I’ve got “top ten” lists on the brain these days…
I thought it’d be fun to dredge through the foggy corners of my memory, brush aside the cobwebs, and post a list of my top 10 favourite cities, taken from 25 years of travel.
Number One aside, I didn’t post this list in any particular order. Each place is unique and has some individual character that can’t be compared with the others. But a list of ten has gotta have numbers. The arrangement is purely arbitrary.
These are ten urban places where I’ve enjoyed spending time. I only visited a few of them once but they left a lasting impression. Others are cities I go back to year after year.
10. Stockholm (Sweden)
I’ve been to Sweden several times, but only had the chance to wander Stockholm once. It’s an island city threaded by waterways, with graceful apartment blocks in Strandvägen, and the narrow streets of Gamla Stan that smell like the sea. The people carry something of that sea clean freshness as well. They’re neatly dressed, optimistic, cheerful, and sophisticated.
Stockholm’s an incredibly beautiful city when the sun is shining. Though I wouldn’t necessarily want to go there in winter, when steam smokes from the grilles and everyone’s dressed in European grey.
9. Mostar (Bosnia & Hercegovina)
The medieval city of Mostar sums up everything that’s wonderful about the Balkans. The white of it’s bridge as it spans the Neretva River in a steep graceful arch. The otherworldly turquoise of the river itself, flowing smooth and strong through the valley below. The mix of Eastern and Western influences on the two sides of the river, as demonstrated by the people, the buildings, the religions and customs. And that incredible boney spine of mountain that provides a backdrop so beautiful you’d swear it was fake.
Mostar is a city to wander through. And a place where the views can mesmerize you for weeks.
8. Belfast (Northern Ireland)
Belfast is a highly walkable city. While I was there I saw the same people over and over. Its nighttime streets were quiet, but I only had to open the door of a random pub to find it packed to the rafters with welcome and good cheer.
In Ireland, the pub is your living room away from home. It’s where you go for quiet conversation with friends—friends who probably know your entire family. It’s where you find home-cooked food like lamb shank and champ (mashed potatoes with cabbage and onions chopped in), for a reasonable price. And it’s where I went to sit in a warm corner to write. Such places inspired me because I could listen to the language of the Irish, whose everyday speech is molded by Gaelic rhythms. That poetry provided a cadence to my prose: Articles by Guinness.
I closed my eyes for a moment to savour the bitter, iron tartness that’s almost like dried blood. And I set my glass carefully on a coaster and turned to the lady seated next to me. “My grandmother was born in County Antrim, just north of here,” I said. “She told me that when she was a little girl she was diagnosed with an iron deficiency. Her doctor prescribed a glass of Guinness each day.”
I thought this was hilarious, but she saw nothing strange in it. “Aye, indeed,” she replied, sipping a glass of ice water. “When I was a wee lass the doctor would prescribe a little whiskey for the measles. That’ll bring the rash out, sure enough.”
Struck by the wisdom of such an approach, I made a discreet entry in my notebook to secure a prescription for the liquor store upon my return home.
7. Avignon (France)
“The heart of [Provence] is Avignon,” Lawrence Durrell wrote, “with its honey-coloured, rose-faded walls and machicolated towers rising steeply from a country dusted silver with olives.” The city was the geographical focal point of his five novel Avignon Quintet, and I spent several days there tracking down locations from the books for a magazine feature.
In the evenings I sat with friends at a quiet café in the Place Crillon, where we whiled away the evening over several bottles of Tavel rosé, a favourite of Durrell’s, which he described as “that magnificent topaz-coloured wine”, and we read passages from the Quintet, immersing ourselves in his world.
I only went there once. But Avignon’s a city I’ve always wanted to go back to.
6. Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)
Twelve years ago, Ulaanbaatar was a crumbling concrete monument to post-Soviet ugliness. Unimaginative square buildings on a grid-plan street centered on the flat grey expanse of Sukbataar Square. On the outskirts, the stacks of a coal-fired central heating plant puffed grey smog and radiated enormous Dr. Octopus pipe-tentacles that arched over roads and burrowed underground to bring the clanking illusion of winter warmth to concrete housing blocks. Ger suburbs clustered around the outskirts of the city, enclosed by rickety scrap wood palisades. And beyond that last fringe of civilization were the green rolling hills and the endless blue sky.
UB was mostly a city I got stuck in while waiting for others to share a jeep to the Gobi or the west. But I kinda liked its shabbiness. It had a frontier feel. A sense that I was sitting on the edge of a continental emptiness.
Mongolia remains the best place I’ve ever been. In my memories it stands for freedom, wandering, and self-contained sufficiency. And it’s a place where the only possible answer to “where are you going” is “…over there.”
5. Paris (France)
What can I say about Paris that hasn’t been said before? There are so many layers of this city to explore. Gastronomy. History. Vast art collections. A pulsing fashion scene. Walkable neighborhoods. The banks of the Seine. And best of all, a literary tradition that sparked some of the most important minds to write in English, from Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s Lost Generation to the starvation-addled wanderings of Henry Miller. And don’t even get me started on French literature!
Paris is one of those cities where I intend to rent a flat and devote at least a year to serious exploration. It almost demands to be lived in.
4. Ljubljana (Slovenia)
This beautiful old city on the Ljubljanica River is one of the true gems of Europe. The centre is small and easily walkable. There are shops and cafes and cultural events. And it’s simply a pleasant place to while away the time.
During my longest stay in the city, I had the use of a friend’s apartment just off Prešeren Square. They were away for the weekend and I was on my own. I had a regular cafe on the square where I would sip coffee and cream every morning, reading a little and watching the pretty girls walk by. And I had another cafe further down river where I wrote each afternoon. Once when I was possessed by a particularly strong train of thought, I completely forgot my coffee and scribbled long after dark. The waitress brought out a candle and quietly slipped it onto my table.
Ljubljana was the city that introduced me to European cafe culture. Until then, I’d only traveled the third world fringes of the map. Slovenia provided a civilizing influence. Ljubljana’s a city with many happy memories for me.
3. New York (USA)
I first visited the Big Apple right after university, while working for a temp agency that took inventories of furniture in office buildings. It was a terrible job and the pay barely gave me enough to eat. But hey, I got two trips to New York out of it. We stayed right in the middle of Manhattan, and when we weren’t working manic 15 hour days I could wander the streets and soak up the life.
I’m headed back again this year, on what will likely be my only North American trip of 2012. Food, culture, fashion, museums, and more crazy characters than you could fill an asylum with—New York has it all!
2. Valletta (Malta)
The capital of Malta is one of the most dramatically positioned cities in all of Europe. It’s a small, walkable grid of narrow streets on a fortified peninsula high above the Grand Harbour. It’s blessed by year-round Mediterranean sun, and surrounded by translucent waters.
Valletta is absolutely steeped in history, from the time of the Knights to the Second World War. To walk among it’s venerable stones is to sink hundreds of years into the past. That’s where I go when I need a break from my desk, to sip cappucino in the sun at Cafe Cordina, or to read a book on a bench in the Lower Barakka Gardens as crisp white sails cut across the harbour far below.
1. Tokyo (Japan)
I lived on its western edge for two years in my twenties, in that railway zone where the crazy electronic maze of Shinjuku and the quiet mountains of Okutama where about the same distance away.
Tokyo’s got some of the best food on the planet. Live sumo in Ryogoku. Layers of history. Outstanding museums. Leading edge fashion. And some of the strangest hidden corners I’ve encountered anywhere on the planet. No matter how many times I go back to Tokyo, I always uncover something new.
So there you have it. My Road Wisdom Top 10 Cities.
What are YOUR favourite cities, and why? Please share them with me in the comments below. I’m always looking for new places to explore.