Travelers won’t want to miss these urban gems in the Far East.
When most people think of traveling overseas, they think of heading off to Europe. After all, a large part of our own culture originated across the pond; chances are, if you learned a second language in school it was French or Spanish.
But if you’re feeling slightly more adventurous, you might want to check out these 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 and temples, to diving into azure waters or riding elephants through the jungle, Asia has it all. These 50 cities may be large (some of them not so large) and famous, but they’re still off the beaten path for most American travelers…but perhaps not you.
While there are dozens of incredible places to visit in every Asian country, we couldn’t cover them all. Some regions, such as Central Asia and the islands off the coast of Southeast Asia, are woefully underrepresented on our list. But of the cities we selected, we attempted to list those that would provide the most enriching experience for the widest range of travelers.
Here are the cities that made the cut:
- China and Taiwan
- Hong Kong
- Oceanic Asia
- Kuala Lumpur
- Central Asia
- Southeast Asia
- Chiang Mai
- Phuket City
- Ho Chi Minh City
- Hoi An
- Phnom Penh
- Siem Reap
- Luang Prabang
- The Indian Subcontinent
The Best Cities to Visit in China
China is one of those countries whose culture is synonymous with our view of the Far East. While Westerners tend to have a monolithic view of China, visitors to this large country will realize that each one of the myriad cities is actually very different, despite commonalities in language.
China is the world’s most populous country, and possesses one of the most ancient historical records, with the first dynasties appearing almost 7,000 years ago. From the modern skyscrapers of Hong Kong and Shanghai to the ancient terracotta warriors of Xian, China offers travelers an incredible range of experiences and sights, as does its island neighbor, Taiwan.
#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.
If visiting Shanghai has piqued your interest already, find out where you can stay.
#3: Beijing, China
Beijing is a staple Chinese city that has a nice mix of attractions new and old, including lots of shopping districts and markets.
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.
Thinking about exploring Beijing? Find accommodations here.
#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: Xi’an, China
Xi’an is one of the best cities in Asia for those who love history. It’s the home of the famous Terracotta Warriors, an army of sculptured warriors like those whose served in the army of China’s first emperor. Incidentally, Xi’an was home to some of the first ruling dynasties, and marked the end of the historic Silk Road.
Climb to the top of the Wild Goose Pagoda, which offers a cool view of the chessboard-like old town. Bike or walk along the wide path at the top of the ancient city walls, and don’t miss the Drum Tower of Xi’an and the Bell Tower of Xi’an, icons of the city which are colorfully lit up at night.
If you want to see some history in action, visit the historical theme park of Tang Paradise, where buildings, shows, and an evening light show will bring the past to life. There are also a number of museums, temples, and pagodas around the city, although the Shaanxi History Museum is a good place to maximize your learning.
On the other hand, if you want to get out of town and see the mountainous nature of the area, which has inspired generations of ink painting, like Mount Li or Mount Tabai, which overlook mythic landscapes.
#6: Chengdu, China
Chengdu is one of Western China’s most populous cities. The surrounding plain, and abundant agricultural locus, is known as “The Country of Heaven.” It’s been inhabited for around 4,000 and was an imperial capital during the Three Kingdoms Era of Chinese history.
The giant panda, a symbol of China, inhabits the region around the city, and you can catch some of the furry, lovable critters at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. If you want to see them in their natural habitat, you can visit Mount Qingcheng, which also carries a claim to fame as the place where Taoism was founded.
In town, check out the historical street of Jinli with its Qing Dynasty buildings, or the bustling, neon, pedestrian thoroughfare of Chunxi Road. There are a number of historical neighborhoods in the area, but after checking them out don’t miss a dinner on the restaurant of the iconic Anshun Bridge.
#7: Guilin, China
Guilin is a southern Chinese city most known for its surrounding landscape of dramatic of limestone karst hills. If you’ve ever seen a typical Chinese landscape painting, with finger-like mountains reaching up to the sky, Guilin will provide you with a chance to see that in real life.
