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10 Unique City Tours Around the World

Posted May 5, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Magic Bus)

See a completely different side of a city when you break away from the mob of tourists following the guide with the red umbrella. On these 10 unique city tours, you'll venture into the Bronx with an old-school rapper, see abandoned buildings in Portugal's second city, and go longboarding through Amsterdam's most famous park. You're sure to come home with a camera full of authentic experiences that most visitors miss.

 

(Photo: Bats Over Congress Avenue Bridge via Shutterstock)

Never Unpack Your Travel Items

Crowds gather from March through October on the Congress Avenue Bridge to see a natural spectacle that has earned the resident bat colony celebrity status in Austin. Each night at dusk, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from beneath the bridge, swirling like a black ribbon into the sky. For a unique perspective on the mass exodus, watch it from the water on a Congress Avenue Kayaks bat tour. With a small group of 10, you'll paddle under the bridge in sit-on-top kayaks. After encountering the bats, you can venture out on your own to see other sights on the water.

Details: The 90-minute kayak bat tour departs at sunset in season and is $30 for a two-person kayak.

Insider Tip: You can also watch the bats from the Four Seasons Hotel Austin's lobby lounge, which serves a "Batini" cocktail. Plan an August visit to coincide with the city's annual bat festival.

 

(Photo: Magic Bus San Francisco Tour)

1960s Summer of Love Tour, San Francisco, California

It's all peace, love, and bubble-spewing on this psychedelic hippie bus that takes you on a trip back to San Francisco's 1960s counterculture. The Magic Bus Tour stops at landmarks of the city's hippie movement; you can even join in a drum circle (this time without the purple haze). On the bus, a groovy guide/actor will share interesting stories and rock out with you to the music of the era. It's a multimedia adventure that evokes the decade's politics and attitudes through live action and video projections on the bus's retractable window screens. The tour hits Chinatown and the North Beach spot where Jack Kerouac hung out. You'll see Golden Gate Park and the crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets, home of the Summer of Love, in a whole new light.

Details: The two-hour tour is $55 and starts at Union Square.

Insider Tip: Bring a jacket or sweater. It can be chilly at Golden Gate Park even if it's warm downtown at the tour's start.

 

(Photo: Rob Moody)

Downtown Yoga Tour, Asheville, North Carolina

Take your downward dog downtown in Asheville, North Carolina. On this Travelling Yogini Tour, you'll strike a pose and connect with your breath in several of the city's iconic spots. A yoga guide will start with beginner-level stretches and, as you move from Pritchard Park to the Flat Iron Building to the artsy Chicken Alley district, the poses will become more challenging. By the time you finish with a cooldown and meditation, you'll have heard about Asheville's history and architecture. Between flowing in and out of poses, you'll meet street performers, artists, and others who are out exploring the city.

Details: The 90-minute downtown tour is $20.

Insider Tip: Along the way, the yoga guide will point out funky boutiques and specialty shops, giving you interesting tidbits on the history and products so you can plan your apres-yoga shopping route.

 

(Photo: Berlinagenten)

Urban Home-Visit Tour, Berlin, Germany

Want an invitation to sit in a Berliner's flat and chat over coffee or beer? The Urban Living Tour, the ultimate insider's tour, will introduce you to three different Berliners in three different neighborhoods. You'll get to go inside their homes and spend an hour visiting and checking out their decor. The hosts you'll meet will depend on who is in town on the day you're visiting. It could be a set designer in an underground courtyard apartment or a photographer with an uber-luxe pad on a main thoroughfare built in the Stalin era. While you snoop around and see how they live, you'll hear about what drew them to the city and what they love about it.

Details: The 4.5-hour tour includes visits to three private apartments, drinks and sweets, sightseeing between the visits, transport, and a private guide. Prices vary based on how many people are taking the tour; see website for details.

Insider Tip: Keep an open mind and come with questions.

 

(Photo: Dominic Stevenson)

City Tour Led by Homeless Guide, London, England

See London through the eyes of someone who lives on the city's streets. Unseen Tours hires and professionally trains homeless and formerly homeless people to lead its walking tours of London Bridge, Camden, Shoreditch, and Convent Garden. See the stark contrast between historical landmarks and sites where the guides have slept, hear riveting personal stories, and discover tucked-away places few others ever experience. The tour ends at either a pub or a cafe, so you can carry on with your guide or group in a discussion that ebbs between the politics of street begging and the effects of gentrification on the East End.

Details: The tour runs $9 to $14 per hour and usually lasts about 90 minutes.

