New Seven Wonders - Cities

Recently, I've been obsessed with bucket lists and whether or not I agree with the findings of votes (or committees) who decide what goes on these rolls of honour. When I was looking at The Seven Wonders of the World, the 'New Seven Wonders - Cities' list caught my attention. The Swiss Foundation managed vote suggested: Durban, South Africa, Vigan (Philippines), Havana (Cuba), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Beirut (Lebanon), Doha (Qatar), La Paz (Bolivia).

This is a weird and eclectic collection. Maybe it's designed to be alternative. They're all interesting cities. Well, nearly all. Durban I just don't get. Nice beaches, theme parks and a lot of crime. Though it has been renovated, since I was there, in 2003. Give me Cape Town any time. Vigan's a gorgeous colonial city, but there are plenty of those, especially in Latin America. I'm not sure it stands out.

Havana has colonial architecture and more modern communist era buildings. And that mid last century vibe. La Paz: witch's market, colonial architecture and that wonderful gondola transport system. Beirut: 'The 'Paris of the East', a mix of religious buildings, pavement cafes and a pretty corniche. But lots of renovation, still ongoing, to repair war damage. Doha - ultra modern, with a tiny old souq and falconry area. I'll take Abu Dhabi instead. (Dubai is too large and artificial.) Kuala Lumpur, again a mix of colonial and modern. But, it's not my favourite Asian city.

What criteria do you use to choose a favourite (or Bucket List) city? I suppose for me its a mixture of beauty - aesthetic appeal, general vibe, interesting things to do and see (galleries, unusual buildings, monuments, sculptures, living history and lovely things to eat.

Here's my list. There's no way I can stick to just seven, so I've come up with a cunning plan. I'm going to incorporate the latest fashion for dupes, or duplicates (usually at lower cost). The idea annoys me instantly, of course, Not least as it's a silly word which implies you've fallen for some con trick. No place has a duplicate. But some are more similar than others...

Beautiful Cities - Venice

Let's start with beauty. It might be a cliche, but it has to be Venice. It wasn't love at first time. The first visit was classically crowded and smelly. But the second time I went, in the Time of Covid, Venice was bereft of tourists. I actually got to see what the city looked like. It was utterly gorgeous, sublime, despite the ghoulish Don't Look Now images, which intrude, as I wander the canals. There's absolutely no duplicate for Venice, but there's always Florence (or Bologna, or Milan, or the cities of Sicily. Not to mention Rome.

Feasts of European Architecture - Vienna (Budapest and Prague)

Staying with European cities which are historically and architecturally interesting. All of the European capitals (and many other cities, such as Munich) warrant a visit. but three cities on rivers stand out here, the first two, on the Danube. It's hard to beat Vienna, the capital of Austria, if you like somewhere stylish to wander around. Baroque buildings, palaces, museums and gardens to admire, The Prater Park (Harry Lime on the wheel) and a plethora of coffee shops. And nip up the Danube, in a boat, to Bratislava, a pocket city that's a mini Vienna, just over the border, in Slovakia. Two for the price of one.

Further east on the Danube, Budapest, capital of Hungary, makes for a great stay, with the old and new cities, again plenty of interesting architecture, (Disneyesque crenellations), vibrant edgy quarters and lovely food.

Prague, capital of Czechia, is closer to Bratislava (for some time they were in the same country) but it's on the Vltava River. The waterway divides the city, as it does in Budapest and again it's a veritable feast of architecture, right through to modern day and The Dancing House, castles, museums and eateries.

Colonial Cities - Cartagena, (St Louis, Granada, Antigua, Willemstad)

Further afield, but still with architecture, it's generally the Spanish colonial cities, which delight the eye. Cartagena in Colombia, has to take the crown. But sadly it's on the cruise circuit and the streets are too often too crowded to properly enjoy. Otherwise, head to Latin America. Granada, in Nicaragua is gorgeous (thrown in Leon too), Antigua in Guatemala (not the island) is another strong contender (go during Easter week for the celebrations and carpets of flowers). I've already mentioned Havana and Vigan.

