how to find an invisible city
March 7, 2006 10:35 PM   Subscribe

Help me find a city in which to lose myself.

I'm looking for a non-North-American city/country in which to lose myself -- just streets or alleys with the right amount of disorientation and disconnect. Think of the red-lit alleys in Venice at 1am, or certain empty streets on a weekday night in New York, or Apgujung in Seoul, or even MG Road in Bangalore.

I'm able to travel for a week, or less. This city has to have a deep night with a city full of people I don't know. This is as much your question as it is mine.

I travel alone often, so cleanliness/comfortability/sanitary conditions/running water doesn't really matter -- all I want is the thick sense of giddy and disorientation.

Like Calvino's Invisible Cities.
"Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places."

Where would you go?
posted by suedehead to Travel & Transportation (50 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Amsterdam is not a bad choice. Everyone there is not from there, there's plenty of seedy areas, plenty of upscale areas, and then even more lonely quiet alleys. Quite safe on the whole, regardless. Anything you want to do, you can.
posted by kcm at 10:38 PM on March 7, 2006

Tokyo is famous for maps not even being useful. On purpose. People are rumored to get lost for days trying to find particular addresses, sometimes having to go home and return the next day to pick up the search where they left off.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:43 PM on March 7, 2006

Mumbai? One of the disorienting experiences I've ever had in my life.

I think many of the world's largest cities are large enough to contain worlds inside them: Moscow, Istanbul, Tokyo, Cairo, Rio de Janeiro - although with varying degrees of how safe it is for you if you wander into the wrong world.
posted by vacapinta at 10:51 PM on March 7, 2006

Barcelona or Madrid. Tons of alleys, tons of nooks and crannies, and a million ways to lose yourself - and you'll almost always end up at a good restaurant at the end of the day.
posted by pdb at 11:04 PM on March 7, 2006

I liked Macau for this purpose. You could get lost, and then when you didn't want to be lost, you walked in a straight line until your feet got wet. I had one of those freebie maps, but I didn't look at it until night started falling, had to get back to Hong Kong Y M C A (it's fun to stay there ... seriously, cheap 'n' cozy, very European feel, bunkbeds, four to a room, so great meeting other travellers, 10x better than The Nathan at 1/5th the price).

Also that Tokyo thing sounds like bunk. I know the taxi drivers sometimes get out and ask where things are but "picking up the search" ...? I had no problem finding things in Tokyo, I don't speak Japanese and read about 3% of it. You're telling me someone who can speak the language can't ask around, like the taxi drivers do? They can't call their destination?

Kuala Lumpur is also a good bet. Not as fun getting lost as Macau, though.
posted by user92371 at 11:10 PM on March 7, 2006

Jeez I wouldn't consider wondering around in Rio or Moscow particularly safe.
posted by Paris Hilton at 11:17 PM on March 7, 2006

all I want is the thick sense of giddy and disorientation

A friend once told me a rather harrowing tale of getting completely batshitinsane lost at night in Mauritius. Good-sized city. No fucking street lights or signs of any kind.
posted by frogan at 11:18 PM on March 7, 2006

You will totally lose yourself in the old city of Varanasi/Benares, on the banks of the Ganges in India. Four or five story buildings with lanes no wider than about two metres, extending for several square kilometres. The only reference points are one or two main thoroughfares and the river.

I had myself a strong bhang lassi and got badly disorientated tehre one night. Found my way out eventually.

The whole city is a mindfuck anyway, watching the buring ghats and the religious folks and everything.

user, you say KL? Quite easy to navigate, I found.
posted by wilful at 11:19 PM on March 7, 2006

Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Getting the Visa might be the hard part, though.
posted by barnacles at 11:39 PM on March 7, 2006

Barcelona, though you'll do better the darker your skin tone is. White foreigners tend to get robbed by poor Africans in the Gothic Quarter. While I'm white and had no problem, people we met there did and we were warned over and over about not wandering alone. Still, it's a fantastic place to be alone in.
posted by klangklangston at 11:41 PM on March 7, 2006

Taipei, Taiwan surprised me with its life, even late at night. Winding miles of night markets with many, many people (not as empty as you may prefer) would filter down to dark, empty streets and alleys with plenty to still see and take in.

