Top 5 Museums of Brussels

1. Magritte Museum / Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The Magritte Museum is a separate museum in a complex which houses 4 other museums. The Magritte Museum is by far the most interesting of the four but depending on your interests it may be worth it to buy a combination ticket for all four since it’s not that much more expensive than a single ticket.

The Magritte Museum is solely dedicated to the Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte. The museum displays his works in chronological order with letters and notes as background information. Magritte’s most iconic works are sadly missing from the collection, but nonetheless there are great works on display and the museum provides a good overall picture of his work. This museum outshines all other museums in Brussels in both the quality of the collection and the clear and helpful information provided

2. Bozar

Bozar is not so much a museum but more of a cultural centre. It has several concert halls, a cinema and large exhibition spaces. The exhibitions on display here are usually the best in Brussels but there is a big difference in the quality of the exhibitions. Some are must see exhibitions others certainly not. Bozar has no collection of its own so, pay a visit to their website to see what’s on and if it’s something that interests you.

3. Royal Museum of Armed Forces and Military History

Jubelpark
The Royal Museum of Armed Forces and Millitary History

The Royal Museum of Armed Forces and Millitary History is not for everybody. First you should have an interest in the subject matter. And second, this museum is as much a museum of 19th century museums as it is a military museum. It’s one of the most old fashioned and decrepit museums we have ever visited. The curators have missed out on the maxim of ‘less is more’ and have stuffed each cabinet to the brim with weapons and uniforms.

With these sidenotes given, the collection is extensive and especially the world war one section is broad as is the collection of planes all displayed in a huge exhibition hall. As an added bonus, visitors to the museum get to visit the top of the huge arch which is connected to the museum. The arch provides a nice view over Brussels and the surrounding park.

4. House of European History

The house of European Hisotry is a completely free museum for everyone and tells the history of the European continent and the European Union. The museum is in stark contrast with the Royal Museum of Armed Forces and Millitary History as it is a modern museum with state of the art guidance throughout the place. It’s not so much a museum of objects as it is a museum of the European narrative told by the objects on display. The museum changes exhibitions every half year or so, the exhibitions are on a theme connected to Europe and its history. As this is a free museum, everybody should give it a try.

5. Horta Museum

The Horta Museum is housed in the private house and studio of the Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta. Horta designed several houses and buildings in Brussels, the four remaining ones are designated as UNESCO World heritage sites, the museum is one of these four. It is also the only one which is always open to the public to visit. Much of the interior and furniture is still in the original state.

Other museums

Brussels has a lot of other museums, some small others big like the Natural history museum, but none stand out in any way. So, if you didn’t find enough to see or if the museums covered are not what you’re looking for, here are a couple of other decent museums in Brussels.

The Museum of the City of Brussels is housed in the Broodhuys on the Grand Place. It’s a beautiful medieval building and it tells the story of the city of Brussels.

Broodhuys
Museum of the City of Brussels

The Museum of Natural Sciences of Belgium has a large collection of Iguanodon skeletons, most of which are in the faulty 19th century position. But beside that, it has a decent variety of different dinosaur skeletons and is especially fun with young children.

The Art & History Museum also in the Cinquantenaire park, is a huge museum with archeological finds and cultural objects from all over the world. It’s a depressing museum as it lacks good signages and lighting. The huge halls are usually devoid of other people adding to the strange atmosphere in the museum. It has good exhibitions though from time to time.

Also read our list of the best museums in Amsterdam.

mirror room

Cultural baptism: Russia, how to prepare your visit.

To really get to know Russia, you need to interact with the people there. In the end, there is no real substitute for human interaction. But there are a lot of things you can do to make those meetings go smoother, like learning Russian, develop a common frame of reference and study Russian culture and history. Besides enhancing your stay there, it’s also a lot of fun. As Gustave Flaubert said; “Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory.”

How to prepare for travelling to Russia? We gathered a unique list of books, movies, and music that grant you an insight into Russian culture and that will enrich your travels.

The links used are Amazon affiliate links. By buying through the links we may receive a commission for the sale. This has no effect on the price for you.

Movies

Alexander Nevsky (Aleksandr Nevskiy 1938)

The movie Alexander Nevsky portraits the failed Teutonic invasion in the 1241 and the successful resistance organised by Alexander Nevsky. This movie by legendary Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein portrays the early medieval times of Kievan Rus.

Brother (Brat 1997)

This gangster movie portrays the wild west 90’s after the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a low budget movie which quickly gained cult status in Russia. It was followed by the sequel Brother 2. If you like 90s action movies, this is for you.

Leviathan (Leviafan 2014)

Leviathan is a tragic movie dealing with corruption and love in present-day Russia. The film is set in the Murmansk region in the Artic circle. It’s a great film which will leave you utterly depressed.

Our Own (Svoi 2004)

Svoi is a movie set during the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. It deals with the moral dilemmas of war and the different allegiances of people. This was even harder in the occupied parts of the Soviet Union where brutal life under Stalinist rule was replaced by brutal fascism.

Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg 2002)

Are you going to the Hermitage museum or are you not able too? Anyway, watch this movie to marvel at all the wonders of the Winter Palace. The movie is filmed in one take and goes through the cities 300-year history.

Books

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace is the Magnus Opus of Tolstoy and a colossal book. It tells the story of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) from the perspective of the Russian nobility. This novel is grand in its writing and scope. It is especially interesting for those planning to visit St. Petersburg and its many palaces as a big part of the book takes place here.

Apricot Jam and Other Stories – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Apricot Jam and Other Stories is a bundle of stories by Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The stories cover the tumultuous 20th century in Russia. From the Revolution to the Civil War and from the Great Patriotic War (Second World War) to the fall of the Soviet Union. It focuses on the people who are crushed and swept aside by the tides of history. The stories are tragic but also full of dark humour. This book is great to get an overview of the misfortune many people in Russia had to deal with during the previous century and gives some insight into the national psyche it developed.

The Road: Short Fiction and Essays – Vasily Grossman

The Road is another bundle of stories mainly covering the first half of the 20th century, this time written by Vasily Grossman. Vasily Grossman was a war correspondent and wrote first hand reports of many pivotal battles fought by the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War. The stories in this book cover the war, it includes the famous ‘The Hell of Treblinka’ a first-hand report of the liberation of the Nazi Death camp. But it also includes fictional stories about live under Communist rule and the hard choices and decisions forced upon its people. A great companion piece to Solzhenitsyn book to help you understand the harsh reality of life in the Soviet Union.

Day of the Oprichnik – Vladimir Sorokin

Day of the Oprichnik is a book that tells a fictional story about Russia in the near future. This dark parody seems to be a satire of present day Russia and the rule by Putin. Read this book because it’s a great work of fiction and also because it will give you an insight into present day Russian politics and its dark machinations.

Memoirs of Catherine the Great – Catherine the Great

Although the Memoirs of Catherine the Great only deal with the time before she became empress, it’s still a very interesting primary source to read. It gives a rare first-hand insight into live at the 18th century imperial Russian court. Read this if you want to know more about the woman who built the beautiful palace outside St. Petersburg and who started the gigantic art collection which formed the basis for the Hermitage Museum.

