By Travel + Leisure Staff
Joanna Van Mulder
A new renaissance is under way in Florence
, with the city’s historic center making room for contemporary galleries and chic aperitivo bars. And all that work has paid off: this year, Florence rose to the No. 2 ranking among T+L’s World’s Best Cities.
T+L asked readers to vote in its 16th annual World’s Best survey, rating worldwide cities in categories such as attractions, arts and culture, food, shopping, and value. The result is a global guide to the cities not to miss this year.
Despite the challenging economy, travel is up, with more than 270 million travelers hitting the road this year, according to the Airports Council International. More travel means more insights into what makes a city great — whether it’s efficient transportation, affordable dining, or youthful energy — and how cities compare on a global basis. After all, the thrill of a country is most often reflected in its city life. “Cities absolutely dominate over countryside experiences for travelers,” says T+L A-List super agent Priscilla Alexander of Protravel International. “You won’t have someone going to France and not going to Paris.”
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’ 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.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
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.
Cape Town, South Africa
Courtesy of Twelve Apostles Hotel
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.
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.