Italia Day 4 – Rome The First!

In which we leave before dawn to get to Rome before the Romans.

As I mentioned in my last post, our hotel door dumped us out right by the bus stop for 36:37, whose first holiday-time stop was at 5:34 in the morning and took only 10 minutes to get back to Firenze SMN. Our train for Rome, leaving from SMN, would be at something like 7:35. However, since we’d experienced trouble getting on the train the day before, we decided to be as early as possible to make sure we got tickets.

So we shivered outside for a few minutes (skipping breakfast at the hotel, alas) before jumping on the bus. Like most busses in Italy, these tickets were cheap (1.2euro ea) but had to be purchased in advance. We bought them while wandering Florence the day before.

Unfortunately, Aubri wasn’t much interested in eating (other than one case of the most delicious gelato ever) while we were in Florence, and so while I was buying the train tickets she promptly tossed up water and stomach acid all over the floor. We did our best to clean it up with napkins but couldn’t find an attendant to help clean the mess. Ugh.

Finally we gave up and hit McDonalds (the only thing open this early inside the station) to get some food and cappuccino. It was about what you’d expect from them, but Aubri ate almost one whole pancake. She was feeling a little better, briefly, but it was clear she was coming down with something.

We made it on the train without further incident and found ourselves in Rome Termini at around 8:22. While on the train we realized that Aubri was starting to develop a fever, so we decided to look for a pharmacy (Farmacea) for some baby tylenol before heading out to our first Air B&B stay. With a little extra pantomiming, they got the idea and hooked us up with a dropper liquid style tylenol alternative. They told us “three drops per kilo” and we were on our way.
Needless to say, counting out something like 42 drops for the kid was not going to happen, so I just gave her two droppers full and left it at that for the moment.

Our Air B&B stay had given good directions, so we were staying over near the San Giovanni exit and within a 15 minute walk of the Coliseum.  We were an hour early thanks to catching the better (cheaper) train, but our host G was there and we chatted for a while before leaving our bags in the room and heading out for our first day of exploring Rome.  It was expected to be around 54 degrees F as a high, so we felt prepared to have a good day. G hooked us up with a nice Ancient Rome area map and directions to some of the cooler spots, and we were on our way.

Looking back, I really should have pulled out the full paper directions (which I could read because I know enough Spanish/Latin to get by) and dosed Aubri with a lot more tylenol before we left. It turns out she should’ve been getting 7.5-10ml (a third of the bottle) every 6 hours because of her age and weight. Oops.

Anyway, we headed out for the Coliseum, and on the way we found a handful of pizza shops, one of which had thick handheld pizzas for only 2.50 ea. Jamie got one with olives and I got one with chicory leaves. They were delicious. We had to coerce Aubri into eating about 10 bites. We were amused to find several LGBT bars in the area immediately surrounding the Coliseum, well-denoted by rainbow lights. Lots of attractive people wandering around them at night, too. Good place to mingle probably, if you don’t have a small child tagging along.

The line at the Coliseum was absolutely crazy, and we suddenly remembered that it was Saturday. We settled for some cool pictures of ourselves outside it, and then moved on toward the Forum.
The Forum’s line was lighter, but since I thought we couldn’t actually get close to the ruins I didn’t really want to pay 12 euro each to go in there either. A Roma pass would have been a good choice, but we’d skipped on that. Note for next time.

Just past the Forum is the Piazza Venezia, which is dominated by a large and beautiful marble palace filled with cool statues. And let me add that I am pretty good at reading maps (even horrible tourist maps). But for some reason, I didn’t realize that huge marble structure was right by the Piazza, and we got turned around at this point. But I’m still not sure exactly where or how, because we didn’t realize that we were no longer walking in the same direction until we found the Pyramid, and the Pyramid was not on the map. Anywhere. This was an hour or so into our meandering walk, so we were displaced by a decent distance. Naturally, we kept walking and finally found ourselves at the Pyramid metro station, which was in an awful neighborhood with lots of loitering teenagers leering at people (namely, females, including us) as they walked past. We hopped on the metro to get back to the Circo Massimo stop.

By now Aubri was getting really whiny from walking, so of course she passed out on that short train hop, and we wound up stopping at a little tea shop to have a cup of black tea while Aubri slept on Jamie’s lap.

After poring over the map for a while, I finally realized we’d walked right off of it, but in the opposite direction I thought we’d been walking in. So we finished our tea, scooped up the monkey, and spent the next two hours slowly looping around the back side of the large triangle that includes the forum and Coliseum, as well as a bunch of cool old churches and such. We got a few neat pictures of ruins, and Aubri cried. A lot. It was getting a little more cloudy and grey, and she kept complaining about being cold.

