Think of The Gambia and sun, sea and sand package holidays might spring to mind, but visitors are starting to explore beyond the beaches. Lynn Houghton tells us eight of the best ways to get off the beaten track.

The tiny West African country of The Gambia is dissected by its namesake, the River Gambia. Much of the landscape is dominated by the river and its tributaries, and beyond the coast you’ll find enormous swathes of lesser-explored mangrove forest, deserted beaches and ‘up country’ adventures. If you’re thinking of eschewing the popular Atlantic Coast beach resorts, here are eight ideas for experiencing a more authentic side of The Gambia, taking in the country’s natural beauty and biodiversity.

Discover the UNESCO-listed Wassu stone circles

About a five-hour drive from Banjul on the north bank of the River Gambia is the pre-historic sacred UNESCO site of the Wassu stone circles. The laterite stones, a rich deep mahogany colour, compare in age with Stonehenge in England, and are thought to have a religious purpose, marking burials here for 1500 years. The museum has some interesting information but folklore is much more exciting: talk to the Stone Man, the site’s erstwhile caretaker. He says you can see lights shining from behind the stones at night – a common occurrence according to the superstitious locals.

See foraging chimps at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre

Swinging from the treetops and squabbling with the baboons, West African Chimps are relishing their environment at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre in the River Gambia National Park. They roam free on the Baboon Islands in the middle of the river, while rare red colobus monkeys congregate on the mainland. The centre was started by Leslie Brewer-Marsden in 1979: the first chimps brought here were rescuées and mistreated pets, and there are now 107 completely wild chimpanzees that thrive on these three islands. From Thursday through Sunday, visitors can follow behind a feeding boat to see the chimps in their natural habitat as they come to the riverside to grab a meal.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Explore lush mangroves in the Matasuku Forest

Centuries of legend surround the ancient Matasuku Forest, a nearly pristine area of mangrove covering 17.5 square kilometres along a tributary named Mandinka Bolong. From time immemorial, the forest was a no-go area and thought to be inhabited by demons and dragons. A Mali King, along with his troops, once managed to make the forest his stronghold but he was ousted by a local tribe; according to folklore, the king’s head, throne and crown are buried somewhere on the land. Today, things are more peaceful. The area has been developed into a sustainable tourism project, the Matasuku Cultural Forest, in partnership with the Gambian government and now includes lodges and a base camp with an arts and crafts market run by local Kembujeh villagers.

Spot rare birds at Baobolong Wetland Reserve

As the dawn mist clears and the morning sun starts to rise, there is possibly no better place in West Africa for birdlife than the Baobolong Nature Reserve. Over 500 species of birds are attracted to the River Gambia in all their feathered glory. Take a traditional boat from Tendaba Lodge, a mere seven kilometres away on the south side of the river, to spot rare African Fin Foot or Fish Eagles.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Float down the River Gambia

Going canoeing along one of the River Gambia’s creeks in a traditional fishing boat or dugout, called a pirogue, is wonderful way to cool off when temperatures soar. Rentals are available from Lamin Lodge, a wooden structure built on stilts over the water, or you can take a full-day trip in a larger motorised boat to explore Kunta Kinteh Island and enjoy a spot of fishing.

Visit traditional fishing villages

To experience local life on the coast, visit the vibrant, colourful coastal fishing market of Tanji in the Kombo region or travel further south to the more authentic fishing village of Gunjur. The market is at its most frenetic at the crack of dawn, when the traditional fishing boats come to shore with their catch. Though fishermen work at a feverish pace, women are equally busy hauling the fish from the boats into large baskets balanced on their heads. Take a wander along the shore and see other workers taking gutting and scaling the fish ready for sale; anyone can purchase a fresh seafood breakfast for a just few Dalasi.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Check out the street art scene

Art project Wide Open Walls has brought street artists from all over the world to adorn the walls of Galloya village with sophisticated graffiti art. Some of the work is representational, while some is wholly avant-garde, but all the murals are distinctive. The project is the brainchild of Lawrence Williams, and has even inspired the village children to take up making art. Lawrence and Gambian artist, Njogu, work as a pair and have named themselves the ‘Bush Dwellers’. Many street artists are publicity shy and prefer to be known by a name they choose for themselves that reflects their work; artistic duo Neil and Hadley from the UK are ‘Best Ever’, for example, while Brazilian artist Rimon Guimarães has named himself ‘RIM’.

…finally, for the adventurous

Fancy a quicker way of getting across the River Gambia than the vehicle and pedestrian ferry from Banjul, where a three-hour wait is common? Simply wander over to Terminal Road. Once there, young men carry patrons at full pelt on their shoulders down to the beach and into the water to then toss them into an enormous fishing boat. This crossing takes about half an hour and the process is repeated, in reverse, on the other side. The experience probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s health and safety list, but should be tried at least once.

The Gambia Experience offers a variety of travel options and flights to The Gambia including stays at Mandina River Lodge on a B&B basis. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

The Sari, India

Ostensibly the simplest item of clothing possible – a single length of fabric, up to nine metres long – the sari is also one of the world’s most versatile and stylish garments, which can be draped in dozens of different ways. The sari spans all of Indian society, from simple cotton versions that are woven in the street throughout the villages of India to extremely glamorous contemporary styles that grace the catwalk during India Fashion Week.

Kilts, Scotland

From Braveheart to Strictly Come Dancing, the kilt has been used to represent all things Scottish, anachronistically so in the case of Mel Gibson’s costume as William Wallace. However, visit any Scottish highland games, and you’ll see that kilt-wearing traditions are alive and well, from the immaculately dressed competitive dancers to the pipe players in formal attire and, most impressively of all, the participants in the "heavy events" – for you cannot toss a caber properly unless wearing a kilt.

Tracht, Southern Germany and Austria

Tracht – that’s lederhosen for men and dirndls for women – is the traditional dress across southern Germany and Austria. There are many variations on the basic styles depending on the area and on fashion, from the pom-pom hats of the Black Forest (bollenhut) to thoroughly modern versions: there’s nothing quite like a tight pair of leather shorts worn at a Pride festival to put a contemporary twist on those Bavarian lederhosen.

