There is something charming about European cities. Skylines aren’t dotted with skyscrapers, like in Asia, and instead museums and heritage sites dominate the scene. Agreed, it’s expensive to travel to the other side of the world to experience a European city, but did you know that there are places that look like European cities in Asia? What are the most European cities in Asia you ask? Read on to find out. For the sake of authenticity, we omit from the list copycat cities which have sprung up recently.
1. Luna Hotel in Vigan City
Start your tour of Vigan city at the Luna hotel, the only museum hotel in the Philippines.
If there ever was a distinction of the most European city outside Europe it would, without contest, go to the city of Vigan in the Philippines. A UNESCO world heritage site, its foundation dates back to the late 16th century, when it was under Spanish rule.
Visiting Vigan is like winding the clocks back 400 years. The wonderfully preserved, centrally located Mestizo district boasts around 233 historical buildings; their styles a mix between Chinese and Hispanic. Calle Crisologo, a cobble-stoned street found in this district, is sure to enchant you. The busy market activity during the day might detract from the street’s charm, so try catching a glimpse early in the morning when there isn’t a soul in sight. For a throwback to colonial times take a horse-drawn carriage or Calesa.
Vigan is small enough that all top sightseeing monuments can be reached within minutes. We recommend visiting St. Paul’s metropolitan cathedral and Plaza Salcedo in addition to the Mestizo district, all doable in a day.
PS: If you are in the mood to savor local delights, go for Plaza Burgos.
2. The Bayleaf Hotel in Manila
The best way to start the tour of Manila is from The Bayleaf Hotel, situated in the district of Intramuros.
Philippines’ capital, Manila is very unique in the sense that it remained the capital since its establishment in the 16th century, all through its time under Spanish and American rule till present. The effect is the presence of both Spanish and American architecture in the city.
Intramuros is the oldest district of Manila, located in the city centre, and was the seat of the Spanish administration for a better part of three centuries. It is a walled city and literally means within the walls. Most of the district was destroyed during the Second World War. Subsequently, Intramuros Administration was commissioned to reconstruct and restore the district, a process which is continuing even to this day.
Only a few structures completely survived the war but many medieval buildings have since been restored. The famous baroque San Agustin Church, a UNESCO world heritage site, is one of the monuments to have outlasted the war. There are not many cities in Asia with as long and varied a Western influence as Manila.
3. The Venetian Macao in Macau
Macau was previously a Portuguese colony and in 1999 became the last colony to become autonomous in Asia. In recent years, it has developed into the biggest gambling spot in the world, eclipsing Las Vegas. Having said that, I believe the modern part of Macau doesn’t do justice to the rich history the city holds. For the best of both worlds, travellers should stay at The Venetian Macao (the only casino-hotel worth a visit) but spend time in the historic centre.
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To experience its colonial lineage, you’ll need to visit the old part of town. Almost all the shops in this district sport Portuguese names (with their Chinese equivalent), underlining the Portuguese influence. Ruins of St. Paul’s cathedral and the Largo do Senado, with its European baroque architecture are testaments to the glorious history of the city.
The best way to enjoy Macau for free is to take the Macau heritage walk circuit which covers most of the historically significant monuments and landmarks in a single route. This includes St. Dominic’s church, Mount Fortress and also the famous A-Ma Temple.
4. Grand Hyatt Goa in Old Goa
Another city with Portuguese influence is Old Goa; the party capital of India and the capital of Portuguese India between the 16th and 19th centuries. While 20 minutes by car from the city centre, The Grand Hyatt Goa is at the beach — something Goa is also famous for.
In its heyday as an eminent trading post Goa was called the Rome of the East. The wealth that flowed through this West Indian city during this time is reflected in the grandeur of period churches and administrative buildings. But because of a plague, the city was abandoned in the early part of the 19th century.
Not all the structures stood the test of time since then but the ones which are still standing are in a wonderful state. Basilica of Bom Jesus, Se Cathedral and Church of St. Francis of Assisi are just a few monuments that spring to mind.
5. Hotel Continental Saigon in Ho Chi Minh City
The largest city in Vietnam is also the most diverse topographically. Alongside skyscrapers, be prepared to find centuries-old alleyways and French colonial buildings intertwined within the confines of one city called Ho Chi Minh City. There is no better way to start off your tour of the city than by lodging at the Hotel Continental Saigon, the first hotel to come up in Vietnam and possessing a history of more than a century.
Leave your centrally located hotel and begin your journey with a visit to the red-brick version of the Notre Dame Cathedral (Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon), built by the French in the 18th century. It shares a striking resemblance with the original even though it is not as intricately detailed as the original in Paris. To the side of it is the Reunification Palace which was restored after the Vietnam war. Outside the palace one can find a replica of the tank that brought the war to an end. And across the cathedral is the grand Central Post Office, designed by the French architect Gustave Eiffel.
Once you’re done with exploring downtown, check out the elegant yet sophisticated Fine Arts Museum, less than half-a-kilometer away, for its treasure troves of medieval and contemporary art. Top off your visit with a picture of Uncle Ho in front of the magnificent City Hall.
6. Le Pondy in Puducherry
Half an hour from Pondicherry by car, the South Indian town of Auroville was created in 1968 as a place to realise the utopic vision of accomplishing human unity. As there aren’t many hotels in Auroville, the best accommodation options are back in Pondicherry. With a private beach, Ayurveda centre, and view of the Bay of Bengal, the luxury Le Pondy hotel is where you ought to stay.
While not European in the traditional sense (definitely not in terms of city planning and architecture), we included this unique city as there aren’t many tiny Asian towns that can claim residents from 49 countries (Auroville has a little over 2,000 inhabitants).
Also, while there’s no local version of the Notre Dame to be found here, the European communities, be they French or Russian, have each created cultural pavilions to capture and represent the “soul” of their nation. Note that you can’t use money or your credit cards in Auroville, they have their own system!
Not to worry though, visitors wanting to spend in the city need to get a temporary account and debit card. For more on what to do in Auroville, check out the guides on their website on what to do if you have one hour/day/week.