London is going for the knock-out blow in 2012. The Olympics areriding into town and a whole swath of the capital is being transformed in theprocess. London’s east will be thrust into the spotlight but the rest of thecapital will be rolling out the red carpet too. Seeing Tower Bridge lift itsbascules to let a tall ship pass beneath is all stately grace, as opposed toyour first rush-hour trip on the tube, getting up close and personal withstrangers of every colour, creed and nationality. Mind the gap! Whoever youcheer for, you won’t be alone in this most international of cities.
Omanis firing on all fronts to attract international visitors, expanding everythingfrom its museums to its resorts. Muscat is the focus for the revamp, withcultural events, luxury accommodation and aquatic activities taking centrestage. This year it’s all about Qurum’s trendy designer outlets, Old Town souksand wacky water sports enlivening its coastline alongside traditional dhows.Muscatis are still genuinely interested to see visitors, so much so thatfirst-timers might have the odd feeling of returning to the house of an oldfriend. ‘Tomorrow will be a new dawn on Muscat,’ the Sultan pledged uponattaining power in 1970. Today in Muscat, the sun has well and truly risen.
3. Bengaluru (Bangalore)
The undisputed Elvis of South Asian megacities, Bengaluru is in aclass of its own when it comes to redefining flamboyance. Perpetually drunk onthe good life, this South Indian metropolis packs in the best brews, thescrummiest cuisines, and the liveliest arts and music scene, not to mention thehippest population you could hang out with. This year, evenings in the ‘capitalof cool’ are poised to get even more intoxicating. And if the maddening traffichas always been your concern, take heart: Bengaluru’s new high-speed Metronetwork now ensures that your favourite watering hole is easier to reach thanever. There’s only one thing you could say to that: ‘Chill maadi!’
It might normally look like a peaceful pocket of old-world Spain, complete with oldmen in flat caps shuffling about in cafe-lined squares. But once a year, sleepyCádiz undergoes a Superman-like transformation and hosts Spain’s most raucouscarnival – a 10-day bender of drinking, singing and dancing. The locals arefamed throughout Spain for their wit, and this is put to the test duringFebruary’s carnival where groups wearing lipstick and neon wigs performsatirical skits. Cádiz has found itself named Ibero-American Capital of Culturefor 2012 – the first time a European city has held the honour. It may not pullthe same crowds as Seville or Córdoba, but few places embody the spirit ofgutsy Andalucían living like Cádiz.
The film release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo mighthave prompted a new wave of Stieg Larsson fans to look for the grimy side ofStockholm. Unfortunately they’ll have to look quite hard, because Stockholmlooks as perfect as it’s ever been. This is as seductive a capital city as canbe imagined – cosy yet cosmopolitan, wilfully alternative and effortlesslypicturesque. With its trendy design shops and bohemian bars, the island ofSödermalm is one of the coolest kids on the block, while the stately parks ofDjurgården make it the best island for an evening stroll. Admittedly Stockholmhas never been a cheap date. But even if Stockholm leaves you with a lighterwallet, you’ll inevitably still leave it with a heavy heart.
This northern Portugal city is breathtakingly beautiful, as recognised byits place on the Unesco World Heritage List, yet mysteriously it doesn’t figureon the radars of many foreign visitors. The old city is a beguiling tangle ofmedieval, red-roofed, colonnaded buildings, punctuated by awe-inspiringmansions and palaces, and centred on a spikily crenellated castle. Now is themoment to visit, as the city has been anointed the European Capital of Culturein 2012. Building on an already impressive cultural scene and fired up by itssignificantly youthful population, the city will be a hot spot of artisticendeavour throughout the year, with creative artists gathering from acrossPortugal and Europe to showcase their work.
Calamity came calling to Chile, first through an8.8-magnitude earthquake and later when 33 miners were trapped in the country’snorth. With the world watching, Chile displayed its defiant optimism, and theseexperiences have seemed to ignite a seismic shift in the capital. Culture andsports have come to the fore and new museums have opened to acclaim. Dining isnow top-notch, nightlife exhilarating and this year also marks the inaugurationof the tallest building on the continent, the 70-storey Torre Gran Costanera.Day trippers can scale an Andean peak in summer, ski its powder-clad slopes inJuly, or cycle through the idyllic vineyards of the Casablanca, Maipo and Colchaguavalleys. Visit Santiago and you’ll feel the buzz.
8. Hong Kong
The mood in China’s most liberated city is edgier and more vocal thanever. This will be a particularly exciting year for Hong Kong, as it continuesits march towards full democracy. Rallies are infused with theatrics anderuptions of song, dance and poetry, reflecting the city’s vibrant indie musicand literary scenes. Enjoy views of skyscrapers marching up hills from the StarFerry, before challenging your senses at a wet market or divining your futureat a temple. Go shopping, gallery hopping and check out the bars of Soho.Explore walled villages or go hiking on Asia’s most breathtaking trails.Whatever you do, sprinkle your day generously and boldly with some of thecity’s 11,000 restaurants.
This should be a great year for Orlando as it’s hosting the 61stNBA All-Star Weekend (25 and 26 February). The hippest sporting event inthe USA , it brings much of the basketball and music worlds together forslam-dunk contests, after-hours parties and concerts, as well as the all-stargame itself. Most visitors will head for the theme parks but it’s worth pokingaround the city, too. Keep an eye on the boho ‘Milk District’, a neighbourhoodon the rise with its motley crew of eateries, bars serving microbrews,bookshops and tattoo parlours, just a short drive east of downtown. Orlando,hip? Who knew?
It was once easy to dismiss Darwin as a frontier town full ofbrawling fishermen, dreamy hippies and redneck truckers. But with a pumpingnocturnal scene, magical markets and restaurants, and world-class wildernessareas just down the road, today Darwin is the triumph of Australia’sTop End. Beat the crowds to the redeveloping Waterfront Precinct with its wavepool, bars and wharf eateries; or score some brilliant Indigenous art beforeEast Coast galleries snap it up and charge double. Nose your way through thefood stalls at Mindil Beach Sunset Market, then watch the sun melt into theTimor Sea. When southern Australia is chilling through winter, here it’s blueskies, party nights and sleeping late.