Stumped For A Gift? Visit a Museum

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are one or two months away and if you are lucky enough to still have your mother and/or father around now is as good a time as any to think about what to get them. Rather than just picking up something at the last minute from the local drugstore you might want to try to find something a little more creative and relevant for your loved ones. I am reminded of this after visiting the Gift Shop at Leu Gardens last weekend.  The place is jammed packed (literally – it’s hard to move around too quickly in there) with all kinds of “gifty” things for your favorite gardener. From accessories to books the variety of items on offer was quite diverse and the store offers gift certificates if you can’t make a decision.

Of course, I bring this up because I love museum stores and I’ve recently visited a few interesting ones. Sometimes the merchandise can be pretty pricey but many have a wide range of items that are truly unique to the region or focused on a particular interest. I’ve purchased coasters from the Dali Museum in St Petersburg, Florida, a decorative ceramic tile from the Museum of Fine Arts store in Boston and jewelry from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

In New Orleans, we visited the Museum Store at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and I was sorely tempted to buy a new scarf. I decided against it because I already have quite a collection of scarves. However, my friend did find some beautiful garden tags to label her herb garden. The brightly lit store has a significant children’s section with books, games and toys.

Many of these stores offer discounts to members which can be a reason to join if you love the merchandise enough to buy a significant amount of items over time. And, in some cases you don’t have to go into the Museum itself (either via the online store or via a separate entrance to the store on site) to visit the store, thus eliminating the admission to some places. 

So what follows is a list of some of my favorite museum stores.

The Dali Museum, St Petersburg, Florida. Huge store with Dali prints and Dali images reconstituted into all kinds of merchandise.

The Harry P. Leu Garden and Museum Store, Orlando, Florida. Small store crammed with decorative garden items and books.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Unique jewelry items. Art prints including limited editions, books, toys, clothing and accessories.

The Morse Museum, Winter Park, Florida. Tiffany Lamp reproductions and stained glass items. Stationery, apparel and accessories.

The Art Institute of Chicago. Beautiful prints and books. Unique jewelry items as well.

The Smithsonian, all the museums of this institution have a store but these, located in Washington DC stand out in my opinion.

World of Coca-Cola, Atlanta, Georgia. Okay this place is a living commercial for Coca-Cola products but I’m a Diet Coke fiend so if you love Coke memorabilia this is the place to go crazy.

Shanghai Museum of Art.  You won’t necessarily find any bargains here but what you find is genuine merchandise without the typical haggling and harassment you will find as a tourist in Shanghai.  A peaceful place to shop for quality items.

This is just a small sampling of what’s out there. Do you have a favorite Museum Store?

Priscilla Emery, one half of the Travel2some


China Trip Day Six: Shanghai and the Bund

It was a Tuesday and the plan was to visit the Bund area of Shanghai. There would be 5 of us on this outing, myself, Art, Art’s sister and brother-in-law, Susan and Larry and Susan’s assistant, Alice, a student at the college. Alice, was the person who met us at the airport a couple of days before and she would be helping us navigate the Shanghai public transportation system into the heart of Shanghai’s bustling shopping and tourist areas. This is no small feat since she isn’t originally from Shanghai. It’s like asking someone who just moved from a small town in Virginia to guide people through the New York City subway system. What she did have was the ability to read and write Chinese and at least ask for directions easily and her help proved to be invaluable to us.

But first, we would all stop for breakfast at the college cafeteria. We really needed Alice’s help here since all the cooking stations listed offerings in Chinese. There were eggs in several different varieties but I’m not really an egg eater so my choices were a little limited. I also stayed away from congee (a sort of porridge) mainly because I don’t like creamy cereals either. I ended up with meat dumplings. Not the normal breakfast fare from my standpoint but very tasty and satisfying.

Then it was off to The Bund via bus and then the subway leaving from the South Shanghai Railway Station. We emerged at East Nanking Road in what is a very busy pedestrian shopping area. This is where you will be beset upon by everyone who thinks you want to buy a knockoff Rolex or other “designer” item.  Designer isn’t really in my vocabulary from a shopping standpoint so it’s really easy for me to ignore this stuff. And, as I’ve mentioned before, when responding in Spanish most hawkers turn the other way.

