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This year's World's Best Awards survey was open for voting January 11 through May 10, 2021, as destinations around the world were lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Survey rules have always allowed readers to reflect on their travel experiences over a three-year period. We hope that this year's honorees will inspire your own travels as you get back out into the world.

The appeal of a European vacation remains strong for American travelers: in 2019, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and the U.K. all ranked in the top 10 countries most popular for visitors from the U.S., as measured by the National Travel and Tourism Office. And while there's nothing wrong with heading straight to a Greek island beach or a vineyard villa in Tuscany, you're missing out if you don't spend at least some time soaking up the dynamic energy of the best cities in Europe. 

Every year for our World's Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated cities on their sights and landmarks, culture, cuisine, friendliness, shopping, and overall value.

Moonrise in Istanbul, as seen from the Golden Horn
Credit: Nate Hovee/Getty Images

Italy — consistently one of the world's most-visited countries each year — claimed three of our readers' favorite European cities. The top-ranking Italian contender is Florence, last year's winner and the star of the magazine's August 2020 cover, which comes in at No. 2. "The art will blow your mind," wrote one reader, who also waxed poetic about "the food, the beauty, the people." 

But there are some surprises on this list. In southern Europe, always a tourism hot spot for its warmer weather and easy living, several of the top-ranked destinations are smaller, more out-of-the-way cities: the Italian port city of Trieste (No. 7), for example, and San Sebastián (No. 5), in Spain's Basque Country, home to fewer than 200,000 people but famous worldwide for its outsize contributions to avant-garde cuisine. (Fun fact: it's the city with the second-most Michelin stars in the world.) 

Also on the list are cities in some former Eastern-bloc countries, indicating a broader interest among readers in exploring Central and Eastern Europe. Ljubljana, the charming capital of Slovenia, comes in eighth, and Kraków, Poland, moves up four spots from last year to come in at No. 3 in our readers' rankings. "Horse-drawn carriages in the old town square, music, food, gorgeous architecture, music, and street entertainment," recalled one respondent. "You feel like you've stepped back in time and are immediately drawn into the place." 

Two cities in the top 10 are in Turkey, a nation of nearly 85 million that straddles Europe and Asia — a unique position that influences everything from its stunning architecture to cosmopolitan cuisine. One of this year's honorees is Bodrum, an ancient city on the Aegean, which readers ranked No. 6. 

The other, Istanbul, is a city at the crossroads of history with an enduring allure. Find out below why T+L readers ranked it at the top of the best cities in Europe, and which other Continental destinations made the list.

1. Istanbul

View of Bosphorus and Golden Horn from the Galata Tower, Istanbul, Turkey
Credit: Viktoriya Kraynyuk/Getty Images

After coming in second last year, this city of 15 million has overtaken Florence to claim the title of the No. 1 city in Europe, according to T+L readers. "My favorite city," wrote one survey respondent. "It was the capital for the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, but there's also amazing contemporary culture, shopping, food, and architecture." Popular historical sites here include Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia, but there are plenty of more modern attractions, too — from the boutiques of the Nişantaşi quarter to Galataport, a cruise-ship terminal and mixed-use development rising up on the banks of the Bosphorus. And the city's striking new airport provides a welcome to the city that's so smooth that many survey respondents include their arrival among their fondest trip memories. Said one reader, "Even a week is not enough to fully appreciate this cosmopolitan global capital."

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 91.32

2. Florence

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in sunset, photo taken in Piazza Michelangelo, Florence, Italy
Credit: Jing Yang/Getty Images

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 90.48

3. Kraków, Poland

St Mary's Basilica, Bazylika Mariacka, Through the Arches, The Cloth Hall, Krakow, Poland
Credit: Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

Score: 89.39

4. Rome

A stunning view of the National Monument of the Altare della Patria in Rome in the light of the sunset
Credit: Getty Images

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 88.88

5. San Sebastián, Spain

City skyline by night with Bahia de la Concha, Donostia San Sebastian, Gipuzkoa, Basque Country, Spain
Credit: Stefano Politi Markovina/Getty Images

Score: 88.87

6. Bodrum, Turkey

Bodrum Castle and Yachts
Credit: Getty Images

Score: 88.82

7. Trieste, Italy

View of a garden in a public park and the bay of Trieste adjoining the Miramare castle in Trieste, Italy.
Credit: Getty Images

Score: 88.54

8. Ljubljana, Slovenia

Triple Bridge over Ljubljanica River, Slovenia
Credit: Getty Images

Score: 88.47

9. Porto, Portugal

The historic embankment of Porto with 3 bridges over Douro River, Porto, Portugal
Credit: Getty Images

Score: 87.79

10. Seville, Spain

Tourist walking in the street of Seville in the south of Spain in a sunny day.
Credit: Tomás Guardia Bencomo/Getty Images

Score: 87.73

See all of our readers' favorite hotels, cities, airlines, cruise lines, and more in the World's Best Awards for 2021.