Snow-white beaches, giant coconut-eating crabs and karate-loving grannies: Okinawa is Japan but not as we know it. This alluring chain of sun-kissed, hibiscus-draped islands offers a blend of Southeast Asian heat, unique ‘un-Japanese’ culture and delicious, life-extending food. Andy Turner explores how to make the most of a trip to Japan’s subtropical paradise.

Find the elixir of (long) life

An hour’s drive north of Okinawa’s sprawling capital, Naha, the village of Ogimi is famous across Japan for having the most centenarians (people over 100 years old) in the country. In fact, you’re barely considered middle-aged when you hit 80 here.

This could all be down to the local diet: steaming bowls of dark green vegetables, tofu, fresh fish and muzuku seaweed, the latter hoovered up from the Okinawan seabed and exported across Japan. Or perhaps it’s the knobbly goyu cucumber, apparently packed with all kinds of medicinal goodies (and often served up fried with SPAM, of all things).

Whatever the secret, it’s probably no thanks to the local hooch, awomori, ‘island sake’ which can pack a 60% alcohol punch. But that shouldn’t stop you sampling a glass – try the smooth, three-year aged version from local distillery Chuko Awamori.

Fish, Seafood in OkinawaImage by Andy Turner

Learn to be a karate kid

Not only are people incredibly long-lived in Okinawa, chances are they’re also handy in a fight. Karate was invented here in the seventeenth century (80s movie buffs may remember a certain Mr Miyagi was Okinawan), and you’ll see young and old heading to the local dojo every week (though perhaps not catching flies with their chopsticks).

Okinawan karate is less about flashy moves and more a way of life – the ‘why’ more important than the ‘how’ as they put it. Enthusiasts can arrange lessons with an experienced sensei (instructor). Alternatively drop in to Naha’s Dojo Bar, to lap up the martial arts memorabilia and an ice-cold Orion beer.

Karate, dojo, Okinawa, JapanImage by N i c o l a on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Kick back on Japan’s answer to Hawaii

Okinawa is often dubbed the ‘Japanese Hawaii’, and the comparison seems apt when you head to the outer islands or jima. With over 130 to choose from it’s tricky to pick out a favourite but Aka-jima (in the Kerama islands), a short if bumpy ferry ride from Naha is hard to beat for sheer beauty. Once the boat departs, you’re left with the sound of waves gently lapping against white sand and the scent of Ryūkyū pines in the sea breeze; you might even spot an elusive Kerama deer taking a dip.

For classic white-sand and emerald water eye candy you’ll need to hop on a plane to Ishigaki, part of the Yaeyama group of islands, 400km southwest of Naha. Here Kabira Bay is as close as Japan gets to Boracay or Waikiki Beach, with only half the level of commercialisation. There’s even a gloriously unpretentious hostel which makes for a tempting place to wake up.

Ishigaki - Kabira Bay - OkinawaImage by Visit Okinawa

Seek out some strange wildlife

The further you travel from the Japanese mainland Okinawa’s wildlife gets progressively weirder. On Hatoma in the Yaeyamas, huge armour-plated coconut crabs, up to a metre across, lumber past traffic to mate in the sea. A short boat ride away on Iriomote, tiny wild boar, half the size of their mainland cousins, roam the beaches snaffling up turtle eggs, while inland a rare miniature ‘leopard’, the Iriomote cat, prowls the forest.

coconut crab, Okinawa, JapanImage by Visit Okinawa

Explore an ancient empire

Gliding into Naha, aboard the sleek airport monorail, you could be forgiven for thinking that not a single building survived World War II (the city was devastated during the US assault on Okinawa in April 1945). Yet hidden amongst the utilitarian modern architecture are several reminders of its heyday as the capital of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū.

An independent state sandwiched between Ming dynasty China and feudal Japan, Ryūkyū developed its own culture and language, before finally being annexed by the Japanese in the nineteenth century.

The influence of its neighbours can be seen at Shuri Castle, painstakingly rebuilt in the 1990s. Here, vermillion Chinese pagodas and ornate dragons stand side-by-side with minimalist Japanese rooms kitted out with tatami mats. Look up and you’ll spot shīsā or ‘lion dogs’, glaring down from the roof. This uniquely Okinawan mascot can be seen warding off evil spirits and typhoons across the islands.

Okinawa, Nara, Castle, Japan, AsiaImage by Yusuke Umezawa on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

See an underwater Atlantis

Diving is excellent across Okinawa (check out our rundown of the best sites) but the most intriguing is off tiny Yonaguni, an edge of the world kind of place, within binocular-spotting distance of Taiwan. As well as being a hotspot for hammerhead sharks, it’s also home to a mysterious series of ‘ruins’ that resemble a mini Atlantis. With giant sandstone terraces and steps seemingly cut out by hand, it’s tempting to believe this was the work of an ancient civilization and not just a quirk of geology.

Yonaguni Ruins, Okinawa, JapanImage by Inside Japan

Andy Turner travelled with Inside Japan who offer a twelve-night island hopping trip to Okinawa as well as specialist itineraries for karate and diving enthusiasts. For a video taster of the islands see Be Okinawa.

