The list of the all-time greatest cities – and I mean ‘all-time’
If you could go anywhere at any point in the history of humanity – what's on the bucket list?
Babylon, as it…might have been
I was listening to the podcast The Rest is History – more of that in a minute. Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland were talking about Babylon. And I thought, as you do think when people who know their stuff share their passion for a place, that’s it, I’m sold. Let’s get onto Skyscanner and put in Edinburgh to Babylon.
But no luck. That’s possibly because Babylon is a few piles of rubble and mud walls an hour south of Baghdad, and has been since about the 6th century BC. There is no airport there.
There is one at Baghdad – I think, still – but that also failed to produce any results.
But this shouldn’t stop a creative traveller. I got to thinking. Everyone makes lists of the world's great cities. But how about a list of the all-time greatest cities? Let’s choose a city at its very height and not let trivialities like time and ruination deter us from visiting.
Not all are in Babylon’s state of disrepair. So, in my list, you can get to the chosen city and – certainly in the case of the more modern examples – imagine it as it was at the special period I’ve chosen. But to get there…well, you need a time machine
Let’s get into it. Cue the sound of the swinging cymbal, and we’ll count down the top 10, beginning in Catalonia.
10. Barcelona, 1980s and the Olympics
Olympics, 1992 – Barcelona had already made a big leap
The most up-to-date entry on my list. General Franco died in 1975, ending decades of dreariness, repression and patriarchy. Spain decided to party. In Madrid, the movida became a cultural movement with the films of Almodóvar and the graffiti art of Muelle. But it’s Barcelona I’d go to, a Barcelona where it was okay to be Catalan again, before the Ramblas and the overtourism thing got out of hand, when they were still developing the waterfront and making an explosive and overdue entrance into the 20th century. By the time of the 1992 Olympics, the secret was already out.
And now? The trouble with rapid social liberalisation (cf post-Soviet eastern Europe) is the touts and the stag parties move in and it makes everything a bit boring for everyone, especially the inhabitants.
9. Athens, 5th century BC
A normal Friday out with Pericles and the lads
It had to be on here, didn’t it? You might not get to hear Pericles orate or Socrates opine. But just to be here as this new thing called democracy emerges is enough; and to see the buildings of ancient Athens in all their original, gaudy glory.
And now? Apart from shaping western thought for the past 2500 years, and it still being the greatest classical-era city on the planet, Athens hasn’t left us very much.
8. Chang'an, 6th century AD
Gucci hadn’t yet expanded to China at this point
With China, you need to choose your dynasty as well as your city. The Ming is tempting – art, luxury, silk – but that soft power game they played in the region and beyond is just a bit too belt-and-road for me.
The Tang, though – cosmopolitan, open to outside fashions and influences (especially from Central Asia), a centre of different religions and lots and lots of nice stuff to buy in the shops. Chang'an would have been a blast: a riot of different music, food and commerce all set in gardens and complexes several times the size of the Forbidden City and eight times the size of the city that would become Ming – and modern-day – Xian.
And now? Some of the main buildings are well preserved. But this is modern China: they’ve turned part of it into a Tang theme park.
7. Cordoba, 10th century
All friends here: Abd al-Rahman III welcomes an ambassador to his gig
I guess when you are talking about pre-modern civilisations, we have to treat words like ‘tolerant’, ‘multicultural’ and ‘laissez-faire’ with great caution. And there are scholars who think that the liberal reputation of the Berber Arabs’ Spanish realm has been overblown. Still, especially compared to what replaced it (483 years of an insular and zealous monoculture, after they killed or exiled all the interesting people), Cordoba at its height was the world’s greatest centre of learning – and huge, to boot. You get astronomy, you get mathematics, you get music and poetry.
And now? How much of that remains today? A little. But I find modern Cordoba a provincial, even melancholy, experience, for all its beauty.
6. New York, late 1940s – early 1950s
52nd Street: whatever happened to Margie Hyams?
Choose your New York moment. I guess it’s either the Jazz Age (1920s: F Scott Fitzgerald, The Cotton Club and all that); that strange period between Mad Men and the Greenwich Village folk scene (1955-65); or the second jazz age, when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and their friends created the most exciting, daring and brilliant music ever. That’s where I am headed, zoot suit on, down 52 Street, and on to Broadway, and Birdland.
This was the post-war period when the economy was booming and social change was in the air as black musicians and writers demanded to be heard, and it was all pills and whisky and syncopation.
And now? Manhattan, even 52nd Street and Time Square, has gotten clean and straight. It’s a nice enough place to stroll during the day. At night, empty – just the ghostly sound of someone playing Round Midnight on alto sax.
