Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Places of a Lifetime


Often promoted as the gateway to Europe, the Netherlands’s largest metropolis has always been one of the continent’s most progressive and cosmopolitan capitals, and nothing much has changed since the city first came to glory as a trading center in the 17th century. You can still relive that Golden Age. Stroll, boat, or bike along the city’s canals, lined with gabled houses, to experience one of Europe’s best preserved, photogenic, and intact historic city centers, or visit the Dutch master paintings in the Rijksmuseum. But don’t stop there. Always looking ahead, and reinventing itself, Amsterdam has recently emerged as a 21st-century style center. How to sample the city’s purely contemporary side? Run through the theme boutiques and galleries of the western canal ring, dine at one of the city’s creative global kitchens, catch a contemporary dance performance at the Muziektheater, or visit the revitalized East Docklands area, which offers a study in sleek contemporary architecture and smart urban planning.


Birthplace of drama, democracy, and philosophy, Athens today is synonymous with smog, cement, and aesthetic anarchy. But after a radical revamp for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, Athens is enjoying a renaissance. The clash between myth and modern-day grit is an Athenian trademark: marble busts adorn souvlaki joints, Byzantine churches nestle beside bouzouki clubs, the Parthenon reigns serene above a ragged expanse of apartment blocks. More than three million people are crammed into this loud, laid-back city. With 300 days of sunshine a year, a 75-mile (120-kilometer) coastline, and 3 a.m. traffic jams, irrepressible Athens is a muse for beach bums and barflies, as much as classical scholars and art lovers.


For a sprawling city with the nation’s ninth-largest metro area, Atlanta is surprisingly lush with trees—magnolias, dogwoods, Southern pines, and magnificent oaks. Its mix of antebellum architecture and sexy glass high-rises reflects the paradox of the place; Atlanta is an ever-evolving city, honing her identity as she grows. Though steeped in Civil War history and a devotion to Southern hospitality, Atlanta is also a hotbed of upscale shopping, creative cuisine, and an exploding arts scene. Locals are passionate about college and professional sports, but also about foie gras, collard greens, and pecan pie. Neighborhoods like trendy Virginia-Highland and upscale Buckhead share cultural space with alternative Little Five Points and East Atlanta Village. The heart of the southeast has a captivating intersection of liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites. New attractions—the Georgia Aquarium, Atlantic Station, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, and the recently redeveloped World of Coca-Cola—show that Atlanta, ever re-defining itself, has no plans to rest on its laurels.


Southeast Asia’s most dynamic and exciting city, Bangkok is an intoxicating and sometimes jarring mix of modern and ancient. Scattered concrete skyscrapers share space with traditional wooden homes, while gleaming temples to fashion abut temples gleaming with golden Buddha images. Built on the floodplain of the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok was once known as the “Venice of the East” because canals crisscrossed it, though these have mostly been turned into traffic-clogged roads. They connect older quarters such as the royal island of Rattanakosin and heaving Chinatown with hotel and condominium filled districts around Sukhumvit, Silom, and Sathorn roads. Wherever you venture, the smells of jasmine and grilling street food will remind you where you are.


Long pegged as a mere “smokestack city,”Barcelona has come into its own since the 1992 Olympics, and today is one of the liveliest tourist destinations in Europe. Cradled between the Mediterranean and the Serra de Collserola hills, Spain’s second largest metropolis arguably eclipses Madrid as a showcase for the arts, music, and cutting-edge design. A morning’s walk can take you from the original Roman settlement, much of it still intact under the narrow streets of the medieval Barri Gòtic, to the palaces and churches of the city’s 12th- and 13th-century golden age and on to the 19th-century L’Eixample neighborhood, where every avenue seems to be lined with flights of architectural fancy in stained glass and wrought iron, ornamental brick, and ceramic tile.

A city in the midst of reinventing itself and preparing to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing is a place of frenzied construction. New housing, new roads, and new sports venues seem to spring up overnight. At the same time, the capital of the People’s Republic of China remains an epicenter of tradition, with the treasures of nearly 2,000 years as the imperial capital still on view—in the famed Forbidden City and in the luxuriant pavilions and gardens of the Summer Palace. From the massive austerity of Tiananmen Square to the bustling new business and shopping districts that gleam as brightly as any in the West, Beijing is a city that intrigues, inspires, and rewards.


