by Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, October 2, 2018
Not every destination can be a Venice, Paris or Rome. The next best thing? Add a suffix that describes your global location and hope it takes off. Here we look at some of the most ambitious - and ludicrous - alternatives to the greatest cities in Europe.
Venice of the North
The list of cities that have laid claim to being a milder alternative to La Serenissima is truly remarkable. It includes several beauties, such as Amsterdam, Bruges, Copenhagen, St Petersburg, Stockholm and Strasbourg, but also a fair few that should never be uttered in the same breath as Venice. Birmingham is the most famous example, but Manchester and Skipton are equally optimistic.
Svolvær and Henningsvær, fishing towns in the Lofoten archipelago of Norway, are lovely, but hardly comparable with Venice. Bourton-on-the-Water shares similarities in terms of overwhelming visitor numbers, but that little stream that runs through the Cotswolds village is hardly a match for the Grand Canal.
The best alternative? Annecy
Pretty canals, ornate bridges, pastel-coloured buildings: from some angles Annecy could almost pass as Venice. Almost. You’re unlikely to be pining for Italy here, though, because this endearing French city has a charm of its own. One also might be bold enough to say it has a number of advantages over Venice – chiefly its freshwater lake, beautiful mountains and lack of crowds.
Venice of the East
Almost as substantial is the roll call of Asian cities that have been compared with Italy’s watery gem. Udaipur encircles a couple of lakes, so it got the nod. Bangkok has those floating markets, so it too made the cut. Then there’s Dhaka, Kyoto, Manila and Hanoi. Note to bloggers: just because a city has a canal or two, it doesn’t automatically deserve comparisons with Venice.
Wild Frontiers, the UK adventure tour operator, recently suggested Srinagar in India as an alternative to Venice, “due to its many beautiful lakes”. It added: “Who needs a gondola ride on an overcrowded canal when you can relax and admire the views from your shikara [wooden boat]?”
Nan Madol is an even more obscure option. Built around 1,000 years ago, atop a lagoon on the edge of the South Pacific island of Pohnpei, and consisting of a series of small artificial islands linked by a network of canals, it is considered one of the world's greatest engineering marvels. It was abandoned in the 17th century but - if you can get to Pohnpei - the ruins can be visited.
A former claimant to the title is found in Iraq, currently off-limits to British travellers due to the threat from terrorism. Basra was described as the Venice of the East for decades. It too has a network of canals, which were once crowded with small boats and lined with cafes. But years of war and unrest have seen them become unused and unloved.
The best alternative? Suzhou
“Above there is heaven, below there [is] Suzhou…” So says a Chinese proverb, largely because of the city's serene gardens and canals. “It’s often called the Venice of China, although that comparison is not particularly helpful or illuminating,” wrote Michael Wood for Telegraph Travel in 2016. “The Grand Canal does indeed run down one side of the city, but it’s still a working thoroughfare with hundreds of huge, black barges going through every day loaded with sand, cement, gravel, and steel. The old town, however, has a filigree of small canals and little backwaters. You can walk through the narrow lanes, past low-rise white-washed houses with tiled roofs, where people still go down stone steps to the water to wash their clothes and vegetables.”
Paris of the North
Think of Paris and what images do you conjure? Grumpy waiters, wide boulevards, gothic architecture and world class art museums spring to mind. You’ll find some - if not all - of these in Belfast, according to one 2009 travel guide. Frommer’s wrote that Belfast has been “transformed from a fractured city into a hot city-break destination” and was “moving fast towards its 19th century accolade of the Paris of the North”. Exactly which 19th century scribe described it as such we’re not certain, but the novelist W.M. Thackeray made no such comparisons. “They call Belfast the Irish Liverpool [a far safer bet, that],” he wrote in 1843. “If people are for calling names, it would be better to call it the Irish London at once - the chief city of the kingdom at any rate. It looks hearty, thriving and prosperous, as if it had money in its pockets and roast beef for dinner.” Or did he mean “rosbif”?
Aalborg and Newcastle have also been handed the title, as has Tromso - which makes it half Venice and half Paris. Then there’s the remote Canadian settlement of Dawson City, which earned the moniker during the Klondike Gold Rush, when its population swelled to more than 40,000 (it is now just over 1,300).