Ticked off Rome’s big sights and wondering where to go next? Natasha Foges picks some of the city’s off-the-beaten track highlights.

Lose yourself in the Quartiere Coppedè

There’s so much to grab tourists’ attention in central Rome that a magical spot like the Quartiere Coppedè can go unnoticed. Tucked away in the Trieste quarter (tram 3 or 19 to Piazza Buenos Aires), northeast of the centre, this flight of fancy was conceived by architect Gino Coppedè in 1919.

The predominantly Art Nouveau architecture is embellished with a riot of details – Florentine turrets, frescoed facades, medieval motifs and Gothic gargoyles – and sports such whimsical creations as a frog-embellished fountain, a “fairy cottage” and a “spider’s palace”.

Quartiere Coppedè, Rome – off the beaten trackImage by mirsasha on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Get lost in time at Cinecittà film studios

If you’ve visited the Roman Forum and struggled to summon up the epicentre of the ancient world from this large open space littered with rubble and broken columns, you could always cheat and head to Cinecittà.

Within easy reach of the centre by metro, these film studios house the set of the HBO/BBC blockbuster Rome, with its impressive reconstruction of the Forum, its buildings intact and brightly painted as they would have been in ancient times.

Littered with props from iconic films, Cinecittà has plenty of tributes to the “Hollywood on the Tiber” classics of its Dolce Vita-era heyday, as well as spaghetti western memorabilia and more.

Cinecittà film studio, Rome, ItalyImage by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Take in some quirky culture at Villa Torlonia

Few tourists make their way to this palm-shaded park north of the centre – it’s not only a shady retreat on a scorching summer’s day but also has an intriguing history.

The estate was given to Mussolini in the 1930s to use for as long as he needed it, and his home, the frescoed Casino Nobile, is open to the public.

Nearby, the World War II bunker built for Mussolini and his family has recently been opened to the public and can be visited on engaging guided tours.

Another offbeat sight, nestled in the corner of the park, is the Casina delle Civette (“Little House of the Owls”), a Liberty-style building packed with beautiful Art Nouveau features: eagle-eyed visitors will spot the owls and other birds that feature in stained glass throughout the house.

Italy, Lazio, Rome, Villa Torlonia

Admire Tor Marancia’s street art

If you’ve had your fill of Renaissance and Baroque art, head to the city’s fringes for a glimpse of some modern-day masterpieces. Rome’s street-art scene has blossomed in recent years, as part of a council-run initiative to regenerate downtrodden and neglected areas.

A case in point is Tor Marancia (walking distance from Garbatella metro stop), where a housing estate has been given a colourful facelift by twenty international artists. Monumental murals in different artistic styles emblazon the sides of eleven buildings – from US artist Gaia’s De Chirico-inspired giant orange on a cobalt background to French artist Seth’s outsize child, whose crayoned ladder allows him to scale five storeys.

Street art in Tor Marancia, RomeImage by Luca Nebuloni on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Picnic in Parco degli Acquedotti

Film buffs might recognize the Parco degli Acquedotti from the opening scene of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which a statue of Christ is helicoptered from the city’s working-class outskirts to the Vatican.

The park is even more impressive in technicolour: criss-crossed with the hulking remains of ancient Roman aqueducts, which brought thousands of litres of water into the city every day, and dotted with wildflowers and grazing sheep, it’s a popular spot with picnicking locals and joggers.

It’s pretty much undiscovered by tourists, though, and easy to get to (a short walk from Giulio Agricola metro), making it a great spot to appreciate the genius of the ancient Romans without battling the crowds.

Parco degli Acquedotti, Rome, ItalyImage by Paolo Del Signore on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Pay your respects at the Protestant Cemetery

The Protestant Cemetery, tucked away behind high stone walls in the Testaccio district, might not be your first sightseeing choice, but it’s a surprisingly enjoyable place for a wander, with lichen-covered headstones and ornate tombs carrying some fascinating and poignant stories of the non-Catholic foreigners that ended up here.

The cemetery’s most famous residents are Keats and Shelley; the former, who died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821, has an unnamed grave, engraved at his request with the words “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”.

Pretty old Protestant Cemetery, RomeImage colour corrected; by leiris202 on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Discover Rome’s quieter side in Garbatella

A curiosity in the industrial Ostiense district, Garbatella (metro line B) was built in the 1920s following the English “garden city” model, with rustic, low-rise buildings clustered around peaceful communal gardens and courtyards.

Originally built to house people displaced by Mussolini’s demolitions in the city centre, Garbatella’s inclusive design fostered a strong sense of community that still survives today. It’s an appealing place for a breather from central Rome, and is gaining a reputation as a foodie hotspot, with a good mix of earthy trattorias and hip new venues.

Patisserie in Garbatella, RomeImage by Darrel Ronald Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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

While it may not loom large on the world map, New Zealand feels incredibly vast and imposing on the ground, especially to those who try to visit the North and South Islands on the same trip.