Berlin has had a more wrenching history than most cities on Earth. It’s been ravaged by war, enslaved by fascism, bisected during the Cold War, and rejoined at the fall of the Wall. Out of such chaos has grown a city that’s adaptable in the extreme. Its waves of immigrants, expats, and creatives ensure that tolerance is its greatest value. Nightlife and partying here are akin to religious rites, and new trends emerge 24/7. But Berlin is also a place of incredible beauty in its forests, rivers, and historical sites. Culture blossoms everywhere, and dining is an international smorgasbord


Here’s a fresh observation: Boston is on the water. Who knew? For decades, ugly elevated highways crisscrossed the waterfront, blighting downtown. It took about 15 years and nearly $15 billion to put those highways underground in a sometimes controversial project known locally as “the Big Dig,” but Boston has reclaimed its status as a great port city with new parks, walkways, freshly renovated restaurants, newly built hotels, and a sense of excitement that has energized the whole city. New downtown attractions like the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway (on the site of what used to be Interstate 93) and the Harborwalk (a walking and running path that lines Boston’s waterfront) are spawning an explosion in great hotels, cafés, and hot spots.


Budapest—a city of thermal baths, cafés, striking turn-of-the-century architecture, and most of all, a city of the Danube, “whose gentle waves,” according to the great Hungarian poet Attila József, “embrace past, present, and future.” Straddling the wide river, which separates hilly Buda from level Pest, the Hungarian capital offers one of the most striking metropolitan panoramas in Europe. Budapest is a city of music, from the classics of Bartók and Kodály to the contemporary fusion of folk, klezmer, jazz, and Gypsy sounds. Long hidden behind the Iron Curtain, Budapest is rightfully regaining its reputation as one of the most vibrant capitals of central Europe.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is often called the “Paris of South America,” for its soaring architecture and rich European heritage. But the city and its people, known as porteños, are a study in contrasts: European sensibilities and Latin American passion; wide boulevards and cobblestone alleys; steamy tango and romping rock and roll; sidewalk cafés and soccer fanatics; bejeweled ladies draped in fur coats and children rummaging through garbage for cardboard scraps. Buenos Aires, which sprawls over 78 square miles (202 square kilometers) and has a population of about three million, is a patchwork of distinct, fascinating communities, from the frenetic downtown and working-class tanguero neighborhoods such as La Boca and San Telmo, to wealthy districts such as Recoleta and trendy Palermo, to middle-class barrios such as Belgrano and Caballito.

Cape Town

What’s not to love about Cape Town? From iconic Table Mountain, several hundred million years in the making, to the hip watering holes of Camps Bay, South Africa’s “Mother City” is the brightest light in the reborn rainbow nation. Inspirational landscape, sugary sand beaches, centuries old vineyards, and colonial mansions, plus a host of adrenaline-pumping outdoor activities are among Cape Town’s many blessings. Factor in a colorful creative vibe and a lively social scene—manifesting itself in outstanding places to stay, eat, shop, and party—and you’ll soon realize why the city is South Africa's favorite playground.


Poet Carl Sandburg immortalized Chicago as the “City of the Big Shoulders,” paying tribute to Chicago’s formative brawn. The self-made, industrious town rebuilt after a devastating 1871 fire, nurturing new styles of architecture and distinct flare for innovation. A green apron of lakefront parks buffers the city’s 29 miles (47 kilometers) of Lake Michigan shoreline from which 77 neighborhoods unfurl westward spanning the downtown Loop, the elegant Gold Coast, the bohemian Wicker Park, and deep ethnic pockets such as Chinatown. The combination of grit and grandeur here is somehow purely American. Loving Chicago, said author Nelson Algren, is “like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”


Big D, as Dallas has been called for half a century, was built in the 19th century on the fruits of oil and cattle businesses, making it a comparatively young city. Dallas owes its boom in recent decades to the banking, electronics, fashion, and motion picture industries, and it’s not shy about strutting its glitzy stuff, either. You’ll readily find this giant on the plains of North Texas a place that loves to have fun, what with serving as birthplace to the frozen margarita machine and boasting more shopping centers than any other urban American center. Now the ninth-largest city in the nation, it flings its arms north toward Oklahoma, east to Louisiana, south toward the fabled Texas Hill Country, and westward toward Fort Worth, the other half of the metropolis called the Metroplex. Although there is a burgeoning light rail system called DART and the city’s center offers a few places to get around on foot, you’ll need wheels to fully explore this Texas sprawl.


