(click to see the winners)
(click to see the winners)
This list includes only airports I’ve stayed in and is entirely influenced by my own personal experiences. For that reason, I shall include a little story within each description. As I visit more countries and see more of these airplane resting places, the list will likely change. That said, here are the five best and five worst airports so far.
Manas International: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan - Most Chaotic
If I could summarize my experience going to and staying in Manas Airport in just two words, they would be: Sheer Chaos. I’ve never, in my entire life, been in such a place, let alone such an airport. And I’m not saying this to criticize (as I did not put it my ‘Worst Airports’ section), I’m just saying that the place is crazy. There are no lines anywhere to be found, just large clusters of passengers jockeying their way to baggage check in where the clerk never bothered to weigh anything (hurray me for flying with 4 extra kg!). If announcments are made, they are vague or contradictory, and even on my way there, my driver was pulled over for going over 100mph (160kph) and simply bribed the cop in order to keep going. Overall, it was far to exciting and bizarre to be a bad experience, but I must warn you to be prepared if you ever fly in or out of here.
Most of the flying I have done out of the States has been from giant, crowded airports like JFK and Logan. Therefore, when I found a discounted flight last year from Providence to Ireland, I instantly went for it. Since then, I’ve flown out of Providence an additional two times and have absolutely zero regrets. Here’s why:
First of all, the airport is incredibly easy to get to. It’s right off of 95, rendering it nearly impossible to get lost, and since it’s so small, you don’t have to worry about the dreaded airport traffic.* On top of that, it’s small and clean inside with less that 20 total gates, and since the traffic is relatively small, you never have to wait in line for food or anything. But the best part, from my point of view, is that unlike most other American airports, the TSA staff there has always been nice and polite. Never once have they ‘randomly selected’ be for a search.
As of about 2 years ago, Providence now has discount flights on Norwegian Air to Ireland and the UK. If you buy early enough in advance, you can get round trip tickets for under $250 (220 euro) to cities like Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Belfast, and Edinburgh. Make sure to check on multiple days when searching since there are about three flights to each airport every week (meaning they aren’t daily).
While the airport itself is very small and a bit isolated, there is something else that helped this airport reach this list. You see, I’m a history nerd with a caffeine addiction. And this airport holds the claim of being the birthplace of Irish coffee back in the 1940s (yes, to all you nay sayers out there, I know some have challenged this claim). Whether it is the exact birthplace or not, it is still pretty cool to visit a location that is strongly connected to the wonderful, sweet mixture of a stimulant and depressant. But regardless of that, I also met a elderly Irish brother and sister from Limerick at this airport who offered to drive me over an hour to my destination, thus helping me avoid the aggravation and cost of a public bus. So even without the drink, the company keeps this airport solidly on the list.
While I’ve only been to this airport once, I shared a experience with it that’ll stay in my memory until the Alzheimer’s sinks in. It was August of 2016 and I had an 11 hour layover (from 11pm to 10am) en route from Dublin to Moscow. I was fairly broke as usual, so instead of booking a hostel in the city for the night, I made the conscious decision to spend the night at the airport. Although I had several nighttime layovers before, this would be the first time I spent the whole night in an airport. And like a teenager being handed his first alcoholic beverage, I was excited to find out what it was like.
Being the largest international airport of a developed European country, I expected to be alongside a few other companion travelers. But for some reason, there were none. Shortly after my flight landed, the few remaining passengers exited the airport, the shops shut down, and by midnight, all airport staff had gone as well. I was entirely alone, and according to the arrival screen, no plane would be coming or going until 8:00 in the morning.
Despite never having been out in the open air of Iceland, I’ve had numerous layovers in this airport while transiting between North America and Europe. And no matter how sleep deprived I’ve been, this place has always been a pleasure. The place itself has a warm and comfortable feel, as most of the structures are wooden, and there’s nothing too flashy. The airport is big enough that it never feels cramped or crowded, yet small enough that you cannot get lost or feel intimidated. No one seems to be in a rush, and the staff (at least from my personal experiences) is pretty friendly and helpful.
I highly recommend looking for flights that stop here if you happen to be flying from Europe to North America. Since Reykjavik services both WizzAir and Wow Air (their own discount airline), you’ll likely save a great deal of money by taking this route. Plus, if you go in June, you’ll get to see the island’s famous 24 hour daylight as you gaze out over the horizon at what seems like it could be another planet. The best way I could sum it up would be by saying that it provides a welcoming solace for the weary traveler.
It was a cold, rainy day in February when I landed in Baku’s Heydar Aliev International Airport. I was sleep deprived and disoriented, having just flown for nearly 13 hours while changing 9 different time zones. Needless to say, it seemed like it was going to be one of those experiences I needed to just get through and forget about… that was until I walked into the airport and my entire mood changed.
After going through customs, I stared in awe at what stood all around me. People were few and garbage was non-existant. The whole surrounding area was clean and elegant, yet cozy and welcoming. The color tones were warm, and the floor was soft with carpeting. Here and there were coffee and snack shops, each containing many unoccupied padded chairs. There were no loud noises and no large groups of obnoxious tourists (I guess February in Baku hasn’t caught on yet). After wandering about, I laid down on one of the soft, padded benches to have a sort rest and wait for my connecting flight. While there, no one bothered me an no one (unlike in France) yelled at me and told me to get up.
