Iceland might not be the first place that springs to mind when you’re planning a weekend away. The obvious cities like Paris, Berlin or Budapest would probably occur to you well before Reykjavík becomes an option. But after a four-night jaunt across some of Iceland’s impressive landscapes, including the Golden Circle and Reykjanes Peninsula, Lottie Gross discovers why Iceland’s capital is the perfect weekend break destination.

Why go for just a weekend?

Because it’s cheap to get there, and expensive to stay. Iceland is a notoriously expensive destination due to its small population and dependency on imports. It’s hard to stay in the country for a long time without breaking the bank, so a short trip is the most economical option for most travellers.

There are two different sides to Iceland – the capital and the countryside. Staying in Reykjavík makes it possible to enjoy the highlights of both the city and scenery in a short amount of time by taking day trips with tour companies to your chosen areas of interest. Reykjavík has charm and nightlife to rival cities even twice its size, while the surrounding countryside is too ethereal to miss.

Flights with WOW Air run from London Gatwick ten times a week and can set you back as little as £49 each way. Plus, new flights launching between London and the US (Washington DC and Boston) via Reykjavík this year, make Iceland the perfect place for a small adventure before reaching your final destination.

Image © Lottie Gross 2015

What should I see in Reykjavík?

On first impression Reykjavík – the country’s largest city with a population of just 120,000 people – is like a life-size model village. There are no skyscrapers, but instead a network of small, tin can-style houses with multicoloured corrugated iron walls and roofs. Thanks to this, the whole city has a somewhat temporary feel to it, as if each building could be taken down and reassembled as something else entirely next week – although in reality, the corrugated iron really protects against the relentless year-round winds.

Because of its small scale, Reykjavík can be explored on foot in a single day. A walk along the seafront past Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Sun Voyager sculpture gives breathtaking views to the mountains on the tiny island of Viðey across the bay; a stroll along the main street, Laugavegur, introduces you to an independent shopping heaven; and a wander up Lækjargata past the pond, where locals feed ducks, swans and geese, takes you to Hallgrímskirkja – the famously sci-fi-looking church with a towering concrete steeple that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.

For history you can visit the National Museum or the Saga Museum, while for an understanding of the country’s landscape – before you get out there yourself – see the huge relief map in City Hall. Finally, Perhaps for a bit of irreverent fun, have a giggle in the Reykjavík Phallological Museum where over 200 penises from a variety of animals (including humans) are preserved in jars.

What should I eat?

With an economy that depends heavily on the fishing industry – fish is Iceland’s biggest export – it comes as no surprise that seafood in Iceland is sublime. Head to Icelandic Fish & Chips on Tryggvagata for a deliciously fresh, healthy dinner, or to the weekend flea market by the harbour where you can buy a variety of fish almost straight from the boats.

For those with a sweet tooth in pursuit of authentic Icelandic treats, Café Loki, sitting on a corner opposite Hallgrímskirkja, is perfect for a spot of afternoon tea. Try the ‘bow’, a knot of donut dough, deep-fried and served with cream, and the skyr cake, a cheesecake-style sweet layered with yoghurt, rhubarb sauce and a sweet biscuit base.

Kex Hostel, Reykjavík

Where’s the party?

Reykjavík by night is a very different place. It’s famous for its Friday rúntur, or ‘round tour’, when hundreds of young Icelanders tank themselves up on vodka at home before hitting the streets around midnight to embark on an almost orgiastic pub crawl.

Start your evening in style at The Ten Drops, a tiny, basement-level speakeasy that feels like someone’s living room rather than a pub. There’s live acoustic guitar and a good selection of Icelandic beers (Einstok is the most popular choice, but the Myrkvi Porter is a great winter warmer if it’s cold out) to get you going before moving onto the more serious party at Reykjavík institution, Kaffibarrin. For up-to-date listings on what’s on in town, see the Reykjavík Grapevine.

Any budget-friendly accommodation?

Yes. Kex Hostel, set in an old biscuit factory on the seafront in downtown Reykjavík, has dorm rooms from £30 or private rooms from £40 per person per night. There’s a kitchen for self-caterers and a rather dark but very cool (read: hipster) gastropub serving everything from rich, juicy beef burgers to braised reindeer shank in batter.

How do I get into the wild?

A number of day-tours (pick-up from your hotel) on offer from Reykjavík Excursions take in the highlights of the surrounding countryside and dramatic coastline – the most popular of which is the Golden Circle. This takes you through the beautiful Þingvellir National Park and across the Assembly Plains (where the country’s first parliament, the oldest in the world, was founded in 930 AD). From here you reach the Geysir geothermal area, where the spectacular geyser that gave its name to all others thrusts hot water from underground up to 30 metres in the air every few minutes. The visitor centre’s free exhibition shows just how temperamental Iceland’s environment can be, detailing the science behind these geothermal surges, the frequent volcanic eruptions and showing, with a simulator, what it feels like to experience an earthquake.

Before heading back to Reykjavík, the tour visits Gullfoss (Golden Falls): an enormous waterfall viewed from above, which plummets thunderously into a 32 metre-deep rift created by the Hvítá river. A number of tours can be combined with a visit to the Blue Lagoon – the man-made geothermal pool and spa that attracts thousands of visitors a year.

Explore more of Iceland’s natural beauty with the Rough Guide to Iceland. Compare flightsbook hostels, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Europe has it all: sprawling cities and quaint villages; boulevards, promenades and railways; mountains, beaches and lakes. Some places will be exactly how you imagined: Venice is everything it’s cracked up to be; springtime in Paris has even hardened cynics melting with the romance of it all; Oxford’s colleges really are like Harry Potter film sets. Others will surprise, with their under-the-radar nature or statement-making modern architecture.

Whether you’re planning to see it all or explore the hidden corners of the continent, these are our top 12 tips for backpacking through Europe, taken from our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget.

1. Pick your season wisely

If you decide to travel during the peak summer season, try heading east – the Balkan coastline, the Slovenian mountains and Baltic cities are all fantastic places for making the most of your money. When tourist traffic dies down as autumn approaches, head to the Med. The famous coastlines and islands of southern Europe are quieter at this time of year, and the cities of Spain and Italy begin to look their best. Wintertime brings world-class skiing and epic New Year parties. Come spring it’s worth heading north to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, France and the British Isles, where you’ll find beautifully long days and relatively affordable prices.

2. Take the train

Getting around by train is still the best option, and you’ll appreciate the diversity of Europe best at ground level. Plus, if you make your longest journeys overnight and sleep on the train, you’ll forego accommodation costs for the night. Most countries are accessible with an Interrail Global pass or the equivalent Eurail pass. Depending on your time and budget, choose one corner of the continent then consider a budget flight for that unmissable experience elsewhere. Make sure you check out our tips for travelling by train in Europe.

