Italy’s Famous Monuments Hit By Austerity Measures

Hard economic times in Italy are threatening that country’s priceless cultural heritage.

The Times of Oman reports that billionaire Diego Della Valle said he’s thinking of withdrawing the 25 million euros ($33 million) he promised last year to restore the Colosseum, which has been crumbling due to lack of maintenance. An even more serious problem is Pompeii, which suffered a couple of spectacular collapses in 2010.

The Times reports that the government is increasingly looking to private investors to save the day, and is also promising to release 105 million euros ($138 million) from the European Union for a four-year maintenance plan for Pompeii.

Italy only spends 1.8 billion euros ($2.4 billion) annually on culture, just 0.21 percent of the gross domestic product and barely enough for basic maintenance. With tourism being a major portion of the Italian economy, it seems shortsighted not to preserve and restore the very sites that tourists come to see.

Not all news coming from Italy is bad. The government has finally cracked down on the fake Roman centurions and gladiators who prowl around the Colosseum, bullying tourists into taking pictures with them for exorbitant prices. The government says they are all ex-cons and are operating without a license. Some of the fake gladiators climbed onto the Colosseum to protest, showing that they care more about money than preserving their national heritage.

[Photo courtesy Adam Kahtava]

12 Free Things To Do In Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a beautiful country with 200 years of history, graceful tango and a vibrant art culture that can be seen on every street corner. The city is completely flat, making it the perfect place to explore by foot. While there are many options of things to do in Buenos Aires, they are not all free or budget-friendly. Luckily, I got the chance to explore the city with locals and discover the worthwhile sites that won’t break your bank.

Take a free walking tour

While my hostel advertised walking tours for 80 pesos and city bus tours for 180 pesos, I found a flyer advertising two city walking tours that were completely free. Buenos Aires Free Tour offers a daily city tour at 11:00 a.m. led by a local guide that teaches you about the history and culture of Buenos Aires. You also get to visit the oldest coffee shop in the city, Cafe Tortoni, which hasn’t changed a bit since it opened in 1858. At 5:00 p.m., the company also offers a free “Aristocratic Tour,” which allows you see sites like the famous Recoleta Cemetery, Plaza San Martin and the beautiful Basílica Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

So how can a free tour be better than the more expensive ones? These guides are passionate about what they do. Moreover, because they work on tips, they actually need to work for their money so you won’t get a guide that is bored with their job or uninterested in your questions. Virginia, the guide on my tour, was excellent. She knew everything about the city, was overly friendly and had the group laughing the entire time.Check out Buenos Aires’ museums and cultural centers

The city is home to many worthwhile museums and cultural centers that are not only interesting, but can also help give you insight into the area and culture. I really liked the National Historical Museum of the Cabildo and May Revolution. On Fridays, it is free to enter. The Cabildo was the main seat of the May Revolution of 1810, is one of the city’s oldest buildings and contains many historical documents and artifacts. I also recommend visiting one of the many cultural centers in Buenos Aires, especially the one in Recoleta (shown right), adjacent to the cemetery. Here you can explore history and art in a more avant-garde way. Guided tours in English are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:00 a.m. Other notable museums include:

  • “Enrique Larreta” Spanish Art Museum (Belgrano)- Free on Thursdays
  • Museum of the City (Montserrat)- Free on Mondays and Wednesdays
  • Museum of the Cinema (San Telmo)- Free on Wednesdays
  • National Fine Arts Museum (La Recoleta)- Always free
  • Museum of Latin-American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA)- Free on Wednesdays from 12:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Learn about the city’s political history

The people of Buenos Aires, also known as porteños, are very passionate about politics. Along with the many museums in the city, there are also must-visit buildings if you want to really understand Buenos Aires’ past. Start at the National Congress Building, which offers free-guided tours in English on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 4:00 p.m. The building was opened in 1906, and contains many furnishings and pieces of decor from Europe. Then head over to the Casa Rosada, or Pink House, which is where President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner works. There is a museum inside, and free tours are offered on weekends.

Channel your inner activist and take in a protest

Going along with the above statement of politically passionate locals, you can expect about three or four protests per day. Most take place on Avenida de Mayo, which connects the National Congress and Casa Rosada, the two political buildings of the city. Head to Plaza de Mayo, which is located right in front of Casa Rosada. Here you will be almost guaranteed to see some political uproar. Notice the makeshift fence separating Casa Rosada from the plaza (pictured right). While it is technically a temporary fence that is supposed to be taken down after protests are over, Buenos Aires has so many they got tired of removing the barrier and just left it there. The locals of Buenos Aires protested so ferociously that in 2001, they actually caused then-President Fernando de la Rúa to resign from office and exit the building via a helicopter from the roof.

