It feels like we need a laugh right now. With global politics in a state of unpredictable flux, with shocking acts of violence being perpetrated at home and abroad, it feels like now would be a very good time to have a bit of a chuckle.
And travellers can always find a place to have a chuckle. The world, after all, is filled with humour if you know where to look for it. Some destinations are inherently hilarious, with funny people doing funny things, while others contain sights or experiences that you just have to sit back and laugh at. (Not all of these are intentionally comedic, of course – but still, there’s hilarity to be mined.)
Your discovery and appreciation of these funny places will depend a little on your sense of humour. Perhaps you find the sight of bikini-clad women riding around on two-metre-high robots so absurd as to be hilarious. And that would be fair enough.
Maybe you prefer the traditional view of comedy, the sitcoms and stage productions that have entered popular culture and become part of our lexicon.
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Whatever it is that tickles your funny bone, you’re sure to find it out there in this big, crazy and hilarious world. It’s time to take a break from the serious business of travel – and the serious business of the globe at large – and have a laugh. And these are some of the funniest places around.
TOKYO’S WILD SIDE
You just have to laugh. That’s the only thing you can do. Sometimes Tokyo is so strange, so outlandish, so weird that you just have to shake your head and chuckle.
Want to have a laugh in Tokyo? What about watching as a group of dancers clad in glow-in-the-dark swimwear pilot two-metre-high robots around a dancefloor to Gangnam Style? That’s the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku (shinjuku-robot.com). It’s nuts. Or how about visiting a cafe staffed by people dressed as manga or anime characters, who sing songs and play games and draw smiley faces on your food? That’s the „maid cafe” experience, in suburbs such as Akihabara and Ikebukuro (maidreamin.com). You have to laugh at that. It’s the only thing you can do.
NYC’S COMEDY SCENE
Of all the funny cities in the world with proud cultures of stand-up and stage shows – Edinburgh, Montreal, Chicago, London – surely none can rival New York. This is the heart and soul of the US comedy scene, with legendary venues such as the Broadway, Carolines, Comedy Cellar, Gotham and the Bell House regularly attracting the world’s biggest names, while also spawning some seriously exciting talent.
You’ll find comedy and improv being performed across this city on a nightly basis, in everything from tiny dive bars to colossal stadiums. New York loves to laugh, even if the city makes its comedians work hard for a chuckle.
Another option for comedy fans visiting New York, too, is to catch the taping of a late-night TV show. Join the live studio audience for the likes of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and Late Night with Seth Meyers. Most are free to attend – see 1iota.com for information on tickets.
BOLIVIA’S SALAR DE UYUNI
There’s nothing particularly funny about the world’s largest salt lake. It’s just a huge expanse, a blank canvas, an eye-burning stretch of whiteness that, at 10,500 square kilometres, is the size of almost 1500 football pitches. So far, so bland. What’s funny, however, is what people tend to do with that huge blank canvas.
The lack of any features on the salt pan – no trees, no grass, no hills, no buildings – makes it easy to take photos that play with the perception of depth, to set up shots with some subjects close to the camera, looking large, and some further away, looking small. This tinkering with perceived size results in the classic photo of tiny people resting in someone’s giant hand, but there’s also the opportunity to get creative, to make up your own fun: say, with groups of tiny tourists being poured out of a chip packet, or being attacked by a giant plastic Godzilla, or even being fired out of a slingshot.
These photos are so popular that people visit Salar de Uyuni purely to snap them. See chimuadventures.com for more.
KOREA’S LOVE LAND
If laughing at genitals is immature, then hey, call us immature. Because it’s very hard to take Korea’s Love Land completely seriously. This outdoor sculpture park, on the southern resort island of Jeju, is dedicated to all things reproductive, with 140 sculptures that represent all of the bits and pieces that make that process happen, plus a Kama Sutra-style how-to guide to the sexual experience.
To understand Love Land, you need a bit of background. Jeju Island has long been a popular honeymoon destination for local Koreans, who used to be wed in arranged marriages, and who didn’t have a lot of sex education before tying the knot. Hence, Jeju became a place not just to honeymoon, but to learn what you were supposed to be doing on said honeymoon.
In 2004, students from Seoul’s premier art school, Hongik University, created the sculptures for Love Land – which range from the vanilla to the intensely acrobatic – and the park threw open its doors. Honeymooners and other gawkers have been visiting for education and titillation ever since. See visitkorea.or.kr for more.
DANTE’S PALACIO BAROLO
At first glance, Buenos Aires’ majestic Palacio Barolo appears to have nothing whatsoever to do with the concept of comedy. The building is a national historic monument, built in BA’s architectural heyday in 1923, a landmark in its own right. But funny? No.
Except, in a way, it is. The Palacio Barolo was designed in accordance with the cosmology of the poet Dante’s Divine Comedy, considered one of the world’s greatest works of literature. The poem is a three-part narrative tracing Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, each consisting of 33 cantos. The Palacio Barolo’s 22 floors are divided into those three sections, beginning with the hellish bottom two levels, climbing up to the heavenly 15 to 22. The building is 100 metres high, one metre for each canto.
