Friday, August 10, 2018
The hodgepodge of historical periods and cultures represented in Lisbon, Portugal, is a major source of its charm and travel appeal. A sprawling city on the banks of the Tagus River, Lisbon constantly reminds travelers that Portugal has been conquered several times, that it developed (and lost) its own illustrious empire and that, for much of the 20th century, it isolated itself from the rest of the world.
But when Portugal joined the European Union in 1986, it experienced a major economic boost. A completely new quarter sprang up on the banks of the Tagus. Lisbon is modernizing fast as a European travel destination.
As visitors to Portugal walk Lisbon's hills—or, better, take one of Lisbon's vintage trams—they'll find restored medieval facades, wonderful art-nouveau buildings, black-and-white mosaic sidewalks (known as calcada), fine museums and plenty of modern shops.
Lisbon's citizens seem to have absorbed their city's many-sided character. Visitors can witness the popularity of fado, the melancholy music that developed in Lisbon in the early-19th century. Though the performers sing about tragedy and distant glory, the audience is very much a part of modern Lisbon—a flourishing, fashionable business and leisure center.
Wednesday, August 1, 2018
Bangkok, Thailand, can soothe or ruffle, and it often does both. While contemplating the sunrise at a temple or monks collecting alms, you'll marvel at what peace can be found in the midst of such a chaotic metropolis.
A cultural hub in Southeast Asia, Bangkok is a collage of urban squalor, gleaming affluence, mass consumerism and pollution. Most certainly, the city will assault your senses. It's fascinating and indulgent, but it requires time and patience.
Comfort of one sort or another is never far away: When your feet tire of wandering through the Grand Palace, head over to neighboring Wat Pho for an hour-long foot massage; if you exhaust your meager supply of Thai words bargaining for souvenirs, pop into an air-conditioned movie theater and take in an English-language film; if you are overwhelmed by the density of people along Sampeng Lane in Chinatown, drop into a coffee shop or open-air restaurant and enjoy a cool drink; if you are looking for excitement, you can watch Muay Thai (kickboxing) at Lumpini Boxing Stadium or hang around with backpackers at the bars on Khao San Road.
Upon arrival, you may find the constant din shocking, the geography impossible (no map does justice to the city's meandering lanes), and the traffic absolutely unbelievable. But stay more than a night or two and the city's bewildering kaleidoscope begins to make sense. Although the cacophony will never melt away, soon it will transmit the excitement and vibrant charm of one of the world's greatest cities.
Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Dublin, Ireland, is the small, charming, eminently walkable city that visitors expect, and the
corner pub offers a warm welcome. Wry perceptions are uttered with a winsome Irish lilt in
Dublin. And, as visitors stroll along the city's handsome Georgian squares, they'll realize the
necessity of an umbrella.
But today's Dublin also includes high-tech companies, many of them located in the lovely
Georgian houses that line the city's streets. High-rises and cosmopolitan restaurants and
hotels continue to spring up next door to traditional taverns and friendly guesthouses, and a
beehive of construction work aimed at improving the city's infrastructure buzzes around them.
Dublin is a city in transition, from medieval capital to exciting commercial center—a hip,
electric city, astonishing even visitors who make it their business to stay on Europe's cutting
edge. Dublin's unpretentious charm is still there, but chic urbanity has moved in beside it.
Now known for its vibrant nightlife, Dublin has become a favorite city-break destination for
young European visitors. Visitors could spend a week in Dublin and still not cover all the
Wednesday, July 11, 2018
Budapest, Hungary, may be the capital of the landlocked country, but it's far from dry. In fact, Budapest's most seductive element is water. It springs from underground wells, filling Ottoman, neoclassical and art-nouveau pools.
It flows through the city in the broad and meandering Danube River, dividing Buda and Pest in yin-yang fashion. It even provides welcome relief after a bowl of hot paprika-spiced goulash.
Few visitors can resist the Budapest baths, but the city's allure goes beyond its spa status. As a large urban center, Budapest manages to strike a nice balance between nature and development. Hills, islands and parks coexist with hotels, theaters, cafes, monuments and other buildings in an eclectic array of architectural styles.
