When I visit a famous place, I’m often surprise and how the site is larger or smaller than I imagined, or that it’s oriented a different way.
Washington, DC is always larger than what I remember from previous visits—especially if you’re walking from place to place in broiling summer heat or freezing wind. Maps may fool you into thinking the buildings and monuments are close together, but they’re not.
Often our imaginations are a Hollywood version of reality. Take Graceland, home of Elvis Presley. On my first drive-by, I was stunned to see the colonial-styled house was wedged between housing tracts, neon signs and businesses including a cheesy motel across the highway. That was in 1970, when the King of Rock and Roll was still in residence.
Even so, Graceland was far from the sweeping, grandiose property I expected. These days it has been Disneyfied, with shuttle buses, a parking lot and various tours to lighten your wallet.
I hear that The Alamo in San Antonio is much smaller than what one expects. I’ve never seen it in person, though another Texas landmark surprised me: Dealey Plaza in Dallas. The place of President Kennedy’s shooting is remarkably smaller than I thought it to be. The sites on the Kennedy assassination tour: Oswald’s home, the Texas Theatre where he was arrested, and Dallas police station where Oswald was shot were scattered much further than I had assumed.
The Grand Canyon, on the other hand, lives up to its billing. I’ve seen it from both rims and agree that it’s pretty grand. What I didn’t realize was the elevation above sea level—6,800 feet—which is something to think about if you’re susceptible to altitude sickness.
Historic Williamsburg is decidedly larger than what some of you might suppose. If you think it’s about the size of Old Salem over in Winston-Salem, you’d be wrong. Williamsburg is about 300 acres; Old Salem, a mere 75.
Foreign places are no exception to misperception.
Tourists in Copenhagen usually make a point to view the famous “Little Mermaid” statue in the harbor. And those same people are stunned to see how photos have tricked us into thinking the bronze figure as big as an automobile. It’s far from it.
Meanwhile, the Vatican is a fairly large space to visit—much larger than the dot on the map gives it credit. St. Peter’s Basilica alone covers more than 5.5 acres. The entire Vatican City is 100 acres—a tad larger than Old Salem—though it seems bigger in person.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself in Cairo, Egypt in search of the Ancient Pyramids and the Sphinx. Like you, I’d seen these iconic structures in textbooks and documentaries, the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World.
As our bus sped through the Giza suburb, I spotted a gigantic block structure looming outside our bus windows. Sure enough, it was the Great Pyramid and its sister Khufu Pyramid. I wasn’t expecting the monuments to be so close to town.
Usually photographers capture their images from an angle that depicts them on a vast sandscape, much as they would have appeared some 4,500 years ago. The Pyramids are huge—as much as 460 feet high
The Sphinx, the famed figure with a human face on a lion’s body, not so much. At 66 feet tall, the it’s far from miniscule, but nowhere near close to the size of the Pyramids To give you an idea of scale, think of a Barbie doll in front of a big chest of drawers.
The Sphinx faces east, not south as I’d imagined on my mental map. And Sphinx faces not at dunes, but a neighborhood of restaurants, souvenir shops less than a block away.
Driving past the back and side view of the monument, you can see that the ancient figure was carved from bedrock, not built from stone blocks as were the Pyramids.
It’s debatable who carved the Sphinx and when. Some researchers think it may be far older than the Pyramids, which may be the biggest surprise of all.