The Most Visually Striking Cities in the World

Some skylines just stick out in your memory more than others, and have something about them that makes them instant Instagram stars. From the neon lights of Tokyo and Bangkok to the iconic New York City skyline, and from the stunning architecture of Sydney to the light and romance of Paris, these visually striking cities need no filter to showcase their photographic good looks.

Riding high after its successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics, the capital city formerly known as Edo is a sprawling megalopolis characterized by a blend of ancient tradition and modern luxury. Greater Tokyo boasts a resume like that of an anime superhero—it has the largest urban population on Earth, an ultra-efficient public transportation system, more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris and New York combined, a high level of public safety, and four distinct seasons in which to enjoy it all. Combine this with zany, only-in-Japan attractions and entertainment, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for what is arguably the globe’s greatest city.
San Francisco is a diverse city that often finds itself on the edge of social and technological change. The small city has long been a haven for marginalized groups, but it is also a place that is grappling with its identity in the throes of a tech boom. To really know San Francisco, you must explore its neighborhoods. Look for taquerias and techies in the Mission, rainbow flags flying above the Castro, earnest hippie vibes in the Haight, and beachy quietude in the Sunset. Visitors will find the city welcoming and full of activities for nature lovers, bookworms, shoppers, foodies, cultural mavens, and more.
Vancouver is blessed. This modern city, with its glittering high-rise downtown, is ringed by some of the most beautiful water and mountain scenery on the planet. Visitors love the laid-back and outdoorsy lifestyle: You can ski in the morning, chill on the beach or paddleboard in the afternoon, and spend the night people-watching on a patio overlooking superlative mountain views. Vancouver also appeals to foodies, thanks to world-class restaurants, some of the best sushi outside of Japan, and a cutting-edge cocktail scene. Gateway to the Olympic-class mountains of Whistler, the Asian malls of Richmond, and Canada’s most English city, Victoria, there’s adventure all around this Pacific Northwest paradise.
Vietnam lends itself well to epics. Snaking down from the Chinese border to the Gulf of Thailand, its towering peaks, emerald-green paddies, and endless white-sand beaches offer enough natural beauty to inspire even the most jaded traveler. One of the highlights is the central coast. Da Nang, the country’s fifth-largest city, is the area’s chief hub. While the city is fast developing as a destination in its own right, neighbour Hoi An is long established as one of Vietnam’s premier tourist towns. Together, the two cities act as a launch pad for visitors to explore world-class heritage attractions and leisure options that range from golf courses and casinos to cooking classes and bicycle rides around bucolic countryside—plus, of course, some of Vietnam’s best stretches of sand.
Marrakech has attracted visitors for nearly a millennium. The city first grew rich from camel caravans that brought gold and salt from the Sahara Desert, but today its lifeblood is tourism. Travelers come seeking the street performers in the historic Djemaa el-Fna square, the winding alleys of the centuries-old medina, and the endless array of handicrafts. In between cultural excursions, they recharge in a boutique riad and discover the rich spices of Moroccan cuisine. And the Berber carpet of your dreams is just a haggle and a glass of mint tea away.
Hong Kong, whose name means “fragrant harbor” in Cantonese, is a dynamic city of unique sights, sounds, and smells. Home to approximately 6.8 million people in a 426-square-mile radius, it bustles with a mix of new and old—the charm of ex-British rule coupled with the class of Asian heritage. A typical Hong Kong scene includes cosmopolitan city streets topped with high concrete buildings. But outside the urban hive is abundant, lush, breathtaking scenery.
Surrounded by spectacular harbor and beachfront, Sydney is one of the world’s most stunning cities, and one that entices travelers with rare plants and animals and pristine beaches and forests. But this beauty has brains, too, which visitors experience in the form of cracking cultural attractions, events that focus on the locals, and innovative dining and drinking. The city’s temperate climate means that Sydneysiders love spending time outdoors, whether they’re playing in the waves or drinking coldies (cold beer) on a bar patio. In short, Sydney will welcome you in; she might just never let you go.
The heat is on in The Lion City, a tropical city-state at the heart of Southeast Asia that punches above its weight in arts, entertainment, nature, and the twin Singaporean obsessions: world-class food and shopping. In recent years, the Little Red Dot has transformed itself from a sterile layover stop into a vibrant global metropolis that is a destination in its own right. Craving glitzy hotels and air-conditioned super-malls? Singapore has these developments in spades. But don’t overlook the hawker centers and shophouses, temples and jungle trails that remain the heart and soul of this cultural melting pot.
With a harbor punctuated by granite monoliths, a laid-back cosmopolitan lifestyle, and famous black-and-white-tiled sidewalks, Rio de Janeiro attracts more than two million visitors each year. The perfect day here starts on the beaches of Leblon; includes a trip up to Christ the Redeemer, one of the seven new wonders of the world; and ends in the early morning at the samba clubs of Lapa. Along the way, eat your weight in grilled meat and Amazonian fruits, taste drinks made from sugarcane liquor, and shake hands with some of the most beautiful and friendly people on the planet.
Cape Town is South Africa’s beautiful playground. With its combination of stunning natural landscapes, the large, culturally diverse population, and bright African sunshine, Cape Town is a place where time slows and life is savored. Every now and then, you’ll catch a sobering glimpse of the extent of the city’s population living below the poverty line, and you’re reminded that transition doesn’t happen overnight. Visitors are bound to feel the all-encompassing warm spirit that transcends any historical hardship, and will gain a fond appreciation of South Africa’s Mother City.
A hub for hedonists, a wellspring of inspiration for artists, and a haven for history buffs: Paris is a fantasy destination for millions of travelers each year. The storied bakeries, iconic museums, and corner cafés feel anchored in another time, but the zeitgeist of the city leans forward into a dynamic, multicultural food scene dominated by young French and foreign talents. It is precisely this juxtaposition of old and new that makes Paris the perpetually perfect place to visit. So go exploring, get lost, eat until your belly hurts—and then do it all over again. The City of Light shines on.
Budapest is a manageable city for navigating on foot, with Buda on the west side of the Danube and Pest on the east. You can experience the major sights in just a few days or immerse yourself in local culture on a longer visit. Gaze up as you wander, so as not to miss the fine details on the late-19th- and early-20th-century buildings downtown. Explore newer facets of the city, too, especially the contemporary art, fashion, and design scenes. Café culture has been prominent in Budapest’s history, and lively drinking establishments and steamy thermal bath houses only increase the city’s allure.
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