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World’s 15 Best Waterfront Cities

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In most large cities around the world, waterways are the norm, not the exception—but some places capitalize on their location more than others. These 15 cities all have unique personalities centered around their waterfronts, where visitors can stroll along bustling harbors, sample the catch of the day, and climb to the city’s best vantage points to take in panoramic views of the water. From the winding canals and historic grandeur of Venice, to the seaside splendor of Cape Town, here are our picks for the world’s best waterfront cities.

by Emily Wasserman

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Shimmering canals, sprawling palaces, and historic ambiance make Venice one of the world’s most enchanting waterfront destinations. Stop by the Piazza San Marco to browse the area’s best boutiques, and don’t miss the Basilica di San Marco, a Byzantine monument that doubles as the city’s religious center. Take a picnic to Torcello, a secluded island with a magical ambiance and hauntingly beautiful cathedral. End the day at one of the city’s bacari, or wine bars, for traditional Venetian tapas and a taste of local wines.

Where to Stay: For accommodations that hearken back to an earlier era, book a room at Hotel Metropole, featuring classic Venetian décor and luxurious guest rooms with antique furnishings and mosaic sunken baths. Located on a side canal, Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo in nearby Santa Croce offers canopied beds, renovated interiors, and a charming outdoor courtyard perfect for enjoying a pre-dinner drink.

Insider Tip: Venice hosts many festivals throughout the year, with Carnevale and Biennale getting the most attention. But lesser-known festivals also offer an opportunity for visitors to experience the city at its finest. Held on the third Sunday in July, Festa del Redentore includes colorful boat displays, traditional Venetian feasts, and a spectacular fireworks display.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Venice Guide

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As Norway’s second largest city, Bergen enchants visitors with its pastel wood houses, bustling harbor, and picturesque mountains. Bryggen, the wharf running by the harbor on the northern side of the city, features colorful Hanseatic merchant houses and small, cozy shops perfect for exploring. Take a stroll down the tree-lined Ole Bulls Plass, a popular avenue with some of the city’s finest restaurants. Bergen Kunstmuseum features paintings by modern and Renaissance painters.

Where to Stay: For old-world furnishings and easy access to the city’s best sights, consider staying at The Bristol. Built in the 1930s, the hotel features small, stylish guest rooms and a popular restaurant.

Insider Tip: Buy a Bergen Card to save money and explore the city more affordably. The card provides free or discounted admission to most museums and attractions, and is good for free bus and light-rail travel in central Bergen.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bergen Guide

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The Dutch capital is perfect for roaming through picturesque latticework canals. On sunny days cafes along the water will fill up with patrons, and visitors can take a cruise along the 60 miles of canals that circle the city. Stop by the Grachtengordel, or Canal Ring, to view historic homes or enjoy a leisurely day on the water. Amsterdam’s museum district boasts the popular Van Gogh Museum with changing shows of the famous painter’s work. The city’s most beautiful street, Brouwersgracht, features grand views and plenty of opportunities for photos.

Where to Stay: Hotels in Amsterdam range from sweeping Golden Age properties to family-run B&Bs, but nearly every property features scenic canal views and warm Dutch hospitality. For the ultimate in style and luxury, book a room at the Sofitel Legend the Grand. The property is set on a neoclassical courtyard, and boasts an acclaimed restaurant and stunning inner garden. Tucked away in the city’s museum district, The Concert Hotel is a stone’s throw from museums and offers a generous inclusive breakfast.

Insider Tip: One of the best ways to explore Amsterdam’s canals and winding streets is by bike. Pick up a two-wheeler in the city center and take a spin.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Amsterdam Guide

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Visitors come to Sydney for its world-class beaches and natural beauty, but stay for its plethora of cultural and wildlife attractions. Stop by the Sydney Opera House to catch a performance in one of the venue’s five theaters, or take a backstage tour during off hours. For unparalleled views of the city, stroll down to Sydney Harbour Bridge and climb the 200 steps to lookout over the sparkling blue water. Get an up-close look at native birds and vibrant wildflowers at the Royal National Park, or catch a glimpse of endangered species at Taronga Zoo.