The best alternative? Riga
“The capital of Latvia is a symphony of spires, steeples and some of the most fantastical art nouveau architecture in the world,” says Adrian Bridge. “Young Rigans certainly know how to party, particularly in the lively bars of the magnificent Unesco-listed old town. But with its fabulous opera house, concert halls and churches offering sublime organ recitals, Riga has its highbrow side too.” There may even be snooty waiters.
For an easy escape from the city, head to the 20-mile stretch of white sand at Jurmala, a short drive or train ride away. A summer holiday favourite of Brezhnev and Khrushchev, temperatures can top 20C in high summer, so you might even need sun cream.
Paris of the East
This title may well have been foisted on every exotic city that has experienced a golden age. Istanbul, Isfahan, Jaipur, Lahore, Manila and Hanoi (another to receive comparisons with both Venice and Paris) have all been touted as Eastern alternatives.
Baku is a curious one. Beyond the wide Soviet-era boulevards, we can’t see too many similarities between the City of Light and Azerbaijan’s outlandish capital built on oil riches. We prefer the nickname we coined in a 2012 feature, “Dubai of the Caucasus”.
Pondicherry makes more sense. It really is a slice of France in India, having been a pocket-sized French colony between 1672 and 1954. “They left a legacy that reveals itself in surprising ways,” noted Mick Brown in a feature for Telegraph Travel. “The long, sweeping promenade - the Rue de la Marine - that borders the Bay of Bengal carries echoes of Deauville or Biarritz. The street signs would be at home in any French provincial town; and this is the only place in India where the police wear red képis.” Ho Chi Minh City owes its “Paris of the East” nickname to similar reasons.
Or how about Irkutsk? Sometimes called the “Paris of Siberia”, this is a city of fantastically ornate neo-classical and wooden buildings. A stopover here - it is on the route of the Trans-Siberian - also makes possible a trip to Lake Baikal, the oldest, deepest and one of the largest lakes in the world. Very atmospheric, very scenic, very special.
A former “Paris of the East” - believe it or not - is Kabul. As inconceivable as it is today, war-torn Afghanistan was once an essential stop on the backpacker route (dubbed the “hippie trail” or “overland”) across Asia, and its capital was the highlight. So popular was it in 1973 that Lonely Planet’s very first guide, Across Asia on the Cheap, fretted about it becoming a “tourist trap”. Highlights included the city’s markets, parks and gardens. “Use it as a place to wander about, talk and rest in,” suggested the book’s author, Tony Wheeler.
The best alternative? Beirut
Chris Leadbeater explains: “It is perhaps fair to say that the Lebanese Civil War still dominates perceptions of Beirut . It raged between 1975 and 1990, and turned the country’s capital into a byword for death and destruction where westerners were likely to be kidnapped and held hostage. It echoed into the new millennium too – Lebanese president Rafik Hariri was assassinated by car bomb in 2005, in the year when the Syrian occupation of this little Mediterranean state finally ended. Even now, Lebanon still has its issues, and FCO advice for UK visitors is a patchwork of troubled red hotspots . But Beirut has slowly been reclaiming its image as a ‘Paris of the Middle East’ – and is a splendid option for a city break on the beach. There are excellent restaurants and luxury hotels galore – including the five-star Four Seasons Beirut.”
The world's 50 greatest cities – according to you Paris of the West
The Americas have got in on the act, too, and San Francisco is a fair shout. Indeed, the city is actually twinned with Paris (as well as Ho Chi Minh City and Manila - both called the “Paris of the East”). “San Francisco is essentially a night city, and, next to Paris, I should say it was the gayest night city in the world,” wrote Maurice Baring in 1913.
Montreal, where French is the official language and spoken by two-thirds of the population, is another obvious choice.
Denver, Cincinnati and Detroit have also been called the “Paris of the West”. Now you’re stretching. A special mention too for Saskatoon, the “Paris of the Prairies”.
