World's Best Cities 2011
Travel + Leisure readers pick the world’s best cities, casting their votes for this year’s most dynamic, vacation-worthy places.
A new renaissance is under way in Florence, with the city’s historic center making room for contemporary galleries and chic aperitivo bars. And all that work has paid off: this year, Florence rose to the No. 2 ranking among T+L’s World’s Best Cities.
T+L asked readers to vote in its 16th annual World’s Best survey, rating worldwide cities in categories such as attractions, arts and culture, food, shopping, and value. The result is a global guide to the cities not to miss this year.
Despite the challenging economy, travel is up, with more than 270 million travelers hitting the road this year, according to the Airports Council International. More travel means more insights into what makes a city great—whether it’s efficient transportation, affordable dining, or youthful energy—and how cities compare on a global basis. After all, the thrill of a country is most often reflected in its city life. “Cities absolutely dominate over countryside experiences for travelers,” says T+L A-List super agent Priscilla Alexander of Protravel International. “You won’t have someone going to France and not going to Paris.”
But increased tourism doesn’t necessarily equate to bigger crowds or higher prices. Carriers such as United Airlines and Delta Airways are adding more flights to cities like Buenos Aires (No. 11) to accommodate the growing demand. Nor do you have to leave the United States to experience a world-class city. Charleston (up to No. 13 from a No. 18 ranking in 2010) is on the radar of a growing number of travelers—and Southwest’s new service makes it easier to visit than ever.
Then there are the iconic cities that inspire you to visit, no matter how complicated the journey. Take Siem Reap (No. 7). While it’s famous as the gateway to the 12th-century ruins of Angkor Wat, the city itself offers a lot to discover—it’s a full-fledged destination with luxurious boutique hotels and an artisans' collective that’s revitalizing Khmer traditions.
The complete list of World’s Best Cities for 2011 spans six continents and 24 time zones. Read on for all the winners, including the frenetic metropolis that took the No. 1 spot.—Marguerite A. Suozzi
No. 1 Bangkok
Frenetic and sultry, this Asian metropolis of 10 million seems like a city on overdrive. High-rises jostle for space; down below, cabs and tuk-tuks inch through the gridlock. But there are moments of calm. At dawn, saffron-robed Buddhist monks collect alms, while women thread the marigold and jasmine garlands that festoon temples and shrines. And when it comes to shopping and food, the city is an endless, and often affordable, bacchanalia. It’s no wonder that Bangkok has nabbed the No. 1 spot overall for two years running—and been listed in the top 10 every year since 2002.
No. 2 Florence
With a charismatic mayor leading the way, a new generation of tastemakers is injecting a welcome dose of contemporary culture into this much-loved Renaissance city, set amid rolling hills studded with towers and churches. New galleries and aperitivo bars share the compact city center with more than one million works of art—among them Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Factor in high-fashion brands like Gucci and Cavalli, succulent steaks, and the traditional artisan workshops of the Oltrarno, and it's no wonder that Florence beat out European cities many times its size.
No. 3 Rome
The Eternal City has ranked in the top 10 cities overall every year for the past decade, all while catapulting itself into the 21st century with a series of starchitect-designed buildings. Emblematic of the bold new look are the Ara Pacis, a travertine-and-glass building by Richard Meier, and Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi (Museum of 21st Century Arts), which debuted in 2010 in the northern Flaminio zone. Even the Colosseum has had a spruce-up, opening its dungeons and third-floor gallery to tours for the first time.
No. 4 New York
For all New York’s bright-lights-big-city grandeur, one can always find a quiet neighborhood. The trick is balancing the city’s outsize spectacle with intimate experiences. The latest neighborhood to pull it off is the Chelsea arts district, between 10th and 11th avenues, most notable for the just-expanded High Line, a landscaped strip of elevated public space. On nearby blocks you’ll find buildings by Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and Shigeru Ban, as well as marquee galleries such as Pace and Gagosian. For a picnic lunch, stop into Chelsea Market, a food-court-on-steroids, and savor a piece of the city that’s been voted No. 1 within the U.S. and Canada every year since 2000.
No. 5 Istanbul
Straddling the Bosporus—and thus the only major city that occupies both Asia and Europe—Istanbul also spans the ancient and modern worlds. The sounds of construction compete with the call of the muezzin, and the skyline, a glittering ribbon of palaces and mosques, is dotted with rooftop nightclubs. One reason the city skyrocketed back onto the World’s Best Cities list after two absent years? The appeal of Istanbul’s latest culinary trend: resurrecting ancient Ottoman recipes, such as garlicky lamb’s trotter served on toast at Asitane and juicy kubbes—dumplings filled with beef and pignoli—at Cercis Murat Konaği, on the city’s Asian side.