With one foot deeply grounded in time-revered traditions and the other dipping more than just a few toes in the dotcom domain, Delhi embraces diversity with verve and gritty gumption. Modern Delhi has only been India’s capital since 1931, but thanks to its location—a strategic gateway city—it has long played a critical role in shaping the subcontinent’s history. Today, Delhi is one of India’s most multifaceted cities, with the downtown swish restaurants and chichi boutiques serving as a stark contrast to the old city’s medieval-flavored bazaars and historic masterpieces like the Red Fort and Jama Masjid.


From sleepy trading port to global gateway in 25 years, the Middle East metropolis of Dubai has sprung up out of the desert sands. Once centered on bustling Dubai Creek, from where old dhows (boats) still sail to Iran, Dubai now sprawls south toward the United Arab Emirates’ capital, Abu Dhabi. While oil revenues fueled its early development, now trade and tourism power this city-state’s phenomenal growth rate. Travelers come for sun, sand, shopping, and a touch of the exotic, and Dubai delivers. While it might not have the ancient sites of Cairo or Damascus, Dubai just gets on with making history as one of the fastest growing cities in the world.


In the last 20 years, the Republic of Ireland’s capital city has transformed itself from a quiet, economically depressed, old-fashioned town into a modern, thriving, affluent, and youthful (around 35 percent of the city’s million-plus people are under the age of 25) European city. Ancient pubs, lively nightclubs, hundreds of live music venues, and elegant restaurants share rain-soaked sod with hundreds of years of troubled, painful, and fascinating history carved into stone. The Liffey River divides the city into two distinct areas, both of which have seen an upswing in recent years. But as Joyce, Yeats, Swift, and their modern counterparts have eloquently demonstrated, every corner pub, emerald green, and Georgian square of Ireland’s largest city holds a story waiting to be shared.


A city-size shrine to the Renaissance, Florence offers frescoes, sculptures, churches, palaces, and other monuments from the richest cultural flowering the world has known. Names from its dazzling historical past—Dante, Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli—are some of the most resonant of the medieval age. But to see the Tuscan capital simply as Europe’s preeminent city of art would be to ignore not only its role as a dynamic and cosmopolitan metropolis, but also to overlook its more unsung charms—Italy’s most visited gardens (and its best ice-cream parlor), idyllic strolls on balmy summer evenings, a broad range of specialty shopping, sweeping views over majestic cityscapes, eating experiences that range from historic cafés to the country’s most highly rated restaurants, and the kind of seductive and romantic pleasures that somehow only Italy knows how to provide.

Hong Kong

A frantic, hurly-burly mixture of capitalism and exoticism, Hong Kong has been called the “most thrilling city on the planet.” Change is the constant in this city of 6.9 million. Its main attractions lie in Kowloon, which juts from the tip of southern China, and on Hong Kong Island, with its Central downtown district, just across the harbor. The island of Lantau is home to the airport and several large country parks. Outlying islands are less densely populated but readily accessible. An extensive transportation network linking the city’s various districts include tunnels, ferries, subways, and, of course, taxis, which are plentiful and cheaper than those in comparably sized cities.


“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Constantinople,” marveled Alphonse de Lamartine, the 19th-century French writer and politician. Sixteen centuries as the legendary capital of the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman Empires, Istanbul has long entranced the civilized world. The sole city to span two continents, it physically and metaphorically bridges the cultures and philosophies of Europe and Asia, Occident and Orient. Historically a tolerant melting pot—as the center of Christendom for over a millennium and Islam’s seat for another 500 years—it remains home to the Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Sephardic Jewish heritage sites, and legacies of numerous ethnic groups. It sits at the crossroads of human history, a sprawling 700-square-mile (1,812-square-kilometer) hilly metropolis studded with nearly 20,000 cultural sites from the sixth millennium B.C. to present day. Flanking 19 miles (30 kilometers) of the Bosporus strait between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, it is a linchpin for trade routes in all directions. Though no longer a capital, Istanbul is the cosmopolitan heart of the Turkish Republic, its financial center and most populous city. The mushrooming population exceeds ten million, crowding cobbled-lane waterfront villages and glass-and-steel corporate districts, spirited premier soccer matches and haute couture boulevards. Byzantium, New Rome, Constantinople, Old Stamboul. Its name has changed, but the glory endures.


