The best skylines in the world are, for the most part, modern, gleaming, and pointy. Employing state-of-the-art engineering and building techniques, countries throw up the most eye-catching and cloud-scraping creations possible to enhance their city’s international curb appeal. As we know from the Tower of Babel, this is an enduring human tradition.
But for the skylines to truly pop, contrast is required. A backdrop of natural splendor offsets the clean lines and reflective surfaces of today’s skylines. Points of interest from other architectural periods enhance the modern, while extraordinary one-offs, such as Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, can supersede the need for skyscrapers entirely.
Add some water—ideally a tranquil bay—and you’ve all the ingredients for one of the most beautiful skylines in the world. Start planning your next visit to a stunning urban vista with this list of the best skylines in the world.
Sydney Harbour, Sydney
New South Wales’s capital is a shining example of forward-thinking urban design wrought in harmony with a stunning natural landscape. Hugging the coves and inlets of beautiful Port Jackson Bay, Sydney Harbour is the epicenter of this city’s graceful modernity. What makes Sydney Harbour one of the best skylines in the world is its panorama of disparate elements.
The angular curves of the avant-garde Sydney Opera House are set against the cluster of towers in the Central Business District. Rising above them all is the nearly 1,000-foot-tall Sydney Tower Eye, with its top-heavy proportions like that of a dandelion clock. Completing the panorama is the heritage-listed steel Sydney Harbour Bridge, with its graceful industrial arch rolling gently towards the skyscrapers of Sydney.
The observation deck on the Sydney Tower Eye, one of the most popular Sydney landmarks, offers a wonderful view of the scene, but a tour of the harbor by boat is hard to beat.
Central, Hong Kong
Images of Hong Kong’s skyline at night might make it look like a confection of towering ornaments, but its vertical architecture is an absolute necessity. Spread over a hilly, waterside 50,000 acres (a quarter the size of New York), its population of seven-and-a-half million (only one million less than NYC) inhabits a high-rise forest of some 9,000 buildings.
Duly, its skyline is a remarkable sight, especially as Hong Kong lays claims to four of the world’s 15 tallest buildings. The largest of those is the 108-story international commerce center, home to the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. From the dizzying heights of the hotel windows, the huge container ships moving slowly into port look like chunky iron filings.
As if having the world’s greatest number of buildings over 500 feet wasn’t enough, the city puts on a light and sound show every night at 8 p.m. that would make Las Vegas proud. The Symphony of Lights involves around 40 of the most charismatic skyscrapers in the Central district. One of the best places to watch the lights dance across the cityscape and the water of Victoria Harbour below is the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.
Read: 3 Days in Hong Kong
Manhattan, New York
Manhattan has one of the world’s most instantly recognizable skylines. It’s a beloved backdrop of film and television, with its famous grid of handsome towers, and beetling yellow cabs as familiar to many as the buildings in their own hometowns.
While the Big Apple’s skyline has developed with time, it’s the stars of the 1930s that continue to hog the limelight. These include the art deco Empire State Building—at the time the tallest building in the world before it was surpassed by the stainless steel crown of the Chrysler Building—and the verdigris-tipped, Gothic-revival Woolworth Tower. The layers of architectural styles give the Manhattan skyline added depth.
Despite its lagging in the height stakes these days, the Empire State’s observation decks still offer some of the best perspectives of New York. (Note: the 86th floor is better for photographs as the higher deck is behind glass.)
Corcovado Mountain, Rio de Janeiro
Coastal Rio enjoys one of the world’s most photogenic locations for a major metropolis. With its high rises and homes looking out on the tropical waters of Guanabara Bay, the skyline of the second-most-populous city in Brazil is a 360-degree experience.
And while Rio itself is a city filled with architectural marvels, such as the Santiago Calatrava-designed Museum of Tomorrow, it’s the simple drama of Christ the Redeemer crowning Corcovado Mountain that makes this one of the most beautiful skylines in the world.
