For globetrotting travelers, it’s easy to recognize a spectacular city. They are energetic, diverse destinations intent on preserving local heritage and revitalizing undervalued neighborhoods, and they possess distinct personalities that set them apart from other metropolises. Whether it’s the city you’ve called home for years or one you only just stumbled upon during your travels, the best destinations are intriguing cultural centers that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
No city proves this better than Kyoto, Japan, which returned for the second year in a row to the No. 1 spot on Travel + Leisure’s annual World’s Best list. Readers called it the quintessential Japanese experience, offering visitors everything from history (in the form of spiritual shrines) to notable cuisine (shojin ryori) and encounters with Geisha.
Italy’s classic crowd-pleasers, Florence and Rome, once again appear on Top 10 list — as they have for 10 consecutive years. Bangkok, likely bumped from the list in 2014 due to governmental unrest, has returned to the number six spot.
Below is the full list of the World’s Best cities in 2015, which is compiled based on reader surveys.
1. Kyoto (Japan)
For more than 1,000 years, Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan, and vestiges of this royal history remain in sites such as the Kyoto Gosho palace. While the two-year-old Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto appeals to luxury travelers with its private Zen gardens overlooking the Kamogawa River, it’s also worth considering a stay in a traditional ryokan, or guesthouse.
You can’t see Kyoto without exploring the city’s incredible Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines — there are more than 2,000 scattered across the city — but insiders recommend Sanjusangendo, which houses 1,001 statues of the god Kannon, carved from cypress in the 12th and 13th centuries, as well as the iconic Kinkaku-Ji (Golden Pavilion). Of course, this traditional city has a touch of the modern, too, such as the sleek new Yoshio Taniguchi-designed wing of the Kyoto National Museum and the Nishijin neighborhood, with its kawaii artisan shops.
2. Charleston (South Carolina)
South Carolina’s oldest city has consistently charmed T+L readers with its antebellum aesthetic and old-fashioned Southern hospitality. It’s the only U.S. city represented in the overall list, and repeatedly appears on its America’s Favorite Cities lists. Despite its famed friendliness, Charleston has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, becoming the most recent site of a great national tragedy and intense civic debate.
T+L readers paid tribute to the qualities that have captivated the hearts of travelers from around the world. “Charleston has it all,” one reader said. It’s been applauded for its beautiful, jasmine-fringed neighborhoods and historic battlegrounds.
Not far from downtown is Sullivan’s Island and Folly Beach, where locals and visitors go to cool off amongst the grassy, soft sand dunes on hot summer days. Also worth exploring are the galleries on Broad Street and the city’s award-winning restaurants.
3. Siem Reap (Cambodia)
For adventurous travelers, this Cambodian city is nothing short of a necessary pilgrimage. The unmistakable silhouette of Angkor Wat, the massive, 12th century Buddhist temple, is perhaps Siem Reap’s best-known landmark. Other Khmer ruins, like Ta Prohm (best known for the way enormous strangler fig and silk trees root down through the sandstone structure) are like gateways into an ancient and spiritual past. But this is hardly a perished city. Away from the ruins, along the urban center’s riverfront are art galleries, where tourists can browse black-and-white prints of the striking shrines, and boutique hotels, such as the Belmond La Residence d’Angkor and Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor.
To make the most of your visit, we recommend splurging on an Angkor Wat pass, which will allow you to return throughout the day or week, for various shots of the temples in different weather and light.
4. Florence (Italy)
This Italian city is a perfect example of a destination that’s constantly reinventing itself and offering even veteran visitors variation and excitement. Known for being a Renaissance repository with such highlights as Michelangelo’s David and red-roofed buildings reflected in the river Arno, Florence is livelier than ever. New art galleries, such as EX3 and Museo Novecento, feature contemporary works, and aperitivo time at the local bars lures sightseers with salumi and rustic crostini. The pedestrian-friendly streets are prime for admiring (or buying) handcrafted leather goods and checking out the classical architecture. Still, the city is a monument to its monuments, and the magnificent Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (known simply as Il Duomo), with features dating back to the 7th century, remains the most recognizable feature of the Florentine skyline. A jaw-dropping vista from the Giardini & Villa Bardini, or the impeccably restored San Niccolò tower, really puts things in perspective.