We met up with another friend, “Tina,” who happened to be back in China visiting her parents. We had met Tina over the previous Christmas holidays while she was visiting Florida with another Chinese student and already had a dinner invitation from her parents for later in the week. It was wonderful to see a familiar face. We all walked the 2 blocks to the Huangpu River and knew this was the place to be on a beautiful sunny day.

Art and myself on the Bund

The Huangpu River cuts through Shanghai and we were on the Bund, the older historic side of the river with old stately buildings and a wide riverside promenade for admiring the new modern high rise buildings across the river. After walking up and down the promenade and using our Frommer’s Guide book to help us identify the buildings on the Bund we stopped at a local restaurant.

This place was definitely geared to tourists but the place was inviting and the food was quite good. The group then split up and it was just Tina, Art and myself who set out via subway to find Yuyuan Gardens in the old section of downtown Shanghai. We got a little turned around when we got off the subway and so it took us a lot more time than we expected to get to our destination. Since the line was long and the area was very crowded we decided to try to see the gardens another time and instead again followed our Frommer’s guide to take a walking tour of old City Shanghai.

Shanghai Pudong District at Night

The walking tour in the book helped to guide us through the very busy Yuyuan Bazaar  market area and then on to some interesting local streets. We ended our personal tour at the old city wall near a temple. Even Tina was impressed by how detailed and accurate the tour book was and even though she’s from the area we went through places she had never been to before.

By this time we were all tired and hungry so we took a quick cab ride back to East Nanking Road and walked to a restaurant in the area that Tina was familiar with.  I can’t remember the name of the place but it was located across the street from the Nanking Hotel on Shanxi South Road and you had to step down to get to the entrance.  This turned out to be at real find. We had a wonderful dinner of fish, shrimp, and different vegetable dishes.  Art fell in love with the unique tea that was served and the service was excellent in a relatively casual atmosphere.

Then we walked back to the waterfront to see the Bund at night. The Shanghainese’ creative use of new lighting techniques to make all their buildings attractive at night was breathtaking. Lots of people on the Promenade made this the place to hang out and not just take in the vibrant light show but the people watching is just great.  We found it amusing that many of the young women literally pose for pictures.  Candid shots were not the order of the day for many young women. 

Our overall first impression of Shanghai was that it is a more cosmopolitan city then the more rigid Beijing (being a more government-oriented city versus Shanghai’s business emphasis) and it was reflected in the dress styles of the local young people – more hip and edgy than in Beijing.  We ended the evening by seeing Tina off to the subway (she insisted she would be safe) and us taking a cab back to our dorm (with instructions for the cab driver written by Alice earlier in the day).  We had a great day touring Shanghai but, alas, we had to get to bed early because we were heading for another out-of-town trip early the next morning.


China Trip: Accomodations in Shanghai

Staying in Shanghai provided us with the opportunity to stay in relatively cheap International student housing at the East China University of Science and Technology. This had both good points and not so great consequences but I think the experience was well worth some of the inconvenience.

We stayed at the Chenyuan International Students Building located in the Xuhui district of the city. We picked this place because Art’s sister was teaching at the University during that time and it would make it easier for all of us to get together to tour the city. And, the price was right. We paid about $172 USD for a stay of 8 nights. Of course, this wasn’t a standard hotel accommodation and a far cry from the Beijing Hilton but we were prepared for that.

First, the beds. We ended up with 2 twin-sized beds (Art’s sister had a unit right above us with a full-sized bed) and the bed was extremely hard. Most Chinese are used to sleeping on hard beds but I was not. No amount of adjustment could get me comfortable on the bed, so after 2 nights of rough sleep I moved out to the living area and slept on the leather sofa. After that I was fine.

We had plenty of closet space and we had a separate living area with leather seating. The room had a small refrigerator which came in handy for storing Diet Cokes and waters. It also had a small TV with one English-speaking channel. The place was definitely need of some repair. There was a serious hole in one of the hall closets and the bathroom definitely was a little grungy. We came prepared with our own towels since the towels supplied are more like dish towels than bath towels and bottled water is used for toothbrushing since drinking tap water anywhere in China is not recommended.

