Planning a trip to Thailand? Or perhaps just dreaming of those beaches and that food? Either way, allow us to offer our 20 essential things to see and do in this spectacular country:

Thanks to the stratospheric rise of the aussie dollar, Sydney has now leapfrogged New York and London as one of the world’s most expensive cities. Almost every street seems to have a concept wine bar or Masterchef-style restaurant popping up and even scuzzy old Kings Cross has cleaned up its act.

Yet while “Sydders” can take a  shark-sized bite out of anyone’s pocket, there’s still plenty of things to do in Sydney for free that don’t involve simply lying on a beach.

1. Use the free tours

For the inside track on any city it’s hard to beat a local guiding you around, especially for free. The aptly named I’m Free Tours offers fun, three-hour walking tours accompanied by savvy locals. Look out for the guides – hard to miss thanks to their lime-green t-shirts – at Sydney Town Hall.

2. Walk the coathanger

Why pay over $200 (£130) to climb the Harbour Bridge, known affectionately locally as “the coathanger”, when you can snap up the same panoramic views for free by walking across? The 1.15km HarbourBridge walkway is best accessed from the north shore so you can keep your eyes on the Opera House as you stroll (or cycle) across.

3. Go swimming

Taking a dip in one of Sydneys thirty outdoor ocean pools is a classic Aussie experience. The water’s warm enough for year-round swimming and mercifully free of anything that will bite you (well, bar the odd hyperactive toddler). One of the most atmospheric pools is Bronte Baths (free), built in 1887, and overlooking the equally lovely Bronte Beach.

4. Challenge yourself to a coastal hike

For those of you who own a pair of hiking boots as well as thongs (flip-flops) there are two excellent coastal walks that kick off from central Sydney: Bondi to Bronte (6km) and the Manly Scenic Walkway (10km).

5. Try a botanical escape

An oasis of calm (at least when its raucous fruit bats are asleep) Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens is a perfect escape from the hectic downtown area. Also within the park is the imposingly colonial Government House (free entry), a kind of pint-sized Buckingham Palace, surrounded by manicured grounds.

6. Head to the free art galleries…

You could easily spend a day wandering around the NSW Art Gallery, whose vast collection includes Asian masterpieces as well as European Impressionist, Aboriginal and colonial works.  For free contemporary art don’t miss the newly expanded MCA or the Brett Whitley Studio.

7. …as well as the free museums

Two of the finest free museums are the National Maritime, which traces the country’s many links with the ocean and the Australian Museum, which, as well as the usual dinosaur skeletons, displays some pleasingly lethal creepy crawlies. Also free are the excellent yet often overlooked museums of the University of Sydney.  

8. Take a free bus to a free internet spot

Look out for the free shuttle bus 555 which does a useful circuit of central Sydney every 10min. For free wi-fi try Sydney’s excellent libraries, you can check in on the lastest Rough Guides content online while you’re there.

9. Hit the Rocks

Easily the most atmospheric part of Sydney, the Rocks harbourside district is where the first Europeans stepped ashore on 26 January 1788. Strolling the cobblestone streets is, of course perfectly free, though its addictive weekend market should come with a wallet health warning.

10. Free festivals

Well worth timing your visit for, January’s Sydney Festival features everything from burlesque circus to indigenous arts and kicks off with a huge free street party. Another annual fixture is the fabulous Sculpture by the Sea open-air exhibition. For other free events check out http://whatson.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au.

The best way to explore Vietnam’s beguiling capital is to get a local to give you the inside track, says Alex Whittleton.

I arrived at my hotel in Hanoi’s brash and beautiful old town in a state of bleary-eyed excitement. My flight had been long and sleepless, but I’d just had one of the most entertaining taxi rides of my life. The 45-minute trip across town from the airport felt like a kaleidoscopic dream – dazzlingly colourful, deafeningly loud, and the perfect primer for a stay in the animated capital of Vietnam.

The first thing that struck me from the taxi was the implausible number of motorbikes swarming down the road: a family of five was perched perilously on one, a filing cabinet was strapped to the back of another, and a girl carrying a (rapidly expiring) foot-long fish rode on a third. I soon realised that this was nothing out of the ordinary. A tide of motorised humanity washes down the streets of Hanoi day and night, against a backdrop of flashing neon signs, vast billboards and charming French-colonial architecture. The journey was a vivid initiation to Hanoi – I could barely hear myself think with the incessant buzz of engines, beeping of horns and clatter of street vendors. And if I was experiencing sensual overload inside the taxi, I wondered what on earth it would be like on the outside.

After dumping my bags at the hotel, I had just enough time for a quick shower before the main event of my day – a walking tour of the city with a local student. I’d booked through HanoiKids, a student-run outfit that pairs up local youngsters who want to practice their English with visitors who want the inside track. You can have a half- or full-day tour, and it’s completely free. I couldn’t imagine a better way to see the city.

At 9am prompt, I was picked up from my hotel by Na, a friendly 20-year-old from Hanoi University. I must’ve looked like a typically frazzled tourist in need of perking up, because she took me straight to a street kitchen for a breakfast of pho. Ordinarily, I’d have found beef and noodle soup too much first thing in the morning, but I was saved by a confused body clock that thought it was supper time. Sitting on the street in the early-morning sunshine, planning an itinerary with Na, I felt a keen sense of anticipation – our first stop was to be the city’s famously tumultuous ancient quarter.

