Unexpected sums up the Florida Keys. Just one road, the Overseas Highway, connects these long, narrow islands, strung out between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. With names as varied as No-Name Key, Fiesta Key and Fat Deer Key, this coral cay archipelago has North America’s only coral barrier reef, indigenous Key Deer and protected mangroves. It’s a world away from the Florida of theme parks. Here are a few reasons why you should visit this laidback island chain.

1. To meet the turtles

Spanky, Gonzo, Calico Jack and, erm, Jaws might be your favourite holiday encounters. These rescued turtles, often injured by discarded rubbish, boat strikes or victims of turtle cancer, are among the residents at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Named by the person who found them, these adorable creatures are even listed as ‘current patients’ on the hospital’s website. Visitors are taken on an hourly guided tour – the get-better pools, ‘rescue, rehab and release’ ethos and pure turtle love which permeates the place has most people captivated.

Creative commons Florida Turtle HospitalHatchling by Florida Fish and Wildlife (license)

2. To take relaxation one step further

As if the Keys aren’t chilled-out enough, anyone seeking another level of bliss can practise yoga on a paddleboard or meditate on a kayak. It’s thanks to Sarah Sullivan, who’s combined a psychology degree and background in mental health with her yoga and aquatic skills to create Serenity Eco Therapy. Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) and kayaking are lovely ways to explore the quiet backwaters even without the yoga, but you can’t beat a downward dog in the silence of the mangroves.

3. To get a fix of island community culture

There’s a real sense of community in the Keys, and the Morada Way Arts and Cultural District on Islamorada is one example. This six-block corridor between the Green Turtle Inn and the Hurricane Monument was inspired by local artists who wanted to create an arts space with galleries, restaurants and businesses. One newcomer is the Florida Keys Brewing Co, the first and only microbrewery in the Upper Keys, producing and serving craft beers in a very cool venue with furniture and murals designed by local artists. The monthly ArtWalk (third Thursday of the month) is the best time to visit because everyone stays open till late for an evening of local art, food and drink.

Fishing, Florida Keys, USA - creative commonsIMG_0232 by Zach Petersen (license

4. For the chance to cook your catch

Turning up to a restaurant with a piece of freshly caught fish and asking the chef to cook it may not always be the ‘done thing’, but it’s pretty standard in the Keys. Novices and keen anglers alike can enjoy a day at sea before feasting on their prized catch later. Some fishing trips operate under a strict catch-and-release policy – no good if you want Nemo for dinner – but several companies such as SeaSquared Charters, Chelsea Charters and Bud N Mary’s will keep your catch bagged and fresh.

5. To celebrate sunset – every day

Sunset is such a big deal in the Keys, it has its own website. The daily sunset celebration is testament to the fact that Key Westers love a party and they’ll celebrate no matter how big, or small, that ball of orange is in the sky. Come sundown and it’s happy hour in Mallory Square which packs out with food carts, street performers, artists and psychics. For others, it’s simply about sitting on the water’s edge waiting for the daily spectacle over the Gulf of Mexico. For a crowd-free version, head out to sea on Danger Charters’ Wind and Wine Sunset Sail.

Fishing at Sunset, Florida Keys, USA

6. For a taste of the Floribbean

That’s not a made-up word. The influence of the Caribbean on this archipelago isn’t all that surprising – after all, Key West is closer to Cuba than Miami. Food is king – it’s hard to emphasise just how much so. From tiny cafés to upscale restaurants, the buzzword is fresh and the reigning style Floribbean. Coconut, citrus fruits, mangos and papaya make a regular appearance in dishes and expect to see those key limes in more than just pies.

7. For the festivals

The fact sunset is celebrated every day tells you something – these locals love a party and the Keys’ festival calendar is packed. There’s Hemingway Days in July, marking Ernest’s time in Key West, with lookalike contests and a marlin tournament, a nod to his love for deep-sea fishing, and Marathon Seafood Festival and Key Lime Festival for the foodies. Most flamboyant of all is Fantasy Fest, a 10-day party in October with outrageous costumes, floats and a 2015 theme of ‘All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show’…

Hemingway Days, Florida Keys, USA

8. To visit a micro-nation…

It all kicked off in 1982. Amid concerns over immigration and drug-smuggling, US border control set up a roadblock between the Keys and the mainland. The restrictions annoyed many locals, leading to Key West’s mayor proclaiming, “Tomorrow at noon the Florida Keys will secede from the Union!” Enter the ‘Conch Republic’, passports and all. It’s tongue-in-cheek but each April, a week-long celebration in Mallory Square marks ‘independence’ with parties and parades. The tagline, ‘We seceded where others failed’, says it all. The sense of humour and independent thinking makes the Keys so lovable.

