05 January 2017


Few cities on Earth have so much history and so much to show for it. As the capital of one of the world's greatest civilizations, it may not be surprising to learn of the many historic sights this city offers. However, in a city where history surrounds you at every turn, uncovering the layered history is still a highlight for travellers to this epic city.

After reviewing a huge list of some, and only some, of the sights in Rome, you may be surprised to learn of Rome's manageable size; indeed, the density of sights to see is phenomenal and every building merits more than just a passing glance.

The city center, Centro Storico, is on the eastern bank of the Tiber, and comprises some of Rome's most popular sights including the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. Southeast of here is Ancient Rome, home to the famed ruins of the Roman empire. East of he center is the main railway station, Stazione Termini. In between these areas is the area of Monti, with some beautiful churches and more cobbled streets to wander.

West of the Tiber is the sovereign state of Vatican City and the beautiful districts of Prati and Borgo. South of here lies the picture-perfect district of Trastevere and the Gianocolo (Janiculum Hill).

Few cities have as much to see as Rome. At the same time, you don't have to actively seek these sights to have a good time; one of the city's pleasures is to just wander around and take in the city.

Crowds can be brutal so it makes sense to pre-book some popular sights, such as the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums. While this costs extra, it is worth making this investment to avoid spending precious time and patience in lines. You must pre-book to visit the Villa Borghese.

Note that many churches close in the afternoon.

Rome's historical center, with more than its fair share of dazzling churches, beautiful squares and pretty streets, is an ideal starting point to begin your exploration of this city.

Piazza Navona and Around
One of Rome's most beautiful (and touristy!) squares, Piazza Navona is home to some fine architecture and is filled to bursting with sidewalk cafes. A truly Roman specialty, Piazza Navona has a layered history and is built on top of the ruins of a 1st century arena, Stadio di Domiziano, which can be seen on Via di Tor Sanguigna, northwest of Piazza Navona.

Among the beautiful fountains on the square, the most striking one is Bernini's Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of Four Rivers), depicting the four rivers (Nile, Danube, Ganges and Plate) for the four continents where Papal authority had spread.

Southwest of Piazza Navona is Piazza Pasquino, named for the talking statue, Pasquino, in turn named for a 16th century tailor named Pasquino who would leave messages on the statue as a form of relatively safe dissent. Soon, the tradition of leaving messages began and continues to this day.

21st century Pasquinades
Piazza Navona to Pantheon
Northeast of Piazza Navona is the 15th century Chiesa di Sant'Agostino, which was undergoing some restoration at the time of visit (May 2016).

Just east of Piazza Navona is the superb Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi, the church of Rome's French community, a Baroque beauty with three works by Caravaggio.

Pantheon and Around
One of the best preserved structures from ancient times, the Pantheon is a Roman icon. The current structure was built by Emperor Hadrian in AD 120 to replace the original version dating from 27 BC. Built as a temple, the Pantheon was converted to a church in the 7th century and continues to be one today, more than 1400 years later. The most striking feature about the Pantheon is its wonderfully symmetric dome, one of ancient Rome's most important artistic achievements, and its oculus which lets in light (as well as rainfall, which seeps through nearly-invisible holes in the floor).

Just southeast from the Pantheon, behind the curious obelisk being carried by the elephant (Elefantino) is the Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Built on the site of a temple to the god Minerva, this is Rome's only Gothic church.

Pantheon to Colonna
As you head east away from the Pantheon, you come across the wonderful Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio di Loyola, whose ceiling is a masterpiece in illusion. Stand on the yellow spot below the nave and marvel the fabulous art.

Ceiling, Chiesa di
Sant'Ignazio di Loyola
Another key attraction in the area is the Temple of Hadrian, whose colonnades on Piazza di Pietra remain. The building used to serve as Rome's stock exchange.

Colonna and Around
Piazza Colonna is home to the Column of Marcus Aurelius, with a spiral relief depicting either the Danubian or Marcomannic wars. The statue of St Paul was placed on top in the 16th century.

Slightly south on Via del Corso, the Chiesa di San Marcello is a pretty church and a sanctuary, if you want some relief from other tourists.

Along Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II
Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II is a major thoroughfare of the Centro Storico, and connects the banks of the Tiber with Piazza Venezia, at the edge of the Centro Storico leading onto Ancient Rome. It is a great point of orientation and there are also many superb churches along the route.

Beginning from the Tiber, you come across Chiesa Nuova and the nearby Basilica Parrocchiale di San Lorenzo in Damaso followed by the lovely Basilica Sant'Andrea della Valle.

Inside Basilica Sant'Andrea della Valle
Further along the road is Largo di Torre Argentina, home to ruins of four Republican-era temples and a cat sanctuary. A church once stood here, which was demolished by Mussolini to excavate the temples, the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

Following this, you come to the Chiesa del Gesu, a true gem among Rome's fabulous churches and the most important church for the Jesuits.

Continuing on the road, you come across the often-chaotic Piazza Venezia, home to the Vittoriano, built in the 19th century and home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as the Palazzo Venezia, which for a long time was Venice's embassy to Rome.

Campo de' Fiori and Around
A colourful market area, Campo de' Fiori is always lively and a great place to enjoy Roman street life. A busy market by day, the square transforms into a drinking space by evening and there remain great places to catch a bite on the square. The square is home to the statue of Giodarno Bruno, who was executed for heresy in 1600 in the square.

Clearing up the day's market,
Campo de'Fiori
If you go around the corner to Via del Pellegrino, you will come across a small archway, the Arco del Acetari. Walk through to discover a beautiful square home to apartments, a refreshing respite from the touristy surrounding area.

Piazza Farnese is home to the Palazzo Farnese, a beautiful Renaissance building home to the French Embassy. Access to the interior is only by guided tour, check this link for details.

Via Giulia is an achingly pretty street and worth a stroll.

Campidoglio and Around
Designed by Michelangelo, this beautiful square on top of the Capitoline Hill is best accessed by the Cordonata staircase, leading from Piazza d'Aracoeli. The square has a beautiful view over the Roman Forum and is home to the Capitoline Museums, the world's oldest national museums, which has some superb collections.


