Jun 27, 2023

The 14 most beautiful cities in the world

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If you were asked to name the world’s most beautiful city, what would your answer be? As a world traveller, surely prevarication would ensue, since no city is gorgeous in all its parts and we enjoy the aesthetic pleasures of different cities for a multitude of reasons.

Some cities have sumptuous alpine, lake or coastal settings. Others have architecture to crick your neck, or generous green spaces in which to rest, breathe and expand the soul.

Some are beautiful in their detail: museums filled with treasures, parks popping with statues, ornate cafés on every street corner.

Then there are those cities that transcend their physical appearance, and are thought of as beautiful, thanks to their difficult to define spiritual, historical or romantic atmosphere, or the flamboyant or friendly nature of their inhabitants.

Nevertheless, in a sequel to Traveller’s “world’s most beautiful country” cover story earlier this year – which really got readers thinking – we insisted our travel writers come up with definitive answers.

While there is consensus that no city is universally lovely – we gaze at old towns and waterfronts, and pretend not to notice shantytowns and industrial zones – their responses show a pleasing range of interpretations about what makes certain cities especially beautiful. We hope our contributors’ nominations surprise and inspire, invite you to ponder your own choices, and tempt you to travel.

By Brian Johnston

View from the Suleymaniye Mosque complex to the Golden Horn, Istanbul, Turkey.Credit: iStock

Istanbul has no sleek, conventional beauty. It has the beauty of a movie star who refuses nips and tucks, revels in the wrinkles, but retains her seductive charm. The city is dishevelled and worn, raucous and complicated, but always lovely.

For conventional beauty, take a ferry and see it from the water. Roman walls, timbered houses, marbled terraces, gardens, pavilions and palaces are heaped above the Bosphorus, topped off by mosques with minarets that rise like giant exclamation marks to a fabulous history.

No city offers such a wealth of outstanding Byzantine and Islamic monuments and culture than this former Eastern Roman and Ottoman capital. Glorious golden mosaics illuminate Hagia Sophia. Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque is decorated with Iznik tiles depicting stylised tulips, roses and cypress trees. Woodwork is inlaid with delicate mother-of-pearl and ivory.

Light streams through 200 stained-glass windows. Topkapi, seat of power and pleasure palace of Ottoman sultans for four centuries, is also as fantastical as you’d expect: exquisitely decorated harems, fountain-splashed courtyards, mirrored pools, dainty pavilions overlooking the Bosphorus below.

There’s beauty on a small scale too. Diamonds are embedded in the starry ceiling of Suleiman the Magnificent’s mausoleum. Museums are filled with dazzling sarcophagi and porcelain, illuminated Korans, swooping Arabic calligraphy, and gold candlesticks studded with gemstones.

How could the crossroads of Asia and Europe, Mediterranean and Black Sea be anything but fabulous?

You can buy beauty as well as look at it: brass lamps and prayer rugs from the Grand Bazaar, hand-painted silk and embroidered waistcoats from handicraft centres, wheels of geometrically arranged stuffed dates at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Istanbul offers more aesthetics than grand monuments and historical knickknacks. Life has continued unabated for almost three millennia, and you only need to stroll the streets to find another kind of beauty in the indented faces of old men who hawk nuts and fry fish, or in the grinning faces of children in ribbons.

As Ramadan ends, everyone’s infectious smiles are beautiful, as neighbours sit under minarets and trees draped in fairy lights and enjoy outdoor banquets. Sunset in Istanbul is superb. The orange sun sinks behind the Golden Horn, creating silhouettes like a stage set from The Thousand and One Nights. See

By Ben Groundwater

San Sebastian in the Basque country in Spain. Credit: iStock

The photo on my desktop is one I took in San Sebastian. It flashed up when I began work this morning. I will see it again after lunch. I see that photo every time I open my laptop.

The scene is dusk at Playa Zurriola in late autumn, unseasonably warm and joyous. In the photo there’s a woman perched on a bike, leaning on a railing on the promenade, watching as surfers paddle into waves that tumble onto the beach.

The horizon is stained a pastel yellow. You can almost smell the salt in the air. I have this photo on my laptop as a reminder of the year I spent living right near this beach, of the many mornings I spent walking this promenade, pushing my son in his pram – but also of the incredible, seductive beauty of this amazing place.

San Sebastian. It’s almost unfair how much beauty there is in such a small city. Consider its natural charms. Two beaches: the surfie joy of Playa Zurriola, and the golden-sand perfection of Playa de la Concha.

Three hilltops: Monte de Ulia, commanding a view over the city from the east; Monte Urgull, between the two beaches, vistas of each; Monte Igueldo, with its old-school amusement park and its unbelievable view of the Concha bay, filled with small boats and swimmers and the craggy outcrop of Isla de Santa Clara.

