Need a reason to take a holiday next year? Here are 17 cities to put on your list.
NEW ORLEANS, UNITED STATES
People still talk about Hurricane Katrina like it was just yesterday, but 2015 marks the 10th anniversary of one of the worst storms in American history. New Orleans has spent the decade rebuilding, improving, looking to the future while trying to learn from its past. Perhaps there's no better sign of this than the recent influx of artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians. Like Austin or Portland, New Orleans has quickly become a creative alternative to pricey New York. But it has always been cosmopolitan: since the French founded the city in 1718 it has blended cultures together like a steaming pot of jambalaya. Next year is the perfect time to jump in and take another taste.
A visit to New Orleans always begins with the French Quarter, home to the world-famous Mardi Gras (starting January 31) and outrageous Bourbon Street. Beads hang from the balconies at all times of year, and people behave like it's the end of the world. Equally fascinating, however, is the neighbourhood of Faubourg Marigny, now the centre of the city's incomparable music scene. The steamy, gothic Garden District is home to the Lafayette Cemetery, surrounded by white-columned mansions and creeping myrtle trees. And the revitalised Arts District, created out of abandoned warehouses that once bustled with sea trade, focuses around the Contemporary Arts Centre.
Honestly, though, New Orleans is all about the food and drink. This is the place that invented the Sazerac, the Obituary Cocktail. Grab a drink at the rotating Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, then venture out looking for gumbo, or po boys – delicious crusty sandwiches stuffed with fried oysters. Pack stretchy pants. You'll need them.
Don't miss: New Orleans and jazz go hand-in-hand, so there's no better time to visit than during the raucous Jazz Fest, which takes place over two weekends in April and May. The line-up is announced in January. Book accommodation early, nojazzfest.com.
Insider tip: If you're looking to continue your travels after visiting "the big easy," jump on the Art Deco Pullman train heading north to Chicago. Each antique car cost between $855,000 and $1.3 million to restore, and they were worth every penny. travelpullman.com.
- Lance Richardson
For a small city, Antwerp punches way beyond its weight. It may have been the linchpin of the global economy during its 16th-century golden age, and is still Europe's second-biggest port, but today just half a million people call this walkable city home. That makes it all the more surprising to find not just world-class museums, but also a thriving fashion and design scene, a captivating combination of baroque glory and cutting-edge cool.
Looking for a culture fix? Most visitors make a beeline for the Rubenshuis, the home of the city's most famous son, and his impressive art collection, but the homes of two other great local collectors, the Rockoxhuis and the Museum Mayer van den Bergh, are, if anything, even more dazzling.
Contemporary cool is more your scene? Then check out the striking architecture of the Museum Aan de Stroom or Richard Rogers' law courts building. Or just go shopping. From Ann Demeulemeester to Dries Van Noten, the icons of Belgian fashion have their flagship stores here, works of art in their own right.
Don't miss: The city's premier museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, is closed for renovations until 2017. Highlights of its amazing collection of Flemish masterpieces are on show in various venues throughout the city. A number of religious works, including some Rubens masterpieces, are currently on display in their original home, the Cathedral of Our Lady.
Insider tip: Antwerp is just starting to embrace pop-ups and Jones, a gin and small bites bar in Pelgrimstraat near the cathedral, is one of the best. It's scheduled to close at the end of this year, but the owners already have plans for a new iteration, possibly in the same premises, so keep an eye on the website.
- Ute Junker
Granada has its groove back. The oldest Spanish town on the Latin American mainland was showing its age, until foreign investment – notably from the Spanish government – started flooding in. Since then, the brightly painted houses have been spruced up, the courtyards are full of flowers, and some of the cobblestone streets have been turned into pedestrian thoroughfares perfect for a leisurely stroll.
Granada has everything you want from a colonial town: character-filled cafes, boutique hotels, historic churches, and pretty vistas around every corner. Its convenient location also makes a great base for exploring the area. A popular day trip takes you to the Mombacho volcano, where you can take a canopy tour or follow one of the walking trails, before treating yourself to a soak in a hot spring.
Don't miss: The ancient catacombs beneath the San Francisco Convent are estimated to contain the bones of around 75,000 people. Coming across a wall filled with neatly carefully arranged skulls and femurs is a sight you won't soon forget.
Insider tip: An archipelago of 300 islets is one of Granada's most charming attractions; hire a kayak to explore them at your leisure.
The details: visitnicaragua.us.
