk or Warsaw (change in Terespol from the latter); the fortress is open daily 8am–midnight (free).

Cape Coast Castle, Ghana

In 1471, Portuguese merchant seamen arrived on the palm-lined shore of the Gold Coast and bought a fort at Elmina. Over the next four hundred years they were followed by British, Dutch, Swedes, Danes and adventurers from the Baltic. Gold was their first desire, but the slave trade soon became the dominant activity, and more than three dozen forts were established here, largely to run the exchange of human cargo for cloth, liquor and guns. Today, thirty forts still stand, several in dramatic locations and offering atmospheric tours and accommodation.

One of the biggest is the seventeenth-century Cape Coast Castle, which dominates the lively town of the same name. Just walking through its claustrophobic dungeons, where slaves were held before being shipped across the Atlantic, moves some visitors to tears – the scale of the cruelties that took place here is near-incomprehensible

Bus services (around 4hr) run along the main coastal highway from Accra.

The Kigali genocide museum, Rwanda

In 1994, while the world looked the other way, around one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu extremists. The attempted genocide left a scar on the Rwandan nation which will be felt for generations, but the immediate wounds of that terrible three-month period have healed faster than most outsiders could have imagined. While leading genocidaires have faced UN trials, those who murdered their own neighbours under orders have undergone a process of reconciliation with survivors in local gacaca courts. The country itself has been transformed by its pragmatic government and is rapidly modernizing.

Tourism is an important part of development and it engages remarkably with recent events in Rwanda’s genocide museum, the Kigali Memorial Centre, where you’re likely to spend at least two very worthwhile but emotionally draining hours. On this hillside site, north of the city centre, eleven huge crypts have been constructed, the resting place for nearly a quarter of a million of the country’s victims. The semi-subterranean exhibition itself implicitly lays the blame for what happened on decades of colonial oppression, divide-and-rule policies, under-development and ultimately deliberate planning, while placing the slaughter in the context of humanity’s history of genocide. The memorial to the children who died is unbearably moving, focusing not on the huge numbers, but on fourteen individual lives, on little things like their favourite meals, and on how they were killed.

The Kigali Memorial Centre is open daily 10am–6pm (donations accepted) and is a partner of the UK-based Aegis Trust (aegistrust.org), which works to prevent crimes against humanity.

The Camp of Special Significance, Russia

St Petersburg’s White Nights festival is an established tourist draw, but more adventurous travellers can head north towards the Arctic Circle and the remote Solovetsky Archipelago in the Karelia region. Situated on the White Sea, in the uppermost part of the world’s biggest country, these islands seem close to the tipping-point of the world.

From the Middle Ages till the Bolsheviks seized power, monks sought out this place for solitary contemplation; when communism fell, they returned, and today the exquisite monastery on the main island, pure white with silver onion domes, is again a site of active worship. But there were darker times in the interim. The Soviet authorities saw the potential of the islands’ remote location, and in 1923 created a Camp of Special Significance, where political opponents could be subjected to the near-constant winter darkness, isolation and bitter cold. Solovetsky became, as the great dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, “the mother of the gulag”.

Today, the camp is remembered in a museum inside the Kremlin on the main island. On top of Sekirnaya Gora (“Hatchet Mountain”) you can also see the Church of the Ascension, which was used for solitary confinement – an incongruously picturesque spot a pleasant 12km walk from the monastery. But perhaps most striking is the prison dating from the late 1930s, today abandoned and neglected, where visitors can wander at will. The two-tone walls, door numbers and scrawled graffiti heave history out of the untouchable past and into vivid Technicolor.

Take the overnight train from St Petersburg to Kem, then the boat to the main island, Solovki (2hr 30min). Regional information is at www.pomorland.info.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia

Everyone over 30 in Cambodia has lived through the genocidal Khmer Rouge era. The woman who runs your guesthouse in downtown Phnom Penh; the moto driver who tried to rip you off on the ride down from the Thai border; your Angkor temples tour guide; the waiter at the seaside café in Sihanoukville. At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum you’ll learn something of what that means.

