As the only democracy in the Chinese speaking world and the most progressive city for LGBTQ+ rights in Asia, a legacy of artists and activists have worked to make Taiwan’s capital a place where culture, progression and creativity thrive.

Now, a new wave of resident creatives are re-energizing the city. Cutting-edge art galleries stand next to traditional teahouses, and basement club techno still murmurs in the streets as local markets set up their fare with the sunrise. Affordable, safe, efficient and exciting, this sea of glass, concrete and palm trees is an urban explorer’s dreamland. For travellers looking to unearth Taiwan’s underground scene, here are eight tips for discovering cool Taipei at its best.

1. Don’t stop drinking coffee

Taiwan’s celebrated tea culture can be traced back more than three hundred years. Home to some of the world’s best greens and oolongs, tea here is both a science and a philosophy, a remedy for body and soul.

While you’ll find no shortage of old-school teahouses, the same spirit of craft and pride has been applied to Taipei’s third wave coffee scene – and the results are glorious. Interesting cafés are popping up everywhere in the city, from over the top chemistry lab-esque B Coffee & Space in Da’an to the award-winning baristas and Scandi-inspired minimalism of Fika Fika in Zhongshan.

Whether you spend the day shooting espresso or sipping cups of siphoned single-origin brew, you’ll quickly discover why Taipei seems set to become the world’s next hub of café culture.

photo by Colt St. George

2. Tap into the city’s creative scene in Zhongshan and Dongmen

Taipei was named World Design Capital 2016 for a reason. Everyone from young architects to underground record labels seem to be embracing a new “made in Taiwan” pride that’s at once trendy and distinctly Taiwanese. The neighbourhoods of Zhongshan and Dongmen are perfect for testing the waters.

While the main streets may feel a bit commercial, amble the historic back lanes of Zhongshan district and you’ll discover well-curated vintage shops like Blue Monday, cute design boutiques and stylish records stores like Waiting Room. Taipei Artist Village – an arts institution and residency open to local and international creatives – is also worth popping by.

Dongmen is even more gratifying. While the upscale main streets boast everything from craft bubble tea to the latest in Taiwanese interior design, hit the quiet residential alleyways and you’ll find quirky art cafés, craft beer bars, dusty Chinese antique shops and good old fashioned Taiwanese comfort food spots like James Kitchen on Yongkang Street.

3. Sample the street food, especially stinky tofu

Be it in London, New York or Berlin, street food has become undeniably, and often tragically, hip. Forgo the pomp, faux-grit and absurd prices of the latest in questionable Western street food trends and rejoice in Taipei’s affordable authenticity.

From notable night markets like Ningxia and Liaoning to nameless back alley daytime stalls serving dishes perfected over generations, there’re an overwhelming variety of delicious local dishes to sample. Fatty braised pork on rice, oyster omelettes, beef noodle soup, dumplings and shaved ice piled high with fresh fruit are good for starters.

However, your ultimate quest should be to conquer the infamous chòu dòufu, or stinky tofu. It smells like a rotting corpse, but possesses a flavour profile of such intense complexity most hardcore foodies call it sublime. Others spit it up immediately.

Pixabay / CC0

4. Give vegetarianism a try

If you’re a vegan or vegetarian having trouble finding meat-free eats, keep an eye out for restaurant signs with enormous, glaring swastikas. The symbol is associated with Buddhism in China long before it’s appropriation in Europe and marks the restaurant as entirely vegetarian.

There are loads around the city, selling delectable Buddhist meals at ridiculously cheap prices. Many are buffet style, where whatever you’ve stacked on your plate is paid for by weight. The selection is usually too vast to try all of in a single go, which will keep you coming back for more.

5. From dilapidation to design: check out the city’s former art squats

Maverick Taiwanese artists were the first to recognize the potential of Taipei’s abandoned industrial buildings, squatting and staging illegal performances in these derelict-turned-creative spaces. Though authorities were quite resistant to their presence initially, after much protest spaces such as Huashan 1914 Creative Park and Songshan Cultural and Creative Park have become governmentally protected cultural centres.