Insider Tip: On each tour, the company reserves two free spots for those who are either unable to pay or are accompanying someone as a caregiver. Wondering how much of the ticket sales goes back to the guide? About 80 percent. Unseen Tours was the winner for best tour operator for local experiences in the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2011.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

'Worst' Walking Tour, Porto, Portugal

This tour in Portugal's second-largest city is the antithesis of a tourist trap. Avoiding all of Porto's polished postcard-perfect sites, it takes visitors past decrepit homes and crumbling shops. Started by three out-of-work architects who stuck around after the country was hit hard by the recession, The Worst Tours will show you the not-for-tourists sites and guides will tell stories about the old markets and abandoned buildings, helping you understand what's behind Europe's economic crisis. Learn about Porto's architecture, history, politics, and urbanism from a few people who are "OK with not being popular or cool or the best in anything, least of all touring."

Details: Tours are two to three hours and are free.

Insider Tip: Let your guide know which parts of the city you've already visited and what your interests are, and he or she will create a route that shows you things you haven't seen.

 

(Photo: Urban Adventures)

Gwana Music Tour, Essaouira, Morocco

New this spring, the Gnawa Music Experience tour gives you a unique encounter with one of Morocco's off-the-charts popular trends: trance-like Gnawa music and its acrobatic dance moves. You'll be introduced to the addictive music's Afro-Moroccan culture and customs in the medina, where musicians will be jamming. Then, you'll step inside hidden domains typically inaccessible to visitors: You'll go into the home of a dancer to see him perform, watch a troupe master play a traditional lute-like instrument in his private quarters, and visit a temple where sacred rituals drive out evil spirits.

Details: The evening tour costs around $100 and lasts two to three hours.

Insider Tip: Both men and women should dress with respect, covering everything from the shoulders to the knees. At the end of the tour, your guide can recommend places to go dancing where you'll hear Gnawa music fused with Western and Latin music.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor LLC)

Hip-Hop Tour, New York, New York

With a legendary hip-hop artist as your guide, Hush Tours will give you a truly entertaining experience in the Bronx and Harlem, the birthplace of the culture. Here, people on the street might recognize and give shout-outs to the Hush Tours guides—Grandmaster Caz, Kurtis Blow, and others—as they delve into four aspects of hip-hop culture: DJing, MCing, B-boy and B-girl dancing, and graffiti artistry. You'll see the important landmarks and check out where Biggie, Nas, and Jay-Z grew up on this fun tour.

Details: Tours range from two hours ($32) to four hours ($75).

Insider Tip: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. At one point on the tour, you'll learn hip-hop moves and try them out on the streets.

 

(Photo: LiveToronto)

Date-Night City Tour with a Photographer, Toronto, Canada

Nothing against snapping a selfie with your iPhone, but on LiveToronto's Date Night Tour, you'll get enviable pics (without your arm) for posting on Facebook or printing in a photo book. Depending on your interests (sports, architecture, music, etc.), your personal paparazzo will plan a walking route to hit Toronto's key sites and set up photo ops. As you explore downtown's icons and hidden gems, your photographer guide will share interesting details about each landmark while capturing everything from classic poses to silly shots. Choose your own adventure: You can include the Harbourfront, the base of the CN Tower, Osgoode Hall, Roundhouse Park, and others.

Details: The 60-minute private tour is $100 to $200 per couple and includes 50 fully edited digital photos, which will be delivered within 24 hours.

Insider Tip: Don't surprise your significant other with this date-night tour—there are too many things to consider beforehand (including hair, nails, and a second outfit or pair of shoes for another look). The company runs tours for families and corporate groups, too.

 

(Photo: Vondelsurfing)

Longboarding Tour, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

You won't find this longboard tour through Vondelpark in your guidebook or officially operated by any local tour company. But check Vayable.com and there it is: Vondelsurfing, offered by a "semi-professional amateur" longboarder named Milan V. In the new sharing economy, websites like Vayable.com connect you with a vetted local guide. Here, Milan V. puts you on a long skateboard in the middle of Amsterdam's most popular park, hands you a rope, and pulls you behind a fixie bicycle for a couple of hours. It's a chance to see the park like a true hipster Amsterdammer, says Milan V., who has hosted beginners as well as seasoned longboarders.

Details: The two-hour tour is $24 and includes all gear, a drink, and photo/video of your ride.

Insider Tip: Vondelsurfing is fun in pairs of two, so you can switch and watch how the other is doing.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Truly Unique City Tours Around the World.

