During his career as a model, Phillip Cooley lived in some of the great metropolises of the world. But when the Michigan native decided to lay down some roots, he chose Detroit — a city synonymous with urban blight in post-recession America. And he hasn't looked back.
Welcome to the urban underdogs — cities that aren't on the radar for most travelers. Some, like Slovakia's capital of Bratislava, might be overlooked because of their proximity to better-known cities. Others, like Detroit, can't seem to live down a bad rap. But if undiscovered art scenes, experimental cuisine, great architecture, and interesting neighborhoods are on your travel checklist, then these cities deserve a second look.
Taipei, for example, suffered for years from both obscurity and a reputation of being one of Asia's most polluted metropolises. But thanks to official efforts to crack down on car emissions, improve public transportation, and create more parks, Taiwan's capital has become one of the region's most livable cities. Meanwhile, neighborhoods such as Xinyi and Da'an districts have grown increasingly sophisticated, with refined restaurants, elegant boutiques, and eclectic cafés and bars.
In Valparaíso, Chile, residents worked with what they had — gorgeous 19th-century houses from the city's glory days as South America's most vital port. Throughout the city, you'll find painstakingly restored houses converted into restaurants, hotels, and galleries.
And then of course there's Detroit. What most people would consider as evidence of Motor City's sad decline — empty lots, abandoned houses, and disused factories — others view as unparalleled opportunities for artists, designers, and other creative types. In fact, Patti Smith and David Byrne, two of music's eternal cool kids, recently exhorted budding artists to move to Detroit, and young people are heeding their advice, moving into neighborhoods like Midtown and Woodbridge.
For a traveler, the main appeal of these neglected cities is authenticity. "You go to the Old Town in Prague, it's mostly tourists. In Bratislava, it's all locals," says Jaroslave Vitazka, a project manager for a private equity firm who has called the city home since 2002. Or, as Phillip Cooley says about Detroit: "It's real, it's honest. You can spend the day at an urban farm, and then head off to a Tigers game or the opera, just like the locals do."