Made up of 36 higgledy-piggledy lanes, each named after a particular craft, Hanoi’s ancient quarter is jam-packed with people flogging their wares: everything from bamboo baskets to paper lanterns spill out onto the pavements, which double up as workshops. My abiding memory of this extraordinary square mile, however, will be the delicious scents that filled the air. Fresh vegetables, sizzling meat, piping hot green tea, and sweet doughnuts were being hungrily dispatched at makeshift kitchens on every street corner, and I couldn’t help but feel ravenous, despite my enormous breakfast.

We meandered south, swapping the commotion of the ancient quarter for the relative calm of Hoan Kiem Lake – the focal point of the modern city, where people go to exercise, play chess or simply take a breather. Na led the way down thoroughfares and backstreets, past chic boutiques, crumbling façades and ancient temples.

I found crossing the road a heart-pounding, dizzying ordeal. Lane discipline in Hanoi is non-existent, and zebra crossings and traffic lights are resolutely ignored. To get from one side of the street to the other, you simply step out and hope for the best. I was lucky I had Na to grip onto.

After a lakeside lunch of spring rolls and a chat about Na’s teacher-training studies, we made our way to the formidable Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war in the 1960s. It’s a captivating, haunting place that documents the miserable lives of its inmates with preserved solitary-confinement cells and horrifying displays of torture instruments. A mere 30 minutes inside was enough, and I felt relieved to see the street again.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a happy haze of chatter and sightseeing. Between motorbike-dodging and doughnut-eating, Na told me about the importance of ancestral worship for Vietnamese families. This emphasis on filial devotion comes from Confucius, whose teachings have shaped the society. It felt like the right moment to see the great philosopher’s shrine at the nearby Temple of Literature before visiting our final sight, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – another shrine, but to a much more modern hero. The final resting place for the embalmed body of Vietnam’s charismatic Communist leader has become a pilgrimage site for people from across the country.

The light was fading fast, so we jumped in a taxi back to the hotel. Looking out, the streets now felt like an old and familiar friend. This tour had been every bit as thrilling as I’d imagined. And thanks to Na, I’d explored hidden side-streets, heard stories of family and cultural life, and, perhaps most importantly, figured out how to cross the road.

Despite the best efforts of Psy, K-pop seems destined to remain a niche market in the western world. The South Korean film industry, on the other hand, has had a strong international reputation for several years now. As with most global cinema, interest in South Korean films has been skewed towards directors rather than actors, and some have become true doyens of the international film festival circuit. Forget Gangnam Style, says Martin Zatko, here are six of the best Korean directors to keep an eye on.

Kim Ki-duk

Superstar “enfant terrible” Kim has some serious form, having won prizes at the Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals for dark, brooding and often controversial works such as Samaritan Girl and 3-Iron (both 2004). Those interested in visiting South Korea will get a taste for the country’s wonderful countryside in the relatively light Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003), a mesmerizingly beautiful film set in and around a floating Buddhist monastery.

Park Chan-wook

Another big-hitter on the international scene, Park directed stylish, highly violent Oldboy (2003), a mystery thriller generally regarded as the most iconic work of contemporary South Korean cinema. An American remake, directed by Spike Lee, is set to hit the screens later this year. Oldboy formed the central chunk of Park’s acclaimed “Vengeance Trilogy”, which also included Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). With all this violence and revenge in the air, it’s no surprise that Quentin Tarantino is a big Park Chan-wook fan.

Hong Sang-soo

Hong’s acerbic, art-house films come thick and fast – it’s little wonder that some dub him the Korean Woody Allen. While other famous South Korean directors have headed to Hollywood to solidify their international reputations, Hong chose a different form of cinematic fusion, bringing French actress Isabelle Huppert to Korea for In Another Country (2012), a delightful slice of rural life punctuated with cigarette smoke and uncomfortable conversations. Woody Allen again, then.

Im Sang-soo

No relation to Hong Sang-soo, Im Sang-soo is a master at courting controversy – perhaps to an even greater degree than Kim Ki-duk. His best-known work is The President’s Last Bang (2005), a black comedy about the last days of Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s dictatorial president of the 1960s and 1970s. The film resulted in lawsuits from Park’s family – including his daughter, current Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye. However, Im’s films (and his infamy) are usually more sexual than political, and a fine example is the hilarious A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003), which revolves around a woman and her relationship with a teenage boy.

Lee Chang-dong

Lee has only directed a handful of films since his 1997 debut Green Fish, but his sober, slow-burning works have all been well received; the most recent is Poetry (2010), which tells the story of an Alzheimer’s sufferer who develops an interest in penning prose. However, Lee’s most esteemed piece is Peppermint Candy (1999), which begins with the apparent suicide of the protagonist, and then uses reverse chronology to unfold the years of unfortunate events which led to his despair. These include military conscription and the 1980s student uprisings, and as such the film makes a decent primer in recent South Korean history – not to mention a rather damning indictment of contemporary South Korea’s “loss of innocence”.

Bong Joon-ho

Bong’s films tend to be dark, meaningful, finely crafted pieces. As such, it may come as a surprise to hear that he’s best known for a monster film, The Host (2006), which shattered domestic box-office records on release. Though essentially about a giant lizard which emerges from the Han River and starts chowing down on Seoulites, this is more than a mere “Kollywood” blockbuster – its political subtext is obvious from the beginning, which sees a US Army-sanctioned dumping of formaldehyde into Seoul’s main river.

