Easier than a car and more comfortable than a bus, taking the train is one of the best ways to experience Europe’s most picturesque regions. Sit back and admire spectacular mountains, lakes, rivers and incredible feats of engineering – here are 10 of the best scenic train rides across the continent.

1. West Highland Line, Scotland

Settle back for at least five hours and take in the mesmerising Highland scenery from Glasgow to Fort William, and then onwards to the small fishing port of Mallaig.

Most of the 264km journey is along a single track that slithers past moors, lochs, some of the most remote stations in Britain and – adding a dash of Harry Potter magic – the Glenfinnan viaduct used by the Hogwarts Express.

EH8AYE Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct, part of the West Highland Line, Glenfinnan, Loch Shiel, Highlands, Scotland, United Kingdom, Europe

2. Bernina Express, Switzerland

It’s not often you find a train ride listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, but you can see why this four-hour journey through southern Switzerland is included.

Starting in Chur, the bright red, narrow-gauge train trundles through the Engadin Alps for 144km through chic St Moritz until it reaches Tirano just over the border in Italy. The mountains are glorious – either covered in snow in winter or in lush meadows in spring and summer – and the train’s passage along the Landwasser viaduct is breathtaking.

3. Le Train Jaune, France

For more than a century, this metre-gauge yellow train has been winding its way through the French Pyrenees from Villefranche-de-Conflent to Latour-de-Carol. What it lacks in distance – it’s only 63km and about three hours long – it more than makes up in the dramatic mountains of the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Catalanes.

It also stops at France’s highest railway station, Bolquère-Eyne, which sits at 1592m above sea level, and crosses the Pont Gisclard, a railway suspension bridge.

Le Train Jaune in FranceJordi Roy Gabarra/Flickr

4. Rhine Valley, Germany

Follow the curves of the River Rhine as it makes its way from Koblenz to Mainz – one of the shortest yet sweetest railway journeys in Germany. It’s only a fifty-minute ride, but along the route you’ll see fairy-tale castles and vineyards clinging to the river’s slopes.

If you want to make more of the ride, take the slow train that stops in laid-back riverside spa towns.

5. Trenino Verde della Sardegna, Italy

Sardinia’s Little Green Train comes out for the summer only, but it takes you into the wild heart of the island at an agreeably slow pace.

You’ve got four lines to choose from, but the one going from the southern town of Mandas to Arbatax on the east coast has the most arresting scenery. You’ll pass prehistoric dolmens known as giants’ graves as the train clacks past soaring mountains suitably nicknamed taccu (heels).

A3WWT4 view wth train bridge a small train of th Trenino Verde Lanusei Sardinia Italy

6. Rauma Line, Norway

This two-hour journey starts gently enough at Dombas, but it’s not long before the ride to Andalsnes along the River Rauma cranks up the drama.

Towering peaks, fjords and mountain meadows are your companions during the 115km ride, along with the engineering marvel that is Kylling Bridge near the village of Verma. Bring your hiking gear and explore some of the trails en route.

7. Glacier Express, Switzerland

It’s probably the slowest “express” train you’ll find – more than seven hours – but the Glacier Express rivals the Bernina Express for the most scenic train ride in Switzerland.

Starting in the shadow of the Matterhorn, the train makes its leisurely way from exquisite Zermatt to St Moritz on a narrow-gauge track over 290km. Most of the carriages have panoramic windows and glass skylights so you can admire the Alpine vistas in comfort.

Glacier Express, Switzerland Roderick Eime/Flickr

8. Arlberg Line, Austria

Austria’s only east-west railway rolls through some of the prettiest villages in the Tirol region as it travels from Innsbruck to Bludenz. The two-hour journey covers 140km via countless viaducts and tunnels.

You’re in the high Alps here and on one of the steepest passenger railway lines in Europe. Look out for the Trisanna Bridge, which sits beside the equally impressive Castle Weisberg.

9. Bar to Belgrade, MontenegroSerbia

You’ll need at least ten hours – usually more, with no notice – to make this 476km journey from the Montenegrin coastal town of Bar to Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. Along the way you’ll pass the biggest lake in the Balkans, Lake Skadar, before heading into some of Montenegro’s truly astonishing mountains in Biogradska Gora national park.

Then you nip in and out of Bosnia before meandering through the gently rolling hills of southern Serbia and Zlatibor national park. You’ll reach Belgrade in time to hit one of its several hundred floating bars along the Sava and Danube rivers.

B7XCJ7 Train and cars going over the dike in Skadar Lake, Montenegro

10. Inlandsbanan, Sweden

Got at least 14 hours to spare? This 1300km “Inland Line” takes you into seriously remote Swedish territory as it chugs from Kristinehamn in the south all the way to Gallivare above the Arctic Circle. It’s bleakly beautiful, with plenty of chances to spot moose, elk and reindeer along the way.

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

There are few better ways to see Europe than by rail. Budget flights might abound, but nothing can match the experience of travelling by train. Forget about tedious airport transfers and unsociable departure times, by rail you’ll get glorious views, spacious seats and – best of all – the ability to hop off a train right in the centre of a new city.

Whether you’re planning an epic rail tour or just looking for a weekend break, this is our pick of the best places to visit by train in Europe.

For foodies: Lyon

France’s gourmet capital has never been more accessible, with a direct Eurostar link to London and TGV connections that will whisk you to Paris or Marseille in under two hours.

