6 Vegas Getaways You Need Right Now
We're all familiar with that famous Las Vegas Strip skyline, but long before the Strip came to embody the city as a whole, the first hotel-casinos began rising from the Nevada desert two and a half miles north. Today, Downtown thoroughfare Fremont Street bustles with brand-new bars, restaurants, shops, venues, and hotels offering budget-friendly, intimate, and down-to-earth accommodations that sometimes outdo their Strip counterparts.
Bonus: All six of the hip hot spots and historic mainstays below provide free parking, easy access to the North Premium Outlets mall, and a firsthand view of a side of the city that's making a comeback in a big way.
How much: From $29 per night plus $20 resort fee, thed.com
What it's like: Completed in fall 2012, a remodel of the former Irish-themed Fitzgerald casino retained the ground-floor pool, added Michigan-based eateries American Coney Island hot dogs and the upscale Andiamo Italian Steakhouse, and redecorated 34 hotel floors in sleek black and retro red, an update shared with recently expanded sister property the Golden Gate (from $9 plus $20 resort fee). On the ground level, bask in a lively, uninhibited vibe that includes LED lighting, dancing card dealers, and flair bartenders.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: Check out the music, food, and arts programming at the outdoor Downtown Las Vegas Events Center, which opened in September.
How much: From $29 per night plus $11 resort fee, downtowngrand.com
What it's like: Across Stewart Avenue from the popular Mob Museum, the year-old Ascend Collection boutique (formerly the Lady Luck Hotel & Casino) offers a well-stocked fitness center, a roomy and welcoming rooftop pool deck overlooking Third Street, and an upscale reimagining of defunct Arts District dive the Art Bar.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: Dual room towers connect via skybridge, which also provides easy access to one full block of happy hour heaven: Richard Sandoval's The Commissary Latin Kitchen (select beers, margaritas, mojitos, and wines are $4 from 4 to 7 p.m. daily), Triple George Grill (3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 4 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, half-price appetizers including $8 bruschetta, $9 calamari, $11 crab cakes, and $13 seared ahi), and Pizza Rock ($3 drafts, well drinks, meatballs, and Italian fries, plus $5 calamari, garlic bread, and one-topping personal pizzas from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays and 10 p.m. to close nightly).
How much: From $17 per night plus $9 resort fee, elcortezhotelcasino.com
What it's like: Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, the longest continuously operating hotel-casino in Las Vegas maintains a free airport return shuttle and six categories of rooms. Since 2009 the 64-unit, free-standing Cabana Suites sport classy black, white, and green decor, and fresh fruit in a high-tech fitness center.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: It's all steps away from the brand-new Market grocery store and innovative Container Park, an open-air mall built from shipping containers and featuring a treehouse playground, live events, and a massive sculpture of a fire-shooting praying mantis.
How much: From $39 per night plus $20 resort fee, goldennugget.com
What it's like: A waterslide, shark tank, and third-story infinity pool are but a few of the outdoor amenities; inside, a whopping 2,419 rooms, 10 restaurants, a two-suite fitness center, and an adjacent spa provide options for every taste and appetite.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: Continuous upgrades since 2005 play on the gold (naturally) and rust theme and emphasize uncompromised sightlines, all the better for exploring the sprawling, always surprising Downtown landmark.
Oasis at Gold Spike
How much: From $39 per night plus $20 resort fee, oasisatgoldspike.com
What it's like: Owned by business incubator the Downtown Project (originally founded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh), the retro blue and orange boutique opened in September with a tiny fitness center, year-round pool, and fire pits. Sleek lighting, accent pieces, and art vary throughout each of the 44 unique rooms, which don't waste outlet space with phones and alarm clocks.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: Instead of traditional Vegas gaming, an expansive patio and lawn area houses foursquare, hopscotch, cornhole, and oversized beer pong, plus the occasional DJ and live band. Rental bikes and vinyl library available at the front desk.
How much: From $29 per night plus $15 resort fee, plazahotelcasino.com
What it's like: The Western anchor of Fremont Street boasts a rooftop swimming pool, roomy fitness center, and coupon book offering deals on gaming, two-for-one drinks, and even free tickets to resident comedian Louie Anderson's family-friendly show.
What to do when you're not playing the slots: Dining highlights include Man v. Food favorite Hash House A Go Go, indoor/outdoor Beer Garden offering gourmet bratwursts plus side (fries, onion strings, or coleslaw) and a craft beer for under $8, $4 vegan and vegetarian options at Pop Up Pizza, and former three-term mayor Oscar Goodman's eponymous Oscar's, a gorgeous, glass-domed steakhouse where drinks and appetizers (normally $15 to $17) are half-off weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m.