The free ride across the harbour to Staten Island is one of the highlights of any visit to New York City, but is there any point in getting off the ferry?

Culturally Staten Island has more in common with suburban New Jersey than with the other four New York boroughs – and with parts of the island still reeling from damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, most tourists promptly hop on the next boat back to Manhattan. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss the “forgotten borough” so readily; its leafy streets harbour some real gems (unaffected by Sandy), not least a fabulous Chinese garden, a Tibetan gallery and a colonial village, as well as some authentic Sri Lankan restaurants.

A 625-foot (190.5m) ferris wheel, potentially the largest in the world (though Dubai – where else? – is already planning to top this), is slated for 2015, while the new National Lighthouse Museum  should open sometime this year. And the world’s largest landfill site is well on the way to becoming the eco-triumph that is Freshkills Park, supporting diverse habitats for wildlife, birds and plant communities.

The Olde New World

You don’t have to visit Williamsburg or New England for a dose of colonial America – unbeknown to most New Yorkers, Staten Island boasts its very own slice of olde history, replete with costumed role players tending fires, welding tin and making useful olde artefacts like wooden barrels. Historic Richmond Town is an open-air museum of around 27 historic buildings; at its core is the preserved village of Richmond, centre of the island’s government until 1898, as well as clapboard houses transported from other parts of the island. Don’t miss the Dutch-style Voorlezer’s House, the nation’s oldest existing school building – built sometime before 1696, it’s prehistoric by New York standards.

The Asian connection

Staten Island may seem an unlikely place to cement US-China relations, but that’s what happened in 1998, when after years of lobbying, a party of Chinese artists arrived at the Staten Island Botanical Garden to create one of the most remarkable sights in the city. The Chinese Scholar’s Garden is a wonderfully evocative homage to the nineteenth century Couple’s Retreat Garden in Suzhou, China, a one-acre complex of Qing Dynasty-style, pagoda-roofed halls, artfully planted courtyards, bamboo groves and koi ponds. It’s one of only two authentic scholar’s gardens in the US.

The Chinese gardeners would have been no doubt bewildered by Staten Island’s equally remarkable tribute to Tibet, incongruously located in the island’s residential heartland. The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art clutches onto the steep hillside much like monasteries in Tibet, one building designed to resemble a gompa, or Buddhist temple. Inside are displayed a fraction of the religious sculptures, thangka paintings, rare Bhutanese sand mandalas and ancient carved-wood stupas collected by Jacques Marchais, who built this complex in the 1940s. In October, monks in maroon robes perform ritual ceremonies, and food and crafts are sold, at the annual Tibetan Festival.

At other times of year you are more likely to see Sri Lankan families on the streets of Staten Island than Tibetan monks: “Little Sri Lanka” in the Tompkinsville neighbourhood (centred along Victory Blvd), is home to one of the largest Sri Lankan communities outside the country itself. Try the cheap hoppers (noodles), veggie roti, spicy chicken, curries and idlis at New Asha Sri Lankan Restaurant (322 Victory Blvd, at Cebra Ave 718 420 0649). They even have cricket matches playing on the TV.

The Staten Island Ferry runs 24 hours, and is free. See www.visitstatenisland.com for more information about the island.

Stephen Keeling is the co-author of the Rough Guide to New York.

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Don’t be put off by the high-rise hotels and glitzy boutiques; Hong Kong can still be explored on the cheap. From wandering through sub-tropical forests to seeking out cultural shows in the dense urban jungle, you’ll find that some of the best things to do in Hong Kong are free.

Visit the zoo

Hong Kong’s Zoological and Botanical Gardens, on the slopes of Victoria Peak, are home to hundreds of animals – including flamingos, orang-utans and Chinese alligators – plus more than 1,000 different plant species. Admission is free.

Browse the Temple Street Night Market

Swaying light bulbs illuminate the market stalls that set up along Temple Street each evening. It costs nothing to browse through the ceramics, electronics and antique trinkets strewn across the tables, and buskers usually provide a bit of free entertainment.

Hit the museums on a Wednesday

Schedule your culture fix for a Wednesday, when many of Hong Kong’s galleries and museums throw open their doors for free. Chinese paintings and ceramics are among the highlights at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, while the Hong Kong Space Museum focuses on all things astronomy.

Learn local customs

Hong Kong Tourism Board’s Cultural Kaleidoscope Programme gives visitors the chance to practise kung fu, learn about local architecture, or take a tea appreciation class. Sessions are free of charge, and most take place on weekends.

Visit the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas

Many of Hong Kong’s glittering Buddhist temples are free to look around. Especially rewarding is the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas, high on a hillside above Sha Tin. Here, rows of smiling statues lead up towards the main monastery complex, which is crowned by a nine-storey pavilion.

Take in a show at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Free variety shows and music recitals are frequently slotted into the busy schedule at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, a swooping, wave-shaped building close to Victoria Harbour. Tickets are handed out at the venue on a first-come, first-served basis.

Ride the world’s longest escalator system

Comprised of 20 moving staircases, plus a handful of travelators, the escalator system bisecting Hong Kong’s Central and Western District goes on for around 800 metres. Riding it saves a long, zigzagging walk through hilly streets, and gives you the chance to stop off for a drink or two in the buzzing bars of Soho.