The Divine Comedy wasn’t, of course, a slapstick, rolling-in-the-aisles type tickler. It was a very early and deeply satirical form of jest. Still, comedy is comedy – and the Palacio Barolo is a reflection of it. See palaciobarolo.com.ar
CHINA’S COPYCAT TOWNS
If you find feelings of intense discombobulation amusing, then you’re going to love China’s „duplitecture” towns – that is, settlements that are direct architectural rip-offs of famous places in Europe. For example, visit Thames Town, just outside Shanghai, which is built to look like a Tudor-era British village, and which features a pub, a fish and chip shop, and a series of red telephone booths on cobbled lanes. Or check out Tianducheng, on the outskirts of Huangzhou, built with Parisian-style architecture, and featuring a 108-metre-high replica of the Eiffel Tower as its centrepiece.
It’s the sincerest form of flattery, right? In which case the heritage-listed Austrian village of Hallstatt will be bowled over with kindness at the thought that its entire settlement has been lovingly recreated in the Guangdong province. Residents of the Swedish town of Sigtuna, too, will be thrilled to discover that a replica of their home exists in China, in Luodian, just outside Shanghai – a settlement that was even designed by Swedish architects. Who needs to bother going all the way to Europe for those prized photos?
USA’S ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS
There are a lot of highways in the USA. A lot of highways, and a lot of cars. A lot of drivers to tempt into your town to have a look around and maybe spend a little money. And how do you do that? With a roadside attraction. The quirkier and more outlandish the better.
That’s how you wind up with places like Little A’Le’Inn, a bizarre UFO-themed restaurant and lodging on Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway (aka State Route 375). It’s how you get Cadillac Ranch, a public art installation in Amarillo, Texas that features 10 old Cadillacs half-buried, nose first, in the desert. It’s also how you wind up with Da Yoopers Tourist Trap, an attraction bold enough to state its real intentions, a massive souvenir store on Highway 41, which runs through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the „UP” – hence its residents are „yoopers”). It’s the perfect place to pick up that UP bumper sticker you’ve always wanted.
ENGLAND’S COMEDY LEGACY
England is a funny place. By that, we don’t mean its current political omnishambles. What we mean is its rich history of comedic talent, its many and varied stage shows, TV productions and movies which have showcased the country’s ability to laugh at itself and others in the wittiest, most charming way.
There are ways for travellers to get in touch with that comedic legacy, too. Faulty Towers: the Dining Experience (torquaysuitetheatre.com) is a dinner and theatrical show inspired by John Cleese’s farcical sitcom Fawlty Towers, in which diners spend two hours being waited upon by Basil, Sybil and Manuel. Fans of another of Cleese’s works, meanwhile – the inimitable Monty Python – can go to see the real „Foot of Cupid”, the limb so recognisable as part of the Monty Python opening credits. That famous cartoon foot is borrowed from Agnolo Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, a painting on display at London’s National Gallery (nationalgallery.org.uk).
Comedy buffs should also visit Blackpool to view the Comedy Carpet (comedycarpet.com), a 2200-square-metre installation honouring the work and legacy of more than 1000 British comedians, with jokes, songs and catchphrases inscribed in granite.
Poor Timbuktu. There it was, just minding its own business, a peaceful and quite lovely Malian town of about 50,000 people out in the desert, and then all of a sudden it became the butt of a million jokes. Where are you going? Timbuktu. Where’s he from? Shrug. Timbuktu. This exotic West African locale came to represent the very idea of distance to us in the West, somewhere that seemed so impossibly far away that plenty of people – in fact, 34 per cent of Britons surveyed in 2006 – don’t even believe it really exists.
It does, however, exist. Timbuktu is a culturally rich enclave, with a World Heritage-listed Old Town that features three of the oldest mosques in West Africa, plus there’s a huge collection of ancient manuscripts at the town’s Centre de Recherches Historiques Ahmed Baba. And best of all: visitors get to say they’ve been to Timbuktu. See officetourismemali.com for more.
AUSTRALIA’S BIG THINGS
Just take to any Australian highway and keep an eye out for the inevitable „big thing” by the side of the road. Could be the Big Pineapple, the Big Prawn, the Big Ned Kelly, the Big Penguin or even the Big Potato. There are more than 150 items of novelty girth out there around the country, most designed to snag passing road-trippers and encourage them to pose for photos and part with cash.
You have to admire the tongue-in-cheek nature of the big things, the larrikin spirit they evoke, even if you don’t like the monstrosities themselves. Consider, for example, the Big Ayers Rock atop a restaurant in North Arm Cove, NSW, which held the unique claim of actually being smaller than its namesake (that is, until it burned down last year). Or how about the Big Bogan in Nyngan, NSW, a homage to our ugg-boot-wearing brethren? Or the Big Bulls in Rockhampton, Queensland, which have been affected by a spate of testicle theft? Or the Big Kangaroo near Gympie – actually the mascot for the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games which no one knew what to do with?
You can’t say they don’t have a wry sense of absurdity.