Compact and instantly likeable, the city is perfect for getting to grips with in a weekend. Stroll the old streets of Vieux Lyon, test your adventurous palate with local specialties such as tablier de sapeur (breaded tripe), then hit up the hip Croix-Rousse district for super-cool coffee bars and cocktails.

Do: Shop at the city’s famous indoor market, the Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. It’s the ideal place to pick up a train picnic.

Stay: Stylish mini-chain Mama Shelter have opened their latest outpost here, offering boutique design at budget-friendly prices – including iMacs in all the rooms.

Lyon, FranceLyon via Pixabay/CC0

For nightlife: Budapest

Looking to get ruined? No, we’re not condoning bachelor party excesses, but embracing one of Budapest’s most famous attractions, the ruin bar.

These rambling bars have taken over abandoned buildings in the city’s seventh district, filling their dilapidated interiors with quirky decor, murals, art installations and more. You won’t find another night out in Europe quite like it.

As for getting there, direct rail links put you in easy reach of Vienna’s more sedate charms or the chilled-out Croatian coast via Zagreb.

Do: Take a bath. Budapest has long been known for its magnificent thermal pools; Gellért and Széchenyi baths are two of the best.

Stay: The sleek but affordable Soho Boutique Hotel is perfectly located for Budapest’s two train stations, and the best of the city’s nightlife.

Budapest, HungaryBudapest via Pixabay/CC0

For the journey: the Scottish Highlands

For more than 140 years, the Caledonian Sleeper Highland Route has run from London to Scotland’s far north, calling in at Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.

It’s undeniably one of the most spectacular journeys in Europe, passing through some of the Highlands’ most glorious landscapes, be they carpeted with snow in winter or dotted with wildflowers come spring.

Do: Allow yourself at least three days to explore Scotland’s rugged beauty. The adventurous can use “outdoor capital” Fort William as a base to climb Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak.

Stay: Splash out on a night at Inverlochy Castle, one of Scotland’s most luxurious hotels on the site of a thirteenth-century fortress.

Seville, SpainBen Nevis via Pixabay/CC0

For sun and sightseeing: Seville

Approaching Spain by train, most travellers make a beeline for Barcelona or Madrid. But those who venture further south are handsomely rewarded.

It’s just a two-and-a-half hour journey from Madrid to the Andalucían capital, one of the country’s most enchanting cities. With its Moorish architecture, majestic cathedral and narrow, atmospheric streets, Seville is a joy to wander – especially in June and July when there’s an average of 12 hours sunshine a day.

Do: Go on a tapas tour, either planning your own route or joining an organised group.

Stay: The small but welcoming Hotel Alminar is ideally located for sightseeing; it’s right by the cathedral and has a roof terrace perfect for summer evenings.

Seville, SpainSeville via Pixabay/CC0

For romance: Venice

Picture Venice and a train is probably the last image that comes to mind. Yet with direct links to Florence, Milan, Munich and more, rail is both a convenient and quick way to reach the city.

The station sits right on the Grand Canal, mere meters from the vaporetti and water taxis that will take you anywhere in the city. There no better way to crank up the romance than cruising beneath the Rialto Bridge, past some of the city’s finest palazzo and on to the famous landing stage at San Marco.

Do: Explore the other islands in the lagoon. The Lido’s beaches are great for sunny afternoons, while Murano is (unsurprisingly) the best place to pick up Murano glass souvenirs.

Stay: Boutique hotel Ca’ Pisani in Dorsoduro offers four-star service away from the crowds across the Grand Canal.

Italy, Venice, Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square) and rooftops in historic city

For an autumn or winter break: Munich

The Bavarian capital comes alive once temperatures begin to fall. First there’s the legendary Oktoberfest, which actually takes place at the end of September, and sees funfairs, beer tents and unbridled merriment overtake the city.

A few months on, as November draws to a close, the first signs of Christmas start to appear. Munich’s Weihnachtsmärkte is one the best in Germany, with hundreds of stalls radiating out from Marienplatz.

Do: Even if you’re not in Munich over Oktoberfest, make sure to visit the famous Hofbräuhaus for a stein.

Stay: Save your money for beer and glühwein by staying at the funky Wombats City Hostel (dorms and private rooms available).

Munich, GermanyOktoberfest via Pixabay/CC0

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rough guide india coverWhether you’re hurtling along in a rickshaw, eating fantastic curries, kicking back on the backwaters or hiking in the mountains, backpacking India will always be an adventure.

But you’ll need your wits about you, and preparation is key – here are our top tips to making your journey as smooth as possible.

1. Eat where the locals eat

Restaurant meals are often dampened down for tourists. If you want an authentic curry, follow the locals and find the busy places; empty restaurants are often quiet for a reason.

2. Swot up on trainspotting

Using the extensive Indian train network is an excellent way to get around this huge country. Trains book up fast and the booking system – as with many processes in India – can be highly convoluted.

The train information website The Man in Seat 61 has a comprehensive breakdown of the complex process. If you’re getting a sleeper train, try to book the upper or side-upper berths, for more privacy and security, and give sleeper class a go at least once.

While a/c is more comfortable, the tinted windows mean you won’t see nearly as much scenery, nor will you have such an interesting and diverse mix of fellow passengers.

Train in India, AsiaHelen Abramson

3. Agree a price before you do anything

When taking a rickshaw or taxi (if it has no meter), hiring a guide, staying in a hotel or going on a tour, always check what you’re expected to pay first – and, in many cases, haggle for it. If a restaurant menu has no prices on it, check how much your food will cost before ordering.

When buying a product in a shop, check the item for its MRP (Maximum Recommended Price), which should be printed on it in small letters.

4. Purify your water

Tap water in India should be avoided. However, think about how many plastic bottles you’d get through buying mineral water over a fortnight, and then imagine eight million foreign tourists doing the same thing every year. That’s a lot of plastic. A greener option is to purify your own – there’s an increasingly effective range purifying filters which destroy even the tiniest bacteria and viruses.

The most advanced systems, such as the Water-to-Go bottle filters, turn the stuff of murky brown lakes into crystal clear, fresh-tasting water. It’s also worth bearing in mind that in many restaurants in India, reversed osmosis (RO) water is available – it’s free, environmentally friendly and completely safe to drink.

Temple in Madurai, IndiaHelen Abramson

5. Bring your own toilet roll

Indians use their left hand and a jug of water or a hose instead of toilet paper. Aside from in the most upmarket or touristic destinations, you shouldn’t expect toilets to have paper, and the toilet itself may be just a hole in the ground. Although getting used to using the hose is no bad thing, it’s a good idea to carry toilet paper – and hand sanitizer – around with you.

6. Be respectful

This is a country with a rich cultural heritage and strong, deep-rooted religious traditions. Your experience of travelling through India’s rich and mysterious landscapes will be much more positive if you remain mindful of local social etiquette.

Women should always cover their shoulders and wear loose fitting clothing that comes below the knee. In Muslim areas, midriffs should be covered.

Eat with your right hand (the left is for toilets), don’t point the soles of your feet at anyone, take your shoes off before entering a temple and avoid public displays of affection.

Taj Mahal, IndiaPixabay/CC0

7. An apple a day won’t keep the doctor away

Fruit and vegetables may be washed in untreated water; eat peeled fruit such as bananas and mangoes, and avoid raw veg.

8. Find the festivals

From huge national holidays to tiny village festivals, there’s always a cultural or religious celebration of some kind going on somewhere in India, often incorporating music, dance and striking costumes. If you can fit a festival into your stay, you won’t regret it.

As Hindus make up 80 percent of the population, most of the festivals are based around Hindu gods and stories, such as colourful Holi Festival, but there are dozens of others too. Try the camel fair in Pushkar, Rajasthan, every November, or the Buddhist Hemis Festival in Ladakh in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir.

11402684_10101611479381198_3406237572446824808_nHelen Abramson

9. Stay safe

Avoid carrying large amounts of cash on you, and protect your valuables in crowded places such as train stations. Take a mobile phone and get an Indian SIM card so you can make a call in an emergency.

Women especially should dress conservatively and never wander alone in the dark or plan to arrive somewhere in the middle of the night. If you feel you’re being hassled, be confident rather than polite, and call loudly for help.

10. Try the street food

Sampling street food is a key part of a trip to India. Mumbai has an especially appealing range, with cheap treats such as pani puri (crispy deep-fried bread filled with tamarind, chilli and potato), bhel puri (sev, puffed rice, chopped onion, potato and chutney), vada pav (soft roll stuffed with deep-fried potato) and much more.

Make sure you can see the food being prepared in front of you and the ingredients look fresh.

Street food, IndiaPixabay/CC0

11. Take earplugs

Earplugs are a basic essential to ensure a good night’s sleep on trains and buses, or in thinly walled beach huts and noisy hotels.

Women carrying water IndiaHelen Abramson

12. Get off the beaten track

Foreign travellers tend to hit roughly the same destinations and routes in India. Branching out from these areas allows visitors to experience a side of this country that hasn’t been affected by the massive tourist industry, and thus gives a more genuine insight into Indian life.

13. Go with the flow

India can be a challenging place to travel. You’ll enjoy it to its fullest if you’re open to new experiences and can accept that strange and unpredictable things will happen every day. Patience is vital, and a sense of humour will go a long way. And if you’re invited to a wedding, accept!

Explore India with The Rough Guide to IndiaCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Thailand is the quintessential backpacker destination. Here you can make the first footprints on secluded sands, dance shoeless under a full moon and swim beneath cascading waterfalls.

Running through Thailand’s rainforests and temples and looping around its islands and beaches is the so-called “banana pancake trail”, a well-worn, tried and tested backpacker route that has seen the sandals of thousands of independent travellers over the decades.

They’re still coming in their droves – and you’re a part of the action as soon as you strap on that backpack. Here’s everything you need to know:

Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand

Which sights shouldn’t I miss?

For a frenetic introduction to Thailand, head straight to Bangkok where the neon lights and market stalls of Khao San Road still serve as the country’s main backpacker hangout. Slurp noodles, sip local beer and visit the gilded Grand Palace and Wat Pho’s giant gold reclining Buddha with your new friends.

For impressive Thai temples, head to Ayutthaya in the north, the country’s ancient capital now scattered with temples in varying stages of decay. The brooding red-brick ruins are best viewed at sunset, when the golden light makes this atmospheric city a photographer’s dream.

If you’re after something a little more laid-back, Kanchanaburi is the spot for you. You can take a train along the famous Death Railway, built by prisoners of war during World War II, see the Bridge over the River Kwai and swim at the tumbling seven-tiered Erawan Falls.

AyutthayaPixabay/CC0

Ko Pha Ngan is where the sands of Hat Rin see up to 30,000 people arrive each month for the famous full moon parties. The party starts at dusk, when thousands of lamps are lit, and continues through the night, with dancing, fire twirling and, of course, drinking.

