The Cities Book


On May 5, I reviewed what I think is the best single book to gain understanding of the world’s cities and how they compare – a great textbook called Cities of the World: World Regional Urban Development, by Stanley D. Brunn and others. I also talked about how important I think cities are – perhaps man’s greatest artifact – and how “under-written” they are, in terms of great books about them. Of course there are plenty of books and travel guides about individual cities, but very few books which compare the great cities, looking for the patterns and individualities that are the basis of understanding. If you want to really understand cities, including the numbers so key to grasping them, get that book.
On the other hand, if you are trying to get a more visceral feel for the great cities of the world – trying to get a sense of their vibe, or pick which one to visit next – then you can’t beat the very unique The Cities Book: A Journey Through the Best Cities in the World (Lonely Planet, 2006).
If you travel at all, you hopefully have used Lonely Planet’s wonderful paperback travel guides. But in recent years, in addition to selling a majority stake to the BBC, founder Tony Wheeler and his gang have began a series of beautiful “coffee table” books full of great photos of the world. They have included a book about all the countries of the world (The Travel Book), books on several of the continents, and this book about the cities. I hope to get to each one in the series in future reviews, but have gone ahead and pasted links to the right. You won’t be surprised that The Cities Book is probably my favorite, although they are all very powerful, informative and evocative books.
The Cities Book contains a two-page spread on each of the “200 most vibrant, diverse, hypnotic, and chaotic cities in the world” as ranked by Lonely Planet staff, authors, and readers. While I might argue with the exact ordering, and maybe would replace some of the lesser stars with other favorites of mine, there is no denying the ten great cities that start the book (in this order): Paris, New York City, Sydney, Barcelona, London, Rome, San Francisco, Bangkok, Cape Town, and Istanbul. Of these, Cape Town is the only one I have not visited, and I hear it is as beautiful as the books say. 
Each two-page spread covers the lay of the land (“anatomy”), people, defining experience, strengths and weaknesses, movies that the city has starred in, and even an urban myth for each city. For each city, three to four full color photos touch on everything from famous tourist sites to unique experiences and the people of the city. Of course in a book like this, all you can get is a “taste” of the city, but I know of no book which gives such an accurate, quick, and emotive taste of so many cities side-by-side. Comparisons are easy given the uniform format. And you can count on the accuracy of the information given Lonely Planet’s global stable of experts about places. Like any good source for curious people, included are the key data like the population and date of founding for each city.
For me, the real fun comes in diving deeper into the list, looking for surprises. While it’s easy to understand why Paris and New York are on the list, each of the lesser stars has a narrower list of reasons. In the last year I have made my first visit to two such cities from the book: Chiang Mai (Thailand, ranked #71) and Oaxaca (Mexico, ranked #79). I found both cities delightful, full of life and art and great food, high on my list of cities I want to return to. (Among the major cities on the list, the one I most want to return to is Istanbul, truly the greatest intersection of East and West.) Just read this book to understand the reasons I love these cities.
Scanning through that same midsection of the book, near Chiang Mai and Oaxaca, I see two other cities which are high on my must visit list – Siena, Italy and Esfahan, Iran – confirming what I have already heard and read about them. But I also come across names that either never occurred to me before, or were faint in my mind: Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Cartagena, Columbia; Zanzibar, Tanzania; Hamburg, Germany; Galway, Ireland; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Varanasi, India. And for the real explorers out there, the last five cities in the book: Bamako, Mali; Saint-Denis, Reunion; Granada, Spain; Beira, Mozambique; Madang, Papua New Guinea; and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
If this all sounds too exotic for you – I hope not, I hope it just inspires your imagination and curiosity – the book includes some great American faves, including Chicago, New Orleans, Savannah, Seattle, Los Angeles (perhaps America’s most underestimated great city), and (of course!) Austin.
Whether you want to inspire yourself (or your friends and family) to adventure, or just sit in your armchair and see the world, it would be hard to find a better place to start than this book and its sister tomes.