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13 Best National Parks to See in the Fall

Posted October 29, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

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U.S. national parks are beautiful to begin with. But when the deciduous trees that blanket so many national parks become aglow with radiant fall foliage, the spectacle is astounding. You might need to pack a sweater, but you can snap gorgeous photos, partake in special activities, and, of course, enjoy the colors of autumn when you plan a trip this season.

Although fall means fewer crowds (and perhaps the chance to more easily spot wildlife) in popular parks, the weather can be unpredictable, and some facilities even close up after the summer season. Be sure to contact your park for details on what's open and what's not before planning your trip.

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Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia might be the first place that comes to mind when you think of fall colors at national parks—the destination attracts thousands of leaf peepers in autumn, so be prepared for some crowds. But it's totally worth it—traverse the park's more than 125 miles of hiking trails to discover amazing views, take a ranger-led bird-watching walk among the changing leaves, or rent a kayak and take in the scenery from the water.

When to Go: Peak fall colors generally pop up around mid-October. Check the region's leaf status on MaineFoliage.com.

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Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, Texas

You might be surprised to learn that the Texas Hill Country is a prime place for leaf peeping down south. Head to Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, where you can get a side of American history with your foliage. The park is home to the LBJ Ranch (also known as the Texas White House), which is surrounded by wild brush country. Here, sumacs, oaks, and haw hollies become awash with intense fall hues during autumn.

When to Go: You'll likely find the best foliage from mid-October through November.

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Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

This park's famed cave system—more than 400 square miles of explored underground caverns that make up the world's longest—is the reason most visitors make the trip. But don't overlook the scenery aboveground. Forests of oaks, hickories, gum trees, and dogwoods on rolling Kentucky hills become a mosaic of fall colors this time of year.

When to Go: Check KentuckyTourism.com for updates.

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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

We love the sweeping views of water and the eyeful of beautiful fall colors that Sleeping Bear's sky-high dunes afford during this time of year. Visitors can get even better views from the air: Board a helicopter or hot-air balloon and view fall foliage on an aerial tour.

When to Go: You'll find peak colors in the region from mid-September through early October. Check Michigan.org's Fall Color Map to see the status of local foliage.

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Valley Forge National Historical Park, Pennsylvania

Just a short drive from Philadelphia, Valley Forge is the site where General Washington and his Continental Army camped during the Revolutionary War. Here, visitors can learn about life in the 18th century as well as explore an expanse of lush parkland, including more than 3,000 acres of grassland, wetland, and deciduous forest, which become awash with rich colors in autumn.

When to Go: Weekly foliage reports are posted on Pennsylvania's official tourism website.

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

There are about 100 native tree species in America's most-visited national park, most of which turn kaleidoscopic come fall. Changing leaves are complemented by autumn wildflowers: delicate asters and other varieties furnish pops of color.

When to Go: Get weekly reports on the state of local foliage on the National Park Service website.

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Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Since Shenandoah's more than 300 square miles of parkland are so heavily forested, it's a gorgeous place to be when the seasons change. Look for oak and chestnut trees, which are abundant in the park, as well as splashes of autumn pigment from sassafras, sumac, and poison ivy. (Yes, poison ivy leaves change color in the fall. Just don't get too close.)

When to Go: Take a peek at the park's Mountain View Webcam for a real-time look at the changing leaves. Expect the best colors in mid-October in more elevated parts of the park and late October to early November in more low-lying areas.

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Glacier National Park, Montana

Fall foliage in this enormous, wild expanse of alpine forests and Rocky Mountains in Montana is quite the sight. But fall is a wonderful time to visit if you want to see wildlife, too. The National Park Service website says that there are fewer people in the park and more animals—including grizzlies, wolves, and eagles—out and about during autumn.

When to Go: Peak fall colors generally appear at the end of September and beginning of October.

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Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park's jaw-dropping sky-high cliffs provide the perfect points for seeing miles of mesas and forested land decked out in reds, oranges, and golds. Climb to the top of Zion's massive sandstone cliffs to get sweeping bird's-eye views of the autumn scenery.

When to Go: Zion shows its best colors in late October.

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Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia

Peep the leaves in well-tread Harpers Ferry, where 70 percent of the land is covered with forest. Fun fall activities sweeten the deal: Visitors can explore living-history museums on Shenandoah Street or make traditional 19th-century tin housewares using period tools.

When to Go: Follow Harpers Ferry on Facebook for the latest foliage updates. According to the page, the leaves are already beginning to change.

