There are books that list thousands of places to visit before you die. But there are many other things that could prevent you travelling. You might meet and settle down with someone whose idea of an adventure is an afternoon sitting at home watching TV or shopping in a local mall. Accidents happen and, in the blink of an eye, life may never be the same. Work can become more demanding so that you start living to work rather than working to live. In other words, travel is a luxury that requires health, time and money. These are the places I would urge you to visit- WHILE YOU STILL CAN!
After so many years on the road, a life lived in seven different countries and so many places visited in between, it is almost impossible to compile a Top Ten of ‘Must See’ cities. My seven years in Asia were wonderful and Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh City will forever hold a treasured place in my memories. However, despite loving so many of the places I visited out there, few of them would inspire me to jump on a plane and go back tomorrow morning. Ultimately, the places in this ‘Top Ten’ list are just that- i.e. those cities I would return to at the drop of a hat and that I would rave about in conversation with friends or fellow travellers. Each of them has a unique charm or atmosphere that is almost impossible to replicate.
10. Sucre, Bolivia
Still smarting from losing its ‘capital city’ status to La Paz over a century ago, Sucre retains the stately buildings of an era when it was arguably the most important urban centre in the country. The ‘White City of the Americas’ is often viewed from the Recoleta area that overlooks it, but the postcard perfect views of its white buildings are perhaps best seen from the roof of Convento de San Felipe Neri. Despite spending almost ten days there, a few more than originally anticipated, there were still secret places to be visited in the city, not to mention in the nearby countryside. I dragged myself away on a night bus to La Paz and my longing to return has not diminished since.
9. Cadiz, Spain
Spanish cities are some of Europe’s best, so many will wonder why I would choose to recommend Cadiz over monumental Seville or modernist Barcelona. The answer is CHARM, CHARM, CHARM! Cadiz, founded as a trading port by the Phoenicians, is perhaps Europe’s oldest city. Its fortress has echoes of the Caribbean to the extent that you might imagine yourself in Havana or San Juan. And its cobblestones give you a sense of following in the footsteps of the adventurers who set forth from here in search of the New World. Best of all, it may be steeped in history, but it also has its own beach.
8. La Paz, Bolivia
La Paz has a fearsome reputation and it certainly has its detractors. Yet, the colourful markets around Sagarnaga and Linares offer visitors the possibility of a seemingly endless shopping trip. Tired of Andean textiles, then pop over to the Witches’ Market where you can stock up on offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Reputed to be the world’s highest capital, take a cable car from Zona Sur to El Alto to see the city in its splendour, as well as the surrounding mountains. If all of this is not enough, then you can visit Calle Jaen with its five museums. Although it may not be one of the world’s most beautiful cities, it is unique enough to warrant a visit and then you’ll probably want to return. Why? La Paz has a gritty character and an authentic feel.
7. Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Saigon, Saigon! I can hardly believe that it is now eight years since I left. Similar to La Paz, it is hardly a beauty, but it has definitely got bucketloads of character. With more motorbikes than its teeming millions, this is the city where you will relearn how to cross the road, a guaranteed adventure in itself. Scratch the surface and you will find old world temples, parks brimming with people practising Tai Chi in the early morning, great restaurants, simple but delicious noodle soup (pho) and plenty of people who love to party. If I could turn back time, as the song says.
6. Beirut, Lebanon
When I was young it was not so much a city but a war zone and Lebanon, wedged as it is between Israel and Syria, suffers from its location in a rough neighbourhood. Yet Beirut is a delight. Squeezed between the Mediterranean and the mountains, this is a city in which you can savour the Mediterranean vibe of the Corniche, shop in chic Sunni west Beirut (make time for a visit to the grounds of the American University) and eat some of the most delicious food on the planet. If the city gets too much, pop up the coast to Byblos where you will feel as if you are walking in the footsteps of both the Phoenicians and the 60s stars such as Taylor and Burton who used to flock to this seaside town before the civil war broke out in ’75. Great food, blue skies, history at every turn- your worries before going will be replaced by dreams of returning.
5. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina! Buenos Aires will be forever more synonymous with Eva Duarte Peron. After its many political and economic crises, contemporary BA is a place that is clearly past its glory days, yet it still packs a punch. What gives it a distinctive flavour? This is Ligurian coast of Italy mixed with a sprinkling of Spain and a strong desire to emulate Paris. Picture sultry tango dancing against a backdrop of brightly coloured pastel buildings and you are in La Boca. The Sunday Market at San Telmo is a raucous all day affair when Buenos Aires showcases its Latin American core. Retreat from the crowds and spend an afternoon in contemplation among the tombs of the great and the good at Recoleta. Take an evening walk along the long avenues of Microcentro and admire the fading elegance of its European architecture in the setting sun. Buenos Aires is a place that you will never forget.
4. New York City, USA
The Manhattan skyline continues to define what a city should be and how it should look. New York is, however, more than a collection of skyscrapers. This city of art and culture is home to the Museum of Modern Art, the Met and the Guggenheim. The recent addition of the High Line, a vertical garden apparently inspired by Le Jardin des Plantes in Paris, makes for a wonderful walk and has revitalised the West Side. Should you tire of the urban rush, make sure to visit the Strand Bookstore, a great selection of books in a timeless setting. In short, New York has it all and the challenge is to find the time to see even a fraction of its sights and memorable places.
3. Venice, Italy
Known as La Serenissima in Italy, Venice is a place apart and you will discover that from the moment you cross the causeway that links it to the mainland. Forget thronged San Marco and don’t even think of visiting during the peak summer months, Venice comes into its own on an autumn day when its buildings are reflected in the ever-present canals. La passeggiata is an Italian tradition and this city is best visited on foot, although you will have to take a vaporetto to get to some of the outlying islands such as Murano and Burano. Rome may have thousands of years of history, but La Serenissima is truly one of a kind.
2. Madrid, Spain
For me, Madrid will always be the summer of 2013 when I spent a month in the city. As I discovered back then, the Spanish capital is the beating heart of the nation and it moves to specifically Spanish rhythms. Expect to eat late in the evening and to party until the early hours of the morning. Apart from some of the world’s greatest nightlife, Madrid is a city of amazing culture. The Thyssen, the Prado and Reina Sofia house world class art collections. If the city becomes too much in the stifling heat of a Spanish summer, Spain’s excellent train system will quickly whisk you away to explore the delights of Salamanca, Toledo, Avila and Segovia. Spain is a country you must visit and Madrid makes an excellent starting point.
1. Paris, France
I was eighteen when I spent a summer in this city and, even if I often ignore its call, I know that I will always return. Paris, despite possessing some of Europe’s bleakest suburbs, is a place to linger. Explore the backstreets of Montmartre, take time to browse through the old shops of Ile-St-Louis and Cité, join the crowds at the Eiffel Tower and go on a bike tour to learn more of the city’s long history. If other cities place you in the footsteps of explorers and adventurers, Paris has long been the haunt of writers and artists. Aside from all of that, Paris is a cup of strong French coffee on a winter’s day in a café that feels simply timeless. Needless to say, some of those cafés have played host to luminaries such as Hemingway and Renoir, so even a simple cup of coffee in this city is sometimes served with a strong dose of culture. My eighteen year old self would sneer at my strange love affair with this city, but my middle aged self would fly there tomorrow if circumstances allowed.
Paris, je t’aime et je t’aimerai toujours!
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