We had two full-sized desks in the bedroom and Internet access so that was convenient. The building had no air conditioning and though it was a little warm on a few nights the open windows helped. However, this place is located in an active neighborhood and people are up early so the noise would wake up us early. Which leads us to the upside. We may not have been right around the corner from the tourist attractions but we did get to see a more typical Shanghai neighborhood, with its food stores, restaurants and other activities. It was near public transportation so we were never stranded and taxis were available to hail about 2 blocks away.

Doing our laundry is a separate story in itself but in doing that we got to meet some international students from France and the Ukraine. All very interesting.

Staying at this location may not have been a deluxe experience but it was well worth it from our standpoint. It made our China experience richer and more authentic than the typical tourist and put us in the middle of a neighborhood we never would have seen had we stayed at a tourist hotel.

China Trip Day Five: Suzhou

We arrived to a very rainy Shanghai late in the evening and were met by a research assistant that works with Art’s sister. “Alice” welcomed us with a great beautiful smile and extra umbrellas. Having her meet us at the airport was a godsend since she knew exactly where we would be staying and could tell the driver where to go. Unfortunately, they did get into an argument at the end of the trip because she felt he took us the long way to get there. It took us a while to figure out what they were arguing about but it all got resolved in the end. We would be staying for the next 8 days of the trip at graduate student housing on the campus of East China University of Science and Technology. I will describe the accommodations in another post but staying there was an adventure itself.

Art and I arrived exhausted, wet and knowing that we had to get up early the next morning to take a day trip to Suzhou, known as the Venice of the East. So we quickly unpacked and went to bed. We are not normally early risers so we knew just waking up refreshed would be a challenge.

We set out early in the morning to meet our “guide” for the day. “Walter” is a professor of History at another university in Shanghai and the husband of one of the senior administrators at the University we were staying at for the week. He volunteered to take us around Suzhou for the day (us being Art, myself, Susan – Art’s sister and Larry, her husband). Walter was a gracious and patient host and met us down the block from where we were staying. It was rush hour on a Monday in Shanghai and the area was buzzing with traffic and people setting about their workday. Because there were too many of us to fit in a cab we were each given a Shanghai transportation system SmartCard (these turned out to be extremely useful for the rest of the stay in Shanghai) so we could easily board the local bus to the train station. The bus was packed and we got off with just about everyone else to go to the train (or really subway). We then rode the relatively new subway system to our final destination, one of the Shanghai railway stations located in different parts of the city. We realized that the station you use depends largely on where you are going and the type of train you are using. We would be taking a fairly “mature” train to Suzhou, which would be about a 45-minute ride away.

Our small group arrived to a rainy Suzhou and were beset by many people offering tours and taxis. Walter did an excellent job of fending off a lot of people and honing in on someone who could meet our needs for the day at the right price. We ended up with a van driver who shuttled the five of us around to the different sites that were planned for the day. But first we all really needed to stop and eat breakfast – shrimp noodle soup. Not the typical breakfast fare from our standpoint but it did the trick and was delicious.

Entrance to Bao'en Temple

Suzhou was considered one of Marco Polo’s favorite stops in his travels through China and the silk markets here are famous for their quality and variety. We saw plenty of shops offering silk items as we were driving around the city but today we would be focused more on the historical aspects of the city rather than shopping.

Our first stop was Beisi Pagoda located at Bao’en Temple. We were greeted by a huge Buddha and even though it was raining we could observe the majesty of the 9-story Pagoda before us. The current design of the pagoda structure was made between the years 1131 and 1162, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). We spent about an hour walking in and around the pagoda and then moved on our next stop.

Beisi Pagoda

We piled into the van and headed to the main canal or river. Given this was a rainy day, we didn’t have too much competition for getting a boat to take us around. We were sheltered from the rain from within the cabin but got to view the back alleys and architecture of Suzhou from the canal. It was a fairly short ride about a half hour but it was worth seeing some of the old buildings and neighborhoods from a different vantage point.