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Close to Cleveland and hugging the winding Cuyahoga River, this national park is a Midwestern sanctuary for fall foliage seekers. There's so much to do: Hike along more than 125 miles of trails, take part in an EarthCaching adventure, or go bird-watching (look out for the bald eagles). One of the most relaxing ways to enjoy the fall colors is to hop onboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which rolls through the park past lush woods, meadows, the Cuyahoga River, and historical small towns.

When to Go: The best colors flourish in mid-October. Check the Fall Color Report for real-time updates.

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Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Wyoming

These parks are so close that they almost touch, and they offer amazing autumn colors against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, waterfalls, forests, and lakes that reflect the changing leaves. Hikes, horseback rides, and ranger-led treks are fabulous ways to see the foliage. Or get a bird's-eye view with a hot-air balloon ride or a trip on the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram.

When to Go: Head to Wyoming in September and early October to see the foliage. Read more on the Wyoming Office of Tourism website.

 

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 13 Best National Parks to See in the Fall. 

 Follow Caroline Costello on Google+ or email her at at editor@smartertravel.com.

 

America's Most Haunted Restaurants and Bars

Posted October 19, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

The Jury Room Chandelier-580x382

Bordello murders, fatal wedding-day accidents, hate-fueled arson attacks, and other tragedies have left behind unsettled spirits in historic restaurants and bars across the country. For the spine-chilling chance to see the resident apparitions and experience their antics, sit down to a filet mignon in Michigan or hit the slot machines at a Nevada saloon. Here are some of America's most haunted restaurants and bars—ones that have given employees, patrons, and even ghost hunters more than what they ordered.

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Mission Table, Traverse City, Michigan

The unhappy ghost of Genevive Stickney, an obese and jealous woman, still frequents her former residence, now Mission Table restaurant. As the story goes, Genevive and her Chicago lumber-baron husband built the home in the late 1800s. Succumbing to the excesses of good food and fruit brandies, the attractive Genevive became quite stout. She had a special gilt-edged mirror installed that made her appear thinner than she was, but eventually she became so large that she needed an elevator to transport her to the second floor. When her philandering husband took up with a mistress and left the mistress all his money, Genevive took her own life.

Haunted Encounters: In Genevive's mirror, restaurant guests have seen the reflection of a woman dressed in 19th-century clothing with hair pulled into a tight bun, the way Genevive wore hers. Lights turn themselves on and off, objects are mysteriously hurled through the air at people, hands on the grandfather clock are moved ahead, and candles are found burning in the morning.

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The Brass Rail, Hoboken, New Jersey

A ghost bride is said to haunt the historical Brass Rail restaurant in downtown Hoboken. Legend has it that on her wedding day in 1904, she tripped at the top of the staircase, fell, broke her neck, and died. Later that night, her distraught husband, who was drinking heavily, wrote a suicide note and hung himself in a room near the stairs.

Haunted Encounters: Restaurant staff and patrons have spotted spirits of the bride and groom wandering up and down the stairs. A photo taken by the New Jersey Ghost Hunters Society revealed a white wisp of smoke hovering above the stairs when no one was smoking in the room. Others say they have heard walking in the upstairs dining room when it was empty and seen the ghost of a woman wearing white in the back alley.

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The UpStairs Lounge, New Orleans, Louisiana

Forty years ago, one of the deadliest crimes against the LGBT community in U.S. history took place at this French Quarter gay bar above The Jimani Lounge & Restaurant when an arsonist set it on fire, killing 32 men. The UpStairs Lounge had only one entrance—the door at the bottom of the stairwell, where the fire originated. While the fire blazed, patrons tried desperately to climb out the windows but couldn't escape, since windows were mostly barred or blocked completely. Several bodies were unclaimed by embarrassed family members, and the arsonist was never caught. The UpStairs Lounge area is now the kitchen of the first-floor Jimani Lounge & Restaurant.

Haunted Encounters: The building's current owner, who witnessed the event as a child when his father was owner, has seen apparitions of charred bodies, dark shadows, white orbs, and flashes of light in the building. When Syfy's Ghost Hunters crew visited last year, detectors picked up screeching noises in the stairwell.

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The Masquerade, Atlanta, Georgia

This concert venue in Atlanta's historic Old Fourth Ward neighborhood was originally a mill that produced wood shavings. Since the mill property's opening at the turn of the 20th century, it has seen its share of fires, structural collapses, and the gruesome accidental death of mill worker Hubert Neal in 1899. But the grisly stories that circulate at The Masquerade only add to the appeal for the goths, metalheads, and punk rockers who converge here for shows.

