Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, South Korea

It’s strange to think that at the heart of one of the most densely populated places on the planet, just a stone’s throw away from the gleaming high-rises of bustling Insadong, there’s a quiet neighbourhood of traditional wooden houses, where locals chatter in tearooms and children play in the sloping streets. These charming hanokjip (literally, "Korean House") hark back to a time when every home in Seoul had paper walls and was crowned with an elegantly tiled wing-tipped rooftop.

Islamic Cairo, Egypt

The medieval city at the heart of Cairo is a tangled web of narrow lanes, towering mosques and aromatic bazaars. Enter the warren at Khan al-Khalili, packed with goldsmiths, spice vendors, and traders hawking incense, then burrow your way south to the Citadel, a hilltop bastion with majestic views over the district’s minaret-studded skyline.

The Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia

The Hermitage quite simply has the largest collection of paintings in the world, and is set in one of the most beautiful buildings in Russia: the Winter Palace, an opulent Baroque confection that served as the official residence of the tsars until the revolution of 1917. The museum contains over three million treasures and works of art, from ancient Scythian gold to paintings by Picasso, only a fraction of which are on display at any one time.

The Mercato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Crowded, cramped and rough around the edges, the Mercato covers several square miles of Ethiopia’s capital city. Reputedly the busiest market in Africa, it’s a fascinating place to explore, a shantytown of traders peddling their wares out of corrugated-iron shacks amidst a fug of incense, coffee and cow dung. This is very much a market for locals, with sections selling grain, vegetables, tyres and used white goods, but you can still pick up an interesting piece of jewellery or a traditional Ethiopian cross.

Bock Casemates, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

Part of Luxembourg City’s impressive series of fortifications, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, the dark, dank Bock Casemates were carved out of a sandstone promontory overlooking the Alzette valley in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.The extraordinary complex of underground passages and galleries ran for 23km (17km still remain), and at one time housed a 1200-strong garrison, along with bakeries, kitchens, stables and the like.

Knossos, Crete, Greece

You won’t be the first person to get lost at the Palace of Knossos. Many of the visitors that wander amongst the courtyards, storerooms and royal apartments that made up the largest Minoan palace in Crete are tempted here by the legend of its labyrinth, and of the Minotaur, the creature it was built to contain. Whilst there’s no sign of the labyrinth today, you can still peer into some of the palace’s remaining rooms, which once numbered a thousand.

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

The world’s largest covered market, Istanbul’s suitably named Grand Bazaar has been trading goods on the same spot in historic Sultanahmet for over 550 years. Browsing is an endurance sport here, all the more so given the enthusiastic sales techniques on display, and with more than 4000 shops crammed under one roof, you’ll need to pick your battles – try bartering with the shoe-sellers on Kavaflar Sokak or the gold merchants on Kalpakçilar Başı, or the carpet-sellers everywhere in between.

Kolmanskop, Namibia

Stand in the middle of the old town hall in Kolmanskop and you’ll find yourself knee-deep in sand. Kolmanskop sprung up when diamonds where discovered here in the early 1900s but faded just as quickly once the gems petered out, and it was abandoned to the mercy of the desert in the mid-1950s. Today, it’s an eerie ghost town, its once-grand buildings – including a ballroom, theatre and casino – slowly succumbing to the encroaching dunes.

Old Delhi, India

Founded in 1638 as the capital of Mughal India, Shahjahanabad (or Old Delhi) is the most intense and downright chaotic area of the city. Delhi is home to nearly 17 million people, and at times it can feel like most of them are jostling along Chandi Chowk, the heaving main thoroughfare, or in the surrounding warren of streets, where rickshaws and handcarts hurry between bazaars selling everything from spices to wedding garlands to car parts.

The Moscow metro, Russia

Perhaps only in Moscow can a lengthy trip on the underground become a journey of artistic beauty. The system was designed in the 1930s to showcase the glories of Mother Russia, and many of the first few lines to open employed the most renowned Soviet architects of their time. There are 195 stations to wander, neck craned, gawping at decor ranging from High Stalinist opulence (think red marble, gold-encrusted mosaics and bronze lamps) to the utilitarianism that defined 1970s USSR.

Shinsegae Centum City, Busan, South Korea

Shinsegae Centum City is officially the largest shopping complex in the world – they’ve even got a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records to prove it. This is three million square feet of retail therapy, with over 425 shops filling sixteen floors. Plus there’s a food market, an art gallery, an ice rink, a three-floor spa, a multiplex cinema, a gym, a roof garden and the world’s largest indoor driving range, of course.

The temples of Angkor, Cambodia

The biggest archaeological site on earth, the temples of Angkor are scattered over some four hundred square kilometres of countryside in northwest Cambodia. For six hundred years from the early ninth century, successive Angkorian kings constructed their royal cities and state temples here – the magnificent Angkor Wat is just the most famous of myriad monuments, among them the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm, its crumbling ruins engulfed in a tangle of creepers and strangler figs.

Fez el Bali, Fez, Morocco

The extraordinary Medina of Fez el Bali is an addictive maze of blind alleys and dead-end lanes. You can follow Talâa Kebira, the main thoroughfare, down into its bowels, past goods-laden donkeys and ancient fondouks selling olive oils and a dozen types of honey. Metalworkers hammer away at immense copper cauldrons on Place Seffarine, brightly coloured yarns dry in the heat on Souk Sabbaghine, and workers toil knee-deep in the honeycomb of vats that make up the tanneries Chouwara.