View from canal

After the canal boat ride it was time for lunch. We, unfortunately, did not get the name of the place that we stopped but it turned out to be an excellent pick on Walter’s part. We shared quite a few dishes including rice, fish and pigeon. It was all delicious.

After piling into the van again fully stuffed from lunch (could be one of the reasons I gained 5 pounds on this trip) we headed to the Hanshan Temple or literally “Cold Mountain Temple.” Walter explained that this site was considered a must see on a Chinese person’s itinerary. He didn’t really elaborate on this but according to Wikipedia, Hanshan Temple is famous because of the poem “A Night Mooring by Maple Bridge” by Tang Dynasty poet, Zhang Ji. The poem describes the melancholy scene of a dejected traveller, moored at night at Fengqiao, hearing the bells of Hanshan Temple. This place was filled with many different people and beautiful statues. The smell of incense burning was strong in the damp air and this place was far more lush and colorful than our first stop.

Hanshan Temple

Offerings at Hanshan Temple

This splendid stop was followed by the piece de resistance of the trip. The Humble Administrator’s Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan) is listed in the book, “1000 Places to See Before You Die,” is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and it was definitely worth the trip. Photos could not do the place justice. The winding pathways all provided unique and beautiful views of flowers, pools of water and sculpture that were all meant to please the eye. The rain started to subside at that point as well so we could walk around without the need of an umbrella for an unimpeded view of the place.

Humble Administrator's Garden

This was our last, and best, stop for the day and we headed back via train to a different train station in Shanghai – one located closer to where we were staying.
We ended the day with another unique experience. Walter treated us to a wonderful buffet at a vegetarian restaurant – Jen Dow Vegetarian. This was not your typical buffet venue. The place was decorated very elegantly and had lots of variety and creativity – even for a non-vegetarian like myself. But, the general consensus was that the ersatz sushi was decidedly too chewy and tough. Everything else was great and most especially the desserts.
Walter had provided us with a wonderful introduction to a different side of China, where we got to see temples, gardens and restaurants we may not have been able to easily see on our own or through the lens of a rehearsed tour guide.
Now back to our accommodations, which would be our home away from home for the rest of the week.

China Trip Day Four – The Summer Palace

Since this was our last day visiting Beijing we decided to order the room service breakfast rather than picking up a quick pastry from the bakery downstairs. We only had to order one breakfast since the offering was so huge. We both found items that we could eat in the spread of Danish Pastries, eggs, bacon, yogurt, fruit and more. That would hold us for a while because we were headed to the Summer Palace and we weren’t sure if we were going to have too much time to eat along the way.

Art and I checked out of our hotel and stored our bags there so we could pick them up on the way back to the airport later in the day. We decided to take a taxi since we were unsure how to navigate the subway and it was a Sunday so traffic wouldn’t be too bad. And, it wasn’t. But, this was going to be a hot, humid and hazy day in Beijing and the Summer Palace is a popular spot on the weekends. Located along the banks of a lake with steep hillsides and palace buildings perched along the shoreline, the place was teeming with foreign tourists and native Chinese alike.

Pagoda at Summer Palace

Lake at Summer Palace

Unlike the pay as you go approach at the Forbidden City, you can opt to pay for the extra fees for special exhibits at the entrance and your ticket is punched every time you visit a particular exhibit or building. The Dragon Boats cruising across the lake were a popular option but we decided to focus on the buildings and exhibits since we did have to get to our flight in time.

We picked up a beautiful map that helped us somewhat but this was a big park and it was easy to get lost. And, although we did visit most of the exhibits on our ticket I think we only scratched the surface of this huge expanse.

Although the Summer Palace expanse was just as crowded as the Forbidden City was the day before the atmosphere was a little more relaxed.  Less pushing and shoving to things and an interesting assortment of food and snack vendors dotted along the pathways of the park.  Cucumber on a stick seemed to be a popular item along with occasional ice pop along the way.  We were still full from breakfast so we just watched other people eating. 