The museum occupies two of the three buildings on the square. The main entrance is through the Palazzo dei Conservatori. While the highlights are upstairs, don't forget to have a look at the ground floor courtyard, home to some impressive ancient masonry.

As you head upstairs, you'll come across the landing of the main staircase, home to reliefs honouring Roman emperors. Next are a series of rooms with fabulous works of art. The walls of the Hall of the Orazi and the Curiazi depict the origins of Rome while the Hall of the She-Wolf is home to one of the museum's highlights, the Lupa Capitolina, a fifth-century BC sculpture depicting two infants suckling on a she-wolf, the legend of Rome's origin. The Hall of the Geese are home to two Roman bronze geese, a gift from Pope Benedict XIV.

Another of the museum's highlights is the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, whose replica now stands in the middle of the square. The museum also has a decent exhibit on the area of Forum Boarium (below), interesting if you would like to explore it further. There is a cafe upstairs, a good spot for a coffee and a cornetto, as well as for great views across the city.

Marcus Aurelius,
Capitoline Museums
The tabularium, ancient Rome's archives, connects Palazzo dei Conservatori with the other building, Palazzo Nuovo, and provides superb views over the Roman Forum. Palazzo Nuovo is home to the Marforio, which was also used as a talking statue. Upstairs in the various rooms is a superb collection of ancient Rome's sculpture.

Accessed from the other staircase from the base of Campidoglio is the 6th century Chiesa di Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Another bonus of ascending the staircase is a nice view, with the Teatro Marcello visible.

East of Campidoglio, you'll find the elegant Chiesa Rettoria dei Santi Luca e Martina as well as a great view out to the Forum.

Forum Boarium and Around
Ancient Rome's cattle market, Forum Boarium is home to several more ruins and sees fewer tourists than the more popular sights of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

Rome is such a historic city that one impressive Roman-era amphitheatre is not enough for it. A second one, known as Teatro Marcello, was used for games, songs and contests; no gladiator games here. It's free to enter and sees fewer tourists than you might expect, so it is absolutely worth a visit. Continue further in and you'll arrive at Largo 16 Ottobre 1943, named after a day of mass deportation of Jews from Rome during the Holocaust, and then Via del Foro Piscario, ancient Rome's fish market. Just beyond is the Portico d'Ottavia, which was under restoration during my visit (May 2016).

If you continue walking south on Via del Teatro di Marcello, you'll come to the ruins of Forum Boarium, including two restored ancient Roman temples, the Tempio di Portunus and the round Tempio di Ercore Vincitore on your right, which you can only see from the outside. This intersection, Piazza della Bocca della Verita, is a rather crowded and chaotic area so do your bet to forget the noise while imagining the area in its heyday.

Chiesa di Santa Maria della Consolazione
On the left, just off the square, is the Arco di Giano, which has clearly seen better days.  Cross the arch and walk further, and you'll find a very green and quiet area with a peaceful church, the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Consolazione. Walk on Via dei Cerchi until you reach Circo Massimo, an ancient racetrack of which nothing remains today, but the ground is still used for a different kind of racing even today, nearly 2000 years later.

Returning to Piazza della Bocca della Verita, you'll find the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, a beautiful medieval church. Its claim to fame, however, is the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth), very likely an ancient Rome manhole cover. Legend says that the mouth will bite your hand off if you put your right hand in the mouth and tell a lie. Try it at your own risk! The legend may be just a legend but the queues are real; this spot is by far the most touristy in the area. The tourist flow is so real that an organized system entails; you stand in line and wait until you reach the front, where a church employee will take your photo with the mouth at a small price. Afterwards, go in and admire the church.

Colosseum and Around
One of Rome's most iconic monuments, the Colosseum conjures up images of bloody fighting. Inaugurated in AD 80, the Colosseum is enormously popular and it pays to book a ticket in advance to avoid the long lines. Make sure you follow the link and use only the official website to book a ticket. Note that the ticket also allows entry to the Palatino and the Roman Forum.

Climb upstairs where many artifacts and depictions vie for your attention and allow you to imagine the place in its heyday. The view over the arena and the areas for the spectators are great and allow for you to get an idea of the size; it could hold 50,000 people.

Outside the Colosseum, you'll come across the Arco di Constantino, built to commemorate Constantine's victory over Maxentius.

Across from the Colosseum, something you'll see a perfect view of from it, is the Temple of Venus and Roma, built by Hadrian. The view is reciprocated; there is a perfect view of the Colosseum from the temple.

Colosseum, as seen from the
Temple of Venus and Roma
Roman Forum
Ancient Rome's center for commerce and politics, the Forum is a superb collection of ruins of the capital of one of Earth's greatest empires. While it takes a certain imagination to picture the area as it was, the Forum is still a great place to check out the ruins and is a delight for photographers.

If you walk down Via Sacra from near the Arco di Constantino, you'll first come across the Arco di Tito to commemorate Titus's victories. From here, you get a nice vista across to the Vittoriano with bits of the Forum in the foreground.

Follow directions to the Forum and soon you'll be in the thick of it. You'll find the Temple of Romulus, built in AD 307. The bronze door is the original one, and apparently the lock still works. Slightly ahead is the 2nd century Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. There are nice views across the Forum so move slowly to soak it all in.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina...
with the original bronze door!
Recently restored is the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, currently home to certain exhibitions and beautiful Byzantine mosaics, which are worth visiting. Besides, you can go up for unparalleled views over the Forum.

Continuing on, you'll find the Temple of Vesta, which was partially reconstructed in the 20th century. Look for Spring of Juturna, a beautiful fountain originally dating from the 6th century BC.

Other highlights include the Curia, ancient Rome's Senate House and the large, grassy Forum Square, which was used for public assemblies. The newest monument in the Forum, the Column of Phocas stands tall at 13 meters and was built in the 7th century. Look out for the Rostra, the platform where orators stood and addressed the public.

