There’s nothing quite as exciting as taking your first steps in a new city. Breathing in the new air, noticing the smells, noticing the faces of the people hurrying by, and knowing you’ve got a whole mini-world to explore.
Whilst beach breaks have their place and we all need a getaway to the great outdoors now and again, most of us can’t resist the excitement of a city break, either.
They can be surprisingly cheap (depending on where you go!) ways of getting a real insight into a completely different culture, and in most big cities there are so many things to do that you never know which way to turn first.
With so many fascinating cities in this world, each with their charms, anyone writing this list would have their own favorites. However, here are a few of my personal favorites, absolute gems that you couldn’t fail to be seduced by:
Let’s kick off the list with the Scottish capital. This fascinating city is on two levels, and you’ll be walking along thinking you’re on ground level only to realize you are, in fact, on a bridge. It’s beautifully, dramatically gothic, and the setting is unparalleled, the view from the famous Arthur’s Peak stretching out to sea one way, and to the mountains the other.
Go in August for the famous Edinburgh Festival, when the population multiplies and it’s suddenly packed with performers from all over the world. Prices shoot up, but there’s free dance, theatre, and comedy on every street corner, and the atmosphere is electric.
This is another city steeped in history, with a jaw-dropping view around every corner. This is an extremely affordable destination, famous for its beer and great for foodies. The Charles Bridge, the oldest bridge in Europe, is amazing to walk across, set beneath the striking Prague Castle.
Free walking tours around the old town are fascinating, peeling back the different layers of the city’s past. You can spend a romantic few days strolling the cobbled streets, spend hours in art galleries and museums, or go all out on the partying. Whatever your style, you’ll love Prague.
Do I really need to explain this one? Yes, this city really does live up to its reputation, as long as you get off the beaten track a little. Think elegant streets, characterful neighborhoods, incredible architecture, and miles of beautiful beach.
For me, the best part is the topography, as the city is nestled inside a semi-circle of hills, meaning you can easily get out of the city and enjoy amazing, panoramic views down over it. Parc Guell, designed by Gaudi, is the cherry on the cake.
Stay off Las Ramblas, where the prices are extortionate, and delve into the back streets to find cheap drinks and delicious food. Enjoy the party.
4. Mexico City
The Mexican capital will surprise you. Its different barrios are incredibly distinctive and each has a story to tell. The central plaza, the Zocalo, is vast and is dominated by the cathedral that was built directly on top of the remains of the Aztec Empire, who controlled a vast area from their capital here until the Spanish invasion. Climb the bell towers of the cathedral and explore the remains of the Templo Mayor.
Enjoy the incredible food on offer, from traditional Mexican to incredible fusions, and even a thriving vegan scene, and don’t miss out on the party. Don’t miss Chapultepec park and castle, and set aside some time to learn about the fascinating history of this country at the Anthropological Museum before you continue your journey through Mexico and see the evidence of its rich history for yourself.
From here you can visit the legendary abandoned city of Teotihuacan, a vast complex of pyramids only 45 minutes from the city center.
There’s nowhere like Rio de Janeiro. The Portuguese settlers chose well when they set up camp here. The Sugarloaf mountain and the Christ statue are just as stunning as they look on Instagram, and those beaches are legendary for a reason.
Take a stroll along the white and black chequered promenade of Copacabana beach and marvel at the beauty of it all. Spend your nights at the unforgettable parties in Lapa. Wander the streets and generally soak up the magic of it all.
Most people visiting Rio pay a visit to the nearby beach towns of Paraty or Buzios, depending on if they’re after a bit of culture or a romantic couple’s retreat, and Ilha Grande is a slice of pure paradise, especially during low season when the crowds have gone home and you get those beaches to yourself.
If anywhere is going to trump Rio de Janeiro for setting, it might be Sydney. That harbor is just as stunning as it looks in the photos, and the sun’s always shining. The center is great, but it’s the beach suburbs that will really charm you.
You can miss Bondi, but my personal favorite is Coogee beach, with its women’s only swimming pool built into the cliff at the side, meaning there’s no danger of sharks!
Take the ferry over to Manly for more of a small beach town feel, just watch the seagulls down steal your fish and chips.
Opera fan? Treat yourself to a show in one of the world’s most iconic spots. The Harbour Bridge climb is also more than worth splashing out on, for a bird’s eye view of the water and the city clustering around the shore.
This city is evolving and changing at a rate of knots. Between when I visited as a child, 20 years ago, and 5 years ago when I stopped over there again, it was practically unrecognizable. The remnants of the old colonial lifestyle, like the famous Raffles hotel, are juxtaposed against space-age architecture. You’ve never seen a cleaner city in your life.
Although it makes an incredible destination, another of Singapore’s charms is that its air links mean it makes a great stopover on the way to almost any Asian destination, or between Australia and Europe. Changi airport is an experience in itself! Spend a few days here exploring the city and getting over your jet lag before heading on.
This one is nothing short of magical. The colonial city that still has extremely obvious indicators of its Incan heritage is fascinating. This was once the epicenter of the powerful and vast Incan Empire, and you can spend days learning about the history of this place.
As well as being an incredible city to visit in its own right, it doesn’t hurt that it’s the jumping off point for visiting Macchu Picchu, which is even better than it’s cracked up to be, the ruined Incan city set on teetering cliffs high above the raging river that carved this landscape.
9. La Paz
This might not feature on many people’s lists of the top cities to visit, but I just loved it, as I did Bolivia in general, an incredibly distinctive country. It’s set in a kind of cauldron, with the city having expanded up the walls over the years and spilt out onto the plains. It’s teeming with life and culture and is cheap as chips.
A lot of people come here just for Death Road, the famous four-hour downhill mountain bike adventure, risky but thrilling as anything. There are also ruins nearby, and you can get to the legendary Uyuni salt flats and Lake Titicaca from here.
10. New York
I don’t think I really need to sell this one to you. New York is on everyone’s bucket list, and it won’t disappoint you. Times Square really is as impressive as it looks in the movies, and everything’s on such a huge scale.
I particularly like New York in the autumn, after the heat of the summer has passed but before the vicious winter cold hits, and when the leaves in Central Park are falling. Take the Staten Island ferry, walk across Brooklyn bridge, and go up the Rockefeller center for the best view of the Empire State. Enjoy the magic of it.
Did I miss your favorite off the list?