10 of the best city break destinations in the world
There’s something about a city break that makes it arguably the best of all travel experiences. Sure, lying by a golden sandy beach, spotting tigers in India or climbing a large mountain for the hell of it take some beating too, but a city – when it gets it right – should be a perfect distillation of what’s great about the country in question, from its art and architecture to nightlife and the all important food.
And it’s not all to the exclusion of Mother Nature either. Many of the cities on my list embrace (and sometimes enhance – ooh, controversial) some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. So fasten your seatbelt and join me on a whistle-stop tour around my favourite long weekend cities in the world. Ps: no London, NYC, Paris, Rome or Berlin on the list – I think it’s fair to say that if you haven’t seen these cities by the age of 30, you need to take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror.
Beautiful Buenos Aires
BA Not just my favourite 80s TV character but also quite possibly my favourite South American city thanks to its distinct city villages all bringing something different to the party. There’s La Boca, the lively working class area famed for its passionate football fans; Recoleta, where the money hangs out; Puerto Madero the hipster hub and Palermo where the previously mentioned party really kicks off. Top tip, don’t even think about going out until way past 10pm, and be prepared to see in the dawn, fuelled by the delicious local wines and the world’s juiciest steaks; oh, and a desire to keep staring at the impossibly attractive locals.
Arguably the most beautiful city in the Caribbean, Colombia’s Cartagena grew rich on the ill-gotten gains of the Spanish colonial gold grab but in recent times the city has been more synonymous with other exports, namely the sadly departed Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the more sordid Colombian marching powder. Now the cartels have been culled, Colombia is desperate to attract tourists and Cartagena is the place to start with it’s perfectly preserved city walls and cobbled colonial streets, and vibrant nightlife. The coffee ain’t bad, either.
Captivating Cape Town
The city with the finest natural setting on the planet. Sorry, it just is. Table Mountain sits resplendent above the various neighbourhoods that make up this deeply civilised city, and climbing to the summit will justify the inevitable overdose on outstanding (and outstanding value) food and wine that make a trip to South Africa’s ‘Mother City’ such a joy. Hit the beach at Camps Bay, visit the beautiful Winelands region around Franschhoek and stay in one of many fab boutique hotels. Perfection.
Compact but perfect Copenhagen
It could just as easily have been Stockholm, but somewhere Scandinavian had to make the list. Denmark’s capital is small and perfectly formed, flat and cycle friendly and makes for a perfect weekend, particularly in winter, when the Danes do Christmas better than anyone. The shopping for Danish design brands is superb, the foodie scene (thanks to Noma and the proliferation of restaurants opened by Reni Redzepi’s former sous chefs) is off the charts and enjoying a drink in a snug bar on a dark winter’s evening is the essence of ‘hygge’, the Danish concept of cosiness.
Live the high-life Hong Kong
Apparently some time at the end of last century the Brits handed back Hong Kong to communist China, but everyone was too busy making money to notice. Spending time in Hong Kong can feel a little like wandering on to the set of The Wolf of Wang Street with time-warp yuppies conspicuously consuming anything going, but the work hard, play hard ethic gets you in the end. And when you want a break from the dim sum and debauchery, there are still reminders of the spiritual side of the orient in the temples and teashops of the low rise parts of the island.
This Turkish gem should probably be on the ‘do before your 30’ list, but whatever your age, please go experience the city with the single most fascinating history on the planret (Jerusalem, Rome, Beijing – we’ll talk about this later). The scope of history from Greek and Roman beginnings through a millennium as one of the two capitals of Christianity to the Islamic takeover and Ottoman Empire is unparalleled, but a few days in Sultanhamet district means you can soak it all up, get fleeced in Istanbul‘s Grand Bazaar, stay in a superb hotel (the one time prison now Four Seasons takes some beating) and visit what has to be the greatest building on the planet – the Hagia Sofia – you won’t regret it. I`d suggest taking a look at Alaturka Turkey for some great Turkey tours.
Lively and entertaining Las Vegas
From the sublime to the ridiculous (or ridiculously brilliant, according to taste). The great Victorian artist and thinker John Ruskin once said ‘the measure of any great civilisation is in its cities’ and if New York is a fine mirror to hold up to the US, Vegas is the incarnation of one of America’s greatest gifts to the world – popular entertainment. Sure Sin City is a little (OK, a lot) brash at times, but if you want a sensory blow out then this is the place to come. Want to zip wire 850 foot along the Strip from the top of a giant slot machine? You got it. Want to listen to the world’s top dance music DJs? You got it. Want to fire live rounds from a machine gun, fly over (and in) the Grand Canyon, race a Mustang Shelby GT500…. OK. You get it.
Marvellous Mexico City
Yes it’s big, yes it’s sometimes chaotic and even at times dangerous, but if you want the max from Mex then you have to visit Mexico City‘s D.F (Distrito Federal), as the city is known to one and all. It’s very hard to look beyond the street food, which was recently granted UNESCO Heritage status, but if you can, then marvel at Diego Riviera’s magical murals, the ancient canals at Xochimilco and the sheer bustle of the place. Did I mention the food?
Superlative San Sebastian
Yes, you did, but on the subject of food, San Sebastian in Basque northern Spain is THE destination du jour for gastronauts. With more Michelin stars per head of population than anywhere on earth, this is a true foodie haven where secret cooking societies up the ante with ever more creative cuisine and the humble pintxos (Basque tapas) are mind-blowing. Throw in a setting that’s reminiscent of Rio (twin beaches, Christ statue surveying all), a superb city beach surf break and a supercool film festival and San Seb is a little cracker.
Morocco is a destination with a vast amount to offer, and I think it would be fair to say that Marrakech is the most ‘other’ place within easy reach of Western Europe. A short flight from London, Paris or wherever and you arrive into a city which feels absurdly exotic. Granted, there has been a major surge in tourist numbers over the last decade, but it’s still all too easy to get away from them (and spectacularly lost) in the labyrinthine medina (old town) inside the famous red walls. At the end of many of the winding dead end alleyways are nondescript doors behind which lie some seriously amazing riads usually set around a small courtyard and offering sublime service. Drag yourself outside and the Djemaa el-fns Square is the epicentre of the city. Watch the transformation from bustling crossroads by day to pedestrianised street food stall-lined open air meeting place as the sun sets. Yes, there are tourists there, but the jugglers, acrobats and storytellers are surrounded by crowds of locals much as they have been for centuries.
Tom Barber is co-founder of multi-award winning Original Travel and the Travel Editor for Esquire Magazine.
Images courtesy of Original Travel, HKTB and Thomas Rousing for Visit Copenhagen
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