Polluted, rainy and business-orientated. Let’s face it, a trip to Bogotá hardly sounds appealing. And many travellers don’t bother to probe much further than this bleak reputation, seeing Bogotá either as somewhere to be skipped out altogether, or as merely a logistical blot on a more exciting itinerary.

Other Latin American cities such as Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro are huge tourist draws, and within Colombia there are more great cities: Medellín’s gripping mix of hedonistic nightlife and cruel cartel-centre past, Cartagena’s heady blend of Caribbean buzz and colonial beauty, Cali’s famous salsa scene.

But Bogotá deserves to be seen as more than just a stop-over. Spend some time here and you’ll realise the city quietly works its humble magic; slowly revealing an irresistible pull of vibrant art-strewn streets, quirky cafés and one of the most interesting urban cycling innovations in the world. Here, we’ve whittled down the top six reasons to give Bogotá a chance.

La Candelaria by Luz Adriana Villa on Flickr (license)

1. For the street art

Sao Paulo, London, Valparaíso, Montreal – some cities are well known for their street art. But amongst the artistic community Bogotá is up there with the best, with international artists flocking to its streets to contribute to its thriving scene.

Bogotá doesn’t just accept art, it actively encourages it with neighbourhood commissioned pieces, privately funded works and local schools hiring street artists to teach classes.

While there’s art all over the city, it’s La Candelaria, Bogotá’s oldest neighbourhood, where it’s most concentrated. Here the narrow, cobbled streets have become a canvas for artistic expression: buildings are cloaked in colourful works from strikingly lifelike faces to bizarrely endearing flying potatoes.

But the creativity doesn’t stop at eye level, the tiled rooftops are littered with strange statues: a juggler on a unicycle wobbling along the edge of a roof, a figure sitting with a banana dangling from a fishing rod. Bogota Graffiti Tour is the best introduction to this dynamic culture, led by guides who are all closely involved in the street art community.

The free tour (donations welcome) explains the historical and socio-political contexts behind each piece and the collective culture, and introduces the styles of the city’s most compelling artists, from Guache’s multi-coloured, often-dreamlike focus on indigenous issues, to Toxicómano’s hard-hitting anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist driven pieces.

Bogotá street art by Frank Plamann on Flickr (license)

2. For innovative urban cycling

One word: Ciclovía. This is the stuff urban cyclists dream of, a day when you can ride through car-free city streets. In Bogotá this happens every week when Ciclovía clears the traffic from 76 miles of roads right through the city centre.

Every Sunday, more than two million people come out to reclaim the tarmac: cycling, jogging, roller blading, dog-walking and strolling with pushchairs, while Recrovía fills the parks and paths with free yoga and aerobic classes.

The programme has been running since 1974, with such success that other Colombian and international cities are now following suit. For Bogotá this is about more than just exercise and a break from the mind-numbing traffic-clogged streets: in a society where the gap between rich and poor is so great, and so much emphasis lies on the status of owning a car, this is the perfect leveller and social integration at its best.

Ciclovia em Bogotá by Cidades para Pessoas on Flickr (license)

3. For the great gourmet pleasures

There’s been an explosion of culinary creativity in Bogotá. From quirky hybrid ventures to smarter joints where nuevo Colombiano chefs are experimenting with traditional ingredients and international techniques, Colombia’s capital is a great place for a feed, with each neighbourhood harbouring its own foodie vibe.

La Candelaria has a number of small, creative places tucked away down its winding, graffiti-splashed streets. A small space with an exposed brick bar, Sant Just has an innovative, daily-changing menu that blends French cuisine with Colombian ingredients, served up in enormous portions. A few streets away, La Peluqueria is an exciting blend of edgy café, hairdresser and creative space for emerging artists.

In La Macarena, a village-absorbed-by-the-big-city neighbourhood, there’s a clutch of international restaurants, one of the best being Tapas Macarena – a tiny, charming spot for authentic Spanish cuisine.

To the north, Zona Rosa and Parque 93 hold Bogotá’s smarter dining. Amongst the competition, Central Cevicheria is up there with the best, serving zingy ceviche in a cool space decked out with bare wood and industrial lighting.

La Peluquería by Olivia Rawes

4. For real coffee

Colombian coffee is world famous, but as new arrivals quickly learn the best produce is exported. Hold your disappointment: a number of cafés in Bogotá are working hard to address this.

Leading the way is Azahar, a café founded by travellers who wanted to re-establish the connection between coffee, local farmers and Colombian people. A shipping container houses the café: repurposing the very vessel that is so often associated with taking the best beans away from the country, and here using it to serve great coffee back to Colombians.

This care and passion trickles down to the product: each single origin coffee served is traceable back to an individual farmer, with the bag detailing information about the farmer and the plantation – there’s even a QR code that links to a video of the farmer explaining what makes their own coffee so special.

Pixabay / CC0

5. For the views

Looming over Bogotá’s city centre, is Cerro de Monserrate, one of the city’s most loved landmarks. Cable cars and a funicular railway run up and down the mountain, while athletic locals and those tourists who’ve adjusted to the altitude tackle the steep, one-hour-thirty-minute walk up to the top.

Whichever way you ascend, the panoramic sweep of the cityscape below is stunning. Often framed by a dramatic sky, the city spreads out from forested mountains into a sprawl of low-rise tiled roofs. The scattering of taller buildings announce that Bogotá is on the cusp of the skyscraper age.

Monserrate by Luis Jou García on Flickr (license)

6. For the underground cathedral

Add an extra day to your Bogotá stay and explore the surrounding area. An easy, and unmissable day-trip is to Zipaquirá, home to the only underground cathedral in the world. Carved out of an old salt mine hidden in the depths of a mountain, the site is an astounding maze of winding passages, carved crosses, and small chapels.

The most impressive part is undoubtedly the vast main cathedral: an eerily-beautiful, purple-lit space delineated by huge pillars and a lofty ceiling, and filled with a rock-hewn altar and the biggest subterranean cross in the world.