Take a river cruise down the Li River to marvel at these tree-covered basalt formations. Get inside the earth and check out the colors of the lit-up Reed Flute Cave, or check out the curving geometries above ground of the rice fields on the Longsheng Rice Terrace.
Nearby, don’t miss visiting a local tea plantation, or the historically preserved, traditional village of Shiwai Taoyuan. In town, take a stroll along the Li River and admire the double pagodas of the Sun and Moon Towers. Because of its mountainous surrounding landscape, Guilin is also an excellent base camp for travelers interested in hiking, biking, and mountain climbing.
If the mix of natural scenery and ancient history excite you, figure out where you can stay on your visit here.
#8: Hangzhou, China
Hangzhou sits at the end of the Grand Canal Waterway originating Beijing. The West Lake has been celebrated in art and literature for more than a thousand years, and its many islands are dotted with islands housing temples, pavilions, bridges, and gardens.
The Leifeng Pagoda is a five-story, eight-sided tower that is a replica of an ancient structure built in 975 AD, but which collapsed around 100 years ago. The tower had previously been attacked by Japanese pirates, and many of its bricks pilfered by locals, believing them to carry folk-medicine cures (this is what led to its collapse). The Liuhe Pagoda is another ancient Pagoda in the area.
Lovers of nature will appreciate the peaceful wooded wonderland of Dreaming of the Tiger Spring, where water seeps out from the quartz rocks and is used for brewing tea. Xixi National Wetland Park is a scenic place for taking in the natural flora and fauna of the area. West Lake itself is very popular for strolling visitors who take in its beauty and explore the pagodas, bridges, and temples of the area, one of which is the wealthy Temple of the Soul’s Retreat.
#9: Lhasa, China (Tibet)
This ancient city on the plateau of Tibet is one of the highest cities in the world, at almost 12,000 feet above sea level. It is an ancient locus of Buddhism and the once-residence of the Dalai Lama. A visit to Tibet may be a somewhat polarizing subject, since China annexed the region in the 1950s.
The main attraction of Lhasa is the massive Potola Palace, which has overlooked the city from a mountain peak since the 17th century. While the Potola Palace was the wintering location of the Dalai Lama, his summer residence was the equally impressive Norbulingka Palace is located with its well-manicured gardens, which are home to festivals in the Summer and Fall.
There are a number of temples and monasteries in the city like Jokhang Temple. Visit the Tibet Museum to take in the cultural artifacts of Tibet. If you like natural scenery high above sea level, visit the scenic Namtso Lake.
#10: Taipei, Taiwan
Taiwan is a small island country of the coast of China, and Taipei is its bustling, busy, and heavily populated capital city. Filled with modern skyscrapers like the towering Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world.
But there is more to Taiwan than its futuristic skyline. Check out The National Palace Museum, where one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese Imperial artworks and artifacts is housed (over 700,000). Visit the picturesque National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, set among a park with ponds and gardens.
Visit the surprisingly green, open, and spacious Yangmingshan National Park, famous for its cherry blossoms, hot springs, and dormant volcano: Seven Star Mountain. If you’re seeking something a little noisier, visit the bustling Shilin Night Market or the colorful Lungshan Temple.
The Best Cities to Visit in Japan
Japan is popularly called the “Land of the Rising Sun” because in Japanese cosmology it’s close to where the sun rises. This island chain is one of the most populous and homogeneous societies in the world…for many years, Japan was closed off from the Western World. But once Japan opened its doors to Western technology and influence, it quickly surpassed its first-world mentors.
In addition to their technological advances, Japan is known for its traditions like sushi, animation, and martial arts. Anyone who visits will be amazed by the size and scope of their cities and the simultaneous commitment of the Japanese people to their ancient culture.
#11: 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.
#12: 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.
#13: 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.
#14: 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.
#15: Sapporo, Japan
Your probably recognize this Japanese city from the brand of beer, which is fitting because this urban nexus of Hokkaido Island is famous for its brewed beverages. Also a popular winter destination, it’s great for travelers who love to ski.
