From the sunny shores of Portugal to the darkest dungeons of Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, the following itineraries can be easily combined, shortened, or altered to suit your wayfaring tastes. If you’ve got wheels, wanderlust and a spot of time, here’s some adventure fuel. Start your engines: these are the best road trips in Europe.

1. From the glamour and glitz of Paris to glorious grit of Berlin

Alzette River, Luxembourg City by Wolfgang Staudt (CC license)

Leaving Paris, cruise through the gentle hills of Champagne and Reims to the quaint capital of Luxembourg City, and explore the country’s plethora of fairy-tale castles.

Trier, Germany’s oldest city, is less than an hour’s drive further north-east, where ancient Roman baths and basilicas stand marvellously intact.

Spend a night in the medieval village of Bacharacht in Riesling wine country, before wandering the riverside streets of Heidelberg. Onward to Nuremberg, and then to Leipzig for a strong dose of hot caffeine with your cold war history, classical music and cake.

Detour to Dresden, restored after ruinous bombing in WWII, before ending in one of Europe’s coolest cities: the creative paradise of Berlin.

Alternately, try starting your engines in London and taking the ferry to France, transforming this road trip into a pilgrimage between Europe’s holy trinity of artistic hubs. 

Best for: Culture vultures looking for bragging rights.
How long: 1–2 weeks.
Need to know: If you’re driving in France, you’ll legally need to keep safety equipment (a reflective vest and hazard signal). Additionally, keep spare Euros in your wallet to pay the occasional French road toll on the way.

2. Surf and sun in the Basque and beyond

Biarritz by BZ1028 (CC license)

The Basque roads beg a convertible – or better yet, a colourful camper van with surfboards strapped to the roof.

Begin in Bilbao, where the nearby villages boast some of the world’s best surf, and drive along the Atlantic to San Sebastian: watersports wonderland and foodie heaven. Then venture south through the rugged wilderness of the Pyrenees to Pamplona. Ascend onwards to the Roncesvalles Pass before looping back to the coast. Or continue along the Bay of Biscay to Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

Travellers with a little extra money lining their pockets will be happy to spend days lingering on boho beaches in Biarritz, while those looking for gargantuan swell can do no better than the surfer hangouts in Hossegor.

Finish the trip northward in Bordeaux, “the Pearl of the Aquitaine”, where café-strewn boulevards and world-class wines and are your trophies at the finish line.

Best for: Sun-seeking surfers and foodies.
How long: 1 week.
Need to know: Check seasonal surf forecasts before you go, and look into coastal campsites if you’re on a budget. 

3. The Arctic fjords from Bergen to Trondheim

Fjords Of Norway by Howard Ignatius (CC license)

Kick off in the city of Bergen, on Norway’s southwest coast, and make way past mighty fjords to Voss and the colossal Tvindefossen waterfall. Then check the world’s longest road tunnel off your to-do list, a cavernous 24.5km route under the mountains.

Catch a quick ferry across the Sognefjord and carry on to the Fjäland valleys, a land of glaciers and snowy mountain peaks, to the waterside towns of Stryn or the mountain village Videster.

Work your way northward to the well-touristed towns of Geiranger, the down the death-defying hairpin turns of Trollstigen (literally “The Troll Path”).

After the descent, ferry across the Eresfjord to Molde and Kristiansudn. For the final stretch, drive the iconic Atlantic Road with its rollercoaster style bridges, and conclude with some well-deserved downtime upon the still waters and stilted homes of Trondheim.

Best for: Thrill seekers and landscape junkies.
How long:
3–7 days
Need to know:
If you plan on road tripping during Norway’s winter months, be sure to check online ahead of time for road closures.

4. The unexplored east: Bucharest, Transylvania, Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna.

Romania by Michael Newman (CC license

Embark from Bucharest, travelling northward through the Carpithian mountains to Transylvania, and make a mandatory stop at Bran Castle (claimed to be the old stomping grounds of Dracula himself).

Take the Transfagarasan mountain road, one of the most incredibly beautiful routes in the world, towards the age-old cities and countless castles of Sibu, Brasov and Sighisoara. Then set course to the unexplored architectural gems of Timisoara.

Carry on towards the tranquil baths and hip ruin pubs of bustling Budapest, and be prepared to stay at least a few days. Depart for Bratislava – a capital full of surprises – from where it’s only an hour further to the coffeehouses and eclectic architectures of Vienna.

Best for: Anyone looking for a break from the conventional tourism of western Europe.
How long: 7–12 days.
Need to know: Exercise caution when driving through tunnels. Though the weather outside may be fine, tunnels are often slippery.

5. To Portugal and beyond

Portugal by Chris Ford (CC license)

Start in Braga, before driving south to medieval town of Guimarães, a the UNESCO world Heritage site. Then it’s onward to the breath-taking “second-city” of Porto, though it’s nothing less than first-rate.

Drive east to the vineyards and steep valleys of Penafiel and Amarante before hitting the coastal road to the vast white beaches of Figueira da Foz. From here it’s on to Peniche, Ericeira, and then Lisbon: the country’s vibrant capital that’s on course to beat out Berlin for Europe’s coolest city.

Drive south to Sagres, Arrifana and Carrapateira. After soaking in sun on the picturesque shores of the Algarve, wrap this road trip up in the Mediterranean dreamland otherwise known as Faro.

But if you’ve still got itchy feet when you reach Faro, take the ferry from Algeciras in Spain to Morocco. Imagine the satisfaction of parking your ride in the desert village of Merzouga, before exploring the Sahara – that’s right, it would feel awesome.