No. 6 Cape Town
Cape Town is sometimes labeled the least African of African cities—which, depending on who’s doing the labeling, is said with enthusiasm or disparagement. But whatever you think of the must-see destination, post–World Cup, the city radiates a palpable cool, and now it’s surged back onto the World’s Best list with a higher score than in 2009 (the last time it appeared). Split your time between urban pursuits (browsing the trendy Neighbourgoods Market and local artists’ galleries) and excursions to see wildlife, sample wines, and stroll the beaches of the Cape of Good Hope reserve.
No. 7 Siem Reap
Siem Reap is best known as the gateway to the Angkor Wat temple complex and other 12th-century Khmer ruins such as Ta Prohm, which remains as archaeologists found it in 1860, with banyan and kapok trees slowly reclaiming its sandstone carvings. But now the city has evolved from a cluster of riverfront villages into a full-fledged destination complete with art galleries, boutique hotels—and a World’s Best Cities designation. Sample the local cuisine at the FCC Angkor, a 31-room Art Deco hotel and restaurant, and drop by McDermott Gallery for black-and-white photographs of Angkor Wat.
No. 8 Sydney
Part outsize beach resort, part culture capital, Sydney, the perennial World’s Best City winner Down Under, exemplifies the art of relaxed cosmopolitanism: urbane but not pretentious; cutting-edge but not stressed-out. New restaurants and boutiques are channeling that Aussie energy in some oft-overlooked neighborhoods such as beachside hangout Manly. And an initiative to liven up the side lanes in the trendy Surry Hills and Darlinghurst neighborhoods has led to a slew of lounge bars opening up; try the lychee-infused tequila at Hunky Dory Social Club.
No. 9 Barcelona
Barcelona has long been famous for its art and architecture, with Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, and Antoni Gaudí all leaving their marks. But this is the first year that the Catalan city has broken into the World’s Best Cities top 10 list. Though diversions like wandering the Gaudí-designed Parc Güell have a timeless appeal, it’s new hot spots like Tickets, from mad-scientist brothers Ferran and Albert Adrià, that are creating the worldwide buzz. Where to stay? At the new Mandarin Oriental, where the Hong Kong hotel group’s legendary service is paired with Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola’s 98 bright, cream-on-white rooms.
No. 10 Paris
Ah, Paris. Every cobbled lane, every street-side café, every patisserie window seems to have been art-directed by some impossibly savvy set designer. Yet for all that elegance and drama, Paris’s greatest pleasures are arguably its simplest ones: the hum of a neighborhood bistro; the tranquility of a churchyard; the crunch of a perfect baguette. After all, you come to Paris to eat. Indulge serious cheese fantasies at Laurent Dubois, a fromagerie with seemingly endless options.
No. 11 Buenos Aires
The charm of Argentina’s capital goes beyond the “Paris-of-South-America” clichés; this is a city of world-class art, exceptional cuisine, and acclaimed design. After a 2001 crisis battered the nation’s economy, B.A. became one of the few high-gloss/low-cost destinations; the resulting influx of visitors and expats transformed the city. The much-anticipated Terminal C at Ministro Pistarini International Airport opened this year with shops, restaurants, and entertainment options. Before you leave, pick up a souvenir at the Pick Market, Recoleta’s airy new food hall.
No. 11 Jerusalem
Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worshippers all flock here, each staking their claim on parts of this nearly 4,000-year-old city that continues to capture and defy the imagination. Yet Jerusalem also has its eye on the modern and secular as witnessed by the rise of luxury apartment buildings, popular coffee bars, and the recent renovation of the Israel Museum. The collection of nearly 500,000 objects dates from the 12th century B.C. to modern-day Damien Hirst.
No. 13 Charleston
This southern charmer looks its finest in early fall or spring when the tea-olive blossoms are in bloom and the balmy weather is ideal for strolling the well-preserved historic neighborhoods. But lately there’s an energy coursing through Charleston, galvanizing the music and art scenes and rewarding visitors, whatever the season. One incubator for the new art scene here is Redux Contemporary Art Center. Nightlife, traditionally centered around the northern reaches of King Street, is diversifying, and restaurants like Husk showcase southern cooking that’s both lofty and locavore.
No. 14 Chicago
It’s hard to think of another American city that so gracefully combines trailblazing architecture (the Sears Tower, the spectacular Renzo Piano–designed addition to the Art Institute of Chicago) with tranquil green space (sandy beaches, the glorious Millennium Park). Factor in cuisine that ranges from cutting-edge to casual, gritty blues joints and comedy landmarks, and shimmering Lake Michigan, and, sure enough, Chicago has made it into the upper rankings of World’s Best Cities yet again.
