Why is Austin, Texas the inevitable winner or runner-up on every ranking of the most “livable” cities in the United States? The downtown is a wasteland, the hip barbecue joints are dismal, and the bookstores, despite the population's admirable intellectual mix, are heavy with espresso westerns.
If Austin were in Europe, its place in the power rankings would be just ahead Bratislava but behind Faro, which, in turn, would be way down the list of great European cities.
Herewith is an idiosyncratic assessment of Europe's most livable cities, based on my continental wanderings (I live in Switzerland). Confession: I haven’t, sadly, been recently to Paris, and I often judge a city by its rail service and bookstores. Put simply, I see cities as works of art, and wonder in which paintings I might like to live:
Geneva: I love it because it’s home. But it’s not really a city. Swiss cities are villages that have gelled together, like drifting icebergs. Geneva works because it’s a civil society. The public schools impressed even Benjamin Franklin, and Calvin ended the practice of lawn mowing on Sundays.
Berlin: It’s flat, so it is perfect for biking, has many open spaces, affordable housing (thanks to the worker flats left behind by the German Democratic Republic), history from every tragic era, superb public transportation, enough museums to fill up a month of Sundays, ethnic food, three airports, and a diverse economy. Downside: the North European climate is unspeakable.
Moscow: It has, by far, the greatest metro in the world, with fast trains every minute, easy changes, and mosaics of the Great Patriotic War, not to mention Stationmaster Lenin. In winter, Moscow is an ice bowl. In summer it has bright nights, terrific walks, a wild west economy, quirky museums (one is devoted to border guards), and funky modern architecture. Caveat: the traffic is becoming Asian, housing is expensive, and only the quick and the dead can cross the wide boulevards, not to mention the mafia.
Cambridge, England: The streets are uncrowded, the colleges world class, and the bookstores exhaustive. I get around by bike. London is now less than an hour by privatized rail, and the Fens, the nearby marshlands, are enchanting for walks. The only “new” roads are Roman.
Barcelona: Easily Europe’s favorite summer city, if you don’t mind dinner after midnight. The tourist crowds are oppressive, and the sidewalks crowded. There’s a beach downtown, trade from Europe and Africa, and cultural links to Madrid and Paris.
Prague: Go in April, and you will love it. Go in August, and you will flee the crowds in desperation. For a weekend the old town in Prague rivals Venice and St. Petersburg, although native son Franz Kafka caught the dark undertones.
Rome: Classical history; quirky neighborhoods — I try to like Rome for these reasons. But I despair at its devious taxi drivers, dirty sidewalks, Basil Fawlty hotel clerks, and overpriced and often bad meals. Nor do I like the airports or the railroad stations. That said, I go often. It’s the price for wallowing in the shadows of Cicero and Hadrian.
Bucharest: It’s the European leader in vacant lots. I love the Hotel Rembrandt, the outdoor ethnographic museum, the Romanian railways, with their sleepers to Transylvania and Iasi, and I love the sense that the city is starting over after communism. The history museum could have more exhibits about the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, but I can’t ask for everything.
Edinburgh: It has a great station hotel, a castle, the moors and highlands nearby, the aura of golf, many great companies, historic if insolvent banks, Harry Potter, single malt Scotch, Robert Louis Stevenson, and a new parliament building. I should like it more than I do. When it’s rainy, windy, and cold, which is often, it feels like the end of the earth.
Dublin: I hated the banks and their balance sheets, the pubs and the spilled booze sticking to the sidewalks, and the forlorn neighborhoods, Ulysses notwithstanding; and I hated my hotel, which reeked of cigarette smoke and felt like a hangover.
Athens: For $10 billion of Olympics money, all Athens gained was a tram. Don't harbor any allusions that it works as a city. Like the economy, the train station is a dead end. Further, the small hotels are crummy, the tourist food inedible, and the traffic a nightmare. Business meetings all take place at midnight, in a haze of smoke. But to gaze at the illuminated Parthenon, even from a gridlocked taxi, is to look up at heaven.
Istanbul: Economically it faces north-south and east-west, and it’s the only city both in Europe and Asia. The traffic is stifling, the touts are everywhere, the population is on a Los Angeles scale — but it’s hard to beat for its visual and historical sweep. The ferry views rival those of Hong Kong, and the climate is close to ideal, with cool nights and warm days. It has trains to Berlin and Tehran, a nonstop parade of ships on the Bosphorus, and the sultan’s harem (to accommodate his speed dating habits).
Amsterdam: I try and try with Amsterdam, but am close to writing it off. I guess it would help if I were interested in recreational drugs, Heineken beer, red light districts, or the art of Van Gogh. I do love canals, the Anne Frank house, anything to do with bicycles, and Dutch landscape paintings. But what a terrible climate, and, to paraphrase Spiro Agnew, if you have seen one cobblestone street, you have seen them all.
London: What’s not to love about the Globe Theatre, the bookstores, the Underground, the Imperial War Museum, the double-decker buses, the walks along the Thames, the pubs in Chiswick, business lunches in the City, or the morning phalanx of newspapers?
What’s my ideal European city? It would look something like Venice, but have the Moscow metro and lots of sidewalks and bike lanes. The climate would be that of Rome. The city population, like that of Geneva, would not exceed 500,000, and the last stop on the metro, as in Munich, would be a lake with terraced cafes and little beaches. To get to work, everyone would bike, walk, or ride the underground. Electric cars and buses would transport the elderly. The ferries would run all night, as in Istanbul, and serve fresh orange juice and tea on deck.
The business day would end at 2:00 PM when, as in Barcelona, many would take lunch overlooking the sea. There would be several grand railroad stations, operated by the Swiss, and affordable overnight rail connections to London, Berlin, Florence, and Madrid. At night, there would be concerts in the parks, as in Vienna in summer, or book lectures, as in Oxford.
Tourists would take breakfast on small balconies. Coffee and wifi would be free. The local industries would be several universities, a teaching hospital, book publishing, glass blowing, cartography, high-tech, ship building, and railways. Night ferries would connect the city to the Greek islands. The library would be open all hours, and many cafes and bookstores (all open late) would have well-fed cats.
Photo by Suzanne Bouron: Pause Café, 100% Aribica
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, and editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine.
He lives in Switzerland, commutes on a bike, dreams about night trains, and loves long weekends in places like Chisinau, which did not make this list.