Our 10 Favourite Neighbourhoods Around the World

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In our Slow Travel Manifesto we said that one of our most enjoyable ways to explore a new place is to wander aimlessly and be open to what we might come across. In a big city this can be overwhelming and the best way to focus your exploration is to choose a specific neighbourhood.

Our favourite cities have distinct diverse neighbourhoods with their own characters, and we gravitate towards areas with independent businesses and restaurants, good food, an artistic creative vibe, beautiful architecture, or a village-like feel.

These are our favourite neighbourhoods around the world.

The Mission, San Francisco, USA

The Mission, San FranciscoI was inspired to write this post because this week we are in our favourite city San Francisco. In a city made up of diverse neighbourhoods we have plenty to choose from but the Mission is the area we’re always drawn back to. Mexican immigrants and hipsters create a vibrant mix of vintage clothing stores, political street art, cool independent cafes, and Mexican tortillerias. I’ve compiled a long “to eat” list for our two weeks in the city and Mission restaurants dominate. It has everything from giant burritos to vegetarian Japanese, Indian dosas, and gourmet ice-cream. Spending a month or two renting an apartment here is high on our travel wish list, once we can bring ourselves to pay the crazy rental costs.

Testaccio, Rome, Italy

Testaccio, RomeRome is an incredible city but the crowds can be overwhelming. That’s not a problem in the gritty Testaccio neighbourhood where tourists rarely venture. We discovered the neighbourhood on a food tour and loved it so much that we returned a few months later to stay for four nights. It may not be as beautiful as other parts of the city but this is the place to come if you want to live like a modern Roman.

Our days revolved around food: beginning with cornetti and tiny cups of espresso standing shoulder to shoulder with locals at the counter of a local bar, we moved on to shop for lunch in the wonderful Testaccio market and gourmet delis, spent the afternoon licking gelato on a piazza bench alongside elderly gents, took in a contemporary art exhibition at the converted slaughterhouse before dinner, and then feasted on tonnarelli cacio e pepe in one of the excellent neighbourhood restaurants.

This is Rome after all and it’s not lacking in history: you can visit Keats’ grave, see the Monte Testaccio, made up of 53 million broken amphorae (food containers) from Roman times, and even most market stalls and restaurants date back generations.

Trastevere, Rome, Italy

Trastevere, RomeYes, Rome gets two neighbourhoods on the list. Trastevere is much more popular with visitors than Testaccio but we love wandering the narrow cobblestone streets where atmospheric crumbling buildings drip with ivy, balconies are enlivened with geraniums, and washing dangles below. Restaurant tables spill onto the streets and there’s a festive atmosphere in summer. It’s far quieter and more relaxed than chaotic central Rome but it’s still in a great location and it’s possible to walk to all the major sights.

Mong Kok, Hong Kong

Mong Kok, Hong KongMong Kok is a densely packed neighbourhood of gritty tenement buildings, bustling markets, hotels rented by the hour, and Chinese medicine pharmacies alongside spangly electronics shops selling the latest gear. It’s a place where Hong Kongers live, work and shop. The crowds are intense, the traffic frenetic, but it feels alive and vibrant. Mong Kok is particularly chaotic at night when the crowds descend and hundreds of neon signs light up the streets. Somehow we were energised rather than overwhelmed by the intensity and loved strolling the streets past food stalls and street performers.

Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Palermo Viejo, Buenos AiresWe weren’t fans of Buenos Aires’s busy commercial centre but it’s surrounded by diverse barrios that are perfect for exploring on foot. We enjoyed our stay in the residential neighbourhood of Barrio Norte, but our favourite area was funky Palermo Viejo with its wide tree-lined streets, low-rise buildings, independent shops, pavement cafes, vegetarian restaurants, and creative vibe.

Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal

Alfama, Lisbon, You feel like you’ve stepped back in time in Alfama, the oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon, with its winding maze of steep cobbled streets overlooking the Rio Tejo. Getting lost in the labyrinth you’ll past magnificent churches, colourful tiled houses, and tiny neighbourhood eateries with the cheapest lunches in the city. At night the haunting sounds of heartbreaking Fado music drift from bars and elderly residents people watch from their balconies. Some parts have a gritty, decaying feel but it’s a place where Lisboetas live not a tourist site and we loved joining them for our month in the city.

Nimmanhaemin, Chiang Mai, Thailand

iberry cafe, Chiang Mai

The quirky iberry cafe

The neighbourhood around Nimmanhaemin Road is the coolest area in Chiang Mai. It’s near the university so attracts a young crowd of funkily dressed Thais who love to shop in the stylish boutiques, work on laptops in the many cafes, and eat at the varied range of international and Thai restaurants. It’s becoming more popular with visitors, especially the many digital nomads and expats who have made Chiang Mai their temporary home, but there are far fewer tourists than in the old town. Nimmanhaemin also has a good selection of apartments and some of our favourite vegetarian restaurants.

Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Santa Teresa, RioRio isn’t just about the beaches. We chose to stay in the historic hilltop neighbourhood of Santa Teresa, home to artists and bohemians. The cobblestone streets and cafe lined squares have a European feel and it was so quiet and green that we didn’t feel like we were in the centre of a big city. It’s only a 10 minute walk to Lapa for some of Rio’s best live music venues.

Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba

Havana Vieja, CubaIf the internet wasn’t so limited in Cuba we would have extended our stay to live in Habana Vieja for a while. We loved this old part of the city with its many art galleries, leafy plazas, and crumbling colourful architecture. Traffic is limited to vintage American cars, bicycles, rickshaws, and the odd horse and cart, and instead people fill the streets. Salsa and son drifts from bars and old Cuban gents smoke cigars in doorways—it’s classic Cuba.

Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

Otagi Nenbutsuji temple, Arashiyama

Otagi Nenbutsuji temple, Arashiyama

We found the concrete high-rises of downtown Kyoto unexciting but when you explore the neighbourhoods towards the mountains on the outskirts of the city you discover the traditional Japan of narrow stone streets, old wooden houses, monks in flowing robes, and the sounds of chanting and gongs from the many temples and shrines. Gion is the place to spot geishas and Higashiyama has many beautiful temples to explore, but Arashiyama is our top pick. Located a 20 minute train ride from the centre in the western hills it’s one of the most traditional neighbourhoods where you can wander through bamboo groves, eat a fabulous Zen Buddhist meal in a temple, get up close to monkeys, and explore the quirkiest temple in Kyoto.

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55 Comments

  1. I think this is a great post. All of the areas make me want to go there. My friend is heading to Rome next month so I sent her the link to your post. Personally it makes me want to visit San Fransisco, which has long been on my mind.

    Reply

      • A friend and I just finished an eleven-day trip to Buenos Aires and Uruguay. Not a “slow travel” trip by any means, though intermittent parts of the trip approached that ideal. In our four days in Bs As, we took a couple of Subte (subway) rides (to Plaza Italia, and Belgrano), but most of our time was spent in and near Centro. We stayed at two B & B’s, the first was Casa Jasmin in Once for the first night (only available night), and the rest at Ada & Valentyn near Plaza de Mayo in Centro – both excellent places to stay. We also did a lot of walking, and we fell in love with the San Telmo barrio, a place with a strong “alternative” and hip ambience to it, cobblestone streets, slower pace, etc. San Telmo is directly next to Centro, and certainly worth checking out on foot. There are a couple of very pleasant blocks on Calle Chile with a lot of outdoor dining and nightlife, and nearby Territorio is a nice mellow little pub, etc.

        Reply

        • Our copious amounts of walking took us through a number of neighborhoods ranging from La Boca to Recoleta to Once (and pretty much all the neighborhoods “below” those), as Bs As is a good walking city. Calle Florida is a long pedestrian street, and very interesting in its own right despite being more of a tourist destination. “Cambio!” is a commonly-heard word along that street, shouted by people who want to give you more pesos than the official rate in exchange for receiving coveted US Dollars, of great benefit to visitors from the U.S., though this “azul” (blue) exchange rate for pesos has questionable legality. However, Rachel at the B&B in Once was able to guide us to a safe “azul” place, at least at the time. We understand these places can disappear with little or no notice.

  2. When in Paris, try Le Marais. it used to be hip and a good place to eat falafels. Saint Germain can be touristy, but there are many places, tiny streets filled with small galeries, bakeries and bistrots. If you can find a place close to jardin du luxembourg and église saint sulpice, it would be best. In the 10th arrondissement, close to canal saint martin, hip and local. But if you can housesit at île saint louis, it would be a great luxury! There are many choices! All of them have an interest.

    Reply

    • Thanks for the tips. We just found a studio apartment in Belleville which sounds quite an interesting and untouristy neighbourhood. We’ll definitely check out La Marais for falafel.

      Reply

      • Oh good! I lived there 20 years ago. It used to be an immigrants area, lots of people from north africa and asia, especially vietnam. There they have one of the best asian restaurants in town (so they say). I can´t remember its name… but it´s the biggest in the area and very renowned. There are some big asian supermarkets. You can try to eat at african “foyers”, where africans live and eat typical food (very tasty and cheap, i loved their ginger juice) On Belleville streets you could find lots of small arab shops, selling products you can only find there, like their soft drink Boga cola. It´s really interesting and you can also find some old time France around there too. I count on you to know how it is today!

        Reply

  3. Sorry, meant to add that our home neighborhood in SF is Bernal Heights, adjacent to the Mission, and is a great neighborhood in its own right!

    Reply

  4. We are from San Francisco, which we adore. Another favorite neighborhood of ours is the Marigney in New Orleans. It’s southern Bohemia, with sll yhr charm and character, and makes you want to be a writer.

    Reply

  5. This is such a great top ten! Love that you have focused on neighbourhoods rather than whole cities, I always find it overwhelming figuring out where is best to stay in a large city. I am especially intrigued by Santa Teresa as I visited, and fell in love with, Rio when I visited!

    Reply

  6. Nice site,your posts are so informative!
    I have a question for you.In South America(Argentine and Peru),do you think that for a lady,alone, is safe to travel ?Did you meet anyone doing it…?
    I would like to do it,starting fromn September or October,and spend around 2 months each(and maybe some vecinities)?Is any place to be avoided,from your experience?
    Thank you!

    Reply

  7. Hello and thank you for the interesting list – will use it when we start travelling at some point in the future. I just discovered your blog through “The Voluntary Life” where Jake recommends your article on getting rid of stuff and I really enjoyed reading your posts. You’re definitely funny and very informative.

    I’m German, so I did a quick search in German on Munich and it seems that Schwabing isn’t the hippest place anymore, but Maxvorstadt, so you might want to check that out.

    Keep up the good work and thanks for everything!

    Reply

  8. Great selections. I lived in the Mission for 4 years and just got back from a 1+ year RTW trip. I always tried to find / wander / stay in these types of neighborhoods. Trastevere and Testaccio were definite favorites and Palermo is amazing!

    In Paris I’d recommend the area around the 11th and 10th arrondissement. Definitely the closest to the Mission I’ve seen in Paris with lots of great restaurants and bars, very casual, not touristy, and somewhat gritty. I also stayed in the 5th near the start of Rue Mouffetard which has a different vibe but also great.

    Reply

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