Exceptional. Breathtaking. Fantastic. Unparalleled. Must-See. These are the words and phrases used to describe the destinations in this article and many other urban accomplishments across the globe. With that in mind, the task of running down the 10 most beautiful cities in the world is on par with an assignment to rank the most melodic songs ever composed or the most delicious dishes ever prepared. There are just too many metrics and too much subjectivity in play. Too many contenders with valid claims to the title.
So, I’ve already blown my cover. This is not a list of the ten most beautiful cities in the world. That is impossible. This is a reflection on ten unconditionally jaw-dropping assemblies of human achievement. They are varied in size, history, politics, culture, technology, and geography. They represent some of the best we have ever been and a hope for the greatness we have yet to realize. Plus, I’ve even grouped them into catchy little subheadings that I hope my editor will find charming. Enjoy.
Old world mystique
I love history. And as much as I adore books, movies and maps, there is something profoundly richer about seeing it preserved in wood and stone – the physical record of our antiquity. The following four cities stand like pillars in disparate regions of our world, reminding us of the diversity that has always made humans so fascinating.
The most beautiful cities in the world #1
Kyoto has been a significant cultural, political, and military pivot point for over 1,200 years, serving as the Imperial capital for a millennium. Although the city has endured several physical catastrophes, including an 1864 revolt that burned 20,000 residences, much of its architectural history remains either preserved or meticulously recreated.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is probably Kyoto’s most iconic landmark. Best known for the 10,000 highly-lacquered red-orange gateways that line the 2 ½ mile trek to the entrance, this Shinto holy site dates from around 700 CE. Other archaic wonders include the Nijo castle, a stronghold constructed by a violent 17th century Shogun, the breathtaking view from the Kiyomizu Temple, and the one-of-a-kind Ryoanji Zen Rock Garden.
While much of the city may seem like a museum exhibit, modern Kyoto displays the fervent bustle you would expect from a city of 1.5 million people. The world-famous Nishiki Market is the spot to buy many of Kyoto’s celebrated food and merchandise… if you can hang with the hustle.
The most beautiful cities in the world #2Florence, Italy
The shining jewel of Italy’s famed Tuscany region has appeared on so many ‘Best of’ lists, I almost skipped over it. But it really is just that spectacular.
Considered the ‘Birthplace of the Renaissance’, it is saturated with creations from some of the finest artistic minds in history. Michelangelo’s ‘The David’, Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ and the ‘Gates of Paradise’ by Lorenzo Ghiberti all call Florence home. And that’s just the small stuff.
On a larger scale, the Dome of the Duomo (Cathedral) of Florence, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi dominates the skyline, both physically and artistically. At the time of its completion in 1436 (140 years after construction commenced), the Duomo of Florence was the largest dome on earth and remains the largest brick dome ever constructed.
Put all of that art history together with a vibrant and gregarious culture and some of the best cuisine on the planet, and you have yourself a bonafide vacation destination.
The most beautiful cities in the world #3Jaipur, India
Known as the ‘Pink City’ due to the dominant structural hue, Jaipur is a relatively young city when compared with the other contenders in this section. Founded in 1727 by Raja (King) Jai Singh II, this new capital city was meticulously designed and extremely well-funded. It gained it famous color in 1876 when it was painted to welcome the then Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VII. (Read that sentence again for effect.)
Jaipur continues to rank high for elite world voyagers. Consistently placed in the top lists by sites such as TripAdvisor and Conde Nast, the city is a mecca for both recreational and business travel. At $45,000 a night, the Presidential Suite at the Raj Palace Hotel was recently ranked as the 2nd most expensive hotel room in the world (after the Hotel President Wilson in Geneva, Switzerland).
Don’t worry, the city has plenty of destinations for the shoestring traveler as well. While the iconic water palace known as the Jal Mahal isn’t open to visitors, many of the historic landmarks are free to see or relatively cheap to tour. You can even ride an elephant to some of them.
The most beautiful cities in the world #4Chefchaouen, Morocco
In keeping with our monochromatic theme, I now present you the ‘Blue City’.
While I had to research every city in this article, Chefchaouen was the only one I hadn’t even heard of. As I investigated, I became increasingly appalled at my ignorance and convinced that I needed to highlight this north African city. From the photos alone, it looks like something from another planet. A gorgeous… magical… planet.
