There are few places in the world to which I don’t want to travel. Afghanistan, Somalia and Iran pretty much top that list. But then there’s another tier of cities that while I don’t have a problem visiting, they don’t really get me excited to travel. Throughout the course of my travels, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a lot of these cities I thought would be duds, but were actually really cool places to explore. Here are my three favorite surprisingly interesting cities.
Frankfurt – I hadn’t been in Frankfurt, Germany for more than an hour when someone working with the tourism board began a conversation with, “I know people think we’re boring but…” If that’s how someone who is paid to promote tourism begins a talk, then I knew that Frankfurt’s reputation must be really bad. Honestly though, I don’t understand why. Yes there’s a lot of banking going on, but it’s a cool little city to explore. My favorite part of town is the Altstadt, Old City.
Even though many parts of Frankfurt’s historic center were destroyed in World War II, the traditional city center was rebuilt to look exactly as it appeared before the War. Because of this preservation, the historic core retains much of the look, if not the age, of medieval Germany. The most popular attraction here is the Römerberg plaza, home to the Römer which has been Frankfurt’s city hall for more than six centuries. This is a great area to grab a coffee or hot cider and stroll along the ancient corridors, experiencing Old Germany at its best.
There are plenty of fun activities in and around Frankfurt making it decidedly interesting and a great destination.
St Augustine – Our trip to St. Augustine, Florida was a long weekend, an escape from DC to relax, play golf and do some sightseeing. I wasn’t really sure to expect, but one thing I didn’t prepare for was just how weird St. Augustine can be.
As we were walking through the tourist zone, I began to notice a lot of artists and eclectic looking people milling about, strumming guitars, and in general just hanging out. Then, beside the official tourist stores, there were cute little arts and crafts shops owned by the artists themselves and equally unique cafes and restaurants lining the street. This I was not expecting. From previous experiences around the world, the touristy areas usually stay touristy and the cool areas want nothing to do with them. In St. Augustine, they co-exist in what is an incredibly successful state of commercial symbiosis. Like birds on an elephant, the small shops depend on the large tourist sites to draw in their customers for them.
What it reminded me of most was New Orleans, which also exists in a permanent state of the strange and sublime. The same characteristics of southern charm and hospitality exist here as well, making such a strange mix of people even possible. The tradition of acceptance and even ambivalence towards the actions of one’s neighbors have made the cities of New Orleans and St. Augustine into the areas of general affirmation that they are today.
The rest of our brief stay in St. Augustine was a wonderful experience with strange new discoveries almost literally at every turn. From turn of the century, robber-baron hotels to a vibrant artists colony, the city never failed to surprise.
Kansas City – I didn’t actually choose to visit Kansas City, Missouri. I was there on a business trip and when I saw that I had a few hours all to myself, I decided to explore. Even though I didn’t have high hopes for the city, I ended up discovering one of my favorite museums in the world, the World War I Museum and Memorial.
I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I never knew that we had a national memorial or museum devoted to World War I. In fact, I thought it was the one war that did not have such representation. I realized the magnitude of my mistaken assumption when I stood in front of the massive Liberty Memorial in Kansas City.
If this impressive monument to the fallen soldiers of the first global war weren’t enough, contained within Liberty Memorial is the equally impressive National World War I Museum. The Museum is the new kid on the block, only completed in 2006. It was designed by the same expert who planned the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and the interpretation is on par with some of the best museums in the world.
Personally, there is nothing I like more than a great history museum and within a few minutes after entering the WWI Museum I wished that I had days to explore this one. The Museum leads the visitor, step by step, through the events that led to the global conflict. It’s not an easy task, but the massive amount of information compiled is presented expertly and by the end it is impossible for even the least interested to not have a greater understanding of the Great War.
The museum takes as long to explore as you have time, and I wished I had much more than an hour. I finished the tour by ascending the massive tower at the center of Liberty Memorial, which affords stunning views of the city. It was a perfect reflective moment to conclude my visit to one of the most important monuments in the country.
Kansas City also has a rich modern history of its own with a celebrated jazz and BBQ culture. Be sure to check out both when passing through town.
These are just a few of the cities that have surprised me around the world. More than the shock at finding something interested in these towns, they taught me a lesson. That just about everywhere in the world there is something interesting that makes that place totally unique.