A Quick Stop in Jo'burg

 

Johannesburg was the first stop on our trip to South Africa. It's the country's biggest city, but unfortunately, not the nicest place to visit. The area that we stayed in, Maboneng District, is a very interesting, artsy neighborhood, but beyond the two streets that it's safe to walk on, much of the rest of the city is dangerous and difficult to explore on your own.

We stayed at the 12 Decades Art Hotel, which has guest rooms themed for various decades of Johannesburg's history. It's a cute, but basic hotel. Just outside the hotel are a bunch of restaurants and cafes that are convenient to visit.

What to See

Although we took a day tour around Johannesburg, the primary attractions were the Apartheid Museum and Soweto.

The Apartheid Museum was very well done, and I would very highly recommend it to anyone visiting the city. Entering the museum, your ticket indicates whether you enter through the 'Whites' entrance or the 'Non-Whites' entrance, which really sets the segregation theme.

Tickets for the Apartheid Museum. You randomly get a ticket to use the entrance for Whites or Non-Whites.

Entrance to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Left for whites, right for non-whites, depending on your randomly assigned ticket.

Inside are a number of exhibits that really give you a feel for what life must have been like, both for all South Africans during Apartheid, and the incredible influence that Nelson Mandela had on the country. As with other such museums, it serves as a reminder of a very unfortunate past.

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I was very surprised when we toured Soweto. I was expecting a shantytown with garbage on the streets and muddy sidewalks, but instead, I found the city to have many very nice neighborhoods, with homes that rival other cities' most affluent and expensive areas.

Street performers in Soweto.

The childhood home of Nelson Mandela was a nice stop on the tour. He lived there in very modest accommodations. Inside you're able to see some of the many honors and awards that he was presented with.

Nelson Mandela's childhood home.

Ancient History in Cairo

 

My trip to Cairo was extra special because stepping foot on Egyptian soil meant I had stepped foot on all seven continents. Cairo itself is an interesting city. It's very big and has a huge traffic problem, partly caused by the fact that there don't seem to be any traffic lights or painted lanes anywhere. Everyone drives where they want and how they want. It's a good system for about a day, but then the frequent near misses (of other cars, pedestrians, and animals) and constant smell of car exhaust becomes a bit tiresome.

My setting foot on the seventh and last continent. Check.

Cairo also has tons of occupied but "unfinished" buildings. I was told that this is because there is a loophole that if your building is not finished, you don't pay property tax. Many people start construction on the next floor of their structure which they never intend to finish. Great that residents are saving on property taxes, but the whole city looks like it's under construction, which contributes to the overall mess.

Arriving at Cairo Airport

Although this is not a very big airport, it helps to pre-arrange Egyptian visa assistance, if you need a visa. I arranged this through the Concierge of our hotel, the Le Meridien Cairo Airport. For $20, someone meets you near the gate, takes your passport and visa money, and ushers you to the front of the visa and customs lines. I would recommend this service to anyone arriving at Cairo Airport.

Sightseeing

When one thinks of Cairo, one usually thinks of the Pyramids of Giza. These are obviously not to be missed. On the first of two sightseeing days, our private guide took us on a trip to Saqqara, which is just outside of Cairo where the pyramids and ancient city are located. 

There's a handful of pyramids to see in all, and you can actually go in to most of them. History is a big interest of mine, so I really enjoyed exploring the narrow tunnels and chambers of a couple of the pyramids.

One of the first pyramids we saw, the Teti (Sand Dune) Pyramid, had an extensive funerary complex next to it. This was also a unique experience as you got to venture inside and see beautifully decorated chambers that are thousands of years old.

Ancient hieroglyph inside the Teti Pyramid

Inside the funerary complex next to the Teti Pyramid

Beautiful drawings on the walls of the funerary complex next to the Teti Pyramid

I was surprised that only a few of the pyramids actually had a distinguishable shape. Apparently, some of the Egyptian Kings didn't care so much about the exterior shape of the pyramid, and cared more for the interior chambers to serve as the tombs to carry them to the afterlife. Some of the pyramids on the Giza Plateau look more like a bunch of sand and rocks piled on top of each other.

