More than half the world’s population now lives in cities, but only a few cities have earned the moniker “great.” Some are “Eternal” (Rome), some inspire eternal love (Paris), while others seem to be eternally on the verge of slipping beneath the waves (Venice). This month we revisit some old favorites and discover even more new ones around the world.
With footprints from the recent royal wedding still fresh and the 2012 Summer Olympics fast approaching, London is accustomed to being center stage for momentous occasions. It would take years to explore all the corners of the city’s 32 boroughs: its streets and lanes are filled with storied palaces, residences, cathedrals, gardens, galleries, stadiums and stages that have played host to the world’s most famous monarchs, authors, playwrights, artists, sports stars and music legends. Start by taking a tour with smallcarBIGCITY. While imparting interesting news, facts and anecdotes, engaging drivers take you for a spin through London’s maze of history in classic British Mini Coopers. It’s a refreshing and zippy way to take in the width and breadth of this storied city.
There is only one city in the world that stirs up romance, artistry and beauty at the mere mention of its name. As the intellectual center of ideas, education and cultural expression that centered on science and reason, Paris first got its nickname as the City of Light in the 18th century—the Age of Enlightenment. If you really want to see the lights, take the fabulous Paris Night Bike Tour, a gentle ride past some of the city’s most iconic symbols. As the sun sets, watch the lights turn on as you cruise through the courtyard of the Louvre, past Notre Dame cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, the Latin Quarter and the Arc de Triomphe. Prepare for magnificent night views, interesting and entertaining commentary and plenty of breaks that include a stop at Glacier Berthillon, a Parisian fixture specializing in quality French ice cream. Enjoy your dessert on an illuminated bridge and then go to the next part of the tour: a river cruise on the Seine, the main artery of Paris. Relax aboard with a glass of wine, taking in the magic as you sail through the glowing heart of Paris.
Rio de Janeiro
Blessed with a warm climate and gorgeous topography, Rio de Janeiro possesses an upbeat ambiance that cherishes beauty and creativity, underscored by an irreverent spirit that’s always in the mood for a festival. After work, Cariocas (Rio natives) like to enjoy a beer or caipirinha (a drink infused with lime, sugar, ice and cachaça, Brazil’s famous sugar-cane liquor) while listening to the sounds of samba. After your own day of “work”—beaching at Ipanema or Copacabana, taking the Corcovado train to visit the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue or riding the funicular to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain for spectacular views—head to the Academia da Cachaça in the upscale Leblon district for an awe-inspiring selection of Brazil’s national drink. Bartenders can advise you on hundreds of brands. With drink in hand, let the Brazilian music and a traditional menu of local favorites sweep you into the spirit of Rio.
Spaniards and Italians formed the bulk of European immigrants who began arriving in Buenos Aires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, creating a rich culture that blends the passion of Latin America with European thinking. It’s hard not to fall in love with this vibrant city and its splendid architecture. Large boulevards and cobblestone streets thrive with sidewalk cafés and bars, milongas (tango salons), art districts, shopping areas and soccer fever. In a place where dinner doesn’t start until 10 p.m. and nightlife gets going around 2 a.m., one can’t help but enjoy the vibrant energy. Take a walking tour through the city’s distinctive neighborhoods, from the historic downtown and the upscale Recoleta and trendy Palermo neighborhoods to working-class San Telmo and La Boca. Sample the flavors of Argentine wine, take a seat at a local café to sip mate (a super-caffeinated Argentine drink brewed with the leaves of the rainforest holly tree), venture behind the scenes at a soccer stadium and, by all means, don’t miss out on a tango show and lesson.
Still thriving despite its storied past as a den for opium smuggling, corruption, nepotism and class struggles, Shanghai features street after street of architectural, cultural and artistic wonders, past and present. Long known merely as a business destination, Shanghai has sprung back into the glamour it once enjoyed when foreign colonial powers (Britain, France, America and Japan) turned it into a racy paradise that attracted authors, artists and entrepreneurs. A walk on the spectacular stretch of riverfront known as the Bund is a must to experience the vestiges of colonial Asia’s most famous street. Showcasing the eternal change afoot, dozens of historical buildings teem with restaurants and shops that overlook the Huangpu River opposite the mega-highrises of the Pudong District. Drop into the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, a restored 1908 building that blends retail shops with open studios for contemporary artists. Its chic outdoor rooftop terrace bar affords fabulous views of the glittering skyline, while Shook! restaurant fully embodies the international flair and flavors of this world-class city.
