Who doesn’t fantasize about living in each city they visit (seriously, is this normal)? Far too often, I find myself longing for the places I’ve been. Not that I’ve been around too much: Europe, Africa, and South America are still unknown to me (might as well throw Antarctica in there too). I’m hopeful that 2015 will expand my horizons, but at this time, I’m happy with the memories I have. So, with that in mind, here are the top 10 Cities that have already stolen my heart: ** It was a struggle to not list the majority of places I’ve been (I leave pieces of myself everywhere, I swear), but I cut it down to 10 to try and be a little more pointed.
10. Freeport, Bahamas
The Christmas of 2008, I found myself in Freeport, a city of 55,000 on the island of Grand Bahama. The second-most populous city in the Bahamas (after Nassau), Freeport is a tropical island before it is a city. Palm trees intersperse themselves throughout the city area and white sand beaches line the coastal areas. People are friendly and laidback, and time runs at a different pace. I spent all night on that Christmas eve, dancing to Beyoncé at a bar on the beach, and never wanted to leave. I was 19 and this was my first trip outside of Canada, and I was a goner from that point on.
9. Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
With a population itself of less than 5,000, I guess you wouldn’t call this beachside town in New South Wales a city. But, I fell for the place hard. So, I’m making an exception. Awash with hippy surfers, free-spirited yogis, and fun-loving travelers in general, the attitude here is infectious. It’s one of those places where half the people you meet came for a week and stayed for 8 months (plus). The town is fairly lively and the beaches are clean, white, and sandy. There are several popular day trips and tours to be taken (if you think you might like visiting Nimbin, you probably will). The landscape is diverse: rugged and serene at once, and the lighthouse hike really puts this on display. Check out a couple of my previous posts on Byron Bay: First-time surfing in Byron Bay Byron Bay: A Haven for Backpackers in Oz
8. Kampot, Cambodia
Cambodia can be a hard hit of reality, even if you know what to expect. Landing in Phnom Penh and wandering the city will likely bring you some sad sights and deep feelings of empathy: poverty and exploitation of children are glaring issues. Not that this awareness is a bad thing–the world is not perfect and pretending like it is won’t change things. But, something about Kampot is kind of perfect. This sleepy city of around 40,000 lies in Cambodia’s south, not too far from the backpacker magnet that is Sihanoukville. I prefer Kampot. Why? This riverside town sits beside the Elephant Mountains and lends its name to a variety of pepper that is on every menu. It’s small and easy to get around, with a giant durian statue at its core. It’s easy and cheap to tour the mountains and pepper farms. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Vietnam from Bokor Mountain National Park. Good food. Good drinks. Relaxed and friendly. A bit of a dreamland where the big-city issues are sparse and softened. What’s not to love? Read more here: Time out in Kampot, Cambodia
7. Sokcho, South Korea
Sokcho is a city like many other Korean cities–there’s a formula (grey, highrise, dense) but always a slight deviation. In Sokcho’s case, it’s got some pretty spectacular perks. The beach is long and sandy, though very crowded on hot summer days. The real draw is Seoraksan National Park. I can’t stop talking about this place. It’s huge, rugged, beautiful, epic. Climbing the Ulsan Baui granite rock formation is a terrifying and unique experience. Staircases protrude from the smooth rock face, floating above long drops to the forest below. Don’t look through the gaps in the steps, but keep pushing upward. The summit is a small space, squeezed tight with too many hikers, and a windscreen that protects a souvenir stand. But, this single high point feels immense, just like the park itself. I can’t stop talking about it, and yet I can’t express how great my experiences were. Though, I tried to go over it here: A Day in Sokcho, South Korea.
6. Montreal, QC, Canada
Montreal is my favourite city in Canada (not that I’ve been to them all, but I think it would still come out on top). I really don’t even know where to start. The city has a European charm that can be hard to find in Canada. Old Montreal in the summer (or anytime) is a romantic place of cobbled stone, cafes with open doors and chalkboard signs with loopy hand-drawn specials, wafting scents of fresh roasted coffee and baked goods. The population is diverse and lively, and the international food scene exemplifies this. Foodies won’t be disappointed here. It’s a big city with unlimited options for how to spend your days (and nights).