The Talmud teaches that “Ten measures of beauty descended on the world—nine were taken by Jerusalem, one by the rest of the world. There is no beauty like the beauty of Jerusalem.” Mark Twain, however, complained in The Innocents Abroad that, “The sights are too many. They swarm about you at every step; no single foot of ground in all Jerusalem or within its neighborhood seems to be without a stirring and important history of its own.” Since Twain’s visit to the Holy Land, more than a century of strife and division have imbued the ancient city, sacred to three major world religions, with contemporary drama and made it even more multicultural and significant than ever. Jerusalem today is a schizophrenic, volatile, and fascinating meeting of ancient and modern, Israeli and Arab, religious and secular, and political and spiritual.

Las Vegas

Believe it or not, Las Vegas is almost all grown up. Gone are the days when dingy casinos, cheap steaks, penny slot machines, and topless shows were all “Sin City” offered. They say, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” But you don’t need an alibi—or an excuse—to visit one of the country’s fastest growing metropolitan areas. Even for those who don’t gamble, this artificial desert oasis whimsically caters to all tastes, with outrageous nightclubs, luxuriant spas, superstar chefs’ restaurants, bling-bling boutiques, skyscraping thrill rides, and even educational museums and wildlife preserves. The Strip featuring glam casino resorts is the city’s spine, while old-school downtown still captures a vintage Vegas vibe.


The United Kingdom’s capital city—covering 610 square miles (1,580 square kilometers)—is huge. Founded in A.D. 43, it’s also old. And powerful. London is a hub of culture, business, and politics—and center of the once glorious British Empire that can still throw its weight around the globe. Served by a fabulous subway system, numerous tour buses, and the iconic black taxis, London is not difficult to find your way around in. And despite the city’s enormity, the center is small enough to make walking a good option—just mind the warnings painted on the curb to look right when crossing the street. Drivers come at you, unexpectedly, along the left side of the road.

Los Angeles

“Welcome to the Jungle,” famously sang the band Guns N' Roses. Situated on a wide, dry plain speckled with canyons, mountains, rivers, and beaches, vast and beautiful Los Angeles, California, is anything but a jungle in topography. And even though some jungle-like qualities can emerge, such as during rush hour on the 405, to a visitor the city is a sunny, friendly place, filled with its own rich lore—stories that range from the days of the Spanish missions to the latest gossip about Hollywood stars. History oozes from the streets and buildings of L.A. All you need do is look around and listen.


Like the best tapas bars, Madrid offers a selection of delights so tempting it reduces even the most seasoned traveler to giddiness. On one glorious stretch of boulevard, it houses three of the world’s greatest art museums. It boasts Western Europe’s largest Royal Palace and its most audacious gay pride parade. Get lost in the 16th-century cobblestoned streets around Plaza Mayor, the über-trendy boutiques of Chueca, the upscale chic of Salamanca, and the medieval elegance of La Latina. Dine on cutting-edge cuisine in a world-famous culinary temple or join locals in a gritty corner bar where the simple tapas come in huge portions and everyone throws their napkins on the floor. Begin a night out at 10 p.m. with a heart-stirring flamenco performance and finish at 6 a.m. with pulse-racing techno. Madrid is a city that locals proudly claim never sleeps. Except, that is, during siesta. Do like they do and take a nap—it is key to truly living la vida madrileña.

Mexico City

The famed “many Mexicos” of this rich and diverse country are reflected in this teeming, chaotic, noisy, and colorful capital. The historic region, studded by lakes, is now a city of superlatives, rippling with many millions of lights by night, peppered with neighborhoods steeped in tradition such as Xochimilco and gleaming financial districts like Santa Fe, as well as the inevitable shanty towns that fringe its ever-expanding outskirts. Trendy art deco zones with cafés and boutiques compete with leafy bohemian neighborhoods such as Frida Kahlo’s Coyoacán and Polanco, a diverse area of the city that is now the magnet for upscale shopping and dining. Amid food stalls and street vendors vociferously hawking their wares, the heart of the Great Tenochtitlan resonates still with the violent and magnificent history of the conquest of the Americas, with the exposed ruins of the Aztec Templo Mayor elbow to elbow with the great Metropolitan Cathedral, the first on the continent, sun bleached and tilted picturesquely by quakes.

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