Pixabay/CC0

3. Be savvy about accommodation

Although accommodation is one of the key costs to consider when planning your trip, it needn’t be a stumbling block to a budget-conscious tour of Europe. Indeed, even in Europe’s pricier destinations the hostel system means there is always an affordable place to stay – and some are truly fantastic. Homestays will often give you better value for money than most hotels so they are also worth considering. If you’re prepared to camp, you can get by on very little while staying at some excellently equipped sites. Come summer, university accommodation can be a cheap option in some countries. Be sure to book in advance regardless of your budget during the peak summer months.

4. Plan your trip around a festival

There’s always some event or other happening in Europe, and the bigger shindigs can be reason enough for visiting a place. Be warned, though, that you need to plan well in advance. Some of the most spectacular extravaganzas include: St Patrick’s Day in Ireland, when Dublin becomes the epicentre of the shamrock-strewn, Guinness-fuelled fun; Roskilde in Denmark, Glastonbury’s Scandinavian rival with a mass naked run thrown in for good measure; and Italy’s bizarre battle of the oranges in Ivrea.

Pixabay/CC0

5. Eat like a local

You’ll come across some of the world’s greatest cuisines on a trip to Europe, so make sure to savour them. A backpacking budget needn’t be a hindrance either. If you shun tourist traps to eat and drink with the locals, you’ll find plenty of foodie experiences that won’t break the bank. Treat yourself to small portions but big flavours with a tapas dish or two in Spain; relish the world’s favourite cuisine at an Italian trattoria; or discover the art form of the open sandwich with smørrebrød in Denmark. Don’t skip breakfast, either – an oven-fresh croissant or calorie-jammed “full English” are not to be missed.

6. Find the freebies

Being on a budget doesn’t mean you should miss out, even in some of the world’s most sophisticated cities. Many iconic European experiences are mercifully light on the pocket: look out for free city walking tours, try the great Italian tradition of aperitivo in Rome, make the most of the free museums in London and try cooking with local ingredients rather than eating out. We’ve got lists of the top free things to do in Paris, Barcelona, London, Dublin and Berlin to get you started.

7. Get outdoors

It can be tempting to focus backpacking through Europe on a succession of capital cities – but you’d be missing out on a lot. Europe offers a host of outdoor pursuits that animate its wide open spaces, too, from horseriding in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains and surfing on Portugal’s gnarled Alentejo coast to cross-country skiing in Norway and watching Mother Nature’s greatest show in Swedish Lapland.

Filip Stoyanov/Flickr

 8. Allow yourself the odd splurge

One advantage of budget travel is that it makes splurging all the sweeter – and for a little “flashpacking” guidance, we include Treat Yourself tips throughout our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. If you’re mostly staying in dorms, splash out on the odd private hostel room or boutique hotel; swing by a speakeasy for cocktails in Paris; gorge yourself on pasta in Rome; and allow yourself a day of watersports in Croatia.

9. Stay up late

Whether it’s Berlin and London’s hipster dives, flamenco in Seville, Budapest’s ruin bars, or the enotecas that celebrate Italy’s rejuvenated wine industry, there are countless reasons to stay up till sunrise. Europe lives for the wee hours and you’ll be following in some famous footsteps. Think about ordering a knee-buckling Duvel beer at Brussels’ historic La Fleur en Papier Doré, a time-worn café once the favourite hunt of Surrealist painter Magritte and Tintin creator Hergé, or sipping a pint in one of Oxford’s historic pubs, like the Eagle and Child, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s old haunt.

10. Hit the beach

Clubbed and pubbed out? It’s time to hit the beach. If you’re looking for heat, Formentera’s beaches are quieter and wilder than on neighbouring Ibiza, while Croatia and Italy have a slew of beautiful stretches of sand. If you want to head off the beaten track, consider Mogren in Montenegro, part of the so-called “Budva Riviera” that stretches either side of Montenegro’s party town par excellence.

Pixabay/CC0

11. Go under the radar

If you’re looking for Europe’s charm without the crowds, you’ll want to consider straying from the well-worn routes. Some of our favourite under-the-radar towns include Olomouc in the Czech Republic, a pint-sized Prague with less people and more charm (and cobblestones), and Berat, a gorgeous Albanian town where row after row of Ottoman buildings loom down at you from the sides of a steep valley.

12. Stay safe

Take some basic precautions to stay safe. It’s not a good idea to walk around flashing an obviously expensive camera or smartphone, and keep your eyes (and hands if necessary) on your bags at all times. Exercise caution in hostels and on trains; padlocking your bags to the luggage rack if you’re on an overnight train increases the likelihood that they’ll still be there in the morning. It’s also a good idea to take a photocopy of your passport and keep it safe somewhere online.

 

For a complete guide to backpacking through Europe, check out our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Header image via Agustin Rafael Reyes/Flickr.

Whatever your scene, from sweaty electronic music dancefloors to open-air beer gardens, Cape Town has it all. Being a hedonistic city – especially in the summer – Cape Town has plenty of great bars where you can drink and party, especially on Long and Bree Streets where it’s safe and busy, and there are taxis to get you home. In the summer, the Atlantic Seaboard is a great option, and the party starts with the first sundowners. Taken from the new Rough Guide to Cape Town, these are 7 of our favourite places to sample the city’s nightlife.

Bar-hopping in the city centre

For a night out in the city centre, head to buzzing Long Street. This is one of Cape Town’s most diverse thoroughfares, lined with colonial Victorian buildings that house pubs, bistros and nightclubs, from whose wrought-iron balconies you can catch glimpses of Table Mountain and the sea.

For beer-lovers, modern “beer hall” The Beerhouse is an essential stop, with a menu comprising 20 taps and 99 bottles, 75 percent of which are local craft brews. Pick of the cocktail bars is rooftop TjingTjing, thanks to its upbeat soundtrack and mouth-watering drinks menu – expect unusual ingredients like fynbos, candyfloss vodka and balsamic vinegar. End your night at Fiction, host to stand-out electronic music nights by the likes of Skrillex, Diplo, Pendulum and Noisia.

wesleynitsckie via photopin cc

Sundowners on the Atlantic seaboard

Clinging to the slopes of Table Mountain in a dramatic ribbon, the Atlantic seaboard suburbs offer ocean views in spades, along with some of the city’s trendiest outdoor cafés and bars. The best place to embrace the scene is at Café Caprice, a beach-facing hangout in Camps Bay popular with celebs (and wannabes). Pavement tables are like gold dust after sunset, so get there early, order a cocktail and watch the sun sink slowly into the ocean.

Ocean-side drinks at the Waterfront

Head to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town’s redeveloped Victorian harbour, for laidback ocean-side drinks. Best of the outdoor decks is Alba Cocktail Lounge, where the drinks list includes the JellyTot- and Apple Sourz-spiked “Albatizer” – an acquired taste, perhaps. With its private beach, outdoor deck and an infinity plunge pool to boot, nearby Shimmy Beach Club provides a more luxurious option – with the prices and clientele to match.

DanieVDM via photopin cc

Craft beer in Wembley Square

South Africa’s beer landscape has recently undergone a small transformation, propelled by a global microbrew renaissance in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. And if you want one of the best beer selections in the city, there’s only one place to head, the Wembley Tap. A menu of stomach-lining pizzas provides the perfect accompaniment to local brews by the likes of Jack Black, Mitchell’s and Cape Brewing Company.