In the end, I was in the airport for a grand total of two and a half hours before taking off to Tbilisi (my final destination). Usually, I leave airports with a cold, impersonal feeling of disgust, but here I left relaxed, warm, and with a positive outlook on the rest of my travels. It may have been just a short moment, but it was enough to land Baku in the top spot.
Anyone familiar with this site (or me as a person) is probably well aware of my feelings towards this place. I don’t like it. Going here is about as pleasant as stepping on a infected nail while simultaneously collapsing due to kidney failure. Imagine a place where you had to pay $10 for a soggy, old sandwich, surrounding traffic was bad, and security was unhelpful. Well, that imagined place would seem like heaven compared to this airport. At JFK, the soggy old sandwiches are $15, traffic is a nightmare, and airport security actively makes your travel more stressful. I’ve been pulled aside and frisked during the baggage scan more time than I can count, and whenever I return back to the country, I’m questioned as if I’m on the terrorist-watch list. I could go on, but I recommend you read my story (see below) to get a complete picture of it.
For more detail of JFK’s awfulness, please read this harrowing tale:
For the first 27 years of my life, I was convinced there would never be an airport worse than New York’s JFK… that was until I had a layover in Beauvis, France (Paris suburb) on my way from Dublin to Kutaisi, Georgia. My entire layover was 10 hours overnight, and because I was nearly out of money, I planned to spend the night in the airport before taking off the following morning. And while the airport itself looked a bit cemetery end prison-like, I was willing to curl up on one of the old couches near the mini food court and wait it out. Unfortunately for me though, this airport closes at 10:00 pm and the staff forcibly kicks you out. Not only that, but the genius who planned everything decided that the last bus to the city would leave at 8:00. Therefore, if your flight gets in at 9:30 (as mine did), you’re entirely out of luck. And don’t even think about asking the staff for help, they’re more likely to pour salt on your wounds than assist you in any way. But anyway, if you’re curious to know how this harrowing night went, please read my story. (there are cartoons)
For reasons why you should never use this airport, read here:
I still remember my first experience entering this place. I was disoriented and jet-lagged, expecting something like the run-down dirty subway system I had gotten used to in New York, but when I entered the station and came up to the escalator that extended down as far as the eye could see, I instantly realized that this was something different. The best way I could describe it would be like this: imagine if every single station was a mix between a museum and work of art. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and, depending on the station, tiled murals could be on the walls depicting events from the country's history or statues could line the whole walkway. Every single one is different and has features unique in and unto itself. For example, the station Belaruskaya depicts images related to Belarussian culture, Dostoevskaya has a giant image of Dostoevsky's face. You'll find something new wherever you go and it's always interesting.
There is one commonality, though, that every station has. No garbage can be found anywhere. There is almost always someone cleaning and the stations are completely spotless. Plus the trains always arrive within two minutes or less from the time the previous one departed, no matter what day or time it happens to be (unless it's between 1:00am and 5:00am since the metro doesn't run then). Anyway, between the decor, efficiency and cleanliness, I've never seen anything that compares to Moscow's metro, and therefore it easily takes the top spot.
I'll start by admitting that before I arrived, I wasn't even sure if the city of Kazan had a metro. Turns out (as you can guess by this post) it does. And despite there being only two lines, it is one of the coolest, most creative one's I've ever encountered. Every single station is decorated with huge murals depicting different events from Tatar folklore or history, each with a different theme. Even though I'm not the foremost expert on the topic, it was so fascinating to get such a glimpse into a culture that I know very little about, which was made all the more exciting by how intricate and detailed every image was. Also, like Moscow and pretty much every other Russian metro I've ever been on, it was unbelievably clean. I just can't give it the top spot since I had to wait over ten minutes for the train to arrive on multiple occasions.
Inside the station, Almaty was actually pretty similar to Kazan with regards to decoration related to culture and history. Likewise, it was extremely clean, only cost 80 tenge (25 cents) to ride, and probably had the most modernized train cars I've ever ridden on. The only downsides though were that there was only one line, thus rendering a good deal of the city inaccessible, and ten minute gaps between trains. For that it falls short to Moscow's vast network of highly efficient lines, but remains one of my all time favorite metros.
Don't get me wrong, I really like Boston as a city, but its metro system 'The T' sucks. You can go faster on a bicycle with two flat tires. It may sound like I'm joking, but while riding The T, I have actually been passed by several cyclists (which is possible since The T is above ground). Whoever had the "brilliant" idea of designing it decided to intersperse the metro system with normal roads and traffic, so as a result, the trains often have to stop for cars, pedestrians, and whatever else happens to be roaming the streets of Boston. And none of this is helped by the fact that there is no rhyme or reason to the metro's layout, which looks like a deformed web constructed by a drunken spider.
For me, this one was pretty much had to go with Vagabond, which was my home for eight months. I made more friends than I can count and had so many experiences I'll never forget. For example. every person so far featured on the Awesome People's page was someone I met there, and the staff was not only helpful, but now happen to be my best friends in the whole city. Not to mention, Vagabond goes above and beyond, more than anywhere, whether it be weekly concerts, enormous free breakfasts, and help with whatever you need, to make sure your stay in Moscow is amazing. I could go on forever, but instead, please check out the Moscow page where I've already written extensively about it.