View of the Forum from the Church
of Santa Maria Antiqua
Moving on, the Temple of Saturn dates originally from the 6th century BC, making it one of Rome's oldest, and stands at the base of the Capitoline Hill. From around the Temple of Concord, there are great views of the Arch of Septimius Severus.

Reputed as the place where Rome was founded, the Palatine hill rises above the Forum and is a calm, green collection of ruins and superb vistas over the Forum. There are ruins of several temples there, as well as the House of Livia, the home of Augustus's wife Livia. Watch out for great viewpoints over the Roman Forum as well as over Forum Boarium.

A highlight are the Orti Farnesiani, the 16th century botanical gardens with fabulous views. Continue further and several temples as well as a hut village await, where Rome's founder Romulus is said to have lived. Keep your eyes peeled for the inlaid marble floor, which was excavated in the 20th century and is thought to have belonged to Nero's Domus Transitoria. Nearby is the elliptical Domus Flavia, the nymphaneum.

The Palatine Museum is a good stop to learn about the history of Rome and is a good toilet break if you need one. While the Palatine is large and quieter than the Forum, for an even quieter spot, go through the archway for Vigna Barberini, where you'll find another ruin of a temple as well as a view out to the Colosseum.

Along Via dei Fori Imperiali - The Imperial Forums
Built by Mussolini, this road connects Piazza Venezia with the Colosseum. Going from Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum, you'l find the Roman Forum on your right and the Imperial Forums on the left. This road is well worth a slow stroll while admiring the ruins from another angle.

The Imperial Forums were smaller structures for specific purposes built by the various emperors. Among them is the Forum of Trajan with Trajan's Column. There are also the Forums of Augustus and Nerva and the Trajan's Market.

Just a stone's throw from the Colosseum, Monti is home to spectacular churches and even more narrow streets worth exploring. Yet, the neighbourhood remains less touristy than the Centro Storico and makes a good area to visit when tired of the crowds.

The Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli is home to the chains which supposedly bound St. Peter as well as Michelangelo's famous sculpture Moses. Nearby, on Via delle Sette Sale, you'll find a nice, quiet area, with the sounds of birds chirping.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is one of Rome's patriarchal basilicas and a highlight of the area. Check out the loggia and the mosaics on the nave, which date from the 5th century. Don't forget to have a look at the various chapels.

Very close by is the Chiesa di Santa Pudenziana, the church of Rome's Filipino community. The apse is decorated by 4th century mosaics, which are among Rome's oldest. Another nearby church, Chiesa di Santa Prassede is home to fabulous mosaics.

Mosaics - Chiesa di Santa Pudenziana
Rome's biggest square, Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II, is in the center of a multiethnic area. Continuing on, you'll reach Piazza di Porta Maggiore, home to Porta Maggiore, home to two aqueducts and later incorporated into the Aurelian Walls.

A blissfully quiet museum, the Museo Nazionale Roma - Palazzo Massimo, opposite Termini station, is a gem. The upper levels are home to an array of mosaics and frescoes from wealthy ancient Roman houses, ranging from elegant geometric designs to vivid mythological scenes. The highlight of the museum is the full-room design from Villa di Livia, the wife of Augustus's wife Livia. There is also a famed statuary collection and in the basement, you'll find a very complete ancient Roman coin collection. Overall, there is significant detail and completeness and the museum is a joy to explore.

Nearby is the 19th century Piazza della Repubblica, an elegant square from where Via Nazionale, a busy shopping street, leads off.

These areas, east of the historical center and north of Monti, are home to further historical treasures and several important shopping districts.

Piazza Barberini and Around
Easily accessed by the metro station of the same name, Piazza Barberini is a good starting point to explore the area. It is home to Bernini's 1643 Fontana del Tritone.

Nearby is one of Rome's - indeed the world's - famous fountain, the gorgeous Baroque Trevi Fountain. The fountain attracts hordes of crowds so be prepared; the famous custom is to throw a coin to guarantee a return to Rome (and who wouldn't?!). Over 3000 euros in coins is collected this way everyday.

Piazza di Spagna
Home to the famous Spanish Steps, this area is full of designer boutiques and is a great place for window shopping. The Spanish Steps are a popular people-watching area, but were in restoration during my last visit (May 2016). There are also nice views from the top of the staircase.

Piazza del Popolo
Going north of Spagna, you arrive at Piazza del Popolo, dating from 1538. It is home to the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo, home to some beautiful art.

The world's smallest sovereign state, Vatican City has an almost unbelievable repository of art in its museums as well as St Peter's Basilica. Both sights get crowded so it is wise to book ahead for the museums at the official website .

St Peter's Basilica
Located at the beautiful Piazza San Pietro, itself a Baroque beauty, is the St Peter's Basilica. To enjoy peace and quiet, get here at 7:00 when it opens, where you'll find far fewer tourists than anytime in the day. One of the highlights is Michelangelo's Pieta, to the right once you enter. Also note the dome, another masterpiece by Michelangelo. How many ever churches in the city you may have visited, nothing will prepare you for the sheer size and grandeur of St Peter's.

St Peter's Basilica in the morning light
Vatican Museums
A string of museums, each with priceless works, the Vatican Museums are unsurprisingly the highlight for many travellers to Rome. Booking in advance is recommended and you will be allowed in up to 30 min prior to your reserved time. If you have a reservation, bring your printout and arrive directly at the entrance, at Viale Vaticano, west of Piazza del Risorgimento. You can then go in to the counter and get a ticket. If you don't have a reservation, you need to join the queues which can continue for long.

While the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo's famous frescoes seems to be only thing many visitors have on their mind when visiting the Museums, you will have to wait till the end to reach it. Thankfully so, as there is so much fabulous art to see in between. The collection of sculptures is excellent, and don't miss the tapestries as well as the series of beautiful maps in the Gallery of Maps. The Sala Sobieski is home to massive painting of Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland. Raphael's genius shines in the Stanze di Raffaelo, a suite of four rooms home to Raphael's frescoes. Highlights include The School of Athens. The Sistine Chapel is not far ahead, where photography is not allowed and enforced brutally (using loudspeakers!). No matter how many pictures of the Chapel you may have seen, be prepared to be awestruck by the sheer brilliance of this piece of art.

