TIME Travel

The World’s Most Beautiful Train Stations

Up ahead, turrets frame a dome above a grand hall finished in marble, glass, and gold. But this isn’t another European cathedral. You’ve arrived at Belgium’s Antwerp Central Station.

Whether neo-Baroque or contemporary, the world’s most beautiful train stations were designed to make a big impression. Many were constructed during the late 19th century, a golden era when train travel was new, intriguing, and glamorous. Today, stations from every era continue to impress, attracting travelers who aren’t even catching a train.

It’s not surprising that these stations have withstood everything from wars to urban development. Train stations weren’t just transportation hubs; they became symbols of entire empires, as rulers transported their architectural and engineering know-how as far as India and Mozambique. Equally ambitious train routes spanned entire continents; most notably, the luxurious Orient-Express linked Paris to Istanbul’s Art Nouveau Sirkeci Station.

Train travel has since fallen in and out of favor. Recently, the growth of high-speed rail has been accompanied by interest in restoring and building iconic train stations. In London, for instance, workers cleaned 300,000 pounds of dirt from the neo-Gothic red brick façade of St. Pancras and restored 8,000 glass roof panes.

And in Melbourne, a thorough overhaul has converted Southern Cross Station into a cutting-edge landmark whose undulating glass roof also serves a practical purpose: ventilating the train platforms by drawing train exhaust through the pitched domes.

It’s a welcome change after years in which train travel more often took a backseat to cars and planes, particularly in America, where some stations fell into decline or faced the wrecking ball. Detroit’s Michigan Central Station was abandoned in 1988, although broken windows and graffiti give its Beaux-Arts exterior an eerie beauty. Perhaps most infamously, New York’s gorgeous Penn Station was demolished in the 1960s, only to be replaced by the current dreary underground station.

New York has wrestled with concepts for a majestic new Penn Station and Madison Square Garden for more than a decade, so far without success. But elsewhere, cities are embracing their train stations. After all, even fliers often arrive via airport trains, which means the station is their introduction to a new destination. Still other travelers appreciate the benefits of a scenic, hassle-free train ride.

You don’t need to show up at the station hours in advance to go through airport-like security. But we recommend arriving early for a more pleasant reason: to take stock of these gorgeous cathedrals to locomotion.

  • Gare du Nord, Paris


    This station in the central 10th Arrondissement is one of the busiest and most picture-perfect in Europe. The façade is sculpted with 23 statues representing Amsterdam, Vienna, and other destinations served by the Chemin de Fer du Nord company. The interior is just as lovely, especially when the sun filters through the panels of the glass and cast-iron roof to the platforms below.

    How to See It: Gare du Nord looks especially fine when you pull in from Charles de Gaulle airport or from London via the Eurostar. If you can’t make it overseas, look for this Neoclassical station in movies such as Amélie and The Bourne Identity.

  • St. Pancras International, London

    Courtesy of St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

    This neo-Gothic red brick façade won raves when it was unveiled in 1868. And it’s in the news again. After a 20th-century decline, St. Pancras got a recent £800 million makeover. Workers cleaned 300,000 pounds of dirt from the bricks and restored 8,000 panes of glass in the roof of the immense train shed. As a result, the station looks its part as one of the finest Victorian landmarks in London.

    How to See It: Book the Chamber Suite at the newly restored St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel for a view of the blue Barlow train shed.

  • CFM Railway Station, Maputo, Mozambique

    Thomas Cockrem—Alamy

    Mint-green exteriors, a large dome, and wrought-iron latticework make the capital city of Maputo’s train station an unexpected, if modest, beauty. Reportedly designed by Gustave Eiffel in the early 20th century, the station showcases several historic steam locomotives. Modern-day trains bring passengers through here daily.

    How to See It: On the weekends, catch some of the city’s best live music at Ka Mfumo Jazz Café, located within CFM Railway Station.

  • Sirkeci Station, Istanbul


    Built in 1890 as the terminus for the Orient-Express journey from Paris, the façade of this Ottoman Art Nouveau building is particularly attractive. Swaths of red brick surround the wide entrance, and stained-glass windows provide colorful splashes of light inside. Although this entrance is no longer used, people still stop to admire the interior and catch occasional performances by whirling dervishes inside the grand entry hall.

    How to See It: The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express retraces the historic train route once a year in restored coaches from the 1930s. It’s never too early to book your seat—passage is already sold out for the 2011 and 2012 rides.

  • Southern Cross Station, Melbourne

    topaa mons images—Alamy

    Previously called Spencer Street Station, the station got a new name in 2005 as part of an elaborate modernization project. The undulating roof, which stretches an entire city block, has been compared to a gigantic air-filled blanket floating on a forest of Y-shaped columns. The form is also the function here: fumes trapped in the domes high above the platforms escape naturally through holes cut into the top, making it a sort of breathing roof.

    How to See It: Head to the western end of the station to admire the colorful details on the History of Transport mural. Originally installed in 1978, this 27-panel mural was removed and restored as part of the renovations.

  • Kanazawa Station, Kanazawa, Japan


    Many residents were initially dismayed by the city’s modern “entrance” when it was unveiled in 2005. The station’s wooden hand-drum-shaped Tsuzumi Gate and glass umbrella-shaped Motenashi Dome were controversial because they clashed with the traditional architecture of this old castle town—one of Japan’s best preserved as it was spared in WWII bombings. But the station has been so popular with tourists and photographers that many skeptics have come around to see the beauty in its sleek modern design.

    How to See It: After admiring the futuristic design of the entrance, stop by the ultra-cool fountain out front that displays time like a digital clock.

  • Atocha Station, Madrid


    With the opening of a new terminal in 1992, locals had the inspired idea to convert the original adjacent station into a concourse with a beautiful tropical garden of palm trees reaching toward the steel and glass roof in the center—as well as a nightclub and several cafés. The new station is accessed through the old terminal, where passengers can buy tickets and wait for their trains.

    How to See It: Pay your respects at the memorial to victims of the March 11, 2004, bombing. The 36-foot-tall glass cylinder, just outside the station, is inscribed with messages of condolences from the days following the attacks.

  • Union Station, Los Angeles


    Father-son team John and Donald Parkinson contributed to this station’s design, blending the area’s Spanish Colonial heritage with then-contemporary Art Deco styles. The tall white bell tower of the station’s exterior is reminiscent of California’s missions while its main waiting room is sumptuously finished with a painted wood ceiling and multicolored marble inlays on the floor.

    How to See It: On a sunny day, you can wait outdoors in the meticulously maintained rose-filled gardens and courtyards with mosaic-tiled fountains.

  • Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai


    British architect F. W. Stevens worked with local craftsmen to blend Indian architectural traditions with the Victorian Gothic Revival style. Originally named for Queen Victoria, the Empress of India, the station has endured as a Mumbai landmark—and a vital resource for the three million commuters who use it daily. The turrets and elaborate ornamentation are similar to design elements found on Moghul and Hindu palaces across the subcontinent.

    How to See It: Keep your eye out for symbolic details like the figures atop the columns of the entry gates that represent Britain (the lion) and India (the tiger).

  • São Bento Station, Porto, Portugal

    James Osmond Photography—Alamy

    While the exterior is certainly beautiful—and brings to mind 19th-century Parisian architecture with its mansard roof and stone façade—it is the front hall that will make you gasp. The walls are covered with 20,000 splendid azulejo tin-glazed ceramic tiles, which took 11 years for artist Jorge Colaço to complete.