Where to Stay: Sydney offers accommodations for every traveler, with upscale properties overlooking the harbor and backpacking hot spots near the city’s nightlife district. The Langham Sydney in The Rocks features upscale décor and luxurious suites with four-poster beds. Tucked away in inner Sydney, Simpsons of Potts Point offers friendly service and easy access to the area’s best restaurants.

Insider Tip: Sydney boasts a world-renowned dining scene. Book a table well in advance at Tetsuya, a Western and Japanese-French fusion eatery with some of the best seafood in town.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sydney Guide

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San Francisco

Few places compare to the city by the bay, and San Francisco makes the most of its waterfront location. Visitors can explore lush gardens or oceanfront trails at Golden Gate Park, or stop by the historic Ferry Building for panoramic bay views and a taste of local cuisine. Science lovers will enjoy Exploratorium, a pier-side museum with supersize experiential exhibits and a glass Bay Observatory. Watch master shipbuilders assemble boats and step aboard a full-rigged sailing vessel at Hyde Street Pier, one of the city’s maritime epicenters.

Where to Stay: Hotels in San Francisco are as diverse as the city itself. Accommodations range from low-end motels to elegant boutique properties, and travelers can find rooms to fit their taste and budget. Once a waterfront canning complex, the Argonaut Hotel sits in the repurposed Haslett Warehouse. For historic ambiance and cozy rooms, try the San Remo Hotel, a three-story 1906 Italianate Victorian that was once home to longshoremen.

Insider Tip: Visit the city between January and April to see migrating gray whales. Watch the majestic mammals from shore in Point Reyes, or take a whale-watching trip for up-close views.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Travelers flock to Brighton for its vibrant seaside culture and lively arts scene. Once a fashionable vacation spot for Londoners looking for a quick retreat, the English city has since become a destination in its own right. Take a stroll down the pebbled shoreline at the city’s eponymous beach, or tour the Royal Pavilion, an enchanting seaside villa with exotic interiors and a popular tearoom. Don’t leave Brighton without sampling fresh seafood. Riddle and Finns offers a variety of fresh catches and traditional side plates like bubble and squeak (fried vegetables and potatoes).

Where to Stay: Hotel rooms in Brighton go fast, so make sure to book ahead of time to secure the best accommodations. Grand Hotel Brighton lives up to its name, with enormous chandeliers, high ceilings, and luxurious bedrooms. For a peaceful atmosphere and a full English breakfast, consider staying at the Brightonwave Hotel near Brighton Pier.

Insider Tip: Visit in May for the city’s three-week Brighton Festival. The event boasts more than 600 events including drama, dance, visual arts, and music performances.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Brighton Guide

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Stockholm boasts an archipelago landscape with attractions for every traveler. Visit the central island Gamla Stan to explore small, café-lined squares and captivating medieval architecture. Take a ride on Skyview, a glass-covered gondola that offers unparalleled views of the city. Djurgården and Skansen, the city’s pleasure island, boasts a popular amusement park and a peaceful waterfront ambiance perfect for a relaxing picnic.

Where to Stay: Hotels in Stockholm run the gamut from trendy, upscale properties to simple, functional spaces with easy access to the city’s main attractions. Tucked away in an elegant 18th-century mansion, Hotel Stureplan features modern design, friendly service, and a convenient location close to the water. For eco-friendly accommodations in the heart of the city’s business district, book a room at the chic and contemporary Scandic Grand Central.

Insider Tip: Östermalm often flies under tourists’ radar, but the regal residential area is well worth a visit. Walk along the water for views of the city harbor, or take a land route to browse upscale shops and restaurants.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Stockholm Guide

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Hong Kong

Towering skyscrapers and a chic, cosmopolitan vibe make Hong Kong one of the world’s leading waterside cities. The town capitalizes on its coastal location and has no shortage of land and sea attractions. Buy a ticket for the 125-year-old Peak Tram and climb to the top of Victoria Peak, Hong Kong Island’s highest hill. Explore Mong Kok markets to sample traditional street food and browse stands filled with colorful knickknacks, flowers, and jade. Visitors can escape the city’s hustle and bustle in Southside, a tranquil residential area with beautiful sea views and laidback sandy beaches.

