With sublime sushi, soaring skyscrapers and vending machines that churn out everything from eggs to ice cream, Tokyo is the planet’s most mind-boggling metropolis.

Wandering its neon-lit streets can easily eat up your time, and put serious pressure on your wallet. But as this round up of the free things to do in Tokyo shows, a trip to the Japanese capital needn’t be stressful or expensive.

Peek at the latest gadgets

Rising high above the gleaming department stores of Ginza, the ritziest district in Tokyo, is the sleek Sony Building. Ignore its high-end shops and restaurants and head straight for the free showroom, where you can get a sneak peek of Sony’s latest gadgets, including robots, laptops and high-definition TVs. 

Visit Tsukiji Fish Market

Unless you’re especially squeamish (or vegetarian), consider an early morning trip to Tsukiji Fish Market, which buzzes with traders and tourists from as early as 4am. It’s the world’s biggest wholesale fish market, and where most of the city’s Japanese restaurants source their sashimi.

Wander by The Imperial Palace

A short walk from Tokyo Station is the Imperial Palace, home to the current emperor of Japan. Surrounded by moats, cherry trees and solid stone walls, the palace buildings are rarely open to the public, but it costs nothing to wander through the peaceful and meticulously kept East Garden, which bursts into colour during spring.

Explore Asakusa for free

Tourists often pay a rickshaw driver to take them through Asakusa, the old entertainment district surrounding Sens?-ji, one of the city’s most important Buddhist temples. Our advice is to stay on foot, following wafts of sweet, smoky incense down towards the shrine. Alternatively, look out for the free, panda-shaped buses that cut through the district en route to the 634-metre-high Skytree building.

Get a taste for modern Japanese art

Art lovers looking for free things to do in Tokyo will be pleased to hear there’s no cost to mooch around the first-floor gallery of the glass-and-steel Spiral Building, where young Japanese artists exhibit avant-garde collections. In the adjoining café, beer and wine are both cheaper than a cup of coffee.

Prepare for disaster

The Life Safety Learning Center, run by the Tokyo Fire Department, is a free “disaster museum” educating people on what to do when the ground starts shaking. Visitors can learn first aid skills, step inside an earthquake simulator and even try to escape from a smoke-filled building.

Visit the Sumo Museum

With artefacts covering several centuries of sumo’s 2000-year-old history, the free Sumo Museum is located at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium, which hosts major tournaments.

Explore Tokyo on two wheels

On Sundays, the Palace Cycling Course lends out 250 bicycles – from mountain bikes to tandems – on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s free, and visitors have until 3pm to explore a designated route running around the outside of the Imperial Palace.

See Tokyo from above

For free, Lost in Translation-style nightscapes, head up to one of the two observation decks at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No 1, the tallest skyscraper in Shinjuku.

Take a free guided tour

Staffed by volunteers and designed to help promote intercultural understanding, Tokyo Free Guide gives visitors the chance to take a free tour of the city, guided by a resident. The only thing guests have to cover is the guide’s expenses.

Have you got any top tips for enjoying Tokyo for free – or even on the cheap? Let us know below.

With Diego El Cigala cleaning up at the Grammys, Catalan gypsy-punks Ojos de Brujo scooping a BBC Radio 3 World Music Award and Enrique Morente jamming with Sonic Youth in Valencia, the socio-musico-cultural phenomenon that is Spanish flamenco has never been hotter. Like any improvisational art form (particularly jazz, with which it often shares a platform), it’s most effective in the raw, on stage, as hands and heels thwack in virile syncopation, a guitar bleeds unfathomable flurries of notes and the dancer flaunts her disdain with a flourish of ruffled silk.

Those who are in serious search of the elusive duende may find themselves faced with a surfeit of touristy options, but genuine flamenco is almost always out there if you look hard enough. Madrid is home to producer extraodinaire Javier Limón and his Casa Limón label, and the capital city boasts such famous tablaos as Casa Patas, Corral de la Morería and El Corral de la Pacheca, where Hollywood actors are as ubiquitous as the tiles and white linen. Less pricey and more accommodating to the spirit of the juerga (spontaneous session) is the wonderful La Soleá, where both local and out-of-town enthusiasts test their mettle. Festivals to look out for include the annual Flamenco Pa’Tos charity bash and the Suma Flamenca event that farms out shows to Madrid’s wider communidad.

One of Spain’s biggest festivals is Seville’s La Bienal de Flamenco, an award-winning event held from mid-September to mid-October. In the city itself, Los Gallos is one of the oldest tablaos, but it’s worth scouring the cobbled backstreets for La Carbonería, a former coal merchants where free flamenco pulls in a volubly appreciative scrum of locals and tourists, or heading to the old gyspy quarter of Triana where barrio hangouts like Casa Anselma exult in Seville’s home-grown form, the “Sevillana”.

