A friend said to me “Now that you’ve seen the world, tell me where to go.” The simple answer is everywhere. This year I’ve visited 30 cities outside the US. Most of them for the first time. None of them were terrible, not even Napoli. But some were definitely more amazing than others. Here are the top 5.
- San Marino
(Yes, that’s actually 6. Read on to see which one stole it’s way into my heart and onto the list. Any city that repeatedly inspires that much delight can’t be denied a spot.)
As your train crosses the Rhein and pulls up to the Hauptbahnhof (train station), an enormous monolith towers over you. It’s the Dom cathedral, it’s huge, and it’s so close you can’t see the top of it. It may not sparkle like Italian marble, but it dominates and amazes.
The Rhein is lovely wide river, and Koln has pleny of spots to sit and enjoy the view over a beer or dinner. But head west to the edge of downtown. Miles of parks await you. In Hiroshima-Nagasaki Park there’s a pond and fountain next to a biergarten. Sit down and have a 0.2L Kolsch beer. It’s a small serving, in a tall, thin glass, so it doesn’t go flat before you finish drinking it. Enjoy a bratwurst or flammkuchen with your beer.
Welcome to Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. Sapporo is home of Japan’s first brewery, which takes the city’s name. This place is delightfully simple to navigate, because all the streets run in a grid. Addresses are just named after the blocks, like “2 south, 4 west.”
In the center is Ohori Park. It’s several blocks long, starting with Sapporo Tower. Go up and get a view of the park the city, and the hills that surround it. Go in July and sample all of Japan’s beers at the Summer Beer Festival. It feels like Oktoberfest, with only the lederhosen and dirndls missing. Or go enjoy the snow sculptures during their winter festival.
Make sure you go ramen alley for lunch. This is not the freeze dried noodles you ate in college. Discover whether you prefer the rich miso broth or the mild but savory shoyu style. And don’t miss out on the King Crab that Hokkaido is famous for. You can also try a yakitori restaurant for sizzling skewers of beef, chicken, or vegetables while you’re in town. If asian food is not your thing, you can find plenty of Italian and Spanish restaurants in the main shopping district
Arriving in the Centro Storico you feel like you’re on Mount Olympus. You’ve climbed through the clouds and are now gazing upon the mortals far below. In fact, you’ll go from one viewing point to the next, admiring the rolling green pastures, the far aways mountains, and even the Mediterranean sea in the distance.
Once you’re saturated on romantic scenic views, you can turn your attention to the city walls and towers. The medieval architecture will amaze you. You’ll soon long for a simpler time with less email and more wine.
With it’s location and fortresses, it’s no wonder San Marino politely declined to join the likes of Venice, Florence, and Pisa in becoming a unified Italy.
Come on, it’s not exactly a surprise that Venezia makes it into the top 5. Canals. In Italy. ‘Nuff said.
I absolutely loved having my morning cappuccino at an outdoor cafe by the canal – in the non-crowded —— section of course.
Splurge on a romantic gondola ride. Have a coffee in the romantic St Mark’s square. Enjoy a seafood pasta dinner at a romantic restaurant. Catching onto the theme?
I highly recommend you download Rick Steve’s free audio guide app and explore St. Peter’s Basilica. Then get away from the crowds and listen to him describe the artwork in the Frari Church.
When you’re done, you won’t be able to resist grabbing a bottle of wine, finding a bench by the canal and engaging in that most Italian activity – making out like no one is watching.
Prague is the reason I put 6 cities on my top 5 list. (I already had five written, and then a weekend trip here wowed me.)
Prague take a page out of Firenze’s book (or several chapters). The building are gorgeous, if more Gothic. The towers are grand, if a bit more imposing. The Charles bridge offers great views. And the entire city is dominated by the Hrad Castle and the St Vitus Cathedral.
But wait, there’s more. Prague has whimsy. This is the home of Franz Kafka after all. The sculptor David Cerny has done his part to continue the quirky vibe.
Lastly, Prague also comes with beer. Pilsners, darks, and wheats. And here the beer really is cheaper than water (and much tastier).
You know when you step outside just in time to see a sunset dominating the sky? Or you drive over a hill and see the shimmering ocean? Firenze is like that every day. The green and rose and white marble of the Duomo is that sunset. The Piazza Santa Croce is that ocean. And they’re ten minutes apart. On foot. There’s so much beauty here it even has a name: Florence Syndrome.
Here’s a perfect day in Firenze. Breakfast outdoors at Piazza Santa Croce with a view of the Basilica. Stroll to the Galleria dell’Academia and view Michelangelo’s David along with his four never-competed “captive” sculptures. Have a pasta lunch sitting next to the Duomo and the Campanille (bell tower). Stroll through the Duomo’s interior, and then climb to the top, pausing at the viewing deck to admire the interior from above.
After the climb, reward yourself with a gelato. Use the energy to continue on foot past the Palazzo Vecchio with it’s copy of the David outdoors, then the Uffizi museum and across the Ponte Vecchio. Climb up to the Piazale Michelangelo and admire the entire vista of the Centro Storico: Santa Croce, Santa Maria, the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Ponte Vecchio – not to mention one more copy of the David. Head back down to the riverside for an Apertivo dinner at Golden View, overlooking the Arno river (reservations recommended). Finish the evening with a glass of wine at whichever piazza was your favorite. All of the buildings glow from well placed spotlights.
Still want more?
And now the runners up. #7 is Torino, for the beautiful Chiesa Della Grande Madre, Parco Del Valentino, and lack of tourist crowds. #8 is Roma, for the Colosseum, the forums, and the Altare Della Patria (aka “The Typewriter”). #9 is Himeji, for the amazing Himeji castle. #10 is Berlin, for the Siegessäule, the Brandenburg Gate, the Dom, and all the hip foreign residents.