The influential Travel + Leisure website has announced their list of the 10 best cities to visit in 2015, and there are a few surprises. London is lovely, Paris is peachy, New York is neat, but it’s a big world out there. The site compiled the list as a result of their reader’s votes, and so while it was a fairly democratic process, there’s also a fair amount of subjectivity. All ten cities are remarkable destinations in ways that are obvious, and can also feel intangible – the place just gives you a magical feeling.
10. Jerusalem, Israel
While both Israelis and Palestinians lay claim to the holy city of Jerusalem, it’s the official capital city of Israel. This is a relatively recent development in an ancient city that dates back almost 6,000 years. Contemporary Jerusalem is a bustling modern city that has a skyline of tall gleaming office buildings right next to sites of profound holy significance. Religion is intertwined with day to day life in the city, and this is evident when you visit the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, which showcases species featured in the Hebrew Bible. The Israel Museum is also worth a visit to take in their most popular attraction, the Dead Sea Scrolls. If your time in the city is short, spend as much time as possible walking the streets of the Old City. It’s here that you’ll find the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock. Regardless of your religious beliefs, you’ll find the experience to be profoundly moving.
9. Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, and indeed all of South Africa, received a significant smartening up for the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Naturally, stadiums across the country were upgraded, but the lingering effect that is of most benefit to visitors is the improvement in public transportation. Cape Town is the most popular destination for visitors in South Africa, and it’s easy to see why. Start your Cape Town day with a visit to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, which is the city’s primary harbourfront attraction. It’s a shopping complex that has both established retail outlets and temporary market stalls. The food is astounding, and much of it comes from the fishing boats that dock here. You also need to take a leisurely stroll along Long Street, where the cool kids come to spend their days in the bars and book stores.
8. Barcelona, Spain
It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit, you’re going to have to share Barcelona with a lot of other travellers. Start with a walk along the Ramblas – a long and rambling pedestrian mall that stretches from the central city to the harbour, which is always teeming with people. Much of the Ramblas is geared towards tourists, with street performers and caricature artists earning a living. Climb up Montjuïc, which is a small hill that overlooks the city and is the home of the 1992 Olympic stadium. The views are worth the minor effort, and you can also catch a cable car that will take you out over the harbour itself. You also have to see Sagrada Família, the (as-of-yet unfinished) cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudí. You have to pay to go inside, but it’s enough to admire its exterior. It looks like a mammoth sandcastle.
7. Krakow, Poland
Poland’s second largest city is often visited by backpackers on their way to or from Italy or the Czech Republic. It deserves to be the focal point of any European trip, although even when it comes to Poland, Krakow is often overlooked in favour of Warsaw. It’s a major city, and yet almost feels like a hidden treasure. It has the biggest medieval square in all of Europe (known as Rynek Glowny) and it’s remarkable to think that traders have been hawking their wares there for centuries. The square is the gateway to Krakow’s Old Town, which is remarkably well preserved. Look for the entrance to the Rynek Underground Museum, which is located beneath Rynek Glowny. It shows you more than a thousand years of the city’s history, much of which was only discovered when excavating the ancient parts of Krakow.
6. Bangkok, Thailand
Every now and then, Thailand will receive some negative publicity when its government is overthrown by the military. This has happened 12 times since 1932, with another 7 unsuccessful coups. The country is used to it, and quickly stabilises. Bangkok can blow your mind unlike any other city and you will find yourself staring out the window as you drive from the airport to the city. Traditional buddhist temples stand next to ramshackle apartment buildings that look barely inhabitable and yet are all lit up. Further into the central city, there’s some obvious wealth and opulence, particularly when you visit the Siam Paragon shopping mall which has a Ferrari dealership on its upper levels. Traditional life meets capitalism at the Chatuchak Weekend Market, where you can buy a live chicken to take home for slaughter, or a pair of fake Levi’s. It’s probably not a good idea to buy a snake to take home, though.