Dragon Boat

The exhibits here also seemed to be a little better organized and better kept than the ones located at the Forbidden City.   Overall, we had a wonderful time walking along the lake and checking out the buildings along the way.

Unfortunately, our taxi ride back to the hotel was less pleasant.  We were essentially scammed into getting a higher priced cab with a meter that was rigged to turnover the meter at a much higher rate than the normal taxi – so the ride back cost double the normal fare.  Of course, the driver didn’t point out the difference in the taxi (claiming we were in a luxury cab with leather seats and air conditioning) until we were well on our way in the middle of the highway in a part of the city we weren’t familiar with.  The seats were not leather (more like textured vinyl) and our previous cab had air conditioning so that wasn’t anything special.  When he decided to drop us off a block away from our hotel I pointed out that it was because he was probably too ashamed to drop us in front.  My father was a cabbie in NYC in the ’60s so I was quick to point out that what he was doing was not something a cabbie with ethics would do.  He didn’t argue when we didn’t pay him the full fare.  This was really the only negative experience we had with scamming in China so we weren’t going to let this episode ruin our trip.

The rest of our day would be taken up getting to the airport, getting through security (not much worse than the US domestic experience) and waiting for a delayed flight.  The flight delay was due to the weather so we just checked out our e-mail and ate at a Chinese diner type place in the terminal.  I’ve been asked several times if flying in China using Chinese airlines was safe and it certainly didn’t seem any less safe than some of the trips I’ve taken in the US.  But we flew on Air China (a free flight using United Miles), which is a large airline on a larger plane so the experience was no less comfortable than normal.
Our next stop was Shanghai in the pouring rain.  A different city with a different vibe than Beijing. 

China Trip Three – Houhai Lake District

After a full day of touring the Forbidden City we still had dinner plans for the evening with a former Rollins College student who was now living back home in Beijing. Xiaolin was a former student of Art’s sister and offered to show us one of his favorite areas of Beijing.

We had asked if there was something from the US that he would like us to bring back for him. His request – a package of hazelnut vanilla coffee from Einstein’s Bagels. He was very happy when we gave it to him. He was even more ecstatic that he had a new girlfriend to bring with him and she was the reason he was an hour late to meet us at the hotel. The female shortage in China was hitting him hard too. She was very pretty, smart and demure. Xiaolin was smitten.

We all packed into a taxi and headed off to the Houhai Lake district to dine at one of his favorite restaurants. The restaurant is named after one of his favorite writers and if you read Chinese you can get more information about it by clicking here.

And, the menu was in Chinese. No English menus available here. It is customary in China for the host to choose the items that will be eaten at the meal and Xiaolin quickly assumed this role. He apparently forgot or ignored the fact that we would be paying for dinner. I made it clear that I cannot eat dairy or really creamy dishes but he interpreted that as “I didn’t care to” not “I’m allergic to” and kept pressing me to eat one particularly creamy dish until I may it clear that eating it would make me sick. He also ordered a hot yellow wine. I never drink anything that’s hot. It’s a preference but a strong one so I stayed away from that. Nevertheless, most of the rest of the meal was fine but not remarkable. A stewed chicken entree was good and the fried rice was okay. Some other small bites were tasty but overall the food was not really what I would call interesting or really tasty.

The atmosphere was very nice though and after dinner we set off to walk around the Houhai Lake area. This area has become a hot spot for nightclubs and bars. And since this was a Saturday night the business owners were gearing up for a busy night. It was still early though and, like we have found in certain districts in Paris, Brussels and Barcelona, hawkers are employed outside to lure people into the establishments. We were not tempted to enter any of them because the music was very loud and we really wanted to see more of the surrounding area. Even so, the lighting and the activity around the lake in the evening makes this a very compelling place to visit if you are looking for some serious libations and entertainment.

We moved on to a very busy pedestrian-friendly area with lots of stores and snack food purveyors. The place was colorful and a real riot of sounds and aromas (some more pleasing than others – stinky tofu really is stinky). Then we moved on to a less pedestrian-friendly area where small cars, motor scooters, bicycles and foot traffic all compete for the same space. Sometimes it was a very tight squeeze to make sure we didn’t get run over. Very interesting things to look at but nothing that we really wanted to buy.