The prettiness here changes with the seasons. In summer, it’s all blue skies and long evenings on the sand. But what about winter, when the trees are skeletal and the sea is angry, gargantuan waves crashing over protective rock walls? Still seductive. Still beautiful.

The true charm of San Sebastian, however, is not just physical, but cultural. Festivals take place on the city streets here almost daily. Food is life: every bar and every restaurant serves art on a plate, morsels that taste as good as they look.

And this is a city of great conviviality, where every mealtime is a social occasion, where entire families go out together, every generation mixing easily and naturally, from kids kicking footballs to grandparents slugging beers at the bar.

There’s just something about San Sebastian that makes your soul sing with the sheer loveliness of it all. And every time I open my laptop, it’s there.

By Michael Gebicki

Lecce’s famous ancient Roman amphitheatre once held 25,000 spectators.Credit: Shutterstock

Pass from the 21st-century via Porta Napoli, and you’re in Lecce’s baroque historic centre, lined with palaces and churches festooned with stone cherubs, saints and dangling grapes.

Twisting laneways writhe between stone facades with arched doorways sized for riders on horseback, overlooked by Juliet balconies.

What gives Lecce its classical unity is pietra leccese, the soft, honey-coloured Lecce limestone quarried nearby, and tailor-made for the giddy extravagance of the baroque that earned Lecce the subtitle “Florence of the South”.

Apart from a few 20th-century buildings around Piazza Sant’Oronzo, there are few discordant notes, no painted facades, almost no graffiti, a miracle in Italy.

The style dates from a time when the Catholic church was battling against the austere tendencies of Protestantism, harnessing art and architecture to underline the majesty and irrefutable righteousness of Catholicism, at its most persuasive in Lecce’s great churches – Santa Chiara and the Basilica of Santa Croce.

But Lecce is much older than the 16th century, flowering under the Romans who built an amphitheatre here in the second century CE, only rediscovered in 1901.

History runs deep. In 2000, when Luciano Faggiano had a problem with a blocked toilet in a building he was converting to a trattoria, he dug down under the floor and discovered first a Franciscan chapel.

It was once used as a mortuary and etchings left by crusader knights, then a Roman granary and finally a tomb from the region’s original Messapian people. Instead of a trattoria, he opened a museum.

Its cool and refined beauty has put Lecce on the tourist podium. Do spend a couple of nights and wander through quiet streets at the top and tail of the day, preferably over a caffe Leccese, espresso with ice and a shot of almond syrup, even better when it comes with a pasticciotto Leccese, a crisp pastry shell injected with custard.

The place to stay is Palazzo Maresgallo, a 16th-century palace with 12 sublime suites animated by contemporary artworks chosen by owners Lionel and Miriam Gazzola, the most serene and welcoming hostess you could hope to meet. See

By Julie Miller

Classic vintage American car in Havana, Cuba.Credit: iStock

To compare a city to a sassy old woman is a well-worn literary trope; but when I try to describe the peculiar beauty of the Cuban capital of Havana, one wrinkled visage keeps coming to mind.

Propped up outside the former Hemingway haunt of La Bodeguita del Medio in 2012, octogenarian Graciela Gonzalez – or Granny Puretta, as she was more commonly known – was the original Instagram sensation.

Her direct gaze and wide, gappy smile stuffed with a walloping cigar is one of the most photographed images in Cuba, even gracing the cover of a Lonely Planet guidebook edition.

Tourists loved her decaying glamour; and she loved the tourist payback, exploiting the somewhat uncomfortable gaze of voyeurism for a sweet US dollar, non-negotiable and no apologies.

Like the Cigar Lady of Cuba, the historic centre of Old Havana may be cracked and peeling, but it has the advantage of good bones, courtesy of marauding Spanish conquistadors with a penchant for grand monuments.

Built around four plazas flanked by narrow cobbled laneways, this 500-year-old World Heritage-listed time capsule features some of the most impressive colonial architecture of Latin America, grand forts, neoclassical palaces and Baroque mansions converted into hotels coexisting with buildings on the verge of collapse, licked with paint in a failed attempt to mask years of rot and neglect.

But behind the shabby chic is everyday life, vibrant and contagious. This is a city heaving with humanity, albeit struggling under the challenges of poverty and a collapsing infrastructure.

Washing strung from windows flaps in the breeze; children play with knucklebones on door stoops; while music permeates from hidden courtyards, spilling onto the street in a hip-swivelling salsa groove.

On El Malecon, classic American cars – behemoth Cadillacs, Buicks and Pontiacs, immaculately restored in bubblegum hues of pink, blue and green - galumph along the Atlantic waterfront while in the alleyway of Callejon de Hamal, drummers and rhumba dancers let loose in a celebration of Afro-Cuban culture.

