World's 10 most loved cities

World's 10 most loved cities

All cities are not created equal. Glamorous, invigorating and, above all, captivating, these are the towns you never say no to

San Francisco has its Tenderloin, food snobs and bridge tolls.

Cape Town has its great white sharks and 17-hour commutes from New York City (which has its own issues).

Montreal has an underperforming hockey team and ridiculously cold winters.

And let’s not even get started about Tokyo.

Bottom line: travelers love places in spite of all their imperfections. Or perhaps because of them.

We've trawled the Internet for media "best of" praise, solicited recommendations from local correspondents, bloggers and travelers, scraped the bottom of every Internet and press barrel we could find for reasons not to include these conurbations, and still come up with what we think is a definitive list of the world's most loved cities.

We also realize that a list like this is never going to please everyone. 

Discuss amongst yourselves …

Don't forget to vote! Head to our Facebook poll to nominate your own favorite city


10. Barcelona, Spain

BarcelonaBar-celona -- where it's a good time every time.

While most old Mediterranean port cities look and act their age, Barcelona remains one of the world’s most exuberant, youthful cities -- saturated with style, cocky architecture, good eating, around-the-clock partying and unprompted comments like the following nugget from a random Catalonian shoe salesman at the Placa de Catalunya Cort Ingles department store. 

“A lot of people may think of Paris as the most fashionable city in the world. People in Barcelona think this is pretty funny. We think people in France actually don’t dress that well at all. And also the food is better here.”

The sixth most-visited city in Europe according to Euromonitor International, Barcelona’s inviting weather, plethora of nocturnal bars (you thought the city’s first three letters were a fluke?), pedestrian-friendly zones like La Rambla and the Gothic Quarter, beach access and all-around good-times vibe garnered a recent gold in the British Travel Awards, beating arch-rival Paris as the “Best City Break Destination.” 

9. Cape Town, South Africa

Cape TownBeaches with penguins? Can't not love it.
Last November, Cape Town’s iconic peak, Table Mountain, was declared one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature in a global popularity poll, beating out places like The Grand Canyon and the Galapagos Islands.

How does an unwondrously flat, 1,085-meter eminence stuck near the bottom of the civilized world pull this off? By being attached to a city so relentlessly likeable that it could get a sand castle voted onto this list if it wanted, while placing high on virtually every other popularity poll as well. 

In 2011, TripAdvisor gave Cape Town a “Top Destination in the World” nod in its Travelers’ Choice Awards. National Geographic gave it the number two slot on its “Top 10 Beach Cities” list and has short-listed it as one of its “places of a lifetime.” 

Foreign Direct Investment calls Cape Town one of the top 20 expat destinations. Business travelers regularly honor South Africa’s “Mother City” in their own polls. So do leisure tourists in general, who consistently make this breezy, pleasant place one of the most popular tourist destinations in Africa.

A sweet harbor. Nice architecture and weather. Good wine country, lovely waterfront shopping and a welcome cosmopolitan feel. Beaches with penguins. And -- wonder of wonders -- Table Mountain. What more do you need? 

8. Montreal

MontrealCold? Ain't got time to feel cold.
Montreal is a frontrunner in at least one “World’s Most Livable Cities” list, was named “Canada’s Cultural Capital” by Monocle Magazine and has recently been granted UNESCO “City of Design” status.

Stuffy acknowledgements aside, what makes Canada’s original “sin city” such a draw not just for style mavens, 18-year-olds without fake ID and New Englanders seeking a quick, cheap Europe-ish fix, but for 7.5 million annual tourists of all stripes is the city’s certifiably festive attitude -- the kind that assures visitors they’re going to have more fun, stay up later and cure hangovers with tastier 4 a.m. poutine and smoked meat sandwiches here than wherever they’ve come from. 

Summer draws the biggest crowds to Montreal with its lineup of legendary festivals and street fairs, including its International Jazz Festival (June 28-July 7) and Just for Laughs (July 12-29), featuring one of the world’s largest congregations of comics.  

The real test: even when it’s 800 below zero in February, people still really dig this city.

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7. New York City

New YorkYou profess to hate it, but inside you love it.
Paris attracts more tourists than New York. So does London, which handily beat out NYC for this summer’s Olympic bid. And Busan, South Korea now has a bigger department store than the (formerly biggest) Macy’s in Manhattan. 

