I’m not going to lie. When I visited Paris for the first time at 18, I was somewhat taken aback by how dirty it was, how much graffiti there was. Where was the picture perfect Paris that I had seen images of growing up? Or the Paris in the extremely cheesy but cute (at the time) Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen movie, Passport to Paris? Sure, the Paris landmarks I could recognize in my sleep like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe of course looked magical, but in my teenage naivete, the areas around them not so much.
Fast forward a couple of years to when I hopped a short flight from Spain to Rome, where I would spend a week. As surprised as I had been by the gritty and not perfect visage I had seen in Paris, it was felt even more so in Rome. Sure, it didn’t help that our hostel was located in the somewhat gross and definitely unappealing Termini neighborhood or the fact that I would get multiple propositions when walking around there from men who were not Italian supermodels. But the gorgeous Spanish Steps that you want to spend all day sitting on? Well, depending on what time of the year you visit Rome, there may not be space. Or the fact that when I was there, Trinità dei Monti, the church at the top of the steps, was under construction, which meant that perfect photo of the Spanish Steps was in reality not so perfect. And I just couldn’t get over the fact that even in non-sketchy parts of the city, buildings would be covered in copious amounts of graffiti. It was a reality that where I come from, if graffiti is on a building (and more importantly remains on a building), it must be a bad section, the owners must not care. But in Europe, graffiti just seems to exist.
Prior to visiting Lisbon, I had heard it described as a city with “crumbling” buildings (not literally crumbling, but ones that were old, on their last breath, etc). So when I visited there in 2012, I wasn’t as surprised as I’d been in Paris and Rome. In fact, I found a type of timeless beauty in Lisbon’s streets and buildings. Sure, I took the typical photos of the Praça do Comercio and the famous Se, but a photo I have of one of its streetcars going up an extremely steep street, one that truly embodied the whole “crumbling” feel, is one of my favorites.
Travel guidebooks, magazines, and especially movies make it seem that the cities many of us spend our lives dreaming about visiting (or returning to again and again) are 100% perfect without any blemishes. Woody Allen’s films are a perfect example of this-in Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love did either city look anything but star-worthy? There were certainly no street hawkers who harass you incessantly at the Eiffel Tower or in the area around Sacre Couer.
I think that whenever you visit a destination for the first time and you’re left feeling disappointed because it wasn’t how you thought it would be, it does have a sense of feeling meticulously staged. What you see in Travel and Leisure or in Hollywood, well, that IS probably photo shopped. And yet, with the exception of when someone alters the color of the sky or changes the Eiffel Tower from black to red, these famous cities have always been this way. What you see when you’re actually there is real. So just be sure to savor the moment and take it all in.