On Thursdays at 3:00 p.m. in Plaza de Mayo, you can see the “Madres de Plaza de Mayo,” or Mother’s of Plaza de Mayo, circling the square’s May Pyramid monument. In the 1970’s, Argentina went through a period of military dictatorship that left the people without a democracy. During this time, over 30,000 people went missing, were sent to torture camps and killed. These women have been asking for answers to where their children are since this time. You can see their symbol painted onto the cement in the plaza, an image of a cotton diaper, which the women would wear around their heads symbolically. While the country now gives its people a say, seeing these women will make you appreciate your rights.

Discover the city’s graffiti art

Buenos Aires has an extremely vibrant graffiti art scene. While there are walking tours for this, such as the graffitimundo graffiti and street art tours, it can be fun to just go on your own and explore as well. Basically any neighborhood you go to will have tons of it. I stayed in the San Telmo neighborhood and spent hours exploring the streets and finding artistic works, many of which have political meanings. Palermo is another great area to explore the best graffiti art Buenos Aires has to offer. I would recommend doing some background research online before hitting the streets. Click here to learn more about popular artists and their stories.

Experience tango

Argentina is the place where tango originated, so you’ll definitely want to experience it for yourself. While you can catch impromptu tango acts while strolling the city, there are places you can go to guarantee a free show or lesson. You can check the schedule at Museo Casa Carlos Gardel, which regularly features free tango shows and lessons. Additionally, if you book a show at Complejo Tango, they offer a free tango lesson at 7:30 p.m. You can also head over to The Window of DGEArt, where free classes are being hosted on Saturdays from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. through May 31, 2012. And on Sundays, many of the city’s cultural centers offer free tango shows.

Open-air venues also usually offer the opportunity to experience free tango. On Sundays, the Feira de San Telmo and the Recoleta Fair have live tango performances in the streets. Furthermore, you can see it at the Calle Museo Caminito, an open-air arts museum in La Boca each day.

One trick is instead of paying for a dinner and show with unlimited drinks, head over to a milonga, or a place where tango is danced. For example, the popular La Glorieta offers free entrance to their open-air milonga on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. Even when milongas are not free, they are usually very inexpensive and you can see some of the city’s most talented dancers.

Browse the markets

Before you think to yourself “wow, another handicraft market,” stop. The markets in Buenos Aires are unlike any I’ve ever experienced in all my travels. The best is the Feria de San Telmo, which happens every Sunday from 10:00 am until 7:00 p.m. You have your usual handmade goods, as well as many rare finds like ancient antiques, statues made of chalk, visors with built-in fans, leather masks, authentic Japanese swords from the 1600’s and much more. The fair is massive. Not only that, but street performers litter the area. You’ll get to see tango dancers, ventriloquists, mimes, opera sings, circus performers, live bands and more. Make sure to also stop at the corner of Mexico and Defense streets for some live music and delicious choripan – a thick, juicy sausage wrapped in a bread bun and topped with whatever you’d like.

There are other worthwhile markets to explore as well. The area right near the cemetery in Recoleta has a weekend market that is enormous with unique handicrafts and delicious local foods. Moreover, the Mercado de San Telmo has been running since 1897 and is open daily. Here you can find fresh meats and fish, art and antiques. Likewise, the Parque Lezama in San Telmo features a beautiful pond, sculptures and fountains as well as a handicraft fair and live shows on Saturdays and Sundays.

Take in the beauty of the many parks and squares

In Buenos Aires, picturesque parks and lively squares litter the city. You can spend days just exploring these beautiful areas. My favorite place to sunbathe and relax was San Martín Square. With beautiful Jacaranda trees, ornate statues and rolling slopes, it is a very beautiful and peaceful place. There is also the Nature Reserve in Costanera Sur, which is perfect for bird watching, hiking, exploring hidden beaches or riding a bike. Palermo Woods is also beautiful, as it is the main green area of the city. Featured are three man-made lakes, a rose garden and outdoor sculptures.


While this may sound morbid, the cemeteries in Buenos Aires are unlike any I’ve ever seen in the world. The most famous cemetery to see on your visit is Recoleta Cemetery. Here you will find some of the most ornate tombs you will ever see. Some include stained glass windows, ornate statues and furniture inside these house-like mausoleums. There are many famous locals buried here like Facundo Quiroga, Juan Manuel de Rosas, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and the world-renowned Eva “Evita” Perón.

The less famous, but just as beautiful and even bigger, La Chacarita Cemetery is also worth a visit. It is the largest cemetery in Argentina and a car is needed to drive through the whole thing. It was built due to a need for more cemetery space after a yellow fever outbreak in the late 1800’s.

