Photo by Shutterstock
Photo by Shutterstock
Madrid moved up the list of World's Best Cities, cracking the top 10 for 2021.
Unlike other best-of lists, Resonance’s annual ranking considers a city’s diversity, cultural programming, and new this year, its response to COVID and ability to rebound.
To figure out where you should travel to next, there are plenty of lists out there ranking the world’s best cities. Some use reader polls to determine which place lands at the top, while others base rankings on data like its livability or how easy it is to bike there. But Resonance, a consultancy group in real estate, tourism, and economic development, wanted to create a ranking that was more comprehensive.
“Our goal here was not to just create an index for tourism or just for business or just for livability. It was really to provide and create a ranking that took a holistic view of the city,” Chris Fair, president and CEO of Resonance Consultancy, told AFAR in January, when the list was first released. “When we say ‘best cities,’ it’s not just best city to live, it’s not just best city to work, or best city to visit. It’s taking a cross section of all those factors.”
And new this year: Resonance also considered how a city responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, re-releasing the list this month. Welcome to the World's Best Cities of 2021, which now includes considerations like outdoor experiences, clean air, and an ability to innovate.
Historically, to determine which cities would be considered for this list, Resonance Consultancy looked at those with populations of more than 1 million. Then each of those cities was ranked by using a combination of core statistics (like GDP and homicide rates) and qualitative evaluations by both locals and visitors (from online channels like Instagram and TripAdvisor).
“Many of the factors that people told us were important in choosing a city to live or do business or visit were related to the experiential quality of the city—things like culture, restaurants, nightlife, shopping, and sports,” Fair said. “There are no core statistics for those kinds of factors. What really distinguishes our rankings is that we are mining user-generated data in channels like TripAdvisor and Yelp to measure those experiential factors.”
Those areas they ranked cities on were grouped into six core categories, including Place, People, Programming, Product, Prosperity, and Promotion.
Place: This includes weather (the average number of sunny days), safety (homicide rate), as well as neighborhoods and landmarks (specifically the number of which were recommended by locals and visitors) and outdoors (or the number of parks and outdoor activities recommended by locals and visitors).
People: The People category takes into account the city’s diversity (percentage of foreign-born residents) as well as the educational attainment (percentage of population with a bachelor’s degree or higher).
Programming: This is what most guidebooks would call “things to do” and includes experiences offered in the areas of culture (specifically performing arts), nightlife, dining, and shopping recommended by both locals and visitors.
Product: The Product category, on the other hand, includes each city’s infrastructure and institutions. This is where attractions and museums are considered, as well as other areas like airport connectivity (or the number of direct destinations served by the city’s airports), university ranking (specifically the ranking of the top local school), and the size of the local convention center.
Prosperity: This category includes the number of Global 500 corporate headquarters located within each city and the GDP per capita. While most travelers wouldn’t necessarily factor these things into choosing a destination, Resonance believes greater “prosperity” draws more people to live in these cities, which eventually drives more economic growth and development. That means better dining options, cultural institutions, and airports in the long run.
Promotion: In addition to relying on user-generated data from locals and visitors to vet dining and shopping recommendations, this list also looked at how popular each city was online. The Promotion category—or how a city’s story is shared through online channels—is based specifically on the number of Facebook check-ins, Google searches, TripAdvisor reviews, and Instagram hashtags shared online about each city, as well as the popularity of each city in Google Trends over the last 12 months.
With all of those things factored in, here’s how the rankings of the world’s best cities landed for the 2021 report, released October 22, 2020:
Highlighted rankings: Promotion (1), Programming (2)
Why we love it: “London is still London and the pandemic has made us value other aspects of city life—critical things, like cool, breathable air, which is made possible by a city’s trees and its green, open landscapes,” says Resonance. “London ranks #16 for the quality of its outdoor experiences, many of which come in the form of spectacular parks that are the legacy of dozens of former country estates that served as hunting grounds for generations of kings and queens.” London’s main sights might date back millennia, but the capital’s shops, bars, hotels, and restaurants continue to evolve on an almost weekly basis. Whether you’re outdoorsy, hungry, or bringing a family in tow, there’s a distinct London neighborhood to investigate—and it will likely look different from your last visit. For hotel options, there’s everything from sleek new offerings like Vintry & Mercer (open during COVID with flexible bookings) to revitalized historic classics such as the Belmond Cadogan (also open). Just don’t bring up Brexit.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to London
Highlighted rankings: Programming (1), Promotion (2)
Why we love it: “New York is, above all, a gathering place where brains and bodies in indecent proximity to one another create the sparks of genius, invention, progress. Today New Yorkers stand at the ready, together and alone, on their stoops and balconies ready to defend their city,” says Resonance. “However the world emerges, evolves or pivots out of our collective force majeure, it will happen here first.” New York consistently ranks for its culture; it came in fifth for museums, which are continually improving as evidenced by the 2019 renovation of the Museum of Modern Art and the brand-new Fotografiska photography museum that opened in Manhattan’s Flatiron District at the end of the year. Broadway may not turn the lights back on until June 2021, but be certain—this is no ghost town.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to New York City
Highlighted rankings: Product (3), Promotion (3)
Why we love it: The Notre-Dame fire was a devastating reminder of how well loved Paris is by travelers worldwide, and as the capital gears up for the 2024 Olympics, it’s only getting better. Improved infrastructure and 24 new hotels in the past year alone add to a city we love for its world-class art, shopping (it beat New York and London in this year’s Resonance list), and global cuisine. “As the saying goes, Paris is always a good idea,” says Resonance. “And now that swimming in the waters of the Seine is a thing at Bassin de la Villette public pools, even the locals who notoriously leave town in summer are sticking around. City Hall is promising to build five new outdoor swimming pools in time for the Olympics.”