There is an exit from the Sistine Chapel going directly to St Peter's Basilica; while this exit is only for tour groups, it is easy enough to join one to head out if you wish.

These areas are located east of the Vatican City, north and west of the Tiber. One of the key attractions here is the Castel Sant'Angelo, built by Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself. The views from the bridges are remarkable, a special mention goes to the evening (around sunset) view of St Peter's from Ponte Sant'Angelo.

St Peter's as seen from Ponte Sant'Angelo
Besides, these areas do not receive too many tourists and this makes walking around a good excuse. Check out the magnificent Corte Suprema di Cassazione, just east of Castel Sant'Angelo, and the lively Piazza Cavour just behind it.

One of Rome's loveliest areas, Trastevere is a joy to stroll amidst its beautiful architecture and narrow lanes. Just across the river from Piazza della Bocca della Verita, Ponte Palatino is a good starting point. You also have a great view out to Isola Tiberina, the sole island in the Tiber.

View out to Isola Tiberina
Cross the river and walk straight on Via della Lungaretta where Trastevere's colours come alive. You will come across a few churches, which are all worth a look, but the highlight is Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere. Located on Piazza Santa Maria, Trastevere's centre, what grabs you first is the church's exterior mosaics, dating from the 12th century. The interior is magnificent, with superb art and mosaics.

This strip of Trastevere is touristy so take the time to stroll in the side streets, which can be pretty and quiet.

Rising above Trastevere, the Gianocolo is a remarkable viewpoint, particularly during sunset. The walk up there feels like you're no longer in a big city and the path is pretty green. Try to visit during sunset, when the colour of the setting sun spreads east, where the bulk of the city is located, from the point of view of the Gianocolo.

View from Gianicolo
South of Ancient Rome, Testaccio is an overlooked neighbourhood straddling the Aurelian Walls, home to some more historical sights.

Exiting the Piramide metro, you come across the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius, a 1st century BC tomb for Gaius Cestius, a magistrate of a Roman religious corporation. Adjacent to it is the Porta San Paolo, a gate in the Aurelian Walls now serving as the Museo della Via Ostiense. From there you can walk by the Aurelian Walls on Viale di Porta Ardeatina. There is the odd staircase up the walls from where you can get a good view of the area, which is a nice residential one. Continue walking east and the area becomes green and curves in the road provide nice views of the wall.

The Aurelian Walls
Not far away are the ruins of Terme di Caracalla, a monumental 3rd century bath complex, and you can get a good look of the ruins even from outside.

About 10 km southeast of the center is the Parco delgi Acquedotti, a park home to a long aqueduct as well remains of another. In an area completely different to the city's historic areas, a walk here is rewarding and a welcome break from the tourist madness. The park is easily accessed by the metro stations Subaugusta or Giulio Agricola.

Sitting on an aqueduct and working - a typical Roman pleasure?
(Aqueduct Park)
A lot of cheap accommodation is accumulated around Termini station, Rome's main railway station, however that area is not the most pleasant or pretty to stay in. Staying in the Centro Storico or Trastevere will keep you right in the middle of things. Staying around Prati and Borgo is also a good idea as the side streets are quiet and relatively free of tourists.

The two hotels I have stayed in are:
Hotel Campo de'Fiori - Right on Campo de'Fiori, the central location is unbeatable. The terrace provides a nice view of the city, and the nearby annex has spacious apartments.

Hotel Prati - A decent option in Prati, very close to Vatican City as well as Castel Sant'Angelo. Ottaviano metro station is not far away.

Use websites such as www.booking.com to find accommodation.

However exciting Rome's sights may be, its food will be another highlight during your trip. Standard advice applies: the restaurant right outside that famous tourist sight may not be the greatest.

Pizzeria La Montecarlo - Right by the main road Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II, this place does great thin-crust Roman pizzas.

Alice Pizza - Spread across town, I went to the branch on Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II, near Largo di Torre Argentina. Great pizza al taglio (pizza by weight).

Fresco - Located on Via dei Coronari, the sandwiches (5 euro) here are magic. Delicious, warm bread and fresh, colourful ingredients. You can also buy cheeses such as mozzarella and parmigiano-reggiano (Parmesan) here.

Forno Castel Sant'Angelo - On Via dei Banco di Santo Spirito, not far from the banks of the Tiber, this place has superb desserts among other items.

Pizzeria Girarrosto - Just outside the Subaugusta metro station, this is a handy stop for pizza on the way to/from Parco degli Acquedotti.

Rome is a walker's paradise and distances are not long. Having said that, public transport is useful and there is a tram and a small metro at your disposal. The metro is still growing, and you can see construction when walking down Via dei Fori Imperiali to the Colosseum.

The metro can take you to Parco degli Acquedotti, the Vatican City, the Colosseum and Testaccio. Use the tram for the Centro Storico and Trastevere.

Last visit - May 2016
Number of visits - 2

31 July 2016

Great Wall of China at Huanghua Cheng

The Great Wall of China... one of China's, and indeed the world's most iconic testament to human ingenuity. This is no doubt visible to the visitor who witnesses the Wall snaking its way along rugged hillsides on and on.

It is of course a popular tourist sight and if you type in 'Great Wall crowds' into Google Images, you'll get a profound sense of the Wall's capability to handle the humongous masses. These images are a clear proof of China's burgeoning domestic tourist industry.

Believe me, you don't want an experience like that. One of the pleasures of the Wall is to look back at it snaking its way around empty countryside. Not to have a thousand people blocking the view you so dearly crave for.

There are a number of different sections of the Wall around Beijing and the most popular tend to be the sections at Badalling and Mutianyu. Fortunately there is another section not too far from Beijing,easily accessible as a day-trip, which sees far fewer crowds.

Welcome to Huanghua Cheng.

Why Huanghua Cheng?
The only section of the Wall by a reservoir, Huanghua Cheng provides a scenic and steep Wall first built about 1000 years ago by the Ming dynasty. There has been some restoration work done but there is enough of the rough, wild wall left.