Best for: Beach bums and winos.
How long: 10–14 days, or longer depending how long you’d like to stay in each place.
Need to know: As Portugal is among the more affordable destinations in Western Europe, this can be an especially great trip for any travellers on a budget.

6. High altitude adventure on Germany’s Alpine Road

Neuschwanstein Castle by Howard Ignatius (CC license)

The Alpenstrasse, or Alpine Road, is your ticket to a bonafide Bavarian odyssey: a safe route through the unforgettable vistas of Germany’s high-altitude meadows, mountains, crystal-clear lakes and cosy village restaurants. Start lakeside at Lindau and head to Oberstaufen if you fancy a therapeutic beauty treatment in the country’s “capital of wellness”.

Venture eastwards to the Breitachklamm gorge, where the river Breitach cuts through verdant cliffs and colossal boulders. Carry on to the town of Füssen – famous for its unparalleled violin makers – stopping along the way at any quaint Alpine villages you please. The iconic Neuschwanstein Castle, the same structure that inspired Walt Disney to build his own version for Cinderella, isn’t far off either.

Hit slopes of Garmisch-Partenkirchen if the season’s right. Stop at Benediktbeuern on your way to the medieval town of Bad Tölz, then up through the stunning wilderness scenes of the Chiemgau Alps before ending in the regional capital of Munich. If you’re missing the mountain roads already, carry on to Salzburg and stop in the ice caves of Werfen on the way.

Best for: Outdoorsy lederhosen aficionados.
How long: 3–8 days.

7. Godly beaches and ancient highways in Greece

The view from Cape Sounion, Greece by Nikos Patsiouris (CC license)

Start in Athens take the coastal roads south through the Athenian Riviera to Sounion, situated at the tip the Attic peninsula. Watch a sunset at the Temple of Posseidon, then drive northward through mythic mountains to the fortress of Kórinthos before posting up in the legendary city of Mycenae (home of Homeric heroes).

If you’re craving a luxurious seaside stay, look no further than the resort town of Náfplio. If not, carry onwards through the unforgiving landscapes to Mystra, the cultural and political capital of Byzantium.

Feet still itching? Then it’s on to Olympia, sporting grounds of the ancients, and the mystic ruins of Delphi. Loop back towards Athens, approaching the city from the north.

Best for: Sun-worshipers, and anyone who’s ever read Homer or watched overly action-packed flicks like Troy and 300.
How long: 5–10 days, though it’s easy to trim a version of this road trip down to a long-weekend.

8. London to Edinburgh and the Highlands

Stormy Calton Hill, Edinburgh by Andy Smith (CC license)

Leave the hectic pace of England’s capital behind. Make for Oxford, home of the world’s oldest English language university, and a place of storied pubs where the likes of J.R.R Tolkien and Lewis Carrol regularly wrote and wet their whistles.

If you’ve got the time, it’s a quick drive to the cottages of the Cotswolds. If not, cruise up to Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s old stomping grounds.

Take the two and a half hour drive north to Manchester for a city fix and watch a football match, then head to the quirky medieval lanes of York, walled-in by the ancient romans nearly two thousand years ago.

Press on to the Lake District National Park. Drink in the scenery that inspired England’s finest romantics, before making your way past tiny villages to the majestic wonders of Edinburgh. If you’re craving the rugged comforts of the highlands go to Stirling, Inverness, or the Western Isles – worth the drive indeed.

Best for: Locals that want to feel like foreigners, and foreigners that want to feel like locals.
How long: 5–10 days.

9. The secret shores of Sicily and Calabria

Catania and Mt Etna by Bob Travis (CC license)

Hit the gas in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, the biggest historic centre in Italy after Rome and arguably the country’s most chaotic metropolis as well.

Adventure onwards along the Tyrrhenian coast to the golden sands of Cefalù – a great holiday spot for families, with a mellow medieval town centre to boot.

Get to island’s heartland for the ancient city of Enna. Surrounded by cliffs on all sides, and built atop a massive hill, you’ll feel as though you’ve walked on the set for Game of Thrones. Head south-east to the shores of the Ionian Sea and dock in Siracusa, once the most important in the western world while under ancient Greek rule with much of its historic architecture intact.

Then it’s up to Catania for a trip to molten Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano on the entire European continent.

Finish the trip in Messina, or ferry across into the Italian province of Calabria where rustic mountain villages, friendly locals, and the idyllic sands of Tropea and Pizzo await – refreshingly void of foreigners.

Best for: Anyone looking for an truly authentic Italian experience, and of course, hardcore foodies. 
How long: 
6–12 days.

 For more information about travelling through Europe, check out the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget.

Detroit has been much maligned over the last decade. The largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy, in the summer of 2013, it became the poster child for urban blight.

As industry moved out, photographers moved in, fed by an online fascination with “ruin porn”. Hundreds came to see the beauty of Detroit’s crumbling buildings and deserted roads, capturing the world’s attention while perpetuating an image that the city – and many of its residents – actually wanted to shake.

These almost eerie images have an undeniable appeal, but they will only ever represent one part of a city that has many roses among its thorns. Now, it seems like the tide is turning. Detroit’s future is starting to look brighter, and the press have begun to herald the Motor City’s rebound from the rubble.

Joerg Daiber’s tilt-shift timelapse, our video pick of the week, perfectly encapsulates this optimism, moving from “Detroit’s beautiful decay” to “the amazing city beyond it”.

Banish thoughts of Miami Vice or ‘God’s waiting room’. The Sunshine State’s most flamboyant city is rapidly changing and there’s more to discover than golden sand and neon nightclubs. Down-at-heel neighbourhoods are being revitalised, the art scene is spreading and with its variety of cultural influences from Latin to Caribbean, Miami has grown into a city full of fantastic food.

