Sometime I select destinations just to see very tall buildings, which has gotten us to places as far flung as Dubai, Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur. But in Bucharest, Romania we met up with a unique one: the world’s heaviest building. You read that right. It’s not the world’s largest or tallest but the world’s heaviest building. I’m not even sure how one calculates a building’s weight but there you have it. Don’t just take my word on it, even the good folks at Guinness World Records have declared the Palace of the Parliament the world’s heaviest building. (BTW, it’s also, after the Pentagon, the world’s second largest government building.)

World's heaviest building Bucharest

During the 1980s dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu decided Romania should have a massive world-class building to reflect the country’s might during his rule.

Worlds heaviest building Romania

He razed about 1/6th of the city to build this monument to himself. Unfortunately, a major portion of the old city was demolished to make way for the development.

Palace of the people interior Bucharest Romania

Designed by 28-year-old architect Anca Petrescu, it is known as the Palace of the Parliament and houses the seat of Romanian government. The building holds over one thousand rooms (over half of which is empty) and is made of all Romanian materials. There are an additional eight floors which are underground. In addition to government offices, it now also hosts the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Ceaușescu never saw the building completed. He was executed on Christmas day, 1989, after a bloody, but relatively quick, revolution.

Palace of the Parliament Bucharest

We also visited the neighborhood where the communist party apparatchiks lived. As is usually the case, their homes were much nicer than the common folk. We stood outside Ceaușescu’s former home, which was surprisingly modest, and learned that if we had been standing on that same spot 30 years earlier we would have been arrested and executed. Times have certainly changed for the better in Bucharest.

Palace of the Parliament Bucharest exterior side view

Considering the dark times the city endured, it was one of our favorite places to visit. Bucharest offers diverse architecture and sights along with a unique culture that we enjoy. For digital nomads like us it also has the fastest Internet in Europe; even taxis are WiFi hotspots and the driver will give you a WiFi code to use during your ride. This is particularly helpful on the ride in from the airport if your mobile phone has not yet synced with the local network.

Bucharest Palace of Parliament night

We’re your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

The abandoned Michigan Central Station in Detroit is one of America’s most haunting architectural ruins. It shouldn’t be surprising that in the Motor City a train station would eventually fall into disuse. But the building that was left behind by the automotive boom is enormous, reflecting Detroit’s great wealth Read more

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD it buried the nearby Roman town of Pompeii. Layers of ash and pumice kept the village almost intact until it was rediscovered in the 1700s. We visited Pompeii with Michael’s mother a few weeks ago. Follow along as we present the following images of Pompeii:

Photos of Pompeii Mt Vesuvius

While walking around Pompeii it is hard to escape the continual presence of Mount Vesuvius.

Images of Pompeii

Many columns were sheared off by the force of the blast.

Images of Pompeii

Wildflowers abound in the cracks and crevices of Pompeii as seen at the top of this wall.

Pompeii amphitheater

The theater appears ready to put on a show.

Pompeii amphitheater

The amphitheater survived fairly intact. Pink Floyd filmed a concert video (without an audience) here in 1971.

Images of Pompeii forum

Parts of the Roman forum still retain their two-story height.

Pompeii brothel painting

In one of Pompeii’s brothels the fresco paintings on the walls survived the eruption. Over a dozen images present a visual menu of what was available to the discerning customer. Until 40 years ago this room was off-limits to female visitors as it was considered too shocking.

Photo of Pompeii pedestal table

This pedestal table sits in the courtyard of a merchant’s house.

Pompeii Mt Vesuvius

On a cloudy day the tip of the volcano appears to be steaming. Is there another eruption in its future?

Image of Pompeii green tree (550x414)

Sometimes on even a gray day a little splash of color survives. We like to think it represents rebirth and survival.

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The Shanghai skyline reveals the city’s unrelenting growth. A taxi ride from the airport shows hundreds of bright yellow and red construction cranes whirling about its skyline. The parade of skyscrapers is measured not in blocks but in miles. All of Manhattan could fit in Shanghai’s back pocket.

The current population of Shanghai is estimated to be 23 million – up from 18 million only five years ago. This is a city that has more people than the entire continent of Australia. How does a visitor even begin to get a grip on this vast region?

Shanghai skyline pudong

The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center is an excellent place to start. Located in the cultural hub of town at People’s Square, the center is part museum and part urban planning resource, all of it related to the city of Shanghai.

An interesting way to appreciate how far Shanghai has come in a short time is to enter the center via the past. The People’s Square subway station (the busiest in Shanghai) empties directly beneath the museum into a concourse that has been redone to look like a Shanghai street scene from 1930, including old streetlights, trams, and sepia-toned photos of the period. From here visitors ride the escalator to the Exhibition Center and are instantly launched into the 21st century.