Music

Leningrad (Rock)

Leningrad makes popular rock music with strong language which celebrates but at the same time parodies contemporary Russian life. Especially their video clips are nice to watch as they play with Russian stereotypes.

Pharaoh (Rap)

Pharaoh is a young an upcoming Moscow rapper. As many rappers, he is mainly concerned with rapping about money and success but with a more nihilistic twists to his songs and videos.

Igor Stravinsky (Classical)

This Russian composer gained fame with his ballets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Our favourite is The Rite of Spring. Good music to get into Russian Ballet.

Monetochka (Pop)

Monetochka or Liza Gyrdymova, is Russia’s new pop star. The music sounds like what you would expect from 21st century pop music.

Dmitri Shostakovich (Classical)

Shostakovich was one of the most favoured composers of the Soviet regime. Although his relationship with the regime had its highs and lows. He composed ‘Suite on Finnish Themes’ to be played by the victorious Red Army marching through Helsinki. The Winter War was not successful, and it wouldn’t be played until 2001. He dedicated his seventh symphony to Leningrad, the city which would endure the longest siege during the Second World War.

Masjed-e-Sheikh-Lotfallah

Isfahan a two day itinerary

According to a Persian saying, “Isfahan nesf-e jahan“, Isfahan is half the world. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful city in the world! In the same range as Rome, Paris and Saint Petersburg. So Isfahan is a must-visit city, even if you are on a tight schedule. We made you an two-day itinerary, covering all the highlights.

Day 1

Maydan-e Iman
Maydan-e Iman

Exploring Isfahan is best done starting at the grand public square Maydan-e Iman. It’s surrounded by some of the best sights of the city. Watching sunrise there, is truly magical.

Ali Qapu palace

Start the day at Ali Qapu palace, which opens the earliest of the sites (8:00). The palace was built around 1600. Its main feature is the balcony (Talar) from which you have the best views of the square and of the two mosques. Don’t forget to look up while there, to inspect the beautiful ceilings.

Masjed-e Imam

At the southern corner of the square lies the Masjed-e Imam. Building of the mosque started around the same time as the square. Shah Abbas I initiated both at the beginning of the 17th century. Right after entering the mosque you’ll notice that the mosque itself is built at a 45-degree angle in position to the square. The north south orientation of the square prevailed in the design of the area. Both the tiling and the inlay work of the mosque is of great quality and the domes of the buildings make for fine pictures.

Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfallah

On the eastern side of the square is the small Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfallah. This is the most beautiful mosque of the city, especially when the sun is low, and sunbeams penetrate the domed chamber. Have a sit and marvel at all the intricate geometrical shapes.

Bazar

Masjed-e-Jame
Masjed-e-Jame

Now that you are relaxed and peaceful, it’s time to make your way to the northern side of the square and enter the bazar. Head in a north-eastern direction towards Masjed-e Jame. In the meantime, you’ll come across all the spices, scarfs, jewellery and tapestries you could ever need. Get a bite to eat while you’re there.

Masjed-e Jame

Almost a thousand years old, the Masjed-e Jame (Friday mosque) is a true gem. Marvel at the 11th century dome with a 17-meter diameter. Don’t forget to take a look at the Objeity mihrat, a plastered panel from 1310 in honour of the Illhamid ruler Onjeitu. Behind this room is the vaulted winter mosque. Guides will turn the lights on and off for a great scene. More arcades and a dome are at the northern end.

Day 2

Chetel Shotun

Start the day at Chetel Shotun. This 17th century palace was used to receive foreign envoys and dignitaries. The pavilion has some huge painted battle scenes depicting battles with the Turks, Afghans and Uzbeks.

Hasht Bekesht / Ablassi hotel

If you’re into modern art, pay a visit to the contemporary art museum next door for some Iranian art. Make your way south to the small and intimate Hasht Bekesht palace and the surrounding park. If you want an ice-cream or a cup of tea, head over to the Ablassi hotel. Indulge in some luxury in this converted caravanserai and its pleasant courtyard.

Vank Cathedral

Vank Cathedral
Vank Cathedral


Next, go to the Armenian quarter (New Jolfa) on the south side of the river. The main draw here is Vank cathedral. This 17th century cathedral has beautifully painted walls. On these walls you can see various biblical scenes and Armenian tales. The grounds of the cathedral also house a memorial to the Armenian genocide and a small museum.
A short walk to the east lies Bethlehem church. This smaller church is a couple of decades older than Vank Cathedral. It has similar nicely painted and decorated walls and ceilings.
For lunch or a drink, head over to Toranj traditional restaurant. This old restored merchant house has some nice rooms and a pleasant patio.

Thuhlte Foulad
Thuhlte Foulad

Thuhlte Foulad

A ten-minute taxi ride to the east brings you to Tauhlte Foulad. A cemetery dating from the 10th century. The different tombs give an interesting overview of Islamic architectural styles.

Zayandeh River

Si-o-se-pol
Si-o-se-pol

Take the northern exit and walk for some 10 minutes towards Zayandeh River. Get some food and join the hundreds of Iranians on an evening stroll and picnic alongside the river. We’ll start our walk at Khaju Bridge. Shah Abbas II built this bridge with its octagonal pavilions in 1650. Walk westwards along the river until you reach Si-o-se-pol. This bridge is also known as Allahverdi Khan Bridge and was built in 1599. Its 33 arches are a great site at night when the bridge is lit and mirrored in the water.

Don’t forget to read our two day itinerary for Tehran!

How to spend 2 days in Isfahan
Golestan Palace

How to spend two days in Tehran

It was difficult to decide whether to make a 2 or 3-day itinerary for Tehran. Not so much because of all the things to see but more because of the sheer size of the city and the difficulty navigating it. But two days should be enough for the highlights. And most of the time, the air in the city is so polluted that its detrimental to your health anyways.

As with many big cities, Tehran lacks a proper city centre. Most of its attractions are scattered around the city. To ease you into the city we’ll start our itinerary in what could be described as a sort of centre of Tehran.

Day 1

National Museum of Iran

Darius
Darius, King of Kings


We start the day with a visit to the national museum of Iran. The museum is a bit old fashioned but it’s a great place to learn the pre-Islamic history of Iran. Highlights are the Achaemenid statues and reliefs. Which are in better state here than at Persepolis.

Next door is the Islamic museum, which is part of the same complex, so you can buy a combi ticket if needed. It has great pieces from all the periods. We’ll go to the Reza Abbasi museum also covers this.

Golestan palace complex

Next, we head south and take a walk through Park-e Shahr (City Park) and exit at the south-eastern corner. This brings us to the Golestan palace. Most of what remains today is from the end of the 19th century. The Golestan palace complex is divided into separate museums for which you’ll have to pay separately. This is the case for all palace complexes in Tehran. Choose only what interest you and skip the rest. We suggest at least a visit to the art gallery (Neggar Khaneh).

Bazar

Now its’s time to mingle with the locals by paying a visit to the bazar. Do some souvenir shopping and take in the sights. A good place for lunch is Sharaf Al-Eslami at the eastern end of the bazar, near the Imam mosque.

