This top ten theme will become a semi regular thing as I cover everything from favourite local beers to most surreal drunken experiences while abroad.
Today I’ll keep it simple as I list my favourite ten cities that I’ve encountered during my thus far limited travels.
10 – Newcastle, NSW
The home of my two football teams (the Newcastle Knights and Newcastle Jets) and a city I called home in 2004 and 2005 – Newcastle is where the NSW country meets the city. The second largest city in the state has every right to be a bustling metropolis, but it still maintains a lot of country charm and a pleasantly laid back attitude. If beaches are your thing, Newcastle is the city for you. Skip the crowds at Manly or Bondi in Sydney, and instead hit Merewether or Nobby’s.
While you’re in town, take a chance to walk through the newly developed Honeysuckle area; attend a Newcastle Knights game to experience rugby league at its most passionate; spend a day sailing on Lake Macquarie; and take a jaunt up to Nelson’s Bay to swim with the dolphins.
9 – Pusan, South Korea
The closest South Korea has to a beach city – Pusan (or Busan) is famous across the country for its beaches. Having come from Australia, I didn’t find it particularly amazing, but the city itself has a lot of charms. There’s a pretty fantastic aquarium, ferries across to Japan at a reasonable price, and a healthy foreigner community if you’re looking for a drink or some company for a temple visit.
8 – Cairns, QLD
I only recently discovered Cairns during my visit to get my Open Water certification, but I fell in love with this backpacker’s haven in far North Queensland. If you can deal with the humidity and the completely unpredictable weather, you’ve found a perfect gateway for a world of scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, and water sports on and around the Great Barrier Reef.
If water isn’t your thing, there’s the nearby Kuranda Skyrail to take you through the world’s oldest rainforest and into a charming community of artists and zoos in the mountains outside of Cairns. There’s countless cafes ranging from the very basic in backpacker fare up to high end steakhouses and Italian restaurants, and there’s the all important night spots to escape the heat. Check out The Woolshed for cheap beers and affordable meals, or splash out at Grill’d for a delicious healthy burger.
Note: Interested in learning more about Cairns? See my entries on scuba diving and neighboring Kuranda.
7 – Seoul, South Korea
The bustling, cosmopolitan hub of South Korea boasts a population larger than that of Australia and everything a traveler could want to find in a city. Want history and heritage? It’s there in spades. If you want to shop there are countless upmarket malls, ‘Plus Size Stores’ that sell clothes you’d consider normal back home, and massive markets at Namdaemun and Damdaemun for the haggler.
Nearby you’ll find amusement parks such as Everland and Lotte World to amuse the big kid in all of us, and there’s numerous hikes within a short train or bus ride for the outdoor enthusiast.
If you’ve lived in Korea for a while, you’ll come to rely on Seoul as your main link with the outside world. While most cities have McDonalds and TGI:F, you’ll find a far broader selection of Western restaurants and retail outlets than anyplace else. There’s also a very healthy night life due to the big foreigner population comprised of teachers and US military personnel. My personal preference was always The Wolfhound, but Rocky Mountain Bar has its charms as well. There’s also plenty of clubs, the infamous Hooker Hill, and the nearby international airport that you’ll rely on to get launch off on your next adventure.
6. Las Vegas, Nevada
‘Sin City’ isn’t just about gambling. Pay a visit to the neon oasis and you’ll find cheap eating, live performances ranging from stand up to world famous musicians to Broadway quality musicals, and enough sordid delights to help you create your own Hangover moments.
If you’re looking for the true Vegas experience you’ll obviously want to splash out and stay somewhere on the Strip, but if you’re on a slightly tighter budget there’s plenty of old Vegas charm to be found beneath the world’s largest TV on Fremont Street. Prices on Fremont Street are drastically lower than any you’ll find on the Strip, so it makes a good base of operations from which to launch visits on the glitzier end of town.
5. Flagstaff, Arizona
Nestled high up in the hillier areas of Arizona, Flagstaff is a very new age town in a very old school kind of state. You wouldn’t expect to find the cute town full of artists, hippies, and musicians in a state with Arizona’s reputation – but Flagstaff is a breathe of fresh (and decidedly colder) air after the heat of Phoenix. A short skip from the Grand Canyon, it makes a nice base to visit the big hole in the ground. There are plenty of nice restaurants and diners in the city, but I personally can’t go past any opportunity for Pita Pit.
4. Sydney, NSW
Australia’s true capital is blessed with both natural and architectural beauty, and there’s few places on earth more famous than Sydney Harbour. Riding across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on the way to work every morning affords a wonderful view of the harbour and Opera House, and by night there’s also the twinkling lights of Luna Park.
