Situated at the northern and southern extremes of this long, thin country, Vietnam’s two main cities lie more than one thousand kilometres apart.

Southern Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly Saigon, was the US base during the Vietnam War and since the country’s unification has transformed into a thoroughly modern, thriving metropolis. The somewhat less modern capital, Hanoi, runs at a noisier pace, with its lively Old Quarter full of winding lanes.

Yet both cities can at times seem hyperactive, and you’ll need your wits about you to navigate their astonishingly hectic traffic. Can’t choose which one to visit? Here’s our lowdown on how they differ.

Which is best for culture?

Neither city is short of museums, temples, pagodas and impressive colonial architecture. Both have a cathedral too – relics of the French occupation – and highly entertaining traditional water-puppet shows.

HCMC has several more theme parks than Hanoi, so if rollercoasters are your thing, head south. If you’re more at home in a gallery than doing loop-the-loops, Hanoi will be a better bet, as it pips the post for both fine and contemporary art.

People from Hanoi are known for sometimes being more standoffish than their southern counterparts, with more traditional values and formal manners.

HCMC, more influenced by foreign cultures than Hanoi – particularly American and French – has a more spontaneous and open feel to it. Innovation is king and young trendsetters lead the way, alongside thriving tech-minded entrepreneurs and booming businesses.

Notre Dame cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City.

Which is best for food?

You won’t struggle to find cheap, local culinary delights in either Hanoi or HCMC – street food is ubiquitous and, on the whole, mouth-watering in both cities. Hanoi is the home of pho (noodle soup), Vietnam’s national dish, which you can get on just about any street corner for as little as a dollar.

The street food in HCMC is just as readily available as up north, but tends to be slightly sweeter. Fantastic smells waft through the side streets of both these foodie-heaven cities, and there’s a lot more to tempt your palate than just banh mi (filled baguettes) and pho.

Café culture, a hangover from the French, permeates both cities too; in HCMC the coffee is sweeter and not quite as punchy as the equivalent brews in Hanoi.

Both cities have an astounding array of international cuisine, though HCMC just about trumps Hanoi on the breadth and quality of choices, as well as for upmarket restaurants.

Vietnam, Hue, banh khoai pancakes (street food)

What about nightlife?

The Vietnamese government is cracking down on venues opening after midnight, so several establishments close earlier than they used to.

HCMC has managed to retain far more late-night options than its northern sister, though a handful of Hanoi bars still manage to stay open until the last punter leaves (or passes out). The narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter come to life at night, with thousands of locals and tourists alike flooding the alleyways, consuming cheap drinks on tiny plastic stools while snacking on steaming plates of barbequed pork and fried chicken feet.

Many of the bars in HCMC have live music at the weekend, and it’s certainly the place to be for classy cocktail lounges. If you’re looking for a refined evening out, or for a club with air conditioning where you can party till the small hours, HCMC is your best bet.

For cheap booze and backpacker vibe, though the area around De Tham in HCMC is great, Hanoi has far more going for it for the laidback, on-a-shoestring traveller. If you didn’t pack your smart shoes, Hanoi is where you want to be.

Beer Hoi, Hanoi. vietnam.

Where should I shop?

Hanoi has the superior choice of crafts, silk accessories and handmade goods. Craftsmen specialize in wood-and stone-carvings, embroideries and lacquerware, the finest of which are on sale at the southern end of the Old Quarter.

HCMC offers a plethora of cheap souvenir options, such as at Ben Thanh market, or for upmarket boutiques try Dong Khoi. The southern city is also the king of the malls, with vast, modern air-conditioned edifices housing copious brand and designer shops – ideal for cooling off from the humid urban heat.

market scene in Ho Chi Minh City, vietnam.

Where should I go to relax?

Hanoi has developed rapidly in recent years, with new skyscrapers hastily transforming the city’s skyline outside of the Old Quarter. Both cities have populations of around eight million, but people are more crammed into the smaller HCMC. That said, the pedestrianized streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter can get so packed with people that during peak hours it can be difficult to move at all, and the city’s ceaseless noise can be too much for some.

Traffic in both cities is continuously hectic, with countless hooting scooters zipping about in a seemingly insane manner. The newer, wider streets of HCMC at least allow for more movement, but everything is relative ­– don’t expect a walk through town to be a peaceful meander.

In Hanoi you can at least cool down, with average temperatures dropping to 17°C in January, while temperatures in HCMC never fall below the high twenties. Mix that with high humidity and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a sweat on whenever you go.

Huc bridge at Hoan Kiem lake, Hanoi, vietnam.

To escape the southern heat, the green, tree-shaded lawns of HCMC’s Cong Vien Van Hoa Park, once a colonial sporting complex, is a popular downtime spot, as is the city’s Botanical Garden.

Though small, Hoan Kiem Lake is the heart of Hanoi for its residents, and a charming place to take a moment away from the chaotic city streets and watch elderly locals quietly enjoying games of chess and mahjong.

Which is best base for day-trips?

Ha Long Bay, a dreamy seascape of jagged limestone rocks jutting out over calm waters, is Vietnam’s number one tourist attraction and can be visited in a day-trip from Hanoi. Be warned though, it’s a hefty journey, at around four hours each way.

Under two hour’s drive from HCMC, the Cu Chi Tunnels are also a top option for a day-trip. The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong army during the Vietnam War, and visitors can see the wince-inducing booby traps set for the American soldiers, as well as take a smothering look for themselves inside the tunnels. Tours are best booked with a travel agency around Pham Ngu Lao (roughly 180,000 VND).

craggy rocks, Halong Bay. vietnam.

So which one should I go to?

Naturally, this depends what you’re looking for. Hanoi errs on the more historical, less glitzy side, allowing visitors a glimpse of traditional Vietnamese culture as well as giving ample opportunities to see the best of the country’s artistic and creative offerings while appreciating the low-key street life.

HCMC, as the commercial centre of the country, inevitably has more investment, fancier hotels, smarter restaurants and an exclusive nightlife scene.

