Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pretty Cities (or a title that sucks less)

My buddy Jack recently emailed me a list of the world’s most beautiful cities, published by Yahoo Travel and written by Forbes. He suggested I write a reaction. My first reaction to the piece, of course - what an easy, lazy thing for Forbes to write about. They named the slam-dunks that everyone would agree on (Paris, Florence, Venice, San Francisco, New York), added Chicago for street cred, chose a token representative city from Asia (Tokyo), Canada (Vancouver), Australia (Sydney), Africa (Cape Town), and the British Isles (London). For a wacky wildcard, they added Cambridge (England). Upon further examination, I decided that a proper reaction to this Forbes 12 could easily be written by anyone, but shouldn’t be. This is a job suitable only for the laziest writer I know - me.

I’ve lived in Paris, Florence, and Chicago. They are, in some order, my three favorite cities in the world. My level of bias toward them can’t be overstated. All three are, in some way, long lost loves that I cannot think rationally about. I have maps of all three on my wall. I even have soft spots for their sub-par airports. Forbes made an inspired choice here.

I’ve never been to Cape Town. I don’t believe for a minute that any writer at Forbes has ever been to Cape Town. The two or three pictures I’ve seen of it look nice. It stays, simply because I have no reason to boot it.

I’ve been to Venice and San Francisco. Both are architectural rock stars. These cities shine outside their tourist districts (presuming that there is a non-touristy part of Venice) and deserve to be on the list as well.

New York is a trickier study. Manhattan is beautiful, the skyline is amongst the world’s best. The bridges make the East River look respectable. Central Park needs no introduction. Unfortunately, most of New York’s land mass and population resides in the boroughs. Paris, Florence, Venice, and San Francisco are beautiful throughout. Chicago, outside of the worst ghettos and industrial areas, holds it down throughout the city. New York has the singular attraction of Manhattan, but is decidedly less than beautiful elsewhere. Because I am presuming that the writers at Forbes have never actually been to the boroughs, I have to deduct points here. I’m not saying that there aren’t aesthetically pleasing districts of Brooklyn or Queens, but I am saying that these districts don’t look nicer than the prettier parts of Pittsburgh or Boston or Kansas City. New York is out.

I’ve never been to Cambridge. I never plan to go. I do know this much: some random college town in the English Midlands is not one of the 12 most beautiful cities IN THE WORLD. It’s not. It’s a stupid wildcard choice for the sake of being unpredictable. Why not Cambridge Mass? Why not Madison, Wisconsin or Lawrence, Kansas? They are nice looking college towns all, but in no way comparable to Paris.

I’ve never been to Sydney. (Really, I am kinda qualified to write this - Cape Town, Cambridge, and Sydney are the only cities on this list that I’ve never been to.) Of course, I know what you know about Sydney. There’s the Opera House. There’s that nothing-special bridge by the harbor and the opera house. Sydney might have other things going on too. Sadly, we may never know. As Australian law has decreed (under penalty of booting) that all pictures of Sydney must feature the opera house and bridge, this is all I have to go by. Thus, Sydney is out too. The rest of the city may look like Stalingrad for all we know.

Tokyo, London, Vancouver round out the list. I’ve visited all three cities. As I originally mentioned, I think Vancouver was chosen to appeal to Canadian readers. This matters for marketing when writing in a publication that’s largely going to be read by English speaking North Americans (sorry, Quebec and Mexico). However, Canada is only the 36th largest country in the world, and including its most beautiful city doesn’t particularly matter. I can’t even say if Vancouver is Canada’s most beautiful city, as it’s the only Canadian city that I’ve been to. I can say that Vancouver looks very nice. Still, it doesn’t look any nicer than Seattle. Vancouver and Seattle are both beautiful cities, but not world’s most beautiful.

Tokyo is the Asian selection. Tokyo is by no means the most beautiful city in Asia. In my limited Asian travels, I can say that Hong Kong and Singapore are unquestionably more beautiful than Tokyo. Word on the street is that Tokyo isn’t even the most beautiful city in Japan - Kyoto and Nara both easily beat it. I cannot comment on this for certain having not been to these cities.

