The best 16 cities to visit in 2016

Decisions, decisions. It's a big world out there, and it's begging to be explored. The question is: where do you go next?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

Why it's hot: It's not like there's ever a bad time to visit Rio. This is, after all, one of South America's most enjoyably hedonistic cities, a place with all the cliches you'd expect: beach football, sunset cocktails, tanned bodies, juice bars, favelas​ and samba clubs. But in 2016, Rio is playing host to a party that's bigger than its regular festivities: the Summer Olympic Games. Come August, the city will be in 24-hour celebration mode, from the sporting venues in the modern Barra to the beachfront kiosks of Copacabana. 

Even those visiting outside the Olympic period, however, will reap the benefits of a city that has significantly cleaned up its act. Public transport has been improved, the tourist centres are heavily policed, and even many of the infamous favelas have been "pacified" and are becoming popular with travellers.  

Don't miss: There's no Rio experience quite like spending a night at Academicos do Salgueiro​, a famous samba school where locals go to drink and dance and watch future Carnival performers rehearse. It's a riot, and a world unto itself. 

When to go: Rio's temperatures are best in winter; the Olympics run from August 5 to 21.

More: www.riodejaneiro.com; www.salgueiro.com.br.

TOKYO, JAPAN

Why it's hot: There's never a dull moment in Tokyo. This truly is a city that never sleeps, one that dings and whirs and flashes and chimes long into the wee hours of the morning. The gaming arcades bustle, the whisky bars stay open, the comic-book stores are packed, the streets are alive. And it never stops. For night owls, there's no better city in the world. 

Don't miss: It's tacky, it's cheesy, and it's hilarious: it's the Robot Restaurant, a Shinjuku institution in which diners pick at bento boxes while huge robots engage in mock battles to the tune of Gangnam Style. 

When to go: Summer is peak season, although between September and November is beautiful. 

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More: www.jnto.org.au; www.shinjuku-robot.com.

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN

Why it's hot: The food. It's definitely the food. You could come to San Sebastian for the beaches, for the postcard-perfect bay of Playa la Concha and the surf hot spot of Playa Zurriola​. But you'd stay for the food. You could come for the classic architecture and paved Old Town streets. But still, you'd stay for the food. You could even come here because San Sebastian is a European Capital of Culture in 2016. Nevertheless – you'd stay for the food.  

This is a city obsessed with cuisine, where every single bar and restaurant is pouring their heart and soul and thousands of years of culture into developing tiny little mouthfuls of food to impress roving diners. This is the home of "pintxos​", the Basque version of tapas, and it's a passion that's indulged in every lunch and dinner of every day of the week. Love food? You'll never want to leave.

Don't miss: The pintxos bars are great, but San Seb is also home to two of the world's best restaurants: Mugaritz​ and Arzak. Book well in advance.

When to go: Winter can be cold and rainy; it's best from April to October.

More: www.sansebastianturismo.com; www.mugaritz.com; www.arzak.info.

WASHINGTON DC, US

Why it's hot: Forget, for a moment, the world's largest library, and the world's largest museum, and the statues and monuments scattered throughout that make DC so great – because 2016 is a presidential election year. You need no more reason to visit the US capital than that. Right up until the November ballot, this city is going to be buzzing.

Don't miss: DC's National Gallery of Art provides a crash course in the history of creativity, from the I. M. Pei-designed building to pieces by da Vinci, Degas and Matisse – and it reopens, freshly renovated, in 2016.

When to go: The November elections will have the city at its best.

More: www.washington.org.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA

Why it's hot: Laugh all you want, Australians. You might think of the GC as a retirement village for chilly Victorians, but this is a city with plenty going on. The host of the 2018 Commonwealth Games has some spanking new public transport infrastructure, plus the requisite endless beautiful beaches and, in villages such as Burleigh Heads, a large dose of relaxed, beachy charm. 

Don't miss: Get the best of Burleigh with lunch at the Fish House, a classy eatery that has views all the way down the beach to Surfers Paradise.

When to go: The GC is great year-round, although it's perfect in winter.

More: www.visitgoldcoast.com; www.thefishhouse.com.au.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

Why it's hot: It used to be that South America, as affordable as it was on the ground, was prohibitively expensive for Australians to get to, but that has changed. Qantas now flies direct from Sydney to Santiago. LAN has increased its frequency and improved its planes. And, perhaps best of all, Air New Zealand now flies directly from Auckland to Buenos Aires, cutting flight times and prices across the board. There has never been a better time to make that journey.

First on your list of destinations? Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital that oozes charm, the sultry centre of tango, of wine bars and cocktail lounges, of fashion, of football and of amazingly good food. This is the perfect way to ease into South America, a city with the architectural and linguistic touchstones of Europe, but a culture all of its own. 

Don't miss: Don't just watch the tango – learn the tango. La Catedral​ runs beginner courses in this quintessential dance, evenings that are soaked in red wine and laughter.

When to go: March to May and September to November are beautiful.

More: www.turismo.buenosaires.gob.ar; www.lacatedralclub.com.

LIMA, PERU

Why it's hot: The Peruvian capital is a city on the rise. Once a hotbed of crime, Lima has cleaned up its historic centre and, in trendy suburbs such as Miraflores and Barranco​, has serious claim to hosting some of South America's coolest enclaves. Want evidence? Check out photographer Mario Testino's​ MATE gallery, or the arty boutique Hotel B, or chef Virgilio Martinez's Central restaurant, named No. 4 in the world.

Don't miss: The Mistura culinary festival, held in September each year, is a show of all that Peru has to offer the world in terms of gastronomy.

