Wine lovers have Napa Valley. Fashionistas have Paris. And Elvis diehards have Graceland.
Devotees visit them to sample the finest, see the latest in the industry, and soak in the history of the greats. But where should geeks book their tickets to when it’s time to get out of the cube and pursue their own niche interests abroad?
We found out where. Whether you want to stock your gadget pile, express your fandom with a visit to your favorite company headquarters, or experience some of the most important scientific and technological sites in the world firsthand, we’ve sifted through the options, talked to the experts, and selected 10 of the coolest science and tech destinations in the world. So open a new browser tab with Orbitz, request some vacation days, and check out some of the best spots to geek out across the world.
Akihabara District, Tokyo, Japan
Times Square has nothing on the blinding light displays and frantic foot traffic of Akihabara, Tokyo’s famous electronics district known to have the latest high-tech goods, from digital cameras to CPUs, before anywhere else – even within the famously tech-forward country. “Japan is already a niche market,” says Gonzague-Alexandre Gay, owner of AkihabaraNews. “We have things here that you don’t have in other countries, but Akihabara is the niche of the niche.”
Though he professes that Akihabara’s lead time on the rest of the world has gotten shorter in recent years, that does nothing to diminish the sheer amount of silicon here. And hot products that can be hard to get ahold of in other parts of the world, like Canon’s latest high-megapixel DSLR, have constant availability within the tiny shops and megaplexes that stack up around the streets and labyrinthine passageways of Akihabara.
Just don’t go looking for deals. Although many duty-free shops offer foreigners tax exemption on purchases over 10,000 yen ($110 USD), the strength of the yen in recent months has made purchases here a losing proposition for most foreigners. And according to Gay, even most Japanese seeking deals now buy online.
But electronics aren’t the only attraction. In more recent years, gaming and anime have begun to permeate the district, turning it into as much a cultural spectacle as a gadget bazaar.
“The Akihabara district is completely crazy,” Gay says. “There is more and more cosplay, more hentai.” The scene even got out of hand in recent years, forcing the district to tone itself back. “At one moment, you couldn’t walk with your daughter through this stuff,” Gay says. “You would have a girl try to promote a company by showing her panties, or whatever. It was really starting to be a mess.” The district has cleaned up its R-rated image, though, and many of the oddities to be seen today are still shameless, but harmless.
Kennedy Space Center, Orlando, Florida
Anywhere you can watch thousands of pounds worth of solid rocket fuel ignite before your eyes to fling a manmade hulk into orbit is about as close as you can come to pure geek nirvana, as far as we’re concerned. And an hour outside of Orlando, Florida, at Cape Canaveral, it happens half a dozen times a year. “It’s like geek destination number one, really,” says John Graham-Cumming, author of The Geek Atlas.
While other destinations offer space history, Kennedy offers a glimpse at the present of space travel. NASA actually hosts a schedule of shuttle and rocket launches on its Web site, any one of which you can attend live in person, oversized countdown clock and all. Just make sure to keep an eye on the weather to make sure you don’t show up for a launch that gets scrubbed.
But if things do turn rainy, or you just can’t make it out for the next STS-130 launch, you’ll still find plenty to stay busy at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which is like Disneyland for space addicts, right down to the IMAX theaters. “They have such a collection of things: lunar landers, Saturn V rockets, bits of moon rock,” Graham-Cumming says. The “rocket garden” outside even hosts a towering collection of Thor, Atlas and Titan II rockets, among others.
Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine
Why would anyone venture into a partially irradiated wasteland outside the site of the worst nuclear accident in the world? Because it’s a partially irradiated wasteland outside the site of the worst nuclear accident in the world. And fans of Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl and Fallout may dig it, too.
Twenty-three years after the devastating meltdown that lead to the evacuation of 336,000 people, it’s actually safe to visit, provided you stick with tour guides. “You start in Kiev, they take you on a bus out to the exclusion zone, then in to Pripyat, which is an abandoned town, then right up to the reactor, which is now encased in this massive sarcophagus,” says Graham-Cumming. Sticking on pavement and away from the most contaminated regions keeps you safe, and guides carry Geiger counters to make sure you don’t go home with an extra arm.
Hong Kong, China
If Tokyo is the Best Buy of all things electronic, Hong Kong is the flea market. “There are stores everywhere, small components, things that you can’t see in any other countries, phones that you couldn’t imagine were available, copies of the iPhone everywhere” says Gonzague-Alexandre Gay. “Hong Kong is like a big mess.”
But an endearing one, for the patient and well-practiced street shopper. “You can find everything – not so-well polished – but everything that the mind can think of, someone has made it,” Gay says. Apliu Street in the Sham Shui Po district serves as epicenter for most of the cheap consumer electronics goods to be found here.
And like the flea markets you might be used to, not everything you’ll find is follows the letter of the law.””There are legal things, and a lot of illegal things,” Gay says. “Seven years ago, you were almost walking on illegal stuff everywhere. Now, things have changed, but still, it’s an amazing place.” The Golden Computer Center, now famous a famous spot for computer builders to nab parts on the cheap, used to be more famous for the pirated software vendors that set up shop on the first floor, pushing floppy disks and later CD-ROMs full of stolen software.
Silicon Valley, CA
Not a city so much as a loosely defined area south of San Francisco, this notorious hotbed of tech innovation plays home to some of the biggest players in the industry, including Google, Apple, Intel, AMD, Yahoo! and HP, just to name a few. Unfortunately, as you might suspect, not many of the tightly guarded company compounds swing their doors open for tours. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see.
