My Top 10 Favourite Cities – 2015 Edition

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Revisiting an Old Favourite

A few years ago, a young and considerably less well travelled Aussie on the Road decided to ambitiously list his favourite cities despite having only been to three countries at the time.

Looking back at the original Top 10 Favourite Cities, a couple of them aren’t even technically cities!

With that in mind – and with another 10-12 counties having stamped their places in my passport and my heart in the years since – I thought it was time to update the list.

herewego

 

My Favourite Cities as of 2015

Being that there’s no hard and fast definition of a city out there that is globally acknowledged, I’m just going to go by my own guidelines here. If the place doesn’t have an airport, I’m not going to include it.

Not that airports are some defining characteristic for “citydom”, but if you can’t read this and book yourself a ticket to the place – I’m going to exclude it from the list.

Honorable Mentions

There are a few cities that I’ve really enjoyed my time in that didn’t quite make the list, and these include my former hometowns – Gwangju and Nanjing. While both cities hold a special place in  my heart, if I look back at them objectively neither offers the right mix of night life, cultural attractions, good weather etc that the top ten can boast.

My honorable mentions are Gwangju (South Korea), Nanjing (China), Annapolis (United States), Newcastle (Australia), Cairns (Australia), Christchurch (New Zealand), and Siem Reap (Cambodia)

#10 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

While Siem Reap has the allure of both the Angkor Wat complex and a very fun, backpacker vibe – I was thoroughly engrossed by t7he way Phnom Penh still wears its scars in a way that is quite visible.

Far from being the fairy lit, boozy fun town that Siem Reap has become thanks to its obvious tourist appeals,Phnom Penh has an air of sombreness to it that speaks to the very grim history that the the entire country has had to endure.

My visit to S-21/Tuol Sleng remains one of the most moving, confronting things I have done on the road, and the city’s proximity to the infamous Killing Fields makes it hard to forget just how much the people of this beautiful country have had to endure.

A child at the Killing Fields Memorial outside of Phnom Penh. Photo by UN Photo.
A child at the Killing Fields Memorial outside of Phnom Penh. Photo by UN Photo.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The people of Phnom Penh (and Cambodia in general) are amongst the warmest I’ve ever encountered, and the city has more to see than the grim monuments. The palaces, pagodas, and museums of the city are also worth a look, and there’s an abundance of great food to be found if you know where to look.

Special mention must go to the amazing Tamarind Mediterranean restaurant, where Nomadic American and I had a truly decadent and delicious feast on our last night in the country.

#9 – Shanghai, China

Shanghai is an unusual city for me. As a traveller, I did not find that it was a particularly ‘must see’ destination. With the exception of a few over-priced and over-crowded temples and an abundance of (admittedly very good) museums, it didn’t feel as connected to the rest of China as such an old and important city should.

When you consider its history, however, perhaps that’s not so unusual. Shanghai is China’s most international city (alongside Hong Kong) and you can feel that as you travel through it. From the leafy green of the French Concession to the pomp of the formerly English Bund region, there are a lot of flavours to the dish that is Shanghai.

The Bund has become one of the most iconic skylines in the world. Photo by Jundy Tiu.
The Bund has become one of the most iconic skylines in the world. Photo by Jundy Tiu.

As an expat living in China, Shanghai was a shimmering oasis of civilization and western conveniences that oftentimes served as the reward I’d give myself if I just survived a bitterly cold, dour week in Nanjing. The city is overflowing with restaurants that not only represent China’s diverse culinary styles, but flavours from around the world as well.

Personal favourites include Lotus Eatery for delicious Yunnan cuisine, Cantina Agave for sinfully good sangria and nachos, Bubba’s Texas Saloon for ribs, Southern Belle for southern US cooking, Mr. Pancake for breakfast & brunch, and Tex-Mex at Dogtown.

From a night-life perspective, Shanghai may be the most happening city in China. There are brew pubs such as Boxing Cat, night clubs, cocktail bars, sports bars, and just about everything in between to tide you over. I’m particularly enamored of its sophisticated cocktail bar culture, and Senator Saloon was a potential favourite I discovered just in time to leave China for good.

Figures.

#8 – San Francisco, United States

I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time to San Francisco (a mere 48 hours), but I saw enough of the seaside city in that time to get the impression that I’d feel right at home amidst its steep streets, brightly coloured roofs, and food scene that makes San Francisco such a popular spot .

Riding across the Golden Gate Bridge in 2012 was a wonderful way to see one of the world's most famous bridges.
Riding across the Golden Gate Bridge in 2012 was a wonderful way to see one of the world’s most famous bridges.

I saw a lot of parallels between San Francisco and my favourite city in Australia, Sydney. Both cities are coastal, both have penal histories, both have iconic bridges, both have strong LGBT scenes, and both seem to polarize people from within their own countries. Maybe I’m off base when I jokingly label Sydney as “Syd Francisco”, but the two had a similar vibe that I found thoroughly enchanting. Of course, the two are sister cities.

