Monday, June 17, 2013

All Around the World: The Best and Worst of Every City I've Been To

Today, as I'm about to book my next travel adventure (Dubai! Berlin!), and after reading, pondering and reconsidering my friend Rob's Facebook list of his Top 10 favorite cities (Paris all the way up at No. 3? WTH?), I'm inspired to revisit some of the places I've already been. I couldn't begin to rank my 10 favorite in order, so instead, I'll tackle the far less daunting task of highlighting some of the bests and worsts (and mosts and leasts) among them.

City I'm most likely to fall in love with a visit or two from now: Sydney I've now flown into Sydney six times (seven, if you count the landing when I stayed just long enough to catch a connecting flight to Melbourne), and on each trip I discover something that makes me like it more. Two trips ago, it was the beaches of Manly. The trip before last, how close the city center is to the international airport. Last trip, a restaurant on Macquarie Street that serves the most succulent grilled chicken (in three generously cut fillets) with chips and salad and a can of soda for only $9.50. I think I could even learn to love to run around Hyde Park (top, above), though negotiating the city's steep inclines on foot might be all the aerobic workout that I need. Runner up: Singapore

Best looking men: Melbourne The Aussie boys in Sydney are a bit too metrosexual for my taste, but Melburnian guys, in general, are less plucked and pruned, the perfect mix of rugged, boho and hipster. When did razors go out of style, though? If the typical males in any city can pull off the unshaven look, it would be the ones in Melbourne, but I still prefer to have a smooth, stubble-free cheek next to mine. Runner up: Buenos Aires

Most beautiful women: Bangkok I'm not talking about the lady boys and drag queens (who, truth be told, don't look all that bad either), but the real, live women, the ones who are so perfect and delicate they sometimes seem to belong perched up on a shelf somewhere. If I were straight, I'd be a fortysomething cliché (homely middle-aged farangs with young, gorgeous local eye candy on their arms are such the norm here), but I'd have the most stunning accessory that money can sometimes buy. Runner up: Buenos Aires

Nicest people: Bangkok No, they don't all act like they're welcoming you into their five-star hotel, but in the roughly 16 months that I've spent based in Bangkok, I've yet to have an unpleasant experience with a local here. By being so unfailingly polite, they inspire me to be nicer, too, and considering what a testy old codger I am, that's a considerable achievement. Runner up: Dublin

Rudest people: Buenos Aires Say what you will about New Yorkers (and most of it would probably be true), but at least underneath their gruff exteriors beat hearts of gold. With porteños, what you so often see in passing (cranky dispositions, arrogant demeanors, cunning and plotting in the eyes) is exactly what you so often get. And don't get me started on government employees and customer-service personnel! Runner up: Atlanta

Cutest babies: Thailand Every time I arrive I tell myself I'm not leaving without one. Someday that will be true. Runners up: Argentina and Cambodia

Most deserving of a second chance (after Berlin, which is about to get one): Athens Like Bangkok and Lima, it's used primarily as a pit stop en route to more picturesque destinations. But unlike my first (and second) impressions of Bangkok and Lima, I hated Athens on sight, and by the time I left a few days later to sail to Mykonos (much better indeed!), my opinion hadn't improved. I'd like to experience it again, though, because I'll try anything twice, and because I wouldn't mind one more trip up to the Acropolis, which I didn't fully appreciate the first time because I was too busy griping to myself about the stinky madhouse down below. Runner up: Colombia

Never again!: Ho Chi Minh City Perhaps I was blinded by the national ban on Facebook, but I can't think of a single redeeming quality or one reason why I'd ever go back.