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

Everybody knows the Isle of Man, Guernsey, Skye. But what about the other 6000-odd British Isles? Yes, we did say 6000. From the chunky Shetland Islands in Scotland’s far north to the sunny Isles of Scilly slung out from the coast of Cornwall, the British Isles are made up of islands of all shapes and sizes. Pick the right one and you could even have it all to yourself.

For a royal welcome: Piel Island

It’s probably fair to say that this Cumbrian island is the archipelago’s quirkiest, with its very own King and Queen. That’s Sheila and Steve, who own the island’s Ship Inn and welcome visitors to their kingdom with real ales and pub meals. This low-lying isle may be just 50 acres, but Piel has its own castle – and for the princely sum of £5 you can pitch your tent just about anywhere you like. The pub also has accommodation, and the royal family can organize seal watching and fishing trips. Take the ferry across from Roa Island, which confusingly is actually part of mainland England, for £5.

For an Art Deco stay: Burgh Island

You can walk to this island off Bigbury on Sea – assuming the tide is out, that is. At low tide the waters reveal a wide sandy beach, which acts as a 250-metre-long road for the Burgh Island Hotel’s Landrover, as well as anyone who wants to stroll across and have a pint in the ancient Pilchard Inn. At other times the hotel operates what could claim to be Britain’s oddest ferry: a “sea tractor” (£2 to non-residents) – essentially a raised platform 7ft above some very sturdy tractor wheels. Stay overnight in the Art Deco hotel and you’ll be in good company, previous guests have included Noel Coward and Agatha Christie, who set two of her mysteries here.

Burgh Island sea tractor, UKOff to sea by Ben Salter (license)

For complete rule of the roost: Towan

Here’s your chance to get an island all to yourself simply by booking a holiday cottage. That cottage is The House, perched atop Towan island on the eponymous beach in Newquay. Approach by private suspension bridge and enjoy the Atlantic views from your bar room, complete with bar billiards table, 3D TV and – of course – fully equipped bar. There’s even a flag you can raise to signal that you’re in residence. It sleeps six, so bring some friends for a game of snooker.

For adventure and activity: St Martin’s

Who wouldn’t want to visit Bread and Cheese cove? That’s the name of one of this unknown Scilly Isle’s superlative beaches, all fine, white sand and (usually) gently lapping seas. The population of St Martin’s is around 120 but don’t expect things to be quiet, there’s a pub, an art gallery, a diving school and even a vineyard. You could snorkel with seals, go rockpooling, learn to scuba or simply order a traditional Cornish pasty from the Island Bakery and enjoy a picnic on the beach. There’s plenty of accommodation, including camping, and Tresco Boat Services can ferry you to and from the other Scilly Isles.

Little Sark, Guernsey, Channel IslandsCrossing to Little Sark by Brian Fagan (license)

For peace and quiet: Little Sark

Still – just about – joined to its sibling Sark by a very narrow isthmus known as La Coupée, Little Sark will one day be its very own island. Until then, hire a bike (there are no cars on Sark) and cycle across the 3-metre-wide concrete road to reach this rugged land of granite cliffs and ancient tin mines. Book ahead for a room at the delightfully chintzy La Sablonnerie Hotel, whose cooks will source your dinner from its own gardens and the sea that surrounds this tiny island (lobsters are a speciality).

For northernmost claims: Unst

Considered remote even by Shetlanders, Unst is the northernmost inhabited island in the UK and here you can collect “northernmost” experiences from the post office to the gin distillery, home to Shetland Reel gin, made with local botanicals. You have to stay at the northernmost hotel of course, and that’s Saxa Vord Resort, an ex-RAF base now offering hostel and self-catering accommodation – and plenty of that gin. Don’t miss a walk out to the northernmost point, at the far end of Hermaness nature reserve and overlooking Muckle Flugga lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson and said to have inspired his son’s Treasure Island map. The island’s network of inter-island ferries will get you out here from the mainland of Shetland.

Unst. Shetland Islands, ScotlandTilly on lookout duty by Pete + Lynn (license)

For a short flight and long history: Papa Westray

The world’s shortest scheduled flight takes just two minutes, usually less, and carries people to Papa Westray from Westray in the Orkney Islands, dropping them off at an airport that is little more than a shed. You may even get a chance to play co-pilot, sitting up front next to Colin McAlistair as he operates a flight that covers less distance than the length of the main runway at Heathrow. Once here you can explore almost sixty archaeological sites, including the oldest known northern European house, the Knap of Howar, which predates the Pyramids.