Does New York care a lick? No. Why not?

Because no city is as supremely oblivious to the mere notion of also-ran status as New York -- the world’s third most-visited city on the planet according to the World Tourism Organization and the only city on the planet according to itself. 

Times Square and Central Park remain the most-visited tourist sites in the world (by far) in a Travel + Leisure tally. Then there’s Broadway, Fifth Avenue, Yankee Stadium and all those acronymed neighborhoods (DUMBO -- huh?) and landmark buildings.

New York has a natural history museum where (we’ve heard) dinosaurs and Neanderthals secretly come to life at sundown. But whatever.

The point is, any city where just riding the subway, talking to a grumpy cop or window shopping at 3 a.m. offers a more singular experience for visitors than the best thing going in Minneapolis or practically anywhere else possesses a certain irresistible cockiness that even draws in folks who hate New York.

6. Paris

ParisA city that lives, and loves, in between its attractions.
Spoiler alert: next week, we're going to make at least 2.3 million enemies by including Paris on our Most Hated Cities list.

The thinking (corroborated by plenty of traveler feedback) is that not even Paris can live up to an unrealistic magical reputation once you’re overpaying for lukewarm coffee, staring at too many bones in the catacombs and waiting in herd-like crowds for hours just to squint at the Mona Lisa.   

That doesn’t mean Paris isn’t still Paris -- the world’s most-visited city, logging more than 15 million annual international travelers according to the Paris Tourism Office. 

Of course, the City of Light has to be on this list too, and not just for its standing as one of the world’s great troves of art, architecture, food and fashion, but for the real place that tends to leave veteran travelers here more enchanted than newbies rushing around to every must-see. 

In Paris, "most first-timers follow a fairly similar pattern," says Paris Notes, offering several tips on how to handle the inevitable checklist in this city, before recommending one thing not on it. "Set a lot of time for doing nothing more than walking. Walking you will learn more about the city, and get a better feel for what it is about, than any other thing you do." 

The Louvre. The Eiffel Tower. The Arc de Triomphe. Notre-Dame Cathedral. There’s no easy way around these. But the thing a lot of people love most about Paris is what happens in between all of that.

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5. Petra, Jordan

PetraRoses are red, violets are blue, Petra you said? I'm coming too.
On August 22, 1812, a disguised, 27-year-old Swiss adventurer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt persuaded some Bedouin tribesmen to guide him through a narrow, winding gorge in a remote corner of the Arabian Desert -- home to a rumored “lost” city of the ancient world. 

Found: Petra.

A couple centuries later, the magnificent ruins of Jordan’s “rose-red city” -- a sandstone-entombed, Nabatean metropolis dating back more than 2,000 years -- has welcomed a sirocco of archeologists, tour operators, "Indiana Jones" location scouts and more than half a million annual visitors who are awed by much more than pricey entrance fees. 

A UNESCO site with recently acquired "Wonder of the World" street cred, Jordan’s biggest tourist attraction celebrates its 200th anniversary of “rediscovery” by Burckhardt on August 22. More importantly, Petra may be the only city in the Middle East right now that can be placed on a “Top 10 List” without war breaking out over it. 

“There was a lull but right now [Jordan] is booking really strongly,” notes British adventure outfit, Explore Worldwide, Ltd., which runs trips to Petra. “It looks like 2012 is going to be a big one.” 

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4. San Francisco

San FranciscoWorld's most rickety transport system, and still adored by millions.
It’s been hailed “a golden handcuff with the key thrown away” by John Steinbeck, “one of the great cultural plateaus” by Duke Ellington and “49 square miles surrounded by reality” by Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane. 

H.L. Mencken called it an “escape from the United States” and Robert Kennedy promised, “if I’m elected, I will move the White House to San Francisco.” 

No place in the United States and few in the world have been as gushed about as the Bay City, home to those enchanting hills, spectacular bridges, bell-ringing cable cars, jocular Alcatraz ferries, Ferry Building foodies and recalcitrant sea lions at Pier 39.

