With its pretty canals, ornate churches and palaces, St Petersburg still exudes the opulence of Imperial Russia. Wander round the streets studded with beautiful buildings and you half expect to bump into Catherine the Great or see Rasputin lurking around a corner. Yet, while St Petersburg is cleverly embracing its past, it is also confidently moving into the future.
Considering its vibrancy, beauty and historical treasures, it’s amazing that Durham is not a major fixture on the tourist trail. One can only assume it’s because this little jewel of a city and county are squashed between the majesty of Yorkshire, which trumpets its offerings much louder, and the glorious Northumberland coast.
But this tiny place — which has been dubbed the best to visit in the UK — won’t be hiding its light under a bushel much longer.
A few years ago, Seattle tourism officials coined a new word to sum up the charms of this lively hub of the US Pacific Northwest. The slogan they came up with — “Metronatural” — evokes the way the city’s modern urban centre is ensconced in one of the most beautiful natural settings in North America ; it also reflects how this setting inspires the lifestyle and experience of residents and visitors alike.
It began in front of my TV, watching Henning Mankell’s deadpan detective, Wallander, shuffle his way unerringly to the solution of a crime. Wallander’s world was one of strong spirits, heart-warming humour and cold-hearted murders set in the moody landscape of Southern Sweden.
Not content to buy the best-selling Kurt Wallander Mysteries or wait for the second BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh in the New Year, I flew to Copenhagen and crossed the Öresund Bridge to the fertile region of Skåne (pronounced skoener), home to two worldwide hits — Absolut Vodka and Kurt Wallander.
Their banks may have hammered our pension funds, but Icelanders are giving something back this year — at least to visitors. This fascinating land of geysers and volcanoes, which has also carved an urban reputation for hot clubs, cool bars and cutting-edge design is now at its most affordable in a decade.
Devaluation — theirs — plus low-cost flights make this a great time to discover Reykjavik, the most northerly capital in the world, as well as the natural wonders of the nearby Golden Triangle.
I had never tasted potato dumpling with goat’s cheese before, let alone try to pronounce its culinary name - bryndzove halušky, but then I had never been to the Slovakian capital, before. A canopy of carbs, this hearty speciality of the city was unexpectedly appealing. Much like the city itself.
It’s midnight outside the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and the place is humming. The last cinema-goers have left but the open courtyard in front is suddenly a mass of wheels — bicycles and trollies, but most of all rollerskates.
It’s fun to go off the beaten track sometimes, but if all you want is a brief, indulgent break, then the delightful city of Bruges will release your inner lip-smacking, camera-swinging, beer-swilling, sightseeing, chip-guzzling, chocoholic tourist.
Bruges is home to just 20,000 people, yet more than three million tourists visit each year. July and August are the favoured months, but in May and June or September and October when the weather is temperate you can still enjoy that tourist vibe, and walking around this compact city will be more a saunter than a day at the dodgems.
We were on an intrepid mission and there were risks: blisters, arguments, financial ruin and a 4am wake-up call before dragging our cases on to a National Express bus at Golders Green, and then queueing for an easyJet flight to Naples.
It was tough: traipsing around Mafia-imbued streets, reading and then abandoning all guide books.