Finally we made it back around to where the Coliseum was. We were still struggling to keep Aubri awake. We stopped in at a tasty smelling restaurant and just barely beat their rush. They were delicious and quite popular (though one of our pasta dishes was unexpectedly cold). The matron of the place coddled Aubri and even tucked her in with a tablecloth when she fell asleep. They gave us a to-go tin to make sure Aubri got some to eat because they didn’t want us to wake her up.

For dinner we ordered canneloni, ravioli, and that salmon penne again. Everything was good (especially the ravioli), but the penne was a little overly salty. I also notice that salt and other condiments almost never exist on the table in these restaurants–and maybe you can get your hands on pepper.

After dinner (which took some time because they were so very crowded), we scooped Aubri up and dragged ourselves back to our hosts’ home. Aubri’s fever was feeling much too high. Once we got to the house, we shoveled a few ravioli down her throat and then I resolved to give her two droppers of tylenol every two hours until her fever broke. These were the directions we got from her doctor when she had a high fever in November right after Thanksgiving. So we started watching Legend of Korra and dosing her. She was so hot by this time that her cheeks and hands were flushed totally pink. Yikes! It took like 4 hours, but her fever went down and she broke a heavy sweat. Finally instead of forcing her to drink water, she asked us for it. We were in the clear…and exhausted ourselves.

The bed at this host, hands down the comfiest bed we’ve ever had in a hotel or homestay arrangement. Nice down pillows too,  totally wonderful. Breakfast is a bit of a serve-yourself arrangement, but we’ll make it work.

And tomorrow, we have some choices to make on where to go.

Italy Day 3: In which we escape from Venice to Florence…

I awoke around 4am, which would have been perfect for getting to the station on time for the 5:40am train. Except that, to save my life, I couldn’t get Jamie to get up out of bed. The Autoespresso wasn’t exactly the most comfortable hotel, but getting lost in Venice the day prior was exhausting. So I laid awake in bed for another two hours, and our opportunity to catch the earliest train faded.

We did gorge ourselves (somewhat) on breakfast that morning, to make up for it. However, despite the fact that trains seem to run every 30 minutes or so between Venice and Florence, every train after the 5:40 was packed up until about 2pm. A kind ticket clerk found us a complicated route where we transferred at both Bologna and Prato to arrive, finally, in Florence at about 1:47…approximately 4 hours later than I had planned.

The Florence main train station is loud and cold, because it is enclosed above but open. Many homeless and questionable people wander around, but at least the station is cleaner than some. The station is Firenze S.M.N. (Santa Maria Novella), and the bus station outside is called “Abside S.M.N.” but also by several other names, to complicate things a bit. Within an easy walk we found the tourist information center, and they gave us a local walking map and advised us to try the Ufizzi Gallery, since we only had time for one now that the trains had stolen 4 hours of our day.

We decided to walk with the suitcase and backpack, rather than go all the way to the hotel and back first. It was finally gloriously warm in Florence! I think it was only 54F, but we started shedding coat layers in the sun. The roads are uneven, you must play chicken with the cars, and sidewalks almost don’t exist. But many of the side roads were at least partially pedestrian-only, so we made our way through streets lined with old reliefs and brilliant giant wood doors with huge knockers molded like lions and angels.

The view along the river was glorious, and we were happy that we saw considerably less defacing of old buildings in Florence. People were still difficult–many stared us down rather than go around the women lugging a suitcase and young child. But the air was less thick, some of the time.

The walk from the tourist center to the gallery was straightforward enough. However, when we arrived at the gallery, we saw that they were completely packed and would be inaccessible until the next day. Fortunately, they had many beautiful statues nearby, so we were able to enjoy some of the splendor of Florence even if the holidays had them overrun with tourists. We also discovered the best gelato we’ve had so far, just around the corner from the gallery.

The walk across the Golden Bridge and down that long winding road past the large Piazza was charming enough, though Aubri was getting very tired and whiny. We took note of a book/game shop and a tea shop for perusal later. Our hotel was a converted 14th century convent known as the Convitto della Calza. The bed was dreadful, and the room was understandably small. But the shower was amazing and the location was fabulous (36/37 bus stop immediately outside the door, easy walk to Boboli Gardens). We can’t speak for the breakfast because we had to leave far too early the next morning to catch the train to Rome.

