When I think back on my travels, it strikes me that many memorable moments have been enjoyed in the dark – and not in the way you might think. I remember first seeing the outback's sumptuous canopy of stars, and walking through old Vienna at night as illuminated gargoyles leered from buildings and shadows striped baroque streets. I remember straying into raucous Lan Kwai Fong to discover Hong Kong's party central, people and beer spilling onto the streets; and the splendid sight of Red Square on a winter's night, pretty as a snowdome.
True, some activities in the dark are gimmicky, like those restaurants that invite guests to fumble during blind tastings meant to highlight the feel, smell and flavours of food. Others are simply day tours at a different time, adding no extra dimension to the overall experience. Still, you'll generally avoid the tourist crush at night if you take advantage of museum nights and evening openings at palaces.
Cities can take on quite a different beauty at night too, whether you're wandering the riverside promenades in Shanghai with their views to glittering skyscrapers cascading in light, or the back alleys of Venice with moonlight wobbling in canals. Some places just have to be enjoyed at night: practically everywhere in Spain, the nightlife strips and night markets of big cities, the Alps under snow, and anywhere with star-scapes.
Head out after dark and you're often rewarded with the unexpected, whether unusual animals, strange folk in pubs or encounters with ghosts. Here are 12 ways in which destinations can reveal their dark secrets, providing unexpected pleasures that those tucked up in their hotel beds will never enjoy.
NIGHT SAFARI, MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH AFRICA
GOOD FOR Families (minimum age six), couples and wildlife watchers.
SHINE SOME LIGHT If you want to encounter those dictionary-leading creatures the aardvark and aardwolf – and feel caveman shivers at rustles in the dark – then head out at night on an African safari. It's quite the different experience from the usual daytime excursion, allowing you to spot nocturnal animals such as caracals, bat-eared foxes, kudu and birds such as eagle owls and nightjars. In fact, many African creatures – including lions and rhinos – are more active after sunset.
THE DARK SIDE Evening safaris departs 6pm in winter and 7:30pm in summer and last two hours. Adults $22, plus $18 daily park fee.
DON'T MISS The outdoor braai (barbecue) area and fireplace at the park's Mountain Cottages, just the place to swap wildlife-spotting stories and stargaze.
SHILIN NIGHT MARKET, TAIPEI, TAIWAN
GOOD FOR Shopaholics and food lovers of all ages, unless looking for haute cuisine.
SHINE SOME LIGHT Shilin Market sells bargain clothes, shoes, jewellery and souvenirs; other sections are devoted to furniture or even goldfish. More than 500 food stalls are the real reason to linger, however. Bag yourself a bargain meal of dumplings, fish-ball soup, grilled fish, pearl-milk tea or omelettes with oysters and green onion. Or try baobing, a traditional snack of shaved ice and various fruits, especially watermelon and mango, topped with wafers, sweetened peanuts and various syrups.
THE DARK SIDE The market is near Jiantan MRT station and starts around 4pm, though food stalls are lively after dark. Karaoke and arcade games crank up after 9pm.
DON'T MISS A ride on the giant Ferris wheel at Miramar Entertainment Park (miramar.com.tw) for great night views.
STARGAZING, COONABARABRAN, AUSTRALIA
GOOD FOR Astronomy enthusiasts of all ages, and those who just want to ponder our place in the universe.
SHINE SOME LIGHT Warrumbungle National Park in NSW was recently certified as Australia's first Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association, which recognises exceptional destinations around the world for their nocturnal environment, starlit skies and astronomical sites. Head out into the national park's unobstructed bushland and peer up in wonderment at the night sky, where myriad stars wink back. Stop by privately owned Warrumbungle Observatory for a squint at the heavens through a 20-inch (50 centimetre) and various other telescopes; special sessions allow for astronomical photography.
THE DARK SIDE Warrumbungle Observatory (tenbyobservatory.com) is open nightly except Sundays. Adults $24, children $12.
DON'T MISS Siding Springs Observatory (sidingspringobservatory.com.au), Australia's top optical observatory, has a good astronomy exhibition and multimedia presentations.
PUB CRAWL, BERLIN, GERMANY
GOOD FOR Inquisitive, tolerant party types. Over-18s only.
SHINE SOME LIGHT Few cities offer a more eye-popping nightlife than Berlin, catering to every taste, plus a few you'd never imagined. Head out on an Anti Pub Crawl for a good introduction to rock, punk and metal bars and nightclubs frequented by Berliners in pumping nightlife districts such as Friedrichshain, Prenzlauerberg and Kreuzberg. You might end up playing pub ping-pong, hip-hopping in a former railway depot, losing your mind in a techno club or absinthe bar, and getting a glimpse into Berlin's infamous burlesque and cabaret scenes.
THE DARK SIDE The 666 Anti Pub Crawl runs daily at 9pm and lasts 4½ hours. Adults $18 including shots.
OLD MELBOURNE GAOL, MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA
Photo: Paul Jeffers
GOOD FOR Jittery couples and paranormal pranksters. Not for children under 12.