People from all over the world come for the annual Sapporo Snow Festival which features dazzling ice sculptures, starting in February. For a fascinating look at how Japan industrialized into the modern-day economic superpower it is, visit the Hokkaido Pioneer Village.
Odori Park in the heart of the city is a great space to take a tree-lined stroll. Check out the Sapporo Beer Museum and taste some sample brews. There are many incredible green spaces around the city and outside of it, such as the nearby satellite town of Jozankei, which is especially famous for its riotous colors in the fall.
#16: Himeji, Japan
Himeji is a premier destination for anyone who loves history, especially the story of the Samurai. It is not one of Japan’s more populous cities, but it is certainly home to some of its most famous landmarks, perhaps making it the perfect place for travelers looking for a taste of a less-trampled Japan.
The main thing to do is visit Himeji Castle, a sprawling white complex of a historical landmark that culminates in a towering symbol of Samurai power. Nearby and across the moat are the nine manicured spaces of the Koko-en Garden.
Outside of the city in a mountainous setting is the temple of Shoshazan Engyo-ji, which is over a thousand years old, and can be accessed with a ride along the Mount Shosha Ropeway, which also provides some scenic views of the city. The famous pagoda of Ichijō-ji is located in another scenic mountain complex and is one of the most photographed buildings in Asia.
#17: Nara, Japan
Nara is another Japanese historical wonderland in close proximity to Kyoto and Kobe. It was the capital of Japan in the 8th century, and that time period has left behind some magnificent period buildings that let visitors get a glimpse of the Japan that once was.
The Toda-ji is a massive wooden temple housing a Buddha statue, with the iconic flaring roof lines and visible woodwork of traditional Japanese buildings. It’s located in Nara Park, which is a great place to walk around taking in ancient temples and tame deer.
The Kasuga-taisha is a memorably red Shinto shrine that is known for its numerous lanterns, especially the stone ones leading up to the building. The Horyu-ji is another photogenic temple, with an iconic and memorable pagoda. Visitors can also browse the remains of the Heijo Palace, or check out one of Japan’s preeminent art collections at the Nara Musuem.
The Best Cities to Visit in Oceanic Asia
The island nations off the coast of Southeast Asia are perhaps one of its most culturally intriguing places. It is on the shores of these lush, tropical wonderlands that several thousand years of Asian, Pacific Islander, and European history have coalesced, and monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity have fused with ancient pagan folk practices and superstitions.
Most travelers will journey to the tens of thousands of islands of these countries in order to soak in the sun and splash in the azure waters of the South Pacific. But here and there, fantastic cities have emerged, some of which boast dizzily high skyscrapers and a modern quality of life.
#18: 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.
#19: 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.
#20: Ubud, Indonesia
Ubud doesn’t really seem like a city in comparison to the other metropolises we’ve listed here, but we’d be remiss to exclude this town in popular Bali from the list of places to visit in Asia. The town has less than 100,000 residents, which is less than 1% of the 3 million travelers who come to the island of Bali every year.
Of course you’ll want to soak up the sun and splash in the surf at nearby Kuta Beach, where all the resorts are. Sanur on the other side of the Peninsula is another popular place with shallow tropical waters.
But there are other things to do in Bali as well, such as visit the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, where there are indeed monkeys to be met in the jungle setting of this ancient Hindu temple. Visit the Palace on the water of Taman Tirtagangga, or the scenic geography of Tegalalang Rice Terrace, which also offers fun jungle activities like swings and zip lines.
#21: 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.
Best Cities to Visit in Central Asia
Central Asia is a mountainous region, possessive of fantastic landscapes that most Westerners will never see. The cities of this region tend to be off the beaten path to varying degrees. While many spiritual thrill-seekers will make the trek into the Himalayas, fewer yet will journey into the “stans” that were once part of the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, those travelers are missing some incredible urban vistas that seem right out of a fantasy novel. Hundreds of years ago, merchants stopped at these metropolises en route to China or Europe on the Silk Road. With the passage of time, the Silk Road fell out of prominence and these cities fell into obscurity; but for adventurous travelers, incredible sights await.