Pyramid of Djoser, built in 2648 BC

The Great Pyramid of Giza

Looking up the mammoth Great Pyramid of Giza

Me, having climbed up a few steps of the Great Pyramid of Giza

A tunnel inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. Tip: instead of paying the official entrance fee, you can slip a little something to the guy guarding the entrance to gain access.  

Me next to The Great Sphinx of Giza


How Did They Build the Pyramids?

This is one of the most famous, unanswered questions. I found this interesting YouTube video on the water shaft theory, which I believe is the most plausible explanation for how the pyramids were built.


Beyond the Pyramids, I would also recommend the National Museum, in downtown Cairo. Unlike most museums in the west, many of the ancient artifacts on display can be observed very close, and are not behind glass. This makes for a unique experience, and although the museum seems a bit worn, it allows you to get a better appreciation for ancient Egyptian history.

Ancient hieroglyph tablet at the National Museum in Cairo

Another interesting, older area of the city is Coptic Cairo. Buildings here are many hundreds of years old, and are very ornately decorated. There are various narrow pedestrian streets to explore, and shops to pop in to. There are also numerous churches worth exploring, including one which was built suspended over the passageways underneath.

Beautiful veranda in Coptic Cairo

Another beautiful veranda in Cairo

Inside Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church, where Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus Christ rested at the end of their journey to Egypt

Seemingly nearby is the old market. The market is fairly typical for this part of the world, and reminds me a lot of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. One of the more famous things to buy here are their oils and perfumes, which come in countless fragrances.

On our way back to the hotel, we also visited the Al Khalifa Mosque. As this Mosque is located on a hilltop, there is a beautiful view of Cairo.

Al Khalifa Mosque in Cairo

Panoramic view of Cairo from the Al Khalifa Mosque grounds

Where I Stayed

We chose to stay at Le Meridien Cairo Airport, which is the only hotel directly connected by a pedestrian bridge to the terminal building. I had originally booked another Starwood property, but received a lot of advise to stay at this Le Meridien because it's new and clean. (Which actually means a lot in Cairo!) The staff at the hotel were great, and very helpful. The hotel itself is also quite modern, and features a nice Le Meridien Club Lounge with free happy hour drinks and appetizers.

Staying in the city seems like another good option, but I actually liked returning to an oasis away from the whole mess.

The Food

One of the restaurants we went to in downtown Cairo was called Koshary Abou Tarek. This is one of the most famous of these restaurants in the city, and I would highly suggest it.

The process involves buying pita bread outside the restaurant from a vendor, then going inside to a table and ordering Koshary, which consists of lentils and pasta, chickpeas, fried onions, all of which you cover with a delicious tomato-ish sauce, and a side cucumber tomato salad. Absolutely delicious.

Buying pita bread outside Koshary Abou Tarek in Cairo

Delicious food at Koshary Abou Tarek in Cairo

Salvador, Bahia

 

Salvador, in Brazil's Bahia state, has one of the most colorful historic centers I've visited. Salvador was the first capital of Brazil, and today has the largest carnival celebration! Incredible colors, music, and food can be found throughout this unique city.

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Traditional Bahiana

Old Brazilian post box

Old Brazilian post box

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The World's Highest Observation Deck

 

Burj Khalifa opened the highest observation deck in the world last month. Situated on the 148th floor overlooking Dubai, "At the Top | Sky" let's you experience breathtaking views over the city.

Only 500 or so tickets are sold for entrance each day. (Compared to approx. 7,000 sold daily for general admission.) Although it's highly recommended to book in advance, I was able to get a ticket same day. 

After checking-in at the base of the tower, Sky ticket holders are welcomed in a separate lounge, and are offered Arabic coffee and dates while waiting. 

Groups of about 20 people are fast tracked through the lines and security, to the elevators. 

Getting to the 148th floor is a two part process. There are two high-speed elevators you take to reach that level. 

The doors open to a private lounge with an incredible view. As part of the VIP experience, there is staff offering juice as a refreshment.

Looking out the window feels like you're hovering in a helicopter. There is an indoor and outdoor portion to the observation deck. Check out some of the incredible views!

 

View of Dubai to the North from Burj Khalifa

View of Dubai to the East from Burj Khalifa

View of Dubai to the South from Burj Khalifa