A night at P&G’s

If you want to see the hipster side to Cape Town, this is the place to go. On any night of the week “PnG’s” (The Power and The Glory) is a magnet for Capetonians sporting neatly trimmed beards, checked shirts, red lipstick and vintage dresses. But don’t worry too much about fitting in, Cape Town is one of the world’s friendliest cities after all.

During the day you can grab a coffee in the well-styled bistro, kitted out with old-school metal chairs and botanical drawing prints, then it blends seamlessly with a smoking room and cosy bar serving craft beers at night.

jon|k via photopin cc

A nightcap at the theatre

As well as offering a real taste of the South African arts scene, the intimate Alexander Theatre also holds an excellent bar. Handsomely furnished in old world decor, this is a good spot for a quiet conversation or nightcap – a much needed addition to Cape Town’s social scene. Old rotary phones in the bar even allow you to call the table next to you while sipping a single malt.

Wine on the rocks at Kalk Bay

Kalk Bay
 might be one of the most southerly and smallest of Cape Town’s suburbs, but don’t overlook it. Head here for drinks at The Polana in the Harbour House complex. The setting, right on the rocks, is spectacular. In the summer you can nestle on battered couches and cushions by the open windows while a fire burns cheerily as the waves crash in winter. Local wines feature heavily on the drinks list and there’s sometimes live music and dancing.

galemcall via photopin cc

 

Explore more of the Cape Town with the Rough Guide to Cape TownBook hostels for your trip, compare flights, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

 From Europe to Asia and back, Greg Dickinson finds a full 24 hours worth of things to do in Istanbul.

8AM: CRUISING BETWEEN TWO CONTINENTS

It is 8am and I’m lurking on Kabataş pier with a few friends, blissfully somnambulant having not had my first Turkish coffee of the day yet. A gang of suited commuters disembarks from a passenger ferry and marches towards Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi, a street swollen with taxis and mopeds.

Once the crowd has dissipated the first mate offers us a friendly hand onto the boat, called Zoe, which chugs out into the Bosphorus. Hugging the European waterfront we cruise past the old seat of the Ottoman Empire – the Dolmabahçe Palace– and towards the Rumelihisarı fortress, also known as the “Fortress of Europe”, then we cross to Asian Istanbul and peer nosily into the exclusive waterfront properties.

Image by Greg Dickinson

When the engine stops our captain runs to the deck and points into the water; two dolphins are curving in and out of the blue just beneath the Bosphorus Bridge. My 24 hours awake in Istanbul has only just begun and I’m already besotted. But there’s no time for romance, as I’ve booked a late morning slot at Istanbul’s most surreal attraction.

11AM: ESCAPING FROM A ROOM

The nerve-wracking narrative of istrapped starts ten minutes before we’ve even arrived, as the heavens open above Beyoğlu and we have to sprint from doorway to doorway until we eventually find the entrance – signposted only by a small buzzer. A voice crackles through the speaker: “is your team ready?”.

After climbing two flights of stairs I open a heavy door which slams behind us. We are locked in a room, drenched, and clueless as to what is about to happen. When the lights go out I begin to question whether the thunderclaps we can hear are real or all part of the experience.

Image by Istrapped

For the next hour we solve a series of interconnected cryptic puzzles – encompassing everything from a portrait of a monkey to a UV torch – in a bizarre, semi-hallucinogenic experience that can only be compared to playing the Crystal Maze in Sherlock Holmes’s house.

Finally we escape, albeit just in time, to find the puddles already evaporating under the Istanbul sun.

MIDDAY: TASTEBUD TOUR OF THE SPICE BAZAAR

Our clothes have fully dried by the time we’ve strolled towards the Spice Bazaar near the Galata Bridge where I am greeted by Selin, founder of Turkish Flavours and one of Istanbul’s top culinary experts. She guides us into the market hall where I’m smacked by a riot of sounds, smells and colours. Gravity-defying heaps of spices and Turkish delight line the thoroughfare, while stall-owners shout “Russian?”, “Italian?”, “Dutch?” at us (although interestingly never “British?”).

Image by Greg Dickinson

During our whistle-stop tour we are given tasters of a number of traditional and not-so-traditional blends, from ‘Ottoman Spice’ to the admittedly delicious ‘Chip Spice’, and a sniff of a jar packed with enough saffron to buy a car.

We leave the bazaar, my tongue zinging from some of the spicier samples, and make our way over the bridge to the Karaköy Fish Market for lunch. Here we slouch on a few beanbags and order “half a loaf of fish” (a fish sandwich) each – a culinary term used everywhere at the market and nowhere else in the world – while we watch fishing lines dangle in unison off of Galata Bridge.

3PM: BARTERING AND SIGHTSEEING IN SULTANAHMET

Refuelled, we head over to Istanbul’s Old Town for some good old fashioned tourist behaviour: bartering and sightseeing. We get completely lost in the labyrinthine streets that lead up into the depths of Sultanahmet, where I’m pleased to finally pick up a fake Galatasaray football kit after haggling it down from 30 to ten lira (£3). Shortly afterwards I pick up a fez for three lira, completing my Turkish transformation for under a fiver.

By the time we’ve wandered past the iconic architectural trio of the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and Topkapi Palace – remarkably all situated within just a few hundred metres of each other – we’re feeling pretty tired, so we hop on a tram and make our way back to Beyoğlu for a sundowner.

6PM: COCKTAILS AND FOOD WITH A 360° VIEW

Located in a nineteenth century penthouse, eight floors above the main shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi, 360istanbul holds the reputation as Istanbul’s best bar with a view – it overlooks the entire city, from Galata Tower to the Sea of Marmara. We order a selection of rather expensive cocktails – perhaps worth splashing out on considering the absence of any entry fee – and take stock of the impressive visitor’s list, which ranges from Jamiroquai to the Queen of Spain.

Image by Sashah Anton Khan

We get chatting to a member of the bar staff who tells us that the view from sister restaurant 360east is equally as stunning, and particularly impressive at sunset, so we decide to go for it. Just over an hour later, after hopping on a passenger ferry to Kadıköy, we are sharing a meze platter in Asia, where we watch the sun burn dark red and finally disappear behind the minarets and domes of Istanbul.

11PM: SCATTING AND SHISHA IN KARAKÖY

Revitalised after our meal and ready for a night on the town, we head back to European Istanbul to Nardis Jazz Club. By the bar a group of young women are clicking their fingers to the beat as I order a round of Efes lagers. Jazz is taken seriously in this cosy, exposed-brick venue; the audience watches contemplatively while supping red wine, and I realise I clearly missed the memo specifying a dress code of brogues and a turtleneck jumper.

