*This competition is now closed*

Always wanted to be a travel writer? Well you’re in luck. Last year we ran our travel writing competition and the winner, Steph Dyson, has become one of our regular contributors. This year, we’re opening it up again to seek out the best untapped travel writing talent.

Enter the competition and you could become a Rough Guides writer, as well as bagging £2000 (approx US$2800) to spend on a trip of your choice.

Ends Soon!

The Prize:

The winner will get a £2000 (or local currency equivalent) travel voucher to spend on planning an unforgettable trip with GapYear.com, a bundle of Rough Guides books, and their winning work will be featured on RoughGuides.com.

Created by backpackers for backpackers, GapYear.com connect travellers with an unrivalled range of tours, volunteering projects and working holidays in over 100 countries around the globe.

Whether it’s rescuing endangered tigers in India or surfing deep blue waves in Morocco, they guarantee exhilarating experiences on every continent and provide dedicated support and advice throughout every step of the journey.

Last year’s winner, Steph Dyson, said: “I’d always wanted to visit Patagonia in the south of Argentina and Chile, but didn’t have the funds to take such a trip. So thanks to Rough Guides and GapYear.com, I booked onto a 34-day tour with Intrepid.”

Two runners up will also receive a bundle of Rough Guides books and will be published on RoughGuides.com.

tuk tuk in Sri Lanka

Why enter?

If you’re not sure whether you should enter your writing, here are some wise words from last year’s winner, Steph:

“Winning the competition has opened up so many opportunities with both Rough Guides and other travel writing websites.

“The feeling that other travellers are reading my writing, and hopefully being inspired to discover new places as a result, is very addictive and has certainly given me the confidence to pursue a career in writing.

“Having the chance to write for such a globally-renowned publication and work with the Rough Guides web editors has also been invaluable: the feedback and guidance I’ve been given has really helped me to develop as a writer.”

How to enter:

To enter, all you need to do is write a 500-word feature, based on a personal experience, on one of the following themes:

  • Close to home
  • The most beautiful place in the world
  • My best day on Earth

Entries should be emailed to [email protected], either as a .docx (Microsoft Word) file, or pasted into the email itself. Entries should be no more than 500 words and no less than 450 words. Applications close at 12:59 BST on the 1 May 2016.

Market in Peru, Cusco

5 tips for writing a great piece

• Have a clear idea. Can you summarise your story – its setting and its angle combined – in a line or two?

• Take special care over the opening. Stories don’t have to start smack-bang in the thick of the action by any means, but this can be a useful way to engage the reader from the off.

• Readers will turn away at the drop of a hat – keep them with you by clearing your story’s path of all obstructions (such as a dropped hat, unless it’s contributing something).

• Judiciously employ observations (local colour): combined the right way, sights, sounds and smells can spellbind.

• Use temporal and spatial markers to ensure the reader knows where (and when) they are at all times.

Read last year’s winning entry here, and the runners-up here.

Good luck!

Open to the UK, Republic of Ireland, South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA entrants over the age of 18 only. For full Terms & Conditions see here.

Almost 50 years after John Lennon and Yoko Ono promoted world peace from room 702 of the Hilton, Amsterdam’s hotels are more worthy of the spotlight than ever. Even for seasoned travellers, the Dutch capital’s accommodation options are among the most exciting in Europe.

Take your pick from handsomely converted old canal houses, sleek-and-chic boutique B&Bs and luxurious short-stay apartments, while quirkier options include houseboats, a converted tram depot and even a crane. Visitors on a budget are catered for too, with bargain beds aplenty in the city’s hostels and campsites.

rough guide amsterdam coverHowever, as in most capitals, prices soar during peak season – July and August, Easter and Christmas – especially last-minute, so booking in advance is a must. Start planning your trip with our guide to the best area to stay in Amsterdam, taken from the latest Rough Guide.

The Old Centre

If you choose to stay in the Old Centre, you’ll be a short walk from the main sights and the principal shopping and nightlife areas. Cheap hotels abound and this is the first place to start looking if money is tight, although some may find the proximity of the red light district off-putting.

On a budget: Flying Pig Downtown
This hostel is clean, large and well run by ex-travellers familiar with the needs of backpackers. It’s justifiably popular, and a very good deal, with mixed dorms, some of which have queen-sized bunks sleeping two.

No-limits luxury: Hotel de l’Europe
This elegant old-timer has plenty of fin-de-siècle charm and a central riverside location. The rooms are large and opulent, and there’s also a two-michelin-star restaurant, Bord’eau, a spa and the glamorous Freddy’s Bar.

Bike, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Pixabay / CC0

Grachtengordel West

The canal-laced streets to the west of the old centre have a number of quiet waterside hotels, though the least expensive places are concentrated along Raadhuisstraat, one of Amsterdam’s busiest streets.

A snug stay: b&nb Herengracht
This oh-so-central bed (and no breakfast) has three double rooms: subterranean bolthole, canal view or garden view.

A hotel with style: The Dylan
Hip without being pretentious, The Dylan has earned itself many repeat guests. This stylish hotel is housed in a seventeenth-century building that centres on a beautiful courtyard and terrace, and there’s a michelin-star restaurant on site.

Grachtengordel South

Ideally positioned for the plethora of clubs, bars and restaurants on and around Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, this area is on the rise: Waldorf Astoria decided to locate their new hotel here in 2014. There are plenty of options for those on a budget too, including a number of very appealing – and occasionally stylish – hotels along the surrounding canals.

The big name: Waldorf Astoria
Housed within a series of conjoined seventeenth-century canal houses in one of the city’s most prestigious neighbourhoods, the Waldorf Astoria has 93 rooms and suites in tasteful, calming neutral shades. It’s hard to fault, except for the eye-watering cost.

A great budget option: Prinsenhof
This small one-star has been offering bed and board since 1813. The 11 rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, making it one of Amsterdam’s top budget options, but booking ahead is essential.

Tulips, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Pixabay / CC0

The Jordaan

Staying in the Jordaan puts you among the locals, well away from the prime tourist areas. There’s no shortage of bars and restaurants here either, and some of the city’s prettiest canals thread through the district, but you’ll be at least a 15-minute walk from the bright lights. Be aware when looking for a place to stay that Marnixstraat and Rozengracht are busy main roads.

Inventive design: De Hallen
There’s plenty of buzz surrounding the stunning conversion of this 1902 tram depot. Original features, such as rails in the dining-room floor, and the vaulted glass ceiling, have been kept intact, and the 55 rooms seem to be suspended within the structure.