Comrade Hostel (Moscow)
Before I get to the Runners Up section, I have to give a shout-out to Comrade Hostel in Moscow as well. Over the pat three months, I've been spending a fair amount of time here (even a little more than Vagabond), and I can confirm that it too is a place of wonders. Although it doesn't have the free breakfasts or quite the close social atmosphere of Vagabond, the staff, led by Masha (possibly the most chill yet interesting person I know) is absolutely amazing and can help with pretty much everything you can imagine. The place is a little more quiet and relaxed, with ample room for personal space, but still gets pretty lively ever once in a while, so you can still have a good social experience. And, on a personal note, it is where I've done most of the writing for this blog. So, yeah, its awesome.
Why Not? Hostel (Tbilisi, Georgia)
Although I had stayed in a variety of hostels before, this was by far the first one I can truly call amazing.It was just such a welcoming, communal place with cats, drinks, and a nice balcony overlooking the street. And to this day, it still has the largest common room (30 beds) and most extensive breakfast of any place I've ever stayed in. Plus the staff was super helpful when it came to everything, including giving free, leftover metro cards to guests. I guess the only reason why this one doesn't get the top spot is due to the fact I've never lived there and didn't get the chance to closely befriend the staff. Who knows though. Maybe sometime in the future, perhaps?
Almaty Dom Hostel (Almaty, Kazakhstan)
If you've spoken to me recently, I have probably raved about my recent trip to Kazakhstan. Therefore, I need to give credit where credit it due and acknowledge that if it was not for Almaty Dom Hostel and its host Shakir, my trip would not have been as good as it was. Alongside the general helpfulness and welcoming atmosphere, this hostel quite literally felt like a home (hence the name 'dom' meaning home is Russian). The bedrooms were quite literally bedrooms, you could make and eat your dinner in an actual kitchen and living room, and it was all the perfect atmosphere to meet other interesting travelers. I can personally back the last statement because I went on to travel to Kyrgyzstan with people I met at Almaty Dom. And finally, as a little cool side feature, Shakir keeps a wall where guests are to either write a message or draw a picture to commemorate their stay. The whole place is full of such features that give it that little extra personal feel, making it all the more worth staying.
Kismet Dao (Brasov, Romania)
Pretty much every aspect about this hostel was unbelievably cool. I noticed this right when I first entered, as I was greeted by a huge mural of Vlad the Impailer riding a bicycle and a friendly hostel dog. There was also a really nice, green backdoor garden, impressive breakfast, and, best of all, one free drink per person, per day. The staff was also super helpful and the area was gorgeous as well. Unfortunately, I was only there for two days, so I didn't get enough time to know it enough for it to reach the top spot. Oh well, I guess that means I have to return!
Some of these decisions were hard, but this one was not. The first time I had Georgian food, my whole world changed. Never before had I tasted such a diverse group of flavors that complemented one another so well. It was like a religious experience, knowing that I was able to perceive a taste so wonderful. What else could be possible? Maybe there was hope for world peace and coexistence. Who knows? Yes, this may be far-fetched, but I truly believe that if everyone got to try this magical experience, the whole world would become a better place. Sorry Italy and 25% my ethnicity, you'll have to settle for second.
Italy (Sicily in particular)
I'll start off by saying that Italian food in Italy is far different than Italian food in the States. With every experience I had, it was so unbelievably fresh, flavorful but not overloaded with different flavors (a problem for most Italian-American places), and loaded with eggplant (aka, nature's candy). The thing that I appreciated the most, however, was just how serious every place seemed to take their food preparation. It was like a form of art and everyone involved, from chef to waiter, gave their creation the respect it deserved. So much so that every place always refused to accept any tip for their work. The extra money wasn't the focus. The food was the beating heart of the business and that is what mattered. I guess the main reason Italy doesn't win, though, is that I was more familiar with it before going there, and Georgian food was an exotic mystery that completely blew my mind.
For me it's hard to define exactly what Romanian food is, but for some reason, I happened to have great experiences no matter where I went to eat. It was a while ago when I was there, so I'm struggling a bit to recall the details of everything, but I remember rich, but not heavy dishes with many spices, but none to overpowering. And I distinctly remember everything tasting very fresh as well, with noticeable care and effort put into its making. Plus, it was not expensive whatsoever, so that adds another plus to it.
Prior to diving into this arbitrary yet wonderful list, I must first explain that I (naturally) have only included places that I have been to. Several natural wonders like the Himalayas and the Amazon could probably top the list overall, but I have yet to visit either. Therefore, as I go to more and more places, I will likely add to and change everything here. For now, this is just a reflection of Europe, Eurasia, Central Asia, North America, and Central America. That said, here we go.
The vast majority of the country Kazakhstan is a wide open, fairly barren steppe… that is except for the southeast corner surrounding the city Almaty. There, you’ll find green fields, lakes, and gigantic mountains sprouting up all over the place. Outside the city, not much of the land is developed, so it still largely feels wind and untouched. It made for some of the best hiking I’ve done anywhere, and the views are incredible as far as you can see. Plus, as a side note, Almaty is known as the City of Apples, so you’ll likely find tons of apple trees everywhere you go.