Concluding with a series of indulgent but sublime instrumental solos the set comes to an end and the crowd leaks out into the street. At this early hour Karaköy is abuzz with clubbers and bar-crawlers, but we decide to indulge in a more traditional Turkish ritual. After a short downhill walk we arrive at Ali Baba Nargile, a 24-hour shisha emporium whose kitsch, migraine-inducing decor would put off most sober customers. Undiscerning at this forsaken hour, we puff away on our ‘Sultan Special’ hookah with glasses of Turkish tea and embrace the exhaustion that is finally beginning to set in.

5AM: THE CITY AWAKENS

Image by Greg Dickinson

My head rather fuzzy after a comprehensive shisha session, we take an early morning stroll back to our Airbnb apartment to clear the airways. Stray kittens and dogs rule the streets at this time of night, while I occasionally glimpse a tungsten-lit kitchen occupied by men playing backgammon.

Back at our top-floor apartment I grab a bottle of raki and take it up to the roof terrace, where it feels like the whole city is asleep except for us and the seagulls that circle overhead. When the sun begins to rise the silence of the city is broken by the call to prayer, signifying the beginning of another day in Istanbul. We sit quietly, engulfed by the chorus of müezzins waking the city up from the top of their minarets, and as I feel the potent aniseed liquor make its way around my body I know it’s time for bed.

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

Portland, Oregon, can be addressed in many ways. It’s a city of soubriquets, bearing nicknames bestowed by locals to reflect its charms: The City of Roses to those who love its natural abundance; The City of Bridges by those who can’t help but notice the freeway’s influence; Beervana by fans of its prolific brew culture.

PDX to pilots and Stumptown to locals, it’s borrowed a catchphrase from another city down south; “keep Portland weird” is a mantra familiar to anyone who’s spent time in Austin, Texas. It’s also one of those west coast cities, like LA or Palo Alto, whose reputation precedes it and whose essence is endlessly debated.

To the outside world, it’s Portlandia, “where  young people go to retire”, where – according to Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and Sleater Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein –  the ‘90s is alive, people are content to be unambitious, sleep to 11 and hang out with their friends. A place marooned blissfully in a simpler past where city slackers in plaid shirts and tribal tattoos still read paper books.

We i-spyed plenty of Portland clichés. A vintage clothes shop playing The Bends. A bicycle barista handing out free coffee in a shady university park. Flyers advertising beer yoga. Men with dogs curled over their shoulders like living stoles playing Magic: The Gathering. A feminist bookstore offering protection from all manner of persecution. We did not see anyone playing with a diablo.

Photo: Canadian Veggie / Flickr Creative Commons

Portland sits snugly in its pigeonholes but of course offers much more than Portlandia suggests, comfortably surpassing all the requirements a modern visitor might throw at it.

Craft beer is a thing now – well, Portland has 50+ local breweries. Food trucks have spread like a rash across most western cities; Portland has more than 700 for its half a million city dwellers. Green spaces? The city is riddled with them. In fact, if you’re a fan of wine, live music, gregarious and predominantly liberal locals, books or culture, it’s well worth the two-hour, $15 ride from Seattle.

Cycle superhighways (proper ones, not like the ones we have in England) crisscross the city and the Willamette river, linking its disparate neighbourhoods and providing the easiest, greenest, and most Portland way to see the city.

We started our exploration with sliders and nitro Irish stout at rock’n’roll themed hotel McMenamins, in the Pearl District, Portland’s revamped industrial zone. It’s home to Powell’s City Of Books, declared with the usual American superlative pride as the largest in world, and housing over a million books in 3,500 sections, as well as a massive brewery – Deschutes – who offer tasting flights featuring their latest brews. Books and beer were quickly to become the defining motif of the trip.

Further south, Portland’s Downtown District to the west of the Willamette houses many of the city’s main attractions and we ticked off a few, the contemplative Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden probably the best among them. There are also numerous foodie pilgrimages to be made in this part of town, and we did our best at those, from a flaming Spanish coffee mixed and ignited at the table at Huber’s to doughnuts shaped like a penis and covered in bacon at Voodoo Doughnuts, via poached chicken at bloggers’ favourite food cart Nong’s Khao Man Gai.

Photo:  Ryan Stavely / Flickr Creative Commons

These were all preambles to Portland’s main attraction, though: the suburbs scattered across the eastern half of the city. Up north, Alberta is perhaps the spiritual home of Portland as we know it from the TV, the home of that feminist bookshop, among numerous whole foodsy spots and other crumbling monuments to the counterculture. It’s been deemed gentrified by the locals, which is bad news if you like things to stay raw, but good news if you’re a fan of olive oil ice cream, and some of the parks and residential streets nearby are stunning.

A handful of blocks to the west, Mississippi and Williams are two parallel swathes of excellent coffee shops and food trucks, populated by art school students and other hipster types. ¿Por Que No? serve up the best tacos I’ve tasted north of San Francisco and Ristretto proffer perhaps the city’s finest coffee.

Photo:  rickchung.com / Flickr Creative Commons

Hawthorne & Belmont further south are Beervana’s heart, home to an embarrassment of brew pubs. Cascade Brewing Barrel House specialised in sour beers, oak aged and fruit-infused, tart tipples that edge towards 10% ABV and are presented like a wine tasting with cheese plates and a price point to match. Strawberry, goji berry, apricot, honey and ginger lime can all be enthusiastically vouched for. Lucky Labrador, meanwhile, was a dog friendly pub (naturally) full of laptop-toting drinkers and card players while Green Dragon offered 62 taps of craft beer joy.

On my wife’s insistence, and as recommended by none other than Time magazine, we stopped by a strip club. These are done differently in Portland, and Sassy’s was more of a community affair, featuring a 50/50 male/female split among the clientele, and a world away from the dismal pound-in-a-pint-glass affairs that fester malignantly in London’s darker corners. There’s another in the city that serves vegan food and only allows its dancers to shed non-animal-based clothing – classic Portland. From here, food trucks and bookshops continue south as far as the eye can see – and the belly can withstand – down to Clinton.

Cycling back over the imposing Steel Bridge, under an incessant and uncharacteristic sun and spurred on by a craft beer buzz, it dawned on us that Portland had just leaped to pole position in our ranking of US cities. The ’90s might be alive and well round here, but if this is time travel, we’ll be first in the DeLorean.

Tim stayed in the James Brown room at legendary bar/gig venue/boutique hotel McMenamins and got around Portland on Pedal Bike Tours rentals.

At any time of the year, Edinburgh is a city of culture, books, and tradition – but in August, thanks to a variety of festivals, all three are amplified to full volume. From the hundreds of theatre, comedy and cabaret shows of the Edinburgh Fringe festival, through the pomp of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, to the heavyweight names at the Book Festival, the city is the world’s summer arts capital. The benefit of so much going on is that you are never far from the next cultural event – meaning that with a little planning, you can blend the best of Edinburgh’s attractions with discovering the next big thing.

Get your bearings

If you stand in Princes Street Gardens in the centre of town, you can see the city rise up around you. To its north is shopping drag Princes Street, with the stout Georgian architecture of the New Town climbing up behind it. Head south down the Mound, past the excellent Scottish National Gallery and climb the steep streets to hit the Royal Mile – marked as the High Street on many maps – which serves as a high street for the Old Town. It runs from the imposing castle to Holyrood Palace.

