5 mins

Secret sides: 9 cultural experiences in unexpected destinations

From shopping for traditional crafts to tasting local delicacies, immersing yourself in a country’s customs will reveal a different side to these much-loved destinations...

Al Bastakiya Mosque in Old Dubai, UAE (Shutterstock)

1. Take in mosaics in the cathedral at Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The interior of Haiga Sophia Cathedral, Istanbul (Shutterstock)

The interior of Haiga Sophia Cathedral, Istanbul (Shutterstock)

One of my favourite places on earth is the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. I first visited it when I was 10 years old – and was transfixed. One writer more than a millennium ago described it as seeming to float like ‘a tent of the heavens’ – and you can see why.

I make a beeline every time I visit (which is often) to the mosaic of John II Komnenos and his wife, Eirene who ruled the city and the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century.

I’ve spent so many years studying this period that I have come to regard the Emperor and Empress as close personal friends, so the least I can do is pop by to say hello and see how they are doing.

- Peter Frankopan, author and historian

2. Enjoy a glass of mulberry wine in Rumboor, Pakistan

Rumbur Valley, Pakistan (Shutterstock)

Rumbur Valley, Pakistan (Shutterstock)

With its clear, glacier-fed rivers and ancient wood-and-mud terraced houses, the Kalash valleys are an area of Pakistan tucked in the far north-west corner.

Bumburet is the most visited of the valleys, but it is worth making the extra effort to get to Rumboor, a less developed settlement and a better starting point for day treks into the Hindu Kush mountains. Relax afterwards with walnut and apricot cake and a glass of the local mulberry wine.

Iain Campbell, author of From the Lion’s Mouth: A Journey Along the Indus

3. Buy a Persian carpet in Arab Street, Singapore

Haji Lane near Arab Street, in Singapore's Arab Quarter (Shutterstock)

Haji Lane near Arab Street, in Singapore's Arab Quarter (Shutterstock)

Visitors in Singapore are drawn to the aromas in Little India and the food and festivals in Chinatown, but the colourful shops in Arab Street are often overlooked.

Intrigued shoppers are rewarded with boutiques full of textiles and Persian carpets, two commodities this area is known for. There is a unique café culture to immerse yourself in for a well deserved rest. 

Sian Marsh, author of The Rough Guide to Singapore

4. Order nihonshu in Nara, Japan

Traditional sake and nihonshu barrels in Nara, Japan (Shutterstock)

Traditional sake and nihonshu barrels in Nara, Japan (Shutterstock)

In the West, we often use the word sake to refer to Japan’s fermented rice wine. But in Japan sake is the universal word for alcohol, so if you’re looking for this ubiquitous drink, you’ll need to ask for nihonshu.

And if you want to drink it in the place it was first brewed back in the eighth century, head to Nara in Kansai. I recommend staying at Nipponia Nara, a traditional brewery that’s been turned into a boutique hotel.

Olivia Lee, former Wanderlust commercial editor

5. Overnight in a traditional African village in Ghana

A local man makes kente cloth in a Tafi Abuife workshop (Shutterstock)

A local man makes kente cloth in a Tafi Abuife workshop (Shutterstock)

The charms of staying in a Ghanaian village are under-appreciated. Travellers open to floor mattresses, bucket showers, and uncharged batteries are rewarded with starry views from mud huts in national park-adjacent Mognori, rowboat beers in the stilt village Nzulezo, dawn chats with shrimp catchers in Atsiekpoe, or lessons in making kente cloth in Tafi Abuife.

Community tourism is well-established for inexpensive daytime visits, but immersing in the evening thump of fufu (Ghanaian staple) pounding or the morning clucks of guinea fowl is an unmissable experience. 

Nancy Chuang, author of Bradt Guide to Ghana

6. Discover street art in Jordan

Street art on stairs in Aqaba, Jordan (Shutterstock)

Street art on stairs in Aqaba, Jordan (Shutterstock)

Underneath all of its history, Jordan offers a perhaps unexpected street art scene. Amman is the place to be for vibrant colours that thrive against the city’s soaring, crumbling backdrops.

The Baladk Street Art Festival in September brings Jordanian street and graffiti artists together, with the objective of making exposure to art a right for everyone, regardless of their background. 

- Zara Sekhavati, Rough Guides editor

7. Eat pici at Ristorante Ottavius, Italy

Side streets in the small town of Montefalco, Umbria, Italy (Shutterstock)

Side streets in the small town of Montefalco, Umbria, Italy (Shutterstock)

I always reserve a page or two at the end of my notebooks for stand-out meals and where I had them.

One October, after a glorious day walking between the walled, twin towns of Montefalco and Bevagna (central Umbria, south of Perugia), we were directed by our accommodation host at dinnertime to a low-key local eatery called Ristorante Ottavius.

Here we enjoyed a meal of luscious thick pici pasta with fresh fava beans and melted cacio cheese, grilled liver smothered with herbs and lard, and bitter wild chicory. Just remembering it is making me hungry.

- Gillian Price, author of Cicerone’s Walking in Umbria guide

8. Dance a ceilidh in Nova Scotia

A ceilidh being advertised in Inverness, Nova Scotia (Shutterstock)

A ceilidh being advertised in Inverness, Nova Scotia (Shutterstock)

A ceilidh (pronounced 'kay-lee') dance happens somewhere, every day, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia; pop into any grocery shop or church hall and the locals will fill you in.

Trace the Ceilidh Trail for 100km along the sunset side of this wild Atlantic island, for music galore in the characterful coastal villages. Stop at Mabou, where the Red Shoe Pub provides Canadian Celtic hospitality in the form of nightly folk music and steaming seafood chowder.

 Siobhan Warwicker, Rough Guides editor 

9. See the other side of Dubai

Al Bastakiya Mosque in Old Dubai (Shutterstock)

Al Bastakiya Mosque in Old Dubai (Shutterstock)

There’s so much more to Dubai than skyscrapers and shopping malls.

If you’re on a connecting flight through the city, linger for at least 24 hours: haggle for oud and incense in the souks of Bur Dubai, explore the Arabic art galleries and tea houses of Bastakiya, and catch an abra (boat) along the Creek – rubbing shoulders with traders and workers from all over the world.

For dinner, tuck into Emirati cuisine at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding or try a Middle Eastern food ‘marathon’ with Frying Pan Adventures – sampling Arabic and Iranian dishes.

Hazel Plush, travel writer and editor

Related Articles