World’s Oldest Souvenirs Included All Kinds Of Contraband

berlin wall fragment
Garry Wilmore, Flickr

Who here doesn’t have a collection of mini monuments, fridge magnets, key rings and mugs collected on vacation? For as long as humans have been traveling, we’ve had an inexplicable urge to bring back some sort of object that reminds us of our trip, and that’s the focus of a new exhibit by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. But don’t be fooled, you won’t find any mugs or magnets here.

The collection displays some of the world’s oldest souvenirs and harks back to a time when travelers clearly didn’t have to contend with airport customs officials. You see, back in the early days, there were no souvenir shops attached to museums where you could pick up your trinkets, so tourists eager for a knick-knack just took whatever they wanted. On display is one traveler’s souvenir of a napkin that belonged to Napoleon, and another tourist’s odd collection of hair, including tresses that belonged to George Washington.Other souvenirs that would clearly be illegal to buy or take today include pieces of the Berlin Wall, a fragment of Plymouth Rock and a piece of marble chipped off the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that we started catching on that taking home actual relics and historical objects was a bad idea, and it was this realization that sparked a boom in souvenirs — as shops started manufacturing the kitsch Eiffel Tower statues and collectible teaspoons that we know today.

Still, the abundance of souvenir shops doesn’t stop some travelers from collecting their own unique mementos. Last year, Rome chastised tourists for stealing bits of the city’s cobblestone roads and mosaics, while in Dublin, religious relics were stolen from a historic church. In South Australia, someone managed to walk away with the bones and jaw of a whale that was on display in a tourist park, though at two meters long, we’re not sure exactly how they stuffed that into their luggage.

Do you know of any other strange souvenirs that travelers have collected?

Great Comeback Cities For Travel

comeback cities - Detroit love
Flickr, Michigan Municipal League

Recently, the former automotive boomtown of Detroit made history by filing for bankruptcy, making it an easy butt of jokes on Twitter and in the news. However, Motown has also been making strides to become America’s great comeback city, with artists and entrepreneurs lured by cheap rents, and innovative projects happening all over town (disclosure: I’m a big fan of the city, and so is the New York TimesFrank Bruni). Detroit has more than a few great things going for it, including architecture, museums and sports, and tourist dollars could go a long way in helping the city recover. Can it become a tourist destination again?

Some of the top tourist destinations in the world were once no-go zones for travelers, suffering from financial crises, war, natural disasters and rampant crime. Here are a few of our favorite comeback cities:Berlin: One of the world’s most resilient cities, Berlin has been through war, occupation and one gigantic divide, and come back to thrive. In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, East Berlin in particular has become a hipster mecca, due to some of the lowest prices in western Europe for nightlife and a vibrant art and design scene. While not everyone welcomes the gentrification, the German capital is continuing to gain millions of foreign tourists each year.

Buenos Aires: A mix of hyperinflation, government corruption and mounting debt led to riots and an economic crisis in Argentina in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The country has stabilized and the peso value has risen, but it’s affordability has made it increasingly attractive to travelers in the last ten years, making it the No. 1 tourism destination in South America. Buenos Aires is opening more boutique hotels each year, ensuring a place every year on lists such as Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List of new hotels.

New Orleans: A longtime favorite for the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, along with events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, New Orleans was profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tourism is the biggest source of employment in the city and a major factor to its economy, and the disaster made visitor numbers plummet. Louisiana’s recovery has been slow but steady, and major infrastructure improvements brought on by this year’s “Super Gras” have helped the Big Easy come back.

New York City: Visitors to the Big Apple have topped 50 million, spending billions of dollars in the city annually. While New York has never suffered from lack of tourists, the 1980s crack epidemic and surge in crime gave it an image of being a violent, dirty and dangerous city and visitor numbers dipped. Like Detroit, it also faced possible bankruptcy in 1975 and President Ford was infamously (mis)quoted to tell NYC to “drop dead.” The terrorist attacks in 2001 caused another slowdown in visitors, but it’s now one of the safest, most visited cities in the world.

Tokyo: While Tokyo was not as devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as other parts of Japan, it definitely felt the hurt with a sharp decline in tourism, major damage to national infrastructure, and radiation concerns. Foreign visitors are now exceeding the pre-disaster levels, though seismologists worry that an even bigger earthquake is due to hit Tokyo.

An honorable mention must go to the countries in the former Yugoslavia, especially Croatia and the cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo. Twenty years ago, who could have predicted the popularity of the Dalmatian coast as a beach destination, or the battle-scarred Serbian capital as a nightlife hotspot? They aren’t quite seeing the same tourism numbers as the destinations above, but they should be on your travel radar. Istanbul and Beirut are also favorites for their many comebacks and reinventions, though the effects from current events are already being seen in the local tourism industries.

What are your favorite “comeback cities”?

Exhibition At Berlin Wall Shows World’s Fortified Borders

Berlin Wall
Wikimedia Commons

The Berlin Wall has been a symbol of oppression and tyranny ever since it went up. When it fell in 1989, the world rejoiced and many hoped we would now live in a world without barriers.

