If I were to look back at every city my first-world-middle-class privilege has allowed me to visit, and was then asked to describe them, I would probably say “leave me alone”.
If you pressed me, and asked for three in particular, after a while I would reply “Who are you? I’ve never seen your face here before.”
But if you really pressed me, asking for each to be a its own continent, I would reply “Did someone ask you to do this? What is with all the fucking questions? Are you with the feds?”
And then I might run off to one of the below cities.
A quick guide to Canada: Ottawa = Canberra, Toronto = Sydney, and any Melbournian feeling homesick should brush up on their high school French, because Montreal is Melbourne’s Platonic Form.
Your day plan should go like this: wake up in a small hostel, have a croissant and coffee in the city, then wander the streets. If you happen to have a 40 centimetre-deep pocket, that should allow you to carry enough coins to give one to every talented busker you pass by. Stop by the boutiques and marvel at how the old colonial buildings meld seamlessly with the modern architecture. Take advantage of Montreal’s ethnic diversity, with its first-rate restaurants, and then at night, check out one of its 90-a-year festivals or get schwifty in one of its booming nightclubs. Pass out, wake up, and it’s museum time. Stop by the Musée d’Art Contemporain. Not a fan of new art? Then examine the incredible historic treasures of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Not a fan of art? Walk from the Laurentinian Forest to Antarctica, all of which is neatly located under the Biodome. Not a fan of ecosystems? Go to Toronto you plebe.
Must try: there is this great thing where restaurants put cheese curds and gravy on fries. I think it’s called putaine, so ask for that.
Do you remember the last time you heard a tourism agency describe a city as “where East meets West”, leaving you in awe of their refreshing originality? Penang is more “where West East meets East East meets West”. In other words, it is a Malaysian city where the best of India meets the best of China meets the best of a British colonial demographic fuck-up.
The tagline that wooed me was “the food capital of Asia”.
Be sure to explore hip Georgetown, taking in the graffiti, the Chinese plays and the Malay music as you wander from one food cart to more deep-fried food carts. Across the island, the ethereal beauty of Buddhist and Hindu temples, alongside interestingly Andalusian mosques, are a feast for the soul. The vibrant fishing villages feel as if they go into the water for miles. And in terms of nature, Penang is no slouch. Spend the morning trekking through the tropical forest, and have a lazy afternoon by the sun-kissed shores of this Asian paradise.
Must try: everything. But if I only get to name one or two dishes, just try char kway teow, briyani, roti canai, seafood popiah, laksa lemak, assam laksa, fried oyster, mee goreng, and lor bak. I am strongly unhappy about limiting the list this way, but we should move on.
Cairo is gritty, polluted and riddled with pushy salesmen, whose children will negotiate you into buying a 100-pound shoelace. It cannot claim to have the beach tourist chic of Sharm el-Sheikh, nor does it have the Mediterranean charm of Alexandria. An Egyptian who sees this city on my list will instantly sigh and roll their eyes – as they should, given the vast swathes of beauty this ancient nation conceals in its periphery.
Yet as the dust and smog of the Cairo traffic clears, its makes way for a kaleidoscope of sights, stories and flavours. Old friends jostle with each other’s backgammon skills over tea and shisha. Families will welcome you for dinner whether you are a foreigner or a stray cat. At night, the Nile lights up with thousands of boats, each filled with couples believing that they are at the centre of the planet. The city is the resting place of Tutankhamun and the birthplace of countless poets, musicians, movie stars, intellectuals and revolutionaries. Quoting Martin Luther King, Obama said of the 2011 revolution, “there is something in the soul that cries out for freedom… those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note.”
Cairo is synonymous with spirit, history and adventure. Just don’t try to drive anywhere.
Must try: Om Ali, the sweeter the better.