Think of Morocco and you’ll invariably picture the souks of Marrakesh, the whitewashed walls of oceanside Essaouira, the High Atlas trails of the dramatic Toubkal Massif. Trouble is, so does everybody else. This well-trodden triangle is Morocco’s most popular tourist route – for good reason – but in a country that welcomes nearly ten million visitors a year, venturing just slightly off the beaten track can make all the difference to your trip. Here are five of our favourite low-key alternatives and unheralded highlights to get you started.

MEKNES

Morocco’s forgotten imperial city is more intimate and manageable than Marrakesh, Fez and Rabat, but in many ways just as rewarding. The souks of carpet traders, basketmakers, silversmiths and sweet sellers are on a smaller scale, which means there’s less hassle and the bargaining is more fun. But the Medina is only half the story. Just south of the old town lies the other half: the Ville Impériale, an immense walled complex of ceremonial gateways, subterranean vaults and vast granaries that once housed over fifty palaces. The lavish ensemble was the work of one man, Sultan Moulay Ismail, whose tranquil mausoleum (pictured above) is one of only three active shrines in the country that are open to non-Muslims.

AÏT BOUGUEMEZ

Until the late 1990s, the only way into the glorious Aït Bouguemez was on the back of a mule. Tarmac is still something of a novelty here, and while a highly spectacular road now wends its way down to the lower end of the valley, the villages that dot its barren slopes still feel wonderfully remote. The hordes may flock to Toubkal, but trekkers in the know head northeast out of Marrakesh instead – the Aït Bouguemez’s peaceful trails include a variety of mountainous day-hikes, or you can tackle the multi-day ascent of Jebel M’Goun, one of Morocco’s highest peaks.

TAROUDANT

Taroudant was fleetingly Morocco’s capital before the Saadians upped sticks for Marrakesh five centuries ago, but while the Red City has become Morocco’s number-one tourist attraction, its predecessor has slipped slowly off the radar. Performers gather in the evening at the main square, Place Assarag, just like they do in Marrakesh’s more famous Jemaa el Fna, and there are a couple of interesting souks selling spices and jewellery from the Anti-Atlas. But Taroudant’s defining feature is its majestic ramparts, which encircle the town in its entirety – rent a bike and head out in the late afternoon, when the walls glow like toasted flapjacks.

BHALIL

Few tourists make it to Sefrou, an ancient market town near Fez that actually predates its more illustrious neighbour. Even fewer make it to Bhalil, five minutes’ further down the road and believed to be even older still. Suffice to say, you’ll have this intriguing little village pretty much to yourself. Bhalil is built on top of a network of caves, many of them still in use as troglodyte dwellings, and chances are you’ll be invited in for mint tea, pancakes and a large helping of genuine Berber hospitality.

ERG CHIGAGA

Spending a night under Saharan stars is one of the real draws of the Moroccan south. Most people head to Merzouga, where the mighty Erg Chebbi dunes roll out to the border with Algeria. It’s a special place, deservedly popular, but the resulting clamour for camel trips – in high season, at least – can leave you wondering if there’s ever a crescent that’s free of footprints, or a panorama that doesn’t feature bobbing tourists clad in blue. Instead, follow the Drâa Valley south to M’Hamid, a desert outpost beyond Zagora, and venture deep into the Erg Chigaga, 60km southwest of town. Camped in the lee of a dune, with just your camels for company, you’ll begin to appreciate what pure isolation really feels like.

Keith Drew is a co-author of The Rough Guide to Morocco.

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

Visit the zoo

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

Browse the Temple Street Night Market

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

Hit the museums on a Wednesday

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

Learn local customs

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

Visit the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas

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

Take in a show at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre

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

Ride the world’s longest escalator system

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

Take a hike through the forest

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

Get a free view of the city

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

 Witness the Symphony of Lights

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

 

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

Walk down Las Ramblas

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

Ditch the diet at La Boqueria

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

Go to hospital

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

Sit on a bench in Parc Güell

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

Sunbathe on the beach

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

Goggle at La Seu

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

Hop from house to house

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

Skate at night

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

Marvel at Frederic Mares’ curios collection

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

Witness an explosion of lights

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

If you fancy a book pilgrimage this year, look no further than our round-up of Britain’s top literary destinations, taken from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain.