Kumbh Mela Festival, Allahabad, India

The largest religious gathering on earth, Kumbh Mela takes place every three years, alternating between Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. The cities are auspicious with Hindus thanks to their location at the confluence of holy rivers, and a staggering nineteen million pilgrims attended the last Maha ("Great") Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2013, when the surrounding floodplains were turned into a vast tent city and legions of naked sadhus, their bodies covered in ash, plunged into the waters each morning.

Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

If ever a building defined its builder, then the Palace of Parliament is it. The enormous centrepiece of Bucharest’s Centru Civic was constructed in the 1980s for Nicolae Ceauşescu, Romania’s Communist dictator, and is regarded as the concrete zenith of his megalomania. Allegedly the second-largest administrative building in the world (after the Pentagon), the "Madman’s House", as it was once popularly known, has well over a thousand rooms and took some seven hundred architects to put together.

Beijing’s hutongs, China

North of The Forbidden City, the labyrinth of twisting grey alleyways and half-hidden courtyards that surround Houhai Lake make up the last major hutong district in Beijing. Once the home of princes, dukes and monks, these ancient backstreets are being torn down to make way for modern housing. For now, though, workers still scurry around on rusty bicycles and old men sit quietly in the shade, attending their caged birds, in what has become an ever-dwindling outpost of traditional Beijing.

The Smithsonian, Washington DC, USA

The supersized collection of big-hitting museums and research facilities that constitute the Smithsonian spreads across a large swathe of Downtown D.C. The complex’s collection is so mind-bogglingly vast that if you were to spend a minute looking at every object on display, it would take you a hundred years to see everything – and that’s without stopping to sleep.

Convento dei Cappuccini, Palermo, Italy

Warning: this is not one for the faint-hearted. Lining the catacombs deep beneath Palermo’s Convento dei Cappuccini, on the outskirts of the Sicilian capital, are the gruesomely preserved bodies of some eight thousand Palermitans, each one occupying its own niche within the jagged stone walls. The deceased were interred here up until the early 1880s, row upon row of them, dressed in their finest and suspended ad infinitum in some sort of grotesque waiting room for the afterlife.

Mumbai train station, India

At 8.30am at Churchgate Terminus, Mumbai, rush hour is in full swing. The trains pulling into platforms are swollen with suburban commuters, many of them carrying up to 3000 more people than they were designed to. When two trains empty onto a platform at the same time, disgorging their passengers in an explosion of colour, you need to stand still, take a deep breath and remember that there’s only another hour and half to go until things start to quieten down a little.

Airbnb continues to excite travellers in their quest for the perfect accommodation. With scores of rentals across the globe, kipping on someone’s sofa or crashing in the spare room is no longer the only option available to weary travellers. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live like a Lord or Lady, you can fulfil your fantasy in one of these five enchanting castles on Airbnb.

Talabgaon Castle, Dausa, Rajasthan, India

Tucked away along India’s Golden Triangle circuit, this beautifully restored Rajput fort tempts travellers off the beaten track into a resort not far from Jaipur and Ranthambore. Built in 1818, to house ruler Thakur Vijay Singh Ji Rathore, today travellers are welcomed by his descendants. Dreamy all-white hues, intricate carvings and spacious rooms create a real maharaja-living experience.
24 bedrooms from £84 per room per night

Domus Civita, Civita di Bagnoregio, Lazio, Italy

Established by the Etruscans, and surviving war, famine and vicious erosion, the town of Civita di Bagnoregio has eluded many a traveller thanks to its precarious location. This astounding, medieval enclave is set high atop a volcanic plateau, soaring over the Tiber river valley in Italy. A fairytale entrance indeed, visitors must travel up the footbridge, passing through an ornate, Etruscan gateway. The luxurious Domus Civita (pictured in featured image) property carves itself from the rock on the edge of the town, overlooking the valley and providing an enchanting array of mod cons, including an impressively cavernous wine cellar.
Whole property from £295 per night, sleeps 8

Augill Castle, Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria, England

Founded in 1841 as a whimsical Victorian escape, this handsome Cumbrian castle is a restored landmark of northern England’s Eden Valley. It operates as a quintessentially English hotel and venue, boasting four-poster beds and rooms full of antiques. Surrounded by spectacular views overflowing from the lustrous Northern Pennines, Augill Castle also offers guests plenty of exciting opportunities to take a turn…or two, around the surrounding Yorkshire Dales or Lake District.
15 bedrooms from £95 per room per night

Le Manoir Equivocal, Corgoloin, Burgundy, France

Settle into the French wine country in this majestic fifteenth century Burgundian manor. Originally owned by Chancellor Nicolas Rolin, this luxurious hilltop B&B carries vestiges of its former medieval glory, from pink-tinted stone walls, an abundance of delicious grapevines and a characterful pigeon tower. The present owners have a penchant for Chinese philosophy and guests can enjoy an eclectic combination of both cultures. Travellers can explore the nearby cities of Beaune and Nuits-St-George, before delicious respite in this rustic gem.
3 bedrooms from £180 per room per night

Caherkinmonwee Castle, Craughwell, Galway, Ireland 

Dating from 1450, Caherkinmonwee Castle evokes a true medieval fantasy. A local stonemason restored the building ten years ago, using limestone, oak beams and local stone. Set over four levels with 3 bedrooms, it stands on three acres of lovely Irish countryside, close to the cobbled streets of Galway City, and a two-hour drive to the magnificent Cliffs of Moher. Guests will discover a host of original quirks, including a turret, several outhouses and winding staircases, all complemented by cosy furnishings.
3 bedrooms from £90 per room per night

For more exciting ideas on your next travel destination, take a look at our travel inspiration page Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

From a deserted town to enormous sand dunes and sunset cocktails above the city, here are ten unforgettable things to see and do in Namibia.