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá by Jimmy Baikovicius on Flickr (license)

Explore more of Bogotá with The Rough Guide to Colombia. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Cover image from: Pixabay/CC0

It may not feature on top of everyone’s British city bucket list, but it’s time to see this East Midlands city in a new light. Nottingham boasts a slew of new attractions for 2016, a recently expanded tram network and a burgeoning independent arts scene.

Plus, in the year when the stalwart British fashion designer Sir Paul Smith turns seventy, the city’s en-vogue Creative Quarter is home to an increasing array of interesting galleries and boutiques.

On Friday February 5, Nottingham also hosts its annual Light Night, drawing inspiration from Paris’ Nuit Blanche to open up the nighttime city to people of all ages with free events and light installations.

Nottingham Light Night by Hamish Foxley on Flickr (CC 2.0 license)

“Light Night aims to build a more culturally enlightened community by reclaiming the streets for all,” says Sharon Scaniglia, Arts Officer for Nottingham City Council.

With that in mind, here’s how best to spend a weekend in Nottingham.

Why go now?

Nottingham has just been named as a UNESCO City of Literature and is planning a book festival for autumn reflecting the literary legacy of Lord Bryon, D. H. Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe (who all lived in or near Nottingham at some point during their lives) amongst others.

The wider region hosts the second season of the Grand Tour art trail from March, reimagining the aristocratic grand tours of the eighteenth century, including work by Sir Peter Blake at The Harley Gallery, Welbeck. The flagship exhibition features large-scale pieces by Turner Prize-winning artist Simon Starling at Nottingham Contemporary.

“The rise of new galleries, such as Backlit and One Thoresby Street, reflect the evolution of the modern city as a hub for the lace industry to culture,” says Irene Aristizabal, Head of Exhibitions, Nottingham Contemporary.

Credit: Experience Nottinghamshire

Okay, so where should I hang out?

The Creative Quarter is the place to find independent shops, street art and lustrous facial hair. Based around the former lace factories of the Victorian-architecture Hockley district, it has come of age in recent years.

Look out for cool shops in the colourful courtyard of Cobden Chambers, affordable vintage clothes at Cow and sourdough bread treats at the Ugly Bread Bakery amongst others.

The new National Videogame Arcade, which is the world’s first permanent space to celebrate video games culture, hosts the annual GameCity Festival in October. With galleries and exhibitions to document the history of British gaming from 1951 onwards, it highlights how gaming has outgrown the music and film industries, and attracted more female gamers.

“The revolution happened a long time ago,” says Development Manager Laura Browne, “but we’re only just shaking off the preconceptions.”

Credit: Experience Nottinghamshire

How about the hidden highlights?

The Malt Cross is one of Nottingham’s famous old music halls and, thanks to a £1.38m Heritage Lottery Fund grant, has been restored to its nineteenth-century glory as a glass-domed café-bar. This has also opened up the space below the building, tapping into the honeycomb-like labyrinth of caves built into the sandstone. Other caves form part of the wider Nottingham Cave Trail, a three-mile walk through some 500-plus medieval caverns under the city. You can download the app here.

Finally, if you can’t leave Nottingham without a lace-themed souvenir, then Debbie Bryan is a gift shop and tearooms with regular craft events.

I’m getting peckish. Where to eat?

Baresca is a new tapas joint with tasty small plates and Oaks is the best place for a wood-fired brunch of giant sausages, served with chunky chips and homemade coleslaw. For dinner, try The Loom. It extends back to a cool bar and dining area with a stage for an American jazz-bar vibe. We tucked into a sharing plate of cold cuts followed by braised beef with mashed potato while the barman mixed whisky cocktails.

For a few drinks, the Kean’s Head, located near the Galleries of Justice, is a popular meeting spot to start the evening over local ales from the Castle Rock Brewery, while Bodega is a stalwart for live music. The Hockley Arts Club is the latest cool opening with three floors of cocktails, food and music. Ask the staff to shine ultra-violet light on the hidden menu page to reveal secret cocktails in season.

Credit: Experience Nottinghamshire

I’m sold. Where am I staying?

The newly refurbished Lace Market Hotel is a stylishly property with comfy beds and artwork-strewn walls. Eggs Benedict for breakfast will set you up for a day of exploring.

Explore more of Nottingham with the Rough Guide to England or The East Midlands Rough Guides SnapshotCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Blame Frances Mayes. Ever since she penned Under the Tuscan Sun twenty years ago the region has seen an unstoppable influx of English and American tourists descend on the area, which has left neighbouring regions, with just as much to offer, decidedly in the shade.

Emilia-Romagna, home to an officially designated ‘Food Valley’, the majority of Italy‘s high performance auto industry and a host of charming, historic towns, is one such region that has to shout louder than its popular neighbour to attract tourist dollars.

The flipside of that, however, means fewer crowds and a better chance to grab a slice of authentic northern Italian life. Here are a few highlights of Emilia-Romagna.

Pork lovers rejoice

As with most Italian regions, Emilia-Romagna earns its place on the foodie map via certain specialties. Filled pasta is one, with anolini (little ravioli-like discs, stuffed with truffles and mushrooms) being a particular stand-out, while another attraction is the region’s wealth of pork products.

No meal here is truly complete without some choice cold cuts. Parma ham is perhaps the most famous, but that’s just the tip of the proverbial porcine iceberg. Culatello di Zibello is one of the rarer kinds. It’s produced in the lowlands of Colorno, where the thick fog wafting from the River Po creates the ideal environment for these hams to mature. They’re hung in dark, humid cellars, with expert staff regularly brushing off mould and testing their quality by simply tapping them with a hammer.

