With so many budget airlines and travel promotions to choose from, we’re all getting inspired to pack our bags and find out what’s around us. When you do finally manage to get onto a cheap flight and get your leave approved, make sure that you hit the right spots fast, rather than wasting time eating at tourist-filled joints and sifting through shops of gimmicky trinkets. After all, it’s those obscure little finds that are often the highlight of a quick getaway. Here are our insider picks on how to get the best bang out of your flashpacker buck in five happening cities.
Shanghai | Taipei | Auckland | Phnom Penh | Tokyo
Shanghai is one of the fastest modernizing cities in the world. This is a place thriving on the buzz of being the region’s “it” city. Money bags combined with up-and-coming designers, architects and socialites can only mean one thing: Shanghai is a city on a jet-fuelled trajectory. Forget the package tours; here are some of the places worth checking out in this vibrant city.
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✱ Who says there’s no such thing as modern Chinese food? At Jade on 36 (Pudong Shangri-La, 33 Fucheng Lu, +86 21-6288-8888), the menu’s an unusual blend of flavors and tastes that are well worth exploring because they’re all excellent. Located in one of the most glamorous new hotels with a gorgeous view, this is fine dining at its best.
✱ Tea houses are an ancient tradition, but for a very cool vintage tea-sipping experience, try Old Shanghai Tea House (385 Fangbang Zhong Lu, +86 21- 5382-1202) where the waiters wear Mandarin gowns and all the artifacts are genuine antiques personally collected by owner Zhang Jianming.
✱ Well-loved bar owner Cotton Ding has recently relocated her beloved institution Cotton’s (132 Anting Lu, near Jianguo Lu, +86 21-6433-7995). Not far away from its old address, there’s now an outdoor garden with a villa to match the funky but laidback bar inside.
✱ If you like antiques then head to Madam Mao’s Dowry (70 Fuxing Xi Lu, near Yongfu Lu, +86 21-6437-1255) where local Mao memorabilia is rife and propaganda chic art.
✱ For cheap accessories and trinkets, Xiao Shan Ping Shi Chang market at Xiang Yang Road is also worth a look, but you might have to hunt a bit for those bargains among the dross.
✱ The luxury boutique hotel 88 Xintiandi (380 Huang Pi Nan Rd., +86 21- 5383-8833) has made its mark by renovating rundown traditional shikumen
(Shanghainese housing) into 53 stylish, elegantly-designed residences. Strategically set among exclusive boutiques, restaurants, cafes and bars, 88 Xintiandi is a contemporary nod to the past amid the rapid urban modernization.
Breakfast at Xiangyang Lu and Changle Lu. Come to this bustling intersection between 7am and 9am for one of the best breakfasts of your life. There’s a wide range of authentic street food on offer—from dumplings to noodle soup to freshly made breads—and nothing costs more than pocket change.
Take taxis everywhere. No journey around central Shanghai will cost you more than 20 yuan so, though public transport is rapidly improving, taxis are still the way to go. But make sure that you have your destinations written out in Chinese—chances are your Shanghainese cabbie won’t be able to understand you, even if you do speak some Mandarin.
Baby Sister Grows Up
Far from being the poor cousin to Hong Kong, Taipei is a vibrant city rich in history and culture. All the commerce and industry in Taiwan is coordinated and run from Taipei, and the city is a suitably busy and noisy center of activity. The traffic is bad and it’s pretty smoggy, but the shopping is cheap, the food delicious and there’s plenty to do. This place is well developed, so you won’t have to miss your creature comforts while soaking up all that noise and commotion so synonymous with the Asian city charm.
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✱ Know that dumpling place in Paragon that always has a huge crowd? It’s the sister restaurant to the locally owned Din Tai Fung (194 Xinyi Rd., corner of Yunkang St., Section 2, +886 2-2321- 5958) where yummy steamed dumplings are the order of the day. The restaurant has such a following that Japanese tourists queue up to try the famed dumplings at the original flagship outlet in Xinyi Road.
✱ The king of the hot pots in Taipei is Taihodiem Restaurant (315 Xinyi Rd., Section 4, +886 2-2705- 0909) which has been around for 11 years. It aims to resemble a Chinese pub in the sense that it’s all about enjoying good quality food in a homely environment.
✱ For a place to drink, lounge and hang around, Spot—Taipei Film House (18 Chungshan N. Rd., Section 2, +886 2-2511-7786) blends lots of different lifestyle concepts into one building. There are foreign movies from all over the world screening at the cinema, as well as an exhibition gallery, a bookstore, a coffee shop and wine lounge.
✱ The One (30 Jhongshan N. Rd., Section 2, +886 2-2536-3090) serves lunch, afternoon tea and dinner to customers among the surrounds of designer lifestyle products. It’s all very cool and chic. Best of all, you can buy the products.
