World's Top Waterfront Cities
“Blank walls.” “Sterile plazas.” A “dead zone.”
Is this some war-ravaged town? Some broken-down inner city? Nope, it’s a description of Bilbao, Spain, where a Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Museum sits right on the edge of a picturesque river. Yet one organization not only called Bilbao’s waterfront area all of the above, it also proclaimed the waterfront one of the world’s most alienating.
That organization is the Project for Public Spaces (PPS)—a nonprofit group that promotes community-friendly places over haute design—and the judgment on Bilbao came from studying more than 200 cities worldwide. The result: a list of destinations where the waterfront has become (or has always been) a vital place for city residents and tourists to shop, work, and gather.
One of PPS’s criteria is what it calls the Power of Ten: a minimum of 10 destinations or purposes for visiting. These elements can include cafés, playgrounds, historic sites, museums, outdoor markets, performance arenas, gardens, ferry landings, or shops. Waterfronts conceived for many uses—or ones that naturally evolved that way—trump single-use designs (like the riverfront area beside Bilbao’s Guggenheim) every time.
Ironically, one city that breezily aces the Power of Ten test lies just 60 miles from Bilbao. In San Sebastián, the waterfront—two white-sand crescents of beach bisected by the mouth of the Urumea River—is fringed by a promenade of parks, pavilions, and wide walkways. And right across the boulevard is a human-scaled assortment of shops, cafés, and hotels. The busy area remains the thriving heart of San Sebastián. Yet no city planners were involved in this success story: the old town was settled at the water’s edge and never lost its vital role as the marketplace, no matter how development sprawled away from the waterfront.
On the other side of the planet, Sydney’s waterfront reveals another mostly unplanned success. You’ll find icons like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Nearby Circular Quay is the city’s central transit hub for ferries, trains, and buses. Offices, restaurants, and trendy shops have taken up residence in renovated shipping warehouses. Airy, green parks and busy walking paths line the harbor. Sydney lives on the water, and the harbor is so fundamental to the city’s character that it’s unfathomable to imagine visiting without riding the ferry or hoisting a pint in a docklands bar.
Waterfronts like Sydney’s crowd the list of top waterfront cities compiled by the Project for Public Spaces. From old-world stalwarts like Helsinki to new-world entries like San Francisco’s north waterfront, these cities invite you down to the river, harbor, lake, or sea to watch an engaging waterfront at work.
The experts at PPS have spoken, but the true test of a great waterfront is traveling there and experiencing it for yourself.
What PPS Says: As a city of islands, the waterfront here really is the heart of town and has quietly adapted over time as Stockholm evolves, providing many new and different ways for people to use it.
What We Like: As in Venice, water surrounds and defines Stockholm. When crossing bridges or walking along canals, you’re served with striking views of the city’s picturesque neighborhoods and diverse architecture that are reflected, lit, and framed by water. Sprawled across 14 islands, the city was named one of the EU’s two Green Cities for 2009, and no wonder: Stockholm has set aside 40 percent of its land, much of it on the waterfront, for well-used green spaces and parks.
What PPS Says: In most cities, roadways are the most problematic aspect of the urban landscape; in Venice, the “roadways” are the most beautiful part.
What We Like: Walking across bridges and wandering down the narrow streets of the 188 small islands that make up the city, you may get lost, but you will definitely find yourself engaged by the rhythms and charm of Venice. When one of the streets opens into a sunlit piazza or campo, busy with cafés and shoppers and pickup soccer games and vaporetti chugging at the water’s edge, you’ll experience your own age of discovery.
What PPS Says: In addition to its role as a regional transit center for ferries, tourist boats, and ocean liners, the waterfront serves as a popular gathering spot, with markets, parks, and an esplanade.
What We Like: Helsinki’s cobbled streets funnel downhill past buildings, design stores, restaurants, and cafés to Market Square at the harbor’s edge. Once you reach the waterfront, stroll the square’s open-air market (open spring through fall) or its covered market, and browse the stands for cloudberries and lingonberries, fresh fish and pickled herring, and just-baked rye bread. Whether gazing across the Gulf of Finland or watching the stylish Finns going about their business, you’ll be enchanted by how Helsinki works its waterfront.
San Sebastián, Spain
What PPS Says: Hugging the rim of the Bay of Biscay, its beautiful promenade follows the arcing coast from one end of the city to the other. Dotted with lively public spaces that connect to an ancient street layout well-suited to pedestrian use, this waterfront feels like the center of the city.
What We Like: San Sebastián, a popular Spanish beach resort between Biarritz and Bilbao, entices visitors to its waterfront with features like two crescent beaches that run along the Bay of Biscay at the edge of the old city and the Parte Vieja, a neighborhood that buzzes with activity. The happy result is an intersection of commerce and leisure, beach and downtown, bucolic seaside and urban energy—a waterfront for tourists and locals alike.
What PPS Says: One of the most visually stunning bays in the world, Sydney Harbour is also an amazing place to stroll, take a boat ride, or just sit a spell.
What We Like: Sydney’s waterfront is where the city’s varied and distinctive flavors merge: the fresh sophistication of the Opera House, the rowdy saltiness of the quayside bars, the iconic beaches, the busy water traffic, and calm parks jutting out over the water. View the Circular Quay from a perch atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge by taking a BridgeClimb trek, then relax at one of the many spectacular urban beaches, like Bondi, Tamarama, or Bronte.
