One of the things I love most about planning a trip is deciding where to stay. There once was a time when I’d leave this critical travel planning step to chance. Armed with a plane ticket and a reservations for just one night, I’d venture off to my destination not knowing what my first travel day would hold.
Fortunately, I soon smartened up.
Perhaps it’s getting older (and, hopefully, wiser!), but I’ve since moved well beyond the happy-go-lucky, sleep-on-anything philosophy that ruled my more youthful travels.
Much to the chagrin of nearly every other travel blogger known to man- and womankind, I no longer book myself into hostels. These days, I prefer the comforts of mid-range luxury hotels or apartment rentals to the cramped shared quarters of budget accommodations. (In fact, that’s the main reason I travel part-time rather than full-time!)
I’ve created this guide with all this in mind. In it, you’ll find a run down of some of the best accommodations options out there as well as some guides to some of the major cities I’ve been covering on Treksplorer.
How to find the perfect accommodations
On my international travels, I’ve managed to find myself in nearly every type of accommodation imaginable from camp grounds & hostels to hotels & homestays—and just about everything in between.
Although I privilege comfort over shaving a few pennies these days, here’s a quick summary of all the main types of accommodation you’ll encounter in your search:
- Camping: If you’ve got an adventure streak and are willing to “rough” it, consider finding a camp ground. It’s generally cheaper than a hostel, although usually not quite as comfortable. The biggest disadvantage is that you’ll have to carry along more gear than you might want.
- Hostels: When sticking to your budget is your prime concern, you’ll know doubt be looking at a flurry of hostels. Although some hostels have budget-friendly private rooms with private bathrooms, you’ll most often find shared accommodations like dorm rooms and shared bathrooms on offer. Hostels are for all ages, but I’d being lying if I said they weren’t geared towards the twenty-something backpacker crowd.
- Guesthouses: A slight step up from hostels, guesthouses are often budget-friendly and offer a more “local” experience than many hotels. Both private and shared accommodations are common.
- Homestays: To get insight into local cultures, there’s nothing better than a homestay. Most home owners will go out of their way to give you the experience that you travel for. They’re usually quite comfortable, but, as you’d imagine, less private than other types of accommodations.
- Apartment rentals: Like homestays, apartment rentals puts you into more local accommodations both with or without the owner present. One of the biggest disadvantages over hotels is the inconvenience. (If you’ve ever had to wait an hour for a building manager to hand off the key after a 12-hour travel day, you’ll know what I mean.)
- Hotels: Ranging from budget-friendly to only-a-celebrity-could-afford-me, hotels are the most wide-ranging accommodation option out there. They’re generally more expensive than guesthouses or hostels but tend to offer more services. At the best hotels, you’ll find amenities like world-class restaurants, pools, spas, and all kinds of other goodies.
Best hotel booking sites
There are few things that will get a traveller more riled up than recommending a hotel booking site. Nearly everyone has a hotel horror story they’re all-too eager to share as a cautionary tale to avoid a certain site.
After reserving a wide variety of rooms on a number of platforms, I feel confident doling out this advice. I can’t promise that your experience will always be perfect, but here are my recommendations for the best hotel booking sites:
- Booking.com: My go-to site for accommodations for years has been Booking.com. Even with dozens upon dozens of rooms booked here, the biggest problem I’ve encountered is a hotel lying about taking credit cards several times, but I can’t blame Booking.com for that. Although it’s most famous as a hotel booking site, Booking.com now offers everything from holiday rentals to hostels and guesthouses to hotels.
- Agoda: Another solid hotel booking site. I often use it now while travelling in Asia as they seem to have a slightly wider selection than the other OTAs in Asia. Prices for Asian hotels tend to also be marginally better on Agoda.
- Hotels.com: A good selection of hotels available with the bonus of a loyalty program that gives you a free night after 10 qualifying nights.
- Expedia: Another booking site offering an in-house loyalty program where you can collect points towards travel. Expedia is the best place to find awesome travel deals by bundling your flights and hotels.
- Airbnb: My favourite option for booking owner apartment rentals and homestays. Get C$40 off your first stay by signing up here.
Best hotel chains
One of the things I’ve discovered over the years is that hotel booking sites don’t always offer the best deals. While things may look good on paper, there’s one thing that’s missing: hotel loyalty programs.
