Beauty is subjective, and in the eyes of the beholder. But even the most hard-nosed tourists will struggle not to be moved by the aesthetic delights of these cities, from the jewels of the Silk Road to modern architecture in Sydney.
1. Isfahan, Iran
Robert Byron, in his 1930s travelogue, The Road to Oxiana, wrote of Isfahan: “Isfahan has become indelible, has insinuated its image into that gallery of places that everybody privately treasures. I gave it no help in doing so. The monuments have kept me too busy.One could explore for months without coming to the end of them. From the 11th century, architects and craftsmen have recorded the fortunes of the town, its changes of taste, government and belief. The buildings reflect these local circumstances; it is their charm, like the charm of most old towns. But a few illustrate the heights of art independently, and rank Isfahan among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity.”
2. Florence, Italy
More than one member of the Telegraph Travel desk has been moved to tears by the beauty of this Tuscan city, bespeckled with art galleries and museums (the Uffizi, the Bargello, the Accademia Gallery), churches (Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce) and the Arno traversed by the Ponte Vecchio. But as with most of the best cities, its beauty lies not in the institutions. You could perhaps not even enter any of its exhibitions or grand buildings, and instead admire the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance from its cobbled streets, where swish young Italians mingle with wizened old folk who have aged unsurprisingly well in such civilised surroundings. Go, and don’t be surprised if you shed a tear.
3. Luang Prabang, Laos
Featuring more highly on tour routes since it was awarded Unesco World Heritage status 20 years ago, Luang Prabang has managed to retain a great deal of its beauty, using the revenue provided by extra visitors to renovate old buildings and temples. Its beauty also comes in its extraordinary setting, in a valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers among lush jungle.
4. Paris, France
The love locks ruined the bridges, the tourist tat and queues spoiled the areas around the Eiffel Tower and on Ile de la Cite. But as the leaves curl from green to gold, the twirl of benches and Metro stations and Haussmann’s sweeping boulevards still make Paris one of the most attractive cities on Earth. Loll on the grass of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, complete with its lake and folly, admire Parisians’ haughty attitude towards the quality of produce on the food markets that spill into the streets every week (your white asparagus? Not tender enough! Your truffles? Not French!) and allow the collections of the Musee d’Orsay to bring a tear to your eye.
5. Istanbul, Turkey
The capital of the Ottoman Empire is incomparable. The masterpieces of former powerful (and despotic) rulers include the Topkapi Palace, which housed sultans, their eunuchs and slaves, and the Suleimaniye and Sultanahmet Mosques. The blush-pink Aya Sofya – first church, then mosque, now museum – is truly beautiful. But what keeps Istanbul from turning into a tourist time warp is the regeneration of once seedy neighbourhoods and thriving young communities: Karaköy, a former run-down fringe of the city’s port, has been regenerated and is now home to boutique hotels, artists’ galleries and Ottoman houses that over the centuries have housed European communities, leading to an amalgamation of synagogues, mosques and leaning, elegant houses.
6. Siena, Italy
Siena is a city in Tuscany, Italy. It is the capital of the province of Siena. The historic centre of Siena has been declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site. It is one of the nation’s most visited tourist attractions, with over 163,000 international arrivals in 2008. Siena is famous for its cuisine, art, museums, medieval cityscape and the Palio, a horse race held twice a year.
A holy site for the world’s three main monotheistic faiths, Jerusalem has been inhabited since 4,000 BC. It political woes are well known, but tourists should not be put off visiting. Unmissable sights include the Haram as-Sharif (Temple Mount), including the shimmering gold Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Via Dolorosa. Expect not to fit in everything in one visit, and to want to return to an ancient, conflicted, but mesmerising city.
8. Oxford, UK
Oxford and Cambridge vie for premier position in many ways: rowing, academic excellence, notoriety of drinking clubs and debating societies…there are also two schools of thought over which is more picturesque. Oxford advocates will point to the Radcliffe Camera – more commonly referred to as the Rad Cam by students, many of whom will be avoiding actually reading any of the books it contains – the main Bodleian Library building, and the quite spectacular precincts of All Souls’ College, founded by Henry VI in 1438. It will probably make you feel slightly more intelligent just by looking at it. Magdalen College, on the other hand, has gardens so beautiful you may feel moved to bursting into song.
9. Cambridge, UK
Proponents of Cambridge’s superiority, however, will point to its intimacy, lack of poncy Cotswold stone buildings, and the simply superb architecture of King’s College. There is also a relative lack of ugly modern shopping precincts that blight the Oxfordshire contender’s centre.