It was absolutely incredible.
posted by disillusioned at 12:01 AM on March 8, 2006

Assuming you're not necessarily looking to put yourself at risk (as some posters seem to think), consider sampling the plaintive saudade of Lisbon expressed through fado, in some of its after-hours haunts.
posted by rob511 at 1:30 AM on March 8, 2006

Jakarta, though quite unsafe, sounds sort of like the thing you are looking for. Even during the day, the city can be very disorientating, and it doesn't appear to cater directly for tourists. At least that's what I found there.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 1:30 AM on March 8, 2006

In the past Genova, Italy worked for me in this respect. It's crowded, it's loud, it's smelly. I think the barren harbor environment is a bonus. I always wondered about Marseille, to be the ultimate harbor city.
posted by ouke at 1:32 AM on March 8, 2006

I'd second Amsterdam. It's exactly as you describe.
posted by twistedonion at 1:50 AM on March 8, 2006

Amsterdam is fantastic, but small. Tokyo is vast, but expensive.

Mexico City is the only place I've ever really lost myself in the way you describe. It's so alive at night that it hurts and it took a guy with electrodes to really snap me out of my giddiness.
posted by sizemore at 2:45 AM on March 8, 2006

Stone Town, Zanzibar, the place is an absolute maze of little alleys - although it's pretty small, so walk in one direction for any length of time and you'll hit water. The night fish market is amazing, as is the mix of Arabic, European and African architecture.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:23 AM on March 8, 2006

I'd say London to a certain extent. The architecture and sprawl make it quite ideal for being lost in. A city built upon itself for centuries. Not too much city planning to make it easy to navigate. What it lacks in height it makes up in land area.

The language might provide a reconnect, though. So a foreign language city is probably your best bet.
posted by slimepuppy at 3:33 AM on March 8, 2006

Edinburgh Old Town. It's not very big but there are so many nooks, crannies, doorways, arches, it's good for an exploration.

Not to mention the fact they have STREETS ON TOP OF STREETS. That does bake my noodle.

You may not find it big enough for a week - but then you can pop over to Glasgow and other places.
posted by badlydubbedboy at 4:02 AM on March 8, 2006

1) The medina in Marrakech (or any major Arab city).
2) Jerusalem.
3) Pamplona during San Fermin (the actual geography of the town becomes almost irrelevent due to the mass of drunken runners and spectators).
4) Asakusa (Tokyo) on New Year's Day (similar to above but more sober).
posted by zanni at 4:32 AM on March 8, 2006

I third Barcelona. The central part is an absolute maze of six storey buildings towering over narrow streets. And so much interesting stuff to find.
posted by pollystark at 4:35 AM on March 8, 2006

I'd go for Marseilles, especially if you don't speak French. I got lost near the old port one bright, sunny morning and it didn't take long before I was hurrying through endless, dark streets desperate to find a way out. Didn't dare directions of anyone seated ouside cafés because I suspect many were active/former gangsters. And I don't think this was the product of an overactive imagination and/or too many Jean Gabin movies. Come to think of it, there are suburbs of Paris that fit the bill but it's been too long since I've been there to suggest an area.

Again, not sure if there's enough in Marseilles to keep you occupied for a whole week but badlydubbedboy's Edinburgh/Glasgow suggestion is a great one.
posted by ceri richard at 4:37 AM on March 8, 2006

I'll second Marrakesh.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:52 AM on March 8, 2006

Edinburgh. Nice twisty alleys. Lots of festivals.
posted by meehawl at 5:16 AM on March 8, 2006

Istanbul is enchanting, and I mean that in the most earnest and non-ironic way.
Amsterdam is real and rustic at the same time, but I'm prejudiced in her favour.