When you book with third-party sites like Booking.com, you give up your right to collect points and stays with the hotel’s own loyalty programs. (Of course, I found this out the hard way.)
Since then, I’ve been starting my search on the hotel chain’s own sites after logging into my membership. Not only are the prices often cheaper than third-party sites, you can often price match with other advertised offers and collect loyalty points on your stay. Here are a few of the best hotel chains:
- Marriott: One of the biggest hotel chains out there featuring top hotel brands like JW Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Courtyard Marriott, Delta, and Renaissance. After merging with Starwood Hotels, their portfolio of properties also now include St. Regis, W, Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, and Four Points by Sheraton. Their Marriott Bonvoy is one of the best hotel loyalty programs out there and the one I personally use for my own travel hacking needs.
- Hilton: Ignoring the antics of this chain’s ditzy heiress, Hilton is one top hotel brands in the mid-range to luxury market. With brands like Hilton, Conrad, Double Tree, and Hampton under its belt, there’s plenty of places to choose from at all ends of the earth. Join the Hilton Honors program for discounted rates and benefits like free WiFi and express check-out.
- Hyatt: With some of the world’s best hotel brands under its belt like Park Hyatt, Hyatt Place, Andaz, Grand Hyatt, and Hyatt Regency, it’s hard to not recommend staying at a Hyatt. Their World of Hyatt loyalty program is superb, allowing you to save up to 10% and rack up points for free stays quickly.
Where to stay: The best hotels in the world
Okay, so maybe that title’s a little misleading. I’m not going to cover the whole world.
(Remember: I’m just one dude with an insatiable travel addiction here.)
I’ll be periodically adding to this section as I fill up the site with all more fun travel stuff. Until then, here are some where to stay guides in some of my favourite cities on earth…
Barcelona: Few cities in Europe have the gravitational pull of Barcelona, undoubtedly the most popular destination in Spain, in itself, a favourite among Europhiles. And you could hardly blame anyone for loving this Catalonian city. It’s got a little of everything for every type of traveller.
If you’re looking for history & architecture, Barcelona’s got it in spades from the gems of the Gothic Quarter to the weird & wacky creations of Catalonia’s most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí. Even if it doesn’t quite have the gastronomical reputation of cities like Paris or Rome, Barcelona’s also a surprisingly fascinating foodie destination driven by Spanish favourites like paella, manchego cheese, jamón ibérico, esqueixada de Bacalao. Don’t let the incessant crowds stop you: This is one destination you don’t want to miss.
Berlin: What can I say about Germany’s capital that I haven’t said yet. After visiting a handful of times, I can say with certainty that Berlin is my favourite city in Europe. There’s just no place like it.
While there’s plenty of typical tourist stuff to do in Berlin, the city’s charms are less of the classic European variety and a little more eccentrically modern. Berlin’s got an edge that’s missing from many European cities. And if there’s any reason you’re going to love this city, that’s it.
Bilbao: Often loosing its spot on time-crunched Spain itineraries, Bilbao is among that handful of special European cities that surprises travellers beyond the continent’s usually obvious charms. Like many other popular modern Spanish destination, Bilbao mixes together the usual smattering of contemporary & historical architecture in a dramatic river- and hillside location within the close reaches of the coast of Northern Spain.
If Bilbao’s surprising good looks weren’t enough to inspire a visit, it’s food should. Along with nearby San Sebastian, Bilbao is the centre of a Basque culinary universe—and the ancient Basques’ defacto cultural centre. Art and history buffs will love exploring the museums here including the world-famous (and quirkily designed) Guggenheim Museum. Likewise foodies could well spend a lifetime eating & drinking their way through Bilbao’s pintxo bars and local restaurant scene.
Bled: Although it’s limited popularity might not put it atop most travellers bucket list (yet!), the lovely Slovenian lakeside town of Bled is more than worth your attention. Truthfully, in my many years of travel I’ve hardly set my eyes upon scenery that can compete with Bled’s.
Many travellers simply take Bled in as a day trip from Ljubljana, Slovenia’s lively pint-sized capital. I’d suggest taking it a step further. Spend a couple days in Bled to soak it all in—whether that’s paddling around the lake on a pletna, hiking uphill to a castle for a glass of vintage Slovene wine or trotting along hiking trails deep in the backwoods to uncover hidden monasteries.