It’s often a traveler’s first experience with Australia, but they’d be forgiven for thinking they’d touched down in another country. Sydney is a multicultural melting pot in which you’ll find cultures from all over the world. If you’re looking for an old school experience you can spend the day walking through the historic Rocks district. If you’re after a more laid back day you can pay a visit to hippie haven, Newton. There’s Chinatown for cheap souvenirs and even cheaper eats, and the gorgeous beaches that Australia is famed for. Bondi is the obvious choice for most newcomers, but there’s a lot to be said for Manly (and the beautiful ferry ride across), nearby Shelly Beach, and the beaches farther south in Cronulla.
Live music, theatre, festivals, and all manner of sports mean there’s always something to do. Check out a Swans game, catch the fanatacism of State of Origin as Queensland battle New South Wales, catch a Wallaby’s game, or get behind the beautiful game by taking a look at the emerging A-League.
Sydney’s also a gateway to the rest of Australia. A short train ride takes you up to Newcastle and the Central Coast or down to Wollongong, and the airport links Australia to the rest of the world. There’s plenty of work for backpackers and a thriving ex-pat scene for those feeling a little homesick.
3. Coeur D’Alene, Idaho
I’m perhaps biased because I had such a fantastic four weeks staying here during my American visit last year, but I’m hard pressed to think of a more naturally beautiful town. Surrounded by picturesque lakes and verdant pine forests – Coeur D’Alene is a photographer’s dream and an outdoors-man’s playground. If you’re up for a hardcore ride you can trek the Trail of the Coeur D’Alene’s or the intense Route of the Hiawatha (winding through old rail tunnels and across towering bridges). There’s plenty of opportunity for water sports, Silverwood for rollercoaster enthusiasts, and it’s only a short drive from Spokane if you want access to a bigger city.
At the end of the day, Coeur D’Alene isn’t a bustling hub – but it’s a beautiful part of the world and one I’m glad I had a chance to experience.
2. Portland, Oregon
The original sin city doesn’t have the best of reputations and is often forgotten in favour of nearby Seattle, but visit Portland and you’ll fall in love with this thriving city. There’s delicious food on every corner, plenty of gorgeous architecture, and all of the perks of a big city without the gridlocked traffic. The drive to Portland alone is worth a visit as you follow the curves of the powerful Colombia River and pass by the stunning Multnomah Falls.
If you’re up for a short drive you can pay a visit to Astoria of Goonies fame or quaint beachside towns like Seaside. There’s also the fact it is America’s unofficial capital of microbrewed beer. A visit to Rogue, Widmer’s, or Laurelwood is definitely something you should look into. Art and jewerly enthusiasts will find plenty to love at the Portland Saturday Markets as well.
History buffs can explore the city’s seedier underbelly, and the colleges ensure a healthy night life. If you’re into drag queen shows or just like a bit of karaoke, you’ll find something to do in Portland on a Saturday night.
1. Gwangju, South Korea
I spent two years living in Gwangju and maybe that makes me biased. I know everybody who has lived and taught in Korea has their favourite city, but I never did come across a city with a better foreigner community than what I encountered in Gwangju. With the Speakeasy recently being voted the fourth best foreigner bar in South Korea, there’s also a number of other night venues for the big foreigner population. Have Mexican fare at Tequilaz, mix with the locals at Bubble Bar, dance the night away at Houze, sing your heart out at German Bar (whose gregarious owner brews his own German style beer), or shoot some lazy pool at Soul Train.
There’s a wealth of historic sites nearby, and the May 18 Memorial is a particularly moving tribute to just how far South Koreans have come since the Korean War. The Kia Tigers and Gwangju Phoenix give you your sports fix, and the massive Bus Terminal doubles as a shopping centre and a hub to get to virtually any town or village in South Korea.
Gwangju is considered a bit of a backwoods by other Koreans, and it’s definitely a little slow to catch up with the foreign invasion, but the people are still friendly and there’s a growing demand for ESL teachers in the city. If you’re feeling a little homesick there’s plenty of the regular Western outlets as well as the well stocked Underground Grocer’s and the newly opened First Alleyway.
A worthwhile side excursion to nearby Mokpo and the many tiny islands that lie off of the west coast is a must see. Some time spent camping and drinking on Oaedaldo or Bigeumdo is a great way to while away a summer’s day.
There you have it! My favourite cities thus far. Unlucky to miss out were Armidale in New South Wales, Mooloolaba in Queensland, and Fukuoka in Japan. Hoping to add some new cities when I visit New Zealand and Fiji later this year.