The world’s most exciting city? A compelling debate

In partnership with The Platinum Card® from American Express®

You may recall that I was planning to attend an event hosted by 1843 Magazine and The Platinum Card from American Express recently – a debate in which five different cities, proposed by five different panellists, were put forward as contenders for the title of the world’s most exciting city. Chaired by 1843’s editor Emma Duncan, the event took place at London’s Living Room, an exceptional venue on the ninth floor of City Hall.

The five shortlisted cities and their respective proponents were as follows:

London, put forward by Simon Callow, an actor, director and writer, best known for his role in Four Weddings and a Funeral, his stage productions including The Philanthropist, and The Mystery of Charles Dickens, his book about the very man that inspired him to champion his hometown in this debate.

Mexico City was proposed by Thomasina Miers, a past winner of BBC Masterchef, co-founder of the Mexican restaurant group Wahaca, and an accomplished writer of many cook books, often inspired by her time in Mexico.

Istanbul, as presented by historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes. Bettany is also author of the book ‘Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities’ – a city that she’s spent over three decades researching.

Hong Kong, as decreed by fashion designer Beatrix Ong. A former Creative Director for Jimmy Choo, Beatrix, who grew up on Hong Kong, has her own eponymous shoe range.

Berlin was selected by Deyan Sudjic, Director of the Design Museum, as well as author of a number of books on architecture and design. His most recent book, ‘The Language of Cities’, is regarded by many as an indispensable guide to what defines a city – his reasons for choosing Berlin were predominately the history and character of its population.

The case for London

Simon Callow argued the case that London exuded a “great sense of theatre” and that it was a “city that was in perpetual evolution – a work in progress, if you like”. Apparently, there are “300 different languages spoken in London” which is testament to its cosmopolitan nature. He argued that “all Londoners play their part in shaping the city – their contributions change the city in such a way that it makes London truly unique.”

“As well as the River Thames being at the heart of London, so too is the theatre.” Indeed, according to Simon the very first theatre in Britain was in Shoreditch and aptly named ‘The Theatre’. But this theatre “was different to those that gone before in other cities – it didn’t have aristocratic or monarchic origins, but was instead a theatre for the people.” Later came The Globe the theatre ”for which William Shakespeare wrote many of his great plays.”

Simon pointed out that “London doesn’t take itself so seriously and that while there have been countless poems and songs about Paris, and the song ‘New York, New York!’ London’s best-known song is London Bridge is falling down!”

London is also “a city surrounded with vast suspicion and doubt. London surprised people with the Olympics – it was not the fiasco that so many people were predicting”. “London continues to surprise like that – buildings are often repurposed and turned into something else, in often very creative ways, rather than being ripped down.”

“The London dining scene, concert halls, galleries and museums are just some of the many delights of the last century”. “Without being overly formal”, London – Simon argued – is “the most exciting and the most publicly-available of all cities.”

Simon was asked by the evening’s host who his ‘dream dinner companion’ would be – he opted for Charles Dickens. While many know Dickens for his writing, Simon talked of his huge involvement with the city of London since moving there as a young boy; “walking the streets, learning every street name and picking up on different accents street by street”. Apparently he also joined “an array of town and council committees”, at one point on “a committee that managed graveyards”.

The case for Mexico City

Thomasina Miers began by telling a story from when Salvador Dali first visited Mexico City. In this story, a cow is alleged to have “fallen out of nowhere onto the bonnet of his car”. Leaving him to summarise that the city was “more surreal than [his] paintings”, which is some accolade in itself!

“Mexico City is generous and unpredictable, yet always warm”, Thomasina explained. “It is built on an island on top of a lake, so sits on fertile yet unstable earth.” “The fertile earth accounts for the great food you can experience in Mexico City”.

Thomasina pointed out the enjoyable laid-back atmosphere of Mexico City. “It’s the kind of place where you might arrange to meet friends for lunch at, say, 2pm, and two of your guests will have texted to say they’ll be there ‘soon’ but you have no idea whether that means in a couple of minutes or a couple of hours. Come 4pm, when they do arrive, they bring along friends or friends of friends. You have no idea quite who will turn up, but you will be assured of a memorable time. And there’s every likelihood that one of those attending will have an art gallery opening that you find yourself being invited along to, or some other similarly random opportunity will present itself.”

Mexico City also has incredible biodiversity. There are apparently over 200 varieties of chilli; “each with their own unique flavour and strength”. “Corn comes in a variety of different colours – not just yellow – and there is a huge choice of tropical fruits”. The owner and chef of [what is widely regarded as] the best restaurant in the world, René Redzepi, chose Mexico City for his pop-up restaurant, which is testament to the city’s culinary scene.” She suggested that “whilst we [in the UK] are only just discovering good produce and what it really means, in Mexico City, it comes as second nature”. “It’s a given, with the city sitting on such fertile ground. It’s also a city where you can eat well very inexpensively.”