Bratislava: Even for someone relatively well-versed in geography, Bratislava isn’t exactly a household name. After finding myself wandering the streets of the Slovak capital a handful of time during my jaunts to Central Europe, I can say with uncertainty that this is one of the most underrated cities in Europe.
No, it doesn’t have the sights or prestige of other Central European capitals like Vienna, Prague or Budapest. In fact, compared to its larger and more popular brethren, there’s relatively little to do in Bratislava. And, at least for me, that’s all part of the charm.
Bratislava’s not about dazzling visitors with big-name sites; rather, it’s a spectacularly fun & friendly city that’s a perfect place to while awhile a couple days getting to know Slovakia better before setting of to explore this fascinating country in more depth.
Budapest: Along with cities like Prague, Vienna, and Krakow, few first-time Central European itineraries leave out the Hungarian capital of Budapest. Even among its neighbouring peers, visiting Budapest is a wholly unique experience thanks to its long history at the crossroads between East and West.
Dig into this city and you’ll quickly discover just how deep its roots are planted. Among its top attractions there’s everything from Roman ruins to Turkish baths to Baroque, Gothic, and Neoclassical buildings that you can help but gawk at. Throw in an edgy nightlife scene and some surprisingly delicious (and unapologetically non-keto-friendly) food, and you’ll see why this Hungarian city is a favourite for so many visitors.
Frankfurt: Although it’s hardly as interesting as other cities in the country, Germany’s financial capital is worth more than just the fly-overs most travellers give it.
Along with its obvious contemporary face (and a skyline that’s probably Europe’s most impressive modern era one), there’s still plenty of old German charm here from the historic architecture styles on the streets of Altstadt to the traditional wine taverns in Sachsenhausen.
Glasgow: Although often overshadowed by its handsomer neighbour of Edinburgh, Scotland’s cultural hub’s got a whole lot of admirers (present company included). While perhaps a wee bit short on those typical enchanting sites expected on a European vacation, Glasgow’s chock-full of just about everything else that you’d want out of an urban experience.
Glasgow’s quickly become one of Europe’s coolest alternative cities with a barrage of hip restaurants, pubs, bars & street art popping up all over the city. If there’s ever been a time to give the good-ol’ Scottish lad a taste, it’s now.
Granada: When crafting your Spain itinerary, there’s no substitute for the Andalusian city of Granada. In many ways, Granada is the ultimate Spanish destination, throwing together a curious mix of everything that Spain’s famous for—and then some.
While many travellers come simply to spend time at the massive & glorious Alhambra, one of Europe’s most sought-after attractions, in Granada, you’ll find all the endless plates of tapas, free-flowing wine & historical flair you’d expect. If you’re planning a trip to Spain, don’t let this fascinating city pass you by.
Hamburg: With many first-time travellers beelining for Berlin and Munich, Germany’s second biggest city of Hamburg rarely gets the love it rightly deserves. Ask any Hamburger (yes, that’s what they’re called!) about their fine town and you’ll quickly come to realize that this port city is as well-loved as any in Europe.
In many ways Hamburg rolls all the best of Germany into one package. Wandering through the Altstadt, you’ll get a glimpse at Hamburg’s illustrious medieval past as one of the most trading centres in Europe under its Hanseatic banner.
Even if its maritime quirks & historical architecture don’t inspire a visit, Hamburg’s cultural scene might. The city’s becoming one of Germany’s top destinations for food & nightlife, inspiring gourmands to explore its backalleys in search of some of the country’s tastiest dishes and best local craft brews.
Hvar Island: While it might not have the fame of Dubrovnik, Split or Zagreb, visiting Hvar Island is a non-negotiable on any Croatia itinerary. It’s popularity soaring as of late, Hvar has become the premier place for celebs and other dignitaries to enjoy Croatia’s Adriatic coastline to its fullest.
Even with its star status ever rising, finding a good place to stay in Hvar isn’t (yet) out of reach. Whether you’re looking to check out the historical goodness of Hvar Town, enjoy the pebble beaches or taste some Croatian wine and olive oil in the island’s quieter fringes, don’t leave out a stop to this lovely island.
Krakow: If there’s only one city you need to visit in Poland, it’s the country’s cultural heart of Krakow. Up there with the top cities to visit on the entire continent, this Polish city’s loaded with historical charms, museums, and authentic neighbourhoods.
For foodies & hipsters, Krakow’s also emerged as one of Europe’s upcoming food & drink cities. Get in now before it gets even more popular than it already is!
