Come to Asia to get lost in a world of pulsing neon cities, incense-tinged temples and unblemished landscapes. This bewildering yet beguiling continent offers a never-ending stream of adventures, whether you’re touring heritage architecture like India’s Taj Mahal and Banaue’s 2,000-year-old rice terraces in the Philippines or discovering nature’s own extraordinary creations, from the caster-sugar sands of Boracay Island to the snow-topped summit of Mount Fuji. Begin your journey of discovery by adding these 10 iconic Asia destinations to your travel bucket list.
Kyoto is the beating, spiritual heart of Japan, home to 17 UNESCO sites including the gold-leaf-adorned Kinkaku-ji Temple. Once the capital for over a thousand years, the city is a beacon of traditional culture, architecture and cuisine, making it an essential stop on our Best of Japan itinerary. Wander historic streets lined with wooden machiya houses, palaces and over 2,000 temples and shrines that sparkle with gilded splendour. Attend tea ceremonies or meditate in zen gardens dripping with spring cherry blossoms, all the while keeping an eye out for Kyoto’s famous, kimono-clad geishas who tread the winding lanes in geta sandles. This is a city best navigated with a local guide for an insider’s view of the atmospheric Higashiyama district.
Taj Mahal, India
There’s no wonder the Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The Mughals spared no expense when creating this opulent mausoleum with perfect symmetry that plays tricks on the eye, housing possibly the most beautiful, landscaped gardens in the world. While there are reports of huge crowds and strict regulations, there are many creative ways for optimal viewing of this world-renowned landmark. Whether it’s waking up at the crack of dawn to watch its wedding-cake white marble façade burst into amber hues or joining the yogis in downward dog backdropped by its onion shaped dome. No matter how many times you see the Taj Mahal there’s no doubt it will always leave you spellbound.
Boracay Island, Philippines
The Philippines’s most coveted island is famous for caster sugar-soft beaches and crystal-clear water which in 2018 saw it collapse amid ever rising popularity and the sheer weight of tourist footfall. However, after gaining firm handle on sustainable tourism and the dispelling of its party image, Boracay Island has shot to the top of reader polls once more – its most recent accolade is first place for CNT’s Readers’ Choice Awards for World’s Top Islands 2022. While magical sunsets and dazzling coral reefs are the draw, it’s the buzzing seafood scene, happy go lucky locals and the local paraw sailboats utilised for island hopping that will whisk you off into tropical bliss like you’ve never even imagined.
The Ghats, India
While Varanasi city explodes in colourful chaos, its quintessential activity unfolds on the Ghats – steps leading down to the spiritual River Ganges. Possibly the most profound time to visit is in the early morning when the first rays of light bathe the stone and flocks of pigeons score the waking skies. People bathe, washing their sins away and quite literally their clothing while morning yogis cast silhouettes across the amber haze. Varanasi’s unique rhythm plays on into the evening’s atmospheric aarti ceremonies characterised by chanting under candlelight and incense wafting through the night air. Best seen from a wooden boat, paddled by a local guide for extra insight into this spiritual stronghold.
Mount Fuji, Japan
Marvel at Japan’s sacred, cone-shaped peak: Mount Fuji. Up to 400,000 trekkers a ear come to scale Fuji, climbing its barren slopes to the 3,776-metre summit, which is dusted with snow between October and May. This active volcano – whose last powerful eruption occurred in 1707 – is known as Fuji-san to the Japanese, who’ve worhsipped it for centuries. The lower slopes are surrounded by five glistening lakes and decorative Shinto shrines like Fujinomiya Sengen, where hikers pray for safe passage up Japan’s highest moutnain. If you don’t wanted to trek, the UNESCO landmark is best viewed from afar in Hakone. This popular stop on our Golden Route itinerary offers stays at traditional Japanese ryokans where you can soak in steamy thermal baths.
Palawan Island, Philippines
Palawan is an unmissable stop on any island-hopping Philippines trip. On this remote, snake-shaped island, the beaches are blinding white sugar, the sea a dazzling turquoise-topaz blend scattered with karsts. Palawan’s dense jungles and eerie underground rivers beg to be explored, while divers flock to the northern Calamian islets for kaleidoscopic marine life and WWII Japanese shipwrecks. The island’s main hubs are Coron, Puerto Princesa and El Nido – the gateway to the far-flung Bacuit archipelago. In El Nido, you can discover the island’s Cuyonon culture to learn about one of the country’s oldest ethnic groups, who migrated here across the Sulu Sea centuries ago. See their traditional stilt houses and wooden canoes at the Sibaltan Archaeological Village.
Golden Temple, India
You may well have heard of Amritsar’s Golden Temple, a 16th-century gold leaf structure seemingly floating on a manmade lake that is believed to have healing powers. It’s particularly atmospheric at night when the shimmer of gold leaf reflects off the water and the chanting of a holy palki ceremony fills the evening air. What you might not know about the Golden Temple though is that it has a gigantic kitchen spread over three floors dedicated to feeding the streams of visiting devotees who can’t afford a nourishing meal. Witnessing this well-oiled machine of non-stop volunteers – even the odd millionaire – is a good place to restore your faith in humanity and to witness one of the most truly humbling experiences.
Banaue, the Philippines
Banaue’s 2,000-year-old rice terrace are undoubtedly some of the prettiest in the world. UNESCO accredited, its cascading lime green tiers transform into various shades of green. At times these tiers become flooded with water, reflecting winter’s purple-blotched sky. Other than being highly Instagrammable, each mud wall is underwritten with the country’s history of generations of farmers rice harvesting while employing ancestral techniques. You can meet the locals on a guided trek that takes you into Banaue’s watery veins and the surrounding landscapes including crashing waterfalls for wild swimming and a picnic lunch with pretty rural views.
Stroll among ancient temples and shrines in Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital in the 8th century. Set against forested hills, the city boasts eight UNESCO sites including the Todai-ji Temple, which houses a 15-metre-tall Buddha statue. Many of the city’s sites are based around Nara Park where hundreds of semi-tame deer roam, once thought to be messengers of the gods. Highlights include the former merchant district of Naramachi, which is a testament to Japanese architecture, lined with wooden machiya town houses, and the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, famed for its thousands of bronze and stone lanterns. Situated between Kyoto and Osaka, Nara makes for a fascinating stop on our Enchanting Japan itinerary.
The Great Wall of China
Experience the sheer magnitude of the Great Wall of China on a leisurely voyage through the country. At over 21,000 kilometres long with 25,000 battlements, the wall stretches from coastal Shanhaiguan all the way to the Jiayuguan Pass in the Gobi Desert, its various sections bolstered by mountain ranges. A monument to China’s history, sections of the Great Wall date back over 2,000 years and were stitched together by the first emperor Qin Shi Huang in 220BC. Find a quiet spot along the Great Wall at Mutianyu, where you can enjoy this UNESCO heavyweight minus the crowds, taking in panoramic views of the wall snaking into the distance, surrounded by forests.
Your journey will start with one of our UK team – someone like Suzanne, who's travelled extensively in China. They’ll shape your ideas into the trip of a lifetime. But they won't do it alone. They'll draw on the expertise of our contacts on the ground, connecting you to the people who'll make your holiday one you'll always remember - the guides who can take you to The Great Wall’s quietest spots, the villagers who can show you how to create your own lucky clay cat and the cooks who can rustle you up breakfast pancakes, Shanghai-style.
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