Cityscape of Beijing at dusk.
With more than 21 million people and covering more than 10,000 square miles there is a ton of culture packed into Beijing.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Encountering the Exotic: Culturally Significant Destinations Across the Globe

Four of the World’s Most Striking Societies

Travel. The word dredges up thoughts of exotic people, exotic places, exotic pasts. We all grin and bear it when we have to hop in the car to visit Aunt Martha or hustle the kids into a plane to go to cousin June’s wedding. But those trips don’t feel like travel, do they? They lack the sense of adventure, the thrill of stepping into a culture significantly different from your own.

If that sense of otherness is what you’re looking for, then read on! Following you’ll discover four of the best cultural destinations in the world. Some are far-flung locales off of the beaten bath, while others might seem more routine. All, though, have a rich heritage into which you can fairly fling yourself.

Beijing, China: Puzzling out the Past and Present of Peking

Just looking at the numbers used to describe the capital of the Celestial Empire boggles the mind. With a population of over 21 million and an area of more than 10,000 square miles, it’s physically larger Vermont while holding roughly the same number of people as Florida.

That’s a lot of souls stuffed in a relatively small space, and we haven’t even gotten to puzzling out the history of the metropolis once known as Peking.

The city’s past stretches back for millennia, which is perhaps why it is one of the top cultural cities in the world. Most people are aware of the Great Wall (which lies some 40 miles from the city’s core) and the Forbidden City (a 500-year-old palatial complex right next to Tiananmen Square) as two of the top attractions in Beijing.

However, there are other less well known historical attractions worthy of notice.

The picturesque Cuandixia Village combines stone terraces, wooded mountains and heartbreakingly quaint stone homes. Yiheyuan (i.e., Summer Palace) once served as an imperial garden during the Qing Dynasty and now is a gorgeous network of lakes. And the nearly thousand-year-old Confucius Temple is an oasis of calm amid Bejing’s chaos.

Of course, that chaos has its own charm. The former munitions factories that comprise the 798 Art District combines serious art with commercial panache. Eat your way through a nearly endless array of restaurants on Ghost Street. Or sample a flight of baijiu, China’s super-stiff signature liquor, at a local bar.

A view of Istanbul from the water, ferries pulling up to a port as minarets rise toward the skyAncient cultures are ingrained in the heart of Turkey.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Istanbul, Turkey: The City of Black and White

When singer-songwriter Mat Kearney released his 2009 album City of Black & White, few realized that its title track was referring to Istanbul, that ancient city bisected by the Bosphorus Strait. The tune featured Kearney crooning about “faded greens and blue street lights,” about seeing that “there’s a red fire burning / From the sea up to the sky.”

Evocative imagery, and it only begins to encapsulate the distinctiveness of a city with a foot in both Asia and Europe.

Once the world’s largest enclosed enclosed building and religious seat for the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia is a must see. Ditto for Topkapı Palace, which housed four centuries’ worth of Ottoman emperors. Numerous museums such as the Tiled Kiosk Museum, Great Palace Mosaics Museum and Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art can help round out your knowledge.

Check into local tours, too, to see the sites of Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s Old Town district.

It’s also worth experiencing Istanbul in a less didactic manner. Stroll through the famed Spice Bazaar the Eminönü quarter. Hang out in the cultured Beyoğlu district. Sip tea by the rail of a ferry as you cruise the Bosphorus. Also, no gentlemen should depart from the city without indulging in a real Turkish shave.

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Yachts reflecting in the still water of the old Vieux Port of Marseilles beneath Cathedral of Notre Dame, France, on sunriseTake in exotic sights and experience high culture.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Jaipur, India: Pretty as a Pink Picture

To put it mildly, metropolises don’t usually develop in a uniform manner. Economic pressures, design fads, natural disasters and the like all conspire to give most cities something of a patchwork appearance. But not Jaipur.

The capital of the state of Rajasthan boasts a dreamy faded-pink hue, the result of a 19th century governmental edict design that cast the city in a welcoming color for visiting British dignitaries.

Jaipur’s most famous attraction, Hawa Mahal (i.e., the Palace of the Winds), combines that signature rosy shade with striking architecture. Its arched facades and stonework are so delicate that they look as though they were carved out of eggshell, and the soaring structure boasts 953 windows. The sprawling City Palace also deserves a look. Just make sure to hire a guide.

A more practical collection of buildings, the Jantar Mantar Observatory contains 19 ancient devices used to chart the night sky. Sign up for a food tour to sample all sorts of Indian cuisine. And those willing to travel a couple of hours northwest to the Sariska Reserve can feast their eyes on India’s most ferocious predator: the Bengal tiger.

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