Pisa has more to offer than just a Leaning Tower.
I made my first journey as an independent traveller when I was 19, Athens fixed in my sights. Athens, though, was only the destination on my train ticket.
It was the Acropolis I really wanted to see. I imagined dead Greeks were more interesting than living ones, and happily rummaged amid noseless statues and Doric rubble. Fortunately, though, I was also a backpacker with time on my hands.
I soon discovered Athens had more than just the Acropolis. It had parrots sold in market cages, Byzantine churches tucked beside Plaka district bars, evening music in Zappeion Gardens and copper workers busy along Ifestou Street. It had distinct neighbourhoods such as bohemian Exarhia, where I could drink retsina into the wee hours, and working-class Kaisariani, where street stalls tumbled with summer apricots and melons.
I was lucky to learn a lesson early. While big-name sights pull us towards certain places, unknown attractions invite us to linger longer, and provide a more rounded experience. The challenge is not to let famous sights steal all the limelight. Here, then, are 10 top cities where you’d deny yourself if you’ve only budgeted a few hours for iconic sightseeing.
THE BIG DRAWCARD The 6000 figurines of soldiers and horsemen in battle formation known as the Terracotta Warriors (bmy.com.cn) guard the 2000-year-old tomb of China’s first emperor.
BUT, WAIT, THERE’S MORE Xian was China’s capital under 11 dynasties, with tombs, pagodas, temples and encircling walls to prove it. The Muslim Quarter’s atmospheric streets hide a remarkable Grand Mosque, while Beiyuanmen Street offers a great assortment of restaurants and hawker stalls. Great Goose Pagoda and Shanxi History Museum (e.sxhm.com), which delves into Xian’s central position on the medieval Silk Road trading route, are other fine attractions. Contemporary Xian has excellent shopping and a lively performing arts scene.
FURTHER AFIELD Two hours east, Huashan is one of China’s five famous mountains, topped by Taoist temples. The Chen Lu villages north of the city have been producing ceramics for a thousand years and are a good place to plunder factories and shops.
THE BIG DRAWCARD The Taj Mahal (tajmahal.gov.in), mausoleum for an emperor’s wife, is one of the great achievements of Islamic architecture, both monumental yet exquisitely detailed and delicate.
BUT, WAIT, THERE’S MORE The 1620s Tomb of Itemud-ud-Daula, nicknamed “Baby Taj”, was the precursor of the Taj Mahal, similarly made of marble inlaid with semi-precious stones. Agra’s imposing fort has two-kilometre ramparts along the Yamuna River with views towards the Taj, and is a superb Muslim and Hindu-influenced ensemble of pavilions, palaces, mosques and gardens. The former imperial capital is dotted with other grand old buildings, and has lively bazaars.
FURTHER AFIELD The tombs of India’s great Mughal emperors are at Sikandra just beyond Agra’s outskirts. A further 30 kilometres away lies hilltop Fatehpur Sikri, a fabulous red sandstone city abandoned when its water supply ran out. Its courtyards and ornate palaces have a magnificent melancholy.
THE BIG DRAWCARD The Leaning Tower of Pisa (opapisa.it), an engineering embarrassment yet beautifully harmonious structure of tiered arches built in 1173 on sandy soil. Its lean provokes silly selfie poses.
BUT, WAIT, THERE’S MORE Several other glorious buildings including an exuberant cathedral and baptistery stand around Campo dei Miracoli (opapisa.it), a great early Renaissance masterpiece of urban design. A walk along the Arno River’s south bank brings you past stately mansions from the days when Galileo dropped weights off the Leaning Tower to investigate gravity. The university’s, Orto Botanico, is Europe’s oldest botanical garden.
FURTHER AFIELD Pisa sits in one of Europe’s most culture-dense corners. Surrounding towns include church-clogged San Minato and hilltop Volterra, dating to Etruscan times. Certosa di Calci has a large Carthusian monastery. Don’t miss lovely Lucca (luccaturismo.it), just 20 kilometres away, crammed with architectural beauty and encased in Renaissance-era fortified walls.
THE BIG DRAWCARD The Alhambra (alhambra-patronato.es), greatest legacy of Spain’s Moorish occupation, has exquisite Islamic pavilions and gardens and a medley of later royal palaces.
BUT, WAIT, THERE’S MORE Plunge into the whitewashed streets of medieval Moorish Albaicin quarter and visit the gorgeous Palacia de la Madraza (lamadraza.ugr.es). The ornate cathedral (catedraldegranada.com) and its royal chapel, hung with art works, is a highlight of the old town. Granada’s large university student population provides it with an energetic nightlife, which runs from tapas crawls to flamenco performances and live music in bars.
