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Original photo by Marian Weyo/ iStock
7 World Cities With Distinct Smells
Read Time: 5m
Article image
Original photo by Marian Weyo/ iStock

Smell is our most powerful sense. Because smell is intimately entwined with memory in the human brain, the scent of something can trigger memories long thought forgotten. So while sightseeing may seem like an intuitive way to create lasting memories of places you visit around the world, don’t forget to employ your nose for some of that long-term memory work. Just as famous “sights” adorn a city — whether it be stunning architecture, ancient ruins, or jaw-dropping nature — so too do particular smells. In fact, some cities produce such an olfactory sensation that they’ve become known for it, for better or for worse. Here are seven cities around the world famous for their distinctive scents.

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Grasse, France

Beautiful lavender field at sunrise.
Credit: romeo-f/ iStock

Grasse, in southern France’s Provence region, is the perfume capital of the world, and its streets are as sweet-smelling as the fragrances exported from here. The smell comes from nearby fields filled with jasmine, lavender, and May rose — all used in the perfumes local manufacturers send worldwide. This current aroma is a welcome change from what the town was best known for during the Middle Ages: leather crafting (and the pungent tanned animal hides and lye used in the process). That began to change in the 1700s, when glove-makers introduced a process to make their leather products smell better. After taxes on leather crushed the industry in the town, many tanneries transitioned to perfume-making. In 2018, UNESCO recognized Grasse’s perfume cultivation on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

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Rotorua, New Zealand

Close-up of rotten eggs in a container.
Credit: Boibin/ Shutterstock

On the other side of the smell spectrum is Rotorua, New Zealand, some 125 miles southwest of Auckland. Thanks to nearby geothermal vents, the city often smells like rotten eggs due to low levels of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) in the air. Although the chemical can be toxic to humans in high doses, studies examining long-term residents of Rotorua show that the area’s mild concentration poses no danger — in fact, it may even have health benefits. One study from 2017 found that locals had improved motor response times during a test screening for Parkinson’s disease. Rotorua’s high level of geothermal activity, and its abundant geysers, thermal mud pools, and natural springs, have also made it a popular tourist destination.

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Tacoma, Washington

Thick and heavy smoke coming out of a huge and high chemical factory chimney.
Credit: Ankor Light/ Shutterstock

For decades, motorists driving Interstate 5 through Tacoma, just south of Seattle, were greeted by an unpleasant scent, much like Rotorua’s rotten egg odor. However, Tacoma’s scent was of a more unnatural variety: a combination of pollution from adjacent Commencement Bay — once considered one of the 10 worst toxic waste sites in the U.S. — and the noxious air pouring from smokestacks of nearby industries, such as paper mills and smelting factories. In a 1984 cover story for Rolling Stone, New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen revealed that he canceled a show at the Tacoma Dome because “something in the air” made him “sick to his stomach.” Whether it was the loss of the Boss or just an increase in environmental awareness, Tacoma has cleaned up its act, and the stench has lessened considerably — but its memorable nickname, the “Aroma of Tacoma,” will live on in history.

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Gilroy, California

Freshly harvested garlic bulbs drying.
Credit: FotograFFF/ Shutterstock

Located about 30 miles southeast of San Jose, California, Gilroy is known for one thing and one thing only: garlic. The crop was established in the area in the mid-20th century, and the unmistakable odor it produced quickly turned into the joke of the town. But Gilroy decided to go all in on garlic and held the first annual Gilroy Garlic Festival in 1979. By the time of the first festival, the garlic-growing industry had moved inland, but the factories that dehydrated and processed the bulbs were still in Gilroy, supplying the town with a consistent garlic aroma. The summer celebration now attracts upwards of 100,000 attendees, making it the world’s largest garlic festival. Gilroy is also home to other garlicky attractions, from the Garlic City Café to the Garlic Farm Inn and the Garlic Twirl amusement park ride at Gilroy Gardens.

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Edinburgh, Scotland

Wide shot of whiskey barrel in a cellar.
Credit: Dziggyfoto/ iStock

The capital of Scotland, Edinburgh not only has a rich history but also a rich smell. Its pungent, malty odor stems from the city’s booze-making legacy, which became established in the late 18th century. Several distilleries still dot the greater Edinburgh area, the largest of which is the North British Distillery Company in the suburb of Gorgie. In 2009, the local government finally mandated that local distilleries install “odor control towers” to manage the stench produced by the alcohol-making process. Longtime residents of Gorgie decried the move, with one saying that “it's nice that the city has its own smell” and another that they “found it quite pleasant.” Maybe it’s just an acquired taste — or in this case, smell.

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Chicago, Illinois

Close-up of chocolate bars.
Credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya/ Unsplash

Thankfully, a particular section of Chicago, Illinois, bucks the sour-smelling trends of other cities on this list. Along a stretch of the Chicago River — where exactly depends on wind speed and direction — Chicagoans are treated to the sweet smell of chocolate thanks to the Blommer Chocolate Company, located in the Fulton River District northwest of the Loop. In 2014, a local resident even began mapping the chocolate smell by measuring its approximate range and cross-referencing with weather patterns from the National Weather Service. When the factory had to shut down its retail space during the COVID-19 pandemic, local residents worried that the chocolate aroma was next on the chopping block, but fortunately, a spokesperson for the company confirmed, “The smell will continue.”

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Buffalo, New York

Boxes of Cheerios cereal, made by General Mills.
Credit: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images News via Getty Images

If you’re a fan of cereal, Buffalo, New York, is your town. For 80 years, General Mills has manufactured Cheerios (called Cheeri-Oats when the product was invented back in 1941) in the upstate New York city, and the toasted oat smell still permeates Buffalo’s streets to this day. The oats are baked along the Buffalo River, and the winds from Lake Erie blanket the town in a cereal aroma — from Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Chex, or whatever part of a balanced breakfast the nearby plant is making that day. The town doesn’t seem to mind, as the local tourism board has even held events celebrating the odor, and one local clothing brand sold T-shirts proclaiming, “My city smells like Cheerios” — a badge of pride woven in cotton.