Asia is home to several of the world's greatest mega-cities, from Tokyo to Bangkok, Hong Kong to Shanghai. And while each of these is undoubtedly a fascinating, thrilling place to visit, sometimes it's nice to revert back to life on a more human scale. Here's six small cities in Asia well worth a visit.
While Taipei is Taiwan's main urban and commercial centre, Tainan in the south is Taiwan’s cultural and historical heart. There's been a major settlement here since the 17th century, when the area was first settled by Dutch colonisers.
Tainan has so many historical sites it is hard to know where to begin. The former 17th-century Dutch forts, Anping (previously known as Zeelandia) and Provintia, as well as the Confucius Temple, are all worth your time. An unusual curiosity near Anping that merits a detour is the Tree House, a former warehouse now covered with the overgrown roots of a Banyan tree. The site, which was once home to the Japan Salt Company, has been reclaimed by nature, and visitors can climb up to the skywalk for a bird's eye view of the overgrown site.
Back in town, the National Museum of Taiwan History is where Taiwan’s various stages of development under the Dutch, the Qing Dynasty and the Japanese to the 20th century martial law era are brought together. The newly opened Tainan Art Museum features contemporary artworks and paintings, while Blueprint Cultural and Creative Park features murals and local art boutiques designed for easy browsing. Visit after dark to see the 'blueprint house', and old house fitted with light beams that give the impression of an architectural drawing.
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Most visitors to Malaysia head to Kuala Lumpur and Penang, but missing the inland city Ipoh would be a shame. A former tin mining boomtown, Ipoh features a charming Old City district, atmospheric temples and a vibrant coffee culture.
Ipoh is the home of 'white coffee' (no, that's not just coffee with milk). Malaysia's white coffee is made with coffee beans that have been roasted with margarine for a creamy taste, then served with condensed milk for extra sweetness. You can try this at a number of independent cafes around the city – Nam Heong is a good bet, the first cafe in the Old Town cafe chain, which also produces the well-known instant coffee of the same name that you'll see across Malaysia. Now you've had your caffeine fix, stroll the city's streets to enjoy the handsome colonial era buildings, including the city’s main train station. A little further out, you'll find the Sam Pho Tong cave temple, surrounded by towering limestone cliffs.
Japan is having a travel moment – the country attracted a record 30 million people last year, and with the Rugby World Cup this year and the Olympics in 2020, that's only set to increase. Most visitors go to the “big three” of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, but if you're looking for something a little more off-the-beaten track, consider Hiroshima.
The city is, of course, famous for being devastated by an atomic bomb in World War II, but in the years since the reconstructed city – bigger, brighter and more vibrant than ever – is an eloquent testimony to the power of life over destruction. The modern city boasts shopping malls, good restaurants and several contemporary art museums.
Of course, the city also honours its citizens caught up in the devastating 1945 attack. Start your exploration with a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, home to the A-Bomb Dome, the preserved shell of a former exhibition hall that was destroyed by the bomb. You'll also find a museum with poignant exhibits including victims’ belongings, a children’s monument, a cenotaph, and the Rest House, a building miraculously survived the bombing and is now the visitor's centre.
Next, make time for the traditional wooden-clad Hiroshima castle (rebuilt in the 1950s), which houses a museum dedicated to Hiroshima's history before the Second World War. In the evening, walk along Hondori Street and its surrounding lanes which form, a 1-km-long covered shopping arcade filled with shops and restaurants.
Vietnam's most famous cities are at either end of the country – Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. In the centre, you'll find the often overlooked Hue, Vietnam’s imperial capital for over 140 years until 1945. Hue's main attraction is the Imperial City, a vast complex that houses the former imperial residence and fortress, modelled on Beijing’s Forbidden City. Dotted around the city are the tombs of seven of Hue's emperors, each built in a different style. There's the traditional tomb of Emperor Minh Mang located in a serene forest with a small lake, while Emperor Khai Dinh’s tomb is much more elaborate – a richly furnished mausoleum that features European architectural styling.
Thailand’s megacity capital Bangkok is one of the world’s most visited (and busiest) cities. For a more traditional taste of Thai life, Sukhothai, in Central Thailand, is a great choice. This was Thailand’s first capital as the seat of power of the 13th-14th century Sukhothai Kingdom, the first Thai state. Nowadays, Sukhothai exists as a magnificent collection of ruins, temples, stupas and giant Buddha statues spread over an area of 70 square kilometres (17,290 acres). Sukhothai can be considered Thailand’s version of Angkor Wat, albeit more modest. The old city’s majestic ruins are preserved in three distinct zones, while several old temples line the road through a village to the south. You'll need at least a day to explore fully.
China’s most-visited mainland cities are, of course, Beijing, its capital, and the commercial metropolis of Shanghai. Next up is Xi'an, probably China’s greatest ancient capital. But it's another historic capital, Nanjing, that deserves more fame. As the capital of China at several points over the past 1,500 years, Nanjing has seen it all. With its inner-city lakes, Purple Mountain, and leafy parks, Nanjing is also one of the greenest Chinese cities.
Make tracks for Purple Mountain (Zijin) where both the 14th-century emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (founder of the Ming dynasty), and the 20th century Chinese leader, Sun Yat-Sen, are buried. The emperor’s tomb lies behind an imposing memorial hall, while Sun’s blue-roofed mausoleum is located atop a 480-metre (1,570-feet) flight of stairs.
Nanjing's once massive city wall has mostly gone, but the remaining Zhonghua Gate, also known as the Gate of China, is an imposing reminder of the city's former might. The defensive complex has a unique construction – with steep ramps designed for soldiers on horseback and a complicated series of entry portals designed to fend off invaders.
Suitably impressed, make your way to the Presidential Palace is a fascinating remnant of the Kuomintang government, which governed the country from Nanjing during the mid-20th century.
Next up is the Confucius Temple, honouring the famous Chinese philosopher and built in the Ming and Qing architectural styles. You'll also find the 12th-century Imperial Exam Hall here – where wannabe functionaries sat their exams. In its heyday during the Qing dynasty there were over 20,000 examination rooms on the site. It's now an interesting museum exploring the legacy of the Imperial exam system that lasted for 1,300 years.
At night there's a bustling market running alongside the river outside the temple gates. Lit with traditional lanterns, it's an atmospheric place to grab some street food for dinner.
Top image: Nanjing Confucius Temple © ArtisticPhoto/Shutterstock