Of all the cities in the world, which ones are truly special? Which ones are having a moment? And which keep true city lovers coming back for more? To find out, we asked our regular contributors to name their favourites — and to tell us why

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A given on any best city list, NYC is the metropolis that always amazes, from its highbrow culture to sky-high views

New York, New York. The world’s most eulogised city makes an entry on every discerning travel wish list and tends to stay there even after a first visit; to borrow a metaphor from the Garden of Eden, one bite of the Big Apple can spark a lifetime of curiosity. It’s iconic, intriguing and, best of all, easy to explore by cab, subway or on foot. There’s a pulse to New York that resonates with city-lovers; it quickens among the bars of Nolita and the Lower East Side and quietens among the greenery of the High Line and Central Park. It’s home, too, to peerless cultural institutions — the Whitney, Guggenheim, Met and Brooklyn are essential pilgrimages for those with even a passing interest in modern art. And while it has its pricey, hip enclaves and tourist traps, there’s undoubtedly an unfussy authenticity to the city and its hard-arsed citizens.

New York’s neighbourhoods, sculpted over the centuries by the seismic forces of immigration, trade, boom and bust, have complex identities to unpick and flavours to sample. Take its iconic eats: bagels and pizza, born elsewhere but woven into the city’s mythology. There’s an expressive plurality than can make the city feel like the capital of the world. Get stuck in — you’re part of the melting pot now. And, as with any great metropolis, it’s in a constant state of expansion and flux; New York is a city that’s impossible to ever ‘tick off’.

It’s got good looks and a great location, but it’s Lisbon’s party spirit and culinary culture that make it the city of the moment

As cities go, Lisbon has an enviable set of ingredients: pockets of fairytale Manueline architecture, a picturesque setting on the banks of the Tagus and an irrepressible joie-de-vivre that sees revellers fill the streets on warm summer nights. Any contemporary compilation of urban hotspots would be remiss not to include it: the Portuguese capital is truly having a moment in the sun, dusting itself off and rediscovering its cool after a century marred by dictatorship and economic crisis. And travellers are flocking for a slice of the fun. It has, of course, known popularity before — during the 15th and 16th centuries, Lisbon was one of the busiest ports in Europe, flush with new spices, new ideas and new money, and the palaces and churches built during this heyday give the city its drama and elegance. But the real heart of the city lies in its soulful working-class traditions: fado ballads, played by touring musicians; riotous religious festivals celebrated in the streets; local ginjinha cherry liquor, sipped in sun-warmed praças; flea markets and food markets; and the seafood at its family-run tascas. In fact, the city’s cuisine may be its strongest suit: to conduct a weekend-long tour of Lisbon’s best bakeries, taste-testing a pasteis de nata in each, would be a holiday well-spent.

A surprising choice perhaps, but Vietnam’s historic second city is like nowhere else on Earth

Hanoi is a city that travel writers adore, which is why Vietnam’s second city has been voted onto this list. It’s full of surprises and unexpected poetry. Beyond the initial onslaught of modernity — the hum of wiring, which loops overhead like wild calligraphy, and the roads’ steady stream of mopeds that brake for no pedestrian — there’s a rich, Eastern culture, faded European relics and important modern history to be discovered. Dive in among the French-style merchant houses, silk shops and backstreet pagodas of the Old Quarter, seeking out the Vietnamese speciality ca phe trung (egg coffee); go on a crawl of Czech-themed beer halls; and pay your respects to an embalmed communist leader at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Hanoi has its own rules and rhythm. To thrive here, one has to adapt: to learn to cross roads, boldly, as the locals do; to work out that the best pho is found at the busiest street kitchen; and to discover that a spot of tai chi down on the shores of Hoàn Kiếm Lake or West Lake can be the perfect start to a day. Best of all, perhaps, it’s fantastic value on the pound.

For all its scene-stealing beauty, our contributors love Cape Town’s vibrant townships and cultural heritage — not to mention its masala steak sandwiches

Which city is the fairest of them all? Cape Town, our regular writers replied — by a long shot. Towered over by craggy escarpments, backed by vineyards and hemmed by white-sand beaches looking out over a shimmering ocean, it’s hard to find an unflattering angle to the city. Even its townships, once notorious for gang violence, are today considered dynamic urban spaces ripe with entrepreneurs, artists and food spots; all that’s needed is the right guide. Capetonians love to get outdoors, and there are plenty of places to join them, be it strolling among the proteas in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, hiking up Table Mountain or taking a boat out from the redeveloped V&A Waterfront. And should rain clouds gather, that’s your cue to head for the fabulous Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary African Art) to marvel at not only the collections but also the spectacular architecture by Thomas Heatherwick. Looks aren’t everything, of course: Cape Town wouldn’t be Cape Town without its fascinating melee of Dutch, Cape Malay and African influences, reflected in neighbourhoods like Bo-Kaap and in its diverse cuisine, full of flavour. In recent years, the city has cemented its reputation for stellar gastronomy: vegan joints are popping up, coffee has been perfected to an art and experimental haute dining spots are making headlines worldwide.

With its jazz credentials and love of a great party, NOLA is a city that embraces the night — but our writers love it during the daylight hours, too

The Big Easy belongs to the night. As the soupy heat of the day cools, the French Quarter is just waking up. And tuning up, too — after all, this is the home of jazz. Follow your ears, slip into a nameless bar and lose yourself in the transcendental riffs of a trumpeter. There’s nothing and nowhere else like it. Between Bourbon Street and the more chilled-out Frenchmen Street, a night is made: not only are there countless live music joints, some dozen cocktails were invented here, including the heady Bayou-brewed sazerac. New Orleans is home, too, to Mardi Gras, a carnival so infamous, flamboyant and hedonistic that it’s easy to forget its links to the Christian calendar. But when the party’s over, the bars closed and the beads and feathers swept away, there’s plenty of daytime entertainment, too. Our writers rhapsodised about breakfasts of shrimp and grits; touring the artsy Faubourg Marigny and window shopping in the Garden District; browsing voodoo trinkets on Royal Street; and even heading out into the adjacent wetlands by kayak.

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