✱ Wufenpu is the largest clothing market in Taipei. This is the place where locals come to shop for clothes, shoes and accessories at dirt cheap prices. There are over 100 stores with funky wares, making this a shopper’s paradise. Even street vendors buy their goods here to sell, so coming here is like going straight to the source.
✱ For a luxurious resort and spa getaway try Spring Park Urai Spa and Resort (3 Yanti Wulai Shiang, +886 2-2661-6555). Here pampering is taken to the next level. There are hot springs in the resort, indoor bathhouses—even the little toiletries in the room are BVLGARI.
Look out for the little hole-in-the-wall foot massage parlors all over Taipei. Prices can vary, but they’re usually pretty cheap and are extremely popular with Japanese tourists. Massages are Chinese style and usually start with a bath in Chinese herbs before the real work begins.
With the terrible traffic conditions and regular rallies, the easiest and fastest way to get around Taipei is to take the Metro Taipei. Rather than buying single journeys, get the multipurpose EasyCard which will allow you to use the ticket over several days across trains, buses and even in car parks.
Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing
Auckland is the backpacker mecca, and the high amount of young traffic means that, despite its tiny population, this little city is buzzing with hostels, bars, and cafes just waiting to be explored. Along with its cosmopolitan feel, Auckland still has the charm of a small city in a small country. Bring your manners because here, everyone politely thanks the bus driver when they alight.
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✱ Peter Gordon is New Zealand’s most internationally famous culinary celebrity and his new restaurant, dine by Peter Gordon (3/F SKYCITY Grand Hotel, 90 Federal St., +64 9-363-7030) is a must try for those wanting to sample the country’s latest modern dining trends.
✱ If wine is your thing then try Number 5 Restaurant (5 City Rd., +64 9-309-9273) where the feel is cozy but contemporary with open fires and two private rooms for entertaining. There’s a lovely menu of Western European dishes and a huge wine list including the special Sommelier’s Indulgence: A selected fine wine that is specially decanted and aerated ready for drinking.
✱ In bohemian Parnell, Höglund Glass Art (285 Parnell Rd., Parnell, +64 9-300-6238) has some stunning glassware in their flagship gallery. There are other galleries in Melbourne, Sydney and around New Zealand, but this is where it all started. These are modern pieces that blend the clarity of glassware with bright colors and sculptural form.
✱ Local jewelry designer Tanya Bentley displays all her work at Mana Gallery (3/323 Parnell Rd., Parnell, +64 9-377-0417). Bentley likes to work with Pacific Island mediums such as paua (Pacific shell) and mother of pearl. She also stocks the work of around 70 other artists including glassware and ceramics.
✱ Make the most of New Zealand’s quaint countrytown feel by soaking up a bit of good old fashioned B&B hospitality. At nearby Cotter House Luxury Retreat (4 St Vincent Ave., Remuera, +64 9-529-5156) the bed spreads are silk and the pillows and duvets are feather-stuffed: This is five-star all the way, baby. And as the entire place can only accommodate 10 guests at once, it’s all very exclusive.
✱ For something close to the harbor with gorgeous water views, check out Stafford Villa (2 Awanui Street, Birkenhead Point, +64 9-418-3022), a Victorian period-style B&B where rooms overlook beautiful gardens and the city is a mere 10 minutes away.
New Zealand has developed a niche market in extreme sports and Skyjump (2/F Sky Tower, corner Victoria and Federal St., +64 9368-1835 from overseas or 0800-759-586 from within New Zealand) allows visitors to experience some of that adrenaline without having to leave the city. This jump (NZ$195) from Auckland’s tallest building is not quite a bungy, but more like being dropped at 75km per hour, face first. What a rush!
To get a better sense of direction around the CBD of Auckland, hop on the loop bus, The Link (NZ$1.50 per ride). It travels both clockwise and anticlockwise around Queen Street, Sky Tower, Ponsonby Road, the Newmarket, Parnell, and QEII Square. Buses usually run every 10 minutes during the week and every 20 minutes on weekday nights and Sundays.
Take a Back Seat
Phnom Penh is not traditionally considered a “must-see” destination, but we think it’s been given a hard rap. Southeast Asia’s rapid expansion into the first world is naturally dragging Phnom Penh along with it, and as a result there’s a unique mix of haunting tourist sites combined with cosmopolitan hustle and bustle. This hotch potch city has a little of the roughness of Bangkok with a little of the elegance of Saigon, and all the charm of the Khmer people.
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✱ If you want a place where everything is local then try the very new Romdeng (21 Street 278, +855 092-219-565), sister restaurant to the more famous Friends—The Restaurant (215 Street 13, +855 012-802-072). At both these places street kids are trained for free in essential skills in the restaurant business to set them up for a brighter future. At Romdeng the food is fresh and tasty and gives tourists a rare chance to sample what the locals eat.
✱ An institution with Phnom Penh’s foreign community, FCC Phnom Penh (363 Sisowath Quay, +855 023-210-142) is where, on a terrace overlooking the water, expats in white linen kick back and sip cocktails on Friday nights.
