When most people think of traveling overseas, they think of heading off to Europe. After all, a large part of our own American cultural inheritance comes from across the pond, and chances are, if you studied a language in school it was French or Spanish (of course, knowing English also makes it easy to travel to the UK).
But if you’re feeling slightly more adventurous, you might want to check out these 17 urban gems in Asia. The plane ride might be longer, but the experience will be far more exotic than admiring the Mona Lisa or the Eiffel Tower (not that those aren’t cool things to do).
From trying new foods that elude your best guesses, to climbing the steps of ancient palaces, these cities may be large and famous, but they’re still off the beaten path for most American travelers…but perhaps not you.
#1: Hong Kong, China
Hong Kong is one of the first cities that comes to mind for most people when they think of Asia. It’s a world-class city that’s a fascinating blend of East and West, ancient and modern. Famous throughout history, this bustling urban locus is one the most important financial centers in the world…and it’s home to the world’s largest number of skyscrapers (over 300 at the time of this article).
Lovers of architecture will marvel at the views of the skyline from the top of Victoria Peak, or from a traditional Chinese junk cruise sailing about the Pearl River Delta. Take a cable car up to Lantau Island to visit the giant Tian Tan Buddha, or browse the forest of curated bonsai trees at Nan Lian Garden.
A recent addition to the area is Hong Kong Disneyland, where visitors can experience a Chinese spin to the magical theme-park classic, its design conforming to ancient rules of chi (energy flow). Visitors up for adventure will also not want to miss the vibrant and exciting life of Hong Kong’s nighttime streets, illuminated by thousands of neon signs.
#2: Shanghai, China
Shanghai is the most populated city in China, with over 24 million residents. It’s a global financial center right in the middle of China’s coast, and it’s been a bustling port ever since the British Empire forced China to open its doors to global trade after the Opium War.
The Bund is a beautiful waterfront promenade lined with colonial buildings; right across the Huangpu river, the iconic Shanghai skyline features the memorable pink spheres of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, and the enormous reach of the Shanghai Tower…a 2,000+ foot behemoth that boasts the world’s fastest elevators and tallest observation deck.
For those looking to turn away from modernity and embrace the soothing calm of some traditional Chinese outdoor spaces, the extensive Yu Gardens features ponds, pagodas, and pavilions to delight visitors. Tour the colonial districts, shop at Nanjing Road, and don’t miss the neon rainbow of the financial district as viewed from the Bund at nighttime.
#3: Beijing, China
This staple Chinese city has a nice mix of attractions new and old, including lots of shopping districts and markets. But the undeniable main attraction of Beijing is the Forbidden City, a huge palace complex that was the home of the Emperor for over half a century. There are almost a thousand buildings spread out over 180 acres, most famous among them the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The iconic architecture of sweeping curved roofs, forests of red columns, and dragon-like embellishments dancing along the walls will not be forgotten.
#4: Macau, China
This former Portuguese colony is right across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong. Macau has been called the “Las Vegas of Asia” and it’s easy to see why: the MGM, Sands, Wynn, Paris, and Venetian are just a few of the mega-resort casinos on the Cotai Strip. Macau actually generates 7 times the gambling revenue of Las Vegas, though the vast majority of visitors come from mainland China and Hong Kong, where gambling is illegal.
Of course the casinos offer a number of attractions, like a not-so miniature Eiffel Tower, an indoor mall meant to replicate the canals of Venice (complete with gondola rides), dancing fountains, and sky-cab cable cars. The Macau Giant Panda Pavilion is also a highly-rated attraction for visitors looking to get face-to-face with China’s most iconic bear.
But if you are looking for something more uniquely local, alluding to the rich combination facilitated by Portuguese and Chinese cultures, you can check out Largo do Senado (Senado Square), or perhaps climb the steps to the baroque ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, of which only the facade remains, standing as a haunting monument to the history of colonialism in China.
#5: Tokyo, Japan
If you want to see an urban sprawl that surpasses that of New York City, you won’t want to miss Tokyo. The city is filled with palaces, temples, shopping districts, and of course cultural hallmarks like sushi and cherry blossoms (make your plans for April). But if the urban sprawl is too much to bear, other fantastic attractions in the land of the rising sun are just a bullet train away, whether you want to see the iconic peak of Mount Fuji or play with monkeys in the Arashiyama bamboo forest.
#6: Kyoto, Japan
Escape the neon-glow and hustle-bustle of the world’s largest metropolis (Tokyo) and immerse yourself in the world that once was. Kyoto is where you’ll want to go if you want a historic view of the Land of the Rising Sun; Kyoto was the original capital of Japan, and today it’s still home to numerous temples, gardens, palaces, shrines, and traditional wood-frame houses.
