Tag Archives: Beijing

My (current) top 20 cities … or today would be a good day to be anywhere but here

It seems to be the time of year for making lists, so today I’ve had a go at one a few people have asked me about: my top cities. I didn’t manage a trip these summer holidays, so as I head back to work this week, here are all of the places I would have loved to sneak in a visit to.

A few disclaimers: if you ask me tomorrow, this list may well have changed; these are cities to visit rather than necessarily live in; the list is drawn from cities I have actually been to, so there are some world class cities missing (and South America is notably absent … I must rectify that asap!) Feel free to tell me what I need to add; and I have excluded cities from my home country, even though Sydney undoubtedly deserves to be on any such list.

20. Stockholm

Almost missing out due to high prices and lack of sunlight hours, Sweden’s capital has just scraped on to my list due to its colourful buildings, beautiful waterways, and royal and intellectual history. Next time I’d try to go in summer rather than winter for some longer days, although Scandinavia in the cold is beautifully pristine.

19.  Phnom Penh

Beating out Bangkok which feels a bit too showy, Cambodia’s capital offers sobering history, cultural resilience, incredibly friendly people, and all kinds of opportunities to learn from people seeking to rebuild and restore. While Siem Reap holds the famous temples, this is the Khmer city whose streets I would love to wander.

18. Montreal

It was a toss up here with Vancouver, but the French factor tipped the scales for me. A stunning cathedral, an impressive penguin habitat in the biodome, a solid history museum, and French-Canadian culture of all kinds make this city a delight. And of course a winter visit adds to the beautiful vibe: snow just makes everything prettier.

17. Berlin

After being disappointed with Frankfurt and Munich, Germany’s capital restored the country’s travel value in my eyes. So many layers of history, a people who honour and acknowledge the past well but still look to and celebrate the future, an incredible array of museums and streets made for walking and people watching combine to make this one of my favourites.

16. Krakow

Old world Poland’s walled city with its bustling square and serene castle, alongside a funky modern city which pays respect to its tragic 20th century history, Krakow was an unexpected treasure and one I’d highly recommend.

15. Cairo

The only African entry on my list (although if the list were places rather than cities that might be quite different!), Egypt’s capital is worth the price of admission for the pyramids alone. But more than that, it is a melting pot of ancient and modern history, home to delicious cuisine including possibly my favourite meal ever, and the location of one of the world’s greatest museum collections put together like a haphazard choose-your-own-adventure maze.

14. Barcelona

A more recent addition to my list, Sagrada Familia on its own makes the Catalonian capital worth a visit. Antonin Gaudi’s imprint all over the city is an invitation to wonder, from crazy buildings, to an incredible park, to the design of the pavements. Add to that pintxos, cava, and people who welcome you into their crazy traditions and celebrations, and this is a city of history, architecture, and party.

13. Tokyo

One of my first big international cities to explore, Japan’s capital is unlike anywhere else, with ancient religion alongside modern tech obsessions and everything in between. I have been obsessed with finding good okonomiyaki ever since.

12. Budapest

Most people seem to pick Prague, but while I truly loved the Czech city, it was nearby Hungary’s similar but less crowded capital that stole my heart. The fairytale castle. The striking parliament building. The solemn Jewish museums and synagogues. The hauntingly beautiful Shoes on the Danube memorial. The cakes. The bookshops. The bridges. I could go on …

11. Lisbon

One of the world’s hilliest cities, Portugal’s capital will give you a workout and an overload of historic beauty. Castle ruins overlooking colourful tiled buildings. Various delightful modes of transport including elevators and funiculars. A golden bridge to rival San Francisco’s and a Christ statue to rival Rio’s. And. The. Most. Amazing. Custard. Tarts.

10. Hanoi

It’s hard to choose between Vietnam’s two big cities, and Ho Chi Minh is definitely worth a visit. But for me, Hanoi’s more old world charm, slower pace, and natural spaces tipped the balance in its favour. The art and history museums provided insight and a different perspective into a culture quite different to my own.

9. Florence

Again, many might prefer Venice or Milan, but of these three stunning Italian cities, for me there is no question. I love the river Arno and the Ponte Vecchio is beautiful despite being overhyped. I could spend days in the Uffizi Gallery and another one admiring Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Galleria dell’Accademia. Watching the sunset over the Duomo from high across the river after hearing Gregorian chants in an ancient church is but one of a multitude of standout memories I have from this incredible city.

