During my first international trip in Europe as a 21-year-old in 2001, each city seemed more amazing than the last. My dispatches home to Australia reflected this feeling to such a degree that my declaration of a new favourite city virtually every week — first Paris, then Berlin, then Prague — became a family joke. Soon I picked yet another favourite, but instead of lasting for a few days like all the others, this one stuck — for 19 years and counting.
The rest of my list, curated from nearly two decades of travelling in 116 countries, is a combination of world-famous cities that would make many people’s top 10 and some less obvious choices that struck a personal chord with me. We can debate the rankings, of course, but that’s not really the point; what matters most are the memories.
10. Varanasi, India 🇮🇳
On a train heading west across northern India in early 2004, a middle-aged Indian man guessed my destination was Delhi and was stunned when I told him it was Varanasi.
‘But you are so young!’ he said to my 23-year-old self. ‘Usually only old people go to Varanasi. It’s amazing that you are going.’
Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges, is where Hindus go to die. In Varanasi, I saw old and sickly people waiting for death in a hospice; I saw the body of a departed soul drying on the banks of the Ganges after final purification, its flowers picked at by stray goats; I saw bodies in flames on pyres at the burning ghat; and I saw crows pick at human corpses floating down the river.
If India showcases humanity at its most extraordinary — and I believe it does — Varanasi is where that journey ends. It’s a haunting and mysterious place, especially in winter fog, and I’ll never forget it.
9. Fes, Morocco 🇲🇦
The first time I stumbled into the living medieval city of Fes, I was 21, I had barely three weeks of international travel under my belt, and I was completely out of my depth. The city was fascinating, but mostly, it overwhelmed me.
Writing to friends and family, I described walking through the old town of Fes — and observing its living conditions, its poverty and its crumbling buildings — as ‘amazing’, ‘humbling’ and even ‘kind of scary’.
‘I abandoned my journal last night because I didn’t know how to write about what I’d seen and how I felt. This place has easily had the most impact on me of all the places I’ve been to so far.’
Six years later — older, wiser and more experienced — I returned to Fes, slightly apprehensive about whether it would live up to my memories of it.
I needn’t have worried; Fes was still incredible, and I appreciated it even more the second time around with a better understanding of its religion and culture and the world in general. As I wrote at the time — and still believe 13 years later — Fes is one of the most extraordinary cities I have ever seen and ever will see.
8. Sydney, Australia 🇦🇺
On 26 January 1988, I spent Australia Day on and around Sydney Harbour with my family for the country’s bicentennial celebration and declared that night that it had been the best day of my life. I was seven years old.
Since then, Sydney and I have had a complicated relationship. After growing up in suburbia, I left at 17 to attend university in another city, returned briefly after graduation, and left soon after for an overseas trip that’s somehow still going. But now that I’ve lived out of Sydney for longer than I lived in it, I’ve learned to appreciate it more than ever.
Your Sydney might be Bondi Beach, the Rocks and BridgeClimb. My Sydney isn’t that fancy, but it’s no less endearing.
It’s the sound on the hill at a sun-bathed Brookvale Oval when the local football team scores, it’s beautiful views of the ocean from the wind-swept headlands of the northern beaches, it’s sunset over the shimmering waters of Narrabeen Lakes. And most of all, it’s the gentle — and, at times, emotional — rhythm of the Manly Ferry as it eases its way out of the harbour, past Sydney’s two most famous icons, to take me home.
7. Lisbon, Portugal 🇵🇹
As a tourist in Lisbon for a couple of days in April 2015, I never would have found the unsigned Park Bar — literally a bar on top of a car park — if I hadn’t been taken there by local friends. We walked off the street and into the car park, took a rickety, unmarked elevator up five storeys and and then walked through the final floor of the car park, and I wondered if I wasn’t being tricked the whole time.
But the bar really does exist, and once we finally reached it, it offered superb vistas over the historical neighbourhoods of Lisbon. While we admired the view, my friends rattled off all the great attributes of the city — the old Europe feel, the affordability, the endless sun, the friendly people — and suggested I move there from Switzerland.
Within two years, I was living seven minutes’ walk from the Park Bar.
Lisbon is my home now, a city of creaking trams, beautiful colours and magical light. And to experience it all, I don’t even need to go to the Park Bar anymore; all I have to do is look out my window.
6. Cape Town, South Africa 🇿🇦
Before I set foot south of the Sahara, the most well-travelled man I’ve ever met told me that South Africa was the reward for travelling through Africa. I believe him now, and I would add that, more specifically, the real compensation for 81-hour bus rides in Mali and muggings at knife-point in Namibia is Cape Town.
Being one of the two most beautifully situated cities in the world is enough on its own to merit Cape Town a place on this list. But what struck me most about it is that it’s a chameleon city like no other I’ve ever seen. From beachfront suburbs to the mountains meeting the sea to the colourful buildings and people of Bo-Kaap, Cape Town is Sydney, Rio, Malacca and whatever else you want it to be all rolled into one.
I stayed for a week-and-a-half and every single day, Cape Town offered something remarkable: Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, penguins, African wineries, the Cape of Good Hope and more.
I didn’t want to leave but eventually it was time. I took a deep breath, got on a bus, and plunged myself back into Africa.
