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City slickers: the boldest, brightest and brashest

From shipping container malls and boutique distilleries to comeback 'hoods and new cultural landmarks, our pick of the best urban developments coming this year

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:16 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 12:08 BST
Cyclists and walkers share The 606 trail, Chicago
Cyclists and walkers share The 606 trail, Chicago

The comeback hoods

Once an area loses its 'cool' status, it rarely gets it back. But some neighbourhoods are bucking that trend. Santa Teresa, in Rio de Janeiro, was once an aristocratic hilltop hood, where the rich built their opulent mansions. But the area fell into neglect when newly-accessible beaches drove residents downhill. In recent years, it's taken a boho turn, and some of those mansions are being turned into boutique hotels. Casa Marques and Vila Santa Teresa capture the vibe nicely.

In Hong Kong, Causeway Bay flipped from colonial cool to crass commercialism — it's generally seen as mall heaven and not much more. But now, some genuinely talked-about joints are slipping into the gaps. Alto has the island's go-to rooftop terrace, while the Seafood Room, with its fine fish and harbour-view terrace, is the one everyone wants to get a reservation for.

But perhaps the biggest comeback kid is Charlottenburg, in central Berlin. A hive of decadence in the 1920s, then a Cold War shopping hub, its fortunes plummeted after the Wall came down, and there was all that space and opportunity to try things in the newly reunited former GDR districts.

As rents rise and mass tourism softens the edges in the nearby district of Mitte, however, Charlottenburg is on the rebound. Most of the action is centred around Zoo Station, where the hip brand- and indie store-filled Bikini Berlin concept shopping mall has a roof terrace overlooking Berlin Zoo's baboons. There's also the C/O Berlin, which pulls in first-rate photography exhibitions and has chosen to shift from Mitte to Charlottenburg. The hotels — the Hotel Zoo Berlin is filled with design flair and transforms into a popular nightspot with DJs after dark — and restaurants are now pouring in too, while bars are cropping up under the railway arches. It's not the new Mitte — but it's a significantly more fun revamp of the old Charlottenburg.

The new High Lines

New York City realised it had a hit on its hands well before the final phase of the High Line opened in 2014. New Yorkers and visitors alike took to the linear park concept like flies to the proverbial, and the former railway line became the city's new favourite open space. The plants have grown, the art installations have mushroomed, and the 1.8-mile shortcut through Midtown has become anything but utilitarian.

Other cities saw the results and have been eagerly leaping on board. Chicago went bigger and longer. The 606, a former freight rail line stretching through up-and-coming neighbourhoods to the north west of downtown, opened in 2015. It's only now that it's coming into its own, though. The slightly bouncy blue rubber surfacing was seized upon by cyclists and walkers straight away, but the whole thing looked a little samey and lacking personality. Now, however, the art projects are arriving and the plants are flourishing. The connections to neighbouring public parks are being harnessed, making the whole thing a system rather than a straight line.

Toronto's take on the idea involves using the space under the hideous Gardiner Expressway. As well as serving as a scenic gateway to the Lake Ontario waterfront, The Bentway will slot 55 outdoor 'rooms' under the highway, each hosting something different — a farmers' market, say, or an exhibition, a performance space or children's garden. It'll cover over a mile of road across six neighbourhoods.

Miami is home to the most ambitious project of the lot. The Underline will eventually be a nine-mile linear park beneath the Metrorail line from Brickell Station to Dadeland South Station. It'll happen in stages, starting with an outdoor gym, before bike repair stations, cycle paths and vegetation start to materialise.

Boozy breaks

Gin's the thing for the artisanal drinking scene, and Cape Town is at the vanguard, with specialist bars like The Gin Bar and Mother's Ruin Gin Bar serving drinks concocted with locally made gins — such as Inverroche and the Woodstock Gin Company, which use endemic fynbos, rooibos and buchu plants as botanicals. Hope on Hopkins, Cape Town's first distillery, offers tours and tastings in its warehouse conversion.

Belfast's big on gin, too — bars like The John Hewitt are serving up local brands, like Jawbox, Northern Ireland's first 'single estate' gin. Small distilleries are opening up for visits, too: Echlinville flavours its gin with gorse and seaweed, while Shortcross uses local apples, elderflowers, and spring water from the Rademon estate on which it's located. There's a resurgence in Buenos Aires, too, where Renato Giovannoni, the man behind Floreria Atlantico — often named Latin America's best cocktail bar — has produced his own brand, Principe de los Apostoles, flavoured with yerba mate and eucalyptus. It also serves gins from Bolivia and Peru, in fishbowl-size glasses.