8. Washington DC

I could probably make the US its own top cities list, and Chicago and San Francisco would rate very highly on it. But other than that one you just know is still to come, it is the combination of history, politics, culture, and nearly everything being free to visit that puts DC this high on my catalogue of must-visits. Having family live there for a few years means I’ve had the privilege of multiple visits, and there is always something new to discover. While American patriotism does not always resonate for us Aussies, it is fascinating to observe – from Arlington to the Capitol to the White House. And (apologies for bragging), meeting Bo Obama and hearing Barack speak were certainly icing on the cake.

7. London

This is one of a number of predictable entries near the top end of my list, but while finding lesser known gems is always amazing, there is a reason some places are perennially popular. The Clock. The Abbey. The Church. The Eye. The Tower. The Bridge. The Palace. The Theatre. The Hall. The Library. The Museum. I don’t even need to give their names for them to evoke the stories of history, culture, architecture. Sure, its probably got a lot to do with being from a former colony, and certainly the food isn’t much to write home about, but let’s be honest: any time I was given the opportunity to visit again, I’d jump at it.

6. Beijing

Shanghai was certainly up for consideration on this list, but of the two, it’s China’s capital that wins out for me. The Summer Palace. The Forbidden Palace. Tiananmen Square. The Great Hall of the People. The National Museum.  Plus perhaps one of the more surreal attractions I’ve visited, Mao’s mausoleum. The friendliness and stealthy photo snapping skills of the locals. The pride in both history and modern achievements. And of course who could forget the Great Wall.

5. Rome

From here on, ranking gets really difficult and contentious (as in, I’m even arguing with myself). No doubt this could be many people’s number one. The Eternal City. The Caput Mundi. Byron called it the city of the soul and Browning said everyone sooner or later comes by it. It wasn’t built in a day and all roads lead to it. It contains within it a whole other city/state. It touches on history that has shaped my culture and history that reflects my faith. I could wander its streets for days. I have. I hope to again.

4. Paris

The city of light; the city of love. The city of romance and beauty and charm. The city of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame; the city of Montmartre and the Seine; the city of the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. The Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie. Walking down the Champs-Élysées; eating crepes, macarons, eclairs, croissants. In my experience the stereotype is based in reality and the people are not always the friendliest, but they don’t need to be – they know we will all be back regardless of how they treat us.

3. Istanbul

The only city located on two continents. Where East meets West. No, its not Constantinople, at least not any more. The Ottoman Empire’s ancient capital and Turkey’s modern hub, it is currently one of the world’s five most populous cities (and the only one of those on my list). And they are people who embrace life, with the sights, sounds, and smells of this bustling city imprinted in my memory. From the Blue Mosque to the Spice Bazaar, and the underground Basilica cistern to the Hagia Sophia, there is a wealth of sites to discover. And the baklava is to die for.

2. New York

Predictable? Sure. Overrated? I don’t think so. I try not to be one to just go with what everyone else says, but in this case, I think they’re right. The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. So nice they named it twice. I’ve had five visits and I’d go back in a heartbeat. I’d pretend to be a local and stay uptown near Central Park, catch the subway, walk the High Line. I’d embrace being a tourist and ice skate at Rockefeller Center, line up for the Empire State Building, and do the UN tour (again). I’d spend hours exploring the Met and the Library and the Natural History Museum. I’d get tickets for multiple Broadway shows and rectify one of the greatest blunders of my travels when we could have bought cheap tickets to a brand new sung and rapped musical about American history that had recently opened with its original cast in 2015* but chose to see Les Miserables again instead. I’d eat Korean and Italian and Thai and Indian and any other cuisine I stumbled upon. And I’d wander the streets looking up at all the familiar famous buildings, searching for hidden gardens, monuments, and waterfalls, and watching the world go by.

*Yes, it was Hamilton with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

1. Jerusalem

I know this will not top everyone’s list, but its been my number one for a long time. I love history, I love the Bible, I love the Hebrew language, I love the Palestinian people, I love the coming together of cultures and perspectives and stories. I love staying inside the Old City and walking the streets early in the morning before anyone is around, and again later in the day when the place is buzzing with activity. I love seeing the newest archaeological discoveries, watching the layers of history peeled back and some of the secrets of ancient cultures revealed. I wrestle with the politics and I grieve with many of the people, and I long to see new ways forward to find peace and justice. I’ve loved taking people to see and experience this incredibly unique city and I’m keen to do so again. Who wants to come?

