Great Comeback Cities For Travel

comeback cities - Detroit love
Flickr, Michigan Municipal League

Recently, the former automotive boomtown of Detroit made history by filing for bankruptcy, making it an easy butt of jokes on Twitter and in the news. However, Motown has also been making strides to become America’s great comeback city, with artists and entrepreneurs lured by cheap rents, and innovative projects happening all over town (disclosure: I’m a big fan of the city, and so is the New York TimesFrank Bruni). Detroit has more than a few great things going for it, including architecture, museums and sports, and tourist dollars could go a long way in helping the city recover. Can it become a tourist destination again?

Some of the top tourist destinations in the world were once no-go zones for travelers, suffering from financial crises, war, natural disasters and rampant crime. Here are a few of our favorite comeback cities:Berlin: One of the world’s most resilient cities, Berlin has been through war, occupation and one gigantic divide, and come back to thrive. In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, East Berlin in particular has become a hipster mecca, due to some of the lowest prices in western Europe for nightlife and a vibrant art and design scene. While not everyone welcomes the gentrification, the German capital is continuing to gain millions of foreign tourists each year.

Buenos Aires: A mix of hyperinflation, government corruption and mounting debt led to riots and an economic crisis in Argentina in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The country has stabilized and the peso value has risen, but it’s affordability has made it increasingly attractive to travelers in the last ten years, making it the No. 1 tourism destination in South America. Buenos Aires is opening more boutique hotels each year, ensuring a place every year on lists such as Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List of new hotels.

New Orleans: A longtime favorite for the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, along with events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, New Orleans was profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tourism is the biggest source of employment in the city and a major factor to its economy, and the disaster made visitor numbers plummet. Louisiana’s recovery has been slow but steady, and major infrastructure improvements brought on by this year’s “Super Gras” have helped the Big Easy come back.

New York City: Visitors to the Big Apple have topped 50 million, spending billions of dollars in the city annually. While New York has never suffered from lack of tourists, the 1980s crack epidemic and surge in crime gave it an image of being a violent, dirty and dangerous city and visitor numbers dipped. Like Detroit, it also faced possible bankruptcy in 1975 and President Ford was infamously (mis)quoted to tell NYC to “drop dead.” The terrorist attacks in 2001 caused another slowdown in visitors, but it’s now one of the safest, most visited cities in the world.

Tokyo: While Tokyo was not as devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as other parts of Japan, it definitely felt the hurt with a sharp decline in tourism, major damage to national infrastructure, and radiation concerns. Foreign visitors are now exceeding the pre-disaster levels, though seismologists worry that an even bigger earthquake is due to hit Tokyo.

An honorable mention must go to the countries in the former Yugoslavia, especially Croatia and the cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo. Twenty years ago, who could have predicted the popularity of the Dalmatian coast as a beach destination, or the battle-scarred Serbian capital as a nightlife hotspot? They aren’t quite seeing the same tourism numbers as the destinations above, but they should be on your travel radar. Istanbul and Beirut are also favorites for their many comebacks and reinventions, though the effects from current events are already being seen in the local tourism industries.

What are your favorite “comeback cities”?

10 days, 10 states: Going French in New Orleans

“New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin”. -Mark Twain-

Over an afternoon sampling of beignets and cafe au lait, the New Orleans people watching is starting to hit its peak. A horse and carriage streaks past a tap dancing street performer, though the mobs of pedestrians pay little attention to either. A liquored up couple toting hand-grenade drink holders stumble through the 3pm humidity. Across the street, a family of tourists snap pictures of two saffron clad Buddhist monks, who strangely enough are busy snapping pictures of each other, the two of them looking to document their own time as tourists in this city.

It seems perfectly appropriate to be sipping a French brew and watching this scene unfold in one of America’s most notoriously multi-cultural port towns. I’m serenely perched in Cafe du Monde, a French Quarter coffee stand that’s been serving powder-sugar covered pastries and chicory-laced coffees since 1862, and my “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights” bus has officially rolled into one of America’s favorite party towns.

Though a little shindig called Mardi Gras may claim most of the New Orleans fame, the Vieux Carré (French Quarter) is more than just a raucous party spot; it’s one of the most historically important and culturally fascinating places in all of the United States. Established by the French, transferred to the Spanish, and eventually purchased by the United States in a little event known as the Louisiana Purchase, the quarter is now an outdoor museum for some, and the ultimate hedonistic playground for others.

Jackson Square, the colonial square named for war general and future US president Andrew Jackson, was originally regarded as the city’s Plaza de Armas while the city was under Spanish rule. Today the square is a gathering place for scores of guitar players, palm readers, trinket toters, tourist scammers, and everything else in between.

