Cool cities

David Whitley tries to sift through all the hype to see what gives a city that genuine cool factor 

Travel magazines and newspapers like “cool”. Or “hip”. Preferably “cool” and “hip”. They’re always keen to let you know that they know all about the latest cool and hip destinations. Yet, beyond popularity, these qualities are quite hard to define. And when 90% of that popularity is created by magazines writing about these destinations, it becomes a bit of a meaningless circle.

With humans, coolness is a somewhat intangible factor. It’s hard to put your finger on why someone is cool and another person isn’t. Usain Bolt, for example, is undoubtedly cool in spite of doing just about everything in the anti-cool rulebook. He continually mugs for the camera, he comes up with signature poses and he’ll goon around for adverts. But he gets away with it through being brilliant at what he does and clearly not caring too much about what people think.

On the flipside, there are people who try and be cool by slavishly following what they are told is cool. The ones that flounce around in red skinny jeans and sport handlebar moustaches. They think they’re cool, when they’re really just ridiculous and rightfully laughed at by all they encounter.

One thing that is common to all genuinely cool people is that they’re comfortable in their own skin. They’re often confident individuals, but more importantly, they know who they are and they’re happy with it. They’re not out to impress anyone – they’re just themselves.

I think something similar applies to cities. The cool ones aren’t trying to prove a point to anyone – they’re just being themselves. Montreal, for example, is cool because it revels in its unique identity as a French Canadian city without a chip on its shoulder. Key West is cool because, despite being a blatant tourist trap, people can be whoever they want to be there and no-one cares.

Going to Berlin recently made me think about this. Berlin is regularly picked out as a cool city – partly due to its frenetic pace of change, partly due to its street art scene, partly due to its prominent and multiple subcultures.

In truth, though, none of these things made it cool. In the same way that a city with a big fashion scene isn’t cool because of the fashion, or a city with a rollicking nightlife isn’t cool because of the bars and clubs.

Berlin is cool because it cultivates an environment where such subcultures and scenes can exist without being badgered to conform to a certain view of how life should be conducted. For me, that’s why places like Miami will never be cool – it’s all about fitting a certain image there.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Berlin is that for three evenings out of four, we didn’t bother going back to the hotel to change in the evening. We rolled out in the morning, did the sightseeing thing, then ate and drank before rolling back in at 2am.

In many cities, we’d feel awkward doing that. We’d feel a bit of pressure to smarten up before going out again. In Berlin, we could smarten up if we wished to, but no-one was going to bat an eyelid if we went out in what we’d been wearing all day.

To me, that’s cool. It’s a city that lets you be who you want to be. It’s cool because it doesn’t mind if you don’t fit a particular prescription of what cool is – and that applies to people having a good time in shorts and a sweaty t-shirt as much as punks, goths and amateur filmmakers.

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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia