Blissful nights in the sleepless cities of your imagination
Travel through the eyes of an insomniac: the 10 best cities to stay awake all night for
It is one of the peculiar pleasures of travel to awaken at odd times, or to be unable to sleep, or to be forced awake at times when your body is screaming for sleep. I say “pleasures”. I mean something different; I mean pleasure/pain, experiences that are at once horrendous and marvellous, wrenching and delicious, like the best kind of drug, the most glorious form of nightmare.
It can be almost hallucinatory. I woke once in Singapore around 8pm, my body confused and disoriented, and wandered through the night markets. I couldn’t tell you which market it was now, only that I wanted intensely to see something of the new city I’d just arrived in. Later on, late at night, I visited the enormous Marina Bay Sands Mall, acres of exhausting luxury open to anyone with a credit card and a bar where a “wine fairy” flew through the air on wires to retrieve the requested bottles.
These experiences blend together in my memory with that first market, which is transformed into noise and smell and flashes of colour: the crackling sizzle of the wet noodles hitting the pan, the lines of customers waiting patiently for their box of food, the brightly coloured drinks for sale, the scent of garlic and shrimp paste thick in the air. Jet lag the previous afternoon – or was it the same day? Everything blended together like the food quickly shaken and stirred in the woks – had sent me scurrying back to my hotel from a brief walk, genuinely afraid I might collapse to the floor on the street from exhaustion. But here I was, time demonstrably the wrong way up, the air itself different. I almost believed I saw dragons, beasts with claws and fangs in the steam from the spitting pans. I almost felt in that moment that I could breathe the place in and exhale it like smoke rings from my lungs.
As a migraine sufferer I have a sticky circadian rhythm, the 24-hour internal clock running in the background of one’s brain that cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. This means I get the fewest migraines when I keep a consistent routine of bedtime and waking up. And I can’t just power through jet lag. If I try to move my sleeping patterns by more than an hour a night ... that’s it, migraine, a lost day or even two. So I’ve learnt to value the strange hours I keep when I’m travelling – they have taken me on their own kind of transformational journey.
One form of transformation is to reassess the ordinary. I travel to New York frequently, I know the city well. But the early morning city, the 4am dawn Manhattan, is a place I’ve only ever seen for a few days every now and then when jet lagged and deliciously confused. What one sees in these moments, sometimes, is the infrastructure of the city. The department of sanitation vehicles cleaning the streets before the citizens wake. The construction workers half-asleep on the subway as they travel to operate their roaring engines of demolition. Waking at 3.30am in Manhattan, I went to the Dominique Ansel bakery on Spring Street where a queue forms every morning to get a chance to buy a Cronut – a pastry made of croissant dough but fried like a doughnut. Even arriving at 4.15am I wasn’t the first in the line, but the mixture of tourists, students, late-night revellers deciding to make a morning of it and working people who’d set their alarms on a lark was a treat.
The Ansel bakery hands out home-made lemonade and cookies and encourages conversation among the waiting pastry enthusiasts. As we chatted, a man came down the line handing out cards. Who was he? An employee of the Same Ol’ Line Dudes company – they’ll queue up for anything the busy Manhattanite can’t waste time waiting for themselves. Limited-edition handbags, Hamilton tickets, autographs at bookstores, you name it, they’ll wait for it. They handed me their card. And I understood something about the workings of Manhattan in that moment, the absolute truth that there is nothing in the city that can’t be paid for. There’s something refreshingly honest and upfront about it. I did discover something about myself in that moment: I am attracted to the idea of getting someone else to do my waiting for me.
Not every jet lag induced late night or early morning is quite that playful or innocuous. In the midday sun in Delhi, I got too many catcalls and requests for money to make the experience of walking through the city enjoyable. Later at night, with street-food sellers proffering their wares, men making a “ptch-ptch” noise with their mouths and rubbish whirling in the dusty roads, I felt a terror run down my throat. I’ll probably be fine, I said to myself. But once you’re whispering those words to yourself, the magic is gone. I scurried back to my hotel with a book. In the lobby as I sat reading quietly, a man came over and without asking pulled up the cover so he could see the title. I looked around, smiled politely and went back to my room. This too was an encounter with the self: I’m less brave than I’d hope, the streets had driven from me the ability to answer back an impudent man. Well, there I am.