Take a hike through the forest

Birds and butterflies flutter through the sub-tropical forests of Tai Po Kau in Hong Kong’s New Territories. Deforested heavily during the Second World War, the area has finally had a chance to recover some of its former glory, and trekking along its colour-coded trails makes for a welcome escape from the city.

Get a free view of the city

With four prism-shaped shafts jutting skywards, the Bank of China Tower is one of Hong Kong’s most recognisable buildings. From the free-to-enter observation deck on its 43rd floor, you can drink in panoramic views of Victoria Harbour.

 Witness the Symphony of Lights

 At 8pm each evening, lasers and flashbulbs light up the twinkling skyscrapers of Hong Kong’s Central District. For the best view of the free Symphony of Lights show, cross over to Tsim Sha Tsui in southern Kowloon, where you can listen to an English version of the accompanying soundtrack.

 

There’s a lot of things to do in Barcelona, Spain’s second city: the dark, twisting streets of the Barri Gòtic; the cool and sophisticated La Ribera district filled with designer shops and fashionable bars; the enticing beaches and über-modern seafront area – all topped off by some seriously unusual architecture, an integral part of Catalan’s Modernisme movement. It’s this mix, along with its tempting tapas and bar scene that makes the city such an exciting stop, and inevitably the prices to visit its museums, churches and the like are high. Here are a few suggestions for free things to do in Barcelona:

Walk down Las Ramblas

The sight that launches most guidebooks, Las Ramblas is Barcelona’s main – and most famous – thoroughfare. Lined with cafés, bars and souvenir shops, it’s a heaving throng of tourists, locals, buskers and those notorious street performance artists. A stroll down here is an absolute must.

Ditch the diet at La Boqueria

Barcelona’s biggest and brightest market, La Boqueria, situated just off Las Ramblas, has enticing and overflowing displays of fresh fruit and vegetables, glistening seafood and meat – including some rather alarming sheep head cuts – pongy cheeses and tempting cakes and breads. If you’ve eaten breakfast already, head to Els Enchants Vells (metro Encants/Glòries), Barcelona’s bustling open-air flea market.

Go to hospital

Designed in 1902 by Catalan architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, in an exuberant modernist style complete with swirling turrets and towers, vibrant mosaics and a beautiful brick facade, the enormous complex of Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Paul  rivals the Sagrada Família in size and wow-factor.  General admission is free, though you’ll have to pay for a guided tour.

Sit on a bench in Parc Güell

Antoni Gaudì – figurehead of Catalan modernisme – really let his imagination go wild in the Parc Güell. Sitting on the outskirts of the Gràcia district and opened to the public in 1922, the urban parkland is peppered with brightly coloured pavilions, swirling sculptures, giant lizards and its most famous feature, a long ceramic bench – a glittering, undulating mass of multi-coloured mosaics.

Sunbathe on the beach

Take your pick from a number of Barcelona’s sandy beaches: Barceloneta is the closest to the city centre (metro stop Barceloneta, or a 20 min walk from town) and attracts the most crowds, while further along, quieter Icària (metro stop Ciutadella-Vila Olimpica) has some top-quality restaurants worth trying. Mar Bella beach, generally known as a nudist beach – and good for windsurfing – is a 20 min walk from Poble Nou metro stop. The perfect spots for when those city streets get that bit too hot.

Goggle at La Seu

Barcelona’s greatest Gothic cathedral, La Seu, dates from 1298, and was built over an old Christian basilica. With its imposing facade topped with spiked steeples and huge flying buttresses, it’s home to the remains of Santa Eulalia, a young girl martyred for her Christian beliefs. The interior and cloister (complete with white geese, meant to represent the virginal Eulalia) are free to visit during general admission times, but there are charges to sections outside these hours.

Hop from house to house

Most of the modernist houses in Barcelona have an admission charge, but there’s nothing stopping you doing your own house-hop for free. Casa Amatller, La Pedrera, Casa Battlò, Casa Lleó Morera – to name but a few – all have magnificent facades displaying trademark features of swirling walls and mind-boggling motifs. For the ultimate in modernist marvel, the Sagrada Família – worth a (free) visit for its exterior alone – cannot be beaten.

Skate at night

Pull on some elbow pads, knee protectors and a pair of gnarly freeline skates, and join the Association of Skaters for a night-time exploration of Barcelona. The group leaves from C/Salvador Esprinu, 61 at 10.30pm every Friday, depending on the weather.

Marvel at Frederic Mares’ curios collection

On the first Sunday of every month, this fantastic little museum dedicated to the life and work of the twentieth-century sculptor Frederic Mares, has free admission. The museum shows off his prolific collection of religious sculptures and secular knick-knacks, all of which give a fascinating insight into the life of an infatuated hoarder.

Witness an explosion of lights

By day, the perfectly ordinary-looking Font Màgica sits among the lush gardens and impressive buildings in Montjuïc pleasure park. On certain nights, however, its bubbling water is lit up in vibrant rainbow colours, dancing and splashing to a musical soundtrack (either classical or cheese, or both). It’s free to see the pretty – and popular – spectacle, so join the crowd with plenty of “oohs” and “aaahs”.

For anyone planning a trip to the Philippines, Stephen Keeling has picked out ten top films that showcase the country’s landscapes, history and culture.

