Iconic cities carry weight as we dream of destinations around the world that we’d one day like to visit. Each with their own distinct qualities and characteristics. Yet these six rather lesser-known cities are the favourites I recommend you consider for your future travels.
We all have a travel wish list. That collection of the special things we would really love to do, or own during our lifetime. For some of us, our bucket list includes travels to exotic destinations or a road trip to see more of our beautiful country. For others, the priorities may be to buy a new gadget or piece of furniture, run a marathon, learn to surf, go on a yoga retreat, complete a degree or even get a wild and wonderful tattoo.
These destinations are worth daydreaming about. No matter where you live in the world, these are incredible places to mesmerise you with their scenic beauty, history, architecture and phenomenal people.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Offering a startling portrayal of the capital under siege and the tragedy of war, it is Sarajevo’s resilient people with their dark sense of humour and determination to embrace normal — despite it all, that will move you whilst here. Tales of barbers cutting hair on the streets, sheltered courtyards turned into food gardens, the local brewery supplying residents with water — and the Sarajevan women maintaining their style and fashion in proud defiance.
The underlying spirit of the city could not be broken, despite the devastating attack it was under during the 1425 day siege that lasted from April 1992 to February 1996, leaving almost 14 000 dead. The longest in modern history, the city was cut off from food, medicine, water and electricity, under attack by snipers and shelled at least 300 times a day, leaving thousands of civilians dead and wounded.
As much as 60% of the city was destroyed at the time with the process of recovery slow. Yet I was soon to learn that this incredibly scenic city is much more than its complex history. Joining Sarajevo Walking Tours for their East Meet West, as well as War Scars and New Times tours, I was injected with hope by the young guides who spoke of the rebirth of the city through education, the arts and the emerging food scene.
As the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo has a compact centre with museums commemorating local history, including Sarajevo 1878–1918, which covers the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that sparked World War I. On either side of Sarajevo’s Miljacka River, grand Austro-Hungarian influenced buildings stand proud; while just beyond are the charming narrow passageways of the old city, or Baščaršija, with its market traders, clay tile roofs, tall domes and minarets reminding of an extended Ottoman era that was to shape the city’s future.
Adding a touch of modern are the inviting high-end stores and restaurants serving delicious cuisine and traditional dishes. Lovingly tended flowers on the sidewalks bring colour to grey buildings and there’s a familiar air of European living, with the Turkish influence is strongly felt. A visit to the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide centre, as well as Gallery 11/07/95 which documents the Srebrenica massacre, offer an essential background to the Balkan War.
Sarajevan days are best spent walking the riverside, becoming familiar with the layout of the old city and adopting a ‘local’ for evening drinks. I recommend a visit to the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina and time in the Ars Aevi Contemporary Art Museum next to the stadium — it was founded during the siege. Look out for the Sarajevo Roses that mark the spots where people were killed, painted red they symbolise the bloodshed.
A tour of the rebuilt City Hall is a must, with the museum offering an intimate look at pre-war life in Sarajevo. Climb to the top of the Yellow Bastion ruins to take in a fiery sunset and turn the assassination place of Franz Ferdinand at the Latin Bridge into a convenient meeting point. You can’t escape the war. Huge graveyards dot the hillsides and you would do well to visit a few to pay your respect.
Certainly, one of the most popular attractions since it’s reopening this year, the Trebević Cable Car offers wonderful views towards the city from the 32 gondolas on the scenic 9 minute stretch from the heart of Sarajevo to the top of the Trebević mountain. This is best enjoyed in the late afternoon to capture the evening sun. Opt to walk the abandoned bobsled track down and it felt a little like stepping into a scary movie. Constructed for the 1984 Winter Olympics when the country opened its doors to the international community for a successfully hosted Olympic games, today the only attack it’s under is from the graffiti artists expressing their political voices, and nature who seems to be claiming back the land.
Outside the city centre is the Tunnel Museum that was constructed during the Siege of Sarajevo and used to carry supplies into the city for civilians. Though the actual tunnel ran underground for about 960m, visitors can experience a small section of it today, while learning about the events that surrounded this historic site.
Include visits to the Ministry of Ćejf and Teahouse Džirlo in Kovač, just beyond the Baščaršija. If you’re shopping there are beautiful coffee sets, fabrics and jewellery, all reasonably priced. Have a meal in the Morića Han and at Miris Dunja, a tiny, two-storey place in heart of old town. Egipat holds the reputation for the best gelato in town.
If you want to discover somewhere remarkable, then I’d say make your way to Sarajevo.
Casablanca, Morocco, a mythical place of movie stars and mosques
Casablanca, or Kaza as it is locally known, is located in the central-western part of Morocco bordering the Atlantic Ocean and is the largest city in Morocco. It is also the largest city in Maghreb, as well as one of the largest and most important cities in Africa, both economically and demographically. As Morocco’s chief port and one of the largest financial centres on the continent, it is home to at least 3.35 million in the urban area and over 6.8 million in the Casablanca-Settat region.