However, both these metropolises have excellent museums and cultural sights, plenty of tranquil places to unwind, superb food and day-trips to some of Vietnam’s most interesting locations. Take your pick…

Planning a trip? Find the perfect base with our pick of the best homestays in Vietnam. Explore more of Vietnam with The Rough Guide to VietnamCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Scotland sports such a strong selection of tourist attractions – from castles and cabers to kilts and whisky – it’s easy to forget that there is much more to this land. Venture away from the cities and you’ll find rugged mountains, remote glens and mile-upon-mile of wave-lashed beaches. Ready to explore? Here are seven Scottish places that you’ve probably never heard of, but must visit.

1. The Isle of Harris, the Western Isles

Located 40km off Scotland’s far northwest coast, the Isle of Harris boasts a string of bleached-white sands so glorious they’ve been compared to the Caribbean’s finest beaches. There are ample stretches of perfect sand to choose from: our favourites are Luskentyre, Seilebost and the wide sweep of Scarista. You will often have these beaches all to yourself, and even if someone dares to break your solitude, you can just wander along to the next one.

Isle of Harris, beach, Scotland, UKIsle of Harris, Scotland by iknow-uk on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

2. The Quiraing, Isle of Skye

It may look like the gnarled New Zealand countryside which doubled so superbly as the setting for the Lord of the Rings films, but this Tolkienesque landscape is actually on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. Sheer rock faces, twisted stacks, piercing pinnacles and unlikely erratic boulders combine to conjure up an otherworldly scene that looks truly spectacular on a sunny day. It’s even more dramatic when Skye’s notorious mists creep in.

Great Britain, Scotland, Isle of Skye, view over the Quiraing areaa

3. St Kilda, the Western Isles

St Kilda is an archipelago so impressive that it became the first place in the world to be recognised by the UNESCO World Heritage list for both its natural heritage (it’s home to the unique Soay sheep and the St Kilda field mouse) and its human history (its inhabitants lived a unique communal life until it was abandoned in 1930).

To get here, you have to endure an often (very) bumpy boat ride across forty miles of ocean from the Western Isles, but the sheer cliffs and striking rock formations are worth the effort.

Cleit on Hirta with Soay lamb, Scotland, UKCleit on Hirta with Soay lamb by Irenicrhonda on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

4. Foula, the Shetland Islands

Few Scots have even heard of the UK’s most remote inhabited isle, and there’s little wonder why: there are less than forty hardy Foula locals.

Getting here is an adventure in itself, with a twenty-mile boat journey from the Shetland mainland to the island’s rocky harbour, across a stretch of water frequently lashed by wild Atlantic storms.

Venture out across the rugged and wild interior and you can see bonxies (huge skuas) and arctic terns swooping above your heads in summer. Or, enjoy a picnic by the sea as you watch orcas hunt for seals on rocky shores that even the Romans never conquered. They dubbed Foula the Ultima Thule, or the end of the known world, when they spied it in the distance.

Foula post office, Scotland, UKFoula post office by neil roger on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

5. Cairngorms National Park, the Highlands

Despite being the UK’s largest national park – and home to the largest mountain plateau in the UK – Cairngorms National Park is one of the least-visited. This vast, inhospitable wilderness often looks more like the Arctic than Scotland, with snow drifts swirling in hurricane-force winds during winter, and ice and snow lingering in places right through summer.

It feels a world apart, too, as you ramble across a lunar landscape where the UK’s only wild reindeer herd roam and the wrecks of crashed WWII aircraft lie frozen in time. The plateau is a paradise for well-prepared walkers in summer, while skiers and snowboarders take over in winter.

Summit Plateau of Cairngorms

6. Loch Torridon, the Highlands

Fancy a visit to the Norwegian fjords? Well, save yourself some cash and head to Wester Ross, which offers the fjord-like delights of little-known Loch Torridon. This mighty sea loch spreads its tentacles from the small village of Torridon, flanked by the natural amphitheatre of the Torridon Mountains, which tower over 1000m-high.

The clear, cobalt-blue waters and lack of development mean marine life is bountiful here – look out for seals, dolphins and, as you get closer to the open sea, whales. You can stay at the SYHA hostel, the relaxed Torridon Inn or the seriously posh mock baronial Torridon Hotel, which has the best of the spectacular loch views.

Loch Torridon, sunrise, Scotland, reflectionsLoch Torridon, sunrise by Steve Schnabel on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

7. Thurso, the Highlands

Let’s talk surfing. We all know about Australia’s Bondi beach and the brilliant waves in Bali – but what about Thurso? It’s usually a case of donning a drysuit rather than wetsuit here, but the coastline around the Highland town of Thurso packs a serious punch in the world of surfing.

Unsuspecting walkers are often surprised to find the surreal spectacle of a dozen surfers lying out in the Pentland Firth, looking to catch some of the serious waves you get in these tumultuous waters, the Orkney Isles just visible behind them in the distance. The conditions are so good that a volley of surf championships have been held here, including two world championships for kayak surfing.

Surfing in Thurso, Scotland, UKThurso Reef by Dave Ellis on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Explore more of Scotland with the Rough Guide to Scotland. Header image via Pixabay/CC0.

It has often had to play second fiddle to its southern neighbour, but Northern Ireland offers a diversity of attractions that frequently confounds first-time visitors. Rejuvenated and irrepressible, Belfast now rivals any of the UK’s capital cities, but in addition, the country manifests superb natural heritage – including one of the world’s great coastal road trips – remarkable cultural treasures, outdoor activities in abundance, and an increasingly vibrant food and music scene.

1. Belfast is a city reborn

Barely recognizable from the battle-scarred city of the 1970s and 80s, Belfast is today a bona fide city-break destination, no question. Stately Victorian buildings and a rich industrial heritage hark back to the city’s glorious past, but really, it’s the revitalized restaurant scene, some rocking nightlife and a raft of excellent festivals that all serve to confirm Belfast’s welcome renaissance.

Belfast Town Hall, Northern IrelandBelfast Town Hall on a sunny day by mariusz kluzniak on Flickr (license)

2. There are superb hikes to be had

Northern Ireland boasts numerous low-lying mountain ranges, but it’s the rugged Mournes in County Down that draws the lion’s share of hikers. Its highest peak – Slieve Donard – only tops 850m, but this is often testing terrain; and who needs the Great Wall of China when you’ve got the Mourne Wall, a 22-mile long dry stone wall which traverses some fifteen summits. No less fabulous, if somewhat less demanding, are the Sperrin Mountains in County Tyrone, a sparse expanse of wild, undulating moorland.

