Places that captured my heart: the top 5 cities that I long to return to

8079727_mWhen I venture forth from my home base of New York City, I tend to prioritize visiting destinations that I’ve never been to before. It’s my goal to explore as many different places on the planet as I can (and, along the way, to sing karaoke wherever in the world I can find it). If I had my druthers, I would travel as often as possible to the spots that I most enjoyed in the past, while constantly adding new locales to my itinerary. Due to time constraints, however, first-time destinations tend to win out when I’m planning my next holiday. There are few overseas cities that I end up getting to more than once. But some metropolises have made such an impression on me that I’m fervently hoping to find a way to spend more time in them. This post is about the five global cities that I would most like to return to.

Note that in compiling this list, my focus was on international travel, and accordingly I only considered cities outside my native United States. I’m certainly always up for going back to American locations such as San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Chicago, Miami Beach, and Seattle; but that’s a discussion for another day.

This post was written in response to a challenge by Arnab of the blog Travel Andy. Anyway, here are my top 5!

1. Istanbul, Turkey

Previous visit: December 2012 – January 2013

Me in the Spice Bazaar.

Me in the Spice Bazaar.

A crossroads where East meets West, Istanbul is famously the only city that straddles two continents: it has one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. During my initial foray to the city formerly known as Constantinople, I failed to make it to the Asian side; and for me, that’s reason enough to book another round-trip ticket to Istanbul.

But there are far more reasons why this exotic land ranks at the top of my list. Vast in geographic area, Istanbul abounds with sites of architectural and historical interest. It’s a visually arresting city (an attribute common to all of the places on this list), with its European portion bisected by the legendary harbour called the Golden Horn; and it has ancient roots, as it was colonized by the Greeks in Classical times. Its markets, such as the sprawling Grand Bazaar and the fragrant Spice Bazaar, are chock-full of eye-catching displays and are fun to wander around in.

The Hagia Sophia was first built in 537 A.D.

The Hagia Sophia was first built in 537 A.D. Originally a basilica and later a mosque, it’s now a museum.

Inside the Grand Bazaar.

Inside the Grand Bazaar.

Did you know that there's an Egyptian obelisk in Istanbul? The Obelisk of Theodosius, installed in 390 A.D. in what is now Istanbul, originally stood at the Temple of Luxor in ancient Egypt.

Did you know that there’s an Egyptian obelisk in Istanbul? The Obelisk of Theodosius, installed in 390 A.D. by the Roman emperor of that name, originally stood at the Temple of Luxor in ancient Egypt.

And on top of all its other attributes, Istanbul has amazing food! My particular favourite from among the local culinary offerings was a dish called iskender, a delightful mix of grilled lamb slices, tomato sauce, pieces of pita bread, yogurt, and melted sheep butter.

The entree called iskender might be the best dish I've ever enjoyed anywhere.

The entree called iskender might be the best dish I’ve ever enjoyed anywhere.

Also enchanting to me about Istanbul was the culture. Here’s a brief video of a spiritual dancing show that I attended:


I wasn’t only watching other people performing. As I so often do in the course of my travels, I found some participatory entertainment in Istanbul, in the form of karaoke. You could say that I rocked the Casbah, as Turkey became the 27th country on my World Karaoke Tour in December 2012. 🙂 From its history to its cuisine to its nightlife, I appreciated Istanbul on many different levels.

Me dressed in the local style while in Istanbul.

Me dressed in the local style while in Istanbul.

2. Cape Town, South Africa

Previous visit: September 2011

More than any other city I’ve been to, Cape Town takes advantage of the beauty of its surroundings. The result is aesthetically stunning, with dramatic waterside vistas everywhere you look. And fittingly, its most recognizable landmark is a natural wonder rather than a man-made one: the over 3,500-foot-high Table Mountain, with its distinctive flat-topped profile. Plus, there’s a colony of penguins within the city limits, and any place where you can hang out with penguins in their natural habitat is inherently awesome!

Looking across Victoria & Albert Harbour, towards Table Mountain.

Looking across Victoria & Albert Harbour, towards Table Mountain.

The view from the cable car that goes up to Table Mountain.

The view from the top of Table Mountain. It’s hard to believe that you’re in a city of over 3.7 million people.

Did you think penguins only live on ice and snow? Here are some African penguins on Boulders Beach in Cape Town.

Did you think penguins only live on ice and snow? Here are some African penguins on Boulders Beach in Cape Town.