Escaping the Fisherman’s Wharf and Marina District masses won’t be any easier this year, as San Francisco celebrates the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th birthday with a Memorial Weekend waterfront bash, and gears up for hosting next year’s America’s Cup Finals with two lead-up 2012 World Series sailing events.  

Our advice: lose the crowds by heading somewhere that few of the city’s 16 million annual visitors will ever tread. Like the Land’s End Trail -- aka the city’s prettiest four-kilometer coastal trek, hiding on SF’s rustic northwestern edge between Point Lobos and Eagles’ Point. 

3. Santiago, Chile

SantiagoGood times are often the simplest times.
There are bigger Carnivals and Tango festivals on the other side of the Andes, but would Buenos Aires or Rio look nearly this poised after being rocked 28 centimeters to the left by an 8.8 earthquake

Santiago may have smog, sprawl and an epidemic of noisy diesel engines, but what sequestered megalopolis on an economic rebound in an otherwise picturesque valley lined with mountains doesn’t? 

More importantly, here is South America’s version of every fine North American left coast city -- except with nicer weather (than Vancouver), happier music (than Seattle), sexier cafés (than Portland), better bar hours and caipirinha prices (than L.A.) and cooler-looking people in gray suits and shades (than San Francisco). 

No surprise then that The New York Times ranked Santiago numero uno on last year’s “41 Places To Go” list, and also made it the first international Lollapalooza music festival site outside the United States.  

August bonus: if you wanna go heli-skiing for US$200 in the middle of summer (sorry, winter) at a quality ski resort an hour outside of town, no other city can hook you up this quickly and cheaply. 

2. Shanghai

ShanghaiFast, furious, unforgettable -- like all the best affairs.
If there’s any proof that the world’s most alluring cities are as cyclically fashionable as Eames chairs and flapper wear, look no further than China’s commercial and financial hub. 

In the 1930s, Shanghai was the “Paris of the Orient” before succumbing to a World War and Communist revolution.

Today, China’s richest, busiest city has regained official “it” status with the 2010 World Expo host exposure (that out-priced the Beijing Olympics), a new insta-skyline and Western headlines toasting (and kind of roasting) Shanghai as “China’s Capitalist Showpiece.”  

For a quick, New Shanghai fix, board the Maglev train (top speed 430 kph) at Pudong International Airport, whiz into the heart of skyscraper-lined Pudong in under 10 minutes and gape down at it all from the 100th-floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center.

Yes, you’re perched on the world’s highest observation deck.

Better yet -- cross the Huangpu River into the original cityscape that cemented Shanghai’s reputation. Walk the Bund. Stroll the former French Concession. Haggle along the main streets. Decompress in the garden- and teahouse-lined alleys of the city’s original walled settlement. Rinse and repeat.  

1. Tokyo

Tokyo_So much city, so little time.
Every city worth its marketing budget brands itself as “many cities in one.” Tokyo, of course, doesn’t have to. 

In Japan’s dizzying capital, it’s just a given that travelers are here to take on the world’s strongest dose of sensory overload -- in a neon-infested sea of ad-pumping jumbotrons at Shibuya Crossing; under a canopy of blossoming cherry trees in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden; in a sports arena packed with raucous sumo fans in Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium; at one of Tokyo’s 160,000-odd restaurants, a culinary empire boasting more Michelin stars than anywhere else; or within earshot of bellowing tuna auctioneers at Tsukiji Central Fish Market, home to more than 1,000 stalls in a hangar-style building that comprises one of the largest wholesale seafood bazaars in the world.  

However many worlds, wards and districts one experiences in Tokyo, the sense is that you’re always just scratching the surface -- even if your wallet disagrees. And is there a more deferential place to pay through the teeth?

In Tokyo, “the women behind the registers bow to you, and I don’t mean that they lower their heads a little, the way you might if passing someone on the street,” observes David Sedaris. “Then they say what sounds to me like ‘We, the people of this store, worship you as we might a god.’” 

If that's not worth your love, nothing is.

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Don't forget to vote! Head to our Facebook poll to nominate your own favorite city

Jordan Rane writes regularly for CNN Travel and The Los Angeles Times. A Lowell Thomas Award recipient from the Society of American Travel Writers, his work on travel and the outdoors has spanned six continents and appeared in over 50 publications. He lives in Los Angeles.

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