5. Moscow, Russia 🇷🇺
It took me 18 years longer to visit Moscow than I thought it would, and when I eventually got there, it somehow still managed to blow away my expectations. If you studied Soviet history in school, as I did, and read Byzantine history for fun, as I do, then the capital of arguably the successor state to both empires — the Third Rome, as it’s sometimes known — is bound to be one of the most amazing places you could hope to visit.
In four full days in Moscow in July 2019, I walked 87.5km, must have passed through Red Square two dozen times, and couldn’t get enough of it all — North Koreans bowing to the embalmed body of Lenin at his mausoleum, the wacky and wonderful St. Basil’s Cathedral, palatial subway stations, the domes and spires of the Kremlin, and all the Soviet places I could find: statuary repositories and theme parks and video arcades.
One morning, while I was alone in Red Square just after dawn on a glorious day, I sent a photo to my family and the response from my father was: ‘Wow, this is all your history interests appearing right before your eyes finally!’
4. Istanbul, Turkey 🇹🇷
The bus from the airport dumped me in Taksim Square in Istanbul at 4am during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in September 2008. With little alternative, I did what the locals do: I went to an all-night restaurant and ate a pre-dawn meal of Iskender kebabs, Turkish pizza and tea.
Then to a Sultanahmet hotel as the sun rose followed by a morning nap, and at midday the muezzins called the Muslim faithful to prayer — Allahu Akbar! — and five-and-a-half years after my first visit, Istanbul was bewitching me all over again.
From ancient Greek city to Constantine’s New Rome to Byzantine Constantinople to Ottoman Stambul and finally to the beating heart of modern Turkey, no city has reinvented itself more than Istanbul. No other city straddles two continents. No other city has been the capital of successive Christian and Muslim empires. No other city has walls like this — the most impregnable ever built, that took over 1000 years to bring down.
To lose yourself in all the ages of Istanbul — or Constantinople, as I still prefer to call it — is to never want to be found.
3. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 🇧🇷
High up in the Vidigal favela, in the shadow of the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) mountains, where I once stayed for a couple of nights, the two opposing pillars of Rio de Janeiro — beauty and poverty — are enjoined in an impossibly seamless way.
The panoramic view from the top of the Dois Irmãos takes in all of Rio in a way that Sugarloaf Mountain and Corcovado don’t: east to glamorous Leblon and Ipanema beaches, the waterfront skyscrapers and the Lagoa; west to the mountains and the largest slum in South America — the Rocinha favela.
I loved the view so much that I hiked from the favela to the top of the mountain twice on the same day, and not just for the breathtaking beauty. Of all the wonders of Rio de Janeiro — and there are many — this is the only one that captures all the contrasts of the marvellous city.
It wasn’t until I went up Sugarloaf Mountain on my first visit to Rio that I really grasped the topography and layout of the city; it wasn’t until I went up the Dois Irmãos on my second visit that I saw its soul.
2. Jerusalem, Israel & Palestinian Territories 🇮🇱 🇵🇸
In February 2003, I spent my birthday stuck inside a hotel room in Amman, Jordan, in the middle of a snowstorm that had temporarily closed the Jordanian-Israeli border. The second Iraq war was about to begin, the second Palestinian intifada was still raging, and the always-tricky Israel passport stamp game was still to be negotiated if I hoped to continue to Syria and Lebanon. In short, I’ve never been faced with more reasons not to visit a city.
But Jerusalem was non-negotiable, so I went anyway.
From the moment a shared taxi from the border dropped me in front of Damascus Gate, Jerusalem mesmerised me. I stayed in the old city for two weeks and was spellbound by its sounds, its stories and its alleyways full of memories.
Looking out over the old city and watching Jews praying to the ancient stones of the Western Wall, marvelling at the blinding gold of the Dome of the Rock and hearing the enchanting melody of church bells ringing from the Holy Sepulchre — all at the same time — well, the human story rarely gets more incredible than that.
1. Rome, Italy 🇮🇹
In a way, I grew up in Rome.
I arrived as a 21-year-old the day before the 9/11 attacks without a life plan. By the next day, the world had changed — and for different reasons, so had I. Rome was a part of me already, and it has clung on ever since.
In the years to come, Rome was where my life took shape. I met most of my best friends in Rome. I met my wife in Rome. I got married in Rome.
Once, I was walking over the Ponte Sisto at dusk, admiring Michelangelo’s majestic dome of St. Peter’s Basilica rising above the city in the distance, when one of my friends broke our captivated silence by asking simply, ‘Can you believe we actually live in ROME?’
I barely believed it even then. I lived in Rome for parts of four years from 2001–04 and when I knew that phase of my life was about to end, I cried on the streets of Trastevere.
And though I haven’t lived in Rome since, I’ve been back at least once in each of the past 15 years, and it never fails to enthral me.
The monuments? Sure — Rome has more than just about anywhere else, and I once wrote a 4,500-word essay about one of them.
But beyond that, it’s the simple pleasures of daily life in Rome that keep me coming back. A slice of focaccia on the run for breakfast. Walking through the narrow streets of the Jewish Ghetto or Trastevere in the morning. Entering a small church for the first time to find an amazing but uncelebrated historical or artistic detail. A simple pasta dish for lunch at a local trattoria. Afternoon gelato in Piazza Navona or in front of the Pantheon, then gathering with friends at dusk for an aperitivo in Campo dei Fiori. Dinner and laughter at an outside table on the San Pietrini cobblestones. Walking 20-plus kilometres in a day, aching by the end.
And wanting to do it all over again the next day.