Well, I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, and California’s beauty all too often gets ruined by Californians. Therefore, I went with a spot closer to my New England roots. And although it isn’t the most well known spot in the country, the rugged and wild coast of Maine is absolutely gorgeous. The further north you go, the further away from civilization you get as you become surrounded by the flow of deep blues, greys, and greens of the Atlantic. And while this can be quite a site in the summer, it can look even more impressive in the winter with snowy beaches and the mountains from Acadia on the horizon. Believe me, it tops the mosquito-filled shore of Florida any day of the year.
Considering Russia spans across eleven time zones and has a larger surface area than Pluto it certainly must have some ports of amazing nature. One of these I got to visit personally during the summer of 2017 as I traveled by train for two days going south along the mighty Volga. Being both the largest river in Russia and in Europe, the whole surrounding area was quite unique. Fields and forests lined either side as far as the eye could see, and at some points, the river was so wide it even had it’s own sandy beaches. It has a calming effect as it twists and turns along the landscape, taking you through a seldom visited part of the world’s largest country.
Normally, I would pick a particular region of a country for the list, but since Slovenia is really small and pretty much everything in it is lush, green, and amazing, I decided to put up the whole thing. With the Alps in the north, Balkans in the south, Mediterranean to the west and clear blue lakes in the center, you pretty much can’t go wrong. Not to mention, roughly 70% of the country is forested, making it second only to Finland among European countries. Even the capital Ljubljana can feel like one big park.
All that said, the places I would highly recommend seeing would be Lakes Bled and Bohinj. The colors you’ll see in any one of these places are unbelievable. Just try to avoid the groups of tourists that occasionally ruin the wonder of it (as they unfortunately tend to do). Everything just seemed so pristine, and animal life, from ducklings to lizards, could be found crawling and swimming every which way.
Ok, I’ll admit it. I have not done much traveling in warm, tropical places. In fact, Guatemala is the closest I’ve ever come to such a location. Therefore, it is quite unique compared to the rest of my list. And while the country as a whole is pretty stunning, the one place that stood out most to me was Lake Atitlan.Minus the few surrounding villages, the large blue waters surrounded by numerous semi-active volcanoes seems like a place out of pre-history. Everything around you is green and alive, with wild, colorful plant-life growing every which way. Sometime at night, if you look at the right time, you’ll see mini red lava bursts spouting into the sky, which I’ll admit was awesome. Plus the late itself remains warm all year round. I, for example, visited in January and was still able to go swimming comfortably. One thing to watch out for though, a few of the town are unfortunately populated by pretentious western tourists in elephant pants who think they are above the rest of humanity. But if you can avoid them, your time there will be amazing.
Never in my life have I seen such an abundance of the color green as I did here. Every hue imaginable and more existed among massive cliffs, open fields, and the rough, blue Atlantic ocean. It was as if an impressionist painting had come to life, bearing all of its rugged textures, all the while complimented by an ever changing sky and sporadic bursts of rain. It pretty much got to the point where I kept having to remind myself that this was present day reality, and not a medieval fantasy novel. Again, part of me wants to declare this the winner, but it just doesn't quite match the wildness and tourist-free-ness of the Georgian countryside. That said, it still left an impression that will remain as long as my memory functions.
Instead of a region, I'm just gonna put the whole country here in this slot. I never thought I would say this, but the mountains here are just as, if not more amazing than that in Georgia. It doesn't matter where you are, whether in the capital Bishkek, along the massive lake Issyk Kol, the north or south, the entire horizon will be lined with these behemoth mounds of earth. Best of all, from a nature perspective, it's still the undeveloped, untamed wilderness in most of these regions. There are little to no paved roads and hardly any industrial development outside the cities. Instead, there are wild horses so numerous that they actually could drag Mick Jagger away alongside sheep, cows, goats and rivers.
Part of me really wanted to choose this one to be the winner. The lake seems like a clear, blue ocean and it's surrounded by rolling hills that are so vast and green they make Boston's Green Monster look like a dirty, insignificant, speck of dust. The surrounding plant and animal life is also almost entirely endemic to the region, which in my opinion at least, makes it even more amazing. This even includes fresh water seals, which live nowhere else on earth. On the shores, there are only a couple small villages scattered about, so it’s pretty easy to feel as if you’re completely removed yourself from the stresses and chaos of modern society.
Baikal is a powerfully serene and calming place. By just going on a short hike or trek, you’ll likely encounter a lifetime’s worth of unbelievable and incredible scenery. And that’s just in the summer. In the winter, the lake freezes over entirely, so much so that it’s even possible to drive a car across the entire surface. Also though, on a personal note, it was the site of my first ever solo backpacking trip, thus giving it the sentimental value.
What happens when mountains bigger than the Alps, the Black Sea coast, rolling valleys, gigantic caves, and rock formations unlike anything are all within half a day’s drive? Well, when that happens, this contest gets a winner. In Georgia, I could pretty much get lost in the wilderness for weeks on end and be perfectly content. Even a simple drive through the countryside can be a breath-taking experience. But as for my personal recommendation, make sure you get to the region Tusheti in the northeast corner of the country. This open wilderness is only accessible by a single mountainous road (3000m overpass) that’s closed off from mid-October to May every year. It’s so remote that the few houses there can only be powered by solar panels, and when there, you’re far more likely to run into a herd of sheep that another human being.
The whole area seems entirely removed from society and civilization in the best way immaginable. In Tusheti, you’re free of noise, city stress, pollution, car horns, and the chaos of the daily grind. Instead, there are trees, rivers, valleys, and rolling mountains as far as the eye can see. It may take over 6 hours to get here from the nearest town, but it is absolutely worth all that and more. And there are goats too.