This Wall does see fewer crowds, making it a pleasure to enjoy in serenity. I arrived on a Saturday morning around 9:30 am and had the Wall almost to myself for over a good half an hour before a few more arrived. I imagine it being even quieter during the weekdays.

How to get here?
You can hire a taxi but if you are like me- without the money for one (and in the mood for an adventure), take the bus, which requires some advance preparation. If you do choose a taxi, expect a round-trip to cost around 500-700 yuan (bargain!). Do not get a taxi one-way as you will not find one here for the way back. Ask yours to wait while you enjoy the Wall.

While taking the bus, it is best to get the IC Card (see here for more information), the card you can use for intra-city buses and subway. It is straightforward to load using a machine in any subway station. I am not sure how much the entire bus trip cost me, but it was in the range of 25 to 40 yuan. I recommend you to load more before leaving, just in case you get lost and end up somewhere else.

You have to take 2 buses to get to the Wall. First, take bus 916 express. (916). This begins from the hub at Dongzhimen, in Beijing's Chaoyang district. If you take the subway to Dongzhimen (lines 2, 13 and the Airport Express), follow signs to the bus terminal and then the North bus bays.

This bus will have a screen showing the next station in Chinese, with announcements in Chinese too. You need to get down at Nanhuayuan Sanqu (南华园三区). Try to remember some of the characters of the name so you can tally it with the screen. This journey will take about 60-90 minutes, so you can just sit, relax and enjoy the views. A few minutes before reaching the stop, I (being the only tourist on the bus) was approached by a couple of touts who asked if I wanted to get on a minibus (presumably to Mutianyu), so beware of this (i.e. you do not need to get down until you reach the stop).

The street scene at Nanhuayuan Sanqu bus stop

Once you get down at Nanhuayuan Sanqu, walk straight for a few minutes, until you reach the next bus stop, called Nanhuayuan Siqu (南华园四区). The sign placards will only list a few bus routes, but there are many more which serve this stop, whose numbers are prefixed with 'H'. The bus you need is H14.

Before getting on this bus, make sure that you verify with the driver that the bus is taking you to Huanghua Cheng (黄花城) by having it written (or in a guidebook). The few people hanging around the bus stop hounded me to take their private car and were amused at me as I tried to find out the right bus. They will discourage you from taking the bus so stand your ground!

The bus H14 will not have a signboard so you need to ask the driver and the conductor where to get down. Bus stops along the route will look like those below- no name. This journey will take about another hour and the scenery becomes wilder and more beautiful as the ride progresses.

Along a particular curve of the road was a stop and a sign providing directions to something which read as "Lakeside Great Wall" or similar. The road cured to the right, while the sign led off to the left. I was informed that this was not my stop- I was told to get off at another stop a minute or two later, by the reservoir.

At the Wall
As you begin to walk towards the reservoir, you will be greeted by this sign. Yes, "officially" this section of the Wall is not open to the public but nobody seems to care really. A good number of tourists do come. A small stall providing basic food and snack items was set up, and is a good place to pick up some items though I would recommend you carry some food items from beforehand.

As you walk on the path over the reservoir, a local person may set up a small tent or such with a sign demanding a certain amount of money to proceed on the Wall. This is all unofficial of course, but I decided to pay to avoid any issues. I had to pay 5 yuan. The path would lead on and it would take you about 10 minutes to get to the Wall, while the majestic structure looms above you. On the path were also some shacks set up with what seemed like another small shop, and it seemed like people actually lived here.

The reservoir and the surrounding scenery

The Wall... breathtaking

Once you get to the Wall, you have to climb a ladder to actually get on it. Then, you can either go in the straight-ish direction or in the opposite direction. The straight-ish direction leads on to a steep walk without any steps or rails so be careful! The views are simply incredible and you can spend ages just admiring the landscapes.

However, soon you reach the impossibly steep section, which I decided not to try to climb after a hesitant attempt. I am not even sure if people do climb it or not, but I decided not to try. I then headed off in the opposite direction, past my starting point.

Looking back towards my starting point
Heading off in the opposite direction, I discovered that I was not going to be alone any longer. A few travellers, all presumably local, began their hike on the Wall. Solo travellers, groups of friends and families with young children- the demographics were pretty diverse. By their looks, I understood I stood out being a foreigner, signalling that few foreigners came to this part of the Wall. Interestingly, everyone did head off only in the opposite direction and not in the direction I initially went in.

Parts of this part of the wall seem to be restored.

Walk on, and you arrive at another watchtower, which has a rickety ladder to climb. A couple of rungs in, I was not confident in the sturdiness of the ladder.

Brave enough to try? (I wasn't.)
In this direction, the wall goes on and on, and can be walked for a while. I am not sure if it connects to another section of the Wall.

I decided to return back to my starting point. The only public toilets were on the main road (where the bus drops you).

The toilets- needless to say, you would like to keep
your contact with them at the bare minimum
How to get back?
There is no familiar-looking bus stop on the road to get a bus in the opposite direction. Instead, you will find this sign:

Wait here and flag down an H14 bus to take you back. Tell the conductor you want to get to Nanhuayuan Siqu (南华园四区). I was not dropped at the bus stop opposite to where I was picked up, so when you get dropped, find the nearest bus stop with the placard showing a 916 express bus back to Dongzhimen.

Once you get the 916 express, sit back and reflect on this action-packed day at the Wall.

If you have any feedback, questions, or if you have done this trip too, feel free to comment! 

18 January 2015


India's capital and one of the world's oldest cities, Delhi is undeniably rich for historical sights. Although many overlook it on the way to the other delights of North India, and while the city can be overwhelming at first, I recommend travellers to spend at least a few days in this massive metropolis.

Delhi is a sprawling city but the major sights of interest are located not too far from each other, in the grand scheme of things. Most places of interest are in New Delhi, Old Delhi and South Delhi.

