Beyond Big Ben

This is, I think, my favorite picture we’ve ever taken on any of our travels.

Baby's first photo bomb.
Baby’s first photo bomb.

Fresno the Husband wasn’t too up on appearing on the internet (weirdo), but I had to include this picture.  Honestly, this picture is what makes the best travel memories – Mr. Dirty popping up in what was supposed to be a picture of just Mom and Dad.

In any case, this picture, ridiculous though it may be, is pretty much what we expect from travel.  If you’re in London you see Big Ben, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and if you have time you hit up Harrod’s.  Or maybe you hit up Harrod’s first, I’m certainly not going to judge.


But my point is that there are certain things we must see when we visit places:  Rome = Colosseum and the Vatican.  Paris = the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, Disney = DISNEY WORLD EVERY SINGLE DAY FOREVER AND EVER.

Check, check, check and OMG CHECK!

Must.  Be.  Happy.
Must. Be. Happy.

There is nothing wrong with that.

Those places are so well known and so tied to the narration of any visit for a reason – they mean something.  If you go to Paris and you do not at least glance at the Eiffel Tower, you are missing out.


Planning a vacation by only checking the popular boxes is probably not going to give you the experience you’re looking for.  My family spent 3/4 of a day at the Tower of London, and we spent four hours at Westminster Abbey.  They were fascinating.  At the end of our visits to each of these places my kids were totally worn out.  There was so much to retain that most of it fell right out of their heads as soon as they saw a McDonalds.  Instead of basking in the glow  of our post visit to a prestigious landmark, they were arguing with me about how they didn’t WANT to try fish and chips, they wanted chicken nuggets and some fries.  When I asked the then-5-year-old boy, “So which queen was beheaded at the Tower of London?” he answered me, “Cleopatra?”

No.  Not quite.  After a spot of horror, we grabbed a Horrible Histories book to try and cement at least that one fact in his head.

They were also crowded and hurried, because everyone wants to see those spots.  Arguments between parents and children and parents and parents erupt with regularity, disturbingly close to the area of the White Tower where a Prince of Wales fell to his death.

So while those were definitely highlights of our trip, we also have very fond memories of a side trip we made to the much lesser-known St. Albans.   Crowds?  No, none.

All those interesting things we learned about architecture and the history of the church in England?  We got to see close up and personal with a docent who was surprised to see a “rare” set of Americans visiting (side note:  I’m pretty sure Americans aren’t THAT unusual a sight in St. Albans.  We just went in the off-season).  Bonus – Roman ruins!

Where we had only really heard about the whitewashing of the Reformation, in St. Albans we were able to actually see some of the painting on the cathedral that had been covered up.

Far more fascinating than the Mona Lisa, if you ask me.  I just don't get that one.
Far more fascinating than the Mona Lisa, if you ask me. I just don’t get that one.

Although this was a few years ago and my son has gotten it mixed up in his head where he saw the “underpainting” as my kids refer to it (he thinks he saw it at Hampton Court Palace), the things is that it stuck.  St Albans, which is chock full of history in its own right, was the second most calm and relaxed portion of a trip to London.  And when you’re running around desperately trying to see everything you can fit in, an interlude like that can be priceless.

So what’s a person to do while vacation planning?  Sure, it would be nice to visit a few odd places, just to see something besides what everyone else has seen.  But how do you know where to look and what will be good?

I can’t speak for everyone, but Atlas Obscura has become a  necessary resource in our trip planning.  I usually couple that with a check on Trip Advisor (can’t be too careful, really) and we make a real effort to try and include at least one or two places that are off-the-beaten-path.

In Rome it was the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian.

The arrow of St. Sebastian's martyrdom, the oldest Christian catacombs in the world, and the Quo Vadis footprints.  Why is this not on the Big Must See List for Rome?
The arrow of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom, the oldest Christian catacombs in the world, and the Quo Vadis footprints. Why is this not on the Big Must See List for Rome?

You have to understand, for a Catholic family like ours,  visiting Rome is our Hajj.  I was up in thrilled excitement the night before we went to the Vatican, reveling in the transcendental religious experience I was sure  I would have the moment I stepped into the Sistine Chapel.


Number one, that thrilled excitement was probably the five peaches I scarfed down after dinner.  Can we move past that, though?  I got them at a fruit stall and I have never in my life tasted bigger, juicier, more delicious peaches.  I regret nothing.

Number two, the Vatican was more crowded than Free Entrance Day at Disney World.  If there were such a thing, I mean.  But really – it was wall-to-wall people.  Far from feeling in touch and at one in my faith, I wanted to kill the seventy-six people who had some extremity or another touching parts of my body I don’t even let my physician see.  We were packed in like commuters on the Japanese metro system.

But the Catacombs?  They were gloriously cool and quiet.  The docent was thrilled when my kids had good questions, and the kids were thrilled with seeing something so different (bones and stuff are good kid attention-grabbers).

Of COURSE we took our kids to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and Versailles was a must-see.  But where did we have the most fun?

Pere LaChaise Cemetery.

The grave of Heloise and Abelard.  Two things are missing from this - can you guess what they are?
The grave of Heloise and Abelard. Two things are missing from this – can you guess what they are?

We said hi to Jim Morrison, giggled at the security measures around Oscar Wilde, put a stone on the grave of Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice Toklas, giggled even harder when we saw the grave of Victor Noir, and just generally had a great time.  Several hours worth of great time!

And speaking of Disney – not too far away from the Universal Studios area is the Wycliffe Bible Discovery Center.    You don’t have to be interested in the religious overtones of the center anymore than you need to be Catholic to appreciate the history and priceless treasures in the Vatican.  Wycliffe has a mission of translating the Bible into the “heart language” of every people on Earth.  What you see and are exposed to at their center is just how vast and varied that mission is.  There are languages that use whistles to communicate!  Until we visited the Wycliffe Center, I had no idea.  Also, I would be right out of luck in that society, because my whistling ability is sub-par for a two-year-old.


And yes, I get it.  Your congressman got you tickets to see Capitol Hill and there are sixty-seven thousand free museums in the National Mall.  And dude – CHERRY BLOSSOMS!

See those things.

But also maybe check out Ford’s Theater, the site of President Lincoln’s assassination.

So, the view was about like this...
So, the view was about like this…

The most fascinating things are hidden right behind the things we all talk about.

One thought on “Beyond Big Ben”

  1. Yes yes and YES! Not that we’ve done nearly the (international) traveling you’ve done but everywhere we’ve lived and everywhere we’ve traveled, it’s the less popular/off-the-beaten-path sites that really stick in our memories.

    Thanks for the reminder on Atlas Obscura. I had forgotten. Mr. Dirty cracks me up.

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