Ten 'awful' cities you should still visit

Coolest city in the Middle East ... Beirut has a hip beach club scene.
Coolest city in the Middle East ... Beirut has a hip beach club scene. Photo: Getty Images

There are many cities around the world with a justifiably awful image – hello Johor Bahru and Guatemala City! – but others seem to get repeated reputation trashing that's not entirely warranted. These supposed grotholes may be bywords for crime, industrial bleakness or urban decay, but they do have something about them that makes them worth casting aside the prejudices for. These 10 cities aren't quite as grim as you might imagine…

Detroit

America's favourite punching bag has too much heritage – particularly in the music and motor industries – to be a complete write-off. The Motown Historical Museum includes the studio where the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder cut their first tracks, while the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex is where the first Model T Fords rolled off the production line.

Heritage and heart ... Detroit, USA.
Heritage and heart ... Detroit, USA. Photo: Bloomberg

There are many more cars on show at the Henry Ford Museum, but they form a fraction of what's surely the greatest museum in the US. Combined with the neighbouring Greenfield Village, this is where you can see Rosa Parks' bus, the car JFK was assassinated in and the bike shop where the Wright Brothers built the first plane.

That'll take a full day, but it's worth saving time for a ghoulish drive around some of the bleak, largely abandoned neighbourhoods. Finish the modern ruins odyssey at the Heidelberg Project, however, where the residents have fought the decay and turned an entire block into a fabulously weird – and hugely uplifting – art installation.

Manila

San Agustin Church stands inside the historic walled city of Intramuros in Manila.
San Agustin Church stands inside the historic walled city of Intramuros in Manila. Photo: AFP

Even Filipinos will happily admit that their capital is a chaotic, disjointed mess. But it has a passionate boisterousness missing from other South-East Asian cities – the garish jeepneys and wall-to-wall karaoke bars are the best examples of this.

It also has three remarkable attractions. First up is Intramuros, the fortified, Spanish colonial heart of the city – full of old churches and surrounded by a highly bizarre golf course. Then there's the Ayala Museum, which offers a note-perfect trawl through the fascinating and unique history of the Philippines. And, to finish off, there's the American Cemetery and Memorial, the largest war cemetery in the world. The sweeping rows of graves marked with crosses and Jewish stars have a memorably humbling effect.

Bogota

Bogota, Colombia ... 2013 is a good year to go.
Bogota, Colombia ... 2013 is a good year to go. 

With a mountain backdrop and plenty of handsome colonial buildings, Bogota should be one of the South American cities that people make a beeline for. But it's still seen as dangerous, even though many of the drug and kidnapping issues have been cleaned up. 2013's a good year to go and check out the thumping creative scene – the city has been dubbed UNESCO's City of Music and there's a crammed festival calendar. The Museo del Oro – which shows how central gold is to South America's story - is the city's must-see.

Downtown Johannesburg

The bus station may be dicey, but Downtown Johannesburg's reputation as a mugger-riddled crime den is overplayed. Constitution Hill is worth heading down there for on its own – the old prison cells that once held Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi are part of an essential lesson in South African history. The Constitutional Court is a detail-packed architectural marvel too – and was pointedly built on the site as part of a bid to heal the wounds of the past. Newtown, just south of the railway lines, is arguably the coolest part of Joburg too. Theatres, arts centres, Museum Africa and markets cluster there as part of a concerted push at image-cleansing.

Belgrade

The Serbian capital tends to be associated with bomb damage rather than big nights out, but Belgrade is arguably the most rocking city in Europe right now. This is particularly true over the summer, when party boats line the Sava and Danube rivers. But the bars on Strahinhića Bana go off year-round.

You'll also struggle to eat so well for so little anywhere else in Europe, while designer hotels and hostels are mushrooming there. Belgrade's low on sights – although the Fortress, Temple of St Sava and Tito's Mausoleum are all worth a look – but the energy is enormous.

The Ruhr

Germany's industrial heartland is a conurbation of unglamorous cities such as Dortmund, Bochum and Gelsenkirchen. But it's what's been done with the industrial remnants that makes it so interesting. In Oberhausen, the 117-metre-tall Gasometer has been turned into an exhibition space for gigantic 360 degree artworks, and the Landschaftpark in Duisburg is an old steelworks transformed into an epic-scale concert venue and adventure playground. You can dive in a flooded gas tank and go climbing on the blast furnaces.

Essen's the star, though – with the massive Zollverein coal mine complex. It's now full of very weird looking cultural attractions. Inside the Sir Norman Foster-redesigned boiler house, the Red Dot Design Museum– a fabulous journey through the best in modern design - is the stand-out.  

Pittsburgh

Once so polluted that you could barely see your hand in front of your face, this former steel city has quietly morphed into one of the most beautiful cities in the US. Any photo taken from the Duquesne Incline out over the central wedge of land hemmed in by a river confluence should confirm this. But Pittsburgh also has two world-class attractions that make it worth the detour. The Warhol Museum is the largest single-artist museum in the states, spread over six floors and properly digging into local boy Andy Warhol's life as well as his work.

The Cathedral of Learning, meanwhile, is one of the most brilliantly odd buildings on earth. The University of Pittsburgh's 163-metre-tall Gothic tower stands out for miles around, and the rooms are gorgeously, bewilderingly themed on different countries. It's a cold heart indeed that doesn't fall instantly in love with it.

Beirut

"It looks like Beirut" has long been a lazy shorthand for an absolute tip, but the warzone of the 1980s is now the coolest city in the Middle East. The religious mix helps – Lebanon has long been a place where all faiths brush alongside each other – but the hip factor comes from the beach club scene, the hole-in-the-wall bars in Gemmayzeh and general up-for-it factor. Mosques, Roman baths and museums along old fault lines help, but this is as close to Miami Beach as the Middle East gets.

Kingston

A high murder rate tends to detract from the Jamaican capital's natural setting – it's sandwiched between a huge natural harbour and the Blue Mountains. But visitors sticking to the safer coastal resorts are missing out on the Bob Marley Museum, former pirate capital of the world Port Royal and the Trenchtown Culture Yard – the birthplace of reggae.

The city's undoubtedly gritty and requires a degree of street smartness, but Jamaica's rich and poor rub shoulders here – both the fine dining and block parties are among the best in the Caribbean.

Baltimore

The Wire made Baltimore seem about as sexy as nuclear Armageddon, but head for the waterfront and this historic port city is crammed with attractions. The seven-floor National Aquarium makes the country's Sealife centres look a bit pathetic, the American Visionary Art Museum contains some of the most thrillingly weird artworks you'll ever encounter, and other attractions worship baseball legend Babe Ruth and let you explore big old ships. In short, it's a city where it's ridiculously easy to keep yourself entertained for a few days, despite gritty surroundings.

Have you visited a city with a bad reputation that turned out to be undeserved? Post a comment and share your stories below.

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