From a tourist perspective, it’s all so fun, so glorious, so otherworldly – but Havana’s exuberance and undeniable aesthetic appeal needs to be admired in context. In 2019, almost 6 per cent of Cuban homes were in a precarious state, with 39 per cent in fair or bad condition.

The pandemic only deepened the crisis, with food shortages, inflation and sanctions imposed during the Trump era in the US driving the biggest migratory exodus in Cuba’s history.

There’s romance in decaying grandeur, for sure – but living under such conditions is a different story. See

By Nina Karnikowski

City Palace and Pichola lake in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.Credit: iStock

An Indian tour guide once described Udaipur to me as “the most beautiful, romantic city in India”.

I opened my mouth to argue with him – after all, Udaipur’s home state of Rajasthan is full of exquisite princely cities, including rose-hued Jaipur and indigo-washed Jodhpur – before promptly shutting it when I realised he was right.

It’s what Udaipur doesn’t have that makes it so beautiful. While first, or indeed fifth-time travellers to India tend to become addled by its teeming crowds and blasting horns and general sensory overload, the white-washed city of Udaipur is spacious and calm.

It is a rest in the chaotic symphony of the country, a soothing mirage of elegant white buildings, clean calamity-free streets, and waterways clear of pollution.

Udaipur’s beauty is best admired from the glossy waters of its five lakes. Puttering along Lake Pichola, the city’s main waterway, on a small boat at sunset is the perfect vantage point from which to view the alabaster buildings lining the shores, with their Mughal archways and cupolas that spark daydreams of royal escapades past.

In the middle of Pichola sits the floating white marble Taj Lake Palace, surely one of the world’s most beautiful hotels.

Originally a summer palace for kings, it’s also where the 1983 Bond film Octopussy was filmed, and where my husband and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary nine years ago.

We had fresh pink rose petals sprinkled on our heads, and sipped Bollinger in the tub while watching the sun set over the lake. When a mud cake hand-painted with the figures of Layla and Majnun (India’s version of Romeo and Juliet) was delivered to our room, we decided we’d never been anywhere so romantic in our lives.

On my last visit to the city, I had the bizarre and lovely experience of meeting the Prince of Udaipur, Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar, who surely deserves the last word on the city’s beauty.

“In Udaipur, we are very blessed in terms of natural beauty, and being surrounded by water certainly adds to the romance,” he said then. “And, like I always say, Udaipur is a place where you can actually hear silence.”

In a country, and indeed a world, overwhelmed by noise and chatter, that quiet is the most beautiful thing of all. See

By Catherine Marshall

Ascend Capetown’s mountainous masterpiece Table Mountain for the best views of the city.Credit: iStock

My earliest travel memory originates on the slopes of Table Mountain, a month before my sixth birthday.

It’s the 1970s and my family has shaken off the mine dumps of Johannesburg, the horizontal monotony of the Orange Free State, the ghostly wastes of the Groot Karoo.

Cape Town opens like a flower as we enter its summer-warmed streets and ascend the skirts of its mountainous masterpiece. She billows below us in sheets of green and blue as my father leads us up the mountain; if I were to fall, this beneficent Mother City would surely catch me.

Threaded across Table Mountain’s foothills are limpid streams aglow with mossy tendrils and cloaked with the flower-tipped fynbos now recognised as part of the UNESCO-listed Cape Floral Kingdom.

The peak – when finally we reach it – has been cleansed of its customary cloud-tablecloth courtesy of the “Cape Doctor”, a south-easterly mistral that washes the city and sky clean throughout spring and summer.

From up here we can make out Signal Hill and Lion’s Head and, beyond them, the beaches and boulders ribboning the promontory’s wave-bitten shores. Parochial as my world is, I know I’ve been delivered into a place of sublimity.

As this world expands, so my childhood instinct endures. Memories accumulate from the globe’s every cardinal direction, but the only city that can compete with Cape Town is the one I now call home: Sydney.

Perhaps it’s the youthful bond that’s cemented the Mother City in my esteem, the familial nature of my childhood expedition, the wanderlust it inspired in me. Beauty is not skin deep, after all; it’s fortified by the connective tissue undergirding those spangled shorelines, and is concealed by the clouds carried in on the breeze.

On my most recent visit to Cape Town, superficial beauty and innate charm are both confirmed. The mountain’s eastern flank is thicketed to Kingdom Come at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and streaked in the fruit-laden vines of Constantia.

The settlement of Hout Bay hovers as if on the world’s last verge. The Cape Flats sprawl eastwards in all their complicated, apartheid-haunted beauty. The former slave houses of Bo-Kaap – brightly painted in celebration of liberty – rim the city bowl in a splash of fairy sprinkles.

Here, a Cape Malay woman invites me to break the Ramadan fast with her. Alas, I haven’t time, but I slip into her aqua-blue house to see what I’ll be missing. The scent of curries and spiced sweets arouses my childhood senses. A deep warmth settles in my veins. See

By Ute Junker

Every visitor falls for Venice.Credit: iStock

They say nothing good happens at three in the morning, but it was in those inky hours, doing an early run to the airport, that the true beauty of Venice became clear to me.