If you want to get to know the locals, head to Chiang Mai, the jumping off point for numerous guided multi-day treks and short walks in the country’s remote north. Here you can visit small local communities, but be mindful of concerns around tribal tourism.

A monk in Chiang Mai, ThailandTore Bustad/Flickr

How should I get around?

A journey by tuk tuk is an essential Thai travel experience and you’re sure to use these noisy, fume-cloaked (but very fun) vehicles to get around, especially in Bangkok. Fares are the same no matter the number of passengers so team up with one or two (three is the safe maximum) other travellers to save money. Agree the fare before setting out (expect to pay 100-150 baht for short Bangkok hops) and be sure to have the right money ready on arrival.

Solo travellers can make good use of the motorcycle taxis that ply all common routes in both major towns and more off-the-beaten-track parts. These only seat one passenger and are no good if you’ve got luggage, but short journeys across town or the island can be good value (as low as 20 baht).

Thailand is a sizeable country and distances between large towns can be great (it’s 700km from Bangkok to Chiang Mai). An overnight bus or train is a good way of getting from A to B while also saving the cost of a hostel.

Tuk Tuk in Thailand, backpacking Southeast Asia

The overnight trains are operated by the State Railway of Thailand and run on four useful routes out of Bangkok, including services to Ayutthaya, to Chiang Mai and to Surat Thani (a jumping off point for many of the southern islands).

Second-class berths are the best bet for solo travellers, with the communal comfortable seats converting into fully flat curtained-off beds come nightfall.

First-class cabins are set up for two so only book these if you’re happy sharing with a stranger. Bring snacks and drinks and settle in for a long journey.

Don’t fancy the long journey alone? There are plenty of internal flights, with Bangkok Airways, Air Asia, Nok Air (Thai Airways’ budget arm) and Thai Lion Air all offering daily Bangkok-Chiang Mai flights with a flight time of 1hr 15min. Flying also means not having to go back to Bangkok – trains and buses use the capital as a hub meaning you will keep ending up back there.

Where can I try some Thai delicacies?

Eating alone in Thailand doesn’t need to mean a table for one. The best food is often found at the local night market, where mobile kitchens sell noodles, fried rice, sticky rice cakes, pancakes and fresh juices, and seating is communal and lively.

Bowl of Thai food, Thailand

Almost every large town will have street stalls selling noodles day and night, so you can fill up without even sitting down.

Many hostels have cafés or restaurants, where you won’t stand out as a solo diner and may even meet fellow travellers in search of dining companions. Most travellers love nothing more than discussing where they’ve been or are going over a bowl of noodles or a beer.

What are the best ways to meet people?

If you want to meet people, sticking to the main backpacker destinations (including those listed above) is the best bet. Stay in hostels rather than hotels – choose to stay in a dorm so you’ll be sharing with other people and not holed up alone.

In Bangkok stay on or near the Khao San Road for the best chance of impromptu Singhas with your new friends – NapPark is a good choice, with its communal tamarind-shaded courtyard and TV room.

In Chiang Mai, Diva Guesthouse has six­-bed dorms and a sociable café on the ground floor, while Kanchanaburi’s Jolly Frog has a communal atmosphere and hammocks in the central, leafy garden.

Compass Backpacker's Hostel, Thailand, backpacking ThailandJames Antrobus/Flickr

Group activities are a great way to make friends fast. You can try everything, from day trips to Thai cookery courses. If you want an insight into Thailand through food, in Bangkok try Helping Hands or the vegetarian May Kaidee, and in Chiang Mai the Thai Cookery School.

For more of an adventure, take a zipline tour through the rainforest near Chiang Mai with Flight of the Gibbon or learn to scuba dive with The Dive Academy on Koh Samui.

Is it safe?

Thailand is largely safe for solo travellers of both genders – and despite the country’s prolific sex industry, women are unlikely to attract any more attention than men when travelling alone.

The standard precautions apply: don’t take unlicensed taxis and don’t go home with strangers. As long as you use your common sense, Thailand is a perfectly safe place to travel. Many hostels will also have female-only dorms.

Unfortunately drug-muggings are known to sometimes happen in Thailand. Don’t eat or drink anything a stranger gives you, especially on a train or at a full moon party. Trains and buses are ripe for petty theft so keep all your valuables with you when you travel.

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

Even in a country as scenic as Scotland, you might not expect to combine travelling by train with classic views of the Scottish Highlands; the tracks are down in the glens, after all, tracing the lower contours of the steep-sided scenery.

But on the West Highland line, there’s a lot to take in. The scenery along this route is both epic in its breadth and compelling in its imagery.

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West Coast Highland Railway by Michael Day (CC License

The trip starts at a very sedate pace in a fairly workaday train carriage from the centre of Glasgow and its bold Victorian buildings.

Then you head along the banks of the gleaming Clyde estuary, up the thickly wooded loch shores of Argyll, across the desolate heathery bogs of Rannoch Moor and deep into the grand natural architecture of the Central Highlands, their dappled birch forests fringing green slopes and mist-enveloped peaks.

You can always get out for a wander, too; some of the stations are so remote that no public road connects them, and at each stop, a handful of deerstalkers, hikers, mountain bikers, photographers or day-trippers might get on or off.

14678307745_8e5de99af3_oMallaig to Fort William by Matt Sharpe (CC license)

After a couple of hours, the train judders gently into the first of its destinations, Fort William, set at the foot of Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis.