3. The Causeway Coastal Route is one of Europe’s most spectacular road trips

Stretching for some 120 miles between Belfast and Derry, this fabulous road trip has few rivals anywhere on the continent. Unsurprisingly, most people make a beeline for the Giant’s Causeway (Northern Ireland’s only designated World Heritage Site), with its stupendous black basalt columns. But there are diversions aplenty enroute, among them Rathlin Island, which harbours some incredible wildlife, and Portstewart, lined with a glorious two-mile sweep of golden sand.

4. The Titanic Quarter is now a highlight of Belfast’s regenerated docklands

It was, of course, from Belfast in 1912 that the Titanic set sail, and the ill-fated ship is commemorated in truly spectacular style at the all-new Titanic Quarter in the city’s regenerated docklands area. Comprising, among other things, a media centre and a scientific discovery centre, its focal point is Titanic Belfast, a thrilling and engaging interactive museum.

Titanic Quarter, Belfast, Northern IrelandTitanic, Belfast by Metro Centric on Flickr (license)

5. It’s finally time to big-up the country’s cuisine

Northern Ireland’s culinary scene has taken a while to get going, but it’s certainly making amends now. In Belfast, two restaurants have recently gained a Michelin star, namely Ox, and Eipic at Deane’s, whose sumptuous menu offers dishes such as scallop with clementine and hazelnut brown butter. And don’t leave without trying the Ulster Fry, widely acknowledged to be a superior version of the great English fry-up.

6. Northern Ireland boasts two of the UK’s finest open-air museums

Two particularly fine outdoor museums are the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum just outside Belfast, which displays some thirty buildings transplanted here from around the country, and the Ulster American Folk Park, near Omagh, which brilliantly relays the historically close links between Northern Ireland and the United States. Here, too, a splendid array of vernacular architecture has been transferred from its original setting.

7. The music scene rocks

The north can certainly rival the south when it comes to musical talent. In days of yore, the leading lights were Van Morrison and the Undertones (the latter famously championed by the late John Peel), while in the 90s, it was the turn of indie-heroes Ash, from Down, and the Divine Comedy from Enniskillen. Hot on the scene right now are Two Door Cinema Club from Bangor. If you fancy attending a gig, drop in at Belfast’s iconic Limelight Complex, or there’s Open House, a unique, year-round series of gigs at various venues around the city.

Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland

8. Northern Ireland offers wonderful outdoor activities

Whether it’s mountain biking in the Davagh Forest or angling on Lough Earne, there’s loads to do here. Golfers won’t feel short-changed either, with dozens of fabulous courses to hack around, including Royal Portrush (which will stage the British Open in 2019) in Antrim, and the sublime Royal County Down course in Newcastle; indeed, Northern Ireland currently boasts one of the world’s great sporting superstars in Rory Mcllroy. Big cheers, too, for the national football team, which has just qualified for Euro 2016 in France, its first major finals since 1986.

9. Derry’s medieval walls are among the finest in Europe

Neatly positioned within a bend of the River Foyle, Derry’s medieval walls are among the best-preserved anywhere in Europe, their survival all the more remarkable having withstood three major military sieges. Enclosed within the mile-long circuit is the original medieval street layout, itself spotted with a cluster of eminently enjoyable attractions, the pick of which are the Tower Museum and the Verbal Arts Centre.

10. It has the largest lake in the British Isles

To the surprise of many, Northern Ireland ranks the largest lake in the British Isles. Lough Neagh is just to the west of Belfast but actually bordering five of the country’s six counties. Its tranquil waterways and secluded bays provide ample opportunity for boating, fishing, walking and cycling; a great way to get a handle on the lake is to tackle the 113-mile long Loughshore Trail – but don’t worry, it’s almost completely flat.

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

Thailand is the quintessential backpacker destination. Here you can make the first footprints on secluded sands, dance shoeless under a full moon and swim beneath cascading waterfalls.

Running through Thailand’s rainforests and temples and looping around its islands and beaches is the so-called “banana pancake trail”, a well-worn, tried and tested backpacker route that has seen the sandals of thousands of independent travellers over the decades.

They’re still coming in their droves and you’re a part of the action as soon as you strap on that backpack – the accessory that ensures you won’t even have the chance to get lonely.

Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand

Must-see destinations

For a frenetic introduction to Thailand, head straight to Bangkok where the neon lights and market stalls of Khao San Road still serve as the country’s main backpacker hangout. Slurp noodles, sip local beer and visit the gilded Grand Palace and Wat Pho’s giant gold reclining Buddha with your new friends.

For impressive Thai temples, head to Ayutthaya in the north, the country’s ancient capital now scattered with temples in varying stages of decay. The brooding red-brick ruins are best viewed at sunset, when the golden light makes this atmospheric city a photographer’s dream.

If you’re after something a little more laidback, Kanchanaburi is the spot for you. You can take a train along the famous Death Railway, built by prisoners of war during World War II, see the Bridge over the River Kwai and swim at the tumbling seven-tiered Erawan Falls.

AyutthayaPixabay/CC0

Ko Pha Ngan is where the sands of Hat Rin see up to 30,000 people arrive each month for the famous full moon parties. The party starts at dusk, when thousands of lamps are lit, and continues through the night, with dancing, fire twirling and, of course, drinking.

If you want to get to know the locals, head to Chiang Mai, the jumping off point for numerous guided multi-day treks and short walks in the country’s remote north. Here you can visit small local communities, but be mindful of concerns around tribal tourism.

Getting around

A journey by tuk tuk is an essential Thai travel experience and you’re sure to use these noisy, fume-cloaked but very fun vehicles to get around, especially in Bangkok. Fares are the same no matter the number of passengers so team up with one or two (three is the safe maximum) other travellers to save money. Agree the fare before setting out (expect to pay 100-150 baht for short Bangkok hops) and be sure to have the right money ready on arrival.

Solo travellers can make good use of the motorcycle taxis that ply all common routes in both major towns and more off-the-beaten-track parts. These only seat one passenger and are no good if you’ve got luggage, but short journeys across town or the island can be good value (as low as 20 baht).