Few countries can match the nation’s biodiversity; a single visit can easily incorporate scenic beaches, fast-­moving rivers, and rugged fjords, plus a never ending assortment of cows and sheep.

For city slickers: Auckland

New Zealand’s largest city is full of inviting neighbourhoods filled with interesting shops and quality restaurants.

Situated on a narrow isthmus near the top of the North Island, Auckland is one of the world’s iconic destinations for sailing enthusiasts. Rare is the local who doesn’t enjoy spending time on the water, and visitors have a variety of pleasure cruises to choose from.

The sports-­mad city stops whenever the national rugby team, the iconic All Blacks, takes the field at Eden Park, and the world’s biggest musical icons often make a stop at the city’s Vector Arena.

Neighbourhoods such as Ponsonby, Mount Eden, Parnell, and Devonport are chock full of inviting boutiques, trendy restaurants, and unique accommodation.

Sailing in Auckland, New ZealandPixabay / CC0 

For trend seekers: Wellington

Nestled on the southern tip of the North Island, New Zealand’s capital city impresses with its craft beer scene and raft of forward-­thinking food producers.

A mix of students and hipsters pack Wellington’s ubiquitous coffee shops and bars, and a variety of restaurants and markets provide easy access to the country’s finest wines and cheeses.

Pop­-up shops and craft markets put Wellington’s budding designers on display. The Weta Workshop showcases cutting edge movie­making technology as seen in the “Lord of the Rings” films.

No visit to Wellington would be complete without a stop at the incredible Te Papa, a huge, free­-entry museum which provides a thorough look at the country’s history.

Wellington, New Zealand, AustralasiaPixabay / CC0

For wine lovers: Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay

New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs can be found on wine lists the world over. Situated on the northeastern corner of the South Island, the Marlborough region attracts oenophiles of all stripes.

A variety of wineries, from world­-renowned producers to small upstarts, offer a tasting room experience behind their cellar doors. Several of the wineries house a bistro where visitors can enjoy locally­-sourced snacks too.

Nature lovers take a break from wine tasting to cruise the stunning Marlborough Sounds, an assortment of ancient sunken river valleys populated with highly­-prized salmon, mussels, and more.

For an alternative to Marlborough’s sauvignon-­focused scene, head north to Hawke’s Bay, where a number of award­-winning wineries specialize in reds such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Beyond the wineries, visitors to this North Island region get to experience the city of Napier, home to one of the world’s most extensive displays of Art Deco architecture.

Vineyard, grapes, New ZealandPixabay / CC0

For nature lovers: the west coast

The rugged west coast of the South Island will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Fans come from around the globe to see the sparsely populated locales that served as backdrops for Sir Peter Jackson’s award-­winning films.

Charming small towns give way to jaw­-dropping mountain roads and imposing glaciers. Dozens of hiking trails, plus stunning overlooks and points of interest, are all easily accessible from the main West Coast drive along State Highway 6.

New Zealand, West Coast, Franz Josef Glacier, Glacier Walking

For thrill seekers: Queenstown

Few places on the planet pack as many adrenaline-­fuelled experiences as Queenstown. This small South Island town has exploded over the past couple of decades, and is constantly packed with international visitors lured by the abundant adventure activities; bungy jumping, jet boating, skydiving, hang-­gliding, skiing, and just about any other thrill ride imaginable.

The town centre buzzes with hip restaurants and bars, allowing thrill-­seekers of all stripes to kick back and relax at the end of the day while enjoying beautiful lake views.

Queenstown, New ZealandPixabay / CC0

For breathtaking scenery: Fiordland

The South Island’s Fiordland region wows even the hard to please, with its incredible natural attractions, most notably the world-­famous Milford Sound and larger but lesser known Doubtful Sound, where visitors frequently spot whales and dolphins.

Fiordland National Park hosts dozens of kilometers of world­-class hiking trails, many of which can be experienced in a few hours or a few days.

The small town of Te Anau serves as a regional hub, allowing visitors to stock up on camping supplies and local souvenirs with minimal fuss.

Fiordland, New ZealandPixabay / CC0

For a small­-town feel: Coromandel Peninsula

An easy drive east of Auckland, the breathtaking Coromandel Peninsula is filled with charming small towns and stunning natural scenery. Spend the night at a family­-owned B&B or inexpensive guesthouse, then set off during the day to explore attractions such as Hot Water Beach, where hot water bubbles through holes in the soft sand at low tide, and Cathedral Cove, an incredible, naturally formed archway on Hahei Beach.

Coromandel Peninsula, New ZealandPixabay / CC0 

To witness a rebirth: Christchurch

The largest city on the South Island, Christchurch suffered unimaginable damage due to a series of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Today, the city centre remains a work in progress, filled with interactive art spaces and shops housed in shipping containers.

Despite the wreckage, much of which is still visible, the city’s charm remains intact thanks to its idyllic, English-­style parks, world-­class botanic gardens, and scenic punting along the Avon River.

15727224221_258eb99bca_kImage by Sharen on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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

Got wheels, wanderlust and some time this summer? A European road trip beckons. The continent just can’t be beaten when it comes to epic journeys, from Spain‘s scenic coastal drives to Germany‘s astonishing roadside alpine vistas. Not sure where to start? Take the quiz below.

