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The Hungarian Parliament Building, Budapest, overlooks the Danube. Photo by Clark Norton

The Hungarian Parliament Building, Budapest, overlooks the Danube. Photo by Clark Norton

Travel + Leisure Magazine has just come out with its latest “World’s Best” lists — there are lots of those these days — one of which is the World’s Top Ten Best Cities.

Here’s the Top Ten as voted by T+L readers:

10. Jerusalem, Israel 9. Cape Town, South Africa 8.Barcelona, Spain 7.Krakow, Poland 6. Bangkok, Thailand 5. Rome, Italy 4. Florence, Italy 3. Siem Reap, Cambodia 2. Charleston, South Carolina 1. Kyoto, Japan

A loyal reader sent me the link yesterday and asked if I could name my own Top 10. I’m happy to oblige.

First, I will say that the above list is not bad, although I don’t quite understand how Siem Reap, Cambodia, makes the list, because it’s mostly known as the gateway to Angkor Wat — which, while being a world-class icon, doesn’t qualify Siem Reap itself as the world’s number three city, ranking above Florence and Rome, among others.

Indeed, of the top 10 above, both Florence and Rome make my list, as do Jerusalem, Barcelona, and Bangkok. I’ve eliminated all cities in the U.S. because I’m partial to — and not objective about — both San Francisco and New York, where I’ve lived, reared children, and have many friends. So I’ll stick with only international destinations — ones I would return to again and again if given the opportunity.

So, nothing against the others — Cape Town, Krakow, Charleston, and Kyoto — all worthy choices, but I’ll replace them and Siem Reap with:

Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) at dawn in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Dennis Cox/WorldViews

Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) at dawn in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Dennis Cox/WorldViews

* Istanbul — I love cities on the water, and in Istanbul you can ride ferries from one side of the city to the other — spanning two continents (Europe and Asia)! How cool is that? Topkapi Palace contains some of the most spectacular artistic treasures in the world, and the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, with their domes and multiple minarets, make for an unforgettable sight.

One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was on a rooftop restaurant situated right between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. As the sun went down, darkness fell, and my wife and I dined on meze (Turkish appetizers) and grilled fish, we had a front-row view as the two monuments were illuminated in the night sky. It was magical.

* Hong Kong — Another city on the water; I could ride the Star Ferry back and forth between Hong Kong island and Kowloon for hours — and in fact have done just that. Hong Kong was the first Asian city I visited years ago, and it remains one of my favorites. The ferries, the food, the funicular up Victoria Peak, the night markets, the tea houses, the narrow warrens of streets climbing the hillsides, the outer islands, and the bustling harbor all add up to an amazing experience.

*Budapest — I must love two-sided cities divided by water, because this is the third in a row to make my list. The water in this case is the Danube River, which divides the tonier Buda from the more commercial (but lively) Pest; at one time they were two separate cities, but are now joined into one. Budapest is at its loveliest at night, when the incomparable Hungarian Parliament Building and other government buildings, palaces, and churches are illuminated — best viewed from a cruise boat making its way slowly down the river. Budapest also has a number of medicinal bathhouses featuring the hottest thermal waters in Europe, festivals throughout the year, and remarkable architecture throughout.

Paris' Arc de Triomphe. Photo by Dennis Cox/WorldViews

Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. Photo by Dennis Cox/WorldViews

* Paris — Travel + Leisure readers must be bored with Paris, because it barely made the top 10 list in Europe alone, not even coming close to making the world top 10. This was the first European city I visited, all the way back in my college days, and I’ve been back many times since — without ever spending a dull moment.

Admiring the art in the Louvre and other museums, combing the bookstores in the Latin Quarter, taking boat rides up the Seine (yes, this is another city divided by water), wandering through the Marais and Montmartre, sitting in a cafe sipping an aperitif, climbing the steps to the top of Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur and even the Eiffel Tower for views across the city, dining in a little bistro on top-flight French cuisine — how can you omit Paris? And as for the Parisians’ legendary rudeness, I’ve never encountered it. A simple “Bonjour, madame” or “monsieur” goes a long way when walking into a shop, for instance.

* Venice — This is the city on the water to end all cities on the water, and, in my opinion, the most beautiful city on earth. It didn’t even make the T&L top 10 in Europe, which leads me to wonder about the survey respondents. Yes, Venice is crowded with tourists — and why shouldn’t it be? Visit in the shoulder seasons — September-October or May — and you’ll find fewer crowds, cooler weather, and lower prices.

Then grab a seat in a cafe by the Grand Canal (there’s one right off the Rialto Bridge that’s our favorite) and watch one of the greatest shows on earth, as boats of all types pass by. You don’t need to pay gondola prices to get on the water, either — vaporettos, or water taxis, provide a less touristy experience for far less money. And don’t even bother bringing a map — getting lost in Venice’s maze of streets is half the fun. If the throngs around San Marco get to be too much, just walk a short distance in the opposite direction and you’ll soon find you have the city almost to yourself.

So here’s my Top 10:

10. Jerusalem 9. Bangkok 8. Budapest 7. Hong Kong 6. Istanbul 5. Florence 4. Rome 3. Barcelona 2. Paris 1. Venice

Others that I hate to leave out and could just as easily have made this list:

Rio de Janeiro; Prague; Vancouver; Dubrovnik (Croatia); Quebec City; Amsterdam; London; Sydney; Fez (Morocco); Valletta (Malta)

Of course, lists of this type are completely subjective and probably no two travelers’ would be exactly the same. I welcome your comments, including your own top 10 lists!


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According to government and private surveys:

  • Leading-edge baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) and seniors account for four out of every five dollars spent on luxury travel today.
  • Roughly half the consumer spending money in the U.S.--more than $2 trillion--is in the hands of leading-edge baby boomers and seniors.
  • Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) travel more than any other age group.
  • When asked what they would most like to spend their money on, baby boomers answered “travel” more than any other category, including improving their health or finances.

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