When I was temporarily living in Warsaw this summer I took a weekend trip to visit Krakow. My first thought upon seeing the latter was what a mistake I’d made in choosing to live in Warsaw. Krakow was so beautiful! The old buildings and the winding roads and the park that encircles the city were all a kind of magic. The evening rains just added to the atmosphere and that special je nais sais quois. Less than 24 hours later, I’d reassessed.
It’s not that Krakow was any less beautiful. It was just that I had seen the entire old town three or four times. It was a great sized city to visit for a weekend, but some of the charm would be lost living there, I think.
Fairy Tale Cities
Since then I’ve seen quite a few more cities on this trip. I’ve enjoyed them all (yes, even Bratislava) but only some fit into what I’m calling “fairy tale” cities. This is inherently a subjective metric that is best defined by the old axiom “you know it when you see it.” Often, in Europe at least, these cities are historic places that almost seem to be good to be true. And in some ways, that’s what they are. Hoisted upon shaky foundations like tourism and consumerism, these cities are almost like a form of Disneyland. As much as I love them, there’s something ephemeral or pretend about them that just doesn’t feel substantial.
These cities exist not just in Europe but everywhere in the world. Look at the pictures below. From afar, Ljubljana and Luang Prabang (which are more than 8000 kilometers away from each other) look like they are the same city.
Having cobblestones and castles helps, but fairy tale cities are as much about vibe as anything else. I’d argue Te Anau, New Zealand, Launceston, Tasmania, Guatape, Colombia Jaisalmer, India and Kuching, Malaysia all fit the bill based on their charm and proximity to nature.
Other cities, like Warsaw, like Berlin, like most cities in the world, really, are more mundane. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a long history and plenty of tourists or that they’re not beautiful. It just means that they are less defined by an imaginary past. There’s more of an emphasis on the present. Some of my favorite cities are like this: Melbourne, Fukuoka, Bogota, and Vancouver BC all fit this description.
I think cities such as Paris, London, Tokyo, Bangkok, Delhi, fit here too. Not that they can’t feel magical, but they’re so big that it’s a different experience. Fairy tales are on a personal scale that megacities overwhelm. That’s just my gut instinct though. Feel free to disagree.
Mythical & Mundane
Now there is third kind of city. It’s sort of one that splits the difference. Your first steps there may feel like walking through the past or a gateway into another world but the longer the spend there, the more you realize how much more there is to the place. Prague has a population of 1.3 million people and receives 8 million tourists a year (at least a million of which you’ll see on the Charles Bridge at any time) at least partially because it’s a perfect fusion of old and new. It’s a living theme park, you could say.
Another place that fits this description is Tallinn, where you walk along 15th century cobblestone streets next to historic Hanseatic homes along side humble food delivery robots.
Do you have a preference for one of these kinds of cities to visit? Or to live in? Where there any cities I left off? Let me know!