10. New York, USA
From red-brick apartment blocks that have featured in many a New York-based television series (hello Friends) to the soaring peaks of the Empire State Building and the newly-opened One World Observatory, New York is a city to be reckoned with. The Met Museum has collections that remind one of the wealth of early 20th century businessmen and investors, who bought up the works of French Impressionists by the lorry load. Forget not the beauty to be found in its everyday streets and interactions.
11. Rome, Italy
Rome has the status of a global city. Rome ranked in 2014 as the 14th-most-visited city in the world, 3rd most visited in the European Union, and the most popular tourist attraction in Italy. Its historic centre is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Monuments and museums such as the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum are among the world’s most visited tourist destinations with both locations receiving millions of tourists a year.
12. Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town ranks third among the most populous urban areas in South Africa, after Johannesburg, and has roughly the same population as the Durban Metropolitan Area. It is also the provincial capital and primate city of the Western Cape. As the seat of the National Parliament, it is also the legislative capital of the country. It forms part of the City of Cape Town metropolitan municipality. The city is famous for its harbour, for its natural setting in the Cape Floristic Region, as well as for such well-known landmarks as Table Mountain and Cape Point. As of 2014 it is the 10th most populous city in Africa and home to 64% of the Western Cape’s population. It is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, reflecting its role as a major destination for immigrants and expatriates to South Africa. The city was named the World Design Capital for 2014 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.
13. Sydney, Australia
Sydney is the state capital of New South Wales and the most populous city in Australia and Oceania. Located on Australia’s east coast, the metropolis surrounds the world’s largest natural harbour, and sprawls towards the Blue Mountains to the west. Residents of Sydney are known as “Sydneysiders”.
14. Bruges, Belgium
Colin Farrell – star of the brilliant 2008 film In Bruges – wasn’t impressed, but every other visitor to this Belgian gem will be seduced by the almost perfect medieval ensemble of canals, churches, squares and cobbled streets. Not to mention the undeniably beautiful chips, chocolate and local beers.
15. Fes, Morocco
Forget Marrakesh. Infinitely more stylish is Fes, primarily its ninth-century medina – the largest urban car-free area in the world – that secretes tiny doors, behind which sit beautiful spaces converted into boutique riad hotels (as with much vernacular architecture in the Islamic world, what lies within is much more beautiful than the often dull exteriors). Try the Palais Amani, where Nigel Tisdall got a taste of Fes’s emerging culinary scene, or the Riad Anata, with its brass lanterns, rich pink chairs and bejmat (unglazed terracotta) floors. Accommodation aside, strike out up the hill – partly covered with an Islamic cemetery – that overlooks the city just before sunset to hear the call to prayer ring round, the teeny green lights of mosques grow brighter and brighter, and swallows flicker across a lazy blue sky.
16. Seville, Spain
The breathtaking Alcázar Palace, built when Spain was under Islamic rule, the Santa Cruz area, formerly the Jewish quarter of medieval Seville, and the enormous cathedral, originally built as a mosque in the 12th century, are the highlights of this museum-piece southern Spanish city. But don’t overlook the quotidian pleasures of wandering the distinctive districts, visiting the tapas bars, including El Rinconcillo Bar, one of the city’s oldest, and sampling the nightlife of Paseo de Cristóbal Colón.
17. Cartagena, Colombia
For too long, Colombia was synonymous with FARC kidnapping, torture and extortion. In the past decade, it has been justly recognised as one of the most beguiling countries in South America. The northern coastal city of Cartagena in particular has had a renaissance.
18. San Francisco, USA
There’s the obvious stuff. The Golden Gate Bridge. The cable cars that have run up and down the hilly streets since 1873, and have adorned many a post card and Instagram post. But there is also the de Young Museum, which specialises in world-class art and fashion in a copper-clad Herzog and de Meuron building; Alcatraz; day trips into the Napa Valley. This is west coast living at its best.
19. Lausanne, Switzerland
Central Lausanne is achingly beautiful: the steep streets are home to an old wooden stairway leading to the city’s 12th century cathedral. Combine this with parks preened to Swiss perfection, and a waterfront district giving onto Lake Geneva, with majestic views of mountains all round, and – prices aside – we wonder why there isn’t a continual flow of British tourists on its doorstep. It is also home to some historic hotels, including the Beau-Rivage Palace, where the Treaty of Lausanne was hammered out in the 1920s, and where finer points of this year’s nuclear deal with Iran were ironed out.