#23: 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.
#24: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Mongolia is a scenic wonderland for lovers of dramatic landscapes. Just north of China, it’s the original stomping ground of the riders who conquered the world (or at least, most of it). Ulaanbaatar, it’s capital, is an interesting city to visit and certainly off the beaten path for most travelers.
Take a motor coach out into the rolling countryside to see the absolutely massive statue of Genghis Khan (it’s skyscraper sized), and check out how the Mongols used to live. While you’re there, don’t miss the absolute natural beauty of Gorkhi Terelj Park, where wildflowers, mountains, and clear skies offer an incredible backdrop for camel and horse rides.
Back in the city, be sure to learn about the Mongols at the National History Museum, and enter the imperial past at the fanciful Bogd Khaan Palace. Marvel at the incredible mixture of monuments and modern skyscrapers at Genghis Khan Square.
#25: Nursultan, Kazakhstan
Formerly known as Astana, this somewhat bizarre capital of the land-locked Kazakhstan is an incredible destination for travelers willing to go off the beaten path. While you might expect such a city to look far behind the times, it actually looks like something from another planet.
Admire the futuristic architecture along and around Nurzhol Boulevard, the main promenade of the city center…like the golden orb of the Bayterek Monument, which sits across from the Presidential Palace and the Palace of Peace across the Ishim River…that last structure being a pyramid-shaped venue for special events.
If you’re looking for a more traditional vision of this central-Asian country, check out the spectacular artifice of the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, which is conveniently next door to the National Museum of Kazakhstan.
#26: Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Samarkand is one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in Asia. It once prospered because of its location on the Silk Road between Europe and China. Today it is noted for its unique mosques and mausoleums.
See the ancient city square at the Registan, which is flanked by massive alcoves that lead into Madrasas, or Islamic schools. Visit the final resting place of the Tamerlane, who built a large empire in Central Asia: Gur-e-Amir. This azure-domed complex served as the inspiration for later Mughal buildings like the famous Taj Mahal.
See the massive ruins of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, which was once one of the largest mosques in he world. There are also a number of incredible blue tile mosaics at the necropolis of Shah-i-Zinda. Lovers of history will also appreciate the Afrasiab Museum of Samarkand, which covers one of the largest archaeological sites in the world: an ancient Mongol city.
The Best Cities to Visit in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is a popular destination for young travelers and backpackers looking for a mix of natural scenery, exotic architecture, and opportunities to party. While Asia is certainly a foreign region to the average traveler, most visitors will find the cities of Southeast Asia to be especially colorful and boisterous.
Positioned between China to the North and India to the West, the lands of Southeast Asia have been influenced by both of these cultures to varying degrees at different times, resulting in a truly fascinating mixture that has left behind a unique culture in these tropical jungle countries, famed for their magnificent beaches, spicy food, and lively street scenes.
#27: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai is a city in the mountains of northern Thailand, and it’s a cultural and religious center filled with Buddhist temples such as the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a glittering golden temple on a mountaintop. Chiang Mai is a great place to check out unique Thai architecture in a less trampled environment than the more popular Bangkok to the South.
Take in the incredible view at Doi Inthanon National Park , while hearing the birdsong of more bird species than anywhere else in the country. Visit the unique long-necked Karen people, who place gold rings around their necks to elongate them for life.
If you like nature, there’s also the Doi Suthep–Pui National Park and the manicured grounds of the Royal Park Rajapruek. If you need a little excitement, visit the many bazaars and enjoy the riotous night life that Thailand is famous for.
#28: 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).
#29: Phuket City, Thailand
Phuket City can be your base campy for enjoying the island of Phuket, one of the most picturesque and photograph places in Southeast Asia. It’s a jungle island of white sand beaches, crystal-clear azure waters, and high-end seaside resorts.
