Travel

The World's Top 20 Cities, According to That Dude Who Visited Every Country

Published On 09/24/2015 Published On 09/24/2015
Courtesy of Gunnar Garfors

I've been to a few cities in my quest to visit all 198 countries in the world, and I've written a book about it called 198: How I Ran Out of Countries. But this list is about the top 20 cities that I love -- based on the people, the food, the fun, and the atmosphere. Cities that, if given the chance, I'm betting you will love too.

Flickr/Mariusz Kluzniak

20. Kiev, Ukraine

Russia's recent sabre rattling shouldn't scare anyone away from a visit to the Ukrainian capital. Kiev is home to a fun-loving crowd, great restaurants, and a never-ending nightlife. And by never-ending, I mean just that -- 24/7 bars are the RULE, not the exception. I also enjoy the impressive Kiev Pechersk Lavra cave monastery and the gold domes that dot the city's skyline. Chernobyl isn't far away, either, and well worth a visit (accompanied by the mandatory army-employed guide, of course); just don't tell the locals your plan, they aren't too fond of nuclear catastrophe tourism.

Flickr/Vic

19. Copenhagen, Denmark

If you thought Copenhagen was only about Noma, the world's best but soon-to-be-closed restaurant, you'd be wrong; top restaurants are common in the Amsterdam of the North. It's also home to the happiest people in the world, so expect to see a lot of smiles. Also, expect beer for lunch. In terms of sites, you'd be a fool not to walk the beautiful canals, or to visit the self-governing "free town" of Christiania where soft drugs are enjoyed freely and artists and hippies compete for your attention in the shops and colorful bazaar. That there is a daily ferry to Oslo is a bonus.

Flickr/Sandeepachetan

18. Mumbai, India

If you're looking for dramatic colors, smells you didn't know existed, and unforgettable experiences, you can't go wrong with Mumbai. With unparalleled diversity and a multicultural vibe, oh, will you feel alive! (Although with one of the world's largest slums, it isn't a city for the faint-hearted.) Unless you get stuck in traffic, that is. And speaking of traffic, don't pass up a ride in a cockroach, one of the yellow and black auto-rickshaws that navigate the city's endless traffic with the precision of a brain surgeon. Such a journey really gives you a feel for how many of the locals travel from A to B. Via C, D, E, F, and G.

Mumbai's full of impressive colonial buildings, chaotic markets, and places of worship. And when it comes to food, you'll be spoiled for choice -- so do indulge. Just promise to try the street food, but only after making sure it's been properly cooked; otherwise, forget the sights, you'll spend the rest of your holiday restroom-seeing.

Flickr/Zeca Baronio

17. Florian├│polis, Brazil

So, you think that Rio de Janeiro is the shit in Brazil? You are mistaken. Not only will you find incredibly nice (and clean) beaches in Florianopolis -- a whopping 42 of them, to be exact --  but it's the city where Brazil parties, eats, and gets cultural. That it's located on Magic Island should sort of give you a hint.

The people here are friendly -- as inhabitants of paradise tend to be -- so long as you stay away from the snobby jet setters whose red Ferraris, flashy shades, and high noses give them away. Finally, be prepared to try every water sport known to man before heading ashore to consume sea delicacies in one of the city's top restaurants. Just go easy on the cocktails -- nights in Florian├│polis tend to last a while.

Flickr/Howard Ignatius

16. Seattle, USA

The sole US representative made the list for many reasons, not the least of which are its super-friendly people. Of course, let me not forget the breathtaking views, among the nicest seen from any metropolis in the world. And the whales, too. And the fish market. And the islands outside of town. And the diverse neighborhoods. The Emerald City certainly deserves its nickname. Throw in the coffee culture, the restaurants, the local beer/wine, and the fact that in between caf├ę runs and pub crawls, there are ace walks to enjoy both in and around town, and we're done here.

Flickr/Wojtek Gurak

15. Oslo, Norway

Yes, I am Norwegian. But does that make me biased? Well, probably a little, but Oslo has indeed had a renaissance over the last few years; the city's architects, designers, and city planners are doing something right. Case in point, the Oslo Opera House by the fjord -- it's like a mountain in miniature. Anyone is invited to hike to the top of its white marble roof to enjoy the view, for free. There are beaches in the middle of town too, and the metro will take you straight into the forest where there's excellent hiking. Let me not forget the diverse restaurant scene, either. With so many gourmet restaurants popping up like mushrooms, the city's sure to run out of chefs soon. Also, no, I'm not biased.

Flickr/annaspies

14. Tel Aviv, Israel

I have a lot of energy, and I don't need much sleep. That's the way to approach Tel Aviv, where there is little time for such. This is probably the least well-known and most underrated "24-hour city" in the world, accurately nicknamed "The City That Never Stops." Coffee, booze, food, wild nightlife, and cool parties -- there's always something going down in one of Tel Aviv's distinct neighborhoods; and not only on weekends, mind you. Sure, Tel Aviv might sound manic, but actually, it's far from it. Expect a relaxed feeling, beautiful people, and a nifty sense of coolness, not to mention, a seemingly never-ending beach! A nice added bonus thrown in for free.