But those times have been less frequent than the encounters with sheer beauty, or joyful unfamiliarity. In the very late night in Oaxaca, I walked the streets around the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, where men in cowboy hats smoked and murmured to one another, children in shorts and T-shirts whirled and shouted – how could they be up so late? One summer in Tucson, Arizona, I was grateful to wake before dawn and dunk myself into my cottage’s swimming pool to drain the heat from my body as the sun bled into the purple-blue sky. At 3.30am the aloe vera plants were giving off their mucosal fluid scent and I floated on the face of the water. These were moments of self-knowledge in a way, but only in the sense that I felt how good it was to be alive.
And then there is the best experience of all – to become a tourist at home. One September after a long trip to Australia I found I was an insomniac in London, my own city.
In the end, I decided to enjoy being a stranger in the capital. I took myself to the restaurant at the top of the Heron Tower. I arrived just as the last of the late-night crowd were leaving. I had a coffee, watching the drunken flirtations, the sisterhood of cackling 3am female friends. I was there while the staff switched shifts. I had the first breakfast of the morning, listened to the snippets of morning business breakfast conversation – strike price for share options, old presentations to new clients – watched the sunrise and drove home. I did that for a week, like a ritual of re-entry, a recognition that everywhere familiar can easily become strange. This too is what travel can do: you return to where you came from and see it with the wide-eyed wonder of the traveller, seeing the place for the first time.
Lost in translation in Tokyo
Quirky by day, even quirkier at night – Japanese idiosyncrasies are played out after dark. In Akihabara, gamers make a dusk-to-dawn date with Super Mario in action-packed arcades, while grills in Shinjuku’s lantern-lit alleyway izakayas roast meats until the last raucous patron agrees to go home. Head to Shibuya for nocturnal retail therapy and a chance to see its famous pedestrian crossing bathed in neon lights.
The dreamy city of Venice
Overcrowding can dampen the magic of Italy’s floating treasure, but once tourists are tucked up in bed a different atmosphere takes shape. Like a starry sky, St Mark’s mosaic façade sparkles golden, and in the absence of any noisy distractions it’s a beauty to behold. A labyrinth of calles and empty bridges allows imaginations to run wild through Renaissance times, while a taste of late-night modern living can be found in the cicchetti bars spilling from Cannaregio.
Late at night in Lisbon
Inside windowless salons lit only by lamps, it’s easy to lose track of hours, months and years. Some institutions in the Portuguese capital have resisted change, serving drinks in art nouveau surroundings until at least 3am. Bars in Bairro Alto overflow to become a street party in the early hours.
Beyond Berghain in Berlin
Meals, music and parties are available any hour of the day. People-watch at techno giant Berghain and canal-side chill-out Club der Visionaere; sink into a sofa in one of the squat-style bars lining Kreuzberg and Neukölln. For the best views, climb the Reichstag or Fernsehturm until midnight.
Sleepless in Singapore
This island state satisfies appetites with midnight snacks. Chomp Chomp Food Centre keep woks fired up until late; or combine dining with souvenir shopping in Bugis Street Market, open until 11pm.
Polar nights in Tromso
Sometimes there’s too much going on after dark, making sleep feel like a waste of time. When night finally falls in this Norwegian city above the Arctic Circle, it creates a backdrop for one of nature’s greatest displays. Drive into surrounding forests on a mission to hunt for aurora or climb along mountain ridges for even clearer views. In summer, days are endless when the sun shines for 24 hours.
Before sunrise in Sydney
Whether it’s the shimmering surf rolling on to Sydney’s fringing beaches or reflections of twinkling skyscrapers in the calm harbour, water takes on a different quality when the moon glows. But it’s in the pre-dawn hours that this city really shines. Strap into a harness and climb the Harbour Bridge at 3am or head down to Bondi Beach and watch surfers ride waves.
The Medina never sleeps. Metal and glass lanterns cascade a kaleidoscope of lights and cloaked Berbers waft like ghosts along medieval stone tunnels. In Jemaa el-Fnaa, smoke coils from grills until 1am, scenting the air with paprika and cumin as storytellers entertain crowds. Stay up until 5am, when a call to prayer echoes from minarets and trays of mint tea warm up the day.
Buenos Aires till dawn
With restaurant kitchens sizzling steaks until early hours there’s no rush to eat meals, and sipping malbec in queues on street corners is all part of the fun. Digest enormous dinners by flitting between speakeasy bars in Palermo and slip into an all-night milonga at Salon Canning.
- © The Daily Telegraph
Naomi Alderman is a novelist who has written about insomnia. Disobedience, based on her first novel, is out in cinemas at the end of November.