The Hay Festival

Hay-on-Wye is a lovely, little Welsh border town that is a pleasure to hang out in for a variety of perfectly good reasons. But it is really about books. Secondhand books. And antiquarian books. And book festivals. And bookshops filling the former cinema. And book cafés. In fact the whole town has been taken over by the book trade with over thirty bookshops packed into a town (really little more than a village) of around two thousand inhabitants.

It’s home to the Hay Festival, an annual celebration of all things booky that Bill Clinton famously dubbed the “Woodstock of the mind”. A-list authors – the likes of Norman Mailer, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis – have becume regular features, and Arundhati Roy and DBC Pierre effectively launched their careers here. Now, around fifty thousand festival-goers flock to a self-contained site on the outskirts of Hay-on-Wye, complete with massive marquees, stalls and cafés. Many talks are now broadcast or turned into podcasts, and the festival has even expanded to almost a dozen similar events in Mexico, Spain, the Maldives and India, but there’s no substitute for experiencing the original.

Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts takes place in last May or early June – visit www.hayfestival.co.uk.

Hardy country

Novelist, poet…architect. Thomas Hardy’s early profession is his least known, and on first glance of Max Gate near Dorchester, the home he designed for himself in 1885, your first thought isn’t of a talent wasted but slight relief that he turned to writing. It’s a gloomy place, solid red brick – but this curiosity is an intriguing stop on the trail of Dorset’s most famous son.

Dorset’s towns and villages, landscape and language permeates all of Hardy’s writing – so Dorchester itself is Hardy’s Casterbridge, the coastal town of Bere Regis becomes Kingsbere and Cerne Abbas is Abbot’s Cernel, the last two both featuring in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. A full tour of Hardy country would take in all these and more – certainly starting in Dorchester. But, more than visiting any individual town, it’s when you explore deep into rural Dorset that Hardy’s words most resonate.

At the centre of his Wessex Heights – which stretch roughly from the Wiltshire/Berkshire border in the east to the Quantocks to the west – is “homely Bulbarrow”, a magnificent hill in north Dorset with an Iron Age fort, Rawlsbury Camp, and views across the county, including Blackmore Vale, Hardy’s “vale of little dairies” and the home of Tess.

The final stop is where his story started: the absurdly picturesque cob and thatch cottage in Higher Bockhampton, back towards Dorchester, where he was born in 1840, where he wrote his early novels, and which had been the Hardy family home for several generations. Nestled in among the trees, with an attractive garden, it’s the archetype of rural Dorset cottage, and little altered since the family left – a perfect snapshot of his world.

Max Gate and Hardy’s Cottage are both managed by the National Trust (www.nationaltrust.org.uk)

Wordsworth’s daffodils

If William Wordsworth really did feel “lonely as a cloud” while strolling beside Ullswater in Cumbria on April 15, 1802, it was an abstract mood, as he wasn’t alone that day: his companion was his devoted sister, Dorothy. Her journal records their delight at seeing a belt of daffodils “about the breadth of a country road”. Make a pilgrimage to the same spot and you can’t help but feel a cosy glow of recognition, mixed with a dash of dreamy romance. Every spring, thanks to the National Trust, a fresh “host of golden daffodils” appears in the dappled shade of Glencoyne Wood on Ullswater’s peaceful shore. You can visit on foot, or cruise the lake aboard a Victorian steamer.

Dorothy’s journal is on display at the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere, where notebooks, publications, items of clothing and household objects help round out a picture not only of the Wordsworths but also of their close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the other Romantics. There are more traces of their lives in Dove Cottage next door, home to William and Dorothy from 1799 to May 1808.

Wordsworth considered Grasmere “the fairest place on earth”, but eventually the growing family moved to a larger house, Rydal Mount, a few miles away, remaining there for 37 years. When their beloved daughter Dora died, he and Mary planted hundreds of daffodils at Rydal in her memory; these, too, still emerge every spring.