5. Rome (Italy)
Eternal City, indeed. It’s impossible to tire of the capital city’s storied landmarks, such as The Pantheon and The Colosseum, both relics of the Roman Empire. Not to mention St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in the sovereign Vatican, and the 2,300-year-old cobblestones that make up Appian Way. When you’ve had your fill of the old, a new breed of design-forward buildings have risen in brilliant contrast to the original masterworks. Now, you can enjoy creamy gelato in the shadows of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum, starchitect Richard Meier’s glass-and-travertine frame for the Ara Pacis.
Most T+L readers agree that one trip simply is not enough. “There will never be sufficient time to see all there is in Rome,” one said.
6. Bangkok (Thailand)
After a year of unrest, Bangkok has been restored to the World’s Best list, where it clung to the No. 1 spot from 2010 to 2013. Bustle may be an understatement here, where sweet and spicy street food perfumes the avenues and gilded Buddhist temples stand in dramatic juxtaposition to slick skyscrapers. It’s frenetic, colorful and a curious amalgamation of past and present: tuk-tuks and monks fill the streets at dawn, their reflections cast in the steel and glass high-rises. At night, Sukhumvit Soi 38 offers an equally vibrant street-side feast, where pedestrians elbow up to tables for fat rice noodles, mango sticky rice and pathong ko (Thai doughnuts) with pandan leaf custard. For a moment of serenity consider heading for Wat Suthat temple, the Himalayan-style art gallery, Serindia, or jump on a long-tail boat tour along the Chao Phraya River.
7. Krakow (Poland)
Poland’s second city has been experiencing a quiet cultural revolution, and it’s finally getting the attention it deserves.
This World’s Best debut, known for Gothic fortifications and a laid-back, blase attitude, has enchanted travelers and overcome even stalwart favorites like Istanbul and New York. Perhaps it’s the marvels of the Old City, like Rynek Glowny — the largest Medieval square in Europe — and the Royal Castle of Wawel that have captivated intrepid travelers seeking something unfamiliar out of their explorations abroad. In the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, where synagogues that survived WWII still stand, there’s a notably bohemian vibe taking hold in new hip spots like Bar Propaganda, appropriately outfitted with a bust of Lenin. Some, however, will tell you it’s the mystic chakhra stone of Wawel Hill that has bewitched the world.
8. Barcelona (Spain)
This beachside city is the offbeat counterpart to Madrid. It’s unquestionably hip and strikes a perfect balance between its iconic attractions (the Antoni Gaudí-designed Parc Guell) and cutting-edge developments (the zinc-and-glass design center DHUB, Michelin-starred restaurant Saüc). Museo Picasso is a must-see, with an impressive collection of the artist’s early works. Catalan culture may be best appreciated through the city’s renowned food scene. You can grab breakfast at the Pinotxo counter inside La Boquería market, or another small-plates-centric spot, Tickets. Here, brothers Ferran and Albert Adria, of famed El Bulli, spin out sophisticated tapas like fascinating liquid olives and raviolis, algae tempura, and seasonal sorbets. Further mad-scientist experiments can be sampled at ABaC. Think oysters tartare with fennel, and Hamachi with cherries and aptly named cucumber snow.
9. Cape Town (South Africa)
Forget everything you thought you knew about Africa. Cape Town is cutting-edge, artsy and buzzing with energy. There are few places in the world where you can exercise your shopping skills (Woodstock’s Neighborgoods Market on Saturday mornings is the place to go for Afrikaans jerky and silk-and-leather sandals), take off on a safari, or enjoy world-famous cuisine all in one weekend. Atlantic-facing Clifton Beaches are the South Beach of South Africa, known for enormous natural boulders tumbling into the sea, pristine sunbathing conditions and the capoeira dancers that entertain crowds with fire and African drums on Monday nights.
Christians, Jews, and Muslims converge to worship in this 4,000-year-old holy city, and their respective churches, synagogues and mosques surround the historic Old City. Here, you can tuck a miniature prayer into the Western Wall, or see a fragment of clay engraved with cuneiform at the excavation site at Temple Mount. The iconic, gleaming gold Dome of the Rock is best photographed from the Austrian Hospice, which offers unparalleled views of the city and Mount of Olives. Jerusalem, like every other city on this list, also has a stake in the contemporary and the secular. Luxury apartment buildings now erupt like stalagmites from the Judean Desert, and high-end restaurants, such as King’s Court at the restored Waldorf Astoria, are bringing a new upmarket appeal to this arid oasis.
For more of Travel + Leisure’s 2015 World’s Best Awards, which cover everything from hotels to airports, click here: www.travelandleisure.com