Transformative travel: 10 world cities that push you out of your comfort zone

By: Danielle Taylor

Moscow Kremlin. Photo: Shutterstock/Baturina Yuliya

In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” And though 150 years have passed since he penned these words, the lesson is no less true or essential today.

Twain’s proclamation doesn’t hold for all travel, mind you. Not the kind where you sequester yourself in some sort of luxury playground, held apart from the real lives of the people who call your “destination” home. To tap into the transformative potential of travel, you have to put yourself in situations that challenge you, where the best-laid plans may flounder and comfort is never guaranteed. That’s where the magic happens.

For your next trip, consider one of the 10 cities below, and make a point to go beyond your comfort zone. They’re places you may have considered before, or maybe not, but each has the potential to leave you changed, so that you return home different from the person who boarded that first flight.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with Lufthansa.
If you picture Warsaw painted in Soviet hues, you’re reading from your parents’ history book. A true 21st-century city (without the price tag you’ll find in most of the rest of Europe), Warsaw’s tragic past has transformed it into a deeply dynamic — and surprisingly colorful — European destination.

Embrace the culture shock: “Milk bars,” or bar mleczny, a vestige of traditional workers’ cafeterias, tend to be cheap holes-in-the-wall serving up authentic Warsaw at a glance. If you’re in the right place, the menu will be strictly in Polish, so familiarize yourself with the names of a few dishes beforehand. Bring cash, and don’t lose the receipt you’re handed when you order — you’ll need it when you pick up your food. When a woman in the back screams something that resembles the name of your dish, make your steadfast approach.

Get an authentic taste: Ease your way into Polish cuisine with pierogi stuffed with everything imaginable (including fruit in summer!), and then move gently onto bigos (a traditional stew), barszcz (borscht), gołąbki (cabbage roll), and rosół (meat soup).

Push your physical limits: Just northwest of the capital is Kampinoski National Park — 150 square miles protecting the ancient Kampinos Forest, with five different valleys, dunes, swamps, and a combined 300+ miles of hiking, equestrian, and biking trails. Be sure to slow down at moose crossings.

India’s capital is a whirlwind of movement, sounds, smells, and colors, and it’s been transforming for more than 2,000 years. Take time to visit a house of worship or two, whether a Hindu shrine, Islamic mosque, Christian church, Baha’i temple, or something else entirely.

Embrace the culture shock: Auto rickshaws are a primary mode of transportation in New Delhi. Haggle your fare before departing, and recognize your driver’s talent for navigating the constant weave of traffic.

Get an authentic taste: After a spicy meal of nihari (a rich, slow-cooked meat stew) or chole bature (seasoned chickpeas), cool down with a kulfi. This popsicle treat comes in flavors like mango, pistachio, and tamarind.

Push your physical limits: Take a dance class. At places like Delhi Dance Academy, you can learn styles such as Bollywood, Belly Dance, a traditional folk dances. You may even get a video of yourself to prove just how far out of your comfort zone you went.

How many cities let you take in world-class ballets and operas, wander through underground Cold War bunkers, and visit the embalmed body of one of its most famous leaders? Welcome to Moscow, where “unexpected” is to be expected.

Embrace the culture shock: Head to the local banya for a thoroughly Russian bathing experience. You start with time in a hot, humid, sauna-like room, and then someone beats you with birch branches to stimulate your circulation. After, quickly chill down by jumping in a snow bank or frozen pond, and then repeat the process. (Really.)

Get an authentic taste: The Slavic delicacy of salo may not appeal on first glance, as it’s essentially cold pork fat. However, it can be smoked, salted, cured, spiced, pickled, fried, or even covered in chocolate, and is an authentic taste of the region. If it’s cold out, chase it with a shot of vodka.

Push your physical limits: The Pilgrim’s Road — from Moscow to the sacred Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius (a monastery in Sergiev Posad) — is one of the country’s most ancient hikes. It’s over 60 miles, but tackling part of it will still get you to historic villages and religious sites.

Abu Dhabi knows a thing or two about transformation. What was a quiet sheikdom just half a century ago is today a beacon of urban modernism and luxury. But don’t let the soaring skyscrapers fool you — there’s plenty of tradition to be found here, too.

Embrace the culture shock: Many mosques are closed to non-Muslims, but the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque welcomes respectful tourists who wish to learn about Islam. Dress modestly with your head, arms, legs, and everything in between covered.

Get an authentic taste: Emirati cuisine leans heavily on meat, sweet spices, and fruit, which combine in an endless variety of aromatic dishes. Al machboos incorporates rice, onions, meat, spices, and dried lemon into a meal you’ll remember long after you get home.

Push your physical limits: Rub’ al Khali, aka the Empty Quarter, is the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world. Desert safaris, desert camping, pretending you’re in Aladdin — just bring sunscreen.

The Big Apple is the ultimate bucket list destination for travelers all over the world, and while Americans looking to push comfort zones may dismiss it as too known, too comfortable, remember: There are five boroughs and 8.6 million people here. It isn’t all Times Square and Rockefeller Plaza — even sticking to Manhattan, you can find countless ways to challenge your preconceptions.