The largest Art Deco sculpture on Earth—and a New Seven Wonder of the World—the statue rises from the tangle of the South American jungle, its protective stance encompassing the citizenry and the 130 islands basking in the bay. Best of all, you can see the famous South American landmark from pretty much anywhere in the city—including the beach.
Shanghai’s Pudong is a former swamp-turned-financial district with one of the best skylines in the world. There, you’ll find China’s tallest building—and the world’s second-tallest—the 124-story Shanghai Tower. Its twisting architecture appears truly sci-fi when it disappears like a frozen tornado into a sheet of low-lying cloud.
The Shanghai Tower is joined in Pudong’s clutch of interesting buildings by the distinctive 101-story World Financial Center—rightly nicknamed the “bottle opener”—as well as the hypodermic-alike Oriental Pearl television tower.
Shanghai is renowned for its rooftop bars, and amid these buildings, you’ll also find the Ritz-Carlton perched high in the IFC Building. From its rooftop bar, Flair, you have a superb view of Pudong and across the Huangpu River to the Bund, where Shanghai’s nickname as “The Paris of the East” comes into view.
A sweep of stout colonial-era edifices parading along the water’s edge, the Bund was originally a British settlement. Behind it bristles the staggering skyline of seemingly endless high rises, home to over 24 million people in China’s largest city.
Downtown, Los Angeles
Besides its appearance in innumerable movies, the skyline of Downtown Los Angeles is, taken on its own, not that remarkable. The skyscrapers’ uninspired buzzcuts are the result of a law, changed only in 2014, dictating flat tops to accommodate helicopter landing pads. Most distinctive among the skyscrapers is the 1,018-foot U.S. Bank Tower, its summit reminiscent of a travel plug.
What makes this one of the best skylines in the world is how the surging towers starkly contrast with the vast, mostly low-rise urban sprawl that surrounds it. Topping it off, when viewed from the famous California coastline, is the backdrop of the rugged San Gabriel Mountains.
The Griffith Observatory, one of the most unique places to visit in California, is the best spot to get a perspective on the epic skyline of California’s largest city. If you want to see it up close, head to the Standard Hotel’s rooftop bar in the evening to be enfolded within this glittering grove of skyscrapers and high-rises.
Often used as a cinematic stand-in for New York, Vancouver has one of the best skylines in the world, set against the grandiose, often snow-capped North Shore Mountains. It’s also the city with the greatest number of residential high-rises per capita on the North American continent.
Amid the field of glassy towers—carefully planned to create a spacious, light-filled urban village—you’ll see the gleaming 62-story Shangri-La Hotel nosing above the rest. The second tallest is the twisted Trump International Hotel and Tower. Rather less reflective than those but no less eye-catching is the Marine Building. This stocky Art Deco masterpiece was once the British Empire’s tallest skyscraper when it first graced the downtown skyline in 1930.
More instantly identifiable is “The Lookout Tower”, emerging like a UFO from the otherwise anonymous Harbour Center. In the tower is the Top of Vancouver Revolving Restaurant, where you can find unobstructed 360-degree views of the city while also enjoying some warming butternut squash ravioli with sage cream. For a view of the skyline across English Bay, head to Stanley Park.
Historic Center, Rome
Rome’s skyline is the antithesis of most of the other cities found on this list. It’s a skyline of opaque domes rather than gleaming points, of rosy terracotta tile, boxy campaniles, and lofty winged statues. Classically Italian, it’s one of the most beautiful skylines in the world.
Local building law dictates that no building in the historical center may rise higher than the graceful dome of St. Peter’s, the dominant structure in the skyline. The lack of skyscrapers means that, from any number of the city’s seven hills, you can enjoy fantastic perspectives across the Eternal City. The best is probably found in the Orange Garden high on the Aventine Hill. From this popular shady spot, Rome is laid out before you.