    How to See It: Zero in on the blue and white tile panels, which depict the history of transportation as well as historic battles and artistic renderings of 14th-century King João I and Queen Philippa of Lancaster by the city’s cathedral.

  • Union Station, Washington, D.C.

    Built in the Beaux-Arts style in the early 20th century, this grand train station was modeled after the Arch of Constantine and the Baths of Caracalla and Diocletian in Rome and finished with white granite and solid mahogany woodwork. More than 70 pounds of gold leafing was used on the coffered plaster ceiling of the main hall during an extensive restoration project in the late 1980s that cemented the station as a natural treasure.

    How to See It: Union Station has hosted several presidential inaugural balls. If you can’t snag an invite, dine at the two-story Centre Café in the middle of the main hall for the best views.

  • Antwerp Central Station, Belgium

    When this palatial neo-Baroque station was completed in 1905, it was criticized for its extravagance (it is decorated in more than 20 types of marble and stone). But it’s proven tough to resist the station’s eclectic, opulent style and enormous arched dome. You may recognize the main hall of this station from a viral video from early 2009 of 200 people performing a choreographed dance to “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music.

    How to See It: After a large refurbishment project there are now three levels of train tracks, but the best views of the glorious iron- and glass-vaulted ceiling are from the original upper platform.

  • Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, Malaysia

    Architect A. B. Hubback went for a Moorish style when designing this terminal in the early 1900s. Commuter trains still come through this magnificent white station regularly, though it’s referred to as the “old” station since intercity trains started using the newer KL Sentral station in 2001.

    How to See It: This station serves local commuters more than tourists, but it’s worth stopping by to take in the minaret-like towers of the building and the similarly designed Railway Administration Building across the street.

  • Grand Central Terminal, New York

    This Beaux-Arts terminal, constructed at the beginning of the 20th century, is full of dazzling architectural details. The 42nd Street façade’s giant Tiffany clock, the main concourse’s iconic information booth with its four-faced clock, and the domed gold-and-cerulean-blue ceiling painted with astronomical signs and studded with fiber-optic stars are justly famous around the world.

    How to See It: People-watch while sipping cocktails at one of the bars on the palatial mezzanines, or take a self-guided audio tour to spot lesser-known gems of the terminal.

    This article originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.

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TIME Travel

These Are America’s Best Music Scenes

Jazz legends, symphonic masterpieces—and some really cool punk karaoke

In Austin, going out to see a band is not just an excuse to have drinks.

“This is a musicians’ town,” says Caleb Campaigne, the official Insider at W Austin Hotel; he’s a sort of concierge of coolness, whose job includes steering guests toward the best live music in the state capital. “Musicians know that the audience is going to be appreciative—but also prepared. Even if you’re a smaller band, folks are going to have done their research and know who you are.”

That high bar for excellence made Austin a shoo-in for the top 3 of America’s best music scenes, according to Travel+Leisure readers. In the latest America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 38 major metropolitan areas for the best cuisine, most interesting shopping and even the nerdiest locals. Readers also ranked the cities for their music scenes—whether that means indie rockers in crowded bars, symphonies in state-of-the-art concert halls or renowned banjo bands that still play the local Elks Lodge.

Across the top 25, one can find the birthplaces of legendary music styles and landmark venues—as well as an ever-changing landscape of live music options. We also found plenty of non-performance-based musical diversions, whether that means shopping for vintage guitars in Chicago or eating at Elvis’s favorite pizza parlor in Memphis.

After all, the best musical scenes reflect the spirit of the city behind it. “Austin is inspired in everything it does—from ice
cream to boots and botanical nurseries,” says Campaigne. Even the city’s notorious traffic can have a musical upside: “It’s just a little more time,” he says, “to rock out before arriving at your destination.”

  • No. 1 Nashville

    Andrew Hetherington

    The world is truly a stage in Music City, where live acts perform anywhere from the Grand Ole Opry to honky tonks and corner markets (like Puckett’s Grocery). True-blue country fans still love the Lower Broadway classics—Tootsie’s and Robert’s Western World—and the songwriters’ haven Bluebird Cafe. But as Nashville has expanded beyond its rhinestone-studded culture, other less-twangy venues have joined the must-stop list, like Mercy Lounge and East Nashville’s 5 Spot. One of the latest hot venues also fits with the city’s high gourmand rankings: City Winery on South Broadway has a 300-seat venue, a restaurant and a wine-tasting room, featuring 14 house-made tap wines. If you want to talk music with the locals, don’t be shy: they also ranked as the friendliest people in the U.S.

  • No. 2 Austin

    Merrick Ales

    The city that once launched Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, and Steve Ray Vaughan may be best known, these days, for its annual music-and-tech festival South by Southwest. If you find SXSW too crowded, though, you can catch excellent shows year-round at the Moody Theater (where they tape the TV series Austin City Limits), at clubs along South Congress (like Continental Club or C Boy’s Heart & Soul), or the brisket-fueled Sunday Gospel Brunch at Stubbs BBQ. Austin also scored well in the survey for feeling safe; one reason may be that, at beloved music store Waterloo Records, you can still listen to an album before buying it.

  • No. 3 New Orleans

    Ellen Isaacs—Alamy

    As the birthplace of jazz—and arguably the world’s greatest purveyor of zydeco, Cajun music and even hip-hop-influenced Bounce—New Orleans makes loving music both easy and easily accessible. Most venues here don’t charge a cover, and if you need musical guidance, you can always seek help at the New Orleans Jazz National Park, an NPS-funded visitors center in the French Market. To bask in the music away from tourist crowds, go to Frenchmen Street—with spots like The Spotted Cat, Blue Nile, Maison or Snug Harbor. New Orleans is also the No. 1 city for festivals—like June’s Cajun & Zydeco Festival, July’s Louis-Armstrong-celebrating Satchmo Summerfest and fall’s VooDoo Music Experience.

  • No. 4 Cleveland

    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

    Beyond being the home of a certain Hall of Fame—one reason the city ranked in the top 5 for its museums—Cleveland can claim to have created the concept of rock ’n’ roll: the term was coined by Cleveland deejay Alan Freed in the early 1950s. To step into one landmark from that era, catch a live show at the Beachland Ballroom, which started life as a Slavic community center in 1950 but by 2000 was hosting rock bands. Today, Cleveland’s music scene also thrives at indie places like The Grog Shop and the Music Box Supper Club. Meanwhile, if you didn’t have a seat for this year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, you can now catch monthly live shows, Sonic Sessions, at the museum. Perhaps ironically, Cleveland also scored well in the survey for relative peace and quiet.

  • No. 5 Minneapolis/St. Paul

    Explore Minnesota Tourism

    Readers declared these Minnesotans to be the smartest people in the U.S., which clearly correlates with good taste in music. Rock ’n’ roll scholars will certainly want to stop at Minneapolis’s First Avenue, where local bands like the Replacements and Husker Du once cut their teeth, and where native son Prince filmed part ofPurple Rain. For the more classically inclined, the new hotspot is the Ordway Center for Performing Arts—home of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra—already renowned for its great acoustics, thanks to unique wall panels and concrete floors. For a night of good music and good food—Minneapolis and St. Paul ranked well for both diners and notable restaurants—go to Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, which specializes in jazz, blues, and sustainably grown ingredients.