Hike Fish River Canyon

Second only in size to America’s Grand Canyon, Namibia’s Fish River Canyon is one of Africa’s unsung wonders. Starting just south of Seeheim, it winds 161km south to Ais-Ais and plummets to depths of 550 metres. Watching the sun rise and set over its layers of sandstone and lava is epic, but fit travellers can up the adventure by attempting one of southern Africa’s greatest hikes: a 85km five-day trek along the riverbed. Talk about off the beaten track.

Explore the deserted diamond-mining town of Kolmanskop

Rise early and drive 10km east of port town Lüderitz to watch the first fingers of sunrise reach across the desert and light up the sands that have piled up high and inhabited every nook of this once-thriving town. The honey-toned beams reveal peeling wallpaper in empty kitchens, ceramic bathtubs waiting forlornly for a filling and empty picture frames dangling from unsteady nails. Pay a little more for a photography pass: it allows you to enter early and beat the tour-group crowds so you can explore this ghost town with soul in peace.

Slurp local oysters in Walvis Bay

Forget springbok steak or biltong, Namibia’s culinary highlight is its homegrown ultra-fresh oysters. Thanks to the cold Benguela current that sweeps up the coast from Antarctica, the nutrient-rich waters means these pearly beauties can be harvested in just eight months instead of the three years it takes to grow French oysters. Join a boat tour to visit the nurseries and nibble them onboard, or order a platter with a glass of chilled white wine at a dockside restaurant.

Climb Sossusvlei

Namibia’s foremost attraction doesn’t disappoint. The sand dunes inside Namib-Naukluft National Park are some of the highest in the world and seeing them light up at sunrise is a sight that shouldn’t be missed. Sossusvlei is in fact only one dune, but the name is often used to collectively describe a handful of others. The most photogenic are the 170 metre-high Dune 45 and Deadvlei, whose dried up clay basin is punctuated with the sculptural silhouettes of long-dead acacia trees.

Explore the remote Caprivi Strip

Few tourists venture northwards to visit this narrow finger of lush land that juts out into Botswana, Zambia and Angola – those that do will be rewarded. The landscape is dotted with rondavel huts, roadside stalls selling fruit, and women in colourful clothes going about their daily business. Plus, two of the region’s national parks – Mamili and Mudumu – are becoming good safari destinations.

Safari in style inside Etosha National Park

Etosha translates as “Great White Place” – an apt description for this endless pan of silvery salt-encrusted sand, which is all that remains of a large inland lake that stood here 12 million years ago. Come dry season, its southern waterholes attract elephant, giraffe, zebra, eland, blue wildebeest, thousand-strong herds of springbok, and even the endangered black rhinoceros. A handful of luxury resorts have views over the pan, so the game viewing can continue long into the night.

Meet the Himba in Kunene

The barren, mountainous landscapes of the northern Kunene region are home to the Himba people – a semi-nomadic, polygamous tribe famed for wearing ochre-stained dreads and copper-wire bracelets. A number of tour companies will run visits to traditional villages, but a more rewarding (and perhaps ethical) way to meet the Himba is to base yourself in Opuwo, a vibrant little town, and wander for more candid interaction with the locals. From here you can also organise visits to Epupa falls.

Feed cheetahs in the Kalahari

Seeing wild cheetahs on safari is unforgettable, but at times viewings are no more than a glimpse of spots. For an up-close encounter, book to stay at Bagatella Kalahari Game Ranch: attached to the property is a 12-hectare enclosure belonging to the Cheetah Conservation Fund and it’s home to three orphaned cheetahs – Etosha, Rolf and Tuono – that are being rehabilitated for release. Seated safely aboard an open-sided Jeep, you can watch their caretaker dole out the evening feed (four kilos of meat each) then enjoy a sundowner atop the famous red dunes.

Find shipwrecks on the Skeleton Coast

This otherworldly strip of coastline earned its named from the treacherous fogs and strong currents that forced many ships onto its uncharted sands. Hemmed in by the high, searing dunes of the Namib Desert and lack of fresh water many sailors perished here. Explore the rusted hulls of stranded ships, marooned whale ribs and kilometre-long stinky seal colonies.

Party on the roof in Windhoek

Namibia’s capital is a city on the move. Take in the sights while sipping a cocktail and watching the sunset at the brand-new Hilton hotel’s Skybar – a rooftop bar complete with heated infinity pool and panoramic vistas overlooking Independence Avenue and the Supreme Court. It’s the perfect way to toast your Namibian adventure.

Get more inspiration from Rough Guides here. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Escaping the hundreds of climbers on their way to Machu Picchu, Alex Robinson discovers the “other Inca Trail” in Peru – an equally impressive but near-empty climb. 

I woke with a start in the night. The dogs were barking in the camp. I heard the clatter of tin cans, the crash of plates and then frightened shouts from one of the guides.

“Es un oso!” Did I hear that right? A bear? My heart thumped. I thought of the millimetres of canvas between me and the forest, and the chocolate bar under my pillow, its sugary sweetness seeping into the mossy odours of the night. There was a muffled, deep guttural growl. Then more frenetic barks and human yells and something heavy lumbered swiftly past my tent. I heard a tearing of branches. The dogs quietened down. Silence.