Just barely over an hour’s drive from Cape Town is a stellar attraction for geography geeks like me: Cape Point, the most southwesterly point on the African continent, and part of the famed headland known as the Cape of Good Hope. (Africa’s southernmost point is Cape Agulhas, about 90 miles southeast of Cape Point.) During the age of exploration and on into the 20th century when aviation finally supplanted oceangoing transport, the Cape of Good Hope was the outcropping that sailors rounded when circumnavigating Africa. The Cape of Good Hope struck fear into the heart of many a grizzled captain, as its seas are notoriously rough. In fact, it was off that cape that the legendary ghost ship the Flying Dutchman was reputedly lost.

It's an easy day-trip from Cape Town to the famed Cape of Good Hope.

The Cape of Good Hope, an easy day-trip from Cape Town, is a must visit for maritime history buffs and geography geeks. I didn’t have any Flying Dutchman sightings during my own exploration of this cape.

I have unfinished business in Cape Town; South Africa is one of only four countries that I’ve been to without singing karaoke, and a poorly-timed illness is responsible for this. Prior to my initial excursion to Cape Town, I found a bar in town that had karaoke on Thursday nights; and my arrival in 2011 was early on a Thursday evening, theoretically leaving plenty of time to head to that bar after checking in to my hotel. But I was sick with a fever, and never made it out of my hotel room once I got there from the airport; in fact, I fell asleep at 9:00 p.m. I felt better the next morning, but by then it was too late. Despite exhaustive research, I failed to find anywhere to sing during the remaining nights of my stay. (During the same trip to South Africa I also spent some time in Johannesburg, but similarly came up empty when I attempted to find karaoke venues in Joburg.) So, among the many benefits of a return to Cape Town for me would be a second chance to add South Africa to my World Karaoke Tour. 🙂

3. Sydney, Australia

Previous visit: January 2010

Me with an adorable koala.

Me and a koala, both munching on eucalyptus leaves.

The most inspirational moment I’ve ever experienced at karaoke happened in Sydney. An 85-year-old man performed “Sweet Caroline,” the raucous Neil Diamond anthem. And he brought down the house. It wasn’t just that his rendition was pitch-perfect; his enthusiasm and energy were a model for singers a quarter of his age. I remember thinking that if I’m lucky enough to live to 85, I hope that I’ll still be able to engage my passion for karaoke. It’s truly a gift to be able to keep doing something that you love.

While my enduring memory of the Sydneyside karaoke scene was of the aforementioned octogenarian, I also did some singing of my own. During my January 2010 visit to Sydney, Australia became the 16th country on my World Karaoke Tour. The entire country of Australia has a vibrant karaoke scene, and Sydney is no exception.

Of course, Sydney was far more to me than just a box to check off on my karaoke tour. I fell in love with this good-looking city. Its eponymous Opera House and the adjacent Harbour Bridge, both iconic parts of its skyline, were as sublime as advertised. I never got tired of walking around the harbourfront.

The Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge at dusk.

The Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge at dusk.

Looking down on the Central Business District, and the Harbour beyond, from the top of Sydney Tower.

Looking down on the Central Business District, and the harbour beyond, from the top of Sydney Tower.

At the heart of Sydney’s harbour is the Circular Quay, a superb spot for people-watching and other forms of free entertainment. Here’s a brief glimpse of a busker on the Circular Quay playing that most Australian of musical instruments, the digeridoo:


Among my other memorable activities whilst in Sydney were taking a ghost tour in the oldest section of town, a neighbourhood known as The Rocks; riding a ferry to Manly Beach, from where I walked to Q Station (a former quarantine hospital that’s reputedly haunted); and hiking in the Blue Mountains, a scenic area about 50 miles outside of Sydney (where I fortunately managed to avoid encountering any fearsome funnel-web spiders.)

This rock formation in Australia's Blue Mountains is called the Three Sisters.

This rock formation in Australia’s Blue Mountains is called the Three Sisters.

I long to return Down Under. One event that’s been on my bucket list for quite some time is Sydney’s dazzling New Year’s Eve fireworks display. Regardless of time of year, however, I’m always up for another sojourn in Sydney. (If I do go to the Antipodes again, I would also very much like to check out Melbourne, about which I’ve heard great things.)

4. Venice, Italy

Previous visits: July 1993; August 2004

The view from the Lagoon. The building on the right is the Doge's Palace.

The view from the Lagoon. The building on the right is the Doge’s Palace.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Venice for me is its timelessness. No automobiles are permitted in most of this archipelagic city, and indeed it has no paved roads. (A small exception is the area near the train station, where there’s a car park for those silly folks who drive into town. There’s also an island called the Lido, which is technically part of Venice, that has roads that are open to vehicular traffic. The Lido is best known for its beaches.) Nor will you see any glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Instead, wherever you look, colourful but centuries-old buildings rise up out of the waters — most looking quite weathered. Navigating Venice’s labyrinth of canals by foot, you don’t only get lost geographically; you get lost in time. I last visited Venice in 2004, but if I were to return today I would be hard pressed to notice any differences.