Weather-wise, Delhi is a city of extremes by Indian standards. Winters can see mild, sunny afternoons with highs from 15 to 20 C, but winter mornings can be terribly foggy, resulting in transport disruptions and can dampen sightseeing excitement too (that's supposed to be the India Gate but I can't see a damn thing!). Summers from Apr to Jun are hot, with temps going to and beyond 40 C in the day. Monsoons from Jul to Sep are rainy and hot.

New Delhi
New Delhi is largely a green area with well maintained roads, roundabouts and important government buildings, as well as embassies of foreign countries.

In the heart of Delhi, Rajiv Chowk, formerly and still popularly known as Connaught Place is one of the capital's most popular eating and shopping destination. Consisting of three concentric circles, the area is divided into many blocks. Come here to catch a meal, look at the colonial architecture or just to people-watch.

Not far from Connaught Place, hidden in the leafy lanes of Central Delhi, is an old baoli (stepwell) called Agrasen ki Baoli, also known as Ugrasen ki Baoli, dating from the 14th century. There is no admission fee to visit.

Agrasen ki Baoli
From Connaught Place, walk down Sansad Marg to reach Jantar Mantar. Built in 1724, the Jantar Mantar complex consists of many architectural astronomy instruments.

An instrument at Jantar Mantar
The complex is typically open from sunrise to sunset. Entry fee is 5 Rs for Indians and 100 Rs for foreigners.

One major road to the west, on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, is the Sacred Heart Cathedral, one of the city's most popular. It was beautifully set up for Christmas.

Sacred Heart Cathedral
One of the main roads leading from Connaught Place to the area around Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Palace) area is called Janpath. Walk south on Janpath, until you reach the Tibetan Market, a great place to shop for Tibetan handicrafts and textiles. 

Keep walking south, and on the junction of Janpath with Rajpath, the grand India Gate looms large on the left. A war memorial to the members of the Indian army who perished in World War 1 and and the Third Anglo-Afghan War, the India Gate is now a popular spot for locals in the evenings. 

India Gate
Keep going south on Janpath and you will come across the National Museum. While the presentation is hardly to write home about, the museum's collection includes priceless exhibits from the Indus Valley Civilisation (as old as 3000 BC), and then on chronologically, Buddhist and Jain works from the Mauryan, Shunga and Satavahana Periods. The museum is also home to the largest collection of Indian miniature paintings, as well as coin collections. 

The museum is open 10 am to 5 pm, and closed Mondays and holidays. Free 90 minute tours conducted by student volunteers are held so ask about these. Alternatively, you can check out the highlights by stopping at each exhibit with a sign saying 'The Museum in 90 Minutes'. While the student who led our tour was well informed, these tours try to cover a wide range of the museum and can be mentally taxing, as there's not much time to digest all the information, or to take a look at other exhibits alongside the ones covered in the tour. 

A section of a tusk depicting Buddha's life scenes at display
at the National Museum. Carved early 20th century
Slightly east of India Gate is Old Fort, better known as Purana Qila. The oldest known structure of any sort in Delhi, this fort is one brimming with legends- it is believed that this was the site of the Pandavas' capital, Indraprastha. What is known is that this fort was rebuilt by Sher Shah Suri, and it may have been incomplete even by his death in 1545, and rebuilt later by his son. Archaeological excavations have confirmed that the site has been continually inhabited from around 1000 BC. 

The fort is located close to the Delhi Zoo, entry is Rs 5 for Indians and Rs 100 for foreigners, and it is open from 9 am to 5 pm. Enter through the Bara Darwaza (Big Gate) and spend time in one of Delhi's less touristy historic attractions. 

Bara Darwaza, as viewed from inside the fort
One of the sights inside the fort is the Qila e Kunha Masjid, built in 1541.

The masjid
The mosque is remarkably well maintained. Next to it is a stepwell, be careful not to fall in it!

Other sights inside the fort include a hammam (bath house) which provided for hot and cold water, as well as steam rooms during the Mughal times. 

Across the Humayun Darwaza are the ruined parts of the fort. You can have a look at the ruins in the outside, but going inside is not permitted.

Some 4 km north of Old Fort is another of Delhi's historic forts, known as Feroz Shah Kotla. Ask Delhi residents about this fort, and they will point you to the more famous cricket stadium next door, which goes by the same name. And while the cricket stadium has some interesting historic feats to it, such as Indian bowler Anil Kumble's 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan, even this cricket fan admits that the fort is pretty amazing too.

Delhi has over the ages hosted 7 cities, and Feroz Shah Kotla was built to house the fifth city of Delhi, known as Ferozabad. Built in the mid 14th century by Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq, who was also a noted builder, who commissioned a number of mosques, forts etc across the Sultanate, the fort, now in ruins, is said to be haunted. Every Thursday a ceremony is held to please the djinns who are said to inhabit the place.

Looking around the fort
Today the ruins are expansive, with well-maintained gardens. You can see the mosque, as well as the ruins of the soldiers' quarters, stepwell and the jail. Look interested, and a guard will offer you a short tour around the place.

Feroz Shah Tughlaq was a cultured man and appreciated history. This is shown by the Ashokan Pillar, dating from the 3rd century BC which he meticulously brought from its original location in Ambala. This pillar rests on top of what was a pyramidal structure.

The Ashokan Pillar

The expansive jails... at least Feroz Shah Tughlaq reduced the
brutal punishments such  as flaying often meted out by this
predecessor, Muhammad bin Tughlaq.  
South of India Gate is Khan Market, another very popular shopping and dining destination in the city, with among the highest rents.

A bit further south are the Lodhi Gardens, which contain many tombs, most of them of the Lodhi dynasty. The garden, free to entry, is a popular walking area for locals and its 90 acres make it good for sightseeing too.

Interior of a tomb in Lodhi Garden
Just down the road from Lodhi Gardens' south western corner lies the complex of Safdarjung's Tomb, one of Delhi's lesser touristy but equally worth visiting sights. Built in 1754, this houses the tomb of Mirza Muqim Abul Mansur Khan (popularly known as Safdarjung), the ruler of Awadh. The layout of the compound is very similar to that of the more famous nearby Humayun's Tomb.