Ljubljana: There’s hardly a more pleasant surprise in Central Europe than Slovenia’s pint-size capital of Ljubljana. Even if it lacks the name recognition of other cities of the region, Ljubljana is revelling in new-found star status among traveller, offering all the charms you’d expect in an ancient European capital with a smaller-town feel.
While Ljubljana itself warrants plenty of attention, perhaps the city shines most as a base for exploring much of the country. Within just a few short hours from Ljubljana, you’ll be able to check out many of the country’s top sites including gems like the indescribably beautiful Lake Bled, Vintgar Gorge, Lake Bohinj, and lovely lesser-known cities like Koper, Kranj and Piran.
Madrid: For anyone embarking on their first European itinerary, the capital of Spain is an absolute must-see. While everyone (and I do mean everyone!) seems to flock to Barcelona, Madrid holds the nation’s cultural heart in its hand.
Madrid’s home to more world-class museums than I can mention given the limited time & space and some of Europe’s most unique and celebrated foods & drinks. This isn’t a city to be taken lightly as a traveller—even if its happy-go-lucky residents will kindly help you in enjoying their idea of the pura vida.
Munich: Even if you aren’t a beer drinker extraordinaire, there’s no reason you should skip out on Munich. As much as this Bavarian city loves to push forward all the classic German stereotypes, there’s much more to Munich than Glockenspiels, Lederhosen, and Hefeweizen.
Although much of Munich was tapped out during World War II, the city’s rebirth has been extraordinary. Today, there’s more classic European scenes to keep travellers’ peaked in Munich than in any other major German city. And that’s even before we consider the two-week-plus debauchery of Oktoberfest, the world’s most famous beer festival.
Prague: I’ve hardly backed off of proclaiming my undying love for Prague. Unfortunately, neither has the rest of the world. Much has changed since my first visit to Prague over 12 years except for the fact that it still enchants me as much as it did the first time I stepped in.
Sure, the crowds get unwieldy at times, but break out of the Old Town bubble and you’ll see that there’s plenty of compelling moments scattered throughout the city just waiting to be discovered.
Seville: Although not quite at the same level of consciousness as other Spanish destinations like Madrid or Barcelona among most travellers, Seville is as perfect an embodiment of the country’s spirit as any city on the peninsula. The Andalusian capital charms with a mix of Southern European and Moorish flair that gives it a vibe all unto its own among top European destinations.
Whether its flushing out Mudejar palaces, hanging out in grandiose city squares, enjoying tapas with a side of flamenco dancing, or gazing upon one of the world’s most mind-blowing churches, adding Seville to your itinerary isn’t an experience you should forgo.
San Sebastian: Although it doesn’t quite tickle the imagination to likes of Barcelona or Madrid, the Spanish city of San Sebastian is quickly becoming one of Spain best escapes for all types of travellers. A resort town at heart, this Basque city has long been a favourite for Spanish royalty and other dignitaries looking to relax among its seaside pleasures.
Lately, however, San Sebastian has been garnering a reputation for something else: its food. An in a country as well-known for its culinary prowess, this is a big deal. As you roam through its pinxtos bars & restaurants, you’ll no doubt develop a new found appreciation for Spanish cuisine that will live on long after you’ve departed this lovely beachfront town.
Split: If there’s any city besides Dubrovnik that belongs on your Croatia itinerary, it’s gotta be the Dalmatian Coast city of Split. Featuring an enviable location on the Adriatic Sea with one of Europe’s most fascinating old towns, this Croatian gem is bound to impress beyond belief.
Whether you decide to stay within the walls of the city’s ancient Roman palace or move a little further along to indulge in the city’s seaside pleasure, Split might well become one of your new favourite European escapes.
Valencia: Although it lacks the touristic pull of other Spanish cities, Spain’s third largest city of Valencia shouldn’t be discounted as you plan out your ultimate Iberian Peninsula itinerary. Whether you’re travelling for historical charms or more contemporary ones, Valencia might well be one of the country’s best-kept secrets.
Even if the city’s exciting blend of modern & classic architecture doesn’t inspire a visit, the cultural scene might. Perched on Spain’s western Mediterranean coast, Valencia gives visitors a taste of seaside life in more ways than one. Hanging out on the beach is a perennial favourite activity for travellers here, but its Valencia’s raucous nightlife scene and brilliant food & drink selection that might well be what compels you stick around this Catalonian city a little longer than expected.