Balinese temple dress, Indonesia

Anyone visiting a Balinese temple should at least wear two basic elements of Balinese traditional dress, a sash (selendang) and a sarong-style skirt known as a kain. However, the full Balinese outfit for women, which also includes the kebaya blouse, is an elaborate ensemble worn for temple festivals that shows off Bali’s gorgeous textiles, such as ikat weaving and batik, to the full.

Maasai beadwork, Kenya

One of the smaller ethnic groups in Kenya, but one of the most recognisable, the Maasai’s reputation worldwide belies its size, no small part thanks to their stunning attire: brilliant red cloth, extraordinarily intricate beadwork and – for young men – long, ochre-dyed hair. The beadwork in particular contains much meaning, a bride’s collar being the pinnacle of Maasai craftsmanship.

Herero women of Namibia

The traditional dress of the Herero women in Namibia is an adaptation of Victorian dress, as worn by the German colonists they fought in a bloody conflict at the start of the twentieth century, and now retained as a proud part of Herero identity. The silhouette is distinctive: a full, floor-length skirt, fitted bodice with puffed sleeve, with a magnificent horn-shaped hat, the shape of cattle horns, completing the look.

Sámi clothing, Lapland

The northernmost reaches of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the Kola peninsula of northwest Russia, are home to the Sámi, who are among the oldest peoples in Europe. There are variations in costume throughout the region, though the main item is the kolt (or gákti in northern Sámi), a tunic or dress. The simple bright colours of blue, red, yellow and green always feature and reindeer skin and fur is used for belts, boots and gloves.

Gho, Bhutan

In Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom tucked between China and India, it’s obligatory for everyone to wear the national dress. For men this means the gho, a knee-length gown tied at the waist by a belt called a keram. For formal occasions a silk scarf, a kabney, is added to the ensemble, the colour of which depends on the wearer’s status. For the women, traditional dress is typically an ankle-length dress called a kira, and the equivalent scarf is called a rachus.

Bowler hats, Bolivia

Think bowler hats and the first person who springs to mind is an English city gent – Mr Banks from Mary Poppins perhaps. But in the markets of Le Paz in Bolivia you’ll see Aymara women, known as cholas, wearing hats that bear a striking resemblance to the classic bowler as part of their traditional outfits. It’s said that a consignment of hats were sold cheaply to local women in the 1920s when they were found to be too small for the European workers they were intended for, and so starting a fashion trend that endures.

Nagaland, northern India

Visit the northern Indian region of Nagaland for the Hornbill Festival in December and you’ll witness a sartorial treat. During the festival each of the tribes of the Nagaland show their finery, each tribe having its own magnificent style, and with a spectacular range of headdresses on display, incorporating feathers, cane, dyed goat fur and boar tusks. The region is also known for its crafts and weaving, including beautiful Naga shawls.

Conical hats, Vietnam

Vietnam is home to an extraordinary wealth of clothing traditions, with the most elaborate outfits found in the north, such as red brocades of the Flower Hmong people and the decorated headdresses of the Red Dao. However, the most recognisably Vietnamese item is the conical hat, or non la, an essential accessory throughout the country. The version available Hué, non bai tho, has lines of poetry written into the brim, only visible when you hold it up to the light.

Flamenco dresses, Andalucía, Spain

Traje de flamenco or traje de gitana are the flamboyant dresses that finish in a cascade of ruffles (volantes), which are synonymous with the flamenco dancers of southern Spain. Seville’s Feria de Abril is the best time to see them worn by local women. However, the ultimate flamenco dress is the bata de cola, the long-tailed version worn for the style of dance of the same name, an intricate and beautiful dance where the dancer controls the tail so that it swishes and flicks as if it has a life of its own.

The ten-gallon Stetson, Texas, USA

Yee ha! Enormous Stetson, boots…rhinestones? The southern cowboy’s work wear has been glammed up a bit, thanks to the stars of both kinds of music, but the hat remains a true American icon. John B. Stetson was in fact from Philadelphia, and he started his company there in 1865, but it’s always been a symbol of cowboy country, and in Texas the ten-gallon Stetson is the only style to be seen in.

Sardinian traditional dress, Italy

Closer to North Africa than mainland Italy, Sardinia’s mixed history is evident in its traditional dress, elements of which have strong Spanish and Moorish influences. Though each village has its own style, there are common features – a veil, bonnet or shawl, long pleated skirts and richly embroidered blouses. Some of the most spectacular are from the province of Nuoro.

Changing the Guard, Seoul, South Korea

Seoul is a frenetic, modern city, and its pop culture is taking over the world, but at its heart are a series of beautiful royal palaces such as Gyeongbokgung. Here they have revived the costumes and traditions of the Joseon dynasty’s Changing the Guard ceremony, which is re-enacted three times a day.

The keffiyeh, shemagh or ghutrah, the Middle East

The scarf headdress worn by men across the Middle East comes in many variation of colour, style and name. It’s known as shemagh in Jordan and the ghutrah in Saudi Arabia, where it is normally either white or red and white, and held in place by the agal, a black band. However, the Palestinian black-and-white keffiyeh is the most recognizable verson, having been appropriated worldwide both as a symbol of protest and a fashion item, most absurdly when Balenciaga produced one for their 2007 catwalk show.

Coiffe, Brittany, France

A coiffe is an intricate lace headdress worn as part of the folk costumes of Brittany, though now only seen for local festivals, or pardons. The most striking is the bigouden coiffe, from the area around Pont L’Abbé, a starched lace cylinder that rises to up to an astonishing 30–40cm tall.

Kimono, Japan

Meaning ‘the thing worn’, kimonos are the ultimate symbol of traditional Japanese culture. From the seventeenth century onwards they developed as the main item of dress for men and woman, and a means of expression for the individual wearer. They are still worn for special occasions, such as weddings, with modern adaptations making an appearance all over the world. The surface decoration is significant, with symbols such as the crane, for example, indicating good fortune and long life.

