These Are the World’s 10 Best Cities. You Agree, Right?

During my first international trip in Europe as a 21-year-old in 2001, each city seemed more amazing than the last. My dispatches home to Australia reflected this feeling to such a degree that my declaration of a new favourite city virtually every week — first Paris, then Berlin, then Prague — became a family joke. Soon I picked yet another favourite, but instead of lasting for a few days like all the others, this one stuck — for 19 years and counting.

The rest of my list, curated from nearly two decades of travelling in 116 countries, is a combination of world-famous cities that would make many people’s top 10 and some less obvious choices that struck a personal chord with me. We can debate the rankings, of course, but that’s not really the point; what matters most are the memories.

10. Varanasi, India 🇮🇳

‘But you are so young!’ he said to my 23-year-old self. ‘Usually only old people go to Varanasi. It’s amazing that you are going.’

Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges, is where Hindus go to die. In Varanasi, I saw old and sickly people waiting for death in a hospice; I saw the body of a departed soul drying on the banks of the Ganges after final purification, its flowers picked at by stray goats; I saw bodies in flames on pyres at the burning ghat; and I saw crows pick at human corpses floating down the river.

If India showcases humanity at its most extraordinary — and I believe it does — Varanasi is where that journey ends. It’s a haunting and mysterious place, especially in winter fog, and I’ll never forget it.

A typical ghat on the banks of the Ganges — Varanasi, India. Photo: Nick Leonard.

9. Fes, Morocco 🇲🇦

Writing to friends and family, I described walking through the old town of Fes — and observing its living conditions, its poverty and its crumbling buildings — as ‘amazing’, ‘humbling’ and even ‘kind of scary’.

‘I abandoned my journal last night because I didn’t know how to write about what I’d seen and how I felt. This place has easily had the most impact on me of all the places I’ve been to so far.’

Six years later — older, wiser and more experienced — I returned to Fes, slightly apprehensive about whether it would live up to my memories of it.

I needn’t have worried; Fes was still incredible, and I appreciated it even more the second time around with a better understanding of its religion and culture and the world in general. As I wrote at the time — and still believe 13 years later — Fes is one of the most extraordinary cities I have ever seen and ever will see.

Bab Bou Jeloud, the western entrance gate to the old city of Fes, Morocco. Photo: Nick Leonard.

8. Sydney, Australia 🇦🇺

Since then, Sydney and I have had a complicated relationship. After growing up in suburbia, I left at 17 to attend university in another city, returned briefly after graduation, and left soon after for an overseas trip that’s somehow still going. But now that I’ve lived out of Sydney for longer than I lived in it, I’ve learned to appreciate it more than ever.

Your Sydney might be Bondi Beach, the Rocks and BridgeClimb. My Sydney isn’t that fancy, but it’s no less endearing.

It’s the sound on the hill at a sun-bathed Brookvale Oval when the local football team scores, it’s beautiful views of the ocean from the wind-swept headlands of the northern beaches, it’s sunset over the shimmering waters of Narrabeen Lakes. And most of all, it’s the gentle — and, at times, emotional — rhythm of the Manly Ferry as it eases its way out of the harbour, past Sydney’s two most famous icons, to take me home.

The gorgeous view from Sydney’s northern-most point, Barrenjoey Lighthouse, over Palm Beach and the Pittwater inlet. Photo: Nick Leonard.

7. Lisbon, Portugal 🇵🇹

But the bar really does exist, and once we finally reached it, it offered superb vistas over the historical neighbourhoods of Lisbon. While we admired the view, my friends rattled off all the great attributes of the city — the old Europe feel, the affordability, the endless sun, the friendly people — and suggested I move there from Switzerland.

Within two years, I was living seven minutes’ walk from the Park Bar.

Lisbon is my home now, a city of creaking trams, beautiful colours and magical light. And to experience it all, I don’t even need to go to the Park Bar anymore; all I have to do is look out my window.

The charming architectural hodgepodge of Lisbon. This is the neighbourhood of São Paulo, rising up to Chiado. Photo: Nick Leonard.

6. Cape Town, South Africa 🇿🇦

Being one of the two most beautifully situated cities in the world is enough on its own to merit Cape Town a place on this list. But what struck me most about it is that it’s a chameleon city like no other I’ve ever seen. From beachfront suburbs to the mountains meeting the sea to the colourful buildings and people of Bo-Kaap, Cape Town is Sydney, Rio, Malacca and whatever else you want it to be all rolled into one.

I stayed for a week-and-a-half and every single day, Cape Town offered something remarkable: Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, penguins, African wineries, the Cape of Good Hope and more.

I didn’t want to leave but eventually it was time. I took a deep breath, got on a bus, and plunged myself back into Africa.

A panorama view of Cape Town from Lion’s Head. The ‘tablecloth’ effect, where clouds fall off Table Mountain almost like a waterfall, is one of the many wonders of Cape Town. Photo: Nick Leonard.

