Would you consider travelling to ugly cities? Here's why you should add ugly cities to your travel destinations.
I Am A Traveller

Don’t Be Scared of Ugly Cities

Would you consider travelling to ugly cities? Here's why you should add ugly cities to your travel destinations.

Recently, I was speaking at the English Writing Festival which took place at the American Bookstore in The Hague. It was an amazing experience and I was lucky to meet many writers who worked in the various genres: flash fiction, short stories, memoir, poetry, and blogging (that’s me!)

To my huge and very pleasant surprise, I didn’t get my typical speaker’s blackout and managed to make the audience laugh, engage and ask questions. After the event, I had the chance to talk to people who had questions about blogging.

But as I was getting ready to leave, something wonderful happened.

 A man reached out to me and said: “You said you’re Polish. Which part of Poland are you from, exactly?”

“Warsaw,” I said, and then, alluding to Polish people who had trouble difficulties explaining their little hometown to foreigners added, “That’s easy.”

“Yes, it is. Everyone knows where Warsaw is. We’ve been to Poland, especially to Lower Silesia, to Katowice.”

“Really?” I asked, my curiosity suddenly spiked. Katowice is not really the place where tourists usually go.

 “Yes. I read a blog post where people wrote about Katowice and they wrote ‘We need to get out of here!”. So I thought, ‘Wow! I need to go there!’”

“He is right”, I thought. 

How often do we avoid or even scorn certain cities or countries because they’re “ugly”?

I hear this about Warsaw all the time. People often tell me: “Oh yes, Warsaw. I’ve been there but it’s grey and ugly and people are always in a hurry there. I didn’t like it. Kraków is so much prettier.”

And the comment cuts straight into my heart. What I hear is this: “I am not interested in learning about your city. I don’t want to get to know her because it doesn’t look according to my expectations.”

And it’s all fine, of course. I understand that when we go on vacation, we want to be in a beautiful, relaxing environment, surrounded by majestic buildings and monuments. Ugly cities on the other hand, are often jarring, frustrating, off putting.

But when we look down on ugly cities, we ignore all the history that they represent. After all, there is a reason why Warsaw looks the way it does. It was almost totally destroyed during WWII and the Old Town was re-build from scratch by the city’s own inhabitants. After that, grey and ugly buildings were erected all over the town.

Would you consider travelling to ugly cities? Here's why you should add ugly cities to your travel destinations.

Please don’t kill me for these images. I didn’t have the necessary pictures so picked these up online (yes it’s fine for me to use them).

Some cities like Amsterdam or Paris are very easy to love. They require no work on your part, and no wonder: beauty is everywhere you look. Others, on the other hand, need you to get to know them before they show you their charms.

I’ve lived in beautiful cities: Hamburg, where met my husband, is stunning. Bremen, where I studied, is particularly spectacular. I spent a month in Nancy, France learning French, and each house was a sight to behold.

And I’ve lived in my share of ugly cities, too. Warsaw, my hometown is one of them. Winnipeg, Canada, is another one. Winnipeg, also jokingly called Winterpeg, is mostly a concrete town in the middle of nowhere. Objectively speaking, it’s ugly. But I had plenty of amazing experiences there.

It was the first time I actually really lived with my then boyfriend, now husband. We’d lived together before but most of the time, at least at the beginning, we had a long-distance relationship. But then he moved to Canada to pursue a PhD program, so I moved to Canada as well. For the first time, I lived so far away from home and had to find a job in a rather short amount of time. And I did it!

And we found Winnipeg has a lot to offer: we saw “Phantom of the Opera”. We experienced Shakespeare plays outdoors, on the banks of the Assiniboine River. We ate delicious food from various cultures in exclusive restaurants. Yes, the city is ugly and the winters are damn cold, but does it mean that I can’t love and cherish it? 

Besides, if you scratch deep enough, you’ll find plenty of ugliness in even the most beautiful cities. Every city has crime, alcohol problems, violence, and death. That’s because we are humans and humans can be ugly.

In ugly cities, you walk around with your eyes wide open. Maybe you don’t feel as safe as you would surround by beauty. But you’re also probably starved for beauty and look for it wherever you can. And that’s how you find out that that that old, desolate place has a café which serves the best coffee in town. Or that that joint which looks closed and sad during the day turns into a magical nightclub after the sun goes down. Or that there’s a museum with an amazing art exhibition where you’d never have thought a museum could be.

And after a while, you’ll know. You’ll know where you can go and buy the best books. You’ll meet wonderful, helpful, intelligent people to have conversations with. They’ll show you around and introduce you to their ugly city’s greatest charms- and rest assured that there will be many.

To be completely honest with you, I wouldn’t go and see Warsaw if I hadn’t been born there. I wouldn’t have gone to Winnipeg if my then-boyfriend wasn’t living there. But I am glad I did. 

Because if you turn your nose up at ugly cities, you’re not just missing out on a possibly important history lesson or experiences you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

If cities are like women, ugly cities are women of a very special kind. They’ve been through so much. They’re not pleasant to look at. But if you take the time to talk to them, amazing things will happen.

And if you’ll look close enough, you’ll still see the light in her eyes and the beauty in her smile. Just sit down with her and listen. Because first she’ll show you her scars and black eyes, and all the broken pieces of herself. But then she’ll tell you her stories, and when she does, listen to her.  Because the stories she’ll tell you will be one of a kind.

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10 Comments

  • Reply Vallypee May 17, 2016 at 10:48 am

    Olga, this almost made me cry. What a beautiful post! I so know what you mean, and maybe some cities need more time than others too. As you say, sit down and listen to them. I come from Johannesburg in SA and that’s an ugly city too. It has beautiful parts, but it’s not a tourist attraction at all, and much of it is ugly, but I loved it and still do. Thank you for this lovely post. I am now going to share it (By the way, Koos (the man) and I now want to go to Winnipeg), Val

    • Reply Olga Mecking May 23, 2016 at 8:31 am

      Do move to Winnipeg and if you do, say hello to the lady working in the Polish shop!

  • Reply Tonia Parronchi May 17, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    Lovely blog. I can empathise – I live in a bland village in the heart of Tuscany, surrounded by hundreds of more picturesque places for tourists to stop but when I walk around here I cannot go far without good neighbours stopping to ask how I am and I know the history of the place and the inabitants. Beautiful places and people often have a dark side to them, so well done for speaking up for the hidden beauty of things.

    • Reply Olga Mecking May 23, 2016 at 8:37 am

      Thank you so much, Tonia!Tuscany is usually so pretty but yes your village may not be pretty but it’s home!

  • Reply Fran Macilvey May 17, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you for this reminder to enjoy life, wherever we may find ourselves.

    • Reply Olga Mecking May 23, 2016 at 8:37 am

      Thank you for commenting and you’re welcome!

  • Reply Ilze May 19, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    I love your comparison of cities and women 🙂 I must admit that I have only passed through Warsaw but I would love to visit properly one day. My dad was there a couple of years ago and was very impressed how the city has changed in the last decade.

    • Reply Olga Mecking May 23, 2016 at 8:39 am

      Fantastic, Ilze! It wasn’t my comparison though. A Polish blogger living in Warsaw said that pretty cities like Kraków show you at first glance what they’ve got- they’re like men. Cities like Warsaw are like women- you have to get to know them in order to love them. I liked the comparison so I thought I’d borrow it.

  • Reply Marta May 20, 2016 at 1:24 am

    This is beautifully written. I really appreciate your perspective!

    • Reply Olga Mecking May 23, 2016 at 8:39 am

      Thank you and I appreciate you taking the time to comment!

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