Menswear, Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Guatemala

Maya textiles are evident throughout the Guatemalan Highlands, nowhere more so than Todos Santos Cuchumatán, where local traditions are still widely observed. Mam is the first language, not Spanish, and the clothing for men in particular is brilliantly distinctive – red-and-white striped trousers, black woollen breeches, embroidered shirts and straw hats. Visit for the All Saints fiesta to see Todos Santos culture in all its glory, in particular the frenetic horse race that starts the festivities.

The Chanel suit, Paris, France

The uniform of a certain type of woman on New York’s Upper East Side, the Chanel two-piece suit may be made from a Scottish-inspired tweed, and be worn by the well-heeled the world over, but its home will always be the Parisian couture house. To pay homage to the classic, visit the building on Rue Cambon which was Chanel’s apartment when she first designed it in the 1950s, and which still houses a Chanel shop on the ground floor.

Find peace at Buddhist monastery, Nepal

Trim out the religious and/or mystical connotations and Buddhism boils down to something quite simple – brain training. Emptying your mind of white noise in the Buddhist manner – and thereby opening it up to richer focus and awareness – has never been easy. But the digital age is making it even harder, with an ever-billowing storm of information clamouring for our attention. So, retreat – a Tibetan Buddhist monastery might just be the perfect balm to your perpetually flicking and scrolling mind.

Get isolated at Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia

Travel to Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia, a country whose name is a byword for notions of the faraway, and you’ve already made a significant mental leap. You’re certainly not in Kansas anymore here – the nearest wifi is hundreds of miles away in the capital, Ulan Bator. The lodge lets you sample the nomadic lifestyle, except with all the hard bits removed and felt slippers thrown in. Expect snow leopards, bears and wild camels – who needs David Attenborough documentaries?

Stay with the Huaoranis in the Amazon, Ecuador

The Amazon river and its tributaries form one of the greatest natural networks of connectivity on the planet. Digitally speaking, however, it’s a total void. Arrange a stay with the Huaoranis of Ecuador for insights into their culture, from tracking in the rainforest to lessons in their language, which is said to be unrelated to any other on Earth.

Go wild camping in Sweden and Norway

Wifi is not such a rare amenity on campsites these days. But if you’re engaged in ‘wild camping’ – pitching your tent off-piste – then technology begins and ends at a rickety gas stove and a pack of AA batteries. In Norway and Sweden, wild camping is part of the national identity – and with landscapes ranging from the Arctic Circle to island-sprinkled archipelagos, there are myriad reasons to leave the glampsites behind.

Rub elbows with elephants at Jongomero camp, Tanzania

You’re enjoying a precious moment with a spindly dik dik in Ruaha National Park when all of a sudden: "BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP" goes your phone, the precious animal does a runner and your fellow safari guests make a mental note to blog about your appalling behaviour once reunited with their devices. Because they, unlike you, have respected this remote, luxurious southern Tanzanian camp’s requests that digital equipment be kept under lock and key for the duration of your visit.

Get deserted in the Cook Islands

That these fifteen South Pacific islands are named after legendary eighteenth-century explorer James Cook is a bit of a giveaway – they’re seriously remote. Rarotonga, the main island, is not overburdened with hi-tech distractions – one popular activity is "jetblasting" whereby you hang out near the airport’s runway and, well, get blasted by the displaced air from descending planes. Better, perhaps, to focus on enjoying the islands’ natural underwater beauty, from black pearl fields to coral lagoons.

Back to basics in a bothy, Northern Ireland

Cast yourself away – or rather, paddle yourself – to this restored stone cottage near Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh, part of the Lough Erne Canoe Trail. The bothy is neat but basic as can be, its list of mod cons beginning and ending at cold running water, a wood-burning stove and south-facing skylights. With life stripped back to the bare essentials, you’re left with the mental space to enjoy Upper Lough Erne’s tranquil bays and sprinkling of lush green islands.

Meet your ancestors at an archaeological dig

Get your hands dirty, cleanse your mind – that’s the basic idea here. A number of operators offer holidays based around archaeological digs, from Ethiopia to Uzbekistan – although you could always purchase the tools of the trade and go it alone. Beware, though: a metal detector’s seductive blipping might be hard to handle for those in technological cold turkey.

Delve into the Krubera Cave, Georgia

The status of the Marianas Trench as the planet’s deepest point is standard pub quiz fodder. But the earthbound equivalent is less well-known. The true vastness of Georgia’s Krubera Cave has only been fully realised since the turn of the twenty-first century, and it took a team of Ukrainian speleologists two weeks to reach the cave’s 2200m deepest point. Down here, you’re guaranteed friend requests from nothing but spiders, beetles and other creepy crawlies.

Cut off in Havana, Cuba

With patched-up old Buicks and Cadillacs stalking its capital’s streets like mechanical ghouls, the idea of Cuba as a time capsule is a familiar notion. What lies under the hood of those US classics is about as sophisticated as technology gets in Cuba – the country has the lowest rate of web access in the West, and what’s permitted is subject to heavy government regulation. Time to disengage the brain from all things digital and enjoy the city’s steamy charms.

Spend a week in Amish country, USA

In populated areas of the US it isn’t easy to escape the digital dimension. But the Amish – whose Mennonite ancestors came over to Pennsylvania from Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century – have long done a very efficient job of escaping the clutches of the modern world. In Lancaster County you can immerse yourself in their simple, rural way of life, where houses are not connected to the grid and travel is by horse-drawn buggy.

Get grounded in Bolivia’s salt flats

In one respect the Bolivian salt flats are money-spinningly hi-tech – beneath the white expanses lie the world’s largest reserves of lithium, used in battery manufacture. But that’s where links to the modern world end. Tours of the mind-bending salar are a Bolivian must-do and whichever accommodation you wind up in – freezing shack, luxury "salt palace" or Airstream caravan – the landscape utterly overwhelms and grounds you in the present moment.

Digital detox at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, Canada

The internet has expanded at a terrifying rate since its inception, sure, but the Big Bang did it way bigger and way better. There’s nothing like getting out into the light pollution-free wilds and gazing up at giddying bucket-loads of stars to put you in your place. This ranch in British Columbia’s Cariboo region offers crystal-clear star-gazing allied to a digital detox programme – being reminded of your own puny insignificance never felt so good.