National jewel museum

After lunch time, the national jewel museum will open. If you like sparkling and glistering things, this is the place to go. Here you find the world’s largest pink diamond, various crowns and other outlandishly shiny objects.

Bagh-e Negarestan

Kamal al-Molk museum.
Kamal al-Molk museum

One metro stop away, near Baharestan Metro Station lies Bagh-e Negarestan (Negarestan garden). Nowadays its part of Tehran university and houses the Kamal al-Molk museum. The museum is dedicated to Iran’s most famous painter and his followers.

Day 2

Azadi Tower

We start at the Azadi Tower, built to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the birth of the Iranian nation. Nowadays it is rebranded as the freedom tower.

Milad Tower

Milad Tower
Milad Tower

Take the taxi to Milad tower, from where you’ll have great views of both the city and its mountainous backdrop.

Reza Abbasi museum

Head eastwards to the Reza Abbasi museum. This is the best museum in Tehran and you shouldn’t miss it. The museum has superb examples of Iranian miniature paintings, decorated Quran’s and archaeologic treasures.

Niavaran Palace complex

Depending on the time and your appetite for palaces, decide whether to visit the Niavaran palace complex. This is a mainly 20th century palace complex, it was the place from which the last Shah fled into exile. It consists of seven separate museums which all need a separate ticket. If you go here, at least visit the Niavaran palace itself. Completed in 1968, it looks very modern from the outside, but its interior is classic in design.

Saadabad Palace

Saadabad Palace
Saadabad Palace


When you only want to do one palace, go to the Saadabad Palace complex. It’s a 15-minute walk from Tajrish metro station. This large complex lies in the northern part of Tehran, set against the hillsides. It’s a great place to escape the madness of Tehran, relax and go for a walk. There are sixteen different museums in the complex all with sperate tickets. At least visit Mellat palace and the fine arts museum.

Darband

Take the northern exit from Saadabad palace towards Darband. Join the hundreds of Iranians going here for a walk, drink, smoke and a bite to eat. At the end of the road where the cars must turn back, take the elevator for some great views of the city. Continue back down alongside the stream. Pick a place and end your time in Tehran watching its people walk by and enjoy themselves.

Also read our review of Chogha Zanbil.

how to spend 2 days in Tehran
Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s Top 10 Museums

Amsterdam is one of our favourite cities in the world. We love its huge range of top notch cultural experiences. When we lived in Amsterdam, we filled our weekends visiting the latest exhibitions. Curious which museum we like the most? Continue reading! And let us know what you think in the comments.

10. Ons’ lieve Heer op Solder

Ons lieve Heer op Solder
Ons lieve Heer op Solder

Ons’ lieve Heer op Solder (Our lord in the attic) houses in a 1630 canal house. The owner converted the top floors into a hidden/secret church (schuilkerk) in the 1660s. Despite the freedom of thought in the Dutch Republic at that time, there was no real religious freedom. Dutch citizens were supposed to be Reformed Protestants. The Dutch Republic tolerated other Christian religions, but they could not practice in public. Hence the need for hidden churches, although in reality they were a public secret.

This museum gives insight into that period of Dutch religious history. It’s a pretty building and the church itself is nice and intimate. Located in the red-light district, it’s a good change from the drinking and smoking tourism.

Go here if you want to know more about Dutch religious history or see another site to the red-light district.

9. Rembrandt House museum

The Rembrandt House museum was the house of the famous Dutch painter between 1639 and 1658. In 1658 Rembrandt went bankrupt and this house and his belongings were auctioned off. Thanks to that auction’s list, we know how it looked and what objects he had. This list made it possible to restore the house back into its original state and fill it with much of its original objects.

The museum provides a window into the life of the painter. There are no Rembrandt paintings here. But there are some paintings by his teachers and students. The museum also has a large collection of Rembrandt’s etchings.

Go here if you want to know more about Rembrandt and learn some context and background to many of his works. If you’re looking for his famous paintings, go to the ‘Rijksmuseum’.
*Or go to the Hermitage which has a big exposition of Rembrandt’s work from the Russian state collection.

8. Museum van Loon

Van Loon
Museum van Loon

Museum van Loon is a canal house museum which is obviously housed in a canal house. This house was built in 1672 and its first occupant was the Dutch painter ‘Ferdinand Bol’. Various wealthy families lived here until Hendrik van Loon bought the house for his son in 1884. This family gives its name to the museum and descendants of the family lived here until it became a museum in 1960. When they restored it back into its 18th century splendour.

Go here if you want a view into the lives of the wealthy merchants of the Dutch Republic. There was a time when a most of the houses would have looked very much like this one. Alternatively, go to the Museum Willet-Holthuysen which provides an almost similar experience.

7. Hermitage

Hermitage
Hermitage

The Hermitage Amsterdam is the Dutch branch of the world-famous Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The museum houses in the ‘Amstelhof’, a former retirement home for elderly women. Amstelhof opened in 1682 and served as a retirement home until 2007. Part of this history is also on display in the museum. The museum hosts two or three different exhibitions per year with works from the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

Go here if the current exhibition has your interest. The quality of the works on display is usually very good. But be aware that ticket prices differ per exhibition and can be high.

6. Anne Frank house

The Anne Frank house is another museum in a canal house. This house was built in 1635 and served as the office of Anne Frank’s father Otto Frank company from December 1940. The family went into hiding here from July 1942 until their betrayal in August 1944.

The Nazis deported the family to Auschwitz, where they separated the women from the men. Anne’s mother died from starvation in Auschwitz, saving all her food for her daughters. In October 1944 Anne and her sister were relocated to Bergen-Belsen. Here they both died somewhere early in 1945, probably from Typhoid. Otto Frank survived the war and would go on to publish Anne’s diary.

The house has been restored to show the situation during their hiding. The museum added the next-door house to allow more visitors to enter and have extra exhibition space. With over a million visitors per year, expect to stand in line, so go either early or at the end of the day.

Go here if you want to know more about World War II in the Netherlands, the plights of its Jewish citizens and Anne Frank and her family in specific. It was here that she started writing ‘Diary of a young girl’ when only 13 years old. This diary still inspires and touches people all over the world.

5. Huis Marseille

Huis Marseille is the oldest photography museum in the Netherlands. It houses in two canal houses and has one room restored in Louis XIV style. There are several different exhibitions throughout the year. The focus is on documentary photography.

Go here if you love photography. It’s less crowded than FOAM and the exhibition have a more natural flow to them. The topics of the exhibitions tend to be more political relevant.

5. Foam

Foam
FOAM

Foam is Amsterdam’s’ second photography museum. It’s also housed in a canal house on the Keizersgracht so its’s easy to combine with Huis Marseille. Foam tries to attract bigger crowds with household names. Often has great retrospectives of famous photographers. These exhibitions tend to focus more on glamour and portraits of famous people. Usually there are four different exhibitions on at the same time. Also with attention for upcoming photographers.

Go here if you like photography and have an interest in more main stream art. The museum is a bit of a maze, so it can be hard to follow the flow of the exhibitions. The small rooms can feel crowded, especially on weekends and holidays.

Both Foam and Huis Marseille have their strengths and we recommend visiting both. But if you are strapped for time or on a tight budget, see what’s on where and pick what interest you most.