Today these spaces are generally buzzing with life, hosting a plethora of fun adult and family events in on-site galleries, concept stores, cinemas, studios, concert halls and more. While governmental commercialization of these spaces has blunted their cutting-edge origins, they still feel undeniably special and worthwhile.

photo by Colt St. George

6. Lose yourself in Taipei’s nightlife

Home to a thriving underground scene, Taipei’s nightlife and music scenes are simply awesome. From indie garage rockers like Skip Skip Ben Ben, to techno, noise and experimental hip hop, putting the effort into exploring Taipei’s underground sounds will reveal an entirely different dimension to the city and provide opportunities to mingle with the artists who are making it happen.

Revolver in Zhongzheng is a laidback and friendly institution that throws everything from metal to indie nights, while F*cking Place (though the club doesn’t use an asterisk) is definitely among the city’s coolest dive-bars – with the added bonus of ridiculously cheap beer. For techno and electronic parties get to Korner, a subsection of well-known club The Wall. Pipe and APA Mini are also great venues for live music.

7. Not feeling the party? Try a reading rave

With a vibrant population of artists, intellectuals and activists perhaps it’s no surprise that print still holds a special place in Taiwan. The popularity of Eslite in Dunnan branch, Taipei’s massive 24 hour bookstore and one of the world’s only to keep such hours, speaks for itself. Curl up in this beautifully designed booktopia and join the locals as they pore over pages all night long.

On a smaller-scale, keep an eye out for the artisanal stationery shop Pinmo Pure Store, Gin Gin Store (the first gay bookstore opened in Greater China) and hip new bookish concept stores. In this respect, Pon Ding is an absolute standout – a friendly, three-story collaborative creative space housing art, independent publications, quality magazines and pop-up events. Of course, they’ve also got a brilliant café.

photo credit: Pon Ding

8. Get back to nature

Every once in a while you need to leave the urban grind behind and unwind in the natural world. Thankfully, nature is never far off in Taiwan.

The high speed railway from Taipei can have you beaching on the island’s subtropical southern coast in less than two hours, while verdant mountain trails and popular surf breaks are easily accessible by bus. If you’re feeling adventurous, delve further into the mountains to experience the colourful cultures of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.

But whenever you find yourself recharged and craving that big-city buzz it’s a quick train trip back to the creative playground that is Taipei.

EVA Air, a Star Alliance member, flies daily from London Heathrow to Taipei, offering passengers award winning service and a choice of three cabin classes: Royal Laurel Class (Business Class), Elite Class (Premium Economy) and Economy Class. Featured image: Pon Ding. See more of Taiwan with the Taiwanese tourist board

Italy has long been one of Europe’s most popular destinations. From the magnificent remnants of ancient Rome to the coolest in contemporary culture, secret beaches to snow-covered peaks, tranquil countryside to frenetic city streets, plus an all-pervasive passion for food – the allure of this boot-shaped nation has proven itself timeless.

With so much diversity, deciding where to go in Italy can be simply overwhelming. This one minute video guide will help you plan your trip.

Remember, even in the country’s most touristed destinations, you need only detour down a small city backstreet, or stop briefly in a nameless village, to discover the Italy of legend – an Italy that seems yours, and yours alone.

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.

Image 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.

Image 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.

Image 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.

Image 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.

Image 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.

Image 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Image 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.

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. 

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?

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.

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.

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

BarcelonaSpain’s second city – sets the template for urban style, hip design and sheer nonstop energy. Where others tinker at the edges, time and again Barcelona has reinvented itself. Visit for the first time or the fiftieth, Barcelona never fails to surprise.

The city’s popularity means finding a hotel vacancy at any time of year can be difficult, so it’s always best to book in advance. There’s a wide range of options, though, from youth hostels and budget pensións to glam five-star-plus hotels, housed in medieval mansions and Modernista masterpieces alike.

Start planning your trip with our guide to the best area to stay in Barcelona, taken from the latest Rough Guide.

Note that while rooms with balconies may be the brightest, traffic is a constant presence and, in a city where people are just getting ready to go out at 10pm, you can be assured of a fair amount of pedestrian noise, particularly in the old town.

The Ramblas

If you hanker after a Ramblas view, you’ll pay for the privilege – generally speaking, there are much better deals to be had either side of the famous boulevard, often just a minute’s walk away.

