World's 'best' cities are often overrated

According to a new list of city rankings, I just visited two of the greatest cities in the world. Funny, considering how little I enjoyed myself.

By now we’re all familiar with these lists, which rate major international cities on everything from cleanliness to friendliness. The latest is the City Brands Index by data analysis firm Anholt-GfK, which measures the power and appeal of a city’s image.

Paris, formerly No. 1, has been dethroned by London and now sits in third place. Sydney came in second, Toronto eighth, and Melbourne rounds out the top 10.

I’ve long thought city-ranking lists were pointless, but having recently returned from an underwhelming Australian holiday, I’m even more indignant than usual.

Sydney and Melbourne (along with my hometown Vancouver) regularly top world’s best city lists because they’re beautiful, clean and safe. But they’re also ridiculously expensive. And dull. Prices in Sydney made me feel like I was shopping at an airport, all the time. A bottle of Coke Zero from a nondescript convenient store cost $5, and the bar tab for two cocktails was more than 10 times as much.

Since backpacking trips to Australia are a rite of passage for many North Americans, my cousin, with whom I was travelling, and I had heard of legendary parties from our friends. Imagine our surprise when we found out nearly every bar within a 10-kilometre radius of our downtown Sydney hotel on a Monday night closed at 10 or 11 p.m. Yes, it was a Monday, but in a city of 4.5 million I expected more.

It seemed, however, that beyond sightseeing and nature watching, we were destined for disappointment.

Rio de Janeiro, undoubtedly one of the most stunning and exhilarating cities on earth, scored high in friendliness on the Index but didn’t crack the top 10 because it ranked poorly on crime and “cultural fit,” defined as a place in which visitors could “easily fit in.” Oh no, it’s too exotic.

I think there’s a category missing from many of these lists: character. Some grit and quirkiness are to be expected in a big city, and actually make things a lot more interesting. Those who prefer a sterile, cookie-cutter environment are perhaps better off sticking to the suburbs.

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