Warsaw: For travelling in Central Europe, there’s far places more worthy of your attention than the Polish capital of Warsaw. Sure, Warsaw doesn’t stun the senses like other Central European capitals like Prague. But it’s got a whole lot of grit and heart that makes it one of the most fascinating cities in the region.
While most travellers are instantly charmed by Warsaw’s beautifully reconstructed Old Town, others reach for the city’s less obvious moments in places like Praga to catch the full drift of why Warsaw’s such a special place. Give both faces of the capital a try and I can guarantee that you’ll quickly find something to write home about.
Zagreb: As the capital of one of Central Europe’s most popular countries for travellers, Zagreb is an almost obligatory stop while exploring the region—even if its status is a little lesser-known than nearby capitals like Vienna or Budapest.
Nevertheless, Zagreb isn’t a city you’ll want to miss. Beyond its communist blocks, Zagreb features an elegant smattering of art-deco, neo-baroque left over mainly from its days as an Austro-Hungarian outpost. Put your feet up in the areas of Donji Grad and Gornji Grad to explore Zagreb by foot, and you won’t regret it for a minute.
Bali: Indonesia’s most popular island isn’t just one of the most popular places to visit in Asia, but in the world. Bali’s reputation precedes it with fairly polarizing views falling somewhere between love and hate.
Much of that comes from your choice of where to stay. Be sure to pick your destination wisely as not every place in Bali is suitable for every type of traveller.
Beijing: A metropolis of over 20 million people, China’s capital can be a tough nut to cracking, especially when it comes to finding accommodations. Fortunately for travellers, there’s plenty of opportunity abound to take in the breadth this immensely magnetic city.
Although it cracks more bucket lists than I can count thanks to that little-ol’ somewhat-famous wall just outside the city, there’s a ton goin’ on within Beijing itself to keep wayfarers busy for weeks, months—or even a lifetime. From its mystical Forbidden City & imperial palaces to its ancient hutong & modern shopping malls, visiting Beijing isn’t an experience you’ll want to miss.
Busan: Korea’s second city of Busan probably isn’t your first choice of Asian destinations. While it’s often overshadowed by its bigger brother of Seoul, Busan’s got plenty going for it. From seaside temples and pristine city beaches to bustling seafood markets and mountain retreats just outside the city, it doesn’t take much coaxing to get this port city out of its shell.
As much as you’ll likely meet its brusque reputation head-on, there’s pockets of sophistication here worth exploring whether its hitting the fashion boutiques of Nampo-dong or sipping on a cocktail with some of Korea’s best sea views in check.
Guangzhou: The urban star of China’s Pearl River Delta, the massive city of Guangzhou is a place that’s surprisingly charming despite it’s hypermodern outward appearance. Beneath all the bustle and the glass shooting into the sky, this Chinese city (once called Canton), has all of the trappings expected from a trip to China.
As you make your way through the city, you’ll encounter blissful temples (even a mosque or two), traditional street markets, and ancient shophouses. Of course, one can’t visit Guangzhou without discover in its namesake cuisine, Cantonese, made famous by chefs from Hong Kong who took the region’s food and popularized it on take-out menus in Chinatowns all over the world.
Hiroshima: Infamous for being the first city to get decimated by an atomic bomb, the Japanese city of Hiroshima is the poster child for perseverance. From the ashes of the attack, this port city has grown to become a bustling cosmopolitan centre that’s as vibrant as any in Japan
Although many come simply to pay their respects, there’s far more to the city than its devastating WWII. Settle in for a couple days and to experience its mouth-watering local cuisine (like that famous Hiroshima okonmiyaki—yumm!) and take on famous day trips outside of the city including Miyajima.
Hong Kong: First impressions are always strong when you catch your first glimpse of Hong Kong. As you land onto the chaotic streets of Kowloon or drift over the harbour to Hong Kong Island, you’ll either cherish each of the moments or wish that they would end. Give it some time.
All but the most staunch lovers of urban madness will get an instant feel-good vibe from Hong Kong. But this is a city that grows on you quickly. Ditch the crazy streets for a hike on the backside of Hong Kong Island, Lantau Island, or into the New Territories and you’ll see why legions of expats shun their former homes to stay in this crazy yet delightful former British colony.