Following the First Opium War, when the Ching Dynasty failed to halt the British opium trade, China surrendered the island of Hong Kong (off mainland China’s southeast shores) to Britain in 1842. Merely a collection of fishing villages at the time, Hong Kong evolved into an Asian financial powerhouse over the years, home to some of the most densely packed highrises on the planet. Returned to China in 1997, Hong Kong has an allure that combines spectacular natural surroundings, a remarkable skyline and an east-west fusion of culture and lifestyle. A ride on the public Star Ferry that crosses between Kowloon and Hong Kong offers the city’s most accessible and affordable way to take in the magic of Victoria Harbour. Sample first-rate local fare in the fishing village of Cheung Chau, where a row of delicious seafood restaurants awaits. In the evening, take the Horse Racing Tour at Happy Valley Racecourse and rub shoulders with the locals who throng to the track, plus enjoy access to the finish line, betting instruction and dinner at the prestigious Hong Kong Jockey Club which provides a fascinating slice of life.
This city’s famous canals emerged from a planning project designed to extend the city to the west and south of the historic old town in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Surrounding swampland was drained using a canal system of concentric circles. The spaces in between were filled for the gabled houses and monuments still viewable today. In addition to canals, Amsterdam is known for its long history as a magnet for artists, writers and thinkers whose talents flowered in its tolerant atmosphere. A guided walking tour will take you to the city’s historical center, where side streets and peaceful, tree-lined canals beckon. Venture through the flower market; to the home of Anne Frank; and past convents, hidden churches and marvelous 17th-century houses. The “I Amsterdam Card” offers free entry to a bevy of fantastic museums, as well as discounts on canal cruises and more.
With roots dating back to the 12th century, Berlin has long been the heart of Germany. Wide avenues, leafy streets and magnificent parks create a serenity that belies the city’s turbulent past and constant transformation. Heavily bombed in World War II, then split in two by the Berlin Wall, the city is a captivating blend of history and modernity, from the fascinating Museum Island to the reawakened Unter den Linden promenade in the former East Berlin. Punk-rock, classical and bohemian art and music scenes flourish, while treasures like the 17th-century Charlottenburg Palace are juxtaposed with Cold War and Third Reich relics. Historic political icons that include the Reichstag (Parliament Building), Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate should not be missed, nor should a trip to the Holocaust Memorial. A stop at Fassbender-Rausch—a dream café for chocolate lovers—will help you refuel.
Composed of 117 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon, this city has known greatness, plagues, floods, intrigue and a slow but steady decline from its peak as the capital of a far-flung empire. The gondola remains the most famous and enduring icon of Venetian culture. A ride on one of these sleek, wooden rowing vessels may seem touristy, but the experience still offers the best way to see the city and experience its glorious past. A key form of transport, Venetian gondolas have shuttled people through the canals since the 10th century. On some models, closed center cabins protect passengers from the elements and offer privacy for reading, conversation, dining and romance, while open cabins allow them to display their finery, converse with passengers in nearby gondolas, take in the scenery and catch a cooling breeze on sultry summer nights. A gondolier guild controls the boats and its handlers, requiring them to have a comprehensive knowledge of Venetian history, landmarks, languages, navigation and vessel handling.
The magnificent Renaissance art and architectural treasures of Florence (Firenze in Italian) bring legions of travelers to its storied doorsteps. Conveniently located near the famous winemaking region of Tuscany, the red-roofed city is awash in churches, museums and Italian piazzas. A Skip-the-Line tour of the Accademia to see Michalangelo’s statue of David and the Uffizi Gallery for an up-close view of the Italian masters’ works will get you past long lines in a jiffy. A spin on the Florence Segway Tour whisks you through the colorful streets as a knowledgeable guide narrates the sites of Florence and its history. Immerse yourself in Italian culture by exploring the streets, shops, gelato bars and cafés. A stop at the welcoming Trattoria I Due G offers a world of traditional Florentine and Tuscan cuisine in a local atmosphere not to be missed.