Yet, it’s not like I’d missed the memo. Long before I ever got to Venice I knew of its reputation as one of the most photogenic cities in the world, and I spent most of my time in the city drinking in all that splendour.

I took in the views from the water, particularly the Grand Canal, the stretch of waterway that, as Venice’s equivalent of a grand avenue, is lined with some of the city’s most spectacular buildings.

The ornate palazzi that front the Grand Canal, ornamented with Moorish arches and lace-like trimmings and neat rows of narrow windows, are so jaw-dropping that you could ride the Line One vaporetto all the way from Piazzale Roma to Lido and back half a dozen times and still find more details to marvel at.

I also went exploring on foot. I discovered the sumptuous interiors of the city’s palazzi and its distinctively domed churches, from mosaic floors to painted wooden ceilings, not to mention the skilfully carved lions-head knockers on imposing entrance portals.

I strolled along the broad fondamente and felt invigorated by the salt-tinged breezes, a reminder that this was once one of the world’s great trading hubs.

And I discovered that not all of Venice’s beauty is delivered via a knock-out punch. Much of it reveals itself slowly as you allow yourself to get lost in its maze of narrow walkways, finding a quiet sun-soaked square here or a tranquil view across a quiet canal there.

The more I saw of the city, the more I fell in love with it. However it wasn’t until that moment at 3am, sitting in a taxi boat moving silently through a city draped in darkness, that I suddenly understood what makes Venice so beautiful.

It is not the arches or the domes or the mosaics – it is the scale of the city. As we motored through the canals, it occurred to me that this city’s secret is its modest dimensions.

Venice is a city on a truly human scale, where none of the buildings - built on wooden pylons in muddy ground – can reach too far into the sky.

It’s a city where the default way to get anywhere is to walk, and where pedestrians never have to battle with cars for right of way. This city slips around your body as comfortably as your favourite coat. No wonder we all fall in love with it. See

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

“Beat this” ... Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.Credit: iStock

Strikingly humped outcrops, sumptuous bays and strings of beaches make for glorious drama, and above it all Christ the Redeemer spreads his arms as if to say: beat this. Waterside neighbourhoods such as Urca and Niteroi are lovely. In the background, rainforest erupts and toucans fly. Superb. See

Vancouver’s beauty is amplified by the water upon which she sits. On still days, the CBD skyscrapers are precision-cut motifs laid upon the bay; behind them, the North Shore Mountains untwine like a row of smiling, enamel-flecked teeth. Landscape and modernity coalesce here in a thoroughly complimentary way. See

To sip a short black at a piazza cafe overlooking the Pantheon – surely one of the most perfect structures in the world – is a “pinch me” experience, a Fellini-esque immersion into a living history book. But it’s the simpler morsels that captivate: the view from a bridge over the Tiber, getting lost in the Trastevere’s tangle of laneways in, or licking a creamy gelato as you watch the evening passeggiata on Via del Corso. See

Yasaka Pagoda and Sannen Zaka Street, Kyoto.Credit: iStock

Almost all of the beauty is man-made, aesthetics borne of creativity and skill. Who could fail to be wooed by the sway of lanterns on the streets of Gion, the burble of narrow cherry tree-lined streams, the wiggle of ancient Higashiyama laneways, the grandeur of temple after temple, pagoda after pagoda, gardens, castles, palaces, mansions and more. See

Souvenirs on the Jamaa el Fna market in old Medina, Marrakesh.Credit: iStock

For some, Marrakesh is overwhelming, a city of swindlers, stomach bugs and enervating heat. For others Morocco’s glittering city of artisans is an aesthete’s dream, filled with riads adorned in hand-carved and painted details, stalls heaped with handmade silver jewellery and thick patterned rugs, and monumental mosques and lush oases. See

Rising in a huddle of stone and terracotta from a volcanic stump, Orvieto casts a virile presence over rolling Umbrian vineyards and olive groves. Take the funicular up to Piazza Cahen. Off to one side, the remarkable Pozzo di San Patrizio well plunges 62 metres underground with the star attraction, Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, one of Italy’s prettiest churches. See

Although a minnow of a city, this magnificent Renaissance fortified citadel commands attention. The beauty is at first austere: honey-coloured bastions and pepper-pot towers, architecturally uniform houses plunging down shadowy streets, the big block mansions of the Knights of St John glowering on ramparts. What softens it all – and makes this a place for slow strolls and slumping on cafe terraces – is golden Mediterranean light and Valletta’s location high above Grand Harbour, a splurge of extravagant blue. Palm trees add green froth, and saints wave from rooftops. See

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By Catherine Marshall