San Sebastián Old Town, seen from La Concha beach. Photograph by Mr Yaya Onalaja-Aliu/Hand Luggage Only
Eight city breaks where you can find inner peace.
From the moment I touch down in a city,” writes Mr Tyler Brûlé, an editor and columnist who’s racked up more than air miles that most, “I find I’m always asking whether or not I could live there.” He’s not alone. We’ve all weighed up the pros and cons of a destination: its architecture, food, setting and quality of life. And it’s clear some cities are streets ahead of others.
We’ve found eight destinations where the urban recipe contains an extra-special ingredient – an instant escape from the ubiquitous congestion and crowds of the 21st century. It could be a stretch of golden city centre sand washed by regular surf breaks, or a verdant wilderness of volcanoes and millennium-old forest right on the doorstep, or perhaps an archipelago whose thousands of islands provide a back-to-nature retreat from metropolitan life. All of which make the city a highly civilised place to live – and a glorious place to visit.
The other northwest
From left: photograph by Mr Steve MacAulay Photography; photograph by Mr Jose Luis Stephens/Getty Images
Despite famously damp weather, Seattle is an inviting prospect. Alongside lively cafes, nightlife and waterfront crab shacks, it blends quirky neighbourhoods like Fremont with iconic landmarks from the Space Needle to the EMP Museum, where Mr Frank Gehry’s extraordinary mangled electric guitar design holds the world’s largest collection of memorabilia from Mr Jimi Hendrix, one of the city’s favourite sons. Yet, ironically, one of Seattle’s most alluring qualities is that it’s so easy to escape. A leisurely drive takes you to Mount Rainier’s active volcano, subalpine meadowlands and thousand-year-old Douglas firs and giant red cedars, while an easy jaunt to the west reveals the Olympic National Park with two rainforests, 11 major rivers and peaks spiking to more than 2,000m. Alternatively, catch the Washington State ferry a short distance north to the 172 pristine San Juan Islands – and keep an eye out for orca pods.
Insider tip: In the eco-conscious Pacific Northwest, you won’t be the only one using paddle power. A sunset kayak tour heads from Lake Union, one of the most photogenic inner-city lakes on earth, into Seattle’s famous gravity-fed elevator, dropping you down to Puget Sound, where you’ll glide directly into the setting sun, ending on the beaches of Golden Gardens Park with memorable views of the Olympic Mountains.
What to pack
From left: photograph courtesy Zürich Tourism; photograph by Mr Reinhard Schmid/4Corners
Few cities do livable like Zürich. Close to the Alps with an ancient heart of meandering lanes and tall steeples, it’s also on Central Europe’s cutting edge; gentrifying Langstrasse and Zürich West where former factories host clubs and theatres, and retailers inhabit railway arches and shipping containers. In summer, its wonderful location on the junction of Lake Zürich and two rivers comes into its own. The first lido opened in 1837; now there are 18. Choose from lakeshore Seebad Enge with its mountain views, sauna and massage rooms; Oberer Letten with its 400m swimming canal on the Limmat River; or Thermalbad and Spa, an artful revamp of a century-old brewery, that taps into one of the city’s two hot springs to fill an inviting rooftop infinity pool. The lidos make even more of a splash come sundown when they morph into some of the city’s most distinctive nightspots with bars, restaurants and movie screens.
Insider tip: Take a city stroll to see some exquisite works by a master artist. Fraümunster Church (above), marked by a slender blue spire, has five dazzling stained-glass windows created by Mr Marc Chagall in 1970. Each is 10m high with a distinctive colour scheme, overshadowing another Fraümunster masterwork: a separate window by Mr Augusto Giacometti.
What to pack
Photograph by Mr Jens Goerlich/Gallery Stock (left)
South Africa’s “Mother City” is blessed by nature from its iconic mountain to its Atlantic beaches and dramatic peninsula: a playground for hiking, horse riding and surfing. Add in its sophisticated urban vibe with galleries – it was World Design Capital in 2014 – museums and restaurants including Mr Luke Dale-Roberts’ The Test Kitchen, and it’s a fabulous destination. Yet to fully appreciate its charms you need to drive 30 minutes to the east where the valleys are frescoed with world-class vineyards. The Cape Winelands embrace many acclaimed estates from Rust en Vrede with its full-bodied cabernets, merlots and shirazes – they were served at Mr Nelson Mandela’s Nobel Peace Prize dinner – to Boekenhoutskloof, home to The Wolftrap and The Chocolate Block labels. It’s about more than grapes, of course. The vineyards host many outstanding restaurants and the area is rich in historic Cape Dutch architecture in towns such as Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl. Cheers!
Insider tip: Once a stately Edwardian home with colonnaded balconies overlooking the sparkling ocean, Ellerman House (above) is now a sumptuous small hotel with 13 bedrooms and two three-bedroom villas. In 2009, its expanding collection of renowned South African art, displayed throughout the hotel, was enhanced with the establishment of the onsite Ellerman House Contemporary Art Gallery, featuring works by Messrs William Kentridge and John Meyer.
What to pack
From right: photograph by Mr Alex Treadway/National Geographic Creative; photograph by Mr Kurt Johnson
Mendoza, 1,000km west of Buenos Aires, possesses the essentials of any decent city break: an intriguing architectural mix of airy plazas, art deco and 1960s modernist flourishes, alongside first-rate restaurants, including 1884 Francis Mallmann. Yet it’s the city’s surrounds that make Mendoza special. Photogenic vineyards coat the Andean foothills – changes in terroir producing high-octane fruity reds, notably malbecs and merlots – directly beneath South America’s towering snow-capped spine. Recent foreign investment has spawned an array of dazzling bodega architecture including Catena Zapata’s Tikal that rises out of the vines like a modernist Mayan temple, while Salentein combines an exterior suggesting a high-security prison with an interior like a circular cathedral. They’re juxtaposed with small traditional producers including Cabrini, whose Italian family business still bottles sweet mass wine for Catholic altars around the world.