London is probably the biggest joke of all. Sure, Westminster Abbey and Whitehall look lovely, but London is chock full of ugly buildings. London is a great city, but nobody ever leaves it amazed by its aesthetics. London would not even make the list of the 12 most beautiful European cities that I have been to, and it certainly has no place on a list of the 12 most beautiful cities in the world.

Here’s the part where I make my own list. I’m keeping Paris, Florence, Chicago, Venice, San Francisco, and Cape Town. I’m booting New York, London, Tokyo, Cambridge, Sydney, and Vancouver. I need 6 new cities. Keep in mind: a) this is based on my experience, so it is in no way fair or right, as there are over 169 countries that I’ve never been to, and b) this list is better than the Forbes list. In no order (like the Forbes list):

Rio de Janeiro - I’ve never been to Rio, but I’m dying to go. I’m making a Forbes-Cape Town move here. From what I understand, Rio is supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, architecturally and naturally. Plus, South America can get in on the action - now we have every continent that matters on the list (sorry, penguins and Aussies.)

Hong Kong - maybe the best skyline in the world, and with the best conveyance possible to appreciate it in the Star Ferry. The primary HK skyline is lined up along Hong Kong Island’s north shore, facing Victoria Harbor. The view of it from the Kowloon side of town and from the ferry is unbeatable. Kowloon is no slouch either, with its top-ranked hotels and its anything-goes Nathan Road.

Rome - senseless that this got left off the original list. Maybe they didn’t want to go too Euro - easy solution - cut London or Cambridge. Yes, Italy already has two cities. So what. It’s a list of the world’s most beautiful cities. Italy should be overrepresented. If it were a list of the best cities to score killer drugs, the Netherlands would be overrepresented too (and Vancouver would stay on the list). Speaking of the Netherlands...

Amsterdam - Amsterdam as a whole city is almost as architecturally perfect as Paris or Venice. The canals, the gables, the low bridges, it all looks brilliant. I’ve been to Amsterdam three times, and like other great party cities that I’ve visited multiple times (Las Vegas, Bangkok, New Orleans, Busan) I know I’ll be back, Amsterdam just happens to be the prettiest of that bunch. Speaking of pretty party cities...

Prague - Baroque perfection. Yeah, there’s some grime, but the overall look of the town is beyond reproach. Prague looks cool most everywhere, and its historic center takes it up another notch. Half my list is Europe. Really, unless one is trying to be cute (like Forbes), then any list of the world’s most beautiful cities has to be Euro-centric. Most Asian cities sprawl to the point of being ugly. Most American cities are too new, and share the sprawl problem. South America and Africa.... to put it politely, I haven’t spent any time there.

Penang/George Town, Malaysia - George Town is a compact city, but Malaysia’s second largest. The city features a whitewashed colonial district, a downtown skyline, and raucous Chinatown and Little India. The north and east sides of town face the water, and Penang Hill (really a mountain) looms over it all. It doesn’t hurt that the city is surrounded by temples, beaches, and jungle. George Town is just big enough to matter, but not big enough to have sprawled to architectural irrelevancy.

There’s a lot of other places I could have included. However, unlike Forbes, I didn’t go Cambridge. I listed cities. Places that do not have legitimate international airports didn’t apply. Also, I admit this list is both biased and flawed. If you’d like to nominate a beautiful city, do so in comments. I’ll run a related photo album in a couple days.


David said...

Kyoto's fine an all, but nothing to sneeze at. If you're looking at the west/north half, you have all these nice temples sticking out and rounding out the otherwise modern city. eastern half doesn't have as much height, but is, overall, the better looking part. Nara I've never been to but sounds amazing. Might as well've never been bombed in WWII, it encompasses everything Japanese without being Korean-ostentatious.

Jae-hak said...

Korean-ostentatious? you, sir, have clearly never been to Daejeon.

Jack said...

and you, mr jae-hak, have clearly forgotten about the beauty of the kansas city skyline...
oh, and agreed about cambridge - not a city.

Anonymous said...

great read. I would love to follow you on twitter.