My gap year wasn’t just about all of flights and types of accommodation and luxury toilets and offensive toilets. I also did actual things too. And just like my flights and accommodations and toilets, I also kept track of these things. Below I’ve included my Top 10 Museums and my Top 10 Non-Museums. I’ve compiled the list not based on the absolute best things, because the lists would just be the big ticket items like the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu and the Apartheid Museum, but rather based on a combination of how far my expectations were exceeded, how different or unique a museum or activity was, or just how unsuspectingly cool or thorough something turned out to be. Many of these places were ones that I didn’t really plan on visiting beforehand, but ended up there through a last minute glance through Lonely Planet or by word of mouth. I’ve also included the top monuments, because I saw a lot of monuments, though not many of them really stood out.
Top 10 Museums (in chronological order):
1. Singapore City Gallery (Singapore): This museum is all about Singapore’s urban planning, and I am all about nerding out.
2. Miniatures Museum of Taiwan (Taipei, Taiwan): Quite possibly the biggest “museum” surprise of my trip, this whimsical miniatures museum was small but I was there for ages. So cool!
3. Mazda Museum (Hiroshima, Japan): This museum combined with the Mazda factory tour – containing the world’s longest assembly line – was a super cool glimpse into how cars are designed and made.
4. Edo-Tokyo Museum (Tokyo, Japan): I love a good history, and I love when it’s presented well. The Edo-Tokyo Museum gives a VERY thorough but not boring history of Tokyo.
5. Brunel’s SS Great Britain (Bristol, England): This museum about a ship was fascinating – charting the ships innovative beginnings, grand voyages, abandonment, and recovery from the Falklands.
6. Museo Guayasamin (Quito, Ecuador): I was not familiar with famed Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin, but this house-turned-museum and his massive Chapel of Man next door are a grand tribute to his incredible works.
7. Museo Botero (Bogota, Colombia): My favourite artistic discovery of the gap year, still-going-strong Colombian artist Fernando Botero has a whole museum devoted to his voluptuous, disproportionate works.
8. Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires, Argentina): This one was pretty good as far as modern art museums go, but it was the La Menesunda funhouse-type special exhibition that threw this one to the top of the list.
9. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Santiago, Chile): Most fine arts museums eventually bore me, but Chile’s edition displayed select pieces from their permanent collection around themes of sexuality. The presentation was atypical and I loved it.
10. Museo de la Moda (Santiago, Chile): Set in the curator’s mother’s old house, the Museum of Fashion was something unique and unexpected in Santiago.
- National Palace Museum (Taipei, Taiwan): This is one of those big ticket museums. I had great expectations and they were met. This one gets an honourable mention because it pisses off China.
- Mori Art Museum (Tokyo, Japan): I LOVED the special exhibition at the Mori Art Museum, and the roof-top open-air helipad/observation deck was the icing on the cake.
- Museo de los Andes (Montevideo, Uruguay): This little museum outlined the real-life crash of a rugby team’s plane in the Andes – the one that the film “Alive” is based on.
Top 10 Non-Museums (in chronological order):
1. Singapore Zoo Night Safari (Singapore): By far the best zoo experience I’ve ever had, the Night Safari was something totally unique – getting to see all the animals at their nocturnal best.
2. Table Mountain (Cape Town, South Africa): I love a good hike, and Table Mountain lived up to and beyond its reputation. The views were amazing and I earned my chocolate cake after.
3. Kruger National Park Safari (South Africa): I was pretty safari-ed out by the end of Africa, but my last safari in Kruger was a showstopper: all big 5 in one morning and a ton of other sightings.
4. Rault Biscuit Factory (Mahebourg, Mauritius): It’s not often you get to go right into the heart of a biscuit factory and have each worker show you how they do what they do. I loved the tour… and the free samples!
5. Reunification Palace (Saigon, Vietnam): After suffering through one propaganda-filled museum after another in Vietnam, the now-terribly-named former South Vietnamese presidential palace was left largely intact from when it fell during the Vietnam War, and propaganda wasn’t the main menu item.
6. Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (Phnom Penh, Cambodia): The saddest thing I did on my gap year, I didn’t know much about the Cambodian genocide, but this historical site – often known as “the Killing Fields” – gave me an education and helped me better understand my favourite Southeast Asian nation.
7. Monteverde Cloud Forest Zip Line (Monteverde, Costa Rica): I’m a chicken but I absolutely loved the zip lining at Monteverde… after the first few zips at least!
8. Palacio Legislativo (Montevideo, Uruguay): Not many tourists hit up Uruguay’s parliament building – especially not many English-speaking tourists – so my tour was me plus 2 Austrians and an extremely knowledgeable English-speaking guide who took us all around and answered all of my questions. I think the small size made it one of the best parliament tours I’ve ever done.
9. Palacio Barolo (Buenos Aires, Argentina): I visited this old 22-story skyscraper when I realized I’d have to wait ages for a tour of Argentina’s Congress. I’m so glad I did! The story of the architecture was fabulous and the little lighthouse on the top offered stunning views of the city.
10. Inca Trail (Peru): I thought Machu Picchu would be the highlight of Peru, but it was actually the Inca Trail. It wasn’t as strenuous as I was thinking it would be, and the views and cultural interactions were great. It must be true: it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey to get there.
- Bois Cheri Tea Plantation (Bois Cheri, Mauritius): Just like the biscuit factory, the tour of the tea factory was fantastic, as was the tea plantation setting and the on-site museum. My tour included all of the tea I could taste (and lots of trips to the bathroom) and the on-site restaurant fed me delicious tea-inspired dishes. Win.
- Poas Volcano (Poas, Costa Rica): I took a bus up to the top of an active volcano and got to look down into the crater. Did I mention I was a geology nerd back in the day? And still…
- Real City Tour (Medellin, Colombia): The best walking tour I did, the Real City Tour shies away from Medellin’s famous drug kingpin and tells the story of… the real city.
Top Monuments (in chronological order):
1. Hachiko Statue (Tokyo, Japan): It’s a statue of a dog that the locals erected to commemorate a dog that used to meet his owner at the station every day. Amazing.
2. National Peace Hall of the Atomic Bomb Victims (Hiroshima, Japan): The atomic bomb memorial’s every detail had a specific meaning. It also didn’t blame the US for the events that led to this disaster, but rather acknowledged that they themselves started the war. The whole thing was a touching, moving tribute.
3. Monument to Ferdinand Magellan (Punta Arenas, Chile): I got to kiss one of the toes on this statue to ensure I’ll go back to Punta Arenas one day. I love it!
I’m running out of things to blog about now… I’ll have one more blog coming up which covers the best beaches, best internet, and a few other random bits of information. If any of you, my four readers, are curious for a specific list, then please let me know and I’ll include it in the next installment. Woooo!