Flickr/Francisco Antunes

13. Lisbon, Portugal

Don't miss the charming and narrow alleyways in Baixa, the Old Town, home to quirky bars, restaurants (for any budget), and hole-in-the-wall art galleries. It alone makes the city worth a visit. But that's just the beginning; there is so much more to see and do in The City of Seven Hills. Lisbon is a city of contradictions, blending elegant, over-the-top bars and restaurants with shabby-but-chic drinking joints; some pour excellent local wines, others clearly want you to bring your own. All come with unusually friendly people.

Also, Lisbon is safe. The worst crime you are likely to witness is a taxi driver trying to rip you off, which is why I walk everywhere. And so should you -- the architecture deserves better than to be viewed from a car window.

Flickr/Alexander Schimmeck

12. Cali, Colombia

How can The World Capital of Salsa not be fun? This is the place to party in Colombia, so put on your electric shoes and get ready to dance through the night. But before you dance, you need to eat, and Cali's restaurant scene would satisfy even the pickiest foodie. And visit the museums, of which there are plenty. In terms of weather, temperatures are constant year-round and not as high as you would think given its location just north of the Equator; the city sits 3,200ft above sea level. Oh yea, bring dark sunglasses; Cali is known for its beautiful women. Also, because it's sunny, of course.

Flickr/ZK-NZE

11. Auckland, New Zealand

Picture a city surrounded by hundreds of beaches of every imaginable style: black volcanic sand, snow-white dust, tiny golden rocks -- welcome to Auckland. But in New Zealand, the beaches are only the beginning; there is plenty to keep you busy -- from BBQs to water sports to horseback riding to sitting under a shady tree with a good book. Also, yachting, lots of yachting. It is The City of Sails, you know.

Auckland is divided into several parts, and well connected by bridges and ferries -- I'd recommend the latter to explore the bars, lounges, and clubs. And while other cities may have a better choice of restaurants, few can match the hospitality or the freshness of the seafood.

Flickr/Robert S. Donovan

10. Istanbul, Turkey

It's no surprise that the only major city spanning two continents provides an extravaganza of often conflicting cultural impressions. What would be Europe's biggest city if it was entirely in Europe, Istanbul provides something for everyone in terms of food, wine, and nightlife. Two things: one, do not miss the meze, or the tapas of the Middle East. They are a must try. Two, not visiting both sides of Istanbul is a typical tourist crime, so don't be a typical tourist. The best way to travel between continents is on one of the countless boats, and I recommend an old-fashioned one; they may not be as fast, but they're a thousand times more charming.

Flickr/Nam-ho Park

9. Hanoi, Vietnam

If you hate when strangers talk to you, don't visit the Vietnamese capital; the friendliness you're likely to experience will probably make you feel uncomfortable. Yeah, they're a very friendly people. Also, don't go for the sightseeing -- Hanoi is not about touristic sights. Hanoi is about hanging, observing, and soaking up the relaxing (but never dull) atmosphere that infuses city life. The manic moped traffic, the colorful women selling anything and everything from street stalls, or the locals snacking on strange looking dishes in outdoor eateries, this is it: the street theatre of Hanoi. And for different shows in different parts of the metropolis, take a xe om, the charming moped taxi. The drivers won't rip you off, but their taxi colleagues will. And don't be shy when it comes to the menus. Try everything. Vietnamese food in Vietnam beats anything you've ever eaten in a so-called "Vietnamese" restaurant back home.

Flickr/Rob M

8. Tokyo, Japan

I like crazy. Tokyo is crazy. Tokyo is insane. I love it. Expect a mixture of everything you can imagine. This city is a Michelin-star heaven, but it also has a restaurant where you are served BY ROBOTS and entertained BY ROBOT FIGHTS. Or try soine-ya, a sort of coffee shop where you can lie next to beautiful women (or pay extra to stare into their eyes or stroke their hair) while you enjoy your beverage, of course. No indecent proposals, though; for that you'll need to visit one of the many themed brothels, including one with inflatable "prostitutes." Tokyo never sleeps and the nightlife is remarkable! You will, however, have to pay the price to stay in a decent-sized hotel. Anything bigger than your dining table is considered a deluxe suite.

Flickr/sese87

7. Taipei, Taiwan

Taipei boasts one of the highest densities of restaurants in the world and many are themed, so don't be surprised when you pass a Barbie, Hello Kitty, or A380 airplane-themed restaurant on your evening stroll. Or the legendary Modern Toilet eatery, of course. The people of Taipei love to eat out, and they enjoy partying too. Which is why you don't want to miss out on Club 7! That's what they call drinking outside one of the many 7-Elevens, where people buy cheap booze and sausage and set up shop out front. There may not be much dancing, but at least the joint never closes. Finally, the area surrounding the Taiwanese capital offers well-marked hiking routes to a range of peaks with ace views. How about that for the day after a big night of drinking outside a convenience store?