- Ute Junker
Economically stagnant, run-down Bordeaux has undergone a renaissance over the last decade and is stepping out as one of Europe's liveliest and most graceful cities. Along its once-derelict Garonne riverbanks, promenades and flowerbeds flank a sweep of graceful neo-classical facades, best viewed from across the bridge from once-industrial and now hip-residential Bastide district. It's one of the best riverfronts on the continent: all Bordeaux comes down for a stroll, and more and more passengers are alighting from a new flotilla of river-cruise ships, joined in 2015 by Scenic Tours.
Bordeaux now buzzes with newly opened hotels, fine-dining restaurants, neighbourhood brasseries and much improved museums such as the terrific Musee d'Aquitaine (musee-aquitaine-bordeaux.fr). The soot has been stripped from gargoyle-studded churches and pretty squares. Bare-breasted nymphs cavort on fountains, and cafes are dense with gossiping locals. Any walk is a visual feast, with more listed buildings here than anywhere in France bar Paris.
Beyond the city centre, grand boulevards and squares dissolve into medieval alleys. Working-class neighbourhoods such as Chartrons – now known for its antique shops and fashion stores – have acquired new chic, and the former docks at Bassins a Flot (bassins-a-flot.fr) have become party central thanks to bars and nightclubs.
Go in 2015 before the crowds arrive: 2016 sees Bordeaux among French cities hosting the UEFA European Championship (uefa.com), and the completion of a TGV line in 2017 will put Bordeaux just a two-hour train ride from Paris.
Don't miss: The Weekend des Grands Crus runs on May 30-31 and is your chance to try dozens of famous Bordeaux wines or enjoy special dinners and tastings at wine cellars beyond the city. ugcb.net
Insider tip: Get in touch with Bordeaux greeters, volunteer local residents who will give you a free guided tour of the city focused around your interests. See bordeaux-greeters.fr
The details: bordeaux-tourisme.com.
- Brian Johnston
While staging last weekend's cavalcade of world leaders doesn't automatically make Brisbane a hot destination, it's become Australia's most improved state capital in the years since former PM Julia Gillard snubbed Sydney and chose the "world-class city" to host the G20.
At the heart of its coming of age have been developments along the Brisbane River, which is now as pivotal to the city as Sydney's harbour is to its raison d'être.
All along its shores are now increasingly sophisticated cultural and entertainment precincts, from South Bank's stretch of parklands, man-made beaches, museums and eateries to New Farm, where the industrially chic Brisbane Powerhouse, opened in 2010, is a hub for exhibitions, theatre and summer moonlit cinema.
Brisbane's riverside has also grown crowded with indoor-outdoor style eateries. At Eagle Street pier, beside the CBD, top restaurants like Jellyfish have been joined by Matt Moran's boathouse-style Riverbar and, symbolically replacing a waterfront McDonalds, Pony's urbane mix of cocktails and share plates. Across, at River Quay meanwhile, a fine-dining enclave has arisen, centred on Stokehouse Q's award-winning design and revelatory cuisine.
Beyond the river, Brisbane has become, like many top cities, a collection of inviting villages, from Fortitude Valley, including Chinatown, where grunge melds with heritage-listed buildings to groovy West End, with its vintage clothes shops, organic cafes and pumping Saturday market.
Brisbane's range of boutique boltholes has also recently been augmented by the arrival of the luxurious Gambaro, near another inner-city village, Paddington, and on Queen Street Mall, Next Hotel, Australia's most technologically switched-on property.
Yet while it's lost its provincial mentality, Brisbane's retained its laid-back Queensland feel and remains as suitable a venue for a good old-fashioned "shirtfront" as Tony Abbott could have wished for.
Don't miss: Japanese fashion exhibition Future Beauty at Southbank's Gallery of Modern Art - qagoma.qld.gov.au (until February 15) – and Brisbane's best ramen at taros.com.au.
Insider tip: Do a summer roof-top bar crawl, visiting Up on Constance, http://www.limeshotel.com.au/ and Elixir in Fortitude Valley and Dandy in South Brisbane.
The details: visitBrisbane.com.au
- Daniel Scott
The once infamous Colombia is one of the world's fastest emerging tourist destinations, but Cartagena, with its UNESCO walled city, salsa and fascinating history of pirates, the Inquisition and pilfered gold, is unquestionably the jewel in the crown. This captivating Caribbean town is completely different to anywhere else in Colombia. Here ancient streets are lined with colourful Spanish colonial buildings and rambling flower vines tumble off balconies.
