Thanks to endless cheap flight offers, almost everyone has been to London, Paris and Co. All urban explorers will agree that the most fun is to uncover the character of a city by unexpected discoveries in form of local restaurants and hidden walks. In a nutshell, people enjoy getting to know the uniqueness and identity of a city. But can cities create and maintain their identities in a globalized 21th century?
Are all cities similar?
Two physicists, Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West (watch also his TED talk) from the Santa Fe Institute, set out to quantitatively measure cities and came up with a unified theory of urban living including simple scientific laws that allow them to estimate urban variables by just knowing the population size of a given city. So all cities of the same size are the same? Well, kind of. Infrastructure, wages, crime, health parameters ect. are similar. The theory implies that cities are scaleable and follow universal rules independent of history, geography and culture. For example New York can be just seen as a scaled-up version of San Francisco. But why do cities still appear different although key parameters are universal? History and culture most likely represent the unique properties of a city. They might not greatly influence the overall parameters but let cities appear remarkably different.
However the age of globalization makes it harder than ever for cities to maintain their identities. In every larger city the same red buses run by global companies are driving through the streets with tourists on the top. Big shopping streets with chains like Starbucks, Mango, American Apparel have greatly replaced individual shops selling local cultural products. Every now and then you see small second hand shops, reflecting the rise of the vintage trend seen in the recent years. This phenomena might very well exemplify the desire of people for more authenticity in a global, mass-producing world.
How to discover the true identity of a city?
In the recent years it has been realized that there is great demand for alternative ways to explore cities in order to avoid the creation of ghost cities filled with tourists. Keeping out global corporate enterprises and promoting local projects, is on the rise again.
It is easier than ever to experience the urban spirit. How?
1. Meet locals! Cities offer walking tours with locals, not only through the flagship districts but also to the more residential areas. Leaving the artificial tourist areas, gives the opportunity to get in touch with the un-glamourized character of a city. One example of such a walking tour is organized by the “Big Apple Greeters” in New York. Volunteers, guiding you through their part of NY city, are not professional guides, but simply locals. Local tour guides can also come from different social backgrounds as shown by tours guided by (ex-) homeless people in Prague and London (see below). Surely, a person living on the street, might see the skyline of banks and financial buildings slightly different than professional guides would.
2. Visit places not mentioned in the tourist guide! There is also a shift from the classical attractions visited towards everyday life objects. A good start is street art. Berlin, London and even Vienna (the inoperable gallery) harbor some of the finest street art pieces. The “alternative London”-tour offers a walk to see giant british flags and faces starring at you from buildings in the neighborhood. For the gamer among us, treasure hunts might be a good option. For example “HiddenCity” organizes hunts across british cities. All you need is a mobile phone to receive the clues. Once solved you know where to head and you receive the next puzzle. Your reward: unexpected views, local pubs and bars far from tourists and fun!
3. Use local accommodations! The couch surfing concept is well known, but sometimes keeping your privacy and just book a hotel room is more relaxed and easy. Luckily there are street lofts, former shops and offices renovated into guest rooms spread across the city – a so to say decentralized hotel. In Vienna, the Urbanauts offer rooms in the 4th district and the hotel service is a network of local “fellows” as they call all involved shops and service providers. This opens the opportunity to experience Vienna as it really is: breakfast in a Viennese coffee house, spa at the hamam around the corner and most important there is no need to look out for the real Vienna as it is the “hotel” you are staying in.
Two of our “must-sees” in Europe
Finally, from first-hand experience we absolutely recommend two projects definitely worth seeing!
If you are interested in recent history, this is an absolute MUST! Outside the touristy center of Berlin, surrounded by residential buildings lies the former political prision of the East German Communist Ministry of State Security (Stasi), now a museum. The prison was not shown on maps and officially did not exist during most time it was operated as it was used to imprison political opponents and people fleeing from the GDR. Visitors can access the cells, interrogation rooms, backyards and the goosebump-moment on every tour is when your tour guide shows you “his” prison cell, when he was locked up here.
The Unseen Tours in London
Haaavvee you met Mike? If not, you should! London on its own is already exciting, but doing a walk with the former ex-homeless Mike through Camden is breathtaking. Starting in the posh area, you pass amongst others Daniel Craig’s house and come to Primrose Hill with its view of London’s skyline followed by a walk along, for a big city unexpected green, canal banks and passing many famous pubs of music history. Having worked in the music industry for a long time, Mike knows many stories and if the walking time is to short you might ask Mike all the questions afterwards when he goes with his group for a drink in Camden market. Mike is working for the Unseen Tours in London, which offer only four tours by four (ex)-homeless guides. Well picked tours guarantee the quality!
If you know hidden city gems, post a comment!
Header image credits royalty free
photo 2 by lisa landskron
photo 3 by lisa landskron