The more you travel, the harder it can be to pick a definitive favourite place. And Lonely Planet’s co-founder Tony Wheeler has decades of travel experiences to choose from... so we made the task of whittling down his top cities slightly easier by asking for a whole handful of his absolute favourites.
In this extract from our new title, The Cities Book, he selects 10 of the cities from around the world that have most excited and intrigued him. In alphabetical order, here are Tony's most memorable metropolises.
I never got to Berlin in the Iron Curtain era, when there were two Berlins, East and West. It’s one of my great travel regrets. In 1991, two years after the Wall came down, Berlin friends dragged me back to Berlin from Frankfurt. ‘You can still feel the difference East to West,’ they insisted. ‘Wait any longer and they’ll merge, right now it’s still different worlds zwischen Ost und West.’
They were right, even the number of Trabants in the streets told the tale. I didn’t miss a more recent opportunity to be in the right place when a potentially major world change swept through. On US election day in November 2016, I was there on the front line, in San Francisco.
The glitzy mega-city of the United Arab Emirates tends to divide people. Many visitors – and in Dubai nearly everybody is a visitor, Gulf Arabs are a small minority – love the place whether they’re short-term visitors or long-term workers. The short termers are having a great vacation and ignoring comparisons to Blackpool or Las Vegas. The long-term developing world workers may be treated like dogs and worked like slaves, but they are sending home bags of money. Then there’s the small minority who hate the place and everything it stands for with a passion. I try to be ambivalent.
It’s now 20 years since my first visit, so although I don’t go back far enough to have seen Dubai when it was a mud-and-coral fort and palace surrounded by a bunch of tents beside the Dubai Creek, I’ve certainly seen some changes. Last visit I rode the state-of-the-art Dubai Metro, had a look at one Dubai absurdity (the Palms land reclamation), tried another absurdity (the Mall of the Emirates ski runs) and was relieved to find I could still shuttle across Dubai Creek in a traditional abra. At least those timeworn wooden ferries have survived.
George Town, Malaysia
It’s often referred to as Penang, but that’s the island, just a quick ferry ride (much more romantic than the bridge) from mainland Malaysia. I first turned up there in 1974, having trekked north through Sumatra, researching the very first edition of Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. Over all return trips the feel, the essence, the spirit of George Town has survived.
It’s a delightfully Chinese regional town, far better preserved than the much larger and statistically far more Chinese Singapore to the south. Wandering the central streets with their evocative ‘five foot ways’ is always a delight and recently street art has become a major attraction. Although the city is still a great centre for backpacker retreats, just like on my very first visit, today it’s also crowded with classy boutique hotels.
It’s Australia’s smallest state capital, but also Australia’s second oldest city – only Sydney pre-dates it. Hobart has Australian history in a compact package. The harbourside looks exactly the way a busy port should look, especially Christmas to New Year when it’s the finishing line for the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, one of the great ocean classics and, yes, I did it once.
Despite all the city attractions, Hobart is also important as a jumping-off point, whether it’s pulling on your boots before tackling some of Australia’s best bushwalks or putting on your cold weather gear to head down to Antarctica. There is, however, one Hobart attraction no visitor should miss: David Walsh’s amazing personal art collection in the Museum of Old and New Art. The controversial and much talked about MONA has quickly become the city’s number one temptation.
Hong Kong, China
I’m often asked what has been the biggest change in my travelling life and it’s easy to suggest the internet, the ability to do so many travel things easily and instantly. Or the arrival of jumbo jets and then the proliferation of low-cost carriers making it possible to go further, go cheaper. But to my mind the really big change, and it’s taken place since my first visit to Hong Kong, is the opening up of China. Before the doors opened, almost 20% of the world’s population was a mystery zone.
Not only is Hong Kong one of the prime gateways to and from China, it was also the original Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole into the forbidden kingdom. In the 1980s, it was Chungking Mansions in Kowloon, that tatty warren of local enterprises and dirt-cheap guest houses, where pioneering independent travellers secured their highly unofficial China visas.
Mecca, Saudi Arabia
There are about 30 cities in The Cities Book that I haven’t yet visited, with many of them on my wish list (Asmara at the top). I’m astonished that I’ve never managed to see some of them: Québec City, Charleston, Kampala and Leipzig for starters. And one I’m pretty sure I’ll never visit: Mecca. Like any keen traveller I’m in awe of Sir Richard Burton, the translate-the-Kama-Sutra Burton, not the Elizabeth-Taylor-serial-husband Burton. Sir Richard’s preparations for his visit in the 1850s included an in-depth study of Islam, learning Arabic, and being circumcised. That’s serious planning.
