I was in Rotterdam in September at the time of the World Port Festival. The name turned out to be misleading. It was a celebration of Rotterdam as a “world port”. Shame: they could have invited ports from all over the world to get together and admire each other’s tattoos, compare red light districts and boast about their regeneration projects.
Maybe they will get together for a proper festival. The more I see of world port cities, the more I prefer them to the manicured, over-touristed world we’re presented with on social media. And the great port cities have a lot in common. They may not be beautiful but they are sexy. After all, sex and shipping have gone together as long as love and marriage: probably longer.
These are places that like their drink strong and plentiful, their football exciting and their politics Bolshie. They’re not second cities. Let the capitals and wannabes attract the posh people and smart money. Port cities, booming or bust, fashionable or not, do their own thing.
After Rotterdam hosted the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, here it is with my top 10 port cities worth your time.
With direct Eurostar trains, there’s every chance to quixotically avoid Amsterdam and The Hague in favour of Rotterdam’s rough, post-industrial charms. It’s a fine place for architecture geeks and in Feyenoord they have a proper, ballsy, up-yours football team.
Star place: Hotel New York.
The football team – or one of them – is in its rightful place back on top of the world and Liverpool has its swagger back. The divisions in the city aren’t just football-related: swanky Liverpool One has arisen next to streets that didn’t get the memo about urban renewal. But there’s no funnier place for a big night out.
Star place: The place of pilgrimage known as Anfield.
Germany’s gateway to the world was getting a bit humdrum 20 years ago. But it was always a creative centre as well as a mega port and Nordic hipsterness has swept through the place, transforming even seedy Reeperbahn.
Star place: The Hamburg Fish market.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
The new boom era of Belfast tourism isn’t based on the sweet coastline and lovely hills but disaster, strife and miniseries: specifically, the Titanic, the Troubles and the Game of Thrones set. Harland and Wolff is struggling but its twin cranes are a permanent reminder of the days when the city made actual things.
Star place: Deane’s Deli.
You go for the food and the bars, not the sightseeing, in an ancient port city that’s always thumbed its nose at neighbouring Athens. And the best place to drink in that rebellious working-class spirit is, inevitably, the football ground – and our star place is Olimpiacos (no tours – just go to a match).
You’ll struggle to find the water in this most mega of mega cities. But noisy, brash, naughty Osaka is in all other senses a classic port city. Like all the best of them, it has its own brand of gutsy humour, especially designed to make the sensitive souls in Tokyo wince.
Star place: Shinsekai.
Drinking – tick; fighting – tick; scornying the heejuns in the capital – tick; football – big tick; but the mighty shipyards of the Clyde and the looming tenements of the Gorbals and Govan are now confined to black and white compilation films on BBC 4.
Star place: The Clydeside Distillery.
It’s the biggest port in the world but is Shanghai truly a port city any longer? The scandalous, jazzy melting pot that was 1920s Shanghai is now just a boutique hotel designer’s meme. But it certainly qualifies in the bolshiness stakes: this was where the Communist Party held its first meeting.
Star place: The French Concession.
You can find the authentic gritty, dangerous French Connection experience in the northern suburbs if that’s what you’re after but if you’re not be careful – you can easily have a civilised, sunny, Cote d’Azur kind of time too. Like Liverpool, they expect their millionaire footballers to be one of them. “Soak the jersey or f*** off,” is the usual chant.
Star place: Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM).
Kaohsiung was built fast in Taiwan’s economic boom. Now it’s changing just as fast as Taiwan’s recent cultural boom reaches this industrious southern port. The government invested £260m in a new arts and performance centre. Typical of a port city, in the next election they voted in the opposition.
Star place: Silks Club.