For extreme living: St Kilda

Nobody has lived on St Kilda since 1930 when the population requested evacuation – and you’ll see why immediately. This dramatic scattering of granite rocks in the midst of the Atlantic is the most remote part of the British Isles, lying some 40 miles west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, and life here was hard. Today no crossing from the Hebrides is guaranteed, with landings on the main island of Hirta only possible for a few months in summer. Take a chance though and you could be richly rewarded, with a hike to the top of the UK’s highest sea cliffs and a sail past the world’s largest northern gannet colony and Britain’s greatest population of puffins. Head out here on a cruise with Hebrides Cruises for the chance to moor overnight in Village Bay.

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

Hoboken, the mile-square city in New Jersey, directly across the Hudson River from downtown Manhattan, is back on its feet. And as Allison Singer discovers, not only has the birthplace of baseball and “ol’ blue eyes” himself, Frank Sinatra, become a popular choice of residence for young professionals who don’t want to combat sky-high Manhattan prices, it’s also well worth a trip.

Why should I visit now?

When Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast in 2012, Hoboken was one of the hardest-hit places. It essentially drowned; the entire city was flooded. People lost their homes and businesses, but they didn’t lose their spirit. Since then, the community has rebuilt their city better than ever.

In the last year, Hoboken has received a slew of accolades, including being named one of the most exciting small cities in the USA. Businesses and restaurants are taking notice; NYC’s Luke’s Lobsters and Del Friscos, for example, just announced plans to open Hoboken locations later this year.

Hoboken, USAHoboken clock on 11th/Washington by r0sss via Flickr (CC license)

So what is there to see and do?

Most importantly, walk the city-long riverfront to explore each pier. Pier 13 offers a huge selection of food trucks, and a super-hip open-air bar and paddleboarding excursions. Pier C, a floating island connected to the riverfront walkway by winding wooden bridges, is home to Hoboken families’ favorite playground, and Pier A stretches out so far toward Manhattan, you’ll feel like you could easily swim there – though we wouldn’t recommend trying that.

Set seven blocks back from the river, the Hoboken Public Library is a stately building at over 100 years old, and the city has more worthy coffee shops and pizzerias than you can count. There are plenty of live music events, and, for spring and summer visitors, plenty of outdoor markets to explore – the Garden Street Farmers Market even combines fresh produce with live music.

Walking along Pier, Hoboken, New Jersey

What do only the locals know about?

While the riverfront is lovely, for the most striking views of the Manhattan skyline locals go to Castle Point Lookout on the Stevens Institute campus. The view from the top of the cliff is unrivalled on either side of the river with the Empire State Building and Freedom Tower standing in clear view.

Don’t wait in the hour-long line for Carlo’s Bakery – made famous thanks to TV series Cake Boss. Instead, snag a quick picture out front, then try one of the other great bakeries in town, like Old German Bakery on 4th and Washington.

And locals know this all too well: don’t drive to Hoboken if you can help it. Street parking is sparse, and traffic enforcement can be trigger-happy when it comes to ticketing. Instead, take public transportation, like the PATH train or regional rail. It really is a walkable city – you won’t need a car to get around.

View of Manhattan from Hoboken, New Jersey, USA

Where are the best places to stay and eat?

There’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to restaurants – many of which can be found on Washington Street. Make sure to get yourself to an Italian deli, like Lisa’s on 9th and Park, for some deliciously fresh mozzarella. For pizza, head to Benny Tudino’s, and for Mexican, try Charrito’s – with locations in both uptown and downtown – and order your guacamole spicy.

For drinks, downtown bars will be filled with drunken college students, so if you’re after more of a relaxed vibe, venture uptown or west. There you’ll find low-key bars with welcoming staff and friendly clientele. Try Hudson Tavern on 14th and Hudson, or Northern Soul on 1st and Madison.

The W Hotel in Hoboken, USACocktail at the W Hotel in Hoboken by Jazz Guy via Flickr (CC license)

Make a pit stop at one of Hoboken’s Irish pubs. We like Finnegan’s on 8th and Willow – but in the city that claims to hold the world record for most bars per square mile, you’ll be able to find the perfect watering hole to suit your taste.

As for sleeping, staying in Hoboken is tricky. The only hotel in town is the W, and it’s not exactly cheap. You could stay one town over, at the Lincoln Harbor Sheraton in Weehawken, or better still make Hoboken a day-trip on your next visit to New York City.

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

The allure of Istanbul is hard to beat. This thrilling city bridges two continents with a history spanning more than 2000 years. And with Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport hitting an all-time record for flight traffic this July, its status as a top city-break destination has been further cemented.

