Great women don’t always make the history books. For every formidable leader, intellectual rebel or genre-defining artist whose name echoes down the ages, countless others are forgotten or erased. But in some cities, renowned women have left an unmistakable imprint. Take a tour from ancient Egypt to 20th-century France and see the world through the eyes of seven mighty women.
Hatshepsut’s Memorial Temple in Luxor – backdrops don't come much more dramatic than this © Nick Brundle Photography / Getty Images
Hatshepsut, long-reigning female pharaoh: Luxor, Egypt
Centuries before Cleopatra commanded armies and charmed the rulers of the Roman Empire, Hatshepsut (approx 1508–1458 BC) rose to power. Appointed a regent when her husband Thutmose II died, Hatshepsut became the first woman to obtain the full powers of the pharaoh title. During her 20-year reign, she commissioned monumental temples, some of which stand today.
Start at Luxor Temple, whose towering columns and sphinxes are an expansion (by Amenhotep III) of an earlier shrine created by Hatshepsut. Some 7km northwest on the Nile’s west bank is Hatshepsut’s Memorial Temple. Carved into an amphitheatre of 300m-high cliffs, the spectacular multi-storey temple has shrines to Anubis, god of the dead, and to primeval cow-headed goddess Hathor; look for the relief showing Hatshepsut drinking from the goddess’ udder. A little further northwest is the Valley of the Kings, the royal cemetery where Hatshepsut’s winding tomb, shared with her father Thutmose I, lies almost 100m deep.
Soon after her death, Hatshepsut’s name was chiselled away from her temples. But despite efforts to reduce the pharaoh queen to dust, Hatshepsut’s colossal monuments have withstood the centuries.
St Petersburg's magnificent Hermitage, a complex of palaces built on Catherine the Great's command © Yarygin / Getty Images
Catherine the Great, epoch-defining empress: St Petersburg, Russia
St Petersburg sparkles with palaces linked to the life of Catherine II (1729–1796), Empress of Russia. Catherine’s reign is regarded as a golden age: she used Enlightenment ideals to push social reforms and the Russian Empire grew in stature and size (according to some estimates, by more than 500,000 sq km).
The complex now known as the Hermitage is housed in palaces built on Catherine’s command. Its museums hold Russia’s most impressive trove of art, a 360-room collection started by Catherine herself. Adjoining the museums is the Winter Palace, resplendent in green, gold and white, where Catherine addressed a baying crowd and declared her son the ruler of Russia.
Admire more of Catherine’s handiwork 25km south of central St Petersburg at the Tsarskoe Selo imperial estate. Catherine Palace was badly damaged during World War II but its stucco and gold exterior has been restored to its earlier magnificence. Armed with an audio guide, explore its Great Hall, huge dining rooms and Portrait Hall, which includes a painting of Catherine II in regal pose.
Enter the Forbidden City, Beijing, realm of the formidable Empress Cixi © Hung_Chung_Chih / Getty Images
Empress Cixi, iron-willed ruler and reformer: Beijing, China
Sightseeing in Beijing brings glimpses of the storied reign of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908). One of the most powerful women in China’s long history, Cixi rose through the ranks of the Xianfeng emperor’s concubines and helped to orchestrate a coup after his death. Cixi became feared and admired, a grand puppeteer of the government right until her death.
It’s easy to lose hours dawdling across the ornamental bridges and pavilions of Beijing’s Summer Palace. Look for the marble boat (actually partly wooden); Cixi is said to have ordered its restoration in 1893, ironically with money that had been destined to fund the navy. On the other side of the lake, the Dragon King Temple is where Cixi implored the god of weather to bring rain.
Cixi held court in the Forbidden City, 20km southeast. The Palace of Eternal Spring and the Palace of Gathered Elegance were both renovated on her instructions, disrupting the original layout – a design choice befitting an empress so fond of upending established orders.
Street art marking the birthplace of pioneering scientist Marie Sklodowska-Curie in Warsaw, Poland © Slowcentury / Getty Images
Marie Curie, prize-winning physicist and chemist: Warsaw, Poland
Double Nobel laureate Marie Curie (1867–1934) was immensely proud of her Polish identity. Curie named one of the elements she discovered, polonium, after her homeland. Though the world remembers her married name, the multi-disciplinary scientist never discarded her Polish surname.
