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The lure of a big city vacation

By Marnie Hunter
CNN

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The variety of attractions in a relatively small space are just one of the draws of cities, such as Paris, above.

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(CNN) -- From the Tower of London to Paris' Eiffel Tower, historic landmarks and one-of-a-kind attractions have long lured travelers to the world's great cities.

"It becomes, at least for some people, a kind of pilgrimage in the sense that you want to finally see the Statue of Liberty and it's in New York and you have to go to New York to see it, " said Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

"There isn't a second version of it anywhere else."

This sort of unique attraction, combined with the excitement of city life and a concentration of cultural opportunities, fine dining, shopping and accommodations brings some visitors back again and again.

"There's such a vast range of riches in a small, pretty easily navigated space. That's definitely what attracts me to cities," said Don George, global travel editor for Lonely Planet Publications.

Few large cities have remarkable natural scenic attractions to build upon, so they tend to rely on heritage and cultural sites to set themselves apart, according to Douglas Frechtling, a professor of tourism studies at George Washington University.

Visiting cities gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the landed aristocracy in Britain increasingly sent their sons -- and occasionally their daughters -- to round out their education on a Grand Tour of the celebrated sights and cities of continental Europe, Frechtling said.

America's nouveau riche adopted this tradition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and later, less well-heeled travelers joined the tourist ranks.

"In terms of what we might call mass tourism or middle-class tourism, that really didn't develop until after World War II," Frechtling said. "It was just too difficult and too expensive to travel."

Navigation 101

Now the allure of big cities seems as potent as ever. The number of visitors to central Paris in 2004, for example, is estimated at 25 million, according to the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau.

New York City welcomed 39.9 million visitors to the five boroughs in 2004 and is expecting a tally of nearly 41 million for 2005, according to NYC & Company, the city's official tourism marketing organization.

Getting acclimated to the pace and logistics of a large metropolitan area can take a little time.

"I recommend when you get somewhere, you either ask a taxi driver to take you around or you get on one of the tourist buses that allow you to pay a one-day fee and travel in the circuit as often as you want, so that you get a visual idea of the city," said Ruth Jarvis, series editor for Time Out Guides, in a phone interview from her London office.

Whether you're visiting a big city for the first or 15th time, a good map is essential. Even locals carry maps to navigate London, Jarvis said, so there's no shame in standing on a street corner peering at yours.

In some cities, local volunteer guides will help guests discover the destination, Jarvis said. In New York, Big Apple Greeters offers this service.

Jarvis recommends walking as much as possible because it gives you more opportunities to discover the local culture and get a sense of a city's layout. When using public transportation, Jarvis suggests taking buses over subways for the same reason.

"If you're just a little bolder and you get buses, then you're above ground and you can pick up where you are so you have the confidence to make your own explorations a little later."

Most cities offer discount transportation cards that can save you money if you anticipate frequent bus or subway trips.

Keep your hotel's address on hand and have the hotel give you the number of a reputable cab company to keep with you, Jarvis suggests. Renting a cell phone in an international destination can also ensure that you always feel confident about getting back to your home base.

Making the most of your trip

Lonely Planet's George advises travelers to plan their itineraries around a city's neighborhoods to get the best local flavor.

"Identify your passions and then identify the neighborhoods where the most appropriate places you want to see are," George said.

It may be a part of the city known for art galleries or historic attractions or a particularly well-regarded area for restaurants, theater or shopping.

"One of the things I always try to do in a city if I'm there for multiple days is actually block out some time for aimless wandering," George said. Wandering leaves the door open for some of the most memorable and unexpected discoveries of your trip.

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Wandering may yield unexpected city scenes, like this secluded serenade in New York's Washington Square Park.

Even before you choose your destination, consider the atmosphere you're seeking. Every great city has a unique collection of attractions and notable features.

San Francisco, California, is particularly unusual because of its stunning location.

While the city offers museums and other cultural attractions, visiting those institutions is not the first thing Rybczynski, the urbanism expert, would do on a visit.

"I'd just enjoy walking around and probably take the cable car and just look at the views and go by the water and do all those things," he said.

San Francisco's scenic beauty and cuisine put it high on Frechtling's list of favorite cities. England's capital also ranks high.

"I'm very fond of London for the theater," Frechtling said.

History is king in European cities, Rybczynski said, because it stretches back so much farther than in the United States.

"I think in a sense the European cities are unbeatable because they have this head start," he said.

Whether you're headed to Europe, Asia, Australia, South America or across the United States, George recommends building a splurge into your trip.

Choose one great meal in a legendary restaurant over a slightly nicer place to sleep, or cut back on dining expenses in favor of the best seats you can get to the opera.

"That almost certainly will be one of the most priceless memories that you bring back," George said.

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