1: Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death, Peque Gallaga, 1982)

Make sure you watch the extraordinary restored and re-mastered version in high definition – it’s hard to believe this classic is over thirty years old. Oro, Plata, Mata, shot mostly on location on Negros and in Bacolod City, is still the best evocation of the Philippines during World War II. A saga of two rich Filipino families, the film highlights the lives of the wealthy land-owning class in the 1940s and the bloody horrors of war – though most of the fighting takes place among the Filipino protagonists.

2: José Rizal (Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 1998)

This grand historical drama follows the life of national hero José Rizal (played by heart-throb Cesar Montano) through a series of flashbacks. It’s a thoughtful movie, alternating between slow-moving, often dream-like segments, and harrowing scenes of violence, garrotting and torture. The lush period sets brilliantly evoke colonial Philippines, while the story is a great primer not just on Rizal, but also the corruption and power of the Catholic Church, and the brutality of the Spanish regime – the friars come across especially badly. Get ready for a weepy ending.

3: Dekada ’70 (Chito Roño, 2002)

A film of the acclaimed novel by Lualhati Bautista, tracing the lives of a middle-class Filipino family during martial law under Marcos (1972–1981), mostly through the eyes of female protagonist Amanda Bartolome (Vilma Santos). Filipino acting legend Christopher de Leon also stars. It’s the best way to get a sense of what Marcos really did to the country.

4: Crying Ladies (Mark Meily, 2003)

Mark Meily’s poignant comedy about three down-on-their-luck Filipinas who are hired as professional mourners in Manila’s Chinatown is still a hilarious introduction to contemporary Manila: street scenes of Binondo (Chinatown) in all its rich, gaudy glory; the sometimes uneasy mix of Chinese and Filipino communities; sordid affairs and illegitimate children; McDonalds happy meals, gambling, corruption and “videoke”; cadging free rides on “jeepneys”; a mix of Hokkien, Tagalog and English words (sometimes in the same sentence); and the daily struggle to make money. It’s all there.

5: The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Auraeus Solito, 2005)

This extraordinary, heart-rending story tackles the complex status of homosexuality in the modern Philippines. The set-up is potentially tragic: an effeminate boy lives in the Manila slums with his macho criminal family, and falls in love with a handsome, friendly policeman. The ending is heartbreaking, but in not the way you might expect – a wonderful, clever movie. The soundtrack is provided by Pinoy rock legend Pepe Smith.

6: Serbis (Service, Brillante Mendoza, 2008).

This film is a bawdy and brutally realistic account of a day in the life of a family running a male prostitute service in a film theatre in Angeles City – your opinion of the latter is unlikely to be improved after watching this movie. This shows a seedy – and very real – side of the Philippines: incest, bigamy, unwanted pregnancy, sexual services and a good old-fashioned boil on the bum. It stars indie movie king Coco Martin. If you like this, check out Mendoza’s follow-up, Kinatay (Butchered; 2009).

7: Amigo (John Sayles, 2010)

Several Filipino films have been set during the bitterly fought Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 (notably the gritty Sakay, 1993), but this is the most accessible for foreigners, with Chris Cooper featuring as a grizzled US captain charged with “winning hearts and minds” in a Filipino village whilst putting down the local “rebels”. An ominous foreshadowing of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and beautifully filmed on the island of Bohol.

8: Noy (Dondon Santos, 2010)

This contemporary indie uses real footage of President Benigno Aquino, aka “NoyNoy”, beginning with the death of his beloved mother, Cory, in 2009. The story follows his humble (and fictional) namesake Noy (Coco Martin), as he poses as a journalist commissioned to make a documentary about Aquino’s campaign. The real drama, however, is Noy’s family life, where the themes of poverty and the struggle for survival – and its price – are sensitively portrayed.

9: El Presidente (Tikoy Aguiluz and Mark Meily, 2012)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this lavish historical drama, the nation’s most expensive movie to date, starring several acting heavyweights – if you only have time to see one Filipino epic, choose this. It explores the life of Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of the Philippines, and tackles the controversial rift between him and Antonio Luna (Christopher De Leon), and Andres Bonifacio (Cesar Montano). Aguinaldo is played by real-life Laguna governor turned actor Jorge Estregan (aka E.R. Ejercito), and Nora Aunor and Cristine Reyes also star. Shooting took place in Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan and Pampanga.


10: Metro Manila (Sean Ellis, 2013)

Written and directed by UK filmmaker Sean Ellis and starring Filipino actor John Arcilla, this movie feels like a documentary, following the fortunes of a farmer leaving Baguio to find a better job in Manila. It’s a grimly moving portrait of how the poor are still brutally exploited in the Philippines – it is essential viewing, but you are going to feel just a little bit guilty when lounging on that beach in Boracay. It won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2013.

A few other suggestions…

While all the above should help to get you in the mood for a trip to the Philippines, it is not a list of the ‘greatest Filipino movies’. For that I’d recommend Gerardo de Leon’s lauded adaptations of the Rizal novels, and the later highly acclaimed art-house works of Lino Brocka and Miguel de Leon. To get a feel for what Filipinos like to watch today – from kitsch and campy romantic comedies to fantasy romps – check out Enteng Ng Ina Mo (2011), Sisterakas (2012), starring comedy vet Vice Ganda, and blockbuster The Unkabogable Praybeyt Benjamin (2011).

Stephen Keeling is the co-author of The Rough Guide to the Philippines.

If you fancy indulging your inner artist on your next British break, try one of these excellent galleries and art spaces across Britain.

