Not every city in the world is amazing and beautiful. Some cities are downright dumps or totally forgettable. Though I usually fall in love everywhere I go, there are some places that just weren’t for me. Here are five of the worst cities I’ve ever visited. But don’t despair. There are always great alternatives nearby.
It’s possible that Athens may have once been gorgeous and worth seeing. But the city never quite recovered from Greece’s economic crisis in 2009. Years of recession and riots left it looking like a run-down mess. I’m someone that appreciates a place with some character and I love to see colorful street art wherever I go. But there is nothing appealing about boarded up businesses that are covered in spray painted bullshit. It makes the whole city feel a little bit like the wrong side of town, except there is no right side of town. There are some nice markets and walking streets like Ermou Street, but even that descends into a seedy flea market. So unless you’re looking to buy fake Yeezys, skip that.
As far as more famous tourist attractions in Athens go, there’s the Acropolis, the crown jewel of ancient Greece. I may be biased, because honestly, I don’t care for ruins. Despite that, I could spend a month visiting Inca ruins in total awe or marvel at the ancient sites in Italy, but the Acropolis did nothing for me. I’m sorry, I just don’t think a bunch of columns partially held up by scaffolding are that impressive.
Where to go instead
The only good reason to go to Greece is the islands. Skip Athens and head straight to Santorini or Mykonos. These are some of the most magnificent beaches in Europe. There’s fantastic boutique shopping, delicious food, and killer views everywhere you look. It’s relaxing in a way that is almost inherently luxurious even if you’re not staying anywhere particularly fancy. There’s fun nightlife that’s also relaxed so you don’t have to worry about getting dressed to the nines after a day at the beach.
Unlike Athens where people are so pissed off that they’ve destroyed their own city, the Greeks in the islands are outrageously friendly. They’re great to talk to and even better to drink with. And if you do enjoy ancient ruins, you can still get your fill of that in the islands. For example, Delos, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, is a ferry ride away from Mykonos. But you know… it’ll still be a bunch of broken columns.
Brussels has the highest concentration of sleazy dudes in all of Europe. They’re all out and in your face in a way that’s mildly threatening and kind of eye-rapey. Like they’re not sure if they wanna steal my iPhone or fuck me. As a city, it’s completely unremarkable. It’s a generic European big city with its nice squares and its old historical and imposing buildings. And I’ve seen it a million times and Brussels’ squares are the least memorable. Outside of that, it’s all kebab dives and shady dudes. The best thing you can possibly do in Brussels is get obliterated drinking the strongest Delirium beers you can get your hands on and eat amazing waffles. Because what else are you gonna do? Crowd around a tiny statue of a boy peeing with 300 other tourists? No thank you.
Where to go instead
Though Brussels is awful, the rest of Belgium is amazing. I would skip the capital and go right to Ghent, which has some of the most eye-popping architecture I’ve ever seen. There’s also a vibrant and diverse nightlife scene that doesn’t make you feel like you’re gonna get taken. No matter what you’re into, you’ll find it, from nice lounges to hole-in-the wall jazz bars. There’s also some world class food there.
For a calmer, sleepier town than Ghent, you can go to the charming Bruges. It’s a little more expensive and more popular with older folks, but it’s lovely and quaint. This is the kind of city to visit if you want a relaxing vacation that consists of river cruises and fancy dinners.
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” One of the most famous lines in movie history. But perhaps even more perplexing is that anyone would open a gin joint in Casablanca, one of the worst cities in Morocco. It’s also the largest city in Morocco so traffic is terrible and also kind of terrifying. And I’ve been in other big cities where there’s a lot of traffic, like Bangkok, but there’s a weird serenity in Bangkok like everyone knows what they’re doing even in apparent chaos. In Casablanca, there’s just chaos and everyone is pissed off yelling out their windows at each other in busy intersections.
Now that’s not to say there’s nothing to do there. Because the Hassan II Mosque is one of the most gorgeous buildings I’ve ever seen. You can also go to Rick’s Café, which is designed to look like Humphrey Bogart’s bar in the movie Casablanca. But places where you’ll spend time just hanging out or having a beer are seedy. And as a woman, you really feel out of place going out for a drink somewhere with only men. If you’re out at night, most men will think you’re a prostitute.
Where to go instead
Morocco is a diverse and exotic country. Outside of Casablanca, you’ll find expansive markets with gorgeous handmade goods in cities like Fes, Rabat, and Marrakesh. In Fes, you can tour the king’s palace and visit the tanneries where leather is made. In Rabat, Morocco’s capital, you can see the stunning royal palace of the king. And maybe the best thing about Morocco is outside its cities in the Atlas Mountains and in the Sahara Desert. In the small villages where local Berbers live as artisans. It’s one of the most naturally beautiful places I’ve ever seen but you wouldn’t know that by hanging out in grimy Casablanca.
Whereas most of these cities are on the list for being a little shady, Zurich is on here for being totally bland. If I could identify my most lasting impression of my visit to Zurich, it would be grayness. It’s like being inside a clock, all gears and machines. Everything is working properly but it’s just so boring. People look like they’re programmed to just go to work every day wearing stylish coats. It’s all precision and no personality. And aside from one or two churches that are mildly interesting from the outside and totally drab inside, there is nothing to do there. Unless you’re a banker.
Where to go instead
Switzerland is in the middle of Europe, so literally anywhere. I did have a lovely time taking a train through the Alps and spending a few days in the small town of Zermatt. It’s obviously designed for skiing, but whether you ski or not, it’s a wonderful place to visit. It’s gorgeous and cozy and it’s the closest you can get to the Matterhorn without being on it.
I’ve already written extensively about how much I hate San Francisco, so this is the only American city on this list. But boy, do I dislike Philadelphia. Major American historical events are reduced to a sideshow narrated by a guy dressed as Ben Franklin. The Liberty Bell is like the Mona Lisa of historical artifacts. It draws huge crowds and is an underwhelming disappointment. The city is also kind of a ghetto disaster. It may be one of the only cities I’ve ever been where you can be in an upscale walking street and one block over, all the windows are busted out and someone is trying to sell you crack. If you spend two hours in Philly, you instantly understand why everyone on Always Sunny is such an asshole. The Philly cheesesteaks are great, though.
Where to go instead
If you want to see a place that’s beautiful and has a lot of history, go to DC. The museums and attractions there are treated with some degree of respect. There’s a sense of awe and pride when walking the hallowed halls of Congress or the Supreme Court (even if they’re mostly a joke now). Outside of important and historical attractions, DC has all the culture, food, and nightlife you’d expect of a bustling metropolis. It has some of the best live concert venues I’ve ever been to like the 9:30 Club. And one night of drinking in Adams Morgan and having some chili dogs from Ben’s Chili Bowl and you’ll forget all about Philly’s cheesesteaks.