The Eternal City also offers a seemingly eternal list of things to do. This veritable living museum has interest and life at every turn: from art, people and fashion to monuments, crypts, cafés and markets. A walking tour is highly recommended to cover massive wonders like the Colosseum and the Forum. Exploring on your own, you can watch the social scene from the Spanish Steps and visit the historic Trevi Fountain. Amble down the street to San Crispino Gelateria for a taste of Rome’s most famous gelato, then retreat to one of the city’s many marvelous parks and gardens, such as Gianicolo Park, situated on one of the seven hills of ancient Rome. The capital of the Roman empire until the 4th century–and still the seat of the Catholic Church–Rome has an abundance of religious marvels like the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. A hidden gem not to be missed is the Basilica di San Clemente: three churches built atop one another take visitors back to the first century in a layered timeline of history. Only five minutes from the Colosseum, this fascinating but mostly overlooked site is worth the visit.
Barcelona is hailed for its fantastic architecture, cuisine and relaxed approach to life that characterizes Spain’s Catalan region. Take a city or architecture tour to see the incredible works of Antoni Gaudí, Spain’s mosts renowned modernist architect. Wander the famous boulevards of Las Ramblas and Passeig de Gracia. Then venture north to the diverse and quirky neighborhood of Gràcia. A mix of artists, students, intellectuals and families inhabit pedestrian-friendly streets that once formed a separate town outside medieval Barcelona walls. Still retaining its village feel, Gràcia entices walkers to explore narrow avenues and spirited squares peppered with cafés, tapas bars, restaurants and unique boutiques that form a distinctive piece of Catalan life. Taste excellent local fare and tapas at Nou Candanchú (Plaça de Rius i Taulet 9, also known as Plaça Vila de Gràcia). Located on a lively square under a famous clock tower, it’s a favorite with locals who like to linger, enjoying the reasonable prices and fresh-made paella. If you’re in town in August, you’ll see the neighborhood celebrate with incredible decorations during the annual Gràcia Fiesta.
Bastion of Holy Roman Emperors, Hungarian kings and the Hapsburg dynasty, Vienna has a royal legacy of culture, architecture, art, theater and music. Court pleasures like the Spanish Riding School date back to the 16th century and still carry on today. Vienna was also home to the world’s most revered classical composers, such as Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Strauss. The city virtually pulses with concerts, waltzes and operettas ripe for dressy occasions. Combine a tour with dinner and an evening concert at Schönbrunn Palace, the glorious 14th-century estate that came into Hapsburg possession for use as a game park and hunting parties. Escape to Mozart’s world at the Vienna State Opera or the Musikverein, the permanent seat of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Be sure to relax in a traditional Viennese café, which is part of daily life for most residents. The 300-year-old Café Frauenhuber is Vienna’s oldest, and no other café can boast that both Mozart and Beethoven played in its midst.
Visitors rave about the beauty of Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. The city survived the ravages of World War II’s destruction virtually unscathed, then lay relatively undiscovered behind the Iron Curtain for decades. Today it’s revered for its intact collection of grand monuments, bridges and buildings that evoke Europe’s history. A 9th-century castle; a superb 13th-century Old Town; and palaces, churches and cathedrals from later eras showcase a fabulous blend of architecture in a city long ruled by Bohemian kings. Famous for its fine glass and crystal, Prague boasts innovative modern designers such as Plesl, Chorchoj and Pelcl, worthy successors to legends like Moser and Swarovski. A city that has beckoned artists, writers and musicians, it continues to charm with its bohemian roots. Visitors will find a concert to enjoy almost any time of day or night—in churches, cafés or public squares. Still catching up to modern Europe, Prague retains the allure of old-fashioned travel adventure in its ancient maze of narrow streets. The compact city center allows for easy backstreet wandering, while a climb to the 10th-century Vysehrad fortress is a great escape and offers tremendous city vistas, a fascinating cemetery and a peaceful oasis.