Surrender yourself in Chicago, USA

The "windy" of Chicago’s nickname actually refers to a certain loquaciousness associated with the city. But even here you can mute the world with the Monaco hotel’s "blackout" option, which encourages guests to hand in their devices on check-in. Be aware, however, that they also offer free wi-fi, so you can polish that halo even harder should you manage not to succumb.

Stay secluded in Butterfly Valley, Turkey

Somewhere along Turkey’s tourism-saturated Turquoise Coast, where holidaymakers are assured every home comfort, from full English breakfasts to free wi-fi, there’s an enclave of unplugged hippy-dom. Take a water taxi from Oludeniz (the "Blue Lagoon" in English, setting the evocatively back-to-nature tone) to the steep-sided, beach-fronted valley. You might still be able to data-roam, but listening to the crackle of evening bonfires or the strumming of acoustic guitars is far superior to the hum of social media.

Take a survival challenge on a Belize island

"I couldn’t survive without my phone." If you’re this digitally dependent, then perhaps it’s time you addressed your conception of the word "survive" – and that’s where getting shipwrecked on a desert island comes in. You’ll shell out for the privilege, of course, but before being left to your own devices on a Belize caye, the team will train you up and ensure you’re a budding Ray Mears. Fish gutting and fire building ahoy!

Stay in Skiary Lodge, Scotland

If you have ants in your social media pants, make for the unflappable stillness of Lough Hourn and let its tranquility wash over you. The most distracting thing you’re likely to encounter hereabouts is the otherworldly light – though climbing, swimming, seal-watching and star-gazing are all possibilities. This phone-, electrics- and internet-free lodge – two hours by car from Fort William, followed by a hike or a boat ride – is the only survivor from an abandoned fishing hamlet.

Explore Antarctica

Time is running out for Antarctica. And not (for now) in the way that you might think: rather it’s the region’s status as a communications black hole that’s most pressingly threatened. The urgency of the data being gathered in the region is forcing change, expediting improvements in Antarctica’s links to the wider world: "Antarctica Broadband" is on the horizon, promising "fast internet from the bottom of the earth". At least it’ll look impressive when you check in on Foursquare.

Ultima Thule Lodge, Alaska

An ancient term denoting hazily understood lands in the far north, "Ultima Thule" harks back to the early, "here be dragons" days of navigation. And while it’s certainly rugged out here, there’s no chance of it all going a bit Into the Wild, for this is Alaska deluxe – after being flown in, it’s chunky wood cabins, bearskin rugs and saunas all the way. And after an afternoon watching bears catch salmon, Candy Crush will seem a very sorry thing indeed.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, South Korea

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

Islamic Cairo, Egypt

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

The Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia

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

The Mercato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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

Bock Casemates, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

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

Knossos, Crete, Greece

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

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

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

Kolmanskop, Namibia

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

Old Delhi, India

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

The Moscow metro, Russia

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

Shinsegae Centum City, Busan, South Korea

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

The temples of Angkor, Cambodia

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

Fez el Bali, Fez, Morocco

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

Kumbh Mela Festival, Allahabad, India

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

Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

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

Beijing’s hutongs, China

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

The Smithsonian, Washington DC, USA

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

Convento dei Cappuccini, Palermo, Italy

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

Mumbai train station, India

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

Square Dance, USA

The "square" tag has nothing to do with naffness (now why would anyone think that?) but rather to do with the arrangement of the four couples involved, whose movements around the "square" are usually choreographed by a separate "caller". Although associated with US Western-style dress (nineteen US states call it their official dance), square dancing originated in seventeenth-century England while, traditionally, accompanying music is in the form of Scottish- and Irish-style reels and jigs.

Syrtos, Greece

"The black clothes of mourning are as heavy as iron," goes a memorable line from one syrtos-accompanying song. But you won’t be needing your hanky for tear-mopping in this dance. A handkerchief always joins either two or all of the participants, who are formed into a chain, with each person facing sideways. Mentioned in the annals of ancient Greece, syrtos is one of the oldest known dances and is enjoyed worldwide by the Greek diaspora.

Salsa, Cuba

Respect the clave! This is rule number one in salsa. In fact, a dance isn’t salsa if it’s not structured around this Afro-Cuban rhythm pattern. Beyond that, it’s almost a case of anything goes – so much so that dances of different names, including son, mumba, cha cha cha and mambo, are bundled into the salsa family. Salsa took off in NYC in the 1970s, the city giving its name to a particular style of the dance, while Miami, Los Angeles and Cali (Colombia) all have their own salsas too.

Polka, Germany

Before Beatlemania there was nineteenth-century Polkamania. Unusually, the origins of the dance have been traced to one person, a young woman by the name of Anna Slezakova, whose moves to a folk song were recorded and disseminated by a local music teacher. The dance was popularized via newspapers, and soon ballrooms across Europe and America went polka mad. The fab 2/4 is popular to this day everywhere from Finland to the Argentinian Pampas.

Morris dancing, UK

Could anything be more Ye Olde England than morris dancing? Well, yes, because the term actually comes from "moorish", back when it was shorthand for anything remotely exotic. It seems likely, then, that the dance was imported, first infiltrating noble courts and then wider society, with Shakespearean actor William Kempe morris-dancing his way from London to Norwich in 1600. The dance – with its accoutrements of shin bells, sticks, swords and hankies – was revived in the early twentieth century by folklorists.

Merengue, Dominican Republic

Merengue is all hips and hands. In this partner dance, the couple engage each other closely, intertwining fingers in myriad arrangements, their hips sliding together oh-so-smoothly, however frenetic the accompanying music. The insistence upon such proximity is not just about courtship – it is said to have its origins in the practice of joining slaves with ankle chains.

Maasai warrior dance, Kenya & Tanzania

This dance – called adumu – is mostly used in coming-of-age rituals, with Maasai leaping and switching places accompanied by drumming, bell ringing and often complex, polyphonic vocals which are directed by a song leader called an olaranyani. However similar it looks at first glance (not counting the savannah and tribal dress), rest assured that adumu is rather more culturally rich than even your very finest moments of gig pogoing…

Limbo, Trinidad

Limbo’s origins are as enigmatic as you’d hope for from this peculiar spectacle. Far from the ice-breaking tourist resort silliness we know today (we have Chubby Checker to thank for that "How low can you go?" chant), the dance is thought to have first been performed at wakes, with the participants engaged in a symbolic struggle against death. Unfortunately, the bar is always going to win – nobody has yet beaten death lower than 21.5cm.

