Travel writer Sara Wheeler, famous for her stories of polar expeditions, returns home to her city: Bristol.
Growing up in a port, you look outward. The low elephant grief of ships’ horns was the soundtrack of my Bristolian childhood. We were proud of our seafaring roots: my parents named my brother Mathew after the ship in which John Cabot sailed away from our city to discover the North American mainland (or so it was said: we weren’t having any of that Viking explorer nonsense).Saxon settlers founded Bristol 1,000 years ago on the banks of the Avon in the southwest of England, although Romans had been there before them, as today’s arrow-straight roads reveal.
Writer Barry Lopez has had a long affection for Australia's lone west-coast city, which looks out into emptiness in every direction.
Seen from a few miles out in the Indian Ocean, the jagged cluster of tall buildings rising up together in Perth’s central business district suggests a watchtower. Figuratively, the view outward from there—Perth is Australia’s lone west-coast city—is into emptiness in every direction.As it happened, the first time I traveled to Perth was during the last days of apartheid in South Africa. Out-migration from the area then had grown so large it supported, for a while, regular flights to Perth—from Harare, Zimbabwe.
The city might have a new name, but King George's colonial legacy is still everywhere. By Dilip D'Souza.
It’s just a nondescript shed. But if there’s a more telling descriptor of my city’s essence, of a certain schizophrenia that runs in the veins of some of us who call this place home, I have yet to find it. Tucked on a quiet lane between Elphinstone College and the National Gallery of Modern Art, the shed is smack in the middle of the buzzing downtown precinct where most tourists in Bombay—yes, I call the city Bombay—mill about. Yet it’s a good bet most of them haven’t even heard of it.
Booker International finalist Josip Novakovich on the miracle on marshland, the city of steeples.
Peter the Great patterned the city after Amsterdam, and even though St. Petersburg is newer than New York by almost 100 years, in some places it feels a thousand years old—a few buildings seem to be a cross between Roman ruins and German palaces. The building walls, usually between three and four feet thick, host basement cafés and restaurants where you can’t get a cellphone signal. The walls are moist, and smell like rivers, because the city was built on marshland.
Novelist Alison Moore on why her city has so many dungeons and caves—appropriate for the 'birthplace' of Robin Hood.
There are hundreds of caves beneath Nottingham, cut into the sandstone over the centuries by the city’s inhabitants. Some were cold, damp homes for the poor; some were extra rooms under medieval houses—a way of adding an extension without incurring a tax increase. Some were dungeons: deep bottle-shaped cells. There was a chapel, a brewery, and a tannery. More recently, dozens were used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War—one, underneath a cigarette factory, could hold 8,000 people.
Lovely if you close one eye.
A friend once said, when I decided to move from Porto Alegre to São Paulo a year ago, “São Paulo is not for amateurs.” And the metropolis does seem scary from above: an urban landscape that spreads for miles and miles, looking endless. But after landing, things feel quite different from the urban hell usually associated with this city. The first sight that impressed me was that there were people on the streets—walking around, doing errands on foot, and using public transportation.
The city of Kipling's 'Kim.'
Lahore. If I toss up the word and close my eyes, it conjures up gardens and fragrances. Not only the formal Mughal gardens, with their obedient rows of fountains and cypresses, or the acreage of Lawrence Gardens, but the splendor of thousands of private houses with their riot of spring flowers. The winter and spring air are heady. They make the blood hum.To belong to this Pakistani city of 11 million is to be steeped in its romance, to inhale with each breath an intensity of feeling that demands expression.
Da Chen on a city of infatuation.
Shanghai is an enigma. It was wrapped in gaunt beauty in 1979, when I visited the magical metropolis by the sea. I was a scrawny and bigheaded village boy who had never been anywhere outside my southern village, and the city was a broken giant languishing in its tattered costume, the vestige of her distant colonial past. The Bund stood guard at her Huangpu post, vigilantly looking to the sea. Nanjing Road stretched tiredly, welcoming its multitude of untiring shoppers journeying from far and near to glimpse the city’s faded glory and lament its bygone glitter.