It's too bad I can't say New York.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:27 AM on March 8, 2006

La Paz, Bolivia.
Jerusalem, Israel.
Any medium to large greek island town.
Istanbul, Turkey.
posted by signal at 5:40 AM on March 8, 2006

I'll third Marrkech. And Istanbul.
posted by handee at 5:51 AM on March 8, 2006

I'm surprised it took so long for someone to metion London. The sheer, mind-numbing size of the place means you can get hopelessly lost in ever-unfamiliar areas, if that's really what you're looking for. I lived there for twenty years and there are still huge areas of the city I don't know at all.

It's not pretty, but it is big - almost intimidatingly so - and there are certainly areas that are faiy labyrinthine.

I visited Moscow in 1987 and spent a lot of time deliberately losing myself. It's an easy city to do that in, however, as others have pointed out, it ain't exactly safe to be wandering around in these days.
posted by Decani at 6:11 AM on March 8, 2006

Also: I second the medium-to-large Greek town idea. Many of these are ramshackle and feature haphazard street layouts, skinny alleys and surprisingly-located shops and tavernas. Specifically:

Iraklio, Crete
Chania, Crete (a bit small, though)
Thessaloniki, mainland
Patras, mainland
Chora, Chios
Samos Town, Samos
posted by Decani at 6:15 AM on March 8, 2006

Forestville ! Mwahah. You can't have a more invisible/lost city than that ;)
posted by a007r at 6:37 AM on March 8, 2006

Bankgkok or Hanoi.

When you've had your fill of strange city, culture, and people there is still fantastic things to see. Temples and tombs and the like for example. Both are very safe.
posted by maxpower at 6:52 AM on March 8, 2006

Rome is a perfect city for losing oneself in.
posted by misteraitch at 7:05 AM on March 8, 2006

You could get lost for a week in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.
posted by booth at 7:43 AM on March 8, 2006

A third for Edinburgh. A fantastic city...
posted by WinnipegDragon at 7:46 AM on March 8, 2006

posted by borkingchikapa at 7:48 AM on March 8, 2006

Any of the old Middle Easter cities.

Syria is a police state, which is bad for citizens, but good for tourists as there is virtually no crime. You could safely get lost in the old city of Damascus or the Christian Quarter of Aleppo with little consequence other than incredible experiences and a coffee buzz (from being invited to drink coffee with a million shop keepers).
posted by Pollomacho at 8:52 AM on March 8, 2006

London on a Sunday (heck, doesn't even have to be nighttime), it's like the opening scenes in 28 Days Later.
posted by m@ at 8:52 AM on March 8, 2006

For a small city, Sienna has just the kind of atmospherics that you are looking for (very like Venice, which you've already mentioned) and despite its size you really can get utterly lost in it, since there's no discernible logic to its plan. It's also ravishingly beautiful but if it bores you then head back to Florence. For a big city Moscow is the obvious choice, but it's just nasty. A more gentle choice might be Budapest - it's huge, rambling, dark, decrepit and fascinating, obscured by an impenetrable language and people in motion apparently without point or purpose. A great gas-lit Imperial city without an Empire. Stay in the Gellert for the true experience.
posted by grahamwell at 10:23 AM on March 8, 2006

Guanajuato, Mexico. Many of the streets are winding, cobblestone alleyways that all lead back to one another, like a maze without dead ends. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site, and so there are no traffic lights or neon signs, and the major street has been tunneled under the city so as not to disturb the original buildings. It's a small city, but beautiful and somewhat surreal.
posted by exacta_perfecta at 11:25 AM on March 8, 2006

I'm surprised nobody mentioned old Toledo, Spain. It's not very big, but delightfully get-lost-in-able.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 11:48 AM on March 8, 2006

the medina in Fès, or Chefchaouen, Morocco. Phnom Pehn, Cambodia. São Paulo, Brazil.
posted by ig at 11:53 AM on March 8, 2006

Try Prague.

If you stay off the main thoroughfares and the Charles' Bridge, you can completely cut yourself off from English speakers and tourists. Lots of twisty little roads to explore, and I never once felt unsafe, even wandering alone at night.