3. Stedelijk Museum

Stedelijk

The Stedelijk Museum (Municipal museum) is the best modern art museum in the Netherlands. It has great works by Cezanne, van Gogh, Malevich and Mondrian and some good pop-art and CoBrA works. Yet, mismanagement and housing problems plagued the museum since the 2000s. It closed for almost a decade and failed to make an impact since its reopening. The museum leans on its previous fame and success too much. A recent remodeling of the collection and the interior hasn’t improved the situation.

Go here if you like modern art. The period from 1880 to 1980 is well covered and there are various gems on display.

2. Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum (National museum) predates its current building and was founded in 1800. It moved to this dedicated building, designed by Pierre Cuypers in 1885. Cuypers also designed the central station which has a very similar style. The museum building was completely restored in the first decade of the 20th century. Now the building is an attraction on its own. The museum has re-emerged as the most popular museum in the Netherlands, drawing over 2 million visitors yearly.

Rijksmuseum
Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum covers the complete Dutch history. It also includes art from its former colonies and trading contacts. The main draw of the museum is its ‘Golden Century’ collection of Dutch art from the 17th Century. Dutch masters like Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Vermeer form just the basis of an exhaustive collection.

Go here for the Rembrandt’s and the 17th Century masterpieces. And don’t forget the Asian wing which is also very interesting. Skip the 19th century collection unless you are particularly interested in that period. That part of the collection is not as strong as the rest.

1. Van Gogh museum

The Van Gogh Museum is the one must see museum in Amsterdam. If you have only time for one museum, go here. It is the best artist dedicated museum in the world. On display are top quality pieces from Van Gogh covering his entire professional career. The works of art are combined with his letters to give a personal context to the works and form a better connection with the artist.

The collection is expanded with works by artists who inspired Van Gogh like Delacroix and Millet. There are also works by artists with whom he worked, like Cezanne. And the museum shows artists who he inspired like Van Dongen.

Visit this museum if you have even a remote interest in art.

If you liked this article also read our overview of modern art in Japan or our top 5 museums in Brussels.

Top 10 museums Amsterdam
cheverny

The 7 best Loire Valley Castles

The Loire Valley in France is home to around a hundred different castles. They range from small manors to royal hunting palaces and from single donjons to big fortresses. And don’t forget the romantic places where you can imagine fairy tales taking place. The area has one of the biggest castles densities in the world. This all results in abundant choice for tourists.

We’ve visited this region for more than 30 years and have seen them all, many multiple times. We made this list to give you an overview of what the Loire Valley has to offer. Hopefully this makes you hungry for more.  We’re looking forward to your feedback: do you agree with our list? Do you have other castles to add? Let us know!

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Nr. 7 The Royal Château de Blois

History of the castle

The Royal Château de Blois was built in the middle of the town of Blois and overlooks the Loire river. Work on it started as early as the 13th century. The current castle is a mixture of several buildings ranging from the 13th to the 17th century with a central courtyard. The castle was the residence of several French kings. It also served as a base of operations for Joan of Arc during her successful attempt to relief the siege of Orleans.

The oldest part of the castle is the “Salle des États Généraux”. This gothic hall served as a court and as the place for the French parliament (the Estates General) to assemble. The French king Louis XII (1498 –1515) made the castle his residence and capital and added a wing to the castle. His successor François I added another wing and created a library. But he stopped using the castle after the death of his wife.

Royal Château de Blois

After the French revolution, the castle was set to be demolished. It survived serving as a military barrack. In 1841 is was declared a historic monument and restoration started under the direction of the architect Felix Duban. Nowadays, the town of Blois owns the castle and it’s open to the public.

What makes the castle special

Blois castle is one of the few French castles used as a permanent royal residence. The different styles of the castle give a great overview of the architectural development throughout the 13th to 17th centuries. It also provides great views of the Loire river from the castle grounds.
The castle is centrally located both in the town of Blois and in the Loire Valley.

Nr. 6 Château de Chaumont

History of the castle

Odo I, then count of Blois, founded the Château de Chaumont in the 10th century. After the failed rebellion by its owner, Pierre d’Amboise, the original castle was destroyed in 1465. Charles I d’Amboise rebuilt the castle between 1469 and 1475.

The wife of King Henri II, Catherine de Medici acquired the castle in 1560. Among its famous visitors was the astrologer Nostradamus. After the death of her husband the King, Catherina forced his mistress Diane de Poitiers to swap castles. She received the castle of Chenonceau in exchange for the castle of Chaumont.

chaumont
Château de Chaumont

What makes the castle special

Chaumont castle overlooks the Loire river. Its exterior has the classic look of a medieval castle. The castle is host to an international Garden Festival every year. Here contemporary garden designers display their work in the English-style garden. The gardens are huge and an attraction on their own.

Nr. 5 Château de Cheverny

History of the castle

At the end of the 15th century the Hurault family acquires the estate of Cheverny. In 1510 Raoul Hurault starts building a fortified manor at the estate. Henri Hurault replaces this building with the current castle in 1624 when he decides to raze to old building. This building is finished in 1634 and hasn’t been changed on the outside since. The Hurault family still owns the estate today. They lost ownership twice, but managed to get it back both times.

cheverny
Château de Cheverny

What makes the castle special

Even as the castle has been opened to the public since 1925, the original owners still live at the property. The castle has a great hunting estate and hundreds of hunting dogs are kept for annual hunts in Autumn. Château de Cheverny also served as inspiration for Hergé. As he based Captain Haddock’s castle Marlinspike Hall (Château de Moulinsart) in the ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ on this castle.

Nr. 4 Château de Chinon

History of the castle

Chinon is one of the older castles in the region. Theobald I, Count of Blois founded the first castle at this spot in the 10th century. In the 11th century the counts of Anjou acquired the castle. Henry II, member of the House of Anjou was king of England and took the castle from his rebelling brother in 1156. He made Chinon the administrative centre for his continental possessions. Most of the structures seen today can be attributed to his reign. Henry died here in 1189.

At the beginning of the 13th century, King Philip II of France beleaguered the English lands in France. In 1205 he captured Chinon, the castle remained under French control ever since. On 6 March 1429 Joan of Arc arrived at Château de Chinon. Here she convinced the dauphin Charles VII to let her join the army at Orleans and try to lift the siege.

The castle fell into disuse at the end of the 17th century. Aside from brief use during the ‘Reign of Terror’ at the end of the 18th century, it was left to decay until the beginning of the 21st century.
Massive excavation and restoration works started in 2003. They finished in 2010, resulting in the castle as it can be seen today.

Chinon
Château de Chinon

What makes the castle special

Château de Chinon is a proper medieval castle with an interesting history. It hereby fits the preconceived picture of castles and knights. The link with the mystical hero of Joan of Arc adds extra flavour to the castle. There is a museum dedicated to her on the grounds. The castle is located on the bank of the Vienne river and is quite the sight as it towers the under-laying village.

Nr. 3 Château d’Azay-le-Rideau

History of the castle

A local lord named Ridel (or Rideau) d’Azay, built a fort at the site in the 12th century. The future French king Charles VII burned this castle to the ground in 1418. He did this as a reaction to the insults thrown by the occupying Burgundian soldiers.