In Madrid: Corral de la Morería c/Moreriacutea 17; El Corral de la Pacheca c/Juan Ramón Jiménez 26; La Soleá c/Cava Baja 34. In Seville: Los Gallos Plaza de Santa Cruz; La Carbonería c/Levíes 18; Casa Anselma c/Pagés del Corro 49.

 

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People have looked to the mountains for spiritual consolation for millennia. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,” say the Psalms, “from whence cometh my help.” For Nepalis, the link is especially powerful. The Himalayas are where the Hindu gods go to meditate and replenish their tapas, or spiritual “heat”, and the Buddhist peoples of Nepal’s Himalayan regions regard many of the highest peaks and lakes as sacred.

Many trekkers come to Nepal to make personal pilgrimages. When you stand on a ridge festooned with colourful prayer flags torn ragged by the wind, or look down on the luminous, glacial blue of a Himalayan lake, or when with aching lungs, cracked lips and a spinning head you come to the top of the highest pass yet, it’s hard not to feel your own spiritual store hasn’t been warmed just a little. Of course, you can always just emulate the gods: find a high place, fix your eyes on the Himalayas, breathe and begin the search for mindfulness.

For spiritual discipline, perhaps the richest possibilities are found in the Kathmandu valley, Nepal’s heartland in the Himalayan foothills. The valley has been described as a living mandala, or spiritual diagram – its very geography mapped out by temples, devotional stupas and holy caves and gorges. Pashupatinath, where Kathmandu’s dead are burned by the river, attracts pilgrims from across India. Many Western travellers make for neighbouring Boudha, the vibrant Tibetan quarter, where the painted Buddha eyes on the great white dome look out across throngs of Buddhist monasteries and where, at dawn and dusk, the violet air echoes with the sounds of horns and bells, and the murmured mantras of the faithful.

Gompas (monasteries) such as Boudha’s Shedrub, the “White Monastery” (www.shedrub.org), and nearby Kopan (www.kopan-monastery.com) run teachings on Tibetan Buddhism in English, as well as meditation courses. For serious Hindu meditation, try the Osho Tapoban Forest Retreat Centre (www.tapoban.com) and Nepal Vipassana Centre (www.dhamma.org).

 

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If you’ve never seen a Bollywood movie before, think John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease, then pump up the colour saturation, quadruple the number of dancing extras, switch the soundtrack to an A.R. Rahman masala mix and imagine Indo-Western hybrid outfits that grow more extravagant with every change of camera angle.

Like their classic forerunners of the 1970s and 1980s, modern Bollywood blockbusters demand the biggest screens and heftiest sound systems on the market, and they don’t come bigger or heftier than those in the Metro BIG in Mumbai, the grande dame of the city’s surviving Art Deco picture houses. A palpable aura of old-school glamour still hangs over the place, at its most glittering on red-carpet nights, when huge crowds gather in the street outside for a glimpse of stars such as Shah Rukh Kahn or Ashwariya Rai posing for the paparazzi in front of the iconic 1930s facade.

A sense of occasion strikes you the moment you step into the Metro BIG’s foyer, with its plush crimson drapery and polished Italian marble floors. A 2006 revamp transformed the auditorium into a state-of-the-art multiplex, complete with six screens, lashings of chrome and reclining seats, but the developers had the good sense to leave the heritage features in the rest of the building intact. Belgian crystal chandeliers still hang from the ceilings, reflected in herringbone-patterned mirrors on the mid-landing, with original stucco murals lining the staircases.

While the Metro may have had a makeover, the same quirky conventions that have styled Indian cinema for decades still very much hold sway – in spite of Bollywood’s glossier modern image and bigger budgets. So while the waistlines have dropped and cleavages become more pronounced, the star-crossed hero and heroine still have to make do with a coy rub of noses rather than a proper kiss.

Down in the stalls of the Metro BIG, meanwhile, the new decor hasn’t subdued behaviour in the cheaper seats. Shouting at the screen, cheering every time the hero wallops someone, and singing along with the love songs are still very much part of the experience – even if overpriced popcorn has supplanted five-rupee wraps of peanuts.

Mumbai’s Metro BIG Cinema is at Dhobi Talao Junction, at the top of Azad Maidan, a short cab ride from CST (VT) Station. For details, see www.bigcinemas.com.

 

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It’s famed for its goulash, but there is far more to Hungarian cuisine than this dish alone. The speciality of southern Hungary is halaszlé, a blisteringly hot crimson-coloured soup with huge chunks of carp, catfish and zander floating around in it. With the Danube, Drava and Tisza rivers yielding the fish, and the paprika produced on the surrounding plains, halaszlé is something of a regional cultural trademark, cropping up in bus-station buffets and village pubs as well as the finest restaurants.