If you want to get even higher, climb up one of the city’s many hills: Arthur’s Seat is the most famous (you’ll even find a daily comedy show there at 1pm during the Fringe), but nearby Calton Hill is the hidden gem, featuring an abandoned Parthenon-esque monument. Or you could stay in Princes Street Gardens and pay the £3 to climb the Scott Monument, dedicated to Sir Walter Scott.

While August’s festival schedule covers every possible venue in the city, you can get your bearings by starting with the hub of the action: Bristo Square is the centre of Fringe activity, housing the Underbelly’s giant inflatable purple cow, with the Gilded Balloon and Pleasance Dome both nearby. Charlotte Square, near Princes Street Gardens, is home to the book festival, and offers free, thought provoking nightly shows throughout August.

Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database rights 2013

What to do

Edinburgh Castle’s craggy perch is a good place to load up on history (rather than the disappointing Edinburgh Museum) and while there, pop into its Camera Obscura and World of Illusions exhibit for a more fun way to see the city. The castle is also home to the Military Tattoo – book ahead as it always sells out – and the Witchery restaurant provides some of the classiest dining in town. Although, if you want to chow down somewhere cheaper, the Mosque Kitchen serves huge portions of curry at knockdown prices. To see another side to the city’s history, try the supposedly haunted 17th century Mary King’s Close, then steady yourself afterwards by visiting the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, showcasing an unpretentious but classy knowledge to Scotland’s whisky heritage.

Edinburgh also has a strong tradition of independent shops. Avoid the mediocre high-street names of Princes Street and head to the fabulous department store Harvey Nichols on St Andrew Square – it even has a Chocolate Lounge featuring a conveyor belt of cake and champagne – or browse the independent bars and shops of Broughton Street, including sci-fi bookshop Transreal. The Old Town’s indie shops cluster around the Grassmarket (don’t forget to pop into Greyfriars Kirk and see the statue of famously faithful dog Bobby), while nearby West Port offers loads of great second-hand bookshops.

The best of the fest

If you want to see some of the Fringe while in Edinburgh, it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed with choice. There are hundreds of venues across the city this year, so how do you pick what to watch? Avoid the flyerers on the Royal Mile and pick up Fringe bible Three Weeks and the newer Fest Mag around town, or browse the British Comedy Guide’s online index of all the Fringe reviews.

Some tips comedywise: there’s a lot of hot interactive comedy this year, including the controversial Australian hit Come Heckle Christ (10.20pm) and the live version of British kids’ TV show classic Knightmare (5.30pm), both at the Pleasance Courtyard. Indeed, the Courtyard probably has the best programme this year, and great bars to boot. There’s also panel show fave James Acaster (8pm), the comedy night where comedians are pushed to be ‘honest to point of regret’ It Might Get Ugly (11pm) and Ivo Graham (8.15pm), who is likely to blow up as the next big thing in comedy.

Then there’s the Free Fringe. Some of the best shows this year are at the Banshee Labyrinth, including Chris Boyd’s tales of chasing storms in the American Midwest (1.15pm) and sardonic poet Rob Auton (4pm) with his show about faces. Expect to pay around £10 for paid-for shows; it’ll be more for big TV names. There’s lots of shows on the Free Fringe but keep a couple of quid in your pocket to put in the bucket at the end.

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“The city that never sleeps” is probably a cliché used for cities in almost every country in the world. But is London really a nocturnal city, where night-or-day you can find somewhere to play? Lottie Gross took up the challenge to find out…

6am: finding flowers at the wholesalers

It’s 6am on a Saturday morning and for some reason I’m awake, trundling along on a big red bus on my way from south-west London to Vauxhall. It doesn’t exactly sound exotic, but it’s about to get far more colourful as my boyfriend and I jump off in search of the confusingly named New Covent Garden flower market (bizarrely, it’s not anywhere near the actual Covent Garden).

After a dazed amble around some empty looking warehouses we find the flower market, a hive of activity with palettes stacked high with plants and flowers from all over the world. This is the main wholesale flower market for London, where florists, designers and individuals alike come to barter over the price of a petal – and that golden dinosaur sitting atop a display, apparently.

10am: admiring London from above

When my pollen allergies get the better of me we finally move on, jumping on the London Underground to Victoria where the enormous Westminster Cathedral provides a fascinating view of the city. From the top of the tower, I can see Parliament, the London Eye and Westminster Abbey, but only just, as they’re mostly masked by a melee of concrete and glass buildings, corporate offices and residential blocks. It’s rare that you ever see London from this angle and I gain a new perspective on this ever-growing city, as workmen hammer away on new developments.

The cathedral itself is magnificent; it’s a Byzantine-style basilica decorated inside with all colours of marble and mosaics. At over 100 years old it’s opulent and in some places garish, but most of all it’s impressive – there are over 12.5 million bricks making up this building and its bare, black ceiling provides a dramatic contrast to the colourful walls.

Sitting in the Lady Chapel, my stomach rumbles and I realise I’m starving – it’s 11am and it’s been hours since breakfast after all. Hopping back on the Underground, we arrive in Brixton and head to The Provincial, one of the many restaurants on Market Row, for a feast of chorizo, fried eggs and roasted vegetables on a thick white bloomer.

stevecadman via Compfight cc

Midday: buying snails at Brixton Village

Satisfied and sleepy – perhaps not a great start to our 24 hour adventure – we stroll through Brixton Village, an indoor market that’s a mish-mash of boutique clothes shops, delicatessens and international supermarkets, where you can buy anything from pigs ears to giant snails and art prints to kitchen supplies.

From Brixton we jump back on the Underground and take the Victoria line and then District line to Embankment, from where we can cruise on the River Bus and enjoy that famous London skyline from the Thames.

3pm: sailing along the Thames to Greenwich

The boat moves west and passes the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, before turning around towards Greenwich and sailing past St Paul’s, HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge. At around £6 it’s a steal compared to the extortionate river tours run by the various companies along the river. The bargain hunter in me is proud as we finally disembark at Greenwich Pier and catch sight of the magnificent Cutty Sark, her masts standing tall against the dramatic English summer clouds.

Greenwich is home to all things nautical as the Maritime Museum and the Old Royal Naval College sit along this part of the Thames. From the outside the college’s white buildings are a grand tribute to the UK’s Royal Navy, and inside there are beautiful frescoes and great halls – my favourite being the Painted Hall with its enormous ceiling mural and walls painted to give a 3D illusion of stone-sculpted pillars.

5pm: it’s time for coffee

We wander through the park to the Royal Observatory and make the obligatory time-related puns as we arrive the famous Meridian Line that measures half a circle from the North Pole to the South: “Oh look, we’re on time!”

The somewhat confusing 24-hour Roman numeral clock on the wall outside the Observatory tells me it’s 5pm – time for a coffee. We sit outside at the Pavilion Café with a fantastic view of Canary Wharf on the opposite side of the river. An hour later and we’re half way through our sleepless marathon – this is easy, I’m thinking, as we begin to move to our next destination.