The best alternative? Buenos Aires
Paris of the West or Paris of the South? Either way it’s a worthy alternative and comparisons have been made since its early 20th century heyday. Christopher Isherwood, in 1949, wrote: “Large cities are often spoken of as being ‘international’, but I suppose that Buenos Aires must be the most truly international city in the world. Its banks and offices have a definitely British atmosphere; they recall the solid solvent grandeur of Victorian London. Many of its restaurants are German, they have the well-stocked gemuetlichkeit of pre-1914 Munich and Berlin. Its boulevards and private mansions belong to the Paris of forty years ago.” Rewind to the city’s Twenties prime with a stay at the opulent Club Francés.
Athens of the North
One city has absolutely nailed down this nickname: Edinburgh. It adopted it long ago, when it was the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment and a centre for learning adorned with neoclassical architecture. “Pompous the boast, and yet a truth it speaks. A ‘modern Athens’ – fit for modern Greeks,” wrote James Hannay in 1860.
Watching over the city, meanwhile, is a monument that wouldn’t look out of place in the Greek capital. The National Monument of Scotland is dedicated to those who died fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. But construction was halted in 1829 due to a lack of funds, earning it various epithets such as “Scotland's Disgrace” and “Edinburgh’s Folly”.
Athens of the East
There’s another Athens. Madurai, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, has claimed the title “Athens of the East” because of its long history - it was mentioned by Megasthenes, the ancient Greek historian - and profusion of temples. The most grand - its Parthenon, if you will - is the Meenakshi Amman, on the southern bank of the Vaigai River.
India has a “Rome of the East”, too. Mangalore, in the state of Karnataka, was also mentioned by ancient historians (in this case Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy) and has plenty of venerable buildings and rolling hills (just like the Italian capital).
The world's most populated cities through history Athens of the South
Nashville is best known for its country music heritage, but did you realise it is also home to a full-scale replica of the Parthenon? Built in 1897, it stands in Centennial Park and even contains replicas of the Parthenon Marbles. This giant fake played up to Nashville’s “Athens of the South” nickname, which owes itself to the city’s focus on education – there are more than 20 centres of higher learning in the city.
Its biggest rival to the nickname? Adelaide - also on account of its education system. Not all Aussies agree, however. “They call Adelaide the Athens of the South,” Dame Edna Everage, a devoted Melburnian, once quipped. “Strange that Athens never refers to itself as the Adelaide of the North.”
Rome of the North
There are two fine claimants to this lofty title. First and foremost is Salzburg, the Austrian city that stars in The Sound of Music. Paul Wade, writing for Telegraph Travel, explains: “The salt trade gave Salzburg its name and wealth, but the grandeur comes courtesy of Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau. Arriving from Rome in 1587, the energetic cleric set out to create a Baroque city north of the Alps as splendid as Rome. He commissioned Italian architects to design a grand cathedral, five squares and, for his mistress (who bore him 15 children), the Mirabell Palace. Although not all his ambitions were fulfilled, the results are still impressive.”
Trier, the birthplace of Karl Marx (one can visit his rather bourgeois home) comes a close second. It was founded as "Augusta Treverorum" in 16BC and in its prime was as thriving and important as Rome. Pomponius Mela, the earliest Roman geographer, called it “urbs opulentissima” - most wealthy city, and the Emperor Constantine made it his base for a decade. Remnants of its golden age can be found in at its amphitheatre, where up to 20,000 people at a time were once entertained by bloody combat, its fourth century basilica, and its Roman bridge across the Moselle (still in use).
Best of the rest
St Louis, Missouri, was once dubbed the Rome of the West (despite being founded by French fur traders and named after Louis IX).
The “Oxford of the East”? That’s Pune, India, which boasts many fine educational institutions.
Less desirable, perhaps, is the title “Manchester of the East”, which is claimed by a trio of Indian cities: Kanpur, Coimbatore and Ahmedabad.
The chic Cambodia resort of Kep has been called the Saint Tropez of south-east Asia.
Atlanta really has an identity crisis. It has been called the Chicago of the South, the New York of the South, the Hollywood of the South, and the Detroit of the South (which would also make it the Paris of the West... of the South).
And spare a thought for those cities keeping their aspirations in check. Why try to rival Paris or Athens when you can be the “Pittsburgh of the South”? Step forward Birmingham, Alabama.