Reader Michael R James is probably better travelled than most readers of The Urbanist so I thought his take on the nominations received so far for “favourite city” in the world was worth dragging out of comments and giving more prominence.

Please note though that the City Limits comp doesn’t finish until midnight on Thursday. Michael’s count is at 5pm on 8 March.


With 68 votes (69 posts, one informal) so far, I believe the tally is:

First with 5 votes:

Equal Second with 4 votes each:
Paris, Hong Kong & Tokyo

Equal Fifth with 3 votes each:
London, NYC, Melbourne.

Equal Ninth with 2 votes each:
Rome, Amsterdam, Vancouver, Berlin, Vienna, Florence

** Follow this link to be in the running to win one of two copies of the Grattan Institute’s new book, City Limits **

Pretty thin data or rationale but we mustn’t let that stop us having some fun critiquing other people’s choices! Chacun ses gouts of course but I wonder how many have actually lived in their nominated city (for a significant period versus passed thru as a tourist)? Also, I would automatically eliminate those who nominate their home city where they have lived most of their lives. (It’s called imprinting. And it means Melbourne could not be on the list.) This critique is based on the boring notion of using real-world criteria, ie. practicality & affordability (loosely) rather than the fantasy of, say, living in a 250 sqm penthouse on the Avenue Montaigne. Banal, I know …

Paris and Barcelona may be clichéd but deserved top choices because they are big serious cities and very lively liveable places with indefinable qualities (yes, a je ne sais pas); and you don’t actually have to be rich to enjoy them. Indeed you can buy some astounding museum-quality big Belle Epoque apartments in Barcelona for the cost of an Australian apartment that has half the space and one tenth the charm. (And today buying that Barca apartment will also buy you citizenship which means EU citizenship/Schengen travel freedoms!). Another great walking city. Great harbour city. Great old quarters (Barrio Gotic, Ribera, El Raval and, my fave, the beautiful peaceful Gracia to the north), great Haussmannian core of the 19th + 20th century city (the Eixample, the grid north of Ramblas/south of Gracia). Great food. Great weather. Bonus: southern France is less than an hour away by TGV and soon will be as fast all the way to Paris. Hmm, now there’s an idea/fantasy: a wonderful big apartment in Barcelona (affordable) and a tiny pied a terre in Paris (because that’s all most of us could afford) ….

Hong Kong is a very exciting place to visit and I have imagined living there if not sure for how long … An oddity of HK of which not every visitor is aware, is that some 70% of land area is untouched national park; true this is mostly because of geography and that the biggest island of Lantau was, until 18 years ago, only accessible by boat (now it has Disneyworld, the burgeoning newtown of Tung Chung which overlooks one of the biggest airports in the world). Nevertheless this means wilderness walks are never more than a short walk (or Metro ride) from where you work and live. Indeed, for living I might fantasize about a place on Lamma Island: calm, mostly national park and affordable unlike anywhere else you might dream of, say, on HK island (most expensive real estate on the planet), but a mere 30 minute high-speed ferry ride from Central.

Tokyo is strictly for die-hard Japanophiles; it’s pretty much a monoglot culture and while it undoubtedly has its attractions in an almost bottomless city with good Metro, but no I don’t think that is enough. When I worked there briefly I was lucky to live within walking distance of my institute but almost everyone else in the lab had horrendous (rail) commutes, such that several people slept over in the lab for 3 nights a week. David Yao (#68), Tokyo has one of the lowest, if not the lowest, amount of public green space per inhabitant than any world city.

People still like London & NYC, though I wonder if it is more liking the idea of these cities because IMO the quotidian reality doesn’t quite live up to the hype unless perhaps you are a master of the universe (in finance); ie. good experience for a few years but … And very expensive for everything. Although way ahead of any Australian or most American city, in terms of great walking they don’t really compare to several others on this list. I’ve not quite defined the reasons but walking in both of these cities is somehow wearying whereas I can walk forever in Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam and even Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Rome is IMO a bit like some of those nominations that people like the thought of (and it is so cinematic if not quite so in the flesh; indeed in peak summer it is a place I only want to get out of), but personally it would drive me loopy after 6 months. If I was as rich as Clooney I would totally get living on Lake Como but note he doesn’t own anything in Rome.

Vancouver is another place I considered, more than once, but after ten years of the UK I decided that SAD* weather was not really what I wanted to live with permanently. (*Seasonal Affective Disorder). Points for being (second) homes to Joni M, kd lang, William Gibson et al. And by the way, Seattle just a short hop south of the border, has identical Northwest Pacific weather (there’s a reason grunge music originated here) but without the public transport or genial Canadian qualities.

Berlin was hip when it was down and out in the 70s and now is trendy-hip as it goes thru its modern renaissance after reunification. Big exciting sophisticated city. Excellent Metro. But still there is a reason why many Germans head to the Med coast on their free time… and often own a second home there where they intend to retire …

Vienna is a second or third tier grande-dame Euro city. Yes it has some grand palaces and public buildings but seriously nothing on Paris (even if the French stole the croissant from Vienna), London or Berlin, not to mention Barcelona or even Prague and Budapest. And that Viennese sense of humour? There is probably an archeological dig for it somewhere in the city. It was almost certainly more interesting in the immediate post-war period of chaos as the victors scrabbled over the ruins like Orson Welles inThe Third Man. Now it is just a prosperous fossil. Speaking of which it is also world headquarters of OPEC, responsible for the single biggest factor killing the planet.

Amsterdam is relatively small compared to most on this list and that is undoubtedly part of its charm. More human in scale than the very big world cities but without sacrificing much in the way of culture etc. Even good food luckily due to the Indonesian & Surinamese heritage. The jewel of Vondel Park. Best single-artist museum in the world (Van Gogh). Small pub culture without the British hooligan/Australian bogan element. Very civilized and charming place with genuinely tolerant culture. (Almost all the others on this list are aggressive places where you really must go native a.s.a.p. to hope to survive, thrive and be content.)

Florence is the oddball here because it is a small town compared to the others. And again I suspect a dream that might not survive reality. When I first visited (early 80s) I vowed “never again”: polluting, noisy traffic right in the renaissance heart and hard up against the walls of the duomo, no public places to sit, tourist rip-offs everywhere and too many tourist crowds and not enough infrastructure to cope (ie. in one word: Italian; probably billions in tourist income every year but mostly every second building in semi-permanent scaffolding and decrepitude etc.). By the 90s they had finally pedestrianised parts of the old town but still … I think you have to be Italian or at least Mediterranean descent to enjoy living in Italy. The further south you go the less personal space they allow you, and Rome is already too far south …