Monday, July 2, 2018
Prior to the discovery of oil in 1958, the emirate of Abu Dhabi was basically a poor, rural wasteland. Today, it has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. The emirate is characterized by three political or geographic divisions: the city of Abu Dhabi, Al-Ain and the offshore islands.
The city of Abu Dhabi, the seat of government of the U.A.E. and the nation's second largest city, is quite modern and clean. Date palms nestled between the glass and steel high-rises give the city a bit of soul, but it is still primarily an administrative and business center. However, it is emerging as a highly desirable destination. There's a vibrant downtown with interesting streets and abundant sidewalk cafes, and a growing number of prestigious museums.
Abu Dhabi's coastal area consists primarily of swamps and salt flats, but as you go inland, the view becomes classic desert: Nomads tend their sheep (often by truck or four-wheel-drive vehicle) among the oases, date palms, sand dunes and gravel pits.
Monday, June 18, 2018
Singapore has always been a crossroads between East and West. Once upon a time, its port swelled with Chinese, Arab, Malay, Indian and European traders who went to exchange exotic wares. Today, the city-state has expanded to become one of the world's busiest ports, and over time, as goods have been exchanged, cultures have mingled as well. To the casual observer, Singapore appears to be a clean and orderly mass of shopping malls and McDonald's. But the curious who dig a bit deeper will find that the cultures of the original settlers are still very much alive and well in this truly multicultural melting pot.
Singapore's dedication to preserving cultural heritage has created a number of excellent museums and thriving, ethnically distinct neighborhoods. Chinatown and Little India still retain some of their original cultural relevance for Singaporeans while attracting foreign visitors who marvel at the endurance of cultural identity. A stroll through any of the city's neighborhoods will reveal Taoist temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches cohabitating peaceably side by side. Cultural intermingling has also produced unique Eurasian and Peranakan (Straits Chinese) cultures, each with its own fashion, furnishings and food.
Speaking of food, with so much cultural diversity, dining in Singapore is varied and good—gastronomic experiences range from the finest Continental cuisine served with polished silver to delicious local dishes served in an open-air hawker center with plastic chopsticks. It's a small wonder Singaporeans love to eat.
Singapore is both an island and a country, but perhaps it is best described as a city-state. Like the great city-states of the past, it offers civilization and order in the highest degree. Its combination of Western-style development and Eastern-style order seems to present the best of both hemispheres: It's a modern metropolis where you feel safe walking the streets, and it's an Asian business center that's a model of efficiency. Singapore is also an ethnically mixed city, and close to one-quarter of its population is made up of expatriates or foreign workers from all over the world. Known for its desire to become the technology hub of Asia, Singapore is the most wired country in the region.
Another trait Singapore shares with historical city-states: Its authorities strongly believe that they can safeguard the status quo with regulations against almost anything and everything that—in their view—could possibly upset the sense of tranquility. It is important to note that in terms of cultural values, Singapore is a relatively conservative society compared with most Western countries and even other developed cities in Asia. Controversial topics such as same-sex marriage and religion should be approached with sensitivity. In reality, visitors will find the place is not as restrictive as suggested by the long lists of hefty fines for such things as littering and jaywalking. Some visitors to Singapore leave singing the praises of a society that "works," but others feel the government's near-compulsive fixation on cleanliness and order makes Singapore sterile in every sense of the word.
Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Marrakech is the most popular destination in Morocco. The setting is stunning, with ocher stucco buildings on a dry, rocky plain and the snow-peaked Atlas Mountains as a backdrop (though they're not always visible).
Much of the medina is surrounded by beautifully restored pinkish-red ramparts, and lovely palm gardens are interspersed among the impressive buildings, including an ever-growing number of nicely renovated courtyard townhouses (riads) that now serve as boutique-hotels. The modern town has gracious, wide avenues and large, resort-style hotels.
With the airport in expansion mode and more low-cost airlines flying there than ever before, Marrakech is expanding its visitor profile from curious, luxury-seeking travelers to a broader audience with options at more affordable price points. Along with this growth, the city has exploded with construction, seeing the likes of shopping malls and budget hotels joining the ranks of bigwig hotels and resorts. Most of the construction is taking place in the newer section of town, known as Gueliz. Still, there is plenty of room for everybody, and this has not stopped the luxury boom here, either.