The unofficial capital of halaszlé is the Danube-hugging town of Baja, a popular staging post on the way to the fish-teeming wetlands of the Forest of Gemenc. Soup cauldrons are bubbling away throughout the year in the restaurants of Petöfi Island, a popular recreation spot reached by bridge from Baja’s main square.

Each establishment keeps the details of its halaszlé recipe a closely guarded secret, but the results are broadly the same: huge bowls of rich red liquid served with belly-expanding portions of pasta – the latter frequently smeared with liberal portions of cream cheese. The roughly hewn lumps of fish will probably have bones, skin and fins still attached; picking out the succulent white meat only adds to the sense of epicurean ritual. All in all it’s a messy business. You may well laugh at the kiddie-style bib offered to you by waiting staff, but refusing it could have fatal consequences for your favourite shirt.

Southern Hungary’s consumable riches don’t just stop with the fish: incendiary brandies from the local cherry, apricot and pear orchards make for an irresistible range of aperitifs. And Unicum, the coal-black herbal concoction distilled in regional capital Kecskemet, is guaranteed to settle your stomach no matter how much of the stew you’ve managed to get through.

The best time to be in Baja is for the halaszlé festival on the second weekend of July, when the town square is filled with locals cooking up a storm in big iron pots over open fires. For more information on Baja contact the local tourist information centre (+36 7942 0792).

 

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Work off that moussaka with a hike up the most monumental of the Greek mountains – Mount Olympus. Soaring to 2920m, the mountain is swathed in mysticism and majesty, mainly due to its reputation as the home of the Ancient Greek gods. Reaching the peak isn’t something you can achieve in an afternoon – you’ll need at least two days’ trekking, staying overnight in refuges or tents. You don’t need to be a climber but you do need to be prepared: it’s a tough climb to the summit, and requires a lot of stamina and some degree of caution: the weather may be stiflingly hot at the bottom, but there could still be a blizzard blowing halfway up. Passing sumptuous wildflowers and dense forests on the lower slopes, the rocky, boulder-strewn terrain and hair-raisingly sheer drops of the summit are well worth the struggle. Just watch out for Zeus’s thunderbolt on the way up.

The best map to use is Road Edition’s no 31 Olympos, 1:50,000.

 

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With so much on offer it can be hard to know where to start your hunt for the best food in Montréal and Québec City. There’s the French influence, of course, as well as an Irish heritage, but also Greek, Portuguese and Italian roots. Québec’s best-known dish is the fiercely loved poutine, which is food at its most elemental: fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. However, that’s only the beginning of the culinary spectrum – here’s a round up of the best food to be eaten at restaurants in Montréal and Québec.

Poutine

Look up “comfort food” in the dictionary and you’ll see a photo of poutine (pronounced pooh-teen). The robust dish of fries topped with cheese curds was born in rural Québec, and you can sample it at diners, as a casse-crôute (snack) and at roadside eateries across the region. But, poutine has also had an upgrade from innovative local chefs, including Martin Picard, who famously added foie gras to poutine at his breakout restaurant Au Pied de Cochon in Montréal.

Tourtière

A king among pies, the tourtière is filled with meat – usually spiced ground pork, though also beef and game – and topped with a flaky crust that bakes to a golden-brown. This meat pie is traditionally served on Christmas eve, though many families feast on it throughout the holiday season, and beyond.

Cheese

Québec’s longtime sisterhood with France reveals itself most deliciously through its cheese. Québec has over 400 types of cheese, from a tangy, veined blue cheese by La Roche Noire to a silky, vegetable ash-covered goat cheese by La Maison Alexis de Portneuf, which has nabbed many prizes. You can sample cheeses throughout the region, from Montréal and Québec City restaurants to farmers’ markets to dairy farms in Cantons de l’Est.

Bagels

If a bagel war broke out, it would probably come down to Montréal and New York City. Montréal rivals NYC as a bagel capital, and you can sink your teeth into chewy bagels throughout the city, from casual delis to stylish cafes. History has a lot to do with it: bagels were introduced to Montréal by Jewish immigrants, many from Eastern Europe, and two of the best-known historic delis include Fairmount Bagel Bakery and St-Viateur Bagel & Café.

Smoked Meats

Montréal’s smoked meats are also deservedly famous, often served between huge chunks of rye bread with pickles on the side. Feast on the colossal sandwiches at Reuben’s Deli and Schwartz’s, where surly service is thrown in as part of the package. But don’t worry, you’re in good company: all sorts of stars have lunched at Schwartz’s, from Céline Dion to the Rolling Stones.