The Baltic, Newcastle

Towering over the Tyne is Baltic, Gateshead’s striking contemporary art centre. Still emblazoned with the words Baltic Flour Mills, this uncompromisingly modernist building has just as much presence as London’s Tate Modern – and even more volume – it claims to be the biggest gallery of its kind in the world. Best suited to large-scale installations, its four galleries host an exciting and ever-changing programme of shows including headline-grabbers such as works by Yoko Ono, “musical paintings” by Malcolm McLaren and a fresh dose of Damien Hirst’s 1990s classic, Pharmacy.

Whatever the current crop of exhibitions, it’s worth visiting for the views. Look down from the glass-fronted lifts, the viewing terraces or the rooftop restaurant and you can admire the elegant geometry of the Tyne Bridge. Modelled on the design for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1920s, it’s still a potent symbol of the city. Like its Australian counterpart, it now has a slinky performing arts centre for a neighbour: the miracle of computer-assisted architecture that is The Sage, nestling like a glossy-skinned pupa on the riverbank. Spanning the river in a graceful curve is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, better known as the Blinking Eye – surely the wittiest modern bridge in Britain. The whole scene is so inspiring that avant-garde photographer Spencer Tunick has used it as a location; the resulting series of studies, created with the help of 1700 naked volunteers, is one of his best to date.

For local visitor information, see www.newcastlegateshead.com.

Essential art at the Sainsbury Centre

You approach the pared-down hangar-like Sainsbury Centre on the UEA campus across a lush lawn, and step into a modernist temple of art. The building, an early work by Norman Foster, has simplicity and functionality at its core; it was designed to showcase the superb collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury. High glass walls give space and light to the works, which are displayed not with an attempt to categorize or contextualize but to showcase each piece in its own right. This aesthetic approach sees an elongated Modigliani juxtaposed with an ancient marble figure from Cycladic Crete, with its long nose and neatly folded arms. There are moments of connection, and also of dislocation: your path through the gallery might take you from a silver Inca effigy of a llama to a carved wooden Polynesian icon or a masterful Roman portrait head. The eclectic layout is also particularly effective at highlighting the well-documented influence of ethnographic art on modern masters such as Henry Moore, represented by a rounded non-realist Mother & Child, and Picasso, whose early gouache nude shows a mask-like female figure.

Elsewhere, temporary exhibitions explore contemporary photography, painting and ceramics, and there’s usually space given to two other outstanding collections held by UEA. To round things off there’s the excellent light-filled Gallery Café and a gallery shop selling genuinely covetable crafts and gifts.

The Sainsbury Centre is on the campus of the University of East Anglia, Norwich www.scva.org.uk.

The De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

Built in 1935 as a cultural house for the people – the vision of the ninth Earl De la Warr, the aristocratic, socialist Mayor of Bexhill – the De la Warr Pavilion is an architectural masterpiece by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, and one of the first Modernist buildings in Britain. Curving, majestic but intimate and informal, it’s worth the trip to the coast for the building alone. It stands in a marvellous setting right on Bexhill’s beach, with an elegant spiral staircase protruding out towards the sea, huge glass windows, sleek terraces and a quirky, wavy bandstand.

It hosts a packed and eclectic programme of events. The light, airy gallery shows contemporary art exhibitions, the auditorium attracts an impressive line-up of international artists and entertainers, and the pavilion offers courses and talks, summer Sunday gigs on the bandstand, and a host of imaginative events – what better use is there for a flat white Modernist exterior wall than to project films onto it on summer evenings (just bring a blanket)?

De la Warr Pavilion, on the seafront, Bexhill, East Sussex 01424/229111, www.dlwp.com.

Tate Modern, London

From oversized upstart to national treasure in just ten years, Tate Modern has been adopted by the British public in a way that no one imagined possible for a gallery of modern art. Though its collection is an impressive survey of the big names of twentieth-century international art – including Monet, Matisse and Rothko – the real stars are the building itself, huge, grand and proudly displaying its industrial past as a power station, and Tate’s ambitious and playful curating.

At the outset Tate Modern did away with stuffy, chronological displays, instead hanging its collection thematically in a thought-provoking and irreverent approach. Architecture and art as adventure come together most strikingly in the Turbine Hall, and its headline-grabbing commissions of the Unilever series.

And Tate Modern continues to grow – literally. Three vast oil drums behind the main building are currently being excavated and will be turned into performance spaces and more galleries, while a Herzog & de Meuron-designed extension is planned above them.

Tate Modern, London SE1 020/7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk. Sun-Thurs 10am-6pm, Fri & Sat 10am-10pm. Main galleries free, special exhibitions around £10.

The National Gallery, London

Quietly presiding over the lions and pigeons of Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is Britain’s second most popular visitor attraction, pipped only by the British Museum. Perhaps what really sets the National apart, though, is that despite walls heaving with the work of da Vinci, Raphael, Monet and Van Gogh, no single picture dominates in the manner of a Mona Lisa with all the iPhone-clicking crush that ensures. Instead, the collection’s strength in depth encourages more relaxed contemplation. Yet with over two thousand paintings to choose from, deciding precisely what to contemplate can be a daunting prospect. The secret is to plan your visit and stick to one era or even one painting at a time.

If you can attend a free talk given by the gallery’s team of experts so much the better. Sprinkled with anecdotes (for example, did you know Gainsborough was often too hungover to paint, leaving his portrait subjects out on the street?), they provide that modern term “infotainment” in spades. As you exit back into the tourist hubbub of the square you’ll be left if not ennobled then certainly enlightened.