Of course, the main thing Phuket is known for are the strands of sand. To that end, you’ll want to splash around at nearby Pa Tong, well known for its sandy crescent beach and riotous nightlife. If you’re looking for something quieter you might want to visit Karon Beach.
Outside of the beach, the Phuket FantaSea is a theme park with cultural shows and animal exhibits. You can also pay a visit to the sitting white statue of the Big Buddha of Phuket atop Nakkerd Hill. Check out the intriguing rock formations of Krabi, or visit the stepped pagoda roofs of Wat Chalong.
#30: 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.
#31: 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.
#32: Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An, on the central coast of Vietnam, is a port city and veritable melting pot of Chinese, Japanese, French, and Vietnamese styles. The well-preserved Old Town is cut through with canals, making it a scenic view of the past.
Walk across the ornately carved, covered Japanese Bridge that stretches across a canal branching out from the Thu Bon River. There are many shops, restaurants, and bars in the Old Town, including the architectural landmarks of the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall and the Phung Hung House.
Just outside of town, you can take in the Pacific Ocean at the tree-lined An Bang Beach or nearby Cua Dai Beach, sitting under a cabana and relaxing with a drink in hand. For a quirkier activity, visit the Terracotta Park, which features traditional Vietnamese pottery cast into the forms of popular and iconic buildings.
#33: Yangon, Myanamar
This city, formerly known as Rangoon, is the largest city in this jungle country, formerly known as Burma. The city is noted of a mix of British colonial architecture, modern high-rises, and gilded Buddhist pagodas.
Check out some of the Buddhist landmarks like the golden spires of Shwedagon Pagoda, a 326-foot Stupa that dominates the skyline of the city. There is also a fascinating variety of temples and pagodas around the town.
Catch dinner and cultural showcase at Karaweik Palace, a floating restaurant on the Kandawgyi Lake, where you can see some of the traditionally elegant dance routines of the country. Browse the cobblestones streets of the Bogyoke Aung San Market and pick up some traditional handicrafts as a memento.
#34: Mandalay, Myanmar
Mandalay is the formal royal capital of Myanmar, and its centerpiece is the Mandalay Palace…which inspired a themed Las Vegas Hotel of a similar name.
The incredible Mandalay Palace is not to be missed. Built in the 19th century, it is a many-spired masterpiece contained within a rectangular moat and walls. If you like nature, check out the Dat Taw Gyaint Waterfall or catch a sunset from Mandalay Hill.
There are a number of interesting pagodas and monasteries throughout the city, such as the Kuthodaw Pagoda and the Shwenanda Monastary. Some of these buildings are pieced together from ornately carved teakwood.
#35: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh is the metropolitan capital of Cambodia, and a city of 1.5 million residents. Sitting on the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, it was an economic hub for the Khmer Empire and later the French.
Check out the richly ornamented complex of stepped roofs at the Royal Palace (which is a whole lot easier to say than it’s name in Cambodian: Preah Barum Reachea Veang Chaktomuk Serei Mongkol). Equally interesting for their architectural style are the Wat Phnom Buddhist temple complex and the Silver Pagoda or Phnom Penh, which houses many national treasures.
Check out Silk Island to see some traditional silk weaving, and the massive indoor market, aptly named Central Market. The National Museum of Cambodia is worth visiting for its collection of Southeast Asian artifacts. There are also museums and monuments dedicated to remembering the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, such as the monument at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center.
#36: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap is a popular resort town with Chinese and French colonial architecture…but it’s claim to fame is its status as the gateway to Angkor region, the capital city of the Khmer Empire, and an ancient metropolis that flourished from the 9th to 15th centuries.
Of course, the most well-known thing to do is visit the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat, a network of buildings with tall, beehive-like towers that are richly ornamented with figures. But there are also other ancient ruins in the area like Bayon, Angkor Thom, and the crumbling Ta Prohm Temple, overgrown with trees from the encroaching jungle.
