19 Oct 2022

The 12 Best Cities to Visit in Southeast Asia


Singapore Sunrise. Singapore Sunrise.

River Cruising

Southeast Asia

Excursions and Experiences

Bursting with colour, flavour, and an array of sounds, the mystical and mythical cities of Southeast Asia are just waiting to be explored.

Offering a combination of bustling streets, golden beaches, and dense jungle, an adventure through this region is sure to take you on more than just a physical journey.

With 11 countries to visit in this part of the world, you might be wondering where to start. We’ve put together the ultimate guide of the best cities to visit in Southeast Asia – and we’d recommend you tick as many of these off your list as possible!

The best cities to visit in Southeast Asia

Capital cities of Southeast Asia 

The capital cities of Southeast Asia are a great starting point for any intrepid traveller. This selection of cities offers something for everyone.
Hanoi, Vietnam Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam’s first city, Hanoi, is a melting pot of sensory experiences, making it one of the top cities to visit in Southeast Asia. Popular with jetsetters and backpackers alike, Hanoi is located on the banks of the Red River and boasts a rich history.  

Over a millennium ago, this city became the heart of the Ly Dynasty, Vietnam’s first great dynasty, and has undergone many changes in the centuries since, including a period of French rule during the 19th and 20th centuries, and suffering devastating impacts during the Vietnam War between 1955 and 1975.  

Here, you’ll find ancient architecture in the Old and French Quarters, with the city’s particular blend of Chinese and French influence coming from its time under empiric and colonial rule. Known as the ‘City of Lakes’, Hanoi is home to a myriad of waterways to stroll along.  

Vietnam’s capital is the place to sample the best of the country’s street food – be sure to taste favourites such as bun ca, bánh mì and, of course, phở. For the shoppers, there’s a mix of traditional markets selling wares such as silks and shoes to more modern and bohemian retail districts. This city also acts as a gateway to visiting other Vietnamese hotspots such as a Halong Bay and Sapa.   

Kuala Lumpur, known simply as KL, is a contemporary metropolis blending the old with the new. Its unique landscape is a fusion of modern skyscrapers and colonial-style architecture alike, creating one of the best cities to visit in Southeast Asia if you want to explore history and the present at the same time.   

You’ll also find a true combination of cultures, with the Malaysian capital home to Chinese, Indian, and many more influences.  

Kuala Lumpur’s iconic skyline is easily recognisable, dominated by the infamous Petronas Towers. These twin towers, constructed of steel and glass and connected by an air bridge, soar over 450m high, providing glorious views of the city below.  

Further out of the city centre, you’ll find Merdeka Square (also known as Independence Square). This spot played a vital role in the city’s history when Malaysian independence was declared here in 1957 following nearly a century of British rule.  

In the square itself, you’ll find one of the world’s tallest flagpoles proudly displaying the Malaysian flag, and the plaza is surrounded by historical buildings such as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the former government offices of British colonial administration.  

Bukit Bintang is Kuala Lumpur’s major shopping and entertainment district, home to landmark shopping malls, restaurants, bars, and much more. This area is famed for its vibrant nightlife – particularly its night markets (pasar malam) selling a range of goods such as handbags, clothes, and, of course, freshly-made street food. Visitors to KL should also head to the city’s Chinatown district for even more shopping and entertainment. 

Bangkok, Thailand Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok is not only one of the most top visited capital cities in Southeast Asia, but in the world, welcoming over 20 million visitors each year. While managing to retain its traditional roots, Bangkok has fully embraced the modern landscape, making it one of the best cities to visit in Southeast Asia if you’re looking for both the old and the new.  

The history of Bangkok is prominent throughout the city. As you make your way through the streets, you’ll see stunning temples dating back to the 16th century – Wat Pho, in particular, is a sight to behold and is believed to be the oldest temple in Bangkok. It’s here that you’ll find the instantly recognisable Reclining Buddha statue.  

For modern city explorers, there are countless attractions to take in, and you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to shopping. Whether you’re looking for luxury fashion or intricate souvenirs to take home, the likes of the Sampeng and Chatuchak markets and the city’s various shopping centres will give you plenty to peruse.  

At night, Bangkok comes into its own, offering tourists many places to relax with a drink or two as the city explodes into life. 

Luang Prabang is a stunning mountainous city steeped in history and legend. It’s said that Buddha himself rested there during his travels, smiling and prophesising that the area would one day come into power and fortune. As Luang Prabang became the capital of the Lane Xang Kingdom between the 14th and 16th centuries, its strategic location along the Silk Road did indeed bring great wealth and influence.  

