The world is full of cities. Big cities, small cities, pretty cities, rough cities – they come in every shape and size. But now and then, you travel to a city that really captures your imagination, a place where every street corner seems to hold something magical. I’ve had that experience, and I imagine you have too. So I thought it would be fun to look at some of those special cities around the world — cities that will steal your heart and leave you with warm memories that last for years.
The list isn’t long; not that many cities pass the test, at least in my judgement. In fact, a few cities that others rhapsodize about have left me a bit cold — Rome, for example, as I explained in a previous post. But now and then I find one that opens my eyes, and evokes feelings I hadn’t expected. And when it’s time to leave, I do so with a tinge of sadness.
So here’s my list of six cities that will steal your heart. I’m sure you have one or two of your own; if you do, leave a comment and let us in on the secret.
The city of Lights is probably the world’s favourite tourist destination. And that’s no mystery: the city is a treat for all the senses. To walk along the Seine after dark and see the Eiffel Tower sparkle off the water; to wander down cobblestone streets and happen upon local street markets; to sit in one of the city’s legendary cafés and watch the flow of Parisian street life – it’s an experience like no other.
Sure, Paris is inundated with tourists, and the Latin Quarter has become a crowded thoroughfare for Japanese tour groups. But no number of gawking visitors can obscure the city’s essential charm — its history, it culture, its inimitable style. And even when the city is full of tourists, it’s still eminently livable; if you’re feeling a bit pushed, stroll over to the Luxembourg Gardens, pull up a chair and just melt into the greenery. I always say that London was built by bureaucrats, but Paris was built by artists. To me, the city itself is a work of art.
If there’s a place on earth that can truly be called fairy tale city, it’s Denmark’s beautiful capital, Copenhagen. This is the city of Hans Christian Andersen. And even though he’s long since dead, his spirit is everywhere. Fanciful statues adorn city squares, crowds flock to the waterfront to see the Little Mermaid statue, and in the heart of downtown is Tivoli Gardens, the original “happiest place on earth”.
It’s not all about H.C. Andersen, though. Copenhagen’s old town is a walker’s delight, lined with lovely canals where tour boats glide by. There’s a fairy tale castle right in the middle of town, and two royal palaces, complete with a daily changing of the guard. And when the weather is good, it’s a delight to sit in an outdoor patio and have some smorrebrod, Denmark’s signature open-faced sandwiches, or a Tuborg beer. But bring money – this is not a cheap place to visit.
I’ve been to many parts of Mexico, but the place I keep coming back to is the lovely city of Puerto Vallarta. The city is marred by urban sprawl these days, with resort hotels stretching far up the coast. But to me, Puerto Vallarta is still the old town: the charming zocalo with its gazebo where people dance on Sunday nights, the old cathedral with the crown of Empress Carlota on top, the rambling hills where whitewashed homes look down on lovely Banderas Bay.
You could spend a long time in Puerto Vallarta, walking the lovely malecon, where vendors sell tempting snacks and sometimes huge whales cavort in distance. Or just sitting by the white sand beach in the early morning with a coffee and watching the pelicans glide by. It’s a place with a life and a flavour of its own, truly Mexican but somehow special. This is where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton had their fairy tale romance, and somehow a little of the magic still remains.
If there’s a Canadian city that’s worthy of making this list, it’s Quebec City. This is one of those cities that’s a journey back to the past. The lower town, on the banks of the St. Lawrence, is a city of the 1700s preserved whole, a place where you can feel the spirit of old Europe. And atop the hill stands the Château Frontenac, looking like a castle; beyond its towers lies a maze of cobblestone streets where you can get lost browsing open-air art markets and peering into centuries-old churches.
Just the time travel isn’t quite enough to make old Quebec such a special place, however. The city has that special joie de vivre for which the French are known around the world. And if you stay even a few days, it’s hard not to get the feeling yourself: what’s life for, if not to listen to some music, eat some tourtiere, and sip a glass of good wine? And if you do it in a café that’s been standing for 300 years, all the better.
With its brilliant parliament building lit up like a golden palace on the banks of the Danube, Budapest is a place like no other. But beyond its grand buildings and its famous bridges, this ancient city — the marriage of two neighbours facing each other across the great river — is a place that welcomes visitors with open arms. And if you come, cruising down the Danube or flying in from points west, it will catch you in its spell.
Maybe it’s just that Budapest is so … different, with its many thermal baths and its diverse neighbourhoods, each defined by its adjacent bridge. Maybe it’s the laid-back, easy-going feeling of the city, with its open-air patios, pop-up clubs, and spontaneous dances in the public squares. Maybe it’s the quaint-looking trams that rumble down the streets, or the fanciful turrets of the Fishermen’s Bastion on Buda Hill. Or the shady avenues where bicycles sometimes outnumber the cars. Whatever the charm is, it worked its magic on me.
You might know Salzburg as the birthplace of Mozart, the site of a famous music festival, or the lush setting for The Sound of Music. But it’s not until you arrive and walk through the city centre that you begin to feel its charm. A farmer’s market sells fresh produce across the street from a stately palace, with beautiful gardens and shady trees. And across the bridge, over the Salzach River, is the ancient quarter where the famous composer was born. It looks much as it did in the 1700s, with beautiful buildings presenting classic views no matter where you turn.
That alone makes Salzburg a place worth visiting. But you don’t really appreciate its true character until you spend a few minutes strolling along the riverfront, where people eat their picnic lunches with a magnificent view of the Old Town and the mountains beyond. Or wander through the maze of ancient streets, poking your head into curio shops or stopping to have a schnitzel and a beer in a traditional Austrian restaurant. Then it hits you: this is a wonderful place to be. And when the music plays, it must be even lovelier. I don’t know about you, but I could live here.
So there they are, my six cities that will steal your heart. If you’d like to know a little more about them, click on the links in each section to read my city guides. There are other places that might have made the list — like New Orleans (a bit too party-hearty), Vienna (close, but a bit big) or Strasbourg (not really there long enough). But every city can’t be your favourite, and I can truly say each one of these six has a place in my heart. Pay them a visit, and they’ll likely have a place in yours.