World Tour Highlights: 10 Favourite Cities

I don’t know why it is, that some cities feel like home and some don’t. Most cities are characterless and forgettable. Some others are ugly human sewers that you can’t wait to leave, like Jaipur or Nairobi. And some cities are just so overwhelmingly themselves that all you can do is throw yourself beneath them and hope they leave enough of you left that you remember who you are. Paris is like that, and Marrakesh. Fourteenth of the World Tour Highlights articles is a list of my favourite cities of the world, in chronological order. That doesn’t necessarily mean biggest or cleanest or most modern or most quaint or any one particular thing. Sometimes it’s one of those things, sometimes a combination of things, and sometimes it might just have been my mood at the time I visited.

1. Valencia, Spain

I’m not really sure why I liked Valencia so much, to be honest. We only spent six days there, it rained for four of them and I was busy trying to finish our websites most of the rest of the time. But it just felt good there. I loved the architecture, and there was great graffiti, and a linear park in a dry riverbed. There was cheap food and sangria, and good paella. And the coat of arms of the city has a bat on it, which always helps.

2. Marrakesh, Morocco

Marrakesh is a bad old town, in every sense of the world. A corrupt sun-baked hive of deviltry and wickedness. I loved it from the first moment, when an angel-faced little boy tried to lure us down a dark alley. You need your wits about you in Marrakesh all the time, or you could just vanish and never be heard from again. It’s an overwhelming experience for all the senses, that city - the souks, the streets filled with tagine smoke, the donkey-carts in the narrow alleyways, the chaos in the mornings, the stillness of the afternoons, and the bustle of the evenings, and the calls from the minarets floating over it all.

3. Budapest, Hungary

Budapest is another entry in the list of cities that only spent a few days in, and that I loved, but couldn’t quite tell you why. Part of it is certainly the architecture, and part of it was the charmingly rattly old trams that run everywhere around the city. A lot of it was definitely the stray kittens and hedgehogs we saw all over the place. Any city that has kittens and hedgehogs playing together is a good place, I’d say. And there’s a castle and thermal baths and caves under the city, and the odd split-personality of Buda’s hills and Pest’s floodplain.

4. Paris, France

Paris. What could I possibly say about Paris that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, by writers a thousand times better than me? How about this: I didn’t fall in love with Paris. Well, not quite true. I did love Paris, I just wasn’t in love with Paris. I liked the city a lot, and I’d happily live there for a year or two. There’s a lot of overwrought sentiment about Paris, and I was prepared to be underwhelmed before I arrived. But it’s true, there really is nowhere quite like it. The buildings are stunning, it seems like every flat surface is tastefully ornamented, and the quality of light is truly unlike anywhere else. Notre Dame and its gargoyles, the Metro and its wrought-iron, the crèpes and the Catacombs. And there’s an energy about the place that’s caused by hundreds of thousands of people determinedly going about the daily business of making art that I found irresistible.

5. Kyoto, Japan

I swear that someday I’m going to come back and live in Kyoto. It’s a beautiful place, and one of the most liveable, walkable cities I’ve ever seen. Kyoto felt like home instantly, in a way that Valencia did, and in a way that Cape Town or Mumbai never could. It’s a dense city, without being crowded, and it has lots of urban green space. The quiet neighbourhoods are full of traditional wooden houses, and there are moss-covered temples and shrines everywhere. The river runs north to south with a walking and cycling path on both sides, its marshy shallows home to herons and egrets. It seemed like a nice spot to put down the packs and just live for awhile. I was powerfully tempted to do just that - enough to start looking at apartment listings, in fact - but in the end the urge to be on the road was still too strong.

6. Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo is the citiest city of them all, an unthinkably huge Futurist construction that ticks along like precision clockwork. There are 23 special wards that make up the megalopolis, each one a quasi-autonomous city in its own right. Overlaid on this amalgamation, though, is a patchwork of real neighbourhoods. We stayed with friends for three weeks in an area of Shinagawa ward called Nishi-Oi - a residential district of quiet, crooked streets and dog-walkers, a much-needed refuge from the intimidating city. Tokyo is a blur of impressions for me: the spaghetti tangle of the subway map’s twenty lines; Shinjuku’s cascades of glowing vertical signage; the geek’s dream of Akihabara; the costumes in Harajuku and the flash shops in the Ginza; the glittering skyline of the city from the monorail at Odaiba and the stillness of the Imperial Palace in Chiyoda. Noodle shops and lantern festivals and giant robot statues and tuna auctions and fireworks. I’ll never be rich enough to live in Tokyo, but I have wonderful memories of it, and I’ll be back there someday.