Image by Alex Robinson

Had it gone? I lay awake, wide-eyed. Or was it waiting? Five minutes. Ten minutes of silence. Nothing. Fear turned to wonder. I knew our camp was remote, but a spectacled bear, native to the Andes, was so rare it was almost mythical – as hard to find as a snow leopard. Somehow it had found our tourist camp – on an Inca trail, leading to a ruined city high in the tropical Andes.

Our trail didn’t go to Machu Picchu. The only wildlife you’ll see en route to that Inca city are high soaring raptors and the occasional viscacha (a rodent) by the wayside – looking like a stoned rabbit and squeaking alarmingly before rushing off into the bushes. There are just too many hikers on their way to Machu Picchu. But we were going to the Inca city of Choquequirao, and in the six nights we’d been on the trail we’d seen just two other walkers, panting as they descended out of the swirling mist from one of the numerous high passes.

Image by Alex Robinson

The scenery was magnificent, a trail running along a river had taken us past a string of minor Inca sites and high into the hills. We’d clambered up stone steps that wound into mountains and descended into thick cloud forest dripping with lichens and mosses and so silent you could hear the buzz of humming bird wings. We’d played football in a tiny Quechua village on a pitch cut flat from a steep Andean spur. We were a novelty there, not “gringo” tourists. And we’d dropped and climbed through deep valleys watched over by towering peaks that hid behind wispy clouds before revealing themselves in blazing reflected sunlight.

And though I may not have witnessed more than the broken plates and wrecked food containers that were left in its wake, I’d now experienced a spectacled bear. It was the last morning before we’d reach Choquequirao and over breakfast all of us were buzzing with excitement about the bear, and anticipation of our arrival. The internet is flooded with images of Machu Picchu, but a Google search of Choquequirao brings far fewer pictures. But those I did find had been dreamily spectacular when I first saw them, and now the city was just over the next ridge.

Image by Alex Robinson

It took us the whole morning to climb it, and much of the early afternoon to wind down the path on the other side. Choquequirao wouldn’t reveal itself. A dense fairytale-esque forest of gnarled, lichen-covered trees blocked out every view. The boulder-strewn path twisted and turned for kilometres. Finally, off to the right I caught a tantalising glimpse of buildings, rounded another corner and the forest opened onto a view of stone houses, and a sweep of terraces. We dropped further and cut past an unmistakably Inca wall – a jig-saw of organic lines formed by the slotting together of huge rocks.

The guide wouldn’t let us enter the city. Instead he ushered us past and onwards up another steep path to a high viewpoint. And then we saw Choquequirao in her slendour. At our feet was a grassy green plaza cut out of the face of a vast mountain spur swathed in forest. Off to the right scores of terraced fields dropped into a steep valley cut deep by the rushing blue-water Apurimac – a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon. It was so far below that my eyes were dizzy with vertigo. But I could hear its roar echo up the mountain walls. Behind Choquequirao was a distant, serrated edge of snow-covered mountains. They momentarily revealed their faces through drifting cloud which cleared and paused, then swirled, covering the mountains once again from view.

Image by Alex Robinson

We stood in silence for more than an hour, spellbound as we watched the light shift and change as the sun sank into the valley at our backs, honeying the city stone warm yellow. The sky faded into glorious pink and purple and finally turquoise blue as the sun set, casting its dying rays onto the distant snowfields.

For two days we explored Choquequirao, losing ourselves in its silent ruins, in its meditative views and on paths cutting into the surrounding hills, and for those two days we had the city to ourselves, before leaving it behind us and taking the dusty path up through the valley to a town a bus and finally Cusco.

We’d been ten days away by the time we reached that city and its crowds of travellers – most of them on their way to Machu Picchu. Few had even heard of Choquequirao. But they will soon. Peru plans to build a fast road link from Cusco and a cable car across the Apurimac valley. Come before they do and walk the trail. The other Inca trail.

Journey Latin America  offer trips to Cusco including treks to Choquequirao. Explore more of Peru with the Rough Guide to Peru. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

From the cultured capital of Tallinn to the winter-playground that is Otepää, here are ten of our favourite things to do in Estonia. 

Admire the beauty of Alatskivi Castle

Originally dating back to the sixteenth century, Alatskivi Castle was rebuilt between 1876 and 1885 by Baron von Nolcken who was inspired by the royal residence of Balmoral in Scotland. With its protruding towers with cone-shaped roofs, the building is considered to be one of the most beautiful neo-gothic manor houses in the Baltics.

Meet some Old Believers at Lake Peipsi

Members of the Old Believers, an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church, fled Russian persecution in the seventeenth century, eventually settling on the fringes of the Russian empire along the shores of Lake Peipsi. The lake is Europe’s fifth largest, and sits on the border between Russia and Estonia. To this day, the Old Believers maintain age-old traditions and survive on fishing and cultivating cucumbers and onions.

In the Old Believers’ Church at Peipsi by Kiki Deere

Get cultured in Viljandi

The quaint little town of Viljandi in southern Estonia overlooks a picturesque lake, and is home to the impressive hilltop ruins of the twelfth century castle of the Teutonic Order that covers an area of eight hectares. Viljandi is the capital of folk music and the country’s largest annual music festival that takes places on the last weekend of July during which concerts are held within the castle and other venues around the town. Viljandi’s charming streets are decorated with eight large concrete strawberries that point to the gallery of naïve painter Paul Kondas, where the artist’s colourful works are on display, including his well-known The Strawberry Eaters (1965).