Accordingly, it’s the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Museum that honours her legacy in her birth city, Warsaw. Take a turn inside the reconstructed 18th-century building, which displays Curie’s original documents and belongings. Curie made an enormous contribution to developing the theory of radioactivity and pioneered the use of radioactive isotopes to battle tissue growth, the bedrock of many modern-day cancer treatments. Tragically, the scientific apparatus on display ultimately doomed Curie, who died from radiation-related illness.
Bombing campaigns in 1939 and 1944 flattened Warsaw, but the Old Town was carefully rebuilt using the same bricks. Stroll across the Unesco-listed Old Town Square to admire 13th-century merchant houses and Renaissance-style facades, as ornate as they were during Curie’s lifetime.
The Anne Frank House in the Old Central district of Amsterdam gives a chilling insight into a troubled time © Anamejia / Getty Images
Anne Frank, World War II diarist: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
No single voice has captured the anguish of World War II, nor issued a clarion call for world peace, quite like Anne Frank (1929–45). Published by Frank’s father after she perished in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the diary recounts the family’s two years in hiding in Amsterdam. Frank’s observations about life at the threshold between childhood and adulthood are pin-sharp.
The family hid in a bookcase-concealed area within 263 Prinsengracht, the business premises of Frank’s father. The narrow brick building, a typical 17th-century merchant house, has been conserved as a museum. Its 15,000-item collection movingly portrays the family’s life in hiding and displays Frank’s original diary. Close by, outside the Renaissance Westerkerk, a slender cast-iron statue of Frank gazes towards the sky.
Borrow a bike from one of several rental stations nearby and pedal east to Nieuwe Amstelstraat. Here the Jewish Historical Museum explains the history of Amsterdam’s pre-war Jewish community; it’s also the starting point for tours of the Jewish Quarter. The history is oftentimes bleak, but Frank’s legacy offers a glimmer of hope.
Cafe Les Deux Magots, a favoured haunt of Simone de Beauvoir, writer of the seminal feminist treatise The Second Sex © Oleg Albinsky / Getty Images
Simone de Beauvoir, writer and philosopher: Paris, France
Twentieth-century Paris’s most celebrated woman writer destroyed antiquated notions of womanhood with a flick of her pen. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) famously declared that ‘one is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman’. The idea that social conditioning shapes women continues to resonate.
Though Beauvoir travelled widely, the cafes of Paris are where she sharpened her ideas. At Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, tables and wicker chairs spill outside; but Beauvoir would usually be found inside, writing busily in a corner. Only a few steps away is Café de Flore, its art-deco interior faithfully preserved in the same style as when Beauvoir sparred with her life-long confidant and lover, the philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre, within its walls.
Beauvoir’s story ends a short metro ride away in the 19th-century Cimetière du Montparnasse, where she shares a final, unadorned resting place with her beloved Sartre.
Conjure the colourful spirit of Frida Kahlo as you explore Mexico City's Xochimilco Canals © Matt Mawson / Getty Images
Frida Kahlo, genre-shattering painter and feminist icon: Mexico City, Mexico
With their piercing gaze and defiant brow, the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) are instantly recognisable. The androgyny of Mexico’s most celebrated woman artist – who cultivated facial hair and sported men’s suits as often as traditional dresses – made her an icon in her own time. Today Kahlo’s unflinching paintings, depicting the agonies of heartbreak and miscarriage, continue to captivate.
The artist spent many years living in the so-called Casa Azul (Blue House) in Mexico City. Now the Museo Frida Kahlo, it brims with objects from the painter’s life: jewellery, clothing, mementos and photographs depicting her and muralist husband Diego Rivera. Artwork collected by Kahlo is also displayed, an enriching insight into what inspired one of the world’s most inspirational women.
A half-hour taxi ride southeast are the Xochimilco Canals, adored by Kahlo and her husband Rivera. Kahlo’s passionate outlook never wavered, despite the many tragedies she lived through. Board a boat and glide across the waterways, listening to water-bound mariachi bands and sipping tequila; the colourful scene perfectly encapsulates Kahlo’s zest for life.
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