Spain’s most famous thoroughfare, however, has its attractions, lined with cafés and restaurants, thronged by tourists and performance artists, and home to the acclaimed Boqueria food market.

Value for money: Hostal Benidorm. This refurbished pensión attracts tribes of young tourists with rooms available for one to five people.

Dramatic luxury: Hotel H1898. The former HQ of the Philippines Tobacco Company got an eye-popping refit; some of the sumptuous suites even have their own private pool, jacuzzi and garden.

Barri Gòtic

The Barri Gòtic, or Gothic Quarter, which spreads east from the Ramblas, forms the very heart of the old town. With buildings from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, most of the district is picture-perfect, full of shops, bars, restaurants, museums and galleries. Alongside some classy boutique choices, most of Barcelona’s cheap accommodation is found here.

Note that the south of the the Barri Gòtic is rather less gentrified. Be careful (without being paranoid) when coming and going after dark and take care at night in poorly lit streets.

Impeccable boutique: Hotel Do. This nineteenth-century Neoclassical building, renovated by renowned Catalan architect Oriol Bohigas, seamlessly blends the contemporary with the timeless.

Eye-catching style: Neri Hotel. A delightful eighteenth-century palace houses this stunning boutique hotel of just 22 rooms and suites, featuring swags of flowing material, rescued timber and granite-toned bathrooms.

El Raval

The old-town area west of the Ramblas is known as El Raval (from the Arabic word for “suburb”) and has always formed a world apart from nobler Barri Gòtic.

Over the last two decades, however, the district has changed markedly, particularly in the “upper Raval” around Barcelona’s contemporary art museum, MACBA. Cutting-edge galleries, designer restaurants and fashionable bars are all part of the scene these days.

You’d hesitate to call El Raval gentrified, as it clearly still has its rough edges. Don’t be unduly concerned during the day as you make your way around, but it’s as well to keep your wits about you at night, particularly in the southernmost streets.

A local landmark: Barceló Raval. The USP of this hotel is its 360-degree top-floor terrace with plunge pool and sensational city views; rooms are sophisticated and open-plan with space-station-style sheen.

Sumptuous style: Hotel España. There’s been no more eagerly awaited hotel opening in recent times than the revamp of this Modernista icon – its interior has no equal in Barcelona.

Sant Pere and La Ribera

The two easternmost old-town neighbourhoods of Sant Pere and La Ribera are both medieval in origin, and are often thought of as one district, but each has a distinct character.

Sant Pere – perhaps the least visited part of the old town – has two remarkable buildings, the Palau de la Música Catalana and the Mercat Santa Caterina. By way of contrast, the old artisans’ quarter of La Ribera has always been a big draw, by virtue of the presence of the graceful church of Santa María del Mar and the Museu Picasso.

Both have a number of safely sited budget, mid-range and boutique options, and are handy for the Born nightlife area.

Budget cool: Chic & Basic Born. From the open-plan, all-in-white decor, everything here is punchily boutique and in-your-face. Chic, certainly; basic, not at all.

Wham-glam designer: Grand Hotel Central. This hotel, beloved of all the style mags has spacious, ever-so-lovely rooms, a rooftop sundeck and infinity pool.

The Eixample

North of Plaça de Catalunya, the Eixample – split into Right (Dreta) and Left (Esquerra) – has some of the city’s most fashionable hotels, often housed in converted palaces and mansions and located just a few minutes’ walk from the modernista architectural masterpieces.

The Dreta de l’Eixample acts as a sort of open-air museum, featuring extraordinary buildings – most notably by Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch. The Esquerra de l’Eixample is one of Barcelona’s hottest night-out destinations, with both Michelin-starred restaurants and some of the best bars and clubs.

Cheery B&B: BarcelonaBB. Lovely rooms, amiable hosts and a tasty breakfast shared with other happy travellers – what’s not to love?

Contemporary high-spec: the5Rooms. The impeccable taste and fashion background of owner Jessica is evident here: expect gorgeously styled rooms, original artwork and terrific bathrooms.

The waterfront

The greatest transformation in Barcelona has been along the waterfront, where harbour and ocean have once again been placed at the heart of the city. Dramatic changes have opened up the old docksides as promenades and entertainment areas, and landscaped the beaches to the north.