Renowned the world over for its decorated tribes, the Omo Valley is a stop on many a tourist route in Ethiopia. But visits to the area can cross ethical boundaries, and few tourists are allowed the pleasure of a genuine experience with local people. Here, Rough Guides photographer Tim Draper tells us about his experience photographing some of southern Ethiopia’s most fascinating tribes. 

As a travel photographer I desperately wanted to capture creative and authentic portraits in the Omo Valley, whilst hoping to avoid the negative experiences told in tourists tales of ‘zoo-like’ excursions.

After spending almost a week researching tour companies in Addis I carefully chose my driver, and together we planned our trip around the Omo villages.

We stayed overnight in most villages, camping or sleeping in huts. It was a good way to get to know the tribes, spending long afternoons with them while tourists came and went, barely getting out of their vehicles before they were whisked away.

If you don’t want a zoo-like experience in Omo, you’d do well to keep your camera in your pocket for a little while longer, try to connect with the people on a deeper level than that of a fifteen-minute whistle-stop photo opportunity.

I took my pictures methodically and slowly, with good humour and in a relaxed atmosphere. After all, good travel portraits – like good travel experiences – require time, care and trust.

Arbore children

Arbore Children of the Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Two women on market day

Market day in the Omo valley, Ethiopia

Hamer tribeswoman

Hamer tribeswoman, Ethiopia

Mursi girl holding gun

Mursi girl holding gun

A painted Karo tribesman

Painted Karo tribesman

Karo tribes people by the Omo river

Karo tribes people by the Omo river, Ethiopia

A painted Karo tribesman

Painted Karo tribesman

Mursi tribeswoman with lip plate

Mursi tribeswoman with lip plate

A painted Karo tribesman poses with his gun

Painted Karo tribesman with gun

A Hamer girl with red ochre hair

Hamer girl, Ethiopia

Painted Karo tribesman with gun

Painted Karo tribesman with gun

Hamer tribe, mother and child

Omo Valley Hamer tribe, mother and child

Young child in the Mursi village

Young child in the Mursi village

A tribal ceremony in the Bena village

Tribal ceremony in the Bena village

Bena tribe, mother with her children

Bena tribe, mother with her children

A Bena family sit outside their home

Bena family sit outdside their home

Hamer tribe girls

Hamer tribe girls, Omo valley, Ethiopia.

See more of Tim’s photography here. Explore more of Ethiopia with the Rough Guide to EthiopiaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

It’s easy to be daunted by the endless choices on offer when planning a trip with kids. To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of family vacation ideas that will get everyone – even jaded teenagers – excited.

For adventure: India

In the spirit of the latest The Jungle Book movie, take the kids on a tiger safari in India’s national parks. Two of the best tiger reserves are in Tadoba and Kanha national parks in central India – the latter in Madhya Pradesh which was the inspiration for Kipling’s classic story. There’s also the sprawling Satpura National Park in the same region, where you can pile into 4x4s for game drives and spot other wildlife lurking in the lush landscapes.

For seaside fun: Britain

Ignore the jokes about the changeable British weather and head for the beach for your next family vacation. For such a small island, Britain has an astonishingly varied coastline – from the rocky coves indenting Cornwall’s Atlantic side to the long sandy beaches of Rhossili bay in Wales and Cape Wrath at Scotland’s northwestern tip. Get into the old-fashioned seaside spirit in Blackpool or Scarborough, or check out the cool chic of Brighton and its exotic Royal Pavilion.

East Sussex, Brighton, Royal Pavilion

For activities: Costa Rica

Cloud forests, jungles, volcanoes and tumbling waterfalls – the natural beauty of Costa Rica is inexhaustible, and even better appreciated when you’re in the thick of it. Strap the family into zip wires for an unforgettable ride above Monteverde’s cloud forest, and hold on tight for a white-water rafting adventure in the jungles of Arenal. For a gentle comedown, take a leisurely boat cruise through the green waterways and lagoons of Tortuguero National Park.

For exotic culture: Morocco

Choose your transport – camels, 4x4s, mules or your own two feet – for guided treks through the Atlas Mountains surrounding Marrakesh. Along the way, you get to stay in Berber villages to unplug yourself (and the gadget-glued kids) and discover a completely different way of life. After a family vacation spent riding the sand dunes or biking along dusty trails, finish in relaxing style on the beach at Essaouira.

Morocco, Erg Chebbi dunes, shadows in the desert sand

For history: Rome

People of all ages can’t help but wonder at the ancient marvels that are casually strewn all over Rome. The Forum and the Colosseum are the big-hitters, of course, but there’s also the miracle that’s the Pantheon, which has been standing in Piazza della Rotonda since AD125 despite all that history has thrown at it. Children who are fans of Roman history will get a thrill from wandering through the ancient ruins of Ostia Antica. They’re only about 30 minutes from Rome and attract only a fraction of the tourists you’ll find in Italy’s capital.

