“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
In my previous post I shared the ten most beautiful places I’ve visited across the world. I purposely left cities out of my list so I could create a separate post for them. Getting it down to ten wasn’t easy. I wanted to include Paris, Seoul, London, Rome, Edinburgh, and Prague. I also like Ho Chi Minh City, Bali, and Honolulu. And there are a bunch of North American cities I like, such as San Francisco, Vancouver, Quebec City, Miami, Savannah, Boston, and Philadelphia.
But I’ve bitten the bullet and come up with my ten favorite cities. Once again, all the photos are my own.
1. Strasbourg, France
They call Strasbourg the “Cradle of Alsatian Culture.” But don’t think dogs. Think that quirky combo of German and French culture that flourishes along the borderland between the two countries. This city is 2000 years old and has made a habit of having its feet in more than one kingdom.
But first and foremost, for visitors to Strasbourg, it is simply exquisitely beautiful. The city boasts architectural styles from the Medieval, Renaissance, Romantic and Art Nouveau eras. The old town is a maze of narrow streets and alleys criss-crossing the many waterways surrounding and running through the city. Cascades of brightly colored flowers hang over balconies and bridges. At every turn, you want to stop and take photos.
At the city center stands the extraordinary Strasbourg Cathedral, once called by Victor Hugo “a prodigy of the gigantic and the delicate.” Once the tallest structure in Christendom until the 19th century, the Cathedral’s Gothic facade is so ornate that it looks like lacework framing the stunning rose window at its center.
I think Strasbourg is the prettiest city I’ve visited. And that’s saying something.
2. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Copacabana, Ipanema, Sugar Loaf, the Cristo Redentor — Rio is full of iconic locations. Little wonder the locals call it “Cidade Maravilhosa” (The Wonderful City). It really is wonderful.
The city is squeezed into a lush narrow zone between rainforest-clad cliffs and 45 miles of white, sandy beaches, all overlooked by a 100 feet (30 m) tall Jesus, his arms outstretched to take it all in. It must be the most beautiful setting for a city anywhere in the world.
Rio is a beautiful combination of joyous, carefree Brazilian culture and decaying Portuguese colonial buildings. Parties suddenly combust into life in the small laneways between the shuttered mansions and apartments. There is music everywhere. It is the most obviously vibrant city I’ve been to.
Beyond the city center, up on the hillsides that look down on the white high-rise apartment buildings, are the favelas (shantytowns). Many of the favelas are considered too dangerous for tourists to visit, especially Zona Norte, but we had a local escort us into one of the safest, Rocinha (“Little Farm”), where thousands of people live cheek-by-jowl in handmade dwellings that would never pass a building code.
Whether it’s the beachside luxury of Copacabana, or the decaying grandeur of downtown, or the ingenuity of Rochinha, Rio is an absolute feast for the senses.
3. New Orleans, Louisiana
On the first day of my first trip to New Orleans (or NOLA to the locals) I arrived at night and headed straight to the famed Bourbon Street. I was shocked. It was full of boozy Americans on vacation with bars pumping 80s rock at high volume. What happened to the jazz, the Creole cuisine, the masks, the voodoo, the parades?? I soon learned, if you want real NOLA culture, get off Bourbon Street.
In the back streets and the old French Quarter, you’ll find everything you associate with New Orleans — amazing food, an eclectic art scene, distinctive architecture, jazz, jazz, jazz. All set in a steamy tropical climate. I love it.
A visit to NOLA should include a trip to one of the various cemeteries, which are fascinating above-ground cities for the dead.
Eat gumbo and crawfish, listen to jazz (in the clubs or out on the street), and soak in the crazy mish-mash of Creole, Spanish, French and African cultures.
And if you really have to, you can buy a margarita in a bucket and mingle with the inebriated crowds on Bourbon Street.
4. Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik is one of the world’s finest and best-preserved medieval cities. With its pristine location on the Adriatic sea, the Old Town is filled with steep cobbled lanes, Renaissance fountains, monasteries and palaces, and Baroque churches.
Fans of Game of Thrones might recognise the 700-year-old city walls because it was the filming location for King’s Landing. Those walls were what gave the city-state (then called Ragusa) protection from its enemies. Chief among Dubrovnik’s rvials was another city-state across the Adriatic — Venice.