Port Vell is the best place for waterfront views, while to the northeast the eighteenth-century neighbourhood of Barceloneta holds tightly packed streets and excellent seafood restaurants. Further up the coast is the showpiece Port Olímpic, a huge seafront development constructed for the 1992 Olympics.

Four- and five-stars also abound much further out on the metro at the Diagonal Mar conference and events site.

Chic and charming: Bonic Barcelona. This “urban guesthouse” is just a few steps from the port and Ramblas, with Gothic-Moorish decor and gorgeous tiled floors.

Stupendously cool: W Barcelona. This signature building on the Barceloneta seafront is one of the city’s most iconic structures; open-plan designer rooms have fantastic views and facilities are first-rate.

Gràcia

If you prefer neighbourhood living, then the northern district of Gràcia is the best base. It still retains a genuine small-town atmosphere and, unlike some districts in Barcelona, has a real soul.

The area is still very much the liberal, almost bohemian, stronghold it was in the nineteenth century and you’re only ever a short walk away from its excellent bars, restaurants and clubs.

Hostel with style: Casa Gracia. Though this vibrant and stylish space, spread over six floors in a Modernista building, is technically a hostel, you’ll feel like you’re staying in a hotel.

Deluxe luxury: Hotel Casa Fuster. Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s magnificent Casa Fuster is the backdrop for this five-star, with huge beds, gorgeous bathrooms and a wonderful panoramic roof terrace and pool.

This feature contains affiliate links; you can find out more about why we’ve partnered with booking.com here. All recommendations are editorially independent and taken from the Rough Guide to Barcelona.

Backpacking Thailand can mean staying in fun-packed hostels and idyllic beach bungalows, eating noodles so tasty and so cheap you’ll swear off all other food groups and climbing aboard everything from an overnight train to a lolloping elephant.

But it also means following a well-worn route – one that has sprouted an entire industry to service it, and sometimes, sadly, to take advantage of it.

Sidestep those scams and dodge the dangers with our top tips for making the most of backpacking Thailand.

1. Be respectful – know the etiquette

Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles for a reason, but those smiles can quickly disappear if you don’t respect the culture. The feet are considered the lowest part of the body so never point them (especially the soles) towards somebody, especially if that somebody is a statue of Buddha. The head is considered most sacred so don’t touch people on the head, even children.

2. Eat bravely

One of the best things about travelling in Thailand is the food and you’ll find the tastiest – and cheapest – Thai noodles and curries at the street food stalls.

Be brave and follow the locals, they know which places have the highest standards, and the more people eating means more turnover and fresher ingredients.

3. Embrace public transport

Yes, the tuk tuk is an experience you mustn’t miss but to get proper mileage under your belt (and to get between Bangkok and the highlights of Chiang Mai, the southern islands and Kanchanaburi) you’re going to need to get to grips with the Thai bus service (Baw Khaw Saw or BKS).

Government-run, it’s reliable and extensive, with a BKS station in almost every town. Book your tickets here the day before you want to travel if and take the overnight first class bus to save on a night’s accommodation.

These generally stop somewhere en route for you to eat and will have reclining seats and a toilet on board. Bring a warm jacket to wrap up in, earplugs and an eye shade and prepare to arrive very early in the morning.

4. Timing is everything

The best time to visit Thailand is between November and February, when the monsoons finish for the year and temperatures are at coolest. This is also peak season though so if saving money and avoiding crowds is more important to you than sunbathing, the wet season (May to October) could be a better bet. To see all the highlights at a reasonable pace you’re going to need at least a month, though two is better.

5. Don’t be fooled

That tuk tuk driver stopping you on the street to tell you it’s a national holiday and that temple you’re about to visit is closed? It’s almost certainly not, he or she may just want to take you to their cousin’s carpet factory or sister’s gem shop.

Don’t be fooled by official looking uniforms, cheap or free tuk tuk tours or one day only gem sales either – unfortunately all are scams set up to part you from your travel funds, usually in exchange for a worthless ‘gem’ you can sell when you get back home

And don’t even think about getting involved in the sex industry – prostitution may be rife in Thailand but one thing it’s not is legal.