Beautifully furnished boutique: Maison Rika
Housed in a former art gallery, this boutique option has two beautifully furnished queen-sized bedrooms on the second and third floors and is owned by fashion designer Ulrika Lundgren, who has a shop across the street.

The Old Jewish Quarter and Plantage

Not many tourists stay in this area as it’s largely residential, with very few bars or restaurants. So you’re pretty much guaranteed a quiet night’s sleep here, and you’re only a tram ride away from the leading sights.

A simple and welcoming stay: Adolesce
A popular and welcoming four-storey hotel (no lift) in an old canal house not far from Waterlooplein. There are ten neat, if a little dated, rooms and a communal seating area.

Modern style: Arena
A little way east of the centre, this hip four-star hotel has split-level rooms in tranquil grey or cream. There’s a lovely, relaxed vibe in the bar and the intimate restaurant with garden terrace, and a lively late-night club located within the former chapel.

Dusk, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Pixabay / CC0

The Eastern Docklands and Amsterdam Noord

These up-and-coming districts have some excellent, avant-garde accommodation options, and though their industrial architecture and open expanses might feel a world away from the old centre’s medieval lanes, they’re just a short hop away by ferry or tram.

An unusual conversion: Lloyd Hotel
Situated in the Oosterdok (eastern docklands) district, this former prison and refugee workers’ hostel has been renovated to become a “cultural embassy”, with an arts centre as well as an art library. The hotel serves all kinds of travellers, with rooms ranging from one-star affairs with a shared bathroom to five-star suites.

Getting high: Faralda Crane
Ever slept 50m in the air? The world’s first hotel in a crane offers three ultra-contemporary suites with knee-buckling city views. As you’d expect, there’s a long waiting list, so book well in advance.

The Museum Quarter

The city’s smartest quarter centres on the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum – although the nightlife around Leidseplein is also within easy striking distance. There are no canals, and two of the main drags constantly rumble with traffic, but several good hotels are to be found here, plus the leafy Vondelpark.

Back to school: College
Converted from a nineteenth-century schoolhouse, the college is an elegant boutique hotel run by hotel-school students. It has tasteful modern rooms, a first-rate restaurant, a swanky bar and a chic terrace.

To impress: Conservatorium
The capital’s most jaw-dropping hotel, this heritage building has been transformed into a contemporary design wonderland. Standard guestrooms come with Nespresso machine and free newspapers, plus access to Akasha – the city’s largest and most opulent spa.

Park, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Pixabay / CC0

The outer districts

Exciting accommodation options are cropping up in areas such as Amsterdam Oost, offering the opportunity of top-notch digs for less – and thanks to reliable and frequent trams, staying here doesn’t place you too far from the action.

Bring back the 60s: Hilton Amsterdam
Way outside the centre by a canal in the distinctly upmarket nieuw Zuid district, this hotel has all the facilities you could hope for. Mainly attracting a business-oriented clientele, it’s only really worth considering if you can afford to soak up a bit of 1960s nostalgia in its stunning “John and Yoko” suite, where the couple held their famous 1969 “Bed-in” for peace.

Hostel beds and more: Stayokay Zeeburg
Located in a former school in a residential area on the eastern outskirts of the city, this hostel has its own bar/restaurant, bike rental and laundry, and is wheelchair accessible. It shares the building with Studio/K, a multipurpose venue that shows art-house films and has a decent restaurant.

This feature contains affiliate links; you can find out more about why we’ve partnered with booking.com here. All recommendations are editorially independent and taken from The Rough Guide to Amsterdam. Header image via Pixabay / CC0.

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.

Planning your first trip around the world can be daunting. There’s an awful lot to discover out there, from retina-burning white beaches tapering off into gin-clear waters to mountain ranges hiding echo-bending canyons and fascinating wildlife.

rough guides first time around world coverTo celebrate publication of the new edition of the Rough Guide to First-Time Around the World, packed with tips and insights for your first big trip, here are 20 ideas to kick-start your inspiration.

Whether you’re dreaming of kicking back on a white-sand beach, partying until dawn or leaving the tourist trail behind, read on…

1. Participate in a festival

There’s a world of opportunities to celebrate out there. Get covered in coloured dye at Holi, hurl oranges in Italy, take part in Spain’s biggest food fight or don a costume and join a Brazilian samba school.

myanmar / Eastern Burma / Taunggyi / Balloon Festival

2. Learn a language

Private and group lessons are a bargain in many countries, and are a great way to gain a greater understanding of your destination. Think about learning Spanish in South America or even try to break the ice with a few words of Mongolian.

3. Be awed by nature

Whether you want to tick the seven wonders of the world of your bucket list or get off the beaten track, there are some stupendous sights to discover. The unfathomably stunning Grand Canyon, for instance, is even still deepening at the rate of 15m per million years.

4. Take a cookery course

Even if you just learn to make one great dish, your friends and relatives will be grateful for years. You could master Indian cooking in Kerala or take a popular Thai cookery course in Bangkok.

Banh Xeo, rice pancake, green leaf salad and bowl of dressing, close-up

5. Shop at a local market

Practice your language skills, meet locals and get a good price all at the same time by exploring local markets. You could hit the bazaars of Fez and Marrakesh in Morocco, where you’ll find more than 10,000 fascinating alleys to explore, or join the crowds at Belgium’s oldest Christmas market.

6. Take a literary journey

Connecting the sites from your favourite foreign book or following in the footsteps of an author is a great way to see another side of a country. Get started with our 10 great literary journeys or try one of these 20 breaks for bookworms.

7. Find your own dream beach

There’s nothing like finding a hammock with your name on it and staying still until you’ve recharged your wanderlust. Thailand doesn’t have a monopoly on Southeast Asia’s great beaches, but many travellers simply can’t seem to return home without an obligatory white-sand sizzle on one of its palm-tufted strands.

Beautiful and definately Caribbean, Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.

8. Attend a sporting event

Don the local team’s colours and make a few new friends as you attend a match or game, be that rugby in New Zealand, cricket in India or ice hockey in Canada.

9. Try the street food

Street food meals may be the most memorable of your entire trip. We’ve picked 20 of the best street foods around the world to whet your appetite.

10. Climb a mountain

Start slow by taking on a classic trekking route or take a mountaineering course and scale a more intimidating peak. Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro is a popular first challenge: the storybook mountain silhouette you first learn to draw in primary school, it’s typically hiked in five or six days.

New Zealand, Taranaki, Mt Egmont, Mt Taranaki, New Plymouth

11. Sample the local firewater

Leave the backpacker bar behind at least once to try something new. It could be an unusual beer in the Czech Republic, a daiquiri in Havana or gintonic in Barcelona. You could even making learning about the local drinking culture the focus of part of your trip on one of these 20 boozy breaks.