29 Reasons We Love Belgium
Belgium pops off the map, alive with modern, artistic lodgings, unconventional museums, and beloved regional food and beer. During a 10-day trip through Brussels and Wallonia, I made sure to hit the most popular travel sites, including Waterloo, Bastogne, and Brussels, but I also made a point to stray from the traditional spots…and I was glad I did. Ready for a grand tour? Here are 29-plus reasons you’ll love Belgium as much as I did. Brussels: Chocolate, waffles, and…beer! Brussels is the home of the European Union and a truly international city. The beautiful Grand-Place and infamous Manneken Pis are must-sees, but for a different perspective, take a bike tour with Pro Velo; it’s a unique way to admire the city’s diverse architecture and chat up a local (provelo.org). My guide, Riet Naessens, gave me a tour focused on the city’s art deco and art nouveau architecture through burgeoning and luxurious neighborhoods I might not have reached on my own. We passed by designs by some of art nouveau’s most famous architects, Victor Horta and Paul Hankar. Stunning glasswork by artist Ernest Delune at Rue du Lac 6, often seen in art history textbooks, was a highlight, as was the Horta Museum, a World Heritage Site. Pro Velo also offers a popular Beer and Breweries tour, which I’d warn beginning bikers against for obvious reasons. Ingesting and investing in some chocolate while touring Brussels is crucial for any visit. Laurent Gerbaud has some outstanding chocolates, many mixed with tart and sweet dried and candied fruits (chocolatsgerbaud.be). Gerbaud’s interactive workshops offer students the opportunity to make and taste their own concoctions. His shop also has a café, so take a seat and enjoy the full chocolate experience. It’s close enough to do some oh-so-convenient chocolate shop–hopping at Place du Grand Sablon, where many of Belgium’s top chocolatiers have stores. For another sweet Brussels fix, walk a few feet from the popular naked Manneken Pis statue to feast on a Brussels-style waffle with chocolate, whipped cream, and strawberries at the Waffle Factory (wafflefactory.com). When in Brussels… Next up: a trip to the Atomium, a bizarre remnant of the 1958 World’s Fair, which might be the very definition of interesting and offbeat. This structure symbolizes an iron crystal expanded 165 billion times and houses an exhibition space. Nearby is another weird find, Mini-Europe, where you can walk among famous European monuments in miniature, including Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower (minieurope.com). Kids are the perfect audience for Mini-Europe—as are adults on the hunt for funny Instagram photos. Dinant: Paddle through town and discover a new way to make music. The fairytale-like setting that makes up Dinant is marked by a grand 13th-century church on the banks of the Meuse River, backed by an imposing high cliff where the Citadel rests. To take in nature, go kayaking on the nearby Lesse River with Olivier Pitance of Dinant Adventures (dinant-evasion.be). Small rapids turn to quiet currents and revert back again as you paddle and float by rock outcroppings, lush forests, and medieval castles. In town, don’t miss the House of Pataphony, where you can expand your mind making music with everyday objects you wouldn’t normally think to “play,” from a chandelier made of cutlery to antique keys (pataphonie.be). The wildly inventive museum was dreamed up by instrument maker Max Vandervorst. It makes sense that it’s located in Dinant, the home of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone. You can visit his home, now a small interactive museum (sax.dinant.be). Stay nearby in a castle at La Saisonneraie (from about $168 per night, lasaisonneraie.be), a former château in Falaën that tempts guests with exceptional croissants for breakfast. Liège: Forward-thinking art and cuisine, plus Belgium’s biggest market. If you’re looking to do all of this and still take a breath, you’ll want to stay in Brussels for few days. The chic Hilton Brussels Grand Place is well situated for guests to comfortably take on the city by foot (from about $245 per night, hilton.com). Start your morning trying Liège waffles at the best place in town, Maison Massin (Rue Puits-en-sock, 6-8- 4020 Liège). It’s where the locals get their waffles. Choose from traditional Liège waffles, sugary, chewy waffles that are ovular and unevenly shaped, or more embellished versions such as grilled strawberry or rhubarb. Sunday is market day in Liège, and whatever you’re craving or coveting, you’ll find it at La Batte, the oldest and largest market in Belgium. Local produce, cheese, fish, clothing, and books are all ripe for the picking at this riverside shopping mecca (liege.be). From the market, walk to Curtius Brasserie to sample Belgian craft beers (lacurtius.com). En route, you’ll want to snap a photo of the Mount Bueren stairs, an epic 374-step staircase located just beside “Brasserie C.” Once inside the beer hall, there’s an exciting energy. Started by young entrepreneurs, this Belgian brewery is housed in a former monastery. You can take a tour of the production area and pair cheese or meatballs with beer on the lovely outdoor terrace. Avant-garde art lovers, your new haunt is the Cité Miroir, an unusual cultural venue (citemiroir.be). Exhibitions are held in a 1930s building once home to public baths and a swimming pool: The remnants of still remain—works of art in themselves. Locals may tell you they learned to swim there. For dinner in Liège, you have to try boulet, a traditional beef-and-pork meatball that’s highly popular in the region. One of the best places to feast on boulet is Amon Nanesse, where large meatballs are served up in sweet sauce consisting of a mixture of pears and apple syrup, wine, onions, and peket, a local spirit (maisondupeket.be). Naturally, boulet is best complemented with a heaping helping of crispy fries. I had a boulet connoisseur introduce me to this filling dish: Sebastien Laviolette, from la Confrérie du Gay Boulet, is part of a guild of folks who make it their mission to secretly taste test meatballs at restaurants