From luxury resorts in former convents to intimate boutique hotels in restored historic buildings (some with their own resident toucans), Cartagena seduces travellers with its tangle of cobblestoned streets, colourful street vendors, rainbow architecture, innovative cuisine, fascinating history and vibrant nightlife. Even Hilary Clinton danced into the wee hours at Cafe Havanna on her visit here in 2012.
Home to the late Nobel prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cartagena is considered the most beautiful city in the Caribbean and was the hub of the Spanish empire. Despite the country's long civil war, the 16th-century port city has emerged unscathed – even drug lords need a place to holiday – and is now considered one of South America's hottest destinations.
Don't miss: Lunch at La Cevicheria, visited by Anthony Bourdain on his show No Reservations, for the incredible, just-plucked-from-the-sea ceviche. The fresh snapper ceviche is served with coconut and lime, a side of fried banana chips and a liberal dash of chilli sauce. A horse and carriage ride is admittedly naff but nonetheless a thoroughly genteel way to explore the ancient cobbled streets of the walled city; cocktails at Cafe del Mar at sunset are a must.
Insider tip: Salsa the night away at Café Havanna with its classic dance-hall feel and queues spilling out the door in the formerly low-brow Getsemani. The potent mojitos are addictive.
- Sheriden Rhodes
Venice is perhaps the world's most unusual city, a watery symbol of Byzantine imagination. The big news for Venice in 2015 is that large cruise ships of more than over 96,000 tons will no longer be allowed within 300 metres of St Mark's Square. That's on top of this year's 20 per cent reduction in the number of ships of more than over 40,000 tons allowed in nearby Giudecca Canal✓ – and ship movements are now limited to five a 5 per day. With more than over 650 big ships visiting Venice each year, each limitation is welcome.
As if a reduction in the cruise crowds isn't enough reason to visit, you'll also be following the steps of Hollywood royalty. George Clooney married Amal Alamuddin there in September 2014. You can book into George's favourite Venetian hotel, the Cipriani, a retreat located at the tip of Giudecca Island, a few minutes by private boat from St Mark's. The Cipriani and Roberto, its legendary concierge, have a way of making every guest feel like George Clooney.
The tiny, twisted laneways of Venice ensure you will get lost and that's a good thing. If you stay on the main thoroughfares between St Mark's and the railway station you'll be one of hordes of visitors. Elsewhere, you might just find yourself alone and witnessing one of the nautical moments that make Venice special, like the operations of a post boat, funeral boat, furniture removal boat or police, fire or ambulance boat.
Don't miss: Hiring a private water taxi like those that featured extensively in George and Amal's wedding photos. These sleek vessels with highly polished mahogany decks and plush leather cabins make everyone feel as if they are in a James Bond movie. While gondolas are tourist-supported anachronisms, water taxis remain a vital part of Venetian transport.
Insider tip: If you are reasonably fit, the best way to see Venice is from a kayak. Venice Kayak has only been operating for a few years but it provides a fresh viewpoint on an old city. A sunset paddle with just a few others is ideal as your guides René [accent on the e] or Marco take you under the Rialto as the traffic calms down then into the back canals lit only by occasional public lighting and your head torch. Paddling under the historic Bridge of Sighs is a unique experience.
If the absence of looming giant cruise ships and the echoes of the Clooney nuptials aren't incentive enough, Venice has festivals throughout 2015. To step into a world of make believe, the Venice Carnival takes place between January 31 and February 17, 2015. The Venice 2015 Biennale of the Arts that includes an Australian pavilion runs from May until till November. Over on the Lido, the Palazzo del Cinema hosts the Venice Film Festival from September 2-12. between 2-12 September. For the more active, the Venice Marathon is on 25 October 25. If you really like gondolas (or recall Monty Python's travelogue on Venice) the Regata Storica has taken place on of the first Sunday of September since 1274.
- David McGonigal
David McGonigal travelled as a guest of the Hotel Cipriani.
"Jeepney drivers have many sexual adventures," says tour guide Melita. "The colourful decorations on a Jeepney say the driver is a playboy. No decoration means he is married."
Such is the fascination for Jeepneys that you'd be forgiven for thinking Manila is all about the signature stretch-chassis vehicles first fashioned out of surplus WWII Jeeps. But this city is hotted up by more than randy cab drivers in flash wheels.
At the heart of the sprawling capital is a small, 400-year-old walled city called the Intramuros. A striking hub of Hispanic heritage, it's where the Conquistadores (and then the Americans and then the Japanese) ruled over the country's 7200 islands. Among the cobbled quarter of stone blocks, clay tiles and small balconies it's hard to remember you're in Asia; some of the plazas once hosted bullfights.