SHINE SOME LIGHT This 19th-century prison recalls the days of harsh justice, hangings and bushrangers and is at its most unnerving at night. Tour guides relate ghoulish tales of murderers, thieves, gangsters and the gaol's most famous prisoner, Ned Kelly. As if tales of their crimes and brutal treatment weren't enough, the Hangman's Night Tour will have you leaping in the dark. A ghost tour (cell 17 is especially haunted) provides the requisite spookiness for lovers of scary movies.
THE DARK SIDE A one-hour Hangman's Night Tour and a ghost tour run on various nights weekly from 8:30pm. Adults $38.
DON'T MISS Occasional Night in the Watch House tours, which delve into the story of criminal Melbourne inside an original cell block.
TAPAS TOUR, MADRID, SPAIN
GOOD FOR Sociable singles and couples.
SHINE SOME LIGHT As the sun slumps behind Madrid's monumental buildings and the summer heat lessens, the city comes into its own as locals head out for the tapeo, a ritual of languid tapas-bar hopping that lasts until well after midnight and is local Spain at its best. Take a tapas tour and tap into insider knowledge of the best tapas bars, the culture of tapas and the best nibbles to order, whether fried green peppers, marinated olives, paprika-sprinkled octopus or ham croquettes.
THE DARK SIDE Tapas tours depart daily at 8pm and last three hours. $170 including food and drink.
DON'T MISS Madrid has a notable flamenco scene, so head on to one of its late-night flamenco venues such as Corral de la Morería (corraldelamoreria.com) or Cafe de Chinitas (chinitas.com).
NIGHT ZOO, SINGAPORE
GOOD FOR One of few evening activities (even in wholesome Singapore) perfect for the whole family.
SHINE SOME LIGHT Nocturnal creatures are generally overlooked at zoos, but Singapore Zoo provides close encounters with critters wide awake when we're usually asleep. The grunting and rustling of wildlife in the darkness provides a primeval frisson as you wander through seven geographical zones showcasing creatures such as clouded leopards, giant flying squirrels and tapirs. You can admire giraffes and zebras by moonlight. You can also take a guided tour for behind-the-scenes information about the zoo and its conservation efforts.
THE DARK SIDE Night Safari is available daily from 7:15pm with hourly admission time slots until 11:15pm. Adults $45, children 3-12yrs $30.
DON'T MISS The free light show at Gardens by the Bay (gardensbythebay.com.sg) with its magnificent illuminated artificial Supertrees.
GHOST TOUR, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
GOOD FOR The steady of nerve, although, unlike many ghost tours, this one is child-friendly.
SHINE SOME LIGHT There's nothing like a good ghost tour to provide alternative realities and the spookier side to tourist cities. Prague is especially atmospheric after dark, when its Gothic turrets and shadowy alleys are enough to make you believe in vampires. On a Mysterium tour a guide will entertain with stories of black magic, ghosts, werewolves and spectres, and delve into some of the legends of the old Jewish quarter with its leaning tombstones.
THE DARK SIDE The two-hour Dark Shadows of the Old Town tour departs Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 9pm. Adults $30, under-13s $15.
DON'T MISS Recover with a cocktail at Cloud Sky Bar (cloud9.cz), which has live music and dazzling night views over Prague.
NIGHT VISIT, PETRA, JORDAN
GOOD FOR Indiana Jones wannabes and the romantic, and entirely suitable for children. Save some daytime energy.
SHINE SOME LIGHT You might be surprised to learn that many major, mainstream tourist sites, from ancient ruins to museums, are open after dark. Petra isn't just far less crowded in the evening but highly atmospheric. Hundreds of flickering candles cast vast shadows across the ancient city's red sandstone buildings and cliff-cut tombs. Talking and mobile phones are discouraged, adding to the contemplative mood.
THE DARK SIDE Petra by Night runs Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at 8.30pm and last about two hours. Adults $13, under-10s free (plus $90 site day pass).
DON'T MISS A beer inside a first-century Nabataean rock tomb at the Cave Bar (guesthouse-petra.com) in accommodation centre Wadi Musa, which can be lively until the wee hours.
NIGHT SKIING, KEYSTONE, US
GOOD FOR Fun families and skiers for whom eight hours is never enough. Non-skiers can rocket down the Adventure Point tubing hill.
SHINE SOME LIGHT Skiing in the dark – albeit on floodlit slopes – is a completely different experience from regular daytime slope action. It's colder, the air more crisp, the mountains more mysterious in the moonlight, and the silence and shivering trees more primeval. Keystone has 15 night trails, more than anywhere else in Colorado. You can take advantage of freshly ploughed corduroy slopes and admire the twinkling lights of the resort on the way down.
THE DARK SIDE Night skiing runs until 8pm. A one-day lift pass costs from $78 for adults and $52 for children.
DON'T MISS Ride the gondola to Alpenglow Stube (keystoneresort.com), one of Colorado's highest restaurants. A seven-course European-influenced menu features local produce.