A former school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, code-named S-21, was used by the Khmer Rouge to interrogate perceived enemies of their demented Marxist-Leninist regime. During the Khmer Rouge rule, from 1975 to 1979, some fourteen thousand Cambodians were tortured and killed here, often for the crime of being educated: for being a teacher, a monk, or a member of the elite; for wearing glasses; for being a discredited cadre.

The interior of the prison has in part been left almost as it was found. Tiled floors, classrooms crudely partitioned into tiny cells, shackles, iron bedsteads and meshed balconies. Elsewhere, graphic paintings by another survivor, Vann Nath, depict the torture methods used to extract confessions; some of these confessions are also reproduced here. Once they’d been coerced into admitting guilt, prisoners were taken to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and murdered. Choeung Ek, 12km southwest, is now the site of another memorial. Both provide graphic evidence of these recent horrors.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (daily 7.30–11.30am & 2–5pm) is off Street 13 on the southern fringes of Phnom Penh.

Dachau, Germany

This former camp for political prisoners of WWII once served as the model for all concentration camps of the war, and later became a “school of violence” for the SS men who commanded it. Until the 1960s it was used as a refugee camp for Germans coming from Czechoslovakia, and now it contains a memorial, established in 1965 by the surviving prisoners. There are exhibitions where you can pay respects to and remember the important prisoners in the camp, a visitor’s centre, and a display takes visitors through the path of new arrivals to Dachau all those years ago.

The Dachau camp is open daily (9am-5pm) and is located a 30 minute drive from Munich.

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic

There is always something eerie about walking through a cemetery, even if you don’t believe in ghosts. In the colourful Jewish Quarter of Prague, this centuries-old cemetery is perhaps the most crowded in the world. The number of people buried here has not been determined but the grounds contain some 12,000 tombstones and it is assumed there are several “burial layers” placed on top of one another.

The cemetery (Mondays & Wednesdays 11am-3pm, and Fridays from 9am-1pm) is located on Fibichova Street in the Old Jewish Quarter.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

These underground tunnels are steeped in incredible but sinister history, as Viet Cong guerrilla fighters used them as supply routes, living quarters and hospitals during the American-Vietnam war. Although the tunnels have been widened and made taller for Western tourists to explore, you can still feel the claustrophobic and cramped conditions that so many Vietnamese lived in. The whole site is a stark reminder of the bloody battles that took place between the Americans and Viet Cong and there are interested exhibitions throughout.

The tunnels are open daily from 9am-5pm and good tours run from most travel agents in Ho Chi Minh (Siagon) City.

Oradour-sur-Glane, France

This ghost town in central France is a permanent museum and memorial to the families that were killed during a 1944 German massacre. The village was left bare after 642 of its inhabitants were killed, and today the houses lay in ruins and cars decompose in their parking spaces as visitors are allowed to wander through the empty streets and remember the victims’ plight.

 

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Secreted away in the souk quarter behind the Basilica of the Annunciation, in a maze of streets too narrow for cars, lies the Fauzi Azar Inn – a 200-year-old mansion that has been converted into the most welcoming place to stay in Nazareth. Centred on an arched courtyard, its ten adjoining rooms are decked out with heavy drapes and cushions that soften the heavy sandstone walls and high painted ceilings, making this an oasis of calm beside the daily hubbub of the markets.

But the Inn’s owner, Maoz Inon, has bigger dreams for Fauzi Azar, and has designed it to be more than just a relaxing hideaway. He has developed a “Jesus Trail” – a 65km walking route that traces a path between some of the most significant points in the story of the Gospels, from the fields and forests that surround Nazareth, along the Sea of Galilee to the place where Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount. With the help of volunteers (who get free lodging in Fauzi Azar for four weeks or more in return) he has worked with various other guesthouses to mark out the route with accommodation stops along the way. So rather fittingly, the Jesus Trail ensures that in one of the world’s most divided countries, there is always a welcome at the inn.

For directions, rates, reservations and volunteering info see www.fauziazarinn.com; +972 4602 0469. Further info on the Jesus Trail is at www.jesustrail.com.

 

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With sublime sushi, soaring skyscrapers and vending machines that churn out everything from eggs to ice cream, Tokyo is the planet’s most mind-boggling metropolis.

