World's Best Cities 2012
Travel + Leisure readers pick the world’s best cities, where each year brings new reasons to visit.
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.
No. 1 Bangkok
It’s no surprise that this city of contrasts, 10 million strong, has captured the No. 1 spot overall for three years and counting. Gilded Buddhist temples are juxtaposed with slick skyscrapers; long-tail boats ply the peaceful river. The sweet and spicy food—served on the street or from the top of high-rise towers—is addicting, and so is the affordable shopping.
No. 2 Florence
The Renaissance city is livelier than ever, with new art galleries and aperitivo bars, restored piazzas, extended hours at museums and libraries, even improved public transportation. Add to that Michelangelo’s David and access to the Tuscan countryside, and you’ve got a romantic city escape that’s on every traveler’s list.
No. 3 Istanbul
Spanning Europe and Asia, Istanbul jumped two spots this year, and we expect it will only gain momentum. The ancient city is home to a batch of new luxury resorts (Four Seasons Sultanahmet, the Edition, Soho House in 2014), the site of 15 films and counting, and recently the staging ground for the first Istanbul Design Biennial.
No. 4 Cape Town
South Africa’s third-largest city has a complicated history, but, as this year’s ranking in the top five attests, there is no dispute about its beauty—the flat-topped Table Mountain rises a dramatic 3,563 feet above the city, vineyards produce excellent wine just a few miles outside of town, and the once-staid dining scene is booming.
No. 5 Sydney
Once again, Sydney is the World’s Best winner down under. Perhaps because, unlike many global hubs, the city maintains a famously laid-back vibe—even as it inspires new boutiques, restaurant openings, and a slew of fun-loving activities that pay homage to the pounding surf, fringed by soft sand.
No. 6 Rome
Eternal City, indeed. Rome has, of late, welcomed a new breed of design-forward landmarks, with Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis and the Maxxi by Zaha Hadid standing in brilliant contrast to the classics. That’s not to say that we would ever stop flocking to Rome’s busy streets to gaze at ancient ruins, spoon swirls of gelato, and feast on heavenly wood-fired thin-crust pizzas and bowls of cacio e pepe.
No. 7 New York
A record-breaking 50 million visitors took to the streets of New York in 2011. To experience the city at its freshest, set your sights on a new hotel in a buzzworthy neighborhood. That shouldn’t be too hard, considering Manhattan is experiencing a bona fide hotel boom. Choose from The James, in SoHo; Hotel Americano, near Chelsea’s High Line; or the NoMad in, well, NoMad (North of Madison). Plus: Museum Mile will soon expand into Harlem with the debut of Robert A. M. Stern’s Museum for African Art.
No. 8 Hong Kong
With 7 million residents, Hong Kong is dense but easy to navigate, and drew 17 percent more tourists in 2012 than 2011, according to the World Tourism Organization. The mix of glittering skyscrapers, Taoist temples, fabulous shops, and Michelin-starred Cantonese food may help explain its ascendency: the island city leapt up an impressive 11 spots from last year’s survey ranking.
No. 9 Kyoto
More than 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines—plus 17th-century teahouses and a collection of ryokans (inns)—mean that travelers can find a truly traditional experience in Kyoto. Neighborhoods like Nishijin are adding a modern twist, with artisan shops opening up in machiya (wooden houses) along its quiet streets.
No. 10 Paris
Is there ever a reason not to stamp your passport in Paris? Otherworldly baguettes, upstart galleries, impossibly chic boutiques, cozy wine bars, the romance of the Seine…it’s easy to be swept away by one of the world’s most iconic cityscapes.
No. 11 Barcelona
Tiny tapas bars and cutting-edge galleries are breathing new life into the Catalan capital, famed for art and architecture by the likes of Miró, Picasso, and Gaudí. Hotels are catching on, too: the Mandarin Oriental arrived in late 2009, and the Ohla Hotel opened last year with Saüc, a Michelin-starred restaurant.
No. 12 Chicago
One of America’s most versatile cities rounds out the top dozen this year, thanks to its always-impressive architecture (Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Renzo Piano’s addition to the Art Institute of Chicago); the boutique-lined Magnificent Mile; and beautiful, sculpture-filled Millennium Park.
No. 13 San Francisco
The City by the Bay hardly needs an introduction. Its Victorian mansions, eclectic neighborhoods, crop of trendsetting restaurants, and anything-goes attitude draw more than 15 million visitors a year and counting.
No. 14 Siem Reap
No longer should travelers view Siem Reap as just the gateway to the Angkor Wat temple complex. Contemporary art galleries are making their mark, as are the chefs of innovative Khmer restaurants, while intimate hotels like La Residence d’Angkor provide a peaceful place to lay your head after a day of temple-gazing.
No. 15 Charleston
Count on Charleston for jasmine-fringed historic neighborhoods, excellent Lowcountry cuisine, and warm, old-fashioned hospitality. This southern belle has some new offerings these days, thanks to the opening of galleries on Broad Street and award-winning restaurants on the northern reaches of King Street.
No. 16 Cuzco
This onetime capital of the Incan Empire is the jumping-off point to hike Machu Picchu. But it’s not uncommon for travelers to spend days here, exploring evidence of its pre-Columbian roots and vibrant mestizo culture—especially now that the city has welcomed the plush, new 55-room Palacio Nazarenas hotel.
No. 17 New Orleans
This boisterous city is filled with head-turning distractions, from jazz musicians playing on street corners to the heavy-hitting Louisiana cuisine. Head to the beautiful Garden District for quieter moments among homes with gingerbread iron detailing.
No. 18 Venice
Venice has been accused of being too popular (the latest report finds 60,000 travelers visit the city—daily), but its postcard-perfect canals hold an enduring and unshakeable appeal. The key is getting off the beaten path; the lagoon’s outlying islands, like the vineyard-strewn Mazzorbo and crayon-colored Burano, make for excellent side trips.
No. 19 Madrid
More than 3 million travelers flock to Spain’s capital each year to gaze at the masterworks housed in the Prado, wander the 350-acre grounds of the Parque del Retiro, bite into jamón at tapas bars, and take in an authentic flamenco performance at a tablao (a café with a stage).
No. 20 Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires has gone through a transformation since its economic crisis back in 2001. Pop-up restaurants, tasting rooms where you can sample the region’s excellent wine, and boutique hotels—some of which are tied to themes such as wine (Hotel Mio) or soccer (Hotel Boca)—are some of the newest experiences in the Neoclassical Argentinean capital.