After dropping off our bags, finally, we headed out for tea and dinner. The tea shop we’d seen before was also a chocolatiare. We spent some time perusing their wares before leaving with several truffles and a cup of delicious green and fruit tea. Aubri charmed them all, of course, including the Korean exchange student learning Italian while we were there.

Afterward we wandered the street looking for dinner. We settled for a place with some pasta dishes that sounded alright. Their food was overly salty and clearly more for tourists. By the time we got out of there only an hour or so later, it was getting to be after 7 and we were exhausted from all the walking. So we returned to our room, watched a few episodes of Legend of Korra, and collapsed with the alarm set for 4am…

And the next morning we are off to Rome!

Japan Day 14: Matsumoto Castle

Our host family brought out a book with beautiful pictures of an ancient Japanese castle that is still standing and in good shape. Matsumoto Castle is a National Treasure of Japan, and located in the Nagano prefecture. Since this was our last day for our JR passes, we decided to go.

The direct line train between Shinjuku Station and the Matsumoto station only leaves once an hour, on the hour, from (currently) track 9. The train takes just over 2.5 hours and is the most direct route.

A long ride…

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So that means it took us about 3 hours to get there, and since we missed the 10am direct, we had to catch the 11am. Around 1:40PM we finally pull into Matsumoto station.

The walk from Matsumoto station isn’t far. It’s about ten minutes, and very well marked with big signs and arrows. There are a few nice things along the way, like this clock:

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These carp over the river:

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A frog samurai riding a frog mount:

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Another clock:

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And my favorite, an old temple that has been converted to an antique book shop.

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We finally reached the castle and turned over 610jpy/ea to get inside. And what a splendid sight it cast with a sprawling moat and stony foundation lifting it high above the water.

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We walked through the grounds, snapping photos of the sakura blossoms along with the throngs of other tourists–many of them speaking German, French, or other Western European languages.

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Aubri’s only behaving for about the next two minutes.

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We got stamps on the backs of our tickets…

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The castle with sakura.

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And then we went on to the castle itself. Matsumoto Castle is darker than most castles in Japan, and so is nicknamed the “Crow Castle.” The castle was built and then expanded upon from 1504-1590ish. Because of the time period it was built in, it has both archer openings and rifle marksman openings in the walls.

As we entered, we had to put our shoes in bags that we carried with us.

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Rifle holes are more square.

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Arrow holes are longer rectangles. Either way the holes are smaller on the outside and have thin wires spanning them, also to discourage outside objects from coming in.

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A little about that you can’t read because it’s a tiny photo…

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An old painting of the grounds.

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Building materials.

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The view from the second floor arrow holes.

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Pulling Aubri up the stairs.

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The next flight up. The bamboo hand rails are a new addition, but basically as the stairs climb they get more steep and narrow, to discourage intruders.

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Aubri as an archer.

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Climbing the stairs to the third level.

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There are dozens of firearms from the 16th, 17th and 18th century on display throughout the castle. Some of them are really beautiful and would make great reference for a non-Western Steampunk.

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Also body armor.

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I love the six-revolver in the top right, so big.

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At the top of the tower the windows face East, West, North and South. The castle is six levels high but only five can be seen from outside.

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A view from the North window.

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And the East window.

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Tired and ready to head down.

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Running around at the top causing trouble.

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Another view from the arrow holes.

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So we hauled Aubri down all the stairs, trying not to bowl anyone else over in the process.

An adorable kimono on the way back to the station!

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We grabbed more sakura ice cream and a sakura sweet roll that had sweetened potato in the middle. Yum.

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They can’t speak English but try it!

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The view from Matsumoto station. I got to see this like four times…

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We got back to the station at about 4:30 and caught the train at 4:58 after buying a few quick snacks from the Newdays shop in the station (large convenience/souvenir shop chain in some stations). About 25 minutes into the ride, Jamie realized that she had left her glasses at the station when she changed into contacts. So we hopped off at the next stop, waited 15 minutes for a return train back, rode 25 minutes back to the station, spent another 20 minutes locating the lost and found and getting her glasses, and discovered that the next train back wasn’t for another 35 minutes (now at 6:35pm).

Fortunately they had a coloring book and colored pencils at a book shop in the station, to occupy Aubri (whose ipod battery was dead). Unfortunately we didn’t buy her any more snacks. So the 2.5 hour ride back to Shinjuku was probably the most miserable train ride yet. And since it was so late, everyone else was trying to sleep…

We caved and got her a cheeseburger at McDonalds at Shinjuku station before stacking on the last two rides back to get home.