Where to Stay: For beautifully designed rooms and unmatched service, reserve a room at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. One of the city’s most popular budget locations, Hop Inn Carnarvon, features comfortable lodgings with original décor and friendly, attentive staff. Also check out our round-up of the best new Hong Kong hotels.

Insider Tip: Don’t leave Hong Kong without taking a ride on Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour. The green and white boat offers spectacular views of the city skyline, and visitors can catch the sparkling Symphony of Lights show every night at 8 p.m.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Hong Kong Guide

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A bustling harbor and lively downtown area make Baltimore a favorite destination among tourists. Walk down Charles Street to explore Inner Harbor, Baltimore’s main thoroughfare. Visitors can sign up for sailboat tours and boat rentals, or browse exhibits at the National Aquarium or Science Center. End the day watching the sunset over the water at The Rusty Scupper, a popular local seafood restaurant famous for its jumbo lump crab cake—a Baltimore specialty.

Where to Stay: Visitors often book a room on the Inner Harbor to stay near popular attractions, but quieter neighborhoods offer some reprieve. Housed in a late-19th-century building, Abacrombie Bed and Breakfast offers intimate accommodations and a celebrated restaurant. For easy access to the city center and upscale amenities, book a room at Intercontinental Harbor Court.

Insider Tip: Every summer in July, Artscape takes over several city blocks in downtown Baltimore. The free festival includes live music and theater performances, art displays, and work from local artisans.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Baltimore Guide

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Captivating natural beauty and a distinctly cosmopolitan flair make Vancouver one of the world’s most unique waterfront cities. The city balances its well-preserved wildlife with a host of tourist attractions, and offers something for every traveler. Visit Stanley Park to explore 1,000 acres of serene forests and oceanfront. Take a ferry to Granville Island, a waterside hotspot with a bustling food and crafts market and about a dozen studios and galleries. For an authentic taste of Chinese food and culture, visit Chinatown. Visitors can stop by colorful produce stalls to pick up an afternoon snack, or take a leisurely stroll through Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

Where to Stay: Stay in the heart of the city at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia. The rooms boast a retro vibe, and visitors can browse an impressive collection of contemporary art in the lobby. For a prime beachfront location at an affordable rate, consider booking a room at the Sylvia Hotel. The property is two blocks from Stanley Park and a 20-minute walk from popular Robson Street.

Insider Tip: Vancouver is best explored outside, but rainy days can put a damper on activities. Popular indoor attractions include the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, and Lonsdale Quay, a colorful market on the city’s North Shore.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Vancouver Guide

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San Sebastian

Centered on a scallop-shaped beach in northern Spain, San Sebastián has grown over the years to become one of Europe’s most popular waterside retreats. Sprawl out on the sand at La Concha, or travel up the western side of the bay to visit Monte Igueldo. The towering promontory offers unparalleled panoramic views of the city’s gardens, parks, and sparkling blue bay. To take a break from the sun, stop by Kursaal. Located at the mouth of the Urumea River, the bright glass complex includes a postmodern concert hall, two auditoriums, and terraces overlooking the estuary.

Where to Stay: For the best views in town, book a room near La Concha. Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra boasts an elegant marble lobby and classically styled guest rooms with seaside views. For a splurge, stay at the grand Hotel Maria Cristina. The city’s most luxurious hotel includes recently renovated rooms, river views, and lavishly decorated salons.

Insider Tip: During the summer months, consider visiting the Isla de Santa Clara at the entrance to the bay. Ferries run from the mainland every 30 minutes, but make sure to get there early; the boats fill up quickly.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Sebastián Guide

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Stunning riverside vistas, colorful pastel houses, and a buzzing port district are a few of the things you’ll find in Lisbon. Visitors can explore the city’s cobbled streets by foot, and climb winding sets of steps to reach the town’s best vantage points. Ride an ancient streetcar to St. George’s Castle to view the ancient ramparts, or head to downtown Baixa to explore the bustling city squares. The old port district of Alcântara is the perfect place to relax by the river, while Belém includes some of Lisbon’s best museums and monuments. Families will enjoy Oceanário de Lisboa, Europe’s largest indoor aquarium.