Wandering its neon-lit streets can easily eat up your time, and put serious pressure on your wallet. But as this round up of the free things to do in Tokyo shows, a trip to the Japanese capital needn’t be stressful or expensive.

Peek at the latest gadgets

Rising high above the gleaming department stores of Ginza, the ritziest district in Tokyo, is the sleek Sony Building. Ignore its high-end shops and restaurants and head straight for the free showroom, where you can get a sneak peek of Sony’s latest gadgets, including robots, laptops and high-definition TVs. 

Visit Tsukiji Fish Market

Unless you’re especially squeamish (or vegetarian), consider an early morning trip to Tsukiji Fish Market, which buzzes with traders and tourists from as early as 4am. It’s the world’s biggest wholesale fish market, and where most of the city’s Japanese restaurants source their sashimi.

Wander by The Imperial Palace

A short walk from Tokyo Station is the Imperial Palace, home to the current emperor of Japan. Surrounded by moats, cherry trees and solid stone walls, the palace buildings are rarely open to the public, but it costs nothing to wander through the peaceful and meticulously kept East Garden, which bursts into colour during spring.

Explore Asakusa for free

Tourists often pay a rickshaw driver to take them through Asakusa, the old entertainment district surrounding Sens?-ji, one of the city’s most important Buddhist temples. Our advice is to stay on foot, following wafts of sweet, smoky incense down towards the shrine. Alternatively, look out for the free, panda-shaped buses that cut through the district en route to the 634-metre-high Skytree building.

Get a taste for modern Japanese art

Art lovers looking for free things to do in Tokyo will be pleased to hear there’s no cost to mooch around the first-floor gallery of the glass-and-steel Spiral Building, where young Japanese artists exhibit avant-garde collections. In the adjoining café, beer and wine are both cheaper than a cup of coffee.

Prepare for disaster

The Life Safety Learning Center, run by the Tokyo Fire Department, is a free “disaster museum” educating people on what to do when the ground starts shaking. Visitors can learn first aid skills, step inside an earthquake simulator and even try to escape from a smoke-filled building.

Visit the Sumo Museum

With artefacts covering several centuries of sumo’s 2000-year-old history, the free Sumo Museum is located at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium, which hosts major tournaments.

Explore Tokyo on two wheels

On Sundays, the Palace Cycling Course lends out 250 bicycles – from mountain bikes to tandems – on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s free, and visitors have until 3pm to explore a designated route running around the outside of the Imperial Palace.

See Tokyo from above

For free, Lost in Translation-style nightscapes, head up to one of the two observation decks at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No 1, the tallest skyscraper in Shinjuku.

Take a free guided tour

Staffed by volunteers and designed to help promote intercultural understanding, Tokyo Free Guide gives visitors the chance to take a free tour of the city, guided by a resident. The only thing guests have to cover is the guide’s expenses.

Have you got any top tips for enjoying Tokyo for free – or even on the cheap? Let us know below.

If you like your Mayan ruins a little less grandiose than Tikal but all to yourself, then try those in and around Lago de Petexbatún, a spectacular expanse of water ringed by dense forest to the south of Sayaxché. The region is home to several ruins, including Dos Pilas, Ceibal and Yaxchilán, though the most impressive is the partially restored Aguateca – a fortified city perched on a high escarpment overlooking the lake.

The best base for checking out these atmospheric ruins is Chiminos Island Lodge on Punta de Chiminos, a peninsula that juts into the lake. It was here that the last of the Petexbatún Maya sought refuge as the region descended into warfare at the beginning of the ninth century. Although little of their citadel remains today, the lodge was set up by two archeologists who wanted to preserve the site and also protect the surrounding wildlife and jungle.

The lodge’s six thatched jungle bungalows (all set well apart from each other) are built on stilts from fallen hardwood. Each can sleep up to five people and has a bathroom and its own water-treatment system. The closest archeological attractions can all be reached from the lodge by boat, walking and on horseback in a day. While the crowds are bustling around the more well-known Maya sites in Guatemala, you’ll have had a day’s unhurried adventure in the jungle, enjoying these ancient sites in splendid isolation.