  • No. 6 Los Angeles

    06-los angeles.jpg

    Readers gave L.A. high marks for its colorful people-watching—still a worthy diversion along the most famous stretch of its music scene, the Sunset Strip. Here, the Whisky a Go Go hosted the Doors and Janis Joplin back in the day, and The Roxy, first opened by David Geffen, had Neil Young as it first act in 1973. To see more future stars, go to spots like songwriter-friendly The Hotel Café, off Sunset; indie-magnet The Echo and Echoplex in Echo Park; and the newcomer Theatre at downtown’s Ace Hotel. L.A. is not just for the rockers, of course: the acoustics and the “house band” (the Los Angeles Philharmonic) at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall could make anyone a classical-music lover.

  • No. 7 New York City

    Richard Cummins—Corbis

    The Big Apple could easily make the top 10 on its musical history alone— found at such landmarks as the Apollo in Harlem, the Village Vanguard, and the standard-setting Carnegie Hall. And while the cradle of punk, CBGB, is now gone, the East Village is still the go-to neighborhood for cutting-edge music, at spots like The Bowery Electric—which offers anything from new wave to blues and folk—to Lit Lounge, which includes an art gallery and Sunday-night punk karaoke. Readers also gave NYC props for shopping, and you can still find several fabulous record stores around the city, like the classical vinyl at Academy Records & CDsand the eclectic mix at Williamsburg’s Earwax Records. Music snobs will find plenty of kindred spirits: New Yorkers struck readers as being a little elitist.

  • No. 8 Memphis

    Ian Dagnall—Alamy

    As the home of the blues—and Graceland, the ultimate pilgrimage for Elvis fans—it’s easy to lose yourself in the Tennessee city’s storied musical past. You can still see free blues, jazz, or even opera at Overton Park’s Levitt Shell (where Elvis had his big debut) and up-and-comers at two recently reborn venues:Lafayette’s Music Room in Overton Square and Hi Tone, in the reemerging Crosstown Arts district. While readers were generally more interested in the city’s barbecue than its pizza, you can find both at Coletta’s‚ a red-checkered-tablecloth classic that boasts of being the birthplace of BBQ pizza—and of being Elvis’ favorite pizza parlor. Blue suede shoes aside, locals ranked near the bottom of the survey for style.

  • No. 9 Louisville

    Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau

    The Kentucky city made the musical top 10 for its long bluegrass heritage, but also for its solid hipster culture—cultivated by its good coffee bars, craft beers (like the aptly named Bluegrass Brewing Co.), and indie-pop-oriented music venues. To hear the best local bands, go to The New Vintage in Germantown, Haymarket Whiskey Bar, or Zanzabar, which also features a vintage arcade and a school-cafeteria-style lunch line. To experience more downhome-style music, come in the fall for the Kentucky Bluegrass and Bourbon Experience, held by the Louisville Water Tower.

  • No. 10 Houston

    Spenser Harrison

    It may not be as well known as Austin for its music scene, but this Texas hub still made the top 10, perhaps for its cosmopolitan combination of high-brow culture (like the acclaimed Houston Grand Opera) and crowd-pleasers. Sure, there is still the boot-scooting crowd (remember, Urban Cowboy took place in Houston), who go to old-style country joints like Dosey Doe, located in a former tobacco barn; but Houston also has a long-time punk haven, Mango’s. Singer-songwriter fans, meanwhile, will love the Montrose bar Anderson Fair (where Lyle Lovett first got his start). To combine a love of barbecue and music, look for the giant armadillo with glowing red eyes outside Goode’s Armadillo Palace, the dance hall next door to the legendary Goode Co. restaurant.

  • No. 11 Chicago

    The City of Big Shoulders may have made its musical mark with its blues and jazz scenes (still thriving, thanks to places like Buddy Guy’s Legends), but it also stays relevant with annual festivals, like the Chicago Blues Festival, Pitchfork in the summer, and the metal-friendly Riot Fest. Chicago is also a hotbed for Americana acts—at venues like Pilsen’s Thalia Hall, Hyde Park’s The Promontory or Wicker Park’s 1st Ward (the latter attached to a hipster-worthy butcher shop and salumeria). Music geeks who want to do some good instrument shopping—and heady people-watching—should stroll the aisles of the Chicago Music Exchange, a wonderland of vintage and new electric guitars that has been known to attract shoppers like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and even Johnny Depp.

  • No. 12 Kansas City

    The city that inspired its own early-rock song—famously performed by Little Richard, James Brown, and the Beatles—gives both music fans and meat-lovers reasons to sing: it also won the survey for the best barbecue. There are also more than 40 jazz venues around the city, from classics like the Blue Room (inside the American Jazz Museum) to hot newcomers like the no-cover Green Lady Lounge. For both burnt ends and soul-searching blues, go to B.B.’s Lawnside Barbecue, where the pit has been smoking ribs for more than 60 years. One reason not to have the blues in KC: it won the survey for feeling affordable.

  • No. 13 Atlanta

    Despite its big-city status, Atlanta still knows how to keep it country. Go to Midtown’s Red Light Café, for instance, and you can catch its Bluegrass Thursday, or the renowned Americana Open Mic on Wednesdays—featuring roots rock, C&W, and folk. For alt-rock, go to The Earl, in East Atlanta, where munchies include boiled peanuts and fried okra. Outside town in Decatur, meanwhile, Eddie’s Attic can claim to have helped launched the careers of locals acts Sugarland and the not-so-twangy John Mayer.

  • No. 14 Seattle

    With its notoriously melancholy skies, the Pacific Northwest city has been a fertile breeding ground for iconoclastic rock stars, from Jimi Hendrix to Heart and Nirvana. To experience the next big things, your best bets are spots like the revamped Columbia City Theater, the hip-hop-friendly Crocodile in Belltown, or the Americana-rich Tractor Tavern in Ballard. If you’re not the club type, you can always bang drums, play DJ, and browse pop-culture exhibits (like the current display of Star Wars costumes) at the Experience Music Project—or even see live shows at the museum’s Sky Church venue.

  • No. 15 Las Vegas

    This is the home of a musical venue with 10 stage lifts—built so that Celine Dion could have a reasonable place to perform. No doubt, Sin City’s music scene may be best known for its epic concert residencies, from the Canadian chanteuse to Cher and Elton John. But Caesars’ Colosseum is not the only mind-bending place to see a show in Vegas—The BLVD Pool at the Cosmopolitan, for instance, converts into a giant stage with a 65-foot screen. For smaller crowds, stick with Vinyl at the Hard Rock, or Brooklyn Bowl at the Linq, where you can see touring acts, bowl, and tuck into the fried chicken and chocolate-chip bread pudding from NYC transplant Blue Ribbon.

  • No. 16 Portland, OR

    As a high-scoring city for both quirkiness and hipness—and most recently giving the world the band the Decemberists—Portland has a unique and thriving indie music scene. Appropriately, the coolest venues have interesting twists: Mississippi Studios and Bar Bar is a former Baptist church (and offers cocktails like a lavender-infused vodka cocktail called Ken’s Friend), and downtown’s McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom has a mechanized, “floating” dance floor that gives your moves a softer sensation. As an alternative to all of the alternative options, you can also see famed jazz drummer Mel Brown three nights a week at Jimmy Mak’s.