Haunted Encounters: Staff and concertgoers repeatedly report sightings of an apparition of a tall black man and say they've heard voices, screaming, and heavy phantom footsteps. An investigation by the Georgia Society for the Paranormal Sciences gathered accounts from multiple employees who described the feeling of being watched. The group recorded several unexplained noises and encountered a dark human-shaped mass. In the middle of the night, the group watched as a mysterious dense white fog appeared and dissipated on the club's second level, called "Heaven."

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Pioneer Saloon, Goodsprings, Nevada

The paranormal activity at this 100-year-old Wild West saloon just outside Las Vegas kicked off the 2013 season of Ghost Adventures on The Travel Channel. Reportedly haunted by an elderly miner and a cheating gambler who was killed at a card table in 1915, the Pioneer Saloon hasn't changed much since the days of the town's mining boom. Bullet holes from the gambler's murder can still be seen in the wall.

Haunted Encounters: Nearly every bar employee has seen the ghost of the elderly miner, a short man who wears a cowboy hat, standing behind people at the slot machines or hanging out by the potbellied stove. The spirit of the gambler makes an occasional appearance at a card table at the back of the bar. Visitors and staff have also been known to hear disembodied voices and see mysterious trails of cigarette smoke materialize.

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The Brentwood Restaurant & Wine Bistro, Little River, South Carolina

Drawing paranormal-research conferences, A&E's My Ghost Story crew, and numerous investigation groups, The Brentwood Restaurant & Wine Bistro has been called the most haunted location on the Grand Strand. It's just north of Myrtle Beach's main drag in a 103-year-old Victorian home. The restaurant owners have embraced the supernatural, saying they've never felt threatened. They regularly plan special-event dinners with psychics and talk openly about the restaurant's spook factor.

Haunted Encounters: Guests often get "locked" in the second-floor bathroom. Strange voices, unexplained movement of equipment, and shadowy figures have been reported by even the most skeptical guests and employees. When one of the restaurant owners asked the spirit who was there, the reply—captured in a recording—was "Clarence." Clarence and Essie Bessent-McCorsley were the original owners of the Victorian home.

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Jean Bonnet Tavern, Bedford, Pennsylvania

Built in the 1760s at a major junction of the only road connecting eastern Pennsylvania with the Ohio River, the Jean Bonnet was an important trading post and watering hole for early settlers. If the tavern's original stone walls could talk, they'd tell of rowdy trappers and traders, Whiskey Rebellion farmers' meetings, and encampments of troops summoned here by George Washington. Stories of the spirits at the Jean Bonnet Tavern are captured in The Pennsylvania Ghost Guide, Vol. II by Patty A. Wilson.

Haunted Encounters: Guests and staff describe a strange man in the bar after-hours, doors being opened and closed, and the sensation of being touched when no one is around. When members of the Central Pennsylvania Paranormal Association spent the night, a group of apparitions in frontier-type clothing appeared in a doorway and watched a man playing the piano at the other end of the bar.

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Catfish Plantation, Waxahachie, Texas

In the south Dallas suburb of Waxahachie, Catfish Plantation restaurant occupies an 1895 Victorian home where three former residents are believed to have died. The apparition of Elizabeth, murdered here on her wedding day in the 1920s, appears in her wedding gown. A Depression-era farmer named Will walks around the lobby and front porch in his overalls. Caroline, a strict religious woman who detested alcohol, passed away here in 1970, and now she sends wine glasses flying into the wall. The Travel Channel's Extreme Restaurants show, NBC News, and several paranormal groups have reported on the Catfish Plantation's strange occurrences.

Haunted Encounters: Besides seeing the resident ghosts, the restaurant's guests and staff have felt cold spots that move around. Clocks with missing parts chime. Doors, lights, and faucets all operate at will. And several knives go missing every night.

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The Jury Room, Columbus, Ohio

One of the oldest continually operating restaurants in Columbus, opened in 1831, this downtown mainstay has plenty of stories to fuel its ghostly reputation. It was built on Native American burial ground and lost its third floor to a fire in the late 1800s. The original tin ceiling and historical photos are a throwback to The Jury Room's days as a bordello. At the bar, you can order a "Hung Jury," a "Bordello Bubbly," or a "Lorenzo's Revenge," all nods to the prostitute who shot a man on the bordello's front doorstep in the 1850s and her subsequent trial for murder.

Haunted Encounters: A tall, shadowy man has been seen roaming around the bar and appearing behind bartenders. Objects move at will and women describe being attacked by unseen forces. There have been so many occurrences that the staff now keeps a ghost log and The Travel Channel's The Dead Files has come to investigate.