This was not an easy one to decide. Even within the past hour before writing this, I changed my mind at least three times (and may do so again). But after long deliberation, I have to go with Tbilisi. While it's true I have had some of the best nights out of my life in Dublin and have never seen anything like Krakow after dark, Tbilisi is without a doubt the most unique and inexpensive experience of the bunch, and (probably the tipping point) does not have the hordes of tourists. The other cities have great fantastic atmospheres at night, there is no doubt about it, but they all resemble, at least to an extent, what I am familiar with. When it comes to Tbilisi, I had no idea what to expect. It was like an exciting new discovery wherever I ended up going out, so in the end, it takes the cake as the best.
Dublin is one of those rare cases where the reality not only lives up to the hype, but actually succeeds it. And I can sufficiently say that I've had some of my best nights out ever in the capital of the Emerald Isle. Wherever you go, people are up beat, lively, friendly, and above all, fun. I debated internally back and forth whether this would be number one, but unfortunate obnoxious tourist presence and fairly high prices dropped it a notch below Tbilisi. Nonetheless, it's still awesome and especially if you go to a local place, you're in for a great night (just do a little pre-drinking beforehand to save a bit of money).
What makes Budapest's nightlife great is it's uniqueness and affordability. Out of everywhere I've been, I still haven't come across anything quite like the Ruin Pubs which and don't think I ever will. The mixture of abandon factories, art projects with discarded furniture, cheap drinks and raging nights packed with belong to this city and this city alone. The only downside it that it is becoming increasingly flooded with backpackers and overprivledged 18-year olds on gap years, and locals can be often hard to come by. For that reason, it doesn't get the top spot, but still, it remains pretty awesome.
Ok, so I may be a little biased for my ancestral homeland, but Krakow's nightlife blew away all of my expectations. It was so open and relaxed, in the best way possible. For example, many bars stay open 24 hours, everyone seemed to be dancing and enjoying themselves without being intense and in-your-face, and when my friend Blake ordered six run and cokes at once, the bartender handed them over without hesitation. Also, as opposed to Budapest and many other cities, most of the people (even those on the pub crawl) happened to be locals. I guess it didn't have the unique flair of some other places, but Krakow still holds its own very well.
This page is a shout out to the smaller towns and cities that often get overshadowed by the bigger, polluted, chaotic megacities. Unlike their multimillion counterparts, these particular places are quieter, cultural, and much more authentic. In making this list, I chose to put no more than one place per country in order to bring some variety to it. Likewise, I based this upon my entirely arbitrary preferences, which are a bit stranger than the average person. Needless to say, each one of these places is awesome, and I highly recommend visiting any one of these instead of their country’s capitals or better known cities. Anyway, here goes.
Do you like being warm in January? Do you like things that are colorful, people that are friendly, and horizons that contain large mountains? If so, quit your desk job and head to Antigua, Guatemala. It is a small city on the western side of the country (and was the original capital 300 years ago), full of colorful, historic buildings, cobblestone roads, and lush green plant life everywhere you go. It is also the perfect place to begin if you wish to explore the Mayan part of the country, as there is regular, easy transportation to Lake Atitlan and the Pacific coast. And, also important, Antigua is also one of the safest cities in the country, especially compared to the capital Guatemala City.
While you’re there, try to climb the mountain Acotenango which looms over the city. It takes about two days, and since it is a volcano, you can actually see the lava spurting out as you go. Also, I highly recommend staying at Matiox Hostel. The staff there is super friendly and helpful, the common room has an open roof, there’s a hot tub, and they have tons of activities such as bar trivia as well as yoga and excursions out into the surrounding area. So yeah, it’s a nice place.
So, I was pretty lucky during this visit since I got to see the local's perspective, which I can assuredly say was amazing. Everything to me seemed so communal and welcoming to the point where I never once felt like an outsider And there were so many aspects of it that I found to be so interesting from the medieval city center to the university and the surrounding nature to the not for profit bars that served free food and beer for 1.50 euro. I guess the only reason why it doesn't take the top spot is because of Doolin's music scene, but it definitely was taken into serious consideration.
Unlike all other cities on this list, I actually visited Vladimir in two different seasons, summer and winter. Both came during my time living and working in Moscow, and this city (about 2-3 hours by train), came to be one of my favorite getaway spots to relax and unwind for a weekend. The place is overall quiet and relaxing, but still has a fair amount to do and is very enjoyable to walk about. With the city being nearly 1000 years old, there are plenty of historic sites, but virtually no tourists at all. Therefore, you never feel like you’re in a hurry or have to talk over people. Vladimir lets you take it at your own pace.
As for recommendations, there are several nice restaurants near the center, including an Uzbek place (of which I cannot remember the name) and an Azeri place called Shesh-Besh. To buy, I recommend the local Medovukha (honey beer) which the region is known for. A nice place to stay is Pilgrim Hostel, which is relaxed, cozy, and very affordable. Finally, make sure you visit the statue of Prince Vladimir of Kiev (who the city is named after). Its on a hill overlooking the river that runs through the city and provides a really nice view of it all.
