Are these the ten ugliest cities in the world? | Travel

Andspaña Fea (Ugly Spain) is the new book by Andres Rubio, travel editor of El Pais. It focuses on the “unprecedented cultural catastrophe” that he fears is engulfing his homeland di lui. He bemoans a system that allows unfettered development to flourish at the expense of aesthetic sensitivity, with the country blighted by half-built blocks, towering residential buildings and sprawling mega-hotels. But there’s no shortage of architectural calamity and dreadful town planning elsewhere – from eyesores in jungles to scabrous European capitals and Arctic cities with all the charm of penal colonies. Here is a list of some of the world’s ugliest cities.

Anyone who has seen footage of palm-oil plantations scarring the wilderness in Borneo will know that the island has been savaged by development for years. Nonetheless, first-time visitors can be very much forgiven for expecting more from Kota Kinabalu, the Malaysian capital of the island. If you have come anticipating orangutans waving your plane down a grass runway, prepare for disappointment. If instead you’re in the market for a sweaty concrete maze, bland malls and cloying traffic, then this is the place to be. Right-minded visitors will move swiftly into the island’s green interior and leave this humdrum city behind.

Dense tower blocks in Sao Paulo

Dense tower blocks in Sao Paulo

ALAMY

Sao Paulo, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro has beautiful arcs of golden sand, shapely mountains and charming art deco hotels. Sao Paulo? Not so much. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the most populated city in South America would be an unappealing place, but the Brazilian industrial capital is confrontationally so. Though unsafe in evenings (drivers tend not to stop at red lights for fear of being carjacked), the darkness at least hides the mess of graffiti smeared across its characterless buildings. Shorn of any major attractions and riddled with traffic issues, the city is as dysfunctional as it is colossal.

Zayed Bin Sultan Street, Al Ain, UAE

Zayed Bin Sultan Street, Al Ain, UAE

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Al Ain, UAE

Is the Emirati city of Al Ain as gaudy or glamorous as Dubai? No. Does it compare favorably to the capital, Abu Dhabi? Also no. While its more famous siblings have taken look-at-me architecture to extremes, Al Ain opts to present not a nightmarish vision of the future, but an entirely boring version of the here and now. Out in this desert city, temperatures rise past 50C – an oppressive heat that does little to improve a city as beige as the sky above it. That there is a road sign for the public abattoir tells you much of what you need to know about life here.

Bucharest, Romania

Bucharest, Romania

Advocates of this carbuncle by the Carpathians describe it as “interesting”, in the manner of loyal friends trying to market an unfortunate single to suitors – yes, great sense of humor, just don’t ask about the looks. Hulking communist-era blocks were thrown up during the paranoid dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu and are now a reminder of a period that was not only terrifying, but tedious. The Casa Presei Speciali (House of the Free Press) is an excellent example of the ugliness of the era, though it doesn’t quite go without saying that the journalists working within were anything but free during Ceausescu’s squalid reign.

Charleroi, Belgium

When in 2008 Charleroi topped a poll of the ugliest cities in Europe, tourists began behaving like rubberneckers after a car crash – rather than moving politely along they began to pay it inappropriate attention. Fans of rust will find plenty to enjoy here, as will any location scouts working on a rainy Mad Max sequel. Industrial decline is the main reason for the miserable look of the city, which doesn’t even have the excuse of being a former communist outpost. Beautiful Bruges may only be a 100-mile road trip away, but it may as well be on another planet.

The Bubble Tram in Guangzhou, China

The Bubble Tram in Guangzhou, China

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Guangzhou, China

The chaotic charm and ornate colonial architecture of Hong Kong quickly fade into the memory of anyone crossing north into Guangzhou. The Chinese city’s flatulent air is often so toxic that children and people with respiratory issues are ordered inside. Good news for them – at least they don’t have to look at the surrounding city, a vast and vanilla place populated by about 14 million people seemingly all disinterested with their environment. One of the architectural highlights is the Guangzhou Circle, which looks like an upturned roundabout waiting to be incorporated into a larger, less ridiculous project.

San Manuel Stadium in San Bernardino

San Manuel Stadium in San Bernardino

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San Bernardino, USA

On paper San Bernardino, California, should be an interesting town – an easy drive east of Los Angeles it stands on the near-mythic Route 66 and is close to the excellently named Mount Baldy; it’s also home to the world’s first McDonald’s. Alas, this particular piece of paper is smudged with disappointment. While the glamor of Route 66 is faded in some parts of America, here it is entirely senile; when the Norton Air Force Base closed in 1994 with the loss of 10,000 jobs, this Californian dream quickly turned sour. Today it’s more Dilapidation Nation than Inland Empire.

Kouvola, whose motto is “Everything nice from concrete”

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Kouvola, Finland

It’s tempting to say that Helsinki and Tallinn gaze at each other across the Gulf of Finland like rapt lovers, but it may well be that the handsome capitals are just trying to avoid looking at nearby Kouvola. Compelling in the manner of a hospital waiting room, it feels like a town where inspiration comes to die. Gray concrete buildings it does not lack. Variously compared to a toilet and a Pyongyang tribute act, and dubbed the Kouviet Union, it at least wears its undesirability on its sleeve – the town’s motto is “Everything nice from concrete”.

Fairbanks, Alaska

Fairbanks, Alaska

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Fairbanks, USA

What do you think of when you picture Alaska? Ethereal fjords, their all-enveloping silence punctuated only by the blows of breaching whales? Or bears – grizzly in the west, polar in the north – maybe? There’s small chance that your Arctic fantasy includes Fairbanks, a city that pulls off the neat trick of being unforgettably dull in one of the world’s most spectacular spots. Many of the Lower 48’s corporations are here, spread out across a largely flat, featureless city that has no identifiable center. There are plenty of distractions in the surrounding wilderness, but Fairbanks will be on no one’s list of highlights when they get back home.

A Russian orthodox church in Barentsburg, Norway

A Russian orthodox church in Barentsburg, Norway

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Barentsburg, Norway

There are only three real settlements on Svalbard, but it says a lot that Pyramiden – a ghost town abandoned since 1998 – is more aesthetically pleasing than its cousin, Barentsburg. At more than 78 degrees north this Russian settlement (a city in Svalbardian terms, let’s say) on the Norwegian archipelago has certain excuses for prioritizing function over form, but would one or two frills really have hurt? Houses slump into the snow, municipal buildings are open to the elements, locals slip and slide between featureless housing blocks (the treacherous frozen paths only partly to blame for their unsteadiness). The effect is of a surreal Arctic prison. To keep its special status on the islands, Barentsburg must remain an active coal mine, bringing unclean industry to an otherwise pristine place.

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