After a couple of hours of walking (on the same sore knee that I had injured the day before) Art and I decided we had seen enough vendors for one day. We thanked Xiaolin and his girlfriend for taking us to see this area of Beijing and set off back to our hotel via taxi. Even at 11:30pm the streets were jammed.

We were exhausted and happy to drop into a very comfortable bed. This was our last night in Beijing before we headed off to Shanghai but we still had more to see on Sunday before we left. This was only the beginning of our journey.

Priscilla (one half of the Travel2some)

China Trip Day Three – The Forbidden City

My knee was still smarting from the previous night’s fall (in fact it continued to hurt for several weeks after) but we were here to explore China so as long as we had Advil and I could still stand up we got up early to seek out the Forbidden City.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site (the third we would visit in two days) was within walking distance and since it was a beautiful, clear sunny day we had plenty of company.  The sidewalks were wide yet quite crowded. This was also a Saturday so the area was filled with both foreign and Chinese tourists.

On our walk we were “joined” by a young man professing to be an art student who could take us to an art studio where we could buy original art.  We had heard about this scam so we politely said, “No thanks.”  He persisted at which point we just ignored him and kept walking and he moved on.

We could see Tiananmen Square across the street from the entrance to the Forbidden City but we decided to forego visiting the Square. The line to pay our entrance fee was long and it took us about a half hour to get our tickets.  There were lots of tour groups representing many nationalities queued up to enter the gateway to the City.

We were impressed with this walled city within a city and there seemed to be an unending series of gates to palaces and rooms.

One of the many views within the Forbidden City

  Getting the opportunity to see the inside of these buildings could be a challenge. Chinese don’t queue – they crowd. You have to push your way to the front of the crowd to get a glimpse of thrones and opulent seating areas – a pickpocket’s dream location from what I could see.

We purchased a map to navigate the site and even with that in hand it was sometimes confusing to figure out exactly where we were located.  This was a huge complex with beautiful artifacts that once housed the emperor and his wives, concubines and children.  The complex also housed gifts that were given to the Emperor by foreign kings and political powers, obviously to gain favor with the Emperor.  Some of these were housed in separate exhibits.  One of the exhibits is the Clock and Watch exhibit.  A separate admission is charged for this area but it was well worth the price which was relatively cheap.  The huge and ornate clocks were impressive even if the way they are presented is less so.  Lots of fingerprints on glass cases that don’t look like they have been cleaned in quite a while.  Dimly lit displays are explainable because the artifacts may be sensitive to light but the overall rooms are drab and dark.

Hall of Clocks

You can eat a small lunch within the Forbidden City where there are snacks shops and a small cafe.  We shared an outside table with a British  couple who now live in France.  They were touring on their own as well and had started their journey from the other side of the City making their way to the area we had just covered.  It was nice to share our experiences with other people and rest our feet (and my knee) at the same time.  The Beef Noodle dish I ate was formidable and very tasty.  Lots of cilantro – one of my favorite herbs. 

Pagoda in Jingshan Park

We continued on and paid for a few more special exhibits and ended our tour of about 6 hours with a beautiful view of a pagoda from Jingshan Park.  The sight was impressive.  Of course, once outside the walls of the Forbidden City we were besieged by crowds of merchants and beggars.  We had to laugh when one pair of panhandlers tried to have us take pity on what was supposed to be one of the pair’s handicapped leg.  We walked faster and picked up the pace and it got to the point where they were literally running faster than we could walk.  I was in worse shape than they were.  It is obvious these kinds of people gravitate to the entrances and exits of tourist areas because the rest of our walk back to the hotel on the back streets of the area was much quieter. 
We passed interesting shops and local restaurants and watched a lot of less than safe road traffic whiz by us.  Children standing up while riding in front of mothers on motor scooters.  Bicycles with LOTS of merchandise strapped to the back.   We really enjoyed the walk back to our hotel on this warm and pleasant day.
But the day was not over and we were going to do a lot more walking as the evening ended.  But that’s a subject for the next post.