Should you visit them anyway? Absolutely, if you’ve dreamed of going there for years.
Where, exactly, am I talking about? Egypt? Yemen? Mali? El Salvador? No, I don’t mean countries that are considered major and immediate threats to your safety and security, and routinely make the State Department’s travel warning list. I’m talking about six major global cities that many tourists shy away from for various reasons: concerns about their geopolitical position, racism, unfamiliar laws, severe air pollution, military unrest, and other hazards that have a statistically minimal chance of threatening your well-being on a trip. These cities have dubious reputations — and yet they offer visitors an amazing array of things to do and see that outweigh their drawbacks every time. Without further ado, these are my picks of the greatest big cities you might be missing out on.
1. Seoul, South Korea. This Asian gem has the drawback of being only about 40 miles away from the border of one of the most dangerous dictatorships on the planet. And yes, North Korea has threatened Seoul many times — and not a whole lot has happened. Year in and year out, Seoul is on par with Tokyo in terms of its appeal: ultra-modern, with a high standard of living and brimming with cultural treasures, attractions, and great shopping and dining — and boasting some of the safest streets in Asia. Yet people stay away in favor of Japanese and Chinese cities that are a lot farther outside a possible North Korean missile strike. What if? What if? What if you got on a plane to see Seoul in addition to Tokyo and Beijing? Your chances of getting trapped in a North Korean air raid are about the same as your likelihood of never reading another blog for the rest of your life.
2. Cape Town, South Africa. When most people think of South Africa, three things usually come to mind: soccer, racism, and crime. While it’s true that crime rates are high in South Africa, and that the devastation caused by apartheid can still rear its ugly head, Cape Town does not suffer from these problems nearly as much as the capital city of Johannesburg. And this doesn’t even begin to give Cape Town the credit it deserves for being such an amazing destination: on the ocean, full of natural wonders and cosmopolitan nightlife, and teeming with friendly and open-minded people. Still make you uncomfortable to go somewhere that’s been so deeply affected by racism? Go there, smile, have a drink, start talking and forget what you and everyone else looks like.
3. Macau (Special Administrative Region of China). This densely populated “Las Vegas of China” has often gotten bad press for its untamed casino life, toxic air pollution, and chaotic, pedestrian-unfriendly streets. It’s also one of only two great cities in China that most Westerners can visit without a visa — and it’s a short, very scenic ferry ride from Hong Kong . Yes, you don’t want to breathe deeply in Macau; you don’t want to head there restless either, since the whole SAR is only about twelve square miles. Perhaps that’s why most people are in the casinos — and when the air does clear after a good rainstorm, go outside and check out some of the amazing architecture inspired by the fusion of classic Chinese style and Portuguese colonialism. ( Just make sure not to jaywalk.)
4. Singapore. At first, Singapore might seem like an odd pick for this list. But does anyone remember Michael Fay? He’s the young American who, in 1994, was caned and imprisoned for four months for non-violent crimes (vandalism and theft). Since then, Singapore has been as notorious for its draconian laws as its diverse attractions and spotless streets. If you tend to do reckless or impulsive things when traveling (particularly when drunk and not in full control of your inhibitions) you might fear doing something in Singapore that could cost you time in jail, or worse. Even slobs or gum-snappers may have a hard time (forget to flush a public toilet? You could be fined. And don’t bring chewing gum into the country). So what do you do? Recognize how easy it is to assimilate. Surrounded by law-abiding, respectful citizens in the downtown area, in the malls, and at the tourist attractions, you’ll realize how painless it is to take a cue from other folks and be on your best behavior. And because it’s Singapore, your chance of being the victim of theft, assault, and tourist scams are slim to none.
5. Belgrad, Serbia. Many of us are old enough to remember the carnage of the Balkans War unfold on TV in the 90s. The war is long over and several functioning democracies have emerged from the former Yugoslavia — but since Serbian rebels were blamed for the bulk of the violence and ethnic cleansing in the 90s war, a negative view of Serbia, and its capital Belgrad, persists. Is it fair? If travel teaches us anything, it’s to not stereotype cultures, or hold individuals accountable for sins committed by armies over fifteen years ago. Last I checked, Belgrad is a vibrant, intriguing city where multiculturalism works, and the welcome mat is laid out for the curious tourist.