WILDLIFE SPOTTING, LAKE EACHAM, AUSTRALIA
GOOD FOR Families, couples and wildlife warriors.
SHINE SOME LIGHT The Atherton Tablelands southwest of Cairns in Queensland provide tropical highland rainforest that is home to some of our most elusive animals, including melomys, the mouse-like antechinus, bandicoots and pademelons all, in common with most marsupials, active at night. At Chambers Wildlife Rainforest Lodges sightings are made easy at a nocturnal viewing platform, which also attracts sugar gliders seldom spotted in the wild. In the surrounding forest you can sometimes see tree kangaroos and numerous varieties of possum.
THE DARK SIDE Accommodation is in 10 self-contained, one-bedroom lodges or a five-bedroom lodge. The nocturnal wildlife-viewing platform is (dimly) illuminated until 10:15pm.
DON'T MISS If you want further encounters with possums, tree kangaroos and sugar gliders book a nocturnal rainforest tour with Alan Gillanders (alanswildlifetours.com.au).
CLUB CRAWL, LAS VEGAS, US
GOOD FOR Party creatures with youth or stamina. You must be over 21.
SHINE SOME LIGHT No question that Vegas looks more glamorous at night as Belagio fountains dance, neon winks and the sheer artifice of casino-resorts take on an evening allure. Some while the night away blue-faced in front of glowing slot machines, but better to spend your money on a tour around some of the city's best bars and nightclubs. What's more, you get free re-entry to any of the venues at the end of the tour: no excuse not to party until dawn.
THE DARK SIDE Tours start at 7pm and some continue until 1:30am. Prices range from $110 to $450 depending on venues visited.
DON'T MISS The free sound-and-light Fremont Street Experience (vegasexperience.com), which covers four city blocks, runs hourly until 1am.
TURNING IT ON: FIVE OF THE BEST NIGHT SPECTACLES
SYMPHONY OF LIGHTS, HONG KONG, CHINA
This nightly 8pm show lasts 13 minutes and is the world's largest permanent sound-and-light show. Laser beams stab the sky and multi-coloured lights dance to synchronised music on some 40 skyscrapers around Victoria Harbour. The waterfront at the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui is the spot to take it in. See discoverhongkong.com
LUMIERE FESTIVAL, DURHAM, UK
The UK's largest light festival grows by the year and moves around various cities. This year, it's back in hometown Durham from November 16-19. It features 30 light installations from worldwide artists, including glowing human figures, neon dogs, "light graffiti" scribbled across roads, and eerie fog on the cathedral facade. See lumiere-festival.com
GLOW, EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS
This annual event (November 11-18 this year) celebrates the founding of Philips as a bulb manufacturer in Eindhoven, and is notable for cutting-edge media technologies. Around 40 light installations along a six-kilometre walking route feature often bizarre sculptures, projections onto buildings, and light installations from international artists. Heated cafe terraces make good vantage points. See gloweindhoven.nl
CHRISTMAS LIGHTS FESTIVAL, MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA
This Colombian city has the world's best displays of animated Christmas lights created from 16 million bulbs and featuring giant 3D cartoon characters, scenes from local history and splashing water fountains. On December 24 and 31, fireworks add to the extravaganza. Climb Cerro Nutibara hill and gaze down between light-strung trees at the dazzling spectacle. See colombia.travel
INDEPENDENCE DAY, WASHINGTON DC, US
The fourth of July has a terrific fireworks display along the National Mall against the backdrop of illuminated landmarks such as the Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. If you want to avoid big crowds, head across the Potomac River, where the US Marine Corps War Memorial provides a fine outlook. See washington.org
FIVE UNDER-RATED CITIES FOR NIGHTLIFE
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
From the wine bars of posh Recoleta and pumping techno clubs of Palermo district to the tango venues of Abasto, the Argentine capital has it going on. Locals hit the town around 1am and roll home at 6am. See turismo.buenosaires.gob.ar
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
The Russian city lacks much darkness in summer, but its famous White Nights cultural festival makes the most of the midnight sun. Classical concerts, ballet and open-air jazz concerts are followed by drinking and clubbing long into the gloaming. See visit-petersburg.ru
The Lebanese capital is the only Middle Eastern city with a truly vibrant nightlife and liberal attitude to alcohol. Neighbourhood restaurants and bars stay open late in trendy Gemmayze and arty Mar Mikhael districts, and summer music festivals abound. See destinationlebanon.gov.lb
The Danes know how to party, and Copenhagen doesn't just have a flourishing club scene and underground electronic-music venues, but "morning bars" that open after the clubs have closed and carry locals well into the light of morning. See visitcopenhagen.com
Outside the big cities, Hangzhou has China's most energetic and diverse nightlife, conveniently condensed in the city centre, especially around Nanshan and Hubin roads. Pubs, nightclubs, karaoke lounges and even Latin American dance venues compete for passing trade. See gotohz.com