More things not to miss in Estonia >

Take a lesson at the History Museum, Tallinn

Located in a wonderful fifteenth century building, once the headquarters of the Great Guild, Tallinn’s History Museum houses a permanent collection entitled “Spirit of Survival” that traces Estonian history over the last 11,000 years with a series of interactive displays. It’s worth visiting the museum for the building alone, with its large cellars and intricate woodwork. The basement displays shed light on the building’s former days as an auction house for art in the mid-eighteenth century, up until to 1896 when it hosted the country’s first film show.

An aerial view of Tallinn by Kiki Deere

Reminisce at the Toy Museum, Tartu

The wonderful Toy Museum is located in one of the oldest surviving wooden buildings of the university city of Tartu. On display is a wealth of objects including Estonian farm children’s toys, such as handcrafted wooden pastoral animals, and Soviet toys that were mostly educational in nature. These well-loved objects provide a fascinating insight into the lives of Estonian children throughout the years.

Explore life on the ocean at the Seaplane Harbour Museum, Tallinn

Tallinn’s award-winning Seaplane Harbour Museum is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most exciting museums. The uniquely designed seaplane hangars were the world’s first structures to use reinforced concrete shell domes (originally 8cm thick) and were built in 1916-1917 as part of the naval fortress of Peter the Great that sought to protect St Petersburg. A series of bridges connect the museum’s exhibits, which include seaplanes and icebreakers, offering explore the ocean’s surface or delve into the underwater world. One of the museum’s highlights is the British-built 1930s submarine Lembit, the only surviving warship of pre-war Estonia, which visitors can board to experience life on an underwater warship.

The Seaplane Harbour museum by Kiki Deere

See artists at work on Estonia’s many handmade crafts

Folk art and handicrafts play an essential part in the country’s cultural heritage. Estonia excels in a number of fields despite its population of only 1.3 million, including icon painting, wooden toy production and the art of stained glass. The Estonian countryside is dotted with artists’ studios and sculptors’ workshops, where craftsmen and women can be seen at work practising age-old traditions.

Sing along at the Estonian Song Festival

The popular Song Festival, a large open-air choir concert where hundreds of groups participate, only takes place every five years (the next is 2019) but is certainly worth the wait. This tradition dates back to 1869 during the National Awakening, a time when Estonians started to acknowledge themselves as a unified nation. Later, the Singing Revolution of 1988 saw thousands of people gathering in the Song Festival Grounds singing patriotic songs and demanding Estonian independence from Soviet rule. Hearing 18,000 voices sing at once during the festival is a truly unique and moving experience.

Soviet time at the Road Museum by Kiki Deere

Ride a Stagecoach at the Estonian Road Museum

The Estonian Road Museum traces the history and developments of the world’s oldest form of communication: roads. Given Estonia’s boggy terrain (approximately one quarter of the country is covered in marshes), travelling in mid-winter, when ice and a thick blanket of snow covered the ground, was once – ironically – far easier than in summer as travellers could assess the ground much more predictably. The open-air section of the museum allows visitors to stroll through time and view development of the roads throughout history. The Stalinist Rest Area showcases a neat flowerbed and statue of a young pioneer, shedding light on life during the Soviet times when propagandist art flanked the roadsides.

Ski, sledge or snowboard in Otepää

The small town of Otepää really comes alive in the winter months – it is the Baltics’ best-known winter sports centre and the country’s skiing and ski-jumping capital. The town attracts skiers, snowboarders, tubers and sledgers from all over the country, and is also the training ground for the Estonian Olympic team. Otepää is a pleasant spot to relax in the spring and summer months when the surrounding countryside, home to the beautiful Lake Pühajärv, offers the perfect setting for walks in the area’s gentle lowland hills.

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

While working for an NGO in Kabul, British expat Marc Perry went to explore the precipitous Panjishir valley in northeastern Afghanistan.

It had been my dream to visit Panjshir ever since I’d arrived in Afghanistan. Historically a geographic safe haven slicing through the Hindu Kush from Afghanistan to Tajikistan, this craggy, high-altitude valley is the final resting place of the legendary “Lion of Panjshir”,  Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of “the only cohesive military opposition to the Taliban” until his assassination in 2001.

I began my journey in Kabul. The valley is accessible to the adventurous by a private company car – with a security guard included for a few hundred dollars – but I judged it risk-free enough to find a cheaper route. After a bus company weighed me up as a westerner and quoted US$500, I left empty handed and laughing; for a local it would more like US$15. In the end I called Samsoor, a good friend. I promised petrol and food in return for wheels and good company.

The road north took us past Bagram air base and along a vast river-cut plain from which the mountains of the Hindu Kush rise impossibly sharp and steep in the distance. The occasional jet screamed overhead, sending rolls of thunder across the valley and echoing off the mountainsides. We passed nomadic herdsmen camping among their sheep in the foothills.

After climbing for some distance the road began to run perilously close to the river Panjshir, which cuts inside a ravine of rock strata faulted at absurdly acute angles. We stopped at an armed guard post where my passport was checked – giving the impression that the valley represented a kingdom of its own. A huge billboard of Massoud, wearing a customary woollen pakul hat, greeted us beyond.

Image by Marc Perry

We continued on through high gorges, following the tumbling waters of the river upstream. Mud-built villages clung to the hillsides while farms and fat-tailed sheep filled the valley floor with colour. The air was as clean as the Pennine hills or the Yorkshire dales and the stone walls separating the fields reminded me of home. It was liberation from the stifling enclosure and pollution of Kabul. We stopped for food at a restaurant on the riverside where we were served a fine spread of freshly fried fish, rice and lamb curries washed down with chai.