Wordsworth Point in Glencoyne Wood is around seven miles south of Penrit (www.nationaltrust.org.uk). Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum are in Grasmere (www.wordsworth.org.uk).

Dylan Thomas’s “heron priested shore”

On a peaceful tree-lined lane in the shadow of the twelfth-century Laugharne Castle stands a simple, pitched-roof, green shed. Cup your eyes against the small window to reveal a few sketches pinned to the wall, a plain writing desk and a few pieces of balled-up paper scattered on the floor. It is as though Dylan Thomas has just popped out for a pint at his favourite haunt, the snug at nearby Brown’s Hotel.

Swansea’s wild genius poet spent the last four years of his drink-shortened life in the small south Wales town of Laugharne producing some of his finest works from this shed. He’d wrestle over tight lines of poetry for five intense hours each afternoon before wandering along the lane to The Boathouse where he lived with his wife, Caitlin, and their three children. Until Dylan’s death in 1953, aged just 39, the family lived in this gorgeously sited three-storey house with its views of the “heron priested shore” of the Taf Estuary.

Thomas undoubtedly drew inspiration from this beautiful spot, but his real muse was the town and people of Laugharne, which many credit as the model for Llareggub, in his classic Under Milk Wood. Walking the narrow streets of this “lazy little black-magical bedlam by the sea” almost sixty years on from the first performance of his “play for voices” it is hard to conjure up characters like Captain Cat, Mr Waldo and Myfanwy Price.

The final station on the Dylan Thomas tour is the graveyard of St Martin’s church. It is perhaps fittingly underwhelming in a town that has always had a grudging love for its most famous son.

Visit www.dylanthomasboathouse.com for more.

Bloomsbury in Sussex

Daubs, swirls and blocks in earthy colours decorate lamp bases, table tops and chair-backs. Plump nudes recline under a mantelpiece scattered with sepia photos. Spilling over a chimney breast is a fluid mural including a still life, complete with painted-on frame. Who needs gilt frames, when your entire house is your canvas?

This is Charleston Farmhouse, the East Sussex home of post-Impressionist painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Immaculately preserved, it’s a museum to their unfettered creativity. It’s also rich in memorabilia from the freethinking set of writers, artists and intellectuals to which they belonged: the Bloomsbury Group.

The couple moved to this calm corner of Sussex in 1916, amid the turbulence of World War I. Friends, cousins and intimates from London gravitated to Charleston, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster among them. Vanessa’s amicably estranged husband Clive and her younger sister, Virginia Woolf, practically lived there.

Virginia and her husband Leonard fell in love with Sussex so completely that within three years they acquired their own little pocket of green, The Monk’s House, four miles to the west across the fields. It was in this pretty, weatherboarded cottage that Virginia wrote Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and Orlando. The downstairs rooms, which are open to the public, lovingly recreate the writer’s presence.

Charleston Farmhouse is at Firle, East Sussex (www.charleston.org.uk)

Hay’s challenger: Wigtown

Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway is Scotland’s answer to Hay and is every bit as quaint and bookish.

Officially designated Scotland’s book town in 1998 after a Scotland-wide search for the perfect place to convert into a literary centre, the town boasts over twenty book-related businesses from The Book Shop, Scotland’s largest for secondhand titles, with over a mile of shelving, to ReadingLasses – possibly the last bookshop specializing in women’s studies left in the country – with a café serving delicious, mostly fair-trade and organic food. There are also smaller, specialist outfits like Byre Books, who focus on folklore and mythology, theatre, film and TV and Scottish interest.

A town of books wouldn’t be complete without an annual literary festival and Wigtown’s takes place over ten days in late September and early October. Speakers in previous years have included Roddy Doyle, Christopher Brookmyre, Iain Banks, David Aaronovitch, Irma Kurtz, Diana Athill, William Dalrymple and Louis de Bernières. There’s music too, such as Burns’ words sung chorally with harp accompaniment, and poetry, film screenings, creative writing workshops, late-night storytelling, cookery demonstrations by Scottish luminaries such as Nick Nairn and a fair amount of history, inspiration, celebration and tasting of the local whisky.