The second leg of the journey is a gradual pull towards the Hebrides. At Glenfinnan, the train glides over an impressive 21-arch viaduct, most famous these days for conveying Harry Potter on the Hogwarts Express.

7652752902_bdb7b69a3b_kGlenfinnan Viaduct by 96tommy (CC license)

Not long afterwards, the line reaches the coast, where there are snatched glimpses of bumpy islands and silver sands, before you pull into the fishing port of Mallaig, with seagulls screeching overhead in the stiff, salty breeze, and the silhouette of Skye emerging from across the sea.

Train travel doesn’t get much better than this.

Make the most of your time on earthTrains run from Glasgow on the West Highland Line to Fort William and then onto Mallaig (5hr). For more information, see scotrail.co.uk. Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

You can’t expect to fit everything Southeast Asia has to offer into one trip – or two or three or four, to be fair – and we don’t suggest you try. So, to help you start planning, we’ve put together eight ideas for your Southeast Asia itinerary from The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget.

rough guide southeast asia on a budget coverFor those taking a big, extended trip around the continent you could join a few together, but remember that the distances you’ll be covering can be vast. Plus, there’s lots to discover off the beaten track.

For a complete guide to exploring the region and up-to-date recommendations of the best hotels, hostels, activities and more, buy the full guide here.

1. Vietnam

Start in colonial streets of Hanoi (1), the country’s historical, political and cultural capital. Go for a sail around the famed natural wonders of Ha Long Bay (2), before heading to the northern hills to the ethnic minority villages orbiting Sa Pa (3).

Take the train down to imperial architecture of Hué (4), make a day-trip to the DMZ, then move south to charming Hoi An (5). Nha Trang (6) is Vietnam‘s pre-eminent beach party town, whereas Mui Ne (7) offers great water-sports and sandy coasts with a more laid-back vibe.

Da Lat (8) is your gateway to the Central Highlands, and from here you can strike southwest to reach bustling Ho Chi Minh City (9). Once you’ve explored the city, travel to the Mekong Delta (10) where you can visit one of the region’s floating markets, before finishing your trip on the island of Phu Quoc (11), a restful place perfect for beach bums and divers.

2. Myanmar

Kick off in Yangon (1) for street markets and the glorious Shwedagon Paya, then go to Mawlamyine (2), Myanmar‘s third largest city. Catch a boat to Hpa-an (3) before visiting one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the country, Kyaiktiyo (4).

Kalaw (5) is a perfect base for treks to ethnic-minority villages, and traditional life at Inle Lake (6) shouldn’t be missed either. Watch the sunset over Mandalay (7), then head northeast to stroll the botanical gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin (8).

Take the train across the Goteik viaduct to Hsipaw (9), an increasingly popular trekking base and finish with a hot-air-balloon ride over the awe-inspiring temples of Bagan (10).

3. Laos and Cambodia

Begin with the unmissable two-day trip down the Mekong River from Houayxai to Luang Prabang (1), the city of golden spires. Then its off to the stunning natural playground of Vang Vieng (2), before venturing to the country’s quaint capital, Vientiane (3).

Enjoy the pretty French-colonial lanes of Savannakhet (4) and explore the Khmer ruins of Wat Phou near Champasak (5). Set course towards Si Phan Don (6) to chill out for a few days in one of the four thousand islands scattered across the Mekong River. Catch a mini-bus to Cambodia for river dolphin watching in Kratie (7).

An easy bus ride takes you from Phnom Penh (8) to Siem Reap, where the world-famous temples of Angkor (9) beg to be explored. But if you’re feeling a little travel-worn afterwards kick back on the beach resort and offshore islands of Sihanoukville (10) or laze riverside in relaxed Kampot (11).

4. Bangkok and Northern Thailand

After immersing yourself in Bangkok (1), Thailand’s frenetic and thriving capital, chill-out among the rafthouses and waterfalls of Kanchanaburi (2).

Rent a bicycle to explore the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya (3) and then make for the elegant temple remains in Sukhothai (4). To break free of the tourist route head to isolated Umphang (5), where the surrounding mountains are perfect for trekking.

Chaing Mai (6) is always a backpacking favourite, but an amble through the arty night markets and excellent live-music bars of Pai (7) shouldn’t be missed either.

5. Thailand’s Beaches and Islands

Commence among the old-world charms of Thailand‘s Phetchaburi (1), then take a trip to the paradisiacal islands of Ko Tao (2) and Ko Pha Ngan (3) for raging moon parties or a detox.

Trek through the jungle in Khao Sok National Park (4) ­– one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet – and as you move further south, consider a stop in the slightly ugly tourist village of Ko Phi Phi (5) for undeniably fun all-night parties, snorkelling and diving.

Continue south to the relaxed island getaway of Ko Lanta (6), before winding this itinerary down in the pockets of paradise still remaining in Ko Lipe (7) and the stunning Ko Tarutai National Marine Park nearby.

6. Singapore and Malaysia

Singapore (1) is an easy introduction to Southeast Asia with its array of tourist-friendly pleasures. But move on to Melaka (2) for a fascinating mix of cultures and an ideal first stop in Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur (3) is a must, as is former-colonial George Town (4), with its thriving food and arts scenes. Next, make some time to relax on the beaches of the Perhentian Islands (5) before heading to the rainforests of Taman Negara National Park (6), before catching a ride on the jungle railway to Kota Bharu.

Attractive Kuching (7) is an ideal base for visits to the Iban longhouses, and a journey along the 560km Batang Rajang (8) river into the heart of Sarawak is unforgettable.