Kanazawa: Even if you find the moniker “Little Kyoto” slightly misleading, there’s no doubt that Kanazawa presents one of the best opportunities in Japan to get in touch with traditional Japanese culture with lighter crowds than you’d find in other more household names.
Kanazawa is chock-loaded with interesting attractions including well-preserved historical districts, traditional Japanese gardens, and even its very own namesake castle. Carve out a couple days to stay in Kanazawa and it might just be one of the highlights of your trip to Japan.
Kyoto: The former Japanese imperial capital of Kyoto isn’t just a must-see for Japan, but for any true travel lover. Few cities around the world dole out cultural treasures as liberally as this fascinating historical city.
Whether you’re ambling along the hilly and atmospheric alleys of Higashiyama or breezing along cherry-blossom-lined streets in Gion District, Kyoto’s bound to grab ahold of your imagination instantly and grip it for years to come.
Nagoya: As one of Japan’s biggest cities and a major industrial powerhouse, Nagoya has scored a reputation among travellers as a boring city with relatively little to do. Admittedly, even though Nagoya can’t hold a candle to other more popular Japanese destinations in term of tourist appeal, the label is more than a tad unfair as you’ll quickly realize if you give the city a passing chance.
For its size and economic prowess, Nagoya is surprisingly green with well-trimmed parks sprinkled throughout its urban sprawl including the lovely Ninomaru Garden at the city’s most famous tourist site, Nagoya Castle. More so than the city itself, travellers will love staying in Nagoya to take full advantages of its proximity to the mountainous regions of Central Honshu where some of Japan’s finest alpine scenery lies.
Nara: While Kyoto might get most of the attention from travellers, the nearby city of Nara has got more than its fair share of surprises for travellers. Before Kyoto became the centre of the Japanese empire, Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan, leaving behind a barrage of cultural treasures that are slotted in among the country’s finest.
While there are plenty of temples & shrines to keep you occupied, Nara’s true keystone is its population of deer that freely roam in the city’s centrepiece park. Watching these mystical creatures, considered sacred in local folklore, wander among the cherry blossoms and temples is a sight as memorable as anything in ever-surprising Japan.
Nikko: Even if its far from Japan’s most famous destination, the lovely town of Nikko is one the country’s true must-visits. Sporting some of Japan’s most important cultural treasures and breathtaking natural attractions with grandeur to match, this town just north of Tokyo needs a place on your bucket list.
Enjoy Nikko’s famous temples & shrines before retiring to one of the region’s onsen (hot springs) towns to experience the best in Japanese hospitality & relaxation.
Osaka: Modern Japan’s reputation for delivering on the world’s best urban buzz only intensifies when you make you way to its second most popular cosmopolitan destination Osaka. With the likes of Tokyo & Kyoto competing for attention, Osaka’s often ignored by travellers venturing off to Japan for the first time.
Don’t let it happen to you. Osaka charms, in its own odd way, as well as the other two. While it may lack the cultural prowess of Kyoto or the hyper-urban reputation of Tokyo, Osaka unleashes each (albeit with slightly less intensity) for a well-rounded and fulfilling modern Japanese city experience.
Otaru: Even if it’s not quite a household name among international travellers, the Hokkaidan fishing town of Otaru is one to most satisfying places you can visit in northern Japan. Unlike Japan’s ancient treasures in Honshu, Otaru’s oldest attractions date back to just before the turn of the 20th-century when the island was first colonized by the Japanese.
Today, reminders of the town’s simple beginnings are everywhere. At its centre is the early-20th-century-built Otaru Canal, a beautiful waterway running parallel with the port and lined with 20th-century warehouses and shipping offices that’ve been upgraded to restaurants & art galleries.
Penang: If there’s only one destination you make it to in Malaysia, make it the island of Penang. While it doesn’t quite have the convenience or popularity of KL, Penang’s in many ways the superior of the two destinations for travellers.
On Penang, you’ll have have to go far to check out a compelling slice of Malaysian history. The island’s main urban centre of George Town teems with it. In fact, I’d go as far to say it’s one of the region’s most diverse cities thanks to its unique colonial heritage and ethnic fabric.
Like many places in the region, what most travellers will love most about Penang though is the food. At all hours of the day, you’ll never be far from a satisfying budget-friendly meal include the island’s famous assam laksa.
Sapporo: Located on Japan’s most northerly island of Hokkaido, the city of Sapporo doesn’t make onto a lot of Japan itineraries. Travellers who do make it this far north will discover a city that’s surprisingly underrated and digestible in more ways than one.
