the urbanist

Where to Find Quiet in Chaotic Cities

A paddleboarder off the coast of Dubai. Photo: Fairmont The Palm Dubai

For New Yorkers, it’s the din of traffic and construction. In Yangon, the torrential beating of heavy rains competes with calls to prayer and the howls of stray dogs. And in both Beirut and Shanghai, high-decibel fireworks can punctuate the bedlam of blaring horns and jackhammers. All over the world, urban life is a symphony of taxing, draining, exhausting sounds. That sonic fury isn’t just an annoyance; it can actually be bad for you. Scientists have linked noise pollution to, in the words of one study, “elevated blood pressure, loss of sleep, increased heart rate, cardiovascular constriction, labored breathing, and changes in brain chemistry.” Noise-canceling headphones and double-glazed windows can provide a bit of respite. So can the city’s secret sanctuaries, those pockets where ever so occasionally the clamor subsides. Even in the world’s most turbulent turfs, a relaxing getaway isn’t too far off, be it a quiet café tucked between tourist hot spots, a Shinto shrine right off the Times Square of Tokyo, or a basement museum in Shanghai.

Paddleboarding in Dubai

You’re always in earshot of construction noise and traffic here. Even in the most secluded bits, there’s some building noise and banging. One of the things that made me fall in love with this city is stand-up paddleboarding. It’s so good. There are no waves here — the ocean’s flat — and it’s crystal-clear water. And you can get paddleboards and go out around the Burj al Arab, which is a really iconic building. It’s the “seven-star hotel” on a manmade island. The beach there is quite busy, like it’s hard to find a car park, and the beach has got a lot of people, a lot of sunbathing and swimming. But then, 15 meters offshore, there’s no one there, and the sound starts to slowly disappear. When you get, you know, 30 or 40 meters away from the shore, it’s just — all you can hear is the water lapping at the board, and the amazing Dubai skyline from the ocean is just breathtaking.” —Caitlyn Davey, journalist

Sunday Morning in Buenos Aires

Illustration: Luis Mendo

The part that feels the most crazy is downtown. All the drivers honk constantly. But Sunday, basically everything shuts down. Nothing is open except maybe, you know, one pharmacy per neighborhood and occasionally a small supermarket. People tend to not do anything on Sundays either. It’s really a day of rest. And because people stay out so late here, if you get up early on Sunday, you basically have the entire city to yourself. There’s no traffic, there’s no people on the streets, except maybe somebody walking the dogs.” —Elena Morin, English-literature graduate student

Picnicking at a University in Beirut

They like to shoot in the air here. We have this Hezbollah guy, the leader, who, every time he talks, his supporters start firing shots in the air. We do visit, on occasion, quite the oasis in the middle of Beirut’s madness: the American University of Beirut. Our favorite spot is the ‘green oval’ located in the upper campus, where visitors hang out.” —Phil Saade, agriculture consultant

Secret City Lakes
From Yangon to Staten Island.

Photo: Marc Schlossman

1. A hidden park in Yangon, Myanmar 
“As the sun sets, stray dogs take over the roads. You can hear them howling and fighting all night. A lot of the noise comes from places of worship. The monks usually start their chanting at the pagodas at around six in the morning. Then there’s a huge rainy season, and it’s incessant, torrential. Kandawgyi Lake, a bit north of downtown, has a really nice boardwalk and fountains. Around sunset the lake catches some beautiful colors, and there are no stray dogs on the boardwalk, which is a big bonus.” —Bridget Di Certo, lawyer

Photo: Jon Young

2. A rooftop café in Hanoi
“From five o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, the streets are full of motorbikes and street vendors. Once you get out of the main streets, though, there are hundreds of tiny little alleyways full of lovely little cafés where you go through a courtyard and through someone’s house, up about four or five flights of stairs, and you come out on a rooftop overlooking one of the lakes. Hanoi is full of lakes. There are a couple I go to. My favorite is Cafe Pho Co, which you access through a lane way beside a souvenir shop.” —Chiara Popplewell, diplomat