One constant with Venice is the sensory overload that the visitor experiences. Eye candy jumps out at you just about everywhere. That’s what led Truman Capote to observe that “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” Incidentally, Capote made his observation in 1961; and it’s equally true today, over a half-century later. Rome may be the Eternal City, but it’s Venice that’s changeless. Unchanging, and magical.

The Grand Canal in Venice.

Overpriced though it is, a gondola ride on the Grand Canal is an essential experience for many travelers to Venice.

Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square) is known for its abundance of pigeons.

Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) is known for its abundance of pigeons.

An aquatic alleyway in Venice.

Looking down one of Venice’s ageless canals, it’s impossible tell what year it is. This photo was taken in 2004.

I haven’t done karaoke in Venice. (I didn’t look for it in 1993, a time when my World Karaoke Tour was in its early stages; and I didn’t find it in 2004.) But that’s okay; just a few weeks from now, Italy is scheduled to become the 36th country on my World Karaoke Tour when I sing in Rome. So Italy will be taken care of in that respect. 🙂 Still, karaoke or no, Venice is calling me back!

Not all of the bridges that span Venice's canals are at ground level. The Bridge of Sighs connects the Doge's Palace to the old prison.

Not all of the bridges that span Venice’s canals are at ground level. The Ponte de Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) connects the Doge’s Palace to the old prison.

5. St. Petersburg, Russian Federation

Previous visit: May 2013

Situated at a latitude of nearly 60 degrees north, St. Petersburg experiences the unique phenomenon of White Nights: during the weeks immediately preceding and following the summer solstice, the sun barely sets at all, and a residual brightness lingers into the wee small hours of the morning. I remember needing to wear sunglasses as I walked across a bridge at about 9:00 pm one night in late May.

No matter what time of year you go, St. Petersburg is drop-dead gorgeous. Like Venice, St. Petersburg is a city of canals. But the ones in St Petersburg are of a much different character: broad liquid boulevards, in contrast to the narrow, capillary-like waterways that cris-cross Venice.

St. Petersburg is also one of the world’s pre-eminent cultural capitals, with premier institutions like the Hermitage Museum and the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theatre; and it boasts magnificent architecture, with stunning palaces, cathedrals, and other grand structures.

Cruising along a canal in St. Petersburg.

Cruising along a canal in St. Petersburg.

The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood is one of St. Petersburg's gorgeous cathedrals.

The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood is one of St. Petersburg’s gorgeous cathedrals.

A view of Palace Square, including the Alexander Column and the façade of the Hermitage.

A view of Palace Square, featuring the Alexander Column and the façade of the Hermitage.

The Grand Staircase in the Hermitage.

The interiors of St. Petersburg’s buildings are often as sumptuous as their exteriors. This is the Grand Staircase in the Hermitage.

While many of St. Petersburg’s architectural showpieces are in the city itself, I also enjoyed touring Peterhof Palace, about 20 miles outside the city proper, which is accessible via a scenic hydrofoil ride on the Neva River.

Peterhof Palace, built by the tsar Peter the Great, is known for its elaborate fountains.

Peterhof Palace, built by the tsar Peter the Great, was consciously designed to emulate Versailles.

By the way, I did sing karaoke in St. Petersburg (as well as Moscow), as the Russian Federation became the 28th country on my World Karaoke Tour in May 2013. 🙂 One of the songs that I performed in both St. Petersburg and Moscow was “Back in the U.S.S.R” by The Beatles. As I reflect back on my introduction to St. Petersburg last year, I can’t wait to be “back in the (former) U.S.S.R.” again!

Honourable Mention: 10 more cities that I miss

It was extremely difficult to whittle down this list to a mere five places. One thing that I realized from this exercise is that the world is full of amazing places! Here are 10 more cities that I also remember fondly, and which I would similarly be enthusiastic about seeing again:

Hong Kong
(previous visit: December 2009 to January 2010)

Kyoto, Japan
(previous visit: April 2008)

London, England
(seven previous visits, most recently from December 2010 to January 2011)

Marrakesh, Morocco
(previous visit: February 2011)

Vienna, Austria
(previous visit: July 1993)

Athens, Greece
(previous visit: August to September, 1996)

Paris, France
(three previous visits, most recently in October 2005)

Florence, Italy
(previous visit: July 1993)

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
(previous visit: September 2010)

Berlin, Germany
(previous visit: August 1993)

Me on the Peak in Hong Kong in January 2010.