No. 15 Kyoto
Kyoto—famous for its temples, shrines, and vibrant geisha culture—has grown cautiously. In 2007, the government put a cap on building height to preserve the centuries-old landscape. Nonetheless, a surprisingly modern city is emerging as stylish restaurants, shops, and inns pop up in machiya, or wooden merchants’ houses. The 16th and 21st centuries collide at spots like Iyemon Salon Kyoto, with a contemporary crafts shop, chic café, and steel-and-glass gallery exhibiting 450-year-old embroidered kimonos.
No. 16 San Francisco
San Francisco packs a remarkable variety of neighborhoods—fit for hippies and hipsters alike—into its compact 40 square miles. These distinct pockets showcase everything from pastel Victorian townhouses to elegant Art Deco skyscrapers, with plenty of independent bookstores and galleries, free-trade coffee shops, and indie-designer ateliers. Then there’s the sublime food, much of it prepared with sustainable, local ingredients—a model that’s caught on in cities across the U.S.
No. 17 Vienna
Vienna is the city of Freud, Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, the Boys’ Choir, and the Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School. The imperial insignias and red-coated, white-wigged concert touts stationed throughout the city make sure that you never forget it. Even so, Vienna seems on a mission to regain its place of prominence among European capitals. The evidence is in the revitalized art scene and even its traditional café culture, as some owners introduce updates like flavored coffees and Wi-Fi.
No. 18 Venice
Even the most seasoned visitors to Venice get lost in the city’s labyrinthine network of islands, bridges, pedestrian alleys, and canals—and that’s part of the experience of visiting this captivating city. There’s a timeless appeal in afternoons spent wandering from palace to piazza, exploring the small art museums, and shopping the stalls that line the streets. You’ll find another layer of Venice—whether Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, or Italian—every time you round a corner.
No. 19 Hong Kong
Asia’s most cosmopolitan city continues to push the design envelope, reaching literal new heights with developments like the Ritz-Carlton, the world’s tallest hotel, and fashion-forward boutiques in the gentrifying Sheung Wan neighborhood. Hong Kong’s superb public transportation system, cheap taxis, and bilingual signage make it a cinch to navigate. You can also find glimpses of old-world tranquility: incense-wreathed Taoist temples; polished hotel lobbies serving afternoon tea; remote walking trails; and graceful tai-chi practitioners in tidy city parks. So remember to slow down every now and then.
No. 20 Santa Fe
Thick-walled adobe buildings four centuries old stand next to avant-garde art galleries and new restaurants in this magnetic colonial city, which continues to draw all kinds of pilgrims. There are the skiers and hikers, painters and photographers, alternative healers, hippies, gays and lesbians, and of course, the tourists here to experience the Spanish–Native American heritage, the pristine landscape, and the New Age energy.
No. 21 Madrid
Spain’s nonstop capital city (pop. 6.2 million)—located smack in the center of the country—is as renowned for its late-night fiestas and insomniac ways as it for its art, architecture, tascas (tapas bars), and soccer team. It’s also the most visited city on the Iberian Peninsula.
No. 22 Siena, Italy
The roots of this historic, art-filled Tuscan town—and UNESCO World Heritage Site—go as far back as 900 B.C., but the city is perhaps best known for Il Palio. In the treacherous, twice-annual horse race, which began in medieval times, jockeys ride bareback around the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s famous shell-shaped main square.
No. 23 Seville, Spain
Countless visitors have fallen in love with Spain in the beguiling capital of southerly Andalusia. Here, the air is perfumed with orange blossoms, intricate Moorish architecture flirts with modern landmarks, and the clack-clack of flamenco dancers is never far away.
No. 24 Cuzco, Peru
Once the seat of the Incan Empire (A.D. 1300s–-1500s ) and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this scenic pre-Columbian town—the most visited place in Peru—also saw its fair share of conquistadores, whose Spanish colonial influence is still visible today. Cuzco is a gateway to the Andes Mountains and the ancient city of Machu Picchu.
No. 25 New Orleans
New Orleans knows how to party and music is a visceral part of the celebrations, whether Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, or any old Saturday night. This is a city of eclectic characters that supports the tourist playground of the French Quarter as well as thriving mom-and-pop stores. Yet the past is never far behind—you glimpse it in the sounds of a trombone or the whiff of a crawfish boil drifting from a Garden District mansion with porch fans and oak trees.