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Paris
Highlighted rankings: Place (3), Product (1)
Article continues below advertisement
Why we love it: “The first so-called “post- Soviet generation” of Muscovites has traveled the world, returning with suitcases full of ideas that they’re unpacking to huge effect in their always-proud city, sanctions be damned,” says Resonance. The Russian capital is well known for its iconic attractions like Red Square’s colorful St. Basil’s Cathedral. But did you know that it’s also one of the best cities to fly in and out of in the world? It takes the fourth spot for airport connectivity in Resonance’s ranking, up one place from last year, and Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International was recently named the most on-time airport in the world in Cirium’s annual On-Time Performance Review.
Highlighted rankings: Place (1), Prosperity (3)
Why we love it: “Despite earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, Tokyo grabbed the #1 spot for Safety. Which is helpful in a place with so much to explore and discover at all hours of the night. Tokyo continues to mesmerize global visitors with its innovation, efficiency and round-the-clock kinetic mobility,” says Resonance. Tokyo has the second most restaurants of any city worldwide, ranked number two for its restaurants, and is home to some life-changing ramen, making it a destination worth planning an entire trip around food. And if most of your travel budget goes to eating, don’t worry. There are plenty of affordable hotels in Tokyo to book. Fingers crossed the rescheduled Olympics take place next year, too.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Tokyo
Highlighted rankings: Place (2), People (2)
Why we love it:You may associate Dubai with its record-setting skyscrapers and that reputation is well earned. Santiago Calatrava’s the Tower at Dubai Creek will surpass the Burj Khalifa as the tallest building in the world when it is completed. Yet, you won’t have to spend your entire trip here indoors. “It’s the outdoors that really clinched Dubai’s no. 6 overall ranking,” says Resonance. “The city offers outdoor experiences that rank fifth-most in quality, and it hit the Top 10 for both Safety and Weather, both at no. 8.” The emirate has plenty of man-made islands and even a new nature-inspired shopping mall that has a rooftop park and 200,000 total square feet of open-air gardens to explore.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Dubai
Highlighted rankings: People (11), Promotion (6)
Why we love it: “Singapore’s reinvestment into research, talent and corporate headquarters recruitment ensures it will be home to a sustainably wealthy citizenry for decades to come. It’s why the city-state continues its ascent among the planet’s most prosperous cities,” says Resonance. The Little Red Dot, as the city-state is affectionately called, earned its top spot in these rankings for its people and infrastructure. Singapore earns top spots in our eyes (and stomachs) for its famous hawker stall street food, its garden-like airport terminal, and the newly renovated (and reopened) Raffles Singapore hotel, which has been welcoming travelers since 1887.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Singapore
Highlighted rankings: Place (9), Promotion (9)
Why we love it: “Barcelona is an almost ideal European city, one with near-perfect weather year round, miles and miles of beaches, iconic parks, striking architecture and colorful neighborhoods that march to their own beat—artistic, sophisticated, bohemian. No wonder it ranks Top 10 in our Place category, which measures both the natural and built environments of a city,” says Resonance. Often seen as the poster child for overtourism, Barcelona’s popularity likely won’t dissipate into 2021, especially with the lure of its beaches and Gaudí’s iconic architectural landmarks. Just be sure to make reservations in advance, especially for Barcelona’s biggest attractions.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Barcelona
Highlighted rankings: Product (15), Promotion (7)
Why we love it: “L.A.’s cultural and culinary leaders—so willing to step up and declare the city open for business after a series of natural disasters, helping the city rank no. 7 in our Promotion category—will be called upon again soon,” says Resonance. L.A. welcomed more than 50 million visitors in 2019, arriving from across the globe for the city’s beaches, movie studios, museums, and star-spotting potential. But Los Angeles has also undergone a culinary renaissance, so much so that it hosts two separate restaurant weeks to showcase the options, offers an abundance of rooftop bars from downtown to West Hollywood, and has seen both coastal communities like Venice Beach and east side spots including Echo Park raise their game in recent years.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Los Angeles
Highlighted rankings: Programming (8), Place (21)
Why we love it: “The city, a newcomer to the Top 10, is getting back on its feet after a prolonged lockdown. Its dazzling museums have reopened—at reduced capacity—and with recent expansions to the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza,” says Resonance. Spain’s capital is best explored on foot—strolling its wide boulevards or wandering down the halls of the Reina Sofia or Prado museums. But be sure to indulge in an afternoon siesta, since Madrid’s nightlife scene is not to be missed. In fact, when AFAR recently sent novelist Mira T. Lee on a last-minute trip to Spain, she rediscovered her love of late nights watching flamenco shows and dancing at clubs in the city’s Cheuca neighborhood. COVID has curtailed some of the nocturnal fun, but investments in outdoor dining and walking infrastructure should see the city bounce back when the virus eventually recedes.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Madrid
