As a Chicagoan, I take great pride in my hometown’s skyline. It is, without a doubt, one of the most stunning in the world. The constant debate about what city is home to the best skyline in the world is never-ending; and, it never will end. Cities are organic. They change. Buildings go up and down. Aesthetics change and opinions with them.
But alas I feel the need to add my two cents to this argument. I was inspired by a Thrillist list declaring the 20 Best Skylines in the world that left Chicagoans scratching their heads. The list put Chicago in 7th place behind cities like Seattle and Sydney (not to rain on their parade) despite often being in the top 5 on “best of” lists. As one internet commentator made clear though, the only parameters used by the Thrillist author Matt Meltzer was how recognizable they are globally and “overall aesthetics”. This clearly leaves plenty of room for one’s personal touch.
Granted, I do agree with Meltzer on some fronts: global recognition and aesthetics are important when considering the absolute best skylines. That said, authors of these lists usually seem preoccupied with big cities with tall flashy buildings, impressive geography, and more often than not are also famous. That excludes the possibility of including smaller cities, ones with more horizontal skylines, or ones with stark aesthetics in these lists. A great skyline is the result of how geography, architecture, urban form, iconography marry into one fabulous aesthetic experience. And there is one point too frequently overlooked when considering the best skylines in the world: vantage point.
It doesn’t matter how tall, or wild, or numerous, or mountainous a skyline may be, if there is nowhere to take it all in, what does it matter?
BEST SKYLINES IN THE WORLD
The way I determined my Top 10 List of the Best Skylines was by creating 5 parameters to take into account: Geography, Architectural Quality, Vantage, Iconic Structures, Aesthetic Layout. While each category is based on my own opinion this was done in an attempt to really analyze what makes each of these skylines great instead of just going off subjective opinion alone. Two categories could garner a city’s skyline bonus points: Geography and Iconic Structures. Sometimes cities are lucky and have not just a great waterfront setting, but amazing mountains too or great buildings, but also iconic bridges and monuments as well.
10) Dubai – 11 points
Dubai is exactly the skyline people fall for when they’re looking for something full of wow-factor. The Burj Khalifa and numerous other skyscrapers jutting out of the desert is impressive. It is impossible to forget this striking silhouette. Whether you like it or not, this is a view that makes a mark and is here to stay.
9) TORONTO – 12 points
Canada’s largest city also has the country’s most impressive skyline. Although Vancouver offers the wonderful combination of natural and man-made aesthetics, the recognizable buildings in Toronto’s skyline pushes it to the fore. The CN Tower has become a national icon and the setting along Lake Ontario capitalizes on the ability to create a beautiful wall of buildings rising from the water. Points were lost though on architectural quality and that good views aren’t immediately accessible.
8) SEATTLE – 13 points
Seattle’s skyline is sublime. The vantage one gets of the city looking south with Mt. Rainer dominating the background and the Space Needle acting as unforgettable focal point is incomparable. But that is also what pushed the city’s skyline to a lower spot on the list. Although it’s also located on the Puget Sound, the waterfront is dominated by highways and industry and it seems like there is only one place to get a truly outstanding view of the city. One can’t deny the sheer beauty of that view though.
7) BERLIN – 15 points
Berlin’s skyline is an interesting one and it mostly got its points from having a mix of iconic structures and intriguing layout. The Fernseherturm dominates the skyline from all perspectives, but buildings like the Berliner Dom, Rotes Rathaus, Sony Centre, and Reichstag add flavor to the overall skyline. The skyline also beat out other cities for a Top 10 spot for vantage point. From the top of the Siegesäule in the Tiergarten one takes in a skyline view made for promotional posters and graphic designers. It’s unique, balanced, and manages to include low-lying monuments like the Brandenburgertor. Don’t forget the many other views available in the city–points for options.
6) SHANGHAI – 15 points
Although Berlin and Shanghai are technically tied in terms of points awarded, I had to give Shanghai the higher position on this list for two reasons: 1) the way the city managed to take advantage of the bend in the Huangpu River is masterful. It provides amazing views of the skyline from the opposite bank and embraces the natural geography of the area. 2) It technically has two skylines worth mentioning. The modern business pictured above is one, but the Bund sitting opposite iconic megatall skyscrapers is 20th Century precursor. Built with European and American money it is both memorable in terms of layout and architectural quality and is incredibly unique.