What PPS Says: Despite its sometimes gritty character, the waterfront is accessible to people through a scenic promenade linking the shore to the downtown.
What We Like: Hamburg already boasts a busy port on the Elbe River, two lakes, and 2,400 bridges along its canals. Now the city has expanded its link with the water with a far-sighted harbor revival development—the carefully planned HafenCity project. It’s a textbook example of the Power of Ten multiuse concept, with a concert hall, shops and restaurants, apartments, public transportation hubs, promenades, museums, marketplaces, parkland, ship terminals, and schools.
What PPS Says: Baltimore was part of the first wave of waterfront renewal. It has a perfect setting with a small, compact, and diversified harbor with ample activities to engage both visitors and residents.
What We Like: A wide boardwalk forms a U-shape proscenium around the harbor, with the water center stage and historic ships moored along the wharf. Glass-sided buildings house shops and restaurants, while a semicircle of tiered brick seating creates a place to watch the water traffic. The boardwalk marches east toward enclosed piers with more shops, restaurants with outdoor seating, art galleries, and the National Aquarium, and then extends beyond to the working port.
What PPS Says: On a typical day one can see crowds of people swimming, walking, biking, playing chess at path-side tables, buying food and drinks from vendors, relaxing on rented beach chairs (with umbrellas), or having a meal at an outdoor restaurant overlooking a Little League game.
What We Like: Millennium Park may be Chicago’s new focal point, but passing through the acclaimed landmark park is a waterfront path that stretches more than 18 miles. Lake Michigan’s shoreline paths and parks snake past glass-sheathed high-rise condos and low-rise ethnic neighborhoods. From Navy Pier, with 50 acres of attractions, up to North Avenue Beach or down to Jackson Park Beach (both full-blown urban beach scenes), the well-used linear park unites the proudly diverse city.
What PPS Says: Montreal’s historic and still bustling Old Port district flows onto spacious, formerly industrial piers. The park paths connect destinations with restaurants and flexible programmed spaces.
What We Like: When Montreal’s new port facilities opened in the 1970s, an exodus of residents left the old port dark and dangerous. Today, the old city has been reinvented as a design destination and has taken its place as the true heart of Montreal. Tourists beeline to the port, eager to explore the oldest urban area in North America (and eat French food), while locals bike, boat, ice-skate along the port and its canals, and browse the 160-year-old Bonsecours Market.
What PPS Says: Nice is a bustling, energetic, and engaging city strongly associated with the magnificent waterfront. From the Colline du Château with its magnificent views overlooking the port, the Mediterranean, and the old city to the promenade along the waterfront and the grand hotels, restaurants, and the fabulous market in the Cours Saleya, Nice is among the best destinations along the Mediterranean coast.
What We Like: La Promenade des Anglais, known familiarly as La Prom, follows the Mediterranean coast past this picturesque resort town and continues to the seaside airport. In town, La Prom leisurely follows the pebbly beachfront, accessed by clearly marked pedestrian crossings over a slow-moving boulevard from the grand old hotels. The route is planted with stands of palm trees and islands of lawn, and is artfully strewn with monuments and fountains.
What PPS Says: Much of the public, set in an historic district, has been redesigned with contemporary materials and amenities. The new design features are very attractive, functional, and in no way ostentatious, serving as a sort of flexible platform for activities and supporting a range of gathering options for groups.
What We Like: The old city, a bright patchwork of centuries-old buildings and narrow streets, tumbles downhill to meet the Douro River. On the opposite bank rise the roofs of the port wine houses of Vila Nova de Gaia. Local flavor is strong, in spite of the throngs of tourists. Sip a coffee or glass of Vinho Verde and people-watch on the Praça, or walk across the spectacular Dom Luís Bridge for the best view of the busy waterfront.
Rio de Janeiro
What PPS Says: Grand and expansive, Rio’s beachfront is an awe-inspiring spectacle where the well-dressed meet the nearly undressed. Its intricately designed promenade of black-and-white cobblestones, studded with cafés and vendors, is a ceremonial place where those who want to look can bond with those who want to be looked at.
What We Like: Rio, of course, is all about the beach. The paved waterfront promenades teem with bikes, runners, and strolling couples. Groups of teenage boys call out to passing girls, while vendors hawk beer and coconut water. Spend just one day at the beach (and try to head back down at dusk, when the Cariocas who worked show up to unwind), and you’ll understand why the very words Ipanema and Copacabana have become the stuff of legend.
What PPS Says: San Francisco is well on its way to become one of the best waterfronts in North America. It has something for everyone, from long beaches and natural walkways, to local destinations like the Ferry Terminal—with its growing and vibrant market—to the tourist destinations of Fisherman’s Wharf.
What We Like: Even the most blasé urbanites will heed the bark of the sea lions and stroll the waterfront on their lunch hour, looking out toward Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. And the waterfront will only improve when the Exploratorium, the innovative science and art museum, relocates to the waterfront in 2011, in between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building. The result: a unified, walkable, shoppable, enjoyable waterfront.