Where are my idiosyncratic neighborhoods at?
March 4, 2019 6:24 PM   Subscribe

What are examples of (visit-able) neighborhoods or not-global cities that have a DISTINCT sense of place, especially compared to its context?

Whenever I travel, my favorite moments tend to be just walking around neighborhoods that have a strongly unique texture to them, be it architectural, cultural, spiritual, etc. As in, those areas that feel wildly different compared to the city / greater area they reside, where entering feels processional and transformative. What places are out there that are like that?

It's important that the neighborhood / city somewhat have a life of its own. I'm not looking for tourist town attractions (Solvang), "large-scale" landmarks (Pompeii), or places so strongly associated with a single place or historical event that its economy and identity is based around it (Gettysburg, maybe?). Neighborhoods / towns famous for hosting an event are permissible provided the changes the town undergoes as a result are transformative. Urban areas are preferable, but "rural" isn't a dealbreaker. BUT, isolated places warranting a 12+ hour trip from the nearest city are a no-go. This isn't intended to be a "pick my next vacation" question, but these places should ideally be possible to visit to as part of a larger trip to the area.

Coyoacan in Mexico City and Fener in Istanbul are perfect examples. On a larger scale, Chandigarh (I suspect, haven't been) is a good example. A diversity of countries, architectural styles, scales, or temperaments in the answers are encouraged.
posted by galleta monster to Travel & Transportation (37 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
How about Nachlaot in Jerusalem?
posted by 8603 at 6:26 PM on March 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ditmas Park in Brooklyn
posted by STFUDonnie at 6:31 PM on March 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Christiania is a “Freetown” founded by hippies in the 70s on an old Danish military base in the middle of Copenhagen. It considers itself a commune independent from Denmark and Danish law - meaning, for one, that pot is sold on the street, so unavoidably it’s a bit of a tourist attraction - but it’s a real neighborhood where real people live and make their own rules, and for whatever reason the Danish government still mostly lets them do what they want. They keep trying to crack down and I think it’s more controlled than it used to be, but still very much a unique part of the city.
posted by something something at 6:35 PM on March 4, 2019 [12 favorites]

This is definitely rural, but I think it fits: Ocracoke is a small island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Like many small islands, it's pretty insular, and there are multiple generations of people who've never lived anywhere else and haven't traveled that far away, either. At first glance it may seem kinda "generic tiny island village", but it's got a unique flavor unlike anywhere else I've been. And the most distinctive thing that lends it its sense of place: a dialect known as the Ocracoke Brogue.

It requires a flight to Norfolk or Raleigh, a drive (2.5 hrs from Norfolk, 4.5 hrs from Raleigh), and a slow ferry ride to get to, so YMMV on whether that counts as "visitable".

(Slight disclaimer: I grew up one island north of Ocracoke and it's a special place to me. But I've traveled far and wide since, and I've still never been anyplace like it.)
posted by rhiannonstone at 6:51 PM on March 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

La Marais in Paris feels distinctive because it wasn't part of the 19th century "urban renewal" that most of rest of central Paris experienced, so it still has idiosyncratic buildings and little alleyways. But unlike the Latin Quarter, which also has some of that, it hasn't completely been given over to tourist honky-tonk. It's also Paris' traditional Jewish quarter and feels very much like a neighborhood where people live.

The Makah Reservation in Washington State is rather unique among reservations in that the people there are actually living on their ancestral lands, not land they were forced to move to. It gives it a really strong, very old sense of place that is rare to experience in the US. (It's a good 4 hour drive from Seattle though)
posted by lunasol at 6:56 PM on March 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

The Gingerbread Houses of Oak Bluffs, more formally known as the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. An amazing little neighborhood with a fascinating background.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:01 PM on March 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

The Village (Manhattan), French quarter (NOLA), Brighton beach (Brooklyn), Spaccanapoli (Naples), Condesa (Mexico City), river arts district in Asheville, NC (and most of Asheville. Bonus: go to 12 bones for bbq but check their hours first)
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 7:13 PM on March 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Auroville near Pondicherry in India is an experimental township with a very unique flavor. Simultaneously cosmopolitan (you'll find people from all over the world!) and rural, it's a pretty special place.
posted by peacheater at 7:18 PM on March 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

Surely Slab City would be a prime example.