  • No. 17 Philadelphia

    If the City of Brotherly Love embodies the American spirit, then it doesn’t get much more American than Chris’ Jazz Café, an old-school club with multiple sets a night and democratic discounts for students. The globally-minded Ben Franklin might have also enjoyed the World Café Live, a University City venue affiliated with local radio station WXPN, which boasts of “music for grown-ups” and has supper-club-style seating. Even punks like to snack: At Union Transfer on Spring Garden, every concert features a post-show happy hour with locally churned scoops from Little Baby’s Ice Cream. Otherwise, readers might go for some late-night cheesesteaks: the city’s sandwiches ranked at No. 3 in the survey.

  • No. 18 Providence, RI

    Readers commended this collegiate state capital for its smart and attractive locals. And like any cool college town, Providence has an ever-rotating crop of homegrown bands, like Deer Tick (which named one recent album Divine Providence) and The Low Anthem. The latter indie-folk band was instrumental in the launch of the city’s reigning cool music venue, the Columbus Theatre, a former XXX theatre in Federal Hill. Other hotspots include downtown’s Aurora and Olneyville’s Fete (which is about to debut its own pizza café).

  • No. 19 Denver, CO

    Readers love this city for its macho side: outdoor pursuits, craft beer, and burgers. But this is also a longtime jazz town, once nicknamed the Harlem of the West. Today, you can relive that era at the 1940s-supper-club-style Nocturne, in the RiNo Arts District, which offers jazz every night, as well as a no-TV “Social Hour” where they spin classic jazz on vinyl. The Colorado city also made the top 20 for its festivals—like JazzFest Denver, the Five Points Jazz Festival, and the more-rockin’ Underground Music Showcase.

  • No. 20 Miami

    The Florida city has two famously distinctive musical personalities—and both inspire a lot of dancing, helping the city rank at the top of the survey for both nightclubs and wild weekends. To groove to Electronic Dance Music ’til dawn (or even later ), go to E11even, open 24 hours. And if you want to soak up the Latin music scene, head to the clubs along Calle Ocho in Little Havana, like Hoy Como Ayer or Ball and Chain, which ups the ante with karaoke and a menu featuring the Elena Ruz—a Cuban sandwich with cream cheese, strawberry jam and turkey—named after a famed 1930s socialite.

  • No. 21 Pittsburgh

    Locals in this Pennsylvania city made a solid showing in the survey for being a little quirky—and their best music venues are unabashedly offbeat. One is the Mr. Smalls Theatre, in Millville, a former Catholic Church that now has studio space (50 Cent recorded here), an art gallery, and an adjoining skate park. Or, you can head to bowling alley Arsenal Bowl in Lawrenceville—where bands occasionally take over two lanes to create a stage. Or, ring the buzzer on Wednesday nights at the Allegheny Elks Lodge, where hipsters, old-timers, and kids alike come for the free shows and sing-alongs hosted by the Pittsburgh Banjo Club, which typically numbers around 40 pickers, backed up by horns.

  • No. 22 San Francisco

    As the song says, they built this city on rock ’n’ roll: not only did readers like the city’s lovely architecture, but there are plenty of significant musical landmarks, from venues like The Fillmore to the Haight-Ashbury house where the Grateful Dead once lived. Deadheads, meanwhile, will want to visit in early August for Jerry Day, the annual festival at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in the Excelsior District. And as proof that this city still corners the market on unique, a must-see for both jazz and gospel fans is the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, which does noon services every Sunday, and guests are invited to bring their own instruments.

  • No. 23 Detroit

    The Motor City offers a rich musical time machine: at the Motown Museum, you can stand in Studio A, with its original instruments and equipment, where the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and the Supremes recorded some of their biggest hits. Or, you can see a show at the Majestic—which, when it opened in 1915, was the biggest of its kind in the world. To explore the local jazz scene, check out the still-thriving Cliff Bell’s and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, both of which date back to the 1930s. It’s not all in the past, though: to experience a great dive bar with local acts, go to The Old Miami, which first opened in 1975 for local veterans and still offers an excellent old-school jukebox. For an equally old-school meal, readers also loved the city’s square pizzas.

  • No. 24 Boston

    Readers gave Beantown high marks for its sense of history, but music lovers get their own version of the old days, minus the tri-corner hats: The first House of Blues opened here in 1992, while a plucky little band named U2 made their first U.S. appearance in 1981 at the Allston club Paradise Rock Club (known to locals as The ’Dise). To go back even further, head to The Burren, in Somerville, which is renowned for its traditional Irish music, accompanied by Guinness beef stew.

  • No. 25 Dallas

    Big D gets a bad rap from readers in this year’s survey—like, for its seemingly snooty locals, more inclined toward luxe shopping than whooping it up. But the neighborhood of Deep Ellum is proof that this city has an artsy side. Here you’ll find public murals, plenty of bars, and great rock-and-indie venues—like Dada, with its outdoor patio, Trees and the recently reopened Bomb Factory, whose building has been, over the past century, a Ford factory and a WWII munitions plant. Deep Ellum is even home to the Eight Track Museum, which is devoted to the much-maligned recording format and connected to the musically themed Orphic Gallery.

    Read the original list HERE.

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TIME Travel

The 12 Best Destinations for Stargazing

The immensity of the universe is beautiful and humbling—the stars reminders of billions of lives spent, in astronomer Carl Sagan’s words, “on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.” But as our population grows, so too does light pollution, clouding the atmosphere and all that lies beyond it. Today, as few as 500 stars are visible from many urban areas.

But happily that’s just not the case for these dozen locales, where as many as 15,000 individual pinpricks of light can be seen with the naked eye. The catch? They’re not exactly convenient—but that’s kind of the point.

Attention astrologers and contemplators of the universe: these are the planet’s best spots for stargazing.

  • Atacama Desert in Chile

    Babak Tafreshi/National Geographic Creative—Corbis

    This 600-mile stretch of northern Chile boasts the trifecta for ideal stargazing conditions: high altitude, unpolluted skies, and the driest (non-polar) air on Earth. Unsurprisingly, the astro-tourism scene is booming. The ALMA Observatory, where the world’s most powerful radio telescope uses 66 satellite antennae to look into deep space, will be joined by a handful of other groundbreaking telescopes currently in development, while the dozen or so observatories currently scattered across the Elqui Valley draw hundreds of visitors a day. Elqui Domos, on the outskirts of the desert, offers a more personal experience: along with an observatory, the hotel features domed tents with open ceilings or timber cabins with glass roofs, which act as skylights to the world above.

  • NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia

    Frans Lanting—Corbis

    When the International Dark-Sky Association (a group that recognizes places for their sky quality) formed in 1988, its first reserve to achieve Gold Tier status (the IDA’s highest award) was Namibia’s NamibRand Nature Reserve. in the arid Namib Desert and 60 miles from the closest village. Here visitors can camp out in the arid Namib Desert and take a guided tour of the dunes. There’s also Wolwedans, a camp complex whose Mountain View Suite includes a summertime ‘star-gazing’ bed on its main veranda.

  • Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand

    Fraser Gunn/ Hedgehog House/Minden Pictures—Corbis

    The world’s largest dark-sky reserve sits on a high country plateau in New Zealand called the Mackenzie Basin, which is ringed entirely by mountains on the country’s rugged South Island. On Earth & Sky’s nighttime tour of Mt. John Observatory, used by astronomers from Japan, Germany, and the U.S., visitors can spot the Magellanic Clouds—satellite galaxies of the Milky Way visible only from the southern hemisphere.

  • Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve in Ireland

    As far back as 6,000 years ago, the residents of Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula, an area isolated on either side by the Kerry mountain range and vast Atlantic Ocean, used stone formations to track solar and lunar cycles. Locals are fiercely proud of their region, which, in 2011, became the only gold-tier dark-sky reserve in the northern hemisphere, and are hard at work developing a new public lighting system that is dark-sky compliant.