12. Try out a new sport

This is the time to give a sport a go that you’ve always been curious about – or even one you’ve never heard of. Try these extreme sports and daredevil experiences for ideas.

13. Spend a few days in the jungle

Whether it’s in Costa Rica, Peru or Indonesia, you’ll learn a lot by spending at least a few days in the jungle. Just be sure to go with a guide who can both tell you about the indigenous animals and plants – and help you find your way back.

Costa Rica, Monte Verde, Monte Verde Cloud Forrest, Rope Bridge

14. Sleep somewhere unusual

A night suspended 300m high on a cliff face sound a little nerve-wracking? Don’t worry, there’s lots more unusual accommodation out there, from magical treehouses to desert campsites.

15. See a performance

Tickets for plays and concerts might be pricy, but the experience is one you’ll never forget. Even at Australia’s famous Sydney Opera House, seats are readily available for many performances.

16. Get to grips with ancient history

From Bagan to Tikal, the opportunities to get lost in your own historical adventure are endless. No round-the-world trip would be complete without spending some time discovering an ancient civilisation or lost city.

Myanmar / Western Burma / Bagan / sunrise from Shwesandaw

17. Marvel at some of the world’s finest architecture

Architectural wonders abound, although few match the splendour of Agra’s Taj Mahal in India. Built in 1632–1653 by Emperor Shah Jahan in loving memory of his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal,
the Taj is an architectural marvel that has been crafted down to the most minute detail.

18. Go on a great journey

Embark on an epic road-trip in the USA or Europe, spend a week on the Trans-Mongolian Railway or embrace the concept of slow travel with a gentle boat journey among Kerala’s backwaters.

USA, California, Amboy, Route 66, car on cracked highway

19. Book a safari

But make sure you also get out of the minivan and view the wildlife on foot, or even from a canoe. The Maasai Mara in Kenya is one of the most fantastic destinations for wildlife-spotting, stretching for 3000 square kilometres and home to elephants, lions, zebras, giraffes among numerous other photogenic species.

20. Spend some time in the world’s great museums

The Louvre could eat most sports stadiums for breakfast and still have plenty of room left over, London’s British Museum houses an astonishing 70,000 exhibits, and New York’s Met is home to a whopping 2 million artworks.

rough guides first time around world coverPlan more of your first trip around the world with the Rough Guide to First-Time Around the World.

New Zealand’s craggy coastline and beautiful national parks are dotted with wildlife and beg to be explored. The scenery gets more spectacular around every corner, with beaches, vineyards, glaciers, snow-capped mountains, raging rivers and vast lakes all jostling for attention.

Add to the mix some cool, laidback cities, a thriving Maori culture and generous, warm-hearted people and you have New Zealand (Aotearoa in Maori): a backpackers dream. If you’re backpacking New Zealand anytime soon, you’ll need to read these tips before you go:

1. Buy a car or van

If you’re backpacking New Zealand for more than a couple of months, buying a vehicle often works out cheaper than renting as there’s high demand for budget cars and vans.

Check hostel notice boards and online sites like Trade Me, and if you’re in Auckland, get yourself to Ellerslie Carfair. Oh and save your pennies on the Sat Nav – it’s nigh on impossible to get lost.

Camping in New Zealand

2. Park up or pitch a tent

There is no more perfect a country for sleeping under the stars. Options include holiday parks with high-end facilities, gorgeous out-of-the-way DOC managed sites (from very basic free campsites without water to serviced sites that might cost NZ$15) and freedom camping – generally for self-contained (ie with a toilet) vans only.

Freedom camping is tougher than it once was, as “no camping” signs have sprung up and fines are enforced, but the online map at Rankers of Aotearoa is a brilliant resource for forward planning.

3. Learn some local lingo

Just like the Aussies, Kiwis – the people as opposed to the native flightless bird – have their own way of saying things. Nowhere else in the world will you hear “bro” or “sweet as” said without a touch of irony.

Useful terms include “togs” (swimming costumes), “dairy” (corner shop or convenience store), “chilly bin” (cool box), “tramping” (hiking) and “jandals” (sandals). Oh and you’ll be saying “eh?” at the end of every sentence in no time, eh.

Sheep grazing, New Zealand

4. Prepare for all weather

New Zealand might not be huge, but it can be noticeably colder on the south island compared to the north. Outside of summer it can get chilly everywhere, and all year-round the weather is changeable.

If you’re tramping the Tongariro Crossing, camping or just pottering about Christchurch, be prepared for sudden drops in temperature and downpours.

Layers are key, a rain jacket essential, and quick drying clothing a godsend. All that said, UV rays here are harsh, so in the sun wear a hat and a high factor cream.

5. Work hard, play hard

You somehow have to pay for the all the delicious coffee (and Sauvignon Blanc) you’ll be drinking, so if the idea of milking cows in Waikato or picking grapes in Marlborough appeals, it’s a great way to extend your stay.

Do some online research into grassroots schemes where you receive food or accommodation in exchange for hard work (WWOOF, FHiNZ, Help Exchange) or pick up some casual work for pay.

You’ll need to apply for a work visa; those aged 18–30 (or up to 35 for Canadians) can take part in the Working Holiday Scheme (WHS) and live, work and travel anywhere in the country for up to 23 months (if you’re from the UK or Canada – from the USA it’ll only be 12 months).

Tolaga Bay pier, New Zealand, East Cape

6. Invest in a travel pass

To explore from Cape Reinga on the very northern tip to Stewart Island in the far south is best done by road or rail – with the odd scenic ferry crossing thrown in. Investing in a travel pass will save you cash.

InterCity/Newmans operate a hop-on-hop-off service and you can get a FlexiPass loaded with hours that, crucially, can be sold to another traveller if you have any left over.

There’s also the cheap, cheerful and never boring backpacker buses (Flying Kiwi Adventure Tours, Haka Tours, Stray and the classic original, Kiwi Experience are recommended).

For the train, invest in a fixed or freedom pass with KiwiRail.

7. Book ahead in high season

Campsites, B&Bs, hotels and hostels get super busy from December to March, when it can feel like all of New Zealand is on holiday.

Don’t forget that towns and cities like Queenstown, Wanaka and Christchurch are gateways to nearby ski resorts and have another high season from July to September – particularly at weekends.

The same goes for organized outdoor activities, which can be booked solid in peak season. If you’ve got limited time, book ahead.

