Yesterday we brought you the cities ranked #20-40 in the world by readers of Travel & Leisure Magazine. Today we bring you the best of the best. These are the cities that are probably already on anyone's dream itinerary, the ones that are constantly highly rated on these kinds of lists. So even though they're the "best cities in the world for 2011," check out 20 places you should probably try to make it to at least once in your life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
15. Kyoto, Japan 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.
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.1
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.
12. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.