6. Tel Aviv, Israel. The number of security issues Tel Aviv faces on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis might cause anyone to cross this incredible city off their travel wish-list. Who, you might think, wants to step into the “state of perpetual turmoil”? Well, lots of tourists, every season of the year. They’ve discovered that the city’s inhabitants are a special breed entirely — resilient, determined people who manage their fate of constant uncertainty by knowing how to have a good time, and knowing how to make the most of every day. Israel is not going to solve its problems anytime soon — and Tel Aviv is not exactly “going anywhere.” You might as well drop in, go to the beach, exercise the usual safety precautions, and have an incredible cultural experience.
Nervous about venturing outside the “quintessential” and “safe” vacation spots? It’s natural — but pack your common sense, and go anyway
I’d gladly visit all but one of the cities on this list if I had the money or the time. A big part of safe travel involves knowing exactly where you’re going and what’s expected of you when you get there.
I definitely agree. There aren’t nearly the number of guidebooks and cultural etiquette books about places like Serbia, South Korea, South Africa, etc. as there about places like Japan, Italy, and Australia, which we’d consider more “familiar” with and (usually by association) more comfortable with.
I love Seoul and Singapore. Despite North Korea threats (which don’t cause as much media stir as they do in the western world), Seoul and South Korea had always been much safer for me than most other parts in Asia.
No kidding! One of my coworkers spent a week in Bangkok and then a week in Singapore, and when he got to Singapore he was like “oh my God, I can finally stop checking for my wallet every 10 minutes!” “Strict” places with a lot of laws on the books can be a lot more fun once you realize you don’t have to constantly be on guard.
I just came back from 15 days in Israel and loved it! We left the week of the big terrorism threat when they were closing down US embassies around the world. We were a little nervous traveling that week, but we were told that the best security is in Israel, and it was true. We felt very safe traveling there.
I’m so glad you had a great time in Israel despite the threats!
A friend of mine recently went to Israel and said that because the big cities really worried her she spent a lot of time in the little villages and the countryside, and loved it. Even for such a small country, there are plenty of places to “hide” and have a great relaxing vacation. She said she’s built enough confidence to go into Jerusalem on her next trip.
I’d love to go to Jerusalem, especially the eastern part of the city and the old city. There’s an enormous amount of history there. As for the terrorist threat – millions of people manage to get by, and the odds of being caught in an attack must be tiny. I’d go if I had the money and the time.
I don’t have experience traveling to the places you mentioned, but I recently lived for three years in Caracas, which is a pretty violent city. In fact, my husband was kidnapped…a very memorable day for us. So there are places it’s better to avoid, but as you say, common sense is a good guide.
I’m surprised to see Singapore on the list. Michael Fay is almost 20 years ago now. Singapore has since adopted a lot more foreigner friendly approach in recent years.
I must be talking to too many Swiss people. In 2010 a Swiss IT consultant in Singapore was sentenced to caning, and it became a controversial issue for many once again.
Funny how it’s the tourists who break the law, and the country that gets the knock…
India is my top scariest place to go! One day I’ll face it for sure, but until then.. it can wait, haha! Nice blog, I like it.
Thank you 🙂
India is definitely not for the faint of heart! Most people find Mumbia and Delhi to be less overwhelming than the south or northeast areas (including Kalkutta)
Belgrade is fantastic. I traveled there alone a year ago and at no time did I feel unsafe. As far as problems for solo women travelers in Europe – I’ve had more annoyances (unwanted attention from men, potential petty theft, etc.) in Portugal, Belgium, and Ireland.
Belgrade definitely gets an unfair bad rap! And thanks for the heads-up on Portugal — I land there for the first time in a few weeks.