Top 10 Old Town districts: theatre of the streets
Secrets to unravel ... a young geisha girl in downtown Kyoto. Photo: Greg Elms/Lonely Planet
Heading to the oldest parts of a city delivers the richest rewards, writes Kerry van der Jagt.
You have arrived in a new city and don't know where to start. Tempting as it is to hop on a sightseeing bus with a two-kilogram guide book in one hand and a list of "must-sees" in the other, there is a better way. Get off the bus, tear up the list, pull on your walking shoes and head to the oldest part of town. Yes, you will get lost. And yes, your feet will hurt. And yes, you'll be stuffed by the end of the day. But I guarantee you will be richly rewarded. The sights, the sounds and the tastes will linger long after the blisters have healed. And, as a bonus, with all that walking and climbing, you can eat guilt-free from one cobblestoned alley to the next. Here are my 10 favourite cities with Old Towns.
Hoi An, Vietnam
The Old Town, with its narrow cobblestone streets, low tile-roofed houses and ancient wells, is a spicy wok-full of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese styles. Cars are banned, pedestrians rule and conical hats are the order of the day.
Hoi An was relatively untouched during the Vietnam war and the old buildings, with their wooden fronts and unique "yin" and "yang" roof tiles, are now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The faded houses are ageing gracefully, old ladies carry their produce across their shoulders in cane baskets and the damp smell of the river lingers in the air.
INSIDER TIP On the 14th day of each month residents switch off their lights and hang paper lanterns on their verandas and windows. Strolling through the lantern-lit streets is like stumbling into a fairytale.
Seville is the very heart of Andalucian culture. Think Don Juan and the lusty Carmen. Think sequined matadors and dark-eyed beauties. Think palm-burning flamenco and neck-craning architecture.
Better still, don't think, just surrender.
El Arenal is an historic neighbourhood in the centre of Seville, lying between the Guadalquivir River and the old Jewish quarter, Santa Cruz. Some important sites include the Torre del Oro, the Reales Atarazanas and La Real Maestranza, Seville's famous bullring.
But to be honest, it's the gut-busting tapas (or better still, their larger cousin, raciones) of El Arenal I love the most. Start with plump olives and creamy potato croquets, move on to calamari and grilled red peppers and finish with Andalucian ham (Jamon iberico) and Spanish omelet.
INSIDER TIP Avoid the middle of summer. Seville isn't known as the frying pan of Spain for nothing.
Croatia's jewellery box is the World Heritage-listed old city of Dubrovnik. In October 1991, during the Croatian War of Independence, Dubrovnik was tragically bombed and shelled for eight months by the Yugoslav People's Army.
Today, the dust has settled and the city has been rebuilt but on the two-kilometre walk atop the ancient city wall, the patchwork of bright new terracotta tiles hints at the city's dark past.
Culture vultures will love the Franciscan monastery with its 14th-century pharmacy, Onofrio's Fountain and St Saviour's Church. Penny pinchers will hate the exorbitant restaurant prices. Unless you plan to rob a bank, don't eat inside the city walls.
INSIDER TIP Walking the wall is fun but for a unique perspective hire a kayak from the beach at Fortress Bokar and paddle around the walls at sunset.
Old China Town, Shanghai
As Shanghai races to reinvent itself before hosting the 2010 World Expo, Old China Town, with its colourful street stalls, traditional shops and teahouses, is an unexpected surprise. (Though, to be honest, finding out that China has a Chinatown was an even bigger surprise). Old China Town, surely, is Shanghai's attic.
It's where this modern metropolis stores its trash and treasure.
Chinatown includes the Old Town Bazaar, Yu Garden, Shanghai's old city wall and the famous Confucian temple. The red lacquered buildings, the curved roof tiles, the old men playing mahjong are all present and accounted for in this exciting theatre on the street.
INSIDER TIP Huxinting Teahouse, near Yu Garden, is said to be the source of inspiration for the famous Willow pattern porcelain.
The Old Town district is the thumping heart of Scotland's capital city. The Royal Mile, with its branching side streets of Grassmarket and Candlemaker Row, is its lifeblood. For lovers of kilts, whisky and pubs, this is your mile-high club.
Geoffrey (Tailor) Inc. can run you up a kilt faster than you can say "Braveheart", Royal Mile Whiskies is the place for a drop of the amber liquid and, for lager lovers, try the Ensign Ewart the highest pub in Edinburgh. As the locals say, "Going home after a big night is all downhill from here."
INSIDER TIP The Doors Open Days event in September gives visitors an opportunity to get inside some of the historic buildings in the Old Town. www.cockburnassociation.org.uk.
Cordoba will seduce you faster than the legendary Don Juan himself. The leading lady is the Mezquita, originally a mosque built in the 8th century but now a Catholic cathedral and one of the world's great architectural wonders. The first glimpse of the cathedral's spacious interior, with its forest of columns, is overwhelming.
Next to the Mezquita is the Jewish quarter, a delightful maze of narrow streets, whitewashed buildings, trickling fountains and intimate courtyards. During May the annual "Festival of the Patios" is in full bloom but if you're not of the floral persuasion, you can always bare all for a beating in a bathhouse or puff on a hookah in a teteria (tea room).
INSIDER TIP The early bird gets free entry to the Mezquita before 10am.
Lisbon, the city of seven hills, is one of the most enchanting cities in Europe. Its sense of weathered grandeur set within a natural amphitheatre of hills, together with its breathtaking views across the River Tagus is hard to match.
The old Arab quarter, also known as the Alfama, is located on the south-east slope of the hill crowned by Castelo de Sao Jorge. Moors, Christians and Jews have all lived here.
The Alfama retains its medieval layout, with winding alleys, steep steps and wrought iron balconies.
Bright washing flaps in front of colourful house fronts, Fado music drifts from bars and blood-red geraniums drip down whitewashed walls.
INSIDER TIP To rest your legs and your lungs, catch the smiley-faced, yellow tram 23 or 28.
Kyoto guards its secrets better than any geisha. Arriving at Kyoto Railway Station the first-time visitor is treated to a magnificent view of the city's backside drab flats, building works and traffic congestion.
Yet planted among this unattractive concrete forest are 1700 temples, 400 Shinto shrines, dozens of gardens and a handful of palaces but even Marco Polo wouldn't be able to find them all.
A good place to start your own exploration is in the Gion district, on the eastern bank of the Kamo River. Stroll the narrow alleys at night and you will pass charming teahouses and traditional shops and restaurants, many of which are exclusive establishments for geisha entertainment.
INSIDER TIP If you wish to go on a geisha walking tour or have a private engagement with a geisha, see kyotosightsandnights.com.
Venice, the city of reflections, will seduce you even before you cross the lagoon from the airport. The shapes, the silhouettes, the dazzling light. Oh the light. And that's before you set eyes on your first gorgeous gondolier.
There really is no "old" part of town, it's all equally ancient. And it's all made for walking. Night is best the day trippers have fled and you can cross ancient footbridges and twist and turn through the labyrinth of alleyways behind the Grand Canal with only your shadow for company.
INSIDER TIP The three-day vaporetto (water bus) ticket for about $60 is good value. Buy them where you see the "helloVenezia" sign.