Al Vèdel is one of only fourteen Culatello producers in the world, where you may also be introduced to the strange delights of sparkling red wine. The local Lambrusco is chosen for its refreshing qualities complementing the rich pork cuts. It’s complex and takes a while to adjust your palette accordingly, but is light years away from the cheap and cheerful supermarket plonk we may associate with Lambrusco outside of Italy.

The perfect accompaniment to these cuts are some Gnocchi Fritti – great, puffy pockets of fried bread, usually stuffed at the table with whatever meats and cheeses you can lay your hands on.

Palatial Parma

Parma was an important Roman trading post – and later a major staging town for pilgrims, which explains the grandeur of the city’s architecture. Today it’s the region’s main cultural hub. You can practically hear the ghosts of Verdi and Toscanini echoing around the pedestrianised streets of the Old City.

Make time to explore the Teatro Farnese, an extraordinary complex of buildings, crowned by the Baroque masterpiece that is the Villa Farnese Theatre. This vast, wood-panelled ‘coliseum’ was built in 1611 for epic royal celebrations and is still used for classical music performances today.

Fast cars meet slow food in Modena

Modena pairs fast cars with slow food. Lamborghini, Maserati and Ferrrari all craft their automobiles here. The futuristic Enzo Ferrari Museum gives you a glimpse into the man behind the motor, and you can take a tour to zip around the region’s essential foodie pitstops.

In pole position on the province’s grid of gourmands sits Massimo Bottura, the triple Michelin starred chef behind the wheel at Osteria Francescana, which is currently ranked second in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

A visit to a traditional balsamic vinegar producer is a must. Take a tour of Villa Bianca‘s vineyards, carefully irrigated by robots, to get a glimpse of the 12-year-plus artisanal process. They mature the vinegar using strictly controlled methods, siphoning the sweet stuff between barrels of varying woods and sizes, all with a reverence usually reserved for wine.

There’s more to the city’s urbanity than food and cars though. Modena’s reputation as a hotbed of intellectualism and radical ideas is showcased by the often sold-out evening events at the Philosophy Festival on Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini. At the nearby Piazza Grande, it’s worth reflecting on the shimmering photo wall showing the faces of hundreds of Partisans who helped overthrow Fascism.

Comacchio: Emilia-Romagna’s answer to Venice

Okay, there’s only one Venice, but the sleepy estuary town of Comacchio on the Po Delta gives it a run for its money, with its maze of canals, stylised bridges and pastel-fronted buildings.

The entire town owes its livelihood to the humble eel, a history which is documented to surprisingly fascinating effect at the Eel Pickling Factory and Museum. Here you can see the ingenious nets and traps used to land eels over the centuries, who make an annual pilgrimage all the way from the Sargasso Sea to Comacchio, and the cavernous fireplaces used to roast them prior to pickling.

Sophia Loren became the slippery beast’s unlikely ambassador in the 1950s, after she starred as an eel fisherwoman in the film La Donna Del Fiume, with her face adorning the tins to this day. Drop into one of the many canal-side restaurants to sample local delicacies like “Donkey’s Beak” (eel soup served with grilled polenta).

The pleasures of Piacenza

When James Boswell came through Piacenza on his 1765 Grand Tour of Italy, he noted that the name literally translates as “pleasant abode, certainly a good omen.” Today the biggest town on the banks of the Po River is known for producing the largest amount of DOP and DOC cured meats, cheeses and wines in all of Italy.

Expect to sample a hefty portion of these at Taverna In, a modest-looking osteria in the shadow of the town theatre, designed by Lotario Tomba, the architect behind Milan’s famous La Scala opera house.

The town’s centrepiece is the Piazza dei Cavalli, dominated by bronze horse statues, the symbol of the powerful Farnese family who ruled the region during the sixteenth century, and the Gothic Palace, which has a distinctly Venetian feel.

Explore more of this region with the Rough Guides Snapshot to Emilia-RomagnaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Professional travel photographer Tim Draper has shot images for 24 Rough Guides guidebooks, visiting far-flung corners around the world. Here he shares some of his stunning shots taken in northern Laos, where he spent time with the Akha people.

I‘d been trudging steadily uphill through dense jungle in heavy rain for over seven hours when I caught my first glimpse of the Akha people. Despite the treacherous conditions the young man approached at speed, dressed almost entirely in black, carrying an old style flint-lock rifle which looked handmade.

A short distance behind him a young woman followed, also dressed in black, but with the addition of an elaborately decorated coin-covered headdress. She carried an impossible amount of firewood upon her back. I stopped to watch them nimbly side-step around me on the narrow trail and accelerate up the hill with effortless grace.

Since first encountering the Akha on a Rough Guides photoshoot 13 years ago I’ve returned many times to stay in the same villages hidden in the hills of northern and western Laos. I’ve watched on as traditional costumes are replaced by t-shirts and witnessed whole villages give in, pack up and move down to the road far below. Here are a few of my favourite portraits.

Akha children in western Laos

Akha tribeswomen and children

Akha girls in traditional handmade clothes

Young Akha girl in western Laos

Traditional Akha village in the hills of Phongsali Province

Akha mother and daughter

An impressive headpiece on an Akha tribeswoman

A young Akha girl giggles as she has her photograph taken

A young Akha girl wearing traditional clothes

A young Akha tribeswoman in traditional clothing

An older Akha tribeswoman

Men construct a spirit swing in northern Laos

Akha mother and children

Akha woman in traditional dress

An Akha child carries his sibling on his back

Akha children on spirit swing

Explore more of Laos with The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a BudgetCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

From city breaks to romantic countryside escapes, options for short trips in the UK abound. Whether you’re looking to get active, overindulge or just chill out, we’ve got you covered. Here’s our pick of the best weekend breaks in the UK. Need more inspiration? We’ve also rounded up 20 of the most memorable places to stay.

Best for romance: Lake District, England

It’s easy to see why the Lake District National Park inspired William Wordsworth’s Romantic poetry. With its rolling green hills peering over clear expanses of water and quintessentially English towns and villages, the national park makes the perfect romantic getaway. Stay in a stone-­clad cottage, light a roaring fire and enjoy the peace and quiet of this stunning region after a day admiring awesome views from the top of the fells.