5. Edo, 1700s
Who needs the outside world? A fireworks party in Edo
There is a technical issue here, even within the free and easy rules of time travel. I can get there as a visitor from the future. But as a westerner, because of sakoku laws, I wouldn’t be allowed in. I’d be confined to some smelly island off Nagasaki with a bunch of Dutch traders. Maybe I could go in disguise and see the streets of the floating world – peak Bohemianism without the smells and tuberculosis. Even then, this was a city of a million people: the first modern Asian mega city.
And now? It’s called Tokyo.
4. London, 1960s
A biscuit-tin view of Carnaby Street (which is now pedestrianised and quite smart)
It was this or exactly three centuries earlier, when the monarchy was restored and there were parties on the frozen Thames. But let's choose the period between Grace Coddington walking out of Vidal Sasoon’s salon with a five-point cut and The Beatles playing their farewell gig on the roof of the Apple offices in Savile Row. Between 1965 and 1969, the whole developed world wanted to dress like London, sing like London and talk like London. The fact that it was still an impoverished, crime-ridden, conflicted, class-ridden, bomb-blasted wreck of a place just provided a better backdrop for those peacock fashions and psychedelic adventurers.
And now? They are forever trying to revive the spirit of the Swinging Sixties. But it’s over, for central London at least: too middle class, too international, too clean, too corporate. Perfectly nice place to wander around, though.
3. Moscow, early 1800s
All it needs is some Brutalist concrete tower blocks and it’d be perfect…
The Russian capital before Napoleon turned up after the Battle of Borodino in 1812 was a riot of architecture – cupolas, spires, onion domes – a fantastical mixture of east and west. Think of Red Square and multiply it by a hundred. Then there was a big fire. Was it started by a patriot who would rather see the Russians’ sacred capital razed to the ground than let it fall into the hands of the Antichrist? Was it just part of their scorched earth policy? Or was it just the consequence of letting too many idle soldiers sit around playing, literally, with fire?
Anyway, burn it did. The residents had already fled, leaving the French army twiddling its collective thumbs. Finally, they left, starved and froze.
It became part of Russian national myth, 1812 – Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and all that. And why wouldn’t it be? Against all the odds, a city and a country stands up to superior foreign forces led by megalomaniac leader who think he can impose his will on all the lands around him. That sounds pretty heroic to me.
And now? Red Square.
2. Paris, 1890s
Clubbing up Montmartre way
Again, choose your epoch. I went for the belle one. Post-war Paris is tempting – Sartre and De Beauvoir, Miles and Juliet Greco – but all those raincoats, Gitanes smoke, monochrome photography and existentialism can get tiring. Best head back to the 1890s and up to Montmartre and see if Baz Lurhmann got it remotely right, see the bourgeoisie get a good épater-ing, hop on a bike in your straw hat, wearing your new Cartier watch, ride along the Seine watching Impressionists sketch a few masterworks, sink a few absinthes and…expire in a garret, probably.
And now? The Paris that came to be then – the Sacré Coeur and Haussman’s boulevards, the Eiffel Tower and the Galeries Lafayette – is very much the Paris that remains – albeit a bit worn around the edges.
1. Babylon, 6th century BC
Babylon ruled the area around modern Iraq and the fertile crescent – waxing and waning quite a lot, it’s true – from the 18th century BCE to the sixth. It was one hell of an empire. But really, you’d want to be there when Nebuchednazzar II was strutting his not inconsiderable stuff.
Whether there were hanging gardens or not isn’t clear – no-one has found any evidence, and they could have been hanging out somewhere else. But there were certainly incredible walls and fortifications and, most imposing of all, the Esagila, dedicated to the god Marduk. It was also the party place to end them all, to the extent that over 2500 years later, Babylon is still a shorthand for hedonism, and naughtiness: just ask the rastas.
You’d have to hope your Google translate app worked there, as people from everywhere flocked to the city. They didn’t have a Tower of Babel for nothing.
And now? See above. Not much.
Didn’t make the cut
…but I’d still like to visit
San Francisco, 1960s.
I have no pretensions to be a historian – just as well, you’re thinking, having read the above. So I don’t exactly envy the presenters of The Rest Is History podcast, but I do love their mixture of erudition, ragging and their knack of summing up great epochs and historic personalities as if they are commenting on a football match.
I also have a professional interest in the way they commercialise the podcast. The two presenters top and tail the show with ads for their sponsors which they read out with something approaching sincerity. They sometime invite their sponsors on the show too.
But it doesn’t jar. Just call it expertorial.
Songs that take you places
Max Romeo and the Upsetters
Mid-1970s reggae is the best there is – and maybe Kingston at that time would be another bucket list destination, if you could get suitable insurance. Max Romeo trod a familiar path from writing racy songs about his girlfriends to full-on political and social consciousness. It’s nothing to do with Neb II’s city, but pretty hypnotic all the same.
The full Marklands playlist is here.
Updated, 4th June. As a friend pointed out, you would not have heard Aristotle in Athens until the 4th century BCE. Socrates is the man.