My time in San Francisco was primarily for “work”, so I spent my time visiting Pier 39, eating at the fisherman’s market, and riding across the Golden Gate Bridge with Blazing Saddles.

It’s a city I’d sorely like to get back to so I can more fully appreciate the best restaurants in San Francisco, take a walking tour of San Francisco, and just soak in the city’s ambience. Someday!

#7 – Busan, South Korea

I debated long and hard over which Korean city to include in this list. While I’ll always have a soft spot for Gwangju and Seoul is undeniably a bigger tourist draw, I ended up going with Busan because I’m a sucker for a city with a good beach.

One of my favourite places in the world to just waste an afternoon was Gwangalli Beach in Busan.
One of my favourite places in the world to just waste an afternoon was Gwangalli Beach in Busan.

I was lucky enough to call South Korea’s second largest city home for a tumultuous six months back in 2011. Between a harridan of a boss and struggling to get over a break-up, my time there wasn’t all it could have been – but I still had a lot of fun visiting places such as the Jagalchi Fish Markets, chilling out on Gwangalli Beach, and taking in the city’s often debauched night life.

Regardless of the city in South Korea, the biggest draws for me are this nocturnal life that cities take on, and the amazing (and cheap) Korean food that is available at every turn.

#6 – London, England

I must confess, I’ve said in the past that visiting London held no real appeal for me; so I was pleasantly surprised when not only did I enjoy my time in London, but really came to love the grand old city.

I spent a total of four days exploring London, including two marathon days that started at 5am and didn’t finish until almost midnight. I roved from my base out in Upton Park early on each drizzly day to soak in as much of the iconic city as humanly possible.

London turned out a suitably grim day for my visit, but was still thoroughly enchanting.
London turned out a suitably grim day for my visit, but was still thoroughly enchanting.

While I’m sure I barely made a dent in what the city has to offer, I have fond memories of turning my legs to jelly climbing St. Paul’s Cathedral, wandering along the Thames after visiting the Borough Markets, idling in riverside parks, snapping photos of landmarks I never dreamed I’d see up close, and enjoying as many full English breakfasts as my stomach could accommodate.

A big part of London’s charm was that it didn’t feel as crowded and busy as I had expected it to. The dreary weather certainly lived up to expectations, but this wasn’t a city that seemed too full of itself to smile. While certain areas definitely did have a hustle and bustle to them, I never felt unwelcome in the way I have in cities such as New York and even my beloved Sydney.

#5 – Queenstown, New Zealand

It probably stretches the definition of city, but the South Island’s adventure paradise is just too pleasant a city to overlook. Surrounded by land reminiscent of Rohan and on the shores of a stunning beautiful lake, Queenstown would be a hell of a find for its terrain alone.

Nestled on the shore of Lake Wakitipu, Queenstown might just be the prettiest town I've ever visited.
Nestled on the shore of Lake Wakitipu, Queenstown might just be the prettiest town I’ve ever visited. Photo by Trey Ratcliff.

When you factor in its proximity to icons such as Milford Sound and the abundance of adrenaline pumping activities nearby though, it becomes a place every traveller worth his or her salt should someday spend a little of their time. The tourism economy means there’s a lot of hostels, bars, and cute little cafes and restaurants here – with the legendary Ferg Burger being an obvious draw.

Queenstown is a backpacker town that doesn’t feel quite as seedy and loud as other backpacker towns do. Maybe it’s the stunning surrounds or the fact New Zealanders are just pretty awesome people, but Queenstown is a place I could see myself spending a lot more time someday.

#4 – Edinburgh, Scotland

Moreso than any other city I’ve visited (and, admittedly, there’s a hell of a lot of cities in Europe I need to visit), Edinburgh felt like it wore its history out where everybody could see it. If I tuned out the honking of cars and the people snapping selfies on their iPads as I walked down the fabled Royal Mile, it wasn’t difficult for me to picture doing so in simpler, more savage times.

The Royal Mile just breathes with the city's history. I adored it. Photo by byronv2
The Royal Mile just breathes with the city’s history. I adored it. Photo by byronv2

Whether it was snapping photos of the city’s gothic architecture, roaming its streets by night on an Edinburgh ghost tour, or simply taking dinner in one of the city’s pubs – I felt far removed from the technologically advanced, interconnected world that I had left behind in China.

It’s more than just the weighty feel of the city’s history that I found charming, though. From the quaint greenery of the suburbs to the built up tourist and shopping centre of the city, it all felt wonderfully relaxed at the green heart this ancient, fascinating city.

I sorely want to get back there to either celebrate Christmas at the Edinburgh Markets or spend a little of my summer indulging in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s madness. Stoke Travel have a particularly sweet Fringe Festival deal that I wouldn’t mind trying out.