Today, the city is a top destination to visit in Southeast Asia, attracting thousands of visitors thanks to its illustrious history, the exceptional blend of Lao and French architecture, and its many natural wonders. The Kuang Si Falls south of Luang Prabang is an area of natural beauty that you won’t want to miss, offering amazing views as well as a sense of calm and tranquillity.  

Gastronomy also forms a significant part of the city’s identity. Tantalise your taste buds with a range of chicken and fish skewers or be bold and try some of Luang Prabang’s more adventurous dishes including chicken feet, balut, or sansha. 
Manila, Phillippines Manila, Phillippines
Manila, Phillippines
Once known as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, Manila is a bustling metropolis of a city. Here you’ll find the Philippines’ epicentre of culture, commerce, and politics. Suffering major damage throughout WWII, the city has spent decades rebuilding and regenerating, and has once again become one of the best cities to visit in Southeast Asia.  

Its history is as complex as it is interesting. Having previously been under rule by Spain, Great Britain, the United States, and even Japan, there is now a diverse range of European and North American influences throughout Manila alongside its own Southeast Asian heritage. Exploring the city to spot these yourself is a must.  

Manila is a popular destination for food fans. The street markets are lined with vendors offering unique tastes and combinations. Popular markets to stop at and grab a bite to eat at include Legazpi Sunday Market, where you can also browse furniture, home goods, and local produce.  

For something a bit more extravagant, head to the Mall of Asia, one of the largest shopping centres throughout the entire continent. Whatever you’re looking for, you’re sure to find it here! 
Once a part of Malaysia, and sitting in the south of the country, Singapore is now an independent city state in its own right with its own cultural identity. Futuristic elements, traditional buildings, and plenty of green spaces contribute to the city’s urban landscape, making Singapore one of the best cities to visit in Southeast Asia. 

If you’re keen to try local cuisine, then Singapore is renowned for its street food. Here, you’ll often find food and drink festivals taking place featuring masterclass demonstrations from the likes of Michelin-star chefs. 

With its diverse multiculturalism, Singapore is also a great place to celebrate various religious festivals including Deepavali, Christmas, and Thaipusam, and the city state also has a thriving arts and culture scene.  

A highlight of the city has to be the Marina Bay Sands resort with its iconic three towers topped by the cruise ship-shaped SkyPark. Head here for an evening of entertainment or to visit the resort’s stunning Gardens by the Bay. 

And, of course, no getaway to Singapore is complete without a trip to the Raffles hotel, whether you’re planning to spend the night or just stopping in to sample a classic Singapore Sling. 

If you want to slow down and take things a little easier, Singapore is bursting with urban greenery, boasting over 300 parks. You can even relax on one of the city’s pristine beaches! 
Jakarta, Indonesia Jakarta, Indonesia
Jakarta, Indonesia
Jakarta is one of the top must-visit cities in Southeast Asia, though it’s often overlooked in favour of the tropical paradise of Bali. 

The biggest city in Southeast Asia by population, Jakarta is truly the heart of Indonesia, and there’s plenty to see. In Merdeka Square (not to be confused with Kuala Lumpur’s square of the same name), you’ll see the towering National Monument - a symbol that represents the country’s struggle for independence. Alongside the monument, you’ll find an array of museums such as Fatahillah Museum and the National Museum of Indonesia, which will take you on a journey through the country’s history. 

For those seeking more of an adventure, the Thousand Islands are only a short distance from the capital. There aren’t quite a thousand islands – more like 342 – but the views are still every bit as impressive as the name suggests. Take in the deep blue waters as you stand on the edge of the islands’ many beaches, and simply enjoy the moment. 
Phnom Penh is a city reborn. Once torn apart by political strife, the capital city of Cambodia is now the perfect blend of vibrant modernity and treasured traditions.  

Riverfront Park is always jostling with activity; you’ll find a plethora of restaurants and bars here, as well as historic monuments throughout the area, showing how well the old and the new can work in tandem. Make sure to arrive at the park early if you want to see one of the most beautiful sunrises in the world.  

On the outskirts of Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields. Formerly a site of significant conflict, the complex holds huge significance for Cambodia, acting as a monument to the suffering of the Khmer Rouge regime’s victims. More than that, it is a place for silent reflection where anyone can come to pay their respects to those who needlessly lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge regime.  

If it’s a spiritual journey you’re looking for, Phnom Penh is one of the best cities to visit in Southeast Asia with its many temples. Wat Preah Keo Morakot (known as the Silver Pagoda), located on the south side of the city’s Royal Palace, is of particular interest. Many treasures of Cambodia and indeed of Buddhism are housed here, including the Emerald Buddha, a small green statue of the deity carved out of jasper. 