Gilles Berthelot, mayor of Tours and treasurer to the King, started construction on the current castle in 1518. The new castle was a blend between its medieval past and the latest architectural styles of the Italian renaissance. The French state bought Azay-le-Rideau in 1905 and listed it as an historical monument.

azay-le-rideau
Château d’Azay-le-Rideau

What makes the castle special

Together with Ussey, Azay-le-Rideau has the highest fairy-tale castle vibe. The castle is one of the best examples of early French renaissance architecture. The location on an island in the Indre gives this castle an edge. Visit the castle early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the light is softer. This way you can get a perfect picture as the castle is reflected in the water.

Nr. 2 Château de Chambord

History of the castle

Chambord was built to act a magnificent hunting lodge for King Francis I in 1519. Construction was only finished in 1547, the year Francis died. The castle was abandoned by his successors and fell into decay. In 1639, Gaston d’Orleans got the castle as a present from his brother King Louis XIII. He restored much of the castle. His work was continued by King Louis XIV who added a 1,200-horse stable. But in the end, he also abandoned the castle in 1685. This pattern would repeat itself, until the French government bought the castle in 1930. Restoration work started after the second world war.

Château de Chambord

What makes the castle special

It was hard to make a decision on the number one castle. Chambord has so much going for it. It’s huge and it has dozens of towers big and small. Both the exterior and the interior of the castle are embellished with emblems, gargoyles and double staircases. This all provides a unique experience. Added bonus is the controversy about the architect of the castle, was it Leonardo da Vinci or not?

But in the end, it’s the size which keeps this castle on the second spot. The castle feels a bit like an empty shell, still waiting for a king and his court to move in. You should go and visit, and decide for yourself.

Nr. 1 Château de Chenonceau

History of the castle

The original castle of Chenonceau was built somewhere in the 13th century. it burned down in 1412 to punish to owner Jean Marques. After a turn in fortune, he rebuilt the castle and fortified the mill in the 1430s. The new owner Thomas Bornier demolished the castle except for the keep in 1513. He build the current castle on top of the foundations of the fortified mill.

Francis I seized the castle because of outstanding debts. His successor Henri II gave it to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. She initiated the building of the bridge to connect the castle to the other side of the river. When Herni II died in 1559, his wife Catherine de Medici forced Diana to exchange Chenonceau for Chaumont. The castle became Catherine’s favourite residence. She added the gallery on the bridge and added new gardens.

The Dupin family bought the castle in 1733. Louise Dupin held famous literary salons at Chenonceau. They attracted famous French enlightenment writers like Voltaire, Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau also served as her secretary and tutor to her son. She saved the castle from destruction during the French revolution. She convinced the Revolutionary Guard of its importance for travel and commerce since it was the only bridge for miles.

The Menier family bought the castle in 1913, and still own the castle to this day. In the first world war the castle served as a hospital. During the Second World War it was a route to the unoccupied part of France on the other site of the river.

Château de Chenonceau

What makes the castle special

We visited this castle many times and it keeps drawing us back. It has an unique bridge design and beautiful formal French gardens. And on top of that, there is the Shakespearean story about Catherine de Medici, Diane de Potiers and Herni II. If you can only visit one Loire Valley castle in your life, let it be this one. Just know that it’s the river Cher, a Loire tributary and not the Loire itself, the castle crosses.

Follow up Where to go alternatives

If you still haven’t had enough try some other castles. To name a few, go to Ussey, Sully, Amboise or Villandry. But even after visiting those there are still dozens more to explore and discover. And while you’re in the area, visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bourges Cathedral.

The seven best Loire Castles
Spider

Five days in Tokyo | Nature in the city

This day in Tokyo is one of nature, this may seem surprising in one of the biggest cities of the world, but there are a lot of green spaces in Tokyo when you look for it. We will also visit the Mori art Museum for some great contemporary Japanese art and the best panoramic view of Tokyo. The neighbourhoods were visiting this day are also excellent for shopping, so if this is something you like, make sure to bring enough excess baggage space.

Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen

We start the day in Shinjuku Gyoen. The great size of Shinjuku Gyoen makes it a great place to escape the bustling city scape. It interestingly combines three forms of gardens. One part is dedicated to the traditional Japanese Garden. Another to the French formal garden. Elements of this style are a geometric plan, constrained and trimmed vegetation to demonstrate the mastery of man over nature. Another element is a terrace overlooking the garden, so you can get an overview of the design. The third part is dedicated to the English landscape garden, this style is known for its rolling grounds and big patches of grass against a woodland background with some big centrepiece trees. When you’re done exploring the garden, you can either head over to nearby Shinjuku for some shopping or continue straight to the Meiji shrine.

Shinjuku shopping

Shinjuku ward is huge and you can shop for days if you would like. The area around Shinjuku station has a cluster of many brands and shops and is a good option for a short, focused shopping trip. If you want your shopping to be more of an experience head over to Harajuku station and go down Takeshita-dori. It’s as much a shopping as a people watching experience. Just around the corner lies Jingumae where all the top brands have their flagship stores. Go there for more a more exclusive shopping experience or to watch the beautiful modern architecture of the exclusive shops.

Meiji Jingu

Meiji Jingu
Meiji Jingu

Harujaku station is also the starting point for a trip to Meji Jingu, the great imperial shrine in Tokyo. The shrine was completed in 1920 to commemorate emperor Meiji and his wife empress Shōken, whose return to power is marked as the Meiji Restoration. Under his leadership Japan opened towards the outer world and started on a path of rapid industrialisation and modernisation.


You enter the shrine through a huge torii. The shrine is a favourite spot for traditional Japanese weddings. So, head over there in the weekend to catch a glimpse of a Japanese bride and groom. The shrine lies in a big forest with trees donated by the Japanese people. If you’re still up for more parks, head over to the next-door Yoyogi Park. On Sunday, it’s the always busy with groups of people engaging in their different hobbies like martial arts, cosplay and Japanese rock.

Mori Art Museum

Tokyo-by-night
Tokyo by night

For the perfect panoramic view of Tokyo and some great contemporary art, head over to the Mori Art Museum. This art museum has a collection of contemporary art from Japan and Asia. It also hosts many exhibitions of other contemporary art. The museum has long opening hours, it’s open until 22h every day except Tuesdays, so it’s also ideal as an evening activity. When you arrive at the building where the museum is housed, you’re greeted by a huge spider created by Louise Bourgeois.

Tokyo City View

Via the top floor of the building you can gain access to the outdoor panorama deck of Tokyo City View. Here you have the best unhindered views of Tokyo since you’re not behind glass.

More articles about Tokyo

5 days in Tokyo
Monkeys

Nikko | 5 days in Tokyo part 4

Nikko is a bit further afield from Tokyo than Kamakura, so it’s best to get an early start to make the most of your time there and beat the crowds. It takes between two and two and a half hours by train depending on which rail company you use. Those of you travelling with a JR rail pass can take the longer journey for free, so a decision has to be made between saving time or money.