Thailand is a sizeable country and distances between large towns can be great (it’s 700km from Bangkok to Chiang Mai). An overnight bus or train is a good way of getting from A to B while also saving the cost of a hostel.

Tuk Tuk in Thailand, backpacking Southeast Asia

The overnight trains are operated by the State Railway of Thailand and run on four useful routes out of Bangkok, including services to Ayutthaya, to Chiang Mai and to Surat Thani (a jumping off point for many of the southern islands).

Second-class berths are the best bet for solo travellers, with the communal comfortable seats converting into fully flat curtained-off beds come nightfall.

First-class cabins are set up for two so only book these if you’re happy sharing with a stranger. Bring snacks and drinks and settle in for a long journey.

Don’t fancy the long journey alone? There are plenty of internal flights, with Bangkok Airways, Air Asia, Nok Air (Thai Airways’ budget arm) and Thai Lion Air all offering daily Bangkok-Chiang Mai flights with a flight time of 1hr 15min. Flying also means not having to go back to Bangkok – trains and buses use the capital as a hub meaning you will keep ending up back there.

Where to eat

Eating alone in Thailand doesn’t need to mean a table for one. The best food is often found at the local night market, where mobile kitchens sell noodles, fried rice, sticky rice cakes, pancakes and fresh juices, and seating is communal and lively.

Bowl of Thai food, Thailand

Almost every large town will have street stalls selling noodles day and night, so you can fill up without even sitting down.

Many hostels have cafés or restaurants, where you won’t stand out as a solo diner and may even meet fellow travellers in search of dining companions. Most travellers love nothing more than discussing where they’ve been or are going over a bowl of noodles or a beer.

How to meet people

If you want to meet people, sticking to the main backpacker destinations (including those listed above) is the best bet. Stay in hostels rather than hotels – choose to stay in a dorm so you’ll be sharing with other people and not holed up alone.

In Bangkok stay on or near the Khao San Road for the best chance of impromptu Singhas with your new friends – NapPark is a good choice, with its communal tamarind-shaded courtyard and TV room.

In Chiang Mai, Diva Guesthouse has six­-bed dorms and a sociable café on the ground floor, while Kanchanaburi’s Jolly Frog has a communal atmosphere and hammocks in the central, leafy garden.

Compass Backpacker's Hostel, Thailand, backpacking ThailandCompass Backpacker’s Hostel by James Antrobus on Flickr (license)

Group activities are a great way to make friends fast. You can try everything, from day trips to Thai cookery courses. If you want an insight into Thailand through food, in Bangkok try Helping Hands or the vegetarian May Kaidee, and in Chiang Mai the Thai Cookery School.

For more of an adventure, take a zipline tour through the rainforest near Chiang Mai with Flight of the Gibbon or learn to scuba dive with The Dive Academy on Koh Samui.

A girl’s guide: is it safe for solo female travellers?

Thailand is largely safe for solo travellers of both genders, and despite the country’s prolific sex industry, women are unlikely to attract any more attention than men when travelling alone.

When travelling alone in Thailand, the standard rules apply: don’t take unlicensed taxis and don’t go home with strangers. As long as you use your common sense, Thailand is a perfectly safe place to travel.

Many hostels will have female-only dorms, which may be safer, not to mention a great way to meet other female travellers.

Unfortunately drug-muggings are known to sometimes happen in Thailand, but these are easily avoided. Don’t eat or drink anything a stranger gives you, especially on a train or at a full moon party. Trains and buses are ripe for petty theft so keep all your valuables with you when you travel.

Get more advice on your solo trip to Thailand with the Rough Guide to Thailand

Scattered like shards across a million square kilometres of the North Atlantic, west of Portugal the nine islands of the Azores are unmistakably volcanic.

For now, this green and breezy archipelago is snoozing in the temperate embrace of the Gulf Stream; the last significant onshore eruptions were in 1811. However, over thirty of its volcanoes remain active, and regular tremors and underwater seismic events serve to remind that every crag, crater and cave was sculpted by geothermal forces.

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Central São Miguel by David Stanley (CC license)

This might seem like a perilous place to live, but Azorean foodies embrace their role as volcano-dwellers, growing hothouse pineapples, bananas, guavas and passionfruit in the fertile soil and harvesting plump, meaty clams from volcanic lagoons.

In the picturesque caldera village of Furnas on São Miguel, famous for its hot springs, they take things further by using natural volcanic energy to slow-cook a stew that’s a signature local dish, cozido das Furnas. To make it, the chef lines a heavy pot with layers of meat, vegetables, chorizo and blood sausage, covers it and lowers it into a steamy hollow in the ground to simmer for five or six hours.

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Underground oven by David Stanley (CC license)

Order this hearty dish at a local restaurant, and you may be invited to the springs to watch the pot being unearthed. At Canto da Doca, a casual, contemporary place, you can enjoy a little DIY volcanic cooking.

Waiters bring a platter of fresh meat, squid, tuna, vegetables and sauces to your table, along with a piping-hot slab of lava stone. You drop morsels onto the slab one by one to cook, inhaling the delicious aromas as they sizzle. When the temperature dips, a fresh slab will miraculously appear.

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Cozido das Furnas by David Stanley (CC license)

While traditional Azorean cooking tends to be solid peasant grub – regional cheese to start, stewed or grilled meat or seafood as a main course, custardy puddings, fragrant Azorean tea as a pick-meup – there’s a move afoot to bring out the islands’ gourmet side. Check out 10 Fest Azores, an annual ten-day gastronomic festival featuring Michelin-starred chefs from all over the world.

Make the most of your time on earthSeveral restaurants in Furnas offer cozido. As it takes so long to prepare, it’s best to order the day before. Canto da Doca is on Rua Nova in Horta on Faial. 10 Fest Azores (taste.visitazores.com) is hosted  every June by Restaurante Anfiteatro in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel (efth.com.pt). Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

 

Beyond the mystical sounds of gamelan and the intricate craft of batik, Bali boasts a world of subcultures often overlooked by visitors. The art makes bold statements, nightlife sometimes involves a new tattoo, and music is anything but serene.