Today you can the walk all the way around the city on top of those ancient walls enjoying vistas of the city and Dalmatian Coast with panoramic views of the Adriatic and the islands of Croatia. In fact, walking is all you do in Dubrovnik because the whole of the Old City is a pedestrian-only zone!
This city has really turned up the volume on the charm factor. I thoroughly enjoyed my time visiting there. It really is a must-see.
5. New York City, New York
It’s a cliche to love New York City. In fact, I’ve tried not to love it for that reason, but I can’t do it. NYC is so moreish, so intoxicating, so heady and interesting, it’s impossible not to love.
I love neighborhoods like Soho, Greenwich Village, the East Village, and Chelsea, but there’s an iconic landmark (or two) in literally every section of Manhattan.
Further afield, you’ve got to visit Harlem and the Bronx, and of course beautiful (gentrified) Brooklyn.
Some of my favorite things to do in NYC include listening to live music in a bar on Bleeker Street, enjoying art at the Met and the Guggenheim, strolling in Central Park, eating in Little Italy, wandering along the High Line, and I always try to duck into St Patricks Cathedral when I’m in town.
New York City is big, loud, and brash, and that’s what’s so loveable about it. No American city has had to endure as many knocks as NY has and it keeps coming back better than ever. It’s fun to soak in all that culture and confidence.
6. Bruges, Belgium
I had never had an interest in Bruges. I saw the Colin Farrell-Brendan Gleeson movie where they called it Europe’s most boring city and I guess I had believed them. But my wife Caz was obsessed with visiting and who was I to argue. I’m glad I didn’t. Strolling along the city’s cobblestoned alleys, picturesque canals and verdant ramparts, I too fell in love with Bruges’ elegant mysteriousness.
Bruges is a cultural center, full of artisans and artists, unashamedly Flemish, mysteriously medieval, and a UNESCO World Heritage site to boot.
In Bruges you’ll drink some of the world’s best beer. Literally. They win global beer awards all the time. You’ll taste real Belgian chocolate and waffles. And you’ll be charmed by the architecture and gardens.
Climb the 366 steps to the top of the 272 feet (83 m) high Belfry of Bruges, trying to avoid bell-ringing time unless you have earplugs. But the view of this most romantic of European cities is utterly magnificant. Just don’t think about what happened in the Belfry in the movie, In Bruges.
7. Venice, Italy
Venice, known also as the “City of Canals,” “The Floating City,” and “Serenissima,” is arguably one of Italy’s most picturesque cities. With its winding canals, striking architecture, and beautiful bridges, Venice is a popular destination for travelers. And don’t I know it! When I was there last, the streets were packed with tourists.
But that’s because Venice is unique! It’s unique environmentally, architecturally, and historically, and to this day it remains a major Italian port in the northern Adriatic Sea and is one of the world’s oldest tourist and cultural centres.
All the major attractions are obvious — the Grand Canal, the Ponte Rialto, San Marco Square, the Doge’s Palace — and you should see them all. But don’t miss out on one of Venice’s smaller gems, the Peggy Gugenheim Collection, the Venetian home of a great art collector. There you’ll find works by Pollock, Dali, Duchamp, Miro, Kandinsky, and Magritte.
With its winding waterways, cobbled courtyards, beautiful architecture and tiny back streets, Venice is one of the most picturesque and recognizable cities in the world.
The crowds get to you after a while, but if you go in a low season and plan your outings right, it is a truly amazing city.
8. Cape Town, South Africa
Perched between ocean and mountain, with a national park as its heart, Cape Town is absolutely breathtaking. But it’s not just its stunning location that makes it one of my favourite cities. There’s its fascinating history, its great food and wine, and some of the most exciting wildlife in the world.
Cape Town’s neighborhoods hug the seashore while weaving around Table Mountain and the soaring rock formation called the Lion’s Head, meaning that at just about every vantage point you can see something beautiful.
Cape Town is also considered one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. Home to a diverse melting pot of people, races, religions, traditions, and backgrounds, Cape Town is a vibrant celebration of diversity. You can see this through its historical architecture, culturally diverse neighbourhoods, and colorful cuisine.
