Gary Fong — June 22, 2012 at 5:38 pm




Clockwise from top left: Los Angeles, New York City, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York City – the truly greats?



So, I was having drinks with a few friends the other day and somehow we got on the subject of cities when one of them posed this question:  what makes a great city, truly great?  In other words, if you set aside the obvious things that make a city just great – e.g, fab restaurants and bars, loads of cultural offerings, a rich history, fantastic architecture (impressive skylines are always a plus in my book) – then what elevates a city to that next rarified level of a truly great city?  I thought it was a interesting question and one certainly worthy of addressing in a post.

But before I attempt an answer let me just mention that, in my rather ADD-ridden life (living in one place for too long has always been difficult), I’ve done my share of overseas living/working – not that this necessarily gives me any special insight into the whole city thing.  In fact, my roaming (i.e. places I’ve lived in at least a year) has been very Asia/US-centric – NYC, Tokyo, LA, SF, Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Ulan Bator, Taipei.  Unfortunately, I haven’t done Europe (other than a bit of holiday/business travel), so whatever limited perspective I might have is further hampered by not having the experience of living in the likes of London or Paris.

That being said, I’ve tried to have a proper go of answering my friend’s question.  As it turns out, my responses are more about ‘the little things’ than anything else (though this might just be me trying to subconsciously tie it back to the site’s Zen theme).  So without further ado…here is my take on the little things that make a city truly great.


#1  Vive la Différence!! - A truly great city should be a melting pot in every sense of the word – ethnically, sexually, religiously, politically, economically, etc.  You name it, the city’s got it.  Moreover, the differences are embraced and celebrated, never shoved aside or viewed as an afterthought; they make the city what it truly is.

#2  Subways, Trains & Taxis  - Every truly great city should have a top notch, all-hours transportation system to get you where you need to go, when you need to get there.  From an extensive train/subway system and readily available taxis to people movers of every kind.  Drinking and driving is a non-issue, and the trek home after a late might is an easy one.


#3  It’s Alive!  - Every truly great city feels like it’s got a life of its own – dynamic and vibrant; constantly changing and ever in motion.  There’s always something new to see and do and when you’re away, you often feel like you’re missing out.  That, in a way, the city is off doing things without you. 


#4  After Hours - A truly great city should ideally be open 24/7.  Traditional business hours don’t dictate the ebb and flow of the city; multiple late night and after hours joints (shops, clubs, restaurants, bars) are on offer beyond the usual convenience store.  You can have a full course dinner at 2am or have that one “last” drink at your favorite bar before calling it a night.  Oh……and your night of boozing ends not because it’s last call but because you’re too pissed and broke for one more.

#5  Music Inspired By - Every truly great city should have a truly great song written about it. It puts a city on the map and embeds it in our social consciousness in a way that only a great song can.  Any city that doesn’t have its own song, is just, well, uninspired.  Consider Sinatra’s New York, New York or Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind; or, for that matter, Tom Petty’s Free Fallin or Missing Persons’ Walking in LA – would our perceptions of NY or LA be the same if we had never heard these songs?  Probably not.

#6  Oh!  You Scotch Lassie - Every truly great city should have a proper whisky bar.  For me this could take the following form:  a top notch selection of single malts (with an emphasis on Islays and Highlands), a bartender well versed in whiskey lore, a long wooden bar for seating (no tables), dim lighting with an interesting and diverse clientele, music of all genres/eras being piped in, and (importantly) open late.  Tokyo and, to a lesser extent, NYC are the only cities I’ve found that have whiskey bars that come anywhere close to matching this description.  LA seems to be more about the martini, while others (sadly) believe that a range of Macallans constitutes a whiskey bar (SF, yes, I’m talking to you).  London, on the other hand, is about pubs with emphasis on beer and dodgy white wine.

#7  Sporty Spice - Every truly great city should be home to at least one major sports franchise be it football (English or American), basketball, baseball or hockey.  The more, the better.  Ideally, the team doesn’t suck or have a despised owner (e.g., NBA’s Sacramento Kings) but, rather, provides the city with a sense of pride (a rallying point for the masses?).  At the very least, it’s a great tool for chatting up strangers – hey, how about them (insert team name here)!

#8  The X-Factor - Every truly great city should have that special “something”, which is compellingly unique.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a good or bad (which is more about perspective, anyway) but rather, that it can’t be found anywhere else.  It defines the city and sets it apart.  For instance, LA has its car culture, while Tokyo has its very distinctive Japanese culture.  Likewise, NYC is known for its immigrant melting pot and city-that-never-sleeps energy, and San Francisco for its unattractive, yet undying provincialism. 


#9  Everything Is Illuminated  - A truly great city should feel like anything is possible, that this is the place where you can truly be yourself and pursue your dreams and passions.  It’s open to new ideas and ways of thinking.  And has a history of greatness from its people because of it.  New York City probably best exemplifies this.  Like Jay-Z said, ‘New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of.  There’s nothin’ you can’t do.’


#10  Bang The Drum Slowly - A truly great city already knows how great it is.  Its residents don’t boast, rationalize or need to be reminded – they know who they are and are completely comfortable with it.  Petty rivalries and constant comparisons with other cities make little sense to them as they’re too busy being truly great.


So, now that I’ve answered my friend’s question, I’m waiting to hear what he thinks, though my guess is that he’ll next like to know what cities I think are truly great  (but that’s for another post).  In the meantime, if you’d like to share your own thoughts on what you think makes a great city, truly great, then write to us.  We’d love to hear from you!

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