Home to more than half the world’s population, and nearly 50 countries, the continent of Asia does not lack for variety. History lovers, gourmands, outdoor enthusiasts, and night owls will all find cities that feel like they were made just for them. And while there are far more than just 10 cities worth exploring, these are the 10 you absolutely must check off your bucket list.
1. Beijing, China
The seamless fusion of the old and the new in China’s capital is best exemplified by the Forbidden City. This ancient palace, a quintessential example of imperial architecture, was once home to Chinese emperors. It was also once home to a Starbucks. While you can’t get your caffeine fix there anymore, you can find teahouses, restaurants, and shops among the nearby maze of hutongs, or narrow alleyways formed by private courtyard residences.
Of course there are modern touches throughout Beijing as well, including the Olympic stadium, built for the 2008 Summer Games; and easily navigable public transportation, updated with English signs in many locations—another product of the 2008 Olympics.
Beijing is home to many temples, including the 13th-century Confucius Temple and the nearby Buddhist Lama Temple. The one can’t-miss spot is the Temple of Heaven, an imperial prayer altar used by emperors from both the Ming and Qing dynasties. Today the UNESCO World Heritage Site is a public park, so plan some extra time to enjoy the grounds.
Both the Mausoleum of Mao and Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world and the site of protests throughout history, are right next door to the Forbidden City. If that’s not enough, Beijing offers easy access to the Great Wall of China, the longest manmade structure in the world.
2. Singapore, Singapore
Singapore, which celebrated 50 years of independence in 2015, is renowned for its safety, cleanliness, and melting pot of cuisine. But the island city-state is also a study in eco-friendly urban design and conservation. Its Garden City nickname makes sense when you account for its sheer number of green spaces. Even the city’s airport has plans for a mixed-use biodome, including a waterfall.
Singapore’s old-growth forests are protected in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, along with more than 500 species of fauna (and plenty of monkeys). The TreeTop Walk, a 250-meter suspension bridge, connects two of the parks highest points. The 150-year old Singapore Botanic Gardens are the most-visited botanic gardens in the world, while the Sungei Buloah Wetland Reserve is home to mangrove swamps.
However, one of Singapore’s most eye-catching eco-attractions is the Gardens by the Bay, particularly its Supertree Grove. The six-story “trees,” made of concrete core and covered with more than 150,000 plants, put on a mesmerizing light-up spectacle at night. Some trees even have sustainability functions, like the ability to harvest solar energy.
3. Hong Kong, China
The word “restless” is frequently tossed around when describing Hong Kong. The energy is palpable in this fast-paced city, and it’s hard to resist staying up all night—so don’t. Start by arriving to Peak Tram a half hour or so before sundown so you can watch the city light up from atop Victoria Peak. Riding up, you’ll feel like the skyscrapers are falling toward the peak, but don’t worry: a study by The University of Hong Kong confirms it’s a visual illusion. At 8:00 p.m. every evening, you can watch “A Symphony of Lights,” named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest permanent light and sound show in the world.
Speakeasy-style cocktail bars are half the fun of the nightlife scene, including 001, discreetly tucked between two stalls in the Graham Street market. Then there’s the Temple Street Night Market. The Tin Hau temple sits in its midst, and along the street hawkers lay out their wares, such as watches, antiques, and tea paraphernalia. Listen to opera singers, get your fortune told, or try something new from one of the food stalls.
The morning after a long night on the town calls for dim sum, and though the decades-old Lin Heung Tea House may not cater to English speakers, it’s hailed for its authenticity. Walk off the food coma at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, the city’s largest with 12 exhibition galleries featuring historical, cultural, and artistic works from the region. It also has an exhibition with more than 600 objects from film star Bruce Lee.
4. Mumbai, India
It’s hard to classify a city that has enormous film industry, including Bollywood; contains Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the largest tropical forest in an urban area; and fuses architecture styles, as with Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Station). A visit to one of Mumbai’s bazaars is possibly the best way to discover the mix of colors this city brings to the palette. Bargain for spices, souvenirs, and silks among the stalls at places like Crawford Market, Chor Bazaar, or Mutton Street.
Step outside the markets for a visit to Mani Bhavan, the one-time home of Mahatma Gandhi. You can also take a guided tour of Dharavi, often called the largest slum in Asia. Though that statistic is disputable, there’s no disputing that around one million people live within this one-square-mile area. The tours aim to introduce you to the people that make up this community, as well as provide an understanding of the industry that goes on within its streets, including recycling, pottery making, and leather tanning.
And though it may be impossible to escape the sound of honking horns, you can see if the waves along the coastline will drown out the city sounds—and take in a stellar sunset—at Juhu Beach on the Arabian Sea.
5. Bangkok, Thailand
One of the most visited cities in the world, Bangkok is known for its 24-hour street food—so prepare to feast, sleep, and repeat. Try the likes of duck tongue barbeque, bird saliva soup, or pig brain soup. Thailand’s capital is also known for surprisingly good Middle Eastern cuisine. For a more rambunctious street life atmosphere, head to Khao San Road, where locals and foreigners comingle. Nightfall brings popup bars in addition to the brick-and-mortar bars and clubs that are a permanent street staple.
