Believe it or not, I go to other places than Disney Parks. Yes, theme parks play a major role in our travels but we also just travel more than most people. While in the middle of a pandemic, when most of us are just kind of stuck at home, it seems like as good of a time as any to branch out a little bit and talk about some of my favorite places in the world that aren’t theme parks.
2020 put a damper on travel but now the world has started to come out of that. Borders are open and people are traveling! While some trips have been canceled due to this, other travel has been consolidated for me thanks to moving to southern California. I’ve enjoyed playing tourist in my own city, Los Angeles. I’ve also enjoyed visiting San Diego, Laguna Beach, Santa Barbara and so many other gems. While none of those make the list at this point, they might in the future!
I’m not going to pretend that I’m extremely well traveled. I haven’t been to Europe and have a huge blind spot to the American East Coast, although I plan to remedy both of those things when possible. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, my taste in cities really varies. I can tell you I’m drawn to cities, but love a little bit of nature mixed in. History is also of interest to me. The top three on my list is very solid and would be hard to dethrone but fourth and fifth place could be taken out by simply just visiting more places or spending a little more time in San Diego or Los Angeles. Suffice to say, this list will be ever evolving and may grow over the years.
This is my wildcard pick as Atlanta very narrowly edges out some west coast cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Like I already said, a few of those cities could gain steam with a little more time spent in them. A few of those cities have lost a little luster in my eyes. Atlanta may have made my list strictly out of circumstance, which I think is common in travel.
Melissa and I went down there a few years ago for a football game and spent half a week exploring the city. I enjoyed every area we went and was impressed by the variation in what they offered. One day we spent the whole time downtown, exploring the Centennial Olympic Park, the Coke Museum and a few other museums of the like. We wound up walking quite a ways for dinner that night, ending up at a Chicken & Waffles place, and it felt much less touristy. Both parts were fun.
Another day was spent at the Atlanta Zoo and the surrounding area. The zoo was fun (the pandas being the obvious highlight) but the real draw was the beautiful Grant Park surrounding the area. Being from the west coast, seeing a hundred year old park with the Victorian mansions was a new experience for me. The Oakland Cemetery was nearby and was also a beautiful walk. We ate some wonderful food that day at Mary Mac’s Tea Room and Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q.
The Atlanta Aquarium is one of the biggest in the country and a nice feature. The Civil Rights history plays a huge role in the city’s culture and it was evident in those few days we spent in Atlanta. While the city has been romanticized some in my head and I’ve seen others think little of Atlanta, it left a beautiful impression on me and I look forward to going back.
4. Vancouver, BC
British Columbia’s Vancouver is absolutely gorgeous, with diverse cultures and an amazing amount of nature nestled into the city’s footprint. The downtown area is home to a vast array of shopping and dining, especially along Robson Street. It’s a beautiful place to walk around. Getting around that area is fairly easy with public transportation. Walking along Coal Harbor to get a view of the cruise ships and all of the water is a beautiful way to spend an early evening.
While I love the city proper, Vancouver’s outskirts are where the city really shines. Stanley Park is one of the prettiest parks I’ve ever seen. In some areas the park feels organic, like your standard neighborhood park with colorful gardens and ponds full of critters. If just walking around isn’t your cup of tea (there is a teahouse) then there are plenty of activities including miniature trains, golf, a water park, and beaches to lie on. My favorite part of Stanley Park is the Seawall, a 5.5 mile paved loop around the park that offers beautiful views of the Pacific and Vancouver.
Across the water in North Vancouver there’s a fun market and water taxis. Further north there is plenty of nature full of hiking and famed suspension bridges. In summer there’s swimming holes to enjoy and in winter there’s skiing to take part in. Vancouver offers something for both city folk and outdoorsy people, a truly eclectic city.
Tokyo will get the smallest blurb about it because simply the thought of it overwhelms me. We spent nearly a week there and I did not feel like I even scratched the surface of what Tokyo has to offer. Here’s the best way I know how to describe just how large Tokyo is – There’s a train loop, the Yamanote Line, that circles around the city. On that loop there are 30 stops, almost each of them with skyscrapers that would make other cities jealous. And here’s the thing, that train loop only includes about half of the city.
Okay, so you might have some idea of just how big the city is. But what does it offer? Everything. The Shibuya and Shinjuku wards of the city offer the best shopping you’ve ever encountered. The Ueno and surrounding districts offer more tradition and incredible museums. I think you could find every single kind of food in the world in Tokyo. There are shrines and temples down one street and then Robot Restaurants and Owl Cafes down another. Tokyo is a complete sensory overload; it’s exhausting yet beautiful, outrageous but still full of tradition. I can’t wait to see more of it. (I made it through this whole thing without talking about Tokyo Disney Resort!)
2. Banff, AB
My first three picks were gigantic cities that had some nature in them. My last two picks sit right in the middle of nature, combining urban areas with mountainsides seamlessly. We’ll start with Banff, a small town in the Canadian Rockies. Mountains surround all sides of Banff and there’s plenty of places to explore all within miles of the city.
Unlike all of the other places on the list, Banff isn’t a place where you could really spend the entire day downtown. The town itself is not much more than a road with a decent amount of shops and a few interesting dining options. It’s a fun place to walk around and enjoy.
Where Banff really shines though is the outdoor activities all around. Not far from Banff resides the picturesque Lake Louise, a beautiful destination to hike, canoe or just stare. The water is a crystal blue and the snow capped mountains add to the scene. Nearly every other outdoor activity is offered in Banff, along with some beautiful architecture. For someone who really likes to do things while traveling, Banff makes it this high on the list thanks in large part of just being absolutely gorgeous.
I know there are many amazing cities in the world. I’ve never been to Paris and I long to. Sydney, New York, London, Rome and countless others all seem like amazing destinations. While I’ll look forward to visiting all of those places someday, I can’t imagine liking any of them more than Kyoto. Formerly Japan’s capital, the city is full of phenomenal history with buildings dating back to the 700’s and earlier. Much of the architecture is built into the hillsides that surround Kyoto.
Throughout Kyoto there are hundreds of temples and shrines. We spent entire days visiting them and barely scratched the surface. Many of them were some of the most serene places I’ve ever been. Kyoto is a spiritual city regardless of your belief in God. It’s a place to sit and think, where you can find yourself and/or a higher meaning. Part of that is due to the beauty in every step, part of that is due to the contemplative nature of Kyoto.
Among those beautiful temples and shrines is Fushimi Inari, a hillside covered in torii gates. The full hike up that hill is one of my favorite travel experiences I’ve ever had. That’s coming from a non-hiker. The Silver Pavilion and Kiyomizu-dera were among my favorite temples, with grounds that are meticulously maintained and are home to lovely buildings.
Outside of the temples and shrines, there is the thoughtful Philosopher’s Path, an amazing 10-story train station, hikes up to monkey parks and plenty of great food to go around. No amount of words I spend on the city can describe how much I love it. Instead, here’s a few photos to show it off.
Those are my favorite cities in the world! What are a few of yours? Let us know in the comments below! If you’re looking for Disney travel advice, check out our trip planning guides. If you enjoy what you are reading here on Wandering in Disney please share this post with your friends, as well as like our social media pages. You can also subscribe to the blog via WordPress or email. All of those links are on the right side of this page. Thank you for reading, we really appreciate it!