But what about the rest of the country? “More often than not, people spend all their time in Turkey mostly in Istanbul”, says entrepreneur and filmmaker Pete R, “but Turkey has much more to offer”. 

In this film, our pick of the week, he heads out across the country, paragliding in Pamukkale, hiking in Cappadocia and swimming in Lake Van. “Turkey is definitely one of its kind”, he says, and “I [encourage] you to go further east to see the real Turkey!”

Inspired? Check out our list of 20 things not to miss in Turkey and our “wild east” itinerary to kick-start your trip planning.

More to Turkey than Istanbul from Pete R. on Vimeo.

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

In Cuba, the car is not king. For a country whose image for visitors has become so inseparable with classic 1950s American automobiles, this is a remarkably auto-free nation. The most recently available World Bank statistics (from 2011) indicate that there are just 21 passenger cars per 1000 people in Cuba (in the UK it’s 457 and the USA 423). That means a lot of quiet roads. Hop on a bike and you’ve got the run of the place.

You can happily cycle along the single motorway between Havana and the rest of the country in the middle of the day, without being passed by a single vehicle for quarter of an hour.

When an engine does rumble up behind you, a turn of the head is likely to reveal either a tourist bus hoping to get a last peek at the place ‘before the Americans invade’; a truck transporting sugar cane, the principle Cuban crop, upon which the economy depended for so long thanks to the generous prices paid for it by the Soviet Union; or a 1957 Chevrolet taxiing Cubans from A to B – almost the entire fleet of American classics in Cuba are doing the same.

Cycling, Cuba, Havana, Rough Guides

“There’s a special blend of Caribbean culture as potent as the rum”

A cycling tour around Cuba holds the same appeal as any visit to this fascinating country: a chance to witness a nation whose highly educated population is still nursing the Cold War’s longest hangover, where decades of urban neglect have, ironically, saved buildings and even whole towns from the bulldozers of progress and renewal, leaving the past so firmly imprinted on Cuba’s present.

Cuba is a place where Spanish colonialism, American and Soviet expansionism and Cuban nationalism, sun, salsa and socialism have created a special blend of Caribbean culture as potent as the rum made from truck-loads of sugar cane.

Yet there are added rewards for cyclists, and they start with all those empty roads. Even in the largest cities you’d be unlucky to see a traffic jam.

Once outside them the lush, semi-tropical, ever-green Cuban countryside can be heard almost as soon as it can be seen. The call of the red, white and blue Cuban trogon, the national bird and one of over 350 bird species found on the island, remains undisturbed by the sounds of carburettors.

You can safely cycle two, even three abreast along main roads, though you may have to swerve for the occasional farmer on horseback. Pass under a bridge and you’ll see whole groups of hitchhikers, waiting for one of those American gas-guzzlers or trucks. Not long ago they were accompanied by yellow-suited officials whose job it was to flag vehicles down and oblige them to load up with passengers: state-sponsored hitchhiking – only in Cuba.

Cuban countryside, mountains, Cuba

“Cycle from city to mountains to beach with ease”

You needn’t be a super-fit cycling fanatic to join in either. Cuba’s compact size (it’s slightly smaller than England) means distances between places are never that great, allowing you to cycle from city to mountains to beach quite easily in a two-week tour.

There are three principal mountain ranges in Cuba but the landscape between them is generally flat or gently undulating. The mountains themselves are beguiling rather than awesome, the peaks forested and rounded, rather than rocky and rugged, making them accessible to cyclists.

Buying or even just hiring a decent bike in Cuba is near impossible so unless you bring your own, you’re looking at paying for a bike tour – but there is plenty to recommend this too. The chances are you will have a Cuban tour guide which will add immeasurably to your time spent here. It takes a lifetime to figure this place out by yourself but you’ll get there a lot quicker if you’ve got Cubans to engage with.

Refreshingly, given the polarising effect that Cuba has outside the island and the entrenched positions of Cuba-watchers on both the left and right, people inside the country tend to have a more nuanced view of things. What’s more, your tour guide may well have trained as an engineer or a doctor, but ended up in tourism because tips from a weeks work can equate to half a doctor’s salary, so there’s a good chance you’ll get an intelligent take on Cuban failures and successes, politics and culture.

CDR Mural, Central Havana, Cuba

“Ask a farm labourer for directions and you may end up in a conversation about the European Union”

Education is one of the great successes of the Cuban Revolution (literacy rates are close to 99%) and like the health system, free for all. In the early years of the Revolution new schools appeared all over Cuba, particularly in the countryside, part of the huge push to educate the rural poor. Pedal up an empty mountain road now and stop to ask a farm labourer for directions (there are hardly any road signs) and you may end up in a conversation about the European Union.