5) LONDON – 16 points
This was one of the more difficult cities on the list to grade. While it barely made the cut in terms of layout or vantage (it is almost impossible to take in the entire scope of the city’s skyline from one point) the sheer number of iconic buildings, vistas, vantage points, and skyscrapers (from the impressive to confounding) pushed it way up the list into the Top 5. London is also aesthetically unique too amongst the cities on this list. More than any other city it is a mix of both vertical and horizontal awe. You’ll never get a good view in one go, but it’s definitely worth scampering all over town to soak it all in.
4) SYDNEY – 17 points
The Southern Hemisphere is full of worthy contenders to rank amongst the best skylines in the world, but nothing can quite compete with Sydney. Although much like its sister in the Commonwealth, Toronto, it fails to stun based on architectural quality, it recovers through the power of water, one powerful and amazing bridge and an unabashedly iconic opera house.
3) CHICAGO – 18 points
Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper, home to some of the greatest urban planning, landscaping, and architecture in the world… and it shows! Wedged between the southern edge of Lake Michigan and the vast flatness of the Great Plains the city’s skyline is a pristine mix of aesthetic balance, flawless architecture, and numerous viewing possibilities. Chicago ranks high for all those reasons, but the top honors are withheld because of something no urban planner or architect can fix: geography.
2) HONG KONG – 20 points
While Hong Kong actually tied for the number one spot, I had to give it 2nd place: first, the viewing possibilities just don’t seem as numerous (and unique) and second some of Hong Kong’s buildings just don’t have the same global recognition as some of the 1st place city’s even though they’re still striking. Hong Kong is unique amongst cities with great skylines because it capitalizes on amazing architecture placed within an astounding setting where sea and mountain collide. The verdant hills behind the skyscrapers creates a one-of-a-kind backdrop. The band of water, city, hillside, and sky make for aesthetic balance that is much appreciated.
1) SAN FRANCISCO – 20 points
San Francisco, you’re so damn beautiful! Talk about an unforgettable mix! This city has it all from geographic intrigue, numerous great points from which to view the skyline in one panoramic picnic (it helps to be on a hilly peninsula), to unique and iconic architecture (looking at you Transamerica Pyramid), and symbols that speak for a nation (a certain golden bridge). City, sea, and nature meet at the Golden Gate and things get magical in San Francisco. It truly deserves the top honors.
There are cities I left out that deserve Honorable Mention: Frankfurt, New York City, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. Each of these cities has something amazing about their skylines and two are particularly famous, but that doesn’t merit automatic inclusion into this list. They deserve acknowledgement for having amazing skylines though.
BEST IN SHOW – CATEGORIES
There are also other cities I believe deserve mention in this list, even though I don’t think they quite fit into the Top 10 list or the Honorable Mentions. I’ve decided to name these the best in a particular category.
- Best in Africa: Johannesburg – Neither an African city nor a Latin American city were included in the above list. But both continents have some amazing urban landscapes. In terms of skylines, Johannesburg tops it in Africa. Although the buildings are generally run of the mill, the hillside location and impact of a few key structures makes for a memorable image.
- Best in Latin America & Geographic Setting: Rio de Janeiro – No city can boast a geographic setting quite like Rio. It is natural beauty at its best and the city takes all the credit. Although it is an amazing urban visual experience much of the city’s beauty needs to be credited to nature, not man. While the statue of Christ the Redeemer undeniably dominates the city, the actual built portion of Rio’s skyline seems somewhat bland when it comes down to it. At least from a distance.
- Best Small City: Madison, WI – The city has a low slung profile, but the Wisconsin State Capitol pierces the scene with its massive, iconic white dome. The sight is visible from all around because of the city’s location on an isthmus and the hill the Capitol is built on only pushes its dominance further up into the sky. It’s a true testament to the belief that less is more.
- Best Horizontal Skyline: Prague – Built in a river basin with bluffs surrounding the city, not only are there ample spots to take in the view, but the low profile of the city is broken almost exclusively by a giant castle, churches, and maybe the most ornate bridge in the world.
- Best Monument Skyline: Washington, DC – Need I say more?
- Best Riverfront Skyline: Pittsburgh – Located at the confluence of two rivers, Pittsburgh has a unique skyline crammed onto a wedge-shaped slip of land with a cluster of bridges all around and hills in the background for good measure.