#3 – Sydney, Australia

The highest ranked of the cities I’ve been lucky enough to call home, it’s safe to say I have an abiding love of the Harbour City. Many travellers and Victorians will wax lyrical about Melbourne’s superior arts, live music, or cafe scene – but for me, no city in Australia can hold a candle to the beauty of Sydney Harbour, the bridge than spans it, or the opera house that so perfectly represents Australia.

Sydney may not have the best beaches in Australia, but I’d argue it’s got some of the best any capital city in the country can boast. While its food scene may not be as diverse and its coffee selection not as pretentious as Melbourne’s, you’d be a hard person to please to not find a few favourites in Australia’s largest city.

Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge certainly offered a spectacular view of the city.
Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge certainly offered a spectacular view of the city.

When it comes to things to do, Sydney is close enough to the likes of the Blue Mountains, the Central Coast, and Newcastle to make it a great base from which to explore more of NSW. It has teams in all of Australia’s major sporting leagues, is a guaranteed stop on any tour schedule worth its salt, and enjoys infinitely superior weather to Melbourne. Brisbane and Perth may have Sydney beat on the sunny days scale, but they’re big country towns in comparison to Australia’s two biggest and brightest cities.

It’s not all about Melbourne v Sydney dick measuring, though. Hell, maybe I’ll love Melbourne when I finally deign to visit it.

Sydney, to me, will always symbolise travel. It is where I’ve left from on all of my great adventures and it’s through Sydney that I have returned after all of them. I’ve licked the wounds of heartbreak in the city, I’ve had my first full-time post college employment in that city, and it’s where my nearest and dearest friends (mostly) call home.

#2 – Chiang Mai, Thailand

The moment I set foot in Chiangmai back in January 2012, I knew it was a city that ‘got me’.

The city boasts a warmth (both from a meteorological and cultural standpoint) that really spoke to me and, unlike the more crowded parts of southern Thailand that I’d encountered so far, this warmth seemed less forced. While it may not have the beaches that Phuket boasts or the shopping that Bangkok can, its slightly cooler temperature and the beauty of the surround mountains and jungles were positively inspiring.

Fireworks blossom like wildflowers over a Chiang Mai street. Photo by Yan Pritzker.
Fireworks blossom like wildflowers over a Chiang Mai street. Photo by Yan Pritzker.

Chiangmai is the kind of place I could see myself settling down with just a laptop, my imagination, and an air-conditioner so I could finally finish my novel and become mega rich and famous. It’s considered the place for digital nomads for a reason, and the local food scene goes beyond the delicious Thai food that is cheap and readily available.

Case in point: I still remember how good my meal at Butter is Better was, and I daresay the best Mexican I’ve had outside the United States was also found at Miguel’s in Chiangmai.

It’s a city I’d live in at the drop of a hat, but it narrowly misses out to…

#1 – Portland, United States

I’ve changed a hell of a lot over the years since I first gingerly stepped onto a plane back in 2007. I’ve cast off the parts of me I didn’t like, refined the parts of me I do, and picked up new quirks and traits along the way.

One of the few, most central parts of who I am is that I am weird and I am totally okay with that.

Independent bookstores. Amazing breweries. The Oregon Coast. Weirdness. God, I love this city.
Independent bookstores. Amazing breweries. The Oregon Coast. Weirdness. God, I love this city.

Portland’s motto is “Keep Portland Weird”, and that’s a sentiment I can well and truly latch onto. The city isn’t ashamed of any of its quirks and oddities. If anything, it’s pretty fucking proud of its unfettered hipsterism.

While I loudly profess to hate the entire hipster movement; my lumberjack beard, love of microbrew, and general weirdness probably make a liar out of me. Portland’s huge microbrew scene, its arts and music scene, and the presence of cool people and cool things to do make up for the fact it’s wetter than Kesha at the sight of a line of coke.

I adore the Pacific Northwest, and while Seattle may be its shining light of civilisation and industry, I’ll take the beating heart of Portland and all of the weird, delicious, and intriguing delights that lie within.

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4 comments

  1. Ditto on London and San Fran! You know I never made it to Sydney yet- it’s something of a life long dream. I’ve never considered Chiang Mai at ALL, but you said “good food” and that gets my foot in. BTW I live not far by ferry or plane from Busan. When’s the best weather you think?

    • Chiangmai is absolutely lovely. It doesn’t have the beaches that I usually require in a place I love, but there was just a great vibe to the place. The food was amazeballs too, haha.

      Sydney is one of my all time favourite places. I know a lot of backpackers and travellers prefer Melbourne for a lot of reasons, but Sydney holds a very special place in my heart.

      Busan is really nice in spring (April-May) or through the summer. You want it to be warm enough that wandering along one of the beaches isn’t an exercise in endurance haha.

  2. There are some good choices here. I would also include London, Sydney and San Francisco on my list. Others I have enjoyed visiting are Amsterdam, Dublin, Paris, New York, Vancouver, Quebec City and Singapore.

    • I really liked my time in New York, but I really need more than 24 hours in the city to do it justice. I adored Central Park, though. I could spend entire days there!

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