The world's five best cities to visit, as voted for by 57 travel writers

Of all the cities in the world, which ones are truly special? Which ones are having a moment? And which keep true city lovers coming back for more? To find out, we asked our regular contributors to name their favourites — and to tell us why.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 3 Apr 2019, 18:23 BST, Updated 27 Jul 2021, 15:12 BST

What makes a city great? As we all know, logic doesn’t necessarily come into play; a city is often greater than the sum of its parts. Some places just have a vibe, a feeling, a personality that’s almost impossible to put your finger on. Combine that with alluring attractions, a vibrant art scene, compelling culinary choices and an effervescent nightlife, and you’re probably halfway to solving that magic formula. But, above all, it’s a personal choice: you might have a weakness for the spectacular skyline of one of the world’s great metropolises, or maybe you veer towards low-key, under-the-radar places.

We asked 57 of our travel writers to vote for their favourites...

Looking down on Times Square, New York City.
Photograph by Getty Images

1. New York City, USA

A given on any best city list, NYC is the metropolis that always amazes, from its highbrow culture to sky-high views

New York, New York. The world’s most eulogised city makes an entry on every discerning travel wish list and tends to stay there even after a first visit; to borrow a metaphor from the Garden of Eden, one bite of the Big Apple can spark a lifetime of curiosity. It’s iconic, intriguing and, best of all, easy to explore by cab, subway or on foot. There’s a pulse to New York that resonates with city-lovers; it quickens among the bars of Nolita and the Lower East Side and quietens among the greenery of the High Line and Central Park. It’s home, too, to peerless cultural institutions — the Whitney, Guggenheim, Met and Brooklyn are essential pilgrimages for those with even a passing interest in modern art. And while it has its pricey, hip enclaves and tourist traps, there’s undoubtedly an unfussy authenticity to the city and its hard-arsed citizens.

New York’s neighbourhoods, sculpted over the centuries by the seismic forces of immigration, trade, boom and bust, have complex identities to unpick and flavours to sample. Take its iconic eats: bagels and pizza, born elsewhere but woven into the city’s mythology. There’s an expressive plurality than can make the city feel like the capital of the world. Get stuck in — you’re part of the melting pot now. And, as with any great metropolis, it’s in a constant state of expansion and flux; New York is a city that’s impossible to ever ‘tick off’.

Three museums we love

1. Brooklyn Museum
Holding its own against the big-name Manhattan galleries, Brooklyn’s colossal art museum is a corker. This imposing beaux-arts building in Prospect Heights houses a large section given over to antiquity, as well as a permanent collection spanning American greats, from Edward Hopper to Georgia O’Keeffe, and fantastic temporary exhibitions. 

2. Tenement Museum
New York has an extraordinary human past, and the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum takes an immersive look at its numberless immigrants — the people who crossed oceans and endured often horrific living conditions to give shape to the city we know today. Guided tours of the recreated apartments offer a glimpse at how families lived in the 19th century. 

3. Museum of the Moving Image
In the heart of the artistic enclave of Astoria, this museum celebrates cinema and pop culture. Visitors can create stop-motion animations, make a flipbook of themselves, play vintage arcade games or take in the stockpile of artefacts used in Hollywood’s heyday.

Overlooking Alfama at Júlio de Castilho gardens, Lisbon.
Photograph by Getty Images

2. Lisbon, Portugal

It’s got good looks and a great location, but it’s Lisbon’s party spirit and culinary culture that make it the city of the moment

As cities go, Lisbon has an enviable set of ingredients: pockets of fairytale Manueline architecture, a picturesque setting on the banks of the Tagus and an irrepressible joie-de-vivre that sees revellers fill the streets on warm summer nights. Any contemporary compilation of urban hotspots would be remiss not to include it: the Portuguese capital is truly having a moment in the sun, dusting itself off and rediscovering its cool after a century marred by dictatorship and economic crisis. And travellers are flocking for a slice of the fun. It has, of course, known popularity before — during the 15th and 16th centuries, Lisbon was one of the busiest ports in Europe, flush with new spices, new ideas and new money, and the palaces and churches built during this heyday give the city its drama and elegance. But the real heart of the city lies in its soulful working-class traditions: fado ballads, played by touring musicians; riotous religious festivals celebrated in the streets; local ginjinha cherry liquor, sipped in sun-warmed praças; flea markets and food markets; and the seafood at its family-run tascas. In fact, the city’s cuisine may be its strongest suit: to conduct a weekend-long tour of Lisbon’s best bakeries, taste-testing a pasteis de nata in each, would be a holiday well-spent.

