Sometimes, it's not just what you see, but where you go and who you see it with ...
Lilla Torg, Malmo Festival; Malmo, Sweden
Malmo is Sweden's third-largest city. A short distance across the sea from Copenhagen, it shares a cosmopolitan and continental outlook - after all, its quarter-million inhabitants speak over 100 different languages. Art galleries, museums, nightlife and restaurants are all well catered for, but by far the largest annual event on this city's calendar is the Malmo Festival. Taking place in the second week of August, this free festival provides countless hours of music, poetry, dancing, theater and food across the entire city. The most intimate and timely venue, however, is the tiny ancient square of Lilla Torg in the Old Town. Some of the buildings lining the square date to the 16th century, and the acts chosen to perform here tend to veer on the traditional end of the scale. However, don't be fooled into thinking that 'traditional,' 'Northern European' and 'music' adds up to anything short of breathtaking.
Amateur Night at the Apollo; New York
As you head north of Manhattan to 125th Street in Harlem, the streets come alive with the sounds of soul and funk (and sermons) blasted from the trunks of vans. Old guys, sitting out in the noon-day sun, berate young boys for being cheeky to their mothers, and families in their Sunday best queue for soul food at Sylvia's. This sense of community carries through into the night, in venues like the Apollo Theater. The Apollo is an institution. Built in 1914 (albeit under a different name), it has hosted the greats of African-American entertainment and culture since the 1930s. Today some of the most popular shows are the weekly 'Amateur Nights,' selections from which are televised. Past winners include Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and James Brown. It's free to enter, so why not give it a go? Just be sure to touch the Tree of Hope stump for luck as you go onstage. It worked for Ella ...
Shakespeare in the Park; Toronto, Canada
Toronto is Canada's largest city, and most Canadians find it rude, dirty, stressful, corporate and ugly. If you're not from Canada, chances are you'll find the people warm and friendly, the city clean, relaxed and cultured, and the architecture a pleasant mix of turn-of-the-20th-century churches, Edwardian shop facades, sensitive political projects and adventurous contemporary endeavors. The only large (400 acres) area of grass and woodland in the city, a place called High Park, is far out on the West side. During the summer months you'll find culture - in the form of Shakespearean plays staged by Canadian Stage - here too. The idea of putting on a Shakespearean play in a park isn't entirely new; however, Toronto's offering feels particularly special due to the cumulative effect of marrying the quality of Britain's greatest playwright with the rarity of this vast expanse of greenery.
Union Theatre; London
A few minutes walk from both Waterloo and Tate Modern in central London, hidden away under a railway arch, lies this gem of a fringe theater. The Union is unusual for a London venue in that it's relaxed, friendly and unpretentious. Family-run since its inception, the theater features a unique booking service (you phone up and state your name along with the number of tickets you'd like ... then hope), a cozy boho bar (with none of the shallow pretensions of the hipster bars south of here) and a warm, intimate, dark performance space under the railway tracks, full of reclaimed cinema seating. Pieces are normally low-budget or experimental, and the occasional, soft shudder of passing trains above or underneath makes for a gritty, engrossing experience. The Union provides a refreshing detour away from the mock-grandeur and overpricing of theaters north of the river.
The Cottier Theater; Glasgow, Scotland
If you've left Edinburgh for Glasgow and arrived at Cottiers (as the locals call it), you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd taken a wrong turn and ended up back where you started. However, despite Glasgow's checkered past as a mucky, industrial and just plain unpleasant (to put it nicely ... as the locals wouldn't) city, its center is largely leafy, warm, welcoming and cultured. Nowhere else in the city are these qualities more evident than this quiet theater in the heart of the suburban West End. The church it's housed in was built in the 1860s, at a time when Glaswegians were making waves in architecture and design that rippled all the way to North America. The theater is in the top half of the building, with a bar and restaurant below. All sorts of acts have played here, from traditional ceilidhs (pronounced kay-lees), through theater troupes performing Shakespeare to Kid Koala. The bar is airy, well stocked, beautifully lit through stained glass and flooded with locals, their friends and relatives. Sit down on a Sunday to sample the West End charm, great jazz and local banter.
Copenhagen is an ultra-stylish, clean, efficient and expensive city full of tall, beautiful, blonde inhabitants living in the best-designed interiors on Earth. We wouldn't say we're bitter, but we do find the district of Christiania a breath of fresh air. Proclaimed a 'free state' by squatters during the hippie revolution of 1971, the area has since harbored a grungy/hippy ecology-oriented and tolerant community with its own shops, housing, communal buildings and a terrific cultural venue - Loppen. Housed in an ex-military warehouse, Loppen features an art gallery, a recommended (and refreshingly inexpensive) restaurant and a grass-roots music venue. Big names in funk, soul, punk and rock music are hosted regularly, and the boisterous club nights don't finish until 5 a.m. However, we recommend relaxing like the locals; take the spiral staircase to the second floor on a Sunday afternoon, order a drink at the makeshift bar, lie down on one of the aged leather sofas and fall asleep to the swaying beat of a homegrown jazz band.