Art in all shapes and sizes

Art Basel and its celebrity-studded parties have become a regular December fixture, but Miami is home to a thriving community of artists, designers and collectors and you can find art year round.

Pink Snails – Art Basel by Ines Hegedus-Garcia via Flickr (cc license)

Wynwood, a decaying district in Miami’s midtown, has been transformed into an arty enclave. Warehouse walls were a blank canvas for local artists and now Wynwood Walls is one of the world’s largest collections of street art. Exhibition spaces range from impressive private galleries, such as the Rubell Family Collection and the Margulies Collection, to experimental pop ups. Every second Saturday, Wynwood Art Walk run gallery and graffiti tours.

The state-of-the-art Perez Art Museum Miami, opened in December 2013, showcasing contemporary art from the Americas, Western Europe and Africa. Then came the inauguration of Museum Park, the waterfront space overlooking Biscayne Bay in which PAMM is located, where the Frost Museum of Science will open in 2016.

Perez Art Museum by Phillip Pessar via Flickr (cc license)

Midtown’s Design District is home to the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami and the De La Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space and by the end of the year, the Paseo Ponti, will end in the public art-filled Paradise Plaza.

The glamorous island playground of Miami Beach also celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Its living museum of Art Deco design is best explored on foot, with a walking tour from the Miami Design Preservation League, or by bike.

Culinary highlights

Miami used to be all about down-at-heel diners and style-over-substance restaurants, but now there’s everything from hotel dining from star chefs to farm-to-fork restaurants and gourmet food trucks.

Miami’s culinary revival began in the 1990s with the Mango Gang, four pioneering local chefs who were inspired by South Florida’s indigenous ingredients and mixed them up with Caribbean cooking to create Floribbean cuisine.

Taco Heat Food Truck by Phillip Pessar via Flickr (cc license)

At the food trucks, taste Latin flavours in Colombian empanadas, Peruvian ceviche, Puerto Rican mofongo and doorstep-sized Cuban medianoches (slow-roasted pork sandwiches). Or you can feast off the tourist track at one of the ever-expanding range of down-to-earth restaurants.

There are also hundreds of hole-in-the-wall joints. A good way to uncover the best bites and get a real taste of Miami culture is to go on a foodie walkabout around South Beach, Little Havana or the Wynwood Arts District with Miami Culinary Tours.

For a locals’ hotspot, try one of the ever-expanding range of Pubbelly restaurants created by three Miami chefs, including Pubbelly Sushi, PB Steak, the pop-up Taco Belly, or the original Pubbelly gastropub. The atmosphere is laidback, tables are communal and the food is great – wash it down with beer from a local microbrewery.

Retail therapy

From mega-malls to independent shops, Miami has enough to satisfy the most ardent shopaholic.

The warehouses of midtown Miami, now converted into the Design District, see international luxury brands rub shoulders with galleries and restaurants from the world’s top chefs. Still under construction, by the end of 2016 there’ll be more than 200 retailers in this compact space.

Genius Jones – Miami Design District by Ines Hegedus-Garcia via Flickr (cc license)

For more haute design head to Bal Harbour Mall in North Miami Beach. Known as the ‘Shopping Hall of Fame’, it’s home to all the top European designers; the open-air mall’s architecture is unmistakably 1950s Miami-Modern, or MiMo.

Another architectural gem is The Alchemist in Lincoln Road. The brainchild of a former fashion editor, this sixty-foot-high glass box perched on top of a garage is the place to shop for high-end labels.

The Webster’s exclusive collaborations with up-and-coming designers and regular events make it a fashionista’s favourite. Also popular with A-listers and their stylists, C. Madeleine’s Vintage Showroom is where gorgeous vintage gets reincarnated.

Chic sleeps

The city’s makeover also extends to its accommodation. Sleek, design-led hotels seem to open by the week, all paying homage to Miami’s rich architectural history.

Newcomers include the Metropolitan by COMO, its art deco lines complemented by Paola Navone interiors, a Bali-inspired COMO Shambhala Spa, a seafood-focused restaurant and a tranquil stretch of beachfront.

This year, the eco-conscious, 426-room 1 Hotel South Beach opened in a 1925 Art Deco building, channelling green-but-glam with reclaimed wood, living walls and hemp-filled mattresses, with farm-to-table food from Tom Colicchio and the city’s largest rooftop pool.

Room view by Paolo Gamba via Flickr (cc license)

The Edition, a collaboration between Ian Schrager and Marriott Hotels, occupies a renovated 1950s landmark on Collins Avenue, where many of the 294 minimalist rooms and suites boast ocean views and you can try disco bowling downstairs.

And the 380-room beachfront Thompson Miami Beach set in a 1940s skyscraper captures the mid-century modern aesthetic with eclectic furnishings and colourful interiors.

In November, Faena’s reworking of the historic Saxony Hotel will include a cabaret theatre, an enormous spa and an Argentinian restaurant with an alfresco barbecue. While the Faena-owned boutique Casa Claridge’s offers accommodation in ornate Mediterranean Revival style.

Explore more of Florida with the Rough Guide to FloridaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

In a country where censorship rules, few people gave the idea much of a chance. In little more than a decade, however, the 798 Art District, which occupies a former military zone on the northeastern edge of Beijing, has grown to become a genuine creative hub for contemporary art.

The story begins in the 1950s, when huge brick factories were thrown up around the Chinese capital to help satisfy the army’s growing demand for communications technologies. When manufacturing techniques moved on, these Bauhaus-style buildings were left abandoned.

