Weird, wacky or simply wonderful. You think you've seen it all but these cities will make you look again. Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2009 names the world's top 10 most eccentric cities.
Talking toilets and microsized pod hotels have kept Japan at the top of the eccentricity charts for years. But have you tried drinking in Tokyo? Now we're talking weird, for this is the city with a million themed ways to wet your whistle. Feeling a bit peaky? Try ER's hospital bar, where staff wear pristine white uniforms and administer `doses' direct from oversized hypodermic needles. Sip cocktails in psychedelic Alice in Wonderland, marvel at the sword-wielding bartenders at Ninja or hit Off ce, where drinks are downed over the photocopier and filing cabinets.
LAS VEGAS, USA
Where to begin? Your hotel seems to be under the Eiffel Tower, there's an exact replica of Tutankhamun's tomb down the road and the neon glare is burning your retina. Everything's big, and we mean huge crowds, casinos, nightclubs, hangoversand especially the gangs of porn-peddling pimps. No one means to gamble much but suddenly you've no idea what day it is, let alone what the time might be somebody removed all the clocks, shut out the daylight and pumped you full of oxygen. It's all a bit of a blur and, for that reason, utterly fantastic.
Partying in Reykjavik is like partying in no other city mad, frantic and laced with Nordic energy. Cosmopolitan bars rock through the night, inhibitions disappear and alcohol fl ows hard. It seems like a competition, and in a sense it is because Icelanders are making up for lost time. After all, beer was illegal until 1990 and thumping all-night clubs were nonexistent. If it all seems a bit crazy, just remember this if you spent half the year in near darkness and the other half under the midnight sun, you'd be a bit bonkers too.
Considering he banned beards, ballet and lip-synching to music, it's no surprise that Saparmurat Niyazov became famed for eccentricity. The self-styled President for Life, Turkmenbashi (Leader of all the Turkmen) also closed every hospital outside Ashgabat, renamed the month of January after himself and presided over a trade deal in which Ukraine gave his nation 12 million pairs of galoshes in exchange for a bunch of TV sets. Niyazov died in 2006 but the memory of this odd dictator lives on at The World of Turkmenbashi Tales, an oddball Central Asian Disneyland of Ferris wheels and roller coasters.
On first sight Delhi seems like a seething, uncontrollable mass of humanity. But once you get to grips with the tumult and a raft of unusual attractions appear, nowhere more so than in the city's architecture. Swamped by the spread of 15 million residents, some of Delhi's greatest old ruins have been pushed aside by 20th-century growth. And so historic remains are hidden under flyovers, beneath towering high-rise blocks or have been converted to modern-day mansions. It's a peculiar balance of past and present and since Delhi doesn't stop for anyone, who knows what will change next.
AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS
Try as they might, Amsterdamers just can't shake off their sex and drugs image, but the coffee shops and neon windows of the red light district generate big money. Tourists wander the elegant tree-lined streets beneath graceful canal houses, although nobody comes for the architecture. Live sex shows, erotica museums and hardcore porn shops keep the euros flowing, but it all takes place in an unthreatening atmosphere. You're just as likely to see grandma taking a photo of the huge phallus fountain as you are to be offered hard drugs. And that, in itself, is more than a little bizarre.
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA
As the world gets smaller and cultures homogenised, few places remain as unwelcoming to visitors as North Korea. But ironically, the very communism that is designed to keep the outside world at bay is attracting a growing number of curious visitors. Don't expect to go it alone, for you'll be fastidiously escorted from one weird attraction to the next. Right across the board, from huge statues of Kim Il Sung to museums of gifts donated to the country (including a stuffed crocodile from Nicolae Ceausescu) and restaurants with no menus, Pyongyang defies all accepted convention.
Unesco-listed Guanajuato is one of Mexico's finest historic towns, with 450 years of history and one very macabre attraction. Guanajuato Mummy Museum doesn't pay homage to Mexican matriarchs rather, it's a gruesome collection of mummified remains exhumed from the city's cemetery. When families couldn't afford the upkeep of the crypts, bodies were removed and placed on public display, preserved for humiliation by the region's dry climate. If twisted, ash-grey corpses fl oat your boat, the museum's collection of over a hundred modern-day mummies, including the world's smallest, make for a fascinating visit. Those of afragile disposition should steer clear.
As modern China rushes headlong to the future in a blur of tower cranes and high-rise condos, a small area of this city near Shanghai is turning the clock backwards. Drinkers sip pints at the local Tudor-style pub, kids play on the village green, trees flutter on streets of Regency terraced homes and wedding bells chime in the cathedral. For all the tea in China, this is middle England. Except it's not. Welcome to Thames Town, Songjiang's built-from-scratch themepark recreation of an idyllic English life. It's utterly bizarre, and about as far from real Britain as it is from frenzied Shanghai.
NEW ORLEANS, USA
The Creole city that boasts individual charms such as gumbo, streetcars and a red-hot jazz scene really comes alive during Mardi Gras. The culmination of New Orleans' carnival season, the celebration goes off amid a riot of colourful parades, parties and primeval revelry. At least, it does for the visitors, who lap up the flamboyant costumes and drape themselves in strings of plastic beads. Locals might see it as a time for family, but they're not going to stop the booty-shaking excess of the French Quarter.
This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet's Best In Travel 2009 850 trends, destinations, journeys & experiences for the year ahead. Lonely Planet Publications, 2008. $34.95.