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High Noon Restaurant & Saloon, Albuquerque, New Mexico

In Albuquerque's Old Town, two different spirits are believed to haunt High Noon Restaurant & Saloon, housed in one of the historic district's oldest structures. Constructed in 1785, the building has served as both a casino and a successful brothel. According to Ken Hudnall's book Spirits of the Border IV: The History and Mystery of New Mexico, some say High Noon is haunted by the ghost of a trapper. The female spirit, investigated by the Southwest Ghost Hunter's Association, wears an old-fashioned white formal dress.

Haunted Encounters: Hudnall says the male ghost may be responsible for the unseen tapping that customers and employees feel on their shoulders, the smell of burning when the fireplace isn't lit, and the calling out of employees' names. Several customers and staff members have reported supernatural sightings, including the female spirit, who haunts the Santos Room lounge. High Noon is one of many restaurants and bars on the lantern-lit Ghost Tour of Old Town.

 

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title America's Most Haunted Restaurants and Bars.

Austin Entertains on a Student's Budget

Posted October 13, 2010 by Kate Hamman

Austin With movies, music, or art around nearly every corner, Austin is a student's dream getaway. However, whether you're in school or just young at heart, you don't have to be rich to have a good time. Come watch a movie in a theater with a killer beer selection, shop in a store filled with offbeat antiques, and eat pancakes at 4 a.m. at an all-night diner.

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Alamo Drafthouse Cinema: Find a film to fit any mood at one of the three Alamo Drafthouses in Austin. Once you're seated, you can order drinks and food during the show. There's an impressive selection of beers on tap and in the bottle. And if you're in need of sustenance, you can order standard fried pub fare, pizzas, and sandwiches. Each seat comes equipped with a table and order forms.

Shop
Uncommon Objects: Whether or not you love to shop, pay a visit to Uncommon Objects to appreciate its range of oddball antiques and vintage collectables. You never know what you may find buried amongst the purses, jewelry, photos, dolls, and the like. And with an amazing array of quirky and unique items like mannequin hands or vintage family portraits, this store is all about uncovering your own kind of treasure. Prices vary, but you may just unearth a steal if you dig deep enough.

Eat
Magnolia Cafe: Magnolia Cafe is so serious about offering top-notch diner food "24 hours, eight days a week" that they've hung a neon sign outside apologizing for being open. The two locations in Austin serve a wide range of pasta, burgers, fish, steaks, and breakfast items. So, no matter what hour of the day you're craving pancakes, Magnolia is there with a stack of your favorite fix. Pancakes will set you back a mere $4.75, and almost everything else on the menu costs under $10.

To search for flights and compare prices to Austin, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: iStockPhoto.com/Terry J Alcorn)

San Antonio is Big on Affordability and Culture

Posted July 28, 2010 by Kate Hamman

San antonio Not far from the Mexican border, San Antonio has become a top spot for all things Tex-Mex. Here, two cultures interact seamlessly, adding to the unique vibe of the city. Explore its diversity in an art museum filled with works and artifacts from both countries. Then shop to your heart's content for folk art in a hip neighborhood, before dining in an all-night diner with live mariachi music and good eats. Plus, you can rest easy knowing you can afford your visit.

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San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA): Since 1981, the SAMA has been the place to go in San Antonio to view all kinds of art. Though you can see American, Asian, Contemporary, European, Latin American, and Oceanic works on permanent display, the real attraction tends to be the changing exhibits that highlight local artists and Mexican artifacts. Admission costs $8, but you can get in free every Tuesday night from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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Southtown: Just south of the downtown area, you'll find an artsy neighborhood overflowing with quirky boutiques, coffeehouses, and cutting-edge galleries. Come browse the shops filled with artisan crafts, folk art, unique clothes, and one-of-a-kind handmade items. The First Friday ArtWalk is enough reason to visit this funky side of the city, where galleries stay open late, cafes offer live music, and the streets fill with vendors selling food and souvenirs.

Eat
Mi Tierra: Just about any time of day or night at Mi Tierra, you can listen to the mariachi band play as you enjoy dinner and a specialty margarita. This restaurant-bakery-bar never closes, and serves traditional Mexican dishes and breakfast all day long.

To search for flights and compare prices to San Antonio, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: SACVB/Dave G. Houser)

5 Fun Things to Do in South Padre Island

Posted July 9, 2009 by Nicki Krawczyk

SouthpadreislandJust a smidge (technical term) north of Mexico, you’ll find yourself on the balmy beaches of South Padre Island, Texas. A small resort town merely blocks wide at the southern tip of Padre Island, this little burg was decimated by Hurricane Beulah in 1967, only to be subsequently rebuilt into a haven of bliss.