throughout the region and rate the best. Many of these Liège attractions are reachable on foot from both the historical center and boutique Hotel Neuvice, where 10 contemporary rooms surround an open-air patio (from about $109 per night, hotelneuvice.be). Mons: This culture capital invites. Mons is a university town with cool street art, museums, restaurants, and European charm—so much of it, in fact, that it was named the 2015 European Culture Capital. In the lively Grand-Place, pet the somewhat-freaky brass monkey statue for good luck before entering the Town Hall, Hôtel de Ville. Ascend the stairs of the 15th-century structure to take in the views of the striking square with its myriad architectural styles, ranging from Gothic to neoclassical. Inside Town Hall, admire gilded carvings and ornate tapestries, a gift to the town from France’s Louis XIV. Climb up higher, past the city’s historic brick homes, to Parc du Château, Mons’s highest point, where the magnificent belfry is located. The only baroque-style belfry in Belgium, the belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an exceptional place for photos. Next, walk down to the Saint Waudru Collegiate Church to see its exquisite stained glass windows and 18th-century golden carriage used in the annual celebration of the saint (waudru.be). Mons has several museums worth seeing, including BAM, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the fascinatingly bizarre, recently renovated Mundaneum, which contains a massive collection of photos, newspapers, posters, and books from Belgian philanthropist Paul Otlet, who spent nearly 50 years compiling every noteworthy piece of human thought ever published or recorded (mundaneum.org). Talk about a huge undertaking. Called a printed precursor to the internet and social networking, the museum has a partnership with Google. After all that cerebral reflection, grab a drink at La Cervoise, where there’s a dizzying array of more than 150 beers to choose from (32/65-35-15-25). Carnivores may stay to cook a steak on a stone, the most notable entrée at this Belgian beer hall. Others may wish to snag a table outside at Ces Belges et Vous, in Grand-Place, to take in the ambience of this historic square while feasting on traditional Belgian cuisine (cesbelges.be). One of my favorite hotels from my Belgium travels is Hotel Dream, in Mons. Nestled in the historic center, the hotel is in easy walking distance of Grand-Place—key since parking can be a hot commodity. The building is a former convent and chapel, so stained-glass windows and high ceilings are sprinkled in amid modern design and graffiti art (from about $103 per night, dream-mons.be). Durbuy: Europe’s coolest small city? You decide. One of Durbuy’s claims to fame is its title of “smallest city in the world”—or at least it used to be. The exact wording might be lost in translation, because they also had “smallest town” emblazoned in several spots. How it’s defined, I’m not so sure, but I’m chalking it up to another of the city’s endearing idiosyncrasies. Durbuy is a charming combination of cobblestoned medieval streets, historic sights, and lovely shops. There’s a local count here who still lives in a castle overlooking the town and the Durbuy Topiary Park (topiaires.durbuy.be). Billing itself as the “largest park in the world devoted to topiary that is accessible for the public” (that’s quite the moniker), there are more than 250 plants, some more than a century old. Stroll through these green sculptures, and you may recognize some of the shapelier box trees, including a larger-than-life topiary of Pamela Anderson on the beach, Manneken Pis from Brussels, jumping jockeys, ducklings, elephants, and several other creatures great and small. Shop in La Vraie Confiture du Durbuy for local artisanal jams and sweets for your friends (and yourself), then grab a traditional unfiltered amber brew at Marckloff Brewery, where beer is produced in small batches on site (confitureriesaintamour.be). Stay one or more nights right in town at Le Sanglier des Ardennes, a modern hotel overlooking the Ourthe River that serves a fabulous breakfast (from about $90 per night, sanglier-des-ardennes.be).
Three-Day Weekend: Berlin
I was still in a pleasant, gauzy, art-induced haze after laying eyes on the Nefertiti Bust in Berlin’s Neues Museum when the November rain pelting Museum Island stopped for a few blissful minutes. I seized the chance to lower my umbrella and linger in the middle of Friedrichsbrücke footbridge, on the Spree river. Above, the sky was damp, hazy, and green-gray; reflections from yellow streetlights glowed warm in the rippling water. I ran my fingers along antique German script etched in the bridge’s concrete, the lettering like medieval calligraphy. The 18th-century Berlin Cathedral presided over it all, its tarnished sea-green dome stately and gothic. This view, I remember thinking, this dramatic vignette, is like a woodcut from an Edgar Allan Poe novel. As I turned to continue down the cobblestoned path, a murder of crows began to swirl and scream overhead. It couldn’t have been more appropriate. It couldn’t have been more bizarre. And it couldn’t have been more magical. This was the Berlin I’d hoped to experience: the fiercely authentic, austere, urbane city that I’d read about in newspapers’ style sections and seen on TV in 1989, when the Wall fell. Witnessing the crows was one of many far-out moments I had in the city’s bubbling cauldron of rich history, modern art, addictive street food, avant-garde design, and friendly people. I did it all on a budget in one long weekend, with the trendy Mitte district as a home base. And I didn’t want to leave. Stay in hip, surprisingly affordable Mitte. After my redeye on Airberlin, direct from New York City’s JFK airport to Tegel in Berlin, it was morning when I arrived in the trendy Mitte district—known for its café scene, galleries, and cool shops—and checked into the design-forward, you-won’t-believe-these-low-rates Circus Hotel (from about $95 per night, circus-berlin.de). The hotel isn’t whisper-quiet or plush, but its decor is youthful and