I SAW A SIGN
The towns that people want to visit just for the name
Hell: it doesn’t sound nice, does it? One imagines it would be difficult to sell real estate in this Norwegian village of only 1500 inhabitants. The town is, however, popular with English-speaking tourists, who call past to get a photo next to the railway station sign. It’s particularly busy in winter, when the crowds arrive to experience temperatures as low as minus 25 degrees – yes, Hell truly has frozen over.
PARADISE, NEW ZEALAND
On the opposite end of the Earth, and the saleability scale, is the Kiwi hamlet of Paradise, an enclave on the Dart River just south of Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island. This stunningly beautiful agricultural landscape was originally named Paradise Flat, in honour of its locale: both heavenly and mostly free of mountains.
Line up, immature travellers, for the chance to have your photo taken next to the sign for Condom, France. This historic town, in the country’s south-west, takes its name from the Gaul words for „market at a confluence”, given its location at the meeting of the Gele and Baise rivers. Condom did once have a museum of contraceptives, though these days it relies on its armagnac production to attract visitors.
„I got laid in Chicken, Alaska” – so say the T-shirts and bumper stickers that tourists like to buy in this quirky settlement in the US’s northernmost state. Chicken is home to a mere 17 individuals, some of whom are involved in mining in the local area, and the rest of whom, you would imagine, spend their time selling T-shirts and bumper stickers.
It’s a blessing and a curse, a town name like F…ing (please note, the dashes for politeness are our own). Located in northern Austria, F…ing (pronounced „foo-king”) attracts plenty of English-speakers keen to get a photo with the town’s signs. Unfortunately, some also like to steal those signs, which lead to a vote among residents in 2004 to consider a name change. The result, fortunately, was a resounding victory for f…ing.
Animals and places that have been made up to trick you
If you’ve seen a picture of a jackalope then you know just how scary this thing is: it’s a fearsome jackrabbit with the antlers of a deer, a frightening creature that looks like it would jump out at you from bushes in the middle of the night. Some Americans might tell you they’re real, but jackalopes were invented in the 1930s by two Wyoming-based taxidermists, who grafted horns on to a jackrabbit, and were probably quite strange people.
DROP BEARS, AUSTRALIA
This is the classic Australian story: keep your eye out, we tell foreign tourists. Drop bears are like koalas, but much more aggressive. They’ll just drop out of a gum tree and, bam! You’re a goner. Australian Geographic even published results of a study into the behaviour of drop bears, released on its website on April 1, 2013. The Australian Museum has an entry on drop bears on its website, too, and suggests a little Vegemite spread behind the ears to ward them off.
WAIKIKAMUKAU, NEW ZEALAND
In fairness, even some of New Zealand’s real place names are a little titillating – for example, when pronounced correctly, Whakapapa. But what about the ones that aren’t real? Waikikamukau – sound it out – is a generic name for any small rural town in NZ, and one that’s often used to confuse tourists who think they’ll be able to find it, usually just past Woop Woop.
WILD HAGGIS, SCOTLAND
Och, you haven’t had real haggis until you’ve had one freshly caught, until you’ve been up into the Highlands and spied one of these three-legged, shaggy-haired beasties making its way – in one direction only – around a mountain top. That’s the story of the wild haggis, a mythical creature with three legs that makes its way around the Scottish wilderness.
This is perhaps the classic folkloric animal, an upright-walking, ape-like creature that roams the forests of the Pacific Northwest, occasionally leaving giant footprints or allowing questionable individuals to catch sight of them. Since 1819 there have been more than 1000 claimed sightings. Watch out whenever you enter the forest.
JUST FOR LAUGHS
The world’s funniest nationalities
English people are funny. Pound for pound, as a nation, they must surely be the funniest on Earth. The English are so unreasonably witty, in fact, that even those you might later discover to be of limited intelligence – football hooligans, pub-going drunkards, Boris Johnson – will still be able to dazzle you with a hilarious turn of phrase. It’s brilliant.
The Irish, too, are very funny people, though their speciality isn’t so much football songs or clever one-liners as the ability to tell a story – any story, no matter how pointless or banal – in a highly entertaining manner. This skill with conversation has no doubt been honed over thousands of years in the warmth of Ireland’s public bars.
Not only do the Japanese have a healthy appreciation for the outlandish and absurd, they have also developed the art of „rakugo”, perhaps the most challenging form of comedy around. A rakugo is performed by a lone entertainer, who sits with head bowed on a bare stage and must entertain audiences with words alone, comical monologues that can stretch to 90 minutes.
The US has a phenomenal propensity not just to produce home-grown stand-up comedians – Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle – but to attract the world’s finest funny people, who arrive in the States to challenge themselves on the biggest stage – the likes of Trevor Noah, Kumail Nanjiani and Jim Jefferies. They know how to do funny in the US.
There’s a rich vein of humour that runs through Indian life, an appreciation for British-style irony – as well as puns and other English wordplay – coupled with a more playful love of basic slapstick. You might find smart comedies in India, or you might find people being scared witless by practical jokes. It’s all good though.