The cinema isn’t something I’d usually consider when intending on staying awake for extended periods of time, but armed with my bikini and a towel I am confident I won’t be snoozing in my seat here as we arrive at the unused Shoreditch Underground station on Brick Lane for a Hot Tub Cinema showing of Moulin Rouge. After taking the DLR from Greenwich to Shadwell, then the Overground to Shoreditch High Street, there’s popcorn, drinks and the usual big screens, but instead of cramped seats we’re put up in spacious hot tubs to sit back, relax and enjoy the film.

9pm: partying at Hot Tub Cinema

Sipping Pimms throughout, the film flies by and before we know it, the entire room has erupted into some debaucherous foam party as bubble bath is added to each tub and the bar staff are jumping in, fully clothed. There’s music, dancing and splashing wars before it all winds down at 11pm. Exhausted and starving we dry off and find the much talked about 24-hour bagel shops on Brick Lane.

We devour the salt-beef bagel from Beigel Bake, but this all-day, every-day shop isn’t just about the bagels – the counters are stocked full with loaves of bread and freshly baked buns, and on the way to the toilets upstairs I bump into a woman carrying a tray of sublime-looking chocolate éclairs. This could very well be Heaven.

1am: cashing in at the casino

After a swift pint in the BrewDog bar up the road we manage to catch the end of the England-Italy World Cup game through the windows of a packed-out bar on Shoreditch High Street. It’s midnight so we hop on the night bus back into town in search of some after-hours fun.

On arrival at Trafalgar Square, the high-heeled revellers are out to party, but thanks to our severe lack of sleep, we’re not exactly feeling up to it (nor are we dressed for the occasion). We need sugar, and fast, so I’m elated to discover that my favourite lunch spot on the Strand is open until 4am on a weekend. Next time I need a falafel salad after a heavy night I’ll be bearing Sesamo in mind.

Racking our brains, there’s nothing else to do than stroll over to the Hippodrome Casino on Leicester Square. Much like all casinos it’s a timeless, windowless affair with tacky decor and bright lights – not a place for a classy night out, but the perfect venue to keep us awake as we people watch from the end of a Blackjack table. I’m grateful for the warmth, but lusting after the embrace of a duvet and feather pillow.

Image courtesy of Duck & Waffle

4am: Sunrise breakfast in the sky

When it gets to 3.30am we make our way back to the bus stop and find the N11 to take us east again to Liverpool Street – this is what I’ve been waiting for all night. Arriving at the Heron Tower in darkness, we ascend forty floors during a leg-jellifying lift ride, and sit down to a champagne breakfast at Duck & Waffle, one of London’s few 24 hours restaurants.

As I’m nibbling some surprisingly tasty barbecued pig’s ears (and to think almost 24 hours ago I cringed when I saw these for sale in Brixton market), I watch the sun rise over the city and the views change from a sea of bright lights to reveal the concrete jungle that is east London. We try to get our bearings and map out our journey so far: I see the Royal Naval College, Brick Lane, and Tower Bridge.

6am: wind down at a spa

It seems an age ago that we were in Victoria admiring the cathedral, or even sitting on a boat cruising the Thames, but it’s not over yet. After devouring the delicious signature dish – duck leg, egg and waffle with maple syrup – and polishing off a much-needed coffee, we splash out on a taxi to take us to our final resting place. We arrive back at the almost boutiquey Hilton London Syon Park just after 6am to find the Kallima Spa has just opened. We ditch our clothes, get back in our swimwear and wind down in the steam room and sauna before finally collapsing into bed.

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On a walking tour through the city, travel writer Mary Novakovich discovers regeneration in one of Belgrade‘s oldest neighbourhoods, Savamala. From buzzing clubs to a new four-star hotel, Savamala is picking itself up after years of leaving its buildings to decay. 

Heavy lorries rumble noisily past, adding to the dust rising from the road works ahead of me. I’m standing on Karadjordjeva street in Savamala which, a century ago, was home to many of Belgrade’s most elegant buildings. It had been an elite part of the Serbian capital, where major companies built lavish offices in imposing Art Nouveau structures that have since been neglected. Walk north five minutes under the Brankov bridge and you reach the river Sava, whose old port used to be a centre of trade but now is the dock for giant river cruisers stopping in Belgrade en route to Bavaria or Romania.

Mikser House © Adam Batterbee

It’s hard to believe – amid the dust, diesel fumes, graffiti and crumbling buildings – that I’m standing in the middle of an area that’s quietly been regenerating itself. Some signs, though, are easy to spot: Mikser House, in front of me, for one. It’s the creative and cultural hub of Savamala, where behind the severe façade of an old warehouse is a music venue, café, shop and, most importantly, an exhibition space for designers from all over the Balkans to show their work.

It’s the brainchild of Ivan Lalic, the former director of the Exit festival in Novi Sad, and his wife Maja, who ran Belgrade Design Week. They started with the Mikser Festival six years ago, showcasing the work of pretty much every discipline in art and design in neglected nooks and crannies all over Savamala. It was only in March 2013 that they finally found a permanent home in Mikser House, and the Mikser Festival runs in June each year.

They weren’t the first in Savamala, though: KC Grad, around the corner in Brace Krsmanovic street, has been running its own cultural mix of music, food and art since 2009. Its comfortably ramshackle look and large garden remind me of Budapest’s ruin bars, and it’s a comparison that springs to mind several times as I wander through the district.

KC Grad © Adam Batterbee

I’m so distracted by the witty graffiti that I almost miss another venue near KC Grad, which until early this year was a buzzing nightclub with a large garden called Krug. But clubs change hands swiftly in Belgrade, so I wasn’t surprised to hear it had been sold to a new owner who hopes to have it ready for the summer.

In the meantime, though, clubbers have enough to choose from within a short staggering distance. Next door to Mikser House is a splendid example of early twentieth century architecture, with a frontage that looks suspiciously as if it’s been spruced up – a rarity in Belgrade. Three clubs huddle within: Mladost (meaning youth), Ludost (lunacy) and Radost (joy). On weekends, there’s a buzz with lots of young revellers about after midnight when the clubs really get going, but if you turn up before midnight, there’s always the relaxing ambience of pre-club bars such as Prohibicija a couple of doors beyond, which is handily located next to the sausage heaven that is Wurst Platz.

While the clubs’ decor generally favours industrial minimalist coolness, there isn’t any of that slickness you find in more self-consciously trendy areas. An exception to this is possibly the chic Brankow Bar hanging on the side of Brankov bridge, where its upmarket clientele doesn’t mind paying over the odds for cocktails.

As I head back down Karadjordjeva street, I soon see another side of Savamala’s regeneration. The district now has its first four-star hotel, Jump Inn Hotel, which opened in late March. It’s an immensely stylish place, with light airy rooms in a protected 90-year-old building. Its owners, who happen to be partners with Mikser House, saw the potential in the district, which until now had only cheap hostels. Considering you can get a double for as little as £80 – it’s close to the railway and bus stations, and not far from the city centre – I think they’re on to a good thing.