Nature and adventure buffs alike will love Gunung Mulu National Park (9), Kinabalu National Park (10) and the wildlife outside of Sandakan (11). Finish this itinerary among the teeming marine life of Pulau Sipadan (12), one of the top dive sites in the world.

7. Indonesia

There’s plenty to discover by starting in Sumatra’s Bukit Lawang and Danau Toba (1), the famous orang-utan centre, soaring volcanoes and island retreats among them.

Take time to explore Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta (2), before moving on to Java cultural heart: Yogyakarta (3), the best base for the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Take a pre-dawn hike up to the crater rim of still-smoking Gunung Bromo (4), adventure the many wonders of Hindu Bali and hop over the Lombok (6) and the Gili Islands for adventures in paradise.

Enjoy close encouters with Komodo dragons in Komodo and Rinca (7) before heading to the mountainous landscapes of fertile Flores (8). Finish up on Sulawesi, immersed in the flamboyant festivals and fascinating culture of Tanah Toraja (9).

8. The Philippines

Start by soaking up the compelling energy of Manila (1), a convenient gateway to some of the country’s more inaccessible areas.

Check out the shipwrecks and prehistoric landscapes of Palawan (2), before you pass through Cebu city (3) on your way to Camiguin (4), a small volcanic island home to a bohemian arts scene and some amazing adventure activities.

Surfers flock to the acclaimed reef breaks of Siargao (5), while the captivating sunsets and limited electricity at both Malapascua and Bantayan (6) typifies island living at its best.

Boracay (7) also shouldn’t be missed, home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and nightlife rivalling Manila. Conclude this itinerary in the cool mountain villages of the Igorot tribes in the Cordillera (8), nestled among jaw-dropping rice-terrace scenery.

Wherever your itinerary takes you, travel in Myanmar (Burma) is sure to provide a wealth of new experiences – whether you’re air-kissing at your waiter in a city teahouse or witnessing your first nat ceremony. To mark the release of our first guide to the country, co-author Jo James shares fourteen of her essential things to do in Myanmar.

Breakfast in a Burmese teahouse

From Yangon’s traffic-choked streets to dusty village lanes, Myanmar’s teahouses are local institutions. Enthusiastic tea boys dodge between the tables, slopping tea into saucers and serving up deep-fried snacks. Patrons air kiss loudly to attract the staff’s attention, their eyes on the football match on TV and their minds on teashop gossip. Stop for a bowl of mohinga – the nation’s favourite noodle soup, or refuel with a char kway (a Chinese-style doughnut) dunked in a delicious cup of sweet, milky tea.

Float down the Irrawaddy

The Irrawaddy River curls south from foothills of the Himalayas, unfurling past Mandalay and Bagan’s temple-covered plain before spilling its silt-rich waters into the Andaman Sea. Myanmar’s most important waterway is plied by everything from luxury teak-decked steamers to ponderous government ferries and leaking speedboats. Climb aboard your vessel of choice and float downstream to see a slice of riverside life – and remember to keep an eye out for rare Irrawaddy dolphins.

A sailing boat on the Irrawaddy, Myanmar, Burma

Relive the Raj

From streets lined with peeling colonial-era buildings and afternoon tea at The Strand in Yangon, to ghostly locations from George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days in Katha, echoes of British Burma reverberate in a handful of places around Myanmar. Nowhere are these echoes louder than in Pyin Oo Lwin, a former hill station, where horse-drawn carriages trundle past mouldering teakwood mansions and a bell cast for George V’s Silver Jubilee still chimes from the town’s Purcell Tower.

Revive yourself with tealeaf salad

Enthusiastic tea drinkers, the Burmese are one of the few cultures to eat tea as well, in the form of lahpet thouq or tealeaf salad. Fried garlic and broad beans, chopped tomato and whole green chillies are added to piles of deep green, slightly pickled tealeaves, creating something like pesto with a strong caffeine kick – a popular pick-me-up for sleepy students and flagging sightseers alike.

Explore Buddhism’s quirky side

Myanmar’s Theravada Buddhism is shot through with a thick vein of mystery and magic, with enough offbeat sights and stories to revive the interest of the most jaded temple-goer. Climb to the Golden Rock, a precarious gold-crusted boulder held in place for centuries by a few strands of Buddha’s hair, meet alchemist monks searching for the secret to eternal life at Hpa-An’s crag-top pagoda and clamber through the insides of a vast concrete Buddha outside Mawlamyine.

Golden Rock, MyanmarImage by Jo James

Join a nat ceremony

Transvestite natkadaws ply a middle-aged lady with whisky as she gyrates to music from a traditional orchestra. Members of the audience tuck 1,000-kyat notes into her clothing to propitiate the nat who has possessed her. Although Myanmar’s native belief system – that the world is suffused by a collection of unruly nats who require frequent mollification with alcohol, music and money – contrasts sharply with Buddhism’s emphasis on restraint and quiet reflection, many Burmese people happily believe in both. Catch the country’s largest nat ceremony in Taungbyone each August, or head to Mount Popa, Myanmar’s most important centre of nat worship.

Take your time on a Burmese train

Journeys on Myanmar’s antiquated narrow-gauge rail network are often uncomfortable and comically bouncy, and timing is unpredictable in the extreme. However, in exchange for risking a bruised bum and a late arrival, train travellers are rewarded with a fantastic chance to interact with local people, from friendly fellow passengers and holidaying monks, to the poised ladies who sway down the aisle selling snacks from trays balanced precariously on their heads.

