Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Top 50 Cities to See in Your Lifetime"

These lists are everywhere, I'm sure you've seen them:
etc. These lists play on our fear of the temporal nature of life, our fear of not living well enough, of missing out on something. The popular list format  is also a catchy way to draw in readers with the modern day attention span of a fruit fly. These lists, however, can have some harmful consequences that I'd like to address. [Full disclosure, I actually have the 1,001 Places to See Before You Die book and I love it].

The evils of third-party travel bucket lists:

  •  They make something concrete out of what is, in reality, quite ambiguous. There are some things most people agree are life changing, quintessential travel moments, such as riding an elephant in SE Asia, hiking through the ruins of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, and seeing the great European capitals glitter and shine in their timeless glory. Even these categories, however, are pretty vague: which country has the best elephant rides (is it even a humane activity to partake in?), which ruin is the "must see": Chichen Itza? Machu Pichu? Which city is more classic: Paris? London? Rome? You see where the ambiguity lies.
  • People have different preferences. So what if you hate art? If it doesn't give you pleasure to see it, even the undisputed masterpieces of the world, you'd be wasting your time spending 5 hours at the Hermitage even if it is the #1 museum in Europe. You'd be better off taking that time to do a canal tour or have a traditional meal. Everyone's travel style is different, and these lists tend to favor the compiler's preferences- it just isn't fair to make people feel like they're missing something necessary.
  • They're judgey. Has anyone ever said to you, "well, you missed the real country-x" or "but that's not the real experience"? People develop notions that there is one way to travel: even alternative travel communities often tout their brand of couch surfing, backpack toting, otbp, back-door-finding travel as the only way. Although for the most part, those travel-hippies are my people, I absolutely can't support any style of travel being objectively the best! These lists propagate the idea that travel has an ideal form, an apex, a model- and anyone who thinks that is just plain wrong. There are as many different travel styles as people, and of the 8, 117 municipalities in Spain, if you'd rather see a village on the sea than Barcelona or Madrid- even if it's not on a list- that's okay.
  • You'll have the best trip by doing and seeing what you want. Not what a list tells you to. These lists can guilt you into taking trips your heart isn't really singing for (like my trip to Italy), and can end up costing you time, money, and stress that can be really harmful. I don't care if everybody and their mom (even including me) is telling you to go to country-z, if you aren't into it- DON'T GO*.
  • The encourage on-the-surface traveling. I sat down with the first list I've linked above and check off the places I'd been. As I went through, though, I had to make a third category: haven't been, been, and need to go back. That third category is for places I have been in name, I followed all the rules: left the airport, stayed overnight, ate a meal, whatever your personal criteria for having "been somewhere", I've done it. But I still don't feel that I've really seen these cities, and that is a personal, qualitative measurement. For example: I spent 17 hours in Istanbul, saw only one or two of the sights that most people would consider "must see", yet I feel that I experienced it better than my 2.5 days in Vienna! A list with check boxes makes it seem like the most important thing is to get the passport stamp, not to actually absorb the city and understand what it's all about.

There are great things about these lists as well:

  • For people just getting into international travel, they can help familiarize them with some of the most popular destinations
  • They can help even the most seasoned traveler decide where to take his or her next trip
  • They often come with beautiful pictures 
  • They inspire and feed wanderlust 
  • They are generally fun and lighthearted, and encourage travelers to reach out to new places they might not have thought of otherwise
Let's just keep in mind that, in general, these lists are one person's or a small group's opinion, they are by nature very limited, and they can have an exclusionary effect that we want to avoid. As long as you walk into it with your eyes open and the bias apparent, however, there's nothing wrong with a little wistful indulging! So, in that vein, I have combed through dozens of lists to find my personal favorite, and added a few amendments.

Check it out:

The original**


In my opinion***, you can skip: Houston, TX; Las Vegas, Nevada; Rome, Italy; Stockholm, Sweden; The Caribbean and the Bahamas (yes, the entire thing); Huangzhou, China

In my opinion, you should consider instead:
Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

St. Petersburg, Russia

The Republic of Georgia

Dalmatian Coast

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Xinjiang Province, China

more places in Africa that I am, regretfully, not familiar with...yet  ;)
Lalibela, Ethiopia

*Some restrictions apply, including but not limited to: being scared for no good reason, being boring, being lazy, being lame.
**This is from Travel and Leisure magazine, and the locations have one "essential" thing to do next to them- just keep in mind that these suggestions were made with the typical T+L reader in mind (this reader is likely older, whiter, and richer than you).
***"In my opinion" here means, if you travel like me, if you value the things I do, and have similar preferences, you'll probably agree with me

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