So, that was our entire day. And we missed the good dinner, alas. But the castle was very cool and its weapons collection is worth a visit for the firearms enthusiast. They have English guides too, but they were out when we were there.

Tomorrow: Ikebukuro (yes, again), Nakana Broadway and Shibuya.

Japan Day 10: Tokyo Pt. 1

As I mentioned yesterday, we decided to forgo Karuizawa and go straight on to Tokyo to meet up with our host family.

We had a delicious breakfast first at the ryokan in Hakone.

This egg was cooked in the onsen water:

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Those braziers are filled with delicious miso. Aubri ate half of mine and spilled a bunch more all over both of us.

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Aubri’s “favor” is the crunchy seaweed.

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It’s a 15 minute walk and then a 14 minute rail car ride to get to Odawara, and along the way we found this crazy machine.

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It makes tiny pancakes filled with white bean paste, and we bought a fresh hot one to try. Very tasty.

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Odawara is where shinkansen to Tokyo  take about 45 minutes. We hopped on, but not before getting Aubri a Qoo because the kid loves this stuff and can spot the bottle in a vending machine at 60 paces.

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She also showed off her cute a bit. It was pretty heartwarming. She sat down and said “Aubri have two moms. A mommie and a momma!” Snuggles ensued.

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So we finally made it back to the more familiar Tokyo station. This is not the largest station in Tokyo by far, but it is closer to our host family’s house than the big Shinjuku.

We found some smelly earrings while we were there.

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So we went from Tokyo station to Ueno and hopped a short subway from there to get over to the Minowa area where our host family lives. Tokyo Sky Tower is our landmark star to guide ‘er by:

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We’re here!

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So Hiro-San found Rapunzel on TV and Aubri basically checked out of reality for the entire length of the movie. I had to go grab us lunch from 7-11 because she refused to budge.

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But then we finally got to Asakusa. In Tokyo everything is divided by town areas, in a much more extensive way than the Denver Metro area. Clothing styles and even some food styles are totally different between districts, as though each little suburb pod is its own town.

Asakusa is a pretty touristy location now but used to be the “old style” part of town. It is fun to wander around though.

We found a puffer fish restaurant where dinner is 6,000jpy/plate ($60). Not the deadly puffer fish then.

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This guy was doing some sort of a promotion and his handler offered to take a picture of all of us:

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Aubri  put her hands in those of the stars at the Asakusa version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

We ran into the entire Team Deutschland Gerban Futball team? Jamie thought she heard them say they’re an American-style football team though…
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And then Aubri met this dog.

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His owner had him so well trained that he handed the leash to Aubri and she walked him for a bit.

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We took a few pictures of the Gate of Thunder and Wind Gods before heading back.

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And of course we got some ice cream (maron flavor? Macaroon we think maybe?)

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And then we saw this crazy contraption on the way back. It looks like a Steampunk music-making bicycle.

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And there were blossoms on the way.

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Aubri was happy to settle in for a delicious dinner.

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Tomorrow we will hit Akihabara and there is a kimono parade in Asakusa, so we should have great pictures.

 

Top 10 Steampunk Vacations: #1!

And the winner is…

Colorado!

“Now, Kronda,” I hear you saying, “why are you showing special favoritism for your home state? How could it possibly be the top Steampunk destination in the world?”

I’m glad you asked. Aside from being home to one of the largest Steampunk events in the U.S. (AnomalyCon, 1200+ attendees, established 2011) and one of the largest enthusiast groups in the U.S. (the Colorado Steampunks, 1200 members, established 2009), Colorado’s major modern development began with a gold rush in 1848, and it wasn’t established as a state until 1876. That means that the bulk of our development occurred during the Colonial Victorian Era, and with the added incentive of the gold rush we experienced a lot of Victorian envy. Colorado is also ripe with “Wild West” history. Finally, because of the protective nature of the mountains, most of the history in the Denver metro area has been unimpacted by the rage of storms, fires, tornados, earthquakes, and especially hurricanes. That means we have hundreds of still-intact historical sites to explore.

Still not convinced? Read more about Colorado’s history here.

The number of points of interest are off the charts, so we’ll start with just a few to whet the appetite.

