“With the brush we merely tint, while the imagination alone produces colour.” – Theodore Gericault
Nothing brings out the little kid in me faster than bright colours. I get all excited over blue skies and gardens of flowers, and even the shelves of paint bottles at the local art shop. So it’s no wonder that I was drawn to some of the world’s most colourful places when planning trips and itineraries. But whilst these places are undoubtedly beautiful, they each hold value beyond the paint that covers their walls – the history they hold, the stories they tell, and the insights they give imbue each of these places with greater meaning than a mere photo on Instagram can convey. So in this post I have put together a list of some of the most colourful places that Zac and I have been lucky enough to visit, and reflected on the ways that they made us think about both the past and the present. Hopefully it will pique your curiosity and ignite your imagination, as well as fuel your wanderlust. Because, as good old Gericault knew, it is our minds that truly colour the things that we see and experience.
1. Chefchaouen, Morocco
Tucked away in the Rif Mountains in northwest Morocco, the small town of Chefchaouen is almost impossibly beautiful, and makes the perfect escape from the frenetic pace of some of the country’s other tourist destinations (more on that here!). Hours can be spent wandering its little laneways, with postcard perfect scenes at every turn. I don’t know if it was the heat getting to our heads (it was early September and the temperature was pushing 40 degrees Celcius) but when we were there many of the town’s residents even seemed to don clothing in various shades of blue as they went about their days. But Chefchaouen isn’t just a pretty face – the town has an interesting history too, which stretches back to its founding in the 15th century. It has close ties to southern Spain, having served as a refuge for Muslims and Jews who fled when Christians reclaimed the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages, and its location, its size and its past mean that Chefchaouen has a different vibe to other places in the country.
2. Burano, Italy
Burano lies approximately 45 minutes from Venice proper and is well worth a visit, for obvious reasons.I think the way that I walked around on the sunny summer day when we came here would best be described as frolicking. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as I snapped photo after photo of the rainbow rows of houses. I still find it hard to believe that a place can look so idyllic!
Though the island is no rival to San Marco and its surrounding sestieri in terms of history or grandeur, Burano does offer sea-village charm in a kaleidoscope of colours, and is a great place to go to escape the crowds and catch a glimpse of ‘real life’ in the Venetian lagoon. Wandering the streets, you will also come across numerous lace shops – these are the remaining traces of the island’s prestigious past, when Burano thrived as a lace-making centre that was renowned in Europe.
3. San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico
This colourful city lies in a small valley in Mexico’s Central Highlands, a region home to many indigenous communities. Whilst you can spend a fair amount of time wandering its brightly coloured streets and eating at the many and varied cafes and restaurants, San Cristóbal is also the perfect base for day-trips in the region. Whilst here, we spent a day with a guide who took us to two Tzotzil villages, Chamula and Zinacantan. This opened our eyes to cultures and customs that we previously knew very little about, and allowed us to get a little bit of an insight into the ways that traditional customs intertwine with realities of contemporary society in modern Mexico.
San Cristóbal is also part of the UNESCO Creative Cities network , which seeks to build relationships between cities that have identified creativity and cultural industries as key to their future development. In San Cristóbal, the focus is on folk art and handicrafts, particularly Maya textiles, and the city has been active in supporting local artisans and promoting their work, which I think is pretty cool!
4. Rajasthan, India
So, Rajasthan is an entire state rather than a single city, but how could I possibly pick between the ‘Blue City’ of Jodhpur, the ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur, or the alluring ‘Golden City’ of Jaisalmer? The region certainly has colour coordination down pat, and has an incredible history that spans thousands of years to boot. In addition to its cities of various hues, Rajasthan also brims with busy markets, in which goods of every conceivable colour and type can be bought and sold. There’s certainly no better way to immerse yourself in the chaotic pace of daily life here than by venturing into the marketplace.