Start at Fort Santiago with its sentries in Castillian dress for a nice crash course on a complex history; you'll also get views of the wide brown River Pasig, which reliably flooded the dungeons where the Japanese kept US soldiers imprisoned. Be sure to visit to the darkened spaces of the 16th-century San Agustin Church – home to a 3.5 tonne bell "so loud it caused abortions" and the tomb of the Spanish navigator Miguel Lopez deLegazpi, a forefather of Manila as much as a conqueror. Join a city tour outside the walls for modern histories including the busy Manila Bay harbour, the expat-only yacht club, the monster US embassy, the world's fourth largest shopping mall, Rizal Park and the Araneta Colisseum where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier duked out their "Thrilla" in 1975. There's a future of sorts rising from newly reclaimed shoreline, home to huge leisure developments like the Solaire Resort and Casino: the Chinese come to Solaire en masse to drop wads of cash and hopefully smuggle their winnings home as super-expensive watches; it's a sight to behold with its Vegas-lite trappings, wall-to-wall luxury- brand outlets and first-class restaurants.
Food in the Philippines is said to be woeful but I found it anything but. Like the country, the cuisine is a melange of heritage and, happily, the Spanish and Asian styles have fused nicely. Barbara's Heritage Restaurant in the ex-Governor General's residence in the Intramuros serves up a perfect example, with pork, seafood and rice in gay abandon. It's tasty, filling, and cheap at $15 for all you can eat.
And yes, the Philippines is cheap – like, Bali-cheap before Bali got expensive. A beer in a flash hotel will cost you $2.50. On the street it's 50 cents. You won't pay a fortune to get to Manila either: in September, Cebu Pacific began flights out of Sydney, providing some competition to Air Philippines. Pick your moment and you could see yourself into the Philippine capital for $200. Not bad for an eight-hour flight.
Don't miss: The Intramuros. Easily worth a day's exploration.
Insider tip: Christmas is totally full-on in the Philippines. The love of fiesta and the devotion to Catholicism means nothing is done by halves.
- Max Anderson
When imperial pomposity is unleashed without money or modesty as constraint, you get something like the Ringstrasse. The grand boulevard to blow all other grand boulevards out of the water fits around Vienna's inner city core like a clasp. Its unashamedly grand buildings play a key part in shaping the Austrian capital's traditional image – a stately, refined, well-dressed and possibly haughty place, devoted to classical music and fine art.
The Ringstrasse was a statement of intent. The pristine parks, palaces and ostentatious public buildings reek of a world power flexing its muscles. Austria's power may have waned considerably in the meantime, but the Ringstrasse – which celebrates its 150th birthday in 2015 - has only increased in potency.
Many of the star attractions are crammed between Schottentor and the neo-Renaissance Opera House which has hosted the likes of Strauss and Mahler in the past, and now runs a frenetically busy season between September and June for tuxedo-clad music-lovers.
The Flemish Gothic-inspired Town Hall, neo-classical national parliament building and Klimt fresco-festooned University main hall all inspire the sort of distracted, awed walking that leads to lamppost collisions. Two key cultural attractions – the Kunsthistoriches (Fine Arts) and Naturhistoriches (Natural History) Museums – line up opposite the Habsburgs' maze-like palace complex and its prissily maintained parks and public gardens.
Just behind them, however, new Vienna gets a look in. The Museumsquartier merges old baroque buildings with modern architecture, and big ticket museums with exhibition spaces for rotating contemporary art. More than that, though, it's a hangout, with the young Viennese gathering on the arrestingly lurid benches for lunch or an afternoon coffee.
Just behind the Museumsquartier is the 7th District, Neubau, home to swathes of quirky independent shops, plus numerous bars and restaurants that keep the quality up while ditching the starched collars. Further north, 8th District Josefstadt brims with 21st century cafe culture that's a direct counterpoint to the old-world grand coffee houses in the centre. Get to Vienna's other ring – the Gurtel – on the far side of either, and there are myriad rowdy bars built into the railway arches.
Head beyond the Ringstrasse and an often unrealised truism emerges: It isn't a belt marking the outer boundary of the good stuff – it's a transition to the parts of the city that are far more likeably relaxed.
