Once a sleepy riverside city best known for its fortified wines, Porto has emerged as a vibrant arts capital that’s rightfully getting a lot of buzz as a great value destination. At the vanguard of the city’s bohemian art scene is the gallery-lined Rua Miguel Bombarda – liveliest during Simultaneous Openings when new exhibitions and streetside concerts create a festive ambiance. Big museums such as the Museu de Arte Contemporânea in Parque de Serralves host cutting-edge exhibitions. Meanwhile, Rem Koolhaas’ wildly designed and hugely popular Casa da Música keeps the music going at year-round performances, including free outdoor concerts in the summer. Celebrated new restaurants have also tapped into the city’s creative new outlook. Rui Paula’s DOP showcases Portuguese ingredients with a contemporary twist. Historic port wine lodges provide tours and tastings for free or a nominal fee. Beyond Porto lies the Douro Valley, a picturesque region of steep terraced hillsides covered in some of Portugal’s most celebrated vineyards, with river cruises and scenic train rides for day-trippers.
What’s old is new again in the buzzy Danube-straddling Budapest. Want to try a new type of bar? Head to the ruin pubs (romkocsma) and garden bars (kertek), trendy watering holes in old, atmospheric unrenovated buildings and wild plant-scapes. For novel digs from previous eras, stay in retro chic historic hotels like the former prime minister’s residence, Bródy House, or the one-time artistocrat’s palace Hotel Palazzo Zichy. Budapest has long been famed for its many thermal baths, and the 16th century Turkish-era Rácz Baths are set reopen this year after a long period of closure as part of the luxurious Rácz Hotel (www.raczhotel.com). The retro-hip trend continues in the food, with old-fashioned coffee shops and rustic etkezdek (mom-and-pop canteens serving simple Hungarian fare).
Few destinations seems to be attracting as much word-of-mouth love as Iceland right now. With a window of affordability, popular Icelandic bands, mystery writers, and a seeming worldwide need for a long soak in a hot spring, Iceland seems to be on every traveller’s mind this year. Nearly all of the focus has been on Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, but don’t ignore Iceland’s second city Akureyri and the wild charms ofNorthern Iceland, all easily accessed by a short connecting flight from Reykjavik. You’ll leave most other travellers behind and there’s no shortage of dramatic geysers, lava fields and towering waterfalls to keep you company. For those in search of a soak, Myvatn Nature Baths (www.jardbodin.is) is a smaller and less touristy version of the famed Blue Lagoon. 2013 marks the end of the 11 year maximum in aurora borealis activity, with a better light show in Northern Iceland than you’ll find in even more northern parts of Scandinavia.
Cinque Terre, Italy
The Cinque Terre, the string of five towns clinging precariously to the most rugged portion of Liguria’s coastline, is back. Ligurian farmers have been reclaiming the wild slopes with neat stone terraces for over 2000 years but catastrophic flooding in late 2011 wiped out the centuries of work put into the terraced vineyards and parts of the famed paths connecting the towns. In the intervening year and a half, the locals have gone to heroic lengths to rebuild the terraces, dig out the paths, and repair the damaged buildings. Steep cliffs and car-free towns made construction and debris removal highly challenging, but it’s looking better than ever today. Walking is the essential way to experience Cinque Terre, but don’t race: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – each village has its own personality. Along the way, be sure to explore the small hidden beaches below and climb to the heights at the five scenic sanctuaries perched above the towns.
You can’t blame a traveller for being distracted by the unreal alpine adventure heaven (and frequent Bollywood backdrop) that is the nearby Berner Oberland. But Bern itself is perhaps the most underrated capital city on the continent. If you’re expecting stodginess from the Swiss seat of government, Bern quickly dashes such notions with its graceful blend of the old and genteel with the modern and edgy. The gorgeousfountain-filled 15th-century UNESCO World Heritage site Old Town (where you can visit Albert Einstein’s former house) is paired with the futuristic Renzo Piano designed Paul Klee Center. Artsy boutiques, intellectual bars and cutting-edge locavore cuisine is the name of the game here. Nearby, cheese lovers can follow the Emmental Cheese Route by bike (complete with mobile app that guides you from cheese to cheese). The annual Buskers Street Music Festival (www.buskersbern.ch) is ideal for budget-conscious music lovers: it fills the streets of Old Town with music and performances for free (or whatever you can toss in the hat).