How much longer will all this last? If the US finally ends its economic blockade of the island, will the expected influx of American tourists and money change the character of Cuba forever? Many seem to think so and there is talk of a Russian-style descent into monopoly capitalism. There will almost certainly be more cars on the roads but it is a mistake to assume Cuba’s destiny is inextricably tied to its relationship with the US.

Cuba, Havana, vintage American yellow taxi speeding on road

“For cyclists the time to go is now – soon the car will claim another crown”

Cuba was already changing before December 2014 when President Obama announced that the time had finally come to change US policy towards its tiny neighbour. Unlike the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba is not collapsing – far from it. Raul Castro’s reforms, expanding the private sector, allowing greater numbers than ever to pursue their own destiny and create their own wealth, albeit within the constraints of what is still largely a state controlled economy, have proved popular with most.

Dreams or nightmares of a Starbucks in every neighbourhood in Havana are as yet unfounded but for cyclists the time to go is definitely now – soon the car will claim another crown.

Explore’s 8 day Highlights of Cuba by Bicycle tour starts from £1,588pp and includes return flights; 4 nights standard hotel accommodation, 2 nights in Casa Particulares on a bed and breakfast basis; one lunch; bike hire, transport and the services of a tour leader, driver and cycle guide. For more information, or to book, visit www.explore.co.uk or call 01252 884723.

The rich and varied cuisine of Andalucía is a reflection of its dramatic history. One of its signature dishes, gazpacho, was introduced by the romans in the first millennium BC, and didn’t reach its final version until peppers and tomatoes arrived in Spain following the voyages of Columbus.

Another great influence came from the Moors who changed the face of southern Spain forever with the planting of orange, olive and almond trees. They also introduced spices such as cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and saffron plus vegetables and fruits like aubergine, spinach, quince and pomegranate.

Today, the cooking of modern Andalucía falls into mountain and coastal food. Along the coastline, fish and seafood are king; inland, rich stews, jamones (cured hams) and game are preferred. Wherever you are, however, there are few greater pleasures than joining the regulars at a local bar to wind down over a glass of fino (dry sherry from Jerez) while nibbling tapas – Andalucía’s great titbit invention.

From the new Rough Guide to Andalucía, these are the highlights no food-lover should miss.

Tapas in Seville

The city that invented tapas has some of Spain’s very best bars to sample them. It simply knocks spots off the competition: there is simply nowhere else in Andalucía – or even Spain – with such a variety of places to indulge this culinary art. El tapeo means eating “on the go” and Sevillanos do it on their feet, moving from bar to bar where they stand with a manzanilla or beer while wolfing back fistfuls of whatever tapas take their fancy. Locals tend to drink the cold, dry fino, but often change to beer in high summer. Another popular tapas partner is tinto de verano – the local version of sangría – consisting of wine mixed with lemonade and ice.

Seville, Andalucia, Spain, seafood menu

Goat’s cheese in Villaluenga del Rosario

Some 13km southwest of Grazalema, the tiny mountain village of Villaluenga del Rosario is the highest in Cádiz province. Tucked beneath a great crag, it’s a simple place, with narrow streets, flower-filled balconies and pantiled roofs, frequently enveloped by mountain mists. Come here to try the famous goat’s cheese, which can be purchased at the multi-award-winning Payoyo cheesemaker’s factory on the south side of the main road running through the village.

Jerez in the “sherry triangle”

The northwest corner of Cádiz province is sherry country, a dramatic landscape of low, rolling hills and extensive vineyards. The famous triangle of sherry towns – Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda – are the main production centres of Andalucía’s great wine, but smaller places like Chipiona and even tiny Rota manage to muscle in on the action. Besides their bodegas, at many of which you can taste blends and buy some to take home, all the sherry towns make interesting places for a stopover in themselves.

Spain, Andalucia, sherry, grapes, vineyard

Anís in Rute

Beyond a ruined Moorish castle and a Baroque church, this whitewashed town, sited picturesquely on a hill overlooked by the hazy Sierra de Rute, has few conventional attractions. Rute’s fame throughout Andalucía is based on a far more potent allure: the manufacture of a lethal anís (aniseed apéritif) with spring water from the sierra. It comes in varying strengths and can be tasted at the twenty or so small bodegas scattered around the town; Bodega Machaquito is regarded as one of the best.

Jamón in Jabugo

The mere mention of the name of Jabugo is enough to make any Spaniard’s mouth water, and once you’ve tasted what all the fuss is about it’s easy to understand why. As roadside billboards depicting smiling pigs proclaim, jamón is king in Jabugo and can be sampled at producers’ outlets in the village. The jamón ibérico or pata negra (both acorn-fed hams) that you can taste here are some of the finest in all of Spain.

