Long considered the paragon of style, Paris is the most glamorous city in Europe. It is at once deeply traditional – a village-like metropolis whose inhabitants continue to be notorious for their hauteur – and famously cosmopolitan. While such contradictions and contrasts may be the reality of any city, they are the makings of Paris: consider the tiny lanes and alleyways of the Quartier Latin or Montmartre against the monumental vistas from the Louvre to La Défense; the multiplicity of street markets and old-fashioned pedestrian arcades against the giant underground commercial complexes of Montparnasse and Les Halles; or the aristocratic wealth of the grand quarters against the vibrant chaos of the poorer districts.
At times, Paris can feel inhumanly magnificent, the arrogance of its monuments encompassing the chilly pomp of the Panthéon, the industrial chic of the Eiffel Tower and the almost spiritual glasswork of the Louvre pyramid. Yet it also operates on a very human scale, with exquisite, secretive little nooks tucked away from the Grands Boulevards and very definite little communities revolving around games of boules and the local boulangerie and café. And even as Paris's culture is transformed by its large immigrant and gay populations, even as extravagant new buildings are commissioned and erected, many of the city's streets, cafés and restaurants remain remarkably, defiantly unchanged.
In the great local tradition of the flâneur, or thoughtful boulevard-stroller, Paris is a wonderful city for aimless wandering. Relaxed quarters such as the vibrant Marais, elegant St-Germain and romantic Montmartre are ideal for street-browsing, shopping and café-sitting, and the city's lack of open space is redeemed by beautiful formal gardens, by the pathways and pavements that run beside the River Seine, and by endless hidden or unexpected havens. And everywhere you go, historic landmark buildings and contemporary architectural wonders remind you of the city's pride and grandeur – and stop you getting lost.
There are over 150 art galleries and museums in the city – few of them duds – and an uncounted number of cafés, brasseries and restaurants lining every street and boulevard. The variety of style and decor is hard to beat, ranging from ultra-modern fashion temples to traditional, mirrored palaces, and from tiny bistrots where the emphasis is all on the cooking to bustling Vietnamese diners. After dark, the city's theatres and concert halls host inventive and world-leading productions of theatre and dance, while many classical concerts take place in fine architectural settings, particularly chapels and churches. Above all, Paris is a real cinema capital, and the city's vibrant cultural mix puts it at the forefront of the world music scene.
San Francisco, CA
SAN FRANCISCO proper occupies just 48 hilly square miles at the tip of a slender peninsula, almost perfectly centered along the California coast. Arguably the most beautiful, certainly the most liberal city in the US, it remains true to itself: a funky, individualistic, surprisingly small city whose people pride themselves on being the cultured counterparts to their cousins in LA – the last bastion of civilization on the lunatic fringe of America. It's a compact and approachable place, where downtown streets rise on impossible gradients to reveal stunning views of the city, the bay and beyond, and blanket fogs roll in unexpectedly to envelop the city in mist. This is not the California of mono-tonous blue skies and slothful warmth – the temperatures rarely exceed the seventies, and even during summer can drop much lower.
The original inhabitants of this area, the Ohlone Indians, were all but wiped out within a few years of the establishment in 1776 of the Mission Dolores, the sixth in the chain of Spanish Catholic missions that ran the length of California. Two years after the Americans replaced the Mexicans in 1846, the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills precipitated the rip-roaring Gold Rush. Within a year fifty thousand pioneers had traveled west, and east from China, turning San Francisco from a muddy village and wasteland of sand dunes into a thriving supply center and transit town. By the time the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, San Francisco was a lawless, rowdy boomtown of bordellos and drinking dens, something the moneyed elite – who hit it big on the much more dependable silver Comstock Load – worked hard to mend, constructing wide boulevards, parks, a cable car system and elaborate Victorian redwood mansions.
In the midst of the city's golden age, however, a massive earthquake, followed by three days of fire, wiped out most of the town in 1906. Rebuilding began immediately, resulting in a city more magnificent than before; in the decades that followed, writers like Dashiell Hammett and Jack London lived and worked here. Many of the city's landmarks, including Coit Tower and both the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, were built in the 1920s and 1930s. By World War II San Francisco had been eclipsed by Los Angeles as the main west coast city, but it achieved a new cultural eminence with the emergence of the Beats in the Fifties and the hippies in the Sixties, when the fusion of music, protest, rebellion and, of course, drugs that characterized 1967's "Summer of Love" took over the Haight-Ashbury district.
In a conservative America, San Francisco's reputation as a liberal oasis continues to grow, attracting waves of resettlers from all over the US. It is estimated that over half the city's population originates from somewhere else. It is a city in a constant state of evolution, fast gentrifying itself into one of the most high-end towns on earth – thanks, in part, to the disposable incomes pumped into its coffers from its sizeable singles and gay contingents. Gay capital of the world, San Francisco has also been the scene of the dot.com revolution's rise and fall. The resultant wealth at one time made housing prices skyrocket – often at the expense of the city's middle and lower classes – but the closure of hundreds of start-up IT companies has brought real-estate prices back down to (almost) reasonable levels. Despite the city's current economic ebbs and flows, your impression of the city likely won't be altered – it remains one of the most proudly distinct places to be found anywhere.
