City Rankings: An Alternative View

Cafe - Pause Cafe, Paris; 100% Aribica.jpg

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.


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Bucharest , Romanian

Bucharest , Romanian capital, is a great place. Romania is popular not only for its natural beauties but also for the rich cultural as well as historical background. The black sea coast,the danube, the mountain zone are the must to visit places in Romania.

Regardless of what I think

Regardless of what I think of Austin I find it strange to compare it to European cities. So Austin isn't Barcelona? Tell me something I didn't know. Perhaps a more interesting question is what is driving Austin's rankings in the various "Best of " lists. Is it hype, substance or some combination thereof?

The new, smaller world

Very good travel writing! The Austin thing was a red herring, a bit.

Reinvention is the future and gentile Midwestern places like Austin have to leave the past glories of the American Century behind and partake of the raw life of Moscow to keep up. The self centered self important berg in my neck of the woods, Frisco, could also learn a thing or two about how the future waits for no one or no city.

I think what you're missing

I think what you're missing is that Austin is ranked highly simply because when compared to cities like San Francisco and NYC it has an awful lot of incredible advantages. I grew up outside of Nashville, which despite its undisputed reputation as the country music capital of the world is a rather small, unremarkable city. On the other hand I have lived in Boston and have been living in San Francisco for 10 years. So I have a wide array of experiences living in rural areas, minor metros, and major internationally recognized metros.

The most obvious difference in almost anyone's minds who has lived in such cities when eyeing up Austin is that a 3 bedroom decent house in San Francisco will set you back $800,000 or more. In Austin the same house can be found for $150,000 or less. In San Francisco a graphic designer will probably make between $65,000- $85,000. In Austin you're probably looking at $40,000-$60,000. San Francisco is famous for its arts, culture, and food. Austin might not have as much of that but it still has some great stuff going on. I have no clue where you ate but as a Southerner I can tell you I had the best damned BBQ in Austin- or in and around it. The BEST I had was over in Lockhart, about 35 minutes away. But the bottom line is that the cost of living in Austin is a LOT less, the average salary is about 25% less than that of SF but the money goes a lot further.

I think what the author is missing is that yeah, maybe Austin isn't the same as the cities people want to compare it to. Personally I loved it. People were nice, it wasn't quite as snobby, it wasn't quiet as huge and sprawly, a lot of the small towns outside of the area were the same as they'd always been with its own unique rural character.

I guess what I'm saying here is that in many ways Austin is probably more like what places like San Francisco used to be before they got totally ruined by gentrification and the cost of living. The fact is that a normal family CAN afford to live in Austin versus San Francisco and that today is becoming a great luxury to most who seek it.

I'm not sure if we're going to wind up in Austin. But San Francisco isn't cutting it.

bobwilson, you make some

bobwilson, you make some good points.
You say perhaps the best advantage of Austin compared to places like NYC and San Francisco is that it's much more affordable. But that the negative is that it lacks the same big city amenities of those cities such as world-class arts and culture.
One point I was trying to make is that you can have BOTH a lower cost of living AND world-class arts and culture (not on the level with NYC or SF, but certainly in the top ten or so in the US) and a fabulous restaurant scene in Texas. But it's in Houston, not Austin! However, because Houston has more sprawl and more perceived negatives (some true and some not) than Austin and is not a "media-loved" city like Austin has become, it is completely ignored and even ridiculed by many people. Image and hype has taken importance over reality and common sense in many of these lists and peoples' ideas, which I think is one point the author was trying to make in the case of Austin perhaps. I've lived in both cities in recent years (Austin and Houston) so I'm just speaking from my own experiences.

Points well taken. I

Points well taken. I understand what you're saying. I guess for me its more of a subjective observation. As for myself, yeah art museums, fine dining and so on are fine but I'm not such a person to feel that their life is incomplete without those things. Truth be known, I usually come home and eat ham and cheese sandwiches and tinker around on stuff in the garage. I actually work in the creative industry but I'm not all about having to have the full immersion into arts and culture. So to me I don't really look at those things when I compare cities.

All I know is that when we visited Austin I thought the city itself was attractive and pretty looking. I'm not sure if you've lived in other major non-Texas metros, but as for myself I've lived in the rural South and 2 major cities on the coasts. In one area the cost of living is a lot less and people generally have so-so jobs and do alright. My parents are teachers and yet own their own 2 story house on 14 acres and an in-ground pool. On the other hand they would be barely able to afford a rented apartment where I live now. Living in Sam Fran is a real struggle. Even if you make a good income.

Thus when I visit a city like Austin, which has a fair amount of creative jobs, I'm like: " Oh my god... like I could have a creative job- albeit one that pays less AND the ability to actually afford to buy a house there? Really?!" You see, to me it seems like an unreal luxury. Its a totally different outlook in many ways.

Living in cities around the country has taught me that people live drastically different lives- often with grossly contrasting qualities of life. I believe I've come full circle and now appreciate simply being able to live a decent, sustainable, affordable lifestyle. Even if I were to put all those big city amenities aside, the values and living standards attainable in a city like Austin far outweighs whatever supposed superior amenities SF offers.

As a former resident of Austin, I 100% agree with you

I lived in Austin for several years, and never got what all the hype was about. I even lived centrally, in a somewhat walkable area. I don't understand why it pops up on all of these lists. Sure, it has some good qualities, but it also has almost every bad quality that people knock the other major cities in Texas for -- heat, traffic, sprawl, suburban attitudes, etc. On top of that, it lacks any reasonable public transit (at least Dallas and Houston have light rail), the restaurant scene is rather abysmal, the museums - what few there are - are lacking, as is the performing arts. Houston and Dallas have these galore. They also have more diversified and much larger economies than that of Austin. Eeyore's Birthday Party and Spam-O-Rama are two of the Austin's larger "cultural" events. For real. I've seen so many people move there from larger cities, just to be greatly disappointed. I'm not quite sure why the national media has latched on to Austin as supposedly being such a great place; perhaps to make it look like they're not so biased against Texas (which they are, and this is clearly shown with how they bash the rest of Texas unfairly, especially Houston, which is in fact a very underrated city and MUCH more 'green' than most people know.) Sorry, Austin, you're just not all they say you are, and I speak from real experience. I'm glad more and more are coming to realize this; I just hate to see misleading information spread.