For a road trip: America’s West

Start in Los Angeles – maybe squeeze in a visit to Universal Studios or Disneyland while you’re there – before hitting the road. Get a taste of the desert while driving through Joshua Tree National Park before crossing the border into the dusty red landscapes of Arizona and New Mexico. The area around Tucson, Santa Fe and Albuquerque is rich in colonial Spanish history and Native American culture, including the terracotta-coloured Unesco World Heritage Site of Taos Pueblo. At this point it’s very tempting to continue north towards the Grand Canyon.

USA, Arizona, dawn over Monument Valley

For food: Vietnam

Stick a plate of noodles in front of children and most of them would be happy. Go a step further and let them discover how to cook it themselves in the bewitching surroundings of Hoi An, preferably in one of the cooking schools that’s in a scenic riverside spot. The kids will be whipping up a classic Vietnamese pho in no time after spending the morning scouring the local markets for fresh ingredients for their lunch. Hoi An is street-food heaven, with stalls mingling influences from both the north and south of the country.

For wildlife: Kangaroo Island, Australia

More than a third of this peaceful South Australia island is covered in national parks where you can get comfortably close to wildlife – that means lounging with the sea lions on the beach and feeding the kangaroos in the aptly named Kangaroo Island National Park. There are also wallabies and koalas too, of course – not to mention possums, bandicoots and other native creatures. You’ll spot another exotic species in any of the five surf bays too, as the long sandy beaches and waves attract surfers from all over the world.

Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Featured image Pixabay / CC0. 

Reykjavík is one of Europe’s smaller and saner capitals. If you’re more used to the traffic-clogged streets of other major european cities, the sense of space and calm here will come as a breath of fresh air.

Even in the heart of this Reykjavík, nature is always in evidence – there can be few other cities in the world, for example, where greylag geese regularly overfly the busy centre – and escaping the crowds and finding a spot of peace and tranquillity is relatively easy.

From the new Pocket Rough Guide to Reykjavík, here are a few of our favourite places to get away from it all.

1. Hafnarfjörður

Hop on the bus for the short ride to Hafnarfjörður, Reykjavík’s southern neighbour. In comparison with the capital, the streets here are all but empty of visitors.

Sunset in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland

2. Víðey

For just 1100kr you can ride the ferry to Viðey for great views of Reykjavík and the surrounding coastline. Viðey boasts some great hiking trails, too, offering a real chance to commune with nature in the city.

3. Reykjanes Peninsula

With your own transport, a drive around the southwestern point of the Reykjanes Peninsula, through the lava landscapes between Gríndavík and Hafnir, is especially rewarding.

Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland – by Lottie GrossImage by Lottie Gross

4. Öskjuhlíð

The forested slopes of this city park south of the centre are the perfect place to escape the crowds. Pack a picnic and find your own shady glade among the trees.

5. South of Hallgrímskirkja

The streets south of Hallgrímskirkja, notably Njarðargata, Baldursgata and Óðinsgata, are relatively unexplored by visitors to the city. A stroll here is a chance to see residential Reykjavík.

Reykjavik at sunrise by Lottie Gross

6. Sun terraces, Sundhöllin

Sheltered from the wind, the outdoor terraces at the swimming pool here are a wonderful spot to catch the rays (in the buff) on a warm day – and they’re little known to visitors.

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

Split and Dubrovnik are the stars of Croatian tourism. Both have an ancient core historic enough to be listed by UNESCO yet vibrant enough to remain home to a sizeable local population. Both have beaches backed by clear waters, fresh local seafood and plentiful bars with Adriatic views.

But should Split or Dubrovnik be your first Croatian port of call? Here’s our lowdown on what they have to offer.

Where’s best to soak up some culture?

Outdoorsy types rejoice, neither Split nor Dubrovnik are best discovered through museums. These are living, breathing cultural sites that beckon you outdoors onto sun-soaked streets.

Split first sprouted around the Diocletian’s Palace, a medieval hotchpotch of buildings superimposed onto a Roman blueprint that dates back to 295 AD. Wandering its spaghetti mess of alleyways and courtyards is the best way to get to grips with the city. Climb the bell tower of St Domnius for views across the red roofs to the harbour beyond and settle in on the steps of a café to watch local life pass by.

Dubrovnik’s old town is still home to about 1000 people and a walk along the 25m-high medieval city walls means peering down over people’s washing lines and into their kitchen windows.

All is peaceful now but in 1991–2 the city was under siege and there’s no better insight into this painful chapter in its history than the War Photo museum, a moving collection of photojournalism that pulls no punches.

It’s also worth taking the cable car up lofty Mount Srđ to see where the local population defended their city from the Serbs.

Old Cathedral, Dubrovnik, CroatiaPixabay /CC0 

Where can I find the tastiest food?

Croatian food is fabulous, making creative use of the country’s excellent local produce.

Both Split and Dubrovnik are port cities, with easy access to superb fresh seafood, and grilled fish is a staple of the menu in both cities. You’ll also find the Dalmatian classic, pašticada (beef stew), served up in every konoba (traditional restaurant) and, in Dubrovnik, plenty of fresh oysters from the country’s oyster capital Ston.