Not that the craft beer boom has let up: the Copenhagen Beerwalk coincides with Carlsberg's centenary this year and takes in 12 pubs in Vesterbro and Nørrebro (£23 for six drinks); Amsterdam's new Hoppa! bar brings together 60-odd city-brew beers; and Denver's ever-gentrifying RiNo neighbourhood is home to several breweries, including Beryl's Beer Co and Our Mutual Friend, while the Source Hotel, due to open this year, will host a New Belgium brewery, and a barrel-ageing area by the rooftop pool.

Arabian culture hub

The blingier the better has traditionally been the Arabian Peninsula states' approach to tourism, but all that's changing this year with a slew of new top-notch museums and galleries. Muscat is home to the sprawling new National Museum of Oman, which traces the history of the sultanate back to prehistoric times, with exhibits including gold from a wrecked 15th-century ship that form part of Vasco da Gama's fleet. There are temporary exhibition spaces with links to the Smithsonian, Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate that should be running blockbuster exhibitions soon, and even a gallery where visitors can watch staff working on artifacts.

Doha, meanwhile, is soon to open the futuristic-looking National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel around the former emir's palace, and filled with Doha's past and present, with films projected onto walls, and themed galleries, including 'Life at Sea' and 'Trade & Souk'.

Over in the UAE, Abu Dhabi's long-awaited Saadiyat Cultural District should come to fruition this year, with a Louvre, a Guggenheim and the Zayed National Museum, designed by Norman Foster. Dubai, meanwhile, has opened its Saruq al-Hadid Archaeology Museum, displaying finds from a new archaeological dig in the desert, dating back 3,000 years. Its location, the Shindagha heritage area, is rapidly expanding, with 50 museums slated to be open by next year.

For something different, look no further than Ras al-Khaimah, swiftly establishing itself as a world-class destination for adventure tourism, with biking, climbing, a via ferrata, the world's longest zip-line, plus horse-riding at the local royal family's stables, booked via the Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah.

African American history

First proposed in 1915, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC opened in September, and is the first US museum of its kind. It traces African American history from the slave trade to Barack Obama's presidency, and the over 36,000 exhibits range from a cowry shell necklace used as currency during the slave era to the lunch counter from a North Carolina Woolworth's that was the scene of a famous Civil Rights sit-in in 1960, and the coffin of Emmett Till, lynched, aged 14, in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. It's not all so sobering — three of the five floors celebrate high-flying black Americans, with items including Louis Armstrong's trumpet and one of Muhammad Ali's boxing robes.

This is just the start of America's long-overdue focus on its black history: until 26 February, the Oakland Museum of California is hosting an exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers, while Detroit's Motown Museum — currently squeezed inside what was once the house from which Berry Gordy launched the careers of Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross — will start a major expansion this year.

Elsewhere, the Studio Museum in Harlem, which focuses on 19th- and 20th-century African American art, is set to get a new home, designed by David Adjaye (who also did the DC museum).

Further south, the McLeod Plantation Historic Site, which opened last year on the outskirts of Charleston, is the first former plantation to focus on the experience of the enslaved, rather than the owners.

Shipping container malls

The trend for turning shipping containers into shops and bars was borne of necessity. When Christchurch, in New Zealand, was ravaged by an earthquake in 2011, shifting businesses into shipping containers was meant to be a temporary means to an end. But for the RE:Start Mall, it's been a formula for success. It's now home to over 50 businesses, clustered together, selling everything from exercise gear to woodfired pizzas.

The shipping container idea has spread globally, neatly coinciding with the trend for pop-up shops and restaurants. Boxpark in London's Shoreditch now has a sibling south of the river, in Croydon, while more recent additions to the scene include Common Ground in Seoul and the garishly-painted Quo Container Center in Buenos Aires.

The Downtown Container Park in Las Vegas is a spectacular example of the genre — part of a plan to revitalise the once-grim downtown area. Not all the enterprises have worked, but the overall effect — in a city best known for doing things on a lavish scale — is charming. One vendor sells handmade beef jerky, another gourmet hotdogs, others clothes and jewellery. They all surround a big park and playground, where parents can let their kids loose as they sit outside with a glass of wine. The only clue that this might be Vegas is the ludicrous, superscale model of a praying mantis made of scrap metal that periodically shoots flames six storeys high.

Bristol has also got in on the act. Cargo, at Wapping Wharf, is a precinct of indie retailers that includes a posh pie shop, a hipster barbershop and cider shop.

Read the complete cover story in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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