FURTHER AFIELD The 16th-century Monastery of La Cartuja on Granada’s outskirts supplies a profusion of stucco, marble and gold. Eleven kilometres south-west is historic town Santa Fe (santafenm.gov). The Sierra Nevada (sierranevada.es) can be seen from the Alhambra’s walls and supplies scenic mountain hiking in summer and skiing at Solynieve in winter.
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA
THE BIG DRAWCARD Twelfth-century Angkor Wat, a stunning temple complex in ornate Khmer style studded with sculpted deities. Crowds jostle for moat-reflecting sunrise photos.
BUT, WAIT, THERE’S MORE Angkor is the former capital of the Khmer kingdom and an entire ruined city spread across nearly 100 square kilometres. Palaces and temples dot the jungle, some like Angkor Thom or Ta Phrom well known, others atmospheric ruins draped in tree roots and lianas. Vastly improved service town Siem Reap now has good restaurants and impressive spas as well as traditional markets and shops selling art, fabrics and reproductions of temple statues.
FURTHER AFIELD Bakheng Hill supplies a good sunset-viewing hike, and Kabal Spean has swimming reservoirs and waterfalls. Tonle Sap Lake, two hours from town, features fish and crocodile farms, floating schools, houseboats and busy water traffic, as well as a bird sanctuary at Preak Toal.
THE BIG DRAWCARD The annual Oktoberfest (oktoberfest.info) sees 6 million partygoers celebrate to the sound of oompah bands and slapped lederhosen, and gives Munich its reputation for beer.
BUT, WAIT, THERE’S MORE The Residenz (residenz-muenchen.de), former home of Bavarian kings, has a magnificent rococo theatre and jewel-packed State Treasury. Hit the Alte Pinakothek (pinakothek.de) for European art works and the State Graphical Collection (km.bayern.de) for outstanding graphic arts collections. The Deutsches Museum (deutsches-museum.de/en) features family-friendly technology. Get some fresh air at the expansive English Gardens (schloesser.bayern.de).
FURTHER AFIELD Nymphenburg Palace (schloss-nymphenburg.de), seven kilometres west of the city centre, is a baroque gem in the French style surrounded by manicured gardens. The Bavarian Alps start just an hour’s drive south, where you’ll find stunning landscapes in destinations such as Tegernsee, and cultural sights such as Ettal Abbey (kloster-ettal.de) and jewel-box Linderhof Palace (schlosslinderhof.de).
THE BIG DRAWCARD For most, Cairo is a brief stopover to see the Egyptian Museum (sca-egypt.org) and its Tutankhamen treasures, plus the Pyramids and Sphinx in suburban Giza.
BUT, WAIT, THERE’S MORE Cairo has a trove of Islamic-era architecture, from the looming 11th-century citadel to the covered Khan al-Khalili souk and numerous superb mosques. The Museum of Islamic Art (sca-egypt.org) was recently reorganised to good effect. Also interesting is the old Coptic district of Mar Girgis. Fashionable Zamalek provides a look at contemporary Cairo, with its arts and fashion scene and buzzing nightlife.
FURTHER AFIELD Lesser known pyramids at Dahshur an hour south of Cairo sit on the desert edge and include the curious Bent Pyramid with its abrupt change in slope. Faiyum Oasis and Wadi Rayan in the Western Desert (two hours south-west) have unexpected lakes teeming with water birds. A felucca ride on the Nile River makes another a pleasant excursion.
THE BIG DRAWCARD Soviet-era icon Red Square is overlooked by candy-cane St Basil’s Cathedral (en.shm.ru), palatial GUM department store (gumrussia.com), Lenin’s Tomb and the Kremlin (kreml.ru), seat of Russian power and home to imperial cathedrals and palaces.
BUT, WAIT, THERE’S MORE Sixteenth-century Novodevichy Convent, topped with gold domes and surrounded by the tombs of famous Russians, is another historical highlight. Classical music and ballet are world class, Moscow’s eye-popping nightlife is among Europe’s best, museums such as the State Tretyakov Gallery (tretyakovgallery.ru) and Pushkin Museum (arts-museum.ru) are outstanding. Even Moscow’s elaborate metro stations are an attraction.
FURTHER AFIELD About 20 kilometres west of Moscow, Arkhangelskoye is a former aristocratic estate with a collection of whimsical pavilions and palaces set among rose gardens and oak forests above the Moscow River. Two hours north, Sergiev-Posad is a popular day trip (and Orthodox pilgrimage destination) thanks to its glittering wall-enclosed monasteries and churches.
THE BIG DRAWCARD The old-town souk, whose narrow alleys are filled with teahouses, bakeries, handicraft workshops and stalls overflowing with brass lamps, carpets and spices. Vast adjacent square Jemaa el-Fna is famous for its evening street entertainments.