No. 26 Savannah, GA
Savannah reveres its heritage and draws visitors to its stately (some say, ghost-steeped) B&Bs and gracious flowering squares—where blue-blazered bankers share benches with green-haired art students. The city does things with great style, from the placement of oysters on a platter to the restoration of a Federal façade.
No. 27 Vancouver
Spectacularly sandwiched between the Strait of Georgia and the soaring Coast Mountains, Vancouver is not only one of the world’s best cities—it’s one of the most livable. It’s both an industrial seaport and a luxury resort town, with room for high-rises and ample open spaces. Look for genial locals Rollerblading along the ocean around Stanley Park, doing yoga on the beach, or browsing the public market and galleries on Granville Island.
No. 28 Prague
After watching their city achieve the trappings of global-destination status, a handful of creative residents have begun mining Prague’s own traditions—of food, art, design, architecture—for inspiration. (Janek Jaros, for instance, champions Czech Cubism from his downtown gallery Modernista.) It’s worth seeking out these innovators, but still just as worthwhile to stroll the Charles Bridge and labyrinthine medieval city streets.
This city on Australia’s southeastern coast is the second-largest in the country, and lately giving Sydney some serious competition with its edgy boutiques, sexy lounges, and intimate restaurants. There’s a thriving arts scene, as well as an active biking community and appealing green spaces like the Royal Botanic Gardens.
No. 30 Bruges, Belgium
Quaint and compact, Bruges exudes almost a cozy, small-town vibe, especially in its 13th-century historic heart. Be sure to pack your rain gear as Bruges is known for its year-round wet weather. Don’t let it get you down—a little rain is just the excuse to duck inside and sample the city’s well-known comfort foods: frites, chocolates, and of course, beer.
No. 31 Salzburg, Austria
Small for a city, with roughly 150,000 residents, Salzburg is nonetheless rich with history—thanks in part to its most famous onetime resident, Mozart. Framed by mountains, the fairy-tale-like Old City was officially named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 for its charming baroque architecture in particular.
No. 32 Tokyo
With some 13 million residents in such a concentrated area, don’t expect a relaxing retreat when visiting. What you can expect is tons of great shopping, cutting-edge fashion, and amazing food. (Even the ramen, which serves as a cost-effective college student staple in the U.S., is taken to a whole new level. It’s so much a part of their culture, there’s even a museum dedicated to it!)
No. 33 Mexico City
Since the 1968 Olympic Games, the population of this Mexican metropolis has grown from 5 to more than 22 million, bringing a host of traffic and pollution issues with it. Yet the capital of Mexico hasn’t lost its creative edge thanks to a handful of pioneering museums and galleries, including the Museo Universitario del Chopo which was recently redesigned by star architect Enrique Norten, and the trio of the Kurimanzutto, OMR, and Proyectos Monclova galleries known for staging cutting-edge exhibitions.
No. 34 Victoria, BC
On the southern tip of timber-clad Vancouver Island, Victoria has long been famous for its pristine flower gardens, mahogany-trimmed pubs, and the towering Fairmont Empress hotel. However, BC’s capital, just a 25-minute flight or 1 1/2-hour ferry ride from Vancouver, is garnering its new name with its buzzing farm-to-table food scene.
No. 35 Tel Aviv
Jerusalem is Israel’s political and religious capital, but Israel’s second-largest city is its hub of culture, finance, and media. Despite the turmoil around it, Tel Aviv has enjoyed a boost in quality of life and wealth over the past decade with Philippe Starck and I. M. Pei–designed towers popping up in the skyline alongside the largest concentration of Bauhaus architecture in the world.
No. 36 Amsterdam
One of Europe's most perfectly preserved cities and naturally resistant to automobile traffic, Amsterdam is a bicyclist's heaven. While there is a strong sense of the city’s beginnings, the Netherlands' legendarily tolerant capital is looking to the future with newer projects like the Nesciobrug pedestrian bridge and the installation of several hundred charging stations for electric boats, mopeds, scooters, and cars—in hopes that 200,000 electric autos will navigate the streets by 2040.
No. 37 Queenstown, NZ
No question: this adventure-travel mecca’s scenery-laden setting helped it go head-to-head in our list with cities many times its size. And while the area’s Lord of the Rings connections have been touted ad nauseam, it must be some mystical connection with Middle-earth’s natural beauty that lures travelers to the bottom of the world.
No. 38 Shanghai
Given the relentless buzz of this suddenly capitalistic city, it’s surprising Shanghai didn’t rank higher in our World’s Best Cities list. But with its ever-growing importance and ever-expanding infrastructure (there are now two Ritz-Carltons), expect more people to visit…and become addicted to Shanghai’s dizzying pace of change.