JANUARY: ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA
Nestled amongst looming volcanoes in the central highlands of Guatemala, this UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a history prone to natural disasters, wears its tumbledown garb with elegance and charm.
Its signature style of colonial architecture takes the form of baroque relics, pastel facades and hauntingly beautiful ruins – amidst shady squares lush with vegetation and busy parks humming with street performers, shoe shiners and folk art hawkers. Marvel at the grandness of the Catedral de Santiago, roast marshmallows at the top of the Pacaya Volcano, or browse the vibrant universe of traditional Mayan costumes at Nim P’ot. Whatever you choose, you won’t have to break the bank.
FEBRUARY – GRANADA, NICARAGUA
Take a summer stroll through the historically rich, buzzing city of Granada. No place lives up to the term ‘postcard-pretty’ like Granada. With its colourful colonial buildings, picturesque churches and forts, cobblestone roads and stunning archipelago setting, it’s so striking it’ll wear down your camera battery in no time at all.
It’s also an ideal hub for exploring the spoils of this relentlessly sunny region. Visit the Mombacho Volcano with its cloud forest and canopy tours, head out for a paddle or swim at Lake Nicaragua, or book in an activity at a local peasant farm. Also, a trip to the Parque Nacional Archipielago Zapatera, with its breathtaking petroglyphs, is a must for the historically minded. Make sure you explore the Isletas with a boat tour, and then head back to town to pick up some lunch from the many street vendors – try the local specialty of vigoron,a tasty cabbage salad.
MARCH: MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY
With balmy weather, cheap hotels and Buenos Aires on the horizon, Uruguay’s eclectic capital blends Art Deco and neoclassical buildings with shabby skyscrapers and ritzy beachside suburbs; echoing its theatrical, history-heavy and international personality. Breezy parks, racy tango bars and the mouth-watering parrillas (steak restaurants) at Mercado del Puerto are all a must but, arriving in March, you’ll also be hitting the tail end of the city’s 40-day Carnival celebrations – the longest in the world. Camdombe drums honour African roots, Murga choirs showcase songs rehearsed all year round, and witty Parodistas deliver satire-fuelled parodies. A trip to the surrounding countryside for a wine tasting takes the edge of the rowdy festivities.
APRIL: ASHGABAD, TURKMENISTAN
Strange, bizarre, absurd – all words that have been commonly used to describe the positively one-of-a-kind Turkmenistan capital. A city surrounded by dry dusty desert and boasting the record in highest concentration of white marble buildings, securing a visa may be tricky but exploring one of the least visited countries in the world has its advantages – you’ll be untroubled by crowds of tourists, and your wallet will thank you.Walk the eerily quiet, spotless streets of the centre for endless visions of golden domes, manicured parklands and unforgivingly kitsch opulence. For the real Central Asia, head out to the sprawling open-air Tolkuchka bazaar and wander amongst camels, carpets and the bold authenticity of rural Turkmen life.
MAY: JERUSALEM, ISRAEL
Church bells harmonize with muezzin calls, incense mingles in the air with spices, the sun gleams on the golden Dome of the Rock as you watch it set from between the groves atop the Mount of Olives. Get lost in the four quarters of the Old City, stop for strudel at the Austrian Hospice and climb the ramparts to walk along the medieval walls. Delving into the spiritual and sensorial charms of the ancient city of Jerusalem can make for a pricey holiday but, with superb street food, backpacker-friendly hostels (try the Abraham) and the fine art of haggling, it’s just as accessible to visitors travelling on a shoestring.
JUNE: YORK, UK
Medieval ruins, Tudor mansions and Viking legend. Log fires burning in gloomy pubs, traditional sweet shops and pretty English gardens with flowers in full bloom. The unpredictable weather only makes it all the more romantic.
Climb the steep steps of gothic York Minster (worth it for the view!), boat along the placid Ouse or take a trip to the Railway Museum and admire the mighty Flying Scotsman. The slanting topsy-turvy houses along the impossibly narrow, cobbled lane of The Shambles are an architectural wonder. Rent a car to best explore the city and picturesque surrounding villages, or drive further north and hike the Moors for pure countryside idyll. This is the stuff of poetry.