energetic—silhouettes of birds on a bright-green background were painted on my room’s walls—and the Rosenthaler-Platz U-bahn subway stop is steps from the front door. I stowed my suitcase and waited for my room to open at the adjoining restaurant, Fabisch. Alongside heaping spreads of German wurst, cheeses, eggs, and breads, its 9-euro breakfast buffet offered nine kinds of hearty cereals, like “choco muesli” and rye “roggen flocken,” lined up neatly, waiting to be spooned into bowls. Lodging rates across the street, at the similarly named Circus Hostel, dip even lower (from about $21 per night for a shared dorm room, from about $62 per night for a private room, circus-berlin.de). Generator Berlin Mitte hostel, with its hip, warm, wood-heavy décor is close by too (from about $21 for a shared room, from about $58 for a private room, generatorhostels.com). Shop local, drink cheap, take a throwback selfie. When I ventured out that first morning, the streets were abandoned until about noon, when Berliners began to stream past wearing understated parkas, dark skinny jeans, and delicate nose rings—and exuding an effortless cool. The city is a night owl. “Where should I go out tonight?” I had asked the hotel’s front-desk clerk. His buddy next to him, exuberant with a half-shaved head and ponytail, grabbed a red Post-It note and scrawled the best places to go clubbing: “Berghain, Tresor, Kater Blau, Watergate.” “Go early,” he urged me. “Go before 2 a.m., because from 2 to 6 a.m. it gets really crazy. Also, people might be having intercourse next to you, but it’s normal.” After living in a sanitized New York City for years, sanctioned public intercourse seemed like a breath of fresh air. I was disappointed when, after my redeye, I couldn’t stay awake past midnight. But before the clock struck 12, I found the perfect bar. A smoky, red-lit dive with psychedelic toile wallpaper, Muschi Obermaier has vintage memorabilia shellacked to the walls: print advertisements from the 1960s, band posters, photos of nude models, and film stills (muschiobermaier.de). A giant bottle of Augustiner Lagerbier Hell cost less than $4; a small glass of Berliner Luft peppermint schnapps was under $3. Reclining on overstuffed leather couches or standing three deep at the bar, the men resembled Sting or Jack Antonoff; the women were petite, brunette versions of Brigitte Bardot, touseled bangs included. I lingered as long as I could. The next day, it was pouring rain when I reached Mauerpark, in Prenzlauer Berg near Mitte, for a Sunday-only flea market where incense and mellow German tunes filter through the air, its stalls selling kitschy T-shirts; jewelry; clothing patches for 3 euros, some depicting the German flag; and vintage finery (flohmarktimmauerpark.de). Twentysomethings haggled for chunky knit sweaters, furry coats, silk shirts, and Vanna White–style sequined shells or sat, sheltered from the rain, at picnic-style tables drinking cold beer. Afterward, I ducked into one of Berlin’s Photoautomat booths—an art project started in 2004—and dropped 2 euro coins into the slot (photoautomat.de). The light flashed four times, and I waited as the machine churned and groaned and finally spit out a strip of vintage-cool black-and-white photographs that smelled of darkroom fluid. I waved it in the wind to dry it, like an old Polaroid, later tucking it into a book for safekeeping. Prioritize the art—especially the free stuff. Art in Berlin stretches far beyond gallery walls, the city’s creativity spilling onto brick buildings, into alleyways, and coating the Berlin Wall itself. Street art rises high and bold in the up-and-coming Kreuzberg neighborhood. Richard Ash’s “Astronaut Cosmonaut” floats above Skalitzer Street. “Pink Man,” made of small, writhing wormlike humans, dangles his prey close to his mouth near Oberbaum Bridge. Back in Mitte, the alleyway next to Haus Schwarzenberg museum is covered with art, including a portrait of Anne Frank by artist Jimmy C and images of Little Lucy, a cartoon character continually finding creative ways to kill her pet cat. Intrigued? Take a free three-hour tour with Alternative Tours Berlin to see important works and hear an elegant explanation of the difference between street art, tagging, and graffiti (free, alternativeberlin.com). Outside Haus Schwarzenberg, note the “stumbling blocks” on the sidewalk, one of many clusters of gilded stones in Berlin that serve as tributes to Jewish families who were forced out of their homes during the Holocaust. Nearby, Museum Island—five museums on a stretch of land in the Spree River—is a treasure trove of ancient art and modern works. The best deal is to buy a one-day area ticket for access to all five (about $20, smb.museum). I was crunched for time but determined to see the Egyptian antiquities, including Nefertiti’s Bust, at the Neues Museum (admission about $13). An architectural wonder of old and new, the building was bombed during WWII and built up again on the ruins; inside, the brick foundation rises and collides with new, clean lines. As for Nefertiti, she was was even more regal than I had hoped: so reverentially lit she glowed, encased in glass at the center of a room all her own. I followed the Spree River south to the Berlin Wall, with the murals of the East Side Gallery painted on its side (free, eastsidegallery-berlin.com). They’re alternately jarring and dreamlike: “The Kiss” between socialist leaders Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev; a Trabant car bursting through the Berlin Wall; vibrant Batman characters populating “Sonic Malade.” Between art-gazing, culture-lovers should take a mandatory spin through the ultra-modern Mitte bookstore Do You Read Me?! (doyoureadme.de). Bathed in white neon light, its streamlined shelves are stocked with mesmerizing avant-garde fashion magazines, quarterly literary 'zines. One evening, I wandered into Me Collectors Room, a combination café/gallery showcasing both a Cindy Sherman photography exhibit and a long hallway filled with ancient curiosities, such as a narwhal tusk once thought to be a unicorn horn (admission about $8, me-berlin.com). For food, think