In need of an interesting holiday? Want to impress your friends with your niche taste in travel? Read on for Part I of our top alternative travel destinations for 2015. Each one a guaranteed conversation starter.
The world’s a big place. And, chances are, there’s a large chunk of it you haven’t been to yet. While it can be tempting to fall back on a tried-and-tested holiday option, repeat trips are for retirement; real travel is about exploring somewhere new.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of 15 places we recommend you visit this year. Some of them you might have heard of before, others maybe not. Regardless, each one has something special to offer the adventurous traveler – whether that’s incredible scenery, fascinating history, debauched nightlife or a cultural overload.
And, yes, some of them are even great for shopping, too.
Essaouira (pronounced ‘esso-weera’) is a lesser-known gem of Morocco’s Atlantic Coast. So beautiful are its atmospheric harbour, medieval ramparts and ancient medina that it was recently used as the set for the slave city of Astapor by the producers of Game of Thrones. However, the allure of Essaouira is very much real. A flourishing artistic colony has been here since the ‘50s, and artists, surfers and travellers have been venturing here ever since hippies first fired up their campervans in Marrakech and made the two-hour drive west.
As such, the coastal city blends that laid back air with the hustle of a genuine working fishing port – and it’s popular with local holidaymakers too, so you’re not going to be overrun by tourists. It’s not a place for sunbathing (for that, you’ll need to head south to the more sheltered coast of Agadir) but the blustery Atlantic shoreline is great for walks and ideal for surfing. You can rent wind- and kitesurfing equipment and surf- and bodyboards from the local UCPA, who also give lessons.
For food, you’d be mad not to try the many outdoor fish grill stands on the shoreline. Then there’s Riad Al-Baraka – a fairly cool bar and restaurant in a former Jewish school that features live music on weekends – and Le Patio, a reclusive candlelit bar where you can hide away as the sun sets.
Friendlier than Stockholm and cooler than Malmø, Sweden’s achingly hip second city sits on its west coast at the pearly grey mouth of the Göta Älv River, surrounded by dun mountains and evergreen forests. Its borders contain the largest student population in Scandinavia (60,000 in a city of 500,000 at the last count) which, combined with its history as a major commercial hub for the past 500 years, means this relatively small city manages to punch well above its weight for stuff to see and do.
Sights include the Lisberg amusement park (the largest of its kind in Scandinavia), and the Linné district, which hosts most of the city’s grittier nightspots. The city also hosts the Way Out West music festival in August, which features a line-up longer than your average phone book. The main tourist drags are the Avenyn and Linnégatan, where in the summer you can sip on coffees and drinks until late in the evening. Architecture nerds, meanwhile, can head to the Haga district, which is constructed almost entirely from wood (a reminder of the days when Gothenburg was constructed using the surrounding forests) while, those needing their Scandinavian shopping fix should head to the Magasinsgatan and Vallgaten thoroughfares – a place where boutique outlets nestle up against impeccably furnished coffee shops.
Finally, for a view of the city, a healthy hike and one of the best brews in town, head to the Guldhedstornet – a peak which sits 130 meters above sea level and offers a sweeping vista of the rugged Scandinavian coastline, the twinkling port and the surrounding mountainous forests.
Poland has sat on the “up and coming countries to visit” list for a while now, and with good reason – a lot of which comes from Kraków, the country’s second city (and ancient monarchical seat). Inexpensive, with soaring summer temperatures and a thriving nightlife scene, Kraków is the laidback cousin to Warsaw further north, but with that added edge that all second cities seem to have. Case in point: the Sacrum Profanum Festival, which dedicates itself to contemporary electronic music and forward-thinking art at venues across the city (one of which is a huge, abandoned Soviet-era hotel).
In fact, the city is no stranger to boundary-pushing music, with Selector, Unsound and Kraków Live festivals also held here too. Kraków’s large student population means the bar and nightlife stays fresh, with more choices of places to eat and drink well (and affordably) than you could ever hope to visit in one trip. Come with an appetite, for sure.
The city’s varied history plays out in its stunning architecture – split between the UNESCO-designated Old Town in the West and the brutalist former Soviet hub in the East. The Jewish Quarter to the South of the Old Town is full to bursting point with trendy bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, for some bucolic respite between all that, spend some time in one of the city’s 334 green spaces, including the Blonia common, the botanical gardens or, if you want to do as locals do, just lounge by the Vistula river with beer in hand on a summer evening.