A flavour of Lisbon

1. Cheap eats
Tascas — small, traditional, and often family-run, restaurants — are the heart and soul of the city. They’re cheap, portions are huge, and there’s always a daily special. Note, though: the bread, fish paste and olives that are automatically brought to your table aren’t free — if you don’t fancy them, don’t eat them and you’ll not be charged.

2. Local tipple
Ginjinha is a sweet liqueur made from sour cherries, alcohol, sugar and cinnamon. Served in a shot glass or small plastic cup, ask for it com ela (with a cherry), or sem ela (without). There are two tiny shops near Rossio Square — A Ginjinha and Ginjinha Sem Rival — where locals gather from 11am onwards.

3. Custard tarts
Have a nosey at glorious time-honoured spots like Café a Brasileira, Café Versailles, Café Nicola and Pasteleria Suiça, but eat your pastel de nata (custard tart) at Manteigaria – Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata, in Chiado. Here you can watch the cooks pipe the creamy filling in to the flaky pastry cases before baking. 

4. Go to market
At the Mercado da Ribeira, near the river, you’ll find stalls lined with fish, fruit and vegetables, almonds, honey and homemade piri piri sauce.

Motorbikes of Hanoi.

Photograph by Getty Images

3. Hanoi, Vietnam

A surprising choice perhaps, but Vietnam’s historic second city is like nowhere else on Earth

Hanoi is a city that travel writers adore, which is why Vietnam’s second city has been voted onto this list. It’s full of surprises and unexpected poetry. Beyond the initial onslaught of modernity — the hum of wiring, which loops overhead like wild calligraphy, and the roads’ steady stream of mopeds that brake for no pedestrian — there’s a rich, Eastern culture, faded European relics and important modern history to be discovered. Dive in among the French-style merchant houses, silk shops and backstreet pagodas of the Old Quarter, seeking out the Vietnamese speciality ca phe trung (egg coffee); go on a crawl of Czech-themed beer halls; and pay your respects to an embalmed communist leader at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Hanoi has its own rules and rhythm. To thrive here, one has to adapt: to learn to cross roads, boldly, as the locals do; to work out that the best pho is found at the busiest street kitchen; and to discover that a spot of tai chi down on the shores of Hoàn Kiếm Lake or West Lake can be the perfect start to a day. Best of all, perhaps, it’s fantastic value on the pound.

Four Hanoi highlights

1. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum 
Visiting the tomb of former Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh might seem grim, but it offers a fascinating insight into how much influence the man had — and still has — over modern-day Vietnam. Dress modestly (no shorts or vests) and make sure it’s open, as Ho is sent to Russia for two to three months every autumn for a touch-up.

2. Temple of Literature
One of the most beautiful attractions in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature (pictured below). Established in 1070, it’s considered to be one of the world’s first universities. Dodge the tour groups and instead stroll solo through the courtyards and pagodas, admiring the stone scrolls honouring those who studied Confucius. 

3. Old Quarter
Head to the Old Quarter to wander streets lined with lavish merchant houses built in the French-colonial style, head to Dong Xuan Market (Hanoi’s biggest) to shop for silk and keep an eye out for pagodas and temples tucked away down side streets. 

4. West Lake
It’s worth hiring a bike for a scenic, 11-mile cycle tour around West Lake. The ride takes in Tay Ho, the main expat district, as well as a number of cafes, boutiques and restaurants.