Eventually we reached Bazarak, the town that holds Massoud’s tomb. Massoud is revered as a strategist and fighter and his portrait hangs all over northern Afghanistan; in cafes, shops, police cars and in taxis. He oozed handsome charisma – like Bob Marley but with a bazooka. He secured his place in history long before two Al Qaeda-linked suicide bombers detonated their deadly devices in his presence two days before 9/11 – no unfortunate coincidence. Tanks scatter the valley like tombstones here; the rusting remains of the Soviet invasion he resisted in the 1980s.

Image by Marc Perry

The tomb itself is set inside the arches of a domed tower made from stone and glass. It is a simple and regal space, the raised black marble tomb covered with glass panels inscribed with passages from the Koran. We stood on deep red Persian rugs and my Muslim friend cupped his hands in prayer. Massoud himself would approve, I thought: he was devout in observing prayer but was widely recognised for holding a moderate, liberal interpretation of Islam.

Next door, a tourist centre was under construction, ready to welcome the masses – inshallah or “god willing” as they say in Afghanistan. Maybe one day, should peace prevail, visitors will wend their way here from the far corners of the earth. If they do, the proud people of Panjshir will make welcoming hosts.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against all but essential travel to Kabul and Panjshir.

From beach to mountain to fen, every corner of Ireland has something beautiful to discover. In celebration of this stunning country, here are 22 stunning pictures of Ireland.

Killarney, County Kerry

 Beara Peninsula, Cork

 Roundstone Harbour, County Galway

 Dog’s Bay, County Galway

 Dunguaire Castle, County Galway

 Kinsale Harbour, Cork

 Glendalough, County Wicklow

 Dublin

 Pine Island, Connemara

Kylemore Abbey, County Galway

 The Skellig Ring, County Kerry

 Tra Na Rossan Bay, County Donegal

 The Burren karst formations, County Clare

 The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare

 The Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary

Glenveagh National Park, County Donegal

 The Aran Islands, County Galway

 Dun Aengus, County Galway

Croagh Patrick, County Mayo

 Horn Head, County Donegal

The Skellig Islands, County Kerry

 Bantry, County Cork

Explore more of this stunning country with the Rough Guide to Ireland. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

From 1947 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, secret bunkers sprung up across Europe in an effort to protect capitalist and communist states from potential nuclear attacks. Adam Bennett explores a secret metropolitan bunker in the Essex village of Kelvedon Hatch.

During the Cold War, the prospect of a nuclear attack was widely believed to be imminent. If a nuclear bomb had been dropped on London, millions would have perished and the few survivors would have struggled in residual temperatures of -20˚c, suffering from symptoms of radiation sickness and battling against each other for scraps of food.

When you visit the Kelvedon Hatch secret bunker it is left almost exactly as it was during the Cold War. Over 2000 telephone lines are still plugged into switchboards, gas masks hang on the walls and bunk beds are made for the 600 strong work force who would have fled to here in the wake of a deadly nuclear strike.

Photo by Adam Bennett

Whilst exploring its three floors escorted by an audio guide, you can learn how the bunker has been operated during the last 60 years. Firstly, it served as a ROTOR (air defence radar system) station where a team of WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) would plot the position of aircraft, and later it became the Regional Governmental Headquarters when it was often used for two-week mock war game exercises, as the government prepared for the worst.

Hidden away beneath a small farm cottage, the bunker was built in 1952, 30 metres below ground within walls of three-metre-thick concrete. It would have been the place where civil servants, scientists and key members of government – possibly including the Prime Minister – communicated with survivors and managed a nuclear survival program.

“In theory this would have withstood a bomb about half a mile away, however if it were to stand up to a biological and chemical attack now, I’m not so sure” explains Mike, whose father apparently sold the land to the Government for just £250 back in the fifties.

Photo by Adam Bennett

The bunker would have provided relief to those who could be saved whilst putting others out of their misery. It was from the communications room, complete with BBC radio studio, where civilians would have been told where food supplies were and where medical help could be found. As the commander in chief, the Cabinet Minister would have also had the power to issue euthanasia orders for the mentally handicapped, old, infirm and others deemed expendable.

You gain a sense of how much pressure would have been put on those assigned to work here after an attack. It is likely that their families were most likely dead or dying. There was also a strong possibility that, once all of the rations had been consumed, those in the bunker would not last much longer either.

With 600 staff working 7 days a week, it is likely that somebody would have fallen ill. As the nearest hospital would have been the other side of Manchester, the bunker had its own sick bay and operating theatre which also doubled up as a morgue. Dead bodies would have been put into a body bag and then a cardboard coffin. When the radiation levels outside had dropped sufficiently, it’s likely that dead bodies would have just been dumped out the back door.

Photo by Adam Bennett

Many who visit the nuclear bunker today suggest that there is paranormal activity here. So much so that much of the bunker’s visitors come for this exact reason – it was even included in hit show Most Haunted. However, owner Mike Parrish does not believe there to be any ghosts. He says, “I’m a total disbeliever. Everybody who brings a medium down here picks up somebody. It doesn’t mean to say they’re not here just because I don’t see them.”

Until 1994, when the bunker was decommissioned and opened to the public, it was under watch 24 hours a day by armed guards. A stream of British Telecom and other maintenance workers also visited every week to ensure that electronic and communications equipment were kept in a permanent state of readiness; should the unimaginable tragedy of a nuclear attack have occurred.

Four more bunkers to feel the chill of the Cold War:

Rennsteighöhe Nuclear Bunker, eastern Germany
Formally the East German Ministry for Security, the Rennsteig bunker was built during the 1970s and operated by the infamous Stasi. Visitors to the Stasi bunker can take part in a 16 hour overnight reality experience, donning the uniform of a National People’s Army, inclusive of gas mask to guard the bunker against attack, basic training and breakfast sports.