“Mexico City is of course also a city of great culture” Thomasina explained. “There are many layers of civilisation from the last 2,000 years. You’ll find art deco splendour right next to Aztec edifices and modern structures next to that”. In conclusion, Thomasina likened Mexico City to “a rebellious teenager, riddled with tattoos and piercings. But a teenager with a conscience. You’ll party all night, yet still get up in the morning and embrace everything that life has to offer.”

The case for Istanbul

“Where do you start?!” is how Bettany Hughes opened her bid for Istanbul as the world’s most exciting city. She began with the city’s rich and remarkable culture, and the deep and exciting history, cheekily pointing out that “Istanbul has seen the rise and fall of all of the evening’s other contenders.”

As already mentioned above, she has written a book on Istanbul and noted that parts of the book had had to be re-written a number of times in the decade that it took to write. “Istanbul is a city that thrives with disruption and a city that incredibly spans over 100 miles. This means that it is bigger than two thirds of the world’s countries! So, if being judged on size, it would be no contest.”

But what makes Istanbul exciting? Well, “the foundation of European law was dreamt up in Istanbul, Christianity and Islam were largely shaped in Istanbul. And if that wasn’t enough for you, ‘booze’ was invented in Ottoman Istanbul – they brewed a millet beer called ‘boza’ from which we get the name ‘booze’ today.”

Bettany also argued the case that Istanbul is a very compassionate city – “it offered sanctuary to anyone in the 6th century AD at a time when there were so many refugees”. She cited Theodora, a Byzantine empress by marriage, who “welcomed in homeless women in need”.

Bettany ended her case by looking at the etymology of the name, Istanbul. Citing its origin in Greek for “in the city”, which she infers to mean “the greatest city on earth” before questioning “who are we to argue with that?”.

The case for Hong Kong

Beatrix Ong began by pointing out that Hong Kong is not only “unique geographically – at the mouth of a delta – but also politically”. “It is a place where people trade. It is a vibrant city. There are many different cultures – as well as Cantonese and Mandarin, you’ll hear people speaking in German or with an Aussie accent – and many other dialects.”

“Hong Kong is an extraordinary place that finds tradition in modernity” Beatrix explained. “You’ll find original temples amongst other buildings, be it a designer store or a huge skyscraper”. And, “at the forefront of the city is technology.

“Hong Kong is also home to the biggest skyscraper collection in the world. Behind the buildings are the likes of Sir Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and more – yet alongside these buildings you will find bamboo scaffolding – it’s eco-friendly, sustainable and withstands typhoons.” The transport is diverse. “You can catch the ferry across the harbour for as little as 20 pence. It’s a service that started in 1880 and continues to this day.” However she went on to say that you can order simple cab and be picked up in the latest top of the range electric car, further demonstrating the juxtaposition of ancient and modern.

Beatrix then pointed out that “Hong Kong is not just a concrete jungle. You can get from the centre of the city to hiking up a mountain in as little as half an hour. 40% of Hong Kong is protected country park, and Hong Kong Island is one of 260 islands. Beaches are easily accessible and you can lie in the sun all year round.”

And if all that wasn’t enough, Beatrix put forward the argument for Hong Kong’s culinary scene. “You can eat not just Indian, French or Chinese food, but you can be much more specific than that – you can go for a North Indian meal or seek out a dish from Provence. Does pizza or sushi grab you? In Hong Kong, you can have it all… on one plate!”

“Hong Kong is such an electrifying and energetic city, packed with many different cultures and nationalities, all placed in a thriving Asian economy.” “It is not just an exciting city”, Beatrix argued, but “the most exciting city in the world.”

The case for Berlin

Deyan Sudjic started putting his case for Berlin by pointing out that “cities are all about tolerance”. “Berlin was the third largest municipality in the world in the 1920s but come 1933, when many German civil liberties were nullified, things were not always good. Since that time, the city has since re-emerged however.”

Deyan put forward one of its unique characteristics for a capital city, “namely that in Berlin there is affordable enough housing that young people can remain in the city after their student days”.

Being a designer himself, it’s no surprise Deyan referred to the architecture. “David Chipperfield restored a number of buildings – including the Neues Museum – showing traces and layers of the city’s past in some extraordinary constructions. People protested at first but then loved it in the end. At the city’s Templehof Aiport, aircraft hangars have been converted so that they can be used for raves.”

Deyen concluded by highlighting that Germans are “very relaxed, a characteristic that is exhibited by the city as a whole, despite it remaining an exciting place to both live and work.”

The five pitches were followed by a handful of questions from the floor. Topics covered included the relation and role of cities to the rest of the country in which they sit, the role cities have to play for children and the elderly, and how sustainable the cities will each be in the longer term, given that two billion more people will live in cities by 2035.

Get a taste of the evening from the footage here:

Although the consensus by the audience on the night veered towards Bettany’s passion for Istanbul – I think there’s so much to marvel about each of these cities that the jury is still well and truly out on which city is the world’s most exciting and it could be very different for each of us.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by The Platinum Card® from American Express®.

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