Tan Twan Eng reflects on a modern city with muddy roots.
Its name means “Estuary of Mud,” and it started life as a tin-mining frontier town in the 1850s. Perhaps that is why Kuala Lumpur has always been reinventing itself. Since independence in 1957, the capital of Malaysia has been striving to rise, like a lotus flower, above its murky, terrene origins. And it has succeeded. Today, one of the most spectacular sights in the city—or anywhere in the world—is the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers. Lit up at night, they glitter like a pair of diamond-encrusted ears of corn.
Francesca Segal on finding tranquility in the British capital.
In economic terms as well as geographic, London’s black and beating heart has always been the River Thames, viscous with centuries of filth and secrets. Eventually, the Victorians laced the city with underground drains to spare Londoners the sight and stench of their own effluent, which had until then poured freely into the river; yet in my childhood it was, nonetheless, still famously dirty. The schools of used condoms that washed ashore on the litter-strewn, muddy banks were known as Thames Goldfish—a very London joke.
Miguel Syjuco reflects on the tangled capital of the Philippines.
There’s a multitude of Manilas: the past, present, and imagined future. Layers unpeel to reveal a city that is pungent, astringent, lachrymose, sweet, delicious. At its core, the Manila of memory: On the Pasig River, where the nila plant was plentiful, the sultanate of Maynila grew rich trading with China. In 1571, the Spanish conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi built a walled city there, declaring it the capital of the archipelago named for King Philip II.
G. Willow Wilson on an ancient city that's alive once more with books.
The first and last thing, of course, is the harbor: that perfect blue-green keyhole to the Mediterranean, sheltered by two slender spits of land extending toward one another. Sphinxes sit underwater at the old shoreline, long ago submerged by rising sea levels. Today the ancient harbor is nearly empty—it’s not large enough for the tankers and barges of modern commerce—but looking out over it toward open water, one is tempted to imagine fleets of triremes decorated with painted eyes.
William Dalrymple, the acclaimed history and travel author, writes about the messy megacity that he calls home.
Delhi has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. The horrific gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman on her way back from seeing Life of Pi has lifted the lid on the casual violence of the Indian capital. For the rape is very much a Delhi story: while violence against women is a problem everywhere in India, it is generally agreed that women are most in danger in this vast, rough, messy megacity that I call home.No one really knows how big Delhi is.
Hong Ying on sweet dreams in a place of suffering
I was born in the year of China’s Great Famine and grew up in a slum on the south bank of the Yangtze River in Chongqing. It was a place crowded with small wooden hovels, rotten and blackened houses, narrow alleys, and deep, twisting courtyards. The area had no plumbing or drainage facilities, so polluted water ran through channels alongside pedestrian walkways and flowed downward along mountain slopes. It was a place where rubbish piled up randomly along the roadsides, waiting to be washed away into the Yangtze River when there was heavy rain, or to decompose in the hot weather.
Jeet Thayil on a draconian city-state with pockets of wildness.
I grew up in Hong Kong in the ’70s, and though I traveled in the region, Singapore was not a possible destination. My father, T.J.S. George, was the founding editor of Asiaweek, a Hong Kong–based newsmagazine. He wrote the first critical study of Singapore’s brilliant and authoritarian prime minister. The book, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, was not banned—Lee knew a ban would be self-defeating—but it might as well have been: no bookseller stocked it, not until much later, when students began to circulate photocopies.
"Cities each have a kind of light," August Kleinzahler once wrote. Here, great authors evoke the light—and darkness—they find in the world’s cities.
Paul Theroux looks at his hometown after the marathon bombing and finds the mood of the city transformed.
Leave it to Dubai to host a New Year's Eve that was cooler than yours. Watch the sky around the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, explode with splendor.
Was World War I a necessary fight against German militarism, or was it completely avoidable? Michael Bishop on a new history.