On an island where locals are often denied entry from bars and clubs, an experience off the typical tourist trail is both vital and enlightening. Kick-start your journey into Indonesia‘s underground with this alternative list of things to do on the Island of Gods.

Get weird at Black Market

What do pet snakes, drunk tarot readers, homeless artists, punk hairdressers, organic grocers, and the police have in common? They’ve all appeared at Black Market Bali.

This unpredictable art event pops up where and whenever it pleases, welcoming whoever wants to set up. With no schedule or restrictions, it tends to unfold like some chaotic hybrid between a circus and a garage sale. Buy, sell, browse, perform or party to a backdrop of live music, quirky vendors and rice fields.
Jl. Basangkasa No. 88, Seminyak

blackmarket_warehouse_photoby_kelibow0095

Skate the pool at Pretty Poison

When a venue in Bali says it’s having a pool party, you can usually bet on gaggles of the scantily clad and sunburnt swaying to last year’s top forty. But not at Pretty Poison. Here the pool stays drained for skateboarders to party in day and night.

Live music, skate competitions, dance parties, open-air movie screenings, art shows and tattoo nights all go down surrounded by Canggu’s tranquil rice paddies. Rambunctious skaters respectfully wait for their turn to shred the pool, while onlookers mingle, dance and get inked.

Most importantly, Pretty Poison one of the few venues remaining on the island that attracts a roughly equal mix of Indonesians and foreigners.
Short Cut Road, Jl. Subak, Canggu

A video posted by @prettypoison___ on

Tune into the contemporary at Ghostbird + Swoon

Run by a young Balinese woman and and her American partner, Ghostbird + Swoon doubles as an art gallery and curatorial space for experimental fashion. Their manifesto? “‘We seek beauty. Not the thoughtless, fleeting kind. But the ugly kind that takes time, mistakes, intelligence, obsessive reflection and mad skills to cultivate.“ The space features works by contemporary artists, often Indonesian women, with exhibitions examining themes such as female identity in regional society, and the artistic potential of junk. Engage with the thought-provoking work here and you’re sure to gain a nuanced understanding of this vast, complex country. Jl. Danau Tamblingan No. 75, Sanur

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Rock out at Twice Bar

It’s no secret that Kuta, Bali‘s commercial centre, is a little trashy – especially after dark. Developers and binge-drinking foreigners have transformed the area into a mishmash of uninspired nightclubs, sleazy bars and tourist traps. But in the midst of all the debauchery, one venue is worth your time: Twice Bar, founded by members of popular Balinese punk band Superman is Dead. The frenetic sound of Indonesian punk rock keeps most foreigners away, but if you’re looking to begin an off-beat Balinese night out, this is the place to be. Heavy music is an important part of Indonesian culture – Napalm Death is the President’s favourite band, after all. Enjoy cheap arak (the palm sap equivalent of moonshine), adrenaline-fueled shows, an in-bar tattoo parlour and friendly Anarcho-Indonesian company. Jl. Popies II, Kuta

A video posted by Nugra dadee (@nug412) on

Take shelter at Revolver Espresso

Hidden down nameless a Seminyak backstreet, the original Revolver Espresso isn’t easy to find but is worth the hunt – they serve the best coffee on the island. Inside, you might think you’ve wandered into a trendy East London warehouse, with high ceilings and chipped white paint on rough brick walls.

But there’s enough comfy seating and vintage bric-a-brac to keep this industrial space feeling cosy. The shop has become famous for its premium beans, carefully sourced from around the world, roasted in-house, and brewed to perfection.

With fun tunes always spinning on vinyl, and delicious food to boot –try the poached eggs on mashed avocado, homemade relish and sourdough toast – it’s an ideal place to escape the island heat or wait-out the rain.
Jl. Kayu Aya, Gang 51, Seminyak

15875577997_5630d6312d_oIced Revolver shot by Jonathan Ooi (CC license)

Buy a taco and get a free tattoo at The Temple of Enthusiasm

Lifestyle brand Deus Ex Machina makes bespoke café racer-inspired motorcycles, artisanal surfboards, skateboards, clothing and more. Since the opening of their flagship, The Temple of Enthusiasm, the once sleepy village of Canggu has transformed into into the island’s most happening area.

Whether you’re in it for the Temple’s hip concept store, art gallery, bar, restaurant, half-pipe, farmers markets, movie nights, high-speed dress-up drag races, live music, longboard competitions or Taco Tattuesdays (free tattoo with the purchase of your taco) – this bona fide Bali institution is an absolute must.
Jalan Batu Mejan No. 8, Canggu

Surf, snack, and drink a cold one at Batu Bolong Beach

A steep, black-sand beach with waves perfect for longboarding brings beginners and tattooed, retro-looking surfers to Batu Bolong.

Factor in a bustling Hindu temple, Balinese family gatherings, Indonesian street food, unbeatable sunsets and Old Man’s – a tiki bar-style beer garden that gets wild on Wednesday nights – and you’ll discover the atmosphere of this beach is tough to beat.
Jl. Pantai Batu Bolong, Canggu

20448057071_a42d5a6807_oBatu Bolong sunset by bruno kvot (CC license)

Kick back at a late-night goreng stall

Whether you’re wrapping up after a hard day of surfing, exploring or doing a whole lot of nothing, there’s no better place to unwind than at at one of Bali’s many roadside late-night goreng tents.

Pass on the cutlery (though it’s not usually on offer) and use your hands to tuck into fried chicken or tempeh (a soy product sort of like tofu), served with a side of mouth-watering sambal (spicy chili sauce), white rice and a single lettuce leaf.

Their ramshackle, bare-bones atmosphere is the perfect complement to the intense flavours served up, and locals are always happy to chat. This really is Balinese nightlife at its finest.

19472428939_8f9bf07cf4_oBali street food by steve deeves (CC license)

Explore more of the Bali coastline with The Rough Guide to Bali & LombokCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

You can’t expect to fit everything Europe has to offer into one trip and we don’t suggest you try. For those taking a big, extended trip around the continent you could join a few countries together.

The Rough Guide to Europe on a BudgetEach of these itineraries could be done in two or three weeks if followed to the letter but don’t push it too hard – with so much to see and do you’re bound to get waylaid somewhere you love or stray off the suggested route.

