Five reasons to wake a traveller at dawn

You snooze, you lose – if you’re a traveller, that is. Set your alarm clock for one of these unforgettable early-morning experiences.

Morning rush hour at Tsukiji Fish Market, Japan

'Tokyo, Chuo Ward, vendors with tuna at Tsukiji Fish Market' by Rich Iwasaki / Photographer's Choice / Getty

Tokyo’s most famous market reaches fever pitch in the early morning. You’ll be deafened as buyers holler for the best catches at the tuna auction, and you’ll see frozen fish the size of grown men being hauled around with astonishing ease. If the sight of Nemo on the executioner’s block hasn’t tweaked your conscience, the sushi you’ll enjoy nearby is among the best in Tokyo – queues for breakfast at the famous Daiwa Sushi will be snaking around the corner by 8am so head straight there after your visit to the wholesale market.

Make it happen: register before 5am to be in with a chance of seeing the auction (check here). Consider staying in the Chuo area, as public transport only begins from 5am. Wear covered shoes, unless you want your exposed toes to be trickled with fish guts. And go easy on the sake the night before: you’ll pass a number of signs warning against tipsy tourists, and you’ll need your wits about you to dodge the transit vehicles on site.

Spiritual silence at the Vatican, Italy

'Vatican - Santa Maria Maggiore' by xiquinhosilva. CC BY 2.0'Vatican - Santa Maria Maggiore' by xiquinhosilva. CC BY 2.0

Ask most travellers about their memories of Vatican City, and legendary queues are likely to feature. This micro-nation in Italy’s ‘Eternal City’ draws crowds for good reasons: the Renaissance dome of St Peter’s Basilica is an icon of Rome’s skyline, and the interior elicits gasps with its ornate reliefs and soaring columns. Inside the basilica, the bronze toes of St Peter have been worn smooth by centuries of pilgrims' hands. Around the corner, the Vatican Museums overflow with riches, the highlight being the Sistine Chapel’s famous ceiling. But many travellers will only experience these sights by trudging slowly in a tidal wave of other visitors. A destination as mythic as the Vatican deserves to be experienced tranquilly, before the camera-toting hordes arrive.

Make it happen: arrive at 7am to walk the square without fighting for space, and be one of the first to climb the cupola of St Peter’s Basilica (open at 8am) for views of Rome in the morning light. For the Vatican Museums, arrive ahead of the 9am opening time to bypass the inevitable queues (or if you must sleep in, book your ticket ahead of time to skip the queue).

Wildlife-watching in Sabah, Malaysia

'Proboscis Monkey in Borneo' by David Dennis. CC BY-SA 2.0'Proboscis Monkey in Borneo' by David Dennis. CC BY-SA 2.0

You’ve crossed the globe to spot incredible animals, so time your wildlife-watching for when they’re most active. The early morning is one of your best chances to see animals preening, feeding and making their way towards water. Borneo, a haven of unique fauna, is the perfect region for a dawn wildlife tour or a cruise along the Kinabatangan River to see proboscis monkeys, hornbills and crocodiles.

Make it happen: you aren’t Bear Grylls, you’ll need a guide. A number of wildlife tours from Sandakan bundle in a dawn cruise or wildlife-spotting excursion; try Sukau Rainforest Lodge, which has strong eco credentials. For a longer trip, check out Lonely Planet’s recommended wildlife tours here.

Sunrise at Stonehenge, England

'Stonehenge, near Salisbury, Great Britain' by David Nunuk / All Canada Photos / Getty

Photography sages say that sublime lighting is half the battle, and the shimmer of dawn will certainly make your travel pictures pop. But more crucially, seeing sights in a golden glow gives them a different context. Take Stonehenge in England: this iconic stone circle can be underwhelming to first-time visitors due to its size and location (‘is that it?’ ‘What do you mean it’s roped off?’) The 4500-year history of these stones – mysteriously erected, and drawing worship from neo-druids to this day – can be hard to appreciate. But at first light, as a ray of sunshine glints between the stones, their history, rituals and silent grandeur need no explanation.

Make it happen: official visits don’t start until 9.30am but tours will take you to see Stonehenge at dawn (try www.britishtours.com/stonehenge-inner-circle-tour - book ahead and bring plenty of friends to keep the costs down).

Dawn call to prayer in Fès, Morocco

'La médina de Fès vue de la terrasse' by Jean-François Gornet. CC BY-SA 2.0'La médina de Fès vue de la terrasse' by Jean-François Gornet. CC BY-SA 2.0

Early mornings aren’t all about serenity. The haunting sound of the first of the day’s Muslim calls to prayer  can be spine-tingling. From a high vantage point in medieval Fès, you can watch the city wake up, and listen for calls radiating out from mosques across the city. After this rousing start, wander around the labyrinthine souks and breathe in a whiff of Fès’ famous tanneries, before the day’s mayhem begins.

Make it happen: you need to get high. On a rooftop, that is. Staying in a traditional riad is a memorable way to experience Moroccan architecture; opt for one that has an accessible roof terrace with a view of the city. Try tiny Riad Numero 9 or the sumptuous Riad Maison Bleue.

Anita Isalska is an editor and writer based in Lonely Planet’s London office. She usually needs two alarm clocks to wake up.