Top places to pass the time

Clocks and calendars seem to rule our days, and those digital numbers on our screens are enough to make us forget that humankind has a long-standing fascination with measuring time. The world’s most notable clocks and calendars don’t just perform a function — they’re works of scientific and artistic mastery in their own right. Experts are still debating the function of Stonehenge, and many of the world’s clock towers have become icons of the city and country of their home.

We know you usually hope time will stand still on your next vacation, but these unique time pieces will make it glad it doesn’t.  Here are some top places to pass time, from Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Sights.

Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico

Are we running out of time? The Mayans may have thought so. Their calendar — and perhaps the world as we know it? — comes to an end on December 21, 2012. Whether you’re expecting Doomsday or not, experts agree this ancient civilization was ahead of its time in the fields of math and astrology. It’s no surprise that some of the buildings at its grandest city were built for astrological purposes — like El Castillo (or The Kukulkan Pyramid). This well known, four-sided temple has 365 steps (including the platform at the top) — a nod to the Mayans’ 365-day calendar.

However, there’s more to this pyramid than meets the eye. On the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun hits the pyramid at just the right angle to create the illusion of a snake’s body wriggling down to meet a carved head at the base. Legend has it the plumed serpent represents Kukulcan, a Maya deity, whose arrival foretells the weather and success of the crops.

Some people say the illusion looks more like a diamond backed serpent, but we’ll let you be the judge:

Can’t make it for the equinox? Stick around after dark when a sound and light show recreates the effect year round. For more information, see Mysterious Places and


Sundial Bridge, California, USA

Think of it as a modern take on an ancient form of telling time — and one you can walk across. This unusual bridge spans the Sacramento River in Redding, California and connects the north and south sides of Turtle Bay Exploration Park. The 21-story, futuristic looking gnomen (the part of a sundial that casts the shadow) does double duty as the support for over 4300 feet of cable that holds up the bridge. The bridge’s glass-paneled bottom offers a glimpse of the river — a salmon-rich habitat that experts didn’t want to disturb with supports.

The face of this giant sundial can be found on the bridge’s north side — but don’t try to set your watch by it. Rumour has it the sundial is only on time once a year during the Summer Solstice. While the sundial doesn’t work at night, the evening lighting is certainly postcard worthy.

Words don’t do the structure justice, so here’s another look:

For more information, visit the Turtle Bay Exploration Park website.

Jantar Mantar, Delhi, India

At first it looks like a playground filled with geometric forms, but this site is home to a famous set of 20 instruments that measure time, the position of the sun and the movements of planets (among other things!) The instruments may look like modern art, but Jantar Mantar is just one of five observatories built in the 18th century by maharajah Sawai Jai Singh II.

Many of the instruments reportedly still work, but the height of nearby buildings makes it difficult for today’s visitors to see them in action. If you plan to go, some sources advise to take a tour or get a good guidebook to explain the use of these obscure looking contraptions and structures.

Here’s a closer look at the site:

For more information, visit


Astronomical Clock, Prague, Czech Republic

It may take a moment to catch the time on this historical clock– if you’re not distracted by the moving figures, that is. Recognized as one of the world’s oldest working clocks, experts estimate it dates back to 1410, though some sculptures were added later. Every hour a parade of apostles marches by its windows, and four figures spring to life including the Miser, Infidel, Vanity and the skeletal Death, who rings his bell. The clock itself is framed in Gothic decoration, part of the ruined and partially rebuilt Old Town Hall.

However, the clock’s faces are no less intriguing and it isn’t just the hours that are represented (in Roman and medieval numerals, no less). The intricate workings also trace the revolutions of the sun, moon and stars, and the colourful background chronicles night through day to night again. The lower “face” was added later and features 24 painted medallions: one for each sign of the zodiac and one for each month of the year.

Here’s a look at the clock in action:

Of course, Prague has many other note-worthy clocks — not to mention its storybook architecture. For more information about the city, see Prague Welcome.

Jens Olsen’s World Clock, Copenhagen, Denmark

Ever wanted to see what makes a clock tick? The city’s world-famous clock isn’t in a tower — it’s on display in City Hall. Inspired by Strasbourg’s astronomical clock early in his working life, locksmith-turned-watchmaker and astrological enthusiast Jens Olsen set out to create a complete astrological clock. The calculations took decades, and work on the clock was finally completed in 1955 — 10 years after Olsen’s death.


The clock’s many faces display the time for various places around the world as well as local sunrise and sunset times, holidays and dates — not to mention a map of the stars over Copenhagen and the solar system. However, its backside is sure to hold your attention with its gold-plated, interconnected system of over 14,000 parts. You’ll notice there’s no power supply either — the mechanic clock has to be wound once a week.

Here’s a look at this complex piece:

And while you won’t find such a marvel when you climb the city’s clock tower, you will get a spectacular view. For more information on the city, see Visit Copenhagen and read about the clock’s description and restoration.

Carillon, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland

Switzerland is historically associated with timepieces, but this unusual instrument outside the International Watch Museum has a more modern flare. Forget clock towers: this carillon — an instrument composed of bells and chimes that is controlled automatically or by keyboard — stands alone in its own space. Each quarter hour is greeted by a show of colour, sound and rippling metal bars — and its songs and colours change with every season.

While you can’t see its inner workings, the clock is accurate to 100th of a second. Instead of a traditional face, a bright digital display announces the time.

Here’s a sample tune:

Of course, the museum itself is worth a look too. Here you’ll find a history of timepieces from the world capital of watch making — including some 2,700 watches and 700 wall clocks — as well as onsite craftsmen working to restore historic pieces.

For more information, visit


Hornsby Water Sculpture, Australia

What is it: clock, fountain, kinetic art or water wheel? Better check “all of the above”. Not everyone is in love with the work officially known as “Man, Time and the Environment”, but it certainly has become a local landmark and another excuse to visit the Hornsby Mall. The sculpture itself has three clocks — including a Swiss pendulum clock, Greek clepsydra clock and Chinese water wheel clock. However, the base is also marked with numerals and structure rotates one full revolution every 12 hours, making it a clock in its own right. The one thing they have in common? All of the clocks are driven by the force of water.

As the name suggests, the structure is an “I spy” of human and animal figures, and the arching chimes of its carillon are reminiscent of wind chimes. Though the clock draws from older influences — including Aboriginal motifs — it’s barely 20 years old.

Curious to see more? Here its creator Victor Cusack outlines the philosophy behind the work:

For more information, see the Hornsby Shire website.

Naturally, this is just a small sample of the many clocks and calendars — ancient to modern — that make telling time into an art form. (Think Britain’s Big Ben, Canada’s Peace Tower and Times Square, to name a few.) Even if you can’t travel to see these places,  your local clock tower may just be worth a second look.

For the full list of “Most Intriguing Clocks and Calendars”, see Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Sites.

Additional sources:, Times of India, tourist information board websites.

Photo © tomch

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