Don't miss: On May 23, 2015, the Wiener Stadthalle will host Europe's annual kitschfest of power balladry, ludicrous costumes and dubious bloc voting. The Eurovision Song Contest may be great fun watched at a booze-fuelled party, but attending in person takes it to a whole new level. Expect Vienna to be taken over by an Olympics-style atmosphere, where people from across Europe actively want to mingle, swap flags and share more than a few beers.
Insider tip: On a sunny day, do as the locals do and head to a heuriger (wine tavern) in the vineyard-strewn city outskirts. Gobel and Wieninger in the 21st district are particularly charming.
- David Whitley
David Whitley has been a guest of the Vienna Tourist Board.
Why here: With its craft distilleries, nano- and microbreweries, food trucks and skateboard- and bike-friendly streets, Portland has already hit every hipster's travel radar. In 2015, two Hollywood films will shine a light on the liberal-minded city and the ruggedly beautiful state. Wild chronicles Portland author Cheryl Strayed's trek along the West Coast's Pacific Crest Trail. Instead of faking it, filmmakers rolled their cameras in locations throughout Oregon, including Bend, east of Eugene, and Portland's Hotel de Luxe. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Wild opens in Australia in January. Fifty Shades of Grey opens here in time for Valentine's Day. In the book, Ana and Christian's first liaison unfolds at Portland's Heathman Hotel. Naturally, there's a Fifty Shades of Oregon package that rolls the Heathman, coastal and mountain stays, tub dining, beach bonfire, wine/aphrodisiac pairings, town-car transfers and more into a six-night $US7500 romp.
Don't miss: Powell's City of Books covers an entire downtown block. With more than a million new and used books, and intriguing staff reviews peppering the shelves, it's possible to spend days in here.
Insider tips: Tourists flock to Voodoo Doughnut but Blue Star Donuts' more sophisticated creations include blueberry, bourbon and basil, banana walnut fritter, real maple and bacon, and dulce de leche and hazelnut. Oregon is also home to the largest collection of covered bridges in the US West; most of the 50-plus bridges are in the Willamette Valley south of Portland.
The writer was a guest of Travel Oregon.
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA
Why here: Long seen as crowded, corporate and a bit dull, South Korea's capital has thrown off its over-earnest stereotype to reveal a city with a sense of style and fun.
Its identity as a UNESCO City of Design was underlined in 2014 with the opening of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a spectacular building resembling a vast silver spaceship. Containing a museum, a design market and restaurants on the site of a former baseball park and historic fort, it's a compelling destination for both locals and visitors.
Another recent cultural addition is the city campus of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, next to an ancient palace and showcasing the imaginative work of local artists. Though undeniably up-to-date in execution, its art incorporates many elements of Korea's culture and history: here a hint of Buddhism, there an echo of the division between north and south.
Seoul's food also reflects this creative tension between old and new. Though its classic dishes are plentifully available in places such as the busy Gwangjang Market, chefs are also experimenting with modern expressions of traditional cuisine. In the Insadong district, for example, the restaurant Si Wha Dam serves playfully arranged dishes that mimic the appearance of Western staples such as pasta, while retaining a distinctly Korean flavour.
This traditionally tea-drinking nation has also embraced the international passion for coffee. You'll find home-grown cafes in every corner of the city, even the heritage neighbourhood of Bukchon with its traditional Korean homes and their distinctive peaked roofs.
For more of the modern, hit the Hongdae district next to Hongik University. A hotbed of shops, cafes, bars and nightclubs, it's an energetic expression of young creative Seoul. It's the place to hang out at a cat cafe by day, before taking in a live K-pop band by night.
Don't miss: On May 16, Buddha's birth will be marked by the annual Lotus Lantern Parade through Seoul.
Insider tip: Don't miss out on a visit to a jjimjilbang, the traditional bathhouse. Found all over the city, they offer a distinctly Korean cultural experience that's also supremely relaxing.
- Tim Richards
The writer was as a guest of the Korea Tourism Organisation.
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA
Why here: No city suffered more than Kuala Lumpur after this year's two Malaysian airlines disasters and its population's response demonstrated its character. Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics, Malays, Indians, Chinese and Tamils all grieved together in this city of blurred ethnicity, where different communities have grown up and live together in relative harmony.
Like Istanbul on Europe's fringes, Kuala Lumpur straddles Islamic and Western sensibilities, but in a way that is "truly Asian", to coin Tourism Malaysia's catchphrase. This not only makes Kuala Lumpur an absorbing place to visit, with its fusion of influences and architecture styles, but also an important example of how people from different creeds can happily co-exist. DJ Calvin Harris's first ever Malaysian gig, shortly after MH370's disappearance, showed the unity, with groups of mixed ethnicity strolling arm in arm, Muslim girls in headscarves and "party responsibly" T-shirts strutting their dance moves and little sign of drugs or drunkenness.