By the early 2000s artists had moved in, attracted by low rents and the high-ceilinged spaces that gave them room to work on, and show off, their paintings and sculptures. With few other places for local artists to express themselves, and the empty factories effectively a blank canvas, news began to spread.

Today, the vast 500,000-square-metre complex teems with bookshops, galleries and art stores. Bright sculptures (think lipstick red and lime green) add colour to the traffic-free streets, while hipsters from Beijing, Shanghai and beyond rummage through trailers stacked high with ceramics and old cameras, searching for souvenirs.

It’s hard to spot much in the way of politically charged art, though you might glimpse the odd cartoonish doodle of a tank or gunman, and the shops do a good line in “Obamao” T-shirts.

Away from the glossy commercial galleries, multimedia installations and corporate-sponsored exhibitions, though, there are still traces of the area’s edgier beginnings. Old factory walls shimmer with graffiti, and lone photographers snap at the handful of tumbledown industrial buildings and rusting pipelines that have yet to be torn down or redeveloped.

On its journey from niche art hangout to major tourist attraction – a transition that has caused rents to spiral, and thus priced out many artists – the district has picked up its share of critics. But then, if an art district like this wasn’t bringing in the money, it might not have been tolerated for so long.

Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.  Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

If Peru’s Sacred Valley wasn’t epic enough already, now you can sleep in transparent capsules suspended 300metres from one of its towering cliff faces. With a panoramic view overlooking the mystical Andes, the rapids of Rio Urubamba and the Sacred Valley itself, Skylodge (bookable through Airbnb) is not only the world’s first hanging lodge: it might just be the coolest bedroom ever.

Each of the three futuristic-looking capsule suites is handcrafted of aerospace aluminium and weather-resistant polycarbonate complete with four beds (sleeping up to 8 people), solar powered lights, a dining area and a private bathroom. And yes, even the view from the loo is utterly breathtaking: get ready to lord over the old Inca Empire from your eco-toilette throne.

But if you want to sleep extreme, then you’ve got to be extreme. To reach your capsule’s cushy beds and feather down pillows, you’ll have to climb a 400m-high steel ladder, or opt to hike a mountain trail and zip-line over chasms instead.

As the night sky emerges, thank the countless twinkling stars above you that Natura Vive, the young entrepreneurs behind Skylodge, engineered it so well that you’ve managed to stay calm while dangling off the edge of a cliff.

After breakfast the next morning, you’ll rappel and zip-line back down to solid ground. You’ll also have some serious bragging rights.

All photos in this piece courtesy of Airbnb. Explore more of Peru with the Rough Guide to PeruCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Capital of Wales since 1955, Cardiff is unrecognisable even from just a few years ago. With an exhilarating mix of heavyweight cultural sights, exciting regeneration projects – not least the revitalized Cardiff Bay – world-class sport, a prolific music scene and some seriously banging nightlife, it’s easy to see why Cardiff now ranks alongside London and Edinburgh as one of the UK’s most compelling destinations. So if you were in any doubt, here are ten great reasons to visit…

1. Cardiff cuisine is on the up

Although it’s hardly renowned as a gourmet paradise, Cardiff’s culinary landscape has improved markedly in recent times. Pick of the city centre restaurants is The Potted Pig, which occupies the vaults of an old bank, and where – yep, you guessed it – pork reigns supreme. It’s worth making the short trip out to well-heeled Pontcanna, where both The Smoke House and Fish at 85 are currently doing great things – at the latter, pick your fish from the counter and the chef will prepare it just as you like it.

2. It’s an unrivalled place to watch world-class sport

Quite simply, rugby is king here, and the natives love nothing more than shouting themselves hoarse at an international inside the magnificent Millennium stadium, and with the World Cup approaching, national hysteria will soon reach fever pitch. Welsh football is also undergoing something of a renaissance, with the national team on the verge of qualifying for the Euro 2016 tournament. But if you can’t get to a game (either rugby or football), take a Millennium Stadium tour. Cricket, too, is becoming increasingly high profile, with matches taking place at the Swalec Stadium, which recently staged the first match of the Ashes series between England and Australia.

3. Cardiff Bay is one of Europe’s best regeneration projects

Once one of the world’s busiest docks – when it was rather more romantically known as Tiger Bay – Cardiff Bay has been utterly transformed over the past decade, and the results are dazzling. From the spectacular, super-sized Wales Millennium Centre and the Welsh Assembly, to more venerable buildings like the Neo-Gothic Pierhead and the sublime little Norwegian church – which is where Roald Dahl was christened – this sparkling waterside area is an unmissable part of any Cardiff itinerary.

4. Great bands were born here

Any city that spawns such great bands as the Super Furry Animals and the Manic Street Preachers (ok, technically the latter are from Blackwood just up the road in the Valleys) commands respect – and Cardiff certainly takes its music seriously. For live music, the Moon Club is currently the venue of choice amongst more discerning gig-goers, while Clwb Ifor Bach has a firmly Welsh orientation. Jazz-heads, meanwhile, should make an appointment with Café Jazz. If you’re looking to buy, make a pilgrimage to Spiller’s Records, which is generally acknowledged to be the oldest record shop in the UK; there’s not much you won’t find here.

5. It has nightlife to rival – if not beat – any city in the UK

Whether you’re out for a few beers before a big game at the Millennium Stadium, or gearing up for a more full-on Friday night experience, an evening out in Cardiff is not for the feint-hearted. Cardiffians have a reputation – fully justified – for partying hard. Away from the ubiquitous chain pubs, try Buffalo, which takes on a clubby feel as the evening wears on. For a more local experience, make for Y Mochyn Du – a former gatekeeper’s lodge popular with Welsh speakers – or Gwdihw (“Owl”), a delightful, retro-style café-cum-bar offering a rich programme of alternative happenings.