With the Chao Phraya River flowing through it, feeding a network of canals, the area around Bangkok boasts numerous floating markets, the closest being Klong Lat Mayom. Guided boat tours allow you to visit popular markets and get a taste of the tropical fruits, coconut juice, and local food cooked right on the boats. The most popular is Damnoen Saduak, but Amphawa is more authentic. Back on land, ornate architecture sticks out among modern skyscrapers, such as the Grand Palace and its Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), considered the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand.
Get to Bangkok while you still can: Scientists say the city is sinking about three inches per year into the plains and river deltas that make up the foundation of the city.
6. Tokyo, Japan
As host of the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo is ready for at least one thing: feeding hordes of visitors. Japan’s capital has more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else, including an eatery that specializes in poisonous blowfish.
But Tokyo also makes it easy to eat on the cheap with hole-in-the-wall udon, ramen, and yakitori (skewered meat) spots galore. For the freshest of fresh fish, head to Tsukiji Fish Market, the world’s largest fish market, before it’s relocated for the Olympics. People arrive in the wee hours of the morning, and it’s the ideal time and place to grab a sushi breakfast. Walk it all off in Yoyogi Park or Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden before finding an izakaya, or informal Japanese-style pub, generally marked by a chalkboard menu. You’ll also have your pick of theme restaurants, including prison, ninja, and various video game-themed eateries.
Even if you decide to go shopping, you’ll find a spread of treats—prepared foods, desserts, sake—in the basement of department stores. And for a dose of cuteness with your coffee, head to a cat cafe. No matter how you’re feeling, you can’t help but walk out with a smile on your face.
7. Seoul, South Korea
Seoul’s transformation from an impoverished city to arguably the high-tech capital of the world is no small feat. It has one of the world’s most-used subway systems, and even English-speaking visitors will find it easy to navigate.
Skyscrapers like Seoul Tower offer sprawling views of the city and the Buddhist temples it overshadows. Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its ancient architecture, but the city as a whole earned the distinction of UNESCO City of Design in 2010 for its cutting-edge construction. Seoul is also epicenter of forward-thinking beauty trends. A slew of day spas offer up a variety of treatments, including several operated by major cosmetic brands like the English company LUSH. Jjimjilbangs, or bathhouses, are often open 24 hours and offer a variety of baths infused with the likes of green tea or ginseng; and Korean kiln saunas with different minerals, such as jade or pine. While most spas are separated by gender, you may encounter some with coed areas. Most give you no reason to leave, offering food and even places to spend the night.
8. Hoi An, Vietnam
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hoi An Ancient Town remains a trading port, just as it was from the 15th to 19th centuries as it thrived in the spice trade. The fact that it’s so well-preserved attracts foreigners who come to see the poster child for traditional Southeast Asian ports. One-time merchant homes represent Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese styles and are now a mix of antique shops, eateries, and galleries. Wander among canals and bridges, including the Japanese Covered Bridge, first built in the 1590s by the Japanese to connect them with the Chinese community. The river is a hub of activity, offering up activities such as boat rides, fishing-like-a-local lessons, and al fresco dining. Or take a visit to nearby beaches and islands. For the fashionable set, Hoi An is known for its tailors—it’s home to hundreds of them—who can make you a custom-made coat or dress just by looking at a photograph. If you can line up your visit on the 14th day of a lunar month, you’ll get to experience Hoi An aglow via traditional colored lanterns, as the town shuts off its electric lights and shuts down to motorized vehicles. The lantern festival offers a glimpse at what life was like hundreds of years ago.
9. Siem Reap, Cambodia
The #1 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Destination in Asia for 2015, and the #2 destination overall, Siem Reap is widely known as base camp for Angkor. While the most famous, Angkor Wat, draws the most attention, there’s also Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, the filming location for Tomb Raider. For the most memorable mental snapshots, plan visits at sunrise and sunset.
Take in the town on a tuk tuk and stop by the Angkor Night Market to perfect your bargaining skills. The shopping stalls offer everything from silk to woodcarvings, while street-food vendors and bars will keep you fueled throughout the experience.
10. Taipei, Taiwan
Taipei is known for its wide variety of street food as well as its neon-lit night markets, and luckily the two go hand in hand. To maximize your stomach space, try Taipei’s xiao chi, or little snacks. You’re likely to come across oyster omelets, stinky tofu, and freshly squeezed sugarcane nectar. One of the largest markets is the Shilin District market, but head to Huaxi Street if you want to try venomous snakes or rats—edible at the hands of skilled chefs, of course.
For many, the go-to dining destination is Yongkang Street, where you’ll find coffee shops, cafes serving noodles and dumplings, places to stop for afternoon tea, and patisseries serving nearly any sweet imaginable. Taiwan is known for its teas, and you can take the Maokong Gondola to the Muzha tea plantation district, tucked in the mountainside, where you’ll find teahouses serving oolong, the most popular type of tea produced here. Taiwan is also the birthplace of boba or bubble tea, a tea base mixed with fruit or milk with chewy tapioca “pearls.” You won’t have trouble finding it in Taipei. And if you wander all night and still find yourself hungry at dawn, Dongmen Market is alive after dawn and bustling with merchants selling meats, dumplings, noodles, and any number of provisions that make a perfectly acceptable breakfast.
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