My hometown of Chicago has a lot of neighborhoods with strong character, but to someone visiting for the first time, Old Town would feel distinct immediately. The streets are narrow and weird, there are single-family homes, everything feels especially crammed together. I believe it's one of the few parts of then-Chicago to have survived the Chicago Fire more or less intact, which is why it still is that way.
posted by adamrice at 7:42 PM on March 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Ferndale in the greater Detroit, Michigan area. Little city with a lot of funky shops and restaurants and colorful bungalow-style homes. Also notable for being the closest thing the area has to a "gayborhood." (Somewhat striking as I wouldn't call the Detroit area especially progressive on the whole). Ferndale is bordered by some of the highest-crime areas of Detroit to the south and a less-funky and less-progressive version of itself (Royal Oak) to the north.
posted by sevenofspades at 7:47 PM on March 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Main Street Chinatown / Flushing in Queens. Hyde Park in Chicago.(And its near neighbor, Kenwood.) Japantown in SF although it’s small.

Less so, Koreatown in Midtown Manhattan.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:54 PM on March 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

There is a tiny independent nation on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea called Monaco. The city of Monaco is usually known as Monte Carlo or Monaco City. But that city, or that metropolitan urban area, has grown far beyond the bounds of Monaco itself and merged with other towns in surrounding France, like Beausoleil. So the upshot is: this is effectively a single metropolis, in which one neighborhood is its own separate country, with a little prince and congress and monarchical-socialist government.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:18 PM on March 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

About 90 minutes' drive from Atlanta is Helen, Georgia — a Bavarian-style town in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
posted by D.Billy at 8:20 PM on March 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

I really enjoyed St. Pauli in Hamburg, Germany.
posted by wats at 9:07 PM on March 4, 2019

From your two concrete examples it sounds like you want well-preserved historic districts with irregular street plans in cities in middle-income countries. In that case, I would recommend Monastiraki in Athens and Ano Poli in Thessaloniki.
posted by crazy with stars at 11:13 PM on March 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

The medinas of Moroccan cities like Fes and Merrakesh. Fes el Bali is even a World Heritage Site for this reason. The contrast to the modern cities around them is notable: you go through gates to enter, no cars, narrow chaotic twisty streets, old buildings, assorted vendors, people moving goods on various wheeled and animal conveyances, etc...
posted by zachlipton at 11:34 PM on March 4, 2019

Metelkova Ljubljana.
posted by chrisulonic at 11:41 PM on March 4, 2019

Manshiyat Naser in Cairo, Egypt. It's the 'garbage city' or recycling heart of the city and also home to the local Coptic Christian population. I recently went there (not on a tour, just wandered in) and it was very interesting - particularly the massive Arabic calligraphy by eL Seed.
posted by teststrip at 12:35 AM on March 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Kazimierz in Kraków probably is too touristy by now, but I'd nominate Praga in Warsaw. It wasn't flattened in World War II, so it hosts some of the only old buildings actually surviving, and there's a distinct culture and dialect and music. You can feel the difference as soon as you get out of the tram at Wileński.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 1:17 AM on March 5, 2019

You could compare and contrast the Old Town and New Town of Edinburgh, both of which have a very strong sense of place and are different to the surrounding cities and each other.
posted by plonkee at 1:50 AM on March 5, 2019

Digbeth, Birmingham (UK).

Newtown in inner-west Sydney.
posted by plep at 4:29 AM on March 5, 2019

In Toronto, Kensington Market Definitely has its own “look” and community feel, the Distillery District could have been awesome but capitalism ruined it. Fortunately, the Toronto Island Community is still going strong.
posted by saucysault at 4:44 AM on March 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Pullman in Chicago
posted by Morpeth at 5:04 AM on March 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Santa Fe gave me the feeling of being in a different country with a distinct history. Admittedly, I haven't been for many years but the architecture, the street layout, the food and even the vegetation and wildlife are so different from the northeast.
posted by Botanizer at 5:28 AM on March 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ida Grove, Iowa has a truly weird castle thing going on. I wouldn't advise going out of your way to see it, though.
posted by TrialByMedia at 5:47 AM on March 5, 2019

You should look at Roosevelt If you’re in the area. It’s surrounded by rural redneck Trump country, and is the polar opposite.
posted by evilDoug at 5:55 AM on March 5, 2019