As a new exhibition at a remaining part of the wall shows, however, that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

“Wall on Wall” is a photographic exhibition by German photographer Kai Wiedenhoefer. He has traveled the world taking photographs of barriers between people and nations and his exhibition features giant posters of his images plastered on the Berlin Wall. Large-format photos of walls between North and South Korea, the U.S. and Mexico, and Israel and Palestine cover a long stretch of the Berlin Wall on the flip side of the popular East Side Gallery.

The photos also show walls within countries that divide populations, such as those in Belfast and Baghdad. On my recent trip to Iraq I saw many of these walls, designed to separate Shia and Sunni neighborhoods in an attempt to reduce sectarian violence. Like the Berlin Wall, they’ve become a blank canvas for Iraqi graffiti artists.

“Wall on Wall” runs until September 13.

The Best Cities For Street Art Around The World

I’ve always loved a good art gallery but I know not everyone feels the same way. I get it. Looking at still life oil-on-canvases isn’t for everyone. But the good news is that some of the coolest art in the world isn’t locked away in stuffy art galleries or museums – there are plenty of creative paintings and murals on the sides of buildings, along fences and across public walls.

Graffiti has been around since ancient times but what has really changed is way the many people now perceive the public scribblings. From a mark of gang culture and vandalism to a political statement to genuine artistic expression, graffiti has evolved with the times and is now accepted as “street art” in cities all over the world. Here are a handful of places known for their vibrant street art culture across Europe, South America and The Pacific.

Valparaiso, Chile

This city located close to the Chilean capital is famous for the colorful houses and murals, which line its steeply hilled streets. The extreme incline between one part of town and the next created the need for lots and lots of staircases, many of which have now been turned into richly hued works of art.

Graffiti took off in this city back in the ’70s as a way to protest the Pinochet regime and was initially frowned upon but as the years progressed, the city decided to let the street art flourish. As a visitor to Valparaiso, you cannot only wander the colorful laneways, you can get your hands dirty too. The city runs tours where you can actually hit the streets and create some graffiti with the aid of local artists who help you design your own unique stencils.

London, England

London might be home to some of the most celebrated art galleries in the world, but the city is quickly making a name for itself as a street art hub as well. Parts of the city that were once rundown and off the tourist radar have now been regenerated and have become prime places to view colorful murals.

East End is one of the off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods where many street artists have flocked. While some of the artwork in the area is done furtively, a surprising number of artists are commissioned to put their mark on the city’s public spaces. A few artist’s work to keep an eye out for include “Stik,” so named because he draws stick men across the city; Christiaan Nagel, who leaves colorful sculpted mushrooms on the rooftops of buildings; and Pablo Delgado, who creates miniature “paste up” images all over East London.

Berlin, Germany

Berlin is a street art lover’s paradise with both historical graffiti and a thriving present-day art scene to take in. Graffiti really took off here in the ’80s with those on the west side of the Berlin Wall expressing their beliefs and frustrations with the aid of spray cans. After the fall of the wall, graffiti spread throughout Berlin, and although large chunks of the wall are now gone, you can still see many murals left over from times past.

There are also a new crop of street artists that have made a name for themselves leaving their signature artwork on the sides of buildings across the city. While street art is technically illegal in Berlin, it’s such a draw card for visitors that the city still promotes it.

Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne has long been Australia’s artistic capital and there’s as much to see out on the streets as there is in the galleries. Graffiti got its start here in the ’70s and ’80s and there has always been a heavy focus on what’s known as “stencil art.”

In more recent years, the street art has evolved to include other techniques, including street installations, woodblocking and reverse graffiti – a method, which involves carving an image out of dirt (like you might do on a car window). Over the past decade, Melbourne has also held a number of stencil festivals where the public can watch live demonstrations, listen to debate about graffiti, take part in workshops and more.

[Photo credits: Flickr users szeke, Gabriel White, bobaliciouslondon, Gianni Dominici, m.a.r.c.]

Germany marks 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall — where to commemorate

This year, Germany marks the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, a barrier that isolated East Berlin from West Berlin for almost 30 years and was a powerful physical symbol of the Cold War. On August 13, 1961, authorities in East Berlin ordered the construction of the Wall in order to stem the tide of Germans moving from Communist East Berlin to Capitalist West Berlin. When it was completed, the Wall was 28 miles long, 12 feet high, and included gun towers, razor wire, and land mines on its eastern side.

To commemorate this historic anniversary, visitors to Berlin can learn more about the Wall in three poignant ways:1) The first place visitors should go to learn more about the Wall is the Berlin Wall Memorial, which contains the largest remaining sections of both sides of the Wall, a documentation center, and memorials to the many victims who died trying to escape East Berlin.

2) The German Historical Museum is currently hosting an exhibit of the photography of Thomas Hoepker and Daniel Biskup, two West German photographers who used their lenses to document life in East Berlin during and after the Berlin Wall. Aptly, the exhibit ends on October 3, Germany’s Unity Day.

3) Finally, of course, there’s an app for that. The Mauerguide is an app that relies on GPS to guide users along the original path of the Berlin Wall. In addition to its maps and handy walking instructions, the Mauerguide includes political and historical information about the Wall, film clips, and interviews.



[Photo credit: Thierry Noir via Wikipedia]