Its funny how you travel to a bunch of places and when you tell someone where you go to or have been to, you name a city like Amsterdam in a single breath within a list of countries. Everybody does it. The reason? City branding. Some cities are doing their best to be branded as a separate identity, recognizable separately from the country they lie in. This disassociation is so strong, that I have my travel photos organized by countries and I have a country named “London”. Didn’t think about it for a second, it just seemed so natural that I’ve only noticed it months later.
The result is that there are some cities, that are in fact small countries on their own. When you tell someone that you’ve been to Barcelona, they don’t ask (and don’t care) in which country it is. The city has enough to offer on its own. What are these city-countries? Not surprisingly, these are the places that are most visited by tourists. Here’s my list of the 7 country-like cities in Europe, the ones that need no further introduction:
London – You know: fish, chips, cup ‘o tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary fucking Poppins… LONDON. The capital of the largest empire ever has the most exotic vibe of all the places I’ve been to. My experiences in London are rather one-sided though. On my first visit the weather was too good to stay indoors so I spent most of my time there doing yoga in parks. My second time there I was just passing by, so I went to Selfridges, to see with my own eyes the Xmas department open in August. A wonderful sight.
- Paris – The city of lights and all that. Sounds very romantic, though I have no first-hand experience except that its hellish to drive around when you go on vacation.
- Istanbul – Sadly, so far it is yet another destination on my bucket list.
- Rome – Same as Istanbul. My parents loved it though.
- Barcelona– Another place I haven’t been to. My better half has been there multiple times and swears by it, so I guess I will go there sooner than later.
Amsterdam – A charming little place with a devilish image. Has a reputation of a place where anything goes. Though with the city council cleansing the Red Lights to make it more attrative for DINKY’s and the government tightening the screws on the coffeeshops, things are not as wild as they used to be.
- Moscow – In Russia they say “there’s Moscow, there’s St. Petersburg and there’s Russia”, meaning that the realities of the two capitals have nothing to do with the rest of the country. I can not testify to what it is like in Moscow now, but twenty years ago I was thoroughly not impressed. I remember it mostly as “untidy” and I can not imagine that having changed but for the worse.
These are the 7 cities in Europe most visited by foreign tourists. I’ve compared the tourism statistics to the various lists of Global Cities, supposedly the most important nodes in the economic system. Globally as well as on European level the lists are rather different. The reason is probably the economic basis of the Global City lists. But the tourist, the general public, does not care whether a city is a major economic hub. The tourist wants to have fun. So Brussels and Berlin, high on the power lists, do not appear in the top of the tourist destinations, and Amsterdam, the smallest on my list, does.
What does the comparison show? Firstly, that in Europe at least, the tourism top, the creme de la creme, is the same as on the power scale. It’s London, Paris and the rest. Secondly, this crude attractiveness scale demonstrates that power (meaning: money) is not everything. To become a place-to-be, a city needs more than just having the government and the banks. In this day and age, branding is everything and the last thing you want is to be branded as dull (government and banks are dull). Thirdly, and lastly, the most important and perhaps surprising conclusion is that I need to do more travelling. For almost 10 years I’m living in the heart of Europe and I still haven’t been to Paris. Shame on me.