Back in town, enjoy the excitement on Pub Street. Take a look at the exotic, many-legged fare at the Old Market, and perhaps take a bite if you dare. You can also get a foot massage from some live fish, who will nibble the dead skin off your feet (no joke).
#37: Luang Prabang, Laos
This (small) Southeast Asian city, tucked away in the jungles of Laos, is remarkable for its well-preserved architecture and listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Travelers looking to get a less-traveled, less urban taste of Asia will find it here, with the ancient buildings and numerous monks, who parade through the town every day in the Alms Giving Ceremony.
Hike up Mount Phou Si, positioned between the Mekong and Nam Kahn River, and take in views of the sunset right from the center of town…and if you like nature, also check out the Kuang Si Falls. Visit the Elephant Conservation Center and ride one of the elephants.
Visit the history museum, which is housed in the Royal Palace built during the French Colonial Era for the Laotian Royal Family. Check out the monastery of Wat Xieng Thong, where a huge repository of cultural art and manicured gardens delights visitors. If you need some eats and excitement, check out the Night Market or Buffet Street.
The Best Cities to Visit in Korea
Korea is one of the more overlooked regions in Asia, positioned as it is between Japan and China. The Peninsula, as a political entity, is split in two, with the Northern half pretty much off-limits to the Western traveler (or anyone else).
The southern half of Korea is home to dazzling modern cities and ancient temples. While similar to China and Japan in some respects, it is less trampled in terms of foreign visitors…therefore, Korea may offer travelers a more authentic vision of Asia in the actions of daily life.
#38: Seoul, South 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.
#39: Busan, South Korea
Busan is a large port in South Korea, well-known for its beaches. Though there are some ancient temples and shrines, Busan also boasts a modern skyline. It’s home to almost 5 million people and serves as the 5th busiest seaport in the World.
Soak in the sun at Haeundae Beach, where a sea of umbrellas sits between the Sea of Japan and the high-rise hotels that line the water. Visit Gamcheon Culture Village, where a neighborhood of colorful houses, murals, cafes, and shops awaits curious travelers.
Check out the seaside temple of Haedong Yonggungsa, a 14th-century masterpiece that sits right above the pounding surf below. If you’re looking for an incredible view of the city, check out Yongdusan Park, located on top of a mountain said to resemble a dragon’s head, and the observation deck in Busan Tower.
The Best Cities to Visit in India
…and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan
The Indian Subcontinent is a place with a rich variety of cultures, religions, and languages. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, and Sikhism are all religions that were founded and/or flourished (arriving from elsewhere), and each tradition has left behind its mark with some incredible works of architecture, the most iconic of which is the Taj Mahal.
Getting around the Indian subcontinent and its neighbors can be a colorful experience, as it is one of the most crowded, variegated, and (in many parts) underdeveloped places on earth…in India alone there are over 25 nationally recognized languages.
#40: Jaipur, India
Jaipur is the 10th largest city in India, and known as the “Pink City” for the unique color of its older buildings. It’s a city of royal palaces and colonial buildings, and part of the Golden Triangle of Tourist destinations that’s also comprised of Delhi and Agra.
Visit the Hawa Mahal, or The Wind Palace, with its beehive-like network of latticed bay windows, built to provide privacy for female royals watching the streets below. If you like palaces and castles, you also won’t want to miss the Amer Fort Palace with its kaleidoscopic hall of mirrors. The City Palace of Jaipur is also remarkable for its ornate peacock doorways.
Browse the collection of textiles and emroidered goods at the Saurashtra Impex. Some tailors there will reportedly be able to measure you, create a suit or shirt, and have it delivered to your hotel that evening. If you’re looking to take an outdoor stroll, walk between the enormous sundials of Jatar Mantar, where the local Rajput installed 19 giant-sized astronomical instruments.
#41: Delhi, India
Delhi is a territory in India that includes New Delhi, the capital of India. It’s been occupied since the 6th century B.C. and served as the capital city for a number of empires and kingdoms over the ages…and the architecture of the city shows off that cultural variety.