Wigtown Book Festival (www.wigtownbookfestival.com) takes place in late September/early October.

Agatha Christie’s holiday home

 

Whether or not you’re a fan of the Queen of Crime’s oeuvre, there’s something irresistible about the country-house settings, the sepia-tinted period and the aristocratic ambience of her numerous whodunnit yarns. All of these can be found in abundance at Greenway, a creamy Georgian mansion perched above the River Dart in South Devon, now run by the National Trust. This was her holiday home, which beautifully evokes the spirit of her sinister tales – it was in fact the setting of three of them: Dead Man’s Folly, Five Little Pigs and Ordeal by Innocence.

The present building dates from around 1800 while its interior has the feel of a mid-twentieth-century rustic retreat, filled with baubles and knick-knacks from around the world. You’ll see piles of gardening hats, bound copies of the Ladies’ Magazine from the turn of the eighteenth century, a wardrobe full of party clothes and a generously proportioned wooden WC. Traces of Agatha include dozens of the ornate wooden boxes that she collected, ranks of first editions of her books and tapes of the author discussing her method. And if you’re lucky you’ll come across one of the staff tinkling the ivories in the drawing room.

Outside is a gorgeous succession of walled gardens, old-fashioned greenhouses, fig and apple trees and hidden ponds, with the River Dart sparkling below. When you’ve had your fill, unwind with a leisurely round of croquet followed by tea and scones in the courtyard café.

Head to www.nationaltrust.org.uk for more info.

Shakespeare’s Stratford

A walk down Henley Street, where Shakespeare grew up, reveals half-timbered buildings bedecked with lanterns, flags and striped canopies. Halfway up the street is the town’s most famous building, Shakespeare’s old house, complete with ornate leaded windows and splintered wooden flowerboxes that overflow with dazzling purple and red petunias.

Down by the River Avon, you can kick back with a book or explore the magnificent Bancroft Gardens. This part of town is also home to Stratford’s crowning glory, the recently rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre and adjacent Swan Theatre, and it’d be a tragedy not to attend at least one show. The Swan Theatre is almost in the round and the new main stage thrusts out into the auditorium, so in true Shakespearean style, every seat is within spitting distance of the performers, giving you the chance to enjoy plays like Macbeth in all their ghostly detail.

If that puts you in the mood for something spooky, you can amble up to Shrieve’s House – supposedly Stratford’s most haunted building – for a lantern-lit ghost tour. This is where the tortured soul of William Shrieve, an archer in King Henry VIII’s army, is thought to roam restlessly. It’s also where William Rogers, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s comic character Falstaff, ran a popular tavern. Some visitors have reported feeling icy premonitions here, but it’s known as one of Shakespeare’s favourite places.

For tourist information and the latest on RSC shows, see www.visitstratforduponavon.co.uk and www.rsc.org.uk.

 

Make Of The Most Of Your Time In Britain has 500 great British experiences – find out more.

With a long winter behind you and a post-Christmas paycheck or two in the bank, it’s time for a well-earned break. But where should you go? Exciting new destinations are emerging all the time, and the sheer number of options can be bewildering. Below is a selection of top city breaks for 2013, combining the places everyone’s talking about with some little-known options.

Košice, Slovakia

Bursting onto the scene as a European Capital of Culture 2013 (the other is Marseille, below), Slovakia’s second city is a rising star. Set to host an astonishing 300 music, art and theatre events throughout the year to reflect its new-found cultural status, this medieval gem offers the perfect balance of antiquity and innovation.

Heidelberg, Germany

Heidelberg, perched on the banks of the River Neckar, has seduced artists, writers and musicians for centuries, and the chances are it’ll seduce you too. Home to a medieval fortress, handsome half-timbered houses and an ancient university, this enchanting place is the stuff of fairytales. Soak up the laidback vibe in the cafés of the Old Town.