With Bangkok recently beset by political unrest, Kuala Lumpur's diverse culture and food makes it an inspiring alternative destination, with endless shopping possibilities in the malls of its central Golden Triangle district. Luxury hotel brands are backing KL's potential. A St Regis opens next year, new Four Seasons and W properties are due in 2017 and Harrods is developing its first, seven-star, hotel in the city. 2015 is Tourism Malaysia's "Year of Festivals" so the focus will be on the city's multicultural celebrations, including post-Ramadan Hari Raya festivities (September) and the Hindu Deepavali light festival (November).
Don't miss: Petronas Towers, illuminated at night, viewed from the Sky Bar on the 33rd floor of Traders Hotel. shangri-la.com/kualalumpur/traders/dining/bars-lounges/sky-bar/
Insider tip: For authentic local food take the "Off the Eaten Track" tour with foodtourmalaysia.com
The details: tourismmalaysia.com.au/destinations/kuala-lumpur
- Daniel Scott
The writer was a guest Tourism Malaysia
Why here: The high-rise cranes and street-level hoardings radiating from Darling Harbour are a clue that something big is going on (and up). Connect the construction sites and you'll find Sydney is busy building a multi-billion-dollar "cultural ribbon" that will curve from Broadway to Barangaroo. Among the first attractions to open will be the 250-metre-long Goods Line North, a pedestrian-friendly corridor with elevated spaces running from Ultimo to the Powerhouse Museum (a southern half will connect to Central Station's Railway Square). The northern end is due for completion in early 2015, coinciding with the opening of "starchitect" Frank Gehry's first building down under – the University of Technology Sydney's Dr Chau Chak Wing Business School. The 11-storey brick creation, which resembles a crumpled brown-paper bag, is already dividing critics. In May, as part of Vivid Sydney, a 500-seat theatre built from shipping containers will pop up in Barangaroo to host Here Lies Love, a disco musical from former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and DJ Fatboy Slim about the colourful life of former Philippines' First Lady, Imelda Marcos. The theatre will sit just south of six-hectare Headland Park, which opens in July at the northern end of Barangaroo near the Walsh Bay theatre district.
The former wharf's concrete edge has been ripped out and replaced with 6500 sandstone blocks that hark back to the natural shoreline of pre-colonial times. Overlooking the radical overhaul is The Langham Sydney, which had its own revamp this year. Thirty million dollars later, the luxury hotel in The Rocks will reopen on December 2.
Don't miss: Boat tours on the second Friday of each month offer a duck's-eye view of the transformation of Sydney CBD's western edge. The 30-minute tours include commentary from Barangaroo Delivery Authority staff.
Insider tip: Sydney Architecture Walks also explores the CBD's rapidly changing western edge through its Three Suburbs Central architect-led bike tour (the next tour is January 31).
- Katrina Lobley
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
Why here: Finally, LA has a centre. With pedestrian and cycle-friendly tree-lined streets, and hip residents moving into once-boarded-up warehouses, the revitalisation of Downtown Los Angeles is in full effect. At the Ace Downtown LA hotel, big name bands pull up to check in and check out the rooftop bar, complete with pool and DJs as well as the craft coffee roaster downstairs. Next door, the Theatre at Downtown Ace, once the United Artists silent movie house and a televangelist's tabernacle hosts only the coolest events like An Evening with Patti Smith (Jan 29 - 30, 2015). Up the street, Jay-Z has brought his Made in America music festival to the once-seedy Grand Park.
The rejuvenated century-old Regent Theatre is another former movie palace cum concert venue in the Old Bank District that has just opened its doors with the attached Prufrock Pizzeria and a bar called The Love Song, a dual nod to T.S. Eliot. Nearby, the Tex Mex at Bar Ama and Italian fare at Bottega Louis has those in the know queuing for tables.
Admittedly, the new arrival of wellness store, The Springs, offering yoga, reiki and organic juices with an in-house horticulturalist who sings to the fig trees and palms might be a step too far but among the Banksy artworks and giant H&Ms and Zaras, remnants of the past gladly remain. The 97-year-old Grand Central Market opened 10 new food concepts in the past year and expanded to dinner hours Thursday to Saturday. Potion shop Farmacia y Botanica Million Dollar still sells charms, candles and oils to stave off jealousy, legal troubles and poverty. Now is the time to check out this quickly transitioning area before the big brand flagships well and truly take over.