Attend a changing of the guard at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace of India. See the iconic Red Fort, a remnant of British rule. There are many ancient Hindu temples and Muslim mosques to visit, including the Qutub Minar and its soaring sandstone tower.
Delhi is an excellent place to experience the quintessential street life of India, replete with the sights, sounds, smells, and excitement of the many vendors. Take a bike tour, walk around, and browse attractions like Khari Baoli Road, home to the largest spice market in Asia.
#42: Mumbai, India
Formerly known as Bombay, this city is the largest in India, with over 12 million people. It’s a global financial hub and home to the blooming Bollywood Film Industry. Many of India’s wealthiest millionaires and billionaires live in this city, which is also home to an eclectic mix of Victorian and Art Deco structures (holdovers from European influence).
Visit the ancient cave temples of Elephanta Island. Check out the
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum (formerly the much easier to say Prince of Wales Museum) and its collection of historic artifacts from the Mughal Empire, Tibet, and Ancient Persia.
Check out the sets of India’s TV and film industry on a tour of Bollywood (the Indian version of Hollywood). Stand under the monumental Gateway of India that overlooks the harbor, and walk along Marine Drive. Don’t forget British-era landmarks like the transportation hub of the Victorian Terminus and the elegantTaj Mahal Hotel.
#43: Kolkata, India
Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, is a large city in the Indian state of West Bengal. It served as India’s capital during the British Colonial period, which left behind a number of magnificent colonial buildings. Kolkata has been known as India’s cultural capital, giving birth to a number of writers, poets, film producers, and Nobel Prize winners.
Visit the white-domed Victorian Monument, which might remind you of a Westernized version of its Mughal predecessor, the Taj Mahal. This
marble-clad museum of Indian culture and art sits in a beautiful network of gardens along the Hooghly River. The Indian Museum is another great place to catch the culture of the subcontinent.
Take in a game of cricket at Eden Garden, or perhaps a tram ride through the various suburbs of the city to sample its colorful selection of eateries, shops, festivals, and temples…like the ornately spired Dakshineswar Kali. You can also get a feel for 19th century colonial life by touring the monumental Marble Palace.
#44: Agra, India
Agra was the capital of the Mughal Empire, and today it is home to many UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as the Taj Mahal, one of the most iconic buildings in the world. Along with Delhi and Jaipur it is considered an apex of the Golden Triangle of Indian cultural tourism.
The Taj Mahal itself is actually a mausoleum commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, as a final resting place for his favorite wife (yes, there was more than one). The grand structure is subject to a number of myths, some of which are imaginatively morbid. Some believe that the financial cost of building the complex bankrupted the kingdom and led to its defeat by the British Empire.
However, there is more Mughal majesty to Agra than the Taj Mahal alone. You can check out the red sandstone Agra Fort, a fort-city that was home to the Mughal emperors. The Itmad-ud-Daula is another fantastic white marble tomb, believed to be a predecessor and inspiration for the Taj Mahal. There are a number of other magnificent tombs, mosques, and temples throughout the city, such as the onion-domed Mehtab Bagh and the tomb of Akbar the Great.
#45: Hyderabad, India
Hyderabad is a major tech hub within India and home to many upscale dining and shopping venues. It is also a city rooted in tradition and boasts a number of interesting historical landmarks from both Mughal and British periods of rule.
Take in the sight of the Charminar, an iconic mosque with four minarets that has become one of the most recognized structures in India and a symbol of the city. Visit the ruins of the ancient fortress of Golconda, which was the medieval capital of a Sultanate in the region before the Mughals.
If you want to see some Persian-style opulence, visit the Chowmahalla Palace, which has a number of fascinating courtyards and ornate halls. Take in some of the Indian film industry at Ramoji Film City, or the unexepected indoor winter wonderland of Snow World, right next to the heart shaped lake of Hussain Sagar, in the middle of which stands a large Buddha statue.