Hungary’s capital is split in half by the mighty Danube which only adds to Budapest’s allure. The two sides—Buda and Pest—officially became one in 1873. Long under the rule of Romans, Ottomans and the Hapsburgs, and a hub for Jewish culture until World War II, Budapest overflows with history and architecture. Home to multiple World Heritage Sites, the first underground metro system in continental Europe, and a legacy of writers, artists and composers, Budapest has been hailed as the “Paris of the East.” Gazing at the illuminated castle, church spires and historic buildings from the Margaret Bridge by night is pure romance. Budapest is also a draw for its therapeutic waters, with 80 geothermal springs that emanate from the largest thermal water cave system in the world. Following a day of sightseeing, have a treatment and soak in the turn-of-the-century Széchenyi Bath (1913) or Gellért Bath (1918), the city’s most prominent thermal locales. Continuing your tour, take a walk on Margaret Island, a car-free sanctuary on the Danube full of parkland and idle pleasures.
Travel Tips: Cities We Love
Great cities can be like quaint villages one moment, sprawling chaos the next. The trip from the airport to your hotel can take nearly as long as your flight. And anyone can get lost in the warren of cobblestone streets that radiate in every direction at the historic center of Europe’s great cities. Here are some timely tips for getting the most out of your next visit.
To get the most out of your urban travel dollars, purchase a city pass. Custom built for travelers, these passes offer free entry, discounts and special offers for a whole list of attractions. Check city websites for what’s available.
Made for Walking
A good pair of walking shoes is essential when navigating great cities, ruins, pebbled pathways and cobblestone streets. Besides making sure shoes fit properly, it’s a good idea to:
- Choose shoes with flexible soles and low, supportive heels
- Look for lightweight, breathable materials
- Shop for shoes at the end of the day when your feet are slightly swollen
- Pick a neutral color to match most of the clothes you pack
- Wear new shoes indoors for a few days to make sure they’re OK
- Pack bandages in case of blisters
Most of the world’s great cities have wonderful transportation systems, starting at the airport. Instead of paying multiple single-route fares and searching for loose change each time you board a train or tram, look for multi-trip, daily, weekly or monthly passes. They’re usually available on subway, rail and bus websites, as well as at ticket booths and newspaper kiosks. You can study the system online before you go, and grab a route map on arrival.
Each culture has its own etiquette. Sharing tables is common practice in many restaurants and cafés in Europe when it’s crowded. Table manners and tipping practices are different throughout the world. To avoid offending anyone, observe the locals and follow suit. You should also respect signage and protocol (e.g., behavior and attire in churches and religious sites), and ask before acting if you’re unsure about what’s acceptable.
Although English is widely understood in cosmopolitan cities, not everyone speaks it or is comfortable using it. It’s polite to ask before presuming. Try to learn the phrase “Do you speak English?” in the local language. Most residents are happy to practice, converse or help you. Remember to drop the slang and speak slowly and clearly (not more loudly) if someone isn’t fluent.
Quick, Inexpensive Bites
The food tab can quickly add up in big cities if you eat every meal at a restaurant. To cut down on costs, book a hotel or apartment with a kitchenette to make simple breakfasts. In town, look for cafeterias in large department stores, which are usually centrally located. Local pubs also offer cheaper fare, while grocery stores can satisfy you with quick snacks. You can also save by eating at fast-food restaurants—try a local one to really get a feel for a place.
On almost every trip, there comes a time when you want to sample local flavors or you spot a must-have souvenir—perhaps a bocadillo (sandwich) in Barcelona or a leather purse at an outdoor market in Florence. Make sure you have some local currency on hand for such occasions. Small market vendors don’t usually accept credit cards and prefer small denominations since they might not have change for larger bills. Check out our selection of travel wallets at travelsmith.com
ATMs in other countries may have minimum withdrawal amounts (e.g., 20 euros) that don’t fit your needs. In addition, they may also tack on service fees and currency conversion charges. Always check with your bank about fees before departure. By withdrawing larger amounts, you can keep charges to a minimum and avoid searching for ATMs. However, carrying more cash may not be ideal if pickpockets are a problem. Try a money belt for extra security—see our wide selection at travelsmith.com.
Credit and debit card security monitors can quickly shut your card down if they notice abnormal activity. Reinstating a card can take up to 24 hours and waste valuable travel time. This can be very inconvenient when you’re checking out of a hotel or trying to pay a bill overseas. Let your credit and debit card companies know your travel dates in advance. Carry the international contact number for your cards and always have an alternative payment form ready, just in case.