Walk along the Atlantic seaboard and visit the country’s largest mosque, Hassan II, which overlooks the water and has a holding capacity of 25 000 people. It is intricately detailed with a minaret that rises 210 m into the sky. It was there that on my visit I abandoned conventional timekeeping and aimed to have my days marked out by the melodic calls to prayer of the muezzin.
Take a delicious high-end lunch at Rick’s Café, known unequivocally as the best gin joint in town. Make sure it includes their signature goats cheese and fig salad as well as an aromatic savoury and sweet Moroccan stuffed red pepper. Designed to recreate the bar made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the legendary 1942 movie, it has passion and political espionage imprinted on the beautifully restored courtyard-style mansion that hugs Casablanca’s old medina wall.
Rishikesh, Northern India, the birthplace of yoga
Rishikesh is a city in India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, in the Himalayan foothills beside the Ganges River. The river is considered holy, and the city is renowned as a center for studying yoga and meditation. Temples and ashrams (centres for spiritual studies) line the eastern bank around Swarg Ashram, a traffic-free, alcohol-free and vegetarian enclave upstream from Rishikesh town.
Located in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, Rishikesh is known as the ‘Gateway to the Garhwal Himalayas’ and ‘Yoga Capital of the World’. It is one of the holiest places to Hindus. Hindu sages and saints have visited Rishikesh since ancient times to meditate in search of higher knowledge.
Today most of the ashrams and retreats are found north of the main town, where the exquisite setting on the fast-flowing Ganges, surrounded by forested hills, is conducive to meditation and mind expansion. In the evening, an almost supernatural breeze blows down the valley, setting temple bells ringing as sadhus (‘holy’ men), pilgrims and tourists prepare for the nightly ganga aarti — the river worship ceremony.
The defining image of Rishikesh is the view across the Lakshman Jhula hanging bridge to the huge, 13-storey temple of Swarg Niwas and Shri Trayanbakshwar. Built by the organisation of the guru Kailashanand, it resembles a fairy-land castle and has dozens of shrines to Hindu deities on each level, interspersed with jewellery and textile shops.
A pleasant 2km walk south of Lakshman Jhula, along the path skirting the east bank of the Ganges, leads to the spiritual community of Swarg Ashram, made up of temples, ashrams, a crowded bazaar, sadhus and the bathing ghats where religious ceremonies are performed at sunrise and sunset.
Har ki Pauri is one the holiest Ghats in the country and the first place where Ganga touches plains, leaving behind the pristine ranges of the Himalayas. The ghat is also known as the Brahma Kund where you can view the stone which has an imprint of Lord Vishnu’s foot, as pointed out by the name. You will also see the Ram Jhula which is the iron parallax bridge and the newer bridge named after Lakshman’s brother, Lord Ram.
Shopping in Rishikesh is not only fun but a unique experience too and you don’t have to travel far — everything is available at pretty much everywhere in the town. A definite must is the colourful Lakshman Jhula market with dozens of small shops selling good collections of religious idols, wooden goods, ayurvedic medicines, artificial jewellery, rudrakshas, yoga gear, handcrafted gift items and more.
Many stalls sell rudraksha mala, the strings of beads used in puja (literally ‘respect’; offering or prayers). They are made from the nuts of the rudraksha tree, which is said to have originally grown where Shiva shed a single tear following a particularly long and satisfying period of meditation. Beads with mukhi (different faces) confer various blessings on the wearer.
Lastly, there are also several popular shops for traditional Indian garments, music shops with good CD collections on devotional and yoga music, religious books, gems and jewellery shops with semi-precious gemstones and unique religious and historical antiques at moderate prices.
While the emphasis of my visit was a Namaste Retreats India transformation retreat, meditation, fasting, Ayurveda and Yoga, we enjoyed numerous outings that gave excellent insight into Rishikesh’s many beautiful sights and its colourful history. From attending the festival of lights on the banks of Ma Ganga to a visit to the Beatles Ashram and long walks on the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, there is so much on offer.
Located in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, Rishikesh is known as the ‘Gateway to the Garhwal Himalayas’ and ‘Yoga Capital of the World’.
Lisbon, Portugal — cobbled roads and tram rides
A place of allure with its unique beauty, symmetrically laid Portuguese pavement, brightly painted buildings and viewpoints that reveal layer upon layer of terracotta roofs and white church steeples, you can lose your heart to this European city that effortlessly mixes traditional heritage with modern design and progressive thinking.
Lisbon is now easier to get to and more affordable than ever with Taag Angolan Airlines adding convenient routes between Johannesburg and Cape Town, via Luanda into the Portuguese capital. Once there accommodation can be booked in well located and affordable Airbnb apartments, or one of the reasonably priced and stylish hotels with views towards the river.