Visit the serene lake over which the gold-clad temple of Kinkakuji stands guard, silently watching its own reflection in the placid water. Walk through the numerous gates of the Shinto shrine at Fushimi Inari Taisha…there are over 1,000 gates donated by various businesses around Japan, forming a bright red tunnel. Don’t forget to take a picture of the iconic Yasaka Pagoda that rises over the Higashiyama District.
If you like nature, don’t miss the the bamboo forest (and its monkey residents) in Arashiyama. Cultural tourists can also catch a performance by Geisha dancers, participate in a cooking class, or watch a Samurai demonstration in celebration of Japan’s fantastic ritual heritage.
#7: Yokohama, Japan
Yokohama is a colorful port city (the first to open up to Westerners) with a beautiful waterfront district. Still an industrial city, it has remodeled itself to compete with Tokyo as an urban center with an excellent quality of life…though several large companies are still based there, such as Fuji and Hitachi.
The Minato Mirai is the harbor area and offers several attractions like the futuristic Yokohama Landmark Tower (the 2nd tallest building in Japan, at 972 feet), which offers sweeping views of Tokyo Bay and Mount Fuji; a waterfront promenade carries tourists between shops, restaurants, and museums…one of which is the floating, four-masted sailing ship Nippon Maru. Cosmo World Amusement park features Cosmo 21, which was once the tallest Ferris wheel in the world.
Yokohama is also home to a colorful Chinatown (one of the oldest in the world), with over 300 shops and restaurants. Don’t miss events like Chinese New Year and the Spring Festival, when the neighborhood is decked out with colorful lanterns. Two noteworthy (if not quirkier) Yokohama attractions are the Ramen Museum and the Cup Noodle Museum, where you can design your own Styrofoam packaging for a Cup Noodle.
#8: Osaka, Japan
Osaka is known for its distinct regional cuisine (foods like udon noodles and kitsune, deep fried tofu) along with its lively combination of urban bustle and historic charm. Universal Studios Japan and the vibrant, neon nightlife along the Dotonbori Canal are two of the principal attractions for a younger crowd.
The Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is one of the largest aquariums in the world, with 16 different exhibits of habitats around the world, including the jungles of Ecuador, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Great Kelp Forest. The Pacific Ocean tank is the aquarium’s largest (30 feet deep) and features Bluefin tuna, manta rays, and even whale sharks.
Visitors wanting to take in some traditional culture can catch a Bunraku puppet show at the National Bunraku Theater. Another popular attraction is the Osaka Castle, a towering Samurai fortress from the 16th century, surrounded by walls, moats, and parks.
#9: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
This capital city of the island country of Malaysia may sound like an imaginary city from the Arabian Nights, but it’s actually quite real…and home to one of the tallest buildings in the world: the Petronas Twin Towers (88 floors and almost 1,500 feet tall).
Learn about the unique Oceanic culture and history of the Malay people at the National Museum, the facade of which is decorated with an artistic facade detailing island scenes from island life. Check out the nightlife of markets and food vendors on Alor Street or Hutong, or the Golden Triangle. If malls are more your style, don’t miss the amazing, multi-storied complex in the Petronas Twin Towers complex (the towers themselves house an amazing observation deck).
Descend into the limestone wonderland of the Batu Caves, home to numerous Hindu temples and shrines carved from solid rock…not to mention bats and monkeys, and a colorful stairway leading up into a mountainous jungle. There are also a number of Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques that dot the landscape of this culturally rich island.
#10: Jakarta, Indonesia
Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia, an island chain famous for coffee, volcanic islands, and exotic creatures like orangutans, Komodo dragons, elephants, and tigers. The capital city is a fascinating mix of Javanese, Malay, Chinese, Arab, Indian and European traditions, which is reflected in the architecture, cuisine, and culture of the city.
Check out the azure waters and white sandy beaches of Pulau Seribu, or the Thousand Islands; you can island hop with a boat and enjoy a view of sunset while sipping on cocktails at one of the upscale resorts. If you want to see some of the unique wildlife of the islands, visit the Ragunan Zoo.
Don’t miss the cultural attractions of Old Town Batavia, where colonial Dutch buildings line a cobblestone square. If you want to sample the indigenous culture of Indonesia’s 17,000+ islands, visit Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, a sort of open-air park and museum where you can see traditional buildings, dances, and other components of Indonesian life.
#11: Manila, Philippines
Manila has been referred to as a vivacious yet underrated city, but its a curious treasure-trove of ancient colonial Spanish history set in sunny, tropical weather. The Philippines consist of over 7,600 islands, and this capital city is actually the most densely populated city on the planet. It’s also one of the first true “global cities” like Madrid and Mexico City, connected as it was within the Spanish Empire.
