The 10 Best Cities in Asia 2015
What makes a city rise above the rest in the hearts of travelers: the iconic landmarks, the distinctive culture, or just the dizzying array of dinner options?
“The food in Kyoto is truly exceptional,” says Katherine Christenson, a Travel + Leisure reader who voted in the magazine’s World’s Best Awards survey. “A kaiseki meal is one of the highlights of all food experiences.” Even so, her favorite part of the Japanese city is intangible. “The city is the essence of peace,” she says. “Kyoto has it all.”
Plenty of other Travel + Leisure readers felt the same way about Kyoto, scoring it highly among global cities for its landmarks, cuisine (like the multi-course, meticulously presented kaiseki), and even its friendly locals. As part of the magazine’s survey, readers also ranked the most popular cities, just within Asia, for such qualities as their arts scenes, bars, shopping, good value, and romantic potential.
Related: 10 Best Cities in the World
And while Kyoto may have garnered favor for its Zen ambience, other winners among Asia’s top 10 cities charmed readers for being the opposite of peaceful. One winner makes the most of its sometimes-notorious past. Another is a business hub that dazzles readers with its extremes.
And reader Camaran Pipes loves another top 10 winner, Bangkok, for being a little bit of both. “Bangkok is fast and delicious, dirty and hot, relaxing and slow—whatever you want it to be,” she says. “It’s the chameleon of Asia, and it owns my heart.”
No. 10 New Delhi
The Indian capital struck readers with its extremes—the juxtaposition of urban sprawl next to dense green spaces, as well as rich next to poor—and readers agreed that the best way to initiate yourself into it is a raucous rickshaw ride. Delhi is the only Indian city in the Asian survey to make the top 10 for cuisine. Keeping with those extremes, you can enjoy a sumptuous pan-Asian meal surrounded by murals and antiques at the Spice Route in the Hotel Imperial, or the much-beloved thalis at Andhra Bhavan, set in a state house, for roughly $3 a person. The city also made Asia’s top 10 for shopping: to explore some authentic markets, check out the dizzying bridal wear in Shahpur Jat, or take home one of the keep-forever dupatta scarves from the market in Lajpat Nagar.
No. 9 Ho Chi Minh City
Whether they call it Ho Cho Minh City or Saigon (like locals still do), readers were struck by how fun-loving (and Westernized) this Vietnamese city has become. They also declared it the best city for cuisine in Vietnam. For a thorough selection, go to District 1’s Cuc Gach Quan, set in a creatively rehabbed Colonial mansion. For a glimpse of the trend-loving youth culture, order a flat white and people-watch at café and designer-fashion boutique L’Usine. And while Ho Chi Minh City made the top 5 for value, it still knows how to channel extravagance: the Reverie Saigon Hotel, sitting 27 floors high inside the city’s Times Square Building, is awash in marble, gilt, and swirling colors.
No. 8 Shanghai
The Chinese city ranked at No. 4 for romance, and indeed people tend to romanticize Shanghai’s notorious past from the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps in that spirit, it also ranked at No. 5 in Asia for its sultry bars—like The Roof at Waterhouse Hotel, which offers house-grown-herb-infused cocktails and great views of the Bund. For a glimpse into the city’s future, go see the WET Pop fountain, a Bellagio-esque display (which you can actually splash around in yourself) in Daning Lingshi Park. To take a piece of the past home—the city also ranked at No. 5 for its exquisite shopping—browse the antiques and upcycled pieces from the '20s and '30s at boutiques like 1930 or in Jing’An’s Gelin Casa.
No. 7 Hanoi
The Vietnam capital made the top 10 for its fascinating sights and landmarks—like the Military History Museum, which explores Vietnam’s complicated history, and the refrigerated tomb of Ho Chi Minh. Readers also ranked the city at No. 3 for good value, even for a grande dame hotel like the Sofitel Legend Metropole (which made readers’ top 10 of Asian hotels). And while readers admitted to being a little intimidated by the city’s motorcycle traffic, they still found the locals, when stationary, quite affable. For an authentic place to tuck into the country’s comfort food, try Quan An Ngon in the Hoan Kiem district, staffed by the city’s top street-food chefs.