Pixabay / CC0

Best for cycling: Scottish Highlands, Scotland

Scotland’s northwest Highlands boast some of the best cycling roads in Britain. Weekend breaks in the UK don’t come much better than this on two wheels. Wild swathes of largely deserted mountainous terrain give way to clear, well ­maintained roads perfect for a bike ride, with few cars joining you along the way. The scenery around is astoundingly beautiful, and you’ll find yourself cruising through deep valleys and past inky-blue lochs. Visit in summer, when the weather is most reliable.

Best for music: Liverpool, England

The home of The Beatles, Liverpool has been dubbed the World Capital of Pop. For your fix of the Fab Four, head to the Albert Dock for The Beatles Story, or check out a Beatles tribute band at the Cavern Club. More recently, the city’s award­-winning festivals: Sound City, Creamfields and Liverpool Music Week, have consolidated its status as a go-­to destination for music lovers. In the evening, there are open mic nights and live venues across the city.

Pixabay / CC

Best for booze: Belfast, Northern Ireland

Where better for a pint of shamrock-­topped Guinness than an Irish pub? Belfast won’t disappoint, with everything from a National Trust pub­ The Crown Liquor Saloon ­to chic modern bars. Join a pub crawl around the city’s traditional bars for cold Guinness and live music. You can even try pouring your own pint at Lavery’s. If the black stuff isn’t for you, northern Ireland’s recent craft beer revolution means there are plenty of beers to try too.

Best for entertainment: London, England

World­-class museums, West End theatres and leading art galleries; when it comes to short breaks in the UK, England’s capital has it all. With a packed calendar of exhibitions and events throughout the year, London draws the biggest names in music, sport and the arts. It doesn’t need to be expensive, either, as many of the capital’s museums are free, and cheap events are held year-­round. Rough Guides readers even recently voted it the world’s coolest city. You’ll never be struggling for something to do here.

Best for scenery: Llandudno, Wales

The sweeping curve of Llandudno’s bay draws in visitor after visitor every year, and it’s no wonder why; the seaside town offers stunning coastal scenery. Take the tramway to the top of Great Orme for wonderful panoramic views across the bay. Or, take in the scene from above on one of the town’s cable cars. Nearby Conwy Castle is a must-­see; climb the battlements to admire the snow-peaked mountains of Snowdonia and the placid Conwy estuary.

Best for relaxation: Bath, England

Bath has been a popular spa destination since the Roman era, and its natural hot springs still steam today, with boutique hotels offering luxury spa breaks. Of course, the town’s focal point is the wonderfully preserved Roman Baths. In July and August, the Baths stay open until 10pm, and torches light up the ruins, making an evening summer stroll through the Georgian streets even more enticing.

/ CC0

Best for surfing: Cornwall, England

The Cornish coast attracts thousands of surfers every year, with some of the best waves in the UK. In the summer, Rip Curl Boardmasters festival brings together music and surfing, pulling in big names from both. Fistral Beach, where the festival’s surf competitions are held, is the most popular year­-round, but the many bays will leave you with plenty of choice. There’s no end of surf schools to try, and when you’re tired of the waves, treat yourself to a Cornish cream tea.

Best for architecture: Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Castle’s fairy­tale towers are a reminder of the city’s ancient roots, while sleek, urban design in the city centre gives the the city a decidedly cool edge. Take an architecture tour to explore the Old Town’s winding Reformation-­era streets and the elegant Neo­classical buildings of the New Town. Modern highlights include the controversial Scottish Parliament building and the swirling Edinburgh Landform. When you’ve had your fill of the city from the ground, head to the top of Calton Hill to take in the skyline from above.

Pixabay / CC0

Best for nature: New Forest, England

A trip to the New Forest is truly magical. Designated a royal hunting preserve 1000 years ago, the enchanting working forest is wonderfully unspoilt, with unenclosed pasture land allowing animals to roam free. The area is a wildlife haven, where you can find many indigenous species in their natural surroundings. The most iconic are the New Forest ponies, which rule the land; you’ll find yourself giving way to horses rather than people on a drive through the forest.

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

Situated at the northern and southern extremes of this long, thin country, Vietnam’s two main cities lie over a thousand kilometres apart.

Southern Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly Saigon, was the US base during the Vietnam War and since the country’s unification has transformed into a thoroughly modern, thriving metropolis. The somewhat less modern capital, Hanoi, runs at a noisier pace, with its lively Old Quarter full of winding lanes.

Yet both cities can at times seem hyperactive, and you’ll need your wits about you to navigate their astonishingly hectic traffic. Can’t choose which one to visit? Here’s our lowdown on how they differ.

Which is best for culture?

Neither city is short of museums, temples, pagodas and impressive colonial architecture. Both have a cathedral too – relics of the French occupation – and highly entertaining traditional water-puppet shows.

HCMC has several more theme parks than Hanoi, so if rollercoasters are your thing, head south. If you’re more at home in a gallery than doing loop-the-loops, Hanoi will be a better bet, as it pips the post for both fine and contemporary art.

People from Hanoi are known for sometimes being more standoffish than their southern counterparts, with more traditional values and formal manners.

HCMC, more influenced by foreign cultures than Hanoi – particularly American and French – has a more spontaneous and open feel to it. Innovation is king and young trendsetters lead the way, alongside thriving tech-minded entrepreneurs and booming businesses.

Which is best for food?

You won’t struggle to find cheap, local culinary delights in either Hanoi or HCMC – street food is ubiquitous and, on the whole, mouth-watering in both cities. Hanoi is the home of pho (noodle soup), Vietnam’s national dish, which you can get on just about any street corner for as little as a dollar.

