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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Posts from January, 2013

Exploring Philadelphia

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Philadelphia

Whether you are in the mood for food, culture, sports or history, the City of Brotherly Love has it all. Better known as Philadelphia, the large American city, which lies beneath the shadows of New York and Boston, is filled with fascinating events and activities.

 
1. If you are looking to experience the food in Philadelphia, then look no further than the Philadelphia South Street Walking Tour. Located in South Philly, the tour takes you through one of the cities unique and diverse neighborhoods. Starting at a Jewish deli and ending at a popular "cheese steak" shop, the tour includes food markets, street art, historic buildings and more. 
 
2. Need some romance in the City of Brotherly Love? Then take your sweetheart on the romantic Spirit of Philadelphia. A 3-hour cruise that offers a live show, buffet dinner, and a spectacular view of the Philadelphia skyline. With the option of lunch or dinner, spend the rest of your day visiting the Penn’s Landing area. 
 
3. Interested in sports? Philadelphia is one of the most unique sporting cities in America. With wild fans that are passionate about ice hockey, football, basketball and baseball, take the opportunity to go to a game. Make sure you arrive early enough for the parking lot tailgate! Food like hot dogs, sausages and hamburgers are very popular, and inside the event Chickie's & Pete's is a favoured Philadelphia restaurant. 
 
4. Looking for a little bit of education while on your trip, or do you just love history? Either way Philadelphia is one of America’s most historic cities and there is no better way to see it than through the Colonial City Walking Tour. From the Betsy Ross house to Independence Hall, the tour takes you back in time to where the city of Philadelphia began. 
 
5. Lastly, if history, food, or sports is not for you, give the King of Prussia Mall a try. Philadelphia is home to one of America’s largest shopping malls, located just outside the city, the King of Prussia Mall has over 400 stores to delight your shopping interest. Made up of a Court side and a Plaza side, the mall is easy to navigate and has a little bit of something for everyone. 

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Luxembourg Gardens

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Luxembourg Gardens; Credit - Grant Glendinning If you are looking for a chess partner; want to soothe your nerves, then take a stroll past lovely flowering plants and shrubs; lounge at an open-air café while sipping coffee; give the kids a pony ride; get away from your office for a quiet lunch break, then the gorgeous Luxembourg Gardens is just the place for all these activities. The gardens have fountains, sculptures, ponds, tennis courts, a marionette theatre, playgrounds and food kiosks.

Jardin du Luxembourg, to give its proper name, sprawls in the 6th Arrondissement, the heart of Paris, on the Left Bank of the Seine. It is bounded by Rue de Vaugirard, Boulevard St. Michel, Rue Auguste-Comte and Rue Guyneme. The second largest park in the city it is the official gardens of the Luxembourg Palace, the home of the French Senate.

The Palace and the Gardens are the child of Marie de Medicis’ grief at the assassination her husband, Henri IV. Not wanting to live in sorrow at the Louvre, their home, after his death she bought the (now called) Petit-Luxembourg Palace in 1611.

She then set about building a new one to resemble her childhood home in Florence – the Palazzo Pitti. She also commissioned several gardeners, notably Tommaso Francini, to design and create a park in her beloved Florentine style. 2,000 elm trees were planted amidst several terraces. Francini then built the beautiful Medici Fountain – the centre of a grotto.

When work first started the garden was only eight hectares. Then in 1630, Mme. Marie purchased more adjoin land and engaged Jacques Bovceau to carry on the work. He laid out a series of squares along an east-west grid that was marked at the east end by the Medici Fountain. He added borders of flowers and hedges in front of the palace, an octagonal basin with a fountain facing (what is now) the Paris Observatory.

Work was completed in 1625 but the present size of the Gardens was reached in only 1790.  This additional land was confiscated from the Carthusian monks by leaders of the French Revolution. Jean Chalgrin, architect of the Arc de Triomphe, carried out restoration work on the derelict gardens. He preserved and incorporated the old vineyards and formal French style gardens of the monks.

In the mid to late 1800s, many statues, sculptures and new boulevards were added. The Medici Fountain was rebuilt and moved to its present location. A scale model of the Statue of Liberty, built by Bartholdi, became a new resident. The garden also acquired a marionette theatre, greenhouses, an apiary and an orangerie.