Plokstine Missile Base, Lithuania
Once a top secret base for Soviet nuclear weapons, Plokstine was built by 10,000 Soviet soldiers who used nothing more than shovels to dig out the missile silos. Four R12 nuclear missiles were kept here, aimed at different western countries including Great Britain, Turkey, the former West Germany and Norway. It was also from here where the missiles were transferred to Cuba fuelling the Cuban missile crisis.

Photo by mogello via Flickr Creative Commons 

Bunkr Parukarka, Prague
Designed to accommodate 5000 people in the event of a nuclear strike, on a tour of Prague’s nuclear bunker visitors to learn about the history of Communism in Czechoslovakia. Descend 15 metres underground and hear tales of spies, espionage, cold war refugees and political prisoners from a knowledgeable guide and take part in a gas mask workshop.

Bunker-42, Taganka Nuclear Bunker, Moscow
Built to house prominent Kremlin figures and their families, Bunker 42 is hidden 65 metres beneath the streets of Moscow. Entered through a hidden subway door, those visiting the bunker are escorted by knowledgable tour guides dressed as KGB Officers. There are also opportunities to try on nuclear survival suits.

Explore more of these destinations with the Rough Guide to Europe. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Lottie Gross discovers why the ancient monastery on Skellig Michael, eight miles off the coast of Kerry, has been captivating travellers for years.

On Saturday I met a sailor, Ireland’s first surfer, a spear-fishing medalist and a ballroom dancing champion – and that was just one man.

Joe Roddy was a small, unassuming gentleman around eighty-years-old, with bright white hair and a kind face. We met on the seafront at Portmagee in Kerry, where he enthusiastically embraced me with a beaming smile, linked our arms and marched me to our vessel for the short journey to Skellig Michael. I was the last to get on the boat and Joe insisted I sit up front with him at the wheel.

Immediately he began chatting away. As he handed me various laminated newspaper cuttings detailing his achievements, I realised he wasn’t exactly a modest man – although that’s hardly surprising. It was only shortly before landing that we finally got onto the subject of Skellig Michael – the purpose of my trip. Having been a sailor for the last fifty years, Joe told me he had landed on the island 20,000 times. He spoke of how magical it is, and promised that the tough climb to the monastery would be worth the effort. In his thick Irish accent he explained how he marvelled the hard work and dedication of the Christian monks who lived here.

Minutes later we landed, the first boat on the island that day. “Twenty-thousand-and-one”, grinned Joe as he helped me off the boat like a true gent. Our boat party had been told to make the most of being first on the island, so before I could even turn to wave the boat was already pulling off and we were left to ascend the steep steps of Skellig.

Before embarking on the climb we were given a starkly honest safety briefing; two people fell and died here a few years ago, and not because they were being careless – the rocks really are that dangerous. Now a little fearful, we began the advance. After ten steep steps I was already breathless: Skellig Michael was about to give me the ultimate fitness test and I was determined to reach the top before any other boats landed.

The steps zig-zagged upwards on the side of the steep island, colourful little puffins nestled in holes and on rocks and the views out to sea, the mainland and Little Skellig were spectacular. I passed sheer drops on either side of the steps in some places, there were rarely safety railings to clutch onto and the novelty of those adorable puffins wore off as I became more focused on not tumbling to my death.

A taxing forty minutes later, after numerous rest stops and water breaks, I arrived at the monastery, panting and disorientated. Laid out before me, standing humbly among the rocks, were the foundations of ancient buildings and the famous beehive-style huts that you see in every brochure, calendar and postcard of Kerry. Over the years Skellig Michael has seen all kinds of attacks, from battering winds to charging Vikings in the eighth and ninth century – yet the buildings still stand over a thousand years later.

It is thought (no one really knows for certain) that the monks arrived on the island in the sixth century and brought with them all the masonry needed to construct this modest home. Even the plateau itself is man-made, as the island has no naturally flat surface. This was monasticism to an extreme degree.

Looking out on the stunning blue canvas of sea and sky towards Little Skellig, home to the the largest gannet colony in Europe, I reflected on the sheer bravery of those monks. But just as soon as I began to search for that “magical” feeling, the rest of the tourist throng reached the top of the steps. Among the 50-odd people that had joined me, my tranquility was ruined and the magic – if it was there at all – was well and truly gone. I decided it was time to make my descent.

“So, how was it?” Joe Roddy asked me expectantly back on the boat. “Great,” I replied, “very beautiful.” I wasn’t lying, but the doubt in my voice conveyed that I wasn’t as touched as some visitors have been. He hid any disappointment well and was soon in high spirits again, teaching me the four-step as we careered through the ocean. Dancing has got him into trouble a few times, he told me, as he believes every lady deserves to dance, whether her husband approves or not. When we landed back in Portmagee we shook hands and he sent me on my way, merry as ever.

It was only when I was in the car later that afternoon, exploring the circular coastal Skellig Ring road – a route without the coach-congestion of the more popular Ring of Kerry – when I finally felt that “magic”. As I turned a corner and drove up a slight hill onto the cliff tops, Skellig Michael rose up from the edges and sat solitary, proudly and determinedly in the choppy North Atlantic. Slowing to a standstill, only then did I really understand the gravity of the island’s history and the lives its inhabitants led.

Explore more of Ireland with the Rough Guide to Ireland. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Photography in this piece is by fine-art photographer, graphic designer and artist Madeleine Maria Weber – you can find out more about her work on her website. All images © Madeleine Weber.

