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World's Best Cities 2012

Tibor Bognar/Corbis

A fresh energy is pulsing through Istanbul, the Turkish city that so famously straddles Europe and Asia. Byzantine markets and Ottoman mosques share cobblestoned streets with chic restaurants, hip clubs, and luxury hotels. And the exciting transformation hasn’t gone unnoticed: this year, Istanbul nabbed the No. 3 ranking among the world’s best cities.

For the past 17 years, the annual Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards survey has taken the pulse of our savvy readers. The resulting award-winners make up a global guide to the best hotels, travel companies, and destinations, as chosen by travelers based on their recent, on-the-ground experiences. And this year, travel they have: according to the UN’s World Tourism Organization, 2012 has witnessed a record-breaking 1 billion airport arrivals.

If you’ve been racking up the miles, you know that when you return to a great city, there’s often something intriguingly different about it since your last visit. “Cities are always revitalizing and reinventing themselves,” says T+L A-List super agent Mary Ann Ramsey of Betty Maclean Travel, Inc. “They offer a unique and irreplaceable energy and experience.” 

Among the top-ranked destinations, Paris (No. 10) and Rome (No. 6) are steadfast World’s Best Awards winners, as are more distant metropolises like Sydney (No. 5) and Hong Kong (No. 8). But which city once again nabbed the superlative No. 1 rank? Hats off to Bangkok, for its abundant energy, superior value-for-money, and stylish design options. A recent case in point: the eye-catching Siam hotel, a 38-room property owned by a Thai rock star.

Several stateside hubs are more dynamic than ever, a trend reflected by the U.S. cities with high ranks this year. San Francisco (No. 13), for example, climbed three spots in the list this year, while New Orleans (No. 17) surged into the top 20. And Buenos Aires (No. 20) is more accessible than before, now that airlines continue to add flights from the U.S. to this flourishing destination.

Where did your favorite city rank, and where should you go next? Read on for the most fascinating cities around the globe.

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