✱ For something a little groovier and less tourist-trodden, head to Rubies Wine Bar
(corner of Street 19 and Street 240, +855 12-823-962) where those in the know understand that it’s all about relaxing in a laid-back atmosphere, drink in hand, surrounded by your mates.
✱ Spend big but still chill out at Java Cafe and Gallery (56 E1 Preah Sihanouk Blvd., +855 023-987-420), an establishment renowned for serving good coffee, cafe bites and offering a monthly rotation of paintings.
✱ The newer Elsewhere (175 Street 51, Corner Street 254, +855 023-211-348) is home to funky locally-made clothes. There’s also a restaurant and a bar in a garden oasis—there’s even a pool if the heat gets too much for you.
✱ The Intercontinental Phnom Penh (Regency Square, 296 Blvd. Mao Tsé Toung, +855 23-424-888) provides a majestic and regal getaway from the dust of most touristy areas. While it might be a little out of the way, it also means peace and quiet when you go to bed instead of listening to raucous backpackers out in the street and blaring bars.
The highlight of a trip to Phnom Penh is to have dinner with local tour guide Chamroeum Om (+855 12-837-309), better known to the tourists as Rarn. Rarn takes tourists home to have dinner with his family which is, no doubt, the most memorable experience you’ll have in Phnom Penh. Rarn gives a glimpse of what life is really like for the Khmer, and some of the stories you will hear are astounding. His tour guide income paid for much of the structure of the home that houses more than 40 people and, using tips and tourist donations, he also supports a tutor to teach English to 33 kids from around the neighborhood. For a reliable taxi driver to pick you up from the airport or even a tour guide to show you round Phnom Penh, we also highly recommend Rarn. His English is fantastic, he is a lovely trustworthy guy and you know all your money will be going to a good cause.
Tuk-tuk prices should be negotiated before you start the ride. The local rule is never pay more than US$1 no matter where you are going within the city.
High tech gadgets, fast-paced living and an outrageous sense of style are all part of the Tokyo lifestyle, which curiously lives cheek to jowl alongside strictly observed traditions and customs. This is the place where all of Japan’s contradictions come to a head. It’s easy to feel lost among all the Japanese signage, so here are some places to get you started. One thing’s for sure: You might get a culture shock, but you can never be bored in Tokyo.
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✱ For truly modern Japanese head to the unassuming Kaikaya (23-7 Maruyama-cho, Shibuya-ku, +81 3-3770-0878) which looks like a typical Japanese pub. Instead, the grub here is trendy, innovative and well worth trying. Be sure to order the tuna sparerib, the jawbone of the fish.
✱ For something very traditional, head to Inakaya (1/F Yamaki Building, 4-10-11 Roppongi, Minato-ku, +81 3-3405-9866) where diners sit round a culinary stage. The chefs in yukata robes kneel on the ground barbecuing vegetables, seafood and meat which they pass over to hungry customers on giant paddles.
✱ The latest addition to Omote-sando Avenue is the brand new Omote-sando Hills, a huge five-star shopping center just opened in February. Designed by Tadao Ando, it takes up 250 meters of frontage on Omote-Sando Avenue proper and is all about five star labels: At least half of the big label stores here are flagships. This is 1.2 hectares of materialistic bliss.
✱ And if you like a bit of LV or just want to see some very funky architecture, check out the Louis Vuitton (7-6-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 3-3478-2100) store designed by Jun Aoki. Even if you can’t afford anything inside, it’s worth a look at the modern Christmas tree concept of white square panels with window
✱ Tokyo is an expensive city, so if accommodation is where you choose to shrink your budget, Andon Ryokan (2-34-10 Nihonzutsumi Taito, +81 3-3873-8611) is a pretty good option. The hotel was designed by Irie Masayuki and the outside looks like a modern Japanese lantern (hence the name “andon”) while inside clean steel lines evocative of Japanese architecture make the communal bathrooms at least palatable. Best of all, all the staff are fluent in English.
✱ For a trendy, pricier alternative try Claska (1-3-18 Chuo-cho, Meguro-ku, +81 3-3719-8121) which fuses elements of art, design and culture into your holiday. Alongside the lobby area is a cafe, bar and a DJ party space. There’s also a gallery on the second floor. There are only nine rooms for short-term stay, the others for longer term each have a different contemporary design.
For those who think Tokyo is all about restrained conservatives in business suits, get on the train and head to Jingū-bashi next to Harajuku JR station on a Sunday afternoon. This is where the disenchanted and alienated youth of Tokyo and its surrounds come to express themselves through their fashion. Supermen, Bo Peeps and other weird and wacky costumed kids hang out together and will happily pose for pictures with gaping tourists.
We’re all used to taking off our shoes when going indoors, but in Japan this is a particularly stringently observed custom. Pack lots of pairs of good socks with you—ones with holes are not going to impress anyone.