Me on the Peak in Hong Kong in December 2009.

Conclusion

At this point, based on the guidelines of the challenge that I received that inspired me to write this post, I’m supposed to nominate five other travel bloggers to post their own lists of five cities that they would like to return to. Respectfully, I decline to do that. To me the concept is too much like chain mail. No, not this. 🙂 I’m referring to those emails that get endlessly forwarded in the hopes that, for example, the sender will receive free money from Bill Gates.

To put it simply, I don’t believe in imposing obligations (including a requirement to “pay it forward” to five new people) on someone who didn’t volunteer to accept the rules of the game. That’s particularly so in this case, as the challenge to “[w]rite a blog post including photos about five destinations you’d love to return to” is a promotion created by a commercial website (which I won’t link to here). I’ve written this post to relive some fond travel memories, not to assist with a promotion for which I’m not being compensated. While I have nothing against the fine people who have chosen to participate in the promotion, that’s not for me.

So I’ll just put this out there: if you’re a travel blogger and you want to publish your own post along these lines, go for it! And if you do, tell me about it; I’d love to read your own list of five favourite cities. But I’m not going to throw down the gauntlet to anyone in particular.

In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed the list that I came up with above. Do you agree or disagree with any of my choices? Let me know!

What are the top places that you would like to get back to?

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Categories: Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and South Pacific, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

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20 thoughts on “Places that captured my heart: the top 5 cities that I long to return to

  1. I’d love to go back to Venice. It poured down rain the entire time I went (which actually made for some good memories), but I’d love to come back when the weather is nicer.

    Like

    • @Richelle: That’s too bad that you had bad weather there, but it’s nice that you still have good memories from Venice! I hope that next time you do get sunny skies. 🙂

      Like

  2. sammiegan

    What a lovely post, I haven’t been to ANY of those places in your top 5. I’m dying to get back to Iceland, Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary, but I’m keen to visit some new favourites 😉

    Like

    • @Sammi: Thanks for your compliment on this post. I haven’t been to Slovenia, Croatia, or Hungary yet, but they all sound like great places! (I visited Iceland a long time ago. Wouldn’t mind getting back there!)

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  3. I’d love to go back to Venice, Berlin & Vienna. You’ve got some amazing photographs of the best cities. I would love to visit Cape Town and St. Petersburg from your list.

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    • @Anu: Thank you for the compliment, and I can’t recommend Cape Town and St. Petersburg highly enough! And you can also never go wrong with Venice, Berlin, or Vienna. (Berlin and Vienna both made my honourable mention list, so obviously I think very highly of them too!)

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  4. Great choices, so far I visited Venice and Istanbul (and I agree on those with you), other three are still on my list. I also liked the honourable mentions 🙂

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  5. lalegil

    Great list of cities. I love the writeup, you were able to capture the essence of each city in a beautiful way.

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  6. Great post, Harvey – I really enjoyed reading about your connections to each city. I’m hoping to get to Cape Town at some point soon as I’m in Nairobi for a while. I definitely need to get back to Lisbon soon. I lived and worked there for a year and that was not enough time to soak in everything. Plus, I love those Portuguese pastry shops!

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    • @Dave: Thanks, I’m glad you liked the post. You would love Cape Town. Lisbon, although it didn’t make my list, is another place that I enjoyed, other than waiting 3 hours and 15 minutes for a taxi back to my hotel on New Year’s Eve. ) 🙂

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  7. Id love to go back to Venice but this time to attend the mascara festival

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    • @Anne: Are you referring to the Carnival celebration in which people wear masks? According to my research, the MassKara Festival is an event in the Philippines where participants wear masks, which reminds people of Carnival in Venice.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MassKara_Festival

      I think Venice would be a great place to experience Carnival, and that would be a great reason to get back there!

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  8. I can’t wait to visit Turkey one day. I know I’ll love everything about it, especially the FOOD! 🙂

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  9. Definitely agree with you on the Istanbul front. Somehow we didn’t get as thrilled about Sydney. I’ve been there thrice already and I’d only return to visit family.

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    • @Revati: Thank you for your perspective. I’ve only been to Sydney once; it would be interesting to see how well some of these cities hold my interest after multiple visits. (Of the cities on my top-5 list, Venice is the only one that I’ve already been to twice.)

      Like

  10. brmsimmons

    My top 5 would be Seattle, Chicago, Vienna, Prague and Seville

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  11. What a beautiful collection of cities. Sometimes I’m torn on whether I should revisit places I’ve been but I think every time you visit them, its a new experience anyway. I’d love to go to Istanbul!

    Like

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