The street food in HCMC is just as readily available as up north, but tends to be slightly sweeter. Fantastic smells waft through the side streets of both these foodie-heaven cities, and there’s a lot more to tempt your palate than just banh mi (filled baguettes) and pho.

Café culture, a hangover from the French, permeates both cities too; in HCMC the coffee is sweeter and not quite as punchy as the equivalent brews in Hanoi.

Both cities have an astounding array of international cuisine, though HCMC just about trumps Hanoi on the breadth and quality of choices, as well as for upmarket restaurants.

What about nightlife?

The Vietnamese government is cracking down on venues opening after midnight, so several establishments close earlier than they used to.

HCMC has managed to retain far more late-night options than its northern sister, though a handful of Hanoi bars still manage to stay open until the last punter leaves (or passes out). The narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter come to life at night, with thousands of locals and tourists alike flooding the alleyways, consuming cheap drinks on tiny plastic stools while snacking on steaming plates of barbequed pork and fried chicken feet.

Many of the bars in HCMC have live music at the weekend, and it’s certainly the place to be for classy cocktail lounges. If you’re looking for a refined evening out, or for a club with air conditioning where you can party till the small hours, HCMC is your best bet.

For cheap booze and backpacker vibe, though the area around De Tham in HCMC is great, Hanoi has far more going for it for the laidback, on-a-shoestring traveller. If you didn’t pack your smart shoes, Hanoi is where you want to be.

Where should I shop?

Hanoi has the superior choice of crafts, silk accessories and handmade goods. Craftsmen specialize in wood-and stone-carvings, embroideries and lacquerware, the finest of which are on sale at the southern end of the Old Quarter.

HCMC offers a plethora of cheap souvenir options, such as at Ben Thanh market, or for upmarket boutiques try Dong Khoi. The southern city is also the king of the malls, with vast, modern air-conditioned edifices housing copious brand and designer shops – ideal for cooling off from the humid urban heat.

Where should I go to relax?

Hanoi has developed rapidly in recent years, with new skyscrapers hastily transforming the city’s skyline outside of the Old Quarter. Both cities have populations of around eight million, but people are more crammed into the smaller HCMC. That said, the pedestrianized streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter can get so packed with people that during peak hours it can be difficult to move at all, and the city’s ceaseless noise can be too much for some.

Traffic in both cities is continuously hectic, with countless hooting scooters zipping about in a seemingly insane manner. The newer, wider streets of HCMC at least allow for more movement, but everything is relative ­– don’t expect a walk through town to be a peaceful meander.

In Hanoi you can at least cool down, with average temperatures dropping to 17°C in January, while temperatures in HCMC never fall below the high twenties. Mix that with high humidity and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a sweat on whenever you go.

To escape the southern heat, the green, tree-shaded lawns of HCMC’s Cong Vien Van Hoa Park, once a colonial sporting complex, is a popular downtime spot, as is the city’s Botanical Garden.

Though small, Hoan Kiem Lake is the heart of Hanoi for its residents, and a charming place to take a moment away from the chaotic city streets and watch elderly locals quietly enjoying games of chess and mahjong.

Which is best base for day-trips?

Ha Long Bay, a dreamy seascape of jagged limestone rocks jutting out over calm waters, is Vietnam’s number one tourist attraction and can be visited in a day-trip from Hanoi. Be warned though, it’s a hefty journey, at around four hours each way.

Under two hour’s drive from HCMC, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a top option for a day-trip. The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong army during the Vietnam War, and visitors can see the wince-inducing booby traps set for the American soldiers, as well as take a smothering look for themselves inside the tunnels. Tours are best booked with a travel agency around Pham Ngu Lao (roughly 180,000 VND).

So which one should I go to?

Naturally, this depends what you’re looking for. Hanoi errs on the more historical, less glitzy side, allowing visitors a glimpse of traditional Vietnamese culture as well as giving ample opportunities to see the best of the country’s artistic and creative offerings while appreciating the low-key street life.

HCMC, as the commercial centre of the country, inevitably has more investment, fancier hotels, smarter restaurants and an exclusive nightlife scene.

However, both these metropolises have excellent museums and cultural sights, plenty of tranquil places to unwind, superb food and day-trips to some of Vietnam’s most interesting locations. Take your pick!

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

The Northern Cape, home to diamond mining capital Kimberley and wilderness of the Kalahari Desert, remains South Africa’s least visited province. But it just doesn’t make sense, according to writer Meera Dattani. Here she tells us why it’s one of South Africa’s top destinations.

So why should I go?

If empty roads flanked by saltpans, sand dunes, rocky hillsides and quiver trees aren’t enough to tempt you into a road trip, perhaps you’ll be intrigued by the San hunter-gatherers and Khoi herders, or Bushmen, who once lived here and are now reviving lost customs.

Either way, the Northern Cape is a rich, sparsely-populated and under-visited region. So rent a car and enjoy the verdant landscapes along the Orange River as you drive towards Augrabies Falls National Park, get active in a National Park or taste wine in one of the many vineyards along your route.

Where should I go?

Covering one-third of the country, it’s impossible to see South Africa’s largest, least populated, region in its entirety.

Sand dunes and saltpans are the main sights along the Red Dune Route, north of Upington. Stay at lodges en route to small town Askham before the region’s holy grail of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where game drives weave in and out of Botswanan and South African territory. Lucky visitors will hear the roar of black-maned Kalahari lions and all can enjoy unpolluted, sparkling night sky.

Another highlight is the Green Kalahari area, between Namibia and Botswana, combining desert adventures with the Orange River and waterfall at Augrabies Falls National Park.

From Upington town, the Orange River flows west along the easily navigable Kokerboom Food & Wine Route through Keimoes, Kakamas and Marchand. Upington’s small-town charm is worth experiencing, with nearby vineyards and sunset sailing aboard Sakkie se Arkie.

From Tierberg Hill in Keimoes, see how the Orange River has irrigated an otherwise dry landscape by exploring one of the 120-odd islands; Kanoneiland is South Africa’s largest inhabited inland island.