Aguateca is a short boat ride from the lodge then 20min walk, while Dos Pilas involves a short boat cruise then a 2.5hr walk. The lodge also organizes three-day trips to Yaxchilán, staying overnight in a jungle lodge. Buses go from Guatemala City to the town of Sayaxché (8hr); alternatively you can drive from Flores to Sayaxché, from where there’s a river cruise (1.5hr) to Lake Petexbatún. For prices, reservations and links to archeological articles related to the Petexbatún area see www.chiminosisland.com.

 

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There is something alluring about the eerie, macabre side of life (or death, for that matter), so it’s not surprising that plenty of sinister, chilling places in history have become popular tourist attractions. From Western Europe to Asia, there are some truly creepy places to visit around the world – here are a few that are bound to make your hair stand on end. Additional content by Holly Dudley.

Catacombe dei Cappuccini, Palermo, Sicily

Whether it’s an incredible archive of history or a rather macabre tourist attraction, these catacombs house around 8,000 mummified friars and locals who were preserved between 1533 and 1920. Some of the mummies stand in all their finest clothes while description plaques offer quotes that make you consider you own mortality, such as: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”

Aokigahara Forest, Japan

Since Seicho Matsumoto’s novel Kuroi Kaiju (Black Sea of Trees) was published – with a scene in which two characters commit suicide in the Aokigahara Forest – it has been the spot du jour for suicides. Since the 50s over 500 people have killed themselves amongst the trees – with 78 people taking their lives in 2002 alone. And it’s now considered one of the creepiest places in Japan.

The authorities, recognising the morbid draw the forest has, have scattered signs encouraging suicidal people to think twice, with messages like “Think of your family!”. But visitors be warned: the forest covers such a vast area that not all suicides are discovered – so tourists run the risk of making a gruesome discovery.

Tyneham Village, England

Another ghost town – this time with a slightly less sinister story behind it – is the civil parish of Tyneham Village in Dorset, England. Just before Christmas of 1943, all residents were ordered out of their homes by the military as the then War Office (now the MoD) decided to use the site for firing ranges and training purposes. It was meant to be a temporary measure but the village has remained empty ever since, so the houses, post office, school, church and phone box have been left to crumble.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Vietnam

On this historic site, where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence in 1945, now stands a memorial and mausoleum to the man himself. His body lies, preserved and cooled, in the central hall of the mausoleum, protected by military guard. Visitors can queue – sometimes for hours – to get a glimpse of the communist leader in his glass case. Upon entering the mausoleum tourists and locals are ushered along in a constant stream of people and the entire, quite bizarre experience, lasts for an uneasy 30 seconds.

Memento Mori, Bournemouth, England

“Remember you will die” is just one message the eclectic (to say the least) owners of this shop want to convey to the public of Westborne, Bournemouth. Selling everything macabre, from a fully articulated Victorian skeleton named Lizzie to an old headman’s axe once used for executions, the shop is not only an eccentric addition to this sleepy town’s retail industry, but also a fascinating lesson in medical and Victorian history. Pick the brains of Starla and Matt, who can tell you a story about pretty much any item in their shop.

Patarei Prison, Estonia

Explore the cells, corridors and work areas for a real sense of the stark and depressing life of a Soviet-era prisoner. Paterei opened as a sea fortress in 1840 and kept inmates confined between 1919 and 2004. Now it’s open to the public. There is an operating room where medical procedures took place on old, clunky equipment, and the bunk beds are rusty but still intact. Guided tours are available and will give plenty of history and context to your eerie surroundings.

The Overtoun Bridge, Scotland

In the sleepy little Scottish village of Milton lurks the now internationally-known Overtoun Bridge. This gothic looking construction has, since the 1950s, been the site of at least 50 canine deaths. According to witnesses, dogs inexplicably get the urge to leap to their deaths from the side of the bridge, leading to claims that something paranormal is causing dogs to commit suicide at this particular spot. It’s been observed that some dogs who survive the fall recover, then climb back onto the bridge to jump all over again!

