MY 10 FAVORITE CITIES
I love cities. As a traveler, I never feel alone in a city I enjoy, as cities themselves are a bit like people- slowly revealing their personalities, all imperfect and forever changing. Some are beautiful, some are ugly, but none can get by simply on their fine appearance or lack thereof. A great city needs a great personality; something that makes it truly unique and irreplaceable.
Beach destinations often disappoint, with promises of crystal clear waters, blue skies and smiling faces. The truth is often overcast skies, brown murky water, first-time tourists on pre-paid packages, and little adventure. A city, however, cannot lie. It is what it is and it will always be there, ready for you to engage and explore 24 hours a day, in whatever weather or budget.
These are my favorites:
I like how Beijing remains unglamorous amidst China’s glitzy new developments. The hutongs (traditional, ancient alleyways) are still there for now and traditional Chinese ways of life go on, even as the modest skyline increases bit by bit. Many complain about the mustard-colored, polluted skies, but I actually like the way the red neon signs create a kind of theater-like glow around the city.
While Shanghai may be China’s competitor to New York, Beijing moves along at a pace more akin to European capitals such as Rome. I always like coming back here, and while the changes in Shanghai or Shenzhen may be exciting, the traditions of Beijing are always a relief.
NEW YORK CITY, USA
New York City is where I learned to love the street life of a city. My first visit here came in 1995 at the age of 14. I’d always loved skylines, tall buildings and population statistics, but those gritty, scary characteristics of real urbanity and actual diversity were more of an intimidating factor than an invitation to visit cities.
In NYC I saw teens breakdancing on a subway. I heard loud, crazy people warning me that the world was ending. While eating our dinner with my Dad in an East Village streetside cafe, a bald hippie rolled out a yoga mat and started doing contorted yoga poses for spare change. People of all colors and styles gathered in Washington Square to play music together. And, despite what I’d seen on Taxi Driver, somehow it all seemed to work. It still does.
I studied here for four months, and though I never quite fell in love with Amsterdam, nearly everything about it I liked immensely. There is water at every other block. The cafes and bars and all unique, cozy and brown. The people are unpredictable and honest. The rows and rows of perfectly-scaled buildings look like little citizens, all imperfect and all participating equitably to make this an amazing place to visit and live.
Guanajuato may be the most physically irresistible city in the western hemisphere that I have visited. It’s UNESCO atmosphere takes away from its overall vitality, but this is still a great city to visit, or study abroad in. The clear blue skies, perfect dry weather and multi-colored cascading architecture make it a an amazing city any time of year.
Montreal is a bit like New Orleans on ice with a few nice hills thrown in. Urbane, sophisticated, down-to-earth and with a good sense of humor, it’s a place I always feel comfortable, despite it’s foreignness.
I love Antwerp because it offers everything the great European capitals offer, but all at a local pace, and with a fraction of the tourists. Despite its fabulous main square, towering cathedral, cavernous bars and vibrant arts, tourists are few here. That’s what makes it so great.
I can’t get enough of Chongqing. In terms of otherness, this place never ceases to amaze. Smoggy, serpentine, undulating, fiery, incomprehensible, Chongqing is the largest city in the world that no one seems to know anything about, including myself. Travelers I have met seem to dislike or dismiss it. They come to embark on Yellow River tours, or as a stop before/after tourist-friendly, far-more-livable Chengdu. They cough on the air, scoff at the food and sigh at the nonstop challenge of its topography. I can’t get enough of all that stuff.
I think I like Chongqing due to its resemblance to a Chinese Pittsbrugh. Two great rivers converge into one here. The roadways have numerous tunnels. The ‘what-the-hell is that‘ local cuisine is like a battle each time. I go to bed with sore legs and a numb tongue. The endless red lights of the streets burn an unforgettable haze in the pollution (locals call it ‘fog’). I like it here a lot.
SEOUL, South Korea
If I had one last night to live, and really live, I’d spend it in Seoul and die happily smelling of soju, with some fresh octopus hanging out of my mouth.
Seoul is my favorite city in the world for eating and drinking. It’s not the prettiest city, though the Samcheongdong area is pleasant for walking, and it’s not very easy to get a handle on (most areas look the same). But it’s got an energy and flavor that can be found nowhere else.
When the sun goes down and the restaurants and bars light up, the streets fill with well-dressed, alcohol-fueled fun-seekers and Seoul has a buzz like no other place on earth.
SAIGON (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
A great city should be a collage of sensual and physical opportunities. Saigon is one of the world’s most intricate and colorful collages. Unlike New York or Bangkok, Saigon has not yet defined itself or found its stride. It is changing each year and growing evermore colorful and exciting with each step.
For me, what separates Saigon from other Southeast Asian capitals like Bangkok and Jakarta is its delineation of space. While the overall feel of the city is still undefined, the physical city is organized into a discernable fabric that makes getting around fast, easy and fun. Boulevards, traffic circles and urban districts (each with its own unique qualities) fit into the bigger whole. Amazing food, strong coffee and a young, open-minded population create a city that is fun, sophisticated, and unpredictable. I will always be coming back here.
NEW ORLEANS, USA
New Orleans is one of those great cities in the world that created and cheerfully upheld (not preserved) a complete culture of its own. Physically, the city is as unmistakable as Louis Armstrong’s voice. The resilient creole articulations, colors and angles are all still there. Culturally, New Orleans communicates to us in a language completely unique and with few reference points for comparison.
New Orleans does not belong to a region or family of cities. If New Orleans were to secede from the US and become its own city-state, perhaps no one would seem to notice. Things wouldn’t change. New Orleans would go on as it always has- slowly, carelessly, overweight and elegantly wasted.