Cities abound with sights, tours and activities for travellers to enjoy. But not all of them deliver an authentic experience, affording a real insight into the soul of a place. So we asked a team of Lonely Planet local writers across the globe to give us tips on how to get under the skin of their own cities.

From trying traditional dishes at under-the-radar eateries to rubbing shoulders with residents at market stalls to swaying through the night to the sound of samba, these recommendations will get you closer to the cultural heart of these compelling destinations.

Colourful houses either side of a canal in Cannaregio, Venice © Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Shutterstock
Lose yourself in Venice's Cannaregio neighbourhood to find a hidden paradise © Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Shutterstock

Find a slice of paradise in Venice

Those looking for the cultural heart of Venice should head for Paradiso Perduto. This restaurant and bar – whose name translates as ‘paradise lost’– can be found along Fondamenta de la Misericordia in Cannaregio. Owner Maurizio serves traditional, locally sourced food at reasonable prices. A champion for the city, Maurizio also plays an active role in local politics and is passionate about preserving Venice's delicate environment.

The atmosphere here is like your typical Venetian: gregarious, cheerfully inclusive and a little rough around the edges. Young or old, tourist or local – everyone loves it. For over 40 years now, Paradiso Perduto has offered an open and authentic welcome to all who enter, much like the city itself.

Jo-Ann Titmarsh is a freelance travel writer specialising in content about Venice and Italy. Follow her tweets @jokamojo.

A plate of hummus and chickpeas © verchik / Shutterstock
Tuck into this Tel Avivian delicacy and watch local life drift by © verchik / Shutterstock

Head to Tel Aviv’s heart via its hummus

Besides its breezy beaches, non-stop nightlife and hip, high-tech vibe, nothing sums up Tel Aviv better than putting the world to rights while dipping some nibbles into a warm bowl of hummus. This humble chickpea dish (usually served with pitta bread, tahini, olives and pickles) mixes Lebanese, Egyptian and other Middle Eastern cultures together. Simple yet satisfying, it’s loved by all.

Every Tel Avivian can tell you about their favourite hummus joint, but for the real deal head to Ali Caravan (also called ‘Abu Hassan’) in Old Jaffa. Going strong since the 1960s, this tiny family restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean is always packed, so you can take part in the city’s second-favourite pastime – people watching.

Dan Savery Raz is a travel writer based in Tel Aviv. He loves writing poetry and fiction, as well as going on nature trails with his children. Follow his tweets @dansaveryraz.

People buying produce from a grocery stand at the Riverside Market, Cardiff © Huw Jones / Getty Images
The bustle of Cardiff's Riverside Market attracts locals and visitors © Huw Jones / Getty Images

Join the crowds at Cardiff’s spirited Sunday market

Sunday in Cardiff welcomes the Riverside Market to a stretch of the River Taff embankment between the tree-lined Bute Park and the domineering Principality Stadium. From the hours of 10am to 2pm, locals and visitors congregate here to shop, socialise and mingle along the noisy corridor of multicultural stalls.

Wander through the barista bikes, food producers and craft vendors and you're almost guaranteed to be offered bara brith (Welsh fruit bread) and Welsh cheese to try, hear tales of the city's past and learn about upcoming events in Cardiff’s cultural calendar.

Amy Pay is a freelance journalist and content creator based in Cardiff, Wales. Follow her tweets @YayAmyPay.

The skyline of Vancouver, Vancouver © mffoto / Shutterstock
Beneath Vancouver's skyline, you'll find a kaleidoscopic warren of street art © mffoto / Shutterstock

Soak up some art and culture in Vancouver

Vancouver’s art scene has always been grassroots. From eclectic small galleries to November’s annual Eastside Culture Crawl (a four-day celebration of the visual arts where hundreds of studios open to the public), locals are used to searching out the city’s creative edge. But some of the best artworks here are hidden in plain sight.

August’s Vancouver Mural Festival – where empty city walls become a canvas for new works – has triggered a surge in eye-popping street art. But you don’t have to wait for the festival to see the best of the bunch; self-guided explorations of Gastown, Chinatown and Main Street will reveal dozens of murals and urban artworks just waiting for you and your camera.