Overtoun has a reputation as the site of paranormal phemonena in Celtic mythology – a place of dark deeds and tragedy. Some think that sensitive dogs are being spooked by something at the bridge, but there might be a more earthly reason for this phenomenon. The majority of suicidal canines are long-nosed breeds – Greyhound, Labrador, Retriever – all leap from the same side of Overtoun and usually do so on clear days, which some have said supports the theory that the bridge’s banks are home to some particularly aromatic form of rodent. Whatever the truth is, we’ll be keeping our doggies on the lead if we venture near Overtoun…

The Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

In the 13th century, demand for burial space in the Sedlec cemetery soared after soil from the Holy Land was sprinkled on the ground there. This continued into the 19th century, when in 1870 the priests decided to do something with the bones. Using bones like human lego, Czech woodcarver František Rint used them to decorate and furnish the chapel – now thought to contain the remains of 40,000 to 70,000 people.

Although extremely creepy, the Ossuary is also a testament to Rint’s skill. He used his unusual material to fashion, amongst other things, two monstraces to adorn the main alter and a unique coat-of-arms for the noble Schwarzenberg family. But the pièce de résistance is the enormous chandelier in the centre of the chapel’s nave, constructed of every bone in the human body.

Isla de las Muñecas, Mexico

Within a swamp south of Mexico City you’ll find Isla de las Munecas, or the Island of the Dolls. The story goes that in the 60s a little girl drowned in the Xochimilco waterways around the island. Soon after, the island’s only inhabitant, recluse Don Julián Santana Barrera, found a doll – thought to be the little girl’s – in the water. In the following days he discovered more dolls and became convinced that they were a paranormal sign. He started collecting dolls and hanging them all over the island, in the belief that they were vessels for spirits that kept the dead girl company and protected his island from further tragedy.

This went on and Isla de las Munecas became the stuff of nightmares with hundreds of mutilated dolls hanging from the trees. Then, in 2001 Barrera died in mysterious circumstances. Many now believe that the spirit-inhabited dolls murdered him in some real life version of the Chucky movies. This rumor is further supported by claims that the dolls come alive at night.

Seemingly endless hallways, secret passages, crazy twists, doors opening onto walls… Winchester House is like something out of a mystery novel. But it’s 100% real. After the death of her husband and daughter, Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester firearms company, visited a soothsayer. During their exchange, she was told something paranormal was at work and the spirits of all those killed by Winchester rifles were haunting her. To calm them she needed to build a house – and never stop building. So construction of the 160-room complex began shortly after in 1884 and didn’t end until 38 years later, when Sarah died.

The sprawling mansion is infused with creepy details designed by Sarah to confuse the spirits, including dead ends and staircases that lead to nowhere. The house is decorated throughout with a spider motif, which she believed had spiritual meaning, and everything is arranged in multiples of 13. It’s a disconcerting place where you’re aware you could get lost at any moment – and reports have been made of banging doors, flashing lights and owner-less footsteps ever since the house was opened to the public.

Comment with your own creepiest places below >


Over 4000km long, the Mekong – derived from the Khmer “Mae” meaning “big”, “mother”, or “boss” – is the 12th longest river in the world, flowing from Tibet, through China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Navigation remains tricky along the Mekong as many rapids and waterfalls pose a risk to those who choose to brave it, but there are plenty of safe parts to explore and important trade routes throughout.

From the giving of alms in Luang Prabang, Laos, to the floating markets of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, this vast river makes for a stunning way to navigate parts of Southeast Asia. Hover over the special interactive Rough Guides map below to discover the delights of the Mekong river, and visit our Thinglink page for more.


Explore more of the Mekong and southeast Asia with the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget.

If you could only visit one castle in the world, then Schloss Neuschwanstein must be it. Boldly perched on a rocky outcrop high above the Bavarian village of Hohenschwangau, the schloss lords it over some of the most spectacular countryside in the country. It looks every bit the storybook castle, a forest of capped grey granite turrets rising from a monumental edifice. And the all-important intriguing background? Built in 1869 as a refuge from reality by King Ludwig II, a crazed monarch who compared himself to the mythical medieval “Grail King” Parzival, Neuschwanstein ticks that box, too.

The castle is a 20min walk from Hohenschwangau, in south Bavaria. See www.neuschwanstein.de.