Highlighted rankings: Place (7), Promotion (5)
Why we love it: “The curiosity about the Eternal City will only increase as Rome reopens carefully to visitors, who, after gorging on six months of local ’Grams featuring empty summer streets and iconic sites with nary a tourist umbrella to clutter the shot, are keen to time their return before the crowds come back,” says Resonance. Rome’s ancient charms are evident in every cobbled street, but the city never rests on its laurel wreaths. New reasons to visit the city include a new hotel in a 17th-century palace and Europe’s first amaro bar—but be careful where you eat and drink.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Rome
Highlighted rankings: Product (9), Promotion (12)
Why we love it: It may not receive top ratings for its frigid weather, but Chicago makes the best of it by winterifying even its rooftop bars for year-round enjoyment. Perhaps the poor weather makes its indoor cultural activities like a comedy show at Second City or visiting the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum such major draws. The city’s fine dining scene is also on the up and up, but be sure to also make time for some classic deep dish pizza while you’re there. And “in the not-too-distant future, the Obama Presidential Center—to be set in Jackson Park—will become a marquee attraction on Chicago’s South Side,” says Resonance.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Chicago
Highlighted rankings: People (3), Global 500 Companies (7)
Why we love it: Nearly half of Toronto’s population was born abroad, making it a wonderfully diverse city to live in or visit. Like any other major city, there’s a downtown, but Toronto is best explored through its multicultural neighborhoods—and the foods you can find there. You’ll find not one but three Chinatowns, a Korea Town, as well as a heavy Ethiopian influence in Queen West and Latin American parts of Kensington Market.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Toronto
Highlighted rankings: People (6), Place (17)
Why we love it: The Resonance list credits the lure of high salaries for San Francisco’s influx of talented workers, but San Francisco has long been one of our favorite destinations. The airport itself is a worthy destination, with a new(ish) SFO food hall offering Tartine pastries and other high-end delights, and the on-site Grand Hyatt, which was designed by the same team as the city’s Proper hotel and runs a vibrant public art project. The city itself is packed with things to do, and they don’t all require a sky-high techie paycheck.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to San Francisco
Highlighted rankings: People (1), Prosperity (4)
Why we love it: A quieter alternative to Dubai’s over-the-top shopping malls and skyscrapers, the capital of the UAE is working hard to establish itself as a center for arts and culture. Resonance currently ranked it 231st for museums, but that will surely change in the coming years. Already, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is open and several other institutes are currently being built, including the Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Norman Foster–designed Zayed National Museum, Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum, and a performing arts center designed by the late Zaha Hadid.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Abu Dhabi
Highlighted rankings: Product (10), Place (10)
Why we love it: “Imperial capital for two centuries, city of 40 islands and 342 bridges, St. Petersburg has been steadily climbing the rankings from #54 to #35 and now within sight of the Top 10,” says Resonance. “It owes much of that recognition to its overwhelming saturation in arts and education… and the word ‘museum’ gets redefined at the State Hermitage, one of the largest museums in the world, with an exquisite, sea-green Winter Palace so beautiful it could melt a czar’s heart.”
Highlighted rankings: Airport Connectivity (7), Educational Attainment (8)
Why we love it: With nonstop flights available from most U.S. cities, Amsterdam’s easy accessibility—and beautiful canals and world-class museums—make it a popular stop for any Euro trip. In addition to its top-notch cultural offerings, Amsterdam is also on the forefront of sustainable tourism. In 2018, one hospitality company started to repurpose Amsterdam’s out-of-use bridge houses into charming stand-alone hotel rooms, and by 2030, all gas and diesel cars will be banned from the city.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Amsterdam
Highlighted rankings: Product (17), Programming (17)
Why we love it: “Expats, creatives, entrepreneurs, immigrants, punks, and misfits all find their place in Berlin, a city where remnants of a fragile history mingle with an ever-changing present, and where being whatever you want to be is not just encouraged but embraced,” says Resonance. “Though it was spared the COVID-19 numbers other European capitals experienced during the first wave (possibly thanks to the country’s science-friendly attitude and chancellor).”