The architecture in the city is amazing. You will be recognized as a tourist however for constantly staring upward at the buildings, as opposed to looking in the direction that you are walking. The locals are numbed to it.
posted by vignettist at 12:50 PM on March 8, 2006

See also.
posted by dmd at 1:47 PM on March 8, 2006

Berlin would be a good bet. I ended up in some very odd places when I visited - loads of squats, weird bars in former arms depots, filthy Thai restaurants taken over by dyke DJs with seven foot trannies guarding the door. Basically, pull aside any bit of corrugated iron you see, or head through a gap in a wall, and chances are something odd/cool/shady will be going on, often just off seemingly respectable streets. You might need to order your wandering a little, though - I think most of the above fun happened in the Mitte area. Vast swathes of the place are dull as ditchwater, all huge boulevard streets and blocks of flats (though they can be fun at dawn, very dead).

Maybe not quite what you're after, but I always recommend Zagreb - it's fairly small, but I found jumping on a tram and getting off at random led to some wonderful nooks and crannies. There's a nice divide between the old and new parts of the town (with very, um, interesting people hanging about on the border between the two at night). It's also wonderfully easy to get lost - all the streets have official and colloquial names, but people and maps both seem to use one or the other at random.

Oh, and please ignore all suggestions to visit Edinburgh - lovely place, but from the question, absolutely not what you're after (llabyrinthine in places, sure, but it's a labyrinth lined with gift-shops).
posted by jack_mo at 4:14 PM on March 8, 2006

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Vienna, Austria. Lots and lots and lots of back streets and alleys with little shops, 3,000 known coffee shops, an entire chunk of the city devoted just to museums , art on every other street corner, great food, great wine, great beer, and plenty of opporutunities to wander and find yourself in a park underneath a WWII guntower in a beautiful garden, or perhaps standing at a sausage stand with construction workers, tourists and businessmen. It's just a really fascinating city with one of the most interesting vibes I've ever experienced.

The city has public transportation galore, but it's very walkable as well. If you really want to duck away and have a beer in the corner of a smokey cafe, there's a great little place called Cafe Benno with excellent food, beer and wine, and very very weird 70s and 80s progressive art rock music playing in the background while people sit around and smoke and chat.

There's just a lot to discover there, and I regret only having had a week to explorer. It's too beautiful and the people while not slap you on the back Southern style friendly are very kind, jovial when you try some German, and hell, the invented coffee with rum in it.
posted by smallerdemon at 8:19 PM on March 8, 2006

Oxford, England. Load up on absinthe at The Turf and find yourself some very odd places.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 2:04 PM on March 9, 2006

Berlin's a big, big city. Mitte is where it's currently happening, though the movement is slowly expandin into other areas such as Friedrichshain.

just wanted to comment on Berlin. Living in Amsterdam I of course have to vote for that - and we have absinthe too. And any major Asian metropolis.
posted by LanTao at 5:25 PM on March 9, 2006

Jerusalem's Old City is nothing but twisty alleyways, tiny doorways to duck under to get to the next street, sudden bazaars, ancient walls and sacred monuments.
posted by CunningLinguist at 1:24 PM on March 13, 2006

This city has to have a deep night with a city full of people I don't know.

Sorry, missed this requirement. Scratch the Old City.
posted by CunningLinguist at 1:27 PM on March 13, 2006

As a Malaysian, I'm not sure I'd recommend KL; it's OK during the day, but at night it can get a bit unsafe, especially for a non-local. The police might think you're out for "indecent behaviour" or something.

I n+1 Edinburgh and Amsterdam, and would like to add Antwerp in Belgium (my host family brought me to this underground tavern my first night; SO COOL), Utrecht in the Netherlands (public transport ends early tho), Erfurt in Germany (SO PRETTY) and Modena in Italy (also with the pretty but not sure about the safety).
posted by divabat at 7:37 AM on May 13, 2006

« Older Is my GF trying to tell me something?   |   I have some nice waterfront property to sell you... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.