Ask a local in any major metropolitan area, and they’ll likely tell you that their city’s main attraction – Times Square, the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye – doesn’t really factor into their day-to-day lives. To get a real sense of a place, one survey curated a list of multisensory experiences in seven international cities, each representative of civic life in its own unique way.  

Four people seen from behind, reclining in the grass and looking at the NYC skyline
A picnic lunch in Central Park was named one of New York's top five experiences © oneinchpunch/

After an independent study conducted by InterContinental Hotels & Resorts revealed that nearly 60% of locals believe visitors aren’t getting the the true spirit of their cities, and 75% of luxury travellers want to experience cities like an in-the-know local, the chain put together a campaign to determine the definitive things to do New York, Mexico City, Sydney, Shanghai, Dubai, Paris, and London. 

A list of sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and sensations determined by a public vote, then ranked by a panel of influencers and travel experts, the 2020 InterContinental ICons are a collection of authentic, often unexpected, ways to experience some of the world’s best-known cities, outside of the usual tourist destinations. 

Piles of spices in Dubai
The scent of spices in Dubai is one of the city's signature aromas © InterContinental Hotels & Resorts

In New York, the panel crowned “fresh bagels at a West Village bagel shop” as the winner, ranking the city’s favorite carbs above such pleasures as “sipping craft cocktails in a bar in an up-and-coming neighbourhood in Brooklyn,” “the sharp blue sky against the striking architecture of the city skyline seen from the Hudson River ferries,” “soaking up the sunshine on a lunchtime picnic in Central Park,” and “the astonishing luminosity as you stand on the concourse of the Oculus.” 

In Mexico City, “the smoky flavour of tacos al pastor” beat out “the scent of mezcal just before taking the first sip,” “the surprising downtown museums, like the Palacio de Bellas Artes with its Diego Rivera paintings,” “the contrast of buildings in the Zócalo, from the plaza and National Palace to the Templo Mayor ruins,” and “the view of Paseo de la Reforma in the early morning.” 

a crate of baguettes from Paris
Paris's locals rave about the smell of fresh-baked bread from the boulangeries on Rue Oberkampf © River Thompson/Lonely Planet

Across the pond, “the contrast of old and new architecture on the ever-changing London skyline” was determined to be more representative of England’s capital than “a Sunday roast enjoyed by the fireside in an historic, hidden London pub,” “hearing the market traders and watching the eclectic mix of people on Portobello Road on a Friday morning,” “spotting the stags emerge in Richmond Park on a misty, autumn morning,” and “the thrill of seeing the twinkling lights of the capital as you cross the Thames in a cab at night.” 

Across the Channel – or through the Chunnel – the “smell of oven-fresh bread from the boulangeries of Oberkampf” were named Paris’s top experience, ahead of “the tickles of the blades of grass during a springtime picnic in the Buttes Chaumont,” “sounds of laughter and glasses tinkling at apero hour on the terraces in Bastille,” “the washing sound of boats as your stroll along Seine near the haven of Ile Saint-Louis,” and “filling your basket with organic cheeses and prunes from the organic market in Les Batignolles.” 

The cool breeze on your face as you ride the Manly to Circular Quay ferry
In Sydney, the breezes from the Manly to Circular Quay ferry took top honors © InterContinental Hotels & Resorts

In Dubai, “tasting the many unique flavours of karak chai along Jumeirah Beach Road” just came out on top of “the enchanting smell of burning bukhoor, transporting you back in time​,” “the sound of water lapping an abra as it glides along Dubai Creek,” “the crackle of a campfire breaking the silence on a night-time desert escape,” and “the fascinating contrast of old and new under the glow of a warm Dubai sunset.” 

Down under, “the cool breeze on your face as you ride the Manly to Circular Quay ferry” took Sydney’s honors, winning out over “the Sydney skyline viewed from a rooftop in Five Ways Paddington,” “the smell of sunblock and a barbeque cooking up on the North Bondi grassy knoll,” “fish and chips enjoyed barefoot at Kutti Beach,” and “the sun on your shoulders on the Hermitage Foreshore walk while you soak up the best views over Sydney Harbour.” 

And finally, in Shanghai, “old songs played on a vinyl record player” ranked above “the intersection of Suzhou Creek and Huangpu River at Waibaidu Bridge,” “the melodious bells of the clock tower on the Bund,” “the warm aroma of xiao long bao at the Temple of the City Gods,” and “brightly lit Lujiazui Financial Centre.” 

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