Our decision to not spend our time on our grand tour ticking off top ten tourist sights, saw us happily, and often aimlessly, exploring off-the-beaten-track neighbourhoods – 100% guilt-free.
We spent a lot of hours ambling around backstreets, taking in the atmosphere of places and seeing how people live their lives, continually delighting in the extraordinary contrasts and nuanced differences in the ebb and flow and rhythm of life of communities around the world.
The world is not the same. People lively differently to each other from country to country, city to village, street to street, and from house to house. Rush through a place in a few days and you probably won’t notice but settle in for a while, and you’ll appreciate the subtle differences that make everyday neighbourhoods such fascinating places to explore. These are my favourites:1. Tokyo – for the neon lights of its village-like neighbourhoods successfully masquerading as big city suburbs; for the atmospheric alleyways of yakitori eateries in Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane) in Shinjuku; for the gritty lanes lined with teensy late night bars in the Golden Gai; and for the quaint ‘shitamachi’ quarter with its antique wooden houses and little old ladies in aprons watering plants in leafy Asakusa.
2. Marrakech – for the fact that we can still get wonderfully lost in the old medina’s dusty lanes, even after countless visits; for the frenetic market street of Rue Bab Doukkala that was our home for two weeks; and for the main square, the Djemaa al Fna, with its smoky food stalls, storytellers, and snake-charmers, that is the locals’ nightly amusement park.
3. Venice – for the ease with which it’s possible to still get off the beaten track in areas like the Dorsoduro, Cannaregio and Castello in one of the world’s most touristy cities; for the exquisite architectural details and artistic beauty that are everywhere, even in places you don’t expect them to be; for the local markets where the Venetians shop (including the city’s chefs and restaurant owners) for fresh produce every morning; and because it’s possible to live in an everyday neighbourhood even on an extraordinary waterway such as the Grand Canal. Locals have bought seafood, sipped a spritz, met their friends and gone home before most tourists have finished their hotel breakfast.
4. Istanbul – for the mass of humanity that streams down the main street of Beyoğlu, Iskiklal Cadessi, Istanbul’s entertainment, shopping and cultural centre; for the hundreds of pedestrian lanes that lead off it, lined with shops, markets, restaurants, cafés, bars, pubs, clubs, music venues, theatres, and galleries; and for the backstreets that come alive after dark when backgammon boards are packed away, Turkish coffees are replaced with beers, the tables outside the bars fill with friends, and the narghile guy starts to really earn his living.
5. Buenos Aires – for the vibrant street art that enlivens drab walls and gives neighbourhoods like Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood their edgy vibe; for the abundance of parks and gardens across the city that get the locals outside and on the grass, picnicking, sunbathing and snoozing the moment the sun comes out; for the fascinating markets across the city in cobblestoned quarters neighbourhoods like Palermo Soho and San Telmo; and for the civilized local lifestyle that involves plenty of lingering in cafés and bars, late dinners, and long nights out.
6. Rio de Janeiro – for the laidback beachside suburbs like Ipanema, where locals spend their life on the sand, sipping coconuts and working on their tans; for the classic botecos, the everyday neighbourhood bars, for their tasty, affordable food, friendly staff and low key live music; and for the small, spontaneous street festivals (though they’re no Carnival) that spring up unexpectedly. In Rio, there is always something going on, you just have to find it.
7. Mexico City – because the city’s main plaza, the Zocalo, where there is always something happening, hasn’t given way to tourists in the way that so many other main squares around the world have; for the street food stalls, smelling of corn tortillas, that are liberally sprinkled throughout the city; for Plaza Garibaldi, home to the city’s mariachis, that makes for one of the best night’s out; and because everywhere is off-the-beaten-track in a way in one of the world’s most underrated metropolises.
8. Berlin – for its laidback bohemian East Berlin ’burbs like Prenzlauer Berg with their vintage clothes stores and retro furniture stores; for the neighbood’s countless, Speakeasy-style, late night bars and clubs with their easygoing locals propping up the bars; and for Prenzlauer Berg’s lively Sunday fleamarket in the Mauerpark with its vinyl record stands, Soviet memorabilia, and, in the warmer months, karaoke concerts.
9. Paris – for its arty, bohemian ‘village’ of Montmartre, one of the city’s most widely misrepresented and misunderstood quarters; for the multicultural neighbourhoods just over the hill, with their exotic Middle Eastern and North African vibe; and for the ordinary Parisians who continue to enjoy their city in simple ways – reading books, going for strolls, picnics on the Seine – despite it being overran with tourists.
10. New York City – for the colourful characters, arty eccentrics, and committed activists who keep the gritty neighbourhoods of the East Village and the Lower East Side real; for the urban oases that are the neighbourhood’s secret community gardens and the passionate locals who tend to them; and for the immigrant history of the Lower East Side that has made this area one of the city’s most compelling.