5. Moscow, Russia 🇷🇺

In four full days in Moscow in July 2019, I walked 87.5km, must have passed through Red Square two dozen times, and couldn’t get enough of it all — North Koreans bowing to the embalmed body of Lenin at his mausoleum, the wacky and wonderful St. Basil’s Cathedral, palatial subway stations, the domes and spires of the Kremlin, and all the Soviet places I could find: statuary repositories and theme parks and video arcades.

One morning, while I was alone in Red Square just after dawn on a glorious day, I sent a photo to my family and the response from my father was: ‘Wow, this is all your history interests appearing right before your eyes finally!’

Finally, indeed.

Inside Moscow’s Kremlin, cathedral square is surrounded by extraordinary 500-year-old churches, where echoes of Byzantium swirl around the exquisite domes and floor-to-ceiling frescoes. Photo: Nick Leonard.

4. Istanbul, Turkey 🇹🇷

Then to a Sultanahmet hotel as the sun rose followed by a morning nap, and at midday the muezzins called the Muslim faithful to prayer — Allahu Akbar! — and five-and-a-half years after my first visit, Istanbul was bewitching me all over again.

From ancient Greek city to Constantine’s New Rome to Byzantine Constantinople to Ottoman Stambul and finally to the beating heart of modern Turkey, no city has reinvented itself more than Istanbul. No other city straddles two continents. No other city has been the capital of successive Christian and Muslim empires. No other city has walls like this — the most impregnable ever built, that took over 1000 years to bring down.

To lose yourself in all the ages of Istanbul — or Constantinople, as I still prefer to call it — is to never want to be found.

The 17th-century Blue Mosque at sunset — Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Nick Leonard.

3. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 🇧🇷

The panoramic view from the top of the Dois Irmãos takes in all of Rio in a way that Sugarloaf Mountain and Corcovado don’t: east to glamorous Leblon and Ipanema beaches, the waterfront skyscrapers and the Lagoa; west to the mountains and the largest slum in South America — the Rocinha favela.

I loved the view so much that I hiked from the favela to the top of the mountain twice on the same day, and not just for the breathtaking beauty. Of all the wonders of Rio de Janeiro — and there are many — this is the only one that captures all the contrasts of the marvellous city.

It wasn’t until I went up Sugarloaf Mountain on my first visit to Rio that I really grasped the topography and layout of the city; it wasn’t until I went up the Dois Irmãos on my second visit that I saw its soul.

Looking down on the lower peak of the Dois Irmãos and over Rio de Janeiro to Leblon and Ipanema beaches, the Lagoa (lagoon) and Corcovado. In the other direction, the view takes in the Rocinha favela and the mountains. Photo: Nick Leonard.

2. Jerusalem, Israel & Palestinian Territories 🇮🇱 🇵🇸

But Jerusalem was non-negotiable, so I went anyway.

From the moment a shared taxi from the border dropped me in front of Damascus Gate, Jerusalem mesmerised me. I stayed in the old city for two weeks and was spellbound by its sounds, its stories and its alleyways full of memories.

Looking out over the old city and watching Jews praying to the ancient stones of the Western Wall, marvelling at the blinding gold of the Dome of the Rock and hearing the enchanting melody of church bells ringing from the Holy Sepulchre — all at the same time — well, the human story rarely gets more incredible than that.

The spectacular AD 691 Dome of the Rock towering over the old city of Jerusalem, where three religions converge. Photo: Wendy Werneth.

1. Rome, Italy 🇮🇹

I arrived as a 21-year-old the day before the 9/11 attacks without a life plan. By the next day, the world had changed — and for different reasons, so had I. Rome was a part of me already, and it has clung on ever since.

In the years to come, Rome was where my life took shape. I met most of my best friends in Rome. I met my wife in Rome. I got married in Rome.

Once, I was walking over the Ponte Sisto at dusk, admiring Michelangelo’s majestic dome of St. Peter’s Basilica rising above the city in the distance, when one of my friends broke our captivated silence by asking simply, ‘Can you believe we actually live in ROME?’

I barely believed it even then. I lived in Rome for parts of four years from 2001–04 and when I knew that phase of my life was about to end, I cried on the streets of Trastevere.

And though I haven’t lived in Rome since, I’ve been back at least once in each of the past 15 years, and it never fails to enthral me.

The monuments? Sure — Rome has more than just about anywhere else, and I once wrote a 4,500-word essay about one of them.

But beyond that, it’s the simple pleasures of daily life in Rome that keep me coming back. A slice of focaccia on the run for breakfast. Walking through the narrow streets of the Jewish Ghetto or Trastevere in the morning. Entering a small church for the first time to find an amazing but uncelebrated historical or artistic detail. A simple pasta dish for lunch at a local trattoria. Afternoon gelato in Piazza Navona or in front of the Pantheon, then gathering with friends at dusk for an aperitivo in Campo dei Fiori. Dinner and laughter at an outside table on the San Pietrini cobblestones. Walking 20-plus kilometres in a day, aching by the end.

And wanting to do it all over again the next day.

Campo dei Fiori in the late afternoon sun — Rome, Italy. Photo: Nick Leonard.

Compulsive traveller, Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Olympic journalist and light-chasing photographer.