Ali ibn Rashid al-Alami established Chefchaouen in 1471. As a part of the Idrisid dynasty, al-Alami was a member of the tribe that originally settled Morocco and could claim legitimacy as a direct heir of the prophet Muhammad. Initially established as a humble, yet substantial, fort against Portuguese invaders, Chefchaouen flourished as a center of trade and later as a tourist attraction.
Besides witnessing the stunning and unique architecture, visitors enjoy spelunking nearby Kef Toghobeit Cave, pursuing famous Moroccan hand-crafts, and partaking in a particularly prolific and potent strain of marijuana grown in the region. Seriously.
So, why are all of the buildings blue? Theories abound. Some say that it invokes the heavens and serves as a reminder to live spiritually. Still, others simply claim that it helps keep mosquitoes away.
Now that we’ve explored some stunning exhibitions of age-old stone and wood, let’s hand the baton over to monuments in steel and glass. While the next three entries may also have a fascinating history, these archetypes of the modern metropolis stand out for their more recent accomplishments.
The most beautiful cities in the world #5Sydney, Australia
Researchers maintain that the area around modern-day Sydney Australia has had a continuous indigenous population for at least the past 30,000 years, making it one of the most archaeologically rich regions in the world. In 1770, Lieutenant James Cook ‘claimed’ the area for the British Crown. Eight years later, the ‘First Fleet’ of convicts landed, establishing Sydney as Australia’s first permanent European settlement – a penal colony. The 1851 discovery of gold quickly transformed the region from remote outpost (and prison) into a booming mercantile port.
Today Sydney is one of the wealthiest, most desirable and diverse cities in the world. The 2011 census reported that Sydney was home to over 250 languages, with 1/3 of its residents born abroad and a language other than English spoken in over 40% of homes. The Globalization and World Cities Research Network categorizes Sydney as an Alpha World City, ranking its economic importance as high as hubs like Istanbul, Toronto, and Brussels.
Sydney is a nexus of chic urban accomplishment and unparalleled natural beauty. From the Art Gallery of NSW (New South Wales) to the world-famous Sydney Opera House, Sydney boasts a level of refinement that shines all the more coming on the heels of such a modest beginning. And of course, all of this world culture incircles a beautiful harbor just miles from the Great Barrier Reef and some of the most stunning land and seascapes on the globe.
The most beautiful cities in the world #6Hong Kong, China
A combination of a complicated political history and an extremely advantageous location have transformed Hong Kong, China into one of the most desirable and stunningly modern urban centers on the planet. In contrast with the relatively small peninsula and island group it occupies, it packs a huge economic and cultural punch. This is immediately punctuated by its breathtaking skyline. With 317 buildings over 150 meters tall, Hong Kong has the most skyscrapers in the world, the only city to best New York in this category.
Like it’s Pacific Rim neighbor Sydney, Hong Kong is known for its cultural, if not ethnic, diversity. Although over 95% of this densely populated region are ethnically Chinese, the city has a marked diversity of language, tradition, economic commodities, and cuisine. This makes it a paradise for shopaholics and foodies. Although there are plenty of places to spend money in Hong Kong, some of the most popular attractions are really cheap, or even free. From epic city-gazing along the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade to the manic bustle of the street markets to the strangely-placed tranquility of the Nan Lian Garden, Hong Kong is the quintessential modern city. The #1 ranked attraction in Hong Kong? The seemingly modest Star Ferry transports tourists and natives on dozens of trips across Victoria Harbor, offering unequaled vantages of this futuristic metropolis.
The most beautiful cities in the world #7San Francisco, California
‘The coldest winter I ever saw was a summer I spent in San Francisco’, novelist Mark Twain once purportedly muttered. It’s true. The City by the Bay is prone to cutting winds, pitiless fog banks and seasonal weather irreverent of the calendar. That said, it’s still the only US City to grace our list of Top Ten Most Beautiful Cities. Let’s look at why.
Like Sydney and Hong Kong, San Francisco is a prominent Pacific port situated on a breathtaking piece of coastline. The famous Golden Gate Bridge and less renowned Oakland Bay Bridge make magnificent sweeps across the bay from San Francisco’s peninsula-shaped skyline, creating a postcard paradise. On the smaller scale, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island, and the iconic cable cars add quirky yet picturesque details to this hallmark of the Left Coast.