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A mere two blocks away, the bars and brothels of Bourbon Street thump to the rhythm of rock beats and the whirl of alcoholic slushie machines. One of the few cities in America with no open container law, as long as your booze is within a plastic cup, the streets of the city are your open air bar. Unlike the glitzy streets of Las Vegas, however, life on Bourbon Street is a little more raw. Shiny casinos and choreographed fountains are replaced by weathered clapboard shutters and festering curbside puddles. As I walk past the unavoidable “Barely Legal” strip club, I realize New Orleans is a long way from relinquishing its port town past.

Wandering down Rue Royal after polishing off the sugary beignets, a familiar, white-bearded face appears on the corner of Rue Toulouse singing soulfully into a microphone. Amazed at my good fortune, the man is none other than Grandpa Elliot, the legendary Nawlins street performer who went viral in the Stand By Me video by musical group Playing for Change. His prowess on the harmonica and husk in his voice remind me of where I am.

Grandpa Elliot sighting officially in hand, there’s now only one thing missing on this New Orleans afternoon, and that would be a massive bowl of Cajun jambalaya.

Ever since crossing the Texas/Louisiana border (the Bienvenue en Louisiane welcome sign a testament to the French and Acadian history), a hankering for a heaping bowl of spicy meat and seafood has been brewing somewhere deep. True Cajuns will argue that the Cajun grub in New Orleans is a watered down replica of the bayou cuisine found in Acadiana (the swamps and parishes of southwestern Louisiana), but for someone sampling the regional cuisine of a 3,600 mile road trip, it’s all Cajun to me.

Polishing off an over-sized helping of rabbit and crayfish jambalaya at Coop’s Place, a dilapidated Cajun establishment popular with locals and the city’s “not-so-elite”, a parade had luckily gathered on nearby Decatur Street, providing me with a rare moment of tranquility to wander the quarter’s momentarily empty streets.

While many are of the opinion Bourbon Street has become a dirty tourist trap where it’s no longer possible to find the traditional jazz music born from these very streets, the jazz culture in the quarter has far from disappeared.

No place was this more apparent than in the iconic image of a lone saxophone player illuminated in the glow of a streetlight on an otherwise empty Rue Royal. Indifferent to the fact that the loose-change toting passerby had migrated to the parade over on Decatur, the young musician continued to wail emotions deep into the warm Louisiana night. If there were ever a moment of New Orleans I wanted to experience, it was this moment presently at hand.

I drop a couple of dollars into the nearly empty sax case, nod an approving gesture, and depart the funky port town with the sweet sound of the saxophone ricocheting from the balconies above.

Follow Kyle on the rest of his journey as he explores “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights”.

Halloween on 6th Street in Austin: the sounds and lights


If New Orleans’ Bourbon Street has a little sister, it is, at least sometimes, 6th Street in Austin. Both streets are main attractions, teeming with boisterous activity. Both streets are usually embraced by tourists and, perhaps just as usually, eschewed by locals. And both streets are worth walking, no matter who you are or where you are from, on certain days of the year, namely, costumed days. Austinites can’t shine a light to New Orleans on Mardi Gras, but Halloween? Just maybe. From what I have seen, the people in the batty city of Austin take Halloween seriously. After receiving an underwhelming reaction to my Westboro Baptist Church Member (I do not condone their actions, I find their actions frightening and despicable, and thereby suitable for Halloween) Halloween costume last year on Austin’s 6th Street, I decided to give the 6th Street walk a go again last night–I was a dead Olympic swimmer this time.

One of the immediate connections I made to Bourbon Street when I first walked the obligatory walk down Austin’s 6th Street last Halloween was that both streets are party streets. Bars and clubs line each of these streets, nearly all of these bars and clubs exist with their doors open, with their internal music becoming externally audible. The rhythms and melodies escaping from these doors come together in the air over 6th Street, forming the sonic equivalent of a strobe light. And the beams from actual strobe lights fly freely from the windows and doors, creating an army of strobe lights–an army that conjures up images of a Potter vs. Voldemort wand dueling in my mind.