Embrace the culture shock: Beneath Flushing’s Chinatown is a maze of underground food markets. Here, you’re not in Kansas — or any part of America — anymore.

Get an authentic taste: You’ll find pizzerias around every corner selling foldable New York-style slices, always with a thin crust, sweet tomato sauce, and mozzarella cheese. Some say the secret to the taste is the minerals in New York City’s water supply.

Push your physical limits: See a different side of the world-famous Central Park by seeking out its established bouldering routes. No ropes required.

The opulence of nearby Palermo has let Catania — an ornate seaside town in its own right, though a bit more rugged — fly under the Sicilian radar. As foodies and artists flock here to escape the tourist hordes, humble Catania is on the brink of a new future.

Embrace the culture shock: Sicilians are crooners, and they take their karaoke seriously. Work up the guts to grab the mic and bust out your inner Adele…or be prepared to face a few glares. Karaoke here isn’t a time for giddy, slightly off-key fun — this is about talent and skill and art. Good luck!

Get an authentic taste: Congratulations on waking up to one of the best breakfasts of your life: a frosty coffee granita and a sturdy brioche roll…con gelato. That is, a sweet, frozen coffee and a beautiful slab of buttery brioche stuffed with (pistachio) gelato — a breakfast you’ll crave on a hot, summery Sicilian day.

Push your physical limits: One of the most famous volcanoes in the world, Mount Etna, is less than an hour from Catania. It stands 11,000 feet in the air, but if you stick to the main trail, all you need is a sturdy pair of hiking boots, a companion, and a morning start.

Once you get used to the constant thrum of a thousand motorbikes, Ho Chi Minh City’s beauty pops into place. It’s a series of five worlds: imperial, French, pre-war, post-war, and now. How many selves do you have to explore?

Embrace the culture shock: Every American should pay a visit to the War Remnants Museum to confront their country’s impact on the world. Photo displays and a particular set of jars will be especially eye opening and will definitely push you out of your comfort zone.

Get an authentic taste: Sit down at one of the literal hole-in-the-wall cafes and order a cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with milk) or a fruity sinh tố (a smoothie, but better). On your way out the door, see if there’s a $2 bánh mì stand nearby, and walk on over.

Push your physical limits: Hook up with a tour or make your own way to Cát Tiên National Park to the northeast of the city. Hiking paths through the rainforest will give you an opportunity to spot all kinds of local wildlife, from gibbons to sun bears. Tour operators can arrange night hikes to look for nocturnal creatures.

As an African island of volcanic origins populated by French-speaking Hindus with Indian roots, Mauritius definitely offers an intriguing mix of culture, geography, and biodiversity. Check your preconceptions at the door.

Embrace the culture shock: Visit during the Hindu festival of Maha Shivaratri, when hundreds of thousands of the island’s devotees trek to the holy crater lake of Ganga Talao (Grand Bassin), carrying structures of bamboo in submission to Shiva. Respectful visitors are welcome to observe the offerings and ceremonies at the lake.

Get an authentic taste: Don’t leave without trying dholl puri, a savory wrap filled with butter bean curry, a spicy tomato sauce, pickled vegetables, chutney, and chili.

Push your physical limits: Even beginner hikers can scale Le Pouce, Mauritius’s third-highest mountain. The vibrant, panoramic views of the island, the city of Port Louis, and the Indian Ocean make the heart-racing drop-offs along the 2.6-mile hike absolutely worth your while.

Barcelona is both literally and figuratively “on the edge,” with its location right on the Mediterranean coast and its fashion-forward, avant-garde population always pushing new boundaries.

Embrace the culture shock: Even if you know Spanish well, you may find yourself disoriented by indecipherable signs and conversations in Catalan, the language of the Catalonian region, which holds Barcelona as its capital. Take time for a Catalan language course, and you’ll uncover a whole new side to this elegant, historic city by the sea.

Get an authentic taste: Try esqueixada, a fresh salad made of salt cod, onions, tomatoes, vinegar, olive oil, olives, and bell peppers. It’s sort of a combo between ceviche and gazpacho, and perfect under the Mediterranean sun.

Push your physical limits: Within an hour of Barcelona, there are multiple places along the coast — like Vilafranca del Penedés, Collbató, and Cubelles — where you can attach yourself to a bungee and jump out over the sea. (You know, willingly.)

The largest city in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres stands out as a multicultural magnet, with significant Japanese, Portuguese, and Italian communities, as well as a thriving LGBTQ+ population. It keeps its native roots intact, however, and São Paulo’s people are only strengthened by its diversity.

Embrace the culture shock: São Paulo’s famous nightlife keeps going until well after sunrise. Rest up for a long night of dancing (even if it’s by yourself), and try a venue that’s something other than your norm — who knows, you might fall in love with Brazilian techno.

Get an authentic taste: A true melting-pot dish, cuzcuz paulista combines cornmeal, hard-boiled eggs, tons of vegetables and herbs, and usually some shrimp or other seafood. Chefs pack the mixture into a doughnut-shaped pan like meatloaf, then plate it as a centerpiece dish.

Push your physical limits: Scuba dive off the nearby island of Ilhabela — it also has waterfalls, dozens of beaches, and a pirate history, should the waters not sate your appetite.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with Lufthansa.