The Jardin du Luxembourg now has hundreds of statues, monuments and fountains; acres of flower beds, trees and shrubs. It has changed much since Marie de Medici’s original plan but one thing has always remained – serenity. The gardens have always been an oasis amidst Paris’ turbulent history and everyday life. It is true sanctuary in every sense of the word.

Admission to the Luxembourg gardens depends upon the time of the year.

Opening times: Between 7:30am and 8:15 am.
Closing times: Between 4:45pm and 9:45 pm.
 

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The London Shard

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Long before it was completed or opened, the London Shard was the centre of swirling controversy, contradictions, conspiracies, rumours and stories. No one could quite agree on a name for the structure. I mean it was only just recently that it came to be known as the ‘The Shard.’ It was previously known as London Bridge Tower, Shard London Bridge and Shard of Glass. The building was also opposed by local authorities, the Royal Parks Foundation and English Heritage.

Towering above everything and standing on London’s South Bank, it has dramatically altered the London skyline, notwithstanding the Gherkin, Millennium Dome, City Hall and London Eye. It is claimed that on a clear day you can see France from its viewing galleries.  London Bridge Rail and Tube Station, located at its base, is the closest rail station. The Shard was designed with an irregular pyramidal shape from base to the top and inspired by the church steeples that once defined London’s skyline.

Scheduled to open to the public on 1 February 2013, this tower of glass is the tallest building in the European Union. On the night of July 5th, 2012, the building’s inauguration was accompanied by a choreographed light and laser display comprised of twelve lasers and 30 searchlights that lit up the city. Thousands of Londoners clambered to rooftops and other high public spaces to watch the blue, green, purple and gold laser show.

Its shiny, glistening bluish look definitely takes the eye and has also attracted the attention of conspiracy theorists. Some have even likened it Sauron’s (the bad guy in The Lord of The Rings) tower as depicted in the movie series. There are supposedly plenty of Freemason and Illuminati symbols openly and covertly embedded in its pyramid-like structure.  Perhaps only the architect, Renzo Piano, can clear up these perceptions.

Some Facts about the Shard

•    It is 1016 feet (309.6 metres) tall
•    95 storeys
•    It has 11,000 glass panels
•    The area of the glass façade equals eight football pitches
•    95 percent of the construction materials are recycled substance
•    72 of the floors will be occupied
•    15 levels are the ‘spire’
•    4th to the 28th floors will be office space
•    31st to 33rd will be restaurants and other dining facilities
•    34th to 52nd floors are taken by the Shangri-La Hotel and Spa (200 luxury rooms
•    53rd to 65th for 10 exclusive residences
•    68th to 72nd – public observation decks and galleries
•    The 72nd floor has an open-air observation deck
 

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Ghost Tours in Edinburgh

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Edinburgh has more to offer other than the imposing Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile.  The City is a bewildering mix of history, classic buildings, world-renowned educational institutions and a rowdy, nightlife.  While on the subject of nightlife it also has a remarkable variety and number of dark and ghoulish goings on.

Ghosts, stories of ghost and other paranormal activities – both old and some relatively new – abound in this city. It must have something to do with the city’s narrow twisty streets, the grey dark stone of the buildings and the long misty nights. The ideal material and setting for creepy and bone-chilling meetings.

There are several tour operators and individuals who run these tours so you have a choice as to who will take you on a scary walk. We have mentioned and highlighted just four of these tours – the major ones. However, tour operators mix and match portions and parts that sometimes overlap each other – giving different names for them.

So put on your woollies and comfortable walking shoes, dress up warmly and come along with us on some of Edinburgh’s Ghost Tours.  

City of the Dead Tours
This one takes you through the City of the Dead, involving a trip through Edinburgh’s underground streets. Damnation Alley has an ancient curse upon it while Greyfriars Kirkyard is said to be haunted, in particular the gloomy section called Covenanters Prison. The most famous of the ghosts is Mackenzie Poltergeist who seems to concentrate his spiritual attacks around the Black Mausoleum.

The guides seem to have a great patter in the humorous telling of awful events. Despite that the walk can still be unnerving.

Auld Reekie Tour
In Victorian times, when the Edinburgh air was thick with smoke and smog, cloaking buildings and turning streets into veritable haunts, the locals referred to the city as ‘Auld Reekie.’

The tour, which takes you through the Wynds and Closes of the Royal Mile and the Haunted Underground, is reputed to be the scariest! Travel under the South Bridge and the damp, dim, haunted vaulted chambers of Blair Street. Each one has its own bloody horror story and maybe you will have a chilling encounter of your own, to add to the long list. Then there is the visit to the Torture Museum.