Mladost, Ludost, Radost © Adam Batterbee

I wander down towards the river, dodging the cyclists zooming along the wide bike path by the water. Less than ten minutes’ walk ahead is Beton Hala, a large complex that shows one direction that Savamala could veer towards. These former warehouses have been turned into classy restaurants – Iguana, Frida, Comunale, and Toro, plus nightclub Julian Loft – that have become magnets for trendy Belgraders. I first visited the complex in 2009, when the gleaming white buildings made their surroundings look dull in comparison. Now everything else seems to be catching up.

Attractive though Beton Hala is – especially on warm summer evenings when everyone heads outside – it’s not exactly my favourite part of Savamala. Technically it’s not even within the loosely defined borders of the district. I prefer a bit less gloss and polish, neither of which are in huge quantities in one of the most delightful bars in the area; just beyond Brankov bridge is a staircase leading to Jazz Basta, a little café that sprang up out of an old derelict building. It’s just the right side of rickety, with a rustic interior and magical little garden (suitably so, as “basta” means garden in Serbian).

It’s been open for only a year and a half, so who knows what will happen to it in Belgrade’s constantly changing bar scene. Time is elastic in Savamala, where just a few years can make all the difference.

For more information, go to the Tourist Organisation of Belgrade, which offers tours of Savamala every Saturday.
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All images courtesy of Adam Batterbee.

Twilight ballooning in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Few sights are more magical than hundreds of tethered, glowing hot-air balloons illuminating a dusky night sky. For many this is the highlight of Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta, a week-long festival launched in 1972, which draws enthusiasts from all over the world. Festivities start after sunset and culminate with a spectacular fireworks display.

Take in Manhattan from the Empire State, New York, USA

Watch the city that never sleeps with panoramic views from the Observatory Deck of New York’s most famous skyscraper. Perched 86 floors up, Manhattan’s twinkling skyline can be seen teeming with celebrated landmarks and aglow with streams of weaving night traffic. Take advantage of the 2am closing time and have the midnight vista more or less to yourself.

Join the early risers at a London market

Open from 3am, arrive early to catch the crack-of-dawn butchers in full swing. Housed in a Victorian market hall with arched ceilings and a curious colour scheme, Smithfield’s smart appearance belies its grisly past as a popular site for public executions. By 7am carnivores can devour a full English at the nearby Fox & Anchor.

Take a night safari in Singapore zoo

The world’s first night zoo, this veteran is still high on Singapore’s must-see list, thanks to special lighting techniques and open-concept enclosures which allow up-close animal encounters. Hop on the 45-minute narrated tram or stroll the trails to snoop on the nocturnal activities of nine hundred creatures; hang out with bats, laze with lions or act aloof with leopards.

Watch the Symphony of Light show, Hong Kong

Escape the glitzy late-night malls and snazzy restaurants for one of Hong Kong’s best free thrills. At 8pm every night, forty or so of Central District’s glittering skyscrapers dance to a synchronised routine of sweeping lasers, neon flashing lights and futuristic tunes. Bizarre yet strangely endearing, this fifteen-minute extravaganza is best seen from Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon.

Feed hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia

It’s not every night you come face to face with the snapping jaws of Africa’s second largest predator, yet in Harar this is an evening ritual. Just outside the ancient city walls these hulking beasts slink out of the shadows for dinner with the Hyena Man, sometimes snatching meat from a stick held between his, or if you’re brave enough, your teeth.

Admire the Northern Lights in Lapland, Finland

The Northern Lights may be elusive, but with 24 hours of darkness at the peak of winter here, at least time will be on your side. Embrace the long nights by heading out into the frozen darkness to try and catch this breathtaking spectacle. Streams of shimmering particles twist and twirl in a shifting, sweeping dance that illuminates the inky-black sky.

Lose yourself in Beijing’s hutongs, China

Once crisscrossing all of Beijing, now only a few hundred of these labyrinthine, narrow alleys remain. Dating back 800 years, old Beijing really comes to life at night here, as food carts and rickshaws weave past lively games of mah jong, pavement hairdressers and old men watching the world go by.

Night dive with Manta Rays, Hawaii, USA

Gathering in pools of light cast by divers’ torches, specks of glittering plankton draw in manta rays. Hot in pursuit of these microscopic organisms, the rays perform a mesmerising dance, swooping, spiralling, somersaulting and plunging as they weave effortlessly amongst each other and stretch their 13ft tapered wings within reach of the waiting divers.

Stuff yourself at Shilin night market, Taipei, Taiwan

Food is a big deal in Taiwan, something best understood when sampling xiaochi (“little eats”) at Taipei’s biggest night market. Brave the crowds and polyphonic tunes and you will experience some of Asia’s best cuisine: syrupy grass jelly soup, sweet and chewy bubble tea, artery-clogging deep-fried meatballs, and, for the really adventurous, the rather dubiously named yet delicious “stinky tofu”.

See Petra under the stars, Jordan

Thousands of small candles light the Siq, the narrow, hidden gorge that stretches up to the entrance of the ancient city, as a single-file procession arrives at the Treasury. A Bedouin piper breaks the silence as crowds gather behind a blanket of flickering candles that cast shadows, which flit across Petra’s iconic facade.

Watch Thai kickboxing, Bangkok, Thailand

Worlds away form the kickboxing you see in a Western gym class, Muay Thai is kickboxing in its most distilled, aggressive form. With two stadiums, Ratchadamnoen and Lumphini, you can catch the action any night in Bangkok, so prepare for furious exchanges, looming tension and clamouring crowds that will leave you buzzing all night.

Catch the tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market, Japan

Take advantage of jetlag and register at 4am for this famous tuna auction. By 5am, the market is frenzied, with trucks and trolleys zipping around laden with man-sized fish and feverish bidders clamouring for the best buys. As the commotion dies down, brave the queues at Daiwa Sushi for a proper breakfast dining on some of the best sushi in town.

Set the town ablaze in Lewes, England

Blazing stakes, flaming crosses and fireworks; Bonfire Night here will certainly set a pyromaniac’s heart alight. This double whammy commemorates the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and honours the seventeen Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake here in 1555–7. As the festival is steeped in history, paraders don medieval garb, grasp burning staffs and light effigies of Guy Fawkes and the pope.

Experience Hoi An’s full moon festival, Vietnam

Banish thoughts of glow paint ravers on crowded Thai beaches, Hoi An’s full moon festival is a much more sophisticated affair. Every month on the fourteenth day of the lunar calendar, the town switches off its street lights as glowing silk lanterns, performers and food stalls fill the cobbled streets and the Thu Bon River is lit up with beautiful floats.

Night skiing with vin chaud, France

Staying cosy beside a roaring log fire may seem tempting, but night skiing is an exhilarating end to a day out on the slopes. While some resorts offer floodlit runs, others embrace the frozen darkness with torchlight descents that are beautiful to watch as they snake down the hillside. Afterwards, reward your efforts as you defrost cradling a warming vin chaud.