Maple Syrup

The statistics tell the story: three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup comes from Québec. You can buy bottles of the dark stuff everywhere, from grocery stores to souvenir shops. Or, go to the source: in the Québécois countryside where the maple trees are tapped for syrup in the spring. Cabanes à sucre offer sleigh rides and traditional treats like maple taffy (strips of maple syrup frozen in the snow). Try Cabane à sucre Bellavance, which has long communal tables covered in red-checkered cloth, where you can sample thick slices of ham and maple syrup with everything from poached eggs to crispy pork jowls called “Oreilles de Crisse” (Christ’s ears).

Ice Cider

One of Québec’s newer creations has quickly become its most popular – cidre de glace, or ice cider. Sweet and bracing, the cider is made from apples that have frozen outdoors during the region’s harsh winters. The apples are pressed and the juice fermented. Follow an ice-cider route across leafy Canton de l’Est and make a pilgrimmage to Domaine Pinnacle orchard and cidery, which was the region’s ice-cider pioneer, and pick up a bottle (or five) to enjoy at home.

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There’s no better place to experience classical drama than the ancient theatre at Epidavros, just outside the pretty harbour town of Nafplio in the Greek Peloponnese. Dating back to the fourth century BC, it seats 14,000 people and is known above all for its extraordinary acoustics – as guides regularly demonstrate, you can hear a pin drop in its circular orchestra (the most complete in existence) even if you’re sitting on the highest of the theatre’s 54 tiers. It’s a venue for regular performances of the plays of Sophocles and Euripedes between June and September every year. Occasionally these are in English, but whether you understand the modern Greek in which they are usually performed or not, the setting is utterly unforgettable, carved into the hill behind and with the brooding mountains beyond.

Epidavros is open daily 8am–7pm (winter until 5pm). Entrance costs €6. Plays are performed on Fri & Sat eve June–Aug.

 

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Time does strange things in southwest Germany. Even before Einstein hit on his Theory of Relativity in Ülm, Mark Twain had realized something was up after taking to the waters in the smart spa town of Baden-Baden. “Here at the Friedrichsbad,” he wrote, ”you lose track of time within ten minutes and track of the world within twenty.”

Nearly 2000 years after the Romans tapped curative waters in this corner of the Black Forest, Twain swore that he left his rheumatism in Baden-Baden (literally, the “Baths of Baden”). England physios also considered Friedrichsbad sessions good enough to fast-track the return of injured striker Wayne Rooney for the World Cup in 2006. But regardless of whether a visit to the Roman-Irish mineral baths is for relaxation or rheumatism, as Twain noted, minutes melt into hours once inside. Midway through the full sixteen-stage programme, schedules are mere memories as you float in the circular pool of the Kuppelbad, whose marble walls and columns, creamy caryatids and sculpted cupola make it seem more minor Renaissance cathedral than spa centrepiece. By the final stage, time is meaningless and locations are a blur, as you drift prune-like and dozy between a sequence of mineral water baths, showers, scrubs and saunas of ever decreasing temperatures.

If time warps inside the Friedrichsbad, the spa itself is a throwback to when Baden-Baden was a high rollers’ playground – Kaisers and Tzars flocked here for the summer season, Queen Victoria promenaded parks planted in ball-gown colours, Strauss and Brahms staged gala concerts, and Dostoevsky tried his luck in a Versailles-styled casino. With such esteemed visitors, the town’s steam room suddenly looked rather frumpy. So in 1877, Grand Duke Friedrich I cut the opening ribbons to his spa, the most modern bathing house in Europe but with all the palatial trimmings: hand-painted tiles or arches and colonnades that alluded to the decadence of antiquity.

Be warned: for all its stately appearance, you need to leave your inhibitions at the Friedrichsbad door: bathing is nude and frequently mixed. Which can be just as much of a shock as the penultimate plunge into 18°C waters. Or the realization as you emerge tingling and light-headed that, actually, the five hours you thought you spent inside were only three.

For opening times and massage costs, see www.roemisch-irisches-bad.de.

 

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In a handful of sleepy farming villages in northern Greece, the fire-walking ritual is an annual celebration of a thirteenth-century miracle, when locals rescued icons from a burning church – without being burned themselves. By nightfall, the towering bonfire in the main square has dwindled to glowing embers. Every light is put out and all eyes are on the white-hot coals – and the cluster of people about to make the barefoot dash across them. Fire-walkers limber up for the main event with rhythmic dancing, which escalates into frenzied writhing as they channel the spirit of St Constantine, believed to shield them from harm. Clutching icons for further protection, the fire-walkers step out onto the coals, stomping on the smouldering embers with gusto, as though kicking up autumn leaves. An inspection of feet after the rite reveals miraculously unmarked soles, a sign of St Constantine’s divine protection – and an excuse for a slap-up feast.

Fire-walking festivals take place towards the end of May in the villages of Langadas, Ayia Eleni, Meliki and Ayios Petros in northern Greece.

 

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