Spring has long drawn associations of change, rejuvenation and new beginnings. In the spirit of the season, we decided to find cities around the world that have flourished – catapulted into the public conscience through periods of economic boom, artistic injection and favourable political landscapes – over the past five years. What’s changed, what’s been happening and why should you go?
Continuing our series, we’re turning to Italian travellers and the global cities increasingly on their radar.*
The area around Aqaba is a jagged, sandy world of its own
Clinging to the Gulf is Aqaba, Jordan’s only coastal city. Home to one of the country’s highest population growth rates and a perennially popular getaway for Jordanians, the city is now seeing international travellers flock to its shores too. Decades of prosperity, security and stable governance have laid the foundations for cities like Aqaba to flourish, and with landmark energy laws pushed through and projects such as Vision 2025 – an aim to increase annual tourists to over the 1.5 million mark through urban initiatives like the Marsa Zayed marina and Tala Bay – the transformation is already underway. Though an influx of luxury hotels have opened in response, Aqaba’s small-town charm lingers on. Soothed by the gentle lapping of the Red Sea and hugged by the clay-coloured Wadi Rum Mountains, Aqaba’s smattering of sand-tinted buildings rest sleepily and happily in between – best seen from the waterside Al Manara hotel.
Aqaba’s primary appeal however, lies in its location; it’s only a few hours’ drive away from the valley of sand that is Wadi Rum, and the ancient natural spectacle that is Petra, the symbol of Jordan. Wadi Rum in particular is worth paying mind to if only because many often don’t. A dramatic, moody wave of whipped sands and hulking canyons, a stay at a desert camp or a hot-air balloon ride should be factored in for those with the budget and time. Petra conversely is enticing and needs little introduction, however, explore a more ancient innovation as you admire its labyrinth of aqueducts and channels that have long fed water to this desert city.
Painted in a deep blue, Chefchaouen has magnetic visual appeal
Chefchaouen is blooming. Cradled in the sculpted Rif Mountains, the city has a celestial beauty to it. Painted in a deeply hypnotic blue, homes and buildings are awash with this distinct colour allegedly courtesy of a Jewish teaching (though other reports claim it was to keep mosquitos away, to stay cool and represent the sea and sky), which has earned Chefchaouen the nickname ‘The Blue City’. Home to one of Morocco’s most gorgeous medinas (walled old towns), skeletal lanes cut past blue-washed buildings, often accented with brightly hued hanging plants, while tangles of vines criss-cross overhead and blue-speckled lanterns appear at every turn. It’s this otherworldly look that has contributed to the boom in tourism in recent years, however, there still remains an easy balance between its quiet reputation and the throngs of visitors that descend in search of an almost blue planet.
Days here are best spent navigating the intricate labyrinth of streets and immersing yourself in this cultural canvas of Berber, Muslim and Jewish influences. Early morning trips to the bakery for wood-fired breads are a great way to begin the day, while a tagine at lunch in the local style is equally worthy of a try – think fish, vegetables, a medley of spices with spoonfuls of couscous mixed with ras el hanout. Muster some energy after that and throw yourself into the emporium that is Chefchaouen’s shops, where you’ll find expertly woven textiles and gorgeous pottery. And when nightfall does eventually come, a steaming pot of fresh mint tea underneath a star-pricked sky on La Petite Chefchaouen’s terrace, is really the only way to end the day.
The Minor Mosque is one of Tashkent's most splendid sights
A rumbling metropolis of new and old, Tashkent (pronounced Toshkent) is Central Asia’s major hub. Slowly breaking into the global conscience, the city is as much an intriguing destination in its own right as it is a gateway to the ancient cities along the Silk Road. The past few years have seen Uzbekistan and its capital begin to open up to the world, led by a change in leadership and a move away from isolationism – local currency for instance, can now be converted on the foreign exchange market. The curtains on Tashkent in particular are finally being pulled back, and visitors will find it and the area surrounding the city, a refreshingly different experience.
The city’s influences are divided – it’s one part industrious, magnanimous capital, while another part drowsy Uzbek town, shaped by the emerald parks and foliage that course through it. Classical architecture jostles alongside Brutalist buildings, while the turquoise domes of Minor Mosque and the pillars of the Alisher Navoi Opera & Ballet Theatre are a replenishing dose of splendour. For an insight into Tashkent city life, the Chorsu Bazaar is a teeming marketplace, covered by a spectacular green dome. Here you’ll find anything from traditional quilter cloaks called chapan to towers of multi-hued spices, stacked along the ribboning setup of stalls. Alternatively, escape from the buzz and admire the graceful decor and geometry of the subway line that has recently emerged from a decades-long photography ban. And when you come up for air, head to the elegant Ichan Qal’a Hotel, a short walk from the Oybek metro stop.
Navigate Faro's crooked alleyways and experience much of its innate charm
Head as far south as Portugal will take you and you’ll eventually reach Faro. A white-washed medieval city, Faro has gradually been relinquishing its reputation as simply a conduit to the Algarve region and is carving out a name of its own. Its elusion of the swathes of resort-bound tourists has worked in its favour, etaining the relaxed elan and heritage features that make it so appealing. Home to a historic old town, cobbled archways form narrow, low-lit passageways, that beckon you down romantic rabbit holes towards pretty squares and sleepy plazas. Wherever you look, colourful details are etched into window trims and doorways, as vines climbs yearningly to the top of the town’s squat buildings.
A languid stroll is the best form of exploration here, so wander over to the Igreja do Carmo, the twin bell tower that’s the Algarve’s oldest example of Rococo architecture and the Capela dos Ossos, otherwise known as the Chapel of Bones. Here, over 1,000 human skulls and bones belonging to the monks once buried nearby, now make up the chapel’s structure for a hauntingly engaging sight. Not a city to overly dwell in the past however, much of the city’s identity has been formed by the thriving student population that live between its walls, making Faro an ideal place to go out. Try Rua de Sao Pedro or Rua do Prior for a wealth of options, before finally retreating to Luxury Guest House and its bubbling hot tub.
Malé City, The Maldives
Head to the beach and take in the views of the city's ice-cream coloured buildings
The Maldivian capital is a world away from the cinematic island settings the country is known for. And that’s no bad thing – a pulsating city home to ice cream-coloured buildings and relaxed harbours, this is a good chance to experience genuine Maldivian culture. While it has experienced a few hiccups along the way, the opening of the Sinamalé Bridge in 2018, connecting the islands of Malé and Hulhulé, is waving in a new period in its history.
Start your visit with one of its primary sights – the Old Friday Mosque. Built from coral stone and inscribed with intricate details and descriptions, it’s the country’s oldest mosque. Beyond that, the Fish Market is Malé in its purest form – frenetic, colourful and fishy. Soak up the energy as you navigate yourself through the piles of the daily haul, followed by a quieter stroll past its unusually-named homes (think Banana Cabin, Dawn Fresh and Leaf Mess). And no visit would be complete without spending a portion of your time by the sea – a night at Sanmann Grand will have you covered.
**The data scientists at Booking.com looked at cities that had seen the highest growth in bookings from 2015 to 2018 (with 500 bookings considered the minimum benchmark).