Mount Taranaki, New Zealand

8. Get covered

Getting decent travel insurance for a trip to New Zealand is essential. The country is one big outdoor playground and you might find yourself being more adventurous than you imagine back home.

While thrill-seekers are probably aware that bungee jumping from Kawarau Bridge, sky diving over Lake Taupo and whitewater rafting on the Shotover aren’t covered by standard policies, travellers often don’t realise that other “hazardous activities” could include trekking, canoeing and sailing.

Check the small print and compare individual policies carefully – it’s worth printing out the exclusions to keep with you on your trip.

9. It’s all about Wellington, not Auckland

Not everyone is in the know about Wellington, the windy city nestled against the waterfront and surrounded by rolling hills.

New Zealand’s capital deserves more of your time than a few photographs taken in Hobbiton Woods and the Gardens of Isengard (Welly takes its “Middle-of-Middle-Earth” label very seriously).

Before making the short hop across the Cook Strait to the south island, savour the cultural vibe and the craft beers, food trucks and flat whites on and around Cuba Street. And don’t miss the striking Te Papa: Museum of New Zealand.

10. Travel light

Remember: a small bag means you can’t over pack. Choose quality lightweight clothing that folds up small and is quick drying – and invest in a good quality GORE-TEX jacket.

Don’t forget you can buy cheap toiletries there and that after a few weeks on the road you’ll find yourself making do with just a bar of soap.

Choosing a tiny one-man tent means you can hop off the bus and hike to backcountry campsites. Travelling light means freedom.

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

Europe offers more architecture, wine, music, fashion, theatre and gastronomy per square kilometre than any other continent. It boasts more than 700 million people, in excess of 450 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and more renowned paintings than you can point your camera at. This means heading off the main routes will still land you waist-deep in cultural treasures.

Whether you’re dreaming of climbing a Swiss Alp, soaking your toes in the Adriatic or renting a surfboard in Portugal, here are 30 ideas to inspire your trip…

1. Explore Sarajevo, Bosnia–Herzegovina

With its spiky minarets, grilled kebabs and the all-pervasive aroma of ground coffee, many travellers see this city as a Slavic mini-Istanbul.

2. Take a bath in Turkey

Nothing scrapes off the travel grime quite like a trip to a hammam. These enormous marble steam rooms, often fitted with hot baths, showers and cooling-down chambers, can be found all over the country.

3. Climb the cliff-top monasteries of Metéora, Greece

James Bond climbed the walls to one of these monasteries using only his shoelaces in For Your Eyes Only, but it was a favourite spot among travellers long before that.

Metéora, GreecePixabay/CC0

4. Row down the Danube, Hungary

Rowing and kayaking are both possible on the Danube. In Budapest, you can rent boats, kayaks or canoes on Margaret Island or along the Romai River Bank.

5. Sip an espresso in Tirana, Albania

Albania’s colourful capital, a buzzing city with a mishmash of garishly painted buildings, traditional restaurants and trendy bars is better for strolling than sightseeing – but there’s plenty to keep you occupied.

6. Admire Kotor, Montenegro

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Kotor is Montenegro’s only major tourist spot, with tiled roofs and a clear Venetian tilt to its architecture. This is not a sunbathing destination, but there’s plenty to keep you busy.

Montenegro, Bay of Kotor, view from the Ladder of Cattaro road

7. Have a night out in Belgrade, Serbia

Explore the nightlife and café culture of Serbia’s hedonistic, hectic capital – at its best in spring and summer when all ages throng the streets at all hours.

8. See the northern lights, Norway

You don’t need to head up to Hammerfest as Bill Bryson did in his book Neither Here Nor There; this celestial show can be viewed across the country (October, February and March are ideal, but the rest of winter is also good).

9. Cycle across the Netherlands

You can easily rent a bike and find your way around Amsterdam, but there’s really no reason to stop there. Dedicated signed trails lead you from town to town.

Bike, AmsterdamPixabay/CC0

10. Get a sense of history in Kraków, Poland

This southern city emerged from World War II relatively unscathed, making it one of UNESCO’s 12 greatest historic cities in the world and an architectural treasure trove. It may look like a history lesson, but the city is very much alive and buzzing.

11. Spend a weekend in Venice, Italy

Venice is sinking (possibly under the weight of all the tourists), and there’s a chance the water may be knee-deep in St Mark’s Square by the time you visit. But go now and stroll around the city when the crowds are at their smallest (off season, or at sunrise), and it’s sure to be every bit as magical as you’d imagined.

12. Go wine tasting in Slovenia

Slovenia has been making wine since the time of the Romans, so it’s not surprising that they figured out how to do it well over the years. There are 14 distinct wine-growing regions to explore here.

Slovenia, vineyardsPixabay/CC0

13. Soak up the sun in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Situated near the southern border with Serbia, this 1300-year-old architectural city gem has been lovingly rebuilt, stone by stone, since the intense shelling in 1991, and is looking better than ever.

14. Discover Mozart’s Salzburg, Austria

This famous border town is not only worth a visit to pay homage to the man, but also has churches so cute you want to pinch them, plus plenty of art, pretty city squares and chocolate galore.

15. See the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Resting majestically atop an enormous citadel in the centre of Granada, the Alhambra is a visual overload. The structure’s Moorish columns and domes and light-reflecting water basins inspire even the weariest traveller.

View of Alhambra and Sierra Nevada from Mirador de San Nicolas Granada, Granada Province, Andalucia

16. Be wowed by Bruges, Belgium

The most popular tourist attraction in Belgium is this entire town, the best-preserved medieval city in Europe. On some streets you feel as if you’re wandering through a museum’s thirteenth-century installation.

17. Be awed by the Palace of Versailles, France

Louis XIV certainly knew how to live. There’s the grand entrance, endless gardens that require an army of pruners, and a hall with more mirrors than a Las Vegas magic act. It’s good to be king.

18. Bathe on the Black Sea Riviera, Bulgaria

Arguably Bulgaria’s greatest asset, the beaches of the Black Sea rightfully fill up during the summer holidays. The best ones can be found northeast of Varna.

Bulgaria, Sinemorets, people on narrow beach on lush Black Sea coast

19. Stroll Prague’s Staromestske namesti, Czech Republic

You can probably count on one hand the number of people who’ve visited Prague, and never seen the Old Town square. This 17,000-square-meter centerpiece is the heart of the city, and has been since the tenth century.

20. Be a big kid at Legoland, Denmark

The little plastic snap-together blocks have got a good deal more sophisticated than they once were, but their simplicity is still their strength, and a visit to their Danish birthplace should cap off any lingering childhood fantasies about an entire Lilliputian Lego city.