Visit historic Bo-Kaap, the old Malay Quarter, for some Cape Malay cuisine. Or stroll along the palm tree-lined beach at Camps Bay. Eat fish and chips at Kalk Bay or Hout Bay. Or just marvel at the Twelve Apostles Mountain Range. Cape Town is beautiful.
And of course in the midst of all this beauty, don’t overlook South Africa’s dark past. Visit the Iziko Slave Lodge, a museum decidated to highlighting the evils of human slavery, and take the ferry across to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were incarcerated during the era of South African apartheid.
9. Lisbon, Portugal
This city used to rule half the world. The Portuguese were extraordinary explorers, colonists and missionaries. They conquered lands in Africa, Asia and South America, bringing enormous wealth back to their capital Lisbon. And it shows. But only as a shadow of its former grandeur. Lisbon is beautiful in all its crumbling, faded splendor.
And that’s Lisbon’s charm. The castle of San Jorge, the huge government buildings, the Rua Augusta Arch, and the wide boulevard of the Praça do Comércio are all dim monuments to the city’s old glory days. Today, Lisbon is grungy, artistic, and uber-cool.
Of course, there’s those delicious Portuguese tarts from Belem. And while you’re there you can visit the famous Tower of Belem and the impressive Padrão dos Descobrimentos (the Explorers Monument) featuring statues of Vasco de Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Francis Xavier, and Henry the Navigator, men who were responsible for opening the world to Portuguese trade and fabulous wealth.
Built on seven hills, Lisbon is filled with cobblestone streets, eclectic arts and design, Gothic and Manueline-style architecture, terraced gardens, historic trams, and remodeled palaces.
And you’ve got to visit the cool neighborhood of Bairro Alto at night where diverse crowds fill the hip, quirky bars, while the trad restaurants emit the evocative sound of Lisbon’s famous Fado music.
10. Budapest, Hungary
The thing about Budapest is that everything is big! Really big. Whether it’s their somewhat ostentatious parliament building, their opulent opera house, their many bath houses, their monuments and statues — it’s all built on a gloriously hugh scale. The Hungarians must have thought their capital was the center of the universe.
The first thing to know is that Budapest is actually two cities mashed together. There’s Buda (districts I and II) and Pest (IV through to XXIII, including Csepel, District XXI), bisected by the Danube River. Similar to Paris (that Budapest loves to compare itself to), each district fans out in a clockwise direction, making the Hungarian capital simple(ish) to navigate. Budapest is chock-full of art nouveau architecture, quirky ruin bars and gorgeous bathhouses replenished by mineral-rich hot springs. Hungarians love to bathe!
There are almost too many things to recommend seeing. St Stephen’s Basilica is stunning. So is the glorious Opera House. The markets are a feast for the eyes, and the tastebuds. And Castle Hill is not only a chance to see magnificent architecture, but affords you splendid views of the Danube and the city below.
One of the most affecting sites in Budapest is also the smallest. The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a Holocaust memorial that remembers those Jews marched to the Danube River and made to remove their shoes before being shot and dumped into the river to drift away. The 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes placed on the edge of the bank is a heartbreaking memorial to them. The memorial has shoes of all sizes, including children’s shoes.
Gloriously dramatic, Budapest has to be seen to be believed.
BONUS CITY: Sydney, Australia
Alright, alright. I know I only said ten, but I simply can’t leave my own hometown off the list. I really like living in one of the most beautiful and exciting cities in the world. Sydney is a jewel.
There’s the sparkling harbor, the golden sand beaches, the rolling hills, the iconic architecture, and the sunny climate with mild winters and warm summers, perfect for making the most of the outdoors. What’s not to love about eating oysters at sunset at the Opera Bar with views of the Sydney Opera House and the Harbor Bridge!
Locals never get sick of the views. And each of the downtown neighborhoods has a unique character all its own, whether it be the newly developed Barangaroo, the hipster capital Surry Hills, the skyscrapers of the CBD, or the picturesque charm of the Rocks.
Great climate, sensational food, beautiful architecture, and a relaxed attitude make Sydney a city everyone should visit once.
And there are still plenty of cities on my bucket list, including Tokyo, Istanbul, Shanghai, Mumbai, Marrakesh, and St Petersburg (Russia, not Florida). As the old saying goes, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”
But hopefully my list has got the travel bug biting you again. Happy trails.