John Lee is a freelance travel and features writer (as well as an avid Christmas fan). Follow his tweets @johnleewriter.

A close-up shot of a guitarist playing in a samba band © Lonely Planet
Samba is the soul of Rio de Janeiro © Lonely Planet

Get down to Rio de Janeiro’s samba sounds

Forget Ipanema and its lilting bossa nova soundtrack – nothing encapsulates Rio’s infectious joie de vivre better than a live samba session at Samba do Trabalhador. Crowds of locals gather every Monday at the no-frills, open-air Renascença Clube (located in the North Zone neighbourhood of Andaraí) to sing and dance to a succession of samba classics belted out by venerable samba composer Moacyr Luz and his group of 15 or so musicians. As is typical of Rio, the pleasures here are simple: an ice bucket full of cheap beers, the company of friends and the joy of starting the week with a mass sing-along.

Tom Le Mesurier is a food and travel writer and culinary tour guide based in Rio de Janeiro. Follow him on Instagram @eatrio.

A view down a street in Shanghai's French Concession © EQRoy / Shutterstock
Shanghai's French Concession is a lively mash-up of old and new © EQRoy / Shutterstock

See two worlds collide in Shanghai

The essence of Shanghai is found less in individual hotspots, and more in the coexistence of traditional Chinese culture alongside a fast-paced modern city. Weave through the backstreets of Old Town, filled with the aromas of traditional cooking and the sounds of chattering locals; explore the French Concession, where 1920s colonial villas and tree-lined streets evoke a distinctly European feel; and head for the Bund, where the iconic view of the Pudong skyline across the river – with its flashing lights, soaring skyscrapers and dazzling excess – reveals an ultra-modern Shanghai.

Rosie upped sticks and swapped her life in London for an adventure in Shanghai. 

Burleigh Head National Park at sunset © Darren Tierney / Shutterstock
The sun sets over Burleigh Head National Park, an unspoiled oasis on the Gold Coast © Darren Tierney / Shutterstock

Uncover an oasis amid the sprawl of Australia’s Gold Coast

Most visitors to the Gold Coast would never guess that nestled within this glittering city of high-rises is a perfectly preserved pocket of nature. The 27-hectare Burleigh Head National Park was reserved for public use in 1886 and gazetted as a national park in 1947, keeping it safe through the Gold Coast’s development boom.

Today, it’s a haven for wildlife and humans alike. Take the Oceanview Walk from the tranquil Tallebudgera Creek entrance then segue onto the slightly more taxing Rainforest Circuit for a highlight reel of rainforest and pandanus groves, ancient basalt boulders, whales offshore in winter and five-star views of that shimmering city skyline.

Penny loves exploring the Australian coastline writing about travel, health and wellness and eating as much avocado on toast as she can. Follow her on Instagram @penny.carroll.

Reykjavík's Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach on a sunny day © Matthew Micah Wright / Getty Images
Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach looking deceptively warm in the sunshine © Matthew Micah Wright / Getty Images

Shake up the ‘sun, sand, sea’ routine at Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, Reykjavík

Forgot your sunscreen? No worries. In the world’s northernmost capital, going to the beach is about embracing the opposite of heat and sun. Little-known Nauthólsvík is an artificial beach where geothermal hot tubs have been installed for the avid Reykjavík sea swimmers who claim the hot and cold therapy is a ‘healthy addiction’.

Even in late November, when the ocean temperature is a cool 6.2˚C, people start arriving around lunchtime, as soon as the facilities open. Some run straight from the lockers into the sea. Wiser patrons warm up in the hot tub first. Whatever your preference, the stinging cold of the North Atlantic will divert attention away from everything else, shrinking the world down to just the ocean and you.

Egill Bjarnason is a journalist based in Reykjavík. Follow his tweets @egillegill.

Looking for more cultural offerings to sink your teeth into? Check out Lonely Planet's Culture Trails for 52 itineraries sure to dazzle lovers of literature, art, music and so much more. 

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