Before we move past Europe, however, I'd like to reflect on some places we've been. Specifically, I'd like to compare four cities in the Mediterranean region: Barcelona, Rome, Istanbul and Jerusalem.
Three of these cities are of similar size. Jerusalem has about 1 million residents, Barcelona about 1.5 million, and Rome about 2.6 million. The huge outlier here is the largest city in Europe, Istanbul at 14.5 million inhabitants. If you consider the entire metropolitan area, it's more than 20 million. As a tourist who loves big cities, advantage Istanbul.
Once again, three are similar with one outlier. Jerusalem is ground-zero for 3 major religions, and is the most hotly contested real estate in the world. Rome was "Rome" for 1000 years, and is home to the Catholic Church. Istanbul was the centre of the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim world for 500 years, and is a geopolitical lynchpin between East and West. Barcelona is a nice place, but it doesn't play in this league. It was close, but I still make this advantage Jerusalem.
FRIENDLINESS AND HELPFULNESS
Many people in both Jerusalem and Rome were clearly unimpressed with tourists. I'm not saying they were all rude, but they sure as hell were't very friendly. The folks we met in Barcelona were either moderately friendly or ignored us. The people in Istanbul, however, were lovely and helpful. Even the merchants trying to sell us stuff were good natured and joked with us even after I said we weren't buying anything. Most people we met spoke surprisingly good English, and even those who didn't, had a twinkle in their eye as we played charades to communicate. Advantage Istanbul.
CLEANLINESS AND TIDINESS
The results here might surprise you, but I checked with the kids and they agree. The dirtiest city by far was Rome, with Jerusalem clearly in second place. Both had garbage on the streets and graffiti everywhere. Istanbul was much cleaner and better taken care of than I expected. Barcelona was very neat and tidy downtown. Make this a tie advantage Istanbul and Barcelona.
TRAFFIC AND OTHER CHAOS ON THE STREETS
Barcelona drivers were the most civilized. I didn't feel I was going to get run over every time I crossed the street. The streets of Istanbul were also remarkably peaceful. Dodging cars and motorbikes in Jerusalem always felt dangerous, and sometimes it seemed the drivers in Rome were actually trying to run us over. Tie advantage for Barcelona and Istanbul again.
Jerusalem is a tense place with a constant risk of violence. You must be mindful of both terrorists and criminals. Turkey is also a volatile place this year, and a pipe bomb went off the day we left. I did, however, feel very safe walking the streets. Pickpockets are a major issue in Rome and Barcelona, but I didn't fear getting mugged. (We were also off the streets before 9 pm.) Tie advantage Rome and Barcelona.
EXPENSIVE OR CHEAP
I don't know why I was so surprised how expensive food and drink is in Jerusalem. Fortunately, this was offset by historic sites that were free or fairly cheap. Barcelona and Rome were less expensive than Canada for food and drink, but attractions were costly. Not surprisingly, Istanbul was the least expensive for everything. Advantage Istanbul.
FOOD AND DRINK
Good coffee and beer were available everywhere, so that's a wash. In terms of food, we loved the food in all four places. Before this trip, I didn't appreciate how good Israeli food could be. I'm also not that familiar with Spanish food, but what we had was excellent. Turkish food is exotic and full of flavour, and I love it. Finally, what can be said about Italian food that hasn't already been said. Rome was also the only place where we had absolutely no interest in trying non-local cuisine. Four great places for food, but still advantage Rome.
This isn't really a competition, so I don't want to pick a winner. As you might expect, we chose all these places because we wanted to visit them. I still believe all of them are 5 star destinations.