Connecting Global Cities: Steps and Staircases

Mar 25, 2015 5:00:00 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

“Connecting Global Cities” is a monthly column written by Colin Speakman, Director of China Programs for CAPA International Education.

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"A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step," wrote Lau Tzu. When we make that journey to global cites around the world, we may take in more steps as, like bridges and towers, many such cities have famous sets of steps to see.

Continuing the China connection, one of my favorite sets of steps is to be found in Nanjing, the former capital, that I lived in for a couple of years. They are part of the magnificent mausoleum to the first President of the Republic of China, Dr Sun Yat-Sen. Amazingly, if one looks up the steps, there are no flat parts to get ones breath back upon, yet if one looks down the steps from the top, there only appear the flat parts and no steps. See my two photos below for proof.

NanjingstepscollagePhotos: Steps in Nanjing by Colin Speakman

Now, if you know nothing about any of this history, but find it fascinating, then consider CAPA's study abroad program in Shanghai with Nanjing only an hour away by high speed train.

Of course there are famous novels about steps too: have you read The Thirty Nine Steps by Scottish writer John Buchan? This story first serialized in 1915 and was twice made into films too. It was required reading in secondary school in England and my teacher did not appreciate my question: "Can I just go and see the movie?"

Rocky's StepsPhoto: Rocky Steps, Philadelphia by Andreas Metz

Sticking with films, the first Rocky movie with Sylvester Stallone as the boxer who arose from humble beginnings has inspired many to visit (and run up) the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In "Rocky", our hero runs up the 72 steps of this museum and they have become known as the Rocky Steps. Not to be outdone, Washington D.C. has the Exorcist Stairs from that scary movie, "The Exorcist". Go with a friend!

Photo: Exorcist Steps in Washington by ehpien

In Rio de Janeiro, one must visit the famous Lapa Steps (Selaron's Staircase). I did to see 215 steps decorated with beautiful tiles either sourced locally or donated from all over the world. Dull steps simply cry out to be brightened up and this work is a classic example.

Escadaria SelarónPhoto: Lapa Steps in Rio by Rodrigo Soldon

Keeping with the Latin connection, I cannot end this section without mention of the famous Spanish Steps in Rome. I climbed these 135 steps which make up the widest such staircase in Europe - a good job as I was not alone!

Rome- The Spanish StepsPhoto: Spanish Steps, Rome by Sean MacEntee

So now it's time to look at steps in our six CAPA global cities. Follow me please!


The La Boca area of the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, is a place you must visit to see the beautiful external stairs that give access to upper floors of the famous multicoloured housing there. This mixture of wood and corrugated steel for building materials is ideal for painting in vivid hues and lifting the spirits. The outside steps make efficient fire escapes.

La escaleraPhoto: Stairs in La Boca, Buenos Aires by Jorge Gobbi


Speaking of spirits, how about some haunted steps? One of Dublin's best kept secrets is the steps at St. Audoen's. These 40 steps create the passageway between the interior of Medieval Dublin to the area known as "Hell", a denizen of whorehouses and drug dens. It was the exclusive reserve of criminals, lepers, murderers and low-lifes, where the ghost of Darky Kelly, a famous brothel-owner, has been spotted many times.

Medieval Path
Photo: St. Audoen's steps in Dublin by Tim Sackton


Giotto's bell tower (Campanile) is the place to climb steps inside this magnificent building that forms part of the Florence Cathedral on the Piazza del Duomo in Firenze's city center. The 414 steps include four landings for rests along the climb. The stairs are narrow and steep so pacing yourself is important. Also, there's a need to accommodate both those going up and coming down, so it gets crowded. When you reach the top, you're rewarded with great views of the Duomo and the River Arno.

Hot tight climb
Photo: A hot climb up the Campanile steps by Bruce Stokes


The elegant Tulip Stairs in the Queen's House in Greenwich, London, are the first geometric self-supporting spiral stairs in Britain. Although they are called the "Tulip Stairs", it is thought that the stylized flowers in the wrought-iron balustrade are actually fleurs-de-lis, as this was the emblem of the Bourbon family of which Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) was a member. The Tulip Stairs are also the location of the Rev R. W. Hardy's famous "ghost" photograph taken on 19 June 1966, which when developed revealed what appear to be two or three shrouded figures on the staircase.

The Tulip Stairs at The Queen's House
Photo: Tulip Stairs in London by


The steps that virtually every visitor and most locals climb are the sets of steps along the famous Bund that link the roadway and former International Concessions architecture with the riverfront promenade which gives the iconic view of Pudong - Shanghai's picture poster of China's Economic Miracle. It gets busy there and sadly on last western New Year's Eve, it got too busy. Many folks fell down the overcrowded steps and 36 Chinese young people, mainly university students, were crushed to death. I was 15 minutes away myself. It was a timely reminder that anywhere in the world, steps can be dangerous if not climbed properly. Shanghai authorities are improving safety measures there, to ensure that it won't happen again.

Photo: Security keeps a watchful eye on the Bund steps in March by Colin Speakman


I recommend visiting “The Grand Staircase" (Vertigo Staircase) of Sydney's Grand Queen Victoria Building. This case is a nice contrast with London above. This building, also known as the QVB, was designed by George McRae and completed in 1898, replacing the original Sydney markets on the site. Built as a monument to the long reigning monarch, construction took place in dire times, as Sydney was in a severe recession. The elaborate Romanesque architecture was specially planned for the grand building so the Government could employ many out-of-work craftsmen – stonemasons, plasterers, and stained window artists – in a worthwhile project.

stainglass windows stairs Queen Victoria Building Sydney AustraliaPhoto: Grand Staircase in Sydney by Cole Vassiliou

Thanks Colin!

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Topics: Global Cities