%Gallery-138100%But the sounds on 6th Street aren’t limited to the continual onslaught of music, nor are the lights on 6th Street limited to the bouncing beams of strobe light. If you can transport yourself enough to imagine the sounds of 6th Street on Halloween night, here they are for the imagining:

  • The music, yes, the music, we discussed this already. Thumping beats, the kind you feel in your chest as they plummet out of their respective speakers. Hanging hooks, the kind you can’t kick out of your mind’s jukebox, no matter how hard you try. The mixing of several of these, resulting in a collective off-beat, inharmonious soundtrack for your night. For Halloween, the addition of ‘spooky’ music comes rolling into play. Filtered vocal tracks cushioned with the sounds of rushing wind, children screaming, and maniacal laughter.
  • The chatter. There are people holding sober conversations, and, on average, these conversations are muted by the drunken conversations, which oftentimes involve a steadfast sense of conviction in the speaker’s tone. There are cops giving stern warnings, as well as directions. There are bouncers and club managers shouting the nightly special out to each passerby, “100 shots for ONE DOLLAR! Ladies drink free!”. For Halloween, the chatter evolves. It’s not just personal anymore; much of the chatter is in character. A J.K. Rowling Dementor is flapping his gigantic, black wings. A flock of sheep ‘baaa’ as they nose through the crowd. The Founding Fathers speak with accents that match their pristine-looking white wigs. The dog trapped in the skeleton costume whines more than he might on a costume-free evening. A saxophonist plays as he walks slowly through the crowd.
  • The vehicles. Much of 6th Street is closed for Halloween (and other big events, like SXSW) to motor vehicles. But you hear them anyway, coming from barricades’ boundaries. The honking, squealing of breaks, blasting of Slayer. Inside the quarantined area designated for stumbling zombies and the like, pedicabs are limitless and racing through the crowd. Many of the pedicabs employ their own sound systems and on a night like Halloween night, that means mostly one thing: more blasting, scary music. Bicyclists’ tires swoosh through puddles of spilled beer (during this kind of Texas drought, you can count on the street puddles being from just about anything other than rain). A helicopter circles overhead, its lights drawing chins toward the horizon and eyes toward the Austin sky, which looks as though it’s been tie-dyed with navy and rust orange.

Keep your mind fixed on this recreation of 6th street and focus on the kinds of lights to be seen on a night like Halloween in a town like Austin.

  • The strobe lights, we know about them. They are dancing incongruously, bolting from paved street to brick wall to starry sky to dusty window glass and bouncing off the glass to begin the chaotic circle of light again.
  • The club lights aren’t all strobe lights, though. One club is black-light-lit, another is dressed up in red lights. Bands or DJs are playing on every stage on a night like Halloween night, and just about every bar or club on 6th Street has a stage. In fact, I can’t think of any that don’t. Each performer has their own approach to lighting–a film playing on a screen behind the band, a rainbow colored expanse of lights illuminating the DJ.
  • The bicyclists and pedicabs fly by with their red and white lights blinking out of sync as they pedal.
  • The cops have flashlights, and sometimes they are on. But on a night like Halloween, it’s tough to tell the Halloween Cops from the Everyday Cops. But even the non-official flashlights emanate an apparent, even if fleeting, white light.
  • Food trucks are scattered throughout the street and their tiny work areas are thankfully alight; their signs are blinking.
  • The Halloween costuming on 6th Street represents an Austin attraction in and of itself. A man stands stationary in the middle of the street while juggling glow sticks; plenty of other people are simply wearing glow sticks. A robot’s lights twinkle throughout, no doubt indicating computation. An aviation duo appears. The man is dressed as an air traffic control tower and the woman is dressed as a flight attendant adorned with bright runway lights. I quickly scan the immediate crowd, but I see no plane.

These are sounds to be heard, these are lights to be seen. Austin’s 6th Street might very well be Bourbon Street’s little sister sometimes, but sometimes it is something else entirely, not even of the same blood. There’s a fine line between the Spooky City and the Weird City, but the distinction can be made, especially on a night like Halloween.

A Walking Tour of Austin, Texas

5 tips for actually enjoying Mardi Gras

While New Orleans seems to celebrate Mardi Gras all year round, it is at this time of the year–the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday (in French: Mardi Gras) and the beginning of Lent–that the city earns its hard partying reputation.

It happens every year. And all kinds of people take the time to lose track of time in this city of soul and spook. Fascinated by the stories and legends of Mardi Gras and its raucous joy, I visited New Orleans in February 2009 and 2010 and I absorbed all that I could of Carnival culture.

My initial distaste for Mardi Gras had been a product of misleading media stories and drunken lore. Without much interest in forcing myself into remembering the only year of college I spent on campus, I eschewed the city’s famous annual ongoing party, genuinely disinterested in what I thought it was. But a friend I made while touring through Alabama, a true Southern Belle with a killer taste for rock ‘n’ roll, tempted me with attractive tales of Mardi Gras–an event she made sure to attend every year she could.