#46: Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka, an island country close off the coast of India. It’s ancient history is further embellished by its status as a colonial outpost under the Portuguese, Dutch, and English. While it doesn’t have any famous, Atlas-worthy attractions, this city can provide a nice destination for travelers looking to get a better look at Asian cities less trodden by Western tourists.
Stroll around the peaceful park that surrounds the colonial white facade of the National Museum, which has art and artifacts on display, including the belongings of Sri Lanka’s royal family. There are also a lot of beautiful colonial buildings in the Fort area, along with great views of the harbor.
Wander the crazily crowded streets of the Petah district, or take a tuk-tuk on a ride that will probably make you want to hold on to…something. Take in the incredible red-and-white brick building of the fanciful Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque. There are also a number of colorful stepped temples throughout the city, which are still active with the sights and sounds of religious rituals.
#47: Dhaka, Bangladesh
Bangladesh is India’s less popular neighbor, but it’s an equally rich place culturally and historically. Dhaka is the capital city of this predominately Muslim country, and it sits close to a large delta where the waters of several large rivers converge and empty into the Indian Ocean.
If you like history, visit the unfinished Mughal stronghold of Lalbagh Fort, and stroll around the manicured gardens and radiating fountains. Check out the white colonial mansion of Rose Garden Palace. There is also the Ahsan Manzil, popularly named the “Pink Palace,” which was the official palace of the Nawab (the Mughal-appointed governor).
If you want to experience the local scene, take a rickshaw through the streets of Old Dhaka. Drink tea and have some snacks like one of the locals at a tea stall, and try some Biriyania…this national dish is a tasty mixture of spice, meat, and rice.
#48: Karachi, Pakistan
Karachi is Pakistan’s largest city, and the 6th largest urban area in the world (at the time of this article). It is also considered Pakistan’s cultural and economic hub, situated on the Arabian Sea.
Check out the amazingly detailed sandstone necropolis at Chaukhandi Tombs. Each tomb is carved into painstaking intricate patterns. Browse the cultural artifacts and gardens at the whimsical Mohatta Palace, built by a Hindu businessman as his summer home. Visit the white mausoleum of Mazar-e-Quaid, which is the final resting place of Pakistan’s founder.
If you’re more into natural scenery and fun in the sun, check out the numerous beaches like Clifton Beach for sunbathing, swimming, and camel riding. If you want to enjoy one of the stranger rituals of the city, visit the Kitsune (half-man, half-fox) at the Karachi Zoo. Though its actually a combination of optical illusion and theatrics, the future-telling ability of this Kitsune will amuse (and perhaps confuse) you.
#49: Lahore, Pakistan
Lahore is a city in the region of Punjab, which stretches across Hindu India and it’s Muslim neighbor Pakistan. Lahore is Pakistan’s second-largest city, and one of ties wealthiest.
Visit the massive red complex of the Badshahi Mosque. Nearby is the Mughal keep of the Lahore Fort, a sprawling network of palaces, gardens, and museums…and most remarkable among them the Palace of Mirrors, or the Sheesh Mahal. There are also other Mughal-built palaces, forts, and gardens throughout the city.
Check out the red-brick Lahore Museum to learn about Pakistan and admire the British Colonial architecture. Stroll around Iqbal Park and admire the interesting monuments. Take in some of the colorful street life on Food Street and at the Delhi Gate.
#50: Islamabad, Pakistan
Islamabad was built as a planned city to replace Karachi as Pakistan’s capital. It’s noted for its high standard of living and verdant surroundings. Though Pakistan is a more traditional country, there are many modern buildings and monuments in the city, and some spectacular views of it all from the hills.
Check out the massive Faisal Mosque, the contemporary design of which was inspired by Bedouin tents (travelers have said this is best to check out at sunset). There is also the massive blooming concrete flower petals of the Pakistan Monument, built to symbolize national unity.
If you want to check out some contemporary art, visit the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum, which has indoor and outdoor exhibits. Climb around the foothills of the Himalayas, along the paths of Margalla Hills, which also offer great views of the city.