Read: Three Days in Rome
Xinyi Special District, Taipei
Taipei’s many high-rises and towers are dwarfed by the jade-colored Taipei 101 Skyscraper. This extraordinary structure, stretching up to 1,671 feet, was the world’s tallest building until the completion of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa towards the end of 2009. The Taipei 101 also boasts one of the world’s fastest elevators—from the fifth floor to 89th in 37 seconds.
Joining it prominently on the skyline of the capital of Taiwan is the Taipei Nan Shan Plaza. Travel up to the fine-dining Indian restaurant, Saffron 46, on its top level and you’ll be rewarded with good food and an even better view of the adjacent Taipei 101.
Indicating that the Taiwanese have lost no appetite for startling architecture is the recent addition of the eco-minded Tao Zhu Yin Yuan Tower to the skyline.
A short 20-minute hike up Elephant Mountain provides you with superb views over the city. If you do happen to be in Taipei on New Year’s Eve, be sure to have a good vantage point of the Taipei 101, which plays a spectacular central role in the city’s incendiary display.
Hamstrung—or perhaps helped—by the lurking threat of the San Andreas, San Francisco’s relatively low-slung skyline is nevertheless highly distinctive.
Its most recognizable building is the triangle-topped Transamerica Pyramid. The futurist obelisk was, at 853 feet, the world’s eighth-tallest building when it was completed in 1972. Since then, the Salesforce Tower has vaulted clear of it to become the tallest building in San Francisco. This gleaming skyscraper, completed in 2018, nudges just under 1,000 feet and makes use of the latest advances in seismic analysis and design.
The Salesforce Tower also offers a viewing deck with incredible views over the city and the glittering bay—or the fog, depending on the weather.
Singapore has one of the most architecturally creative and exciting skylines around. As the second-most densely populated country in the world, it’s little wonder that the city-state takes such a vertical approach to living.
Most eye-catching, of course, is the $5.7 billion Marina Bay Sands—the world’s most expensive building. The Moshe Safdie-designed Marina Bay Sands is a skyline in itself, with its trio of curving towers holding aloft the table-like SkyPark.
Other buildings that establish Singapore as having one of the best skylines in the world include the bristling Esplanade performance center, the neon Supertrees in Gardens by the Bay, and the sculptural ArtScience Museum.
The best view? Well, it has to be from the rooftop infinity pool of the Marina Bay Sands, although you have to check in to dive in. Still extraordinary are the views from the hotel’s observation deck.
Read: Three Days in Singapore
Shinjuku City, Tokyo
While Tokyo’s Shinjuku City area offers the classic view of the Tokyo skyline—with Mount Fuji behind it—the most populous city in the world does look good from more than one angle.
However, it’s the 2,080-feet-high Tokyo Skytree, the world’s second-tallest structure, that draws the eye. A neo-futuristic take on a Japanese pagoda, it has a terrifyingly high Tembo Galleria observation platform that delivers an almost satellite’s-eye perspective. Amid the skyscrapers, another stand-out feature of the skyline is the Tokyo Tower—a red and white take on the Eiffel Tower.
Head to the Bunko Civic Center Observation Lounge for incredible views all the way over Skytree, Shinjuku, and Mount Fuji when the skies are clear.
Often considered to be the best skyline in the USA, Seattle’s is an eclectic grouping of interesting and unusual buildings arranged across a hill. With the biodiverse waters of Puget Sound to one side and the stately cone of Mount Rainier in the distance, it’s also one of the best skylines in the world.
Inspired by Vancouver’s approach, the city’s tower-spacing regulations have restricted the growth of new skyscrapers in the downtown area. The chunky Columbia Center, built in 1895, remains the city’s tallest building at 933 feet. Better known is the iconic Space Needle, built as an observation tower for the 1962 World’s Fair and today a historic landmark of the Pacific Northwest.
How long the skyscraping status quo lasts in one of the fastest-growing cities in the US remains to be seen. However, it’s likely that Sunset Hill Park will continue to offer the best views over Downtown Seattle and towards Mount Rainier.
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