Although many of you readers may not have heard of this southern Alpine French town, it served as the center of my visit... and I wouldn't have had it any other way. Located south of Marseilles, this modestly sized town is tucked in a valley surrounded by mountains, rivers, forests, and some of the most interesting geographical formations I've ever seen. I stayed with my friends Lea and Olivier (who helped make the trip as good as it was), and since I came outside of the tourist season, I got to have much more of an authentic experience.
Digne is a quiet and pretty little town. Intertwined with trees and nature, the place is comprised of small twisting streets, local shops (many of which make great bread), and warm and rustic cultural buildings. The atmosphere is overall very relaxed, as most people from my perspective did not seem to be stressed or in a hurry. In the center in the town was a bi-weekly local market that sold home-baked food, chocolate, honey, and handmade gifts. In the fashion of a stereotypical foreigner visiting France, I bought a croissant there. (see story)
As I've said, if I ever move back to the States for an extended period of time, it's going to be to Burlington. I'll be straightforward and say that pretty much everything about the city is great. It's not big or overcrowded, yet it holds on to a pretty strong local culture and there's no shortage of things to do. The streets are loaded with local interesting cafes and the microbreweries are the best in the country (yes, I stand by that claim). Whenever I'm there, I just feel super relaxed and welcomed. Plus it's in the mountains, on the shores of Lake Champlain and populated by hippies. What's not to like?
For some reason, Brasov looked and felt exactly as I had imagined Transylvania. It just had a certain lore to it, and it was amazing. Whether it was walking down the quiet city streets with the baroque architectures or climbing through the forests on the outskirts of the city, this feeling seemed ever-present. Except for one feature. Overlooking the city on a green mountain covered in trees was a large sign that read BRASOV in large white block letters, similar to that of the HOLLYWOOD sign in Los Angeles. It seemed very out of place, but none the less, I thought it was hilarious, and on our first day there, Blake and I decided to climb up to it. We thought it would be awesome to get as close as we can (which apparently turned out to being on it), and it was. But we didn't consider the views that we would see on the way up. About twenty minutes into our climb, I decided to look out over the city and was mesmerized by what I saw.
Down below, in every direction, little red roofs covering the old city buildings turned hear and there in interwoven spirals and patterns, cobblestone roads crawled here and there like snakes through the grass, and green trees sprouted up from the ground nearly everywhere. And it got even better. Every step further up, more and more was visible, and soon, the open country, beyond the city confines, came into view as well. The only downside of this whole experience though happened to be the existence of a cable car that went from the city to the top of the mountain, which to me was cheating. It was an affront to nature, getting a chance to see the views without putting in any of the work.
But regardless, the city and surrounding country are both incredible and worth a several day visit. The mini old town is so picturesque and the restaurants there are delicious and very very very affordable. Plus, being in Transylvania, the city is pretty close to Bran Castle (the inspiration for the novel Dracula) which is definitely worth a visit, even though the actual man, Vladislav Dracul/Vlad the Impaler, did not actually live there.
I knew next to nothing about Karakol prior to arriving other than its proximity to the lake Issyk Kol and the mountains, and that made it all the more exciting for me when I actually got to see the place. It felt as if it existed somewhere outside the general confines of time. A lot of the roads were still dirt, people's animals roamed around town, grazing here and there, while Soviet statues stood in the parks and you'd buy food at personally owned grocery stands. But while all that was pretty interesting to be a part of, the real reason why I include this town is because of the surrounding nature, which is unlike anything I've ever seen before, in the most amazing way imaginable. The mix between the rich, green valleys, roaring glacial rivers and gigantic Tian Shan mountains on the horizon is pretty indescribable.
Karakol is on the eastern side of the country, in close proximity to the country’s largest lake, Issyk Kol as well as some of the tallest mountains in Central Asia. The town itself is the perfect place to set up a base if you want to go trekking in largely untamed nature, and many of the guesthouses (including Duet Hostel, where I stayed) even allow you to sleep in yurts. There is an open market in the center of the town and a couple of small shops for you to get whatever you need, but walk just a little bit out of town and you’ll feel as if you’ve left civilization entirely. And it feels amazing.
So, Ireland is loaded with tons of awesome small towns and villages. Therefore, this was a hard choice for me to make, I came so close to choosing Doolin, but ultimately, I have to say I had the best overall experience in Dingle, and therefore it gets the spot. Dingle is a small town on a peninsula in Kerry county that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. The whole surrounding area is gorgeous too, with hills and open fields all around, and Mt. Brandon looming on the horizon. One thing I would personally recommend in order to see as much as you can would be to rent a bicycle and ride around the whole peninsula. You’ll see so many incredible landscapes and even ancient neolithic huts that look a bit like beehives. The whole trip will take about 3 hours and the rental costs 10 euro for the day.
While there is some tourism, it holds much more cultural authenticity than other parts of the country, as seen since all the street signs are only in Irish Gaelic. And when it comes to Irish culture, the music is second to none. Every night and in every pub, you can listen to a local group of musicians play for hours on end. And while you’re here, stay at Grapevine Hostel. They hosts are really nice and play music all day long, always including any guest that wants in. Plus, they’re right next to a bike shop, making it all the more convenient.