National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2 020/7747 2885, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Banksy’s Bristol

The street artist known as Banksy has spray-painted walls in London, Detroit, Melbourne and, perhaps most controversially, the separation wall built by Israel in the West Bank. It was in the graffiti-hotbed of Bristol, though, that he fostered his talent and developed the stencil style that defines his work.

Much of Banksy’s early paintings around the city have been lost, but several key murals remain. Perhaps the most iconic is The Mild Mild West (1999), a striking image sprayed across a wall on Stokes Croft and showing a wobbly white teddy bear pitching a Molotov cocktail at advancing riot police. There’s great affection for Banksy’s image of Death (2003) on the waterline of The Thekla, a nightclub boat moored in Bristol Harbour. His original tag was removed by the city’s harbourmaster, prompting Banksy to return and paint a Grim Reaper figure rowing in the same spot.

The Banksy that most symbolizes his evolution from scourge of the council to Bristol’s favourite son, however, lies off the bottom of Park Street. Secretly created beneath sheet-covered scaffolding, The Naked Man (2006), an adulterous lover hanging from a window, was recently saved thanks to a petition from a Liberal Democrat councillor.

See www.bristol-street-art.co.uk/category/banksy-street-art for the exact locations of The Mild Mild West, the image of Death and The Naked Man.

The Lowry, Greater Manchester

The Lowry in Salford Quays opened in 2000, a strikingly designed arts centre housing theatres and gallery space. It owns 55 paintings and 278 drawings by the artist – the world’s largest collection of his work, many featuring those gritty, industrial scenes of Manchester and Salford. Yet as Lowry aged his fascination with people on the streets focused increasingly on the more bizarre characters. Take The Funeral Party (1953), a motley line-up of nine odd-looking individuals, most staring disconcertingly at the viewer in what looks like a British version of The Addams Family.

Lowry’s oil paintings often reflected this interest, through unflattering and brutally stark portraits. His “horrible head” series includes the haunting Head of a Man (1938), whose haggard face and bloodshot eyes seem to stare straight through you. When you finally tear yourself away, there’s almost a feeling of embarrassment, as if you’ve turned your back on a starving man. Indeed, the key to understanding the Lowry collection is his fascination with people, not industrial decay – Lowry was interested in everyday folk, not just outside mills, but at fairgrounds, football grounds and busy markets. As he said, “You don’t need brains to be a painter, just feelings.”

Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays, Greater Manchester, www.thelowry.com.

The Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

By far the nicest way to reach Edinburgh’s Gallery of Modern Art is by walking from the New Town along the Water of Leith. The imminent presence of the gallery is signalled by a rusting naked male statue by Antony Gormley, standing ankle-deep in the water. Steep steps take you up the riverbank to a hulking green Reclining Figure by Henry Moore, and the elegant symmetrical gallery itself.

The theme of art in the landscape is continued with Charles Jenck’s monumental earthwork Landform in front of the gallery, comprising spiralling paths and crescent-shaped pools and usually overrun with kids.

Inside, there’s a substantial collection by those glamorizers of the Scottish landscape, the Colourists: J.D. Fergusson, Peploe and Cadell, whose Fauvist palette and Post-Impressionist sensibility were a fervent rejection of the Victorian genre painting. Elsewhere, thematic rather than chronological displays juxtapose an early Francis Bacon with a late Stanley Spencer nude depicting his second wife.

Upstairs there are displays on Constructivism, plus a witty Matisse depicting himself painting a young model. And there’s a room simply devoted to “White”, with Ben Nicholson’s card reliefs, a white metal piece by local boy Paolozzi, and Mondrian monochrome squares enlivened by a dash of citrus yellow. Back outside, the sculpture- and flower-filled café garden makes the perfect end to a visit.

Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Rd, Edinburgh www.nationalgalleries.org.

The Wallace Collection, London

The result of five generations of connoisseurship and collecting, the Wallace Collection is housed in the private home of the Hertford family, which was bequeathed to the nation in 1897, and is now a free, public museum jam-packed with art, porcelain, furniture and sculpture in ornate silk-lined and chandeliered rooms, which have been immaculately and lovingly restored.

The Great Gallery, with works by Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and the iconic Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals, is the artistic star, but if you go on one of the excellent (free) guided tours, the enthusiastic expert will point out all sorts of other gems, such as pieces of Marie Antoinette’s personal furniture, portraits of Madame de Pompadour, glitzy Sèvres porcelain, the ornate staircase from Louis XV’s bank, and an impressive armoury. The furnishings might not be to everyone’s taste, but when coupled with the fascinating stories and titbits of gossip about the family peppered throughout the tour, the result is to draw you into the rarefied world of this eccentric family and their unique collections.

Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1 020/7563 9500, www.wallacecollection.org.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park

West Yorkshire might not seem like the most obvious location for a centre of modern art, but step into the glorious grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and it all suddenly makes a lot of sense. Situated on the Bretton Estate in the village of West Bretton, the 500-acre park encompasses hills, fields, lakes, woodland and formal gardens, which provide the perfect backdrop for the sculptures it shows, a juxtaposition of the natural and the man-made.

