The cities to avoid/embrace this V-day, depending on whether you’re looking for romance or a break from swooning couples.
Italy’s lagoon city is many things. Historic? Why yes. Beautiful? Most certainly. A giddy triumph of architectural creativity and whimsical dreams over the basic fact that things built into water will eventually sink? Absolutely and indubitably. But romantic? By the fluffy little wings of Cupid, no.
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Come in August and the canals stink – while the streets are so stuffed with tourists and cruise-ship passengers that you can barely move for selfie sticks, dropped ice creams and Americans trying to work out where the Colosseum is. Come in February, and there are fewer visitors – but this is because the wind which whips off the Adriatic will leave your hands so stiff that you won’t be able to pluck that engagement ring from its box.
I’m going for Chongqing in China. It’s charmless, grey and polluted; the only reason to go (and the reason I was there) is to hop on a boat down the Yangtze, and even that isn’t very picturesque until you’re well out of the city.
Cologne is not a place for lovers, its charms are best seen alone. I once spent a memorably unromantic weekend there, rekindling a dying flame. The entire trip descended into the very definition of German Sturm und Drang: rousing action (bar fights with strangers), high-octane emotion (storming out of restaurants) – all fuelled, of course, by the city’s excellent but deadly Kolsch beer.
Sao Paulo, Brazil
If Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s sexy party girl, then Sao Paulo is its big junkie cousin that no one in the family talks about any more. Large cities across South America have social and economic challenges, but none fail them quite so consistently as the continent’s biggest conurbation. When the days are spent worrying about being robbed and the nights too dangerous even to venture outside, there’s not much room for romance. Assuming you can muster the sand to go out for a bite to eat, local delicacies include deep-fried pies (pastéis) and a soggy mortadella sandwich crammed with as much cheap meat as possible. Paris it is not.
Ho Chi Minh City
Try to avoid cities during monsoon season – they can bring unexpected horrors. A friend of mine was long overdue a romantic vacation with her boyfriend, so booked tickets to Vietnam. On arrival in Ho Chi Minh it was raining heavily, but undeterred they waded down the street to find a cosy restaurant. Dipping into a doorway, they picked a table by the open patio doors so they could settle in for a spot of people watching. By the time the starters arrived, the water was almost level with the doorway; by the main course, rain was rushing over their feet. Nothing bad about wet toes. Trouble is the city rats and cockroaches were just as keen to escape the floods and streaming into the restaurant. The happy couple spent the rest of their romantic date marooned on the tabletop, while the owner frantically tried to shoo out the wildlife.
New York City
I don’t think I’ll ever tire of visiting New York City. With so many museums, galleries and places of interest to view, there’s always a risk that spending time there with my partner would bring out my inner nerd and, potentially, result in her branding me as unromantic because of my desire to spend so much time exploring the city rather than together in a hotel room.
Don’t get me wrong: I adore Belgium. From the cafes and churches of Antwerp, Bruges and Brussels to the mountains (yes) of the Ardennes, it is a welcoming, fascinating and beautiful nation. But my first visit there with a girlfriend did not go brilliantly. We hitched over the border from France, in a Volvo no less, and were dropped off after nightfall beside a campsite on the outskirts of Ostend. We just wanted to pitch the tent after a long day, grab some frites and catch up on sleep before the boat back to Dover next day. Fluency in Flemish was not required in order to realise there was a problem. Our passports were studied intensely, as were my girlfriend’s fingers. With no detectable evidence that we were married, the manager said, Belgian law forbade us from cohabiting. We would find this rule applied throughout the nation. All we could do was hop aboard the coastal tram (still trundling magnificently almost the entire length of the Flemish coast) to the port, and board the overnight ferry. We arrived at our respective homes in Crawley sheepishly and half a day early, though with a life lesson about the differences in cultural norms – especially on the subject of romance.
Thailand has a lot going for it: tropical beaches, vast gold-plated temples and friendly locals. And I’m a huge fan of big, brassy, gritty Southeast Asian cities, Bangkok included. The Thai capital’s grit is exactly where you’ll notice its charm: when you engage in haggling banter with a market trader; when you look out over its heaving, illuminated thoroughfares from a rooftop at night; when you’re walking down an alleyway to find some of the best street food in the world. But is it romantic? No. There’s no bigger romance killer than the icky feeling that arises when you witness sweaty middle-aged sex tourists and guffawing backpackers trying to choose from a plethora of ping-pong bars as you squint through the pollution haze at a dim sunset. Stick to the quieter islands if you’re after dreamy couple time.
It had plenty of promise for a weekend à deux. Sunny skies, a boutique hotel in the Gothic Quarter and plans to indulge in a cultural fix and leisurely Las Ramblas ramble. What I hadn’t factored in, however, was pickpockets. Somewhere between breakfast and La Boqueria, my passport went missing from my bag. Instead of spending our Sunday as planned, we instead joined a queue – a very long queue – of other unfortunates at the police station. Handbags; wallets; mobile phones: everyone had similar stories to report. There’s nothing like wanton street crime to steal the lustre from a weekend. We still had fun, but I have never been back.
Rotorua, New Zealand
Technically more a town than a city, North Island’s Rotorua might seem like a good choice for a romantic getaway. Its kooky landscapes shaped by geothermal wonders create a sense of otherworldy awe; a dip in its soothing hot springs might get you in the mood; and the city offers myriad spa and beauty treatments with which to pamper your partner… The downside of all this sulphurous bliss is that the whole place honks like rotten eggs, which is rarely an aphrodisiac.
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