Beautiful and historic, yet chaotic, untamed and a little bit unruly, Naples is the wayward child of the Italian cities. Framed by Mount Vesuvius, Naples is one of the oldest continually inhabited metropolises in the world, yet it’s somehow managed to maintain its sense of authenticity and originality as places like Rome, Venice and Florence increasingly succumb to the tourist hordes.
The Culture Hotel in the city’s old town is a fantastic little boutique hide-away, and if you’re searching for a Neapolitan coffee or scoop of gelato, a local’s favourite is the Gran Caffé Neapolis in San Dominico Square, where you’ll no doubt end up in lively conversation with a local (Neapolitans love to talk, so learn your hand gestures!). For something with a little more splendour, head to the mighty Galleria Umberto I – a glass-covered shopping arcade to take your breath away.
As a working person’s no-nonsense port town, Naples’ greatest cultural and culinary export is, of course, the pizza. A strong contender for the “best in town” goes to legendary Pizzeria Da Michele in the historic centre – an institution that’s been serving locals and visitors alike since 1870. Its famed “no frills” approach is defined by its menu: there are just two types to choose from, margherita and marinara, while the location’s décor is almost non-existent.
Continue walking around the old centre, through the numerous piazzas and endless ancient structures, and you’ll hit Piazza Bellini, known unofficially as the ‘artists square’ where Italian chatter and dancing continue late into the evening. Around the corner sits Kestè where you can sample street food, art and live music until you think you’re ready to return home.
Everyone knows about Berlin, but its smaller western cousin on the shores of the river Elbe deserves an honourable mention. The Free and Hanseatic city of Hamburg is Europe’s second largest port, and rightly nicknamed “The Gateway to the World.” It’s as big as a city needs to be, with enough fine restaurants, minimal stripped-down bars, and an intimate, quality nightclub scene to make it a safe choice for a city break. Voted one of Rough Guide’s top ten cities for 2015, Hamburg is deservedly getting some recognition right now.
For fun after dark, hit the infamous red light district on the Reeperbahn and sample a bit of raucous, trashy German fun. For a decent live gig, there’s the Indra Musikclub, made famous as the venue for the first ever Beatles gig (John Lennon famously said that, while he was born in Liverpool, he “grew up in Hamburg”), or just dip in and out of the numerous shabby bars playing German schlager and obnoxious pop music. For something a little more discerning, however, and almost a stone’s throw on either side of the Reeperbahn, lie two of the best clubs in the city.
Facing the harbour you have the Golden Püdel Club, a charmingly ramshackle house and techno club with a legendary reputation among Hamburgers, while just up the metro line at Feldstrasse (Heiligengeistfeld) lies Übel & Gefährlich (literally ‘Sick and Dangerous’), a club housed in the upper floors of a monstrous concrete anti-aircraft bunker from WWII. A typical night ends with a journey to the fish market at dawn for fish sandwiches – the traditional hangover cure for the party weary.
If you’re after a more sit-down affair, the Strandperle café further down the River Elbe’s beach is great for breakfast and ice-cream. Then head out into the St Pauli, Altona or the Schanzenviertel neighbourhoods for numerous boutique shops, cafés and restaurants – including the famous Smallville Records and the amazing Bullerei restaurant. For something more wholesome, take a boat ride around the Außenalster or, for a cheaper option, use the public water taxi up and down the Elbe and take in some stunning views of the harbour: a cityscape of towering cranes, blinking lights and hulking freight ships.
Plzeň, Czech Republic
Europe’s official Capital of Culture for 2015, Plzeň (or Pilsen) is a proverbial Mecca for serious beer fans, with the city giving its name to the brew since it was first made in the 1800s (think “pilsner”).
The Czech Republic’s fourth largest city combines a heady social and historical mix: the students from the city’s University of West Bohemia combine with the town brewers and the manufacturers of Skoda’s original car manufacturing plant. Meanwhile, framed by the forested Bohemian hills, the city’s outlying industrial chimneys fight for skyline attention with the 13th century Gothic church spire of St Bartholomew in the medieval centre and hyper-modern buildings like the New Theatre. In such a way, Pilsen perfectly straddles two worlds: one of intellect and culture, versus one of industry and manufacturing. The medieval versus modern.