JULY: NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, USA
Be it classic country twangs, frantic bluegrass tunes or good old rock n’ roll and blues, musicians from far and wide come to big-hearted Nashville to give their best in live performances Under the bright neon lights of lower Broadway, in tiny corners of heated honky-tonks or on the historical stage of the Ryman Auditorium, you’ll hear the sounds of this Southern darling wafting through the air before you even see her. Welcome to Music City. Music Row, the Country Music Hall of Fame, RCA Studio B and hot chicken are the star attractions. Off the tourist trail, there’s record shop browsing, thrift store bargains, and quirky galleries to explore in quaint Hillsboro Village and artsy-industrial The Gulch.
AUGUST: PODGORICA, MONTENEGRO
Clad with olive trees and cypresses, and sleepy Mediterranean charm, unassuming Podgorica remains – if not for long – a virtually undiscovered south-eastern European gem. Gateway to languid open fields, gargantuan mountains and turquoise lakes, the Montenegrin capital is a worthy stop in its own right. Ottoman relics reveal the country’s ancient history in the Old Town district of Stara Varos, whilst elsewhere communist-style industrial blocks evoke a more recent and troubled past. Hit the daily market for present day culture and be sure to indulge in decadently cheesy fried burek and crispy roasted meats. Perhaps unsurprisingly, prices here are a steal, and what this pocket-sized city lacks in worldliness it more than makes up for in sturdy Balkan character.
SEPTEMBER: THESSALONIKI, GREECE
Cheerful, indulgent and drenched in the allure of antiquity, the cacophonic port city of Thessaloniki is an affordable choice for those who delight in life’s simple pleasures. Spend your days exploring the romantic remains of times gone by, feasting on the lavish spreads of the country’s culinary capital and sipping cocktails on the waterfront.Watch locals play dominoes at the traditional Turkish-influenced ouzeri taverns, shop for brilliantly hued flowers at the market in Louloudadika and hop on a ferry to cruise the harbour. Head off to neighbouring Halkidiki for bottle-blonde beaches on turquoise shores or wait for sundown and join backpacking revellers dancing all the wild night through.
OCTOBER: ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA
Yes, it’s crowded, and chaotic. And rife with dizzying contrasts. But once adjusted to its noisy bluff and bluster, travellers will find the verdant, high-altitude Ethiopian capital growing on them. Visit the Ethnographic museum for a lesson in the country’s major tribes, browse the beautiful handcrafts at the colossal Mercato (be aware of pickpockets) or ask a local where to find the best live Ethiojazz.Italian-style or roasted by hand and brewed in traditional clay pots, you couldn’t ask for better coffee. The perfect finish to a greedy session of lapping up spicy stews with sour injera pancakes, under cover of sweet-smelling, lilac jacaranda trees. What’s more, it’s always sunny in Addis Ababa.
NOVEMBER: UDAIPUR, INDIA
Lavish Rajput-era palaces, elegantly ornate temples and crooked, narrow streets make Udaipur a graceful queen of old-world mystique. Draped in pretty countryside, the Venice of the East earns its moniker from the intricate network of lakes that dot the city. Bucolic Lake Pichola, with the magnificent City Palace sitting on its bank and regal boats gliding along its tranquil surface, stands out as shimmering crown jewel. Prowl the ancient cumin-scented bazaars, watch the mesmerizing show of dancing lights on the walls of the Kumbhalgarh Fort and inspect the maharanas’ vintage car collection for a peek at the lifestyle of kings. Mercifully less touristic than Jaipur, it’ll go easier on your wallet too.
DECEMBER: LUANG PRABANG, LAOS
At dusk, monks in saffron robes file through the morning mist to take alms. At dawn, the air carries dreamy chants emanating from gleaming red-roofed temples. From the quiet warm-heartedness of the city’s multicultural inhabitants to fishermen wading their nets in the river and farmers working silently in the fields, a sense of peace and contemplation pervades the atmosphere in this ancient capital seemingly stuck in time. Admire the Indochinese heritage, wander through the night market and indulge in refined Southeast Asian cuisine. With a ban on buses and an imposed midnight curfew, the popularity of Luang Prabang fails to diminish its bracing stillness.