Taking a gap year doesn’t mean that you have to pack a backpack, hit the road and never stop moving. Many travellers choose to base themselves in one city for at least a month, using the opportunity to work, study, learn a language or simply slow down and chill out.
If you’re wondering where to go, start with our definitive list of the best cities to live in around the world. Whether you’re looking for the best surf spots, the cheapest rents or the coolest nightlife, we’ve got you covered.
1. Tokyo for the culture
With its neon lights, frenetic pace and futuristic cityscape, Tokyo will almost certainly push you out of your comfort zone. The traditional and hyper-modern coexist here, and there’s nowhere better to get your first taste of Japanese culture.
You can spend your days touring traditional temples and shrines, such as Meiji-jingū and Hie-jinja, then slurp noodles at a ramen izakaya, cosy up in a cat café, or try your hand at karaoke once the sun goes down. If you’re hoping to stay for a few months, look into getting a TEFL qualification, which would allow you to earn money teaching English as a second language.
2. Auckland for the great outdoors
Auckland was voted the third most liveable city in the world this year. There’s little wonder why: New Zealand’s largest city is the perfect base on North Island, offering both big-city buzz and a host of nearby natural wonders.
Adrenaline junkies will love SkyJump, New Zealand’s highest BASE jump, canyoning in the Waitakere Ranges and surf lessons at Piha Beach. More sedate pleasures include strolling through Auckland Botanic Gardens and trips to Hunua Falls.
3. Buenos Aires for the language
If you’re looking to brush up on your Spanish, and maybe even try your hand at a spot of tango, head to Buenos Aires. The Argentine capital is one of the best places to learn Spanish before exploring more of South America.
Numerous schools run short courses, with those offering accommodation with hostels or host families a good option if you’re nervous about finding somewhere solo. You’ll find students of all ages here, too, so don’t worry about being older or younger than the norm.
4. Melbourne for the lifestyle
The “Sydney or Melbourne” debate is well worn, but when it comes to the perfect place to live on your gap year, Melbourne gets our vote.
Working visas for under-30s make Australia one of the most viable places to earn money as you travel. You could learn to craft the perfect Aussie flat white, step behind a hostel bar or live with a family while working as an au pair. Making friends is easy thanks to a large backpacker and expat community, and there is a host of awesome trips from the city, including driving the Great Ocean Road.
5. Berlin for the nightlife
Berlin’s reputation for hedonism knows no bounds. But don’t be fooled – this is not just a party city but one of Europe’s most dynamic and progressive metropolises.
The city is fighting hard to retain its identity in the face of gentrification, and for now the creative scene still thrives while rents remain relatively low. After dark, be prepared to stay up late at some of the best clubs on the continent, not least the inimitable Berghain.
6. Shanghai for the high life
Beijing may boast China’s most famous historical sights, but if you want to look at the country’s future, head to Shanghai. The forest of skyscrapers here is shooting up so fast that the city has actually started sinking. Down at street level, there’s so much to discover: world-class restaurants, traditional markets and the famously grand riverfront buildings along the Bund.
With a host of international companies in the city, Shanghai is also a reasonably easy place to secure an internship – a great way to impress employers when you return home.
7. Paris for the food
If you want to turn your gap year into a foodie pilgrimage, there’s only one place to go: Paris. From the daily markets that spring up in each quartier to the classic boulangeries, brasseries and bistros, there’s a culinary tradition to embrace everywhere you turn.
An abundance of cheap hostel dorms makes the city surprisingly affordable, while green spaces like Place des Vosges and the Jardin du Luxembourg were made for picnics with new friends.
8. Rio for the parties
Attending the Rio Carnival is a once in a lifetime experience. With five days of celebrations to enjoy (starting on the Friday before Lent), you could take at least a week to get your bearings, and another to recover once the parties and parades have died down.
Especially in the hot and sticky South American summer, there’s plenty to tempt you to stay. Rio’s city beaches are among the best in the world, while climbing Corcovado to see the statue of Christ the Redeemer should be on every traveller’s bucket list.
9. Hanoi for budget living
With monthly rents less than £250, Hanoi is the ideal budget base in Southeast Asia. Getting to grips with Vietnam’s hectic capital, particularly the traffic, might be daunting at first, but most visitors soon fall under the city’s spell.
Hanoi’s complex and varied history is reflected in its mix of ancient temples, crumbling colonial buildings and modern malls, making it one of the most fascinating urban centres in the region. Add to this some of the finest street food in the country and you may find you stay for longer than you planned.
10. Mexico City for a great megalopolis
Mexico City’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, and there’s more than sun and cerveza to draw you here. A flourishing contemporary art scene, glorious architecture and a high-octane nightlife are just a few of the attractions that make this one of the greatest cities in the Americas.
After a few months of urban life, head south to hit the backpacker trail; with a month or so to spare, you could travel all the way through Central America to Panama.