_Insider tip: _Mendoza’s magnificent Andean landscape is perfect for adventure as well as wine. Argentina Rafting offers the whole kitbag with everything from rafting, kayaking and climbing to mountain biking, horse riding and paragliding. Alternatively, Discover the Andes provides superbly scenic hiking including the one-day Rosenthal Trail, alongside fly-fishing excursions.
What to pack
Photograph by Mr Jon Santa Cruz/Camera Press (left)
San Sebastián revels in the finer things in life. It is, of course, renowned for its food. Nine restaurants boast 16 Michelin stars between them, with Akelarre, Arzak and Martín Berasategui sporting three each. Then there’s the magnificent setting with La Concha Bay bookended by peaks with spectacular views over the city’s elegant riot of belle époque and Art Nouveau architecture – no wonder it’s 2016’s European Capital of Culture. The icing on the urban cake is the city beaches: three peachy stretches of honey-coloured sand kissed by the clear Cantabrian Sea. La Concha, the most popular and most photographed, stretches for 1.5km, beneath a gorgeous period promenade; Ondarreta is a family favourite with volleyball and beach tennis; while the more exposed Zurriola, lining the next bay to the east, is one of Europe’s most adored city surf beaches with a consistent break and a left-hander peeling towards the pier at low tide. In short, a beach for every mood. How very civilised, how very San Sebastián.
Insider tip: Just after one of Mount Igueldo’s mazy turns, you’ll find unassuming Rekondo restaurant (above), its outside terrace shaded by trees. The food’s incredible – Segovian suckling pig, calamari in ink – but its main draw is a 300-page wine list. The cellar of Mr Txomin Rekondo contains more than 80,000 bottles with an amazing range of Spanish vintages including the great 1970s Riojas of López de Heredia.
What to pack
Photograph by DDP/Camera Press (right)
Luang Prabang’s poetic Edwardian moniker, “refuge of the last dreamers”, suggests the former royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos will deliver the serene and the exotic. Despite booming tourism, it still holds true today for the centuries-old city pinched like a delicate morsel between the chopsticks of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Its Unesco-listed core contains 34 monasteries alongside traditional wood houses and French colonial architecture, set amid lush tropical vegetation. The surrounding hills and mountains offer excellent trekking, including the half-day Chomphet Hike through jungle and teak forest. Alternatively, kick back and take a boat along the chocolate-coloured Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves, where hundreds of small Buddhist sculptures dot the caverns.
Insider tip: Stay in one of Amantaka’s 24 generous suites set in a former hospital on the edge of the Old Town. Aman’s typical pared-back style is complemented by beautiful grounds containing mango, frangipani and umbrella trees, alongside a spectacular pool (above).
What to pack
From left: photograph by Mr Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos; photograph by Mr Magnus Mårding
Stockholm’s unique geography saw the Swedish capital develop across 14 islands. There’s Gamla Stan’s imposing royal palace, a bridge away from regenerated Sodermalm’s vintage furniture boutiques and cosy yet chic cafes, and a hop from Djurgarden’s museums. Together they’re a civilised mix of nature, history and the coolly contemporary. Come the summer, however, and Stockhom has another ace in the pack. Its archipelago’s 24,000 islands – a Baltic Sea mosaic of beach, forest and bare rock – offers locals a back-to-basics escape in rustic red cottages where they skinny dip, sail and barbecue fresh fish. It’s easy to join them. Catch a local ferry to the Grinda, “the green island” where Grinda Wärdshus contains an acclaimed restaurant that Stockholmers consider worth an hour’s sail just for the food. Thirty minutes further east, near the open ocean, there’s Sandhamn, a sailing hotspot with accommodation, lovely beaches, and plenty of clean, pure Baltic air.
_Insider tip: _Stay in a Scandinavian home, albeit a very beautiful one, in Ett Hem’s 12-room hotel (above left), forged from a 1910 townhouse in leafy upmarket Ostermalm. A vintage take on Nordic chic blends modern furniture with design classics and antiques, alongside an earthy palate, natural stone and oak, and suites with working fireplaces and chandeliers.
What to pack
Raise a glass
From left: photograph by Gallery Stock; photograph courtesy Makati Shangri-La
Manila’s not-always-organised chaos doesn’t make for an obvious urban escape. However, a little insider knowledge reveals its concealed gems. The Makati Shangri-La provides an oasis of opulent calm in the Philippines’ most prestigious business, shopping and entertainment complex; its shimmering turquoise pool is shaded by palms and white parasols. It’s a soothing base for forays into a capital dubbed “The Pearl of the Orient” whose highlights include Intramuros – the city’s 16th-century colonial heart – and the intriguing sanctity of Quiapo’s San Sebastián, the world’s only prefabricated steel church, rumoured to have been designed with the help of Mr Gustave Eiffel. It’s divine preparation for a night at 71 Gramercy, atop one of Asia’s tallest buildings, where cocktails are served amid dramatic views of the sprawling metropolis.
Insider tip: Head to Malate where Purple Yam, a well-established fixture in Brooklyn, has opened a Manila outpost. The modern Filipino cuisine with a pan-Asian influence, served in a renovated ancestral home, includes the likes of cured tuna and tanigue (mackerel steaks), alongside Sorsogon Bay crab cakes with green papaya salad.