Jamon, Andalucia, Spain

Olive oil in Baena

Córdoba province’s olive oil has been prized since Roman times – and its most celebrated oil production centre is Baena. The town has its own official denominación de origen and Baena’s finest oil stands comparison with the best in Europe. With a markedly low acid content and an unfatty, concentrated flavour, the best “free run” oils produced here are far too good (and expensive) for cooking and are instead sparingly used to flavour gazpacho – in Córdoba province, salmorejo – or tasted on a morsel of bread as a tapa.

Seafood in Cádiz

Feasting on fish and crustaceans in sight of the sea is an Andaluz passion. You’ll find fresh and tasty fish served up in bars and restaurants in all coastal regions, but the atmospheric sea-locked city of Cádiz has perhaps the most valid claim to be Andalucía’s seafood capital. The old seamen’s quarter, the Barrio de la Viña, is where gaditanos make for on warmer nights to scoff fried fish and mariscos at economical marisquerías, while the city’s summer playground, the Paseo Marítimo is also lively and fun in season.

Seafood, Andalucia, Spain

Mineral water in Lanjarón

Lanjarón has known tourism and the influence of the outside world for longer than anywhere else in the Alpujarras due to the curative powers of its spa waters which have attracted cure seekers since ancient times. These gush from seven natural springs and are sold in bottled form throughout Spain. Taste the waters straight from the mountain at the village’s spa.

rough guide andalucia cover Explore more of Andalucía with the Rough Guide to AndaluciaCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

So you’ve gawked at the guards of Buckingham Palace, hiked up Snowdon and hit the beach – what next? From lethal motorcycle races to mountain towns that look like something out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, here are 8 unconventional things to do in the UK.

1. Horse about at Scotland’s Common Ridings

The Common Ridings of the Scottish border towns of Hawick, Selkirk, Jedburgh and Lauder are an equestrian extravaganza that combines the danger of Pamplona’s Fiesta de San Fermin and the drinking of Munich’s Oktoberfest. At dawn on each day of the ridings, a colourful and incredibly noisy drum and fife band marches around the streets to shake people from their sleep. It’s a signal: everyone get down to the pub – they open at 6am – and stock up on the traditional breakfast of “Curds and Cream” (rum and milk). Suitably fortified, over two hundred riders then mount their horses and gallop at breakneck speed around the ancient lanes and narrow streets of town, before heading out into the fields to race again.

By early evening, the spectators and riders stagger back into Hawick to reacquaint themselves with the town’s pubs. Stumbling out onto the street at well past midnight, you should have just enough time for an hour or two of shuteye before the fife band strikes up once more and it’s time to do it all over again.

Jethart Callants' Festival Day

2. Find Middle Earth in Northern Ireland

The mountains rise above the seaside town of Newcastle like green giants, with Slieve Donard the highest, almost 3000ft above the sandy strand of Dundrum Bay. Donard is just one of more than twenty peaks in County Down’s Mourne, with a dozen of them towering over 2000ft.

Conveniently grouped together in a range that is just seven miles broad and about fourteen miles long, they are surprisingly overlooked. On foot, in a landscape with no interior roads, you feel as if you have reached a magical oasis of high ground, a pure space that is part Finian’s Rainbow and part Middle Earth. This is ancient land and prehistoric cairns and stone graves – said to mark the resting place of Irish chiefs – dot the hills, peering through the mist to meet you.

3. Mountain bike on world-class trails in Wales

It’s not often that the modest mountains of Wales can compete with giants like the Alps or the Rockies, but when it comes to mountain biking, the trails that run through the craggy peaks of Snowdonia, the high moorlands of the Cambrian Mountains, and the deep, green valleys of South Wales are more than a match for their loftier counterparts. Indeed, the International Mountain Biking Association has long rated Wales as one of the planet’s top destinations.

Over the last decade or so, a series of purpose-built mountain-biking centres has been created throughout the country, providing world-class riding for everyone from rank beginner through to potential-world-cup downhiller. From easy, gently undulating trails along former rail lines that once served the heavy industry of the South Wales valleys, to the steep, rooty, rocky single tracks that run through the cloud-shadowed hills of North Wales, this is mountain biking at its finest.

7174028403_510f7cf652_b_MTB1662 by Dai Williams (license)

4. Explore Britain’s most mysterious beach in Scotland

Cape Wrath is a name that epitomizes nature at its harshest, land and sea at their most unforgiving. In fact, the name Wrath denotes a “turning point” in Old Norse, and the Vikings regarded this stockade of vertical rock in the most northwesterly corner of Scotland as a milestone in their ocean-going voyages. As such, they were surely among the first travellers to come under the spell of Sandwood Bay, the Cape’s most elemental stretch of coastline.