Shinkyo bridge


From the stations, it’s a twenty-minute walk to the first interesting sights. When you want to skip the walking through Nikko’s modern part, take the bus but be sure to get off at the Shinkyo bridge. The beautiful bridge dates back to 1636 and provides an excellent photo opportunity, especially in autumn when the surrounding hills take on the wide range of autumn colours. A legend tells us that the bridge was made by the prayers of a priest named Shōdō. When he wanted to pray, but could not cross the river, a god appeared with two snakes that transformed into a bridge. That is why this bridge is also called Yamasugeno-jabashi, which means the “Snake Bridge of Sedge”.

Rinnoji

Shinkyo bridge is opposite the entrance to Nikko’s shrines and temple complexes. When you go up the hill, the first temple you come upon is Rinnoji. This Buddhist temple complex is huge. Rinnoji dates back to the 8th century and is the most important temple in Nikko. The main hall was recently renovated and is in once again in perfect condition.

Toshogu shrine

Toshogu
Toshogu


The whole area is covered with enormous ancient pine trees. Some of them may already have been there when Iemitsu Tokugawa decided to enlarge and embellish the shrine in honour of his grandfather, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Who was the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled Japan from 1600 until the Meiji restoration in 1868. This period is known as the Edo period since the seat of power moved from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo), where it remains until this day.

The shrine was used to solidify the shogunate and project its power and wealth. It clearly succeeded in this task as it is one of the most beautiful shrines in Japan. The attention to detail and the lavish decoration is of a level rarely seen in Japan. Pay extra attention to the wood carvings and the famous “see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil” monkeys.

Futarasan shrine

Walkway


As you exit Toshogu shrine and go right a lane lined with trees and stone lanterns lead the way towards Futarasan Jinja. This shrine is dedicated to the deities of Nikko’s mountains and was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin who also founded Rinnoji and the Shinkyo bridge.

Taiyuinbyo

At the far end of the shrine and temple complex lies Taiyuinbyo, the mausoleum to Iemitsu Tokugawa. Officially this shrine is part of the Rinnoji temple complex and therefor technically a temple instead of a shrine.

Taiyuinbyo is a bit more restrained than Toshogu. Mainly because Iemitsu embellished Ieyasu’s shrine to make a political point, so it wouldn’t make sense to outdo himself with his own shrine. But it still is a beautiful shrine which is definitely worth the effort to visit. Some would even argue that this is the more beautiful and more Japanese shrine because it’s more restrained.

This concludes our day in Nikko. If you have the time, pay a visit to the beautiful Kegon waterfall which is nearby. Otherwise return to Tokyo by train. Read our other articles about Tokyo for more inspiration!

Day trip to Nikko
Amathus

Archaeology on Cyprus

Where some people see palaces, cities and temples, others see piles of rocks. Archeology might not be something for everybody. However, it is hard to visit Cyprus and ignore its impressive archaeological sites completely. This article sketches some historical context that might help you to visualize Roman live that took place thousands of years ago under the same sun, with the same ocean view.

Cyprus has an ancient history and a huge range of archaeological sites covering all the eras of human settlement on the island.

Choirokoitia

Choirokoitia
Choirokoitia


Among the most ancient is the Choirokoitia site. Dating back some 7.000 years, this prehistoric site would be the hardest to visualize since it’s most removed from our frame of reference. Luckily there are some reconstructed buildings to help the imagination along.
The buildings were established by the Cypriot Aceramic Neolithic people, the first inhabitants of the island who came to the island around the 7th millennium BC, more than 9.000 years ago. There are a couple of signs along the path to help explain what is known about these people and the world they lived in. The site is just of the highway running from Nicosia to Limassol and easy to access. Also read our review of the Choirokoitia UNESCO World Heritage site.

Limassol (Amathus)

Amathus
Amathus


Limassol has two ancient sites on opposite ends of the city. At the eastern end of the city lies the smaller site of ancient Amathus. This location is probably more appreciated by archaeology lovers. The place is relatively small but offers some visual appealing parts e.g. a couple of erected columns in the back. Here you also find a water basin, some streets with water plumbing still visible and intact. Wherever you go you’ll see pieces of pottery and roof tiles laying around and you can try to puzzle a pot back together. The site lays along the coastal road into the city and is easily accessible.

Limassol (Kourion)

Kourion
Kourion

At the western end of Limassol, past the old crusader castle of Kolossi, you’ll find Kourion. The most photogenic archaeological site of Cyprus. Positioned on top of a cliff, the site has some stunning views across the sea with pillars and amphitheatres in the background. Kourion has numerous in situ mosaics of great quality. The ancient amphitheatre gives you a magnificent view of the sea and the nearby lowlands.

When you come upon the main concentration of ruins and the lonely pillar, you stand at the edge of a cliff looking out across the sea and towards some nearby cliffs. Together with the occasional palm tree, it’s easy for anybody to dream away here. Whether its’ back to ancient times or just of Mediterranean life in general. There is some information available at the site, but most is left to the imagination.

Paphos

Paphos Mosaic
villa of Dionysus, Paphos


In Paphos archaeology and 21st Century life are much more intertwined than in Limassol where the sites are outside of the town. Here everything lies within walking distance from its old city centre and harbour. The medieval castle overlooking the harbour is built with the stones from the next door ancient ruins of Paphos. The archaeological park lies just behind the harbour along the coast. The park is stretched out and has a couple of interesting points. The main attraction is the villa of Dionysus, partly restored to cover the stunning mosaics inside. It gives a rare insight into upper-class Roman living. Every floor is covered in mosaics and the subjects range from Mythology and hunting scenes to simple geometric shapes. Other noteworthy sights are the amphitheatre, ancient catacombs and the ruins of another crusader castle destroyed by an earthquake.

Tombs of Kings

Tombs of Kings, Paphos

More catacombs are to be found along the town together with the ruins of an ancient basilica. Most of these sites are linked to early Christianity, dating all the way back to Petrus spreading the word in the first century AC.
At the northern edge of town lie the tombs of the Kings. These are not really tombs of kings, but of wealthy citizens. If you ever wanted to feel like Lara Croft or Indiana Jones, this is the place to visit, especially early in the morning when you’re all alone. Walking around looking for the different tombs to discover since there is no real guidance available. Some tombs are not more than holes in the ground, while others are like underground temples. The site lies along the coast and is covered by seaside shrubbery, just out in the water lies a ship, run aground some time ago, all things combined give this place a very special vibe.

Archaeology on Cyprus
Okinawa beach

Okinawa – Stranded on a tropical island

We had it all planned out, ending our month-long tour of Japan with some well-deserved days off on the tropical island of Iriomote. Then our phone rang: Booking.com told us that our tropical bungalow had just cancelled because of on incoming tropical Cyclone. At the airport, this sad news was confirmed as our connecting flight was cancelled.

So, there we were, no JR rail pass left, a flight back to Tokyo in three days’ time from Naha, the capital of Okinawa and an incoming tropical cyclone. Our preferred way of travelling is to be always on the move so we board our plane to Naha and start looking for things to do while we’re crossing the East China Sea at 900 km/h.