Cardiff at Night (2) by Pete Birkinshaw (license)

6. Cardiff Castle is fascinating

Plonked right in the heart of the city centre, Cardiff Castle’s most sustained period of development coincided with the arrival of the Bute family, who ruled the roost (and indeed most of Cardiff) during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are various aspects to visiting the castle, first and foremost the apartments, occasionally kitsch but always fascinating. On a warm summer’s day, however, a stroll along the battlements and around the beautifully manicured lawns is reason enough to visit. But what really makes this place cool are the various concerts and festivals held within its grounds.

7. It is one of the UK’s most exciting TV and film locations

Unbeknown to many, Cardiff is one of the UK’s most important locations for television and film shoots, as the recent openings of the BBC Drama Village and Pinewood Studios would testify. The big-hitter is Doctor Who, hence the entertaining Doctor Who Experience, where visitors immerse themselves in a “journey through time” before encountering some of the Doctor’s many adversaries, which include, of course, the brilliant Daleks.

Doctor Who Experience by Evan Moss (license)

8. You can shop in some of the UK’s most beautiful arcades

No, not the slot machine variety, but a series of beautifully renovated Edwardian-era arcades that you’ll rarely find anywhere in the UK. Each arcade – and there are half a dozen – variously conceals a host of wonderfully diverse emporia, including clothes shops, art galleries, and antique and second-hand bookshops. These are also great places to refuel, with two establishments in particular worth seeking out: The Plan (for the best coffee in town) and Madame Fromage (the best deli in town).

9. It has one of the world’s largest Transporter Bridges, and you can climb it…

Ok, it’s not exactly in Cardiff (it’s actually fifteen miles down the road in Newport), but the splendid Transporter Bridge – built in 1906 and one of just six such bridges in the world still in operation – is a must-see. From a practical point of view, the suspended gondola transports cars and passengers across the Usk River in just two minutes. Better still, and assuming that you don’t suffer vertigo, you can clamber to the top of the 177ft (that’ll be 270 steps) walkway for head-spinning views of the Severn Estuary.

10. There’s a great beach on the doorstep

Just a short train ride from the city centre, Barry Island is often much maligned, yet this is a tad unfair. Sure, it has it’s tacky amusement arcades and obligatory funfair with rickety rides – but it also boasts a neat promenade and a lovely Blue Flag beach in Whitmore Bay. And if you’re a fan of Gavin & Stacey, then you can hunt down some of the locations used during the filming of the series, including the arcade that the endearingly formidable Nessie worked in.

Explore more of Wales with the Rough Guide to WalesCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Albania’s capital used to regularly top lists for Europe’s worst city. Decades of Stalinist rule left Tirana grey and grim, lacking in both infrastructure and services. The collapse of communism in 1992 only worsened the situation, as chaos engulfed the city and crime started to rise.

All that has now changed. Today Tirana is – while still often chaotic – a very pleasant little city, and the cultural, entertainment and political centre of Albania. Home to a rapidly-growing population of nearly one million (Albania’s total population stands at around just three million), Tirana has a buzz you won’t find anywhere else in this beguiling nation.

Here are 10 reasons to make a beeline for the Albanian capital.

1. To enjoy Albanian hospitality

Being invited for a coffee or a rakija (a plum brandy) is a local custom and you’ll find Albanians friendly towards foreign visitors. Having been isolated from the rest of the world for the latter half of the twentieth century, many are curious about the influx of travellers.

2. For the local colour

As it’s a small city, you can easily cover Tirana’s central area in a day. But as well as a leisurely exploration of the handful of museums, monuments, historic buildings and parks, make some time to marvel at the city’s concrete housing estates. Yes, really. Painted in rainbow colours, they add brightness to what was once a rather monochrome cityscape.

photo credit: dsc_8858_v2 via photopin (license) / brightened

3. For the café culture

Albania might not be famed for its cuisine, but that’s no reason not to make food a focus. Look out for the excellent coffee and beer (Islam is the predominant religion but it is practised in a very tolerant way), as well as decent pastries and good gelato. Cafés are the perfect place for people-watching, too, set to a soundtrack of Albanian- and Euro-pop.

4. For a history lesson in Skanderbeg Square

Tirana’s centre is Skanderbeg Square, named after the national hero who briefly ensured Albania was independent of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. There is a large bronze statue of Skanderbeg on horseback (imagine Alexander The Great meets Thor) in the middle of the square, and the Et’hem Bey Mosque, one of the nation’s most treasured buildings that dates back to the late eighteenth century, sits in the southeast corner. Also situated here are the nation’s major museums, including The National Historic Museum adorned with a huge socialist mural of victorious partisans.

5. To see a not-so-ancient pyramid

You’ll find Tirana’s concrete pyramid, Piramida, a short walk from Skanderbeg Square. Built in 1987 by the daughter of Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha (who tyrannically ruled Albania from 1944–85) as a museum to her father, it now sits derelict, stripped of the tiles that once covered it and splattered with graffiti. There is talk of demolishing it, but some argue that it should be kept intact as an apt monument to Stalinism’s ugly spirit.

 photo credit: dsc_8850_v2 via photopin (license)

6. To observe Albania’s elite at play

Blloku, The Block, is where Enver Hoxha lived and was once off limits to all but the Communist party’s inner circle. Now it’s the epicentre for Tirana’s beautiful people. Today you’ll find expensive hotels, designer cafés, restaurants and shops. Take in the contemporary glitz from Sky Club, a rotating bar high in the air offering 360-degree views across the city.