21. Wander Tallinn’s Old Town, Estonia

Often compared to Prague, Estonia’s capital is an up-and-comer on the budget travel scene, as is its burgeoning nightlife. Check out the area round Toompea Hill, where the aristocracy and clergy once lived.

Estonia, Tallinn from aerial view, showing red rooftops, Niguliste Church tower and spire, Orthodox Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky and Dome Church spire

22. Soak in Baden-Baden, Germany

Germany’s most famous spa lies in the heart of the Black Forest. Its famed curative mineral waters bubble up from thermal springs at temperatures over 68°C.

23. Surf Portugal’s Atlantic coast

Portugal’s waves aren’t in the same league as Hawaii’s, but there are enough breakers around the country to keep most beginner and intermediate surfers happy.

24. See a play at Shakespeare’s Globe, England

A reconstruction of the original open-air playhouse, the Globe Theatre in London is Shakespeare’s backyard. The season runs from April to October.

Gate outside Shakespeare's Globe, London

25. Visit the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, Ireland

Guinness may look like discarded brake fluid, but this thick stout with a scientifically measured head of foam is worshipped like a minor deity. And the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is the high altar.

26. Make a beeline for Bratislava, Slovakia

Low-key charm, a museum of wine, and pavement cafés aplenty can all be found in the Old Town centre of Bratislava, Slovakia’s “little big city“.

27. Visit Bran Castle, Romania

Also known as “Dracula’s Castle”, this popular castle actually has no ties to Vlad Tepeş, the medieval prince associated with the vampire extraordinaire, but none of this seems to deter visitors from coming.

Bran Castle, Bran, Transylvania, Romania

28. Hike Sarek National Park, Sweden

The glaciers, peaks, valleys and lakes of this remote northern park cover 2000 square kilometres. Note that the trails are demanding and best suited for advanced hikers.

29. Ski in Zermatt, Switzerland

This glam skiing and mountaineering resort is tied to the fame of perhaps the most visually stunning Alp: the Matterhorn (4478m).

30. Shop in Helsinki’s Stockmann Department Store, Finland

You can’t miss it in Helsinki: it’s one of Europe’s largest department stores, selling everything you need and even more that you don’t.

Plan more of your first trip to Europe with The Rough Guide to First-Time Europe

Backpacking Australia will almost certainly exceed your expectations. It’s not just that the places you’ll see will be more stunning than you had imagined – from the open, red-tinged landscapes and rich rainforests inland to the immaculate, golden shores. It’s that the country is geared up for good times, whether it’s getting active outdoors in that almost endless sunshine, enjoying the exceptional café culture or getting swept up by the atmosphere at a sporting event.

Here are 12 useful things to know before your first trip.

1. Plan a rough itinerary

Spontaneity is one of the best things about backpacking, but in Australia it pays to have at least a rough itinerary, as it’s easy to underestimate how long it takes to get around this vast country. Spending longer than planned pottering around South Australia’s wine country – fun though it is – might mean you have to sacrifice that eagerly awaited trip to extraordinary Uluru or exploring the billabongs of Kakudu.

Three weeks is the absolute minimum to “do” the East Coast by land: Sydney to Cairns via the broad beaches of Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, self-driving the length of Fraser Island (the largest sand island in the world), sailing the gorgeous Whitsundays, diving at the Great Barrier Reef and trekking in Daintree, the oldest tropical rainforest on earth. So to see the rest of Australia, you’ll need to fly or have much more time.

melbourne-966466_1920Pixabay / CC0

2. Plan where to go when

At any time of year, Australia is a great place to visit but it can get unbelievably hot, as well as surprisingly chilly and rainy, depending on where you go. Avoid travelling north during the “build-up” – the unbearably sticky weeks before the wet season rains bring cooler temperatures (November–March).

It’s far better to spend time in the more temperate south during these months, for example driving the Great Ocean Road or on a hiking trip in the Blue Mountains. The winter is generally a lot quieter so it’s a lovely time to see the country.

3. Pick accommodation to suit your needs

For solo travellers, Australia is a breeze. Staying in hostels is the best way to meet people, and  staff can help you orientate yourself and make travel arrangements, while other backpackers are an invaluable source of information.

Whilst not to everyone’s taste, “party hostels” provide social events to break the ice, but you can also find rural retreats, city hipster hangouts, and most have private rooms if you’re a couple or dorms don’t suit.

Airbnb is a popular alternative while campsites are usually well-equipped with kitchens, toilets and the ubiquitous barbecue.

Camping by water, nighttime, starsPixabayCC0

4. Choose transport to suit your needs

Without doubt the easiest way to cover the great distances around Oz is to fly, but travelling by bus allows you to see more and is cheaper. Gaze out of the window on a long journey and be mesmerised by the changing landscape: the rust-coloured bush where kangaroos bound alongside, swaying grasslands, blue-tinged mountains, and occasional tiny settlements flashing past.

Greyhound buses offer hop-on hop-off travel passes, and the Oz Experience – the party backpacker equivalent – provides excursions along the way. If you want more freedom, hire a car or camper van, pack a tent or bivvy bag and camp out under the stars.

5. Be savvy about safety

Throughout Australia, be prepared for summer heat waves when forest fires are a frequent danger. The arid interior is a hostile environment so take the necessary precautions if you plan to drive – breaking down here is no joke. Like in big cities anywhere in the world, be streetwise – watch your valuables and let family and friends know where you are going.

6. Don’t be spooked by dangerous animals

Australia has more than its fair share of scary critters but don’t get paranoid – the risks are actually very low: more people die each year from bee stings than from encounters with snakes, sharks, dingoes, saltwater crocodiles or jellyfish.

Spider bites are rarely fatal thanks to the availability of anti-venom. That said, do take simple precautions: redback spiders hide in sheltered places so always check under toilet seats, especially in outside lavatories.

Reduce the risk of encountering a shark by swimming between the flags on patrolled beaches, and don’t swim in estuaries, rivers or mangroves where saltwater crocodiles like to hang out. When hiking in the bush, wear protective footwear to avoid snake bites.

Nambung National Park, AustraliaPixabayCC0

7. Go west

Most visitors to Australia follow the well-trodden path up the East Coast. While it’s undoubtedly a highlight, the Ningaloo Reef on the remote West Coast is an equally spectacular and, unlike at the Great Barrier Reef, it comes right into the shore.