A contemporary structure with an abundance of natural light, the center consists of five floors of both permanent and rotating exhibits. They all relate to Shanghai’s development and are presented in both passive and interactive formats to interest all ages. On our recent visit, there was a 360-degree film that was prepared for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, whose theme was “Better City, Better Life.”

Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center

The center’s crowning glory is its three-dimensional scale model of the city of Shanghai. It’s listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest model of its kind. At more than 6,500 square feet, it is the size of three singles tennis courts. It displays the entire urban region, including both of the city’s massive airports. Toss away the guidebooks and maps, none can compare to feeling like a modern-day Gulliver with the city laid out at your feet.

Visitors can view this Shanghai in miniature from multiple perspectives by wandering around a raised walkway that circumnavigates the model. For a bird’s-eye view, take the escalator up one floor and peer down from a balcony onto this “mini Shanghai.” Handsets can be rented in English that highlight the city’s development.

The model is a “living document” that is still used by urban planners and constantly updated with new building projects. Included are those that are still under construction – they are represented here in clear plastic to indicate their “work in progress” status. Thus the Shanghai of the future is also evident.

With this new perspective on the city, we set out to see the skyline firsthand in the city’s Pudong district, two subway stops from the exhibit. Just 20 years ago Pudong was mostly farmland and a few warehouses along the Huangpu River. Today it is the site of one of the most distinctive skylines in the world, boasting more than 35 skyscrapers including the two tallest buildings in China. The growth has been so remarkable that the district is even getting its own Disneyland, due to open in 2016.

shanghai world financial center and jin mao tower

A visitor to Shanghai only five years ago would have explored the observation deck atop the 88-story Jin Mao Tower, then the big game in town. Today the Jin Mao is passé as the 101-story Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) has risen across the street. In modern Shanghai, one-upmanship is the order of the day.

We bought tickets to the SWFC’s 100th-floor observation deck, the tallest in the world. Within about 90 seconds we were smoothly whisked to the viewing area in an elevator that for some reason featured 1970s-era disco flashing lights.

After our brief trip back in time we reentered the modern era as we strolled around the observation deck. Angled floor-to-ceiling windows, along with a few cleverly placed glass cutouts in the floor, give the impression that you are floating above the growing city. Having come so recently from the Urban Planning Center, we felt there was a surreal aspect to the whole experience. Laid out below us in every direction was the city, exactly as we had viewed it earlier in the day – only this was the real thing.

Using the Huangpu River as a landmark, it is easy to spot the Bund, the cluster of early-20th-century buildings that front the river and give Shanghai its signature blend of Asian and art deco architecture. We could even look down at the peak of the Jin Mao Tower.

View from Shanghai World Financial Center

A parade of high-rise apartment complexes stretched to the horizon, distinguishable from this height only by the color-coordinated rooftops that give it the appearance of a giant Lego set. From this perspective it is not hard to believe that more than 23 million people live in Shanghai.

The view was mesmerizing, but the observation deck was crowded, so after a half hour we left in search of a quieter vantage point. We walked across the street to the Jin Mao Tower. But instead of going to the observation deck, we opted for the 54th-floor lobby lounge of the Grand Hyatt nestled within the structure.

There we enjoyed a drink and took in the view at our own pace. Down below us, bright yellow construction cranes swung over the site of yet another future skyscraper, the Shanghai Tower. It had loomed large in the scale model at the Urban Planning Center. When it is completed in 2014, this new kid on the block will top out at 128 floors, surpassing both the Jin Mao Tower and the SWFC. In modern Shanghai, “bigger, faster, more” is an unending refrain.

Shanghai Tower construction

Meet the new boss.


Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center

100 Renmin Ave., Shanghai

Located on the north side of People’s Square Park, adjacent to the People’s Square Metro Station. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Closed Monday. Admission: 30 CNY ($4.70). The English audio guide is available for 40 CNY ($6.25).

Shanghai World Financial Center

100 Century Ave., Pudong New Area, Shanghai

 Take the Metro to the Lujiazui Station. Open daily 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Admission: 120 CNY ($18.75).

Shanghai Metro

Operates daily from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Final train times are clearly marked, but vary by station so it is important to take note if you are out late. A single-journey ticket is 3 CNY ($0.50); a one-day unlimited pass (good for a full 24 hours after first use)

is 18 CNY ($2.80). Purchase tickets at automated machines at all stations; one-day passes must be purchased at customer service desk at the station.

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.