Leave your watch at home, switch off your phone, tear up your itinerary and forget your bucket list. Surrender to the meandering spirit of exploration and just… get lost!
The Low-down: Considered one of the holiest places on the sub-continent, Varanasi is where Hindu pilgrims come to wash a lifetime of sins in the Ganges, the river of salvation. It is named after the two rivers, Varuna and Asi, which meet here. Previously known as Benares and Kashi, this is the city of Lord Shiva, the most powerful god in Hinduism. Expiring here is thought to be the greatest blessing as it offers liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Believed to be the crossing ground between the physical and spiritual worlds, the city of light is home to intimate rituals conducted publicly on the ‘ghats’. Varanasi has an eerie yet bewitching aura which makes it an unforgettable experience because of the collective sense of rebirth and the sacred acts of cremation.
X-Factor: Once you’re done taking in the magical side of this overwhelming city, walking along the intricate stairways and passages or taking a boat ride, you can take a trip back to the present day by visiting the markets. Varanasi is popular for its Banarasi saris made from silk, adorned with intricate designs and zari embellishments (threads of gold or silver).
Shopaholics can find much more than brocaded fabrics here. Fetch the best of handmade brassware, jewellery, woodcraft, carpets, wall hangings, lampshades and masks of deities which make the perfect souvenirs. Foodies shouldn’t leave without trying out the langra mangoes and khoa, a dairy product. The daring epicurean can have a go at the Banarasi paan.
Best For: Culturologists will go crazy in the labyrinthine ‘Old City’. Varanasi boasts a unique culture of fine arts and literature. Watch an all-night open-air music concert and visit the various forts and museums within the area. Indulge in authentic ayurvedic treatments to relax muscles that have spent enthralling hours weaving through crowds of people.
The Low-down: There are many places that anyone bitten by the travel bug ought to visit. Japan ranks on top of our list of favourite destinations. Just as travellers can’t call themselves so without having been to Paris, London and Rome, it’s much the same if you haven’t experienced Kyoto. The treasure house of the country’s rich culture and much of its history, this city plays host to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, over 1,600 Buddhist temples and more than 400 Shinto shrines. Kyoto is the Japan of your imagination, what you have read in books, heard of in conversation and seen in the movies.
X-Factor: Like other tourist destinations, Kyoto has its share of amazing museums and parks. Nevertheless, this is a temple city and it would be silly to leave without visiting Fushimi-Inari Taisha. This shrine could be dubbed the poster boy of Kyoto. The bathhouses, shrines and temples are great for the typical tourist.
The Kyoto International Manga Museum caught our attention. Located in an old elementary school building, it is the perfect introduction to the manga form of art. It features a fair share of English-translated copies amidst a growing collection of over 300,000 Japanese comic books.
Best For: For those with itchy feet, we recommend a walk around Kyoto’s neighbourhoods, especially the Gion district and Tetsugaku-no-Michi (Path of Philosophy). Avid readers can find themselves immersed in the tales narrated through Memoirs of a Geisha and Norwegian Wood. Beauty is scattered generously across Kyoto. All it takes to enjoy it is setting a little time aside to explore and discover hidden jewels.
The Low-down: It is safe to say that Havana is the Caribbean equivalent to Goa, because of its romantic atmosphere and infectious energy. This city thrives on all things vintage. In every corner, you can find hints of its roller-coaster history and influences of various countries, especially Latin American. The warm crystalline waters are as captivating as its culturally unique societies. Do not expect to see the jaw-dropping glory of popular European cities. Havana is as laid-back as it gets. You need to get out there and find the true essence of this Cuban paradise; there’s only one way to do it. Walk!
X-Factor: It’s easy to ‘get lost’ in the city of columns; the opportunities are endless. From the neighbourhoods of Centro Habana or Vedado and a mysterious Santería ritual to a guided tour around Habana Vieja’s enchanting colonial monuments and a stroll along the Malecón (Av de Maceo), you will be lured so far in to its lifestyle that you will fail to tell apart the thorn from the flower.
Take a tour in a classic ‘50s car. Must-visits include The National Museum of Fine Arts, the monuments at Plaza de la Revolución and the white sandy beaches of Playas del Este. Experience a late-night cabaret show, roll a fat one at the cigar museum and catch Che’s mausoleum while you’re there. Quit being a tourist for just a day and dare to walk aimlessly, preferably a couple of blocks north of Parque Central, to find the time warp you pictured Havana to be.
Best For: Photographers. To familiarise yourself with the raw essence of this city, you need to shack up with a local, find your rumba rhythm (on the street), witness the evolution of Cuban music at historic music halls and clubs, and keep an eye out for urban graffiti and murals (Banksy included). Finish off your cultural osmosis with a taste of authentic cuisine and drop in for a pint at the traditional bars — typical Hemingway haunts.