World's Most Colorful Cities
Whether a monochromatic yellow or featuring every color in the Crayola box, these cites are guaranteed to brighten your day.
The word pretty isn’t often associated with the shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro. But gazing across the hills toward the notorious Santa Maria favela, you might be pleasantly surprised by the burst of colors—the result of a recent social art project launched by Dutch design duo Haas&Hahn.
“We chose to bring color to a neighborhood that did not have a tradition of that,” says Dre Urhahn, who, with his partner Jeroen Koolhaas, enlisted community members to view their walls as a blank canvas teeming with creative possibilities. “We did not just want to bring something to the neighborhood, but to let something grow out of the inspiration that we found there.”
Pockets of rainbow-bright residences and streets pop up in cities across the globe; some are contrived, like Haas&Hahn’s favela project and the commissioning of a blue-painted town in southern Spain by Sony Pictures to promote the Smurfs 3D movie (no, really). Others, like the eclectic homes and murals of Valparaíso, Chile, are more organic, inspired by the creative spirits of the residents that inhabit them.
In many instances, the origins or inspirations of how these cities came to be so multicolored are the stuff of legend, their true provenances lost centuries ago. Could it really be that the Caribbean island of Curaçao was forced by government decree to dye its waterfront anything but white, to soothe an afflicted governor’s migraines?
From a monochromatic Indian city painted pink for a visiting English prince to the candy-colored waterfront of Miami’s South Beach, these landscapes bring a new level of vibrancy to austere deserts, mountains, slums, and already sparkling aqua waters.
Now this is a royal welcome: Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh had the whole city daubed in pink for the arrival of Edward, the Prince of Wales, during a diplomatic visit in 1853. The Rajasthani capital retains its signature rose-tinted hue across broad boulevards and historic buildings like the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds).
A four-hour drive from the bustling city of Fez brings you to this village high in the Rif Mountains, known for its labyrinthine medina bathed entirely in shades of blue. The area was once a refuge for Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition in the 1500s, who found a harmonious safe haven in Chefchaouen; though most have now migrated to Israel, the warren of turquoise alleys remains as their legacy.
Mexico’s tourism secretary designated Izamal, in the Yucatán region, a pueblo mágico (magical city), and it’s easy to see why. The colonial buildings are awash in a vivid yellow that gives the monochromatic town a sunny look whatever the weather. Take a horse-and-buggy ride around the cobblestoned streets past marigold churches, government buildings, and the city’s centerpiece: the historic 16th-century Basilica of San Antonio de Padua.
Bo-Kaap, Cape Town
No, that’s not a rainbow at the foot of Signal Hill: the pops of color making their way up the slopes are typical of Cape Town’s historic Muslim quarter, where the mosques and homes make up a splashy kaleidoscope of aquamarine, fuchsia, and lime. Its Cape Malay community is descended from slaves brought over by the Dutch from Southeast Asia in the 1600s, and residents began painting their homes to celebrate the end of apartheid.
Once Istanbul’s old Jewish quarter, Balat has attracted a more diverse range of residents over time. Yet the architecture takes you back to a lost era; it’s easy to spend a few hours wandering, preferably with camera in hand, to capture the dilapidated yellow and pink buildings adorned by billowing red or green curtains, all sparkling against the cerulean sky.
Among the iconic White Towns of Andalusia, Júzcar looks so comically out of place that you’d be forgiven for wondering if it’s out of a cartoon—in fact, you’d be correct. Until recently, it, too, was a whitewashed village; in 2011, Hollywood executives inquired whether the residents would paint their homes blue for a promotional blitz surrounding the Smurfs movie. Afterward, Sony offered to paint the town back, but aware of the skyrocketing tourist numbers that resulted from the gimmick, the 220 citizens voted to keep it blue.
South Beach, Miami
Neon lights, frothy façades, quirky patterned lifeguard stands, Art Deco buildings—driving along Ocean Drive in Miami is a retro trip back to an era when Technicolor was just bursting onto screens. Flamingo pinks and tropical greens flank the white sand on one side, with azure waters on the other.
Rio de Janeiro
In 2010, Dutch artists Haas&Hahn schemed to turn a favela in Rio de Janeiro into a giant canvas for their third project in that city’s slums (favelapainting.com). Enlisting the help of local youth, they converted the homes of Favela Santa Maria into a rainbow of staggering proportions, composed of rays in myriad shades radiating across the façades.
Legend has it that in the 1800s, when the Dutch ruled Curaçao, the then-governor attributed the migraines that afflicted him to the powerful Caribbean sun reflecting off the colony’s stark walls. The result? An official decree that commanded citizens to paint the structures anything but white. Today, this World Heritage site owes its distinctive pastel shades to one man’s maladies.
These postcard-perfect pastel pink, lemon yellow, and sea green façades were hit by devastating floods in 2011. While the damage to Vernazza and the four other scenic waterfront villages that make up Cinque Terre was severe, efforts are under way to restore, rebuild—and repaint.
Some say that Brahmin families began painting their homes blue, a color that denotes royalty, to distinguish themselves from the masses (before the other residents followed suit). Others suggest that the color comes from a copper-sulfate-lime wash applied to deter termites. Regardless, this iconic Rajasthani town is now known as India’s Blue City. Explore the walled historic district in the Rass hotel’s custom auto-rickshaw, painted—what else?—blue.
Funiculars have served Valparaíso since the late 1800s; ride one of the acensores up the hills to look down at the colorful urban sprawl fringing the sea below. The port city is the cultural hub of Chile (poet Pablo Neruda once lived here), and the residents’ creative spirit manifests itself in the vibrant tones of the multihued homes and the bohemian murals tagging the walls.
St. John’s, Newfoundland
There’s a reason this historic stretch of downtown St. John’s is called Jellybean Row: ship captains would assign their homes a distinct candy color to make them easier to spot from the sea. These Victorian structures have white-trimmed windows and doors, a detail that lends continuity to the polychromatic strip.
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
No two shades are repeated in this charming seven-block neighborhood, notable for its old-world European architecture. Palm trees add a decidedly Caribbean element, and the area heats up in the evenings; behind those vibrant façades are some of San Juan’s finest restaurants and bars.
La Boca, Buenos Aires
Almost every color in the Crayola repertoire appears to have been used in this working-class enclave at the mouth (boca) of the Riachuelo River. The neighborhood was constructed with scrap materials from nearby shipyards, including leftover paints scrounged together by residents and resulting in this visual treat.