7. For the nightlife

Tirana’s nightlife scene moves up a notch each year and the city’s clubs, largely situated around Blloku, vary greatly in theme and atmosphere. They are best visited with a local who knows which ones to attend (and which to avoid). Be mindful, however, that Albania is still a traditional society.

photo credit: dsc_8929_v2 via photopin (license)

8. To relax in Parku i Madh (Grand Park)

This large, wooded park is where many of Tirana’s citizens head for a bit of time out, whether it’s fishing in the artificial lake, picnicking on the lawns or kicking-back in one of the many café-bars. Considering how oppressive Tirana’s traffic can get, this park allows the city’s Mediterranean ambience to shine.

9. To visit Mount Dajti National Park

If you want a break from the city centre, head to Mount Dajti National Park, popular with Tirana’s residents for fresh air and countryside walks. You can either take an Austrian-built cable car (expensive) or the city bus (cheap) and once there you’ll find hotels, guest-houses and restaurants if you feel like staying overnight.

10. For day-trips to the seaside

The historic city of Durrësi on the Adriatic Sea was, for decades, where the powerful in Tirana went to relax (both Enver Hoxha and King Zog had holiday homes here). These days it’s largely Kosovar tourists who make use of the plentiful cheap hotels and restaurants along the seafront. Things are rough and ready, but Durrësi is lively, inexpensive and easily accessible.

Explore more of Albania with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Historic attractions abound in England. Wherever you’re based, you’ll find imposing palaces, gothic cathedrals and chocolate-box villages within easy reach, but among the most impressive examples of the country’s heritage are the slew of majestic castles. Taken from the new Rough Guide, this is our pick of the best castles in England

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland

Alnwick Castle is undoubtedly one of the finest in Northumberland. It’s owned by The Percys, the dukes of Northumberland, who have presided over the estate since 1309. More recently, however, the castle found fame as Hogwarts School in the early Harry Potter movies.

Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

Another Northumbrian gem, Bamburgh Castle is found in the little village of the same name. It’s most formidable when seen from the beach, where acres of sky, sea and dunes lead up to the castle’s dramatic setting atop a rocky basalt crag. The castle first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times, but was heavily reconstructed in the nineteenth century.

Leeds Castle, Kent

Its reflection shimmering in a lake, the enormous Leeds Castle resembles a fairy-tale palace. Beginning life around 1119, it has had a chequered history and is now run as a commercial concern, with a range of paying attractions including hot-air ballooning, Segway tours and jousting. The name is misleading: you’ll find it in the High Weald of Kent.

Dover Castle, Kent

No historical stone goes unturned at Dover Castle, an astonishingly imposing defensive complex that has protected the English coast for more than two thousand years. In 1068 William the Conqueror built over the earthworks of an Iron Age hillfort here; a century later, Henry II constructed the handsome Great Tower. The grounds also include a Roman lighthouse, a Saxon church and a network of secret wartime tunnels.

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex

One of the country’s most picturesque castles, Bodiam is a classically stout square block with rounded corner turrets, battlements and a wide moat. When it was built in 1385, it was state-of-the-art military architecture, but fell into neglect until restoration in the last century. The extremely steep spiral staircases will test all but the strongest of thighs.

Windsor Castle, Berkshire

The oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, towering above the town of Windsor in the Berkshire countryside just outside London, Windsor Castle is still an important ceremonial residence of the Queen. The castle itself is an imposing sight, while inside you can explore the State Apartments and artwork from the Royal Collection.

Warkworth Castle, Northumberland

Ruined but well-preserved, Warkworth Castle has Norman origins, but was constructed using sandstone during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Take in the view from the north of the hamlet of Warkworth, from where the grey stone terraces of the long main street slope up towards the commanding remains of the Castle.

Hever Castle, Kent

The moated Hever Castle was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, and where Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife, lived after their divorce. Bought by American millionaire William Waldorf Astor in 1903 it has been assiduously restored in mock Tudor style yet it retains an intimate feel. Outside you can explore Waldorf Astor’s beautiful Italian Garden a splashy water maze.

photo credit: Hever castle via photopin (license)

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall

Myth and legend surround the desolate ruins of Tintagel Castle, said to be the birthplace of King Arthur. Sited on a wild and rugged stretch of Cornwall’s coast, the remains have nearly all but decayed since it was deserted in the seventeenth century.

Warwick Castle, Warwickshire

It’s worth visiting Warwick so see this whopping castle alone, which lords it above the River Avon. Historians think the first fortress was constructed here by the Saxons, but the most significant expansions were made by the Normans and later in the nineteenth century. Save time to explore the extensive grounds, too.

photo credit: Warwick Castle via photopin (license)

Lancaster Castle, Lancashire

From the dungeons to the ornate courtrooms, Lancaster Castle is a historical tour-de-force. Defences have been sited high above the river here since Roman times, while more recently the building served as a working prison until 2011. Tours bring the castle’s history to life.

photo credit: Lancaster Castle via photopin (license)

Carlisle Castle, Cumbria

Cumbria’s mightiest castle dominates the county capital of Cumbria, Carlisle, were it has stood for over nine hundred years. Among its claims to fame is that it was where Elizabeth I held Mary Queen of Scots captive in 1568. Climbing the battlements for great views over the town.

Lincoln Castle, Lincolnshire

Intact and forbidding, Lincoln Castle’s walls incorporate bits and pieces from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries, with a wall walkway offering great views over town. This year the former debtors’ prison has been revamped to exhibit several rare documents, most notably one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta.

photo credit: Lincoln castle sunset via photopin (license)

Highclere Castle, Hampshire

Tucked away in the northern reaches of Hampshire, 20 miles north of Winchester, Highclere Castle will be very familiar to fans of hit period drama, Downton Abbey, which is filmed here. Home to Lord Carnarvon and his family, the house is approached via a long drive that winds through a stunning 5000-acre estate, and is surrounded by beautiful gardens designed by Capability Brown.