Woman on train, Myanmar, Burma

Try thanaka

Each morning Burmese women and children daub their cheeks with powdery yellow swipes of thanaka, a natural sunblock and cosmetic made from the ground bark of the wood apple tree, with its sandalwood-like fragrance. However you feel about its beautifying abilities – that tawny shade of yellow isn’t for everyone – freshly applied thanaka is wonderfully cooling, and makes your face smell great for hours.

Rock a longyi

Once you’ve sorted out your thanaka, the natural next step is to get yourself a longyi – a tube of fabric worn by men and women across Myanmar. The male version (a paso) is often nattily checked or striped, and tied with a knot in front, while the female version (a htamein) is more richly patterned, and tucked into a fold around the waist. Pick out your favourite design and take it to a tailor, who will sew it up for you and you’re all set – just ensure that it’s tied tightly enough to avoid any inadvertent flashing…

Nurture a jaggery addiction

Irregular, caramel-coloured lumps of jaggery are one of the great pleasures of a Burmese meal. Made from boiled toddy palm sap and jokingly called “Burmese chocolate”, jaggery is exceedingly addictive whether plain or flavoured with coconut shreds and sesame seeds. However unhappy it might make your dentist back home, cultivating a serious jaggery habit is certainly healthier than Myanmar’s other great tooth-rotting pastime – chewing kwoon-ya, lip-staining little parcels of betel nut, tobacco and slaked lime.

Jaggery, Burma, MyamarImage by Jo James

Get tipsy on toddy

All over Myanmar, you’ll see spindly bamboo ladders disappearing into spiky palmyra palm trees – a sure sign that a toddy tapper is at work nearby. The palm’s sweet, white sap ferments naturally into toddy, a cloudy, lightly alcoholic beverage also called palm wine or tan-ye. Myanmar’s only home-grown alcoholic drink (Mandalay Brewery’s “anti-aging” spirulina beer notwithstanding), toddy is only available from low-key village bars close to where it’s made, making it an unmistakable taste of the Burmese countryside.

Sample village life

Take to the hills in Shan State and trek along the now-classic Kalaw to Inle Lake route, or head north to explore the less-visited area around Hsipaw and Kyaukme. Whichever hike you choose, you’ll have the opportunity to stay overnight in Shan and Palaung villages along each trail – something that isn’t yet possible elsewhere in Myanmar – and to experience rural life first-hand, with roosters for alarm clocks and water buffalo for trail mates.

Country life, Myanmar, BurmaImage by Jo James

Go to market

Barefoot porters pad down crowded aisles shouldering crates of limes, stallholders lean against sacks of onions lazily smoking cheroots, while prospective buyers prod green mangoes and examine glistening fish. Go for a stroll through any messy morning market and you’ll discover something new, from the novel (Burmese herbal shampoo) and delicious (crispy bein moun pancakes smeared with jaggery syrup), to the malodorous (shapely piles of ngapi fish paste speared with smoking incense sticks).

Get wet during Thingyan

While in theory, Thingyan – the week-long Burmese New Year festival – is a time to solemnly reaffirm one’s Buddhist beliefs, to the outside observer it seems more like a raucous, countrywide water fight. As temperatures soar each April, everyday life grinds to a halt and children and teenagers take to the streets to soak each other and passers-by (foreigners are singled out with particular relish) with buckets and out-sized water pistols. Festivities reach fever pitch in Mandalay, where streets are lined with makeshift stages from which revellers hose down passing motorists to a booming soundtrack of local hits.

Rough Guide to Myanmar Burma cover

 

Explore more of Myanmar with the new Rough GuideCompare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Tourists are visiting Thailand in increasing numbers, but some communities remain stuck in a time long passed. In pursuit of the “old Thailand”, Alex Robinson shuns the tour buses and takes local’s route, the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

We’re waiting on the road, huddled together with locals who’ve risen in the pre-dawn dark. “Kneel,” whispers my guide Poj, “and press your palms together”. I do so and wince as a piece of gravel digs into my kneecap. In the distance, hundreds of saffron-robed monks spill out of the monasteries that surround Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep temple and down the snaking staircase that cuts through the thick forests shrouding the mountain.

I try to stay quiet as the monks approach, holding out their big stainless steel alms bowls. Poj drops bags of warm, sticky Thai rice, wafer biscuits and fruit into the bowls and the monks begin to chant. But not in Thai – they speak the Pali language, a dead dialect that was once used in many of the earliest Buddhist scriptures.

To me it sounds as ancient as church Latin, rich, rolling and redolent with the sacred. It’s mesmerising. Meditative. I’m trance-like for five minutes and it’s only after they’ve moved on that I remember the pain in my knee and the pins and needles in my legs.

Tourist Thailand seems far behind. I’ve entered an older country, where monks speak a bygone language and collect alms in the dawn light – as they have done two-and-a-half thousand years. This Chiang Mai isn’t a travel stop for hill tribe handicrafts and elephant camps, but the old capital of the Northern kingdom of Lanna. At least for the next hour. Until the tour buses arrive.

Monk in temple of Chiang Mai, Thailand, Asia

“Tourist Thailand seems far behind”

I began this journey four days earlier in current capital of Thailand, Bangkok. Wanting to find an older Thailand I decided to take the twelve-hour slow train north to Chiang Mai. Most travellers take the overnight train and sleep right through, choosing not to visit the country’s former capitals, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, at all. But I chose to go by day, staying overnight to explore these overlooked destinations.

