Travel tips: Visit America’s oddities

For awesome vacation spots, the United States has the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the islands of Hawaii and the excitement of Las Vegas. It also has Manhattanhenge, the Mütter Museum, Winchester Mystery House and other oddities.

Travel to Manhattan and see the perfect sunset in New York. (Credit: Erica Starks Cannarozzi)

Travel to Manhattan and see the perfect sunset in New York. (Credit: Erica Starks Cannarozzi)

Summer vacation travel tips for college students can include some of America’s crazy destinations. Get the scoop here about what some of them are all about.

Travel to Manhattanhenge

You’ve heard of Stonehenge, the 4,000-year-old rock formation in England that features spectacular displays of the summer solstice sun. When you travel to Manhattan, New York, you’ll get to see their own version. The street grid of Manhattan is built in such a way that two days a year, on May 29 and July 12, after 8 p.m., the sun lines up between the skyscrapers. At the precise moment, viewers gather in the streets to take a picture of the huge orange sun hovering above the street.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, coined the term Manhattanhenge. On the museum’s Web site, Tyson explained that the sun creates “a radiant glow of light across Manhattan’s brick and steel canyons, simultaneously illuminating both the north and south sides of every cross street of the borough’s grid. A rare and beautiful sight. …What will future civilizations think of Manhattan Island when they dig it up and find a carefully laid out network of streets and avenues?”

Mütter Museum

Not just for the biology or anatomy majors, travel to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which can scare the pants off anyone who is drawn to the oddities of human physiology. Part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the museum was opened in 1858 with anatomical specimens collected by Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter. Included in the museum’s 20,000 displays are:

  • the tallest human skeleton on display (7 feet 6 inches)
  • a nine-foot-long human colon
  • slides of Albert Einstein’s brain
  • the connected liver of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker
  • a two-headed fetus
  • the bust of a 19th-century Parisian woman with a six-inch horn on her forehead

In addition to its shock value, the museum is a working collection of human oddities for scientific study. Past curator and director Gretchen Worden (1947–2004) is credited with increasing awareness and attendance at the museum.

In the article, “A Curator’s Tastes Were All Too Human,” printed in the New York Times October 11, 2005, John Strausbaugh said: “She used humor and charm to ease viewers past the initial gawking or revulsion the museum’s collection might trigger. There was a serious message behind her sometimes madcap affect: that the human body is not to be feared or loathed, even when horrifically damaged or monstrously distorted…”

Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum

For the engineers among you, travel to Carlsbad, California, and visit the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum (also stop by the famous Carlsbad Caverns while you’re there!). The museum showcases miniature versions of real world machines, tiny engines that run like their full-size counterparts.

There are model wooden masted ships, matchstick versions of famous buildings, tiny pistols and blunderbusses that discharge itty bitty bullets, tiny Augie Chopper motorcycles with wheels the size of quarters, and a 1932 Duesenberg at 1/6 scale.  Many of the items on display took months or years of work to build and required specially made micro tools.

The Web site, which highlights many oddities and attractions, describes one of the Tiny Machine museum’s favorite displays—The Do Nothing Machine. “It’s an elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque creation of interlocking belts and gears. It’s not a miniature version of any working real world engine—more of a curiosity among curiosities—but it’s way too fun and weird for anyone to object.”

Winchester Mystery House

For the architects and historic preservationists: Winchester gun heiress Sarah Winchester had a LOT of money. After a psychic told her she needed to continuously build onto her house to create safe rooms for all the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles, Sarah moved from Connecticut to San Jose, California, where she began building and never stopped… until her death in 1922. Over 38 years, she had spent $5.5 million on construction (about $70 million in today’s money).

The house had seven stories, 168 rooms, doors or stairs that went nowhere, windows overlooking other rooms, stairs with odd-sized risers and motifs with the number 13 and spider webs, which hold spiritual significance. The 1906 California earthquake seriously damaged the house, but it was repaired and is open to the public.

What are some of the oddest places you’ve seen on vacation?

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