Where to Stay: Lisbon hotel rooms go fast, so make sure to book well in advance of your trip. Located in a 19th-century manor house, Olissippo Lapa Palace offers exclusive amenities and sweeping views of the river. Lisboa Carmo in the city’s upscale Chiado neighborhood boasts bright, simple décor and a friendly, attentive staff.

Insider Tip: Don’t leave Lisbon without touring one of its two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. The church features an elaborately sculpted maritime motif and impressive Gothic and Renaissance double cloisters.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Lisbon Guide

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Rio de Janeiro

Also known as the Marvelous City, Rio de Janeiro is famous for its stunning stretches of sand, colorful celebrations, and lively culture. Visitors can explore the city’s 23 beaches, or head the opposite direction to the mountains for dramatic cliffside views. Spend an afternoon wandering around Urca, a peaceful tree-lined neighborhood with authentic colonial architecture. Ride cable cars to Pão de Açúcar, a giant granite block at the mouth of the bay with dramatic cliffside views. Gourmands will love Rua Dias Ferreira, a Leblon hotspot with some of the city’s best restaurants. Dance the night away to classic samba music at Circo Voador, a popular nightclub with live entertainment.

Where to Stay: Rio hotels are not cheap, especially during high season (December through February). Book far in advance for to secure the best accommodations. Copacabana Palace boasts a celebrity clientele and features a glamorous, neoclassical façade. For a romantic atmosphere and a secluded cliffside location, consider booking a room at La Suite.

Insider Tip: Stop by Rio in February to take part in the city’s Carnival celebration. The four-day festival features colorful parades, live music, and dancing.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rio de Janeiro Guide

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New Orleans

The colorful port city boasts a laid-back culture, vibrant nightlife, and ongoing festivals that celebrate its rich tradition and history. No visit to New Orleans is complete without stopping by the infamous French Quarter. Sample beignets from Café du Monde, catch a jazz performance, or party it up at a funky local bar or music club. Visit New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) to browse 46 galleries and tour the museum’s renowned sculpture garden. Architecture buffs will enjoy exploring the city’s Garden District, a leafy oasis with towering 19th-century Greek Revival mansions and cottages.

Where to Stay: The accommodations in New Orleans take on the city’s unique character, and range from historic B&Bs to upscale luxury establishments. Hotel Maison de Ville offers a secluded vibe in the midst of the French Quarter, and features a historic ambiance and personalized service. For a romantic atmosphere that evokes old-world New Orleans, book a room at Grand Victorian Bed & Breakfast.

Insider Tip: Although New Orleans provides more than enough attractions to fill any itinerary, consider heading out of town to explore the surrounding region. Swamp tours and visits to elegant plantation homes are just a few of the activities that lie outside city limits.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s New Orleans Guide

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Cape Town

Not many cities boast stunning mountain vistas and stylish beaches, but Cape Town is one of the few. The South African city is no one-trick pony, with natural beauty and a fascinating history. Take a cable car to the top of Table Mountain for spectacular panoramic views of the slopes and water. Visit Robben Island to tour the former prison where Nelson Mandela was confined. Explore a five-story kelp forest or get up-close views of marine life at Two Oceans Aquarium, a popular family destination with hands-on exhibits and entertainment.

Where to Stay: Finding accommodations during peak season (December-January) can be difficult, so consider booking a trip between April and August to beat the rush. Set high on a hill above the Atlantic Coast, Ellerman House features regal guest rooms and unparalleled views of the sea. For attentive service and easy access to the waterfront, book a room at Dock House.

Insider Tip: Splurge on a multi-course meal at Aubergine, one of the city’s finest eateries known for its fresh seafood and fine selection of wine.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Cape Town Guide