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Berlin
Highlighted rankings: Prosperity (8), Programming (12)
Why we love it: “‘Egalitarian’ is an odd word to apply to a city in which the most prominent feature is a huge walled castle, but Prague claims no. 4 worldwide for Income Equality and no. 7 in our Unemployment subcategory. That’s not to say it’s abandoned the indulgent splendor of the past: Prague’s fairy-tale spirit can still be found in its century-old cobbled streets and its (publicly accessible) castle perched on a hilltop, in its hidden alleys, grand squares, ancient bridges and dreamy spires,” says Resonance. “Its COVID-19 response was second only to Tokyo’s among the world’s Top 20 cities, allowing its tourism to rebound faster than elsewhere; to celebrate, Prague offered 50 pecent off entry fees to its museums, ranked no. 7 globally.”
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Prague
Highlighted rankings: People (14), Promotion (10)
Why we love it: “Before the COVID-19 outbreak, 2020 was going to be one of the busiest ever for D.C. development, with Capitol Hill’s the Roost, a 12,500-square-foot community-based food hall, kicking things off. West Half, near The Yards Park, was also slated to open in late 2020, featuring views of Major League Baseball’s Nationals Park and including a brewery, cafés and a local grocery store,” says Resonance. “And Ward 7, two blocks away from the Minnesota Avenue metro station, will be home to Market 7, powered by a variety of Black-owned businesses including a grocer and retail installations by local makers.”
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Washington, D.C.
Highlighted rankings: Product (16), Promotion (8)
Why we love it: “The meeting of East and West, old and new, and conservatism and liberalism that Istanbul’s history is built upon colors everything here,” says Resonance. “Minarets and church spires dot the bright skyline, while down at street level women in black abayas and those in tight-fitting Armani dresses walk side by side. A few more steps away, Arabic house music from sidewalk cafés and bars all but drowns out the call to prayer. Get your bearings with a walk down Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian avenue in the Beyoğlu district that fuses modern with tradition to great effect.”
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Istanbul
Highlighted rankings: Programming (18), Promotion (14)
Why we love it: Las Vegas is burned in our collective consciousness from a thousand heist movies, but you don’t really know the city until you’ve experienced it in all its neon glory. It’s also evolved substantially in recent years, becoming a family friendly destination (yes, really) and even more of a food lover’s paradise with the new Eataly, while offering more intimate lodgings like last year’s NoMad atop the Park MGM.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Las Vegas
Highlighted rankings: People (10), Prosperity (2)
Why we love it: Doha jumped from 44th to 18th on this list in one year, thanks to all the infrastructural work being done to prepare it to host the 2022 World Cup. Already, the I.M Pei–designed Museum of Islamic Art and the Jean Nouvel–designed National Museum of Qatar are open. By the time 2022 rolls around, there will also be 21 new hotels to choose from as well as skyscrapers and shopping malls to rival the ones in Dubai. Among all those shiny new things, keep an eye out for the traditional souks and marketplaces to wander around, too.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Doha
Highlighted rankings: Product (22), Programming (5)
Why we love it: “Throughout the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic, Seoul emerged as the envy of the world. Its secret? A high-tech sector and experienced government collaborating to detect, contain and treat cases early. That response was a blessing to the city’s restaurant and dining scene, tops globally for the second year in a row for the sheer volume of places to eat in town,” says Resonance. “To feed the body and mind, start your visit at Zaha Hadid’s futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Then, for a deep dive into the soul of Koreans, visit the National Folk Museum of Korea, which includes a room devoted to the deep and pervasive roots of Confucianism.”
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Seoul
Highlighted rankings: Diversity (6), Outdoors (11)
Why we love it: Located right on the water and home to some of the world’s most beautiful swimming spots and beaches, Sydney obviously ranked highly in the outdoors category in this list. Which makes the wildfires that blazed in Australia on Sydney’s doorstep all the more upsetting. The New South Wales area will need tourism dollars more than ever to help rebuild what was burned. Thankfully, Sydney’s big outdoor spaces likely helped the city weather the coronavirus pandemic—within the Top 20, it had the third-fewest cases per million residents—and some green spaces saw double the usual number of visitors. The city is gifted with perfect integration of the natural and built, and accessible by all manner of ferries and watercraft, from which new angles on icons like the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge are revealed,” says Resonance.
Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Sydney
To see the full list of the world’s 100 best cities, visit bestcities.org.
This article was originally published in January 2020. It was updated October 26, 2020.
>> Next: The 2020 Best Cities in the U.S.
Sign up for the Daily Wander newsletter for expert travel inspiration and tips
Please enter a valid email address.