Traditional dance, Japan

The sometimes slow pace of noh mai, with dancers representing characters such as ghosts and spirits, moving to flute and hand-drum music, led to the adoption of extravagant costume to mitigate against the possibility of audiences getting restless. Bon-Odori, meanwhile, which is performed during the Obon festival, often deals with themes particular to a region: in a coal-mining area, dancers might imitate digging, for instance, while on the coast it could be dragging in a fishing net.

Hula, Hawaii

Forget the grass skirts and fixed grins (and certainly that plastic hoop), hula is a serious affair. Traditionally, at least, participants have to be invited to dance with a ceremonial chant from the kumu hula (teacher) – and don’t dare put a foot wrong or mess up a hand gesture, for this will stir the Hawaiian gods’ wrath. That’s a particularly bad idea if the dance you’re attempting is a hula ma’i in honour of your chief’s reproductive apparatus.

Hopak, Ukraine

A hop, a skip, a jump, and a whole lot in between. If hopak looks somewhat enthusiastic (read: boisterous) that’s because there’s an element of soldierly showing off in its origins, with sixteenth-century Cossacks celebrating victorious battle in displays of acrobatic sword-swinging. The later involvement of women took the testosterone levels down a notch and hopak now features in ballets and operas – yet even the most refined shows have passages that recall the video for Run D.M.C and Jason Nevin’s ‘It’s Like That’.

Hambo, Sweden

Originating with older polska dances, the hambo, full of dainty steps and turns, took off in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sweden celebrates the hambo each year in the village of Hårga (where the legend runs that a cloven-hoofed fiddler was the original instigator of the dance) with the Hälsingehambon. This "world" championship is invariably won by Swedes, but had to be cancelled in 2011 due to lack of participants. Maybe it’s time the hambo got some devilish new tunes.

Gumboot dance, South Africa

What happens when "putting on your dancing shoes" means donning a pair of wellies? The Gumboot Dance originated with South African gold miners: banned from drumming for entertainment they took to dancing in their boots, effectively using them as percussive instruments (as well as fetching footwear). The dance steps themselves are said to parody those bosses who would make their lives a misery.

Gombey, Bermuda

Christmas 1831: two slaves go missing, having engaged in "that idolatrous procession, the Gumba". Bermudans today cock a snook at the slave owners’ indignant "Wanted" letter by celebrating gombey most fervently on Boxing Day each year. It is performed normally by large groups of men dressed in peacock headdresses and painted masks, who move to the beat of numerous drums and – boys being boys – occasionally allow a dance-off, adding a competitive element to enliven proceedings further.

Flamenco, Spain

They say that bitterness will wear you down, and that’s certainly true of flamenco, surely the most beautiful expression of feeling hard-done-by imaginable. Performed properly, this dance is seriously tricky, with all that fan fluttering and rhythmic foot stamping executed according to complex rules. And don’t forget to maintain a proud bearing (and look of furious consternation) throughout proceedings. You can cast away those castanets too – that stuff’s for the tourists.

Cumbia, Colombia

African beats, Andean flutes, guitars from Spain and accordions from Germany – cumbia’s genesis is international. Nowadays it is mostly associated with Colombia, though the dance is popular through much of South America and Mexico, where so-called Technocumbia has developed. "Digital Cumbia", meanwhile, programs in elements of dancehall, hip-hop, electronica and moombahton. What’s the secret of cumbia’s adaptability? Probably that it’s a courtship dance – and that never goes out of style.

Corroboree, Australia

The dance involved in a corroboree, a broadly social gathering of Aboriginal Australians, is linked to this people’s concept of the dreamtime – a realm where past, present and future are all one. The dance is an open performance, not as gravely ceremonial as other Aboriginal Australian ritual, but is nevertheless marked out as special by the wearing of body paint and adornments.

Belly dancing, Algeria

If belly dancing (from the French "dance du ventre", a Victorian tag that seems to have missed the dance’s hip focus) has a slightly tacky or titillating reputation, then this is at least bears some relation to its likely roots. The women of the Algerian Ouled Naïl people were famed for their colourful dress and showy ornamentation: when these nomadic Berber tribes fell on hard times the women would have to leave to find employment in towns as the original "belly dancers".

Samba, Brazil

A grinning woman in full Carnival costume, arms aloft, hips kicking from side to side, is an iconic Brazilian image. It’s safe to assume she’s moving to a samba beat, the dance and music genre that is inseparable from Brazilian identity. Even the nation’s famed football prowess is said to owe a debt to samba, a point used entertainingly by Nike in their 1998 World Cup advert featuring the seleção kicking a football round an airport to a samba classic.

Tango, Argentina

Tango has evolved as much as the capital cities where it was born – Montevideo and Buenos Aires. The more staccato ballroom version has been around since the early twentieth century, while groups such as the Gotan Project and the Bajofondo Tango Club are leading lights in the electro-tinged tango nuevo. Nothing, however, quite beats the grit and sultry sexiness of Argentinian and Uruguayan tango, which sees a full-blown domestic and the "kiss and make up" bit rolled into one dance.

If there’s one topic guaranteed to get an argument started, it’s food. No matter where you go, you’ll find people convinced that they have the right recipe or way of eating their favourite dish, from roast dinners to burritos. One of the great joys of travelling is extensively taste testing while you pick a side, so here’s a selection of some of the contentious world food and drink debates.

Devon vs Cornwall: cream tea conflicts

While the cultural stereotype that British people try to avoid arguments tends to hold true, there’s one way to almost guarantee conflict. All you need to do is ask a someone from Cornwall and another from Devon over for tea: put out some plain scones, clotted cream and jam and watch an age-old disagreement unfold. The big question, of course, is whether it’s cream then jam, or jam then cream. To end the argument once and for all, make yours into a sandwich and see them band together against a common enemy.