The 2000 Olympics were a coming-of-age ceremony for SYDNEY. The impact on the city was all-embracing, with fifty years' worth of development compressed into four years under the pressure of intense international scrutiny. Transport infrastructure was greatly improved and a rash of luxury hotels and waterside apartments added themselves to the skyline. The City of Sydney Council spent $200 million to improve and beautify the city streets, public squares and parks, and licensing laws changed too, creating a European-style bar culture. Sydney now has all the vigour of a world-class city, with the reputation of its restaurants in particular turning the lingering cultural sneers to swoons. It seems to have the best of both worlds – twenty minutes from Circular Quay by bus, the high-rise office buildings and skyscrapers give way to colourful inner-city suburbs where you can get an eyeful of sky and watch the lemons ripening above the sidewalk, while to the centre's north and south are corridors of largely intact bushland where many have built their dream homes. During every heatwave, however, bushfires threaten the city, and sophisticated Sydney becomes closer to its roots than it sometimes feels. In the summer, the city's hot offices are abandoned for the remarkably unspoilt beaches strung around the eastern and northern suburbs.
It's also as beautiful a city as any in the world, with a setting that perhaps only Rio de Janeiro can rival: the water is what makes it so special, and no introduction to Sydney would be complete without paying tribute to one of the world's great harbours. Port Jackson is a sunken valley which twists inland to meet the fresh water of the Parramatta River; in the process it washes into a hundred coves and bays, winds around rocky points, flows past the small harbour islands, slips under bridges and laps at the foot of the Opera House. If Sydney is seen at its gleaming best from the deck of a harbour ferry, especially at weekends when the harbour's jagged jaws fill with a flotilla of small vessels, racing yachts and cabin cruisers, it's seen at its most varied in its lively neighbourhoods. Getting away from the city centre and exploring them is an essential part of Sydney's pleasures.
It might seem surprising that Sydney is not Australia's capital: the creation of Canberra in 1927 – intended to stem the intense rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne – has not affected the view of many Sydneysiders that their city remains the true capital of Australia, and certainly in many ways it feels like it. The city has a tangible sense of history: the old stone walls and well-worn steps in the backstreets around The Rocks are an evocative reminder that Sydney has more than two hundred years of white history behind it.
Cape Town, South Africa
CAPE TOWN is southern Africa's most beautiful, most romantic and most visited city. Indeed, few urban centres anywhere can match its setting along the mountainous Cape Peninsula spine, which slides into the Atlantic Ocean. By far the most striking – and famous – of its sights is Table Mountain, frequently shrouded by clouds, and rearing up from the middle of the city.
More than a scenic backdrop, Table Mountain is the solid core of Cape Town, dividing the city into distinct zones with public gardens, wilderness, forests, hiking routes, vineyards and desirable residential areas trailing down its lower slopes. Standing on the tabletop, you can look north for a giddy view of the city centre, its docks lined with matchbox ships. Looking west, beyond the mountainous Twelve Apostles, the drop is sheer and your eye will sweep across Africa's priciest real estate, clinging to the slopes along the chilly but spectacularly beautiful Atlantic seaboard. Turning south, the mountainsides are forested and several historic vineyards and the marvellous Botanical Gardens creep up the lower slopes. Beyond the oak-lined suburbs of Newlands and Constantia lies the warmer False Bay seaboard, which curves around towards Cape Point. Finally, relegated to the grim industrial east, are the coloured townships and black ghettos, spluttering in winter under the smoky pall of coal fires – your stark introduction to Cape Town when driving in.
To appreciate Cape Town you need to spend time outdoors, as Capetonians do, hiking, picnicking or sunbathing, or often choosing mountain bikes in preference to cars and turning adventure activities into an obsession. Sailboarders from around the world head for Table Bay for some of the world's best windsurfing, and the brave (or unhinged) jump off Lion's Head and paraglide down close to the Clifton beachfront. But the city offers sedate pleasures as well, along its hundreds of paths and 150km of beaches.
Cape Town's rich urban texture is immediately apparent in its diverse architecture: an indigenous Cape Dutch style, rooted in the Netherlands, finds its apotheosis in the Constantia wine estates, which were themselves brought to new heights by French refugees in the seventeenth century; Muslim slaves, freed in the nineteenth century, added their minarets to the skyline; and the English, who invaded and freed these slaves, introduced Georgian and Victorian buildings. In the tightly packed terraces of twentieth-century Bo-Kaap and the tenements of District Six, coloured descendants of slaves evolved a unique brand of jazz, which is still played in the Cape Flats and some city-centre clubs.
Sadly, when most travellers expound the unarguable delights of the city, they are referring only to genteel Cape Town – the former whites-only areas. The harsh reality for most Capetonians is one of crowded shantytowns, sky-high murder rates, taxi wars, racketeering and gangland terror. In the late 1990s this violence has been characterized by a complex and bloody war between coloured gangs and Pagad (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs), a Cape Flats organization that started with the ostensible aim of stamping out crime. Fortunately, this conflict has remained largely restricted to the Cape Flats and isn't something tourists need be unduly concerned about. Having said that, petty crime is nonetheless a problem in central Cape Town, but it's a risk you can minimize by taking a few simple precautions.