Maybe you will meet the ‘Southbridge Poltegeist,’ a violent, scratching entity! To soothe your frayed nerves you could then quaff a drink or two in the Banshee Labyrinth – one of the most haunted pubs in the land.

Murder and Mystery Walking Tour
This is a slightly (very slightly) different tour. You get to experience and visit the scenes of tortures and murders; tales of witches and ghostly and ghastly events while walking down dank, dim alleys and spine-shivering parts of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Once again, the guides dole out chunks of humour that somehow emphasise the creepy, horrific nature of the tales they recount rather than alleviate them. They also throw in plenty of local history and facts.

Mary King’s Close
The ancient streets of Mary King’s Close are located under the present day buildings of Edinburgh’s Old Town. This spooky area is entered from Warriston’s Close and Writer’s Court. There have been reports of hauntings at the Close (Scots for alleyways) since the 17th century. The perfectly preserved homes and shops are touted as the most haunted site in all Scotland. Among the many shadowy apparitions is that of Annie, a young girl, whose family died in the plague. Visitors, over the years, have built a shrine to her, composed of dolls.
 

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Blending-in in a Foreign Country

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(How not to stand-out like an obvious tourist in a foreign country)

At the very outset let’s make one thing clear. As a tourist you are never going to blend in a 100 percent and all the time. There will be occasions when you will stand out or be recognised for who you are – a visitor. That’s all right. The trick or rather the art is not being boorish and stick out like a sore thumb.

We hope that some of the following pointers will help you to blend in, enjoy your vacation and not fall victim to those many and varied tourist disasters and faux pas.

Take a little time: When you are planning your trip abroad take some time to learn about your destination. It will be invaluable to know the weather at the time of year you will be travelling and some of the local customs and etiquette.

Clothes: This is the most frequent and obvious blunder that mark tourists like a neon-lit sign. Avoid those ghastly sneakers, flip-flops, baseball caps, cargo pants and ugly, clumsy-looking cargo pants and shorts or other items that belong on the beach. Hairy legs and knobbly knees sticking out of weirdly-coloured shorts that are either too short or overly long are another give away. Try not to look dishevelled and unwashed if you are going the backpacker route.

Another big no-no is wearing clothes featuring national flags, football and college sports teams. Jeans, light cottons or other breathable materials are good choices. Don’t wear round-neck T-shirts to dinner as a guest at someone’s home or a nice restaurant. Sandals accompanied with socks are a dead give-away. Take the time to change after a day out sightseeing.

Keep the expensive jewellery at home. Those expensive earrings, chains and watches will make you an unwilling object of thieves’ attentions.

Camera: The person with a camera permanently stuck to their eyes or draped around the necks is the image of the archetypal tourist. Fight back the desire to photograph any and everything. There are excellent compact, convenient digital cameras readily available. So there is no real need to have those cumbersome, big-lenses and highly expensive cameras on your neck. Get one you can slip into your pocket or purse.

Fanny Packs: These ugly inventions scream ‘tourist’ in every country. Keep your money, wallet, documents and valuables in a shoulder bag. Fanny packs are also very vulnerable to the attention of pickpockets. They can be easily unzipped or cut open without your being aware of it happening.

Consulting Maps and Guidebooks: Tourists standing in the middle of busy sidewalks unfolding maps and struggling with them in the wind is a sight we have all seen. That puts you in the cross-hairs of scam artists, pickpockets, thieves and other undesirable types.  Consult your maps and guidebooks in your hotel room before leaving for the day’s outing or fold the map into a smaller section of the area you will be covering.  Make notes of names and other details you might need. However, if you still need to consult your map duck into a coffee shop or store and do it. Discretion is the watchword.

Loudness: Tourists have been noted for their loud voices when chatting amongst themselves. Unacceptable and insensitive remarks about local conditions, facilities and sometimes ignorant comments about landmarks and traditions in loud voices are a good way to give the wrong impression and possibly antagonise the locals. Keep it down, avoid exaggerated arm movements and the too often, ‘take a look at that.’

In ending…  It will be really difficult to become completely invisible or fit in when travelling abroad. Don’t let that spoil your holiday but follow the tips above and you will be less likely to stand out, offend and possibly be liked.
 

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