In Dubrovnik, a good general rule for finding authentic Croatian food is to stick to the restaurants south of Stradun (Prijeko to the north is particularly tourist-trap heavy) and, for the very best seafood, head out to Gruž, home to the fish market and some great seafood restaurants.

It’s even easier to find authentic food in Split, especially in the streets to the west of the palace, towards the Varoš neighbourhood.

Delicious SeafoodPixabay /CC0

Where can I find a party?

The perfect night out in either city starts with finding the perfect pavement table to sit at and watch the world go by.

In Split you’ll most likely find this on the Riva, where the strip of bars with their large harbourfront terraces are the perfect place to wave off the day’s cruise ships. Afterwards head into the Diocletian’s Palace with the locals to find a place to perch on the steps and order a glass of local wine – keep heading upwards to find the quieter, less touristy spots.

In Dubrovnik, sundowners are best at one of the Buza bars. Buza means “hole” and both Buza I and Buza II are tucked away in the city walls and accessed by a small doorway – beyond you’ll find tables balanced on the rocks and stunning Adriatic views. From here head back to Stradun and follow the alleyways running off it to find tiny wine bars such as long-running D’Vino.

Bar in CroatiaDubrovnik Photography/Flickr

Where can I go for a dip?

The Adriatic has some of the cleanest, clearest waters in Europe and no visit to Croatia is complete without a swim.

In Split, head to Bačvice beach, a short walk east of the city centre, for shallow waters and – unusually for Croatia – a sandy ocean floor, or escape to the facilities-free Kašjuni beach, on the southern coast of the Marjan peninsula some 4km west of the city.

In Dubrovnik, few experiences beat swimming from the rocks at one of the Buza bars, returning to flop onto the warm rocks and order a cold beer. Banje beach just outside the city walls to the east is another good bet, with the chic Banje Beach lounge bar providing lounge beds on the sands.

Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Split, Bacvice, people on sandy beach

Which is the best base for day trips?

Split is located in the middle section of Croatia’s lengthy Adriatic coastline and so is in a far better location than Dubrovnik when it comes to seeing more of the country (it also has better international flight connections).

Croatia’s fast motorways make it possible to visit the Plitvice Lakes national park from Split, some 250km away (2.5hrs drive). This is Croatia’s most popular natural attraction, a wonderland of tumbling waterfalls and idyllic lakes. Shorter trips can be taken to the beautiful ancient town of Trogir, some 20km drive up the coast, and across to the island of Brač, a 50-minute ferry journey from Split and home to the country’s most famous beach, the golden sandy spit of Zlatni Rat.

Dubrovnik lies in the far south of Croatia, but still has plenty of options for day trips. Perhaps the best is over to the island of Lokrum, a 15-minute ferry ride from the old harbour and home to monastic ruins, unspoiled woodland and plenty of peacocks.

Even more unspoiled are the gorgeous Elaphite Islands, with their olive groves and quaint hamlets, to which several full-day boat tours run. Ston is another great day trip option, its ancient city walls and abundant oyster beds just an hour’s drive along the coast.

Croatia, Plitvice Lakes National Park, view of the Lower Lakes

So, what’s the verdict?

That depends – how good are you with crowds? Dubrovnik heaves with cruise-ship passengers and holidaymakers in summer. Split suffers less with overcrowding so in high summer we say head here. Off-season, though, Dubrovnik is far quieter and there’s no denying that this Croatian stunner is the country’s crowning glory for a reason – it is truly spectacular.

Explore more of Croatia with The Rough Guide to CroatiaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

Not all that long ago Margate was a forlorn seaside town rejected by even the bucket-and-spade brigade. In a sad story echoed across England, the already struggling high street was devastated by the opening of an out-of-town shopping centre; pubs and restaurants were closing, and the future of this once thriving seaside resort looked grim.

Fast forward ten years to the latest edition of the Rough Guide to England and this North Kent town is lauded for its “irresistible energy” and its “vintage shopping and fabulous art gallery”.

So how exactly did this revival happen? And why has Margate’s regeneration been covered everywhere from the BBC to the New York Times?

Margate, Kent, England

Image courtesy of Visit Thanet

High speed London to Margate

Walking from the rail station past the iconic (or unsightly, depending on your point of view) granite high-rise block and shabby amusement arcades, it’s clear who has just stepped off the one-hour-twenty-minute high speed train from St Pancras. Moustachio’d hipsters cross over to the beach side of the busy seafront road, taking great gulps of sea air and gravitating to the pretty harbour arm in the distance.

Margate’s sea and sandy beach first attracted flannel-bathing-suited pleasure seekers in the Victorian times, and most of what today’s day-trippers are after, from fish and chips to art and antiques, can be found close to the harbour in the tiny Old Town.

A short stroll reveals narrow lanes bursting with independent little galleries, cafes and vintage clothing shops, plus an old fashioned sweet shop and the ridiculously atmospheric Lifeboat Ale and Cider House.