Lottie Gross takes a step back in time and finds the perfect historical retreat in the city of Bath.

The year is 1723. My name is George Wade MP and I’ve just returned from London after a stressful week in the House of Commons. It’s late on a Saturday morning and I’m nursing a cup of English tea – or perhaps it’s nursing me – as I stare through the window at the common folk buying and selling in the square below. Ladies in their finery are spilling out of the Abbey and into the streets for an afternoon of petticoat shopping before tonight’s dance, and the young men are lighting their pipes while a violinist plays unnoticed in the tumult.

“Are you finished with that?” My partner offers to take the empty cup from my hand before we head out – and I’m back to reality. It’s not 1723 but 2014 and I’m in Bath for the Bank Holiday weekend. The “common folk” are actually tourists, wielding cameras and iPads, taking photos of the gay-wedding party posing outside the Abbey, and while I’m not George Wade MP and it’s most definitely the twenty first century, I have to admit, I’m still just as smug as he probably felt while standing at his window looking down on the crowds below.

I’m lucky enough to be staying in one of the Landmark Trust’s historic properties, this one once owned by Marshal George Wade MP. It sits above a London souvenir shop right in the churchyard next to Bath Abbey and opposite the Roman Baths; a prime location for any MP, let alone a tourist like me. It’s almost 300 years old, with warped floorboards that creak at a single breath, and it’s got an air of modest regality about its five simple rooms.

Eventually we decide to brave the Bank Holiday crowds and coach-loads of day-trippers to head for our own afternoon of shopping. At Green Park Station – a former railway station now used for public events – to the west of the city, we find an eclectic vintage market and browse everything from Star Wars action figures to some questionable fashions from the 1980s. I’m not sure when I’d ever need a bunch of rusty old keys, but I’ll keep Bath’s twice-monthly Vintage Market in mind. Fortunately, for the shopping-addict in me, the city’s independent shops provide retail therapy galore.

The innovatively named Antique Map Shop on Pultney Bridge is a haven for carto-geeks, with enough sixteenth century John Speed work to excite even a novice like me, and the expensive boutique next door makes for a fun game of “how overpriced is this pen?” (it was £10, if you’re wondering).

Next we head back to the main square in pursuit of a spot of mead. We find it at Ora et Labora, which sells produce made entirely by monks and nuns from around Europe. The irresistibly kind elderly lady behind the counter also talks me into buying some fat-free-but-sugar-filled medieval pudding and a couple of monastic-made beers. There’s leather from an Italian convent and the mead is from Lindisfarne in the north of England. One door down and we stumble upon Charlotte Brunswick, a locally handmade chocolate shop. It’s impossible to hold out against the alluring smell of dark cocoa and we soon fill a box with multicoloured delights.

It’s hours since breakfast so the only way to end the day is at Sally Lunn’s; an historic eating house and mini museum where the famous “Sally Lunn Bun” was invented by a French woman in the 1600s. It’s so popular there’s a queue out the door but I take it as a good sign; we wait and reap the rewards in less than twenty minutes. I’m served an enormous toasted brioche-like bun, topped with melting cinnamon butter, thick clotted cream and sweet strawberry jam. With buns like this, afternoon tea doesn’t get much better.

By the time we leave the restaurant the sun is shining, the square is heaving and the street entertainers are obviously getting tired as a blonde “musician” attempts to play his flute to the backing track of Hey Brother by Avicii. Fortunately, we can scrabble through the throng of tourists and retreat for a glass of wine in our eighteenth century lodgings. I perch on the ledge of the open living-room window, glass of white in one hand and that smug feeling in the other. There’s something incredibly satisfying about shooing the other tourists off our front step to unlock the hefty wooden door, knowing that no other accommodation in the city affords such fine views, from the Roman Baths to the 400-year-old Abbey.

Soon the churchyard outside is quiet again and it’s about time we sampled another of the West Country’s traditional delights: cider. The Stable on George Street runs twice-weekly cider tasting sessions, which are actually more like life lessons for those only familiar with Strongbow and the like. Who knew that the famous Irish Magners was actually made from concentrate and not real apples? I feel cheated and embarrassed at my naïve ways, but Matt, our cider savant, promises to change that as he presents me with a stick of five third-pints of their finest apple-based tipples.

We get through them at rapid-pace and before I know it I’m drunk and we’re moving onto the hard stuff. Some perries (pear ciders) join the mix and we get a tasting of my favourite, the Pilton keeved cider, before trying an aperitif and a digestive – all made with real apples of coruse. Within an hour the lesson is over and the table is peppered with semi-drunk glasses and half-full bottles, surrounded by four inebriated twenty-somethings. It’s our challenge to finish them all off and we more than happily oblige. Matt hands us each a menu – thank God – and we slur our pizza order. While I might be intoxicated I know this is the best pizza I’ve ever tasted: roast lamb, mint and thyme-roasted sweet potato on top of goats’ milk cheddar and mozzarella is arguably the most British-Italian dish you could eat, and it’s divine.

As the bread soaks up the booze, I buy a few Pilton to take away and realise I’m ready for a cider-induced slumber – of which I’m almost certain Marshal Wade would not approve – so we stumble back to hit the hay. On the walk home the streets are empty and, eventually, yet again I’m enveloped by the 300-year-old walls of this historic house. As I lie in bed I fall asleep to the sound of the hourly bell chimes from the Abbey, just as Marshal Wade would have done once upon a time, save the distant shrieks of high-heeled clubbers looking for a way home in the rain.

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

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month