Here blow Britain’s most remote sands, flanked by epic dunes and a slither of shimmering loch; a beach of such austere and unexpected elegance, scoured so relentlessly by the Atlantic and located in such relative isolation, that it scarcely seems part of the Scottish mainland at all. Even on the clearest of summer days, when shoals of cumuli race shadows across the foreshore, you are unlikely to encounter other visitors save for the odd sandpiper. You might not be entirely alone, though; whole galleons are said to be buried in the sand, and a cast of mermaids, ghostly pirates and grumbling sailors has filled accounts of the place for as long as people have frequented it.

5. Discover heaven on Earth in Cornwall

A disused clay pit may seem like an odd location for Britain’s very own ecological paradise, but then everything about Cornwall’s Eden Project is far from conventional. From the concept of creating a unique ecosystem that could showcase the diversity of the world’s plant life, through to the execution – a set of bulbous, alien-like, geodesic biomes wedged into the hillside of a crater – the designers have never been less than innovative.

The gigantic humid Rainforest Biome, the largest conservatory in the world, is kept at a constant temperature of 30°c. Besides housing lofty trees and creepers that scale its full 160ft height, it takes visitors on a journey through tropical agriculture from coffee growing to the banana trade, to rice production and finding a cure for leukaemia. There’s even a life-size replica of a bamboo Malaysian jungle home, and a spectacular treetop Canopy Walkway.

Inside the Eden Project, Cornwall, England, UK

6. Call in the heavies at the Highland Games

Throughout Scotland, not just in the Highlands, summer signals the onset of the Highland Games, from the smallest village get-togethers to the Giant Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon, which draws a crowd of around 20,000. Urbanites might blanch at the idea of alfresco Scottish country dancing, but with dog trials, tractors, fudge stalls and more cute animals than you could toss a caber (tree trunk) at, the Highland Games are a guaranteed paradise for kids.

The military origins of the games are recalled in displays of muscle-power by bulky bekilted local men, from tossing the caber to hurling hammers and stones, and pitching bales of straw over a raised pole. Music and dance are also integral to the games, with pipe bands and young girls – kitted out in waistcoats, kilts and long woolly socks – performing reels and sword dances. A truly Scottish sight to behold.

7. Take bonfire night to extremes in Lewes

The first week of November sees one of the eccentric English’s most irresponsible, unruly and downright dangerous festivals – Bonfire Night. Up and down the country, human effigies are burned in back gardens and fireworks are set off – all in the name of Guy Fawkes’ foiled attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 – but in the otherwise peaceful market town of Lewes, things are taken to extremes. Imagine a head-on collision between Halloween and Mardi Gras and you’re well on your way to picturing Bonfire Night, Lewes-style.

Throughout the evening, smoke fills the Lewes air, giving the steep and narrow streets an eerie, almost medieval feel. As the evening draws on, rowdy torch-lit processions make their way through the streets, pausing to hurl barrels of burning tar into the River Ouse before dispersing to their own part of town to stoke up their bonfires.

Forget the limp burgers of mainstream displays and lame sparklers suitable for use at home – for a real pyrotechnic party, Lewes is king.

Bonfire night, Lewes, England, UK

8. Browse one of England’s oldest markets in Birmingham

There’s enough chaos and colour to rival any frenetic southeast-Asian market here, as a stroll around Birmingham’s Bull Ring markets is an overdose for the senses. The pungent aromas of fresh seafood; the jewel colours and silken textures of miles and miles of rolled fabrics; the racket from hundreds of vendors bellowing news of their latest offerings in hopes of making a sale.

Around 850 years ago Birmingham became one of the first towns in medieval England to hold a legitimate weekly market, selling wares from leather to metal to meat at a site they named the Bull Ring, and cementing the Anglo-Saxon settlement on the map for centuries to come. But while Birmingham has much-changed since medieval times, the noise, excitement and commotion of its Bull Ring markets have barely changed at all – only now you can buy almost anything from neon mobile phone cases and knock-off superhero outfits to fresh meat, fruit and veg.

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The break-up of the Soviet Union gave the world an impressive array of new capitals. Some have since become familiar fodder on travel itineraries – think Tallinn’s Baltic charm, Kiev’s bulbous cathedrals and Riga’s drunken Brits. Others, for better or worse, remain something of a mystery.

Step forward Yerevan, capital of Armenia, a city swaggering into a new era, and making a mockery of the usual Soviet stereotypes of drab, grey skies and drab, grey architecture.