When to go: December to April is peak season.

More: www.peru.travel.

LAMU, KENYA

Why it's hot: Few places take you away from everything you know like Lamu, the island town off the coast of Kenya. With a history spanning Arab, Portuguese, German and British occupation, Lamu is a mix of all of its influences, a warren of narrow streets and stone houses, a UNESCO World Heritage site perched on stunning turquoise waters. Few tourists make it to Lamu these days, given security issues in Somalia, but it's worth the trek. 

Don't miss: The best way to view the Lamu archipelago is aboard a traditional dhow. Don't worry, the boat owners will find you.

When to go: The weather is perfect from July to September.

More: www.magicalkenya.com.

BOLOGNA, ITALY

Why it's hot: Among Italians, Bologna is known as "La Grassa": the fat one. And that's exactly what you'll be after a week or so in one of the country's most underrated and gastronomically obsessed cities, where foodies in the know flock for all of the delicious regional produce that earned Bologna its nickname. From Parmigiano-Reggiano to prosciutto, mortadella, salami, and "ragu Bolognese", this is a city in which to eat, and eat, and eat. And the best news? Emirates now flies there direct from Dubai.  

Don't miss: Every Bolognese's favourite tradition is aperitivo: pre-dinner snacks served free with a glass of wine at local bars.

When to go: March to October.

More: www.bolognawelcome.com.

ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA

Why it's hot: Central America is dotted with Spanish colonial towns, but none has charm that can match Antigua, Guatemala. Watched over on all sides by smoking volcanoes, this former capital is a perfect grid of cobbled streets populated by horses and carts, rickshaws and street food vendors, and hemmed in by the crumbling pastel facades of old Spanish homes. Behind many of those walls lie gardens and villas, churches and shops. You could explore for weeks. 

Don't miss: As beautiful as Antigua is, it's worth doing a day trip out of town to climb the active Pacaya volcano. 

When to go: This is a year-round destination.

More: www.visitguatemala.com.

KEY WEST, US

Why it's hot: If there's a revelation to come out of the popular Netflix TV series Bloodline, it's not just that Ben Mendelsohn is a great actor – it's that you need to get yourself down to Florida Keys, stat. As happened with New Mexico after Breaking Bad, the beautifully shot series is bound to attract tourists to the southernmost part of continental US, a network of islands swimming in calm, clear waters, where time is as drawn out as the locals' vowels.  

Don't miss: A night-time stroll down Duval Street should give you a window into everything the Keys has to offer, from tacky to creative, boozy to kitsch.

When to go: High season is from March to May.

More: www.visittheusa.com.au.

DARWIN, AUSTRALIA

Why it's hot: Darwin does things differently. While everyone else is getting into wineries and European cafes and daring modern art galleries and cheese, such delightful cheese, Darwin is having a laugh. There are still daily croc puns on the front page of the paper ("G'day bait!", "What a croc!" ). The most popular evening activity is heading down to the beach with a beer to watch the sunset. There's culture here – but it comes with a slab of irreverence.

Don't miss: Darwin has some great markets, but the best of them is the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, with homewares, knick-knacks and great food going cheap.

When to go: May to September. 

More: www.travelnt.com.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA

Why it's hot: If you love the big bad city, then this is the biggest and baddest of them all. Moscow: home to gangsters, oligarchs, grifters, politicians, and just about every shady character in between. But that's selling the Russian capital short. This is also a place of high culture, of ballet and concert venues, art galleries, libraries, universities and some surprisingly good restaurants. There's a buzz to Moscow, and it will draw you in.

Don't miss: A visit to Bunker 42, a former Cold War hideout and command post for the military elite buried 65 metres below street level, provides an insight into recent history.

When to go: May to September.

More: www.russiatourism.ru; www.bunker42.com.

LUANG PRABANG​, LAOS

Why it's hot: There's peace in Luang Prabang, even if you don't immediately see it. Push past the scooters and tuk-tuks, the street food sellers and market peddlers, the tourists and locals, hunt around a little, and you'll find it. It's there in the heritage-listed temple complexes that dot the town; it's in the French colonial guesthouses, in the quiet restaurants, or down on the banks of the Mekong River. This Laotian city is a charmer. You'll never want to leave.

Don't miss: Climb the hill in the centre of town to reach That Chomsi, a stupa that commands amazing sunset views. 

When to go: November to May.

More: www.tourismlaos.org.

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

Why it's hot: Food, glorious food. You mightn't think of the Swedish capital as a gastronomic hot spot, but with the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Frantzen leading a charge of local chefs turning out innovative takes on traditional Nordic cuisine, Stockholm is a foodie's delight. There are artisanal bakers here, and cheese-makers, and chocolatiers, and pastry makers … You're never going to go hungry.

Don't miss: The best way to get acquainted with the Stockholm food scene is by doing a tour, one that will take you from market stalls to meatballs, with a taste of everything in between. 

When to go: May to September is best.

More: www.visitstockholm.com; www.foodtoursstockholm.se.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA

Why it's hot: You could be attracted to this city by its good looks, by its waterfront location and its rugged backdrop of Table Mountain. You could very easily learn to love its bar and restaurant scene, or its parks and gardens, or its diverse, multicultural neighbourhoods, or its embrace of history. But the thing about Cape Town that will probably be the biggest joy is how affordable it all is. For Australians, the exchange rate is heavily in our favour. Make the most of it.

Don't miss: While the cable car is popular, the most rewarding way to get to the top of Table Mountain is to climb it. It's about a two-hour hike.

When to go: October to April.

More: www.capetown.travel.

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