Most underrated: Lisbon Standing on one of its many hills, looking down at the blue Tagus River below, I almost felt like I was in San Francisco, only hotter and surrounded by more old-world charm. I'd love to see Lisbon experience a surge in popularity, along with the sad, beautiful fado folk music that it inspired. Sadly, the guy who introduced me to Amália Rodrigues (the Queen of Fado) and Madredeus, and showed me sides of Portugal's capital that I might not have otherwise seen, died a few years after my 1997 visit of lung cancer when he was still in his 30s. He was buried in the Algarve, and I can't think of a more beautiful final resting place. Runner up: Lima

Best views: Istanbul The next best thing to waking up in the middle of a '60s crime caper (at least one, 1964's Topkapi, was actually filmed in the city). In my Istanbul action-adventure fantasies, I'm running up and down hills to escape the bad guys, trying not to be distracted by the breathtaking views -- of mosques, of other hills, of the Sea of Marmara, of the Bosphorus, of the clear blue sky above and beyond them -- from the top of each incline. Runner up: San Francisco

Best natural scenery: Antigua What do I remember most about going with my mom back to the Caribbean island where she was born? The view of fellow Leeward island Montserrat from the edge of one of its cliffs and the random donkey sightings while driving down the road. Runner up: Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia

Most character: Buenos Aires Every Capital Federal neighborhood has its own distinct vibe, but in Palermo, home for four and a half years and, recently, seven additional weeks, I love the quiet calles running parallel and perpendicular to the bustling avenidas. They're lined with trees in full seasonal bloom whose giant trunks extend upward and forward from the edge of the pavement on opposite sides of the roads, like leafy, green military lines, creating a chiaroscuro cathedral effect that's most stunning in the early morning when the sunlight is just starting to peek through. This is the BA that I fell in love with back in 2005 and one that, thankfully, remains largely intact. Runner up: London

Best food: Melbourne I know, it's not known for its cuisine, and chicken parmigiana with chips and salad aside, there's really no signature dish, and that might be a large part of its culinary appeal. Because there's no focus or specialty, there are few limitations, resulting in an abundance of variety. I've had killer Thai, Indian, Mexican, Argentinean, Korean, Greek and pub grub, and Base might make the best pizza I've had outside of New York City. I wouldn't expect anything less from a city filled with passionate foodies where there's always another cooking show coming up next on TV. Runner up: Bangkok

Dullest food: Buenos Aires Man can only live on so much pollo, carne, queso, pan y postres before he drops dead from a heart attack.

Best shopping: London King's Road. Kensington-High Street. Oxford Street. Carnaby Street. Camden Town's Sunday market. Portobello Road's Saturday market. If I still gave a damn about shopping, I probably wouldn't want to do it anywhere else. Runner up: New York City

Best nightlife: Buenos Aires New York might be known as the city that never sleeps, but BA, a place where the average person doesn't go to bed until 6am on a weekday morning, is just as unlikely to fall into a deep slumber. Also, no city on earth is as gorgeous when the night falls as BA. Runner up: London

City I've only been to once that I'm most dying to visit again: Istanbul For all the reasons stated above and because I'd love to see more of Turkey while I'm at it. Runner up: Dublin

City I've been to more than once that I'm dying to go to again: Amsterdam For some reason, when I think of the quintessential European city, an image of Amsterdam (a snapshot taken from one of its canals, with a row of colorful buildings lining the water hogging the frame) always pops into my mind. Runner up: Gainesville, Florida

Most pleasant surprise: Manila Two years later, I still can't pinpoint the source of Manila's appeal for me, but the fact that there's a source to pin point makes it so much more than I was expecting. Runner-up: Auckland

Best use of history: Rome Walking through it is like walking through picture postcards and occasionally wandering into hi-res photos on the pages of a history book. Runner up: Machu Picchu/Cuzco

Best weather: Los Angeles I don't believe I've ever spent a dreary day there. Runner up: Lima

Biggest bore: Colonia If the Uruguayan town weren't such an easy destination for Buenos Aires expats looking to renew their 90-day visas, there'd be absolutely no reason to go, which is even less than I can say for Vientiane in Laos, which is to Bangkok what Colonia is to BA. Runner up: Paris

Most overrated: Paris. Sorry I just don't get it. As much as I enjoyed strolling down the Champs-Élysées, standing under the Arc de Triomphe, admiring the sculptures in the Musée Rodin garden, gazing into the eyes of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and wishing I owned an authentic painting from Pablo Picasso's Blue Period while staring at the Picasso Museum's permanent collection, I left Paris feeling underwhelmed each of the three times I visited. Once you've done all of the above (which you can do in one afternoon) and seen the Eiffel Tower (which you can view from practically anywhere in the city worth going to), there just isn't much more to do in Paris, unless you want to spend the rest of your days sitting in cafes eating croissants and crepes and discussing how haughty the French are. Kristin Scott Thomas, the British actress who calls Paris home, once described it to me as a "small town." She meant that as a compliment, but therein lies its biggest problem. A major city with such a world-class reputation should have a stronger pulse, but Paris is dead on your arrival, and it pretty much stays that way. Runner up: Rio de Janeiro