Stargaze from Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

Boasting the world’s greatest collection of telescopes, the observatories at the summit of Hawaii’s highest peak draw space enthusiasts from around the world. However, while serious astronomers will be at home here, a free stargazing programme runs nightly at 6–10pm, introducing curious novices to an expanse of night sky wonders. Globular clusters, planets, double stars, galaxies and supernova remnants are all within reach.

Revel in the White Nights, St Petersburg, Russia

A must-see for all insomniacs, during St Petersburg’s Byele Nochy, or White Nights, from mid-June to mid-July, darkness never quite falls. Sun-filled, sticky days are followed by luminous, breezy nights that are alive with tsusovki (gatherings); vodka-fuelled revelry fills the bars, old friends stroll by the bustling canal, and the Summer Garden teems with lively, impromptu picnics.

Floodlit watering holes, Etosha, Namibia

The name of Namibia’s largest national park may mean “place of dry water”, but its watering holes offer great wildlife spotting opportunities. Okaukuejo Camp boasts a spotlit drinking oasis perfect for spying on nocturnal congregations. Safe on a raised platform you can watch as black rhinos, elephants, lions and giraffes emerge out of the darkness to head to their favourite local.

Join in Ganga Aarti in Varanasi, India

As dusk descends, the ghats teem with life as hordes of residents and saffron-clad pilgrims cluster on the banks of India’s holiest river for the nightly ceremony of Ganga Aarti. Lit by swinging torches, dancers trace slow steps to the rhythmic chanting of the crowds, while small twinkling diyas (candles) float on the dark waters.

“The city that never sleeps” is a hackneyed phrase uttered about metropolises from London to New York, but the Japanese capital of Tokyo is perhaps the finest embodiment of the cliché. To test this out, Martin Zatko and his friends decided to spend a full 24 hours finding great things to do in Tokyo: a day split three ways, lassoing together the city’s past, present and future.

The morning: from tuna to Toyota

The day starts early… very early. Our first target is the famed tuna auction at Tsukiji, for which queuing starts at around 3am; rather than waking up far from the action at 1.30am and wasting money on a costly taxi ride in, we opt to head to an izakaya (bar) nearby. These drinking dens are Japan’s equivalent to the English pub, but with better food – I grab a bunch of deep-fried kushiage sticks, with quail eggs and bacon-wrapped cheese lurking beneath the golden breadcrumbs. They go well with shōchū, a strong local drink that comes in various guises: a bit of a shōchū snob, I favour mine made with sweet potato, served on the rocks, and preferably sourced from the southern prefecture of Kagoshima.

After this boozy prelude, the tuna auction itself admittedly passes by in a bit of a blur – various numbers are shouted around the place, with giant, silvery fish arrowed in the direction of the largest ones. From here, it’s over to the small sushi bars nearby to wolf down a super-fresh platter; the price is a good four-times higher than I’m used to paying, but the salmon, tuna, shrimp and cuttlefish are utterly divine – one of those meals in which nobody says a word.

From the market, it’s over to the nearby island of Odaiba. I first head to the Venus Fort mall, to wake myself with coffee under a faux Italian dawn, painted lovingly onto the ceilings. Thus energised, I visit the adjacent Toyota showroom for a buzz around in an electric concept car (no licence required), then to bash the hell out of various arcade machines at the delightfully mad gaming centre next door. My favourites are Dance Evolution and the bowling skittles set on a giant pool table.

The afternoon: temple chants and nude bathing

Finally, after all this, it’s noon. To get to Asakusa from Odaiba, we take the Himiko ferry, a silver, spacecraft-like vessel designed by prominent manga cartoonist Danny Choo. The view on the way up the Sumida-gawa river is quite wonderful, especially over ice-cream. On the right as we pull into Asakusa is the Tokyo Skytree, now the world’s second-tallest structure; and the Asahi Beer Hall, topped by a sculpture affectionately known to locals at the kin no unko (golden turd).

It’s time for a trip west to the magnificent Sensō-ji temple, accessed under a giant lantern that weighs almost a ton. We stroll around the grounds until the 2pm ceremony, during which drums echo through the hall into the courtyard as priests chant sutras beneath the altar. We follow this up with a dip in the neighbouring onsen (hot springs); it’s only when a couple of nervous Westerners come in that I realise how blasé Asia has made me about baring all in public. Such nudity always seems to make me hungry, so the next stop is a standing noodle bar for some delicious soba noodles, served on bamboo mats with a soy-and-wasabi dipping sauce.

To complete the afternoon, it’s over to nearby Akihabara. Just west of the station, the “maid café” girls are coming out for business. Dressed to the nines in a range of spectacular costumes, they attempt to drag every passing person back to their café; I usually plump for the one with the best patter. Maid cafés are funny places: most customers are local guys who don’t really get to talk to girls, while the girls themselves are adept at getting their patrons to join in with little chants and cartoon actions. All in all, they’re a fascinating peek into the stage-act psyche of modern Tokyo.

The evening: a drunken karaoke collaboration

Lastly, we go to Shinjuku for a night out. Many Westerners have seen footage of Tokyoites getting pushed onto subway trains by uniformed attendants; this actually happens at very few stations and at rush hour only, but this is Shinjuku, the busiest station in the world, and it’s 6pm. We tumble out of the sardine-packed train with everyone else, then turn to watch the oshiya pushing waiting customers on. There’s just enough time to catch the best sunset views in the city by racing up to the observatory atop the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – as usual, mist and pollution obscure distant Mount Fuji, but it’s still a joy to see this gigantic city switching on its lights. Back on the ground, it’s pure cliché: a mad neon jungle, with staggered signboards flashing away into the distance.

It’s now 8pm, and time for a performance at the wild and wonderful Robot Restaurant. The place has almost nothing to do with food: it’s all about the various performing robots – and, I’ll admit, the dozens of scantily-clad dancing girls. My own favourite is Disco Stu (possibly not his real name), a rollerblading, robot-costumed dancing dude with a rainbow afro-wig. After the show, a robot butler serves us cocktails in the upstairs bar.

Laughing my head off at the crazy robot show has made me even more tired – at this point, alcohol is the only remedy. Luckily, we’re just a short walk from Golden Gai, a nightlife district crammed with what must be hundreds of shoebox-sized bars. You have to get lucky, since these places are only as enjoyable as the few other people who can fit inside them, but we’ve struck gold with a few hilarious local businessmen – the Japanese are hugely conservative up to a point, but that point seems to be around four tumblers of sake. We end up drinking most of the bottle I’d intended to leave behind the bar for another day, and the garrulous businessmen encourage me to down the remainder before leaving. Finally, we stagger over to a nearby karaoke bar, to make use of their wonderfully affordable drink-and-sing-all-you-can specials. After belting out Barbie Girl (a long-ingrained habit), and Yatta! (the best Japanese song ever made), it’s finally time to hit the hay, more convinced than ever that Tokyo is my favourite city on earth.

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

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