high/low. Street food like currywurst (sliced sausage the consistency of an American hot dog, doused in curry ketchup and sprinkled with curry powder) and fine dining are within reach in Berlin. Near Circus Hotel, Curry Mitte dishes out an entire currywurst meal for about $5, including French fries and a beer or soft drink, like local citrus-flavored soda Mezzo Mix (currymitte.de). I ate currywurst twice in three days: Once for lunch, sitting in the window, people-watching at the busy corner, and once after a pilsner at Z-Bar, a bar/cinema with red glitter–laquered tables and bottomless bowls of “peanut flips”—puffed corn chips with a sweet, peanut-butter-like coating (z-bar.de). The flavor was reminiscent of E.T. Cereal, sold back in the ’80s. In other words, just like heaven. In Kreuzberg, eats are cheap and clustered together: Four pieces of baklava are about $1 at Salut Backwaren bakery (49/30-6182405). Not far away, Burgermeister, a former public restroom converted into a snack bar, grills up burgers and cheese fries doused with sauces like peanut butter and mango curry (burgers from about $5, burger-meister.de). The doner kebab was supposedly invented in Berlin, so it’s only right to grab one at Baghdad Bistro—it does brisk business after 2 a.m. (less than $4, bagdad-restaurant.de). With the money you’ve saved, treat yourself to weinerschnitzel and apple streudel at South German restaurant Alpenstueck, where a chic crowd wearing dark sweaters and black spectacles befitting an architect sit at shiny gray tables arranged in neat lines (generous entrées from about $17, alpenstueck.com). Catch a boho vibe while sipping wine and sitting on homey, tapestried pillows at farm-to-table resto Katz Orange (glasses of wine from less than $4, entrées from about $19, katzorange.com). The lavender sausages, delivered in a cocotte on a bed of greens, were the best links I’ve ever had ($7). For further savings, split a slow-roasted “candy on the bone” short rib, melted pork belly, lamb, or Duroc pork entrée for two, with second helpings and sides in little terra-cotta crocks. Value-wise, though, it’s hard to beat the Vietnamese cuisine at Chén Chè tea house, where a heaping tray with bowls of red coconut chicken curry, fried chicken, jasmine rice, soup, and salad costs less than $12 (chenche-berlin.de). As you leave the tea house, look up, to your right. The Fernsehturm television tower is glittering like a disco ball, and your night is just beginning.
Free & Cheap in NYC (For Real!)
The city that doesn't sleep has a reputation for not exactly being cheap. This is, after all, the land of the $1,000 ice cream sundae and the $45,000 hotel room. But we here at BT love New York for its down-to-earth qualities that anyone can enjoy. In fact, the best activities don't cost a dime—or if you do shell out a few bucks, it's worth it and then some. Where to find this awesome, accessible stuff to do? Ask the locals, of course. We talked to famous New York citizens, BT readers who know the city inside and out, and our own Empire State–based editors, who—with a little prodding—gave up their secret favorite NYC pastimes that won't leave you standing in Times Square with your pockets turned inside out. Whose advice will you take first? What's your favorite free or inexpensive thing to do in New York City? The Food: "Sunday dim sum (dumpling) brunch in Chinatown at Dim Sum Gogo. It is my favorite place to stuff myself on these delicious morsels." —Patricia Field, fashion designer, costume designer for Sex and the City, and native New Yorker "My favorite thing is to go all the way up to Harlem with a bunch of guys and go to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. It's inexpensive and so much fun. Go with a big group!" —François Payard, James Beard award–winning pastry chef with five namesake bakeries and patisseries in NYC "I have an on-the-go job, like most New Yorkers, but it's also important to stay healthy during the day. Try Gray's Papaya on the Upper West Side, which offers their Recession Special of two all-beef hot dogs and a nutritious juice drink for just $4.95, or the famous 'street meat' food carts on Midtown corners, being sure to opt for the lean grilled chicken over the greasy beef." —Lee Tressel, Triple-A strength and conditioning coach for the New York Yankees "We have kids, so our favorite is a visit to Economy Candy on the Lower East Side! Nostalgic, a great area to walk in, and of course a great time for the kids!" —BT reader Melika Nixon, via Facebook The Sights: "Staten Island Ferry. You get a fantastic view of lower Manhattan. An up-close pass by the Statue of Liberty. And you can interrupt a busy day of touring on foot with a relatively relaxing free boat ride where there is plenty of seating. That's about as much as you can ask from something that's free." —Pat Kiernan, NY1 news anchor "The parks! Pack a lunch and spend the day at Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan—visit The Cloisters while you're there—or Hudson River Park. There's so much going on over a long stretch." —Amy Lundeen, photo director, Budget Travel "In the summertime, I like going to the roof of the Met. The museum is a suggested donation (I usually give a couple of bucks), and you don't have to purchase anything at the bar on the roof. You can just enjoy the art installation and the view!" —BT reader and New Yorker Jennie LaIacona, via Facebook "Visitors often overlook the neighborhoods that locals love, but spending time off the beaten visitor path is the best way to experience New York City like a local. Make sure you spend time in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or Staten Island before heading home. You won't regret it!" —Marty Markowitz, former Brooklyn borough president and current VP of borough engagement and promotion for NY's tourism org, NYC & Company "Walk the beautiful Brooklyn Heights Promenade, then across the Brooklyn Bridge. Fabulous 360-degree views!" —BT reader Roger Warner, via Facebook The Activities: "Le Carrousel in Bryant Park. Kids can ride on a cat, a frog, a rabbit, and other beautiful carved animals in the middle of Midtown's perfect oasis. Tickets are only $3, and grown-ups who want to stand beside their little one ride for free."