North Italy vs South Italy: the butter/olive oil debate

While any region’s food culture is constantly evolving, that doesn’t mean people let go of their traditions. A case in point is the butter/olive oil divide in Italy: the cattle-rearing regions of the north led to a cuisine where butter is the dominant fat; in certain parts of the south, olive oil has historically been the preference. While it’s not so clear-cut now, you’ll still find it a point of contention among the older generation in Italy, and family recipes will generally favour one over the other.

Naples vs Chicago: the pizza plea

There’s no arguing with the fact that pizza is a Neapolitan invention, but who says that the original is always the best? The Italian diaspora in America has had a huge influence on American food tastes and led to a lot of new edible creations, one of which is Chicago deep-dish pizza. While it might make a Neapolitan cry (perhaps even more than using pineapple as a topping) many vociferously defend deep-dish pizzas, preferring a thicker crust and more topping (or rather, filling). Thin-crust advocates, though, say the Chicago-style pizza misses out on crunchiness and flavour in favour of excess and frankly terrifying cholesterol levels.

ルーク.チャン.チャン via Compfight cc

Osaka vs Hiroshima: the two sides of okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is definitely a tale of two cities: Osaka and Hiroshima. It’s Osaka’s version of this savoury, pancake-like dish which has had more success abroad, perhaps because it’s easier to make – all you do is mix the batter and shredded cabbage, add whatever extra ingredients you want, and fry it. Hiroshima’s foodies would say that this is simplistic and messy, and okonomiyaki is best left to the pros: you need a thin layer of batter, then cabbage, extra ingredients (such as pork), noodles and a fried egg, all carefully stacked up into a tower. Again, there’s an easy get-out clause here: just tell the feuding foodies you prefer monjayaki (okonomiyaki’s gloopier cousin from Tokyo), and they’ll miraculously join forces to change your mind.

Europe vs America: the pros and cons of pancakes

Britain and France may do things slightly differently when it come to pancakes, but there’s no debate over the fact that you need a thin layer of batter, which you use to wrap around the filling. In the grand tradition of American cuisine though, their take on the pancake is bigger: much thicker rounds which are usually stacked, served with toppings and sauces. They’re both delicious ways of making this sweet treat, and many people enjoy both – if you feel like bacon and maple syrup, a crêpe really isn’t going to cut it, but then, can anything really beat a classic lemon and sugar?

Middle East vs North Africa: Falafel or tamiya?

Falafel is a popular dish around the world, but many who’ve tried tamiya argue passionately that the use of fava beans over chickpeas creates a creamier, more flavourful dish. It’s not certain exactly where the food originated, but Egypt is a likely source, and there they use fava beans instead of the better-known chickpeas. If you want to avoid an argument, some recipes call for a mix of both pulses – how diplomatic!

England vs Scotland: sugary strife

Historically, England and Scotland have had plenty to argue about, so it’s perhaps a little strange to outsiders that such heated debates can be held on the topic of how hard a particular type of sweet should be. Both fudge and tablet are based on heating sugar and dairy to a soft-ball texture, with fudge then beaten so it gains a soft, creamy texture and tablet left to crystallise. Whether you prefer crunchy or chewy, they’re both delicious – and it’s hardly a chore to taste test yourself!

World war tea

While England is famed for being a nation of tea lovers, its people are far from unified when it comes to making and serving this iconic drink. And they’re not the only ones – whether you prefer to drink black, green, white or red tea, there are arguments to be had about what constitutes a proper brew. Milk or no milk? Does the milk go in before or after the tea? Do you need to warm the teapot? What’s the correct water temperature? Leaves or bags? Perhaps there are ultimately as many ‘correct’ ways to drink tea as there are tea drinkers in the world – and let’s not even start on coffee…

Do you have a pet hate when it comes to food? Which dish gets you debating at the dinner table? Let us know in the comments below.

From a deserted town to enormous sand dunes and sunset cocktails above the city, here are ten unforgettable things to see and do in Namibia.

Hike Fish River Canyon

Second only in size to America’s Grand Canyon, Namibia’s Fish River Canyon is one of Africa’s unsung wonders. Starting just south of Seeheim, it winds 161km south to Ais-Ais and plummets to depths of 550 metres. Watching the sun rise and set over its layers of sandstone and lava is epic, but fit travellers can up the adventure by attempting one of southern Africa’s greatest hikes: a 85km five-day trek along the riverbed. Talk about off the beaten track.

Explore the deserted diamond-mining town of Kolmanskop

Rise early and drive 10km east of port town Lüderitz to watch the first fingers of sunrise reach across the desert and light up the sands that have piled up high and inhabited every nook of this once-thriving town. The honey-toned beams reveal peeling wallpaper in empty kitchens, ceramic bathtubs waiting forlornly for a filling and empty picture frames dangling from unsteady nails. Pay a little more for a photography pass: it allows you to enter early and beat the tour-group crowds so you can explore this ghost town with soul in peace.

Slurp local oysters in Walvis Bay

Forget springbok steak or biltong, Namibia’s culinary highlight is its homegrown ultra-fresh oysters. Thanks to the cold Benguela current that sweeps up the coast from Antarctica, the nutrient-rich waters means these pearly beauties can be harvested in just eight months instead of the three years it takes to grow French oysters. Join a boat tour to visit the nurseries and nibble them onboard, or order a platter with a glass of chilled white wine at a dockside restaurant.

Climb Sossusvlei

Namibia’s foremost attraction doesn’t disappoint. The sand dunes inside Namib-Naukluft National Park are some of the highest in the world and seeing them light up at sunrise is a sight that shouldn’t be missed. Sossusvlei is in fact only one dune, but the name is often used to collectively describe a handful of others. The most photogenic are the 170 metre-high Dune 45 and Deadvlei, whose dried up clay basin is punctuated with the sculptural silhouettes of long-dead acacia trees.

Explore the remote Caprivi Strip

Few tourists venture northwards to visit this narrow finger of lush land that juts out into Botswana, Zambia and Angola – those that do will be rewarded. The landscape is dotted with rondavel huts, roadside stalls selling fruit, and women in colourful clothes going about their daily business. Plus, two of the region’s national parks – Mamili and Mudumu – are becoming good safari destinations.

