There are a lot of clichés in travel: hidden gem, timeless wonder, off the beaten path and so on. One that I tend to overuse is saying that a city is made up of its neighborhoods, which when referring to a large city is a fairly idiotic statement. What else would it be made up of? That being said, these neighborhoods many times define our experiences when we travel and often can determine whether or not we like a city at all. Walking through the Marais in Paris, hanging out with hipsters in St Pauli, Hamburg or rubbing elbows with the elite in Georgetown, Washington DC – these neighborhoods define at least part of the travel experience for anyone who visits. Finding an energetic, colorful and fun neighborhood is one of the great travel joys, but they’re certainly not all made the same. For me though, these neighborhoods weren’t just nice to explore, but transformed my travel experience into something special.
1. Cape Town – Bo Kaap
One of my favorite cities in the world, it’s hard to pinpoint what makes this city so very special, but the colorful Bo Kaap neighborhood added a lot of personality to my own experiences in the Mother City. Bright colors and delicious smells wafting through the air, that’s what I remember most about this vibrant part of town. The Bo Kaap is the heart of the Cape Malay population in Cape Town, who originally arrived to Cape Town as slaves brought from Southeast Asia by the Dutch. Over time their cultural, and culinary adaptations became ingrained into daily life in South Africa, especially the food and especially in Cape Town. The bright colors that are now emblematic of the neighborhood is a more recent phenomenon, starting in the 90s after the end of apartheid. Painting the homes in bright, cheerful colors was a way to express happiness and joy and has developed into a tradition throughout the neighborhood. Owners may paint their homes whenever they want to, just as long as there’s variety on the street. When you visit take a walk around, learn about its impressive history but also try to get to know the people who live there. I took a cooking class in the home of a Bo Kaap resident, eating a delicious lunch but learning a lot about daily life in the neighborhood in the process.
2. Paris – Montmartre
My favorite city in the world, I find it nearly impossible not to love Paris. A massive city of course, there are dozens of small neighborhoods and quiet enclaves all offering something to be discovered, but my favorite is one of the first I ever visited when I was 17 – Montmartre. Of course I’m not alone in my love for this neighborhood on a hill, thanks to the views and the beautiful Sacre Coeur Basilica, it’s also one of the most visited parts of town, but with good reason. Always a place for artists, musicians, ladies of the night and all types of Bohemians, they were hipsters a century before the term came into common parlance. It’s still an unusual part of town, where painters crowd the streets honing their craft as tourists gaze at the works from behind. But it’s more than that, you can also find your own quiet, private moments here if you just take the time to seek them out.
3. Cairo – Old City
Cairo was a hard city for me to get to know but I did eventually leave having enjoyed my time there. A big reason for that was the afternoon I spent exploring the part of town known as the Old City. In a place like Cairo, Old means something different than in almost any other urban center, with quiet corners that date back millennia and the history well beyond that. My favorite experience in this always energetic part of town was the so-called Hanging Church, ancient Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church. It’s called that because it sits above a Roman fortress and literally hangs over a passageway. Probably dating back to the 3rd century, the church is a glimpse into early Christian life that is hard to find anywhere in the world today. I arrived right after Mass, and the fragrant smell of incense still filled the air in a thick haze. I’ve been to a lot of churches, but seeing parishioners in them is particularly special, to see the church operate in the way in which it was intended. While the church is beautiful, it’s the nearby underground passages that are the real thrill. An ancient area where Coptic Christians have lived for centuries and where once the Holy Family hid from Romans, it’s a beautiful labyrinth of corridors and alleyways, a small city set apart from the normally chaotic streets of Cairo.
4. London – East End
It took me a long time and several trips to London before I started to like the city. For some reason this was a place where I found it hard to connect, to find positive attributes but last year that connection finally happened, and a big reason for that shift was a remarkable walking tour I took – the Eating London Food Tour. The tour covers the East End of London, which has undergone a lot of changes in recent years and nearly all for the better. This part of London has lived a full life with several waves of immigration defining and redefining the neighborhood over the decades. The tour seeks to share that history through the culinary gifts left by those immigrants; to tell their stories through food, the best way to do so in my opinion. Sure, the food was delicious and the guide one of the best I’ve ever had, but spending several hours walking through this eclectic part of London was the real thrill. I would never have visited on my own, not knowing where to go or what to see, but thanks to the guide this neighborhood was opened up to me and in the process, made me finally appreciate why so many people love this world capital so very much.
5. Brisbane – South Bank
Brisbane in Queensland, Australia was a city that surprised me. I thought it would be a decent place, don’t misunderstand me, but I didn’t expect to be as wowed by it as I was. Instead of a generic state capital, I found a fun, dynamic and beautiful city – the third largest in Australia. One of my favorite parts of town and one that taught me a lot about Brisbane was the area known as the South Bank. Brisbane wasn’t always a bustling city, in fact for a very long time it was a sleepy country town. In chatting with longtime residents, a few made the point that the World Expo in 1988 transformed the city in every positive way imaginable. It shook it, showed it what it could be and let Brisbane transform itself into the urban oasis it is today. On the site of the Expo is what is called the South Bank, beautiful parklands area that includes a riverside promenade, restaurants, cafes, nearby museums and even a man-made “beach.” It’s a beautiful, natural part of town and one of many around Brisbane, all offering residents a quality of life that many cities don’t enjoy. That was my one take away from Brisbane, that the city cares about its residents, wants to provide them with great opportunities to be outside and to relax and for me, that was encapsulated in my walk through the pastoral South Bank Parklands.
6. Berlin – Prenzlberg
Prenzlberg or Prenzlauer Berg is one of Berlin’s many neighborhoods that has seen a huge increase in popularity recently. Immediately after reunification, Prenzlburg was home to bohemian youth – a district living on the edge. In more recent years though it has gone through a sort of gentrification, more yuppies than hippies now call the neighborhood home, yet it still retains a certain edgy vibe. The avenues are lined with beautiful, leafy trees and on the weekends you can find markets brimming with fresh vegetables, fruits and other delicious morsels. If you want to live like a true Berliner though, start your weekend off with a long, relaxing brunch at a local café with good friends. Speed is not the goal here, instead enjoying good food and conversation is, so just relax and go with the flow.
What are some of your favorite neighborhoods around the world?