First, we have two railroad museums, the Colorado Railroad Museum (which boasts lots of trains for climbing on and plenty of preserved or almost-preserved steam trains). They are old friends of the Colorado Steampunks and love to see new faces. If you’re up for a drive, stop by the Greeley Freight Station Museum, which features life-size model trains and a whole town built as a backdrop for their exhibits! Add to these the Forney Museum of Transportation, which basically features anything and everything on wheels. Finally, Wings Over the Rockies is an air and space museum with dozens of planes and reproductions. Wrap up your transportation fascination by catching a ride on either the Royal Gorge Railroad (who offers dinner and murder mystery train rides) or the Leadville Train. Leadville is an old mining town, and the highest-elevation city in Colorado. Try to plan your trip during a time when you can see the Colorado Balloon Classic–a long hot air balloon festival. If you can’t make it to that, the Kite Festival in Arvada is usually in mid-to-late April. Both are free to attend.

Now for a historical walking tour of Denver. Denver hosts an awesome event every year called Doors Open Denver in mid-ish-April, wherein many historical buildings (even businesses) offer an open house to visit the cool architecture. The Colorado Steampunks usually make an appearance, and much history is available on these free tours. Unfortunately, their website only updates close to event time–but you can see past tours.

Now, as far as walking tours go this will be a long one! Try to take this tour on the First Friday of the month, if you can. Start your journey at what is now the Tivoli Student Union. This building started as a brewery and still retains much of the old equipment. AnomalyCon occurred in the Tivoli for its first two years. Wandering its halls is free, and some of the best photography comes from the old boiler rooms and the giant geared equipment. Park in the lot nearby for all day parking for only $6, which is a real steal downtown.

Next you will walk (or catch the Lightrail Line C) to Union Station, which was originally a railroad depot and still retains the old benches and charm. In the basement old vaults still line the halls and two model railroad clubs often have demonstrations down there. The outside is still a glorious image of the time, and the bold logo face of Union Station is as synonymous with Denver as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.

Move on from there to the Byron White Courthouse–a beautiful building with old columns and white marble architecture. Don’t get caught taking too many photos, though! Cut over to 16th Street Mall to see the original Daniels and Fisher clock tower, now renovated to be an events venue with a view–it also makes for a glorious photo backdrop. Catch the free mall ride to the other end of the mall. Stop by the beautiful Cathedral Basilica and then cut over to the Denver Mint and the Capitol Building–both have tours available.

Now, finish up your tour by taking a jaunt over to the Santa Fe Arts District on First Friday, to enjoy modern and industrial art–but also to see the open houses of several robotics companies!

For places you should probably drive to see, stop by the Molly Brown House–a museum to the Titanic, since Molly Brown was a survivor. They also offer afternoon tea–as does the Brown Palace, which is a landmark hotel that opened in 1892. It’s a little more expensive to stay ($160/night on the least expensive days of the year), but a beautiful experience that also offers historical tours. Also stop by the Museum of Outdoor Arts, which is free to visit and has a gorgeous brass exhibit of Alice in Wonderland–brilliant for photo sessions.

The Lumber Baron Inn is also a gorgeously restored Victorianesque mansion and bed-and-breakfast, and they feature a murder mystery dinner as well. Also check out Castle Marne, which was completed in 1889 and is another beautiful bed-and-breakfast. We also have our very own Steampunk-aesthetic bar, called the Rackhouse Pub–it’s in partnership with the whiskey brewery next door. If you’re interested in having a scientific cup of coffee, try Happy Coffee. The Colorado obsession with coffee and bookstores is legendary, and many of those places reside on Broadway, especially near Broadway Book Mall.

Now if you’re up for a long jaunt, Colorado features one of the most eccentric and Steampunk castles in the world–Bishop Castle. Located down near Pueblo, this castle was built (almost) singlehandedly by one very passionate man. He used primarily handheld tools and ironworking, so the methods are pretty Steampunk. The aesthetic is one if you crossed Dr. Seuss, Tim Burton and the Victorian Era–so it’s certainly a must-see. Admission and exploration are free, but bring a picnic! There are no amenities anywhere near this place.

We haven’t even scratched the surface here, like talking about all the ghost towns or the western museums or Wild Bill’s grave…but I can guarantee you’ll be wandering the area for ages. History–and the great food–are why Colorado is the #1 Steampunk Vacation Destination!

Looking for the rest of the top 10?
#2 – England!
#3 – Tokyo!
#4 – Michigan!
#5 – San Francisco!
#6 – New England Region!
#7 – New Orleans!
#8 – Vienna, Austria!
#9 – Carribbean!
#10 – Berlin!

Honorable Mentions:
New Zealand’s Steampunk Town