A history and literature masterclass: St Petersburg, Russia
St Petersburg was named by the World Travel Awards as the ‘World’s Leading Cultural City Destination’ in 2016, so a round-up of travel for the curious mind wouldn’t be complete without this centre of art and imperial history.
One of the most iconic sights in this marvellous city is the Hermitage Museum; once the opulent residence of Russia’s Tsars and now the cultural heart of St Petersburg, housing one of the world’s largest collections of art and antiques. Expect to see works from the likes of Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Dyke and Picasso in this collection of grand buildings that overlook the Neva River.
The city’s buildings are nothing short of fascinating, an intriguing blend of baroque and neoclassical architecture, interspersed with many churches including the infamous Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Lovers of classic literature will be able to set foot inside the former homes of Dostoyevsky and Nabokov – now both museums.
After a day of exploring you can relax in the wonderful Four Seasons Hotel Lion Palace, fittingly located in a historic building at the heart of St Petersburg’s centre.
A slice of colonial heaven: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap is best known as the gateway to the incredible UNESCO-listed Temples of Angkor, but the city itself is well worth exploring too.
Cambodian cuisine may not enjoy the same reputation around the world as its Thai neighbour, but after a visit to Siem Reap, you’re likely to be a convert. Some of the country’s top chefs are based here, including Joannes Riviere, who serves up the ultimate Khmer dining experience at Cuisine Wat Damnak.
Shopping is a delight here too, with outlets ranging from atmospheric night markets to arts and crafts shops, trading in silks, sculptures and carvings, all of which are lovingly created by skilled locals. There is a circus in town too – Phare draws comparisons with Cirque du Soleil for its inventive routines and gravity-defying stunts.
A top recommendation for a place to stay is opposite the Royal Palace at the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, where olde worlde grandeur meets modern luxury. Expect nothing less than a royal reception when staying at this Art Deco gem. www.raffles.com/siem-reap
Tantalise the senses: Marrakesh, Morocco
Marrakesh has been a political, economic and cultural centre since the 11th century, as evidenced by several impressive monuments dating from that period: the Koutoubia Mosque – the largest in Marrakesh, the Kasbah, the Battlements and the Monumental Doors.
Later architectural jewels include the Bandiâ Palace, the Ben Youssef Madrasa and the Saadian Tombs. Then there is the square the city is best known for, Jemaa el-Fna, with its maze-like collection of market stalls selling a wide range of local delicacies and handicrafts, including lighting, leather goods, clothing, musical instruments, ceramics, to name but a few. As day becomes night, it becomes interspersed with a whole carnival of storytellers, acrobats, musicians and entertainers. It’s fast paced, heady and great fun.
After a long day of sightseeing and shopping, there’s no finer place to escape the crowds and relax than the city’s Mandarin Oriental – a genuine oasis of calm and luxury.
The cradle of the Renaissance: Florence, Italy
What this city lacks in size, it more than makes up for in living treasures. Strolling through Florence is pretty much akin to walking through a living museum. If you only visit one art gallery, make sure it’s the Galleria degli Uffizi. Home to the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art, it contains some of Italy’s best-known paintings by the likes of Michaelangelo, Da Vinci and Caravaggio. Boticelli’s masterpieces are all housed in one great hall, which unsurprisingly gets very busy.
Like many Italian cities, Florence is a place where you can lose hours simply wandering and exploring the narrow back streets. You’re never too far from an impressive church, a striking monument or a wonderfully rustic restaurant.
The hotel Villa Cora is not just a great place to stay, it’s a work of art in itself. Built in the late 1860s by Baron Oppenheim, the main villa at the centre of the estate boasts a grandiose array frescoes, stucco-work, mirrors and chandeliers, mixing styles from art nouveau to neo-Moorish. It feels like a country retreat, but is in fact only a 15-minute walk from the Ponte Vecchio. www.villacora.it
The ultimate train journey: Machu Picchu, Peru
A trip to Machu Picchu is a wonderful experience in itself, but if you want to arrive from Cuzco in the ultimate style, you can take the Belmond ‘Hiram Bingham’ train and enjoy fine dining while gazing upon the scenery from the comfort of your carriage.
Furnished in the style of the 1920s Pullman carriages, complete with wood panelling, brass and the classic blue and gold hues, the seats are exceptionally comfortable, with plenty of space to stretch out.
Once you reach the lost city, one of the best places to stay is the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, located right next to the ancient Inca citadel. From here, you can take part in a number of treks, ranging from gentle strolls to more challenging mountain hikes. There are always expert guides on hand to advise on the best routes. The more spiritually-minded may appreciate a coca leaf reading from an Andean priest, or a meditation session in the hotel’s exceptional orchid-strewn gardens. www.belmond.com