What is there to do?

Spot wildebeest and klipspringer in rocky Augrabies Falls National Park, home to the 184ft-high Augrabies Falls, Khoi for ‘place of the Great Noise’. The park offers opportunity for river-gorge walking, white-water rafting and canoeing.

The region is also home to 10 percent of South Africa’s vineyards. Visit Bezalel in Kanoneiland, De Mas Wine Cellars in Kakamas and Orange River Wine Cellars in Upington, Keimoes and Kakamas.

In Riemvasmaak, where apartheid policies scattered Xhosa, Nama and other communities who have since returned, there’s Nama cuisine, cultural tours, hot springs and hiking.

At Kalahari Trails on the Red Dune Route, Welsh-born Professor Anne Rosa takes visitors through her 8640-acre farm and interprets the night’s wildlife action, often accompanied by resident meerkats. Rooiduin Guest Farm offers sand-surfing and dune safaris or head to Zoutpanputs game farm, home to Cape birds, meerkats and the elusive pangolin. You can also see springbok and gemsbok lick salt off the pan, go camel riding or book floating salt pool sessions and salt work tours.

At Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, so-called from Tswana for ‘waterless place’, wildlife includes the Kalahari lion, ostrich, Cape fox, cheetah, aardwolf and spring hare. Double the size of Kruger, it’s run by Mier and San communities with South Africa National Parks.

Where can I stay?

Guesthouses, lodges and tented camps are how the Northern Cape rolls. In Upington, guesthouses include A La Fugue, Riverplace and Brown’s Manor. Along the Kokerboom Route, consider De Werf Lodge, Ou Skool Guesthouse and Ikaia B&B in Keimoes or, if feeling flush, a suite at African Vineyard in Kanoneisland, run by Elmarie de Bruin and photographer husband Theuns.

En route to Augrabies Fall National Park is Lake Grappa Guest Farm in Marchand. The national park’s cabins are excellent, or you could try Kalahari River & Safari Company and luxury Tutwa Lodge.

Heading north to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, guesthouses include Kalahari Guest House & Farm Stall, Rooipan Guest Farm in Askham and Loch Maree Guest Farm. For glampers, there’s Kalahari Info & Tented Camp Rietfontein near the Namibian border and safari-style Molopo Kalahari Lodge, one of four Northern Cape Famous Lodges, offers private dinners on a nearby pan.

In Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, community-run !Xaus Lodge offers rustic luxury overlooking a huge pan. Kalahari Tented Camp and Kielie Krankie come recommended while Kgalagadi Lodge just outside the park is outstanding.

How do I get around?

You drive. This is dream driving terrain. Stop at quirky padstals, roadside farm stalls, and forget GPS. Have a good map, local phone, keep petrol topped up and ask locals. Don’t be surprised if you’re told to turn left at the tenth quiver tree when there’s an obvious landmark in situ. Traffic is unlikely, bar speeding rock rabbits.

When should I go?

Optimum months are March and April, and the winter months of August and September when desert flowers explode in the westerly Namaqualand region, another astonishing sight in one of South Africa’s most unexpected regions. Avoid December to February when temperatures reach 40°C (104°F).

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

Scotland sports such a strong selection of tourist attractions – from castles and cabers to kilts and whisky – it’s easy to forget that there is much more to this land. Venture away from the cities and you’ll find that Scotland holds over ten percent of Europe’s coastline and almost 300 mountains over 3000ft-tall. Ready to explore? Here are seven Scottish places that you you’ve probably not heard of, but must visit.

1. The Isle of Harris, the Western Isles

Sitting in the far northwest of Scotland’s collections of more than 700 islands, the epic bleached-white sands on the coast of Harris have been compared to the Caribbean’s finest beaches. There are ample stretches of perfect puffy white sand to choose from: our favourites are Luskentyre, Seilebost and the wide sweep of Scarista. You will often have these beaches all to yourself, and even if someone dares to break your solitude, you can just wander along to the next one.

Isle of Harris, Scotland by iknow-uk on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

2. The Quiraing, Isle of Skye

It may look like the gnarled New Zealand countryside which doubled so superbly as the setting for the Lord of the Rings films, but this Tolkienesque landscape is actually on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. Sheer rock faces, twisted stacks, piercing pinnacles and unlikely erratic boulders combine to conjure up an otherworldly scene that looks truly spectacular on a sunny day. It’s even more dramatic when Skye’s notorious mists creep in.

3. St Kilda, the Western Isles

St Kilda is an archipelago so impressive that it became the first place in the world to be recognised by the UNESCO World Heritage list for both its natural heritage (it’s home to the unique Soay sheep and the St Kilda field mouse) and its human history (its inhabitants lived a unique communal life until it was abandoned in 1930).

It’s an often (very) bumpy boat ride out across forty miles of ocean from the Western Isles to get there, but the sheer cliffs and otherworldly rock formations are worth the effort.

Cleit on Hirta with Soay lamb by Irenicrhonda on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

4. Foula, the Shetland Islands

Few Scots have even heard of the UK’s most remote inhabited isle, which is mind-bendingly different. Take a boat twenty miles away from the Shetland mainland and you can watch as the hardy Foula locals (there are less than forty of them) help haul your ferry out so that it isn’t dashed into the rocks by the storms that frequently thrash through.

Venture out across this rugged island’s hilly wilderness and in summer you can see bonxies (huge skuas) and Arctic Terns swooping above your heads. Or, enjoy a picnic by the sea as you watch orcas hunt for seals on the rocky shores that even the Romans never made it out to. They dubbed Foula their Ultima Thule, or the end of the known world, when they spied it in the distance.

Foula post office by neil roger on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

5. Cairngorms National Park, the Highlands

Despite being the UK’s largest national park – home to what is also the largest mountain plateau in the UK – Cairngorms National Park is one of the least-visited. This vast, inhospitable wilderness often looks more like the Arctic than Scotland, with snow drifts swirling in hurricane force winds during winter, and ice and snow lingering in places right through summer.