6. Agree a price before you ride

Be it a taxi or a tuk tuk, you need to agree a price for your journey in advance. Taxi drivers are meant to use the meter so ask them to and if they say no move on along the rank to the next driver.

Tuk tuks should be haggled over – ask your hostel for a rough estimate on current rates and stand firm. Though it also pays to remember that haggling over 20 baht is about equivalent to getting in a stress over 40p or 60 cents – sometimes it just isn’t worth it.

7. Pack light

You’re going backpacking for the freedom – so don’t weigh yourself down. Buy a light backpack and fill it only with the essentials.

You’ll need layers for those chilly bus journeys, a few items of underwear you can wash repeatedly, a waterproof jacket, earplugs, your phone charger and adaptor and insect repellent. Here’s a backpacking checklist to help you plan your backpack.

8. Use hostels

Thailand has a great network of hostels and you’ll not only save money over hotels, but also meet more people and get more local recommendations. Hostel staff are also a reliable source of advice and information on everything from avoiding the latest scam to where to get the best noodles, so talk to them.

9. Go with the flow

Thailand is a place to chill. So stay on somewhere if you love it, move on if you don’t, and if you hear about a cool new bar or restaurant, or a party on the beach, go. Unpredictable sometimes, unforgettable always.

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

Going for a spa in Iceland can feel wonderfully alien. Against a backdrop of barren moonscapes and denuded hills, the waters are so preternaturally blue, so exaggerated and preposterously warm, that a simple dip can feel borderline indecent. Venture from the capital Reykjavik as far as Reyðarfjörður in the extreme east and you’ll also find that the country hides hundreds of out-of-this-world geothermal pools and naturally-heated hot tubs.

But it first pays to know the rules. Because in Iceland, the right spa etiquette is taken deadly seriously. Here are five dos and don’ts to bear in mind.

Don’t forget to wash yourself

It may sound obvious, but unlike the rest of Europe, where most bathers make-do with a quick shower-room rinse, Icelanders have a set, strict routine when going for a dip that must be followed to the letter.

First, read the rules. They’re pinned to every changing room wall and notice-board, as well as being published in English, French, German and Danish, so you really have no excuse not to follow them.

Second, get washing. Scrub your head, armpits, feet and groin with soap beforehand, and – most importantly – do it in your birthday suit, not bathing suit. A quick rinse just won’t do, especially because most geothermal pools use freshwater and far lower levels of chlorine, even at the Blue Lagoon at Reykjanes.

And having just read the rules, you have no excuse not to get naked. You have been warned.

Do get chatting to the locals

Approaching a complete stranger in a bikini may at first seem like a coquettish, brazen thing to do, but it’s OK in Iceland.

In Reykjavík, hot tubs and pools are more like social clubs where people catch up on news and discuss politics: and they’ve done so since the twelfth century when poet, scholar and politician Snorri Sturluson built the first stone hot tub outside Reykholt.

To get the best of the conversations, go to a local’s pool such as Vesturbæjarlaug, a short walk from Reykjavík city centre, or Nauthólsvík, a geothermal saltwater pool by a golden beach.

Around seven o’clock on a weekday morning, the conversation bubbles as much as the thermal waters. There is no social hierarchy, and everyone is treated like an equal.

For something more romantic, take a date to Sundhöll, built in the 1930s, it’s open late and is one of the oldest baths in the capital.

Don’t talk too loudly (or on your phone)

Icelanders don’t like tourists who make too much noise: period. Their dose of social media may well be a get-together in the spa, but they talk quietly, which can sound as soft as whale song.

The reason? Many spas and indoor pools were built in the 1960s and loud noises echo down the corridors of the indoor pools and steam rooms.

“Our bathhouses tend to venerate tradition above anything else,” says spa aficionado Birgir Þorsteinn Jóakimsson, who visits Reykjavik’s Vesturbæjarlaug every day. “Talking loudly is a nasty habit, especially at an Icelandic spa – so you won’t be popular with the locals. It’s not a circus.”

It also pays to be alert, as hawkish pool attendants may ambush you, showing you the door. They’ve been known to throw tourists out for less.

