A few years ago, I returned to Europe after a decade spent mostly exploring Latin America. And after such a long absence, I found myself viewing the continent with new eyes, and appreciating it more than ever — particularly its cities.
While the New World has some great cities — and certainly some big ones — there are few that really rank as great ones. New York, Vancouver, New Orleans, maybe Mexico City: they all have some great sights and their own unique style. But few of them have the combination of history, style and convenience you find in the great cities of Europe.
It may be about how new North American cities are, in relative terms. Or it may be our dogged pursuit of profit and modernity at the expense of culture. But to my mind, the cities of the New World pale in comparison to the places they were once modelled after.
Here are six ways European cities get it right, seen through the eyes of a North American traveller.
They preserve their history
Visit almost any European city and you’ll find that all roads lead to the old, historic district, which in many cases has been preserved or restored to give you a vivid picture of how it was hundreds of years in the past. For a North American, this is a revelation. To eat in a pub that’s been doing business in the same spot for 300 years, or hear a town clock chime the way it’s done ever since medieval times, is hard for New World travellers even to fathom.
That’s because with some exceptions, North American cities have been masters of getting rid of their histories. I live in the only real historic district of my home town, Toronto. It amounts to about five square blocks, after a wave of destruction in the 1960s. Even today, it’s under constant attack from greedy developers looking to build giant glass towers. When was the last time you visited a city to see its big, shiny condos?
They have pedestrian malls
One of the things that took me by surprise when I started visiting Europe seriously was how many cities have pedestrian malls or zones. Virtually all the capitals of Scandinavia have a pedestrians-only main street in the middle of town. So do Vienna, Rotterdam and Venice, among many others. They’re invariably busy, and likely profitable — I found Stockholm’s downtown mall full of people, even on a Sunday
What’s so special about pedestrian malls? They truly make the city centre a place for humans, not one where humans hug the sidewalks to stay out of the way of cars. In North America, of course, the cities are ruled by cars, and proposals to create pedestrian malls are seen as a threat to people’s God-given right to drive anywhere they want.
To be fair, some North American cities have experimented with pedestrian malls, and some are great successes, like the unique San Antonio River Walk, which winds around under the auto traffic street. But a lot of the ones who’ve tried it later rejigged the malls to allow traffic. Well, at least they tried …
They have city squares
One of the other things European city planners got right was to put a large square right in the middle of town. In the Spanish world, they’re in front of the cathedral; in other places they front a government building. And very often, there are others scattered through the downtown area, places where people can gather, attend public events, and have dinner or a drink while they admire the architecture.
If North American cities have a square, it’s usually in front of city hall, and you won’t likely find much in the way of eating and drinking places around it. Toronto has two downtown squares — both utilitarian stretches of concrete. To their credit, some cities have come up with public squares on private property, like New York’s Rockefeller Center, whose outdoor skating rink has become an iconic part of the city.
They have canals
A surprising number of European cities are lined with canals. Most of us automatically think of Amsterdam or Venice, but a number of other cities have them too, including Copenhagen and even St. Petersburg (seen here). It’s only natural: through history, many cities have been built beside major waterways. And in the days before cars, the best way to get people and goods around town was by making canals.
The canals aren’t much needed for transport these days, but they provide a great and unique way to see a city. In many cases they wind through the most historic areas, past beautiful old merchants’ shops, cathedrals, concert halls — some of the best architecture in the city. After all, that’s where the money was. And of course, it’s more fun touring a city by boat than by bus.
With more people walking around downtown, European cities need a good way to get them in and out of town. So they have good transit systems, with extensive routes that can get you where you want to go quickly, and at all hours. In most cases, they also have a direct transit link to the airport — and it’s affordable, often costing less than $10.
Major North American cities do have good transit systems, but in places like my hometown, they fail to expand them fast enough to keep up with their population, resulting in a slow, overcrowded system. And in the endless, underpopulated stretches of suburbia, life is almost impossible without a car. That’s no accident: suburbia was created by the car and the superhighway. Transit? What’s transit?
They have city cards
Most of the major cities in Europe — and some of the smaller ones — have a city card that gives you access to many of the major sites for one price. For example, the London Pass gives you free admission to more than 60 attractions, including the Tower of London and Windsor Castle. In some cases, the card even lets you skip the lineup. Many city cards also include free use of the transit system, so you save even more.
Some readers have questioned whether these passes are worthwhile, but with the admission prices for attractions these days, it doesn’t take many museums and palaces to make up the cost. And even if the tourist card doesn’t fit your needs, consider a transit pass, which lets you run around town to your heart’s delight for a pretty cheap price.
City passes do exist in a number of North American cities, but they’re not widely promoted: I only discovered them while researching this post. Do look for them if you’re visiting a new city — attractions are not cheap here, either.
That’s six ways European cities get it right and we don’t. Some of them are accidents of history. But as I noted here, everyone has a history — it’s whether you preserve it that’s the test.
Hopefully, North American cities will someday realize that they exist for more than just making money, and that their addiction to the automobile is making them less liveable than they should be. London has imposed a toll to discourage people from driving downtown. Will North American cities follow suit?
Until then, I’ll continue to visit the great cities of Europe — on foot, or by canal, or by public transit. And I’ll sit in the squares and have a drink (an expensive one, but still worthwhile). And if it’s nothing like my own city back home, well, I guess that’s the point of travelling.