Monday, October 19, 2015

Becoming a City-Centric Traveler

A few months back I wrote about a sudden insight.  After a lifetime of measuring travel by number of states and countries visited, I realized that counting cities was more meaningful.

In retrospect, I’m disappointed that I was so slow to get that point.  Much of my travel history had been city-centric.

When I first crossed the Atlantic, the immediate destination was two weeks of golf and sightseeing in Scotland, but there was no doubt that my wife and I would extend our trip to see London.

A later honeymoon, with a different wife, was spent exploring the nooks and crannies of Montreal.

I once took an east coast trip, traveling by train from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and back again, just to walk the downtowns and to visit the ballparks.

And one of the best trips of my life was two weeks in a walk-up apartment a short block from the Grand Canal of Venice.

And yet, despite all those fine trips, I continued to monitor my lifetime of traveling by counting the number of states and countries I’d visited, while also strategizing how to keep increasing those tallies.  Looking back, I find myself barely worthy of the sobriquet “urbanist”.

Having ritualistically whacked myself on the head a dozen times with “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, I’ve now begun rethinking my travel bucket list.

But how is a good urbanist to proceed with city-centric travel planning?   I began by searching for the book “Fifty Cities that Urbanists Should Visit before They Die”, but it hasn’t yet been written.

There are books about the best cities for travelers to visit, but those books are about sight-seeing and nightlife.  I want a book that lists the cities that have done the most creative things with transit systems, mixed-use, door yards, and the like.  And that book doesn’t yet exist.  (I’d love to be the author, but find myself underfunded to do the necessary traveling and underqualified.  I lament both deficiencies.)

Without an urbanist travel bible, I began my city-centric travel planning with a list of the largest U.S. cities by population.  It was an imperfect source of the information I desired, but it was a start.

Looking at the top fifty, I find that I’ve yet to visit thirteen of them.  (For comparison, I’ve not yet visited eight of the fifty states.)  I’ve now moved those thirteen missing cities to the top of my vacation wishlist.  Which is mostly a good thing because it means that travel to Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Fort Worth has replaced travel to the Dakotas.  I’m not a big fan of Texas urbanism, but I’d rather visit Austin than Fargo.

Some may argue that merely setting foot in a city doesn’t really give one a complete sense of the city, a point on which they’re certainly correct.  I’ve lived in cities for years and still been surprised by little neighborhoods or shopping districts.  So the goal of visiting a city should be to hang around for a week or longer, riding the subway, wandering about mixed-use neighborhoods, and exploring alleys for little known diners.

But I’ll argue that even a visit of a few hours can give a sense of the place.  As noted above, I once took a trip that involved riding Amtrak up and down the Atlantic seaboard.  Exiting the Amtrak stations in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. were all distinct experiences, with the unique ambiance of each city quickly evident.  So while a visit of a week or more is preferred, even a half-day of eyes-wide-open exploring can be insightful.

As another example, the three photos above were taken from spots I reached within thirty minutes of arriving in each Italian city and yet each captures a fundamental municipal character which I had no cause to question over the remainder of my visit.  (Venice is of course obvious.  Il Duomo in Florence overlooks a city full of bustle and pride, while the public market in Padua bespeaks a town more comfortable with itself and its daily enjoyments.)

I also find that the default mode for travel agents isn’t urban-centric.

A year ago, I began preliminary planning for a 2015 Irish trip.  My plan was for a bus tour around the island, with time to explore Dublin on both ends of the countryside time.  The travel company suggested spending my Dublin time in a converted castle a long bus ride from the downtown core.  When I asked about less historic and more urban options closer to the action, an American chain hotel with a concierge was suggested.  I was trying to explain that all I wanted was a simple room over a pub favored by the locals when other events forced me to suspend trip planning.

If I’m able to resume planning for a 2016 trip, I’ll start with a different travel agent and will describe my goal as two weeks in downtown Dublin with a break in the middle for a bus tour.  I suspect that approach will get me closer to what I want.

Or perhaps I’ll switch over to two weeks Vienna with day trips to smaller Austrian towns.  Either works as long as the city is understood to be the focus.

On the subject of city travel, I recently spent a vacation touring many of the larger cities of the South.  Montgomery, New Orleans, Memphis, and Nashville all had urbanist lessons to impart, some of which have already begun finding their ways into this blog.  But one city in particular thrilled me with its growing tally of urbanist elements.  Details will follow in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. We've discovered that for us, the best travel experiences come from booking an airBnB apartment in the 'historic city center' of whatever place we're visiting. Many European cities have a car-free zone as part of this designated area, which is always a bonus. Getting to and from the train station can sometimes be challenging. Packing ultra-light (no denim!) is critical. When we stayed in Ljubljana (totally adorable medieval city) we used the CityBike rental to go to the train station when we left, because it was easier than hiking outside the city center and meeting a taxi.

    1. Raoena, thanks for the comment. I agree with you completely. Staying at a hotel and using a car puts a filter between you and the place you're trying to experience. Plus, it's fun visiting a grocery store to buy laundry soap and the ingredients for dinner. One of my favorite vacations was two weeks in Venice at a fourth-story walkup I found on Craigslist. I was the first person to use the apartment, which had spent the first 500 years of its existence as an attic.

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