Intel, for instance, runs its own museum in Santa Clara, where visitors can try on a cleanroom bunny suit firsthand, see how chips are made, and toy around with 30 hands-on exhibits. And besides the possibility of seeing Steve Jobs cross the street near Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Apple devotees can go the “mothership” company store. “It’s an Apple store unlike any other Apple store,” says Graham-Cumming. “They don’t sell computers. What they sell is Apple swag, mugs, t-shirts, hats, and things like that.” And it’s the only place in the world to buy Apple’s coveted “I visited the Mothership” t-shirt.
Geek historians can get their fix at the HP Garage in Palo Alto, a literal garage off on a quiet residential street where Hewlett and Packard got their start in 1938. Here, the duo conceived and built their first big hit: the 200A oscillator. “They literally put it together in the HP garage, baked the cases in the oven, and that was the address of Hewlett-Packard.” says Graham-Cumming. Today, it’s owned by HP and has been restored into a museum, but you’ll need to befriend an HP employee to get anything more than a passing glimpse.
Google’s infamous Googleplex may make an interesting pit stop, but prepared to be shooed along by overzealous security guards if you loiter too long or start getting photo happy. And sorry, no visitor center.
Love it or hate the corporate behemoth it represents, the sprawling, fortress-like campus of Microsoft lies just 15 miles outside Seattle in Redmond, Washington. The 388-acre campus includes a little-known visitor’s center where Microsoft devotees can bathe in the history of the company, take in marvels like a 3D globe covered in a continuous stream of headlines courtesy of four projectors, and of course, stop by the company store to try and buy all the company’s latest toys.
Microsoft Headquarters, Redmond Washington
More endeavoring (and debatably creepy) visitors can also catch glimpses of Bill Gates’ legendary $147.5-million estate from nearby Lake Washington, where it sits tucked away from the shore. Before leaving Redmond, gamers should also hit the tiny visitor’s center at Nintendo of America, where they can ogle vintage hardware and pick up some Nintendo-branded merch. Just 15 minutes south in Bellevue, Washington, visitors can also spot a number of notable high-tech company headquarters, including Boeing, T-Mobile, Expedia, and Valve Software.
Seoul, South Korea
Nearly 92 percent of Koreans living in Seoul have Internet access, and even more impressively, 26 percent have broadband, making Seoul one of the most connected cities in the entire world.
Not only can you find cell phones here that you can’t buy elsewhere, you can find phones here that simply wouldn’t work most other places without the advanced wireless infrastructure that saturates the city. For instance, the Digital Multimedia Broadcasting standard allows phones with DMB tuners to play live over-the-air television the same way a home TV would. And Mobile WiMAX technology, which just recently landed in the U.S., has been bouncing around in Seoul branded as WiBro since 2006.
Much like Akihabara in Tokyo, Seoul also has its own electronics district known as Yongsan Electronics Market. “Think about the mess of Hong Kong and the nifty stuff of Akihabara, mix it together, and you have Yongsan,” says Gay. And if you keep your eyes peeled, you might even spot some local LG and Samsung wares that have yet to make it across the Pacific.
The so-called “Silicon Hills” play host to many of the same high-tech companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, but the real attraction lies in the projects that nerdy workforce goes to work on after hours. Perhaps most famously, the SXSW interactive festival brings scores of entrepreneurs, visionaries and all-around nerds out of the woodwork to talk tech. When Make magazine’s MakerFaire drops into town, Austin’s freewheeling do-it-yourself engineers show up to demonstrate their robots, cannons and homemade bikes, and an indescribable mountain of other contraptions. And no self-respecting geek should be able to leave Austin without visiting filming locations from Mike Judge’s 1999 Internet cult classic, Office Space, like the fictional Initech offices and Chotchkie’s.
SXSW interactive festival
Planes, trains and automobiles take center stage in Munich, where gearheads and geeks alike can appreciate German engineering at its finest.
The world-famous Deutsches Museum makes an ideal place to start. “I think it’s probably the best science museum in the world,” says Graham-Cumming. “It’s simply huge.” The museum offers everything from exhibits showing power through the ages (beginning with a blacksmith using a dog tied to a wheel) to a jumbo jet sliced open like a piece of cake and hung from the ceiling.
BMW fans can not only visit the headquarters of the internationally revered company (appropriately formed into a four-cylinder skyscraper), they can also visit the BMW Museum to view some of the company’s most notable historic models in the flesh, tour the BMW Munich Plant to view the autos being made, and the most well-heeled can even take delivery of their brand new German sedans fresh off the factory line at BMW Welt. All speed freaks, BMW fans or not, will also want to pin the speedometer to right on the notorious speed-limit-less Autobahn.
Washington DC may not come immediately to many geeky minds when it comes to tech destinations, but the sheer number of significant museums in the city make it a treasure trove of amazing tech artifacts.
The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum takes most of the credit by offering glimpses of the Spirit of St. Louis that Charles Lindbergh used to fly nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927, to the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress used to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiromshima, Japan, and even the original Wright brothers flyer. That’s not to even mention the space collection, like moon rocks for visitors to touch, or the collection of ICBM missiles. “If you want to know anything about air or space travel, it is the place,” says Graham-Cumming. “It’s a brilliant museum.”
Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
And don’t be fooled by the lack of “science” in the name of the National Museum of American History. According to Graham-Cumming, it’s a must-see for nerds. “It has a huge science collection,” he says. “There’s loads of techie stuff in there. Like what? Everything from the first Ethernet adapter to the first electro-hydraulic heart, the first Xerox machine, and even Albert Einstein’s Brier pipe.
Fans of Tom Clancy novels – and perhaps the associated video games – will also want to check out the International Spy Museum, which has a collection of over 200 spy gadgets and tools like invisible ink, buttonhole cameras, and bugs.