Cities and Towns in Europe
Bendery, or Bender, as it is also called, is the first town you encounter when you cross to Transdniestr from Moldova. As this is Moldova/Transdniestr, there is of course not much to see, but nevertheless it feels quite exciting to see your first Transdniestran something. The town got heavily destroyed during the independence war in the 1990's, but there are hardly any war scars anymore. The main sights are the war cemetery and the war memorial at the roundabout, which consists of a tank with the Transdniestran flag and an eternal flame. There is also an old fortress built by the Turks in the 16th century, but the Transdniestran army now uses the area as a military camp, and it is therefore off-limits.
The capital of Moldova is surprisingly nice and welcoming. There is not much to see in terms of grand sights, but the compact centre has some nice parks, a few impressive buildings, and a decent amount of Eastern-Bloc concrete to fulfill the expectations of a forgotten capital in a forgotten country. The main boulevard is a long row of money exchange bureaus, gambling halls and fancy shops for those who can afford to drive the Mercedes and BMWs that tyrannise the traffic. The area around the central market is good for local eateries and browsing the random selection of street vendors (looking for track pants or high heels?). There is of course a thriving nightlife, ranging from student drinking joints and live venues to über-fancy clubs. So most travellers won't have any trouble keeping themselves busy for a few days in Chișinău (which is by the way pronounced ki-shi-now).
Tiraspol is, besides being the second biggest city in Moldova, the capital of the unrecognized republic of Transdniestr. It is a true ex-soviet city with a wide main boulevard, Strada 25 Octombrie, vacuumed for traffic, but lined with odd military monuments and crowned with a fine Lenin statue. There are hardly any restaurants or shops in town, so shopping can be a difficult task unless you are looking for a bottle of Kvint, the quasi-famous local Transdniestran cognac. There is a small market in classic Eastern-Bloc style behind the main square on Strada Karl Marx, but otherwise the main attraction is just to walk around and soak up the strange Soviet-era atmosphere.
It might seem strange that a nation no bigger than a town, has a capital. But Monaco, which is the world's second-smallest nation (after the Vatican), has officially the quarter of Monte Carlo as capital. It's just a neighbourhood, no wider than a few blocks, and contains some of Monaco's landmarks like the casino and Hotel Paris, but else there are nothing that sets it apart from the rest of Monaco. A few streets up and you will be in France.
Let's be honest, Skopje is not the most exciting capital on the globe. The city is a strange mix of ancient stuff, some might even date back to Roman times, and dull concrete blocks. The fast flowing Vardar river splits the city into the old Muslim part, with bazaar, Turkish bathhouses and mosques, and the Orthodox side which is the "new" part. Here you will find Soviet-style public buildings, grand squares along with Orthodox churches, green neighborhoods with local cafes, and more drab concrete. The city center has a small flashy strip which act as a playground for the young and well-off.
You will probably be visiting Ålesund for one of two reasons: to marvel at its Art Nouveau architecture, or to catch one of the many boat tours that leave from here to explore the nearby islands and waterways. It is a pleasant town, and its history makes it quite unique – it burned to the ground in 1905, and the Art Nouveau centre is the result of an impressive rebuilding effort. These buildings are concentrated in one part of the city; the rest of it is rather uninspiring, and not particularly attractive. Other than exploring the colourful town centre, the highlight of a visit to Ålesund is climbing the 418 steps up Akla hill, which provides gorgeous views of the town and its surrounding islands, hills and inlets. But half the fun of visiting Ålesund is getting here, as it is located at the western end of a peninsula – lots of bridges, winding roads, ferries and tunnels connect it to the rest of the country.
Boasting one of Norway's 7 UNESCO listed sites, the port city of Bergen is unquestionably the most popular destination in the country. Bryggen, the city's old wharf, is a pleasure to wander around, even if you might need to jostle with the hordes of tourists that show up in the busy summer season. The town is no one-hit wonder in terms of attractions. With a variety of forts, parks and a cool hike (or funicular ride) to an outlook over the city, Bergen has enough to occupy travellers for a few days. But the true life of Bergen is found in the outdoor cafes, pubs and restaurants that overspill into the walkways, almost forcing passersby to sit down, relax and enjoy the people watching.
Longyearbyen is the northernmost real town on the planet with university, supermarket, bank, library, and yes, even night clubs. The town is located so close to The North Pole (1300 km... yes, that's close) that it's in the dark half of the year and enjoys the midnight sun the other half. During autumn and spring, there is a good chance of catching northern lights waving up and down the sky in the most amazing hues of greens and violets. Svalbard has a big population of polar bears, so Longyearbyen is probably the only place on the planet where students are allowed to carry firearms to uni (we kid you not). Polar bear protection (firearms) also need to be carried when venturing into the amazing raw arctic wilderness, which lies unspoiled beyond the settlement. Just grab your ski, snowmobile, dog sled or hiking boots and off you go - just remember your rifle... or better, join a tour.
Despite being Norway's fourth largest city, Stavanger has more of a small town feel. The quaint, walkable streets abound with cafes and restaurants ensuring that any visit to Stavanger must coincide with a meal or drinks with friends and laughs. With highlights like Norway's oldest (untouched) cathedral (St. Svithun's cathedral), the colourful old centre (Gamle Stavanger) and a lake that is totally windsurf ready, there is plenty to occupy the traveller. Not to mention MaiJazz, Stavanger's international jazz festival in May. But perhaps Stavanger is more famous for being the gateway to the Lysefjord and 2 of Norway's most popular day hikes, Preikestolen and Kjerag.
Trondheim is Norway’s third largest city, and it is a lively place with lots of university students. There is a lot to see and do here. The port’s fish market is the place to grab a couple of fish cakes (a must!), look at boats and people watch. There are lots of museums in town, and the 12th century cathedral – Nidaros Domkirke, Scandinavia’s largest medieval building – is its biggest draw card. If old buildings are your thing, Trondheim also has Scandinavia’s largest wooden palace, which is now the official royal residence. Pleasant and beautiful, if architecture and fish cakes isn’t enough to entice you to come for a visit, the fact that you will have been in a city founded by a Viking king more than one thousand year ago might just do it.