  • Mauna Kea in Hawaii

    Fraser Gunn/ Hedgehog House/Minden Pictures—Corbis

    People making the two-hour drive to the gusty 13,796-foot summit of Mauna Kea, home to the world’s largest optical telescope, have high risk for altitude sickness, but serious sky-lovers brave the elements (and low oxygen levels) for some spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The peak closes to tourists come nightfall, but the visitor’s center (at a more manageable 9,200 feet) remains open until 10 p.m. There, guests are treated to free lectures, Q&As, and a chance to peer through 11-, 14-, and 16-inch telescopes.

  • Nova Scotia, Canada

    Courtesy of Trout Point Lodge

    In far eastern Canada’s Acadian Skies and Mi’kmaq Lands, a swath of wilderness in undeveloped western Nova Scotia, you’ll find the world’s first certified Starlight Hotel: Trout Point Lodge. The area was once the home of the indigenous Mi’kmaq nation, whose stories about constellations explained the changing of the seasons and other universal phenomena. Today, a resident astronomer leads guided star walks through the grounds as well as sessions on the lodge’s new stargazing platform.

  • Tenerife on the Canary Islands

    Michele Falzone/JAI—Corbis

    With its high altitude, proximity to the Equator, and distance from tropical storms, the remote Canary Islands off mainland Morocco enjoy some of the clearest, darkest skies. What’s more, Tenerife, the largest island, passed a law that controls flight paths in order to protect its stargazing conditions. It’s also the host of the semi-annual Starmus Festival, a celebration of science, music, and the arts. Festival attendees, which have included Neil Armstrong and Stephen Hawking, enjoy lectures, screenings, and space-themed parties. Until the next gathering, visitors can tour the Teide Observatory (open April through December) or take a cable car to the top of volcanic Mount Teide for dinnertime stargazing.

  • Jasper National Park in Canada

    © Prisma Bildagentur AG —Alamy

    The roads to Alberta’s Jasper National Park wend their way through spruce and pine forests, ultimately giving way to the majestic Canadian Rockies. At night, the views only get better. Much hype has been built around Jasper’s annual Dark Sky Festival, which schedules daytime solar viewings, rocket launches for kids, and telescope workshops. If you can’t pass through in October, however, spring for roadside—or backcountry, if you’re truly adventurous—camping at the more than 100 sites scattered throughout the preserve, which are open year-round.

  • Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania


    Pennsylvania may not seem so far-flung, but in 2014, the northern lights—phenomena usually only witnessed in high-latitude regions—were spotted a whopping four times in the 82-acre Cherry Springs State Park. This year, aspiring astronomers are gearing up for the park’s annual Black Forest Star Party (September 11-13), which brings together hundreds of amateur observers for a weekend of communal stargazing.

  • Galloway Forest Park in Scotland

    Arch White—Alamy

    It’s said that more than 7,000 stars and distant planets can be seen just with the naked eye from southwest Scotland’s 185,000-acre Galloway Forest Park, the first Dark Sky Park in the U.K. One of its three visitors’ centers overlooks Clatteringshaws Loch and the forest’s unlit center—providing ideal night conditions for gazing skyward. Or, for a more formal evening, sign up for lectures by guest speakers and evening viewings at the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, on the park’s southern edge.

  • Hovenweep National Monument in Utah and Colorado

    It’s speculated that several of the prehistoric buildings in the deserts of Hovenweep (the barren canyons and mesas straddling the border of Utah and Colorado) were designed in accordance with major celestial events including the summer solstice. Why they were built or how they were used remains a mystery.

  • Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia

    Visiting Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) and Kata-Tjuta, the two 600-million-year-old monoliths in the middle of Australia’s Red Center, are quintessential bucket-list experiences, and it’s easy to see why: as night falls, the Milky Way, with its rainbow hues, is clearly visible. Secluded lookout points are scattered throughout the nearby Ayers Rock Resort (we suggest the one behind Outback Pioneer Lodge), where you can spot the Southern Cross and—if you’re lucky—the aurora australis.

    Read the original list HERE.

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TIME Travel

These Are America’s Most Romantic Train Trips

Romantic rail rides across the country

If you’ve been thinking about sallying forth with a companion, consider a train trip to discover Wes-Anderson-film-levels of nostalgia and beauty. From the Napa Valley to Maine, riding the rails has never been so romantic.


  • Pullman Rail Journeys (Chicago-New Orleans)

    Pullman Rail Journeys

    While in Chicago, ask about the Master Bedroom suite in the Pontchartrain Club car, and take it all the way down to the Big Easy. On select trips, musicians from Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music serenade riders as they snake through the South.

  • Saratoga & North Creek Railway

    Saratoga & North Creek Railway

    If you’re starting in upstate New York, consider the old-timey Saratoga & North Creek Snow Train, which runs from January to March. As you look out the window across frozen Adirondack landscape, you can think of the lodge that’s waiting for you at the end of the journey in North Creek, New York.

  • Napa Valley Wine Train

    The Napa Valley Wine Train

    There’s pretty much nothing more romantic than moon glow, which is why the Napa Valley Wine Train’s Moonlight Escape excursion probably beats most regular date nights. As you make your way through Napa Valley, enjoy a meal by executive chief Kelly Macdonald, along with (of course!) two glasses of wine.

  • Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor

    George H.H. Huey—Alamy

    On its way from the Connecticut shoreline town of Old Saybrook, the Northeast Corridor train affords couples the opportunity to watch passing sailboats on Long Island Sound, which is particularly beautiful as as the sun sinks below the horizon. For the complete experience, hop off in Mystic and stay at a local B&B to complete the experience.

  • Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner

    Lisa Werner—Alamy

    It’s really hard to go wrong with a day trip along the coastline of Southern California. Amtrak’s Surfliner takes passengers from San Luis Obispo down to San Diego, offering views of the Channel Islands and Santa Barbara, to name a few.

  • Grand Canyon Railway

    The Grand Canyon Railway

    This route takes riders across Grand Canyon Country—through the Ponderosa pine forest and expansive prairies, all the way to the South Rim. It’s worth booking tickets in the train’s Luxury Dome car, which provides a more intimate and down-tempo experience.

  • Amtrak Cascades service


    Grab a ticket for the morning train from Seattle to Vancouver and you’ll be able to watch the sun rise over Puget Sound. As the train travels right next to the water, eagles, blue herons, and possibly an orca will be right outside your window.

  • Rio Grande Scenic Railroad

    Art Directors & TRIP—Alamy

    There’s perhaps no better way to experience Colorado’s San Luis Valley than via the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad’s Art Deco-style club cars. The sunset dinner ride offers cocktails and a meal, plus amazing views of Colorado’s peaks.

  • Maine Eastern Railroad

    Kevin Andrusia

    On this two-hour ride, get full view of the rocky landscape of Maine’s Midcoast region and the charming towns that populate it. As you glide along the water and through twee towns like Wiscasset, you’ll enjoy the views of Victorian homes and sailing vessels.

  • Sierra Dinner Train

    Gorgeous vistas of Northern California’s Sierra Mountains surround passengers throughout this lunch train, which features a three-course meal and drinks. After lunch, make sure and head over to the open-air car, which is particularly great for photographers—no glass pane between you and the landscape!

    Read the original list HERE.

