My wife and I had a great time the United States in June-July. The country is so massive and so diverse — for this trip we concentrated on a few major cities along the east coast: New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia.
While things are still (relatively) fresh in my memory, I wanted to share my favourite places in each city.
New York: High Line
The High Line was hands down one of the highlights of my trip. It is an elevated freight rail line on Manhattan’s Lower West Side that has been converted into a park and pedestrian walkway. I love the combination and juxtaposition of nature with human creations. Often the beauty is found in abandoned places, but in this case the setting is carefully maintained.
It felt surreal at times to be surrounded by lush greenery while concrete and glass towered around us. At regular intervals the high rises would give way to an intersection, providing us with a unique perspective of the city as people and yellow cabs bustled below. Eclectic pieces of art dotted the path, alongside inviting benches and grassy patches to take a break in the summer heat. Walking the High Line should be near the top of every New York to-do list.
Honourable mention: Metropolitan Museum of Art
A comprehensive collection of art and artifacts spanning classical antiquity and ancient Egypt to modern day, as well as civilisations from every continent. A particular highlight was the Department of Arms and Armour, which featured the kind of cool stuff that I’ve only encountered in historical fantasy video games.
Boston: Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum
We were in Boston only for a short while and speaking as an ignorant tourist, the city was rather unremarkable. We went on a walking tour of the Freedom Trail which I recommend for history buffs. In terms of places, the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum was probably the most memorable.
The Museum provides an interactive experience, allowing visitors to re-enact the Boston Tea Party. This was a political protest in which British American demonstrators destroyed a shipment of tea to protest against taxes imposed by the British Parliament, serving as a precursor to the American Revolution. We began at a town hall chaired by Samuel Adams, proceeded to a replica ship where we could throw boxes of tea into the harbour, then finished with some indoor exhibits. It was a fun and educational way to spend the afternoon.
Honourable mention: Piers Park (East Boston)
We stayed in East Boston and decided to go for a jog one morning. Piers Park was a pleasant spot with a neat view of the Boston skyline.
Washington DC: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
This one is a bit dark, but I have to go with the Holocaust Memorial Museum in terms of memorableness and impact. While Washington D.C. is rich with memorials and museums exemplifying American history and culture, this particular museum stands out in recording the heroism and depravity of humanity. A brief synopsis and photos from my visit can be found here.
One thing that I didn’t mention was that just before you enter the elevator that takes you up to the permanent collection, you are encouraged to take an Identification Card. Each ID card tells the story of a real person who lived in Europe during the Holocaust, including their brief biography, experiences before the war, experiences during the war, and their last-known fate. The ID cards added a personal touch to the often clinical descriptions of the exhibits.
I picked up the ID card of Willibald Wohlfahrt. He was born on 15 December, 1927, the youngest of six children. He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. The Nazis took power in 1939 and executed his father for opposing military service. One by one his siblings were taken away by the Nazis, and Willibald was sent to the battle front to dig trenches for the German home defense. In 1945 he was killed while on work detail, aged 17.
Honourable mention: National Archives
If you are into American history, I highly recommend a visit to the National Archives. Of course the big draw cards are the original Charters of Freedom — the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights — on display in the rotunda. It was really cool to read the actual writings of the far-sighted Founding Fathers.
An unexpected highlight for me was the museum downstairs. The temporary exhibition was called Amending America, which explored the history of successful and unsuccessful amendments to the Constitution. It featured a Prohibition-era proposal to ban drunkenness, alongside a snarky retort by an unnamed official. The permanent exhibition is arranged thematically in various rooms, including one that contained correspondences between the President and ordinary citizens. Some of them are absolutely golden.
Baltimore: National Aquarium
I was caught up in the Serial phenomenon, which was based Baltimore, and decided that it’d be an interesting place to stop by. Anecdotally and statistically speaking, the city is a relatively dangerous place. We stuck to the main streets and pedestrian centres, and it felt pretty safe.
One of Baltimore’s main attractions is the National Aquarium. The aquarium is expensive but features lots of good stuff. It is a huge complex with a shark tank at the bottom and multiple tiers above displaying different marine habitats. There was an interactive area where we could touch rays, horseshoe crabs and jellies. I really enjoyed the puffin enclosure — these birds are so fast and graceful, it seems as though they’re flying in the water. There was also a large exhibition space dedicated to native Australian birds, reptiles and fish. A staff member was on hand to demonstrate the awesome ability of the archerfish to shoot down crickets with projectile water. Of course, no visit to the aquarium is complete without seeing a dolphin show. The theme of the show was about taking care of the dolphins — in particular, the presenter talked about the importance of keeping them mentally and physically stimulated.
Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation
My wife became a fan of Impressionist art on our trip to Europe last year. In particular, she loved Pierre-Auguste Renoir for his colour and soft brushwork. Imagine my delight when I searched for “things to do in Philadelphia” and came across the Barnes Foundation, which has 181(!) paintings by Renoir in its collection.
While most galleries tend to hang their works side-by-side at regular intervals, the Barnes Foundation arranges them in a deliberate and dense fashion, with paintings from wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. The sheer quality and quantity of the works (including by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Degas and van Gogh) is breathtaking. If you are a fan of Impressionism, the Barnes Foundation is unmissable.
Honourable mention: Independence Hall
Independence Hall’s historical significance far outstrips its humble visage and decor. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and adopted here. Once again, there is interesting stuff to be learnt if history is your thing.