As Japan’s not exactly lacking in urban experiences what makes Sapporo unique is it’s truly Hokkaidan heritage. The Sapporo area teems with mountains including Mt. Moiwa directly west of the city centre. Spend a couple days here to prepare for a Hokkaido adventure that’ll take to you through some of the Japan’s best ski resorts & hot spring (onsen) towns for some supreme relaxation.
Seoul: While I can’t deny there are prettier Asian cities out there, few are as dynamic as the Korean capital of Seoul. From the instant you touch down, the feeling is electric. The whole city buzzes with a rare energy that forever keeps your heart racing and your mind fluttering.
Even with its immense sprawl, Seoul is an easy city to get around. Most of its top sites are easily accessible from the city centre, making it the perfect quick introduction to a country that’s too often forgotten among travellers visiting East Asia.
Shanghai: China’s biggest city is more than just a flashy face. You’ve probably been dazzled by Shanghai’s skyline on movies, and, trust me, it’s far more incredible in person than on the silver screen.
But the city’s best moments don’t start and end with its modern charms. Shanghai is a city deeply rooted in history, seemingly from all angles. There’s a unique mix of architecture here ranging from old Chinese styles to some of the best examples of European architecture in Asia. (And let’s not forget all those yummy Shanghainese cuisine delights.)
Singapore: While its got its fair share of detractors, I’d gladly stand up to say that Singapore’s one of the most fascinating cities in the region. Of course, this city-state isn’t your typical Southeast Asian destination, which contributes to the flak.
Compared to its former partner of Malaysia, fast-forward Singapore feels almost like another world. It’s clean, ultra-modern, sophisticated, all things that most travellers to Southeast Asia are not expecting—and that many are not keen on.
Dig beyond its façade though, Singapore’s as interesting a city as they come. There’s plenty of history here—from Chinatown to Little India to the old Malay quarter of Kampong Glam. Most importantly though, this is a city where the entire continent will come to rest on your plate. Eating in Singapore is one of the simplest pleasures in the region, and one that pushes this city into legendary status (at least in the belly of this Canadian foodie).
Taipei: Among East Asian capitals, there’s probably none that flies under the radar more than Taipei. It’s a shame because in many ways Taipei is the region’s ultimate urban getaway. What Taipei lacks in familiarity, it more than makes up for in convenience.
Taipei offers some of the region’s cheapest big city accommodations, flying well under the over-inflated prices of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hong Kong. Food is likewise budget-friendly with the city’s amazing night markets filling your belly with Taiwanese delights for mere pocket change.
Takayama: Next to the top destinations within the Tokyo-Osaka-Kyoto triangle, there’s hardly a better place to expand your appreciation of Japan than Takayama. Hemmed into the alpine regions of Central Honshu, Takayama is beautiful both within and without, offering up fine scenery along with well-preserved historical Japanese architecture that’s every bit as stunning as you’d imagined.
Unsurprisingly, Takayama’s become quite a popular foray in recent years for both Japanese & international travellers. And the city’s only the half of it. The true hidden bonus in spending a couple days in Takayama is to tackle the charming villages and spectacular landscapes of the surrounding mountain regions.
Tokyo: There’s always been a special place in my heart for Tokyo. If there was one city that I always dreamt of visiting when I was younger, it was the Japanese capital. And I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint.
Stepping into the streets of Tokyo can feel like entering another world. The blazing neon written in incomprehensible scripts alone is enough to send even the most seasoned traveller into a mild to moderate culture shock. But despite its outwardly otherworldly appearance, Tokyo’s not so hard to swallow.
Drifting through the city isn’t as much of a challenge as a first glance would predict. In fact, getting around Tokyo and going about your day is relatively painless. As hard as it might be to truly get to know such a massive city, even one visit’s enough to forever change how you feel about travel.
Panama City: As one of the transportation hubs for Central America, the capital of Panama has become an almost necessary stop for nearly every trip to the region. Even if it’s outward appearance screams otherwise, Panama City isn’t short on Central American charm—and it doesn’t take much to uncover it.
Head over to Casco Viejo, the historical Old Town of Panama City, and you’ll instantly see why Panama’s capital is worth more than just a fly-over. Stay a few days and I promise that you’ll quickly find yourself enjoying all that this eclectic Central American city offers.