The news that Lonely Planet picked Salisbury as number seven on its list of top ten cities to visit in 2015 provoked derisive snorts in the Intelligent Life offices today—particularly from those of us who hail from Wiltshire. Salisbury cathedral is undeniably majestic and the sight of its spire from a distance, peering above the trees, never fails to lift the spirits. But away from the area immediately surrounding the cathedral—the Close—Salisbury is indistinguishable from all the other mid-ranking, Greggs- and Costa-filled city centres across England.
Lonely Planet chose Salisbury because it holds an original copy of the Magna Carta, which celebrates its 800th birthday next year. While there will be a special exhibition and lectures, the only thing that'll be different about the Magna Carta itself will be the number of tourists mobbing it. The city that tops the list is Washington, DC—chosen for the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Wow. Even the Washingtonian in the office, who is avowedly passionate about DC (as those who know it call it), laughed at the thought that it is the world’s best city to visit: “It’s just not.” The other eight were: Milan (“one big car park”), Zermatt (“full of flashy skiers”), El Chaltén (“where?”), Toronto, Valletta, Plovdiv, Chennai and Vienna.
So, as editor of the magazine’s Places pages, which we like to think of as a kind of anti-travel-section section—we steadfastly refuse to accept freebies and steer well away from spas, luxury hotels and especially top tens—I felt bound to break with tradition and compile a highly personal alternative list of cities. A few disclaimers: unlike Lonely Planet, I have not visited every city in the world, so my pool of choices is naturally limited; unlike their list, mine is not tied to any particular anniversary or event, but more to something intrinsic that tickles a multitude of senses.
1. Istanbul In many ways the world’s truly global city, sitting as it does at the crossroads of east and west, north and south, old and new, Europe, Asia and Africa. It throbs with so many different sounds, tastes and smells that anyone—everyone—can feel as though they fit in.
2. Tbilisi There are crumbling balconies everywhere in Georgia’s capital, where vines grow through the walls of once-grand city villas. Yet, behind the decay there is energy and warmth flooding from the door of every bar and restaurant.
3. Havana Sitting in the back seat of a 1970s Chevy several years ago, I caught sight through a half-open bar door of an old couple dancing the samba.
4. Madrid Barcelona may be more fashionable these days, but there is something majestically unselfconscious about Madrid’s stately architecture and traditional tapas bars.
5. Moscow Similarly, St Petersburg may be the supermodel of Russia, but Moscow crackles with life, and the sight of the Seven Sisters towers glittering in winter sunshine is enough to warm even those hearts chilled by Stalinist architecture.
6. Savannah “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”, a book by John Berendt, put Savannah on the tourist map. But the Spanish moss dripping from the trees in each honeyed square will keep it there long after the last copy has been pulped.
7. Jaipur It’s hard to choose between the Rajastani cities, but although Jaipur is bigger than Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, and the traffic is even more snarly, there’s something seductive about the bustle and joie de vivre—and the painted pink hooves of the Marwari wedding horses.
8. Johannesburg Admittedly this would not be on the list of top destinations for anyone of a nervous disposition (they can go to Cape Town and enjoy beach life), but Jo’burg—along with its sister city, Soweto—is the engine of South Africa and you can feel it in the art, the new architecture and the passionate politics.
9. Nanyuki Just north of the equator and sheltering in the lee of Mount Kenya, Nanyuki is old-time Kenya, where you can wander along jacaranda-shaded streets and stock up on Marmite, Smarties and sacks of posho (maize meal) from provisioning stores run by the great-great grandchildren of early Asian settlers, before heading onto the Laikipia plains.
10. Bristol From the classical Georgian squares of Clifton to the rejuvenated wharf, from the secret bars to the big organic food festivals, Bristol has thrown off the shackles of its slave- and sherry-trading past to emerge as a young, vibrant, forward-looking city.