BUT, WAIT, THERE’S MORE Marrakech is far more than just a market. Notable monuments include wood-carved Koranic school Ben Youssef Medersa (medersa-ben-youssef.com), Bahia Palace (palais-bahia.com) and old tombs and fortifications. Yves St Laurent’s colourful, cactus-filled Jardin Majorelle (fondation-pb-ysl.net) is a delight. Marrakech’s “new” town has French-era boulevards, cafes and fashion stores for an insight into contemporary Morocco.
FURTHER AFIELD Berber retreat La Pause (lapause-marrakech.com) sits among vast sand dunes: take camel rides and enjoy a lamp-lit dinner in a carpet-scattered tent. The snow-capped Atlas Mountains shimmer beyond Marrakech’s ramparts, allowing day trips to the Ourika Valley or ski resort Oukaimeden.
LAS VEGAS, US
THE BIG DRAWCARD Resort-casinos themed on Paris, Venice and ancient Rome combine in the kitsch capital of the world. Big-name music acts, shows such as Cirque du Soleil and a heady nightlife are part of the attraction.
BUT, WAIT, THERE’S MORE Movies such as The Hangover give the impression that Las Vegas is all about alcohol-fuelled debauchery. Yet from trapeze artists and waxworks museums to chocolate factory tours and Adventuredome (circuscircus.com), the world’s biggest indoor theme park, Las Vegas can be great for families. It also has “ordinary” city sights such as an excellent natural history museum (lvnhm.org).
FURTHER AFIELD Within a 100-kilometre radius you’ll find Red Rock Canyon (redrockcanyonlv.org) where the Mojave Desert and Sierra Nevada mountains meet; the startling red landscaped of the Valley of Fire (parks.nv.gov); and the 1930s engineering marvel that is the awe-inspiring Hoover Dam (usbr.gov). The dam creates mind-bogglingly large Lake Mead, a hugely popular recreation area for fishing, hiking and water sports.
FIVE COUNTRIES WITH MORE THAN YOU IMAGINE
Never mind the casino. This tiny country packs in an outstanding Oceanographic Museum, several delightful gardens including the dizzyingly scenic Jardin Exotique, and a clifftop old town. An impressive range of cultural and sporting events includes ballet and Formula One racing. See visitmonaco.com
Kenya’s wildlife is superb, but beyond safaris you can snorkel in the Indian Ocean (try the marine park around Funzi Keys), fish in Lake Turkana or tackle a challenging Mount Kenya hike. Lamu and Mombassa have culture-dense, Arab-influenced old towns. See magicalkenya.com
For most visitors, Peru means Machu Picchu and nearby colonial-era Cusco. Yet Lima has sumptuous old architecture and a trendy restaurant scene, and Peru’s natural wonders include the Atacama Desert, Lake Titicaca and Colca Canyon for hiking and white-water rafting. See visitperu.com
Switzerland isn’t just a pretty alpine destination. Basel has some of Europe’s best contemporary architecture, Zurich leading art museums, Montreux a renowned music festival. The French-speaking west features rolling castle-dotted countryside striped with vineyards. See myswitzerland.com
Though famous for the red ruins of ancient city Petra, Jordan is also home to one of the world’s best preserved ancient Roman cities (Jerash), early churches, crusader castles and spectacular desert landscapes at Wadi Rum. The Red Sea is a top destination for scuba-diving. See visitjordan.com
FIVE ISLANDS WITH MORE THAN YOU IMAGINE
Beyond its beach resorts, Fiji has a multicultural mix that provides Fijian villages and craft centres, flamboyant Indian temples and great Chinese food. Adventure activities include cave tours, rainforest walks and river rafting. Sigatoka National Park boasts scalloped sand-dune landscapes. See fiji.travel
The Spanish island infamous as the Mediterranean’s party capital has a World Heritage old town and outstanding Gothic-era cathedral, plus several fine art museums. Best of all, get into the mountainous interior for rugged, pine-scented scenic walks. See tourism.eivissa.es
The Indian Ocean archipelago is known for luxury resorts, but take time to visit the capital Male to see the sights (such as the National Museum and several mosques) and encounter real Maldivian life in colourful markets and shopping streets. See visitmaldives.com
One of Italy’s most overlooked regions – thanks to its now diminished Mafia connections – has a stunning cultural and architectural legacy that spans the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Spanish. It also features volcanoes, a scrumptious cuisine and hospitable people.
This “flop and bop” Greek island has a gorgeous whitewashed old town, venerable monasteries, Neolithic-era settlement and interesting small museums dedicated to archaeology, folklore and maritime history. Nearby island Delos has important ancient Greek ruins.