Leaving Bangkok, I was glad of the peace and calm of the train to my next stop, Ayutthaya. Most tourists squeeze into minivans. But I was one of a handful of foreign faces with a compartment all to myself. Feet up, camera at the ready, I watched the heat and highways of central Bangkok fade into crane-spiked concrete hinterland and then lush green paddy fields, dotted with tractors, workers in conical hats and the occasional languid water buffalo.

I woke with a start as the train jolted into Ayutthaya. This city was once so covered in glittering mosaics that it was said to dazzle visitors from kilometres away. Sadly it was ransacked by the Burmese in 1767; temples were smashed, the houseboats and houses, where almost a million Thais lived, were burnt to husks and thousands were forcibly repatriated across the border.

Off the train, I took to two wheels, cycling past Ayutthaya’s network of canals, which was once bustling with boat trade. I could almost hear the vegetable sellers haggle as they yelled for trade from tiny canoes; now the canals are coloured pink with flowering lotuses. When I reached the city itself – a graveyard of crumbling brick palaces, mould-stippled stupas and Buddhas – I found a statue at Wat Phra Mahathat engulfed by a strangler fig, only its serene face remaining exposed among a swirl of roots.

Buddha statue northern Thailand, AsiaImage by Alex Robinson

“With so few foreigners on the train, I was a curiosity”

There were so few foreigners on the evening train to Phitsanulok that I was a curiosity. Thai people stopped to ask where I was from. The family opposite shared their rice and curry. As night thickened a guard turned my seat into a couchette, covered it with a crisp white sheet and I slept soundly all the way, and when I arrived in the 600-year-old city I was met by my smiling guide, Poj.

The next day we visited Sukhothai, Thailand’s capital in the early thirteenth century just 60km from Phitsanulok. Ransacked Ayutthaya was a forlorn ruin, but the long erosion of time has turned Sukhothai into an eternal monument – a Thai version of Angkor Wat.

In Ayutthaya, Buddhas sat in serried ranks – soldiers against samsara (the material world) – but in Sukhothai, they were veiled by temple walls, serene and as tall as tower blocks, gazing across 800 years of history to a point beyond time. Brightly-coloured tropical birds played among the ornate stupas and perched on the stucco, and nuns and monks meditated at the feet of centuries-old effigies lost at the end of sweeping colonnades.

Train in Chiang Mai, Thailand, AsiaImage by Alex Robinson

“Instead of tourist crowds, there was the bustle of everyday life”

Before Poj and I embarked on the final leg of our journey and caught the night train to Chiang Mai we visited Mahathat Woramahawihan – a stroll from Phitsanulok railway station. Hidden inside the temple is Thailand’s second most venerated Buddha: a magnificent, three-metre-tall gold statue, crowned with a lotus-flower halo and shimmering in the light.

Instead of the crowds you find at the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, there was the bustle of everyday life. Expectant mums with bags of groceries, school kids, and monks in robes shuffled in through the temple doors and prostrated themselves at the Buddha’s feet. They chanted, prayed, then went on their way, and aside from me – one lone awkward intruder – there wasn’t a European in sight.

But I saw them when I reached Chiang Mai the next day, stuck in tuk tuks in the traffic-choked streets around the city’s old royal moat, clustering around the ancient temples and crowding the tiny bars around the night market. It was fun to join the throng for a while, before slipping off for an early night. To see Chiang Mai as it used to you need to awake for the golden dawn, when monks fill the streets and tourism sleeps.

Alex Robinson travelled with Audley Travel who organise bespoke trips around Thailand, including by rail. Explore more of Thailand with the Rough Guide to ThailandCompare flights, book hostels for your trip 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.

rough guide europe budget coverWhether 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.

Rail travel 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.

Music festival

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.

Rila mountains, Bulgaria

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.

Puglia, Italy

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.

 

rough guide europe budget coverFor 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.

One of the great joys of travelling is stumbling across unexpected places, wandering without a single destination in mind and embracing the journey. These places are perfect for just that – so abandon the map, leave the sat nav behind and let the road take you where it will.

1. The Mercato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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

The Mercato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

2. The Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia

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

The Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia

3. Bock Casemates, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

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

Bock Casemates, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

4. Knossos, Crete, Greece

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

Knossos, Crete, Greece

5. The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

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

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

6. Kolmanskop, Namibia

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

Kolmanskop, Namibia

7. Old Delhi, India

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

Old Delhi, India

8. The Moscow metro, Russia

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

The Moscow metro, Russia

9. Shinsegae Centum City, Busan, South Korea

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

Shinsegae Centum City, Busan, South Korea

10. The temples of Angkor, Cambodia

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

The temples of Angkor, Cambodia

11. Fez el Bali, Fez, Morocco

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

Fez el Bali, Fez, Morocco

12. Kumbh Mela Festival, Allahabad, India

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

Kumbh Mela Festival, Allahabad, India

13. Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

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

Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

14. Beijing’s hutongs, China

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

Beijing’s hutongs, China

15. Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, South Korea

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

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, South Korea

16. The Smithsonian, Washington DC, USA

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

The Smithsonian, Washington DC, USA

17. Convento dei Cappuccini, Palermo, Italy

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

Convento dei Cappuccini, Palermo, Italy

18. Islamic Cairo, Egypt

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

Islamic Cairo, Egypt

19. Mumbai train station, India

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

Mumbai train station, India

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