Don't miss: The Broad Museum, with an adjacent architecturally designed public green space plaza is set to open in Autumn 2015. Holding contemporary artwork from philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad's private collection, the museum will feature more than 2,000 individual works by approximately 200 artists. Admission is free, with a charge for temporary special exhibitions.
Insider tip: Be sure to visit the Los Angeles Public Library in the Goodhue Building on Flower Street. You can walk in and take a one-hour tour of the magnificent building with its sphinxes, rooftop pyramid, and eight-storey chandeliered atrium. Renowned writer, Susan Orlean is currently writing a tome dedicated to it. Book and vinyl record lovers should also visit The Last Book Store, a spectacular room selling piles of books and records from a dollar each.
- Andrea Black
The writer travelled as a guest of Visit California.
Why here: Ay, caramba! This South American gateway, for Australian travellers at least, is often overlooked in the gallop to Peru, Rio, the Andes or Buenos Aires, but if safe, lively, likeable and fantastic value feature in your holiday wish list, the Chilean capital is an essential stopover.
As well as a distinguished heritage of Spanish colonial churches, neo-Renaissance banks and public buildings, Santiago brings an artsy vibrance to the traveller's table, but you need to pick with care from the city's 32 comunas.
Tiny Bellavista is where Santiago wears its skinny ripped jeans, a colourful collage of hipster boutiques, cool cafes, sassy bars and galleries of avant-garde artworks, and also the former residence of Nobel poet Pablo Neruda, whose home still commands homage.
Don't miss the barrio's cite with its rows of painted houses arranged along narrow alleyways. Bellavista is also a promising nightlife zone, whatever your taste might be.
Barrio Lastarria is an emergent coolzone, populated with students from the surrounding universities and home to cafes that spill across the pavements, and some of the city's grandest public art galleries, with a sprinkling of fine boutique hotels in the blend. You're mixing it with dog walkers in elegant Vitacura, and a leisurely class whose primary aim is to be thin and wear the right accessories, but its tree-shaded boulevards and gardens are prime territory for a Saturday stroll.
Don't miss: The flea market held every weekend in Plaza Mulato Gil de Castro, off Merced Boulevard, Barrio Lastarria.
Insider tip: Emporio La Rosa, ice cream made by angels, in multiple locations. Vanilla with rose, spicy chocolate and mango with green tea are standouts.
The details: southamericatourism.com
- Michael Gebicki
The writer was a guest of LAN Airlines and the South America Tourism Office.
Sprawled across a half-Colosseum of leaping hills that rise from Chile's Pacific shore, frisked by a sea breeze, Valparaiso has become the country's cultural cauldron, a hubble-bubble of creative energy, vitality, and itchy spirits out to bend the rules. It feels like a Latino Berlin, with sunshine. Temperamentally as well as topographically, there are two Valpos, as residents style their city.
El Plano is the plank of the city surrounding the port, a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood better left to its own devices.
Rising steeply from El Plano is Cerros, 45 hills that are accessed via ascensores, clanking, creaking, Victorian-era funiculars that hoist passengers from the grid of streets on the city's ground floor.
Where they leave the well-informed visitor is the writhing streets of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion, furnished with a mad and chaotic tangle of Frenchified manor houses, Swiss-style cottages, turreted mansions and creaking iron shanties with Romeo-and-Juliet balconies.
Built when Valparaiso was a key player in the maritime trade of the Americas, these were once the houses of merchants, entrepreneurs, shipwrights and mariners. Many constructed their houses from corrugated iron carried as ships' ballast, tacked onto timber frames, with fanciful touches as their imagination dictated, and painted in Popsicle colours. Chromium yellow, turquoise, pink, lime – no colour was too outlandish.
Hard times came Valpo's way when an earthquake flattened the city in 1906, closely followed by the opening of the Panama Canal, effectively short-circuiting Valparaiso's importance as a port. Anyone who could left town, but cheap housing, a sunny climate and the louche, anything-goes style of the portenos proved a magnet for writers, artists and musicians.
Among them was Chile's Nobel-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, who celebrated its mad, dishevelled spirit in his Ode to Valparaiso, and whose former hillside residence, La Sebastiana, is now one of the city's prime attractions. However it is only over the lpast few years when rehabilitation funds have poured in and the city notched up a World Heritage listing that Valpo has undergone a rags-to-recherche renaissance.