Check out colonial attractions like Fort Santiago, Manila Cathedral, and San Agustin Church (all of which are more than 400 years old). If you want a glimpse of what Spanish colonial life was like, visit Casa Manila…it’s a 1980 reproduction of a mid-19th century home.
Stroll the promenade of the Manila Boardwalk or check out one of the mega-malls like the Greenbelt Mall to check out the unique food of the Philippines. Of course, Manila can also be your home base for exploring the thousands of incredible beaches and island the Philippines has to offer…unparalleled destinations for boating, snorkeling, diving, and swimming.
Singapore is a city-state at the end of the Malay Peninsula. Despite it’s small size, it holds a number of accolades like being one of the world’s cleanest, safest, richest, and most educated cities. A former British colony, Singapore has shifted into the role of being a global hub for commerce and finance…but it’s also a great place to visit, with modern attractions and an ancient mix of Southeast Asian, European, and Chinese cultures.
Wander around the botanical wonderland dotted with futuristic structures at Gardens by the Bay. Biodomes house hundreds of species of plants from different climates from around the world, such as the cloud forest, the desert, and the Mediterranean. Eighteen Supertrees rise above the foliage, and make a spectacular display during the nightly Garden Rhapsody sound and light show.
Walk along the promenade of Marina Bay, where shopping and dining accompany an amazing view of the Singapore skyline. Sculptures from famous artists watch over the bay, and attractions like the Asian Civilizations Museum are nearby…where gold, silver, lacquer, silk, ceramic, ivory, and wood-work items can be viewed, culled from thousands of years of history across the continent.
#13: Kathmandu, Nepal
For those extra-adventurous travelers who are willing to make a considerable trek inland, this ancient city, perched between the peaks of the Himalayan mountains, is the capital of the Central Asian country of Nepal. It’s elevation of around 1,400 feet above sea level make it a hiker’s paradise, so if physical activity and sweeping views are your ideal of an amazing vacation, this destination might be for you.
#14: Bangkok, Thailand
For the young and young at heart, Bangkok offers an incredibly colorful array of nightlife. From bars to street vendors, the city is known for its 24-hour life of rambunctious adventure. For those travelers who want to add a little cultural exploration to their vacay, you can take a train ride along the Kwai river, ride elephants through the jungle, or get paddled around a floating market. Be sure not to miss the euphoric experience of being driven around a tuk-tuk (a motorized rickshaw).
#15: Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi is one of Southeast Asia’s premier cities. This capital of Vietnam was once the administrative center of France’s ill-fated colonial attempt, and the French left behind tree-lined avenues reminiscent of Paris, which juxtapose nicely with the tropical hustle-and-bustle of this second-largest city in Vietnam.
Get lost wandering the streets of the Old Quarter, where the silence of ancient temples contrasts with the noisy hawking of street vendors. Pick up some mouth-watering Pho soup or spring rolls and enjoy the vibrant nightlife of Hanoi. Find out how puppet and water can come together at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, showcasing an ancient art form dating back almost a thousand years.
Check out the unique geography of Halong Bay by sailing around the emerald waters, dotted with natural limestone islands topped in rain-forest foliage. More adventurous travels might want to take a trip into the countryside to see the extensive stepped rice fields that climb up the mountains of Vietnam, perhaps culminating in a stop at the village of Sa Pa.
#16: Ho Chi Minh City , Vietnam
Commonly known as Saigon, this city in Southern Vietnam has emerged from the Vietnam War to become the country’s largest city and most visited urban enclave, a mixture of Asian culture stamped with French colonial architectural remains, like the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Visit the Museum of Vietnamese History to see some sculptures from the ancient temple of Angkor Wat, and browse the collection of exotic animals next door at the Saigon Zoo. Admire the French Colonial Architecture on a city tour, including the Central Post Office and the Opera House.
Grab a drink at the Skydeck at the top of the Bitexco Tower. Visit a bustling water market on the Mekong Delta, or explore the wartime tunnels of Cu Chi. Don’t forget to sample some of the colorful nighlife and remarkable food at one of Saigon’s many markets.
#17: Seoul, Korea
Though it’s Northern counterpart may be somewhat limiting when it comes to traveling without state-furnished escorts, (unless you don’t mind it, like Dennis Rodman), South Korea is a vibrant fusion of old and new. Though Seoul has an ancient network of temples, palaces, and colonial districts, it has become a key player in the world of high-tech—and the skyline shows it. From a charming hike through Hanok Village to a relaxing stroll along Cheonggyecheon stream to a fun afternoon at the suspiciously Disney-like Everland theme park, Seoul has something for everybody.