5. Trinidad, Cuba
Charming little Trinidad in central Cuba, with its cobbled streets and colonial architecture, is bursting with life and colour. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this town is steeped in Cuba’s colonial history, with the surrounding valley once a hub for the island’s sugar production. Plaza Mayor, with its bright yellow mansions, lies at the heart of the town’s historic centre, and transforms at night into Casa de la Musica, where crowds gather to drink mojitos and listen and dance to live salsa music. Though we were hesitant to join in on the dancing here for reasons of general physical awkwardness, we did enjoy the lively atmosphere.
6. Symi, Greece
Just a quick hop from bustling Rhodes, picture-perfect little Symi was believed to be the birthplace of the Three Graces of charm, beauty and creativity in Greek mythology, and the modern-day island seems to have embodied these qualities: its harbour is flanked by steep hills dotted with beautifully painted neoclassical buildings that face out towards the sea. You can easily spend a sunny afternoon here wandering the pastel-coloured streets, before stopping for a frappe at local taverna and watching the world go by. Follow the road that meanders out of town and you’ll find many spots to roll out your towel and take a dip in the crystal-clear waters of the Aegean. It’s little wonder that this was one of our favourite Greek Islands.
7. Cinque Terre, Italy
The UNESCO World Heritage listed villages of Cinque Terre attract thousands of visitors each year, and with good reason. Nestled on the cliffs of the Italian Riviera, the towns of pastel pinks, yellows and oranges look like perfect oil paintings on the aqua-blue backdrop of the Ligurian Sea. We spent a couple of days here walking the trails between the towns and admiring the incredible coastal landscape that has been distinctly shaped by those who have lived here over the past thousand years. In our downtime, we sat eating cones of fried seafood by the ocean, and tried to imagine what life here would have looked like over the centuries.
8. Viñales, Cuba
Situated in Cuba’s west, the small rural town of Viñales draws many visitors seeking to explore the surrounding Viñales Valley, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. The valley is famous for its traditional tobacco production, but the town deserves some attention too. Zac and I spent a humid afternoon here exploring the streets around our casa particular, where rows of brightly coloured bungalows pop against the lush green of the surrounding valley and limestone cliffs.
In a place like this, it’s worth thinking about the way that tourism has had an impact on the town’s development. It seemed that almost every house we passed was running as a casa particular or private homestay (in which a family rents out a room or two to tourists), which certainly boosts the local economy, though one resident we spoke to told us that the influx of holiday-makers has caused problems with resources and increased the cost of living. (Check out this post for more reflections on our Cuba and our adventures there.)
9. Madurai, India
This imposing structure, which forms part of the huge Meenakshi Amman Temple complex, is Madurai’s main attraction, and rightly so: it is believed that a temple has stood on this site for over two and a half thousand years. The facade of each of the complex’s 14 gopurams or gateway towers is covered brightly coloured figures of gods, goddesses, animals and demons. The place is a feast for the eyes, and with over 15,000 visitors daily, attests to the centrality of religion to the life of the city.
10. Puebla, Mexico
Puebla’s historic downtown is another UNESCO World Heritage site to make this list. Founded in 1531, many colonial-era buildings still line its streets, and countless houses are adorned with beautifully patterned and coloured azulejos or tiles. After soaking up some history, by night you can head to the Arena Puebla to catch a hilarious Lucha Libre match, if you’re keen to see a very different, more modern side of the city.
11. Gamcheon Culture Village, Busan, South Korea
This area in the bustling metropolis of Busan began as a haphazard settlement for refugees of the Korean War in the 1950s. Infrastructure and other problems persisted until 2009, when the local government collaborated with town planners, artists and local residents to make a change. Nowadays, the colourful town is a good example of the effects of careful urban regeneration, and has become a centre for visual art, with many murals and other artworks adorning walls all over the neighbourhood. It has retained its character as a residential village despite its recent Instagram fame, though tourism has certainly had a positive effect on the local area.
And if you do come here, be sure to use a map to find your way around, rather than aimlessly wandering the labyrinth alleyways. Zac and I found ourselves lost in a series of deserted, narrow and incredibly steep streets as we attempted to get back to the subway, which made for some severe breathing difficulties when we found that we needed to make our way back uphill. Lesson learned!