When we land we’re told that the waves are more than 7 metres high and no ferry will leave the harbour for the next couple of days. With the sea and island hopping off limits, we focus our attention to Okinawa. Stupidly we forgot to get an international drivers licence, so we are limited to public transport to go to places. As the dark clouds were racing above our heads, we were trying hard to find a little ray of sunshine.

First day | history

On our first day of exploring, we wanted to learn more about Okinawa’s history and especially the dark episode of the American invasion. This three-month battle destroyed much of the southern part of the island and killed almost 150.000 Japanese civilians, half of the original population of the island.

Shuri castle

Shuri castle
Shuri castle


Among the cultural casualties of this battle was the Shuri castle, the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which served as a Japanese military HQ during the battle and was shelled for 3 days after which it burnt to the ground. In 1992, it was decided to rebuild the complex, so we could explore this great site and learn about the Ryukyu kingdom and Okinawan culture and the bridge it formed between China and Japan from the 15th until the 19th century. As we were drinking our tea and enjoying local sweets in Sasunoma, originally the waiting room for princes, the wind was rattling the screen doors.

After this insight into the local history of the island, it was time to explore the more recent darker history. For this we had to make our way to the southern tip of the island, where we can find the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum and The Cornerstone of Peace. To get here we had to change buses at Itoman bus terminal which was abandoned. But we found a sign with our connecting bus and at the described time a bus driver appeared from nowhere and we continued our trip through a mixture of rural and suburban landscapes.

Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial

Peace memorial
Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial

Almost two hours after we departed from the palace, we arrived at the peace memorial park. As we checked the time for our next bus we found out that we had only one hour before we had to take the next bus to make it to our last stop before closing time.

As we walked towards the memorial centre we were greeted by solemn rows of memorial granite stelai that make up the Cornerstone of Peace, remembering the more than 240,000 people from both sides who lost their lives during the battle for Okinawa. The monument lies on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean, even though we had almost blue skies, the wind was blowing fiercely and meters high waves were crashing against the cliffs drowning out all other noises. Another part of the site houses the memorial museum which tells the story of the events leading up to the war, the battle itself and the suffering it caused.

Underground Headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Navy

Naval HQ
Naval HQ


Out of time we hastily returned to the bus stop to bring us to the former Underground Headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Here 5.000 soldiers under the command of Rear Admiral Minoru Ota made their last stand. Many of them committed suicide when the battle was lost. Much of the bunker complex is still intact and it vividly tells the story of the grim battle fought here. On top of the bunker is a viewpoint which gives you a 360 degrees view of Naha and the surrounding area and the sea.

Second day | nature

Although we had a very interesting and educational first day, we were still missing the tropical island feeling. To remedy this, we booked a bus to the Ocean Expo Park, two hours to the north. The first hour was more of the same, sprawling suburban and industrial zones. But then the constant stream of traffic slowed and with it the landscape. The highway was closed in by all kind of trees and we had the occasional ocean view. The final part took us along the coastal road for some nice views of the sea.

Ocean Expo Park

Churaumi Aquarium

The Ocean Expo Park has a couple of different attractions but the main attraction is the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. The aquarium houses many different tanks with a broad range of sea creatures from different habitats. The main tank is huge and houses a couple of whale sharks in it, the largest fish in the world. These are magnificent big animals and it’s a unique opportunity to see them up close, although it’s in captivity. Two other tanks worth mentioning are the shark tank, with many different species of sharks and the deep-sea water tank, which replicates the deep sea surrounding Okinawa.

After all this time in the darkness, it was finally time for us to explore Emerald beach. The sand was bounty white, the palm trees fill the background and summer music is playing in the background. This is the feeling we came for and when we dive into the sea, it’s clear to us that it’s not too bad at all to be stranded on a tropical island..

Do you want to get more inspiration for a journey to Japan, read our 4 week itinerary

Okinawa
hachimangu

Kamakura | a day with trees, shrines and temples

To get a break from the big city of Tokyo, a day trip to Kamakura – just an hour away by train – is the ideal destination. In hindsight, we consider this one of the highlights of our journey to Japan as it perfectly summarizes its extensive culture and offers a nice hike in the woods. Are you ready for some temples and Buddha’s? Kamakura is also being called ‘Small Kyoto’ and it surely lives up to this name.

As Kamakura has a lot to offer, we take an early train from Tokyo, right in the middle of the morning peak hour. With our backpacks filled with bento boxes, we head for our train to Kamakura. Only after leaving Yokohama station there are finally enough seats for all passengers. Although Yokohama is a city of more than 3.7 million inhabitants, it feels like we never left the never-ending suburbs of Tokyo. Only after a while the cityscape is finally replaced with a more rural setting. When we get off at Kita-Kamakura station the speed of life seems to have slowed down a couple of gears.

Engaku-ji

Even though it’s September, Kamakura is still lushly green and tropically hot. Luckily the omnipresent trees provide sufficient shade. As we climb the stairs towards Engaku-ji, it’s clear that our bodies have yet to adjust to the climate. The advantage of rising early is made clear again when we reach the entrance of the complex and are admitted as the first visitors of the day. This gives us the opportunity to enjoy the place in silence and contemplation.

Sanmon
Sanmon Engaku-ji

Engaku-ji was built in 1282 in honour of the victims of the two Mongolian invasions some time earlier. It lies beautifully on the slope of a hill surrounded by ancient cedar trees. The first building we pass is the Sanmon, the big entrance gate. The rest of the buildings lay scattered around the hill, housing relics, hidden gardens and ponds. On our way out, we climb some steep stairs to the highest point to look at Ōgane, the biggest bell in Kamakura and a national treasure. The bell is 2.5 meters tall and more than 700 years old. Through the overgrowth, we have a nice view of the surrounding area and the neighbouring temple.

Daibutsu hiking trail

We skip the neighbouring temple and start our hike on the Daibutsu hiking trail to Hase and the giant Buddha statue. The paths are mostly well kept, but it’s still advisable to wear good hiking shoes. The path starts out as a road but quickly turns into an unpaved path going ever steeper upwards and through thick groves of trees and bushes. It’s hard work in the head and humidity, but overcoming this now will hasten our adjustment to the tropical circumstances.

Kuzuharaoka

As we reach the top of the first hill we come upon Kuzuharaoka shrine. Our first Shinto shrine of the day. Pictures explain us how to wash our hands before approaching the shrine and how to pay our proper respects. The turtles swimming in a little pond, a bench and a soda machine make this a good place for our first break to regain our breath.

Zeniarai Benzaiten

Reenergized, we continue our walk, but only for a short time. Because we have already arrived at our next stop. Hidden behind a small long tunnel lies Zeniarai Benzaiten, one of the most charming Shinto shrines. The shrine lies in pit-like area surrounded by natural walls on all sides with a waterfall flowing into a pond. The main attraction is a cave with a little stream inside. This is the shrine of Zeniarai Benzaiten, the money washing goddess of luck and fortune. It is said that all money which is washed in the stream will be doubled. We’re always in need of some extra pocket money, so we put our bills and coins in a basket and wash them copying the ritual from the Japanese.