Through her I learned that Mardi Gras isn’t all breast-flashing belligerence and so-forced-it’s-sickening salaciousness. Through her I learned that Mardi Gras is celebrated all over the city, by different people with different backgrounds and different views on How to Party Hard. And when she decided to move to New Orleans a few months before the weeks of Mardi Gras 2009, I ignored my doubts, bought a plane ticket, and tried out Mardi Gras with a local as my guide.
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Admittedly, she was new to living in the city, but her relatives there were hardened New Orleans veterans who quickly passed on their torch of insight.

Girlfriend, first of all, you gotta stay away from Bourbon Street“, she instructed me.

She’d learned the ins and outs of Mardi Gras enjoyment during the years prior, the years she spent making the 2-3 hour commute from Mobile in order to do it up with her family and friends in the city. I was privileged enough to do it up with them.

And, as I blearily boarded my departure plane that sunny Wednesday following my first real Fat Tuesday, I wasn’t looking forward to arriving back home in it’s-still-winter New York. I wanted to stay forever in warm, colorful, indulgent New Orleans.

I went back the following February and I’m making plans to return again in a few weeks. But my returning is for the sake of the Mardi Gras I know. Here are five tips for actually enjoying Mardi Gras–without all of its famous obnoxiousness.

1. Move beyond Bourbon Street.
I’m not going to advise you to ignore Bourbon Street completely. Like Times Square, this tourist destination has its place. You’ll find some good bars on Bourbon Street–hell, one of my lady friends tends bar at Molly’s on Toulouse. But by and large, you’ll experience the Mardi Gras I fell in love with outside of Bourbon Street. Spend some time in the East Quarter, for instance. Everyone there is also celebrating, costumed, and singin’ and dancin’, but you’ll find more locals in the East Quarter than on Bourbon Street. Tip: Look for a sublet or rental in this neighborhood with the help of Airbnb. If you have your own spot to call home in a good area where you can actually get some sleep when you need it, your entire experience will be better.

2. Perfect your costume.
There’s a true art to assembling the perfect Mardi Gras costume. Be creative and spend time getting your costume just right. Part of the Mardi Gras allure is the bold and beautiful color displayed emphatically by those reveling and relishing in the season. Tip: Masks and feathers are tried and true standards, but anything goes. When in doubt, wear a blonde wig and no pants for a quick-fix Lady Gaga. You might get thrown some beads with this get-up, but here’s another tip: don’t take off your clothes for beads. Firstly… because they’re just beads. Secondly because people are probably going to throw them to you no matter what.

3. Drink responsibly.
I say this not to reiterate the words of your nagging, oppressive mother, but rather because Mardi Gras is an experience worth remembering. Instead of joining in on the parade of puking drunks stinking up the streets, be mindful of how much you drink and take home some memories you’ll have for the rest of your life. By all means, drink. Drink and be merry–but leave it at that. Solicitous strangers might come to your rescue if you need to be scooped up off the street and sent home in a taxi, but don’t count on it. Tip: It’s a good idea to carry water with you at all times. It’s just not a good idea to mix cheap tequila, 600-calorie pina coladas, box wine, and all that fried food with dehydration.

4. Hang with locals.
You might not know any local New Orleans residents when you arrive, but making small talk is easy in a town as lively as this one. Chat up locals and pick their brains for recommendations of where to spend your time. Their spots will most likely trump tourist spots. (Not every time). And hey, if you’re lucky you might make some friends. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer a good ol’ fashioned Mardi Gras house party over frat boys doing body shots at a bar with a $10 cover any night. Tip: Don’t be shy. Diffidence won’t yield for you the trip of a lifetime and besides, most people can respect a traveler who wants to avoid tourist traps.

5. Eat well.
When I say ‘eat well’ during a story about New Orleans, I mean two things: 1. Eat delicious Cajun food and savor every last bit of it. 2. Counteract the rich meals with simple, wholesome foods every chance you get. Believe me, New Orleans’ citywide buffet of fried food is worth digging your paws into. But if you don’t balance all of this heavy stuff out with some healthy options here and there, you’ll be sabotaging the quality of your vacation. Tip: You’ll probably be out for large chunks of time every time you’re out, so throw an apple, granola bar, or any other simple and healthy snack in your bag to make healthy eating automatic.

Have your own tips that will help Mardi Gras attendees enjoy the festival? Share and discuss with us in the comments.

Welcome back to New Orleans

This isn’t a New Orleans story about disaster. It’s a story about rebirth. Despite all that has happened to New Orleans in the last five years – the damage, the loss of life, the oil spills – the fact remains: New Orleans is still one of the most musically rich, culturally vibrant and historically important cities in the world. This is not a city that gives up easily. In fact, we’re here to tell you that despite all you hear on the news, New Orleans is as good as ever, and it’s about time you came down to pay it a visit.