Safdarjung's Tomb
If you go east on Lodhi Road, you will come across the compound of Humayun's Tomb. A large complex, it has other tombs besides a mosque. One of Delhi's most popular sights, expect crowds and avoiding visiting on weekends and holidays, if you want to avoid crowds.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the perfect symmetry of the tomb and the sheer elegance makes it one of the most beautiful structure in Delhi. The surrounding lawns, which if you turn away from the main path can feel like a forest, are pleasant to stroll through.

The other monuments are accessible from gateways on the sides; continue straight to reach the main building of Humayun's Tomb.

Humayun's Tomb
Climb to the upper level to gain access to the tomb.

Some of the other sights in the compound include Isa Khan's Tomb and a mosque facing it.

Isa Khan's Tomb
Old Delhi
Located north of New Delhi, Old Delhi was founded by Mughal emperor Shahjahan (and known as Shahjahanbad) in 1639. The city was walled, with 14 gates. One of the pleasures is just roaming around and witnessing the chaos of the area, and you can do this by walking or from the top of a rickshaw, which are ubiquitous throughout Old Delhi.

One of Delhi's most famous attractions is the Red Fort (Lal Qila). Built by Shahjahan, the Red Fort was the home of the Mughal emperor for nearly 200 years. Majestic from the outside, I frankly found it a bit disappointing, with closed-off areas, and relatively poor maintenance. If you're visiting Agra too, the Agra Fort is much more extensive and in better shape.

Red Fort

Inside are some museums, such as Museum on India's Struggle for Freedom. Historical sights inside the fort include the Diwan-i-Aam, where the emperor gave public audiences. One of the more elaborate halls is the Khas Mahal, the emperor's private palace.

Detail in the Khas Mahal
Another of Old Delhi's sights is the Jama Masjid, one of India's most well known mosques, built in 1656.

Stairs leading to Jama Masjid
You have to remove your footwear to enter. Carrying cameras inside will entail a fee of Rs 300- most people just use their cellphones to take photos of the beautiful compound. 

One of Delhi's prime market areas, particularly for street food is Chandni Chowk, the centre of Old Delhi. A small lane branching off from the main road here, called Gali Paranthewali, is renowned for eateries serving paranthe.
Mehrauli is a district in south west Delhi, also known for its historical sights.

The most famous of them are clustered in the Qutub Archaeological Complex. Getting in can be a hassle- you buy your ticket from across the road, and then come back to join the entry queue- expect loads of crowds on weekends/holidays.

Qutub Minar

The complex is home to Qutub Minar, a minaret built in the end of the 12th century.

Detail on the Qutub Minar
Among other structures in the complex include gateways, mosques and tombs (yes, more tombs!).

If you want to escape to another historically-rich area nearby with very few crowds, visit the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. Read a page on it by me here.

We have stayed in several hotels in Delhi including:

- Le Meridien Delhi. Located conveniently in New Delhi, walking distance to Jantar Mantar, India Gate and National Museum.

- Hilton Delhi. Not too close to any major attractions but close to the metro.

Undoubtedly North Indian cuisine is the best to try here. Go to Chandni Chowk for street food and paranthe. Connaught Place, Khan Market and Delhi's malls have options for sit-down, including fine dining restaurants.

One of Delhi's street food specialties is shakargandhi, which is nicely spiced up sweet potato. You can find this just about everywhere, such as in Janpath market.

Delhi has received a lot of bad press recently, however as a tourist, Delhi does not pose any extra risk provided you follow typical big-city precautions. The metro can get very crowded in rush hours, and as in any crowded place, watch your pockets and bag. Scams and touts can be the biggest annoyance.

Within Delhi, the metro is of some use to tourists. However, within a smaller area, autos (3 wheelers) or rickshaws are more useful. Taxis cannot be hailed.

19 December 2014

Washington, DC

Capital of the United States, and home to made-to-impress monuments and museums, Washington, DC is an obvious stop on any visitor's itinerary. And the city delivers.

Washington, DC is divided into four quadrants- north-west (NW, with the bulk of sights), north-east (NE), south-west (SW, the smallest quadrant) and south-east (SE). The Capitol is the center of DC, where all the quadrants meet.

The bulk of the attractions in Downtown are located between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, between Constitution Ave NW and Independence Ave SW.

Lincoln Memorial and around
Just a stone's throw from the Potomac river, the Lincoln Memorial forms the western boundary of sights in Downtown DC. Just across the river is the town of Arlington, Virginia, where the Arlington National Cemetery and Pentagon are located.

This section takes you anti-clockwise leading from Lincoln Memorial around the Reflecting Pool.

The Lincoln Memorial, built in the honour of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, stands grand by the Reflecting Pool.

Lincoln Memorial
You can go inside the memorial to see a statue of Abraham Lincoln as well as inscriptions of two of his famous speeches. Up there, one has great views of the Reflecting Pool leading to the Washington Monument.

Walking east (towards the Reflecting Pool), if you turn right to walk around the Reflecting Pool, you will find the Korean War Veterans Memorial ahead.

Statues of the Korean War Veterans Memorial
The memorial consists of 19 statues, which represent a squad on patrol. While walking around the memorial, don't forget to take a look at the wall.

Continue walking east and you will stumble upon the small DC War Memorial.

DC War Memorial
The memorial commemorates DC citizens who served in the World War 1.

Walking north again, returning to the Reflecting Pool, at its opposite end with respect to the Lincoln Memorial lies the World War 2 Memorial.

The floor at the entrance to the memorial
A quote on a wall in the memorial

From here, you have a perfect view of the Washington Monument. With nothing around to compare, the monument surprises visitors with its size as they come closer.

Washington Monument
Built to commemorate George Washington, America's first president.

Going back to Lincoln Memorial from the other side of the Reflecting Pool, north-east of the memorial, you will come across the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial.

Tidal Basin and around
While walking around the DC War Memorial, you will notice another body of water, this is known as the Tidal Basin. 

Very close to the DC War Memorial, on the Tidal Basin, is Martin Luther King Jr Memorial.