Sasuke Inari shrine

Satisfied with this turn of our fortune, we leave via the back exit to visit another Shinto shrine. After some steep climbing, we come upon a path of red torii and banners which guide us ever upwards toward Sasuke Inari shrine. This is also the site of the hidden village of Kamakura, from where the predecessors of the Ninjas worked to eliminate the enemies of the Kamakura Shogunate.

Sasuke Inari shrine
Sasuke Inari shrine

Inari is the ‘kami’ of foxes, rice and agriculture. Which is made obvious since we’re surrounded by thousands of little statues of white foxes. Many of them covered in moss. Because this shrine is off the beaten path it retains its reclusive nature and feels in touch with its natural surroundings. We continue into the dark forest and further up the hill on our way to the Daibutsu. As we clear the forest and the hill we have a splendid view of the sea in the distance and know that our destination lies somewhere in-between.

As we say goodbye to the forest, we walk toward the rural town of Hase. Coming from the opposite direction than most tourist, we are harshly reminded of the fact that we’re not alone in wanting to see the Buddha as we come upon the stream of tourist making their way to the entrance.

Kamakura Daibutsu

Daibutsu
Kamakura Daibutsu

As we enter the Kōtoku-in temple complex, we already see the grand Buddha in the distance. Work on the construction of the statue known as Kamakura Daibutsu began in 1252 and has since been repaired many times. It has been hit by Typhoons, earthquakes, fire and tsunami’s, but it still survives. It’s slightly smaller than the Daibutsu in Nara, but it packs more of a visual punch. Mainly because it’s out in the open and visible from all sides. There is no temple building surrounding it since they kept being destroyed and thereby damaging and endangering the statue itself.

Hase-dera

On our way to the train station of Hase, we visit Hase-dera, another temple complex with a big statue. This temple is known for its biggest wooden Kannon statue. Legend tells that it was carved in the original town of Hase near Nara, together with another statue from the same tree. The statue was then pushed into the sea and washed ashore here. After which a temple was built on that site to house the statue. The main building is on a platform overlooking Kamakura and its bay.

Hase-dera
Hase-dera

After our fair share of walking, we took the train from Hase station back to the central station of Kamakura to make our way to Hachimangū from there. Next to the main approach of the temple is Komachi street, lined with shops and eateries, so we took that street instead to enjoy some local ice-cream.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū is the Miamoto’s clan guardian shrine and dates back to 1063. As we walk in we cross Genpei pond, filled with water lilies. It’s a favourite spot for romantic pictures. The complex also houses the Kamakura Museum of National Treasures which has some altering National treasures from its collection on display.

Kenchō-ji

Zen garden
Kenchō-ji

We take the side exit towards Kenchō-ji, our last temple of the day. Kenchō-ji is the headquarter of the Buddhist Rinzai sect and the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan. There are several nice buildings in the complex. We go into the Hōjō hall and walk the outer balconies on our socks. This brings us to the backend Zen garden, the oldest remaining in Japan. At the far end of the complex lies Hansōbō, a gold guilded shrine. This is a nice place to end this busy temple and shrine tour.

As we walk back towards the station we are joined by hundreds of uniformed Japanese high school students who have also finished their day. Time for us to get back to Tokyo! Read the rest of our series for more tips on what to do in Tokyo.

Kamakura day trip
Neus Palais

Potsdam Palaces, parks and museums

The ferocious bombing campaigns of the second world war destroyed many palaces in and around Berlin. Luckily most of them have been rebuild and you can enjoy them once again. Potsdam has quite a few palaces to see and is a great destination for a day trip from Berlin.

Buying the sanssouci+ ticket gives you access to all the palaces Potsdam offers. But to make the most of your visit it’s important to plan ahead. The palaces are only accessible by guided tours and the guided tours work with time slots. So, when planning your visit take into consideration that you will have to wait for the guided tour to start. Also, guided tours usually take twice as long as an unguided visit. The Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin are UNESCO World heritage sites.

New Palace (Neues Palais)

We took an early train from Berlin Zoologischer Garten. From there it was a 30-minute train ride through the Grunewald forest to Potsdam. We started at the far end of the Palace park, so we got off at Potsdam Park Sanssouci Bahnhof. From here it was an short walk to the ‘Neues Palais’. Frederick the Great built this big official palace in 1769. Later it also was the residence of William II, the last German emperor. This palace escaped major damage during the war and is in great original state. As is much of the interior which William II shipped to the Netherlands when he moved there after his abdication. Now most stuff has returned to its original place, giving you a rare view into the final days of the European emperors.

Neues Palais
Neues Palais

The Park

From here we began making our way back to the city of Potsdam through the big park. The next stop were the botanical greenhouses. As it was a cold January morning, we could use some warming up. They keep a broad range of tropical and desert plants here, including a wide assortment of flesh eating plants. Warm again, we continued exploring the park and made our way to the Orangerieschloss. This is the largest palace in the park and shows Frederick William IV’s love of Italy through its design. It’s enjoyed best from the outside especially in winter when it’s closed.

Schloss Sanssouci

From here it is a short walk to Schloss Sanssouci, the carefree palace of Frederick the Great. This was his favourite palace and he used it as a personal retreat from all his daily worries, like fighting wars with the other European powers. The design of this palace reminds us of Versailles. Although it is much smaller in scale and far less extravagant. The guided tour takes a long time and is just a supervised audio tour where you must stay in each room until the allotted time has passed. Next to the palace is the Picture Gallery, the oldest in Germany and home to a collection of mainly Dutch and Italian Baroque paintings. This gallery is only open during the summer season.

Sanssoucci
Schloss Sanssouci

Potsdam conference

As we exit the park we pass the Friedenskirche, where Frederik IV of Prussia and the German emperor Frederik III are buried. In the town, we wait for the bus to take us to the northern part where the Schloss Cecilienhof is. This was the last palace the Hohenzollerns built, and it looks more like a country manor than a palace. It wouldn’t be worth the visit if it wasn’t for the post-war Potsdam conference which was hosted here. This last big second world war conference determined so much of Europe’s future even till this day.

From the Cecilienhof, we walk southwards through the park in the direction of the town. Here you are surprised to find a small pyramid, commemorating something. It’s an example of Europe’s fascination with antiquity. Faux antique buildings fill both parks to lend history where it is lacking and to fascinate and intrigue the visitor.

Marmor Palace

Pyramid
Pyramid

We skip the red Marmor Palais as we would have to wait 45 minutes for the supervised audiotour of the place. King Frederick William II had this marble palace built in 1787 at the shore of the lake. The palace is in the Neoclassical style which also shows in the interior decoration.

Potsdam centre

At we exit the park, we pass the Holländisches Viertel. It is the largest collection of Dutch brick houses outside of the Netherlands. Originally built for Dutch immigrants, they now house cafes and art shops. A little bit further lies the Altes Markt with the Nikolaikirche. Karl-Friedrich Schinkel designed it in 1837. We come here for our last palace of the day. The rebuild Barberini Palace which houses the Museum Barberini. The museum has great modern art exhibitions. When we were there, it hosted a beautiful impressionist exhibition. Showing many otherwise private works by famous artists. It was a real treat to finish the day on this high note.

We also have other articles about other UNESCO World Heritage Sites if you are interested.

Potsdam day trip