Most disappointing: Pisa The only reason to go is because of the Leaning Tower, which looks so small and lonely tilting to the side in the middle of nowhere. The most memorable part of going there was running into my first boyfriend Derek and his then-boyfriend in the middle of the train station in Florence before embarking on my onward journey to Pisa.

Most spectacular train route: The Pyrenees If the stunning mountain views hadn't been compensation enough for the hours spent in transit from Madrid to Toulouse, getting off in the part of France -- the southern portion -- most worth going to, certainly would have completed the payoff.

Most interesting bus ride: Phnom Penh to Siem Reap It's not for the fainthearted (I kept expecting the crowded, rickety old van I was traveling in to drive off the bumpy two-lane road into the filthy floodwater that was threatening to deluge the houses on stilts off to the side), but it's probably the most authentic view you'll get of Cambodia if you're sticking to its two most visited cities (both of which are fabulous).

Biggest tourist trap: Florence The various replicas of King David around town only begin to hint at the chintziness of it all.

Best song named for a city (after "London" by The Smiths): "Vienna" by Ultravox A 1981 No. 2 hit that's as memorable and timeless as the city that inspired it.

Best museum: The Prado in Madrid I'm a classicist who prefers the work of long-dead masters when it comes to painting, so getting to see the best of Goya, Zurbarán and el Greco, among others, during my one visit to the Prado, was a once (so far)-in-a-lifetime treat. It remains better than any experience I've ever had at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Louvre in Paris, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, or any other art shrine anywhere else in the world.

The place where I most felt like I had stepped off of a time machine into another century: Cuzco Even if it weren't Peru's gateway to Macchu Picchu, it would have been worth the flight time from Lima to get there and the ensuing altitude sickness. Blackout aside, there was only one downside to my three days spent wandering through the town that's surrounded by layers of mountains, exploring its colonial streets (night lamps paint them a gorgeous golden hue after dark): If anyone ever asks if I remember where I was when I found out that Heath Ledger died, my answer will always be "In the lobby of the Casa Andina Classic hotel in Cuzco."

Cities that most remind me of each other: Lisbon and San Francisco, Chicago and Toronto, Prague and Budapest

Five cities that are least likely to inspire any reaction, positive or negative: Bogotá, Montreal, Philadelphia, Santiago de Chile, St. Louis

Four cities that are not the best, worst, most or least anything, but I want to name drop anyway because I love them: Kuala Lumpur, New Orleans, São Paolo, Washington D.C.

Best country: Italy I can't think of another country other than the one I'm from that has as many major cities that I love as Italy (and all of them have such distinct visual qualities!): Rome, Milan, Genoa. And I still haven't done Venice, the countryside, the south of the country, or Sicily yet! Runner up: Thailand

Best island: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands Mostly because I was born there, but even had I not been, among traditional holiday retreats that are surrounded by water, it would beat Bali, Bermuda, Sitges, Phuket and Fire Island, and probably be tied with Mykonos. Runners up: Manhattan, Great Britain, Australia

Best city: London Nearly 18 years after my first trip there and almost three and a half years since my last one, my heart still belongs to the London capital (for the music, for the theatre, for the architecture, for the history, for the cinema and literature it's inspired, for the pubs and nightclubs, for the peculiar and endearing comedy of British manners, for the memories, for a few other things I can't think of at the moment). When Nicole Kidman -- I mean, Virginia Woolf -- was so desperate to get there in The Hours, I completely understood that "violent jolt of the city" that she was craving and knew she'd find in London. It's something Paris lacks (and perhaps why the French capital has always left me cold and bored) and the reason London is so magical and mythic for me. My one-time obsession for it has matured into an ardent appreciation that keeps it atop the list of places I'd choose to be if I could choose to be anywhere in the world at this very second. Runner up: New York City
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