—Robert Firpo-Cappiello, editor in chief, Budget Travel "Free museums on Fridays! Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria and MoMA." (Both free from 4–8 p.m.) —BT reader and New Yorker Sean Layton (@seanrlayton), via Instagram "I love going for long strolls around the city. You never know who you'll bump into or what you'll see. I've stumbled upon movie premiere red carpets, the Metropolitan Opera showing their opening-night performance on the big screens in Times Square, and Robert De Niro filming in the East Village—I accidentally wandered into the shot!" —Kaeli Conforti, digital editor, Budget Travel "The Steinway piano factory tour in Queens. Requires advance reservation, but it was so interesting and free!" (Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 718-721-2600 to inquire.) —BT reader Eve Zucker Strauss, via Facebook "I so enjoy attending free readings at unique NYC bookstores like Word in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; the legendary Strand (18 miles of books!) on 12th Street; McNally Jackson in Nolita; and even the Barnes & Noble flagship store in Union Square. I've met famous authors ranging from Naomi Wolf to Meg Cabot to Chuck Klosterman and gone home carrying a signed book that I intended to buy no matter what. Check out the websites' events pages, or go regardless and just get lost in the stacks." —Jamie Beckman, senior editor, Budget Travel "Walk and walk and walk! Central Park has free walking tours of specific areas of the park. Also, free walking tours from Free Tours by Foot." —BT reader Wynne Gavin, via Facebook "Exploring the free galleries in Chelsea neighborhood, especially Hasted Kraeutler and Yancey Richardson; breaking for food-truck snacks on the nearby High Line; and then going back for more artful inspiration! The galleries are generally open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but if you want to rub elbows with art-scene 'somebodys,' show up on a Thursday evening for an opening and (reasonably) indulge in the free wine." —Whitney Tressel, photo editor, Budget Travel
The Civil War in Under a Week
Onward came the Confederates, an experienced and disciplined army of 12,000 soldiers striding my way across an open field. Flags flying, their battle line stretched for a mile in perfect alignment. I could see their determined faces - would they detect my trembling fear? - as I stood on Cemetery Ridge. A foot soldier, I was part of a strong Union force that had taken a defensive position on high, rocky ground just outside the little Pennsylvania village of Gettysburg. It was July 3, 1863, a momentous day. History books would call it the turning point of the Civil War. No, of course I wasn't really there that day. But I could easily imagine I waited - steadfast but frightened - to thwart the famous attack that became known as Pickett's Charge. Again and again, the Civil War comes vividly alive like this as I walk over the very ground where great battles were fought. I can see the fields, woods, ridges, and gullies that determined how generals plotted their strategies. And I begin to understand the challenge facing the troops ordered to carry them out. How would I have fared? It's a question surely every Gettysburg visitor must ponder, as I have. You, too, can step back into the past on a budget-priced drive into the heart of the Civil War. It will give you intimate glimpses into the life (and, so very often, the death) of the soldiers and civilians caught up in the tragic four-year conflict between North and South. Amidst the horrible carnage, incredible tales of courage on both sides stir the soul. Our nation was shaped by the Civil War, and its ramifications are still with us. I grew up never having to fight in a war. Our national Civil War battlefields, the only ones I know, help me better appreciate the sacrifices of those who did. A Civil War buff, I've plotted a practical, six-day, 600-mile auto tour from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg and five other nearby battlefield parks, where many of the bloodiest and most crucial clashes were waged. On this four-state drive, you will eat and sleep cheaply and well - and see the greatest number of sites (small entrance fees) in the fewest miles (to keep gas costs down). If time is short, spend a day at one or two of the parks. Each is a good introduction to the war. Why Washington, D.C.? Except for Appomattox (last stop on the drive), the parks are all less than 120 miles away. And, as important, two of the city's trio of airports - Washington-Dulles and Baltimore-Washington - are served by low-cost airlines. The drive takes you through lovely pastoral countryside only little changed since the nineteenth century. Count on stopping at one of Virginia's many wineries to sample (free) a fine vintage. In summer, go for a swim (small fee) at a state park lake. And stroll the inviting old streets (no charge) of each of the towns in which you'll stay. You will need a car. Among nationally known rental companies, Rent-A-Wreck (202/408-9828) often offers the lowest rates locally at $175 a week. But free mileage is limited to 100 miles a day, and you'll have to take an airport bus ($16) into the city. In summer, when business travel is slack, look for a better bargain at a major rental agency with airport pickup. For an August rental this year, Budget (800/572-0700) quoted an economy car rate at Baltimore-Washington airport of just $188 a week with unlimited mileage. The very dramatic prelude Let me set the scene before I send you on your way: Richmond, Virginia, which served as the Confederate capital, is located just 100 miles south of Washington, D.C., the Northern capital. The proximity of the two enemy cities turned the landscape between them blood red in a series of horrendous battles marked by courageous charges and catastrophic blunders. The North's basic strategy was to capture Richmond and end the war. The South, realizing its military strength was limited, sought to punch and poke at the North - holding on until the Union wearied of the fighting and granted the Confederacy independence. The story unfolds chapter by chapter at the battlefield parks. (The per-night lodging rates I cite below are for two adults in summer high season. Fall and spring are cheaper, and in winter, prices at many motels drop to as low as $30 to $35. Children usually stay free.) Day 1: Gettysburg National Military Park If you can visit only one Civil War site on this trip, make it Gettysburg National Military Park (717/334-1124) in Pennsylvania. Before Gettysburg, the South seemed headed for victory; after the battle, a terrible loss for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy was doomed - although the war staggered on for two more years. In exhibits here, you get a good overview of the war. Stand in the well-marked Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, as I did, and look across the slender valley of green fields and pastures below to Seminary Ridge, which sheltered Lee's troops. For three sun-baked days, the opposing armies watched each other from these rocky perches separated only by a mile. Today, on the two ridge tops, imposing equestrian statues of the commanders - Gen. George Meade for the North and Lee for the South - still maintain a vigil across the valley in easy view of each other. On this site, where Pickett's troops marched to disaster, you can sense the terror the poor foot soldiers must have experienced as their world exploded around them. That they fought so valiantly makes me wonder at the sometimes incredible strength of the human spirit. Admission to the park is free. But to understand the battle, catch the 30-minute electric map presentation (adults, $3) in the visitor center. The map recreates the battlefield landscape and its significant landmarks in miniature, and colored lights mark the movement of the armies. Also in the visitor center is the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War (free), where room after room details a soldier's hard, dangerous life. At this point, consider yourself ready to take the park's 18-mile auto tour (free), which follows the path of the three-day battle chronologically. To see it as the soldiers did, walk at least partway. Catch a free ranger-led talk or living-history encampment here at Gettysburg or at the other parks (schedules at www.civil wartraveler.com). And relax and swim at Hunting Creek Lake in Cunningham Falls State Park, Thurmont, Maryland, about 20 minutes south ($3). Getting thereI-70 from Baltimore or I-270 from Washington north to U.S. Route 15 north, about 80 miles. Where to stayGettysburg offers a choice of reasonably priced motels and cafes - although they're a bit more expensive here than elsewhere on this drive. Within a five-minute walk of the visitor center, the 30-room Three Crowns Motor Lodge (800/729-6564), $50 weekdays/$65 weekends, tempts with a large swimming pool. Nearby are the 25-room Colton Motel (800/262-0317), $50 weekdays/$60 weekends, also with a pool, and the 40-room Home Sweet Home Motel (717/334-3916), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends. A mile from the park, the 25-room Perfect Rest Motel (800/336-1345), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends, with pool and morning coffee, enjoys a quiet country setting. Where to eatA few steps from the in-town motels, Gettysburg Eddie's is a Victorian-style charmer. It looks fancy, but prices are right. An entree of grilled chicken breast, lightly seasoned with lemon pepper and served with a salad and wild rice, is $9.95. Take $2 off all dinners Monday through Thursday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Up the street, General Pickett's Buffet Restaurant charges $9.95 for a full dinner, which includes an entree (meat loaf, for example), a large salad bar, and a sinfully tempting dessert bar. Day 2: Antietam National Battlefield Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Today, Antietam National Battlefield (301/432-5124, $2 per person) in little Sharpsburg, Maryland, is the prettiest of the Civil War parks. Beneath a wooded hillside, Burnside Bridge, a stone arch, leaps Antietam Creek so gracefully it has starred in countless tourist snaps. Yet ironically, it is here that the horror of the war seems most evident. On a single day, September 17, 1862-the bloodiest of the war - 23,000 men were killed or wounded, partly because of the blunders of their commanders. Attempting to invade the North, Lee was halted at Antietam. Union troops failed to pursue Lee's army, and he would march north again a year later at Gettysburg. At the visitor center, watch the movie; tour the museum, which puts a human face on the battle, and then take the nine-mile auto tour of the battle sites. To stretch your legs, hike the Snavely Ford Trail, a 2.5-mile wooded path along Antietam Creek where Union troops outflanked their enemy. Afterwards, head for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (304/535-6223, $5 per car) in West Virginia. Strategically located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the little mountain town - a munitions manufacturer at the war's outset - switched hands time and again. Earlier in 1859, abolitionist John Brown was captured in Harpers Ferry after he seized the federal arsenal in a move to arm slaves. Many of the town's original buildings are preserved as part of the park, and they have been turned into small museums telling the story of Brown and the war. In warm weather, rafters tackling the Shenandoah rapids splash past in laughing groups. Getting thereTo reach Antietam, about 50 miles distant, retrace your route south on U.S. 15 to Frederick, Maryland, home of the fascinatingly gruesome National Museum of Civil War Medicine (adults, $6.50). Pick up U.S. 40 Alternate West to Maryland 34 south. Pack a picnic lunch, because food options are limited. To continue on to Harpers Ferry, follow back roads south along the Potomac River, about 15 miles. Where to stayFor the cheapest lodgings on the drive ($16 per person), check into Harpers Ferry Hostel (301/834-7652), a 39-bed Hostelling International-American Youth