Just 10 years ago, Marseille was a byword for urban decay and crime around France. Times have changed. But even after a major makeover and investment in revitalizing the port, transport and arts institutions – as well as being named the European Capital of Culture in 2013 – most travellers have yet to catch on to what is one of Europe’s greatest comeback cities. Marseille’s colourful Vieux Port has been in use for over 26 centuries and is still a busy hub of activity today, while Le Panier quarter’s labyrinthine, souk-like streets are lined with artisans’ shops marking the neighbourhood’s long history as a local marketplace. The 19th century Romano-Byzantine Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde sits atop the city’s highest point and houses beautifully restored mosaics and murals recounting the city’s seafaring history. In June 2013, the brand-newMusée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée opened to the public, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts reopened at the Palais de Longchamp. Seafood lovers should high-tail it to Marseille for the food alone – as a local will tell you, you’ve never had bouillabaisse until you’ve had it in Marseille.
Calling Croatia a hotspot is somewhat old news in travel circles – its popularity is firmly established among European travellers and steeply on the rise among Americans as well. But many travellers are only seeing one sunny slice of the country, lured to the nearly 2000km-long coastline meanwhile missing the diverse charms of the inland cities, national parks and countryside. Zagreb, soon to be the EU’s newest capital city, is a hip city with walkable streets and a café scene so ingrained that some refer to the city as one large outdoor café. Surpassing even the notable beauty of the coast, Plitvice Lakes National Park is a nature-lover’s paradise with ribbons of bright turquoise lakes and waterfalls set against a backdrop of karst cliffs and mossy travertine. Back on the coast, historic Dubrovnik will delight visitors even if they don’t know that they’re standing in King’s Landing from the popular Game of Thrones television show.
Scenic, historic and on the rise: Northern Ireland is ripe for exploration in 2013. Derry/Londonderry is the only surviving walled city in Ireland, and a walk around the walls is a must for any visitor. The UK City of Culture for 2013, Derry/Londonderry is undergoing a renaissance, with a year full of cultural events and a new 235m pedestrian Peace Bridge over the River Foyle designed to resemble a handshake between the traditionally Protestant and Catholic sides of the city. In Belfast, Titanic Belfast (www.titanicbelfast.com), a brand-new museum devoted to Belfast’s maritime heritage, is styled as a massive silver boat-prow and located where the Titanic herself was built. Northern Ireland’s charms extend well beyond the cities (which, coincidentally, fans of Game of Thrones will know from the lush scenery used throughout the show). The Giant’s Causeway with its picturesque rambling hexagonal columns of basalt spilling into the sea, is connected by an unforgettable 16 km coastal walk along the Causeway Coast to the swaying Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (20 m long, only 1 m wide, bouncing 30 m above rocks and water) with cliffs, islands, beaches, ruins and seabirds along the way.
Despite what a certain banjo-playing frog might tell you, Copenhagen makes being green look easy. Scandinavia’s coolest capital city is also one of the world’s leaders in green building, sustainable food and bike sharing. New York is abuzz about bicycles with their new bike-share system, but that’s old news in Copenhagen where nearly 50% of the residents commute by bike (the city’s free public bike-share system ended recently but a replacement system is on the way). New Nordic cuisine, with Copenhagen’s Noma leading the way, has become the ‘it’ cuisine of 2013, with its hallmarks of local, seasonal and traditional foods prepared in simple but innovative ways. With the 2000 bridge and tunnel connection to Malmö, Sweden has revitalized the neighboring city and created a vibrant bi-national, multicultural metropolis. Summer is jam-packed with festivals, but the Danes show their serious love for jazz at the city’s largest music event, the Copenhagen Jazz Festival (jazz.dk), bopping through the city for 10 days every July.