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Corfe Castle, Dorset

The romantic castle ruins crowning the hill behind the village of Corfe Castle are perhaps the most evocative in England. The family seat of Sir John Bankes, Attorney General to Charles I, this Royalist stronghold withstood a Cromwellian siege for six weeks, gallantly defended by Lady Bankes. One of her own men, Colonel Pitman, eventually betrayed the castle to the Roundheads, after which it was reduced to its present gap-toothed state by gunpowder. Apparently the victorious Roundheads were so impressed by Lady Bankes’ courage that they allowed her to take the keys to the castle with her.

Explore more of England with The Rough Guide to England. Compare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Gilly Pickup discovers the enduring allure of Cuba’s bright and breezy capital, Havana, the island’s cultural heart.

Havana’s effervescence is palpable. The city is reminiscent of an old picture postcard come to life – awash with faded grandeur and crumbling ice-cream coloured buildings. Bartenders mix up mojitos in time to the hip-swaying, hypnotic sounds of salsa and straw-hatted, cigar-puffing men driving vividly coloured vintage Cadillacs, Pontiacs and Buicks.

Habana Vieja and beyond

Havana’s UNESCO listed Habana Vieja or Old Town, almost an open air museum, was once the Caribbean’s main Spanish settlement. With a glut of castles and baroque churches it has more old colonial buildings than any other city in the New World. Head to the Camera Obscura in the Plaza Vieja for the best views.

Of course there are countless museums to explore, too. The most famous is probably the Museum of the Revolution in Centro Habana. This big blast from the past is housed in what was once the Presidential Palace, headquarters of the Cuban government for forty years. Besides plenty of rusty revolvers and a life size wax figure of Che Guevara, it contains maps tracing the war’s progress, innumerable photos of Fidel Castro and some blood-stained uniforms.

Behind the museum are parts of a plane shot down during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, a surface-to-air missile and the yacht that brought Guevara and Castro together with eighty plus revolutionaries to Cuba from Mexico in 1956 – today rather incongruously kept in a glass enclosure.

Another important landmark is the Capitolio Nacional. Once Cuba’s seat of government, the building is similar in appearance to the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. It is home to the National Library and Academy of Sciences and houses a planetarium and museum. Under the dome, a 24-carat diamond – an imitation – is set into the floor. This is where distances between Havana and other sites in the country are measured.

A cigar stop-off

No trip to Cuba would be complete without a cigar, and close by the Capitolio is one of the city’s most famous cigar factories, Real Fabrica de Tabaco Partagas.

Here, a reader is employed to entertain workers while they make the cigars – the reason why some cigars are named after literary characters. Tours allow visitors to see how cigars are made and, of course, there is the opportunity to buy some from the little shop at the end.

In the footsteps of Hemingway

While in Habana Vieja, it makes sense to pay a visit to El Floridita, one of the bars where Ernest Hemingway liked to have a bite to eat and down daiquiris.

Nothing much seems to have changed here since the thirties, when he was sometimes snapped at the bar with Errol Flynn or Gary Cooper, though it was a favourite meeting place for expat Americans before Hemingway made it famous.

Hemingway’s celebrity status has never dimmed in the eyes of the locals and his favourite stool is cordoned off almost as if he is expected to walk back in at any minute. The bar even created a daiquiri in his name, ‘The Papa Hemingway Special’. One story goes that he once sank 13 doubles in one visit. Who knows for sure, but if he did, he must have had a serious hangover next morning.

Fans of Hemingway can also visit his home, Finca Vigia, which lies just outside town. Now also a museum, it is kept just as it was when the man himself lived there. This is where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and today visitors can see his huge book collection and his typewriter.

Along the sea spangled waterfront

And speaking of the sea, every visitor to Havana should head to the Malecón, the eight kilometre sea spangled waterfront promenade popular with locals and tourists, swimmers, joggers and musicians.

Although it was built in 1901 to protect the city from rough seas, today a party atmosphere abounds, especially during evenings and weekends.

Feisty bands and fizzing nightlife

You’ll learn to expect continual music here. It emanates round the clock from the city’s shady squares and cobbled streets. Havana is a feisty rainbow explosion of live bands. They’re everywhere: in the airport, restaurants, bars and on the streets – and at night the experience is out of this world.

Many local musicians play the ‘tres guitar’, a rhythm instrument with three double strings, while the pulsing African ‘son’ music and Timbal drum beats are bound to get your feet tapping.

Nightlife is full on and fizzing – and there are plenty of clubs and bars where visitors can party like a local. Dress to impress, as the locals do, and head to open-air cabaret Tropicana, a great place to soak up the sounds and shake that booty. This is no ordinary cabaret, complete with a 32-piece orchestra.

Festivals galore

It’s also an idea to plan a visit to Havana to coincide with some of the popular celebrations and festivals. These include the cigar festival in February, Carnival in July, the ballet festival in October and film and jazz festivals are in December.

Explore more of Cuba with the Rough Guide to CubaCompare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Taken from the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, these are our top 12 tips for backpacking through Europe.

Europe has it all: sprawling cities and quaint villages; boulevards, promenades and railways; mountains, beaches and lakes. Some places will be exactly how you imagined: Venice is everything it’s cracked up to be; springtime in Paris has even hardened cynics melting with the romance of it all; and Oxford’s colleges really are like Harry Potter film sets. Others will surprise, whether for their under-the-radar nature or statement-making modern architecture.

