When we talk about apartment-sharing service Airbnb, most of the time we talk about money. Are the apartments, and houseboats, and Mexican homes that look like seashells and the luxury treehouses that people rent out on the service cheaper than more formal accommodations? Is the rental service dodging hotel taxes? Is Airbnb boosting local economies? Providing spaces for temporary brothels?
On the trip I took last week to Venice and Amsterdam, my boyfriend and I booked apartments on Airbnb in part for economic reasons: it is a lot cheaper to rent an apartment in a palazzo than to take a hotel room. But the trip got me thinking about the non-financial virtues of Airbnb, and I do not mean the prospect of staying someplace impossibly adorable. The best reason to stay in an Airbnb rental when you travel abroad is a secondary effect: taking an apartment or a room actually gets you out into a neighborhood.
Airbnb is hardly the first service that made it possible to rent apartments abroad, of course. The ads in the back of the New York Review of Books promise accommodations in Turkey and flats in various Paris arrondissements municipaux. My grandfather used to take apartments in Europe when his family traveled, making the arrangements by telegram. My parents advanced to making arrangements by phone and e-mail, often from listings in college alumni magazines.
Airbnb makes it easier to get a lot of listings faster. It has the added benefits of letting us sigh over the hardwood floors or a newly renovated kitchen we will probably never actually use during our stay. And in keeping with the current social craze, Airbnb lets us look for apartments with a lot of reviews and to rent from hosts who are, to a certain extent, verified by tying their accounts to Facebook profiles and other services.
That social element gets the most buzz when people talk about the non-economic elements of Airbnb. The New York Times recently profiled a frequent Airbnb host who welcomes guests into his two-bedroom apartment in Queens. There certainly is something nice about the idea of trusting strangers enough to stay with them, and I enjoyed meeting our hosts in Venice and Amsterdam. But even more than that, I appreciated the chance to get challenged in another way.
The centers of Venice and Amsterdam have their virtues. The view from the Campanile di San Marco is astonishing, and De Nieuwe Kerk, just off Dam Square in Amsterdam, is a delight. But the Piazza San Marco is clogged with tourists and pigeons and home to overpriced cafes. And the less said about Amsterdam’s pedestrian-only streets and the tacky head shops that populate them the better.
By accident in Venice and by design in Amsterdam, we ended up far from those main drags. In Venice, we rented an apartment on the Fondamenta Nuove, in a building facing the northern lagoon and the cemetery island of San Michele. And in Amsterdam, we stayed in the Jordaan, mastering the particular challenges of the city’s staircases for a view over the canals.
We did not spend a lot of time in either apartment — there were too many walks to take, too many museums and churches to visit and too many restaurants to check out. But in both cities, being based in a neighborhood made the trip better.
In Venice, we found ourselves wandering around Cannaregio, the northern neighborhood that houses Tintoretto’s tomb and some fabulous osterias, as well as actual residents of the city, which is undergoing rapid depopulation. And in Amsterdam, our apartment turned out to be at the hub of tram lines that took us across the city to Javaplein, to the far end of Vondelpark for Indonesian food and even south to the world’s most ludicrously adorable toy store. We learned side streets, found regular cafes and even hopped a fence on intuition while on the way home from dinner one night.
A hotel in a neighborhood can have the same effect. But the big ones show up on maps, and even the small ones have signs to confirm you reached your destination correctly. With an apartment, you have to be sure of your own sense of navigation.
In his poem “Go Not With Ruins In Your Mind,” science fiction writer Ray Bradbury cautioned his readers to look at trips as opportunities to optimistically engage with living cities. “Go not with ruins in your mind/ Or beauty fails; Rome’s sun is blind / And catacomb your cold hotel! / Where should-be heavens could-be hell.”
Airbnb may not be able to banish the more widespread melancholia Bradbury warned against in the traveler. But it is an awfully good way to “catacomb your cold hotel,” and to get out into a larger version of whatever city you are visiting.