Safari in style inside Etosha National Park

Etosha translates as “Great White Place” – an apt description for this endless pan of silvery salt-encrusted sand, which is all that remains of a large inland lake that stood here 12 million years ago. Come dry season, its southern waterholes attract elephant, giraffe, zebra, eland, blue wildebeest, thousand-strong herds of springbok, and even the endangered black rhinoceros. A handful of luxury resorts have views over the pan, so the game viewing can continue long into the night.

Meet the Himba in Kunene

The barren, mountainous landscapes of the northern Kunene region are home to the Himba people – a semi-nomadic, polygamous tribe famed for wearing ochre-stained dreads and copper-wire bracelets. A number of tour companies will run visits to traditional villages, but a more rewarding (and perhaps ethical) way to meet the Himba is to base yourself in Opuwo, a vibrant little town, and wander for more candid interaction with the locals. From here you can also organise visits to Epupa falls.

Feed cheetahs in the Kalahari

Seeing wild cheetahs on safari is unforgettable, but at times viewings are no more than a glimpse of spots. For an up-close encounter, book to stay at Bagatella Kalahari Game Ranch: attached to the property is a 12-hectare enclosure belonging to the Cheetah Conservation Fund and it’s home to three orphaned cheetahs – Etosha, Rolf and Tuono – that are being rehabilitated for release. Seated safely aboard an open-sided Jeep, you can watch their caretaker dole out the evening feed (four kilos of meat each) then enjoy a sundowner atop the famous red dunes.

Find shipwrecks on the Skeleton Coast

This otherworldly strip of coastline earned its named from the treacherous fogs and strong currents that forced many ships onto its uncharted sands. Hemmed in by the high, searing dunes of the Namib Desert and lack of fresh water many sailors perished here. Explore the rusted hulls of stranded ships, marooned whale ribs and kilometre-long stinky seal colonies.

Party on the roof in Windhoek

Namibia’s capital is a city on the move. Take in the sights while sipping a cocktail and watching the sunset at the brand-new Hilton hotel’s Skybar – a rooftop bar complete with heated infinity pool and panoramic vistas overlooking Independence Avenue and the Supreme Court. It’s the perfect way to toast your Namibian adventure.

Get more inspiration from Rough Guides here. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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

Get your bearings

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

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

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

Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database rights 2013

What to do

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

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

The best of the fest

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

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

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

Explore more of Scotland with the Rough Guide to Scotland.

Joyous fans, unmistakeable yellow shirts, jogo bonito (“beautiful game”) – Brazilian football evokes many images, but the country’s relationship with the sport is far more complex than the clichés suggest, say the authors of new book Brazil Inside Out. Here’s a quick history.

“The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it”

In Brazil, that old saying could well prove true. Fable has it that in 1894 Charles Miller, the São Paulo-born son of a Scottish rail engineer, returned from his schooling in England with a football tucked under his arm and went on to ignite Brazil’s infatuation with the sport. Miller soon started organising matches of this strange new game, as did another son of British immigrants, Oscar Cox, who founded Brazil’s first club, Fluminense, in 1902.

In the early days football was the exclusive pursuit of privileged Anglo-Brazilians, who did their best to prevent the mainly non-white lower classes from playing or even watching it. But by 1910 makeshift pitches had sprung up and informal games were taking place across Brazil.

Initially the official clubs insisted that players were amateurs, which largely ruled out black players from poorer backgrounds. Mixed-race players who managed to join them were subjected to racist abuse; Fluminense’s nickname, pó de arroz (rice powder), comes from a mixed-race player, Carlos Alberto, who whitened his skin with rice powder before matches. It was not until Vasco da Gama starting picking players because of their ability rather than their race that the elite’s grip on the sport began to loosen.

The seleção

A 2-0 victory by a team of São Paulo and Rio’s best players over a visiting Exeter City in 1914 is generally considered Brazil’s first international match, but it was not until 1938, when the seleção (national team) reached the World Cup semi-finals, that the power of football as a unifying national force was fully realised.

Brazil’s rising importance as a footballing power was recognised in 1950, when it staged the first World Cup after the Second World War. It didn’t end well. On 16 July 1950, some 200,000 spectators crowded into the newly-built Rio Estádio do Maracanã, expecting to see the seleção beat Uruguay in the final – but the underdogs won 2-1, sparking tears, heart attacks and even some suicides among Brazilian fans.

It was not until the 1958 tournament in Sweden that the seleção’s hour arrived. Their victory owed much to the arrival of a new star. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, was only 17 at the time, but scored two goals in Brazil’s 5-2 victory over the hosts in the final.

Brazil went on to win again in 1962, but it is the dazzling team of 1970 that is widely considered the greatest of all time. Jairzinho, Rivelino, Tostão and, of course, Pelé inspired the seleção to a third victory, the footage of which – broadcast in colour around the world for the first time – helped to cement the iconic status of the team in yellow shirts.

The seleção of the 1982 World Cup – featuring the likes of Zico, Sócrates and Falcão – gained almost as much adulation, although it was knocked out in the second round by the more defensive and pragmatic Italians. Brazil went on to win the 1994 and 2002 World Cups, though never with quite the same attacking verve.

Brands and protests

In the meantime “Brazilian football” became a brand – used to sell everything from sporting goods to holidays – and thousands of Brazilian footballers have been exported to play in foreign leagues.

It has also made fortunes and political careers. During Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85), giant stadiums were built in an attempt to bolster support. Corruption scandals, rigged matches and bribed referees in the domestic leagues are common, and many clubs and federa­tions have been run by the same officials, known as cartolas (“top hats”) for decades. Politicians still make donations to local teams in exchange for votes.

However, football is also a way of challenging the status quo. During a match in Paris in 1978, for example, TV cameras could not help but show the giant banners unfurled by Brazil supporters in the crowd calling for an amnesty for political prisoners. Several players have been prominent activists, notably Sócrates, an outspoken pro-democracy campaigner during the military dictatorship.