View of Cape Town from Table Mountain.
Photograph by Four Corners

4. Cape Town, South Africa

For all its scene-stealing beauty, our contributors love Cape Town’s vibrant townships and cultural heritage — not to mention its masala steak sandwiches

Which city is the fairest of them all? Cape Town, our regular writers replied — by a long shot. Towered over by craggy escarpments, backed by vineyards and hemmed by white-sand beaches looking out over a shimmering ocean, it’s hard to find an unflattering angle to the city. Even its townships, once notorious for gang violence, are today considered dynamic urban spaces ripe with entrepreneurs, artists and food spots; all that’s needed is the right guide. Capetonians love to get outdoors, and there are plenty of places to join them, be it strolling among the proteas in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, hiking up Table Mountain or taking a boat out from the redeveloped V&A Waterfront. And should rain clouds gather, that’s your cue to head for the fabulous Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary African Art) to marvel at not only the collections but also the spectacular architecture by Thomas Heatherwick. Looks aren’t everything, of course: Cape Town wouldn’t be Cape Town without its fascinating melee of Dutch, Cape Malay and African influences, reflected in neighbourhoods like Bo-Kaap and in its diverse cuisine, full of flavour. In recent years, the city has cemented its reputation for stellar gastronomy: vegan joints are popping up, coffee has been perfected to an art and experimental haute dining spots are making headlines worldwide.

Three top places to visit

1. Crystal Pools
This hiking trail in the Steenbras Nature Reserve ends in a series of spectacular rock pools. Keep an eye on your lunch — opportunistic baboons may make off with it.

2. Scarborough sunsets
Many claim Cape Town’s best beach sunset is to be seen at Clifton or Llandudno, but the seaside village of Scarborough, on the edge of Table Mountain National Park, gets gold.

3. Table Mountain
From the top of the mountain you can admire the plateau’s wildflowers, gaze over the city and catch a glimpse of dassies (the guinea-pig-like creatures that live among the rocks).

Bourbon Street, French Quarter.
Photograph by Getty Images

5. New Orleans, USA

With its jazz credentials and love of a great party, NOLA is a city that embraces the night — but our writers love it during the daylight hours, too

The Big Easy belongs to the night. As the soupy heat of the day cools, the French Quarter is just waking up. And tuning up, too — after all, this is the home of jazz. Follow your ears, slip into a nameless bar and lose yourself in the transcendental riffs of a trumpeter. There’s nothing and nowhere else like it. Between Bourbon Street and the more chilled-out Frenchmen Street, a night is made: not only are there countless live music joints, some dozen cocktails were invented here, including the heady Bayou-brewed sazerac. New Orleans is home, too, to Mardi Gras, a carnival so infamous, flamboyant and hedonistic that it’s easy to forget its links to the Christian calendar. But when the party’s over, the bars closed and the beads and feathers swept away, there’s plenty of daytime entertainment, too. Our writers rhapsodised about breakfasts of shrimp and grits; touring the artsy Faubourg Marigny and window shopping in the Garden District; browsing voodoo trinkets on Royal Street; and even heading out into the adjacent wetlands by kayak.

The city's top nightlife

1. For jazz
Preservation Hall

A reverent hush falls in Preservation Hall when the house band begins to play. Something about the skill of these jazz masters, and the soft flicker of lights against the bare stone walls, commands respect and unwavering attention. 

2. For cocktails
The Carousel Bar & Lounge

Decked out like a merry-go-round, this bar within Hotel Monteleone slowly rotates as bartenders keep up with drink orders. You may have to wait a while to grab a seat, but it’s well worth it, both for the drinks (the potent vieux carré cocktail was invented here) and the invariably convivial company. 

3. For wine
Bacchanal Wine

This shop/bar in Faubourg Marigny has a twinkly back patio and live music, as well as hundreds of bottles from small-scale producers.

4. For midnight snacks
Café Du Monde

Dating back to 1862, this coffee shop in the French Market is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It tends to be heaving during the day, so head here for a moonlit treat. Try beignets (fluffy doughnuts buried in a heap of icing sugar) washed down with café au lait.

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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