Signs of urban renewal are everywhere. The outrageously florid Palacio Baburizza, an art nouveau pile built by a Croatian immigrant made good, has now become the Fine Arts Museum. Nearby, the French-colonial Palacio Astoreca, teaming a lipstick red facade with white-rimmed window frames, cuts a fashionable figure in the smart hotel lists.
The city's former prison has been repurposed as a cultural centre in an edgy design by marquee Santiago architects HLPS. Threaded through the cultural landmarks is a piquant, raffish assembly of galleries, restaurants, boutiques and bars with the international boho arts brigade a prominent feature.
Some of these artists have taken their brushes to the streetscapes, decorating the houses with huge murals that celebrate, criticise, inflame and entertain.
A distinctive South American voice emerges in the narrative works that spread wings as they abandon mundane reality - magic realism transported from print to walls, paint instead of pen.
Don't miss: Evening cocktails on the terrace of the Palacio Astoreca Hotel.
Insider tip: Take a walking tour with Valpo Street Art Tours for an intimate, expert view, conducted by former street kids.
- Michael Gebicki
The writer was a guest of LAN Airlines and the South America Tourism Office
When I first came here during the fading days of Communism, Budapest was weary, dirty and dilapidated. Over two decades of repeat visits, I've watched this sleeping beauty awaken as its soot-scarred buildings are cleaned, squares are planted with flowers and trees, and residents emerge in newfound energy and the latest fashions. With luxe hotels sprouting like mushrooms, river-cruise ships invading the quays, restaurants at every two paces and budget airlines flying in, visitors numbers have soared.
Budapest has turned itself into one of Europe's most impressive capitals, confident and ever-changing. The city is abuzz with fashion shows and film festivals, always-evolving boutiques and a seeming over-supply of cafes and eateries; some have garnered Michelin stars for their contemporary reinventions of Hungarian cuisine. Hungarian wine is on the improve too, with city wine bars now providing chic tasting spaces. Lively 'ruin pubs' – the Budapest version of pop-up bars – are invigorating disused spaces and derelict buildings.
The improvements keep on coming: the city's just-launched public bicycle system (bkk.hu) now allows locals and visitors alike to pedal around on green bikes for free, or for a minimal fee if it takes more than a half-hour to get from one bike station to another.
What I also like about Budapest is that the dividing Danube River gives you two cities in one. Hilly Buda has history and disgorges tour groups for sweeping views and looks at the cathedral and royal palace. The painted pastel facades of the old town are lovely. Across the river, flat Pest is the pulsating heart of the contemporary city. It's also the flamboyant showcase of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Budapest is the epitome of a grand fin-de-siecle European city, topped by Hapsburg eagles and Greek muses, knitted together by iron bridges, graced with neo-Gothic spires like the set of a light opera. It seems a fitting setting for séances and anarchists, carriages and crinolines.
Pest's buildings are a marvel of neo-classical and Art Nouveau glory, its public baths and cream-cake cafes a wonder of flamboyant Victoriana. Rattling yellow trams make me think of Freud. The curlicue, red-silk, gilt-gaudy opera house is magnificent. In October, the prestigious Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music (lfze.hu) reopened after a two-year overhaul that has seen its lovely Art Nouveau architecture and interior re-emerge, and a new concert hall added. Budapest has always been music mad.
Budapest is a multi-layered city and it isn't all waltzes and hazelnut cakes. The haunting Jewish neighbourhood has never recovered from WWII, though reconstructed Dohany Synagogue (Europe's largest) is wonderful, and lately Jewish cuisine has seen a revival in the trendy restaurants of the Seventh District. There isn't much left from the Communist era except shuffling suburban babushkas, left behind by the new Hungary. But there are interesting exhibits on Communist times in the Hungarian National Museum (hnm.hu). Memento Park (mementopark.hu) is a photographer's joy: a knacker's yard of colossal Soviet-era busts and statues removed from around the city.
Don't miss: Overlooked terrace gardens studded with ornate pavilions and arcades have always tumbled down the hillside from royal palace to river. Now Varkert Bazar has been sumptuously renovated; cultural spaces, shops and cafés are moving in. See varkertbazar.hu
Insider tip: Been before? Then venture away from the city centre into the Eighth District, a former no-go area whose scrubbed-up aristocratic buildings are being transformed with cafes, art galleries and great bars, well away from weekend stag-party crowds.
The details: budapest.com
- Brian Johnston
The writer travelled as a guest of Viking River Cruises.