Coffee and beer cost about the same as in South Africa, food can be bought from the market or enjoyed at restaurants frequented by the Lisbon people. You can choose to either walk the cobbled streets or hop on the tram and lose yourself in the sights as it transports you from one head attraction to another. This is a city to live in, no matter the length of your stay, make it your home for those days and pretend you’re a local soaking up the old-fashioned laidback charm as you get your European fix.
Long drawn to see the city, on both occasions I bought a ticket with TAAG Angola Airlines, booked an apartment with Airbnb in a well-located area — the first time for ten days in historic Alfama, and then two weeks in more residential Santos, and arrived with no plans other than to immerse myself into local living. Which is exactly what I did.
Lisbon as Portugal’s hilly, coastal capital city sits on the Tagus River with the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge linking its banks. Its beauty takes on all shades of wonder, intrigue, architecture and history and it is famed for its many viewpoints, the most impressive being from São Jorge Castle.
Among the attractions are the National Azulejo Museum displaying five centuries of decorative ceramic tiles. In trendy Belem, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) is where these three areas intertwine within a space of debate and dialogue. I took time to listen to Fado music and learn more about its origins, visited the Museu do Aljube that showcases Portugal under dictatorship and the country’s subsequent struggle for freedom and democracy, spent time in the Maritime Museum and lingered in all of the art galleries.
On one of the days that I was there I took a trip across the river to see the Cristo Rei statue — you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Rio — as well as a closer look at residential Almada. A day trip to nearby Sintra introduced me to the charming royal sanctuary resort town on the foothills of Portugal’s Sintra Mountains. I spent much time at the LX Factory, a regenerated creative island that is home to fashion, food, fine arts, music, and one of the best bookshops I’ve seen.
I walked for hours to familiarise myself with the lay of the land, seeking out the best examples of alcada portuguesa pavements and photographing street art. I lingered in restaurants and cafes, shopped at local markets and ate as many pasteis de nata as possible.
Besides the walking, exploration was by tram and tuk-tuk and through the eyes of the welcoming people I met along the way. I’m already planning my return trip for more, and could quite easily join the half a million lucky ones who get to call Lisboa home.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, passion-fused tangos and painted streets
Buenos Aires is Argentina’s big, cosmopolitan capital city. Its center is the Plaza de Mayo, lined with stately 19th-century buildings including Casa Rosada, the iconic, balconied presidential palace. Other major attractions include Teatro Colón, a grand 1908 opera house with nearly 2,500 seats, and the modern MALBA museum, displaying Latin American art.
The food scene is increasingly dynamic, but for many travellers, it’s the city’s renowned meat that shines. Satisfying a craving for juicy steaks isn’t hard to do in the land that has perfected grilling wonderfully flavorful sides of beef, washed down with a generous glass of malbec or bonarda. Parrillas (steakhouses) sit on practically every corner and will offer up myriad cuts. For the vegetarians like me, the salads are remarkable.
This is a beautiful city and if you look beyond the high rises and stroll through the streets, paying attention to the architecture and parks where locals lounge during their lunch break, you’ll soon be won over. These days the beauty of these traditional neighbourhoods is further enhanced by colourful murals painted by artists involved in the city’s vibrant street-art scene. For these talented individuals, the city is their canvas, especially in La Boca.
Down some coffee and be prepared to stay up all night — this city doesn’t sleep. Restaurants get going after 9, bars at midnight and clubs at 2 am at the earliest; serious clubbers don’t show up until just before dawn. And it’s not just the young folk who head out on the town in this city; Buenos Aires’ diverse range of bars, clubs and live-music venues offers something for everyone, from DJs spinning electronica to live jazz sets. Just remember you’ll be doing it all very late.
The famous dance the Tango is been described as ‘making love in the vertical position’. Legend has that it began in the bordellos of long-ago Buenos Aires when men waiting for their ‘ladies’ passed time by dancing among themselves. Today, glamorised tango shows are mesmerising and seductive to watch. Take a class or two while there.
Saigon or Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, a heaving metropolis
The first thing to strike you about Ho Chi Minh City is how the streets teem with family laden scooters, bicycles, cars and carts that weave their way between pedestrians in conical hats and covered faces, as all go about their business with colourful determination. Yet beyond this frenetic welcome, is a city brimming with a wealth of history, art and culture, one that is home to a distinct blend of Southeast Asian, Chinese and French influences.
Visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and see the Cu Chi tunnels, which represent the sheer grit and determination of the Vietnamese people. The War Remnants Museum brings the harsh realities of war into focus, while the Mekong Delta and floating market the soulful farmers who grow the country’s rice and intensely flavoured fruit. Stop at a Buddhist temple for welcome contemplation and get a feel of what life in modern Saignon is really like, as you explore by foot or on a bike.
** Top photo of me in Sarajevo taken by the super talented Hein van Tonder of Heinstirred.