The Blue Mosque, Yerevan, ArmeniaThe Blue Mosque by debs-eye via Flickr (creative commons license)

Lofty and landlocked, Yerevan is one of the sunniest of the ex-Soviet capitals, and for most of the year the azure-blue firmament is punctuated only by the awe-inspiring shape of Mount Ararat. This fabled 5137m peak is where Noah’s floating zoo is said to have come to rest after the floods, and although it now lies just across the border in Turkish territory, the fact that it can be seen from so many parts of Yerevan makes it one of the main symbols of the city.

One other unmissable feature here is the liberal, almost ubiquitous use of duf, a sumptuously coloured stone used in the construction of the vast majority of Yerevan’s buildings. Its precise hue shifts from peach to pink to rose depending upon the weather and time of day, though the fiery tones that emerge under the rising and setting sun are particularly magnificent.

Sunset, Yerevan, ArmeniaSetting sun over Yerevan and Mount Ararat, Armenia by Forbes Johnston via Flickr (creative commons license)

Nowhere is this more apparent than on Northern Avenue, a sleek pedestrianized thoroughfare in the very centre of the city. Half a kilometre of soft, pinkish stone regularly inset with the cafés and boutiques of a burgeoning middle class, it would look stylish in any European city.

The street makes a grand place to people-watch over a coffee, served Turkish-style from a conical metal pot. The same could be said of most of Yerevan – indeed, on a summer afternoon it can seem as if the whole city is out, dressed for a fashion shoot, getting a caffeine fix.

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The fabled Pacific Crest Trail guides adventuresome hikers from the borders of Mexico to Canada, blazing across the deserts, mountain ranges and dense forests that make up America’s breathtaking Western States (California, Oregon, and Washington). It usually takes five months for thru-hikers to complete, but you’re about to make the 4286km journey in less than three minutes.

This film’s creator, Halfway Anywhere, says he quit his job to make the trip after “finally realizing that what you grow up thinking you are supposed to do and what you can actually do are two entirely different things”.

When you see the stunning clips in this video, you might just want to do the same:

We asked the Rough Guides team in Delhi to vote for the most beautiful places in India. After much deliberation, here are the results…

10. Chilika Lake, Odisha

Fed by fresh-water rivers and washed by the sea, this biodiversity hotspot is a wintering ground for migratory birds and home to a number of threatened aquatic species, including the Irrawaddy dolphin. A stunning place to start off our list of the most beautiful places in India.

10. Chilika Lake, Odisha

9. Madikeri, Coorg, Karnataka

Our Delhi team voted for Madikeri as an excellent base from which to explore the lush national parks, natural beauty and gorgeous coffee plantations that abound in this scenic stretch of the Western Ghats.

9. Madikeri, Coorg, Karnataka

8. Mawlynnong, Meghalaya

Described by one of our editors as magical, this village in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya is simply stunning. The surrounding areas are just as unforgettable, with natural bridges made by twisting the roots of rubber trees crossing the rivulets and streams.

8. Mawlynnong, Meghalaya

7. Kumarakom Backwaters, Kerala

At number seven in the list, Kerala’s scenic backwaters, edged with coconut palms, lush green rice paddies and picturesque villages, make for a beautiful escape from hectic city life.

7. Kumarakom Backwaters, Kerala

6. Mandu, Madhya Pradesh

One of central India’s most atmospheric monuments, this medieval ghost town is set on a scenic plateau still prowled at night by leopards and panthers.

6. Mandu, Madhya Pradesh

5. Hampi, Karnataka

This vast archeological site would have been one of the largest and richest cities of its time. The design, detailing and ornamentation of the best-preserved ruins are astonishing.

5. Hampi, Karnataka

4. Rann of Kutch, Gujarat

This hot and desolate landscape is reputed to be the largest salt desert in the world. Situated right on the border with Pakistan, its striking white plains call out to many of the more intrepid explorers in our team.

4. Rann of Kutch, Gujarat

3. Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand

From July to September, when its rolling alpine meadows are carpeted with wildflowers, this sprawling National Park is a bucket list destination for many in the Rough Guides office.

3. Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand

2. Pangong Tso, Ladakh

This icy saline lake, cradled by stark and sombre mountains 4350m above sea level, comes second in our list. We think it epitomises the breathtaking majesty of the high Himalaya.

2. Pangong Tso, Ladakh

1. Lakshadweep

Quiet lagoons, crystal-clear waters, coral reefs teeming with aquatic life and secluded white-sand beaches… The list goes on. The absolutely spectacular Lashadweep (‘100,000 islands’ – though there are actually just 36) was a unanimous choice at the top of our list for the most beautiful places in India.

1. Lakshadweep

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