Don’t jump straight in

Those milky-blue waters are ridiculously tempting, but also feverishly hot. Draw the cool air into your lungs and take your time by testing the water temperature first to check your skin’s sensitivity to the geothermal heat.

In Reykjavík at Laugardalur Park, also known as the Valley of the Pools, the water used to hover at a white-hot 45 degrees Celcius, punishing unsuspecting dive-bombers. Such waters have since been cooled due to health and safety regulations, but with most still nudging upwards of 37 degrees, it’s an odd juxtaposition between bathing in hell, while feeling like you’re in heaven.

To maximise enjoyment, remember to swim in an anticlockwise direction. No one can really explain why, but Icelanders swim in circles from right to left, and so should you.

Do take a local’s advice

The most sacred pools are only known by the locals – and with good reason. Places like the old pool at Gamla Laugin at Fludir on the Golden Circle – supposedly the oldest in Iceland – or Seljavallalaug, a snooker-chalk blue outdoor pool secreted up a valley near Skogar, are so sybaritic you wouldn’t want to share them with anyone else either.

“Everyone has their favourite they want to keep,” says Guðrún Bjarnadottir, a spa professional working at the Blue Lagoon. “If you talk to locals – and they like you – you may get lucky. My personal favourite is somewhere in the hills north of Hveragerdi. It’s in a mystical place known as the Smoky Valley, but the exact location and directions – well – that would be telling.”

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

Almost fifty years since John Lennon and Yoko Ono promoted world peace from room 702 of the Hilton, Amsterdam’s hotels are more worthy of the spotlight than ever. Even for seasoned travellers, it’s fair to say that the city’s accommodation options are among the most exciting in Europe.

Take your pick from handsomely converted old canal houses, sleek-and-chic boutique B&Bs and luxurious short-stay apartments, while quirkier options include houseboats, a converted tram depot and even a crane. Visitors on a budget are catered for too, with bargain beds aplenty in the city’s hostels and campsites.

However, as in most capitals, prices soar during peak season – July and August, Easter and Christmas – especially last-minute, so booking in advance is a must.

Start planning your trip with our guide to the best area to stay in Amsterdam, taken from the latest Rough Guide.

The Old Centre

If you choose to stay in the Old Centre, you’ll be a short walk from the main sights and the principal shopping and nightlife areas. Cheap hotels abound and this is the first place to start looking if money is tight, although some may find the proximity of the red light district off-putting.

On a budget: Flying Pig Downtown
This hostel is clean, large and well run by ex-travellers familiar with the needs of backpackers. It’s justifiably popular, and a very good deal, with mixed dorms, some of which have queen-sized bunks sleeping two.

No-limits luxury: Hotel de l’Europe
This elegant old-timer has plenty of fin-de-siècle charm and a central riverside location. The rooms are large and, opulent, and there’s also a two-michelin-star restaurant, Bord’eau, a spa and the glamorous freddy’s Bar.

Pixabay / CC0

Grachtengordel West

The canal-laced streets to the west of the old centre have a number of quiet waterside hotels, though the least expensive places are concentrated along Raadhuisstraat, one of the city’s busiest streets.

A snug stay: b&nb Herengracht
This oh-so-central bed (and no breakfast) has three double rooms: subterranean bolthole, canal view or garden view.

A hotel with style: The Dylan
Hip without being pretentious, the Dylan has earned itself many repeat guests. This stylish hotel is housed in a seventeenth-century building that centres on a beautiful courtyard and terrace, and there’s a michelin-star restaurant on site.

Grachtengordel South

Ideally positioned for the plethora of clubs, bars and restaurants on and around Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, this area is on the rise: Waldorf Astoria decided to locate their new hotel here in 2014. There are plenty of options for those on a budget too, including a number of very appealing – and occasionally stylish – hotels along the surrounding canals.

The big name: Waldorf Astoria
Housed within a series of conjoined seventeenth-century canal houses in one of the city’s most prestigious neighbourhoods, the Waldorf Astoria has 93 rooms and suites in tasteful, calming neutral shades. It’s hard to fault, except for the eye-watering cost.

A great budget option: Prinsenhof
This small one-star has been offering bed and board since 1813. The 11 rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, making it one of the city’s top budget options, but booking ahead is essential.

