Grit, authenticity, good cafes and, yes, possibly more facial hair seen on the street – sure signs that these urban spots around the planet are coming out of the shadows and into the spotlight of hip.
Not much has changed of late in this largely workaday corner of one of the world’s most popular tourist cities but that’s precisely what has led Barcelona fans who like a dash of authenticity with their tapas and fino to find the Sants neighbourhood increasingly desirable.
For this is somewhere that members of that elusive travel category, ‘the locals’, can go about their business undisturbed by travellers who otherwise descend upon Barcelona in their multitudes but mostly only pass through Sants on their way to the train station.
Here you’ll find unfussy old bodegas serving decent barrel wine and family restaurants overwhelmingly populated by real Catalans rather than fellow city-breakers (using the term advisedly). It’s a genuine spirit that, along with relatively low rents, has also attracted a new generation of innovative bar owners and chefs, creating an appealing mix of – if this is possible – buzz and grit.
There’s a body of water between this up-and-cooling neighbourhood and tourist-jam-packed central Amsterdam: you can get here by ferry from Central Station in a few minutes.
Cutting edge alternatives to the traditional brown cafe and red light lures of the Dutch capital include the 22-storey A’DAM Toren tower – ex-Shell HQ – with nightclubs on the top and bottom floors, a revolving restaurant and a giant swing suspended from the observation deck: yippee!
Other reasons to make the journey to Amsterdam Noord include the Eye Film Museum and – in contrast with all the self-conscious modernity – superbly preserved 16th-century wooden houses on Nieuwendammerdijk.
Oranienstrasse is so yesterday, darling. This and other once-throbbing epicentres of Berlin alternative cool have been overtaken on the sly by a formerly shabby and unprepossessing neighbourhood next to the old Tempelhof Airport.
In truth, Neukölln remains a little down-at-heel but that’s precisely what’s attracted pioneering types to set up challenging galleries, hole-in-the-wall bars and – inevitably, this being Berlin – all-night-and-beyond clubs here. Get to Neukölln before you hear more American voices than German and Turkish ones (it remains a minority enclave) on the street and it becomes in effect indistinguishable from Brooklyn.
After visiting the Parthenon, the Acropolis Museum and a handful of other sights, don’t otherwise dismiss Athens as a graffiti-strewn concrete eyesore and head for the islands.
For with its garrulous, often stylish and politically passionate residents the Greek capital – despite the conventionally unlovely architecture and honking traffic – is actually deeply cool. Long overshadowed by the neighbourhood of Makriyianni, with its top-drawer tourist sights, Koukaki shows Athens’s cool cred to perfection. More Airbnb joints than you can shake a kebab at point to the presence of thoughtful attractions here such as Trii Art Hub, melding Greek and international works, and a wealth of independent jewellers, perfumiers and even a toy store – Damigos – selling gorgeous traditional and modern playthings.
Sure, visit awe-inducing Sultanahmet sights such as the Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern but don’t – as so many mistakenly do – stay much longer in what is a honeypot to ripoff artists. Among the alternatives, neighbourhoods such as Beyoglu and Karakoy, while still often loaded with character, are already discovered, but the erstwhile snoozy zone of Kadikoy is a whole other kettle of Bosphorus fish.
Venture here by ferry and join the influx of curious, other-minded types sipping tea from traditional hourglass vessels or slugging back Turkish coffee from an array of interestingly individual imbibing establishments. Make the trek, too, to watch the lights go down with locals – them again – at arthouse Rex cinema or settle in at the wonderful art deco Sureyya Opera House.
Let’s face it: the Georgian capital – a place that serves to define ‘artfully shabby’ – is one of the coolest new travel spots on the planet. Serious hip-hunters, however, will inevitably seek out gradations even within a climate of overall cool, and one such Tbilisi corner many of them head for is Plekhanov.
Obvious drawcard here is the cluster of boutiques, galleries and watering holes making up the Fabrika complex, on the site of an old Soviet garment factory (one fashion outlet even sells remaining communist-era apparel found on the site). Beyond Plekhanov’s self-consciously cool spots, though, the old style houses, with their ornate doorways and enclosed wooden balconies, make this a deeply pleasant neighbourhood to walk through.
Time was when scrappy, but edgy and inventive, Newtown ruled the cool roost among Sydney neighbourhoods but inevitably it has gentrified and edged the creative and crazy people out.
To, in some cases, Enmore next door. Once just a suburb with two syllables in it, Enmore has taken Newtown’s inner-city vibrancy, given it more room to groove and sprinkled on new age ‘healing’ shops, great pubs for gigs and a typically Aussie global choice of good places to eat in. There may be no better place than Enmore to observe that distinctive species, the Australian bohemian – a hippy in stubby shorts and thongs (worn on your feet in Oz, mind) – at play.
Is there anywhere that exemplifies the perils of hipness better than San Francisco? Stalking ground of Jack Kerouac and other Beats – figures who probably embodied hipness better than anyone – it’s become so expensive to live here that even millionaires feel they’re slumming it a little.
One area where a more genuine countercultural atmosphere is gathering steam is Oakland, 40 minutes or so over the water. Ventures giving a literal flavour of what’s going on include Arizmendi’s, a sourdough pizza workers’ co-op, Pepple’s Vegan Donuts and Blue Bottle Coffee, serving possibly the finest espressos on the West Coast.
Seongsu’s struck it lucky in the cool stakes with its wealth of post-industrial spaces. Enterprising Koreans have turned former shoe factories and printing houses into cafes and other congregation spots that pay deep homage to their venues’ utilitarian origins.
One establishment that achieves such a reimagining par excellence is Cafe Onion. Originally a metal factory, it looks now on the outside as if it’s seriously due for demolition and on the inside, with brutally stripped bare concrete and brick, it’s little better. Against such a background – a typical Seongsu-dong juxtaposition – the artful pastries and coffee only seem more exquisite.