French colonial atmosphere - try the Caribbean or Vietnam. But it's strong in Africa, perhaps most notable in Saint Louis, in Senegal, the old capital of French West Africa. It's a satisfying contrast, to the bush and rainforest, with its shabby chic and overflowing markets. My other pick is Willemstad, in Curacao, for its (almost toy town) clusters of bright pastel painted Dutch colonial houses.

All of these cities are on the UNESCO World Heritage list, except for Granada, which has been hovering on the tentative list, since 2003

Culturally Enchanting Cities - Samarkand (Esfahan, Varanasi, Fez)

Cities which draw you into their culture through their beauty and ambience are perhaps my favourite. I've chosen Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. The Registan ensemble of Islamic buildings is an absolute must see. It's also home to other glorious mosques and complexes, as well as ancient Samarkand. (Don't miss Bukhara and Khiva while you're there.)

Esfahan, in Iran, offers a very different Islamic experience, with its souks, palaces, squares and amazing domes. Fez, in Morocco, has one of the most authentic and winding souks in the Arab world, though the sour smell (some would say stink), in the world renowned tanneries may prevent you from staying in that section overlong.

For an unforgettable spiritual experience, then it's Varanasi. Like much of India, it's uncomfortably crowded, dirty and overwhelming at times. But take a boat trip on the Ganges, watch the hugely spiritual cremation ceremonies on the ghats, take in the astonishing light, at dawn or dusk, and listen to the inspiring music.

Cities With Beautiful Settings - Cape Town, (Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Vancouver, San Francisco, Tel Aviv)

CIties voted to have the most beautiful setting almost inevitably have natural harbours. Cape Town, South Africa, Sydney, Australia, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Vancouver, Canada, and San Francisco, U.S.A, all qualify here. And they all regularly feature on best city lists and best places in the world to live.

Except for maybe Cape Town, as South Africa still has a reputation for crime and violence. But I'm still going to make it my number one. The beaches are gorgeous, the food and architecture are great, there's a huge amount to see in the vicinity, from wildlife to wine estates, the view of the Twelve Apostles backdrop is stunning and Table Mountain is iconic, from above, or below.

I'm also going to sneak in Tel Aviv-Yafo. It may not have the same mountain scenery, and only a small harbour, but The Big Orange, in Israel, has a long string of lovely beaches, the old city at Yafo (Jaffa) and plenty of cafes, museums and an extraordinary amount of Bauhaus architecture, in The White City area, to explore.

Mega Cities - New York (Chicago, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Singapore)

And then there are the mega cities, the ones which offer history, diversity and an endless list of sights and experiences and one visit just won't do. New York often tops best city in the world lists for good reason. We get to interact with all those landmarks we've seen on TV. And there are some great panoramas and fabulous restaurants. Though I've never rated the shopping.

Chicago is another close contender, with its 1930s vibe. Further south, Buenos Aires is another city you can walk for days, taking in the barrios from up market Palermo to La Boca, home of the tango.

Istanbul is mostly in Europe (it's the largest city of that continent), but it spills over the Bosphorus into Asia, making it unique and exciting. And Singapore, the city state, which continually reinvents itself: China Town, Little India, The Bay Gardens. It's one huge theme park. I'm not sure if I like it, but there's plenty to do.

The City That Has it All - London

So many contenders. Ghent, in Belgium, some of the Dutch cities. I really wanted to include Lisbon (and Porto). You may have noticed that I've missed out Paris. It's undoubtedly a lovely city, in parts, but its also very one dimensional and urban in other areas. Romantic? I'm not sure. And I've never had a good meal there. I think it's had very good PR.

But one city has to get the final mention and that's London. The place of my birth frequently tops polls for best city in the world, and with reason. It's historic, once the largest city on earth, vibrant, hugely diverse, both in terms of population and architecture and city areas. The food is great (if expensive) and you never run out of new things to see and do. And, apologies, that makes eight.

What would your Cities of the World Bucket List be?