No. 6 Singapore
This posh business hub didn’t charm readers by being a bargain: while it didn’t rank highly for value, it still landed at No. 3 for its shopping, and at No. 2 for romance. You can still find deals, however, if you come during late spring through mid-summer, when the Great Singapore Sale cuts prices and offers rewards at stores all over the city-state, from Orchard Road to Little India. For romance, book a room at the new Sofitel So Singapore, a Parisian-themed hotel where whimsical light boxes hang over each draped bed. Readers also love just coming and going from Singapore: Changi Airport—home to a 24-hour movie theatre, butterfly garden and a four-story-high, indoor slide—ranked as the survey’s No. 1 airport in the world.
No. 5 Hong Kong
The island city’s love of fashion was contagious with readers, who gave it first place in Asia for shopping—whether you’re looking for antiques along Hollywood Road, a bespoke suit on Nathan Road or just wandering one of the gargantuan malls, like IFC (home of longtime favorite department store Lane Crawford). The city is boosting its artistic street cred, meanwhile, with museums like the still-evolving M+ in West Kowloon, which showcases 20th and 21st century art and design. To take in the city’s Technicolor skyline and see why the city also ranked at No. 1 in Asia for bars, go to Ozone, on the 118th floor of Hong Kong Island’s International Commerce Centre, and part of the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong.
No. 4 Tokyo
The Japanese capital ranked just behind Kyoto in the Asia rankings for culture—even if watching the teens shop in Harajuku feels like performance art. For another glimpse of the city’s unique visual (and often edible) culture, go to the Roppongi neighborhood, home to the sleek Mori Art Museum and the sushi at the buzzy Sukiyabashi Jiro. For a Zen place to recharge, stay at the Aman Tokyo, where the sliding shoji doors, handcrafted washi paper ceilings and high perch in the Otemachi Tower offer a calming view of the financial district. Tokyo also offers proof that a little hospitality, or omotenashi, goes a long way: readers ranked the locals in the top 5 of Asia’s friendliest people.
No. 3 Bangkok
Never mind the heat or the traffic, readers were besotted with the Thai capital because of its colorful intensity. Indeed, readers raved about the local cuisine, which goes well beyond authentic pad Thai; the city’s high-end newcomers include L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon or Le Du, from hot chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn. Readers also ranked Bangkok at No. 3 in the world for its bars, like Sukhumvit Road’s Sugar Club or The Nest, the rooftop bar at Le Fenix Hotel. Adding to its free-wheeling appeal, Bangkok won the silver medal among Asian cities for being a great value.
No. 2 Siem Reap, Cambodia
Angkor Wat and the neighboring temples may have been a big reason that readers were first drawn to this growing Cambodian city; it also ranked near the top for both landmarks and culture, encompassing both the ancient temples and the city’s French Colonial past. The local culture, however, no longer just looks backward. The city hosts the Angkor Photo Festival in late fall and the Angkor Wat International Film Festival every February. Readers also liked the increasing options for shopping here—from the Old Market to the Well Made in Cambodia Market, held three days a week outside the Shinta Mani boutique hotel. To see one reason why the city also won among Asia cities for romance, stay at Phum Baitang, a quiet resort set on 20 acres of rice paddies.
No. 1 Kyoto
With its ancient architecture, manicured gardens, and peaceful ambience, this former Imperial capital is not just readers’ favorite city in Asia: it’s their favorite city in the world, ranking at No. 1 in the global survey. It also made the top 5 in the world for its well-preserved landmarks, like the nearly 700-year-old Zen monastery Daitoku-ji, or the lesser-known Sanjusangendo, which houses 1,001 statues of one god carved from cypress. Two relatively new hotels embrace the city’s ryokan, or guest-house-style, lodgings: the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, along the Komogawa River, and the elegant, 39-room Suiran, in west Kyoto, whose café offers traditional green tea with wagashi confections. Beyond just sweets, Kyoto was also the readers’ favorite city in Asia for authentic cuisine.