But I have visited the other Saudi forbidden city, Medina, if flying in to Medina Airport counts. The airport is outside the infidel-free zone so that was OK. I rented a car and asked directions to Madain Saleh, the Saudi Arabian version of Jordan’s Petra. ‘Left out of the airport and take the freeway to Medina,’ the rent-a-car clerk instructed. ‘Then take the turn-off to Madain Saleh.’ ‘But what if I miss the turn?’ I queried, ‘I don’t want to die.’ ‘You won’t miss the turn,’ I was told. He was right, a few kilometres down the road, a sign across the freeway announced in large letters: ‘All Non-Believers Take Next Exit.’
New York City, USA
On my first visit I would have been somewhere short of my 10th birthday and it was a blur of taxis, the Empire State Building and this amazing thing in our hotel room: a television. Today, I’m past my 30th visit to the Big Apple and it never ceases to delight. On a recent visit I walked the length of Broadway, the only street that runs from one end of Manhattan all the way to the other. I started by looking across to the Statue of Liberty and 13 miles (22km) later crossed the bridge into the Bronx. Next trip perhaps I’ll cycle the periphery?
I’ve also been a speaker at the New York Yacht Club (about archaeology not yachting), eaten at many restaurants, drunk in far too many bars, gone to comedy clubs and caught a New York Yankees game. I’ve travelled around New York City by bus, on the subway, by ferry, by bicycle and on foot. I’ve flown in and out of the three main airports – LaGuardia, Newark and Kennedy, my first visit was to Idlewild, long before it became JFK and just once I arrived there on Concorde. I’ve even sailed out of New York past the Statue of Liberty and on to Europe on a Cunard liner. But I’ve never stayed longer than two weeks, so a long visit, say three months, is still on the wish list.
Panama City, Panama
I was in the region, I had a few days to spare, the new Panama Canal locks were almost ready to open and I had always wanted to travel through the canal. Plus, the city had been getting a lot of interesting publicity with comparisons to Dubai. This, the stories said, was the equivalent go-ahead city for Central America.
The canal trip, old city, bars and restaurants all more than met expectations, and I’d not realised this was such an important bird-watching centre. ‘The canal is where the North American Rockies meet the South American Andes, so you get birds from both continents,’ my birdwatching guide insisted. But the big surprise came on day one when Panama City was suddenly front page news on the world’s newspapers due to something called the Panama Papers. I raced around to the Mossack Fonseca office, ground zero of the scandal, to take a selfie.
Pyongyang, North Korea
It’s not the most beautiful, the most enjoyable or the most entertaining city I’ve visited, but hands down Pyongyang is the wackiest. I’ve only visited the North Korean capital once and I’m certain I wouldn’t be welcome back for a return visit, but why go to Hollywood or Las Vegas, two cities of make believe, when you can go to a real-life fake city? ‘What’s that?’ you ask, when you see the 105-storey skyscraper-pyramid Ryugyong Hotel which still hasn’t welcomed its first guest after 30 years. A 3000-room hotel is exactly what a city that virtually nobody visits needs, isn’t it? In Pyongyang, even when it isn’t fake you’re inclined to believe it must be.
Until 2010 tourists were only allowed to use the metro between two stations, so a conspiracy theory developed that these were the only stations that existed and that any locals you met on the metro trains (all recycled from Berlin) were actors. It wasn’t true, but it certainly seemed possible.
The capital of the Mediterranean island republic of Malta took my breath away. It’s very solid and very substantial, clearly the Knights of Malta did extremely well out of their crusading and pirating activities. They certainly spent their gains on some very fancy buildings. Cathedral, palaces, forts, imposing streets, towering city walls, Valletta has them all. It’s no wonder it was once nicknamed Superbissima, ‘Most Proud’, a sly dig at its official title of Humillissima Civitas Valletta – ‘The Most Humble City of Valletta’. And when you tire of all that Baroque beauty there’s the rest of the island to explore, particularly, for me, the ancient megalithic temple sites, reminders of a far earlier Malta.
Read more on city tripping: The urban evolution: how city travel is changing.