Street performers and live music

If you love impromptu entertainment, Buenos Aires is the perfect place for you. Simply riding a subway or train will almost guarantee you a free show of some kind. Also, visiting any of the many fairs listed above will give you access to all kinds of street performances. Moreover, You can checkout Museo Casa Carlos Gardel, which regularly puts on free live performances on Wednesdays. If you enjoy chamber music, The Palace Noel puts on free live concerts on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. Additionally, each day from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in La Boca is the Street Museum Caminito. It’s an outdoor art exhibition with performance art, singers, dancers and all kinds of unique acts. At night, walking around Palermo Soho will bring you face to face with various street performers on every corner.

If you’d like an indoor club type of feel, The Roxy in Palermo features free live music shows on Friday nights if you add your name to the list on the website. There’s also Breoghan Brew Pub in San Telmo on Sundays where patrons can watch a very talented jazz quartet. Furthermore, Temple Bar in Recoleta regularly features live blues and jazz bands free of charge.

While not live music, Teatro San Martin hosts a weekly music program at noon on Tuesdays and Fridays of rarely heard recordings that is refreshing, enlightening and also gives you a good excuse to checkout the inside of this famous venue.

Discover the religion of the city

Most, if not all of the churches in Buenos Aires are free to enter. First visit the Metropolitan Cathedral, thought by locals to be the city’s most important church. Take note of the black candlelight symbol on the outside of the building. This represents the remains of Argentina’s liberator, José de San Martín, as the church houses his mausoleum. There is also Basílica Nuestra Señora del Pilar in Recoleta (shown right). While not huge, the inside has ornate details and impressive furnishings worth a look. Iglesia Ortodoxa Rusa, located in San Telmo, is another great church to visit. Built in the seventeenth century, it is considered by many locals as one of the most attractive buildings in the city. If you attend service, you can hear the choir sing Orthodox liturgical music.

Get competitive at a horse race

Located on Avenida del Libertador in Palermo, you will find the historical Palermo Argentinean Racetrack. Argentinians love thoroughbred horses so visiting the site is also a cultural experience. Opened in 1876, the racetrack has held competitions for the most elite thoroughbred horses. The venue is grand in design and massive in size, accommodating up to 100,000 guests. While placing bets will obviously cost you, it is free to enter and enjoy the races.

Washington, D.C. breaks ground today for brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture

This morning, Washington, D.C. held a groundbreaking ceremony for their brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture that will be the Smithsonian Institution’s 19th museum. The event, attended by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, marked Black History Month by celebrating a new kind of history museum that looks to educate people through a candid representation of African American life, art and culture.

Says Museum Director Lonnie Bunch, “What this museum can do is if we tell the unvarnished truth in a way that’s engaging and not preachy, what I think will happen is that by illuminating all the dark corners of the American experience, we will help people find reconciliation and healing.”

While the project won’t be completed until 2015, you can still visit the National Museum’s current gallery at the Smithsonian (shown above). Until October 14, 2012, visitors can view the exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” The showcase tells the story of President Thomas Jefferson and his conflicting roles of being a slave owner and an anti-slavery advocate. It’s a good example of the museum telling the kinds of stories that are often seen as taboo, but are important to get out to the public.

The seven-level museum will feature architecture and decor inspired by African culture and will eventually feature exhibits on military history, sports, pop culture and music, including items like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, a Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car, and much more. So far, $100 million has been raised in private funds, and the museum will now begin attempts to raise public funds in order to meet their $250 million goal.

For more information on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, click here.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: From steel town to scenic city

While many people still visualize Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to be an old steel city, the hilly town has certainly changed a lot in the last 30-40 years. My first impressions when arriving were that the lit up hillsides, public art, modern architecture, colorful bridges, scenic rivers, diverse restaurants and lively club scene made Pittsburgh seem a lot more eclectic and trendy than industrial. If you’re visiting Pittsburgh, here is a guide to help you navigate the best the city has to offer based on your preferences.

For a mix of history and food

Visit the Strip District. The area was home to many industrial innovations (it’s where Andrew Carnegie began doing business in the iron and steel industry) as well as a once booming produce industry, a legacy that can still be tasted through ethnic food shops, cafes, markets, and restaurants. Use Penn Avenue as your main focal point, and veer off as necessary. Make sure to stop in the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. for traditional Italian groceries and natural alternatives to processed cheeses, sauces, soups, and meats, as well as Mon Aimee Chocolat for unique varieties of organic and artisanal chocolate. For those who love vino, Dreadnought Wines offers glasses and accessories as well as specialty wines and educational classes, like “Cooking with Wine” and “High Brows and Low Brows- Can You Taste the Difference?”. A stop in Penzeys Spices is a delight for the nose as visitors can walk around and sniff the many herbs and seasonings out on display, as well as ask questions about the products and get free recipes. Want to educate yourself on the city’s history and culture? A visit to Senator John Heinz History Center allows you to explore Pittsburgh’s past and present through six floors of exhibits on local sports, companies, heroes, innovations, artifacts, and more. My favorite parts were sitting in an old-fashioned trolley and walking through a life-sized replication of a traditional early-1900’s home.