While making this list, I quickly came to realize that I couldn’t have concluded it any other way. No other small town was so unique, nor did any give me such a memorable experience. Omalo is not for the standard traveler, as it is tucked away up in the mountains and only accessible by a narrow dangerous dirt road that is blocked off for over half the year. And for that reason, it remains largely untouched and unique. Aside from the small cluster of houses and a couple ancient guard towers, there is just vast open mountainous country as far as you can see. Herds of sheep occasionally cross the fields, while everything is heated by solar power (since electrical wires cannot reach the area), and none of the roads are paved. The stresses of modern society and civilization have not really be able to penetrate Omalo, and as a result, live felt exponentially better.
While there, I recommend staying at one of the local guest houses. There, your host or hostess will make a hearty Georgian breakfast and dinner as the day remains yours to go trekking into the wild, untamed countryside. I fell into a cycle of waking up, eating breakfast (including coffee), hiking for the next 8-10 hours, then returning to refuel myself with a gigantic dinner with generous amounts of homemade wine. It was exactly what I wanted in life, and I’m certain I will return again soon. Nothing compares to Omalo, and therefore, it is the undisputed champion of this arbitrary list.
This one is a pretty important category to me, and Ireland triumphantly takes the top spot. I've seen friendly places before, but only in Ireland, did random people continually come up to me and start up a conversation as if I were a livelong friend. And it wasn't just in the pubs either. I could be on the metro, in a park, or just walking down the street and it seemed like everyone was looking forward to greeting me and getting to know who I was. Not to mention, more than anywhere it seemed like the people in Ireland were eager to lend a hand and make sure I enjoyed my stay as much as possible. I mean, literally on my first day there, a random guy rolled down the window of his car just to hand my friend Blake a beer. Nowhere else have I ever seen that happen. Plus I've made some strong lasting friendships despite only being there for two weeks. So yeah, it's really friendly.
Have you ever wished to go somewhere and be treated like an honored, esteemed guest? If so, stop what you're doing right now and buy the next plane ticket to Georgia. More than anywhere else I've ever been, people were so excited to get to know me and show me the best parts of their country. There was not a single moment in which I did not feel as if I were being welcomed with open arms. And this was especially true in the rural parts of the country where foreigners don't usually travel. On multiple occasions, families invited me to stay over their place and would do everything in their power (which included making delicious food) to make sure I enjoyed my stay. I guess the one thing that puts Ireland ahead is the long lasting friendships I formed. Nonetheless, Georgia is super friendly.
This goes not just within the country, but applies to pretty much every polish backpacker I've met as well. No matter where I was, it seemed like within minutes of starting a conversation with a Polish backpacker, they would be giving me recommendations of places to go and providing me people to contact while there. Case in point, the first day I arrived in Georgia and mentioned to a Polish girl that my friend and I would be going to Krakow later in the summer, she instantly stopped what she was doing to message a bunch of people she knew there. And, best of all, all the things people recommended were awesome adventure-type things like mountain climbing or exploring old ruins (as opposed to general touristy things).
Ok, time to break the stereotype once and for all. It's been nearly two years since I first moved here and I can say that without a doubt, that the notion that are cold and unfriendly absolutely not true. It may seem so at first glance as you walk down the street and see no one smiling, but as I was told by a friend here, smiles would not mean anything if you were just using them as a polite presentation. Russians take friendships pretty seriously, and when you reach that level, you'll be treated as if you're a member of the family. And I can honestly say, a Russian friend is a friend that will have your back till death. Nothing like the western-style acquaintance. I've made some of the closest friends of my entire life here, and (with the exception of the occasional security guard on a power trip) have been treated with incredible hospitality.
I have never seen a place so small contain so much history. The city of Yerevan alone is said to be over 3000 years old, and Armenian civilization as a whole predates that by at least another millennium, and since then, you can see such a mix of culture and history within every town, city, or village. Case in point, It has been part of an ancient Armenian empire, medieval Georgian kingdom, part of Timur's empire based out of modern day Uzbekistan, part of the Ottoman Empire, and ultimately the Soviet Union before becoming its modern independent state, and each one has left a little something behind. Not to mention, Christianity in Armenia predates that in Europe as well as everywhere else in the world, so many of the oldest churches ever constructed are scattered about across the countryside. Even Italy with all the history of the Roman Empire can't compete with it.
Yes, I understand this choice may seem to be a cop-out and to lack creativity, especially as I try to highlight places off the beaten track. But it is Rome, and if I am honest about history, I cannot leave this out (and, I admit, I was still incredibly excited to see it all despite the crowds of tourists). Within Rome, it was particularly interesting how all the famous site were preserved. Usually, in other ancient cities, most of the historical buildings will either be in the historic city center or on the outskirts, away from modern development, but in Rome, it was as if the modern city had just grown around and in between the old structures. You could be walking down the streets, pass by a few hotels and restaurants, and then come upon the Colosseum.
What makes Russia's preserved historical sites so interesting in the huge variation of cultural diversity. As I have said before, Russia is comprised of over 100 different ethnic groups, each with their own language and with their own history. You have the old history of Kievan-Rus in the west, Tatar history along the Volga, as well as countless others in the Caucasus, Urals, and across Siberia. Most of all though, there are so many significant modern historical sites to see in Russia as well dating back from the Soviet era. Many of which (including underground bunkers and formerly restricted cities), were not even available to the Russian public until the 1990s.