At Coral Bay, you can wade out through turquoise water to the reef or take a glass-bottomed boat and watch an exhilarating frenzy of fish at feeding time. When you’re done snorkelling or diving, see the reef from a biplane or speed on quad bikes along a glimmering white beach.

Head inland to spend the night at an isolated sheep station, cooking over a campfire as the sun sets over the never-ending ochre landscape.

8. Don’t dismiss anywhere

You can have a good time in the most unlikely places: for example, a stopover at a one-horse town with nothing but a pub and a few bungalows may turn out to be the venue for one of the most surprisingly good nights of your trip. The town probably won’t make it into the guidebooks but finding adventure where you least expect it is one of the best things about backpacking in Australia.

9. Learn the lingo

Contrary to expectation, it’s unlikely you’ll hear anyone utter the words “fair dinkum” or “g’day Sheila”. However, there are lots of slang words that will flummox first-time visitors initially. You’ll wear your sunnies (sunglasses), boardies (board shorts) and thongs (flip flops) to the beach and bring an esky (ice cooler) for your barbie (barbecue).

Ordering a beer is one of the hardest linguistic challenges: in most states, a schooner is a large 450ml glass, except in Victoria and Queensland where it’s a pint. The smaller beer glass is called a pot in Victoria and Queensland; a middy in New South Wales and Western Australia; or a handle in the Northern Territory. Confused? Just ask for a stubby (375ml bottled beer), which is the same word everywhere.

Australia, Melbourne, beach huts

10. Look for freebies

Fortunately, you don’t always have to pay to go swimming, surfing, snorkelling or walking. In all the major cities, you can visit the botanic gardens and many museums and galleries for free. There’s no fee to take a tour of Parliament in Canberra or ride Melbourne’s historic City Circle Tram. Festivals around the country offer some free events; one of the most memorable is the Sydney Mardi Gras.

11. Work to pay your way

If staying for a while, find out if you are eligible for a working holiday visa at Australia.gov.au. Depending on the type of visa, you could do your usual type of work or see it as a chance to try out something completely different. If you normally work in an office job, why not try out working on a farm or fruit picking?

If you want to do bar or barista work, in most states you’ll need to obtain an RSA certificate, regardless of whether you have experience. If you’re planning to work in a city, bear the seasons in mind. For example, in Sydney, the peak tourist season is December to February so this can be the hardest time to find work, as businesses are quiet during the summer holidays.

There’s information about working in Australia on the Travellers’ Contact Point website (including tips on finding work, tax and opening a bank account).

12. Don’t hold back

Something happens to people when they travel around Australia. Normally adrenaline-shy folk find themselves bungee-jumping or throwing themselves out of planes as if it’s completely normal. The active, outdoors approach to life is infectious and you’ll probably want to make the most of each day.

So don’t stop yourself: do all the things that excite you – whether abseiling at Tasmania’s Gordon Dam or dancing all afternoon at a boat party in Sydney Harbour – and see as much of this amazing country as you possibly can.

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

Know someone who loves to travel? Perhaps you’re after something special for the loved one in your life. Whether it’s a birthday, the festive season or you’re just feeling generous, here’s our pick of the top gifts for travellers.

GoPro HERO4 Silver

GoPros are quickly becoming an essential in many traveller’s backpacks and this model is no different. The Hero4 has so many features packed into its tiny, ultra-portable body, including image quality of 12mp, incredible 1080p HD video, an after dark setting and time lapse mode. Plus, Bluetooth and wi-fi for instant sharing and editing. The touch display makes this genius piece of kit is even more user friendly and ready to go wherever you journey takes you.

GoPro Hero4

Shure sound isolating earphones

We’ve all been on that flight where the baby just won’t stop crying. And there’s nothing worse than a hotel with paper-thin walls. That’s where sound isolating earphones come into play. These earphones block out 90% of background noise, so you are free to concentrate on your in-flight entertainment. With a reinforced cable and detachable earbuds these are the perfect, durable earphones for any intrepid traveller.

The ultimate packing checklist

It’s happened to the best of us: you’ve packed your bag, raced off to the airport, and arrived in your next destination to find you’ve forgotten your pants. So you need a little help next time? This 60-sheet pad has a list of everything you should take for any type of trip, perfect for those last-minute packing marathons. You can even list the quantity of individual pieces of clothing, so no need to lay it all out before it goes in the bag.

Knock Knock Pack This pad

Bluesmart suitcase

A a suitcase you will want to brag about, this cabin-sized bag can be controlled with your phone. Why? you ask. It features tons of tech, including location tracking, a digital lock, distance alerts and built in scales. But don’t worry if your phone runs out of charge, you can fully replenish the battery up to six times via the case’s USB port – now that really is a smart suitcase.

SurgeCube surge protector

It’s not the most exciting travel gadget of all, but it’s practical as hell and may well save your beloved smartphone or tablet from combustion. The device, with its two USB ports, will keep your electronics protected from electricity surges, spikes and generally dodgy sockets. It can also charge 40% faster than a normal USB port, so no more long waits for your phone to be fully charged again. SurgeCube also give a £10,000 Equipment Warranty away with each protector just in case anything does get damaged.

Cork globe

Whether you want to keep track of all your past trips, or you’re planning a round-the-world adventure, this small cork globe is a great addition to any traveller’s desk. You can pin your favourite pictures to their location, or map out your next trip.

Cork Globe with Rough Guides

Instax Share mobile printer

These days all your travel photos probably end up online for you to admire from anywhere in the world, but if you’re feeling a little retro, this is the gadget for you. Print any of your smartphone snaps on the go, whether it’s to send back home, to give to friends you meet around the globe or to add to your travel journal, via the Instax Share app. You can add different filters and text before printing off a high quality credit card sized image.

Tortuga travel backpack

Everyone needs a good backpack when travelling, but what if you’re only taking cabin baggage? The Tortuga cabin-sized backpack is the ultimate carry on bag, combining convenience and organisation. It’s front-loading, with mesh pockets and a 17inch padded laptop compartment.
Tortuga backpack

Jackery Mini charger

Sometimes we all need a little extra charge – especially when smartphones are notoriously quick to drain in battery. With a 3200mAh rechargeable power capacity this lipstick size portable charger packs a punch. The Jackery Mini is ultra compact, has an extremely fast charge and is available in four different colours. It’s compatible with smartphones, GoPros and even Google Glass.

Water-to-go bottle

Staying hydrated while travelling is important – especially as it helps with that pesky jet lag. Water-to-Go bottles have a clever 3-in-1 filter, which eliminates over 99.9% of bacteria – meaning you can drink safely from any non-salt water source. Each filter lasts around two months (or for 130 litres) and is easily replaceable. No more will you be buying and wasting hundreds of plastic bottles along your journey – saving the planet and saving cash, that’s a bottle we can get on board with.