For a list of businesses in the Strip District, click here. To keep up to date with events in the area, click here.If you love boutique shopping

Shadyside is home to myriad non-chain boutiques and upscale shopping in a quiet neighborhood. Use Walnut Street or Ellsworth Avenue as your focal point, and from there you can branch off as you wish. Some of my favorite stores to browse included Ten Toes for shoes, Francesca’s Collections for clothing, Feathers for housewares, Gardell Designs for handmade jewelry, and S.W. Randall Toys for a fun trip down memory lane.

Click here for a list of shops in Shadyside. To learn about news and happenings in the area, click here.

For the artsy traveler

Visit the Andy Warhol Museum, one of the four Carnegie Museums in the city. While it’s $20 to get in ($10 for students), you’ll get the chance to view over 8,000 pieces and installations by the artist, who was a Pittsburgh native, as well as his film and video work.

Another unique art museum worth checking out is The Mattress Factory, which features contemporary “room sized works called installations”. The unusual art is created by in-house artists participating in the museum’s residency program.

You can also take a stroll down Ellsworth Avenue in the Shadyside area where many galleries are located, including Aspire Auctions, Gallerie Chiz, Maser Galleries, Mendelson Gallery, and Morgan Contemporary Glass Gallery.

For those who like street art, Pittsburgh is filled with beautiful graffiti works. A walk around almost any of the urban areas, like the Strip District (pictured), Downtown, or South Side, will guarantee a free look at some of the city’s most colorful and creative outdoor masterpieces.

If you’re a hipster

Head over to South Side, which is where you will find an array of clubs, bars, ethnic restaurants, eclectic coffee shops, art galleries, theatres, and funky stores. Visit The Exchange for vintage records, City Theatre for live performances, and The Zenith for vegeterian food, antiques, and an art gallery all under one roof. There’s also a really quirky coffeeshop called The Beehive Coffeehouse & Dessertery that has a hippie vibe and features speciality teas, pinball machines, delicious sandwiches, and a lively bar at night. For those who want something upscale with a large, interesting menu, Ibiza Spanish Tapas and Wine Bar is a great pick, with dim lighting, indoor and outdoor seating (in the winter they have a heated awning up), a knowledgable and friendly staff, and a huge menu of tapas as well as main courses. I would highly recommend the shrimp couscous, the pork chop topped with spinach and goat cheese, and the small plate of grilled scallops with mango sauce (pictured). For something a bit more low key, Mario’s South Side Saloon offers a fun atmosphere and delicious bar food.

If you go 1 mile east of South Side, you’ll hit Station Square, another trendy area with shopping, dining, and nightlife. For those who want to dance, Buckhead Saloon hosts live DJ’s on Fridays and Saturdays and is usually packed with a young, energetic crowd. They also serve bar food and delicious pizza by the slice for when those beer munchies hit.

For photographers and those who want to take in the view

A ride on the old-fashioned trolley at Duquesne Incline on West Carson Street makes for a unique way to see the entire city. The ride mimicks a similar route that was a coal hoist from about 1854 or earlier. For $4.50 round trip per adult, you will be taken up one of the very steep hills overlooking Pittsburgh to the top observation deck. There is a mini museum with historical facts and photographs as well as telescopes to get a close up view. The trolley runs until 12:45 AM, so it can be a good idea to go once during the day and once at night to see the city’s two different personalities.

There is also a 22-mile coastal walk called the Three Rivers Heritage Trail that allows you to experience the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers. It’s also an excellent way to view the skyline and bridges from an array of focal points.

If you’re hungry or if it’s a little too chilly to be outside, stop at Jerome Bettis’ Grille 36 and ask for a table near the window. The restaurant sits right on the water and gives great views of the skyline, hillside, Points State Park, bridges, and Heinz Field, especially at night when the city is all lit up. The venue is owned by former Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bette and is a trendy restaurant with the feel of a sports bar. Side note: They serve the most amazing Spinach and Artichoke dip I’ve ever had as they add prosciutto and serve it with warm pita bread triangles.

If you love sports

The Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District mentioned above is also home to the Sports Museum. Here you will be able to learn about big name sports in Pittsburgh like football, hockey, and baseball, as well as lesser known athletics like marbles, bridge, ballroom dancing, and competitive eating. Moreover, because Pittsburgh is home to three major league sports teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers (NFL), the Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL), and the Pittsburgh Pirates (MLB), it can be a fun experience to go to a live game. Click here for team information and schedules.