- The Vatican
- Bangkok's Chinatown
- Dakar-Plateau
- Tel Aviv's White City
- Alexandria
- Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
- Harar, Ethiopia
- Hong Kong's walled villages
- Isfahan, Iran
- Mestia in Georgia
posted by mdonley at 6:23 AM on March 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Bangkok Flower Market, especially between 11pm and ~4am.
posted by wowenthusiast at 7:50 AM on March 5, 2019

Venice, Los Angeles
The Albaycín, Granada
posted by capricorn at 8:15 AM on March 5, 2019

This might be leaning a little into tourist town territory, but if you're visiting Pittsburgh and felt like a day trip, the West Virginia town of New Vrindaban is about an hour and a half drive away. It's not every day you encounter a Southeast Asian-inspired palace and town in the middle of the Appalachian mountains.
posted by helloimjennsco at 9:04 AM on March 5, 2019

Parts of the San Gabriel Valley, particularly Alhambra, Monterey Park, and San Gabriel, have a distinct sense of place from the rest of what people consider L.A., but they are not particularly walkable, barring the large shopping complexes (but those still retain a markedly non-L.A./USA flavor.)

Siena, Italy, while still very touristy, is of a decidedly different flavor than the nearby and much better known Florence. The whole city is divided into sections, each of which has its own coat of arms, and you can find the symbols hiding everywhere you go. They also stage an annual horse race in the town center in which all the different neighborhoods compete, and it is equal parts fascinating and terrifying.
posted by Diagonalize at 9:40 AM on March 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Every one of you is valid, and it's a great mix of interesting places and histories so far. If I can't get to all of these places, it will at least provide for some good reading and source material.

crazy with stars probably articulated it the best, though any historical period or class is welcome. I guess I like urban design anomalies that somehow evolved radically different from the rest of the area, but managed to stay integrated into the urban fabric without becoming a complete tourist haven. The ones I listed may not be radically different, but by recollection, they did feel being transported to a different point in time.

Two thoughts:

1. Freetown Christiania, of all the places mentioned here (including my own), is actually the one I've visited most recently. It absolutely fits what I'm going for, but I didn't think of putting that one down. I guess I was mad that people oversold it to me as an edgy, underground enclave, and I ended up walking away from it thinking it was pretty much Venice Beach with bad weather and nearly missing a lunch reservation.

2. On that note, having lived my entire life in Southern California, I normally don't think of places like San Gabriel or Venice as uniquely textured places. Then again, that's like asking a fish how water feels like. Makes me wonder of other places in California that stand out to everyone except for me...
posted by galleta monster at 1:05 PM on March 5, 2019

Seconding Plep’s suggestion of Digbeth in Birmingham, though arguably most of the rest of the inner city works here too. Birmingham is an architectural collage, often without any particular sense. Its “city as heterotopia”

Milton Keynes also probably fits the bill too, the biggest and arguably most successful of the post war English New Towns it’s a British City re-mixed for an American Car Culture, it has both a monumental and human scale that’s quite special.

For a more classic experience - Britain has plenty of those. I personally love towns like Sandwich, Rye, Ludlow, Bridgenorth Shropshire, and Shrewsbury.

Abroad, I’m also a big fan of the EUR district in Rome, it was built for an Expo that never happened, but is a fascinating piece of “futuristic “ planning and architecture
posted by Middlemarch at 3:44 PM on March 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Mile End, Montreal
posted by awenner at 6:08 AM on March 6, 2019

La Boca in Buenos Aires
posted by azalea_chant at 6:24 AM on March 6, 2019

Great question. I have a couple of suggestions for NYC (where I live) and some for places that I've traveled. These are just places that feel distinctive in some way to me. Some are quite touristy, others, less so.

In NYC...

City Island in The Bronx.

Forest Hills Gardens in Queens. (Link is about Forest Hills overall, but contains some photos of Forest Hills Gardens which kinda looks like an architect took a trip to Edinburgh and thought "yeah, let's build this in Queens.")

Beyond that...

The North End in Boston.

The Alfama in Lisbon.

Greenwich in London.

Almost the entire city of New Orleans.

Agreed on Christiana, Coyoacan, the Vatican, Marrakech medina, and Venice Beach.
posted by breakin' the law at 3:43 PM on March 6, 2019

Having grown up in the SGV, I will say that absolutely nothing about it struck me as out of the ordinary until I moved away. Living your whole life in one place can definitely skew perspective and make you realize just how much you took tacos for granted.
posted by Diagonalize at 8:36 AM on March 7, 2019

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