Popular with both families and spring-breaking co-eds (though not usually at the same time), this getaway spot features beach-y Gulf-breeze splendor with no need for those pesky passports. Should you find yourself with an itinerary sending your sunny little self down south in this direction, I’ve compiled a list of must-dos for your minimal moments off the beach.

Kiteboarding. Strap your feet to a board, grab the handle of a kite and (if you catch the wind right) get pulled through the surf faster than you can say “gale-force winds.”

Dolphin Research and Nature Center. With oceans naturally comes ocean life, and with ocean life comes the need for research and conservation. Get a hands-on lesson about all things aquatic around Padre Island and, for a mere 25 bucks, you can even adopt a dolphin. At last check, you could claim a bottlenose named “Nubbins.” Move fast.

Waterpark. With a name like a German medical procedure, Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark sounds a lot less fun than it is. Well, prepare for a pleasant surprise. Tube shoots, surfing machines, uphill water coasters and more await the amusement-seeking chlorine fiend…and a swim-up bar awaits the older libation-seekers.

Sandcastle Building Lessons. Just a little bit of water, some sand, a shovel and a pail? Sure, it’s that simple if you can be comfortable with a mediocre sand castle. For those of you more interested in quality, form, longevity and all-around sand-sational aesthetics, schedule yourself some sandcastle building lessons. You’ve got plenty of expert instructors to choose from: while it may be messy, these people don’t mess around.

Black Dragon Cruises. Ooookay, technically this may qualify as a “kids’ activity” but I’ll remind you that real pirates were certainly not for children. In that spirit, I say head on board this pirate ship and enjoy the heck out of the pirate crew, pirate stories, treasure hunt and, well, face painting. C’mon you’re on vacation; just go with it.

(Picture: www.virtualtourist.com)

Embrace the Sea in Corpus Christi

Posted May 27, 2009 by Kate Hamman

FL-CorpusChristi-CaptainFlagship-DEF When most people visit "the Riviera," they usually don't end up in Texas. However, Corpus Christi draws coastal enthusiasts in with its gulf breezes, rows of palm trees, and ocean views. For the ultimate bragging rights over land-lovers, take a sunset cruise around the bay or eat freshly caught seafood deep fried to Southern perfection. And if you happen to arrive unprepared for beach activities, you can stock up at a store filled to the brim with tacky tackle.

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Captain Clark's Flagship Tours and Charters: Captain Clark's promises a captivating ride aboard one of its cruise ships on Corpus Christi Bay. While on the water, you'll learn historical bay-front tidbits as bottle-nosed dolphins pop up to say hello. The evening cruise screams romance, as lovers watch the sun descend over the city skyline. Tickets cost $9 per adult for afternoon rides, and $13.50 for the sunset cruise.

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Snoopy's Seafood Restaurant and Pier: At Snoopy's, the catch of the day was actually still swimming earlier that morning. This hangout-style shanty on the pier attracts all types of deep-fried seafood lovers, especially those with a preference for shrimp. Don't expect to be pampered, as this no-frills restaurant's focus is serving seafood at top speed.

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Padre Islander Shops: This lighthouse-shaped store may look more like a roadside attraction than a one-stop shop for all your seaside vacation needs. However, don't be fooled by the novel exterior, because the inside overflows with boogie boards, beach towels, pirate souvenirs, and even shark jaws. Some items may border on tacky, but prices are dirt cheap and where else are you going to find a pirate beer stein for $8.99?

To search for flights and compare prices to Corpus Christi, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: Corpus Christi Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Steaks, Cowboys, and Cadillacs in Amarillo, Texas

Posted May 14, 2009 by Kate Hamman

Tx-amarillo-cadillacrnch-de There was a time when taking a road trip meant something more than speeding down a super highway at lightning speeds to reach the next destination. Before the fast-paced interstates sliced through the country, people would take long, leisurely vacations along smaller roads that gave a real taste of the places they passed through. Route 66 and all of its bizarre attractions was as much about the journey as the destination, and Amarillo, a spunky town in the panhandle of Texas, was as major a stop then as it is today.