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These 6 Wilderness Retreats Will Have You Dreaming of the Great Outdoors

Escape to these new remote retreats

Hidden among the world’s mountains, deserts, glaciers, and forests, these six stays offer intrepid travelers singular experiences in spectacular settings. There’s no cell reception, no monitors, no skyscrapers, no commuter trains.

From the ice-packed villages of Greenland to the hillsides of Tasmania, these wild retreats—equal parts adventure and romance—are the perfect detox for the nature-lover’s soul.

  • Natural Habitat’s Base Camp in Greenland

    Olaf Malver—Natural Habitat Adventures

    Greenland’s east coast is a primeval frontier, home to tiny, isolated Inuit villages and little else but ice. This August, Natural Habitats debuts Base Camp Greenland at the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet—second in size only to Antarctica—and the glacial Sermilik Fjord. Days in the arctic tundra are spent navigating the fjord’s maze of floating icebergs by zodiac boat, kayaking the Greenland Sea, and scouting Arctic fox, hare, and loon during treks through fields of cotton grass. The camp’s first season opens on Aug. 1, 2015.

  • Pumphouse Point in Tasmania

    Stu Gibson

    Floating in the middle of Lake St. Clair, against the backdrop of Tasmania’s primitive Central Highlands rain forests, this hydro-pump-station-turned-boutique-hotel feels a bit like its own private island—just, you know, with all the comforts of a mountain lodge. Inside Pumphouse Point, walls of Tasmanian oak and an earthy palette of muted grays, whites, and browns evoke the wilds of its surroundings. When not indulging in the honor bar or admiring the original water turbines beneath the lobby’s glass floor, you might spend your afternoons canoeing, trout fishing, or on a bushwalk in the alpine moorlands—keep an eye out for wallabies and wombats! At night, all that’s left to do is to sit by your floor-to-ceiling windows and watch the stars come out—or even, if you’re lucky, the Southern Lights.

  • Cloud Camp at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort in Canada

    Josh Lewis Photography

    Come May, thrill-seekers can claim their own aerie at Cloud Camp, which is launching this May at Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Wilderness Resort. A thrilling helicopter ride flies guests 4,500 feet above sea level to the rocky mountaintop, where a one-night-only safari-style camp perches over Clayoquot Sound. Your nest is well stocked: the white canvas tent includes a four-poster bed, down duvets, and a fireplace, which is particularly lovely when nights turn chilly. By day, you’ll be treated to a guided hike along the nearby mountain lake, with spectacular views at every turn. And by sundown? A five-course dinner with wine pairings prepared by your own private chef—the perfect prelude to a night spent dreaming in the clouds.

  • Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in Namibia

    Wilderness Safaris

    The coastal desert of northwestern Namibia has a stark kind of beauty. It looks a bit like the surface of another planet—a sea of shifting dunes, unforgiving terrain, and not a soul in sight. At Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, the newest retreat from Wilderness Safaris, eight tented suites have decks for viewing the desert’s lunar plains and roaming elephants, giraffes, and lions that seek out the waterhole nearby. In addition to daily game drives, guests that spring for a three-night stay are treated to a scenic flight over the region’s undulating dune fields and dolomite mountains to Mowe Bay, where, from above, one can spot Cape fur seal colonies and the litter of offshore shipwrecks that gave the Skeleton Coast its name.

  • Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge in Alaska

    Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge

    It takes a three-hour drive south of Anchorage followed by a 12-mile boat ride from the town of Seward to reach Fox Island in Alaska’s lesser-known Kenai Fjords National Park, but the journey is worth it. Each of the eight waterfront pinewood cabins and renovated main building at Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge look out toward the snowcapped mountains edging Resurrection Bay, known for its orca whales, sea otters, and bald eagles. Other perks: naturalist-led hikes along temperate rain forest trails, cooking classes (skewered salmon belly, anyone?), and kayak tours of Pederson Glacier.

  • Inn at John O’Groats in Scotland

    Natural Retreats

    A mere 310 people call the barren, windswept landscape of John O’Groats home, though interest has peaked since a dilapidated 1875 hotel was reborn as the stylish Inn at John O’Groats. The restored whitewashed mansion now stands alongside a colorful extension of buildings housing multi-bedroom apartments. Interiors are chic and spacious, with wood-burning stoves, mini libraries, and armchairs that afford stunning views of sea—and the palpable feeling that you’re sitting at the edge of the world.

    Read the original list HERE.

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Now You Can Visit the World’s First Selfie Museum

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No need for a selfie stick

Forget about those stodgy art institutions banning selfie sticks. Now there’s a museum specifically designed for social media snapshots.

Like something straight out of out of a Tumblr exec’s fantasy, a new attraction called Art in Island in the Philippines uses 3D replicas of paintings to put visitors in the center of art’s most famous masterpieces. It has thus been dubbed the planet’s first-ever selfie museum.

Actively encouraging guests to share their experiences with friends, family, and followers, museum corporate secretary Blyth Cambaya explains that, “here, art paintings are not complete if you are not with them, if you don’t take pictures with them.”

So step into van Gogh’s swirly sky, pose for a pic in King Tut’s Tomb, or play a hand with C. M. Coolidge’s poker-loving dogs. Then tweet, ‘gram, and #TBT to your heart’s content.

This article originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.

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Inside 13 of New York City’s Stunning Landmarks

Shining light on some of the city’s most overlooked protected spaces

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Law, the New York School of Interior Design has launched an exhibit called “Rescued, Restored, Reimagined,” which shines light on some of the city’s most overlooked protected spaces.

“Often, when we think of landmarks, we think of exterior architecture,” said NYSID President David Sprouls in a release. “A building’s exterior may be protected, but the interiors are frequently disregarded. This exhibition turns that notion on its head by focusing on the important role that interiors play in our lives.”

So what makes an interior worthy of the protective designation? New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (or LPC, for short) recognizes that “the definition of a landmark could hardly be broader.” The criteria for interiors—a classification established by an amendment in 1973—only requires a space be 30 years or older, have “special historic or aesthetic interest or value,” and be “customarily open or accessible to the public, or to which the public is customarily invited.” But despite the liberal qualifications, only 117 interiors hold the title out of 31,000 total landmarked properties in the city.

The show pays tribute to 20 spaces, dividing the interiors into the three categories of its name: rescued, restored, reimagined. By displaying more than 80 photographs—some archival, some newly commissioned—the exhibition hopes to illustrate that while “interiors are sometimes out of sight, but they should not be out of mind.”

Admission is free and open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., now through April 24. For more info, head over to landmarkinteriors.nysid.net or read on for a few of our favorite spots included in the show.

Should you feel passionately about a space that hasn’t yet made the list, propose a landmark by submitting a request to the LPC to start the evaluation process.

  • The Beacon Theatre

    The Beacon Theatre Photograph by Larry Lederman
    Larry Lederman

    One of the last “great movie palaces of New York,” The Beacon Theatre was designated a landmark in 1979. Art Deco in style with a lavish rotunda lobby, the space still functions as a theater with a regular calendar of music and comedy performances.

  • Dime Savings Bank

    Dime Savings Bank, 9 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn. Photograph by Larry Lederman © All rights reserved.
    Larry Lederman

    Once the busiest savings bank in Brooklyn, the grand Williamsburg space has adapted to include modern technologies like ATMs and security cameras, but key historic architectural features—including columns adorned with oversized dimes—remain preserved.