This was the easiest choice of all: SIcily. Imagine all the rush and franticness of New York City. This is the polar opposite of that. It doesn't matter what time of day or what's going on, no one will be in hurry. Ever. People walk so slow and leisurely in Sicily that FDR could probably make it down the street twice as fast (and I don't mean alive FDR with polio. I mead FRD now, 72 years dead). But the bright part about this is that no one anywhere seemed the least bit stressed. People here actually seem to focus on enjoying life (strange concept, I know).
I guess the best way to sum this relaxed culture up would be this example. When we were all about to leave, we arrived at the airport with a long line already there in front of us. My uncle asked what was going on and one man replied they were all waiting for the check-in staff. None of them were yet at the airport. My uncle then asked if the guy had any idea when they were supposed to get there. The man replied, "9:00." I checked my watch and it was well after 10:30. But no one seemed stressed or angry in the least. It just seemed like any other day.
LAST PLACE: Manhattan
I've never in my life seen a city quite like Baku. From the first minute after getting off the train, it was apparent that everything was incredibly new. However, it was not 'new' in the same sense as an eyesore like Dubai or some horrifying resort city. Everything was instead built out of stone and was a color similar to sand, made to resemble the traditional cultural Azeri architecture. All the buildings though, were in absolutely pristine condition, as were the monuments and many parks scattered throughout the urban area. There were very few skyscrapers, and nearly everything was focused towards a ground level.
On top of that, Baku is spotless. Literally, during my entire week there I couldn't find a single piece of trash in the city. Every street and every building was clean and maintained really well. Even the pollution was surprisingly really low despite the city's large size of three million and the abundance of cars. I'm not particularly sure how this happens but maybe it's due to the constant and ever-present wind keeping the air moving.
Moscow's architecture is incredibly odd, but in the best way possible. The old city center around the Kremlin, for example, is completely unlike anything I've ever seen before. I still remember how unreal it felt the first time I walked through Red Square. It was like I physically entered into a fantasy novel with so many shapes, and even though it is still so vivid for me, I struggle to find the right words to convey the feeling. I guess here, it's just one of those things you have to experience yourself (hint, you should come here!). And then, there's everything else around the city which all seems to happen with no rhyme or reason. One building will look entirely different from the next, which will be entirely different from the next, and so on. Anyway, I'm rambling, but my point is that in Moscow you can wander endlessly any be thoroughly fascinated anywhere.
While the Armenian doesn't claim the top spot, Yerevan may have been the most interestingly designed city I've ever seen, and for that reason, it deserves to be on this list. What makes it so unique is the combination of classical, cultural designs mixed with 20th century Soviet structures. Normally, former Soviet cities have either one or the other, not both. But with Yerevan you can see the convergence of the two influences in nearly every building. It's like as if the city was constructed by hippie-Soviet art students, which, I can assure you, is both as strange and amazing as it sounds. And if you happen to find yourself there, climb up to the top of the stair monument where you can look out onto the entire city below.
Despite being a capital Ljubljana's aesthetics still give it that relaxed, small town feel. Everything seems so creatively designed and is laid out in a way that makes you feel welcome. Throughout the city, the buildings shows the mix of cultural influences, from its proximity to Italy to its past in both the Austria-Hungarian Empire and Yugoslavia. It was so nice and pleasant to walk through that I ended up spending two full separate days wandering around through it. And for that, I would definitely recommend walking around through the old town in the center. It's located right along the river and the views are absolutely incredible. Its surrounded by picturesque buildings intermixed with lush green nature. The castle overlooking the center is also an absolute must. Just by itself, it is amazing, but from it, you can nearly see the whole city and all its glory down below.
Before arriving, I had no idea what to expect from Kazan. With Moscow and Petersburg getting all the attention, Russia's third city (as it calls itself) usually flies under the radar, but as it turned out, Kazan looked amazing. Being a historically Tatar city, Kazan stands out from the rest of Russia and almost feels as if you've entered Central Asia. This goes from everything to the metro stations with murals depicting moments of Tatar history to the city's kremlin overlooking the Volga River where you can see mosques and Orthodox churches side by side. One thing I would recommend would be walking through the pedestrian street down the center of the city at night when everything is all lit up. It's a pretty spectacular sight in a city that looks like no other.
Now, I admit I am impartial because this is my favorite city on planet Earth, but Tbilisi holds it's own pretty when when it comes to the architecture. While it does not quite have the cultural and Soviet mix of it's neighbor Yerevan, the feature that stood out most to me in Tbilisi was that as you walk from place to place, it seems as if you're stepping through different periods in time. One neighborhood may look as if you're in the 19th century, then you can cross a bridge appears futuristic, only to enter another area resembling the 1950s. And , there's the ancient stone fortress on a hill overlooking the whole metropolis below that dates back over one thousand years. All of this was amazing because it felt as if I were an adventurer, not knowing what I'd come across next, thus making Tbilisi a wanderers paradise.
If you're used to traveling in the West, Budapest may seem a little more at home to you than my other top choices. That said, the structures and appearance of the city isn't entirely Western either, which, in my opinion, is what gives it its character. Its as if this city is where the two sides of Europe converged and built up a city upon a rich cultural history. Large, open streets move their way through medieval castles stand next to grandiose baroque buildings and Soviet-style structures. And somehow it all flows together without anything seeming out of place. Nothing towers above you and the city itself is designed in a way that seems to welcome you with open arms. Not to mention, it's all complimented by the Danube river which passes through.