GQ.com’s fragrance critic, Chandler Burr, has travelled all over the world, and throughout his travels he’s documented the scents of each city. This year he rated the best and single worst smelling ones.
Cities, like people, have their own smell, their own body odors and perfumes that take on personalities. Dallas is one of the strangest scents I have ever encountered. Highways of strip malls and gas stations and exit signs. Insanely wide streets. It’s very New World-smelling. It almost has a non-scent scent. Like many cities, you get concrete, car exhaust, and dust. If you really focus, you can pick up on the nearly undetectable Texas live oak. It’s best during thunderstorms, though. The crisp smell of lightning and rain and vast flat space pervades and takes on a three-dimensional quality.
I agree with Samuel Johnson’s oft-quoted ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,’ and while being able to afford London is no small feat, if you just walk the streets, the scent of the city, at least, is free. Mist, rain, peppermint, wet pavement. You can smell the Thames and leather seats and aged Persian rugs. Some people complain that London is a gray scent, but what they smell is actually the opalescent energy of Britain.
I was only in Mombasa for an afternoon, and what struck me was the scent of rough terra cotta baked by the sun, and a dry-ish tropical air that is common in February when I was there. I’m told the smell radically intensifies in the summer when the rains come and things are greener, although Mombasa is never apparently lush. One of my strongest sense memories was of the four-bare-walled stores the Mijikendas and Swahilis kept. They used fluorescent lights, so they had that distinct metallic, old-ish smell places that use fluorescents always have. I could also detect palm oil, the cement dust from the streets, and these strange spices I had never smelled and haven’t smelled since.
I have no patience for the whiny American fear of strong smells. Suck it up. Otherwise you’ll miss out on Mumbai, which is one of the most intense and rewarding olfactory experiences on Earth. It’s kind of like Avatar for your nose. Everywhere you turn, the thick, penetrating scent of unfiltered motor exhaust and water in gutters lingers. There’s the salty smell of ocean mixed with tropical rot, air conditioning, and frying palm oil. And, it’s India, so your nose also picks up on incense and every spice imaginable – cinnamon, cardamom, clove. It’s the smell of a vibrant city on the move.
Latin America smells of the 1950s; for instance, stroll around the Recoleta in Buenos Aires, and it’s like time travel. (For the record, though, I wasn’t alive then). Along with that mid-twentieth century smell, Bogotá’s aroma is like a new car, concrete, and aftershave – a product of the bustling downtown business district. It’s strange but you can also detect the altitude because of the exotic wind, rain, and greenery that rises from the Andes in the East.
I don’t know of any other city as redolent of the Old World as Rome. Not Milan, not Madrid, not Budapest. Not even Naples, perhaps just because Naples has the ocean air to purify its notorious fragrance (salt water cleans everything from wounds to smells). Invisible Rome is gorgeous. Like the classic Italian masculine colognes of the 1950s, it’s a particular style, and you have to like it, but if you do, the act of breathing is a real trip. The ancient walls give off a slightly dirty, sometimes greasy smell full of cedar and car and bus exhaust. Most concisely, it smells like L.A., but with 2,000-year-old stone and 500-year-old palazzi, peeling paint, and espresso-spiked decadence.
4. San Francisco
Limited to its peninsula, San Francisco’s scent is as sharply defined as its borders: soft clouds, smooth pine, sharp eucalyptus, and cold ocean. Depending on where you go, you can add to that mix grass and the heather-like smell of scrub (the hills); old wood used in the housing stock (especially on the block where the Painted Ladies stand); and a weird dry dampness that is cool and a little isolating. Sometimes the city’s perfume is mixed with the heady scent of dry California desert. It may be the most beautiful-smelling skyline in the world.
3. New Orleans
In my opinion, you could win the debate over whether Florida is part of the South just based on its smell. (It’s not.) Meanwhile, New Orleans exudes the South’s signature perfume from every street corner. It’s a thick, soporific scent of humidity penetrating wood porches and plaster walls; dead moss; and the Mississippi’s fresh water colliding with the brine of the Gulf. Old beer, frying fat, mud, and lush grass are all in there, too.
2. Pleasantville, NY
Money changes the smell of everything, and wealthy towns where people who want to flee New York’s asphalt canyons go to have gardens and lawns have scents as restricted as the covenants guarding their real estate values. Maple, oak, and pine smell cyclically different as the seasons turn, and Pleasantville’s scent is based on these trees and their leaves at all stages – green, yellow, dead brown, and budding. When you close your eyes you get grass and then the smell of ‘America as it was,’ whenever that might mean for your nose. If Normal Rockwell’s paintings emitted a scent, this is what it would be.
1. Los Angeles
L.A. is one of the most bizarre places on Earth, and it has an equally singular smell. The clear, alluring track of its scent is arresting. There’s the ocean breeze from Santa Monica that can travel as far East as Silver Lake; a dry desert air that comes West over Downtown and South Central; the astringent balm of eucalyptus, pine, honeysuckle, and jasmine from the hills; and car exhaust from catalytic converters, which is, in its strange industrial way, beautiful. It’s like the jolt of a drug: shifting, comforting, cool like a blanket. The lonely smell of the marine layer burns off and you get this flashy perfume of hot asphalt, engines, and sun block that you can find nowhere but in L.A.
The Worst-Smelling – Paris
Let’s just start off with the breath. The oral care standards of Parisians are utterly unlike any I’ve ever known. Thanks to their pack-or-more-a-day cigarette habits, every other person smells like smoke-cured human bacon. You smell coffee, but not the fresh stuff in the cup – t he smell of it in someone’s mouth four hours later. Then there’s the repulsive odour that wafts from the RER train system. If Satan farted, it would be a little like this sulfurous cocktail of burning photocopies and fried electrical wires. Sure, the gourmand perfume of fresh croissants, butter, and baked flour spills onto the street. But take a few more steps and you’re smacked in the face by the equally fresh smell of dog shit. If you close your eyes, you discover the marketing of Paris – that whole ‘city of light’ garbage that’s eagerly swallowed by tourists – is really nothing but a lie.
What does your city smell like?
Originally written by Chandler Burr, this article appeared on GQ.com.