For a complete guide to exploring the region and up-to-date recommendations of the best hotels, hostels, activities and more, buy the full guide here.

1. Britain and Ireland

Where else to begin but London (1) – one of the world’s greatest but most expensive cities. While your wallet is still intact move on to the storied grounds of Oxford (2) before heading to Snowdonia (3), where the Welsh mountains provide excellent hiking.

Soak up some history in the medieval streets of York (4), then make the trip north to stunning Edinburgh (5). Find your inner Braveheart in the Scottish Highlands (6) and fit in an unforgettable hike, climb, or ski while you’re at it.

Pop across the North Channel to Belfast (7), but be sure not to miss the nearby Giant’s Causeway – one of Europe’s great natural wonders. Grab a perfect pint of Guinness in Dublin (8), then wind down on the windswept beaches of Ireland’s West Coast (9).

2. France and Switzerland

Start in Paris (1), Europe’s most elegant capital, then venture off to the châteaux and prime vineyards of the Loire Valley (2). Move south to beautiful Bordeaux (3), which boasts bustling city life and some of Europe’s finest surfing beaches to boot.

Head south the peaks of the Pyrenees (4) before taking a trip through Southern France to the Côte d’Azur (5). Don’t miss the magic of Corsica (6), a true adventure playground, or traditional cooking in Lyon (7), the country’s gastronomic capital.

Try your luck skiing and climbing in the Alps (8), and end by relaxing riverside in laid-back Zürich (9).

3. Benelux, Germany and Austria

Kick off in Amsterdam (1) before enjoying more atmospheric canals and beautiful buildings in Bruges (2). Cologne’s (3) spectacular old town is a perfect first stop in Germany, but be sure to head north soon after for the vast port and riotous bars of Hamburg (4).

Few cities can compete with the style and youthful energy of Berlin (5), while Dresden (6) has also become a favourite backpacker hangout. Then head south to Munich (7), where Bavaria’s capital boasts everything from snowy scenery to beer-fuelled Oktoberfest.

Cross over the boarder to Austria and hit the slopes or the Mozart trail in scenic Salzburg (8), and conclude this itinerary among the palaces, museums, cafés and boulevards of Vienna (9).

4. Spain, Portugal and Morocco

Begin in the Basque capital of Bilbao (1), Spain’s friendliest city and home of the Guggenheim. Then it’s on to the city beaches, late-night bars and enchanting old town of Barcelona (2). Ibiza‘s (3) nightclubs are famous the world over, but its pockets of peace and quiet are worth the trip alone.

Gobble tapas and dance the night away in Madrid (4) before heading west for the countless port lodges of Porto (5). Cruise down the Atlantic coast to the historic Portuguese capital of Lisbon (6), then make for the region of Andalucía (7), stopping in the cities of Seville and Granada as you venture further south.

If you catch a ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco and set course for Fez (8), explore the medieval Moroccan city of labyrinth alleys, souks and mosques. Finish up in Marrakesh (9), a colourful city with a stunning backdrop of the Atlas Mountains.

5. Italy

Start in Milan (1) for a little Prada, Gucci, and Leonardo da Vinci. Veer east to visit the world’s most beautiful city, Venice (2), then south to the foodie nirvana of Bologna (3). Glide onwards to Tuscany (4) where Florence and Siena make excellent bases to explore the region’s hill towns.

You can hardly “do” Europe and not see Rome (5), and there is truly no better place to eat pizza than in the crumbling yet attractive city of Naples (6). Experience a Roman town frozen in time at Pompeii (7), before sleeping in one of Matera’s (8) hand-carved caves.

Kick back in Sicily (9) on idyllic beaches beneath smouldering volcanoes, or enjoy the hectic pace of Palermo, one of Italy’s most in-your-face cities.

6. Central and Eastern Europe

Get going in Prague (1), a pan-European city with beer that never disappoints. Move east to Warsaw’s (2) vodka-soaked bar scenes, Old Town, palaces and parks.

Arty and atmospheric Kraków (3) shouldn’t be missed, and neither should a trip to charming cafés of L’viv (4). Leave cities behind for the majestic wilderness of Slovakia‘s Tatra Mountains (4), then head back to civilisation and immerse yourself in Budapest (6) where you’ll find two great cities in one.

Finish this itinerary up in Ljubljana (7); Slovenia’s capital is a perfectly formed pit stop between central Europe and the Adriatic if you’re eager to push on to the Balkans.

7. Scandinavia

Start in the lively lanes of beautiful Copenhagen (1), and head north to Gothenburg’s (2) elegant architecture, fantastic nightlife and fully-functioning rainforest. A visit to Oslo (3) is worth the expense, but after a while you’ll feel the pull of the Norwegian fjords (4).

The mild climate and wild scenery of the Lofoten Islands (5) should not be skipped, but neither should the reindeer, huskies and elusive Northern Lights of Lapland (6). Of course, no trip to Scandinavia would be complete without a stop in Stockholm (7).

If you’re travelling in summer, get to Gotland (8) – Sweden’s party island, buzzing with DJs and bronzed bodies on the beach.

8. Russia and the Baltic Coast

Big, brash, expensive surreal – Moscow (1) is almost a nation in itself, and well worth a visit before moving on to the jaw-dropping architecture and priceless art collections of St Petersburg (2).

Head west to Helsinki (3), the proudly Finnish love child of Russian and Swedish empires, then hop across the gulf to charming and beautifully preserved Tallinn in Estonia (4).

Latvia’s cosmopolitan Riga (5) should not be missed, and when you need your nature fix go further south to the Curonian Spit (6), a strip of sand dunes and dense forest ideal for cycling and hiking. Wind this trip down in Vilnius (7), the friendliest and perhaps even the prettiest of all Baltic capitals.

9. The Balkans

Start with a slew of cheap but delicious wine, watersports, and vitamin D on the Dalmatian coast (1), then move on to Europe’s war-scarred but most welcoming capital, Sarajevo (2).

History-steeped Dubrovnik (3) rivalled Venice in its day, and is an easy stop on the way to Budva (4), Montenegro’s star resort with unspoilt beaches and throbbing open-air bars. Head further south to Tirana (5) for charming architecture and urban exploration, before visiting the shimming shores of Ohrid’s (6) mountain-backed lake.