Art and the Creative Quarter

You can’t talk about art in Margate without more than a nod to landscape painter JMW Turner, who, after attending school in the Old Town, became a regular visitor to Margate – and Mrs Booth, his landlady – and said that the skies here “were the loveliest in all Europe”.

The Turner Contemporary opened in a big glass box on the seafront in 2011 and hosts all sorts of exciting historic and contemporary exhibitions, not least by local girl Tracy Emin, who was also commissioned to create the artwork over the visitor centre entrance, where her declaration to the town “I Never Stopped Loving You” blazes in neon green.

Margate, Kent, England

Image by Benjamin Becker

Riding in the slipstream of the Turner Contemporary’s national profile, an entire “Creative Quarter” has emerged, with collaborative artist-led spaces like Crate and Resort supporting local artists, and lots of the town’s independent shops have an artistic bent.

Small businesses like souvenir shop Crafted Naturally have studio space; owner Wendy runs hands-on workshops where you can create your own gorgeous batik print – drawing and brushing with hot wax over cloth.

One of the town’s most intriguing works of art can only be seen by leaving the other day-trippers behind and making for the underground Shell Grotto. Twisting passageways and damp chambers covered in the swirls and patterns of more than four million shells were discovered in 1835; you’re invited to make up your own mind whether it’s an eccentric Victorian folly, an ancient pagan temple, or simply the town’s first, best, PR stunt.

Seaside nostalgia

Back on the seafront there’s something proudly working class about Margate. It’s got character – and characters. Mannings Seafood Stall still serves up jellied eel and oysters, families line the steps down to the sands eating chips from Peter’s Fish Factory and kiosks do a roaring trade in Mr Whippy’s.

After years as a bingo hall and then snooker club, the 1911 Parade Cinema has reemerged as the Old Kent Market, complete with food stalls and double decker bus serving coffee and cocktails.

The nostalgic theme has been turned up a notch with the recent grand reopening of the sixteen-acre amusement park Dreamland, with the UK’s oldest wooden roller-coaster, dodgems, vintage arcade games and a roller room for skating like it’s 1979.

Dreamland, Margate, Kent, England

Image by Sam Pow

Playing up to the associations with the mods and rockers who gathered here in the sixties, vintage furniture and clothing stores have sprung up across the Old Town and, for those who have been put off by Margate’s rocketing rental rates, up Fort Hill to neighbouring Cliftonville.

Hunkydory 24, Junk Deluxe, Paraphernalia and Breuer & Dawson are some of the best, and the Aladdin’s cave that is Scott’s Furniture Mart shouldn’t be missed. Luckily, they deliver. The Art Deco desk you’ve got your eye on would be tricky to haul to St Pancras.

Rachel stayed at the Sands Hotel. More information about Margate can be found in the Rough Guide to Kent, Sussex and Surrey and via Visit Kent. Header image courtesy of Visit Thanet

There are few more quintessentially French views than castle turrets stretching up into a clear blue sky. From the gracious châteaux of the Loire to majestic palaces like Versailles, the country’s castles mark its landscapes, reveal its history and draw visitors from around the world.

rough guide france coverTo celebrate the publication of the new Rough Guide to France, we’ve picked a few of the lesser-known highlights.

You might not have heard of these châteaux, but they’re well worth a visit

1. Châteaux Vaux-le-Vicomte, Seine-et-Marne

While most people flock to Fontainebleau or Versailles, of all the great mansions within reach of a day’s outing from Paris, the classical Château of Vaux-le-Vicomte is the most architecturally harmonious and aesthetically pleasing – and the most human in scale.

Louis XIV’s finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, had the château built between 1656 and 1661 at colossal expense, using the top designers of the day – architect Le Vau, painter Le Brun and landscape gardener Le Nôtre. The result was magnificence and precision in perfect proportion, and a bill that could only be paid by someone who occasionally confused the state’s accounts with his own.

Châteaux Vaux-le-Vicomte, Seine-et-MarneImage via Pixabay/CC0

2. Château de Malbrouck, Lorraine

Only 2km from France’s border with Germany, the imposing and impregnable Château de Malbrouck is a restoration marvel. Every brick and turret has been placed in the medieval manner by masons re-schooled in bygone techniques.

It gained its name from the Duke of Marlborough, who decided to invade France through the Moselle using the castle as his base. It took just two weeks for the Duke of Villars, one of Louis xIV’s best generals, to assemble a massive army and scupper his plans, but the castle’s name has remained in folk memory as Malbrouck, a Francification of Marlborough.

Château de Malbrouck, Lorraine

Château de Malbrouck by Thierry Draus via Flickr (CC-BY)

3. Château de Rohan, Brittany

The three Rapunzel towers of the Château de Rohan in Josselin, embedded in a vast sheet of stone above the water, are the most impressive sight along the Nantes–Brest canal.

They now serve as a facade for the remnants of the much older castle behind, built by Olivier de Clisson in 1370, the original riverfront towers of which were demolished by Richelieu in 1629 in punishment for Henri de Rohan’s leadership of the Huguenots. It’s still owned by the Rohan family, which used to own a third of Brittany.

