An urban escape doesn’t just mean concrete and pavements. The world is full of easy-on-the-eye cities, their good looks either lent to them by fortuitous natural surroundings or built up through inventive architecture – or, in the very best cases, a bit of both.
So if you’re looking for a city break that’s as photogenic as it is full of all those other great things about cities – creativity, diversity, energy, entertainment, and more – then where ranks at the top? Here, The Independent travel team – correspondent Simon Calder, deputy head Laura Chubb and head of travel Nicola Trup – give their verdicts on which cities they think have the best looks.
With the pound so poorly, a key attraction of Lisbon is that it is the cheapest capital in western Europe. Aesthetically, it is also the most beautiful, infiltrating the hills north of the Tagus. The hub of the city is an 18th-century grid known as Baixa, which rose from the ashes of the 1755 earthquake. To the east, Alfama, the old Moorish quarter; to the west, Chiado, alive with Lusitanian culture, the royal district of Belem and a creditable copy of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Like the Californian city, Portugal’s capital has ancient trams and clambering cable cars; but Lisbon prevails in a contest between the two with its ravishing, fading grandeur.
Panama City, Panama
The part of the world with the worst-looking capital cities? Central America, where the term “scruffy, crime-ridden and grim” sums up Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, San Jose and – plainest of all – poor old Managua, ravaged by earthquakes. Panama City, though, is the exception: superbly set on the Pacific Coast, with a spectacular “colonialism meets capitalism” skyline, exuberant street life and a patch of virgin rainforest between the city centre and the Panama Canal. Still scruffy and crime-ridden, mind.
About two in five of Chile’s 18 million people live in greater Santiago, yet in the capital’s heart there is no sense of sprawl. Central Santiago is compact, graceful and green, punctuated with palms and hills – notably the Cerro Santa Lucía, which is decorated with flamboyant architecture, and offers an excellent city panorama. The main square, the Plaza de Armas, was rejuvenated two years ago, while the Bellavista area to the north is bright and bohemian.
It’s no surprise the southern Croatian city of Dubrovnik has been used as the backdrop of countless film and TV shoots, including Game of Thrones (it doubles as King’s Landing, fact fans). Its Unesco-protected historic core is fabulously photogenic, with a Venetian warren of cobbled streets and stone buildings. Walk along the city walls for the best views over the red rooftops and out towards the Adriatic. Too crowded for you? Kotor, down the coast in neighbouring Montenegro, is a more manageable alternative.
The Massachusetts capital is arguably America’s most attractive city, from its neat Common and gold-domed State House to the historic homes of districts such as Beacon Hill. But it’s not all about traditional architecture; from Boston Harbour you can admire the city’s more modern side, with the skyscrapers of the financial district glimmering after dark. Tip: head to the Envoy hotel’s rooftop Lookout bar, across the water in the Seaport district, for a sundowner looking out over downtown.
What’s not to like about a city where you can get about by boat? I wouldn’t argue that all of the Swedish capital’s 14 islands are among the most beautiful places you’ve ever seen, but a fair few are very easy on the eye. Have a wander around the green spaces and museums of Djurgarden before hopping in a kayak (weather permitting) to paddle along the island’s coastline. And for postcard-pretty Scandi buildings, head to Riddarholmen, where you can take a rooftop tour.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Cities don’t get more gorgeous than Rio de Janeiro. Surrounded by luxuriously green mountains, deep-blue bays and golden beaches, it’s an all-natural exotic beauty, with plenty of high vantages from which to take in the view (the Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer chief among them). And there’s more man-made artistry to admire than that Art Deco Jesus, too; don’t miss bohemian Santa Teresa, which has been drawing in creative types since the Sixties, and today is a historic, cobblestoned ’hood awash with bright murals, crumbling colonial mansions and samba dancing in the streets after dark.
Sure, I admit it, I’m a sucker for sea and mountains, but Reykjavik offers an Arctic take on Rio’s tropical formula. And it’s no less captivating for it: a backdrop of snow-streaked, skulking black peaks and unforgivingly frigid-looking North Atlantic is dramatic enough, but add the colour pops of the capital’s painted rainbow of rooftops and it’s a damn work of art. As if all that weren’t enough, the snappily monikered Hallgrímskirkja church is a must-stop for photographers – designed in 1937 to resemble the rock formations that are left when lava cools, it looks more like some sort of alien cathedral ripped from the set of Star Wars.
Everywhere you turn in the former Imperial capital of Japan, you’re confronted with something outlandishly enchanting. Of course, there are the hundreds of temples and shrines set among immaculately trimmed, shaped and raked gardens. But let’s not also forget the jade-green bamboo forest of Crouching Tiger fantasies in Arashiyama, a traditional rowboat ride on the Oi River, lantern-lit paved streets and tree-lined trickling streams in the geisha district of Gion (here, don’t miss Hiro, where the beef is so tender it melts in the mouth like butter), and the lovely classic architecture of wider Eastern Higashiyama. All in all, the city is an utterly bewitching step back in time to the Japan of old – and it looks incredible in every season (particularly among the cherry-blossom of spring and colourful autumn). To be honest, it’s so disproportionately gorgeous, it’s really not on.