The feather in San Francisco’s cap is its proximity to myriad outdoor destinations, ranging from the perils of high adventure to tranquil beaches and wineries. A crossroads for travelers seeking anything from cultural diversity to ecological enlightenment, San Francisco is the must-visit destination on the continent’s West Coast.
The Nature Next Door
Although none of the previous seven cities have made the list without help from their geography, the final three jewels shine because of their surroundings. A testament to some of the more lightly traveled quadrants of the globe, these urban centers highlight the appeal of neighboring nature.
The most beautiful cities in the world #8Cartago, Costa Rica
With a population of less than a quarter million, this central Costa Rican city seems little more than a village compared to the last section’s Modern Marvels. The first successful Spanish settlement in (now) Costa Rica, Cartago served as the country’s capital from 1574 to 1824. Since then it remains a center for cultural and religious life in the middle of this idyllic, (rain)forested Central American country. Although more challenging to visit than most of our destinations, Cartago is worth the quest.
The city’s most-visited landmark is the magnificent Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (Our Lady of Angels). Originally built in 1639, the church is a unique and stunning architectural mix of Byzantine and colonial elements. In addition to tourists, many religious pilgrims visit the basilica every year to pray at the statue of a Black Madonna known as La Negrita, which is purported to marshal great healing powers.
Not far from Cartago sleeps ‘El Coloso’. This fitful colossus is Irazu Volcano, an active volcano that has erupted 23 times since its first recorded eruption in 1723. From ash clouds to lava flows, it has checkered Costa Rica’s history with various forms of destruction and catastrophe. For those brave and athletic enough to scale to the peak, El Coloso affords breathtaking views that stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean on a cloudless day.
The most beautiful cities in the world #9Cape Town, South Africa
Named the ‘World Design Capital’ in 2014, Cape Town, South Africa has become known as one of the most highly prized travel destinations in the world. Cape Town is one of South Africa’s three capital cities (home of the Legislature) and the 2nd largest city after Johannesburg. As one of the southernmost major cities in the Eastern Hemisphere, Cape Town is famous for its monstrous seaport, which facilitates a tremendous cargo load in addition to the numerous commercial cruise vessels which pass through.
Cape Town is probably best known for the proximity of astounding natural wonders. From more cultivated marvels such as botanical gardens and nature preserves to the wild geographical architecture of its coastlines and beaches, this South African marvel occupies a class of its own. The warm, relatively unpolluted waters at the intersection of the Atlantic and Indian oceans attract an incomparable level of aquatic life from sea lions to penguins. For the nature lover, there is no better city in the world.
The most beautiful cities in the world #10Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
With a metropolitan population of over 12 million, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is the sixth largest city in the Western Hemisphere and the most populous in the article. Nevertheless, it absolutely belongs in our category highlighting environmental appeal. In fact, Rio tops the list of cities when it comes to an uncompromising mix of urban architecture, heterogeneous culture, and natural wonder.
The statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) bestowing grace to the metropolis below may well be one of the most recognized images in the world. From this ecumenical precipice, the city sprawls to the sea, a rich and vibrant magnet for cuisine, music, fashion, and art. Carnival, sports fanaticism, and the ubiquitous sounds of Bossa Nova are just a handful of the iconic elements that quicken the pulse of this South American cultural artery.
From Jeep tours deep into the Tijuca Rain Forest to cable cars up Sugar Loaf Mountain to hang-gliding along the Brazilian Coast, Rio offers unparalleled excitement for thrill junkies. If you’re an extreme sports aficionado, there is literally no better collection of venues in the world.
Up Next: Cities 11 – 20?
So, there you have it. Ten of the most unique, iconic, scintillating, top-of-the-heap cities on the planet. And now it’s your turn to say: What about Saint Petersburg? No Paris? I can’t believe you left off Bangkok…
Sorry, folks. I tried to warn you. What we have here is a frustratingly brief consolidation of amazing tidbits about a tiny percent of the most amazing cities on this earth.
But hey, consider the gauntlet thrown. If I disappointed you by leaving off some of your top ten, put them up against mine. Teach me something I don’t know about the amazing urban centers of the world.
Who is texting: A passionate envoy of the written word, freelance writer Ben Lovell from JohnnyJet.com relishes a good tale. From fact to fiction (and all the shades between), he channels the storytellers of old with the hope of enriching the world for his readers. His writing has appeared everywhere from product reviews to short fiction contests. Follow his semi-occasional musings at the Gothic Optimist.