New Orleans is also much more than just throwing beads at Mardi Gras – there’s plenty to discover and celebrate about this amazing city year-round. From the genteel colonnade-lined mansions of the Garden District, the wide avenues shielded by shady canopies of old-growth trees, to the raucous nocturnal playground of Frenchmen Street, where funky brass bands and “go cups” of Abita Amber flow freely, to sinful culinary delights like Beignets and Muffuletta sandwiches, New Orleans is jam-packed with enough one-of-a-kind pleasures to please even the most jaded of travelers.

New Orleans is back, baby. Are you ready to take a whirlwind tour? Keep reading below to discover all this great city has to offer…Getting Around
Most New Orleans visitors arrive at Louis Armstrong International Airport, located about 15 minutes from downtown. The most convenient way into town is by taxi, which costs $33 for 1 or 2 passengers and $14/person for 3 or more. Many hotels in the French Quarter also offer their guests free shuttle service. If you’re doing New Orleans on the super cheap, the Jefferson Transit Airport Express is only $2.

Once you arrive in New Orleans, getting around by foot or public transport is relatively easy. Unless you need to get out of town, don’t bother with renting a car. Many of New Orleans’ attractions are either in the French Quarter or within walking distance. The city’s vintage street cars also offer connections to visitors hoping to get away from the French Quarter madness, all for just $1.25 per ride.

City Layout
The cultural heart of New Orleans lies along a series of bends in the Mississippi River, earning the town the nickname of “Crescent City.” The beating tourist heart of New Orleans is clearly the French Quarter, which has lots to do even if you don’t want to be drinking hand grenades all day on Bourbon Street. To the Northeast of the French Quarter is Faubourg Marigny, an up-and-coming neighborhood with a killer nightlife and live music scene. To the South and West of the French Quarter is the skyscraper-filled Central Business District (also home to a growing arts scene) and the southern-mansion-lined streets of the Garden District.

What to Do
You’ll never run out of activities in New Orleans. Simply walking the atmospheric streets, stumbling upon street musicians and the city’s beautiful architecture, is a joy in and of itself. Make sure to leave plenty of time to simply wander and take it all in. Here’s a few of our favorite highlights:

  • The food – if you haven’t eaten proper New Orleans cuisine, you simply haven’t visited New Orleans. Wondering where to start your Big Easy culinary tour? Try Central Grocery for a spicy Italian Muffuletta, Johnny’s or Mother’s for a Po’ Boy sandwich and Jacques-imo’s for Creole and Cajun specialties. And don’t forget a beignet and Cafe au Lait at Cafe du Monde (preferably late at night when it’s less crowded).
  • Garden District tour – spend an afternoon getting a dose of old-school Southern charm by hopping on a street car to this historic New Orleans district of stately mansions and intriguing shopping. Grab a green line street car from the French Quarter and sit back as you’re transported back in time, past enormous Antebellum-style mansions fringed by gardens of lush greenery. Take a break on Magazine Street to find top-notch shopping.
  • French Quarter Wandering – most New Orleans visitors are already familiar with this quintessential neighborhood. But there’s much more to the French Quarter than Bourbon Street. Start your French Quarter wander with brunch at Stanley, where you can dig into Bananas Foster French Toast. Just across the street is the picturesque Jackson Square – make sure to check out the statue of U.S. President and commander of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson and take a peek at St. Louis Cathedral. From there it’s time to get lost, admiring the intricate wrought iron balconies, numerous thrift stores, record shops and art galleries that dot this historic neighborhood.
  • The music – New Orleans music is unrivaled in its influence, diversity and quality. For a burst of musical energy head to Frenchmen Street, where you’ll find concert venues like Snug Harbor and d.b.a. as well as streets packed with revelers bouncing along to street corner brass bands, banjo players and cellists. The music is just as good outside as it is inside. Make sure to keep your eyes and ears open for Second Lines, brass band street parades that unexpectedly fill the air with music and joyous dancing.
  • Volunteering – though “tourist New Orleans” is in great shape, many parts of the city outside the tourist areas are still in recovery mode. Looking to do your part to help rebuild? Check out the “voluntourism” page on the Official Tourism site of New Orleans

Where to Sleep
Staying in New Orleans can get downright expensive. Before you spring for a hotel, consider one of the city’s numerous private apartment options on sites like VRBO. You’ll not only save money, you’ll also get a more authentic neighborhood feel during your visit. If you simply must stay in a hotel, consider spots like the Iberville Suites, the Queen & Crescent or The Chines Bed & Breakfast as starting points.

[Photos courtesy Mike Lee and Jonathan Rodrigues]