7. George Town, Malaysia

George Town, the capital of the Malaysian island state of Penang, is a very special place for me. We arrived exhausted after ten months of restless, relentless travel through India, Nepal and Asia. We didn’t fall in love with the place at first - in the beginning it was just a safe, cheap place we could stay, and Malaysia gave us three months entry visa-free. With time to breathe and relax at last, we just collapsed for awhile. But as the days turned into weeks, I realized that I really liked the place… a lot. What I didn’t know at the time but was later to realize, was that a lot of what I loved about George Town were actually things I loved about Malaysia itself - the mix of ethnicities, the real attempts at tolerance and multiculturalism, the good parts of Malaysia that are the same as the good parts of Canada. We spent six weeks in George Town, just living - eating at the same Indian restaurants and visiting the same temples, listening to the call to prayer from the minarets and feeding M&M’s to the geckos. Sheryl spent time watching her gang of elderly taxi drivers playing dam on a nearby street corner. Nights, we’d get watermelon juice and hawker food from the stalls in Lebuh Chulia. The buildings were old and crumbling and had trees growing from the roofs, the mosquitoes were ferocious and the rats were bigger than the cats, but I love the place, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.

8. Kuching, Malaysia

A lot of the things I liked about Penang, I liked about Kuching. It’s the capital city of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the jungle island of Borneo. We arrived there overland from Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, ill and physically worn out from the stresses of travelling cheap in Indonesia. Kuching was instant magic for me. Even the name, kucing, means “cat” in the Malay language, so I knew I’d love the place before I even arrived. We weren’t there three days before deciding we’d stay awhile, and in fact we stayed for two months. We took a room on Jalan China in a hostel run by a crazy Swedish girl, who I miss terribly. I got a membership at a gym and I walked across town every day, past the shophouses and all the local businesses, making friends with all the stray cats and ladyboys, doing my best to repair my budget-travel-ravaged health while simultaneously sabotaging my efforts by eating steamed buns, milo ais and Sarawak laksa as often as I could (we went to the same laksa vendor every time and he knew our order by heart). Every day at about 4pm the humid, thick air would coalesce into a huge downpour for an hour, and an hour after the streets would be dry - they understand good drainage in Borneo. We’d chat every day with people whose fathers and grandfathers had been headhunters, and took day trips out to see the orangutans in the jungle. I was sad to leave Kuching. I don’t know if life will bring me back to Cat City - Borneo is far away from anything - but I hope it does.

9. Wellington, New Zealand

I have fond memories of Windy Wellington from my first visit years ago, and that probably influences me now, but there’s still something about the place. It’s small enough that you feel like you know everybody, but big enough to feel like a real city. It’s hilly, and I love the little private funiculars that the rich people build to take themselves up to their houses. The sunlight on Wellington Harbour is always changing as the clouds blow in and out. And knowing there’s a huge geological fault-line right under the city and that it could all be shaken apart any day just makes me treasure it more.

10. Buenos Aires, Argentina

They call Buenos Aires the Paris of South America, and it’s true. It’s a huge, vibrant city with fascinating elegant, ornate and characteristic architecture. I fell in love with Buenos Aires the way that everyone told me I was supposed to fall in love with Paris. The people are sharp but friendly and affectionate. They live in the sidewalk cafés and never seem to sleep - you’ll see families with toddlers in the parks at 3 in the morning, but it doesn’t seem to shorten their tempers. Our first visit was for a month and a half in the spring, and there’s no city better in the springtime than BA. Wave after wave of different flowering trees: purple jacaranda, yellow tipa, fuschia bougainvillea, the pink blossoms and white fluff of the silk floss tree. We took a room in the quiet suburb of Belgrano with its cobbled streets and dog-walkers. Buenos Aires has its dark side, to be sure - crime is rampant. The worst downturn of our World Tour was a terrible theft that happened in the bus station there, and that led to our second six-week stay in the city. But even though it did me wrong, I still love the place, bad and good.

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3 Comments on this Dispatch:

February 4th, 2012

I really liked Wellington as well :) Can’t wait to visit some of the other cities on your list!

¬ Luke
February 5th, 2012

Well, I heard from Tokyo and Kuching, and they’re looking forward to seeing you. Unfortunately Marrakesh says it will be too busy to see you, but I left messages with the rest of them and I’ll let you know when they get back to me. :)

¬ Chris
February 5th, 2012

soooo….i just got back from Pittsburgh…? annnd it looked like mississauga?…i’ll shut up now.

¬ Remy Fallbrook
February 5th, 2012

I heard Pittsburgh is the next Singapore.

¬ Chris
February 6th, 2012

Dude, this is a great write-up from the perspective of a worldly-wise vagabond

¬ Wong Choong Cheok
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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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