Be sure to check out the chilled vibe of Sofia (7), and the more upbeat buzz of Serbia’s hip capital: Belgrade (8). End this itinerary by discovering Transylvania (9) – you probably won’t find any vampires, but you will find fairytale villages, colourful festivals, and wolf tracking in the Carpathians.

10. Greece and Turkey

Begin by finding the perfect beach in Kefaloniá (1), and continue to Athens (2) for a sun set over the Parthenon. Sail first to the island of Íos (3) for partying backpackers and hippie-era charm, then on to Crete’s (4) Samarian Gorge.

Get to the Turkish mainland for a visit to the remarkably preserved temples, mosaics, and baths in Ephesus (5) before mountain biking, paragliding, or diving in Kaş (6).

Then venture east to Cappadocia’s (7) volcanic landscape and subterranean city, and wrap up among the bazaars, hammams, and surprisingly hectic nightlife in Istanbul (8).

The Rough Guide to Europe on a BudgetExplore more of Europe with the Rough Guide to Europe on a BudgetCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Famous for being the birthplace of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and Madeira wine, this Portuguese island has a reputation as a holiday choice of the staid over-60s. Although it’s part of Portugal, Madeira is closer to North Africa than it is to Europe – and the island is attracting a new generation of independent travellers who know it’s not just another beach destination. Here’s the truth about Madeira.

Misconception #1: It’s where you go for a beach holiday

Although there have been no eruptions for about 6500 years, volcanic activity shaped the island and the small natural beaches have black sand. Granted, golden sand has been imported to Calheta and Machico beaches on the south coast, but no one’s pretending it’s the Canary Islands.

Madeira, Portugal,

If you want beach time, do as the locals do and take the ferry to sister island Porto Santo a couple of hours away. That said, the seafood is as fresh as it gets on Madeira and from all over the island there are breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean.

Misconception #2: It’s overrun by cruise ship passengers and OAPs

While hulking great cruise ships do dock in the capital, Funchal, this characterful city on the south coast is big enough to soak up any passengers who disembark for a bit of daytime sightseeing.

In the evenings, when the cruisers are back on board, Zona Velha (the Old Town) come alive. With plenty of cool bars, Madeira’s nightlife is chic and very European – things don’t kick off until at least midnight and it’s mostly locals on the dance floor.

Rigid inflatables leave the harbour for dolphin and whale watching, and although the swell of the Atlantic can be pretty alarming, once these wonderful, intelligent mammals are tracked down and the boat engines are cut, it’s a calm commune with nature.

Cliffs on Madeira, Portugal

This same swell attracts surfers; beginners can’t go wrong at gorgeous Porto da Cruz, but pros might prefer rocky Jardim do Mar.

Inland, the largely-deserted peaks and ravines lend themselves to climbing, canyoning and off-road jeep tours. Mountain bikers love the challenging climbs and steep downhills, while hikers can get deep into the forest by following the 2000km of levadas (narrow canals unique to Madeira) that crisscross the island.

Misconception #3: The Brits abroad don’t leave their all-inclusives

While there are any number of nice-but-bland chain hotels, Madeira is fighting its package holiday reputation. Luxury boutique hotels have opened their doors in Funchal and rustic homestays nestle above the cloud line in the mountains.

On the south coast, Fajã dos Padres is a really special place to stay. Accessible only by boat or a very rickety lift down the soaring cliff face (though a cable car is due to open in 2016), this organic farm spreads across fourteen acres of lush farmland and accommodation is in the old workers’ cottages on the edge of the sea.

Camara do Lobos, Madeira, Portugal

Avoiding humdrum hotel pools is easy, as natural volcanic swimming spots are dotted around the coast. In pretty Porto Moniz, on the north side of the island, swimmers are buffeted by waves that crash over the rocks and into the deep blue pools. If you want to stay or eat nearby, try Aqua Natura.

Back in Funchal, another slice of local life can be seen first thing in the morning at the Mercado dos Lavradores (the farmers’ market). Huge tuna and ugly (but tasty) black scabbard fish are sold here, alongside locally sourced fruit and veg of every shape and colour. Plus, there’s a counter serving strong black coffee and pastéis de nata, which is perfect for people watching.

Misconception #4: It’s always sunny

It’s not! But it is a subtropical island, which means mild temperatures all year round – Madeira rarely gets too hot, but has a minimum temperature of 17°C (63ºF). October to March can be wet (which is great for the island’s greenery), but there are six micro climates which means it’s bound to be sunny somewhere on the island – and downpours usually pass quickly.

The Funchal Tobogan, MadieraThe Funchal Tobogan by Hilmil1 on Flickr (license)

Its varied climate is all the more reason to treat the island as a base for activities, rather than just somewhere to lounge by a pool. This Rough Guides’ writer did the exhilarating toboggan run from Monte downhill to Funchal in the pouring rain and felt much more intrepid for it.

Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Strung out in the mid-Atlantic, 1500km off the coast of Portugal, is a chain of nine breathtaking islands. These are the Azores, a volcanic archipelago thrust up from the seabed at the intersection of the Eurasian, North American and African plates.

Home to around 250,000 people, the lush islands hide glassy lakes, towering waterfalls, bubbling hot springs and flower-filled meadows. If you’re looking for natural beauty, you can’t ask for much more.

The unhurried pace of life here is one of the biggest draws, but adventure can be found, too. Inland you can cycle, canyon or hike or while offshore there’s whale-watching, dolphin-spotting and surfing.

Need more convincing? Check out our video of the week below from Portuguese filmmaker .

“We found one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been right here, in our own country”, he says.

Azores – Moving Mountains from João Monteiro on Vimeo.

Conjure up an image of the perfect Caribbean beach and you’ll find Cuba‘s generous shoreline fits the description perfectly: stretches of powdery, bone-white sand – often freckled with shady palm trees – and limpid, turquoise waters. And with so much coastline there are beaches to suit all needs: great swathes of golden sand groomed by resorts promise days on end of utter luxury, offshore islands act as jumping off points for exploring a wealth of coral reefs, while hidden down jungle-choked dirt tracks are sandy slices of undiscovered paradise.