Château de Rohan, Brittany

Château de Rohan by mat’s eye via Flickr (CC-BY)

4. Château de la Ferté-St-Aubin, The Loire

The Château de la Ferté-St-Aubin lies 20km south of Orléans, at the north end of the village of Ferté-St-Aubin. The late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century building presents an enticing combination of salmon-coloured brick, creamy limestone and dark slate roofs.

The interior is a real nineteenth-century home – and you are invited to treat it as such, which makes a real change from the stuffier attitudes of most grand homes. You can wander freely into almost every room, playing billiards or the piano, picking up the old telephone, sitting on the worn armchairs or washing your hands in a porcelain sink.

Château de la Ferté-St-Aubin, The Loire

Château de la Ferté-St-Aubin via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY – modified)

5. Château des Pêcheurs, The Loire

Twelve kilometres northeast of Gien in La Bussière is a surprising château dedicated to fishing: the so-called Château des Pêcheurs.

Initially a fortress, the château was turned into a luxurious residence at the end of the sixteenth century, but only the gateway and one pepper-pot tower are recognizably medieval. Guided tours are available, but you’re free to wander around, soaking up the genteel atmosphere evoked by the handsome, largely nineteenth-century furnishings and the eccentrically huge collection of freshwater fishing memorabilia bequeathed by Count Henri de Chasseval.

Château des Pêcheurs, The Loire

Château des Pêcheurs via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY – modified)

6. Château de Tanlay, Burgundy

The romantic Château de Tanlay is a pleasant 8km cycle along the canal southeast from Tonnerre. This early sixteenth-century construction, very French in feel, is only slightly later in date than its near neighbour, but those extra few years were enough for the purer Italian influences visible in Ancy to have become Frenchified.

Encircling the château are water-filled moats and standing guard over the entrance to the first grassy courtyard is the grand lodge, from where you enter the château across a stone drawbridge.

Château de Tanlay, Burgundy

Image via Pixabay/CC0

7. Château de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy

The handsome Château de Bussy-Rabutin, a French National monument, was built for Roger de Rabutin, a member of the Academy in the reign of Louis XIV and a notorious womanizer. The scurrilous tales of life at the royal court told in his book Histoires Amoureuses des Gaules earned him a spell in the Bastille, followed by years of exile in this château.

There are some interesting portraits of great characters of the age, including its famous female beauties, each underlined by an acerbic little comment such as: “The most beautiful woman of her day, less renowned for her beauty than the uses she put it to”.

Château de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy

Château de Bussy-Rabutin via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY – modified)

8. Château de Châlucet, The Limousin

The Château de Châlucet lies 5km up the valley of the Briance to the east of Solignac. At the highest point of the climb there is a dramatic view across the valley to the romantic, ruined keep of the castle, rising above the woods.

Built in the twelfth century, the château was in English hands during the Hundred Years’ War and, in the lawless aftermath, became the lair of a notorious local brigand, Perrot le Béarnais. It was dismantled in 1593 for harbouring Protestants and has been much restored recently.

Château de Châlucet, The Limousin

Château de Châlucet by Guillaume LARDIER via Flickr (CC-BY – modified)

9. Château de Hautefort, The Dordogne

The Château de Hautefort enjoys a majestic position at the end of a wooded spur above its feudal village. A magnificent example of good living on a grand scale, the castle has an elegance that is out of step with the usual rough stone fortresses of Périgord.

The approach is across a wide esplanade flanked by formal gardens, over a drawbridge, and into a stylish Renaissance courtyard, open to the south. In 1968 a fire gutted the castle, but it has since been meticulously restored using traditional techniques; it’s all unmistakably new, but the quality of the craftsmanship is superb.

France, Aquitaine, Dordogne, Hautefort, Chateau de Hautefort

10. Château de Menthon, Haute-Savoie

Close to the village of Menthon-St-Bernard near Annecy is the grand, turreted Château de Menthon. The fortress has been inhabited since the twelfth century and was the birthplace of St Bernard, the patron saint of mountaineers – indeed, the castle remains in the hands of the de Menthon family.

In the nineteenth century, however, it was extensively renovated in the romantic Gothic revival style and now possesses an impressive library containing some 12,000 books. On weekends, costumed actors relate the château’s history.

Château de Menthon, Haute-Savoie

Château de Menthon by Guilhem Vellut via Flickr (CC-BY – modified)

11. Château d’If, Côte d’Azur

The Château d’If, on the tiny island of If, is best known as the penal setting for Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

Having made his watery escape after fourteen years of incarceration as the innocent victim of treachery, the hero of the piece, Edmond Dantès, describes the island thus: “Blacker than the sea, blacker than the sky, rose like a phantom the giant of granite, whose projecting crags seemed like arms extended to seize their prey”. In reality, most prisoners went insane or died before leaving.

Today, the sixteenth-century castle and its cells are horribly well preserved, and the views back towards Marseille are fantastic.

Château d’If, Côte d’Azur

Image via Pixabay/CC0

Explore more of France with the Rough Guide to FranceCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Header image Château de Hautefort via Pixabay/CC0.

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