With a year of travel, you are going to see a lot of different cities. Massive sprawling megacities teeming with movement like ant hills, and palm-sized villages that could hardly be called a town, some 200 lives closer than the walls between homes seemed to allow. This is the fun of traveling — but what about living? There are cities we love to visit like Granada, Spain or Istanbul, Turkey but what about finding a home? Sometimes cities feel like more than an alien wonder. Like a place in the middle of a foreign country, a new culture, pride and life, yet somehow, there is still room for us. History, great cuisine, architecture, outdoors and intangible things like youth and counter culture, creativity. Sometimes a place is so exciting, you want a part of it to stay with you. In our travels, we found the B’s have it.
Barcelona was our first B, a truly inexhaustible metropolis. This is the kind of city you find amazement everywhere, not just in the tiny city center that tourists usually feel limited to.
Home to over 1.6 million people, Barcelona isn’t all urban sprawl either: the private nooks and alleyways of the Barrio Gothic provide more than enough shadow and secrecy from the crowds. A sandy coast is rivaled by the Collserola mountains and their fascinatingly ramshackle funhouse Montjuïc. The city streets mesmerize with Gaudi’s architecture, and stark contrasts between modern and ancient.
Local markets absolutely glow with mountains of lush fruit and produce, all arranged so carefully it’s camera-ready. And the Spaniards and Catalans love to eat! Tapas and bistros hum every night and even markets find room to fit a few stools for eaters on the go.
A mostly dry, temperate climate offers many weeks of outdoor living and the cleanest, most efficient metro we’ve seen to date, makes connections across the entire grid — and costs far less than most European subway systems. Above ground, Barcelona goes out of it’s way, providing hundreds of thousands of free (*okay, it’s like 30 Euro a year) bikes to it’s residents — just scan your ID card and pedal away.
From the first afternoon walk down Las Ramblas we were ready to start looking for our own window onto this city. Monocle magazine lists Barcelona as the 15th most livable city in the world, on it’s 25/25 list — it’s right behind Berlin, another of our B’s.
More details in our posts from Barcelona
Where Barcelona is contented and self-assured in it’s glamor, Budapest is frantically mid-leap into the future. New meeting old, East meeting West, Budapest is the ultimate city of contrasts.
The sickle is gone and the hammers may be clinking away in Budapest, but the metropolitan infrastructure is already firmly in place. The gorgeous meander of the Danube divides the city into it’s two famous halves, and provides links for faraway getaways like Bratislava and Vienna, while a vast network of subways, trams, trains and buses deliver to most every address, Buda or Pest. And if the river wasn’t enough, thermal springs feed Hungarian’s other passion: luxurious social baths and soaks.
The job of pulling Budapest into the future (and the top 10 tourist destination list in Europe) seems to be a community effort. Free activities scream for attention: street fairs, arts & crafts fairs, free concerts, movies, museum hours, tours. Everywhere people are milling about, coming together, sharing what the city has to offer. Our days in Budapest were absolutely packed, not even familiar LA with it’s myriad distractions had ever kept us so busy.
More details in our posts from Budapest
Like Budapest, Berlin is changing. 2009 marked the 20th anniversary of fall of the Berlin Wall, a birthday of sorts for East Berlin; the year it’s residents began making civic choices for themselves.
The once famous squat scene has mostly lost it’s sizzle, and neighborhoods are seeing brisk gentrification. But the crafters of these communities are the same spirited mavericks, and though there may be baby strollers, and BBQs in the parks, the sidewalk teems with clever shops and eaters, lovingly Do-It-Yourself.
The East end of Berlin features almost no chain stores like Starbucks and Zara, but is big on neighborhood green spaces and redevelopment projects.
A world apart from conservative and heritage-minded Bavaria, Berlin thirsts for new ideas. It’s ability to adapt to new needs, trends and progressive voices is unmatched, almost anywhere in the world.
Suddenly even going out to eat offers a whole host of far-flung influences and flavors. To be honest, traditional German cuisine was pretty hard to come by!
With all it’s spirited anti-establishment vigor and forward thinking design, Berlin could easily have turned into a neo-shock nightmare, but somehow, Germany efficiency combines flawlessly with upstart avant-garde.
As Germany’s largest city at about 3.5 million, classic metropolitan needs were dutifully addressed: Museum Island on the Spree river feeds Berlin classic culture, and touristy Checkpoint Charlie and the Reichstag give the city’s youthful perspective some grounding.
The East Side Gallery continues to be a thermometer for the people’s opinions, and though the city’s history includes many dark days, Berliners don’t seem to shy away from difficult subjects or a sordid past.
Infrastructure in the city is as diverse as Barcelona, with subways, buses, trams and proms. The bike-lane system rivals Amsterdam, resulting in the lowest per-capita number of cars in an EU metropolis.
The high quality of living and progressive mindset of Berlin inspired us to imagine our lives there, we were already feeling at home. It’s not such a far stretch of the imagination afterall: Berlin’s sister-city “twinning” began with Los Angeles in 1967, and later included Budapest (1991) and Beijing (1994).
Honorable Mention: Beijing
The thrill of living in China, surrounded by a mysterious and exotic culture, quickens the pulse. Beijing is simply too big, even for residents. We met fellow backpackers who saw a completely different side of the city than the one we found.
Transportation, as with all our other favorite B’s was an excellent vehicle for taking in as much as possible. For just over $0.25 US, you can travel anywhere on the 9 line subway grid.
We shouldn’t even get started on food, since our posts on China are still in-the-making, but holy-shit-batman, you can EAT in Beijing! Suffice to say, that angle is well-covered.
The socio-political personality of Beijing isn’t always easy to swallow as a Westerner, particularly an American. The internet, which we both consider our lifeblood basically, is gravely censored, and the government remains publicly mute on many world issues. Learning Mandarin is a requirement — English simply isn’t spoken on the street, and the language-barrier impedes far too many rousing conversations.
Temples surrounded by Mahjong players and narrow, dark hutong neighborhoods transported us into the past, while shopping megaplexes peddle modern convenience. Beyond the city, massive production compounds spew black clouds into the air. In this paradoxical outpost, it’s easy to feel like an outsider. We could imagine trying to set up shop in Beijing for a year or two, but it isn’t easy to imagine as a new home.
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