Amazing Southeast Asian Cities 

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City was once the capital of Vietnam and is one of the most exciting places to visit whilst adventuring through Southeast Asia. An area that has seen more than their fair share of turmoil, both Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam as a whole have been reinvented, becoming welcoming beacons in the region. 

If a sense of adventure courses through your veins, you may be enamoured with the city’s hustle and bustle nature. The streets are always lined with motorbikes and scooters, giving the sense that the city itself is very much alive, and there are plenty of unusual things to do in Ho Chi Minh City if you want to do something out of the ordinary on your visit. 

As you make your way through the twists and turns, you’ll see important and historical landmarks such as the Saigon Opera House and the Notre Dame Cathedral – a stunning place of worship constructed by French colonists during the 1880s. 

The city is home to many indoor markets, such as the Ben Thanh and An Dong markets. Here, you’ll have a chance to purchase souvenirs, accessories, local produce, and much more – and even practice your bargaining skills! 

When you need to take a break from it all and replenish, there are plenty of street stalls throughout HCMC selling authentic and exotic Vietnamese dishes. 
Once the capital of Myanmar, Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) is still the commercial and spiritual centre of the country. Yangon holds the key to much of Myanmar’s fabled history and the city is the largest in the country, home to over 7 million people. Here, visitors will find the largest number of colonial-era buildings in the whole of Southeast Asia.

Those visiting Yangon will likely spend most of their time in the city’s centre and nearby downtown area. This is where you’ll find much of the city’s colonial architecture, although many buildings were destroyed during WWII. Some of the must-see buildings here include the Secretariat, the former British administrative seat of the country, and Yangon’s City Hall.

Taking a trip away from the downtown district, a visit to Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda is an absolute must. This Buddhist temple is the most sacred in the whole of Myanmar and is thought to hold the relics of four previous Buddhas of the present era.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this stupa is regarded as one of the most important religious sites in the world. The Shwedagon Pagoda, believed to have been constructed over 2,500 years ago, sits on Singuttara Hill close to the centre of Yangon. 

The gilded stupas of the Shwedagon Pagoda could contain anywhere between nine and 60 tonnes of gold – the main stupa alone contains an estimated 22,000 solid gold bars. The metaphorical cherry on top is the plethora of precious stones and metals adorning the tips of the pagoda – thousands of golden bells, diamonds, rubies, and many more precious stones.

While the Buddhist site glimmers in the day, it is truly a magical site to behold at night. As the city’s lights go down, thousands flock to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, which acts like a golden beacon in the dark.
Siem Reap, Cambodia Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Phnom Penh isn’t the only great city to explore in Cambodia; Siem Reap is always worth a visit when you’re exploring in Southeast Asia. Here, you’ll discover an exciting way of life that plenty of people would dream of living. The famed Angkor Wat temple is a stunning sight to behold and is highly revered across the country – it even features on Cambodia’s national flag.

Outside of the incredible temple districts, there’s even more of this wonderful city to see. Make sure to visit the Tonlé Sap – Southeast Asia’s biggest lake – for stunning views. There are many communities who live nearby, and even on the water itself, including the incredible floating village of Kompong Khleang. 

If you’re in search of local entertainment, the Phare Circus is a must see. With a team of exemplary performers, the show consists of music, theatre, and dances that showcase the history and culture of Cambodia in a way that you never would have expected.
After the entertainment, you can visit the well-known Pub Street and see the city spring into action during the twilight hours.
Whether you love learning more about ancient cultures or you have a burning desire to see the natural world in all its glory, Thailand’s Chiang Mai in is sure to be one of the best cities to visit in Southeast Asia for you. This mountainous city has plenty of stunning views to take in as well as a great number of Buddhist temples to explore.

For a truly unique experience, why not visit the city’s elephant sanctuaries dedicated to keeping these peaceful giants safe from poachers? You’ll get the chance to play with the elephants, to feed them, and even wash them. And best of all, the cost of admission goes towards looking after these endangered creatures, meaning you’re also contributing to safeguarding of the country’s elephants.

To round off your stay in Chiang Mai, visiting a meditation centre will help to calm your mind, body, and soul, refreshing you for life’s next great adventure.

Ready to begin planning your Southeast Asia sojourn?

An Emerald Cruises river cruise along the Mekong and beyond takes you on a journey through the heart of Southeast Asia. With a wealth of port stops throughout Cambodia and Vietnam, and stopovers and extended tours available in cities across the region, there’s no better way to explore Southeast Asia than with Emerald Cruises.

Download your free Mekong river cruising brochure today to learn more about our Southeast Asia itineraries and stopovers, or visit us online to learn more about extending your journey with a city stay.
Emerald Cruises Vietnam Cambodia and Mekong River
Emerald Cruises Vietnam Cambodia and Mekong River

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