Today would be a good day to be in Beijing

I missed my regular Monday travel post last week due to study deadlines, some of which are still looming. So today I’m thinking it would be really nice to be able to go somewhere different enough that my mind would be compelled to think about things in different ways, to be opened up to new perspectives. And the place that comes to mind is Beijing, the first place I visited in China, and a place that certainly reminded me that different cultures and histories lead to very different ways of viewing the world.

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square
What did I love about Beijing?

Great Wall 3

The beauty of its history and culture.

The northwest corner tower of the Forbidden City

The peacefulness of the grounds at the Summer Palace, an oasis in a bustling city.

Summer Palace groundsSummer Palace view

The grand spectacle of just a small section of the Great Wall a few miles outside town

Great Wall 2

The ancient temples bearing witness to generations of people’s commitment and devotion.

Forbidden City temple

The opulence of the Great Hall of the People.

Inside Great Hall 2

I was taken by the simple and profound art displayed inside too.

wall painting 1

I also enjoyed seeing the pride of the people in the way they had pulled off the Olympics a couple of years prior to my visit.

The Watercube, Olympic Swimming Centre
The Watercube, Olympic Swimming Centre
The Birdsnest Stadium
What did I learn from Beijing?

I certainly often felt like an outsider. I didn’t always understand what was going on. It is good for me to experience that sometimes, and hopefully it helps me develop compassion for those who feel it in places where I feel comfortable and at home.

The Great Hall of the People
The Great Hall of the People

Nowhere was my lack of understanding clearer than at the most popular attraction in Tiananmen Square – the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. After walking straight into the Art Museum and Great Hall, it was a surprise to me to see a queue that went several times around the block. After checking in cameras, bags, phones etc., I joined the line which moved at a brisk pace, almost “marching” into the foyer overflowing with fresh flowers, and then solemnly filing past Mao’s embalmed body. It was over before I really knew what I had seen, and while it seemed for many locals to be a sombre, even sacred experience, for me it was quite surreal.

Exiting the Masouleum
Exiting the Masouleum

I was also very conscious of looking like an outsider; an oddity. At times this presented the wonderful gift of meeting people – people who were usually apprehensive but pleased to make my acquaintance. At the Forbidden City I had a couple of individuals come and ask to have their photo taken with me. At the Summer Palace I had a lovely lady stop me to practice her English on me. I was reminded of the privilege that comes with the colour of my skin and the language of my tongue. Even if I am greeted with bewilderment, I am rarely rejected outright.

The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace

That’s not to say that I didn’t experience being stared at and even being “stalked.” I was walking down the street one day and a young couple were walking in front of me. They had obviously noticed me and wanted to get a photo with me. So the girl slowed down until she was walking beside me, then called out to the guy who quickly turned around and snapped a photo of the two of us, before they both sheepishly ran away. My best guess is that they were visiting from another part of China, and wanted to be able to show their friends at home the white person they “met” while in Beijing. I would have been happy to be photographed with them if they had asked, but I realised perhaps my privilege also makes me intimidating.

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City

The strong presence of the army was something else I am not used to from my own country. I spent a fascinating 20 minutes in Tiananmen Square watching as an officer meticulously corrected one of his soldier’s hand movements, and pondering the many choices I have had in my life that others have not.


I wondered about the ancient mindset of building a wall to protect your nation’s borders; especially as perhaps the only parallel in my own country’s history is a fence to keep the rabbits out.

Great Wall

I also wondered anew how much of my own perspective is shaped by growing up under the political, social and economic systems I did, and thought a lot about how easy it is to judge others without really being able to understand where they are coming from. As I find happens so often when visiting different cultures, I asked as many questions about myself as I did about the people I saw and met.

Inside the Great Hall of the People
Inside the Great Hall of the People

And of course, in the end, I caught enough glimpses of every day life to be reminded once again that people are people everywhere, even in places that seem about as different from what I am used to as I can imagine. I may find the way they do things a little unusual, but their hopes and dreams and hearts are really much the same.

Inside the water cube, an indoor beach
Inside the water cube, an indoor beach