Unlike the rest of the Czech Republic, Plzeň was liberated during WWII by the American Army under General Patton, and the city features an intimate memorial museum dedicated to that fact. But if you’re really only here for the beer, then no visit is complete without a tour of the town’s Pilsner Urquell brewery, which has been churning out the original, refreshing amber nectar since 1842. There’s three guided tours in English per day, which includes a trip down to the cellars and a tipple from the casks.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of pubs for traditional Czech grub nearby too, many of which house lodgings in the rooms above just in case you can’t bring yourself to (or physically can’t) leave at the end of a long night. Check out the lovely pension U Salzmannů (the oldest restaurant and guesthouse in the city) for a perfect example. As an added bonus, Pilzen is only 90 minutes away from Prague, so there’s plenty of scope for a sneaky day trip.
Belgrade is a gritty concrete jungle that sits uneasily on the confluence of two great rivers. Its chequered past takes in everything from Ottoman Turks and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the 1999 NATO airstrikes that rocked the Serbian capital to its core at the height of the Balkan conflict.
Being brutally honest, it’s not what many would term a “pretty” city. 18th century architecture squats against Yugoslav experimentation that pre-dates its expulsion from the eastern bloc. However, despite its turbulent history, the city is now starting to discover itself and grow confident once again. Edgy districts like Savamala play host to eclectic cultural spots like KC Grad and Mikser House, each of whom do the bar/club/art gallery/café thing very well. Mikser House also runs the Mikser Festival in the early days of June that peppers the city’s cultural calendar with something a bit more avant-garde.
For tourist spots, high on your priorities list should be the Kalemegdan – the huge fortress that gazes out across the city – and the Kralja Milana street, which runs from the fortress to the main hub of Slavija Square. This takes in the main pedestrian footway Knez Mihailova, where you’ll find smoky bars and grand old coffee houses, the Terazije Fountain, Hotel Moskva (the former Palace of Russia), and the Old Royal Palace too.
In recent years Belgrade’s nightlife has even come to rival that of old European staples like Berlin and Barcelona – yet still retaining an added bit of Balkan grit. Splavovi – or “rafts” (read: party boats) – dominate the nightlife calendar during summer. Blaywatch and Freestyler are the more mainstream choices, but there’s also the indie-esque 20/44 and Lasta, just off the Savamala district. Savamala also hosts Peron, arguably the best nightclub in the city, as well as Mladost & Ludost. Meanwhile, if you like beer (who doesn’t?), the Belgrade Beer Fest packs half a million brew-swillers into five days throughout August.
There’s something going on in Taipei. High up on many “Must Visit” travel lists, the 300-year-old Taiwanese capital ranked 16th in Quartz’s projected most popular destinations for 2015, and is rapidly becoming a highlight of excursions eastward.
Cheaper and quieter than the bustling East-Asian capitals of Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul, Taipei is where ancient temples nuzzle up to glitzy restaurants and cafés, where shopping malls rub up against traditional food markets, and where expat bars contrast comfortably with time-honoured tearooms.
Of course, the skyline is dominated by the world’s second tallest skyscraper, the Taipei 101 – a huge green twinkling structure that looms over the city like the giant bamboo stalk it was designed to resemble (tours and trips to the top are available). The tower is a metaphor for how rapidly the city has transformed into a modern metropolis. Sitting in the newest district of town, Xinyi, Taipei 101 is home to a five-storey shopping mall, various international businesses and firms, an array of restaurants, bars and cafés and even clubs (the basements houses Spark 101, in case you feel like dancing).
However, Taipei’s sights are better soaked up more slowly. In the day, visit the Confucius Temple in Datong or the ancient Longshan Temple in old Wanhua district. Continue wandering east through the narrow and crooked streets of old Taipei in the western district of Datong and witness the city’s patchwork colonial history, from Dutch and Japanese through to Chinese Qing dynasty.
Zhongshan, meanwhile, has riverside parks, the Martyr’s Shrine and the city’s fine arts museum – as well as a lot of tourists that crowd around the Shihlin Night Market (we recommend the older street food market on Raohe Street in Songshan). But continue south, through the government quarter of Zhongzheng, and you’ll hit Daan, where students rub shoulders with the glitzy shops and shoppers of modern Taipei. Something for everyone, then.
Stay tuned for Part II of our guide, coming soon. In the meantime, check out some of our 24 Hours In city guides…
Words by Jack Drummond for Highsnobiety