Explore Heidelberg and its surrounding area on Rough Guides >

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Make for the flourishing metropolis of Addis Ababa before it becomes a staple on every traveller’s wishlist. Here on the dusty, noisy city streets you’ll come across mesmerising cultural traditions, superb cuisine and incredible nightlife venues. A balmy year-round climate and easy access to Ethiopia’s ruggedly beautiful countryside add to its allure.

Palma, Mallorca

Exquisite restaurants, chic art galleries and boutique hotels have breathed new life into Palma, once considered nothing more than a jumping-off point to nearby party resorts. The city now screams glamour, and there’s no better way to experience this than with some tapas and a sundowner on a rooftop bar overlooking its splendid architecture.

Helsinki, Finland

Finland’s capital city was named World Design Capital 2012, and after five minutes in the place, it’s obvious why. Helsinki lives and breathes design – the Nordic emphasis on clean lines and bold forms is evident in everything from quirky furniture to impressive façades. Visit in summer to enjoy long, light days, and explore on foot.

Londonderry, Northern Ireland

The Northern Irish city of Londonderry, blighted for decades by the Troubles, is in the spotlight as UK City of Culture 2013. Its colourful past and huge arts offering make Derry (as it’s called by the locals) one of the most compelling getaways of the moment. While you’re there, walk the only remaining intact city walls in Europe.

Marseille, France

Characterised by its cultural diversity, maritime heritage and bustling cafélife, the Mediterranean port of Marseille has an infectious energy. And this is the year to visit – France’s second city is embracing its role as European Capital of Culture with a lively programme of cultural events and the opening of sensational art galleries and museums.

Tbilisi, Georgia

Having spent most of the last century under Soviet rule, the elegant Georgian capital of Tbilisi has undergone a renaissance in recent years. With a burgeoning culinary scene, some of the world’s most exciting wines and an improbable mix of Art Deco architecture and domed churches, this city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia is truly captivating.

Antalya, Turkey

For a dose of urban waterside sophistication and much-needed sunshine, head to Antalya on the Turkish Riviera. Ottoman-era homes, authentic cafés and shops selling carpets and jewellery fill the ancient quarter of this resort city, which also happens to be close to some of Europe’s most impressive beaches and spectacular waterfalls.

Rabat, Morocco

For a long time shunned in favour of Morocco’s better-known tourist draws, Rabat (pictured at the top of the article) has finally found its feet. This breezy city on the Atlantic coast has been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site – little wonder, when you see the Old Town’s majestic 12th-century Hassan Mosque and colourful medina. Get there before everyone else does.

Predictably, our first visit to a country will often focus on its capital city. Not only does this mean everybody sees the same old stuff, but this blind focus on the capital can also mean other great cities go unappreciated. So here we present five cities we think are worthy of – and sadly lacking – the accolade. As Shakespeare so beautifully put it, what’s in a name?

Barcelona

Culturally and historically, Barcelona likes to think of itself as the capital of the Mediterranean rather than Spain’s second city. It’s perfect for you if your idea of fun is being unable to turn round without an eyeful of Catalan modernist architecture. The best of this is Gaudi’s colossal Sagrada Familia church, so vast that it still won’t be completed till 2026. There are hundreds more galleries and museums as well as an aquarium and zoo which routinely amaze visitors. It’s not as big as Madrid, but Barcelona is the centre of tourism in Spain, and you’ll never stop talking about it once you’re home.

Venice

Venice is where all the cannier visitors head to in Italy. For centuries it’s been said that everyone should visit the city at least once. The real trouble is that the Grand Canal and the Piazza San Marco are both on practically everybody’s to-do list, and they can get so busy that it seems like everyone really HAS visited at once! You can lessen the stress of this by getting off the beaten track a bit and wandering around Dorsoduro or visiting San Giorgio. And if possible by plan your trip a little out of season, for example in May before the crowds get too big, but far enough into the season that most tourist services will be running.

