Top 5 places to live

Imagine you’ve struck it rich. Rich enough to buy 5 homes at whatever price, anywhere around the world. Where do you live?

It’s a tough decision. City, or countryside? Which countries/continents/regions do you focus on? Which do you ignore? How much of a factor are food, night life, the arts, safety, language, recreation options, and distance to friends/family? Remember, you’re rich, so you can always take vacations to other locales. But you’ll live in these five homes and spend the bulk of your time there.

A friend posed this question to me a couple months back, and I couldn’t answer immediately. I’ve traveled a bit, but I haven’t been everywhere I want to go. And because of my budget as a young, semi-employed person, I’ve focused primarily on low-cost destinations and not the pricey places that people usually prefer. But I’ve met people from all over, I read a lot, and I have an active imagination. So I’ve decided to put together my list based on places I’ve actually been and how I imagine the places I’ve not been yet.

My methodology was to pick a part of the world I like and pick a nice, livable, walkable, easily-to-travel-t0-and-from city inside that region. I’ve listed close runners-up in each category. Cities are listed in no particular order of preference.

The top 5 places to live worldwide:

1. USA: New York, New York

New York is a pretty easy call. It’s near the middle of the East Coast, within easy bus, train, or plane distance of camping, white water rafting, and skiing in Maine or Vermont, hiking or beaches in the Carolinas, visiting friends and family in Boston, Durham, or Baltimore, and the political center of gravity in DC. NYC is walkable and has great public transit, and a fantastic selection of food. It’s the business capital of the US, with lots of money flowing in and out that an enterprising person could tap into. My worries about New York are that 1) I’ve been there, and 2) I didn’t really like it all that much. Growing up in the countryside, cities seem isolating, lonely, and intimidating. That’s something I’m trying to get over, so I’m giving NYC the benefit of the doubt here.

Runners up were DC (very livable in sections, and nice if you ignore the social climbers), Pittsburgh (beautiful city, if you’ve never been, with a great airport and a lovely countryside within easy driving distance), and Boston (there’s something nice about a city where 1 in 4 residents is a student). The west coast was never really in contention, since it’s so far away from other power centers. San Francisco would be the closest entrant.

2. Africa: Cape Town, South Africa

True, Johannesburg has direct flights all over the region and the world, is a little cheaper, and is the business capital of the continent. Gauteng province (which contains Joburg and Pretoria) accounts for 10% of all of the African continent’s GDP. But Joburg is ridiculously dangerous, and has about 2 sqaure blocks of nice, walkable, lively, usable city (7th Avenue in Melville). I’m rich in this fantasy, so the easy 2 hour flight to Cape Town isn’t too much of  a burden to bear. And in return, I get glorious vistas of mountains, beaches, and penguins, amazing food, a significant reduction in crime, and easy day trips out to wine country. No contest. And still within easy flight distance of most of Africa (just 6 hours to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia). Best of all, I’ve been there and loved it, so this isn’t just my imagination talking.

The only real runner-up was Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Great local food, but slim international fare. Not nearly as developed as Cape Town, and far from water, though there are lovely mountain vistas and great treking options in the countryside. It’s the seat of the AU and the regional headquarters of the UN. The number of embassies means its a regional center for diplomacy, and there’s quite a bit of modern construction going on that indicates a real commitment to the future. Lagos, Nigeria sounds like your typical sprawling city. Just like most other cities in Africa.

3. Asia: Singapore

With the world’s best airport and direct flights all over the world, Singapore is just a hop, skip, and jump from anywhere else in Asia. Unlike charming runner-up Hanoi, Singapore looks and feels like a super modern city. The roads are organized, and taxis are ridiculously cheap. The food options are world class, and the sea food is some of the best in the world. Unfortunately, the night life is focused around the super rich, and drinks can cost a fortune thanks to the draconian taxes. But there is quite a bit to do in the city, and they’ve even built a tropical island get-away out of imported Indonesian sand. My one quibble with Singapore is that it’s political system is terribly autocratic, with very little open political space for criticism or dissent. And good luck trying to import chewing gum. But luckily I’ve been to Singapore and know I can stand the authoritarianism for shorter periods.

Close runners-up were: Hanoi (beautiful, old-Asia city with charming traditional alleyways, loads of scenic ponds, and  interesting day trips. Draw backs include the traffic and cultural insularity), Tokyo (I’ve never been, but here it has great transport and food. The problem is it’s not a very international city, and can also feel very crowded), and Beijing (smog-choked and grid-locked as it may be, it’s an up-and-coming metropolis with great, cheap food and nightlife options. The real problem is that it’s in China. So as soon as the Party chills out a bit, maybe Beijing will top this list).

4. Latin America: Buenos Aires, Argentina

The first city on this list I haven’t been to, Argentina exists in my mind as a very charming city. Though I love traveling in Latin America, I hate nearly all the Latin American cities I’ve ever been to. Quito is crime ridden, dingy, and cold. Mexico City has a nice downtown area, but a vast and ugly hinterland of housing. I’ve been told that Santiago is cold and boring. Rio sounds nice in parts, but terribly dangerous. Besides, I don’t speak Portuguese. So BA it is. BA is supposed to have great food and comparatively low crime (for a city in Latin America, that is). Close to nice beaches. Laid back culture.

Havana, Cuba was a very close runner-up. I’ve never been (I can’t, so long as my government decides to restrict my freedom in the name of placating some radicals in Florida), but friends report that it is a very relaxed culture with descent food. And as soon as it open back up to US investment and travel, it’s bound to turn into a major destination for business. Besides, wouldn’t you like to drive around and see nothing but cars made int he ’40s and ’50s? How classy is that?

5. Europe/Middle East: Munich, Germany

This was the toughest call. Unlike the other areas, there is just a very high density of cool places in this region. I rejected Paris because, well, it’s a little snooty for my tastes. Beirut would have a strong case if the civil war and international conflicts ever ended and business got back to the pre-1980s usual. Tel Aviv has a shot, if the Arab-Israeli rift ever heals enough to allow easy travel to neighboring countries without the need to carry a separate passport. I’ve heard great things about lots of places in Italy, but Italy seems like somewhat of a backwater in Europe. Nice if you’re just laying back and relaxing, but hard to do anything serious. Russia is just nuts. Lots of places in Eastern Europe look good – I’m thinking Krakow and Poznan, Poland or Budapest, Hungary. Berlin feels too much like an American city to count as traveling, but Germany is well-positioned in the center of Europe to make travel elsewhere easy enough. It’s also in the EU, so transnational business is easier. I love Vienna, but there’s only so much architecture, paintings, and music that one person can take. London is fantastic, but British food is terrible and England is on the corner of the continent. That’s why in the end I had to pick Munich, Germany. It’s in the center of the continent, and with beautiful countryside in the German Alps just to the south. I’ve been there, and I know I really love the fantastic beer, the laid back culture, and the fact that it has just enough business to keep things interesting. But it was a close call with all the other contestants

And that’s the list. Have any quibbles? Think I missed some major contenders? What are your lists? Chime in in the comments below.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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