Hostel property in Knoxville, Maryland, a few miles from the park. (I sit on the board of directors that manages the hostel.) The rambling frame house perches near a ledge overlooking the Potomac. Hike the Appalachian Trail alongside the river into Harpers Ferry. Up the road in a scenic country setting is the 23-room Hillside Motel (301/834-8144), $50 daily. For a city setting, double back to Frederick to the 72-room Red Horse Motor Inn (301/662-0281), $67 daily. Where to eatAcross from the Hillside Motel, Cindy Dee's Restaurant is a friendly family eatery where a plate of liver and onions, mashed potatoes, and corn goes for $6. In Frederick, the Red Lobster ($9.99 for Santa Fe chicken) is near the Red Horse Motor Inn (above). Day 3: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Midway between Washington and Richmond, the old colonial river port of Fredericksburg, Virginia, earned the dubious nickname of "battlefield city." Four major battles were fought here - two (Fredericksburg in 1862 and Chancellorsville in 1863) in which Lee was triumphant and the final two (the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse, in May 1864) in which he was forced to withdraw south when hard-charging Gen. Ulysses S. Grant maneuvered to outflank him. All four battles are commemorated at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (540/373-6122, $3 per person), and the park distributes a free auto tour map. On the route is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, where the famed Confederate leader died of wounds accidentally inflicted by his own men at Chancellorsville. The most unsettling of the park's sites is the still partially standing stone wall behind which Lee's troops sheltered during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Union troops, charging the high ground, were slaughtered in masses. Getting thereU.S. 340 south to U.S. 17 south, 110 miles. The route passes through the heart of Virginia's wine country. Outside Fredericksburg, catch the beach at Lake Anna State Park (adults, $6). Where to stayYou'll find a cluster of well-priced motels at the intersection of U.S. 17 and I-95. Try the 59-room Travelodge (800/578-7878), $48 weekdays/$62 weekends, with pool and continental breakfast; the 77-room Super 8 Motel (540/371-8900), $50 weekdays/$55 weekends; or the 119-room Motel 6 (540/371-5443), $38 weekdays/$49 weekends. Where to eatNear the motels, the cheery-looking Johnny Appleseed Restaurant features menus in the "down-home Southern tradition." With buttermilk biscuits, "Pam's Fish 'n Chips" is $8.99. Day 4: Petersburg National Battlefield In June 1864, Grant trapped Lee's forces in Petersburg, Virginia, but for nine-and-a-half harrowing months, Lee held out. Partially encircling the old city, the Petersburg National Battlefield (804/732-3531, $5 per person) preserves Northern and Southern earthworks and the Crater, a massive hole created by a blast set off from a tunnel beneath Confederate lines. A four-mile auto tour leads to the Crater. The civilian side of the story - the lives of the 18,000 residents who endured hunger and cannon bombardment - is found in the Siege Museum ($3) in the historic district. They kept up their spirits at "starvation balls" - lots of dancing but no food. Getting thereI-95 south to Route 36 east, about 85 miles. Where to staySeveral budget motels are located at the intersection of I-295 and U.S. 460, about a mile from the park's entrance. They include the 120-room American Inn (804/733-2800), $45 daily, with pool; the 48-room Budget Motor Inn (804/732-1646), $40 daily; and the 32-room California Inn (804/732-5500), $40 weekdays/$46 weekends. Where to eatAll the motels recommend Roma's Italian Restaurant just up the highway. The place bustles, and the aromas are rich. Spaghetti with mushrooms is $4.50, or go for the veal cutlet parmigiana with a salad ($8.50). Day 5: Appomattox Court House National Historical Park The other Civil War battle sites commemorate the violent clash of armies. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park (804/352-8987, $4 per car) in Virginia is a place of peace, a memorial to the dignity, honor, and generosity of the combatants in the final days of conflict. Here on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his tattered army to Grant. He had broken free from Petersburg and was attempting to escape into the Carolinas. At this tiny village, Grant blocked his way. Today the restored village looks much as it must have at the surrender. A tavern, the general store, the courthouse, and the jail are clustered atop a grass-covered hill ringed by acres of rolling farmland. In the McLean House - the finest home in the village - Grant and Lee met in the parlor to sign the surrender. A formal ceremony, the stacking of arms, took place three days later. The Confederates filed uphill between Union ranks to lay down their arms for the last time. No jeers assaulted them; the victors stood silently in respect. As Union Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, who was there, later wrote: "On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead." Getting thereHead west on U.S. 460, about 90 miles. Or take "Lee's Retreat," a historical route with signposts pointing the way on country roads that follow Lee's flight more closely. Phone 800/6-RETREAT for a detailed map. Stop for a swim at Holliday Lake State Park (admission $1 per car, swimming $3 per adult). Where to stayTwo fine motels are located about a mile from the park in contemporary Appomattox: the 20-room Budget Inn (804/352-7451), $45 daily, and the 45-room Super 8 (804/352-2339), $50 weekdays/$56 weekends with breakfast pastry, juice, and coffee. Where to eatClose to both motels, the Homeland Cafeteria can't be beat for its prices. A full dinner - fried chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables, salad, rolls, and dessert - costs just $5.99, $5.49 before 4 p.m. Day 6: Closing the loop Return to Washington via U.S. 29 and I-66 north. Remember, on this drive you've seen only the highlights of the Civil War. More battlefields, monuments, and museums await another visit.