My Top 20 Favourite Cities, Part 2: 10 – 6

Part 2 of a 3-part series: Part 1 is here.

East Side Gallery picture.

10. Berlin, Germany

OK, so you might get mugged by scammers pretending to be deaf, but apart from that… Berlin is preposterously cheap for a western European capital city (you can get a proper calzone in a restaurant for €3 near the East Side Gallery!!), and there’s a stark and fascinating contrast between the grim but profound reminders of its chequered past and the whimsy of its nightlife and arts scene. Fitting, for a once divided city.

Got there: Train from Amsterdam (1 per hour, 6h 22m)
Stayed at: Generator Hostel
East Side Gallery, Holocaust memorial, Alternative Pub Crawl


9. Amsterdam, Netherlands

I hate the sour stench of weed and rampaging herds of cyclists, so the fact that Amsterdam is in my top 10 speaks highly of how beautiful the canals are, how educational the Red Light District is (so that’s what a ‘banana show’ is), and how laidback the city feels.

Got there: Thalys high-speed train from Brussels-Midi (1 per hour, 1h 50m)
Stayed at: Hostel Van Gogh
Anne Frank Huis, the Sex Museum, Red Light District, walking along the canals

8. Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Natural beauty meets bleak recent history meets vibrant culture. For all Bosnia’s domestic issues, Mostar has the potential to be a big player in the European tourism scene given its relative proximity to tourist honeytrap Dubrovnik, natural and manmade prettiness, cheapness, and vibrant culture, borne from a confluence of Muslim and Christian culture. And as soon as you get wrapped up in how pretty it all is, you’re sobered by the sight of shells of houses from the Balkan conflict, and how well the city has done to rebuild itself after the war.

Got there: Bus from Sarajevo (several per day, 2h 30m)
Stayed at: Hostel Majdas
Abandoned Spy Tower, Bruce Lee statue in Zrinjski Park, Stari Most bridge, playing ‘spot the ruined building

Dzhumaya Mosque

7. Plovdiv, Bulgaria

I’m wary of using the word ‘unique’ in case I’ve missed somewhere else that serves up a similar style, but let’s go with it: the houses in Plovdiv’s Old Town are uniquely styled, and – less eloquently – fucking beautiful. Centuries of inhabitation have brought centuries of beauty from across the eras, from a semi-excavated Roman stadium in the middle of the street to the stunning street art down Nayden Gerov Street, a back road between one of Plovdiv’s hills and its pedestrianised high street (the longest in Europe). Cheap to boot.

Got there: Direct bus from Thessaloniki (1 per day, 9h – not really direct as takes you up to Sofia and back down to Plovdiv)
Stayed at: Hostel Old Plovdiv
Nayden Gerov Street, Roman ruins (amphitheatre and stadium), beautiful/unique Old Town architecture


6. Tallinn, Estonia

My taxi driver claimed that Tallinn’s Old Town is so well-preserved despite the Second World War because Russian pilots, ordered to bomb the city, drank too much vodka for Dutch courage and were unable to aim properly. If that’s a true story, then thank God for drunkenness. The Old Town could’ve come straight out of a Disney movie, but is never intimidatingly beautiful or aloof.

But Estonia doesn’t rest on its laurels – it is an innovative pioneer on the tech front, with more start-ups per capita than Silicon Valley, and the investment as a result has built the glass skyscrapers you can see inland from the Old Town. It doesn’t forget its bleaker periods of history, either: as a cursory throwback to the Soviet years, there’s a monstrously ugly Soviet-era monolith called Linnahall by the sea.

If that weren’t enough, there’s also a building called Kiek in de Kok. I laughed a lot.

Got there: Ecolines bus from Riga (multiple, 4h 30m)
Stayed at: Tallinn Backpackers
Linnahall, Koht bar, Kompressor pancakes, free walking tour (best I’ve been on, and I’ve been on quite a lot of them)

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