Most fitting of the sculptures are those by Henry Moore, who was born in nearby Castleford; the surrounding countryside inspired his work, so it feels a real privilege to be able to experience it within this context. Alongside Moore, the permanent, revolving, collection also includes work by Antony Gormley, Eduardo Paolozzi and Barbara Hepworth.

In addition to the outdoor exhibitions, there are four indoor galleries, which are worth exploring in their own right. The Project Space is a particular highlight, housing changing exhibitions from the Arts Council Collection, which could include film and photography in addition to sculpture.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, West Yorkshire www.ysp.co.uk.

Jupiter Artland, West Lothian

Sitting in a tangle of busy roads in an unattractive semi-rural stretch west of Edinburgh, Jupiter Artland doesn’t appear to promise much. But its swirling metal gates are a portal to another world, one of parkland and woodland set around a seventeenth-century mansion, and a series of sight-specific artworks wonderfully woven into the natural environment.

Commissioned by the owners of the house, the works comprise a deeply personal collection, and one that is still evolving. The drive winds past sizeable rocks wedged in the branches of coppiced trees by Andy Goldsworthy, and then opens out to Life Mounds, monumental stepped earthworks created by Charles Jencks to evoke and celebrate the cell. The walk begins at Shane Waltener’s A World Wide Web, a scruffy shed in the trees with peepholes of varying heights which reveal a tangle of intricately constructed cobwebs within. Beyond, Anish Kapoor’s Suck is a disconcerting rusty iron sinkhole in the earth; then a break in the trees reveals Antony Gormley’s Firmament, a huge crouching figure composed of steel hexagons that frames the view of another iconic metal structure: the rust-red Forth Rail Bridge. The place is packed full of more artwork, see www.jupiterartland.org for more.

Tate St Ives, Cornwall

This magnificent building on the site of a former gasworks is more than just an art gallery: Tate St Ives is an experience of modern and contemporary art which reflects and highlights the natural environment that inspired much of the artwork on display.

While artists have been drawn to St Ives and its famous quality of light since the early nineteenth century, the gallery’s main collection celebrates a succession of painters and sculptors whose work is firmly rooted in modernist traditions, a tribute to the seaside town’s unique connection with many renowned twentieth-century artists. The gallery’s permanent collection includes some of Cornwall’s big names, with displays changed around frequently to showcase the works, while the gallery also features temporary exhibitions of current international stars and a programme of artists in residence to encourage the creation of new work relating to St Ives and its surrounds. Inside, the architecture and art beautifully fuses with the scenery and light, and the seaside location works a treat in the top-floor café from where you can feast your eyes on the vista as you tuck into delectable Cornish produce.

Tate St Ives, Porthmeor Beach, www.tate.org.uk/stives.

 

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Dublin is no longer the budget-sapping city it once was. These days, it’s possible to while away a weekend in its leafy parks, crumbling churches and relic-packed museums without spending much beyond food and accommodation – and, of course, the occasional pint of Guinness.

Watch hurling

An ancient sport resembling a pumped-up mishmash of hockey, baseball and lacrosse, Hurling is Ireland’s national obsession. Tickets for the biggest games, held at Dublin’s vast Croke Park stadium, occasionally change hands for upwards of €100, but you can get a free taster by checking out Hill 16, which lists amateur matches taking place around the city.

Study Trinity College’s architecture

Established in the 16th Century, Trinity College is Ireland’s most prestigious university. It costs nothing to wander through the current campus grounds, set around neatly trimmed lawns, but if you want to see the Book of Kell – an ancient illustrated manuscript housed in the university’s Old Library, you’ll need to pay.

Explore Celtic history

The National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street houses more than two million archaeological treasures, including Bronze Age jewellery and the superbly preserved hand of a Celtic man who met his maker sometime between 400 and 200 BC.

Go to church

Dublin’s two big cathedrals charge an admission fee to visitors, but it’s free to look around many of the city’s small churches. Try St Ann’s Church on Dawson Street, where Dracula author Bram Stoker was married, or the Whitefriar Street Church, which is said to house the bones of St Valentine.

Enjoy Dublin’s park life

With more green spaces per square mile than any other European city, Dublin is the perfect place to picnic. St Anne’s, one of 30 public parks around the city, hosts a fragrant rose festival each July – showing off more than 10 acres of display borders.

Listen to some open air opera

Each August, arias fill the amphitheatre at Dublin City Council’s Civic Offices. The free Opera in the Open shows are scheduled to last an hour each, appealing to a mixed crowd of relaxed mums and office-weary business people.

Watch free concerts

On Sundays from September to June, the Hugh Lane hosts free, sit-down concerts in its sculpture gallery. The acts (a mixture of Irish and international music) start at noon, and you can then browse the venue’s art galleries until 5pm.

Walk around Howth

Although it’s grown from a quiet fishing community to a seaside suburb of Dublin, Howth is still best explored on foot. The local tourist board has mapped a trail linking the area with nearby Sutton, passing a lighthouse, a castle, and cliffs that have been chewed up by the pounding waves.

Browse the Loft Market

Free (as long as you can resist the temptation to buy something), the indoor Loft Market is a popular hangout for designers and vintage enthusiasts. Founded by the fashion editor of local style mag Thread, it stocks art, jewellery and clothing.

Let a local take you for a pint

Sponsored by local businesses, the City of a Thousand Welcomes campaign aims to connect first-time visitors with knowledgeable locals. Choose a time that suits you, fill in a few details on the website and a friendly ‘ambassador’ will take you out for a beer.

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