Photo: Val Tourchin

3. A Chinese garden in Staten Island
“The New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden is totally one of the magical, secret spots of New York City. You would never expect it to be here. It’s basically a traditional scholar’s garden imported directly from China. You feel completely transported to another time, another place. It’s built with high walls, little arched stone bridges, all around flowing water, miniature bamboo forests, lots of hidden nooks and crannies. The views are very carefully positioned so that you feel like you’re looking out over some sort of distant Chinese forests.” N. D. Austin, underground-event producer

A Suburban Moped Excursion in Phnom Penh

Illustration: Luis Mendo

On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, there are these ‘suburbs,’ which are known as boreis, but I would consider them more like satellite cities. In the rich neighborhoods inside Phnom Penh, the mansions can be really gaudy. They have giant statues in front of them and colored-glass windows; it’s sort of the whole ‘New Khmer’ architecture. But the satellite cities are a little bit more tasteful. I like to drive up to Borey Angkor Phnom Penh or Borey Peng Huoth on my motorbike. Because they’re built for rich people, the roads are bigger and wider, so you don’t have to contend with that much traffic. And the surface is good. There’s no bumps or potholes, just smooth, paved roads, so you don’t have to concentrate too hard while you’re driving. You can just drive for 30 minutes without really encountering a person. That’s the best part about it — they built these satellite cities where occupancy is not that high at all. You can avoid a lot of people.” —Dene-Hern Chen, reporter

Secret Museum Cafés of Madrid

You cannot go to a park here in search of quiet or anything. There are always a bunch of kids shouting or people playing the guitar. The Spanish people tend to shout a lot, and we are — most of the time, if possible — on the streets. But there are two museums here, Fundación Mapfre and Fundación Juan March, that both have beautiful cafés on their top floor. They are not the most common museums for foreign people to visit. They have small exhibitions and free entry, but there’s usually almost nobody there. So it’s a very nice place to go to relax, to be surrounded by art. Fundación Mapfre is part of an insurance company. And the other one, Juan March, tends to do exhibitions of German designers from the ’30s or something like that.” —Laura Flores, health consultant for an IT company

Rock Climbing in Mumbai

Photo: Scott Clark

Every time there’s a festival, the traffic sort of stops. There are loudspeakers set up on the road, and the people are blaring religious songs. I like to go rock climbing to get away from it. On weekends, some of us go to this forested area called Belapur, where there are rocks and crags that you can climb. When I’m in town, I go to the climbing gym. It’s inside the Podar College campus, and it’s sort of cut off from all the noise.” —Rashmi Gupta, graphic designer

A Shinto Shrine in Tokyo

Illustration: Luis Mendo

You hear a lot of advertising here. There are a lot of billboards with ad videos that have sounds, and there are also trucks with music — like sound logos — blasting out of them. I live like right in the middle of Tokyo, in Shibuya, where the famous crossing from Lost in Translation is. It’s super-intense with all the people, especially on the weekends. I would say sometimes it’s just overwhelming. There’s a shrine called Hikawa Jinja right around the corner from my house. So if I want calm and quiet, I just go there. It’s a Shinto shrine, and it’s a pretty big space for a shrine. It’s got a park next to it and trees, so you get to feel the nature and stuff. And it’s got like a stone-carpet thing. So it looks cool, too; it looks very traditional. I’m not religious at all, but sometimes when I just want to get out of the whole city scene, I go there and chill for a bit. There is personal space here; it’s just really hard to get if you’re walking in the city. —Miyuko Ashida, advertising executive assistant

A Basement Museum in Shanghai

Photo: Yun Xiao Su/teNeues Digital Media

On the weekends, people set off fireworks. You get kind of used to it. It’s not scary, it’s more like, ‘Whoa, hello, Sunday morning, how’s it going?’ One of my favorite places here is also the most quiet: this small museum called the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. It’s just this guy’s private collection of print memorabilia from the 1950s on. It’s in a low-ceilinged fluorescent-lit basement that spans most of the floor of a residential high-rise in the former French Concession neighborhood, so it’s not an actual museum building. It stands out as something really genuine and inexhaustible. I usually spend the most time in the gift shop, leafing through Mao-era cinema posters.” —Melia Snodgrass, photographer and voice actor

*This article appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

Where to Find Quiet in Chaotic Cities