People-watching in a piazza sipping a chilled glass of local white wine. A low-lit restaurant buzzing with diners. The excitement of seeing an iconic building or work of art. A bustling shopping arcade. Queuing for a must-have bakery or brunch destination. Confident locals mingling with unsure tourists in an off-the-tourist-grid bar. Stumbling upon a local festival or celebration. These are just some of the things that I love about a city break. For all my reservations about navigating the Japanese rail system, I was excited to be immersed in the crowds of Tokyo. But that trip wasn’t to be, thanks to COVID-19, and I wonder whether – for the time being at least – this is the end of the city break as we know it.
There is little doubt that some cities were suffering from over-tourism. Barcelona, Dubrovnik and Venice are obvious examples as tourists flocked to the epicentre of cities not designed for such an influx of people. Residents and visitors, all sharing the same space. Cruise ships and coach trips, spewing out daytrippers who barely contribute to the local economy. Scrupulous agents buying up property for short-term lets, pricing locals out of a purchase. And the environmental considerations – increased traffic, increased litter, increased plastic consumption. The lockdowns instigated in cities across the world has enabled some places to reset.
This video of Europe’s empty cities shows how some of the most bustling urban areas and tourist sights have become virtual ghost towns.
Whilst it may seem blissful to be able to walk amongst iconic landmarks free of other tourists, blessedly able to get that perfect Instagram pic, I find these images chilling. Empty streets with maybe a handful of people. Boarded up restaurants and bars. Closed signs on the doors of museums and shops and hotels. Empty trains and trams. The beating heart of a city is its people, both its inhabitants and its temporary residents.
And now lockdown is easing, although in some countries increased restrictions are never more than a moment away. Local people are being encouraged to return to work, to commute and to socialise – albeit in a socially distanced and responsible way. Metaphorical signs are up, saying “We’re Open”. Visitors are – cautiously – being welcomed. After all, city breakers will spend money in shops, in restaurants, in local attractions, in theatres and opera houses. And tourism is vital to the economy of cities. Yes, even those which have become hostile in the wake of overtourism.
But those things that attract me to cities, those things listed in the first paragraph, have become difficult to imagine in the current world. A city break is about immersing yourself in urban life, be it art, literature, history or gastronomy. It’s about visiting the tourist attractions, but then peeling away down a narrow alleyway or between overhanging buildings to find out what may lie beyond. It’s about the rich tapestry of local people, of asking for recommendations and suggestions. Of using facial expressions and hand gestures when there is a language barrier. And of sampling food and drink, at local markets and street food stands.
Of course, city breaks – as with all travel – come with some cautionary tales. Pickpockets, beggars and scammers occur anywhere there may be opportunity. Vigilance is the watchword. But add onto that the hyper-vigilance required to travel in a city post-lockdown. The mask-wearing, and the hand-washing. Mentally calculating 6 feet, or 2 metres, or whatever the locally agreed safe distance is. In a highly-populated city, all of these things become a little trickier. Every restaurant, every museum, every attraction must be planned in advance – what if opening times are restricted? Are reservations or pre-booking slots required? Will I need to take public transport? All of the normal planning required for a city break increases tenfold.
And then there’s the fear of further lockdown. A lockdown in your own hometown is an inconvenience, but imagine being restricted to a hotel room or an apartment in a different city. A city that you had planned to explore every inch of. To eat in a different restaurant every night, and sample the local food. I’d hate to be confined to those four walls if I’ve paid good money to travel to a city.
But cities have their good and bad points. I hated the craziness of Times Square, the pollution and overflowing rubbish in Florence, the eyesore of a construction site that was Copenhagen. But I loved the Christmas markets of Vienna and chilling in the Public Gardens in Boston. I loved cycling around Stanley Park, singing along to bands in the Cavern and dancing in a ticker tape storm in Rabat. And I really hope that I will get to add to my extensive list of city breaks. But at the present time, these moments seem a startlingly long way away.