A Rough Guide!

Whether you want to inspire someone’s next trip with a country or city guide, help them plan a short weekend with a pocket guide, or give them a coffee-table title to pore over for years to come, there’s nothing like the gift of the printed word. Buying for someone creative? Check out Colour the World.

Colour_the_World_Front_Cover_RGB-(1)

Heading to the Portuguese capital this year? Lisbon’s accommodation scene has exploded in recent years, so there is no shortage of places to stay, from historic buildings and palaces to excellent independent hostels.

pocket rough guide lisbon coverThere are real bargains to be had in the off-season, though between June and September, prices are at their highest so book ahead to avoid disappointment.

Whether you want rich history or shops galore, these are the best areas to stay in Lisbon according to our expert and latest Pocket Rough Guide to Lisbon.

Best for the historic centre: Baixa and Chiado

Lisbon’s Baixa, or ‘downtown’, is an appealing oblong of handsome buildings flanked by the squares of Rossio, Figueira and the grand riverfront Praça do Comércio. Its an impressive example of late eighteenth-century town planning in which many of its traditional shops survive. Most of its banks and offices have now been converted into hotels and guesthouses: a plethora of them have opened up in the last couple of years, so wherever you stay, you’ll be right in the thick of it. Consider adjacent Chiado, too, the chic shopping district that’s home to the famous café A Brasileira.

Cash-strapped: Florescente
Feeling flush: Hotel do Chiado

Best for romance: Alfama

The city’s oldest quarter is a fascinating warren of steep, winding streets that thread their way past densely packed houses where life carries on much as it has for centuries. Heading uphill towards the castle, you’ll get some of the best views Lisbon has to offer, across the terracotta roof tiles and the cruise ships that anchor on the broad Tagus estuary. Fado restaurants and souvenir shops are moving in, but this is still an alluring old-world village Lisbon where you can spend all day exploring.

Cash-strapped: The Keep
Feeling flush: Memmo Alfama

Alfama, LisbonRaphaël Chekroun/Flickr

Best for designer shopping: Avenida da Liberdade

The wide, palm-lined Avenida da Liberdade is a mile-long strip of Portugal’s most expensive real estate, where embassies and consulates sit above top glitzy designer shops. Gently sloping downhill from the spaces of the centre’s main park, Parque Eduardo VII, to the central Baixa, the Avenida is also a short walk from most of Lisbon’s attractions.

Cash-strapped: Dom Carlos Parque
Feeling flush: Heritage Avenida

Best for nightlife: Bairro Alto

Spread out across a hill above the old town, the ‘high district’ has long been the city’s bohemian quarter. Its grid of densely packed streets are an intriguing medley of boutiques, bars, restaurants and graffittied houses. Relatively quiet by day, the district comes to life after midnight when on warm summer nights, it gives the impression there’s a permanent street party taking place until the small hours. This is not the place to come for a quiet night, but ideal if you want some serious nightlife. Stay on the fringes of the central grid to be clear of the noisiest streets.

Cash-strapped: The Independente
Feeling flush: Hotel Bairro Alto

Lisbon nightlifedamon jah/Flickr

Best for hip and happening: Cais do Sodré

The once seedy Cais do Sodré has had a makeover, and the bars and clubs that once attracted sailors and street walkers now attract the hip and trendy. There’s an appealing riverfont promenade, tasteful warehouse conversions and the Mercado da Ribeira, the main market, much of it now given over to food stalls serving top cuisine. Cais do Sodré also has plenty of fashionable restaurants and bars, but many of its budget establishments remain; it hasn’t quite thrown off the earthiness that is part of its appeal.

Cash-strapped: Oasis Hostel
Feeling flush: LX Boutique

Best for sophisticates: Lapa and Madragoa

West of the centre, the well-heeled districts of Lapa and Madragoa contain some of the city’s finest mansions and embassies, many with dazzling views over the Tagus. This is a quieter, more residential side to Lisbon, yet you’re only a short tram or bus ride from the city centre one way and the historic sites of Belém the other. This is also where you’ll find the splendid Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, an art gallery featuring the likes of Hieronymus Bosch, Dürer, Rodin and Cranach.

Cash-strapped: Fado Bed and Breakfast
Feeling flush: Olissippo Lapa Palace

Lisbon at sunsetPixabay/CCO

Best for culture: Belém

In 1498, Vasco da Gama set sail from Belém to open up trade routes to India, a feat which established Portugal as one of the world’s superpowers. To give thanks, the king built the sumptuous Jerónimos monastery, the centrepiece of a raft of impressive monuments and museums in this historic suburb west of the centre. These include the Torre de Belém tower, the impressive Maritime Museum and the unmissable Berardo Collection, one of Europe’s top modern art galleries.

Cash-strapped: Casa Amarela
Feeling flush: Altis Belem

Best for early morning flights: Parque das Nações

Close to the airport and a short metro ride from the centre, the Parque das Nações was built for Lisbon’s Expo 98. It’s a futuristic new town of modern apartments and gardens flanking various tourist attractions, including a casino, science museum and its most famous site, the Oceanarium, one of the largest in Europe. You’ll also find a range of international restaurants, bars, concert venues and the giant Vasco da Gama Shopping Centre. All of this faces out onto the Tagus, here crossed by Europe’s longest bridge, the 17km-long Ponte Vasco da Gama.

Cash-strapped: Pousada de Juventude Parque das Nações
Feeling flush: Myriad by Sana

Ponte Vasco da GamaFotografo HDR/Flickr

This feature contains affiliate links; you can find out more about why we’ve partnered with booking.com here. All recommendations are editorially independent and taken from our latest Pocket Rough Guide to Lisbon. Header image via Valerio Roman/Flickr.

One of America’s most iconic cities, San Francisco sits poised on the 47-square-mile fingertip of a peninsula at the western edge of America.

The city has much to gloat about, from the rugged coastline and fog-capped hills to its distinct neighbourhoods, by turn quaint or hip, lined by rows of preserved Victorian houses or dotted with chic clubs in converted warehouses.

The Rough Guide to San Francisco and the Bay AreaDepending on what you’ve got planned for your visit, certain parts of the city may be a better base than others. To help you decide, we’ve put together an area by area guide on where to stay in San Francisco, taken from the latest Rough Guide.

Note that if you’re looking for an out of season deal, March and November are good months for room availability and potentially agreeable weather.