5. Chiang Mai, Thailand
Haven’t we all heard about Chiang Mai a million times? It’s touted as Thailand’s cultural centre, a different world from the chaotic and wild Bangkok (not that Bangkok is without it’s cultural identity). I can say with confidence, if you want to experience Thailand in a short time, Chiang Mai is the place to try it.
This is the largest City in northern Thailand, and is historically significant due to its proximity to trading routes. It’s a popular place to start jungle treks to visit hill tribes, explore temples of gold, take Thai cooking classes, explore the “Top of Thailand,” at Doi Inthanon National Park, wander the massive and crowded Night Bazaar, or take in the historic sites in the Old City, housed within crumbling walls and surrounded by a moat.
Of course, I must also mention that it’s important to avoid things like the Tiger Kingdom and other attractions that are involved in animal exploitation and are potentially unethical. The nearby Elephant Nature Park is a good alternative, it is a rescue and rehabilitation centre where you can volunteer or simply visit. Always do plenty of research so you know exactly what you are supporting.
4. Seoul, South Korea
I’ve had such a love-hate relationship with Seoul. I lived a two-hour bus ride away for a year, and in the many times I visited, I told myself I wouldn’t come back. Why? There are so many people. Seriously. The metro area is over 25,000,000, and the city itself is dense. Between the crowded subways and getting lost in swarms of people in Myeongdong, it can be a headache. But, there’s a lot more than that to it, and that’s why I also love it. Somewhere within the modern Korean city are temples and historic sites that seem to inhabit their own bubbles of serenity. The craze of certain neighbourhoods is replaced with a trendy and artsy atmosphere in others. Plus, you can’t glaze over the fact that it has everything: culture, shopping, history, art, food, parks, Hello Kitty Café? If you’re feeling a bit homesick, it never hurts to go to Baby Guinness in Itaewon for some fish n’ chips (admittedly, made the two-hour bus ride just for this at least once).
3. Queenstown, New Zealand
I know it’s one of those heavy tourist areas, but look at it. Look at the Remarkables mountain range in the background, the blue waters of Lake Wakatipu, pretend you are breathing in cool, crisp mountain air. That’s Queenstown. Bungee, jetboating, hiking, wine tasting? No problem. It’s a small city, at 12,500 in the urban area. But, the popularity among tourists means that there is plenty of infrastructure to accommodate different types of travelers. Read about my favourite hike in the area: Hike in NZ: The Ben Lomond Track
2. Darwin, NT, Australia
My first stop in Australia was Darwin, and I was hooked immediately. My eyes glazed over, I was a goner. The city itself, the surrounding Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, the George Brown Botanic Gardens, the Mindil Beach Market (oh man). The stereotype is of a city for hedonistic backpackers, and the nightlife does speak to that. Any day of the week you’ll find packed bars and clubs on Mitchell Street. But the city, and the surrounding region, has its own beauty and nods to indigenous cultures as well. When I started writing for this blog, but long before I worked up the courage to share it, I wrote this short series on the Top End: To the Top End (Part 1): Darwin To the Top End (Part 2): Litchfield National Park To the Top End (Part 3): Kakadu National Park
1. St. John’s, NL, Canada
My home for 5 years, I can’t say I truly appreciated St. John’s until I moved away. I took for granted the trendy downtown with quirky boutiques and artsy cafes, the diverse nightlife that suits young club-goers, live-music lovers, relaxed pub regulars, and everyone in between, and the plethora of international cuisine and highly rated restaurants scattered downtown and beyond. Hiking in the region is gentle through meadows and forest, or coarse along the rugged coast that jets out to the rough Atlantic, perhaps scattered with icebergs or the odd whale. The East Coast Trail connects 32 historic communities along the coast, with plenty of opportunities for stops along the way. Why take this for granted? I suppose because St. John’s is not a large city, though at over 100,000 within the city area, it’s the largest in the province. The amount of culture in St. John’s dwarfs its size, and being away just shows me how special it truly is. What cities have stolen your heart? Been to any of the ones listed above? Want to? Like this post? Tweet about it!