5. Rome, Italy
While Rome attracts fewer visitors than other European cities, it really is the Eternal City. There’s a magic to the city, particularly during the warmer months when an extended dusk bathes the city in an achingly beautiful soft light. Of course you need to see such landmarks as the Colosseum, and you should arrive early if you don’t want to be waiting for hours to get inside. Ignore the men dressed as Roman Centurions who look like they’ve just come from an Asterix costume party. They will annoy you into having your photo taken with them… for a fee, naturally. Rome attracts so many people that many restaurants and stores can feel a little “touristy” with prices to match. Head for Via del Governo Vecchio – a shopping street that is less upmarket but infinitely more lively and authentic.
4. Florence, Italy
You can look out across Florence and see a city that doesn’t seem to have changed much in centuries. Modern intrusions are rare, and it’s possible to imagine the city as it used to be. It’s easy to do this by climbing to the top of the Duomo for a 360 degree view of Florence. Linger in Piazza della Signoria – a square with so many statues that you’ll feel like you wandered into an open air gallery (not that there’s a shortage of galleries and museums here). One of the most curious things about Florence is how the city survived, despite the fact that much of it was built in medieval times. It’s not as though the loveliness was destroyed in the vague name of progress, so that a wide highway or something similar could be built to accommodate modern life. The ancient city simply exists, and modern conveniences were added if it was possible. This is obvious when you take a stroll along Costa San Giorgio, a street where many houses date back to the 1600’s.
3. Siem Reap, Cambodia
You’ll probably arrive in Cambodia via a flight to Phnom Penh, and this city is a true gem. Siem Reap is where you will want to spend most of your time in the country, and you can even catch a boat here from Phnom Penh. Siem Reap is where ancient history meets modern comfort, and is the gateway to the ancient cities and temples of Angkor. Due to the number of visitors who come here, there are a huge number of accommodation options from backpacker hostels to 5 star luxury. Siem Reap combines traditional Cambodian architecture with French colonialism, which is a throwback to when the region was part of French Indochina. Spend an afternoon browsing in the Psah Chas market where the price of produce will be a pleasant surprise (and will make you wish you had a kitchen to use). You should also visit one of the floating villages on the Siem Reap River, where entire communities live and work on a succession of boats and barges, all roped together.
2. Charleston, USA
Charleston in South Carolina is not often spoken about in the same terms of other global cities, and yet it made the number two spot on Travel + Leisure’s best cities of 2015, with good reason. There is something alluring about the southern states of the US, and it’s easy to imagine sitting on a porch, sipping a mint julep while watching the wind rustle through the magnolia trees. I imagine you could do this in Charleston, but there are better ways to spend your time. To sip that mint julep, you should get up high to enjoy the views. There’s a rooftop bar at the Market Pavilion Hotel, and you can look left towards Mount Pleasant, right towards James Island or Morris Island, or out across the harbour to the Atlantic. You should also line your stomach, so go to Shem Creek. This is where the shrimping boats dock, and many of the local restaurants serve seafood that was nonchalantly swimming through the water just a few hours before.
1. Kyoto, Japan
To see the birthplace of Kyoto, and perhaps even the birthplace of Japanese society, you will need to visit the Shimogamo Shrine. It’s the first Shinto shrine in Japan and dates back to the 6th century. It’s possible to have feelings of romanticism in Kyoto, and think of a clichéd Japan where Samurai warriors roamed the hills. These thoughts are reinforced if you walk the streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka, where you might wonder if you’ve been transported back in time. Kyoto was Japan’s capital city from 794 until 1868, because this is where the Emperor lived. There are still some royal palaces that can be visited, namely the Kyoto Imperial Palace. When the sun goes down, it’s time to see Pontocho. This alleyway used to be where gentlemen would find a geisha companion for the evening, but is now where ladies and gentlemen find a cool bar for the evening.
Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via download.unsplash.com