Last year, as Brazil hosted the Confederations Cup, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets to protest about growing inequality, corruption and poor public services. Broken government promises that public money would not be used to pay for expensive new stadiums and infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup meant public anger was also directed at FIFA and the football establishment. Many of the players even – belatedly – threw their support behind the protests.

Brazilians will still cheer on the seleção when the World Cup kicks off in June, but the recent protests show that their support is not unconditional.

Learn the lingo

Countless football terms have entered popular usage in Brazil:

·   Deu zero a zero = nothing happened (literally, it was 0-0)
·   Pisar na bola = to make a mistake (literally, to tread on the ball)
·   Driblar = to evade or get round
·   Show de bola = a brilliant or clever answer, performance, etc (literally, a display of skill with the ball)
·   Aos 45’ do Segundo tempo = at the eleventh hour (literally, at the 45th minute of the second half)

Brazil Inside Out by Jan Rocha and Francis McDonagh is published by the Latin America Bureau/Practical Action Publishing on 29 May. Shafik Meghji and Matthew Terdre wrote the football chapter.
Book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

People tend to laugh when I tell them that sumo wrestling is my favourite spectator sport. In its Japanese homeland it’s regarded as somewhat old-fashioned, with younger folk preferring to watch mixed martial arts. Abroad, the perception can be even worse; the generic assumption holds that it’s little more than fat blokes in nappies slapping each other for a few frantic seconds, until one of them falls over. However, with its refreshingly commerce-free mix of sport and ceremony, a day at the sumo is something that I almost never pass up when lucky enough to be in Japan. Tournaments take place every two months over a 15-day period; you join me here on the penultimate day of action at the Aki Basho tournament at the Ryōgoku Gokugikan stadium.

9am: get to know the wrestlers

The sumo day starts at 9am, and continues until 6pm. I head into town from my home in Tokyo after the hectic morning rush hour, then take my time on the way to the venue – almost every café along the way has a gown-wearing wrestler or two inside (you can’t miss them), and they’re often up for a little chit-chat.

10am: take your seats

It’s time to head into the arena itself. Centred on a packed-mud dohyo, it’s always near silent at this time of day; there are seven divisions of wrestlers to get through, and for the first few hours it’s a mix of young pups on the way up, old-timers on the way down, and those who have simply never made it. You could hear a pin drop, and these chaps are somewhat heavier. However, this is one of my favourite bits; even though I’ve purchased a cheap ticket way up in the gods, for a few hours I get to sit almost ringside. From here I can hear every grunt, almost feel every slap, and smell the talc the rikishi (wrestlers) give off as they pound to and from the ring. Even at these low levels, the deal is the same – the loser is the first to step outside the ring, or touch down inside it with anything but their feet.

12pm: bulking up like the big boys

Right, I’m peckish, and need to stretch my legs. The food in the stadium isn’t up to much, so I head a few blocks down the road to Tomoegata, a restaurant specialising in chanko nabe – the hearty, delicious stew that wrestlers eat several times a day in order to bulk up. This comes with rice and a mouthwatering array of side-dishes – it’s no wonder the rikishi are so big.

2pm: things get serious

Now time for the serious business: after an elaborate ceremony during which the rikishi are introduced, it’s time for the juryo division to begin. This is the second highest level, and from here on the guys are professionals – even first-timers notice the contrast in quality, and there are more visible nuances such as salt being thrown into the ring before a fight. With fewer elementary mistakes being made, fights tend to last longer, and I’m usually keeping my eyes peeled for talented fighters on their way up.

Earlier in the tournament, a wrestler named Chiyoo caught my eye with a breathtaking tsuridashi victory – requiring tremendous strength, this rarely-used technique involves picking the other wrestler up by the belt, and plonking them down outside the ring. I’ve never seen it executed so impressively before. Usually tsuridashi is used near the edge of the ring at the beginning of a fight, before the lactic acid build-up; here Chiyoo not only employed it after a lengthy tussle, but started his lift more than halfway across the ring. His opponent, Tanzo, weighed 152kg. Fat the rikishi may be, but there’s an awful lot of muscle underneath the blubber.

4pm: watching the highest division

It’s now time for makuuchi, the highest division; as with juryo before, it’s kicked off with a charming ceremony. The rikishi enter the ring one by one, and stand in circle facing inwards; when they’re all there, they in unison lift an arm, clap, raise their colourful aprons, then raise both arms. That’s all, but it gets me every single time, and I wonder why other sports abandoned tradition in favour of profit.

Again, when the fighting begins, the increase in quality is quite apparent. Each sumo fights once per day over 15 days; those who’ve won eight or more will move up the rankings for the next tournament, and those who’ve lost eight or more will go down, possibly even to the next division. Those who keep rising will eventually find themselves in the esteemed sanyaku ranks, special levels for the top wrestlers in the land. Those in sanyaku have to fight hard to stay there: over 15 days they have to face all the other top rikishi, meaning that only the truly talented will survive at this level, and even fewer will reach yokozuna, the very highest level.

5.50pm: the winning fight

All eyes are on the penultimate clash: Hakuho, an imperious yokozuna from Mongolia, versus Kisenosato, a young Japanese ozeki (the second-highest level) with lofty aims of his own. These are the only two fighters in contention; Kisenosato needs victory to be in with a chance on the final day, while a win for the other could bring Hakuho the trophy.

There’s no mistaking who the crowd want to win; recent Mongolian domination means that no Japanese have won a tournament since 2005. The atmosphere is electric, with the two giant rikishi returning to the ring to eye-ball each other multiple times, in front of a referee dressed like a giant piece of origami. Finally, in they thunder, meeting each other with a wallop easily heard over the noise of the arena. Kisenosato senses a chance and attempts a grab; Hakuho knows just how to deal with this and pummels his opponent to the ground. A streak of blood then ripples down his face, onto his chest: pure theatre. Both fighters break the sumo’s poker-face code: his chance gone, Kisenosato admonishes himself by the side of the ring, while Hakuho delights in taking his 27th title. The crowd give this all-time great a well-deserved ovation, but we’re all thinking the same thing… please, next time, let there be a Japanese winner.

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

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

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