  • Film Center Building

    Film Center Building, 630 Ninth Avenue, Manhattan. Photograph by Larry Lederman
    Larry Lederman

    Tourists could walk right past this 9th Avenue office building, never knowing that a colorful interpretation of Art Deco design lies hidden on the first floor. Like something straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, the ceiling is gilded and a colorful geometric pattern brightens one wall of the elevator bank.

  • City Hall

    City Hall, Manhattan. Photograph by Larry Lederman © All rights reserved. - Copy
    Larry Lederman

    City Hall in downtown Manhattan was among the first interiors designated after the amendment passed, and its two-story rotunda remains one of New York’s best-preserved examples of neoclassical architecture.

  • Della Robbia Bar

    DELLA ROBBIA BAR Photograph by Larry Lederman
    Larry Lederman

    With a vaulted ceiling of Guastavino tile accented by ornamental pieces from the Rookwood Pottery Company, the Vanderbilt Hotel’s former underground bar and restaurant now functions as part of Wolfgang’s Steakhouse.

  • Ford Foundation

    Ford Foundation, 321 East 42nd Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Larry Lederman © All rights reserved.
    Larry Lederman

    The youngest of New York City’s designated interiors, the cube-like Ford Foundation headquarters feature an atrium at their center, and each glass-walled office within the building can be seen (to some degree) from every other.

  • The Four Seasons Restaurant

    The Four Seasons Restaurant Photograph by Larry Lederman
    Larry Lederman

    The interior of The Four Seasons Restaurant reflects the modular style of the Seagram Building’s exterior. Designed by architect Philip Johnson, the space is outfitted with marble, French walnut, and bronze details and is currently undergoing restoration.

  • Loew’s Paradise Theater

    Loews Interior
    Larry Lederman

    Designed to represent a 16th century Italian garden, the 4,000-seat theater is recognized for its plasterwork and vibrant sky-like blue ceiling, complete with light-bulb stars. The space was closed for many years for restoration, but re-opened in 2012 as a church and meeting space.

  • Marine Air Terminal

    Marine Air Terminal, La Guardia Airport, Queens. Photograph by Larry Lederman © All rights reserved.
    Larry Lederman

    LaGuardia Airport might not leave travelers awestruck today, but back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, visitors would crowd the Marine Air Terminal observation deck, hoping to catch a glimpse of airplanes taking off and landing. During the Great Depression, the Work’s Progress Administration commissioned a mural by James Brooks for the ticketing hall, a piece which was restored by the artist in 1980.

  • Mark Hellinger Theatre

    MARK HELLINGER THEATER Photograph by Larry Lederman
    Larry Lederman

    A classic movie palace built in Times Square, the Mark Hellinger Theatre features a domed ceiling, extensive plasterwork, and gilding throughout the auditorium, culminating in an opulent central chandelier.

  • Radio City Music Hall

    The Showplace of the Nation is the largest indoor theater in the world. Home to The Rockettes, the auditorium’s geometric Art Deco design was given landmark status in 1978, saving the iconic space from demolition.

  • Surrogate’s Court Hall

    Originally designed by John Thomas to be a new City Hall, the elaborate courthouse in actuality became the city’s Hall of Records, and in 1962, the upper-level courtrooms were occupied by the Surrogate’s Court, hence the modern moniker. Despite its landmark designation, the space has deteriorated over the years, but a renewed interest in repairs and restoration appears promising.

  • Williamsburgh Savings Bank

    Architect George B. Post designed this Brooklyn bank to resemble a cathedral, not in reverence to god, but instead to “the almost religious act of the savings bank depositor.” After changing ownership multiple times, the building’s iconic tower was converted into condominiums, and the floor and vault below now serve as a special-events venue.

    Read the original list HERE.

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Exploring the Brave New World of Hotel Tech Amenities


The data-driven hotel experience is America’s way of closing the service gap

Hotels are my favorite places to think and write, or simply to escape from reality, which is sometimes harsh. The hotels I am grateful for are run by sensitive, thoughtful people who provide the precarious balance of anonymity and personal care that I crave. I want privacy, interesting design, and also a place to be sociable or take a meeting for an hour or two without breaking the spell of being somewhere far away from home. I like camping out alone under the stars, in a nice room with a comfortable bed, a desk, and room service.

As human beings become switching stations for the digital signals coming in and out of our phones, the technological backwardness of so many hotels has become, for me, part of their charm. I take comfort in the fact that hotel rooms often double as museums of Jurassic technologies—the desktop landline that acts as a five-pound free weight, the dedicated button you must push to order room service, the DVD player for which you can rent actual DVDs. Still, the fear that the hotel experience I am dependent on might dissolve into the surrounding digital babble of Big Data and wearable gizmos and giant LCD screens doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable.

In fact, Starwood Hotels, which counts St. Regis and W among its global brands and operates one of my personal favorites, the Hotel Bristol in Warsaw, is investing $100 million over the next two years to create the very types of tech-y amenities that make me most anxious, among them iPad room-service menus and app-based temperature and lighting controls. (It is not the first hotel company with such ambitions, but it’s the largest.) These projects, and many more, are the focus of the newly opened Starlab, a Manhattan-based digital and design studio that seeks out the next great hotel innovations. Feeling fiercely protective of my beloved old-world order, I decided to head there myself and investigate.

The first thing that caught my eye at Starlab was a pair of wall displays broadcasting a lightly curated stream of every photo guests were posting and tagging on social media from every Starwood property in the world. More than half the pictures were of food: perfectly arrayed rare tuna slices, colorful desserts that looked almost like turn-of-the-century hats, and so on. The feed brought to mind the great Yale sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class, which posited a new generation of hotels like the Ritz in Paris as elaborate theater sets where the rising global bourgeoisie could show off their status in appropriately impressive settings. Food is a social-media-friendly version of the hotel experience on one plate.

After gazing a bit, I asked the Starlab design team how Big Data had changed their approach to their jobs. “Before, the hotel was the content. Now people are bringing their own content with them,” explained Mike Tiedy, senior VP for brand design and innovation. Great design and working Wi-Fi are simply the cost of entry to the market these days, and the hotel experience needs to be ever more alluring simply to keep up with whatever is on guests’ phones. Adding a sleek new vase or distinctive-looking chair isn’t enough to make a hotel feel fresh again. “We have to get those things right the first time,” added VP of global brand design Ted Jacobs.

The most powerful existing effect of digital technology on design, Jacobs told me, is the feedback loop of websites and social media that plays back the success or failure of each design choice in real time, making it visible to the guest’s friends, and their friends, and theirfriends.

Everything new is now instantly available to everyone, at least theoretically, so the value in the guest experience comes from its overall vibe—or what Jacobs calls the “red thread.” It’s not just the brand history, individual design choices, or level of service that makes an impact, but the way those things are tied together into a cohesive narrative. That’s not branding-speak, either—what it means is that hotels have become like big-budget Hollywood movies where the one-line pitch is so clear and so immediately attractive that people are delighted by the idea alone.

Starlab’s digital team concerns itself with how guests navigate a hotel. It recently made headlines after introducing its Keyless program, which lets Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) members use their phones to unlock doors at all W, Aloft, and Element hotels. When I visited Starlab, only 10 properties were offering the service, but 64,000 SPG members had already signed up.

I learned that room-service menus are available via the SPG app at Le Méridien in Munich, and will soon roll out globally. (Future historians of hotel technology may be interested to know that the first dish ordered via app was a Caesar salad.) I also got a peek at some screenshots of the SPG Apple Watch app, which will remind guests of their room number or provide turn-by-turn directions back to the hotel, in both English and the local language.