Downtown

Dense with history and humanity, Downtown San Francisco comprises several vibrantly distinct neighbourhoods jammed together between the waterfront and the hills.

At the heart sits Union Square, one of San Francisco’s liveliest urban spaces, the city’s main hotel and shopping district, and the junction of its major transportation lines (including cable cars). Along the waterfront stands the elegant Embarcadero, anchored by the Ferry Building and its immensely popular marketplace, which rims San Francisco’s stalwart Financial District.

Union Square can’t be beat for its variety of options and central location, while a few hotels near the Embarcadero offer a mix of both luxury and Bay views.

For art-lovers: Hotel des Arts. This buzzy spot is a hybrid art gallery and hotel, and many rooms are custom-decorated by local artists. A fun, bargain place to stay.

For classic luxury: Hotel Union Square. One of the top Art Deco hotels Downtown, this boutique destination features brick walls, mosaics galore and an impeccable overall design; cable cars rattle by directly outside its main entrance.

San Francisco, Downtown

North Beach and the hills

Inland North Beach was named when the area sat along San Francisco’s original northern waterfront, and is best known as home to the city’s Italian community. In recent years its original blue-collar character has been largely eroded by gentrification, but it retains an easy, worn-in feeling, and its sloping residential streets and vibrant main drags are ideal for aimless wandering.

Primarily residential Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill, meanwhile, boast beautiful old homes, as well as hidden gardens tucked away down pathways off steep hillside streets. To the south of Russian Hill lies pristine, yet historically snooty Nob Hill.

For a B&B style hotel: Washington Square Inn. 1660 Stockton St at Filbert, Overlooking Washington Square this hotel has large and airy rooms with a European flavour – some boast bay windows.

For big budgets: The Fairmont. The most famous of Nob Hill’s landmark hotels, this showy palace offers fantastic views despite being relatively low-rise for the neighbourhood.

San FranciscoPixabay / CC0

The Northern Waterfront and Pacific Heights

From east to west, San Francisco’s Northern Waterfront begins with crass commercialism, passes through areas of vast wealth, and ends at the city’s most famous landmark.

This is an area that almost every visitor at least drops into. Its stunning vistas, opulent (if homogenous) neighbourhoods and even the tourist schlock seem to hold something for everyone.

Overpriced and unapologetically tacky, Fisherman’s Wharf is convenient for trips to Alcatraz and Angel Island. Things take a turn for the affluent in the Marina and Cow Hollow neighbourhoods, where yacht clubs and boutiques dominate the scene. Perched on the tall hill above stands stately, exclusive Pacific heights, home to much of San Francisco’s oldest money, and some of its new wealth as well.

For budget cool: Hotel del Sol. An offbeat, updated motor lodge with a tropical theme all the way down to its small, but inviting outdoor swimming pool (a San Francisco rarity).

For a boutique B&B: Queen Anne Hotel. Gloriously restored Victorian building enjoying its second life with gold-accented Rococo furniture and bunches of silk flowers.

Pier 39, San FranciscoPixabay / CC0

South of Market and the Tenderloin

The idea of San Francisco as a Victorian-lined utopia holds fast until you wander into the areas to the west and south of Downtown.

After languishing for decades as a warehouse wasteland, South of Market took an upswing in the mid-1990s, when its low rents attracted first art, music and tech communities. In the economic ebb and flow since, the neighbourhood has alternately languished and prospered. The adjoining Tenderloin and Civic Center districts reveal harsher realities, with heavy drug traffic and prostitution in evidence, along with a shocking number of homeless people.

If you’re on a particularly tight budget, but don’t wish to stay in a hostel, these areas are your best option, with some trendier accommodation in South of Market. Be aware, however, that the neighbourhoods can sometimes be dodgy (even during daytime), and the Tenderloin in particular has its share of seedy hotels.

For film fans: Hotel Vertigo. Famous as the place where Alfred Hitchcock filmed the dramatic stairway scenes in Vertigo, this swanky spot boasts a mix of classic French style and modern urban sophistication.

For boutique luxury: Hotel Vitale. Steps from the ferry building, this hotel boasts elegant contemporary rooms (many with bay views) and an on-site spa with rooftop soaking tubs.

San Francisco, Market Street

Pixabay / CC0

The Mission and the Castro

Together, the Mission and the Castro make up the beating heart of San Francisco, and here more than anywhere else in the city, a number of cultures exist far outside the boundaries of mainstream America.

These compelling neighbourhoods are filled with galleries, murals, one-of-a-kind local shops, vibrant restaurants and thriving nightlife. The Mission is the centre of San Francisco’s largely working-class Latino community, while the Castro is the Bay Area’s – and some would say America’s – epicentre of gay culture.

Many B&Bs here are housed in historic buildings, but the sacrifice of a private bathroom for the charms of a home-cooked breakfast can be worthwhile.

For a B&B with a view: Inn San Francisco. Superb, sprawling B&B set in two adjoining historic Victorians with stunning views across town from the smokers’ terrace on the roof.

Alamo Square, San Francisco

Pixabay / CC0

Haight-Ashbury and west of Civic Center

The districts between Civic Center and Golden Gate Park are perhaps the city’s most racially and economically diverse; once grubby and crime-ridden, they now make up an eclectic patchwork.

Haight-Ashbury, once the centre of the hippie movement, has adopted its peace-and-love past as a de facto marketing campaign, but is still worth visiting. If you’re really looking to connect with modern-day counterculture, however, you’re better off in the Lower Haight, immediately to the east.

Elswhere, the affluent nook of sleepy Cole Valley is a pleasant diversion, and Alamo Square is certainly worth a stop, where six restored Victorian houses and the Downtown skyline provide one of San Francisco’s most popular photo opportunities.

North and west of Alamo Square, is the Fillmore, once home to some of the city’s most notorious housing projects and still economically deprived. Grafted onto its eastern edge is Japantown, an awkwardly artificial development but the heart of the city’s Japanese community.

For a taste of Japan: Hotel Kabuki. The Kabuki strikes a sophisticated, streamlined look in architecturally drab Japantown, with tea service rituals and workshops on Japanese traditions.

For park views: Stanyan Park Hotel. Overlooking Golden Gate Park, this small hotel has 35 sumptuous rooms that are incongruous in its countercultural neighbourhood, busily decorated in country florals with heavy drapes and junior four-poster beds.

Explore more of San Francisco with the Rough Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area, the Pocket Rough Guide to San Francisco or the Rough Guide to the USA.

This feature contains affiliate links; you can find out more about why we’ve partnered with booking.com here. All recommendations are editorially independent and taken from the Rough Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area. 

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