If you’re backpacking in Europe for the first time, bear in mind that the best trips combine practicality with stick-a-pin-in-the-map impulsiveness. Here’s our advice:

1. Pick your season wisely

If you decide to travel during the peak summer season, try heading east – the Balkan coastline, the Slovenian mountains and Baltic cities are all fantastic places for making the most of your money. When tourist traffic dies down as autumn approaches, head to the Med. The famous coastlines and islands of southern Europe are quieter at this time of year, and the cities of Spain and Italy begin to look their best. Wintertime brings world-class skiing and epic New Year parties. Come spring it’s worth heading north to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, France and the British Isles, where you’ll find beautifully long days and relatively affordable prices.

2. Be savvy about accommodation

Although accommodation is one of the key costs to consider when planning your trip, it needn’t be a stumbling block to a budget-conscious tour of Europe. Indeed, even in Europe’s pricier destinations the hostel system means there is always an affordable place to stay – and some are truly fantastic. If you’re prepared to camp, you can get by on very little while staying at some excellently equipped sites. Come summer, university accommodation can be a cheap option in some countries. Be sure to book in advance regardless of your budget during the peak summer months.

3. Take the train

Getting around by train is still the best option, and you’ll appreciate the diversity of Europe best at ground level. Plus, if you make your longest journeys overnight and sleep on the train, you’ll forego accommodation costs for the night. Most countries are accessible with an InterRail Global pass or the equivalent Eurail pass. Depending on your time and budget, choose one corner of the continent then consider a budget flight for that unmissable experience elsewhere.

4. Plan your trip around a festival

There’s always some event or other happening in Europe, and the bigger shindigs can be reason enough for visiting a place. Be warned, though, that you need to plan well in advance. Some of the most spectacular extravaganzas include St Patrick’s Day in Ireland, when Dublin becomes the epicentre of the shamrock-strewn, Guinness-fuelled fun, Roskilde in Denmark, Glastonbury’s Scandinavian rival with a mass naked run thrown in for good measure, and Italy’s bizarre battle of the oranges in Ivrea.

5. Eat like a local

You’ll come across some of the world’s greatest cuisines on a trip to Europe, so make sure to savour them. A backpacking budget needn’t be a hindrance either, as if you shun tourist traps to eat and drink with the locals, there are plenty of gastronomic experiences that won’t break the bank. Treat yourself to small portions but big flavours with a tapas dish or two in Spain, relish the world’s favourite cuisine at an Italian trattoria or discover the art form of the open sandwich with smørrebrød in Denmark. Don’t be tempted to skip breakfast, either – an oven-fresh croissant or calorie-jammed “full English” are not to be missed.

6. Find the freebies

Being on a budget doesn’t mean you should miss out, even in some of the world’s most sophisticated cities. Many iconic European experiences are mercifully light on the pocket: look out for free city walking tours, try the great Italian tradition of aperitivo in Rome, make the most of the free museums in London and try cooking with local ingredients rather than eating out. We’ve got lists of the top free things to do in Paris, Barcelona, London, Dublin and Berlin to get you started.

7. Get outdoors

It can be tempting to focus backpacking through Europe on a succession of capital cities – but you’d be missing out on a lot. Europe offers a host of outdoor pursuits that animate its wide open spaces, too, from horseriding in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains and surfing on Portugal’s gnarled Alentejo coast to cross-country skiing in Norway and watching Mother Nature’s greatest show in Swedish Lapland.

8. Allow yourself the odd splurge

One advantage of budget travel is that it makes splurging all the sweeter – and for a little “flashpacking” guidance, we include Treat Yourself tips throughout the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. If you’re mostly staying in dorms, splash out on the odd private hostel room or boutique hotel; swing by a speakeasy for cocktails in Paris; gorge yourself on pasta in Rome; and allow yourself a day of watersports in Croatia.

9. Stay up late

Whether it’s Berlin and London’s hipster dives, flamenco in Seville, Budapest’s ruin bars, or the enotecas that celebrate Italy’s rejuvenated wine industry, there are countless reasons to stay up till sunrise. Europe lives for the wee hours and you’ll be following in some famous footsteps. Think about ordering a knee-buckling Duvel beer at Brussels’ historic La Fleur en Papier Doré, a time-worn café once the favourite hunt of Surrealist painter Magritte and Tintin creator Hergé, or sipping pint in one of Oxford’s historic pubs, like the Eagle and Child, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s old haunt.

10. Hit the beach

Clubbed and pubbed out? It’s time to hit the beach. If you’re looking for heat, Formentera’s beaches are quieter and wilder than on neighbouring Ibiza, while Croatia and Italy have a slew of beautiful stretches of sand. If you want to head off the beaten track, consider Mogren in Montenegro, part of the so-called “Budva Riviera” that stretches either side of Montenegro’s party town par excellence.

11. Go under the radar

If you’re looking for Europe’s charm without the crowds, you’ll want to consider straying from the well-worn routes. Some of our favourite under-the-radar towns include Olomouc in the Czech Republic, a pint-sized Prague with less people and more charm (and cobblestones), and Berat, a gorgeous Albanian town where row after row of Ottoman buildings loom down at you from the sides of a steep valley.

12. Stay safe

Take some basic precautions to stay safe. It’s not a good idea to walk around flashing an obviously expensive camera or smartphone, and keep your eyes (and hands if necessary) on your bags at all times. Exercise caution in hostels and on trains; padlocking your bags to the luggage rack if you’re on an overnight train increases the likelihood that they’ll still be there in the morning. It’s also a good idea to take a photocopy of your passport and keep it safe somewhere online.

 

For a complete guide to backpacking through Europe, check out the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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