Monday, March 9, 2015

A New Travel Standard: Great City Or Great Scenery?

Last night at dinner, someone offered the best description of Sydney that I've heard yet…and he did it in less than three words:

"There are great cities, and there's great scenery. Sydney is great scenery."

Bingo! He nailed it.

Sydney is undeniably beautiful -- a great beauty, in fact. I'll give it that. But as it is with many great beauties of the human variety, for me, the appeal is largely superficial. Continuing with the human analogy, Sydney's crown jewel, the stately Opera House is like Cindy Crawford's mole, a defining and distinguishing feature and quite possibly the reason the entire world cares about Sydney at all.

But unlike the rest of Cindy's face, the rest of Sydney is dominated by indistinguishable beauty marks that could have been plucked from numerous other sources. It's a point I made when I first visited in 2010 and one that my brother Alexi, a first-time Sydney visitor as of yesterday, echoed. There's the water-land combo (with a narrow body of water splitting the city and flowing out into a larger one) that reminds me of Istanbul. A touch of San Telmo here and a dash of Recoleta and Palermo there occasionally puts me in a Buenos Aires state of mind.

Then there are shades of Florence (after dark, on Glenmore Road, right outside the Royal Hotel Paddington), hints of New York City (various spots around King's Cross), and even a reminder of Kissimmee, Florida, in the 1970s (on Oxford Street, as you walk toward Paddington). That's only the beginning of the deja vu feelings that Sydney gives me.

One city that Sydney doesn't remind me of at all is Cape Town, despite the fact that both are coastal and curvy. (Getting to the top of Sydney's relatively modest inclines doesn't offer nearly the same payoff that Cape Town climbs do.) Frankly, Cape Town has spoiled and ruined me forever, so it's not Sydney's fault that I'm not exactly blown away by it looks. Cape Town is by far the most visually arresting place I've ever seen, with a dramatic coastline that makes me chuckle at all of the hoopla surrounding Sydney's "amazing" beaches, a buzz that I think might be more about the surfers than the surf and sand. (Yes, when it comes to the visual human element, Sydney excels.)

If I were the type of person who was strictly looking for looks (and one who'd never seen Cape Town, the Miss Universe of gorgeous cities), Sydney, despite its dearth of originality, would be it for me. But I need more...more depth. That's where great cities come in. What makes a city great? It's a perfect storm of culture, customs, climate (as in both meteorology and temperament), architecture, nature, geology, people, history, food, nightlife, accessibility (either via excellent public transport, taxis that are both bountiful and inexpensive, or scenic and/or easy walks), gay friendly, running routes, and, yes, looks.

It doesn't have to be a conventional beauty. In fact, many great cities aren't traditionally gorgeous. But there's got to be something about it that makes it tough to pull my eyes away.

The distinction between great cities and great beauties got me thinking about the places I've spent time in since I became an expat and started looking at cities in deeper terms than "Do I like it or not?" That, in turn, got me to organizing the ones I've liked into categories: Great scenery and great cities, as well as a third, cool places, an honorable-mention tag for the ones that aren't all about looks or greatness but have a certain amount of one or the other or both.

Here's how they all stack up.


Bali, Indonesia: The beaches are interchangeable with countless others elsewhere, but Ubud up above them is everything.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (left): For architecture that looks like the 1980s vision of the future and the nearby Arabian Desert.

Cusco, Peru: At the time of my visit (2008), it was the most foreign-looking place I'd ever seen.

Florence, Italy: Despite its cultural and visual significance, it's too much about tourism.

Krabi, Thailand: My favorite place in the southern part of the country.

Koh Chang, Thailand: Hiking through the rainforest was one of the scariest, most amazing things I've ever done.

Simon's Town, South Africa: For the penguins and the colonial New England-town vibe.

Stellenbosch, South Africa: I swear, wine tastes better with such a stunning backdrop.

Swakopmund, Namibia: Nondescript Windhoek aside, Namibia is pretty much all about great scenery.

Sydney, Australia: See above.

Tel Aviv, Israel (as well as Akko, Haifa and pretty much everything in the country): Take away the beach and the white-on-white architecture of TLV, and you're left with great nightlife, which just isn't enough for a middle-aged guy like me.

Venice, Italy: See Florence above.


Bangkok, Thailand (right): If only we could just get God to turn down the thermostat there.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Despite my love/hate for BA, it's the very definition of "great city."

Cape Town, South Africa: Particularly if you're white and you have nothing against black people…or subtle and not-so-subtle racism.

Istanbul, Turkey: The aforementioned water-land combo, its curves and its geographical, architectural and cultural blend of Europe and Asia cannot be topped.

Jerusalem, Israel: If it had a gay scene and was less devoted to the Sabbath, it would be one of the greatest places on earth.

London, England: Look, 24/7 sunshine is not everyone's idea of paradise.

Melbourne, Australia: It hasn't been named the world's most livable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit for four years running because it's merely an also-ran to Sydney.

New York City: Duh.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: I don't have to love it to recognize its greatness.

Rome, Italy: The greatest city in my favorite country.


Amman, Jordan (left)

Auckland, New Zealand

Berlin, Germany

Bethlehem, State of Palestine

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Hamburg, Germany

Johannesburg, South Africa (It's one public-transportation overhaul/taxi-fare decrease away from greatness.)

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Lima, Peru

Manila, Philippines

Milan, Italy

Nairobi, Kenya

Nazareth, Israel

Penang, Malaysia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phuket, Thailand

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Washington D.C.

THANKS, BUT NO THANKS: Abu Dhabi, UAEBogota, ColombiaCairns, AustraliaColonia, Uruguay; Dar es Salaam, TanzaniaEilat, Israel; Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamMendoza, ArgentinaSingapore; Vientiane, Laos; Warsaw, PolandWindhoek, Namibia; Zanzibar
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