20. Tallinn, Estonia
For anyone jaded by tacky German-style Christmas markets in Britain, the capital of Estonia will restore faith in the festive marketing of mulled wine and undefinable wooden decorations. The Baltic city has the festive season down to an authentic and tasteful tee, but its medieval streets – forming one of Europe’s best preserved old towns – and modern cafes and eclectic collection of museums and galleries are worth visiting at any time of the year. Difficult to believe that just 25 years ago it was clad in Soviet gloom.
21. Venice, Italy
As with many of the world’s most beautiful cities, every other tourist on the planet has also cottoned on to Venice’s splendour. This means that parts of it have been tainted – ignore the touts selling theatre masks, odd little gondolier figurines and “authentic prints” of watercolours around the Rialto bridge. But allow yourself to get lost in Venice’s alleyways, where leather ateliers and workshops creating marbled paper stack on top of each other, dangle your legs by the canal while eating white peach and chocolate gelato, and you will be reminded why Venice is as photogenic, and achingly alluring, as it is has always been.
22. Edinburgh, Scotland
Cast from your mind tourist shops selling sporrans and tartan blankets. Even through the fairly-likely rain, Edinburgh is a beautiful capital city, complete with castle, fine art collections, in the National Gallery, and a dormant volcano (Arthur’s Seat). Scottish food and accommodation offerings have has improved immeasurably over the past decade, to boot.
23. London, England
Where do we start? The old City walls? Wren’s masterpiece, St Paul’s, or St Martins in the Fields? The expanses of Hampstead Heath, where a sunset over the skyscrapers in front of the recently-reopened Kenwood House is indescribably pleasing to the eye? The majesty of the Thames, as she snakes her way to the coast? The street scenes and restaurants defined by their multiculturalism, from Little Venice to Little Beirut in west London, to Little Italy and the Italian delis dotted from Angel to Walthamstow? Some of the world’s best museums (The British Museum, the Victoria & Albert, the Science Museum – we could go on). We would happily amend Samuel Johnson’s observation that when one is tired of London, one is tired of life. When one is tired of taking a moment to reflect on the splendour of this city of 10 million people, one must be truly fatigued.
24. Prague, Czech Republic
Ignore the stag party reputation and accept that you won’t be the only tourist on Prague’s main square in the old town – Staré Město district – admiring the Astronomical Clock, walking across Charles Bridge, or making his or her way up to Prague Castle, and you will enjoy this splendid Czech city all the more.
25. Kyoto, Japan
Kyōto was the capital of Japan for over a millennium, and carries a reputation as its most beautiful city. However, visitors may be surprised by how much work they will have to do to see Kyoto’s beautiful side. Most first impressions of the city will be of the urban sprawl of central Kyoto, around the ultra-modern glass-and-steel train station, which is itself an example of a city steeped in tradition colliding with the modern world.
Nonetheless, the persistent visitor will soon discover Kyoto’s hidden beauty in the temples and parks which ring the city center, and find that the city has much more to offer than immediately meets the eye.
26. Moscow, Russia
A left-of-field selection, perhaps. But the Russian capital has a brutal beauty in its Soviet era buildings – notably the Seven Sisters towers, built at great expense by Stalin after the Second World War. There is too the mind-boggling Red Square, which combines the walls of the Kremlin, what our Moscow expert describes as the “psychedelic onion domes” of St Basil’s Cathedral, and the GUM department store…But we couldn’t ignore the more traditional contender in Russia, either, St Petersburg. Perhaps slightly “Disney” in some eyes, this former capital and Russia’s “Window to Europe”, nevertheless combines splendours such as the Winter Palace, the Church on Spilled Blood, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan with the more quotidian wonders of Gostiny Dvor, the city’s oldest and largest shopping complex, in an 18th-century building, and the bizarre attractions of Vasilevskiy Island, which include a pair of 15th-century sphinxes from Egypt and the skeleton and heart of Peter the Great’s gigantic personal servant.
27. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
A city with an energy matched by perhaps no other in the world. Its beauty is subjective, and is perhaps best admired from the air, where Christ the Redeemer (emerging through some atmospheric mist, if you are lucky) stands proud and glorious alongside sweeps of beach and Sugarloaf Mountain. The jaw-dropping beauty of the landscape encompasses Atlantic rainforest-covered mountains, postcard-perfect lakes, occasionally stunning architecture and, of course, those golden beaches. It’s not surprising that residents are fiercely protective of it all, and visitors invariably fall in love with the place.