Flickr/Mei Burgin

6. Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjawhat? The capital of the Atlantic Ocean is everything you wouldn't expect. The island it's on has been battered by wild storms and crazy winds for thousands of years. So, you can imagine that the people who have chosen to stay there are totally mad. In a good way, that is. I like good crazy. You'll never find as huge a selection of gourmet restaurants in such a tiny place as you will in Reykjavik -- just book ahead because reservations go fast.

The city lies on a beautiful bay, and virtually everything is within walking distance. The 200,000 or so inhabitants know how to party, but they have no idea how to stop -- so expect to get to bed way after breakfast (I always ask for a late check-out). Finally, do me one favor, please venture outside the city -- it's mandatory to see geysers, waterfalls, hot springs, and rugged coastline.

Flickr/Mariano Mantel

5. Berlin, Germany

This city is both too weird and too relaxing not to visit. I love the strange little galleries and shops, the wild nightclubs, and the down-to-earth bars, particularly on the east side of town. Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Prenzlauer Berg are undoubtedly my top choices for the unorthodox, the artsy, and the bohemian in Berlin. Some people would call it trendy, I'd say alternative. Who the hell wants normal, anyway? There are plenty of foodies in Berlin too, as is evidenced by the impressive lineup of restaurants around town. And the culturally correct among us will get their dose of museums, memorials, and other must-see sites. To be honest, it doesn't really matter how short or long you stay in Berlin, you will want to come back! Just don't mention the new airport; it's already several billion USD over budget, and no one knows when it will open.

Flickr/Brent Newhall

4. Cape Town, South Africa

Yes, you should hike to the top of Table Mountain; the cable car is for chickens. And the view from the table top is priceless, but not in a MasterCard commercial kind of way. The city certainly has the right to brag about its cultural prominence and comes with both mouthwatering restaurants and drinking joints full of all sorts of people. It is, of course, also a bonus that you can visit a colony of super-cute penguins nearby. When it comes to the compulsory wine tastings at one of the area's many vineyards, I proudly present Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, and... uhhh... that last place that I somehow cannot remember. Be sure to both set aside enough time and get your own driver, or stay in one of the wine regions' small, but charming hotels.

Flickr/Mariusz Kluzniak

3. London, UK

If the world has a capital, this is it. You'll find virtually everything here in one of the city's many diverse neighborhoods -- all interconnected by an overdose of transportation. Learn to enjoy and appreciate the British sarcasm and wit; they rarely take themselves seriously, and their disarming nature makes you feel instantly like a friend rather than a guest. Here, I have to repeat the old saying: "If you are tired of London, you're tired of life." There is just too much good stuff to mention, whether it is related to food, drinking, culture, sports, or fun. The only drawback with London is that it's simply too popular. The many tourists, especially in the hot spots, deny it the top ranking on this list.

Flickr/Phillip Grondin

2. Toronto, Canada

Canadians are too polite and humble to admit it, but that might be exactly what makes them, and their cities, so cool. Vancouver and Montreal have captured the spotlight over the last few years, but Toronto should get top billing. Sure, it can't compete with the scenery of the western city or the French influence of the river island, but it has soul. And you have to carefully explore, dig, and venture into the unknown to find those hidden treasures. Tiny shops sell tomorrow's coolest new hobbies, bars ooze hipness, and the chic hotels are too trendy for the travel mags to keep up with. Unwrapping Toronto might be hard work, but it's anything but boring.

Flickr/Travel Oriented

1. Seoul, South Korea

Despite the fact that a flight between Oslo and Seoul takes 15-20 hours (and the only direct one is a noncommercial cargo plane carrying nothing but salmon), I have visited this incredible city 18 times and counting. Seoul is the definition of cool, and everything is where you least expect it. Gangnam might've gotten its music-fueled fame here, but that is so 2012. New neighborhoods regularly emerge here, and it forces the old hotspot 'hoods to up their game. Unusual places pop up before you can say kamsahamnida. It's a vicious circle in reverse, and one you should take advantage of it. 

Not surprisingly, Korea is the leading exporter of culture in Asia: K-pop, Korean soap operas, expert video gamers, film, fashion and, of course, Psy. The rise of techno giants Samsung and LG hasn't hurt either. This city is about food, fun, and convenience. And always in a group. Koreans are very social, and you'll rarely see people sitting by themselves. I love the contradictions you see in Seoul, the mix of ancient traditions and cutting-edge technology, the quirkiness and the correctness, the cool people and the wannabees. Luckily most of them are genuinely nice -- they define friendly. The only drawback of Seoul is the bloody traffic. And how far it is from where you currently live.

Oh wait, you mean I forgot Amsterdam, Barcelona, Sydney, Paris, and New York? Amazing cities, indeed, but they didn't qualify for this list. Simply too touristy, despite the occasional odd neighborhood not yet discovered by the hordes.  

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An incurable globetrotter, Gunnar Garfors has visited every country in the world and is the author of 198: How I Ran Out of Countries. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

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