 

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Stephen Keeling follows in the footsteps of Mark Twain, the American literary giant who penned such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Hannibal, Missouri

Hannibal has had a hard time of it ever since I can recollect, and I was “raised” there. First, it had me for a citizen, but I was too young then to really hurt the place.” – Mark Twain, 1867

It was starting to get dark as I arrived on the Main Street of Hannibal, with its sleepy ensemble of nineteenth-century red-brick and clapboard and parked my car. A few steps away, the great swirling muddy waters of the Mississippi rushed past the dock, speckled with tree branches that brushed the far, wooded banks on the other side. No one was around; in the twilight it was easy to imagine that Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and all their barefooted, mischievous crew would come paddling into view.

No other place had as much influence on Mark Twain as Hannibal. Born Samuel Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Missouri, Twain moved to Hannibal when he was four and grew up along the great river. He based his seminal novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on his early life here, and today the short stretch of historic properties on Main Street is crammed with restaurants, gift shops and museums dedicated to his memory. It sounds touristy, and it can be, but avoid the busy summer months and the river and the bucolic surroundings that inspired Twain are largely unchanged.

Twain lived in Hannibal for 14 years from 1839, his time here meticulously chronicled at the illuminating Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. The site includes humble Huckleberry Finn House, a reconstruction of the home of Tom Blankenship, Twain’s vey real model for Huck:

He [Blankenship] was the only really independent person – boy or man – in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us”.

The Boyhood Home itself on Hill Street is a simple, white clapboard house where Twain lived with his family, its rooms restored in period style. Further along Main Street is the Mark Twain Museum, where a hall of exhibits and videos re-create scenes from Twain’s books.

Mark Twain Cave

“It was an easy place to get lost in; anybody could do it – including the bats. I got lost in it myself, along with a lady, and our last candle burned down to almost nothing before we glimpsed the search party’s lights…”

About one mile south of Hannibal, the Mark Twain Cave is as much testimony to the influence of Twain’s fiction as the appeal of creepy caverns. In this cave system, which featured heavily in Tom Sawyer, Twain and his gang spent many happy hours terrifying one another. By the 1880s it had already become a major attraction for Twain fans: the smoke from their lanterns and their graffiti (as well as the signature of Jesse James, who hid here) are still much in evidence. The caves themselves are an intriguing warren of narrow passages, with bizarre limestone deposits piled up like pancakes.

Hartford, Connecticut

“To us our house was not unsentient matter – it had a heart & a soul & eyes to see us with, & approvals & solicitudes & deep sympathies; it was of us, & we were in its confidence, and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.”

Twain’s life itself makes for an astonishing and increasingly tragic tale: he went bankrupt in 1893, and suffered the death of three of his children and wife before he passed away in Redding, Connecticut in 1910. Some of the happiest times of his life were spent in Hartford, Connecticut, over 1000 miles east of the river where he grew up. The old hilltop community known as Nook Farm was home to Twain and his family from 1874 to 1891, and the bizarrely ornate Mark Twain House was where this giant of American literature penned many of his classic works, including Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Prince and The Pauper.

Tours of the house offer tantalizing insights into the life of the author, as well as drawing attention to the lavish and somewhat eccentric furnishings – black-and-orange brickwork, elaborate woodwork and the only domestic Tiffany interior open to the public. Twain’s legendary wit and ground-breaking writing style are explored throughout the museum, while the engrossing Ken Burns biographical documentary about him plays in the theatre.

Elmira, New York

“…since we have perched away up here on top of the hill near heaven I have the feeling of being a sort of scrub angel and am more moved to help shove the clouds around, and get the stars on deck promptly…

Twain’s funeral was held in New York in 1910, but his body was transported to Elmira, in upstate New York, hometown of his wife and where his sister-in-law maintained a summer home; Twain came here to write every summer for over twenty years beginning in 1870. His tiny writing room – a comfy octagonal shed – was moved from Quarry Farm (still a private home) to the Elmira College campus for preservation in 1952, where you can still see it today.

Twain’s relatively simple grave, in nearby Woodlawn Cemetery, is marked by a stone monument near a shady grove, along with the resting places of his wife, his children and his only grandchild.

I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Stephen Keeling is co-author of the Rough Guides to New York and New England. Explore more of the USA with the Rough Guide to the USA.

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