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The Big Texan Steak Ranch: The sign may read "Home of the free 72 ounce steak," but some things are really too good to be true. Not that the steak isn't free. It is. So long as you can eat all of it within an hour while sitting on stage in front of an entire dining room full of people. It's a hard feat to accomplish, but among those with the beefy bragging rights are an 11-year-old boy and a 69-year-old grandma. If you fail, however, it will cost you the hefty price of four-and-a-half pounds of steak. Those choosing to err on the safe side will also find a full menu of smaller Texas entrees plus all the fixins at a much more reasonable rate. Normal-sized steaks start at $16.25, and then work their way up from there.

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The Big Texan Motel: If you drive by the enormous cowboy welcoming you off the highway and into a cozy place to hang your hat, then you've gone too far. Decorated to resemble old Western storefronts—complete with corral doors to the bathroom—this comfortable, albeit a little worn and dusty, motel makes you feel as if you've stepped into a John Wayne flick.

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Cadillac Ranch: If you've ever contemplated what a Cadillac would look like with its hood in the sand and tail fenders pointing to the sky, then you and Stanley Marsh, creator of the Cadillac Ranch, have something in common. The automobiles, once talk-of-the-town vehicles, are now artifacts just like the famous route they sit beside, and make quite the spectacle along the desert horizon. Anyone with a keen sense of car curiosity can tour this funky little roadside attraction for free.

To search for flights and compare prices to Oklahoma City, which is home to Amarillo’s nearest major airport, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: Brian Fisher)

Austin Entertains on a Student's Budget

Posted May 4, 2009 by Kate Hamman

Tx-austin_capital-stars-def With movies, music, or art around nearly every corner, Austin is a student's dream getaway. However, whether you're in school or just young at heart, you don't have to be rich to have a good time. Come watch a movie in a theater with a killer beer selection, shop in a store filled with offbeat antiques, and eat pancakes at 4 a.m. at an all-night diner.

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Alamo Drafthouse Cinema: Find a film to fit any mood at one of the three Alamo Drafthouses in Austin. Once you're seated, you can order drinks and food during the show. There's an impressive selection of beers on tap and in the bottle. And if you're in need of sustenance, you can order standard fried pub fare, pizzas, and sandwiches. Each seat comes equipped with a table and order forms.

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Uncommon Objects: Whether or not you love to shop, pay a visit to Uncommon Objects to appreciate its range of oddball antiques and vintage collectables. You never know what you may find buried amongst the purses, jewelry, photos, dolls, and the like. And with an amazing array of quirky and unique items like mannequin hands or vintage family portraits, this store is all about uncovering your own kind of treasure. Prices vary, but you may just unearth a steal if you dig deep enough.

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Magnolia Cafe: Magnolia Cafe is so serious about offering top-notch diner food "24 hours, eight days a week" that they've hung a neon sign outside apologizing for being open. The two locations in Austin serve a wide range of pasta, burgers, fish, steaks, and breakfast items. So, no matter what hour of the day you're craving pancakes, Magnolia is there with a stack of your favorite fix. Pancakes will set you back a mere $4.75, and almost everything else on the menu costs under $10.

To search for flights and compare prices to Austin, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: iStockPhoto.com/Terry J Alcorn)

San Antonio is Big on Affordability and Culture

Posted March 30, 2009 by Kate Hamman

Sanantonio-mariachi Not far from the Mexican border, San Antonio has become a top spot for all things Tex-Mex. Here, two cultures interact seamlessly, adding to the unique vibe of the city. Explore its diversity in an art museum filled with works and artifacts from both countries. Then shop to your heart's content for folk art in a hip neighborhood, before dining in an all-night diner with live mariachi music and good eats. Plus, you can rest easy knowing you can afford your visit.

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San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA): Since 1981, the SAMA has been the place to go in San Antonio to view all kinds of art. Though you can see American, Asian, Contemporary, European, Latin American, and Oceanic works on permanent display, the real attraction tends to be the changing exhibits that highlight local artists and Mexican artifacts. Admission costs $8, but you can get in free every Tuesday night from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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Southtown: Just south of the downtown area, you'll find an artsy neighborhood overflowing with quirky boutiques, coffeehouses, and cutting-edge galleries. Come browse the shops filled with artisan crafts, folk art, unique clothes, and one-of-a-kind handmade items. The First Friday Art Walk is enough reason to visit this funky side of the city, where galleries stay open late, cafes offer live music, and the streets fill with vendors selling food and souvenirs.

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Mi Tierra: Just about any time of day or night at Mi Tierra, you can listen to the mariachi band play as you enjoy dinner and a specialty margarita. This restaurant-bakery-bar never closes, and serves traditional Mexican dishes and breakfast all day long.

To search for flights and compare prices to San Antonio, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: SACVB/Dave G. Houser)


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