It feels a world apart too, as you ramble across a lunar landscape where the UK’s only wild reindeer herd roam and the wrecks of crashed WWII aircraft and debris from two more modern F-16s lie frozen in time. The plateau is a paradise for well prepared walkers in summer, and skiers and snowboarders take over in winter.

6. Loch Torridon, the Highlands

Fancy a visit to the Norwegian fjords? Well, save yourself some cash and head to Wester Ross, which offers the fjord-like delights of little known Loch Torridon. This mighty sea loch spreads its tentacles from the small village of Torridon, flanked by the natural amphitheatre of the Torridon Mountains, which tower over 1000m-high.

The cobalt blue waters, lack of development and bountiful marine life – look out for seals, dolphins and, as you get closer to the open sea, whales – beguile and evoke a Nordic vibe. You can stay at the SYHA hostel, the relaxed Torridon Inn or the seriously posh mock baronial Torridon Hotel, which makes the most of its epic fjord views.

Loch Torridon, sunrise by Steve Schnabel on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

7. Thurso, the Highlands

Let’s talk surfing. We all know about Australia’s Bondi and the brilliant waves in Bali – but what about Thurso? It’s usually a case of on with the drysuit rather than wetsuit here, but the coastline around the Highland town of Thurso packs a serious punch in the world of surfing.

Unsuspecting walkers are often surprised to find the surreal spectacle of a dozen surfers lying out in the Pentland Firth, looking to catch some of the serious waves you get in these tumultuous waters, as the Orkney Isles blink back in the distance. The conditions are so good that a volley of surf championships have been held here, including two world championships for kayak surfing.

Thurso Reef by Dave Ellis on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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

Thailand is ripe for trekking. From its dripping, pristine rainforests to its towering, mist-enveloped mountains, there is a landscape that just begs you to get out on two feet and explore.

But the real joy of trekking in Thailand here is nothing to do with the scenery, it’s the people that make every step count, from the remote hill tribes barely touched by the outside world to the local guides whose unbridled passion and enthusiasm will lead you to a deeper understanding of this fascinating country.

We’ve picked six of our favourite treks, led by some of Thailand’s most experienced and passionate guides. Lace up those hiking boots and go trekking in Thailand on your trip.

1. Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son

An ancient trade route once saw the pristine forests of Thailand’s northern hinterlands busy with merchants. Today it is just trekkers who make their way through the forest-covered hills and misty mountains of Mae Hong Son, traversing some of Thailand’s most remote natural areas. You’ll start in Chiang Mai and spend between six and eight hours a day trekking, over ridges, down into lush valleys and up onto mountain peaks.

You’ll visit Huay Hee Karen village, staying in a traditional home and learning about how the tribe live in harmony with their land. The trek winds up orchid-clad slopes before you spend the night in Ban Huai Tong Kaw, where ritual singers and sword dancers will entertain you. Challenging terrain, river crossings that get your boots wet and a greater understanding of this off-the-beaten-track area are all guaranteed.

Duration: 8 days with World Expeditions.

2. Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai

When it comes to truly understanding a culture, slow travel is best – and this laidback trek through northern Thailand is certainly that. You’ll trek from homestay to homestay, hosted by local people and gaining a real insight into village life. Your trek begins in Baan Tha Sob Van in the Chiang Kham District and ends at the northern capital of Chiang Mai. In the Thai Lue community of Baan Tha Sob Van you’ll spend a day with the locals in the fields, before heading west to Ban Dok Bua, an organic farming community that aims to be entirely self-sufficient.

From here you’ll trek through the lush Doi Luang National Park to Ban Maena, a Lahu ethnic minority community in Chiang Dao District, where you’ll stay in a simple thatched hut guest camp and head out for walks in the forest with the villagers, birdwatching and farming, before finishing up in Chiang Mai. An unbeatable option for those who really want to discover Thailand and its people.

Duration: 10 days. Departures with Village Ways from October-May.

3. Sri Phang Nga National Park, Khao Lak

Trekking needn’t mean slumming it. Luxurious boutique resort The Sarojin, in the midst of the national parks on the island of Khao Lak, specialises in local adventures. Their Extreme Trekking Adventure, which covers 8km of wild terrain in Sri Phang Nga National Park, one of Thailand’s largest national parks and set up to protect one of the country’s last remaining blocks of pristine rainforest. You’ll hike past cascading waterfalls, swim through parts of the jungle that are impossible to cross on foot and navigate your way through the untamed undergrowth using a bamboo cane.

Duration:3–4 hours. Departs daily with The Sarojin.

4. Khao Pom, Ko Samui

Sure, you could just sit on the beach and soak up the idyllic atmosphere of Thailand’s most popular island. Or you could explore a place few visitors do: the jungle mountain of Khao Pom. This verdant wilderness is criss-crossed by lush trails, from the mangroves of the coast to the 635-metre-high peak at the island’s centre. Head out with Samui Trekking from Maenam on the “avocado trail” and you’ll wind your way uphill through the vegetation until it gives way to views out over the island and the Gulf of Thailand beyond – a view few visitors to this popular island ever see.

Duration:4–5 hours. Departs daily with Samui Trekking.

4. The jungle in Kanchanaburi

The Karen, with their long, ringed necks, may be Thailand’s most well-known tribe, but few visitors get to discover much about their traditional way of life. Join this two-day trek into the jungle around Kanchanaburi and you’ll be the exception, staying with the tribe in the Karen village of Nong Bang, sleeping in a bamboo hut, preparing dinner with the locals and watching a traditional Karen cultural dance. The next day you’ll ride a bamboo raft before boarding the infamous Death Railway back over the River Kwai into Kanchanaburi.