Entrance to the memorial

Check out the wall in the memorial with a list of his famous quotes.

From the memorial, you have a perfect view across the Tidal Basin to Jefferson Memorial.

An impressive structure modeled after Rome's Pantheon, the memorial is a fitting commemoration to Thomas Jefferson, one of America's Founding Fathers and the main drafter of the Declaration of Independence, and America's third president.

Jefferson Memorial
From the memorial, you have an unparalleled view out to Washington Monument. 

The White House and around
For foreigners who have never been to DC, the White House is among one of the best known buildings in DC. Home to America's President, the White House is located north of the Washington Monument. 

White House South Facade
The South side can be viewed from E St NW. You can walk around it anti-clockwise to go the north side. Interesting architecture includes the buildings of the Department of the Treasury and Department of Commerce. The north side is at Lafayette Park. 

There is also some worth-seeing architecture, including the buildings of SunTrust and Bank of America at the junction of New York Ave NW and 15th St NW. 

The SunTrust Building

The National Mall and around
The stretch leading from Washington Monument to the Capitol, bounded approximately by 14 St, Constitution Ave NW, 1st St and Independence Ave SW is known as the National Mall, a vast open swathe, jogging ground, protesting ground and tourist attraction all rolled into one. Surrounded by renowned museums, many of them free, and good views of the landmarks around, the Mall is worth a stroll.

Just south of the mall on 14th St SW lies the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (free entry, from 1000 to 1730, daily), a touching memorial and museum to one of the greatest human-caused tragedies of the 20th century. Its exhibitions (where photography is not allowed), with pictures of the victims, continuous film plays, videos and other objects, make for an enriching experience.

Next to the museum is the beautiful building of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Continuing east along the Mall, you'll encounter the National Archives at the corner of Constitution Ave NW and 7st St NW. Also free to visit, photography is not allowed. Start your visit by viewing the David M Rubenstein Gallery, housing the Record of Rights. With engaging interactive displays, the gallery shows the evolution of political rights and civil liberties in the United States, with original affidavits, letters etc which pushed for these. Move on to viewing the original Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. A fun and exciting place indeed. The souvenir shop has some nice, non-cheesy souvenirs and gifts. 

Behind the National Archives, on the opposite side of the corner of Pennsylvania Ave NW and 7th St NW is beautifully sculpted and detailed US Navy Memorial.

A section of the US Navy Memorial
On Madison Dr NW between 7th St and 4th St is the National Gallery of Art, also free to visit. 

Finally you arrive at the Capitol Reflecting Pool and right ahead looms the impressive structure of the US Capitol

The Capitol
Just south of the Capitol Reflecting Pool lies the US Botanic Garden.

Penn Quarter
North of the National Archives is the Penn Quarter, a bustling neighbourhood full of restaurants and shops. 

On 10th St NW between E St and F St is the house where Lincoln died.

North of Penn Quarter lies DC's Chinatown.

The beautiful Chinatown gate is located near the entrance of the Gallery Place-Chinatown metro station, at the corner of 7th St NW and H St NW. 

Mt Vernon Sq and around
The small pedestrian plaza at the corner of 10 St NW and I St NW is home to beautiful and well lit (at night) Christmas decorations during the season. 

Home to lovely architecture, affluent homes and a lively shopping district makes Georgetown worth visiting. West of the centre, Georgetown has no metro station so reaching there requires some planning.

Who says all free worth visiting museums are located around the Mall? On 32nd St NW between R St NW and S St NW is Dumbarton Oaks, Now a property of Harvard University, the research library, museum and gardens is a historic estate. For the visitor, the points of interest are the gardens and museum. We visited in winter so the gardens were not in full bloom, however, the museum, with a large Byzantine collection, is worth visiting. The museum also has ancient objects from Mesoamerica.

A room at Dumbarton Oaks
A block west of 32nd St NW is Wisconsin Ave NW, one of the major Georgetown arteries with lots of shops and restaurants. Walk south until you reach its junction with M St NW, which forms a focal point of the neighbourhood.

If you continue walking south on Wisconsin Ave NW, you will finally reach the bank of the Potomac, and the Georgetown Waterfront Park. There are good views of the skyline of Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington, VA as seen from Georgetown Waterfront Park
The waterfront is a popular eating out place, with an ice skating rink during winters.

We stayed at the Embassy Suites Washington DC- Convention Centre, located at the corner of 10 St NW and K St NW, near Mt Vernon Sq. Got a great deal for a 4-people room with breakfast and evening snacks/drinks included. Overall satisfied with the experience. 

Note that many restaurants in the Mt Vernon Sq area are closed on weekends. 

&Pizza- has several outlets across town, we went to the one at E St NW between 10th St NW and 11th St NW. Watch them make your own pizza. Choose from crust to cheese all the way to the finishing. Not very pricey too- less than $9 for a pizza. Good service, though seating is extremely limited- you may have to get a takeout. 

Thomas Sweet- on the corner of Wisconsin Ave NW and P St NW in Georgetown. Popular ice cream joint. 

Portion of the menu at Thomas Sweet
Native Foods Cafe- we went to the outlet of this vegan restaurant at Pennsylvania Ave NW near the National Archives. Found the food OK, though the drinks are interesting (example, a watermelon based juice) with free refills.

Standard big-city precautions apply in Washington, DC. While tourists are unlikely to stray into areas with the highest crime rates, and DC is no longer the murder capital, the area around Mt Vernon Sq becomes very quiet on nights and weekends when offices and even many restaurants and shops are closed. Although the area is not particularly dangerous, take particular care there. Watch out on the metro as you would on any public transport network- don't get engrossed in your phone/tablet etc and watch your bags and pockets. 

The metro will be mildly useful to travellers. Walking is the way though, along the Mall and the area around the memorials, to appreciate the architecture and setting. Signage in that area is quite helpful to locate various museums and memorials though having a map will be needed. You can pick up one from the information stands- there is one just south-east of the Lincoln Memorial.

Last visit- Dec 2014
No of visits- 1