Pixabay / CC0

The Jordaan

Staying in the Jordaan puts you among the locals, well away from the prime tourist areas. There’s no shortage of bars and restaurants here either, and some of the city’s prettiest canals thread through the district, but you’ll be at least a 15min walk from the bright lights. Be aware when looking for a place to stay that Marnixstraat and Rozengracht are busy main roads.

Inventive design: De Hallen
There’s plenty of buzz surrounding the stunning conversion of this 1902 tram depot. Original features, such as rails in the dining-room floor, and the vaulted glass ceiling, have been kept intact, and the 55 rooms seem to be suspended within the structure.

Beautifully furnished boutique: Maison Rika
Housed in a former art gallery, this boutique option has two beautifully furnished queen-sized bedrooms on the second and third floors and is owned by fashion designer Ulrika Lundgren, who has a shop across the street.

The Old Jewish Quarter and Plantage

Not many tourists stay in this area as it’s largely residential, with very few bars or restaurants. Consequently, you’re pretty much guaranteed a quiet night’s sleep here, and you’re only a tram ride away from the leading sights.

A simple and welcoming stay: Adolesce
Popular and welcoming four-storey hotel (no lift) in an old canal house not far from Waterlooplein. There are ten neat, if a little dated, rooms and a communal seating area.

Modern style: Arena
A little way east of the centre, this hip four-star hotel has split-level rooms in tranquil grey or cream. There’s a lovely, relaxed vibe in the bar and the intimate restaurant with garden terrace, and a lively late-night club located within the former chapel.

Pixabay / CC0

The Eastern Docklands and Amsterdam Noord

These up-and-coming districts have some excellent, avant-garde accommodation options, and though their industrial architecture and open expanses might feel a world away from the old centre’s medieval lanes, they’re just a short hop away by ferry or tram.

An unusual conversion: Lloyd Hotel
Situated in the Oosterdok (eastern docklands) district, this ex-prison and refugee workers’ hostel has been renovated to become a “cultural embassy”, with an arts centre as well as an art library. The hotel serves all kinds of travellers, with rooms ranging from one-star affairs with a shared bathroom to five-star suites.

Getting high: Faralda Crane
Ever slept 50m in the air? The world’s first hotel in a crane offers three ultra-contemporary suites with knee-buckling city views. As you’d expect, there’s a long waiting list, so book well in advance.

The Museum Quarter

The city’s smartest quarter centres on the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum – although the nightlife around Leidseplein is also within easy striking distance. There are no canals, and two of the main drags constantly rumble with traffic, but several good hotels are to be found here, plus the leafy Vondelpark.

Back to school: College
Converted from a nineteenth-century schoolhouse, the college is an elegant boutique hotel run by hotel-school students. It has tasteful modern rooms, a first-rate restaurant, a swanky bar and a chic terrace.

To impress: Conservatorium
The capital’s most jaw-dropping hotel, this heritage building has been transformed into a contemporary design wonderland. Standard guestrooms come with nespresso machine and free newspapers, plus access to Akasha – the city’s largest and most opulent spa.

Pixabay / CC0

The outer districts

Exciting accommodation options are cropping up in areas such as Amsterdam Oost, offering the opportunity of top-notch digs for less – and thanks to reliable and frequent trams, staying here doesn’t place you too far from the action.

Bring back the 60s: Hilton Amsterdam
Way outside the centre by a canal in the distinctly upmarket nieuw Zuid district, this hotel has all the facilities you could hope for. Mainly attracting a business-oriented clientele, it’s only really worth considering if you can afford to soak up a bit of 1960s nostalgia in its stunning “John and Yoko” suite, where the couple held their famous 1969 “Bed-in” for peace.

Hostel beds and more: Stayokay Zeeburg
Located in a former school in a residential area on the eastern outskirts of the city, this hostel has its own bar/restaurant, bike rental and laundry, and is wheelchair accessible. It shares the building with Studio/K, a multipurpose venue that shows art-house films and has a decent restaurant.

This feature contains affiliate links; you can find out more about why we’ve partnered with booking.com here. All recommendations are editorially independent and taken from the Rough Guide to Amsterdam. Header image via Pixabay / CC0.

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