Glasgow

Instead of hitting Edinburgh yet again for its castle, its festivals and its not-much-else, we suggest Glasgow as a warmer, less expensive alternative. This is where most Scots head, after all. Its once-dark reputation gave way in the 90s to decades of regeneration, and the derelict shipyards have been replaced with gleaming science centres and museums. The west end has long been one of the artiest places in Europe and you can get all the way from the centre of the city through its bohemian quarters and out into the country purely by walking through gigantic, colourful Victorian parks. As you’d expect in the UK’s third biggest city, shopping and nightlife are busy throughout the week and the architecture draws art students from all over the world. Well, that and the beer.

New York

New York will blister the eyeballs of any unsuspecting visitor. You’ve seen it in hundreds of TV shows and movies but the massive scale of its busy, scary, beautiful and sometimes-slightly-dangerous traffic and crowds have to be seen to be believed. It’s basically a tough blue-collar town which has for some reason become the emblem of America, and that’s why 47 million people show up every year to gawp at the attractions, museums, and parks hidden between the emblematic destinations like the Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty. The real question is how so much has been fitted in. Well, the answer to that becomes clear quickly: the place is crammed together and stacked high into the sky like a very, very workaholic anthill, so it’s just as well that 28,000 acres of parkland have been woven in too, in which you can find some peace and quiet!

St Petersburg

The most “Western” city in Russia hasn’t been the capital since 1918, but it’s had a bruising and terrifying journey through time since then which has left the place completely unique, architecturally and culturally. You’ll certainly want to check out the St Petersburg Ballet and there are so many festivals through the year that you won’t be able to choose. You’ll have the same problem with libraries (over 2000 at last count). Really, we ought to be grateful that St Petersburg isn’t the capital, because that’s the only reason it survived the big Soviet architectural prestige projects – they tended to get dumped on Moscow instead. There’s nowhere like St Petersburg for sheer history and it’s as rich as a cultural fruitcake. Get yourself a slice.

London might get all the press as the world floods in for the Olympics, but elsewhere in Europe plenty of intriguing destinations are on the rise, either due to special events planned for this year or new attractions that are just beginning to draw visitors. So what are Europe’s best holiday ideas in 2012? We’ve picked our top five. Read on…

Albanian Riviera

Savvy beach bums have begun to chart a course for a still-wild stretch of the Mediterranean: Albania’s shores, between the cities of Vlorë and Sarande. You may have to ride a rattle-trap bus to get there, but you won’t regret that when you settle in to a dinner of fresh calamari in front of the electric blue sea.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Many of Amsterdam’s best museums have been under renovation for years, but now finally the scaffolding is coming down. The Maritime Museum has recently reopened, with engaging new exhibits charting the Dutch history of seafaring, and the contemporary Stedelijk art museum will soon unveil its odd new wing, which locals have dubbed “The Bathtub”. A long-needed hotel boom should also make it easier and cheaper to get a room – which has never been an easy task in the Dutch capital.

Wroclaw, Poland

The Euro 2012 football tournament, to be held here in June (and elsewhere in Poland and Ukraine), is catapulting this small Polish city into the international limelight – and perhaps even teaching the world how to pronounce its name (try “Vrots-waf”). Best known for its meticulously preserved medieval market square, the Rynek, Wroclaw is a university town with plenty of watering holes and charm in abundance. Time your visit after the footie fans disperse if you want an easier time of gnome-spotting: more than a hundred odd gnome statues are hidden around town, inspired by a symbol associated with anti-communist activists in the 1980s.

Guimarães, Portugal

Designated a European Capital of Culture in 2012, Portugal’s so-called “cradle city” (since it’s considered the birthplace of national culture) is more than a millennium old – its medieval core is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But its population is very young, more than half under the age of 30, which has created a particularly vibrant arts scene. This year, the cultural calendar will be packed with avant-garde orchestras, new theatre and plenty of arts installations in repurposed industrial spaces.

Girona, Spain

For years, travellers knew this small city in Catalonia only as the place where cheap flights to Barcelona landed. But recently it has become a destination in its own right, especially for foodies. According to the judges at Restaurant magazine, El Celler de Can Roca is the second-best restaurant in the world (after Copenhagen’s Noma). Even if you can’t get a table at this innovative spot, there are scores of other places to sample this region’s complex, seafood-rich cuisine.

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