Playa Los Flamencos

With 22km of creamy-white sands and cerulean waters, Cayo Coco effortlessly draws holidaymakers to its shores. The best beaches are clustered on the north coast, dominated by the all-inclusive hotels whose tendrils are gradually spreading along the rest of the northern coastline. Cayo Coco’s big three beaches, home to the all-inclusives and packed with boisterous activities, hog the narrow easternmost peninsula jutting out of the cay’s north coast. For a pocket of tranquillity, escape the main beaches and head to Playa Los Flamencos. The beach offers 3km of fine sands and transparent waters where tangerine-coloured starfish float through the shallows. There’s also good snorkelling out to sea.

Playa Pilar

A more serene retreat than it’s rowdier neighbour Cayo Coco, tiny Cayo Guillermo boasts 4km of stunning near-deserted beaches. With such an abundance of largely untouched sand, there’s no shortage of options for a bit of solitude but one beach that shouldn’t be missed is gorgeous Playa Pilar. On the western tip of Cayo Guillermo, Playa Pilar is named after Ernest Hemingway’s yacht, Pilar, and was the author’s favourite hideaway in Cuba. With limpid clear shallows and squeaky-clean beaches, it is without doubt the top beach choice on Guillermo, if not in the entire cays.

Playa Pilar, Cayo Coco island

Playa Perla Blanca

The northern cays, a network of small islets, interspersed by turquoise waters and mangrove colonies, form one of Cuba’s newest tourist resorts. The cays are linked to the mainland by an impressive 48km causeway making the trip here all part of the adventure. At the far end of the chain lies Cayo Santa María, home to Playa Perla Blanca, one of the most splendid beaches in the area. It’s charm lies in its remote, untouched feel: it’s accessible, yet it has no facilities and is a bit of a trek to get to. But the journey, a total of 52km from the mainland, is worth it: the sand is as fine as it gets in Cuba.

Varadero

Varadero is undoubtedly the package holiday resort in Cuba and the glut of all-inclusive hotels, restaurants, and tour operators are all here for one reason: the beach – Cuba’s longest and one of the best in the Caribbean. It may be popular but thanks to its sheer size there’s enough space for everyone to indulge in a few days stress-free sloth. Stretching almost the entire length of a 25km peninsula that shoots out from the mainland, Varadero fits the classic Caribbean image: downy sand that forms a runway between palm trees along one edge and unruffled, sparkling waters along the other.

Stall on Varadero Beach, Cuba

Playa Los Pinos

Astoundingly beautiful and yet still deserted, Cayo Sabinal is so paradisiacal it’s almost eerie. It’s remained untouched thanks to it’s geographical isolation: to get here you have to drive 7km down a very bumpy dirt track, some of which is a causeway, a journey that no public transport and very few cars bother to make. A number of beaches await you at the north side of the 30km-long coral key – the longest of which is Playa Los Pinos, a blindingly white beach that’s perfect for a few days of complete tranquillity. Here sugary sands stretch out to meet the transparent waters, while wild horses and deer roam through the woodland that borders the sand giving the beach an almost magical feel.

Playa Ancón

Playa Ancón is often touted as the best beach on Cuba’s south coast and it’s easy to see why: it’s one of the longest in the area and boasts a dazzling sweep of sand that arcs around glittering turquoise waters. The beach may have put the area on the tourist map, but it has managed to keep a natural feel, with trees and shrubs creeping down to the shoreline. It’s a good jumping off point for snorkelling and diving in the reefs around the shoreline, plus Trinidad, Cuba’s colonial gem is just a stone’s throw away.

Playa Ancon, Cuba

Playa Ancón by neiljs (CC license)

Playa Turquesa

Simply translated as “turquoise beach”, it comes as no surprise to find that Playa Turquesa is one of the most beautiful beaches in the region. Filled with golden sand and bordered by mangrove forest at its eastern boundary, the shallow bay has a small coral reef a short swim offshore, while a strip of dense forest between the hotel Riu Playa Turquesa and the beach makes it feel perfectly undiscovered.

Playa Esmeralda

Some 5km west from Guardalavaca, picture-perfect Playa Esmeralda (also known as Estero Ciego) boasts clear blue water, powdery sand speckled with thatched sunshades and two luxury hotels hidden from view by thoughtfully planted bushes and shrubs. If you want unashamed hassle-free luxury, where the intrusion of local culture is kept to a bare minimum, this is the place for you.

Playa Guardalavaca

The resort of Guardalavaca is popular for good reason: a succession of gorgeous beaches sweeping around sheltered reefs, backed by a surrounding landscape of gentle hills and fields of sugar cane. One of the best beaches in the area is delightful Playa Guardalava, a 15000m stretch of dazzlingly white sand that draws both Cubans and tourists alike. Running along the centre of the beach, a strip of palm and tamarind trees provides a cool walkway and dapples the sand with shade, while a number of stands are on hand to rent out snorkelling equipment.

 

Playa Guardalava, Cuba

Playa Guardalavaca by Jeff (CC license)

Playa Francés

On Isla de la Juventud’s most remote upturned hook of land, lies Punta Francés, where you’ll find the island’s top beach, Playa Francés. There is over 3km of beach in all, split by a sandy headland into two broad curves of soft, silver shore ringed on one side by the lush green of a woody, palm-specked thicket and on the other by the glassy Caribbean Sea. The deserted tranquillity of this private world is all part of what makes it exceptional, though this is sometimes destroyed by hordes of cruise-ship visitors. Equally attractive are the nearby reefs; the beach lies within the island’s ecologically protected area, which is renowned for it’s superb diving.

Playa Sirena

The tiny islet of Cayo Largo, a narrow ribbon of land flanked by pale downy sands, is separated from Isla de la Juventud by 100km of sea.  With no permanent population, it’s entirely geared to holiday-makers who are drawn here for the irresistible beaches and various watersports. Protected from harsh winds and rough waves by the offshore coral reef, and with over 2km of stunning white sands, Playa Sirena, at the western tip of the cay, enjoys a deserved reputation as the most beautiful of all the beaches on Cayo Largo (if not in all of Cuba).

Cover of the guide The Rough Guide to CubaExplore more of the Cuban coastline with The Rough Guide to CubaCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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