San Francisco

My first stop coming from England on my way to Australia. San Francisco, founded in 1776, is named for Francis of Assisi. It's obviously a strategic port city. located on the famous Bay Area, but it grew rapidly as a result of The California Gold Rush in 1849. It was then the the largest city on the West Coast. Notoriously, San Francisco lies on the San Andreas fault and it was three quarters destroyed in 1906, by earthquake and fire. It was the birthplace of the United Nations in 1945 and over succeeding years - including the Summer of Love in 1967, has become synonymous with the Peace Movement, sexual freedom and liberal activism.

Touring San Francisco

So, I'm humming Scott McKenzie and The Flowerpot Men, as I whizz round San Francisco, revisiting all the sights, first on foot and then on a tourist bus. It's an understatement to say the city is busy, despite the reputation for cool summers, fog and steep rolling hills. This is still a massive tourist destination.

Fisherman’s Wharf (doubled in size),  Pier 39, also hugely extended looking across to the Golden Gate Bridge, now familiarly disappearing in rolling cloud, Grace Cathedral, with its white spires looking like something out of Disneyland, Chinatown, the odd zig-zag of the Crookedest Street with its floral decoration and  the Nob Hill area, with all the beautiful timber houses. Trolley buses, trams and cable cars. It's an eclectic mix of architecture, and landmarks. Fireman’s hose shaped  Coit Tower perched on Telegraph Hill and the weird triangular skyscraper that is the TransAmerica Pyramid crown the many scrapers. San Francisco is the headquarters of Wells Fargo, Twitter, Square, Airbnb, Levi Strauss & Co., Gap Inc., Salesforce, Dropbox, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Uber, and Lyft.

Alcatraz and Pier 39, San Francisco

The boats are running to the renowned former Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary on its island today, but I'm opting out. I've got a pretty good view from all my vantage points and I'm not sure what there is to be gained by taking to the chilly water. I’m eating on the run as OMG  the pound doesn't go far here. San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the USA anyway and the Brexit effect on the currency isn’t helping. Fortunately, the Pier 39 clam chowder is still delicious.

Yosemite - Mariposa Grove

There’s also time for a (very long) day trip to Yosemite National Park from San Francisco. Yosemite is one of the most famous national parks in the USA. it gained its charter in 1864. It's also a UN heritage site. and I've been wanting to visit for a very long time. Ponderosa pine and chaparral bush line the route. I’m reliving my TV-watching youth. Our first stop is what’s advertised as a very arduous hike to see the sequoias in Mariposa Grove. These trees are 3000 years old and  thirty feet in girth (but not the oldest  trees in the world, which are the Bristol pines at 5000 years old.).

They’re not lying about the arduous, though the track looks deceptively easy on the way down. It’s gruelling climbing the mile back up the steep hill in the heat. It's 40 degrees Celsius and I’m still suffering from yesterday's hilly walks and eight hours’ worth of jet lag. I’m convinced a heart attack is imminent. To be honest, I’m not convinced it was worth the effort. There's a few, huge but not especially beautiful specimens. At least I didn’t miss out.

Yosemite - a Tourist Magnet

Here, traversing the Sierra Nevada, the lowest and highest points in California are  juxtaposed: Death Valley and Mount Whitney. When we finally reach tiny Yosemite Valley, it is horribly congested. The roads and  car parks are chock a block and all the viewing spots crammed with camera waving tourists. Yosemite draws over four million visitors each year (and even began requiring reservations to access the park during peak periods in 2020)

Yosemite Valley

I can see why they come. The mountain views are straight out of Microsoft screensavers. El Capitan, a sheer towering rock face, with pin pricks of intrepid (or stupid) climbers (they take up to three days to ascend), Half Dome Rock, Bridal Veil Falls (definitely the most popular name for waterfalls around the world) and Yosemite Falls. Granitic Sentinel Rock towers over the valley, another magnet for climbers.

The tour really consists of looking at these four sights from several different vantage points, sometimes in spectacular combination. We have an hour and a half’s stop at the Park Lodge near the 2,400 feet Yosemite Falls. this is the highest waterfall in North America. The rock pool where the lower fall cascades is  crowned with foam and heaving with splashing bodies. Ninety minutes  sounds like enough time for a restful sunbathe, but queuing for ice cream takes longer than the half hour walk to the bottom of the falls and back. Then it's return to the bus.

Next stop Sydney.

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