Duration: 2 days. Departures daily with Good Times Travel at 7am from Kanchanburi, Bangkok.

6. Pang Mapha, northern Thailand

This circular trek is a great introduction to village life in northern Thailand, staying in two very different villages and visiting several more. You’ll trek through farmland and teak forest, learning about bush food and medicinal plants as you go, before walking through rice fields and valleys to reach Ban Pha Mon, home to a Lahu tribe and – for one night – you. You’ll help with the cooking and can even have a Lahu massage.

A three-hour trek the next day takes you to the Karen village of Ban Muang Pam, where the local shaman will teach you about traditional medicine – or you can challenge the locals to a game of football. Before returning to Chiang Mai you’ll take a bamboo raft into the 1666-metre deep Tham Lod cave, dripping with stalactites and the clear waters of the Nam Lang River.

Duration: 5 days. Departures with G Adventures, every second Saturday.

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

It has often had to play second fiddle to its southern neighbour, but Northern Ireland offers a diversity of attractions that frequently confounds first-time visitors. Rejuvenated and irrepressible, Belfast now rivals any of the UK’s capital cities, but in addition, the country manifests superb natural heritage – including one of the world’s great coastal road trips – remarkable cultural treasures, outdoor activities in abundance, and an increasingly vibrant food and music scene.

1. Belfast is a city reborn

Barely recognizable from the battle-scarred city of the 1970s and 80s, Belfast is today a bona fide city-break destination, no question. Stately Victorian buildings and a rich industrial heritage hark back to the city’s glorious past, but really, it’s the revitalized restaurant scene, some rocking nightlife and a raft of excellent festivals that all serve to confirm Belfast’s welcome renaissance.

Belfast Town Hall on a sunny day by mariusz kluzniak on Flickr (license)

2. There are superb hikes to be had

Northern Ireland boasts numerous low-lying mountain ranges, but it’s the rugged Mournes in County Down that draws the lion’s share of hikers. Its highest peak – Slieve Donard – only tops 850m, but this is often testing terrain; and who needs the Great Wall of China when you’ve got the Mourne Wall, a 22-mile long dry stone wall which traverses some fifteen summits. No less fabulous, if somewhat less demanding, are the Sperrin Mountains in County Tyrone, a sparse expanse of wild, undulating moorland.

3. The Causeway Coastal Route is one of Europe’s most spectacular road trips

Stretching for some 120 miles between Belfast and Derry, this fabulous road trip has few rivals anywhere on the continent. Unsurprisingly, most people make a beeline for the Giant’s Causeway (Northern Ireland’s only designated World Heritage Site), with its stupendous black basalt columns. But there are diversions aplenty enroute, among them Rathlin Island, which harbours some incredible wildlife, and Portstewart, lined with a glorious two-mile sweep of golden sand.

4. The Titanic Quarter is now a highlight of Belfast’s regenerated docklands

It was, of course, from Belfast in 1912 that the Titanic set sail, and the ill-fated ship is commemorated in truly spectacular style at the all-new Titanic Quarter in the city’s regenerated docklands area. Comprising, among other things, a media centre and a scientific discovery centre, its focal point is Titanic Belfast, a thrilling and engaging interactive museum.

Titanic, Belfast by Metro Centric on Flickr (license)

5. It’s finally time to big-up the country’s cuisine

Northern Ireland’s culinary scene has taken a while to get going, but it’s certainly making amends now. In Belfast, two restaurants have recently gained a Michelin star, namely Ox, and Eipic at Deane’s, whose sumptuous menu offers dishes such as scallop with clementine and hazelnut brown butter. And don’t leave without trying the Ulster Fry, widely acknowledged to be a superior version of the great English fry-up.

6. Northern Ireland boasts two of the UK’s finest open-air museums

Two particularly fine outdoor museums are the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum just outside Belfast, which displays some thirty buildings transplanted here from around the country, and the Ulster American Folk Park, near Omagh, which brilliantly relays the historically close links between Northern Ireland and the United States. Here, too, a splendid array of vernacular architecture has been transferred from its original setting.

7. The music scene rocks

The north can certainly rival the south when it comes to musical talent. In days of yore, the leading lights were Van Morrison and the Undertones (the latter famously championed by the late John Peel), while in the 90s, it was the turn of indie-heroes Ash, from Down, and the Divine Comedy from Enniskillen. Hot on the scene right now are Two Door Cinema Club from Bangor. If you fancy attending a gig, drop in at Belfast’s iconic Limelight Complex, or there’s Open House, a unique, year-round series of gigs at various venues around the city.

8. Northern Ireland offers wonderful outdoor activities

Whether it’s mountain biking in the Davagh Forest or angling on Lough Earne, there’s loads to do here. Golfers won’t feel short-changed either, with dozens of fabulous courses to hack around, including Royal Portrush (which will stage the British Open in 2019) in Antrim, and the sublime Royal County Down course in Newcastle; indeed, Northern Ireland currently boasts one of the world’s great sporting superstars in Rory Mcllroy. Big cheers, too, for the national football team, which has just qualified for Euro 2016 in France, its first major finals since 1986.

9. Derry’s medieval walls are among the finest in Europe

Neatly positioned within a bend of the River Foyle, Derry’s medieval walls are among the best-preserved anywhere in Europe, their survival all the more remarkable having withstood three major military sieges. Enclosed within the mile-long circuit is the original medieval street layout, itself spotted with a cluster of eminently enjoyable attractions, the pick of which are the Tower Museum and the Verbal Arts Centre.

10. It has the largest lake in the British Isles

To the surprise of many, Northern Ireland ranks the largest lake in the British Isles. Lough Neagh is just to the west of Belfast but actually bordering five of the country’s six counties. Its tranquil waterways and secluded bays provide ample opportunity for boating, fishing, walking and cycling; a great way to get a handle on the lake is to tackle the 113-mile long Loughshore Trail – but don’t worry, it’s almost completely flat.

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

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

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