It was only when I wrapped my head around Starwood’s use of Big Data—murky territory for a privacy nut like me—that I began to understand how the cogs may actually turn in my favor. By this point, it’s not news that Starwood employs 30-odd people to keep “eyes on glass 24/7,” handling 3 million social media interactions per year that range from mentions of slow check-in lines to stories of guests who get locked out of their rooms (like one guest at Le Méridien Rimini who got stuck on his balcony and was rescued by hotel staff after tweeting his distress; he was rewarded the next day with a whistle and an Italian-English dictionary).

Data is especially useful to hotel managers, who can use it to help their guests in ways that would please the most traditionally exacting Swiss hotelier. In the backstage area of the W Downtown, in New York’s Financial District, I looked at the profile of one guest who listens to the Pixies and the Shins, eats Kettle Korn, and likes to have a teakettle in his room—the kinds of things that good hotels should know about their guests. Now, as part of an opt-in pilot in 30 hotels, Starwood plans to install Bluetooth “beacons” in lobbies and public spaces that will beam profiles of approaching guests to staff— who can then greet them by name and follow up on service requests.

Walking home in the rain, I might have felt like the lonely hero of a dystopian science-fiction novel, but oddly, I didn’t. No, I don’t care for Apple Watches and Google Glass. What I do care about is service, which is generally where American hotels and large chains fall flat. The high-touch yet protective experience that I love is generally characteristic of hotels in Europe and Asia, where the local hospitality cultures are rooted in a sense of community and discretion and attentiveness. The service virtues that I appreciate are generally not part of our culture, which has plenty of other things to offer: movies, music, democracy, upward mobility, efficient large-scale organization, open markets, and a disdain for servile habits.

The data-driven hotel experience is America’s way of closing the service gap. Sensors and apps might just be our culture’s equivalent of the beautiful ladies who keep tabs on guests’ movements in the pool and lobby areas of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, making their habits and preferences known to managers. If that’s what happens, then there’s nothing to be afraid of. In fact, I might like it.

This article originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.

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How to Use Miles to Get a Seat Upgrade

business class miles
Javier Jaen

Stay flexible with your time and airport locations

Don’t rely on upgrading. In the past, it was relatively easy to buy an economy ticket and use miles to get to the front of the plane. It’s become more of a crapshoot recently. Airlines are now focused on selling business-class seats and often open them up to upgrades only at the last minute, says Brian Kelly, founder of the Points Guy blog. (What’s more, some airlines require you to buy a nearly full-fare economy ticket to qualify for an upgrade.) But unless you’re a high-priority million-miler, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up stuck in coach. “It’s a very expensive lottery,” says Gary Leff, founder of Book Your Award, a mileage-redemption service. The better option is to use your miles to secure a business-class seat outright; they’re more plentiful and a better value. Upgrading to business on a Delta flight from the United States to Europe, for example, will cost you 15,000 to 25,000 miles on top of your economy fare—often with no guaranteed seat; the lowest-tier business award seats go for just 62,500 miles. That said, if you’re willing to gamble, consider a premium subscription to Expertflyer.com ($9.99 per month), which will notify you when an upgrade (or an award seat) becomes available.

Diversify your points. If you’re not going to reach elite status with an airline, it doesn’t make sense to rely on a single domestic carrier to house all your miles, leaving yourself vulnerable to devaluations. Your best bet is to earn through a credit card tied to a flexible-points program, such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest, all of which let you transfer points to a variety of travel partners. And even as United, Delta, and other airlines make it harder to bank miles, credit cards still have lucrative earning structures (sign-up bonuses, double-points offers, etc.). The Points Guy and One Mile at a Time blogs are both great resources for credit card offers and insights.

Leverage partnerships. Domestic carriers’ websites don’t show you all the inventory of all the airline’s international partners. Ben Schlappig, founder of PointsPros and the One Mile at a Time blog, advises calling the airline and asking about seats on affiliated airlines. For example, American Airlines AAdvantage miles can be used for Etihad Airways award seats, which are often available, since many U.S. travelers aren’t aware of this agreement. And don’t overlook Alaska Airlines. Though it isn’t part of the major international alliances, Alaska miles can be used on several Oneworld and SkyTeam carriers, including American and Delta.

Stay flexible. You’ll find the best upgrade and award-seat availability, Leff says, when business travelers are not flying: at off-peak times, midweek, and midday. Business seats are also easier to snag on flights to or from second-tier airports. That American Airlines flight from Raleigh- Durham to London has much more availability than one from New York’s JFK to Heathrow, Schlappig says. You can also mix and match carriers now that airlines are lifting the restrictions on booking one-way award tickets. The benefit, Leff says, is that you don’t need as many miles in any one frequent-flier account to take advantage of one-way rewards.

Outsource the task. If the thought of moving points around and researching airline partnerships makes you want to throw in the towel, you can. Services like Schlappig’s PointsPros and Leff’s Book Your Award will find those lucrative award seats for you. Schlappig charges $200 a ticket ($100 for each additional one); Leff’s fee is $150 a ticket. Neither will charge you until he finds you an acceptable itinerary.

Amy Farley is the News Editor of Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @afarles.

This article originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.

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Become a Spontaneous Traveler by Using These Apps

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Get packing now

Procrastinators, rejoice: a new crop of digital tools can help you book an entire trip in a matter of minutes, even mere hours before takeoff. So get packing.

Find your flight: The key to getting a last-minute deal is flexibility. The website Adioso lets you browse fares from your departure city to anywhere in the world and sort by price. Kayak’s Explore charts airfares on a global map to show how far your money can go. And the Get The Flight Out app (iOS) puts the cheapest day-of fares—from Orbitz, Travelocity, and others—on an easy-to-scan interface. Our best find: New York to Stockholm for $494 round-trip.

Book a room: HotelTonight (Android; iOS) is popular for its sleek design and curated picks; we like the new Rate Drop feature, which knocks down same-day prices after 3 p.m. For even deeper savings, try Hotels.com—last-minute deals start at 50 percent off. Booking.com’s just-launched app, Booking Now (iOS), claims the largest inventory, with more than 580,000 properties. To avoid information overload, the app learns your preferences and suggests hotels accordingly.

Plan your itinerary: Figure out how to fill your days with the help of Utrip, a website that can create itineraries in 37-plus cities throughout the U.S. and Europe. Users take a quick survey (Do you like mellow days or packed schedules? Do you prefer hiking or fine dining?) and provide their budget and dates. Utrip then calculates a day- by-day schedule with restaurants, sightseeing, and more— along with interactive maps to guide you along.

Make dinner reservations: Forget about booking 30 days ahead: apps like Table8 (Android; iOS) and Resy (Android; iOS) can find you a same-day seat at of- the-moment restaurants in five U.S. cities for a fee of up to $50 per booking. We scored a prime-time Saturday table at A.O.C., in Los Angeles, for $20 with Table8 and an $18 reservation at New York City hot spot Claudette via Resy.

All-in-one: If you’re looking to book airfare, rooms, rental cars, and excursions all at once, LastMinuteTravel.com sells heavily discounted package deals. Just be prepared to deal with a clunky user experience. For $50, you can join their membership club, which adds another 10 percent to your savings, on average.

Tom Samiljan is Travel + Leisure‘s Tech Correspondent.

This article originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.

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